When the chemistry is there, it’s there from day one. The pairing of Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton was electric, and all of the elements that made it work were clearly evident on their first single.
The harmonies on the chorus and the conversational verses were an instant blueprint for the rest of their work together. They’d go on to release many great duets, but it rarely got better than “The Last Thing On My Mind.”
Their breezy, casual indifference as they claim they never meant to hurt each other is so much more powerful than a sincere delivery would’ve been.
Despite some amazing album artists – a Willie Nelson here, an Emmylou Harris there – country music has always been a singles format. Over the past seven years, we’ve charted the development of some artists from the very beginning, like Lady Antebellum and Zac Brown Band, just by reviewing their singles.
With Retro Single Reviews, we’re going to go back in time to tell the story of the genre’s biggest artists from the very beginning, by reviewing all of their singles in chronological order.
Here’s how it works: At any given time, we’ll be working our way through the catalog of five artists. When we complete one of them, we’ll add a new one to the rotation.
The first five artists are:
Alan Jackson (1989-present)
He began his career on Arista Records in 1989, recording with them through 2010. This year, he is prepping his first album on his own label.
Tim McGraw (1992-present)
In his twentieth year on the charts, McGraw is also prepping to leave his longtime label, which is making more money off of hits collections these days than anything else.
Dolly Parton (1967-present)
The most successful female singer-songwriter in country music history has duets with everyone from Porter Wagoner to Ladysmith Black Mambazo in her catalog of singles.
George Strait (1981-present)
With three decades of singles already under his belt, he’s had more #1 hits than any other country artist, and trails only Eddy Arnold and George Jones among all-time hitmakers.
Shania Twain (1993-present)
The top selling female country artist of all time, she’s just released her first new music in six years. Her career includes several singles that were released only in international markets.
It’s hard to believe that there once was a time that country artists put out two full-length albums a year. If they were part of a regular superstar duet team, like Conway Twitty & Loretta Lynn or Porter Wagoner & Dolly Parton, a fan might hear as many as four new studio albums from their favorite artist.
By the time that I got into country music – twenty years ago, natch – things had slowed down a bit. Artists usually released a new album every 12-18 months. Sometimes they’d push it to two years, but not often.
Those were the days. Waits between album releases have gotten crazy lately. I’m all for taking the time to get it right, but once we push past the half-decade mark, things have gone too far. Sure, we’re given side projects to carry us over, but there’s no substitute for a full-length studio album of all-new material.
Here are five artists who I’d really love to see make a long-awaited return with a new album in 2011, along with a brief rundown of the side projects that they’ve been busy with while we’ve waited for that new album:
Last Studio Album: Up! (2002)
Side Projects: Greatest Hits (2005), featuring four new tracks; contributions to a Dolly Parton tribute album, a live Willie Nelson album, an Anne Murray duet album, and the Desperate Housewives soundtrack.
It’s been over eight years since Twain released that 19-track opus. It was cool that she released the album in three different mixes, essentially giving us 57 new mp3s for the iPods we didn’t even have yet. Of all the superstar acts, she’s the one who has been away the longest.
Last Studio Album: What the World Needs (2003)
Side Projects: Live album, Christmas album, covers album, Cracker Barrel album…
In a sense, she’s never really gone away. But despite being a fixture in the media and releasing so many other-type albums, we haven’t gotten a real studio set from Wynonna in over seven years. Given that the last one was among the finest in her career, it’s a shame she has yet to craft another mainstream country album.
Last Studio Album: Blame the Vain (2005)
Side Projects: A Buck Owens tribute album in 2007, Dwight Sings Buck.
The most distressing absence on the list, mostly because he’s been so prolific in the past. Movie appearances are keeping him busy. Here’s hoping that when he does return, we get more than ten songs.
Last Studio Album: Taking the Long Way (2006)
Side Projects: “The Neighbor”, from the Shut Up & Sing documentary; contributions to a Tony Bennett duet project; Emily and Martie’s Court Yard Hounds set; Natalie’s duet with Neil Diamond.
It’s hard to follow up an album that wins a bunch of Grammys, but it’s not like they haven’t done so before. If they’re insisting on writing all of the next album, it could be gestating for a very long time. Can’t we get a Patty Griffin or Darrell Scott covers album to hold us over?
Last Studio Album: These Days (2006)
Side Projects: A mother lode of duet and harmony appearances on other artist’s albums (Reba McEntire, Charlie Daniels, Amy Grant, Clay Aiken…)
Gill’s last album was a four discs worth of new material, so it’s understandable that it would take a couple of years for him to craft a new one. But we’re going on five now. Since Gill was able to create those four discs a mere three years after his previous studio set (2003′s Next Big Thing), we should be due for a new album soon.
There was a lot of good music out there in 2010, provided you knew where to look. Sometimes, you could even find it on the radio. Here are the top ten albums of 2010, according to our staff:
#10 Easton Corbin Easton Corbin
With the charisma of Clay Walker and the chops of George Strait, Easton Corbin sauntered onto the mainstream country music scene with a hit song that –refreshingly– name-checked “country” in all the right ways. He needs no such affirmation, though, as his debut album is a collection of effortlessly neo-traditionalist songs, ripe with sincerity. It’s fair to compare Corbin to his obvious influences, but there’s something about the natural, youthful effervescence he brings to his music that makes it sparkle all on its own. – Tara Seetharam
#9 Freight Train Alan Jackson
Like an old, trusted friend, Freight Train is easy to take for granted – and that’s a shame, because it’s as rousing as any of the boundary-pushing albums released this year. Jackson returns to his signature sound on this album, sinking comfortably into the set of twelve songs but never skimping on emotional investment. From the smoking “Freight Train” to the exquisite “Till the End” to the shuffling “I Could Get Used To This Loving Thing,” Jackson reminds us that his formula of bare-bones authenticity and quiet charm is as relevant and rewarding as ever. – TS
UPDATE: Thank you to everyone who entered the contest. The response was impressive. The randomly selected (random.org) winners are:
Jake Kremmel, Lora Purcell, Bradley, Paul Dennis, and Rachel Summit
Congratulations to the winners. Emails will be sent to you shortly. However, if you’d like to make my job easier, feel free to contact me with your email address. Stay tuned for another giveaway very soon.
As a virtuosic instrumentalist in both mandolin and guitar, Marty Stuart was one of the very talented artists whose peak occurred in the early nineties. While his chart success wasn’t as numerically present as many of his counterparts, his reverence for country music and its history has turned him into one of the most respected nineties country artists today.
Stuart has explored several facets of country music over the years, including rockabilly, traditional, and honky tonk. Now, he is paying his respects to traditional country music with his latest release called Ghost Train: The Studio B Sessions”, which will be released on August 24th. Along with 12 other quality tracks, the album includes a haunting song that Stuart wrote with Johnny Cash just four days before Cash’s death. From the perspective of a man who hanged people for a living, the song is called “Hangmen.” The other stand out song is called “Porter Wagoner’s Grave.”
As one of the summer releases that I’ve most been looking forward to, I am pleased to report that the album does not disappoint. Therefore, I am excited to announce that courtesy of Sugar Hill Records, Country Universe has five (5) copies of Ghost Train: the Studio B Sessions to give away to five lucky winners.
One of my favorite Marty Stuart projects is the concept album that explores Native American culture, specifically the plains Indians of the Dakota Badlands. To enter the drawing for a copy of Stuart’s new album, leave a comment that tells us about your favorite country concept album. If you don’t have a favorite concept album, tell us your favorite Marty Stuart song. As always, if you can’t comment on either of those topics, but are still interested in hearing the album, feel free to leave a comment anyway. All comments relevant to Marty Stuart will be eligible.
In order to get the album to the winners by release day, the contest will end Wednesday, August 18, at midnight. Good luck.
Like many country fans who discovered the genre in the nineties, CMT and TNN were central to my experience of discovering music. When CMT shifted to non-music programming, GAC quickly became the channel of choice. But as that channel grew in popularity, it shifted its emphasis to only mainstream country music, losing the diversity that defined it in its early years.
When moving late last year, I switched cable companies. Initially, I thought the best country-related channel I’d gotten in the switch was CMT Pure, which plays only music. Unfortunately, older videos are limited to a 1/2 hour of programming called “Pure Vintage”, a pale comparison to the three-hour early morning extravaganza “CMT Classic” that once ran on CMT proper in the wee hours of the weekend.
By a fluke, I discovered RFD-TV, which bills itself as “Rural America’s Most Important Network.” I could care less about the horse and agriculture shows, but with country music, this channel has hit the jackpot.
Currently airing regularly: vintage episodes of The Porter Wagoner Show, Pop Goes the Country, and Crook & Chase. It’s like going back into the seventies and eighties with the benefit of DVR! To see Don Williams appear as a young artist just getting his start, all skin and bones and sideburns. To see Dolly Parton at the peak of her songwriting talent, expressing it through the confines of the “girl singer” slot on Wagoner’s classic show, outshining everything else by such a wide margin it’s a wonder they didn’t turn the whole show over to her. Or even just to see the legendarily slow-talking Ralph Emery interviewing stars in his youth, and learning that his slow pace wasn’t a product of aging – he’s always talked that way.
I’ve even seen a female artist I didn’t recognize. That’s right, the guy who wrote this didn’t know who this woman was:
That’s Susan Raye, by the way, doing her best to sing a song of seduction while buttoned up from neck to toe. I’d read about her, but there’s no way I would’ve heard this #53 hit “Saturday Night to Sunday Quiet” if not for RFD-TV. Much like I never would’ve asked for the Emmylou Harris box set for Christmas if I hadn’t seen the “High-Powered Love” video on CMT, a song that made it to #63 at radio.
As my first visit to Nashville in four years draws to a close, I’ve been immersing myself in the tackier elements of country music history. As we prepare for our visit to the wax museum (Game On!), I’m thinking about some of the most hilariously overwrought moments that classic country has to offer.
Is it Porter Wagoner & Dolly Parton’s “I Get Lonesome By Myself”, with a plot line that should lead to child endangerment charges by the first verse?
How about the horrific cautionary tale “Drunken Driver” by Ferlin Husky?
Or, if you’ll just hand me my crayons, I’ll write down the reasons why the mental home classic “I Don’t Remember Loving You” is John Conlee at his best:
What are your favorite over-the-top country classics? Share in the comments. Remember, if you want to embed a video from YouTube, you need only add a “v” after the http at the beginning of the url. (i.e., httpv://www.youtube.com…)
This was the decade that brought back the single. Not that it ever fully went away, as radio still played the promotional ones and video outlets the filmed ones. But actual commercial singles had gone the way of the dodo, until the digital revolution suddenly made them practical again. Why buy the whole album when you can just get the song that you want?
The devastation this has brought to record company bottom lines was probably unavoidable anyway, given the realities of post-Napster society. But technology has its perks. Now you can buy the songs on this list with a click of the mouse!
And what a list it is: 201 singles that run the gamut, from genuine hits that topped the charts to songs spun only by renegade DJs working the night shift. Here’s how we compiled it: four Country Universe writers ranked their personal favorite 100 singles, with an inverted point system applied (#1 on a list meant 100 points, while #100 on the list meant 1 point.) The songs were then ranked by number of total points, greatest to least. Ties were broken by the number of lists the song appeared on, then by highest individual ranking.
There was more consensus than usual for CU, and we all agreed on one thing: this list was a heck of a lot of fun to compile. We hope you enjoy it, too!
The 201 Greatest Singles of the Decade, Part 1: #201-#181
#201 “I Run To You”
There’s a palpable intensity to this song that grips me every time I listen to it. Love isn’t always characterized by peacefulness, and the song’s pulsing production perfectly conveys the urgency, desperation and passion that often accompanies it. – Tara Seetharam (more…)
The title track looks forward, pondering what to do with the scarcity of time left, but the best of the rest of these tracks look backward, sometimes with sadness (“My Old Friend”), sometimes with humor (“Back When”), and often with both (“Open Season on My Heart”, “Can’t Tell Me Nothin’.”) – Kevin Coyne
Recommended Tracks: “My Old Friend”, “Old Town New”, “Open Season On My Heart”
Ashley Monroe, Satisfied
At just nineteen years old, Ashley Monroe has made an album with content comparatively mature, both in lyrics and production, to most other albums on this list. With a voice naturally tinged with both twang and sophistication, Monroe sings of loss, relational strife and even regret and sorrow with acute adeptness. While many of the compositions are sonically and topically subdued, she is not incapable of letting loose on certain numbers such as Kasey Chambers’ “Pony”, which includes a mean yodel, and a delightful duet with Dwight Yoakam, “That’s Why We Call Each Other Baby.” – Leeann Ward
She got her groove back with The Grass Is Blue, but Parton’s career revival truly peaked when she revisited her mountain roots on this classic album. She won a Grammy for her treatment of the Collective Soul hit “Shine”, and she wrote new songs like the title track, which ranks among her best work. She even revisited her finest pre-”Coat of Many Colors” composition, “Down From Dover”, restoring the verse that Porter Wagoner had forced her to edit out for the sake of brevity. – KC
Recommended Tracks: “Little Sparrow”, “Shine”, “Down From Dover”
Carrie Underwood, Some Hearts
Six months after taking the American Idol crown, Underwood unapologetically introduced herself as a polished country-pop artist via Some Hearts. With explosive hits like “Before He Cheats” at the helm, the album became the best-selling debut by a solo female country artist, making it easy to overlook that it is as genuine as it is commercially viable. It’s an album that fits Underwood like a glove, bottling a unique combination of naivety and perceptiveness, sass and charm, bombast and reservation – the kinds of paradoxes that have come to define her as an artist and as a person. And while the material is standard country-pop, to be sure, we’re reminded by Underwood’s compelling, crystalline performances that standard material can be made to be just as memorable as anything else. – Tara Seetharam
Recommended Tracks: “Wasted”, “Jesus, Take The Wheel”, “The Night Before (Life Goes On)”
Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott, Real Time
In which two modern virtuosos sit in a living room and pluck out an acoustic album to match any before or since. The playing is exemplary, the songwriting deeply inspired, and the country-folk-bluegrass sound ageless. – Dan Milliken
Recommended Tracks: “Walk Beside Me”, “There Ain’t No Easy Way”, “Long Time Gone”
Soundtrack, O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Sometimes an album’s perceived quality becomes inextricable from its legend. Such is the case with the soundtrack to the Coen Brothers’ modern-day Odyssey, one of the bestselling country sets of the decade and a landmark in the genre’s history for its regeneration of mainstream interest in roots music. In essence, it’s really just a bunch of old-time covers done in exceptionally convincing old-time form. Whether that’s enough to put it among the decade’s finest country albums is up for debate – but there’s no denying it’s among the most essential. – DM
Recommended Tracks: “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow”, “Didn’t Leave Nobody But the Baby”, “O Death”
Buddy and Julie Miller, Written in Chalk
Americana’s favorite couple outdo themselves on one of this year’s most revelatory albums, a tour de force of down-home soul and raw depth. The Millers excel at finding just the right sound to express the sentiments of their material, scoring randy lovemakin’ (“Gasoline And Matches”) and quiet grief (“Don’t Say Goodbye”) with equal aplomb. – DM
Recommended Tracks: “One Part, Two Part”, “Chalk”, “Everytime We Say Goodbye”
Patty Loveless, Sleepless Nights
The last decade has seen numerous well executed traditional covers albums, but none of higher quality than Patty Loveless’ tribute to tradition, Sleepless Nights. Loveless culls songs from various places, including compositions mostly previously attributed to male singers, to create an album that solidly stands as a cohesive unit. Due to Loveless’ naturally distinctive twang and her producer husband’s (Emory Gordy, Jr.) tasteful arrangements (prominent bass, light percussion and steel guitar), Sleepless Nights does well at staying authentic while still sounding progressive enough to warrant yet another covers project. – LW
While The Good Life gained considerably more attention among traditional country audiences than Midnight at the Movies, with Justin Townes Earle’s follow-up, we are presented with his first fully mature album. Nominated for an Americana Music Award for Album of the Year, Midnight at the Movies delivers a voice fallen far from the rough gravel of Earle’s father, Steve Earle, but with gleaming jewels of writing equal to some of his father’s best work. – William Ward
Urban’s second solo album is an exuberant, original piece of work that solidified his place as one of the genre’s most gifted and charismatic male artists. The album showcases both his fine musicianship and intuitive sense of balance, as the material embraces exhilaration without feeling frivolous, and sentimentality without feeling melodramatic. Much like his other albums, it’s hard to classify Urban’s style on Golden Road, with its intermixed elements of rock, pop and traditional country – but who the heck cares when it’s this good? – TS
Recommended Tracks: “Who Wouldn’t Wanna Be Me”, “You’ll Think Of Me”, “Raining On Sunday”
Today, the Starter Kit returns to Country Universe, and it brings a new theme with it: Back to the Nineties.
Beginning this month, we’ll be putting a special focus on the artists most closely associated with the nineties boom, which remains the most commercially successful era in the history of country music.
The first artist to be featured is Joe Diffie, a wonderful balladeer who had his greatest success with novelty material. At one point, he was known in Nashville as Joe Ditty, a moniker that masked the fact that he continued to record heartbreaking ballads but had trouble getting them on the radio.
With that in mind, Diffie’s Starter Kit is also the first to introduce a slight tweak to the format. This and future Starter Kits will include Ten Essential Tracks and Two Hidden Treasures, allowing for should’ve been hits to be acknowledged along with the signature songs.
Ten Essential Tracks
from the 1990 album A Thousand Winding Roads
Today, it might be quickly dismissed as the latest nostalgic “list song”, and perhaps this would be little more than that in lesser hands. But Diffie’s wistful pining for home is a lot closer in spirit to Porter Wagoner’s “Green, Green Grass of Home” than it is to anything contemporary. As Diffie’s first single, it’s interesting to hear him still finding himself as a singer, with quite a bit of his phrasing borrowed from Merle Haggard.
“Is it Cold in Here”
from the 1992 album Regular Joe
Diffie led off his second album with this single that posed the following question to his wife: “Is it cold in here, or is it just you?” It’s anything but bitter, as he mournfully searches for what he’s done wrong that’s led to the sudden chill.
“Ships That Don’t Come In”
from the 1992 album Regular Joe
Two strangers that are down on their luck compare battle scars at a local bar. Before fully giving in to their self-pity, they realize that even though they’ve tried and failed, there are those who’ve never been given the chance to even try.
“Prop Me Up Beside the Jukebox (If I Die)”
from the 1993 album Honky Tonk Attitude
A country comedy star is born.
“John Deere Green”
from the 1993 album Honky Tonk Attitude
A delightfully corny tale of a smitten young man who is ready to let the world know he loves Charlene in a quite unconventional way.
“In My Own Backyard”
from the 1993 album Honky Tonk Attitude
In what would become a growing trend, radio didn’t embrace the classic country hurt of a Diffie ballad. Despite his previous three uptempo songs going top five, this killer track barely grazed the top twenty.
“Third Rock From the Sun”
from the 1994 album Third Rock From the Sun
Diffie reached his commercial peak with the album that shared a title with this mind-bending single, a cleverly written saga of cause-and-effect in a small town that’s anything but boring.
“Texas Size Heartache”
from the 1998 album Greatest Hits
After going to the well too many times in the mid-nineties, radio grew tired of Diffie’s ditties, but they hadn’t rediscovered his ballads either. He got back on track with this pleasing mid-tempo that split the difference between the two, earning his first real hit in three years.
“A Night to Remember”
from the 1999 album A Night to Remember
Quite possibly Diffie’s finest moment, a powerful song about a man who surrenders to memories of his long lost love at the end of a long week of pretending to be doing fine without her.
“It’s Always Somethin’”
from the 1999 album A Night to Remember
I suspect that Dierks Bentley keeps this one on his favorite songs playlists. Every mile’s a memory here, with everything that Diffie sees and does reminding him of the woman he still loves.
Two Hidden Treasures:
“Good Brown Gravy”
from the 1994 album Third Rock From the Sun
Diffie’s dittying reaches its dizzying peak, with this uproarious salute to the amorous power of biscuit lotion.
“That Road Not Taken”
from the 1994 album Third Rock From the Sun
This shockingly stopped at #40, despite Diffie’s three previous singles reaching the top two. It flew way over the head of country radio, but it remains a heart-stopping ballad, possibly the finest showcase there is of Diffie’s raw vocal talent.