My Kind of Country

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

Category Archives: Editorials

A fearless look at lists

So among critics and bloggers alike, it’s usually cool to blast “list songs” as being lazy excuses for songwriting right? I’m sure by now you guys have heard the song “It’s America” by Rodney Atkins (I envy those that have not heard it yet…)? Well songs like that give list songs a bad name- it’s lazy and uncoordinated pandering. However, I want to talk about list songs in general- but I’ll start with “It’s America” as an example.

 

It's America

It's America by Rodney Atkins

Let’s look at this song, because it really is lazy. What really annoys me about this song is how almost every thing listed in the song could be about any country on Earth. A rock and roll band? Kids selling lemonade? Cities and farms? Fireflies in June? God‽ I find it incredibly hard to believe that these things solely define America and no other country can have them- especially the last one. It’s that kind of arrogant attitude that Americans have sometimes that annoys people from other countries and Atkins’ incoherent list perpetuates that stereotype in every way- and it’s a terribly annoying song. The objects mentioned have nothing to do with each other, let alone even making any sense. They literally made a song trying to pull at all the heartstrings possible in their audience and it seems people are taking the bait, seeing as the song is currently at #5 on the charts. Read more of this post

Right there in black and white

jameyjohnsonI’m a newbie lover of Country music. There’s just something about it that’s drawn me in. I know it has a great deal to do with the stories – both in the songs and of the artists themselves. Similarly, I love it when the tune or the arrangement or the inflection in the singer’s voice nuances the story, and makes it come to life.

For example, I love Jamey Johnson’s ‘In Color’. It’s my pick in the Single Record and Song of the Year categories at Sunday’s ACM Awards. The whole song literally turns those black and white photos into color, from the lyrics to Jamey’s vocals to the arrangement and production.

The intro quietly starts with a little guitar and light keyboard, as though a couple of family members are improvising in one corner of the living room while a young man and his grandfather are sitting at the kitchen table flipping through an old photo album from the ‘30s and ‘40s. The young man points and asks if that’s Grandpa in one of the photos. Grandpa acknowledges that yes, he was 11, farming cotton in the depression. The instrumentation remains sparse and Jamey’s solo vocals are as dusty as that decade.

There’s a build on the chorus: ‘If it looks like we were scared to death like a couple of kids just trying to save each other, you shoulda seen it in color’. The instrumentation deepens with some additional guitars, the trap’s cymbals and some urgency in Jamey’s voice turning the black and white into color. The next shot is one of Grandpa and his gunner during the war sometime in the winter of 1943. The music includes the hint of military snare and the addition of a background vocal, but is sparse and transparent again, just like Grandpa’s breath on that winter day. As he remembers his friend, a teacher from New Orleans, the color develops in the drums. Some additional guitars playing melodic lines weave in and out with Jamey’s voice as it builds again to the next chorus with an added line – ‘A picture’s worth a thousand words but you can’t see what those shades of gray keep covered. You shoulda seen it in color’. A single guitar solo brings the pace down for the last verse.

The next one is Grandpa’s favorite – he and Grandma’s wedding day. The acoustic guitar and keyboard are back with just a sigh of electric guitar and a partner background vocal as Jamey sings tenderly how the ‘rose was red and her eyes were blue’.  You can almost see Grandpa sit back looking at that last photo as Jamey thoughtfully pauses on the last line of the verse, and the melody and chording take a new turn, reflecting Grandpa’s new insight: ‘That’s the story of my life…right there in black and white’.

The full instrumentation and background vocals rhythmically drive to the final chorus: ‘A picture’s worth a thousand words but you can’t see what those shades of gray keep covered. You shoulda seen it in color’. The song closes by peeling off the layers of “color” down to the “black and white” of the solo acoustic guitar.

For a country song, you just can’t get much better than that.

Are record labels stupid, or is it just radio?

radioLately I’ve noticed that the worst songs seem to be picked for release as singles from a number of artists.  Alongside that, labels seem to be increasingly confused about how best to promote albums, with songs being announced as the next single from a given artist, and then hurriedly replaced by something else.  It all seems like a terrible muddle.  What’s going wrong?

Our March spotlight artist Eric Church has released one of the poorest songs on his new album as its lead single.  A particularly egregious example is Tim McGraw.  His label, Curb,  released a ridiculous number of singles – seven – from his last studio album, 2007’s Let It Go.  How, then, have they managed to miss the one song on that set that’s really worth hearing, ‘Between The River And Me’?  George Strait released the unimpressive ‘River Of Love’ as the third single from Troubadour when he could have released the memorably quirky ‘House With No Doors’ or the duet with Patty Loveless on ‘House Of Cash’.  There are plenty more examples.

Trace Adkins and his label have taken something of a middle course with his current album, X.  The two singles released so far, ‘Muddy Water’ and ‘Marry For Money’ are perfectly listenable, but they really aren’t the outstanding tracks, either.  Will anyone who isn’t already a fan ever get the chance to hear great songs like ‘I Can’t Outrun You’, ‘Til The Last Shot’s Fired’, or ‘Sometimes A Man takes A Drink’?  Warner Brothers seems to have abandoned Randy Travis’ Around The Bend in favor of his new hits collection, I Told You So – understandable enough, and to be fair the singles from Around The Bend made no radio impact, but that means they are apparently not even going to try with the stunning ‘You Didn’t Have A Good Time’.

Then last year we saw two of the most commercially successful of today’s artists – Keith Urban and Brad Paisley – release singles taken from older projects rather than either something from their then current album or a new song to herald an upcoming 2009 release.

We’ve also seen record labels second-guessing themselves at the last minute, by not only announcing one song as a single, but going to the trouble and not-inconsiderable expense of making a video for it, and then changing their minds and offering another song as the single instead.  Sometimes they pretend there was never any intention of making the song they have made a video for the official single (as with Eric Church’s ‘Lightning’), but I’m not sure I’m convinced.

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The Seven Year Ache

rosannecashI was a senior in high school in 2002.  It was a cold gray January day in Ohio, and I was driving home from school all by myself that day.  For reasons I’ve forgotten, none of my regular car pool buddies were with me that afternoon.  I was what I would call a casual fan of country music at the time.  My CD player regularly spun really mainstream acts like Garth Brooks and Reba, and I had a passing affection for Brooks & Dunn, Mary Chapin Carpenter, and a few others.  But I was hardly the country fan I am today.

That afternoon, a song came on my radio that forever changed how I perceived country music.  One of my local stations (I get 3 country stations from around the tri-state) used to play lots of album cuts in the afternoon and ask listeners to call in with their comments.  Well, this day the D.J. (or the program director) decided to test Trisha Yearwood’s recording of the Rosanne Cash classic ‘Seven Year Ache’, a track from 2001’s Inside Out.  Rosanne Cash sings harmony and even takes the lead for a couple lines in the second verse here – and I am a big fan of her version too.  However, the Yearwood version brought me to the dance, so it’s still the one I dance with most often.

The song kicks off with its signature guitar riff – which is catchy in its own right.  But, this was the first time a song had ever really grabbed me with its lyrics and drew me in.  When the song was over and I learned it was actually a classic country song Trisha Yearwood had covered, it was then that I decided to dig deeper into the catalogs of country music’s artists and seek out more gems like this one.

I was instantly taken with the protagonist in this song.  The verses paint a vivid picture in my imagination – like a  mini music video playing inside my head as the story unfolds.  I see a woman at home alone, sitting on the edge of the bed, lost in thought.  I see a man in a seedy dive, with all the characters that usually inhabit the places.  And I wonder, just like this woman does, why?  Why has the man lost interest in his wife?

Rosanne reportedly wrote the song after a fight with then-husband Rodney Crowell.  Heartache and anguish are often the sources of life’s greatest inspiration.  The songwriter herself says of the lyric:  “That’s one of those gifts you only get once in life.  I wrote it in about an hour. I just poured my soul out into the song.”  She bared a lot of herself in the process, but gave us, in my opinion, one of the greatest lyrics of our time.

It’s been over seven years now since I first heard these two verses and chorus, and I still haven’t had a single yearwoodinsideout1song affect me as much as this one.  Some have come close, but just like a first love, my introduction to true lyrical genius was a once-in-a-lifetime experience – but one I’ve spent the past seven years trying to recapture.  So goes the seven year ache.

Listen to Trisha Yearwood (with Rosanne Cash) – ‘Seven Year Ache’

To twang or not to twang?

sugarland3It’s a generations-old question.  Is country music country enough these days?  And when does the want to go mainstream override the need to remain traditional? Remixing country songs for pop radio is certainly nothing new.  But it’s a subject that seems to be coming up more and more these days.  Taylor Swift’s done it, and Carrie Underwood’s reps refuse to.  Lee Ann Womack took her remix of ‘I Hope You Dance’ all the way to the Nobel Prize ceremony, and Shania Twain sold millions of albums worldwide with remixed singles.  

Sugarland is now on an extended tour of the UK and Europe.  And in an effort to sell their music over there and get it played on mainstream radio stations, they’ve been asked to take the ‘twang’ out of their hit ‘All I Want to Do’.  To me, the only twang in that song is the vocal of Jennifer Nettles.  So, is Kristian Bush going to sing lead now in an effort to take the Georgia accent from the song?  I certainly hope not.  

Sugarland’s latest album – Love On The Inside, which I would categorize as more acoustic pop than country anyway, is probably the most ‘country’ of their three releases, but only in the loosest sense of the word.  The most country instument on the album is the voice of Jennifer Nettles.  So why the need to remix the songs? Nettles attempts to explain the ‘disassociation’ in an interview with London’s Financial Times:

“As opposed to ‘disassociate’, I would say it’s more to open us up, to say: ‘hey this is what we do, we love all kinds of music and we play all kinds of music’. We embrace it, and I think our fans do too. We want to broaden ourselves and quite frankly we want other people to hear our music and see how it’s accepted.”

I am still in the dark about the logistics behind this thinking though.  Broadening the fan-base and the visibility of country music sounds like a great idea to me.  But when you have to take out the very elements that make it country music to sell it as mainstream music in another nation, doesn’t that defeat the purpose?  Aren’t you then, by default, just selling American pop to an overseas audience?  Dolly Parton (who has always been as much a pop star and cultural icon as a country star) recently wrapped up a very successful tour of Europe without changing her sound.

What do you think?  Is it necessary to tweak the music to sell it to larger numbers? Should acts like Sugarland and Taylor Swift change the sound of their music to appease the European audience?

Drive time

shaniaI’ve spent about 5 hours today in my car.  My best friend Angel and I were about an hour north of our hometown in the city of Columbus, OH doing some shopping.  So, half of the time was just ‘road time’ where we were on the same highway going directly from point A to point B.  The other half was spent hopping the parking lots and parking garages, and maneuvering our way around the busy streets of the Polaris Center in Columbus.  Those are two very different driving experiences for sure.  Open road as opposed to congested city streets.  But there was one constant for the entire trip that both Angel and I agreed on: music.  What is a road trip without music?  Hell, what’s a jaunt to the grocery store without a tune along the way?  One of the first things I like to do when I get in the car is make sure I have a CD (you know, those round plastic circle things people used to listen to music on?) in the car stereo.  

I usually opt for up-tempo stuff when I am driving.  My friend Angel, on the other hand, always prefers the weepers.  So, we went from Jo Dee Messina’s ‘Bye, Bye’ to ‘Helping Me Get Over You’ from Travis Tritt and Lari White.  Then, we might listen to Garth Brooks’ ‘Callin’ Baton Rouge’ followed by ‘Texas Tornado’, the Tracy Lawrence classic. And you can guess who picked what.  Now, when I was on the air as a DJ for WPAY, I hosted a show from 3pm to 7pm for a short time and we called it Drive Time with J.R. Journey.  The show was designed for the rush-hour crowd as they were making it home from work.  Not that I really had any say about the music I played, but it’s always been my thinking that at the end of the day – and especially in their cars – people want to hear music that kicks a little.  

But, based on some of the requests I used to get (which I wasn’t allowed to play anyway), there are a lot of people who want to hear the ballads at the end of the day.  I guess it depends on the mood I’m in too.  Some days it’s Shania Twain’s Come On Over and others it’s Trisha Yearwood’s Hearts In Armor.  It’s usually the former though.  Like I said, I like the fun, snappy, fast-paced songs when I’m driving.  Then I’ll let the ballads pour out once I get home and get my shoes off and a glass of bourbon in my hand.

So, do you agree with me and Angel; is music essential in the car?  What’s your music of choice on the road?

Coming back to Timeless Nights

Timeless  Timeless
I have never been a fan of cover albums- until recently. Last year I went on a Martina McBride kick, getting all of her albums after her Greatest Hits album, including Timeless. Listening to it, I found that I really didn’t like it at all, save a few songs (‘Rose Garden’, ‘Once A Day’, etc.). Now remember, this is back when I didn’t care for more traditional country music (Read as: “Before I started reading The 9513”), but as a result I just had disdain for covers in general. I felt like they were lazy efforts by an artist who didn’t feel like making new music for his/her fans, so they used old music instead. I just didn’t like the album at all, and I never really understood why.

Sleepless Nights

Sleepless Nights

More recently, as in this past December, I bought Patty Loveless’ cover album, Sleepless Nights. Since this blog was brand new and I was trying to compile a list of my favorite albums from 2008, I felt like after all of the glowing recommendations of that album, I needed to hear it for it to be able to make my list.

On the first listen, as I was driving around to different grocery stores looking for powdered sugar (different story), I was sufficiently distracted that I labeled the album as “boring”. All I heard was a bunch of slower songs by a female artist that I wasn’t familiar with, so I didn’t notice anything else. Then, due to a large snowstorm, I was stuck at home, where I finally listened attentively to the album- and boy was I impressed! Listening to it closer, I discovered a heartbreaking set of classics (that I had never heard before) performed by my new favorite singer. I fell in love with almost every song for different reasons, whether it was the great steel guitar (‘Crazy Arms’) or the riveting emotion in Patty’s voice (‘Sleepless Nights’), I found the greatness that had made these songs classics.

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That song in my head

earworm1I was driving home today and had the radio tuned to my country station.  As much as we all like to berate the current state of top 40 country, I think every one of us is guilty of turning it on now and again – if only out of morbid curiosity.  Anyway, the new Toby Keith song came on, and afterwards, the chorus was stuck in my head all day.  So, for the rest of the afternoon, the inside of my head was singing ‘she holds tight to me and the Bible/on the backseat of my motorcycle’.  And while I’m not at all a fan of the female characters in Keith’s songs, I couldn’t help but find the chorus too damn catchy to shake off. 

Now, I have nothing personal against the song itself.  Though I do think Toby’s view of a modern woman is a bit warped, to say the least.  And I’ve yet to meet one believable lady in any one of his lyrics lately.  I don’t know any high maintenance whiskey girls myself.  I did meet a hottie last month, but she never cried in front of me and when I asked her to crash here tonight, she left me a big blue note. 

Anyway, some intense Lee Ann Womack therapy has pretty much cleansed my brain of the pesky earworm that is ‘God Love Her’, thankfully.  But I know the next time I turn on my radio, there’s another tune – just as mundane – waiting to take its place in my consciousness.  

What songs that you don’t like get stuck in your head?  And what songs do you think make good earworms?

Emotional truth: sentiment and sentimentality in country music

Maschera Tragica (Mask of Tragedy)

Maschera Tragica (Mask of Tragedy)

Emotional truth is at the heart of almost all truly great country songs.  There is a very fine line in country music between the true tearjerkers, for which the genre is justly known, and the cloying sentimentality which outsiders sometimes ascribe to the music. Not, I have to admit, always completely unfairly – if the strings are too obvious, the emotion feels forced, and the song just doesn’t work.  But as I said, the line is a fine one, and a song’s impact depends on a number of factors.

Country music does not consist solely of confessional singer-songwriters, and we do not expect every song recorded to be a personal slice of the author’s life – certainly not when it comes to a love song or cheating song. However, when we are aware a song draws on its writer’s experiences, I think we are more disposed to respond to them as “real”.  If a love song is said to be for its writer’s spouse, and the marriage subsequently breaks up (as, for instance, with Vince Gill’s ‘I Still Believe In You’, written for first wife Janis Gill before he left her for another woman), the song may suddenly seem emotionally dishonest in retrospect, purely because the listener has bought into the story behind the song.  In the case of a song specifically designed to elicit an emotional response, this authenticity is all the more important.

There is a line in the Mavericks’ song ‘Children’ which refers to “a life where everything’s real and nothing is true”.  I do not believe a song has to be factually real to convey emotional truth, but it does help to dispel accusations of sentimentality.  An example of this would be Tammy Cochran’s ‘Angels In Waiting’.  This tribute to Tammy’s two brothers, who both died young as a result of cystic fibrosis, would be cloying if the song were an invented one.  It probably wouldn’t even work if it were sung by an unconnected singer, even though it was written from the heart and is a well-constructed song. Here it is almost completely the fact that it is the true story of the person singing it which carries the emotional force of the song.

Another instance is Jimmy Wayne, whose first self-titled album was filled with intensely emotional songs inspired by his childhood. These songs — the hits ‘I Love You This Much’ and ‘Paper Angels’, and other less-known numbers on similar themes — would undoubtedly fall in the emotionally manipulative category if they were not genuinely based on Jimmy’s appalling childhood in foster-care. That lends an emotional truth which is not found in the same singer’s love songs which are forgettable.  American Idol finalist Kellie Pickler is frankly not a very good singer, but her song ‘I Wonder’, about the mother who abandoned her in childhood, has an emotional resonance, which is lacking in her other material, and is genuinely moving — as long as you know the story behind it is true.  I don’t think it stands on its own merits.

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A lasting impression

jen2In country music today, a great deal of mediocrity has been allowed to slip into the genre – where at one time, only legends and great ones stood. Now that’s not to say that every new artist is recording interchangable and forgettable tunes. But it seems the ratio of disposable songs to standards has taken a drastic plunge in recent years.  Where are the legends of today?  

Artists like Garth Brooks and Shania Twain come to mind.  If only for their record-breaking sales numbers, both will still be talked about for years to come.  Besides their respective mega-hits – ‘Friends In Low Places’ and ‘You’re Still The One’, I don’t think many people will be able to name more than a couple songs from them.  But, people will still know their name.  

And then we have artists like George Strait and Reba McEntire who are still relevant into the third decade of their careers.  Surely, people will still talk about the careers of King George and Reba long after they’re gone.  For Strait, I’d say people will remember songs like ‘All My Ex’s Live In Texas’, ‘I Cross My Heart’, and ‘Carrying Your Love With Me’.  Nobody is going to forget ‘Fancy’, ‘For My Broken Heart’, or ‘Does He Love You’ anytime soon either.  But, both of them have been having hits longer than most artists even remain in the memory of the public at large.

Loretta Lynn was a trailblazer and truly an American poet.  Dolly Parton built her persona into the kind of world-wide popularity rivaled only by the Beatles and Elvis. Merle Haggard, George Jones, Waylon Jennings, and Johnny Cash all had their own image.  There was nobody else like them, and there never will be.  Patsy Cline is still talked about today, some 46 years after her death.  And it’s been 56 years since country music lost Hank Williams, but his name comes up as often as ever.

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What lies around the bend for Randy Travis?

randytravisTwo news items over the weekend made me think about the career of Randy Travis and where (if anywhere) it might be headed now.

Last summer saw the long-awaited release of Around The Bend, widely trumpeted as his return to mainstream secular country music after some years pursuing Christian music.  It also marked his return to Warner Brothers, the label which launched his spectacular early career over 20 years ago.  The album was received well by critics, and received a Grammy nomination for Best Country Album, although sales have not been spectacular.  Sadly the two singles released so far, ‘Faith In You’ and ‘Dig Two Graves’, were completely ignored by country radio.  In some ways this is understandable; both are perfectly decent songs, but not outstanding ones, although they are lifted to a higher level by the fine vocal performances.  I was surprised by the Grammy nomination of ‘Dig Two Graves’ for Song of the Year, but not Male Vocal Performance, since I rank the performance significantly above the song itself.

While the label did not select the best songs as singles, I doubt that one of the two truly great tracks on the album (the powerful but somber ‘You Didn’t Have A Good Time’ and ‘From Your Knees’) would have fared any better.  With the exception of the #1 hit ‘Three Wooden Crosses’ in 2002 (which is now looking like something of an anomaly), Randy has actually not had a country hit for a decade. 

Warners has announced the release of a new compilation on March 17, entitled I Told You So: The Ultimate Hits Of Randy Travis, in order to capitalize on the current chart success of Carrie Underwood’s flashy cover of the title track.  There are two new tracks, ‘Love’s Alive And Well’, ‘You Ain’t Right’, and ‘Faith In You’ and ‘Turn It Around’ repeated from Around The Bend, but otherwise the material will be familiar to Travis’ existing fans.  Presumably the plan is that this release will be marketed to younger listeners who are aware of Travis only as a name, but who may have been intrigued by the Carrie Underwood cover.  I can only hope that this does not signal the label’s abandonment of Around The Bend.  The inclusion of ‘Turn It Around’ may signal this is intended to be a single to promote both albums.  If so, the label has made another mis-step, picking another of the good but not great tracks rather than something more memorable.  The safe choices turned out to be a little too easy to ignore: why not go for a more challenging song like ‘You Didn’t Have A Good Time’?  It still might not be a hit, but it would have more of a chance of making an impact.

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War and Religion: Some Thoughts on Trace Adkins’ ‘Til The Last Shot’s Fired’

traceadkins1Ever since Trace Adkins released his most recent album, X, last November, I’ve been intrigued by the song ‘Til the Last Shot’s Fired’, and I wanted to explore a few aspects of the song.  Most of the debate I’ve seen so far over at The 9513 has centered on the appropriateness of the West Point Cadet Glee Club’s choral singing at the close of the song, but I want to look at a couple of aspects of the substance of the song itself.

The song is written by Rob Crosby, a one-time recording artist who had some modest chart success in the 90s before settling down as a professional songwriter, and songwriter/producer Doug Johnson.  Crosby has recorded ‘Til The Last Shot’s Fired’ himself, on his 2007 independent release Catfish Day; you can hear a clip of his version here. While I always like to hear a songwriter’s original version, I must admit I much prefer Trace Adkins’ vocal on this track.  Trace’s deep baritone voice is capable of bringing real gravitas to a song, when he finds one worthy of it.  He certainly does that here.

‘Til The Last Shot’s Fired’ may not be the very best song on X (I would give that honor to ‘Sometimes A Man Takes A Drink’), but it is the most interesting.  Often in country music, the subject matter of war and soldiers is limited to an expression of patriotic pride.  I’m not suggesting there’s anything wrong with that per se, but it is only part of the story, and this song treads less familiar ground. 

One of the things that particularly strikes me about this song is the fact that of the four wars it references, at least two of the protagonists are fighting on the losing side, and another is questionable.  The Civil War soldier we ‘meet’ first is quite definitely on the Southern side.  Both songwriters are from the south, Carolina and Georgia respectively, so perhaps that was the natural emotional choice for them.  The death of the young man killed in the D-Day invasion, who is the second person Trace voices, is less complicated – the U.S. was clearly on the right side, morally speaking, as well as the victorious one, in World War II.  Finally, two further wars are referenced more briefly: Vietnam, which was one of America’s less successful military excursions, and Afghanistan, which is a conflict still to be fully resolved.  Only one of these young men could truthfully be said not to have died in vain.

If this was a deliberate choice by the writers, and the phrase, “I’m still hoping, waiting, praying, I did not die in vain,” suggests it might be the very heart of the song’s meaning, then why did they include WWII as one of their examples?  This soldier’s death is a personal tragedy for his family, but one which would normally be presented as being worth the sacrifice.  Are the writers really suggesting here that no death in war is worthwhile?  This makes the use of the army cadets’ choir all the more puzzling.  I’m still not sure quite what the writers intended to convey here.

The other unusual thing about this song is its use of religious imagery.  Most country songs about religious belief and life seem pretty firmly grounded in Protestantism, with a particular focus on Baptist beliefs.  I was very surprised, the first time I heard this song, to hear the chorus callling on “sweet mother Mary”.  I’m not sure if this was a deliberate personal choice by the writers, or what it signifies to them, but it certainly struck me as unusual to hear something I would associate with Catholicism.  It also strikes a bit of a dischord with the final track on X (and its leadoff single), ‘Muddy Water’, where the protagonist seeks baptism in the river.  I wonder if this factor might affect the song’s chances on radio if it is released as a single?

What do you think of this song in particular?  And do you have any other war songs worth listening to?

Listen to Trace Adkins – ‘Til The Last Shot’s Fired.

Songs for a recession

recessionMy brother was laid off last week, for the second time in a year.  That’s the kind of thing that brings the state of the global economy really close to home, even though he’s been fortunate enough to find something else to move on to.

One of the great things about country music has always been that it’s rooted in real life. You can pretty much find a song for every occasion somewhere in the genre, even if in recent years mainstream releases have largely focused on the feel-good at the expense of deeper material.  I had been wondering when the first songs about the current situation were going to emerge, and whether radio would be prepared to adapt.  

John Rich’s new single, ‘Shuttin’ Detroit Down’, seems to be being received well on radio.  I’m not much of a fan of the self-regarding, self-aggrandizing John Rich, but I am impressed with this song, which really captures what I think many people feel.  My problem with the single is, unfortunately, Rich’s vocal performance, which to my ears signally lacks the anger of the lyric.  It ends up feeling unconvincing.  I rather wish he had passed it to someone else to sing, rather than using it to springboard his solo career.

So I was looking around my record collection for older songs where the song and performance combine better on the same theme.  It is arguably the case that period provided the crucible which produced country music as a distinct genre – after the first flowering of recordings of hillbilly, blues, gospel and folk music in the 1920s.  Songs from that period and subsequent periods still strike a chord today.

After thinking about this for a while, I’ve come up with the following short list of less familiar songs on the subject.  I’ve tried to avoid picking the obvious songs, with a couple of exceptions, and also songs about longterm rural poverty, which although an  important part of country music’s heritage, weren’t quite what I was looking for this time.

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Can lightning strike twice? Can You Duet season 2

camyouduetI have to confess to a slightly shameful addiction here: reality music shows. I watch them even when I know they’re terrible. CMT’s Can You Duet, last spring, was a breath of fresh air – a reality music competition I could take seriously, because most of the acts were talented. It was a pleasure to watch, and I should be pleased that a second season has been announced for this summer. So why am I suddenly nervous?

Partly, it’s because looking at the show in retrospect, I realize a great deal of my love for it came from the presence of Joey + Rory, who were my favorites from the start, even though at the time I thought they were only notionally an actual duo. They were unquestionably country, whereas many of the other contestants represented the more overtly commercial side of modern country music. I loved Joey’s voice, with its interesting texture, and liked most of their song choices. And the Original Songs Night introduced me to the irresistible Cheater, Cheater. They went on to reward me for watching by producing one of my favorite album releases of 2008.

The winners, Caitlin & Will, were individually very strong singers (albeit in Will’s case, rock rather than country), and I was reasonably happy with their win. I’m interested in what their album will be like when it comes out, although I’m not yet sure if it’s likely to be something I’ll want to buy. I like their single ‘Even Now’ and hope it does well for them. Caitlin’s vocals on some of the songs up on their myspace are good, but the production is a little heavy at times.

I enjoyed a number of the other performances at the time, but most haven’t really stuck in my memory, with the exception of the male duo who sang ‘I’m Not Supposed To Love You Anymore,’ apparently to one another. I don’t think they quite intended it the way it came across, but it was certainly entertaining. Incidentally, if anyone wants to catch up, all last season’s episodes can still be viewed on the CMT website.

Can You Duet gained additional luster in my memory by comparison with the lamentable last season of Nashville Star; the less said about which the better. This really underlines my main point, though: in the end, reality shows stand or fall not on the manipulations of the judges, but on the actual talent, or otherwise, of the competitors. The success of Joey + Rory, and the fact that two other acts got record deals out of the show (although the level of their success remains to be seen), should in theory mean that some good singers who might have spurned auditioning for the uncharted first season might decide to go for it this year.

But will there be an act who will get my attention the way Joey + Rory did?

Grammy Pre-show – Country Winners and My Thoughts

grammyHere are some of the country winners already announced on the Grammy pre-show. These are the awards that won’t be televised at the ceremony on CBS tonight.

Best Country Song:  Jennifer Nettles, ‘Stay … Isn’t it great to see ‘Stay’ get so much recognition? Plus, I think Jennifer is the best thing since penicillin anyway. 

Best Country Album:  George Strait, Troubadour … I’m kinda surprised at this one, but not at all disappointed.  This is King George’s first Grammy.

Best Female Country Vocal Performance: Carrie Underwood, ‘Last Name’ … Eww. How could Trisha Yearwood NOT win this year? 

Best Male Country Vocal Performance: Brad Paisley, ‘Letter to Me’ … I thought Jamey Johnson would get some Grammy love this year. Guess not.

Best Country Collaboration with Vocals: Robert Plant & Alison Krauss, ‘Killing the Blues’ … Yep.

Best Country Instrumental Performance: Brad Paisley, Vince Gill, Steve Wariner, etc. ‘Cluster Pluck’ … I hadn’t heard many of the nominees in this category, but I think Brad got this one on name recognition rather than his skills on the ax.

 

The show starts at 8:00 Eastern time on CBS.  Don’t miss Sugarland performing on the show. And be sure to check out the Grammy Live Blog over at Country Universe.

Interpret That Tune, Vol. 2

mcc1Continuing our discussion of abstract lyrics …

Mary Chapin Carpenter kicked off the series, and I can’t think of a better artist to continue on with.  My track this time is ‘The Last Word’ from her Stones In The Road album.  I really loved this song as one of my favorites from the CD from the first listen to the album.  But, Carpenter never really specifies what the ‘it’ is in the song.  She leaves it up to the listeners to interpret.  What is it?  Is it another lover?

Being a child of the 90s and the CD age, I became acquainted with the song as track 7 from my favorite Mary Chapin Carpeneter CD.  I never really thought about the title of the song much.  It wasn’t until actually ripping my songs to Windows Media Player some years later and I had to click on the song by its title that I finally realized that ‘it’ was exactly what the title of the song says it is – the last word.  

Fighting and bickering that goes on and on has worn on the nerves and emotions of the narrator until she comes to the conclusion that:

Sometimes we’re blinded by the very thing we need to see
I finally realized that you need it more than you need me

and an epiphany washes over her as she realizes she’s free.  I always understood that part of the song.  She was free of this chained-down relationship where harsh words were part of the package.  But, Carpenter’s approach was to let vagueness tell the story.  And more often than not, I believe that makes for a better song.

So what’s your take on this song?  What is your favorite abstract song?  Or what songs took you several listens to fully understand?

Listen to Mary Chapin Carpenter – ‘The Last Word’ and decide for yourself.

Interpret That Tune

mcc21While country songs tend to be more direct than those in other genres, the format is not at all void of the abstract lyric. And sometimes those are my favorites. Sugarland’s latest album is a perfect example of brilliant lyrics that are left up to the interpretation of the listener. We don’t always need to be hit with a heart-string line to feel the emotion from the music.

There are some songs I’ve had to listen to several times before I could get the gist of what the writers were trying to say to me – and not because the singer lacked interpretation, but simply because the lyrics are more hypothetical than factual. There are other tunes that I’m still not sure what they’re trying to tell me. And I don’t think I am alone – surely there are others out there who just don’t understand certain songs. And to help those of us out, I think a discussion topic is needed.

So, in what will be the first of a new series at My Kind of Country, here is the very first Interpret That Tune topic. And a special thanks to SD for the suggestion in their comments on our My Favorite Songs Ever… post.

To start us off, I tried to select a song I think everybody will be familiar with, and ask you your take on the lyrics. What do you think the message behind the song is? What do you think the narrator or the songwriter(s) is trying to tell us? Spell it out in the simplest terms you can. And rather than muddy your interpretation with my own take on the song, I am going to let you go first, then chime in with my opinion later. So, let’s try this, shall we?

This week’s song: Mary Chapin Carpenter – ‘He Thinks He’ll Keep Her’.

You can also watch the music video, which features Emmylou Harris, Kathy Mattea, Trisha Yearwood, Pam Tillis, Patty Loveless, and Suzy Bogguss.

I Give Up …

heartsinarmorI’ve had a bad day. And it’s not even 2PM yet. First, I had a sales meeting this morning (we have meetings every Monday and Friday) and I was informed that 2 of my biggest clients were not renewing their contracts for the new year. So my task for the day was to locate the manager of one shop (we’ll call him Jim) and the owner of the other chain of shops (Joe). It was my goal to try and keep these guys as clients. Well, I couldn’t find Jim anywhere, so I just left messages for him. No return calls as of yet.

Next, I went to see Joe and make sure he understands the benefits of advertising on our station. I found him, and he just doesn’t seem to agree with me on the matter. So, it doesn’t look like I’m going to get anything accomplished today. So I give up. There’s a stack of paperwork and invoices over there I need to fill out, but they’re going to have to wait. Right now I need to hear some Trisha Yearwood. She’s good for the soul.

My particular favorites on days like these are her Hearts In Armor and Real Live Woman albums. So, I’m getting my Trisha fix. And it’s already helping …

So, my question to you is: What artists or songs do you listen to when you’ve had a bad day?

Listen to Trisha Yearwood – Nearest Distant Shore on Last FM.

My Life, The Roller Coaster

Ok, so I’m trying to release a little stress, and I had an interesting experience with a song yesterday, and I wanted to share it here! Of course, I also made it into a discussion topic as well…

The Roller Coaster that is my life

The Roller Coaster that is my life.

I’ve been working on a project for my Physics class, namely to make a roller coaster. We (our group of 3 people) used parallel rubber tubes with wire crosspieces to roll a small steel ball down, and it was not easy. We started last Saturday buying materials and making a base, Monday for making supports and drilling holes in the tubes to attach them, and Wednesday-Friday to make the loop and the rest of the coaster, with almost no success. Now every single day we worked 5-8 hours straight, and it was not fun. I mean, I’ve lost sleep over this project, worrying and freaking out when it seemed hopeless, which was most of the time! So what does this have to do with music?

Well yesterday, before my friends came over to work, I went out to get a haircut. I got in my car and checked all the radio stations for songs I like, as usual, finding “Grandpa (Tell Me ‘Bout The Good Old Days)” by The Judds, a nice surprise. When that song ended, I found “Ride” by Martina McBride was next. Naturally, since I liked the song, I started to listen while waiting at the stoplight. Now, if you read my review earlier, (see here) I said that the song is not very meaningful, just happy and good-sounding, or so I had gathered earlier. But listening in the car yesterday, the song took on a whole new meaning! My life had swiftly (and ironically) become a roller coaster while I was building a roller coaster! I listened intently, and I found a real message in the previously meaningless lyrics:

“You wake up from your dream and, and you don’t want to face the day
You can’t find a reason to think your world will ever change
You can hide beneath the covers
Or you can run outside head up high and carry on”

That is exactly how I felt that morning. I wanted to give up, to stay in bed and not have to face my problem, but instead I went out to face it head-on. My life had been going up and down, good to bad, constantly; and I was sick of it, but I was still trying to get through it.

Then I heard this line in the chorus, “Laugh even when you want to cry.” I had wanted to cry over this disaster of a roller coaster, so instead I laughed at the exhilaration of driving on the road, the joy of the moment. For 3 minutes and 57 seconds in that car, I was free, “riding” the roller coaster that was my life. I didn’t “look back”, but “felt the rush”, and let me tell you, it felt great. For the duration of that song, I felt no pressure, and it energized me more than I ever thought possible.

Now this song means something to me, to enjoy life now, even when the pressure becomes unbearable, to “ride.” So even though after getting home, we ripped the roller caster apart and started over with a new plan, I was all right, I knew I could handle the future, instead of running away. A song that was good background music had inspired me to continue and evolved into a meaningful and accurate portrayal of my life, all of which was unexpected.

I know that’s a long story, but I felt I needed to share it here, so now I want yours.

Have you ever had a previously unimportant song become special to you? Why?

And really thanks, writing this helped me vent my stress about the entire situation, so thanks for listening. I’ll just call this my therapy.