Tag Archives: Merle Haggard

The Best Singles of 1994, Part 2: #30-#21

The list continues with big hits from Clay Walker, Neal McCoy, and Mary Chapin Carpenter, along with should’ve been hits from Carlene Carter and Merle Haggard.

confederate railroad daddy never was the cadillac kind

#30
“Daddy Never was the Cadillac Kind”
Confederate Railroad

Written by Dave Gibson and Bernie Nelson

KJC #10 | JK #22 | SG #39

Confederate Railroad made it big by balancing party anthems with thoughtful songs about growing up in the south.  This was their best “growing up” song, a thoughtful tribute from a son to his late father.  As tends to happen, the lessons taught to us in our youth aren’t fully appreciated or understood until it’s too late to truly say “thank you.”  – Kevin John Coyne

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100 Greatest Men: #1. Merle Haggard

Merle Haggard100 Greatest Men: The Complete List

The Poet of the Common Man.  Merle Haggard emerged from the Bakersfield music scene in the mid-sixties, and over the course of time, became the greatest man in the history of country music.

Born during the height of the Great Depression, the son of a honky tonk fiddler and a church-going mother, Haggard’s life was a hard one from early on.  When he lost his father at age nine, he rebelled to the point that much of his youth was spent in juvenile detention centers.  His only positive outlet was country music, and he listened to and studied obsessively the work of his heroes Bob Willis, Hank Williams, and Lefty Frizzell, all of whom would shape his singing and his songwriting.

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100 Greatest Men: #2. George Jones

George Jones100 Greatest Men: The Complete List

Quite possibly country music’s most distinctive vocalist, George Jones wrapped his distinguished vocals around great songs for more than five decades.

Jones was born and raised in Texas, and his earliest musical tastes were shaped by the gospel he heard at church, and by the Carter Family songs he heard on the radio.   After his dad bought him a guitar, he would play on the streets of Beaumont for tips.   He was singing on the radio by his late teens, and after a brief stint in the military, he returned to Texas, where he was discovered by a local record producer named Pappy Daily.

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100 Greatest Men: #3. Willie Nelson

Willie Nelson100 Greatest Men: The Complete List

He started out as an unconventional songwriter trying to be a conventional artist.  But when Willie Nelson let his hair down, he became a country legend for the ages.

Nelson was raised by his grandparents in Texas, who encouraged him to play the guitar and to write songs.  When his sister Bonnie married fiddle player Buddy Fletcher, Nelson joined his band as the frontman, staying with him until he graduated high school and did a brief stint in the Air Force.

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100 Greatest Men: #7. Buck Owens

Buck Owens100 Greatest Men: The Complete List

For many Americans, he was the guitar-slinging comedian that co-hosted Hee Haw.  But before he signed up for that popular show, he had already amassed a body of work that defined the sound of California country.

Owens was born in Texas and raised in Arizona, where he picked up the guitar from an early age.   He played gigs in Phoenix and other Arizona cities until his late teens, when he relocated to the city that would be synonymous with his sound and style: Bakersfield, California.

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100 Greatest Men: #8. Lefty Frizzell

Lefty Frizzell100 Greatest Men: The Complete List

Lefty Frizzell just may be the most influential vocalist in country music history.  His signature honky-tonk style has been the foundational template for several generations of traditional country vocalists, smoothing out the twangy edges just enough to please the ears of mainstream audiences without compromising its hillbilly roots.

Frizzell was born in Texas, but moved to Arkansas at a young age. He earned the nickname Lefty in a schoolyard fight at the age of fourteen, and it followed him from that point on.  Though he was singing on the radio in his teens and performing locally, run-ins with the law sidelined his music career in the mid-forties.

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100 Greatest Men: #9. Bob Wills

Bob Wills100 Greatest Men: The Complete List

Few styles of country music have been more hugely influential than Western Swing.   As the embodiment of that style, Bob Wills became one of the most influential country artists in history.

Born and raised in Texas, Wills was a virtuoso fiddle, guitar, and mandolin player by his teens.  Like many early country stars, he first made a name for himself playing dance halls across Texas.   More so than most country legends, Wills put a huge emphasis on having an excellent backing band.   His first group of players, the Wills Fiddle Band, became popular in the Fort Worth area, eventually earning their own radio show.   In honor of their sponsors, they renamed themselves the Light Crust Doughboys.

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100 Greatest Men: #14. Ray Price

Ray Price100 Greatest Men: The Complete List

One of the few traditionalists who was able to successfully transition into the smoother Nashville Sound style, Ray Price was a defining artist in two completely different eras of country music history.

A small town Texas native, Price moved to Dallas as a child and learned how to play the guitar.   After a stint in the Marines, Price returned to Texas and became popular on local radio as the Cherokee Cowboy.   By the early fifties, he was ready to pursue a major label deal in Nashville, landing with Columbia and scoring his first hit in 1952 with “Don’t Let the Stars Get in Your Eyes.”

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Hall Worthy: 2014 Edition

halloffamelogoEight years ago, we posted our second edition of Hall Worthy, a list of significant country music figures who we felt were most deserving of being in the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Since then, a lot has changed.  First and foremost, more than half of the list is now in the Hall of Fame (or, at least, headed there later this year.)  An additional entry, Wanda Jackson, is now in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

A bigger change came in 2009, when new categories were introduced to ensure that two artist inductees would be represented from different eras:  The Modern Era (20-44 years of national prominence), and the Veterans Era (45+ years of national prominence.)  There are also three more categories that rotate, meaning one from each category gets in every third year:  Non-Performer, Songwriter, and Recording and/or Touring Musician.

Finally, since that list was published, our readership has grown tremendously and is incredibly well-versed on country music, past and present.  So in this new and now annual edition of Hall Worthy, we are going to run down the list of the most successful artists that are eligible but have yet to make it into the Hall of Fame, in the order of  “Hall Worthiness.”

The Modern Era:

alan-jackson

Alan Jackson

Scoring his first hit in 1990 with “Here in the Real World”, Alan Jackson is the most successful country artist that isn’t currently in the Hall of Fame.  His storied career has included 25 #1 hits and 49 visits to the top ten.  He’s won a slew of awards over the years, including many for his songwriting.  He is the most traditionalist of all of the nineties superstars, but has managed to stay relevant regardless of how pop the genre went over the past quarter century, selling more than forty million albums in the U.S. alone.   He should be the next inductee for the Modern Era.

Randy Travis

Randy Travis

The poster child for the new traditionalist movement was also the first true country music superstar to sell millions of records without any crossover airplay or rock press appeal.  Travis is the primary reason that Nashville turned away from pursuing pop airplay for more than a decade, realizing that there was more than enough money to be made by growing (and eventually saturating) the country market.  His debut album, Storms of Life, remains one of the greatest country albums of all-time, and songs like “Forever and Ever, Amen”, “On the Other Hand”, and “Three Wooden Crosses” were award-winning classics.

Judds02.jpg

The Judds

Put aside all of the tabloid drama and focus just on the music.  Those heavenly harmonies were reminiscent of the Carter Family, while Wynonna’s breathtaking vocals added a contemporary breadth and soulful twist to their pure country sound.  They were so commercially successful and critically acclaimed that the CMA had to change the rules of the Vocal Duo category so someone else could win Vocal Group.   Wynonna’s solo career following Naomi Judd’s retirement only further extended the legacy of this essential duo.

rickyskaggs

Ricky Skaggs

He’s often overlooked these days, as he’s made bluegrass his primary home.  But when he was a contemporary country star, he found a way to make bluegrass be contemporary country.  He was a central figure in making bluegrass music mainstream, making possible the future success of everyone from Alison Krauss & Union Station to the Dixie Chicks.   He’s managed to be both a pioneer of bluegrass music while also being a steadfast advocate for the bluegrass of old, and still scored eleven #1 country hits along the way and the CMA for Entertainer of the Year.  The Hall shouldn’t wait until he’s old enough for the Veterans Era.

patty_loveless

Patty Loveless

One of the few artists to successfully navigate both the eighties and the nineties on country radio, Patty Loveless is the most significant female artist of the Modern Era who is not yet inducted into the Hall of Fame.  Her acclaimed work for both MCA and Epic saw her develop from a singles artist with the good taste to cover Lucinda Williams, into an album artist that made critically acclaimed and surprisingly progressive traditional music.  Since fading from radio, she’s remained relevant with widely appreciated sets that delve deep into her mountain heritage, with her most recent set earning her a Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album.

Dwight Yoakam

Dwight Yoakam

Extraordinarily talented and unfailingly artistic, Dwight Yoakam remains one of the most significant country artists from the new traditionalist movement, though his traditionalism has always had a West Coast flair that was more Owens than Haggard.   Never that much of a radio favorite, Yoakam still managed to sell millions of records, being one of the few legitimate album artists of his time.   His most recent work, 3 Pears, made more year-end critics lists than any other country album in 2012.

trisha-yearwood1

Trisha Yearwood

The only artist on this list who could never be described as a traditionalist, Trisha Yearwood has earned her place in the Hall of Fame through making more consistently excellent music over a longer period of time than any of her contemporaries.   She’s sold a ton of records and had more than her fair share of radio hits and industry awards, but her ultimate legacy will be having the best set of pipes and the best taste in songs, a combination that many artists – female and male – have never managed to pull off nearly as well as Yearwood has over the years.  That’s what having the voice of a Ronstadt and the song sense of a Harris will do for you.

The Veterans Era:

Hank Williams Jr

Hank Williams, Jr.

By a wide margin, Hank Jr. is the most commercially successful artist of the Veterans Era who is not yet in the Hall of Fame.  His noxious public statements in recent years have reinforced a notion that he’s little more than a Southern rock caricature, but his legacy is greater than Monday Night Football and regional xenophobia. At his peak, he made some of the most significant country rock that’s ever been made, crafting himself a distinguished place in country music history that is wholly separate from his legendary father.  In fact, there’s a better chance right now that a bar in America is singing along with “Family Tradition” than anything from his daddy’s catalog.

Rich_Charlie_002_c_MOA.jpg

Charlie Rich

An artist who was always years ahead of his time, he had a remarkable run of commercial success in the seventies, a period where the times finally caught up to him for a brief spell.  His bluesy style was embraced by the pop scene for a time, with his hit “The Most Beautiful Girl” being one of those rare country hits that also topped the Hot 100.   A veteran of the Sun Records label that produced Hall of Famers like Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley, Rich made the transition to Nashville while always keeping one foot grounded back in Memphis.

Jerry Reed

Jerry Reed

He was one of the most iconic stars of his time, thanks to his witty novelty records, stunning guitar prowess, and extensive appearances on film.  His songwriting success arrived earlier than his recording stardom, but once he got rolling, he was scoring million-selling hits that ran up the country and the pop charts.  He’s one of the few legends left that were truly unique and distinctive personalities who haven’t yet been inducted into the Hall of Fame.

tanya-tucker

Tanya Tucker

She’s still three years away from eligibility in this category, with 2017 being the first year she can claim 45 years on the scene.  But while the competition is fierce for those Modern Era slots, Tucker should be voted in the first year she’s eligible as a veteran.  Her haunting, gothic early records are still revelatory, and in the years that followed, her gravely voice brought grit and soul to a long string of country hits.  She was able to remain a force to be reckoned with in the first half of the nineties, a remarkable holdover from the early seventies in an era that had wiped away even the stars of the late eighties to make room for the next big things.

Jim Ed Brown

Jim Ed Brown

Another legend that remained relevant over many different eras of country music, Jim Ed Brown’s immortality on record had already been guaranteed in 1959, when his family group the Browns recorded “The Three Bells.”  That classic hit topped the country and pop charts for many weeks, and the Browns kept going through most of the sixties, joining the cast of the Grand Ole Opry a few years before disbanding.  Brown went on to a successful solo career with classics like “Pop a Top” and “Morning” reaching the top five.  Then he teamed with Helen Cornelius and had his biggest hits since his days with the Browns, most notably “I Don’t Want to Have to Marry You.”  At age eighty, he remains a force on the Opry and as a radio host, making him one of the longest-running personalities that the genre has ever seen.

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Country Universe’s Best Albums of 2013, Part Two: #20-#1

2013 turned out to be a banner year for new music, full of powerful songwriting, inspired collaborations, and truly cohesive albums that would rank among the best releases in any given year.  Many of this year’s top twenty would’ve ranked much higher in other years, and many of us writers couldn’t even include all the works we deeply enjoyed this year on our personal lists, making our collective list worthy of the heartiest endorsement we could ever give.

Here’s to a great 2013, and a greedy wish that 2014 will be just as wonderful on the music front. As always, share your thoughts and personal favorites in the comments.

Charlie Worsham Rubberband

#20
Rubberband
Charlie Worsham

Individual rankings:  #7 – Tara; #12 – Leeann

Like Chris Young two years ago, Worsham’s voice is a commodity that instantly elevates the new artist to an orbit above the male radio regulars. His is warm and cleanly expressive, lending itself best to songs that nurture his upper register, like the jaunty “Want Me Too,” haunting “Someone Like You” or those invigorating opening bars of “Could It Be.” If only life imitated “Nashville” and its fictional stars’ uncomplicated brand of pop country, Worsham might just be the next Luke Bryan and “Rubberband” –the album’s finely produced, genre-bending title track– his next big hit. - Tara Seetharam

Recommended Tracks:  “Rubberband,” “Someone Like You,” “Young to See,” “Could it Be”

Patty Griffin Silver Bell

#19
Silver Bell
Patty Griffin

Individual rankings:  #5 – Kevin; #13 – Jonathan

It was a banner year for Patty Griffin fans, as two new studio albums were released.  Silver Bell is the oddity of the two, in that it was recorded thirteen years ago and languished in the vaults (and on cherished bootlegs.)  For those who have discovered Griffin during her past few years as an Americana goddess, Silver Bell was her final attempt at a mainstream album for A&M Records, and it is fantastic.  She finds a happy medium  between the rawness of her debut album, Living with Ghosts, and the hard edge of its follow-up, Flaming Red.  Two of the best tracks, “Truth #2″ and “Top of the World”, would become two of the best tracks on Home, the landmark Dixie Chicks album from 2002.  Emmylou Harris joins in on harmony for “Truth”, but the true revelation is the original recording of  “World”, which is darker and more haunting than the excellent renditions that the Chicks, and Griffin herself, would later record. - Kevin Coyne

Recommended Tracks:  “Top of the World”, “One More Girl”, “Mother of God”

Son Volt Honky Tonk

#18
Honky Tonk
Son Volt

Individual rankings:  #4 -Sam; #18 – Jonathan

As one of the defining bands of alt-country, Son Volt have rarely taken a straightforward approach to the country genre, but they go full-on Bakersfield on Honky Tonk. It’s a move that suits the band well, as the laid-back arrangements on tracks like “Tears of Change” and “Hearts and Minds” balance frontman Jay Farrar’s trademark intensity. - Jonathan Keefe

Recommended Tracks: “Hearts and Minds,” “Bakersfield,” “Seawall”

The Steeldrivers Hammer Down

#17
Hammer Down
The SteelDrivers

Individual rankings:  #12 – Ben; #15 – Tara, Sam; #20 – Jonathan

In many instances, the replacement of a lead vocalist has spelled disaster for a band’s career. In the case of the SteelDrivers, it’s the beginning of a whole new chapter as Gary Nichols ably fills the shoes of the departed Chris Stapleton. But great singers and great pickers still need great songs, and from the haunting opener “Shallow Grave” to the piercing melody of album closer “When I’m Gone,” Hammer Down sets a consistent standard that never wavers. - Ben Foster

Recommended Tracks:  “Hard Way Home,” “Keep Your Heart Young,” “Heart’s Content”

Guy Clark My Favorite Picture of You

#16
My Favorite Picture of You
Guy Clark

Individual rankings:  #3 – Ben; #10 – Leeann

Guy Clark has already secured his place in country music history – not to mention a place in the Nashville Songwriter’s Hall of Fame – but on his first new studio effort since 2009, the songwriting icon is still finding ways to keep things fresh. On My Favorite Picture of You, Guy Clark addresses current events (“Heroes,” “El Coyote”) as well as personal loss (the achingly gorgeous title track, a tribute his late wife Susanna), his absorbing lyrics delivered through a wise and weathered voice which feels like that of an old friend. - Ben Foster

Recommended Tracks: “My Favorite Picture of You,” “El Coyote,” “Heroes”

Holly Williams The Highway

#15
The Highway

Holly Williams

Individual rankings: #3 – Tara; #7 – Leeann

Producer Charlie Peacock treads a dangerous line on The Highway, with arrangements so sparse they’d easily deflate a lesser artist’s work. But he and Williams work exceptionally well together on her third album, leaning on her character-filled voice to fill in the spacious canvas. The album’s themes are heavy and often morose, but Williams doesn’t weigh them down; instead, she approaches them with weathered sensibleness, using only the ragged edges of her voice to convey the underlying drama. As for that family of hers, if there’s a role for them on The Highway, it’s only to help sketch out the small, poignant details of her characters’ stories, like in the vivid history of her maternal grandparents’ eternal love in “Waiting on June.”  - Tara Seetharam

Recommended Tracks:  “Drinkin’,” “The Highway,” “’Til It Runs Dry,” “Waiting on June”

 Pistol Annies Annie Up

#14
Annie Up
Pistol Annies

Individual rankings:  #9 – Tara, Sam; #15 – Ben; #19 – Kevin

It was unlikely that the Pistol Annies would match their self-titled debut, a bullet of an album that flew in the face of everything manicured, polite and conventional in 2011. Their sophomore album, then, is a little less of a shock, but just as much of a raucous hoot. The ladies are still challenging societal norms (“Being Pretty Ain’t Easy”), lamenting and –surprisingly often– conceding to small-town marital discord (“Unhappily Married”), and, of course, dancing with their demons (“I Feel A Sin Coming On”). The breadth of their combined talent and mission is almost uncontainable, so misfires are expected (“Girls Like Us”); in the end, though, the album cements the trio’s place as the genre’s bravest truth-spitting chicks.  - Tara Seetharam

Recommended Tracks:  “I Feel A Sin Coming On,” “Being Pretty Ain’t Pretty,” “Unhappily Married,” “Dear Sobriety”

 Sturgill Simpson High Top Mountain

#13
High Top Mountain
Sturgill Simpson

Individual rankings:  #1 – Jonathan; #2 – Sam

Far too often, traditional-minded country acts fetishize the genre’s past and end up sounding like mimics of great artists, rather than becoming great artists in their own right. Sturgill Simpson, an acolyte of Waylon Jennings’ outlaw period, adopts a too-country-for-country throwback style on his debut, High Top Mountain. But the deceptively shrewd perspective that informs “Railroad of Sin,” “Water in a Well,” and “Old King Coal” is modern through and through, making Simpson one of country’s most exciting new voices. - Jonathan Keefe

Recommended Tracks:  “Railroad of Sin,” “Hero,” “You Can Have the Crown,” “Life Ain’t Fair and the World is Mean”

Patty Griffin American Kid

#12
American Kid
Patty Griffin

Individual rankings:  #10 – Jonathan; #12 – Kevin; #13 – Leeann; #18 – Tara; #20 – Ben

Not only is Patty Griffin a very deservedly respected songwriter of intelligent and often gut wrenching songs, she has what many sing-songwriter types don’t have–a sublime voice that pierces right through one’s heart and soul. Join those elements together and it’s no wonder that her first album of original songs since 2007 is at least as good as anyone would dare to hope it would be.

From the sweet cover of “Mom and Dad’s Waltz” to the powerful “Not a Bad Man”, Griffin’s album is a collection of masterful and intelligent songs that will make you think and want to think some more. - Leeann Ward

Recommended Tracks: “Mom and Dad’s Waltz”, “Irish Boy”, “Not a Bad Man”

Music Review Alan Jackson

#11
The Bluegrass Album

Alan Jackson

Individual rankings:  #7 – Kevin, Dan; #9 – Ben; #11 – Tara; #20 – Leeann

Once again, Alan Jackson sets out to do a vanity project and it ends up as good as his best mainstream work ever was.  His foray into bluegrass yields wonderful results, both in the form of compelling new material (“Blue Ridge Mountain Song”, “Mary”, “Blue Side of Heaven”) and well-chosen covers (“Wild and Blue”, “Blue Moon of Kentucky.”)  Like Dolly Parton and Merle Haggard before him, Jackson’s crossover from country to bluegrass shows just how little distance there is between the two, at least when the country artist in question has deep roots in the first place.  - Kevin Coyne

Recommended Tracks:  “Blue Ridge Mountain Song”, “Knew All Along”, “Mary”

The Mavericks

#10
In Time
The Mavericks

Individual rankings:  #1 – Sam; #10 – Tara, Ben; #18 – Kevin, Leeann

The Mavericks reunion may have been one of the more unexpected comebacks in recent country music history, but it should have come as no surprise that In Time was as excellent as it was. “That’s Not My Name” showed their classic country influences, but tunes like “Lies” and “Come Unto Me” blended in some rock, soul and Latin feel too. “Come Unto Me,” with its horn section and Raul Malo’s searing vocals, was the sexiest song in country music in 2013. - Sam Gazdziak

Recommended Tracks: “Come Unto Me”, “Lies”, “That’s Not My Name”

Billie Joe + Norah Foreverly

#9
Foreverly
Billie Joe + Norah

Individual rankings: #4 – Kevin, #5 – Leeann, #6 – Dan; #13 – Tara; #14 – Jonathan

Another quirky Norah Jones project, eh? Sounds about right; guess it’s been about six months since the last one. Oh, she got the guy from Green Day in on it? Well, that’s…huh. What? They’re covering an Everly Brothers album of traditional country and folk songs from the 50’s? They’re just, like, taking time out of their busy schedules to lovingly coo through a bunch of covers of the Everly Brothers’ covers, perhaps to help pass on the Everlys’ important legacy to younger generations, or perhaps just because they’re fans and love music and know Starbucks will sell it regardless? Who do these recording artists think they are — artists? - Dan Milliken

Recommended Tracks:  “Long Time Gone”, “I’m Here to Get My Baby Out of Jail”, “Kentucky”

Vince Gill and Paul Franklin Bakersfield

#8
Bakersfield
Vince Gill and Paul Franklin

Individual rankings:  #4 – Leeann; #5 – Ben, Jonathan; #6 – Tara; #16 – Kevin

It may not be typical for a steel guitarist to receive top billing alongside a legend of Vince Gill’s caliber, but it’s certainly warranted in this case as the comforting whine of Paul Franklin’s pedal steel proves the perfect match for Gill’s distinctive tenor. It’s a delightful musical history lesson as the two lovingly cover ten beloved Owen and Haggard classics. Their takes are neither stale recreations nor scattershot attempts at modernizing and reinventing – rather, Bakersfield feels like a simple, unaffectedly sincere love letter to a unique and important era of country music. - Ben Foster

Recommended Tracks:  “Together Again,” “I Can’t Be Myself,” “Nobody’s Fool But Yours,” “Holding Things Together”

Emmylou Harris Rodney Crowell Old Yellow Moon

#7
Old Yellow Moon
Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell

Individual rankings:  #2 – Leeann; #6 – Kevin, Ben; #14 – Sam; #15 – Jonathan; #17 – Tara

The ease and friendship between Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell is undeniably palpable on their first full duets album, which is a huge part of what makes this project a blow out success. While the songs are mainly covers of their own songs, as in the sprightly “Bluebird Wine”, the new interpretations are fresh and feel like brand new songs, as is also the case with the covers of other people’s work, as proven by the sublime “Dreaming My Dreams.”

From the jaunty opener of “Hanging Up My Heart” to the gorgeous closer of the title track and all points in between, the entirety of Old Yellow Moon is a masterful collaboration between two brilliantly talented old friends.  - Leeann Ward

Recommended Tracks:  “Hanging Up My Heart”, “Dreaming My Dreams”, “Bluebird Wine”, “Here We Are”

kelly-willis-bruce-robison-cheaters-game

#6
Cheater’s Game
Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison

Individual rankings:  #5 – Dan; #9 – Leeann, Jonathan; #10 – Sam; #14 – Kevin, Tara; #17 – Ben

The first duets album by the Tim & Faith of Texas country lands, and the world immediately becomes a slightly better place. It’s an LP filled with smart Robison writing, golden Willis drawl, and enviable marital cuteness. True love is out there, guys. Listen to “Dreamin'” and sigh along with me. - Dan Milliken

Recommended Tracks:  “Cheater’s Game”, “Waterfall”, “Dreamin'”

Jason Isbell Southeastern

#5
Southeastern
Jason Isbell

Individual rankings:  #2 – Kevin, Jonathan; #3 – Sam; #5 – Tara; #8 – Dan

The best thing about Jason Isbell’s richly drawn stories from the underbelly of America is that he manages to humanize some quite despicable people without trying to make them likable at the same time.  There are very few anti-heroes to be found here.  Their stories are compelling, but you still root for the good guys and gals, and it’s rarely Isbell that is singing in their voice, preferring the challenge of bringing the often loathsome to life.

Which isn’t to say that’s the only role he plays, as there are hints of redemption in some of the best numbers.  The man haunted by the “Songs that She Sang in the Shower” might just treat the next one right, and there is nobody I enjoyed getting to know better this year than Andy in “Elephant”, a barroom louse who didn’t stick around when the girl was at her best, but is now by her side as she’s dying of cancer, singing her classic country songs and sweeping her hair up off the floor after putting her to bed.  – Kevin Coyne

Recommended Tracks:  “Elephant”, “Songs that She Sang in the Shower”, “Live Oak”

Kacey Musgraves Same Trailer Different Park

#4
Same Trailer Different Park
Kacey Musgraves

Individual rankings:  #3 – Dan; #4 – Ben; #6 – Sam; #8 – Leeann, Tara; #10 -Kevin

Kacey Musgraves set some mighty high expectations for herself to live up to with the universally acclaimed dark horse hit “Merry Go ‘Round,” but her major label debut release delivers in full. Same Trailer Different Park announces the arrival of one of country music’s most distinct and potent new voices, marked by keen-eyed observation, maturity beyond her years, and a refreshing willingness to tell it like it is.

The dawning optimism of “Silver Living” and “Step Off” is made all the more meaningful by the fact that Musgraves never shies away from themes of heartache, despondence, and frustration. But even the bitterest moments are sweetened by accessible melodies, comforting arrangements, and a down-to-earth vocal style.

In a genre that has long prided itself on being “real,” Musgraves has become one of a precious few mainstream artists to actually live up to that ideal, and by so doing has laid bare just how contrived the format has become. The fact that Same Trailer Different Park found the mainstream audience it richly deserved feels like an answered prayer. Don’t blow this now, country radio.- Ben Foster

Recommended Tracks: “Merry Go ‘Round,” “Keep it to Yourself,” “Follow Your Arrow,” “It Is What It Is”

Ashley Monroe Like a Rose

#3
Like a Rose
Ashley Monroe

Individual rankings:  #3 – Jonathan; #4 – Tara; #6 – Leeann; #8 – Ben; #9 – Kevin, Dan; #13 – Sam

A beautifully drawn character sketch, Like a Rose showcases Ashley Monroe’s gift for using authentic first-person detail to give depth to her distinctive, unconventional narratives. The persona Monroe projects over the course of the album’s brief song cycle is one of a young woman who has been scarred by the events in her past but who uses those scars as the jumping-off point for compelling stories rather than letting them define who she is or who she aspires to be. - Jonathan Keefe

Recommended Tracks:  “Like a Rose,” “Two Weeks Late,” “Used,” “The Morning After”

LeAnn Rimes Spitfire

#2
Spitfire
LeAnn Rimes

Individual rankings:  #1 – Tara; #2 – Dan, Ben; #3 – Leeann; #8 – Kevin, Jonathan

Rimes subtitled Spitfire as the “truth in no particular order,” an apt description for an album whose truth shines like a prism, flashing different, nuanced colors at us with each twist and turn. If Spitfire is meant to narrate Rimes’ messy history –her “truth” as so many have come to define her by–, it succeeds; but, the gifted artist that she’s become, Rimes knows that truth is more than intentions and events and aftermath. It’s in the intimate honesty that spills out from the smallest corners of thought, whether from places of regret or passion, shame or fearlessness, or in those boundless grey areas in between. Spitfire has it all, packaged in the most colorful, intriguing performances of the year.  - Tara Seetharam

Recommended Tracks: “Borrowed,” “I Do Now,” “Who We Really Are,” “What Have I Done””

Brandy Clark 12 Stories

#1
12 Stories
Brandy Clark

Individual rankings:  #1 – Kevin, Leeann, Dan, Ben; #2 – Tara; #4 – Jonathan; #5 – Sam

Brandy Clark’s 12 Stories was shopped around to several record labels, but none of them would commit to taking on the album, even the ones that admitted that it was the best album they’d heard in years.

Since it’s impossible to reasonably imagine why label executives who loved the album wouldn’t jump at the chance to put Clark on their roster, perhaps they assumed that the album was just too smart and good for the mainstream music scene they put their dollars behind. While this is certainly a simple, and maybe even naive, view of things, other explanations simply evade me. Fortunately, however, somebody did believe in Brandy Clark’s music and the album was organically promoted as an independent release.

Even after listening to the album at least a zillion times since first receiving a promo copy well before its official release, it is a challenge to find the proper words to appropriately describe this nearly perfect debut album. Clark’s sharp, clear eyed songs are supported by crisp and satisfying productions and solid, warm vocals. Without judgment, but with intelligence, she observes and explores the tougher parts of life such as unfaithfulness, divorce and various forms of mental anguish; all the while keeping the album accessible.

As much as can and should be written about this album, the most direct thing to be said is that this was the clear favorite of the very diverse Country Universe staff, with most of us selecting it as our Number One album and none of us ranking it below number five.  The rest of this list shows how far apart we often are on tastes; Brandy Clark is one artist we can all get behind.   - Leeann Ward

Recommended Tracks:  “Pray to Jesus”, “What’ll Keep Me Out of Heaven”, “Take a Little Pill”, “Hungover”

Country Universe’s Best of 2013:

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