My Kind of Country

Country music from a fan's point of view since 2008

Category Archives: Discussions

Where to find good ol’ country music – or the transition to bluegrass

I really like good ol’ country music from the period 1930 – 2005. Most of my favorite songs and performances dated from 1975 back to the days of Jimmie Rodgers and The Original Carter Family. I also like to see live music performances. Except in a few sections of the country, modern country radio has largely forsaken good ol’ country music. Yes, there is Sirius-XM Radio, but the stations that play pre-2005 country tend to have rather shallow playlists, and satellite radio can be a pricey proposition. I do have XM in my vehicle because I make a number of long trips on business.

Being able to see live good ol’ country music performed is getting more problematic. In some areas there are younger performers who have embraced the art form, but in other areas they can barely be found. Moreover, the classic country performers are ageing. Most of the great country performers of the 1950s and 1960s have moved on to that Great Opry Stage in The Sky. The same is increasingly true for many of the stars of the 1970s. We have even lost some of the stars of the 1980s.

What to do ?

During the 1940s and 1950s there wasn’t much difference between country and bluegrass except the instrumentation, with many artists (Jimmie Skinner, Lee Moore, Mac Wiseman) straddling the border between the two genres. As the 1960s arrived, there was more separation although artists such as the Osborne Brothers and Jim & Jesse McReynolds featured steel guitar and ‘Nashville’ sound trappings on their major label bluegrass recordings. Through the early 1970s it wasn’t unusual to see bluegrass acts chart on the country music charts.

By the mid-1970s, the two streams had completely separated. Bluegrass was no longer played on country radio (except an occasional song from a movie such as “Dueling/Feuding Banjos” might be played), and the repertoire had largely segmented as well.

Over the last twenty years or so, as the product on country radio has become more unlistenable, something strange has happened: bluegrass artists have become the guardians of the country music tradition. Many of today’s bluegrass artists grew up listening to that good ol’ country music and have been incorporating larger amounts of it into their repertoire. In some cases artists, such as Ricky Skaggs and Marty Raybon who had substantial country careers, returned to their bluegrass roots, bringing their country repertoire with them. In other cases bluegrass acts, often serious students of music, have gone back and founded the repertoire that country radio and young country artists seemingly lost.

Obviously, I’ve done no detailed study into the matter, but I’ve been attending bluegrass festivals over the last eight years, and have heard a tremendous amount of country songs performed. Almost every bluegrass group has at least a few classic country songs that they perform, and many have repertoires that are 30%-50% country songs.

So where should you start?

I must admit that the ‘high lonesome sound’ is an acquired taste. Even now, I really cannot listen to more than a few Bill Monroe vocals at a time. That said, Bill usually kept some other vocalist on board with such proficient singers as Lester Flatt, Jimmy Martin, Mac Wiseman and Peter Rowan all taking turns in Bill’s band. Consequently, one generally wasn’t stuck listening to Bill Monroe sing the lead.

You can develop a taste for that ‘High Lonesome Sound’ but rather than torture yourself with an overload of it, I would suggest easing yourself into it. Below are acts that feature good ol’ country music in their repertoires. Here’s where to start:

Classic Era/First Generation artists

Mac Wiseman – possessed of a pleasant and sleek Irish tenor, Mac can sing anything and everything and sing it well. There is a reason he is known as the “voice with a heart”. I think Mac is one of the few left alive from the gestation period of the music.

Jimmy Martin – Jimmy was more in the realm of the ‘high lonesome’ but unlike most such singers, who sound like the voice of gloom, agony and despair, Jimmy was such an unabashedly good natured and exuberant singer that you can help but like him.

Lester Flatt – whether singing with Bill Monroe, as part of Flatt & Scruggs or after the split with Scruggs, Lester’s lower tenor made bluegrass palatable to those not enamored of the high pitched vocals of Monroe and his acolytes.

Modern Era

While groups such as Trinity River, Flatt Lonesome, IIIrd Tyme Out and Balsam Range are very good, I would recommend you start with Chris Jones and the Night Drivers. Chris has an excellent, somewhat lower pitched voice that would have made him a star during the classic country days. Chris is a DJ on XM Radio’s Bluegrass Junction (Channel 62 on XM Radio) and he will occasionally feature one of his own recordings.

Next I would point you toward The Gibson Brothers, The Spinney Brothers and Rhonda Vincent and the Rage. If you are a big Statler Brothers fan, the Dailey & Vincent duo include a lot of Statler songs in their repertoire and on some numbers can make you think that the Statler Brothers have come out of retirement. Marty Raybon, lead singer of Shenandoah, features a lot of Shenandoah material in his performances with his current band Full Circle.

In recent years Rhonda Vincent (the “Queen of Bluegrass Music” has been occasionally performing with classic country acts such as Gene Watson, Moe Bandy and Daryle Singletary, so you might find these guys at bluegrass festivals.

I will note that I have left some of my personal favorites (The Osborne Brothers, Del McCoury, Reno & Smiley, James King, Dale Ann Bradley, Lorraine Jordan) out of this discussion. I’m not worried about leaving them out – you’ll work your way to them eventually.

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News: Why country’s decline is a good thing

Five songs and some recollections from 1968

Although I had been listening to country music all of my life, 1968 was the first time I ever really focused on the genre.

There were several reasons for this, including the fact that with part-time and summer jobs I had some spending money for the first time in my life. One of my jobs was in Virginia Beach where there was a record store next door that actually carried a decent selection of country 45s.

The summer of 1968 may have been “the Summer of Love” for many but in my opinion pop music had started getting a bit weird for my taste so I started keeping my radio on either WCMS in Norfolk (“Where Country Music Swings”) or WTID in Newport News (“Top Gun”). Both of these were AM stations as the FM bands were reserved for classical music.

Mostly I listened to WCMS which was the stronger station (50,000 watts) and had better disc jockeys, folks such as “Hopalong” Joe Hoppel and “Carolina” Charlie Wiggs. Disc jockeys had more latitude in what they played, and local listener requests figured heavily in airplay. While I won’t pretend that the radio stations were perfect (there were lots of dumb commercials and sometimes really silly contests),radio station DJs could play records by local artists and other non-charting records without running afoul of corporate mucky-mucks. Local DJ Carolina Charlie had two records in “Pound By Pound” and “Angel Wings” in 1968 that received frequent airplay on WCMS and also received airplay on other stations throughout the area in which Charlie played live shows.

Most of the larger country radio stations had their own top forty charts and many of them had a local countdown show on Saturday or Sunday afternoon. At one time I had several years worth of top forty charts for WCMS AM-1050. Mom, God rest her soul, threw them out long ago without telling me, so to some extent I am operating on memory but there were five songs that were huge hits in the Norfolk area in 1968 that have stuck in my memory, songs that were not necessarily big hits nationally, but that the local audiences, composed largely of US military personnel and families loved (there were three local Navy bases plus an army base).

Undo The Right”, sung by Johnny Bush and written by Johnny’s good buddy Willie Nelson, was a big hit nationally, reaching #10 on Billboard’s Country chart. In the Norfolk area, the song was huge staying at the #1 slot for five weeks. The song, with its heavy dose of fiddle and steel, was more country sounding than 95% of the songs (mostly countrypolitan or Nashville Sound productions) to chart that year. The single was issued on Pete Drake’s Stop label and led to Bush being signed to RCA, where a mysterious throat problem derailed his career for a number of years

The big hits basically had long since stopped by 1968 for George Morgan, although “Sounds of Goodbye”, released on the Starday label, might have become a big national hit for him had not two other artists recorded the song, thus splitting the hit. Although the song only reached #31 nationally, it did spark off a bit of a renaissance for Morgan. In the Norfolk area the song was a top five hit, reaching #2. The song, probably the first hit on an Eddie Rabbitt composition, also charted for Tommy Cash at #41 and was a top twenty hit for Cash on the Canadian Country charts. Vern & Rex Gosdin had a successful record with the song on the west coast of the US in late 1967. Cashbox had the song reach #15 but their methodology in 1968 was to combine all versions of the song into a single chart listing. I’ve heard the Gosdins’ version of the song, but Tommy Cash’s version for United Artists never made it to an album and I’ve never found a copy of the single, so I’ve not heard his recording.

“Got Leavin’ On Her Mind” was probably my favorite recording of 1968. Written by the legendary Jack Clement, the song was issued on the MGM label by newly minted Country Music Hall of Fame member Mac Wiseman. As far as I know, the song was a ‘one-off’ for MGM and Wiseman. Long known as “the voice with a heart” and a legendary bluegrass singer, this record had the feel of bluegrass without actually being a bluegrass record in that the instrumentation was standard country without Nashville Sound trappings. Bluegrass artists rarely have huge chart hits and this was no exception, reaching only #54 for Mac. In the Norfolk area, demand for the single was strong and while it only reached #5 on the WCMS charts, the record store I frequented had difficulty keeping the record in stock, reordering new supplies of the single on several occasions.

Carl and Pearl Butler were archaic even when their music was new, but “Punish Me Tomorrow” seemed to catch the ears of the servicemen in our area. It only reached #28 nationally, but it was top ten on WCMS and might have reached higher but the DJs on WCMS made the mistake of playing the flip side “Goodbye Tennessee” resulting in the station receiving a lot of requests for that song, too.

Drinking Champagne” went top ten on WCMS, anticipating by four years the huge success that Cal Smith would achieve starting in 1972. Written by legendary disc jockey Bill Mack, the song reached #35 on Billboard’s country chart but went to #1 for a week on WCMS. Years later George Strait would have a successful record with the song. Cal’s was the better version and this might have been a huge national hit if released a few years later after Smith hit the big time.

I realize that most of our readership wasn’t born in 1968 and if they think about country music in 1968 at all, it is for pop-country singles like “Honey“, “Harper Valley PTA” and the various Glen Campbell and Sonny James singles that received some pop airplay. There were good solid country records being made but aside from the aforementioned and some Johnny Cash recordings, they weren’t receiving pop airplay. In 1968 there were large sections of the country that had no country stations at all; moreover, many country stations went off the air at sundown or cut power significantly so that they reached only the most local of audiences.

Country roads and greener pastures

TaylorI was really happy to hear about the release of Taylor Swift’s new single last week. Now there’s something you never thought you’d hear me say. But (you knew there had to be a “but” coming, didn’t you?) I should qualify that comment by saying my mood was not affected so much because I was looking forward to listening to new Taylor Swift music, but because the single “Shake It Off” is a watershed moment in Swift’s career, as the artist, her label and her publicists acknowledge that 1989, Swift’s forthcoming album, is not country, but pop.

I will be the first to argue that this is hardly news and that Swift’s music was never really country to begin with, but it’s nice to hear the people responsible for marketing her finally admit it. While Swift’s defenders have argued for years that she was bringing new fans to the country genre, I always maintained that her youthful fanbase was unlikely to embrace the genre at large, and that Swift herself would eventually decide that the pop world was a better fit for her. The shift began with the release of 2012’s “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”, which became the first Taylor Swift single to be deemed not country enough for country radio. It spent nine weeks at #1 anyway, due to a ridiculous change in Billboard’s chart tabulation methodology, but that is a separate topic.
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Keeping your ears warm: a slacker’s playlist

slacker playlist2December means list-making for lots of people. For Christmas shoppers. said list reminds you to buy Aunt Dorothy that bottle of Evening In Paris perfume and to likewise pick up those all-important token trinkets for every friend, relative, and passing acquaintance in your life. It’s the time of year for giving, after all.

And for music bloggers, it means whittling down the year’s releases into a tidy list of the best of the best. If you’re like me, you’ve waited until December to really start the process of putting them in order. I’ve kept a revolving list of my favorites since January, in no particular order. So for the past week I’ve been revisiting, adding new songs, and eliminating the middling music. In the meantime, I’ve found some great songs – new and old – to keep my ears warm when I’m not re-evaluating the best of 2012. Thanks to my handy Spotify account, I’ve got a pre-made list of my top 10 played songs during the past week. I’ll share them with you below – a sort of procrastination edition of the ever-popular iPod check – and invite you to share your own in the comments.

  • Kasey Musgraves – “Merry Go Round”
  • Don Gibson – “Oh Lonesome Me”
  • Lori McKenna – “Sometimes He Does”
  • Elvis Presley – “Are You Lonesome Tonight?”
  • Kelly Clarkson – “People Like Us”
  • Linda Ronstadt – “Cry Like a Rainstorm, Howl Like the Wind”
  • Ray Charles – “I Can’t Stop Loving You”
  • Bobbie Cryner – “Leavin’ Houston Blues”
  • Rick Trevino – “Running Out of Reasons To Run”
  • Kelly Clarkson featuring Vince Gill – “Don’t Rush”

Spotify users can listen to my top 10 playlist.

What’s tops on your playlist right now? Share your top 10 (or 20 or 30) tracks with us.

The fine print giveth

There’s a line in Thomas Rhett’s new single “Beer With Jesus” where the singer is asking “tell me how’d you turn the other cheek, to save a sorry soul like me” that didn’t even register when I first listened to the song. While it was playing in the background the other day my ears zoned in on that line and my reaction was to arch an eyebrow in admiration at the songwriters’ simple and direct way of communicating. In the setting of the song – modern-day Southern Baptist fundamentalism  – it would have been easy to reach for a hackneyed phrase straight out of the hymnal and my ear is still half-expecting “wretched soul” or something equally pretentious when I hear it. But they’ve kept it direct – even conversational – enough to effectively personify the narrator in the process, and that plainspoken bit of talk is why I want to hear the rest of what he’s got to say. So I say good on Rhett and co-writers Rick Huckaby and Lance Miller. They’re paying attention to the details.

So I got to thinking about other songs and the importance of just one word or line. Would “Sunday Morning Coming Down” be as important in the annals of country music history if Johnny Cash hadn’t bucked network television executives’ suggestion to substitute Kris Kristofferson’s lyric, and sing “home” instead of “stoned”? Likely it would have still become a hit. And as long as people still find themselves feeling hung over from a Saturday night, the song itself is strong enough to stand alone as a vivid retelling of such mornings. Still, “wishing Lord that I was stoned” reveals a grit and hair-of-the-dog pluck in the singer where wishing to be home sounds like he’s just given up. It changes the entire perspective. Kristofferson is of course a master of imagery, due in part to his attention to the details.

On John Hiatt’s superb “When We Ran”, Linda Rondstadt spends the first three minutes of the song wailing and gnashing her teeth about a lover that got away. She finally concludes “the mind is just a loose cannon and the memories are rollin’ dice“, letting the listener in on the fact that she’s acutely aware of the absurdity of her obsession with the past.  Otherwise, we’d expect to see her walking Main Street, carrying a suitcase, faded rose in her hair.  It’s also near the end of Lori McKenna’s voyeuristic “Your Next Lover” that the singer’s cool sentience is told when she sings in the bridge “I hope she reminds you nothing of me and as crazy as it sounds I hope she’s beautiful“, with no discernible amount of either sadness or bitterness. These are details that round out their song’s characters. If they were one-sided, would we care about these misfits and their lives? Would we relate their situations as easily to our own? I don’t think so. We relate to them because Hiatt and McKenna didn’t shirk their responsibility to the details.

All of these songs are favorites because they give the listener a glimpse inside the psyche of the song’s characters. I believe it’s that attention to detail that separates the good songs from the really great songs. TV Bishop Fulton Sheen’s famous quote “the big print giveth and the fine print taketh away” runs opposite to these and many other great songs in which the fine print giveth.

So what is a music chart actually for?

In the past couple of weeks the decision by Billboard magazine to introduce a new country singles chart encompassing radio airplay (of ‘country’ singles on all genres of radio), sales and Internet streaming has aroused a lot of debate among fans, most whom are fervently against the new chart. Some have even started petitions for the move to be reversed. The existing chart based on country radio airplay remains alongside the new chart, but the latter is to be the premier chart for Billboard.

It is only in the past 20-odd years that sales have not been included in the singles charts, and they were dropped only because singles sales were in sharp decline. In the 90s, most hit singles were not even available for purchase but were solely promotional for radio. In many countries, airplay has never been considered a factor and only sales have been allowed to count, even when the single seemed to be a dying format. The decline of the single as a commercial product in its own right came to an end with the rise of digital music. Nowadays it is not uncommon for a bona fide country single to be registered platinum based on its downloads.

The existing airplay chart is not a complete record of what is played on country radio in any case. It is based on a sample set of radio stations who report to Billboard, with the results then weighted by audience of the stations involved. Rival charts like Mediabase use a similar formula, but based on different stations, and with different calculations, which explains why there is sometimes a discrepancy between the differing charts. Paul Dennis’s fascinating article “The case of the ‘Groovy Grubworm’ (and other chart confusion)” told us about the battles between Billboard and Cashbox and some of the shenanigans which went on in the past. Manipulation of the charts is nothing new, and for many years all the major labels and some independent ones have employed teams of promotion staff to encourage radio stations to play their records. A new trend appears in recent deals by which Clear Channel affiliated stations have agreed to give massive airplay boosts for new releases, allowing them a high chart debut inevitably followed by a slump as soon as the deal ends.

Almost worse, singles are automatically dropped from being recorded on the charts after they have been out for a certain length of time, just a couple of weeks after they cease making active increases in airplay. The reason this practice was introduced was that many stations are notably conservative and only want to play proven hits, making it exceptionally hard for new songs to break in, and making the charts look very stagnant week to week. However, this means that what the audience is actually exposed to in a given week, is not what is being measured by the chart. Furthermore, it has not solved the problem – the very slow progress of singles up the charts has only got worse in recent years.

So the existing airplay charts are far from pure or perfect in the first place, and changing the things they measure is not a betrayal of a lost Eden. One may question some aspects of the new formula; the inclusion of non-country airplay seems to be the most controversial. Yet if a genuinely country song was to cross over, why not acknowledge that as part of its success as a country record – particularly as it is impossible to divide up sales by classifying the purchaser’s tastes in music?

The basic problem this move highlights is not, it seems to me, a problem with chart methodology at all, but rather the way Nashville has allowed country music to be taken over by acts appealing largely to crossover artists. If the new methodology omitted pop-leaning songs, there might not be very many left. Outrage over Taylor Swift’s pop song ‘We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together’, which was played fairly well on country radio but peaked outside the top 10 and has now disappeared from the airplay charts nonetheless topping the new chart thanks to sales and pop airplay must be muted when one considers that Carrie Underwood’s ‘Blown Away’, which fans thought was the most “robbed” by the move is also pop rather than country in its melodic and rhythmic structure. It’s a bit like saying spinach has less meat in it than cheese. If the records played on country radio, and released by major labels, were less pop-leaning as a whole, then the differentiation of genres would be a non-issue. However, I might suggest that remixes of records should be regarded as different records, so that where someone like Taylor Swift has “country” and “pop” versions of a song, only sales and airplay of the “country” mix should be recorded on the country chart.

While Billboard has been generally regarded as the most reliable chart, Mediabase is the source for today’s popular syndicated radio countdowns, so the Billboard changes will not have a direct effect on the average country listener’s perceptions of what is doing well. We will have to wait and see if the existence of the new chart has any effect on radio playlists but pending evidence to the contrary I am skeptical – the existing sales charts do not appear to do so to an appreciable degree, so it will only be if the new chart being given the prominence of Billboard’s premier country chart impresses programmers as a big deal.

What is the chart actually for? It is a measurement of how successful country records are, and the actual placement on the chart is not in itself that significant. What really matters is the underlying figures – the chart numbers are based on those but are comparing songs to others getting airplay/sales at the same time. Comparisons over long periods are not really fair – how can you say a single which was a multi-week #1 in an era when the chart encourages several such long running singles a year be truly compared to one which managed two weeks in an era when there was change at the top almost every week? Even in a shorter timeframe, a #5 hit, say, one week may have received more or less airplay (or sales) than one at the same rank another week. A slow-moving single which never makes it to the top can end up with more airplay over the course of the year than a fast burning one which debuts high due to its performer’s star power, races to #1, then drops off the chart. In addition, from the record labels’ point of view, airplay is important only insofar as it leads to sales. Songwriters are recompensed for their songs being played on the radio, but the benefit to the artist and their label is by getting the record exposure so that listeners are inspired to buy it, or better still the full length album.

Whether an artist is credited with a #1, or “robbed” because other factors are taken into account makes no difference to the amount of airplay received, or to the number of fans inspired to buy a record. It’s all just a way of keeping score.

What do you think? All opinions are welcome.

You didn’t have a good time: songs about struggling with alcohol

The recent unfortunate news of Randy Travis’s apparently alcohol-fuelled decline has prompted me to bring together these songs about people struggling to give up alcohol.

Randy’s own recording of ‘You Didn’t Have A Good Time’ from his last studio album, 2008’s Around The Bend, now seems heartbreakingly prescient – or an early warning to himself of a problem that he was, one assumes, aware of. The song starts from the standpoint that the first step in tackling the problem is acknowledging its existence:

I bet you don’t remember
Kneeling in that bathroom stall
Praying for salvation
And cursing alcohol
Then went right back to drinking
Like everything was fine
Let’s be honest with each other
You didn’t have a good time

So take a good hard look in the mirror
And drink that image down
I’m truth that you can’t run from
I’m the conscience you can’t drown
And the happiness you want so bad
You ain’t gonna find
Until you start believing
You didn’t have a good time

When you woke up this morning
I guess you just assumed
That you got something out of
The empty bottles in this room
There ain’t an angel that can save you
When you’re listening to the wine
And the demons they won’t tell you
You didn’t have a good time

Trace Adkins ‘Sometimes A Man Takes A Drink’ offers an equally somber warning of the gradual fall from casual social drinking into the prison of addiction, with its melancholy warning, “sometimes a drink takes the man”. (Co-writer Larry Cordle has also recorded a superb version of the song, but Trace’s magnificent vocal edges his cut ahead.)

The same theme appears in George Jones’s bitingly honest ‘A Drunk Can’t Be A Man’, from his 1976 album Alone Again, when he was still drinking heavily himself. In this third person story, George sings of a man whose life is utterly miserable thanks to his drinking but “seems proud to have the devil for his guide”.

Sometimes it seems like a miracle that Jones is still alive in his 80s, given his chequered history with alcohol. This history has been frequently acknowledged in his choice of songs like ‘Wine (You’ve Used Me Long Enough)’, the agonized ‘Wean Me’, ‘If Drinking Don’t Kill Me (Her Memory Will)‘, I’ve Aged Twenty Years In Five’,  ‘Ol’ George Stopped Drinking Today’, and the rueful admission of ‘Wine Colored Roses’. In 1999 it was also the subject of his last solo top 30 hit ‘Choices’, a bleak Billy Yates song about the lifelong effect of bad decisions and putting drinking above those who loved him.

Jones following a 1978 DUI arrest.

One of my uncles was (and I would say he still is) an alcoholic, and while struggling with his problem in his 20s he spent some time living with his older married half-brother (my parents, before I was born). I’ve left out a whole range of songs about the impact of an alcoholic relative on his or her spouse and family, but the role of a loved one in supporting someone through the hard times is also important, and dealt with in a number of country songs. One of my favorites is ‘I’m Trying’, recorded both by Diamond Rio in duet with Chely Wright, and more recently solo by Martina McBride, which movingly shows the middle of the struggle, with a loved one trying to support the drinker.

Someone who can’t admit their problem to their loved ones is clearly not in good shape to turn the corner. Now-disbanded trio Trick Pony were best known for main lead singer Heidi Newfield, but one of their best songs (‘The Devil And Me’), sung by one of her male bandmates, dealt with the struggles of an alcoholic, shamefacedly hiding his used bottles from his wife and children, and confessing,

I’ve battled with the bottle all alone for years

Bleak though the basic situation is, he still hopes things can turn around, affirming in the last verse and chorus:

I’m hoping for a miracle
I know that I can change
No, I’m not giving up
I know there’ll come a day

When I’m not too tired to fight it
Or too ashamed to pray
And I know the Lord won’t be bored
With the promises I’ve made
I won’t live here with my secret
Where no one else can see
No, I won’t keep it
Between the devil and me

Sometimes it takes a catastrophic incident to prompt a change of heart. 80s star T. Graham Brown has recorded a moving plea to God from a man who has reached rock bottom for help to turn the ‘Wine Into Water’. In the brilliant Leslie Satcher song ‘From Your Knees’ (recorded by Matt King  (with Patty Loveless on harmony), later by John Conlee, and ironically, also by Randy Travis on Around The Bend), a wife tired of her man’s “cheating and drinking” finally leaves after 17 years, forcing him to face the truth:

Right then and there in an old sinner’s prayer
He told things he’d kept in the dark
There was no use in lying
Cause the man who was listening
Could see every room in his heart

Sometimes a man can change on his own
But sometimes I tell you it takes

Empty closets and empty drawers
And a tearful confession on the kitchen floor
And burning memories in the fireplace
He had waited too late to say he was wrong

Brother, you would not believe
What you can see from your knees

Another song from his own repertoire Travis might be advised to pay attention to, now he seems to have reached his own rock bottom point.

Before he discovered the beach, Kenny Chesney recorded some strong material, and one of the best was the earnest ‘That’s Why I’m Here’, a #2 hit in 1998. A mature reflection on the damage done to a life “when you lose control”, this seems to have a happy ending as the protagonist has learned his lesson and started attending AA meetings.

However, some damage cannot be undone, as we see from a couple of songs dealing with the effects of addiction to drugs rather than alchol. The video for Jeff Bates’ emotional ‘One Second Chance’ ties it in with his own former drug problem, while Jamey Johnson’s stunning ‘High Cost Of Living’ is one of the finest songs of its kind as it portrays someone whose addiction led to throwing away everything good in his life. Billy Yates’ minor hit ‘Flowers’ (subsequently covered by Chris Young) deals with the literally sobering aftermath of a drunk driving incident in which the protagonist killed his wife or girlfriend; change comes too late. Gravel-voiced singer-songwriter Bobby Pinson included several compelling songs referring to the drunk-driving death of a high school friend on his underrated album Man Like Me ( ‘Don’t Ask Me How I Know’, ‘A Man Like Me’ and ‘I Thought That’s Who I Was’), the culminating effect of which sounds autobiographical. In ‘One More Believer’ on the same album he looks back to a sordid past passing out drunk before finding salvation through the love of a good woman.

Joe Nichols, another star who has struggled with substance abuse in real life, chose to record ‘An Old Friend of Mine’, a moving low key confessional of the day a man gives up drinking:

I never thought I’d be strong enough to leave it all behind
But today I said goodbye to an old friend of mine…
And I heard freedom ring when that bottle hit the floor
And I just walked away not needing anymore

Yet it’s still a struggle to maintain sobriety after making that commitment. My uncle stopped drinking over 40 years ago, but still attends AA meetings regularly and can’t touch a single drop of alcohol in case it sets off the cravings again. George Jones has had the odd lapse in recent years, and it’s well documented that Randy Travis had issues with drinking among other wild behaviour as a teenager before straightening up, so his current woes may be a resurgence of a longstanding underlying problem.

Collin Raye’s hit ‘Little Rock’ shows an alcoholic trying hard to make a fresh start and making a good beginning, but only 19 days into his sobriety there’s clearly a long way to go (although his record is 10 days and counting ahead of the protagonist of George Strait’s recent single ‘Drinkin’ Man’. Co-written with Dean Dillon who has had his own issues with alcohol in the past, this searing portrait of a man whose problems go back to his early teens unfortunately proved to be a bit too close to reality for today’s country radio and became the lowest charting single of Strait’s career.  It remains one of the best singles of 2012.

Texan Jason Boland’s ‘Bottle By My Bed’, looking back on the time when “my life was as empty as the bottle by my bed,” also talks about all the false starts, when “each time was the last time, that’s what I always said”, but has the protagonist now on safer ground.

Finally, if anyone reading this thinks they have a problem: please get help. For information and resources, visit the AA.org and Al Anon websites for help for you and/or your loved ones.

Back to the seasons (and songs) of my youth

None of my relatives on either side were musicians. I have a cousin who plays piano in his church, but that’s about it. Music in my family came from the radio. In the late 1980s when compact discs were first becoming more popular, my Grandma Journey – always a one-step-ahead kinda woman – began amassing the first CD collection I ever saw, back when the CDs came packaged in cardboard boxes three times the height of the plastic jewel case, for record store display purposes I later deduced. Anyway, grandma’s favorites were tongue-in-cheek classic country songs. Weekends with her, we’d sit at the table in her dining room, playing rummy while a string of tunes from Buck Owens and George Jones played from that huge black player with the dancing orange lights. Songs like “Act Naturally” and “Under Your Spell Again” were regulars, but the one we heard most was Jones singing about the girl he loved in “Saginaw, Michigan”. Grandma was always quick to point out the song’s payoff line to me, in case I missed it this time. “See, he didn’t really find any gold in Alaska”, she would explain. “He lied to that guy so he could marry the daughter and go off and be happy.” She was a big fan of the underdog, my grandma. I knew back then that she and her songs were cool, and I still think so.

When I was five years old my dad bought a tow truck and began a towing service. Going along with him on a run was all I wanted out of life back then. Afternoons and weekends, I spent a lot of my youthful existence in that old blue Chevrolet tow truck while the tape deck schooled me on classic albums from Hank Williams Jr, Randy Travis, and others. But the one I remember best was the old white cassette – if you remember cassette tapes, you’ll remember they were white before record labels decided translucent plastic was more stylish – of Alabama’s Roll On. Released just months after I was born in January 1984 when Alabama was arguably the hottest band in the U.S., the set housed 4 consecutive #1 singles. I couldn’t get enough of the title track back then, but two album cuts stand out to me most now. The band’s southern rock influence is evident on the flick-your-bic-worthy “I’m Not That Way Anymore”. It’s a tale of road-weary musicians grown tame and leaving behind their wild and crazy ways, told behind hushed electric guitar solos with the guys’ airtight harmonies and written by the four band members. Even though I didn’t understand the lyrics, I was taken with slow-burning feel of the song. What you hear on the album was recorded live in Dallas and so was the accompanying music video, though it was never released as a single. The other song that made the biggest impression on me was closing track “Food On The Table”, a simplistic espousing of the staples in life. Its outlaw country-inspired back beat is coupled with an ’80s pop melody that crawls into your brain and stays there. I barely play it anymore, but hardly a week goes by that I don’t find myself tapping a foot and singing “we had food on the table and shoes on our feet…”

My timeline for these memories begins sometime in 1989. I know that because I also have a clear memory of George Strait’s “Baby’s Gotten Good at Goodbye”, making its chart run at the time, being played several times a day. These days, with a niece and nephew both five years old this Summer, knowing that the songs they hear today could be the ones that stay with them until they’re grown, I find myself resisting the urge to only play the top 40 stations and songs for them when either one is with me. Sure, they can and do sing a long with Katy Perry’s big, catchy choruses and know every word to Foster the People’s “Pumped Up Kicks” – it’s edited in my market to remove the words “bullet” and “gun”. But I also want them to hear about a Cajun’s temper when he’s ‘really got trouble like a daughter gone bad’ and the story of Tommy proposing to Katie outside the Tastee Freez. Like me, maybe they’ll wonder if those boys ever make it to the church on Cumberland Road, and they may well have those ‘big old wheels keep rolling through their mind’ too. I wonder if they will relegate the songs I play for them as old-people-music, and find their own way into country music’s past and present. It is a family tradition. Or will they come to appreciate the songs I played them are boss, or whatever slang term the kids are using for great and awesome when that day comes.

Share your first recollections of music and the people who shared it with you in the comments.

Random playlist 5

Here are five songs I’ve been playing a lot recently…

Elizabeth Cook – “Sometimes It Takes Balls to Be a Woman” … I’ve been re-watching my Weeds DVDs in anticipation of season eight’s premiere (it’s this Sunday!) and thanks to the show’s excellent taste in and use of popular music, I was reminded of the sorta-title track to Cook’s 2007 Rodney Crowell-produced album. This bit of raucous ear candy is bitingly funny in its flippant take on the old gender double standards.  Even if it’s not your style, it’s worth a spin if only to hear the lady sing the word “honey”. It’s great.

Waylon Jennings – “You Asked Me To” … I’ve been adding to my limited Waylon Jennings collection lately. After I got a copy of Waylon’s Honky Tonk Heroes set, it was this top 10 hit I kept spinning. It’s a straightforward confessional from a man devoted to the woman he loves and his lack of regard for much else. Because it’s Waylon, it comes with a powerful bass line and plenty of the singer’s strong-jaw personality . Co-writer Billy Joe Shaver later recorded it with Willie Nelson and Elvis even took a shot at it, but Waylon owns this one outright.

Carrie Underwood – “Wine After Whiskey” … I hope the Carrie Underwood camp releases this to radio at some point. It has all the elements of my favorite classic country music: a tale of lost love told with an alcohol metaphor. Underwood turns in an unusually understated performance on this track she co-wrote with Dave Berg (of current Rodney Atkins’ hits fame) and heavy hitter Tom Shapiro, and the steel guitar flourishes almost make up for the lack of fiddles.

Dwight Yoakam – “Intentional Heartache” … Woman scorned, gets pissed, takes revenge. Not so much an original concept. But one should never underestimate Dwight Yoakam’s ability to make a retro theme sound like the first time you heard it. Could be because in this snide tale of said scorned woman motoring to North Carolina to return her man’s prized possessions – “boots, Bud cap, and signed Dale Jr. poster” (but not before spraypainting them and his Monte Carlo neon green) – Yoakam sounds positively delighted to not be on the receiving end this time. That’s my theory.  And a blistering bluegrass meets rockabilly band jams while it all happens.

Reba & Kelly Clarkson – “Up to the Mountain (Live in Dayton, Ohio)” … I was at this show, but I didn’t capture this video. On their 2 Worlds, 2 Voices Tour, the two spent the entire evening turning their respective hits into duets. The result was a vocal showdown of shouting and warbling for the most part. But they kept their showboating to a minimum on this verse-trading number (and a few others) and with a simple piano backdrop turn in a definitive performance of my favorite Patty Griffin song.

What’s your current fancy on your chosen listening device?

Discussion: Ten essential albums

I recently retired a group of CDs that have lived primarily in my car for the past year or so, and thus have been greatly overplayed. While flipping through my collection for albums to replace them with, I had one of those rude awakening moments when I came across one album in particular and realized that it has been almost twenty-five years since its release. I’ve had it since it first came out, but it certainly doesn’t feel like it’s been that long. It’s an album that I can’t imagine ever being without, and it inspired me to put together a list of other albums that I’ve had for longer than I care to admit, that I’ve always enjoyed and still play all the way through on a regular basis.

In putting together the list, I decided to limit it to studio albums that I’ve had for at least twenty years. I’ve been listening to country music for much longer than that, but in the beginning when I was still too young to earn my own money, I was somewhat limited in what I could buy so my purchases in those days tended to be hits compilations. For that reason, some of the usual suspects — Haggard, Jones, Wynette and Parton don’t appear on the list. So, without further adieu, here are my selections, in no particular order, for the ten most essential albums in my collection:

1. Keith Whitley Don’t Close Your Eyes (1988). I had heard a few of Keith Whitley’s songs on the radio prior to the release of this album, but I wasn’t really aware of who he was until the title track became his breakthrough hit. Up to that point, his material wasn’t always worthy of his considerable vocal talent, but everything about this album was just perfect. The follow-up, I greatly prefer it to his follow-up album, the posthumously released I Wonder Do You Think of Me.

2. Randy Travis — Storms of Life (1986). All that needs to be said about this album is that it changed the course of country music. It’s arguably the greatest country album released during my lifetime, and indisputably the most important. What more needs to be said?

3. Anne Murray — Let’s Keep It That Way (1978). I didn’t actually get this one in 1978, but I did buy it on cassette sometime in the early 80s and later bought it again when it was released on CD many years later. While never primarily a country artist, Anne was one of my gateways to country music back in the days when country radio stations were virtually non-existent in the north. The album included “You Needed Me”, one of the biggest hits of Anne’s career, and her only record to reach #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the US. Aside from that, however, it is one of her more overtly country efforts. It was the first of ten Murray albums to be produced by Jim Ed Norman, who later went on to run Warner Bros’ Nashville division.

4. Barbara Mandrell — I’ll Be Your Jukebox Tonight (1988). By the late 80s, the New Traditionalist movement was in full force and many veteran acts had been swept off the charts. Many of the artists who had enjoyed great success with crossover material tried to adapt by releasing more traditional material. After a lengthy dry spell, Mandrell looked as though she were poised to defy the odds and reclaim her throne at the top of the charts. Her excellent cover of Ray Price’s “I Wish That I Could Fall In Love Today” reached #5, but unfortunately it was her last appearance in the Top 10. Though it doesn’t contain any of her signature hits, I’ll Be Your Jukebox Tonight is the finest album of her career.

5. Willie Nelson — Always On My Mind (1982). Prior to the release of this album, I wasn’t much of a Willie fan, but he won me over with the title track, which had previously been recorded by both Elvis Presley and Brenda Lee. Willie’s version was one of the biggest hits of 1982 (has it really been 30 years?!?) and became his signature tune. The album also includes excellent cover versions of “Let It Be Me”, “A Whiter Shade of Pale” and a remake of his own “The Party’s Over”.

6. Reba McEntire — Whoever’s In New England (1986). It’s hard to pick a favorite Reba album from this era, because all of her work during this period was excellent. Whoever’s In New England marked a move back to a slightly more contemporary sound, following two ultra-traditional albums, 1984’s My Kind of Country and 1985’s Have I Got a Deal For You. Whoever’s In New England became her first gold album and the beautiful title track earned her a Grammy award.

7. Tanya Tucker — What Do I Do With Me (1991). I’ve been a Tanya Tucker fan for longer than I can remember. I can remember singing along to “Delta Dawn” when I was about four years old, though it was probably the Helen Reddy version that was getting played on local radio stations at the time. I bought and wore out quite a few of her hits compilations on cassette, and I also won an autographed copy of 1982 LP Changes, her only release for Arista Records. She had been a guest on a late-night syndicated radio show called Hot Country Nights. I remember trying to stay awake for it but I fell asleep before her segment of the program aired. She left some copies of her album, however, which were offered as prizes in a contest the next night. I got mine for correctly identifying Charlene Tilton as the spouse of Johnny Lee. However, it is her platinum-selling 1991 album that is her finest and the one that I play all the way through most often. It seems like it was released only yesterday, but on the other hand, it does seem like a very long time since music this good was heard regularly on country radio.

8. George Strait — Livin’ It Up (1990). As with many of the other artists on this list, most of my early George Strait albums were hits packages. The first studio album of his I ever had was a homemade copy of 1987’s Ocean Front Property, which a friend had given me. I got a CD player for Christmas in 1988 and got his If You Ain’t Lovin’, You Ain’t Livin’ album through Columbia House shortly thereafter. But it is Livin’ It Up that I come back to most often.

9. Patty Loveless — Honky Tonk Angel (1988). This was the first Patty Loveless album I ever owned. At the time it seemed like her commercial breakthrough — it contains her first two #1 hits “Timber, I’m Falling In Love” and “Chains” — but it was really only scratching the surface of what was to come in the following decade following her switch from MCA to Epic. My favorite track on this album and the reason I bought it was “Don’t Toss Us Away”, which features harmony vocals by Rodney Crowell. MCA had thought this would be her first #1, but it only got to #5. Despite its more than respectable chart performance, it’s not one of her better remembered records today.

10. Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn — Making Believe (1988). Conway and Loretta stopped recording together in the early 80s when Conway moved to Elektra Records, which was later absorbed by Warner Bros. At that time, it was still relatively uncommon for artists on different labels to record together. When Conway rejoined MCA in 1987, it was announced that he and Loretta would once again record together. This album was their one and only reunion in the studio. It consisted of five previously released tracks and five newly recorded cover versions of country standards such as “Release Me”, “Half as Much”, “Please Help Me, I’m Falling”, “I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still In Love With You)” and the title track. But despite being only half a new album, the magic was still there. This is another album I wore out on cassette before buying it on CD.

What are some of the albums in your collection that you consider to essential listening, and that you can’t imagine being without?

Random playlist 4

In the months that I’ve been compiling these lists of my current listening habits, I’ve noticed that a core group of acts have remained in my ears, though the material I’ve chosen from them has been different.  I’ve been neglectful to the new music in my collection this summer so you won’t find any reflections on new releases this time. Still, yet another season goes by and I’m left with another set of recent heavy-rotation tracks in my music library, and I’d like to share them with you.

Alan Jackson – “There Goes” … This comes from one of Jackson’s best albums yet, 1997’s Everything I Love. Hard as it may be for another artist to top the title track from that set, Jackson did it just two releases later with “There Goes” – and has since hit a new high-water mark countless times.  The barroom-inspired easy sway of the melody here draws the listener in much the same way the narrator sings about the woman who’s hooked him.  A rolling steel guitar accompaniment and crying fiddles keep with the melancholy nature of the song, even when the lyrics – “I’m still pretendin’ I don’t need you/I won’t let you know you’re killin’ me” – make you smile.  This is genuine country music pathos at its finest.

Reba McEntire – “Please Come To Boston” … Like her earlier hit with the Everly Brothers’ “Cathy’s Clown”, Reba does a gender-reversal, and of course a narrative reversal in the process, when she tackles Dave Loggins’ 1974 #1 pop hit.  Singing from the other side of the wanderlust, the singer here plays the role of the sensible hometown girl with invitations aplenty from a rambling man, who summons her from Boston, Denver, and finally L.A. Each time she says no. But it’s in flipping pronouns on the song’s powerhouse bridge that McEntire changes things around, and becomes a pining-for-him protagonist when she reveals “Of all the dreams he’s lost or found and all that I ain’t got/He still needs to lean to, somebody he can sing to“.  She continues to turn down his calls to join him, but the tenderness of her tough love opens up the possibility for a happy ending – something the Loggins version never had.  Joan Baez and other females had done all this before, but none came close to Reba’s believability.

Rosanne and Johnny Cash – “That’s How I Got To Memphis” … Maybe it was the allure of Memphis over Boston or L.A. that changes the story, as the singer here elects to follow her love interest to destinations far away.  But she didn’t come here by his side. In this oft-recorded Tom T. Hall narrative, she’s followed the only trail she knows. Returning to the life her love interest knew before her knew her, she’s sure she’ll find him and be able to tell him all the things she wanted to say all along, and of course rescue him from his troubles.  Not just the engaging story told, it’s the elder Cash’s commanding vocal on the final verse and a walking bass line melody that keep this track repeating on my players.

Wynonna Judd- “No On Else On Earth” … Even the most brazen of us have a weakness. After all, the Texas Ranger himself finally succumbed to Alex Cahill. Rocks, fences, and keeping your senses are futile defenses sometimes. Wynonna Judd’s third single as a solo artist quickly introduced her with a signature sound that was all her own and an attitude never heard on those old Judds records.  Even 19 years later, no other tune in the singer’s catalog recalls what her fans would come to know Wynonna for in later years: rocking guitars, cool-as-ice lyrics, and her falsetto-into-growling vocals.

Jo Dee Messina – “Heads Carolina, Tails California” … Like Wynonna, Jo Dee Messina captured her musical essence with an early single. This – Messina’s first out of the chute and a #2 hit in 1996 – caught the lightning of the singer’s effervescent and spunky personality in a bottle, and combined it with an irresistibly reckless spirit.  The in-your-face mix of instruments that makes up the production here went out with the new millennium, which is a shame since this sounds as fresh today as 15 years ago. As was intended, it still leaves me feeling ready to pack a bag and hit the road.

Fleetwood Mac – “Dreams” … “Thunder only happens when it’s raining …”  Saying that line out loud 34 years after the rock supergroup hit the top of the Hot 100 with this Stevie Nicks-penned track, the words fall flat on the tongue in the most sanctimonious way. And certainly the production, heavy with synthetic bass lines and distorting harmonies, has lost a lot of its original sheen, leaving the song a dusty chestnut in the annals of classic rock.  But it’s in Nicks’ bemused performance and the all-inclusive theme that makes it worth repeating. No matter if you’re the one who says “you want your freedom” or the one giving it, after listening, you’ll never again call it quits without listening carefully “to the sound of your loneliness“.

2011: The 75-(per)cent report

School buses are back on the roads and the leaves are already starting to fall on the roads here in southern Ohio. Crisp nights are upon us, and as we head into final months of 2011, I’m revisiting my growing playlist of my favorite songs and albums released in the first three-quarters. No waxing or pondering on the fate of what’s popular this time, these are just some of my favorite releases of the year, in no particular order, combined with a few words to tell you why in some cases.  Be sure to share your top picks for the 3/4 of the year so far in the comments.

Albums

Sunny Sweeney – Concrete … As I said in my review, if this became the sounding board for all future female country albums, we’d all be better off.

Terri Clark – Roots and Wings … Though it’s not as strong as her previous effort, Clark’s latest, and its lack of airplay, is another page in the long indictment against country radio.  I’d be the first to welcome her back with this material.

Pistol Annies – Hell On Heels

George Strait – Here For A Good Time

Connie Smith – Long Line of Heartaches … Traditional country and classic themes performed by one of country music’s finest singers. A can’t-miss combination.

Chris Young – Neon

Ronnie Dunn – Ronnie Dunn … The Brooks & Dunn frontman hasn’t reached his full potential as a soloist yet – I think he’s still too unsure of himself – but this is a helluva start.

Blake Shelton – Red River Blue

… and on the not-so country side:

Lucinda Williams – Blessed

Adele – 21

Lori McKenna – Lorraine

The Decemberists – The King Is Dead 

Songs

Bradley Gaskin – “Mr. Bartender”

Kenny Chesney & Grace Potter – “You and Tequila”

Pistol Annies – “Lemon Drop”/”Trailer For Rent” … I can’t pick a favorite among these two on the album.

Ronnie Dunn – “Cost of Living”

George Strait – “Here For a Good Time”/”Poison” … It’s been said before, and better, but I really like the title track to Strait’s latest album. And I think “Poison” is one of his finest moments.

Sunny Sweeney – “Staying’s Worse than Leaving”/”Amy”

Billy Currington – “Love Done Gone”

Taylor Swift – “Back to December”/”Mean”

Lucinda Williams – “I Don’t Know How You’re Living”

The case of the ‘Groovy Grubworm’ (and other chart confusion)

History is written by the victors” – often attributed to Winston Spencer Churchill but of unknown origin.

Thanks to the many fine volumes of Billboard charts compiled by Joel Whitburn, and the fact that Billboard is still published today, most fans tend to think of Billboard as being the authoritative source for charting the success and/or popularity of recordings. In the year 2011 that undoubtedly is true, but for much of the history of country music and the country music charts, that was not the case. From 1952 until the late 1980s, Billboard and Cashbox battled it out as the national authority for charting records. In the realm of country music, Billboard and Cashbox were of equal importance with as many country radio stations basing their weekly countdown shows on the Cashbox charts as on the Billboard charts. Normally this presented little controversy as most Billboard #1s made it to #1 on Cashbox, and vice versa. Even when such was not the case, a song reaching #1 on one chart usually would be a top three record on the other chart, or occasionally top five.

The Billboard and Cashbox charts did not measure popularity in quite the same manner. In his fascinating autobiography Me, The Mob and Music, rock artist Tommy James had the following to say:

“…The big three trade papers were Record World, Cashbox and Billboard. Billboard was always the most difficult to deal with. Cashbox had a slant toward retail. It focused on the money generated from records. Record World had a slant toward radio airplay. Billboard claimed to be in the middle. The problem with that was that when you put out a record, back then things happened fast.

In six weeks you needed a new record, that’s how quickly the turnover was if you wanted to stay constantly on the charts. If you put out a record and it generated some excitement, it immediately went on the radio. That would be reflected in Record World. But it would take two or three weeks after you heard a song on the radio before the sales figures would start to hit and the stores would start to report it. That was when your record would start charting in Cashbox. So there was a lag time between those two papers. Billboard claimed to chart records between radio play and sales. But you would always be two to three weeks further ahead in airplay than you were in sales …

… And now because the other trade papers collapsed over the years, Billboard, by attrition, became the keeper of the flame. When young researchers and historians go back to check the archives for a record’s history, they inevitably get a skewed sense of how popular it really was.”

I’m not sure I completely agree with Tommy James, but there is considerable truth in his observations. While the charts usually charted records in approximately the same range, sometimes there were outliers, with a record sometimes making a much bigger impression on one chart than the other, such as Johnny Darrell’s original recorded version of “The Green Green Grass of Home” reaching #12 on Cashbox (it also charted on Record World) but not charting at all on Billboard’s Country Chart. This phenomena normally would occur on songs not reaching the Top 10 on either chart. The most noteworthy outlier to reach #1 was that of the instrumental hit “Groovy Grubworm” by Harlow Wilcox and the Oakies. More about that record a little later.

During the 1970s more traditionally based artists seemed to fare better on the Cashbox charts than on Billboard (the same could be said of the Record World charts as well, but we’ll discuss Record World at another time). Both of the country radio stations I listened to during my high school and college years, WCMS in Norfolk, VA and WHOO in Orlando, FL presented their own local charts that seemed to track more closely with Cashbox than with Billboard.

When you attended a stage show for a country artist from the 1960s, 70s, or 80s, the artist will often introduce a song as a song “that went #1 for me in year 19xx…”, yet when you check on Wikipedia or one of the Joel Whitburn compendiums you’ll see that Billboard did not have the record reaching #1. That doesn’t mean the artist was lying to you – it could mean that the song reached #1 on Cashbox or Record World.

Below you will find a partial list of records reaching #1 on Cashbox but not Billboard. My Cashbox sources are complete only for the years 1958-1982 so there are undoubtedly other records that reached #1 on Cashbox, but not on Billboard. Some of these records were huge hits indeed and it is puzzling that they did not get to #1 on Billboard. Sometimes it was a matter of timing. For instance, Gene Watson’s “Love In The Hot Afternoon” reached #1 in virtually every market but topped out at #3 in both Billboard and Cashbox. Released originally on the small Resco label, the record was picked up by Capitol after it had topped the charts in Texas, California and the southwest and was already sliding down the charts in those areas.

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American Idol Season 10: Gone country

Unexpectedly, this week’s American Idol finale features not one but two young singers who will be unleashed on the country music world in the coming months. Perhaps because they represent different styles of country music, they appear not to have split the “country” vote getting to the final two. I mentioned deep voiced 17-year-old Scotty McCreery from North Carolina earlier this year, commenting on his similarity to Josh Turner, but at that point 16-year-old Georgia girl Lauren Alaina had managed to fly under my radar. She is a pop-country singer, with a voice not unreminiscent of a young Faith Hill. Both have selected a number of country songs to perform over the past weeks, and both are likely to head to Nashville once the show is over.

To be perfectly honest, both teenagers seem to have some raw talent but might have been better had they spent a few years honing their vocal and performance skills. Scotty is understood to be the front-runner, regularly eliciting deafening screams from young girls in the Idol audience, and he has by far the more confident polished approach, with an ease on stage which belies his youth and inexperience. Idol judge Randy Jackson even made some rather implausible comparisons to Garth Brooks last week. His poise and confidence will stand him in good stead whether his career takes him to superstardom or if he crashes and burns when out of the Idol bubble.

Back in April I speculated as to whether Scotty’s debut performance would involve “triumph or disaster”. I must confess that even after a dozen weeks of competition, I’m still on the fence. His voice certainly rivals Josh Turner’s in its range, but it signally lacks Turner’s resonance and richness of tone. I have also noticed that when he strays out of the most comfortable part of his range, his tone develops a slightly foghorn quality which is not mellifluous. Canny song choices when he is picking songs to record will be vital if he is to make a record I personally will like. And he is still only 17 – his voice may have room to develop and grow.

I want to root for Scotty, though, just because he is the most traditionally inclined of any real contender who has ever been on American Idol. Season 5’s Kellie Pickler, who has promised her upcoming third album will offer us some more traditional country, was never likely to win and ended up in sixth place, noted more for her dizzy blonde persona and dramatic family background than her singing.

Lauren, who was an early judges’ favorite, appears to have lost some confidence over the course of the show, and has the general demeanour and maturity level one would expect from a high school girl. This is not a criticism – merely an observation, and she will, in due course, grow up. I am inclined to think her voice may possibly have more potential than Scotty’s, as although she has shown some technical deficiencies – issues with her breath control and an occasional tendency to oversing in the manner of Carrie Underwood – she has a very nice underlying tone. Her youth makes her appear to be more malleable by producers and label executives, and her personal musical taste also leans very much pop-country, so I would be less likely to want to buy her post-Idol work.

Both of the youngsters are likely to sign record deals with one of the labels in the Universal Music Group, and I would expect Mercury or MCA Nashville the most likely homes for them. That brings in an additional complicating factor for Scotty McCreery, as his own idol Josh Turner is already on MCA. Regardless of the results of the show, it could be interesting to see what happens with the careers of the two finalists. It’s UMG’s first year in association with Idol. When the Sony group signed artists from Idol, if they didn’t meet with immediate success they were soon disposed of (Kristy Lee Cook, for instance, now signed to Broken Bow). They have been going slower with last year’s third placer Casey James, who has still not released anything. Will UMG want instant returns, or would they have the patience to emulate what RCA did with Nashville Star’s fourth season champion Chris Young or Columbia did with the same show’s Miranda Lambert, namely give these youngsters time after their reality show runs to mature and develop?

Scotty and Lauren duet on ‘I Told You So’:

All about the image?

The latest episode of CMT’s current reality competition, CMT’s Next Superstar, which you can catch up with on the CMT website if you havent been watching the show live, focussed on image. Viewers saw the five surviving competitors each getting a makeover and doing a photo shoot for an album, as well as recording a classic song, before selling themselves to staff at Warner Music, whose votes counted towards that week’s elimination. Image seems to be increasingly important in marketing country music today, and has been ever since music videos became a major way of selling artists.

While an artist’s looks and fashion choices have nothing to do with the quality of their music, they do help to form the general public’s expectations, particularly for a new artist. If New Singer X is pictured wearing jeans and a cowboy hat, I do expect to hear something different from what I expect to hear from New Singer Y, whose outfit is indistinguishable from his/her pop star counterparts.

Modern traditionalists like Alan Jackson and George Strait may seem to pay little attention to image matters, but their style is as (or more) effective in it its way by signalling to the audience that here is an unquestionably country singer. The neo-traditional wave of the early 90s fizzled out in a sea of “Hat Acts”, many of them fine artists in their own right, but they tended to merge into one to many listeners when they shared a similar look and musical style. Chris Young, one of the brightest young traditionalists, often wears that cowboy hat, although Strait-style Easton Corbin does not. Compare him to, say, Jimmy Wayne or the men in Lady Antebellum, who have a much more “fashionable” appearance – and a much less country sound. Of course, it can be misleading; other cowboy hat wearers include rocker Jason Aldean. Sometimes the cowboy hat is a visual equivalent of singing lyrics about how country you are, without necessarily being supported by the music. In the 90s, Marty Stuart was making energetic country rock, but was keenly carrying on country traditions by wearing Nudie style outfits reminiscent of veterans like Porter Wagoner. It was only later that he returned to more traditional musical styles.

Nudie’s elaborate bejewelled and embroidered outfits were almost a uniform for the biggest country stars of the 1950s and 60s, even though they were a world removed from their poverty-stricken rural roots. Porter Wagoner is perhaps the most famous wearer, but even Hank Williams, whose heart wrenching music might seem far removed from image considerations, famously wore a Nudie suit adorned with musical notations. When Gram Parsons encouraged the Byrds to venture into country music with the seminal country-rock album Sweetheart Of the Rodeo, he wore a custom-made Nudie suit with designs of marijuana leaves – combining an appeal to rebellious 60s teenagers with the “country star” outfit. But for most of their wearers, the outfits symbolized showmanship and stardom, just as Loretta Lynn always wore evening gowns on stage and most of her album covers. Using an identifiable image as shorthand to signal an artist as country is thus nothing new. The young Patsy Cline wore western-style dresses, and had to be persuaded to dress in a more sophisticated way when her music began to adopt more pop influences. Dolly Parton’s highly artificial image helped to make her an international superstar in the 70s and 80s, and is still instantly recognised today across the world, even among those who have heard little of her music. In contrast, when last month’s Spotlight Artist Emmylou Harris started her solo career after Gram Parsons’ death, she looked more like the folk singer she had been as a girl, with her long hair hanging down unadorned, whereas most of her contemporaries had big hair – often wigs.

Record labels invest money in artwork for CDs, in order to attract attention on store shelves. It’s never made much of a difference to me, and I would assume not to most passionate fans who spend a lot of time listening to the music, but it may help bring in more casual purchasers. I’m almost embarrassed to admit it, but my own brother once asked for a record for Christmas, purely because he liked the picture on the cover and was intrigued to see how the music reflected it. Going back to CMT’s Next Superstar, one young female contestant was quite rightly criticized for picking a picture of herself smiling for the title ‘Cold Cold Heart’, just because she thought it made her look prettier than other pictures from the photo-shoot. Songwriter Wynn Varble, who is 50 years old and not exactly competing for heart-throb of the year, went for a simple honest look which would tell any potential purchaser that this was a country record.

Changing musical styles can also be flagged by a changing image. When Lee Ann Womack moved in a poppier direction in the early 200s, she took on a more overtly sexy look (left); then when she defiantly reverted to a retro style in 2005 with There’s More Where That Came From, she went for an equally retro 70s country album cover style (right). The music is, of course, what really matters, but the image helps signal the direction. Similarly, Reba progressed from traditional country and a semi-cowgirl look in the 1980s to a much more sophisticated style, both aurally and visually, in the 90s.

How much does an artist’s image affect what you expect to hear? Have you ever been surprised – pleasantly or otherwise – by a disconnect between the album cover and the music inside?

Pandora’s box, country radio’s square

The Country Radio Broadcasters Association and the CMA recently commissioned a study, conducted by independent market research firm Coleman Insights, on the listening habits of country radio listeners, and their satisfaction with the medium. Presented at this year’s Country Radio Seminar in Nashville, the study polled 5,000 radio listeners and also asked the same questions of a group of industry insiders – only their questions were in the form ‘do your listeners think?’ instead of ‘do you think?’. The results mostly said that listenership is strong and steady, and that, for the most part, consumers are very satisfied with what they hear on the radio. The industry had a slightly dimmer viewpoint.

Key findings offered in the study say consumers are listening more to country radio than one year ago and it’s mostly because the music and/or their favorite station has gotten better since then. A strong 5-to-1 margin believe the music itself is better than it was a few years ago, and I’d have to concur with them. Interestingly, the industry personnel polled think their target audience has tuned out, and blame new media choices as the primary factor. The industry also has an equal-to view on the quality of music coming out of Music City, contrasting the five-fold majority from listeners. The people making the music think it’s “about the same”, while the consumers think it’s gotten better

Often thought to be backward and slower to pick up new technologies, country music audiences are shown to be joining the technological revolution at the same rate as the general population (those who aren’t country music listeners). Nearly half of the listeners say they have a smart phone, iPod, and use FaceBook, but perhaps most threatening to terrestrial radio is that one-third have used streaming internet radio like Pandora. A later paragraph suggests that AM/FM radio would seriously be hurt by the addition of services like Pandora in automobiles.

In this study, Pandora is perceived as FM radio’s biggest threat. Many kinds of new media and technology are mentioned, but none takes precedent like Pandora. Combating the rise of the streaming service, country radio programmers are urged to create online streaming services and/or apps that offer “customization, ease of use, and fewer commercials”.

Still, the ‘connection’ to country music, and the discovery of new music and artists, remains the driving force behind the bulk of country radio’s listeners, and that puts them on pretty solid ground with their current audience. I’ve traditionally relied on radio to discover new music myself, but in the past 2 years, I’ve found most of the new artists in my collection via reviews by writers I like, unanimous online praise, etc. So, I’ve found word-of-mouth (or screen) to be just as vital as radio to my recent discoveries. Because while I concur that country radio is better than it was 5 years ago, I’d still contest that it’s but a ghost of its 15-20 years-ago self.

What do you think of the study’s conclusions?  Do you think country radio has gotten better in the past few years? Are you listening more, or less? And what do you make of the industry’s pessimistic view of their medium?

Sounds just like…

The music distribution website CDBaby, where I sometimes go to get hold of more obscure independent artists, has a “sounds like” search function, where you can enter the name of a famous artist you already like, and find music by someone who supposedly sounds similar (at least according to that artist’s publicity). While this more often applies to general style than to real “soundalikes”, I’ve been thinking lately about the latter – when a new artist is more than just reminiscent of an established act.

Virtually every review to date of newcomer Easton Corbin has commented on his obvious debt to George Strait, although personally I would say he owes almost as much to Alan Jackson, and isn’t really a copycat of either. General awareness of this similarity does not seem to be hampering his career momentum – if anything it gives him some instant credibility in setting him apart from the pop-inspired hordes on country radio.

Many successful artists in the past have been compared to stars of the past – when Sammy Kershaw emerged in the early 90s his vocal similarity to George Jones was noted, and part of the significance of country music’s respect for its roots is that the influence of stars of the past has always been acknowledged. Listen to Randy Travis, and you can hear the effect of years listening to Merle Haggard, Merle owed much to Lefty Frizzell and Jimmie Rodgers, and so on, but each of these artists was also able to develop their own spin on a common base. There is a fine line between being part of a tradition, and influenced by your predecessors’ vocal stylings, and coming across as a mere carbon copy. George Jones started out his career copying his childhood idol Roy Acuff, to the extent that his first producer Pappy Daily once asked him,

‘George, I’ve heard you sing like Roy Acuff, Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell. I just want to know one thing: Can you sing like George Jones?’

As it turned out, he certainly could, but had he not been able to develop his own distinctive voice, he would not now be regarded as the greatest country singer of all time. But with the rapid pace of country music careers today, and the industry’s fascination with very young performers, there is not always time for a young singer to develop his or her own style before being judged and found wanting.

This year’s country contender on American Ido is a 17-year-old who sounds quite remarkably like Josh Turner – not only that, young North Carolinian Scotty McCreery auditioned with Turner’s hit ‘Your Man’, repeated it during the lengthy televised selection process, and also sang Josh’s classic ‘Long Black Train’. Turner himself used his website to admit to being flattered by the choice. I understand that he branched out and sang a John Michael Montgomery song last night – I haven’t heard it yet, so I don’t know whether he achieved triumph or disaster or something in between. If he survives this week’s first vote, I think he has a voice which will be worth tuning in for, although perhaps not a fully polished style – unsurprising given his youth. But as a potential star in the real world, I wonder if he’s not a bit too similar to Turner for his own good. Would he be able to make his own music distinctive enough to get played in its own right, should he make it far enough on the show to guarantee a major label record deal? That seems all the more of an issue as the Idol franchise has now cut its longstanding ties with Sony, and first dibs on any stars created by this season will go to the Universal Music Group – parent of Josh Turner’s label MCA.

Do you think a new artist is harmed or helped by sounding like an old favorite?

Recording new lows

Much has been said lately about plummeting music sales.  Country Universe has you covered with the latest numbers. This is effecting every genre, and country is no exception.  Each week the Billboard 200 album chart posts a new record low for the top-selling album. Everyone is looking for the silver lining. Shutting down massive file-sharing sites is really little victory in the long-term because these music pirates are finding new avenues to infringe copyrights even as I write this. I won’t try to kid myself that low, low record sales are anything but primarily caused by illegal downloading, but I am of the persuasion that there are other fixes than injunctions against the major culprits. Country music has been in the valley before, only to rise to glory time and time again.

Historically, when sales and listenership began to dwindle, the powers on Music Row raised up and began working to solve the problem.  When the rock and roll invasion in the 1950s brought country music sales to a standstill at the end of the decade, and more and more radio stations stopped programming the music, executives and producers opted to polish the sound of the music they created.

Born to compete commercially with rock and roll, the Nashville Sound embodied the lush, string-filled sounds of pop music from a couple decades past.  Artists like Brenda Lee, Glen Campbell and Bobby Bare found as much success on the pop charts as the country charts during this time.  By the 1970s, when the public began to tire of the slicker side of country from the likes of Crystal Gale, Kenny Rogers and others, there came a group of renegades who decided to turn up their amplifiers and sing about gritty, real-life subject matter.  We called them outlaws.  Then came Urban Cowboy, practiced by most of the same artists from the pre- and post-outlaw time, was yet another incarnation of the Nashville Sound.  The antidote for that overstated Urban Cowboy era was of course the New Traditionalist movement of the 80s.  And then you all know the story of Garth Brooks and the 90s, when CDs were still on the shelves, and were flying off daily.  We watched as country music became the popular music of the day.

Today, the biggest-selling artists remain middle-of-the road starlets like Lady Antebellum, Sugarland, Taylor Swift, and Jason Aldean.  These artists have taken an adult contemporary approach, aiming their music squarely for the top 40. Lady Antebellum is the very definition of a MOR act, straddling the line between pop/rock and country, while posting impressive sales numbers.

Like Lady A, Sugarland’s sales remain strong – 4 straight platinum CDs – but they’ve done it with the same ratio of mostly influences not indigenous to Music City.  Sugarland started out a very promising act in the pop-country field.  Their music sparkled with life, their lyrics were smart and original, and Jennifer Nettles brought with her an attention-grabbing vocal.  Their sound has evolved outside the sparkling pop-country of their first releases into the bombastic and shouted antics of The Incredible Machine. Now, like the industry that gave them a foothold, the duo seems to be in a sort of identity crisis, with no decided musical direction these days.  Their lack of focus, aside from the production, is the biggest fault with their most recent album, yet consumers have rewarded their uncertainty with a million purchases.

But that’s not all there is.  Lee Ann Womack has never matched the sales of her crossover mega-hit ‘I Hope You Dance’ with her acclaimed traditional releases in the past couple of years, but continues to crank out quality, country music in the traditionalist sense.   Sure, there are others – Miranda Lambert and Jamey Johnson are making some inroads – but I don’t see that either of them is doing much to change the tide.  Johnson can’t get on the radio with the singles from his latest album, no matter how good they are.  And Lambert is swimming in a sea of pseudo-twangy pop stars.  It’s still a wonder she’s made it as far as she has.  I certainly root, root, root for her continued success, but I wonder if her contributions to traditional country are enough.

After two decades of pop-country at the forefront, aren’t we overdue for a change of the tide once again?  I’d say we’re almost a decade behind the cycle.  I can’t be the only one who’s noticed.

Random playlist 3

After all the mental inventory-taking of the end of the year lists was finally over, I began to cruise through my media library again. Ballads have been in higher rotation than anything else right now, and that’s partly because of that nostalgia feeling that comes from having a fresh snowfall each morning. But it’s also because ballads are usually my favorites anyway. Here’s a few I’ve really been enjoying lately.

Zac Brown Band – ‘Colder Weather’ … Wanderlust drives the narrator in the Zac Brown Band’s current single, and he readily admits it to this lady. ‘And I love you but I’ll leave you, I don’t want you but I need you‘, he confesses. Still, some relationships are too complicated to follow the rules. These two keep it together when he’s in town; otherwise, not so much. The swaying melody is brought to life here with the help of a gentle piano track and Alabama-ish harmonies from the group.

Sara Evans – ‘Three Chords And The Truth’ … Her first album was a lesson in 90s new traditionalism, and though none of the songs were hits, the title track to the set has taken on a life of its own. Evans’ Missouri drawl wrings out every ounce of emotion in this conflicted woman’s day of events, as she sings of the music doing just the same for the character in her own song.

Martina McBride – ‘Strangers’ … This track from Martina’s second album was included on her Greatest Hits album, listed as a fan favorite and concert staple; and for good reason. Songwriter Bobby Braddock penned a telling tale of two people and their journey from, and back to, being strangers to each other. Martina’s bigger-than-your-house voice hammers it home.

Mark McGuinn – ‘She Doesn’t Dance’ … This guy’s got the perfect gal at home. So what’s she doing in this smoky bar in that black dress, and in another man’s arms? But wait, that couldn’t be her. She doesn’t own a dress like that, and besides, she doesn’t even dance. Especially like that. McGuinn hit bigger with that infuriating ‘Mrs. Steven Rudy’ song. But not only was ‘She Doesn’t Dance’ tolerable, this 90s-style country ballad proved better at showcasing his dry wit without even trying.

Sunny Sweeney – ‘Amy’ … Just like her breakthrough single, Sweeney’s self-penned ‘Amy’ is a confessional from the other woman. This time it’s directed at the wife and she’s asking her to please stand aside, if that’s at all convenient. Tight and light, the acoustic-driven production is the perfect score for the story unfolding before us.

Johnny Cash – ‘Cry, Cry, Cry’ … Maybe it’s Cash’s deadpan delivery of these scathing lyrics, or maybe it’s the Signature Cash dominating back beat. Either way, I can’t get enough of Johnny’s first single.

Alan Jackson – ‘I’ll Try’ … Warm, traditional sounds complimenting Jackson’s crooning vocals make the song a real pleasure to the ears, but it’s the no-frills message in this song I like best. No promises of forever or of good times to come, this guy takes a realistic approach. Sweetly optimistic in all he does, he’s aiming for the long haul. Here’s hoping.

So, what’s your pleasure these days?  Are you spinning the ballads in the colder weather?  Share your current favorites with us in the comments.