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Favorite Songs by Favorite Artists: Carlene Carter

Carlene CarterIt’s easy to forget just how talented Carlene Carter is.  In the last eighteen years, she’s only given us two albums to remind us.  But with a career that stretches back to her 1978 eponymous debut album, all the way through her excellent new release, Carter Girl, she has been a consistently excellent entertainer and songwriter.

In addition to her latest release, her albums Musical Shapes (1980), I Fell in Love (1990), and Little Love Letters (1993) are all among the best country albums of their time.  Those three sets factor heavily into this list, but there are plenty of great moments on most of her other studio albums, too.  Her first four sets tend to fade in and out of print, but they’re worth snapping up when available.

It’s been more than five years since I’ve done a Favorite Songs by Favorite Artists post.  For the uninitiated, my rubric is simple: I just ranked my favorite twenty-five tracks and then counted them down with commentary.  No big stab at objective truth here.  This is just what I like the most from one of ‘em that I like the most.   Share your own favorites in the comments, and hopefully discover one or two new ones along the way.

Carlene Carter Little Love Letters

#25
Little Love Letter #1 and Little Love Letter #2
Little Love Letters (1993)
Written by Carlene Carter, Howie Epstein, and Benmont Tench

The first Carlene Carter album I ever bought was Little Love Letters.  I was instantly hooked by the clever framing of  “Side 1″ and “Side 2″ with these quick vignettes.  They’re funny, they’re heartfelt, and I could listen to a whole album full of them.

Carlene Carter Musical Shapes

#24
Too Bad About Sandy
Musical Shapes (1980)
Written by Carlene Carter

When I was younger, I just got a kick out of how dark and seedy this track seemed, with its celebration of the sweet low life and cold hard cash.  But now, I keep going back to the wisdom in the advice she gives her love-struck younger sister: “Honey, can’t be love if you’ve gotta ask twice.”

Carlene Carter Two Sides to Every Woman

#23
Swap-Meat Rag
Two Sides to Every Woman (1979)
Written by Carlene Carter

On the surface, it’s a bawdy number about free love.  Underneath the surface, it’s a wicked satire of the artifice that is American suburbia.  Plus she growls a lot, and it sounds cool.

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Album Review: Emmylou Harris, Wrecking Ball: Deluxe Edition

Emmylou Harris Wrecking Ball Deluxe Edition

Emmylou Harris

Wrecking Ball: Deluxe Edition

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Nonesuch has released an impressive deluxe edition of the landmark Emmylou Harris album, Wrecking Ball.  For those who are new to the set, this is the edition you should buy.  But it’s also worth the upgrade for those who already have this set in their collection.

Produced by Daniel Lanois, this album was a stunning departure for Harris, so much so that she personally requested that it not be eligible for the country charts.  That’s funny in retrospect, given that alongside legends like Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, and Neil Young, the album was anchored by compositions by up-and-coming songwriters like Gillian Welch, Lucinda Williams, and Julie Miller.  With further cuts by writers like Anna McGarrigle, Steve Earle, and Rodney Crowell, Wrecking Ball helped set a template for what would become a vibrant Americana scene over the years that followed.

Nice history lesson, right? But the reason this album sounded great then, and still does now, is because the songs are fantastic and the production is evocatively original.   It still sounds fresh today, and while Emmylou would hold on to remnants of this sound for next few projects, it has both its birth and its zenith on this record.  It might be her best album, period, and it’s definitely her most ambitious and interesting.

The deluxe edition’s best element is its second disc of demos and outtakes, which help tell the story of how some of these songs took shape.  I was most fascinated by the revved-up, rapid-fire “Deeper Well”, and the melancholy reading of the self-penned “Gold”, which she would include in a (slightly) more upbeat version on her 2008 album, All I Intended to Be.   It didn’t quite fit with the rest of Wrecking Ball. All of the outtakes and demos included indicate the album was released in its best possible form, and most are for the completist only.

The bonus DVD is a 1995 documentary called Building the Wrecking Ball. It’s an overlong puff piece that’s most entertaining for its showcase of mid-nineties “serious musician” garb.  Emmylou in sleeveless flannel aside, the doc also features what I consider the most maddening editorial choice films like this can make: playing the final album version of a song over mixed footage of said song being recorded and being performed live.  For me, it made watching it unbearable.

But the packaging is worth the upgrade, with a fantastic new essay by Gillian Welch and nearly typo-free lyrics for both the original album and the second disc of rarities.  Some nice photos, too.  Overall, it’s a more serious deluxe take than we’ve gotten on any Emmylou Harris album to date, putting those Rhino reissues of her earlier work to shame.

 

 

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What are You Listening to? – 2014 Edition

There have been a lot of new releases in the past few weeks.  What tracks are resonating with you the most?

Here are three of my current favorites, all of which have been recorded before:

Carlene Carter Carter Girl

Carlene Carter, “Me and the Wildwood Rose”  

from the album Carter Girl

Listen

“Me and the Wildwood Rose” was always one of my favorite Carlene Carter tracks.  Back when the original recording was released in 1990, it had a wistful nostalgia for the grandmother that she had lost.  In 2014, all of the other folks mentioned in the song, including her little sister “the Wildwood Rose”, have also passed on.  The new version is so heavy with grief, it is only Carter’s effervescent spirit that keeps it from being too heavy.

Rodney Crowell Tarpaper Sky

Rodney Crowell, “God I’m Missing You”

from the album Tarpaper Sky

Listen

Speaking of grief, Rodney Crowell’s “God I’m Missing You” is a gut-wrencher.  Widows don’t often get the chance to speak in pure poetry:  “Time stretches to shape you right out of thin air. But it can’t hold the image. If I blink, you’re not there.  God I’m missing you.”  For me, it’s the highlight of an excellent album, with his best songwriting since The Outsider.  Lucinda Williams recorded it before him, and she does it well.

Dolly Parton Blue Smoke

Dolly Parton, “Banks of the Ohio”

from the album Blue Smoke

Listen

Parton’s latest set is a welcome return to form, and it features compelling covers of songs by Bob Dylan and Bon Jovi.  But the highlight for me is “Banks of the Ohio”, an oft-recorded standard that she breathes new life into by framing it with a narrative device that has her retelling the story being told to her.  This allows for Parton to speak in the male voice of the murderer, and still infuse the song with her trademark empathy.  (She’s never shied away from a suicide number, but homicide really isn’t her style.)

So we still have to wait from some country lady besides Olivia Newton-John to fully embrace the murderess within her, but until then, the stunning harmonies and heartfelt vocal of Parton has newly minted this treasured classic.

That’s what I’m listening to. What are you listening to?

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2014 Grammy Winners

56th Grammy AwardsThis year’s Grammy winners will be posted here as they are announced.

Here are the awards, in the order of presentation:

Pre-Telecast Winners:

American Roots Song: Edie Brickell & Steve Martin, “Love Has Come For You”

Americana Album: Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell, Old Yellow Moon

Bluegrass Album: The Del McCoury Band, The Streets of Baltimore

Folk Album: Guy Clark, My Favorite Picture of You

Country Solo Performance: Darius Rucker, “Wagon Wheel”

Country Duo/Group Performance: The Civil Wars, “From This Valley”

Country Song: Shane McAnally, Kacey Musgraves, and Josh Osborne, “Merry Go ‘Round”

Telecast Winners:

Best Country Album: Kacey Musgraves, Same Trailer Different Park

Best New Artist: Macklemore & Ryan Lewis

Song of the Year: Joel Little and Ella Yelich O’Connor, “Royals”

Album of the Year: Daft Punk, Random Access Memories

Record of the Year: Daft Punk featuring Pharrell Williams and Nile Rodgers, “Get Lucky”

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2014 Grammy Awards: Staff Picks & Predictions

The Country Universe staff has picked and predicted the 2014 Grammy Awards below, strange bunch that they are. Chime in with your thoughts, and catch the show on Sunday at 7 p.m. CST.

daftpunk-randomaccess-vinyl_grande-1.jpg?v=1368726630Album of the Year

Should Win:

  • Sara Bareilles, The Blessed Unrest
  • Daft Punk, Random Access Memories  - Kevin
  • Kendrick Lamar, good kid m.A.A.d. cityJonathan
  • Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, The Heist
  • Taylor Swift, Red

Will Win:

  • Sara Bareilles, The Blessed Unrest
  • Daft Punk, Random Access Memories  - Kevin, Jonathan
  • Kendrick Lamar, good kid m.A.A.d. city
  • Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, The Heist
  • Taylor Swift, Red

Kevin: With electronic music so mainstream now, it would be wise and timely for NARAS to acknowledge the excellent comeback of one of its pioneers, especially as the year’s best country albums (Brandy Clark, Kacey Musgraves, Ashley Monroe, etc.) and the year’s best rap album (Kanye West) didn’t score nominations in the top category.

Jonathan: Lamar and Daft Punk would both be worthy winners of an award that rarely seems to go to one. Hip-hop and R&B have notoriously struggled in the general field in recent years, so Daft Punk’s cachet with the rock contingent should give them the edge over Swift, who didn’t score the across-the-board support many were expecting from her this year. If the voters are feeling especially timid, though, watch out for “Brave” yelper Bareilles as a spoiler.

Bruno-Mars-LockedOutOfHeavenRecord of the Year

Should Win:

  • “Blurred Lines” – Robin Thicke featuring T.I. and Pharrell Williams
  • “Get Lucky” – Daft Punk featuring Pharrell Williams – Kevin, Jonathan, Tara
  • “Locked Out of Heaven” – Bruno Mars
  • “Radioactive” – Imagine Dragons
  • “Royals” – Lorde – Dan

Will Win:

  • “Blurred Lines” – Robin Thicke featuring T.I. and Pharrell Williams – Tara
  • “Get Lucky” – Daft Punk featuring Pharrell Williams
  • “Locked Out of Heaven” – Bruno Mars – Kevin, Jonathan, Ben
  • “Radioactive” – Imagine Dragons
  • “Royals” – Lorde - Dan

Kevin:  “Get Lucky” was retro and modern at the same time, featuring the charismatic Williams.  That guy makes everything better.  I’m guessing Mars will get it because he’s the most established and arguably is overdue for a big win.

Dan: “Royals” was the most refreshing to me. Winner feels like a real toss-up, though.

Jonathan: Prevailing logic as to why hip-hop tracks have fared so poorly in this category is that NARAS voters are still hell-bent on rewarding live instrumentation, so it’s hard to imagine something as spare as “Royals” winning, even if it’s the most distinctive choice. “Get Lucky” would get my vote, but look for Bruno Mars to head off to his Super Bowl Halftime gig with some new hardware in hand to reward his Police homage.

Tara: Lots of atmospheric tunes here. “Get Lucky” seems like the one that will feel no less groovy in ten years time. I wouldn’t put any money on it, but I could see the voters ignoring controversy and rewarding the biggest hit of the year.

macklemore-samelove-1Song of the Year

Should Win:

  • “Just Give Me a Reason”  – Jeff Bhasker, P!nk, and Nate Reuss – Kevin, Ben
  • “Locked out of Heaven” – Phillip Lawrence, Ari Levine, and Bruno Mars
  • “Roar” – Lukasz Gottwald, Max Martin, Bonnie McKee, Katy Perry, and Henry Walter
  • “Royals” – Joel Little and Lorde – Jonathan
  • “Same Love” – Ben Haggerty, Mary Lambert, Ryan Lewis, and Curtis Mayfield – Dan, Tara

Will Win:

  • “Just Give Me a Reason”  – Jeff Bhasker, P!nk, and Nate Reuss - Kevin, Ben, Dan
  • “Locked out of Heaven” – Phillip Lawrence, Ari Levine, and Bruno Mars
  • “Roar” – Lukasz Gottwald, Max Martin, Bonnie McKee, Katy Perry, and Henry Walter
  • “Royals” – Joel Little and Lorde 
  • “Same Love” – Ben Haggerty, Mary Lambert, Ryan Lewis, and Curtis Mayfield - Jonathan, Tara

Kevin: P!nk is long overdue for a top tier award, and her co-write with previous winner Nate Reuss was, in my opinion, the best duet in a year chock full of ‘em.

Dan: The Macklemore & Ryan Lewis composition is somehow the most personal of the group even as it makes the biggest, broadest statement. And the climactic third verse still gives me chills.

Jonathan: I don’t care that Kacey Musgraves is a fan of hers: Perry’s nomination is indefensible, with four adults credited on a song that rhymes “zero” with “hero” and that allows pop music’s least-capable vocalist to scream a series of self-help cliches. The broad, even-in-the-flyover-states popularity of “Same Love,” though, gives the voters a safe opportunity to make a political statement and to recognize one of the year’s breakthrough acts.

Tara: It’s a toss-up between “Royals” and “Same Love” for me in terms of substance and purposeful songwriting, but I can’t ignore the chills I also get listening to the latter. I agree with Jonathan that this is a win-win way for the voters to make a statement.

Kacey+Musgraves+KACEY++PNGBest New Artist

Should Win:

  • James Blake
  • Kendrick Lamar – Jonathan
  • Macklemore & Ryan Lewis – Dan
  • Kacey Musgraves – Kevin, Ben, Tara
  • Ed Sheeran

Will Win:

  • James Blake
  • Kendrick Lamar 
  • Macklemore & Ryan Lewis - Dan, Kevin, Tara
  • Kacey Musgraves - Jonathan, Ben
  • Ed Sheeran

Kevin: Gotta root for the home team.  I think Macklemore & Lewis  will win, though.

Dan: For once, this category is hot across the board; you could make a great argument for any of these folks. Personally, I find Macklemore & Ryan Lewis to be the most exciting.

Ben:  I don’t always gravitate toward the country-affiliated New Artist nominee, but then again it’s rare for me to be so invested in a country newcomer’s artistry as I am with Musgraves. To see her win would make my heart happy.

Jonathan: Lamar is making the most compelling music of this lot, but this category’s history dictates that it’s Musgraves’ award to lose. Macklemore & Ryan Lewis pose a real threat, but being the only woman nominated plays in Musgraves’ favor.

Tara: It’s hard to tell if Musgraves’ profile outside of the country sphere is big enough to nab her this one, but I’d be happy if it did. I hope she keeps the face in check if it doesn’t, though.

REdBest Country Album

Should Win:

  • Jason Aldean, Night Train
  • Tim McGraw, Two Lanes of Freedom
  • Kacey Musgraves, Same Trailer Different ParkDan, Kevin, Ben, Jonathan, Sam, Tara
  • Blake Shelton, Based on a True Story
  • Taylor Swift, Red

Will Win:

  • Jason Aldean, Night Train
  • Tim McGraw, Two Lanes of Freedom
  • Kacey Musgraves, Same Trailer Different Park
  • Blake Shelton, Based on a True Story – Sam
  • Taylor Swift, Red - Kevin, Ben, Jonathan, Tara

Kevin:  Don’t see how Taylor doesn’t win, though Musgraves made the best album by a decent margin, regardless of how country any of ‘em are.

Dan: Here’s the most logical place to reward Musgraves, though I guess Red’s nomination in the general Album of the Year field makes it the frontrunner in this category. And that’s fine; whatever. I’ve been hoping for Swift’s albums to be grouped under “Pop” at the Grammys since Fearless. It ain’t gonna happen.

Ben:  Should Win – easy choice. Will Win – also an easy choice.

Sam: Just to be contrary, I think Shelton’s built up enough recognition with his “The Voice” gig that he has name recognition from voters who know next to nothing about country music. The fact that it was a terrible, terrible album doesn’t really matter.

Jonathan: No, Red shouldn’t be nominated in the Country field, so I wouldn’t vote for it on principle, even though its best tracks are far and away the strongest material in this line-up. NARAS has no qualms about rewarding pop crossover albums here, so it would be a huge upset were Swift to lose. When we were all prepping our ballots for our year-end countdowns, I had Musgraves’ album at #38. It’s good and I certainly understand why it has as many fans as it does, but I’m just not as bullish on it as others seem to be. Still, it would be my personal choice from this paltry line-up, since Aldean’s, McGraw’s, and Shelton’s albums ranged from pedestrian to downright unlistenable.

Tara: Seems like an easy Swift win, but I get where Sam’s head is at re: Shelton. There’s no question Musgraves made the best music, though, and what a shame she’s not surrounded by her peers who made even better music.

Miranda-Lambert-Mamas-Broken-Heart-2013Best Country Solo Performance

Should Win:

  • Lee Brice, “I Drive Your Truck”
  • Hunter Hayes, “I Want Crazy”
  • Miranda Lambert, “Mama’s Broken Heart” – Dan, Kevin, Ben, Jonathan, Sam, Tara
  • Darius Rucker, “Wagon Wheel”
  • Blake Shelton, “Mine Would Be You”

Will Win:

  • Lee Brice, “I Drive Your Truck”
  • Hunter Hayes, “I Want Crazy”
  • Miranda Lambert, “Mama’s Broken Heart” - Dan, Kevin, Ben, Jonathan, Sam, Tara
  • Darius Rucker, “Wagon Wheel”
  • Blake Shelton, “Mine Would Be You”

Kevin:  Lambert is the only female and the only previous winner.  I’d be shocked if she lost.

Ben:  To me, Lambert’s performance alone claims the distinction of making an already-great song even better.

Sam: This could be one of those rare occasions where the best nominee actually wins a Grammy. I think Hunter Hayes is a long shot, as most Grammy voters are not teenaged girls.

Jonathan: What Kevin said. Also, he’s a talented instrumentalist, but the Grammy voters’ fascination with Hunter Hayes is baffling.

Tara: Lambert’s is the most distinct and impactful performance here, but I’ll throw in my defense of Hayes’ “I Want Crazy,” a song and vocal that’s as breathlessly exuberant as Keith Urban’s best work.

5448-thumbBest Country Duo/Group Performance

Should Win:

  • The Civil Wars, “From This Valley”
  • Kelly Clarkson featuring Vince Gill, “Don’t Rush”
  • Little Big Town, “Your Side of the Bed” – Jonathan
  • Tim McGraw with Taylor Swift and Keith Urban, “Highway Don’t Care”
  • Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton, “You Can’t Make Old Friends” – Kevin, Ben, Tara

Will Win:

  • The Civil Wars, “From This Valley”
  • Kelly Clarkson featuring Vince Gill, “Don’t Rush”
  • Little Big Town, “Your Side of the Bed” 
  • Tim McGraw with Taylor Swift and Keith Urban, “Highway Don’t Care” - Kevin, Ben, Tara
  • Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton, “You Can’t Make Old Friends” - Jonathan, Sam

Kevin: The high octane collaboration of McGraw/Swift/Urban has been unstoppable thus far.  Kudos to NARAS for noticing Rogers & Parton’s beautiful work, their best together since “Islands in the Stream.”

Ben: “You Can’t Make Old Friends” is enough to give many a longtime country music lover warm fuzzies, but the commercial clout of “Highway Don’t Care” may be too much to beat.

Sam: If you’re a Grammy voter and have to decide on a zillion categories, do you take the time to sit and listen to each nominee, or do you skim over the names and pick the ones you’re most familiar with? Kenny and Dolly for the win.

Jonathan: One of the strongest sets of nominees anywhere on the Grammy ballot this year. Little Big Town would get my vote so that they have a win for something besides “Pontoon” to their credit, but I think NARAS’ older voters will be swayed by the effortless charm of the Rogers and Parton duet.

Tara: I don’t love any of these except for the Rogers and Parton collaboration, as much as I wanted to embrace “Don’t Rush” (Kelly Clarkson! Vince Gill!). I think the middle-of-the-road McGraw / Swift / Urban song will win out, but here’s to hoping the voters act on warm fuzzies.

Merry_go_'roundBest Country Song

Should Win:

  • “Begin Again” – Taylor Swift
  • “I Drive Your Truck” – Jessi Alexander, Connie Harrington, and Jimmy Yeary
  • “Mama’s Broken Heart” – Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally, and Kacey Musgraves – Kevin, Jonathan, Sam, Tara
  • “Merry Go ‘Round” – Shane McAnally, Kacey Musgraves, and Josh Osborne - Ben
  • “Mine Would Be You” – Jessi Alexander, Connie Harrington and Deric Ruttan

Will Win:

  • “Begin Again” – Taylor Swift – Jonathan, Sam
  • “I Drive Your Truck” – Jessi Alexander, Connie Harrington, and Jimmy Yeary
  • “Mama’s Broken Heart” – Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally, and Kacey Musgraves - Kevin, Tara
  • “Merry Go ‘Round” – Shane McAnally, Kacey Musgraves, and Josh Osborne - Ben
  • “Mine Would Be You” – Jessi Alexander, Connie Harrington and Deric Ruttan

Kevin:  Gotta root for the Brandy Clark co-write, which is conveniently the best composition anyway.  Still, I think  voters will use this category to acknowledge Musgraves for writing her own hit instead of Miranda’s.

Ben:  I seem to be in the minority here, but I actually consider “Merry Go ‘Round” to be the finer of the two Musgraves co-writes – which is not to say that I don’t adore “Mama’s Broken Heart” or that I wouldn’t be thrilled to see Brandy Clark also gain a mantle decoration. This would seem a comfortable place for voters to acknowledge Musgraves – as well as a likely consolation prize should she lose Best New Artist – and like Kevin, I expect it will be for the hit she performed as well as wrote.

Sam: I’d just like to point out that this is an incredibly strong group of nominees and shows there is some substance to country music once you weed out all the tailgate songs.

Jonathan: Things could play out here in a similar fashion to the CMAs, with vote-splitting among the multiple nominations for Musgraves, McAnally, Alexander, and Harrington. That worked to the latter pair’s advantage at the CMAs, where “I Drive Your Truck” pulled off a surprise win, but Shelton’s powerballad could siphon votes from Brice’s hit this time. As much as I love the idea of Brandy Clark as a Grammy winner, I think the various vote-splits will allow one of Swift’s best-written songs to win.

Tara: As strong as Lambert’s spitfire performance is, I’d argue that the bones of “Mama’s Broken Heart” are even stronger. I’ve never been able to connect with “Merry Go Round” the way others have, but agree this is likely where the voters will single Musgraves out.

Build+Me+Up+From+Bones+Sarah+JaroszBest American Roots Song

Should Win:

  • “Build Me Up From Bones” – Sarah Jarosz – Jonathan
  • “Invisible” – Steve Earle
  • “Keep Your Dirty Lights On” – Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott – Kevin
  • “Love Has Come From You” – Edie Brickell and Steve Martin
  • “Shrimp Po-Boy, Dressed” – Allen Touissant

Will Win:

  • “Build Me Up From Bones” – Sarah Jarosz 
  • “Invisible” – Steve Earle
  • “Keep Your Dirty Lights On” – Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott
  • “Love Has Come From You” – Edie Brickell and Steve Martin- Kevin, Jonathan
  • “Shrimp Po-Boy, Dressed” – Allen Touissant

Kevin:  Can voters resist Steve Martin? If they do, I hope it’s to acknowledge again the unique talents of Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott.  They are so good together.

Jonathan: Jarosz draws favorable comparisons to Alison Krauss, and, if ever there were a surefire way to appeal to Grammy voters, that would be it. She’d get my vote for the exceptional title track from her third album, though, like Kevin, I’m a big fan of O’Brien’s and Scott’s work together. Martin’s charm and name recognition are likely to give his duet with erstwhile New Bohemian Brickell the edge here.

harris-crowell-old-yellow-moonBest Americana Album

Should Win:

  • Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell, Old Yellow MoonKevin, Jonathan, Sam
  • Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, Love Has Come For You
  • Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale, Buddy and Jim
  • Mavis Staples, One True Vine
  • Allen Touissant, Songbook

Will Win:

  • Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell, Old Yellow Moon - Kevin, Ben
  • Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, Love Has Come For You - Jonathan
  • Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale, Buddy and Jim
  • Mavis Staples, One True Vine
  • Allen Touissant, Songbook - Sam

Kevin:  Martin & Brickell might be the most logical choice, but in a category stacked with veterans, Harris & Crowell must be tempting to voters who are long time fans of both.

Sam: The fact that Jason Isbell wasn’t nominated here shows that Americana music has a long way to go before Grammy voters stop using it at the place where all veteran singer/songwriters end up. As for this year, Allen Touissant is older and has past Grammy love, so my money is on him.

Jonathan: The strongest, most vital year for Americana music in a decade is rewarded with a staid slate of nominees. Old Yellow Moon is the obvious standout and could very well win, but I think Martin’s well-received album with Brickell has the edge based on Martin’s celebrity.

0011661914124Best Bluegrass Album

Should Win:

  • The Boxcars, It’s Just a Road
  • Dailey & Vincent, Brothers of the HighwayJonathan
  • Della Mae, This World Oft Can Be
  • James King, Three Chords and the Truth
  • Del McCoury Band, The Streets of Baltimore

Will Win:

  • The Boxcars, It’s Just a Road
  • Dailey & Vincent, Brothers of the Highway
  • Della Mae, This World Oft Can Be
  • James King, Three Chords and the Truth
  • Del McCoury Band, The Streets of Baltimore - Kevin, Jonathan, Ben

Kevin: Haven’t heard these albums enough to have a personal favorite, but I think the Del McCoury Band’s name recognition will power it to a win.

Jonathan: Both the Del McCoury Band and Dailey & Vincent are nominated for some of their very best work, and either would be a richly deserving winner. Della Mae have a fairly vocal fanbase, but it isn’t clear if that fanbase overlaps with the Grammy voter bloc enough to unseat one of the two bigger-name acts.

GuyClarkMFPOYCoverSenorMcGuireBest Folk Album

Should Win:

  • Guy Clark, My Favorite Picture of YouKevin, Ben
  • The Greencards, Sweetheart of the Sun
  • Sarah Jarosz, Build Me Up From BonesJonathan
  • The Milk Carton Kids, The Ash & Clay
  • Various Artists, They all Played for Us: Arhoolie Records 50th Anniversary Celebration

Will Win:

  • Guy Clark, My Favorite Picture of You - Kevin, Ben, Jonathan
  • The Greencards, Sweetheart of the Sun
  • Sarah Jarosz, Build Me Up From Bones
  • The Milk Carton Kids, The Ash & Clay
  • Various Artists, They all Played for Us: Arhoolie Records 50th Anniversary Celebration

Kevin: Sentimental favorite who also put out a great album? How can they deny Guy Clark?

Jonathan: I’m tempted to pick the Arhoolie Records without having heard it, simply because it just seems like something the idiosyncratic Grammys would go for. Clark is a safer bet for his beautifully observed album, while the ascendant Jarosz would get my vote for her career-best work.

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Single Review: Tim McGraw, “Lookin’ for that Girl”

Tim McGraw Lookin' for That GirlIt’s hard for me to not like a song that uses “Funky Cold Medina” and “Strawberry Wine” as adjectives.

But mission accomplished, thanks to a plodding mid-tempo groove that never gets out of first gear, and a grating vocoder effect that should’ve been left behind with “Felt Good on My Lips.”

Come on, Tim McGraw.  You’re Tim McGraw.  You took Bruce Robison and Rodney Crowell songs to number one.   Can’t you find some other should’ve been hits from days gone by, instead of recording weak sauce like this?

Tim McGraw used to be the gold standard.  I’m looking for that guy, that guy, that guy.

Written by Mark Irwin, Jimmy Slater, and Chris Tompkins

Grade: D

Listen:  Lookin’ for that Girl 

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Country Universe’s Best Albums of 2013, Part Two: #20-#1

2013 turned out to be a banner year for new music, full of powerful songwriting, inspired collaborations, and truly cohesive albums that would rank among the best releases in any given year.  Many of this year’s top twenty would’ve ranked much higher in other years, and many of us writers couldn’t even include all the works we deeply enjoyed this year on our personal lists, making our collective list worthy of the heartiest endorsement we could ever give.

Here’s to a great 2013, and a greedy wish that 2014 will be just as wonderful on the music front. As always, share your thoughts and personal favorites in the comments.

Charlie Worsham Rubberband

#20
Rubberband
Charlie Worsham

Individual rankings:  #7 – Tara; #12 – Leeann

Like Chris Young two years ago, Worsham’s voice is a commodity that instantly elevates the new artist to an orbit above the male radio regulars. His is warm and cleanly expressive, lending itself best to songs that nurture his upper register, like the jaunty “Want Me Too,” haunting “Someone Like You” or those invigorating opening bars of “Could It Be.” If only life imitated “Nashville” and its fictional stars’ uncomplicated brand of pop country, Worsham might just be the next Luke Bryan and “Rubberband” –the album’s finely produced, genre-bending title track– his next big hit. - Tara Seetharam

Recommended Tracks:  “Rubberband,” “Someone Like You,” “Young to See,” “Could it Be”

Patty Griffin Silver Bell

#19
Silver Bell
Patty Griffin

Individual rankings:  #5 – Kevin; #13 – Jonathan

It was a banner year for Patty Griffin fans, as two new studio albums were released.  Silver Bell is the oddity of the two, in that it was recorded thirteen years ago and languished in the vaults (and on cherished bootlegs.)  For those who have discovered Griffin during her past few years as an Americana goddess, Silver Bell was her final attempt at a mainstream album for A&M Records, and it is fantastic.  She finds a happy medium  between the rawness of her debut album, Living with Ghosts, and the hard edge of its follow-up, Flaming Red.  Two of the best tracks, “Truth #2″ and “Top of the World”, would become two of the best tracks on Home, the landmark Dixie Chicks album from 2002.  Emmylou Harris joins in on harmony for “Truth”, but the true revelation is the original recording of  “World”, which is darker and more haunting than the excellent renditions that the Chicks, and Griffin herself, would later record. - Kevin Coyne

Recommended Tracks:  “Top of the World”, “One More Girl”, “Mother of God”

Son Volt Honky Tonk

#18
Honky Tonk
Son Volt

Individual rankings:  #4 -Sam; #18 – Jonathan

As one of the defining bands of alt-country, Son Volt have rarely taken a straightforward approach to the country genre, but they go full-on Bakersfield on Honky Tonk. It’s a move that suits the band well, as the laid-back arrangements on tracks like “Tears of Change” and “Hearts and Minds” balance frontman Jay Farrar’s trademark intensity. - Jonathan Keefe

Recommended Tracks: “Hearts and Minds,” “Bakersfield,” “Seawall”

The Steeldrivers Hammer Down

#17
Hammer Down
The SteelDrivers

Individual rankings:  #12 – Ben; #15 – Tara, Sam; #20 – Jonathan

In many instances, the replacement of a lead vocalist has spelled disaster for a band’s career. In the case of the SteelDrivers, it’s the beginning of a whole new chapter as Gary Nichols ably fills the shoes of the departed Chris Stapleton. But great singers and great pickers still need great songs, and from the haunting opener “Shallow Grave” to the piercing melody of album closer “When I’m Gone,” Hammer Down sets a consistent standard that never wavers. - Ben Foster

Recommended Tracks:  “Hard Way Home,” “Keep Your Heart Young,” “Heart’s Content”

Guy Clark My Favorite Picture of You

#16
My Favorite Picture of You
Guy Clark

Individual rankings:  #3 – Ben; #10 – Leeann

Guy Clark has already secured his place in country music history – not to mention a place in the Nashville Songwriter’s Hall of Fame – but on his first new studio effort since 2009, the songwriting icon is still finding ways to keep things fresh. On My Favorite Picture of You, Guy Clark addresses current events (“Heroes,” “El Coyote”) as well as personal loss (the achingly gorgeous title track, a tribute his late wife Susanna), his absorbing lyrics delivered through a wise and weathered voice which feels like that of an old friend. - Ben Foster

Recommended Tracks: “My Favorite Picture of You,” “El Coyote,” “Heroes”

Holly Williams The Highway

#15
The Highway

Holly Williams

Individual rankings: #3 – Tara; #7 – Leeann

Producer Charlie Peacock treads a dangerous line on The Highway, with arrangements so sparse they’d easily deflate a lesser artist’s work. But he and Williams work exceptionally well together on her third album, leaning on her character-filled voice to fill in the spacious canvas. The album’s themes are heavy and often morose, but Williams doesn’t weigh them down; instead, she approaches them with weathered sensibleness, using only the ragged edges of her voice to convey the underlying drama. As for that family of hers, if there’s a role for them on The Highway, it’s only to help sketch out the small, poignant details of her characters’ stories, like in the vivid history of her maternal grandparents’ eternal love in “Waiting on June.”  - Tara Seetharam

Recommended Tracks:  “Drinkin’,” “The Highway,” “’Til It Runs Dry,” “Waiting on June”

 Pistol Annies Annie Up

#14
Annie Up
Pistol Annies

Individual rankings:  #9 – Tara, Sam; #15 – Ben; #19 – Kevin

It was unlikely that the Pistol Annies would match their self-titled debut, a bullet of an album that flew in the face of everything manicured, polite and conventional in 2011. Their sophomore album, then, is a little less of a shock, but just as much of a raucous hoot. The ladies are still challenging societal norms (“Being Pretty Ain’t Easy”), lamenting and –surprisingly often– conceding to small-town marital discord (“Unhappily Married”), and, of course, dancing with their demons (“I Feel A Sin Coming On”). The breadth of their combined talent and mission is almost uncontainable, so misfires are expected (“Girls Like Us”); in the end, though, the album cements the trio’s place as the genre’s bravest truth-spitting chicks.  - Tara Seetharam

Recommended Tracks:  “I Feel A Sin Coming On,” “Being Pretty Ain’t Pretty,” “Unhappily Married,” “Dear Sobriety”

 Sturgill Simpson High Top Mountain

#13
High Top Mountain
Sturgill Simpson

Individual rankings:  #1 – Jonathan; #2 – Sam

Far too often, traditional-minded country acts fetishize the genre’s past and end up sounding like mimics of great artists, rather than becoming great artists in their own right. Sturgill Simpson, an acolyte of Waylon Jennings’ outlaw period, adopts a too-country-for-country throwback style on his debut, High Top Mountain. But the deceptively shrewd perspective that informs “Railroad of Sin,” “Water in a Well,” and “Old King Coal” is modern through and through, making Simpson one of country’s most exciting new voices. - Jonathan Keefe

Recommended Tracks:  “Railroad of Sin,” “Hero,” “You Can Have the Crown,” “Life Ain’t Fair and the World is Mean”

Patty Griffin American Kid

#12
American Kid
Patty Griffin

Individual rankings:  #10 – Jonathan; #12 – Kevin; #13 – Leeann; #18 – Tara; #20 – Ben

Not only is Patty Griffin a very deservedly respected songwriter of intelligent and often gut wrenching songs, she has what many sing-songwriter types don’t have–a sublime voice that pierces right through one’s heart and soul. Join those elements together and it’s no wonder that her first album of original songs since 2007 is at least as good as anyone would dare to hope it would be.

From the sweet cover of “Mom and Dad’s Waltz” to the powerful “Not a Bad Man”, Griffin’s album is a collection of masterful and intelligent songs that will make you think and want to think some more. - Leeann Ward

Recommended Tracks: “Mom and Dad’s Waltz”, “Irish Boy”, “Not a Bad Man”

Music Review Alan Jackson

#11
The Bluegrass Album

Alan Jackson

Individual rankings:  #7 – Kevin, Dan; #9 – Ben; #11 – Tara; #20 – Leeann

Once again, Alan Jackson sets out to do a vanity project and it ends up as good as his best mainstream work ever was.  His foray into bluegrass yields wonderful results, both in the form of compelling new material (“Blue Ridge Mountain Song”, “Mary”, “Blue Side of Heaven”) and well-chosen covers (“Wild and Blue”, “Blue Moon of Kentucky.”)  Like Dolly Parton and Merle Haggard before him, Jackson’s crossover from country to bluegrass shows just how little distance there is between the two, at least when the country artist in question has deep roots in the first place.  - Kevin Coyne

Recommended Tracks:  “Blue Ridge Mountain Song”, “Knew All Along”, “Mary”

The Mavericks

#10
In Time
The Mavericks

Individual rankings:  #1 – Sam; #10 – Tara, Ben; #18 – Kevin, Leeann

The Mavericks reunion may have been one of the more unexpected comebacks in recent country music history, but it should have come as no surprise that In Time was as excellent as it was. “That’s Not My Name” showed their classic country influences, but tunes like “Lies” and “Come Unto Me” blended in some rock, soul and Latin feel too. “Come Unto Me,” with its horn section and Raul Malo’s searing vocals, was the sexiest song in country music in 2013. - Sam Gazdziak

Recommended Tracks: “Come Unto Me”, “Lies”, “That’s Not My Name”

Billie Joe + Norah Foreverly

#9
Foreverly
Billie Joe + Norah

Individual rankings: #4 – Kevin, #5 – Leeann, #6 – Dan; #13 – Tara; #14 – Jonathan

Another quirky Norah Jones project, eh? Sounds about right; guess it’s been about six months since the last one. Oh, she got the guy from Green Day in on it? Well, that’s…huh. What? They’re covering an Everly Brothers album of traditional country and folk songs from the 50′s? They’re just, like, taking time out of their busy schedules to lovingly coo through a bunch of covers of the Everly Brothers’ covers, perhaps to help pass on the Everlys’ important legacy to younger generations, or perhaps just because they’re fans and love music and know Starbucks will sell it regardless? Who do these recording artists think they are — artists? - Dan Milliken

Recommended Tracks:  “Long Time Gone”, “I’m Here to Get My Baby Out of Jail”, “Kentucky”

Vince Gill and Paul Franklin Bakersfield

#8
Bakersfield
Vince Gill and Paul Franklin

Individual rankings:  #4 – Leeann; #5 – Ben, Jonathan; #6 – Tara; #16 – Kevin

It may not be typical for a steel guitarist to receive top billing alongside a legend of Vince Gill’s caliber, but it’s certainly warranted in this case as the comforting whine of Paul Franklin’s pedal steel proves the perfect match for Gill’s distinctive tenor. It’s a delightful musical history lesson as the two lovingly cover ten beloved Owen and Haggard classics. Their takes are neither stale recreations nor scattershot attempts at modernizing and reinventing – rather, Bakersfield feels like a simple, unaffectedly sincere love letter to a unique and important era of country music. - Ben Foster

Recommended Tracks:  “Together Again,” “I Can’t Be Myself,” “Nobody’s Fool But Yours,” “Holding Things Together”

Emmylou Harris Rodney Crowell Old Yellow Moon

#7
Old Yellow Moon
Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell

Individual rankings:  #2 – Leeann; #6 – Kevin, Ben; #14 – Sam; #15 – Jonathan; #17 – Tara

The ease and friendship between Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell is undeniably palpable on their first full duets album, which is a huge part of what makes this project a blow out success. While the songs are mainly covers of their own songs, as in the sprightly “Bluebird Wine”, the new interpretations are fresh and feel like brand new songs, as is also the case with the covers of other people’s work, as proven by the sublime “Dreaming My Dreams.”

From the jaunty opener of “Hanging Up My Heart” to the gorgeous closer of the title track and all points in between, the entirety of Old Yellow Moon is a masterful collaboration between two brilliantly talented old friends.  - Leeann Ward

Recommended Tracks:  “Hanging Up My Heart”, “Dreaming My Dreams”, “Bluebird Wine”, “Here We Are”

kelly-willis-bruce-robison-cheaters-game

#6
Cheater’s Game
Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison

Individual rankings:  #5 – Dan; #9 – Leeann, Jonathan; #10 – Sam; #14 – Kevin, Tara; #17 – Ben

The first duets album by the Tim & Faith of Texas country lands, and the world immediately becomes a slightly better place. It’s an LP filled with smart Robison writing, golden Willis drawl, and enviable marital cuteness. True love is out there, guys. Listen to “Dreamin’” and sigh along with me. - Dan Milliken

Recommended Tracks:  “Cheater’s Game”, “Waterfall”, “Dreamin’”

Jason Isbell Southeastern

#5
Southeastern
Jason Isbell

Individual rankings:  #2 – Kevin, Jonathan; #3 – Sam; #5 – Tara; #8 – Dan

The best thing about Jason Isbell’s richly drawn stories from the underbelly of America is that he manages to humanize some quite despicable people without trying to make them likable at the same time.  There are very few anti-heroes to be found here.  Their stories are compelling, but you still root for the good guys and gals, and it’s rarely Isbell that is singing in their voice, preferring the challenge of bringing the often loathsome to life.

Which isn’t to say that’s the only role he plays, as there are hints of redemption in some of the best numbers.  The man haunted by the “Songs that She Sang in the Shower” might just treat the next one right, and there is nobody I enjoyed getting to know better this year than Andy in “Elephant”, a barroom louse who didn’t stick around when the girl was at her best, but is now by her side as she’s dying of cancer, singing her classic country songs and sweeping her hair up off the floor after putting her to bed.  – Kevin Coyne

Recommended Tracks:  “Elephant”, “Songs that She Sang in the Shower”, “Live Oak”

Kacey Musgraves Same Trailer Different Park

#4
Same Trailer Different Park
Kacey Musgraves

Individual rankings:  #3 – Dan; #4 – Ben; #6 – Sam; #8 – Leeann, Tara; #10 -Kevin

Kacey Musgraves set some mighty high expectations for herself to live up to with the universally acclaimed dark horse hit “Merry Go ‘Round,” but her major label debut release delivers in full. Same Trailer Different Park announces the arrival of one of country music’s most distinct and potent new voices, marked by keen-eyed observation, maturity beyond her years, and a refreshing willingness to tell it like it is.

The dawning optimism of “Silver Living” and “Step Off” is made all the more meaningful by the fact that Musgraves never shies away from themes of heartache, despondence, and frustration. But even the bitterest moments are sweetened by accessible melodies, comforting arrangements, and a down-to-earth vocal style.

In a genre that has long prided itself on being “real,” Musgraves has become one of a precious few mainstream artists to actually live up to that ideal, and by so doing has laid bare just how contrived the format has become. The fact that Same Trailer Different Park found the mainstream audience it richly deserved feels like an answered prayer. Don’t blow this now, country radio.- Ben Foster

Recommended Tracks: “Merry Go ‘Round,” “Keep it to Yourself,” “Follow Your Arrow,” “It Is What It Is”

Ashley Monroe Like a Rose

#3
Like a Rose
Ashley Monroe

Individual rankings:  #3 – Jonathan; #4 – Tara; #6 – Leeann; #8 – Ben; #9 – Kevin, Dan; #13 – Sam

A beautifully drawn character sketch, Like a Rose showcases Ashley Monroe’s gift for using authentic first-person detail to give depth to her distinctive, unconventional narratives. The persona Monroe projects over the course of the album’s brief song cycle is one of a young woman who has been scarred by the events in her past but who uses those scars as the jumping-off point for compelling stories rather than letting them define who she is or who she aspires to be. - Jonathan Keefe

Recommended Tracks:  “Like a Rose,” “Two Weeks Late,” “Used,” “The Morning After”

LeAnn Rimes Spitfire

#2
Spitfire
LeAnn Rimes

Individual rankings:  #1 – Tara; #2 – Dan, Ben; #3 – Leeann; #8 – Kevin, Jonathan

Rimes subtitled Spitfire as the “truth in no particular order,” an apt description for an album whose truth shines like a prism, flashing different, nuanced colors at us with each twist and turn. If Spitfire is meant to narrate Rimes’ messy history –her “truth” as so many have come to define her by–, it succeeds; but, the gifted artist that she’s become, Rimes knows that truth is more than intentions and events and aftermath. It’s in the intimate honesty that spills out from the smallest corners of thought, whether from places of regret or passion, shame or fearlessness, or in those boundless grey areas in between. Spitfire has it all, packaged in the most colorful, intriguing performances of the year.  - Tara Seetharam

Recommended Tracks: “Borrowed,” “I Do Now,” “Who We Really Are,” “What Have I Done””

Brandy Clark 12 Stories

#1
12 Stories
Brandy Clark

Individual rankings:  #1 – Kevin, Leeann, Dan, Ben; #2 – Tara; #4 – Jonathan; #5 – Sam

Brandy Clark’s 12 Stories was shopped around to several record labels, but none of them would commit to taking on the album, even the ones that admitted that it was the best album they’d heard in years.

Since it’s impossible to reasonably imagine why label executives who loved the album wouldn’t jump at the chance to put Clark on their roster, perhaps they assumed that the album was just too smart and good for the mainstream music scene they put their dollars behind. While this is certainly a simple, and maybe even naive, view of things, other explanations simply evade me. Fortunately, however, somebody did believe in Brandy Clark’s music and the album was organically promoted as an independent release.

Even after listening to the album at least a zillion times since first receiving a promo copy well before its official release, it is a challenge to find the proper words to appropriately describe this nearly perfect debut album. Clark’s sharp, clear eyed songs are supported by crisp and satisfying productions and solid, warm vocals. Without judgment, but with intelligence, she observes and explores the tougher parts of life such as unfaithfulness, divorce and various forms of mental anguish; all the while keeping the album accessible.

As much as can and should be written about this album, the most direct thing to be said is that this was the clear favorite of the very diverse Country Universe staff, with most of us selecting it as our Number One album and none of us ranking it below number five.  The rest of this list shows how far apart we often are on tastes; Brandy Clark is one artist we can all get behind.   - Leeann Ward

Recommended Tracks:  “Pray to Jesus”, “What’ll Keep Me Out of Heaven”, “Take a Little Pill”, “Hungover”

Country Universe’s Best of 2013:

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Country Universe’s Best Singles of 2013, Part Two: #20-#1

If this year’s singles list leaves you with a familiar feeling, it’s not your imagination.  For the first time in Country Universe history, an artist has topped the year end list for two years in a row, and there are plenty of repeat appearances from CU favorites.   But there are some fresh faces too, including some promising new singer-songwriters and inspired collaborations from artists we already liked an awful lot by themselves.

As always, share your thoughts and personal favorites in the comments!

Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell's "Hanging Up My Heart" is popular on XPN2: Singer-Songwriter Radio.

#20
“Hangin’ Up My Heart”
Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell

Individual rankings:  #3 – Leeann; #20 – Kevin

What a way for Emmylou and Rodney to kick off their much anticipated duet project! The bouncy tune shows the power duo in fine form both in voice and spunk and signals what will turn out to be one of the finest albums of the year. - Leeann Ward

Gary Allan It Ain't the Whiskey

#19
“It Ain’t the Whiskey”
Gary Allan

Individual rankings:  #10 – Dan; #13 – Jonathan; #18 – Kevin

The most Allan has sounded like his old self in seven years. You can’t blame him for dialing back his intensity after the dark, heartbreaking Tough All Over, but it’s a real treat to hear him snarl out a great country weeper again.- Dan Milliken

Sturgill Simpson Railroad of Sin

#18
“Railroad of Sin”
Sturgill Simpson

Individual rankings:  #5 – Jonathan; #8 – Sam

It’s hard to pick out a highlight from Simpson’s High Top Mountain, but this song would have to be in the running. Though just a shade over two minutes in length, “Railroad” roars, rumbles and packs in more energy and attitude than whole albums from Blake Shelton or Luke Bryan. For those starving for pure, unadulterated country music, Simpson’s debut album was one of the great joys of 2013.  - Sam Gazdziak

Kelly Willis Bruce Robison 9,999,999 Tears

#17
“9,999,999 Tears”
Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison

Individual rankings:  #9 – Jonathan; #18 – Ben; #19 – Sam; #20 – Tara

Few singers are as adept as Kelly Willis at making their misery sound downright joyful. Even when she’s telling her ex that a lifetime of crying might suffice to get over him, Willis sounds like she’s determined to enjoy, either out of spite or pure masochism, each and every one of the tears she has in her future. - Jonathan Keefe

Lori McKenna Salt

#16
“Salt”
Lori McKenna

Individual rankings:  #3 – Dan; #5 – Kevin

“You ain’t worth the spit in my mouth when I scream out your name.” McKenna minces no words whatsoever as her steady, rumbling rage builds into a righteous evisceration of a selfish lover. Masterfully chosen details convey the full depth of the heartbreak in a few simple lines. Staggering. - Dan Milliken

Corb Lund Hayes Carll Bible on the Dash

#15
“Bible on the Dash”
Corb Lund featuring Hayes Carll

Individual rankings:  #5 – Jonathan; #8 – Sam

Lund and Carll share a similar twisted sense of humor, so this song about using a Bible to sweet-talk their way through police stops is right up their alleys. The video, featuring Carll as a Texas state trooper and Lund as a Mountie, is worth seeking out as well. - Sam Gazdziak

Billie Joe + Norah Long Time Gone

#14
“Long Time Gone”
Billie Joe + Norah

Individual rankings:  #2 – Leann; #17 – Tara; #19 – Kevin

The tight vocals of Norah Jones and Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong are both surprising and stunning. From their collaborative project that covers the entire Everly Brother’s Songs Our Daddy Taught Us album, Jones and Armstrong brilliantly recreate the magic of the Brothers’ familial harmonies without actually being family themselves on the album’s first single, “Long Time Gone.” The song is bright and hard core country, not to mention it can be replayed a million times over without feeling stale. - Leeann Ward

Charlie Worsham Could It Be

#13
“Could it Be”
Charlie Worsham

Individual rankings:  #10 – Tara, Jonathan; #12 – Sam; #14 – Dan

A throwback to the uncomplicated pop-country sound of the ‘90s –part Vince Gill, part Clay Walker, part Diamond Rio– that still sounds undeniably current, thanks to one of the freshest opening hooks in recent memory.  - Tara Seetharam

Delta Rae Lindsey Buckingham If I Loved You

#12
“If I Loved You”
Delta Rae featuring Lindsey Buckingham

Individual rankings:  #3 – Jonathan; #5 – Tara; #19 – Dan

Delta Rae can, at times, skew a little too far into “show choir” territory, but “If I Loved You” isn’t one of those times. Their intricate harmonies, dramatic dynamic shifts, and outsized vocal performances are entirely in service to a song about how deeply it can hurt when, “It isn’t you, it’s me,” is the truth and not just a cop-out. - Jonathan Keefe

Miranda Lambert All Kinds of Kinds

#11
“All Kinds of Kinds”
Miranda Lambert

Individual rankings:  #2 – Sam; #11 – Leeann, Tara; #12 – Dan

This oddity is something that could only have come from the pen of Don Henry, along with co-writer Phillip Coleman. While the women in country music are more likely to be singing about married circus performers and cross-dressing politicians, Lambert is the best-suited to sing about a rebellious child determined to make her own way in life. - Sam Gazdziak

Alan Jackson Blue Ridge Mountain Song

#10
“Blue Ridge Mountain Song”

Alan Jackson

Individual rankings:  #8 – Kevin, Leeann, Ben; #9 – Tara

Something of a close cousin to his classic “Livin’ on Love”, the storyline of this young couple is so similar that it’s quite the sucker-punch when they don’t get their happily ever after.   As the protagonist falls to his knees, begging God not to take his love away from him, Jackson lets that moment linger in our hearts and minds as the bluegrass band takes over for a short time.  When he returns with the heart-wrenching image of our widowed hero sitting on the front porch all alone, with only memories to keep him company, it’s a hurt that returns with every listen, as unquenchable as grief itself. – Kevin Coyne

Holly Williams Drinkin

#9
“Drinkin’”
Holly Williams

Individual rankings:  #4 – Leeann; #6 – Tara; #13 – Kevin; #17 – Dan; #19 – Jonathan

“Drinkin” is far more than its simple title. While cleverly connecting the end to the beginning, the song explores the slippery slope of excessive drinking and its ravaging effects on a family. It starts with Williams pleading for understanding for why her mate is “drinking like the night is young” and ends with her own version of personal understanding as she realizes that she has been driven to go down that same distructive road.  - Leeann Ward

LEann Rimes Rob Thomas Gasoline and Matches

#8
“Gasoline and Matches”
LeAnn Rimes featuring Rob Thomas

Individual rankings:  #1 – Leeann, Ben; #13 – Dan; #17 – Jonathan

Rimes’ astounding growth as a vocal interpreter is hardly limited to her ballads – on “Gasoline and Matches” she rocks out like never before, tearing into the deliriously catchy Buddy and Julie Miller song with an uninhibited spitfire (pun intended) of a performance. Rob Thomas proves an ideal match for Rimes’ energy and intensity, the two displaying an explosive chemistry that perfectly fits the song’s central metaphor. Finish it off with an aggressive, driving production, complete with a searing Jeff Beck guitar solo, and you have one of the most unabashedly addictive songs of 2013. - Ben Foster

Jason Isbell Traveling Alone

#7
“Traveling Alone”
Jason Isbell

Individual rankings:  #4 – Sam; #5 – Dan; #6 – Kevin; #8 – Tara; #13 – Leeann

This lonely man’s lament is perhaps most compelling because it captures him at the very moment that he’s discovering his loneliness, as he has clearly been a satisfied loner up until this point.  Isbell’s sharply drawn characters are a signature of his writing, and his encounter with those dancing ladies of the evening in the second verse, who won’t even take his money, is vividly real and sympathetically endearing. - Kevin Coyne
Chris Stapleton What Are You Listening To

#6
“What are You Listening To”
Chris Stapleton

Individual rankings:  #2 – Tara; #9 – Kevin, Dan; #12 – Leeann; #15 – Jonathan; #17 – Sam

Simply the most cathartic song about songs in years, layering blues and soul with the kind of crushing anguish only a master class vocal can convey. - Tara Seetharam

LEAnn Rimes Borrowed

#5
“Borrowed”
LeAnn Rimes

Individual rankings:  #3 – Kevin; #5 – Leeann; #7 – Tara, Jonathan; #11 – Dan

LeAnn Rimes’ career of late has been all about her choices. “Borrowed” may touch upon the decisions she’s made in her private life, but what’s far more interesting about the single are the choices she makes in her nuanced vocal performance. The way she breaks her voice into the high note as she sings the word “borrowed” at the end of each chorus, how she drops into her lower register whenever she’s admitting her status as the proverbial Other Woman, and the clarity and resolve in her delivery of the line, “I don’t want to give you back”: They’re all choices of a truly masterful storyteller. - Jonathan Keefe

Brandy Clark Stripes

#4
“Stripes”
Brandy Clark

Individual rankings:  #3 – Ben; #6 – Leeann; #7 – Sam; #8 – Dan; #13 – Tara; #15 – Kevin

The unintentionally anti-revenge song, “Stripes” is clever and funny. While she would like to commit a crime of passion as a consequence for her lover’s cheating ways, she decides against it because “there’s no crime of passion worth a crime of fashion.” But even when the silly punch line wears off, Clark’s endearing performance and the addictive rhythm section will prevent the song from descending into lame novelty status.  - Leeann Ward

Little Big Town Sober

#3
“Sober”
Little Big Town

Individual rankings:  #1 – Tara, Jonathan; #2 – Ben; #4 – Dan; #16 – Sam; #18 – Leeann

Country music’s done well by love: It understands it, respects it and celebrates it without adornment. But few country songs have tapped into as exquisitely –as spiritually, even– as “Sober,” an arms-raised surrender that dares to mirror the intoxication of love. There’s not a hint of restraint in “Sober’s” fabric, no self-consciousness in its confessional chorus or lilting harmonies. Sweetest of all is the abandon in Kimberly Schlapman’s performance, so mesmerizing that you can’t help but feel a little mind-altered yourself.  - Tara Seetharam

Miranda Lambert Mamas Broken Heart

#2
“Mama’s Broken Heart”
Miranda Lambert

Individual rankings:  #2 – Kevin, Dan; #3 – Sam; #4 – Tara, Ben; #15 – Leeann; #20 – Jonathan

Kacey Musgraves and Brandy Clark dominate the top five of this list as writers and performers, and “Mama’s Broken Heart” is a further reminder how compelling their writing is, even in the hands of other performers. Lambert’s manic energy and signature edge is often paired with over the top material, so it’s awesome to hear her tear into a relatively grounded breakup song.  You know if she wrote this, she wouldn’t be just cutting her bangs with those rusty kitchen scissors.  The more realistic approach taken here allows for some sly generational and feminist commentary, another signature of both Musgraves and Clark, and Lambert, too, when she’s at her best.   - Kevin Coyne

Kacey Musgraves Follow Your Arrow

#1
“Follow Your Arrow”
Kacey Musgraves

Individual rankings:  #1 – Dan, Sam; #3 – Tara; #4 – Kevin, Jonathan; #5 – Ben; #14 – Leeann

Surprised? You’re probably not surprised. Musgraves topped our singles list last year with the sharp “Merry Go ‘Round,” and if anything, “Follow Your Arrow” one-ups it, offering an uplifting antidote to the malaise that “Merry Go ‘Round” warns of: go forth and live happily, whatever the word may mean to you.

There’s a little more to it, of course. The song is historically huge in its warm embrace of sexual diversity and religious tolerance, and its commentary on body image issues isn’t far behind. It rides a plucky, acoustic groove that dares to believe modern country music can sound like John Prine. It looks at life the way life really is, complicated and controversial, and does so with concise phrasing and a working sense of humor—why, that sounds like a classic country song to me. - Dan Milliken

Country Universe’s Best of 2013:

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2014 Grammy Nominees

The nominations for the 56th Annual Grammy Awards have been announced.   Taylor Swift has the top nomination connected to country music, earning her second nomination for Album of the Year.  She took home the award four years ago for Fearless.

Here are the general category nominees, along with all country and country-related categories:

Taylor Swift RedAlbum of the Year

  • Sara Bareilles, The Blessed Unrest
  • Daft Punk, Random Access Memories
  • Kendrick Lamar, good kid m.A.A.d. city
  • Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, The Heist
  • Taylor Swift, Red

If Taylor Swift wins, she will be the first country-related artist in history to win the category twice with individual projects. Alison Krauss also has two victories, one for her collaboration with Robert Plant (Raising Sand, 2009), and another for her contributions to the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack (2002.)  The award has only been won by country artists in two other years: Glen Campbell for By the Time I Get to Phoenix (1968), and the Dixie Chicks for Taking the Long Way (2007).

daft-punk-get-lucky-612x612Record of the Year

  • “Blurred Lines” – Robin Thicke featuring T.I. and Pharrell Williams
  • “Get Lucky” – Daft Punk featuring Pharrell Williams
  • “Locked Out of Heaven” – Bruno Mars
  • “Radioactive” – Imagine Dragons
  • “Royals” – Lorde

For the third time in the last eight years, no country or country-related records make the cut. Only four country-related winners have triumphed in this category, but three of them have been in the last few years. Olivia Newton-John won for “I Honestly Love You” in 1975, followed much later by the Dixie Chicks for “Not Ready to Make Nice” in 2006; Robert Plant & Alison Krauss for “Please Read the Letter” in 2009; and Lady Antebellum for “Need You Now” in 2011.

Pink Nate Reuss Just Give me a ReasonSong of the Year

  • “Just Give Me a Reason”  – Jeff Bhasker, P!nk, and Nate Reuss
  • “Locked out of Heaven” – Phillip Lawrence, Ari Levine, and Bruno Mars
  • “Roar” – Lukasz Gottwald, Max Martin, Bonnie McKee, Katy Perry, and Henry Walter
  • “Royals” – Joel Little and Lorde
  • “Same Love” – Ben Haggerty, Mary Lambert, Ryan Lewis, and Curtis Mayfield

For the third straight year, country is shut out of the top songwriting category, a streak that began after the writers of Lady Antebellum’s “Need You Now” won in 2011.

Kacey-Musgraves-Same-Trailer-Different-ParkBest New Artist

  • James Blake
  • Kendrick Lamar
  • Macklemore & Ryan Lewis
  • Kacey Musgraves
  • Ed Sheeran

Kacey Musgraves is the latest new artist to represent country music in this category, which has become a nearly annual occurrence since LeAnn Rimes was nominated and won back in 1997.  Previous country winners also include Bobbie Gentry (1968), Carrie Underwood (2007) and Zac Brown Band (2010).

Tim_McGraw_Two_Lanes_of_FreedomBest Country Album

  • Jason Aldean, Night Train
  • Tim McGraw, Two Lanes of Freedom
  • Kacey Musgraves, Same Trailer Different Park
  • Blake Shelton, Based on a True Story
  • Taylor Swift, Red

Despite the presence of four big, established stars, only Taylor Swift has actually earned a victory in this category.  She won in 2010 for Fearless.  She contended again in 2012 with Speak Now, which lost to repeating victors Lady Antebellum, who won two years in a row for Need You Now (2011) and Own the Night (2012).   Kacey Musgraves earns a nomination for her debut album, the first artist do so since 2005, when Gretchen Wilson contended with Here For the Party.

darius wagon wheelBest Country Solo Performance

  • Lee Brice, “I Drive Your Truck”
  • Hunter Hayes, “I Want Crazy”
  • Miranda Lambert, “Mama’s Broken Heart”
  • Darius Rucker, “Wagon Wheel”
  • Blake Shelton, “Mine Would Be You”

Since this category combined the solo categories into one, this award has been one by Taylor Swift (“Mean”) and Carrie Underwood (“Blown Away.”)  Lambert is the only previous winner in a predecessor of this category.

Kenny Rogers Dolly Parton Old FriendsBest Country Duo/Group Performance

  • The Civil Wars, “From This Valley”
  • Kelly Clarkson featuring Vince Gill, “Don’t Rush”
  • Little Big Town, “Your Side of the Bed”
  • Tim McGraw with Taylor Swift and Keith Urban, “Highway Don’t Care”
  • Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton, “You Can’t Make Old Friends”

There’s really only one hit here, but there are plenty of former Grammy winners scattered among this category.  In case you’re wondering, the answer is no, they didn’t win a Grammy for “Islands in the Stream.”

MirandaMamasBrokenHeartBest Country Song

  • “Begin Again” – Taylor Swift
  • “I Drive Your Truck” – Jessi Alexander, Connie Harrington, and Jimmy Yeary
  • “Mama’s Broken Heart” – Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally, and Kacey Musgraves
  • “Merry Go ‘Round” – Shane McAnally, Kacey Musgraves, and Josh Osborne
  • “Mine Would Be You” – Jessi Alexander, Connie Harrington and Deric Ruttan

It’s not too common for people to receive double nominations, but here there are four songwriters competing against themselves: Jessi Alexander, Connie Harrington, Shane McAnally, and Kacey Musgraves.

Sarah Jarosz Build Me Up From BonesBest American Roots Song

  • “Build Me Up From Bones” – Sarah Jarosz
  • “Invisible” – Steve Earle
  • “Keep Your Dirty Lights On” – Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott
  • “Love Has Come From You” – Edie Brickell and Steve Martin
  • “Shrimp Po-Boy, Dressed” – Allen Touissant

This category is brand new this year, encompassing songs from all of the subcategories in the American Roots field: Americana, bluegrass, blues, folk, and regional roots music.

Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell Old Yellow MoonBest Americana Album

  • Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell, Old Yellow Moon
  • Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, Love Has Come For You
  • Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale, Buddy and Jim
  • Mavis Staples, One True Vine
  • Allen Touissant, Songbook

Collaborations dominate this category, which is populated with many previous Grammy winners.  Emmylou Harris won this award twice, back when it was called Best Contemporary Folk Album.

James King Three Chords and the TruthBest Bluegrass Album

  • The Boxcars, It’s Just a Road
  • Dailey & Vincent, Brothers of the Highway
  • Della Mae, This World Oft Can Be
  • James King, Three Chords and the Truth
  • Del McCoury Band, The Streets of Baltimore

Del McCoury Band are the only returning victors in this category, winning back in 2006 for The Company We Keep.   Perhaps because of the broad voter base, this category has been dominated by acts with explicit ties to country music, including multiple wins by Ricky Skaggs, Jim Lauderdale, and Alison Krauss & Union Station, and one-off victories by Patty Loveless and Dolly Parton.  This year is the second in a row without crossover contenders; last year’s winner was the Steep Canyon Rangers for Nobody Knows You.

The Greencards Sweetheart of the SunBest Folk Album

  • Guy Clark, My Favorite Picture of You
  • The Greencards, Sweetheart of the Sun
  • Sarah Jarosz, Build Me Up From Bones
  • The Milk Carton Kids, The Ash & Clay
  • Various Artists, They all Played for Us: Arhoolie Records 50th Anniversary Celebration

A tribute to Guy Clark earned a nomination in this category last year, and now Clark himself is in contention for the prize.  None of the acts in contention have won in the folk fields before.

Also of note, the Pistol Annies set Annie Up earned nominations for engineer Chuck Ainlay and mastering engineer Bob Ludwig in the Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical category.  It competes against Daft Punk, another album mastered by Ludwig, along with sets by Alice in Chains, Queens of the Stone Age, Andrew Duhon, and Madeline Payroux.

 

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Album Review: Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell, <em>Old Yellow Moon</em>

Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell Old Yellow Moon

Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell
Old Yellow Moon

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The single biggest obstacle between a critic and a critical review of Old Yellow Moon is the reverence demanded by a collaboration of such artistic and historical significance. So why don’t we get that part out of the way first?

Nearly forty years ago, Emmylou Harris emerged from the shadows of the late Gram Parsons to forge her own solo career. By her side was a hungry young songwriter, Rodney Crowell. Supplying her with startlingly good material, Harris assembled a series of seminal albums that balanced his bold and original songs with both country and rock classics and other songs by marginalized writers.

In the years that have since elapsed, both have become legends, with Harris maintaining commercial success in mainstream country music and Crowell scoring hits as a singer as well as a songwriter. When radio was done with both of them, they had glorious second acts in the bourgeoning Americana scene, each of them producing albums that ranked among their best personal work.

Now the two legends have come together for their first collaborative album as peers, a project that now seems inevitable but until now seemed impossible, given how far the two have wandered from their shared starting point four decades ago. It sounds like the decision they made was to go completely back to their roots, so there are no Crowell polemics or self-penned Harris tunes.

Old Yellow Moon is a simple collection of country songs, most of which have been recorded before, sometimes by Crowell or Harris themselves. It’s worth noting that it’s a country album, too. It will be labeled Americana, but only because of AARP eligibility of the performers and the self-imposed limitations of terrestrial radio. Throughout the entire project, Crowell and Harris play it straight, a choice that produces some wonderful rewards but also holds the proceedings back at some crucial moments.

Let’s talk about the good stuff first. The album opens and closes with Hank DeVito tunes, and the opening “Hanging Up My Heart” finds Harris in fine voice, backed with a country beat that harkens back to her run of hits in the early seventies. The duo turns in a solid

cover of Roger Miller’s “Invitation to the Blues”, one of several songs that even relatively recent connoisseurs of traditional country will know well.

The challenge of familiarity hangs over the proceedings, and the artists find creative ways to counter expectations in some instances. “Dreaming’ My Dreams” has been covered to death, but their decision to alternate lead vocals between the verses and chorus adds a layer of shared regret that won’t be found in any of the excellent solo recordings of it in recent years. “Bluebird Wine” opened Emmylou’s first Reprise album, but having Crowell take the lead instead, with his haggard voice weathered by time, gives a new sense of redemption to the story of a drifter taken “in off of the highway.”

“Open Season of My Heart” was a wry highlight of Tim McGraw’s Live Like You Were Dying set, but Crowell’s delivery changes it completely. Where it was once dripping with irony and self-deprecation, it is now heartbreakingly despondent. A smart lyrical change that leaves off the original final line makes the transformation work.

The album includes a cover of Matraca Berg’s “Back When We Were Beautiful”, and it’s powerful to hear the lyrics sung by an aging voice. If Harris had gone the extra step and delivered the lyrics in the first person, it would have reached transcendence. That’s a disappointing missed opportunity, as good as the finished product still is.

Actually, that description is apt for a good deal of the project, which never dips below the level of pure, polished goodness but plays it a bit too safe to elevate it into the ranks of either artist’s best work. “Black Caffeine” is a cool song, but it begs for a more emphatic production, something along the lines of “Fate’s Right Hand” or “Deeper Well.”

“Spanish Dancer” is beautiful, but Harris doesn’t compensate her increasingly bewildering poor enunciation with enough vocal flourishes to paper over how hard it is to follow the storyline because you can’t quite understand what she’s singing.

“Bull Rider” does a decent job at mimicking the rhythm of Johnny Cash’s original recording, but you can actually hear that Crowell wrote it for Cash. He did so well at writing it for the Man in Black that his own take on it sounds like a demo recording in comparison, despite some cool harmonies from Harris along the way.

But complaining about the flaws feels a bit like complaining about some smudges on the window after returning home for the first time in years. The homecoming itself is its own reward, and while Old Yellow Moon isn’t among the greatest efforts from either Harris or Crowell, it’s a wonderful listen in its own right, and a welcome return for both artists to the simple pleasures of well-written and lovingly performed good old country music.

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