For the second year, Country Universe is publishing a 40-deep list of the year’s best albums. Part One includes releases from talented newcomers, genre legends, and quite a few entries from the outskirts of country music. As usual, that’s where most of the cool stuff can be found.
Country Universe will close out our year with the conclusion of this list tomorrow. As always, share your thoughts and opinions in the comments!
#40 Ventucky Dan Grimm
Individual rankings: #12 – Jonathan
The EP format doesn’t leave much margin for error, but with a knack for unconventional imagery and a style that blends vintage SoCal rock with authentic honky-tonk, Dan Grimm ensures that every track on his freewheeling, endlessly likable Ventucky is a standout. - Jonathan Keefe
Recommended Tracks: “Skeletor,” “300 Beers”
#39 Magpie and the Dandelion The Avett Brothers
Individual rankings: #12 – Sam
Since moving up to a major label, the Avetts’ album releases have strayed further and further away from their ragged-but-right indie albums. There aren’t as many reckless moments, though “Another Is Waiting” and “Open Ended Life” come close. The trade is that their slower, introspective songs are increasingly sophisticated. “Good to You” is beautifully written, and Bob Crawford’s rare vocals are a dagger to the heart for any dads who spend too much time traveling. - Sam Gazdziak
Recommended Tracks: “Good to You”, “Another is Waiting”, “Morning Song”
#38 Love’s Truck Stop Matraca Berg
Individual rankings: #11 – Kevin
Originally released in Europe last year, Matraca Berg’s latest collection builds on the strength of 2011′s Dreaming Fields. She embodies the characters of her song so fully that she allows you to walk as easily in the shoes of a truck stop waitress as those of a grieving, abused daughter clutching flowers at her father’s graveside. Her vulnerable vocals shine best on “My Heart Will Never Break This Way Again”, which was sung by Patty Loveless many years ago. - Kevin Coyne
Recommended Tracks: “Her Name is Mary”, “Fistful of Roses”, “My Heart Will Never Break This Way Again”
#37 Feels Like Home Sheryl Crow
Individual rankings: #11 – Leeann
It was inevitable that Sheryl Crow would eventually make a country album, since she’s dabbled in it over the years on various tribute projects and has collaborated with country stalwarts like Willie Nelson and Vince Gill, not to mention that even her pop albums have had elements of country in them. So, Feels Like Home seems appropriate for the title of her first official country record.
While certainly not a traditional country record, as I had personally hoped it would be, Crow is instead authentic to her way of doing things, while also being able to draw from the good parts of the modern sounds and styles of country music. - Leeann Ward
Recommended Tracks: “We Oughta Be Drinkin’”, “Stay at Home Mother”
#36 They Called it Music The Gibson Brothers
Individual rankings: #11 – Ben
On the title track of They Called it Music, IBMA Entertainers of the Year Leigh and Eric Gibson pine for the days when music was honest, simple, and “helped the hard times heal” – when it was a medium of art and self-expression rather than a mere moneymaker. Whether lighthearted (“Buy a Ring, Find a Preacher”), melancholy (“Dying for Someone to Live For”) or introspective (“Something Coming to Me”), the entire album is a beautiful realization of that very standard. - Ben Foster
Recommended Tracks: “Buy a Ring, Find a Preacher,” “They Called It Music,” “Something Coming to Me”
#35 Studebaker Mando Saenz
Individual rankings: Sam – #11
The third album from Texas-raised, Nashville resident Saenz is the most eclectic and best of his career. While the focus is still on his sharp songwriting skills, the mood varies from introspective to rocking to, on “Tall Grass,” downright playful. Saenz collaborated with an A-list batch of co-writers, including Kim Richey for “Break Away Speed” and Wade Bowen for “Bottle into Gold,” and the mix of songs with Saenz’s pleasant vocals and a hot band is a winning combination. - Sam Gazdziak
Recommended Tracks: “Break Away Speed”, “Bottle into Gold”, “Pocket Change”
#34 Build Me Up from Bones Sarah Jarosz
Individual rankings: #17 – Jonathan; #19 – Ben
On her third album, Build Me Up from Bones, Sarah Jarosz found her voice as both a singer and a songwriter. Her sense of phrasing draws from both her expansive knowledge of contemporary folk and her conservatory training in improvisation, and sharply observed original songs like “Gone Too Soon” and “1000 Things” more than hold their own alongside Joanna Newsom and Bob Dylan covers. - Jonathan Keefe
Recommended Tracks: “Over the Edge,” “Build Me Up from Bones,” “1000 Things”
#33 Opening Day Peter Cooper
Individual rankings: #16 – Leeann; #18 – Sam
eter Cooper’s second album was entitled after the great pedal steel guitar player, Lloyd Green. While Opening Day is not named after him, Green is still the other star player on Cooper’s third stellar solo album. Along with Green’s prominent steel and cooper’s own emotionally conversational voice, Cooper once again proves that he is as an adept songwriter as he is a journalist. Themes of living life well, baseball (Of course!), and even drone strikes. Each of these songs with its various themes are all presented with either insight or witty humor and sometimes both. - Leeann Ward
Recommended Tracks: “Much Better Now”, “Quiet Little War”
#32 Holly Grove The Whiskey Gentry
Individual rankings: #8 – Sam
It’s hard to say if The Whiskey Gentry will be the next big thing to come out of Georgia, but they have the talent to spare. The band mixes in bluegrass, country, a bit of Celtic and a dash of punk rock, resulting in a high-energy, hard-to-classify sound. “I Ain’t Nothing” and “Dixie” wouldn’t sound out of place in a honky tonk, while “Colly Davis” is a bluegrass-on-amphetamines winner. The title track is a four-and-a-half minute epic that was one of the most moving songs of the year. - Sam Gazdziak
#31 When We Fall Rebecca Frazier
Individual rankings: Ben – #7
Rebecca Frazier is a genuine triple threat – a great picker, a great singer, and a great songwriter. She shows that she can throw it down with the best of them on “Ain’t Gonna Work Tomorrow” as well as a trio of stellar instrumental tracks, while her delivery of ballads such as the deeply personal “Babe in Arms” resounds with humanity and vulnerability, the result being one of the year’s finest bluegrass albums. - Ben Foster
Recommended Tracks: “When We Fall,” “Ain’t Gonna Work Tomorrow,” “Babe in Arms”
#30 Not Cool Tim Easton
Individual rankings: #7 – Jonathan
Even if its self-deprecating title isn’t at all accurate, singer-songwriter Tim Easton’s Not Cool proves that, despite the glut of counter-evidence 2013 presented, it’s still possible to incorporate a heavy rock influence into folk and country styles without sacrificing wit, craft, or genre know-how. Spirited, ramshackle cuts like “Lickety Split” and “Crazy Motherfucker from Shelby, OH” make the underrated Easton’s seventh outing one of the year’s most raucous and, yes, coolest albums. - Jonathan Keefe
Recommended Tracks: “Troubled Times,” “Lickety Split,” “They Will Bury You”
#29 Wheelhouse Brad Paisley
Individual rankings: Sam – #7
Did you know that Brad Paisley released one of the best albums of his career this year? The humorous songs, like “Harvey Bodine” and “Death of a Single Man,” stayed humorous after multiple listenings, and unlike most other country singers, Paisley blended in pop elements, like sampling Roger Miller in “Outstanding in Our Field,” and did it without turning them into pop or rock songs with token country elements. “Southern Comfort Zone” and “Those Crazy Christians” showed more depth than their titles would suggest. And all anyone wanted to talk about was that damn “Accidental Racist” song. - Sam Gazdziak
Recommended Tracks: “Southern Comfort Zone”, “Beat This Summer”, “Death of a Single Man”
#28 In the Throes John Moreland
Individual rankings: #6 – Jonathan
A difficult meditation on what happens when one has experienced losses of love and faith, John Moreland’s In the Throes is a testament to the redemptive power of music. He may sing, “Nobody Gives a Damn About Songs Anymore,” on the album’s most keenly observed song, but Moreland’s spectacular songwriting is something everyone should hear. - Jonathan Keefe
Recommended Tracks: “Nobody Gives a Damn About Songs Anymore,” “Break My Heart Sweetly,” “Blues & Kudzu”
#27 Dos Divas
Lorrie Morgan & Pam Tillis
Individual rankings: #13 – Kevin; #16 – Ben
A lively and entertaining collaboration between two nineties, second-generation country stars. The album features six full collaborations, along with four solo tracks from each artist. The pairings are funny and loose, recalling the best of those old-school duet albums from the sixties and seventies. But the biggest surprise is in the solo turns by Lorrie Morgan, who turns in some of her strongest moments ever put down to tape. - Kevin Coyne
Recommended Tracks: “Last Night’s Makeup”, “Next Time it Rains”, “I Know What You Did Last Night”
#26 Good Wine and Bad Decisions
Individual rankings: #13 – Ben; #16 – Tara
Roberts’ comeback album is best approached with an aching heart and a glass of something smooth – all the better to absorb its combo of earthy blues and provoking, damn-that’s-depressing stories. But don’t mistake Good Wine and Bad Decisions for a downer; Roberts lures you into her dark places with such emotional gusto and groovy, engaging vibes that you somehow end up celebrating in misery. - Tara Seetharam
Recommended Tracks: “Arms of Jesus,” “He Made a Woman Out of Me,” “Bones,” “Old Strings”
#25 Finally Home Blue Sky Riders
Individual rankings: #4 – Dan
With their considerable powers combined, Georgia Middleman, Gary Burr, and Kenny Loggins (Kenny Loggins!) produce the year’s most relentlessly positive LP. No time for cynics here; this is distilled country-poptimism, a set of songs that could easily soundtrack a self-help seminar (“Just Say Yes”! “How About Now”!) and like it that way, thanks. And are you gonna complain? The songs are so catchy, you will help yourself. - Dan Milliken
Recommended Tracks: “Little Victories”, “Just Say Yes”, “How About Now”
#24 To All the Girls… Willie Nelson
Individual rankings: #12 – Tara; #15 – Leeann
Only Nelson could create an album akin to a mug of hot chocolate on a lazy Sunday afternoon that still feels elegant and impeccably thought-out. There’s no doubt he was tickled to record with all 18 female acts, from current stars to genre darlings to his own family, and it shows. He plays to each of her strengths with grace – stepping back in “Grandma’s Hands” to let Mavis Staples take it to church, standing quietly still in “Always On My Mind” so Carrie Underwood can inhabit the classic, waltzing right alongside Norah Jones in “Walkin.” It’s all comfort food, to be sure, but comfort food of the classiest, most tasteful order. - Tara Seetharam
Recommended Tracks: “Far Away Places,” “Please Don’t Tell Me How the Story Ends,” “Grandma’s Hands,” “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?”
Built around full-bodied melodies, subtle yet evocative arrangements, and authoritative vocal performances, Thorn in My Heart is another excellent collection of mature, compelling roots country songs by one of the genre’s most underrated singer-songwriters. - Ben Foster
Recommended Tracks: “Thorn in My Heart,” “London Town,” “Breakaway Speed”
#22 Massachusetts Lori McKenna
Individual rankings: #3 – Kevin
Whereas the previous, excellent Lorraine dealt heavily in the themes of loss and grief, the finest moments on McKenna’s latest collection surround matters of the heart. McKenna captures the quiet desperation just under the surface of life’s mundanity better than any writer today. - Kevin Coyne
Recommended Tracks: “Shake”, “Salt”, “Smaller and Smaller”
#21 The Stand-In
Individual rankings: #10 – Dan; #11 – Jonathan
Liz Rose’s daughter once again proves her family can school yours all day long, with a sophomore set of songs every bit as sharp as her debut. Her soft, demure singing style belies her ability to slip powerful blows—whether aimed at others or herself—into a song. Call her Nashville’s ninja. - Dan Milliken
Recommended Tracks: ”I Was Cruel”, “Silver Sings”, “Menagerie”
For the second year in a row, our seven writers – Kevin Coyne, Leeann Ward, Dan Milliken, Tara Seetharam, Ben Foster, Jonathan Keefe, and Sam Gazdziak – individually listed our twenty favorite albums and singles of the year. It’s a diverse crop of singles, some of which dominated country radio, while others were primarily heard in the Americana, bluegrass, and alternative country worlds. Today, we present the first half of our singles list, with the conclusion to follow tomorrow. Share your favorites in the comments!
“Someone Somewhere Tonight” Kellie Pickler
Individual rankings: #16 – Ben; #19 – Tara
A sweeping power ballad anchored by an intimate chorus and Pickler’s pleading sincerity. - Tara Seetharam
“Strong” Will Hoge
Individual rankings: #10 – Sam
Yeah, it’s the Chevy song, but whatever it takes to get Will Hoge introduced to a larger audience can’t be a bad thing. His lyrics about a true salt-of-the-earth individual ring true without ever steering into maudlin territory, and the line, “he ain’t jut tough, he’s strong,” is a great hook. It probably moved a fair number of pickup trucks, too. - Sam Gazdziak
#38 “Bourbon in Kentucky” Dierks Bentley
Individual rankings: #9 – Leeann
Although Bentley vies for radio play, “Bourbon in Kentucky” still sounds unique enough to stand out from the generic bombast of the male players on current country radio. In service to the intense angst of the song, the wailing guitars and the mix of Bentley’s and Kacey Musgraves’ emotive vocals make this single a riveting sonic and emotional experience. - Leeann Ward
#37 “You and I” Laura Bell Bundy
Individual rankings: #8 – Jonathan
Laura Bell Bundy goes more-Shania-than-Shania on a cover of Lady Gaga’s “You and I” that aches and shakes in equal measure. Bundy’s music is best when she embraces her campiest impulses, so it makes perfect sense for her to take a signature hit by the most theatrical star in pop and lasso it into the country genre. - Jonathan Keefe
#36 “You Can’t Make Old Friends” Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton
Individual rankings: #7 – Kevin
After several attempts to recreate the youthful playfulness of the classic “Islands in the Stream”, Rogers and Parton embrace their age and confront their own mortality. It’s an obvious truth that no matter how great a new friend is, they can’t replace the shared memories of someone you’ve known for a long time. Even if you’ve since parted ways, you still share a part of the other’s identity. How fitting that these two old friends are ours as well, making the entire proceedings that much more poignant. - Kevin Coyne
“I’ll Be There” The SteelDrivers
Individual rankings: #7 – Leeann
It’s almost unheard of for a group to lose a lead singer as dynamic as Chris Stapleton and still be as strong as ever with a replacement. Gary Nichols, however, managed to seamlessly slip into the SteelDriver’s front spot with the newly revamped band’s first single, “I’ll Be There.” The song is deliciously haunting both in content and melody. - Leeann Ward
#34 “Want Me Too” Charlie Horsham
Individual rankings: #7 – Dan
Imagine if your favorite Keith Urban song and your favorite Diamond Rio song were to meet in the middle ‘neath that old Georgia pi-i-iiine. You might end up with something like Worsham’s second single, a lovestruck tail-wagger with Urban drive and Rio harmonies. Show me a cuter line from this year than “My heart’s skippin’ like a stone on the water!” - Dan Milliken
#33 “Red” Taylor Swift
Individual rankings: #6 – Dan
“Red” is a curious mix of brilliant similes (“Fighting with him was like trying to solve a crossword and realizing there’s no right answer”), plain ol’ descriptions posing as similes (“Touching him was like realizing all you ever wanted was right there in front of you”), and logical pretzels twisted against their will into similes (“Forgetting him was like trying to know somebody you never met”—what!). But Swift’s passion and command of melody pull the disparate pieces together, resulting in one of the year’s most unique and compulsively listenable singles. - Dan Milliken
“All Over the Road” Easton Corbin
Individual rankings: #6 – Ben
A delicious slice of steel-heavy nineties-esque escapist country bliss – complete with a breezy melody and an infectious, laid-back vocal performance. More please. - Ben Foster
#31 “Beat This Summer” Brad Paisley
Individual rankings: #11 – Ben; #19 – Leeann
With a hooky sing-along melody, addictive guitar riff, and a unique genre-bending arrangement, Paisley proves that summer hits don’t have to suck. - Ben Foster
#30 “Pocket Change” Mando Seanz
Individual rankings: #5 – Sam
Texas radio stations jumped on this single when it was released, with good reason. Saenz has been known for his quiet, introspective ballads in the past, but “Pocket Change” starts with a slow burn before exploding into a full-blown rocker. “Where’s my Studebaker, I’m nobody’s pocket change,” he snarls as he walks/runs away from a bad love. - Sam Gazdziak
#29 “Weed Instead of Roses” Ashley Monroe
Individual rankings: #16 – Tara, Jonathan; #20 – Sam
One woman’s plea to pump some action into her deflated marriage – via weed, leather and whips. It pops because it’s provocative, but it works because Monroe blends delightful charm with tongue-in-cheek boredom like the pro that she is. - Tara Seetharam
“See You Again”
Individual rankings: #1 – Kevin
“See You Again” combines three of my favorite things: death, positivity, and power vocals. The entire premise that a person can look past their grief because their faith tells them they’ll be reunited with their lost loved one is hardly new to country music, but it’s rarely presented with such confident bravado and so little melancholy. I can’t think of another singer who could pull that off as believably as Underwood, who by the end of these proceedings makes me hope that the choir of angels in heaven sound like her insanely catchy backup singers do here. - Kevin Coyne
#27 “Carry Me Back to Virginia” Old Crow Medicine Show
Individual rankings: #9 – Sam; #12 – Jonathan
For anyone who wants to discover Old Crow Medicine Show beyond “Wagon Wheel,” this song is an excellent primer. Lightning-fast fiddle and vocals from Ketch Secor with a song about the Civil War, and crack band of musicians that favor enthusiasm over the precision that is often found in bluegrass. They’ve been often imitated but never duplicated. - Sam Gazdziak
“Blowin’ Smoke” Kacey Musgraves
Individual rankings: #7 – Ben; #15 – Sam
For three glorious minutes, the voice of the working class is heard once again on country radio. Musgraves suitably renders the song with a rundown sigh of a performance, while a gritty, rumbling arrangement places the listener right in the midst of the smoky haze. - Ben Foster
On the surface, it’s obvious that this is about an entangled dysfunctional relationship, but listening deeper reveals that the relationship is with an addictive substance. Encased in a deep melancholy, the song cleverly and astutely captures the parallels with the two types of relational embattlements. The observations acknowledge that while the sources may be different, many of the general effects are the same. - Leeann Ward
A smooth yet moody cocktail of country, folk, and soul that rides its long drawl into a sweet, simple chorus. Shoulda been a hit. - Dan Milliken
“DONE.” The Band Perry
Individual rankings: #6 – Jonathan; #15 – Tara
At a time when most contemporary country acts are aspiring to sound like arena rock, metal, and post-grunge bands that were terrible in the first place, The Band Perry at least had the good taste to blatantly rip off one of the best rock singles of the last decade for their hit “DONE.” - Jonathan Keefe
#22 “I Know What You Did Last Night” Pam Tillis & Lorrie Morgan
Individual rankings: #10 – Kevin, Ben
They may be in their fifties, but make no mistake about it: Pam Tillis and Lorrie Morgan can still party down when they want to. Built around good-humored conversational interplay between two old friends, “I Know What You Did Last Night” is one of the freshest, most entertaining up-tempos sent to radio this year, and a reminder that Tillis and Morgan are still two of country music’s most vibrant talents. - Ben Foster
#21 “I’d Rather Hear I Don’t Love You (Than Nothing at All)” Rhonda Vincent
Individual rankings: #9 – Ben; #10 – Leeann
Rhonda Vincent is always supreme whether she’s singing traditional bluegrass or, in this case, a good ol’ country weeper. Supported with the best kind of country acoustic instrumentation, Vincent’s voice satisfyingly leans into the heartbreak and desperation of a woman who is gripping a relationship that is obviously already dead. She knows it’s over, but her heart says that it’s not over until he literally says it’s over. - Leeann Ward
As a general rule, you can scan the credits of any new country album and assume that if Brandy Clark is a writer on one of the songs, it’s the best song on the album. As Clark readies the release of 12 Stories, her debut album as an artist, it’s a great time for fans of that remarkable set to get caught up on Clark’s work to date.
Believe the hype. Clark really is as good as everyone is saying she is. Possibly even better, as these twenty tracks suggest. Scroll down to the bottom, and you can listen to snippets from all of them as you read along.
Even if you’re only a casual fan of country radio, you’ve probably already heard Clark’s distinctive brand of songwriting. She’s penned huge hits for the Band Perry and Miranda Lambert in the past year, along with a should’ve-been hit for LeAnn Rimes and the upcoming release from frequent collaborator Kacey Musgraves.
Here’s a rundown of her radio releases so far.
“Better Dig Two”
written by Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally, and Trevor Rosen
from The Band Perry album, Pioneer
The production nearly overwhelms the sharpness of the lyric here, but after a few listens, it’s easier to get past the clutter and enjoy the wicked wordplay.
written by Brandy Clark, Jessie Jo Dillon, and Shane McAnally
from the LeAnn Rimes album, Lady & Gentlemen
That Aqua Net reference at the beginning was flagged by us upon release as “the best opening line in recent memory.” It still holds up well today, sounding just as fresh and clever on Clark’s debut album.
“Follow Your Arrow”
written by Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally, and Kacey Musgraves
from the Kacey Musgraves album, Same Trailer Different Park
Arguably the strongest song on Musgraves’ remarkable debut set, “Follow Your Arrow” is a remarkably progressive anthem of tolerance and individual expression. It is slated to be the third single and in a perfect world, Musgraves will use that as a reason to perform it on the CMA Awards next month.
“Mama’s Broken Heart”
written by Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally, and Kacey Musgraves
from the Miranda Lambert album, Four the Record
Easily the best thing Lambert’s done in years, “Mama’s Broken Heart” is a whole lotta crazy without feeling even a little bit forced. It manages to slip in some sly feminist commentary, too.
“Things a Mama Don’t Know” (with Toby Keith)
written by Brandy Clark, Mark Narmore, and Liz Rose
from the Mica Roberts EP, Days You Live For
The debut single from Mica Roberts featured her Show Dog label head, Toby Keith. It’s a potent song about a woman who follows the wrong man across the country and doesn’t want to let her mother know how much she’s suffering as a result of this poor choice. It’s always nice to hear Keith’s voice, but his presence gets in the way of the lyric, making for an odd switch between third and first person during the second verse.
The Album Cuts
Many of Clark’s best songs have never been sent to radio. Here are some of her lesser-known tracks.
“The Boy Never Stays”
written by Brandy Clark, Sarah Darling, and Josh Osborne
from the Sarah Darling album, Angels & Devils
Clark’s songs reel you in early, usually with an opening line that immediately grabs your attention. “He’s the first taste of something you shouldn’t have. He’s the first lie you tell to your mom and dad.” Her masterful use of pathos is what sets Clark apart from most of her peers.
“Boys and Buses”
written by Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally, and Josh Osborne
digital download track from Season One of Nashville
There’s an incredible irony to the fact that Hayden Panettiere’s character on Nashville is supposed to be a flashy pop singer making disposable music for tweens. The songs she actually sings on the show are often top-notch, better than much of what’s on the radio today. “Boys and Buses” may have a chorus that would make Julie Roberts swoon, but it’s chock full of clever details and turns of phrase that are Clark’s hallmarks.
written by Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally, and Kacey Musgraves
from the Kacey Musgraves album, Same Trailer Different Park
A sweetly mournful song about love gone wrong, built around the false hope of wishing on a weed.
“The Day She Got Divorced”
written by Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally, and Mark D. Sanders
from the Reba McEntire album, All the Women I Am
When we reviewed this album three years ago, this track was noted as among the strongest. We called it “vivid and real, with lyrical imagery that would make Jeannie C. Riley proud.” One of the few great McEntire performances this century, it’s especially impressive that Clark’s own reading on her debut album is even better than McEntire’s reading of this dark and dreary divorce number.
“Get Outta My Yard”
written by Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally, and Kacey Musgraves
from the Gretchen Wilson album, Right on Time
Wilson’s latest album opens with this cut. It practically screams for a more aggressive performance, the latest reminder what Wilson’s outlaw image never really shows up at the mic. If Lambert’s looking for another rave-up, she might want to anchor her next set with this one.
“It is What it is”
written by Brandy Clark, Luke Laird, and Kacey Musgraves
from the Kacey Musgraves album, Same Trailer Different Park
The late night phone call concept has been done well before, but never quite this emotion-free. She doesn’t need him now and isn’t likely to hate herself in the morning for loving him tonight. “Maybe I love you,” she wonders, or “maybe I’m just kinda bored.” This is the best track on Musgraves’ album that hasn’t been flagged as a single yet.
“Last Night’s Make Up”
written by Brandy Clark, Jessie Jo Dillon, and Shane McAnally
from the Lorrie Morgan and Pam Tillis album, Dos Divas
You know that a writer is capturing universal truth when a song can be as convincing by a voice weathered by time as it would be if sung by someone as young as the writer herself. This tale of morning after regret is one of Morgan’s finest moments, on par with her signature ballads from the nineties.
“Love Without You” (featuring Sheryl Cr0w)
written by Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally
from the Darius Rucker album, True Believers
The Crow backing vocal is easy to miss until she starts singing some of the lines in the end, but Rucker hasn’t had his own talent showcased this well too often, so it helps that she stays out of the way for most of the track. The subtlety of the lyric and the quiet production allow him to shine as an interpreter.
“The Maker of Them All”
written by Brandy Clark and Billy Montana
from the Guy Penrod album, Breathe Deep
A stunning and uplifting celebration of how all of us are creations of God, using sharp contrasts to make the point of how many diverse and seemingly contradictory things are part of a greater plan designed by one maker. “The hands that have to fight. The hands that pray for peace at night. The Lord is the maker of them all.”
“Something Worth Stealing”
written by Brandy Clark and Jill King
from the Jill King album, Rain on Fire
“There’s love,” King sings, “and then there’s runaway desire.” There are a lot of songs about the actual cheating, but they usually document the heat of the moment. This indiscretion is coldly calculated, no matter how hot the flames of passion underlying it might be.
“That’s How I’ll Remember You”
written by Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally, and Madeleine Slate
from the David Nail album, The Sound of a Million Dreams
“Summertime in Brooklyn, mustard on your lip. I knew I loved you by the bottom of the fifth.” Not too many country songs capture moments that perfectly detailed, and this has got to be the only one where the moment takes place at a Brooklyn Cyclones game.
“Tryin’ to Go to Church”
written by Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally, and Ashton Shepherd
from the Ashton Shepherd album, Where Country Grows
One of the most charming tracks from Shepherd’s second set, she rattles off the reasons she can’t quite make it to church in her exaggerated twang. My personal favorite: “Here comes that husband-stealin’ heifer and I reckon I’m gonna have to fight.”
“Waitin’ on a Train”
written by Brandy Clark, Jessie Jo Dillon, and Shane McAnally
from the Buffy Lawson album, I’m Leaving You For Me
The debut solo album from former Bomshel Buffy Lawson features this gem that compares waiting for a man to love her in return to “standing in an airport, waiting on a train.”
“When I Find Me That Mountain”
written by Brandy Clark and Trent Jeffcoat
from the Trent Jeffcoat album, When I Find Me That Mountain
Clark doesn’t engage her faith much on her debut album, but if this and “The Maker of Them All” are any indication, she’s got a great country gospel album waiting inside of her.
“You Can Come Over”
written by Brandy Clark, Jessie Jo Dillon, and Mark Narmore
from the Craig Campbell album, Never Regret
A true hidden gem, this one tells the heartbreaker in question, “You can come over but you can’t come in.” A talk on the front porch, a ride in the truck. Those are just fine. But walking through his front door will just lead to her leaving again.
Sara Evans launches her seventh studio album with the Marv Green-penned “Slow Me Down,” in which a relationship is on the rocks, and Evans’ narrator is just about ready to walk out – but she looks back in hopes that her man will give her one good reason to stay. (Lorrie Morgan’s 1990 chart-topper “Five Minutes,” written by Beth Nielsen Chapman, is probably one of the song’s closest lyrical relatives.)
The single sets the appropriate mood with a distinctively ominous string intro (which will likely make it stand out on the radio if radio plays it) as well as an evocative melody that lingers after the song ends. Melodic rises and dips convey angst-ridden indecision as Evans sings “Wheels are turnin’ in my mind… Don’t wanna leave, but I might this time,” and a dramatic crescendo exudes mounting desperation as the song launches into its chorus. Evans gives the song all she’s got, delivering a forceful performance of the chorus while rendering the song’s title phrase with a plaintive trill.
Unfortunately, Evans’ and Mark Bright’s production is where things go wrong. During the chorus, Evans’ distinctive alto is needlessly marred by sea of pounding guitars. And, considering that Evans’ voice has always sounded best in a pure country setting, it is somewhat disheartening that little about “Slow Me Down” feels country. Though Evans’ style has shifted further toward the pop side of the pop-country spectrum in recent years, it has remained rare for her to release a single that features not so much as a trace of country instrumentation, as is the case here.
“Slow Me Down” is a good song. It’s just unfortunate that it’s held back from being what it could have been.
If you have a soft spot for the great country artists of the nineties – particularly the generation of mature, articulate women who ruled the genre for much of the decade – the announcement of a duets album between Pam Tillis and Lorrie Morgan was likely a tremendous cause for excitement. With both ladies being second-generation country stars, Opry members, touring partners, and great friends, a studio collaboration would seem a natural progression, and the lofty potential is obvious.
There’s a palpable joy in the proceedings as the two gal pals pair up in the studio for the first time, and there’s a sense of good-natured fun evident throughout, with song selections often skewing toward the humorous. Tillis has a ball with “Old Enough to Be Your Lover” in which her narrator giddily flaunts a romance with a much younger man, a chuckle in her performance as she sings about her young lover not knowing who Richard Nixon was. (I imagine K.T. Oslin would be proud) On the delightfully snarky “Ain’t Enough Roses,” Tillis scoffs that there “ain’t enough roses on God’s green earth” to make her take back her no-good ex. The line “I hope you saved your sales receipt so you can take ‘em back” is particularly delicious, and Tillis’ sassy delivery milks the song’s humor for all it’s worth.
But the album’s serious moments yield rewards their own. The writing trio of Shane McAnally, Jessie Jo Dillon, and Country Universe favorite Brandy Clark supplies one of the set’s best-written song’s with “Last Night’s Make Up,” a regretful morning-after ballad in which Morgan’s narrator laments, “If I could wash you off like last night’s make up, looking in the mirror wouldn’t be so hard.” It’s also one of Morgan’s best vocal turns on the album, demonstrating the level of nuance that she has retained even as her vocal power has noticeably declined.
And while Tillis’ powerhouse vocals have aged with remarkable grace, there are times when the signs of wear and tear on Morgan’s voice prove to be a hindrance. She stays within her limitations for most of the album, but she occasionally sounds strained when tackling the high notes on the title track, or the rapid-fire verses of honky tonk throwdown “I Know What You Did Last Night.”
In terms of song content, there is a small amount of fat that could have been trimmed. “That’s So Cool” presents what could have been an interesting account of a middle-aged woman rekindling an old high school romance, but the song is hindered by a lifeless melody and too much time wasted repeating its forgettable title (and if you didn’t like Reba singing about texting and Twitter, you won’t like Lorrie singing about Google and Facebook either). While one likely wouldn’t doubt the sincerity behind “Another Chance To,” a meditation on the uncertainty of life, it’s unfortunate that the song is clogged up with throwaway lines such as “Every day is a gift” and “I’ve never loved the way I love you.” Tillis makes the best of a fairly rote love song with “Even the Stars,” but the song still could have been left off with no great loss to the project as a whole.
But there are times when even the lesser songs are elevated by some inspired production choices. The title track is spiced up with horn-infused Tex-Mex stylings, “That’s So Cool” boasts a delightful banjo line, and a bluesy piano and harmonica-driven arrangement perfectly underscores the quiet vindictiveness of “Ain’t Enough Roses.” It’s particularly enjoyable to hear Tillis and Morgan sing over a pure traditional country arrangement as they lovingly cover “I’m Tired,” a 1958 Webb Pierce hit co-written by Pam’s legendary dad Mel. The only glaring production misstep is the audacious, bass-heavy arrangement of “Old Enough to Be Your Love,” weighed down by too much clutter in the mix.
Enjoyable as the album is, it’s hard not to wish that Dos Divas contained a few more full-fledged duets with fewer solos. The album opens with four duets, and then serves up eight solo tracks with Tillis and Morgan alternating lead vocals before closing with two final duets. There’s nothing wrong with a duets album including a few solos for variety’s sake, but there’s a point at which it begins to feel like a missed opportunity. Seeing as we already have plenty of solo material by both ladies, the real treat is hearing them sing together, whether playfully pointing fingers at each other’s rowdy tendencies in “I Know What You Did Last Night” or musing on gossipy small-town Southern culture in “Bless Their Hearts.” The self-deprecating “What Was I Thinkin’” closes the album on a high note, drawing on Tillis and Morgan’s perspective as women who have done some living, as they look back with amusement on choices large and small that were later regretted. A tongue-in-cheek conversational tone actively engages the listener while lines of spoken dialogue hint at the song being semi-autobiographical for the two artists.
Ultimately, it all adds up to a very good album, albeit one that could have been even better. At its best, the album contains moments of pure brilliance, while Tillis and Morgan’s unshakable chemistry is enough to make one hope that this studio collaboration does not turn out to be a one-off. It’s a fun, entertaining effort by two of country music’s brightest talents of the past twenty years, made all the more enjoyable by the fact that they clearly understand the need to not take themselves too seriously.
Top Tracks: “Last Night’s Make Up,” “Ain’t Enough Roses,” “What Was I Thinkin’”
Would you expect anything less from a collaboration between Pam Tillis and Lorrie Morgan, especially one that has them officially being billed as Grits & Glamour?
Much like both ladies were known for doing in their chart-topping days, “I Know What You Did Last Night” weds traditional country structures with the contemporary female experience. It’s one of those classic conversational duets, with both singers alternating lines and talking as much as singing at certain points. They don’t quite break the fourth wall, but they push up against it, much like Loretta & Conway and Porter & Dolly would do on their album cuts.
But the girls night out spirit is completely modern, without even a hint of apology for their rowdiness. If anything, it’s a friendly competition for who did the most partying down, with the details grounded enough in reality that it never becomes a caricature.
Pam and Lorrie toured together for a bit in the nineties, but they’ve been pairing up regularly for a couple of years now, and that helps the collaboration feel natural, not forced. Grits & Glamour, the tour moniker, has taken on a sound that has elements of both artists but is uniquely its own. They have more than a few classic recordings between them, with Tillis being especially strong as an albums artist, but I don’t remember either of them having so much pure fun on a studio recording.
In a year that has seen some incredible collaborations already, it looks like Pam Tillis and Lorrie Morgan are still quite capable of hanging in the big leagues. I cannot wait to hear the rest of their album.
Pam Tillis & Lorrie Morgan
Grits & Glamour Tour
Southern Kentucky Performing Arts Center
Bowling Green, Kentucky
October 13, 2012
This past Saturday night, I had the immense pleasure of seeing two favorite artists of mine – contemporary country legends Pam Tillis and Lorrie Morgan – perform live in concert at the newly completed Southern Kentucky Performing Arts Center (SKyPAC) in Bowling Green, Kentucky. The SKyPAC is a beautifully decorated 1800-seat venue with excellent acoustics, thus providing an ideal atmosphere for Tillis and Morgan’s fantastic Grits & Glamour show.
The Grits & Glamour tour is all about the fans, and all about great music. No unnecessary gimmicks, bells, or whistles – just Tillis and Morgan singing their hearts out, joined by a small four-piece band. Both ladies were in fine voice, boasting some absolutely gorgeous harmonies, as they performed together backed by fiddle, bass, guitar, and keyboard. Such simplicity created a warm, laid-back, almost familial environment as Tillis and Morgan treated the eager crowd to a selection of best-loved tunes, all the while cutting up like one would expect from a couple of longtime girlfriends, and sharing often-humorous personal anecdotes – such as Tillis’ account of being mistaken for Patty Loveless at a Waffle House, by a fan from Knockemstiff, Ohio. (Google it – It’s a real place)
a selection of well-known hits from both artists, finished off with covers of classic songs that are close to their hearts, as well as some more recent cuts. The two opened the show with a lovely duet version of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now.” From that point onward, they alternated between performing Morgan’s hits and Tillis’ hits, beginning with Morgan’s “Watch Me” (performed in a fierce fiddle-laden arrangement quite different from the relative slickness of the 1992 hit version) and Tillis’ “Shake the Sugar Tree.” Obviously, both ladies have had more than enough hits to fill up an entire set list (Tillis has had 13 Top 10 country hits; Morgan has had 14), but Tillis and Morgan did a fine job covering the main highlights of their careers, such that virtually any audience member could enjoy the thrill of hearing something familiar. Though the hits dominated the set list, Tillis and Morgan also performed standout cuts from each of their most recent albums. Tillis performed “Train Without a Whistle” from her 2007 career-best effort Rhinestoned, while Morgan gave a heartrending performance of “How Does It Feel” from 2010’s I Walk Alone.
A major facet of what makes Grits & Glamour such a broadly enjoyable show is the way its two headliners simply exude genuine love for great country music new and old. They commented on the increased scarcity of ”real” country music in modern times, but Tillis nonetheless assured the audience that “We got it all – fiddles, steel guitar, mandolins – and we ain’t ever lettin’ go of it!” Both ladies shared a common experience of growing up with the musical heritage of a famous parent – an experience they recollected with fond enthusiasm - being the daughters of singer-songwriter legend Mel Tillis, and of late Opry star George Morgan, respectively. One of the night’s most memorable moments was a heartfelt tribute to Tillis and Morgan’s famous fathers, as they eased into a medley of George Morgan’s 1949 signature “Candy Kisses” and Mel Tillis’ classic composition “Burning Memories,” a hit first for Ray Price in 1964, and then for Mel Tillis himself in 1977. In addition, the ladies also lovingly covered classics such as Skeeter Davis’ “The End of the World” and Roger Miller’s “King of the Road.”
As the show neared its end, Tillis and Morgan were met with the loudest applause of the night as they treated the audience to performances of their respective signature classics – Tillis’ “Maybe It Was Memphis,” and Morgan’s “Something In Red.” They then rose to their feet for an inspired performance of gospel song “Jesus On the Line.” After an encore, they returned to the stage to perform brief snippets of Morgan’s 1993 number one “What Part of No” and Tillis’ 1990 debut hit “Don’t Tell Me What to Do.” Then came one of the biggest highlights of the evening as the two closed out the show by tearing into the rousing up-tempo number “I Know What You Did Last Night” – a new song which is to appear on Pam Tillis and Lorrie Morgan’s forthcoming Grits & Glamour duets record. After the show ended, Tillis and Morgan headed out to the atrium to sign autographs for a crowd of enthusiastic concertgoers.
Needless to say, the Grits & Glamour concert experience was more than enough to whet one’s appetite for the ladies’ soon-to-be-completed duet effort. The unique chemistry shared between the two outstanding talents was on full display throughout the evening. If you have the opportunity to catch any of Pam Tillis and Lorrie Morgan’s future shows on the Grits & Glamour tour, you will be in for a real country music treat.
“Both Sides Now”
“Shake the Sugar Tree”
“Except for Monday”
“Cleopatra, Queen of Denial”
“A Picture of Me (Without You)”
“Train Without a Whistle”
Medley: “Candy Kisses”/ “Burning Memories”
“The End of the World”
“Mi Vida Loca (My Crazy Life)”
“How Does It Feel”
“King of the Road”
“I Guess You Had to Be There”
“Maybe It Was Memphis”
“Something In Red”
“Jesus On the Line”
“What Part of No”
“Don’t Tell Me What to Do”
“I Know What You Did Last Night”
Some of the greatest artists in country music left the scene just as they reached staggering artistic heights, leaving fans to forever wonder what might have been.
Keith Whitley was born and raised in Kentucky, and was performing music from a very young age. A prodigious talent, he was only fifteen years old when he met Ricky Skaggs while competing in a regional music contest. The two became fast friends, and were soon performing on stage with bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley.
Whitley made two separate runs as a member of the Clinch Mountain Boys with Stanley, then performed in a group called New South, led by J.D Crowe. After appearing on more than a dozen albums, first with the Boys and then with New South, he finally pursued a solo career in the early eighties, signing with RCA records.
His first album, A Hard Act to Follow, made little impact, but his second set, L.A. to Miami, earned him stardom. It featured his breakout hit, “Miami, My Amy”, and raised his profile considerably, but Whitley was displeased with the album's slick sound. He truly found his voice on his first gold album, Don't Close Your Eyes, which featured three consecutive #1 hits, including the CMA Single of the Year, “I'm No Stranger to the Rain”, and the modern standard, “When You Say Nothing at All.”
Whitley became a new standard-bearer for neo-traditional country music, receiving critical acclaim that exceeded that of contemporaries like Randy Travis and Ricky Van Shelton. With the chart success and a marriage to fellow country artist Lorrie Morgan that had just produced a son, Whitley was poised for long-term professional and personal success.
Sadly, he was battling alcoholism, a fight that he lost in May 1989, when he died of alcohol poisoning. Amazingly, his success continued posthumously with the album, I Wonder Do You Think of Me also selling gold and featuring three big hits. He remained a presence on radio in the early nineties through duets with other artists. A collaboration with Morgan earned the CMA Vocal Event trophy, and a collaboration with Earl Thomas Conley reached #2 in 1991.
Whitley's recording career was brief, but much like Patsy Cline before him, his influence has cast a long shadow over the genre.
The countdown continues. Scroll down to the bottom to hear samples of each song and to share your comments!
Top 40 Singles of 2011, Part Two: #30-#21
Individual Rankings: #5 – Jonathan
It’s not for nothing that Tammy Wynette once claimed that Shelby Lynne had the best voice in country music, but, as Lynne has become increasingly subdued in the latter half of her career, she’s rarely explored the full range of her vocal talent. So when she unleashes that voice for the first time in a decade during the coda of “Revelation Road,” it may not be revelatory, but it sure is a most welcome return. – Jonathan Keefe
My Name is Money
Individual Rankings: Ben – #4
A clever lyrical personification of the Almighty Dollar. Sonia Leigh tears into the song with her gritty, powerful vocals while the snappy, genre-blending arrangement gives the single added spunk and sass. “My Name Is Money” is a delicious sonic confection from one of the 2011’s most dynamic and promising new talents. – Ben Foster
God Only Knows
Individual Rankings: Kevin – #11; Tara – #14
Why? Because she can sing, and she nails a song that’s great to begin with. It’s not quite Lorrie Morgan singing “Don’t Worry Baby”, but it’s close. – Kevin John Coyne
Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit
Individual Rankings: #3 – Sam
One of the unlikeliest catchy songs of the year came from Jason Isbell. Sure, the content of the song is heartbreaking, but try listening to it and not singing along with “One of my friends is taking her in and giving her codeine.”- Sam Gazdziak
Ghost on the Canvas
Individual Rankings: #10 – Kevin; #12 – Dan
Staring down his mortality, Campbell imparts a final message: Find me again in what I’ve left behind. In Campbell’s case – or Van Gogh’s, whose Wheatfield with Crows is referenced here – the remnants may be works of art. Others will have different sorts of canvases. One thing is universal: though most of the world will never see them, the ghosts will emerge for those who need them. – Dan Milliken
Individual Rankings: #5 – Kevin; #17 – Dan
Why? Because he can sing, and he sounds rejuvenated to be doing it as a solo artist. It’s a great song, but in lesser hands, it would’ve been sappy. – Kevin John Coyne
Mumford & Sons
Individual Rankings: #5- Sam; #16 – Leeann
Pop radio has managed to incorporate Lady Antebellum and Taylor Swift singles, to give just a couple examples. So would it kill country radio to add Mumford & Sons to the airwaves? Between Marcus Mumford’s hopeful lyrics (“But I will hold on hope/And I won’t let you choke/On the noose around your neck”) and Country Winston’s banjo, this song begged to be a crossover hit. – Sam Gazdziak
Very few artists could turn a borderline-trite hook into an invigorating anthem fit for the dance hall. Even fewer could do it so accessibly yet commandingly that you want to drop what you’re doing and have a Moonshine in his honor. Bottoms up, King George. – Tara Seetharam
When Wanda Jackson sings, “I’m wonderin’ where in the world could Jerry Lee be,” on her fantastic cover of Bob Dylan’s “Thunder on the Mountain,” Jack White’s on-point rockabilly arrangement makes it sound like Jerry Lee Lewis himself is playing in Jackson’s ace backing band. Though her voice may have lost some of its punch, Jackson’s delivery on “Thunder on the Mountain” finds the Queen of Rockabilly as feisty as ever. – Jonathan Keefe
You Gonna Fly
Individual Rankings: #8 – Tara; #9 – Jonathan
Urban strips the title phrase of all its pomposity but retains its punch with an assured, coolly confident performance. The song’s kicker, though, is the way it handles love’s ability to “fly us” to another plane, spiritually and emotionally, with matter-of-fact breeziness. “One, two, three / Baby don’t think twice / Just like that you got a brand new life” – how refreshingly uncomplicated. – Tara Seetharam
Lately, I’ve been playing “Deep Down” on a loop, and it got me thinking…
What if one of the big female artists of 2011 were the first to release this song?
If Carrie Underwood recorded it in 2011, the song would be praised as one of the best she’s ever recorded, but she’d be criticized for over-singing and over-producing it.
If Taylor Swift recorded it in 2011, the song would be praised as one of the best she’s ever recorded, but she’d be criticized for missing every other note, even with the help of auto-tune.
If Miranda Lambert recorded it in 2011, the song would be praised as one of the best she’s ever recorded, and further evidence that she’s the messiah of contemporary country music, regardless of how she sang or produced it.
But alas, Pam Tillis recorded it in 1995, and the song went largely unnoticed, because a great song with a great vocal performance and a great production was expected, not special, coming from her.
Perhaps the best way to listen to country music in 2011 is not to listen to anything else in the genre’s history. That way the illusion that there is some great contemporary country music out there can be preserved.