As we begin our look back on the last ten years in country music, we’re starting with the bottom. Over the next few days, you’ll be reading about the worst that country music sent to radio in the 2000s, much of which they actually played.
But first, a disclaimer. This list makes no attempt to objectively list the worst singles of the decade. If that’s what I was going for here, I’d just post a collection of homemade tracks and twenty Rascal Flatts singles and call it a day. Instead, this list takes a broader view, including songs from accomplished artists that were just disappointing, copycat and fad-chasing numbers, and just plain old mediocre efforts.
This isn’t the type of thing we normally do, but I’m sure I’ll hear what I’m right about, what I’m wrong about, and what I forgot to include in the first place! Look for the best-of lists to follow as the year starts winding down.
The Worst Singles of the Decade, Part 1: #50-#41
Mark Wills, “19 Somethin’”
Pick a decade, man.
Toby Keith, “Who’s Your Daddy?”
The biggest casualty of Keith’s ascent to superstardom was his quality check. When your label lets you put out anything and radio goes ahead and plays it, the blame must be spread around for such silliness as this.
Halfway to Hazard, “Daisy”
In which a girl’s sole reasons for existing are to make a boy a man, lead him to God, and give him a child. After that, you can just kill her off in the final verse. This is why people hate country music.
Martina McBride, “(I Never Promised You a) Rose Garden”
McBride’s bloodless cover of the Lynn Anderson classic lacks all of the layers of irony found in the original, but it secured its place on this list by the parenthetical addition to the title. “Oh, it’s that song about a rose garden!”
Rascal Flatts, “Revolution”
Then again, if Martina sounds like she doesn’t get the layers of meaning in “Rose Garden”, Rascal Flatts make clear they have no idea at all what John Lennon was singing about on the White Album. That they have the audacity to start going “Shoo-be-doo-bop” in the background as Gary LeVox sings about Chairman Mao is simply insane.
Joe Nichols, “If Nobody Believed In You”
He’s worried that God is finally giving up on mankind. He was able to keep the faith through all those epic wars and acts of genocide, but no prayers in public school pushed Him over the edge.
Miranda Lambert, “Dead Flowers”
Person #1: “Wow, this song has no melody at all.”
Person #2: “Did she just compare herself to Christmas lights?”
Person #1: “And it just goes on forever. Who’s singing this anyway?”
Person #2: “It’s by….Miranda Lambert.”
Person #1: “Miranda Lambert?…..It’s…..brilliant!”
Person #2: “Yes. Brilliant!”
Lady Antebellum, “Lookin’ For a Good Time”
She should look for an Autotuner instead.
Billy Gilman, “She’s My Girl”
“The way she moves, the way she grooves. She drives me wild with her wild-child smile.” It took Billy Gilman singing a romantic song to make all of his inspirational songs seem painless in comparison.
Country Universe contributor and reader Cory DeStein flagged this rundown from Billboard regarding women on the charts this decade:
PERFECT 10: On Country Songs, Carrie Underwood ropes her 10th top 10, as “Cowboy Casanova” climbs 11-8. With the advance, Underwood now stands alone in first-place for most top 10s on the chart among solo women this decade.
Here are the solo females with the most top 10s on Country Songs since 2000:
10, Carrie Underwood
9, Faith Hill
9, Martina McBride
8, Taylor Swift
7, Sara Evans
7, Reba McEntire
6, Jo Dee Messina
5, LeAnn Rimes
5, Gretchen Wilson
4, Shania Twain
Notably, the artist who led the category among women last decade did so with almost three times as many top 10s. Reba McEntire ranked first among solo women in the ’90s with 27 top 10s on Country Songs. Trisha Yearwood placed second with 18 between 1990 and 1999, and Faith Hill, Patty Loveless and Tanya Tucker each posted 14 in that span.
The decline in fortune for women at radio this decade is even more pronounced when you compare the above top ten to the previous decade:
Most Top Ten Singles by a Female Artist – 1990-1999:
Reba McEntire (27)
Trisha Yearwood (18)
Faith Hill (14)
Patty Loveless (14)
Tanya Tucker (14)
Pam Tillis (13)
Lorrie Morgan (12)
Shania Twain (12)
Martina McBride (10)
That’s ten women who matched Underwood’s total for this decade. That Underwood didn’t even hit the top ten for the first time until late 2005 shows how bleak it was at radio for female artists this year.
But this comparison doesn’t even tell the whole story. Take a look at the list of women with the most top ten singles two decades ago:
Most Top Ten Singles by a Female Artist – 1980-1989:
Reba McEntire (23)
Crystal Gayle (22)
Dolly Parton (21)
Janie Fricke (17)
Barbara Mandrell (17)
Rosanne Cash (16)
Emmylou Harris (16)
Anne Murray (14)
Tanya Tucker (12)
Kathy Mattea (10)
Notice the trend? This decade, the top ten women combined for a total of 70 top ten hits. In the 90′s, the top ten women enjoyed a total of 145 top ten hits. In the eighties, a total of 168 top ten hits. Even the nineties list is dominated by women who were played heavily in the earlier part of the decade.
What’s strange is that it was in the mid-nineties that female artists became the dominant commercial force in country music. Janie Fricke never had a gold album. Shania Twain has sold 48 million albums. Yet Fricke had more top ten hits in just the eighties than Shania Twain has earned in her entire career. Record buyers have wholeheartedly embraced Alison Krauss and Miranda Lambert, but despite their strong sales, they’ve each enjoyed only one solo top ten hit.
So what to make of all of this? Is the recent success of Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood an indication that things are improving for women on the radio dial? Is it worth noting that Sugarland and Jennifer Nettles (11 top ten hits) and the Dixie Chicks (14 top ten hits) have done their part to compensate for this lack of gender parity? Does it even matter that radio is playing women less often each decade, especially if record buyers are finding their music anyway?
There’s a certain sadness to the month of September. The first hints of fall feel like the beginning of the end, as summer warmth tuns to autumn chill. Perhaps that’s why there are so many great songs about this time of year, nearly all of them tinged with sadness.
For me, “September When it Comes” is the most beautiful example of this theme. The track was recorded by Rosanne Cash and Johnny Cash just months before he passed away. The song eerily foreshadowed his death, which would come to pass that very September:
There are many other great country songs about September, like Ryan Adams & The Cardinals’ “September” and Cheryl Wheeler’s “75 Septembers.” Then there are the great songs about the season in general, like Lorrie Morgan’s “Autumn’s Not That Cold” and George Strait’s “The Chill of an Early Fall.” Pop music has its own fair share as well, with Neil Diamond’s “September Morn” and Green Day’s “Wake Me Up When September Ends” being bona fide classics.
Of course, the greatest September moment in pop culture history isn’t a song, but it deserves to be included every single time this month comes up in conversation:
What are your favorite songs about the month of September and the beginning of fall?
Our readers have clearly responded well to our Back to the Nineties features this month. (Fret not, there are more on the way.) Part of the reason is that so many of you, like myself and Leeann, first discovered country music in that decade.
This isn’t too surprising, as the nineties helped establish country music as a genre with widespread appeal. The suburbanization of once-rural America reached its apex, and at the same time, CMT deeply penetrated the cable market. For you newbies, the channel was 24-hour videos back then, with remarkably democratic video rotation.
A clip in heavy rotation would only be seen two more times a day than one in light rotation. This is the reason both Mutt Lange and Sean Penn discovered Shania Twain through her “What Made You Say That” clip, which was played extensively on the channel despite the song stalling at #55 at radio.
The New York country radio station back then would do a “Country Convert” feature every morning. A radio listener would call in and say what song converted them to country music. Newbies to country music back then had a religious zeal to them, and would work very hard trying to convince others to fall in love with the music.
In the spirit of that “Country Convert” feature, I’d like to ask all of you about your country music firsts. I imagine many of us will have answers concentrated in the nineties, but if yours are from another decade, share them anyway!
Here are the questions:
What was the first country song that you remember loving?
What was the first country album that you bought with your own money?
What was your first country concert?
What was the first country song that you remember loving?
I liked a lot of the older stuff that my parents listened to, like Johnny Horton and Conway Twitty, but it was always my parents’ music. One night, we were watching a TV variety show called Hot Country Nights. I think we had it on because my mom’s favorite, Ricky Van Shelton, was performing that night. Out came Pam Tillis, singing “Maybe It Was Memphis.” I just had never heard anything like it before, and I was instantly smitten.
What was the first country album that you bought with your own money?
I remember buying Pam Tillis’ Put Yourself in My Place and Lorrie Morgan’s Something in Red on the same day. I bought both on cassette. If I recall correctly, I listened only to Side 1 of each tape for a very long time.
What was your first country concert?
Somewhere in New Jersey in 1992: Clint Black, Billy Dean and Aaron Tippin. It was Black’s tour to support The Hard Way. I remember that there was a complicated set for Black’s performance, something with falling rocks.
Amidst her generation of successful female country artists, Lorrie Morgan was the only one who was clearly from the tradition of heartbreak queen Tammy Wynette, with a healthy dose of Jeannie Seely in the mix. With her contemporaries far more shaped by the work of Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris, Morgan was instrumental in keeping the sound of female country from the sixties still relevant in the nineties.
While Morgan never earned the critical acclaim or industry accolades of peers like Patty Loveless and Pam Tillis, she was immensely popular with country fans, able to sell gold with albums that radio largely ignored. She was the first female country artist to have her first three studio albums go platinum, with three additional albums going gold and a hits collection selling double platinum.
Many of Morgan’s best recordings were never sent to radio, and those interested in discovering her in depth should seek out her finest studio albums, Greater Need and Show Me How.
But her singles were pretty good too, with these being the most essential.
Ten Essential Tracks:
from the 1989 album Leave the Light On
This song broke through just as news of the death of Keith Whitley, Morgan’s husband, became known. She was unfairly accused of capitalizing on his death with this release, as people both misinterpreted the song’s meaning and apparently ignored the fact that it had gone to radio weeks before his death.
“We Both Walk”
from the 1991 album Something in Red
One of her more cutting performances. She refuses to let her roving man come back home, because when he leaves, he walks away and she walks the floor.
“Something in Red”
from the 1991 album Something in Red
Her signature hit is the tale of a woman’s life through conversations while shopping for clothes. Amazingly poignant, especially given the conceit of the song.
“What Part of No”
from the 1992 album Watch Me
“Back off, buddy,” is the message of Morgan’s biggest chart hit, which topped the charts for three weeks.
“I Guess You Had to Be There”
from the 1992 album Watch Me
In my opinion, Morgan’s finest performance from her platinum years. When this was on the radio at the same time as Pam Tillis’ “Do You Know Where Your Man Is”, it was the next best thing to having Tammy Wynette back in heavy rotation.
“If You Came Back From Heaven”
from the 1994 album War Paint
While the Grammys have honored country music from the very first ceremony in 1959, they did not begin honoring by gender until 1965, when the country categories were expanded along with the other genre categories.
This is a look back at the Best Female Country Vocal Performance category. It was first awarded in 1965, an included single competing with albums until the Best Country Album category was added in 1995. When an album is nominated, it is in italics, and a single track is in quotation marks.
I’ve often made the case that female artists were making the best music in the 1990s, and the Grammys did a great job nominating songs and albums that were ignored at the CMA and ACM awards, which is not surprising, given that those shows have so few categories that are actually for songs and albums.
As usual, we start with a look at this year’s nominees and work our way back.
Martina McBride, “For These Times”
LeAnn Rimes, “What I Cannot Change”
Carrie Underwood, “Last Name”
Lee Ann Womack, “Last Call”
Trisha Yearwood, “This is Me You’re Talking To”
This year’s lineup includes three former winners and two women looking for their first victory in this category. Martina McBride is in the running for the eighth time in fifteen years, and with one of her more understated performances. Lee Ann Womack returns for a fifth time, having received a nomination for the lead single of her five most recent albums. Both ladies turned in good performances here, but they’ve been overlooked for records bigger and better, so they’re not likely to snap their losing streaks this time around.
As for the previous winners, LeAnn Rimes earned her third consecutive nod, bringing her total to five in this category. She hasn’t won since 1997, when she took home the award for “Blue.” If enough voters hear “What I Cannot Change,” she might have a shot, though the only version of the song that’s been a legitimate hit has been the dance remix.
Trisha Yearwood won in 1998 for “How Do I Live,” her only victory to date. But she’s earned her tenth nomination for “This is Me You’re Talking To,” which is arguably her strongest vocal performance of the ten. Like Rimes, the challenge is getting enough voters to listen to it, but she’s never been more deserving of the victory than she is this year.
Still, the favorite remains Carrie Underwood. She’s quickly become a favorite with Grammy voters, having won this category two years running, along with Best New Artist in 2007. She’s the nominee with the highest profile, and while “Last Name” is nowhere near the same league of “Jesus, Take the Wheel” and “Before He Cheats” in terms of artistry or impact, it was a big hit, something that the other four entries cannot claim.
If Underwood was nominated for “Just a Dream,” she’d have a mortal lock on this one. But the strength of the other nominees will at least keep this race competitive. If Underwood prevails, Grammy queen Alison Krauss better watch her back.
Alison Krauss, “Simple Love”
Miranda Lambert, “Famous in a Small Town”
LeAnn Rimes, “Nothin’ Better to Do”
Carrie Underwood, “Before He Cheats”
Trisha Yearwood, “Heaven, Heartache and the Power of Love”
Looking at this lineup, you’d think that it was a golden age of female country artists, something akin to the mid-nineties. In reality, only one of these songs was a big radio hit, though three others managed to go top twenty. In terms of quality, however, this is the most consistent and thoroughly wonderful set of nominees this category has seen this century. You’d have to go back to exactly 1999 to find a better lineup.
In a year when any winner would have been deserving, Underwood won for “Before He Cheats,” her second straight win for a signature mega-hit from her debut album.
Building a music collection used to be a far more difficult thing, a dogged hunt through record stores and mail order catalogs, hoping to find what you were looking for. The advent of the internet made things easier, but it wasn’t until music could be downloaded digitally that a deep music collection could be built with far less effort.
However, all of this available music can be overwhelming, especially when you’re trying to get a handle on the catalog of an established artist. Country Universe is here to help. Our Buyer’s Guides will walk you through the music that is digitally available for a given artist, starting with the essential purchases for new listeners, and working through the entire digital catalog until even the completist fan will be sated. You can also sample each album in its entirety, and purchase any song or album that you like through Amazon’s MP3 store.
Our first Buyer’s Guide is for our artist of the month, Dolly Parton. Look for many more to come in the new year.
Starting Your Collection
Dolly Parton’s catalog is quite the labyrinth. Thankfully, there are several compilations available that are an excellent value, offering twenty tracks each for less than ten dollars. Casual fans can just pick up the first set, but serious country fans should skip the first and buy the other three.
Ultimate Dolly Parton
This collection is all that the casual fan will ever need, with twenty hits included for just under eight bucks. All of her big crossover hits are here, like “Islands in the Stream”, “9 to 5″ and “Here You Come Again.” Also included are her country classics “Jolene”, “Coat of Many Colors” and the original recording of “I Will Always Love You.” It’s a bit too broad for studious fans of country music, but if you just want the big hits, they’re all here.
The Essential Dolly Parton, Volume Two
RCA has yet to issue a definitive box set for Parton, but their three Essential releases in the nineties are collectively effective in covering her tenure with the label. This is the strongest of the three sets, focusing on her sixties and seventies material. In addition to the big hits, including the original recording of “I Will Always Love You”, you also get lesser-known greats like “Touch Your Woman”, “Mule Skinner Blues” and “The Seeker.” Her transformation from mountain singer to pop sensation is captured here, as the set includes the first wave of her pop hits, too.
The Essential Dolly Parton One: I Will Always Love You
Even though it was released first, this set focuses on the latter years of Parton’s tenure, with nearly all of the cuts being released in the eighties. The rest of the big pop hits are here, like “9 to 5″ and “Islands in the Stream”, along with some forgotten gems, most notably “Single Women”, “God Won’t Get You” and “Tennessee Homesick Blues.” Also of note is her recording of “To Daddy”, which she chose not to release when Emmylou Harris expressed interest in recording it instead.
The Essential Porter Wagoner & Dolly Parton
Although they both are Hall of Famers, you can’t effectively tell the story of either Porter Wagoner or Dolly Parton without discussing their work together. They are the most successful collaborators in country music history, and nearly all of their hits are collected here. Classics like “Making Plans” and “Just Someone I Used To Know” are essential, as are “Burning the Midnight Oil” and “The Last Thing on My Mind.”
Building Your Collection
For all three women involved – Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris – this was a career landmark, which brought them wide critical acclaim and huge commercial success. The harmonies are exquisite throughout, but the best moments are “The Pain of Loving You”, “Wildflowers” and “Telling Me Lies.”
Tonight, I turn over our discussion to one of our readers. He suggested I write about this topic myself, but his suggestions were already far better than anything that I would have come up with. Thankfully, he was willing to share them with all of you!
Guest Post by Country Universe reader Jim Bagley:
About a month ago, I discovered a website http://feedback.legacyrecordings.com/ where folks can request reissues/retrospectives of artists who are part of the Sony/BMG Catalog. When you sign up, you are also given 10 votes to show which suggested product you would like to see reissued. Except for Johnny Cash, the suggested product has been decidedly uncountry and I think that the readership at Country Universe could change that for the better.
Legacy does indeed review the board and some of the suggestions – a Lou Rawls retrospective for instance – have then been subsequently released.
Here are the four listings that I have recently added:
The Essential Tammy Wynette – with only 14 tracks – was probably the worst essential set to date. Even the Tammy three disc set Tears of Fire left off many of her 40-plus top ten solo hits. Please release a two-disc set set of Tammy’s solo hits, including all top ten efforts. Many like “The Wonders You Perform,” “Reach Out Your Hand,” and “(You Make Me Want To Be) A Mother” are always left off Tammy sets. I would include the David Houston and Mark Gray hit collaborations, but please leave off the George Jones duets which have been reissued to death (and take up valuable room on other Tammy retrospectives).
Dolly Parton full career box set (4-5 discs)
Sony-BMG has control of nearly all of Dolly’s career, so why hasn’t a box set been done on her? From the mid-60s Monument singles (Dumb Blonde, Something Fishy), through her fascinating late ’60s RCA work Just Because I’m A Woman, Daddy Come and Get Me), the hit RCA years (Joshua through Think About Love), the late ’80s, early ’90s Columbia stint (Yellow Roses, Rockin’ Years), her collaboration with Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette, and finally, the turn of the century bluegrass gems on Sugar Hill. It would take 100-125 tracks to get it right, but Dolly deserves this deluxe treatment.
Bobby Bare three disc career box set
Bobby Bare charted 60 singles for RCA and Columbia from 1962 through 1983. It would be nice to have a box set which captured all of these hits (the past Columbia retrospectives are particularly incomplete), plus his first hit “All-American Boy” and his six early-’70s singles for Mercury. Bobby deserves it!
Connie Smith two-disc set of all of her hits
Connie Smith charted 48 singles between 1964 and 1985. All of them were for labels that are now under the Sony-BMG umbrella (RCA, Columbia, Monument, Epic). Please put together one package of ALL of her hits that does justice to Connie’s legacy.
Anyone who recorded for Columbia, Epic, Monument, RCA, or Arista is eligible for reissue. I suggested vintage artists for whom I wanted larger repackaging. But it would also be great to see an Alan Jackson box set; 20-track best-of sets for Pam Tillis, Collin Raye, and Lorrie Morgan; 16 Biggest Hits on BlackHawk, Doug Stone, and Ty Herndon, and even 10-track Super Hits for Ricochet and Wade Hayes. Country Universe readers have a wealth of knowledge and music favorites, and it would be great to see their “wish lists” and votes represented on the site.
One of the landmarks of Dolly Parton’s career was the Trio album, her platinum-selling collaboration with Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris. It was one of the few country albums in history to receive a Grammy nomination for Album of the Year, and it won every major industry award, including the ACM for Top Album.
Just as compelling was Parton’s collaboration with Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette, which went gold despite zero support from country radio. After another collaboration with Ronstadt and Harris in the late nineties, there hasn’t been another collaboration of the sort from any major country artists.
I think this concept needs to be updated for the 21st Century. My vote is for a Lorrie Morgan, Pam Tillis and Carlene Carter album that fulfills the promise of their headlining 1996 tour.
Which three artists would you like to see put out a trio album?
In coordination with the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, Shout Factory! has begun a new series of country music DVDs that collect archived performances of the genre’s legends, coupled with rare interview footage and Hall of Fame inductions. The promise of this series cannot be overstated, both for fans of the artists profiled and the need for country music’s legacy to be preserved.
Both of the debut entries in the series follow the same format. Fifteen performance clips from old television shows are arranged chronologically, and provide the bulk of each set’s content. The defining singles of both artists are included, and in watching the clips, viewers can get a sense of how each artist developed, along with a fascinating window into how country music itself was presented on television over the course of four decades.
For a variety of reasons, the Marty Robbins collection is the stronger of the two. Since his career dates back to the fifties, we’re treated to four performances from Country Style USA, one of the earliest country music television programs. As we transition into the age of color television, we’re treated to a stunning performance of “My Woman, My Woman, My Wife” from the 1970 CMA Awards. As the liner notes point out, Robbins penned the song in the hospital while recovering from his first heart attack. In one of many appearances on these two collections by other country legends, Tennessee Ernie Ford gives a classy introduction that precedes the performance.