Uncaged may be the product of studio recording sessions, but it pulses with the energy of a live set.
That much is evident right from the bongo drums and whistle hook that open the album on “Jump Right In.” Immediately afterward, the title track lays down a heavy arena-rock groove that was obviously made for a live setting. Needless to say, the band’s eclectic musical stylings will not suit every listener’s personal taste, while traditionalist country music fans will find relatively little to celebrate on this record. Regardless, it remains obvious that, of all the bands currently in heavy rotation on country radio, few are as fully developed as an actual band as Brown and his cohorts.
Yet Uncaged would not be the success that it is if not for the high quality of Brown’s songwriting, consistently characterized by unaffected sincerity, straightforwardness, and naturalness of flow. “Goodbye In Her Eyes” begins with the line “I could tell that it was over when her lips met mine/ It was an emptiness in her voice, hesitation when she smiled” and heads from there to “She’d found what she’d been looking for, and I knew it wasn’t me,” while the backing instruments swell with a rising sense of urgency, making the track a clear standout in lyrical construction as well as overall song structure.
The weakest track on the album is called – wait for it – “Island Song,” and sounds like just about every other “island song” pervading country music. It generally brings nothing new to the tiki bar, save for a painfully affected fake Jamaican accent on Brown’s part, while the aforementioned “Jump Right In” draws on similar reggae influences, but does so with a greater level of personality. Likewise, “Sweet Annie” is a solid song on its own merits, but one that sounds a little too much like a retread of last year’s hit “Colder Weather,” both lyrically and melodically.
Lead single and current Top 20 hit “The Wind” is easily one of the best and coolest-sounding singles to make it to radio airwaves this year. It’s one of the few tracks on the album that scans unmistakably as country music, but one that nods to genre conventions without compromising the band’s distinct sense of identity. The band taps into a smooth jazz vibe with the Trombone Shorty collaboration “Overnight” – a sultry come-on lyric that could have scanned as embarrassingly campy if delivered through a lesser performance, but one that Brown manages to sell with infectious gusto.
While the band’s influences run the gamut from Alan Jackson to the Eagles to Jimmy Buffett to Bob Marley – and this album alone includes collaborations with Amos Leigh, Sonia Leigh, and Jason Mraz - Uncaged still manages to sound first and foremost like a Zac Brown Band album. The effortless charm of Brown’s singing and songwriting, not to mention the energy of the band’s musicianship, creates a common unifying thread that runs throughout all the genre styles experimented with through the course of the set.
It’s consistently clear that, according to the Zac Brown Band’s musical approach, it’s not about genres. It’s not about radio formats. It’s not about pleasing one’s chosen demographic. It’s about music, plain and simple. As a result, Uncaged is an unshakably confident, ambitious-sounding record that refuses to condescend to its listeners, and it thus may be just the thing to impart a shot of authenticity to mainstream country music.
We’re halfway through the summer months, which means we’ve heard the handful of summer-oriented singles played on the radio approximately 17,283 times by now. In keeping with CU’s retro theme, let’s hit the singles we missed upon their initial release (sorry y’all!).
Luke Bryan, “Country Girl (Shake It For Me)”
Written by Luke Bryan & Dallas Davidson
Whereas Jason Aldean would likely have soaked this dance number in aggression, Bryan melts away its sexist edge by layering it with goofiness and playful energy. The result is a shamelessly catchy ditty that makes me want to shake it for the squirrels. File that under: Things I never thought I’d say. Grade: B
Jake Owen, “Barefoot Blue Jean Night”
Written by Dylan Altman, Eric Paslay & Terry Sawchuk
Look, I’m all about overdramatizing memories, so the atmospheric, arena rock set-up of the song doesn’t feel inherently ridiculous to me. But in order for a larger-than-life arrangement to have any traction, you’ve got to paint your memories with at least a nugget of lyrical depth. Grade: C+
Jerrod Niemann, “One More Drinkin’ Song”
Written by Richie Brown & Jerrod Niemann
Sounds like part George Strait, part Garth Brooks, part Niemann (+). Feels like a lack of creativity (-). Grade: B-
Zac Brown Band (Feat. Jimmy Buffett), “Knee Deep”
Written by Coy Bowles, Zac Brown, Wyatt Durrette & Jeffrey Steele
Like the innocent little brother of “Toes,” “Knee Deep” lacks spunk but radiates the same sea-breezy blissfulness. Bonus points for the crisp craftsmanship. Grade: B
Dierks Bentley, “Am I The Only One”
Written by Jim Beavers, Dierks Bentley & Jon Randall
If you can refrain from doing the obvious –holding this song up against the splendor of Up On The Ridge–, it falls a little less flat. Then again, I kind of dig the boozy lethargy, especially in Bentley’s performance– it’s like he really doesn’t give a damn about anything so long as he gets his party on. (Seriously, though, if I don’t even watch “Idol” on a Friday night, who does?) Grade: B-
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
Here’s hoping you haven’t gotten completely burned out on countdowns yet. 2009 was hardly a favorite musical year for many of us, but amid each year’s glut of throwaway items, there’s always a good’un or two (or forty). The following is the first installment of our Best Singles of 2009 list, which will conclude tomorrow morning. Best Albums will follow next week.
As with the Singles of the Decade feature, this countdown has been compiled through combination of four equally weighed Top 20 lists by Kevin, Leeann, Tara and myself. An inverted point system was applied to the individual rankings (#1 on a list meant 20 points, while #20 on the list meant 1 point). The songs were then ranked together by number of total points, greatest to least. The final result is another rather stylistically diverse set.
As always, we hope you enjoy the countdown, and welcome all the feedback you can muster. Happy New Year!
Lady Antebellum, “Need You Now”
The trio puts a country spin on an old school pop sound, but without forsaking raw emotion. The highlight of the song is Hillary Scott’s smoky performance, which draws out all the anguish and regret you’d expect from a desperate, 1 AM lover’s call. – Tara Seetharam
Joey + Rory, “Play the Song”
While Joey + Rory’s image appears to be squeaky-clean, it is fascinating that their songs have displayed some of the most attitude in the mainstream country music world. After releasing the sassy “Cheater, Cheater”, they have appealed to radio (the very people holding part of the duo’s career in their hands) to stop limiting their playlists with safe choices and to just “play the song.” – Leeann Ward (more…)
The 201 Greatest Singles of the Decade, Part 5: #120-#101
#120 “Tonight I Wanna Cry”
A chillingly frank portrait of loneliness, awkward reference to “All By Myself” notwithstanding. Few mainstream vocalists today could pull off something this intense. – Dan Milliken
#119 “Portland, Oregon”
Loretta Lynn with Jack White
Peak: Did not chart
If you can take a healthy dose of dirty rock ‘n’ roll in your country, this is one of the coolest-sounding records of the decade, a classic one-night-stand duet. That it’s a very cross-generational pairing singing it would be creepy if not for the goofy smiles shining through Lynn’s and White’s performances. – DM (more…)
When Rodney Crowell had his gold-selling commercial breakthrough with the album Diamonds & Dirt, his previous label was quick to capitalize on his success. Usually, pre-hit cash-in CDs are little more than a curiosity, but Crowell’s is the exception.
There is a smorgasbord of great material here, including early versions of songs that Crowell would see other artists have success with the same songs.
Some of Crowell’s strongest compositions are here, such as:
“‘Til I Gain Control Again”, a #1 hit for Crystal Gayle that was recorded earlier by Emmylou Harris
“I Ain’t Living Long Like This”, a #1 hit for Waylon Jennings that was recorded earlier by Emmylou Harris
“Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight”, a #1 hit for the Oak Ridge Boys that was recorded earlier by Emmylou Harris
“Ashes By Now”, a top five hit for Lee Ann Womack that was recorded earlier by Emmylou Harris
“I Don’t Have to Crawl”, a minor hit for Emmylou Harris that was later recorded by Rosanne Cash
“Shame on the Moon”, a top fifteen country hit for Bob Seeger
“Victim or a Fool”, a top forty hit for Crowell that was also recorded by Crystal Gayle
“Stars on the Water”, later covered by George Strait and Jimmy Buffett
How good was this guy’s ear? Even the songs he didn’t write went on to become hits, with Ricky Skaggs taking “Heartbroke” to #1 and Juice Newton scoring a massive pop hit with “Queen of Hearts.” The only thing missing here is “Elvira”, which Crowell also recorded first.
This has always been a budget collection, but now it’s incredibly affordable – twelve tracks for $5.49. Given that Warner is asking for $9.90 for the far inferior Pam Tillis Collection, which includes only ten tracks, this one’s a steal.
At this point, it’s admittedly not original to compare The Zac Brown Band’s island flavored “Toes” to Kenny Chesney’s multiple attempts at tackling such sounds and themes. Likewise, it has not been original for awhile to compare Chesney to the iconic Jimmy Buffett who has clearly been one of Chesney’s musical influences over the past decade. Still, it seems just about impossible to avoid making such obvious comparisons.
So, where does “Toes” rank on the Chesney-Buffett continuum? Zac Brown and his crew have assembled a song worthy of the Buffett catalog, therefore, surpassing any beach themed song that Chesney has offered us thus far. While they freely give us “ass in the sand”, Chesney can only muster “a big ol’ pile of shift work”.
While “Toes” is mindlessly frivolous, it’s laidback, acoustic based island feel is oddly refreshing and will help fit the obligatory summer time single niche that radio is so hell-bent on filling. If radio will play a dark lament with cocaine and a whore, there’s a possibility that they’ll let this lighthearted ditty about “rolling a big fat one” and plopping an “ass in the sand” slide by too.
The following is a guest contribution by Country Universe reader Tad Baierlein.
When Dan Seals died of lymphoma last Wednesday, a great deal of the press coverage centered on his days as “England Dan” in the soft rock duo England Dan and John Ford Coley. Seals’ country career, though more successful for a longer period of time, seemed to be treated as an afterthought.
Many of the obituaries mentioned Seals’ biggest country hit, “Bop”; hardly an accurate representation of his years spent in country. Now, it’s perfectly justifiable to glance at a person’s career highlights for a newspaper obituary, but I think that a great deal more attention should’ve been paid to Seals’ death within the country music community. I would like to contribute this little appreciation to one of my favorite country artists.
“The Banker” Rebel Heart, 1983
For two years following the split of England Dan and John Ford Coley, nothing seemed to be going right for Seals. First off, he recorded two solo soft rock albums just as that sound was going out of favor. Aside from one single ekeing its way into the Adult Contemporary charts, the albums were considered huge failures. Secondly, Seals had accrued a massive amount of debt to the IRS; almost everything he owned was repossessed to pay it. Seals’ move to Nashville had been planned for quite a while but in 1982 it seemed almost a necessity.
This song that he wrote for Rebel Heart would seem to place his frustrations and hope in the story of a man trying to save his land from an evil, number-crunching banker. Sometimes when it seems like all hope is lost all you can do is work to get yourself out of trouble. Seals could only hope that the oil-rich resolution of “The Banker” came true in his life as well; he wouldn’t have to worry.
“Fewer Threads Than These” On the Front Line, 1986
The Seals album On the Front Line was his first as a country superstar. Refreshingly, Seals decided to go in a more self-assuredly country direction. With only a few exceptions (“I Will Be There,” “You Still Move Me”) the album follows a more straightforward country path. The album not only points to the direction Seals would take with his Rage On album, but also to the direction producer Kyle Lehning was already pursuing with his most famous artist, Randy Travis. This song, one of only three on the album not written by Seals, is a lovely traditional-sounding tune about patience in a relationship, featuring great dobro work by Jerry Douglas.
“Candle in the Rain” Rebel Heart, 1983
Seals had worked with Kyle Lehning for six years prior to his first country album. Lehning produced the most successful albums for England Dan and John Ford Coley. Much like Seals, Lehning didn’t consider himself part of the rock ’n’ roll community. Not only was he already working in Nashville at the time he started producing England Dan, he was established as a country musician (working with artists
like Waylon Jennings and the Glaser Brothers).
If Seals hadn’t strongly indicated an interest in country music right off the bat, it’s more than likely that he would’ve drifted in that direction anyway with Lehning at the helm. “Candle in the Rain,” an album track from Rebel Heart, features a new wave/country mix that’s pretty revolutionary. Right off the bat there’s a combination of acoustic guitar and synthesizer that hadn’t been heard in country music previous to Lehning’s production. The clear, almost new wave, drum beat in the chorus, the mixture of steel guitar and synthesizer, the airy backing vocals; “Candle in the Rain” really does combine the best elements of country and rock. It was a sound that Lehning and Seals would return to on many occasions.
“My Baby’s Got Good Timing” San Antone, 1984
Bob McDill and Dan Seals had a mutually beneficial songwriting relationship during Seals peak years as a country artist. McDill helped Seals find his voice as a country artist and songwriter, and Seals allowed McDill to get back to the more challenging material he had written in the seventies for folks like Don Williams and Bobby Bare. “My Baby’s Got Good Timing” is a tenetive first step for both artists; both are still unsure of Seals viability as a country artist.This is mainly McDill’s patented breezy love song matched with Seals’ best pop vocals. It’s an excellent combination but one that doesn’t point to the brilliant compositions the two would write in the years to come.
“God Must Be a Cowboy” Rebel Heart, 1983
To me, Seals’ Bahai faith really colors “God Must Be a Cowboy,” his first top ten hit. From what I understand (and I probably don’t) Bahai is like a buffet table of spirituality (take a little of this from Christianity, a little of that from Hinduism, oh that part of Islam looks good…), with meditation on universal tolerance at its core. “God Must Be a Cowboy” travels on the well-worn path of songs about country beauty vs. city clog, but there’s a meditative quality to the lyrics that separates it from the pack.
Seals takes time to appreciate the friendship of an old guitar, whose sound “sure smooths the wrinkles of my soul.” “An eagle overhead” makes Seals want to fly away before his time. Whatever home means to you, thank God there’s a trail to take you back there. Seals doesn’t chastise the city (“it’s alright for awhile/Sure makes you feel good when you’re there”), but he understands that in order to appreciate it you must first appreciate the quiet moments in the country. As a country artist, Seals tended to share his faith more by recording songs about tolerance rather than preaching. “God Must Be a Cowboy” really embraces his faith to a point that it shouldn’t be ignored.
“Lullaby” (with Emmylou Harris) On the Front Line, 1986
In many ways this song could be considered the opposite (or resolution of) Seals‘ huge 1985 duet “Meet Me In Montana.” Marie Osmond’s saccharine vocals are replaced by Emmylou Harris’ relaxed harmonies. A spare acoustic sound (highlighted by Mark O’Connor’s always welcome fiddle) replaces the rather bombastic orchestration of “Meet Me In Montana.” Poignancy and contentedness replaces fear and urgency. While “Meet Me in Montana” practically throttles you to get its attention (in a good way), “Lullaby” glides. The song doesn’t draw attention to itself, and if you notice how beautiful it is at the end of On the Front Line, well, good for you. A lovely song.
“Bop” Won’t Be Blue Anymore, 1985
Undeniably catchy, and a monster crossover hit that rocketed Seals to the top of country play lists, “Bop” is also marred by some of the worst tendencies of eighties production. From the processed saxophone to the drum machine to the squiggly synth prominent in the mix, “Bop” was Public Enemy Number One for folks who wanted country music to get back to its traditional roots. The strange thing is, “Bop”was not only an anomaly as far as Seals’ country career was concerned, but it also doesn’t match anything Kyle Lehning has been known for before or since. “Bop” was a very fun gamble that worked extraordinarily well. The unfortunate side effect was that the song associated Seals with the pre-packaged country the hat acts tried to eradicate in the early nineties.
“I Will Be There” On the Front Line, 1986
A bit of a bone thrown at the pop-country crowd that made “Bop” such a massive hit (co-written by Jennifer Kimball, the co-writer of “Bop”). That isn’t to say it’s not an impressive song, but aside from the mandolin that comes and goes in the verses it’s not very country. “I Will Be There” sticks out like a sore thumb on On the Front Line. Even so, the production is definitely more tasteful than “Bop”; it’s almost as if Seals and Lehning looked at what they had done and were like, “we need to step back a little from this for our own good.” Also very prominently featured on this song are Baillie and the Boys, a vocal group who had quite a few hits of their own in the late eighties, as well as providing excellent backup to the likes of Seals, Randy Travis and Clint Black, among others.
“Saw You in My Dreams” Make it Home, 2002
After the failure of his last two singles from On Arrival, Seals decided to sign a deal with Warner Bros. The resulting albums, Walking the Wire and the Kyle Lehning-less Fired Up, were flops. After the inevitable drop from Warner Bros. Seals became a touring artist at modest venues. With one exception, Seals’ only albums from 1994 to his death were live recordings of old hits.
His last chance at regaining his country audience was 2002’s Make it Home, a very nice collection of new material (mainly written by Seals or Nashville pro Rand Bishop). There are no amazing moments on Make it Home, but it’s almost uniformly well done. The best song on the album, in my opinion, is this song about a chance encounter/pickup. For a subject that could’ve turned sleazy on a dime (“would you believe I saw you in my dreams” he casually mentions to his crush in the chorus) it’s a sincere and very sweet song. If Make it Home is indeed Seals’ last solo album, it’s a good way to finish things up.
“Big Wheels in the Moonlight” Rage On, 1988
Seals’ 1988 album Rage On is probably his definitive moment as an artist. All of a sudden the relaxed production of On the Front Line was matched with uniformly good songs. One of the recurring themes of Rage On is wanderlust, whether it’s from a relationship (“Addicted”) or the boredom of a small town (“They Rage On”).
Wanderlust is name-checked in “Big Wheels in the Moonlight,” and it’s probably the most deceptively downcast song on the album. The protagonist spends two verses talking about his dream of riding the big rigs, but in the third he’s stuck in the same town with “kids and a wife and a regular job.” That dream that drew him in as a kid now haunts him as an adult, but he‘s resigned to not living it. Seriously, without listening to the lyrics, who would guess how sad this song is?
“You Still Move Me” On the Front Line, 1986
Country fans who can overlook the mid-eighties production painted a little thick on “You Still Move Me” will find a breathtakingly beautiful ballad. Not only is the melody lovely, but the song contains some of Seals’ greatest vocal moments. Particularly outstanding are his pained vocals in the bridge, and his “God, you move me” at the end. That moment perfectly sums up this song about a man who can’t believe he’s about to wreck a good relationship, but can’t control his emotions any longer.
“You Plant Your Fields” Won’t Be Blue Anymore, 1985
Wendy Waldman’s route to Nashville mirrors Dan Seals in every way except scope. A moderately successful singer/songwriter in the 1970’s, Waldman moved to Nashville in the early eighties. Unlike Seals, Waldman found her niche in songwriting for artists like Crystal Gayle, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Don Johnson (I mean, I’m talking about Wendy Waldman here, how could I ignore the fact that she wrote “Heartbeat” for Don Johnson).
“You Plant Your Fields” is more introspective than most of Waldman’s country material, comparing the seasons of love to tending the farm: “You plant your fields when the spring is tender, when the summer beats down you pray for rain, you hope for the harvest, the long cold winter, then you plant your fields again.”
“In San Antone” San Antone, 1984
Broadway vs. home is a hoary old cliché, but it always seems to apply. For every artist who makes it big on the great white way there are at least a thousand who become disillusioned and homesick. The title track to Seals second country album is a story about a singer trying to make it on Broadway but missing the girl he left behind in San Antone. It’s unclear whether he’ll return to her, but it’s a pretty safe bet considering he “can’t take much more of Broadway,” namely his squalid seventh floor apartment. The rocking coda of the song, where he proclaims “She believes in me!,” would probably point the way of departure.
“Three Time Loser” On the Front Line, 1986
It doesn’t get much more fun than this little ditty from On the Front Line. This is one of Seals’ amazing run of nine number one singles, and eleven out of twelve. It’s interesting that Seals often gets mentioned as a pop star first and country star second, because as a kid I considered him to be the quintessential country artist. Every single he released struck some sort of chord, whether it was a lovely ballad about friends, a pure rock song about someone being there, or this country song about trying to figure out girls (surprisingly prescient to a seven year-old).
“Five Generations of Rock County Wilsons” Rage On, 1988
A bit like “The Banker” in context but much more successful and realistic as a composition. If the theme for most of Rage On was wanderlust, this song expresses the exact opposite emotion. The protagonist wants to stay put and is outraged that his heritage means nothing to the men driving him off his land. He finally resigns himself to the fact that he will have to make way for the “big diesel cats.” At the end he boards a “big ol’ gray dog” bound for wherever; the song makes him sound like he’s doing it at gunpoint.
“Bordertown” On Arrival, 1990
After eight years of nothing but top ten hits, the streak finally broke with “Bordertown.” It wasn’t like the song hit number 12 either; it barely cracked the top 50. Possibly it was the transition to the early-nineties hat acts, but probably it was the controversial material: “Bordertown” is about illegal immigration, a touchy issue at the time that has only grown touchier since 9/11.
Seals and Bob McDill’s viewpoint, that everyone deserves a chance to become an American, is a stance that not many artists would take a chance on. The writers don’t waffle on “Bordertown”; they have a clear opinion that nobody should stand in the way of somebody who wants a better life. “The law’s the law,” except when the law applies to human decency. “It’s not his job to say what’s right or wrong,” and it’s not anybody’s job to stop people from improving their situation. It’s a shame that this was the single that drove Seals off of the charts, because it’s a song that deserved a wider audience to hear its message.
“Up On the Hill” Rebel Heart, 1983
Almost like a dry run for “They Rage On,” this song is about star-crossed lovers who find love and escape at night to their little makeout point. But unlike some other songs that share this same story the song takes a very pessimistic turn when the man from the wrong side of the tracks finds out “that money is what it’s all about.” But the man doesn‘t give up; every night he still climbs that hill, waiting. Good luck fella.
Another great example of the soon to be commonplace Kyle Lehning production style, with steel guitars standing side-by-side with electric guitar and a propulsive drum beat. This style almost seems more natural for those of us who grew up with 80’s and 90’s country music. To me, it’s hard to believe that there was a time when it didn’t exist (for better or worse).
“Addicted” Rage On, 1988
A brilliant song about a woman trapped in a destructive relationship, “Addicted” remains a very powerful piece of work. There’s a wonderful YouTube performance of “Addicted” from 1991 where Cheryl Wheeler joins Seals on stage to play guitar and sing a verse that wascut out of the single version. It’s interesting to see the writer and the singer’s different takes on the song: Whereas Seals sings the song like a concerned bystander dealing with a situation he has no control over, Wheeler sings her verse as an almost desperate wake-up call to a friend. It took a lot of guts for Seals to release “Addicted” as a single (and not only that, but as the first single from the album Rage On) and it’s a great performance.
“Meet Me in Montana” (with Marie Osmond) Won’t Be Blue Anymore, 1985
As Seals and writer Paul Davis’ first country number one and duet partner Marie Osmond’s return to the top after a ten year absence, “Meet Me In Montana” is a bit of a watershed for the soft-rock-to-country transfer of the mid-eighties. Davis was a crony of Seals and Kyle Lehning, as well as being a successful soft rock performer in his own right in the late-seventies. Instead of pursuing country superstardom Davis decided to retire from performing and write songs (occasionally performing, most notably with Paul Overstreet and Tanya Tucker on “I Won’t Take Less Than Your Love”). Davis wrote two very important songs for Seals: “Bop” and this brilliant duet. Seals’ clear voice matches perfectly with Osmond’s sunniness. Their voices add some hopefulness to a subject matter that could’ve been a little harsh.
“My Old Yellow Car” San Antone, 1984
It’s a shame that Seals didn’t pair up more with Thom Schuyler, who was for a time considered the songwriter’s songwriter in Nashville (partly because he wrote the songwriter’s song, “16th Avenue”). As a country singer, Seals was at his best telling a story or getting inside a character, and Schuyler was one of the best in the early eighties. In “My Old Yellow Car,” the successful protagonist looks back with regret at the old rust-bucket, and the innocence, that he’s lost track of.
“Love On Arrival” On Arrival, 1990
OMG it’s LOA. IMHO the song is LOL clever. I’ll quit that.
Seals’ final two number ones were great old rock ’n’ roll throwbacks: “Love On Arrival” and his cover of Sam Cooke’s “Good Times.” Those singles arrived at a time when country was trying to “get back to its roots;” instead of Sam Cooke and The Beatles (Seals’ idols growing up) the new traditionalists name-checked George Jones and Merle Haggard.
At the time it seemed like the gulf between new artists like Garth Brooks and Clint Black and late-eighties artists like Dan Seals couldn’t have been wider. Brooks and Black weren’t crossing over from pop, and they didn’t seem to have rock ‘n’ roll roots; they seemed authentic. This was before Brooks showed his Billy Joel fetish and Black started writing songs with Jimmy Buffett.
If anything, Garth Brooks can be seen nowadays as inheritor of Dan Seals’ throne: an immensely popular artist not afraid to be country or pop if the need be and not afraid to be controversial if the need be. As for the song itself, “Love On Arrival” is clever, fun and has a great hook: what more could you ask for.
“Gonna Be Easy Now” On the Front Line, 1986
A song about the hopelessness and lack-of-control of day-to-day life. I love the question/answer chorus that just gets bleaker and bleaker as it goes: “What’re you gonna do if the well runs dry? I’ll wait for the rain to fall. What’re you gonna do if the crops all die? Well, I won’t have to work at all. What’re you gonna do if the creek gets high? I’m still making up my mind. What’re you gonna do if the sun don’t shine? I’ll lay right down and die, and then everything’ll be alright.”
The protagonist puts on a brave face, a sort of roll-with-the-punches mentality, but inside he knows that “problems ain’t goin’ away, they’re just gonna change their shape” (this pessimistic attitude about rolling-with-the-punches contrasts harshly with the lessons taught in “You Plant Your Fields“). Seals’ final scream, “Everything’s gonna be easy now,” is a real eye-opener.
“They Rage On” Rage On, 1988
“They Rage On” is the song that broke Seals’ streak of number one singles, and listening to it it’s easy to see why; this ain’t no drinking song depression, it’s full-blown hopelessness. I wouldn’t place a song this bleak at the top of any chart. “They Rage On” is a song about small-town people who have nothing better to do with their lives, so they sit around holding each other tight, “searching for the answers.”
If it sounds like I’m dismissing “They Rage On” I’m certainly not; I’ve never heard a song encapsulate small town frustration any better. I’m just amazed that it was released as a single. If “They Rage On” doesn’t prove that Seals took more risks than any other country artist of the late-eighties I don’t know what does. Whatever the case, “They Rage On” is a gorgeous, brooding number which deserved its place as Seals’ streak-breaker.
“One Friend” The Best, 1987
As I said before, from reading the obituaries it would seem that Seals had two signature moments as an artist: one as a member of England Dan and John Ford Coley with Parker McGee’s “I’d Really Love to See You Tonight” and the other as a solo crossover artist with “Bop.” Those two songs are all well and good, but to me “One Friend” and “Everything That Glitters” will always be Seals’ signatures.
Amazingly, “One Friend” had to be resurrected and re-recorded for his greatest hits to become a single. Seals recorded a spare two-minute long acoustic version for the end of San Antone. The original version was obviously supposed to be a pleasant little album ender, nothing more. Kyle Lehning thought the song had potential, so he had Seals repeat the bridge and the chorus, then added orchestration. The finished product is a song that is deceptively simple and universal, and one of the greatest songs about commitment I’ve ever heard.
“Everything That Glitters (Is Not Gold)” Won’t Be Blue Anymore, 1985
“Everything That Glitters (Is Not Gold)” is a brilliant composition. It’s a song filled with great characters (apparently from stories that Seals‘ grandmother told him): the struggling rodeo rider living in a mobile home, his little girl who’s slowly turning into a woman, the old horse that should be put to pasture except the rider “just can’t bear to let him go” and, of course, the woman who let success go to her head and left the people who loved her behind. The song is basically crying for a movie to be made of it, except no movie could match Seals’ emotions here.
The first verse and chorus is sung with vulnerability and resignation. The anger starts to build in the second verse, culminating at the bridge where he tells her “Someday I’m sure you’re gonna know the cost, cause for everything you win there’s something lost.” Then, after a moment to gather himself, Seals wistfully sings the chorus, then whistles off into the sunset.