Ah, the naughties. The decade began and ended with pop crossover queens, with Shania Twain and Faith Hill at the top of their game in 2000 much like Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood reign supreme today. In between, we had the roots music boom, best exemplified by O Brother and the platinum-selling Nickel Creek and Alison Krauss & Union Station; the post-9/11 patriotic explosion, which brought Toby Keith and Darryl Worley to the top of the charts; the near-total banishment of women from the country radio dial for a good part of the decade, which started to fade as redneck pride ascended, thanks to a certain woman trying to make Pocahontas proud; and far too many tributes to country living and island-flavored beach bum songs to count.
All of this made for a fascinating decade to be a country fan. As radio worked its way through all of the above (with the notable exception of roots music), the internet made it far easier for acts to be discovered without ever getting a single spin of traditional radio play. With MySpace, YouTube, Facebook, and the explosion of country music blogs, the barriers have been torn down between artist and audience in a way that was never possible before.
The motley crew of Country Universe has a diversity of tastes that fit within the widest boundaries of country music, as reflected our collaborative list of the 100 best albums of the decade. Five of our writers contributed to the list, with all writer’s selections being weighed equally. We’ll reveal ten entries a day until the list is complete. A look back at the greatest singles of the decade will then follow.
The 100 Greatest Albums of the Decade, Part 1
Abigail Washburn, Song of the Traveling Daughter
Song of the Traveling Daughter is the debut album from Uncle Earl claw hammer banjo player Abigail Washburn. Produced by Béla Fleck and featuring Ben Sollee, it is a subdued album filled with intriguing instrumentation and influences. Standout songs include “Nobody’s Fault but Mine,” with its interesting Civil War period influence; the upbeat “Coffee’s Cold,” originally performed by Uncle Earl; and “Song of the Traveling Daughter,” based on the classical Chinese poem “Song of the Traveling Son.” – William Ward
Recommended Tracks: “Nobody’s Fault but Mine”, “Coffee’s Cold”
Kim Richey, Rise
Her ambitious swan song for Mercury Records was perhaps her least accessible record, with an emphasis on eclectic arrangements instead of hook-laden melodies. It’s also her most deeply rewarding record, one that is remarkably introspective and fully delves into themes of faith and mortality that her earlier work had only hinted at before. – Kevin Coyne
Recommended Tracks: “A Place Called Home”, “No Judges”
Little Big Town, The Road to Here
The quartet’s second album catapulted them to the forefront thanks to the swampy anthem, “Boondocks,” and was a breath of fresh, earthy air to mainstream country music. Packed with tight harmonies and songs ranging in style from bluegrass-leaning to Fleetwood Mac-inspired, the album served as a window into the raw talent and potential of one of the best groups to hit country music in quite some time. – Tara Seetharam
Recommended Tracks: “Boondocks”, “Live With Lonesome”
Dolly Parton, Halos & Horns
A gorgeous, gospel-heavy album, with tasteful bluegrass elements. Parton is effervescent as usual, and rid of any self-consciousness, which makes “Hello God” overwhelmingly stirring. A response to the September 11 tragedies, the song has Parton pleading and philosophically wrestling with God, in the sincerest of ways. – TS
Recommended Tracks: “Hello God”, “John Daniel”
Brad Paisley, Part II
Sometime back before the Future, before the smirking social commentary and the endless odes to his wife, Brad Paisley was just a silly little neotraditionalist writing silly little neotraditional songs about the twists of everyday life and love. Part II captures him at his most unassuming and tuneful, waxing breezily about courtships and feeling out his new place as a neotrad spokesperson with a few classic roots songs, plus a cute Bill Anderson/Chuck Cannon co-write (“Too Country”). – Dan Milliken
Recommended Tracks: “Wrapped Around”, “Come On Over Tonight”
Patty Loveless, Strong Heart
More so than any Loveless album since leaving MCA, Strong Heart draws on her pop and rock influences, with a healthy dose of Ronstadt thrown in for good measure. The contrast between her hillbilly wail and the pop-leaning arrangements of several songs manages to make her sound even more rural than she normally does. Arguably her last mainstream project, she proved that she can sound just as good chasing radio as she does ignoring it. – KC
Recommended Tracks: “The Last Thing On My Mind”, “My Heart Will Never Break This Way Again”
Sara Evans, Real Fine Place
One of the finer female vocalists in the genre, Evans is a fantastic interpreter on her fifth album, carefully treading both traditional and pop country waters. The warmth and purity to her tone is prominent on this album, and this is particularly true of the songs with more traditional arrangements, on which she shines the brightest. – TS
Recommended Tracks: “Cheatin’”, “These Four Walls”
Sarah Jarosz, Song Up in Her Head
Sarah Jarosz’ much hyped debut with Sugar Hill Records features Darrell Scott, Tim O’Brien, Jerry Douglas, Aofie O’Donavan, and Abigail Washburn. Notable tracks include “Shankill Butchers,” a Decemberists cover that outperforms the original; the progressive acoustic “Song up in Her Head,” reminiscent of Nickel Creek; and “Come on Up to the House,” an impressive Tom Waits cover. – WW
Recommended Tracks: “Shankill Butchers”, “Come On Up to the House”
Terri Clark, Pain to Kill
This album made Clark a serious contender for Female Vocalist, the only time in her career that she reached that level of success. It’s as radio-friendly as her first two albums, but the material is substantive. This is the best collection of songs that she ever assembled, and by a healthy margin. When Trisha Yearwood finds something to cover from a record, you’ve done a great job picking songs. – KC
Recommended Tracks: “I Just Called to Say Goodbye”, “Not a Bad Thing”
Dwight Yoakam, Population: Me
Genre superhero Yoakam stretched his habit of excellence into a third decade, beginning with the quirky South of Heaven, West of Hell soundtrack and continuing with this solid set. The album is notable for distilling a wide assortment of Yoakam’s mastered sounds into about half an hour, from the Eaglesy (“The Late Great Golden State”) to the Owensy (“No Such Thing”) to the Elvisy (“I’d Avoid Me Too”), all united by the singer’s uniquely buoyant brand of fatalism. – DM
Recommended Tracks: “I’d Avoid Me Too”, “The Back Of Your Hand”
Amidst her generation of successful female country artists, Lorrie Morgan was the only one who was clearly from the tradition of heartbreak queen Tammy Wynette, with a healthy dose of Jeannie Seely in the mix. With her contemporaries far more shaped by the work of Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris, Morgan was instrumental in keeping the sound of female country from the sixties still relevant in the nineties.
While Morgan never earned the critical acclaim or industry accolades of peers like Patty Loveless and Pam Tillis, she was immensely popular with country fans, able to sell gold with albums that radio largely ignored. She was the first female country artist to have her first three studio albums go platinum, with three additional albums going gold and a hits collection selling double platinum.
Many of Morgan’s best recordings were never sent to radio, and those interested in discovering her in depth should seek out her finest studio albums, Greater Need and Show Me How.
But her singles were pretty good too, with these being the most essential.
Ten Essential Tracks:
from the 1989 album Leave the Light On
This song broke through just as news of the death of Keith Whitley, Morgan’s husband, became known. She was unfairly accused of capitalizing on his death with this release, as people both misinterpreted the song’s meaning and apparently ignored the fact that it had gone to radio weeks before his death.
“We Both Walk”
from the 1991 album Something in Red
One of her more cutting performances. She refuses to let her roving man come back home, because when he leaves, he walks away and she walks the floor.
“Something in Red”
from the 1991 album Something in Red
Her signature hit is the tale of a woman’s life through conversations while shopping for clothes. Amazingly poignant, especially given the conceit of the song.
“What Part of No”
from the 1992 album Watch Me
“Back off, buddy,” is the message of Morgan’s biggest chart hit, which topped the charts for three weeks.
“I Guess You Had to Be There”
from the 1992 album Watch Me
In my opinion, Morgan’s finest performance from her platinum years. When this was on the radio at the same time as Pam Tillis’ “Do You Know Where Your Man Is”, it was the next best thing to having Tammy Wynette back in heavy rotation.
“If You Came Back From Heaven”
from the 1994 album War Paint
Okay, I have an idea. Carrie Underwood should take another year or two to look for strong new material for her next proper studio album. In the meantime, she can release a 2-CD set of cover songs.
The first disc: country hits of days gone by, in the same vein as “I Told You So.” The second disc: pop/rock power ballads. I’m not going to front. I’d probably listen to the second disc more.
I don’t know what it is about American Idol that leads Underwood down this road so many times, but good Lord, it works. Every. Single. Time. “Alone” made her the front-runner when she was still on the show. “I’ll Stand By You” and “Praying For Time” were better than her current radio singles when they were released. And now, Motley Crue’s “Home Sweet Home.”
She sings material like this so naturally that it’s easy to forget that she’s a solid country singer, too. I’ve made countless comparisons of Underwood’s vocal gifts to Trisha Yearwood’s, but I have to say that I’m starting to think of Underwood as more of a modern-day Ronstadt. She doesn’t have Yearwood’s impeccable taste in material, but she certainly has Ronstadt’s fearless song choice.
And just like with Ronstadt, when it works, it works. “Home Sweet Home” works. I’m sure that fans of the Motley Crue original may wince at the rough edges that have been sanded down, but what do you expect? Underwood’s a pure vocalist, not a rock singer. I prefer the former over the latter, so this is yet another Idol exclusive of Underwood’s that will be in my heavy rotation.
The following is a guest contribution from Country Universe reader Erik North.
Sometimes you first find out about your favorite artists not necessarily from your peers but, strangely enough, from either your parents or your relatives.In the case of Linda Ronstadt, I found about her through my aunt, who had a copy of Linda’s 1978 album Living In The U.S.A. that I listened to when I was eight years old back in 1978. Since that time, I have been a very staunch fan of Linda’s, even on those occasions when her excursions into other musical arenas have driven others to distraction.As it is with Elvis or the Beatles, if you have to have Linda Ronstadt explained to you, you may never get it.
Linda is not one of those who confines herself to any single genre; while that does tend to cause people a lot of problems, it’s in Linda’s nature to explore as much as she can, regardless of what the critics, or even her own fans, think.Whether it’s big band pop, Mexican rancheras, Gilbert and Sullivan, traditional, contemporary, and urban folk music, the experimental classical music of composer Philip Glass, rock and roll, blues, R&B or jazz, she just can’t stop exploring musically.
And yet, at the same time, even though she has never put herself in the strict category of being a country singer, her classic country-rock albums and songs have influenced at least three different generations of female country and roots-rock singers.She has an appreciation for and a huge knowledge of the country genre, through and through, having grown up in Arizona on a steady diet of Hank Williams and Patsy Cline, the Grand Ole Opry and the Louisiana Hayride.The early rockabilly records of Elvis, and later Buddy Holly, were also important factors in her musical growth.And when there was a revival of American folk music as the 1960s dawned, she was into that, too, getting a full dosage of traditional Appalachian folk music and bluegrass.All of those things have factored into how Linda Ronstadt approaches country music.Her approach is just more Sunset Boulevard than Music Row, that’s all.
Although it often gets pointed out that many of Linda’s hits are remakes of long-standing rock, R&B, and country songs that had been hits for others, what often gets overlooked is the complete albums those hits came from, and the songs that surround those hits.Linda was perhaps the first female singer in any genre, country or otherwise, whose career was defined by albums as much as (if not more than) hit singles.And so this is an advocacy of Linda’s great talents within or on the perimeter of the country genre, not only as a hitmaker, but as an album artist par excellence as well.
“The Only Mama That’ll Walk The Line”
Hand Sown, Home Grown, 1969
From Linda’s debut album, arguably the very first alternative-country album by a female artist, comes this feminist take on a song that had been a hit the previous year by Waylon Jennings (as “The Only Daddy…”).Linda’s snarling, almost-spat-out delivery, and a clever change in a lyric at the beginning, are almost a challenge against the stereotype of female country singers of that era.It was the first song she did on the Johnny Cash Show on June 21, 1969, that introduced her to country music audiences.
“I Can’t Get Over You”
Adieu False Heart, 2006
Linda’s duet album with Ann Savoy, though rooted in Celtic and Cajun roots music, goes into very rustic traditional folk/country territory with this ballad written by Julie Miller, whose husband Buddy plays acoustic guitar on this track.Linda’s lead vocals transport one back to that rootsy sound, aided and abetted by Ann’s harmony vocals.It is one of the standout tracks on an album that got a Grammy nomination for Best Traditional Folk Music recording in 2006.
“It’s So Easy”
Simple Dreams, 1977
At the height of her success, Linda also fueled a revival of rock and roll legend Buddy Holly’s catalog; and one of the ways she did this was to record this traditional rock and roll number from 1958 and spice it up with clavinets, a cowbell, and pounding drums.The inherent rockabilly twang of the song got a fair amount of country airplay, even though it only charted at No. 81 on the country singles chart.It nevertheless got to No. 5 on the pop singles chart.And at the same time, the album it came from was the No. 1 album on both the pop and country album charts.
Heart Like A Wheel, 1974
Who says women don’t do truck driving songs?Thanks to this number written by her good friend, the late Lowell George (of Little Feat), Linda pulls it off in this dissolute tail of being “robbed by the rain/driven by the snow” and being given “weed, whites, and wine” while journeying “from Tucson to Tucumcari, Tehachapi to Tonopah.”This is a defining song in the California country-rock repetoire from a landmark album in the genre.
“New Partner Waltz”
Livin’, Lovin’, Losin’, 2003
This all-star tribute to the country/gospel duo the Louvin Brothers won the 2003 Grammy for Country Album of the Year. Overlooked amidst the contributions made by heavyweights like Vince Gill, Terri Clark, Dierks Bentley, and her Trio pals Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris, was this particular track in which Linda returns to her traditional country roots by duetting with the album’s producer and her good friend, bluegrass music master Carl Jackson.The two of them do such a good job, and it showed that Linda always had a lot of business revisiting the country arena.
“That’ll Be The Day”
Hasten Down The Wind, 1976
Having previously done a superb country/folk version of Buddy Holly’s last hit “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore” on Heart Like A Wheel, Linda returned to the Holly catalog two years later with this modern rockabilly remake of his and the Cricket’s No. 1 hit from 1957.The use of echo on Linda’s vocals, and the twin guitar breaks provided by her guitarists Waddy Wachtell and Dan Dugmore, propelled this song to No. 11 on the pop singles chart, and No. 27 on the country chart in October 1976, and led to Linda earning her second Grammy award, this one for Best Pop Female Vocal.
Linda Ronstadt, 1972
Linda’s penchant for understanding the traditions of honky-tonk heartbreak songs, while realizing the timelessness of them, is borne out in this recording of a song that had previously been a hit for, among others, Ray Price in 1956, and has since been more recently covered by Patty Loveless, one of Linda’s many fans and peers.Coming from her self-titled album, which was her first true country breakthrough (it reached No. 35 on the country album chart early in 1972), this song also features contributions from a couple of guys named Glenn Frey and Don Henley.Need I tell anyone what became of them?
“Break My Mind”
Hand Sown, Home Grown, 1969
Another country standard, this one written by John D. Loudermilk (he of “Tobacco Road” and “Indian Reservation” fame, among others), this one was a favorite among the elite of the Los Angeles country-rock movement of the late 1960s; and Linda had the foresight to give it a honky-tonk rock throwdown rendition, complete with an unusually growling lead vocal from her, and a stinging guitar break from the late, great West Coast C&W guitar master Clarence White.
“Poor, Poor, Pitiful Me”
Simple Dreams, 1977
Linda often took a lot of hard knocks from critics for being “self pitying,” so in response, she shocked them by doing this very atypical Warren Zevon-penned hard country-rocker (complete with cowbell and syn-drums).This song revealed a humorous side of Linda, though it’s a brand of humor that is as black as coal.If its chart placement at the time seemed a little low (No. 31 pop, No. 56 C&W), it still remains one of Linda’s all-time best performances, given that it is essentially an ode to gang rape—a point that Terri Clark may have missed when she did this song nineteen years after Linda.
“Long, Long Time”
Silk Purse, 1970
One overlooked fact about this incredibly heartbreaking ballad is that Linda recorded it, and the album it came from, largely with a group of Nashville session musicians known as Area Code 615.The fact gets overlooked because the contributions made by fiddle player Buddy Spicher and pedal steel master Weldon Myrick to the song make it seem more orchestral than pure country.This song was also the only time Linda strongly advocated for its release as a single, over the objections of her then record label Capitol, and it paid off.Not only did it go to No. 25 on the Billboard Hot 100 in October 1970 (getting onto country radio later in the decade, when Linda’s crossover popularity was too great to ignore), but it also got Linda her first Grammy nomination, for Best Contemporary Female Vocal.
Don’t Cry Now, 1973
Much like her version of the Eagles’ “Desperado” on this same album (her first for Elektra/Asylum), this country-rock ballad, written by Rick Roberts of the Flying Burrito Brothers (he replaced Gram Parsons) and later of Firefall, is a tale of homesickness and a desire to come back to the homestead after many long years of being alone.It is a fitting song for Linda, for though she grew up in Arizona and not Colorado, its sentiment and its setting in the Intermountain West are borne out in Linda’s passionate, heartfelt delivery, boosted by a lush string section and surrealistic pedal steel guitar work from the late, great Sneaky Pete Kleinow.
“He Was Mine”
Western Wall: The Tucson Sessions, 1999
Linda and her good friend Emmylou Harris are a Mutual Admiration Society of the highest order, and their 1999 collaboration, recorded in Linda’s hometown, was a substantial hit with country and roots-rock fans (No. 73 pop, No. 6 C&W, October 1999).One of the songs on this album that stands out is this track, written by Emmy’s ex, Paul Kennerley, and given a typically passionate delivery by Linda, boosted by Emmy’s harmony vocal and Greg Leisz’s pedal steel solo.This was meant to be heard by a larger core of listeners, but country radio sadly stayed away from it.
“When Will I Be Loved?”
Heart Like A Wheel, 1974
The hard-belting style Linda displays whenever she gets her teeth into a traditional rock and roll number is very much in evidence in this Everly Brothers remake, essentially the Sunset Strip meeting the rockabilly sound of Sun Records, with its twanging guitar break from Linda’s long-time favorite session player Andrew Gold.All that kept it from going to No. 1 on the pop chart was the Captain and Tenille’s “Love Will Keep Us Together”; it became Linda’s one solo No. 1 country hit in June 1975.
Feels Like Home, 1995
Matraca Berg considered it an extreme honor to have one of her songs recorded by one of the female legends who inspired her the most, even asking that those who were listening with her keep silent as she took it in.This hoedown, fueled by Linda’s Southwestern drawl and Allison Krauss’ fiddle, sadly got what amounted to The Shaft from country radio in April 1995, as it charted only at No. 61 on the country singles chart.Nevertheless, it is one of Linda’s strongest, most countrified vocal performances in her stellar career.
“Telling Me Lies”
Linda’s 1987 collaboration with good pals Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton was among the best-selling country albums of the pre-Garth, post-Urban Cowboy era; and one of the reasons was this Linda Thompson/Betsy Cook-penned ballad about betraying and deceitful men—perfect for a world-class vocalist like Linda, who sings lead here.“Telling Me Lies” peaked at No. 3 on the country chart on July 15, 1987, when Linda turned 41; and Trio peaked at No. 1 C&W, No. 6 pop, winning a Grammy for Best Country Vocal Duo/Group performance for 1987.
“I Fall To Pieces”
Linda Ronstadt, 1972
It may be considered sacrilege for a non-country singer to tackle a song made immortal by Patsy Cline back in 1961, but Linda takes a cue from Patsy’s relaxed delivery, giving this standard it a modest shuffle sound, rent with pedal steel and fiddle flourishes, and the ambience of a live audience (this was recorded at the legendary Troubadour nightclub in Los Angeles in August 1971).Once again, future Eagles Don Henley and Glenn Frey are there, assisting Linda with good grace.
“I Never Will Marry”
Simple Dreams, 1977
A traditional Appalachian folk ballad popularized first by the Carter Family is given a restrained treatment by Linda, complete with her good friend Dolly Parton’s authentic Appalachian harmony vocals, which makes it appropriate that it should have peaked at No. 9 on the country singles chart in June 1978.What gets overlooked, though, is that Linda plays acoustic guitar on this track as well, helped out by the traditional Dobro shadings of the Seldom Scene’s Mike Auldridge (as an addendum, this song’s A-side, a hard-rocking version of the Stones’ “Tumbling Dice,” was a No. 37 pop hit).
“A River For Him”
Winter Light, 1993
Winter Light, released in late 1993, was one of Linda’s most criminally underrated albums (only getting to No. 92 on the pop album chart); and one of the highlights of it was this tear-inducing, acoustic guitar-and-synthesizer-dominated ballad written by her good pal Emmylou Harris.Linda’s low-key delivery of Emmy’s lyrics is really affecting without being manipulative, and she gets all of the heartbreaking nuances, as she had done twenty-three years before with “Long, Long Time.”
Hasten Down The Wind, 1976
Once again, Linda isn’t afraid to tackle a classic, as she does here with this Willie Nelson-penned ballad immortalized by Patsy Cline in 1961.Linda’s approach is more bluesy than Patsy’s is, but her delivery, besides paying homage to a legend, also helped coin the phrase “torch rock.”The song, which hit No. 6 on the country chart in February 1977, also made the album it came from a No. 4 hit on the pop album chart, and No. 1 country.
“I Will Always Love You”
Prisoner In Disguise, 1975
There is such a thing as subtlety, something that Linda proved when she became the first artist to cover this Dolly Parton mega-classic, just fourteen months after Dolly’s original.If you think you’ve heard all you need to hear of this song through Whitney Houston’s arguably way-over-the-top 1992 version for the movie The Bodyguard, do yourself a favor and take a listen to Linda’s version, poweredby Andrew Gold’s subtle piano, the R&B-tinged backup singers, Dan Dugmore’s pedal steel flourishes, and, above all else, Linda’s dramatic, heartfelt soprano voice.This song helped power the album to No. 4 on the pop album chart, and No. 2 on the country album chart in late 1975.
We Ran, 1998
There is just no way of getting around it: We Ran, released in June 1998, is one of Linda’s greatest latter-day albums and arguably also the single most criminally underappreciated album of her career (it only got as high as #168).And one of the highlights of this album is this track, penned by Paul Kennerley and country maverick Marty Stuart, a return to Linda’s early ’70s C&W-rock roots.It is essentially a duet of sorts, as former Eagle and longtime Ronstadt musician favorite Bernie Leadon harmonizes in a very slithery way with her and also does the twangy Telecaster guitar licks.This one track should have gotten country airplay.
“Silver Threads And Golden Needles”
Don’t Cry Now, 1973
How does this grab you—a remake of a remake.Linda had originally recorded this song, first a hit for Wanda Jackson in 1956, on Hand Sown, Home Grown in 1969, but she was unhappy with the arrangement of the song on that album.Four years later, she redid this country standard as a country-rock hoedown, fueled by the fiddle work of Cajun musician Gib Guilbeau and some piercing steel guitar work from Ed Black.With a No. 20 placement on the country singles chart in May 1974 (the album it came from hit No. 5 on the country album chart, and No. 45 pop), “Silver Threads” began Linda’s crossover dominance, by which she helped reconnect rock and roll with its traditional country roots.
Simple Dreams, 1977
What had originally been a very modest hit for its writer, the late and legendary Roy Orbison, in 1963 turned into one of Linda’s signature hits, also helping to re-establish Orbison’s place in the rock pantheon.With its bass line, marimba, and lush electric piano backing, in Linda’s hands, “Blue Bayou” is influenced to no small degree by Linda’s Mexican roots (she re-recorded this song again shortly after this had hit, this time in Spanish).Propelled near the climax by Dan Dugmore’s soaring steel solo, “Blue Bayou” got to No. 2 on the country chart in November 1977, and on Christmas Day was at No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100.With “It’s So Easy” also at No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 at the same time, Linda had set two records.She became the first female artist to have two top five hits at the same time, and the first act of any kind to pull off such a feat since the Beatles dominated the Top Five in April 1964.
“I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still In Love With You)”
Heart Like A Wheel, 1974
Linda always mentioned Hank Williams as a pivotal musical influence; and on her version of one of Hank’s signature hits, she puts her money where her big voice is.Aided and abetted on harmony vocals by her good pal Emmylou Harris, Linda pulled off a remarkable feat.“I Can’t Help It,” which hit No. 2 on the country singles chart in March 1975, was the B-side of “You’re No Good,” Linda’s No.1 pop hit of one month earlier.The following year, she won the first of (so far) eleven Grammy awards, for Best Female Country Vocal, beating out, among others, Emmylou and her other Trio pal Dolly Parton.
“Love Is A Rose”
Prisoner In Disguise, 1975
One can trace the Dixie Chicks’ approach back to this bluegrass-fueled version of a Neil Young composition that reveals Linda’s approach to country—more Laurel Canyon than the Opry, but still rooted in country, thanks to the contributions of Herb Pederson on banjo, and David Lindley on fiddle.“Love IsA Rose” hit #5 on the country chart, while the A-side, a pounding version of the Motown classic “Heat Wave,” simultaneously hit No. 5 on the pop singles chart in November 1975.
While the Grammys have honored country music from the very first ceremony in 1959, they did not begin honoring by gender until 1965, when the country categories were expanded along with the other genre categories.
This is a look back at the Best Female Country Vocal Performance category. It was first awarded in 1965, an included single competing with albums until the Best Country Album category was added in 1995. When an album is nominated, it is in italics, and a single track is in quotation marks.
I’ve often made the case that female artists were making the best music in the 1990s, and the Grammys did a great job nominating songs and albums that were ignored at the CMA and ACM awards, which is not surprising, given that those shows have so few categories that are actually for songs and albums.
As usual, we start with a look at this year’s nominees and work our way back.
Martina McBride, “For These Times”
LeAnn Rimes, “What I Cannot Change”
Carrie Underwood, “Last Name”
Lee Ann Womack, “Last Call”
Trisha Yearwood, “This is Me You’re Talking To”
This year’s lineup includes three former winners and two women looking for their first victory in this category. Martina McBride is in the running for the eighth time in fifteen years, and with one of her more understated performances. Lee Ann Womack returns for a fifth time, having received a nomination for the lead single of her five most recent albums. Both ladies turned in good performances here, but they’ve been overlooked for records bigger and better, so they’re not likely to snap their losing streaks this time around.
As for the previous winners, LeAnn Rimes earned her third consecutive nod, bringing her total to five in this category. She hasn’t won since 1997, when she took home the award for “Blue.” If enough voters hear “What I Cannot Change,” she might have a shot, though the only version of the song that’s been a legitimate hit has been the dance remix.
Trisha Yearwood won in 1998 for “How Do I Live,” her only victory to date. But she’s earned her tenth nomination for “This is Me You’re Talking To,” which is arguably her strongest vocal performance of the ten. Like Rimes, the challenge is getting enough voters to listen to it, but she’s never been more deserving of the victory than she is this year.
Still, the favorite remains Carrie Underwood. She’s quickly become a favorite with Grammy voters, having won this category two years running, along with Best New Artist in 2007. She’s the nominee with the highest profile, and while “Last Name” is nowhere near the same league of “Jesus, Take the Wheel” and “Before He Cheats” in terms of artistry or impact, it was a big hit, something that the other four entries cannot claim.
If Underwood was nominated for “Just a Dream,” she’d have a mortal lock on this one. But the strength of the other nominees will at least keep this race competitive. If Underwood prevails, Grammy queen Alison Krauss better watch her back.
Alison Krauss, “Simple Love”
Miranda Lambert, “Famous in a Small Town”
LeAnn Rimes, “Nothin’ Better to Do”
Carrie Underwood, “Before He Cheats”
Trisha Yearwood, “Heaven, Heartache and the Power of Love”
Looking at this lineup, you’d think that it was a golden age of female country artists, something akin to the mid-nineties. In reality, only one of these songs was a big radio hit, though three others managed to go top twenty. In terms of quality, however, this is the most consistent and thoroughly wonderful set of nominees this category has seen this century. You’d have to go back to exactly 1999 to find a better lineup.
In a year when any winner would have been deserving, Underwood won for “Before He Cheats,” her second straight win for a signature mega-hit from her debut album.
A look back at the previous winners and nominees of the Best Country Album Grammy, updated to include the 2009 contenders.
The Grammys have been doing better in the country categories since they reintroduced the Best Country Album category in 1995, which had only been in existence for two years in the 1960s. Prior to 1995, albums and singles were both eligible in the vocalist categories, so full albums would compete against single tracks in Best Male Country Vocal Performance, for example.
Looking over the history of this fairly young category, you can see trends emerge, with certain acts clearly being favorites of NARAS. You see the same trend with the CMAs, just with different people. What is clear with the Grammys is that radio and retail success will only carry you so far. For awards that are supposed to be based on artistic merit, that’s how it should be.
As with the CMA flashbacks, we’ll begin with a look at this year’s nominees, then discuss previous year’s in reverse chronological order. Winners are in bold.
Be sure to drop by My Kind of Country and vote in their Best Country Album poll. Let your preference be known!
Jamey Johnson, That Lonesome Song
Patty Loveless, Sleepless Nights
George Strait, Troubadour
Randy Travis, Around the Bend
Trisha Yearwood, Heaven, Heartache and the Power of Love
Four veterans and one newcomer vie for this year’s Best Country Album, and it’s a wide-open race with no obvious favorite. The critically acclaimed breakthrough album of Jamey Johnson could earn him his first Grammy. The legendary George Strait would like to start a Grammy collection of his own. Like fellow nominee Patty Loveless, this is his third nomination for this award. While Loveless has also yet to win this one, she does have a Grammy already, for her contributions to the multi-artist collaboration “Same Old Train.”
Randy Travis is a real contender here; five of his previous albums have won Grammys. Two of them (Always & Forever, Old 8×10) won in the Best Male Country Vocal Performance category, back when albums and singles competed with each other in that race. And while this is his first nomination for Best Country Album, he was won Best Southern, Country, or Bluegrass Gospel Album three times, for Glory Train (2007), Worship & Faith (2005) and Rise and Shine (2004.)
While Vince Gill broke the all-female trend in this category last year, he was nominated in an all-male field. If the trend begins again this year, this will be a battle between Loveless and Trisha Yearwood. The latter’s Heaven, Heartache and the Power of Love is arguably the strongest album in this category, and while Yearwood won three Grammys in the nineties, she has never won Best Country Album, despite earning more nominations than any other artist in the history of the category – Heartache is her eighth set to contend for the trophy. She’s beyond overdue, but her competition is formidable.
Dierks Bentley, Long Trip Alone
Vince Gill, These Days
Tim McGraw, Let it Go
Brad Paisley, 5th Gear
George Strait, It Just Comes Natural
With the exception of Shania Twain’s Come On Over, no album that has also been nominated for the general Album of the Year race has failed to win Best Country Album. So it was no surprise when Vince Gill picked up the trophy for his four-disc opus These Days. In his acceptance speech, he good-naturedly ribbed Kanye West, providing one of the evening’s brightest moments.
Dixie Chicks, Taking the Long Way
Alan Jackson, Like Red On a Rose
Little Big Town, The Road to Here
Willie Nelson, You Don’t Know Me: The Songs of Cindy Walker
Josh Turner, Your Man
The Chicks became the first artists in Grammy history to win four genre Best Album awards, breaking their tie with Eminem, who has won three Best Rap Album trophies. This was one of five trophies they took home at the February 2007 ceremony, and the album returned to #1 on the country chart and back to the pop top ten on the strength of those victories.
The following is a guest contribution from Country Universe reader Cory DeStein.
Throughout my life I have attempted to share my taste in music with those around me. More often than not friends and family will show a interest then kindly move onto the next subject. Only one person in my life has shown me that genuine interest in everything I have ever done. I will never know if we really had that much in common, or if she was just that good at making me happy. That’s a secret I never want to know. Though we shared many interests in music, food, television and in life, there was one topic we both we both enjoyed: the music of Trisha Yearwood.
Throughout the years, I had chances to meet Trisha backstage and at a book signing. Each time she kindly agreed to personalize a photo for my grandmother. During a 2006 meet and greet, I told Trisha what a fan my grandmother was of “XXX’s and OOO’s.” Just less than 2 years later, Trisha personalized a cookbook “To Thelma, XXXs and OOOs Love, Trisha Yearwood.” I didn’t think she’d remember that. The woman’s personality is as impressive as her voice.
This past August, my healthy grandmother began to go downhill after complications from minor surgery. I mentioned on Yearwood’s fan site that my absence may be related to that. Sadly my grandmother passed away shortly after that message. It was a sudden and shocking loss that affected me in ways I will never be able to explain. I felt as if I was robbed of any future memories to be made with her, similar to the ones of the past I cherished so much.
A few weeks after her passing, I received a card in the mail. It was a “get well” card from Trisha Yearwood. She had signed “Thelma, Get Well Soon. Best Wishes, Trisha Yearwood” Just when I thought the doors had closed on us, Trisha gave me one last memory to share with my grandma. Country Universe has given me the chance to write my 25 favorite Trisha Yearwood songs, and I would like to dedicate it to all the years we both shared together enjoying the wonderful entertainer and amazing person’s music.
“Georgia Rain” Jasper County, 2005
In 2005, after a 4 year hiatus, Yearwood returned with her version of “Strawberry Wine”….in a truck. She sets the scene perfectly for us. Dark storm clouds looming over the Georgia sky. An old truck parked down on a red dirt road. With lightning illuminating the rusted hood, rain drops begin to penetrate the dried clay. Inside two young lovers embrace in their loss of innocence.
“Dreaming Fields” Heaven, Heartache, and the Power of Love, 2007
I am a city boy; I was raised right outside of Pittsburgh, PA. I can’t exactly understand farming life because I never experienced it. Yearwood narrates this Matraca Berg ballad in a way that places me right on those farmlands, watching modern America taking over the land that families had survived on for generations. Any of us can relate to a song like this, watching the places where we have grown up begin to vanish.
“Down on My Knees” Hearts in Armor, 1992
Linda Ronstadt once sang, “Love Has No Pride.” Yearwood proves her idol right as she contemplates the possibility of her beau ever leaving her. She declares to him, “No one matters more in my life. Oh, makes me feel like you make me feel inside. And I’ve come far enough to know love’s worth never letting go of, and love is not a matter of pride.”
Building a music collection used to be a far more difficult thing, a dogged hunt through record stores and mail order catalogs, hoping to find what you were looking for. The advent of the internet made things easier, but it wasn’t until music could be downloaded digitally that a deep music collection could be built with far less effort.
However, all of this available music can be overwhelming, especially when you’re trying to get a handle on the catalog of an established artist. Country Universe is here to help. Our Buyer’s Guides will walk you through the music that is digitally available for a given artist, starting with the essential purchases for new listeners, and working through the entire digital catalog until even the completist fan will be sated. You can also sample each album in its entirety, and purchase any song or album that you like through Amazon’s MP3 store.
Our first Buyer’s Guide is for our artist of the month, Dolly Parton. Look for many more to come in the new year.
Starting Your Collection
Dolly Parton’s catalog is quite the labyrinth. Thankfully, there are several compilations available that are an excellent value, offering twenty tracks each for less than ten dollars. Casual fans can just pick up the first set, but serious country fans should skip the first and buy the other three.
Ultimate Dolly Parton
This collection is all that the casual fan will ever need, with twenty hits included for just under eight bucks. All of her big crossover hits are here, like “Islands in the Stream”, “9 to 5″ and “Here You Come Again.” Also included are her country classics “Jolene”, “Coat of Many Colors” and the original recording of “I Will Always Love You.” It’s a bit too broad for studious fans of country music, but if you just want the big hits, they’re all here.
The Essential Dolly Parton, Volume Two
RCA has yet to issue a definitive box set for Parton, but their three Essential releases in the nineties are collectively effective in covering her tenure with the label. This is the strongest of the three sets, focusing on her sixties and seventies material. In addition to the big hits, including the original recording of “I Will Always Love You”, you also get lesser-known greats like “Touch Your Woman”, “Mule Skinner Blues” and “The Seeker.” Her transformation from mountain singer to pop sensation is captured here, as the set includes the first wave of her pop hits, too.
The Essential Dolly Parton One: I Will Always Love You
Even though it was released first, this set focuses on the latter years of Parton’s tenure, with nearly all of the cuts being released in the eighties. The rest of the big pop hits are here, like “9 to 5″ and “Islands in the Stream”, along with some forgotten gems, most notably “Single Women”, “God Won’t Get You” and “Tennessee Homesick Blues.” Also of note is her recording of “To Daddy”, which she chose not to release when Emmylou Harris expressed interest in recording it instead.
The Essential Porter Wagoner & Dolly Parton
Although they both are Hall of Famers, you can’t effectively tell the story of either Porter Wagoner or Dolly Parton without discussing their work together. They are the most successful collaborators in country music history, and nearly all of their hits are collected here. Classics like “Making Plans” and “Just Someone I Used To Know” are essential, as are “Burning the Midnight Oil” and “The Last Thing on My Mind.”
Building Your Collection
For all three women involved – Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris – this was a career landmark, which brought them wide critical acclaim and huge commercial success. The harmonies are exquisite throughout, but the best moments are “The Pain of Loving You”, “Wildflowers” and “Telling Me Lies.”
Earlier this month, my friend and colleague Leeann Ward shared her favorite songs by Dolly Parton. I’m happy to now share mine.
My respect for Parton as an artist knows no bounds. I don’t think there is another figure in country music that is visible in so many of the contours of the genre’s history. Given that I have a taste for country, pop, bluegrass, and damn fine songwriting, it was no small feat picking just twenty-five songs. This is just a sampling of her deep catalog, one that is long overdue to be fully reissued. Some of these tracks are hard to find, but most can be downloaded digitally or purchased on CDs, though you may need to scour compilations to find them.
“Those Were the Days” Those Were the Days, 2005
The title track from Parton’s third collection of cover songs is all bittersweet nostalgia, looking back on the dreams of youth that time has revealed to be wide-eyed. “We’re older but no wiser,” she tells her old friend at the tavern, as she remembers how they thought life would really go: “We’d live the life we choose, we’d fight and never lose, those were the days, oh yes, those were the days.”
“Change” Something Special, 1995
How does one retain the last shreds of their dignity and hope for the future after a particularly bruising relationship? Walk away, and promise not to come back until all of the wounds have healed. “Someday when I’m over you, and when I think I’m able to, then I might try to be your friend again. But I don’t want to see your face until then.”
“Here You Come Again” Here You Come Again, 1977
Parton was so concerned about this song being used as evidence that she was leaving country that she made the producers add a steel guitar to the track. Not that it really mattered. A song this catchy was bound to conquer both the pop and country charts. Known up until then for her country work, she proved she could handle a pure pop melody as good as anyone else.
Tonight’s Recommend a Track, “Do I Ever Cross Your Mind?”, has been recorded three times by its songwriter Dolly Parton. First, as a solo tune, it was the B-side to the 1982 version of “I Will Always Love You.” Then in 1990, it was cut as a duet with Randy Travis on his album Heroes and Friends.
Tonight’s recommendation is the third recording of the song, this time with Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris. Finally, the song is recorded in a pure country style, with Harris singing lead. It’s the best showcase for one of Parton’s best lyrics.