This is a guest contribution by regular commenter, Michael Hawkins, who posts as Highwayman3.
The movies have the Oscars, the world of music has the Grammys, and that world subdivided into the country genre has the CM’s—the annual extravaganza that we fans look forward to every year. We see our favorites perform, win awards and lose with smiling gracious faces, or not [insert the inevitable Faith Hill reference here]. Everyone picks their favorites in each category as to who they’d like to win. But what about the show itself, the backdrop for which these prestigious awards are presented?
Recently, there have been posts at both The 9513 and on this site where people have been weighing in on their favorite moments from these awards. It occurred to me that none of those moments have happened in the last few years. The awards have slid into mediocrity, which is a fitting representation of the current state of country music. I understand producing these awards must be tough because you have to be everything to everyone, and acknowledge the traditional country, the Disney country, the old and new alike, and bring in people who don’t belong for the sake of ratings.
What’s wrong with the show?
The awards themselves seem like an after thought, filler in between all the endless performances. The main suspense isn’t who wins, but rather, how many performances the producers can fit in 3 hours. Also, it’s become an award show that is ashamed of its roots, barely mentioning who is inducted into the Hall of Fame. Any artist with the slightest sign of a wrinkle, regardless of their legend status is shunned and hidden in the audience next to seat fillers and radio contest winners. It’s an award show with self esteem issues, not cool enough to stand on its own. You can bet the main attraction used to promote this year’s show will be a non-country performer like Kid Rock, The Eagles of last year, and Jamie Foxx of two years ago.
What can be done?
Well, the first order of business would be for the Sommet Center to take out a one day restraining order from Miley Cyrus on November 11, 2009, or better yet, the whole Cyrus family, Billy Ray, Noah, aunts, uncles, cousins, etc. Yes, she’ll bring in ratings, but we’ve gotten along fine without her for 40 plus years.
The CMA’s need to take a cue from the Grammy awards, or even the American Idol finale. There are so many surprises, legends, moving moments, coming at you, left right and center, you don’t know what’s coming next, all you know is you’re in for the ride, you’re loving every second and you’re talking about it the next day. Last year, the biggest surprise was Shania Twain presenting Entertainer of the Year, which she has done at least 3 times before, and to those who keep up on country news, it was hardly a surprise at all.
What can possibly be done to make the night more entertaining?
How about taking a cue from this yearis Academy Awards and only announce a handful of performers, leaving the rest a mystery? Don’t tell us who and what everyone’s performing, which leaves more room for surprises. Also, like the Oscars, don’t announce who is presenting, and before each award have a mini-montage of past winners. Then at the end, the curtain opens and a surprise past winner comes out and shares insights on their winning experience. Instead of the otherwise cheesy dialogue or weird presenter pairings, it would make more sense if they just brought out Trisha Yearwood for Female Vocalist, Vince for Male, The Judds for Duo, Alabama forGroup, and hand it off to the winner like an Olympic torch or rite of passage. This way of thinking would work out great for the Entertainer of the Year category, in bringing out past winners, Roy Clark, and Barbara Mandrell, who also happen to be this year’s Hall of Fame inductees.
Speaking of the Hall of Fame, I would prefer it if it went back to how it used to be with a taped bio and artists performing a medley of hits. But even that is too much to ask. If they are going to cut it out entirely, the least they could do is show 3 separate 30-60 second bios of each of the inductees at different times as they are going to commercial and have them wave from the audience. Or, from the paragraph above, show a taped piece just before Barbara and Roy present Entertainer.
The most boring parts of the show are seeing full performances from all the mundane hits of the past year. Was it necessary for Darius Rucker to perform “Don’t Think I Don’t Think About It” last year when he wasn’t nominated? Yes, it’s necessary for the biggest hits to be performed, but does every top 5 hit of the past year have to be sung? Instead, encourage them to sing unique songs, like Alan Jackson in 2005 performing, “Wonderful Tonight”, songs you’ll actually remember more than 5 minutes after they are performed. Another idea, which the Grammys have down pat, is pairing people up. Think of the Al Green, Keith Urban, Justin Timberlake and Boys 2 Men grouping of earlier this year. For the CMA’s, this would be a perfect year to acknowledge the 20th anniversary of the hat act boom of 89. Why not bring out Alan Jackson, Clint Black, Garth Brooks, and Travis Tritt for a small medley?
Instead of each of the new artist nominees performing their full songs – do we really want to see Julianne Hough performing a full version of her song this year? - it would be great if they stole from the ACM’s all-star opener this year, and did the same thing with the 5 nominees. Lady Antebellum can be the ring leader like Brooks & Dunn were at the ACMs, and they all can perform a small portion of their hits. To wrap it up, Lady Antebellum can present the award. This will allow more time for the Collaboration and Video of the year awards to be back on the telecast.
If you ran the CMAs, thinking creatively but realistically, which special moments would you create that could go down in history and make country’s biggest night more fun to watch? How would you make George Strait’s performance less predictable? And how would you measure that Miley restraining order? In inches, feet, yards, or miles?
When news broke of Brooks & Dunn’s impending breakup, we decided to move up our planned Starter Kit feature on this quintessential nineties act.
It’s hard to imagine a time when Brooks & Dunn winning an industry award was a breath of fresh air, but when they surfaced in 1991, they quickly ended the long reign of The Judds at the industry award shows. Brooks & Dunn would then make The Judds dominance seem like child’s play. They’d go on to win 19 CMA awards, including 14 in the Vocal Duo category. This shattered the category dominance record held by The Statler Brothers, who won Vocal Group nine times.
They’ve been a core act at radio for eighteen years, and were the first duo or group in the history of country music to sell six million copies of a studio album, a feat they achieved with their debut album Brand New Man. Their cumulative sales are approaching 25 million.
Ten Essential Tracks:
“Brand New Man”
from the 1991 album Brand New Man
The sheer energy of their debut single made them an instant hit at radio. Truth is, this song could come out today and still sound fresh.
from the 1991 album Brand New Man
Ronnie Dunn is one of the genre’s finest male vocalists, especially when he tears into a beer-sipping ballad.
“Boot Scootin’ Boogie”
from the 1991 album Brand New Man
They’d make many songs that honky-tonked more, but never one that did so in such an effortlessly charming way.
“She Used To Be Mine”
from the 1993 album Hard Workin’ Man
The title track of their second album earned them a Grammy, but the album’s real treasure was this killer ballad that showcased Dunn’s aching vocal.
“You’re Gonna Miss Me When I’m Gone”
from the 1994 album Waitin’ On Sundown
One of their best singles ever features Kix Brooks on lead, an unfortunate rarity among their radio hits.
from the 1996 album Borderline
Leave it to Ronnie Dunn to make a seventies AM radio classic sound like little more than a demo for his definitive recording.
“How Long Gone”
from the 1998 album If You See Her
A simple, pleasing radio hit that’s heavy on hook and melody.
“The Long Goodbye”
from the 2001 album Steers & Stripes
A fully believable break-up song that’s all about drifting apart.
“Red Dirt Road”
from the 2003 album Red Dirt Road
A nostalgic trip down a very memorable lane.
“It’s Getting Better All the Time”
from the 2004 album The Greatest Hits Collection II
A “Backside of Thirty”-league portrait of a broken man.
Two Hidden Treasures:
“My Heart is Lost To You”
from the 2001 album Steers & Stripes
Despite riding a major comeback, this bilingual track got lost in the shuffle. It went top five but not recurrent, which is a shame, since it’s one of their most enchanting tracks.
“God Must Be Busy”
from the 2007 album Cowboy Town
“Believe” got all the love, but if you’re looking for a deeper exploration of faith and doubt, this is the way to go.
Three weeks ago, I had a chance to chat with one of my favorite new acts, Joey +Rory. It has been over a year since their break through on CMT’s Can You Duet and several months since the release of their album The Life of A Song. So, Country Universe thought it would be a perfect time to catch up with them to see what’s been happening since the whirlwind of their recent success.
Not surprisingly, it was a pleasure to speak with them. They were very honest and down to earth. Along with telling us how they’re handling their new found fame, they didn’t shy away from expressing their feelings on current country music, songwriting and what they are and are not listening to these days.
How has life been since Can You Duet?
Joey: Well, in a lot of ways, in last year’s time, our lives have changed tremendously. But, also, in a lot of ways, we’re still the same in terms of our relationship, marriage and closeness. We’ve gone from having the farm out here and the little restaurant and Rory writing songs to being on the road visiting different cities every other night.
All the TV exposure has obviously heightened people’s awareness of who we are. We literally can hardly go anywhere without people knowing who we are in airports, gas stations and restaurants and places like that. I think in a sense all of a sudden we’re very recognizable and people want our autographs and pictures. So, that’s changed. It’s kind of been different for us to have that.
But as far as our relationship, we’re very much the same. We’re just as in love as we were a year and half ago. Our marriage is even stronger. There’s no more stress related to this because we get to do this together and travel everywhere together.
Rory: Our life here at home is just the same. There are more people that know us and when we go to the restaurant (the restaurant that Joey owns with Rory’s sister, Marcie), there are people from out of town that drive in all the time, but we’re the same. Everything’s exactly the same; it’s just expanded a lot.
Do you ever get frustrated by all the extra attention?
Joey: We’re really grateful for it. I think there’s times where life on the road can be very draining. Jetlag and everything else kind of comes with that. There are times when we might be completely tired and not want to be somewhere or feel like we just want to go to sleep. Sometimes, it is what it is. But we really appreciate it and we know it won’t always be this way. We just take it a day at a time. The fans are just fantastic. We have an opportunity to do our music, because we have fans. And we have people who want to meet us to tell us how we’ve impacted their lives. You know, if it weren’t for them buying our records and coming to our shows, we wouldn’t be able to be successful and do what we do. It’s all for them.
Joey, in your bio, you list The Judds as one of your major influences. I can even hear a young Wynona in your voice. What was it like to have Naomi as a judge? Was it more nerve wracking having someone you respect so much critique you?
Joey: We’d never met the Judds before the show. In fact, the very first concert I ever went to was, I think, when I was nine years old. My dad took me to a Judds concert in Indiana.
When we went and auditioned for the show, it wasn’t until we walked behind that curtain into the room that we knew who the judges were. You walk in and you’re taken back by it, but you can’t be at the same time, because you have a job to do. But throughout the whole show, Naomi was on our side from day one. She really liked what we did. She liked what we were, what we wore and our style of music. Coming from her, it was so well respected. You know, we all had to kind of critique ourselves and kind of take into account that everybody’s different, everybody has opinions. You just show up the next day and you just try to take it in and make those adjustments.
But for the most part, it was just a thrill to be around her. She had such an energy and presence in the room. Since the TV show she’s come to the restaurant. She’s featured in our “Cheater, Cheater” video. She’s been very supportive. I just received a letter from her, a card, two days ago, since we were on the CMT Awards. We’ve been to her house several times. I mean, we feel like we’re all just one big family now. It’s been an amazing year.
My favorite artist is Vince Gill and to have him just hanging out in my living room is just something I can’t even imagine.
Rory: Our daughter is an aspiring singer-songwriter. So, they had a big event about three nights ago that was sort of like “famous fathers and their daughters.” It was Heidi and me and Vince Gill and his daughter, Jenny and some other people. It was really a thrill. I was just like you. I’m a humongous Vince Gill fan. There’s a lack of realness I see in people. There’s lots of talent and a lot of hard work, but he’s one of those people that always seems like a real, average, everyday guy with extraordinary talent and a real big heart. I just loved seing him and he was wonderful. It was our first time meeting him. He really gushed over Joey and Joey’s voice. So, he was aware of us. Of course, we’re tickled by that. I’m like you, if he was in our living room this evening, having dinner and visiting…that would be a thrill.
I admit that I didn’t actually watch Can You Duet when it originally aired, because I didn’t really know much about it until after the big hype that surrounded it on some blogs. As you may already know, the world of blogging can be pretty harsh, but you guys managed to be very well liked throughout the run of the show. But it wasn’t really until I read that you had signed with Sugar Hill Records that I took a sudden interest. How did that marriage come together?
Rory: First off, we had a pretty strong sense that we weren’t going to win, even before the show was over. We just were not a major market act. Actually, we are a mainstream act. But mainstream has turned so far that people who are mainstream acts have to go somewhere else. And people that are rock acts, pop acts, they’re now all of a sudden mainstream acts or what mainstream labels want.
At the time of the show, we were under contract with RCA and Sony, since the final five were all under contract with them. When we knew we didn’t win, we asked Rene Bell right away if she was going to pick up the option to keep us and she said “No. We’re only going to focus on this one act (winners, Caitlin & Will).” She said, “You guys are free to go and do whatever you want.” So, they released us. American Idol, who also had us under contract because of the show, released us as well.
I’m an independent guy anyway. We have our own Indy record label that we started a few years ago called Giantslayer Records and we broke anew artist named Blaine Larsen. We created and put up his record, put it out and broke him into mainstream. So, we’ve really been working in that world for a long time. The one thing I knew was that we couldn’t champion ourselves. So, we were immediately thinking about Indy labels. I brought up Vanguard to a very good friend of mine and he had a relationship with the people there. He said that he’d be glad to call them. So, he did and it turns out that Vanguard and Sugar Hill were interested in getting involved in mainstream country. We had had a lot of exposure and they got up to speed on it quickly and they thought that we were authentic at the same time that we were commercial. It seemed like a good marriage and a good step into this mainstream world for them. So, we just sort of shook hands over the phone, cut our single, cut our record, put our record out. Our single was in the top 40 and our album was in stores before we actually had flown to L.A. and signed our record deal with them. They were just that trusting and able to work that part just on our word. So, it’s been a great marriage. We love ‘em; we really, really do.
When you went in to record, did you already have a vision for the sound of the record or was it highly influenced by the sounds of Vanguard/Sugar Hill’s previous output? Would your record sound the way it does no matter what company you were with?
Rory: It would have been this way. They really didn’t have any input on our producer or the songs, the sound or anything else. We had met Carl Jackson a long time before and we had wanted Carl to produce Joey anyway. Then we just sort of by accident became a duo for this TV show. So, Carl said, “Well, gosh, I’ll just produce both of you.” He’s a fan of my songwriting and I’m a fan of his. Both Joey and I love Carl’s production. He had done a record on Bradley Walker that’s one of our favorite records in five years—mostly the sounds and songs and everything. You know, we knew what we wanted to do a hundred percent. We’d never recorded with Carl, so the sound happened because of Carl, but he had the particular way of doing it. He’s very vocal heavy and very acoustic instrument heavy and that’s exactly what we wanted and wanted to be a part of. So, it wasn’t the Indy label influence at all for the sound of the album. What it was, I think, is that they recognized that’s what we were going to do. I think they realized that it was going to fit in their world also.
I was excited about Sugar Hill, but I was also excited about Carl Jackson, knowing of his previous work. Earlier, you mentioned Blaine Larsen. I know that he’s cut some of your songs, Rory. Is there a difference between the songs that you pitch to other people versus the songs that Joey + Rory would record?
Rory: Well, the only difference is there was never a Joey + Rory and so I’ve always just written songs. A lot of them I’ve put my heart and soul into and our lives into, but those songs are just largely ignored at all times, because they have some personal element or they’re not radio friendly. Whatever that is. The only difference is that we’re much more willing to be honest as artists than artists who would, maybe, cut our songs. No one’s willing to cut “Play the Song.” No one’s going to cut a number of songs that we have, like even “Cheater, Cheater.” So, it’s the same songwriting; it’s just that it’s more like we’re willing to be more honest, I think, and outside the box.
But now that we are a duo, we all the sudden do want to, not just by chance, write things that have part of our story and our heart and soul in it. Because that’s the way it would have been in the past. I would be writing songs really hoping Tim McGraw or someone else would cut the song and, hopefully, it would have some of what’s important to me in it. But now, all the sudden, we have the opportunity to write a hundred percent of what’s important to you, that you think is relatable to other people. You don’t have to wonder, is it relatable to Tim McGraw or to Sugarland. That’s not even an interest anymore. It’s like, we’ll just write a hundred percent from our perspective. That’s a very, very freeing thing for us.
Yeah, I imagine… Who are you listening to these days in country music? Assuming that you are listening to anybody in country music.
Rory: I listened to a bunch of albums here, recently, a bunch of new release albums that I personally thought were okay or not okay, somewhere in there, but okay. Then, the other day, I just got online and I downloaded an album that Carl Jackson had produced on Alecia Nugent. And I’d never even heard an Alecia Nugent record. We’ve met her, but we’ve never heard one. It just blew my mind, because it’s just like our record. It’s got the same kind of sound, same kind of production and it’s got a real focus of great songs on it, and great singing and great harmony. That’s what I’m listening to, because, in my opinion, it’s head and shoulders above all the other production and artistry that I’ve heard in the last six months.
Mainstream wise, we love Josh Turner and, basically, the really country things like…
Joey: Lee Ann Womack, Jamey Johnson
Rory, Yeah, yeah.
Joey: They’re very acoustic or they’re very country sounding and very traditional. That’s what we kind of lean toward.
Rory: What do you listen to now, Love?
Joey: I’d say I listen to Bradley Walker all the time. He’s a nice bluegrass artist that Carl Jackson did a record on.
We actually heard the new Holly Williams album. It was really, really great.
Rory: We really liked that.
Joey: we really did. We’re excited for her.
I discovered Bradley Walker, because Vince Gill sang on his record. In fact, I’ve discovered a lot of good music that way. So, maybe you guys could invite Vince to sing on your next album…just an unsolicited suggestion…something to think about (laughs).
Rory: (laughs) Yeah, that’d be great. Carl can probably make it happen. Maybe we’ll also invite Emmylou.
That would be awesome. That’s actually one of my favorite songs on your album. It’s gorgeous. There’s a lot to choose from, of course, but…
Rory: Thank You.
I already think I know the answer judging by our conversation today, but I have to ask: Is Joey + Rory a permanent act now? You’re not going to go back to doing your own things after this record, are you?
Joey: No, no. I tried for a long time to be a solo artist, because I never knew that there would be a platform for a married duo, a married couple. You know, it wasn’t something that Rory had wanted in the last twelve years. But now that we’re doing this together and traveling everywhere together, I would not have any desire to do this on my own or just go out in solo. We’re a duo in life because of our marriage and it just carries on into our careers; I think it’s the way it’s supposed to be.
Rory: I feel the same way. I really feel like this is her career and her opportunity and God has just given me a huge opportunity to be part of it. You know, I’m thrilled to death and having a great time. I think that we do have something special that we didn’t even know that we had. We’re having a good time spinning our wheels out there on the road, playing for people and we’re getting ready to do some more recording soon.
Well, I suppose it’s time to let you go. I just want to end by saying that I, along with many of the Country Universe readers, am a huge fan. So, I’m really glad that we had a chance to chat today and thank you for your time.
Joey: It was really nice to meet you. Hopefully, we’ll be able to come up to your neck of the woods, sometime.
Rory: It was sure nice to talk with you. Have a great morning.
I have to start with a disclaimer: I attended my first CMA Music Festival in Nashville, Tennessee, as a fan –a crazy, passionate, kid-in-a-candy-store fan– and nothing more. So rather than offer you a full review of the festival, which I don’t think I can adequately do, I instead present you with a narrow but meaningful sampling of my favorite memories from the week.
Dierks Bentley and Brad Paisley rock rain-soaked stadium until 2 a.m.
After a three-hour rain delay at LP Field Thursday night, Darius Rucker, Dierks Bentley and Brad Paisley played well into the morning to make up for the lost time. Despite the delay being somewhat poorly handled by management, an impressively large crowd of dedicated fans, draped in ponchos and drenched in humidity, waited around until after midnight for the concert to resume.
It was well worth the wait, as Bentley and Paisley delivered outstanding, high-energy performances and reminded me once again that there is legitimate, authentic talent in mainstream country music. In a fitting closing, Bentley joined Paisley on an extended version of his novelty hit “Alcohol,” during which the tourmates played on each other’s good-natured wit and kept the crowd on its feet until the last note.
Carrie Underwood soars on “Stand By Your Man”
In 2006, Carrie Underwood performed Tammy Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man” on the Grand Ole Opry stage, surprising Idol skeptics with her spot-on rendition. Three years later, she reprised her performance for the first time at her 2009 fan club party, as requested by her fans. She sang it brilliantly, with graceful conviction and emphasis on the natural “cry” in her voice, reminiscent of the female country greats.
The icing on the cake was Underwood’s admission that she’d love to record “Stand By Your Man” on a country classics album one day, along with an earlier admission that she’d been thinking about recording an album of hymns – two items high on most fans’ wish lists. Considering the other songs on her fan club party set list ranged from a rousing, acoustic “Sweet Child O’ Mine” to an impeccable “How Great Thou Art,” I think there are few limits to Underwood’s potential and depth as an artist, and I could not be more thrilled for her future in country music.
Tara falls in love with the Grand Ole Opry
I know, I know; it’s irrelevant to the festival, but the Opry was such an acutely special part of my Nashville experience that I just had to include it. I caught the Tuesday night show, featuring a wonderful mishmash of traditional and contemporary performances by artists such as the Charlie Daniels Band, Trace Adkins, Ricky Skaggs and Little Big Town.
But it was the entirety of the experience that really got to me: I was surprised to find that the Opry House itself, as a venue, is epic and intimate all at once, leaving you feeling like you’re experiencing something very grand that was crafted just for you. That personable quality, along with the Opry’s palpable energy and richly spiritual atmosphere, struck a particular chord inside me. Of all the live music venues I’ve been to, the Opry takes the cake.
The Judds reunion ends with an emotional “Love Can Build a Bridge”
I knew the rare mother-daughter reunion was going to be good when Naomi Judd joined Wynonna Judd on the LP Field stage sporting a hot pink, rhinestone-encrusted dress suit, and Wynonna turned to the audience, smirked and said: “some things never change.” And she was right, as the two masterfully charmed their way through a string of their 80s hits, ending with a poignant performance of “Love Can Build a Bridge.”
It’s a simple and incredibly sappy song, but it has timeless meaning, one that certainly wasn’t lost on the stadium crowd. The high point of the performance was the chilling chorus the entire audience sang a cappella, prompting Naomi to shed a few tears. You know ABC will never show a performance like that –one with social relevance but no 2009 pop culture relevance– on its three-hour special in August, but maybe that’s the kind of moment that isn’t meant to be broadcasted in living rooms across America.
The fans steal the show
Finally, for all its star power and talent, the CMA Music Festival really is fundamentally about the fans – the most passionate, tireless, supportive, ridiculously devoted people I’ve ever encountered, who blew me away with their spirit and unity. I’ve spent most of my life emotionally connecting to music and artists in ways that people around me don’t quite understand, so to be among thousands of fans who shared my exact sentiments was completely, overwhelmingly moving, and without a doubt the highlight of my week.
I met fans from all over the world, from Scotland to Canada to Australia, drawn to Nashville by good music and a chance to hang out with their favorite artists. To the CMA’s credit, the festival does an amazing job of fostering these reciprocal interactions between the fans and artists. I was skeptical about the festival actually feeling like a “thank you” to the fans, rather than a giant marketing effort, but I was quickly proven wrong by the genuine and even organic acts of the artists themselves.
The artists don’t have to participate in the charity events, much less sign autographs at them for hours, and they don’t have to hold fan club parties tailored to their fans’ interests. They don’t have to hug their fans or strike up conversations when they meet them at the convention center. Country artists don’t have to sincerely care about you in order to have successful careers (isn’t that evidenced by much of the entertainment industry?), but it seems most do.
And that’s why country music fans willingly continue to be the heart and soul of the industry. They request songs, buy albums, create street teams, spread positive messages, attend concerts, stream music videos, write to critics, rally around causes, camp out overnight on sidewalks, make T-shirts, support charities, vote for awards, write letters of encouragement…and the list goes on. They deserve respect and gratitude, and that, at its essence, is what the CMA Music Festival offers, in a way no other genre of music does.
It is my distinct honor and pleasure to introduce the newest writer for Country Universe, Tara Seetharam. As you'll soon discover, we are quite blessed to have her. On behalf of the Country Universe staff, please join me in welcoming Tara! – Kevin J. Coyne
Hi all! It is such a thrill to step foot into this community of talented and well-versed writers. I am humbled and can’t thank the staff enough for graciously taking me in.
I graduated about a year ago from the University of Texas with a degree in journalism, and I am currently residing in Houston and working in corporate communications. Writing and music are two of my greatest joys in life, so the opportunity to use this site as a medium to interlace the two is an absolute blessing.
When I tell people that I live and breathe country music, I’m almost always met with surprise. Some are better at hiding it than others, but I typically receive an inquisitive stare, a “Really?” or a confused smile. It leads to about 20 seconds of awkwardness, with me trying to sum up my passion for the genre in an eloquent explanation, and generally failing. Because quite frankly, how do you prove to a near stranger that yes, an Indian-American can love country music from the depths of her soul?
I suppose I’m not the typical Indian-American. Both my parents are of Indian descent, but while my dad moved to the U.S. as a teenager, my mom moved here as a young child – making my sister and I “second-and-a-half” generation Indian-Americans. My mom was a country fan herself growing up in the U.S., and she in turn filled our home with all sorts of country music when I was a child. I have the sweetest memories of the two of us singing along to The Judds' Why Not Me album on repeat, day after day. My mom never made me feel like it was anything but normal to adore country music from the inside out. She never made me feel like my skin color had to match the skin color of the country artists I idolized. And why should it?
You see, to me, as much as country music seems to be about traditionalism, it’s more so about universal truths – about love and family, heartache and despair, faith and persistence. You don’t necessarily have to relate to the story to relate to the raw emotion of a country song. The best country songs are sung with such conviction and such honesty that you just get it. The most poignant country songs stop me dead in my tracks every time I hear them, because I can’t seem to disconnect my emotions from the songs.
And to be honest, I couldn’t feel out of place in country music even if I tried, as there are few things in this world that are more intrinsic to me. I remember the first time I heard Vince Gill’s “If You Ever Have Forever in Mind,” thinki
ng that it immediately felt like “home”. Like I had found an extension of myself in the song. It sounds melodramatic, but it's so true, and it is this very intimate, personal quality of country music that keeps me coming back for more.
My taste in country music ranges from traditional to mainstream, from George Jones and Johnny Cash to Lady Antebellum and Keith Urban. I have a deep respect for the country greats, but I have a particular soft spot for artists who can skillfully walk the balance beam between traditional and mainstream, like the older (but never forgotten!) Dixie Chicks.
And I even enjoy many of the genre-stretching contemporary artists who haven't quite mastered this balancing act. I'm in the minority of people who see the fusion of old and new in the country music industry as intriguing and, well…fabulous. Artistic integrity comes in many forms, and I firmly believe that it can even come in the form of commercially successful artists.
Because if there’s anything I’ve learned from the inquisitive stares, “Really?”s and confused smiles I receive on occasion, it’s that, in this world so rich with contradiction, you have to learn to scrap assumptions. It’s so important to savor every piece of music by searching not for its definition but for its unique contribution, or you’ll prevent yourself from catching moments of artistic brilliance (Reba McEntire's 2007 collaboration with Justin Timberlake? Stunning.).
This goes all ways, of course, but what I think I have an ear for, and what I hope to bring to this site, are the “gems” of mainstream country music. I'm going to humbly strive to bring a fresh perspective, one that you might not always agree with, but that comes from a place of sincerity.
Which brings me to my greatest hope for my journey with Country Universe – that I stay true to who I am. I spent much of my college career feeling that I needed to think a certain way in order to fit the music journalist mold, but I can’t pretend to be someone I’m not. I don’t hate country radio. I appreciate pop culture. I’m an award show junkie. And I’ll tell you right now, with no shame, that my favorite song is “Bless the Broken Road” (I'll take it in any form, by any artist). I want to offer this site unapologetic authenticity, because that's what good country music never fails to offer me.
So with that said, a huge, heartfelt thank you goes out once again to Kevin and the staff for welcoming me with open arms. More than anything, and I can’t stress this enough, I am looking forward to learning from this astute community of writers and readers. To steal liberally from Ms. Carrie Underwood: “It is my belief that country music makes the world a better place.” And ain't that the truth?
Last week, I berated producers that I could count on to produce bland, generic albums that I inevitably would not enjoy. As promised, I’ll be more positive this week.
As previously noted, producers play a very integral part in the outcome of the albums that we hear. Good producers will put aside their egos and create music that compliments their artists’ strengths.
I’ve noticed that much of the work from producers that I like tend to be the result of producer/artist pairings. For example, as discussed in the comment thread of last week’s discussion, I’m not always crazy about Tony Brown’s production choices. However, he helped to create the bulk of the music of my favorite artist, Vince Gill. In fact, he’s the one who saved Gill’s career from being destined to obscurity. Interestingly though, Brown took over Vince’s career from Emory Gordy Jr., who admittedly did not do his best work with Gill. Gordy, however, went on to create some wonderful music with Patty Loveless.
To go even a step further, I specifically mentioned that I did not like Dann Huff as a producer in my discussion last week. Our Dan Milliken, however, noted that he thought that Huff has done good work with Keith Urban, which is a point with which I actually cannot disagree.
So, it seems that many of my favorite producers have come from famous producer/artist pairings. Some people just click. Therefore, all of this leads to:
Who are your favorite producer/artist duos?
If you’re looking for a bigger challenge, tell us who your favorite producer in general happens to be.
Some of my favorite producer/artist collaborators include, but are not limited to:
Harlan Howard is one of the most distinguished songwriters in country music history. When interviewed about his #1 hit for the Judds (“Why Not Me”), he made an interesting statement about the need for repeating certain titles throughout a song:
“Why Not Me” wasn’t a great title. To get a really good record, you’ve gotta write a hell of a song when you’re dealing with a title that average. The only thing I know to do with songs like “Why Not Me” and “Busted” – which I never thought was a good title – is to put the title in there often so that people remember it. The weaker the title, the more you gotta hear it.”
“Why Not Me” earned the Judds the Country Duo/Group Grammy and the CMA award for Single of the Year. “Busted” was hit for both Johnny Cash with the Carter Family in the sixties and John Conlee in the eighties. Both songs feature the titles repeated endlessly.
I think this quote is fascinating because it provides a window into how two songs from different eras were crafted by the same writer. I never noticed the similarities before reading the quote.
I’d also add that the Little Texas hit “My Love” and the Brooks & Dunn hit “That’s What It’s All About” show how the rule can be taken too far, in my opinion, and turn into just an annoying song.
Wynonna’s music has incorporated so many elements of soul and blues over the years that it’s easy to forget that she got her start singing pure country harmonies with her mother. Some of those elements started creeping into the later Judds records, particularly on the hit “Born to Be Blue.” But when Wynonna went solo, listeners quickly learned where her true musical heart was. With Sing – Chapter 1, she reveals how that heart was shaped.
Scanning the track listing, one might expect this collection to run the musical gamut, but the sound is quite a bit more focused than that. There are a few country songs here, but none of them are performed as such. Even the pure pop songs don’t have a glossy sheen. The entire album is done in the blue-eyed soul where Wynonna is most comfortable.
For the most part, it works. Her reading of the Hank Williams classic “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” reveals just how close the roots of country music are to the roots of the blues. “When I Fall in Love” and “Till I Get it Right” have an intimate allure that would be right at home in the early morning hours of a dimly lit piano bar. And when she rocks? Good Lord, she rocks. Her ferocious performances of “I Hear You Knocking” and “The House is Rockin’” could single-handedly revive the long-dormant Best Female Rock Performance Grammy.
One of my favorite features to write for Country Universe is Favorite Songs by Favorite Artists. So, since I love Christmas music, it seems natural that I change the format a bit to accommodate a list of my favorite Christmas songs.
Narrowing my favorite Christmas songs down to twenty-five choices proved to be a nearly impossible challenge. In order to accomplish this feat, I had to do two things: (1) disqualify all quintessential versions of classics, i.e., Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” or any songs by Gene Autry. Instead, I’ve stuck to modern country versions of any classics that may appear on this list. (2) Limit the number of classics included on this list so that there can be room for as many original Christmas songs as possible.
You can listen to most of the songs and purchase them through the Amazon link at the end. Merry Christmas!
Asleep At The Wheel, “Christmas in Jail”
Merry Texas Christmas, Y’All, 1997
Ray Benson and Asleep at the Wheel have a fun time with “Christmas In Jail.” The lesson he learns?: “Ain’t going to drink and drive no more.” Good!
Roger Miller, “Old Toy Trains”
King Of The Road: The Genius of Roger Miller, 1995
I first heard this song as a little girl on a Raffi Christmas album, long before I had any idea of who Roger Miller was. So, after I discovered country music and Roger Miller, I was pleasantly surprised to find that this familiar song was actually written by Roger Miller for his son Dean. In this sweet and irresistible ditty, Miller is trying to coax his little boy to go to bed despite the excitement of Christmas
Clint Black, “Til’ Santa’s Gone (Milk And Cookies)”
Looking For Christmas, 1995
This is sung from the perspective of a five-year-old who is getting ready for Santa’s impending visit. He knows what brings Santa back every year. Milk and cookies, of course!
Earlier this year, the Grammys celebrated their fiftieth anniversary with a series of compilations focusing on winners in different fields. Two of the best entries in this series focused on country music. With five decades of winners to choose from, it’s no surprise that Ultimate Grammy Collection: Classic Country and Ultimate Grammy Collection: Contemporary Country are solid collections.
The Classic Country set is particularly strong, including a diverse selection of significant artists from the sixties and seventies. Even better, most of them are represented with their signature tracks. Roger Miller opens the set with “King of the Road”, easily his biggest hit. Other superstars include Tammy Wynette (“Stand By Your Man”), Johnny Cash (“A Boy Named Sue”) and Waylon & Willie (“Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys.”)
As the collection moves on to the seventies and eighties, there is a healthy portion of pop-country classics from the likes of Kenny Rogers (“The Gambler”), Dolly Parton (“9 to 5″), Crystal Gayle (“Don’t it Make My Brown Eyes Blue”) and Willie Nelson (“Always on My Mind”). In the midst of that crossover sound, however, there’s a healthy dose of traditional country, courtesy of George Jones with “He Stopped Loving Her Today.”
That Jones track is the only one that wouldn’t be familiar to fans that buy the set because they remember those crossover hits, even though it’s a country classic. They might also revel in the discovery of Ray Price (“For the Good Times”) and Jerry Reed (“When You’re Hot, You’re Hot”), which were both AM radio staples back when top 40 regularly played country records. The set also includes mega-hits from Charlie Daniels Band, Lynn Anderson, Donna Fargo and Jeannie C. Riley. The only real misstep is the inclusion of Johnny Cash & June Carter’s “If I Were a Carpenter”, an unnecessary inclusion that was no doubt shoehorned in because of lingering sentiment for all things Cash. That slot would’ve been better represented with Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn’s “After the Fire is Gone.”