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
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.
#20 “Not Ready to Make Nice”
It’s easy to label this as a transitory response of a song, whose quality is stamped by context and time, but to do so is to undermine its carefully crafted layers of universal emotion. Anger is only the outer coating of the song – beneath it lies a tender-to-the-touch complex of feelings: pain and disgust, confusion and resolve, stubbornness and defeat. “Not Ready to Make Nice” may always recall a certain unfortunate episode in country music history, but its theme – that sometimes there’s a price to pay for standing up for what you believe – is timeless. – Tara Seetharam
#19 “Probably Wouldn’t Be this Way”
A striking portrait of grief that alternates between phases of desolation, disillusionment and gratitude. Rimes’ interpretation of the lyrics is chillingly precise. – TS (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…)
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
McBride has a voice that would have been as relevant in country music fifty years ago as it is today, and her album of cover songs exemplifies this. She doesn’t attempt to move any of the songs to a different level, but instead inhabits the artists’ original style with precision and spirit. The result is a pure, respectful homage to the country greats. – Tara Seetharam
Recommended Tracks: “Make The World Go Away”, “Pick Me Up On Your Way Down”
Felice Brothers, Yonder is the Clock
The Felice Brothers are the least-known among the members of ‘The Big Surprise Tour’ headlined by Old Crow Medicine Show and featuring Dave Rawlings Machine with Gillian Welch, and Justin Townes Earle. Melding country-rock and folk-rock, they are roots-influenced and made their start playing in the subway. While it may take an extremely big tent to call them “country,” consistent Dylan comparisons make Yonder is the Clock hard to ignore. – William Ward
Recommended Tracks: “Run, Chicken, Run”, “The Big Surprise”
Big & Rich, Horse of a Different Color
Big Kenny’s and John Rich’s voices and creativity blend to form a richly textured harmony that is only fully realized when they work together, as is most evident on their debut album that took country music by storm in a huge way. While their subsequent projects haven’t even come close to matching the potential of their first, Horse of A Different Coloris an album of refreshing risks and creativity that has been both embraced and criticized as a result of unique production and odd lyrical twists. Songs ranging from ridiculous to philosophical and all points inbetween make this album one of the most memorable, if not controversial, mainstream albums of the decade. – Leeann Ward
Recommended Tracks: “Holy Water”, “Live This Life”
Dierks Bentley, Long Trip Alone
Bentley takes his road theme all the way, crafting a concept album that both celebrates the loneliness of the road and mourns the resting places left behind by those who choose to stay on it. – Kevin Coyne
Recommended Tracks: “Long Trip Alone”, “The Heaven I’m Headed To”
Josh Turner, Everything is Fine
Turner’s third album is an outstanding example of a style that is deeply traditional yet still current, assured yet still vulnerable. His distinctive voice is paired with a well-crafted and charming set of songs on this album, which further solidified him as one of the genre’s leading traditionalists. – TS
Recommended Tracks: “Another Try”, “Nowhere Fast”
Reckless Kelly, Bulletproof
Country and power-pop collide in one of Texas’ most memorable albums in years. If Bulletproof has a weakness, it’s that its love songs and road anthems are all so damn hooky that the deeper material has to fight to steal your attention away. – Dan Milliken
Recommended Tracks: “American Blood”, “Mirage”
Chick Corea & Béla Fleck, The Enchantment
The Enchantment is a collaboration between jazz pianist Chick Corea and banjo virtuoso Béla Fleck. Full of soaring energy and technical prowess, The Enchantment blends the influences of both Corea and Fleck resulting in jazz compositions infused with bluegrass overtones.- WW
Recommended Tracks: “Mountain”, “Sunset Road”
James Otto, Sunset Man
On his breakthrough sophomore album, Otto’s voice is commanding and rich with soul, proving he has one of the most interesting male voices to come out of country music in the past few years. Sunset Man is a solid contemporary country album that has his voice melting just as effectively with bluesy, mid-tempo numbers as it does with muscular power ballads. – TS
Recommended Tracks: “For You”, “These Are The Good Ole Days”
Jon Randall, Walking Among the Living
Thanks to his very lucrative songwriting collaboration with Bill Anderson that resulted in a smash hit for Brad Paisley and Alison Krauss with “Whiskey Lullaby”, Jon Randall received a major label deal with Sony. Unfortunately, Randall’s only album with them was not even a blip on most people’s radars, though not due to lack of quality. Randall’s gorgeous tenor, most closely comparable to Vince Gill’s,tastefully blends with rootsy instrumentation and solid compositions to create a humble work of art. – LW
Recommended Tracks: “I Shouldn’t Do This”, “Lonely for Awhile”
Crooked Still, Shaken By a Low Sound
Crooked Still is an alternate bluegrass group led by vocalist Aoife O’Donovan. With haunting vocals and technical prowess Crooked Still pushes acoustic music in a manner similar to Nickel Creek but with a slightly more recognizable traditional bend. – WW
Recommended Tracks: “Wind and Rain”, “Little Sadie”
He could’ve been – heck, still could be – one of the genre’s great traditional vocalists. The depth of his baritone was matched by its nuance, making Josh Turner sound like an amateur in comparison. Here’s hoping he’ll resurface sometime soon, since he could blow most of today’s young guys out of the water.
“Old Enough to Know Better”
from the 1995 album Old Enough to Know Better
A twenty-something anthem that exudes youthful energy.
“I’m Still Dancin’ With You”
from the 1995 album Old Enough to Know Better
It doesn’t have quite the elegance of “In Between Dances”, but his spin on dance floor loneliness is still effective.
from the 1995 album Old Enough to Know Better
This is the blueprint for all those country romance numbers that Dierks Bentley and Billy Currington are known for today.
“What I Meant To Say”
from the 1995 album Old Enough to Know Better
Hindsight’s 20/20 as Hayes looks back alone.
from the 1996 album On a Good Night
The single biggest mistake that Sony made with Hayes was releasing “Where Do I Go to Start All Over” instead of “The Room” as the second single off of his sophomore album. This song practically completes the trilogy begun by George Jones with “The Grand Tour” and “The Door.”
“The Day That She Left Tulsa (In a Chevy)”
from the 1997 album When the Wrong One Loves You Right
Hayes’ last big hit was also his best, as he gropes with realizing that his lover has left him because she’s pregnant with someone else’s child. (“I guess she though the truth would end up driving me away. She was wrong, but I never got the chance to say.”
Country music isn’t exactly known for its exultations to hit the dance floor, so it’s no surprise that this dance request is directed at his wife. Turner is charming as ever, even if he has a bit of trouble keeping up with the beat as he tosses off the lyrics.
It’s about as deep as Vegas rainfall, something that you could imagine Mel McDaniel singing back in his prime. Turner doesn’t sell this quite as well as McDaniel would, but he comes close enough. Regardless, it’s nice to hear his voice again.
Three weeks ago, I had a chance to chat with one of my favorite new acts, Joey +Rory. It has been over a year since their break through on CMT’s Can You Duet and several months since the release of their album The Life of A Song. So, Country Universe thought it would be a perfect time to catch up with them to see what’s been happening since the whirlwind of their recent success.
Not surprisingly, it was a pleasure to speak with them. They were very honest and down to earth. Along with telling us how they’re handling their new found fame, they didn’t shy away from expressing their feelings on current country music, songwriting and what they are and are not listening to these days.
How has life been since Can You Duet?
Joey: Well, in a lot of ways, in last year’s time, our lives have changed tremendously. But, also, in a lot of ways, we’re still the same in terms of our relationship, marriage and closeness. We’ve gone from having the farm out here and the little restaurant and Rory writing songs to being on the road visiting different cities every other night.
All the TV exposure has obviously heightened people’s awareness of who we are. We literally can hardly go anywhere without people knowing who we are in airports, gas stations and restaurants and places like that. I think in a sense all of a sudden we’re very recognizable and people want our autographs and pictures. So, that’s changed. It’s kind of been different for us to have that.
But as far as our relationship, we’re very much the same. We’re just as in love as we were a year and half ago. Our marriage is even stronger. There’s no more stress related to this because we get to do this together and travel everywhere together.
Rory: Our life here at home is just the same. There are more people that know us and when we go to the restaurant (the restaurant that Joey owns with Rory’s sister, Marcie), there are people from out of town that drive in all the time, but we’re the same. Everything’s exactly the same; it’s just expanded a lot.
Do you ever get frustrated by all the extra attention?
Joey: We’re really grateful for it. I think there’s times where life on the road can be very draining. Jetlag and everything else kind of comes with that. There are times when we might be completely tired and not want to be somewhere or feel like we just want to go to sleep. Sometimes, it is what it is. But we really appreciate it and we know it won’t always be this way. We just take it a day at a time. The fans are just fantastic. We have an opportunity to do our music, because we have fans. And we have people who want to meet us to tell us how we’ve impacted their lives. You know, if it weren’t for them buying our records and coming to our shows, we wouldn’t be able to be successful and do what we do. It’s all for them.
Joey, in your bio, you list The Judds as one of your major influences. I can even hear a young Wynona in your voice. What was it like to have Naomi as a judge? Was it more nerve wracking having someone you respect so much critique you?
Joey: We’d never met the Judds before the show. In fact, the very first concert I ever went to was, I think, when I was nine years old. My dad took me to a Judds concert in Indiana.
When we went and auditioned for the show, it wasn’t until we walked behind that curtain into the room that we knew who the judges were. You walk in and you’re taken back by it, but you can’t be at the same time, because you have a job to do. But throughout the whole show, Naomi was on our side from day one. She really liked what we did. She liked what we were, what we wore and our style of music. Coming from her, it was so well respected. You know, we all had to kind of critique ourselves and kind of take into account that everybody’s different, everybody has opinions. You just show up the next day and you just try to take it in and make those adjustments.
But for the most part, it was just a thrill to be around her. She had such an energy and presence in the room. Since the TV show she’s come to the restaurant. She’s featured in our “Cheater, Cheater” video. She’s been very supportive. I just received a letter from her, a card, two days ago, since we were on the CMT Awards. We’ve been to her house several times. I mean, we feel like we’re all just one big family now. It’s been an amazing year.
My favorite artist is Vince Gill and to have him just hanging out in my living room is just something I can’t even imagine.
Rory: Our daughter is an aspiring singer-songwriter. So, they had a big event about three nights ago that was sort of like “famous fathers and their daughters.” It was Heidi and me and Vince Gill and his daughter, Jenny and some other people. It was really a thrill. I was just like you. I’m a humongous Vince Gill fan. There’s a lack of realness I see in people. There’s lots of talent and a lot of hard work, but he’s one of those people that always seems like a real, average, everyday guy with extraordinary talent and a real big heart. I just loved seing him and he was wonderful. It was our first time meeting him. He really gushed over Joey and Joey’s voice. So, he was aware of us. Of course, we’re tickled by that. I’m like you, if he was in our living room this evening, having dinner and visiting…that would be a thrill.
I admit that I didn’t actually watch Can You Duet when it originally aired, because I didn’t really know much about it until after the big hype that surrounded it on some blogs. As you may already know, the world of blogging can be pretty harsh, but you guys managed to be very well liked throughout the run of the show. But it wasn’t really until I read that you had signed with Sugar Hill Records that I took a sudden interest. How did that marriage come together?
Rory: First off, we had a pretty strong sense that we weren’t going to win, even before the show was over. We just were not a major market act. Actually, we are a mainstream act. But mainstream has turned so far that people who are mainstream acts have to go somewhere else. And people that are rock acts, pop acts, they’re now all of a sudden mainstream acts or what mainstream labels want.
At the time of the show, we were under contract with RCA and Sony, since the final five were all under contract with them. When we knew we didn’t win, we asked Rene Bell right away if she was going to pick up the option to keep us and she said “No. We’re only going to focus on this one act (winners, Caitlin & Will).” She said, “You guys are free to go and do whatever you want.” So, they released us. American Idol, who also had us under contract because of the show, released us as well.
I’m an independent guy anyway. We have our own Indy record label that we started a few years ago called Giantslayer Records and we broke anew artist named Blaine Larsen. We created and put up his record, put it out and broke him into mainstream. So, we’ve really been working in that world for a long time. The one thing I knew was that we couldn’t champion ourselves. So, we were immediately thinking about Indy labels. I brought up Vanguard to a very good friend of mine and he had a relationship with the people there. He said that he’d be glad to call them. So, he did and it turns out that Vanguard and Sugar Hill were interested in getting involved in mainstream country. We had had a lot of exposure and they got up to speed on it quickly and they thought that we were authentic at the same time that we were commercial. It seemed like a good marriage and a good step into this mainstream world for them. So, we just sort of shook hands over the phone, cut our single, cut our record, put our record out. Our single was in the top 40 and our album was in stores before we actually had flown to L.A. and signed our record deal with them. They were just that trusting and able to work that part just on our word. So, it’s been a great marriage. We love ‘em; we really, really do.
When you went in to record, did you already have a vision for the sound of the record or was it highly influenced by the sounds of Vanguard/Sugar Hill’s previous output? Would your record sound the way it does no matter what company you were with?
Rory: It would have been this way. They really didn’t have any input on our producer or the songs, the sound or anything else. We had met Carl Jackson a long time before and we had wanted Carl to produce Joey anyway. Then we just sort of by accident became a duo for this TV show. So, Carl said, “Well, gosh, I’ll just produce both of you.” He’s a fan of my songwriting and I’m a fan of his. Both Joey and I love Carl’s production. He had done a record on Bradley Walker that’s one of our favorite records in five years—mostly the sounds and songs and everything. You know, we knew what we wanted to do a hundred percent. We’d never recorded with Carl, so the sound happened because of Carl, but he had the particular way of doing it. He’s very vocal heavy and very acoustic instrument heavy and that’s exactly what we wanted and wanted to be a part of. So, it wasn’t the Indy label influence at all for the sound of the album. What it was, I think, is that they recognized that’s what we were going to do. I think they realized that it was going to fit in their world also.
I was excited about Sugar Hill, but I was also excited about Carl Jackson, knowing of his previous work. Earlier, you mentioned Blaine Larsen. I know that he’s cut some of your songs, Rory. Is there a difference between the songs that you pitch to other people versus the songs that Joey + Rory would record?
Rory: Well, the only difference is there was never a Joey + Rory and so I’ve always just written songs. A lot of them I’ve put my heart and soul into and our lives into, but those songs are just largely ignored at all times, because they have some personal element or they’re not radio friendly. Whatever that is. The only difference is that we’re much more willing to be honest as artists than artists who would, maybe, cut our songs. No one’s willing to cut “Play the Song.” No one’s going to cut a number of songs that we have, like even “Cheater, Cheater.” So, it’s the same songwriting; it’s just that it’s more like we’re willing to be more honest, I think, and outside the box.
But now that we are a duo, we all the sudden do want to, not just by chance, write things that have part of our story and our heart and soul in it. Because that’s the way it would have been in the past. I would be writing songs really hoping Tim McGraw or someone else would cut the song and, hopefully, it would have some of what’s important to me in it. But now, all the sudden, we have the opportunity to write a hundred percent of what’s important to you, that you think is relatable to other people. You don’t have to wonder, is it relatable to Tim McGraw or to Sugarland. That’s not even an interest anymore. It’s like, we’ll just write a hundred percent from our perspective. That’s a very, very freeing thing for us.
Yeah, I imagine… Who are you listening to these days in country music? Assuming that you are listening to anybody in country music.
Rory: I listened to a bunch of albums here, recently, a bunch of new release albums that I personally thought were okay or not okay, somewhere in there, but okay. Then, the other day, I just got online and I downloaded an album that Carl Jackson had produced on Alecia Nugent. And I’d never even heard an Alecia Nugent record. We’ve met her, but we’ve never heard one. It just blew my mind, because it’s just like our record. It’s got the same kind of sound, same kind of production and it’s got a real focus of great songs on it, and great singing and great harmony. That’s what I’m listening to, because, in my opinion, it’s head and shoulders above all the other production and artistry that I’ve heard in the last six months.
Mainstream wise, we love Josh Turner and, basically, the really country things like…
Joey: Lee Ann Womack, Jamey Johnson
Rory, Yeah, yeah.
Joey: They’re very acoustic or they’re very country sounding and very traditional. That’s what we kind of lean toward.
Rory: What do you listen to now, Love?
Joey: I’d say I listen to Bradley Walker all the time. He’s a nice bluegrass artist that Carl Jackson did a record on.
We actually heard the new Holly Williams album. It was really, really great.
Rory: We really liked that.
Joey: we really did. We’re excited for her.
I discovered Bradley Walker, because Vince Gill sang on his record. In fact, I’ve discovered a lot of good music that way. So, maybe you guys could invite Vince to sing on your next album…just an unsolicited suggestion…something to think about (laughs).
Rory: (laughs) Yeah, that’d be great. Carl can probably make it happen. Maybe we’ll also invite Emmylou.
That would be awesome. That’s actually one of my favorite songs on your album. It’s gorgeous. There’s a lot to choose from, of course, but…
Rory: Thank You.
I already think I know the answer judging by our conversation today, but I have to ask: Is Joey + Rory a permanent act now? You’re not going to go back to doing your own things after this record, are you?
Joey: No, no. I tried for a long time to be a solo artist, because I never knew that there would be a platform for a married duo, a married couple. You know, it wasn’t something that Rory had wanted in the last twelve years. But now that we’re doing this together and traveling everywhere together, I would not have any desire to do this on my own or just go out in solo. We’re a duo in life because of our marriage and it just carries on into our careers; I think it’s the way it’s supposed to be.
Rory: I feel the same way. I really feel like this is her career and her opportunity and God has just given me a huge opportunity to be part of it. You know, I’m thrilled to death and having a great time. I think that we do have something special that we didn’t even know that we had. We’re having a good time spinning our wheels out there on the road, playing for people and we’re getting ready to do some more recording soon.
Well, I suppose it’s time to let you go. I just want to end by saying that I, along with many of the Country Universe readers, am a huge fan. So, I’m really glad that we had a chance to chat today and thank you for your time.
Joey: It was really nice to meet you. Hopefully, we’ll be able to come up to your neck of the woods, sometime.
Rory: It was sure nice to talk with you. Have a great morning.