Tag Archives: Willie Nelson

100 Greatest Men: #71. Johnny Paycheck

100 Greatest Men: The Complete List

For casual fans of country music, Johnny Paycheck was a one-hit wonder who spent a good chunk of his life in jail.  For those who know better, he was the greatest of the Outlaw singers and the definitive honky-tonk voice of his time.

Born Donald Lytle in Ohio, he performed from age nine, and after a stint in the Navy, he pursued music full-time.  He quickly became known as a songwriter of high caliber and an in-demand tenor singer.   He toured with Ray Price and Willie Nelson, and was a major influence on George Jones as he was developing his signature style.

After scoring a minor hit under the name Danny Young, he adopted the stage name Johnny Paycheck.   Recording for Little Darlin’ in the late sixties, he made a series of crucial, hardcore country albums that stood in sharp contrast to the slicker Nashville sound recordings of the day.  While this wasn’t his most commercially successful work, the Little Darlin’ sessions are arguably the most significant traditional country recordings of the sixties, and laid the groundwork for the Outlaw movement that would follow the next decade.

Switching over to Epic, Paycheck found success at both radio and retail throughout the seventies.  While not a chart-topper, he regularly sent records to the top forty.  In the latter half of the decade, he broke through in a huge way, thanks to his signature song and only #1 hit: “Take This Job and Shove it.”   It became a working man’s anthem, and much like Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.”, its anthemic chorus led people to miss the actual content of the verses, as Paycheck never actually says the title to his boss.  It’s the inner rage of a man trapped at a job he’d like to quit.

Paycheck recorded a few more great albums and a handful of hit singles until 1985, when he was convicted of shooting and killing a man in a bar.  The subsequent appeals process distracted from his music, and he ended up serving a 22-month jail term.  He was later pardoned by the governor of Ohio.

Though he performed throughout the nineties, chronic illness limited his appearances by the turn of the century.  Paycheck died in 2003, and his friend and colleague George Jones absorbed the costs of his funeral and burial.

Essential Singles:

  • Motel Time Again, 1966
  • She’s All I Got, 1971
  • Someone to Give My Love To, 1972
  • Slide Off Your Satin Sheets, 1977
  • Take This Job and Shove It, 1977
  • Friend, Lover, Wife, 1978

Essential Albums:

  • The Lovin’ Machine, 1966
  • She’s All I Got, 1971
  • 11 Months and 29 Days, 1976
  • Slide Off Your Satin Sheets, 1977
  • Mr. Hag Told My Story, 1981
  • Modern Times, 1987

Next: #70. Ferlin Husky

Previous: #72. Vern Gosdin

100 Greatest Men: The Complete List

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Album Review: The Little Willies, For the Good Times

The Little Willies
For the Good Times

After having first formed in 2003, The Little Willies released their self-titled debut album in 2006, four years after pianist and vocalist Norah Jones had found success with her jazz and pop flavored solo album Come Away With Me. 

Six years later, a second Little Willies album finally comes to light, following in the tradition of the first by featuring covers of country classics.  For the Good Times finds The Little Willies covering classics songs by some of country music’s most revered (and most covered) artists, including nods to Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell, Loretta Lynn, and Dolly Parton, among others.

The heart and soul of the project, however, is The Little Willies themselves.  Much like the band’s previous effort, For the Good Times is unmistakably a group effort.  Norah Jones and Richard Julien share lead vocal duties, while generous instrumental breaks give all five members – rounded out by Jim Campilongo on guitar, Lee Alexander on bass, and Dan Rieser on drums – ample room to shine.

If there is a noteworthy complaint to be leveled against the album, it is that its approach to selecting cover material is mostly by the book, in that it often leans on predictable choices that have been covered endlessly.  In particular, Parton’s “Jolene” is one of the most covered songs by an artist whose catalog is ripe with hidden treasures waiting to be discovered, which is not to say that Jones does not sing it beautifully.  Fortunately, the Willies have a strong knack for re-interpreting cover material in a way that feels respectful and reverent, but not overly so, and not to the point of becoming half-hearted re-creations of the originals.  Thanks to creative, organic arrangements, they repeatedly clear the lofty bar of taking a well-known song, and making it seem new again.

One of the album’s best tracks is the surprisingly good cover of Loretta Lynn’s “Fist City.”  Fact:  Loretta Lynn is a hard one to cover.  Her distinct persona and vocal style are so familiar that many artists have fallen into the trap of misguided mimicry – Just ask Sheryl Crow.  But as it turns out, Jones acquits herself nicely by giving a performance that is true to her own vocal style, but that still conveys the sharp sass that the tell-it-like-it-is lyric calls for – She has never sounded feistier.  Likewise, the band reworks the song into a two-stepping arrangement that serves it well, while still retaining its signature instrumental hook.

Elsewhere, there’s hardly a dull spot to be found on the record.  Jones’ spirited performance of Lefty Frizzell’s “If You’ve Got the Money, I’ve Got the Time” is unshakably joyful, as is Julien’s take on Cash’s “Wide Open Road.”   On a much different note, Jones’ and Julien’s half-singing, half-whispering performance of “Foul Owl On the Prowl” makes for a deliciously haunting mood-breaker.  A slowed-down rendering of Hank Williams’ “Lovesick Blues,” as well as a hushed performance of the Kristofferson-penned Ray Price hit that serves as the title track, demonstrate the band’s wise focus on putting the songs themselves above all else.  No matter which creative direction the band goes in with the songs they cover, their treatments never come across as gaudy or misguided, nor do they place the singer ahead of the song, but they consistently retain the emotional aspects of the originals.

The instrumental “Tommy Rockwood,” written by Campilongo, is a welcome addition, demonstrating that the The Little Willies are just as competent when cutting loose on an original song as when delivering a well-thought-out cover.  Ultimately, it’s the band’s palpable, infectious enthusiasm for these tunes that makes the record tick.  Despite some missed opportunities with regard to song selection, there is still no denying that what’s here is consistently well-executed, such that any lover of traditional country music will find Good Times to be a highly enjoyable listen.

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Retro Single Review: George Strait, “The Cowboy Rides Away”

1985 | Peak: #5

A classic single that embraces the traditional cowboy mythos while simultaneously reinventing it.

The title invokes memories of the cowboy archetype.  A relationship is coming to an end, so the cowboy saddles up and rides out of town, into the sunset.

Big difference here? He’s not leaving by his choice.  It’s the lady who holds the power here, and it’s the cowboy who’s on the receiving end of a broken heart.  This isn’t Waylon and Willie’s cowboy.

Written by Casey Kelly and Sonny Throckmorton

Grade: A

Next: The Fireman

Previous: Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind

 

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100 Greatest Men: #87. Billy Walker

100 Greatest Men: The Complete List

Known affectionately as the Tall Texan, Billy Walker was a B-list hitmaker at radio, but an A-lister on the Grand Ole Opry stage and on syndicated television.

Born in Texas on the eve of the Great Depression in 1929, Walker was a professional musician by his late teens, joining the Dallas-based Big D Jamboree in 1949.   A brief stint at Capitol records wasn’t successful, though he achieved some notoriety performing as “The Traveling Texan, the Masked Singer of Country Songs”, performing with a Lone Ranger-style mask on his face.

But the early fifties put him on the map.  A new recording contract with Columbia Records dovetailed with him joining the Louisiana Hayride, and he had his first major hit in 1954 with “Thank You For Calling.”   His tenure with the label would last until 1965, with his peak success coming in the early sixties.  He joined the Opry in 1960, where  he would remain a member for the rest of his life, and he had his only #1 hit in 1962 with “(I’d Like to Be in) Charlie’s Shoes.”

Future success on record would include a stint on Monument Records in the latter half of the sixties, followed by a run on MGM in the seventies.  Moderate hits were produced on both labels.  But it was on television where he was most successful.  He starred on ABC’s Ozark Jubilee in the fifties, and headlined his own popular syndicated TV show, Billy Walker’s Country Carnival, in the late sixties.  He made frequent guest appearances on a variety of country music shows throughout the seventies, before being a regular on the televised portions of the Grand Ole Opry in the eighties and nineties.

Walker’s media reach helped him sustain a successful international touring career, and his ear for good talent led to him playing instrumental roles in the success of Elvis Presley as a singer and Willie Nelson as a songwriter.   Before his untimely death in 2006, he released his swan song, Thank You, Thank You Very Much, a 2003 collection on his own Tall Texan label that featured a return to the traditional sounds of his seminal work for Columbia.

Essential Singles:

  • Funny How Time Slips Away, 1961
  • (I’d Like to Be in) Charlie’s Shoes, 1962
  • Cross the Brazos at Waco, 1964
  • A Million and One, 1966
  • When a Man Loves a Woman (The Way That I Love You), 1972

Essential Albums:

  • Cross the Brazos at Waco, 1964
  • Thank You For Calling, 1964
  • A Million and One, 1966
  • Portrait of Billy, 1969
  • Thank You, Thank You Very Much, 2003

Next: #86. ?

Previous: #88. The Oak Ridge Boys

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Album Review: Gary Nicholson, Texas Songbook

Gary Nicholson
Texas Songbook


Written by Bob Losche

Texas Songbook is the latest album from country/blues singer/songwriter Gary Nicholson, a recent inductee into the Texas Songwriters Hall of Fame. Nicholson is best known for writing familiar radio hits such as”The Trouble With the Truth” (Patty Loveless), “One More Last Chance” (Vince Gill), “Squeeze Me In” (Garth Brooks/Trisha Yearwood), and “She Couldn’t Change Me” (Montgomery Gentry), among many others.

Although he left Texas for Nashville over 30 years ago, Nicholson remains a Texan at heart, and all 13 songs on Texas Songbook have a Texas connection.

Produced by Gary and recorded in Austin at Asleep at the Wheel’s Bismeaux Records, the album features Texas musicians and co-writers, the latter group including the likes of Lee Roy Parnell, Delbert McClinton, Guy Clark and Allen Shamblin among others. There’s plenty of fiddle and steel guitar as well as effective use of the harmonica and accordion in this collection of swinging and two-stepping, dance hall and honky-tonk style music.

Many country music fans may already be familiar with some of the songs on this album: “Fallin’ & Flyin’ “, written with the late Stephen Bruton and performed by Jeff Bridges, was featured in the movie “Crazy Heart.” The island flavored “Live, Laugh, Love” was written with Allen Shamblin and previously recorded by Clay Walker on his 1999 album of the same title. It’s a “seize the moment” song.

Previously recorded by George Strait, Delbert McClinton and Del McCoury, “Same Kind of Crazy” written with Delbert McClinton, gets things rocking. McClinton plays harmonica with backing vocals by Randy Rogers. The man is smitten because his new girl is the same kind of crazy as he is. The third verse begins, “It’s getting hard to use a ladder ’cause I keep climbing down just to kiss her” and concludes with the best line of the song, “she talks in her sleep but she always gets my name right.”

My favorite track on the album is “Talkin’ Texan”, which was written with Jon Randall Stewart. I especially love the chorus: “there’s nothin’ he ain’t seen or done,/ he’s always got the biggest one/ he ain’t lyin’, he’s just talkin’ Texan”

Another co-write with Jon Randall, along with Guy Clark, is “Some Days You Write the Song”, which was the title song of Clark’s 2009 Grammy nominated record, Some Days the Song Writes You. Musing on the mystery of the song writing process, Nicholson sings, “Somedays you write the song, some days the song writes you.”

The cool sounding “Messin’ with My Woman”, written with John Hadley and Seth Walker, is a swinging tune with attitude. “Don’t be messin’ with my woman, when I’m out on the road, let my song be your warning, you can’t say you ain’t been told.” If the guy does mess with his woman, he’s “gonna take a whole lot of doctors to put you back the way you were”, with background singers Ray Benson and Jason Roberts of Asleep at the Wheel chiming in “they’d never get it right, they’d never get it right”.

The well executed fiddle and steel guitar filled “Texas Weather”, written with Lee Roy Parnell, opens the album by comparing the singer’s relationship with his woman to the volatile weather of his home state. He contrasts “angry voices, bitter cold and tender words that warm the soul”. “We know if we only wait a while we’ll see that rainbow smile”. The theme is a bit predictable. It reminds me of the saying, “If you don’t like the weather in (fill in the blank), wait 5 minutes.”

With a swinging melody that I love, “She Feels Like Texas” was written with Kimmie Rhodes. The girl’s “in a lone star state of mind, everywhere she goes.” Whenever she sees a foreign tourist attraction, she compares it to something from Texas, including calling the Eiffel Tower “the biggest oil rig I believe I’ve ever seen”.

“A Woman in Texas, A Woman in Tennessee” is a solo writing effort by Gary that he calls “a true story I made up”. Both women wondered where he was half the time. The situation gets more complicated as the song progresses: children with both, an accidental meeting of the families and the revelation of another family in Louisiana.

“Listen to Willie” is a tribute to the Redheaded Stranger written with Kevin Welch. Except for the chorus, the lyrics consist essentially of Willie Nelson song titles: “You’ve always been a ‘good hearted woman’, and I’d hate to see your ‘blue eyes cryin’ in the rain’. Other titles cleverly connected to compose the verses include “funny how time slips away”, “you were always on my mind”, “night life”, “on the road again”, “crazy” and about a half dozen others. Add a star if you’re a Willie fan. It is clever but after a few listens, I got tired of it

“Bless ‘em All”, written solely by Gary, bless him, features the gospel singing McCrary Sisters. Bless them too. The song mentions about a dozen religions, bless ‘em all, and concludes that “we got to all come together and find a better way to live”.

“Texas Ruby”, written with Jim Croce’s son AJ, features Marcia Ball on piano and Jim Hoke on saxophone. It tells of a stripper who gets on a street car in New Orleans on a real hot and sticky day and starts doing her thing. It’s a mildly amusing tune that AJ previously recorded in ’06 on his “Early On” cd.

“Lone Star Blues” was written with Delbert McClinton and has been previously covered by Delbert & George Strait. In the first scenario, he signs up for the rodeo. “I drew a bull called original sin, heard he’d killed a couple of men”, … but “he got disqualified when the bull up and died”. The chorus and last two scenarios gave me the blues and should have died too. The chorus speaks of north, south, east and west Texas blues, together the Lone Star Blues.

Although the songs included in “Texas Songbook” do not, for the most part, match some of Gary’s very best songs, the album as a whole is thoroughly enjoyable. The production is light throughout, the music is great and Gary knows how to deliver a song. If you’re into dancing, you’ll double your pleasure with this album.

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Single Review: Brantley Gilbert, “Country Must Be Country Wide”

1. There isn’t a country radio station in any city playing Cash, Hank, Willie, or Waylon in 2011, let alone one in every city nationwide.

2. Country as presented here is a lifestyle, not a revolutionary political movement.  No need for all the drama.

3. This song is about as country as “Wanted Dead or Alive” anyway.

4. Oh, and Neal McCoy already did this.

Grade: C

Listen: Country Must Be Country Wide

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Grammy Awards 2011: Staff Picks & Predictions

It’s hard to believe, but it’s that time of year again: the 2011 Grammy Awards air this Sunday at 8 p.m. Eastern. Country music has its hand in the Grammy pot via major nominations for Lady Antebellum, performances by Miranda Lambert, Lady A and Martina McBride, and appearances by Keith Urban, Zac Brown, Blake Shelton and Kris Kristofferson. We’ve picked and predicted the awards below – chime in with your own thoughts, and stop by on Sunday night for our live blog!

Album of the Year

Should Win

  • Arcade Fire, The Suburbs - Dan
  • Eminem, Recovery - Kevin, Tara
  • Lady Antebellum, Need You Now
  • Lady Gaga, The Fame Monster
  • Katy Perry, Teenage Dream

Will Win

  • Arcade Fire, The Suburbs
  • Eminem, Recovery - Kevin, Dan, Tara
  • Lady Antebellum, Need You Now
  • Lady Gaga, The Fame Monster
  • Katy Perry, Teenage Dream

Kevin: In a field of newer artists, Eminem is the established veteran that is overdue for this award. It helps that he also made the best album of his career, as well as of the five nominees.

Dan: I could actually see Lady A coming out on top, since they’ve moved a lot of units and are the least divisive act here. But Recovery was a big comeback, and NARAS likes to use this award as a lifetime achievement thing. I don’t like that tendency, though; I’d rather we just reward the best set. To me, that was Arcade Fire’s ambitious concept album.

Tara: I really respect The Suburbs and really dig Recovery. Both are deserving, but Eminem probably has the edge with NARAS for the reasons stated above. (PS – I’m still not over it. TEENAGE DREAM?)

Record of the Year

Should Win

  • B.O.B featuring Bruno Mars, “Nothin’ On You”
  • Eminem featuring Rihanna, “Love the Way You Lie”
  • Cee Lo Green, “F*** You” - Dan, Tara
  • Jay-Z featuring Alicia Keys, “Empire State of Mind” - Kevin
  • Lady Antebellum, “Need You Now”

Will Win

  • B.O.B featuring Bruno Mars, “Nothin’ On You”
  • Eminem featuring Rihanna, “Love the Way You Lie”
  • Cee Lo Green, “F*** You”
  • Jay-Z featuring Alicia Keys, “Empire State of Mind”
  • Lady Antebellum, “Need You Now” - Kevin, Dan, Tara

Kevin: Perhaps it’s an instinctual reaction as a native New Yorker, but I still get chills every time I hear “Empire State of Mind.” Jay-Z’s casual “Long live the World Trade” in the second verse perfectly captures how our city moved briskly forward after 9/11 like we always do, but we haven’t forgotten it.

No Urban or Hip-Hop record has ever won this award, so it pains me to predict that Lady Antebellum will triumph over four better records. I hope I’m wrong.

Dan: Cee Lo’s viral novelty hit was one of last year’s biggest delights. I could see this award going to any track but “Nothin’ On You,” but suspect voters will probably go with the least edgy track.

Tara: I could make an argument for four of the five songs here, but I can’t peel myself away from Green’s personality-packed throwback hit that practically begs you to love it. And do I. I agree with Dan and Kevin, though, that Lady A will take this.

Song of the Year

Should Win

  • “Beg, Steal, or Borrow” – Ray LaMontagne
  • “F*** You!” – Brody Brown, Cee Lo Green, Philip Lawrence & Bruno Mars
  • “The House That Built Me” – Tom Douglas & Allen Shamblin - Kevin, Tara
  • “Love the Way You Lie” – Alexander Grant, Skylar Grey & Marshall Mathers
  • “Need You Now” – Dave Haywood, Josh Kear, Charles Kelley & Hillary Scott

Will Win

  • “Beg, Steal, or Borrow” – Ray LaMontagne
  • “F*** You!” – Brody Brown, Cee Lo Green, Philip Lawrence & Bruno Mars
  • “The House That Built Me” – Tom Douglas & Allen Shamblin – Kevin, Tara
  • “Love the Way You Lie” – Alexander Grant, Skylar Grey & Marshall Mathers
  • “Need You Now” – Dave Haywood, Josh Kear, Charles Kelley & Hillary Scott

Kevin: I think the biggest hurdle for “The House That Built Me” was getting the nomination. It really stands out in this field. It used to be rare for the Song victor to not be nominated for Record, but it has happened three times in the last seven years, including last year.

Tara: I’d honestly be happy to see any of these songs win. I’ll back “The House That Built Me” and just take a guess that the voters will, too.

Best New Artist

Should Win

  • Justin Bieber
  • Drake
  • Florence + the Machine
  • Mumford & Sons - Dan, Kevin, Tara
  • Esperanza Spalding

Will Win

  • Justin Bieber
  • Drake – Kevin, Dan, Tara
  • Florence + the Machine
  • Mumford & Sons
  • Esperanza Spalding

Kevin: I dig Mumford & Sons the most, but Drake seems to be the guy to beat.

Dan: I think Mumford has the most potential going forward. They’re got a dark-horse shot at the win, too, though Drake does seem like the most logical choice. Bieber’s by far the biggest name right now, but NARAS didn’t give it to tween-fave forerunners Hanson or Jonas Brothers, so…

Tara: Ditto. Although I have an unexplainable inkling that the Bieber might nab the award.

Best Country Album

Should Win

  • Dierks Bentley, Up on the Ridge – Kevin, Tara, Leeann
  • Zac Brown Band, You Get What You Give
  • Jamey Johnson, The Guitar Song - Dan
  • Lady Antebellum, Need You Now
  • Miranda Lambert, Revolution

Will Win

  • Dierks Bentley, Up on the Ridge
  • Zac Brown Band, You Get What You Give
  • Jamey Johnson, The Guitar Song
  • Lady Antebellum, Need You Now – Dan
  • Miranda Lambert, Revolution - Kevin, Tara, Leeann

Kevin: I think Bentley made the best record, and perhaps the slew of collaborators will help raise its profile with voters. Usually the country album nominated for overall Album wins this award, but I’m thinking that Lambert’s recent awards streak will continue here.

Dan: I pick Johnson by a nose, but genuinely like every album here besides Need You Now. Hoping Kevin’s right about that one.

Leeann: Like Kevin said, Bentley deserves to win and I hope he does, but I think Lambert’s album may win due to accessibility and her reputation for artistic integrity.

Tara: Up on the Ridge and Revolution both hit my sweet spot: they straddle the line between reverent and relevant and make me genuinely excited about country music’s future. Bentley’s album is the better of the two (and the best of the bunch) – but I think Lambert’s will pick up the most votes.

Best Female Country Vocal Performance

Should Win

  • Jewel, “Satisfied”
  • Miranda Lambert, “The House That Built Me” - Dan, Kevin, Tara, Leeann
  • LeAnn Rimes, “Swingin’”
  • Carrie Underwood, “Temporary Home”
  • Gretchen Wilson, “I’d Love to Be Your Last”

Will Win

  • Jewel, “Satisfied”
  • Miranda Lambert, “The House That Built Me” - Dan, Kevin, Tara, Leeann
  • LeAnn Rimes, “Swingin’”
  • Carrie Underwood, “Temporary Home”
  • Gretchen Wilson, “I’d Love to Be Your Last”

Kevin: This is Lambert’s best shot at a Grammy. Underwood will threaten, as always, but I think the strength of this song makes it tough to beat.

Leeann: Lambert’s signature song is the strongest and likely most long-lasting of the bunch.

Tara: Lambert and Underwood turn in two of the most emotive, powerful performances of their careers, but “The House That Built Me” is undeniably the better song. Since Underwood’s Grammy streak seems to be up for now, I think the voters will side with Lambert.

Best Male Country Vocal Performance

Should Win

  • Jamey Johnson, “Macon”
  • Toby Keith, “Cryin’ For Me (Wayman’s Song)” - Kevin, Leeann
  • David Nail, “Turning Home” - Dan
  • Keith Urban, “‘Til Summer Comes Around”
  • Chris Young, “Gettin’ You Home (The Black Dress Song)”  - Tara

Will Win

  • Jamey Johnson, “Macon”
  • Toby Keith, “Cryin’ For Me (Wayman’s Song)”
  • David Nail, “Turning Home”
  • Keith Urban, “‘Til Summer Comes Around” - Dan, Kevin, Tara, Leeann
  • Chris Young, “Gettin’ You Home (The Black Dress Song)”

Kevin: I am not going to complain about Urban winning again for my favorite single from his last two albums. But Toby Keith is way overdue in this category, and he’s nominated for one of his best vocal performances to date.

Dan: Nail’s nuanced performance brought what could have been a very rote song to life. And his career could use the boost.

Leeann: I think the Grammy voters will reflexively give the award to Keith Urban, but Toby Keith’s song is the most poignant of the nominees.

Tara: Urban’s got his hold on this category, but I’m in Young’s corner. His slow-burning hit is as charming as it is sexy, which isn’t an easy thing to pull off. And that voice.

Best Duo/Group Country Vocal Performance

Should Win

  • Zac Brown Band, “Free”
  • Dailey & Vincent, “Elizabeth”
  • Lady Antebellum, “Need You Now”
  • Little Big Town, “Little White Church”- Tara
  • The SteelDrivers, “Where Rainbows Never Die” - Kevin, Leeann

Will Win

  • Zac Brown Band, “Free”
  • Dailey & Vincent, “Elizabeth”
  • Lady Antebellum, “Need You Now” - Kevin, Tara, Leeann
  • Little Big Town, “Little White Church”
  • The SteelDrivers, “Where Rainbows Never Die”

Kevin: I think it’s a race between Lady Antbellum and Zac Brown Band, with LA in the lead. But the SteelDrivers get the annual “song I discovered because it was nominated for a Grammy and fell in love with after hearing it” award from me.

Leeann: The SteelDriver’s song is my favorite with Little Big Town at a close second, but I suspect that Lady A won’t be shut out for such a hugely popular radio hit across the board.

Tara: Dear NARAS: since “Single Ladies” got screwed over for ROTY last year, please show Little Big Town some love for their crazy awesome countrified version. It’s just as good…maybe even better?

Best Country Collaboration with Vocals

Should Win

  • “Bad Angel” — Dierks Bentley, Miranda Lambert & Jamey Johnson
  • “Pride (In The Name Of Love)” — Dierks Bentley, Del McCoury & The Punch Brothers
  • “As She’s Walking Away” — Zac Brown Band & Alan Jackson – Kevin, Tara, Leeann
  • “Hillbilly Bone” — Blake Shelton & Trace Adkins
  • “I Run To You” — Marty Stuart & Connie Smith

Will Win

  • “Bad Angel” — Dierks Bentley, Miranda Lambert & Jamey Johnson
  • “Pride (In The Name Of Love)” — Dierks Bentley, Del McCoury & The Punch Brothers
  • “As She’s Walking Away” — Zac Brown Band & Alan Jackson – Kevin, Tara, Leeann
  • “Hillbilly Bone” — Blake Shelton & Trace Adkins
  • “I Run To You” — Marty Stuart & Connie Smith

Kevin: Best collaboration in a very long time. Love hearing an artist from my youth playing elder statesman so well.

Leeann: It’s difficult for me to imagine that “As She’s Walking Away” won’t be rewarded for both its popularity and the significance of the still active veteran, Alan Jackson, dispensing wisdom to the up-and-coming bright stars of country music in the Zac Brown Band.

Tara: I love the groove of “Bad Angel,” but its collaboration isn’t nearly as dynamic nor as fitting as that of “As She’s Walking Way.” I can’t imagine any “wise man” but Jackson pulling up a stool next to Brown in this song.

Best Country Instrumental Performance

Should Win

  • Cherryholmes, “Tattoo of a Smudge”
  • The Infamous Stringdusters, “Magic #9″
  • Punch Brothers, “New Chance Blues” – Kevin, Leeann
  • Darrell Scott, ‘Willow Creek”
  • Marty Stuart, “Hummingbyrd”

Will Win

  • Cherryholmes, “Tattoo of a Smudge”
  • The Infamous Stringdusters, “Magic #9″
  • Punch Brothers, “New Chance Blues” - Kevin, Leeann
  • Darrell Scott, ‘Willow Creek”
  • Marty Stuart, “Hummingbyrd”

Kevin: Punch Brothers are approaching Nickel Creek levels of awesomeness. Possibly exceeding them.

Leeann: Kevin’s right. Even as someone who isn’t typically fond of instrumentals, I dig those of the Punch Brothers.

Best Country Song

Should Win

  • “The Breath You Take” — Casey Beathard, Dean Dillon & Jessie Jo Dillon
  • “Free” — Zac Brown
  • “The House That Built Me” — Tom Douglas & Allen Shamblin - Dan, Kevin, Tara, Leeann
  • “I’d Love To Be Your Last” — Rivers Rutherford, Annie Tate & Sam Tate
  • “If I Die Young” — Kimberly Perry
  • “Need You Now” — Dave Haywood, Josh Kear, Charles Kelley & Hillary Scott

Will Win

  • “The Breath You Take” — written by Casey Beathard, Dean Dillon & Jessie Jo Dillon
  • “Free” — written by Zac Brown
  • “The House That Built Me” — written by Tom Douglas & Allen Shamblin – Kevin, Tara, Leeann
  • “I’d Love To Be Your Last” — written by Rivers Rutherford, Annie Tate & Sam Tate
  • “If I Die Young” — written by Kimberly Perry
  • “Need You Now” — written by Dave Haywood, Josh Kear, Charles Kelley & Hillary Scott

Kevin: My heart is owned by “If I Die Young”, but I think that “The House That Built Me” is objectively the best song.

Leeann: While The Band Perry’s song sounds the coolest, the writing for “The House That Built Me” is clear frontrunner for the best song of the year.  It deserves and likely will be recognized as such, especially since it was both very critically acclaimed and successful as a single.

Tara: No question “The House That Built Me” is the best written song of the group, and I think it’ll be recognized as such.

Best Bluegrass Album

Should Win

  • Sam Bush, Circles Around Me
  • Patty Loveless, Mountain Soul II
  • The Del McCoury Band, Family Circle
  • Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band, Legacy
  • The SteelDrivers, Reckless – Kevin

Will Win

  • Sam Bush, Circles Around Me
  • Patty Loveless, Mountain Soul II
  • The Del McCoury Band, Family Circle – Kevin
  • Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band, Legacy
  • The SteelDrivers, Reckless

Kevin: Kudos to Loveless for her nomination, but I like the SteelDrivers set more.

Best Americana Album

Should Win

  • Rosanne Cash, The List
  • Los Lobos, Tin Can Trust
  • Willie Nelson, Country Music – Dan, Kevin
  • Robert Plant, Band of Joy
  • Mavis Staples, You Are Not Alone

Will Win

  • Rosanne Cash, The List
  • Los Lobos, Tin Can Trust
  • Willie Nelson, Country Music
  • Robert Plant, Band of Joy
  • Mavis Staples, You Are Not Alone - Kevin

Kevin: So I think Staples is nominated for an awesome gospel album and Nelson for an awesome country album. This category is confusing.

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Where’ve You Been? – 2011 Edition

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:

Shania Twain

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.

Wynonna

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.

Dwight Yoakam

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.

Dixie Chicks

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?

Vince Gill

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.

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A Tale of Four Hits Collections

Four generous hits collections were released in 2010, each one chronicling the entire career of a contemporary country music star.  Individually, each double-disc set serve as the most expansive and thorough compilation for each artist. Taken together, they tell the story of country music over the last twenty years.

Alan Jackson
34 Number Ones

In the late eighties, Randy Travis did something that no other country star had done before. He became the top-selling country artist by a wide margin without making any musical concessions to pop or rock. In doing so, he tore up the old playbook. Suddenly, you could be a multi-platinum country artists without the added benefit of top 40 radio or accolades from the rock and roll press.

Thus began contemporary country music, the new paradigm that reached its commercial peak in the nineties, but has never come close to receding to its earlier status as a niche genre. A crop of young stars surfaced in 1989 and 1990, each one of them staking a claim to be the Haggard, the Jones, the Willie, the Waylon of their generation. Out of all of them, none struck a more perfect balance between artistic credibility and commercial viability than Alan Jackson.

Simply put, he is the most significant singer and songwriter of the past quarter century. So it’s no surprise that out of all of the country stars who’ve compiled #1 hit collections, Jackson’s set is the best, both in terms of overall quality and effectiveness in summing up an entire career.

Fact is, radio’s played nearly everything Jackson’s sent their way, and he’s demonstrated remarkably good judgment over the past twenty years. The highest of the high points – “Here in the Real World”, “Don’t Rock the Jukebox”, “Chattahoochee”, “Gone Country”, “Where Were You”, “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere” – aren’t just great records from their time period. They’re accurate representations as well, little time capsules that show Jackson as being centrally relevant to the genre while he was also making great music.

Today, with critical acclaim and commercial success becoming increasingly divergent pathways, 34 Number Ones serves as a powerful reminder that one need not sacrifice quality for radio airplay. Of the new tracks, Jackson’s cover of “Ring of Fire” doesn’t quite measure up, It’s certainly a competent reading, but Jackson’s already a legend in his own right. Just listen to “As She’s Walking Away”, the duet with Zac Brown Band that serves at the set’s bonus 35th number one. His mere presence elevates the track into greatness.

Tim McGraw
Number One Hits

Jackson’s ascent into superstardom came at the peak of the new traditionalist movement. Tim McGraw got in just under the buzzer, breaking through a year before Shania Twain shifted the course of country music to a distinctively more pop sound. He’s since been able to maintain stardom by going with the flow of these changes.

At his best, few have been better than Tim McGraw, but Number One Hits documents his bookend years as a follower of trends. It’s the songs on either end of his hit run than are the weakest. Whereas Jackson has flirted with banality once in a while, McGraw has openly embraced it. He became a mega-star by alternating shoehorning the five-hankie weepfest “Don’t Take the Girl” between novelty songs like “Indian Outlaw” and “Down on the Farm”, all of which reek of the hat act herd mentality that was heading out of style in 1994.

But McGraw used his clout from those early hits to get access to better material, and his albums soon demonstrated a song sense that was unrivaled among the other new acts of the time, most of whom quickly faded away as pop ascended in the genre. The best of his biggest singles came over the course of the next decade. Classics like “Just to See You Smile”, “Please Remember Me”, “Angry all the Time” and “Live Like You Were Dying” were among the best songs on the radio.

For a while there, he could get just about anything into the top fifteen, but this collection focuses only on the chart-toppers. So instead of fantastic gems like “Can’t Be Really Gone”, “One of These Days”, “Red Ragtop”, and “If You’re Reading This”, this set features quite a bit of forgettable fare that hasn’t aged well. They may have topped the charts, but that doesn’t make “Not a Moment Too Soon”, “She Never Lets it Go to Your Heart”, and the particularly abysmal “Southern Voice” worthy of inclusion in a best-of set.

If they were able to suspend the concept to include a questionable dance remix of the #8 chart hit “Indian Outlaw” and the mediocre new hit “Felt Good on My Lips”, they might as well have just been more generous with the track listing and released The Very Best of Tim McGraw. His music has been far more compelling than this collection shows.

Dixie Chicks
The Essential Dixie Chicks

The explosive crossover success of Shania Twain, LeAnn Rimes, and Faith Hill was in full swing in 1998, which left traditionalists hungering for a superstar alternative. In waltzed the Dixie Chicks, with a combination of musical credibility, traditional roots, and youthful appeal that instantly made them the darlings of the format. Over the course of two albums – 1998′s Wide Open Spaces and 1999′s Fly – they dominated radio, retail and the awards circuit.

Tracks from those two albums combine for fourteen of the thirty tracks of The Essential Dixie Chicks. All of the biggest hits are here, but chart success wasn’t the only determination for inclusion. Thank God for that, as less impressive top ten hits like “Cold Day in July” and “If I Fall You’re Going Down With Me” are left off, with the far more compelling “Heartbreak Town” and “Sin Wagon” in their place.

As good as their first two albums were, it was the 2002 masterpiece Home that truly solidified them as artists for the ages. Released at the height of O Brother mania, the timing couldn’t have been better for this acoustic album. “Long Time Gone”, “Landslide”, and “Travelin’ Soldier” all went top two, and the album swept the country categories at the 2003 Grammy Awards.

And then, the bottom fell out. Poorly chosen words about the president quickly overshadowed Home, and the princesses of country radio suddenly became pariahs, taking the burgeoning roots movement down with them. Radio slamming its door shut is what makes a hit-centered Chicks compilation impossible, and Essential Dixie Chicks wisely chooses to give equal representation to Home and its follow-up, the California country Taking the Long Way.

An excellent job is done of selecting the best album cuts from both collections, an especially difficult task with the latter album. Sure, it won five Grammys and sold well, but the platinum single “Not Ready to Make Nice” was the only real hit. Thankfully, we’re treated to gems like “Top of the World” and “Truth No. 2″ from Home and “The Long Way Around”, “Easy Silence,” and “Lubbock or Leave It” from Taking the Long Way.

And while a case could be made for some great tracks left off – “Godspeed (Sweet Dreams)”, “More Love”, and “Voice Inside My Head” come to mind – everything that’s here is essential listening. Then again, the Chicks could have randomly picked any 30 songs from the four albums represented here and still ended up with a great collection of music, so high has their standard of excellence been all along. How many other superstar country artists could do the same?

Brad Paisley
Hits Alive

If the Dixie Chicks best represent the last gasp of lofty aspiration in mainstream country music over the past twelve years, Brad Paisley best represents the mediocrity the genre was willing to settle for. Rising to fame around the same time as the Chicks, Paisley was similarly touted as a traditional savior for the increasingly pop-influenced genre.

And for more than ten years, he’s lived up to the traditionalist part, rarely flirting with crossover sounds. Much like Alan Jackson, Paisley’s sound hasn’t changed much over time. But unlike Jackson, Paisley’s point of view hasn’t changed much either. He’s been releasing antiseptic, mostly dull radio fodder for most of his career, getting regular radio play with an endless stream of interchangeable love songs and party anthems.

Hits Alive attempts to assess his work to date, and it takes an odd approach. A disc of studio hits is paired with a disc of live recordings of his hits. Figuring out the guiding principle in song selection is near impossible. Some of his signature hits – “I’m Gonna Miss Her”, “Letter to Me”, “Waitin’ on a Woman” – appear only in live form. Songs that practically beg to be livened up, like “Ticks”, “The World”, and “Celebrity” – are only here in their studio incarnations. Bizarrely, “Alcohol” and “Mud on the Tires”, are presented in both forms.

The double dipping means early hits like “Who Needs Pictures”, “Wrapped Around”, “Two People Fell in Love”, and “I Wish You’d Stay” are omitted entirely. That’s a shame, because they’re all better than his string of condescending and slightly misogynist love songs that do make the cut, the worst offenders being “The World” and the jaw-dropping “Little Moments”, the latter providing a list of endearing traits that would be insulting if he was singing about his child, let alone his partner.

Thankfully, many of his best moments are included, most notably “Whiskey Lullaby” and “When I Get Where I’m Going”, two hits that have gone on to become genre standards in the years since their release. Plus, the live disc brings some unexpected treats. “Time Warp” showcases his stunning instrumental talent, while the hits “Water” and “American Saturday Night” truly do come alive on stage, making them sound better here than they did on the radio.

Of the four collections, Paisley’s may be the least impressive, but it’s still a decent representation of one of country music’s last superstars, and it speaks volumes about the creative holding pattern that still paralyzes the genre. Unless the spiritual successors to Alan Jackson or the Dixie Chicks come along, Paisley’s might be as good as it’s gonna get on country radio.

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Back to School

Another summer has come and gone.  For those of you headed back into the classroom, here’s some helpful advice from some country music stars:

1. Avoid social stereotypes.

The girl in the bleachers might be your dream girl…

…and overlooking that guy with the guitar can come back and haunt you.

2.  Always finish your reading assignments.

Especially if you’re gonna write about what you read.

3. Math Class is important, too.

4. Sometimes passing notes can be a good thing.

5. Work hard, but keep your worries in check.

It’ll all work out in the end…

…as long as you stay in school.

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