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Single Reviews Round-Up: Katie Armiger, Brett Eldredge, Justin Moore, Kelly Clarkson ft. Vince Gill, Miss Willie Brown, & Jason Aldean ft. Luke Bryan and Eric Church

Katie Armiger, “Better in a Black Dress”

Written by Katie Armiger and Blair Daly

An ode to being a chains-free, red wine-drinking hot mess could be tacky and unnecessarily snarky. In Armiger’s hands, it’s tasteful, swampy and empowering. Grade: B+

Brett Eldredge, “Don’t Ya” 

It’s been awhile since we’ve heard a voice as soulful as Eldredge’s massage a melody as enticing as this one. “Just Got Started Loving You” this song is not, but with its sly lyrics and irresistible chorus, it comes close. Grade: B+

Justin Moore, “Til My Last Day” 

Written by Brian Dean Maher, Justin Moore & Jeremy Stover

This year, country radio’s dark horse is the deceptively solid, slightly retro, mid-tempo song – think “Hard to Love,” “Time is Love,” “Beer Money” and “Lovin’ You is Fun.” Moore’s latest trails the pack, an earworm whose earnestness boosts it from bland to charming. Grade: B

Kelly Clarkson ft. Vince Gill, “Don’t Rush” 

Written by  Lindsay Chapman, Natalie Hemby & Blu Sanders

You can’t blend two of the greatest voices of our generation without a decent result. Unfortunately, that’s all this is – a pleasant, sweetly sung sleeper that doesn’t do much to elevate either of these enormous talents. Grade: B-

Miss Willie Brown, “You’re All That Matters to Me” 

Written by Robert John “Mutt” Lange

A manic, over-the-top love letter that’s simply not wacky enough to be the self-parody that its music video suggests. Grade: C

Jason Aldean ft. Luke Bryan and Eric Church, “The Only Way I Know” 

Written by Ben Hayslip and David Lee Murphy

Three of the fastest-rising male artists in country music are also three of the most distinct male artists in country music, each having built his fanbase on a unique persona and brand of swagger. Oddly, this collaboration seems to meld their personalities together into one that’s less interesting than all three.

But that’s not the bigger issue at hand. The song sinks because of its empty lyrics, its jarring theme of “humble pride” against a needlessly aggressive arrangement, and its subtle implication that a work ethic cut from a different cloth than the narrators’ is a lesser one.

Grade: D

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100 Greatest Men: #38. Vince Gill

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He spent most of the eighties struggling for recognition, but thanks to his smooth ballads and country’s suddenly expanded audience, Vince Gill emerged as one of the biggest superstars of the nineties.

Born and raised in Oklahoma, he followed in the footsteps of his musician father, but while it was a hobby for his dad, it became Vince’s life mission.  His ability to play several different instruments and his talent for harmonizing earned him a place in local bands, and he moved to Kentucky and then to Los Angeles seeking out further opportunities.  An audition for the Pure Prairie League in 1979 resulted in him becoming their new lead singer, and Gill had his first taste of success when their single, “Let Me Love You Tonight”, topped the adult contemporary charts and cracked the pop top ten.

He left the band to join Rodney Crowell’s backing group, Cherry Bomb, only a few years after he had played a similar backing role for Ricky Skaggs.  His time with Cherry Bomb connected him to Tony Brown, the musician and record executive who signed him to RCA in 1981.   For the next several years, stardom remained just out of reach for Gill, who managed to score just three top ten hits with the label.  He was better known for his session work as a guitarist and as a harmony singer, with his distinctive vocals appearing on #1 hits by Rosanne Cash (“I Don’t Know Why You Don’t Want Me”) and Patty Loveless (“Timber I’m Falling in Love.”)

When Brown left RCA for MCA records, Gill followed shortly thereafter.  In 1989, he released the dramatic ballad “When I Call Your Name”, featuring harmony vocals from Loveless. The record made him one of the genre’s hottest stars, setting up a decade of dominance at radio and retail.  Throughout the nineties, Gill racked up a stunning run of hits and big-selling albums, with I Still Believe in You selling more than five million copies on the strength of four #1 hits.

Gill alternated between rave-ups that featured his guitar prowess and power ballads that brought country’s traditional heartache sound into the late twentieth century.  Despite his new  popularity, he still did as much session work as ever, happily accepting offers to sing and play on the albums of anyone who requested him to.   He became known as the genre’s leading gentleman, and his quick wit led to him hosting the CMA awards for more than a decade.  Because of both his talent and his work with other artists, Gill dominated the two award shows voted on by his peers, winning more than a dozen Grammys and CMA awards.  He is tied with George Strait for the most CMA Male Vocalist trophies, and holds the record for the most wins in the Song of the Year category.

As radio support slowly dwindled toward the late nineties, Gill focused on making ambitious albums, most notably the four-CD set These Days, which earned him another pair of Grammys and a platinum award.      He was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2005, and he was one of the youngest inductees in history to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2007.  A marriage to fellow singer Amy Grant has kept him focused more on family than music in recent years, but he still tours regularly and remains an Opry staple.  His most recent set, Guitar Slinger, hit shelves in 2011 and earned him multiple songwriting nominations for the lead single, “Threaten Me with Heaven.”

Essential Singles:

  • When I Call Your Name, 1990
  • Look at Us, 1991
  • I Still Believe in You, 1992
  • Don’t Let Our Love Start Slippin’ Away, 1992
  • Whenever You Come Around, 1994
  • Go Rest High on That Mountain, 1995
  • Worlds Apart, 1996
  • If You Ever Have Forever in Mind, 1998

Essential Albums:

  • When I Call Your Name, 1990
  • I Still Believe in You, 1992
  • When Love Finds You, 1994
  • High Lonesome Sound, 1996
  • The Key, 1998
  • These Days, 2006

Next: #37. The Louvin Brothers

Previous: #39. Faron Young

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Album Review: Various Artists, <i>KIN: Songs by Mary Karr & Rodney Crowell</i>

Various Artists
KIN:  Songs by Mary Karr & Rodney Crowell

A collection of songs written by industry veteran Rodney Crowell along with bestselling author and poet Mary Karr, recorded by a who’s who of country and Americana music greats. It should be enough to set the mouth of many a roots music aficiando watering.

The very concept behind the album places the emphasis squarely on the songwriting – an approach that is flawlessly adhered to by Joe Henry’s ace cialis no prescription needed quick delivery production job. The twangy, stripped-down arrangements stay entirely out of the way of the songs, often reverently nodding to the conventions of traditional country music. It doesn’t feel so much as a rote exercise in throwback neotraditionalism, but more so as a style that simply feels timeless and ageless on its own merits, untainted by production trends that might tie it to a particular era.

In large part, what’s impressive about this album is that, despite the eclectic line-up of participating artists, KIN doesn’t feel like a potluck project of songs randomly thrown together.  It really does feel like an album, with each track serving as a part of a cohesive whole, bound together by recurring themes of family and rural small town life.  Karr’s liner notes reveal that for song inspiration, she and Crowell drew heavily upon their own youthful experiences, having come from very similar upbringings despite not having grown up together.  However, the treatment of such topics is hardly lily-white, with family homes often sporting bullet holes and reeking of alcohol.

Crowell himself steps up to the mic on four of the albums ten tracks, sharing it with Kris Kristofferson on the standout duet “My Father’s Advice,” which boasts an infectious melody and fiddle hook.  While country radio often favors the proverbial “old man’s advice” song, “My Father’s Advice” rises above the often cliché-laden mainstream treatment of such subject matter by creating a believable, three-dimensional character sketch of the narrator’s father – realistically imperfect, but deeply devoted to rearing his son in the right way, with Kristofferson giving voice to the father figure of Crowell’s narrator.  Crowell’s other vocal turns include the noncharting single “I’m a Mess,” along with album opener “Anything But Tame,” a wistful meditation on the course taken by a childhood friendship.

The contributions of the participating artists are no less stellar.  Having built a career as a mainstream country artist with a moderate neotraditionalist bent, Lee Ann Womack has never sounded better than when paired with a fiddle-drenched pure country arrangement.  A jaunty tempo and dobro hook bely the dark lyric as Womack sings from the perspective of a child witnessing the dissolution of her alcoholic parents’ marriage on album standout “Momma’s On a Roll.”  In keeping with the family theme, the camaraderie of sisterhood is explored with “Sister Oh Sister,” which Crowell’s ex-wife Rosanne Cash renders with deep sincerity.  Vince Gill’s sweet tenor absolutely soars when paired with the stone cold throwback arrangement of “Just Pleasing You” – a traditional country gem that wouldn’t sound out of the place in the legendary Hank Williams catalog.  Lucinda Williams sounds downright desperate in her delivery of the aching ballad “God I’m Missing You,” while Norah Jones turns in a delightfully wry take on “If the Law Don’t Want You” – a witty tune inspired by Mary Karr’s teenage years.  Times past have attested to the fact that no Rodney Crowell song can hope for a finer vocal medium than the incomparable Emmylou Harris, who delivers the haunting “Long Time Girl Gone By” in an earthy whisper of a performance.

Crowell closes out the set with “Hungry For Home,” a charming detail-laden lyric that encapsulates the warmth and comfort of one’s home – something that can be found even in a home long beset with family strife.  It’s a fitting conclusion to the album as a whole, showing that – despite the hardships Karr and Crowell both dealt with in their respective upbringings on into adult life – they clearly retain a deep appreciation for the experiences that have shaped them as individuals.  “It was like we’d grown up next door in a hellacious place – the anus of the universe, my mother always called it,” writes Karr.  “But we adored those characters and their language – we’d never choose elsewhere.”

Considering that country music has long been a primarily singles-oriented format, it’s refreshing to see such a fine realization of the album as an art form. Though each individual piece is captivating in itself, KIN remains an album best heard in its entirety, with hardly a weak track to be found.  The entire project radiates authenticity, as Karr and Crowell essentially hand over their respective family photo albums for music lovers to leaf through, making KIN feel very much like a memoir set to music.  One would certainly hope that Karr and Crowell continue to write excellent songs together, and that the results will be at least half as rewarding as they are on this fine album.

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100 Greatest Men: #47. Rodney Crowell

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First as a songwriter, then as a new country superstar, and currently as an alternative country icon, Rodney Crowell has made an indelible mark on country music for nearly four decades.

Born and raised in Houston, Texas, he was already a bandleader in high school, heading up a teenage outfit called the Arbitrators.   He was only 22 when he moved to Nashville, and by 1975, he’d been discovered by Jerry Reed, who heard him doing an acoustic set.   Reed not only recorded one of his songs, but also signed him to his publishing company.

Crowell was soon a member of Emmylou Harris’ Hot Band, and she was the first to record some of his compositions that went on to be big hits for other artists, including: “I Ain’t Living Long Like This”, a #1 hit for Waylon Jennings; “‘Til I Gain Control Again”, a #1 hit for Crystal Gayle;  “Leavin’ Louisiana in the Broad Daylight”, a #1 hit for the Oak Ridge Boys; and “Ashes By Now”, a top five hit for Lee Ann Womack.

His remarkable songwriting talent led to a record deal with Warner Bros.  While a trio of albums for the label were critically acclaimed, they failed to earn him success on the radio or at retail.   But as would be the case for his entire career, other artists mined those records for hits.  Most notably, “Shame on the Moon” became a #2 pop hit for Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band.

Crowell took a break from his solo career to focus on his songwriting and production responsibilities for then-wife Rosanne Cash.   This would be yet another successful avenue for Crowell, as his work with Cash produced several #1 singles and three gold albums.  The relationship also helped set his solo career on fire.  After signing with Cash’s label Columbia, his second set for the project was previewed with a duet with Cash, “It’s Such a Small World.”

It became the first of five consecutive #1 singles from Diamonds & Dirt, a gold-selling disc that briefly made Crowell an A-list country star, as five additional Cash singles that he had produced also hit #1 over the same time period.   He received a Grammy award for Best Country Song for “After All This Time.”   Two foll0w-up albums for Columbia also produced a handful of hits, with his final mainstream success being the pop crossover hit, “What Kind of Love.”

In the nineties, Crowell recorded two albums for MCA which were well-reviewed, but most notable for the second set including “Please Remember Me.”  It stalled as a single when Crowell released it, but  later that decade, Tim McGraw’s cover topped the charts for five weeks and earned Crowell a slew of award nominations.

The new century brought a reinvention on Crowell’s part, as he repositioned himself as an Americana artist with remarkable success.   A trio of albums earned rave reviews, as did his collaboration with old friends like Vince Gill on The Notorious Cherry Bombs, which earned a handful of Grammy nominations and included Crowell’s “Making Memories of Us.”  Once again, a current artist discovered it, and Keith Urban took it to #1 for several weeks.

Inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2003, Crowell continues to build on his legacy as a singer, songwriter, and producer.  Most recently, Crowell produced Chely Wright’s confessional Lifted off the Ground and co-wrote an album with friend Mary Karr which features their songs recorded by several artists, including Crowell himself. 

Essential Singles:

  • I Ain’t Living Long Like This (Waylon Jennings), 1980
  • ‘Til I Gain Control Again (Crystal Gayle), 1982
  • Shame on the Moon (Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band), 1982
  • It’s Such a Small World (with Rosanne Cash), 1988
  • I Couldn’t Leave You if I Tried, 1988
  • After All This Time, 1989
  • What Kind of Love, 1992
  • Please Remember Me (Tim McGraw), 1999
  • Making Memories of Us (Keith Urban), 2005

Essential Albums:

  • Ain’t Living Long Like This, 1978
  • Diamonds & Dirt, 1988
  • The Houston Kid, 2001
  • Fate’s Right Hand, 2002
  • The Outsider, 2005

Next: #46. Dwight Yoakam

Previous: #48. Kris Kristofferson

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100 Greatest Men: #49. Toby Keith

100 Greatest Men: The Complete List

After first finding success as a smooth country balladeer, Toby Keith got in touch with his sense of humor and aggressive bravado.  The combination made him one of the biggest country stars of the new century.

One of the few acts with primarily country roots to still get radio play, Keith cut his teeth on the music of Bob Wills and Merle Haggard while growing up in Oklahoma.   Though he always made time for performing music, his first professional pursuits were in the oil fields and in semiprofessional football.

When both avenues were effectively closed for him, he pursued his music full-time, touring honky-tonks and recording demo tapes and sides for indie labels.  One of his tapes led to a deal with Mercury Records, and it contained self-written songs which would become huge hits once sent to radio.  He was a star out of the gate, reaching #1 with his first single, “Should've Been a Cowboy.”  The 1993 hit would go on to become the most played song of the nineties.

Keith became a reliable star, consistently selling gold and platinum and scoring radio hits, but he felt limited by his image as a ballad singer in the same vein as Vince Gill.   In 1999, he left Mercury for Dreamworks.   His second single for them, “How Do You Like Me Now?!” , rebranded him as a tongue-in-cheek, cocky showman, and it set the stage for him to reach superstar status.

He won the CMA trophy for Male Vocalist in 2001, but he truly hit the pinnacle of his fame the following year when he released “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue (The Angry American.)”   It laid the foundation for two consecutive albums selling over four million copies, and complete domination of the radio dial, with several multi-week #1 singles that became signature songs for Keith.

His massive success led to him opening up his own label, Show Dog Records, which now has a partnership with Universal Music.   Keith's record sales slowed with the new label, but overall he's doing better because of his larger financial stake in the label and the success of his restaurant chain Toby Keith's I Love This Bar and Grill.

Most recently, Clancy's Tavern became his first album in three years to earn a gold certification, and his first in six to produce three top ten radio hits.   “Red Solo Cup”, a novelty song from the set, has become Keith's biggest single in years, and as a result, exposed him to a new, younger audience.

Essential Singles:

  • Should've Been a Cowboy, 1993
  • Who's That Man, 1994
  • How Do You Like Me Now?!, 1999
  • Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue (The Angry American), 2002
  • Beer For My Horses (with Willie Nelson), 2003
  • I Love This Bar, 2003
  • As Good as I Once Was, 2005
  • Red Solo Cup, 2011

Essential Albums:

  • Toby Keith, 1993
  • Dream Walkin', 1996
  • Pull My Chain, 2001
  • Unleashed, 2002
  • Shock'n Y'all, 2003

Next: #48. Kris Kristofferson

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2012 ACM Awards: Staff Picks & Predictions

Throw on your bedazzled boots – the 47th annual Academy of Country Music Awards air live from Las Vegas this Sunday at 8 p.m. EST. The show promises to be a melting pot of performances, with oddball duets like Rascal Flatts and Steve Martin – and no, that’s not an April Fools joke. The CU staff picked and predicted the awards below. Tell us your thoughts, and check back for our live blog on Sunday night!

Entertainer of the Year

Should Win:

  • Jason Aldean
  • Kenny Chesney
  • Brad Paisley
  • Blake Shelton
  • Taylor Swift – Jonathan, Dan, Tara, Leeann, Kevin, Ben, Sam

Will Win:

  • Jason Aldean – Sam
  • Kenny Chesney
  • Brad Paisley
  • Blake Shelton
  • Taylor Swift – Jonathan, Dan, Tara, Kevin, Ben

Ben: Okay, so I was going to go with Aldean based on his massive success… but Swift’s music has just been too dang good lately.

Jonathan: Swift is the only one of the five who has released any music I really liked during the eligibility period; that fan voting is part of whatever mysterious algorithm is used to determine the winner of this award helps her case. I recognize that Aldean has a good look at this, too, but I’ll admit to just digging my heels in and refusing to get on board with the idea that he’s considered the standard-bearing artist in country music.

Tara: Swift released some of the best material of her career in the eligibility period, and her star seems as bright as it’s ever been. And while I can’t picture her losing something fan-voted, I wouldn’t be shocked if Aldean snuck up on her, especially given the secret fan / academy vote ratio. I just hope that this time next year, there are a few shake-ups in this category. I’m bored.

Dan: I like Swift the best, but can’t muster the energy to root actively against Aldean like I did with, say, Rascal Flatts.

Kevin:  Aldean vs. Swift, with me erring on the side of the one who made more music that I liked this year.

Sam: Just a hunch, but the Taylor Swift voters might be as fanatical as usual because Carrie Underwood isn’t nominated for this award. That might give Aldean the chance to sneak in.

Male Vocalist of the Year

Should Win:

  • Jason Aldean – Dan, Kevin, Sam
  • Kenny Chesney
  • Brad Paisley
  • Blake Shelton
  • Chris Young – Ben, Jonathan, Tara

Will Win:

  • Jason Aldean – Dan, Sam
  • Kenny Chesney
  • Brad Paisley
  • Blake Shelton – Ben, Jonathan, Tara, Kevin
  • Chris Young

Dan: Aldean remains the hottest guy out there by a huge margin, and occasionally puts out something decent like “Fly Over States.” I’ll just keep picking him to win this until he does. La la la.

Ben: Aldean’s success speaks for itself, but I would really like to see Chris Young take this. He released a solid new album, remained a consistent hitmaker at radio, and has made the most music that I’ve actually cared about. But seeing as the industry award voters have been showing a lot of excessive Shelton love as of late, my gut says that Blake Shelton is going to get this. (There are no awards for TV Judge of the Year or Newlywed of the Year, so the ACM will probably give him this one instead)

Jonathan: So let’s talk about Chris Young for a minute. The guy has a fantastic voice, one of the strongest and most distinctive instruments to come down Music Row in a minute, and that alone is enough to elevate him above most of the other men who have scored major airplay in the past couple of years. But the discrepancy between the quality of Young’s vocal performances and the quality of the songs he’s performing is a problem, and here’s yet another instance of an artist with the potential to be really and truly great receiving a thumbs-up from the industry for work that’s just occasionally on the better side of okay. Where’s the incentive for someone like Young to be even better if he’s being recognized now? And what does it say that, despite his wildly uneven material, he’s far and away the class of this particular field of nominees?

Tara: I have to disagree with Jonathan on this one; I find Neon to be a refreshing, neo-traditional gem, more organic than it is uneven. In this stage of Young’s career, I view his body of work as a stepping stone and an indication of potential, and I have no issue with it being rewarded. But it won’t be; Mr. Lambert’s got the entertainment industry on lockdown. And I can’t say I really mind.

Kevin: Picking Aldean as the “should win” solely because he had the biggest year, though I suspect Shelton will win anyway.

Sam: I get the love for Miranda Lambert, but the Blake Shelton love is largely lost on me. Not a fan of Aldean either, but he’s due for this award.

Female Vocalist of the Year

Should Win:

  • Sara Evans
  • Miranda Lambert – Dan, Ben, Tara, Leeann, Sam
  • Martina McBride
  • Taylor Swift – Jonathan, Kevin
  • Carrie Underwood

Will Win:

  • Sara Evans
  • Miranda Lambert – Dan, Ben, Jonathan, Tara, Leeann, Sam
  • Martina McBride
  • Taylor Swift – Kevin
  • Carrie Underwood

Dan: I think Swift has been the strongest solo act this past year, but Lambert released a decent fourth album and a terrific group one. With no place on the ballot to reward Pistol Annies (fix that, CMAs?), this’ll do.

Ben: Swift put out a string of very good singles, but… Four the Record + Pistol Annies = The Miranda Lambert love will be fully justified.

Jonathan: If we’re counting Pistol Annies, then I can absolutely see the case for Lambert and could be convinced to vote accordingly, and I think she still has the momentum to win here. If we’re just looking at solo material, though, I’m unapologetically sticking with Swift’s “Mean” and “Sparks Fly,” which trump anything that the other four women in the category released during the eligibility period. With Underwood having a new album to support and, hopefully, Kellie Pickler getting the recognition she deserves for her latest work, this category should be a hell of a lot more interesting and competitive come CMA time.

Tara: Swift delivered the better material, but Lambert delivered the better performances, Hell On Heels notwithstanding. By my definition of FVOTY, this should go to Lambert. (And I’m stoked for the fall award season, too.)

Leeann:  I have no real reason to believe that the Academy would take this from Lambert this year.

Kevin:  Can you believe that Swift is the only nominee who hasn’t won this yet?  I know Lambert should be the favorite, especially given the ACM’s fondness for her.  But I can’t shake the feeling that she’s lost some momentum with her latest project.

Sam: Miranda will continue to own this category until someone like Carrie Underwood steps up with a new album.

Vocal Duo of the Year

Should Win

  • Love and Theft
  • Montgomery Gentry
  • Steel Magnolia
  • Sugarland – Leeann
  • Thompson Square – Dan, Ben, Tara

Will Win:

  • Love and Theft
  • Montgomery Gentry
  • Steel Magnolia
  • Sugarland – Dan, Ben, Leeann, Kevin
  • Thompson Square – Jonathan, Tara, Sam

Ben: The Civil Wars are really the only duo I’ve cared about this past year, but they have been stupidly excluded in favor of Love and Theft (who only released one mediocre single in the past year), so I’m going with Thompson Square instead. They’ve been doing well at radio, and their music has not been terribly grating, but I’m pretty sure that the ACM will remain stuck on Sugarland.

Dan: With The Civil Wars absent from ACM’s roster and Sugarland having a messy year across the board, Thompson Square seems like the last band standing. And they’re cute, right?

Jonathan: The song remains the same: This category should’ve been merged with Vocal Group of the Year eons ago to trim the fat. Given that the ACMs are still ostensibly more radio-oriented than the CMAs and that Sugarland have actively alienated radio with the god-awful singles from their god-awful album, I’m going to say that Thompson Square pull off the upset here. Just don’t ask me to hum or even to name more than one of their songs…

Tara: I honestly can’t muster an opinion. What’s Sugarland been up to these days, anyway?

Leeann:  This category isn’t even worth comment this year.

Kevin: Saying somebody should win implies that I think there’s a worthy winner, so I’m just going to say that Sugarland will win.

Sam: No Bellamy Brothers nod? You mean country music actually had five legit nominees for a Duo award this year? Artistically, The Civil Wars and Foster & Lloyd would be the most deserving this year.

Vocal Group of the Year

Should Win:

  • The Band Perry
  • Eli Young Band
  • Lady Antebellum
  • Rascal Flatts
  • Zac Brown Band – Dan, Ben, Jonathan, Tara, Leeann, Kevin, Sam

Will Win:

  • The Band Perry – Sam
  • Eli Young Band
  • Lady Antebellum – Dan, Ben, Jonathan, Tara, Leeann, Kevin
  • Rascal Flatts
  • Zac Brown Band

Ben: I’ve tried to hold out hope that the award industries would lay off the ridiculous Lady A adoration, but the CMAs and Grammys have shown me otherwise.

Jonathan: No reason to think the ACMs will break the trend of giving unearned trophies to the C students in the class.

Tara: I remain firmly in ZBB’s corner; the band produced my favorite single of 2011. But I would much, much prefer this award to go to the flavor of the month Eli Young Band than the flavor of the year Lady Antebellum.

Dan: I miss Little Big Town, but this is the first time in recent memory that this category has had five competitive groups. Like Aldean in the Male Vocalist race, Zac Brown Band sell as well as anyone and haven’t won yet, so I’ll probably keep picking them until they do, too. La la la x2.

Leeann: I’d love to see Zac Brown Band take it this year, but I don’t have enough faith that Lady A won’t just keep the award.

Kevin:  Always gonna root for ZBB.  Just losing hope that they’ll ever actually win.

Sam: ZBB is operating on a higher level than any other vocal group, but I’m alright with The Band Perry’s quirkiness getting some recognition.

New Artist of the Year

Should Win:

  • Brantley Gilbert
  • Hunter Hayes – Dan, Tara
  • Scotty McCreery

Will Win:

  • Brantley Gilbert
  • Hunter Hayes
  • Scotty McCreery – Ben, Dan, Jonathan, Tara, Leeann, Kevin, Sam

Dan: Of the three, I think Hayes has the most raw talent (played every instrument on his album!) and could one day be an interesting artist. So, vote of optimism! ;D

Ben: I think this will be between Gilbert and McCreery. My gut says Scotty McCreery “will” win, but this line-up is just too depressing for me to make a case for who “should” win. Dan makes a good point about Hunter Hayes though…

Jonathan: I can’t.

Tara: Uh…I guess this is as good a time as any to confess my love for “Storm Warning.”

Leeann: I don’t even have the heart to choose who I think should win, but I’m guessing the “American Idol” winner will win.

Kevin: New Coke >>>> New Artist of the Year.

Sam: This is fan voted, right? Well, if McCreery’s fans can vote him to win “American Idol”…

Album of the Year

Should Win:

  • Eric Church, ChiefDan, Ben, Jonathan, Tara, Leeann, Kevin
  • Miranda Lambert, Four The Record – Sam
  • Kenny Chesney, Hemingway’s Whiskey
  • Jason Aldean, My Kinda Party
  • Lady Antebellum, Own The Night

Will Win:

  • Eric Church, Chief
  • Miranda Lambert, Four The Record
  • Kenny Chesney, Hemingway’s Whiskey
  • Jason Aldean, My Kinda PartyDan, Ben, Sam
  • Lady Antebellum, Own The NightJonathan, Tara, Leeann, Kevin

Ben: Eric Church edges out Miranda as my pick, but I’m fairly sure this will go to Aldean, and I refuse to predict that Lady Antebellum will win this.

Jonathan: I liked Lambert’s album exponentially less each time I listened to it, so I stopped listening to all but two of its tracks (“Fine Tune” and “Dear Diamond”) months ago to preserve at least some degree of fondness for it. Church’s album has some significant limitations of its own, but, song-for-song, it’s the strongest set in this line-up. I have no idea what I would ever actually say to a person who believes that Richard Marx’s Repeat Offender Amy Grant’s House of Love Lady Antebellum’s Own the Night scans as a country album in any substantive way, or that it’s the best country album of this or any year. But clearly there are people who do believe that, and recent history says there are enough of them for Lady A to win this.

Tara: It’s a toss up between Lambert and Church for me, with Church’s realized hard-assness giving Chief a slight edge. But it’s Lady A’s to lose – and I’m not sure anything in the industry has frustrated me more than their wins as of late. It’s worse than laughably unfair; it’s potential-threatening. And it has to stop.

Dan: When Church is bad, he’s cringe-worthy. When he’s good, he kicks most of the ass he told you he’d kick.

Leeann: I won’t be surprised if Lady A wins, but I’d love to see Eric Church win for the most interesting album of the bunch. I wouldn’t mind seeing Miranda Lambert win either.

Kevin: I just hope I’m wrong a lot this year.

Sam: Pretty sad when a “good for a Jason Aldean album” album beats out two superior albums from Church and Lambert, but I think that will be the case.

Single Record of the Year

Should Win:

  • Eli Young Band, “Crazy Girl”
  • Jason Aldean with Kelly Clarkson, “Don’t You Wanna Stay”
  • Toby Keith, “Red Solo Cup”
  • Chris Young, “Tomorrow”
  • Kenny Chesney featuring Grace Potter, “You and Tequila” – Ben, Dan, Tara, Leeann, Kevin, Sam

Will Win:

  • Eli Young Band, “Crazy Girl”
  • Jason Aldean with Kelly Clarkson, “Don’t You Wanna Stay” – Dan, Ben, Jonathan, Tara, Leeann, Kevin, Sam
  • Toby Keith, “Red Solo Cup”
  • Chris Young, “Tomorrow”
  • Kenny Chesney featuring Grace Potter, “You and Tequila”

Ben: “Tequila” outclasses most of the field, though “Tomorrow” is also a solid contender. I get the novelty value of “Red Solo Cup,” but Single Record of the Year? Nah…

Jonathan: Even for a novelty song, I thought “Red Solo Cup” was poorly constructed and lazily written, but I kind of hope it wins, if only to prove that this year’s ACMs are just a straight-up farce.

Tara: I don’t love any of these, but “You and Tequila” is the only one I can imagine holding up in ten years.

Dan: Whatever.

Leeann: I can’t even believe “Red Solo Cup” is a contender! I’d love to see Kenny win for one of his best recordings, though I suspect Jason Aldean and Kelly Clarkson will win due to their cross genre appeal and all.

Kevin: Please let me be wrong a lot this year.

Sam: I will be rooting for “Red Solo Cup” and its inspired idiocy, but this could be part of Jason Aldean’s big night at the ACM.

Song of the Year

Should Win:

  • “Crazy Girl” – Lee Brice & Liz Rose
  • “Home” – Brett Beavers, Dierks Bentley & Dan Wilson – Leeann
  • “Just a Kiss” – Dallas Davidson, Dave Haywood, Charles Kelley & Hillary Scott
  • “Threaten Me With Heaven” – Amy Grant, Vince Gill, Dillon O’Brian & Will Owsley – Jonathan, Tara, Kevin
  • “You and Tequila” – Matraca Berg & Deana Carter – Dan, Ben, Sam

Will Win:

  • “Crazy Girl” – Lee Brice & Liz Rose
  • “Home” – Brett Beavers, Dierks Bentley & Dan Wilson – Dan, Ben, Jonathan, Tara, Sam
  • “Just a Kiss” – Dallas Davidson, Dave Haywood, Charles Kelley & Hillary Scott – Kevin
  • “Threaten Me With Heaven” – Amy Grant, Vince Gill, Dillon O’Brian & Will Owsley
  • “You and Tequila” – Matraca Berg & Deana Carter – Leeann

Dan: “Home” has felt like awards bait to me since I first heard it. Me, I’m a “Tequila” guy.

Ben: Ditto to Dan.

Jonathan: As much as I’d like to see Berg and Carter pick up some new hardware, I’d still give the edge to Gill’s song. When “Home” does win, which I agree it will, I’ll just pretend it means that Jason Isbell has finally won a major industry award.

Tara: “Threaten Me With Heaven” is gorgeously written, but I won’t mind if (and when) “Home” takes the award. Country music could use a shot of graceful patriotism.

Leeann: I’m pleased to have three songs that I’d be happy to see win the award this year. I feel like either Chesney or Bentley will rightfully win…I hope so at least.

Kevin:  Pretty please?

Video of the Year

Should Win:

  • Eric Church, “Homeboy”
  • Lady Antebellum, “Just a Kiss”
  • Taylor Swift, “Mean” – Ben, Dan, Jonathan, Tara, Kevin, Sam
  • Toby Keith, “Red Solo Cup”
  • Jason Aldean, “Tattoos On This Town”

Will Win:

  • Eric Church, “Homeboy”
  • Lady Antebellum, “Just a Kiss”
  • Taylor Swift, “Mean” – Kevin
  • Toby Keith, “Red Solo Cup” – Ben, Dan, Jonathan, Tara, Sam
  • Jason Aldean, “Tattoos On This Town”

Ben: I could actually live with “Red Solo Cup” winning this, but I still enjoy “Mean” quite a bit more.  Plus I kind of hate Lady Antebellum’s video for being nothing more than a glorified iPad commercial.  I also think “Mean” deserved a nomination for Single Record of the Year, so I would like to see it acknowledged here.  Still, I don’t think I can bet against “Red Solo Cup.”

Jonathan: That “Mean” didn’t score the Single and Song of the Year nominations with the ACMs that it has elsewhere seems revealing, with “Red Solo Cup” as the most likely beneficiary. I just hope that the faux gravitas of the “Homeboy” clip doesn’t give it any footing.

Tara: I’m equally disappointed that “Mean” didn’t snag a nomination for Single or Song of the Year. With the video almost as freshly produced as the single, it’s an easy one to root for in this category. I have no inkling as to who will win, but I’ll piggyback off of my co-bloggers on the frat party anthem.

Dan: I could do without how the “Mean” clip ends with a little girl idolizing Taylor Swift, but am I gonna vote against the country music video that had the anti-gay-bullying message? No, I’m not.

Kevin: I think the Swift clip has enough pizazz to triumph in the end over Toby’s YouTube video.

Vocal Event of the Year

Should Win:

  • Aaron Lewis featuring George Jones & Charlie Daniels, “Country Boy”
  • Jason Aldean with Kelly Clarkson, “Don’t You Wanna Stay”
  • Brad Paisley featuring Alabama, “Old Alabama”
  • Brad Paisley duet with Carrie Underwood, “Remind Me” – Tara, Kevin, Ben
  • Kenny Chesney featuring Grace Potter, “You and Tequila” – Dan, Jonathan, Leeann, Sam

Will Win:

  • Aaron Lewis featuring George Jones & Charlie Daniels, “Country Boy”
  • Jason Aldean with Kelly Clarkson, “Don’t You Wanna Stay” – Jonathan, Dan, Leeann, Kevin, Sam
  • Brad Paisley featuring Alabama, “Old Alabama”
  • Brad Paisley duet with Carrie Underwood, “Remind Me” – Tara, Ben
  • Kenny Chesney featuring Grace Potter, “You and Tequila”

Jonathan: The Lewis track is one of the worst singles of the past five years or more, and its nomination is an indication of how deeply modern country music hates the actual traditions and values of the genre.

Tara: As middle-of-the-road as it is, something in the melody of “Remind Me” intrigues me. And I have a random feeling the voters will use this category to reward their dethroned male and female vocalists of the year.

Dan: It’ll be interesting to see if “Remind Me” can unseat “Don’t You Wanna St– oh, who am I kidding. Nothing is interesting anymore.

Leeann: Ugh. I pretty much know that Jason Aldean and Kelly Clarkson will win, but I’d love to be wrong. Meanwhile, I continue to faithfully root for the Chesney/Potter collaboration.

Kevin: I like my Vocal Events to be full-out Vocal Events, so I’m going for Paisley/Underwood over Chesney with backing vocals from Potter.  The latter pair made the better record, though.

Ben:  I’m with Tara and Kevin.  “You and Tequila” is the best record overall, but that has more to do with Berg and Carter’s songwriting than with Potter’s contributions.  “Remind Me” is the one that feels like an actual event.

Sam: Aldean & Clarkson outscreamed Paisley & Underwood, so they lay claim to the trophy. Chesney and Potter, what were you two thinking by just going out there and singing? Next time, I want to hear some wailing and primal screams, because that’s what makes for a successful duet these days.

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Grammy Awards 2012: Staff Picks & Predictions

The 54th annual GrammyAdele Awards air this Sunday at 8 p.m. Eastern. Look for appearances by Miranda Lambert, Dierks Bentley and Lady Antebellum as well as country-ish performances by Jason Aldean, Glen Campbell (with the Band Perry and Blake Shelton), Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood. We’ve picked and predicted the awards below – share your thoughts, and be sure to drop by on Sunday night for our live blog!

Album of the Year

Should Win

  • Adele, 21 -Dan, Kevin, Ben, Tara, Sam
  • Foo Fighters, Wasting Light
  • Lady Gaga, Born this Way
  • Bruno Mars, Doo-Wops & Hooligans
  • Rihanna, Loud

Will Win

  • Adele, 21 – Dan, Kevin, Ben, Tara, Sam
  • Foo Fighters, Wasting Light
  • Lady Gaga, Born this Way
  • Bruno Mars, Doo-Wops & Hooligans
  • Rihanna, Loud

Ben: Adele made some of the best and most memorable music of the year, and met with across-the-board critical and commercial success, so it’s hardly a stretch to say that she should and will emerge victorious here.

Tara: I don’t often agree with Bob Lefsetz, but his case for why 21 has resonated so well is spot on: “music trumps everything.” How true, and how refreshing that an album that embraced the hell out of this theme made such a commercial splash.

Sam: Lady Gaga is the only one of the nominees who can rival her for publicity in 2011, but Adele’s record sales should put her over the top. Oh, and it was a great record — not that that means anything where Grammy voters are concerned.

Dan: It helps that this is an especially lazy pool of nominees. 21 is certainly a strong album and a commercial landmark, but I do wish something like Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy were here to help hold up the bar.

Kevin:  Adele made the best album by a wide margin.

Record of the Year

Should Win

  • Adele, “Rolling in the Deep” –  Dan, Kevin, Ben, Tara, Sam 
  • Bon Iver, “Holocene”
  • Bruno Mars, “Grenade”
  • Mumford & Sons, “The Cave”
  • Katy Perry, “Firework”

Will Win

  • Adele, “Rolling in the Deep” –  Dan, Kevin, Ben, Tara, Sam
  • Bon Iver, “Holocene”
  • Bruno Mars, “Grenade”
  • Mumford & Sons, “The Cave”
  • Katy Perry, “Firework”

Ben: The dramatic build-up nature, the simmering intensity, the all-guns-blazing chorus…“Rolling In the Deep” is all but untouchable.

Tara: As rousing a Top 40 hit as we’ve heard in years. I think we all know Adele will sweep.

Sam: I’m a Mumford & Sons fan, but it’s hard to top “Rolling in the Deep.” Anyone who votes for a Katy Perry song in this category should lose their Grammy voting rights permanently.

Dan: Long after it became overplayed, it was still more refreshing to me than everything else on the radio.

Kevin:  Adele cut through the hype by being the best singer and the best songwriter.  Amazing, isn’t it?

Song of the Year

Should Win
  • “All of the Lights” – Jeff Bhasker, Malik Jones, Warren Trotter & Kanye West - Dan
  • “The Cave” – Ted Dwane, Ben Lovett, Marcus Mumford & Country Winston
  • “Grenade” – Brody Brown, Claude Kelly, Philip Lawrence, Ari Levine, Bruno Mars & Andrew Wyatt
  • “Holocene” – Justin Vernon
  • “Rolling in the Deep” – Adele Adkins & Paul Epworth – Kevin, Ben, Tara

Will Win

  • “All of the Lights” – Jeff Bhasker, Malik Jones, Warren Trotter & Kanye West
  • “The Cave” – Ted Dwane, Ben Lovett, Marcus Mumford & Country Winston
  • “Grenade” – Brody Brown, Claude Kelly, Philip Lawrence, Ari Levine, Bruno Mars & Andrew Wyatt
  • “Holocene” – Justin Vernon
  • “Rolling in the Deep” – Adele Adkins & Paul Epworth – Dan, Kevin, Ben, Tara

Tara: “Rolling in the Deep” shines more as a record than as a composition, but it’s still memorable enough to nab this award, and I think it will.

Dan: Here’s where I’d love to see some variation. “All of the Lights” is a poetic, layered micro-drama. Plus, from a songwriting standpoint, I’ve never fully gotten over how “Rolling in the Deep” cribs its chorus from Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy.”

Kevin:  The British slang that the song is built around doesn’t stop “Rolling” from being the most universal of the five compositions. 

Best New Artist

Should Win

  • The Band Perry - Sam
  • Bon Iver
  • J. Cole – Tara
  • Nicki Minaj – Dan, Kevin
  • Skrillex

Will Win

  • The Band Perry – Sam
  • Bon Iver – Dan, Kevin, Tara
  • J. Cole
  • Nicki Minaj
  • Skrillex

Tara: Bon Iver fits the Grammy mold the best. Personally, I’m not married to any of these acts, but I guess J. Cole piques my interest the most right now. This is totally one of those picks I’m going to regret in six months…

Sam: I think this one could be an upset win for the country world. “If I Die Young” was such an unexpected crossover hit, and I think it had more resonance than most other singles from the eligibility period. Plus the Band Perry is cuter than a basket full of puppies, which can only help them.

Dan: I think Bon Iver is the most fully realized act, and predict the band’s Song and Record nods will tip Grammy voters to vote for them like Adele’s did a few years ago. But Minaj’s potential excites me the most, and I had “Super Bass” on loop last year.

Kevin:  Minaj is the most refreshing of the five, though Bon Iver’s the most Grammy-friendly.

Best Country Solo Performance 

Should Win

  • Jason Aldean, “Dirt Road Anthem”
  • Martina McBride, “I’m Gonna Love You Through It”
  • Blake Shelton, “Honey Bee”
  • Taylor Swift, “Mean” – Dan, Kevin, Jonathan, Ben, Tara, Leeann, Sam
  • Carrie Underwood, “Mama’s Song”

Will Win

  • Jason Aldean, “Dirt Road Anthem” – Sam
  • Martina McBride, “I’m Gonna Love You Through It”
  • Blake Shelton, “Honey Bee”
  • Taylor Swift, “Mean” – Dan, Kevin, Jonathan, Ben, Tara, Leeann
  • Carrie Underwood, “Mama’s Song”

Ben: Swift outclasses the competition by miles.

Jonathan: A depressing line-up here, really. Swift’s single and performance are far and away the strongest of the five nominees, but she didn’t land the general field nominations that many people were expecting her to receive, so I do wonder if her support runs as deep this year as it did during the Fearless juggernaut. If she loses this one, I think it will be to the red-hot-but-I-don’t-get-it-at-all Aldean.

Tara: Embarrassing line-up. “Mean” is the only one that even comes close to Grammy worthy. I think Swift still has the voters on her side, but I could also see Aldean edging her out.

Sam: “Honey Bee?” “Dirt Road Anthem?” Really, Grammy voters? I guess we should be lucky they managed to put one good song in the category, even if it was probably an accident. However, I think voters are going to take a year off on the Swift love and give it to Aldean, because it’s the least country-sounding song in the category.

Dan: I could see Shelton’s familiarity prompting a win here, but suspect Grammy voters are still in Swift’s corner.

Kevin:  They should just make the genre categories line up perfectly with the big three. This is really a race for Country Record of the Year anyway.  Swift’s entry is the best.

Leeann: All of the songs on this are vanilla except for the Swift song, both in lyrics and execution. This is the inarguable standout song.

Best Country Duo / Group Performance

Should Win

  • Jason Aldean with Kelly Clarkson, “Don’t You Wanna Stay”
  • Kenny Chesney with Grace Potter, “You and Tequila” – Kevin, Leeann
  • The Civil Wars, “Barton Hollow” –  Dan, Jonathan, Ben, Tara, Sam
  • Thompson Square, “Are You Gonna Kiss Me or Not”

Will Win

  • Jason Aldean with Kelly Clarkson, “Don’t You Wanna Stay” –  Dan, Jonathan, Ben, Tara, Leeann, Sam
  • Kenny Chesney with Grace Potter, “You and Tequila”
  • The Civil Wars, “Barton Hollow” – Kevin
  • Thompson Square, “Are You Gonna Kiss Me or Not”

Ben: It’s a super tough call for me to choose between The Civil Wars and Chesney and Potter.  As much as I adore “You and Tequila,” I’m finally settling on The Civil Wars as my pick.  However, I expect that Aldean and Clarkson will likely triumph over both.

Jonathan: Had the Civil Wars scored the Best New Artist nomination that they seemed primed for, I would be more bullish on their chances here. They’re still the only of the four nominees I’d even consider voting for, but Clarkson is the only proven Grammy commodity in this lot, and this is probably the least credibility-straining place to recognize Aldean.

Tara: Confession: I don’t really see the sparkle that others see in “You and Tequila.” The swampy “Barton Hollow” has my heart, but I think Aldean & Clarkson will have the Grammy voters’ hearts. And I’m always OK with a little K. Clarkson love.

Sam: “Barton Hollow” kicks the ass of every other song on the list, including the excellent Chesney/Potter collaboration, and if Grammy voters actually listened to the songs they vote for, it would probably win. However, the Aldean/Clarkson screamfest has the benefit of Kelly Clarkson’s name recognition and Aldean’s current popularity.

Dan: The Civil Wars wail like mad dogs on their track. But Aldean and Clarkson are both having a moment right now.

Kevin:  The Civil Wars seem like Grammy catnip.

Leeann: My vote goes for the Chesney/Potter collaboration or The Civil Wars song, but I won’t be surprised if it goes to the powerhouse duet of Aldean and Clarkson based on crossover appeal. I hope, however, that  it turns out that I’m not giving the Grammy voters enough credit.

Best Country Song

Should Win

  • “Are You Gonna Kiss Me or Not” – Jim Collins & David Lee Murphy
  • “God Gave Me You” – Dave Barnes
  • “Just Fishin’” – Casey Beathard, Monty Criswell & Ed Hill
  • “Mean” – Taylor Swift –  Dan, Ben, Tara, Sam
  • “Threaten Me With Heaven” – Vince Gill, Amy Grant, Will Owsley & Dillon O’Brian –  Kevin, Jonathan, Leeann
  • “You and Tequila” – Matraca Berg & Deana Carter

Will Win

  • “Are You Gonna Kiss Me or Not” – Jim Collins & David Lee Murphy
  • “God Gave Me You” – Dave Barnes
  • “Just Fishin’” – Casey Beathard, Monty Criswell & Ed Hill
  • “Mean” – Taylor Swift –  Dan, Kevin, Jonathan, Ben, Tara, Leeann
  • “Threaten Me With Heaven” – Vince Gill, Amy Grant, Will Owsley & Dillon O’Brian – Sam
  • “You and Tequila” – Matraca Berg & Deana Carter

Ben: Gill’s “Threaten Me with Heaven” is mature and beautifully written, but ultimately, my heart still belongs to “Mean.”

Jonathan: Gill has a real shot at this because it’s the Grammys so Gill always has a real shot at anything he’s nominated for. He’d be a worthy winner here, too, as would “You and Tequila” or the more likely winner, “Mean.”

Tara: I wrestle with this one, but I think the freshness of “Mean” gives it an edge over Gill’s track for me. Gill could easily take this given he’s Grammy royalty, but I’ll predict the voters will stick with Swift.

Sam: It’s Vince Gill in a Grammy category. That’s why.

Dan: I’d be happy with any of those last three. Honestly, I even half-like “Just Fishin’” and “God Gave Me You” as songs.

Kevin:  Can’t believe that Gill’s composition got a nod.  I like Swift’s record the most, but as a song, “Threaten Me With Heaven” is jaw-droppingly good.

Leeann: I’d love to see Vince win another grammy, but I won’t be surprised  or too disappointed if Swift takes this one.

Best Country Album

Should Win

  • Jason Aldean, My Kinda Party
  • Eric Church, Chief  - Jonathan, Tara, Leeann
  • Lady Antebellum, Own the Night
  • Blake Shelton, Red River Blue
  • George Strait, Here For a Good Time - Kevin, Ben
  • Taylor Swift, Speak Now – Sam

Will Win

  • Jason Aldean, My Kinda Party – Dan
  • Eric Church, Chief
  • Lady Antebellum, Own the Night - Tara
  • Blake Shelton, Red River Blue
  • George Strait, Here For a Good Time
  • Taylor Swift, Speak Now Kevin, Jonathan, Ben, Leeann, Sam

Ben: Church, Strait, and Swift have the three best albums, and of those three, Strait’s Here for a Good Time is the most fully realized, but I would expect that Swift’s crossover appeal and high sales numbers will lead voters to gravitate toward Speak Now.

Jonathan: The nomination for Lady Antebellum’s godawful album represents Grammy voting at its laziest. I don’t care how many people bought Own the Night: It’s terrible and, at some point, the over-rewarding of Lady A for their aggressively middlebrow, banal music has to stop. Church’s album would get my vote over Strait’s by just a hair and, even though I would’ve nominated it for Best Pop Album instead, Speak Now is Swift’s strongest set to date, so I won’t complain too loudly when she wins here.

Tara: Chief packs a killer, audacious punch…but I have this sinking feeling that Lady A will pull a repeat in this category. Look – I was (and probably still am) Lady A’s biggest advocate at Country Universe, but I can’t get behind the overblown success of their degenerating music. How will they ever be motivated to live up to the massive potential shown on Lady Antebellum if we keep rewarding them like this

Sam: Quality-wise, Speak Now edges out Chief, though I think Chief deserves some recognition for its ambition. Speak Now was a commercial and an artistic triumph, though the only concern is that it was released so long ago that its impact may have faded from the voters’ memories. That might open the door for Lady Antebellum to win, which would be a shame. While I actually kind of liked Own the Night, there are three albums better than it in the category.

Kevin: Strait just keeps getting better lately.  I think he’d win if it wasn’t for category crossover votes for Swift.

Leeann: I wish I cared about this category more this year than I actually do. It’s likely that either Strait or Swift will win the award, but I think Church’s album is the most interesting.

Best Americana Album

Should Win

  • Linda Chorney, Emotional Jukebox
  • Ry Cooder, Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down
  • Emmylou Harris, Hard Bargain - Jonathan
  • Levon Helm, Ramble at the Ryman
  • Lucinda Williams, Blessed

Will Win

  • Linda Chorney, Emotional Jukebox
  • Ry Cooder, Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down
  • Emmylou Harris, Hard Bargain
  • Levon Helm, Ramble at the Ryman – Dan
  • Lucinda Williams, Blessed  - Jonathan, Ben, Sam

Jonathan: Of the four veterans nominated, only Harris’ album is anywhere close to her best work, but that rarely matters much. The vitriol directed at Chorney and her exploiting of NARAS’s new social networking initiatives to garner her nomination has reflected very, very poorly on a whole lot of Americana fans and has perpetuated an ugly “us-versus-them” attitude, but there’s no dressing up how poor Chorney’s album actually is, either. But she’s also the only one of the five nominees that anyone has been talking about during the entirety of the voting period… I give the edge to Williams on sales stats alone, but there’s really no frontrunner here.

Sam: Should win: Hayes Carll, KMAG YOYO and other American Stories (yeah, I know it wasn’t nominated). I actually kind of hope that Linda Chorney wins. For one thing, the outcry would be phenomenal. For another, it might shed some light on just how the voting is done, and is there a better way to do it. Do the voters know what Americana music is? Did they listen to any of the albums? I have nothing against any of the nominees, but Hayes Carll released one of the best albums of the year and had no chance in competing against legends like Emmylou, Ry Cooder and Levon Helm. Of the four legitimate nominees, Williams has gone the longest between Grammy wins, so maybe it’s her turn.

Dan: Levon has won for his last two albums. This one is a live set, so Lucinda could definitely unseat him, but still.

Best Bluegrass Album

Should Win

  • Alison Krauss and Union Station, Paper Airplane
  • Jim Lauderdale, Reason and Rhyme
  • Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers, Rare Bird Alert – Sam
  • The Del McCoury Band, Old Memories: The Songs of Bill Monroe
  • Ralph Stanley, A Mother’s Prayer
  • Chris Thile and Michael Staves, Sleep With One Eye Open – Jonathan

Will Win

  • Alison Krauss and Union Station, Paper Airplane – Jonathan, Dan, Ben, Tara, Sam
  • Jim Lauderdale, Reason and Rhyme
  • Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers, Rare Bird Alert
  • The Del McCoury Band, Old Memories: The Songs of Bill Monroe
  • Ralph Stanley, A Mother’s Prayer
  • Chris Thile and Michael Staves, Sleep With One Eye Open

Ben: I have no rationale for who should win, but I think we all know who will.

Jonathan: I can’t think of anything more foolhardy than betting against Alison Krauss at the Grammys.

Tara: What Ben said.

Sam: Honestly, I thought Krauss’ Paper Airplane was kind of tepid, while Rare Bird Alert was charming and energetic. Still, Krauss is the Jimmy Sturr of the Grammy bluegrass categories (all the polka fans should get that reference), so unless the voters decide to give Martin a lifetime achievement award of sorts, she’s got this one in the bag.

Dan: Steve Martin’s got a chance, but…

Best Folk Album

Should Win

  • The Civil Wars, Barton Hollow – Leeann
  • Steve Earle, I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive - Jonathan, Sam
  • Fleet Foxes, Hopelessness Blues
  • Eddie Vedder, Ukelele Songs
  • Gillian Welch, The Harrow & The Harvest

Will Win

  • The Civil Wars, Barton Hollow - Jonathan, Ben
  • Steve Earle, I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive - Dan
  • Fleet Foxes, Hopelessness Blues
  • Eddie Vedder, Ukelele Songs - Leeann, Sam
  • Gillian Welch, The Harrow & The Harvest

Ben: If my prediction of an Aldean-Clarkson victory for Duo/Group Performance comes true, I would expect that this is where voters will recognize The Civil Wars.

Jonathan: If NARAS were really committed to the idea of reducing the number of categories, they’d merge the Americana and Folk Album categories with Best Country Album and, considering how fast and loose they’re already playing with genre tags, they probably should do just that and let the chips fall where they may. Welch’s album is the only one of the five that really scans as “folk” music in any traditional sense, so who wins here will depend on whether or not voters are looking for something more traditional or contemporary. I’m guessing it’s the latter case, to the benefit of the Civil Wars.

Sam: Steve Earle released his best album in years with I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive. The love songs were tender, the topical songs were sharp and insightful, and there weren’t any love songs about Condoleezza Rice. Eddie Vedder, on the other hand, is in Pearl Jam, so clearly he’s the odds-on favorite. Actually, Ukelele Songs got some pretty good reviews, and if Vedder’s vocals didn’t remind me so much of Bob Dylan’s current voice crossed with an injured goat, I might be more inclined to like it.

Dan: I can imagine a Fleet Foxes or Civil Wars win, but in the end, I’m still guessing Earle, the proven Grammy favorite.

Leeann: It’s sad that I care about this category far more than the Country Album category this year. I love The Civil Wars album the most, but the Welch, Vedder and Earl albums are great too. I’ll be happy to see any of them win, but I have a strange feeling that Vedder will take it.

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Top 40 Singles of 2011, Part Four: #10-#1

The countdown concludes. Scroll down to the bottom to hear samples of each song and to share your comments.

Top 40 Singles of 2011, Part Four: #10-#1

#10
Love Done Gone
Billy Currington

Individual Rankings: #1 – Leeann; #1 – Jonathan; #13 – Tara

While many might get caught up in Billy Currington’s smoldering love songs, he’s really the most charming when he loosens up and has a little fun. While “Love Done Gone” is technically about lost love, Currington’s breezy performance along with the festive horns makes it seem more freeing than heartbreaking. As a result, the song turns out to be his most compelling since “Good Directions.” – Leeann Ward

#9
Amen
Edens Edge

Individual Rankings: #4 – Tara; #6 – Dan; #9 – Ben; #12 – Kevin

A 90’s-throwback gem, “Amen” shimmers in a different way than most of the songs on this list. There’s no striking life lesson or clever turn of phrase – just a fresh hook and an earnest, slightly unconventional love story between a preacher’s son and a farmer’s daughter. But there’s magic in its recipe: from the charmingly organic arrangement to the endearingly spirited performance to the adorably written story line – “whooped and hollered” tops my favorite phrases of 2011 – “Amen” is the sweetest package sent to country radio in years. – Tara Seetharam

#8
Sparks Fly
Taylor Swift

Individual Rankings: #2 – Jonathan; #5 – Dan; #5 – Tara; #19 – Ben

Of all of the many, many things “Sparks Fly” proves that Taylor Swift understands, perhaps the most important is this: If you’re going to order someone to, “Drop everything now,” you’d better make sure they have reasons to want to. – Jonathan Keefe

#7
Threaten Me With Heaven
Vince Gill

Individual Rankings: #3 – Kevin; #7 – Leeann; #9 – Tara; #13 – Dan; #13 – Jonathan

Can anyone be this strong when facing down their rapidly approaching death? Perhaps only in song. For those who can pull this off in real life, their faith blows away those who can merely move mountains. – Kevin John Coyne

#6
Barton Hollow
The Civil Wars

Individual Rankings: #3 – Jonathan; #4 – Sam; #7 – Tara; #8 – Leeann; #8 – Dan

“Barton Hollow” may be a song about a dead man walking, but, with its stomping percussion line and force-of-nature vocal performances, it plays more like a determined march right to the front-line of a war zone. If the Devil’s going to follow the Civil Wars wherever they go, they sound more than ready to throw down. – Jonathan Keefe

#5
Colder Weather
Zac Brown Band

Individual Rankings: #1 – Tara; #6 – Jonathan; #7 – Sam; #9 – Leeann; #11 – Ben; #15 – Kevin

A piano, a wanderer’s tale and killer vocals are the bones of this song– none of which are unique to country music. And yet, “Colder Weather” pleads like the best country songs, hurts like the loneliest of country stories. It serves as an elegant reminder that while country music is sometimes marked by a fiddly sparkle, it can also turn up in the form of pure emotion – and how Brown emotes. His performance is both soulful and skillful, embodying the rambler’s spectrum of emotions with chilling accuracy – longing, regret, defeat, hunger – right down to the final line that rings hauntingly hollow: “It’s a shame about the weather / But I know soon we’ll be together / And I can’t wait til then.” – Tara Seetharam

#4
You and Tequila
Kenny Chesney with Grace Potter

Individual Rankings: #2 – Ben; #3 – Leeann; #3 – Dan; #9 – Kevin; #10 – Tara; #17 – Sam

“You and Tequila” is a great reminder of just how good Kenny Chesney can be when he’s not releasing the same song over and over again. In classic Matraca Berg fashion, “You and Tequila” is a deftly constructed lyric that displays intelligence and self-awareness, while the beautiful acoustic arrangement makes “Tequila” easily one of the year’s finest and most memorable singles. Grace Potter’s sweet harmony adds a delicious icing to the cake.- Ben Foster

#3
Hell on Heels
Pistol Annies

Individual Rankings: #2 – Leeann; #2 – Tara;  #4 – Jonathan; #8 – Kevin; #11 – Dan; #13 – Ben

For those of us who think that Miranda Lambert is one of the bright spots in an otherwise bleak mainstream country landscape these days, could there have been much more exciting news than that she would be hooking up with Ashley Monroe, somebody that we at Country Universe have previously lamented going under the radar, to form a trio with songwriter Angaleena Presley? Happily, the prospect of such an exciting trio did not disappoint, as the Pistol Annies turned out to be the most refreshing act of the year with any chance of mainstream success.

Their debut single, “Hell on Heels,” signaled that the group were a force to be reckoned with, both in attitude and artistry. From the beginning swampy guitar riffs, it’s obvious that the characters in this song are going to live up to the fiery title. Furthermore, the Annies turn in a performance that is so eerily calm that it effectively creates the intended aggression of the story. As a result, “Hell on Heels” is one of the most unique and refreshing singles to get anywhere near a radio playlist in 2011. – Leeann Ward

#2
Cost of Livin’
Ronnie Dunn

Individual Rankings: #1 – Dan; #3 – Ben; #6 – Tara; #7 – Kevin; #7 – Jonathan; #9 – Sam; #12 – Leeann

The toll of a corrupt, abusive economy, encapsulated in one man’s fractured personal account. If that sounds a bit like an “I am the 99%” speech, it’s a testament to how well “Cost of Livin'” – begun in 2008, long before mass havoc finally led to mass protest – found the pulse of present-day America. The brilliant choice to frame the song as a job interview allows it to explore both why Dunn’s character deserves the work he and his family needs, and why he likely won’t get it.

In short, the most frighteningly real song of 2011. – Dan Milliken

#1
Mean
Taylor Swift

Individual Rankings: #1 – Kevin; #1 – Ben; #3 – Tara; #4 – Dan; #8 – Sam; #10 – Leeann; #17 – Jonathan

You know what I love about Taylor Swift? She has a real knack for tapping into emotions and experiences that are personal to her, but conveying them in such a way that any listener can see it as his or her own story set to music. The deeper and more personal she gets, the more we feel it as listeners.

Some might write off “Mean” as a cheap comeback to the oft-heard criticism that “Taylor Swift can’t sing,” but to do so is to miss the full scope of feelings that the song addresses. It speaks to anyone who’s been insulted or disrespected by those who cross the line between constructive criticism and plain cruelty, doing so with some of Swift’s most raw and honest lyrics to date.

It all makes for a most delicious slice of musical catharsis. In addition to being one of the flat-out best lyrics Swift has written, the song features a Shania Twain-esque singalong melody, not to mention one of the coolest and countriest productions of any mainstream release this year. In multiple aspects, “Mean” is clearly the work of an artist who was willing to step outside the box, making it a standout achievement for Swift, and a definite standout moment on radio playlists.

I can see a few jaws dropping at this somewhat divisive selection, but we make no apologies for it. A case could be made for a number of other worthy songs taking this top spot, but for me there’s just no getting round the fact that “Mean” is the one 2011 single release that I will be replaying the most in years to come. Thus, it’s a great pleasure to name “Mean” our top single of 2011. – Ben Foster

Previous: Top 40 Singles of 2011, Part Three: #20-#11

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Top Twenty Albums of 2011, Part Two: #10-#1

Our annual list concludes with a look at our ten favorite albums of 2011.

Check out Part One to see #11-#20, and look for our countdown of the year’s best singles tomorrow.

Top Twenty Albums of 2011, Part One: #10-#1

#10
Lady & Gentlemen
LeAnn Rimes

On the surface, Lady & Gentleman is a concept album, flying in the face of a genre whose gender bias sometimes feels like the elephant in the room. But as with the best concept albums, it’s not the concept that carries it. With her most thoughtful, vocally mature performances to date, Rimes herself is the heartbeat of the set, deftly navigating the songs with a blend of reverence and fearlessness.

And she has plenty of room to shine: rather than trying to rebirth a collection of classics, Rimes and her team tastefully reinvigorate the songs with production risks (“Swingin’”), lyrical twists (“Good Hearted Women”) and the occasional overhaul (“When I Call Your Name”). The result is an album that stands neither as a tribute nor as a statement, but as a unique body of work that earns its merits all on its own. – Tara Seetharam

Individual Rankings: Tara – #2; Ben – #8; Leeann – #9; Kevin – #10

Recommended Tracks: “Blue,” “Wasted Days and Wasted Nights,” “He Stopped Loving Her Today”

#9
KMAG YOYO
Hayes Carll

Texas has a long track record of producing talented, innovative songwriters, and The Woodlands native Carll is one of the best of his generation. With an eye for detail and a wry sense of humor, Carll proves to be a sympathetic narrator as he bemoans his fate in dealing with politics, the economy and relationships. And just when you think he’s pure smartass, he breaks out his sincerity with a song like “Grateful for Christmas.” – Sam Gazdziak

Individual Rankings: Sam – #1; Dan – #2

Recommended Tracks: “Stomp and Holler”, “Another Like You”, “Bottle in My Hand”

#8
American Folk Songbook
Suzy Bogguss

Over the last two decades, Suzy Bogguss has ably covered a lot of musical ground, including classic country, western swing, pop country, adult contemporary and jazz. With the unplugged American Folk Songbook, she is able to add folk to the list. This expansive 17-track set of traditional folk songs is the most stunning of her genre specific projects.

Without a misstep on the album, it finds Bogguss firmly in her element as both an effortless singer and adept song interpreter. What’s more, Suzy’s crystal clear voice blends perfectly with her own crisp, engaging productions. – Leeann Ward

Individual Rankings: #1 – Leeann; #1 – Ben

Recommended Tracks: “Shenandoah”, “Johnny Has Gone for a Soldier”, “Swing Low Sweet Chariot”

#7
Lorraine
Lori McKenna

A somber coffeehouse album, which admittedly makes for a bit of a plodding listen-through. Hang around, though; McKenna is chronicling the experience of the working-class family woman with the kind of depth and character we usually associate with people named Dolly and Merle. And like those forebears, she transcends her persona by finding the universal in it: “My life is pieces of paper that I’ll get back to later,” the key line of “The Most,” could be the lament of anyone trying to manage in the real world. – Dan Milliken

Individual Rankings: #1 – Kevin; #1 – Dan; #7 – Ben

Recommended Tracks: “The Luxury of Knowing”, “The Most”, “Still Down Here”

#6
Barton Hollow
The Civil Wars

It’s almost scary how this duo just seems to get everything right. The level of emotional connectivity in their performances, not to mention their ethereal harmonies and stellar songwriting, is absolutely spellbinding. Just listen to the way they can repeat the refrain “I don’t love you, but I always will” in “Poison & Wine” such that each repetition successively rises in passion and urgency.

While they will most likely never be mainstream country stars, one would certainly hope that the excellent Barton Hollow is not the last we will hear from The Civil Wars. – Ben Foster

Individual Rankings:#4 – Kevin; #4 – Ben; #7 – Tara; #8 – Leeann; #8 – Dan

Recommended Tracks: “Poison & Wine,” “Barton Hollow,” “Forget Me Not”

#5
Here For a Good Time
George Strait

The best artistic choice that George Strait has ever made is taking more time between albums.  Here For a Good Time is yet another high point in his ongoing 21st century renaissance. He’s tackling, even sometimes co-writing, compelling material that reflects the wisdom and life experience of the most distinguished voice that remains on country radio. – Kevin John Coyne

Individual Rankings: #2 – Kevin; #5 – Leeann; #5 – Tara; #9 – Jonathan; #10 – Sam

Recommended Tracks: “Drinkin’ Man”, “House Across the Bay”, “I’ll Always Remember You”

#4
Four the Record
Miranda Lambert

If Revolution was Lambert’s commercial crowning moment, Four the Record is her earned hissy fit – a foot stomp and a “my turn, folks.” That’s not to say her previous albums weren’t authentic; it’s just that Four the Record seems to be the most transparent reflection of Lambert the artist to date, flaws and all.

And that’s why it soars. Wonderfully weird, the collection of songs is best described as a tapestry of personalities, punctuated by some of the oddest –but coolest– production choices of the year. Where the album lacks in depth of songwriting, it makes up for in fiercely committed, layered performances.

She sneers old school style in “Fastest Girl In Town,” brilliantly spits in her mother’s face in “Mama’s Broken Heart” and eccentrically celebrates diversity in “All Kinds of Kinds.” But the album’s shining moments come in the form of palpable vulnerability: the trio of “Dear Diamond,” “Look at Miss Ohio,” and “Oklahoma Sky” is nakedly honest – the highest country music compliment. – Tara Seetharam

Individual Rankings: #1 – Tara; #3 – Leeann; #4 – Sam

Recommended Tracks: “All Kinds of Kinds,” “Mama’s Broken Heart,” “Dear Diamond”

#3
Guitar Slinger
Vince Gill

At age 54, Vince Gill’s voice shows absolutely no signs of deterioration. Moreover, his artistry continues to be as strong as it has ever been even after almost three-and-a-half decades in the business. Following his critically acclaimed and ambitious project, These Days, a box set of all original songs, Guitar Slinger somehow manages to stand up to Gill’s self-imposed high benchmark of excellence.

In fact, in a way, while this album is fresh, the sound of Guitar Slinger could also be a continuation of These Days, since many of its songs follow the genre variances of its predecessor, including rockers, easy listening and traditional country songs. As evidenced by this album, Gill is still at the top of his game both in musical talent and ability to capture a range of emotions with diverse themes and expert storytelling. – Leeann Ward

Individual Rankings: #4 – Leeann; #6 – Kevin; #6 – Tara; #6- Jonathan; #9 – Dan; #9 – Ben

Recommended Tracks: “The Lucky Diamond Hotel”, “Who Wouldn’t Fall in Love with You”, “Buttermilk John”

#2
The Dreaming Fields
Matraca Berg

Matraca Berg has given us a good portion of country music’s most memorable compositions of the past twenty years, and her first new album since 1997 shows a pen still full of tricks. With a tight set of tracks that includes her own versions of songs recorded by Trisha Yearwood (“The Dreaming Fields”) and Kenny Chesney (“You and Tequila”), Berg displays the same subtle cleverness, instantly relatable emotional conflicts, and insightful perspective that have long been the hallmarks of her work.

She tenderly addresses such themes as spousal abuse (“If I Had Wings”) and the death of a loved one (“Racing the Angels”), but arguably the finest moment comes with the title track’s wistful meditation on the loss of a family farm that has remained for generations. Matraca Berg is nothing short of a musical treasure, and The Dreaming Fields reaffirms her status as the most talented singer-songwriter of her generation. – Ben Foster

Individual Rankings: #3 – Kevin; #3 – Dan; #3 – Ben; #7 – Jonathan; #8 – Tara

Recommended Tracks: “If I Had Wings,” “Racing the Angels,” “The Dreaming Fields,” “Oh, Cumberland”

#1
Hell on Heels
Pistol Annies

For all of the lip-service that contemporary country acts give to the idea that country music tells real stories about real people, precious little country music in 2011 seemed to be about anything at all. Whether jockeying for some kind of authenticity cred that their music just didn’t support or rattling off list after pointless list of rural signifiers without an actual narrative or a greater point to make, many of the biggest country stars of the past year seemed completely divorced from the experiences of the real world around them.

Enter Pistol Annies– ostensibly a one-off side project for Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe, and Angaleena Presley– and their debut album, Hell on Heels. Not only is it the finest and most detailed chronicle of the current recession, the album stands as a much-needed reminder of both the depth of insight that country music offers in its best moments and the expertly-crafted escapism country music provides when things get a little too real.

Sure, there’s an element of playing dress-up to what the Pistol Annies are doing, but that fits perfectly with the album’s focus on finding ways to escape from day-to-day drudgery. Songs like “Bad Example” and the tongue-in-cheek, gold-digging title track make it clear that Lambert, Monroe, and Presley are in full control of their charades: The way Presley drawls, “Whistle it, ‘Randy,” at the bridge of “Lemon Drop” should erase any doubt that they’re in on the joke. That sense of fun is reflected in the album’s light-handed production and in the Annies’ winning performances.

That said, a devastating gut-check of a line like, “I’ve been thinking about all these pills I’m taking/I wash ‘em down with an ice cold beer/And the love I ain’t been making,” from “Housewife’s Prayer,” doesn’t happen by accident. What elevates Hell on Heels into an album of real depth is that the Annies realize that escapism only has value when you know exactly what it is you’re trying to escape from.

The color of the bride’s dress in a shotgun wedding, the thrift-store curtains hanging in a house that the landlord owns, the dings and dents in the side of a trailer: Pistol Annies get all of these details right, and they employ them with both a swagger they can actually back up and a sense of purpose that speaks to something greater than simply proving their country bona fides. – Jonathan Keefe

Individual Rankings:#2 – Jonathan; #3 – Tara; #6 – Ben; #7 – Kevin; #7 – Leeann; #7 – Dan; #9 – Sam

Recommended Tracks: “Lemon Drop,” “Beige,” “Housewife’s Prayer,” “Takin’ Pills”

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100 Greatest Men: #81. Eagles

100 Greatest Men: The Complete List

You can count their country hits on one hand, and still have fingers to spare.  But the Eagles did more to shape the sound of country music than any rock band before or since.

It was another country rocker, the legendary Linda Ronstadt, that nudged the band into existence.  Looking for musicians to back her on record and on stage, the founding members – Glenn Frey, Don Henley, Bernie Leadon, and Randy Meisner – performed on her 1971 eponymous album.   With her encouragement, they decided to form a band of their own.

From the time they released their debut album in 1972 until they ended their initial run with 1979’s The Long Run, the Eagles produced rock music that was heavily laced with country instrumentation.   The sound was most prevalent in their earlier work, and while they’d only score one top ten hit at country radio, “Lyin’ Eyes”, they still managed to score a Vocal Group nomination at the CMA Awards.

The country connection to their work was forgotten until the nineties, when a tribute album called Common Thread brought together the nineties country superstars who were most influenced by the band’s work.   Anyone who wondered why so many middle-aged rock fans suddenly embraced country music in the early nineties can have their questions answered by that tribute album.  Alan Jackson, Clint Black, Trisha Yearwood, Travis Tritt, and Vince Gill covered Eagles classics faithfully, and the end result was a collection of performances that reflected just how similar their own work was to that of the Eagles.

The tribute album won the CMA for Album of the Year, and its commercial success inspired the Eagles to reunite for their Hell Freezes Over tour and subsequent album.   When they decided to make their first studio album in almost three decades, they targeted the country market directly. Long Road Out of Eden topped the country albums chart and produced a Grammy-winning country hit with “How Long.”   When they hit the road to support the album, they did so with the Dixie Chicks and Keith Urban.

Essential Singles:

  • Take it Easy, 1972
  • Lyin’ Eyes, 1975
  • Take it to the Limit, 1975
  • Hotel California, 1976
  • Heartache Tonight, 1979

Essential Albums:

  • Desperado, 1973
  • One Of These Nights, 1975
  • Hotel California, 1976
  • The Long Run, 1979
  • Long Road Out of Eden, 2007

Next: #80. The Everly Brothers

Previous: #82. Fiddlin’ John Carson

100 Greatest Men: The Complete List

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