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.
The new Sugarland album is a failure. Of this, I am sure. But as I wrote in my review, the problem isn’t that they made an eighties rock album. It’s that they didn’t make a good one.
Which got me thinking about others who made pop or rock albums after building a fan base as a country artist. Sometimes it works, and their pop/rock music is as good or better than what they did under the country umbrella.
So I ask this question:
What artist did the best job of transition from country to pop?
I can think of quite a few, but I’m going to start with a less obvious one, since her Aussie/English roots make her easy to overlook. And also because I keep putting off a Favorite Songs by Favorite Artists feature on her.
Olivia Newton-John started off as a folk-type singer, but her first two million-selling singles were country to the core. She won her first Grammy in the category of Best Female Country Vocal Performance, earning the honor for her breakthrough single “Let Me Be There.”
She went on to have three #1 country albums and a few top ten singles, and was named the CMA’s Female Vocalist of the Year in 1974. That same year, she was the second woman (after Loretta Lynn) to be noninated for Entertainer of the Year. Everyone from Loretta Lynn to Donna Fargo covered her hits.
Songs like the very country “Let it Shine” made in impact on fhe pop, AC, and country charts, but like Carrie Underwood did with “Before He Cheats”, Newton-John crossed over in spite of the country arrangements, not by making pop music and calling it country:
But Hollywood came calling, and her starring role in the film Grease required her to sing pure pop/rock. But she didn’t abandon the country format entirely. In fact, the soundtrack contained a new song specifically tailored for the country market, even though it did better on the pop charts when released. But “Hopelessly Devoted to You” has a steel guitar that can’t be ignored:
Even on her next album, Totally Hot, she continued to record country music, scoring her last real country hit with “Dancin’ Round and ‘Round.”
After that, it was pretty much all pop, and she so successfully transitioned into that format that she became more popular than ever. Not a bad second act for a woman who was the most popular female country artist of the mid-seventies. But I’d argue that her pop music was better as well, perhaps because I bought this 45 so many times, always having to replace a worn out copy:
Which country artists do you think segued into other genres most effectively? Who would you like to see try?
Info about the forthcoming RCA-helmed tribute to Lo-Lynn has been trickling out for a month or something, and now, thanks to our resourceful friends around the mighty internets, we have access to the track list and audio of the first single. Let’s gripe! (more…)
I’ve always been something of a chart junkie. While I don’t pay as close attention as I used to, I still have a pretty good handle on historical trends. One artist I’ve been keeping an eye on is Carrie Underwood. When each official country single from her first two albums peaked at #1 or #2, it caught my attention.
But I never expected the trend to continue, with three more #1 hits from the new album. The source of that belief was the history of women on country radio, especially in the twenty most recent years that were based on actual monitored airplay instead of radio playlists. Since that change, far less records have gone #1 or #2.
When “Undo It” reached #2 last week, Underwood became the only female artist in country music history to have eleven consecutive top two singles. Until then, she was tied with Tammy Wynette, who scored ten consecutive top two singles from 1967-1970. All but one of Wynette’s singles were #1 hits, with the only #2 being “I’ll See Him Through.” With “Undo It” moving to #1 this week, Underwood has only two singles in her streak that didn’t top the charts: “Don’t Forget to Remember Me” and “I Told You So.”
“Undo It” is Underwood’s tenth #1 single. How rare is it for a female to reach that milestone? The last woman to reach it was Rosanne Cash, her tenth #1 being “Runaway Train” in the fall of 1988. Earlier that same year, Reba McEntire scored her tenth #1 with “Love Will Find Its Way To You.”
Underwood’s support at radio is unprecedented for a female artist in the modern chart era. In less than five years, she’s already tied for the most #1′s since 1990, and she’s moving quickly up the all-time list as well:
Most #1 Hits by a Female Artist – Monitored Era (1990-present):
Reba McEntire, Carrie Underwood – 10
Faith Hill – 9
Shania Twain – 7
Jo Dee Messina – 6
Martina McBride, Trisha Yearwood – 5
Sara Evans, Patty Loveless, Taylor Swift, Wynonna – 4
Most #1 Hits by a Female Artist – All-Time:
Dolly Parton – 25
Reba McEntire – 23
Tammy Wynette – 20
Crystal Gayle – 18
Loretta Lynn – 16
Rosanne Cash – 11
Anne Murray, Tanya Tucker, Carrie Underwood – 10
Why do you think that Underwood has been the one to push up against country radio’s glass ceiling so much? Can she keep this up? Will she eventually get to the top of each list, or is there somebody below her that might jump ahead?
New fans of country music in the nineties were hit over the head with the assertion that country music was one big family. Nothing demonstrated this mythos better than the all star jams that cropped up during the boom years.
There were some variants of this approach. A popular one found a veteran star teaming up with one or more of the boom artists to increase their chances of radio airplay. George Jones was big on this approach, with the most high profile attempt being “I Don’t Need Your Rockin’ Chair.” Seventeen years later, it’s amazing to see how young everyone looks – even Jones himself!
Jones shared the CMA Vocal Event of the Year trophy for that collaboration with Clint Black, Garth Brooks, T. Graham Brown, Mark Chesnutt, Joe Diffie, Vince Gill, Alan Jackson, Patty Loveless, Pam Tillis, and Travis Tritt. He’d continue with this approach by teaming up with his vocal chameleon Sammy Kershaw on “Never Bit a Bullet Like This”, and he recorded an entire album of his own songs as duets with mostly younger stars. The Bradley Barn Sessions was represented at radio with “A Good Year For the Roses”, which found him singing one of his best hits with Alan Jackson:
Among the legends, the only other one to be successful with this approach was Dolly Parton, who used collaborations with young stars to score consecutive platinum albums for the first and only time in her career. Her 1991 set Eagle When She Flies was powered by the #1 single “Rockin’ Years”, co-written by her brother and sung with Ricky Van Shelton:
That album also included a duet with Lorrie Morgan on “Best Woman Wins.” She upped the bandwagon ante on Slow Dancing With the Moon, bringing a whole caravan of young stars on board with her line dance cash-in “Romeo.”
That’s Mary Chapin Carpenter, Billy Ray Cyrus, Kathy Mattea, and Tanya Tucker in the video. Pam Tillis isn’t in the clip, but she sings on the record with them. Parton also duets with Billy Dean on that album on “(You Got Me Over a) Heartache Tonight.”
Her next collaboration was with fellow legends Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette, but they couldn’t resist the temptation to squeeze in several younger stars in the video for “Silver Threads and Golden Needles.” Alongside veterans like Chet Atkins, Bill Anderson, and Little Jimmy Dickens, you’ll catch cameos from Mark Collie, Confederate Railroad, Rodney Crowell, Diamond Rio, Sammy Kershaw, Doug Stone, and Marty Stuart.
Parton scored a CMA award when she resurrected “I Will Always Love You” as a duet with Vince Gill:
And while it didn’t burn up the charts, her version of “Just When I Needed You Most” with Alison Krauss and Dan Tyminski:
Tammy Wynette made an attempt to connect with the new country audience with her own album of duets, Without Walls. Her pairing with Wynonna on “Girl Thang” earned some unsolicited airplay:
Perhaps the most endearing project in this vein came from Roy Rogers. How cool is it to hear him singing with Clint Black?
The new stars liked pairing up with each other, too. A popular trend was to have other stars pop up in music videos. There’s the classic “Women of Country” version of “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her”, for starters. Mary Chapin Carpenter sounds pretty darn good with Suzy Bogguss, Emmylou Harris, Patty Loveless, Kathy Mattea, Pam Tillis, and Trisha Yearwood on backup:
That’s a live collaboration, so at least you hear the voices of the other stars. But Vince Gill put together an all-star band for his “Don’t Let Our Love Start Slippin’ Away” video without getting them to actually play. That’s Little Jimmy Dickens, Kentucky Headhunters, Patty Loveless, Lee Roy Parnell, Carl Perkins, Pam Tillis, and Kelly Willis behind him, with Reba McEntire reprising her waitress role from her own “Is There Life Out There” clip.
My personal favorite was Tracy Lawrence’s slightly less A-list spin on the above, with “My Second Home” featuring the future superstars Toby Keith, Tim McGraw, and Shania Twain, along with John Anderson, Holly Dunn, Hank Flamingo, Johnny Rodriguez, Tanya Tucker, Clay Walker, and a few people that I just can’t identify.
For pure star wattage, it took the bright lights of Hollywood to get a truly amazing group together. The Maverick Choir assembled to cover “Amazing Grace”, and it doesn’t get much better than country gospel delivered in a barn by John Anderson, Clint Black, Suzy Bogguss, Billy Dean, Radney Foster, Amy Grant, Faith Hill, Waylon Jennings, Tracy Lawrence, Kathy Mattea, Reba McEntire, John Michael Montgomery, Restless Heart, Ricky Van Shelton, Joy Lynn White, and Tammy Wynette.
What’s your favorite of the bunch? Any good ones I missed?