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A Tale of Two Tributes: Alabama

Alabama-Friends

Various Artists
Alabama & Friends

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To recognize the impact that Alabama has had on modern country music, you could consider their millions of albums sold, their hundreds of awards, their many #1 songs or their induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2005. You could also look at how the boys from Fort Payne, Ala. have the distinction of bringing something entirely new into country music.

Prior to Alabama, country music was predominantly a land of solo acts, with the occasional superstar duos (Conway & Loretta, George & Tammy) or backing bands (The Strangers, The Buckaroos) thrown in for good measure. Sure, there were plenty of vocal groups (Statler Brothers, Oak Ridge Boys), but actual bands, who played their own instruments, were few and far between in country music. It took Alabama to break down that particular barrier, and they paved the way for groups like Zac Brown Band, Diamond Rio, Eli Young Band and others.

Alabama is celebrating its 40th anniversary with a reunion tour and a couple of well-deserved tribute albums. The tributes are quite different, with one being done under the direction of the band, and the other a completely independent effort.

Alabama & Friends, featuring many of today’s leading country stars, comes off as less of a tribute album and more of an Alabama-themed celebrity karaoke night. Many of the songs have very similar arrangements to the originals, and even include Randy Owen, Jeff Cook and Teddy Gentry on lead and harmony vocals.

Many of the memorable elements from the original songs are still present. The fiddle breakdown in “Tennessee River” (with Jason Aldean), the tempo changes in “My Home’s in Alabama” (with Jamey Johnson) – they’re all present and accounted for. The songs that stick close to the originals aren’t necessarily bad. Luke Bryan, for instance, has plenty of flaws as a country singer, but his vocal abilities are not in question, so his version of “Love in the First Degree” is solid. The same could be said of Jason Aldean’s take on “Tennessee River” and Toby Keith’s “She and I.” There’s nothing wrong with them, but fans who love the Alabama originals might think the new ones are a bit too by-the-book.

There are a few instances where the guest singers step outside the box and add more of their own personality to the recording. Trisha Yearwood, the only female voice on the project, does a lovely job on “Forever’s as Far as I’ll Go,” and “Lady Down on Love” by Kenny Chesney stands among his best vocal performances. The same can’t be said of Florida Georgia Line, who takes “I’m in a Hurry (and Don’t Know Why),” adds their usual amount of noise and clutter to the mix, and makes it sound like every other Florida Georgia Line song ever recorded. While it’s a rare opportunity to hear both Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley sing lead vocals, it raises the issue of whether or not they’ve already run out of original ideas.

Alabama recorded two songs for the first time in 11 years, but they’re the weakest songs on the album. For a band that was one of the first to successfully blend country music with amped-up Southern rock, “That’s How I Was Raised” and “All American” are low-energy, generic rah-rah country disappointments.

high-cotton-tribute-to-alabama-2013

Various Artists
High Cotton: A Tribute to Alabama

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High Cotton: A Tribute to Alabama, is available from Lightning Rod Records and has a collection of Americana/Red Dirt/indie all-stars doing their takes on Alabama hits. There is some overlap with the Alabama & Friends, but these versions have a bit more of an original feel. “Why Lady Why” gets transformed into a smoldering soul tune by JD McPherson, while Jason Isbell and John Paul White of The Civil Wars completely reinvent “Old Flame.” The Turnpike Troubadours and Shonna Tucker provide a spark with “If You’re Gonna Play in Texas (You Gotta Have a Fiddle in the Band)” and “Roll On (Eighteen Wheeler),” respectively. While neither version is light years from the original, they add energy to a project that leans heavily toward slow and reflective songs.

Two of Alabama’s love songs are recast as duets. While it’s startling to hear Todd Snider as a romantic balladeer instead of a smart-ass hippie folk singer, his voice never quite meshes with Elizabeth Cook on “Feels So Right.” Wade Bowen and Brandy Clark’s duet on “Love in the First Degree” is excellent, however, and raises the anticipation level for Clark’s debut album.

Not every experiment is a success. Once again, “I’m in a Hurry” gets short shrift, as Jessica Lea Mayfield turns it into a funereal dirge. “Lady Down on Love” just does not work as a bluegrass/spoken word ballad, as evidenced by Bob Schneider & The Texas Bluegrass Massacre with Ray Benson. Jason Boland & The Stragglers’ take on “Mountain Music” is fine, but the insistence of aping the original, from the spoken-word intro to the guest vocals from a couple of the Stragglers à la Cook and Gentry is a little cheesy.

It’s a testament to Alabama’s far-reaching appeal that artists as different as Jason Isbell and Jason Aldean would want to sing their songs. Whether it’s a note-for-note recreation or a completely new interpretation of their hit songs, there is something in these two albums to please any Alabama fan.

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100 Greatest Men: #65. Asleep at the Wheel

100 Greatest Men: The Complete List

It’s an old saying that Ray Benson most certainly would agree with: “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.”

Asleep at the Wheel has undergone many lineup changes since it was formed in 1970 by Benson, Lucky Oceans, and Leroy Preston.  They were joined shortly thereafter by Chris O’Connell, a female singer.  They started out as a country band, but their sound was forever changed by Merle Haggard’s tribute album to Bob Wills.  Since hearing that seminal album, they’ve been devoted to both the preservation and development of Western Swing.

Their debut album was released in 1973 by United Artists, but the band laid down roots in 1974 when they moved to Austin, Texas.  They recorded for a variety of major labels in the seventies and eighties, and had significant commercial success with four albums for Capitol.  The band became widely known for their outstanding live performances, and scored a few hits at country radio, too.

Early on in the band’s run, the lineup began to change, which has become a trademark of the band that has aided its incredible longevity.  The one constant has always been frontman Ray Benson, who has kept the band relevant through bringing in new talent regularly and through creative collaborations with other artists.  They’ve won a remarkable eight Grammy awards, including six for Best Country Instrumental Performance.

Their commitment to preserving the legacy of Bob Wills resulted in two widely hailed and warmly embraced tribute albums: 1993’s A Tribute to the Music of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, and 1999’s Ride with Bob.  The former earned a CMA nomination for Album of the Year, and the latter brought the band back to the country singles chart, thanks to unsolicited airplay for “Roly Poly”, a duet with the Dixie Chicks.

To celebrate Wills’ centennial, Benson starred in a touring musical called A Ride with Bob, where he played himself touring the life of Wills as his band plays along. The show received rave reviews, and one show was even attended by President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush.

In 2009, almost three decades after the band first formed, they had the highest-charting album of their career with Willie and the Wheel, a collaboration with fellow Austin icon Willie Nelson.

Essential Singles:

  • Choo Choo Ch’Boogie, 1973
  • The Letter that Johnny Walker Read, 1975
  • Route 66, 1976
  • House of Blue Lights, 1987
  • Red Wing, 1993

Essential Albums:

  • Comin’ Right at Ya, 1973
  • Texas Gold, 1975
  • Asleep at the Wheel, 1985
  • Ten, 1987
  • A Tribute to the Music of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, 1993
  • Willie and the Wheel (with Willie Nelson), 2009

Next: #64. Jerry Reed

Previous: #66. David Houston

100 Greatest Men: The Complete List

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Favorite Songs by Favorite Artists: Suzy Bogguss

Written by Bob Losche.

Suzy Bogguss has been my favorite female vocalist for about 20 years now. The first time I heard her was on some TV show with Jerry Reed in 1991. She sang “Aces” and “Night Riders Lament” and I was hooked. Since then, I’ve seen her in concert about a dozen times from New York to Nashville and in-between. She still tours on her own in addition to her “Wine, Women and Song” shows with great songwriter friends Matraca Berg and Gretchen Peters. Suzy has done some writing herself having co-written 56 songs, including hits “Hey Cinderella” and “Just Like the Weather”.

Besides attending her shows, I have all her albums. In reviewing her 2007 album “Sweet Danger”, the bossman here at CU, Kevin Coyne said “the arrangements of the songs are subtle and low-key, allowing for the vocals to shine and the songs to work on their own merit, not through the bells-and-whistles of clever production”. I believe that Kevin’s statement could be applied to all of Suzy’s albums.

Suzy never throws away a lyric. You never have to guess at the words she sings. Back to Kevin again – In his review of her last single “In Heaven”, he said that “her voice is still as pure and clear as a mountain stream, and she instinctively knows the great truth about singing that too many women these days never learned: it’s not about power, it’s about sincerity”.

Chet Atkins was a big admirer of Suzy, saying “I don’t like hot dogs and I don’t like anchovies. I don’t like people who say there are too many guitar players in the world, and I especially don’t like singers who sneak up on their notes. But I like Suzy Bogguss…she is always in the tone center, her voice sparkles like crystal water, and she ain’t all that bad looking boys and girls–she’s only one of the best.”

As other writers in this series have mentioned, I found it difficult to get down to 25 songs. Suzy’s highest charting single, “Drive South”, didn’t make my list. Here are some of my favorite songs by Suzy Bogguss:

#25

“Shenandoah”

From the 2011 album American Folk Songbook

A beautiful rendition of a traditional American folk song said to date back to the early 19th century.

#24

“Nobody Love, Nobody Gets Hurt”

from the 1998 album Nobody Love, Nobody Gets Hurt

A Bobbie Cryner song about a would be robber who hands the girl behind the counter in a convenience store a note that he meant to say “Nobody Move, Nobody Gets Hurt”; he wrote “Nobody Love …”

#23

“Outbound Plane”

from the 1991 album Aces

Her current love has flown but she knows she’ll fall in love again in this Nanci Griffith and Tom Russell penned song.

#22

“Do Nothing Til You Hear From Me”

from the 2003 album Swing

Duke Ellington composed the music and Bob Russell wrote the lyrics for this song from the 40’s about not paying attention to rumors. Ray Benson produced the album.

#21

“When She Smiled at Him”

from the 1994 album Simpatico

A father daughter song, written by Michael Johnson and Joanie Beeson, that begins “he wasn’t prepared for a daughter, he thought how nice a son would have been, but she had her way with her father, when she smiled at him”. OK, it’s a sweet and sentimental song. Add a star if you have a daughter. I do.

#20

“Somebody to Love”

from the 1998 album Nobody Love, Nobody Gets Hurt

Her last single to crack the country top 40 was written by Matraca Berg, Suzy & hubby Doug Crider. The girl is brokenhearted and wants somebody cause the night is long. But “she’s got to be tough and hold out honey cause, what you really want is somebody to love”.

#19

Diamonds and Tears

from the 1993 album Something Up My Sleeve

In an article Kevin wrote on Matraca Berg, he said the song was “Berg’s finest philosophical moment, a reflection on how the journey of life is its own destination. Even lost love is a form of “higher education”: “I have said and heard the word ‘goodbye’, felt the blade and turned the knife sideways. But I crossed bridges while they burned, to keep from losing what I’ve learned along the way.” The song was co-written by Gary Harrison.

#18

“I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”

from the 2001 album Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas

The song is based on the Longfellow poem, “Christmas Bells”, which was written on Christmas Day 1864, a few months before the end of the Civil War. Verse two expresses despair that there’s no peace on earth. In verse three, joy triumphs: “then pealed the bells more loud and deep, God is not dead, nor doth he sleep, the wrong shall fail, the right prevail, with peace on earth, good will to men.”

#17

“In Heaven”

from the 2007 album Sweet Danger

Solely written by Doug Crider, who has written 184 songs, this song always gets to me. Since I can’t think of a better way to say it (how’s that for sucking up?), I’ll quote Kevin again from his review noted above: “As Bogguss asks her deceased husband for his blessing on the new love she has found, all of the shades of emotion are there in her multi-layered performance: fear, apprehension, guilt, joy, sorrow. You can feel the conflict inside of her character as she sings every line.”

#16

“Goodnight”

from the 1999 album Suzy Bogguss

This Charlie Black and Dana Hunt song is a perfect fit for my playlists of songs mentioning a U.S. city or state. The woman is trying to get back with her lover, but keeps just missing him. The chorus goes “So goodnight Raleigh, goodnight Durham, goodnight Atlanta and Macon and Jacksonville, Live from high atop the hood of my car, I’m signing off, sweet dreams baby, wherever you are”.

#15

“She Said, He Heard”

from the 1996 album Give Me Some Wheels

A song Suzy wrote with Don Schlitz about the different planets men and women sometimes occupy. “She said ‘I’m mad’, he heard ‘I’m leaving’, she said ‘I’m sad’, he heard ‘It’s all your fault’.”

#14

“How Come You Go to Her”

from the 1992 album Voices in the Wind

A what’s she got that that I ain’t got song from Anthony Smith, Michael Garvin and Suzy. “You said it was heaven in my arms, so how come they ain’t holding you.”

#13

“Cold Day in July”

from the 1992 album Voices in the Wind

“You always said that the day you’d leave me, would be a cold day in July”. I love the Dixie Chicks but Suzy’s earlier recording of this Richard Leigh song from 1981 blows them out of the water.

#12

“Just Like the Weather”

from the 1993 album Something Up My Sleeve

Her man is thinking about leaving, so she uses the changeability of the weather as a metaphor to convince him to stay and tough it out. A Bogguss-Crider writing collaboration that resulted in a top ten hit.

#11

“I Want to Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart”

from the 1989 album Somewhere Between

Suzy’s cover of Country Music Hall of Famer Patsy Montana’s signature song first released in 1935. Love Suzy’s yodeling.

#10

“Saying Goodbye to a Friend”

from the 1996 album Give Me Some Wheels

A song from Angela Kaset and Doug Gill about trying to get over the loss of a loved one. Lines like “These little things that shouldn’t matter, make something inside me shatter” and “like a scene in a rearview mirror, I thought I’d got past it, now I’m looking at it again” reflect the singer’s state of mind.

#9

“Handyman’s Dream”

from the 1989 album Somewhere Between

A bouncy Gary Nicholson-Pam Tillis tune about potential as expressed by lines like: “I’m a little rundown from lack of attention, but my possibilities are too numerous to mention” and “I need a man who’s not afraid to roll up his sleeves, If you could only picture what the end result will be”. Hmm.

#8

“Someday Soon”

from the 1991 album Aces

An Ian Tyson classic, first recorded in 1964. The woman’s problem: “He loves his damned old rodeo as much as he loves me.” Today her problem would more likely be playing golf or watching football.

#7

“Letting Go”

from the 1991 album Aces

A song from hubby Doug and Matt Rollings that parents sending their kids off to college for the first time can appreciate. I speak from first hand experience.

#6

“Eat at Joe’s”

from the 1992 album Voices in the Wind

In this Berg-Harrison tune about a waitress in an all night diner, Suzy’s sounds a bit sassy as she sings “here’s a hot top on your coffee, honey you’re a mess, I ain’t your wife, I ain’t your momma, but I’ll do I guess”.

#5

“It’s Not Gonna Happen Today”

from the 2007 album Sweet Danger

Kevin’s comment: “Bogguss co-wrote one of the strongest tracks on the album, the dark and despondent “It’s Not Gonna Happen Today.” It finds the narrator hiding out in her house on an autumn afternoon, with the leaves piling up outside. “I don’t really want to face all the things I’ve left undone,” she confesses. “At least a thousand things…maybe only one.” Suzy’s co-writers were Greg Barnhill and Doug Crider.

#4

“Night Rider’s Lament”

from the 1989 album Somewhere Between

There’s low pay and no advancement so why does this cowboy ride and rope for his living in this Michael Burton song? The end of the chorus provides the answer to the suggestion that “he must have gone crazy out there”:

But he’s never seen the Northern Lights
Never seen a hawk on the wing
He’s never seen Spring hit the Great Divide
And never heard Ol’ Camp Cookie sing.

Suzy’s yodeling at the end is awesome.

#3

“Something Up My Sleeve”

from the 1993 album Something Up My Sleeve

A duet with Billy Dean penned by Suzi Ragsdale and Verlon Thompson. The relationship isn’t working out for either party but neither one wants to leave. Suzy sings the first verse and Billy the second. In the third verse they alternate lines, Suzy then Billy responding. In the fourth verse, they again alternate, Billy with Suzy answering. They end together singing “I wish I had the power to make us both believe, I wish I had something up my sleeve.” Both contribute equally, a true duet, and their voices, Suzy’s soprano and Billy’s baritone, go so well together.

#2

“Hey Cinderella”

from the 1993 album Something Up My Sleeve

The fantasy of the first two verses turns into “dreams that lost their way” by the end of the third verse. The chorus begins “Hey Cinderella” and ends with the question “Does the shoe fit you now?” In the song’s second half, reality has totally set in. There’s talk of compromising and coming to terms with our vanity. Suzy co-wrote the song with Berg and Harrison.

#1

“Aces”

from the 1991 album Aces

Writer Cheryl Wheeler once explained that the song is about 3 persons. A and the singer, B, are former lovers. A introduces B to C and the latter two get together. A and C were also former lovers. B is singing to A who complained about B and C getting together. Hence, she sings “you can’t deal me the Aces and think I wouldn’t play.”

Since the lyrics do not mention this third party, C, another interpretation could be that of mentor and protege. The former trains the latter and makes her a star but never wants to relinquish control. (Porter and Dolly?) Lines like “you feel undermined and hurt again” and “compromise and realize you can never really run every thing you start” could fit this second scenario. This has been how I always interpreted the lyrics. Cheryl’s explanation can be found on her website.

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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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