Country music singer-songwriter Zane Williams had his first taste of mainstream success in 2006 when Jason Michael Carroll took his song “Hurry Home” into the Top 20. Having already made inroads in the regional country market of his home state of Texas, the Abilene native is currently attempting to break through to a national audience with his fourth album Overnight Success. Amid preparations to embark on his first nationwide radio tour (in an RV with his wife and two children along for the ride), Williams found the time to call Country Universe to chat about his current single and album.
Ben Foster: What can you tell us about the creative process behind your single “Overnight Success”?
Zane Williams: Well, that was a pretty easy one to write because it’s so autobiographical. Once I got the idea, I had a lot of subject material to pull from – just from my own life, and from all the other musicians I know. It was a little tricky to get it sort of figured out. I wanted it to be a ten-step process. Pretty much all those things that I talk about in the song I’ve actually lived out in my own life. I didn’t borrow ten grand from my uncle to make my first CD, but I borrowed $17,000 from my grandparents to make my first CD. All the stuff that the song talks about.
Does the album have any central unifying themes?
I don’t think the songs do really. I think the main theme that sort of ties it all together is just the fact that I wrote all the songs, and so I think each one of them sort of shows a different side of my personality, and I kind of think of each one as being kind of its own mini-movie, and they’re all pretty different from each other.
Like an exploration of who Zane Williams is, basically?
Yeah, basically. Just all the different sides of my writing and just how I hear country music. You got your honky-tonk song, and then you got your kind of rocking country song like “Hands of a Working Man,” and you got your acoustic-y bluegrass sittin’ on a front porch type song with “The Simple Things,” love song with “Kissin’.” You hear all those types of song on the radio. You don’t always hear that kind of variety from just one artist, but as a writer, I like to write all those different styles.
Do you have any favorite songs or lyrics on this album, or does that feel like choosing between your children?
I think maybe “On a Good Day,” especially the first verse, the one about “steam rising from my coffee cup like a prayer going up.” I was really feeling the mojo that day. I think I put some good imagery in that song. Metaphors and similes and imagery and stuff, you know. I was feeling sort of poetic that day, so I’m kind of proud of that one, and then “While I Was Away” is real personal for me because it’s written for my boy, and I think that one’s got some mojo on it too. But yeah, I like ‘em all, though. That’s true.
Who are your favorite songwriters?
Man, there are so many.
Living or dead, past or present.
I think Garth Brooks wrote some killer songs. Of course, not all of his hits did he write, but he did write some of those hits. He wrote some really, really good ones. I still feel like Garth Brook’s greatest hits is just like the pinnacle for me. They’re just all so iconic. Like I said, he didn’t write ‘em all, but he picked them.
He knows how to write ‘em, and he knows how to pick ‘em.
Yeah, exactly. Alan Jackson is somebody who I really have a lot of respect for as a writer because he’d just keep it simple and keep it country and classic, and yet still not be too cliché and still be personal and original. He’s just a good’n. He showed that sweet spot. Of Nashville writers, Dennis Linde is one of my favorites. He passed away not too long ago. He wrote a lot of songs. He was kind of a recluse that lived off by himself and wrote by himself. His songs always had a lot of character to them, like “Bubba Shot the Jukebox” and [sings] “Made her the queen of my double wide trailer.” He wrote “Goodbye Earl” for the Dixie Chicks. All the hit songs just were fun. And then he wrote [sings] “In John Deere green, on a hot summer night…” So he was one of my favorite writers that wrote a lot of stuff back in the nineties. And then you got the guys like Radney Foster or Guy Clark, kind of singer-songwritery, little bit more folksy-type.
Yeah, Guy Clark’s new album is killer.
Yeah, they’re so varied, so good in their own way.
As a Texan, what are your thoughts on the current Texas country music scene, and what Texan artists do you enjoy listening to?
Well, I think like any scene it’s got its good music and bad music, and it’s got good music that’s not popular and you wonder why, and it’s got bad music that is popular and you wonder why. But it’s also got a lot of great stuff too. I think the main thing I like about it is just that you don’t have to be on a major label. There’s fewer gatekeepers. You don’t have to get permission to work with somebody. You pretty much just get your band together and sort of band together and go play shows and just work hard. So I’m thankful for the Texas community. If it weren’t for that, I don’t think I’d have a career right now because I’m always a little bit of a square peg in a round hole in Nashville. I’ve never had any luck getting a major label deal or whatever, and in Nashville you either get that major label deal or you’re just waiting tables. Or you get a publishing deal, but I did that, and I wasn’t happy just being that because I’m more than just a songwriter. I want to be an artist and I want to perform. Down here in Texas I’ve got a scene that enables me to do that.
I’d say some of my favorites on the Texas scene would be the Randy Rogers Band. They’re just cool, man. They’re really good. I like the Turnpike Troubadours. Singer-songwriters, I like Sean McConnell a lot. Those are some of my favorites. I guess one of my favorites is the new guy up-and-comer William Clark Green.
So what’s next for you?
Well, a lot of stuff, man. We’re basically kicking it into fifth gear, you know. I’m leaving the day after tomorrow and I’m taking my family, and we’re going in an RV that we borrowed from a friend, and we’re going on a twelve-day radio tour. On this twelve-day radio tour we’ll be going through Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi up to Nashville, and then spending a few days in Nashville, and then we’ll go through Bowling Green up to Lexington we’re I’ve got some family, and then we’ll be coming back down hitting a bunch of stations in Tennessee, and then going home by way of Arkansas and Oklahoma, hitting stations as we go. So anyway, it’s my first nationwide radio tour. “Overnight Success” is my first nationwide radio single. We’ve got a video for “Overnight Success” that’s coming out. We’ve been working it to the Texas charts for a couple months now. It’s in the Top 10 on the Texas charts. And that’s just the first single, man. Everybody that’s on my team and my record label – management, publicists, and radio promoters and all those people – we feel like there’s a lot more than just one single on our album. There’s two, five or six, so many to choose from.
So the next year or two is just gonna basically be the busiest I’ve ever been, just working my tail off playing shows every weekend and visiting as many radio stations as I can during the week and just really kicking it in into a higher gear than I’ve ever been in. I’ve never really had a good team behind me. It’s really the first time I’ve ever had the help of good publicists and radio promoters and everybody setting up a bunch of interviews for me and just helping to get the word out. We’re hoping to basically make Overnight Success a reality. I’d like this to be my breakout album, and I’m gonna do anything and everything in my power to get the word out about it.
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.
Greatness comes in twos this year, as ten different artists make dual appearances on this list. Perhaps this demonstrates a greater truth about 2010. Sure, there was some good music, but greatness was concentrated among a smaller group of artists than usual.
As is the annual tradition, we’ll reveal this year’s forty best singles, ten at a time. Check back tomorrow for Part 2.
The Best Singles of 2010, Part 1: #40-#31
Why Wait Rascal Flatts
The Flatts boys return to their roots with this bright, infectious slice of country-pop. Bonus points for keeping both Gary LeVox’s voice and Dann Huff’s production in check. – Tara Seetharam
That’s Important to Me Joey + Rory
So far, Joey+Rory’s calling card has been their ability to exude authenticity through their songs with a naturalness and warmth as convincingly as a certain mother-daughter duo of the eighties, The Judds. Only, unlike the Judds, this partnership’s perceived connection isn’t marred by real accounts of strife and familial discord. Instead, by all accounts, Joey and Rory’s love is as sweet as their musical harmonies suggest. And this song is a nice encapsulation of what makes them who they are as a duo, both in a personal and professional sense. – Leeann Ward
Where Do I Go From You Clay Walker
Walker’s voice has matured so much over the past decade. Thankfully, he still has preserved his playful way with a melody, resulting in records like this that elevate radio fodder into something more than just filler. – Kevin John Coyne
Back to December Taylor Swift
She ran from love “when fear crept into [her] mind,” but fear has long since given way to sorrowful regret. Swift knows there’s probably no reversing her mistake, but gets the grief off her chest anyway, with a chorus that sounds almost as nervous as you’d imagine the real-life plea to. – Dan Milliken
Little Miss Sugarland
My disdain for the duo’s label remains strong, as their lack of quality control let a terrible album reach the marketplace. But kudos to the folks who are picking the singles, as The Incredible Machine must sound like a great piece of work to radio listeners who’ve only heard the album’s two singles. It’s not quite “What it Feels Like For a Girl”, but as modern-day post-feminist explorations of gender go, “Little Miss” is very good. – KC
Pretty Good at Drinkin’ Beer Billy Currington
He ain’t cut out to sing great ballads. He’s not the type to make deep and introspective albums. But he’s pretty good – no, pretty great – at laid back songs like this. – KC
Temporary Home Carrie Underwood
A story of shared humanity, brought to life by Underwood’s spot-on vocal interpretation. This is the first single in her catalog to slice through to the person behind the artist, and the payoff –striking, palpable personal conviction– is rich. – TS
I’m In Keith Urban
In an unusual accomplishment, Keith Urban manages to allow a drum machine to enhance a song rather than destroy it. What’s more, this lively Radney Foster penned celebration of commitment is both infectious and refreshing. When it comes to a new relationship, we don’t know what to expect, so the best choice is to be all in and present. – LW
Pray For You Jaron and The Long Road to Love
If we’re going to bring a college-boy mentality to country music – heck, Hootie’s already in the house anyway – let’s have it be as satisfyingly clever as it is juvenile. – KC
From a Table Away Sunny Sweeney
Seeing the man she loves visibly enthralled by the wife he claims he’s leaving, the man’s mistress finally realizes how badly she’s being used. Sort of like “Stay” with more reserved narration. This is the kind of country single we don’t hear much anymore, with traditional-leaning vocals and production that work only enough to capture the song’s natural pathos, never overcooking things. – DM
Sara Evans was one of the most successful female artists from the earlier part of the last decade, which was not a particularly good era for women as a whole. Her ease with both pop-flavored and purely traditional country allowed her to adapt to quickly changing trends in the genre.
This makes her catalog a fascinating one to sample. In compiling this Starter Kit, it would be easy to just list the hits. But I’ve left off some of her more overexposed tracks in favor of some gems that either didn’t quite dominate the charts or weren’t sent to radio at all. I think her crossover numbers haven’t aged that well, anyway.
Be sure to let me know what I missed in the comment threads!
“Shame About That” from the 1997 album Three Chords and the Truth
The title track got all of the love, and the most airplay of the three low-charting singles from Evans’ debut album. But I think that this is the coolest little record, with Evans sounding like the female heir to Buck Owens as she can’t even feign sympathy for the ex who is now regretting his departure.
“No Place That Far” from the 1998 album No Place That Far
Vince Gill provided the harmony vocal on this soaring ballad of devotion. After a slow and steady ascension, it became the first of four number one singles for Evans, powering her sophomore set to gold status. The record still holds up today, perhaps because it was one of the last great nineties records that allowed a new artist to break through on the back of a solid song.
“I Thought I’d See Your Face Again” from the 1998 album No Place That Far
One of those wonderful could’ve been hits, had the label only released it as a single. This is one of the finest moments in Evans’ early years. It’s a multi-layered exploration of the finality of goodbyes. She’s fully aware that ending the relationship meant that the quiet nights together were gone, but she can’t get her head around the fact that she may never even see him again for the rest of her life.
“I Keep Looking” from the 2000 album Born To Fly
Evans reached her sales peak with her third album, powered to double platinum status by both the hit title track and her cover of the pop song “I Could Not Ask For More.” But the finest single from that set was “I Keep Looking,” which is a smart and funny take on what it’s like to always want what you don’t have. “Just as soon as I get what I want, I get unsatisfied. Good is good but could be better…”
“Backseat of a Greyhound Bus” from the 2003 album Restless
In the grand tradition of Dolly Parton classics like “Down From Dover” and “Just Because I’m a Woman”, Evans finds the heroine inside a woman who has been shunned by her community. The setup makes you believe for a minute that this unwed soon-t0-be mother is going to fall in love with a man on this bus ride, but it’s a thing of beauty when she falls in love with her newly born daughter instead.
“Perfect” from the 2003 album Restless
Perfection is an impossible standard, of course. But here is a wonderful love song that embraces the imperfections as being what actually does make their loving marriage perfect. Plenty of great details here, my personal favorite being how in every wedding picture, her daddy looks annoyed.
“Suds in the Bucket” from the 2003 album Restless
When Evans first debuted, she was celebrated by critics for resurrecting a traditional country sound that recalled pre-Nashville Sound country music. She didn’t break through commercially until she left that style behind, but in one of those moments of pure serendipity, she revisited that style as a goofy end to her very pop-flavored fourth album. The label sent it to radio, and it became her signature hit, not to mention her third #1 single.
“Rockin’ Horse” from the 2003 album Restless
If I was going to make a list of the best country songs of the 21st century, this one would be in the upper echelon. Simply put, I think it’s brilliant. Perennial optimist that I am, I’m always looking for the opportunities created by the challenges that confront me. I’ve never heard a better metaphor for this point of view than the one Evans constructs here.
The framework she uses is that a tree struck by lightning when she was a child almost hit her house, terrifying her at the time. Her father took the fallen tree and used it to build her a rocking horse, which she deems “something magic out of something frightening.” This becomes a symbol for her approach to life: “When it’s pouring down on me, in my mind I see the rocking horse inside the tree.”
“‘A Real Fine Place to Start” from the 2005 album Real Fine Place
You really can’t go wrong by covering Radney Foster. His original version was great, but a soaring vocal by Evans lifted an already great song into the stratosphere.
Her fourth and final #1 hit, it helped her win the ACM Award for Female Vocalist, a perhaps overdue acknowledgment made possible by the very short window between Gretchen Wilson’s breakthrough and Carrie Underwood’s.
“Cheatin’” from the 2005 album Real Fine Place
Reba McEntire was the most dominant female in country music for a longer time period than any woman since Kitty Wells, so it always amazes me just how little her influence can be heard in the music of the women who came after her.
“Cheatin’” is a glorious exception, as Evans twists and turns and trills her voice as if she’s the second coming of late eighties McEntire. Granted, Reba never showed anywhere near this much backbone when her man was running around, but it’s great to hear someone singing the way she used to back in her heyday.
“Coalmine” from the 2005 album Real Fine Place
A coal mining disaster limited this song from reaching its full potential, as it was horribly tacky to have playing on the radio in the wake of so many miners having died. But it’s still a great little number.
Sure, it’s a blatant attempt to capture the “Suds in a Bucket” lightning twice, but I wouldn’t mind Evans revisiting that sound on every album she releases for the rest of her career.
“Low” from the 2008 soundtrack album Billy – The Early Years
It’s been five years since Evans released a studio album, perhaps because the songs that she’s attempted to launch a new set with have underwhelmed both critics and country radio. But she has released a real gem during the same period, which is her uplifting contribution to the soundtrack for Billy Graham biopic.
“Low” asserts that her faith will always give her the strength to rise above those who would keep her down. In an era when most songs of faith are little more than Hallmark cards with a sprinkling of spirituality along the edges, “Low” actually engages the gospel and applies it to everyday life.
September has a lot of album releases that I’m really enjoying or looking forward to. In fact, it’s the most lucrative month for music for my taste in quite some time.
Last Tuesday (September 7), Rounder Records released The SteelDrivers’ second album, Reckless (which is pretty spectacular, by the way) and this week, they will be releasing Robert Plant’s follow up to his 2007 collaborative album with Alison Krauss, also on Rounder. From the streaming preview that can be heard on NPR’s website until release day, the album is a wonderfully rootsy project helmed by Plant and Buddy Miller and includes guitar work from Darrell Scott. October will also finally see the release of Joe Diffie’s bluegrass album on the label.
When one learns that an album will be released through Rounder Records (which has recently been sold to Concord Music Group), it’s pretty much automatically expected that the project will be quality. Whether it’s The SteelDrivers, Robert Plant, Joe Diffie, John Mellancamp, Alison Krauss or Willie Nelson, it’s reasonable to assume certain aspects of a Rounder release, including that the album may even stray from a typical artist release to be more rootsy in approach, as is the case with the recent Willie Nelson and John Mellancamp albums, along with the upcoming Diffie project. More often than not, I can count on Rounder Records to please my musical sensibilities, even with unexpected artists, since I never expected that Robert Plant would be recording some of my favorite roots music.
As much as I love and count on Rounder Records to produce great music, my absolute favorite record company is Sugar Hill Records (owned by Vanguard Records). Incidentally, Joey+Rory will be releasing their anticipated second album through Sugar Hill on Tuesday (September 14). Additionally, Marty Stuart’s recent release, the excellent Ghost Train, was released through them as well. Other artist who have been associated with Sugar Hill include, but are not limited to: Nickel Creek, Ricky Skaggs, Guy Clark, Dolly Parton, Darrell Scott, Kasey Chambers and Shane Nicholson, The Duhks, Sarah Jarosz, and the list goes on. As with Rounder Records, many artists seem to release albums with Sugar Hill as a deviation from the music for which they are most popularly associated, as is the case with Dolly Parton, Ricky Skaggs, and even Rodney Crowell, who released his venerable The Houston Kid on the label.
Right now, it seems that my favorite record labels aren’t in the business of releasing music that we hear on mainstream country radio, though Joey+Rory are attempting to crack through. While I don’t have the inside knowledge to say that it doesn’t exist, we don’t hear about the red tape and politics that is ever present with major companies like, lets say, the infamous Curb Records, which has produced some rather publicly disgruntled artists, most notably Tim McGraw and the two Living Hank Williamses.
But when I was a kid, MCA Records was the label that seemed like the powerhouse record company for country music to me. Some of my favorite artists were on that label, including Trisha Yearwood, George Strait, Reba McEntire and, of course, Vince Gill. I admired the country roster of Arista as well, which included Alan Jackson, Diamond Rio, Radney Foster, and Blackhawk.
Along with reminding you about some good releases that have recently been released and will soon be available, this is the very long and self-indulgent way of getting to the question of:
What is the record label that you most admire and can count on to release your favorite music?
The themes of love and loss have permeated country music for as long as it’s been in existence. This second-to-last batch of great nineties hits contains songs that are direct descendants of well-known classics like “Can the Circle Be Unbroken” and “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”, along with a Shania Twain hit that would have made Roba Stanley smile.
400 Greatest Singles of the Nineties: #50-#26
Here’s a Quarter (Call Someone Who Cares) Travis Tritt
1991 | Peak: #2
From the first forceful guitar strum on, this kiss-off number somehow manages to seem unusually cool and collected in its own aggression. You get the impression that Tritt’s character has been anticipating this moment, and has already made up his mind that he’s going to relish every second of it. – Dan Milliken
I’ve Come to Expect it From You George Strait
1990 | Peak: #1
This Keith Whitley classic was recorded as part of a tribute album to the late country star. It became a hit all over again, perhaps because Krauss performed it in a near-whisper. The quiet arrangement matches the sentiment beautifully. – Kevin Coyne
Lawrence dishes on his ex’s cheating ways to her new potential lover. How did she get that way? He reveals that he’s the one who taught her everything she knows from the cheater’s playbook. Moreover, he seems regretful of her corruption. – Leeann Ward
Cowboy Take Me Away Dixie Chicks
1999 | Peak: #1
In a modern world where life can so easily feel cold and mechanical, love remains earthy and exciting and mysterious. It’s a window into a different world, one where we’re not defined by the predictables of our routine – the same stresses, the same cars and buildings – but by our core nature as people, our place in the greater fabric of Earth and, perhaps, heaven. On the surface, “Cowboy Take Me Away” sounds like just a sugar-sweet love song – I’ve even heard it called “pre-feminist” – but there’s something else going on here: a plea for life to have meaning again. – Dan Milliken (more…)
New fans of country music in the nineties were hit over the head with the assertion that country music was one big family. Nothing demonstrated this mythos better than the all star jams that cropped up during the boom years.
There were some variants of this approach. A popular one found a veteran star teaming up with one or more of the boom artists to increase their chances of radio airplay. George Jones was big on this approach, with the most high profile attempt being “I Don’t Need Your Rockin’ Chair.” Seventeen years later, it’s amazing to see how young everyone looks – even Jones himself!
Jones shared the CMA Vocal Event of the Year trophy for that collaboration with Clint Black, Garth Brooks, T. Graham Brown, Mark Chesnutt, Joe Diffie, Vince Gill, Alan Jackson, Patty Loveless, Pam Tillis, and Travis Tritt. He’d continue with this approach by teaming up with his vocal chameleon Sammy Kershaw on “Never Bit a Bullet Like This”, and he recorded an entire album of his own songs as duets with mostly younger stars. The Bradley Barn Sessions was represented at radio with “A Good Year For the Roses”, which found him singing one of his best hits with Alan Jackson:
Among the legends, the only other one to be successful with this approach was Dolly Parton, who used collaborations with young stars to score consecutive platinum albums for the first and only time in her career. Her 1991 set Eagle When She Flies was powered by the #1 single “Rockin’ Years”, co-written by her brother and sung with Ricky Van Shelton:
That album also included a duet with Lorrie Morgan on “Best Woman Wins.” She upped the bandwagon ante on Slow Dancing With the Moon, bringing a whole caravan of young stars on board with her line dance cash-in “Romeo.”
That’s Mary Chapin Carpenter, Billy Ray Cyrus, Kathy Mattea, and Tanya Tucker in the video. Pam Tillis isn’t in the clip, but she sings on the record with them. Parton also duets with Billy Dean on that album on “(You Got Me Over a) Heartache Tonight.”
Her next collaboration was with fellow legends Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette, but they couldn’t resist the temptation to squeeze in several younger stars in the video for “Silver Threads and Golden Needles.” Alongside veterans like Chet Atkins, Bill Anderson, and Little Jimmy Dickens, you’ll catch cameos from Mark Collie, Confederate Railroad, Rodney Crowell, Diamond Rio, Sammy Kershaw, Doug Stone, and Marty Stuart.
Parton scored a CMA award when she resurrected “I Will Always Love You” as a duet with Vince Gill:
And while it didn’t burn up the charts, her version of “Just When I Needed You Most” with Alison Krauss and Dan Tyminski:
Tammy Wynette made an attempt to connect with the new country audience with her own album of duets, Without Walls. Her pairing with Wynonna on “Girl Thang” earned some unsolicited airplay:
Perhaps the most endearing project in this vein came from Roy Rogers. How cool is it to hear him singing with Clint Black?
The new stars liked pairing up with each other, too. A popular trend was to have other stars pop up in music videos. There’s the classic “Women of Country” version of “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her”, for starters. Mary Chapin Carpenter sounds pretty darn good with Suzy Bogguss, Emmylou Harris, Patty Loveless, Kathy Mattea, Pam Tillis, and Trisha Yearwood on backup:
That’s a live collaboration, so at least you hear the voices of the other stars. But Vince Gill put together an all-star band for his “Don’t Let Our Love Start Slippin’ Away” video without getting them to actually play. That’s Little Jimmy Dickens, Kentucky Headhunters, Patty Loveless, Lee Roy Parnell, Carl Perkins, Pam Tillis, and Kelly Willis behind him, with Reba McEntire reprising her waitress role from her own “Is There Life Out There” clip.
My personal favorite was Tracy Lawrence’s slightly less A-list spin on the above, with “My Second Home” featuring the future superstars Toby Keith, Tim McGraw, and Shania Twain, along with John Anderson, Holly Dunn, Hank Flamingo, Johnny Rodriguez, Tanya Tucker, Clay Walker, and a few people that I just can’t identify.
For pure star wattage, it took the bright lights of Hollywood to get a truly amazing group together. The Maverick Choir assembled to cover “Amazing Grace”, and it doesn’t get much better than country gospel delivered in a barn by John Anderson, Clint Black, Suzy Bogguss, Billy Dean, Radney Foster, Amy Grant, Faith Hill, Waylon Jennings, Tracy Lawrence, Kathy Mattea, Reba McEntire, John Michael Montgomery, Restless Heart, Ricky Van Shelton, Joy Lynn White, and Tammy Wynette.
What’s your favorite of the bunch? Any good ones I missed?
Keith Urban makes everything sound so effortless that it can be easy to overlook songs that legitimately could have used more effort.
This song sounds great, and will certainly pop on the radio. But for all his enthusiasm and the occasionally clever line, this doesn’t even approach the excellence of his earlier Radney Foster cover, “Raining On Sunday.”
If he’s going to use outside material, he should be more selective than he was this time around.
The 201 Greatest Singles of the Decade, Part 9: #40-#21
#40 “This Is Me You’re Talking To”
Flawless. Proof positive that the nineties formula at its best is better than anything on naughties radio. Perhaps they can’t play it too much for that reason. It’s not good for business to park a new Lexus in a used car lot of Ford Pintos. – Kevin Coyne
#39 “Famous in a Small Town”
This is one of those slice-of-life songs that anyone from a small town can easily relate to. What sets it above the pack of songs of that ilk is the witty nugget of truth that “everybody dies famous in a small town.” The Springsteen-esque vibe of the production is pretty cool, too. – Leeann Ward (more…)