Tag Archives: Reba McEntire

Single Review: Reba McEntire, “If I Were a Boy”

This really isn’t that bad.

Reba’s a great singer, and this is a great song.

Yes, the lyrics make it an awkward fit at times.  Did we really need to hear Reba McEntire use the phrase “kickin’ it”,  one single after using Twitter as an action verb?

But I think I get why this song is resonating with her. Perhaps more than three decades of being a female artist in a male-dominated industry makes it easy for her to tap into the double standard bemoaned by the lyric.

The problem is that even if her vocal brings maturity to the material, the production undermines it.  The echo on “boy” in the chorus is terrible. It sounds like something you’d hear an overzealous synthesizer band do in the early eighties.

Reba’s only had a handful of truly great singles in the last fifteen years.  “The Fear of Being Alone.”  “Consider Me Gone.” “He Gets That From Me.”

They’ve been great because she found a great lyric, delivered it flawlessly, and didn’t let the bells and whistles of production get in her way.

This could’ve been a great single, with a lyric or two changed to make it more believable, and a production that didn’t call out for a  Members Only jacket.

She’s Reba McEntire.  She has no excuse for not getting it right.

Written by Toby Gad and BC Jean

Grade: B-

Listen: If I Were a Boy

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Filed under Single Reviews

Nashville Scene: 11th Annual Country Music Critics’ Poll

The 11th Annual Country Music Critics’ Poll has just been published by Nashville Scene. It covers the 2010 year of country music. The participants of the poll consists of country music critics who spend their time listening to and analyzing stacks of music throughout the year in order to knowledgeably write about it for the purpose of either promoting excellent music or warning against the not so good stuff. Kevin, Dan and Tara are among these prestigious critics.

Each year, invited critics submit their ballots with their favorite music and artists in the appropriate categories. The poll includes the best albums, singles, male and female artists, reissues, live acts, duos and groups, songwriters, new acts, and the over all artists of the year. While the results include the usual suspects, they are mixed with some surprises or names that aren’t commonly associated with mainstream country.

Some of my favorite results include Raul Malo tied at #8 with Gary Allan for top males and Elizabeth Cook at #2 for top females, not to mention Sunny Sweeney’s “From A Table Away” landing at the #3 spot for singles. The most amusing result, however, is Jamey Johnson and Taylor Swift in the top two spots for songwriters.

What’s most fascinating about this process is that the critics have the opportunity to include comments with their ballots. These comments serve to clarify choices and pontificate on the state of country music and its various aspects. There are some insightful comments from both Dan and Tara, along with other critics that you might recognize from our blog roll.

Here are some of the cream of the crop comments that display a satisfyingly diverse array of perspectives:

“Lost amidst the rush to proclaim Jamey Johnson as the man to reclaim country music from pop acts like Taylor Swift is the fact that Johnson and Swift are cut from the precisely same cloth. Johnson is most often championed for the supposed authenticity of his songwriting, but is it really any more believable that he’s been “takin’ dee-pression pills in the Hollywood hills” than it is that Swift regrets not calling an ex when his birthday passed? Both Johnson and Swift have developed public personae and voices as songwriters that trade in the same suspension of disbelief. Swift’s music may not scan as “country” to the extent that Johnson’s does, but that isn’t because she’s any less authentic than Johnson. They both act like they’re “Playing the Part,” and they both do so awfully well.” —Jonathan Keefe, Slant Magazine

“Thank goodness the Internet and satellite radio are around to pick up FM’s slack, because brilliant would-be singles continue popping up on independent releases that Clear Channel won’t touch. My favorite two this year were Elizabeth Cook’s “El Camino” and Chely Wright’s “Notes to the Coroner.” The former: a hilarious country-rap about a creepy, mulleted lothario. The latter: a frank diary introduction from a recently deceased woman. Both: utterly unique and unshakably catchy.” —Dan Milliken, Country Universe

“In 2010, Grandpa told us about the good old days again. The most conspicuous presence on country radio in recent years has been this kindly old gentleman, lugging his aching bones out of bed to share some worldly wisdom. After years of hard labor and heartache, he’s now embarked on a second career as life coach for his hillbilly kin on recent singles from Lee Brice, Billy Currington, Craig Morgan and Alan Jackson (the matured mentor on Zac Brown’s “As She’s Walking Away”). Of course, country radio won’t fool with women over 40 except for Reba, so you never really get to hear Grandma’s side of things.” —Blake Boldt, The 9513

“Despite their two weak singles this year, “Our Kind of Love” and “Hello World,” I remain in Lady Antebellum’s corner. What hooks me is the way they’re able to inject gritty, tangible emotion into the glossiest of production and the vaguest of lyrics. That’s what elevates “Need You Now” to an aching confession, and that’s how, on a song that compares innocence to a condiment, Hillary Scott’s vocal performance alone manages to tell an evocative story.” —Tara Seetharam, Country Universe

“So if country music is doing so well artistically, why is it that whenever I turned on the radio in 2010, I heard mostly pop or rock songs with a token steel guitar thrown into the mix? I’ve long since given up hope of Americana artists ever getting picked up by mainstream radio, and I’ve pretty much come to terms with the fact that Jamey Johnson won’t be getting many (if any) hit songs no matter how good they are. But would it kill them to play some non-hyphenated country music a little more? I know that country-pop and country-rock are the flavors of the month, but where does that leave more traditional artists? I know I’d be more willing to tolerate Jason Aldean rapping or Jennifer Nettles singing with her stupid fake Jamaican accent if “Draw Me a Map” or “Will I Always Be This Way” was next on the playlist.” —Sam Gazdziak, The 9513

“In an August interview with Spinner, Ryan Bingham rejected the notion that he makes country music. Two weeks later, Bingham was named the Americana Music Association’s “Artist of the Year,” thanks in large part to his Academy Award-winning song “The Weary Kind,” a song he wrote for a movie about a country singer. In September, when asked about the state of country music today, rising star Justin Townes Earle told The Wall Street Journal that he’s embarrassed to be from Nashville because of the “shit songwriting, shit records and shit singers who are making a million dollars.” Even mainstream country stalwart Zac Brown distanced himself from the genre, telling American Songwriter in September, “The songs that I write are Southern, but I wouldn’t necessarily call them country.” It’s a shame — and an enormous loss for the genre — that the term “country music” has come to describe something so narrow that bright young artists like these choose not to identify themselves as country. Thank God for Jamey Johnson, who wears the mantle proudly.” —Jim Malec, American Twang

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Crunching the Numbers: January 2011

Feel that chill in the air?  It’s not just climate change, friends.  The music industry is suffering through historic lows in record sales, the worst since SoundScan started tallying them in 1991.

How are country artists faring?  Let’s take a look at cumulative sales for current albums. Sales are rounded to the nearest hundred.

Top Selling Current Country Albums

  1. Taylor Swift, Fearless: 6,233,900
  2. Taylor Swift, Taylor Swift: 4,955,000
  3. Lady Antebellum, Need You Now: 3,138,700
  4. Taylor Swift, Speak Now: 3,078,600
  5. Zac Brown Band, The Foundation: 2,489,200
  6. Carrie Underwood, Play On: 1,937,041
  7. Lady Antebellum, Lady Antebellum: 1,835,800
  8. Jason Aldean, Wide Open: 1,364,700
  9. Miranda Lambert, Revolution: 1,149,000
  10. Rascal Flatts, Greatest Hits Volume 1: 994,600
  11. Sugarland, The Incredible Machine: 815,200
  12. Jason Aldean, My Kinda Party:  766,300
  13. Tim McGraw, Southern Voice: 749,200
  14. George Strait, Twang: 670,200
  15. Kenny Chesney, Hemingway’s Whiskey: 655,200
  16. Zac Brown Band, You Get What You Give: 636,000
  17. Rascal Flatts, Nothing Like This: 585,800
  18. Luke Bryan, Doin’ My Thing: 509,200
  19. Keith Urban, Get Closer: 508,200
  20. Brooks & Dunn, #1’s…and Then Some: 479,700
  21. Toby Keith, American Ride: 432,100
  22. Chris Young, The Man I Want to Be: 408,000
  23. Eric Church, Carolina: 380,600
  24. Darius Rucker, Charleston, SC 1966: 376,700
  25. The Band Perry, The Band Perry: 364,000
  26. Josh Turner, Haywire: 361,800
  27. Justin Moore, Justin Moore: 325,600
  28. Easton Corbin, Easton Corbin: 314,000
  29. Toby Keith, Bullets in the Gun: 279,400
  30. Jamey Johnson, The Guitar Song: 256,300
  31. Gary Allan, Get Off on the Pain: 238,000
  32. Reba McEntire, All the Women I Am: 224,800
  33. Jerron Niemann, Judge Jerron & The Hung Jury: 222,700
  34. Billy Currington, Enjoy Yourself: 222,000
  35. Tim McGraw, Number One Hits: 220,500
  36. Dierks Bentley, Up on the Ridge: 204,900
  37. Zac Brown Band, Pass the Jar: 202,100
  38. Trace Adkins, Cowboy’s Back in Town: 194,200
  39. Johnny Cash, American VI: Ain’t No Grave: 190,100
  40. Brad Paisley, Hits Alive: 189,200
  41. Alan Jackson, 34 Number Ones: 181,000
  42. Blake Shelton, All About Tonight: 160,700
  43. Little Big Town, The Reason Why: 158,300
  44. Blake Shelton, Loaded: The Best of Blake Shelton : 142,300
  45. Jaron and the Long Road to Love, Getting Dressed in the Dark: 119,700
  46. Josh Thompson, Way Out Here: 107,000
  47. Joe Nichols, Old Things New: 100,700
  48. Brantley Gilbert, Halfway to Heaven: 81,400
  49. Lee Brice, Love Like Crazy: 81,200
  50. Steel Magnolia, Steel Magnolia: 41,000
  51. Joey + Rory, Album Number Two: 34,100
  52. Randy Houser, They Call Me Cadillac: 30,900

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Where’ve You Been? – 2011 Edition

It’s hard to believe that there once was a time that country artists put out two full-length albums a year.  If they were part of a regular superstar duet team, like Conway Twitty & Loretta Lynn or Porter Wagoner & Dolly Parton, a fan might hear as many as four new studio albums from their favorite artist.

By the time that I got into country music – twenty years ago, natch – things had slowed down a bit.  Artists usually released a new album every 12-18 months.  Sometimes they’d push it to two years, but not often.

Those were the days.  Waits between album releases have gotten crazy lately.  I’m all for taking the time to get it right, but once we push past the half-decade mark, things have gone too far.  Sure, we’re given side projects to carry us over, but there’s no substitute for a full-length studio album of all-new material.

Here are five artists who I’d really love to see make a long-awaited return with a new album in 2011, along with a brief rundown of the side projects that they’ve been busy with while we’ve waited for that new album:

Shania Twain

Last Studio Album: Up! (2002)

Side Projects: Greatest Hits (2005), featuring four new tracks; contributions to a Dolly Parton tribute album, a live Willie Nelson album, an Anne Murray duet album, and the Desperate Housewives soundtrack.

It’s been over eight years since Twain released that 19-track opus. It was cool that she released the album in three different mixes, essentially giving us 57 new mp3s for the iPods we didn’t even have yet. Of all the superstar acts, she’s the one who has been away the longest.

Wynonna

Last Studio Album: What the World Needs (2003)

Side Projects: Live album, Christmas album, covers album, Cracker Barrel album…

In a sense, she’s never really gone away. But despite being a fixture in the media and releasing so many other-type albums, we haven’t gotten a real studio set from Wynonna in over seven years. Given that the last one was among the finest in her career, it’s a shame she has yet to craft another mainstream country album.

Dwight Yoakam

Last Studio Album: Blame the Vain (2005)

Side Projects: A Buck Owens tribute album in 2007, Dwight Sings Buck.

The most distressing absence on the list, mostly because he’s been so prolific in the past. Movie appearances are keeping him busy. Here’s hoping that when he does return, we get more than ten songs.

Dixie Chicks

Last Studio Album: Taking the Long Way (2006)

Side Projects: “The Neighbor”, from the Shut Up & Sing documentary; contributions to a Tony Bennett duet project; Emily and Martie’s Court Yard Hounds set; Natalie’s duet with Neil Diamond.

It’s hard to follow up an album that wins a bunch of Grammys, but it’s not like they haven’t done so before. If they’re insisting on writing all of the next album, it could be gestating for a very long time. Can’t we get a Patty Griffin or Darrell Scott covers album to hold us over?

Vince Gill

Last Studio Album: These Days (2006)

Side Projects: A mother lode of duet and harmony appearances on other artist’s albums (Reba McEntire, Charlie Daniels, Amy Grant, Clay Aiken…)

Gill’s last album was a four discs worth of new material, so it’s understandable that it would take a couple of years for him to craft a new one. But we’re going on five now. Since Gill was able to create those four discs a mere three years after his previous studio set (2003’s Next Big Thing), we should be due for a new album soon.

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2011 Singles: A Wish List

The bulk of our work at Country Universe this month has been catching up on singles currently at radio.  Collectively, they’ve been abysmal, with review grades rarely reaching a B, let alone an A.

How can we turn this around? Here are five songs that I’d love to see sent to radio tomorrow.  Share your own in the comments!

Zac Brown Band, “Let it Go”

A dizzying dose of positivity, with a few great musical twists to boot.  The Serenity Prayer never sounded so good.

Court Yard Hounds, “Ain’t No Son”

The only truly country song on their album. The only truly great song on their album.

Toby Keith, “In a Couple of Days”

It’s easy to take Keith for granted, so consistent are his vocals and song structures.  Usually, its his lyrics that trip him up. It’s his heartbroke ballads, like this gem, that showcase his talent best.

Reba McEntire, “The Day She Got Divorced”

Country singers used to sing about people like this all the time.  Flawed anti-heroines like this don’t come along too often anymore.

Carrie Underwood, “Change”

I suspect those with more refined tastes than mine are clamoring for “Someday When I Stop Loving You”, an admittedly beautiful ballad, but this is the track I’m returning to the most from Play On. I think it captures the nagging cynicism that prevents many of us from fully embracing our inner benevolence.

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Filed under Miscellaneous Musings, Recommend a Track

Rollin’ With the Flowchart

I’m trying to cut back on my hyperbole, so I’ll understate matters and call this only one of the most awesomely coolest things ever:

Which Country Song Best Describes Your Life?

Creator Madlynn Priester e-mailed me and requested I shared the link, which I have done, but only after starting at the thing in wonder and awe for a good ten minutes.

According to the chart, the song that best describes my life is Reba McEntire’s “Turn on the Radio.”

Hey, there weren’t too many directions to go in when you answer “yes” to, “Are you happy?”  It’s a country flow chart, after all.

What song best describes your life, according to the chart?

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Filed under Conversations, Just Read This

Album Review: Reba McEntire, All the Women I Am

Reba McEntire
All the Women I Am

A case study in musical identity crisis.

Here we have one of the most gifted vocalists in the history of country music, searching in vain for her voice.  The trend has been going on for some time now, and if this isn’t its apex, we’re in for a long and bumpy ride. Not since her days with Mercury has McEntire ever tried so hard to fit in with the current sound on country radio, and much like those early records, this trend-chasing set is both overprocessed and underdeveloped.

What can you say about a woman of McEntire’s age and stature covering Beyoncé? How can one take seriously her references to Twitter and “kicking it” with the guys? One one track, she talks about meeting an old man on the plane who is mourning Chelsea,  the love of his life who has since passed on.  She dreams about being “Somebody’s Chelsea.”  How can a woman in her mid-fifties not have something substantial to add to a conversation with this man?

Everything takes place in the distant future here, and truth be told, this would be a pretty good Kellie Pickler album. But in adopting the voice of the younger generation of ladies, McEntire becomes the student when she should really be the teacher.

At her peak, McEntire gave voice to the everyday woman. On classics like “Only in My Mind”, “Whoever’s in New England”, and “Is There Life Out There”, she put into words what women were really thinking but were conditioned not to say.

Which is why when McEntire suddenly taps that vein in two of the album’s closing tracks, it’s like a sudden jolt to the system. “The Day She Got Divorced” is vivid and real, with lyrical imagery that would make Jeannie C. Riley proud.   Just as good is the album’s beautiful closing track, “When You Have a Child,” where McEntire catalogs all of the conflicting emotions a mother feels from the time her child is born to when they’re leaving home.

You know why it works? Because McEntire has the life experience to back it up.  It’s actually age-appropriate, and it’s tremendously powerful as a result.  None of the younger artists she’s chasing the sound of could pull it off, but McEntire effortlessly knocks it out of the park.

Here’s the deal. These days, there is no shortage of young women with barely any life experience who have the whole world hanging on every word they say.  McEntire doesn’t need to lower herself to that level, just so she can be heard. As the best moments on All the Women I Am prove, she’s more authoritative when speaking for her own generation than she can ever be by adopting the viewpoints of the young’uns who aren’t that interesting to begin with.  Music by adults, for adults please.

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2010 CMA Awards: Staff Picks and Predictions

When the nominees were announced in August for the 44th annual CMA Awards, they sparked a firestorm of headlines –and thoughtful commentary by critics and fans alike– thanks to the CMA voters’ surprisingly bold moves. It’s all about change this year, as the voters revamped the ballot with a slew of fresh faces in almost all of the big categories.

How will it all play out? We’ll know for sure on Wednesday at 8pm Eastern, but before Gwenyth Paltrow throws on her cowboy boots, check out our staff picks and predictions and join the discussion in the comments below. And be sure to drop by Wednesday night for all of the CU live blog madness!

Entertainer of the Year

Should Win:

  • Lady Antebellum
  • Miranda Lambert – Kevin
  • Brad Paisley
  • Keith Urban
  • Zac Brown Band – Leeann, Dan, Tara

Kevin:  Among the five nominees, Miranda Lambert has best represented the genre this year.

Leeann: I’m torn between Lambert and the Zac Brown Band as most deserving this year. I recently saw Lambert’s show and wasn’t incredibly impressed, however. While I have not yet attended a ZBB show, theirs is one of the few spots that I look forward to at awards shows these days. Moreover, I’m impressed by how much of a following they had even before they made any mainstream records.

Dan: Of these five, Zac Brown Band had the second-most success this year (after Lady A) and made the second-best music (after Lambert), so that’s pretty good standing. And I feel like giving this award to a grassroots act would be a good way for the industry to greet the future.

Tara: I’m consistently impressed by Zac Brown Band’s live performances, and it would be really refreshing to see them win – so I’ll go with them. (But I’m still disappointed that the first year my head and heart align on Carrie Underwood deserving an EOTY award, I can’t support her. I’m holding out for 2012…)

Will Win:

  • Lady Antebellum
  • Miranda Lambert – Tara
  • Brad Paisley – Kevin, Leeann, Dan
  • Keith Urban
  • Zac Brown Band

Kevin: I’ve probably learned nothing from last year’s Swift sweep by going with Paisley again, but he’s the only nominee of veteran stature who hasn’t won yet.

Leeann: I can’t imagine that Paisley won’t finally win this one.

Dan: I was going to guess Lady A, since they’re sort of 2010’s “flavor of the year” the way Taylor Swift was 2009’s. But when I think about it, Swift’s ascent was greater and more gradual, and she stood in contrast to the rest of her nominee pool (four male veterans) in a way Lady A don’t with theirs (in which they’re one of three new competitors). So, Paisley.

Tara: I have no rationale. My gut says Lambert.

Male Vocalist of the Year

Should Win:

  • Dierks Bentley – Kevin, Leeann, Dan, Tara
  • Brad Paisley
  • Blake Shelton
  • George Strait
  • Keith Urban

Kevin: Bentley made the best music this year.

Leeann: Bentley may not have the best technical voice out of these nominees, but he has the most interesting and distinctive of them, which is always something that I gravitate toward. Also, I agree with Kevin that he’s made the best music this year.

Dan: Shelton and Bentley are the only ones in this pool who made significant career strides this year – Shelton at radio, and Bentley creatively. Since I’m backing someone else in the Album category, this is where I’d like to see Bentley recognized for following his muse.

Tara: I guess Up on the Ridge is as good a reason as any to fall off the Brad-for-MVOTY bandwagon. He’s a close second for me, though.

Will Win:

  • Dierks Bentley – Kevin, Dan
  • Brad Paisley – Leeann, Tara
  • Blake Shelton
  • George Strait
  • Keith Urban

Kevin: I can see the roots album giving Bentley an edge. Then again, Paisley could just repeat again, or Shelton may suddenly have deep support among voters. I say, Bentley by a nose.

Leeann: I think that voters will reflexively give this one to Paisley again.

Dan: I’ll ditto Kevin.

Tara: I can’t really see Paisley losing this one, but I think if he does lose to Bentley, it’ll be a telling moment.

Female Vocalist of the Year

Should Win:

  • Miranda Lambert – Kevin, Leeann, Dan
  • Martina McBride
  • Reba McEntire
  • Taylor Swift
  • Carrie Underwood – Tara

Kevin: Underwood and McEntire are the women who made my favorite singles from the eligibility period, but Lambert’s the only one who hasn’t won this award.  She’s not overdue, but she’s due.

Leeann: Kevin’s right that Lambert is due to win this award now, not to mention that she’s my favorite female singer out of the bunch.

Dan: Lambert still isn’t at Underwood’s sales level, much less Swift’s, and I don’t see her catching up before traditional music sales die out altogether. Doesn’t matter, though: her habit of making creative music will sustain her regardless of industry conditions, and will elevate the genre in the long run. It’s time to look ahead.

Tara: I’m 50/50 on Lambert and Underwood. I’m not sure how to balance Lambert’s long overdue mega-year against Underwood’s continuous stream of solid success, ambassadorship and artistic growth. I’ll be happy either way, but personal investment’s got me in Underwood’s camp.

Will Win:

  • Miranda Lambert - Kevin, Dan, Tara
  • Martina McBride
  • Reba McEntire
  • Taylor Swift
  • Carrie Underwood- Leeann

Kevin: I’d be shocked if Lambert lost, and can’t even make a guess as to who she’d lose to, should she somehow lose.

Leeann: It’s between Lambert and Underwood, but I give Underwood the edge, especially since it’s somewhat surprising that she didn’t get an Entertainer nomination. Although Lambert has gained popularity in the past year, Underwood is still one of the two biggest females in the business and I refuse to predict that Swift will win the award.

Dan: Lambert’s had enough mainstream success this year to give tasteful voters an excuse to give her some props.

Tara: The voters love them some Lambert this year, and I think of all her nominations, this is the one she’s got in the bag.

Vocal Duo of the Year

Should Win:

  • Brooks & Dunn
  • Joey + Rory – Kevin, Leeann, Dan, Tara
  • Montgomery Gentry
  • Steel Magnolia
  • Sugarland

Kevin: I’m assuming “Stuck Like Glue” was after the eligibility period, so I think actually making some music over the year is important. Joey + Rory are the only duo I like who have yet to win.

Leeann: I simply like them the most, but I know they don’t have a chance.

Dan: I mean, why not? Nobody on this ballot has done much but tour.

Tara: I’m not very excited about any of these acts right now, to be honest. It would just be heartwarming to see Joey + Rory pick this one up.

Will Win:

  • Brooks & Dunn – Kevin, Dan
  • Joey + Rory
  • Montgomery Gentry
  • Steel Magnolia
  • Sugarland – Leeann, Tara

Kevin: Sugarland’s year off helped guarantee a B&D victory lap, which would probably have happened anyway.

Leeann: It’s between Brooks & Dunn and Sugarland. I should just pick B&D because of their retirement, but I’m still going with Sugarland because of their popularity.

Dan: Brooks & Dunn, unless voters ignore the eligibility period and stick with Sugarland.

Tara: Isn’t the Brooks & Dunn retirement thing kind of old news by now, or am I just out of touch?

Vocal Group of the Year

Should Win:

  • Lady Antebellum – Tara
  • Little Big Town
  • Rascal Flatts
  • The Band Perry
  • Zac Brown Band – Kevin, Leeann, Dan

Kevin: Let’s start getting some variety in this category, instead of having Lady A own it for five years.

Leeann: They’re the only group that I like right now.

Dan: I’ll probably be rooting for Little Big Town come ACM season, but for now…

Tara: I don’t want Lady A to own this for five years, either, but I do think they deserve to win this year. At least in my opinion, their huge success on the charts and with album sales can be attributed much to their ability to (I know, I know – I’m a broken record) hone in on specific emotion and deliver it in a way that people can really connect with. There’s some meat (and a heck of a lot of potential) behind their success that tends to go unnoticed.

Will Win:

  • Lady Antebellum – Kevin, Leeann, Dan, Tara
  • Little Big Town
  • Rascal Flatts
  • The Band Perry
  • Zac Brown Band

Kevin: Lady A and Zac BB are both very popular with voters, but I’m thinking that this is the only race where voters can reward Lady A for dominating at retail this year.

Leeann: Ditto to Kevin.

Dan: New Artist will be ZBB’s consolation prize.

Tara: …And I think the voters will agree with my pick, if not for the same reasons.

New Artist of the Year

Should Win:

  • Luke Bryan
  • Easton Corbin
  • Jerrod Niemann
  • Chris Young – Leeann
  • Zac Brown Band - Kevin, Dan, Tara

Kevin: ZBB is in another league, which makes me wish they still called this the Horizon Award.

Leeann: It’s weird to see ZBB here considering their nominations elsewhere, so I think that Chris Young has the most potential of the remaining nominees.

Dan: I’d love to see Young take this, but ZBB can’t be denied.

Tara: This is a great line-up, but there’s no question that ZBB deserves this win.

Will Win:

  • Luke Bryan
  • Easton Corbin
  • Jerrod Niemann
  • Chris Young
  • Zac Brown Band – Kevin, Leeann, Dan, Tara

Kevin: ZBB is nominated for Entertainer of the Year, much like Ricky Skaggs was when he won Horizon in 1982. (Skaggs also won Male Vocalist, which means I may have to rethink my pick for Vocal Group, too.)

Leeann: Kevin’s argument is too compelling not to follow. Also, they are the most popular of the nominees, therefore, probably the most deserving.

Dan: Everyone here but Niemann has had a significant breakthrough. With ZBB in the mix, though, it’s no contest.

Tara: It’s a funky set-up to have ZBB nominated for both the top and bottom (figuratively) prizes, and I think this one will play out exactly the way Kevin explained it.

Album of the Year

Should Win:

  • Dierks Bentley, Up on the RidgeLeeann
  • Lady Antebellum, Need You Now
  • Miranda Lambert, Revolution – Dan, Tara
  • George Strait, Twang
  • Carrie Underwood, Play OnKevin

Kevin: I have all five of these albums, and Underwood’s is the one that I listen to the most, with Strait a not-too-close second. In 2010, of course, “listening to an album” really means “how many songs do I pull off the album and put on a play list,” which has Underwood ahead by three tracks.

Leeann: If I follow Kevin’s test, Bently wins with Lambert as a close second. Bentley’s is, hands down, my favorite album of these choices. I’d love to see something this different from the mainstream win.

Dan: Also employing Kevin’s test, I flip-flop Leeann’s first and second choices. Only about two thirds of Revolution click for me a year later, but those two thirds have helped redefined what I thought modern country could be (still flipping about “Me and Your Cigarettes”), and the stray third at least tried.

Tara: I’m not going to follow Kevin’s test: I don’t play Revolution quite as much as three of the other albums on here, but I feel it’s the most deserving. It’s sharp, smart and an excellent example of an artist taking her potential by the horns.

Will Win:

  • Dierks Bentley, Up on the Ridge
  • Lady Antebellum, Need You Now
  • Miranda Lambert, RevolutionKevin, Leeann, Dan, Tara
  • George Strait, Twang
  • Carrie Underwood, Play On

Kevin: I really do think Lambert will sweep. I think she should’ve won for her last album, which wasn’t even nominated, but I’m not going to complain about an ambitious album getting the prize.

Leeann: I’m guessing either Lambert or Underwood. Although Lambert has the better album, Underwood has the slight edge because it sold better. I wouldn’t be especially surprised if Lady A takes it though.

Dan: Seems to me like a toss-up between Lady A’s commercial favorite and Lambert’s critical one. Lambert?

Tara: This is Lambert’s to lose, but I wouldn’t be too surprised if Lady A (or maybe Bentley?) snatched it.

Single of the Year

Should Win:

  • Easton Corbin, “A Little More Country Than That”
  • Lady Antebellum, “Need You Now”
  • Miranda Lambert, “The House That Built Me” – Kevin, Leeann, Dan, Tara
  • Miranda Lambert, “White Liar”
  • Blake Shelton featuring Trace Adkins, “Hillbilly Bone”

Kevin: It’s the big chunk of meat in a category of mashed potatoes and candied apples.

Leeann: Kevin just made me really hungry, therefore, kind of distracted. It’s a good thing that my choice doesn’t need justification then.

Dan: “Need You Now” had the biggest impact, of course, but “The House That Built Me” was no slouch either – four weeks at #1 – and was arguably the riskiest, most rewarding release. Also of note: she sang it real pretty.

Tara: “Need You Now” and “The House That Built Me” are performed equally well, but “House” is the better-written song. I’ll go with “House” on the basis of that, but I do think country music will be represented justly either way. Both songs resonate with pure, compelling sentiment.

Will Win:

  • Easton Corbin, “A Little More Country Than That”
  • Lady Antebellum, “Need You Now” - Dan, Tara
  • Miranda Lambert, “The House That Built Me” - Kevin, Leeann
  • Miranda Lambert, “White Liar”
  • Blake Shelton featuring Trace Adkins, “Hillbilly Bone”

Kevin: I think Lady A would have a better shot if they hadn’t won last year for “I Run to You.”

Leeann: It’s simply the clear winner.

Dan: Again, somewhat for diversity’s sake, I’ll guess that many voters have already forgotten about “I Run to You” – I certainly have – and will use this category to recognize the biggest hit, while they use Song to recognize the best one.

Tara: I’m jumping on Dan’s train…

Song of the Year

Should Win:

  • “A Little More Country Than That” – Rory Lee Feek, Don Poythress & Wynn Varble
  • “Need You Now” – Dave Haywood, Josh Kear, Charles Kelley & Hillary Scott
  • “The House That Built Me” – Tom Douglas & Allen Shamblin – Kevin, Leeann, Dan, Tara
  • “Toes” – Zac Brown, Wyatt Durrette, John Hopkins & Shawn Mullins
  • “White Liar” – Natalie Hemby & Miranda Lambert

Kevin: Overall, I think that “Need You Now” is a better Single than Song, and that “The House That Built Me” is a better Song than Single, but “House” is better than “Need” on both counts.

Leeann: I’m just being repetative now. It’s the best single and song of the year.

Dan: It’s the deepest-cutting of the five and the most unique.

Tara: “The House That Built Me” is, quite simply, beautifully written.

Will Win:

  • “A Little More Country Than That” – Rory Lee Feek, Don Poythress & Wynn Varble
  • “Need You Now” – Dave Haywood, Josh Kear, Charles Kelley & Hillary Scott – Kevin
  • “The House That Built Me” – Tom Douglas & Allen Shamblin – Leeann, Dan, Tara
  • “Toes” – Zac Brown, Wyatt Durrette, John Hopkins & Shawn Mullins
  • “White Liar” – Natalie Hemby & Miranda Lambert

Kevin: Here’s where they can honor “Need You Now” without shortchanging Lambert.

Leeann: I just see “House” sweeping in all possible categories.

Dan: They often manage to pick the actual best song of the five, especially when that song is also the most “serious.”

Tara: This just seems way to obvious; I don’t see how the voters could bypass the most clearly deserving song.

Musical Event of the Year

Should Win:

  • Dierks Bentley featuring Jamey Johnson & Miranda Lambert, “Bad Angel” – Tara
  • Kenny Chesney with Dave Matthews, “I’m Alive”
  • Alan Jackson with Lee Ann Womack, “‘Til the End” – Leeann, Dan
  • Blake Shelton featuring Trace Adkins, “Hillbilly Bone” – Kevin
  • Zac Brown Band featuring Kid Rock, “Can’t You See”

Kevin: I don’t find any of these five songs particularly compelling, so I’ll go with the two artists who are longest overdue for some CMA love.

Leeann: I’m not big on any of these either, but the Jackson/Womack collaboration is the one I like the most if I have to choose.

Dan: I’d be fine with either “Til the End” or “Bad Angel”. Whatevs.

Tara: The Jackson/Womack song falls squarely within my typical taste, but “Bad Angel” gets under my skin – in a good way. It’s just a really cool record.

Will Win:

  • Dierks Bentley featuring Jamey Johnson & Miranda Lambert, “Bad Angel”
  • Kenny Chesney with Dave Matthews, “I’m Alive”
  • Alan Jackson with Lee Ann Womack, “‘Til the End”
  • Blake Shelton featuring Trace Adkins, “Hillbilly Bone”- Kevin, Leeann, Dan, Tara
  • Zac Brown Band featuring Kid Rock, “Can’t You See”

Kevin: Its presence in the Single category makes “Hillbilly Bone” the most likely winner.

Leeann: It’s the most mainstream of all the choices.

Dan: “Bad Angel” could play a welcome spoiler, since all three of the artists behind it command a lot of respect right now. I still see this going to the hit, though.

Tara: I’m predicting the big boys will win this one. It’s a decent song, but it makes me laugh that it gets as much love as it does – I mean, this is the song that has Adkins admitting that he’s “always wanted to sing a bone song”…!

Music Video of the Year

Should Win:

  • Lady Antebellum, “Need You Now”
  • Miranda Lambert, “The House That Built Me”
  • Miranda Lambert, “White Liar” – Kevin, Dan, Tara
  • Brad Paisley, “Water”
  • Blake Shelton featuring Trace Adkins, “Hillbilly Bone”

Kevin: Lambert made the two best clips, with the humor of “Liar” outpacing the literalism of “House.”

Dan: The “House” video is beautifully conceived and directed, but somehow the “White Liar” one just sticks out more. Maybe it’s because “White Liar” is a thinner song, so the video has more of a chance to establish its own identity.

Tara: The “White Liar” video is the brightest and most creative of the bunch.

Will Win:

  • Lady Antebellum, “Need You Now”
  • Miranda Lambert, “The House That Built Me”
  • Miranda Lambert, “White Liar” – Kevin, Dan, Tara
  • Brad Paisley, “Water”
  • Blake Shelton featuring Trace Adkins, “Hillbilly Bone”

Kevin: I think “White Liar” has won all the video awards this year, so I guess it will win again.

Dan: This is the logical place to reward the other Lambert single the CMA liked this year.

Tara: One of Lambert’s videos will win for sure. My best guess is “White Liar” since it’s won before, like Kevin said.

Musician of the Year

Should Win:

  • Paul Franklin (steel guitar) – Kevin, Leeann, Dan, Tara
  • Dann Huff (guitar)
  • Brent Mason (guitar)
  • Mac McAnally (guitar)
  • Randy Scruggs (guitar)

Kevin: Paul Franklin is the nominee I’m rooting for the most this year. Give the man, and the steel guitar, some long overdue recognition!

Leeann: It’s the steel guitar for heaven’s sake! It should be a no-brainer, even though it’s clearly not.

Dan: I won’t pretend I know what’s going on. I’m just going to root for the guy who hasn’t won yet until he finally does.

Tara: How can you pass up the steel guitar?

Will Win:

  • Paul Franklin (steel guitar)
  • Dann Huff (guitar)
  • Brent Mason (guitar)
  • Mac McAnally (guitar) – Kevin, Leeann, Dan, Tara
  • Randy Scruggs (guitar)

Kevin: Mac McAnally won the last two years, so I guess he’s the favorite. Did I mention that Franklin is 0-for-17 going into this year’s ceremony?

Leeann: I suppose its a habit to give it to McAnally at this point. So, why should I be so bold as to predict anyone else?

Dan: No justice!

Tara: Just going off of pattern here.


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Starter Kit: Sara Evans

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 Startfrom 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.

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Premium Label

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?

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Filed under Americana, Conversations, Features, Miscellaneous Musings