Tag Archives: Little Big Town

Single Review: Lady Antebellum, "Downtown"

lady antebellum downtownCredit where credit is due:  After a run of two full albums’ worth of singles that were each exponentially more tepid than the last, Lady Antebellum realized the urgent need for a course correction. “Downtown,” the lead single for the trio’s fourth album, may not be a return to the roots-rock sound of their promising debut, but it’s a definite, deliberate shift in style from the somnolent lite-AC pap that had become their signature. Lady A needed to do something different, and “Downtown” certainly is.

But the simple fact that something is “different” doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily “good” on its own merits. To that end, “Downtown” has a handful of important things working in its favor, but it’s debatable whether or not Lady A have gotten enough right here to overcome some serious flaws.

What’s most effective about “Downtown” is the way Lady Antebellum and co-producer Paul Worley emphasize its rhythm track. The single has an actual pulse in a way that brings the dreariness of “Hello World” and “Just a Kiss” into sharp relief, and the clever use of syncopation gives the chorus a strut and a swagger that are well-matched to the idea of going out to be seen. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to show off a little, a point that the fantastic Telecaster and steel guitar riffs in the song’s instrumental break really drive home. It’s a nifty and thoroughly unexpected flourish that highlights the lack of character in so much of the trio’s recent output and that makes the production on “Downtown” seem all the more purposeful and thoughtful.

It’s a shame, then, that the songwriting isn’t nearly so sharp. Lady A have often struggled to find a consistent artistic voice, so it doesn’t help their cause that the narrator in “Downtown” can’t stick to a coherent POV, reminiscing about never “dress[ing] to impress all the others” and the virtues of a “laid-back style” in the first verse before singing about her “platforms sitting in the corner” and “a dress that’ll show a little”  just a few lines later.

The trio’s dire self-seriousness has also been a problem– has a group of twenty-somethings ever seemed like better potential AARP spokespeople?– so when a night on the town consists of “smok[ing] while we were jaywalking,” it isn’t frivolous or youthful so much as quaint. When the narrator asks, “I don’t know why you don’t take me downtown,” and then sighs, “I just don’t get it,” at the end of the song, she may have already answered her own question several times over. And if there’s supposed to be some sort of double entendre to “going downtown,” it’s even more underwritten than the “motorboatin'” bit from Little Big Town’s “Pontoon.”  At least the single’s vibrant cover art, which

nods toward the B-52s, is kind of fun.

An even greater problem with “Downtown” is Hillary Scott’s lead vocal performance. She isn’t noticeably off-pitch for what seems like the first time in ages, but her attempt at a coy delivery still falls entirely flat. To her credit, it’s a logical choice of interpretation for the song, but her clipped phrasing, constipated timbre, and nasal tone simply cause the execution to fail, so her performance comes across as a protracted whine. For all the grief Taylor Swift rightly gets about her vocal technique, Scott isn’t a bit better of a singer:  A stronger vocalist could have compensated for the flaws in the songwriting on “Downtown,” but Scott just doesn’t have the chops to have done so.

Despite the sloppy songwriting and poor lead vocal, it’s hard to consider “Downtown” as anything less than an encouraging sign for Lady Antebellum, who could very easily have continued to churn out the same lifeless, banal music ad infinitum. Still, that a single this uneven counts as a step in the right direction only shows how far off-the-map they’d gone.

Written by Natalie Hemby, Luke Laird, and Shane McAnally

Grade: C+

Listen: Downtown

13 Comments

Filed under Single Reviews

CU's Top Albums of 2012

As reflected by the title of our web site, our choices for Top 40 Albums of 2012 span the farthest reaches of the country music universe.  In previous years, the Country Universe staff has counted down twenty albums and forty singles, but this year our album picks included such a wide variety that we were able to stretch our Top Albums countdown to a full forty slots.  What did we miss?  That’s where you, our readers, come in.  Please join in the discussion, and share which albums you had in heavy rotation over the past year.

 

#40
The Garden of Love – Songs of William Blake

Martha Redbone Roots Project

Individual rankings:  Sam – #12

The combination of a modern soul singer, an 18th-century Romantic poet and bluegrass music shouldn’t work, at least on paper.  However, when there are talented people like Martha Redbone and John McEuen of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band involved, the results can be fantastic.  Redbone and collaborator Aaron Whitby drew from the works of William Blake and McEuen and a host of talented musicians helped recast the poems as bluegrass songs.  The resulting songs sound more like Harlan County than Blake’s native London, and Redbone’s vocals are gorgeous throughout.  For music lovers, discovering hidden gems like this album is the equivalent of finding a winning lottery ticket on the street. - Sam Gazdziak

Top Tracks:  “I Rose Up at the Dawn of Day,” “The Garden of Love,” “Sleep Sleep Beauty Bright”

#39
Morning Comes
 
Cuff the Duke

Individual rankings:  Sam #11

A 2011 release in Canada, this batch of jangly-rock goodness finally made it over to the U.S. this year.  Cuff the Duke shares some similarities with fellow Canadian alt-country stalwarts Blue Rodeo, so it should come as no surprise that Greg Keelor of Blue Rodeo produced the album.  There are bits and pieces of other bands here and there – harmonies like The Jayhawks, a near-eight minute guitar-heavy epic that could have come from a Sadies album – but singer Wayne Petti and his cohorts combined all the elements into one of the band’s best albums. - Sam Gazdziak

Top Tracks:  “Count on Me,” “Time Is Right,” “Bound to Your Own Vices”

#38
New Wild Everywhere

Great Lake Swimmers

Individual rankings:  Sam – #9

Great Lake Swimmers has evolved from a largely one-man project recording albums in an abandoned grain silo to a full-fledged folk group recording in a studio.  Tony Dekker’s songs have a lovely, ethereal quality to them, and they lose nothing from being backed with a full ensemble of violins, banjos, and the occasional fluegelhorn or accordion.  “Easy Come Easy Go” was the band’s first charting single in its native Canada, but with songs like the sweeping title track, there should be many more to come. - Sam Gazdziak

Top Tracks:  “New Wild Everywhere,” “Think That You Might Be Wrong,” “The Knife”

#37
That’s Just Me
Teea Goans

Individual rankings:  Ben – #8

With a rich, emotive vocal style that echoes Pam Tillis, traditionalist Teea Goans nimbly tackles a collection of killer country tunes from the past and present alike.  She lovingly covers classic hits of yore such as “Misty Blue” and “Nobody Wins” alongside solid originals such as the lively “Pour a Little Love On It” and the luscious Jamie Daley duet “That’s Just Me Loving You.”  Nothing over-the-top – simply a collection of quality material well-written, thoughtfully produced, and sung with flair.  What more could a country music lover ask for? - Ben Foster

Top Tracks:  “Pour a Little Love On It, “Misty Blue,” “That’s Just Me Loving You”

#36
Fear Fun
Father John Misty

Individual rankings:  Jonathan – #7

Singer-songwriter Joshua Tillman’s first solo outing since leaving indie-rock outfit Fleet Foxes and his first album under the moniker of Father John Misty, Fear Fun is a throwback to the late 90s era before “alt-country” turned into Americana.  To that end, the album’s title is misleading:  What makes the album so refreshing is its sense of irreverence – Tillman’s refusal to take himself too seriously. - Jonathan Keefe

Top Tracks:  “I’m Writing a Novel,” “Only Son of the Ladies’ Man,” “Nancy from Now On”

#35
Voice of Ages

The Chieftains

Individual rankings:  Sam – #7

To celebrate the band’s 50th anniversary, The Chieftains team up with notables from the indie/folk/Americana sector, including the Pistol Annies, The Decemberists and The Carolina Chocolate Drops. The result is a bouncy, high-energy set that shows that Paddy Moloney and company have plenty of fuel left in the tank. - Sam Gazdziak

Top Tracks:  “Lily Love” (with The Civil Wars), “School Days Over” (with The Low Anthem), “When the Ship Comes In” (with The Decemberists)

#34
Restless
Sweethearts of the Rodeo

Individual rankings:  Leeann – #7

It’s hard to believe that it’s been sixteen years between albums for Sweethearts of the Rodeo.  Their late 2012 release Restless will go largely unnoticed by commercial standards, but not because it doesn’t deserve high praise and recognition. A mix of a throwback to the country sounds of their heyday, and sounding like an extension of 1996’s Beautiful Lies, Restless manages to feel both nostalgic and refreshing, not to mention that the sister duo sounds as good as ever. - Leeann Ward

Top Tracks: “You Can’t Hold Me Back,” “Restless,” “Hopeless Rose”

#33
Home
Dierks Bentley

Individual rankings:  Leeann – #11;  Sam #20

Amidst the bravado party anthems and the tongue-in-cheek, Dierks Bentley continues to display his penchant for performing heartfelt love songs and thoughtful reflections. His signature ragged voice comfortably wraps around songs like the reflective “Home” and sensitive “Thinking of You” with ease and sensitivity. Likewise, he sounds just as comfortable letting loose on frivolities such as “Diamonds Make Babies” and “Gonna Die Young.” - Leeann Ward

Top Tracks:  “Home,” “When You Gonna Come Around,” “Thinking of You”

#32
Derelict
John Kraus and the Goers

Individual rankings:  Sam – #5

When he’s

not playing guitar and banjo for the excellent Los Angeles-based bluegrass/Celtic/rock band Rose’s Pawn Shop, Capt. John Kraus sails tall ships. When he’s not doing that, he’s combining his passions by recording an album of sea shanties. Half the songs are traditional sailing songs, and half are new, though it’s hard to tell them apart without looking through the liner notes. The old songs have been given fresh, contemporary arrangements, and the new songs are so spot-on that it’s easy to picture sailers from the 1700s or 1800s singing them. - Sam Gazdziak

Top Tracks:  “Cold in the Ocean,” “Bonny Ship the Diamond,” “Siren”

avett brothers carpenter

#31
The Carpenter

The Avett Brothers

Individual rankings:  Sam – #4

The Carpenter is about as close as you can get to mixing the major-label polish found on the Avetts’s 2009 release I and Love and You, and the reckless abandon found on their independent releases. The Carpenter is again produced by Rick Rubin, but Scott Avett’s banjo returns to prominence, and there is another addition to the “Pretty Girl from…” series (Michigan, in this case). Catchy, sweet songs like “Live and Die” should give the Avetts the same kind of mainstream crossover success like rootsy brethren The Lumineers and Mumford & Sons have enjoyed. - Sam Gazdziak

Top Tracks:  “The Once and Future Carpenter,” “Live and Die,” “A Father’s First Spring”

#30
Unfinished Business
Wanda Jackson

Individual rankings:  Ben – #10;  Jonathan – #15

On 2011’s The Party Ain’t Over, Wanda Jackson too often found herself overshadowed by producer Jack White’s impressive, if show-offy, blend of rockabilly and modern blues. Justin Townes Earle, in producing Unfinished Business, wisely keeps the focus on Jackson, whose feistiness and inimitable presence on record are undiminished by her 60-plus years as a recording artist. - Jonathan Keefe

Top Tracks:  “Tore Down,” “Am I Even a Memory,” “California Stars”

#29
Nashville, Volume 1:  Tear the Woodpile Down
Marty Stuart

Individual rankings:  Sam – #6;  Ben – #19

Featuring a raucous roadhouse jam one moment (“Tear the Woodpile Down,” “Truck Driver’s Blue”), and a straight-up steel weeper the next (“A Matter of Time,” “The Lonely Kind”), Nashville, Volume 1 offers an entertaining fusion of country music past and present from one the genre’s most staunch advocates of tradition.  A solid set of songs along with some unexpected collaboration (Hank Williams III, Buck Trent, Lorrie Carter Bennett) ensure that there is never a dull moment.  - Ben Foster

Top Tracks:  “A Matter of Time,” “Truck Driver’s Blues,” “Picture from Life’s Other Side”

#28
Original Soundtrack:  The Hunger Games –  Songs from District 12 and Beyond
Various Artists

Individual rankings:  Dan – #8;  Jonathan – #11

A truly weird effort: bleak, rootsy…and tied to a blockbuster movie based on a Young Adult novel. How do you wind up with that combo? Well, get T-Bone Burnett on the job. In truth, Burnett’s vision captures the tone of Suzanne Collins’s tense, disturbing death-match better than the serviceable film does, with songs that explore the heroine’s psyche in complement to the way Collins’s first-person narrative did. - Dan Milliken

Top Tracks: “Abraham’s Daughter,” “Nothing to Remember,” “Just a Game”

#27
Hello Cruel World
Gretchen Peters

Ben – #5;  Jonathan – #16

Dense, poetic, and uninhibited, modern songwriting legend Gretchen Peters turns her inner emotions outward on this deeply absorbing set, ripe with clever yet accessible metaphors (“St. Francis,” “Paradise Found,” “Natural Disaster”) and intriguing character sketches (“Camille,” “Five Minutes”).  Her songwriting chops are formidable enough, but she also brings the goods as a singer with lived-in performances that are layered, expressive, and authoritative. - Ben Foster

Top Tracks:  “Hello Cruel World,” “St. Francis,” “Five Minutes”

#26
Mindy Smith
Mindy Smith

Leeann – #6;  Dan – #10

Five albums into her career, Mindy Smith revisits the organic feel of her first album, which, thankfully, mostly abandons the pop trappings of her previous project.  This isn’t to say that she has lost any sense of creativity.  In fact, the album hosts a diverse mix of  straight-up country, alt-country, gentle jazz, and soft acoustic songs.  As a result, her stellar self-titled album proves quite worthy of her immense talent.  Three songs are specifically recommended here, but the album as a whole is worth recommendation. - Leeann Ward

Top Tracks:  “Take Me Back,” “Everything Here Will Be Fine,” “Cure for Love”

#25
The Time Jumpers
The Time Jumpers

Individual rankings:  Ben – #2;  Leeann – #17

From the warm familiar tenor of Vince Gill to the whine of veteran Paul Franklin’s steel guitar to the Connie Smith-esque vocals of Dawn Sears, it’s a wonder this eleven-piece traditional country outfit even manages to fit so much talent into one room.  On the band’s first proper studio effort, twangy toe-tappers like “On the Outskirts of Town” and “Texas On a Saturday Night” will make you want to get up and dance, but ballads such as the sorrowful “So Far Apart” and the introspective “Three Sides to Every Story” demonstrate that there’s plenty of substance to go along with all the fun.  Simply delightful. - Ben Foster

Top Tracks:  “Texas On a Saturday Night,” “On the Outskirts of Town,” “Three Sides to Every Story”

#24
And So It Goes
Don Williams

Individual rankings:  Kevin – #10;  Ben – #11;  Dan – #16

Seemingly the very personification of country sincerity, Hall of Fame member Don Williams ably sells material that might scan as maudlin if delivered by a vocalist lacking his restraint and age-earned wisdom.  Williams delivers songs of love and heartache with a recurring theme of optimism on his first studio outing since 2004, with songs like “Better Than Today,” “She’s With Me,” and “Imagine That” seeming like could’ve-been classic hits had they been released a few decades earlier.  A pairing with the exquisite vocals of Alison Krauss on “I Just Come Here for the Music” supplies what is arguably the album’s finest moment. - Ben Foster

Top Tracks:  “She’s With Me,” “I Just Come Here for the Music,” “Imagine That”

#23
Carry Me Back
Old Crow Medicine Show

Individual rankings:  Jonathan – #6;  Dan – #11;  Leeann – #20

A significant rebound from the dreary Tennessee PusherCarry Me Back finds Old Crow Medicine Show delving further into their old-timey stringband persona while still retaining a contemporary, relevant point-of-view. Taking a light-handed but still perceptive approach to matters of war and economic hardship but also cutting loose for a bit of pure escapism every now and then, OCMS prove that they’re not just a band who thought they’d dress like bootleggers and pick up a banjo to mask the fact that they don’t have anything more substantive to say. - Jonathan Keefe

Top Tracks:  “Carry Me Back to Virginia,” “Levi”

#22
Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables
Todd Snider

Individual rankings:  Jonathan – #3;   Dan – #9

It’s his most quintessentially Todd Snider-ish album title yet, and in some ways, it does feel like his signature piece: loopy-sharp commentary on religion and socioeconomic issues, down-on-their-luck protagonists with hearts of gold or darkness or both. It’s impossible to always agree with Snider the man or even Snider the fable-teller, probably; he puts it all out there so brazenly, with such bold detail, that some of it is bound to repel. But as country-folk troubadours go, there’s hardly a finer craftsman. - Dan Milliken

Top Tracks: “New York Banker,” “In Between Jobs,” “Brenda”

#21
I Like to Keep Myself In Pain
Kelly Hogan

Individual rankings:  Jonathan – #2;  Dan – #6

Armed with a voice of extraordinary power and versatility and, perhaps more importantly, with a better ear for quality material than just about anyone recording in any genre, Kelly Hogan is simply one of the finest interpretive singers in contemporary music.  On I Like to Keep Myself in Pain, she tackles heady, complicated songs that hinge on deep emotional conflicts and surprising narrative turns, and she wraps those songs into a take on country music that’s both quirky and genuinely progressive. - Jonathan Keefe

Top Tracks:  “Plant White Roses,” “Haunted,” “I Like to Keep Myself in Pain”

#20
AM Country Heaven
Jason Eady

Individual rankings:  Leeann – #5;  Dan – #12;  Ben – #12

Good, pure country music is not dead! The solid proof is in AM Country Heaven. With fiddle, steel guitar, bass and honky tonk piano aplenty, this album is unadulterated country music that maintains the perfect balance of classic and freshness. Just like any good country album, the songs and melodies are memorable without being covered with a sickening shine, but rather, allowing each song and vocal to stand on its own with the support of tasteful instrumentation that works together to enrich the listening experience. - Leeann Ward

Top Tracks:  “Tomorrow Morning,” “Man on a Mountain” (with Patty Loveless), “Lying to Myself”

#19
Edens Edge
Edens Edge

Individual rankings:  Tara – #6;  Kevin – #9;  Dan – #14

Edens Edge teased us with “Amen” in 2011, an adorably written gem with the kind of spirit that’s been missing from country radio since the 90s.  The trio’s debut album is equally charming, built on strong storylines and engaging performances.  Perhaps most impressively, they understand the power of a full-bodied melody, skillfully using its dips, crescendos, and color to convey a range of emotions. - Tara Seetharam

Top Tracks:  “Amen,” “Feels So Real,” “Swingin’ Door”

#18
Sun Midnight Sun
Sara Watkins

Individual rankings:  Dan – #2;  Jonathan – #17;  Leeann – #18

It’s fitting that the cover features Watkins posed like some kind of dark angel, or maybe an ancient Egyptian goddess, big yellow star-glow encircling her head. After a promising debut, Sun Midnight Sun is her moment of almighty ascension as a solo artist, a helping of fiddly folk-pop that is accessible but smart, cute but cutting, steady but adventurous. She duets with Fiona Apple on “You’re the One I Love”; she covers Willie Nelson on “I’m a Memory”; and on the timeless “Take Up Your Spade,” she suggests she might be able to hang with either as a songwriter. - Dan Milliken

Top Tracks: “When It Pleases You,” “I’m a Memory,” “Take Up Your Spade”

#17
Bear Creek
Brandi Carlile

Individual rankings:  Leeann – #2;  Dan – #3

While Brandi Carlile may not particularly consider herself a country artist, it’s obvious that she can aptly play the part when she has a mind to. Not only did she write “Same Old You,” one of the best and most country songs on Miranda Lambert’s latest album, but Carlile turns in a sturdy album with strong country elements in the heart of its songs. From the first addictive riff of “Hard Way Home” to the straight-up twang of “Keep Your Heart Young” to the final notes of the ethereal “Just Kids” and all points in between, Bear Creek is a powerfully sensational experience. - Leeann Ward

Top Tracks:  “Hard Way Home,” “Keep Your Heart Young,” “Heart’s Content”

#16
Cabin Fever
Corb Lund

Individual rankings:  Sam – #1;  Jonathan – #4

Songs about gravediggers, cowboys, killers, cows and goth chicks? Must be a Corb Lund album. Lund has never been a predictable songwriter, and the songs on his latest album are no exception. “Pour ‘em Kinda Strong” and “Dig Gravedigger Dig” are more outlaw than any wannabe with a ballcap and a wallet chain can hope to sing. “September” and “One Left in the Chamber” display Lund’s chops as a serious songwriter. And for those who favor the bizarre, there’s “The Gothest Girl I Can” and “Cows Around.” They’re all good, and Lund is one of the few who can combine them all into one cohesive, excellent album. - Sam Gazdziak

Top Tracks:  Dig Gravedigger Dig,” “One Left in the Chamber,” “Bible on the Dash” (with Hayes Carll)

#15
Leaving Eden

Carolina Chocolate Drops

Individual rankings:  Sam – #2;  Leeann – #10;  Dan – #15

The Carolina Chocolate Drops are so steeped in tradition that it’s hard to fathom how they can sound so classic and modern all at once.  Listening to them, it’s easy to think that it’s all effortless, but the fact is that they’ve trained extensively and know just what they’re doing as a result.  Leaving Eden is an extension of Genuine Negro Jig inasmuch as it ingeniously incorporates commonly utilized instruments with the not-so-common.  In addition to traditional fiddle, cello, and banjo, you can also hear bones, jugs and quills, along with impressive beat-boxing.  Above the impressive, warm and crisp instruments, however, are the wildly soulful vocals of Rhiannon Giddens, particularly on the a cappella “Pretty Bird” and the slow-burning title track.  Moreover, the Chocolate Drops’ energy and passion for what they’re doing is what we are ultimately hearing in this generous offering of energetic and thoughtful string-band music. - Leeann Ward

Top Tracks:  “West End Blues,” “Leaving Eden,” “Pretty Bird”

#14
For the Good Times
The Little Willies

Individual rankings:  Kevin – #4;  Jonathan – #12;  Leeann – #13;  Ben – #20

By recasting classic country songs into a jazz house style, the Little Willies prove a powerful truth that genre aficionados have known all along.  The songwriters showcased on For the Good Times – Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, Lefty Frizzell, Kris Kristofferson, Loretta Lynn, Ralph Stanley, Scotty Wiseman – are craftsmen and craftswomen that rival and often topple the legendary writers of Tin Pan Alley and the Brill Building. - Kevin John Coyne

Top Tracks:  “Remember Me,” “Permanently Lonely,” “Jolene”

#13
Tornado
Little Big Town

Individual rankings:  Tara – #2;  Jonathan – #5;  Ben – #17

On its fifth album, Little Big Town isn’t interested in making a foot-stamping creative statement.  Instead, the group dives into a diverse but thoughtful stylistic grab bag, from the backwoods swamp of “Front Porch Thing” to the shameless accessibility of “On Fire Tonight” to the celestial lullaby of “Night Owl.”  With its shifting spotlight, Tornado reminds us that all four vocalists are skilled in their own right, but never strays too far from the quartet’s defining harmonies, underscored by the album’s a cappella pockets.  While “Pontoon” may be the album’s claim to fame, its signature is “Sober,” an exquisite, arms-raised surrender that pierces like no other song in Little Big Town’s catalogue. - Tara Seetharam

Top Tracks:  “Sober,” “Front Porch Thing,” “Leavin’ In Your Eyes”

#12
High, Wide & Handsome
The Trishas

Individual rankings:  Dan – #4;  Kevin – #6; Sam – #7

Miss the Dixie Chicks and getting antsy waiting for the next Pistol Annies installment? Wish either of those groups would do some good, old-fashioned heartbreak and settle down with all that pill-takin’ and Lubbock-hatin’? Say howdy to The Trishas. This fresh-faced quartet fills their first LP with tasty neo-trad of all different flavors, from the hooky shuffles of “Mother of Invention” and “Strangers” to the lounge-in-Texas aesthetic of “Cold Blooded Love” and “Rainin’ Inside.” But the common theme is love gone bad, and they do it oh so good. It helps that they’ve got Natalie Hemby, Jason Eady and Turnpike Troubadour Evan Felker writing with them. But the knockout punch is their harmonies, which call to mind what a “Cool Younger Daughters of the Pioneers” group might have sounded like. - Dan Milliken

Top Tracks: “Mother of Invention,” “Little Sweet Cigars,” “Liars & Fools”

#11
Blown Away

Carrie Underwood 

Individual rankings:  Kevin – #1;  Tara – #5;  Ben – #16

The hardest-working woman in country music.  She could’ve coasted on the material of others, but she’s put the work in to develop into a great songwriter in her own right, with a distinctive point of view that is becoming just as essential to her artistry as those powerful pipes that made her a star in the first place.  She’s said that “Blown Away,” one of the few songs she didn’t write, set the tone for the album.  What a blessed discovery that song was then, as it challenged Underwood to be bolder than she ever dared before.  She consistently sings about and writes about strong women who refuse to be defined by their relationships with men and who ultimately triumph over the ones who compromise their physical or emotional well-being.  “Good Girl” might be the most obvious cautionary tale to the young girls that make up a good chunk of her audience, but here’s hoping they also hear her calls to reject the media’s narrow definitions of beauty (“Nobody Ever Told You”) and the judgment-free reminiscence of first-time love on “Do You Think About Me.”  Leave it to Carrie Underwood to kill off two men and still preserve her distinctive position as country music’s best role model. - Kevin John Coyne

Top Tracks:  “Blown Away,” “Do You Think About Me,” “See You Again”

#10
Up All Night
Kip Moore

Individual rankings:  Kevin – #3;  Dan – #5;  Tara – #7

Kip Moore is blatantly derivative, über-conventional, and possibly the best thing to happen to FM country in 2012. (Well, aside from that other K.M. sitting atop our singles list.) How’s that work, now? He makes the old feel new again. The magic is two-pronged: first, an excellent tune-sense that fortifies even staid phrases and ideas with infectious melodic power; and second, a sandy-sweet rasp, effortlessly sexy and tender and…well, those are pretty much his two modes so far. But he makes ‘em work like few singers can, resulting in a set of songs that often sound the same, but all in a rather likable way. More risks in songwriting and production could take him to the next level, but even now, he’s the Springsteen tribute we never knew we wanted. Dan Milliken

Top Tracks: “Beer Money,” “Where You Are Tonight,” “Hey Pretty Girl”

 

#9
Long Ride Home
Darrell Scott

Individual rankings:  Kevin – #2;  Leeann – #7;  Dan – #7

It’s naïve to suggest that there are many quick fixes to the mind-boggling banality of contemporary country music.  But pitching the Darrell Scott songbook around town is one of them.  A great songwriter can elevate an entire genre when given the chance, like Kris Kristofferson did in the late sixties and early seventies, and Matraca Berg did in the mid-nineties.  Scott’s latest set is as strong a collection of songs as I’ve heard in the past few years.  His delivery is rough but authentic. We write so often about the great singers we wish could just record better material.  Imagine Blake Shelton singing, “When first I took the ring off, I was surprised to see another ring just underneath, as white as snow can be.”  Or perhaps Sugarland’s Jennifer Nettles singing, “I am grounded, oh but I have wings to fly.  I don’t use them, I just look up in the sky.”  Or perhaps some unknown, third-string act just waiting for their chance to prove themselves, walking into a studio armed with a set of songs stronger than anything being pushed by the Music Row publishing houses or our generally overrated “singer-songwriters” on the radio.  Fingers crossed. - Kevin John Coyne

Top Tracks:  “Someday,” “Too Close to Comfort,” “No Love In Arkansas (The Ring)”

#8
Uncaged
Zac Brown Band

Individual rankings:  Jonathan – #8;  Tara – #9;  Leeann – #12;  Ben – #15;  Sam – #19

Having secured their spot on the genre’s A-list, Zac Brown Band used their third studio album, Uncaged, as an opportunity to see what they could really get away with.  Even beyond its just spectacular cover art, Uncaged finds the band tackling styles from contemporary bluegrass to Jimmy Buffett-inspired isle rock to campy Quiet Storm soul balladry, all without losing their distinct identity or straying too far from their genuinely good-natured aesthetic.  In the process, they prove that it’s possible to sound authentically “Southern” (if not always “country”) without ever relying on the cheapest, emptiest of signifiers. - Jonathan Keefe

Top Tracks:  “Goodbye in Her Eyes,” “Sweet Annie,” “The Wind”

#7
KIN:  Songs By Mary Karr & Rodney Crowell
Various Artists

Individual rankings:  Leeann – #1;  Ben – #4;  Kevin – #7

As the story goes, Rodney Crowell mentioned poet Mary Karr in his song “Earthbound” on the album Fate’s Right Hand.  After reading her book The Liars’ Club, he had an inkling that Karr might possess the heart of a songwriter – and it turns out that his premonition was right on.  Due to their similar backgrounds, which consisted of hard-scrabble living, they were able to relate in a way that pushed them to create one of the most intriguing albums of the year.  While Karr isn’t a singer, Crowell certainly is.  However, with the exception of four excellent songs on which Crowell sings, they opted to enlist a brilliant cast of known artists to play the roles found within their songs.  Not only do these guest artists play the parts perfectly; in some cases, they even turn in performances that are among their best recordings. - Leeann Ward

Top Tracks:  “Momma’s on a Roll” (Lee Ann Womack), “My Father’s Advice” (Rodney Crowell/Kris Kristofferson), “Just Pleasing You” (Vince Gill)

#6
100 Proof
Kellie Pickler

Individual rankings:  Tara – #4;  Ben – #7;  Leeann – #15;  Jonathan – #18

Gone is the glitzy, polished pop-country princess from the American Idol stage. In her place is a poised, sincere interpretive vocalist with a palpable love for traditional country music, as well as a gifted songwriter with a willingness to get personal.  With “Where’s Tammy Wynette” and “Stop Cheatin’ On Me,” Pickler nods to the classic country passed on to her by her grandparents, while addressing her troubled past with “Mother’s Day” and “The Letter (To Daddy),” and channeling her present-day marital contentment with the title track and the broadly charming “Rockaway (The Rockin’ Chair Song).”  With the artistic leaps evident on this project, Kellie Pickler finally comes into her own as an artistic force, while hinting that the best is yet to come. - Ben Foster

 Top Tracks:  “Where’s Tammy Wynette,” “Long As I Never See You Again,” “Mother’s Day”

#5
Thirty Miles West
Alan Jackson

Individual rankings:  Tara – #4;  Kevin – #5;  Ben – #14;  Leeann – #19;  Jonathan – #19

Thirty Miles West is just another solid Alan Jackson album – and there’s nothing wrong with that.  At 54 years old, Jackson is still the most effortless every-man in country music, able to tap into the foundation of human emotion with breezy precision.  From his astute perspective in “So You Don’t Have To Love Me Anymore” to his delightful open-mindedness in “Her Life’s a Song,” Jackson makes honest, relatable storytelling look easy.  Amidst the shuffle of mainstream country artists struggling to do the same, Jackson, thankfully, remains the trusted friend we can turn to when we need to be understood. – Tara Seetharam

Top Tracks:  “So You Don’t Have to Love Me Anymore,” “Her Life’s a Song,” “You Go Your Way”

#4
Wreck & Ruin
Kasey Chambers & Shane Nicholson

Individual rankings:  Sam – #3;  Leeann – #9;  Ben – #9;  Tara – #10;  Jonathan – #10

Singers/songwriters/spouses Chambers and Nicholson set a pretty high standard for duet albums with 2008’s Rattlin’ Bones, but Wreck & Ruin more than lives up to its predecessor. Backed by fiddles and banjos galore, their voices blend beautifully, from the whimsical “Flat Nail Joe” to the tender “The Quiet Life.” Too many “event duets” (Jason/Kelly, Brad/Carrie) turn into a vocal competition, as the two singers try their best to outshout each other. Wreck & Ruin is a much more low-key affair, but it demonstrates the subtle beauty of a man and woman singing together. - Sam Gazdziak

Top Tracks:  “Adam and Eve,” “The Quiet Life,” “Familiar Strangers”

#3
Calling Me Home
Kathy Mattea

Individual rankings:  Ben – #1;  Leeann – #4;  Kevin – #8;  Tara – #8;  Jonathan – #13

Kathy Mattea may be the one standing behind the microphone, but she allows her home state of West Virginia to be the star of this stellar roots project.  Through deeply heartfelt vocal renderings backed by gorgeous Appalachian instrumentation, Mattea allows us to feel the heartbreak of the bereaved household in “West Virginia Mine Disaster,” as well as the frustration of a rural dweller watching his land overrun by “Black Waters,” even causing us to empathize with entities as simple as a wood thrush and a maple tree.  By turning to her own roots for inspiration, Kathy Mattea creates a career-best album that absolutely soars from beginning to end. - Ben Foster

Top Tracks:  “West Virginia Mine Disaster,” “The Maple’s Lament,” “Black Waters,” “Now Is the Cool of the Day”


#2
Sing the Delta
Iris DeMent

Individual rankings:  Dan – #1;  Jonathan – #1;   Leeann – #3;  Ben – #6

She sings of the vital importance of “telling [her] truth” on a heartfelt tribute to her mother that’s tucked away near the end of Sing the Delta, and Iris DeMent spends the duration of her extraordinary fifth album doing precisely that. She structures her songs like traditional Southern gospel hymns, but DeMent isn’t one to adhere blindly to conventions, as she weaves intimate autobiographical details into songs of profound personal and spiritual questioning and insight. Sing the Delta captures, in DeMent’s wondrously plain-spoken way, how faith and love, whatever their forms, are the most rewarding of struggles. It’s the gospel according to Iris, and it should be shouted from the rooftops. - Jonathan Keefe

Top Tracks:  “Mama Was Always Telling Her Truth,” “The Night I Learned How Not to Pray,” “There’s a Whole Lotta Heaven,” “Out of the Fire”

#1
Living for a Song – A Tribute to Hank Cochran
Jamey Johnson

Individual rankings:  Tara – #1;  Ben – #3;  Leeann – #8;  Jonathan – #9;  Sam – #10

Since he quietly rose to fame in 2008 with “In Color,” Jamey Johnson has played the part of our dependable, unbending 21st-century outlaw – sometimes to a fault.  His brand has often felt airtight, his expressiveness always one step behind his authenticity.  Living for a Song, then, does something momentous:  It deconstructs Johnson’s persona and paints him in a sweeter, more accessible light.

Maybe it’s the late Hank Cochran’s exceptional touch: graceful, disarming and frank all at once.  Maybe it’s the pairing of Johnson with a stellar cross-generational cast of characters, who deliver the 16 songs with zest and reverence.  Or maybe it’s simply Johnson’s surprising versatility, drawn from his genuine, careful appreciation of his former mentor.

Does it matter?  The sum of these parts isn’t just an album that pumps depth into one of our generation’s definitive artists, or that pays tribute to one of our finest composers.  Living for a Song did what we sorely needed something to do in 2012:  It took us back to the basics of country music – simple, straightforward and, at its best, achingly vulnerable. - Tara Seetharam

Top Tracks:  “Make the World Go Away,” “This Ain’t My First Rodeo,” “She’ll Be Back”

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2012 CMA Awards: Staff Picks & Predictions

While the rest of the country fixates on “Nashville,” the 46th annual Country Music Association Awards air live from Music City with equal drama and ridiculousness November 1 at 7 p.m. CST. The CU staff picked and predicted the awards below. Chime in with your thoughts, and check back for our live blog on Thursday night!

Entertainer of the Year 

Should Win:

  • Jason Aldean – Dan, Ben, Kevin
  • Kenny Chesney
  • Brad Paisley
  • Blake Shelton
  • Taylor Swift – Jonathan, Tara, Leeann

Will Win:

  • Jason Aldean – Dan, Ben, Jonathan, Kevin
  • Kenny Chesney
  • Brad Paisley
  • Blake Shelton
  • Taylor Swift – Tara, Leeann

Dan: I’ll probably never be able to fully embrace Aldean, but his impact on the genre remains undeniable, and once in a while he releases something like “Fly Over States” that lends some dimension to his hick-rock formula.

Tara: “Fly Over States” will land on my best-of-2012 list (I’m as surprised as you are), but I just can’t get behind Jason Aldean’s overall brand of country, regardless of his impact. That leaves me with Blake Shelton and Taylor Swift, and only the latter put out music to match her star in the eligibility period. Boring category.

Ben: Sadly, this category just keeps getting harder and harder for me to care about.  I could still see Swift taking it, but an Aldean victory is almost certain to happen sooner or later, and I’m thinking this could be his year.  Blake’s turn will come eventually, but not until after Aldean has had his.

Jonathan: Aldean has yet to release anything I’ve liked even a little bit, but this award has increasingly turned into Nashville’s way to say “thank you” to whoever is bringing the most cash back to Music Row, so Aldean is likely due for a pat on the back. On some level, Shelton’s heightened media presence is its own reward, but he’s the most likely spoiler here, since pop crossover stars like Swift rarely pull off repeat wins.

Kevin: Should win: Carrie Underwood. But since she’s not nominated, I’ll go with Jason Aldean, who has been the biggest country artist this past year. I expect he’ll win, too.

Leeann: While it’s completely baffling to me that Jason Aldean has taken off as he has, I wouldn’t be shocked if he won this award. I, however, feel that it’s far more likely that Taylor Swift will win again.

Female Vocalist of the Year 

Should Win:

  • Kelly Clarkson
  • Miranda Lambert – Leeann
  • Martina McBride
  • Taylor Swift
  • Carrie Underwood – Dan, Ben, Jonathan, Tara, Kevin

Will Win:

  • Kelly Clarkson
  • Miranda Lambert – Dan, Ben, Jonathan, Tara, Kevin
  • Martina McBride
  • Taylor Swift – Leeann
  • Carrie Underwood

Tara: I still believe Underwood’s best is yet to come, but she deserves respect from the industry and critics alike for taking the kind of creative, thematic and interpretive risks she took with Blown Away. Maybe come next year she’ll have more influence; this year, the award is still Lambert’s to lose. (And shout out to homegirl Clarkson, who may have no place in this category, but who gave us the best cover of “Go Rest High On That Mountain” that I’ve ever heard.)

Ben: In my perfect world, Carrie Underwood’s solid new music (which was released within this year’s eligibility period) would nab her the trophy.  Miranda had the most radio success this year, and will almost surely emerge victorious, but I simply can’t endorse the idea of rewarding her for releasing two singles that were easily the worst duds of her career.  Footnote:  Country radio seriously needs to start supporting more female artists.

Jonathan: I adore Kelly Clarkson, and, based upon nearly a decade’s worth of concert performances, I’d argue that she has the best taste in country material of any of the women nominated, and I look forward to the day when she finally records a proper country album. But her nomination here is absurd. Fortunately, she’s not really in the running to win. This likely comes down to Lambert and Underwood. In the past, I’ve championed Lambert for her fearless artistic vision, and I’ve been highly critical of Underwood’s grossly over-praised and over-rewarded output. But, this year, I’d prefer to see Underwood recognized for what is far and away her career-best work than to see Lambert win for what is quite obviously her worst. I doubt the voters will agree.

Dan: Ditto the others, pretty much. Underwood’s taste in material has deepened, but what excites me most is that her interpretive abilities have, too. I never used to feel comfortable with those comparisons to the Trishas and Connies of the world. Now I do.

Kevin: It’s all been said. Underwood’s reached new heights of artistry while still maintaining her commercial relevance. I’d call her one of the best,  but that would imply there’s anyone else in her league right now.

Leeann: Miranda Lambert is still my favorite out of these choices and Kelly Clarkson’s nomination is still confusing to me. I think the award is a toss up between Taylor and Carrie in all actuality though.

Male Vocalist of the Year

Should Win:
  • Jason Aldean
  • Luke Bryan
  • Eric Church – Dan, Ben, Jonathan, Tara, Kevin
  • Blake Shelton – Leeann
  • Keith Urban

Will Win:

  • Jason Aldean
  • Luke Bryan – Dan
  • Eric Church – Kevin
  • Blake Shelton – Ben, Jonathan, Tara, Leeann
  • Keith Urban

Tara: Unlike last year’s crop of men, these five at least put out memorable if not entirely thoughtful material in the eligibility period. But Church is the only one who’s had a consistent vision, and what a difference that makes. I don’t see the voters dethroning Shelton, though.

Ben: I expect that the CMA is going to continue shoving the whole “Blake and Miranda are the new Tim and Faith!” idea down our throats, but Eric Church made the best music of the field by far, and country radio finally decided to get on board with it.  Eric Church deserves this.

Jonathan: Church is the only one of the five who has released any strong material during the eligibility period, though I generally remain a fan of Urban’s. It’s hard to see either of those two men winning, though. Urban’s past his commercial peak, and Church is still too divisive a persona. I also think Aldean’s vocal limitations play against him here – see Chesney, Kenny, and his track record in Male Vocalist races – especially since he’s likely to be recognized elsewhere. That leaves Crest WhiteStrips to take on Shelton. I think Shelton gets another win before Bryan’s inevitable coronation here.

Dan: CMA has developed a bad habit of just voting for the incumbent. But Bryan has the most momentum right now, so what the hey; I’ll mix things up and call it Crest Whitestrips 2012.

Kevin: Gonna go out on a limb and say the best one takes it home this year. They’ve got to be itching to finally acknowledge Eric Church, right? Right???

Leeann: Blake Shelton has had a good year. I suppose he has a good, high profile chance of being rewarded for it.

Vocal Group of the Year 

Should Win:
  • The Band Perry
  • Eli Young Band
  • Lady Antebellum
  • Little Big Town – Kevin
  • Zac Brown Band – Dan, Ben, Jonathan, Tara, Leeann

Will Win:

  • The Band Perry
  • Eli Young Band
  • Lady Antebellum – Dan, Ben, Leeann
  • Little Big Town – Jonathan, Tara, Kevin
  • Zac Brown Band

Dan: Little Big Town’s album is too new, but their sudden momentum could power them to a spoiler win here anyway, depending on who Capitol gets behind. I’ll support them come ACM time; for now, give Zac Brown Band their freakin’ due.

Tara: Zac Brown Band and Little Big Town both put out stellar new music; the only major difference is timing. I support a ZBB win but won’t be disappointed if/when the “Pontoon”-fueled LBT steals this from the most complacent group in country music.

Ben: Zac Brown Band should win.  Lady Antebellum will win. Déjà vu?

Jonathan: As much as logic points to another indefensible win for the most useless act in popular music, and as much as I want to see Zac Brown Band finally earn their long-overdue recognition, I’m calling this one an upset for the also-long-overdue Little Big Town. That karaoke video for “Pontoon” showed off just how deeply likedthey are by their peers, and now that they have the commercial stats, I think that that pervasive goodwill gives them the edge here.

Kevin: I think the red-hot momentum of Little Big Town could put them over the top. Zac Brown Band’s been my pick for a couple of years, but I really think they’re just treading water at this point.

Leeann: Zac Brown Band is far and away my favorite group of the nominees here, but Little Big Town’s talent is undeniable. I’d be happy if either of them won. I’m afraid Lady A will still win though.

Vocal Duo of the Year

Should Win:
  • Big & Rich
  • Love and Theft
  • Sugarland
  • The Civil Wars – Dan, Ben, Jonathan, Tara, Kevin, Leeann
  • Thompson Square

Will Win:

  • Big & Rich
  • Love and Theft
  • Sugarland – Leeann
  • The Civil Wars  – Kevin
  • Thompson Square – Dan, Ben, Jonathan, Tara

Ben: Because The Civil Wars are good.

Jonathan: Per usual: Merge this category with Vocal Group to trim the fat. The only act here deserving of the recognition is the one with the longest of long-shots to win.

Dan: La la la.

Tara: So pointless.

Kevin: I’m going out on another limb, this time by thinking that the whole “massive commercial success without radio” thing will give the Civil Wars a Mavericks-style victory. I’d honestly rather be wrong in my predictions than be depressed before the show even airs.

Leeann: I don’t think Sugarland has had a particularly active year, but I think they might still win based on name recognition.

New Artist of the Year

Should Win:
  • Lee Brice – Ben, Tara, Leeann
  • Brantley Gilbert
  • Hunter Hayes – Dan, Kevin
  • Love and Theft
  • Thompson Square

Will Win:

  • Lee Brice
  • Brantley Gilbert – Dan, Ben, Jonathan
  • Hunter Hayes – Kevin, Leeann, Tara
  • Love and Theft
  • Thompson Square

Dan: Since none of these artists do it for me, I’d shrug it over to the technically skilled Hayes, who I think could be interesting in the future if he challenges himself to become more than a one-man boy-band. As Sawyer Brown and Keith Urban have proven, sometimes an artist earns their win in this category retroactively.

Tara: Hunter Hayes needs to rein it in a bit, but his chops have potential. Lee Brice needs to find better material, but his performances are believable. “Hard To Love” is one of my favorite guilty pleasures of the year, so I guess I’ll go with the latter?

Ben: Lee Brice strikes me as having the most potential of these nominees, but right now, I think the Brantley Gilbert virus has already spread too far.

Jonathan: Absolutely not.

Kevin: Hunter Hayes is the musical equivalent of those memes that show cats doing people things. He’s putting out real country music, and it’s adorable! All joking aside, I’m pulling for real country music wherever I can find it. Hayes is all I’ve got to work with here.

Leeann: I’m really not fond of any of these choices.

Album of the Year
Should Win:
  • Luke Bryan, Tailgates and Tanlines
  • Eric Church, ChiefDan, Ben, Jonathan, Tara, Kevin, Leeann
  • Miranda Lambert, Four the Record
  • Dierks Bentley, Home
  • Lady Antebellum, Own the Night

Will Win:

  • Luke Bryan, Tailgates and Tanlines
  • Eric Church, ChiefDan, Kevin
  • Miranda Lambert, Four the RecordBen, Tara
  • Dierks Bentley, Home
  • Lady Antebellum, Own the NightJonathan, Leeann

Dan: Everyone but Bentley’s got a shot, but my hopeful guess is that this is where the CMA will reward Church.

Tara: Chief and Four the Record both made big impressions on me last year, but only the former has held up with time. I’ll be optimistic and predict the CMA will reward its reigning Female Vocalist of the Year over its reigning Group of the Year. (I still can’t get over Own the Night winning a Grammy, y’all. Unbelievable.)

Ben: Church’s Chief is head-and-shoulders above the rest of the field, but my gut is still predicting a Lambert and Shelton sweep, though there’s still a chance the voters may decide to reward that dreadful Lady A album instead.

Jonathan: Bright side: This is the last major “Album of the Year”-type award Own the Night is eligible to win. Downside: This is the last major “Album of the Year”-type award Own the Night will win, at the expense of far more deserving competition.

Kevin:  I think Chief really made an impression, and I’m betting it was enough of one to win.

Leeann: I  reflexively assume Lady A will win this award at this point, but I’m hoping for a Dierks Bentley or Eric Church win. Dierks Bentley’s album is quality and I feel Eric Church’s album is interesting and fresh.

Song of the Year

Should Win:
  • “Even If It Breaks Your Heart” – Will Hoge and Eric Paslay – Dan, Jonathan, Tara
  • “God Gave Me You” – Dave Barnes
  • “Home” – Dierks Bentley, Dan Wilson and Brett Beavers – Kevin, Leeann
  • “Over You” – Miranda Lambert and Blake Shelton
  • “Springsteen” – Eric Church, Jeff Hyde and Ryan Tyndell – Ben

Will Win:

  • “Even If It Breaks Your Heart” – Will Hoge and Eric Paslay – Dan, Tara
  • “God Gave Me You” – Dave Barnes – Leeann
  • “Home” – Dierks Bentley, Dan Wilson and Brett Beavers
  • “Over You” – Miranda Lambert and Blake Shelton – Ben, Jonathan
  • “Springsteen” – Eric Church, Jeff Hyde and Ryan Tyndell  – Kevin

Dan: I think I’m just being optimistic, but maybe the earnest Hoge/Paslay story of struggling for an artistic life will resonate with enough music-industry vets to overcome the bait-ishness of “Over You” and “Home.” Maybe?

Tara: I’d be fine with three of these five winning — and would even argue that, as a composition, “God Gave Me You” is solid — but “Even If It Breaks Your Heart” has the most soul. I’m not entirely sure where the votes will fall on this one, but maybe pop culture’s spotlight on Nashville will mean a win for the songwriters’ anthem?

Ben: I can’t picture this going to anyone but Lambert and Shelton. If the CMA intends to keep working this ridiculous power-couple nonsense, they have created a golden opportunity here, and I highly doubt the song’s awfulness will be any hindrance.

Jonathan: If knowing a song’s tragic backstory is a requirement for finding “meaning” in that song, then its songwriters have failed.

Kevin: I’m hoping the CMA voters sing Shelton and Lambert’s song back to them when filling out their ballots, and pick the strongest singer-songwriter in this race. Bentley’s cut is my personal favorite.

Leeann: I just have a feeling that the bland love song will win, but I’m hoping that the thoughtful  “Home” will prove me wrong.

Single of the Year 

Should Win:
  • Jason Aldean, “Dirt Road Anthem” – Kevin
  • Blake Shelton, “God Gave Me You”
  • Dierks Bentley, “Home” – Leeann
  • Little Big Town, “Pontoon”
  • Eric Church, “Springsteen” – Dan, Ben, Jonathan, Tara

Will Win:

  • Jason Aldean, “Dirt Road Anthem” – Kevin
  • Blake Shelton, “God Gave Me You” – Ben, Leeann
  • Dierks Bentley, “Home” – Dan, Jonathan, Tara
  • Little Big Town, “Pontoon”
  • Eric Church, “Springsteen”

Dan: Feels like a toss-up, actually. I’d figure “Home” and “Springsteen” to duke it out, but remember that year when “I Saw God Today” randomly won?

Tara: “Home”’s graceful approach to patriotism is lovely and especially appreciated during this infuriating election season, but the song itself lacks spark. “Springsteen” is the better all-around record, and I think it’ll hold up with time, which is a lot more than I can say about the remaining three songs in the category.

Ben: I think “Springsteen” is going to be the song with the most staying power.

Jonathan: As fine a single as “Springsteen” is, I just can’t see the CMA rallying behind a song inspired by the Boss, especially not in an election year. Bentley’s thoughtful and relatively subtle brand of patriotism seems like a far safer bet.

Kevin: I think that Aldean’s track is the coolest sounding record of the five. Surface pleasures will suffice.

Leeann: Please not “Dirt Road Anthem”!

Musical Event of the Year 

Should Win:
  • ”Dixie Highway”- Alan Jackson and Zac Brown Band
  • ”Feel Like a Rock Star” – Kenny Chesney and Tim McGraw
  • ”Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die” – Willie Nelson featuring Snoop Dogg, Kris Kristofferson and Jamey Johnson – Dan, Jonathan, Tara
  • ”Safe and Sound” – Taylor Swift featuring the Civil Wars – Ben, Kevin, Leeann
  • ”Stuck on You” – Lionel Richie and Darius Rucker

Will Win:

  • ”Dixie Highway”- Alan Jackson and Zac Brown Band
  • ”Feel Like a Rock Star” – Kenny Chesney and Tim McGraw – Ben, Jonathan, Leeann
  • ”Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die” – Willie Nelson featuring Snoop Dogg, Kris Kristofferson and Jamey Johnson
  • ”Safe and Sound” – Taylor Swift featuring the Civil Wars – Dan, Kevin, Tara
  • ”Stuck on You” – Lionel Richie and Darius Rucker

Dan: “Roll Me Up” is a little hoot. But “Safe and Sound” had a higher profile, and it gives CMA a chance to be like, “See? We do appreciate the Civil Wars!”

Tara: Every song but “Roll Me Up” feels like it’s lacking something (in Chesney/McGraw’s case, taste), but I think “Safe and Sound” will have enough commercial clout to nab this one.

Ben:  While I’m always happy to see some Alan Jackson love, “Dixie Highway” just doesn’t match the simple charm of Jackson and ZBB’s previous collaboration.  “Safe and Sound” is just such a cool, haunting record – one that brings out the best in both of the acts involved.  But since “Feel Like a Rock Star” has the biggest names attached, I think it’s an easy call that it’s going to win.

Jonathan:“Safe and Sound” is my favorite track here, but not necessarily because it’s a great collaboration. “Roll Me Up,” on the other hand, is a fun standalone cut that feels like a real event, and I appreciate the self-awareness with which the artists toy with their public personas. But it’s hard to imagine more conservative voters being on-board with the phrase, “CMA award winner Snoop Dogg.” The Chesney and McGraw duet quite rightfully bricked at radio, but it’s still the most likely winner here on star power alone.

Kevin: “Safe and Sound” succeeded in pushing the most  mainstream of artists into an alternative country sound without sacrificing the identity of the duo that helped her get there. Plus it actually worked as a theme song to a movie that didn’t exactly lend itself to easy theming.

Leeann: I’d be fine with any of these except for the one that will probably win.

Music Video

of the Year

Should Win:
  • Eric Church, “Springsteen” – Dan, Ben, Tara, Kevin
  • Kenny Chesney, “Come Over”
  • Miranda Lambert, “Over You”
  • Little Big Town, “Pontoon”
  • Toby Keith, “Red Solo Cup”

Will Win:

  • Eric Church, “Springsteen”
  • Kenny Chesney, “Come Over”
  • Miranda Lambert, “Over You” – Dan, Ben, Jonathan, Kevin
  • Little Big Town, “Pontoon”
  • Toby Keith, “Red Solo Cup”

Dan: The “Springsteen” video is pretty neato. Oh well.

Tara: The video for “Springsteen” is haunting. I dig it.

Jonathan: The Twilight-hued video for “Over You” is every bit as narrativeless, cloying, and shallow as the song itself, so I’m just going to pretend this is a retroactive win for “Kerosene.”

Kevin:  (…Goes to YouTube to watch videos for first time…) Lambert, you had me until the horse. I’m going with Church, mostly because it reminds me of my own childhood and also Poltergeist for some reason.

Musician of the Year 

Should Win:
  • Sam Bush – Jonathan, Kevin
  • Paul Franklin – Ben, Leeann
  • Dann Huff
  • Brent Mason
  • Mac McAnally

Will Win:

  • Sam Bush
  • Paul Franklin
  • Dann Huff – Jonathan, Kevin
  • Brent Mason
  • Mac McAnally – Ben, Leeann

Ben: It’s Paul Franklin’s turn… and it has been for years now.

Jonathan: It’s not as cool as Chris Thile’s winning a MacArthur Fellowship, but Sam Bush’s nomination for his extraordinary mandolin work is my favorite thing on the entire CMA ballot this year.

Kevin: I can’t vote against the mandolin. I just can’t.

Leeann: I continue to root for the steel guitar.

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Single Review: Little Big Town, "Tornado"

Even by Little Big Town standards, “Tornado” has a unique and cool sound.  I can only guess that they were especially inspired by the song’s concept.

Too bad that inspiration didn’t produce stronger lyrics.  The concept is interesting, but it’s forced,

with predictable imagery lifted right out of Wizard of Oz.

It doesn’t help matters that “Blown Away” is out at the same time, which took this imagery to far more compelling territory.  It sounds a lot more creative than it really is.

“Tornado” rumbles and grumbles, but it never gets off the ground.

Written by Natalie Hemby and Delta Maid

Grade: B-

 

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2012 CMA Nominations

The list of nominees for the 46th annual Country Music Association Awards has been released.  Eric Church had a big breakthrough this past year, and such is reflected in the nominee list – Church leads the pack with five nominations.  Power couple Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert follow with four each, including a shared Song of the Year nod for their co-write “Over You.”

What’s your take on this year’s field of CMA nominees? Whose nominations were deserved, and whose were not? Who got snubbed? Share your thoughts in the comments section.

The live presentation airs Thursday, November 1 at 8pm Eastern on ABC-TV.  The Country Universe Staff Picks & Predictions will be released the week of the show.  Feel free to join us on show night for some live-blogging fun!

Entertainer of the Year 

  • Jason Aldean
  • Kenny Chesney
  • Brad Paisley
  • Blake Shelton
  • Taylor Swift

Who’s in:  Kenny Chesney
Who’s out:  Keith Urban

No real surprises here.  This year we swapped out Urban for Chesney, but all of these nominees have been here at least once before.

Female Vocalist of the Year

  • Kelly Clarkson
  • Miranda Lambert
  • Martina McBride
  • Taylor Swift
  • Carrie Underwood

Who’s in:  Kelly Clarkson
Who’s out:  Sara Evans

Well, I was hoping for some new blood in this category, and that’s definitely what I got.  Pop crossover star Kelly Clarkson scores her first nomination in the Female Vocalist field, displacing Sara Evans.  There will likely be some amount of upset over Clarkson receiving such an accolade, as she had one #21-peaking country hit in the past year with “Mr. Know It All,” but has yet to release a full-length country album.  And…that makes her one of the top five leading female vocalists in the country format?  Okay…

Male Vocalist of the Year

  • Jason Aldean
  • Luke Bryan
  • Eric Church
  • Blake Shelton
  • Keith Urban

Who’s in:  Luke Bryan, Eric Church
Who’s out:  Kenny Chesney, Brad Paisley

Bryan and Church’s recent career strides are rewarded

with their first nominations in the always-competitive Male Vocalist race.

Vocal Group of the Year

  • The Band Perry
  • Eli Young Band
  • Lady Antebellum
  • Little Big Town
  • Zac Brown Band

Who’s in:  Eli Young Band
Who’s out:  Rascal Flatts (!!!)

Eli Young Band scores a pair of huge radio hits, and thus squeezes out a former staple of the Vocal Group race.

Vocal Duo of the Year

  • Big & Rich
  • Love and Theft
  • Sugarland
  • The Civil Wars
  • Thompson Square

Who’s in:  Big & Rich, Love and Theft
Who’s out:  Montgomery Gentry, Steel Magnolia

New Artist of the Year

  • Lee Brice
  • Brantley Gilbert
  • Hunter Hayes
  • Love and Theft
  • Thompson Square

Who’s in:  Lee Brice, Brantley Gilbert, Hunter Hayes, Love and Theft
Who’s out:  The Band Perry (won), Luke Bryan, Eric Church, Chris Young (So, everyone except Thompson Square)

Album of the Year (Awarded to artist and producer)

  • Luke Bryan, Tailgates and Tanlines
    Produced by Jeff Stevens and Mark Bright
  • Eric Church, Chief
    Produced by Jay Joyce
  • Miranda Lambert, Four the Record
    Produced by Frank Liddell, Chuck Ainlay, and Glenn Worf
  • Dierks Bentley, Home
    Produced by Brett Beavers, Luke Wooten, and Jon Randall Stewart
  • Lady Antebellum, Own the Night
    Produced by Paul Worley and Lady Antebellum

Song of the Year (Awarded to songwriters)

  • Eli Young Band, “Even if It Breaks Your Heart”
    Written by Will Hoge and Eric Paslay
  • Blake Shelton, “God Gave Me You”
    Written by Dave Barnes
  • Dierks Bentley, “Home”
    Written by Dierks Bentley, Dan Wilson and Brett Beavers
  • Miranda Lambert, “Over You”
    Written by Miranda Lambert and Blake Shelton
  • Eric Church, “Springsteen”
    Written by Eric Church, Jeff Hyde and Ryan Tyndell

Single of the Year (Awarded to artist and producer)

  • Jason Aldean, “Dirt Road Anthem”
    Produced by Michael Knox
  • Blake Shelton, “God Gave Me You”
    Produced by Scott Hendricks
  • Dierks Bentley, “Home”
    Produced by Brett Beavers and Luke Wooten
  • Little Big Town, “Pontoon”
    Produced by Jay Joyce
  • Eric Church, “Springsteen”
    Produced by Jay Joyce

Musical Event of the Year

  • Alan Jackson and Zac Brown Band, “Dixie Highway”
  •  Kenny Chesney and Tim McGraw, “Feel Like a Rock Star”
  •  Willie Nelson featuring Snoop Dogg, Kris Kristofferson and Jamey Johnson, “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die”
  •  Taylor Swift featuring the Civil Wars, “Safe and Sound”
  •  Lionel Richie and Darius Rucker, “Stuck on You”

Music Video of the Year (Awarded to artist and director)

  • Eric Church, “Springsteen”
    Directed by Peter Zavadil
  • Kenny Chesney, “Come Over”
    Directed by Shaun Silva
  • Miranda Lambert, “Over You”
    Directed by Trey Fanjoy
  • Little Big Town, “Pontoon”
    Directed by Declan Whitebloom
  • Toby Keith, “Red Solo Cup”
    Directed by Michael Salomon

Musician of the Year

Sam Bush
Paul Franklin
Dann Huff
Brent Mason
Mac McAnally

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Single Review: Her & Kings County, "Family Tree"

I don’t even know where to begin.

Banjos.   Hand claps.   Dogs with fleas. Fergie with a country accent.

It really sounds like something you hear in between real viagra radio stations when signals overlap.   Like Little Big Town is playing at the same time as Ke$ha.

It’s unbelievable.  It’s also unimaginably creative and undeniably entertaining to these weary ears.

I wrote recently that country music has been leaving me numb lately.   This woke me up.

Grade: B+

Listen: Family Tree

 

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Single Review: Little Big Town, "Pontoon"

This new Little Big Town single sounds cool. Surprise? Nah – they always sounded cool with Wayne Kirkpatrick producing, and new helmsman Jay Joyce brings the same quirky groove-sense he's brought to Eric Church's stuff. It's a good sonic match.

The song, though. If you're going to write about an experience as (relatively) esoteric as pontoon-partying, gotta find something in it to appeal to the rest of us. Craig Morgan's “Redneck Yacht Club” had its playful melody and alliterations; “Pontoon”'s lyrics are so dull that, when paired with the weird reverb on Karen Fairchild's vocal, they start to sound like a diary of seasickness. No thanks!

I do kinda like “Mmmm, motorboatin',” though. Ha.

Grade: C+

Listen: Pontoon

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Top 40 Singles of 2011, Part One: #40-#31

For nine decades and counting, country music has been defined by the single, with only the format and definition changing over time.

Today, a single could be any one of the following: a CD sent to radio for airplay; a digital download released in advance of an album; a music video released to online websites and dwindling television outlets; and in a lovely throwback, a seven inch vinyl single sold in the indie record stores that have managed to outlast the chain stores that once threatened their existence.

Seven Country Universe editors and contributors each submitted their twenty favorite singles of the year.  59 different singles made the cut, and over the next four days, we’ll share with you the top forty.   You can listen to a sample from each song by scrolling down to the bottom of the post.

Top 40 Singles of 2011, Part One: #40-#31

#40
The Road
Emmylou Harris

Individual Rankings: #18 – Kevin; #18 – Ben; #20 – Jonathan

A musical expression of gratitude from the incomparable Emmylou Harris to her late musical mentor Gram Parsons. Through her lyric and vocal, Harris conveys a wide array of emotions – obviously sadness, along with nostalgia for times past, wonderment and uncertainty, as well as determination to persevere in spite of heartache, while also highlighting the invaluable role of music in coping with a devastating loss.

Above all else, however, “The Road” is a song of thankfulness for having had such a friend in the first place, even if for only a brief time. – Ben Foster

#39
Shut Up Train
Little Big Town

Individual Rankings: Kevin – #13

Far from the first country song to build a train metaphor around a heartache, this one is distinguished by a strong vocal performance and the creative approach of having the protagonist talk directly to the train. – Kevin John Coyne

#38
Let it Rain
David Nail featuring Sarah Buxton

Individual Rankings: Sam – #15; Dan – #19

Nail’s moody streak continues, this time with a ringing cheater’s lament. He’s so appalled at himself that he calls on the heavens to rain down judgment. But it’s Buxton who strikes the gavel in the end, as her voice shreds with the pain of a woman whose world will never be the same. – Dan Milliken

#37
Ours
Taylor Swift

Individual Rankings: #12 – Sam

The pop-country version of Taylor Swift is a bona fide superstar. However, when she strips down the production and shows off her quieter, folksy side like she does on “Ours,” she really shines. Based on the quality of her past singles “Ours” and “Mine,” she’ll have a real winner if she ever gets around to writing “Yours.” – Sam Gazdziak

#36
Shanghai Cigarettes
Caitlin Rose

Individual Rankings: #12 – Jonathan

It’s often hard to separate Caitlin Rose’s music from her Manic Pixie Dream Girl persona– that she sings like Zooey Deschanel with a far better sense of pitch doesn’t help, either– but “Shanghai Cigarettes” makes it clear that she learned a lot about songcraft from her mother, frequent Taylor Swift collaborator Liz Rose. – Jonathan Keefe

#35
You
Chris Young

Individual Rankings: #11 – Tara

Two parts neo-traditional charm, one part that voice and a dash of breezy sensuality. Goes down smoother than anything since James Otto rode the airwaves. More, please. – Tara Seetharam

#34
Fixin’ to Die
G. Love

Individual Rankings: #14 – Jonathan; #19 – Dan

One of the elements that distinguishes contemporary country from traditional genre forms is a heavy use of percussion, and G. Love ups the ante in that regard on “Fixin’ to Die.” By marrying a straightforward acoustic blues arrangement to a rhythm section lifted almost entirely from J-Kwon’s “Tipsy,” G. Love effectively thumbs his nose at the idea of a rural vs urban divide. – Jonathan Keefe

#33
Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise
The Avett Brothers

Individual Rankings: #10 – Sam

The Avetts’ I and Love and You was one of the best albums of 2010, and this song was one of its highlights. For a band that can deliver some raucus punk-bluegrass tunes, they can also put together hauntingly pretty songs too.- Sam Gazdziak

#32
Barefoot Blue Jean Night
Jake Owen

Individual Rankings: #7 – Dan

Contrived, utopian visions of Southern partying are practically an entire country sub-genre now. “Barefoot” checks all the formulaic boxes, but for once the formula’s impossible details (“the girls are always hot and the beer is ice cold!”) are matched to an equally dreamlike, shimmering production, exposing what a fantasy the whole thing is. You can’t buy the premise, but you grant the underlying escapism.- Dan Milliken

#31
Down by the Water
The Decemberists

Individual Rankings: #11 – Sam; #17 – Leeann

As has been noted, “Down by the Water” seems influenced by an R.E.M. sound. However, the brightly placed harmonica and accordion, along with aggressive background vocals by Gillian Welch, make the melodic composition a memorable song on its own merits. – Leeann Ward

Next:  Top 40 Singles of 2011, Part Two: #30-#21

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2011 CMA Awards: Staff Picks and Predictions

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!

Entertainer of the Year

Should Win:

  • Jason Aldean – Kevin
  • Brad Paisley
  • Blake Shelton
  • Taylor Swift - Dan, Ben, Leeann, Jonathan, Tara
  • Keith Urban

Will Win:

  • Jason Aldean
  • Brad Paisley
  • Blake Shelton - Dan, Leeann, Jonathan
  • Taylor Swift – Ben, Kevin, Tara
  • Keith Urban

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.

Male Vocalist of the Year

Should Win:

  • Jason Aldean - Dan, Ben
  • Kenny Chesney
  • Brad Paisley
  • Blake Shelton
  • Keith Urban - Leeann, Jonathan, Kevin, Tara

Will Win:

  • Jason Aldean – Dan, Ben
  • Kenny Chesney
  • Brad Paisley
  • Blake Shelton - Leeann, Jonathan, Kevin, Tara
  • Keith Urban

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.

Female Vocalist of the Year

Should Win:

  • Sara Evans – Kevin
  • Miranda Lambert
  • Martina McBride
  • Taylor Swift – Dan, Ben, Leeann, Jonathan
  • Carrie Underwood – Tara

Will Win:

  • Sara Evans
  • Miranda Lambert – Dan, Leeann, Jonathan, Kevin, Tara
  • Martina McBride
  • Taylor Swift - Ben
  • Carrie Underwood

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.

Vocal Duo of the Year

Should Win:

  • The Civil Wars – Dan, Ben, Leeann, Jonathan, Kevin, Tara
  • Montgomery Gentry
  • Steel Magnolia
  • Sugarland
  • Thompson Square

Will Win:

  • The Civil Wars
  • Montgomery Gentry
  • Steel Magnolia
  • Sugarland - Dan, Ben, Leeann, Jonathan, Kevin, Tara
  • Thompson Square

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?

Vocal Group of the Year

Should Win:

  • The Band Perry
  • Lady Antebellum
  • Little Big Town
  • Rascal Flatts
  • Zac Brown Band – Dan, Ben, Leeann, Jonathan, Kevin, Tara

Will Win:

  • The Band Perry
  • Lady Antebellum – Tara
  • Little Big Town
  • Rascal Flatts
  • Zac Brown Band - Dan, Ben, Leeann, Jonathan, Kevin

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.

New Artist of the Year

Should Win:

  • The Band Perry - Ben
  • Luke Bryan
  • Eric Church - Leeann, Jonathan
  • Thompson Square
  • Chris Young – Dan, Kevin, Tara

Will Win:

  • The Band Perry – Ben, Jonathan, Tara
  • Luke Bryan
  • Eric Church – Dan, Leeann, Kevin
  • Thompson Square
  • Chris Young

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.

Album of the Year

Should Win:

  • Blake Shelton, All About Tonight
  • Jason Aldean, My Kinda Party
  • Taylor Swift, Speak Now - Ben, Kevin
  • Brad Paisley, This Is Country Music
  • Zac Brown Band, You Get What You Give - Dan, Leeann, Jonathan, Tara

Will Win:

  • Blake Shelton, All About Tonight
  • Jason Aldean, My Kinda Party – Dan, Leeann, Jonathan, Tara
  • Taylor Swift, Speak Now – Ben, Kevin
  • Brad Paisley, This Is Country Music
  • Zac Brown Band, You Get What You Give

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.

Single of the Year

Should Win:

  • Sara Evans, “A Little Bit Stronger”
  • Zac Brown Band, “Colder Weather”- Leeann, Tara
  • Jason Aldean with Kelly Clarkson, “Don’t You Wanna Stay”
  • Blake Shelton, “Honey Bee”
  • The Band Perry, “If I Die Young” – Dan, Ben, Jonathan, Kevin

Will Win:

  • Sara Evans, “A Little Bit Stronger”
  • Zac Brown Band, “Colder Weather”
  • Jason Aldean with Kelly Clarkson, “Don’t You Wanna Stay” - Jonathan, Tara
  • Blake Shelton, “Honey Bee” – Kevin
  • The Band Perry, “If I Die Young” - Dan, Ben, Leeann

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?)

Song of the Year

Should Win:

  • “Colder Weather” – Zac Brown, Wyatt Durrette, Levi Lowrey & Coy Bowles
  • “Dirt Road Anthem” – Brantley Gilbert & Colt Ford
  • “If I Die Young” – Kimberly Perry – Dan, Tara
  • “Mean” – Taylor Swift - Jonathan, Kevin
  • “You and Tequila” – Matraca Berg & Deana Carter - Ben, Leeann

Will Win:

  • “Colder Weather” – Zac Brown, Wyatt Durrette, Levi Lowrey & Coy Bowles
  • “Dirt Road Anthem” – Brantley Gilbert & Colt Ford
  • “If I Die Young” – Kimberly Perry – Dan, Ben, Jonathan, Tara
  • “Mean” – Taylor Swift - Kevin
  • “You and Tequila” – Matraca Berg & Deana Carter – Leann

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.

Tara: I’m with Jonathan and Leann re: “Mean” in that I agree its melody and overall construction are terrific; unfortunately its flaw –the bridge, which undermines the premise of the song– is too big for me to overlook. And as much as I love it, I don’t feel right backing “Colder Weather,” either, as it’s really Brown’s vocal performance that elevates the composition to a memorable song. So I’ll go with the quirky and unique “If I Die Young” and guess the voters will, too.

Musical Event of the Year

Should Win:

  • “As She’s Walking Away” – Zac Brown Band featuring Alan Jackson – Dan, Ben, Leeann, Jonathan, Kevin, Tara
  • “Coal Miner’s Daughter” – Loretta Lynn, Sheryl Crow & Miranda Lambert
  • “Don’t You Wanna Stay” – Jason Aldean with Kelly Clarkson
  • “Old Alabama” – Brad Paisley with Alabama
  • “You and Tequila” – Kenny Chesney featuring Grace Potter

Will Win:

  • “As She’s Walking Away” – Zac Brown Band featuring Alan Jackson – Kevin, Tara
  • “Coal Miner’s Daughter” – Loretta Lynn, Sheryl Crow & Miranda Lambert
  • “Don’t You Wanna Stay” – Jason Aldean with Kelly Clarkson – Dan, Ben, Leeann, Jonathan
  • “Old Alabama” – Brad Paisley with Alabama
  • “You and Tequila” – Kenny Chesney featuring Grace Potter

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.

Tara: No question here, “As She’s Walking Away” is head and shoulders above the rest of the collaborations in this category, one of the most quietly charming singles we’ve heard on country radio in quite some time. I’ll go out on a limb and predict that voters will have trouble ignoring the warm fuzzies they get when Jackson starts singing.

Music Video of the Year

Should Win:

  • Blake Shelton, “Honey Bee”
  • The Band Perry, “If I Die Young” – Dan
  • Taylor Swift, “Mean” – Ben, Kevin, Tara
  • Brad Paisley featuring Alabama, “Old Alabama”
  • Kenny Chesney featuring Grace Potter, “You and Tequila”

Will Win:

  • Blake Shelton, “Honey Bee” - Ben
  • The Band Perry, “If I Die Young”
  • Taylor Swift, “Mean”
  • Brad Paisley featuring Alabama, “Old Alabama” - Dan, Jonathan, Kevin, Tara
  • Kenny Chesney featuring Grace Potter, “You and Tequila”

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.

Tara: I love the whimsical video for “Mean” but think (and actually kind of hope) the voters will use this category to award the show co-host and his buddies.

Musician of the Year

Should Win:

  • Paul Franklin (steel guitar) - Dan, Ben, Leeann, Jonathan, Kevin, Tara
  • Dann Huff (guitar)
  • Brent Mason (guitar)
  • Mac McAnally (guitar)
  • Randy Scruggs (guitar)

Will Win:

  • Paul Franklin (steel guitar) - Leeann, Jonathan
  • Dann Huff (guitar)
  • Brent Mason (guitar)
  • Mac McAnally (guitar) – Dan, Ben, Kevin, Tara
  • Randy Scruggs (guitar)

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.


28 Comments

Filed under CMA Awards

Unanswered Prayer

Dear Sugarland and Little Big Town,

Please stop covering “Like a Prayer.”

Sincerely,
Country Universe

CC: Tori Amos, Rufio, and the Cast of Glee.

16 Comments

Filed under Dear Country Music, Miscellaneous Musings