Labels can be misleading. My Prada suit, for example, is entirely genuine, if faded at the seams, but the handbag I picked up outside Bloomingdales probably isn’t. Labels can be especially difficult when you’re attempting something as apparently fatuous as writing about music. It’s useful to have a shortcut to a shared frame of reference, but even as our finest writers would struggle to explain red to the perennially allegorical blind man, so I can’t create a concise definition of Country Music that makes sense to my ears.
Mostly, I blame Nashvegas, Country Radio, and the chasm between Mainstream Country Music and what, for want of a better term, we’re going to have to call Alternative Country, Folk, and Bluegrass. I enjoy a great mainstream country single as much as the next man (who happens to be called Bubba), but so much of what Music Row is selling today is just middle-weight rock and pop with a vaguely southern twang and slightly more interesting lyrics. So is it any wonder I struggle to shelter my selective love of Blake Shelton under the same umbrella as my complete and undying affection for Lucinda Williams? Of course it’s not.
In the end I decided to trust my ears. So now, leaving Academia, Pedantry, and even Austin far behind, PopMatters is entering Holland, Texas. Population 1,106. The absolute center of God’s Own State. Where we consider Country Music to be a very broad church indeed. Catholic even. And where we hold this truth to be self-evident: that at least five of the ten best records released this year were country records. Even if Country Radio might beg to differ.
The Reverend Alan Jackson has long complained about performers who hop genres in search of success. Especially those who’ve “Gone Country”. In his 1994 hit of the same name, a Las Vegas lounge singer and the last living folkie in New York both set off for Nashville in search of the redneck dollar. Today, 12 years later, she’s no doubt drinking herself to death in a trailer on Murfreesboro Road, while he’s writing hits for Carrie Underwood and Paris Hilton—who’ll be releasing a country album shortly after her bestiality tape hits the Internet.
Not everyone goes country because they need to get paid, or feed their craving for attention. Jenny Lewis was already doing very nicely when she found herself drawn to the country and folk traditions that inform her marvelous Rabbit Fur Coat. And the Wreckers’ Stand Still, Look Pretty was less a calculated career move and more the natural consequence of Michelle Branch’s decision to write and record with her friend Jessica Harp.
No one would accuse Solomon Burke or Norah Jones of trying to steal the chicken fried chicken from the mouths of Alan, Denise, and all their little Jacksons. But while Rabbit Fur Coat and Stand Still, Look Pretty are both remarkable records, Burke’s overwrought singing turns Nashville, his collaboration with Buddy Miller, into an uncomfortable, ill-fitting experience while Jones’s side project, the Little Willies, simply misses its mark.
While her exquisite voice caresses the material just so, Jones’s piano tends to intrude, too frequently implying jazz when humble honky tonk is all that’s called for. The Little Willies are actually best when Richard Julian takes over at the microphone but even then they’re still only producing Country Music for the Pottery Barn set.
With Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch, and the Patties Griffin and Loveless all contributing to Nashville, you might have expected Burke and Miller to have created one of the year’s great albums. But no. When you listen to Burke’s performance of Miller’s “That’s How I Got to Memphis” or “Does My Ring Burn Your Finger”, you find yourself longing for Lee Hazlewood or Lee Ann Womack. Sadly, the 77 year-old Hazlewood’s Eddie Izzard-inspired Cake or Death was hardly The Man Comes Around, and Womack failed to release a new record at all during 2006. Fortunately, however, lots of other people did.
Taking the Long Way
(Sony; US: 23 May 2006; UK: 12 Jun 2006)
“I hate it. It’s ignorant, and it makes country music sound ignorant. It targets an entire culture—and not just the bad people who did bad things.”
—Natalie Maines discusses Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)” with the Los Angeles Daily News
While certain events may have hastened the Dixie Chicks' disenchantment with Nashville, the divorce was on the cards long before Natalie Maines opened her big punk rock mouth live on stage at the Shepherd's Bush Empire in London.
The Dixie Chicks were first formed in 1989 by four schoolfriends from Addison, Texas. But if we stipulate that when Maines joined the founding-sisters Martie Maguire and Emily Robison in 1995 it was the birth of a whole new band, then the Chicks are the only female group to sell more than ten million copies of each of their first two albums. Between
Wide Open Spaces (1998) and Fly (2000), the trio racked up 14 hit singles including five country chart number ones. Boldly abandoning Music Row at the height of their success and returning instead to Texas, the Chicks pronounced themselves unhappy with their royalties and began a two-year lawsuit against record label Sony, declaring themselves free agents in the process. Recorded during those lawsuit years, the Chicks’ third album was an unlikely successor to their two diamond-selling blockbusters. Released, post-lawsuit, on the group’s new Sony imprint Open Wide Records, Home marked a signal change in direction for Country Music’s golden girls—both musically and otherwise. If it wasn’t bad enough that the Dixie Chicks had chosen to record an acoustic album with a deep bluegrass feel, their decision to open Home with Darrel Scott’s “Long Time Gone” and to release the same song as a single was a clear and direct attack on both NashVegas and Country Radio.
“We listen to the radio to hear what’s cooking, but the music ain’t got no soul
Now they sound tired but they don’t sound Haggard.
They’ve got money but they don’t have Cash.
They got Junior but they don’t have Hank…”
—“Long Time Gone”
Nonetheless, “Long Time Gone” hit number two on the country charts, and was the first Dixie Chicks single to breach the Billboard Top Ten. And the “uncommercial” Home, the trio’s best album to that point, sold more than six million copies. In time, it may even have matched the success of its predecessors, if only Natalie Maines had held her tongue. But then that just wouldn’t have been her.
“She needs wide open spaces
Room to make her big mistakes”
—Dixie Chicks, “Wide Open Spaces”
I’d admired Maines’s bold criticism of Toby Keith—although I also believe there’s another side to that whole story—but I was less than impressed by her dumb little comment in London. Not because I objected to the sentiment, timing, or venue. But simply because it struck me as a piece of unthinking and opportunistic, crowd-pleasing bullshit. And because it was a Dumb. Little. Comment. With no depth, thought, or substance. I was equally unimpressed by the singer’s disingenuous and self-serving “apologies”, and by the subsequent contradictory retraction. From here in Holland, Texas, the only thing Maines actually managed to achieve—beyond derailing her own career—was the unlikely feat of making the President look like a statesman by comparison.
While Maines has always been hot-headed and rebellious, and Martie Maguire has recently developed the habit of inserting her own pedal extremity into her oral cavity, it’s obvious the Dixie Chicks were badly shocked and hurt by the fallout from that one Dumb Little Comment. And equally obvious the trio has a post-DLC agenda of self-aggrandizement and marketing through martyrdom. Happily, this all becomes irrelevant when you listen to Taking the Long Way. Honest, intimate, melancholic, and brave, typified by plangent strumming, stunning vocals, and glorious harmonies, this is the indisputable country, rock, and pop album of the year.
The opening (and near title) track “The Long Way Around” is a rising and classically heroic four-and-a-half minutes of romantic rock lyricism and acute self-awareness. It’s sung quite beautifully by Maines, who’s clearly determined to tackle her critics and enemies head on. She can’t, she says, be anyone else, or be anything other than what she is. And if that means she’s going to run into trouble from time to time, then so be it.
“Well, I fought with a stranger and I met myself
I opened my mouth and I heard myself It can get pretty lonely when you show yourself
Guess I could have made it easier on myself”
—“The Long Way Around”
Is there a touch of self-pity here? Of course there is. The second song, “Easy Silence”, for example, is a lavish tribute to the loved-one who provides a shelter from the storms that surround the singer. But there’s not too much wallowing really. Taken as a whole, Taking the Long Way is less an indirect plea for understanding and forgiveness than a clear and determined acceptance of The Way Things Are, and a bold statement of future intent. So, although the DLC rears its head frequently, there’s far more here than just that single headline issue. And it’s all good.
“Lullaby”, for example, pitter patters enchantingly, almost like a round at times, for nearly six full minutes while Maines and the sisters sing of their undying love for their children. “So Hard” is a heartfelt portrayal of the problems that infertility can bring to even the strongest relationship. And “Silent House” is a remarkable country rock song of remembrance for a relative lost to Alzheimer’s. The absolute stand-out, however, is “Voice Inside My Head”. An impassioned and hook-laden song of regret that might relate to adoption or even to young love gone awry, but which almost certainly refers to a youthful abortion.
However skeptical I am (plenty) towards the promotional propaganda that’s surrounded Taking the Long Way, this is a truly outstanding record made by a trio that are much more sinned against than sinning. It seems Country Radio loved the Chicks when their kicking-ass-and-taking-names attitude was directed at comedy wife-beaters and stereotyped dead-beats, but not when it struck a little closer to home. Even today, a number of Houston radio stations seem happy to take the credit for the cancellation of a local Dixie Chicks concert because they refused to accept the promoter’s advertising for the show. Well, fuck them and the imagination-free playlist they rode in on. Here in Holland, Texas, we’re fixin’ to declare fatwa on Country Radio, I can tell ya.
It’s been equally disturbing to witness the self-righteous snobbery of Blue State bigots who think the hysterical reaction to Maines’s DLC somehow defines all rednecks, country fans, Southerners, and Texans. Nothing could be further from the truth. There’s no single ideology in Country Music, or in the South. What there is, however, is a massively monopolistic control of radio in the United States. Cheered on by right-wing commentators, it was these media giants who instigated and orchestrated the book-burning hate campaign against the Dixie Chicks. Cumulus Media, for example, banned them from each of their 300 stations and hosted CD-smashing ceremonies outside their Atlanta HQ. Clear Channel, owner of 1200 radio stations and strident supporters of George W. Bush, now claim they didn’t ban the Dixie Chicks at all, but that’s not how I remember it. Whatever the truth, just about every Country Radio station scrambled to jump on the hate-mongering right-wing bandwagon before it left town, lest the public think them traitors or, worse, liberals.
Although the sight and sound of Maines, Maguire, and Robison turning around, biting off the hand that fed them, and spitting the fingers one by one into the dog’s bowl is undeniably powerful and enjoyable, it’s to be hoped that they don’t turn their backs entirely on their roots. Of course, their relationship with Country Radio is probably damaged beyond repair. Their case continues to feature as Congress ponders the future of the radio industry and, as one Country Radio programmer has said, the first single from Taking the Long Way, the excellent “Not Ready to Make Nice”, was little more than “a four-minute fuck-you” to the format. Similarly, it’ll be a cold day in July before the Chicks will kiss and make up with Nashvegas. While the trio’s music was being banned, their CDs destroyed, their homes vandalized, and death threats were commonplace, they received scant support from their industry, and can hardly be blamed for believing that Music Row and many of its influential conservative stakeholders were actually complicit in the witch hunt. Toby Keith, for example, was applauded for his repeated public attacks on Maines, while her retaliatory FUTK tee shirt drew a whole fresh batch of hypocritical approbation.
When a certain Stephen Patrick Morrissey received a single death threat after comments he made on stage in Fort Worth, he promptly cancelled all his remaining shows in Texas and returned to his snug West Coast hideaway, blaming “hoarse vocal chords”. More punk and more honest than Moz, and with far bigger balls, the Dixie Chicks could and should be a big part of the future of Country Music. The best release in any genre this year, Taking the Long Way is a record Nashville and Country Radio should have embraced with open arms. Because as the Chicks continue to evolve, they’re capable of extending the artistic boundaries of the music they love, and helping to promote Country Music far beyond its current constituency. Perhaps it’s time for the Chicks’ critics to make nice?
Rabbit Fur Coat
(Team Love; US: 24 Jan 2006; UK: 23 Jan 2006)
If Jolie Holland is right, we’re going to see all kinds of punk and indie types migrating to country music, driving Alan Jackson into penury, insanity, or both. Rabbit Fur Coat sets the bar almost impossibly high. As her song “I Never” on Rilo Kiley’s More Adventurous first suggested, Lewis sees the deep, clear, honest beauty in country music. Presumably she responds not only to the melodies and textures, but also to the great story-telling tradition of the form. And perhaps to the way that strong females can thrive and even dominate within the genre.
Developed over a two-year period, Rabbit Fur Coat is both a thing of a beauty and a joy forever. Folk, country, pop, and Southern gospel are fused into an ageless and effortlessly captivating record that, in quite the oddest way, reminds me very much of Loretta Lynn’s Van Lear Rose. Wrapped with care within the soft soprano harmonies of the Watson Twins, Jenny Lewis’s voice is deep, sensual, and quite extraordinarily expressive, handling all measure of emotions with a constant mesmerizing grace. Like Neko Case, she bends her voice at will around her intricate, twisting lyrics as if it was the easiest thing in the world. If I could own only one record that was released during 2006, this would be the one.
Stand Still, Look Pretty
(Maverick; US: 23 May 2006; UK: Available as import)
The Wreckers may owe a large proportion of their success to the rift between the Dixie Chicks and Country Radio, but hey, it’s an ill wind that blows nobody good. Harmony rich, melody deep, there were very few records released this year that could even approach the sheer irrepressible quality of Stand Still, Look Pretty. There’s a well-worn story about how Michelle Branch (famous/brunette/23) first encountered Jessica Harp (unknown/blonde/24) and how and why they decided to form the Wreckers. But really, who cares? The important thing is there’s not a bad song or performance on the pair’s first record together. And that Branch and Harp wrote everything except for Patty Griffin’s “One More Girl” and the chart-topping single “Leave the Pieces”, which was written by Jennifer Hanson and Billy Austin. It’s clear Branch understands there’s much more to Country Music than just Tim, Toby, and Keith. Together with Harp in a marriage of apparent equals, she’s blended her pop-rock sensitivity with traditional country values to create a record that, if both groups will forgive me, really is good enough to have been the record the Chicks might have made instead of Home.
Fox Confessor Brings the Flood
(Anti-; US: 7 Mar 2006; UK: 6 Mar 2006)
I’ve always loved a good Neko Case record, though I could never eat a whole one—see also horses and children. But now, four years on from Blacklisted, the only singer the PopMatters Semantics Police will allow me to describe as a Flame-Haired Chanteuse has finally created something I can devour at a single sitting, and return to repeatedly. No regurgiation needed, obv. While Case’s continuing evolution has led her down lyrical roads as abstruse as any she’s traveled before, this time the scenery is so beguiling you’re compelled to stay on the bus. Supremely confident, her phrasing always a match for her material, the F-H C drives her rich, gorgeous voice at full throttle through dramatic twists and jaw-dropping turns, down into deep emotional canyons and up over shimmering joyous pop peaks. Fox Confessor‘s one helluva ride and no mistake.
(Capitol; US: 24 Jan 2006; UK: 23 Jan 2006)
I’m not sure who Johnny Cash was singing for when he recorded the lovely “Rose of My Heart” for A Hundred Highways, but it would be nice if it was his daughter Rosanne. And it would be equally nice if her Black Cadillac received even half the plaudits lavished on that coda to her father’s long life and career.
Inevitably, the first voice you hear on Black Cadillac belongs to Johnny Cash. The obvious inference is this is a record about the death of her father, but Rosanne Cash lost her mother and step-mother as well, and all within the space of just 15 months. And since she doesn’t seem to share the bold religious faith of her father, this dark, complex, and deeply personal collection of songs must be an important part of her mourning process. Looking back, but also forward, reconciling her past with both her present and future, she quotes Christmas Carols, inserts snippets of her father’s voice into her songs, and finishes with precisely 71 seconds of silence for Johnny Cash, who was 71 years old when he died. Musically, lyrically, and spiritually, Black Cadillac is a deeply impressive record.
American V: A Hundred Highways
(Lost Highway; US: 4 Jul 2006; UK: 3 Jul 2006)
“Hello, I’m Johnny Cash. I’m dead, and I’m making more money than ever before.”
Rick Rubin claims the songs on American V: A Hundred Highways “...are Johnny’s final statement…the truest reflection of the music that was central to his life at the time…the music that Johnny wanted us to hear.” This has to be an assumption on his part since Cash recorded the vocal tracks shortly before his death in 2003 and Rubin’s arrangements weren’t recorded until two years later. Nonetheless, there’s an intense emotional power to these songs that renders the issue all but irrelevant.
On “Like the 309”, the last song he ever wrote, Cash confesses wryly to a shortness of breath, openly acknowledging a frailty in his voice that’s both distressing and deeply effective. While Cash finds a last reserve of his old power to warn a long list of sinners that “God’s Gonna Cut You Down”, still the overwhelming (and obviously accurate) impression is that these are the words of a dying man. “Help Me”, for example, is an appeal to Cash’s God that makes it quite plain this is a man at the end of his road. A man who knows that in the end, we’re all alone. A man who may even, in the final analysis, have been grateful for the release.
Mindy Smith’s difficult second album is less immediate than One Moment More, but a subtle and enduring work all the same. At her best, Smith combines the more prosaic and traditional American singing style with the ethereal reach and feel of a Liz Fraser or Harriet Wheeler. Lap steel guitars nuzzle at the neck of pop crescendos. Timeless country themes make out with classic English indie sounds. Buddy Miller guests on “What If the World Stops Turning”. And “You Just Forgot” rings like the purest, clearest, lo-fi bedroom classic every recorded. Underneath this alluring collision between trad-Americana and British indie tendencies, there’s a solidity and a strength of purpose that reveals Smith to be an intelligent and talented performer who should be watched closely and enjoyed often.
Seven Angels on a Bicycle
(Back Porch; US: 15 Aug 2006; UK: 28 Aug 2006)
After three albums of duets with Mr. Chip Taylor, this is Rodriguez’s first official solo outing. But guess what? Taylor wrote the vast bulk of the material, and produced. A cynic might assume someone somewhere sees the chance to clean up by launching the almost indecently attractive Rodriguez as a brand in her own right. Regardless, Seven Angels on a Bicycle shows the singer and fiddler beginning to paint with fresh colors. Occasional slashes of free-form jazz, tastes of India (borrowed, perhaps, from Joan Osborne), and even electronic pop all play nicely with each other and with Rodriguez’s frequently introspective, low-key material. Meanwhile, over on the other side of the tracks, numbers like “Never Gonna Be Your Bride” and “I Don’t Want to Play House Any More” are as fine as any traditional country songs recorded this year.
Men and Mascara
(Mercury Nashville; US: 27 Jun 2006; UK: 26 Jun 2006)
Julie Roberts’s second album takes up where she left off, walking the long thin line between country and blues, and making it look easy and fun. The superlative title track details a single moment in the life of an older woman who ain’t never getting no younger. A close cousin to “Wake Up Older”, the standout track from Roberts’s debut, “Men and Mascara” couples a simple, unobtrusive arrangement with a true signature vocal performance from one of our finest interpretative singers. Not every song is as perfectly judged or performed, but Men and Mascara works hard to maintain through slow, humid, country wails; rueful mid-paced tales; and even the occasional sledgehammer country pop hook.
Springtime Can Kill You
(Anti-; US: 9 May 2006; UK: 8 May 2006)
A true-born native of Holland, Texas, Cousin Jolie is out there on the frontline with William Elliott Whitmore, dragging the country music envelope back towards its roots, while simultaneously stretching it out in the direction of the punk and indie movements. I once read an interview with Holland that struck a couple of palm-muted power chords with me. Punk rockers, she said, full-grown punk rockers don’t listen to punk anymore. And she was right. I was a punk rocker, and I’m grateful that men like Lydon, Shelley, Strummer, Smith (TV), and Smith (ME) were there when I needed them. And equally grateful for Hanna (K) and Love (C). But now I’m full grown, I’m searching for something with a little more…I don’t know…substance? And I find it in Country Music. And in records like Springtime Can Kill You. Drawling soft, slow, and sweet like molasses; poetic and mesmerizing; restrained and yet giddy with a sense of quiet abandon, Cousin Jolie’s second album proper builds with dramatic success on the mixed bag unpredictability of Escondida. Dusty, insidious, and seductive, it’s clearly not for everyone. But like that good ol’ fashioned morphine, it’s ridiculously easy to develop the habit.