Tag Archives: Lucinda Williams

Grammy Flashback: Best Country Album

A look back at the previous winners and nominees of the Best Country Album Grammy, updated to include the 2009 contenders.

The Grammys have been doing better in the country categories since they reintroduced the Best Country Album category in 1995, which had only been in existence for two years in the 1960s. Prior to 1995, albums and singles were both eligible in the vocalist categories, so full albums would compete against single tracks in Best Male Country Vocal Performance,  for example.

Looking over the history of this fairly young category, you can see trends emerge, with certain acts clearly being favorites of NARAS. You see the same trend with the CMAs, just with different people. What is clear with the Grammys is that radio and retail success will only carry you so far. For awards that are supposed to be based on artistic merit, that’s how it should be.

As with the CMA flashbacks, we’ll begin with a look at this year’s nominees, then discuss previous year’s in reverse chronological order. Winners are in bold.

Be sure to drop by My Kind of Country and vote in their Best Country Album poll. Let your preference be known!

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  • Jamey Johnson, That Lonesome Song
  • Patty Loveless, Sleepless Nights
  • George Strait, Troubadour
  • Randy Travis, Around the Bend
  • Trisha Yearwood, Heaven, Heartache and the Power of Love

Four veterans and one newcomer vie for this year’s Best Country Album, and it’s a wide-open race with no obvious favorite. The critically acclaimed breakthrough album of Jamey Johnson could earn him his first Grammy. The legendary George Strait would like to start a Grammy collection of his own. Like fellow nominee Patty Loveless, this is his third nomination for this award. While Loveless has also yet to win this one, she does have a Grammy already, for her contributions to the multi-artist collaboration “Same Old Train.”

Randy Travis is a real contender here; five of his previous albums have won Grammys. Two of them (Always & Forever, Old 8×10) won in the Best Male Country Vocal Performance category, back when albums and singles competed with each other in that race. And while this is his first nomination for Best Country Album, he was won Best Southern, Country, or Bluegrass Gospel Album three times, for Glory Train (2007), Worship & Faith (2005) and Rise and Shine (2004.)

While Vince Gill broke the all-female trend in this category last year, he was nominated in an all-male field. If the trend begins again this year, this will be a battle between Loveless and Trisha Yearwood. The latter’s Heaven, Heartache and the Power of Love is arguably the strongest album in this category, and while Yearwood won three Grammys in the nineties, she has never won Best Country Album, despite earning more nominations than any other artist in the history of the category – Heartache is her eighth set to contend for the trophy. She’s beyond overdue, but her competition is formidable.

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  • Dierks Bentley, Long Trip Alone
  • Vince Gill, These Days
  • Tim McGraw, Let it Go
  • Brad Paisley, 5th Gear
  • George Strait, It Just Comes Natural

With the exception of Shania Twain’s Come On Over, no album that has also been nominated for the general Album of the Year race has failed to win Best Country Album. So it was no surprise when Vince Gill picked up the trophy for his four-disc opus These Days. In his acceptance speech, he good-naturedly ribbed Kanye West, providing one of the evening’s brightest moments.

2007

  • Dixie Chicks, Taking the Long Way
  • Alan Jackson, Like Red On a Rose
  • Little Big Town, The Road to Here
  • Willie Nelson, You Don’t Know Me: The Songs of Cindy Walker
  • Josh Turner, Your Man

The Chicks became the first artists in Grammy history to win four genre Best Album awards, breaking their tie with Eminem, who has won three Best Rap Album trophies. This was one of five trophies they took home at the February 2007 ceremony, and the album returned to #1 on the country chart and back to the pop top ten on the strength of those victories.

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Lynn’s Favorite Songs of 2008

Country Universe has presented you with its top 40 singles of 2008, but as you know, singles rarely scratch the surface of a great album. Over the course of the past year, while listening to various albums, I made note of songs that stuck out for one reason or another. Although this isn’t a comprehensive list by any means, here are some of my favorite songs of 2008:

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#1 “She Left Me For Jesus” (Hayes Carll, Trouble in Mind)

Honestly, when is the last time you heard a song this slyly clever? This laugh-out-loud engaging? But not just anyone could pull off this song. Carll’s slow laughing drawl is absolutely perfect and he nails every punch line. He not only gets the joke, he assumes you do as well. Carll readily acknowledges that this song isn’t for everyone, but in my book, it’s an instant classic.

#2 “Red River Shore” (Bob Dylan, Tell Tale Signs: the Bootleg Series Vol. 8)

Bob Dylan, that enigmatic icon, continues to raise the bar for singer-songwriters. It’s nearly ridiculous at this point. This year, Dylan treated us to a grand smorgasbord of songs with the latest in his bootleg series. “Red River Shore” was one of the few previously unreleased songs on the set, and it’s perhaps the best on the album. I could spend hours ruminating over what Dylan intended with his lyrics about star-crossed lovers, but instead I’ll leave you with his opening lines: “Some of us turn off the lights and we live / In the moonlight shooting by / Some of us scare ourselves to death in the dark / To be where the angels fly.” This is, as the album booklet suggests, an elegant summation of Dylan’s artistic credo. If only others took note.

#3 “I’ve Done Everything I Can” (Rodney Crowell, Sex and Gasoline)

On “I’ve Done Everything I Can,” Crowell acknowledges that incredibly delicate interplay between father and daughter; that difficult line a father must walk between wanting to protect his little girl, and preparing her for the real world. He sings: “The sun comes up tomorrow / But there are no guarantees / It can rock you like a baby / It can knock you to your knees / The path that lies between us / Is a rough and rocky rue / I’ve done everything I can / There’s nothing I can do.” This song reminds me rather poignantly of my own father, who occasionally walked that fine line with grace, but usually just blundered over it with good intentions.

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Rolling Stone Recognizes Country Music Prominently Among Best of 2008

Just kidding! No, as many a frustrated country fan would expect, the famed music magazine’s Best of 2008 lists adhere to same unspoken code that seems to have been in effect there for the past few years, whereby any country artists included typically fit one of the following “excusable” models:

  1. The Un-Ignorable and Somewhat Guilty-Pleasure-ish Commercial Wizard
  2. The Critically Adored Mainstream Act Who is Ignored or Otherwise Underappreciated by Mainstream Fans
  3. Lucinda Williams

You can probably guess how the three slots are filled out this year: Taylor Swift’s unapologetic teen pop slides into the first (Carrie Underwood found her way in last year with “Before He Cheats”), Jamey Johnson into the second (which was Miranda Lambert’s last year and the Dixie Chicks’ in 2006), and then there’s that third (which repeats itself from last year).

It’s a bit of a shame to see things so limited, really, since Rolling Stone remains (in my opinion and Blake’s, at least) one of the better sources out there for insightful reviews of just about any other genre. What little the magazine and others like it do say about country is pretty dang influential on public opinion of the genre, too; Chet Flippo got 70′s rock fans into the Outlaw Movement as a Rolling Stone senior editor, and you can bet that the well-studied non-country fan knows who Miranda Lambert is after seeing her name thrown around like a golden, cancer-curing frisbee over the past year-plus.

There is one semi-surprise among the Singles list, at least: Lee Ann Womack has been cited for “Last Call” at a surprisingly decent #52, with the staff even dubbing it an “instant classic.” Aww. Womack admittedly fits the second “model” mentioned above with Johnson, but given that her set didn’t receive nearly as much critical love as his this year, it’s a bit of a pleasant shock to see her represented at all.

Of course, it’s nothing too unexpected from there: Williams’, Johnson’s, and Swift’s latest studio offerings come in at #18, #32, and #39, respectively, on the 50-strong Albums list. Likewise, all three artists appear on the 100-strong Singles list (where “singles” appears to be something of a relative term, since only Williams’ was actually released as such), with Johnson clocking in at #38 with “High Cost of Living” (the sort of song, it should be said, Rolling Stone goes gaga for), Swift at #46 with “Fifteen,” and Williams at #95 with “Real Love.”

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Heidi Newfield, <em>What Am I Waiting For</em>

Heidi Newfield
What Am I Waiting For

There isn't a lot of mainstream country music made these days that seems to speak for, and to, actual adults. Heidi Newfield's first solo album attempts to fill that void, and she has crafted an album that could only have been made by a woman who has a lot of living behind her, but still quite a bit to go.

So while love goes wrong throughout the course of What Am I Waiting For, there are no innocent illusions shattered, and when it occasionally goes right, there's little more than cautious optimism. It's interesting to compare Newfield's “All I Wanna Do” to the Sugarland smash of the same name, as both songs express the same sentiment: blocking out the rest of the world and getting lost in the arms of their mortal man. But there's a sadness to the slow ballad that Newfield is crooning, suggesting the troubles that she needs to block out are of a more harrowing nature.

Of course, that's the love gone right song, but most of the album is about processing the aftermath of poor choices that have been made, and charting a course for the future that leaves them behind. The winning title track doubles as a th

eme for the album, with Newfield “five years in to a two-year plan” and knowing that there's nothing left for her where she is, but still not quite able to make the move. Another strong track, “Wreck You”, has her taking account of the fact that no matter what she does, she only seems to damage the man that she loves.

There's a desperation to “Johnny and June”, which has her longing for a love affair like the one that's been portrayed on the movie screen in Walk the Line, but it's really just her longing for a fantasy, a romanticized version of real life that only exists on celluloid. A similar intensity surfaces in “When Tears Fall Down”, a powerful song that is probably the best-written track on the album, but is overwhelmed by the layers of production. Thematic guitar chords and gospel choruses are difficult to be heard over when it's just one of them in the mix, let alone two.

The too-busy production distracts from the many strengths of the album, and while Newfield is an effective vocalist, she doesn't sound in complete control of her surroundings. While she has a pretty good set of material to work with, songs like “Can't Let Go” and “Nothin' But a Memory” never live up to their early potential, falling short in both melody and turns of phrase.

The album closes on a high note though, with “Knocked Up”, which more than lives up to its title. It is Newfield's most self-assured moment on the album, as she deflects the finger-pointers in her midst and celebrates her life as an unwed mother. It may be an unconventional choice for the next single, but I imagine there are quite a few women (and men) out there who would embrace it as their own.

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100 Greatest Women, #29: Mary Chapin Carpenter

100 Greatest Women

#29

Mary Chapin Carpenter

The list of intelligent female singer-songwriters that have made it big in country music is fairly short. Brown-educated and world-traveled by the time she performed publicly, Mary Chapin Carpenter brought a sophistication to country music that was eagerly embraced by the industry and fans alike.

Carpenter began singing the folks songs that she loved when still in high school. Reportedly, classmates threatened to cut her guitar strings if she sang “Leavin’ On a Jet Plane” one more time. The divorce of her parents contributed to her introversion, and she was a reluctant public performer. After attending Brown, earning a degree in American Civilization, she attempted to pursue her musical ambitions.

Fate intervened when she met John Jennings, who would become her primary collaborator. At the time they met, she still considered music a hobby and was determined to “get a real job.” He pushed her to start performing original material, and she demonstrated her sense of humor early on by dubbing her own publishing company “Get a Real Job.” Her demo caught the attention of Columbia Records, who released it as is in 1987, under the title Hometown Girl. It became a popular record on college radio, and the label felt she could reach a larger audience if she pursued a country career.

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100 Greatest Women, #41: Lucinda Williams

100 Greatest Women

#41

Lucinda Williams

When Time dubbed Lucinda Williams “America’s Greatest Songwriter” in 2001, it wasn’t exactly a news bulletin to those who had followed her career for the previous two decades. She became known as a songwriter first, despite a stunning recorded catalog of her self-written work. But the fledgling Americana format soon became her home, and she returned the favor by becoming its first big star.

She cut her teeth on the folk music of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. A native of Louisiana, she spent the late sixties and early seventies playing the local clubs in New Orleans, before moving to Austin, TX in 1974. There was a burgeoning country-rock scene in that city, and she fit in perfectly. She created a demo tape that caught the attention of Folkways Records, who signed her to a deal. In 1978, she released her first album, Ramblin’, which featured her take on various country, folk and blues standards.

It wasn’t until 1980 that the world was introduced to Lucinda Williams the songwriter on a formal basis. Her second album, Happy Woman Blues, was her first to feature self-written material. It was a polite collection that didn’t push any musical boundaries, but it established her as a singer-songwriter. In what would become a maddening trend for her followers, it would take another eight years before she’d release another album, as a development deal with CBS Records ended without any commercial releases, slowing down her momentum as a recording artist.

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