Tag Archives: Kathy Mattea

Choice Cuts: Kathy Mattea, “Beautiful Fool”

A repost from last year, in honor of Dr. King.

Beautiful Fool
Kathy Mattea
from the 1997 album Love Travels

Our antiseptic approach to the legends of American history often results in the life’s work of  Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. being reduced to four words and a three-day weekend. To prevent this in my own mind, I often revisit “Beautiful Fool”, a Don Henry composition that can be found on Kathy Mattea’s 1997 album Love Travels.

What I love about this song is its realism and its willingness to take on two voices of perspective at the same time. As an older woman reflects on King’s impact on her country and the sacrifices he was willing to make, she remembers her far less charitable opinion of him when he was alive: “Walter Cronkite preempted Disney one night, and all us kids were so upset. We thought you were a trouble instigator marching through our TV set.”

I particularly appreciate the line in the bridge that connects him to other peacemakers. Peacemaking is often confused with passiveness, when it actually requires far more work than reflexive response with violence. “Mahatma Gandhi, Jesus Christ. History repeats itself so nice. Consistently we are resistant.”  King modeled his use of nonviolent resistance after Gandhi’s success in India and used the Gospel to make the case to the fence-sitters, a powerful approach given that the same Bible was being used by his opposition to make the case for continued segregation and denial of human rights.

The description of him as a “beautiful fool”  captures both the cynicism that was directed at him for attempting to “fight a fight without a fist” and the deep admiration  for him trying,  even if it was arguably in vain.  I suspect that it requires a good dose of hopeless naïveté to change the world, especially when surrounded by cynics who tell you that it’s a waste of time to try. There will always be more of the cynics. After all, cynicism is little more than naïveté without the concern for humanity and willingness to put in any effort for a cause other than your own.

The song is open to wide interpretation, but I feel that the final verse captures when the narrator moves from being a cynical observer of King to one who sees him appreciatively as a beautiful fool: “I saw you on the black and white with blacks and whites applauding you. I saw you on another time without a sign of life in you.”

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Sincerity

Earlier this year, a discussion with a colleague of mine revealed a mutual affinity for country music. It was a typical conversation that I have with fans that are around my age. We fell in love with the music about twenty years ago, don’t think it’s quite as good as it once was, but can find a lot of things to like from just about any era, including the current one.

So in the 2010 version of making a mix tape, I offered to load up her iPod with a whole bunch of country music. A week later, she took me to dinner as a thank you. We started talking about the music that I’d passed on to her, and she told me that she was listening to the iPod while mowing the lawn. Suddenly, a song came on that made her cry. Full-out cry, mind you, not just a tear or two.

So I ask if it was “Love, Me”, or maybe “Where’ve You Been”, or something similarly tragic. She was almost embarrassed as she told me that it was the old Anne Murray hit, “You Needed Me.”

Now, there are a few possible reactions to this. I suspect for many or even most, it will be either befuddlement or outright derision. But me? I totally understood why that song would have such a strong impact, and I can best describe it in one word: Sincerity.

It’s the bane of the cynic’s existence, and of many critics as well. You don’t see Anne Murray pop up on too many lists when discussing the greatest country artists of all time, or even the greatest pop-country singers of all time, even though she’s definitely both.  Ditto for Kenny Rogers and my once future wife Olivia Newton-John, who also fit well into both categories.

But there are some artists who exude sincerity and still are treated with reverence, like Loretta Lynn and Alan Jackson.  What makes them different?  I think it’s the added perception of authenticity that differentiates them from the artists above.

Take Dolly Parton as a case study. Rare is the critic or country music historian who doesn’t speak highly of both her pre-1976 and post-1999 output, where her music was firmly grounded in her mountain roots.  But her pop era – roughly 1977-1986 – is widely maligned.  The sincerity is there all the way throughout her career, whether it’s delivering the brilliant working class social commentary present in both “In the Good Old Days” and “9 to 5″, or when she’s just being hopelessly maudlin, be it with “Daddy Come and Get Me” or “Me and Little Andy.”

I think that she gets less credit for that period because there’s a sense that she’s being something that she’s not, that the authenticity is lacking.  When you think someone is being inauthentic in their sincerity, it’s hard for some to embrace them.  I think that I’m in the minority in that I don’t care much if someone is authentic, so long as they’re sincere.

Where things fall apart for me are when I perceive authenticity without being able to sense the sincerity in the performances. This is my major issue with many of the more traditional artists today. I think Jamey Johnson, Gretchen Wilson, and Brad Paisley are completely authentic in their music. They are who they say they are, and such. But I have trouble getting into them because they don’t come off as genuinely sincere.

It’s hard to articulate this, but to use Paisley as an example, he often sounds to my ears like he’s emotionally divorced from what he’s singing. The brain is plugged in, but I don’t feel the heart.   I loved, loved, loved “Letter to Me” because his voice cracked with emotion. I felt the sincerity that I don’t feel when I hear “Anything Like Me” or “Little Moments.”

Meanwhile, Carrie Underwood can rarely do wrong with me because she drips with sincerity, something that was prevalent even during her embryonic Idol days, but has really come into play with her writing so much of her material.  “Change” is my favorite song she’s done so far, not just because I fully agree with the message, but that she sings it with such sincerity. Does she live out the message in her own life?  I have no idea.  But her performance is so powerful to my ears that it being her authentic life story is as irrelevant to me as the fact that Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon aren’t really a death row convict and a Catholic nun, respectively.

Sincerity over authenticity, if I have to choose.  Both are great to have, but the former is more essential than the latter in the music that I love the most. It may be a meaningless distinction in the end, but it’s the only explanation I can come up with for me usually liking songs much better by great singers than by the original songwriters, and for Laura Bell Bundy getting so much more play on my iPod than Taylor Swift, the most genuinely authentic teen star ever.  Or at least since Lesley Gore.

With that all said, how about we listen to some Anne Murray? She’s awesome.

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400 Greatest Singles of the Nineties: #75-#51

As might be expected, the subject matters are getting more intense as we edge closer to the top.  But there’s still room for some carefree moments here, thanks to the Dixie Chicks and Jo Dee Messina.

400 Greatest Singles of the Nineties: #75-#51


#75
When You Say Nothing at All
Alison Krauss & Union Station
1995 | Peak: #3

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This Keith Whitley classic was recorded as part of a tribute album to the late country star. It became a hit all over again, perhaps because Krauss performed it in a near-whisper. The quiet arrangement matches the sentiment beautifully. – Kevin Coyne


#74
Alibis
Tracy Lawrence
1993 | Peak: #1

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Lawrence dishes on his ex’s cheating ways to her new potential lover. How did she get that way? He reveals that he’s the one who taught her everything she knows from the cheater’s playbook. Moreover, he seems regretful of her corruption. – Leeann Ward

#73
Cowboy Take Me Away
Dixie Chicks
1999 | Peak: #1

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In a modern world where life can so easily feel cold and mechanical, love remains earthy and exciting and mysterious. It’s a window into a different world, one where we’re not defined by the predictables of our routine – the same stresses, the same cars and buildings – but by our core nature as people, our place in the greater fabric of Earth and, perhaps, heaven. On the surface, “Cowboy Take Me Away” sounds like just a sugar-sweet love song – I’ve even heard it called “pre-feminist”  – but there’s something else going on here: a plea for life to have meaning again. – Dan Milliken Continue reading

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400 Greatest Singles of the Nineties: #100-#76

Many a star was launched in the nineties, a few of them right out of the gate. This section includes the debut singles from Toby Keith, Jo Dee Messina, LeAnn Rimes, and Doug Stone, along with Grammy-winning hits by Alison Krauss and Dwight Yoakam.

400 Greatest Singles of the Nineties: #100-#76

#100
The Battle Hymn of Love
Kathy Mattea & Tim O’Brien
1990 | Peak: #9

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Wedding songs are typically made of the same fiber, but this one is a little different: it’s energized by burning conviction and fierce pledges. – Tara Seetharam

#99
Blue
LeAnn Rimes
1996 | Peak: #10

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Sure, the novelty of thirteen year-old Rimes’ prodigious Patsy imitation helped things along. But that unshakable yodeled hook would have made “Blue” a classic in any era of country music. – Dan Milliken Continue reading

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400 Greatest Singles of the Nineties: #200-#176

The hits come from all over the place here. Breakthrough hits from Trace Adkins and Carlene Carter join one-hit wonders Brother Phelps and George Ducas.  And alongside crafty covers of songs by sixties rock band The Searchers and nineties country artist Joy Lynn White, you can also find tracks from three diamond-selling country albums.

400 Greatest Singles of the Nineties: #200-#176

#200
Carrying Your Love With Me
George Strait
1997 | Peak: #1

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A traveler gets through his lonely nights on the sheer strength of love. It’s perhaps a little too saccharine for some, but the sweet melody and Strait’s understated vocals make the record work. – Tara Seetharam

#199
Nothing’s News
Clint Black
1990 | Peak: #3

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A man sits around in a bar “talking ’bout the good old times, bragging on how it used to be.” Standard premise, but Black’s melancholy performance lifts the record to Haggardly heights. – Dan Milliken Continue reading

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400 Greatest Singles of the Nineties: #300-#276

The list continues with appearances from artists who first surfaced in the eighties and continued to thrive into the nineties, like Reba McEntire and Patty Loveless, along with new stars from the nineties who would find greater success in the next decade, like Toby Keith and Brad Paisley.

400 Greatest Singles of the Nineties: #300-#276

#300
Does He Love You
Reba McEntire with Linda Davis
1993  |  Peak: #1

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This two-female duet was a gamble at the time of its release, but it offers such a brilliant fusion of perspectives that it’s hard to imagine why. The song fleshes out the range of emotions that the two women are experiencing –from pain to longing to self-doubt– and culminates in one shared question that they’ll never know the answer to: “does he love you like he’s been loving me?” – Tara Seetharam Continue reading

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400 Greatest Singles of the Nineties: #325-#301

The first quarter of the countdown comes to a close, highlighted by excellent comeback attempts by T. Graham Brown, Emmylou Harris, and Willie Nelson.

400 Greatest Singles of the Nineties: #325-#301

#325
He Would Be Sixteen
Michelle Wright
1992 |  Peak: #31

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Sometimes the choices that you make linger forever. Here, a woman in her thirties drives past a high school football game, and her mind wanders to the painful void left in her heart from the son she gave up for adoption. – Kevin Coyne

#324
It Matters to Me
Faith Hill
1995  |  Peak: #1

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Faith Hill’s sophomore album is a surprisingly deep set, filled with candid insights into different womens’ lives. The title track represents that approach well, with Hill’s protagonist speaking to the differences in her approach to love and her partner’s. Seems simple, but then again, people spend thousands in couples counseling trying to find a way to voice feelings this directly. – Dan Milliken

#323
She’d Give Anything
Boy Howdy
1993  |  Peak: #4

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A not-so-subtle depiction of how elusive true love can be for some women – even those who desperately seek it – that resonates not despite of but because of its blatancy. There’s a beautiful honesty to the song’s precise articulation of the mixture of frustration and strength that builds up within these women. – Tara Seetharam

#322
The Trouble With the Truth
Patty Loveless
1997  |  Peak: #15

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The trouble with the truth is that is just so demanding. We think we want it, but it often requires some sort of action from us once we have it. Loveless struggles with this quandary: “The trouble with the truth is it always begs for more. That’s the trouble with the truth.” – Leeann Ward

#321
Still Gonna Die
Old Dogs
1999  |  Peak: Did Not Chart

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Waylon Jennings, Mel Tillis, Bobby Bare, and Jerry Reed united for an amazing live album dominated by Shel Silverstein songs. For anyone who read his brilliant poetry books for children, “Still Gonna Die” is the golden years equivalent: clever, frightening, and darkly hilarious.  KC

#320
Wanted
Alan Jackson
1990  |  Peak: #3

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An apology via a wanted ad could be disastrous in the hands of many male country artists, but it’s simply lovely in Jacksons’, ringing with sincerity and regret. – TS

#319
Finish What We Started
Diamond Rio
1995  |  Peak: #19

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While it’s not a part of the wedding song canon, this is a gorgeous declaration of commitment. – LW

#318
Tryin’ to Hide a Fire in the Dark
Billy Dean
1992  |  Peak: #6

Listen

From the first strains of the song, we know this is going to be a dark one. While he hasn’t physically cheated yet, the thoughts of at least wishing to do so are spilling over, which begs the analogy of “It’s like trying to hide a fire in the dark.” – LW

#317
She is Gone
Willie Nelson
1996  |  Peak: Did Not Chart

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As in his classic recording of “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain”, Nelson’s sad remembrance of a lost love glows with unspoken warmth, as the beauty of his good memories shines through the outer layer of melancholy. – DM

#316
It Was
Chely Wright
1999  |  Peak: #11

Listen

An ode to the nonsensical mess of emotions that accompany falling in love, just contradictory enough to make sense. – TS

#315
You Can Feel Bad
Patty Loveless
1995  |  Peak: #1

Listen

As deft a take down of a departing lover there’s ever been.  Not since “You’re So Vain” has a jilted lover struck back so powerfully by simply holding up a mirror. – KC

#314
Till I Found You
Marty Stuart
1991  |  Peak: #12

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With a Roy Orbison feel, “Til I Found You” is a sweet declaration of finally finding the right one. – LW

#313
Blame it On Your Heart
Patty Loveless
1993 |  Peak: #1

Listen

A shameless radio bid delivered with more power and charm than such bids generally deserve. – DM

#312
You Never Even Call Me By My Name
Doug Supernaw
1994 |  Peak: #60

Listen

Presenting the perfect Country & Western song! This is a great David Allan Coe cover with some alterations, including the exclusion of a stanza (which does water down the song a bit), changes to the spoken part, and additions of some special guests. – LW

#311
Wine Into Water
T. Graham Brown
1998  |  Peak: #44

Listen

A kneeling drunkard’s plea for the modern age.  A broken man struggling with his alcoholism asks Jesus to perform His first miracle in reverse. Brown’s rough and tumble voice is the best possible fit for this fine composition.- KC

#310
High Powered Love
Emmylou Harris
1993  |  Peak: #63

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The added punch to the production shows that Harris could do nineties country as well as anybody on the radio back then, which is quite the compliment, given who was getting airplay in 1993.  A perfect lament for a lover who won’t settle for skin deep treasures, she wonders, “Is there anyone left with teeth just a little uneven? Who won’t spend more time with a mirror than he does with me?” – KC

#309
You Won’t Ever Be Lonely
Andy Griggs
1998  |  Peak: #2

Listen

Griggs creates a touching ballad out of one of the sweetest, simplest promises that comes with making a commitment to someone – that no matter the storm outside, you’ll never have to face it alone. – TS

#308
A Door
Aaron Tippin
1997  |  Peak: #65

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Instead of serving as a means to shut the other person out, the door that Tippin is suggesting is for the purpose of letting the other person in. “a door ain’t nothin’ but a way to get through a wall”, he sings. If they work together to create it, then they might be able to walk through it to meet each other halfway. – LW

#307
Someday Soon
Suzy Bogguss
1991  |  Peak: #12

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Suzy Bogguss takes this Ian Tyson cowboy folk song and makes it her own. She successfully breathes emotion into this wistful song that, once again, pits woman against rodeo. – LW

#306
The River
Garth Brooks
1992  |  Peak: #1

Listen

Built on a poignantly written metaphor, “The River” gracefully weaves together elements of faith, inspiration and motivation. It’s a masterful single, from its poetic lyrics to its beautifully simplistic arrangement, but the heart and soul is Brooks’ gripping conviction – quiet yet fierce. On a personal note, this song contains one of my all-time favorite lyrics that I often revisit: “So don’t you sit upon the shoreline and say you’re satisfied/Choose to chance the rapids and dare to dance the tide.” – TS

#305
Time Passes By
Kathy Mattea
1991  |  Peak: #7

Listen

Blessings are fleeting, and they’re best appreciated in the moment. It’s far more satisfying to celebrate them without the bittersweet tinge of regret. – KC

#304
You Can’t Stop Love
Marty Stuart
1996  |  Peak: #26

Listen

To hear Marty Stuart tell it, there’s nothing more powerful than love. No matter what you do, you can’t stop it. True enough. – LW

#303
Everywhere
Tim McGraw
1997  |  Peak: #1

Listen

McGraw’s character leaves behind a lifelong love interest and a little home town to explore the world. But instead of getting good closure, the poor guy starts seeing the girl he left in every place he visits, even long after she has married and had children. That these visions could feasibly represent both unresolved romantic feelings and the inescapable imprint of one’s roots is just country-delicious. – DM

#302
You’re Beginning to Get to Me
Clay Walker
1998  |  Peak: #2

Listen

Walker’s falling head first for a girl, but he isn’t ready to take the plunge with the L-word just yet. In his catalogue of fabulous 90s hits, this understated “love” song gets overshadowed by some of the more distinct ones, but it’s nonetheless memorable. – TS

#301
Help Me Hold On
Travis Tritt
1990  |  Peak: #1

Listen

Travis Tritt is one of few country artists who is as known for his rocking side as he is for being a strong balladeer. “Help Me Hold on” is a plea to his lover to help him salvage what’s left of their relationship, which doesn’t seem to be much, since she’s already packing a suitcase. – LW

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How Very Nineties: George Jones & Friends, and other All Star Jams

New fans of country music in the nineties were hit over the head with the assertion that country music was one big family. Nothing demonstrated this mythos better than the all star jams that cropped up during the boom years.

There were some variants of this approach.  A popular one found a veteran star teaming up with one or more of the boom artists to increase their chances of radio airplay.  George Jones was big on this approach, with the most high profile attempt being “I Don’t Need Your Rockin’ Chair.”   Seventeen years later, it’s amazing to see how young everyone looks – even Jones himself!

Jones shared the CMA Vocal Event of the Year trophy for that collaboration with Clint Black, Garth Brooks, T. Graham Brown, Mark Chesnutt, Joe Diffie, Vince Gill,  Alan Jackson, Patty Loveless, Pam Tillis, and Travis Tritt.   He’d continue with this approach by teaming up with his vocal chameleon Sammy Kershaw on “Never Bit a Bullet Like This”, and he recorded an entire album of his own songs as duets with mostly younger stars. The Bradley Barn Sessions was represented at radio with “A Good Year For the Roses”, which found him singing one of his best hits with Alan Jackson:

Among the legends, the only other one to be successful with this approach was Dolly Parton, who used collaborations with young stars to score consecutive platinum albums for the first and only time in her career.  Her 1991 set Eagle When She Flies was powered by the #1 single “Rockin’ Years”, co-written by her brother and sung with Ricky Van Shelton:

That album also included a duet with Lorrie Morgan on “Best Woman Wins.”  She upped the bandwagon ante on Slow Dancing With the Moon, bringing a whole caravan of young stars on board with her line dance cash-in “Romeo.”

That’s Mary Chapin Carpenter, Billy Ray Cyrus, Kathy Mattea, and Tanya Tucker in the video. Pam Tillis isn’t in the clip, but she sings on the record with them.  Parton also duets with Billy Dean on that album on “(You Got Me Over a) Heartache Tonight.”

Her next collaboration was with fellow legends Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette, but they couldn’t resist the temptation to squeeze in several younger stars in the video for “Silver Threads and Golden Needles.”  Alongside veterans like Chet Atkins,  Bill Anderson, and Little Jimmy Dickens, you’ll catch cameos from Mark Collie, Confederate Railroad, Rodney Crowell, Diamond Rio, Sammy Kershaw, Doug Stone, and Marty Stuart.

Parton scored a CMA award when she resurrected “I Will Always Love You” as a duet with Vince Gill:

And while it didn’t burn up the charts, her version of “Just When I Needed You Most” with Alison Krauss and Dan Tyminski:

Tammy Wynette made an attempt to connect with the new country audience with her own album of duets, Without Walls.  Her pairing with Wynonna on “Girl Thang” earned some unsolicited airplay:

Perhaps the most endearing project in this vein came from Roy Rogers.  How cool is it to hear him singing with Clint Black?

The new stars liked pairing up with each other, too.  A popular trend was to have other stars pop up in music videos.  There’s the classic “Women of Country” version of “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her”, for starters. Mary Chapin Carpenter sounds pretty darn good with Suzy Bogguss, Emmylou Harris, Patty Loveless, Kathy Mattea, Pam Tillis, and Trisha Yearwood on backup:

That’s a live collaboration, so at least you hear the voices of the other stars. But Vince Gill put together an all-star band for his “Don’t Let Our Love Start Slippin’ Away” video without getting them to actually play.  That’s Little Jimmy Dickens, Kentucky Headhunters, Patty Loveless, Lee Roy Parnell, Carl Perkins, Pam Tillis, and Kelly Willis behind him, with Reba McEntire reprising her waitress role from her own “Is There Life Out There” clip.

My personal favorite was Tracy Lawrence’s slightly less A-list spin on the above, with “My Second Home” featuring the future superstars Toby Keith, Tim McGraw, and Shania Twain, along with John Anderson, Holly Dunn, Hank Flamingo, Johnny Rodriguez, Tanya Tucker, Clay Walker, and a few people that I just can’t identify.


Humor Videos
Tracy Lawrence – My Second Home

For pure star wattage, it took the bright lights of Hollywood to get a truly amazing group together. The Maverick Choir assembled to cover “Amazing Grace”, and it doesn’t get much better than country gospel delivered in a barn by John Anderson, Clint Black, Suzy Bogguss, Billy Dean, Radney Foster, Amy Grant, Faith Hill, Waylon Jennings, Tracy Lawrence, Kathy Mattea, Reba McEntire, John Michael Montgomery, Restless Heart, Ricky Van Shelton, Joy Lynn White, and Tammy Wynette.

What’s your favorite of the bunch? Any good ones I missed?

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Say What? Classic – Tim McGraw

Here’s what Tim McGraw told New Country Magazine after his third album, All I Want, was released to surprising critical acclaim in 1995:

If 10 albums from now, it’s not better than this one, I shouldn’t be making them.

That’s a lofty goal, isn’t it? I think that just about every McGraw album released since All I Want has been of higher quality, but I don’t know that I’d argue that each one was better than the last. But is that ever true about any artist?

The only one I can think of off the top of my head is Kathy Mattea.  I think that her recent run of Roses, Joy For Christmas Day, Right Out of Nowhere, and Coal have shown significant growth from one set to next.

Can you think of any artist with a decently long career that has consistently improved from album to album?

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The Saddest Country Songs

The Boot has published another  list that’s got me thinking. This time, it’s Top 10 Sad Love Songs in Country Music.  Again, the title is a bit strange, as the list includes the Suzy Bogguss hit “Letting Go”, which is about a mother watching her daughter go off to college, but there’s no rule that a love song has to be about romantic love, I guess.

Predictably and justifiably, the list is topped by “He Stopped Loving Her Today”, a George Jones classic that tops many a classic country list, including one of our own.  There’s also a pretty high body count – four outright deaths and one by implication.  Country songs sure do like to kill people off, don’t they?

So what are the saddest country songs ever? My first instinct was to mention “Where’ve You Been”, but that Kathy Mattea classic has a ray of hope. It’s really about a perfect relationship meeting its natural end.

For real, heartbreaking sadness, all hope must be vanquished, with only regret remaining. Bonus points if somebody dies.  Here are two that I think are tragic, one with death and one without:

Dixie Chicks/Patty Griffin, “Top of the World”

A man realizes after his death that he did nothing but hurt the woman he loved, and now it’s too late to go back and change it:

John Conlee, “Backside of Thirty”

Something similar, though the man is still alive. He had everything he ever wanted – a beautiful wife and son – and somehow messed it up. He’s now living alone in an apartment, drinking away his rent money, “back on the bottom with no will to climb.”

What do you think are the saddest country songs ever?

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