Here we have one of the most gifted vocalists in the history of country music, searching in vain for her voice. The trend has been going on for some time now, and if this isn’t its apex, we’re in for a long and bumpy ride. Not since her days with Mercury has McEntire ever tried so hard to fit in with the current sound on country radio, and much like those early records, this trend-chasing set is both overprocessed and underdeveloped.
What can you say about a woman of McEntire’s age and stature covering Beyoncé? How can one take seriously her references to Twitter and “kicking it” with the guys? One one track, she talks about meeting an old man on the plane who is mourning Chelsea, the love of his life who has since passed on. She dreams about being “Somebody’s Chelsea.” How can a woman in her mid-fifties not have something substantial to add to a conversation with this man?
Everything takes place in the distant future here, and truth be told, this would be a pretty good Kellie Pickler album. But in adopting the voice of the younger generation of ladies, McEntire becomes the student when she should really be the teacher.
At her peak, McEntire gave voice to the everyday woman. On classics like “Only in My Mind”, “Whoever’s in New England”, and “Is There Life Out There”, she put into words what women were really thinking but were conditioned not to say.
Which is why when McEntire suddenly taps that vein in two of the album’s closing tracks, it’s like a sudden jolt to the system. “The Day She Got Divorced” is vivid and real, with lyrical imagery that would make Jeannie C. Riley proud. Just as good is the album’s beautiful closing track, “When You Have a Child,” where McEntire catalogs all of the conflicting emotions a mother feels from the time her child is born to when they’re leaving home.
You know why it works? Because McEntire has the life experience to back it up. It’s actually age-appropriate, and it’s tremendously powerful as a result. None of the younger artists she’s chasing the sound of could pull it off, but McEntire effortlessly knocks it out of the park.
Here’s the deal. These days, there is no shortage of young women with barely any life experience who have the whole world hanging on every word they say. McEntire doesn’t need to lower herself to that level, just so she can be heard. As the best moments on All the Women I Am prove, she’s more authoritative when speaking for her own generation than she can ever be by adopting the viewpoints of the young’uns who aren’t that interesting to begin with. Music by adults, for adults please.
During the nineties boom, there was a mad rush to get the catalog of older country artists available on CD. For older country albums, this wasn’t always the best approach. Many of these discs had only ten tracks, so even with a handful of bonus songs, the entire running time could still be under 40 minutes. Some labels took the smart approach of pairing two albums to one disc, but for the most part, it was landmark albums or lengthy compilation discs.
The digital age has finally made it both practical and affordable to get those old albums. Vintage sets are now available from legends like Merle Haggard and Glen Campbell, and even not quite legends like Jeannie C. Riley. But there are still some glaring omissions that need to become more readily available.
Topping my wish list is Evangeline by Emmylou Harris. Some tracks were included on her box sets, but the bulk of this album, the last one by Harris to gold, remains unavailable. Given that among those tracks is “I Don’t Have to Crawl” and “Oh Atlanta”, it’s really time to get a move on.
What albums would you like to be reissued, either as a CD or digital download?
While the Grammys have honored country music from the very first ceremony in 1959, they did not begin honoring by gender until 1965, when the country categories were expanded along with the other genre categories.
This is a look back at the Best Female Country Vocal Performance category. It was first awarded in 1965, an included single competing with albums until the Best Country Album category was added in 1995. When an album is nominated, it is in italics, and a single track is in quotation marks.
I’ve often made the case that female artists were making the best music in the 1990s, and the Grammys did a great job nominating songs and albums that were ignored at the CMA and ACM awards, which is not surprising, given that those shows have so few categories that are actually for songs and albums.
As usual, we start with a look at this year’s nominees and work our way back.
Martina McBride, “For These Times”
LeAnn Rimes, “What I Cannot Change”
Carrie Underwood, “Last Name”
Lee Ann Womack, “Last Call”
Trisha Yearwood, “This is Me You’re Talking To”
This year’s lineup includes three former winners and two women looking for their first victory in this category. Martina McBride is in the running for the eighth time in fifteen years, and with one of her more understated performances. Lee Ann Womack returns for a fifth time, having received a nomination for the lead single of her five most recent albums. Both ladies turned in good performances here, but they’ve been overlooked for records bigger and better, so they’re not likely to snap their losing streaks this time around.
As for the previous winners, LeAnn Rimes earned her third consecutive nod, bringing her total to five in this category. She hasn’t won since 1997, when she took home the award for “Blue.” If enough voters hear “What I Cannot Change,” she might have a shot, though the only version of the song that’s been a legitimate hit has been the dance remix.
Trisha Yearwood won in 1998 for “How Do I Live,” her only victory to date. But she’s earned her tenth nomination for “This is Me You’re Talking To,” which is arguably her strongest vocal performance of the ten. Like Rimes, the challenge is getting enough voters to listen to it, but she’s never been more deserving of the victory than she is this year.
Still, the favorite remains Carrie Underwood. She’s quickly become a favorite with Grammy voters, having won this category two years running, along with Best New Artist in 2007. She’s the nominee with the highest profile, and while “Last Name” is nowhere near the same league of “Jesus, Take the Wheel” and “Before He Cheats” in terms of artistry or impact, it was a big hit, something that the other four entries cannot claim.
If Underwood was nominated for “Just a Dream,” she’d have a mortal lock on this one. But the strength of the other nominees will at least keep this race competitive. If Underwood prevails, Grammy queen Alison Krauss better watch her back.
Alison Krauss, “Simple Love”
Miranda Lambert, “Famous in a Small Town”
LeAnn Rimes, “Nothin’ Better to Do”
Carrie Underwood, “Before He Cheats”
Trisha Yearwood, “Heaven, Heartache and the Power of Love”
Looking at this lineup, you’d think that it was a golden age of female country artists, something akin to the mid-nineties. In reality, only one of these songs was a big radio hit, though three others managed to go top twenty. In terms of quality, however, this is the most consistent and thoroughly wonderful set of nominees this category has seen this century. You’d have to go back to exactly 1999 to find a better lineup.
In a year when any winner would have been deserving, Underwood won for “Before He Cheats,” her second straight win for a signature mega-hit from her debut album.
Earlier this year, the Grammys celebrated their fiftieth anniversary with a series of compilations focusing on winners in different fields. Two of the best entries in this series focused on country music. With five decades of winners to choose from, it’s no surprise that Ultimate Grammy Collection: Classic Country and Ultimate Grammy Collection: Contemporary Country are solid collections.
The Classic Country set is particularly strong, including a diverse selection of significant artists from the sixties and seventies. Even better, most of them are represented with their signature tracks. Roger Miller opens the set with “King of the Road”, easily his biggest hit. Other superstars include Tammy Wynette (“Stand By Your Man”), Johnny Cash (“A Boy Named Sue”) and Waylon & Willie (“Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys.”)
As the collection moves on to the seventies and eighties, there is a healthy portion of pop-country classics from the likes of Kenny Rogers (“The Gambler”), Dolly Parton (“9 to 5″), Crystal Gayle (“Don’t it Make My Brown Eyes Blue”) and Willie Nelson (“Always on My Mind”). In the midst of that crossover sound, however, there’s a healthy dose of traditional country, courtesy of George Jones with “He Stopped Loving Her Today.”
That Jones track is the only one that wouldn’t be familiar to fans that buy the set because they remember those crossover hits, even though it’s a country classic. They might also revel in the discovery of Ray Price (“For the Good Times”) and Jerry Reed (“When You’re Hot, You’re Hot”), which were both AM radio staples back when top 40 regularly played country records. The set also includes mega-hits from Charlie Daniels Band, Lynn Anderson, Donna Fargo and Jeannie C. Riley. The only real misstep is the inclusion of Johnny Cash & June Carter’s “If I Were a Carpenter”, an unnecessary inclusion that was no doubt shoehorned in because of lingering sentiment for all things Cash. That slot would’ve been better represented with Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn’s “After the Fire is Gone.”
Tom T. Hall, one of the finest storytellers ever in country music, tells tales of great insight and description that have earned him a place among Nashville’s songwriting elite. His sense of clarity and an offbeat style have translated into true respect and admiration in Music City.
Hall, the son of a bricklaying minister, began learning music from an early age. At age 11, his mother died, and our years later his father was shot in a hunting accident. In order to support himself and his father, Hall quit school and took a job in a local garment factory. While he was working in the factory, he formed his first band, the Kentucky Travelers. In 1957, Hall enlisted in the Army and was stationed in Germany. While in Germany, he performed at local NCO clubs on the Armed Forces Radio Network, where he sang mostly original material. After four years of service, he was discharged in 1961. Once he returned to the States, he enrolled in Roanoke College as a journalism major and also took a job as a DJ at a local radio station.
#16: Jeannie C. Riley
“Harper Valley, P.T.A.”
At the peak of her powers, Jeannie C. Riley was enjoying the success of her small-town story song “Harper Valley P.T.A.” in the fall of 1968. But her handlers insisted on a sexually-charged image, one with which Riley disagreed. When she was nominated for several CMA awards that year, the first year the show aired live on television, Riley raged with disgust when her manager Shelby Singleton ordered her to wear a mini-skirt to attract attention.
“Harper Valley P.T.A.” written by Tom T. Hall, is the ultimate in story songs. A career-changing hit single for Jeannie C. Riley in 1968, it introduced the world to a small-town environment filled with gossip and a woman not afraid to stand up to her know-it-all critics.
This absorbing story was written by Hall of Famer Tom T. Hall. In an interview, Hall states that his inspiration for the song was passing by the Harpeth Valley Elementary School in Bellevue, Tennessee, and that he built the song around the school name. Jeannie C. Riley, who served as songwriter Jerry Chesnut’s secretary, heard the song and recorded it herself with the help of producer Shelby Singleton.
Although the account is purely fictional, it brims with true-to-life spectacle. The song tells the story of a junior high student who is sent home with a note to her single mother from the Parent Teacher Association of the school. The group of small-town parents calls out the mother for her shameful behavior (among these transgressions: dating numerous men and wearing mini-skirts), but instead of accepting the criticism, she decides to attend their next meeting. At the meeting, she cites misconduct of several of the individual members, including the scandalous affairs and drinking problems that pale in comparison with her indiscretions. She concludes, “This is just a little Peyton Place and you’re all Harper Valley hypocrites.” And as the song fades, Riley, in the character of the teenage daughter, says she will always remember the day her “Mama socked it to the Harper Valley P.T.A.”
The classic anthem sold over six million copies as a single, and became a No. 1 pop and country smash, making Riley the first woman ever to top both singles charts with the same song. The song earned Riley a Grammy for Best Female Country & Western Vocal Performance, and the Country Music Association named it Single of the Year, both awards coming in 1968. The song was later the inspiration for a 1978 motion picture and a 1981 television series, both starring Barbara Eden, playing the heroine of the song.
“Harper Valley P.T.A” turned out to be the only major pop success for Riley, although she experienced scattered hits on the country charts throughout the early 1970s. In the mid-1970s, Riley began recording gospel music and eventually gained acclaim as a popular contemporary Christian artist. Tom T. Tall counted “Harper Valley P.T.A.” as one of his seven No. 1 country singles, and he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2008.
“Harper Valley P.T.A.” is the latest in a series of articles showcasing Classic Country Singles. You can read previous entries at the Classic Country Singles page.
Her music was more outspokenly feminist than any of her contemporaries, but Jeannie C. Riley was on the receiving end of every sexist obstacle imaginable as she worked her way toward stardom, with the path not getting any easier once she obtained it.
Jeannie was raised in the small town of Anson, Texas, and grew up dreaming of stardom. Her uncle played guitar in a country band, and arranged for her to sing locally. By the time she graduated high school, she was already married and had a baby on the way. Her husband Mickey was supportive of her dream, and after a trip to Nashville and a visit to the backstage of the Opry, her determination was fierce. The couple moved to Music City in 1966.
This week’s issue of Country Weekly, dated February 25, has a brief mention of Country Universe on page 60. The clipping mentions last month’s feature, TheFifty Best Debut Singles of All-Time, which you can begin reading here. Personally, I’m most excited to have given them a reason to put Jeannie C. Riley’s picture in the magazine!
Huge thanks to reader Judy, who first e-mailed me about the mention, and then was kind enough to scan it.