Tag Archives: Sugarland

Twelve Songs of Christmas: Day Two

Song #2: O Come Emmanuel

Sam’s Pick: Sugarland

When they’re not focusing on steampunk imagery and incorporating reggae interludes into their songs, Sugarland can make some quite nice music, as evidenced by this track from its Gold and Green album. Jennifer Nettles’ and Kristian Bush’s voices blend well together, particularly on a folky, banjo-driven track like this one.

Leeann’s Pick: John Berry

John Berry’s powerhouse voice singing this powerful song is pure Christmas perfection. In fact, I never even appreciated this song until I heard Berry’s version. Now, thanks to this version, not only do I appreciate many versions, it’s turned into one of two favorite Christmas songs of mine.

 

6 Comments

Filed under Christmas

2011 CMA Awards: Staff Picks and Predictions

It’s that time of year again!  The time when we all dutifully tune in to the CMA Awards show, raise our eyebrows at the “What the heck are they doing here?” award presenters, and afterwards complain about how totally un-country the whole show was.  I don’t know about the rest of you, but I can’t wait.

We’re pleased to share the Country Universe staff picks for this year’s CMA Awards, as well as our predictions of who the winners will be.  This year we have some highly competitive categories in which predicting the winners is quite difficult, leading to some significantly divergent picks among our writing staff.  Agree?  Disagree?  Join in the discussion in the comment thread below, and let us know.

The CMA Awards telecast will air on Wednesday, November 9, 8pm Eastern on ABC-TV.  We will be live blogging the show here at Country Universe, so do be sure to drop by and join in the fun!

Entertainer of the Year

Should Win:

  • Jason Aldean – Kevin
  • Brad Paisley
  • Blake Shelton
  • Taylor Swift - Dan, Ben, Leeann, Jonathan, Tara
  • Keith Urban

Will Win:

  • Jason Aldean
  • Brad Paisley
  • Blake Shelton - Dan, Leeann, Jonathan
  • Taylor Swift – Ben, Kevin, Tara
  • Keith Urban

Dan: I can imagine anyone but Urban taking it, but I like Jonathan’s logic.

Ben:  It’s hard to bet on the Entertainer award going to a female artist, but it seems Swift has undoubtedly had the biggest year of all the nominees.  Her album sold like hotcakes, and produced a trio of killer radio singles, while she topped that off with her Speak Now tour.  That combination should bag her this year’s top prize.

Leeann: Paisley could take it again, but my money’s on the CMA wanting to give it to fresh blood this year. Taylor Swift is who probably actually deserves it, however.

Jonathan:   Paisley is probably the most logical pick, but he didn’t figure as heavily into the nominations this year as he could have, so I’m wondering if the voters have cooled on him as much as the crew here at CU have of late. Swift’s live show should be a factor in this category, but she has a whole lot of gender bias to overcome, and there seems to be at least something of a backlash against her in the country community post-Fearless. Which leaves the ubiquitous Shelton, who has been something of a new “Everywhere Man” for the genre over the past year.

Kevin:  I think Swift will win because she had the highest profile year.  But I think Aldean defines the genre in 2011, for better or for worse.  Mostly worse.

Tara: As I’ve said before, this is the most appropriate way for the voters to reward Swift’s monster success, and for the first time at the CMAs, I truly feel she deserves this award. I’m particularly impressed with the way she continues to cultivate her relationship with her fans. I just hope the voters don’t pair this award with the FVOTY award.

Male Vocalist of the Year

Should Win:

  • Jason Aldean - Dan, Ben
  • Kenny Chesney
  • Brad Paisley
  • Blake Shelton
  • Keith Urban - Leeann, Jonathan, Kevin, Tara

Will Win:

  • Jason Aldean – Dan, Ben
  • Kenny Chesney
  • Brad Paisley
  • Blake Shelton - Leeann, Jonathan, Kevin, Tara
  • Keith Urban

Dan:  Aldean’s not my thing, but he’s the biggest guy in the field by an unignorable margin. More than anything, I think the indie Broken Bow Records deserves props for building their flagship artist so well.

Ben:  I’m largely indifferent to this particular field of nominees (save possibly Keith Urban), but Aldean’s massive success should most likely nab him his first Male Vocalist trophy.

Leeann: Again, I think it’s Shelton’s night to sweep in order to shake things up this year. He and Urban have the strongest voices in the category anyway.

Jonathan:  Urban’s the only one of the lot who has released even one single I’ve liked in the past year, so he’d get my vote. Aldean has the commercial clout, sure, but quality has to count for something, right? Voters have looked at the word “Vocalist” in the category name and have passed over Chesney for years, and I wonder if they’ll do the same to Aldean here. I’m thinking yes.

Kevin: Urban’s the one who I can stand to listen to. But if Shelton was able to win last year, I don’t see how he loses this year. Not post-Voice and “Honey Bee.”

Tara: It makes me sad that I can’t find a solid reason to support Urban or Paisley, both of whom I used to feel passionately about. And in all honesty, I can’t find a solid reason to support any of these guys, based on their output during the eligibility period. I’m going to blindly back Urban –who, despite being “Urban-lite” these days, is at least consistent– and predict that Shelton’s amped public profile will give him the edge with voters.

Female Vocalist of the Year

Should Win:

  • Sara Evans – Kevin
  • Miranda Lambert
  • Martina McBride
  • Taylor Swift – Dan, Ben, Leeann, Jonathan
  • Carrie Underwood – Tara

Will Win:

  • Sara Evans
  • Miranda Lambert – Dan, Leeann, Jonathan, Kevin, Tara
  • Martina McBride
  • Taylor Swift - Ben
  • Carrie Underwood

Dan:  Come ACM season, I’ll be all for Lambert; Pistol Annies and Four The Record prove she’s using her new commercial powers nobly. But I like Swift’s performances on Speak Now, and that album just applies more to this awards cycle.

Ben:  Swift is the overall strongest contender, but I could see voters seizing the opportunity to recognize Evans, who released a new album and had a number one single during the eligibility period.  I wouldn’t rule Lambert out either, though she didn’t have as strong a year as she did in 2010.  But I doubt this will be Underwood’s year, and McBride’s was essentially a filler nomination, so I’d say it’s down to Swift, Evans, and Lambert. (But, like Dan, I will totally be Team Miranda when the ACMs roll around)

Leeann: I reflexively say Lambert should win, but Swift has had the best year and will likely win as a result. I won’t be heart broken if Lambert takes it though.

Jonathan:  There’s a part of me that would vote for Lambert on principle and out of loyalty, but I can’t argue with a simple mathematical inequality: “Back to December,” “Mean,” and “Sparks Fly” > “Only Prettier,” “Heart Like Mine” and “Baggage Claim.” Had her label been campaigning harder that she’s never won this award, Evans could’ve been a bigger threat here, but Lambert’s ongoing momentum should carry her to a repeat win.

Kevin: Can this power couple nonsense be derailed?  Probably not, so while I’d rather see Swift get it over Lambert, I’m doubtful it would happen. My real fantasy would be for the only non-winner, Sara Evans, to take it.  For prosperity’s sake, and for actually putting out a great single that I failed to realize was great until it was already a hit.

Tara: This is a tough one for me. Lambert’s worked the genre like no other female has this past year and a half, but the singles she’s released in the eligibility period have been so-so. Swift’s put out some solid material, but I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to support her winning a vocalist award. And then there’s Underwood, who’s been relatively quiet on the radio front, but whose stunning performance of “How Great Thou Art” back in April went viral and serves as a reminder of what I firmly believe is one of the finest voices in the genre. I’m going with my gut and backing Underwood, but I think the voters will reward Lambert again, which is fine with me.

Vocal Duo of the Year

Should Win:

  • The Civil Wars – Dan, Ben, Leeann, Jonathan, Kevin, Tara
  • Montgomery Gentry
  • Steel Magnolia
  • Sugarland
  • Thompson Square

Will Win:

  • The Civil Wars
  • Montgomery Gentry
  • Steel Magnolia
  • Sugarland - Dan, Ben, Leeann, Jonathan, Kevin, Tara
  • Thompson Square

Dan:  Seriously, why not the Civil Wars? They’ve sold about as many albums (200,000-ish) as everyone besides Sugarland without the support of a major label. Not to mention they just made the most interesting music.

Ben:  I’m supporting the Civil Wars on principle, but it’s a no-brainer that Sugarland’s hot streak is not over yet.

Leeann: I love The Civil Wars. The end.

Jonathan:  Yet more evidence that this category should be merged with Vocal Group of the Year to cut the deadweight. Though the Civil Wars getting in instead of the JaneDear Girls is a nice testament to the fact that the CMAs, every so often, can exercise good taste and discretion.

Kevin:  Sugarland’s album was atrocious.  The Civil Wars are in the running for my favorite set of the year.  Easy call for me.

Tara: Can Sugarland hurry up and release a new, redeeming album, please?

Vocal Group of the Year

Should Win:

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

Will Win:

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

Dan:  Lady A were between albums. Some variety this year, please.

Ben:  It’ hard to bet against Lady Antebellum, but the Zac Brown band gave us a strong album and two of the year’s most memorable hit singles (“As She’s Walking Away” and “Colder Weather”), and I predict that they will be rewarded justly.

Leeann: Zac Brown Band has a good chance with the best music in the category, but Lady A just might not be out yet.

Jonathan:  Little Big Town’s brilliant “Little White Church” should’ve put them back in the mix for good, but they really botched the single releases from their album and are right back to being also-rans. The Band Perry will settle for the “New Artist” award as a consolation prize this year, which leaves Lady A and Zac Brown Band to duke it out. In terms of the quality of their output, Zac Brown Band has Lady A dead to rights, but is that enough to stop the trio’s awards-show juggernaut? Let’s hope so.

Kevin:  Zac Brown Band is the only option both realistic and palatable.

Tara: This is the first of these categories that I feel strongly about this year. Based on the strength of You Get What You Give, Zac Brown Band deserves to nab this award, hands down. But I’ll go against my co-bloggers here and guess that Lady Antebellum still has the industry wrapped around its finger.

New Artist of the Year

Should Win:

  • The Band Perry - Ben
  • Luke Bryan
  • Eric Church - Leeann, Jonathan
  • Thompson Square
  • Chris Young – Dan, Kevin, Tara

Will Win:

  • The Band Perry – Ben, Jonathan, Tara
  • Luke Bryan
  • Eric Church – Dan, Leeann, Kevin
  • Thompson Square
  • Chris Young

Dan: Church seems the most likely to have a long, interesting career and probably deserves the win. I just don’t want to encourage “Homeboy,” I guess.

Ben:  Thompson Square and The Band Perry are the only two nominees whom I would still consider “new” artists, and I think The Band Perry beats Thompson Square any day.  Bryan, however, did reach a new level of stardom over the past year, so he stands a good chance at wining nonetheless.

Leeann: While it’s strange that with three albums Church is still in the New Artist category, it’s probably that same reason that he should win the award, not to mention that he had the strongest album of the nominees in the past year.

Jonathan:  Young’s the best singer in the field, but his material is still too inconsistent in quality for me to get on board with him. Church, on the other hand, finally made good on his early promise and his considerable hype with Chief and would be a deserving winner, as would the uneven but still pretty good The Band Perry. As the only nominee with any other nominations, they have to be considered the slight favorites over Crest WhiteStrips.

Kevin:  I think Church’s big breakthrough happened close enough to the voting window to give him a slight edge.  I’d like to see Chris Young get the boost from a win.

Tara: Of all the nominees, I’m the most excited for Chris Young’s future in country music – his vocal talent is tremendous, and even though it falls right outside of the eligibility period, Neon is one of my favorite releases of this year. Based on their other major nominations, though, I think The Band Perry will take this.

Album of the Year

Should Win:

  • Blake Shelton, All About Tonight
  • Jason Aldean, My Kinda Party
  • Taylor Swift, Speak Now - Ben, Kevin
  • Brad Paisley, This Is Country Music
  • Zac Brown Band, You Get What You Give - Dan, Leeann, Jonathan, Tara

Will Win:

  • Blake Shelton, All About Tonight
  • Jason Aldean, My Kinda Party – Dan, Leeann, Jonathan, Tara
  • Taylor Swift, Speak Now – Ben, Kevin
  • Brad Paisley, This Is Country Music
  • Zac Brown Band, You Get What You Give

Dan: Here’s a logical place to acknowledge Aldean, though I hope voters think twice about it.

Ben:  In my book, Swift and the Zac Brown Band are the only truly worthy winners (and I’m still scratching my head over why a Blake Shelton “Six Pak” was even nominated in the first place).  To me, the most intriguing thing about Swift is that she really does seem to get a little better and a little deeper with each album.  Speak Now is her crowning achievement to date, and in my opinion, the best album on this ballot.

Leeann: It hurts my heart to think it, but Jason Aldean’s big year will likely earn him the award for best album, even though numbers isn’t how such an award should be selected.

Jonathan:  Speak Now is Swift’s strongest album, but, “Mean” notwithstanding, it’s also her most unabashedly pop album. And song-for-song, I still think You Get What You Give is slightly better. But Aldean has been a steady seller, and he’s big enough that he has to win one of the major awards, and this one’s his best bet.

Kevin:  “All songs composed by Taylor Swift” impressed the heck out of me, not the least of which because the songs were far better than her earlier work.  Zac Brown Band’s a close second for me.

Tara: Speak Now is solid, but You Get What You Give is the better example of how to move this genre forward, with its delicious yet reverent mishmash of influences. But I think this is where the voters will recognize the often overlooked commercial success of Jason Aldean.

Single of the Year

Should Win:

  • Sara Evans, “A Little Bit Stronger”
  • Zac Brown Band, “Colder Weather”- Leeann, Tara
  • Jason Aldean with Kelly Clarkson, “Don’t You Wanna Stay”
  • Blake Shelton, “Honey Bee”
  • The Band Perry, “If I Die Young” – Dan, Ben, Jonathan, Kevin

Will Win:

  • Sara Evans, “A Little Bit Stronger”
  • Zac Brown Band, “Colder Weather”
  • Jason Aldean with Kelly Clarkson, “Don’t You Wanna Stay” - Jonathan, Tara
  • Blake Shelton, “Honey Bee” – Kevin
  • The Band Perry, “If I Die Young” - Dan, Ben, Leeann

Dan: It’d be heartening to see The Band Perry’s risky, rootsy release get its due. Plus: the single alone is 3x Platinum, better than any of its competitors can claim.

Ben:  “Colder Weather” and “If I Die Young” are the two strongest competitors, but for me, a cool folksy arrangement puts the latter over the edge.

Leeann: This is tough. I can actually see any of these singles winning, but I have a good feeling about “If I Die Young”, though I’d love to see “Colder Weather” prove me wrong.

Jonathan:  This one’s actually a tough call, since all five of the singles are big radio hits and everyone here has multiple nominations. “If I Die Young” is the best-produced single of the lot, but I’m predicting that Kelly Clarkson’s endless likability gives the edge to her duet with Aldean.

Kevin:  Love the Band Perry record most, followed by Sara Evans.  But this is the CMA awards, and Shelton managed to be both completely vanilla and namedrop Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn.

Tara: If I better understood the story in “If I Die Young,” I might be able to get behind it, but I think “Colder Weather” is the more memorable single. It’s my favorite kind of country ballad – killer vocals, gripping melody and palpable emotion. I see the fiery Aldean / Clarkson collaboration taking this one, though. (By the way, dude, “Honey Bee” – really CMA?)

Song of the Year

Should Win:

  • “Colder Weather” – Zac Brown, Wyatt Durrette, Levi Lowrey & Coy Bowles
  • “Dirt Road Anthem” – Brantley Gilbert & Colt Ford
  • “If I Die Young” – Kimberly Perry – Dan, Tara
  • “Mean” – Taylor Swift - Jonathan, Kevin
  • “You and Tequila” – Matraca Berg & Deana Carter - Ben, Leeann

Will Win:

  • “Colder Weather” – Zac Brown, Wyatt Durrette, Levi Lowrey & Coy Bowles
  • “Dirt Road Anthem” – Brantley Gilbert & Colt Ford
  • “If I Die Young” – Kimberly Perry – Dan, Ben, Jonathan, Tara
  • “Mean” – Taylor Swift - Kevin
  • “You and Tequila” – Matraca Berg & Deana Carter – Leann

Dan:  “If I Die Young” is a flawed composition, but it’s still the most striking and strange one here, and that’s worth something.

Ben:  I never though I’d see a CMA Song of the Year field in which Matraca Berg and Deana Carter would compete against Colt Ford and Brantley Gilbert.  I would so love to see Berg and Carter win the award.  I might tend to be slightly biased when it comes to Matraca Berg, but I think “Tequila” is a fine composition on its own merits, and a worthy winner indeed.  Still, my gut predicion is that Perry will grab the trophy instead.

Leeann: “Mean” is probably my favorite song in terms of production and melody, but “You and Tequila” is the best song of the nominees.

Jonathan:  Berg is a treasure and I like Carter well enough, so it’s nice to see their names on the ballot again, but “You and Tequila” isn’t either of their best compositions. Here’s the thing about “Mean”: What doesn’t work about the song has everything to do with the fact that it shows the extent to which Swift still hasn’t fully figured out her artistic persona. But in terms of melody and overall construction as a stand-alone song? It’s the class of the field. As Dan said, “If I Die Young” is flawed, but it also has a lot going for it and will be a fine, worthy winner when it inevitably takes this.

Kevin: I love “You and Tequila”, but it’s an old song.  I’m glad Chesney rediscovered it, but I can’t see it as this year’s Song of the Year.  I think “Mean” is the best of the bunch, with the music as clever as the lyrics.

Tara: I’m with Jonathan and Leann re: “Mean” in that I agree its melody and overall construction are terrific; unfortunately its flaw –the bridge, which undermines the premise of the song– is too big for me to overlook. And as much as I love it, I don’t feel right backing “Colder Weather,” either, as it’s really Brown’s vocal performance that elevates the composition to a memorable song. So I’ll go with the quirky and unique “If I Die Young” and guess the voters will, too.

Musical Event of the Year

Should Win:

  • “As She’s Walking Away” – Zac Brown Band featuring Alan Jackson – Dan, Ben, Leeann, Jonathan, Kevin, Tara
  • “Coal Miner’s Daughter” – Loretta Lynn, Sheryl Crow & Miranda Lambert
  • “Don’t You Wanna Stay” – Jason Aldean with Kelly Clarkson
  • “Old Alabama” – Brad Paisley with Alabama
  • “You and Tequila” – Kenny Chesney featuring Grace Potter

Will Win:

  • “As She’s Walking Away” – Zac Brown Band featuring Alan Jackson – Kevin, Tara
  • “Coal Miner’s Daughter” – Loretta Lynn, Sheryl Crow & Miranda Lambert
  • “Don’t You Wanna Stay” – Jason Aldean with Kelly Clarkson – Dan, Ben, Leeann, Jonathan
  • “Old Alabama” – Brad Paisley with Alabama
  • “You and Tequila” – Kenny Chesney featuring Grace Potter

Dan:  The Single nod for Jason and Kelly suggests they have the edge here. But my heart echoes a resounding “Go on, son.”

Ben:  “As She’s Walking Away” is just so effortlessly charming that it would easily be my first pick, but the cross-genre appeal – and bonus Clarkson star power – of “Don’t You Wanna Stay” make it the most likely winner.  The fact that “Don’t You Wanna Stay” is also nominated for Single (which “As She’s Walking Away” sadly isn’t) suggests a likely victory in this category.

Leeann: How can I not pull for the Zac Brown Band and Alan Jackson when I have a chance? I’m pretty confident that the drama, cross genre appeal, and, yup, the drama again, make “Don’t You Want to Stay” the sure bet though.

Jonathan:  “As She’s Walking Away” is one of the purest and truest duets in years, and it could pull some votes from the more traditionalist voters, but the Aldean and Clarkson single just has too much firepower to lose here.

Kevin:  If this doesn’t go to Zac Brown Band and Alan Jackson, then I no longer understand how CMA voters think.

Tara: No question here, “As She’s Walking Away” is head and shoulders above the rest of the collaborations in this category, one of the most quietly charming singles we’ve heard on country radio in quite some time. I’ll go out on a limb and predict that voters will have trouble ignoring the warm fuzzies they get when Jackson starts singing.

Music Video of the Year

Should Win:

  • Blake Shelton, “Honey Bee”
  • The Band Perry, “If I Die Young” – Dan
  • Taylor Swift, “Mean” – Ben, Kevin, Tara
  • Brad Paisley featuring Alabama, “Old Alabama”
  • Kenny Chesney featuring Grace Potter, “You and Tequila”

Will Win:

  • Blake Shelton, “Honey Bee” - Ben
  • The Band Perry, “If I Die Young”
  • Taylor Swift, “Mean”
  • Brad Paisley featuring Alabama, “Old Alabama” - Dan, Jonathan, Kevin, Tara
  • Kenny Chesney featuring Grace Potter, “You and Tequila”

Dan: It’s my least favorite Paisley video ever, though.

Ben:  Swift’s “Mean” is my personal favorite among these nominees, but I’m expecting that voters will show some Shelton love instead.

Jonathan:  Paisley has to win something, right? And this also gives the voters a chance to honor some beloved genre vets.

Kevin: I think the video splicing tricks will give Paisley and Alabama an additional edge.  Of the five clips, “Mean” is the one I like the most.

Tara: I love the whimsical video for “Mean” but think (and actually kind of hope) the voters will use this category to award the show co-host and his buddies.

Musician of the Year

Should Win:

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

Will Win:

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

Dan: Default underdog support.

Ben:  I would love to see this go to the steel guitar man (and preferably not to Dann Huff), but Mac McAnally tends to be the favorite here.

Leeann: I want the steel guitar to represent this year. So, I’ll will it to happen.

Jonathan:  Franklin’s the only nominee who hasn’t won previously, and being regarded as long overdue eventually helped McAnally score his first win, leading to his current three-year hot streak.

Kevin:  I’ll be rooting for Paul Franklin until he finally wins, but I won’t believe that he’ll win until he finally does.

Tara: What Ben and Kevin said.


28 Comments

Filed under CMA Awards

Unanswered Prayer

Dear Sugarland and Little Big Town,

Please stop covering “Like a Prayer.”

Sincerely,
Country Universe

CC: Tori Amos, Rufio, and the Cast of Glee.

16 Comments

Filed under Dear Country Music, Miscellaneous Musings

Single Review: Kenny Chesney, “Live a Little”

It starts with a pure pop/rock intro that goes on a little too long, but provides for a pleasantly jarring transition into acoustic country.  The first thirty seconds have that contrast which made Shania Twain’s The Woman in Me hits work so well.

But then it quickly disintegrates to generic Chesney: loud but not assertive, cute but not clever, upbeat but not uplifting.

It’s like listening to Bob Saget cover Sugarland’s “Something More.”

Written by Shane Minor and David Lee Murphy

Grade: C

Listen: Live a Little

10 Comments

Filed under Single Reviews

Identity Crisis

I became a country fan twenty years ago, and have been fully immersed in the genre for about as long.  I’ve read up on the history, heard pretty much every significant artist and recording, and can speak knowledgeably about the genre’s highs and lows over the past few decades.

We’ve never been this low.  I think I finally understand why that is.

Jonathan Keefe from Slant wrote this in his review of the JaneDear Girls album, and it really hit home with me:

…the JaneDear Girls use a couple of catchy melodies and garish costumes to mask the fact that they can’t sing even a little bit, and, if they could, wouldn’t have a single authentic thing to say. In other words, they’re exactly what country music, in the throes of a pretty severe identity crisis, doesn’t need right now: its own Katy Perry.

This is the paradox that’s increasingly devouring country music.  Artists are singing more than ever about how country they are, yet they’re doing it with songs that sound less country than ever.

Perhaps all of these “loud and proud” country identity songs are a reflection of the country lifestyle being fully swallowed up by suburbia, and “country” is now more of a chosen lifestyle than it is something homegrown.  But “country music”  has almost completely shifted to “music about being country.”  You don’t have to sound country, you just have to revel in being country.

Country music cannot retain its identity this way.  As a radio format, it isn’t going anywhere. As the larger player on the field, it’s managed to absorb a good chunk of what we used to call Adult Top 40, picking up a few of their core artists along the way.

But as a relevant genre of its own? That can’t continue if the vast majority of the new  mainstream artists have little connection to what came before them.  Superstars are hard enough to come by as it is, and when you think about the ones who have emerged from country music in recent years – Sugarland, Keith Urban, Taylor Swift, Lady Antebellum – their tenuous links to country music as a distinct art form are virtually nonexistent.

Ten years ago, Carrie Underwood would’ve been grouped as a pop-country diva.  These days, she’s the only recent superstar that even seems to care that her music sounds identifiably country.  And while there is no shortage of alternative country acts who are connected to the genre’s roots, their very existence on the outskirts of the mainstream prevent them from having a meaningful enough impact to carry on country music’s rich legacy.

Without a new generation of country stars breaking through enough to really captivate the interest of the public, I see no way for country music to continue as a viable art form and culturally relevant presence in contemporary music.

We’re in trouble, folks.

49 Comments

Filed under Miscellaneous Musings

Nashville Scene: 11th Annual Country Music Critics’ Poll

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

14 Comments

Filed under Best of 2010

Crunching the Numbers: January 2011

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

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

Top Selling Current Country Albums

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

55 Comments

Filed under Crunching the Numbers

Single Review: Sugarland, “Little Miss”

“Little Miss’ is one of many socially conscious songs on Sugarland’s The Incredible Machine, but it’s the only one that truly works.  It succeeds where the others fail for two main reasons.

One, it describes things as they are now, instead of trying to inspire us with idyllic images of how the world could be if we just, you know, did something. The details used to describe a woman who “is so much more than you like to talk about” captures the dilemma that faces so many women today with little descriptions that add up to a larger picture of all of the compromises that must be made to a woman’s ambition and talent for her to not offend those who might be offended by them.

And it’s the tension created by those compromises that lead to the second reason for the song’s success.  The tale of a woman holding back her potential must be matched by a production and vocal performance that also hold back. The lyric demands restraint, which prevents the over-singing and arena bombast that sinks the other songs on the album from taking over this track.  The elements are still there, but they don’t overwhelm the proceedings.

It’s interesting. The Incredible Machine has already been certified platinum. When the first two singles are inevitably included on the first Sugarland hits collection, they will represent what I consider a very weak set in the best possible light.  That’s encouraging in the long run, because quite frankly, when Sugarland is on the top of their game, they’re still better than everybody else in mainstream country music.

Written by Kristian Bush and Jennifer Nettles

Grade: A

Listen: Little Miss

15 Comments

Filed under Single Reviews

The Best Singles of 2010, Part 4: #10-#1

Our look back at the year’s best singles comes to a close, with unprecedented CU consensus at the top of the list.  The top two singles of the year were ranked in that order by three of our four writers, and both appeared in the top ten of the fourth writer.

Here’s our ten best of 2010:

The Best Singles of 2010, Part 4: #10-#1

#10

Draw Me a Map
Dierks Bentley

Bentley is getting a lot of deserved attention for sonically diverging from the mainstream to create a bluegrass-inspired album. It’s an excellent album, but to his credit, “Draw Me A Map” isn’t so far removed from some of the unreleased songs on his first two mainstream projects; It’s just that he gets to shine a finer focus on it for this album, and therefore, this seemingly subversive song for radio gets to be released. The inspired blend of Bentley’s ragged voice with Alison Krauss’ angelic one takes the song to an even sweeter level. – Leeann Ward

#9

Broken
Chely Wright

Robert Louis Stevenson once remarked that “Hope lives on ignorance; open-eyed Faith is built upon a knowledge of our life, of the tyranny of circumstance and the frailty of human resolution.” He was talking, in context, about marriage. The truth is that no one enters a relationship completely free of burden, and only by submitting to the complications of that truth can we avoid being ruled by them. Wright, for her part, manages the task with simple, earnest grace, probably strengthening her relationship through mere acknowledgment of its weaknesses. – Dan Milliken

#8

Drop On By
Laura Bell Bundy

Unlike the year’s other booze-induced lover’s call, “Drop On By” isn’t rooted in emotional dependency; it’s fueled by Bundy’s earthy physical longing – and what a longing that is. Proving her masterful interpretative skills, Bundy churns out a slow-burning performance that’s both deftly controlled and achingly sensual, with just a tinge of playful warmth woven through. The song’s kicker, though, is the smoky throwback arrangement – a delicious mix of blues, jazz and country – that not only fits Bundy like a glove, but pushes the boundaries of what constitutes a great country record. – Tara Seetharam

#7

Giddy On Up
Laura Bell Bundy

The most interesting and surprising debut single that I can remember. So many creative and unexpected choices are made, but it is Bundy’s forceful personality that pulls it all together into something cohesive.  In an era of country music that is little more than dull shades of gray, “Giddy On Up” is a Technicolor marvel. – Kevin Coyne

#6

As She’s Walking Away
Zac Brown Band featuring Alan Jackson

A young man just about chickens out of approaching the radiant girl across the bar, panicking that “my heart won’t tell my mind to tell my mouth what it should say.” Luckily, Wise Older Man At Bar can see exactly what’s going on and nudges Junior into action. A bit silly, but the single radiates such warmth that you gobble it up. And if there was a more motivational moment in 2010 than Alan Jackson’s spoken “Go on, son,” well, I didn’t hear it. – DM

#5

Smoke a Little Smoke
Eric Church

Church finally puts his music where his mouth is, delivering an unapologetic, roguish (for country radio, anyway) ode to escapism by intoxication. The erratic musical flow evokes the very physical sensations the song celebrates, and Church’s swagger makes bumming sound almost appealing. Turns out that if you stop talking about being a badass for long enough, you may just manage to kinda be one. – DM

#4

If I Die Young
The Band Perry

“If I Die Young”  arrives like a gift from an alternate universe, one where the public’s embrace of Alison Krauss, Nickel Creek, and O Brother was treated as a road map  for the genre’s future, not just a passing interest that needn’t be cultivated.  – KC

#3

Stuck Like Glue
Sugarland

Every once and awhile, a piece of ear candy comes along that defies the term “ear candy.” That’s what “Stuck Like Glue” is, to be sure: an infectious acoustic-pop morsel, invigorated by Nettles’ insanely joyful performance and a genre-busting breakdown. But there’s something about the song that puts it on another plane. Maybe it’s the organic energy, or maybe it’s the lack of artistic inhibition. Or maybe it’s the simple fact that “Stuck Like Glue” doesn’t try to be anything that it’s not. It just is. And as a result, it’s that rare breed of song that taps into your spirit – that demands you to stop thinking, start feeling and have a damn good time. – TS

#2

Little White Church
Little Big Town

It probably owes some theme to “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It),” but Little Big Town’s swampy sleeper hit is the coolest-sounding country single of the year all on its own. From handclaps to snarling electric licks, creepy whispers to gospel-esque call-and-response choruses, “Little White Church” is a potent reminder of all the creativity still bubbling under in Music City. – DM

#1

The House That Built Me
Miranda Lambert

Miranda Lambert’s career defining song is also our song of the year. Not much can be said about this gorgeous ode to childhood memories that hasn’t already been said better by countless writers before me, including our very own Dan Milliken, which helps make the case for what’s inevitably the song of the year on many 2010 countdowns.

Its all-acoustic, understated arrangement underscores the story of a woman who tries to find solace in the memories buried in a structure that was more than a house. Its descriptive lyrics move us as they detail memories from turning blueprints into the family dream home to the heartbreak of losing the family dog.

As it is always is with the best songs, “The House that Built Me” does not hit us over the head with its emotional resonance. It’s strong, it’s palpable, but it’s all done with gentleness, which is the most effective way to tug at the heartstrings. – LW

Check out the rest of the list:

61 Comments

Filed under Best of 2010

The Best Singles of 2010, Part 1: #40-#31

Greatness comes in twos this year, as ten different artists make dual appearances on this list. Perhaps this demonstrates a greater truth about 2010.  Sure, there was some good music, but greatness was concentrated among a smaller group of artists than usual.

As is the annual tradition, we’ll reveal this year’s forty best singles, ten at a time.  Check back tomorrow for Part 2.

The Best Singles of 2010, Part 1: #40-#31

#40

Why Wait
Rascal Flatts

The Flatts boys return to their roots with this bright, infectious slice of country-pop. Bonus points for keeping both Gary LeVox’s voice and Dann Huff’s production in check. – Tara Seetharam

#39

That’s Important to Me
Joey + Rory

So far, Joey+Rory’s calling card has been their ability to exude authenticity through their songs with a naturalness and warmth as convincingly as a certain mother-daughter duo of the eighties, The Judds. Only, unlike the Judds, this partnership’s perceived connection isn’t marred by real accounts of strife and familial discord. Instead, by all accounts, Joey and Rory’s love is as sweet as their musical harmonies suggest. And this song is a nice encapsulation of what makes them who they are as a duo, both in a personal and professional sense. – Leeann Ward

#38

Where Do I Go From You
Clay Walker

Walker’s voice has matured so much over the past decade. Thankfully, he still has preserved his playful way with a melody, resulting in records like this that elevate radio fodder into something more than just filler.  – Kevin John Coyne

#37

Back to December
Taylor Swift

She ran from love “when fear crept into [her] mind,” but fear has long since given way to sorrowful regret. Swift knows there’s probably no reversing her mistake, but gets the grief off her chest anyway, with a chorus that sounds almost as nervous as you’d imagine the real-life plea to. – Dan Milliken

#36

Little Miss
Sugarland

My disdain for the duo’s label remains strong, as their lack of quality control let a terrible album reach the marketplace. But kudos to the folks who are picking the singles, as The Incredible Machine must sound like a great piece of work to radio listeners who’ve only heard the album’s two singles. It’s not quite “What it Feels Like For a Girl”, but as modern-day post-feminist explorations of gender go, “Little Miss” is very good. – KC

#35

Pretty Good at Drinkin’ Beer
Billy Currington

He ain’t cut out to sing great ballads. He’s not the type to make deep and introspective albums.  But he’s pretty good – no, pretty great – at laid back songs like this. – KC

#34

Temporary Home
Carrie Underwood

A story of shared humanity, brought to life by Underwood’s spot-on vocal interpretation. This is the first single in her catalog to slice through to the person behind the artist, and the payoff –striking, palpable personal conviction– is rich. – TS

#33

I’m In
Keith Urban

In an unusual accomplishment, Keith Urban manages to allow a drum machine to enhance a song rather than destroy it. What’s more, this lively Radney Foster penned celebration of commitment is both infectious and refreshing. When it comes to a new relationship, we don’t know what to expect, so the best choice is to be all in and present. – LW

#32

Pray For You
Jaron and The Long Road to Love

If we’re going to bring a college-boy mentality to country music – heck, Hootie’s already in the house anyway – let’s have it be as satisfyingly clever as it is juvenile.   – KC

#31

From a Table Away
Sunny Sweeney

Seeing the man she loves visibly enthralled by the wife he claims he’s leaving, the man’s mistress finally realizes how badly she’s being used. Sort of like “Stay” with more reserved narration. This is the kind of country single we don’t hear much anymore, with traditional-leaning vocals and production that work only enough to capture the song’s natural pathos, never overcooking things. – DM

Check out the rest of the list:

15 Comments

Filed under Best of 2010