Kathy Mattea’s brilliant album released last year, Coal, reminded me of how much I love themed albums. There is something unique and special about an album that addresses a single topic from varied angles or transports the listener on a purposeful ride. It’s not just a random collection of singles with little to coalesce them together. Rather, like great movies, themed albums demand that you listen from the first note to the last, lest you miss something important in between.
Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger is one of the most famous themed albums in country music history. The entire album is based on the conceptual story of a preacher who shoots his cheating wife and her lover before going on the run. However, the theme doesn’t have to be as concrete as the one in Red Headed Stranger or as narrow as the one in Coal, which endeavors to shine a light on the coal-mining industry, to be included in this category. It can be as amorphous as “love” or “heartache.”
Just for fun, I culled through my musical catalog (and all 5 million or so country songs about love, heartache and partying on Friday night) and put together my own themed album very loosely titled: America 2009:
- Filthy Rich (Big Kenny, John Rich, Bill McDavid, Freddy Powers, Sonny Thockmorton)
- Workingman’s Blues #2 (Bob Dylan)
- If We Make It Through December (Merle Haggard)
- Dirt (Chris Knight)
- What’s A Simple Man To Do? (Steve Earle)
- The Ballad of Salvador & Isabelle (Dave Quanbury)
- If You Don’t Love Jesus (Billy Joe Shaver)
- Ellis Unit One (Steve Earle)
- Dress Blues (Jason Isbell)
- It’s a Different World Now (Rodney Crowell)
- Everybody Knows (Gary Louris, Martie Maguire, Natalie Maines, Emily Robison)
- Up to the Mountain (Patty Griffin)
- Reason to Believe (Bruce Springsteen)
If you were to create your own themed album, what would it look like?
As we launch our list of the best singles of 2008, it’s only fair that we give some time to the…not best singles of 2008.
What was the low point this year for country singles?
Was it John Rich’s ego/talent balance tipping decidedly in the wrong direction, with tripe like “Raisin’ McCain” and “Another You”?
Was riding in on a beautiful “White Horse” not enough reason to forgive Taylor Swift for the British Literature-flunking “Love Story” and the casually homophobic “Picture to Burn”?
Do Rodney Atkins’ “It’s America” and Jason Aldean’s “She’s Country” deserve to the final nails in the coffin of “let’s make a list” songwriting?
Or did Buddy Jewell sink the lowest of all with his anti-immigration rant “This Ain’t Mexico”?
You tell us.
What were the worst singles of 2008?
It seemed to be a suave career move. An Alaskan-born woman of the wilderness, wedded to a rodeo cowboy, embraces her down-home roots and heads for Nashville to join the ranks of modern country singers. Jewel fled pop music for the confines of Music Row with nary a whisper from critics. Her shift felt natural, instinctive, organic.
Though Jewel’s loyal sentiments towards country music have been admirable, they yield little creative inspiration on Perfectly Clear. During her lengthy pop career, Jewel built up a reservoir of melodic tricks, but too few of them are on display. Perfectly Clear is a mishmash of traditional rhythms that’s easy on the ears, but it’s an erratic and, at times, bland demonstration of her talent. The wide-open expanses presented by producer John Rich are a fitting stage for Jewel’s intricately-woven wordplay, but her gritty storytelling is seen only in flashes.
I fell in love with Broadway musicals at age 6 when my parents took me to see “Camelot”. It was a truly magical experience, and over the years I’ve often wondered if my early love of musicals contributed to my discovery of country music, as both rely on the emotional connection developed through story songs.
In recent years, a number of mainstream musical artists have ventured onto “The Great White Way.” Among them former American Idol contestants and pop stars. For the most part country music stars have stayed away, but Reba McEntire stands out as a noteworthy exception. In 2001, she starred in “Annie Get Your Gun” to great acclaim. Even as a mid-run replacement she was given a special Drama Desk award, among others. She also gave a memorable turn as Nellie Forbush in the Carnegie Hall production of “South Pacific” in 2006.
While I do believe the experience may be beneficial for some artists in learning how to interpret lyrics and connect with the audience, most country artists will likely never perform on Broadway. So mostly for fun, and out of appreciation and love for both genres, I cast some of today’s country artists in various Broadway roles:
- Carrie Underwood as Cosette in “Les Miserables”
- Kellie Pickler as Ado Annie Carnes in “Oklahoma”
- Emily West as Sally Bowles in “Cabaret”
- Julianne Hough as Glinda in “Wicked”
- Toby Keith as Jud Fry in “Oklahoma”
- Taylor Swift as Wendla Bergmann in “Spring Awakening”
- John Rich as Harold Hill in “Music Man”
- Ashton Shepherd as Jo March in “Little Women”
- Keith Urban as Roger Davis in “Rent”
- Brad Paisley as Seymour Krelborn in “Little Shop of Horrors”
- Charles Kelley as Joe Gillis in “Sunset Boulevard”
- Martina McBride as Peter in “Peter Pan”
- Big Kenny as the Engineer in “Miss Saigon”
What do you think? Any additions?
Reba in “Annie Get Your Gun”
As a singer, John Rich is a good songwriter. “Another You” is a decent song, and a great singer could hoodwink listeners into thinking it’s far better than it actually is. To be fair, if it was 1987 this would stand out on the dial as slightly better than the latest singles from John Schneider and Exile. But this sound got old a long time ago.
It’s interesting that as John Rich’s public persona has gone so far over the top, his first solo single in years is tepidly timid. There’s none of the charm of personality present in the best Big & Rich singles, nor anything even remotely obnoxious as his off-stage antics. I’m not sure why this song even exists, other than to be future source material for better singers looking to pad their latest album in a pinch.
Listen: Another You
Teenage juggernaut Taylor Swift has excelled by confessing the passionate, often-painful contents of her adolescent life. As a result, she’s redefining Nashville’s standard of procedures in terms of her musical direction and her unparalleled connection with country music’s growing diversity of demographics. Her single-minded mission continues with the release of her sophomore set, Fearless, an album that lands well beyond the bounds of country music, but succeeds any unleashing a slew of catchy tunes that will latch onto radio playlists for the foreseeable future.
The groundwork was laid by a self-titled first album that attracted a devoted following through its honest stories of young love and heartache, but Swift’s music was merely part of the package, with plenty of supplemental tools launching her into national awareness. Clever marketing (such as MySpace) and creative media opportunities (like MTV’s Total Request Live) concocted by the Swift camp provided a platform for her to sing her heart out about life from a pubescent perspective.
Their campaign, to establish a distinct image to fit with the Taylor-made melodies saturating the airwaves, catapulted her to the sales stratosphere. In these drab economic times, Swift’s been pulling away from the field, with her debut disc becoming the highest-selling country album of 2008. It was a notable achievement, given that Taylor Swift was released in October 2006. Swift’s commercial stats have been peerless, and though she’s capable of the honesty and heart that marks great country music, Fearless shows that her (sometimes raw) creative skills lie closer to pop music on the genre spectrum.
One on One
As the lead singer of Alabama, Randy Owen guided the quartet with his rugged, yet appealing vocal style. With the band retired from the road, Owen steps into the spotlight alone with his solo project, One on One. An elder statesman in contemporary country music, Owen is now embracing the challenge of courting to a youthful audience while still maintaining the signature style that defined his three decades as a hitmaker. Here, he’s far removed from his heyday as Alabama’s frontman, and the blue-collar rockers that defined the group’s Hall of Fame career are eschewed in favor of laidback grooves that fit well with Owen’s quietly soulful interpretations. Behind the boards for the album is conspicuous co-producer John Rich, recruited to command Owen’s comeback to the mainstream scene. The pair’s production choices swing from wonderfully subtle to poorly mismanaged, and those fluctuations in song sense make One on One a mixed bag of slow, seductive rhythms that rise and fall with the material they inhabit.
Rosanne Cash has issued a statement regarding recent use of her father’s name for political purposes:
It is appalling to me that people still want to invoke my father’s name, five years after his death, to ascribe beliefs, ideals, values and loyalties to him that cannot possibly be determined, and to try to further their own agendas by doing so. I knew my father pretty well, at least better than some of those who entitle themselves to his legacy and his supposed ideals, and even I would not presume to say publicly what I ‘know’ he thought or felt. This is especially dangerous in the case of political affiliation. It is unfair and presumptuous to use him to bolster any platform. I would ask that my father not be co-opted in this election for either side, since he is clearly not here to defend or state his own allegiance.
Her dignified response might be in regards to this statement by John Rich while performing at a John McCain rally:
Somebody’s got to walk the line in the country. They’ve got to walk it unapologetically. And I’m sure Johnny Cash would have been a John McCain supporter if he was still around.
I think that Rosanne’s response strikes the perfect tone, since it doesn’t name names and appeals to both sides of the political aisle to refrain from speaking on her father’s behalf. It’s dehumanizing to use him as a prop, a cheap attempt to give your point of view more credibility.
It reminds me of the old saying: “You can safely assume a man has recreated God in his own image when it turns out God hates all the same people he does.” Cash the father and Cash the daughter are both worthy of emulating. Rich should be trying to learn from them rather than putting his own words in Johnny Cash’s mouth.
With “Raisin’ McCain”, John Rich has managed to do the seemingly impossible: make the life of Senator John McCain seem terribly uninteresting. Rich’s relentless repetition of a poorly crafted hook and the interference of guitars cranked to 11 make this song almost unbearable to listen to.
Meanwhile, the fascinating backstory of McCain’s experiences in Vietnam, which include being shot down and being held captive for years, is crammed into a crowded verse that’s sung so loudly and so quickly that it borders on disrespectful.
I realize Rich wants this to be a rally song, but it’s little more than a third-rate Big & Rich rave-up with McCain’s name thrown in the mix. Perhaps if he’d used the template for “8th of November” instead of “Comin’ to Your City”, this would be a worthy tribute, not a novelty number.
Written by John Rich
Download: Raisin’ McCain
It's hard not to get a little excited over Melissa Lawson's win last night. Granted, Nashville Star hasn't been producing hitmakers by the dozen, but some truly talented artists have gotten their start on the show. Miranda Lambert is the most obvious example, and while Buddy Jewell had a handful of hits, I think the strongest male artist to emerge from the show so far has been Chris Young.
Lawson's getting a lot of press because she doesn't fit the “young and perky” mold that has been so popular with the gatekeepers at radio and the record labels. The deck is always stacked against female artists anyway, and it seems to be harder whe
n you're a little bit older and can't be mistaken for a pinup girl.
Country fans have voted Lawson in, and hopefully she'll be given a fair shot by radio. Country audiences aren't nearly as shallow as the label execs that pander to them, and the loyalty commanded by female artists who put substance over style runs very deep.
Lawson's got an awesome voice, strong stage presence and actually looks like a real person. She reminds me of what Joe Galante said about K.T. Oslin, which was along the lines of: “I don't care what anyone says. I think she's one of the sexiest women I've ever seen.”
Sure, there will be juvenile snickering and cheap shots taken by those who never matured past middle school. But there women and girls who are on the receiving end of similar comments all the time, surrounded by images in the media that reinforce those negative sentiments. The victory of Melissa Lawson last night was a victory for them, too.