Lynn Anderson was born the daughter of songwriters Casey and Liz Anderson, and went on to become one of country music’s brightest stars in the 60′s and 70′s. Over the course of sixteen years, she amassed an impressive string of eighteen Top 10 country hits including chart-toppers such as “You’re My Man,” “How Can I Unlove You,” “Keep Me In Mind,” “What a Man My Man Is,” and most notably the Grammy-winning platinum-selling crossover smash “Rose Garden.”
Anderson continues busily touring and recording to this day. Most recently, she’s lent her talents to a new collaborative album called Betty Swain Project. The album pays tribute to a gifted songwriter named Betty Swain who was unsuccessful in finding individuals to orchestrate and perform her original songs for most of her life, only to have her longtime dream finally realized a few short weeks before her death thanks to a low-budget demo CD and concert organized by singer-songwriter Jim Paul. Lynn Anderson renders two Betty Swain compositions for this new Center Sound Records release, which also includes contributions from Siobhan Magnus, Brittini Black, Loni Rose, Nikki Nelson, Kim Parent, Devin Belle, Taylor Watson, and Marissa Begin. Country Universe was recently able to reach Lynn Anderson out in New Mexico by phone for an interview in which she enthusiastically discusses both her current projects and past career accolades.
Ben Foster: How did you come to be a part of Betty Swain Project, and what made you want to participate?
Lynn Anderson: My friend and my steel guitar player Robin Ruddy (who also plays with Rod Stewart) called me and told me about the project, and asked if I might be interested in it, and I said “Sure” when I heard the history of it. Are you familiar with that?
Yes, it’s a beautiful story.
It really is. It’s very interesting. It’s kind of heartwarming. This lady was finally able to hear her music played before she passed away, and she had such great friends and such great family. It’s kind of amazing that sometimes words and music are timeless and sometimes it’s kind of a time machine. If you put them in a box and bury them under the cornerstone of a building, it’s amazing when that building is torn down and you come up with that time capsule, it’s amazing what you might find there. Some things take you back to an older time, and sometimes that’s good and sometimes you’ve forgotten that. I think Betty’s music takes us back to an easier time – kind of a time of Patsy Cline and that basic country music. So I think it’s amazing. I think it’s incredible to be a part of the project. I think that occasionally if you get a chance it’s kind of a wake-up call that reminds you that people have been writing this music for a long time, and though this lady didn’t get recognized in her prime, it’s a wonderful thing that she was able to hear her music played and know that it would be recorded before she passed away.
What qualities do you think made Betty Swain a compelling songwriter?
I think she was very real. I think she was true to her time, which was much more basic, much more down-to-earth, much more one-and-one with your basic emotions. She wasn’t confused or distracted by the cell phones, the computers and all that stuff that we have now. She basically was just a lady who sat and used her music as her means to communicate with other people, and we’ve kind of forgotten about what we call the good old days. We rely so much on social data, social networking that we’ve kind of forgotten actually how to write a letter, how to write down a poem, how to actually sit down and write a letter to another person, and I think that’s what Betty captures. She kind of brings back into your face the fact that people sat down and wrote down their ideas and their thoughts, and that was how they entertained themselves, and that’s how they entertained their families and their neighbors. It was a softer, gentler time.
What can you tell us about the songs you recorded for the album, “Sweet Memories” and “Prove You Care”?
I love “Sweet Memories.” Since Betty Swain’s song, there were other songs written called “Sweet Memories,” but hers seems to have been the first. So it seems that a good idea never dies. There were, as I said, other songs that I know of in the past twenty or thirty years, but hers seems to have been the first, so I thought it was a really nifty chance to get to capture that songs in its first personification. And it may have been written a hundred years ago. Someone may have sat in a cabin in Kentucky and written a song called “Sweet Memories,” but that’s the first one that’s come to my mind, that’s come to my attention. I just think it’s an incredible opportunity to get to see and feel not only how much the same people’s ideas and words were fifty years ago, but how much different they are. It’s a real looking glass. It’s a chance to look back into history and then place us here in the future
I just thought ["Prove You Care"] was a nifty fun song. She seems to have been a forerunner to Loretta Lynn – somebody with the same down-home moral qualities that Loretta Lynn became famous for years later. She was very down-to-earth, and I think that song says a lot of that.
I couldn’t do an interview with you without taking a little time to talk about your signature song. You’ve had a great run of country hits, but “Rose Garden” stands out as the Lynn Anderson song that virtually everybody knows. How would you describe what that song has meant to your career and to your fans?
Well, that was just a little bit of magic. That’s just one of those things that, if you’re lucky, happens once in a lifetime. It had been recorded seven times before I did it, and it wasn’t a hit, but it just simply took off and went out of my hands when we recorded it. We were planning on recording it in several different languages, and before we could do it, it became a hit worldwide. It became a hit in Mexico and Spain and France and Germany and Japan and so on before I had an opportunity to sing it in those languages. So to me it says how much music is a universal language – how much a really great piece of music speaks over languages barriers and over different barriers that seem to rise up between people. A great song can break them all down.
It’s amazing how things sometime just come together like that.
Yeah, it is. I feel so lucky too that my song “Rocky Top” has become the state theme song of Tennessee. Actually we have two. There’s “The Tennessee Waltz,” but whenever the University of Tennessee makes a touchdown, they have to play “Rocky Top”! Do you know “Rocky Top”?
Oh yes, that’ s actually one of my favorite songs you’ve done.
Wherever we go all around the world, I usually close my show with “Rocky Top.” Everywhere in the world people like the music. It’s a very American song. It’s a banjo and all that. People clap their hands and stop their feet and go “Yee haw” and stuff like that. It’s a very happy, up-tempo very, very American song, so I love “Rocky Top” as much as I love “Rose Garden.”
Looking back on all of your impressive career accomplishments, what do you consider to be your proudest moments?
I think that the idea that “Rose Garden” was named the unofficial theme song for the United States Marine Corps was an amazing moment. When the soldiers came back from Vietnam, we were in a stadium with a lot of soldiers. The U.S. Navy was on the left side – about ten thousand of them – and the army was in the front – about ten thousand of those, and the navy was behind them. On the right, there were about ten thousand United States Marines. When I sang “Rose Garden,” all of them stood on signal at attention and saluted when I sang that song because it was the theme song for the United States Marines! And that’s an amazing thing. I cried. It was an amazing moment having a song that’s the theme song for the men and woman who are defending the United States. It’s an amazing thing.
So what’s next for Lynn Anderson? Is there anything upcoming that you’d like to let folks know about?
I’ve got a gospel project that we just finished. It’s not out yet, but it will be in a couple of months. I’m very excited about it. This is the first time I’ve ever done a gospel project, and we’ve got a song in it that the Oak Ridge Boys came and sang with me, and of course they’re in the Gospel Hall of Fame! It’s something that I’ve wanted to do for a long time, and to have the Oaks come in and sing with me is a wonderful thing. Those guys are just great! I can’t wait to get that out and see what happens with that.
Could there possibly be a more emotionally and sentimentally charged record released this year?
A heartfelt tribute to the departed George Jones that celebrates his incredible legacy of music, “Tonight I’m Playin’ Possum” is pure catnip for country music lovers. More than just a list of nicknames for the Possum and shout-outs for some of his best songs, the reverence is coupled with relevance for his signature sound.
Randy Travis and Joe Nichols represent two successive generations that were shaped by Jones’ influence, and they weren’t even among the first generation of artists to be shaped by his work. “Tonight I’m Playin’ Possum” makes the case for Jones’ immortality, with his voice living on in heaven while it still plays down here in every lonely jukebox joint.
All that would’ve been enough to pull on the heartstrings. But then, Travis nearly joined Jones in immortality this summer, a stunning and frightening turn of events that makes this record all the more painful to listen to. Much like Jones on his final recordings, time and hard living have weathered Randy’s voice to the point that it’s nearly unrecognizable. It wasn’t until Joe Nichols piped in that I was sure it was Randy Travis that started off the song.
We lionize our legends and our icons. Their accomplishments on records seem almost superhuman, a byproduct of artists in their prime being captured for timeless posterity. Sometimes, a tragedy happens that freezes a Patsy Cline or a Hank Williams in that moment forever. More often, we have to watch these wondrous talents slowly drift toward their own mortality, as more notes fade out of reach and even the greatest stylists start to lose their distinctive style.
It’s painful. I want more Randy Travis records, just like I want more of the George Jones records that will never come. Time can keep running for a long time, but it always runs out in the end.
“Tonight I’m Playin’ Possum” is such an amazing tribute to Jones. I wish that listening to it didn’t make me feel so sad.
Gentleman Jim Reeves started off as a hardcore country singer, but his smooth crossover stylings would become synonymous with the Nashville Sound, combining with tragedy to grant him country music immortality only a dozen years into his career.
Growing up in Texas, Reeves picked up the guitar at an early age, mimicking the Jimmie Rodgers records that he discovered through his older brother. A prodigious talent, Reeves was already singing on local radio shows before he entered his teens.
He was also a great athlete, and he played in a semi-professional league, followed by three years in the big leagues with the Saint Louis Cardinals. But an ankle injury sidelined him, and he returned his attention to music.
He worked in radio while recording independent singles, eventually raising his profile with a series of hits on Abbott Records. After three years of scoring big hits with them, he once again joined the big leagues, this time in the form of major record label RCA Victor.
Reeves was a consistent hitmaker throughout the fifties, but didn’t truly break through to superstardom until he softened his country sound with the pop stylings of the time. “He’ll Have to Go”, released in 1959, became his signature hit, reaching the pop top ten while it topped the country charts for fourteen weeks.
country and pop from that point on, though he was far more successful in his home format. Tragedy struck when Reeves died in a plane crash in 1964, but much like Patsy Cline before him, his notoriety only grew in the shadow of his untimely death.
In fact, Reeves would have his most significant run of hits in the years after his death, having an astonishing sixteen top ten singles over the course of seventeen years. Some of those hits, like “Distant Drums” and “Blue Side of Lonesome”, are as beloved as the biggest ones released while he was still alive.
Reeves was one of the earliest inductees into the Country Music Hall of Fame, joining those hallowed ranks in 1967. “He’ll Have to Go” cemented its classic status with its induction into the Grammy Hall of Fame. To this day, unreleased recordings continue to surface, and he remains one of the top-selling country artists of the Nashville Sound era.
Today is the fiftieth anniversary of the tragic plane crash that claimed the lives of Opry stars Hawkshaw Hawkins and Cowboy Copas, pilot Randy Hughes, and most famously, the now-iconic Patsy Cline.
Several events have been held to commemorate the tragedy, including a recent Country Music Hall of Fame panel discussion as well as the “Gone, But Not Forgotten” music festival that was held March 2 in Camden, Tennessee (the town in which the crash site is located). The anniversary has also been the subject of some fine articles that are well worth reading, such as this piece
Today seems like a particularly appropriate time to revisit the music of the three stars who perished that night, all of whom left behind strong musical legacies whose value has not diminished with time.
Embedded below is a video that features Patsy Cline singing her classic “Leavin’ On Your Mind,” the final single she released before her death, after which she had a pair of posthumous classic hits with “Sweet Dreams” and “Faded Love.”
In 2007, Katie Armiger released her first album at just 15-years-old after winning a local singing competition in Texas. Since then, she’s had quiet but solid success in the industry, earning four Billboard-charting singles and touring with major artists such as Brad Paisley, Little Big Town, Jason Aldean and Ronnie Dunn.
Last year, Country Weekly’s readers voted 21-year-old Armiger the “Hottest Bachelorette” for the second consecutive year, just before she appeared on ABC’s dubious reality television show, “The Bachelor Pad.” Ironic events, considering the fellow Sugar Land native has built her image on independence and empowerment, themes she captures pithily on her first Top 40 hit, “Better in a Black Dress.”
Armiger’s latest album with Cold River Records,Fall Into Me, drops today - but don’t expect a collection of love stories. Its 14 songs depict the highs and lows of love with equal weight, backed by strong, melodic hooks and Armiger’s character-filled voice. Last month, she took some time to chat with Country Universe about the blend of styles on her new album, being a woman in a male-dominated genre, and the inspiration for her ode to single girls.
Seetharam: Country music has long struggled with a gender bias that’s only now starting to melt. What’s your experience been like as a young female artist in the industry?
Armiger: Oh, I agree. It’s honestly gotten a lot easier as I’ve gotten older. Maybe it just comes with age, but I do feel like the industry has changed. When I first started, it was so male-dominated. Now the doors for females are opening up, and it’s a lot easier as a female artist to get your music out there.
How do you differentiate yourself from the other young female artists that are out there?
That’s a good question. I think everyone has their own style, and I am a singer-songwriter. Everything that I write is very personal – sometimes I wish it wasn’t as personal as it is. And my music is a blend. I tend to write everything. There are so many different types of country music– there’s more traditional, more modern – that you can sing, which is so neat. I try to do a really good blend of that.
I think that’s the constant debate – there are so many influences in country music these days. How do you define country music, or can you?
The thing about country music, regardless of what the sound is like, is that the songs all tell stories. You can listen to any country song, and it tells a story, whether it’s happy or sad. It’s not a song that’s sung without purpose. And that’s what I really love.
Are there any new artists that you find particularly interesting or inspiring?
I’m a really big Hunter Hayes fan. I love his stuff. He’s so talented. I’ve met him, and he’s so friendly. I really think we’re going to see great things from him.
He seems to be rising very quickly. Who are your idols in the industry, or the artists whose careers you admire?
I listened to a lot of Martina McBride growing up, a lot of Patsy Cline, Linda Ronstadt. A lot of very strong female country singers. I definitely try to emulate that. I want to portray strength in my music, and all of those women are very, very strong, dominant personalities. They knew what they wanted, and that’s always what I try to go for.
Speaking of different generations, have you had the chance to catch the show “Nashville”? Does it align with how you perceive the industry, and the way the veterans and newcomers interact?
I haven’t caught everything, but I’ve watched a few episodes. I honestly think it blurs the line. Some of the stuff is a little true – like you watch it and you’re like “OK, I can see that.” There’s definitely drama in the music industry, but not quite to that extent.
I’ve never seen anyone quite like Juliette in country music. Have you come across that kind of attitude?
No. That’s what’s funny. One of the things I love most about country music is that it is such a family thing. Everybody’s friends. Everybody’s super nice. It’s not cutthroat like other industries, and [“Nashville”] makes it seem super cutthroat.
What was is it like to play the Opry for the first time back in 2011?
It was one of the most indescribable things. It’s such an honor to be there, and when you’re singing, you’re just sitting there going, “I’m standing in this spot where all of these people –all of these legends who made country what it is– stood years ago.” It’s surreal.
And you have a dog named “Opry,” right? What’s the story behind that?
My dog at home gave birth, and she was one of the puppies. My stepmom called and was like, “You have to take her!” She was born when they made the announcement in my hometown that I was going to be playing the Opry. At the time, I thought there’s no way that I can keep the dog. I’m too busy – this is not going to work. But as soon as I got home and I saw her, I said, “Well, I don’t really care. I’m taking her with me.”
Let’s talk about your new music. You landed your first Top 40 hit with “Better in a Black Dress.” I think it’s fantastic – it’s empowering in a way that you can’t really find on country radio.
Thank you. It’s funny you say that because that’s definitely the thing I love the most about it. I think a lot of women are scared to sing songs like that because they think guys are going to judge them more. Guys can sing songs like that all the time, but if a girl sings something like that, it’s totally different. A guy can sing a song about taking a girl home and having fun, but a girl can’t.
What inspired this song?
It’s funny. It was kind of inspired by winning the [Country Weekly] “Hottest Bachelorette” contest. I had a lot of people try to set me up. You hit 20 and people are like, “So do you have a boyfriend? Are you going to settle down? When do you think you’re going to have kids? What’s your five-year plan? Tell me.”
I went into this with that thought in mind, and I wrote the song with my friend Blair. When I sat down, I told her, “I’m not ready for any of that. I don’t need the white picket fence. I don’t need to get married right now. Someday – just not now.” We wrote that song as the answer to all of these people saying that settling down is what you should do right now.
I love that story. Is the new album similar in theme to that song? How is it different from your previous albums?
It is very different from my past album. A lot of it is very progressive and percussion-driven, and there’s a lot of acoustic guitar. There’s definitely a theme, and that would be love. A lot of songs, whether they’re happy or sad, use the word ‘fall’ as in you’re falling in or falling out of something. And I thought it would be really cool to name the album after that concept, because whether you’re falling in love or falling out of love, that feeling of the fall you always remember.
That’s an interesting way to weave together songs that are happy, sad and in between. You co-wrote or wrote all songs on this album – what was that writing process like?
It was definitely challenging. I set out with the goal in mind to write everything. That’s what I had set out to do on all the other albums, but I heard songs that I just loved along the way and cut those as well. But on this one, I really set my mind to it. I was touring a ton in the last two years, and I’d be home for two days a month and would just try to write as much as possible when I was home. Sometimes I had to force myself get in the zone, even if I wasn’t there.
You’ve said it’s a deeply personal album. Are there specific people that these songs are about?
There definitely are. I won’t ever name names or anything like that, but honestly, some of them are about me, and some of them are about friends and their relationships. It’s a little bit of everything – it’s not just about me.
Do you have a favorite song or lyric on the album?
I cannot pick a favorite on this album. I have a few that I really, really love. There’s one I wrote with Mallary Hope, and it’s just this really sweet, really pretty, stripped-down love song (“Safe”). It’s actually the last track on the album. That’s definitely one that sticks out for me.
It’s about that feeling when you’re in a relationship – the happiest moment in a relationship. I think every person, whether you’re a girl or a guy, wants to feel safe. And when you feel safe with somebody, when you can tell them anything and be yourself with them, that’s the best feeling,
What was it like working with Chad Carlson? Was there a specific sound that you two were trying to create?
I worked with him a little bit on the last album, and we really wanted to change from the last album. We wanted to have cool moments in every song, and I wanted to be able to hear the acoustic guitar on songs. I wanted there to be a lot of percussion and a lot of movement so that when you’re listening, you can tap your hand – whether it’s a slow song or a happy song. It’s definitely a bit different than the previous records, so hopefully people like it and can relate to it.
I love every single aspect of country music. I’ve written every single type of country song, and on this album, everything was definitely put on there with a purpose and with intent. It wasn’t just putting some songs on there for the sake of doing so.
Over the past few years, you’ve toured with a lot of different major country artists. Were there any elements of their tours or music that you took away and were able to channel into your new album?
I don’t know if I put any of the elements into my new album, but I definitely took all of the things that were in the back of my mind for future touring. Just different things like watching how their crew interacts and how they interact with their crew. It’s tiny things like that that you put in the back of your mind and say, “Wow, I never want to overlook that.”
Who do you think you’ve learned the most from, touring or otherwise?
I did one show with Brad Paisley this last year, and I was like, “This is why he is where he is.” He has it completely together. Every single thing. It must take such a long time for those people [on his tour]. It’s a very big crew to put a show on, but everybody’s so gracious and so humble and it doesn’t matter how big he is. He’s nice and friendly to everyone. That’s so important.
Why do you think people like Brad and Reba McEntire and those types of artists have had such staying power in the industry?
I think it’s a combination of having really good music, having a really great personality and having that drive. You have to have that. You’re out on the road so often, you’re not home a lot, and you have to just be OK with that. You always have to be on and be positive, and I think that [artists who've had staying power] are always great at that. It’s very hard to do sometimes.
Where do you see yourself 20 years from now? Where do you want to be?
I still want to be touring. I mean, who can say where they’ll be, but I just want to be singing and making records. I want to be putting music out there – and having people love the music and hopefully relate to it.
A great covers record, no matter how sincere the artist’s intentions, must provide a satisfactory answer to one question: Why should we listen to this artist’s versions of these songs when the originals are still there for us to enjoy?
There are moments when Terri Clark’s Classic answers that question effectively, as well as some when the answer is murky at best. Produced by Clark with Jeff Jones, the project fares best when Clark brings thoughtful vocal interpretations and creative production touches to her renderings of these classic songs. Her take on Glen Campbell’s “Gentle On My Mind” marries a pleasantly subtle vocal reading to a warm and inviting bluegrass-tinged arrangement. Another highlight is a reworking of Tanya Tucker’s 1972 debut hit “Delta Dawn,” on which Tucker herself contributes duet vocals. Tucker proves to be in fine voice, while an acoustic guitar and fiddle-based arrangement accentuates the song’s Southern Gothic charms. The album also includes some less-expected cover choices such as Linda Ronstadt’s “Love Is a Rose” and Emmylou Harris’ “Two More Bottles of Wine” – not necessary the usual go-to selections for a classic country covers project, but Clark’s searing fiddle-laced reworkings are a real treat.
The album’s most polarizing aspect would likely be its recurring tendency to place the songs in contemporary country-rock settings (which may make some country purists wince) similar to the style that became Clark’s calling card during her days as a mainstream country star. One could commend Clark for adapting the songs to her own style (as opposed to causing the same musical whiplash as Martina McBride’s by-the-book re-creations from her Timeless project), but the strategy does suffer from the occasional overhaul. She amps up Kittle Wells’ landmark hit “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” into a honky-tonk shuffle that could have worked if not for her overwrought vocal delivery, but an over-produced take on Loretta Lynn’s “Don’t Come Home a Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ On Your Mind)” all but buries the infectious sass of Lynn’s 1967 original. By the time Clark’s rocked-up versions of Merle Haggard’s “Swingin’ Doors” and Hank Snow’s “I’m Movin’ On” roll around, the style begins to feel somewhat tired.
The duets included on the album are something of a mixed bag. Dierks Bentley turns in one of his better performances as he fills George Jones’ shoes on the classic Jones-Wynette duet “Golden Ring.” Dean Brody joins Clark on “I’m Movin’ On,” thus shifting the song to a two-person (ostensibly an ex-couple) perspective. The third-person narrative of “Delta Dawn” is likewise well-suited to the duet treatment. On the other hand, sonically pleasant duet versions of “How Blue” (with original artist Reba McEntire) and Patsy Cline’s ”Leavin’ On Your Mind” (with fellow Canadian singer-songwriter Jann
Arden) suffer from the simple common flaw that the songs don’t work well as two-woman duets.
Terri Clark is to be commended for the sense of risk-taking evident on Classic, but unfortunately it sometimes comes at the expense of consistency. Sleepless Nights it isn’t, but the best moments on Terri Clark’s Classic make it an enjoyable and worthwhile listen as a whole, even if the project falls a degree short of fulfilling its lofty potential.
Top Tracks: “Love Is a Rose,” “Gentle On My Mind,” “Delta Dawn”
Some of the greatest artists in country music left the scene just as they reached staggering artistic heights, leaving fans to forever wonder what might have been.
Keith Whitley was born and raised in Kentucky, and was performing music from a very young age. A prodigious talent, he was only fifteen years old when he met Ricky Skaggs while competing in a regional music contest. The two became fast friends, and were soon performing on stage with bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley.
Whitley made two separate runs as a member of the Clinch Mountain Boys with Stanley, then performed in a group called New South, led by J.D Crowe. After appearing on more than a dozen albums, first with the Boys and then with New South, he finally pursued a solo career in the early eighties, signing with RCA records.
His first album, A Hard Act to Follow, made little impact, but his second set, L.A. to Miami, earned him stardom. It featured his breakout hit, “Miami, My Amy”, and raised his profile considerably, but Whitley was displeased with the album's slick sound. He truly found his voice on his first gold album, Don't Close Your Eyes, which featured three consecutive #1 hits, including the CMA Single of the Year, “I'm No Stranger to the Rain”, and the modern standard, “When You Say Nothing at All.”
Whitley became a new standard-bearer for neo-traditional country music, receiving critical acclaim that exceeded that of contemporaries like Randy Travis and Ricky Van Shelton. With the chart success and a marriage to fellow country artist Lorrie Morgan that had just produced a son, Whitley was poised for long-term professional and personal success.
Sadly, he was battling alcoholism, a fight that he lost in May 1989, when he died of alcohol poisoning. Amazingly, his success continued posthumously with the album, I Wonder Do You Think of Me also selling gold and featuring three big hits. He remained a presence on radio in the early nineties through duets with other artists. A collaboration with Morgan earned the CMA Vocal Event trophy, and a collaboration with Earl Thomas Conley reached #2 in 1991.
Whitley's recording career was brief, but much like Patsy Cline before him, his influence has cast a long shadow over the genre.
The writer of several timeless country standards, Don Gibson put down his pen often enough to maintain a remarkable, decades-long career as a singer and performer.
His childhood was fraught with adversity. His railroad worker father died when he was just two years old, and his mother remarried a sharecropper. Gibson loathed the farm life, but also school, which he dropped out of after the second grade. Paralyzed with shyness and hindered by a speech impediment, his escapism was the music he heard on the radio.
As a teen, he learned guitar and modeled himself after other performers, paying the bills by hustling pool. His growing instrumental talent blossomed into a band. Formed in 1948, Sons of the Soil garnered enough attention to earn a spot on a popular radio show. It was there that Gibson’s individual talent shone through.
A Mercury Records producer heard them and issued four sides for them, but the band split up in 1949. After another stint in a band called the King Cotton Kinfolks, Gibson pursued a solo career. A deal with Columbia resulted in promising records, but no commercial success. Gibson focused on his songwriting, and honing his craft earned him a publishing deal with Acuff-Rose. He insisted in an accompanying recording contract, which he received from MGM Records.
After a long wait, the hits came fast. Over the course of the next few years, he wrote and recorded songs that are now synonymous with country music. “Sweet Dreams” was his first top ten hit, and later was immortalized by Patsy Cline. “Oh Lonesome Me” and “I Can’t Stop Loving You” were a powerful two-sided hit on both the country and pop charts. While the former became Gibson’s signature song, the latter is now considered a Ray Charles classic. Meanwhile, “Just One Time” was a #2 hit two times. Gibson took it near the top in 1960, and Connie Smith revived it in 1971.
The hits slowed in the sixties and seventies, but still remained constant. He had a series of successful duets with Dottie West, most notably the #2 hit “Ring of Gold.” In 1972, he returned to #1 for the first time in fourteen years with “Woman (Sensuous Woman),” later covered by Mark Chesnutt. He spent much of the seventies collaborating with Sue Thompson, charting eleven songs together from 1971 to 1976.
From the eighties up until his death in 2003, Gibson remained an Opry performer and elder statesman of the genre. He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2003, a nice bookend to his Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame induction back in 1971.
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.
“A Little Bit Stronger”
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.
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.”
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.
“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
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!”
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.
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.
“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.
“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!
“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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
“What That Drink Cost Me”
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.
“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.
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.
“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.
“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.
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.
“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.
“Suds In the Bucket”
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.
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.
“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.
This year, instead of writing about this year’s crop of Christmas projects individually, I’ve decided to round them up in one post in an effort to make sure I acknowledge all of them. Unless I’ve overlooked one, the only album that will be omitted from this roundup is Shelby Lynne’s Christmas album, which is super good/compelling and funky, so it deserves its own review and it will come as soon as I figure out how to write about it.
Let the fun begin!
Carter’s Chord, Christmas
As Toby Keith’s best discovery so far, Carter’s Chord is a talented sister duo that hasn’t yet gotten the success that they deserve. With only one digitally released studio album that has received criminally little attention, they’ve still managed to deliver a delightful 4-song EP that would be well worth adding to your Christmas collection.
All of the songs are well produced, with very tasteful country arrangements, but the standout track is the warm and bluesy “Snowed In.” Surprisingly, the lead vocal on “Up on the Housetop” could easily be mistaken for a Miranda Lambert performance.
Lady Antebellum, A Merry Little Christmas
Yes, since I typically don’t shop at Target, I made a special trip to purchase this exclusive 6-song EP. It was at least one-third worth the effort. Literally. “Their versions of “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas”, “Blue Christmas” and “Let it Snow” are given nice, if not unremarkable, country leaning treatments while “All I Want for Christmas Is You” and “On This Winter’s Night” lean more toward R&B. “Silver Bells”, however, suffers from the generic pop production that Lady Antebellum all too often utilizes for their regular music.
Point of Grace, Home for the Holidays
For the last couple of years, Contemporary Christian group, Point of Grace, has attempted to make gains in the country market. They haven’t been successful, but they continue to try with the release of their fourth Christmas album (the third being a collection of their first two), Home for the Holidays. Their smooth harmonies are sweet but vibrant enough to stay out of the syrupy territory. The original “Candy Cane Lane” is laced with fiddle and steel guitar and, incidentally, is one of the stand out tracks on the album, along with the gorgeous “Emanuel.” Standards such as “Silver Bells”, “Little Drummer Boy”, and “Holly Jolly Christmas” are also treated to decidedly country arrangements and ably performed on the whole.
Mandy Barnett, Winter Wonderland
Mandy Barnett’s Cracker Barrel exclusive Christmas album is an unapologetic throwback to the Nashville sound of Yesteryear both in production and notable reverb affects. At this point, it’s unoriginal to compare her voice to Patsy Cline, but the similarity is pretty much irrefutable, so it’s no wonder that Barnett aptly capitalizes on the comparison and we, in turn, continue to make the connection. Ultimately, it’s a pleasant album, but more for background than intrigue.
Jason Michael Carroll, Christmas on the Farm
With Jason Michael Carroll’s chart success being somewhat spotty, it’s easy to forget that he possesses one of the top voices among the current country crop as he slips under the radar much of the time. Therefore, it’s the surprise of the season that his Christmas EP is one of the best Christmas projects of 2010. His talent gorgeously shines through most especially on the gently and beautifully sung arranged “Auld Lang Syne”, but on “Silent Night and “O Little Town of Bethlehem” as well. “Joy to the World” is a rousing back porch pickin’-type affair that is ridiculously infectious. The title track is also upbeat, but is the lone contemporary produced song on the set. It wouldn’t sound like a typical Christmas song if not for the setting, but it’s fun, if not superfluous, nonetheless. If this EP is representative of Jason Michael Carroll at Christmas Time, more please!