Tag Archives: Rodney Crowell

Album Review: Chely Wright, Lifted Off the Ground

Chely Wright
Lifted Off the Ground

It’s not a hard and fast rule, but oftentimes, the most intriguing albums come from extreme adversity. Such is the case for Chely Wright, whose finest project to date is her latest album, Lifted off the Ground, which comes from a long period of deep depression and subsequent painful self-examination of where she fits in the world. Masterfully produced by Rodney Crowell, the album is mostly a reflection of Wright’s darkest times of tumult, which naturally results in an album of varied emotions.

To set the tone for the project, the album opens with the slow-burning “Broken”, a resignation of lovers who can’t open themselves up enough to let the other person in. “Damn Liar” is an aggressive condemnation to, you guessed it, a no-good liar, while “Like Me” wistfully (and possibly controversially) contemplates the future of a close friend, “Who’s gonna end up holding your hand? / A beautiful woman or a tall, handsome man?” The most clever song on a very solid album, however, is the quirky “Notes to the Coroner”, wherein the protagonist points to her in-depth diary as her notes to the coroner on what caused her death, which simply happens to be a broken heart.

It’s not mainstream country music like she once did, but rather, more folk-tinged with a bit of tasteful pop influence sprinkled throughout, which will likely feel more comfortable with the Americana crowd. As a result, Rodney Crowell’s sympathetic production expertly supports Wright’s clear voice with a crisp, yet soft, foundation. Moreover, by pouring her heart and unfiltered thoughts into this album, we are treated to an introspective collection of songs with unique and accessible melodies and, more importantly, intelligent insights.

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ACM Flashback: Album of the Year

The ACM Awards has traditionally been overshadowed by the CMA Awards, despite its longer existence. This is for several reasons.  First, the ACM originally existed to emphasize the West Coast country music scene, whereas the CMA Awards represented Nashville from the start.  The ACM has also been more commercially-oriented from the beginning, as the history of this category proves.  Eighteen of the last twenty winners in this ACM category are multi-platinum sellers, and the organization allowed greatest hits albums to compete for more than a decade.

Still, the ACM category has bragging rights of its own. Critically-acclaimed albums like Storms of Life, Trio, Killin’ Time and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend won at the ACMs but were overlooked by the CMAs.  Additionally, women have also been far more successful at this ceremony. Only five women have ever won the CMA Album trophy, and one of them was Sissy Spacek!  At the ACMs, women have dominated the category for the past three years, and the category has honored everyone from Loretta Lynn and Donna Fargo to K.T. Oslin and Shania Twain.

A special note about ACM flashbacks. Like the Grammys, the ACMs issue their award for a given year the following year, so the awards for 2009, for example, are given out in 2010.  For the purposes of the flashbacks, Country Universe notes the year the award is presented. While the ACM first presented awards in 1966, the Album category wasn’t introduced until 1968.

As with other flashbacks, we begin with a look at this year’s nominees:

2010

  • Lady Antebellum, Lady Antebellum
  • Miranda Lambert, Revolution
  • Brad Paisley, American Saturday Night
  • Carrie Underwood, Play On
  • Zac Brown Band, The Foundation

Three previous winners – Miranda Lambert, Brad Paisley, and Carrie Underwood – compete against the debut albums of two hot bands.  Lady Antebellum and Zac Brown Band each picked up a Grammy this year and are well represented on the rest of the ACM ballot.  This is a very competitive race. Even the sales-friendly nature of the ACMs doesn’t help much here, as four of these albums are platinum and Lambert’s just went gold.

2009

  • Jamey Johnson, That Lonesome Song
  • Montgomery Gentry, Back When I Knew It All
  • George Strait, Troubadour
  • Taylor Swift, Fearless
  • Carrie Underwood, Carnival Ride

Taylor Swift became the third consecutive female artist to win in this category, a feat that would’ve seemed unthinkable earlier in the middle part of the decade, when country radio all but exiled women from radio.

2008

  • Rodney Atkins, If You’re Going Through Hell
  • Kenny Chesney, Just Who I Am: Poets and Pirates
  • Miranda Lambert, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend
  • Brad Paisley, 5th Gear
  • Taylor Swift, Taylor Swift

A visibly shocked Lambert accepted the trophy for her critically acclaimed sophomore set.  While it did go gold, it remains an anomaly among ACM album winners. You have to go all the way back to 1979 (Oak Ridge Boys) to find another ACM album winner that didn’t sell platinum or higher.

2007

  • Brooks & Dunn, Hillbilly Deluxe
  • Vince Gill, These Days
  • Rascal Flatts, Me and My Gang
  • George Strait, It Just Comes Natural
  • Carrie Underwood, Some Hearts

Carrie Underwood became the first solo female artist to win this award in eleven years with her 7 million-selling Some Hearts.

2006

  • Gary Allan, Tough All Over
  • Brad Paisley, Time Well Wasted
  • Rascal Flatts, Feels Like Today
  • Sugarland, Twice the Speed of Life
  • Lee Ann Womack, There’s More Where That Came From

A strikingly strong lineup, with the victory going to Brad Paisley. Due to differences in eligibility between the two shows, there are two CMA winners in this category. Not only did Paisley repeat his victory the following fall, Womack won the CMA the previous year.

2005

  • Kenny Chesney, When the Sun Goes Down
  • Sara Evans, Restless
  • Tim McGraw, Live Like You Were Dying
  • Keith Urban, Be Here
  • Gretchen Wilson, Here for the Party

Though he’s always been popular with the CMA and Grammy voters, Urban’s only Album award to date came courtesy of the ACMs. Oddly enough, they haven’t nominated him since.

2004

  • Brooks & Dunn, Red Dirt Road
  • Toby Keith, Shock’n Y’All
  • Martina McBride, Martina
  • Brad Paisley, Mud on the Tires
  • George Strait, Honkytonkville

On an evening where he won several major awards, Keith picked up his second Album of the Year trophy from the ACMs for an album that included the #1  hits “American Soldier”, “Whiskey Girl”,  and “I Love This Bar.”

2003

  • Kenny Chesney, No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problems
  • Dixie Chicks, Home
  • Alan Jackson, Drive
  • Toby Keith, Unleashed
  • Trick Pony, On a Mission

If you think all of those 2009 nominations for Heidi Newfield were surprising, check out Trick Pony’s presence in this category among four albums that sold more than 4 million copies each.  Alan Jackson picked up his third trophy in this category for the album that included “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)” and “Drive (For Daddy Gene)”.

2002

  • Brooks & Dunn, Steers & Stripes
  • Toby Keith, Pull My Chain
  • Tim McGraw, Set This Circus Down
  • Soundtrack, O Brother, Where Art Thou?
  • Travis Tritt, Down the Road I Go

Big comeback albums for Brooks & Dunn and Travis Tritt were nominated, but it was no surprise to see the victory go to the landmark soundtrack that sold more than eight million copies in the end.

2001

  • Johnny Cash, American III: Solitary Man
  • Billy Gilman, One Voice
  • Toby Keith, How Do You Like Me Now?!
  • Brad Paisley, Who Needs Pictures
  • Lee Ann Womack, I Hope You Dance

Even Keith was a veteran in comparison to Gilman and Paisley, who were nominated with their debut albums, but the biggest surprise was the nomination of Cash for his third project with Rick Rubin. Even the CMA didn’t recognize those collaborations until the fourth volume and “Hurt.”

2000

  • Asleep at the Wheel, Ride With Bob
  • Dixie Chicks, Fly
  • Faith Hill, Breathe
  • George Jones, Cold Hard Truth
  • Tim McGraw, A Place in the Sun

An impressively eclectic lineup is unsurprisingly represented by the consensus choice Dixie Chicks, the one act that everybody used to agree on.

1999

  • Garth Brooks, Double Live
  • Dixie Chicks, Wide Open Spaces
  • Faith Hill, Faith
  • Jo Dee Messina, I’m Alright
  • George Strait, One Step at a Time

For the fourth time in the nineties, the trophy went to an artist’s breakthrough album.  After their shocking win at the Grammys a few weeks earlier, this Dixie Chicks victory wasn’t quite as surprising.

1998

  • Garth Brooks, Sevens
  • Patty Loveless, Long Stretch of Lonesome
  • Tim McGraw, Everywhere
  • George Strait, Carrying Your Love With Me
  • Shania Twain, Come On Over

Strait’s third victory in this category tied him with Alabama for most wins.  It was also his first album to top the overall Billboard 200, a feat he’s repeated with three additional albums.

1997

  • Brooks & Dunn, Borderline
  • Tracy Lawrence, Time Marches On
  • Patty Loveless, The Trouble With the Truth
  • LeAnn Rimes, Blue
  • George Strait, Blue Clear Sky

Strait’s victory came with an album that featured the #1 hits “Blue Clear Sky” and “Carried Away”, along with the rodeo-themed “I Can Still Make Cheyenne.”

1996

  • Brooks & Dunn, Waitin’ On Sundown
  • Patty Loveless, When Fallen Angels Fly
  • Tim McGraw, All I Want
  • George Strait, Lead On
  • Shania Twain, The Woman in Me

Although Loveless won the CMA award the previous fall, the ACM sided with the Grammy winner for Best Country Album, Shania Twain’s landmark set, The Woman in Me.

1995

  • Garth Brooks, In Pieces
  • Mary Chapin Carpenter, Stones in the Road
  • Vince Gill, When Love Finds You
  • Alan Jackson, Who I Am
  • Tim McGraw, Not a Moment Too Soon

McGraw’s only victory in this category came with his first nomination. This set remains his top-selling to date, thanks to the presence of the massive hits “Don’t Take the Girl”, “Indian Outlaw”, “Down on the Farm”, and the title track.

1994

  • Brooks & Dunn, Hard Workin’ Man
  • Billy Ray Cyrus, It Won’t Be the Last
  • Vince Gill, I Still Believe In You
  • Alan Jackson, A Lot About Livin’ (And a Little ‘Bout Love)
  • Various Artists, Common Thread: The Songs of the Eagles
  • Dwight Yoakam, This Time

Alan Jackson picked up his second victory in this category with an album that included “Chattahoochee”, which would remain his biggest hit for nearly a decade.

1993

  • Garth Brooks, The Chase
  • Brooks & Dunn, Brand New Man
  • Mary Chapin Carpenter, Come On Come On
  • Billy Ray Cyrus, Some Gave All
  • Wynonna, Wynonna

These are some big selling albums. Wynonna and Mary Chapin Carpenter both sold five million and they are tied for last place among the nominees.  It’s easy to forget how fresh the Brooks & Dunn sound was when it first arrived on the scene.  Five hits, including the classic title track, “Neon Moon”, and “Boot Scootin’ Boogie”, helped power them to a win.

1992

  • Garth Brooks, No Fences
  • Garth Brooks, Ropin’ the Wind
  • Alan Jackson, Don’t Rock the Jukebox
  • Ricky Van Shelton, Backroads
  • Travis Tritt, It’s All About to Change

In perhaps the most bizarre moment in this category’s history, Garth Brooks competed again with No Fences, which won the same award last year. Alan Jackson emerged victorious with his sophomore set.

1991

  • Alabama, Pass it On Down
  • Garth Brooks, No Fences
  • Vince Gill, When I Call Your Name
  • Alan Jackson, Here in the Real World
  • Ricky Van Shelton, RVS III

No Fences includes the Garth Brooks classics “Friends in Low Places”, “Unanswered Prayers”, and “The Thunder Rolls”. It remains his highest-selling album to date, and second only to Shania Twain’s Come On Over among all single-disc country albums in history.

1990

  • Clint Black, Killin’ Time
  • Rodney Crowell, Diamonds and Dirt
  • Kathy Mattea, Willow in the Wind
  • Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Will the Circle Be Unbroken? Vol. II
  • Randy Travis, Old 8×10

The winning album demonstrates why Clint Black was the head of the Class of ’89, even though he’d soon be overshadowed by fellow newbie Garth Brooks.

1989

  • Vern Gosdin, Chiseled in Stone
  • K.T. Oslin, This Woman
  • Ricky Van Shelton, Loving Proof
  • George Strait, If You Ain’t Lovin’ You Ain’t Livin’
  • Dwight Yoakam, Buenos Noches From a Lonely Room

K.T. Oslin dominated the awards circuit in 1988 and 1989, with her final victories coming at the ACM Awards.  Her Album of the Year winner included the #1 hit “Hold Me”, along with the top five hits “Hey Bobby” and the title track.

1988

  • The Judds, Heart Land
  • Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt, and Emmylou Harris, Trio
  • George Strait, Ocean Front Property
  • Randy Travis, Always and Forever
  • Hank Williams Jr., Born to Boogie

The classic project by legends Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt, and Emmylou Harris also won a CMA for Vocal Event and a Grammy for Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals.

1987

  • The Judds, Rockin’ With the Rhythm
  • Ricky Skaggs, Live in London
  • George Strait, 7
  • Randy Travis, Storms of Life
  • Dwight Yoakam, Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc.

The neo-traditionalist movement at its peak, with a win by its standard-bearing artist with his standard-bearing debut album.

1986

  • Alabama, 40 Hour Week
  • Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, and Kris Kristofferson, Highwayman
  • The Judds, Why Not Me
  • George Strait, Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind
  • Hank Williams Jr., Five-O

The only #1 hit from this album was the title track, but “The Fireman” and “The Cowboy Rides Away” have since become signature songs for the legendary artist.

1985

  • Alabama, Roll On
  • Earl Thomas Conley, Don’t Make it Easy On Me
  • Ricky Skaggs, Don’t Cheat in Our Hometown
  • George Strait, Right or Wrong
  • Hank Williams Jr., Man of Steel

Their third victory in four years came on the strength of the hits “Roll On (Eighteen Wheeler)”, “If You’re Gonna Play in Texas (You Gotta Have a Fiddle in the Band)”, “(There’s a) Fire in the Night”, and “When We Make Love.”

1984

  • Alabama, The Closer You Get
  • John Anderson, Wild & Blue
  • Merle Haggard, Going Where the Lonely Go
  • Merle Haggard & Willie Nelson, Pancho & Lefty
  • Ricky Skaggs, Highways & Heartaches

Over a field of traditionalists old and new, the pop-country supergroup Alabama won their second Album award. In addition to the hit title track, The Closer You Get… included the hits “Lady Down on Love” and “Dixieland Delight.”

1983

  • Alabama, Mountain Music
  • Willie Nelson, Always On My Mind
  • Kenny Rogers, Love Will Turn You Around
  • Ricky Skaggs, Waitin’ For the Sun to Shine
  • Don Williams, Listen to the Radio

Nelson’s biggest single powered the album of the same name to victory. It also included a pair of #2 hits: “Last Thing I Needed First Thing This Morning” and “Let it Be Me.”

1982

  • Alabama, Feels So Right
  • Rosanne Cash, Seven Year Ache
  • George Jones, Still the Same Ole Me
  • Oak Ridge Boys, Fancy Free
  • Dolly Parton, 9 to 5 and Odd Jobs

With the exception of George Jones, all the nominees here enjoyed significant pop success with these projects. Alabama won their first trophy in this category with Feels So Right, which included the hit title track, “Old Flame”, and their biggest crossover hit, “Love in the First Degree.”

1981

  • Charley Pride, There’s a Little Bit of Hank in Me
  • Kenny Rogers, Greatest Hits
  • Soundtrack, Coal Miner’s Daughter
  • Soundtrack, Urban Cowboy
  • Don Williams, I Believe in You

For all that it’s been maligned, the Urban Cowboy soundtrack does have a lot of classic hits on it.  Some of them were recycled, like “Devil Went Down to Georgia” and “Lyin’ Eyes”, but some were introduced on the soundtrack, most notably Anne Murray’s “Could I Have This Dance” and Johnny Lee’s “Lookin’ For Love.”

1980

  • Larry Gatlin, Straight Ahead
  • Emmylou Harris, Blue Kentucky Girl
  • Waylon Jennings, Greatest Hits
  • Willie Nelson, Willie Sings Kristofferson
  • Kenny Rogers, Kenny

Those of you wondering how on earth Larry Gatlin was the winner in this field should know that this was actually a platinum-selling album. Perhaps its big hit, “All the Gold in California”, endeared the project to west coast voters.

1979

  • Ronnie Milsap, It Was Almost Like a Song
  • Anne Murray, Let’s Keep it That Way
  • Willie Nelson, Stardust
  • Oak Ridge Boys, Y’All Come Back Saloon
  • Kenny Rogers & Dottie West, Every Time Two Fools Collide

They had made several albums as gospel stars, but it was their first big country hit that fueled this win for Album of the Year.

1978

  • Waylon Jennings, Ol’ Waylon
  • Dolly Parton, Here You Come Again
  • Elvis Presley, Moody Blue
  • Kenny Rogers, Kenny Rogers
  • Conway Twitty, Greatest Hits Vol. II

This self-titled album was renamed “Lucille” in later pressings to capitalize on its biggest hit.

1977

  • Mickey Gilley, Gilley’s Smokin’
  • Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Jessi Colter, and Tompall Glaser, Wanted! The Outlaws
  • Loretta Lynn, Somebody Somewhere
  • Marty Robbins, El Paso City
  • Conway Twitty, Now and Then

Gilley’s winning album features his most well known hit, “Don’t the Girls All Get Prettier at Closing Time.” It’s the most recent album in the category’s history that hasn’t reached at least gold status.

1976

  • Glen Campbell, Rhinestone Cowboy
  • Freddie Fender, Before the Next Teardrop Falls
  • Merle Haggard, Keep Movin’ On
  • Loretta Lynn & Conway Twitty, Feelins’
  • Willie Nelson, Red Headed Stranger

This shared award is the only Album trophy that either Lynn or Twitty won from the ACM or CMA, though Lynn did go on to win Best Country Album three decades later at the Grammys.

1975

  • John Denver, Back Home Again
  • Merle Haggard, Merle Haggard Presents His 30th Album
  • Loretta Lynn, They Don’t Make ‘Em Like My Daddy
  • Cal Smith, Country Bumpkin
  • Bob Wills, For the Last Time

Denver’s biggest country album, it spent thirteen weeks atop the country album chart. The title track topped the chart, and “Annie’s Song” became a wedding standard.

1974

  • Merle Haggard, I Love Dixie Blues…so I Recorded “Live” in New Orleans
  • Loretta Lynn, Love is the Foundation
  • Charlie Rich, Behind Closed Doors
  • Johnny Rodriguez, Introducing Johnny Rodriguez
  • Conway Twitty & Loretta Lynn, Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man

Rich’s classic set has sold four million copies, an unheard of tally for a country album from this time period. It didn’t hurt that the title track and “The Most Beautiful Girl” were crossover hits, with the latter actually topping the pop singles chart.

1973

  • Mac Davis, Baby Don’t Get Hooked On Me
  • Donna Fargo, The Happiest Girl in the Whole U.S.A.
  • Merle Haggard, The Best of the Best of Merle Haggard
  • Merle Haggard, It’s Not Love (But It’s Not Bad)
  • Merle Haggard, Let Me Tell You About a Song
  • Freddie Hart, Bless Your Heart

Donna Fargo triumphed in a field of six albums, half of which were recorded by Merle Haggard! The Fargo set produced two million-selling singles – the title track and “Funny Face”.

1972

  • Merle Haggard, Hag
  • Merle Haggard, Someday We’ll Look Back
  • Freddie Hart, Easy Loving
  • Ray Price, I Won’t Mention it Again
  • Charley Pride, Charley Pride Sings Heart Songs

The title track was a massive hit, helping Hart’s Easy Loving reach gold status and spend nine weeks atop the country albums chart.

1971

  • Glen Campbell, The Glen Campbell Goodtime Album
  • Merle Haggard, The Fightin’ Side of Me
  • Merle Haggard, A Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World (or, My Salute to Bob Wills)
  • Ray Price, For the Good Times
  • Charley Pride, Charley Pride’s 10th Album

Who knows how many times Haggard could’ve won this award if he wasn’t nominated against himself? This year, Ray Price’s For the Good Times was the victor, thanks to the Kristofferson-penned title track.

1970

  • Glen Campbell, Live
  • Johnny Cash, At Folsom Prison
  • Merle Haggard, Okie From Muskogee
  • Charley Pride, Best of Charley Pride
  • Tammy Wynette, Greatest Hits

Haggard’s only victory in this category was for a live album. Incidentally, he won over two other live albums and a pair of greatest hits sets.

1969

  • Glen Campbell, Wichita Lineman
  • Bobbie Gentry & Glen Campbell, Bobbie Gentry & Glen Campbell
  • Merle Haggard, The Best of Merle Haggard
  • Merle Haggard, Mama Tried
  • Buck Owens, Best of Buck Owens

Campbell won for the second year in a row, this time sharing the victory with Bobbie Gentry of “Ode to Billie Joe” fame.

1968

  • Glen Campbell, Burning Bridges
  • Glen Campbell, Gentle on My Mind
  • Merle Haggard, Branded Man
  • Merle Haggard, I’m a Lonesome Fugitive
  • Wynn Stewart, It’s Such a Pretty World Today

California favorite Glen Campbell won the first ACM trophy in this category, and he’d remain a favorite of the Academy over the next decade.

Facts & Feats

Multiple Wins:

  • (3) – Alabama, Alan Jackson, George Strait
  • (2) – Glen Campbell, Dixie Chicks, Toby Keith

Most Nominations:

  • (17) – Merle Haggard
  • (12) – George Strait
  • (7) – Garth Brooks, Glen Campbell, Willie Nelson
  • (6) – Alabama, Tim McGraw
  • (5) – Loretta Lynn, Brad Paisley, Kenny Rogers

Most Nominations Without a Win:

  • (4) – Vince Gill, Waylon Jennings, Charley Pride, Ricky Skaggs
  • (3) – Johnny Cash, Kenny Chesney, The Judds, Patty Loveless, Ricky Van Shelton, Hank Williams Jr., Dwight Yoakam

Albums that won the ACM Award and the CMA Award:

  • Merle Haggard, Okie From Muskogee
  • Charlie Rich, Behind Closed Doors
  • Willie Nelson, Always on My Mind
  • Alabama, The Closer You Get
  • George Strait, Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind
  • Garth Brooks, No Fences
  • George Strait, Blue Clear Sky
  • George Strait, Carrying Your Love With Me
  • Dixie Chicks, Fly
  • Soundtrack, O Brother Where Art Thou?
  • Alan Jackson, Drive
  • Brad Paisley, Time Well Wasted
  • George Strait, It Just Comes Natural
  • Taylor Swift, Fearless

Albums that Won the ACM award and the Grammy for Album of the Year:

  • Soundtrack, O Brother Where Art Thou?
  • Taylor Swift, Fearless

Albums that Won the ACM award and the Grammy for Best Country Album (only presented in 1965-1966 and 1995-present):

  • Shania Twain, The Woman in Me
  • Dixie Chicks, Wide Open Spaces
  • Dixie Chicks, Fly
  • George Strait, Troubadour
  • Taylor Swift, Fearless

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Crystal Gayle Starter Kit

Producing primarily pop-flavored country music has rarely been a ticket to immortality for even the biggest artists, particularly the female ones.  Imports like Shania Twain and Olivia Newton-John are labeled impostors.  Faith Hill’s canny song sense is overlooked while hubby Tim McGraw’s is widely praised. Brilliant Dolly Parton records like “Here You Come Again” and “9 to 5″ are cited as being beneath her greatness, rather than prime examples of it.  Only Patsy Cline has been given a free pass, and who wouldn’t want to claim those pipes?

Where does this leave Crystal Gayle, younger sister of Loretta Lynn and owner of 32 top ten hits, 18 of which went #1? As the first female country artist to sell platinum, her impact was quite big back in the day. But aside from her signature classic “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue”, her music has been largely forgotten.  Perhaps this is because she peaked during an era that is often looked down upon as too crossover for its own good. Unlike Parton and Cline, there is virtually nothing for traditionalists to celebrate within Gayle’s catalog of hits. But much like Hill and Newton-John, the woman recorded some wonderful songs that deserve rediscovery.  Here are a dozen of the best.

“I’ll Do It All Over Again” from the 1976 album Crystal

Gayle typically avoided purely victim stances in her lyrics. Here, she’s been left but is aware that her heart will mend and that she’ll love again.

“Ready For the Times to Get Better” from the 1976 album Crystal

Country singles recorded in a minor key are quite the rarity, but the arrangement undercuts the misery of the lyric, even as she’s clearly ready to move on to happier times. This just might be her finest moment.

“Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue” from the 1977 album We Must Believe in Magic

This classic won her a Grammy and the first of two CMA Female Vocalist trophies. If the piano sounds familiar, that’s because it’s the same player that powered Charlie Rich’s “Behind Closed Doors” to similar success on both the country and pop charts.

“Talking In Your Sleep” from the 1978 album When I Dream

Proving that her appeal wasn’t limited to one big hit, this hit launched what would become Gayle’s second consecutive platinum album.

“Why Have You Left the One You Left Me For” from the 1978 album When I Dream

Her first really big uptempo hit defied expectations and broke her out of the ballad mold.  It didn’t hurt that it was ridiculously catchy.

“Half the Way” from the 1979 album Miss the Mississippi

Another hook-laden hit, powered by an infectious string section and quite a bit more wailing than she’s usually known for.

“Too Many Lovers” from the 1980 album These Days

What sounds like a quiet bar ballad in the first few seconds soon turns into an uptempo message of caution to women looking for love in all the wrong places.

“You Never Gave Up On Me” from the 1981 album Hollywood, Tennessee

There aren’t too many anniversary songs that essentially say, “Thanks for loving me even when I didn’t love you.”  Romantic songs like to pretend that both partners are equally kind and loving, when that isn’t always the case. I like ones like this more.

“‘Til I Gain Control Again” from the 1982 album True Love

Crystal Gayle was hardly the predictable vehicle for this intricate Rodney Crowell composition that had been previously cut by Emmylou Harris.  Even she didn’t think she could pull it off. Thankfully, producer Jimmy Bowen coaxed her into it, and the result was a #1 hit that was also among her most sophisticated performances.

“Baby, What About You” from the 1982 album True Love

Not much more to say about this one than it’s a slice of pop-country perfection.

“The Sound of Goodbye” from the 1983 album Cage the Songbird

One of Hugh Prestwood’s first great moments as a writer was this hit. Much like his material later pushed Randy Travis into a more ambitious production approach (“Hard Rock Bottom Of Your Heart”), the sonic landscape of this #1 hit pushed Gayle and country radio into far more interesting territory.

“Cry” from the 1986 album Straight to the Heart

Given that she’s in the grand tradition of those Nashville Sound ladies, it’s no surprise that Gayle not only covered Lynn Anderson’s #3 hit effectively, she even took it two slots higher up the chart.

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The 201 Greatest Singles of the Decade, Part 6: #100-81

The 201 Greatest Singles of the Decade, Part 6: #100-81

100 Alison Krauss Lonely
#100

“Restless”
Alison Krauss & Union Station
2004
Peak: #36

A shimmering moment of infatuation chased with unease. Krauss is entangled in thoughts of her beloved but at a distance, and temptation lurks for both of them. – Dan Milliken

99 Shania Come On Over

#99
I’m Holdin’ On to Love (To Save My Life)
Shania Twain
2000
Peak: #4

A terribly catchy slice of country-pop that, true to Twain, doesn’t sacrifice authenticity for appeal – Twain simply embodies the snappy energy that pulses through the song. – Tara Seetharam Continue reading

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The 201 Greatest Singles of the Decade, Part 4: #140-#121

The 201 Greatest Singles of the Decade, Part 4: #140-#121

140 Bon Jovi Nice Day

#140
“Who Says You Can’t Go Home”
Bon Jovi featuring Jennifer Nettles
2005
Peak: #1

Packed as country music has been lately with rocked-up little singalongs, perhaps it was only natural that one of the leading bands in rocked-up little singalongs should cross over for a bit to show everybody how it’s done. It was newcomer Nettles, though, who stole this show, driving Bon Jovi’s ditty home with an infectiously joyful performance. – Dan Milliken

139 Johnny Cash V

#139
“God’s Gonna Cut You Down”
Johnny Cash
2006
Peak: Did not chart

The arrangement is cool enough, but it’s Cash’s stoic, slicing vocal performance that makes his version of this song so memorable. – Tara Seetharam Continue reading

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The 201 Greatest Singles of the Decade, Part 3: #160-#141

The 201 Greatest Singles of the Decade, Part 3: #160-#141

lee-ann-womack-call-me-crazy

#160
“Last Call”
Lee Ann Womack
2008
Peak: #14

Womack’s second-best Aughts song about late-night temptations is still better than a lot of people’s first-best songs about anything. Even in avoiding her drunken ex’s advances, she sounds positively heartbroken, suggesting she’d gladly make the other decision if she didn’t know better. – Dan Milliken

159 Shania Up

#159
“She’s Not Just a Pretty Face”
Shania Twain
2003
Peak: #9

Her motivation for her music has always been escapism, but I love the personal touch she slips into this one. Her late mother is the one who she’s referring to when she sings “at night, she pumps gasoline.” – Kevin Coyne

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The 100 Greatest Albums of the Decade, Part 6: #50-#41

The 100 Greatest Albums of the Decade, Part 6

    50 Mattea

    #50
    Kathy Mattea, Right Out of Nowhere

    Kathy Mattea has rarely sounded more open and warm than on this set of innovative folk-tinged songs. Topics of peace, love, resignation and heartache are sensitively explored in songs both written by Mattea and other well-known names, including captivating interpretations of The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Me Shelter” and Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Down on the Corner.” It’s a rich album with a decisively vibrant feel. – Leeann Ward

    Recommended Tracks: “Gimme Shelter”, “Down on the Corner”, “Give It Away”

    49 Cash

    #49
    Johnny Cash, American IV: The Man Comes Around

    American IV: The Man Comes Around was the last Cash album released in his lifetime; the bulk of its tracks are covers performed by the then ailing singer. Amazingly enough, the album seems almost biographical despite the limited material written by Cash. Still, American IV is not limited to “Hurt” (written by Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails), as other well-interpreted covers and Cash’s own “The Man Comes Around” help cement the depth of the album. – William Ward

    Recommended Tracks: “The Man Comes Around”, “Hurt”, “Sam Hall”

    48 Johnson

    #48
    Jamey Johnson, That Lonesome Song

    The media hype machine had a field day with Johnson’s breakthrough sophomore album, showering it with the kind of superlatives usually reserved for miracle cures and immaculate conceptions (see also: Crazy Ex-Girlfriend). Most of the attention went to the album’s counterculturism within the increasingly safe and watered-down Music Row, with numerous nods to its Outlaw aesthetic and “cocaine and a whore” business. But That Lonesome Song‘s greatness was always more than contextual, and certainly more than attitudinal; this is an album with a genuine story to tell, filled with a slow-burning sorrow that pervades every track and doesn’t rest until the wife finally walks away and the husband resigns himself to playing seedy bars and trying to convince you he’s worthy of comparison to the greats. – Dan Milliken

    Recommended Tracks: “High Cost Of Living”, “Angel”, “Dreaming My Dreams With You”

    *Credit for linked parody cover: Farce the Music.

    47 Hill

    #47
    Faith Hill, Fireflies

    For all of the attention given to her power ballads and catchy pop numbers, Faith Hill has always included more offbeat material from lesser known songwriters. This album had some great power ballads and catchy pop numbers, but its heart and soul comes from the trio of Lori McKenna songs that make up its core. “Stealing Kisses” just might be Hill’s finest moment to date, and the other two McKenna songs – “If You Ask” and the title track – are nearly as good.  – Kevin Coyne

    Recommended Tracks: “Dearly Beloved”, “Stealing Kisses”, “Wish For You”

    46 Gill

    #46
    Vince Gill, Next Big Thing

    Gill dips into a wider range of styles and subjects on his first self-produced album, but it all seems to thoughtfully tie back to his classically sweet sound – a tricky thing to do in country music. Next Big Thing is mature, clever and vocally spot-on, and features some killer guest vocals from Emmylou Harris, Lee Ann Womack and others. – TS

    Recommended Tracks: “Without You”, “Two Hearts”, “These Broken Hearts”

    45 Underwood

    #45
    Carrie Underwood, Play On

    Easily one of the most versatile artists in country music, Underwood is capable of tackling almost any musical style, and she makes a solid case for this on her third album. The kicker, though, is that rather than signaling a lack of identity, each style feels like a natural extension of herself as an artist. She’s mournful on a haunting country standard in one breath, and commanding on a rock-charged up-tempo in the next – all without compromising her authenticity. Most significantly, Underwood finally digs a little deeper on Play On, marrying her extraordinary vocal proficiency with a higher level of tangible, sincere conviction than ever before. – TS

    Recommended Tracks: “Someday When I Stop Loving You”, “Songs Like This”, “What Can I Say”

    44 Crowell

    #44
    Rodney Crowell, The Outsider

    Crowell’s take on mid-decade politics avoids heavy-handedness, perhaps because what he’s appealing to is not so much partisanship as patriotism in its purest form: “Democracy won’t work if we’re asleep. That kind of freedom is a vigil you must keep.”  Bonus points for not one, but two guest turns from Emmylou Harris, the highlight being their stunning duet of Bob Dylan’s “Shelter From the Storm.” – KC

    Recommended Tracks: “Dancin’ Circles ‘Round the Sun (Epictetus Speaks)”, “Don’t Get Me Started”, “Shelter From the Storm”

    43 Little

    #43
    The Little Willies, The Little Willies

    Norah Jones pet country side project with four of her New York City friends, including former boyfriend bassist Lee Alexander, results inn an inextricably fun album named after Willie Nelson who is covered twice on the project (“Gotta Get Drunk” and “Night Life”). The productions, including jaunty piano and prominent bass, along with Jones’ atypically loose vocals, make this disc a thrilling listening experience. While The Little Willie’s self titled album is not tight in technical terms, the album is all the better for it. – LW

    Recommended Tracks: “Roll On”, “Gotta Get Drunk”, “Tennessee Stud”

    42 Yearwood

    #42
    Trisha Yearwood, Real Live Woman

    Upon its release, the artist declared that she’d finally made her dream album. It’s easy to understand why, as Real Live Woman is Trisha Yearwood’s most cohesive album to date. It has a warmth and depth that makes it more than just reminiscent of Linda Ronstadt’s classic L.A. country albums from the mid-seventies. It’s actually on par with them. – KC

    Recommended Tracks: “Where Are You Now”, “Try Me Again”, “When a Love Song Sings the Blues”

    41 Kristofferson

    #41
    Kris Kristofferson, Broken Freedom Song: Live From San Francisco

    For each unequivocal success like At Folsom Prison and Nirvana Unplugged, there are a dozen uninspired live albums that simply exist to capitalize on old material. Kris Kristofferson’s Broken Freedom Songs, with his extended introductions and banter, is an unequivocal success. Along with its friendly and almost conversational tone, Broken Freedom Songs focuses on unexpected compositions and makes a nice addition to other historically strong live albums. – WW

    Recommended Tracks: “The Circle”, “Here Comes that Rainbow Again”, “Moment of Forever”

    – – –

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    The 100 Greatest Albums of the Decade, Part 4: #70-#61

      The 100 Greatest Albums of the Decade, Part 4

      70 Tillis

      #70
      Pam Tillis, It’s All Relative: Tillis Sings Tillis

      By the time she released a tribute to her father Mel, she’d become something of a legend in her own right. So it’s no surprise that she approached Mel’s stellar songwriting catalog as if she was recording any other studio album, taking the best of the bunch and making them her own. Bonus points for preserving the original fiddle breakdown from “Heart Over Mind” while making that classic shuffle a forlorn ballad, and a few more for hitting the archives of the Country Music Hall of Fame until she found a forgotten gem that should’ve been a hit back in the day (“Not Like it Was With You.”) – Kevin Coyne

      Recommended Tracks: “Mental Revenge”, “Detroit City”

      69 Dwight

      #69
      Dwight Yoakam, dwightyoakamacoustic.net

      Yoakam takes a new, inspired spin on the greatest hits album concept, presenting us with a hearty sampling (over 20 songs) of his catalog served acoustic style. It simply works for the country legend. He introduces some delightful new twists and turns to his old classics, and as it should go with acoustic music, the album is driven by unadulterated, raw vocals, coupled with honest storytelling – the purest form of country music. – Tara Seetharam

      Recommended Tracks: “A Thousand Miles From Nowhere”, “Things Change”

      68 Gillian

      #68
      Gillian Welch, Time (The Revelator)

      Time (The Revelator) is Gillian Welch and David Rawlings with much of their typical production stripped away. Accompanied by acoustic guitar and banjo, Gillian sings with emotions as much as she sings notes that create a surprisingly full sound. – William Ward

      Recommended Tracks: “I Want to Sing That Rock and Roll”, “Red Clay Halo”

      67 Reba

      #67
      Reba McEntire, Reba Duets

      That McEntire is able to smoothly and effortlessly wrap her voice around eleven other distinctive voices is a tribute to her sheer talent as an artist. With duet partners stretching from Justin Timberlake to Ronnie Dunn, McEntire presents a stunning, layered mix of sounds and styles, demonstrating that when gifted artists come together, no perceived boundaries can stop them from making good music. – TS

      Recommended Tracks: “The Only Promise That Remains”, “When You Love Someone Like That”

      law call me

      #66
      Lee Ann Womack, Call Me Crazy

      Very few country artists can express pain more poignantly than Womack, who taps into a place of tender desperation with her highly-acclaimed 2008 album. The stories are deep and reflective, the sorrow palpable, and the production adeptly sparse – a potent combination. – TS

      Recommended Tracks: “Solitary Thinkin'”, “Either Way”

      65 Nickel

      #65
      Nickel Creek, Nickel Creek

      Nickel Creek has been nominated for Best Bluegrass Album and Best Country Instrumental Performance Grammys and won Best Contemporary Folk Album, yet the group does not easily fit into any of those categories. Produced by Alison Krauss, Nickel Creek’s self-titled album is their most bluegrass-influenced album. – WW

      Recommended Tracks: “The Fox”, “The Hand Song”

      64 Watkins

      #64
      Sara Watkins, Sara Watkins

      Sara Watkins’ self-titled debut holds more than a few surprises, including more country influence than you will hear from any of her former Nickel Creek bandmates’ solo work. Produced by John Paul Jones, pedal steel is prominent on Jimmie Rodgers’ “Any Old Time,” performed as western swing, “All this Time,” and Tom Waits’ “Pony.” – WW

      Recommended Tracks: “All This Time”, “Give Me Jesus”

      63 Dierks

      #63
      Dierks Bentley, Modern Day Drifter

      Rife with accessible melodies, solid lyrics and a penchant for traditional sounds, Dierks Bentley’s sophomore project, Modern Day Drifter, confirmed the promise that was only hinted at on his first album. The title of the album rightly suggests that Bentley will explore the components of breaking the chains of domesticity, which include the freedom (“Lotta Leavin’ Left to Do”, “Modern Day Drifter”, “Domestic Light and Cold”, “the Cab of My Truck”) and the ultimate consequences (“Settle for a Slowdown”, “Down on Easy Street”). Nevertheless, Bentley does not stop with those themes. He also finds room for common themes as love and loss, as demonstrated in the pretty “Good Things Happen”, the smoldering “Come A Little Closer” and heartbreaking “Gonna Get There Someday.” – Leeann Ward

      Recommended Tracks:

      62 Todd

      #62
      Todd Snider, The Devil You Know

      An explosion of righteous anger over poverty with an undercurrent of joyous celebration of America’s underclass. You can never tell for sure if he sees himself as their advocate or their peer, but the songs are so powerful, it doesn’t really matter. – KC

      Recommended Tracks: “Just Like Old Times”, “The Devil You Know”

      61 Rodney

      #61
      Rodney Crowell, The Houston Kid

      After a string of somewhat underwhelming major-label releases in the 90’s, Rodney Crowell rebounded in a big way with this remarkably deep set on celebrated indie label Sugar Hill. Childhood joys and adult insights stand side-by-side in The Houston Kid, producing an emotionally rich and complicated survey of the album’s world. Such is the detail and soul of Crowell’s writing that every second comes across as autobiographical, even the ones that probably aren’t. – Dan Milliken

      Recommended Tracks: “The Rock Of My Soul”, “I Walk The Line (Revisited)”

      – – –

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      100 Greatest Albums of the Decade, Part 2: #90-#81

        The 100 Greatest Albums of the Decade, Part 2

        90 Miranda

        #90
        Miranda Lambert, Kerosene

        On her first major-label album, Lambert reveals herself as a fiery, spirited artist with a lot to say, and a clever voice with which to speak. Her sharp songwriting skills, though a work in progress as we’d later learn, take her naturally from aggression to desolation and back again. But most notably, through Kerosene, Lambert got the traditionalists to pay a little more attention to mainstream country music and its more promising artists. – Tara Seetharam

        Recommended Tracks: “Kerosene”, “I Can’t Be Bothered”

        89 Kris

        #89
        Kris Kristofferson, This Old Road
        This Old Road has not have received as much mainstream attention as Kristofferson’s recent appearance in Ethan Hawke’s Rolling Stone article; an unfortunate fact, given it was the legendary writer’s first album of new material in 11 years. With This Old Road, Kristofferson shines a spotlight on the world much in the same his earlier writing shined a spotlight on himself. The result is an overtly political album with more depth than most modern attempts have been able to produce. – William Ward

        Recommended Tracks: “The Last Thing to Go”, “Pilgrim’s Progress”

        88 Guy

        #88
        Guy Clark, Workbench Songs

        The recordings  of the songs that Guy Clark, one of country music’s most respected modern songwriters, has written for the most popular artists in country music are typically polished by the best Nashville musicians and slick producers. But Clark’s own albums tend to be more organic, with spare instrumentation that somehow manages to avoid sounding anemic as a result. His well worn voice sings these eleven melodically and lyrically strong songs with warmth and the kind of emotion that easily captures the listener. It’s one of the best albums of his deep catalog that spans over thirty years. – Leeann Ward

        Recommended Tracks: “Walkin’ Man”, “Expose”

        87 Wynonna

        #87
        Wynonna, What the World Needs Now is Love

        It’s hard to believe that it’s been six years since Wynonna’s last proper studio album. This collection is easily one of her best, with effective covers like “I Want to Know What Love Is” and “Flies On the Butter”, along with socially conscious material that provokes thought instead of pandering to already held beliefs (“It All Comes Down to Love”). – Kevin Coyne

        Recommended Tracks: “Sometimes I Feel Like Elvis”, “Rescue Me”

        86 Lee Ann

        #86
        Lee Ann Womack, I Hope You Dance

        The massively successful title track powered this album to triple platinum, but it also overshadowed the excellent songs surrounding it. For those who explored the album beyond track two, there were some of Womack’s finest moments on record, as she had the good taste to plunder the catalogs of Bruce Robison (“Lonely Too”), Bobbie Cryner (“Stronger Than I Am”), Julie Miller (“I Know Why the River Runs”), and Rodney Crowell (“Ashes By Now”). – KC

        Recommended Tracks: “Lonely Too”, “Does My Ring Burn Your Finger”

        85 Chris

        #85
        Chris Thile, How to Grow a Woman From the Ground

        This is the first album from the band that would eventually become Punch Brothers. Garnering a Grammy Award Nomination in 2006, How to Grow a Woman From the Ground is a solid bluegrass album with classical sensibilities and extraordinary instrumentation. – WW

        Recommended Tracks: “Wayside (Back in Time)”, “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground”

        84 Ralph

        #84
        Ralph Stanley II, This One Is Two

        Hyperbole alert, but it’s hard to think of a more beautiful-sounding traditional country album from this decade, or one which more comfortably merges old school aesthetics with modern production polish. Stanley corralled a number of meaty story songs here, but it’s the combination of his warm baritone and the lush instrumentation that gives this gem its quiet strength. – Dan Milliken

        Recommended Tracks: “Cold Shoulder”, “They Say I’ll Never Go Home”

        83 Louvin

        #83
        Various Artists, Livin’ Lovin’ Losin': Songs of the Louvin Brothers

        Tribute albums too often feel redundant, as well-meaning artists deliver nice but forgettable imitations of classic records. Not so with the Louvins’, which sticks veteran and current artists alike on the Bros’ close harmonies and sees each intriguing combination (Pam Tillis and Johnny Cash? Why not!) triumph. I daresay it’s as good an introduction to the duo’s work as any compilation of their own recordings. – DM

        Recommended Tracks: “How’s the World Treating You?”, “Are You Teasing Me”

        82 Todd

        #82
        Todd Snider, The Excitement Plan

        Snider mostly avoids both political themes and complex arrangements on his latest record, emphasizing his greatest strength as a writer instead: his uncanny ability to make the most specifically personal have universal resonance. Listen out for a wonderful cameo from Loretta Lynn on “Don’t Tempt Me.” – KC

        Recommended Tracks: “Barefoot Champagne”, “Money, Compliments, Publicity (Song Number 10)”

        81 O'Connor

        #81
        Mark O’Connor, Thirty-Year Retrospective (Live)

        Mark O’Connor’s Thirty Year Retrospective is a double instrumental album of his live performance with Chris Thile, Bryan Sutton and Byron House.  The album covers a wide range of Mark O’Connor’s career, presenting a range of instrumental country, bluegrass, new grass and jazz with the detail and care often only applied to classical music. – WW

        Recommended Tracks: “Caprice No. 4 in D Major”, “Macedonia”

        – – –

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        Bargain Hunter: The Rodney Crowell Collection

        RC CollectionWhen Rodney Crowell had his gold-selling commercial breakthrough with the album Diamonds & Dirt, his previous label was quick to capitalize on his success. Usually, pre-hit cash-in CDs are little more than a curiosity, but Crowell’s is the exception.

        There is a smorgasbord of great material here, including early versions of songs that Crowell would see other artists have success with the same songs.

        Some of Crowell’s strongest compositions are here, such as:

        • “‘Til I Gain Control Again”, a #1 hit for Crystal Gayle that was recorded earlier by Emmylou Harris
        • “I Ain’t Living Long Like This”, a #1 hit for Waylon Jennings that was recorded earlier by Emmylou Harris
        • “Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight”, a #1 hit for the Oak Ridge Boys that was recorded earlier by Emmylou Harris
        • “Ashes By Now”, a top five hit for Lee Ann Womack that was recorded earlier by Emmylou Harris
        • “I Don’t Have to Crawl”, a minor hit for Emmylou Harris that was later recorded by Rosanne Cash
        • “Shame on the Moon”, a top fifteen country hit for Bob Seeger
        • “Victim or a Fool”, a top forty hit for Crowell that was also recorded by Crystal Gayle
        • “Stars on the Water”, later covered by George Strait and Jimmy Buffett

        How good was this guy’s ear? Even the songs he didn’t write went on to become hits, with Ricky Skaggs taking “Heartbroke” to #1 and Juice Newton scoring a massive pop hit with “Queen of Hearts.”  The only thing missing here is “Elvira”, which Crowell also recorded first.

        This has always been a budget collection, but now it’s incredibly affordable – twelve tracks for $5.49.  Given that Warner is asking for $9.90 for the far inferior Pam Tillis Collection, which includes only ten tracks, this one’s a steal.

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