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100 Greatest Men: #36. Ricky Skaggs

100 Greatest Men: The Complete List

A brilliant bluegrass musician that became the unlikeliest of superstars, Ricky Skaggs moved seamlessly into mainstream country music and popularized bluegrass among a wide and willing audience.

Many musicians can claim mastery of their instruments at an early age, but few can compete with Skaggs, who taught himself to play the mandolin at age five and was performing on stage the same year.   As early as seven, he made a television appearance on Flatt & Scruggs, and he was a featured player in his family’s band throughout his childhood.  As a teenager, he met up with Keith Whitley and joined Ralph Stanley’s supporting band, the Clinch Mountain Boys.

After a few more stints in other bands, he recorded a solo album for an indie label, then formed his own group, Boone Creek.  This caught the attention of Emmylou Harris, who invited him to join her Hot Band several times.  He finally accepted and replaced outgoing member Rodney Crowell.    While influencing Harris’ sound, he also continued to release albums with Boone Creek and on his own.  Finally, his Sugar Hill setSweet Temptation caught the attention of Epic Records, and they signed him to their label.

Without any concessions to the Urban Cowboy sound of the time, Skaggs was a surprisingly huge success, and throughout the eighties he dominated the charts.   In 1982, he was the first artist to win both the Horizon Award and Male Vocalist of the Year at the CMA’s.  His bluegrass sets received huge critical acclaim while selling gold and platinum.  He recorded old classics mixed in with new material, with his musicianship front and center.  He even innovated on the video front, releasing the eye-popping “Country Boy” music clip, still widely regarded as one of the best country music videos of all time.

Once the Epic hits slowed down in the nineties, Skaggs returned to the bluegrass scene.  Amazingly, his work became more prolific than ever, winning him multiple Grammy awards as he collaborated with everyone from the Whites to Bruce Hornsby.   He drew heavily on his southern Gospel roots, and became a mainstay at festivals around the world.   The award-winning albums have continued ever since, now being released on his own Skaggs Family record label.

Today, he is the symbol of the very bluegrass traditions that he has always honored and preserved, and despite artists like Alison Krauss and Nickel Creek making waves in recent years, he remains the bluegrass star who has had the most mainstream success in country music.

Essential Singles:

  • Crying My Heart Out Over You, 1982
  • Heartbroke, 1982
  • Highway 40 Blues, 1983
  • Don’t Cheat in Our Hometown, 1983
  • Honey (Open That Door), 1984
  • Uncle Pen, 1984
  • Country Boy, 1985

Essential Albums:

  • Waitin’ for the Sun to Shine, 1981
  • Highways & Heartaches, 1982
  • Don’t Cheat in Our Hometown, 1983
  • Country Boy, 1984
  • Live in London, 1985
  • Ancient Tones (with Kentucky Thunder), 1999
  • Salt of the Earth (with the Whites), 2007

Next: #35. Gene Autry

Previous: #37. The Louvin Brothers

100 Greatest Men: The Complete List

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100 Greatest Men: #52. Keith Whitley

100 Greatest Men: The Complete List

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.

Essential Singles:

  • Miami, My Amy, 1985
  • Don't Close Your Eyes, 1988
  • When You Say Nothing at All, 1988
  • I'm No Stranger to the Rain, 1989
  • I Wonder Do You Think of Me, 1989
  • Brotherly Love (with Earl Thomas Conley), 1991

Essential Albums:

  • L.A. to Miami, 1985
  • Don't Close Your Eyes, 1988
  • I Wonder Do You Think of Me, 1989
  • Kentucky Bluebird, 1991

Next: #51. Sonny James

Previous: #53. Brooks & Dunn

100 Greatest Men: The Complete List

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Grammy Awards 2012: Staff Picks & Predictions

The 54th annual GrammyAdele Awards air this Sunday at 8 p.m. Eastern. Look for appearances by Miranda Lambert, Dierks Bentley and Lady Antebellum as well as country-ish performances by Jason Aldean, Glen Campbell (with the Band Perry and Blake Shelton), Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood. We’ve picked and predicted the awards below – share your thoughts, and be sure to drop by on Sunday night for our live blog!

Album of the Year

Should Win

  • Adele, 21 -Dan, Kevin, Ben, Tara, Sam
  • Foo Fighters, Wasting Light
  • Lady Gaga, Born this Way
  • Bruno Mars, Doo-Wops & Hooligans
  • Rihanna, Loud

Will Win

  • Adele, 21 – Dan, Kevin, Ben, Tara, Sam
  • Foo Fighters, Wasting Light
  • Lady Gaga, Born this Way
  • Bruno Mars, Doo-Wops & Hooligans
  • Rihanna, Loud

Ben: Adele made some of the best and most memorable music of the year, and met with across-the-board critical and commercial success, so it’s hardly a stretch to say that she should and will emerge victorious here.

Tara: I don’t often agree with Bob Lefsetz, but his case for why 21 has resonated so well is spot on: “music trumps everything.” How true, and how refreshing that an album that embraced the hell out of this theme made such a commercial splash.

Sam: Lady Gaga is the only one of the nominees who can rival her for publicity in 2011, but Adele’s record sales should put her over the top. Oh, and it was a great record — not that that means anything where Grammy voters are concerned.

Dan: It helps that this is an especially lazy pool of nominees. 21 is certainly a strong album and a commercial landmark, but I do wish something like Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy were here to help hold up the bar.

Kevin:  Adele made the best album by a wide margin.

Record of the Year

Should Win

  • Adele, “Rolling in the Deep” –  Dan, Kevin, Ben, Tara, Sam 
  • Bon Iver, “Holocene”
  • Bruno Mars, “Grenade”
  • Mumford & Sons, “The Cave”
  • Katy Perry, “Firework”

Will Win

  • Adele, “Rolling in the Deep” –  Dan, Kevin, Ben, Tara, Sam
  • Bon Iver, “Holocene”
  • Bruno Mars, “Grenade”
  • Mumford & Sons, “The Cave”
  • Katy Perry, “Firework”

Ben: The dramatic build-up nature, the simmering intensity, the all-guns-blazing chorus…“Rolling In the Deep” is all but untouchable.

Tara: As rousing a Top 40 hit as we’ve heard in years. I think we all know Adele will sweep.

Sam: I’m a Mumford & Sons fan, but it’s hard to top “Rolling in the Deep.” Anyone who votes for a Katy Perry song in this category should lose their Grammy voting rights permanently.

Dan: Long after it became overplayed, it was still more refreshing to me than everything else on the radio.

Kevin:  Adele cut through the hype by being the best singer and the best songwriter.  Amazing, isn’t it?

Song of the Year

Should Win
  • “All of the Lights” – Jeff Bhasker, Malik Jones, Warren Trotter & Kanye West - Dan
  • “The Cave” – Ted Dwane, Ben Lovett, Marcus Mumford & Country Winston
  • “Grenade” – Brody Brown, Claude Kelly, Philip Lawrence, Ari Levine, Bruno Mars & Andrew Wyatt
  • “Holocene” – Justin Vernon
  • “Rolling in the Deep” – Adele Adkins & Paul Epworth – Kevin, Ben, Tara

Will Win

  • “All of the Lights” – Jeff Bhasker, Malik Jones, Warren Trotter & Kanye West
  • “The Cave” – Ted Dwane, Ben Lovett, Marcus Mumford & Country Winston
  • “Grenade” – Brody Brown, Claude Kelly, Philip Lawrence, Ari Levine, Bruno Mars & Andrew Wyatt
  • “Holocene” – Justin Vernon
  • “Rolling in the Deep” – Adele Adkins & Paul Epworth – Dan, Kevin, Ben, Tara

Tara: “Rolling in the Deep” shines more as a record than as a composition, but it’s still memorable enough to nab this award, and I think it will.

Dan: Here’s where I’d love to see some variation. “All of the Lights” is a poetic, layered micro-drama. Plus, from a songwriting standpoint, I’ve never fully gotten over how “Rolling in the Deep” cribs its chorus from Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy.”

Kevin:  The British slang that the song is built around doesn’t stop “Rolling” from being the most universal of the five compositions. 

Best New Artist

Should Win

  • The Band Perry - Sam
  • Bon Iver
  • J. Cole – Tara
  • Nicki Minaj – Dan, Kevin
  • Skrillex

Will Win

  • The Band Perry – Sam
  • Bon Iver – Dan, Kevin, Tara
  • J. Cole
  • Nicki Minaj
  • Skrillex

Tara: Bon Iver fits the Grammy mold the best. Personally, I’m not married to any of these acts, but I guess J. Cole piques my interest the most right now. This is totally one of those picks I’m going to regret in six months…

Sam: I think this one could be an upset win for the country world. “If I Die Young” was such an unexpected crossover hit, and I think it had more resonance than most other singles from the eligibility period. Plus the Band Perry is cuter than a basket full of puppies, which can only help them.

Dan: I think Bon Iver is the most fully realized act, and predict the band’s Song and Record nods will tip Grammy voters to vote for them like Adele’s did a few years ago. But Minaj’s potential excites me the most, and I had “Super Bass” on loop last year.

Kevin:  Minaj is the most refreshing of the five, though Bon Iver’s the most Grammy-friendly.

Best Country Solo Performance 

Should Win

  • Jason Aldean, “Dirt Road Anthem”
  • Martina McBride, “I’m Gonna Love You Through It”
  • Blake Shelton, “Honey Bee”
  • Taylor Swift, “Mean” – Dan, Kevin, Jonathan, Ben, Tara, Leeann, Sam
  • Carrie Underwood, “Mama’s Song”

Will Win

  • Jason Aldean, “Dirt Road Anthem” – Sam
  • Martina McBride, “I’m Gonna Love You Through It”
  • Blake Shelton, “Honey Bee”
  • Taylor Swift, “Mean” – Dan, Kevin, Jonathan, Ben, Tara, Leeann
  • Carrie Underwood, “Mama’s Song”

Ben: Swift outclasses the competition by miles.

Jonathan: A depressing line-up here, really. Swift’s single and performance are far and away the strongest of the five nominees, but she didn’t land the general field nominations that many people were expecting her to receive, so I do wonder if her support runs as deep this year as it did during the Fearless juggernaut. If she loses this one, I think it will be to the red-hot-but-I-don’t-get-it-at-all Aldean.

Tara: Embarrassing line-up. “Mean” is the only one that even comes close to Grammy worthy. I think Swift still has the voters on her side, but I could also see Aldean edging her out.

Sam: “Honey Bee?” “Dirt Road Anthem?” Really, Grammy voters? I guess we should be lucky they managed to put one good song in the category, even if it was probably an accident. However, I think voters are going to take a year off on the Swift love and give it to Aldean, because it’s the least country-sounding song in the category.

Dan: I could see Shelton’s familiarity prompting a win here, but suspect Grammy voters are still in Swift’s corner.

Kevin:  They should just make the genre categories line up perfectly with the big three. This is really a race for Country Record of the Year anyway.  Swift’s entry is the best.

Leeann: All of the songs on this are vanilla except for the Swift song, both in lyrics and execution. This is the inarguable standout song.

Best Country Duo / Group Performance

Should Win

  • Jason Aldean with Kelly Clarkson, “Don’t You Wanna Stay”
  • Kenny Chesney with Grace Potter, “You and Tequila” – Kevin, Leeann
  • The Civil Wars, “Barton Hollow” –  Dan, Jonathan, Ben, Tara, Sam
  • Thompson Square, “Are You Gonna Kiss Me or Not”

Will Win

  • Jason Aldean with Kelly Clarkson, “Don’t You Wanna Stay” –  Dan, Jonathan, Ben, Tara, Leeann, Sam
  • Kenny Chesney with Grace Potter, “You and Tequila”
  • The Civil Wars, “Barton Hollow” – Kevin
  • Thompson Square, “Are You Gonna Kiss Me or Not”

Ben: It’s a super tough call for me to choose between The Civil Wars and Chesney and Potter.  As much as I adore “You and Tequila,” I’m finally settling on The Civil Wars as my pick.  However, I expect that Aldean and Clarkson will likely triumph over both.

Jonathan: Had the Civil Wars scored the Best New Artist nomination that they seemed primed for, I would be more bullish on their chances here. They’re still the only of the four nominees I’d even consider voting for, but Clarkson is the only proven Grammy commodity in this lot, and this is probably the least credibility-straining place to recognize Aldean.

Tara: Confession: I don’t really see the sparkle that others see in “You and Tequila.” The swampy “Barton Hollow” has my heart, but I think Aldean & Clarkson will have the Grammy voters’ hearts. And I’m always OK with a little K. Clarkson love.

Sam: “Barton Hollow” kicks the ass of every other song on the list, including the excellent Chesney/Potter collaboration, and if Grammy voters actually listened to the songs they vote for, it would probably win. However, the Aldean/Clarkson screamfest has the benefit of Kelly Clarkson’s name recognition and Aldean’s current popularity.

Dan: The Civil Wars wail like mad dogs on their track. But Aldean and Clarkson are both having a moment right now.

Kevin:  The Civil Wars seem like Grammy catnip.

Leeann: My vote goes for the Chesney/Potter collaboration or The Civil Wars song, but I won’t be surprised if it goes to the powerhouse duet of Aldean and Clarkson based on crossover appeal. I hope, however, that  it turns out that I’m not giving the Grammy voters enough credit.

Best Country Song

Should Win

  • “Are You Gonna Kiss Me or Not” – Jim Collins & David Lee Murphy
  • “God Gave Me You” – Dave Barnes
  • “Just Fishin’” – Casey Beathard, Monty Criswell & Ed Hill
  • “Mean” – Taylor Swift –  Dan, Ben, Tara, Sam
  • “Threaten Me With Heaven” – Vince Gill, Amy Grant, Will Owsley & Dillon O’Brian –  Kevin, Jonathan, Leeann
  • “You and Tequila” – Matraca Berg & Deana Carter

Will Win

  • “Are You Gonna Kiss Me or Not” – Jim Collins & David Lee Murphy
  • “God Gave Me You” – Dave Barnes
  • “Just Fishin’” – Casey Beathard, Monty Criswell & Ed Hill
  • “Mean” – Taylor Swift –  Dan, Kevin, Jonathan, Ben, Tara, Leeann
  • “Threaten Me With Heaven” – Vince Gill, Amy Grant, Will Owsley & Dillon O’Brian – Sam
  • “You and Tequila” – Matraca Berg & Deana Carter

Ben: Gill’s “Threaten Me with Heaven” is mature and beautifully written, but ultimately, my heart still belongs to “Mean.”

Jonathan: Gill has a real shot at this because it’s the Grammys so Gill always has a real shot at anything he’s nominated for. He’d be a worthy winner here, too, as would “You and Tequila” or the more likely winner, “Mean.”

Tara: I wrestle with this one, but I think the freshness of “Mean” gives it an edge over Gill’s track for me. Gill could easily take this given he’s Grammy royalty, but I’ll predict the voters will stick with Swift.

Sam: It’s Vince Gill in a Grammy category. That’s why.

Dan: I’d be happy with any of those last three. Honestly, I even half-like “Just Fishin’” and “God Gave Me You” as songs.

Kevin:  Can’t believe that Gill’s composition got a nod.  I like Swift’s record the most, but as a song, “Threaten Me With Heaven” is jaw-droppingly good.

Leeann: I’d love to see Vince win another grammy, but I won’t be surprised  or too disappointed if Swift takes this one.

Best Country Album

Should Win

  • Jason Aldean, My Kinda Party
  • Eric Church, Chief  - Jonathan, Tara, Leeann
  • Lady Antebellum, Own the Night
  • Blake Shelton, Red River Blue
  • George Strait, Here For a Good Time - Kevin, Ben
  • Taylor Swift, Speak Now – Sam

Will Win

  • Jason Aldean, My Kinda Party – Dan
  • Eric Church, Chief
  • Lady Antebellum, Own the Night - Tara
  • Blake Shelton, Red River Blue
  • George Strait, Here For a Good Time
  • Taylor Swift, Speak Now Kevin, Jonathan, Ben, Leeann, Sam

Ben: Church, Strait, and Swift have the three best albums, and of those three, Strait’s Here for a Good Time is the most fully realized, but I would expect that Swift’s crossover appeal and high sales numbers will lead voters to gravitate toward Speak Now.

Jonathan: The nomination for Lady Antebellum’s godawful album represents Grammy voting at its laziest. I don’t care how many people bought Own the Night: It’s terrible and, at some point, the over-rewarding of Lady A for their aggressively middlebrow, banal music has to stop. Church’s album would get my vote over Strait’s by just a hair and, even though I would’ve nominated it for Best Pop Album instead, Speak Now is Swift’s strongest set to date, so I won’t complain too loudly when she wins here.

Tara: Chief packs a killer, audacious punch…but I have this sinking feeling that Lady A will pull a repeat in this category. Look – I was (and probably still am) Lady A’s biggest advocate at Country Universe, but I can’t get behind the overblown success of their degenerating music. How will they ever be motivated to live up to the massive potential shown on Lady Antebellum if we keep rewarding them like this

Sam: Quality-wise, Speak Now edges out Chief, though I think Chief deserves some recognition for its ambition. Speak Now was a commercial and an artistic triumph, though the only concern is that it was released so long ago that its impact may have faded from the voters’ memories. That might open the door for Lady Antebellum to win, which would be a shame. While I actually kind of liked Own the Night, there are three albums better than it in the category.

Kevin: Strait just keeps getting better lately.  I think he’d win if it wasn’t for category crossover votes for Swift.

Leeann: I wish I cared about this category more this year than I actually do. It’s likely that either Strait or Swift will win the award, but I think Church’s album is the most interesting.

Best Americana Album

Should Win

  • Linda Chorney, Emotional Jukebox
  • Ry Cooder, Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down
  • Emmylou Harris, Hard Bargain - Jonathan
  • Levon Helm, Ramble at the Ryman
  • Lucinda Williams, Blessed

Will Win

  • Linda Chorney, Emotional Jukebox
  • Ry Cooder, Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down
  • Emmylou Harris, Hard Bargain
  • Levon Helm, Ramble at the Ryman – Dan
  • Lucinda Williams, Blessed  - Jonathan, Ben, Sam

Jonathan: Of the four veterans nominated, only Harris’ album is anywhere close to her best work, but that rarely matters much. The vitriol directed at Chorney and her exploiting of NARAS’s new social networking initiatives to garner her nomination has reflected very, very poorly on a whole lot of Americana fans and has perpetuated an ugly “us-versus-them” attitude, but there’s no dressing up how poor Chorney’s album actually is, either. But she’s also the only one of the five nominees that anyone has been talking about during the entirety of the voting period… I give the edge to Williams on sales stats alone, but there’s really no frontrunner here.

Sam: Should win: Hayes Carll, KMAG YOYO and other American Stories (yeah, I know it wasn’t nominated). I actually kind of hope that Linda Chorney wins. For one thing, the outcry would be phenomenal. For another, it might shed some light on just how the voting is done, and is there a better way to do it. Do the voters know what Americana music is? Did they listen to any of the albums? I have nothing against any of the nominees, but Hayes Carll released one of the best albums of the year and had no chance in competing against legends like Emmylou, Ry Cooder and Levon Helm. Of the four legitimate nominees, Williams has gone the longest between Grammy wins, so maybe it’s her turn.

Dan: Levon has won for his last two albums. This one is a live set, so Lucinda could definitely unseat him, but still.

Best Bluegrass Album

Should Win

  • Alison Krauss and Union Station, Paper Airplane
  • Jim Lauderdale, Reason and Rhyme
  • Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers, Rare Bird Alert – Sam
  • The Del McCoury Band, Old Memories: The Songs of Bill Monroe
  • Ralph Stanley, A Mother’s Prayer
  • Chris Thile and Michael Staves, Sleep With One Eye Open – Jonathan

Will Win

  • Alison Krauss and Union Station, Paper Airplane – Jonathan, Dan, Ben, Tara, Sam
  • Jim Lauderdale, Reason and Rhyme
  • Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers, Rare Bird Alert
  • The Del McCoury Band, Old Memories: The Songs of Bill Monroe
  • Ralph Stanley, A Mother’s Prayer
  • Chris Thile and Michael Staves, Sleep With One Eye Open

Ben: I have no rationale for who should win, but I think we all know who will.

Jonathan: I can’t think of anything more foolhardy than betting against Alison Krauss at the Grammys.

Tara: What Ben said.

Sam: Honestly, I thought Krauss’ Paper Airplane was kind of tepid, while Rare Bird Alert was charming and energetic. Still, Krauss is the Jimmy Sturr of the Grammy bluegrass categories (all the polka fans should get that reference), so unless the voters decide to give Martin a lifetime achievement award of sorts, she’s got this one in the bag.

Dan: Steve Martin’s got a chance, but…

Best Folk Album

Should Win

  • The Civil Wars, Barton Hollow – Leeann
  • Steve Earle, I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive - Jonathan, Sam
  • Fleet Foxes, Hopelessness Blues
  • Eddie Vedder, Ukelele Songs
  • Gillian Welch, The Harrow & The Harvest

Will Win

  • The Civil Wars, Barton Hollow - Jonathan, Ben
  • Steve Earle, I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive - Dan
  • Fleet Foxes, Hopelessness Blues
  • Eddie Vedder, Ukelele Songs - Leeann, Sam
  • Gillian Welch, The Harrow & The Harvest

Ben: If my prediction of an Aldean-Clarkson victory for Duo/Group Performance comes true, I would expect that this is where voters will recognize The Civil Wars.

Jonathan: If NARAS were really committed to the idea of reducing the number of categories, they’d merge the Americana and Folk Album categories with Best Country Album and, considering how fast and loose they’re already playing with genre tags, they probably should do just that and let the chips fall where they may. Welch’s album is the only one of the five that really scans as “folk” music in any traditional sense, so who wins here will depend on whether or not voters are looking for something more traditional or contemporary. I’m guessing it’s the latter case, to the benefit of the Civil Wars.

Sam: Steve Earle released his best album in years with I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive. The love songs were tender, the topical songs were sharp and insightful, and there weren’t any love songs about Condoleezza Rice. Eddie Vedder, on the other hand, is in Pearl Jam, so clearly he’s the odds-on favorite. Actually, Ukelele Songs got some pretty good reviews, and if Vedder’s vocals didn’t remind me so much of Bob Dylan’s current voice crossed with an injured goat, I might be more inclined to like it.

Dan: I can imagine a Fleet Foxes or Civil Wars win, but in the end, I’m still guessing Earle, the proven Grammy favorite.

Leeann: It’s sad that I care about this category far more than the Country Album category this year. I love The Civil Wars album the most, but the Welch, Vedder and Earl albums are great too. I’ll be happy to see any of them win, but I have a strange feeling that Vedder will take it.

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The 201 Greatest Singles of the Decade, Part 3: #160-#141

The 201 Greatest Singles of the Decade, Part 3: #160-#141

lee-ann-womack-call-me-crazy

#160
“Last Call”
Lee Ann Womack
2008
Peak: #14

Womack’s second-best Aughts song about late-night temptations is still better than a lot of people’s first-best songs about anything. Even in avoiding her drunken ex’s advances, she sounds positively heartbroken, suggesting she’d gladly make the other decision if she didn’t know better. – Dan Milliken

159 Shania Up

#159
“She’s Not Just a Pretty Face”
Shania Twain
2003
Peak: #9

Her motivation for her music has always been escapism, but I love the personal touch she slips into this one. Her late mother is the one who she’s referring to when she sings “at night, she pumps gasoline.” – Kevin Coyne

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Diamond Rio Starter Kit

diamond-rioWith four CMA and two ACM Awards and five Gold and two Platinum albums, Diamond Rio was the premier country group of the nineties. They were one of the few groups in country music to serve as the exclusive vocalists and instrumentalists on their studio albums while most other groups in country music utilized professional studio musicians and even singers to fill out their records.

Their sound was a mix of multiple influences, but Diamond Rio’s music was not mistaken as anything other than country, which was particularly a result of the six vital member’s distinct and tight harmonies and organic productions that all gelled together to form a tight vocal group in every sense.

Ten Essential Tracks

“Meet in the Middle”
from the 1991 album Diamond Rio

“Meet in the Middle” is famous for being the first debut single to reach the top of the country charts by a band. This song of commitment and compromise is both singable and relationally instructive. It also appropriately introduces Diamond Rio as a group with a unique sound that will soon be instantly recognizable on nineties country radio.

“Norma Jean Riley”
from the 1991 album Diamond Rio

While he knows that Norma Jean Riley may be out of his league, he’s not going to let that stop him from subtly winning her over. Everyone tells him he’s a fool for trying, but he knows that not only will she notice him, she’ll eventually marry him. Here’s hoping. Most notable is Dan Truman’s lively keyboard that energizes an already infectious song.

“Nowhere Bound”
from the 1991 album Diamond Rio

This guy has trouble staying in one place for long and needs to be warned that his running is simply “nowhere bound.” Diamond Rio does just that in the hook of this melodically memorable song.

“In A Week or Two”
from the 1992 album Close to the Edge

Oops! He had planned to do all the things that would have shown her that he loved her, but it wasn’t on the schedule just yet. Isn’t it Too bad she couldn’t have waited for just a mere week or two?

“This Romeo Ain’t Got Julie Yet”
from the 1992 album Close to the Edge

The title of this fun song may play off of a certain Shakespeare play, but it’s even less literary than Taylor Swift’s “Love Story.”

“Finish What We Started”
from the 1994 album Love A Little Stronger

This is simply a gorgeous, unpretentious love song of commitment.

“Walkin’ Away”
from the 1996 album IV

And here is the practical application of commitment.

“How Your Love Makes Me Feel”
from the 1997 album Greatest Hits

How the protagonist of this song describes the feelings that accompany his budding romance, perfectly captures the frenzied period of the beginning of a fresh relationship.

“You’re Gone”
from the 1998 album Unbelievable

Dan Truman’s signature keyboard is the musical foundation for this haunting ode to a woman who had a brief but deep impact. Marty Roe sings, “The good news is I’m better for the time we spent together and the bad news is you’re gone.” We’re never really given much insight into what happened to their relationship, but we can be certain that her tactics were likely unconventional, but effective for a man with obvious emotional baggage.

“Beautiful Mess”
from the 2002 album Completely

Thanks to her, this man is a mess, but he couldn’t be happier about it.

Two Hidden Treasures

“You Ain’t in It”
From the 1991 album Love A Little Stronger

Tired of her memory crowding his every thought, he proudly progresses to a place where he can finally experience a minute here and there when she “ain’t in it.”

“How Can We Thank Him for What He Has Done”
From Ralph Stanley’s 1998 album Clinch Mountain Country

This is a beautiful gem that can be found on Ralph Stanley’s wonderful collaborative project with various country artists. Diamond Rio’s signature harmony are ever present, along with Stanley’s humbly, sincere spoken word of scripture.

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Patty Loveless, Stone Mountain Arts Center (Brownfield, Maine)

patty_lovelessThe following is a guest contribution from frequent commenter and devoted Patty Loveless fan, Stephen Fales, who is better known to Country Universe readers as Steve from Boston.

Country Universe is a site where timeless artists like Patty Loveless are not merely acknowledged, but embraced and celebrated. So when Leeann invited me to review my favorite artist’s Brownfield Maine concert as a guest contributor, I jumped at the chance. Thank you so much Leeann, Kevin and Country Universe for giving me this opportunity. And Leeann and Bill, it was a joy and an honor to join you folks for dinner and watch the concert with you. You both made this already memorable concert experience even more unforgettable for me, along with patty-loveless.net associates Nicole, Richard and Patti, and the following day Bob and Barbara, Kevin. And also, Marcia Ramirez from Patty’s band. Many, many thanks to all.

Patty Loveless at the Stone Mountain Arts Center, Brownfield Maine

July 3, 2009

Nestled in the northern reaches of the Appalachian Mountains, Brownfield Maine’s Stone Mountain Arts Center is a beautiful and intimate 200 seat converted barn turned listening room. It has a warm and rustic ambiance, and a very helpful staff. The wood beam framed building makes for a rich acoustical setting, almost like a giant, wooden resonator box. It is a hard place to find out there in the Maine wilderness, but well worth the effort, especially to enjoy artists and legends like Patty Loveless, Ralph Stanley, Marty Stuart, Suzy Bogguss and Kathy Mattea. Think of it as a quest.

This beautiful mountain setting was a perfect match for Patty Loveless, the celebrated neo-traditional Country artist with the warmly expressive Appalachian alto. The Queen of Mountain Soul seemed right at home in the northernmost reaches of her domain, and seemed to absolutely love the venue.

Patty Loveless is a warmhearted and humble lady, she is a true artist with a good sense of humor and down-to-earth personality, the “anti-diva” as her drummer, Martin Parker, calls her. She takes the stage with very little fanfare, no high tech video introduction or ostentatious stagecraft, no bells, no whistles. She just quietly joins her band and begins to sing. It is all about the music with Loveless, and she lets the music speak for itself.

Still, there was plenty of excitement in the air at Maine’s Stone Mountain Arts Center, but the magic emanated entirely from Patty’s empathetic heart and her crystalline Mountain-bred voice. She sings from a place even deeper than the heart, Patty Loveless sings from the very depths of her Appalachian soul. No smoke or mirrors needed, indeed, they would have been out of their league competing with such natural, God given talent. Patty Loveless sings without a net, and her performance on July 3rd, 2009 was inspired and virtually flawless.

Loveless is the prototypical Country artist. She has refined and perfected her inherent gifts through years of hard work and perseverance, and has become a living link to Country’s Golden age. The artistic (but not the chronological) scope of her work reaches all the way back to the works of the Carter family and Bill Monroe, and forward to the finest modern Country and Bluegrass artists. Folks like Jim Lauderdale who penned two of the 18 songs in Patty’s concert lineup. She is a master interpreter of their work, and a keeper of America’s rich Country and Bluegrass cultural heritage. Patty Loveless is herself, a national treasure.

All that’s good and great about Country music is embodied in the voice of Patty Loveless, and she brings it all to bear on her first rate, soul-nourishing material. Her mentors and musical heroes, her east Kentucky upbringing and authentic Coal-miner’s daughter heritage can be heard in the soulful Mountain timbre of each and every note that she sings.

Her amazing repertoire consists of songs that have been carefully selected over many years by Patty herself and her husband/producer (and genuine musical genius) Emory Gordy Jr. And this they have done with little regard to what is trendy, and with every regard to what is timeless, or potentially so. Patty and Emory choose and write their material with a profound understanding and appreciation of the heritage and traditions of authentic Country and Bluegrass, a heritage she often speaks of with great reverence between her songs. And by following her heart in all of her musical choices, Patty Loveless connects deeply with the hearts of her listeners.

Loveless’ song lineup at SMAC was a mix of real, hard-core Country, and the finest contemporary Country. But the lack of any Mountain/Bluegrass songs that she could have included from her catalog kept this generous sampling from being truly representative of who she is as an artist. Still, a generous lineup of her always high-quality hit songs, and her featured Sleepless Nights mini-set of classic Country covers was fine compensation, and is the stuff of legend in the making.

Patty blazed into her set list with passion and precision, leaving her audience awestruck and breathless. In a very real and literal sense, this was a breathtaking performance from start to finish. At 52, Loveless is still very much an artist on an upward trajectory, and her voice just keeps getting even better with the years.

Some notable highlights: Her heart wrenching rendition of the Jim Lauderdale penned “You Don’t Seem to Miss Me”, for which she won a Vocal Event of the Year award with the legendary George Jones. Loveless has collaborated with some of Country music’s absolute finest male singers, including Jones and Vince Gill, and for live performances she needs a strong male voice to fill the void on a few of those songs. Thankfully, she has found the perfect vocal partner in her band member, Garry Murray, who sang the tricky Jones harmony with feeling and finesse.

“Nothing But the Wheel” is the perfect Country song, by the perfect Country singer. It moves with a forlorn tempo, like the car the protagonist drives away from her heartbreak: ” And 41 goes on and on, and the lights go winding in the dawn, and the sky’s the color now of polished steel…and the only thing I know for sure, is if you don’t want me any-more then I’m holding on to nothing but the wheel.” With Patty Loveless at the wheel, it just doesn’t get any better or more Country.

Patty’s interpretation of the George Jones gem, “If My Heart Had Windows”, is a song of deep gratitude for love gone right, and she sings this slow lover’s waltz with a torch style intensity that warms the heart and burns to the soul.

Patty’s knockout rockabilly rendition of “Why Baby Why” kicks off her Sleepless Nights classics set with high octane energy…Patty describes it as “George Jones meets Tina Turner” But it’s all Patty Loveless…Patty is far too humble to admit this, but she very often surpasses her musical heroes with her own interpretations, and her version and performance here was no exception.

Ray Price’s original version of “Crazy Arms” was charming, but the Loveless version is nothing less than enchanting. It is pure music magic. Pete Finney begins and ends the song with a palpable sting from his expressive steel guitar, but it’s Loveless’ soulful and soaring vocal that really penetrates the heart. When Patty and Emory recorded their version “Crazy Arms” they slowed down the tempo from a moderate shuffle to a torchy ballad. This serves Patty very well in concert by giving her the opportunity to find and wring out every last drop of emotion hiding in the potential of the original.

Some inspired phrasing enables Patty to put great emotional emphasis on the lyric “crazy dream” as in “this ain’t no cra-zy dream I know that it’s real” whereas Price’s original stressed the first word “This” instead. This subtle yet dramatic difference is but one example of the interpretive genius of Patty Loveless.

The title song of Patty’s Grammy nominated classic country covers album, Sleepless Nights, features Vince Gill, and once again Garry Murray came through with flying colors. Vocally flying with Patty Loveless cannot be easy, “why did you go, why did you go? Don’t you know, dont you know? I need you”, But Murray keeps right up and they both soar to the heights. There was lightning in the area during this concert, and there was a single crackle that seemed to come from the amplifiers during this song. But Patty never missed a beat, and the whole song came off perfectly. Patty Loveless is a force of nature, and she positively electrifies her audience.

Lead guitarist Tom Britt took his opportunity to shine during an extended and exciting slide guitar introduction to another Lauderdale song, “Halfway Down” He wailed away like a true rock star, building anticipation before the familiar opening chords of this Loveless hit. Likewise, Patty kept the excitement going full boil throughout this rip-roaring Mountain Rock song.

The set closer was “Blame It on Your Heart”, perhaps Patty’s most performed song of all. She sings it with an energetic enthusiasm that makes the song fresh for singer and listener, every single time. Indeed, this is the way that she approaches every performance, embracing each and every note like it was her first and only chance to shine and share her gift. This Harlan Howard song is just plain fun and children seem to love it as well, as they try to sing the tongue-twister chorus. Loveless is artist and entertainer in equal measure. No other singer on the scene today balances the two quite as well as Patty Loveless does, with the exception perhaps of Dolly Parton.

Patty’s stage presence is confident as one would expect from a seasoned veteran, but also warm, easy going, and playful. She has a natural Country charisma and even her speaking voice, her relaxed east Kentucky drawl is music to the ears of her audience. The stories of her musical heroes, and her accounts of her formative years as a young artist under the tutelage of the late great Porter Wagoner, and her 21 year membership in the Grand Ole Opry, are informative and entertaining.

Her audience interaction is often full of surprises. Observing the intimacy of the venue, Patty commented how folks in the front rows were so close, and jokingly suggested they grab an instrument and come on up onstage. “But don’t grab me”, she quipped. “Although on second thought, that may be fun” Then she quickly added, “don’t mind me, I’m just a real cut up and a harmless flirt”.

When she mentioned her husband Emory Gordy Jr., she received some noticeable applause from the audience. Patty responded saying that it was good that Emory had some fans here as well, and “I see a young lady here with an Emory (University) shirt, How many concerts is this now, Nicole?” to which Patty’s (and Emory’s) most devoted fan replied “199”, and Patty said with a smile, “Wow, I owe you one, don’t I?” Patty also said something about how she was glad Nicole was such a huge Emory fan, then added: “but don’t forget now, he’s MY man”, which also brought laughter from the audience.

After “Blame” Patty introduced her incredible band. It is clear that all these folks are friends and fans of each other, and Loveless herself can often be seen warmly grinning, holding her heart and slowly shaking her head from side to side with enraptured appreciation during her band’s various instrumental interludes. And proficiency on multiple instruments almost seems to be a requirement in the Loveless band. Marcia, Deannie and Garry all play at least three instruments, and it seems most everyone is schooled on mandolin in a way reminiscent of Bill Monroe’s old Bluegrass string band. The stage, as wide as it was, could barely contain the scope of this incredible array of talent.

There are only a few criticisms for this otherwise flawless concert. The sound of the drums for the first few songs was much too loud, and competed for volume with Loveless’ strong vocals instead of supporting them. But that sonic imbalance was pretty well corrected by the sound techs before too long.

Also, Loveless seemed pitch perfect all throughout, with only one or two apparent missteps. Just enough to remind us that this is a gifted flesh and blood human being, and not some kind of angelic troubadour.

After the band introductions and some more friendly banter with her audience, Patty eased into her encore performance of the Hank Williams standard “Cold, Cold Heart”. With sparse acoustic instrumentation and a little steel, it was almost a capella, and one could hear a pin drop between the notes. Patty’s version is chill-inducing perfection, tear producing and is especially potent live. And that evening her performance was especially transcendent, almost supernatural. I almost expected to see the ghost of Hank Williams take a seat and tip his hat to the finest female interpreter of his work, bar none. I would love to see what Loveless could do with ole Hank’s “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”. The audience, and even her own band, was transfixed and mesmerized. Band members Marcia and Deannie especially, looked on with smiles of amazement.

With the completion of each song in the lineup, Loveless and her band received enthusiastic applause, which she greeted each time with sweet smiles and a grateful “God Bless You.” And at the end, she received thunderous standing ovations, and seemed genuinely humbled and overwhelmed. She gathered her band with her outstretched arms, and then they all graciously bowed a collective bow.

Patty Loveless is the most authentic voice in Country music today. Her fidelity to tradition, her creative blending of her own brand of mountain and country music, and her artistic integrity have rightly earned her the title of “Queen of Mountain Soul” from the great Ralph Stanley himself. And performances like her Brownfield concert on Friday, and albums like the exquisite Sleepless Nights demonstrate that she has earned the title “Queen of Country Soul” as well.

Patty’s long awaited follow up to her acclaimed 2001 classic Mountain Soul is scheduled for release on September 29th. Mountain Soul II has every essential ingredient to be yet another Loveless-Gordy masterpiece, and should enrich her already exceptional set list considerably. Just in time for the next leg of her tour starting this Fall.

As for a possible return to the Stone Mountain Arts Center? Word has it that Patty loved it so much, and felt so welcome by her gracious hosts Carol Noonan (folk singer and songwriter), and her husband, their staff and her appreciative fans, that she hopes to return twice a year.

Both on record and in concert, the music of Patty Loveless befriends the listener. She may sing “Soul of Constant Sorrow” on her Mountain Soul album, but the music of Patty Loveless is a source of great and constant joy, as well as inspiration, catharsis and consolation for all with attentive, listening hearts.

-Steve from Boston

For more information on Patty Loveless, visit

Patty-loveless.net,
Which is the most comprehensive and up-to-date Patty Loveless fan site.

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Aaron Tippin, In Overdrive

Aaron Tippin
In Overdrive

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Amongst the glut of faux traditionalists that populated the country airwaves during the nineties, there was one voice that cut right through the clutter, such was its raw verve and unabashed authenticity. Aaron Tippin sings with pure country conviction about the invisible Americans, giving voice to the working men and women who seem to have vanished from the collective national consciousness.

In truth, Tippin was their last great champion, scoring radio hits with such anthems as “I Got it Honest”, “I Wouldn’t Have it Any Other Way” and “Working Man’s Ph.D.” So it seems fitting that he has returned with a concept album that celebrates the American trucker, collecting most of the high-profile road songs in country music history, but also including some low-profile gems that give In Overdrive greater depth and resonance.

One of the reasons the album works so well is that Tippin sounds like he could conceivably be a truck driver. He restores the “little white pills” to “Six Days on the Road” that Sawyer Brown censored on their hit cover,  the distance between the narrator and the character is completely eliminated on his version of Alabama’s “Roll On”, and all the Urban Cowboy sheen is completely decimated when he tears into “Drivin’ My Life Away.”

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Grammy Flashback: Best Male Country Vocal Performance

Updated for 2009

While the Grammys have honored country music from the very first ceremony in 1959, they did not begin honoring by gender until 1965, when the country categories were expanded along with the other genre categories. This year, the 45th trophy for Best Male Country Vocal Performance will be awarded.

In a continuation of our Grammy Flashback series, here is a rundown of the Best Country Vocal Performance, Male category. It was first awarded in 1965, and included singles competing with albums until the Best Country Album category was added in 1995. When an album is nominated, it is in italics, and a single track is in quotation marks.

As usual, we start with a look at this year’s nominees and work our way back. Be sure to vote in My Kind of Country’s Best Male Country Vocal Performance poll and let your preference for this year’s race be known!

jamey-johnson-lonesome2009

  • Trace Adkins, “You’re Gonna Miss This”
  • Jamey Johnson, “In Color”
  • James Otto, “Just Got Started Lovin’ You”
  • Brad Paisley, “Letter to Me”
  • George Strait, “Troubadour”

As with the album race, this year’s contenders for Best Male Country Vocal Performance are a combination of unrecognized veterans and promising newcomers. In fact, none of this year’s nominees have won in this category, and only one of them – Brad Paisley – has a Grammy at all.

First, the veterans. Paisley has numerous ACM and CMA victories to his credit, including two each for Male Vocalist.  Although he’s been nominated for this award twice before, this is the first time he’s contended with a cut that can’t be dismissed as a novelty number. The touching self-penned “Letter to Me” is his best shot yet at taking this home.

Trace Adkins has been at this a bit longer than Paisley, but this is his first Grammy nomination. His crossover exposure from Celebrity Apprentice might help him out here, along with the fact that the song was considered strong enough by voters to earn a nomination of its own.

But the real veteran to watch out for is George Strait. After being nominated only twice for this category in the first 25 years of his career, voters have now given him three consecutive nominations. This is one of four nods he’s earned for the 2009 ceremony, and “Troubadour” is essentially the story of his epic career distilled into a radio-length song. It would be the perfect way to honor the man and his music in one fell swoop.

However, there’s a newcomer that might be a Grammy favorite already.  We just haven’t found out yet. Not James Otto, of course, who is nominated for his charming romantic romp “Just Got Started Lovin’ You”, but rather, Jamey Johnson. The recent Nashville Scene critics’ poll further confirmed the depth of his support among tastemakers, and his nominations for Best Country Song and Best Country Album indicate that he’s very much on the academy’s radar. It helps that he has the most substantial track of the five, and it’s the obvious choice for traditionalists, who have little reason to split their votes in this category. If voters aren’t considering legacy when making their selections, he has a great shot at this.

2008

  • Dierks Bentley, “Long Trip Alone”
  • Alan Jackson, “A Woman’s Love”
  • Tim McGraw, “If You’re Reading This”
  • George Strait, “Give it Away”
  • Keith Urban, “Stupid Boy”

The often offbeat Grammy voters have been surprisingly mainstream in this category for the past three years, a trend best exemplified by this lineup, which was the first in more than a decade to feature only top ten radio hits. Tim McGraw and Keith Urban were the only two who had won this before, and it was Urban who emerged victorious. “Stupid Boy” was a highlight of his fourth studio album, and this was the only major award that the impressive collection would win.

2007

  • Dierks Bentley, “Every Mile a Memory”
  • Vince Gill, “The Reason Why”
  • George Strait, “The Seashores of Old Mexico”
  • Josh Turner, “Would You Go With Me”
  • Keith Urban, “Once in a Lifetime”

Vince Gill returned to win in this category for a ninth time with “The Reason Why.” Not only is he, by far, the most honored artist in this category, his wins here account for nine of the nineteen Grammys currently on his mantle.

2006

  • George Jones, “Funny How Time Slips Away”
  • Toby Keith, “As Good As I Once Was”
  • Delbert McClinton, “Midnight Communion”
  • Willie Nelson, “Good Ol’ Boys”
  • Brad Paisley, “Alcohol”
  • Keith Urban, “You’ll Think of Me”

Urban’s biggest and probably best hit launched his second album to triple platinum and established him as a crossover artist. He gave a killer performance of the song on the show. Toby Keith was a first-time nominee here, and while he publicly groused that the Grammys put too little emphasis on commercial success in picking their nominations, he lost to the only track that was a bigger hit than his own.

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