It’s hard to tell when Miranda Lambert is being herself and when she’s posturing. I think on “Heart Like Mine,” she’s doing both, which makes my head heart a little bit.
The chorus is solid, the second verse about her father and her brother are quietly revealing and fully believable. I love the message about Jesus and how he’d very well love her just the way she is.
But I don’t believe for a second that she’s the kind of girl that you don’t take home to mama. She expresses her love for family too openly in the rest of the song to think that she’d be someone who you couldn’t introduce to your mother. And I don’t believe that Christians are getting in her face about cigarette smoking, and she’s demurely saying “God Bless,” either.
Lambert’s a stunningly talented singer and songwriter, but like her rough male equivalent, Jamey Johnson, she has these “I’m an outlaw! Really! I mean it!” moments that ring hollow to me and distract from the overall excellence of her work. Just being herself would be good enough. An original is always worth more than a copy.
Written by Travis Howard, Miranda Lambert, and Ashley Monroe
There was a lot of good music out there in 2010, provided you knew where to look. Sometimes, you could even find it on the radio. Here are the top ten albums of 2010, according to our staff:
#10 Easton Corbin Easton Corbin
With the charisma of Clay Walker and the chops of George Strait, Easton Corbin sauntered onto the mainstream country music scene with a hit song that –refreshingly– name-checked “country” in all the right ways. He needs no such affirmation, though, as his debut album is a collection of effortlessly neo-traditionalist songs, ripe with sincerity. It’s fair to compare Corbin to his obvious influences, but there’s something about the natural, youthful effervescence he brings to his music that makes it sparkle all on its own. – Tara Seetharam
#9 Freight Train Alan Jackson
Like an old, trusted friend, Freight Train is easy to take for granted – and that’s a shame, because it’s as rousing as any of the boundary-pushing albums released this year. Jackson returns to his signature sound on this album, sinking comfortably into the set of twelve songs but never skimping on emotional investment. From the smoking “Freight Train” to the exquisite “Till the End” to the shuffling “I Could Get Used To This Loving Thing,” Jackson reminds us that his formula of bare-bones authenticity and quiet charm is as relevant and rewarding as ever. – TS
Earlier this year, a discussion with a colleague of mine revealed a mutual affinity for country music. It was a typical conversation that I have with fans that are around my age. We fell in love with the music about twenty years ago, don’t think it’s quite as good as it once was, but can find a lot of things to like from just about any era, including the current one.
So in the 2010 version of making a mix tape, I offered to load up her iPod with a whole bunch of country music. A week later, she took me to dinner as a thank you. We started talking about the music that I’d passed on to her, and she told me that she was listening to the iPod while mowing the lawn. Suddenly, a song came on that made her cry. Full-out cry, mind you, not just a tear or two.
So I ask if it was “Love, Me”, or maybe “Where’ve You Been”, or something similarly tragic. She was almost embarrassed as she told me that it was the old Anne Murray hit, “You Needed Me.”
Now, there are a few possible reactions to this. I suspect for many or even most, it will be either befuddlement or outright derision. But me? I totally understood why that song would have such a strong impact, and I can best describe it in one word: Sincerity.
It’s the bane of the cynic’s existence, and of many critics as well. You don’t see Anne Murray pop up on too many lists when discussing the greatest country artists of all time, or even the greatest pop-country singers of all time, even though she’s definitely both. Ditto for Kenny Rogers and my once future wife Olivia Newton-John, who also fit well into both categories.
But there are some artists who exude sincerity and still are treated with reverence, like Loretta Lynn and Alan Jackson. What makes them different? I think it’s the added perception of authenticity that differentiates them from the artists above.
Take Dolly Parton as a case study. Rare is the critic or country music historian who doesn’t speak highly of both her pre-1976 and post-1999 output, where her music was firmly grounded in her mountain roots. But her pop era – roughly 1977-1986 – is widely maligned. The sincerity is there all the way throughout her career, whether it’s delivering the brilliant working class social commentary present in both “In the Good Old Days” and “9 to 5″, or when she’s just being hopelessly maudlin, be it with “Daddy Come and Get Me” or “Me and Little Andy.”
I think that she gets less credit for that period because there’s a sense that she’s being something that she’s not, that the authenticity is lacking. When you think someone is being inauthentic in their sincerity, it’s hard for some to embrace them. I think that I’m in the minority in that I don’t care much if someone is authentic, so long as they’re sincere.
Where things fall apart for me are when I perceive authenticity without being able to sense the sincerity in the performances. This is my major issue with many of the more traditional artists today. I think Jamey Johnson, Gretchen Wilson, and Brad Paisley are completely authentic in their music. They are who they say they are, and such. But I have trouble getting into them because they don’t come off as genuinely sincere.
It’s hard to articulate this, but to use Paisley as an example, he often sounds to my ears like he’s emotionally divorced from what he’s singing. The brain is plugged in, but I don’t feel the heart. I loved, loved, loved “Letter to Me” because his voice cracked with emotion. I felt the sincerity that I don’t feel when I hear “Anything Like Me” or “Little Moments.”
Meanwhile, Carrie Underwood can rarely do wrong with me because she drips with sincerity, something that was prevalent even during her embryonic Idol days, but has really come into play with her writing so much of her material. “Change” is my favorite song she’s done so far, not just because I fully agree with the message, but that she sings it with such sincerity. Does she live out the message in her own life? I have no idea. But her performance is so powerful to my ears that it being her authentic life story is as irrelevant to me as the fact that Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon aren’t really a death row convict and a Catholic nun, respectively.
Sincerity over authenticity, if I have to choose. Both are great to have, but the former is more essential than the latter in the music that I love the most. It may be a meaningless distinction in the end, but it’s the only explanation I can come up with for me usually liking songs much better by great singers than by the original songwriters, and for Laura Bell Bundy getting so much more play on my iPod than Taylor Swift, the most genuinely authentic teen star ever. Or at least since Lesley Gore.
With that all said, how about we listen to some Anne Murray? She’s awesome.
The countdown continues, with appearances by popular new artists joined by a pair of nineties veterans.
The Best Singles of 2010, Part 2: #30-#21
Roll With It Easton Corbin
It’s easy to overlook Corbin’s second single as just another breezy summer tune, but it stands above the rest, thanks to its near-perfect execution. From the spirited delivery to the skillful handling of otherwise trite phrases –like the title phrase and “it won’t be no thang”— “Roll With It” makes a fresh, invigorating case for shedding everyday troubles and, well, rolling with it. – Tara Seetharam
I Put My Ring Back On Mary Chapin Carpenter
“I Put My Ring Back On” is a throwback to the sounds of Mary Chapin Carpenter’s glory days on the charts. It’s catchy with a message of relational perseverance. As a result, it’s one of the two most memorable songs on her latest album. – Leeann Ward
Who Are You When I’m Not Looking Blake Shelton
Blake Shelton has a strong voice, but it’s most expressive when he dials it back enough to allow the sensitivity to cut through. Exhibit A: “Who Are You When I’m Not Looking.” As one of the beautifully understated productions of the year, he loves everything that he knows about his woman, therefore, he can’t help but imagine and wonder about what he’s not seeing. – LW
Put You in a Song Keith Urban
Creating hooky pieces of ear candy is one of Urban’s defining talents, and the lead single from his November release is further proof. Blessedly, it’s devoid of the distracting electronic instrumentation that has lately plagued his recordings, which makes for one of Urban’s cleanest releases in recent years. – LW
American Honey Lady Antebellum
Look, I still don’t know what American honey is, and I’m guessing you don’t either. What I do know is this: Hillary Scott’s performance is layered, vulnerable and desperate – a perfect encapsulation of the wave of nostalgia that finds you in your early 20s. Coupled with the wistful melody, it’s enough to override the wacky metaphor and lift the song to one of the most poignant of the year. – TS
A Father’s Love (The Only Way He Knew How) Bucky Covington
This is probably Covington’s best performance to date. The song manages to be sweet without crossing the line to sickeningly cloying. It depicts a father who shows his love through action rather than verbal affirmation, which is something that the son ultimately accepts as just as good. – LW
Playing the Part Jamey Johnson
Something that Jamey Johnson isn’t afraid to do in this radio era of watered down, trite messages is expose himself as less than a perfect human being. Instead, he will sing about drug addiction (“High Cost of Living”) and depression, as we hear in this tale of disappointment that is a result of the crushing disappointment of unattained success. – LW
Fearless Taylor Swift
As a single release, it was little more than an afterthought, the album of the same name having already flexed most of its world-conquering muscles. As a sort of mission-statement album track, though, “Fearless” still rocks, adeptly capturing the jitters and giddiness of young romance and sort of arguing for embracing such sensations while you can. That Swift tells herself at a certain point to “capture it, remember it” suggests she knows there’s more loneliness and disappointment on the flip-side of this one elated moment. – Dan Milliken
She Won’t Be Lonely Long Clay Walker
Ringing with effortless charisma and playful sincerity, the lead single off Walker’s latest album was a welcomed reintroduction to his most beloved qualities. Interestingly, though the song serves as a tribute to his classic 90s sound, it fit snugly –and refreshingly– on country radio. – TS
Only Prettier Miranda Lambert
Lambert exposes the sneaky bitchery lurking behind so much Southern sweetness. Country radio is all like, “Whaaat?” – DM
When the nominees were announced in August for the 44th annual CMA Awards, they sparked a firestorm of headlines –and thoughtful commentary by critics and fans alike– thanks to the CMA voters’ surprisingly bold moves. It’s all about change this year, as the voters revamped the ballot with a slew of fresh faces in almost all of the big categories.
How will it all play out? We’ll know for sure on Wednesday at 8pm Eastern, but before Gwenyth Paltrow throws on her cowboy boots, check out our staff picks and predictions and join the discussion in the comments below. And be sure to drop by Wednesday night for all of the CU live blog madness!
Entertainer of the Year
Miranda Lambert – Kevin
Zac Brown Band – Leeann, Dan, Tara
Kevin: Among the five nominees, Miranda Lambert has best represented the genre this year.
Leeann: I’m torn between Lambert and the Zac Brown Band as most deserving this year. I recently saw Lambert’s show and wasn’t incredibly impressed, however. While I have not yet attended a ZBB show, theirs is one of the few spots that I look forward to at awards shows these days. Moreover, I’m impressed by how much of a following they had even before they made any mainstream records.
Dan: Of these five, Zac Brown Band had the second-most success this year (after Lady A) and made the second-best music (after Lambert), so that’s pretty good standing. And I feel like giving this award to a grassroots act would be a good way for the industry to greet the future.
Tara: I’m consistently impressed by Zac Brown Band’s live performances, and it would be really refreshing to see them win – so I’ll go with them. (But I’m still disappointed that the first year my head and heart align on Carrie Underwood deserving an EOTY award, I can’t support her. I’m holding out for 2012…)
Miranda Lambert – Tara
Brad Paisley – Kevin, Leeann, Dan
Zac Brown Band
Kevin: I’ve probably learned nothing from last year’s Swift sweep by going with Paisley again, but he’s the only nominee of veteran stature who hasn’t won yet.
Leeann: I can’t imagine that Paisley won’t finally win this one.
Dan: I was going to guess Lady A, since they’re sort of 2010′s “flavor of the year” the way Taylor Swift was 2009′s. But when I think about it, Swift’s ascent was greater and more gradual, and she stood in contrast to the rest of her nominee pool (four male veterans) in a way Lady A don’t with theirs (in which they’re one of three new competitors). So, Paisley.
Tara: I have no rationale. My gut says Lambert.
Male Vocalist of the Year
Dierks Bentley – Kevin, Leeann, Dan, Tara
Kevin: Bentley made the best music this year.
Leeann: Bentley may not have the best technical voice out of these nominees, but he has the most interesting and distinctive of them, which is always something that I gravitate toward. Also, I agree with Kevin that he’s made the best music this year.
Dan: Shelton and Bentley are the only ones in this pool who made significant career strides this year – Shelton at radio, and Bentley creatively. Since I’m backing someone else in the Album category, this is where I’d like to see Bentley recognized for following his muse.
Tara: I guess Up on the Ridge is as good a reason as any to fall off the Brad-for-MVOTY bandwagon. He’s a close second for me, though.
Dierks Bentley – Kevin, Dan
Brad Paisley – Leeann, Tara
Kevin: I can see the roots album giving Bentley an edge. Then again, Paisley could just repeat again, or Shelton may suddenly have deep support among voters. I say, Bentley by a nose.
Leeann: I think that voters will reflexively give this one to Paisley again.
Dan: I’ll ditto Kevin.
Tara: I can’t really see Paisley losing this one, but I think if he does lose to Bentley, it’ll be a telling moment.
Female Vocalist of the Year
Miranda Lambert – Kevin, Leeann, Dan
Carrie Underwood – Tara
Kevin: Underwood and McEntire are the women who made my favorite singles from the eligibility period, but Lambert’s the only one who hasn’t won this award. She’s not overdue, but she’s due.
Leeann: Kevin’s right that Lambert is due to win this award now, not to mention that she’s my favorite female singer out of the bunch.
Dan: Lambert still isn’t at Underwood’s sales level, much less Swift’s, and I don’t see her catching up before traditional music sales die out altogether. Doesn’t matter, though: her habit of making creative music will sustain her regardless of industry conditions, and will elevate the genre in the long run. It’s time to look ahead.
Tara: I’m 50/50 on Lambert and Underwood. I’m not sure how to balance Lambert’s long overdue mega-year against Underwood’s continuous stream of solid success, ambassadorship and artistic growth. I’ll be happy either way, but personal investment’s got me in Underwood’s camp.
Miranda Lambert - Kevin, Dan, Tara
Carrie Underwood- Leeann
Kevin: I’d be shocked if Lambert lost, and can’t even make a guess as to who she’d lose to, should she somehow lose.
Leeann: It’s between Lambert and Underwood, but I give Underwood the edge, especially since it’s somewhat surprising that she didn’t get an Entertainer nomination. Although Lambert has gained popularity in the past year, Underwood is still one of the two biggest females in the business and I refuse to predict that Swift will win the award.
Dan: Lambert’s had enough mainstream success this year to give tasteful voters an excuse to give her some props.
Tara: The voters love them some Lambert this year, and I think of all her nominations, this is the one she’s got in the bag.
Vocal Duo of the Year
Brooks & Dunn
Joey + Rory – Kevin, Leeann, Dan, Tara
Kevin: I’m assuming “Stuck Like Glue” was after the eligibility period, so I think actually making some music over the year is important. Joey + Rory are the only duo I like who have yet to win.
Leeann: I simply like them the most, but I know they don’t have a chance.
Dan: I mean, why not? Nobody on this ballot has done much but tour.
Tara: I’m not very excited about any of these acts right now, to be honest. It would just be heartwarming to see Joey + Rory pick this one up.
Brooks & Dunn – Kevin, Dan
Joey + Rory
Sugarland – Leeann, Tara
Kevin: Sugarland’s year off helped guarantee a B&D victory lap, which would probably have happened anyway.
Leeann: It’s between Brooks & Dunn and Sugarland. I should just pick B&D because of their retirement, but I’m still going with Sugarland because of their popularity.
Dan: Brooks & Dunn, unless voters ignore the eligibility period and stick with Sugarland.
Tara: Isn’t the Brooks & Dunn retirement thing kind of old news by now, or am I just out of touch?
Vocal Group of the Year
Lady Antebellum – Tara
Little Big Town
The Band Perry
Zac Brown Band – Kevin, Leeann, Dan
Kevin: Let’s start getting some variety in this category, instead of having Lady A own it for five years.
Leeann: They’re the only group that I like right now.
Dan: I’ll probably be rooting for Little Big Town come ACM season, but for now…
Tara: I don’t want Lady A to own this for five years, either, but I do think they deserve to win this year. At least in my opinion, their huge success on the charts and with album sales can be attributed much to their ability to (I know, I know – I’m a broken record) hone in on specific emotion and deliver it in a way that people can really connect with. There’s some meat (and a heck of a lot of potential) behind their success that tends to go unnoticed.
Lady Antebellum – Kevin, Leeann, Dan, Tara
Little Big Town
The Band Perry
Zac Brown Band
Kevin: Lady A and Zac BB are both very popular with voters, but I’m thinking that this is the only race where voters can reward Lady A for dominating at retail this year.
Leeann: Ditto to Kevin.
Dan: New Artist will be ZBB’s consolation prize.
Tara: …And I think the voters will agree with my pick, if not for the same reasons.
New Artist of the Year
Chris Young – Leeann
Zac Brown Band - Kevin, Dan, Tara
Kevin: ZBB is in another league, which makes me wish they still called this the Horizon Award.
Leeann: It’s weird to see ZBB here considering their nominations elsewhere, so I think that Chris Young has the most potential of the remaining nominees.
Dan: I’d love to see Young take this, but ZBB can’t be denied.
Tara: This is a great line-up, but there’s no question that ZBB deserves this win.
Zac Brown Band – Kevin, Leeann, Dan, Tara
Kevin: ZBB is nominated for Entertainer of the Year, much like Ricky Skaggs was when he won Horizon in 1982. (Skaggs also won Male Vocalist, which means I may have to rethink my pick for Vocal Group, too.)
Leeann: Kevin’s argument is too compelling not to follow. Also, they are the most popular of the nominees, therefore, probably the most deserving.
Dan: Everyone here but Niemann has had a significant breakthrough. With ZBB in the mix, though, it’s no contest.
Tara: It’s a funky set-up to have ZBB nominated for both the top and bottom (figuratively) prizes, and I think this one will play out exactly the way Kevin explained it.
Album of the Year
Dierks Bentley, Up on the Ridge – Leeann
Lady Antebellum, Need You Now
Miranda Lambert, Revolution – Dan, Tara
George Strait, Twang
Carrie Underwood, Play On – Kevin
Kevin: I have all five of these albums, and Underwood’s is the one that I listen to the most, with Strait a not-too-close second. In 2010, of course, “listening to an album” really means “how many songs do I pull off the album and put on a play list,” which has Underwood ahead by three tracks.
Leeann: If I follow Kevin’s test, Bently wins with Lambert as a close second. Bentley’s is, hands down, my favorite album of these choices. I’d love to see something this different from the mainstream win.
Dan: Also employing Kevin’s test, I flip-flop Leeann’s first and second choices. Only about two thirds of Revolution click for me a year later, but those two thirds have helped redefined what I thought modern country could be (still flipping about “Me and Your Cigarettes”), and the stray third at least tried.
Tara: I’m not going to follow Kevin’s test: I don’t play Revolution quite as much as three of the other albums on here, but I feel it’s the most deserving. It’s sharp, smart and an excellent example of an artist taking her potential by the horns.
Dierks Bentley, Up on the Ridge
Lady Antebellum, Need You Now
Miranda Lambert, Revolution – Kevin, Leeann, Dan, Tara
George Strait, Twang
Carrie Underwood, Play On
Kevin: I really do think Lambert will sweep. I think she should’ve won for her last album, which wasn’t even nominated, but I’m not going to complain about an ambitious album getting the prize.
Leeann: I’m guessing either Lambert or Underwood. Although Lambert has the better album, Underwood has the slight edge because it sold better. I wouldn’t be especially surprised if Lady A takes it though.
Dan: Seems to me like a toss-up between Lady A’s commercial favorite and Lambert’s critical one. Lambert?
Tara: This is Lambert’s to lose, but I wouldn’t be too surprised if Lady A (or maybe Bentley?) snatched it.
Single of the Year
Easton Corbin, “A Little More Country Than That”
Lady Antebellum, “Need You Now”
Miranda Lambert, “The House That Built Me” – Kevin, Leeann, Dan, Tara
Kevin: It’s the big chunk of meat in a category of mashed potatoes and candied apples.
Leeann: Kevin just made me really hungry, therefore, kind of distracted. It’s a good thing that my choice doesn’t need justification then.
Dan: “Need You Now” had the biggest impact, of course, but “The House That Built Me” was no slouch either – four weeks at #1 – and was arguably the riskiest, most rewarding release. Also of note: she sang it real pretty.
Tara: “Need You Now” and “The House That Built Me” are performed equally well, but “House” is the better-written song. I’ll go with “House” on the basis of that, but I do think country music will be represented justly either way. Both songs resonate with pure, compelling sentiment.
Easton Corbin, “A Little More Country Than That”
Lady Antebellum, “Need You Now” - Dan, Tara
Miranda Lambert, “The House That Built Me” - Kevin, Leeann
Kevin: I think Lady A would have a better shot if they hadn’t won last year for “I Run to You.”
Leeann: It’s simply the clear winner.
Dan: Again, somewhat for diversity’s sake, I’ll guess that many voters have already forgotten about “I Run to You” – I certainly have – and will use this category to recognize the biggest hit, while they use Song to recognize the best one.
Tara: I’m jumping on Dan’s train…
Song of the Year
“A Little More Country Than That” – Rory Lee Feek, Don Poythress & Wynn Varble
“Need You Now” – Dave Haywood, Josh Kear, Charles Kelley & Hillary Scott
“The House That Built Me” – Tom Douglas & Allen Shamblin – Kevin, Leeann, Dan, Tara
Zac Brown Band featuring Kid Rock, “Can’t You See”
Kevin: Its presence in the Single category makes “Hillbilly Bone” the most likely winner.
Leeann: It’s the most mainstream of all the choices.
Dan: “Bad Angel” could play a welcome spoiler, since all three of the artists behind it command a lot of respect right now. I still see this going to the hit, though.
Tara: I’m predicting the big boys will win this one. It’s a decent song, but it makes me laugh that it gets as much love as it does – I mean, this is the song that has Adkins admitting that he’s “always wanted to sing a bone song”…!
Kevin: Lambert made the two best clips, with the humor of “Liar” outpacing the literalism of “House.”
Dan: The “House” video is beautifully conceived and directed, but somehow the “White Liar” one just sticks out more. Maybe it’s because “White Liar” is a thinner song, so the video has more of a chance to establish its own identity.
Tara: The “White Liar” video is the brightest and most creative of the bunch.
This fall, there seems to be as many new albums from significant country artists as I can remember. Just look at Roughstock’s indispensable Fall 2010 Releases list.
New releases are on the way from no less than eight past CMA Entertainer of the Year nominees and winners, along with current top sellers Zac Brown Band, Billy Currington, Jamey Johnson, and Montgomery Gentry.
So head on over to see that list, then come back to answer this question:
What Fall 2010 CD Release are you most excited for?
For me, it’s no contest. I can’t wait to hear Sugarland’s The Incredible Machine. Their last studio set, Love On the Inside, is my favorite mainstream country album of the past five years, and I still haven’t gotten tired of the covers they included in their stopgap set Live On the Inside.
Plus, “Stuck Like Glue” is my favorite lead single from any of their albums so far, no small feat given my deep affection for “Want To.” Given that a new Dixie Chicks album comes along about as quickly as a Senator goes up for re-election, I need a fix of music from a really great country band, stat.
The country boy as fish out of the water in Los Angeles. Or New York. Or Detroit. It’s a pretty common theme in country music. Jamey Johnson does his own spin on this theme with his new single, “Playing the Part.” It’s not terribly bad, but it’s not terribly good, either. “Big City” certainly doesn’t have to worry about losing its slot on the Waffle House Jukebox.
Despite a busy little beat, Johnson remains only a step above lethargic. His “Randy Travis 45 on 33 1/3 speed” vocal delivery worked for the slowly revealing lyrics of “In Color” and “High Cost of Living.” But it lets him down here. Even the addiction reference feels obligatory, with Johnson repeating the “pills’ and “Hollywood hills” rhyme that worked much better on Faith Hill’s “When the Lights Go Down.”
That record worked because Hill actually sounded like someone who could have known someone in L.A. who’d gone down that road. Johnson’s got a gold album under his belt and has won a few awards, but it’s a stretch to picture him as a country boy who went chasing fame and fortune in California and is now collapsing under the weight of his success.
It was a stroke of marketing brilliance for Johnson to package himself as a modern-day Outlaw, making it far easier for him to reach a targeted demographic that would eagerly embrace him. Lord knows they’re going to eat these limited editions up like Taylor Swift fans blew their Sweet Sixteen money on this.
But he’s yet to really demonstrate that he could be the second coming of Waylon Jennings or Willie Nelson. Right now, he’s got a shot at being a modern-day Gary Stewart or Mel Street, but he’s going to need better material than this to get there.
Like so much of country music today, and pop for that matter, the marketing and media campaigns are dramatically outpacing the development of the music. Artists who have an album or two under their belt are being heralded as the new incarnation of legends with thirty-year careers. It’s an insult to the legends and an unfair burden to place on artists that are still honing their craft.
Because in the end, the hype will die down and the music is all we’ll be left with. I’d love to see Johnson become the traditional country legend that he’s been prematurely ordained, but he’s barely out of the starting gate, and I don’t see him getting much further down the road with material like this.
As Dan observed in his single review of “Up on the Ridge”, there was a noticeable decline in Dierks Bentley’s music after his well received Long Trip Alone album. It is purely speculative to suggest, but one can’t help but wonder if Bentley himself felt staleness creeping into his music as well. It’s not farfetched for the idea to be true, since Dierks has proven himself to be an astute artist in the past. So, why wouldn’t he notice if there was, indeed, a shift?
Speculation aside, Bentley has taken a break from the routine of his last four albums to create an album that is far removed from what is popular on mainstream country radio and somewhat different than what he’s put on his own previous albums. However, he is still marketing to radio, as his first single, the title track, has been treated like any other Bentley single release. The album is not as adventurous, or as strong, as the Dixie Chicks’ unapologetically acoustic album, but it may be as close to the concept as we have gotten since their targeted mainstream acoustic project, Home.
It has been appropriately publicized that this album is not a pure bluegrass project. Instead, it is close in style to the bluegrass influenced tracks that Bentley has consistently included on each of his studio albums. Yes, mandolin, banjo, dobro and fiddle are ever present, but Bentley is not shy about using drums, exploring subversive melodies (“Up on the Ridge”, “Fallin’ for You”), or deviating from traditional bluegrass rules of engagement along the way. Moreover, Bentley does not possess the high lonesome tenor that is typically associated with bluegrass. He, however, proves himself to be a capable vocalist within the parameters of his unique style of it.
A handful of covers, songs by well respected songwriters, and some of Bentley’s own compositions makes this rootsy album a well rounded set. The best of the covers is bob Dylan’s “Senor (Tales of Yankee Power) and Kris Kristofferson’s Bottle to the Bottom”. While the otherwise solid “Bottle to the Bottom” features a somewhat pointless cameo by Kristofferson, the addition of the Punch Brothers on “Senor” is inspired art. A less successful cover is U2’s “Pride (in the Name of Love).” While Del McCoury’s distinctive tenor does well to do the heavy lifting, the over all recording still lacks the etherealness of the original. Ironically, as they are most closely associated with Americana, the Buddy Miller cover is the most mainstream friendly sounding song on the album. Unfortunately, it is also inferior to Miller’s version.
Among the strongest of Bentley’s songs is “Rovin’ Gambler” (once again, with the Punch Brothers), “Draw Me a Map” (featuring Alison Krauss on background vocals), “You’re Dead to Me” (co-written by and featuring Tim O’Brien”, and “Down in the Mine.”
Bentley wisely enlists the help of some of his creative friends such as the Punch Brothers (with Chris Thile of Nickel Creek fame), Del McCoury, Alison Krauss, Vince Gill, Jamey Johnson, Miranda Lambert, Tim O’Brien, and Kris Kristofferson. Complimented by Jon Randall’s organic production sensibilities, this impeccable support adds a welcome texture to the project. However, the collaborations work best when they are more subtle. For instance, while the prospect of Miranda Lambert and Jamey Johnson collaborating is, indeed, an appealing concept, the result does not rise to the occasion in practice. Both Lambert and Johnson deliver excellent performances with Bentley on “Bad Angel”, with Lambert’s voice being huskier than usual, but the parts together translate as more disjointed than natural. Likewise, the results of Del McCoury’s and Kris Kristofferson’s contributions were not as successful as one would hope for from such revered artists. On the other hand, the Punch Brothers (who played on several tracks), Alison Krauss, Tim O’Brien, Jon Randall, and Vince Gill (“Fiddlin’ Around”) were used less overtly to greater effect.
With expert musicianship by the best in the business, solid songs, and impressive vocal support, Up on the Ridge is a refreshing album from an artist who is taking a chance with this musical detour while still in the throes of a considerably lucrative career. Not only is taking such a chance commendable, Bentley has created a solid album to justify the diversion.
As with the similar CMA category of Single of the Year, looking over the history of this category is the quickest way to get a snapshot of country music in a given year. There is a quite a bt of consensus among the two organizations here, and it is very rare for the winner at one show to not at least be nominated at the other. The winners list here would make a great 2-disc set of country classics, at least for those who don’t mind a little pop in their country. The ACM definitely has more of a taste for crossover than its CMA counterpart, and the organizations have only agreed on 17 singles in the past four decades and change.
As always, we start with a look at this year’s nominees and work our way back to 1968.
Zac Brown Band, “Toes”
Billy Currington, “People Are Crazy”
Lady Antebellum, “Need You Now”
Miranda Lambert, “White Liar”
David Nail, “Red Light”
There’s usually a “Huh?” nominee among the ACM list in recent years. This year, it’s David Nail. Good for him! Currington hasn’t won yet for this hit, even though he got himself a Grammy nomination for it. With Lady Antebellum reaching the upper ranks of the country and pop charts with “Need You Now”, my guess is that they’re the presumptive favorites. Then again, Miranda Lambert is a nominee for the third straight year, and she’s up for her biggest radio hit.
Trace Adkins, “You’re Gonna Miss This”
Jamey Johnson, “In Color”
Miranda Lambert, “Gunpowder & Lead”
Heidi Newfield, “Johnny and June”
Brad Paisley, “Waitin’ On a Woman”
Adkins has been a fairly regular fixture on country radio since 1996, but this was his first major industry award. He also won the ACM for Top New Male Vocalist in 1997.
Gary Allan, “Watching Airplanes”
Big & Rich, “Lost in This Moment”
Kenny Chesney, “Don’t Blink”
Miranda Lambert, “Famous in a Small Town”
“Stay” swept the Song of the Year categories at all three industry shows, along with winning the ACM for Single Record. Allan’s presence here shows that being a little West Coast can still help a guy at the ACMs.
Heartland, “I Loved Her First”
Rascal Flatts, “What Hurts the Most”
George Strait, “Give it Away”
Josh Turner, “Would You Go With Me”
Carrie Underwood, “Before He Cheats”
George Strait earned his second ACM Single Record award a decade after his first (“Check Yes or No”) and two and a half decades after having his first radio hit. Underwood won at the CMAs later that year. “Give it Away” is one of a small group of ACM winners to not receive a nomination at the CMA ceremony.
Gary Allan, “Best I Ever Had”
Brooks & Dunn, “Believe”
Brad Paisley, “Alcohol”
Sugarland, “Baby Girl”
Carrie Underwood, “Jesus, Take the Wheel”
In the battle of biblical hits, the CMA picked Brooks & Dunn but the ACM picked Carrie Underwood. Much like George Strait would later win a CMA trophy for a different single (“I Saw God Today”), Underwood later triumphed at the CMA with “Before He Cheats.”
Tim McGraw, “Live Like You Were Dying”
Brad Paisley with Alison Krauss, “Whiskey Lullaby”
Rascal Flatts, “Bless the Broken Road”
Keith Urban, “Days Go By”
Gretchen Wilson, “Redneck Woman”
Lee Ann Womack, “I May Hate Myself in the Morning”
Because McGraw picked up the trophy at the CMAs in 2004, the field was cleared for Womack to win the CMA later in 2005. McGraw had won the ACM before for “It’s Your Love.”
Brooks & Dunn, “Red Dirt Road”
Alan Jackson with Jimmy Buffett, “It’s Five O’ Clock Somewhere”
Alan Jackson, “Remember When”
Toby Keith, “American Soldier”
Randy Travis, “Three Wooden Crosses”
Among all the lead nominees, only Toby Keith wasn’t a previous winner. Still, the award went to the new alcoholic’s creed, winning over a more pensive Jackson track and a big comeback hit for Randy Travis.
Kenny Chesney, “The Good Stuff”
Toby Keith, “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue (The Angry American)”
Trick Pony, “Just What I Do”
Keith Urban, “Somebody Like You”
Mark Wills, “19 Somethin’”
Chesney spent nearly two months at #1 with this hit, perhaps giving him the edge over the other mega-hits at radio from Keith, Urban, and Wills. As for the Trick Pony nomination, somebody really should find out what Heidi Newfield has on those ACM voters.
Brooks & Dunn, “Ain’t Nothin’ ‘Bout You”
Diamond Rio, “One More Day”
Alan Jackson, “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)”
Toby Keith, “I Wanna Talk About Me”
Travis Tritt, “It’s a Great Day to Be Alive”
Jackson’s powerful 9/11 reflection stands out as the only ballad among his four ACM Single Record victories.
Toby Keith, “How Do You Like Me Now?!”
John Michael Montgomery, “The Little Girl”
Jamie O’Neal, “There is No Arizona”
Aaron Tippin, “Kiss This”
Lee Ann Womack with Sons of the Desert, “I Hope You Dance”
Toby Keith’s run of four consecutive nominations began this year. His album of the same name proved victorious that evening. Womack’s massive hit became an instant standard, and is incidentally the most recent winner to also be a genuine crossover hit.
Dixie Chicks, “Ready to Run”
Tim McGraw, “Please Remember Me”
Brad Paisley, “He Didn’t Have to Be”
George Strait, “Write This Down”
As pop hits go, this one was a monster. “Amazed” even topped the Hot 100, the first country single to do so since “Islands in the Stream.”
Faith Hill, “This Kiss”
Martina McBride, “A Broken Wing”
Shania Twain, “You’re Still the One”
Steve Wariner, “Holes in the Floor of Heaven”
The Wilkinsons, “26 Cents”
Hill and hubby Tim McGraw each have two ACM trophies in this category, one solo and one shared.
Diamond Rio, “How Your Love Makes Me Feel”
Tim McGraw with Faith Hill, “It’s Your Love”
LeAnn Rimes, “How Do I Live”
George Strait, “Carrying Your Love With Me”
Trisha Yearwood, “How Do I Live (from “Con Air”)”
While Yearwood had won over Rimes at the Grammys a few weeks earlier, the ACM sidestepped the big controversy of the year and gave the trophy to the biggest hit in the bunch.
Brooks & Dunn, “My Maria”
Deana Carter, “Strawberry Wine”
Tracy Lawrence, “Time Marches On”
LeAnn Rimes, “Blue”
George Strait, “Carried Away”
It’s rare that the ACM goes with the song that was least successful at radio, but don’t let that #10 peak of “Blue” fool you. That hit was responsible for millions of record sales.
Brooks & Dunn, “You’re Gonna Miss Me When I’m Gone”
Faith Hill, “It Matters to Me”
Tim McGraw, “I Like It, I Love It”
George Strait, “Check Yes or No”
Shania Twain, “Any Man of Mine”
It was a stroke of marketing brilliance: add two singles to a box set of a genre superstar. When the first single became one of his biggest hits, the box set quickly became the top selling in country music history.
Joe Diffie, “Third Rock From the Sun”
Vince Gill, “Tryin’ to Get Over You”
Alan Jackson, “Livin’ On Love”
Tim McGraw, “Don’t Take the Girl”
John Michael Montgomery, “I Swear”
There have been a few wedding standards to win this award, though Montgomery’s hit didn’t cross over in its original form.
Clint Black with Wynonna, “A Bad Goodbye”
Garth Brooks, “Ain’t Goin’ Down (‘Til the Sun Comes Up)”
Alan Jackson, “Chattahoochee”
Reba McEntire with Linda Davis, “Does He Love You”
Dwight Yoakam, “Ain’t That Lonely Yet”
Jackson won the ACM with his massive hit, but the McEntire/Davis duet and the Yoakam track were Grammy winners.
John Anderson, “Straight Tequila Night”
Brooks & Dunn, “Boot Scootin’ Boogie”
Billy Ray Cyrus, “Achy Breaky Heart”
Collin Raye, “Love, Me”
Tanya Tucker, “Two Sparrows in a Hurricane”
Brooks & Dunn are among the most nominated artists in this category’s history, but this is their only victory.
Clint Black, “Where Are You Now”
Garth Brooks, “Shameless”
Alan Jackson, “Don’t Rock the Jukebox”
Travis Tritt, “Here’s a Quarter (Call Someone Who Cares)”
Trisha Yearwood, “She’s in Love With the Boy”
This was Jackson’s first major industry award.
Alabama, “Jukebox in My Mind”
Garth Brooks, “Friends in Low Places”
Vince Gill, “When I Call Your Name”
Alan Jackson, “Here in the Real World”
Shenandoah, “Next to You, Next to Me”
Garth-mania was beginning to peak in 1991. He swept the ACMs that year.
Clint Black, “Better Man”
Garth Brooks, “If Tomorrow Never Comes”
Patty Loveless, “Timber I’m Falling in Love”
Keith Whitley, “I’m No Stranger to the Rain”
Hank Williams & Hank Williams Jr., “There’s a Tear in My Beer”
Clint Black is one of only three artists in the last twenty years to win for their first proper single, with Carrie Underwood and LeAnn Rimes being the other two.
Kathy Mattea, “Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses”
K.T. Oslin, “I’ll Always Come Back”
Ricky Van Shelton, “I’ll Leave This World Loving You”
Randy Travis, “I Told You So”
Keith Whitley, “Don’t Close Your Eyes”
Mattea’s award-winning hit had such a high profile that it was even referenced in the dialog of the hit movie Rain Man.
Restless Heart, “I’ll Still Be Loving You”
Ricky Van Shelton, “Somebody Lied”
George Strait, “All My Ex’s Live in Texas”
Randy Travis, “Forever and Ever, Amen”
Hank Williams Jr., “Born to Boogie”
Travis won for the second year in a row with what would become his signature hit.
Alabama, “Touch Me When We’re Dancing”
Janie Fricke, “Always Have, Always Will”
The Judds, “Rockin’ With the Rhythm of the Rain”
Reba McEntire, “Whoever’s in New England”
Randy Travis, “On the Other Hand”
This was technically his first single, but when released under the name Randy Traywick, it bombed. Warner Bros. then released “1982″ under Randy Travis, and it went top ten. They then re-released this song, and it became his first #1 hit.
Lee Greenwood, “Dixie Road”
Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, “Highwayman”
The Judds, “Love is Alive”
Mel McDaniel, “Baby’s Got Her Blue Jeans On”
Hank Williams Jr., “I’m For Love”
So successful was this winning single that the four legends would go on to release future collaborations as the Highwaymen.
Alabama, “When We Make Love”
Julio Iglesias & Willie Nelson, “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before”
The Judds, “Why Not Me”
John Schneider, “I’ve Been Around Enough to Know”
Conway Twitty, “I Don’t Know a Thing About Love (The Moon Song)”
Say what you want about this winner, but it was popular enough to sell two million 45s.
John Anderson, “Swingin’”
Anne Murray, “A Little Good News”
Willie Nelson & Merle Haggard, “Pancho and Lefty”
Kenny Rogers & Dolly Parton, “Islands in the Stream”
Shelly West, “José Cuervo”
Another pop smash that moved two million 45s. Is there anybody over 30 who can’t sing along to the chorus?
David Frizzell, “I’m Gonna Hire a Wino to Decorate Our Home”
Willie Nelson, “Always on My Mind”
Kenny Rogers, “Love Will Turn You Around”
Ricky Skaggs, “Crying My Heart Out Over You”
Nelson’s had quite a few signature hits, but none bigger than this one.
Rosanne Cash, “Seven Year Ache”
David Frizzell & Shelly West, “You’re the Reason God Made Oklahoma”
Barbara Mandrell, “I Was Country When Country Wasn’t Cool”
Ronnie Milsap, “(There’s) No Gettin’ Over Me”
Oak Ridge Boys, “Elvira”
This might be the most pop-flavored lineup in category’s history. Even the Mandrell hit doth protest too much.
George Jones, “He Stopped Loving Her Today”
Johnny Lee, “Lookin’ For Love”
Dolly Parton, “9 to 5″
Eddie Rabbitt, “Drivin’ My Life Away”
Don Williams, “I Believe in You”
Jones capped his biggest comeback in a career defined by them with several awards for this classic hit.
Charlie Daniels Band, “Devil Went Down to Georgia”
Larry Gatlin & The Gatlin Brothers Band, “All the Gold in California”
Crystal Gayle, “Half the Way”
Waylon Jennings, “Amanda”
Kenny Rogers, “Coward of the County”
West Coast represent!
Crystal Gayle, “Talking in Your Sleep”
Loretta Lynn, “Out of My Head and Back in My Bed”
Willie Nelson, “Georgia On My Mind”
Waylon & Willie, “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys”
Don Williams, “Tulsa Time”
In a category of superstars, the Gentle Giant of Country Music was the victor.
Debby Boone, “You Light Up My Life”
Crystal Gayle, “Don’t it Make My Brown Eyes Blue”
Waylon Jennings, “Luckenbach, Texas (Back to the Basics of Love)”
Kenny Rogers, “Lucille”
Linda Ronstadt, “Blue Bayou”
All of these records made a big impact on both the country and the pop chart.
Mickey Gilley, “Bring it On Home to Me”
Loretta Lynn, “Somebody Somewhere (Don’t Know What He’s Missin’ Tonight)”
Marty Robbins, “El Paso City”
Red Sovine, “Teddy Bear”
Waylon & Willie, “Good Hearted Woman”
A surprising win, perhaps fueled by the momentum of Gilley’s previous single, “Don’t the Girls All Get Prettier at Closing Time.”
Glen Campbell, “Rhinestone Cowboy”
Freddie Fender, “Before the Next Teardrop Falls”
Mickey Gilley, “Overnight Sensation”
Willie Nelson, “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain”
Kenny Starr, “The Blind Man in the Bleachers”
Campbell made quite the comeback with this one, and it later inspired the Dolly Parton film vehicle Rhinestone, which earned an ACM nomination of its own for the Tex Ritter Award.
John Denver, “Back Home Again”
Merle Haggard, “Things Aren’t Funny Anymore”
Ronnie Milsap, “(I’d Be) A Legend in My Time”
Cal Smith, “Country Bumpkin”
Billy Swan, “I Can Help”
Smith may not have gotten all the recognition that his talent warranted, but he made two undeniable classics: “The Lord Knows I’m Drinking”, and his winner here.
Merle Haggard, “If We Make it Through December”
Byron MacGregor, “The Americans”
Jeanne Pruett, “Satin Sheets”
Charlie Rich, “Behind Closed Doors”
Charlie Rich, “The Most Beautiful Girl”
Rich’s two hits were so big that even with vote-splitting, he still emerged the winner.
Donna Fargo, “The Happiest Girl in the Whole U.S.A.”
Merle Haggard, “It’s Not Love (But It’s Not Bad)”
Johnny Rodriguez, “Pass Me By (If You’re Only Passing Through)”
Jerry Wallace, “If You Leave Me Tonight I’ll Cry”
Faron Young, “Four in the Morning”
Fargo was a local star on the West Coast before she broke through nationwide with this hit, dominating the 1973 ACM Awards as a result.
Merle Haggard, “Carolyn”
Freddie Hart, “Easy Loving”
Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty, “Lead Me On”
Loretta Lynn, “One’s On the Way”
Charley Pride, “Kiss an Angel Good Morning”
This gold-selling classic helped Hart triumph over the superstars of his day.
Lynn Anderson, “Rose Garden”
Merle Haggard, “The Fightin’ Side of Me”
Anne Murray, “Snowbird”
Ray Price, “For the Good Times”
Sammi Smith, “Help Me Make it Through the Night”
Each one of these is a classic in its own right. In a battle of Kristofferson-penned hits, Price emerged victorious, though Smith won the CMA later that year.
Glen Campbell, “Try a Little Kindness”
Johnny Cash, “A Boy Named Sue”
Merle Haggard, “Okie From Muskogee”
Billy Mize, “Make it Rain”
Elvis Presley, “Don’t Cry Daddy”
Freddy Weller, “Games People Play”
Tammy Wynette, “Stand By Your Man”
Haggard’s only victory in this category came on a night where he also won Album of the Year for the only time in several nominations.
Glen Campbell, “Wichita Lineman”
Merle Haggard, “I Take a Lot of Pride in What I Am”
Merle Haggard, “The Legend of Bonnie and Clyde”
Merle Haggard, “Mama Tried”
Roger Miller, “Little Green Apples”
Miller’s known for his legendary songwriting, but his winning hit here was penned by Bobby Russell.
Glen Campbell, “Burning Bridges”
Glen Campbell, “Gentle on My Mind”
The Gosdin Bros., “Hangin’ On”
Bobbie Gentry, “Ode to Billy Joe”
Merle Haggard, “Branded Man”
Merle Haggard, “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive”
A young Vern Gosdin made up half of the nominated Gosdin Bros., a nice historical footnote to the first year of this category. Glen Campbell’s victory was appropriately West Coast for the ACMs first attempt at honoring the national country music scene.
Facts & Feats:
(4) – Alan Jackson
(3) – Willie Nelson
(2) – Glen Campbell, Faith Hill, Tim McGraw, Kenny Rogers, George Strait, Randy Travis
The ACM Awards has traditionally been overshadowed by the CMA Awards, despite its longer existence. This is for several reasons. First, the ACM originally existed to emphasize the West Coast country music scene, whereas the CMA Awards represented Nashville from the start. The ACM has also been more commercially-oriented from the beginning, as the history of this category proves. Eighteen of the last twenty winners in this ACM category are multi-platinum sellers, and the organization allowed greatest hits albums to compete for more than a decade.
Still, the ACM category has bragging rights of its own. Critically-acclaimed albums like Storms of Life, Trio, Killin’ Time and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend won at the ACMs but were overlooked by the CMAs. Additionally, women have also been far more successful at this ceremony. Only five women have ever won the CMA Album trophy, and one of them was Sissy Spacek! At the ACMs, women have dominated the category for the past three years, and the category has honored everyone from Loretta Lynn and Donna Fargo to K.T. Oslin and Shania Twain.
A special note about ACM flashbacks. Like the Grammys, the ACMs issue their award for a given year the following year, so the awards for 2009, for example, are given out in 2010. For the purposes of the flashbacks, Country Universe notes the year the award is presented. While the ACM first presented awards in 1966, the Album category wasn’t introduced until 1968.
As with other flashbacks, we begin with a look at this year’s nominees:
Lady Antebellum, Lady Antebellum
Miranda Lambert, Revolution
Brad Paisley, American Saturday Night
Carrie Underwood, Play On
Zac Brown Band, The Foundation
Three previous winners – Miranda Lambert, Brad Paisley, and Carrie Underwood – compete against the debut albums of two hot bands. Lady Antebellum and Zac Brown Band each picked up a Grammy this year and are well represented on the rest of the ACM ballot. This is a very competitive race. Even the sales-friendly nature of the ACMs doesn’t help much here, as four of these albums are platinum and Lambert’s just went gold.
Jamey Johnson, That Lonesome Song
Montgomery Gentry, Back When I Knew It All
George Strait, Troubadour
Taylor Swift, Fearless
Carrie Underwood, Carnival Ride
Taylor Swift became the third consecutive female artist to win in this category, a feat that would’ve seemed unthinkable earlier in the middle part of the decade, when country radio all but exiled women from radio.
Rodney Atkins, If You’re Going Through Hell
Kenny Chesney, Just Who I Am: Poets and Pirates
Miranda Lambert, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend
Brad Paisley, 5th Gear
Taylor Swift, Taylor Swift
A visibly shocked Lambert accepted the trophy for her critically acclaimed sophomore set. While it did go gold, it remains an anomaly among ACM album winners. You have to go all the way back to 1979 (Oak Ridge Boys) to find another ACM album winner that didn’t sell platinum or higher.
Brooks & Dunn, Hillbilly Deluxe
Vince Gill, These Days
Rascal Flatts, Me and My Gang
George Strait, It Just Comes Natural
Carrie Underwood, Some Hearts
Carrie Underwood became the first solo female artist to win this award in eleven years with her 7 million-selling Some Hearts.
Gary Allan, Tough All Over
Brad Paisley, Time Well Wasted
Rascal Flatts, Feels Like Today
Sugarland, Twice the Speed of Life
Lee Ann Womack, There’s More Where That Came From
A strikingly strong lineup, with the victory going to Brad Paisley. Due to differences in eligibility between the two shows, there are two CMA winners in this category. Not only did Paisley repeat his victory the following fall, Womack won the CMA the previous year.
Kenny Chesney, When the Sun Goes Down
Sara Evans, Restless
Tim McGraw, Live Like You Were Dying
Keith Urban, Be Here
Gretchen Wilson, Here for the Party
Though he’s always been popular with the CMA and Grammy voters, Urban’s only Album award to date came courtesy of the ACMs. Oddly enough, they haven’t nominated him since.
Brooks & Dunn, Red Dirt Road
Toby Keith, Shock’n Y’All
Martina McBride, Martina
Brad Paisley, Mud on the Tires
George Strait, Honkytonkville
On an evening where he won several major awards, Keith picked up his second Album of the Year trophy from the ACMs for an album that included the #1 hits “American Soldier”, “Whiskey Girl”, and “I Love This Bar.”
Kenny Chesney, No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problems
Dixie Chicks, Home
Alan Jackson, Drive
Toby Keith, Unleashed
Trick Pony, On a Mission
If you think all of those 2009 nominations for Heidi Newfield were surprising, check out Trick Pony’s presence in this category among four albums that sold more than 4 million copies each. Alan Jackson picked up his third trophy in this category for the album that included “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)” and “Drive (For Daddy Gene)”.
Brooks & Dunn, Steers & Stripes
Toby Keith, Pull My Chain
Tim McGraw, Set This Circus Down
Soundtrack, O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Travis Tritt, Down the Road I Go
Big comeback albums for Brooks & Dunn and Travis Tritt were nominated, but it was no surprise to see the victory go to the landmark soundtrack that sold more than eight million copies in the end.
Johnny Cash, American III: Solitary Man
Billy Gilman, One Voice
Toby Keith, How Do You Like Me Now?!
Brad Paisley, Who Needs Pictures
Lee Ann Womack, I Hope You Dance
Even Keith was a veteran in comparison to Gilman and Paisley, who were nominated with their debut albums, but the biggest surprise was the nomination of Cash for his third project with Rick Rubin. Even the CMA didn’t recognize those collaborations until the fourth volume and “Hurt.”
Asleep at the Wheel, Ride With Bob
Dixie Chicks, Fly
Faith Hill, Breathe
George Jones, Cold Hard Truth
Tim McGraw, A Place in the Sun
An impressively eclectic lineup is unsurprisingly represented by the consensus choice Dixie Chicks, the one act that everybody used to agree on.
Garth Brooks, Double Live
Dixie Chicks, Wide Open Spaces
Faith Hill, Faith
Jo Dee Messina, I’m Alright
George Strait, One Step at a Time
For the fourth time in the nineties, the trophy went to an artist’s breakthrough album. After their shocking win at the Grammys a few weeks earlier, this Dixie Chicks victory wasn’t quite as surprising.
Garth Brooks, Sevens
Patty Loveless, Long Stretch of Lonesome
Tim McGraw, Everywhere
George Strait, Carrying Your Love With Me
Shania Twain, Come On Over
Strait’s third victory in this category tied him with Alabama for most wins. It was also his first album to top the overall Billboard 200, a feat he’s repeated with three additional albums.
Brooks & Dunn, Borderline
Tracy Lawrence, Time Marches On
Patty Loveless, The Trouble With the Truth
LeAnn Rimes, Blue
George Strait, Blue Clear Sky
Strait’s victory came with an album that featured the #1 hits “Blue Clear Sky” and “Carried Away”, along with the rodeo-themed “I Can Still Make Cheyenne.”
Brooks & Dunn, Waitin’ On Sundown
Patty Loveless, When Fallen Angels Fly
Tim McGraw, All I Want
George Strait, Lead On
Shania Twain, The Woman in Me
Although Loveless won the CMA award the previous fall, the ACM sided with the Grammy winner for Best Country Album, Shania Twain’s landmark set, The Woman in Me.
Garth Brooks, In Pieces
Mary Chapin Carpenter, Stones in the Road
Vince Gill, When Love Finds You
Alan Jackson, Who I Am
Tim McGraw, Not a Moment Too Soon
McGraw’s only victory in this category came with his first nomination. This set remains his top-selling to date, thanks to the presence of the massive hits “Don’t Take the Girl”, “Indian Outlaw”, “Down on the Farm”, and the title track.
Brooks & Dunn, Hard Workin’ Man
Billy Ray Cyrus, It Won’t Be the Last
Vince Gill, I Still Believe In You
Alan Jackson, A Lot About Livin’ (And a Little ‘Bout Love)
Various Artists, Common Thread: The Songs of the Eagles
Dwight Yoakam, This Time
Alan Jackson picked up his second victory in this category with an album that included “Chattahoochee”, which would remain his biggest hit for nearly a decade.
Garth Brooks, The Chase
Brooks & Dunn, Brand New Man
Mary Chapin Carpenter, Come On Come On
Billy Ray Cyrus, Some Gave All
These are some big selling albums. Wynonna and Mary Chapin Carpenter both sold five million and they are tied for last place among the nominees. It’s easy to forget how fresh the Brooks & Dunn sound was when it first arrived on the scene. Five hits, including the classic title track, “Neon Moon”, and “Boot Scootin’ Boogie”, helped power them to a win.
Garth Brooks, No Fences
Garth Brooks, Ropin’ the Wind
Alan Jackson, Don’t Rock the Jukebox
Ricky Van Shelton, Backroads
Travis Tritt, It’s All About to Change
In perhaps the most bizarre moment in this category’s history, Garth Brooks competed again with No Fences, which won the same award last year. Alan Jackson emerged victorious with his sophomore set.
Alabama, Pass it On Down
Garth Brooks, No Fences
Vince Gill, When I Call Your Name
Alan Jackson, Here in the Real World
Ricky Van Shelton, RVS III
No Fences includes the Garth Brooks classics “Friends in Low Places”, “Unanswered Prayers”, and “The Thunder Rolls”. It remains his highest-selling album to date, and second only to Shania Twain’s Come On Over among all single-disc country albums in history.
Clint Black, Killin’ Time
Rodney Crowell, Diamonds and Dirt
Kathy Mattea, Willow in the Wind
Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Will the Circle Be Unbroken? Vol. II
Randy Travis, Old 8×10
The winning album demonstrates why Clint Black was the head of the Class of ’89, even though he’d soon be overshadowed by fellow newbie Garth Brooks.
Vern Gosdin, Chiseled in Stone
K.T. Oslin, This Woman
Ricky Van Shelton, Loving Proof
George Strait, If You Ain’t Lovin’ You Ain’t Livin’
Dwight Yoakam, Buenos Noches From a Lonely Room
K.T. Oslin dominated the awards circuit in 1988 and 1989, with her final victories coming at the ACM Awards. Her Album of the Year winner included the #1 hit “Hold Me”, along with the top five hits “Hey Bobby” and the title track.
The Judds, Heart Land
Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt, and Emmylou Harris, Trio
George Strait, Ocean Front Property
Randy Travis, Always and Forever
Hank Williams Jr., Born to Boogie
The classic project by legends Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt, and Emmylou Harris also won a CMA for Vocal Event and a Grammy for Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals.
The Judds, Rockin’ With the Rhythm
Ricky Skaggs, Live in London
George Strait, 7
Randy Travis, Storms of Life
Dwight Yoakam, Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc.
The neo-traditionalist movement at its peak, with a win by its standard-bearing artist with his standard-bearing debut album.
Alabama, 40 Hour Week
Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, and Kris Kristofferson, Highwayman
The Judds, Why Not Me
George Strait, Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind
Hank Williams Jr., Five-O
The only #1 hit from this album was the title track, but “The Fireman” and “The Cowboy Rides Away” have since become signature songs for the legendary artist.
Alabama, Roll On
Earl Thomas Conley, Don’t Make it Easy On Me
Ricky Skaggs, Don’t Cheat in Our Hometown
George Strait, Right or Wrong
Hank Williams Jr., Man of Steel
Their third victory in four years came on the strength of the hits “Roll On (Eighteen Wheeler)”, “If You’re Gonna Play in Texas (You Gotta Have a Fiddle in the Band)”, “(There’s a) Fire in the Night”, and “When We Make Love.”
Alabama, The Closer You Get…
John Anderson, Wild & Blue
Merle Haggard, Going Where the Lonely Go
Merle Haggard & Willie Nelson, Pancho & Lefty
Ricky Skaggs, Highways & Heartaches
Over a field of traditionalists old and new, the pop-country supergroup Alabama won their second Album award. In addition to the hit title track, The Closer You Get… included the hits “Lady Down on Love” and “Dixieland Delight.”
Alabama, Mountain Music
Willie Nelson, Always On My Mind
Kenny Rogers, Love Will Turn You Around
Ricky Skaggs, Waitin’ For the Sun to Shine
Don Williams, Listen to the Radio
Nelson’s biggest single powered the album of the same name to victory. It also included a pair of #2 hits: “Last Thing I Needed First Thing This Morning” and “Let it Be Me.”
Alabama, Feels So Right
Rosanne Cash, Seven Year Ache
George Jones, Still the Same Ole Me
Oak Ridge Boys, Fancy Free
Dolly Parton, 9 to 5 and Odd Jobs
With the exception of George Jones, all the nominees here enjoyed significant pop success with these projects. Alabama won their first trophy in this category with Feels So Right, which included the hit title track, “Old Flame”, and their biggest crossover hit, “Love in the First Degree.”
Charley Pride, There’s a Little Bit of Hank in Me
Kenny Rogers, Greatest Hits
Soundtrack, Coal Miner’s Daughter
Soundtrack, Urban Cowboy
Don Williams, I Believe in You
For all that it’s been maligned, the Urban Cowboy soundtrack does have a lot of classic hits on it. Some of them were recycled, like “Devil Went Down to Georgia” and “Lyin’ Eyes”, but some were introduced on the soundtrack, most notably Anne Murray’s “Could I Have This Dance” and Johnny Lee’s “Lookin’ For Love.”
Larry Gatlin, Straight Ahead
Emmylou Harris, Blue Kentucky Girl
Waylon Jennings, Greatest Hits
Willie Nelson, Willie Sings Kristofferson
Kenny Rogers, Kenny
Those of you wondering how on earth Larry Gatlin was the winner in this field should know that this was actually a platinum-selling album. Perhaps its big hit, “All the Gold in California”, endeared the project to west coast voters.
Ronnie Milsap, It Was Almost Like a Song
Anne Murray, Let’s Keep it That Way
Willie Nelson, Stardust
Oak Ridge Boys, Y’All Come Back Saloon
Kenny Rogers & Dottie West, Every Time Two Fools Collide
They had made several albums as gospel stars, but it was their first big country hit that fueled this win for Album of the Year.
Waylon Jennings, Ol’ Waylon
Dolly Parton, Here You Come Again
Elvis Presley, Moody Blue
Kenny Rogers, Kenny Rogers
Conway Twitty, Greatest Hits Vol. II
This self-titled album was renamed “Lucille” in later pressings to capitalize on its biggest hit.
Mickey Gilley, Gilley’s Smokin’
Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Jessi Colter, and Tompall Glaser, Wanted! The Outlaws
Loretta Lynn, Somebody Somewhere
Marty Robbins, El Paso City
Conway Twitty, Now and Then
Gilley’s winning album features his most well known hit, “Don’t the Girls All Get Prettier at Closing Time.” It’s the most recent album in the category’s history that hasn’t reached at least gold status.
Glen Campbell, Rhinestone Cowboy
Freddie Fender, Before the Next Teardrop Falls
Merle Haggard, Keep Movin’ On
Loretta Lynn & Conway Twitty, Feelins’
Willie Nelson, Red Headed Stranger
This shared award is the only Album trophy that either Lynn or Twitty won from the ACM or CMA, though Lynn did go on to win Best Country Album three decades later at the Grammys.
John Denver, Back Home Again
Merle Haggard, Merle Haggard Presents His 30th Album
Loretta Lynn, They Don’t Make ‘Em Like My Daddy
Cal Smith, Country Bumpkin
Bob Wills, For the Last Time
Denver’s biggest country album, it spent thirteen weeks atop the country album chart. The title track topped the chart, and “Annie’s Song” became a wedding standard.
Merle Haggard, I Love Dixie Blues…so I Recorded “Live” in New Orleans
Loretta Lynn, Love is the Foundation
Charlie Rich, Behind Closed Doors
Johnny Rodriguez, Introducing Johnny Rodriguez
Conway Twitty & Loretta Lynn, Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man
Rich’s classic set has sold four million copies, an unheard of tally for a country album from this time period. It didn’t hurt that the title track and “The Most Beautiful Girl” were crossover hits, with the latter actually topping the pop singles chart.
Mac Davis, Baby Don’t Get Hooked On Me
Donna Fargo, The Happiest Girl in the Whole U.S.A.
Merle Haggard, The Best of the Best of Merle Haggard
Merle Haggard, It’s Not Love (But It’s Not Bad)
Merle Haggard, Let Me Tell You About a Song
Freddie Hart, Bless Your Heart
Donna Fargo triumphed in a field of six albums, half of which were recorded by Merle Haggard! The Fargo set produced two million-selling singles – the title track and “Funny Face”.
Merle Haggard, Hag
Merle Haggard, Someday We’ll Look Back
Freddie Hart, Easy Loving
Ray Price, I Won’t Mention it Again
Charley Pride, Charley Pride Sings Heart Songs
The title track was a massive hit, helping Hart’s Easy Loving reach gold status and spend nine weeks atop the country albums chart.
Glen Campbell, The Glen Campbell Goodtime Album
Merle Haggard, The Fightin’ Side of Me
Merle Haggard, A Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World (or, My Salute to Bob Wills)
Ray Price, For the Good Times
Charley Pride, Charley Pride’s 10th Album
Who knows how many times Haggard could’ve won this award if he wasn’t nominated against himself? This year, Ray Price’s For the Good Times was the victor, thanks to the Kristofferson-penned title track.
Glen Campbell, Live
Johnny Cash, At Folsom Prison
Merle Haggard, Okie From Muskogee
Charley Pride, Best of Charley Pride
Tammy Wynette, Greatest Hits
Haggard’s only victory in this category was for a live album. Incidentally, he won over two other live albums and a pair of greatest hits sets.