Monday, November 29, 2010

LeAnn Rimes, "Crazy Women"

You can't escape LeAnn Rimes these days.  Thanks in part to the recent upheavals in her personal life, her face is all over the supermarket tabloids, and she is all over television with performances on America's Got Talent and a host of other programs.  She's everywhere.

Everywhere, that is, except on the radio, which hasn't given LeAnn much love since 2006.  Her recent cover of John Anderson's "Swingin" was apparently too cool for country radio, stalling at a faint #56 on the Billboard chart.  "Crazy Women" might not be the song to put her back on radio playlists (It even contains a word that's not very radio-friendly).  Still, it has plenty of strong points that are hard to ignore.

Kitty Wells told us long ago that "From the start most every heart that's ever broken/ Was because there always was a man to blame."  LeAnn Rimes seems to agree, delivering a modern spin on a familiar message - "Crazy women are made by crazy men."  And just how crazy can these women get?  Crazy enough to burn down a bar with Aquanet and a cigarette?  You'd better believe it.  The bitter lyrics, as well as LeAnn's delivery, are dripping with snark and sarcasm.

Yes, she is a cheater.  Yes, she is a homewrecker.  But there is one thing that LeAnn Rimes does not do - something that countless other artists are found guilty of every day - pandering to country radio.  Clearly, LeAnn is above that.  You can almost hear her taunting country radio with each new single release ("So you're gonna ignore me, are you?  Are you?!  Well, fine - Ignore THIS!")

Granted, "Crazy Women" is not the first tune to tackle its theme.  It's not a completely airtight attempt either, as the instrumentation is slightly lacking the energy that the lyrics call for.  But while it doesn't break new ground lyrically, it does show that it's not afraid to break the mold of country radio.

(Scores are given on a scale of 1 to 10)


Sunday, November 28, 2010

Top Ten Greatest Women of the Nineties, #1 - Reba McEntire

Though she's been active in country music for three decades now, country's favorite redhead was at the top of her game during the nineties.  It was an era when the women ruled country music, and Reba ruled the women.

She was born and raised in Oklahoma.  Growing up, she performed with her brother and sister as The Singing McEntires, and also competed in rodeo barrel-racing events.  She continued to sing while attending Southeastern Oklahoma University with plans of becoming an elementary school teacher.

She was discovered by Red Steagall when she sang the national anthem at an Oklahoma City rodeo, and with his assistance, she secured a recording contract with Mercury Records.  Her first few singles, starting with 1976's "I Don't Want to Be a One-Night Stand" turned out to be commercial flops, but she began achieving modest success in the early eighties.  She had her breakthrough with the traditional country-oriented album My Kind of Country, which produced the now-classic hits "How Blue" and "Somebody Should Leave."  After a slow rise to superstardom, Reba became one of Nashville's top hitmakers, and was showered with industry awards.  She won four straight CMA Female Vocalist Trophies between 1984 and 1987, and even snagged the coveted Entertainer of the Year award in 1986.

Reba continued to thrive well into the nineties with a more contemporary pop-friendly sound.  By that time, she had hopped labels, and was recording for MCA.  At the beginning of the decade, she released her fifteenth studio album, Rumor Has It.  She gave a stellar vocal performance of the song "You Lie," the album's chart-topping first single.

Though it didn't top the charts, the single "Fancy" became one of the best-known Reba anthems.  The song's narrator recalls being pushed into prostitution by her own mother as a way of escaping poverty, shakes her finger at those who judge her mother's course, and expresses her determination to rise above such a lifestyle, and to one day become a lady.

Tragedy struck on March 16, 1991, when a plane carrying seven of Reba's band members and her tour manager crashed into the side of a mountain, killing all on board.  Reba cites this event as the "darkest hour" of her life, having been devastated by the loss.  After the funeral, Reba shocked many be performing at the Academy Awards only nine days after the crash.  She performed the song "I'm Checking Out," from the Meryl Streep film Postcards from the Edge.  Reba was harshly criticized for returning to work so soon after the disaster, but she believed that her band would have wanted her to go ahead with the performances, and she was determined to do it for them.

Reba poured all of her grief into her 1991 album For My Broken Heart, which she dedicated to her deceased road band.  The album included many songs of sorrow, which Reba intended it as "a form of healing for all our broken hearts."  The album sold two million copies in nine months, and the first single and title track became another number one hit.

But it wasn't all heartbreak.  Reba showed some optimism on the song "Is There Life Out There," which was about a happily married wife and mother who wonders if she's missing out on something in life.  The story was fleshed out in the song's music video, in which Reba's character eventually earns a college diploma, viewing it as a chance to make her good life even better.  The video, which co-starred Huey Lewis as the character's husband, was one of the first country music videos to feature extensive amounts of character dialogue in order to further the storyline - a characteristic that raised some complaints from CMT, who nearly banned it for putting "message ahead of music."  But as it turned out, ingenuity was rewarded with a 1992 ACM Award for Video of the Year.  Reba also starred in a CBS-TV movie based on the video.

After selling platinum once again with her 1992 album It's Your Call, Reba had earned the right to release a second greatest hits compilation, which included a few new recordings.  One of those songs was the two-woman duet "Does He Love You," which portrayed the perspectives of both a married woman and her husband's mistress as they both pondered over the same question:  "Does he love you like he's been loving me?"

Originally, Reba's label was hesitant to release a two-woman duet to country radio, considering it a risky commercial maneuver that could alienate both radio and fans.  It was also risky to release it as a duet with a largely unknown background singer such as Linda Davis.  But when Reba's labelmates Trisha Yearwood and Wynonna Judd both turned out invitations to record the song with Reba, Linda ultimately filled the role of the other woman.  The risk paid off, as the song became a number one hit and one of Reba's most-awarded hits, netting a CMA Award as well as a Grammy.  It also provided Linda Davis with her first and only number one single.

Reba's success continued with her 1994 album Read My Mind, but she lost some traction on country radio with the follow-up Staring Over - a pop-flavored covers album.  But Reba rebounded in 1996 with What If It's You, an album that produced some of the finest singles of her career.  One of them what "The Fear of Being Alone," which featured a compelling storyline that was grounded in the realities of everyday life.

Reba toured with Brooks & Dunn in 1997, and that lead to them recording a duet.  "If You See Him/ If You See Her" was included on both of their studio albums, and became another number one hit.

Reba's momentum slowed down slightly with the turn of the millennium, and she became more involved in acting.  In 2001, she made her debut as Annie Oakley in the Broadway production of Annie Get Your Gun.  Later that year, she premiered her WB sitcom Reba, beginning a successful six-season run on television.  She released a handful of new music during this period, including her 2003 album Room to Breathe, which produced her first number one single since 1998 ("Somebody").  She returned again in 2007 with the Reba Duets album, which featured collaborations with a who's-who of superstars and legends of both country and pop music - Kelly Clarkson, Justin Timberlake, LeAnn Rimes, and Carole King, just to name a few.

After a few quiet years at radio, Reba made a strong comeback with her 2009 album Keep On Loving You, which yielded the four-week number one smash "Consider Me Gone" - Reba's first chart-topper since 2003, and the longest running number one single of her career.

There were many talented ladies of the nineties who were deserving of a spot on this countdown, but it was Reba who led the pack.  In addition to being one of the most commercially successful female artists of the decade, she also delivered many of the era's best-remembered classics.  She also received ample recognition from the award industry during the nineties, receiving five Entertainer of the Year nominations and three ACM Top Female Vocalist Awards.  Thus, in determining country music's greatest woman of the nineties, Reba was the clear choice.

Top Ten Greatest Women of the Nineties
1. Reba McEntire
2. Trisha Yearwood
3. Patty Loveless
4. Shania Twain
5. Faith Hill
6. Pam Tillis
7. Martina McBride
8. Mary Chapin Carpenter
9. Lorrie Morgan
10. Kathy Mattea

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Alan Jackson and Lee Ann Womack, "Ring of Fire"

A duet between Alan Jackson and Lee Ann Womack?  Be still, my beating heart!  Two great traditional country voices singing a timeless classic!  One would think the result could be only spectacular.  But oh, the irony!  I like Alan Jackson.  I love "Ring of Fire."  But I don't like Alan Jackson's version of "Ring of Fire."

Why not, you ask?  You may scoff at me for this, but it's the wild guitar riffs that ultimately sink the record for me.  Excuse me, Mr. Guitar Man - I'm trying to listen to Alan sing the song.  Why do you keep piping up with your electric guitar at all the wrong times?  It's very distracting, not to mention grating on the ears.  Still, I have to Alan props for not painstakingly copying the familiar Cash version, even if I do miss hearing those darling mariachi horns.  Unfortunately, the guitar chords don't sound like a reinterpretation so much as a misguided attempt to modernize the song.  Hey, if it ain't broke, don't try to fix it!

That combined with the fact that Lee Ann's vocals are scarcely audible during most the song.  It's advertised as a duet, but Lee Ann never gets to sing a verse on her own.  It seems her only purpose is to add commercial appeal by inserting her name in the credits (though she probably doesn't carry as much commercial appeal now as she did a few years ago).

This obviously doesn't hold up against Johnny's classic version, but that would have been extremely unlikely anyway.  The problem isn't that this record is necessarily bad.  The problem is that it sets extremely high expectations, and then it doesn't deliver.

(Scores are given on a scale of 1 to 10)


Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Album Review: Keith Urban - Get Closer

Keith Urban, the wonder from down under, is widely known and loved for his Guitar Hero instrumental prowess, soap star good looks, and catchy pop-country ear candy.  In many ways, his new album Get Closer is classic Keith Urban.  The standard eight-track release might not win him any new fans, but neither will it throw any curves at his current fans.

As its very title would imply, Get Closer is largely a celebration of romantic bliss.  It is dominated by much of the same guitar-and-drum-machine brand of country-rock that has characterized the majority of Keith's output.  The set kicks off with the ultra-catchy current single "Put You In a Song."  The next track, "You Gonna Fly" is sonically enjoyable, though lyrically nondescript.  Snaky guitar riffs rip though "Long Hot Summer" in a super-cool arrangement that makes the song a promising choice for a single.

One standout track is "Without You," which is backed by a more simplified arrangement consisting of fiddle, banjo, and mandolin.  The song was written by Dave Pahanish and Joe West, though the sincerity in Keith's performance could easily lead one to believe that he had written it himself.  The album ends all too soon after only eight tracks.

...That is, unless you bought the "deluxe" edition from Target ("Deluxe" as in "actually long enough to be considered a full album").  One of the album's most striking tracks can only be found as "bonus" tracks on the Target version.  "The Luxury of Knowing" puts a welcome stain of heartache on the album's mostly happy and romantic mood.  The deluxe album closes out with some live versions of Keith's previous hits.

If were expecting Keith to break some new ground on this album, then I'm sorry to tell you that he doesn't, but he continues building on a formula that works well for him.  Get Closer could benefit from a wider variety of lyrical themes.  Still, organic arrangements and strong performances make it entertaining nonetheless.

(Scores are given on a scale of 1 to 10)


Sunday, November 21, 2010

Chuck Wicks, "Old School"

No way.  There is no way this is Chuck Wicks.  I swear this is James Otto, because this is the same sultry country soul that the big man with the big voice has put a trademark on.  Besides that, this is the best groovy little summer song I've heard since "Groovy Little Summer Song."

This isn't exactly the kind of song that I was dying to hear, having finally had a few months to recover from the annual summer song burnout.  But there's no denying that Chuck handles this material remarkably well.  When he sings about "old Panama Jack layin' back," his laid-back delivery would make you think that he's lying back in his chaise lounge while singing it.  His mellow vocal is complimented by a gently grooving arrangement with bluesy guitar licks and traces of steel.  Then we're hit with a catchy chorus full of playful rhyming schemes and "oh-oh-ohh" hooks.

As an extra asset, "Old School" has the distinction of a different-than-usual setting.  The song is set in an entirely urban environment where we find the narrator sippin' coolada at the Ramada, as opposed to playing up his country cred with backwoods cliches.  The verses carry an undercurrent of nostalgia throughout, with the narrator reminiscing longingly over his youthful exploits (which apparently took place at a time when tape decks were still widely in use).

So why is Chuck releasing what is essentially a summer song when summer is long over?  That's anybody's guess.  Maybe his label is banking on this song having a really long chart climb and peaking in June.  Either that, or this is just meant to provide some pleasant escapism during the cold and ballad-heavy winter months.  Regardless, "Old School" treats a tired-out theme in a way that doesn't feel tired-out, and it's always refreshing when an artist brings something new to the table.

(Scores are given on a scale of 1 to 10)

Friday, November 19, 2010

Brad Paisley, "This Is Country Music"

Having just claimed been named CMA Entertainer of the Year for the first time in his career, Brad now gives us what is quite likely his most artistically significant career effort to date.  "This Is Country Music" is a strikingly ambitious offering, the likes of which have never before been heard on country radio.

Gotcha.  Actually, it's anything but.  "This Is Country Music" is basically every tired old country music cliche and pandering formula that we've come to despise, all wrapped up in a neat little package.  Cancer?  Check.  Jesus?  Check.  Soldiers?  You got it!  Brad's has it all covered here.  Apparently, artists are forbidden from singing about such topics but... (Get ready for the most boring hook ever)... "This is country music, and we do."  He ends by rattling off the titles of a few classic country songs, likely missing the irony in doing so, as it only invites unfavorable comparisons.

Brad is known for being witty and clever in his lyrics, but he's developing a tendency to build that repertoire on songs that aren't as clever as they like to think they are.  What's more, Brad is currently at the apex of country radio stardom, so he is in a positition where he could give us something better than this, and likely have it still be a hit.  I weep over the knowledge that country radio will immediately pounce all over this blatantly stupid song, and that they will play it to death.

Now let me think of something nice to say about this song.  It is aided by Brad's signature mix of traditional-meets-contemporary musical stylings.  Therefore we are left with a record that is musically pleasing but lyrically deficient, and in this case the deficiencies are simply unforgivable.  Brad would do better just to scrap these lyrics altogether, and leave this as an instrumental track.

(Scores are given on a scale of 1 to 10)

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Album Review: Lacy J. Dalton - Here's to Hank

One of the most underrated country artists of the eighties pays tribute to her musical hero on this charming self-released collection.  Here's to Hank covers many of the essential classics by the legendary Hank, Sr.  "Your Cheatin' Heart," "Lovesick Blues," and "Hey Good Lookin'" are all included, though "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" is surprisingly left out.  In general, the album delves no deeper than the basic inclusions.

This album finds the 64-year-old "16th Avenue" singer still in fine voice, though her vocals do not quite have the same power that they possessed in her younger days.  Regardless, her nuance remains intact, and she nails the emotional aspect of the material.  She does not painstakingly re-create the originals, but instead she adds a few personal touches, though the songs are still clearly recognizable as being Hank's.  Her interpretation of "Hey Good Lookin'" sounds laid-back in comparison to Hank's sprightly original.  Her best performances are often found on ballads such as "Cold Cold Heart," which she sings with an emotional quiver in her voice.

Producer Steven Swinford slightly tweaks the sound of these songs to give a new variation that still stays true to the spirit of the originals.  The arrangement of "Your Cheatin' Heart" includes a touches of percussion and acoustic guitar hooks that were not heard on the original.  Her joyous rendition of "Jambalaya (On the Bayou)," laced with fiddle and cheeky guitar chords, is an absolute delight.  This album as whole, with it's simple traditional-styled arrangement, could hardly be more of a sonic pleasure to listen to.

Lacy doesn't reinvent the wheel on this collection, but we do get a hear a great singer paying homage to a country legend.  Her deep connection to the songs, and her profound respect for the man behind them, are easily discernible, so just pop this disc in for 32 minutes of sweet nostalgia.  Here's to Hank, here's to Lacy, and here's to all the great traditional country music that will never die (despite country radio's best efforts).

(Scores are given on a scale of 1 to 10)

You can purchase this album at

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Top Ten Greatest Women of the Nineties, #2 - Trisha Yearwood

Lately her focus has been more on cookbooks than on music.  But what was it that made Trisha a star in the first place?  It was neither her stuffed pork chops, nor her breakfast sausage casserole.  Rather, it was powerful and nuanced singing voice coupled with a good ear for worthy songs.  Trisha Yearwood is easily one of the most outstandingly talented and consistently excellent vocalists contemporary country music has ever seen.  She was able to wow the critics and appease country radio while never disappointing her fans with substandard material.

This Georgia native originally moved to Nashville to get an education at Belmont University, but she soon found work as a demo singer.  She became friends with Garth Brooks as he was attempting to break through in country music, and she became his backup singer when he secured a deal with Capitol Records.  With the help of producer Garth Fundis, Trisha was able to score a record deal with MCA - Nashville's top label.

Trisha's 1991 debut single, an effortlessly charming ode to young love in a small town, became an instant success.  With "She's In Love with the Boy," Trisha became only the second female in country music history to take her debut single to number one - 27 years after Connie Smith became the first in 1964 with "Once a Day."

Propelled by the runaway success of her first single, along with three subsequent Top 10 hits, Trisha's self-titled debut album reached double-platinum status, becoming the highest-selling debut album by a female country artist at that time.  Fittingly, Trisha was named the ACM Top New Female Vocalist for the year 1991.

But in her further career efforts, Trisha sought to make an artistic statement rather than re-create the success of her debut single. (Are you paying attention to this, Gretchen Wilson?)  She previewed her 1992 sophomore album with the lead single "Wrong Side of Memphis," a bluesy and ambitious country rocker about chasing dreams of Nashville stardom.  The song was a semi-autobiographical account of writer Matraca Berg becoming homesick for Nashville while living in Louisiana.

On her second album Hearts In Armor, Trisha continued to develop a style heavy on introspective ballads.  The number-two hit "Walkaway Joe" (which featured backup vocals from Don Henley) ranks as one of her finest.

In 1995, Trisha released her third studio album The Song Remembers When.  The first single and title track became a number-two hit, and one of Trisha's signature tunes, not to mention one of the finest singles the decade ever produced.  "The Song Remembers When" was a touching tribute to the power of music in dredging up forgotten emotions, and bringing back memories.  Trisha's flawless vocals were the final brushstroke that made this single a masterpiece.

Trisha took a more pop-friendly direction with her further efforts.  Her 1995 album Thinkin' About You produced a pair of chart-toppers (her first since "She's In Love with the Boy") in the title track and "XXXs and OOOs (An American Girl)."

"XXXs and OOOs," a single replete with catchy fiddle hooks, was a tale of an American girl growing up and learning to face real life "in her daddy's world." It was a song that Trisha discovered entirely by accident, having been written for a TV pilot, and originally meant to be recorded by Wynonna (who had to bow out due to illness).  When the TV pilot failed to take off, the song became the centerpiece of Trisha's fourth studio album.  No music video was produced for "XXXs and OOOs."  Listen to the song here.

Trisha's 1996 album Everybody Knows produced two more major hits - the chart-topping "Believe Me Baby (I Lied)" and the Top 5 title track.  Trisha showed a quirky and lighthearted side on the song "Everybody Knows" - a song about a woman bombarded with unsolicited advice on mending a broken heart.  Hey, if it has the words "jerk" and "chocolate" in it, you know it has to be good.

In 1997 Trisha was invited to sing the song "How Do I Live" for the Touchstone film Con Air, after the studio had rejected LeAnn Rimes' pop-flavored interpretation of the song.  After Trisha's version of the song was released to radio, LeAnn quickly released her version of the song, and the two versions began dueling for airplay.  Trisha emerged victorious in the country category, with her version becoming a number-two country hit, and being included on her compilation album Songbook: A Collection of Hits. (LeAnn's version, however, became a major international pop hit)

It was at this time that the award industries began recognizing Trisha once again.  In 1997, she won the ACM Award for Top Female Vocalist, and the CMA Award for Female Vocalist of the Year.  She repeated the latter win the following year.

Trisha released the pop-flavored album Where Your Road Leads in 1998.  This album was produced by Tony Brown instead of Garth Fundis.  The lead single "There Goes My Baby," became another major hit, peaking at #2.

In 1999, Trisha received two of the greatest honors of her career:  (1) Being inducted into the Grand Ole Opry by Porter Wagoner (2) Appearing on Sesame Street.

She released the album Real Live Woman in 2000, which was less successful at radio, but was praised by critics.  Her 2001 album Inside Out produced her final Top 10 single with the power ballad "I Would've Loved You Anyway."

Trisha then took a four-year break from recording before releasing Jasper County - her swan song album for MCA.  She later hopped over to the independent Big Machine label, and released the stunning set Heaven, Heartache, and the Power of Love in 2007.  Since then, she has taken time off to promote her two cookbooks (Georgia Cooking In an Oklahoma Kitchen and Home Cooking with Trisha Yearwood).  She has hinted at the possibility of releasing a new album "whenever the time is right."

Trisha achieved notable commercial success in her country music career.  But make no mistake about it - The high quality and artistic significance of her music itself is primarily what puts her so high on this list.  With a unique and powerful voice like hers, she could have coasted along on fluffy radio-friendly fare saved only by her performance.  Instead, she chose to deliver introspective material that made ambitious artistic statements.  Her music catalog that boasts artistic significance and consistency that few of her contemporaries could match.  She didn't just build a career; she built a legacy.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Taylor Swift, "Back to December"

Don't be fooled by that sweet and cheery disposition or by that hair-flipping stage exuberance.  When Taylor Swift gets into that recording studio, she will show no mercy in admonishing each careless boy who has dared to break her heart.  We've seen her take down Joe Jonas, John Mayer, and many others.  But this time, Taylor's songwriting pen is aimed at an entirely different target - herself.

On her current single "Back to December" Taylor openly lays bare her mistakes and regrets surrounding her breakup with Twilight hunk Taylor Lautner.  She begins by describing an uncomfortable meeting with her former flame, in which they attempt to act like old friends, pushing the bitter memories out of their minds.  But Taylor observes that his "guard is up," and makes no attempt to sugarcoat the reason why, bluntly stating "You gave me roses, and I left them there to die."

Taylor then declares that she is swallowing her pride, and saying she is sorry for the hurt she has caused.  She goes on to describe the void that has been left by the relationship's end, realizing that "freedom ain't nothin' but missing you."  She is not saying "Baby, I'm sorry - I gotta have you back!"  She's saying, in effect "I know I've made mistakes, and I will accept the consequences, but I want to you know that I am sorry."  She doesn't seem to hold high hopes of being given a second chance, instead concluding that "If the chain is on your door, I understand."

"Back to December" is a far cry from the teen crushes and rivalries that much of Taylor's previous material consisted of.  With its effective portrayal of the hurt, anguish, and regret surrounding such a breakup, it ranks as one of Taylor's most mature single offerings.  Though she has taken some tough criticism for her vocal weaknesses, "Back to December" finds Taylor in a vocal range that seems to work well for her.  This is possibly the best she's sounded on record, with her delivery rising from a restrained whisper to a plaintive warble, backed by strings and mandolin.

Besides being Taylor's strongest single since "Fifteen," "Back to December" marks another step in the right direction for Taylor.  It's another sign of progress in her journey from teen pop starlet to adult entertainer.

(Scores are given on a scale of 1 to 10)


Saturday, November 13, 2010

Album Review: Reba McEntire - All the Women I Am

It is highly unusual for country radio to continue playing new music from a female artist after she passes the big 5-0.  Reba is likely aware of this fact, and is attempting to stay relevant by projecting an image that is as hip and youthful as humanly possible.  Her current hit, "Turn On the Radio" is clear evidence of this career strategy.  It is spunky, loud, over-produced, and essentially sounds like a mid-life crisis set to music.  Fortunately, the disastrous lead single is not representative of the album's overall sound.

On All the Women I Am, Reba adequately proves her adeptness at delivering spot-on vocal performances, whether the song requires her to let loose and have fun, or pour her heart out in a ballad.  When the album is good, boy is it good!  But there are a few glaring missteps as well.  The strongest moments include the heartbreak song, "Cry," in which a women struggles to keep her tangled emotions under control.  "When You Have a Child" ranks as one of Reba's most emotionally hard-hitting songs.  Such songs show that Reba is most proficient when performing songs that reflect her maturity and life experience. 

Her cover of Beyonce's "If I Were a Boy" doesn't exactly fit into that category, yet it still proves a success as it pairs Reba's plaintive and nuanced delivery with a more country-tinged arrangement.  Trills of steel guitar are inserted as if the song were meant all along to be country, and it surprisingly sounds perfectly natural.

Reba's includes a composition of her own, but it ends up a disappointment.  "Somebody's Chelsea" falls into the tired "old man's advice" category, but it fails to bring anything new to the table.  It is unclear what inspiration we are to take away from its vague message, and it ends up feeling a bit saccharine.

As usual, Reba revisits her signature girl-power song file with the ambitious horn-and-sax-infused title track.  She also walks us through the escapades of a jilted ex-spouse in "The Day She Got Divorced" - a track striking in its frankness. Though All the Women I Am is weighed down by a small amount of filler,  there are also some great moments to be found.  Though not the best album of her career, it's surely not a complete failure.  Rather, it is a qualified success that will likely satisfy her biggest fans while ensuring that country radio won't dare put her out to pasture anytime soon.

(Scores are given on a scale of 1 to 10)


Friday, November 12, 2010

Easton Corbin, "I Can't Love You Back"

In listening to Easton Corbin's new single, you could easily be forgiven for wondering if you had been time-warped back into the nineties, and I mean that as a compliment.  Such an understative acoustic arrangement with flourishes of steel would not sound out of place on a vintage nineties album by Alan Jackson, Mark Chesnutt, or (Yes, I'm using this oft-made comparison once again) George Strait.

"I Can't Love You Back" opens with a few soft acoustic guitar chords that set the mood for a plaintive and low-key vocal from Easton.  The lyric is a tender but straightforward expression of sorrow and heartbreak.  This man dearly loves his departed significant other, but all the love in the world will never bring her back to him.  And while Easton's radio peers may be chortling their romantic giddiness, or reveling in sippy-cup domestic bliss, Easton sounds downhearted and depressed.  There is no hint of a possible happy ending.

But while the lyrics are solid as steel, there is a minor dent in this studio recording.  Easton's delivery of the chorus is somewhat overwrought.  He attempts to squeeze emotion into the song through a strained performance, with awkward-sounding results, though this problem is mainly confined to the chorus.  Fortunately, the single's many strong suits make this flaw scarcely noticeable.

Thus far, Easton seems to have already gained entry into the exclusive club of commercially-successful neotraditional country artists.  He went so far as to have back-to-back number one hits with his first two singles, which was a big hurrah for traditional country.  With "I Can't Love You Back," Easton successfully continues his trend of balancing quality and critical appeal with commercial viability.  He can't love his woman back, but country radio just might love him all the way back to the top of the charts.

(Scores are given on a scale of 1 to 10)


Thursday, November 11, 2010

44th Annual CMA Awards - Highs and Lows

Seven of my winner predictions for correct!  That's not too bad.

And the winners are...

Musician of the Year
Mac McAnally - Correct!

Music Video of the Year
Miranda Lambert, "The House That Built Me"

Single of the Year
Lady Antebellum, "Need You Now"

Song of the Year
"The House That Built Me" - Tom Douglas and Allen Shamblin - Correct!

New Artist of the Year
Zac Brown Band - Correct!

Vocal Group of the Year
Lady Antebellum - Correct!

Album of the Year
Miranda Lambert - Revolution - Correct!

Vocal Duo of the Year

Male Vocalist of the Year
Blake Shelton

Female Vocalist of the Year
Miranda Lambert - Correct!

Entertainer of the Year
Brad Paisley - Correct!

Nominees Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood returned to host the event for the third consecutive year, once again drawing chuckles from the audience for their musical parodies of country classics.  This time, "I've Got a Tiger by the Tail" became "Caught Tiger [Woods] with Some Tail."

Carrie kicked off the night with a high-energy performance of "Songs Like This," featuring some guitar work from Brad Paisley and a banjo breakdown by Keith Urban.

That was followed by Rascal Flatts giving a mediocre performance of a great song ("Why Wait"), and Blake Shelton giving a great performance of a mediocre song ("All About Tonight").  Miranda Lambert, who led the pack of nominees with nine nominations, gave a loud and energetic performance of "That's the Way the World Goes 'Round."

Little Jimmy Dickens also made his requisite appearance wearing swim goggles in preparation for another Nashville flood.  Brad explained to the audience that Little Jimmy would yell when the water got up to his neck, and then the rest of us would have time to get to safety.

George Strait performed "The Breath You Take," and then the Zac Brown Band was joined by Alan Jackson for a performance of their number-one collaborative hit, "As She's Walking Away."  Kenny Chesney followed with his recent number one hit "The Boys of Fall."

Taylor Swift accompanied herself on piano in a shower of snowflakes for a performance of her new song "Back to December."

Sugarland turned the kooky fun factor up to ten with their wild performance of "Stuck Like Glue."

Keith Urban set the stage on fire with "Put You In a Song."

Reba gave a performance of the Beyonce pop hit "If I Were a Boy," which she covers on her new album All the Women I Am.

Jeff Gordon made a comedic appearance as a Brad Paisley impersonator right before Carrie introduced Jason Aldean and Kelly Clarkson, who sang their duet "Don't You Wanna Stay" from Jason's new album My Kinda Party.

The CMA's obsession with Kid Rock continued this year, and he also received a coveted performance slot, despite having no award nominations, and having only a single country hit from two years ago under his belt.  Time for a bathroom break.

Brad Paisley performed "This Is Country Music."

Afterwards, Lady Antebellum performed their current hit "Hello World."  Then, in one of the show's more surprising and memorable moments, Martina McBride presented the award for Male Vocalist of the Year to none other than Blake Shelton.  Miranda and Reba wiped tears as Blake strode up to the platform to accept the first CMA Male Vocalist award of his career.

Subsequent performances included Carrie Underwood with "Mama's Song" and Dierks Bentley with "Up On the Ridge."  Miranda and Lambert paid tribute to Loretta Lynn on her classic hit "Coal Miner's Daughter."  Then Loretta herself made a surprise appearance to sing the final verse of the song, and was received with a thunderous applause from the crowd.  Loretta and Sissy Spacek then presented the Female Vocalist award to... Miranda Lambert!

Finally, Gwyneth Paltrow took the stage for her much-hyped CMA debut.  Vince Gill joined her in singing "Country Strong."

Finally, Tim McGraw presented the CMA's top prize - Entertainer of the Year.  Brad Paisley was announced the winner.  He choked back tears as he thanked country's loyal fanbase for its support.  His speech was easily the best moment of the show, and it unfortunately was one of the only parts that I could not find on YouTube.  There is no justice in this world!  But if it shows up, I'll add it.

That's all for this year's CMAs!  We'll see how things play out at the ACMs this spring.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

44th Annual CMA Awards - Who Wins?

Nashville is abuzz with excitement during preparation for country music's biggest event of the year.  I will be watching this year, more as a fan than as a critic.  Fortunately, we do have quite a few strong nominees in a show that has often been a disappointment in recent years.  We should have a good show this year!

Now it's time for me to put on my thinking cap, and decide who I personally think should be recognized this year, and who I expect will emerge victorious.

Entertainer of the Year
Lady Antebellum
Miranda Lambert
Brad Paisley
Keith Urban
Zac Brown Band

Most Deserving:  Miranda Lambert.  Over the past year, she has consistently released strong singles that have been embraced by fans, critics, and now even by country radio as well.  No one represented country music in 2010 better than Miranda Lambert.

Most Likely:  Brad Paisley.  Let's face it - we all know it's going to be Brad.  He didn't have nearly as big a year as Miranda, but he's the only longtime nominee in this category who has yet to take home the trophy.  I have a feeling the CMA is going to show more Paisley love this year.  With Carrie Underwood left out of this category, I'd say Brad's got it in the bag.

Male Vocalist of the Year
Dierks Bentley
Brad Paisley
Blake Shelton
George Strait
Keith Urban

Most Deserving:  Dierks Bentley.  He took a significant career risk in releasing a bluegrass album that had actual radio singles.  Top that, Paisley.

Most Likely:  Brad Paisley... possibly out of the force of habit.  Bentley bluegrass album aside, I highly doubt that the CMA is going to take this one away from Brad just yet.

Female Vocalist of the Year
Miranda Lambert
Martina McBride
Reba McEntire
Taylor Swift
Carrie Underwood

Most Deserving:  Miranda Lambert

Most Likely:  Miranda Lambert.  She's probably got this one all wrapped up.  Taylor was relatively quiet at radio this year.  Reba had a good year, but didn't match Carrie or Miranda.  Martina is essentially out of the running to begin with.  It's going to be between Carrie and Miranda.  Carrie continued her consistent trend of success this year, but I think Miranda has a slight edge thanks to her massive radio breakthrough with "White Liar" and "The House That Built Me."  Still, the CMA might give Carrie this award as an apology for leaving her out of the Entertainer of the Year category.

Vocal Group of the Year
Lady Antebellum
Little Big Town
Rascal Flatts
The Band Perry
Zac Brown Band

Most Deserving:  Lady Antebellum.  They did put out a weak single with "American Honey," but they also reached their artistic peak to date with "Need You Now" - a massive crossover smash that ranks as a potential classic.  But Little Big Town may get a turn for this award when ACM season rolls around.

Most Likely:  Lady Antebellum.  At the very least, their enormous sales figures are going to net them the trophy.

Vocal Duo of the Year
Brooks & Dunn
Joey + Rory
Montgomery Gentry
Steel Magnolia

Most Deserving:  Joey + Rory.  I would vote for them on principle, since they released one of the strongest albums of the year.  But since radio still isn't playing them, I doubt that they'll be victorious against their more contemporary hitmakers.

Most Likely:  Brooks & Dunn... as a parting gift, if nothing else.

New Artist of the Year
Luke Bryan
Easton Corbin
Jerrod Niemann
Chris Young
Zac Brown Band

Most Deserving:  Zac Brown Band.  They have quickly become one of country music biggest attractions.  This is a formidable line-up, but the Zac Brown Band is the strongest competitor.

Most Likely:  Zac Brown Band.  Since they will likely be edged out of the Entertainer and Vocal Group categories, I expect that this is where the CMA will give them their due.

Single of the Year
Easton Corbin, "A Little More Country Than That"
Lady Antebellum, "Need You Now"
Miranda Lambert, "The House That Built Me"
Miranda Lambert, "White Liar"
Blake Shelton and Trace Adkins, "Hillbilly Bone"

Most Deserving:  "The House That Built Me."  It's a great song to begin with, and the acoustic arrangement and strong vocal performance brings it to full potential.

Most Likely:  "The House That Built Me."  "Need You Now" will be its biggest competition, but I can't imagine picking any of these other nominees over this four-week number one hit.  "A Little More Country Than That" was a pleasant breath of fresh air, but it's simply not strong enough to unseat Miranda's "House."

Song of the Year
"A Little More Country Than That" - Rory Lee Feek, Don Poythress, Wynn Varble
"Need You Now" - Dave Haywood, Josh Kear, Charles Kelley, Hillary Scott
"The House That Built Me" - Tom Douglas, Allen Shamblin
"Toes" - Zac Brown, Wyatt Durette, John Hopkins, Shawn Mullins
"White Liar" - Natalie Hembry, Miranda Lambert

Most Deserving:  "The House That Built Me."  Most of these nominees are good songs.  "The House That Built Me" is a great song.

Most Likely:  "The House That Built Me" - "Toes"?  Seriously?

Album of the Year
Dierks Bentley, Up On the Ridge
Lady Antebellum, Need You Now
Miranda Lambert, Revolution
George Strait, Twang
Carrie Underwood, Play On

Most Deserving:  Up On the Ridge.  Dierks was the only one in this group who took a significant career risk in releasing a bluegrass album, and a pretty dang good bluegrass album at that.  He stepped outside of the mainstream mold, and challenged country radio to play something drastically different from its usual favorites.  That deserves an award.

Most Likely:  Revolution.  Miranda is unstoppable this year, and I expect her momentum to continue into this category.

Musical Event of the Year
Dierks Bentley, Jamey Johnson and Miranda Lambert, "Bad Angel"
Kenny Chesney and Dave Matthews, "I'm Alive"
Alan Jackson and Lee Ann Womack, "'Til the End"
Blake Shelton and Trace Adkins, "Hillbilly Bone"
Zac Brown Band and Kid Rock, "Can't You See"

Most Deserving:  "Bad Angel."  Three of country music's most critically lauded stars performing on an ultra-cool bluegrass track - That is just impossible to outshine.  I like "Hillbilly Bone," but "Bad Angel" makes it sound like crap in comparison.

Most Likely:  "Hillbilly Bone."  The CMA will gravitate toward the one song that was the biggest radio hit.

Music Video of the Year
Lady Antebellum, "Need You Now"
Miranda Lambert, "The House That Built Me"
Miranda Lambert, "White Liar"
Brad Paisley, "Water"
Blake Shelton and Trace Adkins, "Hillbilly Bone"

Most Deserving:  "White Liar."  The song tends to sit in the shadow of "The House That Built Me," but it should be recognized for it's remarkably clever and creative video with a surprise ending.

Most Likely:  "White Liar."  I could be going out on a limb here, since this is a formidable lineup, but I think the Jamey Johnson cameo should at least be enough to put "White Liar" over the top.

Musician of the Year
Paul Franklin (steel guitar)
Dann Huff (guitar)
Brent Mason (guitar)
Mac McAnally (guitar)
Randy Scruggs (guitar)

Most Deserving:  Paul Franklin.  I really have no business trying to pick a winner here, so I'll just give a shout-out to the good ol' steel guitar.  It's a shame that country music's signature instrument is becoming it's least-used and most underrated instrument.

Most Likely:  Mac McAnally.  The CMA will act on the force of habit in this category.

Those are my picks.  Sound off in the comments section, and tell me yours!

More CMA Picks and Predictions:
Country Universe
The 9513
My Kind of Country
All Things Country
Country Chart Talk, Part 1
Country Chart Talk, Part 2

Monday, November 8, 2010

Randy Rogers Band, "Steal You Away"

This Texan band will probably never break through to the country music mainstream.  Every single that they've ever released has missed the Top 40 on country radio.  Granted, that hasn't proved to be a major hindrance.  The Randy Rogers Band has built a strong fan base over the course of their career, and they have proven to be a popular concert attraction.  But it is a bit of a shame that the average country radio listener might not get the chance to hear such great songs as "Steal You Away."

Randy's character here is watching in frustration as the woman he loves gives all her affection to a man who is hardly deserving.  He silently admonishes the unappreciative man for his faults, thinking "I should steal you away."  Perhaps he should, but will he?  The lyrics portray a man who thinks he knows the right thing to do, and is likely trying to muster the courage to put a stop to the injustice, but seems to be debating over what to do.  The song ends on an unresolved note, allowing the listener to fill in the story's ending.  In effect, the song is asking the listener, "How do you think the story turned out?"

It's an interest-arousing story to be sure, and the production creates the perfect mood for it, gradually building in intensity as the track continues.  A sparse piano and guitar-driven arrangement supplies the ideal backdrop for Randy's soft and emotional crooning.  "Steal You Away" oozes sincerity in a emotionally hard-hitting performance that also carries an air of mystery as it causes us to ponder the story's outcome.

This will never fly on today's bubblegum pop country stations, but that's surely not a bad thing.  Judging by this superb performance, I'd say the Randy Rogers Band has done Texas proud.

(Scores are given on a scale of 1 to 10)


Friday, November 5, 2010

Kenny Chesney, "Somewhere with You"

Surprise!  Kenny Chesney's new single is another nostalgia trip set to music.  But this time there's only one mention of a beach.  In "Somewhere with You" Kenny plays the part of a man who can't stop thinking about the one special woman he left behind, despite many attempts to console himself through shameless womanizing.

We do get something of a "been-there-done-that" vibe from this lyrical theme, as it similar to many of Kenny's past hits.  But where the song mainly falters is in awkward construction of its concept.  The song is a little too repetitive.  It's as if Kenny sings the song all the way through one time, and then just goes back and repeats it, with very few differences between the two repetitions.  I feel like I could listen to this song on endless repeat (which I would really rather not do) without being able to tell where the song ends and starts up again.

An additional problem is a somewhat listless vocal on Kenny's part, which is especially noticeable during the fast-talking chorus.  Add a few distracting production choices, and the song falls a degree below unremarkable, to the point where it is almost irritating to listen to. 

Even a little extra insight into whatever made this girl so special in the first place would have made this a more interesting song.  But the sum of its parts make "Somewhere with You" a clear misfire that fails to hold our attention past the first chorus.  Changing the station now.

(Scores are given on a scale of 1 to 10)


Thursday, November 4, 2010

Katie Armiger, "Best Song Ever"

"Best Song Ever" is the third single from Katie Armiger's recently-released third album Confessions of a Nice Girl.  Speaking of confessions, I have a confession of my own to make.  This little piece of pop-country fluff is my go-to happy song whenever I need a pick-me-up, and it has been such ever since I first heard Katie sing it at her album release party.

The storyline:  Katie has just been through a bad breakup, but one day when driving through town, she hears a love song on the radio that somehow gives her new hope that her relationship can be rekindled!  She is thrilled at the prospect!  She turns up the volume and shouts her hopeful excitement for all the world to hear.  At one point, she seems to doubt herself for a moment, as she takes a moment to reassure herself "I'm not crazy - You still want me, don't you baby?"  But she quickly pushes such thinking out of her mind, and once again relishes the joy of having found her perfect love's "perfect soundtrack."

Granted, this does sound a lot more like pop than country.  The arrangment is mainly built on pop-heavy drumbeats and guitars, with a mandolin supplying the country flavor.  But even though it is essentially pop, the arrangment still sounds happy, and fits the mood of the song.  Even the mandolin sounds happy, rather than sounding out-of-place among the track's pop flavorings.

Does this song live up to its title?  Is it really Katie's "Best Song Ever"?  Maybe not.  Is is unrealistic?  Of course it is.  But listen to Katie's energetic delivery of this song - she sure sounds like she believes it!  A playful and bouncy melody pushes the song's hookiness through the roof.  I've always loved the sound of Katie's voice, but when she decides to play the catchy card, I find her darn near irresistible.

Just try listening to "Best Song Ever" in the car with the windows rolled down and the volume turned up.  Then you'll understand.

(Scores are given on a scale of 1 to 10)


Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Top Ten Greatest Women of the Nineties, #3 - Patty Loveless

Like her distant cousin Loretta, she was born a coal miner's daughter.  She grew up in hills of Kentucky.  She first emerged on the country music scene as part of the neotraditionalist movement of the late 80s.  She brought to country music a sound grounded in tradition, while incorpating elements of pop, as well as often paying homage to her Kentucky bluegrass roots.  The result?  She racked up twenty Top 10 hits on the Billboard country chart, won CMA and ACM awards, and is rightly regarded as one of the greatest country singers of her time.

Patty first surfaced in country music in 1986.  By the dawn of the nineties, she had already been established as a bona fide star in country music.  She had become a member of the Grand Ole Opry in 1988, and she had her first number one hit in 1989 with "Timber I'm Falling In Love."

She entered the decade on a high note, scoring her second number one hit from her 1989 album Honky Tonk Angels.  "Chains" was built around a very simple hook, but Patty's performance could hardly have made the song more infectious.

Matraca Berg

While selecting material for her 1990 album On Down the Line, Patty chose to embrace the work of one of Nashville's left-of-center songwriters - Matraca Berg.  Patty recorded Matraca's upbeat and sassy pop-country composition, "I'm That Kind of Girl," and released it as the third single from the album.  "I'm That Kind of Girl" went on to become a Top 5 hit, and helped launch Matraca's successful songwriting career.  Matraca Berg went on to become one of the most celebrated country songwriters of all time.

Though Patty was quickly acquiring a sizable number of radio hits, she was not pleased with her record sales.  A belief arose that her label, MCA, was not giving her albums a sufficient level of promotion.  She replaced her brother Roger Ramey as her manager, and hired Larry Fitzgerald, but the change in management did not improve matters.  Eventually, Fitzgerald felt that it was time for Patty to change record labels.  He met with Patty's then-producer Tony Brown, and asked for Patty to be released from her contract with MCA.  An agreement was reached so that Patty could leave the label, but would still have an option to record with other MCA artists.  Patty released her last album for MCA, Up Against My Heart, in 1991.  She then signed with Epic Sony the next year.

But as Patty headed into the studio to begin recording a new album for Epic, she was faced with a new problem - a problem that nearly brought her burgeoning career to a permanent halt.  She and her husband/producer Emory Gordy, Jr. began to notice that her voice was lacking the strenght it once possessed, and Patty was feeling pain in her throat when singing.

Despite these problems, Patty embarked on a fall 1992 tour, and agreed to appear on the CBS-TV special Women of Country.  But not long after leaving on the tour, a visit to the doctor revealed that her vocal cords had developed an enlarged blood vessel.  Surgery was the only hope for correcting the problem, but there was no guarantee of her voice being fully restored.

Patty went ahead and sang in the television special, but she canceled the rest of her tour dates for that year.  She then underwent throat surgery on October 21, 1992, which left unable to speak for the next nine weeks, let along sing.

After a period of recovery, Patty re-entered the studio and attempted to sing for the first time in months.  "It was the greatest thing," she recalls.  Patty was elated to discover that her voice now had a deeper and fuller quality than ever before.  She even went back and re-recorded several songs that she had cut prior to her surgery, because, she says "I thought I could do them better."  On January 4, 1993 (Her 36th birthday) Patty made a triumphant return to the spotlight, performing on the stage of the Grandy Ole Opry - her first public performance since her surgery.

With the released of her new Epic album Only What I Feel - considered by many critics to be her personal best - Patty re-emerged stronger than ever, scoring her third number one hit with the album's lead single "Blame It On Your Hear."  The album was certified platinum.

Only What I Feel also produced one of Patty's best-remembered and most meaningful hits with "How Can I Help You Say Goodbye," which followed a woman through several life experiences in which she had to learn to say goodbye.  "How Can I Help You Say Goodbye" became a number two hit, and received CMA nominations for Single of the Year and Video of the Year.

Patty's hot streak continued with her platinum-certified 1994 release When Fallen Angels Fly, which spawned four Top Ten hits.  The album's first single was the comic rocker "I Try to Think About Elvis," in which a brokenhearted woman rattles off a list of things she thinks about to keep her mind off her departed ex-lover.  What's at the top of her list?  Elvis - of course.

Patty displayed her strong balladry skills on "You Don't Even Know Who I Am," one of the finest singles of her career.  The Gretchen Peters-penned song took a look at a failed marriage in a way that examines each spouse's point of view.  "You Don't Even Know Who I Am" was nominated for Song of the Year at both the ACM Awards and the Grammy Awards.

Patty's fine performances and strong material selection was rewarded in 1995 when she won the CMA Award for Album of the Year for When Fallen Angels Fly.  She was only the second female artist in history to receive the honor.

Patty's 1996 album The Trouble with the Truth produced five Top 20 hits, including the number one hits "You Can Feel Bad" (another hit single drawn from the Matraca Berg catalog) and "Lonely Too Long."  That year, Patty won Female Vocalist awards from both the ACM and CMA.

One of the album highlights was the single "A Thousand Times a Day" in which Patty compared the endeavor of forgetting a former lover to that of giving up an addiction, declaring that "Forgetting you is not that hard to do/ I've done it a thousand times a day."

Patty's 1997 album Long Stretch of Lonesomes saw her commercial success beginning to slow down.  The album produced no Top 10 hits, but three of its singles did enter the Top 20.  Lead single "You Don't Seem to Miss Me" (Click here to hear the studio recording) included vocals from Patty's musical hero George Jones.  Some radio stations, lacking respect for the legendary Jones, requested a version of the song in which his vocals were edited out, but Patty staunchly refused.  As a result, some stations would not play the song.  Nevertheless, the song still managed to reach hit status, peaking at a respectable #14, and winning a 1998 CMA Award for Vocal Event of the Year.

Patty's radio hits eventually dried up, as pop and rock once again took over country radio airwaves.  Her 2000 album Strong Heart produced two minor Top 20 hits, but Patty soon turned away from hitmaking to explore the traditional bluegrass music of her native Kentucky.  In 2001, she released her masterpiece of a bluegrass album - Mountain Soul, which sold decently, and was lauded by music critics.

Patty released two more mainstream country albums - On Your Way Home (2003) and Dreamin' My Dreams (2005).  The former yielded her final Top 20 hit ("Lovin' All Night," #18) and her final Top 40 hit ("On Your Way Home," #29).

After a two-year break from recording and touring, Patty hopped over to the Saguaro Road label.  She paid tribute to her traditional country influences with her stunning covers album Sleepless Nights, which received a Grammy nomination for Best Country Album.  Last year she released a new bluegrass album - Mountain Soul II.

Though Patty no longer has the support of mainstream country radio, her albums have continued to sell respectably, and she has continued to tour.  One of her most recent projects was her participation in the DRIVE4COPD charity, in which she sough to raise awareness about Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, the ailment which claimed the life of her sister Dotty Ramey.  Patty contributed a charity track, "Drive" to the cause (Read my review).

Patty continues to be a popular concert attraction for all who appreciate some good old-fashioned country music with a little mountain soul.  Next year, she will be inducted into the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame.