World: meet Underwood. She’s fiercely compassionate and endearingly idealistic (the riveting “Change”). She holds her beliefs with a firm but quiet conviction (“Temporary Home”). She’s as comfortable and convincing at tearing down a wrong-doer (the Dixie Chicks-esque “Songs Like This”) as she is nursing an irreparable heartache, whether it’s in the form of a haunting country standard (“Someday When I Stop Loving You”) or a rich pop ballad (“What Can I Say?”). And she’s one of the most gifted vocalists of this generation, possessing an instrument that, when colored and layered with emotion as she’s aptly learned to do on Play On, can have bone-chilling effects.
Like it or leave it, Play On is the most authentic encapsulation of Underwood’s artistry and persona to date, and serves as an exciting glimpse at how far a little growth can carry her. The best is yet to come, but in the meantime, the “good” is pretty damn good. – Tara Seetharam
#9 Sara Watkins Sara Watkins
As most people know by now, Sara Watkins is the female member of the now-disbanded (hopefully temporarily) New Grass trio, Nickel Creek. While Nickel Creek was difficult to classify in a certain genre (not bluegrass, not country), they were embraced by bluegrass and country music fans alike. Each member of the popular trio has released intriguing projects outside of Nickel Creek, but Watkins’ album has assumed the most decidedly country direction of them all. As a result, we are treated to a sublime album thanks to Watkins’ sweet voice and a set of impressively solid songs. – Leeann Ward (more…)
It’s been a while since we’ve done one of these, distracted as we’ve been by decade-end madness, but now seems like an appropriate day to jump back in, with a diverse bevy of MP3 albums being offered at Amazon for 5 bucks or better. As always, click on the box to listen to clips or to reach the album’s download page.
First up is the Daily Deal, the Avett Brothers’ excellent 2007 set Emotionalism, going today for $1.99. This group kind of defies genre classification, but they have enough of an earthy quality to their music to make them appeal to all lovers of traditional music. They’re building quite a following, too.
The 201 Greatest Singles of the Decade, Part 2: #180-#161
It’s the pairing of aching nostalgia and all the power that comes with a Flatts country-pop ballad that makes this song so potent. – Tara Seetharam
“Takin’ Off This Pain”
Like a wide-eyed hybrid of Loretta Lynn and Jennifer Nettles, Shepherd burst onto the scene snapping her newly ring-free fingers at the clueless sap not treating her right. Next Decade, please take note: you’ve got a star in waiting. – Dan Milliken (more…)
Kathy Mattea has rarely sounded more open and warm than on this set of innovative folk-tinged songs. Topics of peace, love, resignation and heartache are sensitively explored in songs both written by Mattea and other well-known names, including captivating interpretations of The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Me Shelter” and Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Down on the Corner.” It’s a rich album with a decisively vibrant feel. – Leeann Ward
Recommended Tracks: “Gimme Shelter”, “Down on the Corner”, “Give It Away”
Johnny Cash, American IV: The Man Comes Around
American IV: The Man Comes Around was the last Cash album released in his lifetime; the bulk of its tracks are covers performed by the then ailing singer. Amazingly enough, the album seems almost biographical despite the limited material written by Cash. Still, American IV is not limited to “Hurt” (written by Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails), as other well-interpreted covers and Cash’s own “The Man Comes Around” help cement the depth of the album. – William Ward
Recommended Tracks: “The Man Comes Around”, “Hurt”, “Sam Hall”
Jamey Johnson, That Lonesome Song
The media hype machine had a field day with Johnson’s breakthrough sophomore album, showering it with the kind of superlatives usually reserved for miracle cures and immaculate conceptions (see also: Crazy Ex-Girlfriend). Most of the attention went to the album’s counterculturism within the increasingly safe and watered-down Music Row, with numerous nods to its Outlaw aesthetic and “cocaine and a whore” business. But That Lonesome Song‘s greatness was always more than contextual, and certainly more than attitudinal; this is an album with a genuine story to tell, filled with a slow-burning sorrow that pervades every track and doesn’t rest until the wife finally walks away and the husband resigns himself to playing seedy bars and trying to convince you he’s worthy of comparison to the greats. – Dan Milliken
Recommended Tracks: “High Cost Of Living”, “Angel”, “Dreaming My Dreams With You”
For all of the attention given to her power ballads and catchy pop numbers, Faith Hill has always included more offbeat material from lesser known songwriters. This album had some great power ballads and catchy pop numbers, but its heart and soul comes from the trio of Lori McKenna songs that make up its core. “Stealing Kisses” just might be Hill’s finest moment to date, and the other two McKenna songs – “If You Ask” and the title track – are nearly as good. – Kevin Coyne
Recommended Tracks: “Dearly Beloved”, “Stealing Kisses”, “Wish For You”
Vince Gill, Next Big Thing
Gill dips into a wider range of styles and subjects on his first self-produced album, but it all seems to thoughtfully tie back to his classically sweet sound – a tricky thing to do in country music. Next Big Thing is mature, clever and vocally spot-on, and features some killer guest vocals from Emmylou Harris, Lee Ann Womack and others. – TS
Easily one of the most versatile artists in country music, Underwood is capable of tackling almost any musical style, and she makes a solid case for this on her third album. The kicker, though, is that rather than signaling a lack of identity, each style feels like a natural extension of herself as an artist. She’s mournful on a haunting country standard in one breath, and commanding on a rock-charged up-tempo in the next – all without compromising her authenticity. Most significantly, Underwood finally digs a little deeper on Play On, marrying her extraordinary vocal proficiency with a higher level of tangible, sincere conviction than ever before. – TS
Recommended Tracks: “Someday When I Stop Loving You”, “Songs Like This”, “What Can I Say”
Rodney Crowell, The Outsider
Crowell’s take on mid-decade politics avoids heavy-handedness, perhaps because what he’s appealing to is not so much partisanship as patriotism in its purest form: “Democracy won’t work if we’re asleep. That kind of freedom is a vigil you must keep.” Bonus points for not one, but two guest turns from Emmylou Harris, the highlight being their stunning duet of Bob Dylan’s “Shelter From the Storm.” – KC
Recommended Tracks: “Dancin’ Circles ‘Round the Sun (Epictetus Speaks)”, “Don’t Get Me Started”, “Shelter From the Storm”
The Little Willies, The Little Willies
Norah Jones pet country side project with four of her New York City friends, including former boyfriend bassist Lee Alexander, results inn an inextricably fun album named after Willie Nelson who is covered twice on the project (“Gotta Get Drunk” and “Night Life”). The productions, including jaunty piano and prominent bass, along with Jones’ atypically loose vocals, make this disc a thrilling listening experience. While The Little Willie’s self titled album is not tight in technical terms, the album is all the better for it. – LW
Recommended Tracks: “Roll On”, “Gotta Get Drunk”, “Tennessee Stud”
Trisha Yearwood, Real Live Woman
Upon its release, the artist declared that she’d finally made her dream album. It’s easy to understand why, as Real Live Woman is Trisha Yearwood’s most cohesive album to date. It has a warmth and depth that makes it more than just reminiscent of Linda Ronstadt’s classic L.A. country albums from the mid-seventies. It’s actually on par with them. – KC
Recommended Tracks: “Where Are You Now”, “Try Me Again”, “When a Love Song Sings the Blues”
Kris Kristofferson, Broken Freedom Song: Live From San Francisco
For each unequivocal success like At Folsom Prison and Nirvana Unplugged, there are a dozen uninspired live albums that simply exist to capitalize on old material. Kris Kristofferson’s Broken Freedom Songs, with his extended introductions and banter, is an unequivocal success. Along with its friendly and almost conversational tone, Broken Freedom Songs focuses on unexpected compositions and makes a nice addition to other historically strong live albums. – WW
Recommended Tracks: “The Circle”, “Here Comes that Rainbow Again”, “Moment of Forever”
One of modern country’s little-known heroes, Robison has built a career on simple songs of unusually strong focus, voice and insight. His strongest collection from this decade mainly explores love at its point of disenchantment, with characters sitting at various fallouts pondering who’s to blame, who used who, or why the feelings aren’t requited. Not so much Sunshine, then, but quite a bit of Country. – Dan Milliken
Recommended Tracks: “Friendless Marriage”, “What Would Willie Do”, “Tonight”
Rascal Flatts, Feels Like Today
The group has yet to hit the nail on the “Rascal Flatts” head again like they did with this country-pop album – a collection of powerful, melody-driven songs on which Gary LeVox manages to tastefully reign in his tenor. When paired with the right material –particularly deep-rooted love songs like “Bless The Broken Road” –, the Flatts boys can emote like it’s nobody’s business, resulting in soaring, passionate performances. – Tara Seetharam
Recommended Tracks: “Where You Are”, “Bless The Broken Road”, “Oklahoma-Texas Line”
Keith Urban, Love, Pain & the whole crazy thing
Urban’s creativity peaked with this ambitious set, with arrangements as revelatory as his lyrics. As an album, it’s a cohesive work of art, yet it still managed to produce his strongest collection of singles that work just as well outside of their home. – Kevin Coyne
Recommended Tracks: “I Told You So”, “Stupid Boy”, “Got it Right This Time”
Willie Nelson and Asleep at the Wheel, Willie and The Wheel
Willie Nelson teamed up with Western swing giants Asleep at the Wheal to create a project filled with warm treatments of Western swing standards. While Nelson sounds very much alive on this album, his trademark phrasing perfectly captures a relaxed, yet proficient, vibe. In order to be as prolific as Nelson tends to be, it’s common for him to minimally prepare for his recordings. It’s been reported that this was not the case for this album, however. Instead, he studied and practiced these songs until he felt comfortable enough to really do them justice. His extra effort is clearly evident as a result. – Leeann Ward
Recommended Tracks: “Hesitation Blues”, “I Ain’t Gonna Give Nobody None…”, “Right or Wrong”
Brad Paisley, American Saturday Night
I’m drawn to albums that can flawlessly blend contemporary and traditional country music, and Paisley’s eighth album is a remarkable example in all senses. It’s a surprisingly revealing, carefully-written album that’s engaging yet lighthearted, and it embraces social consciousness as effectively as it does Paisley-seasoned humor. He’s not the first to do so, but Paisley certainly furthers the case that you can successfully look both forwards and backwards on the same album. – TS
Recommended Tracks: “Welcome To The Future”, “Everybody’s Here”, “You Do The Math”
Ryan Adams, Heartbreaker
Adams had already released some exemplary work with Whiskeytown by the time the Aughts rolled around, but it was his classic solo debut that cemented him as alt-country’s “It” Boy. With the aural looseness of folk and the shrewd scrutiny of classic country, Heartbreaker plays like the very encapsulation of despair, each track exposing a cathartic new layer of its creator’s weary, self-mocking psyche. It would all be insufferably bleak if it didn’t sound so strangely healing. – DM
Recommended Tracks: “AMY”, “Oh My Sweet Carolina”, “Come Pick Me Up”
Bruce Springsteen, We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions
Recorded in Springsteen’s living room, The Seeger Sessions is a project that celebrates the songs of activist and folk singer, Pete Seeger. For this unique recording, Springsteen temporarily breaks away from his rock E Street Band and forms the more organic, big band style Sessions Band, which includes horns, banjo, guitar, percussion, piano, B3 organ, Harmonica, violin and upright bass. The result is a delightful album that sounds like a well executed jam session rather than a stuffy studio affair. – LW
Recommended Tracks: “Old Dan Tucker”, “O Mary Don’t You Weep for Me”, “Pay Me My Money Down”
Lady Antebellum, Lady Antebellum
There isn’t anyone in country music quite like this vibrant trio, whose debut is a heartfelt, organic mainstream country album with undertones of 70′s-esque R&B. There’s a beautiful imperfection to the pairing of Charles Kelley and Hillary Scott’s equally soulful voices, and they’ve got a particular knack for writing melodies that are as interesting as they are expressive. Lady Antebellum is both a skillful showcase of these strengths and an exciting glimpse at the group’s potential in country music. – TS
Recommended Tracks: “All We’d Ever Need”, “Love’s Lookin’ Good On You”, “I Run To You”
Alan Jackson, Like Red On a Rose
Who would think that the combination of bluegrass legend Alison Krauss and traditional country legend Alan Jackson would result in an album like this? With Krauss as producer, Jackson became the consummate crooner, singing with such depth and nuance that it was like hearing a completely different singer. – KC
Recommended Tracks: “Like Red On a Rose”, “Nobody Said That it Would Be Easy”, “The Firefly’s Song”
Brad Paisley, Time Well Wasted
Brad Paisley’s fourth album continues the more aggressively muscular sound that its predecessor, Mud on the Tires had already wisely adopted. As is typical for a Paisley album his sharp wit shows up throughout the disc in the form of sly observations to which people can easily relate. However, he strays from the humor at times in order to deliver some of the most beloved songs of his career, including “Waitin’ on A Woman” and “When I Get Where I’m Going.” – LW
Recommended Tracks: “Rainin’ You”, “Easy Money”, “Time Well Wasted”
While Taylor Swift mania continues to grow, there’s another impressive accomplishment being achieved by two veterans of country music on the opposite end of the age spectrum.
Contrary to what is commonly believed, there has always been a ceiling on how old you could be and still get country airplay. This year, both George Strait and Reba McEntire have been working steadily to shatter that ceiling.
Take a look at the age of country legends when they earned their most recent top ten solo hit:
Eddy Arnold, 62
Kenny Rogers, 61*
Conway Twitty, 58
George Strait, 57
George Jones, 57**
Marty Robbins, 57
Willie Nelson, 56**
Ray Price, 56
Reba McEntire, 54
Waylon Jennings, 53
Merle Haggard, 52
Alan Jackson, 50
Charley Pride, 50
Johnny Cash, 49
Ernest Tubb, 49
Ronnie Milsap, 48
Loretta Lynn, 47
Webb Pierce, 46
Garth Brooks, 45
Dolly Parton, 43**
Hank Williams Jr., 41
Tammy Wynette, 40
* Kenny Rogers was the lead singer for his final top ten hit “Buy Me a Rose”, with harmony vocalists Billy Dean and Alison Krauss credited on the single
** George Jones, Willie Nelson, and Dolly Parton returned to the top ten in later years through duets with younger artists
It’s also worth noting that Alan Jackson, at 50, isn’t too far away from passing several legends on the list.
So George Strait remains in heavy rotation at the age of 57, outpacing all but three stars in country music history. Among the ladies, McEntire is a full seven years older than her nearest competitor Loretta Lynn was when she enjoyed her last top ten hit.
Willie Nelson became a superstar with the release of his now-classic 1975 concept album Red-Headed Stranger. But this wasn’t Nelson’s first, or even his best, concept album. In 1974, he released the absolutely brilliant Phases & Stages, which explored a dissolving marriage from the differing perspectives of the husband and the wife.
Several of Nelson’s best songs are included in this set, most notably “Bloody Mary Morning”, “Pretend I Never Happened”, and “It’s Not Supposed to Be That Way.” You can get this classic album for only $5.48 at Amazon’s MP3 store.
I’ve been working my way through the Beatles Remasters that were released earlier this week, thoroughly enjoying myself in the process. As I listened to Help!, I heard Ringo Starr doing his best Buck Owens imitation as they covered “Act Naturally.”
It’s pretty darn cool that the Beatles covered Buck Owens, and plenty of country artists have returned the favor ever since. With the Beatles all over the media these days, it seems as good a time as any to look back on some of country music’s biggest and best takes on the Beatles catalog:
Rosanne Cash, “I Don’t Want to Spoil the Party” and “I’m Only Sleeping”
Cash is the only country artist to score a #1 hit with a cover of a Beatles song, as her take on the Beatles For Sale track “I Don’t Want to Spoil the Party” became her eleventh and final #1 hit in 1989. An even better listen is her take on “I’m Only Sleeping” from her Retrospective release. It doesn’t hurt that it’s a much better song than “Party”, pulled from Revolver, arguably the best album the Beatles ever made.
Nickel Creek, “Taxman”
This progressive bluegrass band sounds great on record, but you don’t really get the full experience of their talent until you’ve seen their live show. Perhaps all of those royalties from their platinum-selling debut album pushed them into a higher tax bracket, as “Taxman” - another Revolver highlight – soon became a staple of their live shows.
Emmylou Harris, “For No One” and “Here, There and Everywhere”
Her first two solo albums included one Revolver cover each. She turns “For No One” into a pensive ballad on her debut set Pieces of the Sky and gives a gorgeous rendering of “Here, There and Everywhere” on her sophomore effort Elite Hotel.
Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson, “Yesterday”
It really does sound like a Haggard and Nelson song when Haggard and Nelson do it.
Anne Murray, “You Won’t See Me”
Amazingly, John Lennon said this was the best Beatles cover he’d ever heard.
Those are some of the most notable country Beatles covers I could think of. What are your favorites? Least favorites?
Be sure to check out Amazon’s digital store for their fifty albums for $5 for the month of September. While the choices are a little light on the country music this month, two out of the three country offerings more than make up for the disparity.
First, Gloriana’s debut album is replete with slick harmonies and even slicker production. The album has been met with some mixed reviews, but most agree that they are a very talented group of people if not too polished.
Trisha Yearwood’s 2007 album , received unanimous critical praise. Her first album with the then new Big Machine Records, after departing from powerhouse MCA Records, is one of her strongest albums to date. Singles like the title track and “This Is Me You’re Talking To” landed high on various end-of-the year lists in their respective release years. Moreover, non-singles such as the pretty “Let the Wind Chase You” (with Keith Urban), the cool as water “Cowboys Are My Weakness” and the unshakably gorgeous “Dreaming Fields” made equally strong impressions on the country music fans who had the pleasure of hearing Yearwood’s refreshingly rock solid album, which was likely and, surprisingly, one of country music’s best albums of 2007.
Finally, fans of Willie Nelson and western swing music will be pleasantly satisfied with Nelson’s collaborative project with western swing giants, Asleep at the Wheel. It’s been reported that while Willie typically goes into the studio and pounds out his parts very quickly for various albums, he took extra time to really learn the songs for this album. On Willie And the Wheel, Willie Nelson sounds especially relaxed and one with Asleep at the Wheel’s expert swing arrangements. Although it’s true that Willie Nelson’s output is incredibly prolific, this album is certainly one of the best that has come from his recent endeavors.