In some parallel universe where I had actual musical talent and the opportunity to record an album, I suspect I’d forgo the pile of demo tapes sent to unknown artists and just look for awesome album cuts from great songwriters.
Matraca Berg’s catalog of recorded cuts would be a good place to start, an epiphany that serves Kenny Chesney well. Berg is usually associated with female artists, and indeed, this song was originally recorded by Deana Carter, who also co-wrote the song. But Berg’s pen has been responsible for some great moments from Keith Urban and Randy Travis, so it’s no surprise that Chesney does well with this one.
Chesney sings it with more personality and general presence than Carter did, and the record also benefits from picking up the pace toward the end, a choice that would have elevated Berg’s own version as well. The harmony vocal of Grace Potter isn’t essential until the song starts to fade away, but it does ease some of the loneliness embedded in the lyric.
All in all, it’s just nice to hear Chesney singing a great song again.
During the first decade of the twenty-first century, the antiseptic depictions of faith that have dominated contemporary Christian music began to seep in to country music.
This perception created records both good (“Jesus, Take the Wheel”) and bad (“The Little Girl”), but most of them were bland, adding going to church on Sunday or praying as just one of the token traits of southern life, no more or less significant than the fried chicken or football game that followed the morning services.
In one of the genre’s great ironies, Randy Travis had crossed over to contemporary Christian music, having had little luck on the radio since the late nineties. He brought country music’s love of fallen angels along with him, and with “Three Wooden Crosses”, he managed to found his way back to the top of the country charts without even trying.
It starts off like an off-color joke that shouldn’t be told in polite company, let alone on the radio dial next to Martina McBride’s “Blessed” and Craig Morgan’s “That’s What I Love About Sunday”: “A farmer and a teacher, a hooker and a preacher, ridin’ on a midnight bus bound for Mexico.” The story that unfolds reveals that one of these four travelers will be instrumental in spreading the Good News for a long time to come.
But because it manages to humanize all four of them along the way, revealing how each of them helped make the world a better place, its ultimate message is that our lives are best defined by what we do when we’re at our best, not by the labels that may be assigned to us through occupation or personal choices.
He was the definitive male vocalist of post-Urban Cowboy country music. The new traditionalists soon wiped the radio dial of that sound, but thanks to one classic hit, Lee Greenwood will always be around.
He was born and raised in California, growing up with his grandparents on a poultry farm. As a child, he showed prodigious talent, learning the saxophone at age seven. By age fourteen, he could play all of the instruments in his school orchestra. As soon as he finished high school, he moved to Nevada, a place he would return to after an opportunity in Puerto Rico ended in disappointment. He passed on an opportunity to be in a band, which went on to great success as the Young Rascals, holding out hope for a solo career down the road.
He secured a record deal with Paramount, but when that didn’t produce a hit record, he moved on to Las Vegas, where he became a dominant force on the casino circuit. By 1979, he had been discovered by the bassist for Mel Tillis, who put him in touch with Tillis’ label, MCA. By 1981, Greenwood was a major label country music artist.
His career took off quickly. His first single, “It Turns Me Inside Out,” cracked the top twenty, but the breakthrough came with “Ring On Her Finger, Time On Her Hands.” It would be the first of a long run of top ten singles, including seven chart-toppers.
Greenwood’s sound was a perfect fit for the earlier half of the eighties. Following the template of Kenny Rogers’ pop-flavored hits, Greenwood’s music was given an added layer of distinction by his trademark vocals, a balance of gravel and power that is instantly recognizable. This sound kept him on the top of the charts until the big breakthrough of new traditionalism, which had barely co-existed on the radio with Greenwood at his peak, but soon replaced him and his contemporaries when Randy Travis arrived on the scene.
Greenwood had a handful of hits in the later eighties, and returned to the top ten one last time in 1990 with “Holdin’ a Good Hand.” His vocal chops earned him several major awards along the way, including Male Vocalist awards from the CMA and the ACM. His performance of “I.O.U.” won him a Grammy in 1984, but it was his songwriting pen that would have the biggest lasting impact.
In 1984, he released a patriotic song called “God Bless The U.S.A.” Though it only reached #7 on the singles chart, it won the CMA award for Song of the Year, and its impact was much larger than any of his other hits. At the time it was written, “God Bless the U.S.A.” was a vehicle for the revival of American pride, a new wave of patriotism that swept the nation in the mid-eighties. Over time, it not only became a standard, it actually set the standard for patriotic songs, particularly in country music.
After the terrorist attacks in 2001, Greenwood’s anthem came back stronger than ever. The song received such heavy airplay that it re-entered the country charts after seventeen years, peaking at #16. Even more impressively, the song hit the all-genre Hot 100 chart, with heavy airplay at other formats helping it reach #16 on that chart as well.
In 2008, Greenwood was appointed to the National Council of the Arts by President George W. Bush. He’s still performing actively and when an event calls for a patriotic song, his is the one that you’re still most likely to hear.
Ring On Her Finger, Time On Her Hands, 1982
God Bless the U.S.A., 1984
Dixie Road, 1985
20th Century Masters: The Millennium Collection, 2002
Country music has always been filled with artists who write their own songs. But I think in the ’80s and ’90s it went through a phase where everyone was recording songs written by other songwriters; which gives those songwriters great success and a way to provide for their families, but I think the fans also love to hear what the artist has to say from the artist’s mouth. And that’s, I think, one of the reasons why Taylor Swift has done such an amazing job and has been so successful, because she’s baring her heart to her fans and it’s so relatable. – Hillary Scott of Lady Antebellum
Where to begin? I’ll start with the fact that Scott is wrong on the merits. There were plenty of artists who wrote their own songs during the eighties and nineties, though the best ones had the good judgment to balance their best compositions with great songs written by others, rather than weaken an album by not recording outside material that’s superior to what they’ve written themselves.
I have more of an issue with the idea that today’s country artists have improved on what came before them with this supposedly new approach. I’m sorry, but today’s current crop of country stars are collectively less talented, less compelling, less interesting, and quite frankly, less capable with a pen, guitar, and microphone than even the B-list stars of the eighties and nineties. There aren’t that many who can sing or write, let alone do both.
Study Taylor Swift for her marketing acumen. There’s a lesson to be learned there. But for all that is good and holy. please look to Randy Travis, Alan Jackson, Trisha Yearwood, Patty Loveless, and just about all of the other big eighties and nineties stars for how to produce good country music. For Scott to think that her generation is actually improving the genre, she must either have remarkably bad taste in music, or a nineties record collection that runs no deeper than Linda Davis.
And so we come to the end. The top of our list includes a wide range of artists singing a wide range of country music styles. Thematically, these entries are diverse, but what they all have in common is what has always made for great country music. They are all perfectly-written songs delivered with sincerity by the artists who brought them to life.
400 Greatest Singles of the Nineties: #25-#1
Smoke Rings in the Dark Gary Allan
1999 | Peak: #12
Being deeply enamored of someone can make it easy – even appealing – to forfeit your own well-being. This single’s sunny tone reflects the persistent affection running through its protagonist, but its story demonstrates the heartbreak to which such unmeasured selflessness leads. – DM (more…)
The country boy as fish out of the water in Los Angeles. Or New York. Or Detroit. It’s a pretty common theme in country music. Jamey Johnson does his own spin on this theme with his new single, “Playing the Part.” It’s not terribly bad, but it’s not terribly good, either. “Big City” certainly doesn’t have to worry about losing its slot on the Waffle House Jukebox.
Despite a busy little beat, Johnson remains only a step above lethargic. His “Randy Travis 45 on 33 1/3 speed” vocal delivery worked for the slowly revealing lyrics of “In Color” and “High Cost of Living.” But it lets him down here. Even the addiction reference feels obligatory, with Johnson repeating the “pills’ and “Hollywood hills” rhyme that worked much better on Faith Hill’s “When the Lights Go Down.”
That record worked because Hill actually sounded like someone who could have known someone in L.A. who’d gone down that road. Johnson’s got a gold album under his belt and has won a few awards, but it’s a stretch to picture him as a country boy who went chasing fame and fortune in California and is now collapsing under the weight of his success.
It was a stroke of marketing brilliance for Johnson to package himself as a modern-day Outlaw, making it far easier for him to reach a targeted demographic that would eagerly embrace him. Lord knows they’re going to eat these limited editions up like Taylor Swift fans blew their Sweet Sixteen money on this.
But he’s yet to really demonstrate that he could be the second coming of Waylon Jennings or Willie Nelson. Right now, he’s got a shot at being a modern-day Gary Stewart or Mel Street, but he’s going to need better material than this to get there.
Like so much of country music today, and pop for that matter, the marketing and media campaigns are dramatically outpacing the development of the music. Artists who have an album or two under their belt are being heralded as the new incarnation of legends with thirty-year careers. It’s an insult to the legends and an unfair burden to place on artists that are still honing their craft.
Because in the end, the hype will die down and the music is all we’ll be left with. I’d love to see Johnson become the traditional country legend that he’s been prematurely ordained, but he’s barely out of the starting gate, and I don’t see him getting much further down the road with material like this.
A perfect time capsule of the boom times, as Jackson wryly notes all of those genre-hoppers who saw dollar signs in the growing country music scene. Funny how they didn’t arrive on radio until a decade later. – Kevin Coyne
I Want to Be Loved Like That Shenandoah
1993 | Peak: #3
Sometimes the deepest understanding of love comes from what you see around you. The narrator in this song won’t settle for anything less than the unwavering love he’s witnessed in his life, and his examples are stunning in the way they slice straight to the core of love, to the bond that can’t be broken by the physical world. This is one of the purest tributes to love I’ve ever heard. – Tara Seetharam (more…)
As we reach the halfway point of the countdown, seventies stars like Tanya Tucker and Don Williams prove just as relevant to the decade as newbies like Terri Clark and and Clay Walker. But it’s eighties original George Strait that dominates this section with three additional entries.
400 Greatest Singles of the Nineties: #225-#201
Passionate Kisses Mary Chapin Carpenter
1992 | Peak: #4
A lightweight wish list/love ditty that somehow seems to tap into a deep well of truth. Credit Carpenter’s soulful vocal, which digs in and finds the cohesive character written between the song’s separate cute lines. – Dan Milliken
The electric guitar line sounds cribbed from The Police’s “Every Breath You Take”, but the sentiment couldn’t be much more different. Dalton is tense all over, as bad omens seem to stack on top of each other while she waits in anticipation of one big let-down. – DM (more…)
From his rocking side, Tritt is tired of trying to please everyone around him, including his demanding lover. As a result, he brashly declares that he’s going to make some changes, which will include looking out for himself. Get out of the way, because his ferocious performance makes him seem quite serious about his epiphany. – Leeann Ward (more…)
When Yearwood and LeAnn Rimes released dueling versions of this song in 1997, it was apparently a wake up call to country listeners: “Hey, wait a minute. Trisha Yearwood is an amazing singer!” She elevates “How Do I Live” beyond its movie theme nature by adding layers of subtlety and nuance to the typical Diane Warren template. – Kevin Coyne
I don’t claim to have any real knowledge of what it’s like to spend a night at the liveliest of honky-tonks, but I’ll be darned if this song doesn’t make me feel like I do. Because “Boot Scootin’ Boogie” isn’t really about a specific place where people go, and it isn’t even about the boogie itself; it’s about the universal thrill of busting out of the work week, kicking back and dancing your troubles away. From start to finish, Brooks & Dunn’s performance is a twangy blast of exhilaration, and that’s a feeling we can all relate to – outlaws, in-laws, crooks and straights alike. - Tara Seetharam
Don’t Take Her She’s All I Got Tracy Byrd
1997 | Peak: #4
Just a damn catchy trad country sing-a-long. It was good fun when Johnny Paycheck had the original hit with it, and lost none of its steam when Tracy Byrd resurrected it for a new audience twenty-six years later. – Dan Milliken (more…)