2010 began with Taylor Swift winning Grammy’s Album of the Year award for Fearless, the top-selling album of 2009. She also had the two most-played radio songs of 2009. In 2010, she sold over a million copies in the first week of Speak Now, her third album. The New York Times (Nov 3, 2010) proclaimed it to be “a sales triumph” and 2010 “a notable year for country music”, in terms of sales. It wasn’t just Swift; the year was filled with country-music money-makers, including artists spreading that success beyond the confines of the genre.
Earlier in the year it wasn’t Swift you saw every time you turned on the TV or opened a magazine, it was the trio Lady Antebellum, who hit big with their second album. They were another face of country-music success 2010, but again not the only ones. In the fall, there was a streak of weeks where the #1 Billboard album was a new country release nearly every week, including heavy hitters Sugarland, Kenny Chesney, Toby Keith, and the Zac Brown Band.
Within the broader picture of records sales declining year by year, country stars have been doing well commercially, seemingly continuing to extend their reach beyond what was thought of as the genre’s audience. In some ways, this story runs parallel to the musical diversification of country. The ambitions of Sugarland, Lady Antebellum, and Taylor Swift are clearly bigger than one genre, and musically you can hear it, as they look towards ‘80s and ‘90s pop and rock music as much as they look towards the legends of country.
At the same time, it’s a mistake to think that country music’s past is disappearing. Some of the most noteworthy albums of the year came from legends who made their names decades ago, like Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, or from stars who reached popularity in each of the decades after that. For example, 2010 saw another new album by Reba McEntire, who signed her first record deal in 1975.
Jamey Johnson’s epic double-album The Guitar Song seems representative of the way the young and the old commingle in country music today. Clearly indebted to the “outlaw country” stars and lonesome-jukebox songwriters of the past, he’s also one of the genre’s rising stars (even with country radio all but ignoring him this year).
This synthesis of the past, present and future is so much of what country music is about these days. The traditions haven’t disappeared, but the music is changing all of the time. “It’s Just That Way”, like the Alan Jackson song says, though it’s also possible that for all of the genre’s seeming permanence, it’s always been changing.
In country music, as in the music industry overall, there is actually a persistent sense of impermanence, that we’re living in ever-changing times where the ground can shift from underneath you. Country artists seem in a constant struggle to keep up, to figure out what having a career in country music means these days. What does the album mean, for example? Keith Urban’s 2010 album has only eight songs. Blake Shelton temporarily bypassed the album with two successful “six-pak” releases; essentially two EPs spread apart in place of one album. On the flip side of that were artists trying extra-hard to give their albums a sense of importance, either through adopting a theme (Jerrod Niemann, Laura Bell Bundy) or lengthening it (Johnson’s double album).
A literal reminder of impermanence came in the spring, when the Cumberland River flooded Nashville, damaging the Grand Ole Opry House, other significant structures, and the homes, instruments, and memorabilia of so many country musicians. It was one of those moments where everyone involved in making country music (whatever kind of country that might be) came together to help, in the process paying tribute to the roots and legacy of country music.
(Arista; US: 30 Mar 2010; UK: 29 Mar 2010)
After a few more ambitious “concept” records, Alan Jackson pared back for his 16th studio album, a relatively simple collection of tried-and-true truckstop country songs about heartbreak, family matters, “the working man”, and weekends spent fishing. At this point in his career, Jackson has an affable casualness about his singing; he makes everything seem easy. On Freight Train, in theme the songs may seem generic, but it’s exactly that everyday quality that, in Jackson’s hands, make the songs feel like they’re capturing universal stories. It’s a Zen version of Jackson’s music, breaking it down to its base elements. Dave Heaton
They Call Me Cadillac
Randy Houser looks like a drywaller who will take your requests for Waylon covers in exchange for shots of Jack. Houser might, in fact, be country’s great democratizer: by splitting the difference between outlaw-country revivalism and modern hard country, Houser’s sophomore set has something for everyone. With his brawny, expressive vocals, Houser can belt out radio-friendly shitkickers like “Whistlin’ Dixie”, but it’s Houser the songwriter—his tough tunes like the rattling ballad “Addicted”, and the teflon honky-tonk of the title cut—that makes this Cadillac worth the ride. Steve Leftridge
I Am What I Am
(Vanguard; US: 20 Apr 2010; UK: 19 Apr 2010)
I Am What I Am
After over 45 years in country music, Merle Haggard has earned the right to comes across as the wise elder. That’s how he sounds on I Am What I Am, which comes close to the Grammy-seeking traps that legends can fall into, but eschews them with a shrug. Instead, he sounds like he’s sitting on the front porch, surrounded by his friends and family, watching the days go by, sharing with youngsters his observations on love, life, and music. It can be heard as a potential closing statement, and does contain looks backward to childhood and forward to the hereafter. Yet it also can be breezy, light, and fun. Dave Heaton
Achin’ and Shakin’
(Mercury Nashville; US: 13 Apr 2010; UK: 13 Apr 2010)
Laura Bell Bundy
Achin’ and Shakin’
Laura Bell Bundy’s career in Broadway musicals may prevent her from getting country cred, but country music is (and always has been) a rather big tent, not ready to turn away talented singers. There is something stagey about this album’s split into two stylistic halves—representing two approaches to heartbreak, sullen versus boisterous—but she inhabits each fully. The dancier “Shakin’” half has some of Dolly Parton’s ’80s cheekiness; on the “Achin’” half she seems to be drawing from the sadness of so many country singers before her, who were in turn drawing on the sadness of so many human beings before, and around, them. Heartbreak doesn’t care about cred. Dave Heaton