Even long-time readers of Country Universe could be forgiven for getting to #2 on our Top Country Albums of 2012 list and wondering, “Who on earth is Iris DeMent?”
Iris DeMent came out of nowhere in 1992 with a stunning debut album, Infamous Angel, that received rapturous critical acclaim. The general consensus was that it heralded the arrival of a new singer-songwriter for the ages.
Two years later, My Life only strengthened that sentiment, and DeMent was widely seen as a critical voice in what would eventually become known as the Americana music genre.
Then, in 1996, she returned with a slightly more commercial sound with the remarkably political album, The Way I Should. Reviews were a bit mixed, though in retrospect that may have been more because of its sonic departure from the first two albums than any issues with the topical content.
Then…she kinda disappeared. Not completely, in the sense that she still surfaced on collaborative efforts, most notably her work in 1999 on John Prine’s album, In Spite of Ourselves. She even starred in the movie Songcatcher, playing Rose Gentry in that 2000 film. But after releasing full albums of her own songwriting like clockwork every two years, the clock simply stopped. In fact, the only album she released at all before 2012 was a collection of gospel covers in 2004.
So the release of Sing the Delta was as much an introduction to Iris DeMent for 21st century fans of country, folk and roots music as it was a long overdue return that was patiently awaited by those of us who loved her the first time around. Delta is very similar in sound and structure to her first two albums, so those who are digging the new set should check those out first. They’re both essential listening.
But I’ve decided to be a bit more democratic and showcase exactly two tracks from each of her first three albums. In truth, if you like any of these selections, you should probably go ahead and just buy all three albums.
“Let the Mystery Be” – from the 1992 album Infamous Angel
The opening track of her debut set establishes her point of view immediately, and feels like the blueprint for all of her most multi-layered songs. What I love about this song is that she claims to be surrendering to the mystery of religious truth, which suggests a passive approach to matters of faith.
But her keen attention to all of the details found in both God’s creation and different religious beliefs around the world belie that indifference. Perhaps she doesn’t want to let the mystery be so much as she doesn’t want to lose the thrill of discovery and questioning that is sacrificed when you settle on just one essential truth.
A moving eulogy to a dying small town. Her mourning for the little community in which she chose to remain is also a bit of mourning for her own life choices, as she sees every major and quite a few minor life moments have taken place within the borders of one little dot on the map.
This masterpiece has been covered by both Merle Haggard and Joe Nichols, but even their fine readings can’t approach the raw power of DeMent’s original. Even the most sensitive child grows up to be a thick-skinned adult simply because of the mundane daily expectations that life places upon us with such bewildering urgency. Those feelings remain buried deep below the surface, and as DeMent eloquently demonstrates, it is incredibly dangerous to engage them at all, lest they refuse to return to the distant inner hole to which they’ve been banished with time.
“Easy’s Getting Harder Every Day” – from the 1994 album My Life
Budding sociologists looking for pop culture windows into the isolation and frustration of working-class middle Americans in the 1990s should pick up the first few seasons of Roseanne on DVD, then download this Mp3 and listen to it on repeat. Even when all the rules are followed and all of the basic needs are met, the happiness that comes with full realization of your true worth and talent remains forever elusive.
A stunning polemic that is perhaps most notable for being written during a period of relative peace and prosperity. DeMent noticed the troubles borne of inequity and inequality that were brewing under the surface and have since boiled over in recent years. She points the finger at all of the right culprits, too.
“The Way I Should” – from the 1996 album The Way I Should
A statement of self-worth that perhaps foreshadowed her decision to simply not record another album until she wanted to. Here, she defeats the voices whispering in her ear to work harder and meet some unreachable standard of success. She does so by rejecting the very metrics of measurement as completely invalid.
It’s impossible to review an album titled It’s All Good without indulging in a few witty remarks. Such a title tends to beg the question of whether or not the album really is “all good.” The vocals are all good, to be sure. Joe Nichols has already proven himself to be one of mainstream country music’s best male vocalists, and on his newest effort, his performances do not disappoint. The production, likewise, is consistently solid. Producers Mark Wright and Buddy Cannon back Nichols with arrangements that sound easily accessible and radio-friendly, while laced with traditional country trimmings of fiddle and steel, and it certainly is enjoyable to hear country music that is sonically recognizable as such.
For all its positive traits, however, the album at times falls into a rut of predictability, leaning on safely inoffensive radio-ready themes that have grown stale from overuse. In that regard, lead single “Take It Off” turns out to be an accurate preview of the album it foreshadowed. The single was released in May, just early enough to capitalize on country radio’s annual summer song mania, albeit with limited success, as the song topped out at #25 on the charts. It’s a fun enough tune, but it’s too forgettable, not to mention interchangeable with any other summer song, to be worth coming back to all year round. Likewise, the country boy hokum of “This Ole Boy” plays like a rote run-of-the-mill Peach Pickers tune that wasn’t particularly interesting when Craig Morgan sang it either, while the Blake Shelton-esque “The More I Look” is nothing more than disposable radio fodder.
Though the quality of the song material is inconsistent, Nichols’ performances often elevate it to a point. While the imagery of “I Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” is nothing to write home about, Nichols lifts the song to a higher level with his warm and expressive delivery, while a fiddle in the background lends an almost haunting quality to the track. With the title track, Nichols imbues his own distinct personality into a lyric about life’s simple pleasures, while the laid-back traditional country arrangement finishes things off nicely.
In spite of all its middling material, the album’s best moments simply shine. “Somebody’s Mama” offers a novel spin on the timeless theme of “the one that got away,” as the narrator is having a tattoo of his ex-lover’s name covered, and pondering over where she might have ended up in life, assuming that “She’s probably somebody’s mama by now.” The bittersweet lyric fully functions on par with the steel-laden arrangement as well as Nichols’ smooth vocal delivery. The title track “Never Gonna Get Enough” shows a loose and laid-back style along with lyrical imagery that recalls George Jones “Tennessee Whiskey,” while “She’s Just Like That” works well as a simple ode to a woman who is beautiful inside and out.
The album’s finest tracks offer a glimpse of what could have been had the overall caliber of song material been a few degree higher. In the end, we’re left with an album that sounds good, but that could have been better. Of course, the spot-on vocals and solid traditional-leaning arrangements make for an album that is sonically pleasant throughout, with not a single moment that sounds fingernails-on-chalkboard awful. While there are still plenty of listeners who will find such an effort wholly satisfactory, those who prefer country music with a little extra meat to it would likely prefer to cherry-pick it instead. As a whole, It’s All Good plays like a musical piece of candy – mostly enjoyable, but largely insubstantial. Good it is, but great it isn’t.
Google “Gary Harrison songwriter” and you won’t find a website or MySpace. There’s not even a Wikipedia article. Don’t know where he’s from, how he got into songwriting or what he likes to eat for dinner.
As far as I know, he has never made an album. When he co-writes a song, does he write the music or the lyrics or a little of both? Don’t know. He’s a Grammy nominated songwriter as co-writer of “Strawberry Wine”, the 1997 CMA Song of the Year, and has penned many BMI Award-Winning Songs. It appears that his first big hit was “Lying in Love with You”, written with Dean Dillon for Jim Ed Brown and Helen Cornelius. The duet went to #2 in 1979.
Since there is so little data to draw from, a chronological treatment of his illustrious career would be difficult. I’ve decided instead to begin with the collaboration Gary is best known for, his work with Matraca Berg, and then continue with his other significant songwriting collaborations.
In his excellent Favorite Songs by Favorite Songwriters article on Matraca Berg, Kevin gave us his favorite 25 songs written by Berg. Gary Harrison has frequently collaborated with Matraca. On Kevin’s list the following 9 songs are written by Berg/Harrison:
#25 Wild Angels – Martina McBride
#22 Give Me Some Wheels – Suzy Bogguss
#20 Demolition Angel – Pam Tillis
#19 Everybody Knows – Trisha Yearwood
#10 Strawberry Wine – Deana Carter
#7 Wrong Side of Memphis – Trisha Yearwood
#5 Diamonds and Tears – Suzy Bogguss
#4 Dreaming Fields – Trisha Yearwood
#3 My Heart Will Never Break This Way Again – Patty Loveless
Give a read to Kevin’s write-up for all 25. Kevin asked for comments from his readers on their favorite Matraca Berg songs. In the 29 comments received, three more collaborations with Gary were mentioned that didn’t make Kevin’s cut, including “Hey Cinderella” and “Eat at Joe’s” by Suzy Bogguss and Pinmonkey’s “That Train Don’t Run”.
“Hey Cinderella” is from Suzy’s 1993 CD, Something Up My Sleeve. Fantasy turns into “dreams that lost their way” by the end of the first long verse. In the second verse, reality sets in. In “Eat at Joe’s”, from her 1992 CD, Voices in the Wind, Suzy’s sounds like a sultry waitress in an all night diner – “here’s a hot top on your coffee, honey you’re a mess, I ain’t your wife I ain’t your momma, but I’ll do I guess”. The bridge is a wistful but not really hopeful call out to prince charming.
My favorite Pinmonkey song is still “Barbed Wire and Roses”, but “That Train Don’t Run”, from their 2006 Big Shiny Cars CD, isn’t far behind. It’s up-tempo like Barbed Wire. It was also a single for Matraca Berg from her 1997 “Sunday Morning to Saturday Night” cd. The singer recalls a former lover who may have been a bit on the wild side. It must be “your memory rattlin’ the shutters, that train don’t run by here no more”. The next line is “I lie and listen to the last boxcar, sweet dreams baby wherever you are”. Love that last phrase. Sounds like something Bogie might have said.
A bit of trivia: I wonder how many times that last phrase, “sweet dreams baby, wherever you are”, has been used in a song. In addition to the Pinmonkey song, I found it in “Goodnight”, written by Charlie Black and Dana Hunt, from Suzy Bogguss’ self-titled 1999 CD. The last line of the chorus is “I’m signing off, sweet dreams baby, wherever you are”. A song by Jedd Hughes, “Time to Say Goodnight” has “sweet dreams baby, sweet dreams baby wherever you are tonight”. It was written by Hughes, Tommy Lee James and Terry McBride and can be found on Hughes’ 2004 CD, Transcontinental. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone else finds another instance.
I found another Berg/Harrison collaboration but this time with Jeff Hanna on a Chely Wright song, “Emma Jean’s Guitar”. It’s an album track from Chely’s 1997 Let Me In CD, which featured “Shut Up and Drive”. The story tells of a guitar with Emma Jean’s name etched in the finish found in a pawnshop. The singer wonders about Emma Jean’s hopes and dreams and feels that she’s the guardian of her guitar.
Gary has written quite a few great songs without Matraca. Another frequent co-writer for Gary has been Tim Mensy. My favorite Mensy-Harrison collaboration is Trisha Yearwood’s “Nearest Distant Shore”, an album track from her 1992 Hearts in Armor CD. It’s a song about getting out of a bad relationship: “You did your best but “the one you swore to love is pulling you down, you’re in over your head, chilled to the bone by the waters you’ve tread, chart a course to land before you drown”.
“That Wasn’t Me” was an excellent album track for Martina McBride on her 1993 CD, The Way That I Am. She knows that the guy is still hurting from the memory of an old girlfriend. She tells him “that wasn’t me”. It’s time to move on because she “can no longer pay the price” of his not letting go.
For fans of Mark Chesnutt, there’s “I Just Wanted You to Know”, a #1 song in ’94 from the CD Almost Goodbye and a #6 the same year, “She Dreams”, from What a Way to Live. Other Mensy Harrison collaborations include Doug Stone’s “I Thought It Was You”, a #4 in 1991, “A Singer in the Band”, an album track on Joe Nichol’s Revelation CD in 2004, and a Mark Wills song “Any Fool Can say Goodbye”.
With J.D. Martin, Gary Harrison wrote “Rollin’ Lonely”, a Johnny Lee song from his “Workin’ for a Livin’ ” album, which reached #9 on the charts in 1985, “Domestic Life”, a John Conlee #4 hit from his “American Faces” album in 1987, “Two Car Garage”, a #3 hit in 1983 from the B.J. Thomas album “The Great American Dream” and “Broken Toys”, a song about child abuse from BJ’s 1985 album “Throwin’ Rocks at the Moon”. The last song was written with Gloria Thomas as well as J.D.
Gary co-wrote 3 songs with Tammy Cochran from her “Thirty Something and Single” album released in June of 2009, the title track, “It’s All Over But the Leaving” and “He Really Thinks He’s Got It”.
With Karen Staley, he wrote “Face in the Crowd” which peaked at #4, a duet with Michael Martin Murphey and Holly Dunn from the former’s 1987 “Americana” album and “Now and Then” which Michelle Wright took to #9 in Canada.
Some other Gary Harrison songs are:
- “I Hate Everything” written with Keith Stegall, a #1 for George Strait in 2005. Check out the wake-up call at the end.
- “Alone Some” with Billy Yates, an album track for Billy from his 2005 album “Harmony Man”.
- “Crazy Me” and “I Do It for Your Love” with Richard Marx, from the Kenny Rogers 2000 CD There You Go Again.
Impressive list and I’ve probably missed some songs. If you search BMI.com, you’ll find 918 work titles for Gary Harrison. He’s been so busy, he probably hasn’t had time to set up a website or MySpace.
There has been a fair amount of positive hype surrounding newcomer, Easton Corbin, as of late. He has been lauded as the next George Strait (not that George Strait is going anywhere quite yet, by the way!). Since he isn’t afraid to prominently feature the steel guitar on his self-titled debut record, such comparison is natural if not justified, though Corbin’s voice is not yet as strong as Strait’s.
Country radio is still playing some neotraditional artists in the vein of George Strait, Alan Jackson, Joe Nichols and Josh Turner, but Corbin is somewhat of an anomaly in the largely pop-leaning mainstream country music landscape. As a result, being a proponent of traditionalism, it is admittedly tempting to give him special deference for embracing a sound that is not prevalent on radio right now. His album, however, is a product of mixed results that does not quite live up to the hype, but is a solid debut effort nonetheless.
From songs like the lead single, “I’m A Little More Country Than That” (an indirect proposal song), which celebrates country life by comparing himself to decidedly country elements, to “Roll with It” and “That’ll Make You Wanna Drink”, Corbin makes it clear that he is a man who embraces the simple kind of life, which he emotionally equates to being a country boy. Incidentally, these songs are among the weaker tracks on the album.
Alongside the innocuous swagger, Corbin intersperses songs that explores relationships in the simplest terms. Stereotypes about old people abound in “Someday When I’m Old”, but the song still maintains a tangible sweetness. Additionally, “Don’t Ask Me About a Woman” is a predictable characterization of how confusing women are, though with an amusing line that says, “Boy, I’ve lived nearly eighty years/a lot of know-how between these ears/But when it comes to your grandma, /I’m still your age.”
The most infectious melody on the album is the Caribbean flavored “A Lot to Learn About Livin’” with the dullest song, both in melody and content, being “Let Alone You.” As a counterpoint, one of the strongest songs is the final track, “Leavin’ a Lonely Town”, which follows the protagonist as he is on his way out of a town that he has apparently outgrown.
In many ways, Easton Corbin hearkens back to the neo-traditional movement of the Class of ’89. The simple melodies are encased in the sonic appeal of fiddles, steel and acoustic guitars, and prominent, though not overpowering, drums. Moreover, Corbin exudes a relaxed sincerity that is often overshadowed by loudness and overdone melodies on country records these days. The song selection, however, is a step below the debut efforts of the ’89 Class like Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson or Clint Black.
While Corbin’s voice is surprisingly indistinctive, it is pleasant and melds rather nicely with his choice of structurally simplistic songs. Much like his voice, however, none of the melodies or lyrics on this album are particularly memorable, though inoffensive they may be. Nevertheless, the potential for this newcomer is tangible and future growth is extremely likely. So, it would be wise for us to keep an anticipatory ear out for Easton Corbin’s future endeavors.
The 201 Greatest Singles of the Decade, Part 3: #160-#141
#160 “Last Call”
Lee Ann Womack
Womack’s second-best Aughts song about late-night temptations is still better than a lot of people’s first-best songs about anything. Even in avoiding her drunken ex’s advances, she sounds positively heartbroken, suggesting she’d gladly make the other decision if she didn’t know better. – Dan Milliken
#159 “She’s Not Just a Pretty Face”
Her motivation for her music has always been escapism, but I love the personal touch she slips into this one. Her late mother is the one who she’s referring to when she sings “at night, she pumps gasoline.” – Kevin Coyne
Instead of bombarding our readers with a million Christmas posts, we thought it would be more efficient to gather a bunch of 2009’s Christmas singles and provide a quick rundown in one post. So, in no particular order, here are my thoughts on this year’s Christmas singles.
This brother duo treats this lightweight classic with an unimaginative contemporary production. It does not bring anything interesting to the table and is, mercifully, an all in all forgettable track.
Carters Chord, “O Come, O Come Emanuel” (Listen), & “Santa Baby” (Listen)
It’s a shame that the most talented act (besides Keith himself, of course) on Toby Keith’s Show Dog label has not gained any traction in the last couple of years. It seems that, so far, the only way Carters Chord will be heard is through digital downloads, as their very good 2008 studio album was only released in digital form. Likewise, they have just released a 2-song Christmas EP that contains a pretty version of “O Come, O Come Emanuel” and a sassy interpretation of “Santa Baby.” Both tracks are well produced with prominent dobro and acoustic guitar in the mixes. “Santa Baby” is less whimsical and more assertive than the original version. “O Come O Come Emanuel” is well sung with beautiful sister harmonies and very few vocal gymnastics.
“Candy Cane Christmas” is a nice jazzy Christmas original that invokes warmth by tapping into the sweet feelings of anticipation for the big day. Rucker is a pretty decent crooner, which is what this song calls for. Over all, it’s a nice song, though not especially memorable.
Faith Hill has an inarguably top-shelf voice that is capable of various musical styles. So, it is disappointing that her 2008 Christmas album was good, but generally uninspiring as far as creativity or energy goes. As to be expected, she does these classics justice, but nothing more.
This is just bad. Very bad. If you want a cool version of this song, not counting the untouchable original, seek out Aimee Mann’s funky version that will surely make you smile, unlike this pointless version that will only make you cringe.
Joe Nichols, “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” (Listen) , “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” (Listen)
Much like Faith Hill’s Christmas album, Joe Nichol’s album is nice, but does not particularly stand out. As you’ll find with these songs, his voice is wonderful as always, but there’s still a barely perceptible something to be desired. .
I love this husband-wife duo, as I’m sure is no secret to Country Universe readers at this juncture. This gorgeous Rory Feke original only cements my adoration. It is a sweet slice of life snapshot of Christmastime. I could say more, but what’s the point? Joey + Rory + Christmas = Beautiful Authenticity.
Marty Raybon, “Good Old Fashioned Christmas” (Listen), “One Night in Bethlehem” (Listen)
Marty Raybon is best known for being the lead singer for Shenandoah, one of the best and most popular pop country groups of the nineties. He has since left the group to pursue a quiet solo career that has garnered a couple albums that are more rootsy in nature. “Old Fashioned Christmas” is in line with Raybon’s solo career, inasmuch as it is an up-tempo honky tonk romper. Conversely, the pretty “One Night in Bethlehem” is similar to Raybon’s work with Shenandoah, which employs aggressive piano and other more contemporary elements. Both tracks, which can be found on a digital EP, are solid songs with the latter song being more substantive and, over all, superior.
Interestingly and happily, many of the songs on Sugarland’s new Christmas album are the most country that we’ve ever heard from them. One of the standout tracks on this very good album is “Silent Night.” Jennifer Nettles’ vocal is flawless and the acoustic instrumentation is truly heavenly. As a nice surprise, Nettle’s beautifully sings the second verse in Spanish, in which she holds a college degree. This is, no doubt, the best Christmas single of 2009.
As we begin our look back on the last ten years in country music, we’re starting with the bottom. Over the next few days, you’ll be reading about the worst that country music sent to radio in the 2000s, much of which they actually played.
But first, a disclaimer. This list makes no attempt to objectively list the worst singles of the decade. If that’s what I was going for here, I’d just post a collection of homemade tracks and twenty Rascal Flatts singles and call it a day. Instead, this list takes a broader view, including songs from accomplished artists that were just disappointing, copycat and fad-chasing numbers, and just plain old mediocre efforts.
This isn’t the type of thing we normally do, but I’m sure I’ll hear what I’m right about, what I’m wrong about, and what I forgot to include in the first place! Look for the best-of lists to follow as the year starts winding down.
The Worst Singles of the Decade, Part 1: #50-#41
Mark Wills, “19 Somethin’”
Pick a decade, man.
Toby Keith, “Who’s Your Daddy?”
The biggest casualty of Keith’s ascent to superstardom was his quality check. When your label lets you put out anything and radio goes ahead and plays it, the blame must be spread around for such silliness as this.
Halfway to Hazard, “Daisy”
In which a girl’s sole reasons for existing are to make a boy a man, lead him to God, and give him a child. After that, you can just kill her off in the final verse. This is why people hate country music.
Martina McBride, “(I Never Promised You a) Rose Garden”
McBride’s bloodless cover of the Lynn Anderson classic lacks all of the layers of irony found in the original, but it secured its place on this list by the parenthetical addition to the title. “Oh, it’s that song about a rose garden!”
Rascal Flatts, “Revolution”
Then again, if Martina sounds like she doesn’t get the layers of meaning in “Rose Garden”, Rascal Flatts make clear they have no idea at all what John Lennon was singing about on the White Album. That they have the audacity to start going “Shoo-be-doo-bop” in the background as Gary LeVox sings about Chairman Mao is simply insane.
Joe Nichols, “If Nobody Believed In You”
He’s worried that God is finally giving up on mankind. He was able to keep the faith through all those epic wars and acts of genocide, but no prayers in public school pushed Him over the edge.
Miranda Lambert, “Dead Flowers”
Person #1: “Wow, this song has no melody at all.”
Person #2: “Did she just compare herself to Christmas lights?”
Person #1: “And it just goes on forever. Who’s singing this anyway?”
Person #2: “It’s by….Miranda Lambert.”
Person #1: “Miranda Lambert?…..It’s…..brilliant!”
Person #2: “Yes. Brilliant!”
Lady Antebellum, “Lookin’ For a Good Time”
She should look for an Autotuner instead.
Billy Gilman, “She’s My Girl”
“The way she moves, the way she grooves. She drives me wild with her wild-child smile.” It took Billy Gilman singing a romantic song to make all of his inspirational songs seem painless in comparison.
Certain country songs have a vibe so inviting that you’re immediately pulled in – such is the case with “Gimmie That Girl.” Its sound is fresh and almost organic, laced with a catchy beat and a charming sexiness that few male country artists can pull off.
Thematically, the song doesn’t tread unchartered waters with its “I love you just the way you are” sentiment, and it doesn’t pack a punch like some of Nichols’ previous singles. But he nails the warm, rich vocal performance, infusing the lyrics with just enough kick and swing to make them come alive. There are even a few endearing, stand-out lines: “Dancing around like a fool/starring in her own little show/gimmie the girl that the rest of the world ain’t lucky enough to know.”
Ultimately, “Gimmie That Girl” isn’t groundbreaking, but it’s a tasteful balance of traditional and mainstream country, and there’s certainly a place for songs like this in the industry.