My Kind of Country

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Tag Archives: Lee Ann Womack

Album Review: Lee Ann Womack – ‘There’s More Where That Came From’

2005’s There’s More Where That Came From is a pivotal album in the discography of Lee Ann Womack that helped to erase memories of the disastrous Something Worth Leaving Behind and to re-establish much of the credibility that she had lost with that ill-advised flirtation with pop diva-dom. Three years after her last full-length studio release, Lee Ann was back in a big way, with a new producer and a new sound. Or, perhaps a more accurate way to put it would be a new old sound. There’s More Where That Came From pays homage to a bygone era, with a retro sound and artwork that made it resemble a Tammy Wynette album from the 1970s. The disc itself even has the same design that MCA had used on its vinyl releases in the 70s and 80s, with a rainbow coming out of the clouds.

The country music landscape had changed considerably since Lee Ann’s debut just eight year earlier. Whereas her first album arrived at a time when it appeared that the genre might be swinging back toward its roots, There’s More Where That Came From was released at a time when things had moved decidedly toward the pop end of the spectrum and when the youth movement was in full force, leaving artists over the age of 40 at a distinct disadvantage. It is therefore, a little surprising that Lee Ann was allowed to release what could only have been viewed at the time as a non-commercial album, but her career had nosedived so badly by that time, her label perhaps felt that there was nothing left to lose.
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Album Review: Lee Ann Womack – ‘The Season For Romance’

Following the immense crossover success of “I Hope You Dance”, MCA Records continued to push Lee Ann Womack further in the pop direction, hoping to make her into a pop diva like Shania Twain or Faith Hill. Something Worth Leaving Behind, released in August 2002, bore very little resemblance to country music and was both a critical and commercial disaster. Two months later, Lee Ann released a Christmas collection, which also had little to no connection to country music. While it’s not uncommon for country stars to go for a more traditional pop or big band sound on holiday collections, the timing of The Season For Romance, on the heels of Something Worth Leaving Behind, added to the perception that what Lee Ann was leaving behind were her country roots.

Many people are nostalgic for Christmas music in the vein of Bing Crosby, Dean Martin and Johnny Mathis, even if this isn’t the type of music they normally listen to throughout the year. In the past, country stars such as Vince Gill, Lorrie Morgan, and Martina McBride have attempted to recreate those sounds on their holiday albums, and it’s often been quite effective. But unfortunately, this is decidedly not the case with The Season For Romance. Seldom have I heard an album where the singer seemed so ill at ease with the material as is the case here. Throughout the entire album, Lee Ann seems to be working too hard to erase her Texas accent, and too often seems to be competing with the orchestra rather than singing with it. Songs such as “Let It Snow” and “Winter Wonderland” sound as though Lee Ann recorded the vocal track without any knowledge of the type of arrangements or instrumentation that would be used with it.

The album’s worst track is the remake of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”, which has never been one of my favorite songs. A pop standard dating back to the 1940s, its best known version is probably Dean Martin’s 1966 recording (Martina McBride’s duet vocals were added in 2006). Lee Ann is joined by Harry Connick, Jr. I may perhaps be a little biased since I’ve never particularly liked this song, but I found Lee Ann’s very breathy performance that tries too hard to be sexy, to be quite annoying.

I don’t mind so much that this isn’t a country album; my main gripe is that Lee Ann seems uncomfortable and out of her element throughout most of it. The sole exception is “The Man With the Bag”, which is the one song on which she really seems to be engaged and enjoying herself. “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” and “Silent Night” aren’t bad — though I could have done without the distracting saxophone on the latter — but this is, for the most part, a lackluster and poorly executed project. I really hate to pan a Christmas album, particularly one from an artist whose work I usually admire, but I found this album very painful to listen to. Lee Ann is capable of much, much better and hopefully one day she’ll release a better Christmas album.

Grade: D

Lee Ann Womack honors George Jones

Head over to this week’s Quotable Country at Country California  – it has a clip of our current Spotlight Artist covering ‘The Grand Tour’ to celebrate the birthday of George Jones.

Album Review: Lee Ann Womack – ‘I Hope You Dance’

Lee Ann Womack’s most commercially successful album features crystalline vocals, an ambitious selection of material ranging from the traditional sounds closest to her heart to Americana to adult contemporary influences which barely escape being bland.

The title track was a massive crossover hit, thanks to the combination of the song’s message, very AC sounding, sophisticated production, and the lovely and obviously heartfelt vocal which Lee Ann directed to her two young daughters. The counterpoint of the Sons of the Desert (singing a different set of lyrics) is unusually set against the sweetness of Lee Ann’s optimistic vocal. The song’s ubiquity has led to some backlash, but I think it still stands up for what it is: a genuinely inspiring wish for a child to live life to the full and not regret any missed opportunities. And its message is worth hearing:

Loving might be a mistake but it’s worth making

Lee Ann’s only #1 hit, ‘I Hope You Dance’ registered platinum, won a stack of awards for both Lee Ann and its writers Mark D Sanders and Tia Sillers, crossed over to hit the top of the AC chart, and even got some pop and international airplay. It may not be her best record, but it is undoubtedly her best-known, particularly among non-country listeners.

The next single was a contrast in style and mood, a gutsy version of Rodney Crowell’s onetime minor pop hit ‘Ashes By Now’, which peaked for Lee Ann at #14. It’s one of her less country recordings, but undoubtedly technically an impressive achievement with Lee Ann successfully navigating the song’s awkward jerky rhythms, jaded mood and shifting intensity.

It was back to the ballads with ‘Why They Call It Falling’, another excellent song, written by Don Schlitz and Roxie Dean. It contrasts the thrill of falling in love with the devastation of subsequent heartbreak, and Lee Ann’s vocal is masterly, although the strings are a bit overwhelming in places. It peformed similarly to its immediate predecessor, and reached #13.

The last and best single, however, failed to make it into the top 20. The intense ‘Does My Ring Burn Your Finger?’ is a superb Buddy and Julie Miller song with a stinging lyric. Production on this track (one of three from the hands of Lee Ann’s husband Frank Liddell) is edgy but organic, with Lee Ann’s high lonesome wail just right for the starkness of the lyric addressed to the faithless spouse, with the Millers on harmony vocals.

Liddell’s other tracks are another Julie Miller song, the ponderous ‘I Know Why The River Runs’, which I could live without, and the infinitely better ‘Lonely Too’, written by Texas singer-songwriter Bruce Robison. This is my favorite on the record, a beautiful downbeat song, given a quietly impassioned delivery. The melody is quite lovely, with some strong fiddle from Aubrey Haynie and Larry Franklin and harmony vocals from Jon Randall making this a great sounding track. Lee Ann gently rebukes the careless lover who cannot understand why she is coping so badly:

You tell me you wondered if I was okay
Well, that’s a damn fool thing to say…

And you seem so surprised that I’m feeling this way
How am I so lonely today?
If you’d ever loved me the way I loved you
You would be lonely too

There are several other gems here.

The gorgeous ‘The Healing Kind’ opens the album with a subtle portrayal of disconsolate heartbreak which just won’t go away. This is a great song written by bluegrass singer/songwriter Ronnie Bowman and Greg Luck. Lee Ann’s exquisite vocal is backed by tasteful acoustic instrumentation and Ricky Skaggs’ harmonies, as she reveals a broken heart that hurts more every day, concluding bleakly as she meets yet another cold December alone,

Guess I’m just not the healing kind

Equally fine is the delicate Tammy Wynette styled ‘Stronger than I Am’ written by former singer Bobbie Cryner. A beautiful melody and tasteful strings sweeten a heartbreakingly incisive lyric about an abandoned wife who contrasts her failure to cope with live without her man, to her little girl’s innocence,

She finally learned to say goodbye
She’s sleeping through the night
She don’t wake up crying
And she’s walking on her own
She don’t need no one holding to her hand
And I hate to admit she’s stronger than I am

She’s just like her old man
Stronger than I am

Perhaps the most traditional country number included, the vivacious ‘I Feel Like I’m Forgetting Something’ is a co-write by Lee Ann with Wynn Varble and Jason Sellers. The copyright date is 1997, so one suspects it was left over from one of her previous albums. A chirpy mid-tempo number with a lot of personality about getting over an ex, it isn’t the best song here, but it was well worth reviving. Less successful is ‘After I Fall’, written by producer Mark Wright with Ronnie Rogers and Bill Kenner, which is the blander side of adult contemporary and falls completely flat.

‘Thinkin’ With My Heart Again’ is a pretty but melancholy sounding song written by Dean Dillon, Donny Kees and Sanger D Shafer with another delicate vocal conveying the complex emotions brought out when encountering a former love. An airy acoustic cover of ‘Lord, I Hope This Day Is Good’ (a chart topper for Don Williams back in 1982) ends the album on a high, with Ronnie Bowman and Dan Tyminski singing harmony.

Thanks to the juggernaut of the title song, this remains Lee Ann’s best selling album, earning triple platinum status. The singing is outstanding throughout, and although the material is mixed, there is a lot of good stuff here, making it worth finding a cheap copy.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Lee Ann Womack – ‘Some Things I Know’

Like her contemporary Sara Evans, Lee Ann Womack followed up a neotraditional debut with a sophomore effort which was a little more in tune with contemporary tastes, but still recognizably country. The song quality is high, mainly down-tempo and focussing on failed relationships. Mark Wright produced again, but his work is less sympathetic this time around, leaning a little more contemporary than the neotraditionalism of her debut and too often smothered with string arrangements to sweeten the pill for radio.

‘A Little Past Little Rock’ is a great song about a woman who has left a desperate relationship in Dallas. Struggling to cope as she gets “A little past Little Rock, but a long way from over you”, Lee Ann delivers a fine vocal, but the track is somewhat weighed down by the swelling strings. Lee Ann’s ex-husband Jason Sellers is among the backing singers. Written by Tony Lane, Jess Brown and Brett Jones, it was the album’s first single and peaked at #2.

This performance was matched by a rare venture by the artist into comedy material which is one of my favourite LAW singles, written by Tony Martin and Tim Nichols. With tongue-in-cheek malice the protagonist vents her hatred of her successful romantic rival with the words ‘I’ll Think Of A Reason Later’ as

It may be my family’s redneck nature
Bringing out unladylike behavior
It sure ain’t Christian to judge a stranger
But I don’t like her

She maybe an angel who spends all winter
Bringing the homeless blankets and dinner
A regular Nobel Peace Prize winner
But I really hate her
I’ll think of a reason later

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Classic Rewind: Lee Ann Womack and Willie Nelson – ‘Mendocino County Line’

Classic Rewind: Lee Ann Womack ft Buddy Miller – ‘Don’t Tell Me’

Classic Rewind: Lee Ann Womack – ‘Does My Ring Burn Your Finger?’

Album Review: Lee Ann Womack – ‘Lee Ann Womack’

For a brief time in 1997 it appeared that country music was finally about to re-embrace its roots. Two female artists made their major label debuts that year and appeared to be leading the trend back towards traditionalism: Lee Ann Womack with her self-titled debut in May, and Sara Evans with Three Chords and the Truth in July. As we now know, these albums were something of an anomaly; country music continued its drift popward and both both Evans and Womack would go on to experiment with more polished, pop-oriented sounds. Nevertheless, Lee Ann has earned a reputation as a primarily traditional artist, thanks in no small part to her platinum-selling debut.

Lee Ann’s vocal style has been compared to that of a young Dolly Parton, and late 60s-style sound of the album highlights the similarities. The fiddle and steel guitar are featured prominently throughout the album, and most of the ballads also feature tasteful and restrained string arrangements performed by The Nashville String Machine. The first single, “Never Again, Again” was released two months in advance of the album itself. Lee Ann had great hopes for the record and was reportedly disappointed when it peaked at #23, even though this is a perfectly respectable showing for a debut record. Another ballad, “The Fool”, was selected as the album’s next single. Lee Ann had been reluctant to record it, saying that it was “a good song, but it’s not ‘Never Again, Again'”. But ironically, “The Fool” surpassed “Never Again, Again” on the charts, just missing the top spot and earning Lee Ann her first bonafide hit. The uptempo “You’ve Got To Talk To Me”, written by Jamie O’Hara, was released as the third single, and like “The Fool”, it peaked at #2. Another uptempo number, “Buckaroo” peaked at #27.

Overall, the album highlights Lee Ann’s strength as a ballad singer. There are some truly beautiful moments on the album with songs such as “Am I The Only Thing You’ve Done Wrong”, which Lee Ann wrote with her ex-husband Jason Sellers and Billy Joe Foster, “Do You Feel For Me”, and “Make Memories With Me”, a gorgeous number performed as a duet with her Decca labelmate and fellow Mark Wright-produced act Mark Chesnutt. “Make Memories With Me” should have been released as a single, but Decca was most likely reluctant to send too many ballads to radio. It’s a shame that there haven’t been any subsequent Womack-Chesnutt duets because their voices work very well together.

The album’s weak spots tend to be the uptempo numbers. Though well performed, “Buckaroo” borders on hokey and it’s not difficult to see why it only reached #27 on the charts. The same is true, to a lesser extent, of the album cut “A Man With 18 Wheels”, although “Trouble’s Here” stands in stark contrast with these two numbers. It actually works quite well, as does the Gospel number “Get Up In Jesus’ Name”, the album’s closing track which features background vocals from Ricky Skaggs and Sharon White.

In retrospect, it’s a pity that Lee Ann didn’t debut four or five years earlier; if she had, she’d have likely enjoyed more consistent success at radio. By the late 90s, listeners appeared to be tiring of Faith Hill and Shania Twain, and Lee Ann seemed to be the perfect antidote, but her success was short-circuited by both her own pop ambitions and the emergence of other, younger country-pop divas such as Carrie Underwood and Taylor Swift. Nevertheless, Lee Ann Womack remains my favorite album in the singer’s discography. Cheap copies are readily available from Amazon. Buy one if you don’t already own a copy.

Grade: A

Classic Rewind: Lee Ann Womack – ‘Why They Call It Falling’

Classic Rewind: Lee Ann Womack – ‘The Man Who Made My Mama Cry’

Spotlight Artist: Lee Ann Womack

Lee Ann Womack was born in Jacksonville, Texas, in 1966. Her part-time DJ father encouraged her interest in country music as she grew up. After attending South Plains Community College for a year, where she studied singing country music and sang in the college’s band Country Caravan, she moved on to Belmont College in Nashville where she studied music business and made her first contacts with MCA as an intern, whilst honing her skills as a singer and songwriter. She dropped out of college to marry fellow singer/songwriter Jason Sellers in 1990 and give birth to their daughter Aubrie Lee a year later. This marriage did not last, ending in divorce in 1997, and in 1999 Lee Ann married producer Frank Liddell, with whom she had another daughter.

In 1995 she signed a publishing deal with Tree as a songwriter, and a year later got a recording deal with Decca Records. Her debut album was an immediate success, and launched her as one of the artists most rooted in traditional country music at a time when more pop-influenced artists were dominating the airwaves. She was named the Academy of Country Music’s Best New Female Vocalist. Ex-husband Jason also got a record deal (with BNA) at roughly the same time, but his career failed to take off.

Lee Ann transferred to sister label MCA when Decca closed its door in 1999. Her music was to become more contemporary over the next few years, particularly after she enjoyed a monster hit in the form of the inspirational ‘I Hope You Dance’ in 2000, which swept the wards, winning the CMA and ACM Single and Song of the Year awards, and a Grammy for Best country Song. The song’s crossover success introduced her to a new audience, and brought opportunities including the chance to sing at the award of the Nobel Peace Prize. In 2001 she was CMA Female Vocalist of the Year. However, her fans were disappointed with the direction her music was taking, and her career began to decline.

In 2005 she made a triumphant return to traditional country music with the deliberately retro sound (and artwork) of There’s More Where That Came From, harking back to the glory days of Tammy Wynette in the 1970s, with a selection of material heavy on the cheating songs which had fallen out of favour with country radio in recent years as the industry concentrated on more ‘family friendly’ content and the positive up-tempo numbers ironically decried by Alan Jackson. The album was named the CMA Album of the Year. Three years later she released her most recent album, 2008’s critically acclaimed Call Me Crazy. Her fans have been waiting too long for new music, with the exception of odd tracks like 2009’s rather disappointing single ‘There Is A God’ and the superb ‘Liars Lie’ on the Country Strong soundtrack. However, rumor has it she has been back in the studio and is looking to make a comeback in 2012.

Although she has only released six studio albums and one Christmas album, with patchy singles success of recent years, Lee Ann Womack has had a remarkable impact on the genre. She is widely regarded as the standard bearer for traditional country among female singers on major labels, and as one of the finest singers in country music regardless of sub-genre. She is in demand to duet with or sing harmony on records by artists of the caliber of George Strait (CMA Vocal Event of the Year ‘Good News, Bad News’) and Alan Jackson (‘Til The End’).

Although she is a favorite of the MKOC writers, we haven’t picked Lee Ann as a Spotlight Artist before now because we’d been hoping that we could tie it in with a new album release. Although I understand she should have a new album released next year, we just couldn’t wait any longer. So over this month we’ll be mixing up our end-of-year coverage with a look at the music of Lee Ann Womack.

Album Review: Vince Gill – ‘These Days’

As we’ve often noted here, it was common practice in the 1960s and 1970s for artists — inside and outside of country music –to release three or four albums a year, unlike the present day when most artists release one album every two or three years. While preparing to work on a new album in 2006, Vince Gill was inspired by The Beatles’ prolific output and decided to put a 43-track four disc collection instead of a single album. Released to tremendous critical acclaim in October 2006, These Days was an ambitious project that showcases the depth and breadth of Vince’s musical taste. It encompasses a variety of genres from rock, pop, jazz, and blues to traditional country and bluegrass. Vince wrote or co-wrote all 43 songs and produced the project himself, with some help from John Hobbs and Justin Niebank. The production team put together a impressive roster of guest artists from both within and outside country music.

The first disc, titled Workin’ On A Big Chill: The Rockin’ Record, is as the title implies, a collection of ten rock and rockabilly tunes. Though the songs are all well performed, I’m not much of a rock fan, so this is my least favorite disc in the collection. I do like the rockabilly number “Nothin’ For a Broken Heart”, on which Rodney Crowell is a guest artist, and even better is the bluegrass-tinged collaboration with the Del McCoury Band, “Son of a Ramblin’ Man”. The rest of the songs on this disc don’t interest me very much, and consequently this one has been played less than the other three.
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Album Review: Vince Gill – ‘Next Big Thing’

Vince wrote or co-wrote all 17 of the songs on 2003’s Next Big Thing, and produced the album himself. It represents a marked return to form after the gloopy lovefest that was Let’s Make Sure We Kiss Goodbye, inspired by Vince’s second marriage to contemporary Christian singer Amy Grant.

He might have had a top 10 hit from his last album, but this album sees him apparently (and presciently) accepting that his time in the spotlight might be over. The beaty and surprisingly upbeat title track (written with Al Anderson and John Hobbs and featuring horns) and the more resigned ‘Young Man’s Town’ (with Emmylou Harris on harmony) both take a look at the fleeting nature of the music business and its fascination with youth and good looks. Both were released as singles, with the brassy party sound of ‘Next Big Thing’ providing Vince with his last top 20 hit and the more reflective ‘Young Man’s Town’ not making the top 40; perhaps the accuracy of the lyric hit a bit too close to home for country radio.

‘This Old Guitar And Me’ is an old musician’s love song to his first instrument and fond memories of his early career. The Leslie Satcher co-write ‘Old Time Fiddle’ is an enjoyable love letter to Cajun music, with appropriate fiddle solo and Leslie herself on harmony. Leslie also co-wrote the tenderly delivered ballad ‘Two Hearts’, where Lee Ann Womack provides the harmony vocal.

‘Someday’, the album’s second single (peaking at #31) is a delicately pretty AC-influenced ballad written with former pop star Richard Marx, wistfully dreaming of the possibility of future love. ‘These Broken Hearts’, written by Vince with his keyboard player Pete Wasner, is a sad ballad about breaking up with someone, with blue-eyed soul man Michael McDonald on harmony. Both songs are set against a string arrangement courtesy of John Hobbs and the Nashville String machine, and are pleasant listening without being truly memorable.

There are a few other less inspired moments, like the throwaway ‘The Sun’s Gonna Shine On You’. The mid-tempo ‘Don’t Let Her Get Away’, written with Anderson, is OK filler which sounds like some of Vince’s RCA recordings with banked but thin harmonies.

A number of the songs brood about failed relationships past. In the contemporary ballad ‘She Never Makes Me Cry’, Vince prefers an unexciting life with his new wife to the ups and downs of a passionate past love. ‘We Had It All’ is a mid-tempo plea to rekindle an old flame with a subtle Tex-Mex feel to the instrumentation. The bouncy and solidly traditional country ‘Without You’ delivers a more cheerful reaction to being single again, with Dawn Sears on harmony.

Dawn also sings a piercing harmony on the best song on the album. ‘Real Mean Bottle’ is a standout tribute to Merle Haggard, with a high lonesome feel and Bakersfield guitars:

It must have been a real mean bottle that made you write the songs that way
A real mean bottle
Poured straight from the Devil
It’s a miracle you’re standing here today

‘From Where I Stand’, written with Anderson and Hobbs, is a classic declaration of fidelity in the face of temptation, set to a beautiful tune with a bluesy harmony from Bekka Bramlett. This is another highlight, which could have been a big hit if released a few years earlier in Vince’s peak commercial period.

‘Whippoorwill River’, written with Dean Dillon, gently recalls childhood memories of life with his father. Vince’s daughter Jenny keeps things in the family by singing the harmony. A fictional look at family comes from the fiddle-led ‘You Ain’t Foolin’ Nobody’, written with Reed Nielsen, is addressed to the protagonist’s motherless daughter who is running wild in a small town.

The album closes with the mellow and reflective farewell to a dying friend, ‘In These Last Few Days’, with wife Amy Grant on harmony. It was the fourth and last single to be released, but did not perform very well.

Sales were disappointing, with the record his first not to reach at least gold status since he signed to MCA, but that is no reflection on the quality of the music. The album could perhaps have done with a bit of weeding, as there are a few forgettable songs, but overall this was a strong release with a lot of worthwhile material. It’s easy to find, and well worth adding to your collection if you have previously overlooked it.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Vince Gill – ‘Guitar Slinger’

It’s been half a decade since Vince Gill released a new album. On that occasion, he came out with four at once, with the critically acclaimed box set These Days. This time around the same team of Vince, John Hobbs and Justin Niebank has created a more concentrated effort with 15 tracks, recorded in Vince’s home studio. Vince’s vocals sound thoroughly energised and invested in the material, all of which he wrote or co-wrote, and which I feel is more consistent in quality than that on These Days. It is definitely a mature work, with a number of the songs focussed on the prospect of death, but never a depressing one.

The joyous and amusing title track opens proceedings with a bang with many references to Vince’s life ranging from his “contemporary Christian singer” wife to last year’s Nashville floods (“half my stuff’s in the Cumberland River”. This really conveys the sheer joy of making music. In the equally lively up-tempo ‘All Nighter Comin’’ (written with Chris Stapleton and Al Anderson, and only on the deluxe version) a newly unemployed truck driver sets aside his troubles for the evening. Despite the depressing background, the mood is uplifting, and either of these songs would sound great on the radio.

The beautifully sung lead single ‘Threaten Me With Heaven’ is a tender but confident gospel ballad written with Vince’s wife Amy Grant, Will Owsley (who tragically committed suicide last year) and Dillon Osborn. Owsley and Amy also co-wrote the mid-tempo AC ‘When Lonely Comes Around’, which is pleasant but forgettable. Amy and Vince duet on their song ‘True Love’, an AC ballad which pays tribute to their relationship, “true love that found us in time”. It isn’t a particularly interesting song, but the authenticity of the emotions make it touching beyond its merits. Amy’s daughter Sarah Chapman sings harmony.

Talented singer-songwriter and now a Pistol Annie, Ashley Monroe wrote two songs with Vince. The excellent ‘If I Die’, a beautifully constructed reflection on mortality and what comes after, is one of the best tracks on a fine record. Her other contribution, ‘Who Wouldn’t Fall In Love With You’ is a low-key, tender love ballad with a pretty melody and Ashley’s distinctive voice evident on harmony.  Lee Ann Womack, meanwhile, provides tasteful backing vocals on ‘Lipstick Everywhere’, a retelling of a passionate one night stand with no subsequent regrets or repercussions. Another fine artist, Texas traditionalist Amber Digby co-wrote ‘One More Thing I Wished I’d Said’, dwelling with regret on the missed opportunities in a failed relationship. Sadly, she doesn’t sing on the track, but Dawn Sears makes a good substitute. These two are only included on the deluxe version, which is well worth the additional cost.

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All about the image?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Classic Rewind: Lee Ann Womack – ‘Get Up In Jesus’ Name’

The Blue Against The Grey: Remembering the Civil War

150 years ago today, Confederate troops attacked Fort Sumter near Charleston, South Carolina, marking the first military action in the bloodiest conflict in American history. From 1861 to 1865, the Civil War divided the nation, states and even family members, and its repercussions are still felt to the present day. It has been romanticized like no other era in US history — particularly in the South — having been the topic of countless novels, films and songs over the years. Country artists in particular have frequently commemorated it.

Johnny Cash, one of country music’s greatest storytellers, told of how the war divided families and pitted brother against brother when he offered up this medley in a 1969 installment of his ABC variety show:

The First Battle of Bull Run, fought on July 21, 1861 resulted in a humiliating defeat for the Union Army and quickly laid to rest any hopes harbored by either side that the conflict would be over quickly, as Johnny Horton recalled:


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2011 ACM award predictions

The major country music awards are scattered through the year, so a new one seems to come along every few months. The Academy of Country Music is presenting its awards for achievement in 2010 in Las Vegas on April 3 on a televized show hosted by Reba McEntire and Blake Shelton. The West Coast based ACMs don’t have quite the prestige of the CMAs, awarded in November, but they have one advantage, in that their eligibility period is the previous calendar year, where the CMA and Grammy organizations have a strange mid-year cutoff which can make it hard to work out exactly what is eligible. On the downside, a few years ago in a misguided attempt at currying popularity with the public, the ACM decided to allow an online fan vote to determine the Entertainer of the Year and New Artist titles. This has been partially modified this year.

Entertainer of the Year

Jason Aldean
Toby Keith
Miranda Lambert
Brad Paisley
Taylor Swift

Keith Urban

Occasional Hope: There were loud squawkings from the fans of Carrie Underwood when she was omitted from the nominations this time, having won the title for the past two years. This is a partially fan-voted category this year, and with Carrie’s absence factored in, I think Taylor Swift is a slam-dunk for the victory, with her enormous and youthful fanbase. Surprise nominee Jason Aldean has earned platinum status for his last two albums and a string of top hits, so although I am underwhelmed by his heavy rocking brand of country, he might just have enough of a fanbase, and have the commercial impetus to impress the industry enough to achieve a surprise win. But the talented Miranda Lambert had a great year last year, and she would be my personal choice.

Razor X: This seems like it will be Miranda‘s year. If the award were entirely based on fan votes, Taylor Swift would be a very strong contender, but I think that because industry votes will be counted as well, they’ll offset the fan voting.

J.R. Journey: I’m assuming the members will win the battle in the combination membership/fan voting for the Entertainer race this year. Paisley may well hold his own in the online voting pools too, but I think he’ll outdistance the others as the overall vote-getter.

Top Male Vocalist of the Year

Jason Aldean
Brad Paisley
Blake Shelton

George Strait
Keith Urban

O.H.: Brad Paisley has won this title for the last four years. I can’t see anyone pushing him out this time either. I can’t say I feel very enthusiastic about this category despite the underlying talent of those nominated. None of the nominees produced particularly memorable music in 2010 – Blake Shelton may be the reigning CMA Male Vocalist and half of country music’s favorite courrent love story, but I think the ACM likes to differentiate itself from the CMAs occasionally. I liked ‘Twang’, but it under-performed at radio.

J.R.: In addition to his co-hosting duties, Blake Shelton seems poised to finally unseat Brad Paisley as the reigning Male Vocalist this year.

R.X.: Blake Shelton . Again, I think the ACMs will follow the CMA’s lead. It’s time for some new blood in this category and I just can’t see the award going to Aldean. At least I hope not.

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Recording new lows

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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