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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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Nashville Scene: 11th Annual Country Music Critics’ Poll

The 11th Annual Country Music Critics’ Poll has just been published by Nashville Scene. It covers the 2010 year of country music. The participants of the poll consists of country music critics who spend their time listening to and analyzing stacks of music throughout the year in order to knowledgeably write about it for the purpose of either promoting excellent music or warning against the not so good stuff. Kevin, Dan and Tara are among these prestigious critics.

Each year, invited critics submit their ballots with their favorite music and artists in the appropriate categories. The poll includes the best albums, singles, male and female artists, reissues, live acts, duos and groups, songwriters, new acts, and the over all artists of the year. While the results include the usual suspects, they are mixed with some surprises or names that aren’t commonly associated with mainstream country.

Some of my favorite results include Raul Malo tied at #8 with Gary Allan for top males and Elizabeth Cook at #2 for top females, not to mention Sunny Sweeney’s “From A Table Away” landing at the #3 spot for singles. The most amusing result, however, is Jamey Johnson and Taylor Swift in the top two spots for songwriters.

What’s most fascinating about this process is that the critics have the opportunity to include comments with their ballots. These comments serve to clarify choices and pontificate on the state of country music and its various aspects. There are some insightful comments from both Dan and Tara, along with other critics that you might recognize from our blog roll.

Here are some of the cream of the crop comments that display a satisfyingly diverse array of perspectives:

“Lost amidst the rush to proclaim Jamey Johnson as the man to reclaim country music from pop acts like Taylor Swift is the fact that Johnson and Swift are cut from the precisely same cloth. Johnson is most often championed for the supposed authenticity of his songwriting, but is it really any more believable that he’s been “takin’ dee-pression pills in the Hollywood hills” than it is that Swift regrets not calling an ex when his birthday passed? Both Johnson and Swift have developed public personae and voices as songwriters that trade in the same suspension of disbelief. Swift’s music may not scan as “country” to the extent that Johnson’s does, but that isn’t because she’s any less authentic than Johnson. They both act like they’re “Playing the Part,” and they both do so awfully well.” —Jonathan Keefe, Slant Magazine

“Thank goodness the Internet and satellite radio are around to pick up FM’s slack, because brilliant would-be singles continue popping up on independent releases that Clear Channel won’t touch. My favorite two this year were Elizabeth Cook’s “El Camino” and Chely Wright’s “Notes to the Coroner.” The former: a hilarious country-rap about a creepy, mulleted lothario. The latter: a frank diary introduction from a recently deceased woman. Both: utterly unique and unshakably catchy.” —Dan Milliken, Country Universe

“In 2010, Grandpa told us about the good old days again. The most conspicuous presence on country radio in recent years has been this kindly old gentleman, lugging his aching bones out of bed to share some worldly wisdom. After years of hard labor and heartache, he’s now embarked on a second career as life coach for his hillbilly kin on recent singles from Lee Brice, Billy Currington, Craig Morgan and Alan Jackson (the matured mentor on Zac Brown’s “As She’s Walking Away”). Of course, country radio won’t fool with women over 40 except for Reba, so you never really get to hear Grandma’s side of things.” —Blake Boldt, The 9513

“Despite their two weak singles this year, “Our Kind of Love” and “Hello World,” I remain in Lady Antebellum’s corner. What hooks me is the way they’re able to inject gritty, tangible emotion into the glossiest of production and the vaguest of lyrics. That’s what elevates “Need You Now” to an aching confession, and that’s how, on a song that compares innocence to a condiment, Hillary Scott’s vocal performance alone manages to tell an evocative story.” —Tara Seetharam, Country Universe

“So if country music is doing so well artistically, why is it that whenever I turned on the radio in 2010, I heard mostly pop or rock songs with a token steel guitar thrown into the mix? I’ve long since given up hope of Americana artists ever getting picked up by mainstream radio, and I’ve pretty much come to terms with the fact that Jamey Johnson won’t be getting many (if any) hit songs no matter how good they are. But would it kill them to play some non-hyphenated country music a little more? I know that country-pop and country-rock are the flavors of the month, but where does that leave more traditional artists? I know I’d be more willing to tolerate Jason Aldean rapping or Jennifer Nettles singing with her stupid fake Jamaican accent if “Draw Me a Map” or “Will I Always Be This Way” was next on the playlist.” —Sam Gazdziak, The 9513

“In an August interview with Spinner, Ryan Bingham rejected the notion that he makes country music. Two weeks later, Bingham was named the Americana Music Association’s “Artist of the Year,” thanks in large part to his Academy Award-winning song “The Weary Kind,” a song he wrote for a movie about a country singer. In September, when asked about the state of country music today, rising star Justin Townes Earle told The Wall Street Journal that he’s embarrassed to be from Nashville because of the “shit songwriting, shit records and shit singers who are making a million dollars.” Even mainstream country stalwart Zac Brown distanced himself from the genre, telling American Songwriter in September, “The songs that I write are Southern, but I wouldn’t necessarily call them country.” It’s a shame — and an enormous loss for the genre — that the term “country music” has come to describe something so narrow that bright young artists like these choose not to identify themselves as country. Thank God for Jamey Johnson, who wears the mantle proudly.” —Jim Malec, American Twang

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Filed under Best of 2010

Crunching the Numbers: January 2011

Feel that chill in the air?  It’s not just climate change, friends.  The music industry is suffering through historic lows in record sales, the worst since SoundScan started tallying them in 1991.

How are country artists faring?  Let’s take a look at cumulative sales for current albums. Sales are rounded to the nearest hundred.

Top Selling Current Country Albums

  1. Taylor Swift, Fearless: 6,233,900
  2. Taylor Swift, Taylor Swift: 4,955,000
  3. Lady Antebellum, Need You Now: 3,138,700
  4. Taylor Swift, Speak Now: 3,078,600
  5. Zac Brown Band, The Foundation: 2,489,200
  6. Carrie Underwood, Play On: 1,937,041
  7. Lady Antebellum, Lady Antebellum: 1,835,800
  8. Jason Aldean, Wide Open: 1,364,700
  9. Miranda Lambert, Revolution: 1,149,000
  10. Rascal Flatts, Greatest Hits Volume 1: 994,600
  11. Sugarland, The Incredible Machine: 815,200
  12. Jason Aldean, My Kinda Party:  766,300
  13. Tim McGraw, Southern Voice: 749,200
  14. George Strait, Twang: 670,200
  15. Kenny Chesney, Hemingway’s Whiskey: 655,200
  16. Zac Brown Band, You Get What You Give: 636,000
  17. Rascal Flatts, Nothing Like This: 585,800
  18. Luke Bryan, Doin’ My Thing: 509,200
  19. Keith Urban, Get Closer: 508,200
  20. Brooks & Dunn, #1’s…and Then Some: 479,700
  21. Toby Keith, American Ride: 432,100
  22. Chris Young, The Man I Want to Be: 408,000
  23. Eric Church, Carolina: 380,600
  24. Darius Rucker, Charleston, SC 1966: 376,700
  25. The Band Perry, The Band Perry: 364,000
  26. Josh Turner, Haywire: 361,800
  27. Justin Moore, Justin Moore: 325,600
  28. Easton Corbin, Easton Corbin: 314,000
  29. Toby Keith, Bullets in the Gun: 279,400
  30. Jamey Johnson, The Guitar Song: 256,300
  31. Gary Allan, Get Off on the Pain: 238,000
  32. Reba McEntire, All the Women I Am: 224,800
  33. Jerron Niemann, Judge Jerron & The Hung Jury: 222,700
  34. Billy Currington, Enjoy Yourself: 222,000
  35. Tim McGraw, Number One Hits: 220,500
  36. Dierks Bentley, Up on the Ridge: 204,900
  37. Zac Brown Band, Pass the Jar: 202,100
  38. Trace Adkins, Cowboy’s Back in Town: 194,200
  39. Johnny Cash, American VI: Ain’t No Grave: 190,100
  40. Brad Paisley, Hits Alive: 189,200
  41. Alan Jackson, 34 Number Ones: 181,000
  42. Blake Shelton, All About Tonight: 160,700
  43. Little Big Town, The Reason Why: 158,300
  44. Blake Shelton, Loaded: The Best of Blake Shelton : 142,300
  45. Jaron and the Long Road to Love, Getting Dressed in the Dark: 119,700
  46. Josh Thompson, Way Out Here: 107,000
  47. Joe Nichols, Old Things New: 100,700
  48. Brantley Gilbert, Halfway to Heaven: 81,400
  49. Lee Brice, Love Like Crazy: 81,200
  50. Steel Magnolia, Steel Magnolia: 41,000
  51. Joey + Rory, Album Number Two: 34,100
  52. Randy Houser, They Call Me Cadillac: 30,900

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2011 Singles: A Wish List

The bulk of our work at Country Universe this month has been catching up on singles currently at radio.  Collectively, they’ve been abysmal, with review grades rarely reaching a B, let alone an A.

How can we turn this around? Here are five songs that I’d love to see sent to radio tomorrow.  Share your own in the comments!

Zac Brown Band, “Let it Go”

A dizzying dose of positivity, with a few great musical twists to boot.  The Serenity Prayer never sounded so good.

Court Yard Hounds, “Ain’t No Son”

The only truly country song on their album. The only truly great song on their album.

Toby Keith, “In a Couple of Days”

It’s easy to take Keith for granted, so consistent are his vocals and song structures.  Usually, its his lyrics that trip him up. It’s his heartbroke ballads, like this gem, that showcase his talent best.

Reba McEntire, “The Day She Got Divorced”

Country singers used to sing about people like this all the time.  Flawed anti-heroines like this don’t come along too often anymore.

Carrie Underwood, “Change”

I suspect those with more refined tastes than mine are clamoring for “Someday When I Stop Loving You”, an admittedly beautiful ballad, but this is the track I’m returning to the most from Play On. I think it captures the nagging cynicism that prevents many of us from fully embracing our inner benevolence.

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Filed under Miscellaneous Musings, Recommend a Track

Single Review: Zac Brown Band, “Colder Weather”

There hasn’t been a great song in this vein for a good long while. The last one might have been  “The River and the Highway.”  It’s the classic lover’s triangle: the man, the woman, and the impossible dream.

In this case, it’s the man who is chasing his dreams and cannot settle down, and it’s the woman who won’t wait around while he’s left her behind.  It’s structured well enough that you can’t anticipate if they will reconcile by the end of the song, if the man will give up the dream or the woman will chase it with him.

The storytelling is strong, with believable characters speaking in a believable voice. But it’s the arrangement that makes it a truly great record. Like those old Garth Brooks ballads like “Learning to Live Again”, “Colder Weather’ takes the essence of a classic rock power ballad and strips it down until it’s nearly bare.  Journey could have sung this one, but they never would have sung it this way.

Written by Coy Bowles, Zac Brown, Wyatt Durrette,  and Levi Lowrey.

Grade: B+

Listen: Colder Weather

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The Best Country Albums of 2010, Part 1: #20-#11

Countless albums were released in 2010, in mainstream country music, Americana, bluegrass, and all the other loosely associated sub-genres that make up the country universe.  Of those albums, our writers particularly enjoyed the following twenty.  All four writers submitted top ten lists for the year, and amazingly enough, there were exactly twenty different albums among them.  So if you’re wondering if your favorite album just missed the list…it didn’t.  But we’d love to hear why we were wrong in the comments.

Enjoy part one now, and look for the top ten on Friday.


#20
A Crooked Road
Darrell Scott

Tomorrow’s hits today, should the current crop of hitmakers want something as good on the radio as “Long Time Gone” or “It’s a Great Day to Be Alive,” or just want to have an album cut for the ages like “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive.” Scott’s a singer’s songwriter, delivering his songs with enough personality to elevate them above demos but leaving enough room for improvisation, so that any singer can put their own spin on it.

This twenty-track collection is stunningly strong, with his observations about politics and religion and history intriguing, but his take on human relationships being downright enlightening.  – Kevin Coyne Continue reading

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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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The Best Singles of 2010, Part 4: #10-#1

Our look back at the year’s best singles comes to a close, with unprecedented CU consensus at the top of the list.  The top two singles of the year were ranked in that order by three of our four writers, and both appeared in the top ten of the fourth writer.

Here’s our ten best of 2010:

The Best Singles of 2010, Part 4: #10-#1

#10

Draw Me a Map
Dierks Bentley

Bentley is getting a lot of deserved attention for sonically diverging from the mainstream to create a bluegrass-inspired album. It’s an excellent album, but to his credit, “Draw Me A Map” isn’t so far removed from some of the unreleased songs on his first two mainstream projects; It’s just that he gets to shine a finer focus on it for this album, and therefore, this seemingly subversive song for radio gets to be released. The inspired blend of Bentley’s ragged voice with Alison Krauss’ angelic one takes the song to an even sweeter level. – Leeann Ward

#9

Broken
Chely Wright

Robert Louis Stevenson once remarked that “Hope lives on ignorance; open-eyed Faith is built upon a knowledge of our life, of the tyranny of circumstance and the frailty of human resolution.” He was talking, in context, about marriage. The truth is that no one enters a relationship completely free of burden, and only by submitting to the complications of that truth can we avoid being ruled by them. Wright, for her part, manages the task with simple, earnest grace, probably strengthening her relationship through mere acknowledgment of its weaknesses. – Dan Milliken

#8

Drop On By
Laura Bell Bundy

Unlike the year’s other booze-induced lover’s call, “Drop On By” isn’t rooted in emotional dependency; it’s fueled by Bundy’s earthy physical longing – and what a longing that is. Proving her masterful interpretative skills, Bundy churns out a slow-burning performance that’s both deftly controlled and achingly sensual, with just a tinge of playful warmth woven through. The song’s kicker, though, is the smoky throwback arrangement – a delicious mix of blues, jazz and country – that not only fits Bundy like a glove, but pushes the boundaries of what constitutes a great country record. – Tara Seetharam

#7

Giddy On Up
Laura Bell Bundy

The most interesting and surprising debut single that I can remember. So many creative and unexpected choices are made, but it is Bundy’s forceful personality that pulls it all together into something cohesive.  In an era of country music that is little more than dull shades of gray, “Giddy On Up” is a Technicolor marvel. – Kevin Coyne

#6

As She’s Walking Away
Zac Brown Band featuring Alan Jackson

A young man just about chickens out of approaching the radiant girl across the bar, panicking that “my heart won’t tell my mind to tell my mouth what it should say.” Luckily, Wise Older Man At Bar can see exactly what’s going on and nudges Junior into action. A bit silly, but the single radiates such warmth that you gobble it up. And if there was a more motivational moment in 2010 than Alan Jackson’s spoken “Go on, son,” well, I didn’t hear it. – DM

#5

Smoke a Little Smoke
Eric Church

Church finally puts his music where his mouth is, delivering an unapologetic, roguish (for country radio, anyway) ode to escapism by intoxication. The erratic musical flow evokes the very physical sensations the song celebrates, and Church’s swagger makes bumming sound almost appealing. Turns out that if you stop talking about being a badass for long enough, you may just manage to kinda be one. – DM

#4

If I Die Young
The Band Perry

“If I Die Young”  arrives like a gift from an alternate universe, one where the public’s embrace of Alison Krauss, Nickel Creek, and O Brother was treated as a road map  for the genre’s future, not just a passing interest that needn’t be cultivated.  – KC

#3

Stuck Like Glue
Sugarland

Every once and awhile, a piece of ear candy comes along that defies the term “ear candy.” That’s what “Stuck Like Glue” is, to be sure: an infectious acoustic-pop morsel, invigorated by Nettles’ insanely joyful performance and a genre-busting breakdown. But there’s something about the song that puts it on another plane. Maybe it’s the organic energy, or maybe it’s the lack of artistic inhibition. Or maybe it’s the simple fact that “Stuck Like Glue” doesn’t try to be anything that it’s not. It just is. And as a result, it’s that rare breed of song that taps into your spirit – that demands you to stop thinking, start feeling and have a damn good time. – TS

#2

Little White Church
Little Big Town

It probably owes some theme to “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It),” but Little Big Town’s swampy sleeper hit is the coolest-sounding country single of the year all on its own. From handclaps to snarling electric licks, creepy whispers to gospel-esque call-and-response choruses, “Little White Church” is a potent reminder of all the creativity still bubbling under in Music City. – DM

#1

The House That Built Me
Miranda Lambert

Miranda Lambert’s career defining song is also our song of the year. Not much can be said about this gorgeous ode to childhood memories that hasn’t already been said better by countless writers before me, including our very own Dan Milliken, which helps make the case for what’s inevitably the song of the year on many 2010 countdowns.

Its all-acoustic, understated arrangement underscores the story of a woman who tries to find solace in the memories buried in a structure that was more than a house. Its descriptive lyrics move us as they detail memories from turning blueprints into the family dream home to the heartbreak of losing the family dog.

As it is always is with the best songs, “The House that Built Me” does not hit us over the head with its emotional resonance. It’s strong, it’s palpable, but it’s all done with gentleness, which is the most effective way to tug at the heartstrings. – LW

Check out the rest of the list:

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2010 CMA Awards: Staff Picks and Predictions

When the nominees were announced in August for the 44th annual CMA Awards, they sparked a firestorm of headlines –and thoughtful commentary by critics and fans alike– thanks to the CMA voters’ surprisingly bold moves. It’s all about change this year, as the voters revamped the ballot with a slew of fresh faces in almost all of the big categories.

How will it all play out? We’ll know for sure on Wednesday at 8pm Eastern, but before Gwenyth Paltrow throws on her cowboy boots, check out our staff picks and predictions and join the discussion in the comments below. And be sure to drop by Wednesday night for all of the CU live blog madness!

Entertainer of the Year

Should Win:

  • Lady Antebellum
  • Miranda Lambert – Kevin
  • Brad Paisley
  • Keith Urban
  • Zac Brown Band – Leeann, Dan, Tara

Kevin:  Among the five nominees, Miranda Lambert has best represented the genre this year.

Leeann: I’m torn between Lambert and the Zac Brown Band as most deserving this year. I recently saw Lambert’s show and wasn’t incredibly impressed, however. While I have not yet attended a ZBB show, theirs is one of the few spots that I look forward to at awards shows these days. Moreover, I’m impressed by how much of a following they had even before they made any mainstream records.

Dan: Of these five, Zac Brown Band had the second-most success this year (after Lady A) and made the second-best music (after Lambert), so that’s pretty good standing. And I feel like giving this award to a grassroots act would be a good way for the industry to greet the future.

Tara: I’m consistently impressed by Zac Brown Band’s live performances, and it would be really refreshing to see them win – so I’ll go with them. (But I’m still disappointed that the first year my head and heart align on Carrie Underwood deserving an EOTY award, I can’t support her. I’m holding out for 2012…)

Will Win:

  • Lady Antebellum
  • Miranda Lambert – Tara
  • Brad Paisley – Kevin, Leeann, Dan
  • Keith Urban
  • Zac Brown Band

Kevin: I’ve probably learned nothing from last year’s Swift sweep by going with Paisley again, but he’s the only nominee of veteran stature who hasn’t won yet.

Leeann: I can’t imagine that Paisley won’t finally win this one.

Dan: I was going to guess Lady A, since they’re sort of 2010’s “flavor of the year” the way Taylor Swift was 2009’s. But when I think about it, Swift’s ascent was greater and more gradual, and she stood in contrast to the rest of her nominee pool (four male veterans) in a way Lady A don’t with theirs (in which they’re one of three new competitors). So, Paisley.

Tara: I have no rationale. My gut says Lambert.

Male Vocalist of the Year

Should Win:

  • Dierks Bentley – Kevin, Leeann, Dan, Tara
  • Brad Paisley
  • Blake Shelton
  • George Strait
  • Keith Urban

Kevin: Bentley made the best music this year.

Leeann: Bentley may not have the best technical voice out of these nominees, but he has the most interesting and distinctive of them, which is always something that I gravitate toward. Also, I agree with Kevin that he’s made the best music this year.

Dan: Shelton and Bentley are the only ones in this pool who made significant career strides this year – Shelton at radio, and Bentley creatively. Since I’m backing someone else in the Album category, this is where I’d like to see Bentley recognized for following his muse.

Tara: I guess Up on the Ridge is as good a reason as any to fall off the Brad-for-MVOTY bandwagon. He’s a close second for me, though.

Will Win:

  • Dierks Bentley – Kevin, Dan
  • Brad Paisley – Leeann, Tara
  • Blake Shelton
  • George Strait
  • Keith Urban

Kevin: I can see the roots album giving Bentley an edge. Then again, Paisley could just repeat again, or Shelton may suddenly have deep support among voters. I say, Bentley by a nose.

Leeann: I think that voters will reflexively give this one to Paisley again.

Dan: I’ll ditto Kevin.

Tara: I can’t really see Paisley losing this one, but I think if he does lose to Bentley, it’ll be a telling moment.

Female Vocalist of the Year

Should Win:

  • Miranda Lambert – Kevin, Leeann, Dan
  • Martina McBride
  • Reba McEntire
  • Taylor Swift
  • Carrie Underwood – Tara

Kevin: Underwood and McEntire are the women who made my favorite singles from the eligibility period, but Lambert’s the only one who hasn’t won this award.  She’s not overdue, but she’s due.

Leeann: Kevin’s right that Lambert is due to win this award now, not to mention that she’s my favorite female singer out of the bunch.

Dan: Lambert still isn’t at Underwood’s sales level, much less Swift’s, and I don’t see her catching up before traditional music sales die out altogether. Doesn’t matter, though: her habit of making creative music will sustain her regardless of industry conditions, and will elevate the genre in the long run. It’s time to look ahead.

Tara: I’m 50/50 on Lambert and Underwood. I’m not sure how to balance Lambert’s long overdue mega-year against Underwood’s continuous stream of solid success, ambassadorship and artistic growth. I’ll be happy either way, but personal investment’s got me in Underwood’s camp.

Will Win:

  • Miranda Lambert - Kevin, Dan, Tara
  • Martina McBride
  • Reba McEntire
  • Taylor Swift
  • Carrie Underwood- Leeann

Kevin: I’d be shocked if Lambert lost, and can’t even make a guess as to who she’d lose to, should she somehow lose.

Leeann: It’s between Lambert and Underwood, but I give Underwood the edge, especially since it’s somewhat surprising that she didn’t get an Entertainer nomination. Although Lambert has gained popularity in the past year, Underwood is still one of the two biggest females in the business and I refuse to predict that Swift will win the award.

Dan: Lambert’s had enough mainstream success this year to give tasteful voters an excuse to give her some props.

Tara: The voters love them some Lambert this year, and I think of all her nominations, this is the one she’s got in the bag.

Vocal Duo of the Year

Should Win:

  • Brooks & Dunn
  • Joey + Rory – Kevin, Leeann, Dan, Tara
  • Montgomery Gentry
  • Steel Magnolia
  • Sugarland

Kevin: I’m assuming “Stuck Like Glue” was after the eligibility period, so I think actually making some music over the year is important. Joey + Rory are the only duo I like who have yet to win.

Leeann: I simply like them the most, but I know they don’t have a chance.

Dan: I mean, why not? Nobody on this ballot has done much but tour.

Tara: I’m not very excited about any of these acts right now, to be honest. It would just be heartwarming to see Joey + Rory pick this one up.

Will Win:

  • Brooks & Dunn – Kevin, Dan
  • Joey + Rory
  • Montgomery Gentry
  • Steel Magnolia
  • Sugarland – Leeann, Tara

Kevin: Sugarland’s year off helped guarantee a B&D victory lap, which would probably have happened anyway.

Leeann: It’s between Brooks & Dunn and Sugarland. I should just pick B&D because of their retirement, but I’m still going with Sugarland because of their popularity.

Dan: Brooks & Dunn, unless voters ignore the eligibility period and stick with Sugarland.

Tara: Isn’t the Brooks & Dunn retirement thing kind of old news by now, or am I just out of touch?

Vocal Group of the Year

Should Win:

  • Lady Antebellum – Tara
  • Little Big Town
  • Rascal Flatts
  • The Band Perry
  • Zac Brown Band – Kevin, Leeann, Dan

Kevin: Let’s start getting some variety in this category, instead of having Lady A own it for five years.

Leeann: They’re the only group that I like right now.

Dan: I’ll probably be rooting for Little Big Town come ACM season, but for now…

Tara: I don’t want Lady A to own this for five years, either, but I do think they deserve to win this year. At least in my opinion, their huge success on the charts and with album sales can be attributed much to their ability to (I know, I know – I’m a broken record) hone in on specific emotion and deliver it in a way that people can really connect with. There’s some meat (and a heck of a lot of potential) behind their success that tends to go unnoticed.

Will Win:

  • Lady Antebellum – Kevin, Leeann, Dan, Tara
  • Little Big Town
  • Rascal Flatts
  • The Band Perry
  • Zac Brown Band

Kevin: Lady A and Zac BB are both very popular with voters, but I’m thinking that this is the only race where voters can reward Lady A for dominating at retail this year.

Leeann: Ditto to Kevin.

Dan: New Artist will be ZBB’s consolation prize.

Tara: …And I think the voters will agree with my pick, if not for the same reasons.

New Artist of the Year

Should Win:

  • Luke Bryan
  • Easton Corbin
  • Jerrod Niemann
  • Chris Young – Leeann
  • Zac Brown Band - Kevin, Dan, Tara

Kevin: ZBB is in another league, which makes me wish they still called this the Horizon Award.

Leeann: It’s weird to see ZBB here considering their nominations elsewhere, so I think that Chris Young has the most potential of the remaining nominees.

Dan: I’d love to see Young take this, but ZBB can’t be denied.

Tara: This is a great line-up, but there’s no question that ZBB deserves this win.

Will Win:

  • Luke Bryan
  • Easton Corbin
  • Jerrod Niemann
  • Chris Young
  • Zac Brown Band – Kevin, Leeann, Dan, Tara

Kevin: ZBB is nominated for Entertainer of the Year, much like Ricky Skaggs was when he won Horizon in 1982. (Skaggs also won Male Vocalist, which means I may have to rethink my pick for Vocal Group, too.)

Leeann: Kevin’s argument is too compelling not to follow. Also, they are the most popular of the nominees, therefore, probably the most deserving.

Dan: Everyone here but Niemann has had a significant breakthrough. With ZBB in the mix, though, it’s no contest.

Tara: It’s a funky set-up to have ZBB nominated for both the top and bottom (figuratively) prizes, and I think this one will play out exactly the way Kevin explained it.

Album of the Year

Should Win:

  • Dierks Bentley, Up on the RidgeLeeann
  • Lady Antebellum, Need You Now
  • Miranda Lambert, Revolution – Dan, Tara
  • George Strait, Twang
  • Carrie Underwood, Play OnKevin

Kevin: I have all five of these albums, and Underwood’s is the one that I listen to the most, with Strait a not-too-close second. In 2010, of course, “listening to an album” really means “how many songs do I pull off the album and put on a play list,” which has Underwood ahead by three tracks.

Leeann: If I follow Kevin’s test, Bently wins with Lambert as a close second. Bentley’s is, hands down, my favorite album of these choices. I’d love to see something this different from the mainstream win.

Dan: Also employing Kevin’s test, I flip-flop Leeann’s first and second choices. Only about two thirds of Revolution click for me a year later, but those two thirds have helped redefined what I thought modern country could be (still flipping about “Me and Your Cigarettes”), and the stray third at least tried.

Tara: I’m not going to follow Kevin’s test: I don’t play Revolution quite as much as three of the other albums on here, but I feel it’s the most deserving. It’s sharp, smart and an excellent example of an artist taking her potential by the horns.

Will Win:

  • Dierks Bentley, Up on the Ridge
  • Lady Antebellum, Need You Now
  • Miranda Lambert, RevolutionKevin, Leeann, Dan, Tara
  • George Strait, Twang
  • Carrie Underwood, Play On

Kevin: I really do think Lambert will sweep. I think she should’ve won for her last album, which wasn’t even nominated, but I’m not going to complain about an ambitious album getting the prize.

Leeann: I’m guessing either Lambert or Underwood. Although Lambert has the better album, Underwood has the slight edge because it sold better. I wouldn’t be especially surprised if Lady A takes it though.

Dan: Seems to me like a toss-up between Lady A’s commercial favorite and Lambert’s critical one. Lambert?

Tara: This is Lambert’s to lose, but I wouldn’t be too surprised if Lady A (or maybe Bentley?) snatched it.

Single of the Year

Should Win:

  • Easton Corbin, “A Little More Country Than That”
  • Lady Antebellum, “Need You Now”
  • Miranda Lambert, “The House That Built Me” – Kevin, Leeann, Dan, Tara
  • Miranda Lambert, “White Liar”
  • Blake Shelton featuring Trace Adkins, “Hillbilly Bone”

Kevin: It’s the big chunk of meat in a category of mashed potatoes and candied apples.

Leeann: Kevin just made me really hungry, therefore, kind of distracted. It’s a good thing that my choice doesn’t need justification then.

Dan: “Need You Now” had the biggest impact, of course, but “The House That Built Me” was no slouch either – four weeks at #1 – and was arguably the riskiest, most rewarding release. Also of note: she sang it real pretty.

Tara: “Need You Now” and “The House That Built Me” are performed equally well, but “House” is the better-written song. I’ll go with “House” on the basis of that, but I do think country music will be represented justly either way. Both songs resonate with pure, compelling sentiment.

Will Win:

  • Easton Corbin, “A Little More Country Than That”
  • Lady Antebellum, “Need You Now” - Dan, Tara
  • Miranda Lambert, “The House That Built Me” - Kevin, Leeann
  • Miranda Lambert, “White Liar”
  • Blake Shelton featuring Trace Adkins, “Hillbilly Bone”

Kevin: I think Lady A would have a better shot if they hadn’t won last year for “I Run to You.”

Leeann: It’s simply the clear winner.

Dan: Again, somewhat for diversity’s sake, I’ll guess that many voters have already forgotten about “I Run to You” – I certainly have – and will use this category to recognize the biggest hit, while they use Song to recognize the best one.

Tara: I’m jumping on Dan’s train…

Song of the Year

Should Win:

  • “A Little More Country Than That” – Rory Lee Feek, Don Poythress & Wynn Varble
  • “Need You Now” – Dave Haywood, Josh Kear, Charles Kelley & Hillary Scott
  • “The House That Built Me” – Tom Douglas & Allen Shamblin – Kevin, Leeann, Dan, Tara
  • “Toes” – Zac Brown, Wyatt Durrette, John Hopkins & Shawn Mullins
  • “White Liar” – Natalie Hemby & Miranda Lambert

Kevin: Overall, I think that “Need You Now” is a better Single than Song, and that “The House That Built Me” is a better Song than Single, but “House” is better than “Need” on both counts.

Leeann: I’m just being repetative now. It’s the best single and song of the year.

Dan: It’s the deepest-cutting of the five and the most unique.

Tara: “The House That Built Me” is, quite simply, beautifully written.

Will Win:

  • “A Little More Country Than That” – Rory Lee Feek, Don Poythress & Wynn Varble
  • “Need You Now” – Dave Haywood, Josh Kear, Charles Kelley & Hillary Scott – Kevin
  • “The House That Built Me” – Tom Douglas & Allen Shamblin – Leeann, Dan, Tara
  • “Toes” – Zac Brown, Wyatt Durrette, John Hopkins & Shawn Mullins
  • “White Liar” – Natalie Hemby & Miranda Lambert

Kevin: Here’s where they can honor “Need You Now” without shortchanging Lambert.

Leeann: I just see “House” sweeping in all possible categories.

Dan: They often manage to pick the actual best song of the five, especially when that song is also the most “serious.”

Tara: This just seems way to obvious; I don’t see how the voters could bypass the most clearly deserving song.

Musical Event of the Year

Should Win:

  • Dierks Bentley featuring Jamey Johnson & Miranda Lambert, “Bad Angel” – Tara
  • Kenny Chesney with Dave Matthews, “I’m Alive”
  • Alan Jackson with Lee Ann Womack, “‘Til the End” – Leeann, Dan
  • Blake Shelton featuring Trace Adkins, “Hillbilly Bone” – Kevin
  • Zac Brown Band featuring Kid Rock, “Can’t You See”

Kevin: I don’t find any of these five songs particularly compelling, so I’ll go with the two artists who are longest overdue for some CMA love.

Leeann: I’m not big on any of these either, but the Jackson/Womack collaboration is the one I like the most if I have to choose.

Dan: I’d be fine with either “Til the End” or “Bad Angel”. Whatevs.

Tara: The Jackson/Womack song falls squarely within my typical taste, but “Bad Angel” gets under my skin – in a good way. It’s just a really cool record.

Will Win:

  • Dierks Bentley featuring Jamey Johnson & Miranda Lambert, “Bad Angel”
  • Kenny Chesney with Dave Matthews, “I’m Alive”
  • Alan Jackson with Lee Ann Womack, “‘Til the End”
  • Blake Shelton featuring Trace Adkins, “Hillbilly Bone”- Kevin, Leeann, Dan, Tara
  • Zac Brown Band featuring Kid Rock, “Can’t You See”

Kevin: Its presence in the Single category makes “Hillbilly Bone” the most likely winner.

Leeann: It’s the most mainstream of all the choices.

Dan: “Bad Angel” could play a welcome spoiler, since all three of the artists behind it command a lot of respect right now. I still see this going to the hit, though.

Tara: I’m predicting the big boys will win this one. It’s a decent song, but it makes me laugh that it gets as much love as it does – I mean, this is the song that has Adkins admitting that he’s “always wanted to sing a bone song”…!

Music Video of the Year

Should Win:

  • Lady Antebellum, “Need You Now”
  • Miranda Lambert, “The House That Built Me”
  • Miranda Lambert, “White Liar” – Kevin, Dan, Tara
  • Brad Paisley, “Water”
  • Blake Shelton featuring Trace Adkins, “Hillbilly Bone”

Kevin: Lambert made the two best clips, with the humor of “Liar” outpacing the literalism of “House.”

Dan: The “House” video is beautifully conceived and directed, but somehow the “White Liar” one just sticks out more. Maybe it’s because “White Liar” is a thinner song, so the video has more of a chance to establish its own identity.

Tara: The “White Liar” video is the brightest and most creative of the bunch.

Will Win:

  • Lady Antebellum, “Need You Now”
  • Miranda Lambert, “The House That Built Me”
  • Miranda Lambert, “White Liar” – Kevin, Dan, Tara
  • Brad Paisley, “Water”
  • Blake Shelton featuring Trace Adkins, “Hillbilly Bone”

Kevin: I think “White Liar” has won all the video awards this year, so I guess it will win again.

Dan: This is the logical place to reward the other Lambert single the CMA liked this year.

Tara: One of Lambert’s videos will win for sure. My best guess is “White Liar” since it’s won before, like Kevin said.

Musician of the Year

Should Win:

  • Paul Franklin (steel guitar) – Kevin, Leeann, Dan, Tara
  • Dann Huff (guitar)
  • Brent Mason (guitar)
  • Mac McAnally (guitar)
  • Randy Scruggs (guitar)

Kevin: Paul Franklin is the nominee I’m rooting for the most this year. Give the man, and the steel guitar, some long overdue recognition!

Leeann: It’s the steel guitar for heaven’s sake! It should be a no-brainer, even though it’s clearly not.

Dan: I won’t pretend I know what’s going on. I’m just going to root for the guy who hasn’t won yet until he finally does.

Tara: How can you pass up the steel guitar?

Will Win:

  • Paul Franklin (steel guitar)
  • Dann Huff (guitar)
  • Brent Mason (guitar)
  • Mac McAnally (guitar) – Kevin, Leeann, Dan, Tara
  • Randy Scruggs (guitar)

Kevin: Mac McAnally won the last two years, so I guess he’s the favorite. Did I mention that Franklin is 0-for-17 going into this year’s ceremony?

Leeann: I suppose its a habit to give it to McAnally at this point. So, why should I be so bold as to predict anyone else?

Dan: No justice!

Tara: Just going off of pattern here.


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Single Review: Zac Brown Band featuring Alan Jackson, “As She’s Walking Away”

Few mainstream singles this year have displayed the fine musicianship of “As She’s Walking Away,” the first single off the Zac Brown Band’s upcoming album, You Get What You Give. Sparsely produced, the song leaves ample breathing room for the equally gorgeous fiddle and full harmonies to make their respective impacts. More notably, the song is ripe with earnestness, from the sweet interplay between Brown and Jackson to the charming, honest performances. Even the energizing melody feels sincere.

In many ways, “As She’s Walking Away” is reminiscent of the shuffling, understated ditties about life’s little truths that soared in the 90s, many of which belonged to Jackson himself. But make no mistake: this is a distinct Zac Brown Band product, marked by the band’s signature charisma and Brown’s effective (and underrated) vocals. Just as he adds a layer of soul to “Highway 20 Ride,” Brown brings a spot-on, fresh vigor to this song, a delightful complement to Jackson’s even-keeled confidence. The two couldn’t play their roles better as the older Jackson coolly nudges Brown to ask the girl he’s been eying to dance.

Underneath this simplistic story, though, is a deeper nugget of wisdom, outlined in the chorus: “May have lost this battle/live to fight another day” suggests that life isn’t necessarily about that one defining moment, but rather, a vignette of moments that become what you make of them. There are no spectacular details about the girl in “As She’s Walking Away” because the pay-off isn’t so much the dance as it is the reward of taking that chance – or rolling the dice, as they put it.

Here’s to hoping the rest of You Get What You Give is as well-crafted as its debut single.

Written by Zac Brown & Wyatt Durrette

Grade: B+

Listen: As She’s Walking Away

Buy:

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