As April is one of the odd months that has five Wednesdays, I thought I'd take a break from Country Quizzin' for this week and try out a new discussion-thing.
Given the current mainstream climate, it's been a while since I've felt able to heap unfettered praise on a piece of country music here, and that frankly bums me out a bit. So in the spirit of un-bumming, I'm going to share ten country songs from the 70's on that I find absolutely flawless – my “Perfect 10″ – and I invite you to do the same. It's a simple enough concept – you could just think of it as Recommend a Track times 10 plus a punny name.
Still, I suspect the outcome could be really interesting if everybody puts in the effort to pick ten songs that they consider the absolute cream of the crop. We're talking all-time best material here, whatever “all-time” happens to mean to you. You don't have to rank them, and they don't have to be your definitive top ten; I sure wouldn't be able to produce that list without a lot more thought. They just have to be up there – the kind of songs that you love fully and deeply, that still engage and surprise you after countless listens.
Most of the ten I've picked below are pretty well-known. Feel free to go as popular or as obscure as you like – great music is great music!
In chronological order:
Bobbie Gentry, “Ode to Billie Joe”
I've never heard anything else like this. Even if you ignore the compelling Southern Gothic mystery the song serves up in just over four minutes, there's so much magic in the writing itself. The intense attention to detail doesn't just paint a vivid picture; it serves an actual literary kind of purpose, illustrating the insensitivity of the narrator's family. I miss songs with subtexts.
Loretta Lynn, “Fist City”
“Fist City” is in the inner circle of big Loretta hits, but it usually has its spotlight stolen by more topically revolutionary numbers like “Don't Come Home A Drinkin'” or “The Pill.” But no longer! This saucy prelude to a catfight could be her most tightly-written anthem ever, with a killer hook and excellent one-liners all around. “The man I love, when he picks up trash, he puts it in a garbage can. And that's what you look like to me.” Damn!
John Denver, “Take Me Home, Country Roads”
Call it musical comfort food. Denver's stuff was never good for extremists: the hardcore folkies found it too simplistic and starry-eyed to be intellectually palatable, while the hardcore country fans found it too poppy to have any hillbilly integrity. If you ask me, those arguments were more about context than substance. This single seamlessly blends its folk, pop and country sensibilities, and Denver's soaring voice can sell this kind of romanticized lyric all day.
Jerry Jeff Walker, “Gettin' By”
Another helping of comfort food. This here's a take-it-easy anthem with a similar vibe to “Don't Worry, Be Happy,” but with less potential to annoy you.
Merle Haggard, “If We Make It Through December”
The kind of understated song that speaks for itself and doesn't try to sound more important than it really is, which is charming, since this song's sentiment is actually more significant than a lot of songs which employ a more dramatic approach. Haggard's writing here is also proof that specificity of storytelling often makes a song that much more relatable.
Alabama, “Dixieland Delight”
What can I say; I love the feel-good anthems. I have to admit that I mostly included this because I wanted to give the 80's at least one song and it was the first thing that came to mind, so it may be a tier lower than some of the others in terms of my love. But I don't think these guys get enough credit for the legitimately good country-rock stuff they did.
Mary Chapin Carpenter, “Why Walk When You Can Fly”
Easily the most obscure thing on this list, this gorgeous album opener
was released as a single and peaked at #45. I first heard this while driving to Kroger at night and just about pulled over so I could listen properly.
Dixie Chicks, “Long Time Gone”
If there is any justice whatsoever in the country music world, historians will remind the public hung up on “the incident” that the Chicks also produced some of the best singles of their time, especially with this Darrell Scott-penned beaut. What a masterwork.
Josh Turner, “Long Black Train”
I reached a point in life last year where my religious beliefs just seemed to fall out from underneath me, and I've been pretty much undecided on that front since. Incredibly, it's only made me appreciate Turner's spiritual beckon even more, which is a testament, I think, to how substantially it presents its point-of-view. And gosh, does it ever sound good. Josh oughta crack open that Hank Williams box set more often.
Nickel Creek, “This Side”
This was one of the key songs that hooked me for good into country music, so I had to include it. The writing is more abstract pop-rock than anything else, but the pulsating instrumentation is so sweet that you're a fool if you care one way or the other. Listen to this with a good pair of headphones and hear the world unfold.
I remain a fan. Chris Young has one of the finest traditional country voices to come along this decade, easily on par with Josh Turner’s. He’s able to turn in performances that sound steeped in tradition without sounding dated.
“Gettin’ You Home (The Black Dress Song)” would have been a smash for Conway Twitty back in the day. Like the Twitty hits of yore, “Gettin’ You Home” is suggestive without being sleazy, and the second verse reveals that the young lady is just as eager to get back home as the gentleman who is serenading her.
These days, it seems that Turner and Blake Shelton are rivaling for the title of Country Romeo, but if radio gives this single some real estate, Young could give them a good run for their money.
Written by Cory Batten, Kent Blazy and Chris Young
While the Grammys have honored country music from the very first ceremony in 1959, they did not begin honoring by gender until 1965, when the country categories were expanded along with the other genre categories. This year, the 45th trophy for Best Male Country Vocal Performance will be awarded.
In a continuation of our Grammy Flashback series, here is a rundown of the Best Country Vocal Performance, Male category. It was first awarded in 1965, and included singles competing with albums until the Best Country Album category was added in 1995. When an album is nominated, it is in italics, and a single track is in quotation marks.
As usual, we start with a look at this year’s nominees and work our way back. Be sure to vote in My Kind of Country’sBest Male Country Vocal Performance poll and let your preference for this year’s race be known!
Trace Adkins, “You’re Gonna Miss This”
Jamey Johnson, “In Color”
James Otto, “Just Got Started Lovin’ You”
Brad Paisley, “Letter to Me”
George Strait, “Troubadour”
As with the album race, this year’s contenders for Best Male Country Vocal Performance are a combination of unrecognized veterans and promising newcomers. In fact, none of this year’s nominees have won in this category, and only one of them – Brad Paisley – has a Grammy at all.
First, the veterans. Paisley has numerous ACM and CMA victories to his credit, including two each for Male Vocalist. Although he’s been nominated for this award twice before, this is the first time he’s contended with a cut that can’t be dismissed as a novelty number. The touching self-penned “Letter to Me” is his best shot yet at taking this home.
Trace Adkins has been at this a bit longer than Paisley, but this is his first Grammy nomination. His crossover exposure from Celebrity Apprentice might help him out here, along with the fact that the song was considered strong enough by voters to earn a nomination of its own.
But the real veteran to watch out for is George Strait. After being nominated only twice for this category in the first 25 years of his career, voters have now given him three consecutive nominations. This is one of four nods he’s earned for the 2009 ceremony, and “Troubadour” is essentially the story of his epic career distilled into a radio-length song. It would be the perfect way to honor the man and his music in one fell swoop.
However, there’s a newcomer that might be a Grammy favorite already. We just haven’t found out yet. Not James Otto, of course, who is nominated for his charming romantic romp “Just Got Started Lovin’ You”, but rather, Jamey Johnson. The recent Nashville Scene critics’ poll further confirmed the depth of his support among tastemakers, and his nominations for Best Country Song and Best Country Album indicate that he’s very much on the academy’s radar. It helps that he has the most substantial track of the five, and it’s the obvious choice for traditionalists, who have little reason to split their votes in this category. If voters aren’t considering legacy when making their selections, he has a great shot at this.
Dierks Bentley, “Long Trip Alone”
Alan Jackson, “A Woman’s Love”
Tim McGraw, “If You’re Reading This”
George Strait, “Give it Away”
Keith Urban, “Stupid Boy”
The often offbeat Grammy voters have been surprisingly mainstream in this category for the past three years, a trend best exemplified by this lineup, which was the first in more than a decade to feature only top ten radio hits. Tim McGraw and Keith Urban were the only two who had won this before, and it was Urban who emerged victorious. “Stupid Boy” was a highlight of his fourth studio album, and this was the only major award that the impressive collection would win.
Dierks Bentley, “Every Mile a Memory”
Vince Gill, “The Reason Why”
George Strait, “The Seashores of Old Mexico”
Josh Turner, “Would You Go With Me”
Keith Urban, “Once in a Lifetime”
Vince Gill returned to win in this category for a ninth time with “The Reason Why.” Not only is he, by far, the most honored artist in this category, his wins here account for nine of the nineteen Grammys currently on his mantle.
George Jones, “Funny How Time Slips Away”
Toby Keith, “As Good As I Once Was”
Delbert McClinton, “Midnight Communion”
Willie Nelson, “Good Ol’ Boys”
Brad Paisley, “Alcohol”
Keith Urban, “You’ll Think of Me”
Urban’s biggest and probably best hit launched his second album to triple platinum and established him as a crossover artist. He gave a killer performance of the song on the show. Toby Keith was a first-time nominee here, and while he publicly groused that the Grammys put too little emphasis on commercial success in picking their nominations, he lost to the only track that was a bigger hit than his own.
A look back at the previous winners and nominees of the Best Country Album Grammy, updated to include the 2009 contenders.
The Grammys have been doing better in the country categories since they reintroduced the Best Country Album category in 1995, which had only been in existence for two years in the 1960s. Prior to 1995, albums and singles were both eligible in the vocalist categories, so full albums would compete against single tracks in Best Male Country Vocal Performance, for example.
Looking over the history of this fairly young category, you can see trends emerge, with certain acts clearly being favorites of NARAS. You see the same trend with the CMAs, just with different people. What is clear with the Grammys is that radio and retail success will only carry you so far. For awards that are supposed to be based on artistic merit, that’s how it should be.
As with the CMA flashbacks, we’ll begin with a look at this year’s nominees, then discuss previous year’s in reverse chronological order. Winners are in bold.
Be sure to drop by My Kind of Country and vote in their Best Country Album poll. Let your preference be known!
Jamey Johnson, That Lonesome Song
Patty Loveless, Sleepless Nights
George Strait, Troubadour
Randy Travis, Around the Bend
Trisha Yearwood, Heaven, Heartache and the Power of Love
Four veterans and one newcomer vie for this year’s Best Country Album, and it’s a wide-open race with no obvious favorite. The critically acclaimed breakthrough album of Jamey Johnson could earn him his first Grammy. The legendary George Strait would like to start a Grammy collection of his own. Like fellow nominee Patty Loveless, this is his third nomination for this award. While Loveless has also yet to win this one, she does have a Grammy already, for her contributions to the multi-artist collaboration “Same Old Train.”
Randy Travis is a real contender here; five of his previous albums have won Grammys. Two of them (Always & Forever, Old 8×10) won in the Best Male Country Vocal Performance category, back when albums and singles competed with each other in that race. And while this is his first nomination for Best Country Album, he was won Best Southern, Country, or Bluegrass Gospel Album three times, for Glory Train (2007), Worship & Faith (2005) and Rise and Shine (2004.)
While Vince Gill broke the all-female trend in this category last year, he was nominated in an all-male field. If the trend begins again this year, this will be a battle between Loveless and Trisha Yearwood. The latter’s Heaven, Heartache and the Power of Love is arguably the strongest album in this category, and while Yearwood won three Grammys in the nineties, she has never won Best Country Album, despite earning more nominations than any other artist in the history of the category – Heartache is her eighth set to contend for the trophy. She’s beyond overdue, but her competition is formidable.
Dierks Bentley, Long Trip Alone
Vince Gill, These Days
Tim McGraw, Let it Go
Brad Paisley, 5th Gear
George Strait, It Just Comes Natural
With the exception of Shania Twain’s Come On Over, no album that has also been nominated for the general Album of the Year race has failed to win Best Country Album. So it was no surprise when Vince Gill picked up the trophy for his four-disc opus These Days. In his acceptance speech, he good-naturedly ribbed Kanye West, providing one of the evening’s brightest moments.
Dixie Chicks, Taking the Long Way
Alan Jackson, Like Red On a Rose
Little Big Town, The Road to Here
Willie Nelson, You Don’t Know Me: The Songs of Cindy Walker
Josh Turner, Your Man
The Chicks became the first artists in Grammy history to win four genre Best Album awards, breaking their tie with Eminem, who has won three Best Rap Album trophies. This was one of five trophies they took home at the February 2007 ceremony, and the album returned to #1 on the country chart and back to the pop top ten on the strength of those victories.
Gone are the days where this would just be called the Country Universe’s Top Singles of 2008. The collective tastes of our writers makes for more distinguished lists, but thankfully, there’s still a place for my personal favorites. Here are the twenty singles of 2008 that I enjoyed the most.
#20: Reba McEntire & Kenny Chesney, “Every Other Weekend”
A welcome return to domestic themes, which have often provided McEntire with her best work. This plays out the like the epilogue to “Somebody Should Leave.”
#19: Sara Evans, “Low”
Triumph in the face of adversity, as the surrounding negative energy is rejected in favor of a positive and determined move toward the future. Plus, it’s a little bluegrassy, which just sounds cool.
#18: Keith Urban, “You Look Good in My Shirt”
Even Conway Twitty wasn’t so good at slipping in mature themes so skillfully. There are children across the country bopping along to this one without a clue about how she ended up wearing that shirt.
Turner’s unsure vocal reveals emotion for a moment, then pulls back, then reveals a little bit of it again. He’s hoping for one more chance, but it doesn’t sound like he’s convinced himself that he’ll truly “hang on for dear life” next time.
#16: Tim McGraw, “Let it Go”
Letting go of the past doesn’t mean that you forget your mistakes. Rather, you resolve to learn from them without letting them dictate your future.
Here are my favorite singles of 2008. As Dan has done, I lifted the entries that I had already written from our collective list for this article.
#20: Robert Plant & Alison Krauss, “Please Read The Letter”
The album from which this song comes seems like an unlikely collaboration. It, however, somehow works as one of the best albums of the decade and any song from it would make my top twenty singles list this year.
#19: Hank Williams III, “Six Pack of Beer”
Hank Williams III is known for relishing a rebel persona and this attitude is often reflected in his music.More often than not, his songs contain observations wrapped in harsh lyrics that cause me to wince, but his production and voice, which are both more comparable to Hank Sr. than Hank III’s father, still draws me to his music, nonetheless. This song, however, is simply pure ear candy. There’s nothing in it that makes me feel like I have to turn it down in mixed company as is the case with so many other Hank III songs. It’s nice sometimes.
#18: Jason Michael Carroll, “I Can Sleep When I’m Dead”
I’m not much of a Jason Michael Carroll fan, but there’s just something about this song that is infectious. The rapid and frenzied production matches its premise, “I can sleep when I’m dead.”
#17: Gary Allan, “Learning How To Bend”
As Dan has pointed out, these aren’t words that most men would say without feeling extremely awkward. The intriguing thing about Gary Allan is that he can get away with it without anyone unfairly questioning his masculinity. He sings this song with fine vocal execution and hits those falsetto notes with incredible ease.
#16: Carrie Underwood, “Just A Dream”
While I could live with a more understated melody that sounded less like it was written by Diane Warren, I can’t help recognize that Underwood’s performance is just right for this intense song. I can only imagine that it aptly captures both the hazy confusion and blunt pain that accompanies the sudden loss of a significant other. I know it’s how I would feel.
Let’s do this, y’all. You’ll recognize some of these write-ups from our collective list, but others weren’t posted there or were cut down for that list. This is my “Director’s Cut” version, you might say – or maybe the “UNRATED!!” version, depending on your taste in films.
In any case, here are my favorite 20 things designated as country music singles in 2008 (that I picked up on, anyhoo):
Elizabeth Cook, “Sunday Morning”
Cook mines an abstract Velvet Underground song and halfway convinces you it was always meant to be a quiet country reflection. The production and vocal are a bit too buoyant to fully convey the song’s weariness, but they do flesh out its gentle message of hope, and that’s not too bad, either.
Hank Williams III, “Six Pack of Beer”
Silly and shallow it may be, but III’s turbo-campy lament of hard times + booze was also this year’s sweetest piece of hillbilly ear candy. I think it sounds like the fastest, most frivolous thing Johnny Cash never recorded, but maybe that’s just me.
James Otto, “Just Got Started Lovin’ You”
What’s this? A contemporary country single with a traditional structure that skips on big choruses? A distinctive voice at the helm? Oh? It was the most played song of the year? Huh. So country music fans want to hear unique-sounding singers singing some semblance of actual country music on the radio? How perplexing.
In all seriousness, this smash really is a fine example of feel-good radio fluff that still manages to sound human. It’s impossible to evaluate honestly without the requisite (and very valid) comparison to Josh Turner’s “Your Man,” but honestly, I think Otto out-sexed his predecessor by a good margin. Turner gave a fine performance with his standard sweetness, but Otto opted for randy, slightly jagged cooing that ultimately sounds much more convincing coming from a man in this particular situation.
Joey + Rory, “Cheater, Cheater”
My soft spot for frivolity shows itself again. This tell-off ditty has a cute bite, and its malicious irrationality is delivered with a knowing wink that has been regrettably absent in many recent, like-minded harangues (cough cough, “Picture to Burn”). Still, it’s the frenetic bluegrass production and the couple’s palpable chemistry that ultimately sell the thing.
I’m always game for more regret on country radio, particularly when you’ve got two of the best singers in the biz on the job. The only thing holding it back for me is the melody, which is a bit too “Peabo Bryson goes country” for my taste.
Sugarland, Little Big Town & Jake Owen, “Life in a Northern Town”
There is a certain kind of song whose impact simply defies logical explanation, which seems to tap something so primal in the human spirit that you don’t even want to try explaining it for fear you might belittle it somehow. You couldn’t ask for a better example of that phenomenon than this cover of Dream Academy’s surreal ode to singer-songwriter Nick Drake, which resolves into a chorus of tribal “hey ma ma ma ma”s that somehow manage to say more (to me) than most actual words ever do.
It’s much more “Lion King soundtrack” than “country,” of course, but the union of all of these unique individual voices evokes the sort of grand communal warmth that you can normally only find in church or around a campfire. Personal favorite moment: Jake Owen’s solo, which he sings with such silky ease that it makes you pissed he hasn’t found better material for himself yet.
Our top ten singles of the year represent the very best of what country music is and what country music can be. With a combination of rising stars and veteran artists, it’s clear that the genre has worthy guardians waiting in the wings, even as the current keepers of the flame show no signs of fading away.
Ashton Shepherd, “Takin’ Off This Pain”
I cheated a bit by throwing this one into the mix, since it was technically released last fall. But as it wasn’t on the site’s 2007 singles countdown and didn’t even peak until this past May, I’m going to take this opportunity to opine, quite simply, that this single paints the best kind of picture of everything contemporary country in the 2000’s can be. It’s not pure traditionalism, as some have suggested – there’s a lot more modern drive than old-school shuffle at work here – but few major-label artists this decade have updated the spirit of classic country more loyally or convincingly than Shepherd has with this debut. Even if you take away the whopping voice, you’ve got clear, focused storytelling with palpable personality and an unusually clever hook. Loretta Lynn is smiling to herself somewhere. – DM
James Otto, “Just Got Started Lovin’ You”
James Otto has one of the most soulful voices in country music, comparable to Travis Tritt. In “Just Got Started Lovin’ You” he uses his vocal range to irresistible affect. While it’s often compared to Gary Allan’s “Nothin’ On But The Radio” and Josh Turner’s “Your Man”, this is a song that could have easily been delivered by Conway Twitty, as it’s in the grand tradition of steamy tracks like “You’ve Never Been This Far Before” and “I’d Love to Lay You Down.” - LW
Brad Paisley, “Waitin’ on a Woman”
Donn Sampson and Wynn Varble penned this moving piece, one centered around the (mostly correct) notion that the fairer sex exercises greater, ahem, patience than their male counterparts. A newlywed husband on a shopping trip with his young bride meets an elderly man at the local mall. Soon, he’s listening to the advice of the sage, one who sees the waiting as one of life’s sweet, simple pleasures. The corresponding video clip, featuring iconic television actor Andy Griffith, added gravitas to an already-compelling lyric that ponders mortality and the everlasting love in a healthy marriage. – BB
Last night, the CMA stamped its approval on the leading contemporary country stars of today. Congratulations to Kevin for commandeering the most popular live blog in Country Universe history. Here is a series of highlights (according to me) from an otherwise staid ceremony:
Best performance: “More Like Her,” Miranda Lambert; “Just a Dream,” Carrie Underwood. With understated brilliance, Lambert shifted gears by offering her Texas twang on the stripped-down ballad, while Underwood hit all the glory notes on her dramatic tearjerker with style and grace. Often pitted as rivals and polar opposites, the two proved that country music holds plenty of room for these two prodigious talents. Although Underwood ended Lambert’s faint hopes of claiming the Female Vocalist prize, bet on Lambert winning her fair share of CMAs in the near future.
Sound off: Repeatedly an issue, the Sommet Center’s sound system had problems again this year. Also, Nashville is a town of songwriters, but L.A. is a town of scriptwriters, and some intelligent, humorous ones would be welcome at next year’s ceremony.
Nashville’s full of musicians, too: Let’s tip our hats to first-time CMA award winner, Musician of the Year, Mac McAnally.
This afternoon, the Country Universe staff is following up last night’s personal picks with our actual predictions about who will win tonight. Check back tonight at show time to join the live blog and mock us for our defective divinations. Less
Kevin: BMG has to throw their weight behind either Chesney or Paisley. My hunch is they’ll back Chesney for Entertainer and Paisley for Male Vocalist. _
Leeann: It’s been Chesney all this time and not much has changed to make me think it won’t be Kenny again this year. _
Blake: Chesney remained steady on the concert trail and earned three #1 singles in the past year. This would be his fourth win, tying Garth Brooks for the most ever in the Entertainer lineup. _
Dan: It seems somewhat foolish to bet against a Chesney repeat, but I just have a nagging feeling that the favor will be thrown in Paisley’s direction this year by voters looking to honor someone new. (more…)