David Nail’s new single “The Sound of a Million Dreams,” from his current album of the same name, could be seen as something of a musical mission statement. It is a tribute and testament to the power of a well-crafted, deeply resonant song.
Though the song references Bob Seger, Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run,” and Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried,” it does so in a way that enhances the song’s meaning, as opposed to using such references as a crutch. The narrator relates how such songs affect him emotionally, describing their ability to dredge up memories of his past – fond memories as well as painful ones. The lyric begins on a light note, relating how Seger’s “Main Street” brings back pleasant memories of a former flame. From there the song moves into deadly serious territory, as Nail looks back regretfully on the mistakes of his youth, saying that “When I hear ‘Mama Tried’ I still break down and cry and pull to the side of the road.”
Such thoughts and feelings move the singer to reflect on his own role as a musician, expressing the hope that “Maybe my voice will cut through the noise and stir up an old memory.” The song squarely hits its target by using imagery that lends it a personal, relatable feel, with the narrator detailing how he personally is affected by the songs he has grown up with. Perhaps the biggest thing the song gets right is that it taps into actual tangible emotions, as opposed to rudimentary, superficial details.
Though a portion of Nail’s past work has been marred by overproduction, such issues are nowhere to be found on this song. Instead, we get a straightforward piano ballad with touches of steel guitar, which allows the song’s story to effectively resonate without needless distractions. Nail for his part has already proven himself to be a gifted vocalist, but he has hardly sounded better than he does here. Bolstered by a truly great lyric and a tasteful production, he shines with his strong, heartfelt, sincere performance. Though he didn’t write the song himself (Scooter Carusoe and Phil Vassar did), Nail’s performance hints at a deep connection to the intent of the lyric. The result ranks as easily Nail’s finest single to date, not to mention a shoo-in for my ‘Best of 2012′ list.
As he expresses in song the hope that his music will touch others in the same way that the music of his past has touched him, Nail reaches out to his listeners by putting all of himself into his performance, and in so doing, he just might have achieved that very goal.
If history had played out the way Woodrow Wilson planned, we’d be celebrating the 92nd Armistice Day today. When first proclaimed a national holiday, Wilson declared the following:
To us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nations.
If the Great War had been the last war, we wouldn’t be celebrating what is now known as Veterans Day. We also wouldn’t have an incredible legacy of songs about soldiers in the annals of country music.
Here are five classics that celebrate those who have served our country and the ones who love them, along with one tale that has a returned soldier that’s not being loved quite enough.
“Dear Uncle Sam” by Loretta Lynn
from the 1966 album I Like ‘Em Country
Lynn was on the cusp of superstardom when she released this top five hit. Penning a letter to Uncle Sam, she pleads for the safe return of her husband. She sings, “I really love my country, but I also love my man.” His return is not to be, as the song closes with a heart-wrenching recitation of the telegram informing her that he won’t be coming home.
“Galveston” by Glen Campbell
from the 1969 album Galveston
Campbell’s finest performance is a homesick ode for the lady and hometown that he left behind. The sweeping strings and stirring vocal evoke the waves of heartache that are crashing up against his heart, much like the waters of Galveston Bay crash along the shores he once walked with her.
“Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town” by Kenny Rogers and The First Edition
from the 1969 album Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town
Mel Tillis penned this massive hit for Rogers and his band, originally recorded by country artist Johnny Darrell, who took it into the top ten in 1967. The narrator lays in bed, paralyzed from his stint in “that crazy Asian war.” He is helpless as Ruby gives in to desire and heads into town looking for the love he can no longer provide, and he’s left there wishing she’d only wait until he died for her to step out on him.
“Soldier’s Last Letter” by Merle Haggard
from the 1971 album Hag
The spiritual predecessor of Tim McGraw’s “If You’re Reading This.” Mama sits at home, reading a letter from her son overseas. He’s writing from a trenchmouth, hoping his mother won’t scold him for his sloppy handwriting the way she did when he was a kid, tracking mud into the house because he didn’t wipe his feet. He promises to finish the letter when he returns from his next battle, but the letter that arrives back home is incomplete.
“Travelin’ Soldier” by Dixie Chicks
from the 2002 album Home
The modern benchmark for soldier songs. Bruce Robison’s original versions are both worth seeking out, and can be found on his self-titled 1996 album and his 1999 set, Long Way Home from Anywhere. But the acoustic instrumentation that surrounds Natalie Maines’ plaintive delivery makes the Dixie Chicks version the definitive one.
“Welcome Home” by Dolly Parton
from the 2003 album For God and Country
In a brilliant feat of songwriting, Parton weaves together four stories: a soldier returning home, a soldier dying overseas, Christ’s death and resurrection, and Parton’s own hope and longing for eternal salvation.
A new covers album from LeAnn Rimes would likely draw comparisons to her 1999 self-titled effort, which found her covering the likes of Hank Williams and Patsy Cline. But this time, there’s a twist: All of the songs she’s covering were originally recorded by male artists. Thus, Rimes is re-interpreting them in a female perspective.
And while 1999′s LeAnn Rimes album might have given you a feeling that you were listening to really good karaoke singer, as her versions seldom strayed far from the originals, Rimes’ new collection Lady and Gentlemen finds her taking substantial liberties with these classic hits. She even alters lyrics on Waylon Jennings’ “Good Hearted Woman” and “Only Daddy That’ll Walk the Line” (re-titled as “The Only Mama That’ll Walk the Line”). The songs are given modern, yet reverent, production arrangements, with Rimes adding her own personal style to each one, resulting in a uniquely creative effort.
Besides the obviously strong song material, what really makes Lady and Gentlemen a keeper is the fact that, although she covers everyone from Jennings to Jones to Haggard, the project remains first and foremost a LeAnn Rimes album. She sounds entirely in her element – After all, she grew up listening to these songs – and the result is a strong set of performances that sound natural, sincere, and unaffected.
Rimes and her co-producers Vince Gill and Darrell Brown craft arrangements that sound simultaneously vintage and modern, never treating the songs as museum pieces. The albums kicks off with Rimes’ cover of John Anderson’s “Swingin,” which was released as the project’s first single last year. Though it barely made a ripple on the charts, it easily ranked as one of the best singles of the year.
While everything about the original Anderson recording screamed “eighties,” LeAnn speeds up the tempo, and transforms the über-cheesy hit into a modern-day jam session. In listening to Rimes’ vocal delivery, you’d think she chugged down a pot of espresso before heading into the recording studio. Like an auctioneer at the county fair, Rimes calls out the verses in rapid-fire succession, while the band furiously plucks away behind her.
The better part of the album finds Rimes backed with simple acoustic and steel guitar-driven arrangements, such as on the Freddy Fender cover “Wasted Days and Wasted Night” – worth hearing for her Spanish accent alone. She utilizes a similar sonic approach on Merle Haggard’s “I Can’t Be Myself,” notable also for a vocal that sounds deeply plaintive, while also casting a feminine tone over the classic lyric. While her version of Tennessee Ernie Ford’s “16 Tons” carries a deep retro vibe, she adds an extra layer of sass to the lyric, which makes the song one of the album’s most interesting tracks.
She deviates from the vintage approach with her cover of Vince Gill’s “When I Call Your Name,” and instead puts a blue-eyed country soul spin on the nineties hit. Such an approach accents the deep bluesy tone in her voice, but the unnecessary addition of a gospel choir distracts from the raw emotion that came through in Gill’s original recording. Though interesting, her take on “When I Call Your Name” is less satisfying than many of the album’s other tracks.
Perhaps the song that gives her the biggest shoes to fill is the classic Bobby Braddock/ Curly Putman composition “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” a hit for George Jones in 1980, and widely regarded as the greatest country song of all time. Appropriately, Rimes and Gill’s approach places the classic lyric front and center, with no superfluous bells or whistles. Rimes is backed by little more than an acoustic guitar as she recounts the dark tale of a man who loved his woman until the very end, even when his love was no longer requited. She gives a remarkably moving performance of the familiar ballad, even when delivering the spoken-word portion. Vince Gill adds his distinctive harmony touch to the track, and the result sounds absolutely haunting, making “He Stopped Loving Her Today” a strong contender for being the album’s best track.
The album closes with the original songs “Crazy Women” and “Give,” both of which have seen release as singles. “Crazy Women” sounds like something out of a Broadway musical (or a Laura Bell Bundy album, for that matter), and Rimes deftly pulls it off with a broadly entertaining performance of the wickedly snarky tune. Current single “Give” returns Rimes to a fully modern pop-country style. While the philosophical song – a call for proactivity and benevolence in the world – is a strong composition, the musical styling is an awkward fit for an album that is largely retro in style. It’s a good song – It just sounds like it belongs on a different album.
As a special treat for her fans, Rimes offers a re-recorded version of her classic 1996 debut single “Blue,” commemorating the fifteen-year anniversary of the song’s release. The new version sounds even more traditional than the original, which is saying a lot, while also displaying Rimes’ growth as a vocalist and lyrical interpreter. She gives a performance with more restraint than the original, connecting with the underlying emotions on an even deeper level than before, while the simpler, twangier arrangement highlights the timeless nature of the Bill Mack composition. It’s impressive to note the ease with which “Blue” fits in among all these revered classics. As one who’s known and loved the song “Blue” for years, I do not say this lightly: The new version of “Blue” rivals the original.
A binding thread running throughout the set is the palpable reverence Rimes displays for these songs, which makes Lady and Gentlemen one of the most intriguing and wholly satisfying releases of 2011, and of Rimes’ own career output. It all comes together so well that the project’s success seem perfectly natural. LeAnn Rimes is a great singer, and these are great songs, so in her tackling these timeless tunes, it logically follows that a great album would result.
The Back to the Barroom album is best known for its raucous closing track, “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink.” But the opening ballad sets the mood for the entire record, and sets the template for a whole bunch of George Strait hits to boot.
With as many cheating songs that there are in country music, there are at least just as many drinking songs. I love so many of them, but few more than Vern Gosdin’s “Set Em Up Joe”, to reach back a little. It’s even one of those prime examples of how to worthily drop a name.
I could choose from a couple dozen country favorites here. But they all come from an older perspective than mine. Ke$ha’s goofy trash-pop captures the experience of being twenty-one and living life tongue-in-cheek, trying to enjoy a last hurrah of irreverence and irresponsibility before proper adulthood.
The story of Emmylou Harris is well established, the stuff of legend at this point.
She could’ve been Gram Parsons’ harmony singer for the rest of her career and been happy, but she ended up carrying on his legacy instead, becoming a Hall of Famer with the most consistently excellent catalog in country music history.
She’s addressed Parsons in song before, most directly with the grief-stricken classic “Boulder to Birmingham” from her 1975 classic Pieces of the Sky. Whereas that was a statement of heartbreak to a lost friend, “The Road” is a letter of gratitude, thanking him for starting her on a journey that she never would have embarked upon alone.
For future music historians, this song will be a goldmine. For listeners, it’s pretty good, too. Harris is a solid songwriter and her lyrics are closer to poetry than standard Nashville writing. Her voice is showing signs of wear, but much like on the later work of Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash, that works to her advantage.
Is it as good as the best tracks on All I Intended to Be or Stumble Into Grace? Not quite, especially if you don’t know the back story and can’t fill in the gaps. But even very good Emmylou Harris is better than most of what’s out there today. Still, I hope the rest of her upcoming album is more than just very good Emmylou Harris.
There was a lot of good music out there in 2010, provided you knew where to look. Sometimes, you could even find it on the radio. Here are the top ten albums of 2010, according to our staff:
#10 Easton Corbin Easton Corbin
With the charisma of Clay Walker and the chops of George Strait, Easton Corbin sauntered onto the mainstream country music scene with a hit song that –refreshingly– name-checked “country” in all the right ways. He needs no such affirmation, though, as his debut album is a collection of effortlessly neo-traditionalist songs, ripe with sincerity. It’s fair to compare Corbin to his obvious influences, but there’s something about the natural, youthful effervescence he brings to his music that makes it sparkle all on its own. – Tara Seetharam
#9 Freight Train Alan Jackson
Like an old, trusted friend, Freight Train is easy to take for granted – and that’s a shame, because it’s as rousing as any of the boundary-pushing albums released this year. Jackson returns to his signature sound on this album, sinking comfortably into the set of twelve songs but never skimping on emotional investment. From the smoking “Freight Train” to the exquisite “Till the End” to the shuffling “I Could Get Used To This Loving Thing,” Jackson reminds us that his formula of bare-bones authenticity and quiet charm is as relevant and rewarding as ever. – TS
Four generous hits collections were released in 2010, each one chronicling the entire career of a contemporary country music star. Individually, each double-disc set serve as the most expansive and thorough compilation for each artist. Taken together, they tell the story of country music over the last twenty years.
Alan Jackson 34 Number Ones
In the late eighties, Randy Travis did something that no other country star had done before. He became the top-selling country artist by a wide margin without making any musical concessions to pop or rock. In doing so, he tore up the old playbook. Suddenly, you could be a multi-platinum country artists without the added benefit of top 40 radio or accolades from the rock and roll press.
Thus began contemporary country music, the new paradigm that reached its commercial peak in the nineties, but has never come close to receding to its earlier status as a niche genre. A crop of young stars surfaced in 1989 and 1990, each one of them staking a claim to be the Haggard, the Jones, the Willie, the Waylon of their generation. Out of all of them, none struck a more perfect balance between artistic credibility and commercial viability than Alan Jackson.
Simply put, he is the most significant singer and songwriter of the past quarter century. So it’s no surprise that out of all of the country stars who’ve compiled #1 hit collections, Jackson’s set is the best, both in terms of overall quality and effectiveness in summing up an entire career.
Fact is, radio’s played nearly everything Jackson’s sent their way, and he’s demonstrated remarkably good judgment over the past twenty years. The highest of the high points – “Here in the Real World”, “Don’t Rock the Jukebox”, “Chattahoochee”, “Gone Country”, “Where Were You”, “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere” – aren’t just great records from their time period. They’re accurate representations as well, little time capsules that show Jackson as being centrally relevant to the genre while he was also making great music.
Today, with critical acclaim and commercial success becoming increasingly divergent pathways, 34 Number Ones serves as a powerful reminder that one need not sacrifice quality for radio airplay. Of the new tracks, Jackson’s cover of “Ring of Fire” doesn’t quite measure up, It’s certainly a competent reading, but Jackson’s already a legend in his own right. Just listen to “As She’s Walking Away”, the duet with Zac Brown Band that serves at the set’s bonus 35th number one. His mere presence elevates the track into greatness.
Tim McGraw Number One Hits
Jackson’s ascent into superstardom came at the peak of the new traditionalist movement. Tim McGraw got in just under the buzzer, breaking through a year before Shania Twain shifted the course of country music to a distinctively more pop sound. He’s since been able to maintain stardom by going with the flow of these changes.
At his best, few have been better than Tim McGraw, but Number One Hits documents his bookend years as a follower of trends. It’s the songs on either end of his hit run than are the weakest. Whereas Jackson has flirted with banality once in a while, McGraw has openly embraced it. He became a mega-star by alternating shoehorning the five-hankie weepfest “Don’t Take the Girl” between novelty songs like “Indian Outlaw” and “Down on the Farm”, all of which reek of the hat act herd mentality that was heading out of style in 1994.
But McGraw used his clout from those early hits to get access to better material, and his albums soon demonstrated a song sense that was unrivaled among the other new acts of the time, most of whom quickly faded away as pop ascended in the genre. The best of his biggest singles came over the course of the next decade. Classics like “Just to See You Smile”, “Please Remember Me”, “Angry all the Time” and “Live Like You Were Dying” were among the best songs on the radio.
For a while there, he could get just about anything into the top fifteen, but this collection focuses only on the chart-toppers. So instead of fantastic gems like “Can’t Be Really Gone”, “One of These Days”, “Red Ragtop”, and “If You’re Reading This”, this set features quite a bit of forgettable fare that hasn’t aged well. They may have topped the charts, but that doesn’t make “Not a Moment Too Soon”, “She Never Lets it Go to Your Heart”, and the particularly abysmal “Southern Voice” worthy of inclusion in a best-of set.
If they were able to suspend the concept to include a questionable dance remix of the #8 chart hit “Indian Outlaw” and the mediocre new hit “Felt Good on My Lips”, they might as well have just been more generous with the track listing and released The Very Best of Tim McGraw. His music has been far more compelling than this collection shows.
Dixie Chicks The Essential Dixie Chicks
The explosive crossover success of Shania Twain, LeAnn Rimes, and Faith Hill was in full swing in 1998, which left traditionalists hungering for a superstar alternative. In waltzed the Dixie Chicks, with a combination of musical credibility, traditional roots, and youthful appeal that instantly made them the darlings of the format. Over the course of two albums – 1998′s Wide Open Spaces and 1999′s Fly – they dominated radio, retail and the awards circuit.
Tracks from those two albums combine for fourteen of the thirty tracks of The Essential Dixie Chicks. All of the biggest hits are here, but chart success wasn’t the only determination for inclusion. Thank God for that, as less impressive top ten hits like “Cold Day in July” and “If I Fall You’re Going Down With Me” are left off, with the far more compelling “Heartbreak Town” and “Sin Wagon” in their place.
As good as their first two albums were, it was the 2002 masterpiece Home that truly solidified them as artists for the ages. Released at the height of O Brother mania, the timing couldn’t have been better for this acoustic album. “Long Time Gone”, “Landslide”, and “Travelin’ Soldier” all went top two, and the album swept the country categories at the 2003 Grammy Awards.
And then, the bottom fell out. Poorly chosen words about the president quickly overshadowed Home, and the princesses of country radio suddenly became pariahs, taking the burgeoning roots movement down with them. Radio slamming its door shut is what makes a hit-centered Chicks compilation impossible, and Essential Dixie Chicks wisely chooses to give equal representation to Home and its follow-up, the California country Taking the Long Way.
An excellent job is done of selecting the best album cuts from both collections, an especially difficult task with the latter album. Sure, it won five Grammys and sold well, but the platinum single “Not Ready to Make Nice” was the only real hit. Thankfully, we’re treated to gems like “Top of the World” and “Truth No. 2″ from Home and “The Long Way Around”, “Easy Silence,” and “Lubbock or Leave It” from Taking the Long Way.
And while a case could be made for some great tracks left off – “Godspeed (Sweet Dreams)”, “More Love”, and “Voice Inside My Head” come to mind – everything that’s here is essential listening. Then again, the Chicks could have randomly picked any 30 songs from the four albums represented here and still ended up with a great collection of music, so high has their standard of excellence been all along. How many other superstar country artists could do the same?
Brad Paisley Hits Alive
If the Dixie Chicks best represent the last gasp of lofty aspiration in mainstream country music over the past twelve years, Brad Paisley best represents the mediocrity the genre was willing to settle for. Rising to fame around the same time as the Chicks, Paisley was similarly touted as a traditional savior for the increasingly pop-influenced genre.
And for more than ten years, he’s lived up to the traditionalist part, rarely flirting with crossover sounds. Much like Alan Jackson, Paisley’s sound hasn’t changed much over time. But unlike Jackson, Paisley’s point of view hasn’t changed much either. He’s been releasing antiseptic, mostly dull radio fodder for most of his career, getting regular radio play with an endless stream of interchangeable love songs and party anthems.
Hits Alive attempts to assess his work to date, and it takes an odd approach. A disc of studio hits is paired with a disc of live recordings of his hits. Figuring out the guiding principle in song selection is near impossible. Some of his signature hits – “I’m Gonna Miss Her”, “Letter to Me”, “Waitin’ on a Woman” – appear only in live form. Songs that practically beg to be livened up, like “Ticks”, “The World”, and “Celebrity” – are only here in their studio incarnations. Bizarrely, “Alcohol” and “Mud on the Tires”, are presented in both forms.
The double dipping means early hits like “Who Needs Pictures”, “Wrapped Around”, “Two People Fell in Love”, and “I Wish You’d Stay” are omitted entirely. That’s a shame, because they’re all better than his string of condescending and slightly misogynist love songs that do make the cut, the worst offenders being “The World” and the jaw-dropping “Little Moments”, the latter providing a list of endearing traits that would be insulting if he was singing about his child, let alone his partner.
Thankfully, many of his best moments are included, most notably “Whiskey Lullaby” and “When I Get Where I’m Going”, two hits that have gone on to become genre standards in the years since their release. Plus, the live disc brings some unexpected treats. “Time Warp” showcases his stunning instrumental talent, while the hits “Water” and “American Saturday Night” truly do come alive on stage, making them sound better here than they did on the radio.
Of the four collections, Paisley’s may be the least impressive, but it’s still a decent representation of one of country music’s last superstars, and it speaks volumes about the creative holding pattern that still paralyzes the genre. Unless the spiritual successors to Alan Jackson or the Dixie Chicks come along, Paisley’s might be as good as it’s gonna get on country radio.
This Keith Whitley classic was recorded as part of a tribute album to the late country star. It became a hit all over again, perhaps because Krauss performed it in a near-whisper. The quiet arrangement matches the sentiment beautifully. – Kevin Coyne
Lawrence dishes on his ex’s cheating ways to her new potential lover. How did she get that way? He reveals that he’s the one who taught her everything she knows from the cheater’s playbook. Moreover, he seems regretful of her corruption. – Leeann Ward
Cowboy Take Me Away Dixie Chicks
1999 | Peak: #1
In a modern world where life can so easily feel cold and mechanical, love remains earthy and exciting and mysterious. It’s a window into a different world, one where we’re not defined by the predictables of our routine – the same stresses, the same cars and buildings – but by our core nature as people, our place in the greater fabric of Earth and, perhaps, heaven. On the surface, “Cowboy Take Me Away” sounds like just a sugar-sweet love song – I’ve even heard it called “pre-feminist” – but there’s something else going on here: a plea for life to have meaning again. – Dan Milliken (more…)