My Kind of Country

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Concert Review: Jennifer Nettles & Brandy Clark at The South Shore Music Circus

IMG_3594The gentle plucking of an acoustic guitar and rolling percussion fill the tent. Most turn a deaf ear to the customary sounds of house music as a concert commences. The lights were low and the stage empty, instruments waiting to be played, microphones eager to be sung into. A baby-voiced vocal adds character to the instrumentation, a singer with a distinctive bite. It’s a forty-one year old classic recording, a composition we’ve all dug into time and again. When the two-and-a-half minute ballad draws to a close, the audience erupts. The band files in and begins.

More light procession fills the tent. The sounds are different this time, subtly so, modernized with handclaps. The singer, with her sandy blonde hair back in a ponytail adorning dark jeans and a white Keith Richards tank under a white vest is handed a guitar. She makes her way to the microphone for a seemingly endless parade of “ohohohohohs” before launching into, “a friend gave me your number…”

The delicate connection between the two songs is missed, if you weren’t aware Jennifer Nettles and Butch Walker wrote “That Girl” as an answer song to Dolly Parton’s “Jolene,” which filled the air before the band took the stage. Little connections like that were the benchmark of the evening, as Nettles gifted the crowed a lengthy set that had the audience in the palm of her hand.

I’ve been fortunate enough to have seen Jennifer perform three times as part of Sugarland and she remains one of the greatest artists I’ve ever seen take a stage. Her ability to capture an audience has always been electrifying, but she was on fire at the South Shore Music Circus, a partly biased observation aided by my front-row set, a position allowing me to capture every nuance of her movement on the circular stage.

Nettles ran through the entirety of her That Girl album, weaving each track through the set like a river snaking towards an ocean. Keeping an audience engaged with songs that didn’t receive support from radio is an undertaking, but she did it by giving them context, allowing us to hear what she was hoping to achieve with each track.

This context allowed me to finally appreciate the album, which by itself can come off a bit cold. She explained the connection to 70s radio by first gifting us with a spirited take on Ambrosia’s “Biggest Part of Me” and one of Barry Manilow’s ballads before launching into “This One’s For You.”

The rest mostly got short explanations (i.e. “here’s one about…”) and all were excellent and true to form. The highlight was easily “This Angel,” a perfect excuse for Nettles to use the theatre atmosphere to allow her vocal to soar but also reduce to near whisper, silencing the audience. She paired the song about her son with “All I Wanna Do,” Sugarland’s #1 from six years ago, claiming the upbeat ode to spending time with your lover as the prequel.

Throughout the night Nettles ran through a majority of Sugarland’s hits, performing at least one song from each of their albums except, but not all that surprising, The Incredible Machine. “Baby Girl” was as infectious as always and “Stay” did its job of bringing down the house. She brought local girl Kristen Merlin, who finished fourth on The Voice this past spring, on stage for a great duet of “Something More,” which they mashed up with a snippet of Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy.”

IMG_3573I’ve always adored her foray into covering rock songs, and at the August 8 show, she didn’t disappoint. She launched into the song with no warning, and I wailed when I figured out she was doing “Demons” by Imagine Dragons. The track is perfect for her voice and aesthetic, a meaty ballad right up her alley. She closed by encoring with “Thank You,” a perfect slice of gratitude towards the audience, and “Like A Rock.”

I’ve always found it near impossible to accurately convey my admiration for Nettles as a performer – her love of music and being on stage are so intrinsic, it’s palpable. The little things made the night – how she posed at the piano so I could take a picture of her, how she sang directly to a friend who was sitting next to me. Jennifer makes eye contact with the crowd and makes you feel like you’re a part of the show. I’m never happier than when I leave a night in her presence.

Of course, I love her even more for bringing along Brandy Clark as her opener. Clark’s set was short, but she made a nice impression. Instead of merely running through tracks from 12 Stories, Clark focused on a couple of newly written tunes and the requisite songs she’s written for other performers. “Mama’s Broken Heart” is a sweeter number in her hands, and she told the story of how “Better Dig Two” was written as a love song, not a murder ballad. She closed with “Stripes,” but my favorite moment of her set was “Hold My Hand,” a standout 12 Stories cut that showcased her voice and while I don’t love “Get High,” it worked well at the show. Clark’s only misstep was joining Nettles on “His Hands” during Nettles’ set as her microphone wasn’t working right and you couldn’t hear her too well.

Although I’m struggling to find the right words, this was easily (along with the Kathy Mattea show from 2013), the best concert of my life; a moment in time I hope never to forget. Nettles changes your life with her transcendent being and positivity. Everything, even something as kooky as giving away a guitar via Twitter during the show, just works. Nettles may’ve lost herself during The Incredible Machine era, but she’s firmly back on track now and enjoying every minute of the ride.

Classic Rewind – Sugarland – ‘Fall Into Me’

Possibly my favorite Sugarland song. “Fall Into Me” appeared as the first bonus cut on the ‘Deluxe Fan Edition’ from their magnificent Love On The Inside album from 2008. Co-written by Jennifer Nettles, Kristian Bush, and Scooter Carusoe, it should’ve made the album proper and would’ve been huge had it been released as a single.

Album Review – Jennifer Nettles – ‘That Girl’

ThatGirlCDIn the four years since Sugarland graced us with The Incredible Machine it’s become abundantly clear that the project was the inaugural example of country music’s changing tide from a genre of integrity to one corrupted by an 80s rock mentality. As the first instance of the paradigm shift the results were shocking, but in context they make a little more sense.

There’s no secret fans have been clamoring for a redo from the duo, but the fallout from still-pending lawsuits relating to the collapse of their stage at the Indiana State Fair in August 2011, where seven people died, have prevented their collective return to music.

In the meantime, we have That Girl, the first solo offering from Jennifer Nettles; a project she says she’s been writing for the past three years. When the album was announced last summer I was excited, mostly because Rick Rubin was at the helm. Rubin, the man behind Johnny Cash’s American Recordings and Dixie Chicks’ spellbinding Taking The Long Way, knows how to craft complete albums better than almost anyone. So to say my expectations were unbelievably high would be an understatement.

By all accounts, That Girl is a solidly above average album. Nettles’ songwriting skills are sharper than ever and she delivers one stunning vocal after another. But the ingredients just don’t add up, leaving the bulk of That Girl feeling lost and cold.

More than nine years ago I fell in love with Nettles’ voice when “Just Might (Make Me Believe)” was climbing the charts and became obsessed with “Want To” when it led their second album two years later. There was a beautiful intimacy to those tracks that coupled with decidedly country production (fiddles, dobros, and mandolins) created an indelible magic that only got stronger with each passing album.

That Girl retains the intimacy but is completely void of the country production elements from Sugarland’s best work. Seeing that this is a solo project, it’s unfair for Nettles to be expected to carry over the Sugarland sound. But Rubin has presided over an album that can hardly be called country at all, even by today’s standards. That wouldn’t normally be a problem but it aids in helping That Girl loose focus, and without a big standout track, the CD (as a whole) falls into a sea of sameness the renders the proceedings kind of boring.

But I do like and appreciate some of the tracks on their own merits. I love the sentiment of “Thank You,” her co-write with Little Big Town’s Phillip Sweet. The acoustic guitar backdrop is sleepy, but the pair managed to craft a wonderful lyric about appreciation that’s both beautiful and endearing. “Good Time To Cry,” co-written with Mike Reid, is an outstanding R&B flavored number and one of Nettles’ best vocals ever committed to record. She also hits “Falling,” a number about loosing one’s virginity, out of the park. It’s also the closet vocally to the Nettles’ we’ve come to know and love.

The sea of sameness is broken up a few times by some uptempo tracks, although none are overwhelmingly exciting. There’s a Caribbean feel to Kevin Griffin co-write “Jealousy” and somewhat of a hook, but the song gets a tad annoying with repeated listenings. Richard Marx co-write “Know You Wanna Know” succeeds on wordplay, and “Moneyball” displays the most personality from Nettles. The problem with the upbeat material isn’t the lyrical content but rather Rubin’s decision to make them feel too serious. Nettles has shown in the past she does better when she can be more playful (think “Settlin’” or “Steve Earle”).

I really wanted to love That Girl a lot more than I do, as I’ve been unhealthily obsessed with Nettles’ voice over the years and have seen Sugarland live three times. This solo effort would’ve been a stronger listening experience if it had been more varied in tempo, with a few more hook-laden songs and less sameness balladry. If these songs were sprinkled over the course of a few albums, I bet we would’ve been able to appreciate them more. That Girl is by no means a bad album, but it’s not the transcendent project it could and should’ve been.

Grade: B- 

Single Review: Jennifer Nettles – ‘That Girl’

jennifer nettles - that girlOn her first chart outing as a soloist, Jennifer Nettles revisits the stuff of Sugarland’s awards show-sweeping “Stay”, which won Nettles half a dozen trophies as the song’s only writer.

In 2007’s “Stay”, Jennifer Nettles sang from the perspective of the longsuffering other woman.  In interviews, Nettles has said “Stay” was inspired by Reba McEntire’s 1986 hit “Whoever’s in New England”. She flipped the protagonist to the other woman, and the song was born. This time, Nettles has given “Jolene”, the redhead from Dolly Parton’s classic 1973 hit, her own voice.

“Stay” finds the other woman weeping and wailing and literally begging a man to stay with her.  “That Girl” finds the other woman reacting to her transgression with far more grace. The other woman in “Stay” pushes away a dead-end situation eventually, where “That Girl” finds her relatively unscathed and quick to retreat.

Producer Ruck Rubin has the whole affair played out in a winning minor key, with canned percussion and a gloomy-sounding bass.  As for Nettles, she’s singing with an appropriate loose efficiency – none of her trademark throaty twang –  for what she’s got to say, which goes something like: “I always kinda liked you. Sorry I slept with your man. He called me by your name (mine’s Jolene). Hope it’s all cool.”

Revisiting a classic country song is a different and unique idea for today’s mainstream country stars. Like the idea behind it, “That Girl” is a bit offbeat, but not without its charm and it’s well executed. It all works for me.

Grade: B+

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Single Review – Danielle Bradbery – ‘The Heart of Dixie’

Danielle-Bradbery-The-Heart-Of-Dixie-Cover-ArtOne of the biggest mysteries in contemporary country music has been the ongoing stagnation at the top for female artists. Not since Taylor Swift debuted with “Tim McGraw” in June 2006, has a woman been able to have consistent airplay for their singles. Some (Jana Kramer and Kacey Musgraves) have launched big but seemingly fizzled out while others (Kellie Pickler and Ashton Shepherd) have been dropped by major labels after multiple albums worth of singles couldn’t peak better than top 20. You have to look at duos and groups to find any other females (Jennifer Nettles, Hillary Scott, Kimberly Perry, Shawna Thompson, Joey Martin Feek) who are having success and even they have enough male energy to keep them commercially viable.

Let’s not forget that two summers ago, fourteen days went by without a single song by a solo female in the top 30 on the Billboard Country Singles Chart. With the demographics in country music skewing younger and the music-seeking public increasingly more and more female, is there any hope this pattern will change? Can anyone break through the muck and join the ranks of Swift, Miranda Lambert, and Carrie Underwood?

If anyone can, it’s Danielle Bradbery. She has three strikes in her favor already – at 17 she’s young enough to appeal to the genre’s core demographic audience, she’s signed to the Big Machine label Group run by master monopolizer Scott Borchetta, and as winner of The Voice, she has Blake Shelton firmly in her corner. Plus, she’s an adorable bumpkin from Texas who has enough charisma and girl next door appeal to last for days.

They also nailed it with her debut single. “The Heart of Dixie” isn’t a great song lyrically speaking. Bradbery is singing about a girl named Dixie who flees her dead-end life (job and husband) for a better existence down south. But that’s it. There’s nothing else in Troy Verges, Brett James, and Caitlyn Smith’s lyric except a woman who gets up and goes – no finishing the story. How Matraca Berg or Gretchen Peters would’ve written the life out of this song 20 years ago. Also, could they have found an even bigger cliché than to name her Dixie?

But the weak lyric isn’t as important here as the melody. It has been far too long since a debut single by a fresh talent has come drenched in this much charming fiddle since probably Dixie Chicks. The production is a throwback to the early 2000s – think Sara Evans’ “Backseat of a Greyhound Bus” – and I couldn’t be happier. So what if the arrangement is a tad too cluttered? Who cares if Bradbery needs a little polish in her phrasing? There isn’t a rock drum or hick-hop line to be found here, and in 2013 country music that’s a very refreshing change of pace.

Bradbery isn’t the savior for female artists in country music. Expect for her Voice audition of “Mean” and a performance of “A Little Bit Stronger,” we’ve yet to hear Bradbery the artist, although Bradbery the puppet has been compelling thus far. Her lack of a booming vocal range like Underwood’s may also hurt her, but isn’t it time someone understated turned everything down a notch?

With everything she has going in her favor, Bradbery may be our genre’s best hope for fresh estrogen. I don’t see her injecting anything new into country music, but redirecting the focus back to a time when “Born To Fly”-type songs were topping the charts, isn’t a bad thing in my book. Hers mostly likely won’t be that lyrically strong, but if she can keep the fiddle and mandolin front and center – I won’t be complaining.

Grade: B 

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2012 CMA Awards: our predictions

The 46th annual Country Music Association annual awards ceremony will take place on November 1, 2012 at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena. The show will air live on ABC television again this year and is presented by the pairing of Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood, who will take over hosting duties for the fifth consecutive year. Eric Church and his massive hit “Springsteen” lead the list of nominees, with Miranda Lambert and Blake Shelton close behind him.

On awards night, look for a musical tribute to Willie Nelson and The Band Perry to debut the first taste of their Rick Rubin produced sophomore album. There’s also talk that Female Vocalist nominee Kelly Clarkson will debut “Don’t Rush” on the telecast, a duet with Vince Gill featured from her Greatest Hits, Chapter One album in stores Nov. 19. Also look forward to a duet from Tim McGraw and Faith Hill (which I’ve heard is during the Nelson tribute), and solo performances from each.

Entertainer of the Year

Jason Aldean
Kenny Chesney
Brad Paisley
Blake Shelton
Taylor Swift – Jonathan Pappalardo, J.R. Journey

The usual solid yet unspectacular group. Carrie Underwood fans are likely fuming at yet another snub, while everyone else will bark at the inclusion of Swift, a two-time winner and the incumbent, for her increasing lack of country credibility. But Aldean is the nominee to watch, as his recent stadium tour announcement will likely endear him to voters in the years to come.

Jonathan Pappalardo: I’ll bet on the safest choice this time around and say Taylor Swift is going to win. Chesney may have had the biggest tour, and Aldean is on fire right now, but Swift has the lock on this category.

J.R. Journey: Taylor Swift now not only represents about one-fourth of the total United States GDP, she also hawks makeup, perfume, and shoes on the side. And she just had the #1 song in 12 countries. I say Swift is most likely to succeed on CMA night.

Female Vocalist of the Year

Kelly Clarkson
Miranda Lambert – Jonathan Pappalardo
Martina McBride
Taylor Swift – J.R. Journey
Carrie Underwood

Kelly Clarkson, really? She did score a #21 hit with the country version of “Mr. Know It All” so her nomination is somewhat, albeit very marginally, justified. She has yet to fully embrace a career in country music. McBride is a snoozer scoring her 14th consecutive nomination and 15th overall as her career takes a downward spiral. See, this is what happens when all the great female artists of late (Kimberly Perry, Jennifer Nettles, Shawna Thompson) are members of duos and groups.

Jonathan Pappalardo: While I’d love to see this award go to Clarkson (to tick off the industry if nothing else), she’s a pop singer who’s done a bang up job covering country songs in concert. That’s about it. Miranda Lambert, meanwhile, is the biggest star in country music right now that actually looks and sounds country. And her intuition to form the Pistol Annies proves she’s not afraid to take creative risks. Its her award to lose, and I don’t foresee that happening.

J.R. Journey: Taylor Swift is the likely winner here for pretty much the same reasons she’ll win Entertainer of the year. Miranda Lambert’s new solo music is way below her usual standards this year and I think Carrie Underwood’s dog already had its day in this category, so I don’t see voters leaning toward either of them. 

Male Vocalist of the Year

Jason Aldean
Luke Bryan
Eric Church
Blake Shelton - Jonathan Pappalardo, J.R. Journey
Keith Urban

Another somewhat standard list until you take into account Urban is here in place of red-hot Dierks Bentley. Bentley’s exclusion, which comes on the heels of three back-to-back #1 hits is shocking. Urban should be joining Brad Paisley and been made to sit this one out this year.

Jonathan Pappalardo:  There’s seemingly no stopping Blake Shelton right now despite one mediocre single after another. He’s the biggest star here next to Jason Aldean and the all around better vocalist. He’ll sail to his third straight win no problem.

J.R. Journey: Blake Shelton is coming off two consecutive wins here and his visibility remains higher than Aldean’s, the next closest competitor. Long shots for the win Luke Bryan and Eric Church are still newcomers and first time nominees leaving Keith Urban the longest shot “veteran” slot. For my money, Shelton will repeat a third time here.

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Album Review – Lori McKenna – ‘Lorraine’

The mark of a great album lies in the ability to match exceptionally well-written and well-crafted songs, with an equally as powerful a singer. When one element is missing, the whole project fails. In the case of McKenna, she has crafted perfection. Lorraine is also the best country album by a female artist since Miranda Lambert’s Revolution. The mixture of both heartbreak and hope, coupled with a sense of deep longing, make this project sparkle. Never has the emptiness of loosing a parent at a young age (McKenna lost her mother when she was seven) been so palpable and the ache in moving forward so heartbreakingly real.

To listen to McKenna is to hear the truth of a woman who has endured and lived. She lives with her husband, a plumber, and their five children in Stoughton, Massachusetts. She was quietly perfecting her sound when, in 2005, she caught the ear of Faith Hill. Hill was so taken aback by what she heard, she demanded to hear everything McKenna had ever written. As a result, Hill included three of McKenna’s songs (“Stealing Kisses”, “Fireflies,” and “If You Ask”) on her 2005 Fireflies album. McKenna has since gone on to record a major label country album (2007’s Unglamorous) and have her songs covered by the likes of Sara Evans, Tim McGraw, singer/actress Mandy Moore, Jimmy Wayne, and most recently Keith Urban. And a track she co-wrote, “Chances Are,” was sung by actor Garrett Hedlund and included in the movie Country Strong. The major label deal has since ended, and her new album Lorraine, her given name, and that of her mother, is self-released through Signature Sounds.

McKenna’s greatest appeal isn’t her singing and songwriting – it’s the throwback nature of her music. She isn’t bred from the same cloth as Jennifer Nettles or Carrie Underwood and she’s more accessible to the mainstream audience than either Patty Griffin or Lucinda Williams. McKenna is most importantly a thinking person’s country singer, a modern day Emmylou Harris, and the rightful torchbearer of that all but dead subset of the genre. Her country is neither polished or glossy – it’s just her truth as she knows it.

On the 13 tracks, McKenna proves she is leaps and bounds ahead of her peers by actually having something substantive to deliver to her audience. By staying clear of the cliche machine that is Nashville, she never once succumbs to the trickery of the business. Making her mark by taking complete creative control and forging her own path, McKenna puts quality first – something sorely missing from 99 percent of the recordings emerging from Music City. Lorraine showcases a woman free to do what she pleases and deliver spectacular results.

The opening song, “The Luxury of Knowing,” recently scooped up by Keith Urban for the deluxe edition of his Get Closer album, sets the scene. Both somber and brooding, “Knowing” commands attention for McKenna’s stunning vocal alone. She stretches her unmistakeable twang further than ever before, creating an emotional ache so palpable you feel right along with her. Credit must also go to Urban who clearly knows a true gem when he hears it. It’s just too bad his version will never bring the song the mainstream attention it deserves. It hardly matters anyway, after hearing McKenna’s performance on the song, no one else will dare touch it.

Another standout track, “Still Down Here,” the story of a person talking to their loved ones up in heaven, is an early favorite for song of the year. Anyone who has suffered the loss of a close relative or friend will instantly relate to McKenna’s yearning to be remembered by those from beyond the grave. With all the attention focused squarely on “Knowing,” “Here” will likely be left in the cold. But if you only buy one song this year, make it this one. Very rarely does a song come along, especially nowadays, so compelling in nature. It’ll haunt you long after it’s over.

The remarkable thing about Lorraine is the production – never too loud or too soft, the musical arraignments fit each song perfectly. One mark of a great album is the ability to let the lyrics take center stage. When the musical arraignment swallows both the lyrics and vocal performances, all potential for greatness is lost. One could argue McKenna needs to rock a bit harder every now and then but what would that prove? Optimism and joy aren’t her nature and it isn’t like she’s looking to stand alongside Kenny Chesney at football stadiums. With Lorraine she’s found the perfect marriage every major label artist should be striving for – you don’t need to make noise to be heard. Let it be a lesson for everyone.

One could argue that McKenna spends far too long as the brooding sufferer – the wife begging for attention from the man who once couldn’t get enough (“Stealing Kisses”) or the woman allowing herself to forgive the man who strays (“If You Ask”). To listen to her music is to listen to someone hurting. You could also fault McKenna for still seeming stuck by the most significant moment of her childhood. But to write her off is to turn your back on one of the most important singer-songwriters working today. Lorraine is a masterpiece because of its authenticity and because it’s a clear anecdote to every current trend in country music. Simply put, Lorraine has visible heart and soul. She doesn’t pander or succumb to anyone but her own gut – and she’s all the better for it in the end. I couldn’t ask for more.

Grade: A+ 

Album Review: Tim McGraw – ‘Not a Moment Too Soon’

If Tim McGraw’s debut album, with its three under-performing singles were released in the current decade, we would not likely hear from him again for another five years. But in the 90s, even Curb artists cranked out albums on a regular basis. Not a Moment Too Soon, Tim’s sophomore effort appeared eleven months after its predecessor, and marked the beginning of his commercial success, thanks in no small part to its controversial lead single.

“Indian Outlaw” is not a great song, but it does feature some mean fiddle-playing, reminiscent of of Charlie Daniels, which helped it to stand out from the pack. But it was the song’s lyrics, said to be demeaning to Native Americans, that offended those who make it a point to get offended by this sort of thing. Though some radio stations refused to play it, the controversy brought the single invaluable publicity, and propelled it into the Top 10 where it peaked at #8, and also earned it gold certification in an era when country singles rarely sold in the hundreds of thousands. The lyrics are inane, to be sure, but are firmly tongue-in-cheek, and the melody itself is rather catchy. To their credit, McGraw and Curb stood their ground and refused to back down to those who demanded that the single be pulled from the airwaves. The record stuck its finger right in the eye of the PC crowd, and for that reason alone I was pleased to see it succeed.

Unfortunately, “Indian Outlaw” was followed by “Don’t Take The Girl”, which managed to climb all the way to #1 despite being one of the era’s most annoying songs. Its contrived and overly sentimental lyrics and McGraw’s exaggerated twang grate on the ears. I always thought that Tim’s delivery sounded inauthentic in those days — one could say he was the Jennifer Nettles of that era — and the gradual disappearance of his twang over the years confirms this suspicion. Fortunately, the remaining three singles were much better. “Down on the Farm” written by Jerry Laseter and Kerry Kurt Phillips is not a cover of the Charley Pride tune from 1985. It’s a generic and somewhat forgettable tune that had the advantage of being released before rural pride anthems began to rule the airwaves. It just missed the top spot, peaking at #2. I quite like the remaining two singles, the title track which became Tim’s second #1 hit and “Refried Dreams” which reached #5.

Outside of the singles, there isn’t much else of interest here, just generic filler, the best of which is “Give It To Me Strait” a tribute of sorts to George Strait, though I have my doubts that he ever really one of Tim’s musical heroes. Still, the lyrics are entertaining:

Give it to me Strait, sing ‘Am I Blue’ while I sit here and cry
And tell my how my baby’s gotten so good at goodbye
It’s going to take a fireman to put this old flame out
So come on, give it to me Strait before I come unwound

There ain’t one country singer
That ain’t good for a a bad heartache
And for me there’s nothing smoother
Than a good stiff shot of Strait.

Guess this was before Tim became enamored with Def Leppard, Nelly, and Ne-Yo.

Not a Moment Too Soon went on to sell six million copies and was named Album of the Year by the Academy of Country Music in 1994. It is available at bargain prices at Amazon.

Grade: B-

Classic Rewind: Jennifer Nettles of Sugarland pays tribute to Reba – ‘The Night The Lights Went Out In Georgia’

Album Review: Sugarland – ‘Gold And Green’

Sugarland’s Christmas album was released in full last year, with five of the tracks repeated from an EP sold exclusively at Wal-Mart with purchases of the band’s Enjoy The Ride in 2007. The material is evenly divided between Sugarland originals and more familiar fare, and a mixture of secular and religious aspects of Christmas, often within the same songs. Jennifer is in excellent voice throughout, with Kristian Bush given a higher profile than usual, and the production (by Byron Gallimore and the band) is Sugarland at their most restrained and mellow, with most tracks acoustic. Every inclusion here feels carefully chosen and executed; this is no casual Christmas cash-in but a fine album in its own right.

‘City Of Silver Dreams’ opens the album with a gentle, dreamlike ode to New York at Christmas time rather reminiscent of Mary Chapin Carpenter, written by the duo with Lisa Carver and folk singer-songwriter Ellis Paul. ‘Little Wood Guitar’ was written by Kristian with Ellis Paul, and is a musician’s look at her life through the lens of three atmospherically conveyed Christmas Days: a childhood gift of the eponymous guitar which sets her on her path in life, struggling young adulthood, and finally with a family of her own.

‘Coming Home’ is a jazz-blues number with a gospel choir chorus which is extremely well done, but not my personal cup of tea. The soothing title track has a subtle string arrangement (and quote from ‘The First Noel’ alongside its comforting vision of a contemporary Christmas scene), and Kristian gets a few lines to sing alongside Jennifer’s lovely lead vocal.

He also gets two actual lead vocals on this side project. He is unimpressive on ‘Holly Jolly Christmas’, with Jennifer offering a counterpart of snippets from ‘Winter Wonderland’ (sounding more invested than she does on the official cut of that song); this is the least effective track on the album, although the bells make it sound cheerily festive. ‘Maybe Baby (New Year’s Day)’ is much better, a very enjoyable bluesy country-rock ballad written by the duo with Troy Bieser, about a man returning home for the Christmas season and reflecting on the possibility of seeing his ex-lover. Kristian doesn’t have the best of voices, but at least on this track it has a gravelly soulfulness which works well.

Of the traditional material, Jennifer delivers serious versions of the carols ‘O Come O Come Emmanuel’ and the beautiful ‘Silent Night’, which she sings partly in Spanish. Both have tasteful acoustic arrangements, the former (one of my favourite tracks)with twin banjos, the latter featuring Kristian’s mandolin. A rather pedestrian vocal take on ‘Winter Wonderland’ is redeemed by the playing in the instrumental break with its nod to ‘Deck The Halls’.

The playful ‘Nuttin’ For Christmas’ (one I hadn’t heard before) has Jennifer playing the part of a naughty little girl (and not sounding too bothered at getting no presents as she recites the litany of her misdeeds), and the playing is great.

I have a limited tolerance for Christmas albums, so many of which tend to sound the same and repeat the same songs, but this was an extremely pleasant surprise for me. It might even be my favorite Sugarland album.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Sugarland – ‘Love On The Inside’

The multiplatinum success of their first two albums allowed Sugarland to flex their musical muscles and expand their boundaries a bit on their third disc. Jennifer and Kristian wrote or co-wrote every song on the set, collaborating with a country songwriting legend for the album’s final single and Bobby Pinson on a handful of tracks. The bright, infectious sound that had come to define the act can be heard here, but Love On The Inside also includes several welcome departures from the tried and true formula, where same-sounding filler had been on the first two albums. Like its predecessors, Love On The Inside would earn a multiplatinum certification, after becoming their first #1 album on both the Billboard Country Albums and all-genre Billboard 200 charts. The first 3 singles released would also shoot to the top of the singles chart, while a fourth hit the top 20.

First up at radio was the epidemically catchy ‘All I Want To Do’. The female narrator in the song is fully content with her current career-self and is all about focusing on loving the man in her life. A beaty, island-inspired production frame what is mostly a song centered around the ‘ooh oohs’ and otherwise catchy chorus. Lyrically sparse, the song sailed to #1 on the charts, and was certified as a platinum single, and became the pair’s biggest top 40 hit to date, resting at #18 on the Billboard Hot 100. (‘Stuck Like Glue’ went to #17 this year, eclipsing that feat.) In the same sound format is ‘It Happens’, the album’s third single, though it does offer a bit more charm with its storyline about a lady have a super bad day.

‘Already Gone’ was the album’s third consecutive chart-topper and is a frank look at the ups and downs in one girl’s life. The three-act plot follows her from a teen branching out on her own with her mother’s advice still in the air, through her plunging headlong into her first heartache and to the eventual end of her marriage. Nettles emotive delivery packs a powerful punch that may take you by surprise given the almost-bright production.

Country legend, and perennial hit-maker, Bill Anderson co-penned ‘Joey’, the somewhat abstract tale of a young man killed in a drunk-driving accident. The verses attempt to tell the story, but so many essential details are omitted, it’s hard to follow, and the track seriously falters with the repetitive chorus. The brooding narrative found an audience, and became the fourth hit from the disc, resting at #17 on the singles chart.

‘Very Last Country Song’ closes up the standard edition of Love On The Inside as the decided highlight. A simple plucking acoustic guitar leads off as Nettles begins recounting the life story of a lady celebrating her birthday by pouring over photos in her kitchen. Through the snapshots, she remembers various family members and tells of the place they all still hold in her heart. It’s the chorus these vignettes center around, however, which simply says that if there were no reason for heartbreak, there’d be no more country music.

Nothing on Love On The Inside sounds tacked on, as every track seems to play an integral part in the overall scheme here. From the amped up blue collar anthem ‘Take Me As I Am’ to the cheeky ‘Steve Earle’, which finds the narrator longing to become a member of the singer’s own ex-wives club to the harmony-laden ‘Genevieve’ with its acoustic guitars turned way up, Love On The Inside finds the duo trying on an array of musical styles and personalities, and each fits like a glove this time around.

This album marked the arrival of Sugarland as bonafide country music superstars. It also showcased the best modern Nashville has to offer with its abundance of hooky melodies, memorable lyrics, and dazzling contemporary country music production. As a result, it stands as the showpiece of the Sugarland catalog, and my personal favorite album.

Grade: A+

Buy Love On The Inside from amazon.

A deluxe edition features 5 more songs. Highlights from those include the legant ‘Fall Into Me’, a slight retread of the love-is-the-salvation-at end of a long day theme of past Sugarland hits – ‘Just Might Make Me Believe’ chief among them.  Also noteworthy among the bonus tracks is a live cover of Matt Nathanson’s ‘Come On Het Higher’ and another cover, this time from 80s pop group The Dream Academy.  ‘Life In A Northern Town’ features Little Big Town and Jake Owen – Sugarland’s 2007 tourmates – in a nifty blend of voices on the very vague and muddy lyric.  This track, recorded at Comcast Theater in Hartford, CT, peaked at #28 in Summer 2008 to become another top 40 hit for all artists involved.

Album Review: Sugarland – ‘Enjoy The Ride’

2006 saw a retooled Sugarland, now sans Kristen Hall, teaming up with a new producer, Byron Gallimore, for their sophomore release. Enjoy The Ride finds the now-duo, who share production credits, delving a little further into pop territory. Hall’s departure had seemingly no effect on the group’s popularity; the lead single “Want To”, written by Jennifer Nettles and Kristian Bush with Bobby Pinson, became Sugarland’s first #1 hit. The acoustic guitar-led track, which also features Dan Dugmore on dobro, is one of the more country-sounding songs on the album, and my personal favorite of the tracks that were released as singles. In addition to spending two weeks at the top of the charts, “Want To” became Sugarland’s fourth single to earn gold certification. The second single, the uptempo “Settlin'” likewise climbed to #1.

After “Settlin'” reached the top of the charts, another uptempo number was sent to radio. “Everyday America” is a story of about growing up in a small town, dreaming of moving on to bigger and better things, but ultimately deciding to stay put. In a sense it is a sequel to “Settlin'”, one in which a slightly older and presumably wiser protagonist has reconsidered her plans to change the world, opting instead to raise a family and enjoy a quiet life. Unfortunately, the track is too loud and overproduced, which detracts from the lyrics’ message. “Everyday America” was the worst-performing single from the album, though it still managed to crack the Top 10, peaking at #9.

The loudness and overproduction problems unfortunately are not unique to “Everyday America”; they plague a few of the album’s tracks, namely “County Line”, the annoying “Mean Girls”, and to a lesser degree, “Settlin'”. The tracks that work well are the quieter ones, most notably the sparsely produced ballad “Stay.” The album’s fourth single, which was written by Jennifer Nettles, features an acoustic guitar played by Kristian Bush, an organ, and Nettles’ powerhouse voice. Considered by many to be Sugarland’s finest moment on record, “Stay” — which Nettles says was inspired by Reba McEntire’s “Whoever’s In New England” — won two Grammys in 2006: Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal and “Best Country Song. It also won Single of the Year and Song of the Year from the ACM and Song of the Year from the CMA. It just missed becoming Sugarland’s third #1 hit; peaking at #2, but it became their first platinum single. Unfortunately, it remains their last truly great single to date.

“These Are The Days” is a decent but not great song, notable primarily because Kristian Bush shares lead vocals with Nettles. Unfortunately his grating voice ruins the track. Much better is “Sugarland”, which seems as though it should have been included on the group’s first album. Written in 2003 by Kristian Bush with Vanessa Olivarez and former Sugarland member Kristen Hall, it likely predates Nettles’ hiring as lead singer. It is thematically similar to “Everyday America” but it makes it point much more effectively, and allows the album to close on an introspective high note.

Overall, I enjoyed the ride, but not as much as the first Sugarland album, primarily because of some of the production choices on a handful of tracks. Like its predecessor, it was certified triple platinum by the RIAA.

Grade: B

Enjoy The Ride is widely available, from vendors such as Amazon and iTunes.

Album Review: Sugarland – ”Twice The Speed Of Life’

Sugarland’s debut album burst on an unsuspecting world in October 2004. Produced by Garth Fundis with a bright and punchy modern sound, this is the only Sugarland album to feature former member Kristen Hall (on guitar and backing vocals). Third member Kristian Bush plays mandolin and another acoustic guitar, with additional vocals. The then trio also collaborated on writing most of the songs, but the dominating element is undoubtedly Jennifer Nettles’s strong and distinctive voice. It is thoroughly contemporary with obvious rock and pop influences, but the quality of the songwriting and singing is what makes it resonate.

The lively debut single, ‘Baby Girl’, written by the trio with Troy Bleser, is based around a young woman’s difficulties trying to make it in Nashville, and her eventual triumph, but what it is really about is a child’s love for her parents . The story unrolls through her letters home, with her first asking for money and then able to return the favor. The single was an instant success for the group, peaking at #2.

Also just missing the very top spot was the follow up, the vibrant ‘Something More’, which opens the album with a shouted “Come on“, as Jennifer launches into her frustration with an ordinary urban life and a boring job, declaring:

I could work my life away but why?
I got things to do before I die
There’s gotta be something more

The third single was a Kristen Hall solo composition which is the best song on the album, the excellent ‘Just Might (Make Me Believe)’, This powerful ode to the power of love to help through the hard times and to outlast doubts was another top 10 hit for the group, and has one of Jennifer’s finest vocal performances to date. It remains one of my favorite Sugarland recordings. My least favorite of the four singles was the up-tempo romp ‘Down In Mississippi (Up To No Good)’ about breaking away from the domestic routine with some friends; this one is lacking in both melody and subtlety, but it has an undeniable energy.

The radio-friendly and rather poppy sounding ‘Tennessee’ was written by Hall and Bush with David Labruyere, and has a radio call-in request “from a boy in love to a girl called Tennessee” who he regrets having let slip away from his fear of commitment. It has a great vocal from Jennifer, and only the gimmicky name of the girl that mars the otherwise charming song.

The reflective ‘Hello’ sounds autobiographical, with a wistful almost folky feel to its reminiscences of young love and youthful surroundings revisited; I can imagine the band’s fellow Georgian Trisha Yearwood (also often produced by Fundis) covering this successfully. ‘Fly Away’ was written by Bush and Hall with Corri English and Billy Gewin (probably while they were still based in Atlanta), and expresses the restlessness of a dissatisfied small town girl who wants to make her own path in life. The gentle acoustic ‘Small Town Jericho’ offers a fonder and more reluctant farewell to childhood surroundings with Jennifer stretching out the word goodbye until it is almost un recognisable at times. Kristen and Jennifer’s catchy ‘Speed Of Life’, which provides the album title, is an older woman’s reminiscences about a runaway teenage marriage with a happy ending:

It’s hard to slow it down when it feels so right…
We’re travelling at twice the speed of life

The closing track ‘Stand Back Up’ is a dignified acoustic ballad about resilience in the face of adversity:

I’ve been beaten up and bruised
I’ve been kicked right off my shoes
Been down on my knees more times than you’d believe
When the darkness tries to get me
There’s a light that just won’t let me
It might take my pride and tears may fill my eyes
But I’ll stand back up

The only song I don’t really care for on this album is ‘Time, Time. Time’, which is a little dull, but overall this was a very strong debut. It stretches the boundaries of country music, but in a palatable way. The album appealed to country listeners as much as the singles did to radio programmers, and it has been certified triple platinum. It is also, as noted above, the only evidence of Sugarland as a trio rather than today’s duo, as Kristen Hall left the group in December 2005, before they returned to the studio.

Grade: A-

Spotlight Artist: Sugarland

From the Atlanta underground scene, Sugarland was first brought to life by former member Kristen Hall.  In 2002, Hall contacted Kristian Bush about the possibility of creating a band together.  Hall had herself released a half-dozen assorted solo projects and Bush had found some success with the duo Billy Pilgrim, but both were now eyeing the country music umbrella as a release for their music.  When the two decided they needed a powerful female lead voice for the songs they were writing together, they immediately thought of a spunky blonde also making waves on the Atlanta club scene with her own band.  Jennifer Nettles had herself been busy fronting Soul Miner’s Daughter, a folk-rock, garage-band type outfit, and later The Jennifer Nettles Band before releasing 2 solo albums.  Nettle agreed to jump on board and the Sugarland trio was born.

Within a few short years, the band had a deal with Mercury Records’ Nashville office.  Their first single, a frank look at the ups and downs of a fledgling musician, shot to #2 on the country charts, and the pair were on their way.  Two more singles from that album reached the country top 10 and a fourth landed inside the top 20, while the album went on to sell more than 3 million copies.  During the chart run of the album’s third single, Kristen Hall abruptly announced her departure from the group, citing the desire to concentrate on songwriting as her primary reason for quitting.  Three years later, Hall would file a lawsuit claiming she was owed a percentage of all the group’s future royalties.  The suit was settled for an undisclosed amount earlier this year.

Now a duo sans Hall, the group’s second album, Enjoy The Ride, hit shelves in November 2006, propelled by the lead single, the smoking hot ‘Settlin’.  Both ‘Settlin’ and ‘Want To’ hit the top of the country singles chart, but the album’s fourth top 10 hit would prove to be Sugarland’s signature so far.  Jennifer Nettles plaintive delivery of the plight of the other woman with little more than her aching voice and an acoustic guitar instantly connected with a wide-range of audiences, and in addition to its #2 spot on the country chart, the song hit the top 40 on both the Billboard Hot 100 and the U.S. Pop chart.  It would also be the duo’s first platinum-selling single.

2008’s Love On The Inside continued their run of country success with 3 consecutive #1 singles, a double platinum certification, and another round of industry awards.  2007 saw them dethrone long-running champs Brooks & Dunn for the CMA Vocal Duo of the Year award, a slot they’ve since repeated in 4 years running.  Love also found the pair stretching their musical muscles as they ably incorporated 80s rock, girl-band pop, and the best of modern Nashville, all to dazzling results.  Unfortunately the same can’t be said of their most recent release, the arena rock-influenced The Incredible Machine.  Still, the album’s first single, ‘Stuck Like Glue’, went to #1, and they’ve just released its best track as the follow-up single.

Irresistibly catchy melodies, simple, positive lyrics, and the throaty twang of Jennifer Nettles make up the basis of Sugarland’s distinctive and identifiable sound.  Kristian Bush adds milk and toast harmonies that more often than not, perfectly compliment Nettles lead.  The pair are also responsible for writing or co-writing nearly every song they record.  Their influences run wide, but their general sound found root in country music, and that allowed me to discover their music.  Keep reading this month as we look back over the past 6 years of Sugarland transitioning into the top duo in country music.

The truth behind the music

A few pieces of news struck me last week. Apparently the new biography of Buck Owens paints him as a sometime-unscrupulous businessman, and Sugarland lead singer Jennifer Nettles’ comments on former band member Kristen Hall’s contributions to the band make her sound more than a little arrogant. A little earlier in the week, John Berry admitted to having been “a rude and arrogant individual who wasn’t much of a team player, I’m afraid. It was my own fault that they dumped me off the label”. Much as I would like to believe all my favorite artists are nice people, I fear he is unlikely to have been unique.

So that conjunction led me to think about how our perception of an artist’s personality affects our appreciation of their music. My gut reaction was that art is not an aspect of morality, but thinking about it more seriously -and honestly – it is a more complex issue. For me, it depends in part on how much I liked the music to start with.

Both George Jones and Keith Whitley were destructive alcoholics who must have been very difficult to live with in real life. Knowing that does not affect my love of their often sublime music at all. George in particular actually used his alcoholism to create great music many times, in classic songs like ‘A Drunk Can’t Be A Man’, right up to ‘Ol’ George Stopped Drinking Today’. After he sobered up he even felt able to refer back jokingly to that period in songs like ‘No Show Jones’ and the video for ‘Honky Tonk Song’.

In contrast, I’ve never been able to think kindly of Troy Gentry since the tame bear-killing incident. But I was never a big fan of Montgomery Gentry to start with – I quite liked some of their singles but they never made it to my purchase list. Their chart success does not seem to have been much affected by the controversy – unlike the reaction of some Dixie Chicks fans to their political storm.

It has been suggested that Sara Evans’ messy divorce contributed to her slowing career in the last few years, and the breakdown of LeAnn Rimes’ marriage, and that of her new boyfriend, has attracted a lot of online opprobrium. Only a minority of country stars seem to find divorce hurts them professionally; perhaps it depends on the level of publicity, and who is perceived to be at fault, or perhaps it depends partly on their fans’ level of investment in their public persona?

Country music is so often rooted in real experience that sympathising with an artist’s real-life tribulations often feeds into our appreciation of their music – think of Loretta Lynn’s autobiographical songs about living with a philandering husband and Tammy Wynette’s many tales of marital breakdown which mirrored her own chequered marital career. There is an added frisson listening to Vern Gosdin’s deeply sad Alone album knowing it was largely inspired by the collapse of his marriage. Hearing that an artist wrote a particular love song for his or her spouse (for instance, when Trace Adkins wrote ‘The Rest Of Mine’ for his wedding) often makes it strike home with a little more emotional force. But then if the relationship fails, does the song stand on its own? I confess personally to finding Vince Gill’s ‘I Still Believe In You’ less resonant as a love song after he left his first wife (for whom it had been written) – but my own reaction is also colored by that song’s conection for me with a failed relationship of my own. Many years later, I can appreciate the song’s beauty again in its own right.

In parallel with these thougts about whether an artist’s bad behavior affects how their music is perceived, I have noticed that many younger fans appear to believe that their special favorite should be immune from criticism because of that artist’s sterling character. Personally, I think being either a nice person or a total jerk does not affect musical ability – although either may conceivably limit someone’s ability to convey a full range of emotions in a song. But what we know about the background does often affect us, sometimes subliminally.

What do you think? Have you ever soured on an artist because of their offstage actions?

ACM Awards: My Kind Of Country’s predictions

It’s award time again, with the Academy of Country Music due to hand out its trophies for achievements during 2009 on Sunday April 18. Here are our predictions of the likely winners:

ENTERTAINER OF THE YEAR
This category is fan-voted this year (as it has been for the last couple of years). This year, though, the number of nominees has been substantially increased.

Kenny Chesney
Toby Keith
Brad Paisley
George Strait
Taylor Swift: our unanimous pick
Carrie Underwood
Keith Urban
Zac Brown Band

Occasional Hope: Fan-voted. No further comment required.
Razor X: Since this is a fan-voted award, the only two serious contenders are Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood. Underwood won last year, and since Swift has had a more successful year, I’m going to predict that the momentum is in her favor.
J.R. Journey: I think she’s ahead of the pack in this race by a large enough margin to safely call her the early winner. With it being fan-voted yet again, Taylor’s younger, internet-savvy fan-base would give her the edge even if she didn’t already have it.
Meg: Taylor will get it due to fan voting, and it’s not as though she hasn’t worked equally hard as the other nominees, or harder.

TOP MALE VOCALIST OF THE YEAR
Kenny Chesney
Brad Paisley: J.R., Meg
Darius Rucker: Occasional Hope
George Strait: Razor X

Keith Urban

Meg: Brad’s got this one. He’s come into his own as a performer, writer, and entertainer with great musicianship and great vocals.
J.R.: Major tours, a critically acclaimed album and an impressive run of chart-topping singles are just Brad’s commercial qualifications for his victory here. When he wants to be, he’s also a mighty fine statesman and torch-bearer for traditional country.
Razor: After three consecutive wins in this category for Brad Paisley, I’m guessing that the Academy will want to give this award to someone else this year. Urban is the only serious competition.
OH: If Darius wins it will be seen as a surprise victory, but I think he just could get it. He does have an interesting tone, has scored some big radio hits, and sold exceptionally well. And it all seems to be about commercial impact these days. Plus, you need at least one surprise at any award show.

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The 25 best albums of the decade

Over the past few weeks, we’ve been compiling a list of our favorite albums of the past decade. We each prepared a list of our 10 favorites, and then we attempted to trim the combined list down to 25 and rank them. There was surprisingly little overlap, and I think it’s safe to say that the final list is quite different from what any of us would have come up with individually. So, without further ado, here are the 25 best albums of the decade, as we see it:

25. Elizabeth Cook — Hey Y’all (Warner Bros, 2002)

Elizabeth Cook was too country for country even in 2002 with her engaging major-label debut. My favourite track is ‘You Move Too Fast’, followed by the charming ‘Everyday Sunshine’, the comparison of her career to that of ‘Dolly’, the sweet ‘Mama, You Wanted To Be A Singer Too’, the singalong about the ‘Stupid Things’ love will make you do, and the irrepressibly optimistic ‘God’s Got A Plan’. — Occasional Hope

24. Wynonna — Her Story: Scenes From a Lifetime (Mercury/Curb, 2005)

Wynonna took an autobiographical approach to her 2005 tour, and the show was filmed and recorded for a live DVD/CD combo set. Beginning with her musical journey as one half of The Judds, Wynonna affectionately recalls her days on the road with her Mom, before moving on to the solo side of her music career, revisiting classic Judds hits like ‘Girls Night Out’ and ‘Love Can Build a Bridge’. The banter in between the songs is reason enough to own the set, but Wynonna’s live take on her own songs like ‘That Was Yesterday’, ‘I Want To Know What love Is’, and ‘Is It Over Yet’ are flawless. — J.R.

23. Bobby Pinson — Man Like Me (RCA, 2005)

This was the richest debut album of the decade, although few record buyers agreed, and singer-songwriter Bobby soon lost his deal with RCA. His gravelly voice had genuine character and emotional depth; perhaps it was too much of an acquired taste for radio beyond one minor hit single. Great overlooked tracks include the reflective title track, showing how hard experiences made the man, the testimony of a sinner saved by a woman’s love in ‘One More Believer’, ‘Ford Fairlane’, perhaps my favorite song of all time about a car, and the wry ‘Started A Band’ about struggling to make it as a musician. — Occasional Hope

22. Brad Paisley — Time Well Wasted (Arista, 2005)

After three promising but somewhat uneven albums, things finally came together with Paisley’s fourth release. This was the first album he released that I felt compelled to buy. It opens with the obligatory novelty tune (“Alcohol”) but it also contains one of the strongest entries in his catalog to date, “When I Get Where I’m Going” which features beautiful harmony vocals by Dolly Parton. — Razor X

21. Sugarland — Love On The Inside (Mercury, 2007)

Masterpiece. That’s the best word I can find to decribe this album. But mere words cannot begin to explain how much I love this album, or how many times I’ve played it in the past 18 months. Jennifer Nettles said it was a set of songs that would play well from ‘Saturday night to Sunday morning’, but I have to disagree. I can’t think of any day of the week, or any time of day this near-perfect set doesn’t play well. With sharp songwriting set among a myriad of subjects, while Nettles wraps her distinctive pipes around the always-catchy lyrics, Love On The Inside is still the best studio album I’ve heard in my years listening to country music, with songs like ‘Genevieve’, ‘Very Last Country Song’, and ‘Fall Into Me’ all getting hundreds of spins in my library. I’ve liked all the singles sent to radio too. — J.R.

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Year In Review: Megan Morrow’s Top 10 Albums of 2009

It certainly wasn’t intentional, but my top ten albums of 2009 happen to come mostly from the great women recording country music these days. I think I’m drawn to them because there’s a depth to their stories and lyrics, their vocals and arrangements. It seems they’re taking more non-commercial risks than their male counterparts, and are less formula-driven. They’re more interesting and hold my attention for the long haul. These are the albums I’ve been playing over and over this year:

10. #1s…and Then Some – Brooks & Dunn (Sept.) What a ride! This two-disc set is a great romp through the hits of an amazing duo, and ‘Honky Tonk Stomp’ isn’t a bad way to go out.

9. Twang – George Strait (Aug.) Consistently good but stretching himself a bit at the same time (‘El Rey’ for example), George just keeps hitting home runs. ‘Living For the Night,’ ‘Where Have I Been All My Life’ and ‘Beautiful Day For Goodbye’ are highlights for me.

8. Gold and Green – Sugarland (Oct.) Christmas albums can be just another collection of the same old songs overdone again. Leave it to Sugarland to come out with one that’s anything but typical – maybe that’s why the title isn’t the usual Red and Green. I’m still putting this one on my list even though it was released later in the year, if only for ‘Nuttin’ For Christmas’ with its great dobro, vocals and humor, and their fresh take on ‘O Come, O Come Emmanuel’ accompanied by simple banjo.

7. Live on the Inside — Sugarland (Aug.) Jennifer and Kristian are some of those incredible artists that are even better live! I love their “countrified” instrumentation on the covers! Who would have thought ‘Better Man’ by Pearl Jam would sound great with accordion!

6. The List – Rosanne Cash (Oct.) Not only is this a great covers album, but the story behind it is wonderful, too. Her father, Johnny Cash, gave her his list of the “100 essential country songs” when she was 18 in order to give her a good country music education. Thankfully, she says, she had the good sense to keep the list. Rosanne has one of those great, unpolished folk country voices – not unlike her dad. Love the more acoustic tracks on this one.

5. Dolly – Dolly Parton (Oct.) Perhaps this 4-disc set doesn’t count as a new release, but Dolly is…well…Dolly. Following her career over the years in this time-lapse kind of format is amazing, especially for those of us who weren’t following her as it happened. If you need a new release, though, then sub in her Dolly Live From London that just came out in November. Over 60 and still kickin’, and charmin’ and capturing life in her stories.

4. Revolution – Miranda Lambert (Sept.) I’m not sure that Revolution quite lives up to its name, but it’s still a great album with Miranda’s barbwire and roses lyrics, edgy arrangements of guitars and plenty of steel, like ‘White Liar’, mixed with some beautiful and thoughtful numbers like ‘The House That Built Me’ and ‘Virginia Bluebell.’ She’s got such a unique sound and her lyrics stand out and grab you – sometimes by the throat, but almost always by the heart.

3. Keep On Loving You – Reba McEntire (Aug.) As much as I love Mountain Soul II for the consistency of its acoustic mountain style, I love Reba’s album for its variety. It’s got classic gritty country story drama in ‘Maggie Creek Road’, as well as contemporary fun in ‘Pink Guitar’, ‘I Want a Cowboy’ and ‘I’ll Have What She’s Having’, some solid country fare like ‘Nothing To Lose’ and ‘Consider Me Gone’, and songs that catch your heart in ‘Eight Crazy Hours’ and ‘She’s Turning 50 Today’.

2. Mountain Soul II – Patty Loveless (Sept.) Wow. From Patty’s clear yet soulful vocals to the simple acoustic production and classic instrumentation to the gems of the songs themselves, this album is a delight from start to finish! Just go get it!

1. The Long Way Home – Terri Clark (Sept.) See J.R. Journey’s spot-on review of this one. The word that sums up Terri’s offering for me is “real”. There isn’t a song on the album that doesn’t embody that word. The lyrics and Terri’s interpretation are the highlights. Thankfully, the production and arrangements really allow them to shine. I can tell The Long Way Home will be a long-time fave in my library.


Album Review: Tanya Tucker – ‘Soon’

tanyatuckersoon

Continuing with our Tanya Tucker coverage, this review was written by a guest contributor, Michael, who is also a frequent commenter here at My Kind of Country.

When I was a boy, my mom and I scored front row seats to a Tanya Tucker concert but she cancelled the show.  My mother never forgave her, and I won’t tell you the name she still uses to refer to Tucker today, but I couldn’t stay mad at Tanya for long after purchasing this CD. In fact, along with Martina McBride’s The Way That I Am, Soon was one of the very first CDs I ever bought. A twelve-year-old’s well spent allowance money at Target became an investment that continues to pay off today

This was six years before Faith Hill was rolling around in the sheets for the music video to “Breathe” and long before Sugarland’s Jennifer Nettles took on the role of a mistress that stands up for herself, there was “Soon”. In the summer of 1993 Tanya Tucker released the scandalous, racy video for the first single and title track of her upcoming album Soon. The steamy clip featured Tucker and her lover thrashing around in bed and was banned from daytime airings on CMT and TNN.  In fact, a search for the video on YouTube today requires age verification to watch it and be warned, it may still make you blush. Using the third person point-of-view, Tucker tells the story of a woman who has had a summer tryst with a married man. He has promised her that he will leave his wife soon but by Christmas he has still not followed through on his word and she spends the holiday alone. She finds no answer when she calls him and I’m a little embarrassed to admit that, as a teenager, the chorus after this verse was featured on my outgoing answering machine message for awhile.

Soon, I can’t talk to you right now
Soon, you’ll hear a beep and you know how to play this game
Leave your number and your name
And I promise I’ll call back … soon

By the final verse our protagonist has a renewed sense of strength and independence and has turned the tables on the man. Her New Year’s resolution is to make herself unavailable to him when he calls or comes by. Tucker’s voice conveys the heartache of what should be an unlikable character’s story and makes her sympathetic. “Soon” peaked at number two on the Billboard charts and none of Tucker’s singles in the in the 16 years since its release has reached a higher summit.

The second single released from the album was “We Don’t Have To Do This”. It just missed the top 10, stalling at number 11. The lush ballad is about a breakup that could have never been predicted at the beginning of the relationship. However, Tucker wonders if saying goodbye is even necessary at all. She gives one last emotional plea to save the relationship from their pride. Should all of the time, energy and effort they have put into it be in vain? Breakups are almost always messy. When is something worth fighting for and when is it time to let it go? Even when ending it is the right thing to do, it can still hurt. There may be relief but it could be clouded with a sense of failure. When it’s over, all we can do is hang onto our memories of the good times. Tucker sings with such passion that it makes me root for her and in the end, I hope they didn’t say goodbye.

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