There might be a song that technically describes me better than this one, but this is the song that perfectly describes how I feel each morning before I start my day. I don’t know why, but I relate to it on a guttural level.
Her heart has grown cold, her love stored away. But she hungers to feel that love again, and wanders the world in search of things to rekindle it, even as she knows that some types of peace can only come from within. Now she’s anticipating another season of dragging herself through the doldrums, her feelings ever unsettled; but she still holds onto some kind of faith, some hope for tomorrow. All she wants is a good reboot, another chance to set her course a little righter. “Just get me through December,” she pleads, “so I can start again.”
As most of you know by now, I connect with music via melody and vocal performance more so than via lyric. Though I’ve yet to identify with the story of this song, the first time I heard it, I remember thinking it immediately felt like “home” – like I had found an extension of myself in the song. it just…fits me.
It’s hard to believe that there once was a time that country artists put out two full-length albums a year. If they were part of a regular superstar duet team, like Conway Twitty & Loretta Lynn or Porter Wagoner & Dolly Parton, a fan might hear as many as four new studio albums from their favorite artist.
By the time that I got into country music – twenty years ago, natch – things had slowed down a bit. Artists usually released a new album every 12-18 months. Sometimes they’d push it to two years, but not often.
Those were the days. Waits between album releases have gotten crazy lately. I’m all for taking the time to get it right, but once we push past the half-decade mark, things have gone too far. Sure, we’re given side projects to carry us over, but there’s no substitute for a full-length studio album of all-new material.
Here are five artists who I’d really love to see make a long-awaited return with a new album in 2011, along with a brief rundown of the side projects that they’ve been busy with while we’ve waited for that new album:
Last Studio Album: Up! (2002)
Side Projects: Greatest Hits (2005), featuring four new tracks; contributions to a Dolly Parton tribute album, a live Willie Nelson album, an Anne Murray duet album, and the Desperate Housewives soundtrack.
It’s been over eight years since Twain released that 19-track opus. It was cool that she released the album in three different mixes, essentially giving us 57 new mp3s for the iPods we didn’t even have yet. Of all the superstar acts, she’s the one who has been away the longest.
Last Studio Album: What the World Needs (2003)
Side Projects: Live album, Christmas album, covers album, Cracker Barrel album…
In a sense, she’s never really gone away. But despite being a fixture in the media and releasing so many other-type albums, we haven’t gotten a real studio set from Wynonna in over seven years. Given that the last one was among the finest in her career, it’s a shame she has yet to craft another mainstream country album.
Last Studio Album: Blame the Vain (2005)
Side Projects: A Buck Owens tribute album in 2007, Dwight Sings Buck.
The most distressing absence on the list, mostly because he’s been so prolific in the past. Movie appearances are keeping him busy. Here’s hoping that when he does return, we get more than ten songs.
Last Studio Album: Taking the Long Way (2006)
Side Projects: “The Neighbor”, from the Shut Up & Sing documentary; contributions to a Tony Bennett duet project; Emily and Martie’s Court Yard Hounds set; Natalie’s duet with Neil Diamond.
It’s hard to follow up an album that wins a bunch of Grammys, but it’s not like they haven’t done so before. If they’re insisting on writing all of the next album, it could be gestating for a very long time. Can’t we get a Patty Griffin or Darrell Scott covers album to hold us over?
Last Studio Album: These Days (2006)
Side Projects: A mother lode of duet and harmony appearances on other artist’s albums (Reba McEntire, Charlie Daniels, Amy Grant, Clay Aiken…)
Gill’s last album was a four discs worth of new material, so it’s understandable that it would take a couple of years for him to craft a new one. But we’re going on five now. Since Gill was able to create those four discs a mere three years after his previous studio set (2003’s Next Big Thing), we should be due for a new album soon.
Sara Evans was one of the most successful female artists from the earlier part of the last decade, which was not a particularly good era for women as a whole. Her ease with both pop-flavored and purely traditional country allowed her to adapt to quickly changing trends in the genre.
This makes her catalog a fascinating one to sample. In compiling this Starter Kit, it would be easy to just list the hits. But I’ve left off some of her more overexposed tracks in favor of some gems that either didn’t quite dominate the charts or weren’t sent to radio at all. I think her crossover numbers haven’t aged that well, anyway.
Be sure to let me know what I missed in the comment threads!
“Shame About That” from the 1997 album Three Chords and the Truth
The title track got all of the love, and the most airplay of the three low-charting singles from Evans’ debut album. But I think that this is the coolest little record, with Evans sounding like the female heir to Buck Owens as she can’t even feign sympathy for the ex who is now regretting his departure.
“No Place That Far” from the 1998 album No Place That Far
Vince Gill provided the harmony vocal on this soaring ballad of devotion. After a slow and steady ascension, it became the first of four number one singles for Evans, powering her sophomore set to gold status. The record still holds up today, perhaps because it was one of the last great nineties records that allowed a new artist to break through on the back of a solid song.
“I Thought I’d See Your Face Again” from the 1998 album No Place That Far
One of those wonderful could’ve been hits, had the label only released it as a single. This is one of the finest moments in Evans’ early years. It’s a multi-layered exploration of the finality of goodbyes. She’s fully aware that ending the relationship meant that the quiet nights together were gone, but she can’t get her head around the fact that she may never even see him again for the rest of her life.
“I Keep Looking” from the 2000 album Born To Fly
Evans reached her sales peak with her third album, powered to double platinum status by both the hit title track and her cover of the pop song “I Could Not Ask For More.” But the finest single from that set was “I Keep Looking,” which is a smart and funny take on what it’s like to always want what you don’t have. “Just as soon as I get what I want, I get unsatisfied. Good is good but could be better…”
“Backseat of a Greyhound Bus” from the 2003 album Restless
In the grand tradition of Dolly Parton classics like “Down From Dover” and “Just Because I’m a Woman”, Evans finds the heroine inside a woman who has been shunned by her community. The setup makes you believe for a minute that this unwed soon-t0-be mother is going to fall in love with a man on this bus ride, but it’s a thing of beauty when she falls in love with her newly born daughter instead.
“Perfect” from the 2003 album Restless
Perfection is an impossible standard, of course. But here is a wonderful love song that embraces the imperfections as being what actually does make their loving marriage perfect. Plenty of great details here, my personal favorite being how in every wedding picture, her daddy looks annoyed.
“Suds in the Bucket” from the 2003 album Restless
When Evans first debuted, she was celebrated by critics for resurrecting a traditional country sound that recalled pre-Nashville Sound country music. She didn’t break through commercially until she left that style behind, but in one of those moments of pure serendipity, she revisited that style as a goofy end to her very pop-flavored fourth album. The label sent it to radio, and it became her signature hit, not to mention her third #1 single.
“Rockin’ Horse” from the 2003 album Restless
If I was going to make a list of the best country songs of the 21st century, this one would be in the upper echelon. Simply put, I think it’s brilliant. Perennial optimist that I am, I’m always looking for the opportunities created by the challenges that confront me. I’ve never heard a better metaphor for this point of view than the one Evans constructs here.
The framework she uses is that a tree struck by lightning when she was a child almost hit her house, terrifying her at the time. Her father took the fallen tree and used it to build her a rocking horse, which she deems “something magic out of something frightening.” This becomes a symbol for her approach to life: “When it’s pouring down on me, in my mind I see the rocking horse inside the tree.”
“‘A Real Fine Place to Start” from the 2005 album Real Fine Place
You really can’t go wrong by covering Radney Foster. His original version was great, but a soaring vocal by Evans lifted an already great song into the stratosphere.
Her fourth and final #1 hit, it helped her win the ACM Award for Female Vocalist, a perhaps overdue acknowledgment made possible by the very short window between Gretchen Wilson’s breakthrough and Carrie Underwood’s.
“Cheatin'” from the 2005 album Real Fine Place
Reba McEntire was the most dominant female in country music for a longer time period than any woman since Kitty Wells, so it always amazes me just how little her influence can be heard in the music of the women who came after her.
“Cheatin'” is a glorious exception, as Evans twists and turns and trills her voice as if she’s the second coming of late eighties McEntire. Granted, Reba never showed anywhere near this much backbone when her man was running around, but it’s great to hear someone singing the way she used to back in her heyday.
“Coalmine” from the 2005 album Real Fine Place
A coal mining disaster limited this song from reaching its full potential, as it was horribly tacky to have playing on the radio in the wake of so many miners having died. But it’s still a great little number.
Sure, it’s a blatant attempt to capture the “Suds in a Bucket” lightning twice, but I wouldn’t mind Evans revisiting that sound on every album she releases for the rest of her career.
“Low” from the 2008 soundtrack album Billy – The Early Years
It’s been five years since Evans released a studio album, perhaps because the songs that she’s attempted to launch a new set with have underwhelmed both critics and country radio. But she has released a real gem during the same period, which is her uplifting contribution to the soundtrack for Billy Graham biopic.
“Low” asserts that her faith will always give her the strength to rise above those who would keep her down. In an era when most songs of faith are little more than Hallmark cards with a sprinkling of spirituality along the edges, “Low” actually engages the gospel and applies it to everyday life.
I think Tim McGraw is one of country music’s strongest singers. He doesn’t have the range or depth of a Vince Gill or a Toby Keith, but he can do what a great singer is supposed to do: deliver a song with sincerity and believability. That may seem like a low bar to clear, but it never ceases to amaze me how many country artists trip over it these days.
McGraw has a stellar track record in this area, but you’d never know it listening to “Felt Good On My Lips.” In fact, it seems that the record itself has so little confidence in McGraw’s ability to deliver a song that it puts every modern recording barrier it can think of between his vocal and the listener.
I don’t have the technical studio recording vocabulary to accurately describe what’s being done to his voice here, so I’ll just say it sounds like he’s singing into a transistor radio that’s miles away from where the musicians are playing. His voice is so processed that it’s hard to tell it’s even Tim McGraw until he lets loose a bit in the chorus.
Is the song any good? I can’t really tell. I’ve never developed the ability to appreciate a song for its own sake. The singer has to deliver the goods for me to enjoy it. The production sank this record before the song had any chance to win me over. The whole thing has the vibe of a long lost demo being spruced up for a posthumous cash-in.
September has a lot of album releases that I’m really enjoying or looking forward to. In fact, it’s the most lucrative month for music for my taste in quite some time.
Last Tuesday (September 7), Rounder Records released The SteelDrivers’ second album, Reckless (which is pretty spectacular, by the way) and this week, they will be releasing Robert Plant’s follow up to his 2007 collaborative album with Alison Krauss, also on Rounder. From the streaming preview that can be heard on NPR’s website until release day, the album is a wonderfully rootsy project helmed by Plant and Buddy Miller and includes guitar work from Darrell Scott. October will also finally see the release of Joe Diffie’s bluegrass album on the label.
When one learns that an album will be released through Rounder Records (which has recently been sold to Concord Music Group), it’s pretty much automatically expected that the project will be quality. Whether it’s The SteelDrivers, Robert Plant, Joe Diffie, John Mellancamp, Alison Krauss or Willie Nelson, it’s reasonable to assume certain aspects of a Rounder release, including that the album may even stray from a typical artist release to be more rootsy in approach, as is the case with the recent Willie Nelson and John Mellancamp albums, along with the upcoming Diffie project. More often than not, I can count on Rounder Records to please my musical sensibilities, even with unexpected artists, since I never expected that Robert Plant would be recording some of my favorite roots music.
As much as I love and count on Rounder Records to produce great music, my absolute favorite record company is Sugar Hill Records (owned by Vanguard Records). Incidentally, Joey+Rory will be releasing their anticipated second album through Sugar Hill on Tuesday (September 14). Additionally, Marty Stuart’s recent release, the excellent Ghost Train, was released through them as well. Other artist who have been associated with Sugar Hill include, but are not limited to: Nickel Creek, Ricky Skaggs, Guy Clark, Dolly Parton, Darrell Scott, Kasey Chambers and Shane Nicholson, The Duhks, Sarah Jarosz, and the list goes on. As with Rounder Records, many artists seem to release albums with Sugar Hill as a deviation from the music for which they are most popularly associated, as is the case with Dolly Parton, Ricky Skaggs, and even Rodney Crowell, who released his venerable The Houston Kid on the label.
Right now, it seems that my favorite record labels aren’t in the business of releasing music that we hear on mainstream country radio, though Joey+Rory are attempting to crack through. While I don’t have the inside knowledge to say that it doesn’t exist, we don’t hear about the red tape and politics that is ever present with major companies like, lets say, the infamous Curb Records, which has produced some rather publicly disgruntled artists, most notably Tim McGraw and the two Living Hank Williamses.
But when I was a kid, MCA Records was the label that seemed like the powerhouse record company for country music to me. Some of my favorite artists were on that label, including Trisha Yearwood, George Strait, Reba McEntire and, of course, Vince Gill. I admired the country roster of Arista as well, which included Alan Jackson, Diamond Rio, Radney Foster, and Blackhawk.
Along with reminding you about some good releases that have recently been released and will soon be available, this is the very long and self-indulgent way of getting to the question of:
What is the record label that you most admire and can count on to release your favorite music?
It’s pretty rare that the CMA nominations garner much attention outside of the country music press, but the always excellent Whitney Pastorek at Entertainment Weekly has a lengthy article trying to rationalize the exclusion of Carrie Underwood and Taylor Swift from the Entertainer category.
It’s amazing that in a year where a record was set for the most nominations by a female artist, there can still be a valid accusation of gender bias among the nominations. Women have been poorly represented in the Entertainer category for pretty much the entire history of the CMA Awards. Even when you include duos or groups with female members, there have never been more than two out of five nominees that are women.
Never. Think about that for a minute. If this category’s nominees are to be considered reliable, the CMA is essentially saying that there has never been a time in the past 44 years that more than two of the genre’s top five acts have been female, and in the past decade, there’s never been more than one.
Why is this coming to a head this year, when it’s been a problem all along? Because there is no rational argument that exists, in this era of decreased record sales and economic downturn, for the exclusion of Carrie Underwood and Taylor Swift from this category. Ironically, the inclusion of another female artist – Miranda Lambert – makes the oversight even more obvious. By any historical standard for this category, Lambert would be jockeying for fourth or fifth place, at best.
With all due respect to Brad Paisley and Keith Urban, their success this year would not get them into this category if they were women. Yet two women who have far exceeded them this year by every measurable standard, two women who are more immediately recognizable and widely beloved than Paisley and Urban have ever been, are left off of the list.
There’s a bias here, and it’s hurting the credibility of the CMA. How is it possible that acts long past their prime, like Brooks & Dunn or Vince Gill, were still getting Entertainer nominations regularly, yet superstars like Shania Twain, Faith Hill and Taylor Swift only made the cut once? Has there truly been no woman besides Reba McEntire in the last 25 years who has been one of the five top entertainers more than once?
Even if you strain your reason to justify Swift’s exclusion because she was a little less visible during the last three months of the eligibility period, the Underwood snub is the most blatantly unfair this category has seen since the days of Shania Twain, who somehow only earned one nomination while she was absolutely destroying the competition at an international level that has never been matched.
Perhaps the voting methodology of the CMA awards, which allows voters to pick up to five nominees in each category, has exacerbated the “token female” dilemma. I don’t know, and I really don’t care. Because in an era where even the ACM Awards are showing better taste than the CMA’s, the flagship organization of country music needs to address its female trouble while it still has a single shred of credibility left.
And so we come to the end. The top of our list includes a wide range of artists singing a wide range of country music styles. Thematically, these entries are diverse, but what they all have in common is what has always made for great country music. They are all perfectly-written songs delivered with sincerity by the artists who brought them to life.
400 Greatest Singles of the Nineties: #25-#1
Smoke Rings in the Dark Gary Allan
1999 | Peak: #12
Being deeply enamored of someone can make it easy – even appealing – to forfeit your own well-being. This single’s sunny tone reflects the persistent affection running through its protagonist, but its story demonstrates the heartbreak to which such unmeasured selflessness leads. – DM Continue reading →
This Keith Whitley classic was recorded as part of a tribute album to the late country star. It became a hit all over again, perhaps because Krauss performed it in a near-whisper. The quiet arrangement matches the sentiment beautifully. – Kevin Coyne
Lawrence dishes on his ex’s cheating ways to her new potential lover. How did she get that way? He reveals that he’s the one who taught her everything she knows from the cheater’s playbook. Moreover, he seems regretful of her corruption. – Leeann Ward
Cowboy Take Me Away Dixie Chicks
1999 | Peak: #1
In a modern world where life can so easily feel cold and mechanical, love remains earthy and exciting and mysterious. It’s a window into a different world, one where we’re not defined by the predictables of our routine – the same stresses, the same cars and buildings – but by our core nature as people, our place in the greater fabric of Earth and, perhaps, heaven. On the surface, “Cowboy Take Me Away” sounds like just a sugar-sweet love song – I’ve even heard it called “pre-feminist” – but there’s something else going on here: a plea for life to have meaning again. – Dan Milliken Continue reading →
If turnover has been slow in the Entertainer category, it’s been nothing less than glacial in the Male Vocalist race. Over the past ten years, only eleven men have received nominations. Four of those eleven – Dierks Bentley, Vince Gill, Darius Rucker, and Josh Turner – have been nominated only once.
Now, Toby Keith and Tim McGraw were regularly invited to the party in the first half of the last decade, with four and three nominations, respectively. But the race has essentially been dominated by the same five men: Kenny Chesney, Alan Jackson, Brad Paisley, George Strait, and Keith Urban, who combine for forty nominations in just one decade.
The recent history has been pretty boring. After two consecutive wins by Alan Jackson, we’ve had three consecutive wins each by Keith Urban and reigning champ Brad Paisley.
Will there be a new winner this year, or even a new nominee? Should there be?
Let’s take a look at last year’s race:
Darius Rucker was the new face to enter the race last year. No brand new nominee has been nominated again in this category since Keith Urban earned his first nomination in 2004. He’s been in the race ever since. I’d say Rucker’s close to a lock, along with Paisley. But just like in the Entertainer race, a case could be made for a decent shake-up, especially some of this category’s veteran acts have dipped at radio and retail.
Here’s who I would nominate this year. Share your picks in the comments:
Anybody else notice that this guy’s outselling the rest of the male solo artists? All the while, he’s been completely ignored at the country awards shows for his last two projects. He’s not overdue just yet, but he’s due.
He went out of his comfort zone to release a bluegrass-flavored album that was pretty darn good.
He just missed my list for preferred Entertainer nominees, but he’s at the head of the pack in this category. With his domination at radio, not to mention a stronger studio album than his previous two, I wouldn’t be shocked for him to become the third artist in history to win four of these.
His hit-making has certainly been kicked up a notch as of late. He may be destined to toil just under the radar of this category like Trace Adkins and Gary Allan before him, but it would be nice to see him get a nod.
A decent comeback at radio and retail, coupled with him being a great singer who’s been overlooked, makes me hope he finishes out this category.
I left off previous nominees Keith Urban, George Strait, and Darius Rucker because they haven’t put out new albums during the eligibility period, so it seems like a good time to let some new folks get a chance. I left off Kenny Chesney because he’s been doing nothing but stopgap releases for the past year, none of which sold to his normal standards. I left off Tim McGraw, even though he’s made some music I really like lately, because he hasn’t been doing as well as usual at radio and retail.
Many a star was launched in the nineties, a few of them right out of the gate. This section includes the debut singles from Toby Keith, Jo Dee Messina, LeAnn Rimes, and Doug Stone, along with Grammy-winning hits by Alison Krauss and Dwight Yoakam.
400 Greatest Singles of the Nineties: #100-#76
The Battle Hymn of Love Kathy Mattea & Tim O’Brien
1990 | Peak: #9
Sure, the novelty of thirteen year-old Rimes’ prodigious Patsy imitation helped things along. But that unshakable yodeled hook would have made “Blue” a classic in any era of country music. – Dan Milliken Continue reading →