Sunday Selections: February 7, 2016

We just kind of can’t with this year’s ACM nominees.

2015 was a terrific year for country music, but you’d never know it from the often inexplicable and just as often indefensible slate of nominations that the Academy of Country Music put forth this week. Fortunately, there was plenty of other good news and better taste to go around, with interesting interviews with legends Tom T. Hall, Willie Nelson, and Lucinda Williams and upstarts Lindi Ortega, Cam, and Maren Morris, great live performances from Gretchen Peters, Carrie Underwood, Ashley Monroe, John Moreland, and Josh Ritter, and an unexpected bit of shade-throwing courtesy of Charles Kelley. This week’s news cycle isn’t even dominated by Chris Stapleton for once: Another Chris– Punch Brothers’ Chris Thile– is our MVP for the week.

There’s also an impressive crop of new releases and reissues out this week. Oddly, only one of those albums is by a woman, though, which is still one more album by a woman than the ACMs could bring themselves to nominate for Album of the Year…

Ghosts of Highway 20
New Releases & Reissues, 2/05/2016
Jason Collett, Song And Dance Man (Arts & Crafts)
Luther Dickinson, Blues & Ballads – A Folksinger’s Songbook: Volumes I & II  (New West)
The Infamous Stringdusters, Ladies & Gentlemen (Compass)
Charles Kelley, The Driver (Capitol Nashville)
Doug Kershaw, Anthology: Rare Masters 1958 – 1969 (Goldenlane / Cleopatra)
Jerry Lee Lewis, Country Class (1976), Country Memories (1977) (BGO)
The O’s, Honeycomb (Punch Five)
The Pines, Above the Prairie (Red House)
Charley Pride, Did You Think to Pray (1971), A Sunshiny Day With Charley Pride (1972), Sweet Country Songs of Love by Charley Pride (1973) (BGO)
David G. Smith, First Love (Hey Dave Music)
Elliott Smith, Heaven Adores You – Original Soundtrack (UMe)
Ralph Stanley & The Clinch Mountain Boys featuring Ricky Skaggs & Keith Whitley, The Complete Jessup Recordings Plus! (Real Gone Music)
Lucinda Williams, The Ghosts of Highway 20 (Highway 20)

News and Notes

ACMThe nominees for the 51st Academy of Country Music awards were announced this week. Typically, we would do a stand-alone post for these, but they’re a such a wretched lot (Chase Rice, Old Dominion, and RaeLynn are among the nominees, and the all-male Album of the Year line-up is three-fifths appalling) that we are having a hard time getting excited about them. And, as friend of the blog Deb B (a.k.a., Windmills Country) outlines in comprehensive detail, the influence of bloc voting within a particular management group further puts a damper on the whole affair. Chris Stapleton and Eric Church lead the nominees, so at least that’s something. (JK)

Don Williams was forced to postpone his 2016 tour due to unexpected hip replacement surgery. Ticket buyers are encouraged to contact local venues and authorized ticketing platforms regarding refunds. Best wishes to our Gentle Giant for a quick, safe recovery. (BF)

“Songwriters aren’t good songwriters. People are good songwriters. So all of my career I fought against sitting down as a ‘Songwriter.’ I would sit with that sneaker on my head, until I found humility and became a person.”
— Tom T. Hall, speaking to the always incisive Peter Cooper, in a lengthy interview for American Songwriter. Among the many highlights of the interview is Hall’s response to the derisive remarks Bob Dylan made about him during the “MusiCares Person Of The Year” presentation in February 2015. (JK)

“I was in the middle of a tour, playing a bunch of Bach. And I was in a hotel room practicing the B-minor Partita over and over again, and in between giving my hands a rest, I just started [strumming and singing] ‘I blew it off …’ It kind of came in even as I was blowing off practicing the B-minor Partita.”
— MacArthur Foundation certified genius Chris Thile of The Punch Brothers tells The Current about the origins of “I Blew It Off,” which ranked on our list of 2015’s best singles. Thile’s creative process mirrors that of so many other contemporary country stars! Seriously, though: He’s just the best. (JK)

Speaking of Thile, he and Sarah Jarosz premiered the new song that they penned for his new gig as host of A Prairie Home Companion. (JK)

For even more on Thile, No Depression‘s Ted Lehmann wrote an editorial that’s sure to rankle some Bluegrass purists. In “Bela Fleck and Chris Thile: Following the Artist’s Muse,” Lehmann argues that it’s the fearlessness of acts like Fleck and Thile to incorporate a wide range of influences into traditional Bluegrass music– one of the most formally conservative of musical genres– that keep the genre vital. (JK)

People magazine posted a short preview of American Masters – Loretta Lynn: Still a Mountain Girl, PBS’ documentary about the legendary artist. The film, which premieres on March 4th, features a host of stars from Miranda Lambert to Jack White who speak about her influence. (JK)

“I was really thankful just to be out of Nashville for a second. I was driving around, and all of a sudden it just hit me — the title, ‘My Church,’ popped in my mind. I was maybe looking for some sort of salvation in that moment on that writing trip. It was an escape for me — and not really a religious one, just something to get out of my own head.”
— Maren Morris, recounting the origins of her breakthrough hit, “My Church,” in an interview with Billboard. The article provides an insightful peek behind-the-curtain with Morris and co-writer busbee, who discuss the song’s structure and production choices in smart detail. (JK)

Buddy Miller’s latest album, Cayamo Sessions at Sea, was released last week and features a terrific duet with Kacey Musgraves on a cover of Buck Owens’ “Love’s Gonna Live Here.” (JK)

You can listen to Vince Gill’s new album before its February release date, thanks to NPR’s First Listen. Be sure to read Jewly Hight’s great review of the album, as well! (LMW)

And if you need a good way to spend the next 6 hours, you can play around at Six Degrees Of Vince Gill, which is exactly what it sounds like. The highest number of degrees we have yet obtained is 4, thanks to K-Pop girl group SISTAR and Icelandic indie-pop act Sigur Ros. Vince is very well-connected. (JK)

“I think we all have these skeletons in the closet or whatever demons or things that haunt us. It’s part of the human condition. I guess some folks like to pretend that part doesn’t exist and want to sweep it under the rug or whatever. It always makes me feel less alone when I realize that other people go through this same experience and is part of being human. Sometimes I tweet things like that just to show no one’s alone.”
— Lindi Ortega talks about her reputation for getting a “little dark” with Steve Wosahla of For The Country Record. (JK)

Humming House, whose album Revelries ranked on our 2015 countdown of the year’s best albums, were profiled on The Today Show for their participation in a fantastic initiative called “Sing Me A Story” that turns the life stories of children battling diseases into uplifting songs. (JK)

“Those stories [about the TVA] have fueled thousands of works of art — from films like the Coen brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? to songs like Mike Cooley’s ‘Uncle Frank.’ But the stories from the other side fed the culture, too, which is how, a few years after Cooley’s song, Jason Isbell penned his own ‘TVA’ during his time in the same band. ‘Thank God for the TVA,” Isbell sang. “Where Roosevelt let us all work for an honest day’s pay.'”
— Chuck Reece, writing for Bitter Southerner, profiled photographer Micah Cash’s upcoming “Dangerous Waters” series and book in a must-read and must-see piece that makes reference to how the TVA figures into contemporary art, including songs by Drive-By Truckers and Jason Isbell. (JK)

Country Universe favorite Gretchen Peters gave a lovely performance of one of her very best songs, which is to say one of the very best songs– “On a Bus to St. Cloud”– for the BBC2’s “Celtic Connections.” Peters also won “International Album of the Year” for Blackbirds and “International Song of the Year” for its title track at The UK Americana Music Association awards this week. (JK)

Singer-songwriter Josh Ritter got dressed up in his finest painter’s overalls for a performance of his awesome single “Getting Ready to Get Down” on Conan. (JK)

“I remember when [Lady Antebellum] started, I would get all these texts and calls, especially when “Need You Now” came out: “This song is blowing my mind.” There was something so gratifying about hearing that from your peers. And then the phone kind of went silent for a few years. I was like, “Man, I wanna make music again that gets the town talkin’, that really moves people.” …For me there’s this beautiful thing of being able to have this huge commercial success with Lady Antebellum, but then being able to have this purely creative, artistic outlet. Whether it becomes this huge success or not, at least I know in my heart that I’ve made a record that I was 100% proud of and that I was uncompromising on it.”
— Charles Kelley, not exactly not throwing Lady Antebellum under the bus in an interview with Jewly Hight for NPR. Whether his solo debut, The Driver, is any less middlebrow and dull than Lady A’s last three albums remains to be seen, but it’s interesting to see that he isn’t exactly defending the trio’s work while on his promotional rounds now that they’re on a hiatus. (JK)

Ashley Monroe visited the historic Sun Studios in Memphis, where she gave a performance of “From Time To Time” from The Blade. (JK)

“For me to be able to have a major label deal and be able to make a record I love, and that they let me make, it’s just amazing. On top of that, I get a Grammy nomination for pretty much just spilling out my heart. I can’t even put (my feelings) into words.”
— Monroe again, reflecting on the success of The Blade and her nomination for Best Country Album during Nashville’s annual Grammy nominee party. The Tennessean covered the event and spoke to Monroe, Little Big Town, and contemporary Christian singer TobyMac. (JK)

Josh Brolin will play George Jones and Jessica Chastain will play Tammy Wynette in the forthcoming biopic No Show Jones. The film’s screenplay comes from the Academy Award nominated team who recently wrote Straight Outta Compton. (LMW)

Rolling Stone premiered “Something Tamed, Something Wild,” the first single from Mary Chapin Carpenter’s upcoming album, The Things That We Are Made Of, which is scheduled for release on May 6th. The album is produced by superproducer du jour Dave Cobb, and the single has more in common with Carpenter’s 90s output than with the more somnolent coffeehouse fare she’s released over the last decade. Dare we say this is the first time we’ve been excited to hear her newest album in a good long while. (JK)

Rather than performing a track from his latest album (2015’s High on Tulsa Heat) for his network television debut, John Moreland gave a riveting, stripped-down performance of “Break My Heart Sweetly” from 2013’s In the Throes on Late Night with Stephen Colbert. (JK)

“I’m a huge Frank Sinatra fan. He’s my favorite singer. I’ve been listening to him for many, many years. And I loved the way he phrased — that he kind of sung it the way he wanted to. I liked that, and felt like it was easy for me to do.”
— Willie Nelson, who sat down with veteran journalist Dan Rather for an in-depth interview, cited Frank Sinatra as his favorite singer. Their conversation was recorded for Rather’s program The Big Interview, which airs weekly on AXS-TV. Rather also interviewed Tanya Tucker this week. (JK)

“I remember when I first read Flannery O’Connor, when I was 15 or 16, and it just drew me in because I identified with it. Some of the characters in her stories reminded me of some of my relatives on my mother’s side of the family. So I’ve been trying to write about that since I started writing, but I just kind of learned how recently. It’s not easy to use the imagery in songs without sounding kind of corny, or without stereotyping things. It’s really challenging.”
— Lucinda Williams reflected on the influence of author Flannery O’Connor on her songwriting and the particular challenges involved in writing songs that evoke a specific sense of place in a fascinating interview with Vulture. The interview is a must-read for fans of Williams’ one-of-a-kind songwriting, and it spans multiple eras of her storied career. Her new album, The Ghosts of Highway 20, has been earning rave reviews, including an insightful analysis by Sam C. Mac for Slant Magazine. (JK)

LBBAHSLaura Bell Bundy, another Country Universe favorite, was honored this week for her work with the American Heart and American Stroke Associations. Bundy served as a national Go Red For Women spokesperson during 2015. (JK)

“I think what I’m all about is interesting melodies. I love melody a lot. And I think I come from a lot of different musical influences because I grew up in a choir that sang in lots of different languages. So by the time I finished high school, I could sing 14 languages, like World Music.”
— Cam, in an interview with “Broadway’s Electric Barnyard,” responds directly to a negative review of her album, Untamed. In addition to her notes about melody, she also addresses her approach to lyrical content and to the album’s overall production aesthetic. It’s a brief interview, but Cam impresses for her thoughtful, on-the-spot answers about her creative process. (JK)

Pop-rap artist Nelly, who is recording a country album, released his cover of Ed Sheeran’s “Thinking Out Loud” Thomas Rhett’s “Die a Happy Man” this week, and it is neither more nor less country-sounding than Rhett’s single, which topped the country radio charts for 6 weeks. (JK)

chase-rice-letter“I’m not ignorant, there are a lot of people out there waiting for country music to find a little more depth and meaning. Well, I agree with you. Country music deserves that. This first song may not be what you’re looking for yet, but that’s ok, because music was not meant to be heard in singles, but in albums. My album will be out later this summer, and I can promise you one thing….if you absolutely love this progressive version, I appreciate you, and I think you will love this upcoming ALBUM.”
— Chase Rice, who released a bizarre letter to his fans this week. The letter reads as an apology for his sleazy and damn near unlistenable new single, “Whisper,” which he swears, you guys, is not representative of his album that will be released later this year. Rice asserts that the ALBUM will reflect his depth as an artist, but it remains to be seen if that amounts to the same brand of “depth” offered by Florida Georgia Line’s “Dirt” and “Confession” or Luke Bryan’s “Drink A Beer” or Cole Swindell’s “You Should Be Here” or any of the other major bro-country acts’ middling attempts at more substantive material. That Rice is already apologizing for his new single on the day of its release, though, is a strange PR maneuver. (JK)

High quality video of Carrie Underwood’s Storyteller “In the Round” tour has started to turn up online. Here, Underwood sings “Dirty Laundry” before she absolutely tears it up on the harmonica in the opening of career higlight “Choctaw County Affair,” which really just has to be a single at some point. (JK)

And for another take…

Underwood’s set list includes covers of Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s “Fishing in the Dark” and Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You.” The latter –a lovely, bare-bones showcase of her voice– has me wishing she’d make good on her promise to do an acoustic tour. (TS)

That will do it for this week! Be sure to check out Kevin’s reviews of the latest singles from Tim McGraw and Reba, and, as always, let us know in the comments if we missed anything.


  1. I didn’t necessarily hate the ACM nominations. I understood the Raelynn nomination (she can’t sing and shouldn’t have had a label sighing to begin with) but she was qualified. Now the fact that Chris Young I’m Coming Over is nominated and not Kacey Musgraves Pageant Material or Maddie & Tae Start Here that’s not right. I’m hoping that the Miranda Lambert love will stop given her lacking radio support. But well I think the award shows just refuse to give Carrie Underwood an award so I expect another Miranda win.

    Cam is an artist that lately I’ve just loved as her debut album was one of my favorites. I hope her newly announced song “Mayday” becomes a huge hit.

  2. I like the new MCC song, “Something Tamed, Something Wild”. I agree with your comment that ” the single has more in common with Carpenter’s 90s output than with the more somnolent coffeehouse fare she’s released over the last decade.” I can’t remember the last time I played a 21st century MCC album from beginning to end.

  3. We’ll see how things go with Chase Rice. As I said elsewhere, he has a lot to make up for after “Cruise” and “Ready Set Roll” alone, to say nothing of his general attitude on social media.

    (I thought “Dirt” was kinda meh and “Drink a Beer” was okay, but I saw people on Reddit swooning over “You Should Be Here,” and all I could think was, Obviously none of these people have heard George Strait’s “Everything I See.”)

    Sigh. Is Nelly also going to be covering Sam Hunt?

  4. I didn’t really read the Charles Kelley quote as bashing Lady A as much as speaking to how that success afforded him the ability to record material a little more introspective and personal. And as I’ve said in the past, I’m in the minority loving the more recent MCC output (“Songs from the Movie” was lush and moving to me). Having said that, “Something Tamed Something Wild” is a great return to what brought her to the masses and I’m not upset about that at all.

  5. I wish Underwood would show more of that kind of performance/creativity in her awards shows performances. Not that it would overcome the voting bloc issue (the specifics in mjsblog were fascinating), but I think it would take her to the next level in terms of artistic credibility.

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