After having first formed in 2003, The Little Willies released their self-titled debut album in 2006, four years after pianist and vocalist Norah Jones had found success with her jazz and pop flavored solo album Come Away With Me.
Six years later, a second Little Willies album finally comes to light, following in the tradition of the first by featuring covers of country classics. For the Good Times finds The Little Willies covering classics songs by some of country music’s most revered (and most covered) artists, including nods to Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell, Loretta Lynn, and Dolly Parton, among others.
The heart and soul of the project, however, is The Little Willies themselves. Much like the band’s previous effort, For the Good Times is unmistakably a group effort. Norah Jones and Richard Julien share lead vocal duties, while generous instrumental breaks give all five members – rounded out by Jim Campilongo on guitar, Lee Alexander on bass, and Dan Rieser on drums – ample room to shine.
If there is a noteworthy complaint to be leveled against the album, it is that its approach to selecting cover material is mostly by the book, in that it often leans on predictable choices that have been covered endlessly. In particular, Parton’s “Jolene” is one of the most covered songs by an artist whose catalog is ripe with hidden treasures waiting to be discovered, which is not to say that Jones does not sing it beautifully. Fortunately, the Willies have a strong knack for re-interpreting cover material in a way that feels respectful and reverent, but not overly so, and not to the point of becoming half-hearted re-creations of the originals. Thanks to creative, organic arrangements, they repeatedly clear the lofty bar of taking a well-known song, and making it seem new again.
One of the album’s best tracks is the surprisingly good cover of Loretta Lynn’s “Fist City.” Fact: Loretta Lynn is a hard one to cover. Her distinct persona and vocal style are so familiar that many artists have fallen into the trap of misguided mimicry – Just ask Sheryl Crow. But as it turns out, Jones acquits herself nicely by giving a performance that is true to her own vocal style, but that still conveys the sharp sass that the tell-it-like-it-is lyric calls for – She has never sounded feistier. Likewise, the band reworks the song into a two-stepping arrangement that serves it well, while still retaining its signature instrumental hook.
Elsewhere, there’s hardly a dull spot to be found on the record. Jones’ spirited performance of Lefty Frizzell’s “If You’ve Got the Money, I’ve Got the Time” is unshakably joyful, as is Julien’s take on Cash’s “Wide Open Road.” On a much different note, Jones’ and Julien’s half-singing, half-whispering performance of “Foul Owl On the Prowl” makes for a deliciously haunting mood-breaker. A slowed-down rendering of Hank Williams’ “Lovesick Blues,” as well as a hushed performance of the Kristofferson-penned Ray Price hit that serves as the title track, demonstrate the band’s wise focus on putting the songs themselves above all else. No matter which creative direction the band goes in with the songs they cover, their treatments never come across as gaudy or misguided, nor do they place the singer ahead of the song, but they consistently retain the emotional aspects of the originals.
The instrumental “Tommy Rockwood,” written by Campilongo, is a welcome addition, demonstrating that the The Little Willies are just as competent when cutting loose on an original song as when delivering a well-thought-out cover. Ultimately, it’s the band’s palpable, infectious enthusiasm for these tunes that makes the record tick. Despite some missed opportunities with regard to song selection, there is still no denying that what’s here is consistently well-executed, such that any lover of traditional country music will find Good Times to be a highly enjoyable listen.
If history had played out the way Woodrow Wilson planned, we’d be celebrating the 92nd Armistice Day today. When first proclaimed a national holiday, Wilson declared the following:
To us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nations.
If the Great War had been the last war, we wouldn’t be celebrating what is now known as Veterans Day. We also wouldn’t have an incredible legacy of songs about soldiers in the annals of country music.
Here are five classics that celebrate those who have served our country and the ones who love them, along with one tale that has a returned soldier that’s not being loved quite enough.
“Dear Uncle Sam” by Loretta Lynn
from the 1966 album I Like ‘Em Country
Lynn was on the cusp of superstardom when she released this top five hit. Penning a letter to Uncle Sam, she pleads for the safe return of her husband. She sings, “I really love my country, but I also love my man.” His return is not to be, as the song closes with a heart-wrenching recitation of the telegram informing her that he won’t be coming home.
“Galveston” by Glen Campbell
from the 1969 album Galveston
Campbell’s finest performance is a homesick ode for the lady and hometown that he left behind. The sweeping strings and stirring vocal evoke the waves of heartache that are crashing up against his heart, much like the waters of Galveston Bay crash along the shores he once walked with her.
“Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town” by Kenny Rogers and The First Edition
from the 1969 album Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town
Mel Tillis penned this massive hit for Rogers and his band, originally recorded by country artist Johnny Darrell, who took it into the top ten in 1967. The narrator lays in bed, paralyzed from his stint in “that crazy Asian war.” He is helpless as Ruby gives in to desire and heads into town looking for the love he can no longer provide, and he’s left there wishing she’d only wait until he died for her to step out on him.
“Soldier’s Last Letter” by Merle Haggard
from the 1971 album Hag
The spiritual predecessor of Tim McGraw’s “If You’re Reading This.” Mama sits at home, reading a letter from her son overseas. He’s writing from a trenchmouth, hoping his mother won’t scold him for his sloppy handwriting the way she did when he was a kid, tracking mud into the house because he didn’t wipe his feet. He promises to finish the letter when he returns from his next battle, but the letter that arrives back home is incomplete.
“Travelin’ Soldier” by Dixie Chicks
from the 2002 album Home
The modern benchmark for soldier songs. Bruce Robison’s original versions are both worth seeking out, and can be found on his self-titled 1996 album and his 1999 set, Long Way Home from Anywhere. But the acoustic instrumentation that surrounds Natalie Maines’ plaintive delivery makes the Dixie Chicks version the definitive one.
“Welcome Home” by Dolly Parton
from the 2003 album For God and Country
In a brilliant feat of songwriting, Parton weaves together four stories: a soldier returning home, a soldier dying overseas, Christ’s death and resurrection, and Parton’s own hope and longing for eternal salvation.
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
Jason Aldean – Kevin
Taylor Swift - Dan, Ben, Leeann, Jonathan, Tara
Blake Shelton - Dan, Leeann, Jonathan
Taylor Swift – Ben, Kevin, Tara
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
Jason Aldean - Dan, Ben
Keith Urban - Leeann, Jonathan, Kevin, Tara
Jason Aldean – Dan, Ben
Blake Shelton - Leeann, Jonathan, Kevin, Tara
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
Sara Evans – Kevin
Taylor Swift – Dan, Ben, Leeann, Jonathan
Carrie Underwood – Tara
Miranda Lambert – Dan, Leeann, Jonathan, Kevin, Tara
Taylor Swift - Ben
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
The Civil Wars – Dan, Ben, Leeann, Jonathan, Kevin, Tara
The Civil Wars
Sugarland - Dan, Ben, Leeann, Jonathan, Kevin, Tara
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
The Band Perry
Little Big Town
Zac Brown Band – Dan, Ben, Leeann, Jonathan, Kevin, Tara
The Band Perry
Lady Antebellum – Tara
Little Big Town
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
The Band Perry - Ben
Eric Church - Leeann, Jonathan
Chris Young – Dan, Kevin, Tara
The Band Perry – Ben, Jonathan, Tara
Eric Church – Dan, Leeann, Kevin
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
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
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
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
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?)
“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
“As She’s Walking Away” – Zac Brown Band featuring Alan Jackson – Dan, Ben, Leeann, Jonathan, Kevin, Tara
“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
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”
By now, “Any Man of Mine” has become such a familiar Shania classic that it’s easy to take for granted what a bold artistic move it was at the time.
Though feminist viewpoints previously had surfaced in country music at times through the likes of Loretta Lynn and Kitty Wells, they were the exception rather than the rule in 1995. In the early to mid-nineties, it was more common for female artists like Reba to be topping the charts with sad songs that often cast the woman as the victim.
Then here comes Shania with a rousing, fiddle-burning, boot-stomper in which she firmly proclaims that a man should strive to be worthy of his woman’s affections, and that a woman accepts nothing less. Her point was delivered through clever, witty lyrics that ranged from “Any man of mine’ll say ‘It fits just right’ when last year’s dress is just a little too tight” to “When I’m cookin’ dinner and I burn it black, he better say ‘Mmm, I like it like that.’”
Releasing a song like “Any Man of Mine” had to take some guts. Shania had already seen her first album flop, and had just previously scored her first significant hit with “Whose Bed Have Your Boots Been Under.” One could easily understand if she wanted to keep up her newfound momentum, and groom her relationship with country radio by releasing some safe, middle-of-the-road bit of nineties schmaltz.
But she didn’t. She stayed true to herself, and made a genuine artistic statement of her own. And what do you know? It worked! With “Any Man of Mine,” Shania kicked, turned, and stomp-stomped all the way to the top of the charts, with “Any Man of Mine” becoming her first U.S. number-one hit. Since then, the tune has deservedly gone on to become one of Shania’s most enduring, best-loved hits.
It’s just so unmistakably Shania. No wonder this song is so fondly remembered by her fans.
Written by Robert John “Mutt” Lange and Shania Twain
A frighteningly candid depiction of Parton’s impoverished childhood.
Going to bed hungry. Watching her mother suffer with illness because they can’t afford a doctor. Working from sunrise to sunset, only to see a hail storm destroy your crops.
This isn’t the charming idealization of “Coal Miner’s Daughter”, or even the dogged resilience of “Coat of Many Colors.” This is poor people trying to get by against insurmountable odds, walking the tight rope without a safety net.
It’s the same story that could be told by any one of the 44 million Americans today who live below the poverty line.
There will be a lucky few who beat the odds like Parton did, and her words will surely ring true: “No amount of money could buy from me the memories that I have of then. No amount of money could pay me to go back and live through it again.”
Here for the Party came out when I was fourteen and just getting really into country music, and it was so much fresher than most of the mainstream stuff at the time that it instantly became one of my favorite albums. “Homewrecker” wasn’t my favorite on the set (that was “Chariot,” which still sounds cool), but I did find it amazingly clever and funny in a way I couldn’t once I had gotten properly acquainted with Loretta Lynn.
I thought this was the greatest song ever in elementary school, and I think I may have even concocted a dance to it with my childhood best friend. At that time, its vague, grandiose proclamations didn’t really phase me; now they leave me a little cold, though I suppose I’ll always enjoy it on some level.
In the last couple weeks, I’ve actually been weeding out songs from my iTunes, which has turned out to be over 10 gigs of music that I’ve decided I don’t feel I need to listen to anymore. It’s been surprising how many songs I’ve decided I’m totally over—whether it was due to over saturation (my fault since I don’t listen to radio) or change in taste over time. I used to absolutely adore “Check Yes or No”, but now it feels like a song that I’d obliterate if I was to review it. I remember thinking it was a cute story, but now I think it’s schmaltzy and predictable. My poor cynical heart.
It’s hard to believe that there once was a time that country artists put out two full-length albums a year. If they were part of a regular superstar duet team, like Conway Twitty & Loretta Lynn or Porter Wagoner & Dolly Parton, a fan might hear as many as four new studio albums from their favorite artist.
By the time that I got into country music – twenty years ago, natch – things had slowed down a bit. Artists usually released a new album every 12-18 months. Sometimes they’d push it to two years, but not often.
Those were the days. Waits between album releases have gotten crazy lately. I’m all for taking the time to get it right, but once we push past the half-decade mark, things have gone too far. Sure, we’re given side projects to carry us over, but there’s no substitute for a full-length studio album of all-new material.
Here are five artists who I’d really love to see make a long-awaited return with a new album in 2011, along with a brief rundown of the side projects that they’ve been busy with while we’ve waited for that new album:
Last Studio Album: Up! (2002)
Side Projects: Greatest Hits (2005), featuring four new tracks; contributions to a Dolly Parton tribute album, a live Willie Nelson album, an Anne Murray duet album, and the Desperate Housewives soundtrack.
It’s been over eight years since Twain released that 19-track opus. It was cool that she released the album in three different mixes, essentially giving us 57 new mp3s for the iPods we didn’t even have yet. Of all the superstar acts, she’s the one who has been away the longest.
Last Studio Album: What the World Needs (2003)
Side Projects: Live album, Christmas album, covers album, Cracker Barrel album…
In a sense, she’s never really gone away. But despite being a fixture in the media and releasing so many other-type albums, we haven’t gotten a real studio set from Wynonna in over seven years. Given that the last one was among the finest in her career, it’s a shame she has yet to craft another mainstream country album.
Last Studio Album: Blame the Vain (2005)
Side Projects: A Buck Owens tribute album in 2007, Dwight Sings Buck.
The most distressing absence on the list, mostly because he’s been so prolific in the past. Movie appearances are keeping him busy. Here’s hoping that when he does return, we get more than ten songs.
Last Studio Album: Taking the Long Way (2006)
Side Projects: “The Neighbor”, from the Shut Up & Sing documentary; contributions to a Tony Bennett duet project; Emily and Martie’s Court Yard Hounds set; Natalie’s duet with Neil Diamond.
It’s hard to follow up an album that wins a bunch of Grammys, but it’s not like they haven’t done so before. If they’re insisting on writing all of the next album, it could be gestating for a very long time. Can’t we get a Patty Griffin or Darrell Scott covers album to hold us over?
Last Studio Album: These Days (2006)
Side Projects: A mother lode of duet and harmony appearances on other artist’s albums (Reba McEntire, Charlie Daniels, Amy Grant, Clay Aiken…)
Gill’s last album was a four discs worth of new material, so it’s understandable that it would take a couple of years for him to craft a new one. But we’re going on five now. Since Gill was able to create those four discs a mere three years after his previous studio set (2003′s Next Big Thing), we should be due for a new album soon.
Earlier this year, a discussion with a colleague of mine revealed a mutual affinity for country music. It was a typical conversation that I have with fans that are around my age. We fell in love with the music about twenty years ago, don’t think it’s quite as good as it once was, but can find a lot of things to like from just about any era, including the current one.
So in the 2010 version of making a mix tape, I offered to load up her iPod with a whole bunch of country music. A week later, she took me to dinner as a thank you. We started talking about the music that I’d passed on to her, and she told me that she was listening to the iPod while mowing the lawn. Suddenly, a song came on that made her cry. Full-out cry, mind you, not just a tear or two.
So I ask if it was “Love, Me”, or maybe “Where’ve You Been”, or something similarly tragic. She was almost embarrassed as she told me that it was the old Anne Murray hit, “You Needed Me.”
Now, there are a few possible reactions to this. I suspect for many or even most, it will be either befuddlement or outright derision. But me? I totally understood why that song would have such a strong impact, and I can best describe it in one word: Sincerity.
It’s the bane of the cynic’s existence, and of many critics as well. You don’t see Anne Murray pop up on too many lists when discussing the greatest country artists of all time, or even the greatest pop-country singers of all time, even though she’s definitely both. Ditto for Kenny Rogers and my once future wife Olivia Newton-John, who also fit well into both categories.
But there are some artists who exude sincerity and still are treated with reverence, like Loretta Lynn and Alan Jackson. What makes them different? I think it’s the added perception of authenticity that differentiates them from the artists above.
Take Dolly Parton as a case study. Rare is the critic or country music historian who doesn’t speak highly of both her pre-1976 and post-1999 output, where her music was firmly grounded in her mountain roots. But her pop era – roughly 1977-1986 – is widely maligned. The sincerity is there all the way throughout her career, whether it’s delivering the brilliant working class social commentary present in both “In the Good Old Days” and “9 to 5″, or when she’s just being hopelessly maudlin, be it with “Daddy Come and Get Me” or “Me and Little Andy.”
I think that she gets less credit for that period because there’s a sense that she’s being something that she’s not, that the authenticity is lacking. When you think someone is being inauthentic in their sincerity, it’s hard for some to embrace them. I think that I’m in the minority in that I don’t care much if someone is authentic, so long as they’re sincere.
Where things fall apart for me are when I perceive authenticity without being able to sense the sincerity in the performances. This is my major issue with many of the more traditional artists today. I think Jamey Johnson, Gretchen Wilson, and Brad Paisley are completely authentic in their music. They are who they say they are, and such. But I have trouble getting into them because they don’t come off as genuinely sincere.
It’s hard to articulate this, but to use Paisley as an example, he often sounds to my ears like he’s emotionally divorced from what he’s singing. The brain is plugged in, but I don’t feel the heart. I loved, loved, loved “Letter to Me” because his voice cracked with emotion. I felt the sincerity that I don’t feel when I hear “Anything Like Me” or “Little Moments.”
Meanwhile, Carrie Underwood can rarely do wrong with me because she drips with sincerity, something that was prevalent even during her embryonic Idol days, but has really come into play with her writing so much of her material. “Change” is my favorite song she’s done so far, not just because I fully agree with the message, but that she sings it with such sincerity. Does she live out the message in her own life? I have no idea. But her performance is so powerful to my ears that it being her authentic life story is as irrelevant to me as the fact that Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon aren’t really a death row convict and a Catholic nun, respectively.
Sincerity over authenticity, if I have to choose. Both are great to have, but the former is more essential than the latter in the music that I love the most. It may be a meaningless distinction in the end, but it’s the only explanation I can come up with for me usually liking songs much better by great singers than by the original songwriters, and for Laura Bell Bundy getting so much more play on my iPod than Taylor Swift, the most genuinely authentic teen star ever. Or at least since Lesley Gore.
With that all said, how about we listen to some Anne Murray? She’s awesome.
Karmic retribution for every boring vocabulary lesson I ever bored my students with during my years as an English teacher.
I’d call this Jo Dee Messina’s B-material, but I’m pretty sure she’d have passed on this one, even though she’d sing it a lot better. I get that Ashton Shepherd is bringing country back to country, but a dull vocal isn’t improved by exaggerated twang. It just sounds forced.
The lyrical content suggests that Shepherd is aspiring to be a modern day Loretta Lynn. But the problem that surfaces with “Look it Up” is the same one that plagued most of Gretchen Wilson’s similar attempts and just about all of the recent Lynn tribute album. Shepherd apes Lynn’s attitude without contemporizing it, and ends up with a song that is outdated before it’s even been officially released.