2013 turned out to be a banner year for new music, full of powerful songwriting, inspired collaborations, and truly cohesive albums that would rank among the best releases in any given year. Many of this year’s top twenty would’ve ranked much higher in other years, and many of us writers couldn’t even include all the works we deeply enjoyed this year on our personal lists, making our collective list worthy of the heartiest endorsement we could ever give.
Here’s to a great 2013, and a greedy wish that 2014 will be just as wonderful on the music front. As always, share your thoughts and personal favorites in the comments.
#20 Rubberband Charlie Worsham
Individual rankings: #7 – Tara; #12 – Leeann
Like Chris Young two years ago, Worsham’s voice is a commodity that instantly elevates the new artist to an orbit above the male radio regulars. His is warm and cleanly expressive, lending itself best to songs that nurture his upper register, like the jaunty “Want Me Too,” haunting “Someone Like You” or those invigorating opening bars of “Could It Be.” If only life imitated “Nashville” and its fictional stars’ uncomplicated brand of pop country, Worsham might just be the next Luke Bryan and “Rubberband” –the album’s finely produced, genre-bending title track– his next big hit. - Tara Seetharam
Recommended Tracks: “Rubberband,” “Someone Like You,” “Young to See,” “Could it Be”
#19 Silver Bell Patty Griffin
Individual rankings: #5 – Kevin; #13 – Jonathan
It was a banner year for Patty Griffin fans, as two new studio albums were released. Silver Bell is the oddity of the two, in that it was recorded thirteen years ago and languished in the vaults (and on cherished bootlegs.) For those who have discovered Griffin during her past few years as an Americana goddess, Silver Bell was her final attempt at a mainstream album for A&M Records, and it is fantastic. She finds a happy medium between the rawness of her debut album, Living with Ghosts, and the hard edge of its follow-up, Flaming Red. Two of the best tracks, “Truth #2″ and “Top of the World”, would become two of the best tracks on Home, the landmark Dixie Chicks album from 2002. Emmylou Harris joins in on harmony for “Truth”, but the true revelation is the original recording of “World”, which is darker and more haunting than the excellent renditions that the Chicks, and Griffin herself, would later record. - Kevin Coyne
Recommended Tracks: “Top of the World”, “One More Girl”, “Mother of God”
#18 Honky Tonk Son Volt
Individual rankings: #4 -Sam; #18 – Jonathan
As one of the defining bands of alt-country, Son Volt have rarely taken a straightforward approach to the country genre, but they go full-on Bakersfield on Honky Tonk. It’s a move that suits the band well, as the laid-back arrangements on tracks like “Tears of Change” and “Hearts and Minds” balance frontman Jay Farrar’s trademark intensity. - Jonathan Keefe
Recommended Tracks: “Hearts and Minds,” “Bakersfield,” “Seawall”
In many instances, the replacement of a lead vocalist has spelled disaster for a band’s career. In the case of the SteelDrivers, it’s the beginning of a whole new chapter as Gary Nichols ably fills the shoes of the departed Chris Stapleton. But great singers and great pickers still need great songs, and from the haunting opener “Shallow Grave” to the piercing melody of album closer “When I’m Gone,” Hammer Down sets a consistent standard that never wavers. - Ben Foster
Recommended Tracks: “Hard Way Home,” “Keep Your Heart Young,” “Heart’s Content”
#16 My Favorite Picture of You Guy Clark
Individual rankings: #3 – Ben; #10 – Leeann
Guy Clark has already secured his place in country music history – not to mention a place in the Nashville Songwriter’s Hall of Fame – but on his first new studio effort since 2009, the songwriting icon is still finding ways to keep things fresh. On My Favorite Picture of You, Guy Clark addresses current events (“Heroes,” “El Coyote”) as well as personal loss (the achingly gorgeous title track, a tribute his late wife Susanna), his absorbing lyrics delivered through a wise and weathered voice which feels like that of an old friend. - Ben Foster
Recommended Tracks: “My Favorite Picture of You,” “El Coyote,” “Heroes”
#15 The Highway Holly Williams
Individual rankings: #3 – Tara; #7 – Leeann
Producer Charlie Peacock treads a dangerous line on The Highway, with arrangements so sparse they’d easily deflate a lesser artist’s work. But he and Williams work exceptionally well together on her third album, leaning on her character-filled voice to fill in the spacious canvas. The album’s themes are heavy and often morose, but Williams doesn’t weigh them down; instead, she approaches them with weathered sensibleness, using only the ragged edges of her voice to convey the underlying drama. As for that family of hers, if there’s a role for them on The Highway, it’s only to help sketch out the small, poignant details of her characters’ stories, like in the vivid history of her maternal grandparents’ eternal love in “Waiting on June.” - Tara Seetharam
Recommended Tracks: “Drinkin’,” “The Highway,” “’Til It Runs Dry,” “Waiting on June”
It was unlikely that the Pistol Annies would match their self-titled debut, a bullet of an album that flew in the face of everything manicured, polite and conventional in 2011. Their sophomore album, then, is a little less of a shock, but just as much of a raucous hoot. The ladies are still challenging societal norms (“Being Pretty Ain’t Easy”), lamenting and –surprisingly often– conceding to small-town marital discord (“Unhappily Married”), and, of course, dancing with their demons (“I Feel A Sin Coming On”). The breadth of their combined talent and mission is almost uncontainable, so misfires are expected (“Girls Like Us”); in the end, though, the album cements the trio’s place as the genre’s bravest truth-spitting chicks. - Tara Seetharam
Recommended Tracks: “I Feel A Sin Coming On,” “Being Pretty Ain’t Pretty,” “Unhappily Married,” “Dear Sobriety”
#13 High Top Mountain Sturgill Simpson
Individual rankings: #1 – Jonathan; #2 – Sam
Far too often, traditional-minded country acts fetishize the genre’s past and end up sounding like mimics of great artists, rather than becoming great artists in their own right. Sturgill Simpson, an acolyte of Waylon Jennings’ outlaw period, adopts a too-country-for-country throwback style on his debut, High Top Mountain. But the deceptively shrewd perspective that informs “Railroad of Sin,” “Water in a Well,” and “Old King Coal” is modern through and through, making Simpson one of country’s most exciting new voices. - Jonathan Keefe
Recommended Tracks: “Railroad of Sin,” “Hero,” “You Can Have the Crown,” “Life Ain’t Fair and the World is Mean”
Not only is Patty Griffin a very deservedly respected songwriter of intelligent and often gut wrenching songs, she has what many sing-songwriter types don’t have–a sublime voice that pierces right through one’s heart and soul. Join those elements together and it’s no wonder that her first album of original songs since 2007 is at least as good as anyone would dare to hope it would be.
From the sweet cover of “Mom and Dad’s Waltz” to the powerful “Not a Bad Man”, Griffin’s album is a collection of masterful and intelligent songs that will make you think and want to think some more. - Leeann Ward
Recommended Tracks: “Mom and Dad’s Waltz”, “Irish Boy”, “Not a Bad Man”
Once again, Alan Jackson sets out to do a vanity project and it ends up as good as his best mainstream work ever was. His foray into bluegrass yields wonderful results, both in the form of compelling new material (“Blue Ridge Mountain Song”, “Mary”, “Blue Side of Heaven”) and well-chosen covers (“Wild and Blue”, “Blue Moon of Kentucky.”) Like Dolly Parton and Merle Haggard before him, Jackson’s crossover from country to bluegrass shows just how little distance there is between the two, at least when the country artist in question has deep roots in the first place. - Kevin Coyne
Recommended Tracks: “Blue Ridge Mountain Song”, “Knew All Along”, “Mary”
The Mavericks reunion may have been one of the more unexpected comebacks in recent country music history, but it should have come as no surprise that In Time was as excellent as it was. “That’s Not My Name” showed their classic country influences, but tunes like “Lies” and “Come Unto Me” blended in some rock, soul and Latin feel too. “Come Unto Me,” with its horn section and Raul Malo’s searing vocals, was the sexiest song in country music in 2013. - Sam Gazdziak
Recommended Tracks: “Come Unto Me”, “Lies”, “That’s Not My Name”
Another quirky Norah Jones project, eh? Sounds about right; guess it’s been about six months since the last one. Oh, she got the guy from Green Day in on it? Well, that’s…huh. What? They’re covering an Everly Brothers album of traditional country and folk songs from the 50′s? They’re just, like, taking time out of their busy schedules to lovingly coo through a bunch of covers of the Everly Brothers’ covers, perhaps to help pass on the Everlys’ important legacy to younger generations, or perhaps just because they’re fans and love music and know Starbucks will sell it regardless? Who do these recording artists think they are — artists? - Dan Milliken
Recommended Tracks: “Long Time Gone”, “I’m Here to Get My Baby Out of Jail”, “Kentucky”
It may not be typical for a steel guitarist to receive top billing alongside a legend of Vince Gill’s caliber, but it’s certainly warranted in this case as the comforting whine of Paul Franklin’s pedal steel proves the perfect match for Gill’s distinctive tenor. It’s a delightful musical history lesson as the two lovingly cover ten beloved Owen and Haggard classics. Their takes are neither stale recreations nor scattershot attempts at modernizing and reinventing – rather, Bakersfield feels like a simple, unaffectedly sincere love letter to a unique and important era of country music. - Ben Foster
Recommended Tracks: “Together Again,” “I Can’t Be Myself,” “Nobody’s Fool But Yours,” “Holding Things Together”
#7 Old Yellow Moon Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell
The ease and friendship between Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell is undeniably palpable on their first full duets album, which is a huge part of what makes this project a blow out success. While the songs are mainly covers of their own songs, as in the sprightly “Bluebird Wine”, the new interpretations are fresh and feel like brand new songs, as is also the case with the covers of other people’s work, as proven by the sublime “Dreaming My Dreams.”
From the jaunty opener of “Hanging Up My Heart” to the gorgeous closer of the title track and all points in between, the entirety of Old Yellow Moon is a masterful collaboration between two brilliantly talented old friends. - Leeann Ward
Recommended Tracks: “Hanging Up My Heart”, “Dreaming My Dreams”, “Bluebird Wine”, “Here We Are”
The first duets album by the Tim & Faith of Texas country lands, and the world immediately becomes a slightly better place. It’s an LP filled with smart Robison writing, golden Willis drawl, and enviable marital cuteness. True love is out there, guys. Listen to “Dreamin’” and sigh along with me. - Dan Milliken
The best thing about Jason Isbell’s richly drawn stories from the underbelly of America is that he manages to humanize some quite despicable people without trying to make them likable at the same time. There are very few anti-heroes to be found here. Their stories are compelling, but you still root for the good guys and gals, and it’s rarely Isbell that is singing in their voice, preferring the challenge of bringing the often loathsome to life.
Which isn’t to say that’s the only role he plays, as there are hints of redemption in some of the best numbers. The man haunted by the “Songs that She Sang in the Shower” might just treat the next one right, and there is nobody I enjoyed getting to know better this year than Andy in “Elephant”, a barroom louse who didn’t stick around when the girl was at her best, but is now by her side as she’s dying of cancer, singing her classic country songs and sweeping her hair up off the floor after putting her to bed. – Kevin Coyne
Recommended Tracks: “Elephant”, “Songs that She Sang in the Shower”, “Live Oak”
Kacey Musgraves set some mighty high expectations for herself to live up to with the universally acclaimed dark horse hit “Merry Go ‘Round,” but her major label debut release delivers in full. Same Trailer Different Park announces the arrival of one of country music’s most distinct and potent new voices, marked by keen-eyed observation, maturity beyond her years, and a refreshing willingness to tell it like it is.
The dawning optimism of “Silver Living” and “Step Off” is made all the more meaningful by the fact that Musgraves never shies away from themes of heartache, despondence, and frustration. But even the bitterest moments are sweetened by accessible melodies, comforting arrangements, and a down-to-earth vocal style.
In a genre that has long prided itself on being “real,” Musgraves has become one of a precious few mainstream artists to actually live up to that ideal, and by so doing has laid bare just how contrived the format has become. The fact that Same Trailer Different Park found the mainstream audience it richly deserved feels like an answered prayer. Don’t blow this now, country radio.- Ben Foster
Recommended Tracks: “Merry Go ‘Round,” “Keep it to Yourself,” “Follow Your Arrow,” “It Is What It Is”
A beautifully drawn character sketch, Like a Rose showcases Ashley Monroe’s gift for using authentic first-person detail to give depth to her distinctive, unconventional narratives. The persona Monroe projects over the course of the album’s brief song cycle is one of a young woman who has been scarred by the events in her past but who uses those scars as the jumping-off point for compelling stories rather than letting them define who she is or who she aspires to be. - Jonathan Keefe
Recommended Tracks: “Like a Rose,” “Two Weeks Late,” “Used,” “The Morning After”
#2 Spitfire LeAnn Rimes
Individual rankings: #1 – Tara; #2 – Dan, Ben; #3 – Leeann; #8 – Kevin, Jonathan
Rimes subtitled Spitfire as the “truth in no particular order,” an apt description for an album whose truth shines like a prism, flashing different, nuanced colors at us with each twist and turn. If Spitfire is meant to narrate Rimes’ messy history –her “truth” as so many have come to define her by–, it succeeds; but, the gifted artist that she’s become, Rimes knows that truth is more than intentions and events and aftermath. It’s in the intimate honesty that spills out from the smallest corners of thought, whether from places of regret or passion, shame or fearlessness, or in those boundless grey areas in between. Spitfire has it all, packaged in the most colorful, intriguing performances of the year. - Tara Seetharam
Recommended Tracks: “Borrowed,” “I Do Now,” “Who We Really Are,” “What Have I Done””
#1 12 Stories Brandy Clark
Individual rankings: #1 – Kevin, Leeann, Dan, Ben; #2 – Tara; #4 – Jonathan; #5 – Sam
Brandy Clark’s 12 Stories was shopped around to several record labels, but none of them would commit to taking on the album, even the ones that admitted that it was the best album they’d heard in years.
Since it’s impossible to reasonably imagine why label executives who loved the album wouldn’t jump at the chance to put Clark on their roster, perhaps they assumed that the album was just too smart and good for the mainstream music scene they put their dollars behind. While this is certainly a simple, and maybe even naive, view of things, other explanations simply evade me. Fortunately, however, somebody did believe in Brandy Clark’s music and the album was organically promoted as an independent release.
Even after listening to the album at least a zillion times since first receiving a promo copy well before its official release, it is a challenge to find the proper words to appropriately describe this nearly perfect debut album. Clark’s sharp, clear eyed songs are supported by crisp and satisfying productions and solid, warm vocals. Without judgment, but with intelligence, she observes and explores the tougher parts of life such as unfaithfulness, divorce and various forms of mental anguish; all the while keeping the album accessible.
As much as can and should be written about this album, the most direct thing to be said is that this was the clear favorite of the very diverse Country Universe staff, with most of us selecting it as our Number One album and none of us ranking it below number five. The rest of this list shows how far apart we often are on tastes; Brandy Clark is one artist we can all get behind. - Leeann Ward
Recommended Tracks: “Pray to Jesus”, “What’ll Keep Me Out of Heaven”, “Take a Little Pill”, “Hungover”
If this year’s singles list leaves you with a familiar feeling, it’s not your imagination. For the first time in Country Universe history, an artist has topped the year end list for two years in a row, and there are plenty of repeat appearances from CU favorites. But there are some fresh faces too, including some promising new singer-songwriters and inspired collaborations from artists we already liked an awful lot by themselves.
As always, share your thoughts and personal favorites in the comments!
#20 “Hangin’ Up My Heart” Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell
Individual rankings: #3 – Leeann; #20 – Kevin
What a way for Emmylou and Rodney to kick off their much anticipated duet project! The bouncy tune shows the power duo in fine form both in voice and spunk and signals what will turn out to be one of the finest albums of the year. - Leeann Ward
The most Allan has sounded like his old self in seven years. You can’t blame him for dialing back his intensity after the dark, heartbreaking Tough All Over, but it’s a real treat to hear him snarl out a great country weeper again.- Dan Milliken
“Railroad of Sin” Sturgill Simpson
Individual rankings: #5 – Jonathan; #8 – Sam
It’s hard to pick out a highlight from Simpson’s High Top Mountain, but this song would have to be in the running. Though just a shade over two minutes in length, “Railroad” roars, rumbles and packs in more energy and attitude than whole albums from Blake Shelton or Luke Bryan. For those starving for pure, unadulterated country music, Simpson’s debut album was one of the great joys of 2013. - Sam Gazdziak
#17 “9,999,999 Tears” Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison
Few singers are as adept as Kelly Willis at making their misery sound downright joyful. Even when she’s telling her ex that a lifetime of crying might suffice to get over him, Willis sounds like she’s determined to enjoy, either out of spite or pure masochism, each and every one of the tears she has in her future. - Jonathan Keefe
“Salt” Lori McKenna
Individual rankings: #3 – Dan; #5 – Kevin
“You ain’t worth the spit in my mouth when I scream out your name.” McKenna minces no words whatsoever as her steady, rumbling rage builds into a righteous evisceration of a selfish lover. Masterfully chosen details convey the full depth of the heartbreak in a few simple lines. Staggering. - Dan Milliken
#15 “Bible on the Dash” Corb Lund featuring Hayes Carll
Individual rankings: #5 – Jonathan; #8 – Sam
Lund and Carll share a similar twisted sense of humor, so this song about using a Bible to sweet-talk their way through police stops is right up their alleys. The video, featuring Carll as a Texas state trooper and Lund as a Mountie, is worth seeking out as well. - Sam Gazdziak
The tight vocals of Norah Jones and Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong are both surprising and stunning. From their collaborative project that covers the entire Everly Brother’s Songs Our Daddy Taught Us album, Jones and Armstrong brilliantly recreate the magic of the Brothers’ familial harmonies without actually being family themselves on the album’s first single, “Long Time Gone.” The song is bright and hard core country, not to mention it can be replayed a million times over without feeling stale. - Leeann Ward
A throwback to the uncomplicated pop-country sound of the ‘90s –part Vince Gill, part Clay Walker, part Diamond Rio– that still sounds undeniably current, thanks to one of the freshest opening hooks in recent memory. - Tara Seetharam
“If I Loved You” Delta Rae featuring Lindsey Buckingham
Delta Rae can, at times, skew a little too far into “show choir” territory, but “If I Loved You” isn’t one of those times. Their intricate harmonies, dramatic dynamic shifts, and outsized vocal performances are entirely in service to a song about how deeply it can hurt when, “It isn’t you, it’s me,” is the truth and not just a cop-out. - Jonathan Keefe
This oddity is something that could only have come from the pen of Don Henry, along with co-writer Phillip Coleman. While the women in country music are more likely to be singing about married circus performers and cross-dressing politicians, Lambert is the best-suited to sing about a rebellious child determined to make her own way in life. - Sam Gazdziak
Something of a close cousin to his classic “Livin’ on Love”, the storyline of this young couple is so similar that it’s quite the sucker-punch when they don’t get their happily ever after. As the protagonist falls to his knees, begging God not to take his love away from him, Jackson lets that moment linger in our hearts and minds as the bluegrass band takes over for a short time. When he returns with the heart-wrenching image of our widowed hero sitting on the front porch all alone, with only memories to keep him company, it’s a hurt that returns with every listen, as unquenchable as grief itself. – Kevin Coyne
“Drinkin” is far more than its simple title. While cleverly connecting the end to the beginning, the song explores the slippery slope of excessive drinking and its ravaging effects on a family. It starts with Williams pleading for understanding for why her mate is “drinking like the night is young” and ends with her own version of personal understanding as she realizes that she has been driven to go down that same distructive road. - Leeann Ward
#8 “Gasoline and Matches” LeAnn Rimes featuring Rob Thomas
Rimes’ astounding growth as a vocal interpreter is hardly limited to her ballads – on “Gasoline and Matches” she rocks out like never before, tearing into the deliriously catchy Buddy and Julie Miller song with an uninhibited spitfire (pun intended) of a performance. Rob Thomas proves an ideal match for Rimes’ energy and intensity, the two displaying an explosive chemistry that perfectly fits the song’s central metaphor. Finish it off with an aggressive, driving production, complete with a searing Jeff Beck guitar solo, and you have one of the most unabashedly addictive songs of 2013. - Ben Foster
This lonely man’s lament is perhaps most compelling because it captures him at the very moment that he’s discovering his loneliness, as he has clearly been a satisfied loner up until this point. Isbell’s sharply drawn characters are a signature of his writing, and his encounter with those dancing ladies of the evening in the second verse, who won’t even take his money, is vividly real and sympathetically endearing. - Kevin Coyne
LeAnn Rimes’ career of late has been all about her choices. “Borrowed” may touch upon the decisions she’s made in her private life, but what’s far more interesting about the single are the choices she makes in her nuanced vocal performance. The way she breaks her voice into the high note as she sings the word “borrowed” at the end of each chorus, how she drops into her lower register whenever she’s admitting her status as the proverbial Other Woman, and the clarity and resolve in her delivery of the line, “I don’t want to give you back”: They’re all choices of a truly masterful storyteller. - Jonathan Keefe
The unintentionally anti-revenge song, “Stripes” is clever and funny. While she would like to commit a crime of passion as a consequence for her lover’s cheating ways, she decides against it because “there’s no crime of passion worth a crime of fashion.” But even when the silly punch line wears off, Clark’s endearing performance and the addictive rhythm section will prevent the song from descending into lame novelty status. - Leeann Ward
Country music’s done well by love: It understands it, respects it and celebrates it without adornment. But few country songs have tapped into as exquisitely –as spiritually, even– as “Sober,” an arms-raised surrender that dares to mirror the intoxication of love. There’s not a hint of restraint in “Sober’s” fabric, no self-consciousness in its confessional chorus or lilting harmonies. Sweetest of all is the abandon in Kimberly Schlapman’s performance, so mesmerizing that you can’t help but feel a little mind-altered yourself. - Tara Seetharam
Kacey Musgraves and Brandy Clark dominate the top five of this list as writers and performers, and “Mama’s Broken Heart” is a further reminder how compelling their writing is, even in the hands of other performers. Lambert’s manic energy and signature edge is often paired with over the top material, so it’s awesome to hear her tear into a relatively grounded breakup song. You know if she wrote this, she wouldn’t be just cutting her bangs with those rusty kitchen scissors. The more realistic approach taken here allows for some sly generational and feminist commentary, another signature of both Musgraves and Clark, and Lambert, too, when she’s at her best. - Kevin Coyne
Surprised? You’re probably not surprised. Musgraves topped our singles list last year with the sharp “Merry Go ‘Round,” and if anything, “Follow Your Arrow” one-ups it, offering an uplifting antidote to the malaise that “Merry Go ‘Round” warns of: go forth and live happily, whatever the word may mean to you.
There’s a little more to it, of course. The song is historically huge in its warm embrace of sexual diversity and religious tolerance, and its commentary on body image issues isn’t far behind. It rides a plucky, acoustic groove that dares to believe modern country music can sound like John Prine. It looks at life the way life really is, complicated and controversial, and does so with concise phrasing and a working sense of humor—why, that sounds like a classic country song to me. - Dan Milliken
On their beautiful new album Cheater’s Game, husband and wife Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison get together for the first time to deliver some moving music, including several covers of now-classic country songs. Among them is the Razzy Bailey-penned “9,999,999 Tears.”
In 1966, Bailey recorded “9,999,999 Tears” with Atlantic Records, backed by an all-star cast that included Billy Joe Royal, Joe South, and Freddy Weller. Bailey’s original version of the song is more pop than country, and the harmonies resemble the music of The Righteous Brothers. Ten years later, Dickey Lee made the song his own, giving the tune its now familiar pop- country treatment, and a new twist. As he’s repeating the refrain—”I’ve got 9,999,999 tears to go/And then I don’t know if I’ll be over you”—at the very end of the song, he modulates to a high note on the final word (“you”), thus making the song his own and setting up any subsequent artists covering the song to be measured, in part, by how well they can make this shift at the song’s end. Lee’s version romps off with hard-driving lead guitars and whining pedal steel, with Ronettes-like backing vocals that give the song a pop sensibility.
Willis and Robison’s new version of the song makes it identity clear from the very beginning with fiddles replacing the guitars of Lee’s version. In her raw, intense voice, Willis belts the first two bars almost a cappella before the fiddles kick in, and then we’re off to the races. It’s not just the fiddles that set this tune apart from the earlier versions; it’s also Willis’ voice, so full of yearning, desire, sorrow; she takes us into the heart of a broken relationship here. When Bailey and Lee sang this song, it was as if they were singing a camp song (999 bottles of beer on the wall) for the little
emotion they dredged from the words. When Willis croons the words—“The sun didn’t shine this morning/ It’s been raining the whole day through/ Suddenly without warning, you found somebody new/ That’s when the first tear came, falling from my eyes/ I’m beginning to feel the pain, seeing nothing but cloudy skies”—we ache with her, knowing that just as the tears cloud her judgment and her day, no amount of tears can wash away the hurt that this broken heart feels. Willis delivers the pain of uncertainty and vulnerability in deep ways on this tune; she gets inside the song, using the lyrics and music to take us inside her heart. And, she nails that high note at the song’s end.
Willis and Robison have us cryin’ at the end of their tender and affecting version (it’s a cryin’ song, after all), palpably capturing the heartbreak at the very center of the song.
Husband and wife Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison turn in an unusually gritty version of this sultry Christmas classic. It’s not the smoothest version that’s out there, but it’s compelling and a little different, which should only be expected by the Robisons.
Sam’s Pick: Marah (featuring Felicia Navidad)
I’ve always liked the combination of flirtation and desperation between Felicia Navidad and Marah’s Serge Bielanko. The light-heartedness between the two helps to gloss over the inherent creepiness in the song (did he really just spike her drink to keep her from leaving?).
A search of my iTunes indicates that I like many versions of this song, but the one that stands out the most to me is from a compilation called Christmas Trail by Wylie Gustafson and Kelly Willis. The mix of rootsy production, Willis’ twang and Gustafson’s Orbison-like harmony is impossible to resist.
Sam’s Pick: Ryan Shupe and the RubberBand
It’s hard to find a Christmas album that doesn’t have a version of “Away in the Manger,” but this may be the only reggae-grass version in existence. Shupe, a Utah-based musician, had a little mainstream success with an album on Capitol in 2005, but the RubberBand continues to record and tour to this day.
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.
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?
Last Thursday, Bill and I celebrated our fifth wedding anniversary. It’s been a wonderful run so far. Of all the positive things that I can say, my favorite thing about our marriage is that we are best friends. In fact, before we ever started dating, we were best friends. So, it’s nice that the same is still true today and it would be devistating if it should ever change.
I’m certainly no marriage expert, but I think that being friends is central to a successful marriage. Not only does it make the days more bearable, it helps to insure that we will give to each other at least as much as we would to our friends.
With that said, I am fully aware that being friends in a marriage isn’t always as easy as we would all hope it would be. Like any friendship, it’s something that must be worked on and cannot be taken for granted.
As I listened to music today, “Friendless Marriage” from Bruce Robison’s Country Sunshine came on my iPod. Robison sings this heartbreakingly sad song with his wife, Kelly Willis. It’s always a treat when Willis joins her husband on a track, but this is an especially noteworthy collaboration. As is always the case when I hear”Friendless Marriage”, I was struck by their subdued performance of a song that never ceases to catch my attention and pierce my heart.
Robison and Willis sing from the perspective of a couple who can remember a time when they were full of passion for each other. However, the passion is gone now and they’ve discovered that they have nothing left to hold onto. They’ve reconciled themselves to the knowledge that they’re in a friendless marriage. Robison’s character admits that the only thing that is holding them together is the obligation to responsibility that has been instilled in him by the example of family history:
“She don’t seem to smile no more, or look me in the eye/I don’t say a thing at all or hold her when she cries/But we weren’t raised to run from our responsibilities/So I stay for my baby like my mama stayed for me.”
Stuck in my car stereo over the last couple of weeks has been a CD loaded with tunes from some of my favorite Texas-affiliated artists. I’m a big fan of the singer-songwriter, old school and raggedy rock styles of country music, and Texas excels at all three. So any time I need a break from the current “Nashville sound,” I like to check in with Texas and see what they’re up to. Invariably, it’s more colorful and interesting.
I can’ t call myself an expert on Texas country by any stretch of the imagination and my education is nowhere remotely near complete (hint: feel free to recommend), but I do sense that it’s a style of music, or perhaps a musical sensibility, that is extremely important to maintain. Texas artists exude a certain spirit of creativity and sense of individuality that is sorely lacking elsewhere in country music. And in my opinion, great music and great artists only flourish in settings where both of those are encouraged.
Here’s a sampling of the songs I’m currently listening to:
“Dallas,” Jimmie Dale Gilmore
“Snowin’ on Raton,” Townes Van Zandt
“West Texas Waltz,” Joe Ely
“Greenville,” Lucinda Williams
“Tortured Tangled Hearts,” Dixie Chicks
“Transcendental Blues (Live in Austin),” Steve Earle
“Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” Willie Nelson
“Treat Me Like a Saturday Night,” The Flatlanders
“Bourbon Legend,” Jason Boland & The Stragglers
“Jesus Was a Capricorn,” Kris Kristofferson
“Angry All The Time,” Bruce Robison & Kelly Willis
“What I Deserve,” Kelly Willis
“Old Five and Dimers,” Billie Joe Shaver
“Heartbreaker’s Hall of Fame,” Sunny Sweeney
“Only Daddy That’ll Walk the Line,” Waylon Jennings
What are some of your favorite Texas country tunes?
Although the question and ensuing discussion regarding whether a certain artist “is country enough” has generally gotten old, discussing “what is country music” has not…nor should it ever. In order for the genre to thrive, and indeed to survive, discussion about the history, significance and boundaries of the genre is important. (Hey, that’s why we’re here!)
I generally have a broad view of what encompasses country music. I believe all of the so-called sub-genres of country music (e.g., bluegrass, alt-country, red dirt music, pop-country, classic country, Bakersfield country, Texas country, americana, etc.), in their infinite variety, are not only within the boundaries of country music, but are extremely important. The genre needs to continue to stretch and grow and test its limits in order to stay, not only relevant, but interesting. Let’s be honest, as much as it pains me to say, there is such a thing as too much bluegrass. So, in between healthy doses of bluegrass, it’s good (and necessary) to throw in a pinch of rockin’ country from Texas, some tangy country from Bakersfield and some good old-fashioned wailin’ from the hills of Tennessee.
However, despite my country radar and inclusive nature, it’s not always so easy to determine the line between country and something entirely different. The idea for this particular discussion initially came to me when I was putting together my end-of-the-year lists for 2008. I definitely struggled this year with whether or not certain albums even fell into a sub-genre of country. Could I include them? I internally argued,”Well, this one has a banjo and fiddle; that lead singer has a southern accent; the songwriting on this one is phenomenal…they don’t do that in pop or rock.” I went round and round and eventually ended up rationalizing a lot of my picks. (If people can say Taylor Swift is country, then I can certainly say that Bob Dylan is country…right?)
So, I’m going to pick your brains and see what you think makes country music country. I’ve put together six videos from six well-known female singers. Disregarding preconceived notions about the artists themselves and the remainder of their work, here’s my question (in the vein of those truly awful multiple choice questions with no right or wrong answer):
Although they all obviously have a toe in country, which of the performances below do you consider the MOST country? And why? (Was it the voice, the song, the performance?)