In a year that has already brought the deaths of immortal talents like George Jones, Slim Whitman, Patti Page, and Jack Greene, not to mention the untimely loss of Mindy McCready, it is understandable that the recent news regarding Randy Travis is having the country music fans collectively holding their breath with nervousness and dread.
There is something distinctly different about how I am processing the news about Randy Travis. The thought of losing him is inextricably linked with a feeling that we’d be losing an essential core of the country music that I fell in love with more than two decades ago. Now, I remember Randy Travis from when I was a child. What little kid wouldn’t be in love with a catchy song like “Forever and Ever, Amen”?
By the time I was old enough to discover country music on my own, he was already something of an elder statesman, despite his young age. As I delved into the history of the genre I was falling in love with, widely accepted concepts like Travis starting the new traditionalist movement and Storms of Life being one of greatest albums of all time had taken root. The truth is, traditionalism never really went away, and even during the Urban Cowboy years, artists like Ricky Skaggs and Emmylou Harris were having commercial success with roots-based music.
But Randy Travis didn’t just have a bit of success. He sold millions of records in a time where almost no country acts were doing so, and certainly none who didn’t incorporate pop or rock sounds into their work. His massive success was the tipping point that made the nineties boom inevitable, as labels saw new acts like Clint Black and Alan Jackson as being capable of superstar status, instead of just being genre favorites that sold moderately well.
He never really got the credit he deserved for this, with the industry treating him like old news despite him continuing to score hits and sell platinum throughout the nineties and early 2000′s. There are so many great singles that I was around for when they first came out. “Before You Kill Us All.” “Look Heart, No Hands.” “Out of My Bones.” “Whisper My Name.” “If I Didn’t Have You.” “Better Class of Losers.” “The Hole.” “Three Wooden Crosses.” “Dig Two Graves.” The list goes on and on.
He’s also responsible, through no fault of his own, for what I call country music’s Messiah Complex. After he revolutionized the widespread appeal for traditionalism, which led to a solid decade of traditional country artists being signed and succeeding wildly, the sounds began to drift back to pop and rock flavorings. Since this shift, every slightly twangy newbie has been anointed as the savior of country music. Lee Ann Womack, Brad Paisley, Dixie Chicks, Joe Nichols, Josh Turner, Jamey Johnson, and Gretchen Wilson have all been shouldered with the burden of being the next Randy Travis.
This has led to deep disappointment when their second or third album struggled, or even worse, to feelings of betrayal when these selected stewards veered away from traditional country music. All that pressure, and not a one of them even started off with an album in the same league as Storms of Life, though Johnson and the Chicks came remarkably close.
I can’t get my head or my heart around the thought that his contemporary titan might not be with us anymore. I can’t stomach the coverage that focuses more on his personal troubles than his incredible body of work and peerless impact on country music as a whole.
Please use the comments to share your own thoughts and feelings about Randy Travis. Also, I recommend reading the Favorite Songs by Favorite Artists piece that Leeann Ward wrote a few years ago. It’s an excellent place to start for those who are looking to discover the his rich and diverse catalog.
As the title suggests, Clay Walker’s latest single plays out like the alternate ending to Faith Hill and Tim McGraw’s fiery “Like We Never Loved At All.” Whereas the latter finds the woman agonizing over her ex moving on, “Like We Never Said Goodbye” tackles a smaller, more predictable range of emotions as its characters rekindle their relationship over wine. On paper, it’s the less interesting road taken.
But it’s not the story that carries this song – it’s the storytelling, done expertly by both Walker himself and the lovely, fitting arrangement. From the first line, Walker is endearingly earnest, using an imperfect vocal to draw out his character’s equal parts eagerness and vulnerability. He glides through the story with playful ease, delivering its simple details with just enough purpose to make them pop. Only a veteran storyteller like Walker could breathe new life into otherwise colorless lyrics –“How you been? / Been awhile / Tell me how’s your mama?”— with nakedly sincere phrasing.
No matter how sweet the delivery, though, this story wouldn’t shine without its subtly compelling arrangement. Long before the lure of Billy Currington, Chris Young and Josh Turner, Walker was making music soaked in a different brand of sensuality, out in full rhythmic swing on “Like We Never Said Goodbye.” As with the best Walker singles, there’s an intangible sparkle somewhere within its melody, pulse and sparse piano lines – evocative enough to match the magnitude of rediscovered love, but gentle enough to remind us that country music is about finding the magic in the simplest of stories.
Remember the first time that you heard Josh Turner?
You must have been in awe of that baritone. Here’s a guy who can sing deeper than the rest without sacrificing tone and nuance.
Turner’s had plenty of great singles, but many of them were merely good songs that his deep voice would lend distinction to.
On “Time is Love”, that voice never surfaces. Turner sings in a register that would be normal for anyone else but sounds strangely high coming from him. It’s not like “Your Man” was modern-day Kristofferson, but the temerity of Turner’s material really shows when it’s not dripping with his signature sound.
Why he chose to remove himself from his own record is a mystery, but whatever the reason, “Time is Love” is the first big disappointment of 2012.
Written by Tony Martin, Mark Nesler, and Tom Shapiro
In listening to American Idol winner Scotty McCreery’s debut album, it becomes all too clear that either McCreery is being carefully reared by the unabashedly commercial-minded execs of 19 Entertainment… or that he simply enjoys playing follow-the-leader. The former is most likely, but almost every track on Clear as Day sounds like an emulation of the style of one of country radio’s favorite hitmakers. We get to hear Scotty McCreery play Montgomery Gentry. We get to hear Scotty McCreery play Kenny Chesney. But there are precious few moments in which it sounds like Scotty McCreery is being Scotty McCreery.
“Water Tower Town” sounds like something lifted out of the Montgomery Gentry reject pile circa 2002. “Better Than That” carries a strong thematic resemblance to Kenny Chesney’s “Never Wanted Nothing More,” with nothing about it’s story structure feeling at all urgent or revelatory. On another note, it comes as no surprise that “Walk In the Country” was co-written by Urban, as the track clearly has Urban written all over it. (Think “Where the Blacktop Ends”) Such style-mimicking demonstrates the fact that, as a whole, Clear as Day falls into the common trap in which commercialism overshadows an album’s artistic merits.
Somewhat oddly, it’s the two singles released thus far that represent the album at its absolute worst. “I Love You This Big” scans as a grammatically-awkward piece of schmaltz with an uninspired production and a dull, auto-tuned vocal. “The Trouble with Girls” merely sounds like a cute little basket of cliches, as if the writers were more concerned with struggling to find words that rhyme than connecting with a listener on more than a surface level. At the same time, the dramatic orchestral swells in the bridge make the song sound like it’s taking itself way too seriously. It’s all too obvious that the songs’ sole purpose of existence is to serve as inoffensive distractions between radio commercials. They are so carefully calculated so as to make no negative impression that they end up making hardly any impression at all.
In most cases, lyrics rarely scratch below surface level. High school hallways serve as a common stage setting – Little surprise, given McCreery’s age of 18 – with many of the tracks playing like gender-flipped versions of Taylor Swift songs, minus the authenticity and distinct perspective. The title tracks recalls a few mundane details of an encounter with a romantic flame, only to settle for a clumsy grasp at the heart strings by killing the girl off in the end. The songs that work are those that emphasize the melodies and Scotty’s performances above the generally mediocre lyrical content. “Write My Number On My Hand” finds McCreery turning in what is possibly his most engaged performance of the set, with a wink-wink country boy charm that effectively sells the silly lyrics. But that’s not to say that all of the songs are lyrical duds. With “Dirty Dishes,” McCreery taps into the universally acceptable country radio theme of faith, and offers a take that is actually interesting. The song (written by Neil Thrasher, Michael Delaney, and Tony Martin) portrays the narrator’s mother saying “the strangest prayer ever said,” in which she thanks God for dirty dishes, noisy children, slamming doors, et cetera, and then highlighting the positive aspects of common domestic annoyances. Less effectively, however, “That Old King James” scans as an inferior “Three Wooden Crosses”-wannabe. It tracks the life journey of a King James Bible as it is passed down through different family members, but it lacks a clear message to serve as a form of listener payoff.
At its best, Clear as Day continues to offer glimpses of the substantial well of talent McCreery possesses. But at the same time, that talent sounds like it’s a long way from being fully realized. He’s not Josh Turner. He’s not George Strait. He’s not John Michael Montgomery. But when it comes to portraying who Scotty McCreery is as an artist, Clear paints a picture that is disappointingly murky.
A preface for the Scottyfolk: I didn’t watch this season of American Idol, so this single is my first exposure to its winner – no backstory, no jilted favorite of mine he beat. The only metric I’m using is whether “I Love You This Big” sounds like something I’d want to hear on the radio between “Teenage Daughters” and “Amen.”
Here’s my verdict: No.
But it’s an understanding “No,” mostly because this is an American Idol victory single, and only two out of ten of those have been at all decent (Fantasia’s and David Cook’s; if you disagree, I Don’t-Care This Big). McCreery’s bid has all the trappings of its forerunners: generic production, obvious overdubs and Auto-Tune to create a synthetically “perfect” performance, awful Eureka!-moment key change, lyrics so cheesy Michael Bolton gagged (though Rascal Flatts still bobbed their heads along contentedly).
But the song isn’t a great deal worse than the 90′s schmaltz it models itself after, and at least it doesn’t end with the Jesus reference I was expecting from the title (which would have been a shameless rip-off of Jimmy Wayne’s sappy-sweet “I Love You This Much”). For his part, McCreery just sounds like Josh Turner’s young, starry-eyed demo singer who also sometimes rubs his signed copy of John Michael Montgomery’s Greatest Hits like a rabbit’s foot the morning of a big trig test. He’s got a few nice moments of tone and phrasing, and the rest just says, “I haven’t found my own voice yet.”
And that’s fine. I imagine he wasn’t challenged on the Turnerisms on Idol because no one there knew enough to do so – but country fans and radio will call him out. I’m sure the label’s already figuring out how to broach the subject once he’s in the studio. That’s not to say he won’t keep sounding like his heroes, but it should get better. We may find he’s an interesting singer in his own right after a spotty album or two. Hard to say.
In the meantime, I’ll just anticipate the necessary change-of-station at the end of “Teenage Daughters,” breathe, and let the world turn as it will.
I wouldn’t be a man if I didn’t feel like this
I wouldn’t be a man if a woman like you
Was anything I could resist
I’d have to be from another planet
Where love doesn’t exist
I wouldn’t be a man if I didn’t feel like this
Well, this is kind of an unusual situation: a modern country singer choosing to resurrect an old country song…that was never that good to begin with.
Give Josh Turner credit for trying, at least. A lot of the current guys just pay lip service to Johnny and Willie, then maybe do a rawked up snippet of “Family Tradition” at their show. Turner’s going all the way with this obscure-ish Don Williams single; he must really believe in it.
It’s just an odd shame, then, that “I Wouldn’t Be a Man” happens to be such a sloppy composition.
The song is about makin’ love. And the verses relish the little details and sensations of that endeavor, making this particular evening, and this particular connection, sound truly special. That’s until, out of nowhere, that chorus comes in and inadvertently declares all the sexy magic, well, kind of ordinary. “I wouldn’t be a man if I didn’t feel like this. I wouldn’t be a man if I woman like you was anything I could resist.” It’s a jarring shift in focus that even the song’s steady, sensual groove can’t fully mask.
More significantly, though, it’s a bungled compliment to the woman – a mood-killer. Imagine being in bed with someone who seduces you with pretty nothings about how great you look in the moonlight, then abruptly adds, “of course, it’s only biologically normal that I should be so aroused by how good you look right now. I mean, it’s not like I’m an alien from another planet or something! Haha! …But seriously, I’m not.” If I were the woman, I’d probably respond, “I thought we were talking about me.”
Then there’s this unintentional awkwardness: if taken literally, the chorus’ lyrics dismiss the reality that there a lot of people who are rightfully called “men” – and not “aliens from a loveless planet” – who don’t find attractive women attractive. Not such a weird issue for a country song from the 80′s, of course, but for a 2011 release, it feels like a dated perspective.
So it’s all just a bit…kooky.
Of course, it’s easy to see why the record will still appeal to people. Despite an uncharacteristically detached vocal, Turner sounds both masculine and sweet, an appealing romantic combo. He even repeatedly identifies himself by the word “man,” probably further reminding you subconsciously of his primal, sexual identity. This track is engineered to turn you – or someone you know – on. And on an aesthetic level, it works.
But much like the act it celebrates, it doesn’t always make much sense.
If turnover has been slow in the Entertainer category, it’s been nothing less than glacial in the Male Vocalist race. Over the past ten years, only eleven men have received nominations. Four of those eleven – Dierks Bentley, Vince Gill, Darius Rucker, and Josh Turner – have been nominated only once.
Now, Toby Keith and Tim McGraw were regularly invited to the party in the first half of the last decade, with four and three nominations, respectively. But the race has essentially been dominated by the same five men: Kenny Chesney, Alan Jackson, Brad Paisley, George Strait, and Keith Urban, who combine for forty nominations in just one decade.
The recent history has been pretty boring. After two consecutive wins by Alan Jackson, we’ve had three consecutive wins each by Keith Urban and reigning champ Brad Paisley.
Will there be a new winner this year, or even a new nominee? Should there be?
Let’s take a look at last year’s race:
Darius Rucker was the new face to enter the race last year. No brand new nominee has been nominated again in this category since Keith Urban earned his first nomination in 2004. He’s been in the race ever since. I’d say Rucker’s close to a lock, along with Paisley. But just like in the Entertainer race, a case could be made for a decent shake-up, especially some of this category’s veteran acts have dipped at radio and retail.
Here’s who I would nominate this year. Share your picks in the comments:
Anybody else notice that this guy’s outselling the rest of the male solo artists? All the while, he’s been completely ignored at the country awards shows for his last two projects. He’s not overdue just yet, but he’s due.
He went out of his comfort zone to release a bluegrass-flavored album that was pretty darn good.
He just missed my list for preferred Entertainer nominees, but he’s at the head of the pack in this category. With his domination at radio, not to mention a stronger studio album than his previous two, I wouldn’t be shocked for him to become the third artist in history to win four of these.
His hit-making has certainly been kicked up a notch as of late. He may be destined to toil just under the radar of this category like Trace Adkins and Gary Allan before him, but it would be nice to see him get a nod.
A decent comeback at radio and retail, coupled with him being a great singer who’s been overlooked, makes me hope he finishes out this category.
I left off previous nominees Keith Urban, George Strait, and Darius Rucker because they haven’t put out new albums during the eligibility period, so it seems like a good time to let some new folks get a chance. I left off Kenny Chesney because he’s been doing nothing but stopgap releases for the past year, none of which sold to his normal standards. I left off Tim McGraw, even though he’s made some music I really like lately, because he hasn’t been doing as well as usual at radio and retail.
No news bulletin there. You need excellent singers to elevate good material to great entertainment. He’s able to pull off that trick with “All Over Me.”
Is it a future classic? Of course not. Heck, it’s not even a Summer ’10 essential track. But it’s an enjoyable listen, something it likely wouldn’t have been if co-writer Rhett Akins was still given access to a studio mic.
Written by Rhett Akins, Dallas Davidson, and Ben Hayslip