There’s certainly nothing wrong with a good sexy country song, as such have a storied history in the genre. But there is something to be said for subtlety. The best attempts are often lightly clever, emotionally raw, or perhaps delivered with the tongue planted firmly in the cheek.
Everything about “She Cranks My Tractor” practically beats the listener over the head, from the pounding bass to the T.M.I. lyrics. It’s like three minutes of Lynch bellowing “Yee haw! Farm sex!!!” The titular metaphor feels corny and tacky (Can you imagine playing this in front of your non-country-fan peers?), and the lyrics lay on the details so thick as to make the listener feel voyeuristic. It’s
Pam Tillis & Lorrie Morgan
Grits & Glamour Tour
Southern Kentucky Performing Arts Center
Bowling Green, Kentucky
October 13, 2012
This past Saturday night, I had the immense pleasure of seeing two favorite artists of mine – contemporary country legends Pam Tillis and Lorrie Morgan – perform live in concert at the newly completed Southern Kentucky Performing Arts Center (SKyPAC) in Bowling Green, Kentucky. The SKyPAC is a beautifully decorated 1800-seat venue with excellent acoustics, thus providing an ideal atmosphere for Tillis and Morgan’s fantastic Grits & Glamour show.
The Grits & Glamour tour is all about the fans, and all about great music. No unnecessary gimmicks, bells, or whistles – just Tillis and Morgan singing their hearts out, joined by a small four-piece band. Both ladies were in fine voice, boasting some absolutely gorgeous harmonies, as they performed together backed by fiddle, bass, guitar, and keyboard. Such simplicity created a warm, laid-back, almost familial environment as Tillis and Morgan treated the eager crowd to a selection of best-loved tunes, all the while cutting up like one would expect from a couple of longtime girlfriends, and sharing often-humorous personal anecdotes – such as Tillis’ account of being mistaken for Patty Loveless at a Waffle House, by a fan from Knockemstiff, Ohio. (Google it – It’s a real place)
a selection of well-known hits from both artists, finished off with covers of classic songs that are close to their hearts, as well as some more recent cuts. The two opened the show with a lovely duet version of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now.” From that point onward, they alternated between performing Morgan’s hits and Tillis’ hits, beginning with Morgan’s “Watch Me” (performed in a fierce fiddle-laden arrangement quite different from the relative slickness of the 1992 hit version) and Tillis’ “Shake the Sugar Tree.” Obviously, both ladies have had more than enough hits to fill up an entire set list (Tillis has had 13 Top 10 country hits; Morgan has had 14), but Tillis and Morgan did a fine job covering the main highlights of their careers, such that virtually any audience member could enjoy the thrill of hearing something familiar. Though the hits dominated the set list, Tillis and Morgan also performed standout cuts from each of their most recent albums. Tillis performed “Train Without a Whistle” from her 2007 career-best effort Rhinestoned, while Morgan gave a heartrending performance of “How Does It Feel” from 2010’s I Walk Alone.
A major facet of what makes Grits & Glamour such a broadly enjoyable show is the way its two headliners simply exude genuine love for great country music new and old. They commented on the increased scarcity of “real” country music in modern times, but Tillis nonetheless assured the audience that “We got it all – fiddles, steel guitar, mandolins – and we ain’t ever lettin’ go of it!” Both ladies shared a common experience of growing up with the musical heritage of a famous parent – an experience they recollected with fond enthusiasm - being the daughters of singer-songwriter legend Mel Tillis, and of late Opry star George Morgan, respectively. One of the night’s most memorable moments was a heartfelt tribute to Tillis and Morgan’s famous fathers, as they eased into a medley of George Morgan’s 1949 signature “Candy Kisses” and Mel Tillis’ classic composition “Burning Memories,” a hit first for Ray Price in 1964, and then for Mel Tillis himself in 1977. In addition, the ladies also lovingly covered classics such as Skeeter Davis’ “The End of the World” and Roger Miller’s “King of the Road.”
As the show neared its end, Tillis and Morgan were met with the loudest applause of the night as they treated the audience to performances of their respective signature classics – Tillis’ “Maybe It Was Memphis,” and Morgan’s “Something In Red.” They then rose to their feet for an inspired performance of gospel song “Jesus On the Line.” After an encore, they returned to the stage to perform brief snippets of Morgan’s 1993 number one “What Part of No” and Tillis’ 1990 debut hit “Don’t Tell Me What to Do.” Then came one of the biggest highlights of the evening as the two closed out the show by tearing into the rousing up-tempo number “I Know What You Did Last Night” – a new song which is to appear on Pam Tillis and Lorrie Morgan’s forthcoming Grits & Glamour duets record. After the show ended, Tillis and Morgan headed out to the atrium to sign autographs for a crowd of enthusiastic concertgoers.
Needless to say, the Grits & Glamour concert experience was more than enough to whet one’s appetite for the ladies’ soon-to-be-completed duet effort. The unique chemistry shared between the two outstanding talents was on full display throughout the evening. If you have the opportunity to catch any of Pam Tillis and Lorrie Morgan’s future shows on the Grits & Glamour tour, you will be in for a real country music treat.
“Both Sides Now”
“Shake the Sugar Tree”
“Except for Monday”
“Cleopatra, Queen of Denial”
“A Picture of Me (Without You)”
“Train Without a Whistle”
Medley: “Candy Kisses”/ “Burning Memories”
“The End of the World”
“Mi Vida Loca (My Crazy Life)”
“How Does It Feel”
“King of the Road”
“I Guess You Had to Be There”
“Maybe It Was Memphis”
“Something In Red”
“Jesus On the Line”
“What Part of No”
“Don’t Tell Me What to Do”
“I Know What You Did Last Night”
her taste in material and I thought the production of her records was impeccable.
But on those early hits like “The Fool” and “A Little Past Little Rock”, I always had the nagging feeling that the songs would’ve been better if they’d been recorded by Pam Tillis, who has a similar vocal style but more power and range.
Over time, Womack perfected her vocal technique and created her own distinctive style, one that is best showcased by simple arrangements and tasteful restraint. The power of later hits like “I May Hate Myself in the Morning” and “Last Call” comes from her ability to accentuate an understated vocal will little punches of twang and power that create a dramatic effect.
So now, fifteen years after Womack first surfaced, I find myself listening to the new single by Joanna Smith and wishing it was being sung by Lee Ann Womack. Smith’s got a great song, and she sings it well, following Patty Loveless’ golden rule: “Don’t get in the way of the song.”
But she stays out of the way of the song just a little too much, and there aren’t enough moments of twang or power to make the record interesting. I still hope it gets a shot at radio, as it would be the best breakthrough single for a new female artist in a good long while. I want to hear more from Smith, so I can hear more of Smith as she hones her style over time.
Written by Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally, and Shelley Skidmore
A comedic flair, a speech impediment, and a famous daughter have often overshadowed the fact that Mel Tillis is one of the finest songwriters and performers in the history of country music.
Tillis hailed from Tampa, Florida, and he discovered music at a young age, playing guitar and singing songs at local talent shows. Though he had a severe stutter from age three, the impediment disappeared when he sang. Tillis entered the military, and while stationed in Japan, formed a band called the Westerners. Once back stateside, he moved to Nashville to jump-start his songwriting career, alternating between Tennessee and Florida until the hits started coming in.
From 1957 to the end of the sixties, Tillis would record for major labels and score a handful of hits, but he had a far bigger impact as a songwriter. He wrote hits that are now standards, recorded by legends like Webb Pierce (“I Ain’t Never, “No Love Have I”), Bobby Bare (“Detroit City”), Ray Price (“Heart Over Mind”, “Burning Memories”) and Kenny Rogers and the First Edition (“Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town.”)
However, once the seventies arrived, Tillis became a major presence on country radio, scoring dozens of hits, many of which were his own recordings of his compositions that had been hits for other artists in the sixties. In 1976, he was named CMA’s Entertainer of the Year, the same year he was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. Tillis’ comedic talents made him an in-demand performer, and he was a fixture on both network and syndicated television shows during the peak years of his career. He also appeared in several movies, with Smokey and the Bandit II and Cannonball Run being the most successful.
As with many of his contemporaries, the hits slowed down
in the eighties, even though other artists continued to score hits with his material, most notably Ricky Skaggs’ chart-topping recording of “Honey (Open That Door)” in 1984. He purchased radio stations that he later sold for a big profit, and he became one of the most popular draws in Branson, Missouri, where his theater was a cornerstone for tourist entertainment.
In recent years, Tillis has frequently collaborated with his daughter Pam Tillis, making appearances on her albums and co-headlining a popular Christmas show at Opryland. Tillis was inducted into the Grand Ole Opry in 2007, and elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame that same year. In 2010, he released his first comedy album, You Ain’t Gonna Believe This…, on Show Dog Records.
Back in the early nineties, CMT used to run videos 24/7. It was very predictable. Three videos, commercial break. Three more videos, commercial break.
Occasionally, they’d do a “Triple Take”, where they’d play three videos in a row by the same artist. It was a good way to discover an artist’s catalog. I didn’t know “Don’t Tell Me What to Do” existed until CMT did a Triple Take for Pam Tillis, who I’d first noticed with the ridiculous video for “Put Yourself in My Place” and fell in love with when she released “Maybe it was Memphis.”
When it was an older artist like Alabama or Reba McEntire, Triple Takes could feature any number of videos stretching back several years. But even back then, George Strait loathed making videos, and
he had only three of them in rotation by the summer of 1992, when I spent hours on end watching CMT.
The end result? I saw the video for “Baby’s Gotten Good at Goodbye” at least a hundred times, making it a far bigger classic in my mind than it would be if my primary exposure to country music had been through radio instead of video.
This single is so closely associated with my discovery of George Strait’s music and country music as a whole that I can’t separate the experience enough to give “Baby’s Gotten Good at Goodbye” an objective evaluation. It was my first favorite song by one of my most favorite artists, and the only one of his that I can’t listen to without picturing every frame of the video.
Seriously. The girl with the bad eighties perm is always carrying that saddle and counting her pawn shop money in my head, every single time I listen to the record. Which is something I still do quite often, because it’s awesome.
Since bringing back Recommend a Track proved so popular, I’m resurrecting another CU oldie but goodie: the iPod check.
I’ve only recently discovered the Most Played feature on iTunes, since it never had any relevance until iPods were large enough in memory to sync all of my music. So going back to early 2011, I have a lengthy list of the songs I’ve played the most.
So today’s iP0d check: List your most-played song from twenty different country artists.
You can access this info by going to your own Most Played list and adjusting the number of songs on it – I use 500 for mine – or you can just go to Music and sort by number of plays. Or you can just pick twenty artists at random and list your most played song for each. We’re easy here. (This would also work in Spotify, from what I hear.)
Alan Jackson – So You Don’t Have to Love Me Anymore (40)
Crystal Gayle – Why Have Your Left the One You Left Me For (39)
George Strait – Meanwhile (39)
Lee Ann Womack – I May Hate Myself in the Morning (39)
Aaron Tippin – Whole Lotta Love on the Line (38)
I’m surprised that some of my most played artists overall, like Dolly Parton, Randy Travis, and Tim McGraw, don’t have that one big song that I play excessively. Also, at least half of the songs above aren’t what I would call my favorite song by the given artist. How about you?
A musical pairing that combines two of the most beautifully understated, comforting voices in country music. How could it not be good? Happily, songwriters John Ramey, Bobby Taylor, and Doug Gill turn out a fine piece of hillbilly poetry worthy of both talents.
“I Just Come Here For the Music,” from Williams excellent new album And So It Goes, is laced with simple, easily envisioned details that practically place the listener right in the midst of that smoky barroom as the scene plays out before the eyes. Williams narrates the story of a man who has recently seen a longtime relationship come to an end, and is tentatively beginning to feel out new romantic prospects. It’s a character that he inhabits with authority as well as the same quiet sincerity that has long characterized his musical persona.
The woman in the story is no less vividly drawn. She “doesn’t mean to be so cold” in receiving such attention, but like the protagonist in Pam Tillis’ “In Between Dances,” she is clearly recovering from a heartbreak of her own, and buy steroids in usa is not yet prepared to take a step that could potentially lead to further hurt. Upon the woman’s being asked to dance, the line “Lord knows her body’s willing, but her heart can’t take that chance” is as fine and concise a description of such a pivotal emotional point as I’ve ever heard in a country lyric.
Though the second chorus finds the woman beginning to gradually lower her guard, the story ends on an unresolved note. Do the two ever get together? We are left the guess the outcome. Ultimately, the story doesn’t need to be given a fully resolved happy ending. Its true value is in its presentation of a simple yet colorful snapshot of the point at which its two characters begin taking the first steps in their healing journey – an experience which many a listener can relate to.
How refreshing it is to hear a record characterized by such pure, elegant simplicity. There are no cheesy pick-up lines, no gimmicks, and no condescending cliché stereotypes – just naked honesty and sincerity, making “I Just Come Here For the Music” a beautiful example of country storytelling at its finest.
Written by John Ramey, Bobby Taylor, and Doug Gill
You know what's one of the best ways for a contemporary country song to worm its way into my heart? To display a mature and insightful perspective, or to tap into some universal truth, while dressing itself up with the catchiest of melodies and hooks.
That particular sweet spot is one that the female artists in country music tend to hit more often than the males – See “Deep Down,”“Hey Cinderella,” and “The Fear of Being Alone” for case studies. However, Tim McGraw's 1999 chart-topper “Something Like That” hits it, and hits it dead-on.
The song recounts the narrator's youthful experience of falling in love for the very first time at age seventeen. The verses are replete with little details – a barbecue stain, a miniskirt, a suntan line, etc. Such details may seem to have little meaning, but in this particular context, they mean everything. In the second verse, the narrator has a chance encounter with his old flame while traveling on a plane, where she says “I bet you don't remember me, to which he replies “Only every other memory,” thus assuring her that she is hardly forgotten. “Like an old photograph, time can make a feeling fade,” he sings during the bridge, “but the memory of a first love never fades away.”
Through its vivid, detail-laden approach, the lyric effectively hones in on the fact that the experience of one's first love is, in itself, unforgettable. Every little aspect of the encounter feels significant in its own way, because it's a lifetime milestone that leaves a lasting impression. Indeed, “a heart don't forget something like that.”
The point is driven home by a sprightly piano hook, toe-tapping rhythm, and wildly catchy singalong-friendly chorus – a one-two punch that helps the record make an impression both as a great lyric and as a fun, catchy listen.
Lately, I’ve been playing “Deep Down” on a loop, and it got me thinking…
What if one of the big female artists of 2011 were the first to release this song?
If Carrie Underwood recorded it in 2011, the song would be praised as one of the best she’s ever recorded, but she’d be criticized for over-singing and over-producing it.
If Taylor Swift recorded it in 2011, the song would be praised as one of the best she’s ever recorded, but she’d be criticized for missing every other note, even with the help of auto-tune.
If Miranda Lambert recorded it in 2011, the song would be praised as one of the best she’s ever recorded, and further evidence that she’s the messiah of contemporary country music, regardless of how she sang or produced it.
But alas, Pam Tillis recorded it in 1995, and the song went largely unnoticed, because a great song with a great vocal performance and a great production was expected, not special, coming from her.
Perhaps the best way to listen to country music in 2011 is not to listen to anything else in the genre’s history. That way the illusion that there is some great contemporary country music out there can be preserved.
Cover songs can be a hot topic at just about any given time. We recently got to hear a somewhat underwhelming OneRepublic cover by Faith Hill, which Kevin recently reviewed. Other recent attempts include Sara Evans’ pop-country reworking of Rod Stewart’s “My Heart Can’t Tell You No,” as well as last year’s polarizing Beyoncé cover by Reba McEntire.
Since cover songs are so much fun to talk about, I thought I’d weigh in on a few well-known cover songs from the past few years – the good ones, as well as a few that we would rather forget. My criteria is simple: A good cover song should bring something new to the table, and the song should be treated in a way that is well-suited to the artist as well as the genre. This list focuses specifically on country covers of non-country songs.
Click the original artists’ names in parentheses to hear the original versions.
Rosanne Cash, “I Don’t Want to Spoil the Party” (The Beatles)
1989 | #1
Where it goes right: Rosanne’s last career hit was a cover from a Beatles tribute album, and it didn’t sound quite like one might expect. Though rarely one to use overt country instrumentation throughout most of her career, she delivers a brisk, upbeat take that’s layered in fiddling. I’ll take it!
Mark Chesnutt, “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” (Aerosmith)
1998 | #1
Where it goes wrong: It’s hard to imagine a worse pairing between song and performer. Mark Chesnutt, the revered neotraditionalist behind “Too Cold at Home” and “Going Through the Big D” covering a rock power ballad? It’s true – complete with apologetic steel guitar fills and a vocal smothered in autotune. The end result is so cheesy that you might as well slap it between two crackers. The fact that this is the top Mark Chesnutt iTunes download is very very sad.
Where it goes right: The Chicks give a well-known Fleetwood Mac favorite a stripped-down bluegrass treatment, which is a great fit for the nature-related imagery in the song’s lyrics. The Chicks elevate the song further with their gorgeous harmonies. As much as I love Fleetwood Mac, I have to say that this version tops the original. It’s one of the best cover songs I’ve ever heard, and one of the Dixie Chicks’ personal best moments, of which there have been many.
Sara Evans, “I Could Not Ask for More” (Edwin McCain)
2001 | #2
Where it goes right: Evans delivers a stunning and powerful vocal performance that holds nothing back whatsoever.
Where it goes wrong: The arrangement is a bit syrupy, and it’s essentially a pop cover of a pop song. Is a little fiddle or steel too much to ask for?
Where it goes right: The fact that Hill was unfamiliar with the Franklin and Joplin versions is telling. You can easily tell that she is making no attempt to emulate the style of another artist, instead giving a performance totally her own, while the songs’s melody fits well with the countrified arrangement.
Where it goes wrong: Again, the fact that Hill was unfamiliar with the previous versions is telling. Her performance lacks the fire and fury of Joplin’s version, which makes it easy to see why one might consider Hill’s performance to be a bit too sugary.
Alison Krauss, “Baby, Now That I’ve Found You” (The Foundations)
1995 | #49
Where it goes right: Krauss takes a forgettable Motown tune, and delivers a slowed-down mid-tempo version that much more deeply accentuates the emotions conveyed in the lyrics. In contrast, the original sounded like one big party, which is an ill-fitting treatment of a song about trying to stop one’s lover from leaving. The track is made all the more sweeter by Kruass’ angelic vocals, and by the expert instrumental backup of Union Station. The song went on to win Krauss a well-deserved Grammy for Best Female Country Vocal Performance.
Where it goes right: It’s extremely effective as a reinterpretation, as McEntire slows the song down to an emotional ballad, and tweaks the lyrics to fit her feminine perspective. Did I mention that she also gives a mighty fine vocal performance?
Where it goes wrong: The production is a bit watered-down, which was not unusual for Reba’s late eighties and early nineties output.
Where it goes right: Tillis could hardly have chosen a better song to countrify, as the lyric about a nervous encounter with an old flame fits right in with classic country music. She even tweaked the instrumental opening so as to be better suited for the steel guitar, which demonstrates her strong commitment to the country genre.
Travis Tritt, “Take It Easy” (The Eagles)
1994 | #21
Where it goes right: The Eagles were about the countriest rock band you’d ever meet, and did a great deal to influence the evolution of country sounds and styles, so they were a fitting candidate for an all-country tribute album. The centerpiece of the collection was honky-tonker Travis Tritt’s version of “Take It Easy” – an energetic performance that had even more body than the original, but that still felt reverent toward the legendary group’s classic version.
Where it goes wrong: To put it simply… reinterpreting a song does not mean simply “adding a banjo line.” The fact that Hall and Oates even sing background vocals on this track only adds to the overall feeling of pointlessness.
Where it goes wrong: If it made for an awfully cheesy pop song in the hands of Brian McKnight, it made a flat-out terrible country song when Mark Wills covered it a mere two months after the release of the McKnight version. It’s a record characterized by superfluous genre-pandering steel guitar fills, and a lead vocal that sounds more occupied with grooving to the beat than making any sort of emotional connection. The song peaked at #2, and then Wills tackled a Brandy song immediately afterwards. Seriously, dude?
Where it goes right: Covering an Elvis song is a tall order, to say the least. The fact that Yoakam’s version rivals the original, with its contemporized arrangement and knockout lead vocal, is hardly a small feat.
What’s your take on these tunes? What are your favorite cover songs? What are your least favorite cover songs?