The long list of country music greats lost in 2013 continues with the passing of Cowboy Jack Clement, who succumbed to liver cancer yesterday morning at the age of 82.
Few have done so much to shape country music from behind the scenes as this legendary songwriter and producer. In addition to writing some of the genre’s best-loved songs, he produced classic records such as “Ring of Fire” and “Dreaming My Dreams with You,” as well as Bobby Bare’s concept album A Bird Named Yesterday. He also played an instrumental role in launching the careers of icons such a Roy Orbison and Jerry Lee Lewis, while helping the now-legendary Charley Pride become one of the first major African-American country stars. He was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1973 and is one of this year’s inductees into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Be sure to check out this fine in-depth tribute by the always reliable Peter Cooper, as well as some personal remembrances by his good friends Kris Kristofferson and Marty Stuart.
Finally, enjoy the following performances of some of Clement’s most beloved compositions. We at Country Universe are saddened to hear of Clement’s passing, and we extend our condolences to his family, friends, and fans.
Marty Stuart Nashville, Vol. 1: Tear the Woodpile Down
The casual listener may remember Marty Stuart for the string of country radio hits he enjoyed in the late eighties and early nineties. However, Stuart’s legacy was cemented by groundbreaking projects released after his commercial heyday had drawn to a close, particularly 1999's landmark The Pilgrim as well as 2010's career-best effort Ghost Train: The Studio B Sessions. Through such critically lauded work Stuart has built up a reputation as an elder statesman of country music, acting to preserve country music's heritage and traditions, while simultaneously working to move the genre forward.
One important reason why Stuart has been such a fine advocate of traditional country music is that he does not treat it as a musical museum piece, but rather treats it as it is – as real and relevant now as it has ever been. This is continually evident on Stuart’s new Sugar Hill release Nashville, Vol. 1: Tear the Woodpile Down. The project finds Stuart graciously and sincerely paying tribute to country music’s storied past, at times through well-chosen cover songs. He offers his own rendition of the Jerry Chestnutt composition “Holding On to Nothin,” which was a Top 10 hit for Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton in 1968. The song’s brilliantly constructed lyric finds a couple’s desire to rekindle their romance colliding with the sad realization that there is little left to save. “I feel guilty when they envy me and you” is arguably one of the best lines a country song has ever come up with.
But while the album respectfully nods to the past, the loose infectious energy of up-tempo tracks like “Tear the Woodpile Down” and “Truck Driver Blues” is hardly derivative, adding to the project’s contemporary edge. The latter finds Stuart both shredding the mandolin, and name-dropping wife Connie Smith. The album also offers a more restrained reinterpretation of one song that previously appeared on Stuart’s 2003 effort Country Music, and “Sundown In Nashville” is a song that is most definitely worthy of a repeat release. The lyric highlights the sad truth that for every performer who achieves the dream of becoming a country music star, countless others see their dreams “shattered and swept to the outskirts of town” – a sentiment that has remained of continued relevance on down through country music history.
On Tear the Woodpile Down, Stuart continues to indulge his penchant for collaborating with his like-minded friends. Sadly, the list of collaborators does not include Connie Smith this time around, but the harmony vocals of The Carter Family descendant Lorrie Carter Bennett add a bittersweet touch to the beautiful steel weeper “A Song of Sadness,” while veteran guitarist and Jerry Lee Lewis-collaborator Kenny Lovelace appears on “A Matter of Time.” The album closes on a high note with the Hank Williams III duet “Picture from Life’s Other Side” – a song originally written and recorded by Hank Williams, Sr., and one that Stuart and Hank III have performed together live. Stuart’s smooth vocal delivery contrasts nicely with Hank III’s gritty drawl. The two are backed by a bare-boned acoustic arrangement, allowing the song itself to pull the full weight with its brilliantly dark take on human mortality. While backed by his seasoned cohorts The Fabulous Superlatives – who get to twang it out on the rousing instrumental track “Hollywood Boogie” – the project also includes appearances by veteran steel player Robbie Turner, as well as multi-instrumentalist Buck Trent, who lends his banjo work to the comedic title track and to “Holding On to Nothin’.” Such contributions aid in making Tear the Woodpile Down an endlessly cool-sounding record.
In classic Marty Stuart fashion, Nashville, Vol. 1: Tear the Woodpile Down shines with stellar, classic-worthy songwriting, bolstered by top-notch musicianship and restlessly creative arrangements. It ranks as one of 2012’s best album’s yet – a thoughtful homage to country music's past that remains fully connected to the present, and one that will thoroughly satisfy any passionate devotee of pure, simple, non-hyphenated country music.
He broke through to stardom singing love ballads in the style of Vince Gill, but it was his turn toward more adventurous topical material that cemented the musical legacy of Collin Raye.
Born Floyd Collin Wray in Arkansas, he is the son of Lois Wray, a professional musician who often opened for the big acts of the fifties, including legends like Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis. Growing up, Collin and his brother Scott would often perform on stage with their mother. As the boys got older, they struck out on their own, forming the Wrays Brothers Band. They soon became popular local performers across Texas, and also had success performing in Reno, Nevada.
The band, now performing as The Wrays, signed with Mercury Records in the mid-eighties, after a few independent label releases raised their profile. But their major label releases were not successful, and the band broke up after losing that deal. At this point, Raye adopted his stage name and embarked on a solo career, signing with Epic Records in 1990.
His first single, “All I Can Be (Is a Sweet Memory)”, did reasonably well, peaking at #29. It set the stage for the big breakthrough, “Love, Me.” A heartbreaking ballad about a grieving grandfather, it was an instant classic, and began an impressive streak of hits that would make Raye one of the most dominant radio acts of the nineties.
Though he had some mid-tempo hits scattered among them, it was a string of ballads that kept him on the charts. Mostly love songs, some became wedding hall staples, like “In This Life” and “That Was a River.” Raye’s first two albums sold well and produced many hits, but he was not satisfied with them. Thinking himself capable of more meaningful music, he set out to make an album for the ages. The result was extremes, his 1994 album that found him singing up-tempo material convincingly for the first time (“That’s My Story”, “My Kind of Girl.”)
But the standout hit was “Little Rock”, a powerful monologue from a recovering alcoholic that remains one of Raye’s finest moments on record. The success of this song encouraged Raye to tackle more socially relevant material. On his fourth album, I Think About You, the title track explored the exploitation of women in the media and society at large; “Not That Different” made the case for the universality of the human experience outweighing surface differences; and “What If Jesus Comes Back Like That” put the social justice inherent in Christ’s teachings front and center.
The depth of these hits elevated Raye into the Male Vocalist races at the country award shows, and gave the fuel for his run of hits to continue throughout the nineties. Though those hits would return to being more conventional in theme, they were still quite popular. Highlights of this run include “I Can Still Feel You”, “On the Verge”, “Someone I Used to Know” and “Couldn’t Last a Moment.” Raye also scored a major Adult Contemporary hit with “The Gift”, his 1997 collaboration with Jim Brickman.
As with so many other nineties stars, the new century brought a decline in fortunes. While his first four studio albums had gone platinum, nothing beyond a hits collection would sell gold in the years to come. After his 2001 set Can’t Back Down failed to produce a hit, he left Epic Records. He’s since resurfaced on various independent labels, releasing 2005′s Twenty Years and Change to warm reviews and having a top 40 country album with 2009′s Never Going Back. He had a minor chart hit with “A Soldier’s Prayer” in 2007, and continues to record new music and tour across North America.
Tim McGraw records an entire song celebrating the “Southern Voice” by listing the contributions of everyone from Jerry Lee Lewis to Rosa Parks against a musical backdrop that is virtually indistinguishable from the New Jersey sound of mid-80s E Street Band.
Perhaps there’s an intended reference in the production to the pollination of art and culture that goes back and forth over the Mason-Dixon line. More likely, Tim and his band just like to rock it out. The list of names included is so broad that it’s hard to discern any larger message here other than “Hey! We’re from the south! We rule!”
And hey, collectively, the people he mentions do indeed rule, making this a reasonable exercise in regional pride. I can see the slide show behind him at this year’s CMA show already.
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.