1994 Written by Matraca Berg, Suzy Bogguss, and Gary Harrison
There’s a term that has gathered strength over the past decade: the quarter-life crisis. It describes that phase in life where the idealism of what you thought your life would be collides with what reality has in store for you. Reconciling the two is needed to get beyond this point of life, and adulthood completely sets in once such reconciliation has been accomplished.
A significant difference between the major female artists of the early nineties and those of today is that they’re on opposite sides of that quarter-life marker. Take at the ages in which today’s newer female stars enjoyed their first top twenty hit: Carrie Underwood, 22; Miranda Lambert, 22; Kellie Pickler, 20; Taylor Swift, 17.
Now compare that to the women who broke through from 1989-1992: Suzy Bogguss, 34; Pam Tillis, 33; Mary Chapin Carpenter, 31; Wynonna, 27; Trisha Yearwood, 26. Unlike today, there were also several additional female artists who were also on the radio – Reba McEntire, Kathy Mattea, Patty Loveless, and Tanya Tucker – all of whom were in their thirties.
“Age ain’t nothin’ but a number,” Aaliyah once sang, but the musical output of these two crops of artists suggest otherwise. “Hey Cinderella” was a top five hit for Bogguss in 1994, and perhaps best exemplifies the different perspectives of these two generations of women.
“We believed in fairy tales that day,” Bogguss sings as she reminisces with her friend about the day her friend got married. “I watched your father give you away. Your aim was true when the pink bouquet fell right into my hands.” It sounds like the beginning of the latest Taylor Swift song, perhaps a duet with Kellie Pickler.
But as life goes on, “through the years, and the kids, and the jobs, and the dreams that lost their way,” these grown women are wondering about those fairy tales. “I’ve got a funny feeling we missed a page or two somehow”, and find themselves wanting to question the legendary princess: “Cinderella, maybe you can help us out?” they ask. “Does the shoe fit you now?”
While the perspective of youth is honestly preserved, these are clear-eyed adults with a wealth of life experiences informing their feelings today. It doesn’t get more honest than the line “We’re good now ’cause we have to be.” It’s not so much we grow up because we want to, but rather because we have to.
I’ve written many times that I don’t find Taylor Swift’s music offensive so much as irrelevant. When I was a teenager, I could listen to country music and not fully understand the intricacies of what the songs were about, but I knew I’d eventually grow into an understanding. Over the past fifteen years, I’ve done just that. What I can’t do is regress back into the state of development needed to find Taylor Swift’s music relevant to me.
Honestly, I don’t think that the world looked like what’s described in “You Belong With Me” and “Love Story” at any period of my life. I’ve just never known girls who saw the world that way. The ones I knew have grown up to be women quite a bit like those that Bogguss and her contemporaries sang about. Here’s hoping that this generation is able to do the same. In the meantime, if you like country music by and for adults, this forgotten hit is a great starting point.
Last year, I counted down my twenty-five favorite Christmas songs. This year, it’s time to do the same with my favorite country Christmas albums. Feel free to add your own favorites in the comment section.
SHeDaisy, Brand New Year
This is not a typical, conservative country Christmas album. SHeDaisy spices things up by not only including originals, but rearranges the classics to make an unpredictable, unique Christmas album that stands out from the pack.
Dolly Parton, Home for Christmas
This is an incredibly cheesy Christmas album. As only Dolly can do, however, it’s at least delightfully cheesy.
Charlie Daniels & Friends, Joy To the World: A Bluegrass Christmas
This album flew under the radar this year, but it’s a wonderful bluegrass album with a few famous friends. Daniels even steps aside to allow his guests to sing while only accompanying them. Jewel steps up with an impressively country vocal on “Blue Christmas” and Kathy Mattea offers a rollicking version of “Oh Come All Ye Faithful.”
John Denver and the Muppets, Christmas Together
I grew up with this album. On the strength of nostalgia, I’d put it at the top of this list, but for the sake of being reasonable, I’ll settle for this ranking. Who doesn’t love the Muppets, anyway?
John Cowan, Comfort and Joy
John Cowan’s Comfort and Joy is a new release, but its acoustic production and Cowan’s clear voice is instantly appealing. He interprets some classics, but also includes some worthy originals and lesser-known songs. The sprightly “Christmas Everyday”, the thoughtful “Little Match Girl” and the gospel “Good News” provide welcome depth to this Christmas project.
Mindy Smith, My Holiday
Mindy Smith adeptly covers well-known standards on her Christmas album, but her original inclusions are what really stand out here, particularly “Follow the Shepherd Home” and “I Know the Reason.” With guest appearances from Alison Krauss, Thad Cockrell and Emmylou Harris (not to mention Smith’s own beautiful voice), My Holiday is one of the most outstanding mixes of originality and tradition on this list.
Loretta Lynn, Best of Christmas…Twentieth Century Masters
This is a collection of Loretta Lynn Christmas songs. It’s my favorite traditional country Christmas album.
Emmylou Harris, Light of the Stable
If you enjoy Harris’ bluegrass album, Roses in the Snow, and her Live At the Ryman, you’ll likely enjoy this acoustic-based Christmas album as well. It has a live, relaxed feel to it. While it doesn’t necessarily sound big-budget, it is still a well-crafted Christmas album.
The Tractors, Have Yourself A Tractors Christmas
The Tractors are infamous for their cringe-worthy novelty song, “Baby Likes To Rock It”, but they made an excellent Christmas album nonetheless. Their blend of swing and shuffle makes for a crisp album that I love to hear every year. I enjoy the entire album with the exception of their Christmas twist on “Baby Likes to Rock It.”
Lee Ann Womack, A Season for Romance
Lee Ann Womack is successful in conveying a romantic vibe on this album that suggests just that. With her easy southern drawl, Womack knows her way around a gorgeous Christmas melody. Her fun side should not be ignored, however, as her version of “the Man with the Bag” is easily the superior track on the album.
Travis Tritt, A Travis Tritt Christmas: Loving Time of the Year
Tritt rocks on songs like “Winter Wonderland”, adds a bluesy twist to “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”, waxes nostalgic on “Christmas in My Hometown” and reverently sings “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” Nevertheless, he keeps Christmas in perspective as he philosophizes on the title track and, possibly naively, proclaims it to be the “most loving time of the year.”: “I wish I could bottle up this feeling/Pass out a little everyday/’Cause all the scars of pain have started healing/And troubles of this world just fade away…”
Dwight Yoakam, Come on Christmas
Dwight’s signature quirky vocal style does not disappoint on this Christmas album. He does some standards and a few originals. His bluesy version of “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” just may be the only version of that song that I like. Among the originals, the dysfunctional “Santa Can’t Stay” and the album’s sensual title track are the highlights of the project.
Gene Autry, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer and Other Christmas Classics
Like Bing Crosby, Gene Autry’s name is simply synonymous with Christmas music.
John Prine, A John Prine Christmas
Prine’s rough, unpolished voice does not try to navigate beloved classics that conjure up feelings of warmth and frivolity. Instead, he does what works best for him, which means writing songs that reveal insightful observations of real life. As a result, A John Prine Christmas is darker than a typical Christmas album.
Alan Jackson, Let It Be Christmas
While Alan Jackson’s first Honky Tonk Christmas album is great, this one was recorded to appease his mother who requested a more traditional-sounding record. This one is especially good when hosting guests with mixed music tastes. Backed by a big band and orchestra, Jackson’s smooth voice navigates these traditional tunes with ease. Jackson’s original composition, the title track, is superb enough to stand with the revered classics.
Martina McBride, White Christmas
Martina McBride made a safe Christmas album with all familiar songs, but she still managed to deliver an album that’s engaging and among the best of its kind. And as one might expect from McBride, she knocks “O Holy Night” out of the park.
Toby Keith, A Classic Christmas
Toby Keith shows his generosity at Christmas time by making two Christmas albums (one of religious classics and the other of secular classics) and packaging them together for one low price. As a skillful interpreter, he treats these classics with both reference and fun as appropriate, with “Little Drummer Boy” receiving the coolest laid back production that I’ve ever heard on it.
Lorrie Morgan, Merry Christmas from London
With the London Orchestra, Morgan is in fine voice and keeps up with the power accompaniment quite well. This is a beautiful, straightforward album that includes many classics and a sweeping version of “My Favorite Things.”
Randy Travis, An Old Time Christmas
This Christmas album is exactly what one would expect from Randy Travis. If you like Randy Travis music and you like Christmas music, this one doesn’t disappoint. Highlights include his version of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”, Meet Me Under The mistletoe” and “Old Time Christmas.”
Kathy Mattea, Joy for Christmas Day
Kathy’s warm, soothing voice is meant for Christmas songs. She sings some standards along with some awesome originals. The stand out tracks are the gorgeous “Straw Against The Chill” and the infectious “Unto Us A Child Is Born.”
Garth Brooks, Beyond the Season
Garth’s first and best Christmas album sounds a lot like Garth Brooks music of the early nineties. Even the classics get the Brooks treatment, including a soulful version of “Go Tell It On A Mountain.” The highlights include but aren’t limited to “The Friendly Beasts” (in which he enlists the help of some of his songwriting friends), “Unto You This Night” and Buck Owens’ “Santa Looked A Lot Like Daddy.”
George Strait, A Classic Christmas
Strait has as many Christmas albums as he has decades in the country music business. This album is far superior to the other two, however. While all of the songs are classics, he has recorded them with rootsy productions to match his warm vocals. Highlights include “Jingle Bells”, “Oh Come All Ye Faithful” and “Oh Christmas Tree.”
Clint Black, Christmas With You
This album consists of all original songs composed by Clint Black himself. Most of it contains Christmas through the eyes of children, including “Slow As Christmas”, “Milk and Cookies” and “The Coolest Pair.” It’s fresh, fun and joyous, just as Christmas should be.
Patty Loveless, Bluegrass And White Snow: A Mountain Christmas
As a follow up to Mountain Soul, Patty Loveless delivers a soulful bluegrass Christmas album that radiates Christmas warmth while injecting moments of festive frivolity as well. Appearances by Vince Gill, Emmylou Harris, Rebecca Lynn Howard and Jon Randall are not necessary to strengthen this already masterful Christmas album, but they certainly help the celebration in a special way. (For more on this album, read a review by guest contributor Stephen Fales.)
Pam Tillis, Just in Time for Christmas
Most of the time, I want to hear warmth on a Christmas album. As is the case with many of my favorites, I like to be able to imagine listening to Christmas music by a cozy fire (though I don’t have a fireplace) and a nice mug of hot chocolate. With Tillis’ album, my imagination does not have to stretch very far, because it commands such images with its tasteful, jazzy production and Tillis’ naturally pleasant voice. This is clearly a country Christmas album, but it also manages to blend country elements with other traditional components that result in a perfect hybrid of torch and twang.
As we come to the end of our list, the top ten selections are a lot like the ninety before them, with perhaps a bit more of a roots leaning overall. If you didn’t see your favorite on the list, or just want to discover more great music that you might have missed, be sure to check out the list at The 9513, if you somehow haven’t done so already. Even better, start a blog and write your own list. It feels like a lot of barriers fell within country music this decade, and I think one of the best walls to come down was the one between music journalism and the listening audience. I hope in the next decade, a lot more readers become writers, so we can all keep reveling in the music we love and helping others discover it.
Sappy introduction aside, here’s our top ten of the decade:
Patty Loveless, Mountain Soul
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and few albums have inspired more imitation than Patty Loveless’ Mountain Soul. Bluegrass music full of roots influences, Mountain Soul, with its traditional sound, has become a surrogate definition of authenticity for mainstream artists returning to their musical beginnings. Standout songs include “Cheap Whiskey,” a classically dark drinking song; the energetic “The Boys are Back in Town,” with its WWII imagery; and “Soul of Constant Sorrow,” based on the traditional work popularized by the Stanley Brothers. – William Ward
Recommended Tracks: “The Boys are Back in Town”, “Cheap Whiskey”, “Soul of Constant Sorrow”, “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive”
Vince Gill, These Days
An inordinate amount of praise has already been heaped upon Vince Gill’s prolific, 2006 landmark 4-disc box set of all original material. Moreover, all of the praise is warranted. Not only is all of the material original rather than culled from previous albums; Gill had a hand in writing each of the 43 tracks. Each disc is divided into its own genre (rock, jazz, bluegrass/acoustic and straight-up country). Furthermore, each disc is masterfully executed. Fortunately, These Days does not prove the old “less is more” adage. Instead, it only leaves us longing for more. – Leeann Ward
Recommended Tracks: “Sweet Thing”, “Faint of Heart (with Diana Krall)”, “Little Brother”, “Some Things Never Change (featuring Emmylou Harris)
Loretta Lynn, Van Lear Rose
She had already made a fine latter-day album with 2000′s Still Country, but Loretta Lynn’s crowning artistic moment of the last thirty years came when rocker Jack White offered to turn his semi-fetishization of Lynn’s music and persona into a full LP. As you’d expect of a project born of such fanboy fantasy, White was not shy about dressing up Loretta in his favorite things – in this case, snaky electric guitars and loose, often atmospheric arrangements that made the Kentucky gal sound more raw, Gothic and edgy than she ever had in her bouncy classic singles. But White also had the good sense not to let his little indulgences distract from the fantastic artist on his hands, who wrote herself a batch of sharp, soulful songs that capture the essence of what truly makes real country music – and Lynn herself – rock so hard. – Dan Milliken
Recommended Tracks: “Portland, Oregon”, “Trouble On the Line”, “Family Tree”, “Miss Being Mrs.”
Johnny Cash, American III: Solitary Man
It’s astounding how some artists can convey as much meaning through voice as they can through lyric. Cash performs covers and original material alike so affectingly on this Grammy-award winning album that you feel like you can reach out and touch what you’re hearing. It’s a stunningly haunting, uniquely introspective project, carried by the strength of Cash’s wisdom and transcendent voice. – Tara Seetharam
Recommended Tracks: “Before My Time”, “I’m Leaving Now”, “Solitary Man”, “I See a Darkness”
Old Crow Medicine Show, Old Crow Medicine Show
Old Crow Medicine Show’s first and best progressive acoustic album is difficult to label as far as genre is concerned. However, what can be defined is that there are elements of bluegrass, country, folk, etc., which all culminate in a mighty fine debut effort from a band that has developed an impressive cult following as a result. With overt drug references, subtler (though still obvious) political undertones, quiet philosophical moments and some simply fun numbers, this album never gets tiresome, which is a testament to its long lasting substance as a whole. – LW
Recommended Tracks: “Tell It to Me”, “Big Time in the Jungle”, “Wagon Wheel”
Kathy Mattea, Coal
Kathy Mattea’s Coal is a near-perfect example of an album acting as a single piece of art. More than a collection of mining songs, Coal, co-produced by Marty Stuart, is a brutal and beautiful look at a way of life that is both challenging and enlightening. Notable tracks include “Dark as a Dungeon,” delivered with meticulous but even intensity; the haunting “Red-Winged Blackbird,” with its blood and coal color imagery; and the a cappella “Black Lung,” an impressive choice in which Mattea successfully pushes the boundaries of her musical abilities. – WW
Recommended Tracks: “Blue Diamond Mines”, “Red-Winged Blackbird”, “Sally in the Garden”, “Dark as a Dungeon”
Miranda Lambert, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend
Call it potential realized: Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is the album we all knew Lambert could make, and waited on the tips of our toes to hear. Her follow-up to Kerosene is a rich, defiant album that conveys a sharp perspective and a clear musical identity. Amidst a spunky blend of twang and rock, she draws from a more incisive set of songwriting skills and packs a hell of a believable punch, like on her first top ten hit, “Gunpowder & Lead.” And the punch isn’t reserved for the fiery numbers, as the album’s most gripping track comes in the form of pure tenderness. The wistful lament “More Like Her” is one of the best and most heartbreaking songs of this decade. – TS
Recommended Tracks: “Famous in a Small Town”, “More Like Her”, “Dry Town”, “Love Letters”
Gary Allan, Tough All Over
A rough, scattered, imperfect and wholly realistic 12-track grieving process. By the time of the tragic personal events leading to this album, Allan had already proven he could interpret a song better than just about anyone working in the genre; on Tough All Over, he took on the unimaginable task of interpreting his own battered emotional core. The results are striking, as he confronts not just his inevitable loneliness (“Best I Ever Had”, “Ring”, “Puttin’ Memories Away”), but also less tidy trackings of guilt (“I Just Got Back From Hell”), self-loathing (“What Kind of Fool”), spite (the title track), and reluctant hope (“Nickajack Cave [Johnny Cash's Redemption]“, “Life Ain’t Always Beautiful”). Country music and Allan himself have produced several more beautiful albums this past decade, but none that sounded quite so necessary. – DM
Recommended Tracks: “Tough All Over”, “I Just Got Back From Hell”, “Ring”, “Life Ain’t Always Beautiful”
The fact that neither Kasey Chambers nor Shane Nicholson make particularly traditional-sounding music on their own makes it all the more incredible that they have joined together to create one of the rootsiest records on this list. Aside from the intriguing, though processed “Jackson Hole”, the songs on Rattlin’ Bones sound more like beloved classics than the original Chambers and Nicholson compositions that they actually are. The naturally compatible husband-wife pairing has created an album full of crisp, majestic harmonies, distinctive melodies and intriguing lyrics, easily making this album one of the most sonically pleasing and substantive albums of the decade. – LW
Recommended Tracks: “Rattlin’ Bones”, “Monkey on A Wire”, “One More Year”, “No One Hurts Up Here”
Dixie Chicks, Home
This was our top selection by such a wide margin that it’s tempting to just say, “Of course it’s the greatest album of the decade. It’s Home.” But one sentence does not a justification for best album of the decade make, so let me go on to say that Home is conclusive proof that a modern country album can tear down the walls between radio-friendly and artistic, mainstream and Americana, pure country and crossover, revealing that while they looked like stone, they were paper walls all along.
It was a hint of further greatness to come that the Chicks were able to pen some of their own material and have it stand proudly among the very best works of brilliant songwriters, and the album became a classic because the songs really are the best ever written by Darrell Scott (“Long Time Gone”), Stevie Nicks (“Landslide”), Bruce Robison (“Travelin’ Soldier”), Radney Foster, (“Godspeed [Sweet Dreams]), and Patty Griffin (“Truth No. 2 and “Top of the World”). But with the acoustic production and their decision to record three-part harmonies for the first time, the result is nothing short of a masterpiece.
Despite the formula being so simple – great songs + great vocals + great production = great album – Home is a reminder of just how difficult that formula is to pull off. Released back in 2002, no country album has come along since to match its quality. – KC
Recommended Tracks: “Long Time Gone”, “Truth No. 2″, “Godspeed (Sweet Dreams)”, “Top of the World”
Kathy Mattea has rarely sounded more open and warm than on this set of innovative folk-tinged songs. Topics of peace, love, resignation and heartache are sensitively explored in songs both written by Mattea and other well-known names, including captivating interpretations of The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Me Shelter” and Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Down on the Corner.” It’s a rich album with a decisively vibrant feel. – Leeann Ward
Recommended Tracks: “Gimme Shelter”, “Down on the Corner”, “Give It Away”
Johnny Cash, American IV: The Man Comes Around
American IV: The Man Comes Around was the last Cash album released in his lifetime; the bulk of its tracks are covers performed by the then ailing singer. Amazingly enough, the album seems almost biographical despite the limited material written by Cash. Still, American IV is not limited to “Hurt” (written by Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails), as other well-interpreted covers and Cash’s own “The Man Comes Around” help cement the depth of the album. – William Ward
Recommended Tracks: “The Man Comes Around”, “Hurt”, “Sam Hall”
Jamey Johnson, That Lonesome Song
The media hype machine had a field day with Johnson’s breakthrough sophomore album, showering it with the kind of superlatives usually reserved for miracle cures and immaculate conceptions (see also: Crazy Ex-Girlfriend). Most of the attention went to the album’s counterculturism within the increasingly safe and watered-down Music Row, with numerous nods to its Outlaw aesthetic and “cocaine and a whore” business. But That Lonesome Song‘s greatness was always more than contextual, and certainly more than attitudinal; this is an album with a genuine story to tell, filled with a slow-burning sorrow that pervades every track and doesn’t rest until the wife finally walks away and the husband resigns himself to playing seedy bars and trying to convince you he’s worthy of comparison to the greats. – Dan Milliken
Recommended Tracks: “High Cost Of Living”, “Angel”, “Dreaming My Dreams With You”
For all of the attention given to her power ballads and catchy pop numbers, Faith Hill has always included more offbeat material from lesser known songwriters. This album had some great power ballads and catchy pop numbers, but its heart and soul comes from the trio of Lori McKenna songs that make up its core. “Stealing Kisses” just might be Hill’s finest moment to date, and the other two McKenna songs – “If You Ask” and the title track – are nearly as good. – Kevin Coyne
Recommended Tracks: “Dearly Beloved”, “Stealing Kisses”, “Wish For You”
Vince Gill, Next Big Thing
Gill dips into a wider range of styles and subjects on his first self-produced album, but it all seems to thoughtfully tie back to his classically sweet sound – a tricky thing to do in country music. Next Big Thing is mature, clever and vocally spot-on, and features some killer guest vocals from Emmylou Harris, Lee Ann Womack and others. – TS
Easily one of the most versatile artists in country music, Underwood is capable of tackling almost any musical style, and she makes a solid case for this on her third album. The kicker, though, is that rather than signaling a lack of identity, each style feels like a natural extension of herself as an artist. She’s mournful on a haunting country standard in one breath, and commanding on a rock-charged up-tempo in the next – all without compromising her authenticity. Most significantly, Underwood finally digs a little deeper on Play On, marrying her extraordinary vocal proficiency with a higher level of tangible, sincere conviction than ever before. – TS
Recommended Tracks: “Someday When I Stop Loving You”, “Songs Like This”, “What Can I Say”
Rodney Crowell, The Outsider
Crowell’s take on mid-decade politics avoids heavy-handedness, perhaps because what he’s appealing to is not so much partisanship as patriotism in its purest form: “Democracy won’t work if we’re asleep. That kind of freedom is a vigil you must keep.” Bonus points for not one, but two guest turns from Emmylou Harris, the highlight being their stunning duet of Bob Dylan’s “Shelter From the Storm.” – KC
Recommended Tracks: “Dancin’ Circles ‘Round the Sun (Epictetus Speaks)”, “Don’t Get Me Started”, “Shelter From the Storm”
The Little Willies, The Little Willies
Norah Jones pet country side project with four of her New York City friends, including former boyfriend bassist Lee Alexander, results inn an inextricably fun album named after Willie Nelson who is covered twice on the project (“Gotta Get Drunk” and “Night Life”). The productions, including jaunty piano and prominent bass, along with Jones’ atypically loose vocals, make this disc a thrilling listening experience. While The Little Willie’s self titled album is not tight in technical terms, the album is all the better for it. – LW
Recommended Tracks: “Roll On”, “Gotta Get Drunk”, “Tennessee Stud”
Trisha Yearwood, Real Live Woman
Upon its release, the artist declared that she’d finally made her dream album. It’s easy to understand why, as Real Live Woman is Trisha Yearwood’s most cohesive album to date. It has a warmth and depth that makes it more than just reminiscent of Linda Ronstadt’s classic L.A. country albums from the mid-seventies. It’s actually on par with them. – KC
Recommended Tracks: “Where Are You Now”, “Try Me Again”, “When a Love Song Sings the Blues”
Kris Kristofferson, Broken Freedom Song: Live From San Francisco
For each unequivocal success like At Folsom Prison and Nirvana Unplugged, there are a dozen uninspired live albums that simply exist to capitalize on old material. Kris Kristofferson’s Broken Freedom Songs, with his extended introductions and banter, is an unequivocal success. Along with its friendly and almost conversational tone, Broken Freedom Songs focuses on unexpected compositions and makes a nice addition to other historically strong live albums. – WW
Recommended Tracks: “The Circle”, “Here Comes that Rainbow Again”, “Moment of Forever”
Country Universe contributor and reader Cory DeStein flagged this rundown from Billboard regarding women on the charts this decade:
PERFECT 10: On Country Songs, Carrie Underwood ropes her 10th top 10, as “Cowboy Casanova” climbs 11-8. With the advance, Underwood now stands alone in first-place for most top 10s on the chart among solo women this decade.
Here are the solo females with the most top 10s on Country Songs since 2000:
10, Carrie Underwood
9, Faith Hill
9, Martina McBride
8, Taylor Swift
7, Sara Evans
7, Reba McEntire
6, Jo Dee Messina
5, LeAnn Rimes
5, Gretchen Wilson
4, Shania Twain
Notably, the artist who led the category among women last decade did so with almost three times as many top 10s. Reba McEntire ranked first among solo women in the ’90s with 27 top 10s on Country Songs. Trisha Yearwood placed second with 18 between 1990 and 1999, and Faith Hill, Patty Loveless and Tanya Tucker each posted 14 in that span.
The decline in fortune for women at radio this decade is even more pronounced when you compare the above top ten to the previous decade:
Most Top Ten Singles by a Female Artist – 1990-1999:
Reba McEntire (27)
Trisha Yearwood (18)
Faith Hill (14)
Patty Loveless (14)
Tanya Tucker (14)
Pam Tillis (13)
Lorrie Morgan (12)
Shania Twain (12)
Martina McBride (10)
That’s ten women who matched Underwood’s total for this decade. That Underwood didn’t even hit the top ten for the first time until late 2005 shows how bleak it was at radio for female artists this year.
But this comparison doesn’t even tell the whole story. Take a look at the list of women with the most top ten singles two decades ago:
Most Top Ten Singles by a Female Artist – 1980-1989:
Reba McEntire (23)
Crystal Gayle (22)
Dolly Parton (21)
Janie Fricke (17)
Barbara Mandrell (17)
Rosanne Cash (16)
Emmylou Harris (16)
Anne Murray (14)
Tanya Tucker (12)
Kathy Mattea (10)
Notice the trend? This decade, the top ten women combined for a total of 70 top ten hits. In the 90′s, the top ten women enjoyed a total of 145 top ten hits. In the eighties, a total of 168 top ten hits. Even the nineties list is dominated by women who were played heavily in the earlier part of the decade.
What’s strange is that it was in the mid-nineties that female artists became the dominant commercial force in country music. Janie Fricke never had a gold album. Shania Twain has sold 48 million albums. Yet Fricke had more top ten hits in just the eighties than Shania Twain has earned in her entire career. Record buyers have wholeheartedly embraced Alison Krauss and Miranda Lambert, but despite their strong sales, they’ve each enjoyed only one solo top ten hit.
So what to make of all of this? Is the recent success of Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood an indication that things are improving for women on the radio dial? Is it worth noting that Sugarland and Jennifer Nettles (11 top ten hits) and the Dixie Chicks (14 top ten hits) have done their part to compensate for this lack of gender parity? Does it even matter that radio is playing women less often each decade, especially if record buyers are finding their music anyway?
It’s time for another iPod (or any other music player) check. Last time, I asked you to put your music device on shuffle and then tell us the first ten songs that you would recommend. This time, I want you to do the same thing, but then jot down your initial thoughts on the songs as your ten recommended songs play. Then share your informal thoughts in the comments.
I’ll play along too, but I’ll spare you the Christmas songs that will inevitably come up in my shuffle, which I’d heartily recommend if I wasn’t keenly aware that it’s still only September.
John Anderson, “I’d Love You Again”
Nice, sweet song from the rough voice guy who’s still able to sing a tender song with the best of them.
Todd Snider, “Alright Guy”
I love how Snider really seems to be pondering this question: “I’m an alright guy? Right? Right?”
Ashley Monroe, “Can’t Let Go”
Peppy…reminds me of a Garth Brooks type song.
Patty Loveless, “What’s A Broken Heart”
Melancholy…something Patty Loveless does the best.
Rodney Crowell, “Earthbound”
A celebration of life that doesn’t happen to be sappy.
Kathy Mattea, “Junkyard”
I can relate to this song. My motto has always been “Life’s depressing enough. Why would I want to watch things that would only contribute to the darkness?” That’s why I don’t watch dark films, though it so happens that I don’t have the same philosophy about music.
The Judds, “Flies on the Butter (You Can’t Go Home Again)”
There’s just something wistful about this song. Obviously, the theme, but also how it’s performed. Perhaps I’m just imagining it, because I’m wistfully wishing there was a duo on radio like The Judds today…probably why I love Joey + Rory
Trent Summar and the New Row Mob, “Louisville Nashville Line”
It’s just imperative to turn Trent Summar and the New Row Mob up when they come up on the iPod.
Vince Gill, “Don’t Pretend with Me”
I really like the guitar on this song. It’s cool. In reality, this whole box set is awesome.
The following is a guest contribution from frequent commenter and devoted Patty Loveless fan, Stephen Fales, who is better known to Country Universe readers as Steve from Boston.
Country Universe is a site where timeless artists like Patty Loveless are not merely acknowledged, but embraced and celebrated. So when Leeann invited me to review my favorite artist’s Brownfield Maine concert as a guest contributor, I jumped at the chance. Thank you so much Leeann, Kevin and Country Universe for giving me this opportunity. And Leeann and Bill, it was a joy and an honor to join you folks for dinner and watch the concert with you. You both made this already memorable concert experience even more unforgettable for me, along with patty-loveless.net associates Nicole, Richard and Patti, and the following day Bob and Barbara, Kevin. And also, Marcia Ramirez from Patty’s band. Many, many thanks to all.
Patty Loveless at the Stone Mountain Arts Center, Brownfield Maine
July 3, 2009
Nestled in the northern reaches of the Appalachian Mountains, Brownfield Maine’s Stone Mountain Arts Center is a beautiful and intimate 200 seat converted barn turned listening room. It has a warm and rustic ambiance, and a very helpful staff. The wood beam framed building makes for a rich acoustical setting, almost like a giant, wooden resonator box. It is a hard place to find out there in the Maine wilderness, but well worth the effort, especially to enjoy artists and legends like Patty Loveless, Ralph Stanley, Marty Stuart, Suzy Bogguss and Kathy Mattea. Think of it as a quest.
This beautiful mountain setting was a perfect match for Patty Loveless, the celebrated neo-traditional Country artist with the warmly expressive Appalachian alto. The Queen of Mountain Soul seemed right at home in the northernmost reaches of her domain, and seemed to absolutely love the venue.
Patty Loveless is a warmhearted and humble lady, she is a true artist with a good sense of humor and down-to-earth personality, the “anti-diva” as her drummer, Martin Parker, calls her. She takes the stage with very little fanfare, no high tech video introduction or ostentatious stagecraft, no bells, no whistles. She just quietly joins her band and begins to sing. It is all about the music with Loveless, and she lets the music speak for itself.
Still, there was plenty of excitement in the air at Maine’s Stone Mountain Arts Center, but the magic emanated entirely from Patty’s empathetic heart and her crystalline Mountain-bred voice. She sings from a place even deeper than the heart, Patty Loveless sings from the very depths of her Appalachian soul. No smoke or mirrors needed, indeed, they would have been out of their league competing with such natural, God given talent. Patty Loveless sings without a net, and her performance on July 3rd, 2009 was inspired and virtually flawless.
Loveless is the prototypical Country artist. She has refined and perfected her inherent gifts through years of hard work and perseverance, and has become a living link to Country’s Golden age. The artistic (but not the chronological) scope of her work reaches all the way back to the works of the Carter family and Bill Monroe, and forward to the finest modern Country and Bluegrass artists. Folks like Jim Lauderdale who penned two of the 18 songs in Patty’s concert lineup. She is a master interpreter of their work, and a keeper of America’s rich Country and Bluegrass cultural heritage. Patty Loveless is herself, a national treasure.
All that’s good and great about Country music is embodied in the voice of Patty Loveless, and she brings it all to bear on her first rate, soul-nourishing material. Her mentors and musical heroes, her east Kentucky upbringing and authentic Coal-miner’s daughter heritage can be heard in the soulful Mountain timbre of each and every note that she sings.
Her amazing repertoire consists of songs that have been carefully selected over many years by Patty herself and her husband/producer (and genuine musical genius) Emory Gordy Jr. And this they have done with little regard to what is trendy, and with every regard to what is timeless, or potentially so. Patty and Emory choose and write their material with a profound understanding and appreciation of the heritage and traditions of authentic Country and Bluegrass, a heritage she often speaks of with great reverence between her songs. And by following her heart in all of her musical choices, Patty Loveless connects deeply with the hearts of her listeners.
Loveless’ song lineup at SMAC was a mix of real, hard-core Country, and the finest contemporary Country. But the lack of any Mountain/Bluegrass songs that she could have included from her catalog kept this generous sampling from being truly representative of who she is as an artist. Still, a generous lineup of her always high-quality hit songs, and her featured Sleepless Nights mini-set of classic Country covers was fine compensation, and is the stuff of legend in the making.
Patty blazed into her set list with passion and precision, leaving her audience awestruck and breathless. In a very real and literal sense, this was a breathtaking performance from start to finish. At 52, Loveless is still very much an artist on an upward trajectory, and her voice just keeps getting even better with the years.
Some notable highlights: Her heart wrenching rendition of the Jim Lauderdale penned “You Don’t Seem to Miss Me”, for which she won a Vocal Event of the Year award with the legendary George Jones. Loveless has collaborated with some of Country music’s absolute finest male singers, including Jones and Vince Gill, and for live performances she needs a strong male voice to fill the void on a few of those songs. Thankfully, she has found the perfect vocal partner in her band member, Garry Murray, who sang the tricky Jones harmony with feeling and finesse.
“Nothing But the Wheel” is the perfect Country song, by the perfect Country singer. It moves with a forlorn tempo, like the car the protagonist drives away from her heartbreak: ” And 41 goes on and on, and the lights go winding in the dawn, and the sky’s the color now of polished steel…and the only thing I know for sure, is if you don’t want me any-more then I’m holding on to nothing but the wheel.” With Patty Loveless at the wheel, it just doesn’t get any better or more Country.
Patty’s interpretation of the George Jones gem, “If My Heart Had Windows”, is a song of deep gratitude for love gone right, and she sings this slow lover’s waltz with a torch style intensity that warms the heart and burns to the soul.
Patty’s knockout rockabilly rendition of “Why Baby Why” kicks off her Sleepless Nights classics set with high octane energy…Patty describes it as “George Jones meets Tina Turner” But it’s all Patty Loveless…Patty is far too humble to admit this, but she very often surpasses her musical heroes with her own interpretations, and her version and performance here was no exception.
Ray Price’s original version of “Crazy Arms” was charming, but the Loveless version is nothing less than enchanting. It is pure music magic. Pete Finney begins and ends the song with a palpable sting from his expressive steel guitar, but it’s Loveless’ soulful and soaring vocal that really penetrates the heart. When Patty and Emory recorded their version “Crazy Arms” they slowed down the tempo from a moderate shuffle to a torchy ballad. This serves Patty very well in concert by giving her the opportunity to find and wring out every last drop of emotion hiding in the potential of the original.
Some inspired phrasing enables Patty to put great emotional emphasis on the lyric “crazy dream” as in “this ain’t no cra-zy dream I know that it’s real” whereas Price’s original stressed the first word “This” instead. This subtle yet dramatic difference is but one example of the interpretive genius of Patty Loveless.
The title song of Patty’s Grammy nominated classic country covers album, Sleepless Nights, features Vince Gill, and once again Garry Murray came through with flying colors. Vocally flying with Patty Loveless cannot be easy, “why did you go, why did you go? Don’t you know, dont you know? I need you”, But Murray keeps right up and they both soar to the heights. There was lightning in the area during this concert, and there was a single crackle that seemed to come from the amplifiers during this song. But Patty never missed a beat, and the whole song came off perfectly. Patty Loveless is a force of nature, and she positively electrifies her audience.
Lead guitarist Tom Britt took his opportunity to shine during an extended and exciting slide guitar introduction to another Lauderdale song, “Halfway Down” He wailed away like a true rock star, building anticipation before the familiar opening chords of this Loveless hit. Likewise, Patty kept the excitement going full boil throughout this rip-roaring Mountain Rock song.
The set closer was “Blame It on Your Heart”, perhaps Patty’s most performed song of all. She sings it with an energetic enthusiasm that makes the song fresh for singer and listener, every single time. Indeed, this is the way that she approaches every performance, embracing each and every note like it was her first and only chance to shine and share her gift. This Harlan Howard song is just plain fun and children seem to love it as well, as they try to sing the tongue-twister chorus. Loveless is artist and entertainer in equal measure. No other singer on the scene today balances the two quite as well as Patty Loveless does, with the exception perhaps of Dolly Parton.
Patty’s stage presence is confident as one would expect from a seasoned veteran, but also warm, easy going, and playful. She has a natural Country charisma and even her speaking voice, her relaxed east Kentucky drawl is music to the ears of her audience. The stories of her musical heroes, and her accounts of her formative years as a young artist under the tutelage of the late great Porter Wagoner, and her 21 year membership in the Grand Ole Opry, are informative and entertaining.
Her audience interaction is often full of surprises. Observing the intimacy of the venue, Patty commented how folks in the front rows were so close, and jokingly suggested they grab an instrument and come on up onstage. “But don’t grab me”, she quipped. “Although on second thought, that may be fun” Then she quickly added, “don’t mind me, I’m just a real cut up and a harmless flirt”.
When she mentioned her husband Emory Gordy Jr., she received some noticeable applause from the audience. Patty responded saying that it was good that Emory had some fans here as well, and “I see a young lady here with an Emory (University) shirt, How many concerts is this now, Nicole?” to which Patty’s (and Emory’s) most devoted fan replied “199″, and Patty said with a smile, “Wow, I owe you one, don’t I?” Patty also said something about how she was glad Nicole was such a huge Emory fan, then added: “but don’t forget now, he’s MY man”, which also brought laughter from the audience.
After “Blame” Patty introduced her incredible band. It is clear that all these folks are friends and fans of each other, and Loveless herself can often be seen warmly grinning, holding her heart and slowly shaking her head from side to side with enraptured appreciation during her band’s various instrumental interludes. And proficiency on multiple instruments almost seems to be a requirement in the Loveless band. Marcia, Deannie and Garry all play at least three instruments, and it seems most everyone is schooled on mandolin in a way reminiscent of Bill Monroe’s old Bluegrass string band. The stage, as wide as it was, could barely contain the scope of this incredible array of talent.
There are only a few criticisms for this otherwise flawless concert. The sound of the drums for the first few songs was much too loud, and competed for volume with Loveless’ strong vocals instead of supporting them. But that sonic imbalance was pretty well corrected by the sound techs before too long.
Also, Loveless seemed pitch perfect all throughout, with only one or two apparent missteps. Just enough to remind us that this is a gifted flesh and blood human being, and not some kind of angelic troubadour.
After the band introductions and some more friendly banter with her audience, Patty eased into her encore performance of the Hank Williams standard “Cold, Cold Heart”. With sparse acoustic instrumentation and a little steel, it was almost a capella, and one could hear a pin drop between the notes. Patty’s version is chill-inducing perfection, tear producing and is especially potent live. And that evening her performance was especially transcendent, almost supernatural. I almost expected to see the ghost of Hank Williams take a seat and tip his hat to the finest female interpreter of his work, bar none. I would love to see what Loveless could do with ole Hank’s “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”. The audience, and even her own band, was transfixed and mesmerized. Band members Marcia and Deannie especially, looked on with smiles of amazement.
With the completion of each song in the lineup, Loveless and her band received enthusiastic applause, which she greeted each time with sweet smiles and a grateful “God Bless You.” And at the end, she received thunderous standing ovations, and seemed genuinely humbled and overwhelmed. She gathered her band with her outstretched arms, and then they all graciously bowed a collective bow.
Patty Loveless is the most authentic voice in Country music today. Her fidelity to tradition, her creative blending of her own brand of mountain and country music, and her artistic integrity have rightly earned her the title of “Queen of Mountain Soul” from the great Ralph Stanley himself. And performances like her Brownfield concert on Friday, and albums like the exquisite Sleepless Nights demonstrate that she has earned the title “Queen of Country Soul” as well.
Patty’s long awaited follow up to her acclaimed 2001 classic Mountain Soul is scheduled for release on September 29th. Mountain Soul II has every essential ingredient to be yet another Loveless-Gordy masterpiece, and should enrich her already exceptional set list considerably. Just in time for the next leg of her tour starting this Fall.
As for a possible return to the Stone Mountain Arts Center? Word has it that Patty loved it so much, and felt so welcome by her gracious hosts Carol Noonan (folk singer and songwriter), and her husband, their staff and her appreciative fans, that she hopes to return twice a year.
Both on record and in concert, the music of Patty Loveless befriends the listener. She may sing “Soul of Constant Sorrow” on her Mountain Soul album, but the music of Patty Loveless is a source of great and constant joy, as well as inspiration, catharsis and consolation for all with attentive, listening hearts.
-Steve from Boston
For more information on Patty Loveless, visit
Which is the most comprehensive and up-to-date Patty Loveless fan site.
I’m pleased to introduce a new feature to Country Universe readers, which is a spin off of Favorite Songs by Favorite Artists called Favorite Songs by Favorite Songwriters.
While we all appreciate songwriters for their invaluable contributions to our favorite artists, they still often remain unrecognized as the people behind the scenes and, therefore, stand in the shadows of the big name artists who sing their songs. The purpose of this feature is to spotlight those songwriters who had or have aspirations of being stars, but are better known for sharing their craft with the more visible artists.
Therefore, the criteria for this feature is that the spotlighted songwriter has to have both written songs that other artists have recorded and recorded music of his/her own. For instance, Darrell Scott, Rodney Crowell, Radney Foster, Kris Kristofferson, Bruce Robison, etc. are eligible songwriters, since they’ve recorded their own music and written songs for other artists. Conversely, people like Alan Jackson, Garth Brooks, Randy Travis, Clint Black etc. won’t be eligible, since they’ve mostly only written songs for themselves and not others.
Finally, Favorite Songs by Favorite Songwriters will include a mix of songs that the songwriter has recorded, and songs that he/she has written that other artists have recorded, which will obviously depend on our favorite songs by that songwriter and our preferred version of the chosen song.
With this feature, we hope to help readers realize the contributions of individual songwriters and, perhaps, inspire you to explore the artists’ own discographies as a result.
Last summer I kicked off our Songwriters Series with my favorite modern country music songwriter, Darrell Scott. So, I thought it fitting to do the same with this new feature. Since I’ve already taken up considerable space describing this feature, I encourage you all to refer to my aforementioned spotlight to learn more about the man about which this article is written.
A pertinent note, however, is that most of the songs on this list have been recorded by both Scott and other artists. While the majority of the songs on this particular list will specifically refer to other artists, please assume that Scott’s own recordings are more than worth exploring as well.
Darrell Scott, “Banjo Clark” Aloha From Nashville
One of the things that I marvel the most about Darrell Scott is his ability to write songs that sound like timeless standards. “Banjo Clark” is one such song. In fact, I had to double check to make sure Scott had actually written this song and that it wasn’t a public domain standard that he revived.
Tim McGraw, “Old Town New” Live Like You Were Dying
Scott wrote “Old Town New” with another superb modern songwriter, Bruce Robison. So, it’s no surprise that this song about a man wishing that he could make his old town feel new again after a failed relationship is good. While it remained just an album cut on McGraw’s signature album, it’s as good as many of the singles that were released from it.
Suzy Bogguss, “No Way Out” Give Me Some Wheels
“No Way Out” is up-tempo, but is not devoid of life’s realities. The family experiences familiar hardships, but the husband and wife hold themselves accountable by reminding each other that they’ve “fell in love and there’s no way out.”
While Bogguss’ recording is the superior version, both Darrel Scott’s and Julie Roberts’ versions are good as well. Moreover, this is the first song of Scott’s that was recorded by another artist.
Darrell Scott, “When There’s No One Around”
Garth Brooks recorded a version of “When There’s No One Around”, but Scott’s version is more organic and sonically appealing. It’s a poignant look at who we are when there’s no one around, which is inevitably different than our public personas.
Travis Tritt, “It’s A Great Day to Be Alive” Down the Road I Go
We all know “It’s A Great Day to Be Alive”, since it was a big hit for Travis Tritt. This song has been recorded by Scott and Cory Morrow. Tritt’s is the definitive version, however. It tries to be hopeful while still somehow managing to feel a little bleak at the same time. While he proclaims that it’s a great day to be alive, there’s a sadness that lurks under the surface that seems to threaten the bright outlook, which is actually more tangible in Scott’s recording.
Darrell Scott, “With A Memory Like Mine”
“With A Memory Like Mine” was co-written with his dad, Wayne Scott. Darrell found the beginnings of this song in a notebook of his father’s and encouraged the Elder Scott to finish it with him. Scott’s version, which can be found on a solid project with Tim O’Brien, is darker than the quick paced recording by The John Cowan Band, which is more appropriate for this chillingly sad song. The man sends his son off to war by telling him to “be a good soldier/but return again someday.” His son does return, but in the most devastating way possible for a parent. In a casket.
Martina McBride, “I’m Trying”
“I’m Trying” has been recorded by both Diamond Rio as a duet with Chely Wright and Martina McBride, though McBride’s is the stronger version. It explores a struggling relationship that almost seems like more work than it’s worth. Instead of leaving us with a typical happy or tragic ending, we are only given an assurance that they love each other and they are trying to make things work. The melody is tastefully simple with a fitting production that showcases McBride’s atypical restrained vocals, which translates into appropriate empathy for the characters within the song. It is a simple song with a simple production, but still poignant in a quiet way.
Trace Adkins, “Someday”
Adkins is the only artist to record this song, as far as I know. It’s a beautiful and hopeful song, with tinges of sadness. As is duly noted about Adkins, he sings these more serious songs the best, even if radio disagrees.
Dixie Chicks, “Heartbreak Town”
This is an indictment on Nashville, which is one of two songs written by Scott and recorded by The Chicks that tackles the topic. The song portrays Nashville, a place where so many people hope to enjoy success, as a “heartbreak town, which is something that both the Chicks and Scott have surely learned from personal experience.
Kathy Mattea, “Loves Not Through With You Yet”
Right Out of Nowhere
I’m thrilled that one of my favorite Mattea albums includes this thoughtful, gorgeous Celtic flavored song by Darrell Scott: “You may think that love takes two, but loves a gift from you to you.”
Sara Evans, “Born to Fly”
Born to Fly
Scott happened to write one of Sara Evans’ most recognizable and best hits to date. “Born to Fly” is an infectious coming of age song. While her parents are stable and grounded, that’s not the way the songs’ character wishes to live and she asks, “How do you keep your feet on the ground when you know you were born to fly?”
Darryl Worley, “Family Tree”
I Miss My Friend
While many of Scott’s songs can be heavy, this is an example of his sillier side. Scott does a great version, but Worley cuts loose just the right amount. He clearly revels in singing deliciously smarmy lyrics like, “Well, raisin’ up babies is our new sport/You’re one day late and I’m one dollar short/Now, maybe it was planned or maybe it was a goof/But a cat’s got to dance on a hot tin roof.”
Darrell Scott, “Goodle’ USA”
The Invisible Man
A more watered down version of this song can be heard on Faith Hill’s album. If one doesn’t listen closely, it’s easy to miss the probing lyrics that question the state of America. While Scott’s recording is not quite as polished, the political message is much more overt, which includes his original lyrics that were altered for Hill’s version to be less controversial.
Dixie Chicks, “Long Time Gone”
This is the other song that was written by Scott and recorded by The Chicks that takes Nashville to task. Wrapped in an unshakably catchy melody, “Long Time Gone” disregards conventional niceties and tersely critiques the music that’s being played on the radio:
“Now me and Delia singin’ every Sunday
Watchin’ the children and the garden grow
We listen to the radio to hear what’s cookin’
But the music ain’t got no soul
Now they sound tired but they don’t sound Haggard
They got money but they don’t have cash
They got Junior but they don’t have Hank
I think, I think, I think…the rest is…
A long Time Gone”
Patty Loveless, “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive”
Patty Loveless’ recording of “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive” sounds like a superb arrangement of a forgotten classic, except it isn’t a remake and was written just over ten years ago. While I feel the definitive version was recorded by Patty Loveless, Darrell Scott has recorded two versions that, even if Loveless’ version did not exist, would earn a spot on this list. Through haunting lyrics and melodic structure, “Harlan” tells the tragic story of the bleak existence of coalminers that is just about inevitable:
“But the times got hard and tobacco wasn’t selling
And old granddad knew what he’d do to survive
He went and dug for Harlan coal
And sent the money back to grandma
But he never left Harlan alive
Where the sun comes up about ten in the mornin’
And the sun goes down about three in the day
And you’ll fill your cup with whatever bitter brew you’re drinkin’
And you spend your life just thinkin’ of how to get away”
Patty Loveless sings this song with an immense emotional intensity that was likely gathered from personal experience as a daughter of a coalmining father who eventually succumbed to “Black Lung Disease” as a result of coalmining in Kentucky. In fact, each person who has sung this song so far, including Darrell Scott himself, has a personal and deep understanding of the significance of the hopelessness that the lyrics convey, since Brad Paisley, Kathy Mattea and Scott also lived in coalmining towns as children. Consequently, they were all exposed to the horrifying reality of the song’s title that authoritatively proclaims that “you’ll never leave Harlan Alive.”
This list certainly does not exhaust the extent of Darrell Scott’s immeasurable songwriting prowess, but it shows his wide range of capabilities as a diverse composer and lyricist. He can do fun, heartbreak, inspirational, political, social commentary, fast, slow, etc. Moreover, he does it all with poignancy and wit, as it is appropriate.
Amongst the glut of faux traditionalists that populated the country airwaves during the nineties, there was one voice that cut right through the clutter, such was its raw verve and unabashed authenticity. Aaron Tippin sings with pure country conviction about the invisible Americans, giving voice to the working men and women who seem to have vanished from the collective national consciousness.
In truth, Tippin was their last great champion, scoring radio hits with such anthems as “I Got it Honest”, “I Wouldn’t Have it Any Other Way” and “Working Man’s Ph.D.” So it seems fitting that he has returned with a concept album that celebrates the American trucker, collecting most of the high-profile road songs in country music history, but also including some low-profile gems that give In Overdrive greater depth and resonance.
One of the reasons the album works so well is that Tippin sounds like he could conceivably be a truck driver. He restores the “little white pills” to “Six Days on the Road” that Sawyer Brown censored on their hit cover, the distance between the narrator and the character is completely eliminated on his version of Alabama’s “Roll On”, and all the Urban Cowboy sheen is completely decimated when he tears into “Drivin’ My Life Away.”
Kathy Mattea has long been a favorite for both the writers and readers of Country Universe. Earlier today, we had a chance to speak with Mattea about her current album, Coal, and covered many other topics along the way.
Coyne: I see Coal as the culmination of what you’ve been doing musically, which has always been introspective and focuses on the bigger issues of life. But you’ve also always done a lot of public work for social justice, especially with AIDS and the environment. It seems like it all came together on one album this time around.
Mattea: It’s been an evolving thing. It wasn’t intentionally that way. Interestingly, it came to me to do the album because of the Sago mine disaster. I had just been torn up by it. My grandfathers were coal miners, and my mom worked for the United Coal Miners and my brother used to work for the coal industry, and I was just so emotionally torn up by that event.
I was asked to sing on Larry King Live on the day of the funerals to close the show. A bunch of musicians came down to work for free, just because there were so moved by the event. And I thought, “This is a great thing. This is what music is for. I’ll make a record of this story. I’ll go back to the songs and make a record about coal mining.”
That was really my only thought about it, and the journey took me to a place that I could not see on the front end. It threaded together family stories. It led me to people who taught me about mountain top removal, which is a form of strip mining that’s going on in Appalachia right now. It also put me in touch with people so I could see that a lot of these stories are ongoing. A lot of these songs are very much the same today as what was going on in the coal fields forty years ago, sixty years ago, and longer.
You had said a few years ago that you’re now in this period of your career where you’re checking off the list. You wanted to make an acoustic album, which was Right Out of Nowhere, and the Celtic album Roses, and you made another Christmas album and now this coal mining album. What’s next on the list? Have you decided yet?
I have decided, but it’s just coming into focus, so if I tell you now, the thing will evolve in another six months so that it won’t be relevant to what I say . You have a jumping off point, but it always turns out to take you places that you don’t expect. I am starting to look around for songs for the next record, and it’s definitely a roots record.