My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Sugarland

2011 CMA Awards Recap

Now that the annual train wreck known as the CMA Awards Show has again come and gone, it’s time to take a look back and see how well the MKOC writers did with our predictions. The results are pretty evenly split this year, with Jonathan Pappalardo and Occasional Hope correctly predicting the winner in six categories, while J.R. Journey and I each guessed the winner five times.

Entertainer of the YearTaylor Swift

Perhaps in denial that such a travesty could happen more than once, none of us chose Taylor Swift as the winner in this category. All of us were rather confident that the trophy would go home with Blake Shelton.

Male VocalistBlake Shelton

Jonathan, Occasional Hope, and I all accurately predicted the winner in this category, while J.R. thought that the honor would go to Jason Aldean.

Female VocalistMiranda Lambert

This one was pretty much a no-brainer that all of us accurately predicted.

New ArtistThe Band Perry

Both J.R. and Occasional Hope called this one correctly, while Jonathan chose Luke Bryan and I predicted that the award would go to Chris Young (wishful thinking on my part).

Vocal Group Lady Antebellum

Jonathan and I got this one right, while Occasional Hope went with the Zac Brown Band and J.R. predicted that The Band Perry would be the victors in this category.

Duo of the YearSugarland

There wasn’t any real competition in this category; consequently we all accurately called this one for Sugarland.

Single of the Year“If I Die Young” – The Band Perry

Both JR. and Occasional Hope got this one right. I thought that the award would go to “Colder Weather” by the Zac Brown Band and Jonathan felt it would go to Jason Aldean and Kelly Clarkson for “Don’t You Wanna Stay.”

Song of the Year“If I Die Young” – The Band Perry

I was the only one who got this one wrong, thinking (hoping) that it would go to the Zac Brown Band’s “Colder Weather”.

Album of the YearMy Kinda Party – Jason Aldean

I predicted that this award would go to Taylor Swift for Speak Now. While I’m not sorry to have been wrong, it is small consolation that it actually went to Jason Aldean as Jonathan alone accurately predicted. Both J.R. and Occasional Hope had thought that Brad Paisley would win for This Is Country Music.

Musical Event of the Year“Don’t You Wanna Stay” – Jason Aldean & Kelly Clarkson

I was the only one who got this one right. Everyone else went with “As She’s Walking Away” by the Zac Brown Band and Alan Jackson. I take no pleasure in being right on this one.

Music Video“You and Tequila” – Kenny Chesney with Grace Potter

Only Jonathan and Occasional Hope made predictions in this category, and neither was correct. Jonathan chose “Mean” by Taylor Swift while Occasional Hope went with “Old Alabama” by Brad Paisley and Alabama.

Musician of the YearMac McAnally, guitar

Occasional Hope and I were the only ones who participated in this category. Both of us thought that Dann Huff would win.

To say that I am disappointed in any of the results would imply that I had any reasonable expectations that I would be happy with any of the outcomes. I don’t feel that any of the awards, with the exception of the Male and Female Vocalist trophies, went to the most deserving winner. The program lived up to my low expectations, but all the same it is still somewhat discouraging that this bunch seems to be the best Nashville has to offer these days.

2011 CMA award predictions

The Country Music Association annual awards ceremony will take place on November 9th, 2011, presented by the pairing of Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood, who have become something of a fixture in that role in the past few years. Last year Brad also triumphed by winning the Entertainer of the Year title for the first time. The show will feature performances from many of the nominees, plus American Idol Scotty McCreery and pop star Lionel Richie, who has been recording duets with country stars for release next spring.

Here are our thoughts about who will walk away smiling next Wednesday night, category by category:

Entertainer of the Year

Jason Aldean
Brad Paisley
Blake Shelton: Jonathan Pappalardo, Occasional Hope, Razor X, J.R. Journey
Taylor Swift
Keith Urban

Occasional Hope: I feel this is a genuinely open category this year. Brad Paisley is the reigning Entertainer, having finally won the long overdue title last year, and is clearly popular with voters. However, I think he has passed his peak both commercially and (more importantly) artistically, with relatively disappointing sales figures for recent albums, although he continues to do well at radio with a #2 and two #1 hits over the period. He is also one of the top earners in country music, alongside Taylor Swift. Teen favorite Swift won the title controversially in 2009, then was largely ignored last year, and is back again with a brace of nominations. She undoubtedly has the biggest international and pop profile of all the nominees, as well as the biggest sales, with over three million copies sold so far of Speak Now in the U.S. and platinum or multi-platinum status in a number of other countries, some (like the Philippines) with little exposure to country music. She has also toured successfully overseas this year. Of course, that makes her an international pop star as much or more than a country star who has gotten lucky with pop airplay; how far should that sway the CMA?

I have a sneaking suspicion that Jason Aldean could be a big winner this year overall. He’s had a good year, with one of the best-selling albums (over 1.5 million sales), and his brand of country-rock, while far heavier on the rock than the country, has carved out a niche in the market for himself. I’m not a fan myself, but he is undeniably one of the big names in country music at the moment, with two #1 and a #2 hit single from this album, and a crossover AC hit thanks to his duet with Kelly Clarkson. But my gut feeling is that it’s a bit soon to win the top award this year. Blake Shelton, despite his title as reigning Male Vocalist, is the other surprise nominee, and he could just swing it based on the impact he has had as an ambassador for the genre, with his TV role on The Voice. He has also had two #1 singles with ‘Who Are You When I’m Not Looking’ and ‘Honey Bee’, and the frankly baffling inclusion of his poorly selling EP among the Album nominees signals that the Association voters are keen to reward him.

Razor X: It’s hard for me to get very excited about any of these nominees, but Shelton seems to be on a hot streak so I think he will win. And if I have to root for one of these nominees, I’d probably go with him.

Jonathan: This is a case of the veterans versus the newcomers. Urban hasn’t won since 2005 and I don’t expect that drought to end this year. Paisley (who should win) and Swift are strong contenders, but their steady success isn’t enough to help them prevail. It comes down to Shelton versus Aldean, and in a battle between the country rocker and the TV star, Shelton walks away with his first Entertainer trophy.

J.R. Journey: I think Paisley and Urban are just slot-fillers at this point in their careers, so they’re out. Jason Aldean had a strong year and so did Taylor Swift, but neither exploded into the mainstream – Taylor’s been there for several years now – like Blake Shelton, with a major television and soundtrack push. He’s on a major upswing, and that ought to sway voters enough to give him the edge.

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Album Review: Terri Clark – ‘Roots & Wings’

I was disappointed by Terri’s first EMI Canada release a couple of years ago, which I felt was over-produced with largely mediocre material, but she appears to have rediscovered her musical voice with her latest release. She produced the album herself, and the sound is mellow but not over-produced, although she does seem to be moving away from conventional country music. Her distinctive voice is at its best throughout.

She also co-wrote all but one of the songs. Four are co-writes with Kristen Hall (who also sings backing vocals), including lead single ‘Northern Girl’, which celebrates Terri’s Canadian background but is disappointingly bland. When Hall left Sugarland under rather murky circumstances, she stated she was intending to concentrate on her songwriting. ‘Beautiful And Broken’ is not very country sounding, but an interestingly written and beautifully sung song with slightly obscure lyrics full of imagery; it seems to be about a failed relationship with the broken individual, but the protagonist retains feelings of friendship and perhaps love. Also very metaphor-heavy, ‘Flowers In Snow’ explores an unproductive relationship. These songs are perhaps more modern folk/singer-songwriter than country, but they are very well done. The best of the four, ‘Breakin’ Up Thing’ has an enjoyable mid-tempo groove and wry lyric commenting on the protagonist’s about-to-be-ex-partner’s ease at leaving.

‘The Good Was Great’ is an affectionate look back at a past relationship which Terri wrote with Tia Sillers and Deric Ruttan. This is rather good, but I was less impressed by the rather dull and overly loud ‘Wrecking Ball’ which Terri and Tia wrote with fellow-Canadian Victoria Banks and which opens the album.

The best song on the album by far is ‘Lonesome’s Last Call’, a traditional slow lonesome country song about a couple of desperate individuals who come together to find love in a bar, written by Terri with the great Jim Rushing. Andrea Zonn and Stuart Duncan’s twin fiddles add to the effect, and I would have loved to hear more like this.  The very personal and beautifully sung ‘Smile’ (written with Karyn Rochelle and featuring Alison Krauss on not-very-audible harmony) is a loving tribute to Terri’s mother who died of cancer last year. This is very moving, and another highlight.

‘The One’ (written with Tom Shapiro and Jim Collins) has a mellow vibe and attractive tune about waiting for the right man, but the hook is the unoriginal:

I don’t need a love that I can live with
I want the one I can’t live without

I like the end result a lot, but it is more than a little reminiscent of Clint Back’s ‘The One She Can’t Live Without’, which has an almost identical chorus.  The only track I really don’t like is ‘We’re Here For A Good Time’, an over-produced and very poppy sounding cover of what I think must be a rock song from the 70s. It is Terri’s new single.

Where Terri’s first album for EMI Canada still seemed to be the product of hankering after mainstream success, this one shows her finding her own voice. It isn’t all moving in a direction I personally care for, but it effectively showcases Terri as an independent singer-songwriter.

Grade B+

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.

Classic Rewind: Jennifer Nettles of Sugarland pays tribute to Reba – ‘The Night The Lights Went Out In Georgia’

Dogs and duds: The worst singles of 2010

It’s not usually our style here at My Kind of Country to spend a lot of time writing biting reviews about all the crap we don’t like.  You can believe that our writers can be as brutal as the next when the dreck crosses our desks.  But hey, everybody’s gotta have a niche’ and ours is writing positively about only what we deem print-worthy.  Aside from that, there are so many other talented writers churning out brilliantly scathing analyses all over the interweb.  Still, we couldn’t resist – just this one time of year – to compile a list of the worst singles of the year, and then see just how blistered we can get a few superfans.

So here they are, the bottom of the bottom.  These are ranked in order, by a points system, taken from respective lists from Razor X, Occasional Hope, and myself.  Listening while you read is not necessary nor recommended.

P.S.  When commenting, please refrain from expletives.  Attacking the writers’ taste in music, intelligence, or even our Mamas won’t bother us so much.  Just keep it clean please.  Enjoy!

10. Jason Aldean – Crazy Town

I’m usually the first one to enjoy a song that paints up the roundabouts of Music Row. Romanticizing your hard-beaten path to stardom or just lamenting the rigors of the road in song is something of a rite of passage in country music.  Listening to this tune, it’s obvious Aldean is adhering to his own adage with ‘To be a star you gotta bang bang bang’. The problem is, he doesn’t even have the right drum. – J.R.

9. Craig Morgan — Still A Little Chicken Left On That Bone

I really dislike rock-oriented songs that try to gain country cred by adding some banjo to the mix, but it is the shouted chorus that really makes this record annoying. – R.X.

Banjo added to the mix or no, I bet even those guys from Deliverance would change the station when this came on. – J.R.

8. Toby Keith – Every Dog Has Its Day

Like Trace Adkins, Toby Keith continues to reach new lows with his pseudo-clever ditties such as this. Here, your typical white-trash honky-tonk angel (the same gal from all of Toby’s classy odes to true love) finally knocks out a suitor coming on too strong. I’m not sure what’s worse: that the narrator actually thought saying “every dog has its day dog but today dog just ain’t yours” would cool the suitor’s jets, or that someone thought this story even needed telling. – J.R.

7. The JaneDear Girls – Wildflower

Another overproduced rock-based number with an extremely grating sing-song chorus. – R.X.

Everything about this is awful. The girls can’t sing very well, even given a song with only a few notes to sing, and the overly processed sound is entirely inappropriate for a song comparing the protagonist to a wild flower. – O.H.

6. Laura Bell Bundy – Giddy On Up

I don’t know whether to dismiss this one as something that shouldn’t be taken seriously or to be offended that Bundy and her team thought that country music fans were so lacking in taste that we’d actually like something like this. – R.X.

5. Sugarland – Stuck Like Glue

Inane lyrics and annoying vocal tics (even before the reggae part starts). – O.H.

An absolute hot mess of a record that is annoying up until the reggae part, and from that point on it’s just embarrassing. – R.X.

4. Blake Shelton and Trace Adkins – Hillbilly Bone

Heavy handed production and clichéd redneck anthem lyrics combined with a pseudo hip-hop beat are the hallmarks of this record which is far beneath the talents of the two artists who recorded it. – R.X.

3. Trace Adkins – AlaFreakinBama

A tuneless shoutfest that would vie for the title of Worst Record of Trace Adkins’ career were it not for ‘Honky-tonk Badonkadonk’. – R.X.

Trace Adkins has a great voice but apparently no musical taste, judging by the number of truly crappy songs he has picked in his time. This manages to achieve something I previously thought unachievable: it’s actually worse than ‘Honky Tonk Badonkadonk’. Almost tuneless in the verse, the chorus degenerates into a one-note yelling of the title, backed up by crowd noise. – O.H.

2. Carrie Underwood – Undo It

If Underwood were ably revisiting the sound Shania Twain pioneered in the 90s, I’d be one of the first to jump on board. But if the production sounds like an old mix tape from that era recorded over the FM airwaves, I’ll probably fall off the wagon. A chorus that falls apart with the first line doesn’t help to win me back either. – J.R.

Sheer unadulterated 80s pop melody, processed sounding and much too loud production, with absolutely no subtlety or light and shade in the delivery and an ultra-annoying chorus. I can see why her fans would like it, but personally I wish I could unhear it. – O.H.

1. Justin Moore – Backwoods

I can live with the clichéd lyrics (which could be worse), but not the almost complete lack of melody, loudly over-produced backing and yelled singing. The interjected laugh is also irritating. – O.H.

In just over two and half excruciatingly long minutes, Moore manages to cram every cringe-worthy hillbilly cliché’ into a melodically clunky hit song. If country music all sounded like this, it would have stayed in those woods. – J.R.

 

Classic Rewind: Sugarland – ‘Stay’

Christmas Rewind: Sugarland – ‘Gold And Green’

Album Review: Sugarland – ‘Gold And Green’

Sugarland’s Christmas album was released in full last year, with five of the tracks repeated from an EP sold exclusively at Wal-Mart with purchases of the band’s Enjoy The Ride in 2007. The material is evenly divided between Sugarland originals and more familiar fare, and a mixture of secular and religious aspects of Christmas, often within the same songs. Jennifer is in excellent voice throughout, with Kristian Bush given a higher profile than usual, and the production (by Byron Gallimore and the band) is Sugarland at their most restrained and mellow, with most tracks acoustic. Every inclusion here feels carefully chosen and executed; this is no casual Christmas cash-in but a fine album in its own right.

‘City Of Silver Dreams’ opens the album with a gentle, dreamlike ode to New York at Christmas time rather reminiscent of Mary Chapin Carpenter, written by the duo with Lisa Carver and folk singer-songwriter Ellis Paul. ‘Little Wood Guitar’ was written by Kristian with Ellis Paul, and is a musician’s look at her life through the lens of three atmospherically conveyed Christmas Days: a childhood gift of the eponymous guitar which sets her on her path in life, struggling young adulthood, and finally with a family of her own.

‘Coming Home’ is a jazz-blues number with a gospel choir chorus which is extremely well done, but not my personal cup of tea. The soothing title track has a subtle string arrangement (and quote from ‘The First Noel’ alongside its comforting vision of a contemporary Christmas scene), and Kristian gets a few lines to sing alongside Jennifer’s lovely lead vocal.

He also gets two actual lead vocals on this side project. He is unimpressive on ‘Holly Jolly Christmas’, with Jennifer offering a counterpart of snippets from ‘Winter Wonderland’ (sounding more invested than she does on the official cut of that song); this is the least effective track on the album, although the bells make it sound cheerily festive. ‘Maybe Baby (New Year’s Day)’ is much better, a very enjoyable bluesy country-rock ballad written by the duo with Troy Bieser, about a man returning home for the Christmas season and reflecting on the possibility of seeing his ex-lover. Kristian doesn’t have the best of voices, but at least on this track it has a gravelly soulfulness which works well.

Of the traditional material, Jennifer delivers serious versions of the carols ‘O Come O Come Emmanuel’ and the beautiful ‘Silent Night’, which she sings partly in Spanish. Both have tasteful acoustic arrangements, the former (one of my favourite tracks)with twin banjos, the latter featuring Kristian’s mandolin. A rather pedestrian vocal take on ‘Winter Wonderland’ is redeemed by the playing in the instrumental break with its nod to ‘Deck The Halls’.

The playful ‘Nuttin’ For Christmas’ (one I hadn’t heard before) has Jennifer playing the part of a naughty little girl (and not sounding too bothered at getting no presents as she recites the litany of her misdeeds), and the playing is great.

I have a limited tolerance for Christmas albums, so many of which tend to sound the same and repeat the same songs, but this was an extremely pleasant surprise for me. It might even be my favorite Sugarland album.

Grade: A-

J.R. Journey’s Top 10 Singles and Tracks of 2010

Country radio must be getting better.  My favorites list this year include more actual radio hits than ever before.  Of the ten songs below, two were #1 hits, five more (including my top pick) hit the country top 40.  Still, two more songs were released as radio singles and enjoyed very little success, and yet another is just an album cut that was never sent to radio.  So there’s room for much more improvement. Read on to find out why I picked them as the best of the year, and click on the links to read my own single reviews when available.

10. Jewel – ‘Satisfied – I had been consistently unimpressed with Jewel’s country offerings until ‘Satisfied’ hit the airwaves. The singer uses her big, emotive voice to full effect in this power ballad that centers on the theme of letting your love show. It didn’t storm up the country charts, but it made me finally sit up and welcome the Alaskan farm girl to the country fold.

9. Emily West feat. Keith Urban – ‘Blue Sky’ – Here, West delivers a stunning vocal with Keith Urban providing a gentle harmony, on this track that finds the narrator rebuffing the swinging door policy this guy has set up for himself. This kind of smart, elegant ballad is the kind of song that brought me to country music

8. Miranda Lambert – ‘House That Built Me’ – Arguably, the biggest country hit of the year – and certainly it will be the best-remembered when most everything else are just numbers in record books – the magnum opus of Lambert’s Revolution album, and her career so far, was a major hit because it resonated so well with so many people. Universal emotions, like sentimental attachment to the house where you grew up, never fail when they’re delivered this brilliantly.

7. Zac Brown Band – ‘Highway 20 Ride’ – The first time I heard this song, I thought it would fit neatly with Alan Jackson’s own music-industry/life-on-the-road songs. As with Jackson’s many like-cuts (‘Job Description’, ‘To Do What I Do’, ‘Chasin’ That Neon Rainbow’), ‘Ride’ features a tight lyrical structure, smooth melody, heartstring emotions, and a fitting vocal from Brown.

6. Keith Urban – ‘Til Summer Comes Around’ – Not since ‘You’ll Think Of Me’ hit in 2004 has Keith Urban impressed upon me so much with a single release. In this reminiscent tale of a Summer fling, the singer is paying a Wintertime visit to the carnival where his love affair started. Full of imagery and melancholy, it maintains the feel of the best of Urban’s moody ballads.

5. Sugarland – ‘Little Miss’ – Like most everybody else, I was disappointed with the bulk of Sugarland’s The Incredible Machine. But, one track stands out as a throwback to the sound they offered just 2 short years ago. ‘Little Miss’ features the acoustic, harmony-driven sound that had become their staple. In this, the duo try their best to appeal to everywoman, and with a laundry list of ‘little miss this and that’, I don’t think they could have left many out.

4. Trace Adkins – ‘This Ain’t No Love Song’ – This is a great song with a fresh idea and nothing overbearing or in-your-face about the production. With it, Trace Adkins may have struck the perfect balance between his up-tempo ditties and the memorable ballads that dot his catalog.

3. Chely Wright – ‘Notes To The Coroner’ – I could have chosen at least 4 tracks from Chely Wright’s Lifted Off The Ground to list among my favorites of the year. The disc has certainly gotten more mileage than any other album in my player this year. But it was this one clever, biting goodbye from a lady befelled by her own heartbreak that stands out as the centerpiece of a five-star album.

2. Mary Chapin Carpenter – ‘I Put My Ring Back On’ – It’s always great to get new music from someone like Mary Chapin Carpenter. It’s even better when she returns to the infectious melodies of her signature 90s sound. Making up after a fight makes up the basis for this track, and with its rocking guitars and rolling drums, it recalls Carpenter at her own rocking best vocally.

1. Sunny Sweeney – ‘From A Table Away’ – One of my favorite new artists, Sunny Sweeney failed to make much more than a ripple on the mainstream circuit with her first Big Machine album, the excellent, ultra-traditional Heartbreaker’s Hall of Fame. Her first single for an upcoming sophomore release has fared much better, fueled mostly by a perfect marriage of modern Nashville and Sweeney’s undeniable Texas twang. Here, she plays the other woman who spies her love interest in a romantic situation with his wife. He has of course made all kinds of promises to her about their future together.  The scene brings home that he has no intention of leaving, and it’s at that moment she realizes she’s been his fool. This is the stuff great country music is made of.

Classic Rewind: Sugarland – ‘Just Might Make Me Believe’

Album Review: Sugarland – ‘Love On The Inside’

The multiplatinum success of their first two albums allowed Sugarland to flex their musical muscles and expand their boundaries a bit on their third disc. Jennifer and Kristian wrote or co-wrote every song on the set, collaborating with a country songwriting legend for the album’s final single and Bobby Pinson on a handful of tracks. The bright, infectious sound that had come to define the act can be heard here, but Love On The Inside also includes several welcome departures from the tried and true formula, where same-sounding filler had been on the first two albums. Like its predecessors, Love On The Inside would earn a multiplatinum certification, after becoming their first #1 album on both the Billboard Country Albums and all-genre Billboard 200 charts. The first 3 singles released would also shoot to the top of the singles chart, while a fourth hit the top 20.

First up at radio was the epidemically catchy ‘All I Want To Do’. The female narrator in the song is fully content with her current career-self and is all about focusing on loving the man in her life. A beaty, island-inspired production frame what is mostly a song centered around the ‘ooh oohs’ and otherwise catchy chorus. Lyrically sparse, the song sailed to #1 on the charts, and was certified as a platinum single, and became the pair’s biggest top 40 hit to date, resting at #18 on the Billboard Hot 100. (‘Stuck Like Glue’ went to #17 this year, eclipsing that feat.) In the same sound format is ‘It Happens’, the album’s third single, though it does offer a bit more charm with its storyline about a lady have a super bad day.

‘Already Gone’ was the album’s third consecutive chart-topper and is a frank look at the ups and downs in one girl’s life. The three-act plot follows her from a teen branching out on her own with her mother’s advice still in the air, through her plunging headlong into her first heartache and to the eventual end of her marriage. Nettles emotive delivery packs a powerful punch that may take you by surprise given the almost-bright production.

Country legend, and perennial hit-maker, Bill Anderson co-penned ‘Joey’, the somewhat abstract tale of a young man killed in a drunk-driving accident. The verses attempt to tell the story, but so many essential details are omitted, it’s hard to follow, and the track seriously falters with the repetitive chorus. The brooding narrative found an audience, and became the fourth hit from the disc, resting at #17 on the singles chart.

‘Very Last Country Song’ closes up the standard edition of Love On The Inside as the decided highlight. A simple plucking acoustic guitar leads off as Nettles begins recounting the life story of a lady celebrating her birthday by pouring over photos in her kitchen. Through the snapshots, she remembers various family members and tells of the place they all still hold in her heart. It’s the chorus these vignettes center around, however, which simply says that if there were no reason for heartbreak, there’d be no more country music.

Nothing on Love On The Inside sounds tacked on, as every track seems to play an integral part in the overall scheme here. From the amped up blue collar anthem ‘Take Me As I Am’ to the cheeky ‘Steve Earle’, which finds the narrator longing to become a member of the singer’s own ex-wives club to the harmony-laden ‘Genevieve’ with its acoustic guitars turned way up, Love On The Inside finds the duo trying on an array of musical styles and personalities, and each fits like a glove this time around.

This album marked the arrival of Sugarland as bonafide country music superstars. It also showcased the best modern Nashville has to offer with its abundance of hooky melodies, memorable lyrics, and dazzling contemporary country music production. As a result, it stands as the showpiece of the Sugarland catalog, and my personal favorite album.

Grade: A+

Buy Love On The Inside from amazon.

A deluxe edition features 5 more songs. Highlights from those include the legant ‘Fall Into Me’, a slight retread of the love-is-the-salvation-at end of a long day theme of past Sugarland hits – ‘Just Might Make Me Believe’ chief among them.  Also noteworthy among the bonus tracks is a live cover of Matt Nathanson’s ‘Come On Het Higher’ and another cover, this time from 80s pop group The Dream Academy.  ‘Life In A Northern Town’ features Little Big Town and Jake Owen – Sugarland’s 2007 tourmates – in a nifty blend of voices on the very vague and muddy lyric.  This track, recorded at Comcast Theater in Hartford, CT, peaked at #28 in Summer 2008 to become another top 40 hit for all artists involved.

Classic Rewind: Sugarland – ‘Something More’

Album Review: Sugarland – ‘Enjoy The Ride’

2006 saw a retooled Sugarland, now sans Kristen Hall, teaming up with a new producer, Byron Gallimore, for their sophomore release. Enjoy The Ride finds the now-duo, who share production credits, delving a little further into pop territory. Hall’s departure had seemingly no effect on the group’s popularity; the lead single “Want To”, written by Jennifer Nettles and Kristian Bush with Bobby Pinson, became Sugarland’s first #1 hit. The acoustic guitar-led track, which also features Dan Dugmore on dobro, is one of the more country-sounding songs on the album, and my personal favorite of the tracks that were released as singles. In addition to spending two weeks at the top of the charts, “Want To” became Sugarland’s fourth single to earn gold certification. The second single, the uptempo “Settlin'” likewise climbed to #1.

After “Settlin'” reached the top of the charts, another uptempo number was sent to radio. “Everyday America” is a story of about growing up in a small town, dreaming of moving on to bigger and better things, but ultimately deciding to stay put. In a sense it is a sequel to “Settlin'”, one in which a slightly older and presumably wiser protagonist has reconsidered her plans to change the world, opting instead to raise a family and enjoy a quiet life. Unfortunately, the track is too loud and overproduced, which detracts from the lyrics’ message. “Everyday America” was the worst-performing single from the album, though it still managed to crack the Top 10, peaking at #9.

The loudness and overproduction problems unfortunately are not unique to “Everyday America”; they plague a few of the album’s tracks, namely “County Line”, the annoying “Mean Girls”, and to a lesser degree, “Settlin'”. The tracks that work well are the quieter ones, most notably the sparsely produced ballad “Stay.” The album’s fourth single, which was written by Jennifer Nettles, features an acoustic guitar played by Kristian Bush, an organ, and Nettles’ powerhouse voice. Considered by many to be Sugarland’s finest moment on record, “Stay” — which Nettles says was inspired by Reba McEntire’s “Whoever’s In New England” — won two Grammys in 2006: Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal and “Best Country Song. It also won Single of the Year and Song of the Year from the ACM and Song of the Year from the CMA. It just missed becoming Sugarland’s third #1 hit; peaking at #2, but it became their first platinum single. Unfortunately, it remains their last truly great single to date.

“These Are The Days” is a decent but not great song, notable primarily because Kristian Bush shares lead vocals with Nettles. Unfortunately his grating voice ruins the track. Much better is “Sugarland”, which seems as though it should have been included on the group’s first album. Written in 2003 by Kristian Bush with Vanessa Olivarez and former Sugarland member Kristen Hall, it likely predates Nettles’ hiring as lead singer. It is thematically similar to “Everyday America” but it makes it point much more effectively, and allows the album to close on an introspective high note.

Overall, I enjoyed the ride, but not as much as the first Sugarland album, primarily because of some of the production choices on a handful of tracks. Like its predecessor, it was certified triple platinum by the RIAA.

Grade: B

Enjoy The Ride is widely available, from vendors such as Amazon and iTunes.

Classic Rewind: Sugarland – ‘Baby Girl’

Album Review: Sugarland – ”Twice The Speed Of Life’

Sugarland’s debut album burst on an unsuspecting world in October 2004. Produced by Garth Fundis with a bright and punchy modern sound, this is the only Sugarland album to feature former member Kristen Hall (on guitar and backing vocals). Third member Kristian Bush plays mandolin and another acoustic guitar, with additional vocals. The then trio also collaborated on writing most of the songs, but the dominating element is undoubtedly Jennifer Nettles’s strong and distinctive voice. It is thoroughly contemporary with obvious rock and pop influences, but the quality of the songwriting and singing is what makes it resonate.

The lively debut single, ‘Baby Girl’, written by the trio with Troy Bleser, is based around a young woman’s difficulties trying to make it in Nashville, and her eventual triumph, but what it is really about is a child’s love for her parents . The story unrolls through her letters home, with her first asking for money and then able to return the favor. The single was an instant success for the group, peaking at #2.

Also just missing the very top spot was the follow up, the vibrant ‘Something More’, which opens the album with a shouted “Come on“, as Jennifer launches into her frustration with an ordinary urban life and a boring job, declaring:

I could work my life away but why?
I got things to do before I die
There’s gotta be something more

The third single was a Kristen Hall solo composition which is the best song on the album, the excellent ‘Just Might (Make Me Believe)’, This powerful ode to the power of love to help through the hard times and to outlast doubts was another top 10 hit for the group, and has one of Jennifer’s finest vocal performances to date. It remains one of my favorite Sugarland recordings. My least favorite of the four singles was the up-tempo romp ‘Down In Mississippi (Up To No Good)’ about breaking away from the domestic routine with some friends; this one is lacking in both melody and subtlety, but it has an undeniable energy.

The radio-friendly and rather poppy sounding ‘Tennessee’ was written by Hall and Bush with David Labruyere, and has a radio call-in request “from a boy in love to a girl called Tennessee” who he regrets having let slip away from his fear of commitment. It has a great vocal from Jennifer, and only the gimmicky name of the girl that mars the otherwise charming song.

The reflective ‘Hello’ sounds autobiographical, with a wistful almost folky feel to its reminiscences of young love and youthful surroundings revisited; I can imagine the band’s fellow Georgian Trisha Yearwood (also often produced by Fundis) covering this successfully. ‘Fly Away’ was written by Bush and Hall with Corri English and Billy Gewin (probably while they were still based in Atlanta), and expresses the restlessness of a dissatisfied small town girl who wants to make her own path in life. The gentle acoustic ‘Small Town Jericho’ offers a fonder and more reluctant farewell to childhood surroundings with Jennifer stretching out the word goodbye until it is almost un recognisable at times. Kristen and Jennifer’s catchy ‘Speed Of Life’, which provides the album title, is an older woman’s reminiscences about a runaway teenage marriage with a happy ending:

It’s hard to slow it down when it feels so right…
We’re travelling at twice the speed of life

The closing track ‘Stand Back Up’ is a dignified acoustic ballad about resilience in the face of adversity:

I’ve been beaten up and bruised
I’ve been kicked right off my shoes
Been down on my knees more times than you’d believe
When the darkness tries to get me
There’s a light that just won’t let me
It might take my pride and tears may fill my eyes
But I’ll stand back up

The only song I don’t really care for on this album is ‘Time, Time. Time’, which is a little dull, but overall this was a very strong debut. It stretches the boundaries of country music, but in a palatable way. The album appealed to country listeners as much as the singles did to radio programmers, and it has been certified triple platinum. It is also, as noted above, the only evidence of Sugarland as a trio rather than today’s duo, as Kristen Hall left the group in December 2005, before they returned to the studio.

Grade: A-

Spotlight Artist: Sugarland

From the Atlanta underground scene, Sugarland was first brought to life by former member Kristen Hall.  In 2002, Hall contacted Kristian Bush about the possibility of creating a band together.  Hall had herself released a half-dozen assorted solo projects and Bush had found some success with the duo Billy Pilgrim, but both were now eyeing the country music umbrella as a release for their music.  When the two decided they needed a powerful female lead voice for the songs they were writing together, they immediately thought of a spunky blonde also making waves on the Atlanta club scene with her own band.  Jennifer Nettles had herself been busy fronting Soul Miner’s Daughter, a folk-rock, garage-band type outfit, and later The Jennifer Nettles Band before releasing 2 solo albums.  Nettle agreed to jump on board and the Sugarland trio was born.

Within a few short years, the band had a deal with Mercury Records’ Nashville office.  Their first single, a frank look at the ups and downs of a fledgling musician, shot to #2 on the country charts, and the pair were on their way.  Two more singles from that album reached the country top 10 and a fourth landed inside the top 20, while the album went on to sell more than 3 million copies.  During the chart run of the album’s third single, Kristen Hall abruptly announced her departure from the group, citing the desire to concentrate on songwriting as her primary reason for quitting.  Three years later, Hall would file a lawsuit claiming she was owed a percentage of all the group’s future royalties.  The suit was settled for an undisclosed amount earlier this year.

Now a duo sans Hall, the group’s second album, Enjoy The Ride, hit shelves in November 2006, propelled by the lead single, the smoking hot ‘Settlin’.  Both ‘Settlin’ and ‘Want To’ hit the top of the country singles chart, but the album’s fourth top 10 hit would prove to be Sugarland’s signature so far.  Jennifer Nettles plaintive delivery of the plight of the other woman with little more than her aching voice and an acoustic guitar instantly connected with a wide-range of audiences, and in addition to its #2 spot on the country chart, the song hit the top 40 on both the Billboard Hot 100 and the U.S. Pop chart.  It would also be the duo’s first platinum-selling single.

2008’s Love On The Inside continued their run of country success with 3 consecutive #1 singles, a double platinum certification, and another round of industry awards.  2007 saw them dethrone long-running champs Brooks & Dunn for the CMA Vocal Duo of the Year award, a slot they’ve since repeated in 4 years running.  Love also found the pair stretching their musical muscles as they ably incorporated 80s rock, girl-band pop, and the best of modern Nashville, all to dazzling results.  Unfortunately the same can’t be said of their most recent release, the arena rock-influenced The Incredible Machine.  Still, the album’s first single, ‘Stuck Like Glue’, went to #1, and they’ve just released its best track as the follow-up single.

Irresistibly catchy melodies, simple, positive lyrics, and the throaty twang of Jennifer Nettles make up the basis of Sugarland’s distinctive and identifiable sound.  Kristian Bush adds milk and toast harmonies that more often than not, perfectly compliment Nettles lead.  The pair are also responsible for writing or co-writing nearly every song they record.  Their influences run wide, but their general sound found root in country music, and that allowed me to discover their music.  Keep reading this month as we look back over the past 6 years of Sugarland transitioning into the top duo in country music.

Our CMA predictions revisited

This was definitely our most successful attempt at predictions yet.

All three of us correctly predicted that the top Entertainer of the Year award would go to our current Spotlight Artist, Brad Paisley, who defied the influx of new names in this category for a long overdue triumph. He also premiered his new single on the show, as well as playing guitar for co-host Carrie Underwood, who went home with nothing for the first time.

However, we all wrongly thought Brad would also walk home with a fourth straight Male Vocalist win. Blake Shelton’s success was the biggest surprise of the night, crowning a great evening for the Shelton-Lambert household, and confirming them as country music’s current First Couple. It will be interesting to see if he gets a sales boost for his hits collection, Loaded. Blake’s fiancee Miranda Lambert didn’t win all the categories in which she was nominated, and missed out on Entertainer, but was still the big winner of the night, including her first Female Vocalist trophy – as we all expected would be the case. Razor X was the only one to predict that Revolution would beat out the opposition in the Album category.

We correctly predicted that Lady Antebellum’s commerical domination of the early part of this year would give them the Group title, and that Sugarland were unbeatable in the Duo category this year. Their eccentric performance of their latest hit may not have won them any new fans, though.

New Artist was an easy prediction for the Zac Brown Band (also nominated in the Entertainer category). Their live performance of current hit ‘When She’s Walking Away’ with Alan Jackson was a highlight of the show, and I’m predicting now that the record will probably get at least a nomination for Vocal Event of the Year next time around. That award went this year to Blake Shelton and Trace Adkins, for ‘Hillbilly Bone’ – another one we all got right.

Razor X and I correctly predicted that Lady A’s ‘Need You Now’ would be named Single of the Year, and Razor X and J.R. Journey both pegged Miranda’s hit ‘The House that Built Me’ to take Song honors for its writers, Tom Douglas and Allen Shamblin. (I didn’t think it would win, but wanted it to.) None of us expected the song also to win the Video category. J.R. correctly predicted that Mac McAnally would win the Musician title.

Razor X was the most successful at predicting winners (9), with J.R. in second (8). I trailed in last with 7.

Week ending 11/13/10: #1 albums this week in country music history

1965: Jimmy Dean – The First Thing Ev’ry Morning (Columbia)

1970: Merle Haggard – The Fightin’ Side of Me (Capitol)

1975: John Denver – Windsong (RCA)

1980: Willie Nelson and Family – Honeysuckle Rose (Columbia)

1985: Ronnie Milsap – Greatest Hits Vol. 2 (RCA)

1990: Garth Brooks – No Fences (Capitol)

1995: Alan Jackson – The Greatest Hits Collection (Arista)

2000: Faith Hill – Breathe (Warner Brothers)

2005: Martina McBride – Timeless (RCA)

2010:Taylor Swift – Speak Now (Big Machine)