Pam Tillis, It’s All Relative: Tillis Sings Tillis
By the time she released a tribute to her father Mel, she’d become something of a legend in her own right. So it’s no surprise that she approached Mel’s stellar songwriting catalog as if she was recording any other studio album, taking the best of the bunch and making them her own. Bonus points for preserving the original fiddle breakdown from “Heart Over Mind” while making that classic shuffle a forlorn ballad, and a few more for hitting the archives of the Country Music Hall of Fame until she found a forgotten gem that should’ve been a hit back in the day (“Not Like it Was With You.”) – Kevin Coyne
Yoakam takes a new, inspired spin on the greatest hits album concept, presenting us with a hearty sampling (over 20 songs) of his catalog served acoustic style. It simply works for the country legend. He introduces some delightful new twists and turns to his old classics, and as it should go with acoustic music, the album is driven by unadulterated, raw vocals, coupled with honest storytelling – the purest form of country music. – Tara Seetharam
Recommended Tracks: “A Thousand Miles From Nowhere”, “Things Change”
Gillian Welch, Time (The Revelator)
Time (The Revelator) is Gillian Welch and David Rawlings with much of their typical production stripped away. Accompanied by acoustic guitar and banjo, Gillian sings with emotions as much as she sings notes that create a surprisingly full sound. – William Ward
Recommended Tracks: “I Want to Sing That Rock and Roll”, “Red Clay Halo”
Reba McEntire, Reba Duets
That McEntire is able to smoothly and effortlessly wrap her voice around eleven other distinctive voices is a tribute to her sheer talent as an artist. With duet partners stretching from Justin Timberlake to Ronnie Dunn, McEntire presents a stunning, layered mix of sounds and styles, demonstrating that when gifted artists come together, no perceived boundaries can stop them from making good music. – TS
Recommended Tracks: “The Only Promise That Remains”, “When You Love Someone Like That”
Lee Ann Womack, Call Me Crazy
Very few country artists can express pain more poignantly than Womack, who taps into a place of tender desperation with her highly-acclaimed 2008 album. The stories are deep and reflective, the sorrow palpable, and the production adeptly sparse – a potent combination. – TS
Nickel Creek has been nominated for Best Bluegrass Album and Best Country Instrumental Performance Grammys and won Best Contemporary Folk Album, yet the group does not easily fit into any of those categories. Produced by Alison Krauss, Nickel Creek’s self-titled album is their most bluegrass-influenced album. – WW
Recommended Tracks: “The Fox”, “The Hand Song”
Sara Watkins, Sara Watkins
Sara Watkins’ self-titled debut holds more than a few surprises, including more country influence than you will hear from any of her former Nickel Creek bandmates’ solo work. Produced by John Paul Jones, pedal steel is prominent on Jimmie Rodgers’ “Any Old Time,” performed as western swing, “All this Time,” and Tom Waits’ “Pony.” – WW
Recommended Tracks: “All This Time”, “Give Me Jesus”
Dierks Bentley, Modern Day Drifter
Rife with accessible melodies, solid lyrics and a penchant for traditional sounds, Dierks Bentley’s sophomore project, Modern Day Drifter, confirmed the promise that was only hinted at on his first album. The title of the album rightly suggests that Bentley will explore the components of breaking the chains of domesticity, which include the freedom (“Lotta Leavin’ Left to Do”, “Modern Day Drifter”, “Domestic Light and Cold”, “the Cab of My Truck”) and the ultimate consequences (“Settle for a Slowdown”, “Down on Easy Street”). Nevertheless, Bentley does not stop with those themes. He also finds room for common themes as love and loss, as demonstrated in the pretty “Good Things Happen”, the smoldering “Come A Little Closer” and heartbreaking “Gonna Get There Someday.” – Leeann Ward
Todd Snider, The Devil You Know
An explosion of righteous anger over poverty with an undercurrent of joyous celebration of America’s underclass. You can never tell for sure if he sees himself as their advocate or their peer, but the songs are so powerful, it doesn’t really matter. – KC
Recommended Tracks: “Just Like Old Times”, “The Devil You Know”
Rodney Crowell, The Houston Kid
After a string of somewhat underwhelming major-label releases in the 90′s, Rodney Crowell rebounded in a big way with this remarkably deep set on celebrated indie label Sugar Hill. Childhood joys and adult insights stand side-by-side in The Houston Kid, producing an emotionally rich and complicated survey of the album’s world. Such is the detail and soul of Crowell’s writing that every second comes across as autobiographical, even the ones that probably aren’t. – Dan Milliken
Recommended Tracks: “The Rock Of My Soul”, “I Walk The Line (Revisited)”
On her first major-label album, Lambert reveals herself as a fiery, spirited artist with a lot to say, and a clever voice with which to speak. Her sharp songwriting skills, though a work in progress as we’d later learn, take her naturally from aggression to desolation and back again. But most notably, through Kerosene, Lambert got the traditionalists to pay a little more attention to mainstream country music and its more promising artists. – Tara Seetharam
Recommended Tracks: “Kerosene”, “I Can’t Be Bothered”
Kris Kristofferson, This Old Road This Old Road has not have received as much mainstream attention as Kristofferson’s recent appearance in Ethan Hawke’s Rolling Stone article; an unfortunate fact, given it was the legendary writer’s first album of new material in 11 years. With This Old Road, Kristofferson shines a spotlight on the world much in the same his earlier writing shined a spotlight on himself. The result is an overtly political album with more depth than most modern attempts have been able to produce. – William Ward
Recommended Tracks: “The Last Thing to Go”, “Pilgrim’s Progress”
Guy Clark, Workbench Songs
The recordings of the songs that Guy Clark, one of country music’s most respected modern songwriters, has written for the most popular artists in country music are typically polished by the best Nashville musicians and slick producers. But Clark’s own albums tend to be more organic, with spare instrumentation that somehow manages to avoid sounding anemic as a result. His well worn voice sings these eleven melodically and lyrically strong songs with warmth and the kind of emotion that easily captures the listener. It’s one of the best albums of his deep catalog that spans over thirty years. – Leeann Ward
Recommended Tracks: “Walkin’ Man”, “Expose”
Wynonna, What the World Needs Now is Love
It’s hard to believe that it’s been six years since Wynonna’s last proper studio album. This collection is easily one of her best, with effective covers like “I Want to Know What Love Is” and “Flies On the Butter”, along with socially conscious material that provokes thought instead of pandering to already held beliefs (“It All Comes Down to Love”). – Kevin Coyne
Recommended Tracks: “Sometimes I Feel Like Elvis”, “Rescue Me”
Lee Ann Womack, I Hope You Dance
The massively successful title track powered this album to triple platinum, but it also overshadowed the excellent songs surrounding it. For those who explored the album beyond track two, there were some of Womack’s finest moments on record, as she had the good taste to plunder the catalogs of Bruce Robison (“Lonely Too”), Bobbie Cryner (“Stronger Than I Am”), Julie Miller (“I Know Why the River Runs”), and Rodney Crowell (“Ashes By Now”). – KC
Recommended Tracks: “Lonely Too”, “Does My Ring Burn Your Finger”
Chris Thile, How to Grow a Woman From the Ground
This is the first album from the band that would eventually become Punch Brothers. Garnering a Grammy Award Nomination in 2006, How to Grow a Woman From the Ground is a solid bluegrass album with classical sensibilities and extraordinary instrumentation. – WW
Recommended Tracks: “Wayside (Back in Time)”, “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground”
Ralph Stanley II, This One Is Two
Hyperbole alert, but it’s hard to think of a more beautiful-sounding traditional country album from this decade, or one which more comfortably merges old school aesthetics with modern production polish. Stanley corralled a number of meaty story songs here, but it’s the combination of his warm baritone and the lush instrumentation that gives this gem its quiet strength. – Dan Milliken
Recommended Tracks: “Cold Shoulder”, “They Say I’ll Never Go Home”
Various Artists, Livin’ Lovin’ Losin’: Songs of the Louvin Brothers
Tribute albums too often feel redundant, as well-meaning artists deliver nice but forgettable imitations of classic records. Not so with the Louvins’, which sticks veteran and current artists alike on the Bros’ close harmonies and sees each intriguing combination (Pam Tillis and Johnny Cash? Why not!) triumph. I daresay it’s as good an introduction to the duo’s work as any compilation of their own recordings. – DM
Recommended Tracks: “How’s the World Treating You?”, “Are You Teasing Me”
Todd Snider, The Excitement Plan
Snider mostly avoids both political themes and complex arrangements on his latest record, emphasizing his greatest strength as a writer instead: his uncanny ability to make the most specifically personal have universal resonance. Listen out for a wonderful cameo from Loretta Lynn on “Don’t Tempt Me.” – KC
Recommended Tracks: “Barefoot Champagne”, “Money, Compliments, Publicity (Song Number 10)”
Mark O’Connor, Thirty-Year Retrospective (Live)
Mark O’Connor’s Thirty Year Retrospective is a double instrumental album of his live performance with Chris Thile, Bryan Sutton and Byron House. The album covers a wide range of Mark O’Connor’s career, presenting a range of instrumental country, bluegrass, new grass and jazz with the detail and care often only applied to classical music. – WW
Recommended Tracks: “Caprice No. 4 in D Major”, “Macedonia”
It’s time for another iPod (or any other music player) check. Last time, I asked you to put your music device on shuffle and then tell us the first ten songs that you would recommend. This time, I want you to do the same thing, but then jot down your initial thoughts on the songs as your ten recommended songs play. Then share your informal thoughts in the comments.
I’ll play along too, but I’ll spare you the Christmas songs that will inevitably come up in my shuffle, which I’d heartily recommend if I wasn’t keenly aware that it’s still only September.
John Anderson, “I’d Love You Again”
Nice, sweet song from the rough voice guy who’s still able to sing a tender song with the best of them.
Todd Snider, “Alright Guy”
I love how Snider really seems to be pondering this question: “I’m an alright guy? Right? Right?”
Ashley Monroe, “Can’t Let Go”
Peppy…reminds me of a Garth Brooks type song.
Patty Loveless, “What’s A Broken Heart”
Melancholy…something Patty Loveless does the best.
Rodney Crowell, “Earthbound”
A celebration of life that doesn’t happen to be sappy.
Kathy Mattea, “Junkyard”
I can relate to this song. My motto has always been “Life’s depressing enough. Why would I want to watch things that would only contribute to the darkness?” That’s why I don’t watch dark films, though it so happens that I don’t have the same philosophy about music.
The Judds, “Flies on the Butter (You Can’t Go Home Again)”
There’s just something wistful about this song. Obviously, the theme, but also how it’s performed. Perhaps I’m just imagining it, because I’m wistfully wishing there was a duo on radio like The Judds today…probably why I love Joey + Rory
Trent Summar and the New Row Mob, “Louisville Nashville Line”
It’s just imperative to turn Trent Summar and the New Row Mob up when they come up on the iPod.
Vince Gill, “Don’t Pretend with Me”
I really like the guitar on this song. It’s cool. In reality, this whole box set is awesome.
Yesterday marked the end of the eligibility period for the 2010 Grammy Awards, which will be presented in January. To accommodate the earlier award ceremony, this year’s period lasted one month shy of a year: October 1, 2008 – August 31, 2009.
It’s been something of an underwhelming year musically from my perspective, but I have a few nominations that I’d like to see:
Best Male Country Vocal Performance: “El Rey”
Best Country Album: Twang
Strait’s been on a roll since It Just Comes Natural, releasing his most consistent string of albums since the mid-nineties trifecta of Easy Come Easy Go, Lead On and Blue Clear Sky. It’s often been said that Strait could sing the phone book and make it sound great, and “El Rey” proved that he’d do just as well with la guía telefónica.
Best Contemporary Folk/Americana Album: The Excitement Plan
This category has been great at acknowledging artists who essentially make acoustic music that isn’t particularly commercial, with previous winners including Nickel Creek and Emmylou Harris. Snider put out one of his strongest albums this year, and he’s long overdue for some Grammy love.
Best Country Album: American Saturday Night
Best Male Country Vocal Performance: “Welcome to the Future”
Best Country Instrumental Performance: “Back to the Future”
Paisley has reaffirmed himself as a creative force to be reckoned with and deserves to be amply rewarded with multiple Grammy nominations this year. The rock edge to his token instrumental track is a refreshing new take on his guitar-playing virtuosity.
Best Female Country Vocal Performance: “Just a Dream”
Best Country Vocal Collaboration: “I Told You So” (with Randy Travis)
Even though Underwood won the ACM Entertainer of the Year trophy this past spring, it’s felt like it’s been all quiet on the Carrie front lately. That’s interesting, since I think that the two best singles from her Carnival Ride album were the ones saved for last. She won over a tough lineup with a weaker single last year, so I suspect a win for “Just a Dream” will be even easier to pull off.
2009 had nominations for strong singles from Lee Ann Womack, Trisha Yearwood and LeAnn Rimes, none of whom are likely to be contenders this year. Perhaps Taylor Swift will finally get a nomination in her gender genre race this time around.
Best Country Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group With Vocal: “Already Gone”
Best Country Album: Live on the Inside
It’s been an very weak year for mainstream country albums, so Sugarland’s collection of legitimized bootlegs might actually get a nomination. It’s not quite as good as Love on the Inside, but it’s still a lot better than most of their mates at country radio have been turning in lately.
That’s about all I can think about right now, though I’m sure there are some great things I’ve missed. Who do you think deserves some Grammy love this year?
Back to the Nineties continues with a look at Mark Chesnutt, one of the strongest traditionalists to break through in 1990. He won the Horizon Award in 1993 while he was riding a streak of three consecutive #1 singles.
Chesnutt’s greatest commercial and radio successes came early on. His first three studio albums went platinum and his fourth went gold. He’d earn an additional platinum record with a hits collection assembled from those sets.
While he remained a consistent presence on radio for the entire decade, his sales tapered off. His last big hit was his 1999 cover of Aerosmith’s “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing,” which went to #1. In more recent years, he’s limited his covers to The Marshall Tucker Band and Charlie Rich.
Ten Essential Tracks:
“Too Cold at Home”
from the 1990 album Too Cold at Home
Chesnutt’s first twelve singles reached the top ten, starting with this pure country hit that finds him hiding out in a bar on a sweltering summer day. “It’s too hot to fish, too hot for golf, and too cold at home.”
from the 1990 album Too Cold at Home
He’s still at the bar for this hit, his first to top the charts. This time, the woman has left him, and his only family left are the jukebox, wine, freedom, and time.
“I’ll Think of Something”
from the 1992 album Longnecks & Short Stories
A bone-chilling cover of a very old Hank Williams Jr. single. His nuanced vocal digs deeper than Williams did on the 1974 original.
“Bubba Shot the Jukebox”
from the 1992 album Longnecks & Short Stories
This was one of the first singles forced by radio, as unsolicited airplay pushed it on to the charts while MCA was still working “I’ll Think of Something.” Songwriter Dennis Linde also penned Chesnutt’s #1 hit “It Sure is Monday.”
from the 1993 album Almost Goodbye
It begins like a domestic epic worthy of George Jones, complete with the swelling of the strings for heightened emotional effect. But cooler heads prevail as they realize how much they’d have to lose if they said the word goodbye. After all, “Sometimes the most important words are the ones that you leave unspoken.”
“I Just Wanted You to Know”
from the 1993 album Almost Goodbye
One side of what must be an incredibly awkward telephone conversation, with the woman’s implied silence at the other end of the line making things just a little more uncomfortable.
“Goin’ Through the Big D”
from the 1994 album What a Way to Live
The nineties equivalent of “She Got the Goldmine (I Got the Shaft.)”
from the 1995 album Wings
Covering Todd Snider. The coolest thing that Mark Chesnutt has ever done. “A woman like you walks in a place like this and you can almost hear the promises break.”
“It Wouldn’t Hurt to Have Wings”
from the 1995 album Wings
Essentially the title track to Chesnutt’s finest major label album, it was also the set’s only big hit.
“Thank God For Believers”
from the 1997 album Thank God For Believers
In a decade that brought several powerful new perspectives on alcoholism, this was one of the best, as the man who struggles with his addiction can’t believe the strength and the faith of the woman who stays beside him.
Two Hidden Treasures:
from the 1995 album Wings
Take your pick from this album – perhaps you’d prefer “As the Honky Tonk Turns” or “King of Broken Hearts” – but my favorite is the closing track, where strangers that meet in the evening will be strangers again the next morning.
“A Hard Secret to Keep”
from the 2004 album Savin’ the Honky Tonk
This is the best moment of Chesnutt’s strongest album, the independent release Savin’ the Honky Tonk. It’s an album that more than lives up to its title, especially on this tale of cheater’s paranoia.
I’ve known about Kinky Friedman for some years now. Actually, I should be more specific and say that I’ve known Kinky Friedman’s name for quite some years now. Because, to be honest, the only thing I really knew about him until very recently is that Willie Nelson supported him for Texas Governor in 2006, which should have peaked my interest enough to research him back then.
It wasn’t until recently, after doing an Amazon search for stray Todd Snider songs, that I realized that the colorful and fascinating Friedman, while politically extreme at times, was quite the singing satirist. On the 2006 album Why The Hell Not…The Songs of Kinky Friedman, I discovered an incredible cast of artists (Willie Nelson, Todd Snider, Bruce Robison, Asleep at the Wheel, Delbert McClinton, Charlie Robison, Dwight Yoakam, Kevin Fowler & Jason Boland) doing covers of Friedman’s songs, many so sharp that I was more than a little taken aback at first. Through satire and, sometimes, even seriousness, Freidman offers a lot of social commentary that is often colorful and always intriguing.
Although Friedman’s original versions aren’t especially appe
aling to me, the tribute album is engaging. Two songs in particular caught my attention right away. Kevin Fowler’s cover of “Get Your Biscuits in the Oven” and Todd Snider’s version of “They Ain’t Making Jews Like Jesus Anymore” are both addictively catchy and amusing. Snider’s song would easily fit next to his own socially charged compositions while Fowler’s choice is performed with a charming cheekiness.
While it would be violating Country Universe’s comment policy to quote Todd Snider’s song that deals with racism, I will provide a sample of the lyrics from Fowler’s deliciously ridiculous ditty, which is hopefully extreme enough to be obviously satirical in nature as social commentary.
Verse 1: You uppity women I don’t understand
Why you gotta go and try to act like a man,
But before you make your weekly visit to the shrink
You’d better occupy the kitchen, liberate the sink.
Chorus: Get your biscuits in the oven and your buns in the bed
That’s what I to my baby said,
Women’s liberation is a-going to your head,
Get your biscuits in the oven and your buns in the bed.
Kinky Friedman’s brand of social commentary may be understandably too inflammatory and extreme for many people, but my call to Country Universe readers tonight is to recommend a satirical song that you find appealing.
This afternoon, it took me seventy minutes to get to my final and fifteen minutes to actually take it. It was the traffic jam to end all traffic jams, requiring navigations of Brooklyn and Queens that were mind-numbingly convoluted.
What kept me from losing my temper? My iPod. Nothing quite like Todd Snider and Rodney Carrington to lighten the mood.
We haven’t had an iPod Check in a long time, so given that it was my sanity-saving device today, it’s as good a night as any.
No funny rules or complicated instructions here. Just turn on your iPod/mp3 player and hit shuffle.
Typically, I listen to the songs on my iPod via the various playlists I’ve created. However, the other day, for some reason, I listened to my iPod on shuffle. These were the first two songs my iPod played: Merle Haggard’s “Okie from Muskogee” and Todd Snider’s “Conservative, Christian, Right-Wing Republican, Straight White American Males.” No joke. Apparently, my iPod has a sense of humor.
The “joke” got me thinking, however, about country songs that tackle similar subject matter from opposite points of view or take divergent approaches to the same theme. It’s fairly easy these days to find songs with a similar take on a subject matter, but finding differing takes is a little more difficult. Browsing through my iPod, I came up with a few additional pairs: Carrie Underwood’s “All American Girl” celebrates the success of the stereotypical all-American girl, while Terry Allen’s “The Great Joe Bob” celebrates the downfall of the stereotypical all-American boy.
Sugarland’s “Stay” takes the point of view of the “other woman” cheating with a taken man. She wants him to leave his significant other and stay with her. Dolly Parton’s “Jolene”, on the other hand, takes the point of view of the significant other, begging the “other woman” not to take her man.
Trisha Yearwood’s “Walkaway Joe” and Mark Wills’ “Jacob’s Ladder” take divergent approaches to the same theme. Both start out with a similar premise – a young girl leaving home with her young love against her parent’s wishes. However, things turn out vastly different. In “Walkaway Joe,” the title says it all. In “Jacob’s Ladder”, however, things work out much better. The young couple find themselves married with a baby, and accepting grandparents.
What songs can you think of that take different approaches to the same subject matter?
908 miles. That’s the total distance, door-to-door, from my home in New York to the college I attended in Nashville, Tennessee. If you leave at a decent hour of the day, it’s going to take you 16 or 17 hours. If you do it overnight, you can cut that down to 13.
It was always easy to get a friend to drive up with me to New York, as the allure of the Big Apple was worth the drive. It was on one of those overnight drives, as we sped down I-81 in Virginia, that I was told, “You have to listen to this CD. You’re gonna love this guy.”
This guy was Todd Snider, and the album was Songs for the Daily Planet. My friend was right. I was instantly hooked. Soon, I was buying his entire catalog. But it was once I was done with college, and East Nashville Skyline was released, that I became a hardcore fan. I don’t remember what I was doing in Manhattan that night, but it was close enough to NYU that I went to the Tower Records store and bought the CD. It instantly became my favorite disc of his, later topped by its follow-up, The Devil You Know.
I’ve since seen Snider in concert, just him and a guitar in a bar near Union Square, and he’s even better live than he is on record. He has a new album coming out this fall, and while its running time’s a bit too short and it’s not as cohesive as The Devil You Know, fans of his acerbic writing will not be disappointed. Here are some of my favorite songs of his.
“Vinyl Records” New Connection, 2002
In rapid-fire delivery, Snider catalogs all of the artists that make up his collection of dusty vinyl records. With shout-outs given to everyone from Bob Dylan and U2 to Emmylou Harris and Rosanne Cash, it makes you wonder what’s on his iPod these days.
“Mission Accomplished (Because You Gotta Have Faith)” Peace Queer, 2008
The rhythmic opening to Snider’s upcoming polemic is a subversive chant, using the drone of an army drill to satirize the repetition of media talking points that become accepted as truth by a public that lacks the access to verify. Oh, and it riffs off an old George Michael song.
“Just Like Old Times” The Devil You Know, 2006
One of Snider’s gifts as a writer is painting portraits of the underbelly of society that finds the humanity without dulling the rough edges in the process. Here, a hustler runs into a woman he’s always carried a flame for, and hangs out with her in the motel where she often does her evening work. “Your goal was always the same as mine,” he tells her. “We didn’t want to throw a fishing line in that old mainstream.”
“Broke” Live: Near Truths and Hotel Rooms, 2003
The original version of this song appeared on New Connection , and it’s the story of a man who turns to armed robbery to pay his bills. As he explains before the live performance documented here, a young fan wrote to him saying how disappointed he was that the song glorified violence. So, in the live version, he performs the song in its complete, original form, then adds at the end: “Don’t shoot guns. Don’t be violent. Don’t shoot guns. Don’t be violent.”
“Happy New Year” The Devil You Know, 2006
Part of the problem in describing the appeal of Snider’s songs is the temptation to just quote the entire song and point to the lyrics, saying, “See! He’s brilliant!” So I’ll just say that he starts with the irony of adjacent bumper stickers and it just gets better from there. (more…)
Todd Snider has the social conscience of a Rodney Crowell, mixed with the wry, detached humor of a Mitch Hedberg. Too many artists lose their sense of humor when they attempt to make social commentary, but Snider uses humor to strengthen his. The result is akin to a stand-up on a soapbox.
All of this is evident on the lead single from his upcoming album, Peace Queer. The title may be a shout-out to that infamous 2003 banner, but the humor is found in the parentheses. The song blends the rhythm of a military march with the guitar hook from George Michael’s “Faith.”
The first verse begins with an anecdote about Will Rogers, and is followed by one of Snider’s most amusing lines to date: “I met a girl with a Midas touch. I could never get her to touch very much.” Weightier observations soon emerge, and there’s a reference to man taking flight that is simply brilliant.
I couldn’t help but think about Gandhi’s “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind” when Snider sings, with slight exasperation, “Fighting for peace? That’s like screaming for quiet.”
But the most interesting part of the song is the final minute, where he repeats variations of “I don’t know, but I’ve been told” until his message is clear: None of us have any idea what’s really going on, and the government and media are making sure of it.
Socrates once said, “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” Snider is a very wise man.