My Kind of Country

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

Category Archives: Year In Review

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

Jonathan Pappalardo’s Top Songs of 2012

Unlike the experimental nature of my top albums of 2012, this list of singles reflects my nineties country upbringing to the umpteenth degree – I gravitate towards songs that are sincere, understated, and most importantly, unmistakably country. They might not have been huge hits, but that hardly matters anymore. For an even stronger reflection of my tastes, check out my year-end top 40 singles (on my blog) throughout the month.

Chick on the links to hear the songs.

BrandiCarlile_BearCreek1-300x29810. Brandi Carlile – ‘Keep Your Heart Young’

In our increasingly adolescent leaning world, it’s easy to forget there is a correct way to keep our childhood innocence – keep our hearts young, before we get too old, before our time is done.

But the most ironic thing about this Bear Creek single is how well she “sells” country music. Carlile gave up her self-penned “Same Old You” to Miranda Lambert on the grounds she couldn’t sell it herself. Turns out Carlile can be quite the convincing country singer when she wants to be.

9. Eric Church – ‘Springsteen’

A long ago romance between a guy, his girl, and the all-American anthem bounding them for life. Oh, the joys of being 17. Here’s where Church went from wannabe to superstar, consistent hit maker to heavy hitter. His artistic triumph is easily one of the most satisfying singles of the year.

the wind8. Zac Brown Band – ‘The Wind’

By evoking the effortless bluegrass meets country fusion that catapulted Ricky Skaggs to superstardom in the 1980s, Zac Brown Band have recorded their greatest artistic achievement to date. The classic rip-roaring lead guitar and flourishing bursts of fiddle help it sound iconic and vintage yet modern and fresh without risking radio expulsion. One of the best country singles of 2012 is also one of the best country singles to come along in years.

7. Julie Roberts – ‘Whiskey and You’

A classic drinking song infused with Roberts’ stunning alcohol soaked vocal, she’s forced to admit her stark reality – quitting the whiskey is the easy part. It’s the man, whom she knows isn’t good for her, who is the real addiction.

George-Strait-2012-160-026. George Strait – ‘Drinkin’ Man’

Much like Collin Raye’s “Little Rock,” “Drinkin’ Man” is a tale of a life gripped by the bottle – in all its bleak, honest, and raw glory. Strait has crafted one of his finest singles to date by capturing the full essence of this man, worts and all. Sometimes its easier to admit defeat than be bound by the expectation of having to be perfect.

5. Chris Young – ‘Neon’

It’s so not the 1990s anymore. Twenty years ago this neo-traditional gem would’ve been the CMA Single of the Year, a #1 hit single, and on its way to classic status. Young is exceptional on this timeless tale of a man drowning his sorrows in a barroom, underneath the neon lights he now calls home.

I-Just-Come-Here-for-the-Music4. Don Williams featuring Alison Krauss – ‘I Just Come Here For The Music’ 

Quiet and understated, “I Just Come Here For The Music” is the rare breed that doesn’t come along much anymore, the story song with a heart and soul. He’s itching to buy this woman that crucial next drink, the beginning of mending his broken heart. She says no, not realizing he’s just here for the music (and her company) not a relationship.

3. Joey + Rory – ‘Josephine’ 

A heartbreaking Civil War-themed ballad, it’s the true story of a soldier and the woman named Josephine he left at home. Rory Feek, ever the history junkie, composed the lyrics from letters he found at the local historical society. Set behind a rocking mandolin-soaked production, Feek paints the picture in stunning fashion placing the listener deep within the action, feeling every turn of the plot, wincing at the twist in the final verse.

2. Alan Jackson – ‘So You Don’t Have To Love Me Anymore’ 

It’s been too easy to cast Alan Jackson off as a has-been in last few years, thanks to one mediocre single after another. But he came roaring back to life with this timeless ballad, a near brilliant reflection of a man taking the fall in order for the woman to move on. “So You Don’t Have To Love Me Anymore” is his finest single in over ten years and likely one of the best he’s ever recorded.

when i'm gone1. Joey + Rory – ‘When I’m Gone’ 

A dear friend of the duo, Sally Emory Lawrence wrote “When I’m Gone” following the passing of her mother, and these are the words she’d wished her mother had said to her in the days and weeks prior. Now it’s the message she’s passing on to her husband and son.

In the hands of a lesser vocalist, “When I’m Gone” could easily become an overwrought sentimental confection, but in the gentle hands of Joey Martin Feek it becomes the poignant masterpiece Lawrence envisioned when she wrote it. Feek’s tender yet authoritative vocal hits every nuance of the lyric perfectly, moving seamlessly from near whisper to resounding boom with natural ease.

Like Joey + Rory themselves, “When I’m Gone” seems pulled from a bygone era when the likes of “Where’ve You Been” and “How Can I Help You Say Goodbye” were as commonplace on radio playlists as the latest hit from Garth Brooks or Shania Twain. This type of song, one that hits the heart of human emotion, isn’t found much anymore, and when it is, a weak lyric or bombastic arrangement usually stands in the way of any emotional resonance.

The brutally shortened and ruthlessly competitive playlists of country radio won’t (and didn’t) make room for this, and to deny a song this good the chance at maximum exposure is a tragedy in and of itself, but that doesn’t lessen its power or grace. Joey + Rory’s recording of “When I’m Gone” is the greatest you’re likely to hear all year, and easily one of the outstanding achievements for country music in this century, let alone this decade.

Occasional Hope’s Top Albums of 2012

It’s not been a bad year for country music – as long as you ignore the charts and mainstream country radio. My #1 album of the year was released on a major label but with no singles success, and most of my other selections came from independent labels, although some of the names will be familiar. Just missing the cut were, among others, albums from Joey + Rory (some delicious moments but more hit and miss than their previous efforts), Terri Clark’s classic covers, the always reliable Alan Jackson, Kathy Mattea, and current star Dierks Bentley.

For full reviews, and purchase details, click on the links in the album title and artist name respectively.

10. Alive At Brushy Mountain PenitentiaryMark Collie

The live prison album was recorded in 2001, but only escaped the vaults of MCA this year. It was worth the wait, with an energetic set of suitably themed mainly original songs.

Best tracks: ‘I Could’ve Gone Right’, ‘Rose Covered Garden’, ‘Maybe Mexico’, ‘On The Day I Die‘.

marty raybon9. Southern Roots And Branches: Yesterday and TodayMarty Raybon

Former Shenandoah lead singer Marty Raybon released a pair of albums this year. This, the secular one of the pair, was the better, with Marty’s smoky voice sounding as good as ever on a bluegrass influenced set including the odd reworking of a few Shenandoah hits.

Best tracks: ‘Long Hard Road’, ‘Big Pain’, ‘Ghost In This House’, ‘Get Up In Jesus’ Name’.

8. Honky Tonk Till I DieEric Strickland and the B Sides

Solidly enjoyable, unpretentious honky-tonk with some great original songs written by the North Carolinian lead singer. It may be obscure, but it’s really good.

Best tracks: ‘Haggard And Hell’, ‘Freedom’, ‘Standing In The Headlights’, ‘Womankind‘.

wesley dennis7. Country EnoughWesley Dennis

An excellent return from one of the best singers who never made it. The former Mercury Records artist has a classic country voice and has written some fine songs for this independent releases.

Best tracks: ‘A Month Of Sundays’, ‘Lady’s Choice’, ‘That Dog Won’t Hunt’, ‘Sun, Surf And The Sand (And My Ties)‘.

6. The Time JumpersThe Time Jumpers

The part-time supergroup featuring Vince Gill and Dawn Sears came up with a delightful confection of country, jazz and western swing for their first studio alum together. The musicianship sparkles and this is a real celebration of the joy of making music.

Best tracks: ‘So Far Apart’, ‘Three Sides To Every Story’, ‘The Woman Of My Dreams’, ‘Someone Had To Teach You’.

gene watson5. Best Of The BestGene Watson

I wasn’t sure whether to include this album in my list but in the end the quality shone through and I had to keep it in. A veteran star who still has the vocal goods to shame most of his younger, more commercially successful rivals, Gene Watson has chosen to revisit some of his best-loved recordings for this release. I would really have preferred new material from him, but this is just a lovely listening experience.

Best tracks: ‘Farewell Party’, ‘What She Don’t Know Won’t Hurt Her’, ‘Nothing Sure Looked Good On You’, ‘Between This Time And The Next Time’.

4. Pourin’ Whiskey On PainTim Culpepper

The unknown newcomer gave me my most pleasant surprise this year with his traditional sound and some excellent songs.

Best tracks: ‘One More For The Road’, ‘When Misery Finds Company’, ‘Pourin’ Whiskey On Pain’, ‘Toss And Turn’.

jason eady3. AM Country HeavenJason Eady

I called this a “low-key delight” when I reviewed it earlier this year, and my judgment stands. This mature thoughtful record has no weak spots at all. Patty Loveless duetting on one track is an unexpected bonus.

Best tracks (though everything is worth hearing): ‘AM Country Heaven’, ‘Man On A Mountain’ (with Patty Loveless), ‘Water Into Wine’, ‘Old Guitar And Me’.

2. Too Much Ain’t EnoughClinton Gregory

Sweet voiced singer/fiddler Clinton Gregory is back after years of silence with a lovely set of mainly sad songs.

Best tracks: ‘Too Much Ain’t Enough’, ‘Too Country For Nashville’, ‘Has Love Taken Its Toll?’, ‘Chase Away The Lonely’.

jamey johnson21. Living For A Song: A Tribute To Hank CochranJamey Johnson

It was obvious as soon as I listened to this album that it was going to be this year’s highlight. Songs by one of the greatest country songwriters ever, performed by Jamey Johnson and some of his friends including legends like Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Ray Price and Emmylou Harris, and more recent stars like Lee Ann Womack, Ronnie Dunn and George Strait. From the exquisite opening notes of ‘Make The World Go Away’, with Alison Krauss’s angelically sweet counterpoint to Jamey’s gruff tenderness, every single song here is a gem, and almost every track is excellent. This really is an outstanding album.

Best tracks: hard to pin down, but if I must then ‘Would These Arms Be In Your Way’ solo; ‘Make The World Go Away’ with Alison Krauss; ‘You Wouldn’t Know Love’ with Ray Price; and ‘Don’t Touch Me’ with Emmylou Harris.

J.R. Journey’s Top Singles of 2012

Four veteran superstars, two of country music’s hottest groups, a couple of up-and-comers, and two debut singles make up my top ten singles list this year. Rather than tell you why it’s a damn shame that radio was unwelcoming toward Alan Jackson and George Strait’s respective singles and how they’ll probably cool toward Kasey Musgraves soon and likely won’t give Ashley Monroe a shot either, I’ll just say that six of my ten favorites were big hits. That’s something. And I’ll tell you why I like these songs.

10. Jana Kramer – “Why You Wanna”

One Tree Hill star Jana Kramer made the actress-to-country-singer leap flawlessly with her promising debut on this fiddle-laced plea. (Take note, future wannabes.)  “Out of all of the places in this little town/Yeah, you had to come walking in here and sit down” she mews and wins over millions of country fans, myself included.

kenny chesney - el cerrito place9. Kenny Chesney – “El Cerrito Place”

Kenny Chesney hits a sweet spot with medium-tempo ballads like this one, and he’s gotten a lot better at selecting them recently. (See: “Better As A Memory”, “You Save Me”, “You and Tequila”.) This Keith Gattis tune is more evidence of Chesney’s superior skills for selection and delivery.

8. Easton Corbin – “Lovin’ You Is Fun”

This guy has the vocal chops and the strutting neotraditional sound to keep this kind of country alive for a new generation of fans. I really like the rapid fire verses meeting the toe-tapping chorus here.

carrie underwood - two black cadillacs7. Carrie Underwood – “Two Black Cadillacs”

Underwood’s finest single to date is “Does He Love You” meets “Delia’s Gone” set to an appropriately ominous contemporary sound.

6. Ashley Monroe – “Like a Rose”

As one-third of the Pistol Annies, Ashley Monroe and company gave us one of the best albums of 2011. This year, she attempts solo country stardom once more on a sweet song with smart lyrics. The hook is not original, but its memorable nonetheless. And it sticks in my ear just right.

zac brown band - uncaged5. Zac Brown Band – “Goodbye In Her Eyes”

Their breezy harmonies and snappy songs have made the Zac Brown Band a perennial favorite for me since their debut. And they didn’t disappoint this year with this slow-burning number.

4. George Strait – “Drinkin’ Man”

Thirty years into his recording career, Strait set a new high-water mark for himself with his Here for a Good Time album. This stunning narrative from a man battling his alcohol demons is one of his best singles ever.

band perry - better dig two3. The Band Perry – “Better Dig Two”

This song comes from two of my favorite current writers – Shane McAnally and Brandy Clark – with Trevor Rosen, but fits well with Kimberly Perry’s own clever musings on mortality and love. Continued kudos to the band for sticking with this organic sound following their big breakthrough.

2. Alan Jackson – “So You Don’t Have To Love Me Anymore”

Jackson’s first single from his excellent Thirty Miles West album is stone country at its melancholy finest. It’s similar to those early gut punches in Jackson’s catalog like “Here In The Real World” and “Wanted”. Here, he’s taking all the blame for the end of this love affair and even says he won’t pick up if she ever drunk dials him one night. That’s downright decent.

kasey musgraves - merry go round1. Kacey Musgraves – “Merry Go Round”

The Texas singer and former Nashville Star contestant’s debut is a vivid and sometimes startling yarn about small town life and features a light touch of production well-suited to the lyrics and one of the neatest rhyme schemes I can remember.

Listen to a playlist of my favorites on Spotify.

Jonathan Pappalardo’s Top Albums of 2012

Adventurism. Turning convention on its head. Those are just two of the themes threading each of the albums on my list. I’ve noticed my tastes venturing further and further from the mainstream, as radio playlists are marginalized and top 40 acts are less and less interesting. To get an even fuller picture of my picks, check out the albums I ranked 19-11 here.

gretchenpeters10. Gretchen Peters – Hello Cruel World

Thinking people’s music from a lyrical master. It’s easy to overlook the beauty of Hello Cruel World and cast it off as slow, depressing, and moody. But to do that is to completely miss the point of an emotional woman bearing her soul for all who will listen.

9. Various Artists – Kin: Songs by Rodney Crowell and Mary Karr

A patchwork quilt infusing distinct individual moments with simple yet evocative lyrics brought to life by a stellar cast, Kin is a concept project done right. But the marriage of the poet and song master is its greatest achievement, two people from different fields of work, aiming at the same goal – affecting emotion. Look no further than “My Father’s Advice” or even “Mama’s On A Roll” to know they’ve succeeded in spades.

living for a song8. Jamey Johnson and Friends – Livin’ For A Song – A Tribute to Hank Cochran

 One of country’s greatest songwriters gets a tribute from one of its fiercest advocates for tradition. Johnson could’ve done the work solo and still come through with a masterwork, but instead he’s paired with some of the finest vocalists of our generation, elevating simple lyrics into works of art.

7. The Time Jumpers – The Time Jumpers

Time and again I’ve said it but I really miss the days when Vince Gill brought his class and sophistication to mainstream country. Now its a prime example of you don’t know what you had until it was gone. Like last year’s stellar Guitar Slinger, he’s back working his magic, this time with his stellar string band. A not to be missed delight The Time Jumpers is the convergence of expertly talented musicians and singers coming together to spread their considerable awesomeness onto the world.

100 Proof6. Kellie Pickler – 100 Proof

Often regulated to singing kiss off songs about men that have done her wrong (“Things That Never Cross A Man’s Mind,” “Best Days of Your Life,” “Red High Heels”) and empowerment anthems (“Don’t You Know you’re Beautiful”), Kellie Pickler became a singer who never quite rose above mediocrity.

Enter 100 Proof, a wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am/take-no-prisoners/unapologetic classic country tour de force that finally matches the music to the talent, For the first time since America first met Pickler on American Idol, she makes a statement. And it’s a giant leap forward.

5. Jana Kramer – Jana Kramer 

Haven’t we seen this before? An actress from a television show detours through Nashville to have their fifteen minutes of fame as a country singer. They claim their allegiances to the music, try to sing and look the part, but end up only as a parody of the real thing, a jokester trying in vain to pull off a charade so fake you wonder how on earth this could’ve transpired in the first place.

Luckily they’re not all built from the same tattered cloth. Jana Kramer is the exception, turning the most satisfying and promising debut album in years. I found myself continually mesmerized by her voice and spellbound by her ability to fish through the dreck and find quality music. So this isn’t Storms of Life Part II. But she’s obviously trying and cares to sound country. And not generically pop-country, either. She might not be a revolution, but she’s the most promising step in the right direction a commercially viable mainstream country singer has gone in years. And I couldn’t be happier about it.

marty-stuart-nashville-cover4. Marty Stuart – Tear The Woodpile Down: Nashville, Volume 1 

Stuart’s latest foray into traditional country refines the formula set by Ghost Train by pairing originals with well-chosen covers. He fearlessly wears his love for country music on his sleeve and proves he’s the best teacher any contemporary country singer can learn from, if only they would take his class. A cover of Luke The Drifter’s “Pictures From Life’s Other Side,” a duet with his grandson Hank III, is easily among the best album cuts 2012 had to offer.

3. Punch Brothers – Ahoy! – EP

A creative risk like none you’ll hear all year, Punch Brothers fill their Who’s Feeling Young Now companion with brazen eccentricity, wild abandon, and more than enough musical gambles to make anyone dizzy.

They stand out because they’re fierce and bold, charting a course all their own. No one else looks or sounds like them and their underground following is a testament to their originality. Where they’ll venture from here is anyone’s guess.

2. Punch Brothers – Who’s Feeling Young Now?

Now this is acoustic music I can fully endorse. Where acts like Mumford & Sons and The Avett Brothers blend too much rock into their sound for my liking, The Punch Brothers take their cues directly from the foundations of bluegrass and build their sound from there. But like their rock counterparts, this isn’t strictly acoustic – odes to pop (“This Girl”) and funk (“Patchwork Girlfriend”) mix in effortlessly and are guided by Chris Thile’s measured vocals and brilliant mandolin playing. For lovers of an adventurous out of the box take on the traditional album format, look no further than Who’s Feeling Young Now, one of the finest albums of 2012.

Calling Me Home1. Kathy Mattea – Calling Me Home

In the increasingly marginalized landscape of current popular music, realism is as rare a virtue as honesty, with singers churning out products aimed at returning maximum profit at radio and retail without effort towards impact or intention. Music as a means to influence emotion and affect thought is nearly non-existent. Not everyone sees it that way, thankfully, as Calling Me Home is the infrequent exception to the current model, a masterwork forcing us human Beings to venture inward and examine our complacency towards place and the havoc our irreversible actions have had on mankind.

Although the chronicled subjects rise from the Appalachian Mountains, and the day-to-day realities revolve around the “scoundrel and saint” that is coal, the overarching messages in these songs are universal to anyone with a conscious. But even more important is the conveyor, and Mattea brings each track to life with the power of her voice, a ribbon weaving through the complexities of each lyric, driving home every declaration.

At 53, Mattea is singing from the sharpened eye of experience, pondering the meaning of life and death with the vibrancy and vigor of wisdom that surfaces through a life lived with spiritual connectedness to ones own body and mind. And for that reason, Calling Me Home is one of the most important records to come along in a long, long time, a masterpiece of the soul and the earth from which all of us are born.

Razor X’s Top Singles of 2012

Every year it seems that it becomes more difficult to compile a list of the year’s top singles. I seldom listen to country radio anymore and as such I’ve become much more album oriented and barely aware of which songs on my favorite albums were actually released as singles. However, I have managed to identify a few bright spots in a genre that is still sadly headed in the wrong direction. Here are my favorite choices of 2012:

dierks10. 5-1-5-0 — Dierks Bentley

Though not as good as his previous single “Home”, which made my list of 2011’s top singles, the title of this catchy number refers to the section of the California Welfare and Institutions Code which allows law enforcement officers to involuntarily confine individuals with mental disorders. In the case of the narrator of this story, it is his love interest who is making him crazy.

9. Neon — Chris Young

Songs paying homage to one’s favorite watering hole have long been a staple in country music, but this tune by the best of country music’s current crop of male vocalists does it in a fresh and interesting way, comparing the colors of the bar’s neon signs to the blue of a Wyoming sky, the red of a Santa Fe sunset, and the yellow of Texas sunflowers. It underperformed on the charts, peaking at a disappointing #23.

martina8. Marry Me — Martina Bride featuring Pat Monahan

It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to get excited about anything Martina McBride has done, but I was pleasantly surprised by this cover version of a hit for the group Train. Given country radio’s current pop leanings I expected this one to perform well on the charts, but it stalled at #45.

7. Diamonds Make Babies — Bradley Gaskin

I prefer Dierk Bentley’s version of this tune that delves into the six degrees of separation between engagement and parenthood, but it’s a fun song no matter who sings it.

terri6. Love Is A Rose — Terri Clark
If I were compiling a list of this sort a decade ago, it would have been inconceivable that the vast majority of my selections would be by male vocalists. Terri Clark is one of the few females who has released anything that I found remotely interesting this year. Sixteen years after she topped the charts with “Poor, Poor, Pitiful Me”, Clark shows that she can still wrap her vocal cords around a Linda Ronstadt tune. Unfortunately, Terri’s record is unlikely to get any chart action in the U.S., but hopefully it will gain some traction in Canada.

5. Living For A Song– Jamey Johnson featuring Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Kris Kristofferson and Hank Cochran

The capstone of Johnson’s magnficient tribute album to one of country music’s greatest songwriters finds him joining forces with legends Nelson, Haggard and Kristofferson, and the late Hank Cochran himself. Predictably, it was ignored by country radio.

Zac Brown Band in Concert on NBC's "Today Show" at Rockefeller Center in New York City on July 13, 20124. No Hurry — Zac Brown Band

I really liked everything that the Zac Brown Band released this year and was tempted to include all three of their single releases but that seemed like taking the lazy way out. “No Hurry”, which peaked at #2 early this year, is my favorite of the bunch.

3. Loving You Is Fun — Easton Corbin
This laid back tune, which I reviewed back in February, reminds me of the type of song Clint Black used to do in the 90s. Country music needs more artists like Easton Corbin.

2. So You Don’t Have To Love Me Anymore — Alan Jackson
Alan’s second single under a new deal with EMI Nashville is well written and impeccably performed but unfortunately, it did nothing to reverse his chart decline. The production and his vocal performance are nicely understated.

george1. Drinkin’ Man — George Strait
After phoning it in for the past couple of years, George Strait came back in a big way with this tune about a lifelong struggle with alcoholism. He tackles the topic in a straightforward and effective manner, never becoming maudlin or preachy. He co-wrote the song with his son Bubba and Dean Dillon. It stands in stark contrast with most of the fluff on country radio — or at least it would have had it received more airplay. It stalled at #37, which is nothing short of tragic because it likely means that the major labels will not be inclined to release material like this in the future. But even though it is the lowest charting single of Strait’s long and illustrious career, it is an artistic triumph.

2011 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2011 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The Louvre Museum has 8.5 million visitors per year. This blog was viewed about 240,000 times in 2011. If it were an exhibit at the Louvre Museum, it would take about 10 days for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

Razor X’s Top 10 Albums of 2011

2011 was actually a slightly better year for country music than the past several years, though you’d never know it from listening to country radio. A lot of my old favorites released new albums this year, so it was a little easier than usual for me to find new music to listen to. Here are my favorite releases of 2011:

10. Working in Tennessee — Merle Haggard
While the material was not quite up to the standards of last year’s I Am What I Am, Haggard shows that he’s not ready to hang up his guitar just yet. Though he’s well past his vocal peak, his music is still worth listening to. An eclectic set that runs from Dixieland Jazz to more contemporary fare, with some social commentary and Hag’s views on the current state of country music, this set deserved more attention than it received. It is currently available for download for $4.99 at Amazon.

9. Remember Me, Volume 1 — Willie Nelson
This set picks up where last year’s Country Music left off, and even includes a re-recording of a track (a cover of Porter Wagoner’s “Satisfied Mind”) that appeared on that 2010 release. The album consists entirely of cover material, some of which Willie had recorded in the past, and none of which are his original compositions. It is to traditional country music what his Stardust collection was to pre-rock-and-roll pop. As the title suggests, a second volume is planned for sometime in 2012.

8. Neon — Chris Young
Chris Young is easily the best of the new male singers to emerge in the past few years, but his material has tended to be somewhat inconsistent. Neon is a huge step in the right direction.

7. Better Day — Dolly Parton
I was little skeptical when I first heard about this release, thinking that the last thing country music needs is another set of accentuate-the-positive songs, but Dolly pulls off this project quite well. She wrote all 12 tracks (one is a co-write with Mac Davis), and the lead single “Together You and I” is a remake of one of her old duets with Porter Wagoner. Overall, it’s a much stronger and more consistent set than her previous studio release, 2008’s Backwoods Barbie.

6. Where Country Grows — Ashton Shepherd
I really wanted to love Ashton’s debut album, 2008’s Sounds So Good, but found the material lacking in a lot of cases. After three long years, she finally released her sophomore disc, which is much more to my liking than the first. She’s tweaked her sound just enough to appeal to current commercial tastes, but sadly, the marketplace doesn’t seem to be paying much attention. If you haven’t heard this album yet, “Look It Up”. It’s currently available for download for $4.99 from Amazon.

5. Guitar Slinger — Vince Gill
The follow-up to These Days was long overdue but well worth the wait. As usual, Gill covers a wide range of musical territory from blues and contemporary Christian to adult contemporary and more mainstream county fare. But no matter what the label, it’s excellent music from start to finish.

4. Here For A Good Time — George Strait
I can’t remember a time when George Strait wasn’t at the top of the country charts. He’s been a constant presence for 30 years, and as such he is sometimes taken for granted. He hasn’t gotten a lot of critical acclaim in recent years, and admittedly, his last couple of albums didn’t compare with most of his earlier work. Here For A Good Time is his strongest effort since 2005’s Somewhere Down In Texas, and despite the title, is not a collection of party tunes. There is upbeat fare to be sure, but there are also darker and more serious offerings, such as “Drinkin’ Man”, “A Showman’s Life”, and “Poison”. For most of his career, Strait was well known for not writing the overwhelming majority of the songs he recorded, but he and his son Bubba wrote seven of the eleven tracks here, usually collaborating with Dean Dillon and Bobby Boyd.

3. Your Money and My Good Looks — Rhonda Vincent & Gene Watson
Two of country music’s best and most underrated artists teamed up for this project, which is a pure delight to listen to from beginning to end. It mixes a little bit of the old with a little bit of the new, but it is 100% pure country from beginning to end. No fancy studio trickery will be found here, just some excellent, well sung songs. My favorite tracks are the covers of Vern Gosdin’s “Till The End” and “This Wanting You”, which appeared on George Jones’ 1999 album Cold Hard Truth.

2. Hell on Heels — Pistol Annies
This collection from Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe and Angeleena Presley has got to be the year’s most pleasant surprise. I really wasn’t expecting much but this ended up being one of my most-played albums of the year. Despite Lambert’s current popularity — or perhaps because of it — the album isn’t getting a lot of attention from radio. Hopefully radio’s tepid response and the demands of the group members’ solo careers won’t prevent another Pistol Annies collection from being released before too long.

1. Long Line of Heartaches — Connie Smith
I rarely get excited about upcoming album releases anymore, but this was a definite exception. It’s difficult not to get excited about a new Connie Smith album, since they are such infrequent events; Long Line of Heartaches was her first new album in 13 years, and prior to that there was a 20-year gap between albums. It was produced by Smith’s husband Marty Stuart, and like his Ghost Train (my #1 pick of 2010), it was recorded in the famous RCA Studio B, where so many of Connie’s classic hits from the 1960s and 1970s were laid on tape. Half of the album’s songs were written by Smith and Stuart, with the remainder coming from the pens of legends such as Harlan Howard, Dallas Frazier and Johnny Russell. It simply does not get any better than this. It is currently available for download for $4.99 at Amazon.

Occasional Hope’s Top 10 Albums of 2011

2011 wasn’t the best year for country, but there was still some very good music to be found if you looked for it.  Just missing the cut for my personal top 10 were fine records by the excellent Sunny Sweeney, country chart debutant Craig Campbell, independent artist Justin Haigh, blue collar bluegrass newcomer Scott Holstein, the compelling close harmonies of the Gibson Brothers,  and an enjoyable if not groundbreaking live set from Amber Digby which flew under the radar.

So what did make my cut? Read more of this post

The 10 best reissues of 2011

I probably spent more money on reissues of old music this year than I did on new music, although I purchased lots of new music. Here is my list of the best reissues of 2011 – just one man’s opinion, listed in no particular order.  No fellow travelers such as Americana, just real country music (at least in my top ten).

 

JESSI COLTER – I’M JESSI COLTER / DIAMOND IN THE ROUGH

The Australian label Raven, has issued a number of American country music albums, usually in the form of two-fers. Here Raven presents two albums from the talented Jessi Colter, mother of modern day artist Shooter Jennings and widow of legendary performer Waylon Jennings. While Jessi wasn’t the most prolific recording artist and is actually well served by several of the anthologies available, it is nice to have two of her Capitol albums available, as she originally conceived them.

Her first album for Capitol Records, I’M JESSI COLTER (1975), spawned the #1 Country / #5 Pop hit “I’m Not Lisa” and the follow-up hit “What’s Happened To Blue Eyes”. The album was produced by Waylon Jennings, and features many of the musicians who played on his albums (Reggie Young, Weldon Myrick, Ritchie Albright, Jim Gordon ) but no one would ever mistake the arrangements as anything that would ever appear on a Waylon album, as he deftly tailors the production to fit his bride’s  individual talents. An early take on “Storms Never Last” minus Waylon, is my favorite track on the album. DIAMOND IN THE ROUGH (1976) wasn’t quite as successful reaching #4 on the Country chart and yielding the hits “I Thought I Heard You Calling My Name” (No.29 Country) and “You Hung the Moon (Didn’t You Waylon?)”. The title track “Diamond in the Rough” gives Jessi a chance to stretch and show her blues sensibilities.

This set includes a nice and informative booklet and three bonus tracks from a later Capitol album. If you have no Jessi Colter in your collection, this is a good starting point. Read more of this post

Jonathan Pappalardo’s ten favorite country albums of 2011

Who says real country music is dead? Putting aside the commercial successes that forgot about quality, here is my take for music that mattered in 2011. These albums may not have sold a heck of a lot or even garnered the recognition they warranted, but they achived the mark of great music – the songs came first.

10. Concrete – Sunny Sweeney

Led by the top ten “From A Table Away,” Concrete found Sweeney modifying her sound slightly in order to complete with what’s current on country radio. Of course, her version of slightly is different than most as she’s crafted an outstanding traditional country album worthy of her talents. There are too many highlights here to pick a favorite but the honky-tonkin’ “Drink Myself Single” and the revengeful “Amy” are among the years best songs.

Read more of this post

Occasional Hope’s Top Ten Singles of 2011

While it wasn’t a great year for country music, there were some definite signs of life, and some very good songs made their way across the airwaves. A few were even hits. Here are my favorite singles this year:

10. ‘Look It Up – Ashton Shepherd’
Ashton comes across like a modern Loretta Lynn in this scornful rejoinder to a cheating spouse. Forgiveness is not an option. Although it was a top 20 hit and just about her biggest to date, I expected more commercial success from this sassy number, written by Pistol Annie Angaleena Presley with Robert Ellis Orrall.

9. ‘Colder Weather’ – Zac Brown Band
The Georgia band is one of the most artistically adventurous acts in country music, and this is one of their finest records. A complex lyric depicts a couple separated by the man’s driving job; she seems keener than he does on their being together. It was inspired by co-writer Wyatt Durrette’s own thwarted romance with a girl who struggled with the travel demanded by a music career. The production neatly marries an understated piano-led first verse with rock elements as the protagonist’s emotions rise. It was another #1 hit for the band.

8. ‘In God’s Time’ – Randy Houser
Rich-voiced singer-songwriter Randy Houser released his finest effort to date this year with this gently understated expression of faith in God, whatever may happen. A gentle piano-led accompaniment provides effective support. This was intended to be the lead single for Houser’s third album for Show Dog Universal, but it did not do as well as hoped, and Houser has now left the label. He has since signed to indie label Broken Bow, so hopefully he will be able to continue releasing mauic of this caliber.

Read more of this post

Razor X’s Top Ten Singles of 2011

It seems like every year it gets more and more difficult to find new single releases that I actually like. There were a few — but only a few — gems this year. Here are some of my favorites:

10. Northern Girl — Terri Clark. Clark’s homage to her homeland, co-written with former Sugarland member Kristen Hall, is her first single that I’ve truly liked in quite some time. Sadly, it failed to gain any traction on either side of the border.

9. Drink Myself Single — Sunny Sweeney. Currently at #36 on the charts, the third offering from Sunny’s Concrete collection has already out-performed its predecessor and hopefully will become her second Top 10 hit. It reminds me of the type of song radio regularly played back in the 90s during the line-dancing craze.

8. Home — Dierks Bentley. Finally, a song about love of country that manages to avoid jingoism and combativeness. It was written in response to the shooting incident that critically injured Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and killed six other people in January of this year.

7. Cumberland Rose — Sylvia. The former 80s star returned in January with her first single release in 24 years. Often unfairly dismissed as a minor talent, Sylvia delivers a lovely vocal performance on this folk ballad written by Craig Bickhardt and Jeff Pennig. I couldn’t find anyplace online to listen to it in its entirety, but it’s well worth the 99 cents to download it from iTunes or Amazon.

6. Tomorrow — Chris Young. The latest in a long tradition of country songs about clinging to one more night before finally ending a relationship that’s run out of steam. Chris Young is one of Nashville’s finest young talents and is destined for great things if he can keep finding material as good as this.

5. In God’s Time — Randy Houser. This introspective number provides a much better showcase for Houser’s vocal ability than his more popular Southern rock-tinged work. It’s the best thing he’s released so far.

4. Here For A Good Time — George Strait. After a couple of rocky years, George Strait finally got his mojo back with this fun number that he wrote with Dean Dillon and his son Bubba Strait.

3. Look It Up — Ashton Shepherd. This blistering confrontation of two-timing spouse deserved more airplay than it got. It may not have been a tremendous commercial success, but I’ll bet Loretta Lynn is proud.

2. Colder Weather — Zac Brown Band. Reminiscent of Dave Loggins’ classic “Please Come To Boston”, the Zac Brown Band continues to push the boundaries of country music without diluting it beyond recognition.

1. Cost of Livin’ — Ronnie Dunn. This tale of a down-on-his-luck veteran is a sad testament to the current economic difficulties in much of the world and a plight to which too many people can relate. Beautifully written and performed, it’s by far the best thing played on country radio this year. It failed to garner any Grammy nominations, but hopefully it will get some recognition by the CMA and ACM next time around.

Jonathan Pappalardo’s Top Ten Singles of 2011

While 2011 was a bland and boring year for mainstream country music where anthems to dirt roads, tales about being someone’s honey bee, and odes to plastic party accessories were all over the radio, it did feature some bright spots. There was even one artist I thought was so constantly strong, two of their singles made my top ten for the year. I would’ve added this person’s latest as a third, but two in one top ten is more than enough.

So in addition to complaining about those songs that seem to have taken country music off track, let’s take a moment and celebrate what was good about country music in 2011. And judging by my list, you have to remember that just because a song spent four or five weeks at #1, doesn’t mean it’s of good quality. So here’s my list of favorite songs, all released as singles in 2011.

I’ll have the rest of my list, numbers 11-45, on my own blog later this month.

10. Randy Houser – “In God’s Time”

The balance between religion and spirituality in American popular culture is often shaky – there are those who believe in the teachings derived from texts and others who choose to let a higher power guide them, but don’t necessarily tie it to a particular faith. As there are those who happily merge the two.

Houser’s tale of letting life work itself out by surrendering to a greater force is the ultimate definition of spirituality, the study of the soul. In realty, “Time” is a fundamental lesson in how to live your life – “But no one knows, not you or me, it might be tomorrow or it might never be. Oh, but don’t lose faith. Put it in His hands. ‘Cause it might be that He might have a bigger plan. Than you had in mind. Miracles happen, in God’s time.”

Very rarely does a singer emerge from the shadows to clearly leave their mark by just a song, but Houser has here. Not only is he among the greatest living of all country singers, but also he may be the best trying to have chart success today.

“Time” is nothing short of a masterpiece, a classic and iconic statement from a living profit. Problem is, Houser occupies his time with distracting southern rock – a decision marking his downfall. If he only understood that he was put here to create songs like this, he would sour into the heavens, and fill the shoes of the ilk in his wake.

Read more of this post

2011: The 75-(per)cent report

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

Albums

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

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

Pistol Annies – Hell On Heels

George Strait – Here For A Good Time

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

Chris Young – Neon

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

Blake Shelton – Red River Blue

… and on the not-so country side:

Lucinda Williams – Blessed

Adele – 21

Lori McKenna – Lorraine

The Decemberists – The King Is Dead 

Songs

Bradley Gaskin – “Mr. Bartender”

Kenny Chesney & Grace Potter – “You and Tequila”

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

Ronnie Dunn – “Cost of Living”

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

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

Billy Currington – “Love Done Gone”

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

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

Something to look forward to

We spent part of last month rounding up the best and worst of 2010. Now we’re into a brand new year, it’s time to start looking forward again, and wondering what the year ahead may hold in store.

Newly crowned CMA Entertainer of the Year Brad Paisley’s This is Country Music has a release date in March, with the lead single already on its way up the charts. Current Arista labelmate Alan Jackson is reportedly considering his future options now that he has fulfilled his obligations to the label, and perhaps we will see him moving to pastures new like Martina McBride and Trace Adkins, although either way I don’t really expect a new album from him this year. Ronnie Dunn has already been into the studios for his contribution to the Country Strong soundtrack, and is working on his solo album. I doubt he can expect Brooks & Dunn levels of success for this, even if he was the voice of the duo’s hits, but I’m looking forward to hearing what he comes up with.

The Sony group has relied on American Idol to pick up new artists with a built-in fanbase for several years; this tie-in has now ended, with the group now planning to be associated with Simon Cowell’s rival X Factor show (launching in the fall), and the Idol link now picked up by the Universal Music Group (country imprints are MCA and Mercury). The most successful of these signings is of course Carrie Underwood, whose pattern of releases to date suggests a new album at the end of 2011. I don’t expect any change in direction from her high-energy pop-based style, but more intriguing are the things Kellie Pickler has been saying about her third album being more firmly rooted in traditional country music. I haven’t been particularly impressed by her music to date, but I’m willing to keep an open mind. The latest Idol alumnus to go country after the show is Texan Casey James, who finished third on last year’s Idol and is now with BNA (as the Casey James Band); his roots seem to be more blues than country but he may be worth watching out for. RCA will be releasing a second album from the previous year’s third place finisher Danny Gokey; his debut sold pretty well but failed to set the radio alight or to connect with more traditional country fans.

RCA has lost one of its superstar acts in the form of Martina McBride. It will be interesting to see what (if any) effect Martina’s move to Republic Nashville has on her music: a determined attempt to regain the limelight following the relative under-performance of her last album and recent singles by appealing to modern radio tastes a la Reba’s recent work, an artistic resurgence, or just more of the same? Sunny Sweeney’s Republic debut is also keenly anticipated.

Sticking with RCA, Sara Evans’s long-delayed new album (originally announced for January 2010) is now due to come out in March, taking its title, Stronger, from her Country Strong cut, which is rising up the charts. Again, we’ll have to wait to see if she is trying to get radio play by concentrating on her pop crossover style, or returning to her country roots. I suspect the former, particularly since she has been working with Taylor Swift’s producer Nathan Chapman. My favorite RCA artist at the moment is Chris Young, and I hope he will be back in the studios this year, as his breakthrough second album was released in September 2009. I feel his material to date has (with a few exceptions) not been worthy of his great voice, and I hope that now he can claim two #1 hits, he can demand the very best of what Nashville’s songwriters have to offer.

Reigning CMA Male and Female Vocalists of the Year Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert have a wedding to plan, but Miranda in particular will be expected to produce a follow-up to her acclaimed 2009 release, Revolution. Blake divided his 2010 output into two “Sixpak” EPs (neither of them very good, the first producing just one single), and it will be interesting to see if he sticks with this template or reverts to a fullscale album in future.

I hope this will be the year Ashton Shepherd finally breaks through commercially. The prolific George Strait tends to release an album a year, so with nothing new in 2010 he is overdue for a new album. Joe Nichols has a Greatest Hits set out soon, so I assume Show Dog Universal has stopped promoting 2009’s Old Things New, and perhaps we can look forward to something new later in the year. But the artist I’m most hoping for new music from is Lee Ann Womack, especially after her stellar contribution to the Country Strong soundtrack.

Over at Curb, it seems that Tim McGraw may finally be out of his contract. LeAnn Rimes’s Vince Gill-produced covers set was supposed to be released last year, but may appear this year, although I’m not inspired by what we’ve heard so far. Heidi Newfield is also supposedly due to have her second solo effort for the label out this year. I’d like to hear more from talented duo Martin Ramey and Star de Azlan, but as it’s Curb I’m not exactly holding my breath in anticipation.

One of my favorite artists, Randy Travis is celebrating the 25th anniversary of his groundbreaking Storms Of Life with his second duets album, the success of which will depend partly on the choice of duet partners. Legends who have new music in the works include Dolly Parton and Charley Pride. And of course, I’m also hoping to hear some great music from new acts.

What are you most looking forward to this year?

Happy New Year from My Kind of Country!

It’s been 2 years and 25 days since we launched this little site.  In that time, we’ve generated 7,364 comments on our 1,433 posts from some 823,000 hits.  I’m sure I speak for my co-writers when I say it’s been a great run and we certainly look forward to many more years, comments, and posts as we approach another cycle of months.  And just in case we don’t say it enough: thanks for stopping by and reading what we’re writing.  We certainly hope you’ll stick with us these next 2 years and beyond.

For our last post of 2010, I’ve chosen one of my favorite YouTube videos of Dolly Parton.  It’s from the Tonight Show with Jay Leno sometime in October 2003, and Dolly takes a turn on the catapult to launch the item of her choice.  This clip includes the usual charming Dolly Parton interview too.  Enjoy!

From all of us at My Kind of Country: Have a safe and Happy New Year!

Some hidden treasures of 2010

I restricted my top 10 singles list for the year to tracks which were formally released as singles, but a lot of the best music of the year was hidden away on albums. So to finish up our review of the year in country music, here are my favorite tracks from albums released this year. I’ve restricted the selection to one per artist (not counting duets), and I’ve excluded the albums which made it to my top 10 albums list to avoid too much duplication and to prevent the list being too long.

20. Trace Adkins – ‘Still Love You’ (Cowboy’s Back In Town)
Moving to Toby Keith’s label seems to have encouraged the talented but often artistically misguided Trace Adkins to give in to his worst instincts, but there is still some decent material on his latest album. This ballad swearing enduring love (written by love song specialist Jeff Bates with Robert Arthur and Kirk Roth) is a little heavily orchestrated, but has a great, understated vocal from one of the best voices around. It’s a shame the rest of the album wasn’t up to the same standard.

19. Gretchen Wilson – ‘I’m Only Human’ (I Got Your Country Right Here)
Gretchen has just scored an unexpected Grammy nomination for ‘I’d Love To Be Your Last’ from her self-released I Got Your Country Right Here, prompting general bewilderment from country fans online. But while that track isn’t bad, this song is rather better, a plaintive bar-room tale of a woman trying to resist the temptation of dalliance with a married man, which Gretchen wrote with Vicky McGehee, Dave Berg and Rivers Rutherford.

18. Jon Wolfe – ‘Play Me Something I Can Drink To’ (It All Happened In A Honky Tonk)
If you think Easton Corbin sounds like George Strait, you need to check out the Strait stylings of Jon Wolfe on his strong independent debut album. I particularly liked this classic country style bar room song (written by Kevin Brandt and Bobby Terry) about a guy seeking to get his broken heart temporarily cured by whiskey and a jukebox stocked with Hank and Jones.

17. Jamie Richards – ‘Half Drunk’ (Sideways)
A great song from a Texas-based artist about trying to get over an ex by drinking, but running out of money halfway through.

16. Miss Leslie – ‘Turn Around’ (Wrong Is What I Do Best)
A lovely steel-led heartbreak ballad written by honky tonker Miss Leslie herself, but sounding as though it could be a forgotten classic from the 60s.

15. Shawn Camp – ‘Clear As A Bell’ (1994)
This lovely song was my favorite from Shawn’s “lost” album which was resurrected from the Warner Bros vaults this year.

14. Zac Brown Band – ‘Martin’ (You Get What You Give)
Jamey Johnson personified a guitar in the title track of The Guitar Song, but Zac Brown sang a love song about one on their latest release. Charming and unusual.

13. Gary Allan – ‘No Regrets’ (Get Off On The Pain)
I’ve been disappointed by Gary’s musical direction over the past couple of albums, but the heartbreaking honesty of this touching song expressing his feelings about his late wife (which he wrote with the help of Jon Randall and Jaime Hanna) was a reminder of his excellent early work.

12. Jolie Holliday – ‘I’ll Try Anything’ (Lucky Enough)
A gorgeous cover of a sad song previously recorded by its co-writer Amber Dotson about struggling to cope with lost love. I can’t find a link for you to listen to the studio version, but here she is singing it live (after a nice version of ‘San Antonio Rose’. And as a bonus, here she is singing ‘Golden Ring’ live with Randy Travis.

11. Curly Putman – ‘Green Green Grass Of Home’ (Write ‘Em Sad – Sing ‘Em Lonesome)
The songwriter’s own version of his classic prisoner’s dream is as convincing as any version I’ve herd of this celebrated song.

10. Toby Keith – ‘Sundown‘ (Bullets In The Gun, deluxe version)
Toby is always a bit hit and miss for me, but this surprisingly restrained live version of the sultry folk-country classic is a definite hit.

9. Darin & Brooke Aldridge – ‘The Last Thing On His Mind’ (Darin & Brooke Aldridge)
I loved this husband and wife team’s sweet bluegrass album and this somber Easter song (written by Dennis K Duff) was the highlight for me.

8. Teea Goans – ‘I Don’t Do Bridges Anymore’ (The Way I Remember It)
Teea Goans’ retro independent release featured this lovely classic-styled ballad, written by Jim McBride, Don Poythress and Jerry Salley. Her voice is sweet but not that distinctive, but this breakup song is definitely worth hearing.

7. Catherine Britt – ‘Sweet Emmylou’ (Catherine Britt)
The Australian singer’s latest album was a bit hit and miss for me, but there were some very strong moments, including Catherine’s lovely version of her tribute to the healing power of the music of Emmylou Harris, which she wrote some years ago with Rory Feek. It has been released as a single in Australia.

6. Bill Anderson – ‘The Songwriters’ (Songwriter)
My favorite comic song of the year is the legendary Bill Anderson’s celebration (more or less) of songwriters’ lives, complete with the protagonist’s mother’s preference for a career as drug dealer for her son. Bill isn’t much of a singer, but this song (co-written with Gordie Sampson)is irresistible.

5. Randy Kohrs – ‘Die On The Vine’ (Quicksand)
One of the first songs to grab my attention this year was this lovely song warning a son against taking refuges from trouble in alcohol, written by famed dobro player and songwriter Randy Kohrs with Dennis Goodwin.

4. James Dupre – ‘Ring On The Bar’ (It’s All Happening)
I loved this sensitively sung low-key mid-tempo Byron Hill/Brent Baxter song about a man trying to figure out what happened to his marriage from youtube discovery James’s independent debut album, produced by Kyle Lehning.

3. Lee Ann Womack – ‘Liars Lie’ (Country Strong soundtrack)
I’m beginning to get impatient for a new album from Lee Ann, and this soundtrack cut has really whetted my appetite. This excellent song, written by Sally Barris, Morgane Hayes and Liz Rose, and the combination of Lee Ann’s beautiful vocals and the harmony from Charlie Pate, a pure country production (thanks to Lee Ann’s husband Frank Liddell and Chuck Ainlay), and a fine song make this a sheer delight.

2. Chris Young – ‘Chiseled In Stone’ (Voices EP)
Song for song, this young neotraditionalist’s three song EP of covers was the most impressive release of the year, allowing Chris to exercise his outstanding baritone voice on really top quality material – something sadly missing on his two full length albums. This Vern Gosdin song was my favorite of the three, but his takes on Keith Whitley’s ‘I’m Over You’ and John Anderson’s ‘Swingin’ were also great.

1. Alan Jackson ft Lee Ann Womack – ‘Til The End’ (Freight Train)
This particular treasure is not very well hidden, as although it hasn’t been released as a single it gained sufficient attention to get a well-deserved nomination as Musical Event of the Year at the recent CMA awards. This exquisite reading of another Vern Gosdin classic was by far the best thing on Alan’s latest (and possibly last) album for Arista.

Do you have any special favorite album tracks from this year which haven’t gained the attention they deserve?

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