The nominations for the 56th Annual Grammy Awards have been announced. Taylor Swift has the top nomination connected to country music, earning her second nomination for Album of the Year. She took home the award four years ago for Fearless.
Here are the general category nominees, along with all country and country-related categories:
Album of the Year
Sara Bareilles, The Blessed Unrest
Daft Punk, Random Access Memories
Kendrick Lamar, good kid m.A.A.d. city
Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, The Heist
Taylor Swift, Red
If Taylor Swift wins, she will be the first country-related artist in history to win the category twice with individual projects. Alison Krauss also has two victories, one for her collaboration with Robert Plant (Raising Sand, 2009), and another for her contributions to the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack (2002.) The award has only been won by country artists in two other years: Glen Campbell for By the Time I Get to Phoenix (1968), and the Dixie Chicks for Taking the Long Way (2007).
Record of the Year
“Blurred Lines” – Robin Thicke featuring T.I. and Pharrell Williams
“Get Lucky” – Daft Punk featuring Pharrell Williams
“Locked Out of Heaven” – Bruno Mars
“Radioactive” – Imagine Dragons
“Royals” – Lorde
For the third time in the last eight years, no country or country-related records make the cut. Only four country-related winners have triumphed in this category, but three of them have been in the last few years. Olivia Newton-John won for “I Honestly Love You” in 1975, followed much later by the Dixie Chicks for “Not Ready to Make Nice” in 2006; Robert Plant & Alison Krauss for “Please Read the Letter” in 2009; and Lady Antebellum for “Need You Now” in 2011.
Song of the Year
“Just Give Me a Reason” – Jeff Bhasker, P!nk, and Nate Reuss
“Locked out of Heaven” – Phillip Lawrence, Ari Levine, and Bruno Mars
“Roar” – Lukasz Gottwald, Max Martin, Bonnie McKee, Katy Perry, and Henry Walter
“Royals” – Joel Little and Lorde
“Same Love” – Ben Haggerty, Mary Lambert, Ryan Lewis, and Curtis Mayfield
For the third straight year, country is shut out of the top songwriting category, a streak that began after the writers of Lady Antebellum’s “Need You Now” won in 2011.
Best New Artist
Macklemore & Ryan Lewis
Kacey Musgraves is the latest new artist to represent country music in this category, which has become a nearly annual occurrence since LeAnn Rimes was nominated and won back in 1997. Previous country winners also include Bobbie Gentry (1968), Carrie Underwood (2007) and Zac Brown Band (2010).
Best Country Album
Jason Aldean, Night Train
Tim McGraw, Two Lanes of Freedom
Kacey Musgraves, Same Trailer Different Park
Blake Shelton, Based on a True Story
Taylor Swift, Red
Despite the presence of four big, established stars, only Taylor Swift has actually earned a victory in this category. She won in 2010 for Fearless. She contended again in 2012 with Speak Now, which lost to repeating victors Lady Antebellum, who won two years in a row for Need You Now (2011) and Own the Night (2012). Kacey Musgraves earns a nomination for her debut album, the first artist do so since 2005, when Gretchen Wilson contended with Here For the Party.
Best Country Solo Performance
Lee Brice, “I Drive Your Truck”
Hunter Hayes, “I Want Crazy”
Miranda Lambert, “Mama’s Broken Heart”
Darius Rucker, “Wagon Wheel”
Blake Shelton, “Mine Would Be You”
Since this category combined the solo categories into one, this award has been one by Taylor Swift (“Mean”) and Carrie Underwood (“Blown Away.”) Lambert is the only previous winner in a predecessor of this category.
Best Country Duo/Group Performance
The Civil Wars, “From This Valley”
Kelly Clarkson featuring Vince Gill, “Don’t Rush”
Little Big Town, “Your Side of the Bed”
Tim McGraw with Taylor Swift and Keith Urban, “Highway Don’t Care”
Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton, “You Can’t Make Old Friends”
There’s really only one hit here, but there are plenty of former Grammy winners scattered among this category. In case you’re wondering, the answer is no, they didn’t win a Grammy for “Islands in the Stream.”
Best Country Song
“Begin Again” – Taylor Swift
“I Drive Your Truck” – Jessi Alexander, Connie Harrington, and Jimmy Yeary
“Merry Go ‘Round” – Shane McAnally, Kacey Musgraves, and Josh Osborne
“Mine Would Be You” – Jessi Alexander, Connie Harrington and Deric Ruttan
It’s not too common for people to receive double nominations, but here there are four songwriters competing against themselves: Jessi Alexander, Connie Harrington, Shane McAnally, and Kacey Musgraves.
Best American Roots Song
“Build Me Up From Bones” – Sarah Jarosz
“Invisible” – Steve Earle
“Keep Your Dirty Lights On” – Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott
“Love Has Come From You” – Edie Brickell and Steve Martin
“Shrimp Po-Boy, Dressed” – Allen Touissant
This category is brand new this year, encompassing songs from all of the subcategories in the American Roots field: Americana, bluegrass, blues, folk, and regional roots music.
Best Americana Album
Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell, Old Yellow Moon
Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, Love Has Come For You
Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale, Buddy and Jim
Mavis Staples, One True Vine
Allen Touissant, Songbook
Collaborations dominate this category, which is populated with many previous Grammy winners. Emmylou Harris won this award twice, back when it was called Best Contemporary Folk Album.
Best Bluegrass Album
The Boxcars, It’s Just a Road
Dailey & Vincent, Brothers of the Highway
Della Mae, This World Oft Can Be
James King, Three Chords and the Truth
Del McCoury Band, The Streets of Baltimore
Del McCoury Band are the only returning victors in this category, winning back in 2006 for The Company We Keep. Perhaps because of the broad voter base, this category has been dominated by acts with explicit ties to country music, including multiple wins by Ricky Skaggs, Jim Lauderdale, and Alison Krauss & Union Station, and one-off victories by Patty Loveless and Dolly Parton. This year is the second in a row without crossover contenders; last year’s winner was the Steep Canyon Rangers for Nobody Knows You.
Best Folk Album
Guy Clark, My Favorite Picture of You
The Greencards, Sweetheart of the Sun
Sarah Jarosz, Build Me Up From Bones
The Milk Carton Kids, The Ash & Clay
Various Artists, They all Played for Us: Arhoolie Records 50th Anniversary Celebration
A tribute to Guy Clark earned a nomination in this category last year, and now Clark himself is in contention for the prize. None of the acts in contention have won in the folk fields before.
Also of note, the Pistol Annies set Annie Up earned nominations for engineer Chuck Ainlay and mastering engineer Bob Ludwig in the Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical category. It competes against Daft Punk, another album mastered by Ludwig, along with sets by Alice in Chains, Queens of the Stone Age, Andrew Duhon, and Madeline Payroux.
Many a star was launched in the nineties, a few of them right out of the gate. This section includes the debut singles from Toby Keith, Jo Dee Messina, LeAnn Rimes, and Doug Stone, along with Grammy-winning hits by Alison Krauss and Dwight Yoakam.
400 Greatest Singles of the Nineties: #100-#76
The Battle Hymn of Love Kathy Mattea & Tim O’Brien
1990 | Peak: #9
Sure, the novelty of thirteen year-old Rimes’ prodigious Patsy imitation helped things along. But that unshakable yodeled hook would have made “Blue” a classic in any era of country music. – Dan Milliken (more…)
As Dan observed in his single review of “Up on the Ridge”, there was a noticeable decline in Dierks Bentley’s music after his well received Long Trip Alone album. It is purely speculative to suggest, but one can’t help but wonder if Bentley himself felt staleness creeping into his music as well. It’s not farfetched for the idea to be true, since Dierks has proven himself to be an astute artist in the past. So, why wouldn’t he notice if there was, indeed, a shift?
Speculation aside, Bentley has taken a break from the routine of his last four albums to create an album that is far removed from what is popular on mainstream country radio and somewhat different than what he’s put on his own previous albums. However, he is still marketing to radio, as his first single, the title track, has been treated like any other Bentley single release. The album is not as adventurous, or as strong, as the Dixie Chicks’ unapologetically acoustic album, but it may be as close to the concept as we have gotten since their targeted mainstream acoustic project, Home.
It has been appropriately publicized that this album is not a pure bluegrass project. Instead, it is close in style to the bluegrass influenced tracks that Bentley has consistently included on each of his studio albums. Yes, mandolin, banjo, dobro and fiddle are ever present, but Bentley is not shy about using drums, exploring subversive melodies (“Up on the Ridge”, “Fallin’ for You”), or deviating from traditional bluegrass rules of engagement along the way. Moreover, Bentley does not possess the high lonesome tenor that is typically associated with bluegrass. He, however, proves himself to be a capable vocalist within the parameters of his unique style of it.
A handful of covers, songs by well respected songwriters, and some of Bentley’s own compositions makes this rootsy album a well rounded set. The best of the covers is bob Dylan’s “Senor (Tales of Yankee Power) and Kris Kristofferson’s Bottle to the Bottom”. While the otherwise solid “Bottle to the Bottom” features a somewhat pointless cameo by Kristofferson, the addition of the Punch Brothers on “Senor” is inspired art. A less successful cover is U2’s “Pride (in the Name of Love).” While Del McCoury’s distinctive tenor does well to do the heavy lifting, the over all recording still lacks the etherealness of the original. Ironically, as they are most closely associated with Americana, the Buddy Miller cover is the most mainstream friendly sounding song on the album. Unfortunately, it is also inferior to Miller’s version.
Among the strongest of Bentley’s songs is “Rovin’ Gambler” (once again, with the Punch Brothers), “Draw Me a Map” (featuring Alison Krauss on background vocals), “You’re Dead to Me” (co-written by and featuring Tim O’Brien”, and “Down in the Mine.”
Bentley wisely enlists the help of some of his creative friends such as the Punch Brothers (with Chris Thile of Nickel Creek fame), Del McCoury, Alison Krauss, Vince Gill, Jamey Johnson, Miranda Lambert, Tim O’Brien, and Kris Kristofferson. Complimented by Jon Randall’s organic production sensibilities, this impeccable support adds a welcome texture to the project. However, the collaborations work best when they are more subtle. For instance, while the prospect of Miranda Lambert and Jamey Johnson collaborating is, indeed, an appealing concept, the result does not rise to the occasion in practice. Both Lambert and Johnson deliver excellent performances with Bentley on “Bad Angel”, with Lambert’s voice being huskier than usual, but the parts together translate as more disjointed than natural. Likewise, the results of Del McCoury’s and Kris Kristofferson’s contributions were not as successful as one would hope for from such revered artists. On the other hand, the Punch Brothers (who played on several tracks), Alison Krauss, Tim O’Brien, Jon Randall, and Vince Gill (“Fiddlin’ Around”) were used less overtly to greater effect.
With expert musicianship by the best in the business, solid songs, and impressive vocal support, Up on the Ridge is a refreshing album from an artist who is taking a chance with this musical detour while still in the throes of a considerably lucrative career. Not only is taking such a chance commendable, Bentley has created a solid album to justify the diversion.
The title track looks forward, pondering what to do with the scarcity of time left, but the best of the rest of these tracks look backward, sometimes with sadness (“My Old Friend”), sometimes with humor (“Back When”), and often with both (“Open Season on My Heart”, “Can’t Tell Me Nothin’.”) – Kevin Coyne
Recommended Tracks: “My Old Friend”, “Old Town New”, “Open Season On My Heart”
Ashley Monroe, Satisfied
At just nineteen years old, Ashley Monroe has made an album with content comparatively mature, both in lyrics and production, to most other albums on this list. With a voice naturally tinged with both twang and sophistication, Monroe sings of loss, relational strife and even regret and sorrow with acute adeptness. While many of the compositions are sonically and topically subdued, she is not incapable of letting loose on certain numbers such as Kasey Chambers’ “Pony”, which includes a mean yodel, and a delightful duet with Dwight Yoakam, “That’s Why We Call Each Other Baby.” – Leeann Ward
She got her groove back with The Grass Is Blue, but Parton’s career revival truly peaked when she revisited her mountain roots on this classic album. She won a Grammy for her treatment of the Collective Soul hit “Shine”, and she wrote new songs like the title track, which ranks among her best work. She even revisited her finest pre-”Coat of Many Colors” composition, “Down From Dover”, restoring the verse that Porter Wagoner had forced her to edit out for the sake of brevity. – KC
Recommended Tracks: “Little Sparrow”, “Shine”, “Down From Dover”
Carrie Underwood, Some Hearts
Six months after taking the American Idol crown, Underwood unapologetically introduced herself as a polished country-pop artist via Some Hearts. With explosive hits like “Before He Cheats” at the helm, the album became the best-selling debut by a solo female country artist, making it easy to overlook that it is as genuine as it is commercially viable. It’s an album that fits Underwood like a glove, bottling a unique combination of naivety and perceptiveness, sass and charm, bombast and reservation – the kinds of paradoxes that have come to define her as an artist and as a person. And while the material is standard country-pop, to be sure, we’re reminded by Underwood’s compelling, crystalline performances that standard material can be made to be just as memorable as anything else. – Tara Seetharam
Recommended Tracks: “Wasted”, “Jesus, Take The Wheel”, “The Night Before (Life Goes On)”
Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott, Real Time
In which two modern virtuosos sit in a living room and pluck out an acoustic album to match any before or since. The playing is exemplary, the songwriting deeply inspired, and the country-folk-bluegrass sound ageless. – Dan Milliken
Recommended Tracks: “Walk Beside Me”, “There Ain’t No Easy Way”, “Long Time Gone”
Soundtrack, O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Sometimes an album’s perceived quality becomes inextricable from its legend. Such is the case with the soundtrack to the Coen Brothers’ modern-day Odyssey, one of the bestselling country sets of the decade and a landmark in the genre’s history for its regeneration of mainstream interest in roots music. In essence, it’s really just a bunch of old-time covers done in exceptionally convincing old-time form. Whether that’s enough to put it among the decade’s finest country albums is up for debate – but there’s no denying it’s among the most essential. – DM
Recommended Tracks: “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow”, “Didn’t Leave Nobody But the Baby”, “O Death”
Buddy and Julie Miller, Written in Chalk
Americana’s favorite couple outdo themselves on one of this year’s most revelatory albums, a tour de force of down-home soul and raw depth. The Millers excel at finding just the right sound to express the sentiments of their material, scoring randy lovemakin’ (“Gasoline And Matches”) and quiet grief (“Don’t Say Goodbye”) with equal aplomb. – DM
Recommended Tracks: “One Part, Two Part”, “Chalk”, “Everytime We Say Goodbye”
Patty Loveless, Sleepless Nights
The last decade has seen numerous well executed traditional covers albums, but none of higher quality than Patty Loveless’ tribute to tradition, Sleepless Nights. Loveless culls songs from various places, including compositions mostly previously attributed to male singers, to create an album that solidly stands as a cohesive unit. Due to Loveless’ naturally distinctive twang and her producer husband’s (Emory Gordy, Jr.) tasteful arrangements (prominent bass, light percussion and steel guitar), Sleepless Nights does well at staying authentic while still sounding progressive enough to warrant yet another covers project. – LW
While The Good Life gained considerably more attention among traditional country audiences than Midnight at the Movies, with Justin Townes Earle’s follow-up, we are presented with his first fully mature album. Nominated for an Americana Music Award for Album of the Year, Midnight at the Movies delivers a voice fallen far from the rough gravel of Earle’s father, Steve Earle, but with gleaming jewels of writing equal to some of his father’s best work. – William Ward
Urban’s second solo album is an exuberant, original piece of work that solidified his place as one of the genre’s most gifted and charismatic male artists. The album showcases both his fine musicianship and intuitive sense of balance, as the material embraces exhilaration without feeling frivolous, and sentimentality without feeling melodramatic. Much like his other albums, it’s hard to classify Urban’s style on Golden Road, with its intermixed elements of rock, pop and traditional country – but who the heck cares when it’s this good? – TS
Recommended Tracks: “Who Wouldn’t Wanna Be Me”, “You’ll Think Of Me”, “Raining On Sunday”
Ah, the naughties. The decade began and ended with pop crossover queens, with Shania Twain and Faith Hill at the top of their game in 2000 much like Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood reign supreme today. In between, we had the roots music boom, best exemplified by O Brother and the platinum-selling Nickel Creek and Alison Krauss & Union Station; the post-9/11 patriotic explosion, which brought Toby Keith and Darryl Worley to the top of the charts; the near-total banishment of women from the country radio dial for a good part of the decade, which started to fade as redneck pride ascended, thanks to a certain woman trying to make Pocahontas proud; and far too many tributes to country living and island-flavored beach bum songs to count.
All of this made for a fascinating decade to be a country fan. As radio worked its way through all of the above (with the notable exception of roots music), the internet made it far easier for acts to be discovered without ever getting a single spin of traditional radio play. With MySpace, YouTube, Facebook, and the explosion of country music blogs, the barriers have been torn down between artist and audience in a way that was never possible before.
The motley crew of Country Universe has a diversity of tastes that fit within the widest boundaries of country music, as reflected our collaborative list of the 100 best albums of the decade. Five of our writers contributed to the list, with all writer’s selections being weighed equally. We’ll reveal ten entries a day until the list is complete. A look back at the greatest singles of the decade will then follow.
The 100 Greatest Albums of the Decade, Part 1
Abigail Washburn, Song of the Traveling Daughter
Song of the Traveling Daughter is the debut album from Uncle Earl claw hammer banjo player Abigail Washburn. Produced by Béla Fleck and featuring Ben Sollee, it is a subdued album filled with intriguing instrumentation and influences. Standout songs include “Nobody’s Fault but Mine,” with its interesting Civil War period influence; the upbeat “Coffee’s Cold,” originally performed by Uncle Earl; and “Song of the Traveling Daughter,” based on the classical Chinese poem “Song of the Traveling Son.” – William Ward
Recommended Tracks: “Nobody’s Fault but Mine”, “Coffee’s Cold”
Kim Richey, Rise
Her ambitious swan song for Mercury Records was perhaps her least accessible record, with an emphasis on eclectic arrangements instead of hook-laden melodies. It’s also her most deeply rewarding record, one that is remarkably introspective and fully delves into themes of faith and mortality that her earlier work had only hinted at before. – Kevin Coyne
Recommended Tracks: “A Place Called Home”, “No Judges”
Little Big Town, The Road to Here
The quartet’s second album catapulted them to the forefront thanks to the swampy anthem, “Boondocks,” and was a breath of fresh, earthy air to mainstream country music. Packed with tight harmonies and songs ranging in style from bluegrass-leaning to Fleetwood Mac-inspired, the album served as a window into the raw talent and potential of one of the best groups to hit country music in quite some time. – Tara Seetharam
Recommended Tracks: “Boondocks”, “Live With Lonesome”
Dolly Parton, Halos & Horns
A gorgeous, gospel-heavy album, with tasteful bluegrass elements. Parton is effervescent as usual, and rid of any self-consciousness, which makes “Hello God” overwhelmingly stirring. A response to the September 11 tragedies, the song has Parton pleading and philosophically wrestling with God, in the sincerest of ways. – TS
Recommended Tracks: “Hello God”, “John Daniel”
Brad Paisley, Part II
Sometime back before the Future, before the smirking social commentary and the endless odes to his wife, Brad Paisley was just a silly little neotraditionalist writing silly little neotraditional songs about the twists of everyday life and love. Part II captures him at his most unassuming and tuneful, waxing breezily about courtships and feeling out his new place as a neotrad spokesperson with a few classic roots songs, plus a cute Bill Anderson/Chuck Cannon co-write (“Too Country”). – Dan Milliken
Recommended Tracks: “Wrapped Around”, “Come On Over Tonight”
Patty Loveless, Strong Heart
More so than any Loveless album since leaving MCA, Strong Heart draws on her pop and rock influences, with a healthy dose of Ronstadt thrown in for good measure. The contrast between her hillbilly wail and the pop-leaning arrangements of several songs manages to make her sound even more rural than she normally does. Arguably her last mainstream project, she proved that she can sound just as good chasing radio as she does ignoring it. – KC
Recommended Tracks: “The Last Thing On My Mind”, “My Heart Will Never Break This Way Again”
Sara Evans, Real Fine Place
One of the finer female vocalists in the genre, Evans is a fantastic interpreter on her fifth album, carefully treading both traditional and pop country waters. The warmth and purity to her tone is prominent on this album, and this is particularly true of the songs with more traditional arrangements, on which she shines the brightest. – TS
Recommended Tracks: “Cheatin’”, “These Four Walls”
Sarah Jarosz, Song Up in Her Head
Sarah Jarosz’ much hyped debut with Sugar Hill Records features Darrell Scott, Tim O’Brien, Jerry Douglas, Aofie O’Donavan, and Abigail Washburn. Notable tracks include “Shankill Butchers,” a Decemberists cover that outperforms the original; the progressive acoustic “Song up in Her Head,” reminiscent of Nickel Creek; and “Come on Up to the House,” an impressive Tom Waits cover. – WW
Recommended Tracks: “Shankill Butchers”, “Come On Up to the House”
Terri Clark, Pain to Kill
This album made Clark a serious contender for Female Vocalist, the only time in her career that she reached that level of success. It’s as radio-friendly as her first two albums, but the material is substantive. This is the best collection of songs that she ever assembled, and by a healthy margin. When Trisha Yearwood finds something to cover from a record, you’ve done a great job picking songs. – KC
Recommended Tracks: “I Just Called to Say Goodbye”, “Not a Bad Thing”
Dwight Yoakam, Population: Me
Genre superhero Yoakam stretched his habit of excellence into a third decade, beginning with the quirky South of Heaven, West of Hell soundtrack and continuing with this solid set. The album is notable for distilling a wide assortment of Yoakam’s mastered sounds into about half an hour, from the Eaglesy (“The Late Great Golden State”) to the Owensy (“No Such Thing”) to the Elvisy (“I’d Avoid Me Too”), all united by the singer’s uniquely buoyant brand of fatalism. – DM
Recommended Tracks: “I’d Avoid Me Too”, “The Back Of Your Hand”
I’m pleased to introduce a new feature to Country Universe readers, which is a spin off of Favorite Songs by Favorite Artists called Favorite Songs by Favorite Songwriters.
While we all appreciate songwriters for their invaluable contributions to our favorite artists, they still often remain unrecognized as the people behind the scenes and, therefore, stand in the shadows of the big name artists who sing their songs. The purpose of this feature is to spotlight those songwriters who had or have aspirations of being stars, but are better known for sharing their craft with the more visible artists.
Therefore, the criteria for this feature is that the spotlighted songwriter has to have both written songs that other artists have recorded and recorded music of his/her own. For instance, Darrell Scott, Rodney Crowell, Radney Foster, Kris Kristofferson, Bruce Robison, etc. are eligible songwriters, since they’ve recorded their own music and written songs for other artists. Conversely, people like Alan Jackson, Garth Brooks, Randy Travis, Clint Black etc. won’t be eligible, since they’ve mostly only written songs for themselves and not others.
Finally, Favorite Songs by Favorite Songwriters will include a mix of songs that the songwriter has recorded, and songs that he/she has written that other artists have recorded, which will obviously depend on our favorite songs by that songwriter and our preferred version of the chosen song.
With this feature, we hope to help readers realize the contributions of individual songwriters and, perhaps, inspire you to explore the artists’ own discographies as a result.
Last summer I kicked off our Songwriters Series with my favorite modern country music songwriter, Darrell Scott. So, I thought it fitting to do the same with this new feature. Since I’ve already taken up considerable space describing this feature, I encourage you all to refer to my aforementioned spotlight to learn more about the man about which this article is written.
A pertinent note, however, is that most of the songs on this list have been recorded by both Scott and other artists. While the majority of the songs on this particular list will specifically refer to other artists, please assume that Scott’s own recordings are more than worth exploring as well.
Darrell Scott, “Banjo Clark” Aloha From Nashville
One of the things that I marvel the most about Darrell Scott is his ability to write songs that sound like timeless standards. “Banjo Clark” is one such song. In fact, I had to double check to make sure Scott had actually written this song and that it wasn’t a public domain standard that he revived.
Tim McGraw, “Old Town New” Live Like You Were Dying
Scott wrote “Old Town New” with another superb modern songwriter, Bruce Robison. So, it’s no surprise that this song about a man wishing that he could make his old town feel new again after a failed relationship is good. While it remained just an album cut on McGraw’s signature album, it’s as good as many of the singles that were released from it.
Suzy Bogguss, “No Way Out” Give Me Some Wheels
“No Way Out” is up-tempo, but is not devoid of life’s realities. The family experiences familiar hardships, but the husband and wife hold themselves accountable by reminding each other that they’ve “fell in love and there’s no way out.”
While Bogguss’ recording is the superior version, both Darrel Scott’s and Julie Roberts’ versions are good as well. Moreover, this is the first song of Scott’s that was recorded by another artist.
Darrell Scott, “When There’s No One Around”
Garth Brooks recorded a version of “When There’s No One Around”, but Scott’s version is more organic and sonically appealing. It’s a poignant look at who we are when there’s no one around, which is inevitably different than our public personas.
Travis Tritt, “It’s A Great Day to Be Alive” Down the Road I Go
We all know “It’s A Great Day to Be Alive”, since it was a big hit for Travis Tritt. This song has been recorded by Scott and Cory Morrow. Tritt’s is the definitive version, however. It tries to be hopeful while still somehow managing to feel a little bleak at the same time. While he proclaims that it’s a great day to be alive, there’s a sadness that lurks under the surface that seems to threaten the bright outlook, which is actually more tangible in Scott’s recording.
Darrell Scott, “With A Memory Like Mine”
“With A Memory Like Mine” was co-written with his dad, Wayne Scott. Darrell found the beginnings of this song in a notebook of his father’s and encouraged the Elder Scott to finish it with him. Scott’s version, which can be found on a solid project with Tim O’Brien, is darker than the quick paced recording by The John Cowan Band, which is more appropriate for this chillingly sad song. The man sends his son off to war by telling him to “be a good soldier/but return again someday.” His son does return, but in the most devastating way possible for a parent. In a casket.
Martina McBride, “I’m Trying”
“I’m Trying” has been recorded by both Diamond Rio as a duet with Chely Wright and Martina McBride, though McBride’s is the stronger version. It explores a struggling relationship that almost seems like more work than it’s worth. Instead of leaving us with a typical happy or tragic ending, we are only given an assurance that they love each other and they are trying to make things work. The melody is tastefully simple with a fitting production that showcases McBride’s atypical restrained vocals, which translates into appropriate empathy for the characters within the song. It is a simple song with a simple production, but still poignant in a quiet way.
Trace Adkins, “Someday”
Adkins is the only artist to record this song, as far as I know. It’s a beautiful and hopeful song, with tinges of sadness. As is duly noted about Adkins, he sings these more serious songs the best, even if radio disagrees.
Dixie Chicks, “Heartbreak Town”
This is an indictment on Nashville, which is one of two songs written by Scott and recorded by The Chicks that tackles the topic. The song portrays Nashville, a place where so many people hope to enjoy success, as a “heartbreak town, which is something that both the Chicks and Scott have surely learned from personal experience.
Kathy Mattea, “Loves Not Through With You Yet”
Right Out of Nowhere
I’m thrilled that one of my favorite Mattea albums includes this thoughtful, gorgeous Celtic flavored song by Darrell Scott: “You may think that love takes two, but loves a gift from you to you.”
Sara Evans, “Born to Fly”
Born to Fly
Scott happened to write one of Sara Evans’ most recognizable and best hits to date. “Born to Fly” is an infectious coming of age song. While her parents are stable and grounded, that’s not the way the songs’ character wishes to live and she asks, “How do you keep your feet on the ground when you know you were born to fly?”
Darryl Worley, “Family Tree”
I Miss My Friend
While many of Scott’s songs can be heavy, this is an example of his sillier side. Scott does a great version, but Worley cuts loose just the right amount. He clearly revels in singing deliciously smarmy lyrics like, “Well, raisin’ up babies is our new sport/You’re one day late and I’m one dollar short/Now, maybe it was planned or maybe it was a goof/But a cat’s got to dance on a hot tin roof.”
Darrell Scott, “Goodle’ USA”
The Invisible Man
A more watered down version of this song can be heard on Faith Hill’s album. If one doesn’t listen closely, it’s easy to miss the probing lyrics that question the state of America. While Scott’s recording is not quite as polished, the political message is much more overt, which includes his original lyrics that were altered for Hill’s version to be less controversial.
Dixie Chicks, “Long Time Gone”
This is the other song that was written by Scott and recorded by The Chicks that takes Nashville to task. Wrapped in an unshakably catchy melody, “Long Time Gone” disregards conventional niceties and tersely critiques the music that’s being played on the radio:
“Now me and Delia singin’ every Sunday
Watchin’ the children and the garden grow
We listen to the radio to hear what’s cookin’
But the music ain’t got no soul
Now they sound tired but they don’t sound Haggard
They got money but they don’t have cash
They got Junior but they don’t have Hank
I think, I think, I think…the rest is…
A long Time Gone”
Patty Loveless, “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive”
Patty Loveless’ recording of “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive” sounds like a superb arrangement of a forgotten classic, except it isn’t a remake and was written just over ten years ago. While I feel the definitive version was recorded by Patty Loveless, Darrell Scott has recorded two versions that, even if Loveless’ version did not exist, would earn a spot on this list. Through haunting lyrics and melodic structure, “Harlan” tells the tragic story of the bleak existence of coalminers that is just about inevitable:
“But the times got hard and tobacco wasn’t selling
And old granddad knew what he’d do to survive
He went and dug for Harlan coal
And sent the money back to grandma
But he never left Harlan alive
Where the sun comes up about ten in the mornin’
And the sun goes down about three in the day
And you’ll fill your cup with whatever bitter brew you’re drinkin’
And you spend your life just thinkin’ of how to get away”
Patty Loveless sings this song with an immense emotional intensity that was likely gathered from personal experience as a daughter of a coalmining father who eventually succumbed to “Black Lung Disease” as a result of coalmining in Kentucky. In fact, each person who has sung this song so far, including Darrell Scott himself, has a personal and deep understanding of the significance of the hopelessness that the lyrics convey, since Brad Paisley, Kathy Mattea and Scott also lived in coalmining towns as children. Consequently, they were all exposed to the horrifying reality of the song’s title that authoritatively proclaims that “you’ll never leave Harlan Alive.”
This list certainly does not exhaust the extent of Darrell Scott’s immeasurable songwriting prowess, but it shows his wide range of capabilities as a diverse composer and lyricist. He can do fun, heartbreak, inspirational, political, social commentary, fast, slow, etc. Moreover, he does it all with poignancy and wit, as it is appropriate.
Since the announcement of the “indefinite hiatus” of progressive acoustic darlings Nickel Creek, despite a history of diverging solo work, releases from Chris Thile and Sean Watkins have been shackled by expectations of a Creek-like sound. Much like releases from her former band mates, Sara Watkins’ self-titled debut is not a surrogate Nickel creek album. Instead, it is an album that is purely individual, combining the talent that we have already witnessed with more than a few surprises.
Opening with “All this Time,” a rolling country tune driven by pedal steel and the familial blending of Sean Watkins on background vocals, we are treated to a contemporary cut that draws heavily on traditional country sounds. Other successful uses of pedal steel include a smoky rendition of Tom Waits’ “Pony,” and “Any Old Time,” a Jimmie Rodgers song, performed as western swing.
Produced by John Paul Jones, the album continues with a collection, which while grounded in bluegrass and country, is as complex and eclectic as the guests that play on it. Among the artists making appearances are bluegrass artists Rayna Gellert, Ronnie McCoury, Tim O’Brien, and Chris Eldridge; Americana artist Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings; and former Nickel Creek band mates Chris Thile and Sean Watkins.
Through covers and original songs, with the exception of the overly slick “Too Much,” each song easily meshes with the next despite its range. There is the hauntingly elegant “Bygones,” with its genre-bending beauty; the energetic “Long Hot Summer Days,” a melding of blues, folk, and bluegrass; and the subtly presented “Give me Jesus,” a traditional song arranged by Sara and Chris Thile. While Watkins was not a major writing contributor to Nickel Creek, she is the sole writer of six of the fourteen tracks for this project.
The album also includes two instrumental tracks. “Freiderick,” as well as “Jefferson,” the former co-written by the two Watkinses and the latter composed by Sara alone, are capable instrumentals with a heavy Celtic influence. It should be noted that the mandolin on both tracks is played by Ronnie McCoury, avoiding a Nickel Creek reunion that—while intriguing–no doubt would have only distracted from the album.
Sara Watkins’ debut is new and refreshing; it is a blending of retro flavors that remains contemporary, while avoiding the manufactured nostalgia that so often creeps into both Nashville and alt-country music.