New fans of country music in the nineties were hit over the head with the assertion that country music was one big family. Nothing demonstrated this mythos better than the all star jams that cropped up during the boom years.
There were some variants of this approach. A popular one found a veteran star teaming up with one or more of the boom artists to increase their chances of radio airplay. George Jones was big on this approach, with the most high profile attempt being “I Don’t Need Your Rockin’ Chair.” Seventeen years later, it’s amazing to see how young everyone looks – even Jones himself!
Jones shared the CMA Vocal Event of the Year trophy for that collaboration with Clint Black, Garth Brooks, T. Graham Brown, Mark Chesnutt, Joe Diffie, Vince Gill, Alan Jackson, Patty Loveless, Pam Tillis, and Travis Tritt. He’d continue with this approach by teaming up with his vocal chameleon Sammy Kershaw on “Never Bit a Bullet Like This”, and he recorded an entire album of his own songs as duets with mostly younger stars. The Bradley Barn Sessions was represented at radio with “A Good Year For the Roses”, which found him singing one of his best hits with Alan Jackson:
Among the legends, the only other one to be successful with this approach was Dolly Parton, who used collaborations with young stars to score consecutive platinum albums for the first and only time in her career. Her 1991 set Eagle When She Flies was powered by the #1 single “Rockin’ Years”, co-written by her brother and sung with Ricky Van Shelton:
That album also included a duet with Lorrie Morgan on “Best Woman Wins.” She upped the bandwagon ante on Slow Dancing With the Moon, bringing a whole caravan of young stars on board with her line dance cash-in “Romeo.”
That’s Mary Chapin Carpenter, Billy Ray Cyrus, Kathy Mattea, and Tanya Tucker in the video. Pam Tillis isn’t in the clip, but she sings on the record with them. Parton also duets with Billy Dean on that album on “(You Got Me Over a) Heartache Tonight.”
Her next collaboration was with fellow legends Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette, but they couldn’t resist the temptation to squeeze in several younger stars in the video for “Silver Threads and Golden Needles.” Alongside veterans like Chet Atkins, Bill Anderson, and Little Jimmy Dickens, you’ll catch cameos from Mark Collie, Confederate Railroad, Rodney Crowell, Diamond Rio, Sammy Kershaw, Doug Stone, and Marty Stuart.
Parton scored a CMA award when she resurrected “I Will Always Love You” as a duet with Vince Gill:
And while it didn’t burn up the charts, her version of “Just When I Needed You Most” with Alison Krauss and Dan Tyminski:
Tammy Wynette made an attempt to connect with the new country audience with her own album of duets, Without Walls. Her pairing with Wynonna on “Girl Thang” earned some unsolicited airplay:
Perhaps the most endearing project in this vein came from Roy Rogers. How cool is it to hear him singing with Clint Black?
The new stars liked pairing up with each other, too. A popular trend was to have other stars pop up in music videos. There’s the classic “Women of Country” version of “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her”, for starters. Mary Chapin Carpenter sounds pretty darn good with Suzy Bogguss, Emmylou Harris, Patty Loveless, Kathy Mattea, Pam Tillis, and Trisha Yearwood on backup:
That’s a live collaboration, so at least you hear the voices of the other stars. But Vince Gill put together an all-star band for his “Don’t Let Our Love Start Slippin’ Away” video without getting them to actually play. That’s Little Jimmy Dickens, Kentucky Headhunters, Patty Loveless, Lee Roy Parnell, Carl Perkins, Pam Tillis, and Kelly Willis behind him, with Reba McEntire reprising her waitress role from her own “Is There Life Out There” clip.
My personal favorite was Tracy Lawrence’s slightly less A-list spin on the above, with “My Second Home” featuring the future superstars Toby Keith, Tim McGraw, and Shania Twain, along with John Anderson, Holly Dunn, Hank Flamingo, Johnny Rodriguez, Tanya Tucker, Clay Walker, and a few people that I just can’t identify.
For pure star wattage, it took the bright lights of Hollywood to get a truly amazing group together. The Maverick Choir assembled to cover “Amazing Grace”, and it doesn’t get much better than country gospel delivered in a barn by John Anderson, Clint Black, Suzy Bogguss, Billy Dean, Radney Foster, Amy Grant, Faith Hill, Waylon Jennings, Tracy Lawrence, Kathy Mattea, Reba McEntire, John Michael Montgomery, Restless Heart, Ricky Van Shelton, Joy Lynn White, and Tammy Wynette.
What’s your favorite of the bunch? Any good ones I missed?
I’ve been wanting to write about Bobbie Cryner for a long time. Thanks to some kind folks uploading her music on to YouTube, I can finally do so. (For whatever reason, her two fantastic albums – Bobbie Cryner and Girl o f Your Dreams – have yet to see digital release.)
This woman was good. Real good. Possibly the best unheralded singer-songwriter of her time, with a sultry voice formed at the crossroads of Bobbie Gentry and Dottie West. She first surfaced on Sony, releasing her self-titled debut in 1993. It was previewed by the autobiographical “Daddy Laid the Blues on Me.”
It could’ve been the start of a legendary career, but the single stalled at #63. Next up was the haunting “He Feels Guilty”, which went to #68. It has an amazing guitar intro. That video can be viewed here. Her debut album produced a third single, the #72 “You Could Steal Me.” This one’s heartbreakingly gorgeous, but I can’t find an online way of sharing it with you.
The rest of that first album includes a duet with Dwight Yoakam on “I Don’t Care”, the Buck Owens classic. Another stellar cover is “The One I Love the Most”, which could’ve been a George Jones classic back in the early seventies.
But the best material comes from her own pen. Check out “I Think It’s Over Now”, which features the lyric, “You don’t have to say you love me if you think there’s any doubt. But if you have to think it over, well, I think it’s over now.”
Also worth seeking out is the closing track from that album, “This Heart Speaks For Itself,” which has every part of her body fooling others that she’s over the man who let her down.
In one of those glorious second chances that the music business rarely doles out, Cryner resurfaced on MCA three years later, sporting a more cosmopolitan sound and look. On Girl of Your Dreams, Cryner penned all five of the strongest tracks, while also credibly covering Dusty Springfield and Dottie West. The lead single was “I Just Can’t Stand to Be Unhappy”, a kiss-off anthem that was too smart for country radio, stopping at #63:
What followed was an absolute masterpiece, one that still only reached #56 (and only #66 when Lorrie Morgan revived it two years later.) “You’d Think He’d Know Me Better” is shockingly good, managing to tell the story of a selfish and cold woman by having her talk about how inconsiderate her man is. She’s the only one left in the dark at the end, as the listeners all realize who’s really to blame for this broken home:
Her final MCA single was “I Didn’t Know My Own Strength”, which chronicled Cryner’s battle with alcoholism. It didn’t chart.
Again, the album had gems beyond what went to radio. “Vision of Loneliness” is amazing, a song that gained new resonance with me when my mother related to it so well during her bereavement:
The title track should’ve been a single, though it’s hard to imagine radio playing it after passing on her earlier work. I’d argue that “The Girl of Your Dreams” isn’t just Cryner’s finest piece of writing, but that it rivals the very best of Matraca Berg, Mary Chapin Carpenter, and Rosanne Cash. It begs for Trisha Yearwood to cover it:
So what happened after that second album faded into obscurity? How could a songwriting talent like this get lost in the shuffle? Well, it didn’t happen right away. After Morgan covered “You’d Think He’d Know Me Better”, Cryner surfaced as a writer on albums by top-tier female artists.
The most high profile of these three came after Cryner left a demo in Yearwood’s mailbox that simply had the title, “Real Live Woman.” Yearwood later commented that she prayed before listening to it that it would live up to that title. It did, and ended up being Cryner’s biggest hit when Yearwood took it into the top twenty:
Suzy Bogguss took the compelling story song “Nobody Love, Nobody Gets Hurt” to #63 in 1998, titling her album after it as Yearwood did with “Real Live Woman” in 2000.
Finally, Lee Ann Womack included “Stronger Than I Am” on her smash album I Hope You Dance. It finds a woman in awe of her young daughter who seems so much stronger than she is.
After that, I have no idea what happened to this woman. Do you? In an era when country music isn’t made for adults, or even by adults, this woman’s contributions are desperately needed.
The Boot has published another list that’s got me thinking. This time, it’s Top 10 Sad Love Songs in Country Music. Again, the title is a bit strange, as the list includes the Suzy Bogguss hit “Letting Go”, which is about a mother watching her daughter go off to college, but there’s no rule that a love song has to be about romantic love, I guess.
Predictably and justifiably, the list is topped by “He Stopped Loving Her Today”, a George Jones classic that tops many a classic country list, including one of our own. There’s also a pretty high body count – four outright deaths and one by implication. Country songs sure do like to kill people off, don’t they?
So what are the saddest country songs ever? My first instinct was to mention “Where’ve You Been”, but that Kathy Mattea classic has a ray of hope. It’s really about a perfect relationship meeting its natural end.
For real, heartbreaking sadness, all hope must be vanquished, with only regret remaining. Bonus points if somebody dies. Here are two that I think are tragic, one with death and one without:
Dixie Chicks/Patty Griffin, “Top of the World”
A man realizes after his death that he did nothing but hurt the woman he loved, and now it’s too late to go back and change it:
John Conlee, “Backside of Thirty”
Something similar, though the man is still alive. He had everything he ever wanted – a beautiful wife and son – and somehow messed it up. He’s now living alone in an apartment, drinking away his rent money, “back on the bottom with no will to climb.”
What do you think are the saddest country songs ever?
1994 Written by Matraca Berg, Suzy Bogguss, and Gary Harrison
There’s a term that has gathered strength over the past decade: the quarter-life crisis. It describes that phase in life where the idealism of what you thought your life would be collides with what reality has in store for you. Reconciling the two is needed to get beyond this point of life, and adulthood completely sets in once such reconciliation has been accomplished.
A significant difference between the major female artists of the early nineties and those of today is that they’re on opposite sides of that quarter-life marker. Take at the ages in which today’s newer female stars enjoyed their first top twenty hit: Carrie Underwood, 22; Miranda Lambert, 22; Kellie Pickler, 20; Taylor Swift, 17.
Now compare that to the women who broke through from 1989-1992: Suzy Bogguss, 34; Pam Tillis, 33; Mary Chapin Carpenter, 31; Wynonna, 27; Trisha Yearwood, 26. Unlike today, there were also several additional female artists who were also on the radio – Reba McEntire, Kathy Mattea, Patty Loveless, and Tanya Tucker – all of whom were in their thirties.
“Age ain’t nothin’ but a number,” Aaliyah once sang, but the musical output of these two crops of artists suggest otherwise. “Hey Cinderella” was a top five hit for Bogguss in 1994, and perhaps best exemplifies the different perspectives of these two generations of women.
“We believed in fairy tales that day,” Bogguss sings as she reminisces with her friend about the day her friend got married. “I watched your father give you away. Your aim was true when the pink bouquet fell right into my hands.” It sounds like the beginning of the latest Taylor Swift song, perhaps a duet with Kellie Pickler.
But as life goes on, “through the years, and the kids, and the jobs, and the dreams that lost their way,” these grown women are wondering about those fairy tales. “I’ve got a funny feeling we missed a page or two somehow”, and find themselves wanting to question the legendary princess: “Cinderella, maybe you can help us out?” they ask. “Does the shoe fit you now?”
While the perspective of youth is honestly preserved, these are clear-eyed adults with a wealth of life experiences informing their feelings today. It doesn’t get more honest than the line “We’re good now ’cause we have to be.” It’s not so much we grow up because we want to, but rather because we have to.
I’ve written many times that I don’t find Taylor Swift’s music offensive so much as irrelevant. When I was a teenager, I could listen to country music and not fully understand the intricacies of what the songs were about, but I knew I’d eventually grow into an understanding. Over the past fifteen years, I’ve done just that. What I can’t do is regress back into the state of development needed to find Taylor Swift’s music relevant to me.
Honestly, I don’t think that the world looked like what’s described in “You Belong With Me” and “Love Story” at any period of my life. I’ve just never known girls who saw the world that way. The ones I knew have grown up to be women quite a bit like those that Bogguss and her contemporaries sang about. Here’s hoping that this generation is able to do the same. In the meantime, if you like country music by and for adults, this forgotten hit is a great starting point.
The following is a guest contribution from frequent commenter and devoted Patty Loveless fan, Stephen Fales, who is better known to Country Universe readers as Steve from Boston.
Country Universe is a site where timeless artists like Patty Loveless are not merely acknowledged, but embraced and celebrated. So when Leeann invited me to review my favorite artist’s Brownfield Maine concert as a guest contributor, I jumped at the chance. Thank you so much Leeann, Kevin and Country Universe for giving me this opportunity. And Leeann and Bill, it was a joy and an honor to join you folks for dinner and watch the concert with you. You both made this already memorable concert experience even more unforgettable for me, along with patty-loveless.net associates Nicole, Richard and Patti, and the following day Bob and Barbara, Kevin. And also, Marcia Ramirez from Patty’s band. Many, many thanks to all.
Patty Loveless at the Stone Mountain Arts Center, Brownfield Maine
July 3, 2009
Nestled in the northern reaches of the Appalachian Mountains, Brownfield Maine’s Stone Mountain Arts Center is a beautiful and intimate 200 seat converted barn turned listening room. It has a warm and rustic ambiance, and a very helpful staff. The wood beam framed building makes for a rich acoustical setting, almost like a giant, wooden resonator box. It is a hard place to find out there in the Maine wilderness, but well worth the effort, especially to enjoy artists and legends like Patty Loveless, Ralph Stanley, Marty Stuart, Suzy Bogguss and Kathy Mattea. Think of it as a quest.
This beautiful mountain setting was a perfect match for Patty Loveless, the celebrated neo-traditional Country artist with the warmly expressive Appalachian alto. The Queen of Mountain Soul seemed right at home in the northernmost reaches of her domain, and seemed to absolutely love the venue.
Patty Loveless is a warmhearted and humble lady, she is a true artist with a good sense of humor and down-to-earth personality, the “anti-diva” as her drummer, Martin Parker, calls her. She takes the stage with very little fanfare, no high tech video introduction or ostentatious stagecraft, no bells, no whistles. She just quietly joins her band and begins to sing. It is all about the music with Loveless, and she lets the music speak for itself.
Still, there was plenty of excitement in the air at Maine’s Stone Mountain Arts Center, but the magic emanated entirely from Patty’s empathetic heart and her crystalline Mountain-bred voice. She sings from a place even deeper than the heart, Patty Loveless sings from the very depths of her Appalachian soul. No smoke or mirrors needed, indeed, they would have been out of their league competing with such natural, God given talent. Patty Loveless sings without a net, and her performance on July 3rd, 2009 was inspired and virtually flawless.
Loveless is the prototypical Country artist. She has refined and perfected her inherent gifts through years of hard work and perseverance, and has become a living link to Country’s Golden age. The artistic (but not the chronological) scope of her work reaches all the way back to the works of the Carter family and Bill Monroe, and forward to the finest modern Country and Bluegrass artists. Folks like Jim Lauderdale who penned two of the 18 songs in Patty’s concert lineup. She is a master interpreter of their work, and a keeper of America’s rich Country and Bluegrass cultural heritage. Patty Loveless is herself, a national treasure.
All that’s good and great about Country music is embodied in the voice of Patty Loveless, and she brings it all to bear on her first rate, soul-nourishing material. Her mentors and musical heroes, her east Kentucky upbringing and authentic Coal-miner’s daughter heritage can be heard in the soulful Mountain timbre of each and every note that she sings.
Her amazing repertoire consists of songs that have been carefully selected over many years by Patty herself and her husband/producer (and genuine musical genius) Emory Gordy Jr. And this they have done with little regard to what is trendy, and with every regard to what is timeless, or potentially so. Patty and Emory choose and write their material with a profound understanding and appreciation of the heritage and traditions of authentic Country and Bluegrass, a heritage she often speaks of with great reverence between her songs. And by following her heart in all of her musical choices, Patty Loveless connects deeply with the hearts of her listeners.
Loveless’ song lineup at SMAC was a mix of real, hard-core Country, and the finest contemporary Country. But the lack of any Mountain/Bluegrass songs that she could have included from her catalog kept this generous sampling from being truly representative of who she is as an artist. Still, a generous lineup of her always high-quality hit songs, and her featured Sleepless Nights mini-set of classic Country covers was fine compensation, and is the stuff of legend in the making.
Patty blazed into her set list with passion and precision, leaving her audience awestruck and breathless. In a very real and literal sense, this was a breathtaking performance from start to finish. At 52, Loveless is still very much an artist on an upward trajectory, and her voice just keeps getting even better with the years.
Some notable highlights: Her heart wrenching rendition of the Jim Lauderdale penned “You Don’t Seem to Miss Me”, for which she won a Vocal Event of the Year award with the legendary George Jones. Loveless has collaborated with some of Country music’s absolute finest male singers, including Jones and Vince Gill, and for live performances she needs a strong male voice to fill the void on a few of those songs. Thankfully, she has found the perfect vocal partner in her band member, Garry Murray, who sang the tricky Jones harmony with feeling and finesse.
“Nothing But the Wheel” is the perfect Country song, by the perfect Country singer. It moves with a forlorn tempo, like the car the protagonist drives away from her heartbreak: ” And 41 goes on and on, and the lights go winding in the dawn, and the sky’s the color now of polished steel…and the only thing I know for sure, is if you don’t want me any-more then I’m holding on to nothing but the wheel.” With Patty Loveless at the wheel, it just doesn’t get any better or more Country.
Patty’s interpretation of the George Jones gem, “If My Heart Had Windows”, is a song of deep gratitude for love gone right, and she sings this slow lover’s waltz with a torch style intensity that warms the heart and burns to the soul.
Patty’s knockout rockabilly rendition of “Why Baby Why” kicks off her Sleepless Nights classics set with high octane energy…Patty describes it as “George Jones meets Tina Turner” But it’s all Patty Loveless…Patty is far too humble to admit this, but she very often surpasses her musical heroes with her own interpretations, and her version and performance here was no exception.
Ray Price’s original version of “Crazy Arms” was charming, but the Loveless version is nothing less than enchanting. It is pure music magic. Pete Finney begins and ends the song with a palpable sting from his expressive steel guitar, but it’s Loveless’ soulful and soaring vocal that really penetrates the heart. When Patty and Emory recorded their version “Crazy Arms” they slowed down the tempo from a moderate shuffle to a torchy ballad. This serves Patty very well in concert by giving her the opportunity to find and wring out every last drop of emotion hiding in the potential of the original.
Some inspired phrasing enables Patty to put great emotional emphasis on the lyric “crazy dream” as in “this ain’t no cra-zy dream I know that it’s real” whereas Price’s original stressed the first word “This” instead. This subtle yet dramatic difference is but one example of the interpretive genius of Patty Loveless.
The title song of Patty’s Grammy nominated classic country covers album, Sleepless Nights, features Vince Gill, and once again Garry Murray came through with flying colors. Vocally flying with Patty Loveless cannot be easy, “why did you go, why did you go? Don’t you know, dont you know? I need you”, But Murray keeps right up and they both soar to the heights. There was lightning in the area during this concert, and there was a single crackle that seemed to come from the amplifiers during this song. But Patty never missed a beat, and the whole song came off perfectly. Patty Loveless is a force of nature, and she positively electrifies her audience.
Lead guitarist Tom Britt took his opportunity to shine during an extended and exciting slide guitar introduction to another Lauderdale song, “Halfway Down” He wailed away like a true rock star, building anticipation before the familiar opening chords of this Loveless hit. Likewise, Patty kept the excitement going full boil throughout this rip-roaring Mountain Rock song.
The set closer was “Blame It on Your Heart”, perhaps Patty’s most performed song of all. She sings it with an energetic enthusiasm that makes the song fresh for singer and listener, every single time. Indeed, this is the way that she approaches every performance, embracing each and every note like it was her first and only chance to shine and share her gift. This Harlan Howard song is just plain fun and children seem to love it as well, as they try to sing the tongue-twister chorus. Loveless is artist and entertainer in equal measure. No other singer on the scene today balances the two quite as well as Patty Loveless does, with the exception perhaps of Dolly Parton.
Patty’s stage presence is confident as one would expect from a seasoned veteran, but also warm, easy going, and playful. She has a natural Country charisma and even her speaking voice, her relaxed east Kentucky drawl is music to the ears of her audience. The stories of her musical heroes, and her accounts of her formative years as a young artist under the tutelage of the late great Porter Wagoner, and her 21 year membership in the Grand Ole Opry, are informative and entertaining.
Her audience interaction is often full of surprises. Observing the intimacy of the venue, Patty commented how folks in the front rows were so close, and jokingly suggested they grab an instrument and come on up onstage. “But don’t grab me”, she quipped. “Although on second thought, that may be fun” Then she quickly added, “don’t mind me, I’m just a real cut up and a harmless flirt”.
When she mentioned her husband Emory Gordy Jr., she received some noticeable applause from the audience. Patty responded saying that it was good that Emory had some fans here as well, and “I see a young lady here with an Emory (University) shirt, How many concerts is this now, Nicole?” to which Patty’s (and Emory’s) most devoted fan replied “199″, and Patty said with a smile, “Wow, I owe you one, don’t I?” Patty also said something about how she was glad Nicole was such a huge Emory fan, then added: “but don’t forget now, he’s MY man”, which also brought laughter from the audience.
After “Blame” Patty introduced her incredible band. It is clear that all these folks are friends and fans of each other, and Loveless herself can often be seen warmly grinning, holding her heart and slowly shaking her head from side to side with enraptured appreciation during her band’s various instrumental interludes. And proficiency on multiple instruments almost seems to be a requirement in the Loveless band. Marcia, Deannie and Garry all play at least three instruments, and it seems most everyone is schooled on mandolin in a way reminiscent of Bill Monroe’s old Bluegrass string band. The stage, as wide as it was, could barely contain the scope of this incredible array of talent.
There are only a few criticisms for this otherwise flawless concert. The sound of the drums for the first few songs was much too loud, and competed for volume with Loveless’ strong vocals instead of supporting them. But that sonic imbalance was pretty well corrected by the sound techs before too long.
Also, Loveless seemed pitch perfect all throughout, with only one or two apparent missteps. Just enough to remind us that this is a gifted flesh and blood human being, and not some kind of angelic troubadour.
After the band introductions and some more friendly banter with her audience, Patty eased into her encore performance of the Hank Williams standard “Cold, Cold Heart”. With sparse acoustic instrumentation and a little steel, it was almost a capella, and one could hear a pin drop between the notes. Patty’s version is chill-inducing perfection, tear producing and is especially potent live. And that evening her performance was especially transcendent, almost supernatural. I almost expected to see the ghost of Hank Williams take a seat and tip his hat to the finest female interpreter of his work, bar none. I would love to see what Loveless could do with ole Hank’s “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”. The audience, and even her own band, was transfixed and mesmerized. Band members Marcia and Deannie especially, looked on with smiles of amazement.
With the completion of each song in the lineup, Loveless and her band received enthusiastic applause, which she greeted each time with sweet smiles and a grateful “God Bless You.” And at the end, she received thunderous standing ovations, and seemed genuinely humbled and overwhelmed. She gathered her band with her outstretched arms, and then they all graciously bowed a collective bow.
Patty Loveless is the most authentic voice in Country music today. Her fidelity to tradition, her creative blending of her own brand of mountain and country music, and her artistic integrity have rightly earned her the title of “Queen of Mountain Soul” from the great Ralph Stanley himself. And performances like her Brownfield concert on Friday, and albums like the exquisite Sleepless Nights demonstrate that she has earned the title “Queen of Country Soul” as well.
Patty’s long awaited follow up to her acclaimed 2001 classic Mountain Soul is scheduled for release on September 29th. Mountain Soul II has every essential ingredient to be yet another Loveless-Gordy masterpiece, and should enrich her already exceptional set list considerably. Just in time for the next leg of her tour starting this Fall.
As for a possible return to the Stone Mountain Arts Center? Word has it that Patty loved it so much, and felt so welcome by her gracious hosts Carol Noonan (folk singer and songwriter), and her husband, their staff and her appreciative fans, that she hopes to return twice a year.
Both on record and in concert, the music of Patty Loveless befriends the listener. She may sing “Soul of Constant Sorrow” on her Mountain Soul album, but the music of Patty Loveless is a source of great and constant joy, as well as inspiration, catharsis and consolation for all with attentive, listening hearts.
-Steve from Boston
For more information on Patty Loveless, visit
Which is the most comprehensive and up-to-date Patty Loveless fan site.
For a good stretch in the nineties, women were the dominant creative force in country music. Songwriter Matraca Berg was an indispensable component of that dominance, penning many of the biggest hits and best-loved tracks by signature acts like Trisha Yearwood, Patty Loveless, and Martina McBride.
It’s no surprise that this list of Favorite Songs written by Matraca Berg is almost completely composed of female artists. So distinguished is Berg’s catalog that worthy cuts by the Dixie Chicks, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and Gretchen Wilson just missed the list. Even Berg herself is only present with one performance, despite releasing several outstanding recordings in her own right.
But the beauty of these lists is that these are my own favorite songs, so I don’t have to force anything on to the list just to make it more well-rounded. Add your own favorites in the comments, and read Matraca’s 100 Greatest Women profile to learn more about this stunning songwriter.
“Wild Angels” – Martina McBride Wild Angels, 1995
This was meant to be the title cut of an album that Berg never released. Instead, the cut went to Martina McBride. It was McBride’s first #1 single, and listening to it today, it sounds remarkably rough around the edges for an artist who’d eventually become an AC radio staple.
“Fool, I’m a Woman” – Sara Evans No Place That Far, 1998
Berg’s writing can be effortlessly snarky, as evidenced by this breezy Sara Evans track that was a minor hit in 1999. “Did I say that I’d never leave you behind?” she queries. “Well, just keep treating me unkind. ‘Cause fool, I’m a woman, and I’m bound to change my mind.”
“When a Love Song Sings the Blues” – Trisha Yearwood Real Live Woman, 2000
Trisha Yearwood is Berg’s finest vessel, the only voice elegant enough to equal Berg’s words. This melancholy closer to Yearwood’s excellent Real Live Woman set finds the protagonist seeking solace in a dusty old piano, playing “Faded Love” and “Born to Lose” so she doesn’t have to cry alone.
“Give Me Some Wheels” – Suzy Bogguss Give Me Some Wheels, 1996
A tense struggle between being herself and living up to an idealized creation formed by her lover leads to choosing the car keys over sticking around. “I’ll never be the angel you see in your dreams. Give me some wheels if I can’t have wings.”
“The Last One to Know” – Reba McEntire The Last One to Know, 1987
Berg’s talents came to full fruition in the nineties, but there are a handful of treasures in her catalog from the previous decade. McEntire’s dignified performance is tasteful and understated, as she asks herself, “I believed you really loved me. Why can’t I believe you said goodbye?”
“Demolition Angel” – Pam Tillis The Collection, 2006
A variety of CD and MP3 albums have been compiled from the live DVD released by Pam Tillis in 2005. She debuted several new songs in that concert, including “Demolition Angel”, a stellar Berg song that has yet to be included on a studio album. She’s asking God to send down a “demolition angel” to tear down the walls she’s built around her heart, which she describes as a “monument to pride.”
“Everybody Knows” – Trisha Yearwood Pure Country, 1992
I once saw Yearwood remark durin a concert that she had to record this song because it included the words “jerk” and “chocolate.” She’s growing frustrated with everyone in her life that has a different opinion on how to get over her heartache. She’s be happy to be left alone with “some chocolate and a magazine.”
“You Should’ve Lied” – Lee Ann Womack Something Worth Leaving Behind, 2002
A deliciously bitter rejection of a cheater’s apologetic confession. “You overestimated me,” Womack seethes, “thinking I would understand. Believing that your honesty would make me see a bigger man. Was that all part of your plan?”
“You Are the Storm” – Dusty Springfield A Very Fine Love, 1995
Springfield covered this evocative track from Berg’s debut album, a weary goodbye to a man plagued by his own inner demons. “I tried to love you, I tried to keep you from harm,” she rues, “but I can’t give you shelter when you are the storm.”
“You’re Still Here” – Faith Hill Cry, 2002
This shamefully overlooked gem from Hill’s Cry collection is painfully poignant. A woman sings to her husband who has passed on, but is still everywhere that she goes. My personal favorite moment is when she sings, “I heard you in a stranger’s laugh, and I hung around to hear him laugh again. Just once again.”
“Cry on the Shoulder of the Road” – Martina McBride Wild Angels, 1995
Levon Helm provides the killer harmony track as McBride finally leaves a troubled relationship behind, content to find her comfort out on the interstate. “I’d rather break down on the highway with no one to share my load, and cry on the shoulder of the road.” I’ve always thought that the lyrics of Lee Ann Womack’s “A Little Past Little Rock” were heavily influenced by this song.
“For a While” – Trisha Yearwood Inside Out, 2001
Another Berg song cut by Yearwood that uses the word “jerk”, though I suspect it was the undercurrent of self-deprecation that truly appealed to the songstress when she cut this song. Watching an old Road Runner cartoon, she notices the “poor old coyote. Someone had a worse day than me for a change.”
“Mining for Coal” – Randy Travis No Holdin’ Back, 1989
This deep and moving performance by Randy Travis makes me wish more male artists would cut Berg’s songs. He’s so surprised to have found a true love while he was just looking for someone to ease his loneliness. “It’s like finding a diamond when you’re mining for coal.”
“Come Back When it Rainin’” – Trisha Yearwood Real Live Woman, 2000
Here, Yearwood is refusing to indulge her rainy day lover, who only seems to come around when he’s feeling down. “I’m just someone to call when you need a place to fall,” she notes, showing him the door.
“You Can Feel Bad” – Patty Loveless The Trouble With the Truth, 1996
Loveless turns the tables on the man who thinks he’s letting her down easy. “Your head is hanging and you look real sad. Maybe you should have called?” Her heart may be broken but her dignity – and biting wit – remain intact.
“Strawberry Wine” – Deana Carter Did I Shave My Legs For This?, 1996
Berg’s signature song of lost innocence is a perfect match for Carter’s sandpaper vocals. For those of us who “still remember when thirty was old”, this remains a beautiful commentary on the passage of time.
The earliest entry in Berg’s trilogy of songs inspired by her grandfather’s farm. I don’t know if this one is as autobiographical as “Strawberry Wine” and “The Dreaming Fields”, but it’s certainly as beautiful. “Calico Plains” tells the story of an older sister sharing her dreams with her younger sister. Little sis ends up making that dream her own when the elder Abilena finds herself with child and must marry and stay at home.
“Nobody Drinks Alone” – Keith Urban Be Here, 2004
A cautionary tale sung to a man who thinks he is at home by himsef, drowning his sorrows and painful memories with a bottle of wine. “Don’t you know nobody drinks alone?” Urban warns. “Every demon, every ghost from your past, and every memory you’ve held back follows you home.”
“Wrong Side of Memphis” – Trisha Yearwood Hearts in Armor, 1992
If there’s a better song out there about chasing the dream of country music stardom, I haven’t heard it. As the opening track of Yearwood’s landmark sophomore set, it announced her arrival as one of country music’s greatest album artists.
“On Your Way Home” – Patty Loveless On Your Way Home, 2003
Loveless earned a Grammy nomination for this confrontation of a cheating spouse who isn’t quite as forthcoming as his spurned lover needs him to be. “The truth is gonna set you free,” she sings, wearily promising, “If you keep on lying to me, I might stay right here just to spite you.”
“Diamonds and Tears” – Suzy Bogguss Something Up My Sleeve, 1993
Berg’s finest philosophical moment, a reflection on how the journey of life is its own destination. Even lost love is a form of “higher education”: “I have said and heard the word ‘goodbye’, felt the blade and turned the knife sideways. But I crossed bridges while they burned, to keep from losing what I’ve learned along the way.”
“The Dreaming Fields” – Trisha Yearwood Heaven, Heartache, and the Power of Love, 2007
A return to the wheat fields of her youth upon the death of her grandfather contains a sprinkle of social commentary, but is mostly a heart-wrenching exploration of grief over “the end of a world I love.”
“My Heart Will Never Break This Way Again” – Patty Loveless Strong Heart, 2000
The end of a first love brings not only the death of that romance, but also of the innocence that dies along with it. “It’s too bad, it’s so sad when your innocence is gone. It’s wasted on the ones that do you wrong.” Thus is the end result of a love “too blind with trust to know the Judas kiss.”
“Back When We Were Beautiful” – Matraca Berg Sunday Morning to Saturday Night, 1997
Berg received a standing ovation when she performed this stunning song on the 1997 CMA Awards, the same night that she won Song of the Year for “Strawberry Wine.” It recounts a conversation between grandmother and granddaughter, with the former confessing to the latter that “I hate it when they say I’m aging gracefully. I fight it every day. I guess they never see.”
The song is not available digitally and the album is out of print, but you can listen to it here.
“Lying to the Moon” – Trisha Yearwood The Song Remembers When, 1993
Berg refused to perform this song for years after Yearwood’s version was released, feeling that she couldn’t do it justice after Yearwood’s flawless rendition. Berg’s poetic style could be too precious in lesser hands, but Yearwood’s ability to be sincere without being schmaltzy makes her the perfect singer for “Lying to the Moon,” a song so breathtakingly beautiful that it’s easy to forget it’s essentially about getting stood up.
“I told the starry sky to wait for you. I told the wind to sigh to like lovers do. I even told the night that you were true, and that you would be here soon, and now I’m lying to the moon.” It’s one of Berg’s finest songs, combined with one of Yearwood’s finest vocal performances, a high-water mark for two of the genre’s greatest talents.
I’m pleased to introduce a new feature to Country Universe readers, which is a spin off of Favorite Songs by Favorite Artists called Favorite Songs by Favorite Songwriters.
While we all appreciate songwriters for their invaluable contributions to our favorite artists, they still often remain unrecognized as the people behind the scenes and, therefore, stand in the shadows of the big name artists who sing their songs. The purpose of this feature is to spotlight those songwriters who had or have aspirations of being stars, but are better known for sharing their craft with the more visible artists.
Therefore, the criteria for this feature is that the spotlighted songwriter has to have both written songs that other artists have recorded and recorded music of his/her own. For instance, Darrell Scott, Rodney Crowell, Radney Foster, Kris Kristofferson, Bruce Robison, etc. are eligible songwriters, since they’ve recorded their own music and written songs for other artists. Conversely, people like Alan Jackson, Garth Brooks, Randy Travis, Clint Black etc. won’t be eligible, since they’ve mostly only written songs for themselves and not others.
Finally, Favorite Songs by Favorite Songwriters will include a mix of songs that the songwriter has recorded, and songs that he/she has written that other artists have recorded, which will obviously depend on our favorite songs by that songwriter and our preferred version of the chosen song.
With this feature, we hope to help readers realize the contributions of individual songwriters and, perhaps, inspire you to explore the artists’ own discographies as a result.
Last summer I kicked off our Songwriters Series with my favorite modern country music songwriter, Darrell Scott. So, I thought it fitting to do the same with this new feature. Since I’ve already taken up considerable space describing this feature, I encourage you all to refer to my aforementioned spotlight to learn more about the man about which this article is written.
A pertinent note, however, is that most of the songs on this list have been recorded by both Scott and other artists. While the majority of the songs on this particular list will specifically refer to other artists, please assume that Scott’s own recordings are more than worth exploring as well.
Darrell Scott, “Banjo Clark” Aloha From Nashville
One of the things that I marvel the most about Darrell Scott is his ability to write songs that sound like timeless standards. “Banjo Clark” is one such song. In fact, I had to double check to make sure Scott had actually written this song and that it wasn’t a public domain standard that he revived.
Tim McGraw, “Old Town New” Live Like You Were Dying
Scott wrote “Old Town New” with another superb modern songwriter, Bruce Robison. So, it’s no surprise that this song about a man wishing that he could make his old town feel new again after a failed relationship is good. While it remained just an album cut on McGraw’s signature album, it’s as good as many of the singles that were released from it.
Suzy Bogguss, “No Way Out” Give Me Some Wheels
“No Way Out” is up-tempo, but is not devoid of life’s realities. The family experiences familiar hardships, but the husband and wife hold themselves accountable by reminding each other that they’ve “fell in love and there’s no way out.”
While Bogguss’ recording is the superior version, both Darrel Scott’s and Julie Roberts’ versions are good as well. Moreover, this is the first song of Scott’s that was recorded by another artist.
Darrell Scott, “When There’s No One Around”
Garth Brooks recorded a version of “When There’s No One Around”, but Scott’s version is more organic and sonically appealing. It’s a poignant look at who we are when there’s no one around, which is inevitably different than our public personas.
Travis Tritt, “It’s A Great Day to Be Alive” Down the Road I Go
We all know “It’s A Great Day to Be Alive”, since it was a big hit for Travis Tritt. This song has been recorded by Scott and Cory Morrow. Tritt’s is the definitive version, however. It tries to be hopeful while still somehow managing to feel a little bleak at the same time. While he proclaims that it’s a great day to be alive, there’s a sadness that lurks under the surface that seems to threaten the bright outlook, which is actually more tangible in Scott’s recording.
Darrell Scott, “With A Memory Like Mine”
“With A Memory Like Mine” was co-written with his dad, Wayne Scott. Darrell found the beginnings of this song in a notebook of his father’s and encouraged the Elder Scott to finish it with him. Scott’s version, which can be found on a solid project with Tim O’Brien, is darker than the quick paced recording by The John Cowan Band, which is more appropriate for this chillingly sad song. The man sends his son off to war by telling him to “be a good soldier/but return again someday.” His son does return, but in the most devastating way possible for a parent. In a casket.
Martina McBride, “I’m Trying”
“I’m Trying” has been recorded by both Diamond Rio as a duet with Chely Wright and Martina McBride, though McBride’s is the stronger version. It explores a struggling relationship that almost seems like more work than it’s worth. Instead of leaving us with a typical happy or tragic ending, we are only given an assurance that they love each other and they are trying to make things work. The melody is tastefully simple with a fitting production that showcases McBride’s atypical restrained vocals, which translates into appropriate empathy for the characters within the song. It is a simple song with a simple production, but still poignant in a quiet way.
Trace Adkins, “Someday”
Adkins is the only artist to record this song, as far as I know. It’s a beautiful and hopeful song, with tinges of sadness. As is duly noted about Adkins, he sings these more serious songs the best, even if radio disagrees.
Dixie Chicks, “Heartbreak Town”
This is an indictment on Nashville, which is one of two songs written by Scott and recorded by The Chicks that tackles the topic. The song portrays Nashville, a place where so many people hope to enjoy success, as a “heartbreak town, which is something that both the Chicks and Scott have surely learned from personal experience.
Kathy Mattea, “Loves Not Through With You Yet”
Right Out of Nowhere
I’m thrilled that one of my favorite Mattea albums includes this thoughtful, gorgeous Celtic flavored song by Darrell Scott: “You may think that love takes two, but loves a gift from you to you.”
Sara Evans, “Born to Fly”
Born to Fly
Scott happened to write one of Sara Evans’ most recognizable and best hits to date. “Born to Fly” is an infectious coming of age song. While her parents are stable and grounded, that’s not the way the songs’ character wishes to live and she asks, “How do you keep your feet on the ground when you know you were born to fly?”
Darryl Worley, “Family Tree”
I Miss My Friend
While many of Scott’s songs can be heavy, this is an example of his sillier side. Scott does a great version, but Worley cuts loose just the right amount. He clearly revels in singing deliciously smarmy lyrics like, “Well, raisin’ up babies is our new sport/You’re one day late and I’m one dollar short/Now, maybe it was planned or maybe it was a goof/But a cat’s got to dance on a hot tin roof.”
Darrell Scott, “Goodle’ USA”
The Invisible Man
A more watered down version of this song can be heard on Faith Hill’s album. If one doesn’t listen closely, it’s easy to miss the probing lyrics that question the state of America. While Scott’s recording is not quite as polished, the political message is much more overt, which includes his original lyrics that were altered for Hill’s version to be less controversial.
Dixie Chicks, “Long Time Gone”
This is the other song that was written by Scott and recorded by The Chicks that takes Nashville to task. Wrapped in an unshakably catchy melody, “Long Time Gone” disregards conventional niceties and tersely critiques the music that’s being played on the radio:
“Now me and Delia singin’ every Sunday
Watchin’ the children and the garden grow
We listen to the radio to hear what’s cookin’
But the music ain’t got no soul
Now they sound tired but they don’t sound Haggard
They got money but they don’t have cash
They got Junior but they don’t have Hank
I think, I think, I think…the rest is…
A long Time Gone”
Patty Loveless, “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive”
Patty Loveless’ recording of “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive” sounds like a superb arrangement of a forgotten classic, except it isn’t a remake and was written just over ten years ago. While I feel the definitive version was recorded by Patty Loveless, Darrell Scott has recorded two versions that, even if Loveless’ version did not exist, would earn a spot on this list. Through haunting lyrics and melodic structure, “Harlan” tells the tragic story of the bleak existence of coalminers that is just about inevitable:
“But the times got hard and tobacco wasn’t selling
And old granddad knew what he’d do to survive
He went and dug for Harlan coal
And sent the money back to grandma
But he never left Harlan alive
Where the sun comes up about ten in the mornin’
And the sun goes down about three in the day
And you’ll fill your cup with whatever bitter brew you’re drinkin’
And you spend your life just thinkin’ of how to get away”
Patty Loveless sings this song with an immense emotional intensity that was likely gathered from personal experience as a daughter of a coalmining father who eventually succumbed to “Black Lung Disease” as a result of coalmining in Kentucky. In fact, each person who has sung this song so far, including Darrell Scott himself, has a personal and deep understanding of the significance of the hopelessness that the lyrics convey, since Brad Paisley, Kathy Mattea and Scott also lived in coalmining towns as children. Consequently, they were all exposed to the horrifying reality of the song’s title that authoritatively proclaims that “you’ll never leave Harlan Alive.”
This list certainly does not exhaust the extent of Darrell Scott’s immeasurable songwriting prowess, but it shows his wide range of capabilities as a diverse composer and lyricist. He can do fun, heartbreak, inspirational, political, social commentary, fast, slow, etc. Moreover, he does it all with poignancy and wit, as it is appropriate.
I was going to connect this somehow to country music, perhaps by discussing K.T. Oslin’s sudden stardom at age 45, or seeing award show winners like Cal Smith or Suzy Bogguss completely stunned and humbled by the recognition of their talent.
But I’m really just sharing this because it made me smile broadly and think of the world as a better, brighter place.
In the liner notes of her debut album, the legendary Chet Atkins wrote that “her voice sparkles like crystal water.” An apt description of Suzy Bogguss indeed. Her pure and clear voice has s always been a perfect fit for a wide range of material, whether she’s singing old Western songs or modern-day swing.
Bogguss was barely out of college when she started to follow her muse. With a group of friends, she spent the summer after her graduation criss-crossing the country with an amp and a guitar, going into random clubs and asking if she could play for the night in exchange for enough cash to cover expenses.
The novelty wore off quickly for her friends, who went back home when the summer was over, but Bogguss persevered. She recorded an LP to sell at her shows, and soon became a regular on the midwest coffeehouse circuit.
When she finally got up the gumption to move to Nashville, she put together a demo cassette. She got her big break when she landed a performance slot at a new theme park in 1986 – Dollywood. A label executive from Capitol Records caught her show, bought her cassette and offered her a contract.
Four years after exploring Western swing on the appropriately titled Swing, Suzy Bogguss delves into contemporary jazz on her latest independent release, Sweet Danger, and once again, the title fits. While the musical arrangements are unfailingly sweet throughout the album, the lyrics enter some dangerous emotional territory. The result is a record that lulls you into complacency, then pulls the rug out from under you with its starkly confessional lyrics.