McBride has a voice that would have been as relevant in country music fifty years ago as it is today, and her album of cover songs exemplifies this. She doesn’t attempt to move any of the songs to a different level, but instead inhabits the artists’ original style with precision and spirit. The result is a pure, respectful homage to the country greats. – Tara Seetharam
Recommended Tracks: “Make The World Go Away”, “Pick Me Up On Your Way Down”
Felice Brothers, Yonder is the Clock
The Felice Brothers are the least-known among the members of ‘The Big Surprise Tour’ headlined by Old Crow Medicine Show and featuring Dave Rawlings Machine with Gillian Welch, and Justin Townes Earle. Melding country-rock and folk-rock, they are roots-influenced and made their start playing in the subway. While it may take an extremely big tent to call them “country,” consistent Dylan comparisons make Yonder is the Clock hard to ignore. – William Ward
Recommended Tracks: “Run, Chicken, Run”, “The Big Surprise”
Big & Rich, Horse of a Different Color
Big Kenny’s and John Rich’s voices and creativity blend to form a richly textured harmony that is only fully realized when they work together, as is most evident on their debut album that took country music by storm in a huge way. While their subsequent projects haven’t even come close to matching the potential of their first, Horse of A Different Coloris an album of refreshing risks and creativity that has been both embraced and criticized as a result of unique production and odd lyrical twists. Songs ranging from ridiculous to philosophical and all points inbetween make this album one of the most memorable, if not controversial, mainstream albums of the decade. – Leeann Ward
Recommended Tracks: “Holy Water”, “Live This Life”
Dierks Bentley, Long Trip Alone
Bentley takes his road theme all the way, crafting a concept album that both celebrates the loneliness of the road and mourns the resting places left behind by those who choose to stay on it. – Kevin Coyne
Recommended Tracks: “Long Trip Alone”, “The Heaven I’m Headed To”
Josh Turner, Everything is Fine
Turner’s third album is an outstanding example of a style that is deeply traditional yet still current, assured yet still vulnerable. His distinctive voice is paired with a well-crafted and charming set of songs on this album, which further solidified him as one of the genre’s leading traditionalists. – TS
Recommended Tracks: “Another Try”, “Nowhere Fast”
Reckless Kelly, Bulletproof
Country and power-pop collide in one of Texas’ most memorable albums in years. If Bulletproof has a weakness, it’s that its love songs and road anthems are all so damn hooky that the deeper material has to fight to steal your attention away. – Dan Milliken
Recommended Tracks: “American Blood”, “Mirage”
Chick Corea & Béla Fleck, The Enchantment
The Enchantment is a collaboration between jazz pianist Chick Corea and banjo virtuoso Béla Fleck. Full of soaring energy and technical prowess, The Enchantment blends the influences of both Corea and Fleck resulting in jazz compositions infused with bluegrass overtones.- WW
Recommended Tracks: “Mountain”, “Sunset Road”
James Otto, Sunset Man
On his breakthrough sophomore album, Otto’s voice is commanding and rich with soul, proving he has one of the most interesting male voices to come out of country music in the past few years. Sunset Man is a solid contemporary country album that has his voice melting just as effectively with bluesy, mid-tempo numbers as it does with muscular power ballads. – TS
Recommended Tracks: “For You”, “These Are The Good Ole Days”
Jon Randall, Walking Among the Living
Thanks to his very lucrative songwriting collaboration with Bill Anderson that resulted in a smash hit for Brad Paisley and Alison Krauss with “Whiskey Lullaby”, Jon Randall received a major label deal with Sony. Unfortunately, Randall’s only album with them was not even a blip on most people’s radars, though not due to lack of quality. Randall’s gorgeous tenor, most closely comparable to Vince Gill’s,tastefully blends with rootsy instrumentation and solid compositions to create a humble work of art. – LW
Recommended Tracks: “I Shouldn’t Do This”, “Lonely for Awhile”
Crooked Still, Shaken By a Low Sound
Crooked Still is an alternate bluegrass group led by vocalist Aoife O’Donovan. With haunting vocals and technical prowess Crooked Still pushes acoustic music in a manner similar to Nickel Creek but with a slightly more recognizable traditional bend. – WW
Recommended Tracks: “Wind and Rain”, “Little Sadie”
Ah, the naughties. The decade began and ended with pop crossover queens, with Shania Twain and Faith Hill at the top of their game in 2000 much like Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood reign supreme today. In between, we had the roots music boom, best exemplified by O Brother and the platinum-selling Nickel Creek and Alison Krauss & Union Station; the post-9/11 patriotic explosion, which brought Toby Keith and Darryl Worley to the top of the charts; the near-total banishment of women from the country radio dial for a good part of the decade, which started to fade as redneck pride ascended, thanks to a certain woman trying to make Pocahontas proud; and far too many tributes to country living and island-flavored beach bum songs to count.
All of this made for a fascinating decade to be a country fan. As radio worked its way through all of the above (with the notable exception of roots music), the internet made it far easier for acts to be discovered without ever getting a single spin of traditional radio play. With MySpace, YouTube, Facebook, and the explosion of country music blogs, the barriers have been torn down between artist and audience in a way that was never possible before.
The motley crew of Country Universe has a diversity of tastes that fit within the widest boundaries of country music, as reflected our collaborative list of the 100 best albums of the decade. Five of our writers contributed to the list, with all writer’s selections being weighed equally. We’ll reveal ten entries a day until the list is complete. A look back at the greatest singles of the decade will then follow.
The 100 Greatest Albums of the Decade, Part 1
Abigail Washburn, Song of the Traveling Daughter
Song of the Traveling Daughter is the debut album from Uncle Earl claw hammer banjo player Abigail Washburn. Produced by Béla Fleck and featuring Ben Sollee, it is a subdued album filled with intriguing instrumentation and influences. Standout songs include “Nobody’s Fault but Mine,” with its interesting Civil War period influence; the upbeat “Coffee’s Cold,” originally performed by Uncle Earl; and “Song of the Traveling Daughter,” based on the classical Chinese poem “Song of the Traveling Son.” – William Ward
Recommended Tracks: “Nobody’s Fault but Mine”, “Coffee’s Cold”
Kim Richey, Rise
Her ambitious swan song for Mercury Records was perhaps her least accessible record, with an emphasis on eclectic arrangements instead of hook-laden melodies. It’s also her most deeply rewarding record, one that is remarkably introspective and fully delves into themes of faith and mortality that her earlier work had only hinted at before. – Kevin Coyne
Recommended Tracks: “A Place Called Home”, “No Judges”
Little Big Town, The Road to Here
The quartet’s second album catapulted them to the forefront thanks to the swampy anthem, “Boondocks,” and was a breath of fresh, earthy air to mainstream country music. Packed with tight harmonies and songs ranging in style from bluegrass-leaning to Fleetwood Mac-inspired, the album served as a window into the raw talent and potential of one of the best groups to hit country music in quite some time. – Tara Seetharam
Recommended Tracks: “Boondocks”, “Live With Lonesome”
Dolly Parton, Halos & Horns
A gorgeous, gospel-heavy album, with tasteful bluegrass elements. Parton is effervescent as usual, and rid of any self-consciousness, which makes “Hello God” overwhelmingly stirring. A response to the September 11 tragedies, the song has Parton pleading and philosophically wrestling with God, in the sincerest of ways. – TS
Recommended Tracks: “Hello God”, “John Daniel”
Brad Paisley, Part II
Sometime back before the Future, before the smirking social commentary and the endless odes to his wife, Brad Paisley was just a silly little neotraditionalist writing silly little neotraditional songs about the twists of everyday life and love. Part II captures him at his most unassuming and tuneful, waxing breezily about courtships and feeling out his new place as a neotrad spokesperson with a few classic roots songs, plus a cute Bill Anderson/Chuck Cannon co-write (“Too Country”). – Dan Milliken
Recommended Tracks: “Wrapped Around”, “Come On Over Tonight”
Patty Loveless, Strong Heart
More so than any Loveless album since leaving MCA, Strong Heart draws on her pop and rock influences, with a healthy dose of Ronstadt thrown in for good measure. The contrast between her hillbilly wail and the pop-leaning arrangements of several songs manages to make her sound even more rural than she normally does. Arguably her last mainstream project, she proved that she can sound just as good chasing radio as she does ignoring it. – KC
Recommended Tracks: “The Last Thing On My Mind”, “My Heart Will Never Break This Way Again”
Sara Evans, Real Fine Place
One of the finer female vocalists in the genre, Evans is a fantastic interpreter on her fifth album, carefully treading both traditional and pop country waters. The warmth and purity to her tone is prominent on this album, and this is particularly true of the songs with more traditional arrangements, on which she shines the brightest. – TS
Recommended Tracks: “Cheatin’”, “These Four Walls”
Sarah Jarosz, Song Up in Her Head
Sarah Jarosz’ much hyped debut with Sugar Hill Records features Darrell Scott, Tim O’Brien, Jerry Douglas, Aofie O’Donavan, and Abigail Washburn. Notable tracks include “Shankill Butchers,” a Decemberists cover that outperforms the original; the progressive acoustic “Song up in Her Head,” reminiscent of Nickel Creek; and “Come on Up to the House,” an impressive Tom Waits cover. – WW
Recommended Tracks: “Shankill Butchers”, “Come On Up to the House”
Terri Clark, Pain to Kill
This album made Clark a serious contender for Female Vocalist, the only time in her career that she reached that level of success. It’s as radio-friendly as her first two albums, but the material is substantive. This is the best collection of songs that she ever assembled, and by a healthy margin. When Trisha Yearwood finds something to cover from a record, you’ve done a great job picking songs. – KC
Recommended Tracks: “I Just Called to Say Goodbye”, “Not a Bad Thing”
Dwight Yoakam, Population: Me
Genre superhero Yoakam stretched his habit of excellence into a third decade, beginning with the quirky South of Heaven, West of Hell soundtrack and continuing with this solid set. The album is notable for distilling a wide assortment of Yoakam’s mastered sounds into about half an hour, from the Eaglesy (“The Late Great Golden State”) to the Owensy (“No Such Thing”) to the Elvisy (“I’d Avoid Me Too”), all united by the singer’s uniquely buoyant brand of fatalism. – DM
Recommended Tracks: “I’d Avoid Me Too”, “The Back Of Your Hand”
Pop on those thinking caps; we’ve encountered a dilemma that Wikipedia alone cannot remedy!
See, like any warm-blooded entertainment blog, CU totally gets off on ranking stuff. So naturally, we’ve been hard at work piecing together our opinions on the decade’s finest albums and singles. The former category has proven easy enough to probe; the latter, however, presents a significant challenge, since singles that aren’t mainstream hits are often swept under the public carpet as the years go by.
I think it would be a shame to overlook some of the Aughts’ best work just because of our limited recall and research abilities, though, and I know our readers are diverse and knowledgeable enough to help us fill in the gaps. So I’m inviting everyone to name a bunch of their lesser-known favorites to help us broaden our selection pool (and have a little fun while we’re at it).
For example, my personal list would include:
Nickel Creek, “When You Come Back Down”
Dolly Parton, “Shine”
Alison Krauss & Union Station, “Restless”
Alison Krauss & James Taylor, “How’s The World Treating You”
Loretta Lynn with Jack White, “Portland, Oregon”
Old Crow Medicine Show, “Wagon Wheel”
Ryan Adams, “Let It Ride”
Pinmonkey, “That Train Don’t Run”
Randy Rogers Band, “Somebody Take Me Home”
Ashley Monroe, “Satisfied”
Bruce Robison, “All Over But the Cryin’”
Randy Travis, “Dig Two Graves”
And those are just some of the easy ones. But I’ll let y’all take over: What are some of your favorite non-hit singles from the past decade? Feel free to include anything from any classification of country – mainstream, Alt-Country/Americana, bluegrass, Texas, independent – and definitely include as many as you like, especially if you have a few that haven’t been mentioned yet. If it didn’t go Top 20 and was shipped to radio, it’s fair game!
I’ve been working my way through the Beatles Remasters that were released earlier this week, thoroughly enjoying myself in the process. As I listened to Help!, I heard Ringo Starr doing his best Buck Owens imitation as they covered “Act Naturally.”
It’s pretty darn cool that the Beatles covered Buck Owens, and plenty of country artists have returned the favor ever since. With the Beatles all over the media these days, it seems as good a time as any to look back on some of country music’s biggest and best takes on the Beatles catalog:
Rosanne Cash, “I Don’t Want to Spoil the Party” and “I’m Only Sleeping”
Cash is the only country artist to score a #1 hit with a cover of a Beatles song, as her take on the Beatles For Sale track “I Don’t Want to Spoil the Party” became her eleventh and final #1 hit in 1989. An even better listen is her take on “I’m Only Sleeping” from her Retrospective release. It doesn’t hurt that it’s a much better song than “Party”, pulled from Revolver, arguably the best album the Beatles ever made.
Nickel Creek, “Taxman”
This progressive bluegrass band sounds great on record, but you don’t really get the full experience of their talent until you’ve seen their live show. Perhaps all of those royalties from their platinum-selling debut album pushed them into a higher tax bracket, as “Taxman” - another Revolver highlight – soon became a staple of their live shows.
Emmylou Harris, “For No One” and “Here, There and Everywhere”
Her first two solo albums included one Revolver cover each. She turns “For No One” into a pensive ballad on her debut set Pieces of the Sky and gives a gorgeous rendering of “Here, There and Everywhere” on her sophomore effort Elite Hotel.
Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson, “Yesterday”
It really does sound like a Haggard and Nelson song when Haggard and Nelson do it.
Anne Murray, “You Won’t See Me”
Amazingly, John Lennon said this was the best Beatles cover he’d ever heard.
Those are some of the most notable country Beatles covers I could think of. What are your favorites? Least favorites?
Katie Cook has been a staple on Country Music Television since 2002, hosting various series and specials such as CMT Most Wanted Live, the MWL concert series, MWL Star, MWL Stacked and the popular weekly entertainment magazine show, CMT Insider.
But her experience with country music is actually three-fold: along with being embedded in the industry as a television host and interviewer, she’s also the daughter of Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame member Roger Cook, and she’s both a singer and songwriter herself – she released an album in 2000 as part of a band called Reno and continues to hone her songwriting skills. Cook took some time to share with Country Universe her opinions on the state of country music, the evolution of CMT and her recent White House visit, among other topics.
Seetharam: You’ve grown up around different cultures and lifestyles, having lived overseas in London. How has that shaped your perspective on country music?
Cook: That’s a good question. I honestly think when I was younger living in Nashville, I didn’t fully understand the appeal of country music until I moved back to England after high school. And then I moved back again in my mid 20s to work on music and I found myself missing Nashville so much, and when I really tried to become a songwriter myself, I realized how difficult it was to write a great, melodic, catchy, hooky, 3-minute song that tells a story, that can wrap an entire interesting story up and make a point in 3 minutes. It’s extraordinarily difficult and it’s something that country is known for, and I don’t feel it exists in such a powerful way in any other musical genre I’ve experienced anywhere else in the world.
I think I had to get away from Nashville and the country music scene to really look back and realize how strong the writers are here, and how incredible the players are. Because very often as a younger person in Nashville, I would listen to stuff from elsewhere. You know, I’d listen to more alternative music coming out of England and stuff, but when I really got into the music scene over there, I was like, “No one plays like they do in Nashville.” The pickers, you know, you don’t get that kind of quality anywhere in the world, I don’t think, so again I think being part of these different cultures helped me look back on Nashville and appreciate it that much more.
I have to ask about your father because he’s really a fantastic songwriter. Between him working with such high profile artists and you interviewing such high profile artists, what kind of conversations do you two have?
You know, we never talk about music. In fact, we’ve tried to write so many songs together, and I suppose we’ve completed a few, but you know, when he and I get together, it seems to turn to any other subject but music. I think because we’re so close and there’s so many other things going on in the family and with friends and stuff that the conversation always leads elsewhere.
We’re both really opinionated, and we don’t necessarily agree on everything musically either. He’ll say, “Oh, I heard this song on the radio the other day by such and such. I couldn’t stand it. I thought it was awful,” and I’m like, “Really? That’s my new favorite song.” So, we just have such different opinions that we’ve just kind of learned to keep our musical lives separate. But that’s not to say he’s not completely supportive, and he watches the shows I do, and I try to listen to all of his new songs. But for the most part, we’re just dad and daughter.
You mentioned you liked some alternative music when you were younger – it seems like your musical taste stretches across many genres, not just country music. What do you think of the current country music that’s infused with other sounds, like rock or pop?
Well, you know, there’s two sides of the argument. Some people say, “Well country’s got to move forward,” and other people would say, “Why is it changing? Keep it traditional.” I really see both sides of it. I probably prefer it when somebody has a real appreciation of traditional country and then mixes it in with things you don’t expect them to. And that can even be an artist like Beck – that doesn’t necessarily even have to be a country artist. I kind of probably lean more to liking that type of thing more than someone who’s just trying to sell me a rock song as a country song. I think that’s just…I don’t know. That’s not my favorite style. It’s almost like bad 80s rock being regurgitated and labeled country music. So you know, I don’t typically have a music collection that reflects that kind of modern country.
But I have absolutely no boundaries as an artist, as a writer, as a music lover. I mean, nothing frightens me at all about loving country music and mixing it with other things or driving it forward, in even bizarre ways. I’m like, “Bring it on!” I love music, period. I personally do really love country music because I think the playing is magnificent. I think the story telling is magnificent. I think there’s just something so romantic about unfortunately an almost lost way of life in America, and I think I’m very drawn to do that, but I wouldn’t necessarily call myself one of those people that would be guarding country against change. I don’t think I’m that person at all. In fact, I think the more people that can discover it, the better.
Absolutely. That’s my philosophy as well. What about all these female artists who are breaking barriers in country music? You’re a female musician yourself – what’s your take on them?
I think it’s fantastic. I really, really love that there are so many young females out there now that play all different kinds of instruments. You know, you’ve always had a few of those in the past, but when I was younger, you had like Sheila E. You had Joan Jett. You definitely had a few artists that played. And of course, you had Barbara Mandrell, who played everything. And she was just a hero because she literally played every instrument: drums, saxophone, keyboard, everything.
But I think more likely now, a young girl’s going to grow up and be like, “Yeah it’s just no big deal to pick up the guitar and learn how to play and write a song. Taylor Swift does it.” It’s just obviously such a more common sight now, and I just think that’s a wonderful thing. Because too often in the past a woman was just supposed to stand at the mic and look pretty. And there’s nothing wrong with that but women take to playing just as easily as men, and I think they’re going to be more encouraged now because of this young crop of lovely ladies that play and sing and write. It’s fantastic.
Let’s talk CMT a bit. Earlier in the decade, CMT played an important role in popularizing roots music, with artists like Alison Krauss and Nickel Creek. What drove that, and why do you think there’s been a shift away from that now?
Yeah. I think everything’s cyclical. Obviously at one point, that kind of sound would be all you would have heard, practically, on the Grand Ole Opry and WSM years ago. And country’s always going to shift in and out of different things. It’ll all come back around. Right now it is kind of more of a maybe rock-edged type of thing. Look at how big Gretchen Wilson was, and now, if anything, Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood kind of slid into her position, and they’re more slick in their production. It’ll come back around. You know, it always does.
One thing that I thought was so interesting – the first time I interviewed Loretta Lynn was backstage at the Opry. And we weren’t on camera, and we were just kind of chatting, and I said, “I want to know what your take is on country and where it’s going.” And she said, “Oh you know, it’s always going to be going somewhere different and that’s fine. Back in the day, everyone gave Patsy Cline so much grief for going pop.” And it was so interesting to hear her say that because I would not have labeled her a pop artist, but when I think about it, at the time, what she was doing was very pop for most country ears. And yet now we would look back and consider her such a traditional artist, and anyone who sounds like Patsy Cline now would be considered hard-core, country traditional. It’s just interesting, isn’t it? To get that different perspective.
I think it’ll all come back around. If you get too much of any one thing, you’re going to crave the other. The grass is always greener. Things are a little less acoustic right now but it’ll all come back.
That’s an interesting perspective both you and Loretta have, and I think many people would agree. But it does seem like CMT as a channel has evolved over the years into something different. There’s a little more pop culture on there now, more television shows and movies, and a little less music. Do you think it’s moving in a positive direction?
Well, yes and no. I love some of the programming, but I’m just a music person, so I’m always going to wish that there was more music. It’s very interesting what people watch, what they tune into. Because we can run music programs and get very low ratings, and then run a rerun of Nanny 911 and get massive ratings.
So, although I personally would rather see music and videos all day, I can understand some of the programming decisions because like any business, we want to stay on the air, and we want to be able to afford to do these big award shows and great big music programs like CMT Giants, that honor Alan Jackson and Reba [McEntire] and all these wonderful artists. And you can’t pay for those unless you’ve got people tuning in, and for some strange reason, people will tune in sometimes in very large numbers to programming that’s not always music-related. So, it’s a catch-22. I can see the business side of it, but I personally tune in more to the actual music programs because that’s what I’m interested in.
What’s your favorite music video of the decade? Or do you have one?
Wow. Hmm, there are so many to choose from. I tend to live very much in the moment, so usually what’s on my mind is something that I saw very recently. I can tell you one of my favorite songs of the past decade was probably Little Big Town’s “Boondocks.”
I love that song.
And I thought it was a video that perfectly matched the song. I loved the extras that they had in it. I loved the way it was cut together, the editing. I loved the scenery. I loved how cool the band looked in it. That was a favorite. Gosh, what was that other…why am I going blank…it’s because I’ve just been staining my floor and I’m probably high from the chemicals. That first really big Jason Aldean song. “Hicktown!” Jason Aldean’s “Hicktown” – that’s the one I’m thinking of. It’s kind of similar to the “Boondocks,” Little Big Town kind of vibe. I just thought they were both really fresh videos and those were probably a couple of my favorites.
Is there a single quality that you look for in a good music video?
I think because I’ve been doing TV for awhile now I really look at editing, and I look at how things time out. You know, how a cut or a certain dance moves really times out with the beat of a song. “Pickin’ Wildflowers” by Keith Anderson – that was probably one of my favorite videos of the last decade. I know I’m giving you a few instead of picking just one. I just thought it was really sexy and the way the dancers again moved with the beat. I think you can be a great video director, but a really great music video director to me needs to have a great sense of the music. They need to be really passionate about the song and really feel the beat of it and edit accordingly. That’s just something I personally really like in a song.
When you’re interviewing these artists on the red carpet or on any of the shows you host, you’re essentially a musician interviewing a musician. Does that affect the way you interview? Do you ever wish you could give advice?
Well, I wouldn’t dream of giving advice, but I do think it affects the way I interview people. If anything, it probably – I don’t know, in some way it helps. But I think it probably hinders me more because I know sometimes a question that they might not really want to answer, or something that I know they’ve probably been asked a million times, and you know, I always try to come at it with an understanding of how they might answer something. But sometimes a question just needs to be asked because it makes good television and it’s what the viewers at home want to know. But I might inside be squirming a little bit.
I can’t really think of a perfect example right now. But even something as simple as, “When you did that duet with so and so, what was it like being in the studio with them?” I know there’s a really good chance they weren’t in the studio together. Because when you live in Nashville and you work around music yourself, you have a good understanding of how these things work, and you know that schedule-wise, it’s very rare that duets even happen in the same room with people. But you know, it’s important to ask that because it’s what people at home might be wondering. So, I don’t know, I think sometimes I do see an interview slightly differently.
And I understand Dolly Parton is your favorite artist?
Oh I love her. She’s just my favorite – not just musically, but just…
Your favorite person.
Yes, favorite person to interview, definitely.
Do you have a Dolly interview or quote that stands out for you?
You know, well, yeah, I’ve got a lot. It seems like every single time I’m with her I’m like, “OK, that tops the last one.” She always says something that tops the last one.
She’s just fabulous. And hilarious.
The funniest interview, honestly, was, the very first time I ever met her. I did like a whole half-hour, sit-down live show with her called [CMT] Most Wanted Live, and before we went out, we were comparing outfits. And of course she had on a to-die-for, fabulous outfit. Oh, it was pink and yellow and princess-like and just made her look amazing. And I was kind of joking that my outfit wasn’t very interesting compared to hers, and I must have made some comment like, you know, “Maybe I need to put more of a push-up bra on. I’m going to look like a child sitting next to you.” And she laughed and she said, “Your boobs look great!”
Well later on we were sitting there in front of the audience, the whole crowd, and I think I took like an audience question about, does she ever feel sorry for flat-chested women because she’s so well-endowed or whatever. And she laughed and she said, “No we’re all beautiful,” and then she said to the audience, “Look! Look at her boobs! Don’t you think they’re great?” – pointing to me. “Don’t you think she has lovely boobs?” And you know I just absolutely went bright red.
Oh I was fanning myself. I broke a sweat. I was laughing so hard. I could not believe I was on camera with Dolly Parton and she’s commenting on my boobs. It was just one of the funniest moments in my life. I’m not sure anything’s ever going to top Dolly Parton complimenting me on my chest (laughs).
Dolly is clearly a hold-nothing-back kind of person, but have you ever interviewed an artist who you think is misunderstood by the public? Maybe you got a different perspective when you met him or her in person?
Yeah. There are certain artists that I can tell are a little bit shy. I mean, obviously Alan Jackson, Billy Currington – some of the guys are really, painfully shy, and they get on camera and they’re just quiet and, you know, they seem very unsure of themselves. And then the minute the camera goes off, you can have the most normal conversation with them. And I always think, “Oh why can’t you do that when the little red light comes on?” So yeah, there’s definitely artists that seem very different off camera, and I wonder if their real personality comes across, but you know what? They’re doing well and they have fans, so evidently people do understand them. But yeah, some of those shy guys are the ones that really wear me out. I’m like, “Come on, loosen up!”
Shifting gears a little, you were recently at the White House for “An Evening of Country Music.” That must have been an amazing experience. What was it like?
Yeah! It was incredible. It was really exciting to see an entire day at the White House devoted to country music. Brad Paisley and Alison Krauss and Charley Pride were there – all great ambassadors for country music. To actually be in that ballroom and see the President get up and give a wonderful introduction to these country artists and talk about country, and how it’s such an important part of American culture was, you know – I really got the chills. It was a wonderful moment. I don’t know if I’ll ever get to go back to the White House, so I really was kind of absorbing it all.
We got to see the press room, which was tiny. And it’s so interesting because, you know, you see something on television and then you see it in person, how different it is. And we were at the back of the room, so when the show was over, we were actually the first to walk out, and they led us down a hallway and then just kind of left us on our own to find our way out. And I was like, “We’ve been let loose in the White House!”
That’s not something you can say every day!
It was incredible. We weren’t really let loose, of course. It was all under very controlled supervision, but it felt like we were running goofy and loose in the White House, and that was very exciting. But yeah, it was a very proud moment for country.
Did you get to interact at all with the President?
I didn’t get to hang out with Obama and Michelle and the girls, but I did get to see the First Dog. One of the White House workers, I guess — I don’t know what the right term would be– but somebody was walking the dog, and he’s beautiful. He’s big. For some reason I thought he was still a little puppy. But he’s quite large and he’s a good-looking dog. He’s got quite a yard to roam around in.
I hear you’re an expert tweeter – or rather, I see you’re an expert tweeter. What do you enjoy about twitter?
Well I’m actually fairly new to it. I like getting to know people. I like getting very kind of down-to-earth questions from people, and I think what I find refreshing is that I assume the only reason anybody would want to talk to me or hear from me is to get like country music gossip, and that actually doesn’t seem to be the case. A lot of people are like, “Where do you like to eat? How old’s your kid now? Do you like being a mother?”
More personal questions.
Yeah. It seems like people just are more curious about who you really are as a person, and I find that really refreshing. I go to work and put on the false eyelashes and do my hair all fancy and put on the nice outfits and everything, but when I come home, I’m just like anybody else. I’m sitting around in my Old Navy sweats and eating something I shouldn’t be eating and prying my eyeballs on the computer. And we’re all kind of the same when we just get into that mode, and I just like connecting with people on that really normal level. That’s a lot of fun for me.
Do you tweet at other artists? Or mostly fans?
You know, I don’t know who all these people are that read it. I just kind of get on there and send a message out and wonder where it goes. It goes into cyberspace and I don’t really know who’s reading it but people keep signing on, so I guess I’m doing something right.
When you’re not tweeting, what are some of the projects you’re working on that you’re excited about?
Well I have a children’s book called “Little Big Benny,” and that has recently been edited. I kind of have it out with a lot of kids right now. A lot of kids are reading it and giving me their feedback. I’m trying to really nail down exactly what age group it’s for. I’m really hoping by the end of the year to be shopping that around to publishers. So that’s taking up a lot of free time.
I’m a mother and that’s an ongoing project right there. She’s going to be three in a couple of weeks. And we decided to do our kitchen. We just ripped our whole kitchen from the 40s out, which was actually kind of cool looking but had absolutely no storage or work space. So we just completely gutted the middle of our house and decided to pretty much do it ourselves so that we could save money, and at this point I think I maybe would rather just be in debt (laughs).
That sounds extremely chaotic.
It’s been really chaotic. I’ve been making meals in a toaster oven for almost six months. But you know, there are some people in the world who don’t even have a toaster oven, so I’m not going to complain.
But there’s always other stuff going on. I’m always writing. I’m always working on creative stuff. I’m hoping to launch a T-shirt campaign –I’m not going to say anymore about it– but I’m hoping to have something really fun available in the next month. Very creative T-shirt thing. So yeah I’m kind of – I consider myself a creative person. I’m not happy unless I’m working on something. So I never really have a day off, but that’s just the way I like it.
As April is one of the odd months that has five Wednesdays, I thought I'd take a break from Country Quizzin' for this week and try out a new discussion-thing.
Given the current mainstream climate, it's been a while since I've felt able to heap unfettered praise on a piece of country music here, and that frankly bums me out a bit. So in the spirit of un-bumming, I'm going to share ten country songs from the 70's on that I find absolutely flawless – my “Perfect 10″ – and I invite you to do the same. It's a simple enough concept – you could just think of it as Recommend a Track times 10 plus a punny name.
Still, I suspect the outcome could be really interesting if everybody puts in the effort to pick ten songs that they consider the absolute cream of the crop. We're talking all-time best material here, whatever “all-time” happens to mean to you. You don't have to rank them, and they don't have to be your definitive top ten; I sure wouldn't be able to produce that list without a lot more thought. They just have to be up there – the kind of songs that you love fully and deeply, that still engage and surprise you after countless listens.
Most of the ten I've picked below are pretty well-known. Feel free to go as popular or as obscure as you like – great music is great music!
In chronological order:
Bobbie Gentry, “Ode to Billie Joe”
I've never heard anything else like this. Even if you ignore the compelling Southern Gothic mystery the song serves up in just over four minutes, there's so much magic in the writing itself. The intense attention to detail doesn't just paint a vivid picture; it serves an actual literary kind of purpose, illustrating the insensitivity of the narrator's family. I miss songs with subtexts.
Loretta Lynn, “Fist City”
“Fist City” is in the inner circle of big Loretta hits, but it usually has its spotlight stolen by more topically revolutionary numbers like “Don't Come Home A Drinkin'” or “The Pill.” But no longer! This saucy prelude to a catfight could be her most tightly-written anthem ever, with a killer hook and excellent one-liners all around. “The man I love, when he picks up trash, he puts it in a garbage can. And that's what you look like to me.” Damn!
John Denver, “Take Me Home, Country Roads”
Call it musical comfort food. Denver's stuff was never good for extremists: the hardcore folkies found it too simplistic and starry-eyed to be intellectually palatable, while the hardcore country fans found it too poppy to have any hillbilly integrity. If you ask me, those arguments were more about context than substance. This single seamlessly blends its folk, pop and country sensibilities, and Denver's soaring voice can sell this kind of romanticized lyric all day.
Jerry Jeff Walker, “Gettin' By”
Another helping of comfort food. This here's a take-it-easy anthem with a similar vibe to “Don't Worry, Be Happy,” but with less potential to annoy you.
Merle Haggard, “If We Make It Through December”
The kind of understated song that speaks for itself and doesn't try to sound more important than it really is, which is charming, since this song's sentiment is actually more significant than a lot of songs which employ a more dramatic approach. Haggard's writing here is also proof that specificity of storytelling often makes a song that much more relatable.
Alabama, “Dixieland Delight”
What can I say; I love the feel-good anthems. I have to admit that I mostly included this because I wanted to give the 80's at least one song and it was the first thing that came to mind, so it may be a tier lower than some of the others in terms of my love. But I don't think these guys get enough credit for the legitimately good country-rock stuff they did.
Mary Chapin Carpenter, “Why Walk When You Can Fly”
Easily the most obscure thing on this list, this gorgeous album opener
was released as a single and peaked at #45. I first heard this while driving to Kroger at night and just about pulled over so I could listen properly.
Dixie Chicks, “Long Time Gone”
If there is any justice whatsoever in the country music world, historians will remind the public hung up on “the incident” that the Chicks also produced some of the best singles of their time, especially with this Darrell Scott-penned beaut. What a masterwork.
Josh Turner, “Long Black Train”
I reached a point in life last year where my religious beliefs just seemed to fall out from underneath me, and I've been pretty much undecided on that front since. Incredibly, it's only made me appreciate Turner's spiritual beckon even more, which is a testament, I think, to how substantially it presents its point-of-view. And gosh, does it ever sound good. Josh oughta crack open that Hank Williams box set more often.
Nickel Creek, “This Side”
This was one of the key songs that hooked me for good into country music, so I had to include it. The writing is more abstract pop-rock than anything else, but the pulsating instrumentation is so sweet that you're a fool if you care one way or the other. Listen to this with a good pair of headphones and hear the world unfold.
, I’ve been thinking about how much musical tastes change over time. Musically, it is fair to say that we started pretty far apart, but over five years our musical preferences have both moved and expanded significantly.
Tracing the progression of my musical inclinations even farther, it seems that the expansion of my tastes was much different than others in my family. For instance, my grandparents listened to country music. When my father was born the Grand Ole Opry was a staple in his home and he listened to country music all of his life. As a result, I was exposed to country music by my father, but quickly declared my independence when I purchase the first album my parents considered noise.
The first albums I ever purchased, a little over a week past my thirteenth birthday, were Use Your Illusion I and II. From there the map of my musical “phases” was pretty easy to follow when you look at a chronological list of my favorite albums:
Guns and Roses, Appetite for Destruction
Dr. Dre, The Chronic
Pearl Jam, Ten
Nirvana, MTV Unplugged in New York
Nickel Creek, This Side
Smashing Pumpkins, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness
Johnny Cash, At Folsom Prison
Alice in Chains, Unplugged
Nickel Creek, Why Should the Fire Die
Currently the amount of music I listen to has made it more difficult to pick only a few favorite albums. Even the above list, in reality, started to overlap by the time I was listening to Nickel Creek. In fact, everything listed above (with the exception of Dr. Dre, though he still holds certain nostalgia) is currently on my Ipod, and I would be hard pressed to make a comprehensive list of favorite albums that didn’t include half those albums.
Today I might add to the list (though tomorrow the list might change):
Crooked Still, Shaken by a Low Sound
Kasey Chambers and Shane Nicholson, Rattlin’ Bones
The Be Good Tanyas, Blue Horse
Willie Nelson, Red Headed Stranger
Neil Young, Greatest Hits
Patty Loveless, Mountain Soul
Gillian Welch, Hell Among the Yearlings White Stripes, Elephant
My father would be happy to see that I’ve come around to country music.
Since the announcement of the “indefinite hiatus” of progressive acoustic darlings Nickel Creek, despite a history of diverging solo work, releases from Chris Thile and Sean Watkins have been shackled by expectations of a Creek-like sound. Much like releases from her former band mates, Sara Watkins’ self-titled debut is not a surrogate Nickel creek album. Instead, it is an album that is purely individual, combining the talent that we have already witnessed with more than a few surprises.
Opening with “All this Time,” a rolling country tune driven by pedal steel and the familial blending of Sean Watkins on background vocals, we are treated to a contemporary cut that draws heavily on traditional country sounds. Other successful uses of pedal steel include a smoky rendition of Tom Waits’ “Pony,” and “Any Old Time,” a Jimmie Rodgers song, performed as western swing.
Produced by John Paul Jones, the album continues with a collection, which while grounded in bluegrass and country, is as complex and eclectic as the guests that play on it. Among the artists making appearances are bluegrass artists Rayna Gellert, Ronnie McCoury, Tim O’Brien, and Chris Eldridge; Americana artist Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings; and former Nickel Creek band mates Chris Thile and Sean Watkins.
Through covers and original songs, with the exception of the overly slick “Too Much,” each song easily meshes with the next despite its range. There is the hauntingly elegant “Bygones,” with its genre-bending beauty; the energetic “Long Hot Summer Days,” a melding of blues, folk, and bluegrass; and the subtly presented “Give me Jesus,” a traditional song arranged by Sara and Chris Thile. While Watkins was not a major writing contributor to Nickel Creek, she is the sole writer of six of the fourteen tracks for this project.
The album also includes two instrumental tracks. “Freiderick,” as well as “Jefferson,” the former co-written by the two Watkinses and the latter composed by Sara alone, are capable instrumentals with a heavy Celtic influence. It should be noted that the mandolin on both tracks is played by Ronnie McCoury, avoiding a Nickel Creek reunion that—while intriguing–no doubt would have only distracted from the album.
Sara Watkins’ debut is new and refreshing; it is a blending of retro flavors that remains contemporary, while avoiding the manufactured nostalgia that so often creeps into both Nashville and alt-country music.
Earlier this month, my friend and colleague Leeann Ward shared her favorite songs by Dolly Parton. I’m happy to now share mine.
My respect for Parton as an artist knows no bounds. I don’t think there is another figure in country music that is visible in so many of the contours of the genre’s history. Given that I have a taste for country, pop, bluegrass, and damn fine songwriting, it was no small feat picking just twenty-five songs. This is just a sampling of her deep catalog, one that is long overdue to be fully reissued. Some of these tracks are hard to find, but most can be downloaded digitally or purchased on CDs, though you may need to scour compilations to find them.
“Those Were the Days” Those Were the Days, 2005
The title track from Parton’s third collection of cover songs is all bittersweet nostalgia, looking back on the dreams of youth that time has revealed to be wide-eyed. “We’re older but no wiser,” she tells her old friend at the tavern, as she remembers how they thought life would really go: “We’d live the life we choose, we’d fight and never lose, those were the days, oh yes, those were the days.”
“Change” Something Special, 1995
How does one retain the last shreds of their dignity and hope for the future after a particularly bruising relationship? Walk away, and promise not to come back until all of the wounds have healed. “Someday when I’m over you, and when I think I’m able to, then I might try to be your friend again. But I don’t want to see your face until then.”
“Here You Come Again” Here You Come Again, 1977
Parton was so concerned about this song being used as evidence that she was leaving country that she made the producers add a steel guitar to the track. Not that it really mattered. A song this catchy was bound to conquer both the pop and country charts. Known up until then for her country work, she proved she could handle a pure pop melody as good as anyone else.
For a look back at the other major categories, visit our CMA Awards page.
Zac Brown Band
Usually there isn’t this much turnover in this race unless most of last year’s nominees are ineligible. This year, only one of the four eligible nominees from last year – Zac Brown Band – earns a nomination. With their massive success and their multiple nominations, they’ve got an excellent shot at winning. Then again, Easton Corbin is elsewhere on the ballot, too. It could be a horse race. 2009
Zac Brown Band
Thirteen years after winning the Best New Artist Grammy as part of Hootie & The Blowfish, Darius Rucker won the country music equivalent, adding an exclamation point to the most successful pop-to-country crossover in a generation.
The industry favorites Lady Antebellum became the fourth band in history to win this award, following Rascal Flatts, Dixie Chicks and Sawyer Brown.
Little Big Town
In the year since winning the Horizon Award, Swift has solidified her position as the genre’s most successful rising star. While her debut album hasn’t reached the sales heights of the first discs by previous winners Carire Underwood and Gretchen Wilson, Swift is still one of the genre’s only significant sellers.
Little Big Town
I had a sneaking suspicion that Josh Turner was going to take this home, but as I’ve said before, Carrie’s got the best pipes since Trisha Yearwood. That she’ was acknowledged for that at such an early stage of her career is pretty amazing. Somehow I think the thrill of winning Horizon was short-lived, as winning Female Vocalist the same night left that memory in the dust.
Big & Rich
Four of these five were nominees again the following year, and all in categories besides just Horizon, though Lambert got another shot at that as well.I think Big & Rich and Sugarland are making the most interesting music, and they’re moving more units than Bentley, though he’s no slouch himself.The CMA showed good judgment this year.