This year’s eligibility period runs from July 1, 2008 to June 30, 2009. In those twelve months, there have been some solid albums released, and while there isn’t a wealth of treasures to choose from, there are enough good albums to round out this category.
Here are the five albums that I would nominate for Album of the Year:
Joey + Rory, The Life of a Song
The past twenty years have brought several excellent breakthrough albums by groups, especially those by Sugarland, Little Big Town, Brooks & Dunn, Diamond Rio, and Big & Rich. This set by Joey + Rory is better than all of them, and is selling quite well despite limited airplay.
Jamey Johnson, That Lonesome Song
It’s been nominated for ACM’s trophy and for the Best Country Album Grammy, but Johnson’s best shot at winning has always been with the traditional-leaning CMA voter membership. If both Sugarland and Taylor Swift secure a nod, he’s a shoo-in.
Patty Loveless, Sleepless Nights
We’re knee-deep in cover albums by veteran artists, but this is one of the best. Voters may be more likely to cite Lee Ann Womack’s latest, if they’re planning on nominating a traditional female at all, but this is the better album.
Brad Paisley, American Saturday Night
If Paisley were to win this, it would be deserved, as it’s possibly the best album of his career. His penchant for releasing albums in June might work against him, but hopefully voters will have a chance to live with this album before they fill out their ballots.
Sugarland, Love on the Inside
One of the best mainstream country albums of the decade, in my humble opinion. It’s certainly the first album since Home that I can listen to from start to finish and is wholeheartedly embraced by country radio. Okay, maybe since Live Like You Were Dying or Fireflies. But gosh, have there been few albums this decade that fit both descriptions.
What five albums do you think should be nominated this year?
The past two decades have only brought eight winners in the CMA Male Vocalist race, with only two of them – Toby Keith and Clint Black – winning only once. Compare this to the Female Vocalist race, which has brought twelve winners during the same time frame, though even that race has become more streaky of late, with Martina McBride and Carrie Underwood combining for seven victories in the past eleven years.
Is it time for an overhaul in the Male Vocalist race? Yes and no. There’s no denying that some of the multiple nominees/winners over the past nineteen years remain the genre’s strongest male voices. Still, there’s room for some others at the table. The problem is that there are so very few of the genre’s male artists that are genuinely at the top of their game. Even most of the men listed below have had weak singles this year.
Still, if I picked the five nominees for the 2009 CMA Male Vocalist of the Year, they would be:
If Johnson earns fewer than five nominations at this year’s CMA Awards, I’ll be shocked. In fact, I think he’ll earn six, with the surprise nomination being in this category. These aren’t predictions, though, so I’ll state that while I’m not particularly a fan of Johnson, his success at retail with a traditional project that has only received airplay for one single is darn impressive. Along with Brad Paisley, he’s one of only two artists I’ve listed that were determined by genuine merit, not process of elimination.
The genre’s most consistent radio act and the reigning champion for the past two years. In a stronger year, I would think it’s time to move on from acknowledging him in this category and consider him more for Entertainer of the Year, but he’s still the presumptive favorite in this race. At the very least, he deserves another nomination.
Too soon? Possibly. But replace his name with other candidates – say, Dierks Bentley, Jason Aldean, Gary Allan, Rodney Atkins, or Blake Shelton – if you think they made better music this year.
It’s hard to make the call about which perennial favorite – Alan Jackson or George Strait – deserves a shot this year, especially since neither of them are likely to contend for the win. “Sissy’s Song” is better than any of Strait’s singles this past year, but all of Strait’s are better than Jackson’s other two – “Country Boy” and “Good Time.” Seeing “I Still Like Bologna” sent to radio puts me firmly in Strait’s corner, whose “River of Love” and “Troubadour” brought me listening pleasure this year.
I don’t think that there’s a stronger singer in consistent rotation on country radio, even if his material has been slight this year. A case could be made for Tim McGraw or Toby Keith getting this slot instead, but they’re dealing with the same problem: weaker material than they’ve generally been known for.
Three weeks ago, I had a chance to chat with one of my favorite new acts, Joey +Rory. It has been over a year since their break through on CMT’s Can You Duet and several months since the release of their album The Life of A Song. So, Country Universe thought it would be a perfect time to catch up with them to see what’s been happening since the whirlwind of their recent success.
Not surprisingly, it was a pleasure to speak with them. They were very honest and down to earth. Along with telling us how they’re handling their new found fame, they didn’t shy away from expressing their feelings on current country music, songwriting and what they are and are not listening to these days.
How has life been since Can You Duet?
Joey: Well, in a lot of ways, in last year’s time, our lives have changed tremendously. But, also, in a lot of ways, we’re still the same in terms of our relationship, marriage and closeness. We’ve gone from having the farm out here and the little restaurant and Rory writing songs to being on the road visiting different cities every other night.
All the TV exposure has obviously heightened people’s awareness of who we are. We literally can hardly go anywhere without people knowing who we are in airports, gas stations and restaurants and places like that. I think in a sense all of a sudden we’re very recognizable and people want our autographs and pictures. So, that’s changed. It’s kind of been different for us to have that.
But as far as our relationship, we’re very much the same. We’re just as in love as we were a year and half ago. Our marriage is even stronger. There’s no more stress related to this because we get to do this together and travel everywhere together.
Rory: Our life here at home is just the same. There are more people that know us and when we go to the restaurant (the restaurant that Joey owns with Rory’s sister, Marcie), there are people from out of town that drive in all the time, but we’re the same. Everything’s exactly the same; it’s just expanded a lot.
Do you ever get frustrated by all the extra attention?
Joey: We’re really grateful for it. I think there’s times where life on the road can be very draining. Jetlag and everything else kind of comes with that. There are times when we might be completely tired and not want to be somewhere or feel like we just want to go to sleep. Sometimes, it is what it is. But we really appreciate it and we know it won’t always be this way. We just take it a day at a time. The fans are just fantastic. We have an opportunity to do our music, because we have fans. And we have people who want to meet us to tell us how we’ve impacted their lives. You know, if it weren’t for them buying our records and coming to our shows, we wouldn’t be able to be successful and do what we do. It’s all for them.
Joey, in your bio, you list The Judds as one of your major influences. I can even hear a young Wynona in your voice. What was it like to have Naomi as a judge? Was it more nerve wracking having someone you respect so much critique you?
Joey: We’d never met the Judds before the show. In fact, the very first concert I ever went to was, I think, when I was nine years old. My dad took me to a Judds concert in Indiana.
When we went and auditioned for the show, it wasn’t until we walked behind that curtain into the room that we knew who the judges were. You walk in and you’re taken back by it, but you can’t be at the same time, because you have a job to do. But throughout the whole show, Naomi was on our side from day one. She really liked what we did. She liked what we were, what we wore and our style of music. Coming from her, it was so well respected. You know, we all had to kind of critique ourselves and kind of take into account that everybody’s different, everybody has opinions. You just show up the next day and you just try to take it in and make those adjustments.
But for the most part, it was just a thrill to be around her. She had such an energy and presence in the room. Since the TV show she’s come to the restaurant. She’s featured in our “Cheater, Cheater” video. She’s been very supportive. I just received a letter from her, a card, two days ago, since we were on the CMT Awards. We’ve been to her house several times. I mean, we feel like we’re all just one big family now. It’s been an amazing year.
My favorite artist is Vince Gill and to have him just hanging out in my living room is just something I can’t even imagine.
Rory: Our daughter is an aspiring singer-songwriter. So, they had a big event about three nights ago that was sort of like “famous fathers and their daughters.” It was Heidi and me and Vince Gill and his daughter, Jenny and some other people. It was really a thrill. I was just like you. I’m a humongous Vince Gill fan. There’s a lack of realness I see in people. There’s lots of talent and a lot of hard work, but he’s one of those people that always seems like a real, average, everyday guy with extraordinary talent and a real big heart. I just loved seing him and he was wonderful. It was our first time meeting him. He really gushed over Joey and Joey’s voice. So, he was aware of us. Of course, we’re tickled by that. I’m like you, if he was in our living room this evening, having dinner and visiting…that would be a thrill.
I admit that I didn’t actually watch Can You Duet when it originally aired, because I didn’t really know much about it until after the big hype that surrounded it on some blogs. As you may already know, the world of blogging can be pretty harsh, but you guys managed to be very well liked throughout the run of the show. But it wasn’t really until I read that you had signed with Sugar Hill Records that I took a sudden interest. How did that marriage come together?
Rory: First off, we had a pretty strong sense that we weren’t going to win, even before the show was over. We just were not a major market act. Actually, we are a mainstream act. But mainstream has turned so far that people who are mainstream acts have to go somewhere else. And people that are rock acts, pop acts, they’re now all of a sudden mainstream acts or what mainstream labels want.
At the time of the show, we were under contract with RCA and Sony, since the final five were all under contract with them. When we knew we didn’t win, we asked Rene Bell right away if she was going to pick up the option to keep us and she said “No. We’re only going to focus on this one act (winners, Caitlin & Will).” She said, “You guys are free to go and do whatever you want.” So, they released us. American Idol, who also had us under contract because of the show, released us as well.
I’m an independent guy anyway. We have our own Indy record label that we started a few years ago called Giantslayer Records and we broke anew artist named Blaine Larsen. We created and put up his record, put it out and broke him into mainstream. So, we’ve really been working in that world for a long time. The one thing I knew was that we couldn’t champion ourselves. So, we were immediately thinking about Indy labels. I brought up Vanguard to a very good friend of mine and he had a relationship with the people there. He said that he’d be glad to call them. So, he did and it turns out that Vanguard and Sugar Hill were interested in getting involved in mainstream country. We had had a lot of exposure and they got up to speed on it quickly and they thought that we were authentic at the same time that we were commercial. It seemed like a good marriage and a good step into this mainstream world for them. So, we just sort of shook hands over the phone, cut our single, cut our record, put our record out. Our single was in the top 40 and our album was in stores before we actually had flown to L.A. and signed our record deal with them. They were just that trusting and able to work that part just on our word. So, it’s been a great marriage. We love ‘em; we really, really do.
When you went in to record, did you already have a vision for the sound of the record or was it highly influenced by the sounds of Vanguard/Sugar Hill’s previous output? Would your record sound the way it does no matter what company you were with?
Rory: It would have been this way. They really didn’t have any input on our producer or the songs, the sound or anything else. We had met Carl Jackson a long time before and we had wanted Carl to produce Joey anyway. Then we just sort of by accident became a duo for this TV show. So, Carl said, “Well, gosh, I’ll just produce both of you.” He’s a fan of my songwriting and I’m a fan of his. Both Joey and I love Carl’s production. He had done a record on Bradley Walker that’s one of our favorite records in five years—mostly the sounds and songs and everything. You know, we knew what we wanted to do a hundred percent. We’d never recorded with Carl, so the sound happened because of Carl, but he had the particular way of doing it. He’s very vocal heavy and very acoustic instrument heavy and that’s exactly what we wanted and wanted to be a part of. So, it wasn’t the Indy label influence at all for the sound of the album. What it was, I think, is that they recognized that’s what we were going to do. I think they realized that it was going to fit in their world also.
I was excited about Sugar Hill, but I was also excited about Carl Jackson, knowing of his previous work. Earlier, you mentioned Blaine Larsen. I know that he’s cut some of your songs, Rory. Is there a difference between the songs that you pitch to other people versus the songs that Joey + Rory would record?
Rory: Well, the only difference is there was never a Joey + Rory and so I’ve always just written songs. A lot of them I’ve put my heart and soul into and our lives into, but those songs are just largely ignored at all times, because they have some personal element or they’re not radio friendly. Whatever that is. The only difference is that we’re much more willing to be honest as artists than artists who would, maybe, cut our songs. No one’s willing to cut “Play the Song.” No one’s going to cut a number of songs that we have, like even “Cheater, Cheater.” So, it’s the same songwriting; it’s just that it’s more like we’re willing to be more honest, I think, and outside the box.
But now that we are a duo, we all the sudden do want to, not just by chance, write things that have part of our story and our heart and soul in it. Because that’s the way it would have been in the past. I would be writing songs really hoping Tim McGraw or someone else would cut the song and, hopefully, it would have some of what’s important to me in it. But now, all the sudden, we have the opportunity to write a hundred percent of what’s important to you, that you think is relatable to other people. You don’t have to wonder, is it relatable to Tim McGraw or to Sugarland. That’s not even an interest anymore. It’s like, we’ll just write a hundred percent from our perspective. That’s a very, very freeing thing for us.
Yeah, I imagine… Who are you listening to these days in country music? Assuming that you are listening to anybody in country music.
Rory: I listened to a bunch of albums here, recently, a bunch of new release albums that I personally thought were okay or not okay, somewhere in there, but okay. Then, the other day, I just got online and I downloaded an album that Carl Jackson had produced on Alecia Nugent. And I’d never even heard an Alecia Nugent record. We’ve met her, but we’ve never heard one. It just blew my mind, because it’s just like our record. It’s got the same kind of sound, same kind of production and it’s got a real focus of great songs on it, and great singing and great harmony. That’s what I’m listening to, because, in my opinion, it’s head and shoulders above all the other production and artistry that I’ve heard in the last six months.
Mainstream wise, we love Josh Turner and, basically, the really country things like…
Joey: Lee Ann Womack, Jamey Johnson
Rory, Yeah, yeah.
Joey: They’re very acoustic or they’re very country sounding and very traditional. That’s what we kind of lean toward.
Rory: What do you listen to now, Love?
Joey: I’d say I listen to Bradley Walker all the time. He’s a nice bluegrass artist that Carl Jackson did a record on.
We actually heard the new Holly Williams album. It was really, really great.
Rory: We really liked that.
Joey: we really did. We’re excited for her.
I discovered Bradley Walker, because Vince Gill sang on his record. In fact, I’ve discovered a lot of good music that way. So, maybe you guys could invite Vince to sing on your next album…just an unsolicited suggestion…something to think about (laughs).
Rory: (laughs) Yeah, that’d be great. Carl can probably make it happen. Maybe we’ll also invite Emmylou.
That would be awesome. That’s actually one of my favorite songs on your album. It’s gorgeous. There’s a lot to choose from, of course, but…
Rory: Thank You.
I already think I know the answer judging by our conversation today, but I have to ask: Is Joey + Rory a permanent act now? You’re not going to go back to doing your own things after this record, are you?
Joey: No, no. I tried for a long time to be a solo artist, because I never knew that there would be a platform for a married duo, a married couple. You know, it wasn’t something that Rory had wanted in the last twelve years. But now that we’re doing this together and traveling everywhere together, I would not have any desire to do this on my own or just go out in solo. We’re a duo in life because of our marriage and it just carries on into our careers; I think it’s the way it’s supposed to be.
Rory: I feel the same way. I really feel like this is her career and her opportunity and God has just given me a huge opportunity to be part of it. You know, I’m thrilled to death and having a great time. I think that we do have something special that we didn’t even know that we had. We’re having a good time spinning our wheels out there on the road, playing for people and we’re getting ready to do some more recording soon.
Well, I suppose it’s time to let you go. I just want to end by saying that I, along with many of the Country Universe readers, am a huge fan. So, I’m really glad that we had a chance to chat today and thank you for your time.
Joey: It was really nice to meet you. Hopefully, we’ll be able to come up to your neck of the woods, sometime.
Rory: It was sure nice to talk with you. Have a great morning.
It’s time for an album sales update, our first since May 23. Brad Paisley is off to a strong start with American Saturday Night, selling 130k in its first week. That’s about 70k less than his previous two studio albums – Time Well Wasted and 5th Gear – opened with, but not a terrible drop-off, considering the state of the music market.
Meanwhile, the new studio albums by Rascal Flatts and Keith Urban are slowing down considerably, now being outpaced on a weekly basis by 2008 releases by Taylor Swift, Zac Brown Band, Darius Rucker and Lady Antebellum.
Among younger acts with a new album in 2009, the most impressive sales are coming from Jason Aldean, while 2008 releases from Kellie Pickler, Billy Currington, and Randy Houser are showing new signs of life.
Biggest disappointments? It’s hard not to look in the direction of Martina McBride, who has barely cleared the 100k mark on her new studio set. Lee Ann Womack’s 2008 set just made it over that mark, too. Then again, one only needs to have sold 455 copies to make the chart this week, with the anchor position going to Wynonna with that total. Her covers album Sing – Chapter 1 has sold 41k to date.
Here are the latest totals for albums released over the past three years that are still charting:
Rascal Flatts, Unstoppable – 842,000
Keith Urban, Defying Gravity – 452,000
Jason Aldean, Wide Open – 384,000
Kenny Chesney, Greatest Hits II – 281,000
Dierks Bentley, Feel That Fire – 219,000
Martina McBride, Shine – 104,000
John Rich, Son of a Preacher Man – 103,000
Eric Church, Carolina – 94,000
Rodney Atkins, It’s America – 88,000
Jake Owen, Easy Does It – 81,000
Randy Travis, I Told You So: Ultimate Hits – 78,000
Montgomery Gentry, For Our Heroes – 64,000
Willie Nelson & Asleep at the Wheel, Willie & The Wheel – 56,000
Steve Earle, Townes – 47,000
Colt Ford, Ride Through the Country – 45,000
Jason Michael Carroll, Growing Up is Getting Old – 45,000
Wynonna, Sing – Chapter 1 – 41,000
Hank Williams Jr. – 127 Rose Avenue – 34,000
Ryan Bingham, Roadhouse Sun – 15,000
Tracy Lawrence, Rock – 11,000
Darryl Worley, Sounds Like Life – 8,000
Holly Williams, Here With Me – 5,000
Charlie Robison, Beautiful Day – 3,000
Tanya Tucker, My Turn – 3,000
Taylor Swift, Fearless – 3,464,000
Sugarland, Love on the Inside – 1,683,000
George Strait, Troubadour – 914,000
Alan Jackson, Good Time – 869,000
Darius Rucker, Learn to Live – 754,000
Kenny Chesney, Lucky Old Sun – 721,000
Zac Brown Band, Foundation – 681,000
Rascal Flatts, Greatest Hits Vol. 1 – 680,000
Lady Antebellum, Lady Antebellum – 674,000
Toby Keith, 35 Biggest Hits – 652,000
Jamey Johnson, That Lonesome Song – 509,000
Toby Keith, That Don’t Make Me a Bad Guy – 403,000
James Otto, Sunset Man – 374,000
Julianne Hough, Julianne Hough – 314,000
Kellie Pickler, Kellie Pickler – 261,000
Dierks Bentley, Greatest Hits – 255,000
Brad Paisley, Play – 247,000
Dolly Parton, Backwoods Barbie – 208,000
Tim McGraw, Greatest Hits Vol. 3 – 206,000
Billy Currington, Little Bit of Everything – 191,000
Trace Adkins, X – 185,000
Montgomery Gentry, Back When I Knew it All – 184,000
Joey + Rory, Life of a Song – 167,000
Blake Shelton, Startin’ Fires – 165,000
Eli Young Band, Jet Black and Jealous – 108,000
Lee Ann Womack, Call Me Crazy – 102,000
Craig Morgan, Greatest Hits – 81,000
Hank Williams III, Damn Right Rebel Proud – 80,000
with most of this year’s strongest-selling albums being holdovers from 2008. While Rascal Flatts, Jason Aldean, and Keith Urban have sold strongly, the chart remains dominated by last year’s releases from Taylor Swift, Sugarland, Zac Brown Band, Lady Antebellum, Darius Rucker, and Jamey Johnson.
So what’s left for 2009? Here’s what we know so far:
Carrie Underwood will release her third studio album on November 3, with a lead single going to radio this fall. Her previous set, Carnival Ride, is nearing sales of 3 million, and produced four #1 singles and a #2 single, all five of which were certified gold in their own right.
George Strait will release Twang on August 11. It’s the follow-up to his 33rd platinum album Troubadour, a set which produced his 43rd #1 single and earned him the first Grammy of his career, along with a pair of CMA trophies (Single and Album)
Miranda Lambert is readying Revolution for September 29. Lead single “Dead Flowers” is struggling at radio, but that’s never slowed her down at retail anyway.
Reba McEntire’s Valory debut Keep on Lovin’ You arrives August 18. Lead single “Strange” is approaching the top ten.
Willie Nelson releases another standards collection called American Classic on August 25.
Rosanne Cash will release The List, a covers album, on October 6.
Sarah Darling releases Every Monday Morning on July 28.
Mac McAnally’s Show Dog debut – Down By the River – comes out on August 4. McAnally recently scored a big hit teaming up with Kenny Chesney on “Down the Road”, and was the co-writer on several classic Sawyer Brown singles like “All These Years” and “Thank God For You.”
Mindy Smith releases Stupid Love on August 11.
Radney Foster and The Confessions release Revival on September 1, with guest appearances by Dierks Bentley and Darius Rucker.
Chris Young releases The Man I Want to Be on September 1.
Reissues and Compilations
Brooks & Dunn release the 30-track #1 Hits…and Then Some on September 8. Track listing here. The set is preceded by lead single “Indian Summer.” The duo’s previous set, Cowboy Town, was their first to fall short of gold certification. The new hits compilation is similar in set up to top-selling collections by George Strait, Toby Keith and Reba McEntire in recent years.
Wounded Bird just released 2-albums-on-1-CD collections for Kris Kristofferson on July 7. Eight albums are included from his 1972-1981 output
A pair of Tommy Cash’s albums from 1970 will combine on one CD on July 21; Tommy is the younger brother of Johnny Cash
Hank Snow’s 1958 album When Tragedy Struck is being remastered and reissued on August 11.
I’ll be picking up many of the above releases, but I have to say that I’m most looking forward to picking up all of the remastered Beatles albums and the Madonna anthology this fall.
What releases are you most looking forward to in the second half of 2009?
The following is a guest contribution from Scott O’Brien.
“But someone killed tradition. And for that someone should hang.” –Larry Cordle & Larry Shell, “Murder on Music Row”
Dan Milliken’s recent post got me thinking: The country music I grew up with is nothing like the music on country radio today. If I turned on today’s country radio in 1988, I might not realize it was a country station and keep right on flipping. Back then, Randy Travis and Keith Whitley’s traditional twang ruled the airwaves. Today, they are dominated by the giggly teeny-bopper ditties of Taylor Swift and the boy band sounds of Rascal Flatts. Did they get away with murder on music row? Well, let’s start by briefly uncovering country’s traditional roots.
What is traditional country music? Is it simply anything from the past? That seems too broad; Shania Twain wasn’t traditional. Anything that isn’t pop? Maybe, but that is still a rather wide and subjective net. To me, traditional country music is honky tonk music. It heavily employs steel guitars, fiddles, and forlorn vocals. It moves at a slow pace. There are no drums or electric guitars. The songs typically deal with heavy topics such as heartbreak, cheating, or drinking, with a ballad here and there. In most cases, the goal is to induce pain. Not bad pain, but the therapeutic empathy that tugs your heart and helps you through your personal struggles. The patron saint of traditional country is Hank Williams. Hank’s first disciple is George Jones. Jones’ first disciple is Alan Jackson. The traditional template is supposed to help us decipher what is country and what is not. After all, what makes country music country if not fiddles and cheatin’ songs?
These days, traditionalists have a legitimate beef. When you turn on the radio, you don’t hear much steel guitar. Instead, you hear what might pass for 1990s pop, replete with fluffy repetitive lyrics, catchy drum beats, guitar riffs, and sex appeal. We aren’t preserving country music when the CMT Music Awards feature the B-52s and Def Leppard in lieu of John Anderson and Charley Pride. Was there a tribute to recently deceased traditionalist Vern Gosdin? No way. Do today’s artists “tear your heart out when they sing”? Not a chance. Is Keith Urban going to fill Conway Twitty’s shoes? Not a prayer. You know we are in trouble when pop-infused zipwire-flier Garth Brooks sounds more like Merle Haggard than today’s stars. Heck, just listen to Taylor Swift’s latest album. If that is country, I’ll kiss your ass. Nashville, we have a problem.
But let’s not go off the deep end just yet. Maybe traditionalists are thinking about things too narrowly. Country music is much more than Webb Pierce’s raw steel guitar-laden crooning. It always has been. Going back before Hank to the First Family of Country Music, the Carter family sound was an amalgam of several different sub-genres including Appalachian old-time, folk, and gospel. Jimmie Rodgers, the Father of Country Music, blended elements of jazz, gospel, old-time and blues to create some of the first country sounds. Marty Robbins played just about every musical style conceivable. Traditionalist hero Elvis Presley sang rockabilly. Johnny Cash had similar beginnings and even years later there was nothing “traditional” about his trademark up-tempo bass beat. Waylon Jennings’ music incorporated Buddy Holly’s rock-n-roll rhythm; he even wrote a song about how un-Hank-like his music was. Merle Haggard’s Bob Wills-inspired Bakersfield sound used amps and electric guitars. Even 1980s ACM Artist of the Decade Alabama shunned the steel guitar altogether and typically sang up-tempo, feel-good music. Yet these names are among the most venerated by traditionalists. What gives?
The problem is that traditionalists aren’t even sure what traditional country is. If it includes all artists who sold country records without crossing over to pop, the label is not very helpful. If it is strictly honky tonk, do we really want a bunch of Hank Williams clones? As great as he was, we surely do not. There has to be some updating – just ask Alan Jackson, who has innovated the traditionalist motif without sacrificing his authenticity. The genre has to evolve or it risks becoming boring and repetitive. Waylon Jennings understood this well (“It’s the same old tune, fiddle and guitar/Where do we take it from here?”). Hank Williams’ own son realized it too after trying for years to replicate his father’s sound. His song “Young Country” directly attacked the tradition-or-else mentality: “We like some of the old stuff/We like some of the new/But we do our own choosing/We pick our own music/If you don’t mind, thank you.” He is right. Why draw lines? Strict uniformity is not desirable in any genre, particularly country, whose trademark is its diversity of influences, instruments, rhythms, voices, song topics, and stories.
So what should define today’s country music? It should pay tribute to the past by incorporating and updating its unique fusion of diverse influences. It doesn’t have to be strictly “traditional.” But country music needs to capture the sentiments of rural and working class America. It needs to cover painful topics like drinking and cheating. It needs to tell colorful stories. It needs to tear your heart out sometimes. It also needs to make you feel good sometimes. What it shouldn’t do is become pop music. When country is indistinguishable from Top 40, it loses its soul. Unfortunately, this has happened with the Keith Urbans, Rascal Flatts, and Taylor Swifts – all talented artists to be sure. But country artists? Not so much. Still, there are old warhorses like George Strait who carry the torch and newcomers like Jamey Johnson who give us hope that country’s soul will stay alive and well.
There is really no new way to pontificate on the fascinating longevity of George Strait’s career. Many, including myself, have speculated regarding the many possible reasons behind his staying power, but it is more than likely that many of the factors that we have already considered could be easily applied to other artists with lesser careers to show for it. Therefore, the consensus that can be agreed upon by most everyone is that George Strait is consistent. In the last three decades, without being loud or splashy in any way, Strait has consistently remained a vibrant country music artist, both on the charts and in concert sales. As a result, he is one of the most respected, if not intriguing, artists in the business.
On May 27, the Academy of Country Music honored George Strait as their Artist of the Decade in a two-hour CBS special. The show consisted of many of today’s biggest artists paying homage to Strait by singing the songs of the Man of Honor.
Unlike most tribute shows, this show moved along at a reasonably fast clip with few over-dramatic or slick moments to weigh it down, which was highly appropriate considering the man who was being honored that night.
The show opened with a rousing version of Strait’s Cajun flavored “Adalida” ably performed by Sugarland. Jennifer Nettle’s exaggerated drawl, while very different from Strait’s laid back vocals, gave the song energy and seemed to be a wise way to invigorate the crowd. Other energetic performances included a rocked-up version of “All My Exes Live in Texas” by Jack Ingram, which was fun but lacked the whimsical charm of Strait’s western swing flavored interpretation. Alan Jackson did a faithful steel laden cover of “The Fireman”, which is always sung at events such as these, though it’s certainly not one of Strait’s most interesting classics.
In probably one of the most disappointing performances of the night, Dierks Bentley, who is typically an intriguing vocalist, offered a weak and strained “Blue Clear Sky”, which, sadly, happens to be one of my favorite Strait songs. John Rich did not fare much better with his lifeless, uninspired rendering of one of Strait’s most revered hits, “Amarillo by Morning.” Instead of sounding like a professional, he more easily fit in with the Nashville Star contestants that he judged last summer who, incidentally, only sounded like decent karaoke singers at their best. In the not-as-bad-as-Rich-or-Bentley-but-still-not-very-memorable category was Brooks & Dunn. Their cover of “The Cowboy Rides Away” was fine, but it also lacked Strait’s easy charisma.
While most of this tribute show stuck rather closely to Strait’s own interpretations, there were a couple performances that tried to change things up a bit. As mentioned earlier, Jack Ingram added light rock to “All My Exes Live in Texas” and the other innovator was Jamie Foxx with a soulful cover of “You Look So Good in Love.” As someone who cannot fully appreciate R&B, it was difficult for me to get into his performance, though I could at least tell it was solid. Along with the R&B slant, Foxx changed Strait’s original regret filled monologue to an amusing “what does he got that I don’t?” diatribe. And we won’t even get into Foxx’s insistence that Strait’s singing is “sexy.”
As a diversion to the songs of George Strait, the past Artists of the Decade were honored throughout the show as well. Faith Hill did a respectable cover of Loretta Lynn’s “You Ain’t Woman Enough”, Martina McBride aptly covered Garth Brook’s “The Dance” and Montgomery Gentry rocked out with Alabama’s “Mountain Music.” One of the best performances of the evening, however, was Keith Urban’s tribute to Marty Robbins, which was in the form of a fabulous medley of three of Robbins’ beloved hits, including “Singing the Blues” (one of my favorite Robbins songs) “El Paso” and “A White Sport Coat (And A Pink Carnation)” (my all time favorite Robbins song). Urban’s performance proved that he is a master at singing country music, which only left me longing even more for hints of country sounds to show up on his most recent albums.
The person who was involved in the best performances of the show was Lee Ann Womack. With Jamey Johnson providing the speaking parts of “Give It Away”, Womack gave the female perspective of the song. The two voices melded perfectly together to reveal a possible duet partnership for the future that would surely be welcomed by many. In addition to her duet with Johnson, Womack sang a surprise song for Strait that was specifically written for the night called “Stand There And Sing.” While it would not necessarily be a standout song in a non-Strait centric environment, it was a moving tribute to George Strait’s simple charismatic entertaining style of “just standing there and singing”, which is something that he’s often criticized for doing.
As is supposedly the tradition of the Academy’s tribute shows, the previous Artist of the Decade passes the torch onto the newly anointed artist, which is what Garth Brooks did for George Strait. Brooks appropriately acknowledged the irony of this act, as he regaled the audience with the story of what inspired him to become a country music singer/entertainer, which just happened to include George Strait. After “the torch” was passed, George Strait showed us all why he so richly deserved the honor. He humbly thanked and praised the show’s participants for their contributions and for giving up their precious time to pay tribute to him. Then he sang “Ocean Front Property” and ended with “Troubadour” with the help of the entire cast of the show.
After a season of awards shows that have been disappointing at best, this tribute show was happily refreshing. Because they had great songs to work with from a man who can’t help but respected, the show was bound to be an easy success. Much like George Strait himself, the show was laid back without feeling stale. Everyone seemed genuinely honored to be there, even if some of their performances missed the mark here and there.
At times, I admittedly take George Strait for granted. I all too often forget what a huge fan of his I was in the nineties when I first entered the world of country music. Fortunately though, I spend more time in awe of his thirty year career and the grace with which he conducts himself. In “Troubadour” Strait concluded by singing, “I was a young troubadour, when I rode in on a song./And I’ll be an old troubadour when I’m gone“, which he followed by saying, “Not anytime soon, I hope.”
Dolly Parton, Backwoods Barbie: Parton's most recent album, which finds her embracing contemporary country styles more fully than she has in recent years. There's some fluff in this package, but some very solid songwriting, too.
Grateful Dead, American Beauty: Supposedly, it's one of the best country-influenced rock albums ever. I haven't heard it yet myself because a few sources have insisted it I make a proper experience of it.
And the page is well worth checking out for the non-country deals, too. Amazon even has the stereo version of The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds, universally acknowledged as one of the best, most important albums ever, for $1.99 here.
“Love, love, love, love…” crazy love? Unfortunately, no. There is a brief moment at the beginning of “Dreaming Love” where you think Kate & Kacey might break into Van Morrison’s “Crazy Love.” But no, we’re not that fortunate.
Kate & Kacey do have some songwriting chops. In fact, they have a co-write with Jamey Johnson coming out on George Strait’s upcoming album. However, “Dreaming Love” is not a shimmering display of those abilities. Overall, the song is plagued with a pretty but forgettable tune (slightly reminiscent in parts of Heidi Newfield’s “Johnny and June”), decidedly unmemorable vocals and unimaginative lyrics expounding on that n’er-written-about subject, love.
In some ways, “Dreaming Love” feels like the beginning of the “Taylor Swift era” in country music, where young female singer-songwriters inspired by Swift’s success share their diaries with the world through heartfelt lyrics and music that has a hint of country but would never be out of place on a Disney soundtrack. The funny thing is, this song would not only be more interesting with Swift singing, but you know she would have written a more interesting song to begin with … who da thunk?