Tag Archives: Pam Tillis

Retro Single Review: George Strait, "Baby's Gotten Good at Goodbye"

1988 | Peak: #1

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.

Written by Tony Martin and George Martin

Grade: A

Next: What’ s Going on in Your World

Previous: If You Ain’t Lovin’ (You Ain’t Livin’)

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iPod Check: Most Played Song by Twenty Country Artists

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.)

Here’s my top twenty:

  1. Pam Tillis – Deep Down (89 plays)
  2. Keith Urban – I Told You So (81)
  3. Dixie Chicks – Long Time Gone (71)
  4. Taylor Swift – Mean (68)
  5. Trisha Yearwood – Where Are You Now (63)
  6. Patty Loveless – You Can Feel Bad (59)
  7. Emmylou Harris – Easy From Now On (55)
  8. Carrie Underwood – Undo It (50)
  9. Lori McKenna – Lorraine (50)
  10. Dwight Yoakam – Ain’t That Lonely Yet (46)
  11. Sara Evans – Rocking Horse (45)
  12. Sawyer Brown – Cafe on the Corner (45)
  13. Reba McEntire – The Fear of Being Alone (44)
  14. Shania Twain – Up! (43)
  15. Faith

    Hill – Stealing Kisses (41)

  16. Alan Jackson – So You Don’t Have to Love Me Anymore (40)
  17. Crystal Gayle – Why Have Your Left the One You Left Me For (39)
  18. George Strait – Meanwhile (39)
  19. Lee Ann Womack – I May Hate Myself in the Morning (39)
  20. 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?

 

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Single Review: Don Williams featuring Alison Krauss, "I Just Come Here For the Music"

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

Grade: A

Listen: I Just Came Here For the Music

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Retro Single Review: Tim McGraw, "Something Like That"

1999 | #1

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.

Witty, timeless, and hugely entertaining.

Written by Rick Ferrell and Keith Follesé

Grade:  A

Next:  My Best Friend

Previous:  Please Remember Me

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Deep Down in 2011

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.

This same post could’ve been written about  “Nothin’ But the Wheel”, “Believe Me Baby (I Lied)”, “Aces”, “Is It Over Yet”, “I Guess You Had to Be There” or “Standing Knee Deep in a River.”

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.

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

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Pop Goes Country – A Cover Song Report Card

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!

Grade:  B+

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.

Grade:  D

 

Dixie Chicks, “Landslide” (Fleetwood Mac)
2002 | #2

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.

Grade:  A

 

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?

Grade:  B

 

Faith Hill, “Piece of My Heart” (Erma Franklin, Janis Joplin)
1994 | #1
faith hill piece of my heart video Pictures, Images and Photos
(Watch the video)

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.

Grade:  B-

 

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.

Grade:  A

 

Reba McEntire, “Cathy’s Clown” (Everly Brothers)
1989 | #1

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.

Grade:  B+

 

Pam Tillis, “When You Walk In the Room” (Jackie DeShannon)
1994 | #2

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.

Grade:  A

 

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.

Grade:  A

 

Conway Twitty, “The Rose” (Bette Midler)
1983 | #1

Where it goes right:  Nowhere.

Where it goes wrong:  Everywhere. (Can you say bad karaoke?)

Grade:  D

 

Jimmy Wayne, “Sara Smile” (Hall and Oates)
2009 | #31

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.

Grade:  D+

 

Mark Wills, “Back at One” (Brian McKnight)
1999 | #2

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?

Grade:  C-

 

Dwight Yoakam, “Suspicious Minds” (Elvis Presley)
1992 | #35

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.

Grade:  A

 

What’s your take on these tunes?  What are your favorite cover songs?  What are your least favorite cover songs?

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Retro Single Review: Shania Twain, “God Bless the Child”

1996 | #48

Gospel recordings were becoming all the rage in the nineties, particularly with female artists.

Sometimes it seemed like they just wanted a big showpiece for the CMA awards.  Dolly Parton and Pam Tillis had performed with enormous choirs behind them in 1991 and 1994, respectively.  These were, perhaps, the only times in CMA history that the demographics on stage accurately reflected greater metropolitan Nashville.

In 1996, Shania Twain debuted a revamped version of “God Bless the Child” on the show.  Originally a short a cappella number that closed her breakthrough album, Twain added several verses that touched on a wide range of social problems that impact children.

Twain’s less than powerhouse vocals work in the performance’s favor.   Her restraint keeps the song from becoming overblown.  And in turn, what could have been mawkish remains reasonably thought-provoking and pleasant to the ears.

Written by Robert John “Mutt” Lange and Shania Twain

Grade: B+

Next: Love Gets Me Every Time

Previous: Home Ain’t Where His Heart Is (Anymore)

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fVV2jtUSNd0

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Favorite Songs by Favorite Artists: Suzy Bogguss

Written by Bob Losche.

Suzy Bogguss has been my favorite female vocalist for about 20 years now. The first time I heard her was on some TV show with Jerry Reed in 1991. She sang “Aces” and “Night Riders Lament” and I was hooked. Since then, I’ve seen her in concert about a dozen times from New York to Nashville and in-between. She still tours on her own in addition to her “Wine, Women and Song” shows with great songwriter friends Matraca Berg and Gretchen Peters. Suzy has done some writing herself having co-written 56 songs, including hits “Hey Cinderella” and “Just Like the Weather”.

Besides attending her shows, I have all her albums. In reviewing her 2007 album “Sweet Danger”, the bossman here at CU, Kevin Coyne said “the arrangements of the songs are subtle and low-key, allowing for the vocals to shine and the songs to work on their own merit, not through the bells-and-whistles of clever production”. I believe that Kevin’s statement could be applied to all of Suzy’s albums.

Suzy never throws away a lyric. You never have to guess at the words she sings. Back to Kevin again – In his review of her last single “In Heaven”, he said that “her voice is still as pure and clear as a mountain stream, and she instinctively knows the great truth about singing that too many women these days never learned: it’s not about power, it’s about sincerity”.

Chet Atkins was a big admirer of Suzy, saying “I don’t like hot dogs and I don’t like anchovies. I don’t like people who say there are too many guitar players in the world, and I especially don’t like singers who sneak up on their notes. But I like Suzy Bogguss…she is always in the tone center, her voice sparkles like crystal water, and she ain’t all that bad looking boys and girls–she’s only one of the best.”

As other writers in this series have mentioned, I found it difficult to get down to 25 songs. Suzy’s highest charting single, “Drive South”, didn’t make my list. Here are some of my favorite songs by Suzy Bogguss:

#25

“Shenandoah”

From the 2011 album American Folk Songbook

A beautiful rendition of a traditional American folk song said to date back to the early 19th century.

#24

“Nobody Love, Nobody Gets Hurt”

from the 1998 album Nobody Love, Nobody Gets Hurt

A Bobbie Cryner song about a would be robber who hands the girl behind the counter in a convenience store a note that he meant to say “Nobody Move, Nobody Gets Hurt”; he wrote “Nobody Love …”

#23

“Outbound Plane”

from the 1991 album Aces

Her current love has flown but she knows she’ll fall in love again in this Nanci Griffith and Tom Russell penned song.

#22

“Do Nothing Til You Hear From Me”

from the 2003 album Swing

Duke Ellington composed the music and Bob Russell wrote the lyrics for this song from the 40’s about not paying attention to rumors. Ray Benson produced the album.

#21

“When She Smiled at Him”

from the 1994 album Simpatico

A father daughter song, written by Michael Johnson and Joanie Beeson, that begins “he wasn’t prepared for a daughter, he thought how nice a son would have been, but she had her way with her father, when she smiled at him”. OK, it’s a sweet and sentimental song. Add a star if you have a daughter. I do.

#20

“Somebody to Love”

from the 1998 album Nobody Love, Nobody Gets Hurt

Her last single to crack the country top 40 was written by Matraca Berg, Suzy & hubby Doug Crider. The girl is brokenhearted and wants somebody cause the night is long. But “she’s got to be tough and hold out honey cause, what you really want is somebody to love”.

#19

Diamonds and Tears

from the 1993 album Something Up My Sleeve

In an article Kevin wrote on Matraca Berg, he said the song was “Berg’s finest philosophical moment, a reflection on how the journey of life is its own destination. Even lost love is a form of “higher education”: “I have said and heard the word ‘goodbye’, felt the blade and turned the knife sideways. But I crossed bridges while they burned, to keep from losing what I’ve learned along the way.” The song was co-written by Gary Harrison.

#18

“I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”

from the 2001 album Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas

The song is based on the Longfellow poem, “Christmas Bells”, which was written on Christmas Day 1864, a few months before the end of the Civil War. Verse two expresses despair that there’s no peace on earth. In verse three, joy triumphs: “then pealed the bells more loud and deep, God is not dead, nor doth he sleep, the wrong shall fail, the right prevail, with peace on earth, good will to men.”

#17

“In Heaven”

from the 2007 album Sweet Danger

Solely written by Doug Crider, who has written 184 songs, this song always gets to me. Since I can’t think of a better way to say it (how’s that for sucking up?), I’ll quote Kevin again from his review noted above: “As Bogguss asks her deceased husband for his blessing on the new love she has found, all of the shades of emotion are there in her multi-layered performance: fear, apprehension, guilt, joy, sorrow. You can feel the conflict inside of her character as she sings every line.”

#16

“Goodnight”

from the 1999 album Suzy Bogguss

This Charlie Black and Dana Hunt song is a perfect fit for my playlists of songs mentioning a U.S. city or state. The woman is trying to get back with her lover, but keeps just missing him. The chorus goes “So goodnight Raleigh, goodnight Durham, goodnight Atlanta and Macon and Jacksonville, Live from high atop the hood of my car, I’m signing off, sweet dreams baby, wherever you are”.

#15

“She Said, He Heard”

from the 1996 album Give Me Some Wheels

A song Suzy wrote with Don Schlitz about the different planets men and women sometimes occupy. “She said ‘I’m mad’, he heard ‘I’m leaving’, she said ‘I’m sad’, he heard ‘It’s all your fault’.”

#14

“How Come You Go to Her”

from the 1992 album Voices in the Wind

A what’s she got that that I ain’t got song from Anthony Smith, Michael Garvin and Suzy. “You said it was heaven in my arms, so how come they ain’t holding you.”

#13

“Cold Day in July”

from the 1992 album Voices in the Wind

“You always said that the day you’d leave me, would be a cold day in July”. I love the Dixie Chicks but Suzy’s earlier recording of this Richard Leigh song from 1981 blows them out of the water.

#12

“Just Like the Weather”

from the 1993 album Something Up My Sleeve

Her man is thinking about leaving, so she uses the changeability of the weather as a metaphor to convince him to stay and tough it out. A Bogguss-Crider writing collaboration that resulted in a top ten hit.

#11

“I Want to Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart”

from the 1989 album Somewhere Between

Suzy’s cover of Country Music Hall of Famer Patsy Montana’s signature song first released in 1935. Love Suzy’s yodeling.

#10

“Saying Goodbye to a Friend”

from the 1996 album Give Me Some Wheels

A song from Angela Kaset and Doug Gill about trying to get over the loss of a loved one. Lines like “These little things that shouldn’t matter, make something inside me shatter” and “like a scene in a rearview mirror, I thought I’d got past it, now I’m looking at it again” reflect the singer’s state of mind.

#9

“Handyman’s Dream”

from the 1989 album Somewhere Between

A bouncy Gary Nicholson-Pam Tillis tune about potential as expressed by lines like: “I’m a little rundown from lack of attention, but my possibilities are too numerous to mention” and “I need a man who’s not afraid to roll up his sleeves, If you could only picture what the end result will be”. Hmm.

#8

“Someday Soon”

from the 1991 album Aces

An Ian Tyson classic, first recorded in 1964. The woman’s problem: “He loves his damned old rodeo as much as he loves me.” Today her problem would more likely be playing golf or watching football.

#7

“Letting Go”

from the 1991 album Aces

A song from hubby Doug and Matt Rollings that parents sending their kids off to college for the first time can appreciate. I speak from first hand experience.

#6

“Eat at Joe’s”

from the 1992 album Voices in the Wind

In this Berg-Harrison tune about a waitress in an all night diner, Suzy’s sounds a bit sassy as she sings “here’s a hot top on your coffee, honey you’re a mess, I ain’t your wife, I ain’t your momma, but I’ll do I guess”.

#5

“It’s Not Gonna Happen Today”

from the 2007 album Sweet Danger

Kevin’s comment: “Bogguss co-wrote one of the strongest tracks on the album, the dark and despondent “It’s Not Gonna Happen Today.” It finds the narrator hiding out in her house on an autumn afternoon, with the leaves piling up outside. “I don’t really want to face all the things I’ve left undone,” she confesses. “At least a thousand things…maybe only one.” Suzy’s co-writers were Greg Barnhill and Doug Crider.

#4

“Night Rider’s Lament”

from the 1989 album Somewhere Between

There’s low pay and no advancement so why does this cowboy ride and rope for his living in this Michael Burton song? The end of the chorus provides the answer to the suggestion that “he must have gone crazy out there”:

But he’s never seen the Northern Lights
Never seen a hawk on the wing
He’s never seen Spring hit the Great Divide
And never heard Ol’ Camp Cookie sing.

Suzy’s yodeling at the end is awesome.

#3

“Something Up My Sleeve”

from the 1993 album Something Up My Sleeve

A duet with Billy Dean penned by Suzi Ragsdale and Verlon Thompson. The relationship isn’t working out for either party but neither one wants to leave. Suzy sings the first verse and Billy the second. In the third verse they alternate lines, Suzy then Billy responding. In the fourth verse, they again alternate, Billy with Suzy answering. They end together singing “I wish I had the power to make us both believe, I wish I had something up my sleeve.” Both contribute equally, a true duet, and their voices, Suzy’s soprano and Billy’s baritone, go so well together.

#2

“Hey Cinderella”

from the 1993 album Something Up My Sleeve

The fantasy of the first two verses turns into “dreams that lost their way” by the end of the third verse. The chorus begins “Hey Cinderella” and ends with the question “Does the shoe fit you now?” In the song’s second half, reality has totally set in. There’s talk of compromising and coming to terms with our vanity. Suzy co-wrote the song with Berg and Harrison.

#1

“Aces”

from the 1991 album Aces

Writer Cheryl Wheeler once explained that the song is about 3 persons. A and the singer, B, are former lovers. A introduces B to C and the latter two get together. A and C were also former lovers. B is singing to A who complained about B and C getting together. Hence, she sings “you can’t deal me the Aces and think I wouldn’t play.”

Since the lyrics do not mention this third party, C, another interpretation could be that of mentor and protege. The former trains the latter and makes her a star but never wants to relinquish control. (Porter and Dolly?) Lines like “you feel undermined and hurt again” and “compromise and realize you can never really run every thing you start” could fit this second scenario. This has been how I always interpreted the lyrics. Cheryl’s explanation can be found on her website.

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Favorite Songs by Favorite Artists: Sara Evans

I was in my early teens when I first discovered Sara Evans… and I thought she was the greatest thing since sliced bread.  The rich, throaty texture of her distinct voice reeled me in, and her entertaining mixture of traditional and contemporary influences had me thoroughly hooked.  Now that I’ve also become familiar with the likes of Patty Loveless, Pam Tillis, Trisha Yearwood, and Emmylou Harris, my view of Sara is a little more in-perspective these days, but I do still consider myself a big fan, and she holds a special distinction as one of the first female country artists I really got into.

Radio passed on her when she first emerged as a neotraditionalist in the late nineties, but with future efforts, Sara went on to become a star, thanks to her ability to adapt to changing times while still staying true to herself.  She was one of the dominant female country voices on the radio dial in the early years of the twenty-first century, and after enduring a bit of a dry spell for a few years, she has recently experienced a commercial resurgence.

Though she maintained a fairly consistent quality standard for the better part of her career, recent years have seen that standard slipping thanks to subpar pop-country cuts in the vein of “Feels Just Like a Love Song.”  Nonetheless, Sara still deserves credit for having a solid body of work behind her that’s well worth remembering.  If we’re fortunate, perhaps we may one day see Sara make a return to form, or even delve back into her traditional country and bluegrass roots.

The following list includes many of the songs that best exemplify the qualities that drew me to the music of Sara Evans in the first place.  It’s not meant to be a strict listing of the songs that unquestionably rank as Sara’s “best;” (which would be pretty subjective anyway) It’s merely a list of my own personal favorites.  Let it be an enjoyable look back on some of Sara’s finest moments.  If you would like to share any of your own favorites in the comments section, please feel free to do so.

#25

“A Little Bit Stronger”

Stronger, 2011

Somehow, Sara’s comeback hit finds a way to hit my sweet spot for power ballads. (Yes, I actually do have a sweet spot for power ballads, though few have been able to hit it) What was it about this song that won me over?  Maybe it was the subtle strains of mandolin and steel.  Maybe it’s the build-up nature of the song – the way the progressive nature of the narrator’s healing is mirrored by the production and by Sara’s vocal delivery.  At any rate, the ingredients come together to form a record greater than the sum of its parts.

#24

“New Hometown”

Real Fine Place, 2005

It’s not just a song about how cool small-town life is.  Stylistically, the song even ranks as one of Sara’s most pop-friendly album tracks.  As Sara’s character expresses her desire to escape the hustle-and-bustle of city life, the song becomes a plea for a return to the simple things in life.  Though not all of us intend to make a big old move to a small town, no doubt many among us harbor a similar deep-down yearning just to “find a little earth to stand on.”

#23

“Perfect”

Restless, 2003

The catchy guitar hook is an instant attention-getter, but this number-two hit from Sara’s Restless album has a heart and a simple message at its core:  “Real love and real life doesn’t have to be perfect.”  Add in a few quirky and clever lines such as “If in every wedding picture my daddy looks annoyed, it’s all right,” as well as the fitting conclusion that “All the fairy tales tell a lie,” and you’ve got a real beauty.

#22

“Momma’s Night Out” 

Real Fine Place, 2005

I love this song mainly because it’s a side of Sara that we haven’t seen very often.  She’s rarely been one to record party songs.  But on this track, Sara takes on the role of an overworked mother who throws in the towel, leaves the kids with daddy, and hits the town with the girls.  Sara’s sassy vocal finds her as loose as she’s ever been, while the funky horn-infused production makes it an unforgettable track

#21

“Cupid”

No Place That Far, 1999

The distinct voice of George Jones, even when coming in the form of background vocals, has the ability to make a great song even greater (see Patty Loveless, “You Don’t Seem to Miss Me”).  In this shamelessly twangy steel-infused country rave-up from No Place That Far, the Possum joins Sara in delivering the unshakable hook of “Tell Cupid not to point that thing at me!”

#20

“Restless”

Restless, 2003

I have a bit of a weakness for country music that borrows from Irish and Celtic influences as this track does.  The gorgeous Celtic-harp-laced arrangement makes “Restless” a highlight of one of Sara’s most stylistically-diverse albums.  The lyrics are every bit as beautiful, poetically telling of a restless soul learning to make peace with the fact that she will be a wanderer until the day she dies.

#19

“Low”

Billy: The Early Years (soundtrack), 2008

Sara’s contribution to the Billy soundtrack is nothing short of a pure joy, replete with the sounds of pure country and bluegrass instrumentation.  Though the lyrics invoke religious elements, they don’t sound preachy at all.  It’s not a “You should live your life this way” kind of song;  It’s an “I’m going to live my life this way” kind of song.  It’s a proactive anthem of strength, resolve, and determination – more uplifting than a million Martina McBride power ballads combined.

#18

“I’ve Got a Tiger By the Tail”

Three Chords and the Truth, 1997

Fact:  Sara sounds best when singing traditional country music.  Going back and listening to Sara’s shamelessly neotraditional debut album is a joy for any fan of stone cold country.  Here she pays tribute to the vintage Bakersfield sound with a cover of a Buck Owens hit co-written by Harlan Howard.  Besides being a highlight of the Three Chords and the Truth album, this song was instrumental in helping Sara get the chance to snag a record deal and become a star.  It was when the legendary songwriter Harlan Howard himself heard Sara’s performance of his classic song that he threw all his efforts into helping the young talent get discovered.

#17

“Fool, I’m a Woman”

No Place That Far, 1999

This deliciously snarky tune has Matraca Berg’s fingerprints all over it.  In a composition by one of country’s finest songwriters, Sara plays off the age-old stereotype of a woman’s continual habit of changing her mind.  She scoffs at old romantic clichés as she pointedly tells off her soon-to-be-ex-lover – “You used to tell me so many nights/ You don’t deserve me/ Well maybe you were right.”  Ouch!

#16

“A Real Fine Place to Start”

Real Fine Place, 2005

I have a major affinity for songs that can effectively channel the excitement of a newfound romance, and this Radney Foster-penned number-one hit from 2005 squarely hits that target.  Thanks in large part to Sara’s soaring vocal performance, “A Real Fine Place to Start” is a fun, breezy record that bubbles over with energy and exuberance, and begs to be blasted out one’s car windows.  A shining example of pop-country done well.

#15

“Why Should I Care”

Born to Fly, 2000

A sparse pop-country ballad in which a woman struggles to make sense of the feelings of guilt and jealousy that suddenly surface when she finds out that her former lover has found someone new.

#14

“Imagine That”

Three Chords and the Truth, 1997

Sara’s take on this Patsy Cline torch ballad ranks as arguably one of the finest displays of Sara’s vocal talents that can be found on any of her studio albums.

#13

“Bible Song”

Real Fine Place, 2005

This melancholy Lori McKenna song was one of the best tracks on Real Fine Place.  While so many country stars have gleefully sang the praises of small-town living, “Bible Song” echoes the message that life in such idealistic small towns is not always what it’s cracked up to be.  The pace of life may be slower, but this tragic story of a young man’s drug-induced death shows that even small town residents at times fall prey to their own inner demons.

#12

“Rockin’ Horse”

Restless, 2003

A genuine nugget of wisdom is wrapped up in this blazing fiddle-shredder.  The narrator recounts a frightening childhood experience in which a tree falls near her family’s house after being struck by lightning.  Then her father carves the tree’s wood into a rocking horse that becomes one of her most treasured toys.   By showing how this experience shapes the narrator’s outlook on life, “Rockin’ Horse” becomes a colorful testament to the power of positive thinking, with its message summed up in the memorable hook “When it’s pouring down on me/ In my life I see the rockin’ horse inside the tree.”

#11

“As If”

Greatest Hits, 2007

Four new tracks were included on Sara’s 2007 Greatest Hits package, and this almost-Top 10 hit was by far the best.  With cheeky, humorous lyrics, Sara satirically poked fun at the human tendency toward infatuation that blinds one to all a person’s shortcomings.  The catchy melody and energetic performance made for an earworm of a record that was truly unforgettable.

#10

“What That Drink Cost Me”

Stronger, 2011

The new album could have benefited greatly from more songs like this.  This restrained steel guitar weeper is the stuff of a country classic – a heart-wrenching tale of the destructive power of alcohol.  Though the Stronger album as a whole found Sara saddled with an excess of disposable material, the fact that it also included one of the best songs she had written in years is an encouraging sign.  Besides that, “What That Drink Cost Me” is yet another example of one of the qualities that I’ve always appreciated about Sara’s music:  Even after she went in a more pop-flavored musical direction, her traditional country influences were never fully snuffed out.

#9

“If You Ever Want My Lovin’”

Three Chords and the Truth, 1997

This loose, flirty, upbeat little ditty was co-written by Sara along with Billy Yates and Melba Montgomery.  Though the cheeky lyrics can put an instant smile on one’s face, the record’s most endearing trait is Sara’s raw, expressive vocal delivery.  Though Sara’s Missouri twang is toned back on some of her more pop-oriented material, this record allows that twang to stand front and center.

#8

“Unopened”

Three Chords and the Truth, 1997

This was the only original song on Sara’s debut album on which she did not share writing credits, originating from the pen of Leslie Satcher.  As the song’s narrator discovers evidence of a secret love from her man’s past, she views his willingness to leave it behind as evidence of his genuine love for her.  She resolves to return that love by trusting in her man, and allowing his secret to remain a secret.

#7

“No Place That Far”

No Place That Far, 1999

Vince Gill is one of country music’s favorite harmony vocalists (besides being an A-list legend in his own right), and he adds something particularly special to the hauntingly beautiful love song that was Sara’s breakthrough chart-topper.  The song reaches a crescendo in the final chorus as Sara sings “If I had to run, if I had to crawl…” and is answered each time by that distinctive tenor.  It’s as if we’re listening to two lovers singing to one another from afar off, pledging their unwavering determination to be reunited.  Though it’s a great lyric in its own right, the chemistry of the two performers gives the story an extra layer that can’t be seen just by looking at the lyrics on paper.

#6

“I Learned That from You”

Born to Fly, 2000

Though found on one of Sara’s most pop-oriented albums, “I Learned from You” was one of the finest and most country tracks on Sara’s breakthrough album Born to Fly.  A heavy-hearted reflection on the difficult leassons learned from a first love that didn’t last, while also an appreciative recollection of all the happy memories that were made at the time.

#5

“Coalmine”

Real Fine Place, 2005

The timing was unfortunate for the release of this underplayed gem that offered a glimpse of Sara’s mountain bluegrass influences.  A flirty, playful lyric and performance added up to a song that was loads of fun as Sara fawned over her man “walking out of that coalmine, covered with dust, T-shirt tight, all muscled up.”  This is one Sara Evans single that is definitely deserving of a re-release.

#4

“Three Chords and the Truth”

Three Chords and the Truth, 1997

The title track of Sara’s debut is a testament to the power of country music in dredging up deeply held emotions in a listener – emotions that we might have ignored in the past.  It’s the kind of song that always reminds me why I love country music so much.  Sara’s character hears a country song on the radio for the first time, and it not only brings back the emotions, but it moves her to action.  It motivates her to turn the car around and reconcile with the lover she had intended to leave far behind.  “Three Chords” is a beautifully constructed story that effectively pays tribute to country music at its best, demonstrating that there’s so much more to this unique and special genre than what the ugly stereotypes would lead some to believe.

#3

“Suds In the Bucket”

Restless, 2003

Besides being an excellent singalong driving jam, this fiddle-and-steel-laden hit is a humorous glimpse at tongue-wagging small-town culture, sans the chest-pounding backwoods clichés that are common on country radio today.  Fun, playful, and full of personality, this country rave-up was the song that first got me into Sara Evans, and it’s remained a personal favorite of mine ever since.  It never fails to make me feel happy.

#2

“Cheatin’”

Real Fine Place, 2005

This Top Ten hit takes a classic country music theme – infidelity – and puts a distinct and memorable spin on it.  After having parted ways with an unfaithful spouse, Sara’s character gloats over the unpleasant living situation her ex has since found himself in.  But as the lyric progresses, she reveals that she has been genuinely hurt by his actions, and she unashamedly drops the bomb of “Yes, I’ll be glad to take you back just as soon as I stop breathing.”  Amusingly spiteful and achingly emotional at the same time, “Cheatin’” exemplifies the layered organic storytelling that makes for a killer country song, while the traditional-styled arrangement acts as the perfect sonic backdrop to Sara’s bitterly nuanced performance.

#1

“Born to Fly”

Born to Fly, 2000

Sara’s career record remains one of her most enduring and effortlessly charming hits, and with it’s distinctive drumbeat intro and bluegrass-tinged instrumentation, it’s definitely one of her most recognizeable.  “Born to Fly” is an endearing coming-of-age tale of a young woman exploring her potential in life, and seeking to find her place in the world.  It manages to perfect the magic formula of possessing a unique identity of its own, while still being universal such that a wide array of individuals can relate to the feelings it expresses.  Who among us has never gone through this period of life as a young person?  We’ve all been at that crossroads point in life, and felt what it’s like to be “starin’ down the road, just lookin’ for my one chance to run.”

In a way, the song could also be seen as symbolic of the point Sara was at in her career when she recorded it.  Would her third album improve on the moderate success of No Place That Far, or would it be ignored like the commercially-underappreciated Three Chords and the Truth?  It was with this album and single that Sara struck platinum with a style that was just slick enough to be commercially friendly without sacrificing the heart of her earlier work.  The result?  Her career ‘soared away like a blackbird.’

In a career that has included many memorable singles, “Born to Fly” is one of the very finest.

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Single Review: Sunny Sweeney, “Staying’s Worse Than Leaving”

This is going to be an unfair criticism, but here it goes.

“Staying’s Worse Than Leaving” is an awesome song.  As good as anything I’ve heard lately in terms of lyrics.  Mature, realistic, insightful. It’s good stuff.

The production is effective in that “stay out of the way of the song” kind of way, as it is on so many great country records.

It’s so good that it’s something I could imagine a nineties woman singing…which makes Sunny Sweeney’s delivery sound disappointing in comparison.

It’s not that she doesn’t sing it competently.  But given that this sounds like something that Patty Loveless, or Pam Tillis, or Trisha Yearwood, or even Sara Evans could’ve knocked out of the park, I can’t help but be just a little disappointed.

So, one of the best songs of the year, without a doubt.  But still a little disappointing, for reasons beyond the control of anyone involved.

Written by Jay Clementi, Radney Foster and Sunny Sweeney

Grade: B+

Listen: Staying’s Worse Than Leaving

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