There’s a cool Guy Clark documentary Kickstarter campaign happening right now that I encourage country music lovers to check out and, perhaps, make a pledge toward. Long time publicist, biographer and Guy Clark champion, Tamara Saviano, is in the process of producing and directing a documentary on Clark, a revered songwriter in country music.
The campaign is already almost fully funded, which is a testament to the wide and strong impact of Clark. However, while they’ve almost raised the initial funds, any extra money on top of that modest goal will only allow the documentary to be even better than it already promises to be, not to mention the opportunities for various perks that are offered to backers of the project.
After reading about and pledging to this campaign, I’ve been going down a Guy Clark Rabbit hole for the last couple of days, which has included listening to songs written by Clark that others have recorded and listening to his own excellent albums.
Luminaries such as Vince Gill, Rodney Crowell, Steve Earle, Jerry Jeff Walker, Ricky Skaggs, Bobby Bare, John Conlee, The Highwaymen, Rosanne Cash, Kathy Mattea, Alan Jackson, Brad Paisley , Ashley Monroe and Kenny Chesney, among many others, have been mentored by and have recorded Guy Clark songs.
With that said, today’s Daily Top Five is : What are your five favorite songs written and/or recorded by one of your favorite songwriters.
Since Guy Clark is one of my favorite songwriters, here are my top favorite songs of his:
1. Guy Clark & Emmylou Harris, “I Don’t Love You Much Do I”
2. Rodney Crowell, “She’s Crazy for Leaving”
3. Jerry Jeff Walker, “L.A. Freeway”
4. The Highwaymen, “Desperados Waiting for a Train”
This year’s Grammy Awards air on Sunday, February 8, and country music will be represented with performances Eric Church, Miranda Lambert, and the tantalizing pairing of Brandy Clark and Dwight Yoakam. Most of the awards will be handed out before the show, and we will post the relevant winners here, as part of a Grammy Open Thread where CU readers and writers can share their thoughts on this year’s awards.
Four CU writers, including myself, have shared our predictions and personal picks for the general and country-related categories below. Of course, one of the coolest things about the Grammys is that it celebrates a wide range of music from the past year, and as you’ll see by our varying levels of participation, our tastes here at CU run the gamut.
This year, I’m as excited about the performances by Madonna, Kanye West (twice!), and that Hozier and Annie Lennox duet as I am about any of the country performers, and I’ll be rooting for West and Childish Gambino to sweep the Rap and Hip-Hop categories.
Who do you think will be the big winners on Sunday night, and who are you hoping will win and looking forward to seeing perform? As always, share your thoughts in the comments!
Record of the Year
Iggy Azalea featuring Charli XCX, “Fancy”
Sam Smith, “Stay With Me” (Darkchild Version) – Kevin, Leeann, Jonathan, Ben
Taylor Swift, “Shake it Off”
Meghan Trainor, “All About That Bass”
Iggy Azalea featuring Charli XCX, “Fancy”
Sia, “Chandelier” – Jonathan
Sam Smith, “Stay With Me” (Darkchild Version)
Taylor Swift, “Shake it Off”
Meghan Trainor, “All About That Bass” – Kevin, Leeann
Kevin: In a decent year for pop music, any one of these records could credibly represent the year. I think Sam Smith is Grammy catnip, so I expect him to win big. I think “All About That Bass” was the most creative and interesting record of the five.
Leeann: I’m a fan of the Sam Smith song, but I agree with Kevin that “All About That Bass” is the most creative and interesting, not to mention the catchiest.
Jonathan: I actually thought it was a weak year for mainstream pop, as reflected by this fairly poor slate of nominees. Smith is right in that Adele / Norah Jones adult-pop wheelhouse that Grammy voters love, so he’s the most likely winner. Sia’s “Chandelier” is the most progressive take on pop music among the five, though, if “Shake it Off” were to win anything, this would probably be the least egregious place to recognize Swift’s hit. I would have gladly rooted for the mash-up between Iggy Azalea’s and Reba’s respective takes on “Fancy.”
2014 was a banner year for country music albums. In addition to the predictably solid entries from the Americana, folk, and bluegrass scenes, some excellent albums also surfaced from the unlikeliest of sources: mainstream, radio-friendly contemporary country artists!
Here are our twenty favorite albums from 2014. Fingers crossed that 2015 is as good or better than this year has been.
Jennifer Nettles That Girl
KJC #8 | LW #16
A confident, intelligent solo project that washes away all of the bitter taste left by Sugarland’s preceding studio album, The Incredible Machine. Nettles manages to remind us what was so appealing about the trio-turned-duo in the first place, while also staking out her own musical territory that has room for independence anthems alongside wry, humorous commentary on society and, of course, palpably vulnerable heartbreak numbers. – Kevin John Coyne
Recommended Tracks: “Me Without You”, “Know You Wanna Know”, “Jealousy”
PrizeFighter: Hit after Hit includes the first set of new material from Trisha Yearwood in seven years. That new material, six tracks in total, is uniformly excellent and often extraordinary, adding to her already impressive legacy as the genre’s finest singer and interpreter of the last thirty years. What a pity that the rest of the collection cheapens and sullies that legacy.
Let’s start with those wonderful new tracks. The lead single and title cut, “PrizeFighter”, is an inspiring, get back up when you fall power anthem, featuring supporting vocals by Kelly Clarkson. In true Trisha form, the preview track is better than just about anything else on the radio today, yet still only hints at the treasures that await on the rest of the album.
He spent most of the eighties struggling for recognition, but thanks to his smooth ballads and country’s suddenly expanded audience, Vince Gill emerged as one of the biggest superstars of the nineties.
Born and raised in Oklahoma, he followed in the footsteps of his musician father, but while it was a hobby for his dad, it became Vince’s life mission. His ability to play several different instruments and his talent for harmonizing earned him a place in local bands, and he moved to Kentucky and then to Los Angeles seeking out further opportunities. An audition for the Pure Prairie League in 1979 resulted in him becoming their new lead singer, and Gill had his first taste of success when their single, “Let Me Love You Tonight”, topped the adult contemporary charts and cracked the pop top ten.
He left the band to join Rodney Crowell’s backing group, Cherry Bomb, only a few years after he had played a similar backing role for Ricky Skaggs. His time with Cherry Bomb connected him to Tony Brown, the musician and record executive who signed him to RCA in 1981. For the next several years, stardom remained just out of reach for Gill, who managed to score just three top ten hits with the label. He was better known for his session work as a guitarist and as a harmony singer, with his distinctive vocals appearing on #1 hits by Rosanne Cash (“I Don’t Know Why You Don’t Want Me”) and Patty Loveless (“Timber I’m Falling in Love.”)
When Brown left RCA for MCA records, Gill followed shortly thereafter. In 1989, he released the dramatic ballad “When I Call Your Name”, featuring harmony vocals from Loveless. The record made him one of the genre’s hottest stars, setting up a decade of dominance at radio and retail. Throughout the nineties, Gill racked up a stunning run of hits and big-selling albums, with I Still Believe in You selling more than five million copies on the strength of four #1 hits.
Gill alternated between rave-ups that featured his guitar prowess and power ballads that brought country’s traditional heartache sound into the late twentieth century. Despite his new popularity, he still did as much session work as ever, happily accepting offers to sing and play on the albums of anyone who requested him to. He became known as the genre’s leading gentleman, and his quick wit led to him hosting the CMA awards for more than a decade. Because of both his talent and his work with other artists, Gill dominated the two award shows voted on by his peers, winning more than a dozen Grammys and CMA awards. He is tied with George Strait for the most CMA Male Vocalist trophies, and holds the record for the most wins in the Song of the Year category.
As radio support slowly dwindled toward the late nineties, Gill focused on making ambitious albums, most notably the four-CD set These Days, which earned him another pair of Grammys and a platinum award. He was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2005, and he was one of the youngest inductees in history to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2007. A marriage to fellow singer Amy Grant has kept him focused more on family than music in recent years, but he still tours regularly and remains an Opry staple. His most recent set, Guitar Slinger, hit shelves in 2011 and earned him multiple songwriting nominations for the lead single, “Threaten Me with Heaven.”
Various Artists KIN: Songs by Mary Karr & Rodney Crowell
A collection of songs written by industry veteran Rodney Crowell along with bestselling author and poet Mary Karr, recorded by a who’s who of country and Americana music greats. It should be enough to set the mouth of many a roots music aficiando watering.
The very concept behind the album places the emphasis squarely on the songwriting – an approach that is flawlessly adhered to by Joe Henry’s ace production job. The twangy, stripped-down arrangements stay entirely out of the way of the songs, often reverently nodding to the conventions of traditional country music. It doesn’t feel so much as a rote exercise in throwback neotraditionalism, but more so as a style that simply feels timeless and ageless on its own merits, untainted by production trends that might tie it to a particular era.
In large part, what’s impressive about this album is that, despite the eclectic line-up of participating artists, KIN doesn’t feel like a potluck project of songs randomly thrown together. It really does feel like an album, with each track serving as a part of a cohesive whole, bound together by recurring themes of family and rural small town life. Karr’s liner notes reveal that for song inspiration, she and Crowell drew heavily upon their own youthful experiences, having come from very similar upbringings despite not having grown up together. However, the treatment of such topics is hardly lily-white, with family homes often sporting bullet holes and reeking of alcohol.
Crowell himself steps up to the mic on four of the albums ten tracks, sharing it with Kris Kristofferson on the standout duet “My Father’s Advice,” which boasts an infectious melody and fiddle hook. While country radio often favors the proverbial “old man’s advice” song, “My Father’s Advice” rises above the often cliché-laden mainstream treatment of such subject matter by creating a believable, three-dimensional character sketch of the narrator’s father – realistically imperfect, but deeply devoted to rearing his son in the right way, with Kristofferson giving voice to the father figure of Crowell’s narrator. Crowell’s other vocal turns include the noncharting single “I’m a Mess,” along with album opener “Anything But Tame,” a wistful meditation on the course taken by a childhood friendship.
The contributions of the participating artists are no less stellar. Having built a career as a mainstream country artist with a moderate neotraditionalist bent, Lee Ann Womack has never sounded better than when paired with a fiddle-drenched pure country arrangement. A jaunty tempo and dobro hook bely the dark lyric as Womack sings from the perspective of a child witnessing the dissolution of her alcoholic parents’ marriage on album standout “Momma’s On a Roll.” In keeping with the family theme, the camaraderie of sisterhood is explored with “Sister Oh Sister,” which Crowell’s ex-wife Rosanne Cash renders with deep sincerity. Vince Gill’s sweet tenor absolutely soars when paired with the stone cold throwback arrangement of “Just Pleasing You” – a traditional country gem that wouldn’t sound out of the place in the legendary Hank Williams catalog. Lucinda Williams sounds downright desperate in her delivery of the aching ballad “God I’m Missing You,” while Norah Jones turns in a delightfully wry take on “If the Law Don’t Want You” – a witty tune inspired by Mary Karr’s teenage years. Times past have attested to the fact that no Rodney Crowell song can hope for a finer vocal medium than the incomparable Emmylou Harris, who delivers the haunting “Long Time Girl Gone By” in an earthy whisper of a performance.
Crowell closes out the set with “Hungry For Home,” a charming detail-laden lyric that encapsulates the warmth and comfort of one’s home – something that can be found even in a home long beset with family strife. It’s a fitting conclusion to the album as a whole, showing that – despite the hardships Karr and Crowell both dealt with in their respective upbringings on into adult life – they clearly retain a deep appreciation for the experiences that have shaped them as individuals. “It was like we’d grown up next door in a hellacious place – the anus of the universe, my mother always called it,” writes Karr. “But we adored those characters and their language – we’d never choose elsewhere.”
Considering that country music has long been a primarily singles-oriented format, it’s refreshing to see such a fine realization of the album as an art form. Though each individual piece is captivating in itself, KIN remains an album best heard in its entirety, with hardly a weak track to be found. The entire project radiates authenticity, as Karr and Crowell essentially hand over their respective family photo albums for music lovers to leaf through, making KIN feel very much like a memoir set to music. One would certainly hope that Karr and Crowell continue to write excellent songs together, and that the results will be at least half as rewarding as they are on this fine album.
First as a songwriter, then as a new country superstar, and currently as an alternative country icon, Rodney Crowell has made an indelible mark on country music for nearly four decades.
Born and raised in Houston, Texas, he was already a bandleader in high school, heading up a teenage outfit called the Arbitrators. He was only 22 when he moved to Nashville, and by 1975, he’d been discovered by Jerry Reed, who heard him doing an acoustic set. Reed not only recorded one of his songs, but also signed him to his publishing company.
Crowell was soon a member of Emmylou Harris’ Hot Band, and she was the first to record some of his compositions that went on to be big hits for other artists, including: “I Ain’t Living Long Like This”, a #1 hit for Waylon Jennings; “‘Til I Gain Control Again”, a #1 hit for Crystal Gayle; “Leavin’ Louisiana in the Broad Daylight”, a #1 hit for the Oak Ridge Boys; and “Ashes By Now”, a top five hit for Lee Ann Womack.
His remarkable songwriting talent led to a record deal with Warner Bros. While a trio of albums for the label were critically acclaimed, they failed to earn him success on the radio or at retail. But as would be the case for his entire career, other artists mined those records for hits. Most notably, “Shame on the Moon” became a #2 pop hit for Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band.
Crowell took a break from his solo career to focus on his songwriting and production responsibilities for then-wife Rosanne Cash. This would be yet another successful avenue for Crowell, as his work with Cash produced several #1 singles and three gold albums. The relationship also helped set his solo career on fire. After signing with Cash’s label Columbia, his second set for the project was previewed with a duet with Cash, “It’s Such a Small World.”
It became the first of five consecutive #1 singles from Diamonds & Dirt, a gold-selling disc that briefly made Crowell an A-list country star, as five additional Cash singles that he had produced also hit #1 over the same time period. He received a Grammy award for Best Country Song for “After All This Time.” Two foll0w-up albums for Columbia also produced a handful of hits, with his final mainstream success being the pop crossover hit, “What Kind of Love.”
In the nineties, Crowell recorded two albums for MCA which were well-reviewed, but most notable for the second set including “Please Remember Me.” It stalled as a single when Crowell released it, but later that decade, Tim McGraw’s cover topped the charts for five weeks and earned Crowell a slew of award nominations.
The new century brought a reinvention on Crowell’s part, as he repositioned himself as an Americana artist with remarkable success. A trio of albums earned rave reviews, as did his collaboration with old friends like Vince Gill on The Notorious Cherry Bombs, which earned a handful of Grammy nominations and included Crowell’s “Making Memories of Us.” Once again, a current artist discovered it, and Keith Urban took it to #1 for several weeks.
Inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2003, Crowell continues to build on his legacy as a singer, songwriter, and producer. Most recently, Crowell produced Chely Wright’s confessional Lifted off the Ground and co-wrote an album with friend Mary Karr which features their songs recorded by several artists, including Crowell himself.
I Ain’t Living Long Like This (Waylon Jennings), 1980
‘Til I Gain Control Again (Crystal Gayle), 1982
Shame on the Moon (Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band), 1982
Cover songs can be a hot topic at just about any given time. We recently got to hear a somewhat underwhelming OneRepublic cover by Faith Hill, which Kevin recently reviewed. Other recent attempts include Sara Evans’ pop-country reworking of Rod Stewart’s “My Heart Can’t Tell You No,” as well as last year’s polarizing Beyoncé cover by Reba McEntire.
Since cover songs are so much fun to talk about, I thought I’d weigh in on a few well-known cover songs from the past few years – the good ones, as well as a few that we would rather forget. My criteria is simple: A good cover song should bring something new to the table, and the song should be treated in a way that is well-suited to the artist as well as the genre. This list focuses specifically on country covers of non-country songs.
Click the original artists’ names in parentheses to hear the original versions.
Rosanne Cash, “I Don’t Want to Spoil the Party” (The Beatles)
1989 | #1
Where it goes right: Rosanne’s last career hit was a cover from a Beatles tribute album, and it didn’t sound quite like one might expect. Though rarely one to use overt country instrumentation throughout most of her career, she delivers a brisk, upbeat take that’s layered in fiddling. I’ll take it!
Mark Chesnutt, “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” (Aerosmith)
1998 | #1
Where it goes wrong: It’s hard to imagine a worse pairing between song and performer. Mark Chesnutt, the revered neotraditionalist behind “Too Cold at Home” and “Going Through the Big D” covering a rock power ballad? It’s true – complete with apologetic steel guitar fills and a vocal smothered in autotune. The end result is so cheesy that you might as well slap it between two crackers. The fact that this is the top Mark Chesnutt iTunes download is very very sad.
Where it goes right: The Chicks give a well-known Fleetwood Mac favorite a stripped-down bluegrass treatment, which is a great fit for the nature-related imagery in the song’s lyrics. The Chicks elevate the song further with their gorgeous harmonies. As much as I love Fleetwood Mac, I have to say that this version tops the original. It’s one of the best cover songs I’ve ever heard, and one of the Dixie Chicks’ personal best moments, of which there have been many.
Sara Evans, “I Could Not Ask for More” (Edwin McCain)
2001 | #2
Where it goes right: Evans delivers a stunning and powerful vocal performance that holds nothing back whatsoever.
Where it goes wrong: The arrangement is a bit syrupy, and it’s essentially a pop cover of a pop song. Is a little fiddle or steel too much to ask for?
Where it goes right: The fact that Hill was unfamiliar with the Franklin and Joplin versions is telling. You can easily tell that she is making no attempt to emulate the style of another artist, instead giving a performance totally her own, while the songs’s melody fits well with the countrified arrangement.
Where it goes wrong: Again, the fact that Hill was unfamiliar with the previous versions is telling. Her performance lacks the fire and fury of Joplin’s version, which makes it easy to see why one might consider Hill’s performance to be a bit too sugary.
Alison Krauss, “Baby, Now That I’ve Found You” (The Foundations)
1995 | #49
Where it goes right: Krauss takes a forgettable Motown tune, and delivers a slowed-down mid-tempo version that much more deeply accentuates the emotions conveyed in the lyrics. In contrast, the original sounded like one big party, which is an ill-fitting treatment of a song about trying to stop one’s lover from leaving. The track is made all the more sweeter by Kruass’ angelic vocals, and by the expert instrumental backup of Union Station. The song went on to win Krauss a well-deserved Grammy for Best Female Country Vocal Performance.
Where it goes right: It’s extremely effective as a reinterpretation, as McEntire slows the song down to an emotional ballad, and tweaks the lyrics to fit her feminine perspective. Did I mention that she also gives a mighty fine vocal performance?
Where it goes wrong: The production is a bit watered-down, which was not unusual for Reba’s late eighties and early nineties output.
Where it goes right: Tillis could hardly have chosen a better song to countrify, as the lyric about a nervous encounter with an old flame fits right in with classic country music. She even tweaked the instrumental opening so as to be better suited for the steel guitar, which demonstrates her strong commitment to the country genre.
Travis Tritt, “Take It Easy” (The Eagles)
1994 | #21
Where it goes right: The Eagles were about the countriest rock band you’d ever meet, and did a great deal to influence the evolution of country sounds and styles, so they were a fitting candidate for an all-country tribute album. The centerpiece of the collection was honky-tonker Travis Tritt’s version of “Take It Easy” – an energetic performance that had even more body than the original, but that still felt reverent toward the legendary group’s classic version.
Where it goes wrong: To put it simply… reinterpreting a song does not mean simply “adding a banjo line.” The fact that Hall and Oates even sing background vocals on this track only adds to the overall feeling of pointlessness.
Where it goes wrong: If it made for an awfully cheesy pop song in the hands of Brian McKnight, it made a flat-out terrible country song when Mark Wills covered it a mere two months after the release of the McKnight version. It’s a record characterized by superfluous genre-pandering steel guitar fills, and a lead vocal that sounds more occupied with grooving to the beat than making any sort of emotional connection. The song peaked at #2, and then Wills tackled a Brandy song immediately afterwards. Seriously, dude?
Where it goes right: Covering an Elvis song is a tall order, to say the least. The fact that Yoakam’s version rivals the original, with its contemporized arrangement and knockout lead vocal, is hardly a small feat.
What’s your take on these tunes? What are your favorite cover songs? What are your least favorite cover songs?