Tag Archives: Trisha Yearwood

Song Talk: Songs About Songs

Songs have such a big impact on our life experience that they sometimes inspire songs of their own.  It’s a cool theme that I wish more singers and songwriters would explore.

Here are some of my favorite examples of this theme:

Trisha Yearwood The Song Remembers When

Trisha Yearwood, “The Song Remembers When”

Far and away, the gold standard for songs about songs.  I love the way the intro’s guitar hook is repeated immediately after Yearwood, sings, “When I heard that old familiar music start.”  Producer Garth Fundis is the unsung hero of this classic recording, which has always seen heaps of deserved praise for Hugh Prestwood’s poetic songwriting and Yearwood’s skillful interpretation.

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Hall Worthy: 2014 Edition

halloffamelogoEight years ago, we posted our second edition of Hall Worthy, a list of significant country music figures who we felt were most deserving of being in the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Since then, a lot has changed.  First and foremost, more than half of the list is now in the Hall of Fame (or, at least, headed there later this year.)  An additional entry, Wanda Jackson, is now in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

A bigger change came in 2009, when new categories were introduced to ensure that two artist inductees would be represented from different eras:  The Modern Era (20-44 years of national prominence), and the Veterans Era (45+ years of national prominence.)  There are also three more categories that rotate, meaning one from each category gets in every third year:  Non-Performer, Songwriter, and Recording and/or Touring Musician.

Finally, since that list was published, our readership has grown tremendously and is incredibly well-versed on country music, past and present.  So in this new and now annual edition of Hall Worthy, we are going to run down the list of the most successful artists that are eligible but have yet to make it into the Hall of Fame, in the order of  “Hall Worthiness.”

The Modern Era:

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Alan Jackson

Scoring his first hit in 1990 with “Here in the Real World”, Alan Jackson is the most successful country artist that isn’t currently in the Hall of Fame.  His storied career has included 25 #1 hits and 49 visits to the top ten.  He’s won a slew of awards over the years, including many for his songwriting.  He is the most traditionalist of all of the nineties superstars, but has managed to stay relevant regardless of how pop the genre went over the past quarter century, selling more than forty million albums in the U.S. alone.   He should be the next inductee for the Modern Era.

Randy Travis

Randy Travis

The poster child for the new traditionalist movement was also the first true country music superstar to sell millions of records without any crossover airplay or rock press appeal.  Travis is the primary reason that Nashville turned away from pursuing pop airplay for more than a decade, realizing that there was more than enough money to be made by growing (and eventually saturating) the country market.  His debut album, Storms of Life, remains one of the greatest country albums of all-time, and songs like “Forever and Ever, Amen”, “On the Other Hand”, and “Three Wooden Crosses” were award-winning classics.

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The Judds

Put aside all of the tabloid drama and focus just on the music.  Those heavenly harmonies were reminiscent of the Carter Family, while Wynonna’s breathtaking vocals added a contemporary breadth and soulful twist to their pure country sound.  They were so commercially successful and critically acclaimed that the CMA had to change the rules of the Vocal Duo category so someone else could win Vocal Group.   Wynonna’s solo career following Naomi Judd’s retirement only further extended the legacy of this essential duo.

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Ricky Skaggs

He’s often overlooked these days, as he’s made bluegrass his primary home.  But when he was a contemporary country star, he found a way to make bluegrass be contemporary country.  He was a central figure in making bluegrass music mainstream, making possible the future success of everyone from Alison Krauss & Union Station to the Dixie Chicks.   He’s managed to be both a pioneer of bluegrass music while also being a steadfast advocate for the bluegrass of old, and still scored eleven #1 country hits along the way and the CMA for Entertainer of the Year.  The Hall shouldn’t wait until he’s old enough for the Veterans Era.

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Patty Loveless

One of the few artists to successfully navigate both the eighties and the nineties on country radio, Patty Loveless is the most significant female artist of the Modern Era who is not yet inducted into the Hall of Fame.  Her acclaimed work for both MCA and Epic saw her develop from a singles artist with the good taste to cover Lucinda Williams, into an album artist that made critically acclaimed and surprisingly progressive traditional music.  Since fading from radio, she’s remained relevant with widely appreciated sets that delve deep into her mountain heritage, with her most recent set earning her a Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album.

Dwight Yoakam

Dwight Yoakam

Extraordinarily talented and unfailingly artistic, Dwight Yoakam remains one of the most significant country artists from the new traditionalist movement, though his traditionalism has always had a West Coast flair that was more Owens than Haggard.   Never that much of a radio favorite, Yoakam still managed to sell millions of records, being one of the few legitimate album artists of his time.   His most recent work, 3 Pears, made more year-end critics lists than any other country album in 2012.

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Trisha Yearwood

The only artist on this list who could never be described as a traditionalist, Trisha Yearwood has earned her place in the Hall of Fame through making more consistently excellent music over a longer period of time than any of her contemporaries.   She’s sold a ton of records and had more than her fair share of radio hits and industry awards, but her ultimate legacy will be having the best set of pipes and the best taste in songs, a combination that many artists – female and male – have never managed to pull off nearly as well as Yearwood has over the years.  That’s what having the voice of a Ronstadt and the song sense of a Harris will do for you.

The Veterans Era:

Hank Williams Jr

Hank Williams, Jr.

By a wide margin, Hank Jr. is the most commercially successful artist of the Veterans Era who is not yet in the Hall of Fame.  His noxious public statements in recent years have reinforced a notion that he’s little more than a Southern rock caricature, but his legacy is greater than Monday Night Football and regional xenophobia. At his peak, he made some of the most significant country rock that’s ever been made, crafting himself a distinguished place in country music history that is wholly separate from his legendary father.  In fact, there’s a better chance right now that a bar in America is singing along with “Family Tradition” than anything from his daddy’s catalog.

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Charlie Rich

An artist who was always years ahead of his time, he had a remarkable run of commercial success in the seventies, a period where the times finally caught up to him for a brief spell.  His bluesy style was embraced by the pop scene for a time, with his hit “The Most Beautiful Girl” being one of those rare country hits that also topped the Hot 100.   A veteran of the Sun Records label that produced Hall of Famers like Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley, Rich made the transition to Nashville while always keeping one foot grounded back in Memphis.

Jerry Reed

Jerry Reed

He was one of the most iconic stars of his time, thanks to his witty novelty records, stunning guitar prowess, and extensive appearances on film.  His songwriting success arrived earlier than his recording stardom, but once he got rolling, he was scoring million-selling hits that ran up the country and the pop charts.  He’s one of the few legends left that were truly unique and distinctive personalities who haven’t yet been inducted into the Hall of Fame.

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Tanya Tucker

She’s still three years away from eligibility in this category, with 2017 being the first year she can claim 45 years on the scene.  But while the competition is fierce for those Modern Era slots, Tucker should be voted in the first year she’s eligible as a veteran.  Her haunting, gothic early records are still revelatory, and in the years that followed, her gravely voice brought grit and soul to a long string of country hits.  She was able to remain a force to be reckoned with in the first half of the nineties, a remarkable holdover from the early seventies in an era that had wiped away even the stars of the late eighties to make room for the next big things.

Jim Ed Brown

Jim Ed Brown

Another legend that remained relevant over many different eras of country music, Jim Ed Brown’s immortality on record had already been guaranteed in 1959, when his family group the Browns recorded “The Three Bells.”  That classic hit topped the country and pop charts for many weeks, and the Browns kept going through most of the sixties, joining the cast of the Grand Ole Opry a few years before disbanding.  Brown went on to a successful solo career with classics like “Pop a Top” and “Morning” reaching the top five.  Then he teamed with Helen Cornelius and had his biggest hits since his days with the Browns, most notably “I Don’t Want to Have to Marry You.”  At age eighty, he remains a force on the Opry and as a radio host, making him one of the longest-running personalities that the genre has ever seen.

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WoCoWiC: Trisha Yearwood

Trisha YearwoodWomen of Country on Women in Country: Trisha Yearwood

On the nineties:

“What I loved about being a woman in country music was there was something for everybody. There were a handful of us, probably 10 of us that were doing really, really well, but we were all a little bit different and I always thought it was easier.

People always said it’s so hard for a woman, but it’s easier because if you were a guy back in the 90’s you had two choices: You either wore the hat or you didn’t. So it was hard to distinguish yourself. As a woman it was easy because your image could be so completely whatever you wanted it to be. It was an awesome time to be a woman in the business.”

Source: Billboard

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A Tale of Two Tributes: Alabama

Alabama-Friends

Various Artists
Alabama & Friends

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To recognize the impact that Alabama has had on modern country music, you could consider their millions of albums sold, their hundreds of awards, their many #1 songs or their induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2005. You could also look at how the boys from Fort Payne, Ala. have the distinction of bringing something entirely new into country music.

Prior to Alabama, country music was predominantly a land of solo acts, with the occasional superstar duos (Conway & Loretta, George & Tammy) or backing bands (The Strangers, The Buckaroos) thrown in for good measure. Sure, there were plenty of vocal groups (Statler Brothers, Oak Ridge Boys), but actual bands, who played their own instruments, were few and far between in country music. It took Alabama to break down that particular barrier, and they paved the way for groups like Zac Brown Band, Diamond Rio, Eli Young Band and others.

Alabama is celebrating its 40th anniversary with a reunion tour and a couple of well-deserved tribute albums. The tributes are quite different, with one being done under the direction of the band, and the other a completely independent effort.

Alabama & Friends, featuring many of today’s leading country stars, comes off as less of a tribute album and more of an Alabama-themed celebrity karaoke night. Many of the songs have very similar arrangements to the originals, and even include Randy Owen, Jeff Cook and Teddy Gentry on lead and harmony vocals.

Many of the memorable elements from the original songs are still present. The fiddle breakdown in “Tennessee River” (with Jason Aldean), the tempo changes in “My Home’s in Alabama” (with Jamey Johnson) – they’re all present and accounted for. The songs that stick close to the originals aren’t necessarily bad. Luke Bryan, for instance, has plenty of flaws as a country singer, but his vocal abilities are not in question, so his version of “Love in the First Degree” is solid. The same could be said of Jason Aldean’s take on “Tennessee River” and Toby Keith’s “She and I.” There’s nothing wrong with them, but fans who love the Alabama originals might think the new ones are a bit too by-the-book.

There are a few instances where the guest singers step outside the box and add more of their own personality to the recording. Trisha Yearwood, the only female voice on the project, does a lovely job on “Forever’s as Far as I’ll Go,” and “Lady Down on Love” by Kenny Chesney stands among his best vocal performances. The same can’t be said of Florida Georgia Line, who takes “I’m in a Hurry (and Don’t Know Why),” adds their usual amount of noise and clutter to the mix, and makes it sound like every other Florida Georgia Line song ever recorded. While it’s a rare opportunity to hear both Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley sing lead vocals, it raises the issue of whether or not they’ve already run out of original ideas.

Alabama recorded two songs for the first time in 11 years, but they’re the weakest songs on the album. For a band that was one of the first to successfully blend country music with amped-up Southern rock, “That’s How I Was Raised” and “All American” are low-energy, generic rah-rah country disappointments.

high-cotton-tribute-to-alabama-2013

Various Artists
High Cotton: A Tribute to Alabama

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High Cotton: A Tribute to Alabama, is available from Lightning Rod Records and has a collection of Americana/Red Dirt/indie all-stars doing their takes on Alabama hits. There is some overlap with the Alabama & Friends, but these versions have a bit more of an original feel. “Why Lady Why” gets transformed into a smoldering soul tune by JD McPherson, while Jason Isbell and John Paul White of The Civil Wars completely reinvent “Old Flame.” The Turnpike Troubadours and Shonna Tucker provide a spark with “If You’re Gonna Play in Texas (You Gotta Have a Fiddle in the Band)” and “Roll On (Eighteen Wheeler),” respectively. While neither version is light years from the original, they add energy to a project that leans heavily toward slow and reflective songs.

Two of Alabama’s love songs are recast as duets. While it’s startling to hear Todd Snider as a romantic balladeer instead of a smart-ass hippie folk singer, his voice never quite meshes with Elizabeth Cook on “Feels So Right.” Wade Bowen and Brandy Clark’s duet on “Love in the First Degree” is excellent, however, and raises the anticipation level for Clark’s debut album.

Not every experiment is a success. Once again, “I’m in a Hurry” gets short shrift, as Jessica Lea Mayfield turns it into a funereal dirge. “Lady Down on Love” just does not work as a bluegrass/spoken word ballad, as evidenced by Bob Schneider & The Texas Bluegrass Massacre with Ray Benson. Jason Boland & The Stragglers’ take on “Mountain Music” is fine, but the insistence of aping the original, from the spoken-word intro to the guest vocals from a couple of the Stragglers à la Cook and Gentry is a little cheesy.

It’s a testament to Alabama’s far-reaching appeal that artists as different as Jason Isbell and Jason Aldean would want to sing their songs. Whether it’s a note-for-note recreation or a completely new interpretation of their hit songs, there is something in these two albums to please any Alabama fan.

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CU Archives: Linda Ronstadt

linda-ronstadtWe at Country Universe were very saddened to hear of Linda Ronstadt’s recent announcement that she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease eight months ago, and that the disease has resulted in the total loss of her ability to sing.

Though Linda Ronstadt never took up exclusive residence in country territory (or in any one genre for that matter), she had remarkable successes in the country field, including the now-classic Trio project with Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris, and she served as an important influence for women such as Pam Tillis, Martina McBride and Trisha Yearwood. She has also been the subject of several excellent Country Universe features that are well worth revisiting.

First of all, be sure to check out Kevin’s feature on Ronstadt from the 100 Greatest Women countdown, in which she placed at No. 21.

Then take a look at our reader Erik North’s rundown of his 25 favorite Linda Ronstadt songs from Country Universe’s Favorite Songs by Favorite Artists series.

Finally, see Kevin’s reviews of her classic 1975 album Prisoner in Disguise and of her 2006 compilation The Best of Linda Ronstadt:  The Capitol Years.

Below is a selection of videos of Ronstadt in her prime performing some of her best-loved songs. Without a doubt, she will always be remembered as one of the greatest voices in music history, even if she can no longer use that voice today. Please share your own favorite Linda Ronstadt songs and performances in the comments section.

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Album Review: Randy Houser, <i>How Country Feels</i>

randy houser how country feels album

Randy Houser
How Country Feels

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Randy Houser impressed the critics with 2010′s They Call Me Cadillac, but country radio yawned, and neither of the album’s two singles cracked the Top 30.  Houser’s Stoney Creek Records debut thus comes across as a mea culpa of sorts, as Houser shrugs his shoulders in defeat, and gets ready to do some good old-fashioned pandering.

The title track and first single, which recently became Houser’s first number one hit, was a most accurate preview of the project to follow.  Producer Derek George swaps out the tasteful, traditional-leaning arrangements of They Call Me Cadillac for spit-shine polished productions tailor-made for endless airplay.  The album is peppered with odes to country living and rural romance.  Trucks!  Tailgates!  Hollers and hills!  Country girls!  Skinny dipping!  Houser shouts Aldean-style over a pounding bass line in “Sunshine On the Line,” and shoehorns in some arena-rock chants in the vapid backwoods come-on “Running Outta

Moonlight.”  Lyrical formulas and clichés abound, from “Hands up, rockin’ like a boat… We’re gonna live this never-ending summer like we’re just growin’ younger” to “This kiss, this moment, yeah I just wanna stay in it.”  It’s unfortunately fitting that one of the songs finds Houser singing, without a hint of self-awareness, “I wrote a song ’bout absolutely nothing with my toes tapping in the sand,” as the majority of the album’s tracks seem to be about exactly that – nothing.

Even when the songwriters’ aspirations seem to be slightly higher, the songs rarely rise above one dimension.  “Route 3 Box 250 D” grasps at domestic violence to create a semblance of emotional heft, but leans on a bare-boned narrative that fails to channel the narrator’s inner struggles and emotions, while the songwriters awkwardly attempt to create a title hook out of the narrator’s home address.  Though “Along for the Ride” is one of the better-produced cuts, the lyric offers only dime store pseudo-philosophy with a boring, cliché-driven take on what Iris DeMent said far more eloquently with “Let the Mystery Be.”

The album’s only truly outstanding cut is one unlikely to see the light at radio.  “The Singer,” co-written by Houser with Cory Batten and Kent Blazy, is by far the album’s best-written song, utilizing a clear-cut, accessible hook in detailing the struggles behind a marriage in the spotlight.  “She loved the singer; she just couldn’t live the song,” Houser sings, effectively summing up the heartache of a woman who loves her famous spouse, but can no longer settle for being “just one of a million screaming his name.”  “Power of a Song” speaks to the power of songcraft with a melody that draws out an evocative performance from Houser, but the lyrics don’t pack the punch of past gems like Trisha Yearwood’s “The Song Remembers When” or Sara Evans’ “Three Chords and the Truth.”

The problem of weak material is compounded by the album’s length – a whopping fifteen tracks, roughly half of which are interchangeable.  What’s with the need for today’s artists to fill an album up with fourteen, fifteen, sixteen-plus songs when barely five of those songs have anything substantial or authentic to say?  Of course, Randy Houser’s performances are consistently solid - unsurprising, as he is in command of one of the strongest male voices on country radio.  He even manages to elevate the formula-driven title track into something mildly enjoyable.  But the problem remains that there’s no voice strong enough to save a fifteen-track album that’s stacked with poorly-written songs.

How Country Feels will likely succeed in keeping Randy Houser on the radio for the next two years.  Nonetheless, we might observe a moment of silence for the early artistic potential that this album leaves largely buried.

Top Tracks:  “The Singer,” “Power of a Song”

Buy:  How Country Feels

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iPod Check: Most Played Album Cuts

iPodCountry music has always been a singles genre, a fact that is clearly reflected on my iPod.   Only three of my most thirty played country songs were never sent to radio.   That doesn’t necessarily mean radio played them, of course.

My most played country song is Alan Jackson’s “So You Don’t Have to Love Me Anymore”, which didn’t crack the top twenty, and not far behind is Trisha Yearwood’s “Where are You Now”, which didn’t crack the top forty.

But looking at our most played album cuts is a great way to discover great music we might have missed, so it seems like a good choice for an iPod Check.   Here are my country album cuts that I’ve played more than 10 times, separated by artist. Plays to date follow the song title.   Sort your list however you like.  I’m getting my Amazon MP3 page loaded now so I can buy the great songs I’ve missed which surface in the comments.

Kevin’s Most Played:

Dixie Chicks

  • Truth No. 2 (53)
  • Lil Jack Slade (22)
  • Am I the Only One (Who’s Ever Felt This Way) (21)
  • White Trash Wedding (17)
  • A Home (14)
  • Lubbock or Leave It (11)

Sara Evans

  • Rocking Horse (54)
  • I Thought I’d See Your Face Again (27)

Carrie Underwood

  • Play On (53)
  • Change (53)
  • See You Again (45)
  • Do You Think About Me (41)
  • I Know You Won’t (31)
  • Good in Goodbye (16)
  • Cupid’s Got a Shotgun (15)
  • Nobody Ever Told You (13)

Matraca Berg

  • If I Had Wings (40)
  • Racing the Angels (11)

Trisha Yearwood

  • Drown Me (40)
  • Standing Out in a Crowd (39)
  • Try Me (36)
  • Dreaming Fields (33)
  • Try Me Again (28)
  • Little Hercules (24)
  • Heart’s in Armor (24)
  • Harmless Heart (23)
  • For Reasons I’ve Forgotten (21)
  • A Lover is Forever (15)
  • Two Days From Knowing (15)
  • Come Back When it Ain’t Rainin’ (12)
  • New Kid in Town (11)

Dolly Parton

  • Shattered Image (36)
  • Down From Dover (16)
  • Let Her Fly (with Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette) (13)

Pam Tillis

  • Melancholy Child (28)
  • Homeward Looking Angel (21)
  • Sunset Red and

    Pale Moonlight (20)

  • Rough and Tumble Heart (19)
  • Mandolin Rain (17)
  • Better off Blue (16)
  • How Gone is Goodbye (11)

Kim Richey

  • Not a Love Like This (32)

Shania Twain

  • Nah! (28)
  • What a Way to Wanna Be! (13)

Alison Krauss & Union Station

  • I Can Let Go Now (26)
  • Doesn’t Have to Be This Way (13)

Patty Loveless

  • On the Verge of Tears (26)
  • Someday I Will Lead the Parade (17)
  • Nobody Here by That Name (12)

Sugarland

  • Circle (26)
  • Very Last Country Song (23)
  • Keep You (12)

Toby Keith

  • In a Couple of Days (24)

Dwight Yoakam

  • Wichita Lineman (23)
  • Train in Vain (12)

Nickel Creek

  • Helena (21)
  • Somebody More Like You (13)

Reba McEntire

  • If I Had Only Known (21)

Lee Ann Womack

  • One’s a Couple (21)
  • Time For Me to Go (20)
  • The Last Time (16)
  • Lonely Too (15)
  • Blame it On Me (11)

Kathy Mattea

  • Loving You, Letting You Go (18)

Keith Urban

  • You’re Not My God (17)
  • The Luxury of Knowing (16)
  • Nobody Drinks Alone (14)

 

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iPod Check: Most Played Song by Twenty Country Artists

Since bringing back Recommend a Track proved so popular, I’m resurrecting another CU oldie but goodie: the iPod check.

I’ve only recently discovered the Most Played feature on iTunes, since it never had any relevance until iPods were large enough in memory to sync all of my music.   So going back to early 2011, I have a lengthy list of the songs I’ve played the most.

So today’s iP0d check:  List your most-played song from twenty different country artists.

You can access this info by going to your own Most Played list and adjusting the number of songs on it – I use 500 for mine – or you can just go to Music and sort by number of plays.  Or you can just pick twenty artists at random and list your most played song for each.  We’re easy here.  (This would also work in Spotify, from what I hear.)

Here’s my top twenty:

  1. Pam Tillis – Deep Down (89 plays)
  2. Keith Urban – I Told You So (81)
  3. Dixie Chicks – Long Time Gone (71)
  4. Taylor Swift – Mean (68)
  5. Trisha Yearwood – Where Are You Now (63)
  6. Patty Loveless – You Can Feel Bad (59)
  7. Emmylou Harris – Easy From Now On (55)
  8. Carrie Underwood – Undo It (50)
  9. Lori McKenna – Lorraine (50)
  10. Dwight Yoakam – Ain’t That Lonely Yet (46)
  11. Sara Evans – Rocking Horse (45)
  12. Sawyer Brown – Cafe on the Corner (45)
  13. Reba McEntire – The Fear of Being Alone (44)
  14. Shania Twain – Up! (43)
  15. Faith

    Hill – Stealing Kisses (41)

  16. Alan Jackson – So You Don’t Have to Love Me Anymore (40)
  17. Crystal Gayle – Why Have Your Left the One You Left Me For (39)
  18. George Strait – Meanwhile (39)
  19. Lee Ann Womack – I May Hate Myself in the Morning (39)
  20. Aaron Tippin – Whole Lotta Love on the Line (38)

I’m surprised that some of my most played artists overall, like Dolly Parton, Randy Travis, and Tim McGraw, don’t have that one big song that I play excessively.  Also, at least half of the songs above aren’t what I would call my favorite song by the given artist.  How about you?

 

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Album Review: Carrie Underwood, Blown Away

Carrie Underwood
Blown Away

At this point, it’s easy to forget that Carrie Underwood first kicked off her country music career as an American Idol graduate.  Besides being one of country music’s most technically gifted female vocalists, she’s gone on to become one of its strongest commercial forces, with a seven-year-long string of Top-2 hit singles, not to mention albums that consistently sell like hotcakes.  But a noteworthy gap has often been seen between the impressiveness of Underwood’s talent and success and the quality of her material. In terms of lyrics and production, at least, Underwood’s new album Blown Away finds her taking steps forward that are small, but steps forward nonetheless.

As hinted at by the gloomy cover image, Underwood’s fourth album finds her taking on some notably darker, more serious song material than on her previous albums.  After leading off with the wildly catchy Shania Twain-esque debut single “Good Girl,” the album quickly takes a turn for deadly serious territory.  The title track tells of a young woman taking revenge on her abusive alcoholic father by hiding in the cellar when a tornado approaches their home, letting the house collapse on top of her father while he lies passed out on the floor.  Though it doesn’t quite reach the spine-tingling heights of Martina McBride’s similarly themed “Independence Day,” “Blown Away” is one of the most interesting and complex songs here, and though it could do without the gaudy vocal reverb effects, the arrangement lends the track an appropriately eerie feel.  As “Two Black Cadillacs” begins with a funeral scene, the listener is quickly pulled into the tale of two black veil-wearing women who share a dark secret.  The omission of some narrative details toward the end lessens the ultimate listener payoff, but “Two Black Cadillacs” likewise remains one of the album’s more striking and memorable cuts.  Indeed, Underwood is to be applauded for putting for the attempt to tackle more challenging lyrical material, as opposed to the predictable fare that tended to weigh down her previous releases.

Similarly, though the album often settles for the same pop-country sound that Underwood and producer Mark Bright have long favored, here there are several tweaks to the usual formula.  The prominent mandolin line on “Leave Love Alone” sounds different that anything Underwood has previously recorded, while the signature Brad Paisley guitar-shredding on “Cupid’s Got a Shotgun” turns an already fun song into a regular jam session.  The surprisingly sparse, primarily acoustic number “Do You Think About Me” benefits from added restraint both in production and vocal, which is effective in delivering the wistful lyric.  These production choices don’t necessarily reinvent the wheel, while some – such as the reggae flavorings of “One Way Ticket,” for example – may prove polarizing, but they are unexpected coming from Underwood.  Such willingness on the parts of Underwood and Bright to go for the occasional risk is refreshing.

Weighing in at a generous fourteen tracks, the album could have benefited from leaving off a few of its more forgettable cuts, and perhaps being condensed into a more consistently solid ten- or twelve-track collection instead.  Blown Away suffers most when it veers off into a shallow, feel-good thematic direction, which is particularly evident on the trite self-esteem booster “Nobody Ever Told You,” as well as the beachy Chesney-esque reggae of  “One Way Ticket” – the latter an obvious candidate for a summertime single release, with a music video that practically creates itself.  That’s not to say that such lyrical concepts are necessarily taboo, but these particular efforts lack the personality and strong hooks that are needed to make such efforts memorable.  The fact that power ballad “See You Again” was originally intended for The Chronicles of Narnia soundtrack is telling, as the vague, platitudinous lyric savors strongly of disposable soundtrack fare.  Cliché-laden album closer “Who Are You,” a surprising misfire of a composition from Shania Twain’s ex-husband/ ex-producer/ ex-songwriting-collaborator Robert John “Mutt” Lange,” is just a total bore.

That said, Underwood can be remarkably successful when she puts forth the earnest attempt to connect with her listeners on a relatable emotional level.  Though the title of “Thank God for Hometowns” raises a red flag, we are treated to a fully three-dimensional portrayal of the very best aspects of small-town living (“Small Town U.S.A.” it isn’t, thankfully), including the small-town camaraderie of close neighbors and friends, while the conversational tone lends both a personal feel and a welcome sense of structure to the lyric.  The two finest tracks are “Good In Goodbye” and “Wine After Whiskey,” both ranking among Underwood’s strongest co-writes to date.  The former displays a level of maturity and clear-eyed insight as Underwood reflects on a difficult breakup that has turned out to be a blessing in disguise.  The latter utilizes an effective metaphor of drinking wine after whiskey to illustrate how the narrator’s current lover pales in comparison to the one she lost.  Better still, Underwood displays notable growth as a lyrical interpreter on both of these songs, wisely sparing us the power notes, while adding to the emotional impact through her nuance and subtlety.

Though it’s not quite a wholly consistent project, and it does have its share of weak spots, Blown Away is an album that is brilliant at best, and bland at worst.  But what makes Blown Away a fascinating and ultimately satisfying collection is that it displays an artist willing to continually grow and challenge herself by experimenting with different sounds, musical styles, and lyrical themes.  In today’s music industry, it’s all too easy for an established superstar to settle for predictable, wheels-spinning material that furthers his or her primary marketing persona without moving forward artistically in any meaningful way.  Granted, Underwood’s attempts at branching out still result in occasional missteps, several of which are documented on this album.  Still, to see such a demonstration of a “What’s next?” artistic muse, particularly from a woman who can already out-sing most of her peers from the corner of her mouth, is an absolute joy to hear.  Here’s hoping her future efforts achieve greater consistency to go along with her ambition.

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Retro Single Review: Shania Twain, “You’ve Got a Way”

1999 | #13

“You’ve Got a Way” is a beautiful showcase of the unique set of gifts Shania Twain brought to the table as a vocalist.

Her detractors often maligned her vocal abilities, dismissing her as a subpar talent, as she did lack the range and power possessed by several of her contemporaries (such as Faith Hill, Martina McBride, and Trisha Yearwood).  Many failed to appreciate the fact that Twain had a strong talent for exuding sincerity in her performances, whichs adds more to a song’s impact than even the highest power notes.

Though having just conquered the world with a succession of hook-heavy pop crossover hits, Twain abruptly changed the rules with “You’ve Got a Way,” instead unplugging with a soft acoustic ballad.  Twain does all of the heavy lifting with her vocal delivery, and does so beautifully – with restraint, and a bit of an emotional quiver.  It’s a perfect fit for a lyric that is a simple, straightforward expression of love and appreciation.

I would recommend steering clear of the gaudy pop remix used in the film Notting Hill, as it interrupts the flow of emotion with unnecessary echo effects, an intrusive beat, and other distractions.  The original country version, however, ranks among Twain’s best work.

Written by Shania Twain and Robert John “Mutt” Lange

Grade:  A (country version); B- (remix)

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Original country version:

Notting Hill mix:

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