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Favorite Songs by Favorite Artists: Dan Seals

dan-sealsThe following is a guest contribution by Country Universe reader Tad Baierlein.

When Dan Seals died of lymphoma last Wednesday, a great deal of the press coverage centered on his days as “England Dan” in the soft rock duo England Dan and John Ford Coley. Seals’ country career, though more successful for a longer period of time, seemed to be treated as an afterthought.

Many of the obituaries mentioned Seals’ biggest country hit, “Bop”; hardly an accurate representation of his years spent in country. Now, it’s perfectly justifiable to glance at a person’s career highlights for a newspaper obituary, but I think that a great deal more attention should’ve been paid to Seals’ death within the country music community. I would like to contribute this little appreciation to one of my favorite country artists.

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“The Banker”
Rebel Heart, 1983

For two years following the split of England Dan and John Ford Coley, nothing seemed to be going right for Seals. First off, he recorded two solo soft rock albums just as that sound was going out of favor. Aside from one single ekeing its way into the Adult Contemporary charts, the albums were considered huge failures. Secondly, Seals had accrued a massive amount of debt to the IRS; almost everything he owned was repossessed to pay it. Seals’ move to Nashville had been planned for quite a while but in 1982 it seemed almost a necessity.

This song that he wrote for Rebel Heart would seem to place his frustrations and hope in the story of a man trying to save his land from an evil, number-crunching banker. Sometimes when it seems like all hope is lost all you can do is work to get yourself out of trouble. Seals could only hope that the oil-rich resolution of “The Banker” came true in his life as well; he wouldn’t have to worry.

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“Fewer Threads Than These”
On the Front Line, 1986

The Seals album On the Front Line was his first as a country superstar. Refreshingly, Seals decided to go in a more self-assuredly country direction. With only a few exceptions (“I Will Be There,” “You Still Move Me”) the album follows a more straightforward country path. The album not only points to the direction Seals would take with his Rage On album, but also to the direction producer Kyle Lehning was already pursuing with his most famous artist, Randy Travis. This song, one of only three on the album not written by Seals, is a lovely traditional-sounding tune about patience in a relationship, featuring great dobro work by Jerry Douglas.

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“Candle in the Rain”
Rebel Heart, 1983

Seals had worked with Kyle Lehning for six years prior to his first country album. Lehning produced the most successful albums for England Dan and John Ford Coley. Much like Seals, Lehning didn’t consider himself part of the rock ’n’ roll community. Not only was he already working in Nashville at the time he started producing England Dan, he was established as a country musician (working with artists
like Waylon Jennings and the Glaser Brothers).

If Seals hadn’t strongly indicated an interest in country music right off the bat, it’s more than likely that he would’ve drifted in that direction anyway with Lehning at the helm. “Candle in the Rain,” an album track from Rebel Heart, features a new wave/country mix that’s pretty revolutionary. Right off the bat there’s a combination of acoustic guitar and synthesizer that hadn’t been heard in country music previous to Lehning’s production. The clear, almost new wave, drum beat in the chorus, the mixture of steel guitar and synthesizer, the airy backing vocals; “Candle in the Rain” really does combine the best elements of country and rock. It was a sound that Lehning and Seals would return to on many occasions.

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“My Baby’s Got Good Timing”
San Antone, 1984

Bob McDill and Dan Seals had a mutually beneficial songwriting relationship during Seals peak years as a country artist. McDill helped Seals find his voice as a country artist and songwriter, and Seals allowed McDill to get back to the more challenging material he had written in the seventies for folks like Don Williams and Bobby Bare. “My Baby’s Got Good Timing” is a tenetive first step for both artists; both are still unsure of Seals viability as a country artist.This is mainly McDill’s patented breezy love song matched with Seals’ best pop vocals. It’s an excellent combination but one that doesn’t point to the brilliant compositions the two would write in the years to come.

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“God Must Be a Cowboy”
Rebel Heart, 1983

To me, Seals’ Bahai faith really colors “God Must Be a Cowboy,” his first top ten hit. From what I understand (and I probably don’t) Bahai is like a buffet table of spirituality (take a little of this from Christianity, a little of that from Hinduism, oh that part of Islam looks good…), with meditation on universal tolerance at its core. “God Must Be a Cowboy” travels on the well-worn path of songs about country beauty vs. city clog, but there’s a meditative quality to the lyrics that separates it from the pack.

Seals takes time to appreciate the friendship of an old guitar, whose sound “sure smooths the wrinkles of my soul.” “An eagle overhead” makes Seals want to fly away before his time. Whatever home means to you, thank God there’s a trail to take you back there. Seals doesn’t chastise the city (“it’s alright for awhile/Sure makes you feel good when you’re there”), but he understands that in order to appreciate it you must first appreciate the quiet moments in the country. As a country artist, Seals tended to share his faith more by recording songs about tolerance rather than preaching. “God Must Be a Cowboy” really embraces his faith to a point that it shouldn’t be ignored.

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“Lullaby” (with Emmylou Harris)
On the Front Line, 1986

In many ways this song could be considered the opposite (or resolution of) Seals‘ huge 1985 duet “Meet Me In Montana.” Marie Osmond’s saccharine vocals are replaced by Emmylou Harris’ relaxed harmonies. A spare acoustic sound (highlighted by Mark O’Connor’s always welcome fiddle) replaces the rather bombastic orchestration of “Meet Me In Montana.” Poignancy and contentedness replaces fear and urgency. While “Meet Me in Montana” practically throttles you to get its attention (in a good way), “Lullaby” glides. The song doesn’t draw attention to itself, and if you notice how beautiful it is at the end of On the Front Line, well, good for you. A lovely song.

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“Bop”
Won’t Be Blue Anymore, 1985

Undeniably catchy, and a monster crossover hit that rocketed Seals to the top of country play lists, “Bop” is also marred by some of the worst tendencies of eighties production. From the processed saxophone to the drum machine to the squiggly synth prominent in the mix, “Bop” was Public Enemy Number One for folks who wanted country music to get back to its traditional roots. The strange thing is, “Bop”was not only an anomaly as far as Seals’ country career was concerned, but it also doesn’t match anything Kyle Lehning has been known for before or since. “Bop” was a very fun gamble that worked extraordinarily well. The unfortunate side effect was that the song associated Seals with the pre-packaged country the hat acts tried to eradicate in the early nineties.

on-the-front-line#18
“I Will Be There”
On the Front Line, 1986

A bit of a bone thrown at the pop-country crowd that made “Bop” such a massive hit (co-written by Jennifer Kimball, the co-writer of “Bop”). That isn’t to say it’s not an impressive song, but aside from the mandolin that comes and goes in the verses it’s not very country. “I Will Be There” sticks out like a sore thumb on On the Front Line. Even so, the production is definitely more tasteful than “Bop”; it’s almost as if Seals and Lehning looked at what they had done and were like, “we need to step back a little from this for our own good.” Also very prominently featured on this song are Baillie and the Boys, a vocal group who had quite a few hits of their own in the late eighties, as well as providing excellent backup to the likes of Seals, Randy Travis and Clint Black, among others.

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“Saw You in My Dreams”
Make it Home, 2002

After the failure of his last two singles from On Arrival, Seals decided to sign a deal with Warner Bros. The resulting albums, Walking the Wire and the Kyle Lehning-less Fired Up, were flops. After the inevitable drop from Warner Bros. Seals became a touring artist at modest venues. With one exception, Seals’ only albums from 1994 to his death were live recordings of old hits.

His last chance at regaining his country audience was 2002’s Make it Home, a very nice collection of new material (mainly written by Seals or Nashville pro Rand Bishop). There are no amazing moments on Make it Home, but it’s almost uniformly well done. The best song on the album, in my opinion, is this song about a chance encounter/pickup. For a subject that could’ve turned sleazy on a dime (“would you believe I saw you in my dreams” he casually mentions to his crush in the chorus) it’s a sincere and very sweet song. If Make it Home is indeed Seals’ last solo album, it’s a good way to finish things up.

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“Big Wheels in the Moonlight”
Rage On, 1988

Seals’ 1988 album Rage On is probably his definitive moment as an artist. All of a sudden the relaxed production of On the Front Line was matched with uniformly good songs. One of the recurring themes of Rage On is wanderlust, whether it’s from a relationship (“Addicted”) or the boredom of a small town (“They Rage On”).

Wanderlust is name-checked in “Big Wheels in the Moonlight,” and it’s probably the most deceptively downcast song on the album. The protagonist spends two verses talking about his dream of riding the big rigs, but in the third he’s stuck in the same town with “kids and a wife and a regular job.” That dream that drew him in as a kid now haunts him as an adult, but he‘s resigned to not living it. Seriously, without listening to the lyrics, who would guess how sad this song is?

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“You Still Move Me”
On the Front Line, 1986

Country fans who can overlook the mid-eighties production painted a little thick on “You Still Move Me” will find a breathtakingly beautiful ballad. Not only is the melody lovely, but the song contains some of Seals’ greatest vocal moments. Particularly outstanding are his pained vocals in the bridge, and his “God, you move me” at the end. That moment perfectly sums up this song about a man who can’t believe he’s about to wreck a good relationship, but can’t control his emotions any longer.

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“You Plant Your Fields”
Won’t Be Blue Anymore, 1985

Wendy Waldman’s route to Nashville mirrors Dan Seals in every way except scope. A moderately successful singer/songwriter in the 1970’s, Waldman moved to Nashville in the early eighties. Unlike Seals, Waldman found her niche in songwriting for artists like Crystal Gayle, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Don Johnson (I mean, I’m talking about Wendy Waldman here, how could I ignore the fact that she wrote “Heartbeat” for Don Johnson).

“You Plant Your Fields” is more introspective than most of Waldman’s country material, comparing the seasons of love to tending the farm: “You plant your fields when the spring is tender, when the summer beats down you pray for rain, you hope for the harvest, the long cold winter, then you plant your fields again.”

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“In San Antone”
San Antone, 1984

Broadway vs. home is a hoary old cliché, but it always seems to apply. For every artist who makes it big on the great white way there are at least a thousand who become disillusioned and homesick. The title track to Seals second country album is a story about a singer trying to make it on Broadway but missing the girl he left behind in San Antone. It’s unclear whether he’ll return to her, but it’s a pretty safe bet considering he “can’t take much more of Broadway,” namely his squalid seventh floor apartment. The rocking coda of the song, where he proclaims “She believes in me!,” would probably point the way of departure.

on-the-front-line#12
“Three Time Loser”
On the Front Line, 1986

It doesn’t get much more fun than this little ditty from On the Front Line.  This is one of Seals’ amazing run of nine number one singles, and eleven out of twelve. It’s interesting that Seals often gets mentioned as a pop star first and country star second, because as a kid I considered him to be the quintessential country artist. Every single he released struck some sort of chord, whether it was a lovely ballad about friends, a pure rock song about someone being there, or this country song about trying to figure out girls (surprisingly prescient to a seven year-old).

rage-on#11
“Five Generations of Rock County Wilsons”
Rage On, 1988

A bit like “The Banker” in context but much more successful and realistic as a composition. If the theme for most of Rage On was wanderlust, this song expresses the exact opposite emotion. The protagonist wants to stay put and is outraged that his heritage means nothing to the men driving him off his land. He finally resigns himself to the fact that he will have to make way for the “big diesel cats.” At the end he boards a “big ol’ gray dog” bound for wherever; the song makes him sound like he’s doing it at gunpoint.

on-arrival#10
“Bordertown”
On Arrival, 1990

After eight years of nothing but top ten hits, the streak finally broke with “Bordertown.” It wasn’t like the song hit number 12 either; it barely cracked the top 50. Possibly it was the transition to the early-nineties hat acts, but probably it was the controversial material: “Bordertown” is about illegal immigration, a touchy issue at the time that has only grown touchier since 9/11.

Seals and Bob McDill’s viewpoint, that everyone deserves a chance to become an American, is a stance that not many artists would take a chance on. The writers don’t waffle on “Bordertown”; they have a clear opinion that nobody should stand in the way of somebody who wants a better life. “The law’s the law,” except when the law applies to human decency. “It’s not his job to say what’s right or wrong,” and it’s not anybody’s job to stop people from improving their situation. It’s a shame that this was the single that drove Seals off of the charts, because it’s a song that deserved a wider audience to hear its message.

rebel-heart#9
“Up On the Hill”
Rebel Heart, 1983

Almost like a dry run for “They Rage On,” this song is about star-crossed lovers who find love and escape at night to their little makeout point. But unlike some other songs that share this same story the song takes a very pessimistic turn when the man from the wrong side of the tracks finds out “that money is what it’s all about.” But the man doesn‘t give up; every night he still climbs that hill, waiting. Good luck fella.

Another great example of the soon to be commonplace Kyle Lehning production style, with steel guitars standing side-by-side with electric guitar and a propulsive drum beat. This style almost seems more natural for those of us who grew up with 80’s and 90’s country music. To me, it’s hard to believe that there was a time when it didn’t exist (for better or worse).

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“Addicted”
Rage On, 1988

A brilliant song about a woman trapped in a destructive relationship, “Addicted” remains a very powerful piece of work. There’s a wonderful YouTube performance of “Addicted” from 1991 where Cheryl Wheeler joins Seals on stage to play guitar and sing a verse that wascut out of the single version. It’s interesting to see the writer and the singer’s different takes on the song: Whereas Seals sings the song like a concerned bystander dealing with a situation he has no control over, Wheeler sings her verse as an almost desperate wake-up call to a friend. It took a lot of guts for Seals to release “Addicted” as a single (and not only that, but as the first single from the album Rage On) and it’s a great performance.

wont-be-blue-anymore#7
“Meet Me in Montana” (with Marie Osmond)
Won’t Be Blue Anymore, 1985

As Seals and writer Paul Davis’ first country number one and duet partner Marie Osmond’s return to the top after a ten year absence, “Meet Me In Montana” is a bit of a watershed for the soft-rock-to-country transfer of the mid-eighties. Davis was a crony of Seals and Kyle Lehning, as well as being a successful soft rock performer in his own right in the late-seventies. Instead of pursuing country superstardom Davis decided to retire from performing and write songs (occasionally performing, most notably with Paul Overstreet and Tanya Tucker on “I Won’t Take Less Than Your Love”). Davis wrote two very important songs for Seals: “Bop” and this brilliant duet. Seals’ clear voice matches perfectly with Osmond’s sunniness. Their voices add some hopefulness to a subject matter that could’ve been a little harsh.

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“My Old Yellow Car”
San Antone, 1984

It’s a shame that Seals didn’t pair up more with Thom Schuyler, who was for a time considered the songwriter’s songwriter in Nashville (partly because he wrote the songwriter’s song, “16th Avenue”). As a country singer, Seals was at his best telling a story or getting inside a character, and Schuyler was one of the best in the early eighties. In “My Old Yellow Car,” the successful protagonist looks back with regret at the old rust-bucket, and the innocence, that he’s lost track of.

on-arrival#5
“Love On Arrival”
On Arrival, 1990

OMG it’s LOA. IMHO the song is LOL clever. I’ll quit that.

Seals’ final two number ones were great old rock ’n’ roll throwbacks: “Love On Arrival” and his cover of Sam Cooke’s “Good Times.” Those singles arrived at a time when country was trying to “get back to its roots;” instead of Sam Cooke and The Beatles (Seals’ idols growing up) the new traditionalists name-checked George Jones and Merle Haggard.

At the time it seemed like the gulf between new artists like Garth Brooks and Clint Black and late-eighties artists like Dan Seals couldn’t have been wider. Brooks and Black weren’t crossing over from pop, and they didn’t seem to have rock ‘n’ roll roots; they seemed authentic. This was before Brooks showed his Billy Joel fetish and Black started writing songs with Jimmy Buffett.

If anything, Garth Brooks can be seen nowadays as inheritor of Dan Seals’ throne: an immensely popular artist not afraid to be country or pop if the need be and not afraid to be controversial if the need be. As for the song itself, “Love On Arrival” is clever, fun and has a great hook: what more could you ask for.

on-the-front-line#4
“Gonna Be Easy Now”
On the Front Line, 1986

A song about the hopelessness and lack-of-control of day-to-day life. I love the question/answer chorus that just gets bleaker and bleaker as it goes: “What’re you gonna do if the well runs dry? I’ll wait for the rain to fall. What’re you gonna do if the crops all die? Well, I won’t have to work at all. What’re you gonna do if the creek gets high? I’m still making up my mind. What’re you gonna do if the sun don’t shine? I’ll lay right down and die, and then everything’ll be alright.”

The protagonist puts on a brave face, a sort of roll-with-the-punches mentality, but inside he knows that “problems ain’t goin’ away, they’re just gonna change their shape” (this pessimistic attitude about rolling-with-the-punches contrasts harshly with the lessons taught in “You Plant Your Fields“). Seals’ final scream, “Everything’s gonna be easy now,” is a real eye-opener.

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“They Rage On”
Rage On, 1988

“They Rage On” is the song that broke Seals’ streak of number one singles, and listening to it it’s easy to see why; this ain’t no drinking song depression, it’s full-blown hopelessness. I wouldn’t place a song this bleak at the top of any chart. “They Rage On” is a song about small-town people who have nothing better to do with their lives, so they sit around holding each other tight, “searching for the answers.”

If it sounds like I’m dismissing “They Rage On” I’m certainly not; I’ve never heard a song encapsulate small town frustration any better. I’m just amazed that it was released as a single. If “They Rage On” doesn’t prove that Seals took more risks than any other country artist of the late-eighties I don’t know what does. Whatever the case, “They Rage On” is a gorgeous, brooding number which deserved its place as Seals’ streak-breaker.

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“One Friend”
The Best, 1987

As I said before, from reading the obituaries it would seem that Seals had two signature moments as an artist: one as a member of England Dan and John Ford Coley with Parker McGee’s “I’d Really Love to See You Tonight” and the other as a solo crossover artist with “Bop.” Those two songs are all well and good, but to me “One Friend” and “Everything That Glitters” will always be Seals’ signatures.

Amazingly, “One Friend” had to be resurrected and re-recorded for his greatest hits to become a single. Seals recorded a spare two-minute long acoustic version for the end of San Antone. The original version was obviously supposed to be a pleasant little album ender, nothing more. Kyle Lehning thought the song had potential, so he had Seals repeat the bridge and the chorus, then added orchestration. The finished product is a song that is deceptively simple and universal, and one of the greatest songs about commitment I’ve ever heard.

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“Everything That Glitters (Is Not Gold)”
Won’t Be Blue Anymore, 1985

“Everything That Glitters (Is Not Gold)” is a brilliant composition. It’s a song filled with great characters (apparently from stories that Seals‘ grandmother told him): the struggling rodeo rider living in a mobile home, his little girl who’s slowly turning into a woman, the old horse that should be put to pasture except the rider “just can’t bear to let him go” and, of course, the woman who let success go to her head and left the people who loved her behind. The song is basically crying for a movie to be made of it, except no movie could match Seals’ emotions here.

The first verse and chorus is sung with vulnerability and resignation. The anger starts to build in the second verse, culminating at the bridge where he tells her “Someday I’m sure you’re gonna know the cost, cause for everything you win there’s something lost.” Then, after a moment to gather himself, Seals wistfully sings the chorus, then whistles off into the sunset.

Goodbye, Dan.

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Hall of Fame, By the Numbers

hall-of-fameMy good friend and favorite sports blogger Charles Geier, of The Widening Geier fame, has long used statistics-based reasoning when making the case for the best in sports, whether for the current season or throughout the history of a given sport.

He recently launched an in-depth site called Sports Statistics – By the Numbers, which details the crucial importance of statistics, and of course, it got me thinking about country music.

Music statistics are difficult to use in the same way, if only because chart success is but one measure of an artist’s impact. However, with country music being such a commercial genre, it’s interesting to see how the most successful chart acts have fared among Country Music Hall of Fame inductees.

Looking through Joel Whitburn’s Hot Country Songs 1944-2008 and Hot Country Albums 1964-2007, it’s immediately clear that the charts are important. All of the top ten country singles artists are in the Hall of Fame, as are eight of the top ten country albums artists.

But what about those not in the Hall of Fame who are ranked high in either measure? Should they be next in line, or should they still wait? What follows are the top ten singles artists and album artists that have yet to be inducted or announced as inductees of the Hall of Fame. Their rank overall is included after their name.

Top Country Singles Artists Not in the Hall of Fame

  1. Reba McEntire (Overall Rank: #11)
  2. Hank Williams, Jr. (#15)
  3. Alan Jackson (#18)
  4. Garth Brooks (#23)
  5. Ronnie Milsap (#26)
  6. Kenny Rogers (#27)
  7. Tim McGraw (#29)
  8. Brooks & Dunn (#33)
  9. Tanya Tucker (#34)
  10. Don Williams (#37)

Top Country Albums Artists Not in the Hall of Fame

  1. Hank Williams, Jr. (Overall Rank: #5)
  2. Kenny Rogers (#10)
  3. Garth Brooks (#12)
  4. Reba McEntire (#13)
  5. Alan Jackson (#18)
  6. Randy Travis (#19)
  7. Tim McGraw (#22)
  8. Anne Murray (#23)
  9. Toby Keith (#24)
  10. Ronnie Milsap (#27)

This year’s artist inductees to the Hall of Fame are Barbara Mandrell and Roy Clark. Mandrell ranks #55 on the singles list and #64 on the albums list. Clark comes in at #118 on the singles list and #63 on the albums list. Both artists, however, were very successful on television, so they also reveal how limiting such lists can be.

Thoughts?

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Grammy Flashback: Best Female Country Vocal Performance

Revised and Updated for 2009

While the Grammys have honored country music from the very first ceremony in 1959, they did not begin honoring by gender until 1965, when the country categories were expanded along with the other genre categories.

This is a look back at the Best Female Country Vocal Performance category. It was first awarded in 1965, an included single competing with albums until the Best Country Album category was added in 1995. When an album is nominated, it is in italics, and a single track is in quotation marks.

I’ve often made the case that female artists were making the best music in the 1990s, and the Grammys did a great job nominating songs and albums that were ignored at the CMA and ACM awards, which is not surprising, given that those shows have so few categories that are actually for songs and albums.

As usual, we start with a look at this year’s nominees and work our way back.

2009

  • Martina McBride, “For These Times”
  • LeAnn Rimes, “What I Cannot Change”
  • Carrie Underwood, “Last Name”
  • Lee Ann Womack, “Last Call”
  • Trisha Yearwood, “This is Me You’re Talking To”

This year’s lineup includes three former winners and two women looking for their first victory in this category. Martina McBride is in the running for the eighth time in fifteen years, and with one of her more understated performances. Lee Ann Womack returns for a fifth time, having received a nomination for the lead single of her five most recent albums. Both ladies turned in good performances here, but they’ve been overlooked for records bigger and better, so they’re not likely to snap their losing streaks this time around.

As for the previous winners, LeAnn Rimes earned her third consecutive nod, bringing her total to five in this category. She hasn’t won since 1997, when she took home the award for “Blue.” If enough voters hear “What I Cannot Change,” she might have a shot, though the only version of the song that’s been a legitimate hit has been the dance remix.

Trisha Yearwood won in 1998 for “How Do I Live,” her only victory to date. But she’s earned her tenth nomination for “This is Me You’re Talking To,” which is arguably her strongest vocal performance of the ten. Like Rimes, the challenge is getting enough voters to listen to it, but she’s never been more deserving of the victory than she is this year.

Still, the favorite remains Carrie Underwood. She’s quickly become a favorite with Grammy voters, having won this category two years running, along with Best New Artist in 2007. She’s the nominee with the highest profile, and while “Last Name” is nowhere near the same league of “Jesus, Take the Wheel” and “Before He Cheats” in terms of artistry or impact, it was a big hit, something that the other four entries cannot claim.

If Underwood was nominated for “Just a Dream,” she’d have a mortal lock on this one. But the strength of the other nominees will at least keep this race competitive. If Underwood prevails, Grammy queen Alison Krauss better watch her back.

2008

  • Alison Krauss, “Simple Love”
  • Miranda Lambert, “Famous in a Small Town”
  • LeAnn Rimes, “Nothin’ Better to Do”
  • Carrie Underwood, “Before He Cheats”
  • Trisha Yearwood, “Heaven, Heartache and the Power of Love”

Looking at this lineup, you’d think that it was a golden age of female country artists, something akin to the mid-nineties. In reality, only one of these songs was a big radio hit, though three others managed to go top twenty. In terms of quality, however, this is the most consistent and thoroughly wonderful set of nominees this category has seen this century.  You’d have to go back to exactly 1999 to find a better lineup.

In a year when any winner would have been deserving, Underwood won for “Before He Cheats,” her second straight win for a signature mega-hit from her debut album.

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Buyer’s Guide: Dolly Parton

Building a music collection used to be a far more difficult thing, a dogged hunt through record stores and mail order catalogs, hoping to find what you were looking for.   The advent of the internet made things easier, but it wasn’t until music could be downloaded digitally that a deep music collection could be built with far less effort.

However, all of this available music can be overwhelming, especially when you’re trying to get a handle on the catalog of an established artist.  Country Universe is here to help.   Our Buyer’s Guides will walk you through the music that is digitally available for a given artist, starting with the essential purchases for new listeners, and working through the entire digital catalog until even the completist fan will be sated.    You can also sample each album in its entirety, and purchase any song or album that you like through Amazon’s MP3 store.

Our first Buyer’s Guide is for our artist of the month, Dolly Parton.  Look for many more to come in the new year.

Starting Your Collection

Dolly Parton’s catalog is quite the labyrinth.   Thankfully, there are several compilations available that are an excellent value, offering twenty tracks each for less than ten dollars.   Casual fans can just pick up the first set, but serious country fans should skip the first and buy the other three.

Ultimate Dolly Parton

This collection is all that the casual fan will ever need, with twenty hits included for just under eight bucks.    All of her big crossover hits are here, like “Islands in the Stream”, “9 to 5″ and “Here You Come Again.”   Also included are her country classics “Jolene”, “Coat of Many Colors” and the original recording of “I Will Always Love You.”    It’s a bit too broad for studious fans of country music, but if you just want the big hits, they’re all here.

The Essential Dolly Parton, Volume Two

RCA has yet to issue a definitive box set for Parton, but their three Essential releases in the nineties are collectively effective in covering her tenure with the label.    This is the strongest of the three sets, focusing on her sixties and seventies material.   In addition to the big hits, including the original recording of “I Will Always Love You”,  you also get lesser-known greats like “Touch Your Woman”, “Mule Skinner Blues” and “The Seeker.”   Her transformation from mountain singer to pop sensation is captured here, as the set includes the first wave of her pop hits, too.

The Essential Dolly Parton One: I Will Always Love You

Even though it was released first, this set focuses on the latter years of Parton’s tenure, with nearly all of the cuts being released in the eighties.  The rest of the big pop hits are here, like “9 to 5″ and “Islands in the Stream”, along with some forgotten gems, most notably “Single Women”, “God Won’t Get You” and “Tennessee Homesick Blues.”  Also of note is her recording of “To Daddy”, which she chose not to release when Emmylou Harris expressed interest in recording it instead.

The Essential Porter Wagoner & Dolly Parton

Although they both are Hall of Famers, you can’t effectively tell the story of either Porter Wagoner or Dolly Parton without discussing their work together.   They are the most successful collaborators in country music history, and nearly all of their hits are collected here.   Classics like “Making Plans” and “Just Someone I Used To Know” are essential, as are “Burning the Midnight Oil” and “The Last Thing on My Mind.”

Building Your Collection

Trio

For all three women involved – Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris – this was a career landmark, which brought them wide critical acclaim and huge commercial success.    The harmonies are exquisite throughout, but the best moments are “The Pain of Loving You”, “Wildflowers” and “Telling Me Lies.”

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Crystal Shawanda, “My Roots Are Showing”

It’s been a while since I’ve heard a mainstream country single that really surprised me. This one does. The song combines the basic theme of Shania Twain’s “Any Man of Mine” with the bluesy rollick of Tanya Tucker’s “It’s a Little Too Late,” and the result is a swaggering little sass-fest that sounds like nothing else on the radio right now.

There are hitches: the central image of exposed “roots” proves too frivolous to carry the song along the whole way, and as interesting a vocalist as Shawanda is, she sounds a little green behind the mic here, like she’s not yet sure how to harness her massive voice on record.

But the funny thing about this single is how it almost seems to be less about the song itself and more about the message conveyed through the combination of sound, style, performance and sentiment. It’s like Shawanda and RCA are daring the same radio programmers who embraced “You Can Let Go” to take up their swords for an artist who isn’t afraid to show her true colors and sing outside the box – and that’s pretty friggin’ cool.

Written by Whitney Duncan, Christi Dannemiller, & Robin Lee Bruce

Grade: B

Listen: My Roots Are Showing

Buy: My Roots Are Showing

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Classic CMA Awards Moments, #24: Ladies of the ‘90s

#24: Ladies of the ’90s

The 1990s were a time of tremendous fortune for the leading ladies of country music, with the females in the genre mining more gold and platinum than ever and selling a record number of concert tickets.

The depth in talent was none more apparent than in the Female Vocalist of the Year category. Although only four men were named Male Vocalist of the Year between 1990-1999, eight different women received recognition as the year’s premier vocalist. Three women in particular, all diverse artists in an ever-changing genre, made their marks on the CMA Awards with their one win in the category.

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100 Greatest Women, #15: Tanya Tucker

100 Greatest Women

#15

Tanya Tucker

She was barely a teenager when she first appeared on the country music scene, but her voice had a tortured wisdom far beyond her years. Her early singles were dark and brooding slices of Southern Gothic, but over time she would mellow into one of the most consistently successful female country artists of all-time, with a span of hits stretching over three decades.

As a young child, Tucker was surrounded by music. Her older sister LaCosta was an aspiring country singer, and by the time Tanya turned eight, she had embraced the same dream. Her father Bo drove her across the West and Southwest, looking for opportunities for his youngest child and taking construction jobs wherever he could find them. She auditioned for a film in Utah, earning a small part, and sang at the Arizona State fair. In 1969, she was discovered by Mel Tillis, who put her on a show with him. This encouraged the family to move to Las Vegas, where Tucker was soon performing regularly.

While still shy of her thirteenth birthday, she recorded a demo tape that caught the attention of Billy Sherrill, head of A&R at Columbia. He was so impressed that he invited her to record for the label. On the first day that he presented her material, he played her what he thought would be the perfect song for a young teen artist: “The Happiest Girl in the Whole U.S.A.” Tucker hated it, and passed on the song. Sherrill was taken aback, but the next day he returned with another song, “Delta Dawn.” It was a dark and mysterious tale of a 41 year old woman who wandered around town, looking for the deceased lover who was supposed to make her his bride.

The song was a smash, and set the tone for a stunning series of Southern Gothic singles from the throaty young vocalist. Her first #1 single, 1973’s “What’s Your Mama’s Name”, was about an old man desperately searching for the love child he’d learned about in a letter years ago. “Would You Lay With Me (In a Field of Stone”) was a love song seeking a promise to share a grave. Her darkest hit was the #1 smash “Blood Red and Goin’ Down”, where Tucker is a young girl following her father from bar to bar until he finds his cheating wife and her lover. “He sent me out to wait, but scared I looked back through the door. And Daddy left them both soaking up the sawdust on the floor.”

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