The smooth powerful voice of Martina McBride has been a welcome radio presence for two decades now. After eighteen years of hit singles, top-selling albums, and industry awards, November 2010 brought the news that McBride was exiting the RCA Nashville label roster. In the wake of her departure from her longtime label home, her hitmaking days on RCA are summarized on the career retrospective Hits and More, featuring seventeen of McBride’s best-known hits arranged chronologically, plus three new recordings. All of her RCA albums are represented except for her 1992 debut The Time Has Come (which produced no significant hits) and her 2005 covers album Timeless (which produced only one minor Top 20 hit with McBride’s rendition of Lynn Anderson’s “Rose Garden”).
It’s a generally acknowledged fact that McBride released her best and most significant material during her nineties career heyday, with her 2001 Greatest Hits package having covered this era thoroughly. On this new set, that era is condensed into the first nine tracks. Regrettably, this results in a few mighty fine songs – notably “Safe In the Arms of Love” and “Wrong Again” – getting squeezed out. It’s also worth noting that McBride has released several singles over the years that scarcely dented the charts, and thus have been repeatedly passed over in compilation albums, but that rank among her best work, and would make fine additions to any compilation album - See “Cheap Whiskey,” “Phones Are Ringin’ All Over Town,” “Cry On the Shoulder of the Road.”
Inevitably, the album starts to sag a bit once we get into the new millennium material, though for the most part, the collection doesn’t dwell on this era any more that necessary. “This One’s for the Girls” and “In My Daughter’s Eyes” both post-dated McBride’s original Greatest Hits collection, but have gone on to become top-tier McBride hits, and are rightly included on Hits and More. Several less-memorable singles, such as the lukewarm hits “How I Feel” and “I Just Call You Mine,” are omitted. The only “issue song” included is 2002′s “Concrete Angel,” and while glass-half-full anthems like “Anyway,” “Ride,” and “Wrong Baby Wrong” are enjoyable, they do lose some luster when they have to follow songs like “Independence Day” and “A Broken Wing.”
The three new tracks are largely superfluous, serving no real purpose other than buyer temptation. “Surrender” starts out fairly strong with a lyric about giving up a marital fight, but the chorus sounds like it doesn’t know what to do with itself, and the rest of the song just runs around in circles. “Straight to the Bone” benefits from a restrained vocal and a decent lyric, but suffers from a weak melody. “Being Myself” has a pleasant musical arrangement, but the title immediately tells you what kind of song you’re getting, and it’s not good enough to warrant inclusion at the expense of the far superior material that was left off.
Ultimately, however, Hits and More accomplishes its titular objective: to offer a summary of McBride’s biggest hits, along with a modest helping of new material – and of course to continue making money for RCA long after McBride has left the label. It falls a degree short of being a definitive collection, though to be fair, such would probably require two discs instead of one. It’s an adequate career introduction for the new Martina convert, even if her 2001 Greatest Hits album is still an overall better value. If you’re looking for a good place to start your Martina collection, you will likely find Hits and More to be a satisfactory purchase, but if you’re a longtime fan who already owns most of her material, you can safely pass on it.
Track listing: 1. My Baby Loves Me 2. Independence Day 3. Wild Angels 4. A Broken Wing 5. Valentine (with Jim Brickman) 6. Happy Girl 7. Whatever You Say 8. I Love You 9. Love’s the Only House 10. Blessed 11. Where Would You Be 12. Concrete Angel 13. This One’s for the Girls 14. In My Daughter’s Eyes 15. Anyway 16. Ride 17. Wrong Baby Wrong Baby Wrong 18. Surrender 19. Straight to the Bone 20. Being Myself
Joey Feek is not a woman to be trifled with. Blow off a day with her to go fishing with your buddies, and be prepared for a holdout that would make the recent NBA lockout look like a bathroom break. Along with a steel guitar-centric, pure country sound, the song’s humor doesn’t wear thin after repeated listenings. (Are you paying attention, Brad “Camouflage” Paisley?) – Sam Gazdziak
Sweeney showed her vulnerable side with “From a Table Away” and “Staying’s Worse Than Leaving,” but here she reminds us that she still knows how to cut loose and have a good time. With “Drink Myself Single” Sweeney delivers an up-tempo track that’s rowdy and fun, with a jaunty electric-guitar-meets-steel-guitar arrangement.
Better yet, she does it without sacrificing lyrical intelligence, and even gets through the whole thing without having to resort to the crutch of citing ‘Ol’ Hank.’ With a seething undercurrent of hurt and anger echoing George Jones’ “Why Baby Why,” “Single” shows an artist with one foot grounded in country music’s storied past, but also with an eye toward the future. – Ben Foster
Mary Was the Marrying Kind
Individual Rankings: #4 – Kevin; #9 – Dan
A song that manages to characterize eight different girls more believably than a lot of songs characterize one. As the narrator runs through his rocky dating history, you get why he wasn’t conditioned to appreciate Mary when they met, and you mourn with him now that he’s learned to too late. – Dan Milliken
Alison Krauss & Union Station
Individual Rankings: #2 – Dan; #10 – Ben
The quiet melancholy of Krauss and Robert Lee Castleman’s previous collaborations seems to come to a crescendo. “Here all alone and still wondering why,” Krauss sings in the soaring chorus, with yet another relationship crumbling around her. She’s resigned to a cycle of build-up and letdown, as lovers’ feelings and her own toss senselessly about. – Dan Milliken
The sassy “Teenage Daughters” was a refreshing departure from the inspirational songs and rangy vocal performances that we’ve become accustomed to hearing from Martina McBride by now. Instead, with restrained vocals rife with personality, McBride slyly offers a realistic take on the frustrations of raising teenage daughters with honesty and without sap. More of that please, Martina! – Leeann Ward
Individual Rankings: #2 – Sam; #5 – Leeann
“Home” sounds like a pretty love song. And it is. it’s an emotional love song to America from a respectful Dierks Bentley. As the best love songs tend to go, it realistically acknowledges ups and downs while ultimately declaring the strength of the ties that bind. Best of all, not only is it a love song to America, it manages to be patriotic without the jingoism or chest thumping that has all too often pervades patriotic songs in the last decade. – Leeann Ward
Another Like You
Hayes Carll with Bonnie Whitmore
Individual Rankings: #1- Sam; #6 – Leeann
A heated political discussion between a diehard conservative and a bleeding-heart liberal turns into a drunken makeout session in an elevator. If more political discussions in this country ended that way, there would be a heck of a lot more being accomplished in Washington. – Sam Gazdziak
Sunny Sweeney just gets the economy of the best country songwriting: There’s nothing flashy about the opening lines of “Staying’s Worse Than Leaving,” but the weariness in her delivery of a simple aside (“Trust me, it’s really bad”) tells her character’s back-story in just a scant few words and gives her on-the-verge narrative real emotional heft. – Jonathan Keefe
As a portrait of the post-breakup healing process, Evans’ surprise comeback hit is striking in its simplicity, but nonetheless disarmingly effective. Simple vignettes of going through your daily routines with a smile on your face, changing the station when a song reminds you of your ex, coupled with the refrain of “I got a little bit stronger… just a little bit stronger” beautifully capture the progressive nature of the narrator’s healing journey.
Fittingly, Evans’ vocal begins on a hushed, tired-sounding note, building to a dramatic crescendo as the song progresses – a dynamic, layered performance from one of the finest interpretive singers of her generation. – Ben Foster
She’s heard through the grapevine what she needs to do to get her man back, a laundry list of every compromise under the sun. No wonder she reaches the conclusion that she just doesn’t need him that bad. – Kevin John Coyne
If this list has shown anything, it’s that I’m partial to a good reworking of a Christmas standard – something that stands out from the hundreds of other versions.
But for “O Holy Night,” there is nothing like Berry’s simple, traditional, note-perfect version. It’s a particular favorite among golden-voiced singers like Josh Groban and Andrea Bocelli, but Berry’s is the gold standard.
Leeann’s Pick: Martina McBride
This song is meant to be powerfully sung, even belted. Who better to fulfill this requirement than Martina McBride? On my favorite Christmas song, McBride doesn’t disappoint.
Jonathan Keefe: John Berry
I have to second Sam’s mention of John Berry’s rendition of this song. Among the religious-themed Christmas standards, “O Holy Night” is far away my favorite, thanks to its flawless construction and evocative melody. The problem with the song, though, is that melody and the dramatic crescendo in the refrain both make it real, real easy to oversing. Right, Celine?
Berry, who is absolutely one of the most gifted and underrated singers in country music’s rich history of gifted and underrated singers, takes a far more low-key approach to the song, letting the purity and warmth of his vocal tone and the soulfulness of his slow vibrato convey a real sense of reverence for the song’s message and narrative.
On a song that’s too often undone by bombastic performances and arrangements, Berry’s approach is a gift that keeps on giving.
Kevin Coyne: Carrie Underwood
For the same reason Berry and McBride are mentioned above. For me, Carrie Underwood has the most powerful voice out there, able to alternate between subtlety and raw power with ease.
It seems only fitting that a talent on loan from God should sing about the birth of His son so beautifully.
As the story goes, “You’re Still the One” was inspired by media speculation that Shania Twain’s marriage to Robert John “Mutt” Lange would not last. Twain and Lange decided to respond to the criticism in song. The result was a song that would become a monster crossover hit, a staple for weddings and anniversaries for years to come, an instant standard of nineties country and pop music, and one of the songs that would go on to define Twain’s unique and outstanding career.
The song was remixed into a massive international pop hit, and was a major factor in powering the Come On Over album to such staggering sales numbers. Still, the song is best heard in its original country form for one simple reason: Any song celebrating an enduring relationship deserves steel guitar backing.
Like many a classic country song, “You’re Still the One” utilizes simple and straightforward lyrics to tap into varying emotions. “You’re Still the One” is a song of joy, triumph, satisfaction, and most of all, a celebration of endless love. Though it’s likely a song of personal nature to Twain, it’s constructed in a way that allows any couple to hear the song as their own story set to music.
It’s Twain’s performance, however, that lifts the song into the heavens. Twain was never known for being a powerhouse vocalist like contemporaries such as Trisha Yearwood, Martina McBride, and Faith Hill (and was even dismissed as a sub-par vocalist by some detractors). But “You’re Still the One” demonstrates the fact that Twain brought her own unique set of gifts as a vocalist. She invests deep shades of emotions into her lower register throughout her hushed delivery of the opening verses. Two choruses and one steel guitar solo later, she lets her voice rise as if releasing every ounce of the deep love and triumph that was previously conveyed understatedly. Such a layered dynamic rendering is a fine example of Twain’s formidable, yet often overlooked skills as a vocal interpreter, as well as a testament to everything she got right as a songwriter and vocalist.
Sadly, Twain and Lange’s marriage eventually did dissolve a decade later. Regardless, the song’s deep impact is untempered. “You’re Still the One” remains an anthem for any couple who has ‘beaten the odds together,’ with my own parents being one such couple. Songs become hits, and songs fade into obscurity, but this one has been around for thirteen years, and still shows no signs of ever being forgotten.
Written by Shania Twain and Robert John “Mutt” Lange
It’s that time of year again! The time when we all dutifully tune in to the CMA Awards show, raise our eyebrows at the “What the heck are they doing here?” award presenters, and afterwards complain about how totally un-country the whole show was. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I can’t wait.
We’re pleased to share the Country Universe staff picks for this year’s CMA Awards, as well as our predictions of who the winners will be. This year we have some highly competitive categories in which predicting the winners is quite difficult, leading to some significantly divergent picks among our writing staff. Agree? Disagree? Join in the discussion in the comment thread below, and let us know.
The CMA Awards telecast will air on Wednesday, November 9, 8pm Eastern on ABC-TV. We will be live blogging the show here at Country Universe, so do be sure to drop by and join in the fun!
Entertainer of the Year
Jason Aldean – Kevin
Taylor Swift - Dan, Ben, Leeann, Jonathan, Tara
Blake Shelton - Dan, Leeann, Jonathan
Taylor Swift – Ben, Kevin, Tara
Dan: I can imagine anyone but Urban taking it, but I like Jonathan’s logic.
Ben: It’s hard to bet on the Entertainer award going to a female artist, but it seems Swift has undoubtedly had the biggest year of all the nominees. Her album sold like hotcakes, and produced a trio of killer radio singles, while she topped that off with her Speak Now tour. That combination should bag her this year’s top prize.
Leeann: Paisley could take it again, but my money’s on the CMA wanting to give it to fresh blood this year. Taylor Swift is who probably actually deserves it, however.
Jonathan: Paisley is probably the most logical pick, but he didn’t figure as heavily into the nominations this year as he could have, so I’m wondering if the voters have cooled on him as much as the crew here at CU have of late. Swift’s live show should be a factor in this category, but she has a whole lot of gender bias to overcome, and there seems to be at least something of a backlash against her in the country community post-Fearless. Which leaves the ubiquitous Shelton, who has been something of a new “Everywhere Man” for the genre over the past year.
Kevin: I think Swift will win because she had the highest profile year. But I think Aldean defines the genre in 2011, for better or for worse. Mostly worse.
Tara: As I’ve said before, this is the most appropriate way for the voters to reward Swift’s monster success, and for the first time at the CMAs, I truly feel she deserves this award. I’m particularly impressed with the way she continues to cultivate her relationship with her fans. I just hope the voters don’t pair this award with the FVOTY award.
Male Vocalist of the Year
Jason Aldean - Dan, Ben
Keith Urban - Leeann, Jonathan, Kevin, Tara
Jason Aldean – Dan, Ben
Blake Shelton - Leeann, Jonathan, Kevin, Tara
Dan: Aldean’s not my thing, but he’s the biggest guy in the field by an unignorable margin. More than anything, I think the indie Broken Bow Records deserves props for building their flagship artist so well.
Ben: I’m largely indifferent to this particular field of nominees (save possibly Keith Urban), but Aldean’s massive success should most likely nab him his first Male Vocalist trophy.
Leeann: Again, I think it’s Shelton’s night to sweep in order to shake things up this year. He and Urban have the strongest voices in the category anyway.
Jonathan: Urban’s the only one of the lot who has released even one single I’ve liked in the past year, so he’d get my vote. Aldean has the commercial clout, sure, but quality has to count for something, right? Voters have looked at the word “Vocalist” in the category name and have passed over Chesney for years, and I wonder if they’ll do the same to Aldean here. I’m thinking yes.
Kevin: Urban’s the one who I can stand to listen to. But if Shelton was able to win last year, I don’t see how he loses this year. Not post-Voice and “Honey Bee.”
Tara: It makes me sad that I can’t find a solid reason to support Urban or Paisley, both of whom I used to feel passionately about. And in all honesty, I can’t find a solid reason to support any of these guys, based on their output during the eligibility period. I’m going to blindly back Urban –who, despite being “Urban-lite” these days, is at least consistent– and predict that Shelton’s amped public profile will give him the edge with voters.
Female Vocalist of the Year
Sara Evans – Kevin
Taylor Swift – Dan, Ben, Leeann, Jonathan
Carrie Underwood – Tara
Miranda Lambert – Dan, Leeann, Jonathan, Kevin, Tara
Taylor Swift - Ben
Dan: Come ACM season, I’ll be all for Lambert; Pistol Annies and Four The Record prove she’s using her new commercial powers nobly. But I like Swift’s performances on Speak Now, and that album just applies more to this awards cycle.
Ben: Swift is the overall strongest contender, but I could see voters seizing the opportunity to recognize Evans, who released a new album and had a number one single during the eligibility period. I wouldn’t rule Lambert out either, though she didn’t have as strong a year as she did in 2010. But I doubt this will be Underwood’s year, and McBride’s was essentially a filler nomination, so I’d say it’s down to Swift, Evans, and Lambert. (But, like Dan, I will totally be Team Miranda when the ACMs roll around)
Leeann: I reflexively say Lambert should win, but Swift has had the best year and will likely win as a result. I won’t be heart broken if Lambert takes it though.
Jonathan: There’s a part of me that would vote for Lambert on principle and out of loyalty, but I can’t argue with a simple mathematical inequality: “Back to December,” “Mean,” and “Sparks Fly” > “Only Prettier,” “Heart Like Mine” and “Baggage Claim.” Had her label been campaigning harder that she’s never won this award, Evans could’ve been a bigger threat here, but Lambert’s ongoing momentum should carry her to a repeat win.
Kevin: Can this power couple nonsense be derailed? Probably not, so while I’d rather see Swift get it over Lambert, I’m doubtful it would happen. My real fantasy would be for the only non-winner, Sara Evans, to take it. For prosperity’s sake, and for actually putting out a great single that I failed to realize was great until it was already a hit.
Tara: This is a tough one for me. Lambert’s worked the genre like no other female has this past year and a half, but the singles she’s released in the eligibility period have been so-so. Swift’s put out some solid material, but I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to support her winning a vocalist award. And then there’s Underwood, who’s been relatively quiet on the radio front, but whose stunning performance of “How Great Thou Art” back in April went viral and serves as a reminder of what I firmly believe is one of the finest voices in the genre. I’m going with my gut and backing Underwood, but I think the voters will reward Lambert again, which is fine with me.
Vocal Duo of the Year
The Civil Wars – Dan, Ben, Leeann, Jonathan, Kevin, Tara
The Civil Wars
Sugarland - Dan, Ben, Leeann, Jonathan, Kevin, Tara
Dan: Seriously, why not the Civil Wars? They’ve sold about as many albums (200,000-ish) as everyone besides Sugarland without the support of a major label. Not to mention they just made the most interesting music.
Ben: I’m supporting the Civil Wars on principle, but it’s a no-brainer that Sugarland’s hot streak is not over yet.
Leeann: I love The Civil Wars. The end.
Jonathan: Yet more evidence that this category should be merged with Vocal Group of the Year to cut the deadweight. Though the Civil Wars getting in instead of the JaneDear Girls is a nice testament to the fact that the CMAs, every so often, can exercise good taste and discretion.
Kevin: Sugarland’s album was atrocious. The Civil Wars are in the running for my favorite set of the year. Easy call for me.
Tara: Can Sugarland hurry up and release a new, redeeming album, please?
Vocal Group of the Year
The Band Perry
Little Big Town
Zac Brown Band – Dan, Ben, Leeann, Jonathan, Kevin, Tara
The Band Perry
Lady Antebellum – Tara
Little Big Town
Zac Brown Band - Dan, Ben, Leeann, Jonathan, Kevin
Dan: Lady A were between albums. Some variety this year, please.
Ben: It’ hard to bet against Lady Antebellum, but the Zac Brown band gave us a strong album and two of the year’s most memorable hit singles (“As She’s Walking Away” and “Colder Weather”), and I predict that they will be rewarded justly.
Leeann: Zac Brown Band has a good chance with the best music in the category, but Lady A just might not be out yet.
Jonathan: Little Big Town’s brilliant “Little White Church” should’ve put them back in the mix for good, but they really botched the single releases from their album and are right back to being also-rans. The Band Perry will settle for the “New Artist” award as a consolation prize this year, which leaves Lady A and Zac Brown Band to duke it out. In terms of the quality of their output, Zac Brown Band has Lady A dead to rights, but is that enough to stop the trio’s awards-show juggernaut? Let’s hope so.
Kevin: Zac Brown Band is the only option both realistic and palatable.
Tara: This is the first of these categories that I feel strongly about this year. Based on the strength of You Get What You Give, Zac Brown Band deserves to nab this award, hands down. But I’ll go against my co-bloggers here and guess that Lady Antebellum still has the industry wrapped around its finger.
New Artist of the Year
The Band Perry - Ben
Eric Church - Leeann, Jonathan
Chris Young – Dan, Kevin, Tara
The Band Perry – Ben, Jonathan, Tara
Eric Church – Dan, Leeann, Kevin
Dan: Church seems the most likely to have a long, interesting career and probably deserves the win. I just don’t want to encourage “Homeboy,” I guess.
Ben: Thompson Square and The Band Perry are the only two nominees whom I would still consider “new” artists, and I think The Band Perry beats Thompson Square any day. Bryan, however, did reach a new level of stardom over the past year, so he stands a good chance at wining nonetheless.
Leeann: While it’s strange that with three albums Church is still in the New Artist category, it’s probably that same reason that he should win the award, not to mention that he had the strongest album of the nominees in the past year.
Jonathan: Young’s the best singer in the field, but his material is still too inconsistent in quality for me to get on board with him. Church, on the other hand, finally made good on his early promise and his considerable hype with Chief and would be a deserving winner, as would the uneven but still pretty good The Band Perry. As the only nominee with any other nominations, they have to be considered the slight favorites over Crest WhiteStrips.
Kevin: I think Church’s big breakthrough happened close enough to the voting window to give him a slight edge. I’d like to see Chris Young get the boost from a win.
Tara: Of all the nominees, I’m the most excited for Chris Young’s future in country music – his vocal talent is tremendous, and even though it falls right outside of the eligibility period, Neon is one of my favorite releases of this year. Based on their other major nominations, though, I think The Band Perry will take this.
Album of the Year
Blake Shelton, All About Tonight
Jason Aldean, My Kinda Party
Taylor Swift, Speak Now- Ben, Kevin
Brad Paisley, This Is Country Music
Zac Brown Band, You Get What You Give- Dan, Leeann, Jonathan, Tara
Blake Shelton, All About Tonight
Jason Aldean, My Kinda Party – Dan, Leeann, Jonathan, Tara
Taylor Swift, Speak Now – Ben, Kevin
Brad Paisley, This Is Country Music
Zac Brown Band, You Get What You Give
Dan: Here’s a logical place to acknowledge Aldean, though I hope voters think twice about it.
Ben: In my book, Swift and the Zac Brown Band are the only truly worthy winners (and I’m still scratching my head over why a Blake Shelton “Six Pak” was even nominated in the first place). To me, the most intriguing thing about Swift is that she really does seem to get a little better and a little deeper with each album. Speak Now is her crowning achievement to date, and in my opinion, the best album on this ballot.
Leeann: It hurts my heart to think it, but Jason Aldean’s big year will likely earn him the award for best album, even though numbers isn’t how such an award should be selected.
Jonathan: Speak Now is Swift’s strongest album, but, “Mean” notwithstanding, it’s also her most unabashedly pop album. And song-for-song, I still think You Get What You Give is slightly better. But Aldean has been a steady seller, and he’s big enough that he has to win one of the major awards, and this one’s his best bet.
Kevin: “All songs composed by Taylor Swift” impressed the heck out of me, not the least of which because the songs were far better than her earlier work. Zac Brown Band’s a close second for me.
Tara: Speak Now is solid, but You Get What You Give is the better example of how to move this genre forward, with its delicious yet reverent mishmash of influences. But I think this is where the voters will recognize the often overlooked commercial success of Jason Aldean.
Single of the Year
Sara Evans, “A Little Bit Stronger”
Zac Brown Band, “Colder Weather”- Leeann, Tara
Jason Aldean with Kelly Clarkson, “Don’t You Wanna Stay”
Blake Shelton, “Honey Bee”
The Band Perry, “If I Die Young” – Dan, Ben, Jonathan, Kevin
Sara Evans, “A Little Bit Stronger”
Zac Brown Band, “Colder Weather”
Jason Aldean with Kelly Clarkson, “Don’t You Wanna Stay” - Jonathan, Tara
Blake Shelton, “Honey Bee” - Kevin
The Band Perry, “If I Die Young” - Dan, Ben, Leeann
Dan: It’d be heartening to see The Band Perry’s risky, rootsy release get its due. Plus: the single alone is 3x Platinum, better than any of its competitors can claim.
Ben: “Colder Weather” and “If I Die Young” are the two strongest competitors, but for me, a cool folksy arrangement puts the latter over the edge.
Leeann: This is tough. I can actually see any of these singles winning, but I have a good feeling about “If I Die Young”, though I’d love to see “Colder Weather” prove me wrong.
Jonathan: This one’s actually a tough call, since all five of the singles are big radio hits and everyone here has multiple nominations. “If I Die Young” is the best-produced single of the lot, but I’m predicting that Kelly Clarkson’s endless likability gives the edge to her duet with Aldean.
Kevin: Love the Band Perry record most, followed by Sara Evans. But this is the CMA awards, and Shelton managed to be both completely vanilla and namedrop Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn.
Tara: If I better understood the story in “If I Die Young,” I might be able to get behind it, but I think “Colder Weather” is the more memorable single. It’s my favorite kind of country ballad – killer vocals, gripping melody and palpable emotion. I see the fiery Aldean / Clarkson collaboration taking this one, though. (By the way, dude, “Honey Bee” – really CMA?)
“If I Die Young” – Kimberly Perry - Dan, Ben, Jonathan, Tara
“Mean” – Taylor Swift - Kevin
“You and Tequila” – Matraca Berg & Deana Carter – Leann
Dan: “If I Die Young” is a flawed composition, but it’s still the most striking and strange one here, and that’s worth something.
Ben: I never though I’d see a CMA Song of the Year field in which Matraca Berg and Deana Carter would compete against Colt Ford and Brantley Gilbert. I would so love to see Berg and Carter win the award. I might tend to be slightly biased when it comes to Matraca Berg, but I think “Tequila” is a fine composition on its own merits, and a worthy winner indeed. Still, my gut predicion is that Perry will grab the trophy instead.
Leeann: “Mean” is probably my favorite song in terms of production and melody, but “You and Tequila” is the best song of the nominees.
Jonathan: Berg is a treasure and I like Carter well enough, so it’s nice to see their names on the ballot again, but “You and Tequila” isn’t either of their best compositions. Here’s the thing about “Mean”: What doesn’t work about the song has everything to do with the fact that it shows the extent to which Swift still hasn’t fully figured out her artistic persona. But in terms of melody and overall construction as a stand-alone song? It’s the class of the field. As Dan said, “If I Die Young” is flawed, but it also has a lot going for it and will be a fine, worthy winner when it inevitably takes this.
Kevin: I love “You and Tequila”, but it’s an old song. I’m glad Chesney rediscovered it, but I can’t see it as this year’s Song of the Year. I think “Mean” is the best of the bunch, with the music as clever as the lyrics.
Tara: I’m with Jonathan and Leann re: “Mean” in that I agree its melody and overall construction are terrific; unfortunately its flaw –the bridge, which undermines the premise of the song– is too big for me to overlook. And as much as I love it, I don’t feel right backing “Colder Weather,” either, as it’s really Brown’s vocal performance that elevates the composition to a memorable song. So I’ll go with the quirky and unique “If I Die Young” and guess the voters will, too.
Musical Event of the Year
“As She’s Walking Away” – Zac Brown Band featuring Alan Jackson – Dan, Ben, Leeann, Jonathan, Kevin, Tara
“Don’t You Wanna Stay” – Jason Aldean with Kelly Clarkson – Dan, Ben, Leeann, Jonathan
“Old Alabama” – Brad Paisley with Alabama
“You and Tequila” – Kenny Chesney featuring Grace Potter
Dan: The Single nod for Jason and Kelly suggests they have the edge here. But my heart echoes a resounding “Go on, son.”
Ben: “As She’s Walking Away” is just so effortlessly charming that it would easily be my first pick, but the cross-genre appeal – and bonus Clarkson star power – of “Don’t You Wanna Stay” make it the most likely winner. The fact that “Don’t You Wanna Stay” is also nominated for Single (which “As She’s Walking Away” sadly isn’t) suggests a likely victory in this category.
Leeann: How can I not pull for the Zac Brown Band and Alan Jackson when I have a chance? I’m pretty confident that the drama, cross genre appeal, and, yup, the drama again, make “Don’t You Want to Stay” the sure bet though.
Jonathan: “As She’s Walking Away” is one of the purest and truest duets in years, and it could pull some votes from the more traditionalist voters, but the Aldean and Clarkson single just has too much firepower to lose here.
Kevin: If this doesn’t go to Zac Brown Band and Alan Jackson, then I no longer understand how CMA voters think.
Tara: No question here, “As She’s Walking Away” is head and shoulders above the rest of the collaborations in this category, one of the most quietly charming singles we’ve heard on country radio in quite some time. I’ll go out on a limb and predict that voters will have trouble ignoring the warm fuzzies they get when Jackson starts singing.
Music Video of the Year
Blake Shelton, “Honey Bee”
The Band Perry, “If I Die Young” – Dan
Taylor Swift, “Mean” – Ben, Kevin, Tara
Brad Paisley featuring Alabama, “Old Alabama”
Kenny Chesney featuring Grace Potter, “You and Tequila”
I was in my early teens when I first discovered Sara Evans… and I thought she was the greatest thing since sliced bread. The rich, throaty texture of her distinct voice reeled me in, and her entertaining mixture of traditional and contemporary influences had me thoroughly hooked. Now that I’ve also become familiar with the likes of Patty Loveless, Pam Tillis, Trisha Yearwood, and Emmylou Harris, my view of Sara is a little more in-perspective these days, but I do still consider myself a big fan, and she holds a special distinction as one of the first female country artists I really got into.
Radio passed on her when she first emerged as a neotraditionalist in the late nineties, but with future efforts, Sara went on to become a star, thanks to her ability to adapt to changing times while still staying true to herself. She was one of the dominant female country voices on the radio dial in the early years of the twenty-first century, and after enduring a bit of a dry spell for a few years, she has recently experienced a commercial resurgence.
Though she maintained a fairly consistent quality standard for the better part of her career, recent years have seen that standard slipping thanks to subpar pop-country cuts in the vein of “Feels Just Like a Love Song.” Nonetheless, Sara still deserves credit for having a solid body of work behind her that’s well worth remembering. If we’re fortunate, perhaps we may one day see Sara make a return to form, or even delve back into her traditional country and bluegrass roots.
The following list includes many of the songs that best exemplify the qualities that drew me to the music of Sara Evans in the first place. It’s not meant to be a strict listing of the songs that unquestionably rank as Sara’s “best;” (which would be pretty subjective anyway) It’s merely a list of my own personal favorites. Let it be an enjoyable look back on some of Sara’s finest moments. If you would like to share any of your own favorites in the comments section, please feel free to do so.
“A Little Bit Stronger”
Somehow, Sara’s comeback hit finds a way to hit my sweet spot for power ballads. (Yes, I actually do have a sweet spot for power ballads, though few have been able to hit it) What was it about this song that won me over? Maybe it was the subtle strains of mandolin and steel. Maybe it’s the build-up nature of the song – the way the progressive nature of the narrator’s healing is mirrored by the production and by Sara’s vocal delivery. At any rate, the ingredients come together to form a record greater than the sum of its parts.
Real Fine Place, 2005
It’s not just a song about how cool small-town life is. Stylistically, the song even ranks as one of Sara’s most pop-friendly album tracks. As Sara’s character expresses her desire to escape the hustle-and-bustle of city life, the song becomes a plea for a return to the simple things in life. Though not all of us intend to make a big old move to a small town, no doubt many among us harbor a similar deep-down yearning just to “find a little earth to stand on.”
The catchy guitar hook is an instant attention-getter, but this number-two hit from Sara’s Restless album has a heart and a simple message at its core: “Real love and real life doesn’t have to be perfect.” Add in a few quirky and clever lines such as “If in every wedding picture my daddy looks annoyed, it’s all right,” as well as the fitting conclusion that “All the fairy tales tell a lie,” and you’ve got a real beauty.
“Momma’s Night Out”
Real Fine Place, 2005
I love this song mainly because it’s a side of Sara that we haven’t seen very often. She’s rarely been one to record party songs. But on this track, Sara takes on the role of an overworked mother who throws in the towel, leaves the kids with daddy, and hits the town with the girls. Sara’s sassy vocal finds her as loose as she’s ever been, while the funky horn-infused production makes it an unforgettable track
No Place That Far, 1999
The distinct voice of George Jones, even when coming in the form of background vocals, has the ability to make a great song even greater (see Patty Loveless, “You Don’t Seem to Miss Me”). In this shamelessly twangy steel-infused country rave-up from No Place That Far, the Possum joins Sara in delivering the unshakable hook of “Tell Cupid not to point that thing at me!”
I have a bit of a weakness for country music that borrows from Irish and Celtic influences as this track does. The gorgeous Celtic-harp-laced arrangement makes “Restless” a highlight of one of Sara’s most stylistically-diverse albums. The lyrics are every bit as beautiful, poetically telling of a restless soul learning to make peace with the fact that she will be a wanderer until the day she dies.
Billy: The Early Years (soundtrack), 2008
Sara’s contribution to the Billy soundtrack is nothing short of a pure joy, replete with the sounds of pure country and bluegrass instrumentation. Though the lyrics invoke religious elements, they don’t sound preachy at all. It’s not a “You should live your life this way” kind of song; It’s an “I’m going to live my life this way” kind of song. It’s a proactive anthem of strength, resolve, and determination – more uplifting than a million Martina McBride power ballads combined.
“I’ve Got a Tiger By the Tail”
Three Chords and the Truth, 1997
Fact: Sara sounds best when singing traditional country music. Going back and listening to Sara’s shamelessly neotraditional debut album is a joy for any fan of stone cold country. Here she pays tribute to the vintage Bakersfield sound with a cover of a Buck Owens hit co-written by Harlan Howard. Besides being a highlight of the Three Chords and the Truth album, this song was instrumental in helping Sara get the chance to snag a record deal and become a star. It was when the legendary songwriter Harlan Howard himself heard Sara’s performance of his classic song that he threw all his efforts into helping the young talent get discovered.
“Fool, I’m a Woman”
No Place That Far, 1999
This deliciously snarky tune has Matraca Berg’s fingerprints all over it. In a composition by one of country’s finest songwriters, Sara plays off the age-old stereotype of a woman’s continual habit of changing her mind. She scoffs at old romantic clichés as she pointedly tells off her soon-to-be-ex-lover – “You used to tell me so many nights/ You don’t deserve me/ Well maybe you were right.” Ouch!
“A Real Fine Place to Start”
Real Fine Place, 2005
I have a major affinity for songs that can effectively channel the excitement of a newfound romance, and this Radney Foster-penned number-one hit from 2005 squarely hits that target. Thanks in large part to Sara’s soaring vocal performance, “A Real Fine Place to Start” is a fun, breezy record that bubbles over with energy and exuberance, and begs to be blasted out one’s car windows. A shining example of pop-country done well.
“Why Should I Care”
Born to Fly, 2000
A sparse pop-country ballad in which a woman struggles to make sense of the feelings of guilt and jealousy that suddenly surface when she finds out that her former lover has found someone new.
Three Chords and the Truth, 1997
Sara’s take on this Patsy Cline torch ballad ranks as arguably one of the finest displays of Sara’s vocal talents that can be found on any of her studio albums.
Real Fine Place, 2005
This melancholy Lori McKenna song was one of the best tracks on Real Fine Place. While so many country stars have gleefully sang the praises of small-town living, “Bible Song” echoes the message that life in such idealistic small towns is not always what it’s cracked up to be. The pace of life may be slower, but this tragic story of a young man’s drug-induced death shows that even small town residents at times fall prey to their own inner demons.
A genuine nugget of wisdom is wrapped up in this blazing fiddle-shredder. The narrator recounts a frightening childhood experience in which a tree falls near her family’s house after being struck by lightning. Then her father carves the tree’s wood into a rocking horse that becomes one of her most treasured toys. By showing how this experience shapes the narrator’s outlook on life, “Rockin’ Horse” becomes a colorful testament to the power of positive thinking, with its message summed up in the memorable hook “When it’s pouring down on me/ In my life I see the rockin’ horse inside the tree.”
Greatest Hits, 2007
Four new tracks were included on Sara’s 2007 Greatest Hits package, and this almost-Top 10 hit was by far the best. With cheeky, humorous lyrics, Sara satirically poked fun at the human tendency toward infatuation that blinds one to all a person’s shortcomings. The catchy melody and energetic performance made for an earworm of a record that was truly unforgettable.
“What That Drink Cost Me”
The new album could have benefited greatly from more songs like this. This restrained steel guitar weeper is the stuff of a country classic – a heart-wrenching tale of the destructive power of alcohol. Though the Stronger album as a whole found Sara saddled with an excess of disposable material, the fact that it also included one of the best songs she had written in years is an encouraging sign. Besides that, “What That Drink Cost Me” is yet another example of one of the qualities that I’ve always appreciated about Sara’s music: Even after she went in a more pop-flavored musical direction, her traditional country influences were never fully snuffed out.
“If You Ever Want My Lovin’”
Three Chords and the Truth, 1997
This loose, flirty, upbeat little ditty was co-written by Sara along with Billy Yates and Melba Montgomery. Though the cheeky lyrics can put an instant smile on one’s face, the record’s most endearing trait is Sara’s raw, expressive vocal delivery. Though Sara’s Missouri twang is toned back on some of her more pop-oriented material, this record allows that twang to stand front and center.
Three Chords and the Truth, 1997
This was the only original song on Sara’s debut album on which she did not share writing credits, originating from the pen of Leslie Satcher. As the song’s narrator discovers evidence of a secret love from her man’s past, she views his willingness to leave it behind as evidence of his genuine love for her. She resolves to return that love by trusting in her man, and allowing his secret to remain a secret.
“No Place That Far”
No Place That Far, 1999
Vince Gill is one of country music’s favorite harmony vocalists (besides being an A-list legend in his own right), and he adds something particularly special to the hauntingly beautiful love song that was Sara’s breakthrough chart-topper. The song reaches a crescendo in the final chorus as Sara sings “If I had to run, if I had to crawl…” and is answered each time by that distinctive tenor. It’s as if we’re listening to two lovers singing to one another from afar off, pledging their unwavering determination to be reunited. Though it’s a great lyric in its own right, the chemistry of the two performers gives the story an extra layer that can’t be seen just by looking at the lyrics on paper.
“I Learned That from You”
Born to Fly, 2000
Though found on one of Sara’s most pop-oriented albums, “I Learned from You” was one of the finest and most country tracks on Sara’s breakthrough album Born to Fly. A heavy-hearted reflection on the difficult leassons learned from a first love that didn’t last, while also an appreciative recollection of all the happy memories that were made at the time.
Real Fine Place, 2005
The timing was unfortunate for the release of this underplayed gem that offered a glimpse of Sara’s mountain bluegrass influences. A flirty, playful lyric and performance added up to a song that was loads of fun as Sara fawned over her man “walking out of that coalmine, covered with dust, T-shirt tight, all muscled up.” This is one Sara Evans single that is definitely deserving of a re-release.
“Three Chords and the Truth”
Three Chords and the Truth, 1997
The title track of Sara’s debut is a testament to the power of country music in dredging up deeply held emotions in a listener – emotions that we might have ignored in the past. It’s the kind of song that always reminds me why I love country music so much. Sara’s character hears a country song on the radio for the first time, and it not only brings back the emotions, but it moves her to action. It motivates her to turn the car around and reconcile with the lover she had intended to leave far behind. “Three Chords” is a beautifully constructed story that effectively pays tribute to country music at its best, demonstrating that there’s so much more to this unique and special genre than what the ugly stereotypes would lead some to believe.
“Suds In the Bucket”
Besides being an excellent singalong driving jam, this fiddle-and-steel-laden hit is a humorous glimpse at tongue-wagging small-town culture, sans the chest-pounding backwoods clichés that are common on country radio today. Fun, playful, and full of personality, this country rave-up was the song that first got me into Sara Evans, and it’s remained a personal favorite of mine ever since. It never fails to make me feel happy.
Real Fine Place, 2005
This Top Ten hit takes a classic country music theme – infidelity – and puts a distinct and memorable spin on it. After having parted ways with an unfaithful spouse, Sara’s character gloats over the unpleasant living situation her ex has since found himself in. But as the lyric progresses, she reveals that she has been genuinely hurt by his actions, and she unashamedly drops the bomb of “Yes, I’ll be glad to take you back just as soon as I stop breathing.” Amusingly spiteful and achingly emotional at the same time, “Cheatin’” exemplifies the layered organic storytelling that makes for a killer country song, while the traditional-styled arrangement acts as the perfect sonic backdrop to Sara’s bitterly nuanced performance.
“Born to Fly”
Born to Fly, 2000
Sara’s career record remains one of her most enduring and effortlessly charming hits, and with it’s distinctive drumbeat intro and bluegrass-tinged instrumentation, it’s definitely one of her most recognizeable. “Born to Fly” is an endearing coming-of-age tale of a young woman exploring her potential in life, and seeking to find her place in the world. It manages to perfect the magic formula of possessing a unique identity of its own, while still being universal such that a wide array of individuals can relate to the feelings it expresses. Who among us has never gone through this period of life as a young person? We’ve all been at that crossroads point in life, and felt what it’s like to be “starin’ down the road, just lookin’ for my one chance to run.”
In a way, the song could also be seen as symbolic of the point Sara was at in her career when she recorded it. Would her third album improve on the moderate success of No Place That Far, or would it be ignored like the commercially-underappreciated Three Chords and the Truth? It was with this album and single that Sara struck platinum with a style that was just slick enough to be commercially friendly without sacrificing the heart of her earlier work. The result? Her career ‘soared away like a blackbird.’
In a career that has included many memorable singles, “Born to Fly” is one of the very finest.
Written by Ben Hayslip, Sonya Isaacs, and Jimmy Yeary
After changing record labels and subsequently releasing the refreshingly sassy “Teenage Daughters”, not to mention interviews that hinted that she hadn’t been completely happy with the direction that her music had taken in recent years, it seemed that blessedly gone might be the days of overwrought, cloying power ballads with generic productions for Martina McBride. The release of “I’m Gonna Love You Through It”, however, laid that hope to rest for those of us who had tired of such songs a zillion Martina songs ago.
The most frustrating thing about this recording is that the song actually has a good story underneath the boring, glossy production. We get to see a loving husband who sensitively stabilizes and loves his wife through grueling breast cancer treatments that ultimately result in her losing both breasts. The story deserves to be told, as this composition admirably does, with such stark reality and detail, but McBride has used up her capital for these types of songs. It’s difficult not to feel desensitized at this point. Grade: C
Well, so much for feeling optimistic about her song choices after “Wrong Baby Wrong” and “Teenage Daughters” broke a decade-long streak of artistic stagnation. As far as McBride’s “important” “issue” songs go, this one is far less maudlin than “Concrete Angel,” less saccharine than “God’s Will,” and less self-congratulatory than “Anyway,” but it still goes for the easiest, cheapest kinds of emotional manipulation, and the knowledge that she’s capable of better will never make one of these songs anything but a let-down.
The verse about the mastectomy is, at the very least, the kind of detail-oriented, personal songwriting that each of those other three singles sorely lacked, and I’m sure this song will find a vocal audience among breast cancer survivors who will use this as an anthem of empowerment. To which, sure. But it’s not like McBride deserves a medal or any awards-show hardware for wailing about how cancer is bad but loving your spouse with cancer is good. We hear you loud and clear, Martina, but we already agreed with you. Grade: C-
Considering the number of people who have battled cancer and the family members who have supported them, Martina McBride’s new single can resonate with pretty much everybody. “I’m Gonna Love You Through This” is a touching concept, but it’s only moderately successful as a song.
There are some well-written details in the lyrics, particularly the references to the woman wearing baggy shirts and yearning to feel like a woman again. There are likely countless breast cancer survivors out there feeling the same way, and while they may not want to discuss those feelings with their family, maybe hearing McBride singing about it will help them to come to terms with their loss.
Given the song material, though, it’s difficult to stay on the side of “touching” without crossing over into “maudlin.” While the lyrics yank on heartstrings, as expected, the production is what really takes it over the top. The string section is syrupy enough, but when McBride bursts into full-blown Diva Mode, it just gets to be too much.
I can appreciate the song from a technical standpoint, but I have no desire to hear it again. Grade: C+
The concept is better than the finished product here.
The song gets a lot of the details about cancer right, but that’s what makes the message of the chorus sound so trite. I think they would’ve been better off picking a character in the song and singing it in the first person. The experience of the wife receiving that unconditional love while they struggle with an illness, for example. Or even better, the contrast between the brave front the supportive spouse is presenting to his wife and the fear and terror he’s feeling inside.
The typical post-Wild Angels criticisms apply: she sings too loud, and the band plays even louder. It’s the contemporary country spin on the chicken or the egg: Is the band trying to be heard over Martina, or is Martina trying to be heard over the band? Grade: B-
It’s not inherently a bad song, even though cancer songs are easy to dismiss as pandering. The throwaway chorus is the weakest part of the lyric, but the verses include an added level of detail and specifity that set the lyric above some of Martina’s past inspirational anthems. The woman is 38 years old. She has three children. She loses her breasts to the cancer. That helps make the story seem like an actual story instead of a vaguely-developed concept.
The production is what kills it. It’s so typical. So expected. We hear the cello run through the opening verse, the rising string section, and then a predictably overdramatic finish with Martina belting it out for all it’s worth. Lyrically, this song is better than many of the Martina power ballads that have preceded it, but the arrangement causes it to run together with all the rest. Sonically, it’s nearly indistinguishable from Martina’s 2007 hit “Anyway.”
This single is particularly disappointing coming in the wake of the witty and off-beat “Teenage Daughters,” which dramatically heightened my expectations for Martina’s new album, and makes “I’m Gonna Love You Through It” seem like a definite step backwards. I’m still holding out a glimmer of hope that Martina’s new album as a whole will favor edgy, interesting material in the vein of “Teenage Daughters,” and that “I’m Gonna Love You Through It” will prove to be only an isolated misstep. But I can’t say I’m overly optimistic. Grade: C+
Proof that while the other woman can sometimes sound sympathetic, there’s no getting around the fact that the guy is a heel, allowing his selfishness to wreck the lives at home and at the Lincoln Park Inn.
Country music is rife with the greatest cheating songs, but the one that’s running through my head now is Martina McBride’s “Phones Are Ringing All Over Town.” I love the frenzied way the desperate man tries to live in his denial that his wife has had enough of his cheating ways by calling everyone he can think of to try to find her. Sucker!
That signature tremble in Stewart’s voice works wonders here as he considers fooling around with a married woman. It’s part nervousness, part gaspy adrenaline, and of course very part self-loathing. Mmm, country.
During the first decade of the twenty-first century, the antiseptic depictions of faith that have dominated contemporary Christian music began to seep in to country music.
This perception created records both good (“Jesus, Take the Wheel”) and bad (“The Little Girl”), but most of them were bland, adding going to church on Sunday or praying as just one of the token traits of southern life, no more or less significant than the fried chicken or football game that followed the morning services.
In one of the genre’s great ironies, Randy Travis had crossed over to contemporary Christian music, having had little luck on the radio since the late nineties. He brought country music’s love of fallen angels along with him, and with “Three Wooden Crosses”, he managed to found his way back to the top of the country charts without even trying.
It starts off like an off-color joke that shouldn’t be told in polite company, let alone on the radio dial next to Martina McBride’s “Blessed” and Craig Morgan’s “That’s What I Love About Sunday”: “A farmer and a teacher, a hooker and a preacher, ridin’ on a midnight bus bound for Mexico.” The story that unfolds reveals that one of these four travelers will be instrumental in spreading the Good News for a long time to come.
But because it manages to humanize all four of them along the way, revealing how each of them helped make the world a better place, its ultimate message is that our lives are best defined by what we do when we’re at our best, not by the labels that may be assigned to us through occupation or personal choices.
This is the Martina McBride that I was really into when I was a teenager.
Well partially, at least. I love the huskiness of her voice, which I haven’t heard on record since her Wild Angels artistic peak. There’s none of the earnestness that has characterized her work ever since, and you’d actually have to remix “Teenage Daughters” quite a bit to get it to fit on AC radio.
Why on earth are there “do da doo doos” popping up in the middle of an otherwise charmingly resigned number about the realities of being the parent of a teenage girl? I guess they need something for the critics to poke a stick at.
But the lack of a glossy sheen and the palpably real vocal performance are more than enough to make this a winning preview of her first release for Republic Nashville. Can’t wait to hear the rest.