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100 Greatest Men: #59. John Anderson

100 Greatest Men: The Complete List

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

100 Greatest Men: The Complete List

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

100 Greatest Men: The Complete List

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Single Review: David Nail, “The Sound of a Million Dreams”

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.

Written by Scooter Carusoe and Phil Vassar

Grade:  A

Listen:  The Sound of a Million Dreams

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Retro Single Review: George Strait, “You’re Something Special to Me”

1985 | Peak: #4

Deceptively simple.

“You’re Something Special to Me” is so laid back that it’s easy to miss the craftsmanship.  As Strait channels a young Merle Haggard, a slow western swing arrangement surrounds him with warmth.

When people say he’s country music’s Sinatra, this is what they’re talking about.

Written by David Anthony

Grade: A

Next: Nobody in His Right Mind Would’ve Left Her

Previous: The Chair

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HOUvHTnk3yQ

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Veterans Day Six Pack

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.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OQz5Ligx65A

“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.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xsHUgpSxMoI

“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.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TprfUdSAHgM

“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.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mD8bUX7wZi8

“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.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H3b1AQFsPcc

“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.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fAsU5P_NsrE

 

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Album Review: LeAnn Rimes, Lady and Gentlemen

LeAnn Rimes

Lady and Gentlemen

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.

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The 30 Day Song Challenge: Day 12

Today’s category is…

A Drinking Song

Here are the staff picks:

Tara Seetharam: “Smoke a Little Smoke” – Eric Church

I’m still digging this one – part trippy, part creepy vibe and all.

Kevin Coyne: “Misery and Gin” – Merle Haggard

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.

Leeann Ward: “Set ‘Em Up Joe” – Vern Gosdin

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.

Dan Milliken: “Tik Tok” – Ke$ha

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.

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Single Review: Emmylou Harris, “The Road”

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.

Written by Emmylou Harris

Grade: B+

Listen: The Road

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The Best Country Albums of 2010, Part 2: #10-#1

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

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