My Kind of Country

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

Category Archives: Year In Review

Razor X’s Top 10 Albums of the Year

johnnycashCompiling a list of the year’s best albums is a much easier task than putting together a list of the year’s best singles. My list is comprised entirely of works by veteran artists who have more or less been put out to pasture by country radio but continue to produce quality music for their loyal fans.

10. Provoked — Sunny Sweeney

In a sane world, Sunny Sweeney would be a superstar. But even though she never quite found her niche at radio and is no longer on a major label, her first release in three years makes it crystal clear that she’s not about to quietly fade away.

Ray Price9. Beauty Is … The Final Sessions — Ray Price

Ray Price was dying of cancer while recording his swan song, but you’d never know it by listening to it. His voice sounded remarkably strong for an 87-year-old in declining health. Fans of Price’s countrypolitan period will enjoy this one.

8. Carter Girl — Carlene Carter

Her tribute to her famous ancestors has a few missteps along the way — mostly when the arrangements get a little too contemporary but overall Carlene Carter’s labor of love is very well done and well worth the asking price.

7. Band of Brothers — Willie Nelson

Willie’s voice has grown weaker with age but he is still a top-notch musician and songwriter and shows that he can still deliver the goods with this collection produced by Buddy Cannon.

Do You Know Me6. Do You Know Me: A Tribute to George Jones — Sammy Kershaw

I can’t think of anyone better suited to do a Jones tribute album, whether it be covers of the Possum’s classic hits or biographical title track that was written for but never recorded by Jones.

5. Influence, Vol. 2: The Man I Am — Randy Travis

This album’s tracks were all recorded in the same sessions as those that appear on the first Influence volume that was released last year. I had initially feared that Volume 2 would be made up of the leftover tracks that weren’t deemed good enough for the first disc, but I was pleasantly surprised at how strong Volume 2 actually is. I may even prefer it to its predecessor.

4. Our Year — Bruce Robison & Kelly Willis

This sparsely produced follow-up to last year’s Cheater’s Game is the perfect antidote to the overproduced bro-country currently being pushed by Nashvegas. I was a little surprised that they released this album only a year after its predecessor. Is it greedy to wish for another one in 2015?

blue smoke album3. Blue Smoke — Dolly Parton

After releasing a trio of critically acclaimed bluegrass albums in the early 2000s, Dolly lapsed back into the pop-country territory that she’d explored throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s. She recovered nicely with Blue Smoke, and I really hope that this is the beginning of another creative surge and not just a one-off.

2. The Way I’m Livin’ — Lee Ann Womack

This was the comeback story of the year as far as I’m concerned. The Way I’m Livin’ is the sort of album I had hoped she would release as a follow-up to There’s More Where That Came From. It took almost a decade to happen but it was well worth the wait.

1. Out Among The Stars — Johnny Cash

This vintage Cash album was recorded mostly in the 1980s when the Man In Black was still in good voice. He was in the midst of a commercial dry spell and label politics prevented the completion and release of the album for 30 years. It was recently discovered and completed by his son John Carter Cash and is a real treat for Cash fans.

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Occasional Hope’s top 10 albums of 2014

the way im livinIt’s not been the best of years for mainstream country music, but great music is still out there to be found if you’re willing to hunt it down. There was a plethora of great covers projects, including excellent offerings from Joey + Rory and Gene Watson, and a number of other fine records which just missed the cut in my top 10 selection.

10. Dave Adkins ‘Nothing To Lose
Classic high lonesome bluegrass from a singer with a big, emotional voice.
Best tracks: ‘I Can’t Even Walk’, ‘Don’t Pray That Way’, ‘Mistaken Heart

9. J P Harris & The Tough Choices – ‘Home Is Where The Hurt Is
Authentic retro honky tonk with some great songs.

Best tracks: ‘Home Is Where The Hurt Is’, ‘Truck Stop Amphetamines’, ‘Every Little Piece’

provoked8. Sunny Sweeney – ‘Provoked
Back on an independent label, Sunny Sweeney’s unbridled honky tonk with a modern twist is irresistible.

Best tracks: ‘You Don’t Know Your Husband’, ‘Backhanded Compliment’, ‘Sunday Dress

7. Fayssoux, ‘I Can’t Wait
A lovely mellow folk-country record.

Best tracks: ‘Mama’s Hungry Eyes’, ‘I Made A Friend Of A Flower Today’, ‘Golightly Creek’

6. Randy Travis – Influence Vol 2
The second instalment of Randy’s covers project, fortunately recorded before his recent health crisis was, unexpectedly, even better than the first one.

Best tracks: ‘Set ‘Em Up Joe’, ‘Are The Good Times Really Over’, ‘For The Good Times’

daylight and dark5. Jason Eady – ‘Daylight And Dark
Solid country music from a talented singer-songwriter I like more every tie I hear him. This was one of the year’s first releases, and it hasn’t lost its appeal for me.

Best tracks: ‘Whiskey And You’, ‘Liars And Fools’, ‘Late Night Diner

4. Rhonda Vincent – ‘Only Me
The bluegrass star offers a stellar selection of material. The packaging is a touch gimmicky, with two CDs in one packages, each containing just six tracks. One is billed as straight bluegrass, the other traditional country, but both are wonderful. My only criticism is that it would be nice to hear some new songs of this quality.

Best tracks: ‘I’d Rather Hear I Don’t Love You (Than Nothing At All)’, ‘Teardrops Over You’, ‘We Must Have Been Out Of Our Minds’ (ft Daryle Singletary), ‘Beneath Still Waters

3. Jade Jack – ‘Off The Record
I was very impressed by fiddler/traditional country singer Jade’s debut album. Very much in the style of Amber Digby, this is packed full of heartbreak numbers, backed with fiddle and steel. It just squeezes in ahead of Rhonda thanks to the inclusion of original material.

Best tracks: ‘I Can’t Help It If He Can’t Stop Loving Me’, ‘I Had A Husband’, ‘I Can Bring Him Back’, ‘I’m Dynamite’

lucky2. Suzy Bogguss – ‘Lucky
In a year which saw a lot of fine tribute and cover albums, this was the best of the lot. Suzy’s beautiful readings of Haggard songs are exquisite. This record is just lovely. The sensitive vocal interpretations are backed by delicately stripped down arrangements which shows that less is more.

Best tracks: ‘If We Make It Through December’, ‘Sing Me Back Home’, ‘You Don’t Have Very Far To Go’

1. Lee Ann Womack – ‘The Way I’m Livin
I was disappointed by Trisha Yearwood’s return, when she only recorded six new songs. But Lee Ann Womack did not disappoint, with that exquisite voice wrapped around 13 excellent songs. ‘Chances Are’, my favorite, is sublime. She sounds thoroughly revitalised by her move from the major labels and hankering after radio play to Sugar Hill’s focus on artistry. The result is magical.

Best tracks: ‘Chances Are’, ‘Nightwind’, ‘Sleeping With The Devil

Jonathan Pappalardo’s Favorite Singles of 2014

When looking back, 2014 will be remembered as the year country music morphed into the biggest radio format in the land while pondering to never ending bro-country schlock and diminishing the efforts of solo female artists not named Miranda or Carrie. The genre also lost its biggest star, Taylor Swift, to world domination.

But I’ll remember a statistic far more puzzling. In the eighteen years I’ve been following the genre, I’ve never witnessed this big a turnover at the top of the Billboard Country Singles chart. How is it that seemingly every new male artist, either solo or in a group/duo, seems to be notching number one hits out of the gate? Everyone from Cole Swindell, Thomas Rhett, Sam Hunt, Parmalee, and Maddie & Tae are routinely racking up chart topping singles without having to fight for their chance to land on playlists. Watching the Billboard Country Airplay chart these days has become more than ridiculous.

My choices, as usual, prove radio doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface in the story of quality country music in 2014. I’ll say this until I’m blue in the face, but if you know where to look (Americana) the goods are definitely there.

Nickel-Creek-Destination10. Destination – Nickel Creek

After nine years of flexing their individual creative muscles, Sara Watkins, Sean Watkins, and Chris Thile reunited to celebrate Nickel Creek’s twenty-fifth anniversary. The time apart has only made them a stronger unit together, which boosts well for this plucky romp led by Sara’s wailing lead vocal. She’s done with her man and leaves no doubt she’s moving on to bigger and better things.

9. Frankie Please – Rodney Crowell

519z2FHhvCL._SL500_AA280_Leave it to Crowell to have the strongest opening line to any song in recent memory – ‘You tore through my life like a tornado looking for a trailer park.’ The blistering lead single from Tarpaper Sky only gets better from there, led by distinctive electric guitar and Crowell’s brilliant lyric. After 38 years in the business he proves he’s still on top of his game with no signs of slowing down.

8. I’ll Be There In The Morning – Don Williams

2468428_20140212162413_199149415The reason it’s so difficult to write an authentic love song is because the imagery has become so overdone, it borders on disingenuous parody. Simple sentiments like “You complete me” or the straightforward “I love you” have become so commonplace in our society, they mean almost nothing anymore.

Don Williams and producer Garth Fundis smartly avoid those trappings by looking forty-six years in the past and resurrecting Townes Van Zant’s elegant promise to his woman – no matter what trials and tribulations may arise on our journey, I’ll be next to you each time the sun rises to greet another day. A woman couldn’t ask more from her man and we couldn’t ask more from Williams, who imparts this wisdom as a man of seventy-five reflecting on the devotion of long-lasting love.

 7. Say You Do – Dierks Bentley

dierks-bentley-say-you-do-singleFinally back to form, Bentley leaves alcohol and frat parties in the dust for a melancholy ballad about a man pleading with the woman who won’t commit to their relationship, even after he begs her to ‘let those words roll off your tongue.’ He’s willing to do whatever it takes – buy her drinks, force her to lie, heck he wants her to lead him on – but she just won’t budge. Bentley hasn’t been this satisfying in years.

 6. Talladega – Eric Church

PrintAn epic ballad about the bonds of friendship set over a weekend at an empty NASCAR track, “Talladega” expertly illustrates Church’s storytelling prowess through Jay Joyce’s delicate production. When Church is on, there isn’t a more interesting or enjoyable male country singer scoring major hits today.

5. Meanwhile Back At Mama’s – Tim McGraw Featuring Faith Hill

 Tim-McGraw-Meanwhile-Back-At-MamasYou have to go back seven years to find Tim McGraw’s last truly outstanding single, the military-inspired “If You’re Reading This.” After years of screaming for relevancy he surrenders the fight and returns to form with a gracefully constructed lyric about home and the important role of family in our lives.

4. California – Radney Foster

RF.EISHS-11I couldn’t have willed this song to exist if I tried. ‘Can’t you hear California calling your name? A siren song, once you hear it, you’ll never be the same.’ Those nineteen words sum up exactly how I feel about the Golden State since visiting there repeatedly over the past few years. Foster has composed a stunner – part love story, part tourist battle cry.

600x600 3. The Trailer Song – Kacey Musgraves

 Kacey Musgraves’ genius lies in her ability to craft songs that on the surface seem littered with country clichés but are actually witty commentaries about the state of society as a whole. The two women depicted here may live in a trailer park, but they’re no different than any bickering neighbors setting up lives in suburbia. We all have that nosy neighbor, the one we wish would stay on their side of the fence and keep those damn mini-blinds closed.

2. What We Ain’t Got – Jake Owen

2522282_20140722163600_696746334Even as far back as six years ago, country singers abided by the cardinal rule – balance. For every uptempo ditty, artists would release a slice of substance to give themselves credibility. That concept, thank goodness, hasn’t been lost on Owen. “What We Ain’t Got” is a classic example of the kind of song that would’ve been all over 90s country radio.

Without a dousing of steel, it’s an almost perfect record about humans innate nature to always be searching for something that leaves us only wanting more. The almost non-existent production allows Owen to lay down a powerfully naked vocal that hits the listener like a sermon to the soul. Kudos to Travis Meadows and Travis Jerome Goff for pulling off the near impossible and Owen for driving it home like he should.

1. Automatic – Miranda Lambert

MirandaLambertAutomaticThe lead single from Platinum and CMA Single of the Year winner is without a doubt my favorite single of the year and easily a contender for one of the strongest country singles of the decade. Lambert, Nicolle Galyon, and Natalie Hemby have crafted a brilliant anthem capturing a shining testament to the days before social media, cell phones, and binge-watching overtook our lives.

There’s very little soul left in our modern world, a fact Lambert is thankfully self-aware enough to take to task. Even as a millennial, I’ll be 27 on Dec 31, I’m dying to get back to a time when media had half a brain and country music wasn’t run by rap influenced hooligans shamelessly flaunting their tatted up arms in tight wife beaters. The class is gone and without it, there’s nothing left. Lambert may have tamed her aggression, but she isn’t done standing up for what she believes in.

Razor X’s Top 10 singles of 2014

law way im livinIt seems that every year it becomes more and more difficult to compile a list of the year’s ten best singles. I don’t listen to country radio very much (OK – at all) anymore, so when one of my favorite artists releases a new album, I’m not always aware of which tracks have become singles. In fact, many veterans on independent labels no longer bother releasing product to radio. That being said, there were some worthwhile single releases this year and the following were my favorites:

10. All Alright — Zac Brown Band

The Zac Brown Band had been one of the few consistent bright spots at country radio in recent years. This tune has a great melody and a strong vocal performance, and I would have rated it higher had it not been for the over-the-top guitar solo that mars an otherwise very good record.

9. Like A Cowboy — Randy Houser

In another era, Randy Houser might have been a superstar. He’s one of the genre’s best vocalists but like many of his contemporaries he has struggled to consistently select strong material. This pop/rock-with-steel-guitar power ballad is not a timeless classic, but it’s one of the relatively few songs that didn’t either bore or annoy me. Yes, the bar has been lowered that much. That’s not to suggest that I didn’t enjoy this song, just an admission that it probably wouldn’t have made my Top 10 list in a stronger year.

8. Lay Low — Josh Turner

Turner is another artist whose talent often far exceeds the quality of the songs he sings. The lyrics don’t have a whole lot of depth but Turner’s vocal performance is enough to make this an enjoyable listen.

Sunny-Sweeney-Bad-Girl-Phase7. Bad Girl Phase — Sunny Sweeney

After a three-year hiatus, Sunny Sweeney returned this year, feeling feisty and letting everyone know that she’s not just the girl next door in this unfortunately non-charting effort.

6. PrizeFighter – Trisha Yearwood ft. Kelly Clarkson

Trisha Yearwood is another one of my long-time favorites who made a comeback this year. While not the strongest entry in her discography, “PrizeFighter” is a good, though not great, record.

A Million Ways To Die Single Cover5. A Million Ways To Die — Alan Jackson

Radio totally ignored this song from the film A Million Ways To Die In The West. This retro-sounding effort totally different from anything Jackson has ever done and is reminsicent of something Johnny Cash would have enjoyed sinking his teeth into. A fun listen if you don’t take it too seriously.

4. Who I Am With You — Chris Young

His latest album found Chris Young moving in a more pop direction. While I prefer his more traditional efforts, he is such a strong vocalist, it’s difficult not to like his music. On this track, he often sounds like a young Randy Travis, though the song itself is a far cry from Randy’s brand of country.

3. That’s What Dreamers Do — Travis Tritt

This is a very nicely crafted ballad, from a film about the life of Walt Disney. Tritts’ voice sounds a little more worn than it did back when he was a staple on country radio, but this song holds its own with the best of his 90s ballads.

dolly bluesmoke2. Blue Smoke — Dolly Parton

This bluegrass-flavored single and the album from which it came marks Dolly Parton’s strongest effort since her bluegrass albums for Sugar Hill. At nearly 69 years of age, Dolly sound fresh and energetic and is showing no signs of slowing down any time soon.

1. The Way I’m Livin’— Lee Ann Womack

A lot of big names returned from long hiatuses this year, but Lee Ann Womack’s was the one I was most excited about. This non-charting record is an example of what country music used to be all about. It’s the first release of the post-major label phase of her career. I hope that her association with Sugar Hill is a long one and that she’ll begin releasing music more frequently than she has in the past. Country music needs more Lee Ann Womacks.

Occasional Hope’s Top 10 Singles of 2014

what we ain't got

jake owenEvery year the pickings on country radio seem to get slimmer and slimmer, with fewer slots available for anything really country, or for material with any lyrical depth. But there are still some gems out there, and a few of them are even hits. So here is my personal pick of the year’s singles.

10. All Alright – Zac Brown Band
The arrangement is a bit rock-oriented for my taste with fuzzy guitars but this is a great song with a very strong melody and plaintive vocal from Zac, so it just squeezes into my top 10 ahead of Josh Turner’s current single ‘Lay Low’ which I liked a lot but didn’t feel had a lot of depth. ‘All Alright’ underperformed on country radio, just scraping into the top 20, perhaps because the band have cut their ties with Atlantic and lost some promotional muscle.

9. Bad Girl Phase – Sunny Sweeney
Sunny rocks out and exercises her wild side.

brandy clark8. Hungover – Brandy Clark
One of the best songwriters in Nashville (she also co-wrote ‘Bad Girl Phase’), Brandy is also a fine singer, and this single comes from my Album of the Year of 2013. A jaundiced depiction of a marriage failing thanks to one party’s drinking, while the other moves on, unnoticed, it is a brilliantly observed slice of life. Brandy has recently signed a deal with Warner Brothers which may get her music wider recognition.

7. I’ll Be Here In the Morning – Don Williams
One of the biggest stars of the 1970s and 80s revives a deeply romantic song reminiscent of his best, written by the legendary Texas songwriter Townes Van Zandt. Warm and tender in all the right ways.

dreamers6. That’s What Dreamers Do – Travis Tritt
The 90s star at his ballad-singing best, with a sensitive and thoughtful lyric about rising past hard times. It was written for a Walt Disney biopic, but its genuinely inspirational message is universal. Tritt’s vocal is excellent, sweet and tender, and backed by a tasteful arranagement.

5. What I Can’t Put Down – Jon Pardi
The young country-rocker’s third single (written by himself with Brice Long and Bart Butler) peaked just outside the top 30 – a disappointment following his top 10 breakthrough in 2013. The singer’s youthful energy sells the cheerful confession of over indulgence in sinful pleasures. Highly likeable.

ronnie dunn4. I Wish I Still Smoked Cigarettes – Ronnie Dunn
Technically this came out at the end of 2013 (and Razor X listed it in his top 10 singles for that year), but I’m counting it as a 2014 single. A melancholy reflection on growing older which was written by Lori McKenna, Luke Laird, and Barry Dean, Dunn’s vocal is perfectly judged with a wistful yearning for the lost innocence and carelessness of youth, “When I didn’t know what wasn’t good for me, but I knew everything else for sure”. Unfortunately it was far too good, and adult, for country radio to give it the time of day.

3. Girl In A Country Song – Maddie & Tae
This smart and funny satirical take on bro-country was a big surprise, coming from a pair of unheralded teenagers. It’s still on the poppy side aurally – but the clever and punchy lyrics work so well I don’t care about that for once (and the production is relatively restrained). They remind me quite a bit of the shortlived Wreckers. I’m interested in seeing what they come up with in future – and this song making it big on country radio is a great sign.

2. Blue Smoke – Dolly Parton
A delightful confection from another veteran who still has the goods. Dolly wrote the bluegrass-tinged tune as well as performing it with her customary zest.

1. What We Ain’t Got – Jake Owen
This is a beautifully understated and philosophical sad lost love song written by Travis Meadows based on his own bitter experiences. Jake has gone on record to declare this the best song he has ever recorded, and he is dead right. It’s also the best mainstream single by anyone for quite some time. It’s still rising slowly up the charts, and may not be the smash hit it deserves to be: but it’s the song of the year as far as I’m concerned.

Album Review: The Desert Rose Band – ‘Running’

desertrosebandLike The Desert Rose Band’s eponymous debut album, 1988’s Running is heavily-influenced by the Bakersfield sound. Paul Worley was back on board as producer, this time joined by Ed Seay. Chris Hillman was involved in writing most of the ablum’s songs, joined by his songwriting partner Steve Hill for seven of the album’s ten tracks. The previous album’s final single “He’s Back and I’m Blue” had become the band’s first chart-topper. Their chart success continued with the new album. The first single, the mid-tempo “Summer Wind”, just missed the top spot, peaking at #2. It was followed by another Hill-Hillman collaboration, “I Still Believe In You”, which did reach #1. Although it is a very good song, it hasn’t aged as well as the rest of the album. The heavy emphasis on the drum machine gives it a somewhat dated feel.

Interestingly, the album’s two best tracks were written by outside songwriters. “She Don’t Love Nobody”, which peaked at #3 in early 1989 is a John Hiatt composition. The song had previously been recorded by Nick Lowe, but it was adapted for country music with very little tinkering and is much more mainstream-sounding that much of Hiatt’s work. It is one of my very favorite Desert Rose Band recordings. The fourth and final single was “Hello Trouble”, an Orville Couch and Eddie McDuff number that had originally been recorded by Couch in 1962. A cover version appeared on a 1964 Buck Owens album. The Desert Rose Band’s version just missed the Top 10, peaking at #11. It deserved to chart higher.

The rest of the album’s tracks are very much in a country-rock vein, with plenty of steel guitar to appease purists, and not enough rock to alienate anyone. The band touches on some social issues with with a few tracks, but avoids doing so in a heavy-handed way. “For The Rich Man” examines some of the ways in which life is different for the haves and have nots; “Homeless”, which examines the plight of a former rodeo queen who is abandoned by her unemployed and alcoholic husband, comes a little closer to preaching —

“In this land of milk and honey we share with all who need
Except the ones outside our door, the ones we cannot see”

— but still manages to avoid sending the listener on a gratuitous guilt trip. The album closer “Our Songs”, meanwhile, is a semi-autobiographical look at some aging baby boomers, who came of age in the turbulent 1960s, and contrasts that era with the relatively more stable (and then contemporary) 1980s.

Along with the band’s debut album, Running is representative of The Desert Rose Band’s very best work and an interesting look back at how country and rock used to be melded together — with solid, well-written songs that avoided cliches and obnoxious, overloud production. Hardcore, traditional country it is not, but it is type of music that I would really like to see Nashville embrace again.

Grade: A

Razor X’s favorite singles of 2013

Compiling a list of my favorite singles is no mean feat these days; I’ve been disengaged from country radio for quite a few years now, with no desire to reconcile, and although I try to keep up with new music, much of it is no longer considered mainstream. As such, I’m at times only vaguely aware of which songs I liked during the year were actually released as singles. I was, however, able to cobble together a list of songs that may not all be great, but are at least tolerable.

10. It Ain’t The Whiskey — Gary Allangaryallan2_v_p

In a better year, this song probably wouldn’t have been even under consideration for my best-of list, but after being disappointed by most of Gary Allan’s recent work, this track is one that I at least can listen to without cringing.

9. Tonight I’m Playing Possum — Randy Travis with Joe Nichols

This is another song for which I could only muster up lukewarm enthusiasm, but even though it doesn’t rank among either Travis’ or Nichols’ best work, it does at least pay tribute to one of the greatest voices country music has ever known.

8. When The Lights Go Out (Tracie’s Song) — Mark Chesnuttmarkchesnutt

A road-weary musician’s heartfelt declaration of love to his better half, this is the type of song I really miss hearing on country radio.

7. Like A Rose – Ashley Monroe

In years gone by, my favorites list would likely have been dominated by female artists. There have been a lot of complaints — with some justification — in recent years that the ladies aren’t getting a fair shake from country radio, but the truth is that most of them haven’t doing anything that is very interesting. Ashley Monroe is a notable exception, but sadly, radio isn’t isn’t taking much notice of her solo work. The title track to her current album is a real stunner that deserves a listen.

6. Borrowed — LeAnn Rimesleannrimes

This semi-autobiographical number, sung from the point of view of an unrepentant adulteress is hands down the best thing LeAnn Rimes has released in years. It’s unfortunate that it failed to chart.

5. Give It All We Got Tonight — George Strait

MCA started a “60 for 60” campaign to make this single the 60th #1 hit of the then 60-year-old George Strait’s career. The enjoyable midtempo tune only made it to #7 in Billboard — perhaps another victim of the chart’s new methodology — but it did make it to #1 in Mediabase. Regardless of its chart position, it’s well worth a listen.

4. I Got A Car — George StraitGeorge-Strait-9542120-1-402

I usually try not to include an artist more than once on these lists, but I was having that hard a time coming up with ten singles that were worthwhile. It’s a typical circle-of-life story that has become a staple of the Strait catalog.

3. Sweet Annie — Zac Brown BandZac-Brown-Band1

The Zac Brown Band is one of the few bright spots on country radio these days and one of only a handful of acts that consistently delivers.

2. I Wish I Still Smoked Cigarettes — Ronnie Dunn

This one is brand new, so a lot of fans may not have heard it yet. We haven’t reviewed it yet so I won’t say too much about it now, other than to say that after a few very disappointing releases, Ronnie Dunn is back.

1. Wagon Wheel — Darius Ruckerdariusrucker

This Bob Dylan-penned tune about a hitchhiker trying to get home to see his sweetheart is the surprise hit of 2013 and the only decent song to reach #1 this year. I still prefer the Jeremy McComb version, but Rucker’s version is also good. I never expected this one to succeed, partly because it’s a remake of an old song, and partly because songs I like don’t tend to do well on radio these days. I’m glad to have been proven wrong. I wish Rucker would do more music like this and less of the interminably dull stuff he’s been churning out.

The best reissues of 2013

2013 was a bad year for fans of traditional country music and its near cousins.Not only was radio virtually devoid of traditional country sounds, but Billboard bastardized its country charts to the point of meaninglessness, accepting remixes and reissues with other artists and treating them all as one record. Worse yet, a good many of our radio heroes passed away, starting on January 1, 2013 with the death of Patti Page, a country girl who went on to become a great classic pop singer, and who continued to showcase country songs throughout her illustrious career. Along the way we lost Jack Greene, Cal Smith, George Jones, Kitty Wells, Tompall Glaser, Ottis “Slim” Whitman, Claude King, Jack Clements, Lorene Mann, George Beverly Shea, and too many more for me to recount. We ended the year with the death of the great Ray Price.

Fortunately, we live in an age where the musical legacy of our radio heroes can and does live on. While not the absolute best year for reissues, it was a very strong year, with most of the great reissues coming from foreign soil.

On the domestic front Sony Legacy has been redoing their Essential series, issuing a series of two disc sets. The Essential Tammy Wynette is easily the best Tammy Wynette collection we will see, unless Bear Family decides to do a box set. The collection is arranged chronologically and without skipping the lesser hits. Fans of Tammy will hear some songs that rarely have been anthologized, and hear her catalog of hits in the order in which they were released. The forty songs are digitally remastered to sound superb, and even though I have such other Tammy Wynette collections as Tears of Fire and Anniversary: Twenty Years of Hits, still I regard this as an essential purchase for Tammy’s fans and a great introduction for those unfamiliar with her work.

I’m not a big Martina McBride fan but Sony Legacy’s two disc The Essential Martina McBride, issued in late 2012 and not widely available until this year, is probably the best collection you’ll see on Martina – terrific sound, with forty songs. A few minor hits have been omitted in favor of other material, which I don’t like, but that’s just me.

***

The UK based Jasmine label has probably been the leading purveyor of reasonably pricced reissues, issuing a series of two CD sets, either featuring intact four older albums of a particular artist or issuing some sets that are simply collections of songs. Some of the Jasmine releases below were actually issued in late 2012, but not widely available until 2013.

Oh Lonesome Me, Singles Collection 1956-1962 is an outstanding two CD collection of Don Gibson’s singles from 1956-1962. Not only does the set capture Don’s earliest and biggest RCA hits (“Oh Lonesome Me”, “Sea of Heartbreak”, “Blue Blue Day”), but it also revisits Don’s rarely found MGM singles, including the earliest take on “Sweet Dreams”. Forty-six songs, hours of listening pleasure.

Love Is The Sweatest Thing: The Early Album Collection collects four of Ferlin Husky’s early Capitol albums. The albums are not overrun with hit singles (during the 1950s albums were often marketed to a different audience than were singles) but has four albums that are quite different from one another. 1956’s Songs of Home and The Heart features older country songs. Boulevard of Broken Dreams (1957) and Sittin’ On A Rainbow (1958) both feature what would today be referred as classic pop or pop standards – in other words, not very country at all. The last album in the set, Walkin’ And A Hunmin’ (1961), which Ferlin referred to as his Hank Williams album, does feature seven songs associated with Hank Williams. This collection gives a good overview of the breadth of Ferlin’s talent.

Headin’ Down The Wrong Highway: The Early Albums features four Hank Thompson albums from 1958-1961. For me the standout album is 1961’s Live At The Golden Nugget, but all of the albums are great listening. Relatively few hits are in this collection, but once you start the disc playing, you won’t care about the lack of hit records as Hank and his Brazos Valley Boys always exude good cheer and lotsa fun.

The First Lady of Country: The Early Album Collection is what I would deem to be an essential Jean Shepard album, including as it does one of the very first ‘concept’ albums in 1956’s Songs of A Love Affair. There are not a lot of hit singles in this 2 CD collection, but there are a lot of songs capturing the heart and soul of this pioneering female singer.

Queen of Honky Tonk Angels: Four Original Albums by Kitty Wells, captures an early hit collection in Country Hit Time, a gospel album, Dust On The Bible, and a pair of albums largely comprised of covers. Kitty Wells had a strong clear voice that didn’t waver until very late in life. She treats her material and herself with respect, the end result being albums really worth hearing.

Folk Ballads, Hits and Hymns – Four Stereo LPs finds legendary bluegrass singer Mac Wiseman traveling down other more mainstream country roads. Fans of bluegrass may be disappointed with the albums, but fans of Mac Wiseman will love this set comprised of two gospel albums, an album of some current (as of 1960) folk and country hits plus an album of folk songs. One of the gospel albums features the Jordanaires throughout, not that Mac ever really needed help to perform a gospel song.

I don’t know that you can really call Walter Brennan a country artist at all, but Jasmine released a single disc CD on Grandpa McCoy titled Reminiscing With Walter Brennan which definitely catches the essence of a beloved actor and perfermer. Brennan only had one hit “Old Rivers” (#3 Country / #5 pop) but it’s here along with 27 other favorites including his wonderful take on “The Shifting Whispering Sands”

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If the name Curly Putman means anything at all to the casual fan, it is as the writer of “Green Green Grass of Home” and co-writer of “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” and “He Stopped Loving Her Today” . Curly did have a bit of a singing career and issued a some albums on ABC Records. Omni has collected two of Curly’s albums The Lonesome Country Of Curly Putman (1967) and Curly Putman’s World Of Country Music (1969) on a single disc. He’s hardly a compelling singer, but it is always interesting to hear a songwriter interpret his own material. “My Elusive Dreams” was released as a single and reached #41.

New West Records issued Dwight Yoakam’s 21st Century Hits: Best-Of 2000-2012, a nice collection of fourteen singles and miscellaneous tracks . Hardly Dwight’s best work, but still a useful collection, gathering together tracks not easily found.

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Omnivore Recordings, a label out of Los Angeles, CA started releasing albums in late 2012. Probably their most important release was the George Jones collection The Complete United Artists Solo Singles. I’ve always regarded the best recordings George Jones ever made as coming from his tenure with United Artists 1962-1965. From this period the finely nuanced singer emerged with such great singles as “She Thinks I Still Care” , “Sometimes You Can’t Win” , “A Girl I Used To Know” , “You Comb Her Hair” and “The Race Is On”. All of these titles have been available as re-recordings made for Musicor and/or Epic , but these are the original hit versions – 32 songs, the A and B sides of his 16 United Artist singles – an absolutely essential collection (unless you own the Bear Family box set of the United Artists years).

Omnivore also has released some Buck Owens, Don Rich and Buckaroos collections.

Buck Em! : The Music of Buck Owens 1955-1967 is billed as the companion to the recently published Buck Owens autobiography, but as a stand-alone collection it is a worthy acquisition if there is a hole in your Buck Owens catalog. Some alternative and live recordings are among the two CD sets fifty tracks. Not essential but a nice collection spanning the Pep and early Capitol years.

Omnivore’s Honky Tonk Man: Buck Sings The Country Classics collects eighteen tracks recorded for use on the television show Hee Haw. Many of these tracks were recorded after the death of Don Rich, so the classic harmonies aren’t always present, and these are very short recordings designed to fit the pace of the television show, but they are songs that Buck didn’t otherwise record for commerical release, covering country classics from 1945-1973 by the likes of Hank Williams, Bob Wills, Johnny Horton and Ray Price.

With “Live” At The White House (… And In Space), Omnivore makes available a live Buck Owens album that Capitol had a available for a short time of Buck’s September 9, 1968 White House performance for President Lyndon Johnson. The original album only ran about 22 minutes so in order to get a usable length CD, Omnivore coupled the album with a program recorded for the Apollo 16 astronauts to take on their mission with them. A bit gimmicky, but Buck Owens completists will want the album.

The late Don Rich was a fine singer in his own right and an excellent musician that Omnivore has focused upon. That Fiddlin’ Man restores to print a 1971 Buckaroos allbum featuring Don Rich on fiddle and adds an additional ten tracks of Don fiddlin’ around from other Buckaroo albums. I got to see Buck & Don in person three times and it was always a highlight of the show when Buck has Don pull out his ‘cherry apple red fiddle’ and play “Cajun Fiddle”, “Orange Blossom Special” or some other tune. Don Rich Sings George Jones features ten George Jones songs that were recorded for a never released Don Rich solo album, augmented with four Buck Owens tracks of George Jones covers. The Buckaroos Play Merle and Buck couple a pair of Buckaroos albums, 1965’s The Buck Owens Songbook with 1971’s The Songs of Merle Haggard. These are all instrumental numbers featuring Don Rich (mostly) on telecaster.

There are many fine Merle Haggard collections available so Omnivore’s The Complete 60s Capitol Singles is hardly an essential collection but it is definitely an excellent one and anyway one can never have too much Merle Haggard in their collection. Twenty-eight songs – the A & B sides of Merle’s fourteen singles, and Merle’s B sides were hardly throw-aways, “Today I Started Loving You Again” and “Silver Wings” both being B sides. Merle’s peak years were with Capitol and this is all great stuff – it doesn’t get any better than this !

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I will close out with a Bear Family boxed set that is beyond the price range for most of us, probably even beyond the Christmas ‘wish list’: Tall Dark Stranger – Buck Owens and The Buckaroos Recordings: 1968-1975. This eight CD set covers Buck’s slightly post-peak eriod with Capitol Records, a period that saw Buck experimenting with and updating the ‘freight train’ sound that had become his hallmark. Includes his duet albums with son Buddy Alan Owens, the Susan Raye duets, some Buckaroos recordings and even a duet with a duet with R&B singer Bettye Swann. Buck had about 20 chart hits during this period and the set features many previously unreleased songs

Jonathan Pappalardo’s Favorite Country Albums of 2013

The statistic is getting old, fast. If your name isn’t Miranda, Carrie, or Taylor and you’re a solo female artist, then you’re probably not going to have many hit singles. It’s too bad because the strongest country music released this year comes from female artists who aren’t scared to go against the grain and say what needs sayin.’ I’m always amazed at the good quality music that’s released each year – and these are ten such releases, all of which should be apart of your musical catalog.

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10. Alan Jackson – The Bluegrass Album

Now a legacy artist, Jackson proves he isn’t done doing what he does best – crafting simple songs framed in equally uncomplicated melodies. But he nicely updates his formula this time around by making a bluegrass record, proving he isn’t done with experimentation. May he never go to the lows of Thirty Miles West ever again.

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9. Jason Isbell – Southeastern 

The best modern album by a male country singer released this year. Southeastern is a tour-de-force of emotion and strength – a modern masterwork from a man who’s just getting started reaching his potential.

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8. Patty Griffin – American Kid

In an effort to pay tribute to her father Patty Griffin has given us one of the best discs to tackle the many facets of death in recent memory. One listen to her spiritual anthem “Go Where Ever You Wanna Go” and you’ll be hooked into taking this journey right along with her. Be sure to catch, “Please Don’t Let My Die In Florida.” It’s the best song against retirement in the Sunshine State I’ve ever heard.

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7. Pistol Annies – Annie Up

When most people criticize modern country they take aim at the songwriting, which has been modified to appeal to a younger demographic. The other complaint is the addition of rock and hip-hop sounds into the music. Even worse, then all of that is the diminishing of traditional country instruments in modern sound.

Annie Up is a fantastic country album both vocally and lyrically. Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe, and Angaleena Presley defied the sophomore slump by recording another killer record. Tracks like “Pretty Ain’t Pretty,” “Dear Sobriety,” and “I Hope you’re The End of My Story” are among the best of the year. I just wish the CD didn’t so blatantly throw its lack of steel guitar and fiddle in our faces. If these country songs retained the hallmarks of classic country, I’d have this ranked much higher.

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6. Kelly Willis & Bruce Robison – Cheater’s Game

One of the year’s most refreshing albums came from this husband and wife duo, who’ve never recorded a LP together until now. Both give us fantastic numbers; Willis shines on a cover of Hayes Carll’s “Long Way Home” while Robinson is perfect on Robert Earl Keen’s “No Kinda Dancer.” But it’s Robison’s self-penned material that shines brightest, making me long for the days when his no-fuss songwriting was a regular fixture on country radio.

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5. Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell – Old Yellow Moon

Ever since a glimpse at the track listing a year ago, I can’t help but shake the feeling this decades-in-the-making collaboration is merely an above average album, not the transcendent masterwork it could’ve been. Covers of “Invitation to the Blues” and “Dreaming My Dreams” are very good, but feel like doorstops. Surely Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell could’ve dug a little deeper into their combined musical legacies instead of spending their time covering country classics. In any event, it’s still among my most played CDs this year which means they did something right.

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4. Ashley Monroe – Like A Rose

Like A Rose redefines the sophomore record by building on the tremendous potential set by the artist’s debut. Monroe brings a sharper pen and keener ear to these 9 songs that are standards, more than mere pieces of music. Observances on out-of-wedlock pregnancy (“Two Weeks Late”), drunken flings (“The Morning After”), and adulteresses (“She’s Driving Me Out of His Mind”) are rarely this fully formed, from someone so young. At its best Like A Rose is a modern masterpiece from a woman who’s just getting started forming her artistic identity.

As far as female vocalists go, Monroe holds her own with all the genre greats from Loretta Lynn and Connie Smith to Tammy Wynette and Dolly Parton. Her buttery soprano is a modern wonder, shifting from honky-tonk twang to contemporary pop with ease far beyond her 26 years. God only knows where she’ll go from here.

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3. Vince Gill & Paul Franklin – Bakersfield

Twenty years ago when Vince Gill was accepting the ACM Song of the Year trophy for “I Still Believe In You” he quipped about the state of modern country saying, “I’ve been watching this show tonight and I’ve marveled at how country music has grown. And I want you to know that in my heart country music hasn’t changed, it has just grown. And that’s the healthiest thing we got goin’” He went on to share a lesson he learned from his parents, that a person’s greatest strengths are embedded in their roots.

For Gill that optimistic view of commercial country doesn’t hold up today, but as a legacy artist he’s clearly taking his parents’ innate wisdom to heart. Teaming up with Steel Guitarist Paul Franklin to cover a set of Merle Haggard and Buck Owens tunes is no easy undertaking, but the pairing has resulted in one of the only perfect country albums of 2013. Instead of merely covering the hits, the duo dug deep into the artists’ catalog and unearthed gems even they weren’t familiar with going in. The added effort gave the album unexpected depth but a flawless reading of “I Can’t Be Myself,” a favorite of Gill’s since his late teens, gave the album it’s heart and soul.

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2. Kacey Musgraves – Same Trailer Different Park

If you view Kacey Musgraves as yet another castoff from a reality singing competition, she placed seventh on Nashville Star in 2007, then you’re missing out on the most promising newcomer signed to a major Nashville label in years.

Musgraves didn’t win the Best New Artist CMA Award (beating Florida-Georgia Line) by accident. She won on the sheer strength of her debut album, an exceptional collection of songs bursting with a depth of clarity well beyond her 24 years. “Merry Go ‘Round” and “Follow Your Arrow” are just the beginning, introductions to the deeper material found within. She’s only just scratched the surface, which makes the prospect of future recordings all the more exciting.

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1. Brandy Clark – 12 Stories

Not since Clint Black reinvigorated Merle Haggard’s legacy on his classic Killin’ Time has a debut album come so fully formed, from an artist with such a clear prospective. Clark’s brilliance isn’t an updated take on classic country but rather the next evolution of the 90s female renaissance – a group of individualists (Trisha Yearwood, Pam Tillis, Patty Loveless, etc) who owe their genesis to Linda Ronstadt and the rulebook she crafted through Prisoner In Disguise and her definitive take on “Blue Bayou.”

Clark is the first newcomer to work with the formula in more than 20 years, and she often exceeds what her forbearers brought to the table. “What’ll Keep Me Out of Heaven” and “Pray to Jesus” are two of the best songs Yearwood has yet to record, while “The Day She Got Divorced” is as perfect a story song as any I’ve ever heard.

Nashville, while admitting their admiration for the album, found 12 Stories too hot to touch. It’s shameful the adult female perspective has been silenced in Music City since without it country music has lost a major piece of its cultural identity. Where would we be as a genre today if the likes of Kitty Wells, Loretta Lynn, and Emmylou Harris had been regulated to offbeat labels and kept off of radio? Clark is fortunate she’s found success writing for other artists, but country music would be far better off if she found success as a singer, too.

Occasional Hope’s favorite singles of 2013

i let her talkCountry radio may have gone from bad to worse this year, but as ever there were a few bright spots – and some great singles away from the mainstream offerings. Here are my favorite singles of 2013:

10. Wagon Wheel – Darius Rucker
A vibrant, charming cover with rootsy production. What a pity the rest of the album was so deadly dull.

9. It Ain’t The Whiskey – Gary Allan
A bit loud, and perhaps rather similar to past songs, but a great vocal makes this worthwhile.

8. Songs About Trucks – Wade Bowen
An emotion I think we can all get behind – no more songs about trucks, please. But this isn’t just a complaint, this song also has a genuine emotional storyline which lets it stand on its own merits.

overnight success7. Overnight Success – Zane Williams
The independent artist explains how to become a country star, overnight (well, after nine or ten years hard work, of course). A fine song, by turns ironic, self-deprecating and good humoured.

6. Stripes – Brandy Clark
The witty song isn’t the best on the singer-songwriter’s excellent album 12 Stories, but it’s highly entertaining nonetheless. It’s a pity it hasn’t got more mainstream attention.

what are you listening to5. What Are You Listening To – Chris Stapleton
A very tastefully arranged recording, a well written song, and intensely emotional vocal. It wasn’t as successful as I had hoped it would be, and the singer-songwriter and former SteelDriver still awaits release of his solo album for Mercury, but it’s a fine and memorable record.

4. I Got A Car – George Strait
The story song about a couple’s journey from first meeting to starting a family, written by Keith Gattis and Tom Douglas, was an obvious single choice from George’s current album. It is packed full of charm, and shows the veteran (unexpectedly named the CMA Entertainer of the year) still has commercial potential.

3. Could It Be – Charlie Worsham
A debut single from a young artist with a fresh, youthful sound. Utterly charming. I wasn’t as taken by the album, but the single (which reached #13 on the country airplay chart) stands up as one of the more refreshing moments on country radio this year.

borrowed2. Borrowed – LeAnn Rimes
A cheating song from LeAnn’s somewhat controversial Spitfire album. Her mature vocals are beautiful, and the self-penned song draws with an unsparing honesty on LeAnn’s own experiences with her early relationship with her current husband, when both were married to others. The song’s complicated emotions didn’t help LeAnn’s increasingly chequered image, but it’s a fine and deeply truthful song – what country music is all about. The production is delicately sensitive and allows the vocals to shine.

1. I Let Her Talk – Erin Enderlin
A fantastic story song from the singer-songwriter, this beautifully realised tale narrates a bar room encounter between two women drowing their troubles. In an unexpected twist the meeting turns out to be between a man’s wife (the narrator) and his clueless “careless drunk” lover. Erin wrote the song with the great Leslie Satcher, and it is perfectly constructed. This was the promotional single for Erin’s independent album of the same name, and although it received limited mainstream attention it was absolutely the best single of the year for me.

Razor X’s Top 10 Albums of 2013

It’s that time of year where we publish our picks for the best singles and albums that country music had to offer during the previous twelve months. Usually I begin by lamenting the meager selections from which we had to choose. But not this time; for the first time in a long time, it’s been a very good year for country music. One wouldn’t know it by listening to the radio or watching the major awards shows, but a lot of my old favorites reemerged in 2013 with new offerings. Here are my picks:

10. The Woman I Am — Kellie Pickler

Pickler has made tremendous strides as an artist with her last two releases. Last year’s 100 Proof paid homage to the artists and sounds of yesterday, while the more contemporary and surprisingly good The Woman I Am shows the way forward for the next phase of her career. I hope she can overcome the disadvantage she faces in not having major label promotion. This album deserves to be heard.

9. Like A Rose — Ashley Monroelike a rose

The long-awaited return of Ashley Monroe did not make many commercial waves, but this Vince Gill-produced project is an artistic triumph. A guest appearance by Blake Shelton reassures those of us who had begun to fear that he was no longer capable of making good music.

8. Hammer Down — The SteelDrivers

Another personnel change didn’t prevent my favorite bluegrass band from releasing another stellar collection of new tunes. Hammer Down is a step up from 2010’s slightly disappointing Reckless, and is neck-and-neck with the group’s debut album for the best album of their career so far.

7. To All The Girls — Willie Nelsonto all the girls

At age 80, Willie’s voice not is not what it once was, but he sounds better than he has in years on this collection which boasts an impressive roster of female guest artists from both within and outside the country music community.

6. Love Is Everything — George Strait

Although he plans to continue recording, King George is in the process of wrapping up his touring career. Coinciding with his farewell tour is his best collection of songs in quite some time.

5. The Bluegrass Album — Alan Jacksonthe bluegrass album

Alan Jackson chose mostly new material for this project, unlike most artists who have mined the back catalogs for their bluegrass collections. The result is one of the best hour’s worth of music that 2013 had to offer. Jackson’s hitmaking days appear to be over, but from a creative standpoint he is as strong as ever.

4. Cheater’s Game — Kelly Willis & Bruce Robison

I’ll always regret that Kelly Willis was so under-appreciated during her major label days. Her albums these days are few and far between so it is a real treat when she releases something new. I prefer this effort with her songwriter husband Bruce Robison to 2007’s less rootsy Translated From Love.

3. Influence Vol 1: The Man I Am — Randy Travisrandy
Randy Travis’ voice has been deteriorating for years and it was especially noticeable on “Tonight I’m Playing Possum”, the George Jones tribute that served as the lead single for this project. I wasn’t expecting much from the rest of the album, but like Willie Nelson, Randy sounds better on his current project than he has in a long time. He’s suffered from serious medical problems this year; we wish him the best and hope that 2014 holds better things in store for him.

2. Old Yellow Moon — Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell

This duet project was a return to form for Harris and Crowell, both of whom who were cast aside by Nashville and who have been making their mark in the Americana world for the past several years. I’d like to hear more music in this vein from them, both separately and together, should they be inclined to team up in the studio again for a follow-up project.

1. Bakersfield — Vince Gill & Paul Franklinbakersfield

Vince Gill doesn’t ordinarily come to mind when one thinks of artists who are associated with the Bakerfield sound, but he shows he is more than capable of handling these classic Buck Owens and Merle Haggard songs and the participation of of steel guitar virtuoso Paul Franklin was the icing on the cake. This is by far the new album in my collection that got played the most this year. May we have some more, please?

Occasional Hope’s top 10 albums of 2013

This year has seen some excellent albums released. I had to leave off my final top ten fine records by Amber Digby, Ashley Monroe, Jamie Richards, Julie Roberts and Eric Strickland. The most notable thing for me has been the resurgence in artistic terms at least, if not commercial ones, of great female voices. Last year none of my top albums was from a female artist. This year there are four solo women (all excellent writers as well as singers, although one chose to release predominantly covers this time), four male leads, and two mixed duos, and while I don’t like quotas or judging for anything other than the quality of the music, increased diversity of life experience can only be good for the variety of experiences reflected in the music.

10. Old Yellow MoonEmmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell
The long awaited reunion project was a delight, and well worth the wait. Seeing them live was a personal highlight of my year.
Best tracks: ‘Dreaming My Dreams’, ‘Here We Are

roots of my raising gregory9. Roots Of My RaisingThe Clinton Gregory Bluegrass Band
Another project presenting country classics with bluegrass arrangements. Clinton Gregory’s underrated tenor matches his fine fiddle playing, and his excellent vocal interpretations make this one worth hearing.
Best tracks: ‘New Patches’, ‘Roots Of My Raising’, ‘I Never Go Around Mirrors’

8. Made To LastJoey + Rory
While not really groundbreaking, the latest from husband and wife duo Joey Martin and Rory Feek contains some beautiful songs, tastefully produced. The couple may slow down their busy schedule next year and they are expecting their first baby together in the spring, but this (and the year’s earlier religious album) will keep fans going.
Best tracks: ‘Just A Cup Of Coffee’, ‘Now That She’s Gone’, ‘50,000 Names’ with a bonus mention for ‘The Preacher And The Stranger’ on Inspired.

showin my roots7. Showin’ My RootsDonna Ulisse
A delightful mix of country and bluegrass on a collection of the songs which inspired Donna. She’s a fine bluegrass singer and songwriter – but her majestic alto is petrfect for traditional country, and setting them against beautifully played bluegrass abackings is the best of both worlds.
Best tracks: ‘If That’s The Way You Feel’, ‘Somebody Somewhere Don’t Know What He’s Missing Tonight’, ‘In The Good Old Days When Times Were Bad’

6. Brothers Of The HighwayDailey & Vincent
The best duo in bluegrass return with their first secular album of new material since 2009. This is spectacular playing and singing, a masterclass in bluegrass.
Best tracks: ‘When I Stop Dreaming’, ‘Hills Of Caroline’, ‘Brothers Of The Highway’

i let her talk5. I Let Her TalkErin Enderlin
It only had nine tracks, which lost it a few points, but the outstanding quality of the songs and Erin’s strong voice meant this forced its way onto my top 10 list.
Best tracks: ‘I Let Her Talk’, ‘Get That At Home’, ‘Last Call’, ‘Monday Morning Church

4. The HighwayHolly Williams
Hank Jr’s daughter comes of age as an artist with this fine singer-sogwriter record. Her sultry voice, the tasteful production and excellent songs combine to make a memorable listening experience.
Best Tracks: ‘Giving Up’, ‘Drinkin’’, ‘Waiting On June

randy3. Influence Vol 1:- The Man I AmRandy Travis
Randy Travis has seemed to be on a downward spiral both personally, with well-publicised troubles with the law and an increasingly concerning alchol problem, and professionally, with his voice showing disturbing signs of deterioration. His health took a turn for the worse this year, but his Haggard-heavy album of classic covers was an unexpected highlight of the year. The man who was at the heart of the revival of more traditional styles of country music in the 1980s reveals his greatest influences, and is back in better voice than he has been for some years. the slightly lopsided selection of material may be a casualty of his health issues – perhaps more recording sessions were planned. I only hope that he recovers and a Volume 2 may be a possibility.
Best tracks: ‘What Have You Got Planned Tonight, Diana’, ‘I’m Always On A Mountain When I Fall’, ‘Someday We’ll Look Back

2. BakersfieldVince Gill and Paul Franklin
I wouldn’t necessarily have associated Vince Gill’s honeyed tenor with the Bakersfield sound, but his labor of love collaboration with steel player Paul Franklin was a revelation. Vince’s heartfelt interpretations of these classics breathes new life into them.
Best tracks: ‘Holding Things Together’, ‘Branded Man’, ‘But I Do’, ‘Together Again

12 stories
1. 12 StoriesBrandy Clark

The songwriter has been very successful in recent years selling her songs to more mainstream acts, but it turns out she kept her best songs for her own album. She serves up a dozen believable slices of life on her debut album, a pointed reminder that at its best country music is the genre which records real lives in troubled times. Ranging from the quirky wit of single ‘Stripes’ to dark cheating songs like ‘What’ll Keep Me Out Of Heaven’, and taking in the soothing sweetness of ‘Hold My Hand’ and ‘Just Like Him’, this is one of those rare albums without a weak track, and one which demonstrates that contemporary country can be great. Brandy also has a rich, expressive voice. Much-deserved critical acclaim has not yet been matched by sales – but this is an outstanding record.
Best tracks: ‘What’ll Keep Me Out Of Heaven’, ‘In Some Corner’, ‘Take A Little Pill’, ‘Pray to Jesus’, ‘Just Like Him

Top 10 Favorite Country Singles of 2013

It was just a few months ago, I was in panic mode. How the heck am I supposed to compile and rank a list of favorite singles when the majority of country music, especially mainstream terrestrial radio country, left me numb? Hell, I don’t even have a can’t-live-without favorite single from 2013. I don’t know when the tide turned, but I was once again able to rank a list I’m very happy with. None of these were big hits (although #8 did chart top 15), but they were the artistic statements that should’ve ruled the airwaves. The genre would’ve been better off if they had.

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10. Bruises – Train Feat. Ashley Monroe 

Two high school classmates run into each other for the first time since graduation ten years ago. He marvels at her ability to retain her beauty after having two kids, while she’s glad to hear he’s finally left their suffocating small-town. Lovers or not, they’ll always be linked by their bruises – those moments in life resulting in a stumble on the path to enlightenment.

Hailing from San Francisco and making his mark in pop music, Train’s Pat Monahan is forgiven for recycling Phil Vassar’s “Carlene” just about word-for-word. This take on the tale stands out, though, because he gives voice to the female perspective through Monroe who turns in a buttery vocal that’s one of her finest moments she’s ever committed to record.

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9. Sober – Little Big Town 

The centerpiece of Tornado, “Sober” proves there’s life beyond Karen Fairchild whose position as the band’s lead singer has left little diversity in their radio offerings of late. Whether or not this turns into the hit it deserves to be, it’s good to see the criminally underrated Kimberly Schlapman given her due. She’s more then just a pretty face, and is finally able to prove that here.

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8. All Kinds of Kinds – Miranda Lambert

Lambert’s best single since “The House That Built Me” is Don Henry’s timeless ode to diversity that makes a strong statement without seeming preachy or political. These are the types of quality records that helps Lambert stand above her competition, schooling them on how to challenge the listener with substance while honing the artistic image that’s made them famous.

She howls, ‘When I stood up in Geometry and everybody stared at me as I tossed my test into the trash’ with the same bite she brings to her revenge anthems, but you feel the weight of maturity from an artist who isn’t afraid to grow in a market that rewards stagnation around every corner. Lambert is a fully modern country singer, but “All Kinds of Kinds” proves she isn’t done pulling new tricks out of her sleeve.

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7. Blue Ridge Mountain Song – Alan Jackson 

Leave it to Alan Jackson, three years after being blackballed by country radio, to release one of his greatest singles – an old fashioned testament to true love sprinkled with trademarks of the bluegrass tradition. He may move the story a little too quickly, in order to get to the twist towards the end, but he does everything else right. May this mark the beginning of an exciting new chapter in his career.

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6. Over When It’s Over – Eric Church 

With Luke Bryan and Jason Aldean facing deserving near-constant criticism for their shallow lyrics and douche bag behavior, their “Only Way I Know” counterpart Eric Church has been givin the space to forge his own path. Instead of rapping about trucks and dirt roads, he has consistently crafted original compositions that possess a decidedly rock edge, but are cut from the cloth of classic country (“The Outsiders” notwithstanding).

“Over When It’s Over” is a sparse reflection on a relationship gone sour, with both parties going their separate ways through a seething fog of regret. What the track lacks in production is compensated for in Church’s tour-de-force vocal conveying the perfect amounts of anger and sadness. It’s the best track from Chief, and while it could’ve used accents of pedal steel in its execution (and how cool would’ve been if Natalie Maines could’ve provided the backing vocals?) what we have is just enough to make it stand out from the pack.

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5. Stripes – Brandy Clark

Shane McAnally had the idea to write a song called “Orange” about a woman who stops short of killing her cheating husband because she doesn’t look good in the titular prison color. He brought the idea to Clark, stuck on the fact nothing rhymes with his clever hook. She turned it around saying “but everything rhymes with stripes.”

Their meeting of the minds resulted in a wickedly smart cheating song littered with originality and quirky turns of phrase (“there’s no crime of passion worth a crime of fashion”) that reveal the underlying humor underscoring the uptempo numbers on 12 Stories. Clark’s ability to find comedy in some of life’s most despairing moments is one of her greatest skills as a songwriter.

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4. Blacktop – Alan Jackson

I was glad to see the blacktop, no more dust in my eyes” and with that Jackson lays down the gauntlet in opposition to bro-country with an act of striking civil disobedience. How refreshing is it that twenty-four years into his storied career Jackson still has something meaningful to contribute to the country music landscape?

jason-isbell-southeastern

3. Elephant – Jason Isbell 

The mark of a great songwriter is their ability to take well-worn themes and make the listener feel like they’re hearing them for the first time. In an era saturated with an “I’m Gonna Love You Through It” mentality, where hair is replaced with “Skin” and women are “Tough,” Isbell is just trying to ignore the elephant in the room and let his woman enjoy what little life she has left – letting her get drunk and high, joke about her harsh reality, and sing although her voice is nearly gone.

He’s the truest of friends, there for her but not a burden. He just wants one night where they both forget the bitter truth staring them squarely in the face, an impossible proposition seeing as he’s an emotional wreck bursting at the seams, a levee that miraculously hasn’t breached. Never has the word “somehow” been packed with so much meaning.

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2. Hangin’ Up My Heart – Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell

The best track from Old Yellow Moon is this ripped from the 1970s traditional number penned by Crowell for Sissy Spacek’s lone early 1980s country album. The pair sound invigorated here, with a renewed freshness that showcases what the resulted album could’ve and ultimately should’ve been.

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1. Follow Your Arrow – Kacey Musgraves

The most important country single of 2013 is a gay-rights battle cry openly embracing a love who you love mentality in a genre where anything ‘gay’ is almost non-existent. Musgraves is a new age Loretta Lynn not afraid to speak her mind and be open towards her beliefs. Her boldness is refreshing and hopefully the seed that gives her fellow contemporaries the guts to bring substance to their music again.

Hip Hop on Pop Country and other bad rhymes: the worst country songs of 2013

hop on popYoung bastard sub-genres like hick-hop and ‘bro country’ dominate our annual worst songs of the year list. Florida Georgia Line’s 2012-released “Cruise” makes it second appearance on our list fueled by its re-release of a remix with rapper Nelly and its record-setting year atop the new mongrel Hot Country Songs chart.  Eric Church, Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean, and Florida Georgia Line all have double entries here, demonstrating their consistency in putting out large piles of musical bovine feces.

Here’s our pick for the ten worst mainstream songs of the year. What would your own list look like? Share in the comments.

10. “The Outsiders” – Eric Church

Heavy metal pretending to be country; loud, cluttered, tuneless and horrible, with risibly cliche’d wannabe outlaw lyrics I don’t find remotely credible, shouted (even screamed) rather than sung.  It does not inspire any positive hope for the new album it heralds.

– Occasional Hope

9. “Get Your Shine On” – Florida Georgia Line

Last year,when I heard “Cruise”, I really didn’t think these guys’ singles could get any worse. But they proved me wrong with both their 2013 releases. This is only a little worse than “Round Here” because it sounds like some parody lyric written for the Drunken Martina twitter account.

– J.R. Journey

8. “Redneck Crazy” – Tyler Farr

This tasteless muck (co-written by Josh Kear and Chris Tompkins of “Before He Cheats” fame) is another low for country music, in an era in which everyone seems to be trying to out do themselves for the lowest levels of douchedom. Count me out.

– Jonathan Pappalardo

7. “The Only Way I Know How” – Jason Aldean with Luke Bryan and Eric Church

This collaboration boasts lots of chest-thumping bravado, self-proclaimed superiority over anybody with even subtle differences to the narrators, and the whole thing is just way too loud and overbearing. The lyrics speak of humility, but everything about this mess screams “Look at me! And how much better I am than you!”.

– J.R. Journey

6. “Ready, Set, Roll” – Chace Rice

The fact that this guy co-wrote “Cruise” tells you all you need to know about him as an artist.  The single boasts rock vocals, completely generic leering lyric, no melody to speak of, tinny processed sound.  Bad and boring; at least the likes of Joanna Smith and Chris Young can sing.

– Occasional Hope

5. “Parking Lot Party” – Lee Brice

Is there a chance Lee Brice may be the only male country singer to understand the concept of balance? I could knock him for recording this awful cliché-drenched ode to tailgating, but it comes on the heels of “I Drive Your Truck,” a surprisingly substantive moment in mainstream country this year. It’s just too bad he needs to offset a steel-heavy ballad with a desperate attempt at remaining a hero to the teen and college set.

– Jonathan Pappalardo

4. “1994” – Jason Aldean

Like most of Jason Aldean’s singles of late, ‘1994’ has no narrative to speak of, no point to its existence, or any artistic credibility whatsoever. Aldean is singing about a man once nicknamed ‘Joe Ditty,’ in a song that makes “Pickup Man” and “John Deere Green” sound like the second coming of “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” When tribute songs are of a far lesser quality than the music of artist they’re honoring, is there even a point?

– Jonathan Pappalardo

It’s an insult to Joe Diffie to include references to him on this ghastly hip hop trash.

– Occasional Hope

3. “That’s My Kind of Night” – Luke Bryan

Zac Brown called it ‘one of the worst songs I’ve ever heard’.  I don’t know that I’d go that far, but it is very poor indeed, with pornographic uh-ing at the start, little melody, cliche’d lyric, jerky phrasing; even Luke sounds as though he’s on autopilot.  Sticking banjo on top is just like putting lipstick on a pig – and not Babe or Miss Piggy, a really hairy, smelly boar with swine flu.

– Occasional Hope

2. “Cruise Remix” – Florida Georgia Line feat. Nelly

The newly minted CMA Single of the Year is the worst novelty hit in decades. The rap remix is nothing more than ‘Anti-Christ’ Scott Borchetta cementing his stronghold over commercial country, and his dominance as dictator of Music Row. He’s becoming more of a problem then his artists at this point.

– Jonathan Pappalardo

 The original was bad enough; this ill-conceived rap remix unbelievably makes it even worse.

– Occasional Hope

I said a lot about this song last year, and I stand by all of it.

– J.R. Journey

1.”Boys Round Here” – Blake Shelton feat. Pistol Annies and friends

Absolutely horrible rap with awful country-pride lyrics.  An appalling waste of talent.  This sub-genre has become a parody of itself.

– Occasional Hope

Shelton is arguably the biggest star in country music right now. That he’s using his high profile to market this kind of garbage – “chew tobacco, chew tobacco, chew tobacco, spit”, you’re kidding me? – is bad enough. But when he uses his considerable influence to recruit the likes of the Pistol Annies, Reba McEntire, Ronnie Dunn, Josh Turner, and Brad Paisley into being featured on the song’s “celebrity mix” it’s just despicable.

– J.R. Journey

2012 by the numbers

numbers2012 was a great year for us at My Kind of Country.  Razor, Occasional Hope, and Jonathan shone the spotlight on twelve diverse artists each month including Nancy Griffith, Marty Stuart, Rodney Crowell, Kathy Mattea and Ricky Skaggs. Our resident country music encyclopedia Paul Dennis continued his Country Heritage series and also took you through a fact-filled countdown of his favorite songs from the 1980’s.

In 2012, we published 692 posts, which generated over 230,000 views from some 110,000 visitors. You wrote 1,312 comments this year on our posts.

Top 5 commenters …

Ken Johnson  – 153
Luckyoldsun  – 117
Paul W Dennis  – 108
Ben Foster  – 97
Razor X  – 83

Here’s how how you found us:

More than 80% of our visitors arrived through search engines, and the top five terms leading visitors to My Kind of Country in 2012 were:

kenny rogers
my kind of country
lib hatcher
songs about being the other woman
dolly parton

The top referring sites in 2012 were:

  1. countryuniverse.net
  2. facebook.com
  3. blogs.com
  4. farcethemusic.com
  5. countrycalifornia.com

We launched this blog on December 8, 2008 with a staff of three. Now four years later, 1.2 million pageviews and 10,000+ comments later, it’s still our pleasure to be writing about the country music we all love so much. We hope you continue to be entertained and informed when you visit, and of course we hope you keep coming back in 2013.

Have a safe and Happy New Year from everyone at My Kind of Country!

Click here to see the complete report.

Ten best reissues of 2012

2012 wasn’t a great year for reissues, but there were ten that struck me as exceptional enough to make a ten best list. Here is a list of my favorites (note: some of the foreign CDs may carry a 2011 date but did not hit the American market until 2012). My list is a mixed bag of single volume releases, affordable multi-disc sets and two rather expensive boxed sets

janiefricke Janie Fricke – The Country Side of Bluesgrass

An excellent set of Janie Fricke’s 1970s and 1980s hits recast as bluegrass. This album was advertised as the follow-up to her 2004 Bluegrass Sessions album, but it is actually a reissue of that album minus the bonus DVD – same songs, same “bonus track”, same musicians and producer. Only the packaging differs, so if you have the earlier CD you don’t need this one. If you don’t have the earlier version then you do need this one as Janie is one of the few female singers whose vocal chops have gotten better as she aged.

loudermilkSitting in the Balcony – The Songs of John D. Loudermilk

Although John D. Loudermilk wrote a large number of hit records for other performers, his hit songs (“Abilene”, “Waterloo”, “Talk Back Trembling Lips”, “Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye” , “Lament of the Cherokee Reservation Indian”, “Tobacco Road” , “A Rose And A Baby Ruth”, etc) were not at all typical of the material with which he filed his albums. A first cousin of Ira & Charlie Louvin (they were actually the Loudermilk Brothers before the name change), John D. Loudermilk had a decidedly offbeat outlook on life as evidenced by the songs in this two CD set. Loudermilk didn’t have a great singing voice and his offbeat songs resulted in no top twenty hits for him as a performer, but his songs are treasures.

Disc One (John D. Loudermilk: The Records) contains 32 recordings John made from 1957-1961. Disc Two (John D. Loudermilk: The Songs of John D. Loudermilk) contains 32 recordings made by other artists from 1956-1961, not necessarily big hits (although several are sprinkled in) but interesting songs by a wide array of artists, both famous and obscure (the famous names include Eddie Cochran, Johnny Cash, The Everly Brothers, Kitty Wells and Connie Francis). If you’ve never heard John D. Loudermilk, this is the place to start – it won’t be your stopping point

bradleykincaid Bradley Kincaid – A Man and His Guitar
Released by the British label JSP, this four CD set sells for under $30.00 and gives you 103 songs by one the individuals most responsible for preserving the musical heritage of rural America, through his song collecting and issuance of songbooks. Beyond being a preservationist, Kincaid was an excellent songwriter, singer and radio performer, as well as being Grandpa Jones’ mentor. This collection covers the period 1927-1950. An essential set for anyone interested in the history of country music

bootleg4 Johnny Cash – The Soul of Truth: Bootleg Vol. 4

You can never have too much Johnny Cash in your collection, and this 2 CD set includes the released albums A Believer Sings the Truth and Johnny Cash – Gospel Singer, plus unreleased material and outtakes. Various members of Cash’s extended family appear plus Jan Howard and Jessi Colter.

shebwooley Sheb Wooley –
White Lightnin’ (Shake This Shack Tonight)

Sheb Wooley had several careers – movie star, television actor (Rawhide), singer and comedian. Actually Sheb had two singing careers – a ‘straight’ country as Sheb Wooley and a comic alter-ego, the besotted Ben Colder.

This set covers the post WW2 recordings, recorded under the name Sheb Wooley. Sheb had a considerable sense of humor even when recording under his own name and there are quite a few humorous and offbeat songs in this thirty song collection released by Bear Family. Recorded on the west coast of the USA, many of these recordings feature steel guitar wizard Speedy West and the lightning fingers of guitarist Jimmie Bryant. Sheb’s biggest hit was “Purple People Eater”, which is not on this CD but there are many songs to make you smile including such classics as “That’s My Pa”, “You’re The Cat’s Meow” and “Rover, Scoot Over”, plus a number of boogies and a song titled “Hill Billy Mambo”.

martyrobbinsEl Paso: The Marty Robbins Story (1952-1960)

Marty Robbins was the “renaissance man” of country music. He could sing anything and everything. I always suspected that if rock and roll had not come along and momentarily wiped out the pop standards/classic pop market, Marty might have been competing against Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Julius Larosa and Tony Bennett, rather than competing as a county artist.

Whatever the case, Robbins was a truly great singer and this two CD set from the Czech label Jasmine proves it. This sixty (60) song collections gives us pop standards, rock and roll (“Maybelline”, “Long Tall Sally”, “That’s All Right, Mama”), ‘Mr. Teardrop’ ballads (“I Couldn’t Keep From Crying” , “Mr. Teardrop”, Teen Hits (“A White Sport Coat [And A Pink Carnation]”, “The Story of My Life”) , Country Standards (“Singing The Blues”, and lots of the great western ballads for which he was most famous”

If you don’t have any Marty Robbins this is a good place to start – sixty songs, under twenty bucks. Marty’s songs have been around and available in various configurations so this isn’t an essential album, merely an excellent one.

johnhartford

John Hartford – Aereo Plane/Morning Bugle: The Complete Warner Collection

John Hartford (December 30, 1937 – June 4, 2001) is best remembered for writing “Gentle On My Mind” but he was much more than a songwriter who happened to write a hit for Glen Campbell. Hartford was an extremely talented musician who could play any instruments, although banjo and fiddle were his main tools, a fine singer with a wry sense of humor and a scholar of the lore and history of the Mississippi River. While he sometimes is group settings, John was comfortable performing as a one-man band playing either banjo or guitar along with harmonica while clogging out the rhythm on an amplified piece of plywood while he played and sang.

Warner Brothers released these albums in 1971 and 1972, following his four-year run on RCA. Aereo-Plain has been described as hippie bluegrass, and its failure to sell well caused Warner Brothers to not bother with promoting the follow-up album Morning Bugle. Too bad as Aereo-Plain is chock full of quirky but interesting songs, with musicianship of the highest order with Norman Blake on guitar, Tut Taylor on dobro, and Vassar Clements on fiddle as part of the ensemble. I’ve always regard this album as the first “newgrass” album, and while others may disagree, it certainly is among the first. I don’t recall any singles being released from this album but I heard “Steam Powered Aereo Plane” and “Teardown The Grand Ole Opry” on the radio a few times.

While Aereo-Plain reached the Billboard album charts at #193, the follow-up Morning Bugle didn’t chart at all. Too bad as it is an imaginative album featuring Hartford with Norman Blake on guitar and mandolin, joined by legendary jazz bassist Dave Holland. The album features nine original compositions plus a couple of old folk songs. I particulary liked “Nobody Eats at Linebaugh’s Anymore” and “Howard Hughes’ Blues”, but the entire album is excellent. Following Warner Brothers’ failure to promote this album, Hartford asked to be released from his contract. He never again recorded for a major label, instead producing a series of fine albums for the likes of Flying Fish, Rounder and Small Dog A-Barkin’.

This reissue unearths eight previously unreleased tracks, making it a ‘must-have’ for any true John Hartford fan and a great starting point for those unfamiliar with his music.

bobbybare Bobby Bare – As Is/Ain’t Got Nothin’ To Lose

Bobby Bare was never flashy or gimmicky in his approach to music even though he recorded many novelties from the pen of Shel Silverstein. For Bare songs had stories to tell and that’s how he approached them. Whether the song was something from Shel, Tom T Hall, Billy Joe Shaver, Bob McDill or whomever, Bobby made sure that the song’s story was told. While this approach didn’t always get Bare the big hits, it always gained him the respect of the listener.

This reissue couples two of Bare’s early 1980s Columbia releases plus a few bonus tracks. The great John Morthland in his classic book The Best of Country Music, had this to say about As Is: “… It is the ideal Bobby Bare formula really: give him a batch of good songs and turn him loose. No concepts here, nothing cutesy, just ten slices-of-life produced to perfection by Rodney Crowell”.

My two favorite tracks on As Is were a pair of old warhorses, Ray Price’s 1968 “Take Me As I Am (Or Let Me Go) “ and the Ian Tyson classic “Summer Wages”.

While I Ain’t Got Nothing To Lose isn’t quite as stong an album, it gives Bare’s wry sense of humor several display platforms. The (almost) title track echos thoughts that many of us have felt at some point in our life (the first line is the actual song title:

If you ain’t got nothin’ you ain’t got nothin’ to lose
There ain’t no pressure when you’re singin’ these low down blues
Smokin’ that git down bummin’ them red men chews
If you ain’t got nothin’ you ain’t got nothin’ to lose

Hugh Moffat’s “Praise The Lord and Send Me The Money” is a clever jab at televangelistas . I’ll give you a middle verse and let you guess the rest:

I woke up late for work the next morning
I could not believe what I’d done
Wrote a hot check to Jesus for ten thousand dollars
And my bank account only held thirty-one

I consider virtually everything Bobby Bare recorded to be worthwhile so I jumped on this one the minute I knew of its existence. I already had As Is on vinyl but somehow the companion album slipped by me.

This brings us up to two rather expensive box sets that will set the purchaser back by several bills.

conniesmithThe obsessive German label Bear Family finally got around to releasing their second box set on Connie Smith. Just For What I Am picks up where the prior set left off and completes the RCA years. While many prefer Miss Smith’s earliest recordings, I am most fond of her work from the period 1968-1972, when her material was more adventurous, especially on the album tracks. During this period Smith had shifted from Bill Anderson being her preferred songwriter to focusing on the songs of Dallas Frazier, including one full album of nothing but Dallas Frazier-penned songs. The ‘Nashville Sound’ blend of strings and steel never sounded as good as it did on these tracks. There is a fair amount of religious music on the set, but for the less religiously inclined there is more than enough good solid country music on the set to be worth the effort in programming your CD player to skip the religious tracks. At her peak Connie Smith was the strongest vocalist the genre has ever generated – even today at age 71, she can blow away most female vocalists. Highlights are songs such as “Where Is My Castle”, “Louisiana Man”, “Ribbon of Darkness”, but when I listen to these discs, I just put ‘em on and let ‘em spin.

cashUp to this point, I actually own all of the albums and sets listed above. Not being made of money, I haven’t purchased Sony/Legacy’s massive 63 CD set The Complete Johnny Cash Columbia Album Collection, although the temptation is there. What is stopping me from making the purchase (other than my wife) is that already own 99% of what the set contains in one format or another.

What the set contains is an unbelievable array of material, it’s difficult to think of any singer whose work has been so varied. There are gospel albums, Christmas albums, a children’s album, soundtrack albums from a couple of movies, two Highwayman albums, a collaboration with former Sun label mates Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins, a concert from a Swedish prison and other live albums and duet albums – a total of 59 albums as originally released on the Columbia label (no bonus tracks). There set also includes another four CDs of miscellaneous materials – singles and B-sides not originally on albums, Johnny’s guest vocals on other artist’s albums plus various oddities. Some of Cash’s later Columbia albums were not quite as strong as the earlier albums, but even the weaker albums contained some quite interesting material. This set usually sells for around $265 or $4 per disc.

J.R. Journey’s Top Albums of 2012

Here are my favorite albums from 2012, in no order. Click the links to listen on Spotify.

nashville soundtrackNashville Cast The Music of Nashville: Season 1, Volume 1

The Tennesseean‘s Peter Cooper made a valid case about the music coming from the hit ABC drama being better than most mainstream country hits. I agree with him. While the TV show’s original songs haven’t yet shown much aptitude with traditional country sounds – leaning more toward Americana and pop-country – they’re leaps and bounds ahead of the current top 40 when it comes to content and substance.

Recommended tracks: “Wrong Song”, “If I Didn’t Know Better”, “No One Will Ever Love You”

Kellie Pickler100 Proof

A handful of barn-burning up-tempos, a few clever female-friendly medium tempos, and even more stone country tear-jerkers, served up with heaps of fiddle, pedal steel, and Kellie Pickler’s Carolina twang? Yes, please.

Recommended tracks: “Long As I Never See You Again”, “Where’s Tammy Wynette”, “The Letter (To Daddy)”

jameyjohnsonJamey Johnson – Living For a Song: A Tribute to Hank Cochran

Johnson’s tribute to Music Row pioneer and songwriting legend Hank Cochran features an all-star cast taking on some of Cochran’s big hits and a few well-chosen and lesser known gems.

Recommended tracks: “Make The World Go Away” (with Alison Krauss), “A-11” (with Ronnie Dunn), “A Way To Survive” (with Leon Russell and Vince Gill)

Zac Brown BandUncaged

On their third album, the Zac Brown Band again combines country with bluegrass and the sounds of the islands and the songs this time out are again smart and to the point.

Recommended tracks: “Sweet Annie”, “Goodbye In Her Eyes”, “The Wind”

Alan JacksonThirty Miles West

Jackson’s first album for the EMI Nashville label follows his winning no frills neotraditional formula. Thirty Miles West is a set full of top-notch songs and performances. I can’t stop playing it.

Recommended tracks: “So You Don’t Have To Love Me Anymore”, “Look Her In The Eye and Lie”, “She Don’t Get High”

dwight yoakam - 3 pearsDwight Yoakam  – 3 Pears

Yoakam’s first album of all new material in seven years is as eclectic as the man himself. On 3 Pears, he shares production duties with punk-rock hero Beck and songwriting credit with Robert Richie (aka Kid Rock) and Ashley Monroe on respective tracks on a set that ably combines the sound of rock and roll’s golden AM era with his own distinctive country stamp.

Recommended tracks: “It’s Never Alright”, “Heart Like Mine”, “Long Way To Go”

Razor X’s Top Albums of 2012

Finding good new country music is not as easy as it once was, and due to a number of other things that were going on in my life, I’m afraid I didn’t put much effort into seeking out new music this year but I was able to find a few gems:


10. Heroes — Willie Nelson

Willie’s return to the major labels was an eclectic collection that found him covering Coldplay and Pearl Jam, but also reunited him with Merle Haggard and Ray Price, as well as sharing the spotlight a bit with his sons Lukas and Micah.

dierks9. Home — Dierks Bentley

2010’s Up On The Ridge was successful critically but not commercially, so it’s not surprising that Dierks chose to follow it up with a much more radio-friendly collection. The strategy worked, as Home produced three # 1 singles.

8. Nashville, Volume 1: Tear The Woodpile Down — Marty Stuart

Not quite the masterpiece that 2010’s Ghost Train was, this collection was still one of my favorite listens of the year. I would have rated it higher if it hadn’t contained some recycled material (“Sundown In Nashville”, “Truck Driver’s Blues”).

kelliepickler7. 100 Proof — Kellie Pickler

I never thought that Kellie Picker’s name would ever appear on any of my best of lists, but she really blossomed with this collection of more traditional-sounding tunes. Unfortunately, just as she was finally making music that allowed her to be taken seriously as an artist, she was dropped by her record label. What the future holds for her remains to be seen. There was a time when I would have said that she wouldn’t be missed very much, but now I’m curious to see what direction she goes in next.

6. Calling Me Home — Kathy Mattea

I wasn’t a huge fan of 2008’s Coal, but I like Kathy’s second visit to her Appalachian roots much better. This is a less bleak look at her heritage.

zbb5. Uncaged — Zac Brown Band

Creepy cover art aside, this collection allowed the Zac Brown Band to further expand on their increasing eclectic but always interesting catalog.

4. Thirty Miles West — Alan Jackson

There weren’t any real surprises or stretches in Alan’s EMI Nashville debut; it’s very much in the same vein as most of the other albums he’s released over the past twenty-odd years — which is exactly what country music needs right now.

terriclark3. Classic — Terri Clark

Terri Clark and I were born just a few weeks apart, so we grew up listening to much of the same music. This collection, in which she covers tunes by Linda Ronstadt, Loretta Lynn, Merle Haggard, Reba McEntire and Tanya Tucker, provided a wonderful trip down memory lane and is the best album of her career.

2. Restless — Sweethearts of the Rodeo

This long overdue new release was well worth the wait. It’s a shame that it won’t be as widely heard as it deserves.

jameyjohnson1. Living For A Song – A Tribute to Hank Cochran — Jamey Johnson

By the time I was three tracks into listening to this album for the first time, I knew it was my favorite of the year. It’s a beautifully crafted masterpiece with an impressive guest roster that pays homage to one of the greatest country songwriters of all time. I can’t say enough good things about this album.

Occasional Hope’s Top Singles of 2012

Although the official charts seem less and less listenable, I have found quite a number of excellent singles were released this year. While none of them was a smash hit, many of them enjoyed some airplay. Here are my favorites. Oddly, while my albums list consisted of almost all male vocalists, my singles list has a majority of female singers.

10. Ex-Old Man – Kristen Kelly
The top 30 hit for the promising new Arista artist (inspired by her own divorce and written by Kristen with Paul Overstreet) shows how good contemporary country can be. I’ll be looking out for more from her.

9. Merry Go Round – Kacey Musgraves
The young Texan singer-songwriter’s debut Mercury single is a very interesting song about the down sides of rural poverty, when getting married and settling down young is virtually the only option, and portrays a family all seeking escape in a different kind of sin. Kacey isn’t the best singer, but her gentle vocal here is very effective and the song is surprisingly catchy. The record reached the top 30.

8. The Wind – Zac Brown Band
Bluegrass never gets much of a hearing from the mainstream, and they were hostile even to consistent if eclectic hit makers the Zac Brown Band when they sent this excellent track to radio. But it’s an excellent record with sparkling musicianship and an interesting lyric with a northern setting.

gwen sebastian with mentor blake shelton7. Met Him In A Motel Room – Gwen Sebastian
I was previously unimpressed by this artist, who has been around for a few years on minor labels. She recently tried a stint on The Voice reality competition with Blake Shelton as her mentor, and although she did not get very far on the show, she then released this single. A compelling story song about a desperate woman on the verge of suicide who finds another way out when she finds a Bible, it really made me sit up and pay attention to her music.

6. You Go Your Way – Alan Jackson
Classic Alan Jackson.

ashley monroe5. Like A Rose – Ashley Monroe
Critical favorite and part-time Pistol Annie Ashley Monroe has come up with a fine lead-in for her Vince Gill-produced new album on Warner Brothers, due early next year. Vulnerable vocals and a pretty melody with delicate production suit the song beautifully.

4. We Can’t Be Friends – Joanna Smith
The relative newcomer’s third single really made me pay attention to her for the first time. A delicately understated plaintive vocal and a subtle song about the difficulties of staying in contact with an ex when a clean break makes more sense, make for a real winner. While she hasn’t yet made a chart breakthrough, it is encouraging that an artist like this is still on a major label.

joey + rory thumbnail3. When I’m Gone – Joey + Rory
The duo’s third Sugar Hill album was their most inconsistent, but there were a few gems, including this exceptional song offering a kind of comfort to the soon-to-be bereaved. A beautiful, tender vocal from Joey is perfectly judged. Even in a better radio climate this would never have been likely to be a hit single, but it is absolutely exquisite – true heartbreak yet utterly beautiful.

2. So You Don’t Have To Love Me Anymore – Alan Jackson
Alan Jackson’s singles are sometimes hit and miss, but this year he released one of the finest singles of his career. A subtle, understated, and perfect delivery, tasteful production, and outstanding lyric were just too good for radio, with the record peaking at a disappointing #25. It only just missed my #1 spot.

strait thumbnail1. Drinkin’ Man – George Strait
After 30 years at the top, in recent years George Strait has occasionally seemed to be going through the motions. But his best single for years is a clear-eyed confessional from a lifelong alcoholic, who has never managed more than nine days straight sober. Never asking for pity, but truly conscious of his failings, this song is a modern masterpiece, written by Strait himself, his son Bubba, and the great Dean Dillon. It says a lot (and none of it good) about today’s country radio that it got so little airplay, peaking at #37.

Annus horribilis: the worst country songs of 2012

wile e coyoteAfter several years of the reign of redneckus maximus, we’re now to the point of trucksong overloadus, way past selfus parody-us, and nearing complete-us crappus.  How does mainstream country music crawl out from under this pile of cartoonish crap it has buried itself in? I don’t know. My fellow writers don’t know either. But we know these are truly terrible songs.

10. “Something ‘Bout a Truck” – Kip Moore

Georgia native Moore first landed on the Hot Country Songs chart last year with “Mary Was The Marryin’ Kind”, a decent little throwback of a song. When that tanked, he came back (and not surprisingly hit big) with this loud, obnoxious and cliche’-laden song, a song so lowest common denominator and devoid of intelligence that even Craig Morgan would have passed on it.

– J.R. Journey

9. “Must’ve Had a Good Time” – Parmalee

No. Thank. You. How can anyone call this mess even remotely country? Just when you think you’ve heard it all, something comes along to make the rest seem like the second coming of Hank Williams, Sr. Every year I think we’ve hit rock bottom and then we go further and further down the black hole. I now understand why people give up listening to country radio.

– Jonathan Pappalardo

8. “Telescope” – Hayden Panettierre

A ridiculously bad pop song like a parody of bad country radio yet somehow it has made the jump from TV’s Nashville (where I gather it’s supposed to be a bad record) to being a bona fide minor hit with both sales and radio play. This seems like the ultimate indictment of modern radio programmers.

– Occasional Hope

7. “Good Girl” – Carrie Underwood

The horrible echoey production and shouted vocals make this unlistenable.

– Hope

Frantic, spastic, shout-y, and a good dose of forced rasp. Couldn’t she have found a better influence than Steven Tyler? He’s clearly no good for this girl. Any chance I can pick up the tab for his goodbye shoes? Please?

– Jonathan

6. “Cruise” – Florida Georgia Line

The only thing worse than this pair of deebags hitting a major breakthrough in their career with a piece of drivel like this will be the countless deebags-in-training that will be inspired to emulate Florida Georgia Line’s success. From the butchered grammar lyrics to the singers’ affected twang and dog tags around their necks, these guys are a legit training manual on how to be scuzzy deebag losers.

– J.R.

5. “Dancing Away With My Heart” – Lady Antebellum

We get it already. You haven’t seen each other in ages. Now move past this chance meeting and see where life takes you from here. Just maybe, there might be an interesting story in there somewhere. That is, if you can get over not having seen each other in ages and move beyond this anti-climatic dance floor run-in. Give it a try, you can’t get much worse. Right?

– Jonathan

This isn’t offensive to my ears like some of the songs on this list, it’s just so damn boring. Aren’t we on the twelfth floor yet?

– J.R.

4.  “She Cranks My Tractor” – Dustin Lynch

For every “Big Green Tractor” we get…this. I want to respect Dustin Lynch, but he isn’t helping his case by writing, recording, and releasing an ode to having an orgy with farm equipment.

– Jonathan

3. “Family Tree” – Her and Kings Country

Features an actual, very bad rapped section, badly constructed lyric. This almost unbelievably terrible song fortunately failed to make any headway for the Warner/Elektra group.

– Hope

2. “Kick It In The Sticks” – Brantley Gilbert

Wow, country radio sure has changed, yeah? The thought that Gilbert could get this pumped up nonsense up the charts (it stalled at 29, thank goodness, but in a re-release – it didn’t chart in 2010, wonder why?) is flat-out disgusting. I can stand my share of pop/country or rock/country type songs, but this is taking it to a whole new level. “Kick It In The Sticks” should be “Kick Him to the Curb.”

– Jonathan

This one was too awful even for country radio, which is quite an indictment. Heavy rock accompaniment to a song about country living, with very bad rock-style vocals from Brantley who sounds as if he has laryngitis. Unfortunately I think he meant it to sound that way. I also do not find the George Strait namedrop remotely credible.

– Hope

1. “Truck Yeah” – Tim McGraw

Don’t judge a book by its cover, but in this case judge a song by its title. When you’ll do anything to stay relevant, like record this junky play on words, you’re nothing more than desperate. “Felt Good On My Lips” and “It’s a Business Doing Pleasure With You” are bad, but this is inexcusable.

– Jonathan

I have no idea what McGraw is thinking. Having escaped the malign clutches of Curb I had hoped he would be free to record some decent material, but instead he comes up with this witless semi-rap trash, which is completely without merit of any kind. Some people don’t deserve artistic freedom.

– Hope