Pretty Little Liars actress turned country newcomer Lucy Hale cites Shania Twain and Martina McBride as major musical influences, and to a degree it’s perceptible on her debut single “You Sound Good to Me.” The track begins with a light, airy fiddle hook, and segues into an effervescent uptempo pop-country love song with an atypically sparse production arrangement by country radio standards (murky background vocals aside).
Unfortunately, things go very wrong in one important area – the vocal. Hale’s performance sound constantly strained and often pitch-challenged as she struggles to reach high notes and keep up with the brisk tempo. Worse yet, Hale’s voice rings generic and faceless, lacking any hint of distinctive personality or flair and instead sounding like that of any random karaoke bar patron.
It doesn’t help that the song itself is hardly anything special – standard Music Row radio filler courtesy of three of the industry’s current favorite hired-gun songwriters. There’s none of the distinctive cleverness, spunk or massive pop hooks that marked the best work of Hale’s role models. If such a song is going to work on any level at all, it needs a strong vocal performance to carry it. Without that crucial element, “You Sound Good to Me” quickly sinks like a stone.
Written by Ashley Gorley, Luke Laird and Hillary Lindsey
There’s a country radio station in NYC proper for the first time in nearly twenty years. The last one went off the air before I was old enough to drive, so when I found out it existed, I immediately checked it out.
Then I immediately checked out. It’s not listenable to me. It’s playing all of today’s hits and those from the past couple of years, and sometimes a song that I like will come on, but it’s always sandwiched between filler that hurts my ears.
The thing about filler is it’s always been around, even in any of the handful of golden eras the genre has seen. My favorite era had “Independence Day” and “Gone Country” on the air at the same time, but you were gonna hear “Wink” and “If Bubba Can Dance (I Can Too)” in between.
Today’s hits aren’t all that great to begin with, but the filler is plum terrible, and it’s so jarringly loud that it won’t allow you to let it fade into the background. I’ve heard Justin Moore’s “Point at You” twice while getting into the car this week, and if I hadn’t switched to my iPod before switching from park to drive, my road rage would be notable even by New York City standards.
I say all this because American Young’s new single, “Love is War”, is the kind of filler that would keep me tuned into the country station, waiting to hear what was played next. It sounds good from a distance. Awesome arrangement, great instrumentation, twangy in a Civil Wars on their game/Band Perry on their meds kind of way.
It’s a really bland song though, with generic lyrics that don’t really say anything new or anything interesting about a topic that requires that you have new and interesting things to say if you’re going to write about it at all. Love is war, it’s a battle, it’s a battlefield, yada, yada, yada. George Jones and Pat Benatar noticed that, too.
But I would totally be on board with more of country radio sounding like this, even if it’s just the filler.
We at Country Universe were very saddened to hear of Linda Ronstadt’s recent announcement that she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease eight months ago, and that the disease has resulted in the total loss of her ability to sing.
Though Linda Ronstadt never took up exclusive residence in country territory (or in any one genre for that matter), she had remarkable successes in the country field, including the now-classic Trio project with Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris, and she served as an important influence for women such as Pam Tillis, Martina McBride and Trisha Yearwood. She has also been the subject of several excellent Country Universe features that are well worth revisiting.
First of all, be sure to check out Kevin’s feature on Ronstadt from the 100 Greatest Women countdown, in which she placed at No. 21.
Below is a selection of videos of Ronstadt in her prime performing some of her best-loved songs. Without a doubt, she will always be remembered as one of the greatest voices in music history, even if she can no longer use that voice today. Please share your own favorite Linda Ronstadt songs and performances in the comments section.
This review of George Strait’s final Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo concert was originally published on CultureMap Houston.
It was 30 years ago that the Texas rancher and country music newcomer received a last-minute call to make his Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo debut, replacing the ill Eddie Rabbitt. Since then, George Strait has become part of the RodeoHouson fabric: He’s played a total of 21 shows, including the Astrodome’s closing concert in 2002 — its highest-attended event — and the Reliant Stadium’s debut concert in 2003.
And Sunday night, he made one last piece of history with a terrific RodeoHouston appearance, a stop on his “The Cowboy Rides Away Tour.” Along with Martina McBride and the Randy Rogers Band, Strait’s concert-only performance amassed a record-breaking crowd of 80,020.
History aside, it’s fitting that Strait chose RodeoHouston for his final Houston tour stop. The annual event, in its 81st year, embodies the same blend of rugged charm and modern energy that’s kept the 60-year-old singer relevant well into the 21st century. Strait’s sold-out concert appeared almost mystical in its generation-bridging force — its ability to elicit the same level of awestruck respect from young and old.
Strait was preceded by two opening acts, the Texas-bred Randy Rogers Band and tour mate Martina McBride. The former’s material was uneven (thumbs down for “Fuzzy,” a honky tonk spin on Jason Aldean’s party anthems), but its newer offerings, like the raucous “Trouble Knows My Name,” were on-point.
McBride proved a force per usual, her crystalline voice searing through her bread and butter of inspirational ballads with precision and poise. Hits like “A Broken Wing” and “Independence Day” carried as much weight as they did 10 years ago, and the under-appreciated “Love’s The Only House” rang with renewed urgency.
But make no mistake: this was Strait’s house, and McBride knew it. “I’m the luckiest girl in the world. You know why? Cause I get to tour with George freaking Strait,” she yelled.
If McBride’s set was a polished collection of career highlights, Strait’s felt more like a laidback jam session that just happened to be peppered with No. 1 hits. Wearing
his signature Wranglers and a simple black cowboy hat, Strait burned through a deep, career-spanning set of 31 songs, never once losing the crowd’s attention.
“I can’t tell you how happy we are to be here tonight,” he said while taking in the packed stadium, and that earnest joy quickly became the theme of the night.
He had the crowd on its feet with opener “Here for a Good Time,” a beer-raising ode to living like you’re dying, and he followed it with familiar hits “Ocean Front Property” and “Check Yes or No.” Even when he slowed the pace with a one-two punch of the saccharine “I Saw God Today” and somber “Drinkin’ Man,” the energy in the stadium didn’t seem to waver.
Perhaps because Strait promised upfront that he had a few tricks up his sleeve — and indeed he did. Eight songs in, he brought McBride back out for a pair of classic duets, Johnny and June Cash’s “Jackson” and George Jones and Tammy Wynette’s “Golden Ring,” which the duo shuffled through with fresh chemistry. It was a moment, among many in the concert, that transcended the confines of time.
Strait then dove into the meat of his show, a career-tracing journey through story and song. He laughed as he recounted his first trip to Nashville in 1981, cutting his first handful of songs and nabbing his breakthrough record deal. He paid tribute to old friends and writers Darryl Staedtler and Dean Dillon while performing early hits “Blame it on Mexico” and “Her Goodbye Hit Me in the Heart” from his debut album Strait Country.
“Are y’all still liking the old stuff?” he asked, before continuing through the 80s with songs like “Honky Tonk Crazy” and the jaunty “80 Proof Bottle of Tear Stopper,” which had the audience clapping along.
The first emotional jolt of the night came from Strait’s 1982 hit “Marina del Rey,” a song that, over the years, he’s learned to inject with the melancholy weariness it deserves. The crowd sang along audibly while brave couples took to the floor to dance.
The 90s followed with songs from a “little ole movie called ‘Pure Country,’” including “The King of Broken Hearts” and the fast-paced toe-tapper “Where the Sidewalk Ends.” But just like the decade before, it was the slow two-step of “The Chair” that mesmerized the audience, bringing it to a standing ovation that lasted for a good 20 seconds.
When he barreled through to recent years, “Give it Away” punched things up with country-style angst, and “How ‘Bout Them Cowgirls” turned into an endearing sing-along. He brought his catalogue full circle with 1983’s “Amarillo by Morning,” a song he re-recorded on his 2003 album For the Last Time: Live from the Astrodome, capping it off with a gorgeous fiddle solo.
Throughout the show, Strait gave longtime friends Ace in the Hole plenty of room to shine. The band’s craftsmanship was so sharp that it was able to pump much-needed energy into recent sleeper “Rolling on the River of Love” and tepid chart-climber “Give it All We Got Tonight.” In the context of Strait’s superb catalogue, the latter fell undeniably flat – but again, the crowd couldn’t be bothered.
And what a crowd. One scan of the 80,000 plus-filled stadium was overwhelming, a visual reminder of the kind of scale most artists only dream of reaching.
Strait understood that. “I’m really going to miss this,” he said, as he launched into a sentimental performance of “I’ll Always Remember You” off of his past album, Here for a Good Time. His plain-speak ‘thank you’ to fans was achingly sincere –“But you kept calling me back to the stage / And I finally found my place in each and every face,” he sang — but not particularly unique. The better send-off came with Strait’s honest confession, “Troubadour,” which paints a more telling portrait of his career.
Strait appeared to close the show with his very first hit “Unwound,” but was cheered back in for a four-song encore. He hopped from “Same Kind of Crazy” to the crowd-favorite “All My Ex’s Live in Texas” to a solid, foot-stomping cover of Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues.” Finally, he rode out with “The Cowboy Rides Away,” a potentially cheesy retirement song, but not in his hands.
In an era where singing straight from the heart (pun intended) is heavily sacrificed for bravado and wit, Strait’s presence as a live entertainer — as a cowboy in the least superficial sense of the word —will be simply irreplaceable.
George Strait’s set list:
“Here for a Good Time”
“Ocean Front Property”
“Check Yes or No”
“I Saw God Today”
“Love’s Gonna Make it Alright”
“Blame it on Mexico”
“Her Goodbye Hit Me in the Heart”
“80 Proof Bottle of Tear Stopper”
“Honky Tonk Crazy”
“Marina del Rey”
“A Fire I Can’t Put Out”
“The King of Broken Hearts”
“Where the Sidewalk Ends”
“Rolling on the River of Love”
“How ‘Bout Them Cowgirls”
“Give it Away”
“Middle Age Crazy”
“Amarillo by Morning”
“Give it All We Got Tonight”
“I’ll Always Remember You”
“Same Kind of Crazy”
“All My Ex’s Live in Texas”
“Folsom Prison Blues”
“The Cowboy Rides Away”
In 2007, Katie Armiger released her first album at just 15-years-old after winning a local singing competition in Texas. Since then, she’s had quiet but solid success in the industry, earning four Billboard-charting singles and touring with major artists such as Brad Paisley, Little Big Town, Jason Aldean and Ronnie Dunn.
Last year, Country Weekly’s readers voted 21-year-old Armiger the “Hottest Bachelorette” for the second consecutive year, just before she appeared on ABC’s dubious reality television show, “The Bachelor Pad.” Ironic events, considering the fellow Sugar Land native has built her image on independence and empowerment, themes she captures pithily on her first Top 40 hit, “Better in a Black Dress.”
Armiger’s latest album with Cold River Records,Fall Into Me, drops today - but don’t expect a collection of love stories. Its 14 songs depict the highs and lows of love with equal weight, backed by strong, melodic hooks and Armiger’s character-filled voice. Last month, she took some time to chat with Country Universe about the blend of styles on her new album, being a woman in a male-dominated genre, and the inspiration for her ode to single girls.
Seetharam: Country music has long struggled with a gender bias that’s only now starting to melt. What’s your experience been like as a young female artist in the industry?
Armiger: Oh, I agree. It’s honestly gotten a lot easier as I’ve gotten older. Maybe it just comes with age, but I do feel like the industry has changed. When I first started, it was so male-dominated. Now the doors for females are opening up, and it’s a lot easier as a female artist to get your music out there.
How do you differentiate yourself from the other young female artists that are out there?
That’s a good question. I think everyone has their own style, and I am a singer-songwriter. Everything that I write is very personal – sometimes I wish it wasn’t as personal as it is. And my music is a blend. I tend to write everything. There are so many different types of country music– there’s more traditional, more modern – that you can sing, which is so neat. I try to do a really good blend of that.
I think that’s the constant debate – there are so many influences in country music these days. How do you define country music, or can you?
The thing about country music, regardless of what the sound is like, is that the songs all tell stories. You can listen to any country song, and it tells a story, whether it’s happy or sad. It’s not a song that’s sung without purpose. And that’s what I really love.
Are there any new artists that you find particularly interesting or inspiring?
I’m a really big Hunter Hayes fan. I love his stuff. He’s so talented. I’ve met him, and he’s so friendly. I really think we’re going to see great things from him.
He seems to be rising very quickly. Who are your idols in the industry, or the artists whose careers you admire?
I listened to a lot of Martina McBride growing up, a lot of Patsy Cline, Linda Ronstadt. A lot of very strong female country singers. I definitely try to emulate that. I want to portray strength in my music, and all of those women are very, very strong, dominant personalities. They knew what they wanted, and that’s always what I try to go for.
Speaking of different generations, have you had the chance to catch the show “Nashville”? Does it align with how you perceive the industry, and the way the veterans and newcomers interact?
I haven’t caught everything, but I’ve watched a few episodes. I honestly think it blurs the line. Some of the stuff is a little true – like you watch it and you’re like “OK, I can see that.” There’s definitely drama in the music industry, but not quite to that extent.
I’ve never seen anyone quite like Juliette in country music. Have you come across that kind of attitude?
No. That’s what’s funny. One of the things I love most about country music is that it is such a family thing. Everybody’s friends. Everybody’s super nice. It’s not cutthroat like other industries, and [“Nashville”] makes it seem super cutthroat.
What was is it like to play the Opry for the first time back in 2011?
It was one of the most indescribable things. It’s such an honor to be there, and when you’re singing, you’re just sitting there going, “I’m standing in this spot where all of these people –all of these legends who made country what it is– stood years ago.” It’s surreal.
And you have a dog named “Opry,” right? What’s the story behind that?
My dog at home gave birth, and she was one of the puppies. My stepmom called and was like, “You have to take her!” She was born when they made the announcement in my hometown that I was going to be playing the Opry. At the time, I thought there’s no way that I can keep the dog. I’m too busy – this is not going to work. But as soon as I got home and I saw her, I said, “Well, I don’t really care. I’m taking her with me.”
Let’s talk about your new music. You landed your first Top 40 hit with “Better in a Black Dress.” I think it’s fantastic – it’s empowering in a way that you can’t really find on country radio.
Thank you. It’s funny you say that because that’s definitely the thing I love the most about it. I think a lot of women are scared to sing songs like that because they think guys are going to judge them more. Guys can sing songs like that all the time, but if a girl sings something like that, it’s totally different. A guy can sing a song about taking a girl home and having fun, but a girl can’t.
What inspired this song?
It’s funny. It was kind of inspired by winning the [Country Weekly] “Hottest Bachelorette” contest. I had a lot of people try to set me up. You hit 20 and people are like, “So do you have a boyfriend? Are you going to settle down? When do you think you’re going to have kids? What’s your five-year plan? Tell me.”
I went into this with that thought in mind, and I wrote the song with my friend Blair. When I sat down, I told her, “I’m not ready for any of that. I don’t need the white picket fence. I don’t need to get married right now. Someday – just not now.” We wrote that song as the answer to all of these people saying that settling down is what you should do right now.
I love that story. Is the new album similar in theme to that song? How is it different from your previous albums?
It is very different from my past album. A lot of it is very progressive and percussion-driven, and there’s a lot of acoustic guitar. There’s definitely a theme, and that would be love. A lot of songs, whether they’re happy or sad, use the word ‘fall’ as in you’re falling in or falling out of something. And I thought it would be really cool to name the album after that concept, because whether you’re falling in love or falling out of love, that feeling of the fall you always remember.
That’s an interesting way to weave together songs that are happy, sad and in between. You co-wrote or wrote all songs on this album – what was that writing process like?
It was definitely challenging. I set out with the goal in mind to write everything. That’s what I had set out to do on all the other albums, but I heard songs that I just loved along the way and cut those as well. But on this one, I really set my mind to it. I was touring a ton in the last two years, and I’d be home for two days a month and would just try to write as much as possible when I was home. Sometimes I had to force myself get in the zone, even if I wasn’t there.
You’ve said it’s a deeply personal album. Are there specific people that these songs are about?
There definitely are. I won’t ever name names or anything like that, but honestly, some of them are about me, and some of them are about friends and their relationships. It’s a little bit of everything – it’s not just about me.
Do you have a favorite song or lyric on the album?
I cannot pick a favorite on this album. I have a few that I really, really love. There’s one I wrote with Mallary Hope, and it’s just this really sweet, really pretty, stripped-down love song (“Safe”). It’s actually the last track on the album. That’s definitely one that sticks out for me.
It’s about that feeling when you’re in a relationship – the happiest moment in a relationship. I think every person, whether you’re a girl or a guy, wants to feel safe. And when you feel safe with somebody, when you can tell them anything and be yourself with them, that’s the best feeling,
What was it like working with Chad Carlson? Was there a specific sound that you two were trying to create?
I worked with him a little bit on the last album, and we really wanted to change from the last album. We wanted to have cool moments in every song, and I wanted to be able to hear the acoustic guitar on songs. I wanted there to be a lot of percussion and a lot of movement so that when you’re listening, you can tap your hand – whether it’s a slow song or a happy song. It’s definitely a bit different than the previous records, so hopefully people like it and can relate to it.
I love every single aspect of country music. I’ve written every single type of country song, and on this album, everything was definitely put on there with a purpose and with intent. It wasn’t just putting some songs on there for the sake of doing so.
Over the past few years, you’ve toured with a lot of different major country artists. Were there any elements of their tours or music that you took away and were able to channel into your new album?
I don’t know if I put any of the elements into my new album, but I definitely took all of the things that were in the back of my mind for future touring. Just different things like watching how their crew interacts and how they interact with their crew. It’s tiny things like that that you put in the back of your mind and say, “Wow, I never want to overlook that.”
Who do you think you’ve learned the most from, touring or otherwise?
I did one show with Brad Paisley this last year, and I was like, “This is why he is where he is.” He has it completely together. Every single thing. It must take such a long time for those people [on his tour]. It’s a very big crew to put a show on, but everybody’s so gracious and so humble and it doesn’t matter how big he is. He’s nice and friendly to everyone. That’s so important.
Why do you think people like Brad and Reba McEntire and those types of artists have had such staying power in the industry?
I think it’s a combination of having really good music, having a really great personality and having that drive. You have to have that. You’re out on the road so often, you’re not home a lot, and you have to just be OK with that. You always have to be on and be positive, and I think that [artists who've had staying power] are always great at that. It’s very hard to do sometimes.
Where do you see yourself 20 years from now? Where do you want to be?
I still want to be touring. I mean, who can say where they’ll be, but I just want to be singing and making records. I want to be putting music out there – and having people love the music and hopefully relate to it.
A great covers record, no matter how sincere the artist’s intentions, must provide a satisfactory answer to one question: Why should we listen to this artist’s versions of these songs when the originals are still there for us to enjoy?
There are moments when Terri Clark’s Classic answers that question effectively, as well as some when the answer is murky at best. Produced by Clark with Jeff Jones, the project fares best when Clark brings thoughtful vocal interpretations and creative production touches to her renderings of these classic songs. Her take on Glen Campbell’s “Gentle On My Mind” marries a pleasantly subtle vocal reading to a warm and inviting bluegrass-tinged arrangement. Another highlight is a reworking of Tanya Tucker’s 1972 debut hit “Delta Dawn,” on which Tucker herself contributes duet vocals. Tucker proves to be in fine voice, while an acoustic guitar and fiddle-based arrangement accentuates the song’s Southern Gothic charms. The album also includes some less-expected cover choices such as Linda Ronstadt’s “Love Is a Rose” and Emmylou Harris’ “Two More Bottles of Wine” – not necessary the usual go-to selections for a classic country covers project, but Clark’s searing fiddle-laced reworkings are a real treat.
The album’s most polarizing aspect would likely be its recurring tendency to place the songs in contemporary country-rock settings (which may make some country purists wince) similar to the style that became Clark’s calling card during her days as a mainstream country star. One could commend Clark for adapting the songs to her own style (as opposed to causing the same musical whiplash as Martina McBride’s by-the-book re-creations from her Timeless project), but the strategy does suffer from the occasional overhaul. She amps up Kittle Wells’ landmark hit “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” into a honky-tonk shuffle that could have worked if not for her overwrought vocal delivery, but an over-produced take on Loretta Lynn’s “Don’t Come Home a Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ On Your Mind)” all but buries the infectious sass of Lynn’s 1967 original. By the time Clark’s rocked-up versions of Merle Haggard’s “Swingin’ Doors” and Hank Snow’s “I’m Movin’ On” roll around, the style begins to feel somewhat tired.
The duets included on the album are something of a mixed bag. Dierks Bentley turns in one of his better performances as he fills George Jones’ shoes on the classic Jones-Wynette duet “Golden Ring.” Dean Brody joins Clark on “I’m Movin’ On,” thus shifting the song to a two-person (ostensibly an ex-couple) perspective. The third-person narrative of “Delta Dawn” is likewise well-suited to the duet treatment. On the other hand, sonically pleasant duet versions of “How Blue” (with original artist Reba McEntire) and Patsy Cline’s ”Leavin’ On Your Mind” (with fellow Canadian singer-songwriter Jann
Arden) suffer from the simple common flaw that the songs don’t work well as two-woman duets.
Terri Clark is to be commended for the sense of risk-taking evident on Classic, but unfortunately it sometimes comes at the expense of consistency. Sleepless Nights it isn’t, but the best moments on Terri Clark’s Classic make it an enjoyable and worthwhile listen as a whole, even if the project falls a degree short of fulfilling its lofty potential.
Top Tracks: “Love Is a Rose,” “Gentle On My Mind,” “Delta Dawn”
Thankfully, this should be the last single this year from Carrie Underwood.
I say thankfully because a good “Best Singles of the Year” list needs some variety. Underwood’s been stacking the deck this year, putting out one outstanding single after another, and it’s really bad form to leave no room at the top for the rest of the competition.
“Two Black Cadillacs” revives the Southern Gothic murder ballad subgenre that was once far more prominent in country music. This is not to be confused with the wrongfully abused variety of murder ballad, which has only surfaced in the past twenty years.
A pure revenge fantasy mind you, as unbelievable and fantastical as anything Porter Wagoner ever dreamed up. Underwood’s the perfect narrator for the tale, her pithy descriptions punctuated by melancholy strings that would sound just as comfortable on American Horror Story as they do accompanying our favorite American Idol.
She lets her bias slip with a giddy “bye bye,” revealing she’s fully on board with the just desserts being served. It works because the scenario is simply implausible, which allows the listener to indulge in the darkness that would horrify us if it was actually reality.
It’s a testament to Underwood’s versatility as a singer and her credibility as a public persona that she can pull off something so wicked and not get an ounce of dirt on her squeaky clean image. But most of all, it’s a credit to her ambition as an artist. For someone so frequently accused of getting to the top without having to
While the rest of the country fixates on “Nashville,” the 46th annual Country Music Association Awards air live from Music City with equal drama and ridiculousness November 1 at 7 p.m. CST. The CU staff picked and predicted the awards below. Chime in with your thoughts, and check back for our live blog on Thursday night!
Entertainer of the Year
Jason Aldean – Dan, Ben, Kevin
Taylor Swift – Jonathan, Tara, Leeann
Jason Aldean – Dan, Ben, Jonathan, Kevin
Taylor Swift – Tara, Leeann
Dan: I’ll probably never be able to fully embrace Aldean, but his impact on the genre remains undeniable, and once in a while he releases something like “Fly Over States” that lends some dimension to his hick-rock formula.
Tara: “Fly Over States” will land on my best-of-2012 list (I’m as surprised as you are), but I just can’t get behind Jason Aldean’s overall brand of country, regardless of his impact. That leaves me with Blake Shelton and Taylor Swift, and only the latter put out music to match her star in the eligibility period. Boring category.
Ben: Sadly, this category just keeps getting harder and harder for me to care about. I could still see Swift taking it, but an Aldean victory is almost certain to happen sooner or later, and I’m thinking this could be his year. Blake’s turn will come eventually, but not until after Aldean has had his.
Jonathan: Aldean has yet to release anything I’ve liked even a little bit, but this award has increasingly turned into Nashville’s way to say “thank you” to whoever is bringing the most cash back to Music Row, so Aldean is likely due for a pat on the back. On some level, Shelton’s heightened media presence is its own reward, but he’s the most likely spoiler here, since pop crossover stars like Swift rarely pull off repeat wins.
Kevin: Should win: Carrie Underwood. But since she’s not nominated, I’ll go with Jason Aldean, who has been the biggest country artist this past year. I expect he’ll win, too.
Leeann: While it’s completely baffling to me that Jason Aldean has taken off as he has, I wouldn’t be shocked if he won this award. I, however, feel that it’s far more likely that Taylor Swift will win again.
Female Vocalist of the Year
Miranda Lambert – Leeann
Carrie Underwood – Dan, Ben, Jonathan, Tara, Kevin
Miranda Lambert – Dan, Ben, Jonathan, Tara, Kevin
Taylor Swift – Leeann
Tara: I still believe Underwood’s best is yet to come, but she deserves respect from the industry and critics alike for taking the kind of creative, thematic and interpretive risks she took with Blown Away. Maybe come next year she’ll have more influence; this year, the award is still Lambert’s to lose. (And shout out to homegirl Clarkson, who may have no place in this category, but who gave us the best cover of “Go Rest High On That Mountain” that I’ve ever heard.)
Ben: In my perfect world, Carrie Underwood’s solid new music (which was released within this year’s eligibility period) would nab her the trophy. Miranda had the most radio success this year, and will almost surely emerge victorious, but I simply can’t endorse the idea of rewarding her for releasing two singles that were easily the worst duds of her career. Footnote: Country radio seriously needs to start supporting more female artists.
Jonathan: I adore Kelly Clarkson, and, based upon nearly a decade’s worth of concert performances, I’d argue that she has the best taste in country material of any of the women nominated, and I look forward to the day when she finally records a proper country album. But her nomination here is absurd. Fortunately, she’s not really in the running to win. This likely comes down to Lambert and Underwood. In the past, I’ve championed Lambert for her fearless artistic vision, and I’ve been highly critical of Underwood’s grossly over-praised and over-rewarded output. But, this year, I’d prefer to see Underwood recognized for what is far and away her career-best work than to see Lambert win for what is quite obviously her worst. I doubt the voters will agree.
Dan: Ditto the others, pretty much. Underwood’s taste in material has deepened, but what excites me most is that her interpretive abilities have, too. I never used to feel comfortable with those comparisons to the Trishas and Connies of the world. Now I do.
Kevin: It’s all been said. Underwood’s reached new heights of artistry while still maintaining her commercial relevance. I’d call her one of the best, but that would imply there’s anyone else in her league right now.
Leeann: Miranda Lambert is still my favorite out of these choices and Kelly Clarkson’s nomination is still confusing to me. I think the award is a toss up between Taylor and Carrie in all actuality though.
Male Vocalist of the Year
Eric Church – Dan, Ben, Jonathan, Tara, Kevin
Blake Shelton – Leeann
Luke Bryan – Dan
Eric Church – Kevin
Blake Shelton – Ben, Jonathan, Tara, Leeann
Tara: Unlike last year’s crop of men, these five at least put out memorable if not entirely thoughtful material in the eligibility period. But Church is the only one who’s had a consistent vision, and what a difference that makes. I don’t see the voters dethroning Shelton, though.
Ben: I expect that the CMA is going to continue shoving the whole “Blake and Miranda are the new Tim and Faith!” idea down our throats, but Eric Church made the best music of the field by far, and country radio finally decided to get on board with it. Eric Church deserves this.
Jonathan: Church is the only one of the five who has released any strong material during the eligibility period, though I generally remain a fan of Urban’s. It’s hard to see either of those two men winning, though. Urban’s past his commercial peak, and Church is still too divisive a persona. I also think Aldean’s vocal limitations play against him here – see Chesney, Kenny, and his track record in Male Vocalist races – especially since he’s likely to be recognized elsewhere. That leaves Crest WhiteStrips to take on Shelton. I think Shelton gets another win before Bryan’s inevitable coronation here.
Dan: CMA has developed a bad habit of just voting for the incumbent. But Bryan has the most momentum right now, so what the hey; I’ll mix things up and call it Crest Whitestrips 2012.
Kevin: Gonna go out on a limb and say the best one takes it home this year. They’ve got to be itching to finally acknowledge Eric Church, right? Right???
Leeann: Blake Shelton has had a good year. I suppose he has a good, high profile chance of being rewarded for it.
Vocal Group of the Year
The Band Perry
Eli Young Band
Little Big Town – Kevin
Zac Brown Band – Dan, Ben, Jonathan, Tara, Leeann
The Band Perry
Eli Young Band
Lady Antebellum – Dan, Ben, Leeann
Little Big Town – Jonathan, Tara, Kevin
Zac Brown Band
Dan: Little Big Town’s album is too new, but their sudden momentum could power them to a spoiler win here anyway, depending on who Capitol gets behind. I’ll support them come ACM time; for now, give Zac Brown Band their freakin’ due.
Tara: Zac Brown Band and Little Big Town both put out stellar new music; the only major difference is timing. I support a ZBB win but won’t be disappointed if/when the “Pontoon”-fueled LBT steals this from the most complacent group in country music.
Ben: Zac Brown Band should win. Lady Antebellum will win. Déjà vu?
Jonathan: As much as logic points to another indefensible win for the most useless act in popular music, and as much as I want to see Zac Brown Band finally earn their long-overdue recognition, I’m calling this one an upset for the also-long-overdue Little Big Town. That karaoke video for “Pontoon” showed off just how deeply likedthey are by their peers, and now that they have the commercial stats, I think that that pervasive goodwill gives them the edge here.
Kevin: I think the red-hot momentum of Little Big Town could put them over the top. Zac Brown Band’s been my pick for a couple of years, but I really think they’re just treading water at this point.
Leeann: Zac Brown Band is far and away my favorite group of the nominees here, but Little Big Town’s talent is undeniable. I’d be happy if either of them won. I’m afraid Lady A will still win though.
Vocal Duo of the Year
Big & Rich
Love and Theft
The Civil Wars – Dan, Ben, Jonathan, Tara, Kevin, Leeann
Big & Rich
Love and Theft
Sugarland – Leeann
The Civil Wars – Kevin
Thompson Square – Dan, Ben, Jonathan, Tara
Ben: Because The Civil Wars are good.
Jonathan: Per usual: Merge this category with Vocal Group to trim the fat. The only act here deserving of the recognition is the one with the longest of long-shots to win.
Dan: La la la.
Tara: So pointless.
Kevin: I’m going out on another limb, this time by thinking that the whole “massive commercial success without radio” thing will give the Civil Wars a Mavericks-style victory. I’d honestly rather be wrong in my predictions than be depressed before the show even airs.
Leeann: I don’t think Sugarland has had a particularly active year, but I think they might still win based on name recognition.
New Artist of the Year
Lee Brice – Ben, Tara, Leeann
Hunter Hayes – Dan, Kevin
Love and Theft
Brantley Gilbert – Dan, Ben, Jonathan
Hunter Hayes – Kevin, Leeann, Tara
Love and Theft
Dan: Since none of these artists do it for me, I’d shrug it over to the technically skilled Hayes, who I think could be interesting in the future if he challenges himself to become more than a one-man boy-band. As Sawyer Brown and Keith Urban have proven, sometimes an artist earns their win in this category retroactively.
Tara: Hunter Hayes needs to rein it in a bit, but his chops have potential. Lee Brice needs to find better material, but his performances are believable. “Hard To Love” is one of my favorite guilty pleasures of the year, so I guess I’ll go with the latter?
Ben: Lee Brice strikes me as having the most potential of these nominees, but right now, I think the Brantley Gilbert virus has already spread too far.
Jonathan: Absolutely not.
Kevin: Hunter Hayes is the musical equivalent of those memes that show cats doing people things. He’s putting out real country music, and it’s adorable! All joking aside, I’m pulling for real country music wherever I can find it. Hayes is all I’ve got to work with here.
Leeann: I’m really not fond of any of these choices.
Album of the Year
Luke Bryan, Tailgates and Tanlines
Eric Church, Chief – Dan, Ben, Jonathan, Tara, Kevin, Leeann
Miranda Lambert, Four the Record
Dierks Bentley, Home
Lady Antebellum, Own the Night
Luke Bryan, Tailgates and Tanlines
Eric Church, Chief – Dan, Kevin
Miranda Lambert, Four the Record – Ben, Tara
Dierks Bentley, Home
Lady Antebellum, Own the Night – Jonathan, Leeann
Dan: Everyone but Bentley’s got a shot, but my hopeful guess is that this is where the CMA will reward Church.
Tara: Chief and Four the Record both made big impressions on me last year, but only the former has held up with time. I’ll be optimistic and predict the CMA will reward its reigning Female Vocalist of the Year over its reigning Group of the Year. (I still can’t get over Own the Night winning a Grammy, y’all. Unbelievable.)
Ben: Church’s Chief is head-and-shoulders above the rest of the field, but my gut is still predicting a Lambert and Shelton sweep, though there’s still a chance the voters may decide to reward that dreadful Lady A album instead.
Jonathan: Bright side: This is the last major “Album of the Year”-type award Own the Night is eligible to win. Downside: This is the last major “Album of the Year”-type award Own the Night will win, at the expense of far more deserving competition.
Kevin: I think Chief really made an impression, and I’m betting it was enough of one to win.
Leeann: I reflexively assume Lady A will win this award at this point, but I’m hoping for a Dierks Bentley or Eric Church win. Dierks Bentley’s album is quality and I feel Eric Church’s album is interesting and fresh.
Song of the Year
“Even If It Breaks Your Heart” – Will Hoge and Eric Paslay – Dan, Jonathan, Tara
“God Gave Me You” – Dave Barnes
“Home” – Dierks Bentley, Dan Wilson and Brett Beavers – Kevin, Leeann
“Over You” – Miranda Lambert and Blake Shelton
“Springsteen” – Eric Church, Jeff Hyde and Ryan Tyndell – Ben
“Even If It Breaks Your Heart” – Will Hoge and Eric Paslay – Dan, Tara
“God Gave Me You” – Dave Barnes – Leeann
“Home” – Dierks Bentley, Dan Wilson and Brett Beavers
“Over You” – Miranda Lambert and Blake Shelton – Ben, Jonathan
“Springsteen” – Eric Church, Jeff Hyde and Ryan Tyndell – Kevin
Dan: I think I’m just being optimistic, but maybe the earnest Hoge/Paslay story of struggling for an artistic life will resonate with enough music-industry vets to overcome the bait-ishness of “Over You” and “Home.” Maybe?
Tara: I’d be fine with three of these five winning — and would even argue that, as a composition, “God Gave Me You” is solid — but “Even If It Breaks Your Heart” has the most soul. I’m not entirely sure where the votes will fall on this one, but maybe pop culture’s spotlight on Nashville will mean a win for the songwriters’ anthem?
Ben: I can’t picture this going to anyone but Lambert and Shelton. If the CMA intends to keep working this ridiculous power-couple nonsense, they have created a golden opportunity here, and I highly doubt the song’s awfulness will be any hindrance.
Jonathan: If knowing a song’s tragic backstory is a requirement for finding “meaning” in that song, then its songwriters have failed.
Kevin: I’m hoping the CMA voters sing Shelton and Lambert’s song back to them when filling out their ballots, and pick the strongest singer-songwriter in this race. Bentley’s cut is my personal favorite.
Leeann: I just have a feeling that the bland love song will win, but I’m hoping that the thoughtful ”Home” will prove me wrong.
Single of the Year
Jason Aldean, “Dirt Road Anthem” – Kevin
Blake Shelton, “God Gave Me You”
Dierks Bentley, “Home” – Leeann
Little Big Town, “Pontoon”
Eric Church, “Springsteen” – Dan, Ben, Jonathan, Tara
Jason Aldean, “Dirt Road Anthem” – Kevin
Blake Shelton, “God Gave Me You” – Ben, Leeann
Dierks Bentley, “Home” – Dan, Jonathan, Tara
Little Big Town, “Pontoon”
Eric Church, “Springsteen”
Dan: Feels like a toss-up, actually. I’d figure “Home” and “Springsteen” to duke it out, but remember that year when “I Saw God Today” randomly won?
Tara: “Home”’s graceful approach to patriotism is lovely and especially appreciated during this infuriating election season, but the song itself lacks spark. “Springsteen” is the better all-around record, and I think it’ll hold up with time, which is a lot more than I can say about the remaining three songs in the category.
Ben: I think “Springsteen” is going to be the song with the most staying power.
Jonathan: As fine a single as “Springsteen” is, I just can’t see the CMA rallying behind a song inspired by the Boss, especially not in an election year. Bentley’s thoughtful and relatively subtle brand of patriotism seems like a far safer bet.
Kevin: I think that Aldean’s track is the coolest sounding record of the five. Surface pleasures will suffice.
Leeann: Please not “Dirt Road Anthem”!
Musical Event of the Year
”Dixie Highway”- Alan Jackson and Zac Brown Band
”Feel Like a Rock Star” – Kenny Chesney and Tim McGraw
”Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die” – Willie Nelson featuring Snoop Dogg, Kris Kristofferson and Jamey Johnson – Dan, Jonathan, Tara
”Safe and Sound” – Taylor Swift featuring the Civil Wars – Ben, Kevin, Leeann
”Stuck on You” – Lionel Richie and Darius Rucker
”Dixie Highway”- Alan Jackson and Zac Brown Band
”Feel Like a Rock Star” – Kenny Chesney and Tim McGraw – Ben, Jonathan, Leeann
”Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die” – Willie Nelson featuring Snoop Dogg, Kris Kristofferson and Jamey Johnson
”Safe and Sound” – Taylor Swift featuring the Civil Wars – Dan, Kevin, Tara
”Stuck on You” – Lionel Richie and Darius Rucker
Dan: “Roll Me Up” is a little hoot. But “Safe and Sound” had a higher profile, and it gives CMA a chance to be like, “See? We do appreciate the Civil Wars!”
Tara: Every song but “Roll Me Up” feels like it’s lacking something (in Chesney/McGraw’s case, taste), but I think “Safe and Sound” will have enough commercial clout to nab this one.
Ben: While I’m always happy to see some Alan Jackson love, “Dixie Highway” just doesn’t match the simple charm of Jackson and ZBB’s previous collaboration. “Safe and Sound” is just such a cool, haunting record – one that brings out the best in both of the acts involved. But since “Feel Like a Rock Star” has the biggest names attached, I think it’s an easy call that it’s going to win.
Jonathan:“Safe and Sound” is my favorite track here, but not necessarily because it’s a great collaboration. “Roll Me Up,” on the other hand, is a fun standalone cut that feels like a real event, and I appreciate the self-awareness with which the artists toy with their public personas. But it’s hard to imagine more conservative voters being on-board with the phrase, “CMA award winner Snoop Dogg.” The Chesney and McGraw duet quite rightfully bricked at radio, but it’s still the most likely winner here on star power alone.
Kevin: “Safe and Sound” succeeded in pushing the most mainstream of artists into an alternative country sound without sacrificing the identity of the duo that helped her get there. Plus it actually worked as a theme song to a movie that didn’t exactly lend itself to easy theming.
Leeann: I’d be fine with any of these except for the one that will probably win.
Eric Church, “Springsteen” – Dan, Ben, Tara, Kevin
Kenny Chesney, “Come Over”
Miranda Lambert, “Over You”
Little Big Town, “Pontoon”
Toby Keith, “Red Solo Cup”
Eric Church, “Springsteen”
Kenny Chesney, “Come Over”
Miranda Lambert, “Over You” – Dan, Ben, Jonathan, Kevin
Little Big Town, “Pontoon”
Toby Keith, “Red Solo Cup”
Dan: The “Springsteen” video is pretty neato. Oh well.
Tara: The video for “Springsteen” is haunting. I dig it.
Jonathan: The Twilight-hued video for “Over You” is every bit as narrativeless, cloying, and shallow as the song itself, so I’m just going to pretend this is a retroactive win for “Kerosene.”
Kevin: (…Goes to YouTube to watch videos for first time…) Lambert, you had me until the horse. I’m going with Church, mostly because it reminds me of my own childhood and also Poltergeist for some reason.
Musician of the Year
Sam Bush – Jonathan, Kevin
Paul Franklin – Ben, Leeann
Dann Huff – Jonathan, Kevin
Mac McAnally – Ben, Leeann
Ben: It’s Paul Franklin’s turn… and it has been for years now.
Jonathan: It’s not as cool as Chris Thile’s winning a MacArthur Fellowship, but Sam Bush’s nomination for his extraordinary mandolin work is my favorite thing on the entire CMA ballot this year.
Kevin: I can’t vote against the mandolin. I just can’t.
Gary Allan’s in fine form on what could be a pretty big comeback single. It hits that inspirational sweet spot that Martina McBride’s built her recent career around, but his gravely voice lends it just the right amount of gravitas.
I wish the verses were stronger, and that it didn’t make the influence of “Every Rose has its Thorn” so
A delicious, absorbing slice of country storytelling, flavored with a strong dose of everyday realism.
While Musgraves has been relatively quiet on the music front in days since her 2007 seventh-place finish on Nashville Star, she has tided fans over with projects such as an excellent collaboration with the Josh Abbott band, while also displaying her ample songwriting chops with standout cuts on recent albums by Miranda Lambert and Martina McBride. “Merry Go Round” marks her first official solo radio release, with an album to follow later this year.
The quiet, banjo-driven arrangement supplies a beautiful, comforting backdrop to an astute lyric which contrasts idealistic personal and societal expectations with the way life actually turns out. The course of one’s life is metaphorically described as “this broken merry go round.” People are expected to settle down, raise a family, ”be there in the front row like you’re s’posed to” at church every Sunday morning, only to stumble
and struggle in daily battles with hardship, temptation, and personal demons. Anchored by an evocative melody and an authentic, lived-in vocal rendering on Musgraves part, “Merry Go Round” is a song that boasts a strong, tangible connection to the realities people face everyday – a country music ideal that seems to have been mostly abandoned by the mainstream.
While I have a hard time believing this song is likely to find a home on country radio, it’s certainly well worth a listen. If such a finely polished, understative gem as this is at all indicative of the quality of Musgraves forthcoming debut album, we could be in for quite a treat.