It’s been a while since we’ve done one of these, distracted as we’ve been by decade-end madness, but now seems like an appropriate day to jump back in, with a diverse bevy of MP3 albums being offered at Amazon for 5 bucks or better. As always, click on the box to listen to clips or to reach the album’s download page.
First up is the Daily Deal, the Avett Brothers’ excellent 2007 set Emotionalism, going today for $1.99. This group kind of defies genre classification, but they have enough of an earthy quality to their music to make them appeal to all lovers of traditional music. They’re building quite a following, too.
The 201 Greatest Singles of the Decade, Part 3: #160-#141
#160 “Last Call”
Lee Ann Womack
Womack’s second-best Aughts song about late-night temptations is still better than a lot of people’s first-best songs about anything. Even in avoiding her drunken ex’s advances, she sounds positively heartbroken, suggesting she’d gladly make the other decision if she didn’t know better. – Dan Milliken
#159 “She’s Not Just a Pretty Face”
Her motivation for her music has always been escapism, but I love the personal touch she slips into this one. Her late mother is the one who she’s referring to when she sings “at night, she pumps gasoline.” – Kevin Coyne
Time’s running short. If your personal least favorite wasn’t in Part 1, Part 2 , or Part 3, perhaps it will turn up now.
The Worst Singles of the Decade, Part 4: #20-#11
The Lost Trailers, “Holler Back”
If your response to hearing “Holler Back” is to brag that you’ve got a holler back in the woods, I suggest that you and your music stay there.
Trailer Choir, “Rockin’ the Beer Gut”
I appreciate the sincerity, but it can’t overcome the fact that he’s rockin’ the Autotune and singin’ the most ridiculous lyric of the year.
Bucky Covington, “A Different World”
Bucky and I are roughly the same age, and I know for a fact that we grew up with seat belts, video games, and remote controls. What’s next, Taylor Swift singing about growing up without the internet?
Toby Keith featuring Krystal, “Mockingbird”
As endearing as it is that Toby Keith wanted to help his daughter on to country radio, I have to ask the question: Why is one of country music’s greatest all-time vocalists aping James Taylor’s far less capable vocal stylings? Did we really need to hear Toby Keith sing, “Yes indeed-o?”
Billy Ray Cyrus featuring Miley Cyrus, “Ready, Set, Don’t Go”
Then again, trying to help your daughter is a heck of a lot more sympathetic than riding on her coattails. I’d give this a pass if it was the original recording, but slapping Miley on to the track when the solo version is struggling at radio is just sad.
Blake Shelton, “The Baby”
Or as he sings it, “The Bay-ay-bee.”
Neal McCoy, “Billy’s Got His Beer Goggles On”
Of all of the nineties stars to make a one-off comeback, did it have to be the man who brought us “The Shake?”
Gretchen Wilson, “All Jacked Up”
In which Wilson sees both her front tooth and her pickup truck damaged, and pundits are left debating which one best symbolizes what she’s done to her career.
Brad Paisley, “Ticks”
A warning to all the ladies: If a stranger starts talking to you like this at a bar, please don’t follow him into the woods. It won’t end well.
Trace Adkins, “Swing”
The strikes are called after you swing, not before them. Stupid songwriters.
Evidently, country artists in Nashville are damn proud to be from the country – so proud that they each feel the need to record a song proclaiming just this and, no less, release it to country radio. I’ve lost track of the number of these singles put out in the past year, a handful of which I’ve found to be borderline offensive. As a city girl with a heck of a lot of love for the spirit of country music, I’d rather not be made to feel like I’m being excluded from a members-only club.
And that’s why “Hillbilly Bone” is a raucous, boot-stompin’ breath of fresh air among its peers. It’s the opposite of exclusive: it’s Shelton and Adkins’ open invitation to join in on the honky-tonk fun, extended to everyone, because everyone — even you, New York urbanite — has a hillbilly bone. It’s not about where you’re from, but instead about how you feel when the “fiddle saws”: “No you ain’t gotta be born out in the sticks…to get on down with me.” Corny, but true.
“Hillbilly Bone” is a novelty song through and through, but it’s catchy and dynamic, and it laughs at itself (the consecutive “bubba”s in the second verse are pretty amusing). The only glaring problem is that it seems to be written for someone with Adkins’ swagger, and while his presence injects a certain amount of believability and punch into the song, you can’t help but wonder how four minutes of pure Adkins might have elevated the performance. Shelton and Adkins make an interesting combination of voices and attitude, though, and make an enjoyable case for finding your hillbilly bone…b-bone, b-bone bone.
Anthony Smith is likely better known as a songwriter than a recording artist. As a well established songwriter, he’s written songs for Trace Adkins”I’m Tryin’”, “Chrome”), George Strait (“Run”), Tim McGraw (“Kristofferson”), Montgomery Gentry (“What Do You Think About That”), Trisha Yearwood (“Who Invented the Wheel”), and countless other big name stars. As a recording artist he has struggled, releasing his 2002 If That Ain’t Country to some positive critical reception, but ultimately met with limited commercial success. In an attempt to revive the singing part of his career, Smith has recently signed with Stroudavarious Records, which has released the offbeat rocker, “Bringing Back the Sunshine”, as the upcoming album’s lead single.
To put it simply, the song is loud. Various amped up Electric guitar patterns drive the song to a somewhat frenzied sonic experience, but it still manages to be more interesting than chaotic in the end. Similarly, the melodic structure is not as straightforward as most songs tend to be, which is both a successful and limiting feature of the song. While the key changes and phrasing keep the song interesting, Smith’s vocals are limited in range, which hampers the song’s over all appeal. Moreover, it feels as if Smith is forced to compete with the screaming guitars rather than being complimented by them.
As I work my way through these categories, it’s becoming apparent to me that this was a very weak year for country music. I’m struggling to come up with a list of five women who actually made a musical impact over the twelve months that make up the eligibility period.
Only two women have made any serious commercial impact this year, so I’m filling up the category with the women who put out solid music that also did reasonably well:
If the Grammys can acknowledge her, I don’t see why the CMA should overlook her. She made an excellent covers album that has sold as well as several major label efforts. She was a surprise nominee in 2003 on the strength of Mountain Soul, and it would be nice to see the CMA show such good judgment again.
Also a surprise nominee in 2003, and very worthy of returning to the lineup this year. Not only did she sell out venues across Europe, she also earned a Tony nomination for Best Score.
Oh, and that independent album she released on her own label last year? It’s sold twice as much as the latest albums from Martina McBride and Lee Ann Womack, and outsold the albums of such radio staples as Trace Adkins, Montgomery Gentry, and Blake Shelton.
Let’s just say it now so we can be spared it being said over and over again in the comments:
Taylor Swift shouldn’t win a vocalist award because she can’t sing!
I understand this argument. After all, the same is true for Kenny Chesney and Shania Twain, who won Entertainer of the Year but not their respective vocalist awards. But they were still nominated, and rightfully so. You can’t tell the story of women in country music in 2009 without including Taylor Swift.
Does she deserve to join the illustrious ranks of four-time winners in this category? You betcha. Given that Underwood’s a happy medium between Reba McEntire’s country-pop and Martina McBride’s power balladeering, she seems to fit in perfectly.
Oh, and if it seems too soon for Underwood to be in the same league as McEntire, remember that Reba wasn’t a superstar when she won those four trophies. She didn’t even earn a platinum album until two years after her winning streak ended.
Lee Ann Womack
Why Lee Ann Womack, and not Miranda Lambert? Each had a moody single go top twenty this year, but Lambert’s was off of an album released during the 2007 eligibility period.
Why Lee Ann Womack, and not Martina McBride? Their albums have sold in similar numbers, but Womack’s was a good deal better.
Why Lee Ann Womack and not Julianne Hough or Kellie Pickler? If you’re asking that question, you must be new to Country Universe.
What five women do you think should be nominated for Female Vocalist this year?
I was wary about reviewing this after hearing the gist, as I’ve become pretty sick of songs that remark on how awesome and fulfilling everyday life is. It’s not the theme itself that bothers me; it’s that most songs just gush about it, as though they have to really hype up the idea for you to buy in. It usually ends up sounding more defensive than celebratory, like an insecure person trying to brag – “What? All my friends just got raises? Well, I’ve got all I need, and it’s alright by me! I’m in paradise! Yeah! So screw you guys!”
Not the case with “All I Ask For Anymore.” There is an understated, unassuming quality to this song that just makes it sound real, even as the lyric covers a lot of well-trod ground. I suppose the key difference lies in the approach – he’s not straining to prove how great life with the wife and kids is; he’s just reflecting on how it’s changed him and leaving us to make our own judgments. Music for adults – nice.
It’s time for an album sales update, our first since May 23. Brad Paisley is off to a strong start with American Saturday Night, selling 130k in its first week. That’s about 70k less than his previous two studio albums – Time Well Wasted and 5th Gear – opened with, but not a terrible drop-off, considering the state of the music market.
Meanwhile, the new studio albums by Rascal Flatts and Keith Urban are slowing down considerably, now being outpaced on a weekly basis by 2008 releases by Taylor Swift, Zac Brown Band, Darius Rucker and Lady Antebellum.
Among younger acts with a new album in 2009, the most impressive sales are coming from Jason Aldean, while 2008 releases from Kellie Pickler, Billy Currington, and Randy Houser are showing new signs of life.
Biggest disappointments? It’s hard not to look in the direction of Martina McBride, who has barely cleared the 100k mark on her new studio set. Lee Ann Womack’s 2008 set just made it over that mark, too. Then again, one only needs to have sold 455 copies to make the chart this week, with the anchor position going to Wynonna with that total. Her covers album Sing – Chapter 1 has sold 41k to date.
Here are the latest totals for albums released over the past three years that are still charting:
Rascal Flatts, Unstoppable – 842,000
Keith Urban, Defying Gravity – 452,000
Jason Aldean, Wide Open – 384,000
Kenny Chesney, Greatest Hits II – 281,000
Dierks Bentley, Feel That Fire – 219,000
Martina McBride, Shine – 104,000
John Rich, Son of a Preacher Man – 103,000
Eric Church, Carolina – 94,000
Rodney Atkins, It’s America – 88,000
Jake Owen, Easy Does It – 81,000
Randy Travis, I Told You So: Ultimate Hits – 78,000
Montgomery Gentry, For Our Heroes – 64,000
Willie Nelson & Asleep at the Wheel, Willie & The Wheel – 56,000
Steve Earle, Townes – 47,000
Colt Ford, Ride Through the Country – 45,000
Jason Michael Carroll, Growing Up is Getting Old – 45,000
Wynonna, Sing – Chapter 1 – 41,000
Hank Williams Jr. – 127 Rose Avenue – 34,000
Ryan Bingham, Roadhouse Sun – 15,000
Tracy Lawrence, Rock – 11,000
Darryl Worley, Sounds Like Life – 8,000
Holly Williams, Here With Me – 5,000
Charlie Robison, Beautiful Day – 3,000
Tanya Tucker, My Turn – 3,000
Taylor Swift, Fearless – 3,464,000
Sugarland, Love on the Inside – 1,683,000
George Strait, Troubadour – 914,000
Alan Jackson, Good Time – 869,000
Darius Rucker, Learn to Live – 754,000
Kenny Chesney, Lucky Old Sun – 721,000
Zac Brown Band, Foundation – 681,000
Rascal Flatts, Greatest Hits Vol. 1 – 680,000
Lady Antebellum, Lady Antebellum – 674,000
Toby Keith, 35 Biggest Hits – 652,000
Jamey Johnson, That Lonesome Song – 509,000
Toby Keith, That Don’t Make Me a Bad Guy – 403,000
James Otto, Sunset Man – 374,000
Julianne Hough, Julianne Hough – 314,000
Kellie Pickler, Kellie Pickler – 261,000
Dierks Bentley, Greatest Hits – 255,000
Brad Paisley, Play – 247,000
Dolly Parton, Backwoods Barbie – 208,000
Tim McGraw, Greatest Hits Vol. 3 – 206,000
Billy Currington, Little Bit of Everything – 191,000
Trace Adkins, X – 185,000
Montgomery Gentry, Back When I Knew it All – 184,000
Joey + Rory, Life of a Song – 167,000
Blake Shelton, Startin’ Fires – 165,000
Eli Young Band, Jet Black and Jealous – 108,000
Lee Ann Womack, Call Me Crazy – 102,000
Craig Morgan, Greatest Hits – 81,000
Hank Williams III, Damn Right Rebel Proud – 80,000
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.