The list of distinguished artists who have recorded “Song for the Life” is a long one, but Alan Jackson is the only one who managed to make a hit out of it.
That radio played this pensive and philosophical ballad at all is a testament to Jackson’s incredible popularity at the time. Its mere presence on the airwaves elevated the genre for the handful of weeks it was in heavy rotation.
When you have some time, check out the other versions of this by the Seldom Scene, Johnny Cash, Jerry Jeff Walker, Alison Krauss, John Denver, Waylon Jennings, Kathy Mattea, and its writer, Rodney Crowell. It’s one of those songs that reveals quite a bit about where a singer is in their life and how they feel about the meaning of it all.
For my money, Jackson’s reading is the best, though I suspect he’d hit it even further out of the park if he recorded it again today.
As April is one of the odd months that has five Wednesdays, I thought I'd take a break from Country Quizzin' for this week and try out a new discussion-thing.
Given the current mainstream climate, it's been a while since I've felt able to heap unfettered praise on a piece of country music here, and that frankly bums me out a bit. So in the spirit of un-bumming, I'm going to share ten country songs from the 70's on that I find absolutely flawless – my “Perfect 10″ – and I invite you to do the same. It's a simple enough concept – you could just think of it as Recommend a Track times 10 plus a punny name.
Still, I suspect the outcome could be really interesting if everybody puts in the effort to pick ten songs that they consider the absolute cream of the crop. We're talking all-time best material here, whatever “all-time” happens to mean to you. You don't have to rank them, and they don't have to be your definitive top ten; I sure wouldn't be able to produce that list without a lot more thought. They just have to be up there – the kind of songs that you love fully and deeply, that still engage and surprise you after countless listens.
Most of the ten I've picked below are pretty well-known. Feel free to go as popular or as obscure as you like – great music is great music!
In chronological order:
Bobbie Gentry, “Ode to Billie Joe”
I've never heard anything else like this. Even if you ignore the compelling Southern Gothic mystery the song serves up in just over four minutes, there's so much magic in the writing itself. The intense attention to detail doesn't just paint a vivid picture; it serves an actual literary kind of purpose, illustrating the insensitivity of the narrator's family. I miss songs with subtexts.
Loretta Lynn, “Fist City”
“Fist City” is in the inner circle of big Loretta hits, but it usually has its spotlight stolen by more topically revolutionary numbers like “Don't Come Home A Drinkin'” or “The Pill.” But no longer! This saucy prelude to a catfight could be her most tightly-written anthem ever, with a killer hook and excellent one-liners all around. “The man I love, when he picks up trash, he puts it in a garbage can. And that's what you look like to me.” Damn!
John Denver, “Take Me Home, Country Roads”
Call it musical comfort food. Denver's stuff was never good for extremists: the hardcore folkies found it too simplistic and starry-eyed to be intellectually palatable, while the hardcore country fans found it too poppy to have any hillbilly integrity. If you ask me, those arguments were more about context than substance. This single seamlessly blends its folk, pop and country sensibilities, and Denver's soaring voice can sell this kind of romanticized lyric all day.
Jerry Jeff Walker, “Gettin' By”
Another helping of comfort food. This here's a take-it-easy anthem with a similar vibe to “Don't Worry, Be Happy,” but with less potential to annoy you.
Merle Haggard, “If We Make It Through December”
The kind of understated song that speaks for itself and doesn't try to sound more important than it really is, which is charming, since this song's sentiment is actually more significant than a lot of songs which employ a more dramatic approach. Haggard's writing here is also proof that specificity of storytelling often makes a song that much more relatable.
Alabama, “Dixieland Delight”
What can I say; I love the feel-good anthems. I have to admit that I mostly included this because I wanted to give the 80's at least one song and it was the first thing that came to mind, so it may be a tier lower than some of the others in terms of my love. But I don't think these guys get enough credit for the legitimately good country-rock stuff they did.
Mary Chapin Carpenter, “Why Walk When You Can Fly”
Easily the most obscure thing on this list, this gorgeous album opener
was released as a single and peaked at #45. I first heard this while driving to Kroger at night and just about pulled over so I could listen properly.
Dixie Chicks, “Long Time Gone”
If there is any justice whatsoever in the country music world, historians will remind the public hung up on “the incident” that the Chicks also produced some of the best singles of their time, especially with this Darrell Scott-penned beaut. What a masterwork.
Josh Turner, “Long Black Train”
I reached a point in life last year where my religious beliefs just seemed to fall out from underneath me, and I've been pretty much undecided on that front since. Incredibly, it's only made me appreciate Turner's spiritual beckon even more, which is a testament, I think, to how substantially it presents its point-of-view. And gosh, does it ever sound good. Josh oughta crack open that Hank Williams box set more often.
Nickel Creek, “This Side”
This was one of the key songs that hooked me for good into country music, so I had to include it. The writing is more abstract pop-rock than anything else, but the pulsating instrumentation is so sweet that you're a fool if you care one way or the other. Listen to this with a good pair of headphones and hear the world unfold.
What a difference a day makes. With Day One’s mishaps still fresh in my mind, I set out for Day Two of the Stagecoach Festival with a renewed sense of purpose and new insight on the day’s upcoming adventure. Keeping in mind lessons learned on Day One, I grabbed a map from the front desk of my hotel, set out early, purchased a chair on sale for $8 at Target, bypassed the long line in front of the main entrance to the Festival, and located a too-good-to-be-true back entrance to the parking lot. Amazingly, within five minutes of arriving at the polo fields, I was on my way to the Mane Stage with my new chair and re-filled water bottle in hand. (Kudos to Stagecoach for being so eco-friendly!)
As soon as possible after depositing my chair and blanket between a large stack of hay bales and the largest speaker I could find, I split for the side stages. With fewer people on the grounds, I finally realized how big the Festival actually was—it was huge! It had everything, from a CMT sing-a-long tent to a bucking bronco ride. It even had an abhorrent t-shirt tent full of homophobic and xenophobic t-shirts (an anomaly at an otherwise pretty classy event). Thankfully, on Day Two I also discovered the heart of the Festival: the bands playing in the two large tents off to the side of the Mane stage. The crowds weren’t nearly as large—at the beginning of the day, the large airy tents were mostly empty—but the smattering of hay bales were packed, the audience enthusiastic and the artists often times more talented than their famous peers on the Mane stage.
My first act of the day on the Palomino Stage was James Intveld, an artist I had previously never heard of. As such, I did a slight double take when Intveld walked out on stage. With his slicked back hair, old-fashioned black suit with white piping and arm slung around the back of his guitar, my first thought was: Johnny Cash impersonator? He’s not. What he is, is a very talented artist with a strong voice and a broad range of styles. He moved easily between rockabilly, honkytonk and Southern California country rock. And with songs like “This Place Ain’t What It Used to Be,” “All the Way From Memphis” and “Cry Baby,” a song he wrote for Rosie Flores, Intveld was the perfect way to start the day.
On stage immediately after Intveld was The Duhks (pronounced “ducks”) from Winnepeg, Canada. Although I had previously not heard their music, I fell at least halfway in love with The Duhks halfway through their opening number, “Mighty Storm,” when fiddler Tania Elizabeth suddenly went into a fiddle breakdown. Seemingly in her own world half the time, swaying to the music, she was incredible. The only person more intriguing in The Duhks is lead singer Sarah Dugas. What a voice. Strong and bluesy, she carried the band across a multitude of languages and a fusion of musical styles. Unlike the traditional bluegrass coming from the Mustang Stage, The Duhks are impossible to classify as anything other than extremely talented. For a nearly an hour, I was entranced by their songs, which included “95 South,” “Fast Paced World,” “You Don’t See It” and “Les Blues De Cadien/Whole Lotta Love.”
Once again proving that country music knows few boundaries,Jerry Jeff Walker took to the Palomino Stage after The Duhks. He could not have been more different in appearance and style, but, in addition to the new fans that flocked to the stage to see him, many of the same folks who checked out the Duhks and Intveld stuck around to check him out. I didn’t catch Walker’s entire performance, but it’s clear the man is a legend, and his concerts a lot of fun. Essentially, a Jerry Jeff Walker concert is like hanging out in your favorite Irish pub. The entire audience not only knows the words, but they know their parts and when to chime in. As I walked out, I wasn’t sure who was doing more singing—the audience or Walker himself.
By the time I arrived back at my chair in front of the Mane Stage, the sun was high in the sky. While not quite as hot as Coachella last weekend, Day Two of Stagecoach was definitely a bit of a scorcher, and it was going to tak
e a lot of work by the Zac Brown Band to get the sunburned and slightly lethargic audience to its feet. Fortunately, the Zac Brown Band was up to the challenge. Equal parts college jam band and seasoned pros, the Zac Brown Band thoroughly entertained the audience from the opening “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” to the closing “Chicken Fried,” which earned perhaps the biggest sing-a-long of the Festival. In between, ZBB threw in some Bob Marley (“One Love”) a lot of coconut-fried Kenny Cheesiness (“Toes,” “Where The Boat Leaves From”), and a healthy dose of feel good earnestness (“Free,” “Highway 20 Ride” and “Whatever It is”). I don’t know if ZBB will ever make it big, but they can surely put on a fun show.
Lady Antebellum took to the stage next and picked up where the ZBB left off. I’ve never been a huge Lady A fan, but their catchy R&B flavored pop-rock tunes were ridiculously enjoyable on a sunny Sunday afternoon. Charles Kelley, Hillary Scott and Dave Haywood kept the audience rockin’ with a number of the songs from their self-titled debut album, including “Lookin’ for a Good Time,” Loves Lookin’ Good On You,” “Slow Down Sister,” and “I Run to You.” Scott took the tentative lead on “Home is Where the Heart Is” and “All We’d Ever Need,” but it must be said that Kelly is the bona fide star of Lady A. In addition to a magnetic stage presence, his deep and raspy voice has soul and power. While Scott holds her own, her slightly off-key twang definitely sounds best when complementing Kelley. By the time Lady A closed their set with “Love Don’t Live Here,” I got the strange feeling that along with Miranda Lambert, they're going to show up the main attraction (Chesney) on tour this summer.
Rounding out my first Stagecoach Festival experience was Miranda Lambert. Compared to Lady A, I had high expectations for Lambert, and, for the most part, she didn’t disappoint. Dressed in aviator sunglasses and tight blue jeans, Miss Thang kicked off her set with “Kerosene” and a lot of attitude. Lambert continued with a nearly twang-free version of “Guilty in Here” and then picked up her acoustic guitar for “New Strings.” Lambert killed her new single, “Dead Flowers,” but her trademark growl is growing increasingly more hard rock than country. She continued growling through “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” and “Down,” before stepping back to Lindale and bringing out “Famous in a Small Town,” one of my all-time favorites. A nice segment in the middle of the set featured “More Like Her,” “Me and Charlie Talkin'” and “Dry Town,” but the calm interlude didn't last.
In addition to “Dead Flowers,” Lambert introduced another song from her new album coming out in September, which she dedicated to “all the rockers” in the audience. The lyrics were difficult to understand, but musically the dedication said it all. Lambert also turned to “I Love Rock ‘n Roll” to supplement her own material, and tapped into her inner soul for rousing renditions of “Stay With Me” by the British rock group (featuring Rod Stewart), Faces, and “In the Midnight Hour” by Wilson Pickett. If Miranda's vocals, cover choices and first two songs are any indication, her next album is destined to be a straight up rocker. I'm looking forward to the album regardless of its direction, but I have to admit that while not completely fair, I'm already feeling little nostalgic for the old Miranda. We shall see.
Since I had to be in the office bright and early Monday morning, I didn't stick around to see Kid Rock and Kenny Chesney. No big loss in my book, although I did gain a certain morbid curiousity about the former as the night wore on (especially to see how the throngs of non-cowboy boot wearin' fans that arrived soon before he took the stage mingled with the country folk).
All in all, I had a fantastic time. Festivals are brutal, but they are a great way to take country music's temperature. My only regrets of the festival were missing the Infamous Stringdusters, Poco and Jim Lauderdale. Maybe next year…
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 year, the 45th trophy for Best Male Country Vocal Performance will be awarded.
In a continuation of our Grammy Flashback series, here is a rundown of the Best Country Vocal Performance, Male category. It was first awarded in 1965, and included singles 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.
As usual, we start with a look at this year’s nominees and work our way back. Be sure to vote in My Kind of Country’sBest Male Country Vocal Performance poll and let your preference for this year’s race be known!
Trace Adkins, “You’re Gonna Miss This”
Jamey Johnson, “In Color”
James Otto, “Just Got Started Lovin’ You”
Brad Paisley, “Letter to Me”
George Strait, “Troubadour”
As with the album race, this year’s contenders for Best Male Country Vocal Performance are a combination of unrecognized veterans and promising newcomers. In fact, none of this year’s nominees have won in this category, and only one of them – Brad Paisley – has a Grammy at all.
First, the veterans. Paisley has numerous ACM and CMA victories to his credit, including two each for Male Vocalist. Although he’s been nominated for this award twice before, this is the first time he’s contended with a cut that can’t be dismissed as a novelty number. The touching self-penned “Letter to Me” is his best shot yet at taking this home.
Trace Adkins has been at this a bit longer than Paisley, but this is his first Grammy nomination. His crossover exposure from Celebrity Apprentice might help him out here, along with the fact that the song was considered strong enough by voters to earn a nomination of its own.
But the real veteran to watch out for is George Strait. After being nominated only twice for this category in the first 25 years of his career, voters have now given him three consecutive nominations. This is one of four nods he’s earned for the 2009 ceremony, and “Troubadour” is essentially the story of his epic career distilled into a radio-length song. It would be the perfect way to honor the man and his music in one fell swoop.
However, there’s a newcomer that might be a Grammy favorite already. We just haven’t found out yet. Not James Otto, of course, who is nominated for his charming romantic romp “Just Got Started Lovin’ You”, but rather, Jamey Johnson. The recent Nashville Scene critics’ poll further confirmed the depth of his support among tastemakers, and his nominations for Best Country Song and Best Country Album indicate that he’s very much on the academy’s radar. It helps that he has the most substantial track of the five, and it’s the obvious choice for traditionalists, who have little reason to split their votes in this category. If voters aren’t considering legacy when making their selections, he has a great shot at this.
Dierks Bentley, “Long Trip Alone”
Alan Jackson, “A Woman’s Love”
Tim McGraw, “If You’re Reading This”
George Strait, “Give it Away”
Keith Urban, “Stupid Boy”
The often offbeat Grammy voters have been surprisingly mainstream in this category for the past three years, a trend best exemplified by this lineup, which was the first in more than a decade to feature only top ten radio hits. Tim McGraw and Keith Urban were the only two who had won this before, and it was Urban who emerged victorious. “Stupid Boy” was a highlight of his fourth studio album, and this was the only major award that the impressive collection would win.
Dierks Bentley, “Every Mile a Memory”
Vince Gill, “The Reason Why”
George Strait, “The Seashores of Old Mexico”
Josh Turner, “Would You Go With Me”
Keith Urban, “Once in a Lifetime”
Vince Gill returned to win in this category for a ninth time with “The Reason Why.” Not only is he, by far, the most honored artist in this category, his wins here account for nine of the nineteen Grammys currently on his mantle.
George Jones, “Funny How Time Slips Away”
Toby Keith, “As Good As I Once Was”
Delbert McClinton, “Midnight Communion”
Willie Nelson, “Good Ol’ Boys”
Brad Paisley, “Alcohol”
Keith Urban, “You’ll Think of Me”
Urban’s biggest and probably best hit launched his second album to triple platinum and established him as a crossover artist. He gave a killer performance of the song on the show. Toby Keith was a first-time nominee here, and while he publicly groused that the Grammys put too little emphasis on commercial success in picking their nominations, he lost to the only track that was a bigger hit than his own.
The time has come for Ronnie Dunn to step aside. Not from Brooks & Dunn, mind you, but as the default lead singer of the duo. For the past sixteen years, Kix Brooks has been all but a backup singer in his own headlining act, as nearly all of the singles released by this duo featured Ronnie Dunn on lead.
It’s easy to understand why. Dunn is virtually peerless among male country vocalists. If he’d been a solo act with the same level of success, he’d probably be a staple in the Male Vocalist category. But as a songwriter, he’s treading the same ground repeatedly. Dunn dominates the proceedings for the first half of this album, and my eyes glazed over by the third cowboy song to surface in four tracks. I suppose that if you truly believe that when you get to heaven, Saint Peter is going to tip his hat and welcome you to Cowboy Town, you’ll be happy to indulge him, but it isn’t until Kix Brooks takes the reins – see, I can do cowboy metaphors, too! – that this album starts to get interesting.