Tag Archives: Merle Haggard

CMA Awards: Entertainer of the Year (1967-2013)

Since its inception, the top honor an artist could be given at the Country Music Association awards is this one: Entertainer of the Year.   Originally a revolving door of winners, the winner in early years was often not even nominated the following year.  In 1981, Barbara Mandrell became the first artist to win the award twice.   Alabama succeeded her with a three year run from 1982-1984.   Fourteen years later, Garth Brooks became the first artist two win four times, a feat later matched by Kenny Chesney in 2008.

Here’s a look back at the award from the very beginning, along with some facts and feats about the category and its nominees.

Eddy Arnold1967

  • Bill Anderson
  • Eddy Arnold
  • Merle Haggard
  • Sonny James
  • Buck Owens

One year after being inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, Eddy Arnold was named the very first Entertainer of the Year at the inaugural CMA awards in 1967. Don’t assume it was a sympathy vote. Arnold had three #1 hits in the twelve months leading up to the ceremony, as he was in the middle of his impressive mid-sixties comeback, a period best defined by the 1965 classic, “Make the World Go Away.”  He remains the only member of the Hall of Fame to win this award after being inducted.

Glen Campbell1968

  • Eddy Arnold
  • Glen Campbell
  • Johnny Cash
  • Merle Haggard
  • Charley Pride

Glen Campbell was a big awards favorite in 1968, with “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” and “Gentle On My Mind” both dominating the Grammy awards earlier that year.   His win in this category foreshadowed bigger things, as he soon became a network variety star, while also scoring major country and pop hits with “Wichita Lineman” and “Galveston.”

 johnny-cash1969

  • Glen Campbell
  • Johnny Cash
  • Roy Clark
  • Merle Haggard
  • Charley Pride

Johnny Cash’s career was rejuvenated on the strength of two live prison albums, the latter of which produced the massive Shel Silverstein-penned smash, “A Boy Named Sue.”   His victory came in a year that marked the beginning of his network variety show and had him dominating the country singles charts, spending ten combined weeks at #1 with “Sue” and “Daddy Sang Bass.”

Merle Haggard1970

  • Glen Campbell
  • Johnny Cash
  • Roy Clark
  • Merle Haggard
  • Charley Pride

Merle Haggard was a mainstay in this category from the beginning, nominated in each of the first seven years of the CMA Awards.  His victory in 1970 coincided with his commercial peak, with signature hits “The Fightin’ Side of Me” and “Okie From Muskogee” helping him secure his only win in this category.

Charley Pride1971

  • Merle Haggard
  • Loretta Lynn
  • Charley Pride
  • Jerry Reed
  • Conway Twitty

The last of four consecutive years where the Male Vocalist winner matched the Entertainer winner, Charley Pride went home with both awards in 1971.   A winner on his fourth nomination, his popularity skyrocketed upon the release of “Kiss an Angel Good Morning,” which was climbing the charts at the time of the awards ceremony.

Loretta Lynn1972

  • Merle Haggard
  • Freddie Hart
  • Loretta Lynn
  • Charley Pride
  • Jerry Reed

Instead of attending the awards show, Loretta Lynn’s husband Mooney went hunting.  He didn’t want to watch her lose, but he missed watching history unfold as she became the first woman to win Entertainer of the Year.  Lynn’s victory came on the heels of both solo hits like “One’s on the Way” and her popular duets with Conway Twitty.

Roy Clark1973

  • Roy Clark
  • Merle Haggard
  • Tom T. Hall
  • Loretta Lynn
  • Charley Pride

Today he’s best known for Hee Haw, the country music variety show that he co-hosted, and it’s no coincidence that he won while the show was in its prime. Still, Clark is also one of country’s most admired legends, and his legacy goes far beyond the television show that showcased his extensive musical and comedic talents.

Rich_Charlie_002_c_MOA.jpg1974

  • Roy Clark
  • Mac Davis
  • Loretta Lynn
  • Olivia Newton-John
  • Charlie Rich

The massive success of “The Most Beautiful Girl” and “Behind Closed Doors” helped Charlie Rich win this award.  It was a long time coming, as Rich toiled in obscurity despite critical acclaim for his work.   He would continue to score big hits on the country and pop charts over the next couple of years, at one point charting hits on different labels at the same time.

John Denver1975

  • John Denver
  • Waylon Jennings
  • Loretta Lynn
  • Ronnie Milsap
  • Conway Twitty

John Denver’s victory in this race led to the most infamous moment in CMA history. Though he claimed it was due to medication later on, presenter Charlie Rich seemed to be making a furious statement against the pop crossover artists dominating country music when he opened the envelope, read it, and then lit a cigarette lighter and burned the envelope. The paper went up in flames as he derisively snarled the winner’s name, “My friend, Mister John Denver.” Poor John, accepting via satellite, was clueless to what was going on at the Opry house, and graciously accepted his award.

Mel Tillis1976

  • Waylon Jennings
  • Ronnie Milsap
  • Willie Nelson
  • Dolly Parton
  • Mel Tillis

This 2007 Hall of Fame inductee won this award just as he was changing labels.  Tillis first gained notoriety for his remarkable songwriting talent, but eventually he was scoring enough hits to earn a place in this category. He would go on to have several more big hits after winning this award, earning another nomination in this category two years later.

Ronnie Milsap1977

  • Merle Haggard
  • Waylon Jennings
  • Ronnie Milsap
  • Dolly Parton
  • Kenny Rogers

Ronnie Milsap dominated the CMA Awards, becoming one of its most frequently honored performers during the formative years of the awards show.  He finally won the big prize on his third try, powered by the success of his classic hit, “It was Almost like a Song.”

Dolly Parton1978

  • Crystal Gayle
  • Ronnie Milsap
  • Dolly Parton
  • Kenny Rogers
  • Mel Tillis

Her famous quote – “I’m not leaving country. I’m taking it with me” – must have held some water with the Nashville establishment, as Parton won this award at the height of her pop crossover success with “Here You Come Again,” the title track of her first platinum album.  The front of her dress popped open before she went up to receive the trophy, prompting her to quip, “That’s what I get for trying to put fifty pounds of mud in a five pound bag.”

Willie Nelson1979

  • Crystal Gayle
  • Barbara Mandrell
  • Willie Nelson
  • Kenny Rogers
  • Statler Brothers

He never won Male Vocalist of the Year, but superstar Willie Nelson was given his due by the CMA in 1979 when they awarded him Entertainer of the Year.   While it wasn’t his biggest year on the charts, residual goodwill from Stardust and his collaborations with Waylon Jennings helped carry him to victory.

Barbara Mandrell 21980

  • Charlie Daniels Band
  • Larry Gatlin & The Gatlin Brothers
  • Barbara Mandrell
  • Willie Nelson
  • Kenny Rogers

She had a few big hits in 1980, like “Crackers” and “The Best of Strangers.”  But it was her incredibly popular variety show with sisters Louise and Irlene that truly showcased her versatility as an entertainer, securing the first of two wins in this category.

Barbara Mandrell 11981

  • Alabama
  • George Jones
  • Barbara Mandrell
  • Oak Ridge Boys
  • Kenny Rogers

Despite sharing the category with four artists who had never won this award, Barbara Mandrell became the first artist in CMA history to win Entertainer of the Year for the second time.  Credit the continued popularity of her television show and the biggest hit of her career, “I Was Country When Country Wasn’t Cool”,  which featured a guest turn by fellow nominee George Jones.

Alabama 21982

  • Alabama
  • Barbara Mandrell
  • Willie Nelson
  • Oak Ridge Boys
  • Ricky Skaggs

The band that laid the groundwork for all other country bands that followed, Alabama set a new bar for commercial success in the early eighties.   The eligibility period included the release of their biggest-selling studio album, and also two of their signature hits: “Mountain Music” and “Love in the First Degree.”

Alabama 31983

  • Alabama
  • Merle Haggard
  • Barbara Mandrell
  • Willie Nelson
  • Ricky Skaggs

As their studio albums sold in the millions, every single Alabama released to radio was hitting #1, a stretch that would eventually include 21 consecutive chart-toppers.  They repeated in this category on the strength of hits like “Dixieland Delight” and “The Closer You Get.”

Alabama 11984

  • Alabama
  • Lee Greenwood
  • Barbara Mandrell
  • Ronnie Milsap
  • Oak Ridge Boys

A mere three years after Barbara Mandrell made history by being the first artist to win two Entertainer awards, Alabama went her one better and won three. They remain one of only two acts to win this award three years in a row, doing so as their hits “Roll On (Eighteen Wheeler)” and “If You’re Gonna Play in Texas (You Gotta Have a Fiddle in the Band)” dominated the airwaves.

1Ricky Skaggs985

  • Alabama
  • Lee Greenwood
  • Reba McEntire
  • Ricky Skaggs
  • George Strait

Few country artists command as much respect as Ricky Skaggs, a consummate singer and musician. Skaggs’ victory in this category signaled the resurgence of traditional country music, as he was the first winner since 1976 to not have achieved crossover hits on pop radio.

Reba McEntire1986

  • The Judds
  • Reba McEntire
  • Willie Nelson
  • Ricky Skaggs
  • George Strait

One of the most popular new traditionalists of the mid-eighties, McEntire achieved her commercial breakthrough with “Whoever’s in New England”, which was aided in popularity by her first of many high-concept music video clips.  McEntire would eventually become the most nominated woman in history, scoring ten nominations over eleven years.

Hank Williams Jr 11987

  • The Judds
  • Reba McEntire
  • George Strait
  • Randy Travis
  • Hank Williams, Jr.

When Hank Williams, Jr. won the Music Video award the previous year, he reminded voters, “I make audio, too.”  They finally got around to acknowledging his meaningful contributions to the genre,  awarding him the first of two Entertainer trophies in 1987.

Hank Williams Jr 21988

  • The Judds
  • Reba McEntire
  • George Strait
  • Randy Travis
  • Hank Williams, Jr.

Hank Jr. may have waited a long time for some CMA love, but once it came, it was in droves. He won Album of the Year the same night he repeated in this category.  His biggest hit of the year, “Young Country”, featured guest appearances by up and comers like Highway 101 and Marty Stuart.

George Strait 11989

  • Reba McEntire
  • Ricky Van Shelton
  • George Strait
  • Randy Travis
  • Hank Williams, Jr.

Three years after his most recent Male Vocalist trophy, megastar George Strait was named Entertainer of the Year. He would go on to have one of his biggest years at radio, with two multi-week #1 singles in the twelve months that followed his victory.

George Strait 21990

  • Clint Black
  • Kathy Mattea
  • Ricky Van Shelton
  • George Strait
  • Randy Travis

While Randy Travis dominated the Male Vocalist race, George Strait was given his due again in the Entertainer category.   He wore an Entertainer of the Year cowboy belt on the cover of Livin’ it Up, perhaps giving him good luck toward his second victory.  He remains the most nominated in this category, and is only the second Hall of Famer to receive a nomination after being inducted into the Hall.

Garth Brooks 19911991

  • Clint Black
  • Garth Brooks
  • Vince Gill
  • Reba McEntire
  • George Strait

A mere year after winning the Horizon award, Garth Brooks was the Entertainer of the Year at the CMA Awards. He was breaking every sales record in the book by that point.  Shortly before the ceremony, he became the first country artist to enter the overall album chart at #1, leading to a media frenzy that gained unprecedented exposure for both Garth and the genre he represented.

Garth Brooks 21992

  • Garth Brooks
  • Vince Gill
  • Alan Jackson
  • Reba McEntire
  • Travis Tritt

Given that he was already the biggest-selling country artist the world had ever seen, it was no surprise that Garth Brooks won his second Entertainer of the Year trophy in 1992.  His continued popularity was fueled by sold out live shows that soon led to network specials showcasing his unique brand of arena country.

Vince Gill 11993

  • Brooks & Dunn
  • Garth Brooks
  • Vince Gill
  • Alan Jackson
  • Reba McEntire

Vince Gill capped off an amazing night at the 1993 CMA Awards with his first victory in this category. It was his fifth win of the night, as he also took home Male Vocalist, Song, Album and Vocal Event.   As he was also the show’s sole host, the collective exposure pushed him to multi-platinum sales.

Vince Gill 21994

  • Brooks & Dunn
  • Garth Brooks
  • Vince Gill
  • Alan Jackson
  • Reba McEntire

The soft-spoken Gill won for a second year, which was no big surprise given his widespread popularity in Music City. He also went home with Album and Male Vocalist the same night, giving him a stunning fourteen trophies in only five years.

Alan Jackson 11995

  • Brooks & Dunn
  • Garth Brooks
  • Vince Gill
  • Alan Jackson
  • Reba McEntire

As one of the evening’s top nominees, Alan Jackson brought his parents as his special guests.  After losing in every other category, he expressed relief that he finally won something, as going home empty handed would’ve been embarrassing.   Jackson would eventually become one of the organization’s most awarded artists.

Brooks and Dunn1996

  • Brooks & Dunn
  • Garth Brooks
  • Vince Gill
  • Alan Jackson
  • George Strait

They were already winners of five CMA awards, due solely to their domination of the Vocal Duo category. But in 1996,  they finally won another race, and it was a big one. Brooks & Dunn remain the only duo to win this award, with The Judds and Sugarland being the only other duos to receive nominations.

Garth Brooks 31997

  • Brooks & Dunn
  • Garth Brooks
  • Vince Gill
  • Alan Jackson
  • George Strait

In a year when all five nominees had won this award before, it was Garth Brooks who returned to the winner’s circle, tying Alabama’s long-standing record of three victories in this category.   Adding to the sense of déjà vu, this was the third year in a row where all five nominees were the same.

Garth Brooks 41998

  • Brooks & Dunn
  • Garth Brooks
  • Vince Gill
  • Tim McGraw
  • George Strait

As hard as it is to believe that there were any records left for him to break by 1998, Garth Brooks shattered another one, becoming the first artist in the history of the CMA to win four Entertainer of the Year awards. By this time, Garth had already sold more than 60 million albums, and while he has yet to win this award again, he remains the top-selling solo artist of all time in the United States.

Shania Twain1999

  • Garth Brooks
  • Dixie Chicks
  • Tim McGraw
  • George Strait
  • Shania Twain

The odds seemed against Shania Twain, as she had never won a CMA award before and the last woman to win was Reba McEntire thirteen years earlier.  Fittingly, McEntire was on hand to present the trophy to Twain, who won on the strength of Come On Over, which eventually became  top-selling country album of all time and the top selling album of the decade from any genre.

Dixie Chicks2000

  • Dixie Chicks
  • Faith Hill
  • Alan Jackson
  • Tim McGraw
  • George Strait

The Dixie Chicks capped off a stunning three-year run at the CMA Awards with this victory, one of nine that they racked up since 1998.   Within those three years, their first two albums each sold over ten million copies, and the band was widely credited for championing country radio and traditionalism while other top acts were crossing over to pop radio.

Tim McGraw2001

  • Brooks & Dunn
  • Dixie Chicks
  • Alan Jackson
  • Tim McGraw
  • George Strait

After winning two Male Vocalist and two Album of the Year honors in the previous three years, Tim McGraw finally won the CMA’s top award. It was a satisfying acknowledgment of an artist who’d had his talent underestimated in the first few years of his stardom, but built up a reputation for his stellar taste in choosing material.

Alan Jackson 22002

  • Brooks & Dunn
  • Kenny Chesney
  • Alan Jackson
  • Toby Keith
  • George Strait

Jackson’s win in 1995 came as he was reaching his commercial peak.  In the years that followed, Jackson remained a successful and well-respected artist that got less attention every year when it came time to hand out awards. Then came the one-two punch of “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)” and “Drive (For Daddy Gene)”, both of which were viewed as the very embodiment of all that makes country music unique and essential.   This was one of five awards he was honored with that night.

Alan Jackson 32003

  • Brooks & Dunn
  • Kenny Chesney
  • Alan Jackson
  • Toby Keith
  • Tim McGraw

Although the ACM had chosen Toby Keith as their standard bearer a few months earlier, the CMA stuck with the previous year’s winner Alan Jackson. By 2003, Jackson had evolved into an elder statesman for the genre, but still managed to stay relevant with hits both clever (“It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere”) and poignant (“Remember When.”)

Kenny Chesney2004

  • Brooks & Dunn
  • Kenny Chesney
  • Alan Jackson
  • Toby Keith
  • Tim McGraw

Chesney’s long dry spell at the CMA’s came to a satisfying end as the superstar collected both Entertainer and Album of the Year trophies. He had been charting for eleven years before finally winning his first CMA award.

keith-urban2005

  • Kenny Chesney
  • Alan Jackson
  • Toby Keith
  • Brad Paisley
  • Keith Urban

One of the most surprising and endearing wins in the history of this category, a shocked and humbled Urban accepted this award in New York City. He couldn’t have picked a better night to bring his Australian parents to the ceremony.

kenny-chesney2006

  • Brooks & Dunn
  • Kenny Chesney
  • Brad Paisley
  • Rascal Flatts
  • Keith Urban

It’s pretty rare to come back and win this award for a second time, as most multiple wins have been consecutive in this category. But Kenny Chesney joined Garth Brooks and Alan Jackson as the only other artists to pull it off when he won in 2006, a club that would later be joined by Taylor Swift.

kenny_chesney2007

  • Kenny Chesney
  • Brad Paisley
  • Rascal Flatts
  • George Strait
  • Keith Urban

Chesney entered the elite company of Garth Brooks, Alabama, and Alan Jackson with his third victory in this category. Rascal Flatts, meanwhile, became the first group since the Dixie Chicks to score back-to-back nominations, a feat also accomplished by Alabama and the Oak Ridge Boys.

Kenny Chesney2008

  • Kenny Chesney
  • Brad Paisley
  • George Strait
  • Sugarland
  • Keith Urban

As Sugarland became only the third duo in history to receive a nomination and George Strait extended his record number of nominations to sixteen, Kenny Chesney tied Garth Brooks for the most wins in this category with his fourth victory.  His popularity at radio and retail was remarkable, but it was Chesney’s highly attended summer stadium tours that earned him these wins.

Taylor Swift CMA2009

  • Kenny Chesney
  • Brad Paisley
  • George Strait
  • Taylor Swift
  • Keith Urban

Taylor Swift both made history and prevented it with her win in this category.  She simultaneously became the youngest artist ever and the first female solo artist in ten years to take home the prize. She also kept Kenny Chesney from becoming the sole all-time champion in this category, as he remains tied with Garth Brooks with four wins to date.

paisley2010

  • Lady Antebellum
  • Miranda Lambert
  • Brad Paisley
  • Keith Urban
  • Zac Brown Band

2010 shook up the category, with three first-time contenders in the running for the crown for the first time since 1981. Despite all the new blood, sixth time proved to be the charm for Brad Paisley, who finally won this award after five consecutive losses.  Paisley’s persistent popularity helped him earn the nod in a year where the two previous winners weren’t even nominated.

Taylor Swift Fearless Tour 2009 In New York City2011

  • Jason Aldean
  • Brad Paisley
  • Blake Shelton
  • Taylor Swift
  • Keith Urban

Thirty years after Barbara Mandrell became the first woman to win this award twice, Swift became the second to do so.  She won the award on the strength of her third set, Speak Now, which showcased her growing maturity as a songwriter and her growing appeal beyond her teenage and young adult fan base.

Shelton2012

  • Jason Aldean
  • Kenny Chesney
  • Brad Paisley
  • Blake Shelton
  • Taylor Swift

One of the most surprising wins in CMA history, few saw Blake Shelton’s victory coming.  But it isn’t too surprising when you consider the number of artists who parlayed network television exposure into a win in this category.  Perhaps in this new era of media saturation and minimal album sales, television may once again become a deciding factor when choosing the genre’s top star every year.

question_mark2013

  • Jason Aldean
  • Luke Bryan
  • Blake Shelton
  • George Strait
  • Taylor Swift

George Strait’s farewell tour helped return him to the category for the first time since 2009, earning him a record-extending  eighteenth career nomination.  Strait joins previous winners Taylor Swift (2009, 2011) and Blake Shelton (2012) in attempting a return to the winner’s circle.   Luke Bryan earns his first nomination, just months after winning the ACM trophy.  Jason Aldean, meanwhile, is hoping to get lucky the third time around.

Facts & Feats

Multiple Wins:

  • (4) – Garth Brooks, Kenny Chesney
  • (3) – Alabama, Alan Jackson
  • (2) –Vince Gill, Barbara Mandrell, George Strait, Taylor Swift, Hank Williams, Jr.

Most Consecutive Wins:

  • (3) – Alabama (1982-1984), Kenny Chesney (2006-2008)
  • (2) – Garth Brooks (1991-1992, 1997-1998), Vince Gill (1993-1994), Barbara Mandrell (1980-1981), George Strait (1989-1990), Hank Williams, Jr. (1987-1988)

Most Nominations:

  • (18) – George Strait
  • (12) – Alan Jackson
  • (11) – Brooks & Dunn
  • (10) – Reba McEntire
  • (9) –  Garth Brooks, Kenny Chesney
  • (8) –  Vince Gill, Merle Haggard, Brad Paisley
  • (7) – Keith Urban
  • (6) – Barbara Mandrell, Tim McGraw, Willie Nelson, Brad Paisley, Charley Pride, Keith Urban
  • (5) – Alabama, Loretta Lynn, Ronnie Milsap, Kenny Rogers

Most Nominations Without a Win:

  • (5) – Kenny Rogers
  • (4) – Toby Keith, Randy Travis
  • (3) – Jason Aldean, Waylon Jennings, The Judds, Oak Ridge Boys

Winners in First Year of Nomination:
Eddy Arnold (1967), Garth Brooks (1991), Glen Campbell (1968), John Denver (1975), Charlie Rich (1974), Taylor Swift (2009), Mel Tillis (1976), Shania Twain (1999), Keith Urban (2004), Hank Williams, Jr. (1987)

CMA Entertainers of the Year Who Have Never Won the ACM Award:
Eddy Arnold, Johnny Cash, Glen Campbell, Roy Clark, John Denver, Vince Gill, Alan Jackson, Tim McGraw, Ronnie Milsap, Brad Paisley, Charlie Rich, Blake Shelton, Ricky Skaggs, Taylor Swift, Mel Tillis, Keith Urban

ACM Entertainers of the Year Who Have Never Won the CMA Award:
Luke Bryan, Mac Davis, Mickey Gilley, Freddie Hart, Toby Keith, Kenny Rogers, Carrie Underwood

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Single Review: Kacey Musgraves, “Blowin’ Smoke”

Kacey Musgraves Blowin' SmokeOne of my longest running criticisms of contemporary country music is the disappearance of the working poor.  It’s a segment of the population that has been growing exponentially, but the genre that has historically been associated with chronicling their experiences has instead chosen to lionize and romanticize small town partying and country living.   Lots of songs about Sunday mornings and Saturday nights, but almost none about those tiring days in between.

This necessary documentation has found some mainstream success through Kacey Musgraves, who has a keen writer’s eye for capturing the specific realities of the daily existence of working class folks.  “Blowin’ Smoke” is one of the most effective examples of her talent in this area, crafting an entire song around a smoke break for exhausted waitresses with limited options and dwindling hope for the future.   They talk a big game about getting away someday, but they know that opportunities are as impossible to grab as  the smoke departing from their cigarettes.

Unfortunately, the monotony of their experiences is replicated a bit too faithfully in the song’s production and melody, which both plod along without any sign of a hook.   I get that they were trying to be faithful to the theme of the song, but if Musgraves is going to become the modern day Merle Haggard that we need, she must keep in mind that as vivid as Hag’s classic songs were in their depiction of the struggling underclass, they were also quite catchy and had memorable vocals and guitar work, too.

Written by Luke Laird, Shane McAnally, and Kacey Musgraves

Grade: B

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Six Pack: Iris DeMent

Iris DementEven long-time readers of Country Universe could be forgiven for getting to #2 on our Top Country Albums of 2012 list and wondering, “Who on earth is Iris DeMent?”

Iris DeMent came out of nowhere in 1992 with a stunning debut album, Infamous Angel, that received rapturous critical acclaim.  The general consensus was that it heralded the arrival of a new singer-songwriter for the ages.

Two years later, My Life only strengthened that sentiment, and DeMent was widely seen as a critical voice in what would eventually become known as the Americana music genre.

Then, in 1996, she returned with a slightly more commercial sound with the remarkably political album, The Way I Should.  Reviews were a bit mixed, though in retrospect that may have been more because of its sonic departure from the first two albums than any issues with the topical content.

Then…she kinda disappeared.   Not completely, in the sense that she still surfaced on collaborative efforts, most notably her work in 1999 on John Prine’s album, In Spite of Ourselves.  She even starred in the movie Songcatcher, playing Rose Gentry in that 2000 film.   But after releasing full albums of her own songwriting like clockwork every two years, the clock simply stopped.  In fact, the only album she released at all before 2012 was a collection of gospel covers in 2004.

So the release of Sing the Delta was as much an introduction to Iris DeMent for 21st century fans of country, folk and roots music as it was a long overdue return that was patiently awaited by those of us who loved her the first time around.  Delta is very similar in sound and structure to her first two albums, so those who are digging the new set should check those out first.  They’re both essential listening.

But I’ve decided to be a bit more democratic and showcase exactly two tracks from each of her first three albums.  In truth, if you like any of these selections, you should probably go ahead and just buy all three albums.

 

Iris Dement Infamous Angel

“Let the Mystery Be”  – from the 1992 album Infamous Angel

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The opening track of her debut set establishes her point of view immediately, and feels like the blueprint for all of her most multi-layered songs.  What I love about this song is that she claims to be surrendering to the mystery of religious truth, which suggests a passive approach to matters of faith.

But her keen attention to all of the details found in both God’s creation and different religious beliefs around the world belie that indifference.  Perhaps she doesn’t want to let the mystery be so much as she doesn’t want to lose the thrill of discovery and questioning that is sacrificed when you settle on just one essential truth.

 

Iris Dement Infamous Angel

“Our Town”  – from the 1992 album Infamous Angel

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A moving eulogy to a dying small town.  Her mourning for the little community in which she chose to remain is also a bit of mourning for her own life choices, as she sees every major and quite a few minor life moments have taken place within the borders of one little dot on the map.

 

Iris Dement My Life

“No Time to Cry”  – from the 1994 album My Life

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This masterpiece has been covered by both Merle Haggard and Joe Nichols, but even their fine readings can’t approach the raw power of DeMent’s original.  Even the most sensitive child grows up to be a thick-skinned adult simply because of the mundane daily expectations that life places upon us with such bewildering urgency.  Those feelings remain buried deep below the surface, and as DeMent eloquently demonstrates, it is incredibly dangerous to engage them at all, lest they refuse to return to the distant inner hole to which they’ve been banished with time.

 

Iris Dement My Life

“Easy’s Getting Harder Every Day”  – from the 1994 album My Life

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Budding sociologists looking for pop culture windows into the isolation and frustration of working-class middle Americans in the 1990s should pick up the first few seasons of Roseanne on DVD, then download this Mp3 and listen to it on repeat.   Even when all the rules are followed and all of the basic needs are met, the happiness that comes with full realization of your true worth and talent remains forever elusive.

 

Iris Dement The Way I Should

“Wasteland of the Free”  –

from the 1996 album The Way I Should

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A stunning polemic that is perhaps most notable for being written during a period of relative peace and prosperity.  DeMent noticed the troubles borne of inequity and inequality that were brewing under the surface and have since boiled over in recent years.  She points the finger at all of the right culprits, too.

 

Iris Dement The Way I Should

“The Way I Should”  – from the 1996 album The Way I Should

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A statement of self-worth that perhaps foreshadowed her decision to simply not record another album until she wanted to.   Here, she defeats the voices whispering in her ear to work harder and meet some unreachable standard of success.  She does so by rejecting the very metrics of measurement as completely invalid.

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Album Review: Terri Clark, <i>Classic</i>

A great covers record, no matter how sincere the artist’s intentions, must provide a satisfactory answer to one question:  Why should we listen to this artist’s versions of these songs when the originals are still there for us to enjoy?

There are moments when Terri Clark’s Classic answers that question effectively, as well as some when the answer is murky at best.  Produced by Clark with Jeff Jones, the project fares best when Clark brings thoughtful vocal interpretations and creative production touches to her renderings of these classic songs.  Her take on Glen Campbell’s “Gentle On My Mind” marries a pleasantly subtle vocal reading to a warm and inviting bluegrass-tinged arrangement.  Another highlight is a reworking of Tanya Tucker’s 1972 debut hit “Delta Dawn,” on which Tucker herself contributes duet vocals.  Tucker proves to be in fine voice, while an acoustic guitar and fiddle-based arrangement accentuates the song’s Southern Gothic charms.  The album also includes some less-expected cover choices such as Linda Ronstadt’s “Love Is a Rose” and Emmylou Harris’ “Two More Bottles of Wine” – not necessary the usual go-to selections for a classic country covers project, but Clark’s searing fiddle-laced reworkings are a real treat.

The album’s most polarizing aspect would likely be its recurring tendency to place the songs in contemporary country-rock settings (which may make some country purists wince) similar to the style that became Clark’s calling card during her days as a mainstream country star.  One could commend Clark for adapting the songs to her own style (as opposed to causing the same musical whiplash as Martina McBride’s by-the-book re-creations from her Timeless project), but the strategy does suffer from the occasional overhaul.  She amps up Kittle Wells’ landmark hit “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” into a honky-tonk shuffle that could have worked if not for her overwrought vocal delivery, but an over-produced take on Loretta Lynn’s “Don’t Come Home a Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ On Your Mind)” all but buries the infectious sass of Lynn’s 1967 original.  By the time Clark’s rocked-up versions of Merle Haggard’s “Swingin’ Doors” and Hank Snow’s “I’m Movin’ On” roll around, the style begins to feel somewhat tired.

The duets included on the album are something of a mixed bag.  Dierks Bentley turns in one of his better performances as he fills George Jones’ shoes on the classic Jones-Wynette duet “Golden Ring.”  Dean Brody joins Clark on “I’m Movin’ On,” thus shifting the song to a two-person (ostensibly an ex-couple) perspective.  The third-person narrative of “Delta Dawn” is likewise well-suited to the duet treatment.  On the other hand, sonically pleasant duet versions of “How Blue” (with original artist Reba McEntire) and Patsy Cline’s “Leavin’ On Your Mind” (with fellow Canadian singer-songwriter Jann

Arden) suffer from the simple common flaw that the songs don’t work well as two-woman duets.

Terri Clark is to be commended for the sense of risk-taking evident on Classic, but unfortunately it sometimes comes at the expense of consistency.  Sleepless Nights it isn’t, but the best moments on Terri Clark’s Classic make it an enjoyable and worthwhile listen as a whole, even if the project falls a degree short of fulfilling its lofty potential.

Top Tracks:  “Love Is a Rose,” “Gentle On My Mind,” “Delta Dawn”

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100 Greatest Men: #44. Glen Campbell

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A young talent from Arkansas that developed from an in-demand session musician into a frontman for the ages.

Glen Campbell played guitar from the age of four.  He picked up instrumental guidance from jazz records while developing his vocal skills at church.   By his teenage years, he was already playing in country bands throughout Arkansas, and by age eighteen, he had his own country band called the Western Wranglers.

Looking for work, he moved to California in his early twenties, where he became a popular session musician, playing on records by Elvis Presley, Merle Haggard, Frank Sinatra, and the Monkees.  He played live gigs backing up established artists, while also pushing his own solo career, which was aided greatly by his touring with the Beach Boys.   Their Capitol label signed Campbell to a deal, and after working diligently throughout the sixties, he would end the decade as a huge star.

Campbell released a string of classic hits and albums from 1967-1969, including several gold singles and LPs.   His dual success on the pop and country charts with “By the cialis tablets foreign Time I Get to Phoenix”, “Wichita Lineman”, and “Galveston”, made him a household name, and he dominated at all three major industry award shows.   His By the Time I Get to Phoenix set remains one of the only country albums in history to win the Grammy for Album of the Year, and his CBS show,  The Glen Campbell Good Time Hour, further cemented his popularity.

The hits slowed down as the seventies rolled in, though Campbell had well-received duets with Bobbie Gentry and Anne Murray.   Alcohol and substance abuse contributed to this decline, but despite battling those demons, he managed a brief comeback in the middle of the decade.   A pair of crossover hits topped both the country and pop charts: “Rhinestone Cowboy” and “Southern Nights.”  Both became signature songs for him, and helped get his radio career back on track.

Campbell would remain an inconsistent but regular presence on country radio until the late eighties, a decade that saw him conquer his addictions and become a born-again Christian.  In the nineties, he penned his autobiography, Rhinestone Cowboy, and opened a wildly popular theater in Branson, Missouri.   While this decade was intended to begin his retirement, Campbell remained a passionate live performer, and he won several awards for his inspirational albums.

Campbell was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2005, but soon demonstrated that his music career wasn’t quite through yet. In 2008, he returned to Capitol records and released Meet Glen Campbell, his first new country album in fifteen years.   A diagnosis with Alzheimer’s inspired 2011’s farewell project, Ghost on the Canvas, which was hailed as one of his finest works.   He followed the album with a bittersweet farewell tour that is intended to bring an end to his public appearances upon his completion.

Essential Singles:

  • Gentle on My Mind, 1967
  • By the Time I Get to Phoenix, 1967
  • I Wanna Live, 1968
  • Wichita Lineman, 1968
  • Galveston, 1969
  • Rhinestone Cowboy, 1975
  • Country Boy (You Got Your Feet in L.A.), 1975
  • Southern Nights, 1977

Essential Albums:

  • Gentle on My Mind, 1967
  • By the Time I Get to Phoenix, 1967
  • Wichita Lineman, 1968
  • Galveston, 1969
  • Rhinestone Cowboy, 1975
  • Southern Nights, 1977
  • Ghost on the Canvas, 2011

Next: #43. Roger Miller

Previous: #45. Tim McGraw

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Retro Single Review: Alan Jackson, "Gone Country"

“I hear down there, it’s changed, you see.  They’re not as backward as they used to be.”

“Gone Country” is a snapshot of country music at the peak of the boom years, when forces within the music industry and larger shifts in the social landscape of America coalesced to launch country music from its long-suffering redheaded stepchild status into a billion dollar business.

Penned by Bob McDill, a pop songwriter who’d gone country himself many years earlier, the song’s sing-along chorus lends itself to “Born in the U.S.A.” syndrome.  Many sang along without realizing that it was actually an indictment of musical artists who manipulatively decided to go country, rather than a celebration of the explosive new audience that had embraced the format in the early nineties.

Who but Alan Jackson could have delivered it so masterfully? Even during the hat act years, when every young new buck was falling over himself to declare his affinity for Haggard and Jones, Alan Jackson stood out as the real deal.  But despite his staunch traditionalism and reverence for the genre’s greats, he still skillfully incorporated fifties rock, sixties pop and seventies rock into his sound, which is why he could cover “Tequila Sunrise” just as credibly as “A Good Year for the Roses.”

The man singing the song had reached mega-superstardom, selling more copies of one album than many of his heroes had sold of their entire catalog.   Even as he played the cocked-eyebrow guardian of the genre, looking at these carpetbaggers with disdain-laced suspicion, he also knew that the gold rush that was calling their names had made him successful beyond his wildest dreams.

So while there’s a whiff of condescension toward the Vegas singer going “back to her roots”, the folkie who thought “some of that stuff don’t sound much different than Dylan”, and the pop executive who was sure he’d  “be back in the money in no time at all”,  his confident air throughout the song was a reminder that all of their perceptions were based in truth.

Nineties country really did share some roots with the pop and rock music that lounge singers would belt out in Vegas.   Mary Chapin Carpenter, a folkie if there ever was one, was selling multi-platinum and dominating the award show circuit.  And while pop music was at its lowest nadir, languishing in the shadows of both grunge rock and hip-hop, country radio was the only place on the radio dial where bright production and lyrical emphasis could be found.

It was a golden moment in the genre’s history, the first and last time when country dominated the entire American musical landscape without having to compromise its own identity to capture the interest of the crossover audience.   They made smart, contemporary music that acknowledged and built upon the genre’s rich legacy, and the audience came to them.

These days, of course, they’re as backward as they’ve ever been.  Hillbilly pride songs compete for airtime with songs so blatantly pop that they don’t even need remixing for pop and AC airplay. But “Gone Country” is a beautiful snapshot of a time when buy generic viagra online the genre had risen to the top of the music scene, simply on the twin strengths of authenticity and artistry.

Written by Bob McDill

Grade: A

Next: A Good Year for the Roses (with George Jones)

Previous: Livin’ on Love

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Single Review: George Strait, "Drinkin' Man"

More than thirty years into his legendary career, George Strait has released the most compelling single of his career with “Drinkin' Man.”

An alcoholic examines his past and present with clear eyes, looking into the mirror while still holding on to the bottle.  With sad resignation, he remembers the parents who worried about him, the friends that tried to save him, and the woman who loved him in spite of his affliction.

Strait isn't known for dealing with such challenging subject matter, but his experience as a singer and remarkable growth as a songwriter have resulted in the genre's best drinking song in recent memory.  It's something that Merle Haggard or George Jones would have produced at their peak.

I don't know if radio can handle something this substantive from an artist that they tend to love most when he's frivolous these days.  But whether or not it receives wide airplay, this is the finest single that George Strait has ever released.

Written by Dean Dillon, Bubba Strait, and George Strait

Grade:  A

Listen: Drinkin' Man

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100 Greatest Men: #59. John Anderson

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As one of the finest new traditionalists of the eighties and nineties, John Anderson pushed the boundaries of country music without sacrificing its distinctive heritage.

Like many of his contemporaries, Anderson grew up on both country and rock and roll.  He was a teenager when Merle Haggard led him to the genre, and what he heard was enough to motivate him to move to Nashville.  He did construction work around town, including putting the roof on the new Grand Ole Opry in the early seventies.  Over the next few years, he made a name on the club scene, which soon earned him a recording contract with Warner Brothers.

The label patiently worked him as a singles act, and as he gained traction at radio, they released his self-titled debut in 1980.  Its honky-tonk, traditional sound stood in stark contrast to the pop-flavored country that dominated the day.  With his second album, John Anderson 2, he solidified himself as a leader of the nascent new traditionalist movement, covering Lefty Frizzell and Billy Joe Shaver alongside original songs.

Still, it was the pop-flavored “Swingin'” which earned Anderson his greatest notoriety in the eighties.  The million-selling single earned Anderson the CMA award for Single of the Year, and was the peak of his years with Warner Brothers.  By the time he left the label in the late eighties, he’d scored twelve top ten hits.  But despite the fact that the sound he’d brought back to the forefront was all over country radio, he struggled for airplay and the critical acclaim of his early years faded away.

Then, a stunning second act.  Anderson signed with BNA Records in 1991, and staged a major comeback with the #1 hit, “Straight Tequila Night.”  It served as the anchor to the 1992 album Seminole Wind, which earned rave reviews and double-platinum sales.   Anderson was nominated for every major industry award, with the most attention going to the title track,  a poignant environmental plea for the protection of the Florida Everglades.

Anderson maintained momentum with the follow-up album, Solid Ground, which sold gold and included three big hits.  For the rest of the nineties, his success at radio was less consistent, and he scored his last significant chart action with “Somebody Slap Me”, a top thirty hit that was his first release for Mercury Records.

The new millenium brought a well-received collaboration with John Rich, with the resulting album, Easy Money, earning Anderson’s strongest reviews since Seminole Wind.   More recently, Anderson co-wrote Rich’s single, “Shuttin’ Detroit Down.”  In addition to maintaining a hectic touring schedule, Anderson is currently preparing a new studio album, slated to include guest appearances by Haggard and Willie Nelson.

Essential Singles:

  • I’m Just an Old Chunk of Coal (But I’m Gonna Be a Diamond Someday), 1981
  • Wild and Blue, 1982
  • Swingin’, 1983
  • Straight Tequila Night, 1991
  • Seminole Wind, 1992
  • I Wish I Could Have Been There, 1994

Essential Albums:

  • John Anderson 2, 1981
  • Wild & Blue, 1982
  • All the People are Talkin’, 1983
  • Seminole Wind, 1992
  • Solid Ground, 1993
  • Easy Money, 2007

Next: #58. Carl Smith

Previous: #60. Don Gibson

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100 Greatest Men: #65. Asleep at the Wheel

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It’s an old saying that Ray Benson most certainly would agree with: “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.”

Asleep at the Wheel has undergone many lineup changes since it was formed in 1970 by Benson, Lucky Oceans, and Leroy Preston.  They were joined shortly thereafter by Chris O’Connell, a female singer.  They started out as a country band, but their sound was forever changed by Merle Haggard’s tribute album to Bob Wills.  Since hearing that seminal album, they’ve been devoted to both the preservation and development of Western Swing.

Their debut album was released in 1973 by United Artists, but the band laid down roots in 1974 when they moved to Austin, Texas.  They recorded for a variety of major labels in the seventies and eighties, and had significant commercial success with four albums for Capitol.  The band became widely known for their outstanding live performances, and scored a few hits at country radio, too.

Early on in the band’s run, the lineup began to change, which has become a trademark of the band that has aided its incredible longevity.  The one constant has always been frontman Ray Benson, who has kept the band relevant through bringing in new talent regularly and through creative collaborations with other artists.  They’ve won a remarkable eight Grammy awards, including six for Best Country Instrumental Performance.

Their commitment to preserving the legacy of Bob Wills resulted in two widely hailed and warmly embraced tribute albums: 1993’s A Tribute to the Music of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, and 1999’s Ride with Bob.  The former earned a CMA nomination for Album of the Year, and the latter brought the band back to the country singles chart, thanks to unsolicited airplay for “Roly Poly”, a duet with the Dixie Chicks.

To celebrate Wills’ centennial, Benson starred in a touring musical called A Ride with Bob, where he played himself touring the life of Wills as his band plays along. The show received rave reviews, and one show was even attended by President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush.

In 2009, almost three decades after the band first formed, they had the highest-charting album of their career with Willie and the Wheel, a collaboration with fellow Austin icon Willie Nelson.

Essential Singles:

  • Choo Choo Ch’Boogie, 1973
  • The Letter that Johnny Walker Read, 1975
  • Route 66, 1976
  • House of Blue Lights, 1987
  • Red Wing, 1993

Essential Albums:

  • Comin’ Right at Ya, 1973
  • Texas Gold, 1975
  • Asleep at the Wheel, 1985
  • Ten, 1987
  • A Tribute to the Music of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, 1993
  • Willie and the Wheel (with Willie Nelson), 2009

Next: #64. Jerry Reed

Previous: #66. David Houston

100 Greatest Men: The Complete List

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100 Greatest Men: #70. Ferlin Husky

100 Greatest Men: The Complete List

Equal parts classic country singer and brilliant comedian, Ferlin Husky was one of the consummate all-around entertainers.

Born and raised in Missouri, he learned guitar from his uncle.  The music bug led him to drop out of high school, and he played honky-tonks at night while working blue collar jobs by day.  During World War II, he entertained troops for five years.  It was during this time that he created the character Simon Crum, a hayseed hillbilly singer.  He would go on to play that character on record and on stage for many years.

He gained prominence in the burgeoning southern California country music scene as a musician, performer, and disc jockey.  His searing guitar work, featured on the studio recordings of Tommy Collins, helped shape the Bakersfield sound that would later expand the boundaries of country music.

In addition to the Crum moniker, he also performed under the stage name Terry Preston from 1948-1953, but he went back to his birth name by the time he started having major hits for Capitol records in the early fifties.   His breakthrough hit was a duet with fellow honky-tonker Jean Shepard. Their first collaboration, “A Dear John Letter”, topped the charts in 1953.

During the fifties, Husky was remarkably prolific.   He had two separate contracts with Capitol Records, scoring hits as both Ferlin Husky and his now-classic character, Simon Crum.   He appeared on radio and television, and even had bit parts in more than a dozen films.   He scored a huge crossover pop hit with “Gone” in 1957.

The string of hits continued in the sixties, the most notable being “Wings of a Dove”, which went on to become a country gospel standard covered by countless artists.  He earned great marks as a live performer, and the comedic talents he honed as Simon Crum were also put to use through mimicking the big country stars of the day.

He was also a mentor to several important country music figures, including Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, and Dallas Frazier.  His struggling as a young artist was something he always remembered, so he made a point to give a helping hand to young talent.

His health required him to cut back on performances from the seventies onward, but when he did perform on the Opry or on the road, he remained a popular draw.  A year before his passing, he was able to see his legacy secured, as he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2010.

Essential Singles:

  • A Dear John Letter (with Jean Shepard), 1953
  • Gone, 1957
  • Country Music is Here to Stay (Simon Crum), 1958
  • Wings of a Dove, 1960
  • Once, 1967
  • Just For You, 1968

Essential Albums:

  • Songs of Home and Heart, 1956
  • Boulevard of Broken Dreams, 1957
  • Born to Lose, 1959
  • The Heart and Soul of Ferlin Husky, 1963

Next: #69. Travis Tritt

Previous: #71. Johnny Paycheck

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