It’s always interesting to see how music industry awards reflect (or don’t reflect) larger narratives in the industry itself.
If you’re interested in the narratives behind this year’s CMAs, look no further than the two men who’ve made the biggest strides on the ballot: Blake Shelton and Jason Aldean. Both show up in Entertainer and Male Vocalist, plus Album and Single, plus assorted other stuff. But the marketing approaches that have gotten them there are vastly different.
Shelton’s is the traditional wisdom: cover all media ground with an inoffensive product until the people buy in. So he’s a core act at radio; he’s on a popular TV show (The Voice); he hosted the ACMs; he was in a ton of magazines for his marriage; he Twitters a lot.
Then there’s the Aldean approach: make a distinct product, generate enough radio support to plant the seeds, then go straight to the fans, tour relentlessly, build up word-of-mouth – let the industry come to you. I think it’s the more effective approach, personally. Look at Eric Church, who has a fraction of Shelton’s ubiquity but beat him in first-week album sales and is still beating him cumulatively - no TV spotlights, no gossip mags, no Twitter.
And look at how many acts on this ballot started on indie labels. Aldean, Taylor Swift, Zac Brown Band, Thompson Square, the freaking Civil Wars. Major-label power still matters, but it seems to mean less all the time. Media saturation still matters, but it seems to mean less all the time. Music is the only thing that always counts, and even the highly political CMAs are starting to have trouble ignoring it.
Just my thoughts, anyway. What say you to this list?
Who’s In: Jason Aldean, Blake Shelton, Taylor Swift
Who’s Out: Lady Antebellum, Miranda Lambert, Zac Brown Band
Who’s In: Jason Aldean, Kenny Chesney
Who’s Out: Dierks Bentley, George Strait
Who’s In: Sara Evans
Who’s Out: Reba McEntire
The Civil Wars
Who’s In: The Civil Wars, Thompson Square
Who’s Out: Brooks & Dunn (historical moment!), Joey + Rory
The Band Perry
Little Big Town
Zac Brown Band
Who’s In: Nobody
Who’s Out: Nobody
The Band Perry
Who’s In: The Band Perry, Eric Church, Thompson Square
Who’s Out: Easton Corbin, Jerrod Niemann, Zac Brown Band (won)
Notes: Bryan and Young are both on their second nominations here, but for once there’s no obvious frontrunner. Thompson Square pick up the category-filler nom from Jerrod Niemann. This reminds me: where has Easton Corbin gone?
Blake Shelton, All About Tonight
Jason Aldean, My Kinda Party
Taylor Swift, Speak Now
Brad Paisley, This Is Country Music
Zac Brown Band, You Get What You Give
Notes: Shelton’s is a low-selling EP. Uhhh.
Sara Evans, “A Little Bit Stronger”
Zac Brown Band, “Colder Weather”
Jason Aldean with Kelly Clarkson, “Don’t You Wanna Stay”
Blake Shelton, “Honey Bee”
The Band Perry, “If I Die Young”
“Colder Weather” – written by Zac Brown, Wyatt Durrette, Levi Lowrey, and Coy Bowles
“Dirt Road Anthem” – written by Brantley Gilbert and Colt Ford
“If I Die Young ” – written by Kimberly Perry
“Mean” – written by Taylor Swift
“You and Tequila” – written by Matraca Berg and Deana Carter
Notes: Nice to see there are still some Matraca Berg fans out there amid the Brantley Gilbert ones. Interestingly, Swift’s first nomination in this category.
“As She’s Walking Away” – Zac Brown Band featuring Alan Jackson
“Coal Miner’s Daughter” – Loretta Lynn, Sheryl Crow and 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
Notes: I’m troubled by the fact that “Don’t You Wanna Stay” is nominated for Single and “As She’s Walking Away” isn’t.
“Honey Bee” – Blake Shelton
“If I Die Young” – The Band Perry
“Mean” – Taylor Swift
“Old Alabama” – Brad Paisley featuring Alabama
“You and Tequila” – Kenny Chesney featuring Grace Potter
Notes: The worst Brad Paisley video ever to be nominated here, I think.
Compared to the cultural juggernaut that was Fearless, Taylor Swift’s Speak Now has underperformed at both retail and radio. The set’s fifth single, “Sparks Fly,” could turn things around for Swift, as it’s perhaps the most perfectly constructed single in a career built on tracks that are marvels of pop production and songwriting.
What makes “Sparks Fly” a standout is that it is, in a lot of ways, the purest iteration of Swift’s template and repertoire. Producer Nathan Chapman grounds the single in a punchy, not-at-all-country pop-rock sheen and ensures that all of its key lines and phrases are pitched for maximum impact.
It’s that attention to the details of production that make Chapman and Swift such a strong team: Most singles don’t highlight a line in the middle of their second verse, but here, Chapman dials back the volume on the electric guitars just as Swift sings, “You find I’m even better/Than you imagined I would be.” There isn’t a line in the song that captures the tone of first-love wonder more perfectly, and Swift’s breathless delivery suggests that she might be even more surprised by that revelation than anyone.
The song’s proper hook is even better constructed. The a capella “Drop everything now” exclamation simply commands attention, with the desperation in Swift’s call-to-action answering the common criticisms that her work is sexless and chaste. For all of the well-documented technical limitations of her voice—and yes, she wanders off pitch more than once on “Sparks Fly,” and yes, it would likely be even better a single if she didn’t— Swift is learning how to perform her songs with real depth and conviction.
As for the song itself, the narrative of “Sparks Fly” doesn’t necessarily scan as “country” in any archetypal way, but its simplicity and plain-spokenness parallel some of the genre’s conventions. If Swift writes what she knows, what she knows better than anything else is the head rush of infatuation. Of the many songs she’s written on that subject, “Sparks Fly” is both the purest in tone and the most familiar. With references to meeting someone in the rain and being guarded and fireworks and a touch that’s “really somethin’,” the song makes use of nearly all of Swift’s go-to phrases and images.
But, rather than scanning as redundant when considered alongside “Fearless” or “Back to December,” “Sparks Fly” proves how evocative those turns-of-phrase can be in the right context. To that end, “Sparks Fly” plays as a template as much as it does as a standalone single, and it’s a testament to everything Taylor Swift gets right.
Feel free to mention, discuss or link to some of your favorite mom-related songs, or just any songs that remind you of a special mother or grandmother (since no one really knows when National Grandparents Day is anyway [except me now, via Wikipedia - it's the first Sunday after Labor Day. Woo!]).
Here are a few of mine:
Doc Watson, “Mama Don’t Allow No Music”
Performed by the most awesomely disobedient instrumental ensemble ever (though Watson probably overdubbed half of the instruments himself).
Iris DeMent with Matraca Berg, “Mama’s Opry”
This mama is significantly more tolerant of music.
Taylor Swift, “The Best Day”
The favorite potshot of many who dislike Taylor Swift is that she’s a spoiled, talentless rich kid who probably doesn’t even write her own songs. If that’s the case, someone managed one heck of a cover-up with this song, which captures with humble gratitude and a distinctly young perspective the little, unextravagant ways a mother can inspire and restore her children.
This is going to be a really important show, you guys.
Entertainer of the Year: Taylor Swift
Top Female Vocalist: Miranda Lambert
Top Male Vocalist: Brad Paisley
Album of the Year: Lady Antebellum, Need You Now
Song of the Year: “The House That Built Me”
Single of the Year: “The House That Built Me”
Top Vocal Duo: Sugarland
Top Vocal Group: Lady Antebellum
Top New Artist: The Band Perry
Top Till You Drop:
Vocal Event of the Year: Zac Brown Band & Alan Jackson, “As She’s Walking Away”
Music Video of the Year: Miranda Lambert, ”The House That Built Me”
- – -
10:02 Well, all right, that was fun enough. Kinda. Thanks for playing along, y’all, and have a good night!
9:58 A shocking upset! As shocking as, like, one of those chewy Sweet Tarts.
Entertainer of the Year: Taylor Swift
9:56 Hey, how about next year we get James Taylor to come back and sing with the Dixie Chicks again? Yes or yes?
9:52 They segue into “Sweet Baby James.” At least this pairing makes musical sense.
9:48 Leeann: Zac Brown and James Taylor, Carrie Underwood and Steven Tyler, Jennifer Nettles and Rihanna? Is CMT testing for upcoming Crossroads episodes?
9:45 Was having some trouble with the site for a few minutes there. Now we’re up to Zac Brown Band doing a very cool “Colder Weather” with James Taylor.
9:41 Amazing how only a year and a half ago the idea of Miranda winning one of the really competitive awards still seemed like a pipe dream.
Top Female Vocalist: Miranda Lambert
9:36 “Love Gets a Hold of You” or something. It sounds okay – almost in the same you’re-gonna-miss-me-boy! vein as “Turn on the Radio,” though. I think we’re all ready for some more mature Reba now. Take a lesson from Martina.
9:34 Reba’s out to sing something or other. I just saw today that “If I Were a Boy” got yanked as a single; this must be the new one?
9:27 Darius Rucker singing “Music from the Heart” with a choir of various ages and developmental disabilities. Very passionate, touching performance.
9:25 Chris Young’s trying out the hatless thing.
9:25 Oh, for real? At least he acknowledged he has too many now.
Top Male Vocalist: Brad Paisley
9:22 I don’t know how I’m still awake through all this. I shouldn’t be saying such things at 9:23.
9:17 Leeann: Martina is worming her way back into my heart again. I’m a soft touch.
9:17 …Who just tweeted, “Holy crap, I’m singing.” Perfect.
9:14 Awesome. It does. This reminds me of Jeannie C. Riley, the spunky honesty of it. And I like to fantasize that she got some inspiration for that opening “honestly, I think I need a drink” line from Drunken Martina.
9:13 Martina’s coming out with “Teenage Daughters.” I really hope this translates well to stage.
Top Vocal Duo: Sugarland
9:10 Kevin: Naomi Judd: The answer to the age-old question, “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?”
9:09 Leeann:Ronnie Dunn sounds so much like Brooks & Dunn. Go figure.
9:07 He looks and sounds like musical Jesus. I mean that in a complimentary way!
9:03 Ronnie Dunn’s coming up with “Bleed Red.” Excited for that, kinda. I think C.M. Wilcox is right and that it’ll work well as an award show performance even if the single itself is a little sleepy (to some of us).
8:56 Leeann: Good. Have Kristian introduce Nettles/Rihanna to show how secure he is about being put on the sideline all the time. We’re convinced.
8:55 True fact: The banner at the top of this post will light up and spin all through this Rihanna-Jennifer Nettles performance. Watch closely!
8:53 She interjects a bit of some song I should probably recognize but don’t, and then “I’ll Fly Away.” And she sounds real good.
8:53 I bet there are some Christian folks out there from Miranda’s life who are like, “We did not say that!”
8:52 A Miranda performance is usually my favorite part of an awards night. But it’s “Heart Like Mine.”
8:41 Or, as our pal Corey Parkman of Farce the Music just put it on Twitter, “I wonder what Sara Evans would sound like if she ever got over that sinus infection.”
8:38 The return of Sara Evans to the ACMs. Last performance I remember from her here was that severely pitch-challenged one of “Coalmine” the night she won Top Female years ago. She sounds better here, but still not up to many of her recorded performances.
8:35 I mean, seriously, y’all. “Need You Now” is the only reason Need You Now has sold like it has, and the album selling like it has is the only reason it’s getting this recognition. “Need You Now” won Song and Single of the Year at last year’s ACMs; couldn’t that have been enough?
8:31 IEIOF432IfffkDdk&*$#vdsadvfdjfpvfs >:(
Album of the Year: Lady Antebellum, Need You Now
8:28 Well, don’t think I was missing much. Such a shame – he truly would be one of the best male vocalists in the game if he had better taste.
8:25 We get a Blake Shelton performance. Don’t recognize the song.
Single of the Year: “The House That Built Me”
8:14 Jason Aldean doing the Colt Ford country-rap “Dirt Road Anthem” and it’s every bit as cool you would imagine. (That is, decidedly un-.)
8:09 Apparently their dad’s name is Steve Perry. I snickered harder than I should have.
Best New Artist: The Band Perry
8:07 Kevin: And my favorite of the 57 performances so far is…Taylor Swift. No one can ever accuse me of not having an open mind.
8:05 Kimberly Perry delivers the “well” in “If I Die Young” with way too much spunk. “Well! I’ve had just enough time. So if I do die – y’know, whatever!”
8:03 Whoops, apparently it’s a guitjo/ganjo. Whatever, it’s not like I’m a writer of music-related opinion articles or something!
8:00 Taylor Swift singing “Mean” and strumming the banjo, which is not how I’ve known anyone to play the banjo. Pretty cool scene, though – they’re in front of an old-timey house and the band’s all decked out in their Depression-era best.
7:55 Kevin: Not naming the songwriters for Song of the Year is an absolute disgrace.
[They announced it as "Miranda Lambert, 'The House That Built Me,'" though she's not the one who wrote it.]
Song of the Year: “The House That Built Me”
7:53 Finally, we get one: Song of the Year.
7:50 Eric Church doing “Smoke a Little Smoke,” the one single of his I really dig, with verve. BUT THERE STILL HASN’T BEEN A SINGLE AWARD.
7:45 Back from commercial, Keith Urban performing his newest hit, “Without You (Nicole Kidman)(Pt. 3)(Ballad Version).”
7:42 Leeann: Seriously? Still no award yet? What are we watching?
7:38 Dierks Bentley running laps around the arena to “Am I the Only One,” determined to make us like the unlikable.
7:36 Kevin:That’s what I wanted that song to sound like on the album.
7:35 I’ll say this: JNett still has the best stage charisma of any mainstream country star who isn’t Keith Urban.
7:32 Leeann: Half hour in and still no award yet at this…uh…awards show.
7:32 Sugarland’s here, Jennifer apparently with hair extensions, and they’re doing “Tonight.” Figured this would probably be the next single. Like Kevin, I’d like the recorded version if not for the head-cold-ish performance.
7:30 Well, that was fun. Good thing I gave up on the term “country music” meaning anything a few weeks ago!
7:27 Kevin: We’re officially down the rabbit hole.
7:27 They segue into “Walk This Way.”
7:26 Steven Tyler is really good at screaming awesomely and only ok at remembering the words to Carrie Underwood songs.
7:24 Two Soul Surfer ladies come out to introduce Carrie, who’s doing “Undo It.” WITH STEVEN TYLER! OK, I like this now.
7:20 Apparently Dr. Pepper’s current slogan is “There’s nothing like a Dr. Pepper.” Uhhhh.
7:17 Pleasant enough song (“Somewhere Else”), and he’s got that sweet Toby growl going.
7:16 Leeann: It’s nice to like Toby Keith music these days.
7:14 “ARE THEY READY?! DOES ZAC BROWN ENJOY THE FEEL OF HIS ASS IN THE SAND?!” Best Blake line of the night so far.
7:13 The celebrity cheap shots are coming hard and fast, though.
7:10 We are promised no Charlie Sheen or Lindsay Lohan jokes. God? Is that you?!?
7:07 Celine Dion’s here now, and she’s VERY VERY EXCITED! I honestly can’t think of a better Vegas gate-keepeer, though.
7:07 Kevin: Since when did Alabama become a trio? What a poorly cropped picture, lawsuit or not.
7:06 It would be great if, instead of writing songs about how great the classic acts were, today’s artists just figured out how to measure up.
7:04 Leeann: Good. We get this disappointing Paisley song out of the way now.
7:04 “Old Alabama” now.
7:02 Cute-ish opening skit with Blake Shelton “rehearsing for his wedding night” by serenading a blond-wigged Reba with “Who Are You When I’m Not Looking.”
6:52 Leeann: John Rich is so much more tolerable when he’s with Big Kenny.
6:38 The JaneDear Girls just appeared onscreen. When are they un-appearing, I wonder?
6:33 Wynonna and Naomi Judd chilling with Suzanne Alexander now. Colorically speaking, Wynonna has become a human sunset.
6:31 Chris Young is now talking to Storme which means his voice is audible – yay!
6:26 On some red carpet somewhere, GAC’s Storme Warren just presented to Vocal Event award, inevitably, to “As She’s Walking Away.”
6:15 Dierks Bentley will be playing “Am I the Only One” tonight. Have fun, no one!
6:04 Super-jealous of The 9513′s sweet new live blog layout. Also: the smartness of their live-bloggers. Also: the fact that Brady and Brody Vercher are named thusly.
5:59 Red carpet time, woo!! I bet everybody’s totally wearing clothes this year.
I’ve never been a big fan of Taylor Swift because of two reasons. One, I don’t find any personal relevance in the adolescent perspective that she usually writes from. And two, I don’t care for her vocal style.
Go figure that she writes what’s probably her most adolescent song since “Picture to Burn” and directly answers criticisms that she can’t sing in the third verse, and the end result is my favorite thing she’s done to date.
Seriously. I want to go buy the album now. I realize that the song was inspired by those who’ve criticized her talent more than her work. But just like “Not Ready to Make Nice” was a direct response to death threats over a political statement but tapped into something more universal, “Mean” serves a larger purpose as well. It puts into song that feeling of being disrespected and insulted by someone with more power or a larger platform than you, for no other reason than they don’t like you.
The image I always use in my head is one of inner light. When that light shines bright, it offends those who’ve had their light go out. Nothing frustrates people like that more than someone whose light is completely resistant to every attempt made to extinguish it. It brings out their inner meanness.
Swift’s message to those on the receiving end is that those who will put you down may have power over you now, but it’s limited by time, place, and your own self-awareness.
I’m glad that this song exists. There isn’t nearly enough civility and kindness in the world, and some people really are just mean. I can’t think of another song that articulates the distinction between honesty and cruelty so well. It does it in a very adolescent way, with a healthy dose of snark-ridden contempt, but since mean people usually haven’t evolved beyond adolescence in the first place, such an approach seems wickedly appropriate.
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.
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
Countless albums were released in 2010, in mainstream country music, Americana, bluegrass, and all the other loosely associated sub-genres that make up the country universe. Of those albums, our writers particularly enjoyed the following twenty. All four writers submitted top ten lists for the year, and amazingly enough, there were exactly twenty different albums among them. So if you’re wondering if your favorite album just missed the list…it didn’t. But we’d love to hear why we were wrong in the comments.
Enjoy part one now, and look for the top ten on Friday.
#20 A Crooked Road Darrell Scott
Tomorrow’s hits today, should the current crop of hitmakers want something as good on the radio as “Long Time Gone” or “It’s a Great Day to Be Alive,” or just want to have an album cut for the ages like “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive.” Scott’s a singer’s songwriter, delivering his songs with enough personality to elevate them above demos but leaving enough room for improvisation, so that any singer can put their own spin on it.
This twenty-track collection is stunningly strong, with his observations about politics and religion and history intriguing, but his take on human relationships being downright enlightening. – Kevin Coyne (more…)
Earlier this year, a discussion with a colleague of mine revealed a mutual affinity for country music. It was a typical conversation that I have with fans that are around my age. We fell in love with the music about twenty years ago, don’t think it’s quite as good as it once was, but can find a lot of things to like from just about any era, including the current one.
So in the 2010 version of making a mix tape, I offered to load up her iPod with a whole bunch of country music. A week later, she took me to dinner as a thank you. We started talking about the music that I’d passed on to her, and she told me that she was listening to the iPod while mowing the lawn. Suddenly, a song came on that made her cry. Full-out cry, mind you, not just a tear or two.
So I ask if it was “Love, Me”, or maybe “Where’ve You Been”, or something similarly tragic. She was almost embarrassed as she told me that it was the old Anne Murray hit, “You Needed Me.”
Now, there are a few possible reactions to this. I suspect for many or even most, it will be either befuddlement or outright derision. But me? I totally understood why that song would have such a strong impact, and I can best describe it in one word: Sincerity.
It’s the bane of the cynic’s existence, and of many critics as well. You don’t see Anne Murray pop up on too many lists when discussing the greatest country artists of all time, or even the greatest pop-country singers of all time, even though she’s definitely both. Ditto for Kenny Rogers and my once future wife Olivia Newton-John, who also fit well into both categories.
But there are some artists who exude sincerity and still are treated with reverence, like Loretta Lynn and Alan Jackson. What makes them different? I think it’s the added perception of authenticity that differentiates them from the artists above.
Take Dolly Parton as a case study. Rare is the critic or country music historian who doesn’t speak highly of both her pre-1976 and post-1999 output, where her music was firmly grounded in her mountain roots. But her pop era – roughly 1977-1986 – is widely maligned. The sincerity is there all the way throughout her career, whether it’s delivering the brilliant working class social commentary present in both “In the Good Old Days” and “9 to 5″, or when she’s just being hopelessly maudlin, be it with “Daddy Come and Get Me” or “Me and Little Andy.”
I think that she gets less credit for that period because there’s a sense that she’s being something that she’s not, that the authenticity is lacking. When you think someone is being inauthentic in their sincerity, it’s hard for some to embrace them. I think that I’m in the minority in that I don’t care much if someone is authentic, so long as they’re sincere.
Where things fall apart for me are when I perceive authenticity without being able to sense the sincerity in the performances. This is my major issue with many of the more traditional artists today. I think Jamey Johnson, Gretchen Wilson, and Brad Paisley are completely authentic in their music. They are who they say they are, and such. But I have trouble getting into them because they don’t come off as genuinely sincere.
It’s hard to articulate this, but to use Paisley as an example, he often sounds to my ears like he’s emotionally divorced from what he’s singing. The brain is plugged in, but I don’t feel the heart. I loved, loved, loved “Letter to Me” because his voice cracked with emotion. I felt the sincerity that I don’t feel when I hear “Anything Like Me” or “Little Moments.”
Meanwhile, Carrie Underwood can rarely do wrong with me because she drips with sincerity, something that was prevalent even during her embryonic Idol days, but has really come into play with her writing so much of her material. “Change” is my favorite song she’s done so far, not just because I fully agree with the message, but that she sings it with such sincerity. Does she live out the message in her own life? I have no idea. But her performance is so powerful to my ears that it being her authentic life story is as irrelevant to me as the fact that Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon aren’t really a death row convict and a Catholic nun, respectively.
Sincerity over authenticity, if I have to choose. Both are great to have, but the former is more essential than the latter in the music that I love the most. It may be a meaningless distinction in the end, but it’s the only explanation I can come up with for me usually liking songs much better by great singers than by the original songwriters, and for Laura Bell Bundy getting so much more play on my iPod than Taylor Swift, the most genuinely authentic teen star ever. Or at least since Lesley Gore.
With that all said, how about we listen to some Anne Murray? She’s awesome.