It’s been thirty years since the world was introduced to the voice of Wynonna Judd, a simple guitar strum being nothing close to enough preparation for the otherworldly voice that opened the debut Judds single, “Had a Dream (For the Heart)”:
Thirty years later, after about a decade of Judds music and another two decades of solo work, that voice is still that voice. Wynonna has the ability to harness a true force of nature, having incredible depth and soul that remains under her complete control.
Less under control is her firebrand personality, an increasingly dramatic public image that has been overshadowing her music in recent years, but that’s mostly because she hasn’t been making nearly enough music. Really, once she sings two or three notes, who really cares about her public image?
But what happens when that image starts to dictate the music? What happens when producers convince themselves that they have to be
just as loud and dazzling as the lady behind the mic?
“Something You Can’t Live Without” is what happens.
You’ve got Wynonna singing a great song that clearly means a lot to her. She turns in a ferocious performance. All the musicians need to do is give her a bit of support while mostly staying out of her way.
Instead, not only is the backing music way too loud, there is a cardinal sin committed that is simply unforgivable. They actually put a digital effect on her voice.
You do that for bad singers. You do that for mediocre singers. Sometimes, you even do that for good singers. But to do it to one of the strongest vocalists popular music has ever seen is an insult.
I really like this record overall, simply because I can hear all that great Wynonna underneath the muck. But much like those synthesizer-drenched Dolly Parton songs from the eighties, it’s just bewildering that the muck is there in the first place.
Such natural, God-given talent needs organic music to back her up. I don’t care if it’s Memphis blues instead of Nashville country. Just let her surroundings be as real as she is, and save all the artifice for the reality show circuit.
The Class of 1989 permanently changed the face of country music. Clint Black was its valedictorian.
Born in New Jersey and raised in Texas, Black’s vocal talent was evident at an early age. He played in a band with his older brothers, and taking a gamble, he dropped out of high school and pursued a solo career.
The new traditionalist movement of the early eighties inspired him to commit himself to the country music genre. As he honed his craft throughout the eighties, he met songwriter and guitarist Hayden Nicholas, who would become an instrumental component of Black’s success.
Signing with RCA, he recorded his debut album with his road band. Black wrote or co-wrote every track on Killin’ Time, and the 1989 release had a seismic impact on country music. Black became the first country artist in history to have his first four singles reach #1, and the album quickly reached multi-platinum status. Beyond its sales and radio impact, Killin’ Time was widely hailed by critics and genre enthusiasts as a masterpiece.
The impact of Black opened the doors for fellow artists like Garth Brooks, Travis Tritt, and Alan Jackson to find similar massive success with their debut albums. Together, they rejuvenated the country music market, putting it on the even playing field with pop, rock, and R&B that it still enjoys today. Black won several major industry awards, and then had another multi-platinum album with his sophomore set, Put Yourself in My Shoes.
Throughout the nineties, Black continued to write and record radio hits. Even as his album sales cooled to platinum and then gold, he still maintained a streak of top ten hits. It wasn’t until his 29th solo single, “Loosen Up My Strings” in 1998, that he missed the top ten. To a certain extent, Black’s profile was reduced because of the very door that he opened. The flood of talent that followed in his wake included major talents who soon overshadowed him.
The tail end of his run with RCA found him recording with wife Lisa Hartman Black, and they enjoyed a big hit with their duet, “When I Said I Do.” Collaborations with Wynonna, Steve Wariner, Roy Rogers and Martina McBride also gained positive attention. In the new century, Black took the bold step of launching his own label, Equity Records, resulting in two studio albums that achieved moderate success. One of them, 2004′s Drinkin’ Songs and Other Logic, was his most critically acclaimed set in years.
His most recent release is 2007′s Love Songs, which featured re-recordings of some of his hit ballads from the nineties. He’s kept his profile alive with various film and television appearances, and he does some light touring, preferring at this stage to spend as much time as possible with his family.
Lately, I’ve been playing “Deep Down” on a loop, and it got me thinking…
What if one of the big female artists of 2011 were the first to release this song?
If Carrie Underwood recorded it in 2011, the song would be praised as one of the best she’s ever recorded, but she’d be criticized for over-singing and over-producing it.
If Taylor Swift recorded it in 2011, the song would be praised as one of the best she’s ever recorded, but she’d be criticized for missing every other note, even with the help of auto-tune.
If Miranda Lambert recorded it in 2011, the song would be praised as one of the best she’s ever recorded, and further evidence that she’s the messiah of contemporary country music, regardless of how she sang or produced it.
But alas, Pam Tillis recorded it in 1995, and the song went largely unnoticed, because a great song with a great vocal performance and a great production was expected, not special, coming from her.
Perhaps the best way to listen to country music in 2011 is not to listen to anything else in the genre’s history. That way the illusion that there is some great contemporary country music out there can be preserved.
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.
The themes of love and loss have permeated country music for as long as it’s been in existence. This second-to-last batch of great nineties hits contains songs that are direct descendants of well-known classics like “Can the Circle Be Unbroken” and “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”, along with a Shania Twain hit that would have made Roba Stanley smile.
400 Greatest Singles of the Nineties: #50-#26
Here’s a Quarter (Call Someone Who Cares) Travis Tritt
1991 | Peak: #2
From the first forceful guitar strum on, this kiss-off number somehow manages to seem unusually cool and collected in its own aggression. You get the impression that Tritt’s character has been anticipating this moment, and has already made up his mind that he’s going to relish every second of it. – Dan Milliken
I’ve Come to Expect it From You George Strait
1990 | Peak: #1
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 (more…)
The new country music stars of the nineties grew up with the pop/rock of the seventies. It’s no wonder that many of them revisited songs from that era.
Some of these covers became big hits, like Billy Dean’s “We Just Disagree” and Brooks & Dunn’s “My Maria.” Various album cuts and tribute projects demonstrated Lorrie Morgan’s fondness for Bonnie Tyler (“It’s a Heartache”), Garth Brooks’ love for Kiss (“Hard Luck Woman”), and more than a dozen artists’ affinity for the Eagles.
It’s just a matter of time before today’s country stars start remaking pop and rock hits from the nineties. Here’s a few that I think would work well:
Rascal Flatts, “One More Try”
This Timmy T. hit topped the charts in 1991. It would be a perfect fit for the Flatts boys. They could elevate it into something great.
Carrie Underwood, “Nothing Compares 2 U”
You need a powerful set of pipes to pull this one off. Who could do it better than Carrie Underwood? Okay, yes. Wynonna. But among the artists on the radio dial today, no one could tackle this with better results than Underwood.
SHeDaisy, “You’re in Love”
This band could cover just about any Wilson Phillips track, but this one’s dying to be a hit all over again.
What nineties non-country songs do you think today’s country stars should cover?
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 (more…)
It’s the catchy fiddle riff that’s so memorable about John Michael Montgomery’s debut, number one, single. He is known for being a balladeer, but this one is an up-tempo motivational song. – Leeann Ward (more…)