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?
As with the similar CMA category of Single of the Year, looking over the history of this category is the quickest way to get a snapshot of country music in a given year. There is a quite a bt of consensus among the two organizations here, and it is very rare for the winner at one show to not at least be nominated at the other. The winners list here would make a great 2-disc set of country classics, at least for those who don’t mind a little pop in their country. The ACM definitely has more of a taste for crossover than its CMA counterpart, and the organizations have only agreed on 17 singles in the past four decades and change.
As always, we start with a look at this year’s nominees and work our way back to 1968.
Zac Brown Band, “Toes”
Billy Currington, “People Are Crazy”
Lady Antebellum, “Need You Now”
Miranda Lambert, “White Liar”
David Nail, “Red Light”
There’s usually a “Huh?” nominee among the ACM list in recent years. This year, it’s David Nail. Good for him! Currington hasn’t won yet for this hit, even though he got himself a Grammy nomination for it. With Lady Antebellum reaching the upper ranks of the country and pop charts with “Need You Now”, my guess is that they’re the presumptive favorites. Then again, Miranda Lambert is a nominee for the third straight year, and she’s up for her biggest radio hit.
Trace Adkins, “You’re Gonna Miss This”
Jamey Johnson, “In Color”
Miranda Lambert, “Gunpowder & Lead”
Heidi Newfield, “Johnny and June”
Brad Paisley, “Waitin’ On a Woman”
Adkins has been a fairly regular fixture on country radio since 1996, but this was his first major industry award. He also won the ACM for Top New Male Vocalist in 1997.
Gary Allan, “Watching Airplanes”
Big & Rich, “Lost in This Moment”
Kenny Chesney, “Don’t Blink”
Miranda Lambert, “Famous in a Small Town”
“Stay” swept the Song of the Year categories at all three industry shows, along with winning the ACM for Single Record. Allan’s presence here shows that being a little West Coast can still help a guy at the ACMs.
Heartland, “I Loved Her First”
Rascal Flatts, “What Hurts the Most”
George Strait, “Give it Away”
Josh Turner, “Would You Go With Me”
Carrie Underwood, “Before He Cheats”
George Strait earned his second ACM Single Record award a decade after his first (“Check Yes or No”) and two and a half decades after having his first radio hit. Underwood won at the CMAs later that year. “Give it Away” is one of a small group of ACM winners to not receive a nomination at the CMA ceremony.
Gary Allan, “Best I Ever Had”
Brooks & Dunn, “Believe”
Brad Paisley, “Alcohol”
Sugarland, “Baby Girl”
Carrie Underwood, “Jesus, Take the Wheel”
In the battle of biblical hits, the CMA picked Brooks & Dunn but the ACM picked Carrie Underwood. Much like George Strait would later win a CMA trophy for a different single (“I Saw God Today”), Underwood later triumphed at the CMA with “Before He Cheats.”
Tim McGraw, “Live Like You Were Dying”
Brad Paisley with Alison Krauss, “Whiskey Lullaby”
Rascal Flatts, “Bless the Broken Road”
Keith Urban, “Days Go By”
Gretchen Wilson, “Redneck Woman”
Lee Ann Womack, “I May Hate Myself in the Morning”
Because McGraw picked up the trophy at the CMAs in 2004, the field was cleared for Womack to win the CMA later in 2005. McGraw had won the ACM before for “It’s Your Love.”
Brooks & Dunn, “Red Dirt Road”
Alan Jackson with Jimmy Buffett, “It’s Five O’ Clock Somewhere”
Alan Jackson, “Remember When”
Toby Keith, “American Soldier”
Randy Travis, “Three Wooden Crosses”
Among all the lead nominees, only Toby Keith wasn’t a previous winner. Still, the award went to the new alcoholic’s creed, winning over a more pensive Jackson track and a big comeback hit for Randy Travis.
Kenny Chesney, “The Good Stuff”
Toby Keith, “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue (The Angry American)”
Trick Pony, “Just What I Do”
Keith Urban, “Somebody Like You”
Mark Wills, “19 Somethin’”
Chesney spent nearly two months at #1 with this hit, perhaps giving him the edge over the other mega-hits at radio from Keith, Urban, and Wills. As for the Trick Pony nomination, somebody really should find out what Heidi Newfield has on those ACM voters.
Brooks & Dunn, “Ain’t Nothin’ ‘Bout You”
Diamond Rio, “One More Day”
Alan Jackson, “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)”
Toby Keith, “I Wanna Talk About Me”
Travis Tritt, “It’s a Great Day to Be Alive”
Jackson’s powerful 9/11 reflection stands out as the only ballad among his four ACM Single Record victories.
Toby Keith, “How Do You Like Me Now?!”
John Michael Montgomery, “The Little Girl”
Jamie O’Neal, “There is No Arizona”
Aaron Tippin, “Kiss This”
Lee Ann Womack with Sons of the Desert, “I Hope You Dance”
Toby Keith’s run of four consecutive nominations began this year. His album of the same name proved victorious that evening. Womack’s massive hit became an instant standard, and is incidentally the most recent winner to also be a genuine crossover hit.
Dixie Chicks, “Ready to Run”
Tim McGraw, “Please Remember Me”
Brad Paisley, “He Didn’t Have to Be”
George Strait, “Write This Down”
As pop hits go, this one was a monster. “Amazed” even topped the Hot 100, the first country single to do so since “Islands in the Stream.”
Faith Hill, “This Kiss”
Martina McBride, “A Broken Wing”
Shania Twain, “You’re Still the One”
Steve Wariner, “Holes in the Floor of Heaven”
The Wilkinsons, “26 Cents”
Hill and hubby Tim McGraw each have two ACM trophies in this category, one solo and one shared.
Diamond Rio, “How Your Love Makes Me Feel”
Tim McGraw with Faith Hill, “It’s Your Love”
LeAnn Rimes, “How Do I Live”
George Strait, “Carrying Your Love With Me”
Trisha Yearwood, “How Do I Live (from “Con Air”)”
While Yearwood had won over Rimes at the Grammys a few weeks earlier, the ACM sidestepped the big controversy of the year and gave the trophy to the biggest hit in the bunch.
Brooks & Dunn, “My Maria”
Deana Carter, “Strawberry Wine”
Tracy Lawrence, “Time Marches On”
LeAnn Rimes, “Blue”
George Strait, “Carried Away”
It’s rare that the ACM goes with the song that was least successful at radio, but don’t let that #10 peak of “Blue” fool you. That hit was responsible for millions of record sales.
Brooks & Dunn, “You’re Gonna Miss Me When I’m Gone”
Faith Hill, “It Matters to Me”
Tim McGraw, “I Like It, I Love It”
George Strait, “Check Yes or No”
Shania Twain, “Any Man of Mine”
It was a stroke of marketing brilliance: add two singles to a box set of a genre superstar. When the first single became one of his biggest hits, the box set quickly became the top selling in country music history.
Joe Diffie, “Third Rock From the Sun”
Vince Gill, “Tryin’ to Get Over You”
Alan Jackson, “Livin’ On Love”
Tim McGraw, “Don’t Take the Girl”
John Michael Montgomery, “I Swear”
There have been a few wedding standards to win this award, though Montgomery’s hit didn’t cross over in its original form.
Clint Black with Wynonna, “A Bad Goodbye”
Garth Brooks, “Ain’t Goin’ Down (‘Til the Sun Comes Up)”
Alan Jackson, “Chattahoochee”
Reba McEntire with Linda Davis, “Does He Love You”
Dwight Yoakam, “Ain’t That Lonely Yet”
Jackson won the ACM with his massive hit, but the McEntire/Davis duet and the Yoakam track were Grammy winners.
John Anderson, “Straight Tequila Night”
Brooks & Dunn, “Boot Scootin’ Boogie”
Billy Ray Cyrus, “Achy Breaky Heart”
Collin Raye, “Love, Me”
Tanya Tucker, “Two Sparrows in a Hurricane”
Brooks & Dunn are among the most nominated artists in this category’s history, but this is their only victory.
Clint Black, “Where Are You Now”
Garth Brooks, “Shameless”
Alan Jackson, “Don’t Rock the Jukebox”
Travis Tritt, “Here’s a Quarter (Call Someone Who Cares)”
Trisha Yearwood, “She’s in Love With the Boy”
This was Jackson’s first major industry award.
Alabama, “Jukebox in My Mind”
Garth Brooks, “Friends in Low Places”
Vince Gill, “When I Call Your Name”
Alan Jackson, “Here in the Real World”
Shenandoah, “Next to You, Next to Me”
Garth-mania was beginning to peak in 1991. He swept the ACMs that year.
Clint Black, “Better Man”
Garth Brooks, “If Tomorrow Never Comes”
Patty Loveless, “Timber I’m Falling in Love”
Keith Whitley, “I’m No Stranger to the Rain”
Hank Williams & Hank Williams Jr., “There’s a Tear in My Beer”
Clint Black is one of only three artists in the last twenty years to win for their first proper single, with Carrie Underwood and LeAnn Rimes being the other two.
Kathy Mattea, “Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses”
K.T. Oslin, “I’ll Always Come Back”
Ricky Van Shelton, “I’ll Leave This World Loving You”
Randy Travis, “I Told You So”
Keith Whitley, “Don’t Close Your Eyes”
Mattea’s award-winning hit had such a high profile that it was even referenced in the dialog of the hit movie Rain Man.
Restless Heart, “I’ll Still Be Loving You”
Ricky Van Shelton, “Somebody Lied”
George Strait, “All My Ex’s Live in Texas”
Randy Travis, “Forever and Ever, Amen”
Hank Williams Jr., “Born to Boogie”
Travis won for the second year in a row with what would become his signature hit.
Alabama, “Touch Me When We’re Dancing”
Janie Fricke, “Always Have, Always Will”
The Judds, “Rockin’ With the Rhythm of the Rain”
Reba McEntire, “Whoever’s in New England”
Randy Travis, “On the Other Hand”
This was technically his first single, but when released under the name Randy Traywick, it bombed. Warner Bros. then released “1982″ under Randy Travis, and it went top ten. They then re-released this song, and it became his first #1 hit.
Lee Greenwood, “Dixie Road”
Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, “Highwayman”
The Judds, “Love is Alive”
Mel McDaniel, “Baby’s Got Her Blue Jeans On”
Hank Williams Jr., “I’m For Love”
So successful was this winning single that the four legends would go on to release future collaborations as the Highwaymen.
Alabama, “When We Make Love”
Julio Iglesias & Willie Nelson, “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before”
The Judds, “Why Not Me”
John Schneider, “I’ve Been Around Enough to Know”
Conway Twitty, “I Don’t Know a Thing About Love (The Moon Song)”
Say what you want about this winner, but it was popular enough to sell two million 45s.
John Anderson, “Swingin’”
Anne Murray, “A Little Good News”
Willie Nelson & Merle Haggard, “Pancho and Lefty”
Kenny Rogers & Dolly Parton, “Islands in the Stream”
Shelly West, “José Cuervo”
Another pop smash that moved two million 45s. Is there anybody over 30 who can’t sing along to the chorus?
David Frizzell, “I’m Gonna Hire a Wino to Decorate Our Home”
Willie Nelson, “Always on My Mind”
Kenny Rogers, “Love Will Turn You Around”
Ricky Skaggs, “Crying My Heart Out Over You”
Nelson’s had quite a few signature hits, but none bigger than this one.
Rosanne Cash, “Seven Year Ache”
David Frizzell & Shelly West, “You’re the Reason God Made Oklahoma”
Barbara Mandrell, “I Was Country When Country Wasn’t Cool”
Ronnie Milsap, “(There’s) No Gettin’ Over Me”
Oak Ridge Boys, “Elvira”
This might be the most pop-flavored lineup in category’s history. Even the Mandrell hit doth protest too much.
George Jones, “He Stopped Loving Her Today”
Johnny Lee, “Lookin’ For Love”
Dolly Parton, “9 to 5″
Eddie Rabbitt, “Drivin’ My Life Away”
Don Williams, “I Believe in You”
Jones capped his biggest comeback in a career defined by them with several awards for this classic hit.
Charlie Daniels Band, “Devil Went Down to Georgia”
Larry Gatlin & The Gatlin Brothers Band, “All the Gold in California”
Crystal Gayle, “Half the Way”
Waylon Jennings, “Amanda”
Kenny Rogers, “Coward of the County”
West Coast represent!
Crystal Gayle, “Talking in Your Sleep”
Loretta Lynn, “Out of My Head and Back in My Bed”
Willie Nelson, “Georgia On My Mind”
Waylon & Willie, “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys”
Don Williams, “Tulsa Time”
In a category of superstars, the Gentle Giant of Country Music was the victor.
Debby Boone, “You Light Up My Life”
Crystal Gayle, “Don’t it Make My Brown Eyes Blue”
Waylon Jennings, “Luckenbach, Texas (Back to the Basics of Love)”
Kenny Rogers, “Lucille”
Linda Ronstadt, “Blue Bayou”
All of these records made a big impact on both the country and the pop chart.
Mickey Gilley, “Bring it On Home to Me”
Loretta Lynn, “Somebody Somewhere (Don’t Know What He’s Missin’ Tonight)”
Marty Robbins, “El Paso City”
Red Sovine, “Teddy Bear”
Waylon & Willie, “Good Hearted Woman”
A surprising win, perhaps fueled by the momentum of Gilley’s previous single, “Don’t the Girls All Get Prettier at Closing Time.”
Glen Campbell, “Rhinestone Cowboy”
Freddie Fender, “Before the Next Teardrop Falls”
Mickey Gilley, “Overnight Sensation”
Willie Nelson, “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain”
Kenny Starr, “The Blind Man in the Bleachers”
Campbell made quite the comeback with this one, and it later inspired the Dolly Parton film vehicle Rhinestone, which earned an ACM nomination of its own for the Tex Ritter Award.
John Denver, “Back Home Again”
Merle Haggard, “Things Aren’t Funny Anymore”
Ronnie Milsap, “(I’d Be) A Legend in My Time”
Cal Smith, “Country Bumpkin”
Billy Swan, “I Can Help”
Smith may not have gotten all the recognition that his talent warranted, but he made two undeniable classics: “The Lord Knows I’m Drinking”, and his winner here.
Merle Haggard, “If We Make it Through December”
Byron MacGregor, “The Americans”
Jeanne Pruett, “Satin Sheets”
Charlie Rich, “Behind Closed Doors”
Charlie Rich, “The Most Beautiful Girl”
Rich’s two hits were so big that even with vote-splitting, he still emerged the winner.
Donna Fargo, “The Happiest Girl in the Whole U.S.A.”
Merle Haggard, “It’s Not Love (But It’s Not Bad)”
Johnny Rodriguez, “Pass Me By (If You’re Only Passing Through)”
Jerry Wallace, “If You Leave Me Tonight I’ll Cry”
Faron Young, “Four in the Morning”
Fargo was a local star on the West Coast before she broke through nationwide with this hit, dominating the 1973 ACM Awards as a result.
Merle Haggard, “Carolyn”
Freddie Hart, “Easy Loving”
Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty, “Lead Me On”
Loretta Lynn, “One’s On the Way”
Charley Pride, “Kiss an Angel Good Morning”
This gold-selling classic helped Hart triumph over the superstars of his day.
Lynn Anderson, “Rose Garden”
Merle Haggard, “The Fightin’ Side of Me”
Anne Murray, “Snowbird”
Ray Price, “For the Good Times”
Sammi Smith, “Help Me Make it Through the Night”
Each one of these is a classic in its own right. In a battle of Kristofferson-penned hits, Price emerged victorious, though Smith won the CMA later that year.
Glen Campbell, “Try a Little Kindness”
Johnny Cash, “A Boy Named Sue”
Merle Haggard, “Okie From Muskogee”
Billy Mize, “Make it Rain”
Elvis Presley, “Don’t Cry Daddy”
Freddy Weller, “Games People Play”
Tammy Wynette, “Stand By Your Man”
Haggard’s only victory in this category came on a night where he also won Album of the Year for the only time in several nominations.
Glen Campbell, “Wichita Lineman”
Merle Haggard, “I Take a Lot of Pride in What I Am”
Merle Haggard, “The Legend of Bonnie and Clyde”
Merle Haggard, “Mama Tried”
Roger Miller, “Little Green Apples”
Miller’s known for his legendary songwriting, but his winning hit here was penned by Bobby Russell.
Glen Campbell, “Burning Bridges”
Glen Campbell, “Gentle on My Mind”
The Gosdin Bros., “Hangin’ On”
Bobbie Gentry, “Ode to Billy Joe”
Merle Haggard, “Branded Man”
Merle Haggard, “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive”
A young Vern Gosdin made up half of the nominated Gosdin Bros., a nice historical footnote to the first year of this category. Glen Campbell’s victory was appropriately West Coast for the ACMs first attempt at honoring the national country music scene.
Facts & Feats:
(4) – Alan Jackson
(3) – Willie Nelson
(2) – Glen Campbell, Faith Hill, Tim McGraw, Kenny Rogers, George Strait, Randy Travis
Producing primarily pop-flavored country music has rarely been a ticket to immortality for even the biggest artists, particularly the female ones. Imports like Shania Twain and Olivia Newton-John are labeled impostors. Faith Hill’s canny song sense is overlooked while hubby Tim McGraw’s is widely praised. Brilliant Dolly Parton records like “Here You Come Again” and “9 to 5″ are cited as being beneath her greatness, rather than prime examples of it. Only Patsy Cline has been given a free pass, and who wouldn’t want to claim those pipes?
Where does this leave Crystal Gayle, younger sister of Loretta Lynn and owner of 32 top ten hits, 18 of which went #1? As the first female country artist to sell platinum, her impact was quite big back in the day. But aside from her signature classic “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue”, her music has been largely forgotten. Perhaps this is because she peaked during an era that is often looked down upon as too crossover for its own good. Unlike Parton and Cline, there is virtually nothing for traditionalists to celebrate within Gayle’s catalog of hits. But much like Hill and Newton-John, the woman recorded some wonderful songs that deserve rediscovery. Here are a dozen of the best.
“I’ll Do It All Over Again” from the 1976 album Crystal
Gayle typically avoided purely victim stances in her lyrics. Here, she’s been left but is aware that her heart will mend and that she’ll love again.
“Ready For the Times to Get Better” from the 1976 album Crystal
Country singles recorded in a minor key are quite the rarity, but the arrangement undercuts the misery of the lyric, even as she’s clearly ready to move on to happier times. This just might be her finest moment.
“Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue” from the 1977 album We Must Believe in Magic
This classic won her a Grammy and the first of two CMA Female Vocalist trophies. If the piano sounds familiar, that’s because it’s the same player that powered Charlie Rich’s “Behind Closed Doors” to similar success on both the country and pop charts.
“Talking In Your Sleep” from the 1978 album When I Dream
Proving that her appeal wasn’t limited to one big hit, this hit launched what would become Gayle’s second consecutive platinum album.
“Why Have You Left the One You Left Me For” from the 1978 album When I Dream
Her first really big uptempo hit defied expectations and broke her out of the ballad mold. It didn’t hurt that it was ridiculously catchy.
“Half the Way” from the 1979 album Miss the Mississippi
Another hook-laden hit, powered by an infectious string section and quite a bit more wailing than she’s usually known for.
“Too Many Lovers” from the 1980 album These Days
What sounds like a quiet bar ballad in the first few seconds soon turns into an uptempo message of caution to women looking for love in all the wrong places.
“You Never Gave Up On Me” from the 1981 album Hollywood, Tennessee
There aren’t too many anniversary songs that essentially say, “Thanks for loving me even when I didn’t love you.” Romantic songs like to pretend that both partners are equally kind and loving, when that isn’t always the case. I like ones like this more.
“‘Til I Gain Control Again” from the 1982 album True Love
Crystal Gayle was hardly the predictable vehicle for this intricate Rodney Crowell composition that had been previously cut by Emmylou Harris. Even she didn’t think she could pull it off. Thankfully, producer Jimmy Bowen coaxed her into it, and the result was a #1 hit that was also among her most sophisticated performances.
“Baby, What About You” from the 1982 album True Love
Not much more to say about this one than it’s a slice of pop-country perfection.
“The Sound of Goodbye” from the 1983 album Cage the Songbird
One of Hugh Prestwood’s first great moments as a writer was this hit. Much like his material later pushed Randy Travis into a more ambitious production approach (“Hard Rock Bottom Of Your Heart”), the sonic landscape of this #1 hit pushed Gayle and country radio into far more interesting territory.
“Cry” from the 1986 album Straight to the Heart
Given that she’s in the grand tradition of those Nashville Sound ladies, it’s no surprise that Gayle not only covered Lynn Anderson’s #3 hit effectively, she even took it two slots higher up the chart.
World: meet Underwood. She’s fiercely compassionate and endearingly idealistic (the riveting “Change”). She holds her beliefs with a firm but quiet conviction (“Temporary Home”). She’s as comfortable and convincing at tearing down a wrong-doer (the Dixie Chicks-esque “Songs Like This”) as she is nursing an irreparable heartache, whether it’s in the form of a haunting country standard (“Someday When I Stop Loving You”) or a rich pop ballad (“What Can I Say?”). And she’s one of the most gifted vocalists of this generation, possessing an instrument that, when colored and layered with emotion as she’s aptly learned to do on Play On, can have bone-chilling effects.
Like it or leave it, Play On is the most authentic encapsulation of Underwood’s artistry and persona to date, and serves as an exciting glimpse at how far a little growth can carry her. The best is yet to come, but in the meantime, the “good” is pretty damn good. – Tara Seetharam
#9 Sara Watkins Sara Watkins
As most people know by now, Sara Watkins is the female member of the now-disbanded (hopefully temporarily) New Grass trio, Nickel Creek. While Nickel Creek was difficult to classify in a certain genre (not bluegrass, not country), they were embraced by bluegrass and country music fans alike. Each member of the popular trio has released intriguing projects outside of Nickel Creek, but Watkins’ album has assumed the most decidedly country direction of them all. As a result, we are treated to a sublime album thanks to Watkins’ sweet voice and a set of impressively solid songs. – Leeann Ward (more…)
Last year, I counted down my twenty-five favorite Christmas songs. This year, it’s time to do the same with my favorite country Christmas albums. Feel free to add your own favorites in the comment section.
SHeDaisy, Brand New Year
This is not a typical, conservative country Christmas album. SHeDaisy spices things up by not only including originals, but rearranges the classics to make an unpredictable, unique Christmas album that stands out from the pack.
Dolly Parton, Home for Christmas
This is an incredibly cheesy Christmas album. As only Dolly can do, however, it’s at least delightfully cheesy.
Charlie Daniels & Friends, Joy To the World: A Bluegrass Christmas
This album flew under the radar this year, but it’s a wonderful bluegrass album with a few famous friends. Daniels even steps aside to allow his guests to sing while only accompanying them. Jewel steps up with an impressively country vocal on “Blue Christmas” and Kathy Mattea offers a rollicking version of “Oh Come All Ye Faithful.”
John Denver and the Muppets, Christmas Together
I grew up with this album. On the strength of nostalgia, I’d put it at the top of this list, but for the sake of being reasonable, I’ll settle for this ranking. Who doesn’t love the Muppets, anyway?
John Cowan, Comfort and Joy
John Cowan’s Comfort and Joy is a new release, but its acoustic production and Cowan’s clear voice is instantly appealing. He interprets some classics, but also includes some worthy originals and lesser-known songs. The sprightly “Christmas Everyday”, the thoughtful “Little Match Girl” and the gospel “Good News” provide welcome depth to this Christmas project.
Mindy Smith, My Holiday
Mindy Smith adeptly covers well-known standards on her Christmas album, but her original inclusions are what really stand out here, particularly “Follow the Shepherd Home” and “I Know the Reason.” With guest appearances from Alison Krauss, Thad Cockrell and Emmylou Harris (not to mention Smith’s own beautiful voice), My Holiday is one of the most outstanding mixes of originality and tradition on this list.
Loretta Lynn, Best of Christmas…Twentieth Century Masters
This is a collection of Loretta Lynn Christmas songs. It’s my favorite traditional country Christmas album.
Emmylou Harris, Light of the Stable
If you enjoy Harris’ bluegrass album, Roses in the Snow, and her Live At the Ryman, you’ll likely enjoy this acoustic-based Christmas album as well. It has a live, relaxed feel to it. While it doesn’t necessarily sound big-budget, it is still a well-crafted Christmas album.
The Tractors, Have Yourself A Tractors Christmas
The Tractors are infamous for their cringe-worthy novelty song, “Baby Likes To Rock It”, but they made an excellent Christmas album nonetheless. Their blend of swing and shuffle makes for a crisp album that I love to hear every year. I enjoy the entire album with the exception of their Christmas twist on “Baby Likes to Rock It.”
Lee Ann Womack, A Season for Romance
Lee Ann Womack is successful in conveying a romantic vibe on this album that suggests just that. With her easy southern drawl, Womack knows her way around a gorgeous Christmas melody. Her fun side should not be ignored, however, as her version of “the Man with the Bag” is easily the superior track on the album.
Travis Tritt, A Travis Tritt Christmas: Loving Time of the Year
Tritt rocks on songs like “Winter Wonderland”, adds a bluesy twist to “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”, waxes nostalgic on “Christmas in My Hometown” and reverently sings “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” Nevertheless, he keeps Christmas in perspective as he philosophizes on the title track and, possibly naively, proclaims it to be the “most loving time of the year.”: “I wish I could bottle up this feeling/Pass out a little everyday/’Cause all the scars of pain have started healing/And troubles of this world just fade away…”
Dwight Yoakam, Come on Christmas
Dwight’s signature quirky vocal style does not disappoint on this Christmas album. He does some standards and a few originals. His bluesy version of “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” just may be the only version of that song that I like. Among the originals, the dysfunctional “Santa Can’t Stay” and the album’s sensual title track are the highlights of the project.
Gene Autry, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer and Other Christmas Classics
Like Bing Crosby, Gene Autry’s name is simply synonymous with Christmas music.
John Prine, A John Prine Christmas
Prine’s rough, unpolished voice does not try to navigate beloved classics that conjure up feelings of warmth and frivolity. Instead, he does what works best for him, which means writing songs that reveal insightful observations of real life. As a result, A John Prine Christmas is darker than a typical Christmas album.
Alan Jackson, Let It Be Christmas
While Alan Jackson’s first Honky Tonk Christmas album is great, this one was recorded to appease his mother who requested a more traditional-sounding record. This one is especially good when hosting guests with mixed music tastes. Backed by a big band and orchestra, Jackson’s smooth voice navigates these traditional tunes with ease. Jackson’s original composition, the title track, is superb enough to stand with the revered classics.
Martina McBride, White Christmas
Martina McBride made a safe Christmas album with all familiar songs, but she still managed to deliver an album that’s engaging and among the best of its kind. And as one might expect from McBride, she knocks “O Holy Night” out of the park.
Toby Keith, A Classic Christmas
Toby Keith shows his generosity at Christmas time by making two Christmas albums (one of religious classics and the other of secular classics) and packaging them together for one low price. As a skillful interpreter, he treats these classics with both reference and fun as appropriate, with “Little Drummer Boy” receiving the coolest laid back production that I’ve ever heard on it.
Lorrie Morgan, Merry Christmas from London
With the London Orchestra, Morgan is in fine voice and keeps up with the power accompaniment quite well. This is a beautiful, straightforward album that includes many classics and a sweeping version of “My Favorite Things.”
Randy Travis, An Old Time Christmas
This Christmas album is exactly what one would expect from Randy Travis. If you like Randy Travis music and you like Christmas music, this one doesn’t disappoint. Highlights include his version of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”, Meet Me Under The mistletoe” and “Old Time Christmas.”
Kathy Mattea, Joy for Christmas Day
Kathy’s warm, soothing voice is meant for Christmas songs. She sings some standards along with some awesome originals. The stand out tracks are the gorgeous “Straw Against The Chill” and the infectious “Unto Us A Child Is Born.”
Garth Brooks, Beyond the Season
Garth’s first and best Christmas album sounds a lot like Garth Brooks music of the early nineties. Even the classics get the Brooks treatment, including a soulful version of “Go Tell It On A Mountain.” The highlights include but aren’t limited to “The Friendly Beasts” (in which he enlists the help of some of his songwriting friends), “Unto You This Night” and Buck Owens’ “Santa Looked A Lot Like Daddy.”
George Strait, A Classic Christmas
Strait has as many Christmas albums as he has decades in the country music business. This album is far superior to the other two, however. While all of the songs are classics, he has recorded them with rootsy productions to match his warm vocals. Highlights include “Jingle Bells”, “Oh Come All Ye Faithful” and “Oh Christmas Tree.”
Clint Black, Christmas With You
This album consists of all original songs composed by Clint Black himself. Most of it contains Christmas through the eyes of children, including “Slow As Christmas”, “Milk and Cookies” and “The Coolest Pair.” It’s fresh, fun and joyous, just as Christmas should be.
Patty Loveless, Bluegrass And White Snow: A Mountain Christmas
As a follow up to Mountain Soul, Patty Loveless delivers a soulful bluegrass Christmas album that radiates Christmas warmth while injecting moments of festive frivolity as well. Appearances by Vince Gill, Emmylou Harris, Rebecca Lynn Howard and Jon Randall are not necessary to strengthen this already masterful Christmas album, but they certainly help the celebration in a special way. (For more on this album, read a review by guest contributor Stephen Fales.)
Pam Tillis, Just in Time for Christmas
Most of the time, I want to hear warmth on a Christmas album. As is the case with many of my favorites, I like to be able to imagine listening to Christmas music by a cozy fire (though I don’t have a fireplace) and a nice mug of hot chocolate. With Tillis’ album, my imagination does not have to stretch very far, because it commands such images with its tasteful, jazzy production and Tillis’ naturally pleasant voice. This is clearly a country Christmas album, but it also manages to blend country elements with other traditional components that result in a perfect hybrid of torch and twang.
The 201 Greatest Singles of the Decade, Part 5: #120-#101
#120 “Tonight I Wanna Cry”
A chillingly frank portrait of loneliness, awkward reference to “All By Myself” notwithstanding. Few mainstream vocalists today could pull off something this intense. – Dan Milliken
#119 “Portland, Oregon”
Loretta Lynn with Jack White
Peak: Did not chart
If you can take a healthy dose of dirty rock ‘n’ roll in your country, this is one of the coolest-sounding records of the decade, a classic one-night-stand duet. That it’s a very cross-generational pairing singing it would be creepy if not for the goofy smiles shining through Lynn’s and White’s performances. – DM (more…)
As we come to the end of our list, the top ten selections are a lot like the ninety before them, with perhaps a bit more of a roots leaning overall. If you didn’t see your favorite on the list, or just want to discover more great music that you might have missed, be sure to check out the list at The 9513, if you somehow haven’t done so already. Even better, start a blog and write your own list. It feels like a lot of barriers fell within country music this decade, and I think one of the best walls to come down was the one between music journalism and the listening audience. I hope in the next decade, a lot more readers become writers, so we can all keep reveling in the music we love and helping others discover it.
Sappy introduction aside, here’s our top ten of the decade:
Patty Loveless, Mountain Soul
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and few albums have inspired more imitation than Patty Loveless’ Mountain Soul. Bluegrass music full of roots influences, Mountain Soul, with its traditional sound, has become a surrogate definition of authenticity for mainstream artists returning to their musical beginnings. Standout songs include “Cheap Whiskey,” a classically dark drinking song; the energetic “The Boys are Back in Town,” with its WWII imagery; and “Soul of Constant Sorrow,” based on the traditional work popularized by the Stanley Brothers. – William Ward
Recommended Tracks: “The Boys are Back in Town”, “Cheap Whiskey”, “Soul of Constant Sorrow”, “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive”
Vince Gill, These Days
An inordinate amount of praise has already been heaped upon Vince Gill’s prolific, 2006 landmark 4-disc box set of all original material. Moreover, all of the praise is warranted. Not only is all of the material original rather than culled from previous albums; Gill had a hand in writing each of the 43 tracks. Each disc is divided into its own genre (rock, jazz, bluegrass/acoustic and straight-up country). Furthermore, each disc is masterfully executed. Fortunately, These Days does not prove the old “less is more” adage. Instead, it only leaves us longing for more. – Leeann Ward
Recommended Tracks: “Sweet Thing”, “Faint of Heart (with Diana Krall)”, “Little Brother”, “Some Things Never Change (featuring Emmylou Harris)
Loretta Lynn, Van Lear Rose
She had already made a fine latter-day album with 2000′s Still Country, but Loretta Lynn’s crowning artistic moment of the last thirty years came when rocker Jack White offered to turn his semi-fetishization of Lynn’s music and persona into a full LP. As you’d expect of a project born of such fanboy fantasy, White was not shy about dressing up Loretta in his favorite things – in this case, snaky electric guitars and loose, often atmospheric arrangements that made the Kentucky gal sound more raw, Gothic and edgy than she ever had in her bouncy classic singles. But White also had the good sense not to let his little indulgences distract from the fantastic artist on his hands, who wrote herself a batch of sharp, soulful songs that capture the essence of what truly makes real country music – and Lynn herself – rock so hard. – Dan Milliken
Recommended Tracks: “Portland, Oregon”, “Trouble On the Line”, “Family Tree”, “Miss Being Mrs.”
Johnny Cash, American III: Solitary Man
It’s astounding how some artists can convey as much meaning through voice as they can through lyric. Cash performs covers and original material alike so affectingly on this Grammy-award winning album that you feel like you can reach out and touch what you’re hearing. It’s a stunningly haunting, uniquely introspective project, carried by the strength of Cash’s wisdom and transcendent voice. – Tara Seetharam
Recommended Tracks: “Before My Time”, “I’m Leaving Now”, “Solitary Man”, “I See a Darkness”
Old Crow Medicine Show, Old Crow Medicine Show
Old Crow Medicine Show’s first and best progressive acoustic album is difficult to label as far as genre is concerned. However, what can be defined is that there are elements of bluegrass, country, folk, etc., which all culminate in a mighty fine debut effort from a band that has developed an impressive cult following as a result. With overt drug references, subtler (though still obvious) political undertones, quiet philosophical moments and some simply fun numbers, this album never gets tiresome, which is a testament to its long lasting substance as a whole. – LW
Recommended Tracks: “Tell It to Me”, “Big Time in the Jungle”, “Wagon Wheel”
Kathy Mattea, Coal
Kathy Mattea’s Coal is a near-perfect example of an album acting as a single piece of art. More than a collection of mining songs, Coal, co-produced by Marty Stuart, is a brutal and beautiful look at a way of life that is both challenging and enlightening. Notable tracks include “Dark as a Dungeon,” delivered with meticulous but even intensity; the haunting “Red-Winged Blackbird,” with its blood and coal color imagery; and the a cappella “Black Lung,” an impressive choice in which Mattea successfully pushes the boundaries of her musical abilities. – WW
Recommended Tracks: “Blue Diamond Mines”, “Red-Winged Blackbird”, “Sally in the Garden”, “Dark as a Dungeon”
Miranda Lambert, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend
Call it potential realized: Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is the album we all knew Lambert could make, and waited on the tips of our toes to hear. Her follow-up to Kerosene is a rich, defiant album that conveys a sharp perspective and a clear musical identity. Amidst a spunky blend of twang and rock, she draws from a more incisive set of songwriting skills and packs a hell of a believable punch, like on her first top ten hit, “Gunpowder & Lead.” And the punch isn’t reserved for the fiery numbers, as the album’s most gripping track comes in the form of pure tenderness. The wistful lament “More Like Her” is one of the best and most heartbreaking songs of this decade. – TS
Recommended Tracks: “Famous in a Small Town”, “More Like Her”, “Dry Town”, “Love Letters”
Gary Allan, Tough All Over
A rough, scattered, imperfect and wholly realistic 12-track grieving process. By the time of the tragic personal events leading to this album, Allan had already proven he could interpret a song better than just about anyone working in the genre; on Tough All Over, he took on the unimaginable task of interpreting his own battered emotional core. The results are striking, as he confronts not just his inevitable loneliness (“Best I Ever Had”, “Ring”, “Puttin’ Memories Away”), but also less tidy trackings of guilt (“I Just Got Back From Hell”), self-loathing (“What Kind of Fool”), spite (the title track), and reluctant hope (“Nickajack Cave [Johnny Cash's Redemption]“, “Life Ain’t Always Beautiful”). Country music and Allan himself have produced several more beautiful albums this past decade, but none that sounded quite so necessary. – DM
Recommended Tracks: “Tough All Over”, “I Just Got Back From Hell”, “Ring”, “Life Ain’t Always Beautiful”
The fact that neither Kasey Chambers nor Shane Nicholson make particularly traditional-sounding music on their own makes it all the more incredible that they have joined together to create one of the rootsiest records on this list. Aside from the intriguing, though processed “Jackson Hole”, the songs on Rattlin’ Bones sound more like beloved classics than the original Chambers and Nicholson compositions that they actually are. The naturally compatible husband-wife pairing has created an album full of crisp, majestic harmonies, distinctive melodies and intriguing lyrics, easily making this album one of the most sonically pleasing and substantive albums of the decade. – LW
Recommended Tracks: “Rattlin’ Bones”, “Monkey on A Wire”, “One More Year”, “No One Hurts Up Here”
Dixie Chicks, Home
This was our top selection by such a wide margin that it’s tempting to just say, “Of course it’s the greatest album of the decade. It’s Home.” But one sentence does not a justification for best album of the decade make, so let me go on to say that Home is conclusive proof that a modern country album can tear down the walls between radio-friendly and artistic, mainstream and Americana, pure country and crossover, revealing that while they looked like stone, they were paper walls all along.
It was a hint of further greatness to come that the Chicks were able to pen some of their own material and have it stand proudly among the very best works of brilliant songwriters, and the album became a classic because the songs really are the best ever written by Darrell Scott (“Long Time Gone”), Stevie Nicks (“Landslide”), Bruce Robison (“Travelin’ Soldier”), Radney Foster, (“Godspeed [Sweet Dreams]), and Patty Griffin (“Truth No. 2 and “Top of the World”). But with the acoustic production and their decision to record three-part harmonies for the first time, the result is nothing short of a masterpiece.
Despite the formula being so simple – great songs + great vocals + great production = great album – Home is a reminder of just how difficult that formula is to pull off. Released back in 2002, no country album has come along since to match its quality. – KC
Recommended Tracks: “Long Time Gone”, “Truth No. 2″, “Godspeed (Sweet Dreams)”, “Top of the World”