From the moment Hunter Berry’s tearful-sounding fiddle plaintively whines the first four bars of Rhonda Vincent’s new single, we know we’re in for a sad country shuffle. In fact, the notes he strikes on the fiddle anticipate almost note-for-note Vincent’s emphatic, but mournful, tone in her first lines and the song’s chorus. Vincent’s soaring vocals, backed by those doleful fiddles and the pleading resophonic guitar of Brent Burke, deliver a sorrowful breakup song with a twist.
Written by Larry Cordle and Lionel Delmore, and recorded by Josh Logan on his album Somebody Paints the Wall (1988), “I’d Rather Hear I Don’t Love You” is the perfect “I-can’t-quit-you-baby” song. Hurting from a breakup, the woman calls her lover, knowing that he’s not alone. Still in love, she longs for some physical connection with him, so she’s compelled (“I had to phone”) to call her former lover just to hear his voice. Though her lover tells her she’s calling in vain, the “sound of [his] voice somehow eases the pain.” Rather than giving up all contact with her former lover—or
even enduring the painful silence of his presence when he’s nothing left to say to her—she craves the sound of his voice, hanging on to him by the thin thread of the telephone line, preferring to hear his declaration “I don’t love you” than a dial tone or to feel his absence.
Cleverly written, the song trades on a number of witty phrases that capture the longing for connection as well as the pain the woman is willing to endure just to stay connected. Not wanting to draw out the relationship or conversation, he’s “anxious to hang up,” but she’s “willing to stall,” since she’d “rather hear I don’t love you/than nothing at all.” He’d “like to hang up,” but she’s “just hangin’ on.” She guesses she should say goodbye “before she breaks down and bawls,” but she can’t bring herself to hang up since hearing “I don’t love you” is better than “hearing nothing at all.”
Vincent’s vocal delivery is perfect as she captures the rising tension of the conversation, wringing out the tears and the aching, throbbing heartbreak that comes from knowing what you have to do but being tortured by not being able to do it. The music starts out slowly, building to a crescendo of fiddles and resophonic guitar in the break, capturing the aches, pains, regrets, and even hopes of the lyrics. Vincent’s powerful and touching new single drives straight to the heart.
The country music umbrella stretched wider than ever this year, regardless of the fact that radio playlists seem shorter than ever.
Of course, it’s not just the Americana acts that can’t get radio play these days. Even top-selling albums by Scotty McCreery and Alison Krauss & Union Station weren’t embraced.
Country Universe editors and contributors each submitted a list of their ten favorite albums of 2011. 31 different albums were included on our lists, and over the next two days, we’ll share with you our collective top twenty.
Top Twenty Albums of 2011, Part One: #20-#11
#20 Beat the Devil and Carry a Rail
His tenure with the Punch Brothers and his winning of the first annual “Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass” in 2010 both earned Noam Pikelny the clout to release Beat the Devil and Carry a Rail, his second solo album and first since 2004. Joined by an all-star roster of fellow pickers, Pikelny’s mostly instrumental set is a showcase both for its lead artist’s extraordinary technical skills and for the banjo’s wide-ranging potential. – Jonathan Keefe
Individual Rankings: Jonathan – #4
Recommended Tracks: “Fish and Bird” featuring Aoife O’Donovan, “Boathouse on the Lullwater,” “My Mother Thinks I’m a Lawyer”
#19 The King is Dead
The indie favorites take their hyper-literate brand of folk-rock for a rustic spin, achieving new concision in the process. Colin Meloy’s wild narratives and wilder lexical choices sound right at home in these short-and-sweet song designs, and the Americana field is richer for having them. – Dan Milliken
Individual Rankings: Dan – #4
Recommended Tracks: “Don’t Carry It All,” “June Hymn”
That solo women disappeared from country radio was one of 2011′s major talking points within the genre, but Sunny Sweeney’s Concrete provided some of the most compelling evidence that it wasn’t a lack of strong material that kept female artists off radio playlists. Balancing a keen traditionalist bent with a thoroughly modern point-of-view, Sweeney’s fully-drawn characters and clever spins on familiar country tropes proved that an album that sounds “radio friendly” doesn’t have to be light on actual substance or craft. – Jonathan Keefe
Individual Rankings: Ben – #3
Recommended Tracks: “Amy,” “From a Table Away,” “Fall for Me”
#17 It’s Already Tomorrow
Foster and Lloyd
Their first time around, Foster and Lloyd were one of the coolest country acts going, blending in a love of traditional country music with some ’60s post-British Invasion rock vibes. It’s Already Tomorrow, their first album in 20 years, shows an impressive return to form. Radney Foster and Bill Lloyd have released some terrific solo albums, but there is a definite magic that happens when they record as a duo. – Sam Gazdziak
Individual Rankings: Sam – #2
Recommended Tracks: “Picasso’s Mandolin,” “That’s What She Said,” “Can’t Make Love Make Sense”
#16 This is My Blood
The Dirt Drifters
As mainstream country music becomes increasingly slick and polished, it’s a refreshing change to hear something gritty and rough around the edges. The Dirt Drifters’ debut on Warner Bros. certainly qualifies. If you’re looking for country-rock that takes its cue from run-down country roadhouses instead of ’80s arena rock, this album is for you. – Sam Gazdziak
Individual Rankings: Sam – #3; Dan – #10
Recommended Tracks: “Always a Reason,” “Married Men and Motel Rooms,” “Hurt Somebody”
#15 Ghost to a Ghost/Gutter Town
Hank III’s entire artistic persona is built on indulging in every type of excess he can think of, so it was hardly a shock when, for his first recordings after a less-than-amicable departure from Curb Records, he dropped four full-length albums of new material on the same day. While not all of his ideas are good ones– the less said about Cattle Callin’, the better– the double-album Ghost to a Ghost / Gutter Town proves that Hank III is driven to his spectacular highs not just by the various recreational drugs circulating through his bloodstream but also by a real fearlessness and creativity and a sense of respect for his bloodline. – Jonathan Keefe
Individual Rankings: Jonathan – #1
Recommended Tracks: “Don’t Ya Wanna,” “Musha’s,” “Dyin’ Day”
#14 Ghost on the Canvas
A late-in-life swan song by an icon acutely aware of their own mortality. That’s a fitting description of so many of the best country albums in recent years. This is the best of that subgenre since Porter Wagoner’s Wagonmaster. – Kevin John Coyne
Individual Rankings: Kevin – #5; Dan – #6
Recommended Tracks: “There’s No Me…Without You”, “Ghost on the Canvas”
On the heels of an album that was largely a hit or miss affair, Church delivers a surprisingly electric third album, marked by its edgy sonic splash. But while its spin on country rock is undeniably enticing –a funky mix of swampy, trippy and punchy—the album’s soul is Church himself, a more believable artist this time around than most of his contemporaries. Because for all its hard ass sentiment, Chief actually walks the walk, as authentic as it is audacious. Outlaw in the making? Probably, but don’t tell Church I said so. – Tara Seetharam
Individual Rankings: Tara – #4; Sam – #6; Leeann – #10; Jonathan – #10
Recommended Tracks: “Hungover & Hard Up,” “Keep On,” “Creepin’”
#12 Long Line of Heartaches
What more can you ask for? Purely straightforward and unadulterated country songs delivered by the finest vocalist the genre has ever been privileged to call its own. Smith’s own co-writes with husband and producer Marty Stuart (The title track, “I’m Not Blue,” “Pain of a Broken Heart”) sit comfortably alongside top-notch cover material penned by Harlan Howard, Johnny Russell, and Dallas Frazier, all backed by the sweet sounds of fiddle and steel aplenty. Long Line of Heartaches is a beautiful reminder of what country music once was, and could be again. – Ben Foster
Individual Rankings: Ben – #2; Jonathan – #5
Recommended Tracks: “Long Line of Heartaches,” “I’m Not Blue,” “Ain’t You Even Gonna Cry”
#11 Your Money and My Good Looks
Gene Watson and Rhonda Vincent
There was no chance that this collaboration of straight up country songs between Gene Watson and Rhonda Vincent was going to garner any attention from mainstream country music outlets. However, thanks to memorable songs, pure country production and Watson and Vincent reverently following the spirit of classic country duet albums of the past, this project was surely one of the stand out albums of the year. – Leeann Ward
Individual Rankings: Leeann – #2; Ben – #5
Recommended Tracks: “You Could Know as Much from a Stranger,” “My Sweet Love Ain’t Around”
He didn’t always top the charts or win the big awards, but Gene Watson’s legacy of traditional country music made him one of the most respected vocalists of his generation.
Born and raised in Texas, he grew up fully immersed in Western swing, southern blues, and gospel music. By age twelve, he’d made his first public performance. Never liking school, he dropped out in ninth grade. He chose auto body repair as his career, but did music on the side at night, more as a hobby than anything else.
While singing one night in Houston, he caught the attention of the Wilburn Brothers. They invited him to do some shows with him, and soon secured him an appearance on the Grand Ole Opry, where his performance of the Hank Williams classic “I Can’t Help it (If I’m Still in Love With You)” earned a standing ovation.
Soon, the young artist had signed with Capitol Records, the first of four successful major label stints that would produced nearly two dozen top ten hits. His big breakthrough was the steamy “Love in the Hot Afternoon” in 1975, and before he moved over to MCA in 1981, he’d released some of his biggest hits, including his signature tune, “Farewell Party”, which went to #5 in 1979.
His strongest run at radio kicked off with the lead single from his second MCA album, “Fourteen Carat Mind.” It became his only #1 hit in early 1982, but he scored several more big hits over the next three years, just missing the top spot again with “You’re Out Doing What I’m Here Doing Without.”
Switching labels again to Epic in 1985, the hits became less frequent. “Memories to Burn” went to #5, but the rest of his songs peaked outside of the top ten until he switched to Warner Brothers in 1988. Again, his first single for the label was a hit. Peaking at #5 in early 1989, “Don’t Waste it On the Blues” was his swan song at country radio, which mostly ignored his output from that point on.
In the nineties, Watson remained on the music scene, recording for several independent labels. The most successful partnership was with Step One, which produced a minor hit with “Change Her Mind” in 1997. In the years since, Watson has released additional studio albums, most notably the critically acclaimed In a Perfect World in 2007. Like many stars of his time, he remains a popular live performer, touring recently with Rhonda Vincent.
Love in the Hot Afternoon, 1975
Paper Rosie, 1977
Farewell Party, 1979
Should I Come Home (Or Should I Go Crazy), 1979
Fourteen Carat Mind, 1981
You’re Out Doing What I’m Here Doing Without, 1983
Even in Grammy’s darkest hours, CU brings its picking powers!
- Superhero television show about our blog from the 50′s.
We won’t be live-blogging this time around, but will be reacting to the show in a full post tomorrow, and welcome your reactions in comments on this post. The awards telecast starts at 8 pm Eastern, and I imagine there will be some red carpet action in the hour prior.
Record of the Year
Beyonce, “Halo” – Kevin
Black Eyed Peas, “I Gotta Feeling”
Kings of Leon, “Use Somebody” - Tara
Lady GaGa, “Poker Face” - Dan
Taylor Swift, “You Belong with Me”
Black Eyed Peas, “I Gotta Feeling”
Kings of Leon, “Use Somebody” – Kevin, Dan, Tara
Lady GaGa, “Poker Face”
Taylor Swift, “You Belong with Me”
Kevin: Am I wrong for preferring Eric Cartman’s rendition of “Poker Face” over the original? This is a pretty lightweight slate of contenders. I really like “Halo”, but I suspect Kings of Leon will win, simply because it’s the only rock song in a lineup of pop hits.
Dan: “Poker Face” just feels very representative of popular music in 2009. I wouldn’t whine if it got passed over so that “Bad Romance” could take this award next year, though.
Tara: I would’ve pulled for “Single Ladies” in a heartbeat had it been submitted, but “Use Somebody” is just as deserving of this award. It’s a fantastic song even outside the context of its moment in pop culture, and it’s the kind of larger-than-life song that the voters have picked to win in the past.
Album of the Year
Beyonce, I Am…Sasha Fierce
Black Eyed Peas, The E.N.D.
Lady GaGa, The Fame – Kevin, Tara
Dave Matthews Band, Big Whiskey and the Groogrux King
Taylor Swift, Fearless - Dan
Beyonce, I Am…Sasha Fierce
Black Eyed Peas, The E.N.D.
Lady GaGa, The Fame
Dave Matthews Band, Big Whiskey and the Groogrux King - Kevin
Taylor Swift, Fearless - Dan, Tara
Kevin: I’d like to see dance music get some respect in the big category, even if there are a half-dozen Madonna albums at this point that would’ve been worthier winners than The Fame. Again, I think the Top 40 votes are going to be split, leaving Dave Matthews Band the winners.
Dan: In little over a year, Fearless has grown from success story to cultural artifact. It’s that rare pop album that seems to have a personality all its own, like Jagged Little Pill in a yellow sundress (and sung about as well). I could see anyone but the Peas taking this, but I think Swift’s support in both Nashville and the Top 40 crowd will take her to the top.
Tara: I have to say I was fairly shocked to see Swift’s truckload of Grammy nominations, so I’m having a little trouble wrapping my mind around the Academy’s thought process – but, I suppose a Swift win in this category is inevitable. However, I fully back Lady GaGa, who is the perfect storm of creativity, vision, swagger and raw vocal talent (remember that, pop world?). (more…)
As a tribute of sorts to her father who loved traditional country music, Tanya Tucker has compiled a set of twelve songs that pays homage to country music’s past. While not an example of traditionalism herself as a recording artist, Tucker ably demonstrates that she is more than capable of stepping into the role on this project, but also shows that this is not her most comfortable position as an artist.
Produced by accomplished and respected producer, Pete Anderson (Dwight Yoakam), Tucker’s new covers album, My Turn, is full of both oft sung and lesser known gems. Tucker shines on up-tempo fare such as Buck Owens’ “Love’s Gonna Live Here” with guest help from Jim Lauderdale, Don Gibson’s “Oh, Lonesome Me”, Charley Pride’s “Is Anybody Goin’ to San Antone” and the album’s best track, Merle Haggard’s “Ramblin’ Fever.” With the support of snappy productions to match Tucker’s assured vocals, these interpretations aptly showcase Tucker’s spunk and are where she seems to fully connect, both vocally and emotionally, to the songs and their lyrics, which is likely why the straightforward “Ramblin’ Fever” works so well for her. “If someone said I ever gave a damn/Well, the damn sure told you wrong/’Cause I’ve had ramblin’ fever all along”, she growls with utmost believability.
The more inferior songs, admittedly, tend to be the slower tracks. While they are sung very well, there seems to be a palpable disconnect between the singer and the songs. Tucker’s version of Lefty Frizzell’s “I Love You A Thousand Ways” is, however, a welcome exception. It sticks close to the original, but Tucker’s relaxed vocal manages to help it stand out from the other slow compositions on the album.
As is naturally common on covers projects such as this, Pete Anderson applies a warm quality to the production, which is sonically pleasant, but perhaps not quite the fit that Tanya Tucker’s uniquely rough voice calls for. Instead of seamlessly blending with Anderson’s productions, Tucker’s vocals often seem to be muted, as if her voice needed to be turned up a bit in the mixes. Likewise, the choices for some of the guest vocalists (The Grascals and Rhonda Vincent) did not work especially well. Their rootsy vocals were more of a distraction than a compliment to the songs on which they appeared.
While it is likely unreasonable to compare this project to other albums of its ilk, it’s impossible not to hold it up to previous efforts that have been recently offered by her peers (Patty Loveless, Martina McBride, etc), especially since some of the same ground has been covered here. Tucker’s husky, and even flirtatious vocal style naturally sets this project apart from those of her fellow artists, but it is not as strong or cohesive as the others. Despite its few shortcomings, however, it is still a solid effort and deserves a high-profile spot in one’s collection of covers albums.
We talk a lot about country artists who cross over to pop, only to find that the crossover audience isn’t as friendly as the one they left behind. When Rhonda Vincent left bluegrass to cross over to mainstream country music, she didn’t stay away for long, but she received one hell of a homecoming when she went back to her bluegrass roots.
Vincent had been a multi-faced performer from the start. She grew up on stage, playing in her family’s band, The Sally Mountain Show. Her skill with the mandolin, guitar and fiddle was prodigious, and she was soon well-established enough to go out on her own. She gained exposure from a stint on the TNN reality contest, You Can Be a Star, and began singing with Opry legend Jim Ed Brown. By the end of the eighties, she was recording for Rebel Records.