Written by Sam Hunt, Shane McAnally, and Josh Osborne
Listen: Come Over
* Look it up.
I just wish I could still be surprised about it.
Written by Chris Tompkins & Rodney Clawson
After many years as a mid-level country artist, Kenny Chesney fused arena-size country with Caribbean rhythms to become one of the genre’s biggest stars of the 21st century.
Born and raised in East Tennessee, Chesney didn’t seriously start pursuing music until he was in college, despite being an enthusiast his entire life. While continuing his studies, Chesney played in a bluegrass band and for tips at a Mexican restaurant. He managed to finance a demo album and moved to Nashville in 1991. He played at a local honky-tonk called the Turf, and eventually landed a publishing deal in 1992 that led to a record deal with Capricorn in 1993.
His debut for the label, In My Wildest Dreams, found little success, but it laid the groundwork for a new deal with BNA Records. His second set, All I Need to Know, put him on the map. Throughout the nineties, he slowly built a career at radio and retail, as his songs inched higher on the charts and he moved from gold, to platinum, and then to multi-platinum sales by the end of the nineties.
Still, there was little to indicate that he was about to explode into superstardom. But as his live shows gained greater attention, Chesney began to incorporate Caribbean sounds into his music, styling himself as an island singer in the same vein as Jimmy Buffett. Through stronger song choices that helped repair the novelty act image that had been created with hits like “She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy”, Chesney began to earn critical acclaim for his work.
By the mid-2000’s, Chesney was the biggest act in country music, selling millions of copies of his albums and more concert tickets than even the biggest pop and rock acts of the day. He dominated the awards circuit, and even managed to sell big numbers of indulgent side projects like Be Who You Are and Lucky Old Sun.
Today, Chesney remains a top concert draw and a core radio act. He is currently prepping another studio album and a co-headlining tour with Tim McGraw.
Next: #56. Bobby Bare
Previous: #58. Carl Smith
Throw on your bedazzled boots – the 47th annual Academy of Country Music Awards air live from Las Vegas this Sunday at 8 p.m. EST. The show promises to be a melting pot of performances, with oddball duets like Rascal Flatts and Steve Martin – and no, that’s not an April Fools joke. The CU staff picked and predicted the awards below. Tell us your thoughts, and check back for our live blog on Sunday night!
Ben: Okay, so I was going to go with Aldean based on his massive success… but Swift’s music has just been too dang good lately.
Jonathan: Swift is the only one of the five who has released any music I really liked during the eligibility period; that fan voting is part of whatever mysterious algorithm is used to determine the winner of this award helps her case. I recognize that Aldean has a good look at this, too, but I’ll admit to just digging my heels in and refusing to get on board with the idea that he’s considered the standard-bearing artist in country music.
Tara: Swift released some of the best material of her career in the eligibility period, and her star seems as bright as it’s ever been. And while I can’t picture her losing something fan-voted, I wouldn’t be shocked if Aldean snuck up on her, especially given the secret fan / academy vote ratio. I just hope that this time next year, there are a few shake-ups in this category. I’m bored.
Dan: I like Swift the best, but can’t muster the energy to root actively against Aldean like I did with, say, Rascal Flatts.
Kevin: Aldean vs. Swift, with me erring on the side of the one who made more music that I liked this year.
Sam: Just a hunch, but the Taylor Swift voters might be as fanatical as usual because Carrie Underwood isn’t nominated for this award. That might give Aldean the chance to sneak in.
Dan: Aldean remains the hottest guy out there by a huge margin, and occasionally puts out something decent like “Fly Over States.” I’ll just keep picking him to win this until he does. La la la.
Ben: Aldean’s success speaks for itself, but I would really like to see Chris Young take this. He released a solid new album, remained a consistent hitmaker at radio, and has made the most music that I’ve actually cared about. But seeing as the industry award voters have been showing a lot of excessive Shelton love as of late, my gut says that Blake Shelton is going to get this. (There are no awards for TV Judge of the Year or Newlywed of the Year, so the ACM will probably give him this one instead)
Jonathan: So let’s talk about Chris Young for a minute. The guy has a fantastic voice, one of the strongest and most distinctive instruments to come down Music Row in a minute, and that alone is enough to elevate him above most of the other men who have scored major airplay in the past couple of years. But the discrepancy between the quality of Young’s vocal performances and the quality of the songs he’s performing is a problem, and here’s yet another instance of an artist with the potential to be really and truly great receiving a thumbs-up from the industry for work that’s just occasionally on the better side of okay. Where’s the incentive for someone like Young to be even better if he’s being recognized now? And what does it say that, despite his wildly uneven material, he’s far and away the class of this particular field of nominees?
Tara: I have to disagree with Jonathan on this one; I find Neon to be a refreshing, neo-traditional gem, more organic than it is uneven. In this stage of Young’s career, I view his body of work as a stepping stone and an indication of potential, and I have no issue with it being rewarded. But it won’t be; Mr. Lambert’s got the entertainment industry on lockdown. And I can’t say I really mind.
Kevin: Picking Aldean as the “should win” solely because he had the biggest year, though I suspect Shelton will win anyway.
Sam: I get the love for Miranda Lambert, but the Blake Shelton love is largely lost on me. Not a fan of Aldean either, but he’s due for this award.
Dan: I think Swift has been the strongest solo act this past year, but Lambert released a decent fourth album and a terrific group one. With no place on the ballot to reward Pistol Annies (fix that, CMAs?), this’ll do.
Ben: Swift put out a string of very good singles, but… Four the Record + Pistol Annies = The Miranda Lambert love will be fully justified.
Jonathan: If we’re counting Pistol Annies, then I can absolutely see the case for Lambert and could be convinced to vote accordingly, and I think she still has the momentum to win here. If we’re just looking at solo material, though, I’m unapologetically sticking with Swift’s “Mean” and “Sparks Fly,” which trump anything that the other four women in the category released during the eligibility period. With Underwood having a new album to support and, hopefully, Kellie Pickler getting the recognition she deserves for her latest work, this category should be a hell of a lot more interesting and competitive come CMA time.
Tara: Swift delivered the better material, but Lambert delivered the better performances, Hell On Heels notwithstanding. By my definition of FVOTY, this should go to Lambert. (And I’m stoked for the fall award season, too.)
Leeann: I have no real reason to believe that the Academy would take this from Lambert this year.
Kevin: Can you believe that Swift is the only nominee who hasn’t won this yet? I know Lambert should be the favorite, especially given the ACM’s fondness for her. But I can’t shake the feeling that she’s lost some momentum with her latest project.
Sam: Miranda will continue to own this category until someone like Carrie Underwood steps up with a new album.
Ben: The Civil Wars are really the only duo I’ve cared about this past year, but they have been stupidly excluded in favor of Love and Theft (who only released one mediocre single in the past year), so I’m going with Thompson Square instead. They’ve been doing well at radio, and their music has not been terribly grating, but I’m pretty sure that the ACM will remain stuck on Sugarland.
Dan: With The Civil Wars absent from ACM’s roster and Sugarland having a messy year across the board, Thompson Square seems like the last band standing. And they’re cute, right?
Jonathan: The song remains the same: This category should’ve been merged with Vocal Group of the Year eons ago to trim the fat. Given that the ACMs are still ostensibly more radio-oriented than the CMAs and that Sugarland have actively alienated radio with the god-awful singles from their god-awful album, I’m going to say that Thompson Square pull off the upset here. Just don’t ask me to hum or even to name more than one of their songs…
Tara: I honestly can’t muster an opinion. What’s Sugarland been up to these days, anyway?
Leeann: This category isn’t even worth comment this year.
Kevin: Saying somebody should win implies that I think there’s a worthy winner, so I’m just going to say that Sugarland will win.
Sam: No Bellamy Brothers nod? You mean country music actually had five legit nominees for a Duo award this year? Artistically, The Civil Wars and Foster & Lloyd would be the most deserving this year.
Ben: I’ve tried to hold out hope that the award industries would lay off the ridiculous Lady A adoration, but the CMAs and Grammys have shown me otherwise.
Jonathan: No reason to think the ACMs will break the trend of giving unearned trophies to the C students in the class.
Tara: I remain firmly in ZBB’s corner; the band produced my favorite single of 2011. But I would much, much prefer this award to go to the flavor of the month Eli Young Band than the flavor of the year Lady Antebellum.
Dan: I miss Little Big Town, but this is the first time in recent memory that this category has had five competitive groups. Like Aldean in the Male Vocalist race, Zac Brown Band sell as well as anyone and haven’t won yet, so I’ll probably keep picking them until they do, too. La la la x2.
Leeann: I’d love to see Zac Brown Band take it this year, but I don’t have enough faith that Lady A won’t just keep the award.
Kevin: Always gonna root for ZBB. Just losing hope that they’ll ever actually win.
Sam: ZBB is operating on a higher level than any other vocal group, but I’m alright with The Band Perry’s quirkiness getting some recognition.
Dan: Of the three, I think Hayes has the most raw talent (played every instrument on his album!) and could one day be an interesting artist. So, vote of optimism! ;D
Ben: I think this will be between Gilbert and McCreery. My gut says Scotty McCreery “will” win, but this line-up is just too depressing for me to make a case for who “should” win. Dan makes a good point about Hunter Hayes though…
Jonathan: I can’t.
Tara: Uh…I guess this is as good a time as any to confess my love for “Storm Warning.”
Leeann: I don’t even have the heart to choose who I think should win, but I’m guessing the “American Idol” winner will win.
Kevin: New Coke >>>> New Artist of the Year.
Sam: This is fan voted, right? Well, if McCreery’s fans can vote him to win “American Idol”…
Ben: Eric Church edges out Miranda as my pick, but I’m fairly sure this will go to Aldean, and I refuse to predict that Lady Antebellum will win this.
Jonathan: I liked Lambert’s album exponentially less each time I listened to it, so I stopped listening to all but two of its tracks (“Fine Tune” and “Dear Diamond”) months ago to preserve at least some degree of fondness for it. Church’s album has some significant limitations of its own, but, song-for-song, it’s the strongest set in this line-up. I have no idea what I would ever actually say to a person who believes that
Richard Marx’s Repeat Offender Amy Grant’s House of Love Lady Antebellum’s Own the Night scans as a country album in any substantive way, or that it’s the best country album of this or any year. But clearly there are people who do believe that, and recent history says there are enough of them for Lady A to win this.
Tara: It’s a toss up between Lambert and Church for me, with Church’s realized hard-assness giving Chief a slight edge. But it’s Lady A’s to lose – and I’m not sure anything in the industry has frustrated me more than their wins as of late. It’s worse than laughably unfair; it’s potential-threatening. And it has to stop.
Dan: When Church is bad, he’s cringe-worthy. When he’s good, he kicks most of the ass he told you he’d kick.
Leeann: I won’t be surprised if Lady A wins, but I’d love to see Eric Church win for the most interesting album of the bunch. I wouldn’t mind seeing Miranda Lambert win either.
Kevin: I just hope I’m wrong a lot this year.
Sam: Pretty sad when a “good for a Jason Aldean album” album beats out two superior albums from Church and Lambert, but I think that will be the case.
Ben: “Tequila” outclasses most of the field, though “Tomorrow” is also a solid contender. I get the novelty value of “Red Solo Cup,” but Single Record of the Year? Nah…
Jonathan: Even for a novelty song, I thought “Red Solo Cup” was poorly constructed and lazily written, but I kind of hope it wins, if only to prove that this year’s ACMs are just a straight-up farce.
Tara: I don’t love any of these, but “You and Tequila” is the only one I can imagine holding up in ten years.
Leeann: I can’t even believe “Red Solo Cup” is a contender! I’d love to see Kenny win for one of his best recordings, though I suspect Jason Aldean and Kelly Clarkson will win due to their cross genre appeal and all.
Kevin: Please let me be wrong a lot this year.
Sam: I will be rooting for “Red Solo Cup” and its inspired idiocy, but this could be part of Jason Aldean’s big night at the ACM.
Dan: “Home” has felt like awards bait to me since I first heard it. Me, I’m a “Tequila” guy.
Ben: Ditto to Dan.
Jonathan: As much as I’d like to see Berg and Carter pick up some new hardware, I’d still give the edge to Gill’s song. When “Home” does win, which I agree it will, I’ll just pretend it means that Jason Isbell has finally won a major industry award.
Tara: “Threaten Me With Heaven” is gorgeously written, but I won’t mind if (and when) “Home” takes the award. Country music could use a shot of graceful patriotism.
Leeann: I’m pleased to have three songs that I’d be happy to see win the award this year. I feel like either Chesney or Bentley will rightfully win…I hope so at least.
Kevin: Pretty please?
Ben: I could actually live with “Red Solo Cup” winning this, but I still enjoy “Mean” quite a bit more. Plus I kind of hate Lady Antebellum’s video for being nothing more than a glorified iPad commercial. I also think “Mean” deserved a nomination for Single Record of the Year, so I would like to see it acknowledged here. Still, I don’t think I can bet against “Red Solo Cup.”
Jonathan: That “Mean” didn’t score the Single and Song of the Year nominations with the ACMs that it has elsewhere seems revealing, with “Red Solo Cup” as the most likely beneficiary. I just hope that the faux gravitas of the “Homeboy” clip doesn’t give it any footing.
Tara: I’m equally disappointed that “Mean” didn’t snag a nomination for Single or Song of the Year. With the video almost as freshly produced as the single, it’s an easy one to root for in this category. I have no inkling as to who will win, but I’ll piggyback off of my co-bloggers on the frat party anthem.
Dan: I could do without how the “Mean” clip ends with a little girl idolizing Taylor Swift, but am I gonna vote against the country music video that had the anti-gay-bullying message? No, I’m not.
Kevin: I think the Swift clip has enough pizazz to triumph in the end over Toby’s YouTube video.
Jonathan: The Lewis track is one of the worst singles of the past five years or more, and its nomination is an indication of how deeply modern country music hates the actual traditions and values of the genre.
Tara: As middle-of-the-road as it is, something in the melody of “Remind Me” intrigues me. And I have a random feeling the voters will use this category to reward their dethroned male and female vocalists of the year.
Dan: It’ll be interesting to see if “Remind Me” can unseat “Don’t You Wanna St– oh, who am I kidding. Nothing is interesting anymore.
Leeann: Ugh. I pretty much know that Jason Aldean and Kelly Clarkson will win, but I’d love to be wrong. Meanwhile, I continue to faithfully root for the Chesney/Potter collaboration.
Kevin: I like my Vocal Events to be full-out Vocal Events, so I’m going for Paisley/Underwood over Chesney with backing vocals from Potter. The latter pair made the better record, though.
Ben: I’m with Tara and Kevin. “You and Tequila” is the best record overall, but that has more to do with Berg and Carter’s songwriting than with Potter’s contributions. “Remind Me” is the one that feels like an actual event.
Sam: Aldean & Clarkson outscreamed Paisley & Underwood, so they lay claim to the trophy. Chesney and Potter, what were you two thinking by just going out there and singing? Next time, I want to hear some wailing and primal screams, because that’s what makes for a successful duet these days.
As far as the Everywhere hits are concerned, this sixth and final single is the most frothy and least substantial.
That’s not to say it isn’t an entertaining listen, and in a way, it might be the most historically significant of the singles, given that it’s the blueprint for countless Kenny Chesney hits that followed.
Written by Steve Mandile, Jerry Vandiver, and Phil Vassar
Next: Please Remember Me
Previous: Where the Green Grass Grows
The 54th annual GrammyAdele Awards air this Sunday at 8 p.m. Eastern. Look for appearances by Miranda Lambert, Dierks Bentley and Lady Antebellum as well as country-ish performances by Jason Aldean, Glen Campbell (with the Band Perry and Blake Shelton), Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood. We’ve picked and predicted the awards below – share your thoughts, and be sure to drop by on Sunday night for our live blog!
Ben: Adele made some of the best and most memorable music of the year, and met with across-the-board critical and commercial success, so it’s hardly a stretch to say that she should and will emerge victorious here.
Tara: I don’t often agree with Bob Lefsetz, but his case for why 21 has resonated so well is spot on: “music trumps everything.” How true, and how refreshing that an album that embraced the hell out of this theme made such a commercial splash.
Sam: Lady Gaga is the only one of the nominees who can rival her for publicity in 2011, but Adele’s record sales should put her over the top. Oh, and it was a great record — not that that means anything where Grammy voters are concerned.
Dan: It helps that this is an especially lazy pool of nominees. 21 is certainly a strong album and a commercial landmark, but I do wish something like Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy were here to help hold up the bar.
Kevin: Adele made the best album by a wide margin.
Ben: The dramatic build-up nature, the simmering intensity, the all-guns-blazing chorus…“Rolling In the Deep” is all but untouchable.
Tara: As rousing a Top 40 hit as we’ve heard in years. I think we all know Adele will sweep.
Sam: I’m a Mumford & Sons fan, but it’s hard to top “Rolling in the Deep.” Anyone who votes for a Katy Perry song in this category should lose their Grammy voting rights permanently.
Dan: Long after it became overplayed, it was still more refreshing to me than everything else on the radio.
Kevin: Adele cut through the hype by being the best singer and the best songwriter. Amazing, isn’t it?
Tara: “Rolling in the Deep” shines more as a record than as a composition, but it’s still memorable enough to nab this award, and I think it will.
Dan: Here’s where I’d love to see some variation. “All of the Lights” is a poetic, layered micro-drama. Plus, from a songwriting standpoint, I’ve never fully gotten over how “Rolling in the Deep” cribs its chorus from Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy.”
Kevin: The British slang that the song is built around doesn’t stop “Rolling” from being the most universal of the five compositions.
Tara: Bon Iver fits the Grammy mold the best. Personally, I’m not married to any of these acts, but I guess J. Cole piques my interest the most right now. This is totally one of those picks I’m going to regret in six months…
Sam: I think this one could be an upset win for the country world. “If I Die Young” was such an unexpected crossover hit, and I think it had more resonance than most other singles from the eligibility period. Plus the Band Perry is cuter than a basket full of puppies, which can only help them.
Dan: I think Bon Iver is the most fully realized act, and predict the band’s Song and Record nods will tip Grammy voters to vote for them like Adele’s did a few years ago. But Minaj’s potential excites me the most, and I had “Super Bass” on loop last year.
Kevin: Minaj is the most refreshing of the five, though Bon Iver’s the most Grammy-friendly.
Best Country Solo Performance
Ben: Swift outclasses the competition by miles.
Jonathan: A depressing line-up here, really. Swift’s single and performance are far and away the strongest of the five nominees, but she didn’t land the general field nominations that many people were expecting her to receive, so I do wonder if her support runs as deep this year as it did during the Fearless juggernaut. If she loses this one, I think it will be to the red-hot-but-I-don’t-get-it-at-all Aldean.
Tara: Embarrassing line-up. “Mean” is the only one that even comes close to Grammy worthy. I think Swift still has the voters on her side, but I could also see Aldean edging her out.
Sam: “Honey Bee?” “Dirt Road Anthem?” Really, Grammy voters? I guess we should be lucky they managed to put one good song in the category, even if it was probably an accident. However, I think voters are going to take a year off on the Swift love and give it to Aldean, because it’s the least country-sounding song in the category.
Dan: I could see Shelton’s familiarity prompting a win here, but suspect Grammy voters are still in Swift’s corner.
Kevin: They should just make the genre categories line up perfectly with the big three. This is really a race for Country Record of the Year anyway. Swift’s entry is the best.
Leeann: All of the songs on this are vanilla except for the Swift song, both in lyrics and execution. This is the inarguable standout song.
Ben: It’s a super tough call for me to choose between The Civil Wars and Chesney and Potter. As much as I adore “You and Tequila,” I’m finally settling on The Civil Wars as my pick. However, I expect that Aldean and Clarkson will likely triumph over both.
Jonathan: Had the Civil Wars scored the Best New Artist nomination that they seemed primed for, I would be more bullish on their chances here. They’re still the only of the four nominees I’d even consider voting for, but Clarkson is the only proven Grammy commodity in this lot, and this is probably the least credibility-straining place to recognize Aldean.
Tara: Confession: I don’t really see the sparkle that others see in “You and Tequila.” The swampy “Barton Hollow” has my heart, but I think Aldean & Clarkson will have the Grammy voters’ hearts. And I’m always OK with a little K. Clarkson love.
Sam: “Barton Hollow” kicks the ass of every other song on the list, including the excellent Chesney/Potter collaboration, and if Grammy voters actually listened to the songs they vote for, it would probably win. However, the Aldean/Clarkson screamfest has the benefit of Kelly Clarkson’s name recognition and Aldean’s current popularity.
Dan: The Civil Wars wail like mad dogs on their track. But Aldean and Clarkson are both having a moment right now.
Kevin: The Civil Wars seem like Grammy catnip.
Leeann: My vote goes for the Chesney/Potter collaboration or The Civil Wars song, but I won’t be surprised if it goes to the powerhouse duet of Aldean and Clarkson based on crossover appeal. I hope, however, that it turns out that I’m not giving the Grammy voters enough credit.
Ben: Gill’s “Threaten Me with Heaven” is mature and beautifully written, but ultimately, my heart still belongs to “Mean.”
Jonathan: Gill has a real shot at this because it’s the Grammys so Gill always has a real shot at anything he’s nominated for. He’d be a worthy winner here, too, as would “You and Tequila” or the more likely winner, “Mean.”
Tara: I wrestle with this one, but I think the freshness of “Mean” gives it an edge over Gill’s track for me. Gill could easily take this given he’s Grammy royalty, but I’ll predict the voters will stick with Swift.
Sam: It’s Vince Gill in a Grammy category. That’s why.
Dan: I’d be happy with any of those last three. Honestly, I even half-like “Just Fishin’” and “God Gave Me You” as songs.
Kevin: Can’t believe that Gill’s composition got a nod. I like Swift’s record the most, but as a song, “Threaten Me With Heaven” is jaw-droppingly good.
Leeann: I’d love to see Vince win another grammy, but I won’t be surprised or too disappointed if Swift takes this one.
Ben: Church, Strait, and Swift have the three best albums, and of those three, Strait’s Here for a Good Time is the most fully realized, but I would expect that Swift’s crossover appeal and high sales numbers will lead voters to gravitate toward Speak Now.
Jonathan: The nomination for Lady Antebellum’s godawful album represents Grammy voting at its laziest. I don’t care how many people bought Own the Night: It’s terrible and, at some point, the over-rewarding of Lady A for their aggressively middlebrow, banal music has to stop. Church’s album would get my vote over Strait’s by just a hair and, even though I would’ve nominated it for Best Pop Album instead, Speak Now is Swift’s strongest set to date, so I won’t complain too loudly when she wins here.
Tara: Chief packs a killer, audacious punch…but I have this sinking feeling that Lady A will pull a repeat in this category. Look – I was (and probably still am) Lady A’s biggest advocate at Country Universe, but I can’t get behind the overblown success of their degenerating music. How will they ever be motivated to live up to the massive potential shown on Lady Antebellum if we keep rewarding them like this?
Sam: Quality-wise, Speak Now edges out Chief, though I think Chief deserves some recognition for its ambition. Speak Now was a commercial and an artistic triumph, though the only concern is that it was released so long ago that its impact may have faded from the voters’ memories. That might open the door for Lady Antebellum to win, which would be a shame. While I actually kind of liked Own the Night, there are three albums better than it in the category.
Kevin: Strait just keeps getting better lately. I think he’d win if it wasn’t for category crossover votes for Swift.
Leeann: I wish I cared about this category more this year than I actually do. It’s likely that either Strait or Swift will win the award, but I think Church’s album is the most interesting.
Jonathan: Of the four veterans nominated, only Harris’ album is anywhere close to her best work, but that rarely matters much. The vitriol directed at Chorney and her exploiting of NARAS’s new social networking initiatives to garner her nomination has reflected very, very poorly on a whole lot of Americana fans and has perpetuated an ugly “us-versus-them” attitude, but there’s no dressing up how poor Chorney’s album actually is, either. But she’s also the only one of the five nominees that anyone has been talking about during the entirety of the voting period… I give the edge to Williams on sales stats alone, but there’s really no frontrunner here.
Sam: Should win: Hayes Carll, KMAG YOYO and other American Stories (yeah, I know it wasn’t nominated). I actually kind of hope that Linda Chorney wins. For one thing, the outcry would be phenomenal. For another, it might shed some light on just how the voting is done, and is there a better way to do it. Do the voters know what Americana music is? Did they listen to any of the albums? I have nothing against any of the nominees, but Hayes Carll released one of the best albums of the year and had no chance in competing against legends like Emmylou, Ry Cooder and Levon Helm. Of the four legitimate nominees, Williams has gone the longest between Grammy wins, so maybe it’s her turn.
Dan: Levon has won for his last two albums. This one is a live set, so Lucinda could definitely unseat him, but still.
Best Bluegrass Album
Ben: I have no rationale for who should win, but I think we all know who will.
Jonathan: I can’t think of anything more foolhardy than betting against Alison Krauss at the Grammys.
Tara: What Ben said.
Sam: Honestly, I thought Krauss’ Paper Airplane was kind of tepid, while Rare Bird Alert was charming and energetic. Still, Krauss is the Jimmy Sturr of the Grammy bluegrass categories (all the polka fans should get that reference), so unless the voters decide to give Martin a lifetime achievement award of sorts, she’s got this one in the bag.
Dan: Steve Martin’s got a chance, but…
Best Folk Album
Ben: If my prediction of an Aldean-Clarkson victory for Duo/Group Performance comes true, I would expect that this is where voters will recognize The Civil Wars.
Jonathan: If NARAS were really committed to the idea of reducing the number of categories, they’d merge the Americana and Folk Album categories with Best Country Album and, considering how fast and loose they’re already playing with genre tags, they probably should do just that and let the chips fall where they may. Welch’s album is the only one of the five that really scans as “folk” music in any traditional sense, so who wins here will depend on whether or not voters are looking for something more traditional or contemporary. I’m guessing it’s the latter case, to the benefit of the Civil Wars.
Sam: Steve Earle released his best album in years with I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive. The love songs were tender, the topical songs were sharp and insightful, and there weren’t any love songs about Condoleezza Rice. Eddie Vedder, on the other hand, is in Pearl Jam, so clearly he’s the odds-on favorite. Actually, Ukelele Songs got some pretty good reviews, and if Vedder’s vocals didn’t remind me so much of Bob Dylan’s current voice crossed with an injured goat, I might be more inclined to like it.
Dan: I can imagine a Fleet Foxes or Civil Wars win, but in the end, I’m still guessing Earle, the proven Grammy favorite.
Leeann: It’s sad that I care about this category far more than the Country Album category this year. I love The Civil Wars album the most, but the Welch, Vedder and Earl albums are great too. I’ll be happy to see any of them win, but I have a strange feeling that Vedder will take it.
Kenny Chesney leads with nine nominations. Jason Aldean, Lady Antebellum, and Brad Paisley follow.
Check out the entire list of nominees here.
It’s a strong concept. But the fairly flat delivery and a production that never takes off keeps things a little too grounded in reality for it to actually sound like the escapism it celebrates.
Written by Kenny Chesney and Brett James
The countdown concludes. Scroll down to the bottom to hear samples of each song and to share your comments.
Top 40 Singles of 2011, Part Four: #10-#1
Love Done Gone
Individual Rankings: #1 – Leeann; #1 – Jonathan; #13 – Tara
While many might get caught up in Billy Currington’s smoldering love songs, he’s really the most charming when he loosens up and has a little fun. While “Love Done Gone” is technically about lost love, Currington’s breezy performance along with the festive horns makes it seem more freeing than heartbreaking. As a result, the song turns out to be his most compelling since “Good Directions.” – Leeann Ward
Individual Rankings: #4 – Tara; #6 – Dan; #9 – Ben; #12 – Kevin
A 90’s-throwback gem, “Amen” shimmers in a different way than most of the songs on this list. There’s no striking life lesson or clever turn of phrase – just a fresh hook and an earnest, slightly unconventional love story between a preacher’s son and a farmer’s daughter. But there’s magic in its recipe: from the charmingly organic arrangement to the endearingly spirited performance to the adorably written story line – “whooped and hollered” tops my favorite phrases of 2011 – “Amen” is the sweetest package sent to country radio in years. – Tara Seetharam
Individual Rankings: #2 – Jonathan; #5 – Dan; #5 – Tara; #19 – Ben
Of all of the many, many things “Sparks Fly” proves that Taylor Swift understands, perhaps the most important is this: If you’re going to order someone to, “Drop everything now,” you’d better make sure they have reasons to want to. – Jonathan Keefe
Threaten Me With Heaven
Individual Rankings: #3 – Kevin; #7 – Leeann; #9 – Tara; #13 – Dan; #13 – Jonathan
Can anyone be this strong when facing down their rapidly approaching death? Perhaps only in song. For those who can pull this off in real life, their faith blows away those who can merely move mountains. – Kevin John Coyne
The Civil Wars
Individual Rankings: #3 – Jonathan; #4 – Sam; #7 – Tara; #8 – Leeann; #8 – Dan
“Barton Hollow” may be a song about a dead man walking, but, with its stomping percussion line and force-of-nature vocal performances, it plays more like a determined march right to the front-line of a war zone. If the Devil’s going to follow the Civil Wars wherever they go, they sound more than ready to throw down. – Jonathan Keefe
Zac Brown Band
Individual Rankings: #1 – Tara; #6 – Jonathan; #7 – Sam; #9 – Leeann; #11 – Ben; #15 – Kevin
A piano, a wanderer’s tale and killer vocals are the bones of this song– none of which are unique to country music. And yet, “Colder Weather” pleads like the best country songs, hurts like the loneliest of country stories. It serves as an elegant reminder that while country music is sometimes marked by a fiddly sparkle, it can also turn up in the form of pure emotion – and how Brown emotes. His performance is both soulful and skillful, embodying the rambler’s spectrum of emotions with chilling accuracy – longing, regret, defeat, hunger – right down to the final line that rings hauntingly hollow: “It’s a shame about the weather / But I know soon we’ll be together / And I can’t wait til then.” – Tara Seetharam
You and Tequila
Kenny Chesney with Grace Potter
Individual Rankings: #2 – Ben; #3 – Leeann; #3 – Dan; #9 – Kevin; #10 – Tara; #17 – Sam
“You and Tequila” is a great reminder of just how good Kenny Chesney can be when he’s not releasing the same song over and over again. In classic Matraca Berg fashion, “You and Tequila” is a deftly constructed lyric that displays intelligence and self-awareness, while the beautiful acoustic arrangement makes “Tequila” easily one of the year’s finest and most memorable singles. Grace Potter’s sweet harmony adds a delicious icing to the cake.- Ben Foster
Hell on Heels
Individual Rankings: #2 – Leeann; #2 – Tara; #4 – Jonathan; #8 – Kevin; #11 – Dan; #13 – Ben
For those of us who think that Miranda Lambert is one of the bright spots in an otherwise bleak mainstream country landscape these days, could there have been much more exciting news than that she would be hooking up with Ashley Monroe, somebody that we at Country Universe have previously lamented going under the radar, to form a trio with songwriter Angaleena Presley? Happily, the prospect of such an exciting trio did not disappoint, as the Pistol Annies turned out to be the most refreshing act of the year with any chance of mainstream success.
Their debut single, “Hell on Heels,” signaled that the group were a force to be reckoned with, both in attitude and artistry. From the beginning swampy guitar riffs, it’s obvious that the characters in this song are going to live up to the fiery title. Furthermore, the Annies turn in a performance that is so eerily calm that it effectively creates the intended aggression of the story. As a result, “Hell on Heels” is one of the most unique and refreshing singles to get anywhere near a radio playlist in 2011. – Leeann Ward
Cost of Livin’
Individual Rankings: #1 – Dan; #3 – Ben; #6 – Tara; #7 – Kevin; #7 – Jonathan; #9 – Sam; #12 – Leeann
The toll of a corrupt, abusive economy, encapsulated in one man’s fractured personal account. If that sounds a bit like an “I am the 99%” speech, it’s a testament to how well “Cost of Livin'” – begun in 2008, long before mass havoc finally led to mass protest – found the pulse of present-day America. The brilliant choice to frame the song as a job interview allows it to explore both why Dunn’s character deserves the work he and his family needs, and why he likely won’t get it.
In short, the most frighteningly real song of 2011. – Dan Milliken
Individual Rankings: #1 – Kevin; #1 – Ben; #3 – Tara; #4 – Dan; #8 – Sam; #10 – Leeann; #17 – Jonathan
You know what I love about Taylor Swift? She has a real knack for tapping into emotions and experiences that are personal to her, but conveying them in such a way that any listener can see it as his or her own story set to music. The deeper and more personal she gets, the more we feel it as listeners.
Some might write off “Mean” as a cheap comeback to the oft-heard criticism that “Taylor Swift can’t sing,” but to do so is to miss the full scope of feelings that the song addresses. It speaks to anyone who’s been insulted or disrespected by those who cross the line between constructive criticism and plain cruelty, doing so with some of Swift’s most raw and honest lyrics to date.
It all makes for a most delicious slice of musical catharsis. In addition to being one of the flat-out best lyrics Swift has written, the song features a Shania Twain-esque singalong melody, not to mention one of the coolest and countriest productions of any mainstream release this year. In multiple aspects, “Mean” is clearly the work of an artist who was willing to step outside the box, making it a standout achievement for Swift, and a definite standout moment on radio playlists.
I can see a few jaws dropping at this somewhat divisive selection, but we make no apologies for it. A case could be made for a number of other worthy songs taking this top spot, but for me there’s just no getting round the fact that “Mean” is the one 2011 single release that I will be replaying the most in years to come. Thus, it’s a great pleasure to name “Mean” our top single of 2011. – Ben Foster
It’s that time of year again! The time when we all dutifully tune in to the CMA Awards show, raise our eyebrows at the “What the heck are they doing here?” award presenters, and afterwards complain about how totally un-country the whole show was. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I can’t wait.
We’re pleased to share the Country Universe staff picks for this year’s CMA Awards, as well as our predictions of who the winners will be. This year we have some highly competitive categories in which predicting the winners is quite difficult, leading to some significantly divergent picks among our writing staff. Agree? Disagree? Join in the discussion in the comment thread below, and let us know.
The CMA Awards telecast will air on Wednesday, November 9, 8pm Eastern on ABC-TV. We will be live blogging the show here at Country Universe, so do be sure to drop by and join in the fun!
Dan: I can imagine anyone but Urban taking it, but I like Jonathan’s logic.
Ben: It’s hard to bet on the Entertainer award going to a female artist, but it seems Swift has undoubtedly had the biggest year of all the nominees. Her album sold like hotcakes, and produced a trio of killer radio singles, while she topped that off with her Speak Now tour. That combination should bag her this year’s top prize.
Leeann: Paisley could take it again, but my money’s on the CMA wanting to give it to fresh blood this year. Taylor Swift is who probably actually deserves it, however.
Jonathan: Paisley is probably the most logical pick, but he didn’t figure as heavily into the nominations this year as he could have, so I’m wondering if the voters have cooled on him as much as the crew here at CU have of late. Swift’s live show should be a factor in this category, but she has a whole lot of gender bias to overcome, and there seems to be at least something of a backlash against her in the country community post-Fearless. Which leaves the ubiquitous Shelton, who has been something of a new “Everywhere Man” for the genre over the past year.
Kevin: I think Swift will win because she had the highest profile year. But I think Aldean defines the genre in 2011, for better or for worse. Mostly worse.
Tara: As I’ve said before, this is the most appropriate way for the voters to reward Swift’s monster success, and for the first time at the CMAs, I truly feel she deserves this award. I’m particularly impressed with the way she continues to cultivate her relationship with her fans. I just hope the voters don’t pair this award with the FVOTY award.
Dan: Aldean’s not my thing, but he’s the biggest guy in the field by an unignorable margin. More than anything, I think the indie Broken Bow Records deserves props for building their flagship artist so well.
Ben: I’m largely indifferent to this particular field of nominees (save possibly Keith Urban), but Aldean’s massive success should most likely nab him his first Male Vocalist trophy.
Leeann: Again, I think it’s Shelton’s night to sweep in order to shake things up this year. He and Urban have the strongest voices in the category anyway.
Jonathan: Urban’s the only one of the lot who has released even one single I’ve liked in the past year, so he’d get my vote. Aldean has the commercial clout, sure, but quality has to count for something, right? Voters have looked at the word “Vocalist” in the category name and have passed over Chesney for years, and I wonder if they’ll do the same to Aldean here. I’m thinking yes.
Kevin: Urban’s the one who I can stand to listen to. But if Shelton was able to win last year, I don’t see how he loses this year. Not post-Voice and “Honey Bee.”
Tara: It makes me sad that I can’t find a solid reason to support Urban or Paisley, both of whom I used to feel passionately about. And in all honesty, I can’t find a solid reason to support any of these guys, based on their output during the eligibility period. I’m going to blindly back Urban –who, despite being “Urban-lite” these days, is at least consistent– and predict that Shelton’s amped public profile will give him the edge with voters.
Dan: Come ACM season, I’ll be all for Lambert; Pistol Annies and Four The Record prove she’s using her new commercial powers nobly. But I like Swift’s performances on Speak Now, and that album just applies more to this awards cycle.
Ben: Swift is the overall strongest contender, but I could see voters seizing the opportunity to recognize Evans, who released a new album and had a number one single during the eligibility period. I wouldn’t rule Lambert out either, though she didn’t have as strong a year as she did in 2010. But I doubt this will be Underwood’s year, and McBride’s was essentially a filler nomination, so I’d say it’s down to Swift, Evans, and Lambert. (But, like Dan, I will totally be Team Miranda when the ACMs roll around)
Leeann: I reflexively say Lambert should win, but Swift has had the best year and will likely win as a result. I won’t be heart broken if Lambert takes it though.
Jonathan: There’s a part of me that would vote for Lambert on principle and out of loyalty, but I can’t argue with a simple mathematical inequality: “Back to December,” “Mean,” and “Sparks Fly” > “Only Prettier,” “Heart Like Mine” and “Baggage Claim.” Had her label been campaigning harder that she’s never won this award, Evans could’ve been a bigger threat here, but Lambert’s ongoing momentum should carry her to a repeat win.
Kevin: Can this power couple nonsense be derailed? Probably not, so while I’d rather see Swift get it over Lambert, I’m doubtful it would happen. My real fantasy would be for the only non-winner, Sara Evans, to take it. For prosperity’s sake, and for actually putting out a great single that I failed to realize was great until it was already a hit.
Tara: This is a tough one for me. Lambert’s worked the genre like no other female has this past year and a half, but the singles she’s released in the eligibility period have been so-so. Swift’s put out some solid material, but I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to support her winning a vocalist award. And then there’s Underwood, who’s been relatively quiet on the radio front, but whose stunning performance of “How Great Thou Art” back in April went viral and serves as a reminder of what I firmly believe is one of the finest voices in the genre. I’m going with my gut and backing Underwood, but I think the voters will reward Lambert again, which is fine with me.
Dan: Seriously, why not the Civil Wars? They’ve sold about as many albums (200,000-ish) as everyone besides Sugarland without the support of a major label. Not to mention they just made the most interesting music.
Ben: I’m supporting the Civil Wars on principle, but it’s a no-brainer that Sugarland’s hot streak is not over yet.
Leeann: I love The Civil Wars. The end.
Jonathan: Yet more evidence that this category should be merged with Vocal Group of the Year to cut the deadweight. Though the Civil Wars getting in instead of the JaneDear Girls is a nice testament to the fact that the CMAs, every so often, can exercise good taste and discretion.
Kevin: Sugarland’s album was atrocious. The Civil Wars are in the running for my favorite set of the year. Easy call for me.
Tara: Can Sugarland hurry up and release a new, redeeming album, please?
Dan: Lady A were between albums. Some variety this year, please.
Ben: It’ hard to bet against Lady Antebellum, but the Zac Brown band gave us a strong album and two of the year’s most memorable hit singles (“As She’s Walking Away” and “Colder Weather”), and I predict that they will be rewarded justly.
Leeann: Zac Brown Band has a good chance with the best music in the category, but Lady A just might not be out yet.
Jonathan: Little Big Town’s brilliant “Little White Church” should’ve put them back in the mix for good, but they really botched the single releases from their album and are right back to being also-rans. The Band Perry will settle for the “New Artist” award as a consolation prize this year, which leaves Lady A and Zac Brown Band to duke it out. In terms of the quality of their output, Zac Brown Band has Lady A dead to rights, but is that enough to stop the trio’s awards-show juggernaut? Let’s hope so.
Kevin: Zac Brown Band is the only option both realistic and palatable.
Tara: This is the first of these categories that I feel strongly about this year. Based on the strength of You Get What You Give, Zac Brown Band deserves to nab this award, hands down. But I’ll go against my co-bloggers here and guess that Lady Antebellum still has the industry wrapped around its finger.
Dan: Church seems the most likely to have a long, interesting career and probably deserves the win. I just don’t want to encourage “Homeboy,” I guess.
Ben: Thompson Square and The Band Perry are the only two nominees whom I would still consider “new” artists, and I think The Band Perry beats Thompson Square any day. Bryan, however, did reach a new level of stardom over the past year, so he stands a good chance at wining nonetheless.
Leeann: While it’s strange that with three albums Church is still in the New Artist category, it’s probably that same reason that he should win the award, not to mention that he had the strongest album of the nominees in the past year.
Jonathan: Young’s the best singer in the field, but his material is still too inconsistent in quality for me to get on board with him. Church, on the other hand, finally made good on his early promise and his considerable hype with Chief and would be a deserving winner, as would the uneven but still pretty good The Band Perry. As the only nominee with any other nominations, they have to be considered the slight favorites over Crest WhiteStrips.
Kevin: I think Church’s big breakthrough happened close enough to the voting window to give him a slight edge. I’d like to see Chris Young get the boost from a win.
Tara: Of all the nominees, I’m the most excited for Chris Young’s future in country music – his vocal talent is tremendous, and even though it falls right outside of the eligibility period, Neon is one of my favorite releases of this year. Based on their other major nominations, though, I think The Band Perry will take this.
Dan: Here’s a logical place to acknowledge Aldean, though I hope voters think twice about it.
Ben: In my book, Swift and the Zac Brown Band are the only truly worthy winners (and I’m still scratching my head over why a Blake Shelton “Six Pak” was even nominated in the first place). To me, the most intriguing thing about Swift is that she really does seem to get a little better and a little deeper with each album. Speak Now is her crowning achievement to date, and in my opinion, the best album on this ballot.
Leeann: It hurts my heart to think it, but Jason Aldean’s big year will likely earn him the award for best album, even though numbers isn’t how such an award should be selected.
Jonathan: Speak Now is Swift’s strongest album, but, “Mean” notwithstanding, it’s also her most unabashedly pop album. And song-for-song, I still think You Get What You Give is slightly better. But Aldean has been a steady seller, and he’s big enough that he has to win one of the major awards, and this one’s his best bet.
Kevin: “All songs composed by Taylor Swift” impressed the heck out of me, not the least of which because the songs were far better than her earlier work. Zac Brown Band’s a close second for me.
Tara: Speak Now is solid, but You Get What You Give is the better example of how to move this genre forward, with its delicious yet reverent mishmash of influences. But I think this is where the voters will recognize the often overlooked commercial success of Jason Aldean.
Dan: It’d be heartening to see The Band Perry’s risky, rootsy release get its due. Plus: the single alone is 3x Platinum, better than any of its competitors can claim.
Ben: “Colder Weather” and “If I Die Young” are the two strongest competitors, but for me, a cool folksy arrangement puts the latter over the edge.
Leeann: This is tough. I can actually see any of these singles winning, but I have a good feeling about “If I Die Young”, though I’d love to see “Colder Weather” prove me wrong.
Jonathan: This one’s actually a tough call, since all five of the singles are big radio hits and everyone here has multiple nominations. “If I Die Young” is the best-produced single of the lot, but I’m predicting that Kelly Clarkson’s endless likability gives the edge to her duet with Aldean.
Kevin: Love the Band Perry record most, followed by Sara Evans. But this is the CMA awards, and Shelton managed to be both completely vanilla and namedrop Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn.
Tara: If I better understood the story in “If I Die Young,” I might be able to get behind it, but I think “Colder Weather” is the more memorable single. It’s my favorite kind of country ballad – killer vocals, gripping melody and palpable emotion. I see the fiery Aldean / Clarkson collaboration taking this one, though. (By the way, dude, “Honey Bee” – really CMA?)
Dan: “If I Die Young” is a flawed composition, but it’s still the most striking and strange one here, and that’s worth something.
Ben: I never though I’d see a CMA Song of the Year field in which Matraca Berg and Deana Carter would compete against Colt Ford and Brantley Gilbert. I would so love to see Berg and Carter win the award. I might tend to be slightly biased when it comes to Matraca Berg, but I think “Tequila” is a fine composition on its own merits, and a worthy winner indeed. Still, my gut predicion is that Perry will grab the trophy instead.
Leeann: “Mean” is probably my favorite song in terms of production and melody, but “You and Tequila” is the best song of the nominees.
Jonathan: Berg is a treasure and I like Carter well enough, so it’s nice to see their names on the ballot again, but “You and Tequila” isn’t either of their best compositions. Here’s the thing about “Mean”: What doesn’t work about the song has everything to do with the fact that it shows the extent to which Swift still hasn’t fully figured out her artistic persona. But in terms of melody and overall construction as a stand-alone song? It’s the class of the field. As Dan said, “If I Die Young” is flawed, but it also has a lot going for it and will be a fine, worthy winner when it inevitably takes this.
Kevin: I love “You and Tequila”, but it’s an old song. I’m glad Chesney rediscovered it, but I can’t see it as this year’s Song of the Year. I think “Mean” is the best of the bunch, with the music as clever as the lyrics.
Dan: The Single nod for Jason and Kelly suggests they have the edge here. But my heart echoes a resounding “Go on, son.”
Ben: “As She’s Walking Away” is just so effortlessly charming that it would easily be my first pick, but the cross-genre appeal – and bonus Clarkson star power – of “Don’t You Wanna Stay” make it the most likely winner. The fact that “Don’t You Wanna Stay” is also nominated for Single (which “As She’s Walking Away” sadly isn’t) suggests a likely victory in this category.
Leeann: How can I not pull for the Zac Brown Band and Alan Jackson when I have a chance? I’m pretty confident that the drama, cross genre appeal, and, yup, the drama again, make “Don’t You Want to Stay” the sure bet though.
Jonathan: “As She’s Walking Away” is one of the purest and truest duets in years, and it could pull some votes from the more traditionalist voters, but the Aldean and Clarkson single just has too much firepower to lose here.
Kevin: If this doesn’t go to Zac Brown Band and Alan Jackson, then I no longer understand how CMA voters think.
Dan: It’s my least favorite Paisley video ever, though.
Ben: Swift’s “Mean” is my personal favorite among these nominees, but I’m expecting that voters will show some Shelton love instead.
Jonathan: Paisley has to win something, right? And this also gives the voters a chance to honor some beloved genre vets.
Kevin: I think the video splicing tricks will give Paisley and Alabama an additional edge. Of the five clips, “Mean” is the one I like the most.
Dan: Default underdog support.
Ben: I would love to see this go to the steel guitar man (and preferably not to Dann Huff), but Mac McAnally tends to be the favorite here.
Leeann: I want the steel guitar to represent this year. So, I’ll will it to happen.
Jonathan: Franklin’s the only nominee who hasn’t won previously, and being regarded as long overdue eventually helped McAnally score his first win, leading to his current three-year hot streak.
Kevin: I’ll be rooting for Paul Franklin until he finally wins, but I won’t believe that he’ll win until he finally does.
Tara: What Ben and Kevin said.