Whatever your taste in music, be it Country or Western, 2007 has been something of a disappointment when compared with recent years. 2006, for example, yielded a bumper crop. The Dixie Chicks released the rock, pop, and country album of the millennium so far. Jenny Lewis’ Rabbit Fur Coat was a thing of a beauty and a joy forever. The Wreckers’ Stand Still, Look Pretty and Taylor Swift’s eponymous debut delivered estimable country pop of the highest order. Neko Case’s Fox Confessor Brings the Flood was utterly beguiling. And artists as fine and varied as Carrie Rodriguez, Julie Roberts, Mindy Smith, and Jolie Holland all came across with music of the very best quality.
You have to look a little harder to find the diamonds in the Van Lear coal-mine that was the year that was, but they’re there. Honestly, they are. Lurking behind the biggest egos known to modern science and some of NashVegas’ most marquee of names.
Taking the egos first. The Eagles’ Long Road Out Of Eden sees Linda Ronstadt’s old backing back reinvent itself as the oldest boy band on the planet and release its first album of new studio material since 1979. They needn’t have bothered. Sprawling, self-important, steamingly hypocritical, and endlessly vapid, Long Road Out of Eden is a double-CD epic that took six years to record and takes even longer to listen to.
So please just download Glenn Frey’s lovely “You Are Not Alone” and move quickly along, because there’s nothing else to see here except a remarkable Steely Dan knock-off, an instrumental Dire Straits “homage” entitled “I Dreamed There Was No War” (puke!), and a whole lotta complaining about all kinds of obvious from the luxury of the Eagles’ super-sized California mansions. If you weren’t already aware, the Eagles are big on the environment now and are proudly demonstrating their resolute commitment to the planet by limiting the US distribution of Long Road Out of Eden to those social and environmental paragons Wal*Mart and Sam’s Club.
The title track and centerpiece of Long Road Out of Eden is based around Don Henley and Glenn Frey’s gleeful discovery that the biblical Garden of Eden may have been located in what is now Iraq. If you’re as cynical as I am, you can probably already imagine the rest, and we’d be right. Because, yes, it’s a 10-minute epic that begins with more than a minute of mournful Arabic instrumentation (colonialism, anybody?) and then proceeds to inform us that war is stupid and wasteful, that SUVs are stupid and wasteful, and that musical ring-tones are the work of Shaitan. While Henley obviously has a point about ring-tones, when he sings, “Now we’re driving dazed and drunk / bloated with entitlement / loaded on propaganda,” he obviously thinks he’s delivering an authoritative American Sermon from the Mount rather than exposing his own soft underbelly. The Eagles, I suspect, have always been an irony-free zone but now they’ve managed the deeply difficult trick of making Avril Lavigne look like a credible commentator on the modern malaise.
Coming from quite the other side of country music, the wonderful Live at Texas Stadium showcases concert performances featuring George Strait, Alan Jackson, and Jimmy Buffett. Unfortunately, although it was only released early this year, Live at Texas Stadium was recorded in 2004 and is therefore excluded from this year’s Best of Country selection for a violation of the space-time continuum.
Similarly, but different, I didn’t feel able to make a suitably convincing case for Oakley Hall (Galaxie 500 gone country), Band Of Horses, or even Okkervil River. Ditto Raising Sand, Robert Plant and Alison Krauss’s magnificently ethereal genre-hopper. Whereas the Sadies’ New Seasons simply fell short of expectations and the standards set by all the above.
Jumping back into the mainstream, while Martina McBride has never looked lovelier than she does on the cover of Waking Up Laughing, this fine singer simply doesn’t aim her undeniably top-notch vocals at anywhere near my side of the tracks. With an extreme material makeover, Martina could be the best damn thing on CMT and GAC. But although Waking Up Laughing includes a number of fine songs including “Cry Cry (Til The Sun Shines)” and “Beautiful Again”, it offers nothing halfway as strong as “Love’s the Only House”. Similarly, Trisha Yearwood’s Heaven, Heartache and the Power of Love is a traditional high-power country record that falls just a little short.
Kenny Chesney Just Who I Am: Poets & Pirates isn’t just the worst-named album of the year, it’s also one of the year’s biggest-selling pieces of Country product and a triumph of craftsman-like endeavor over actual inspiration. Which just about says it all for this crowd-pleasing but unremarkable performer. Every year since 2001, Kenny Chesney has played live to over one million US fans. This summer, as always, his was the highest-grossing country tour of the year, selling out NFL stadiums in cities as removed from the country heartland as Boston, Cleveland, Detroit, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Seattle.
Pleasant but unremarkable, Chesney 11th studio album sold more 100,000 copies on its day of release, and almost 400,000 in its first week, giving it the best weekly sales of any country album since Taking The Long Way shipped over 500,000 copies in March 2006. In its second week, however, Just Who I Am: Poets & Pirates was beaten out by the release of the Rascal Flatts album Still Feels Good. The only songs from Chesney album to make it onto my iPod were “Just Not Today” and his collaboration with George Strait, “Shiftwork”. It’s safe to say Rascal Flatts will never make that leap across the firewire because I really don’t see any merit in an outfit that takes ostensibly good ideas, drowns them like kittens in a syrup of glossy good taste, skins them, and then drags them out over four minutes where two-and-a-half would have been more than enough. It’s all enough to make you long for an American Idol or two.
I’m not sure if this makes her the New Bob Dylan, but there’s an alarming degree of snobbery among some of Lori McKenna’s long-term supporters. I’ve been told more times than often that Unglamorous is a sell-out, that in allowing Tim McGraw and Faith Hill to help her career she’s gifted her soul to NashVegas, happily joining the ranks of Music City’s many interchangeable Stepford Wives.
If you don’t know the story, the 38-year-old McKenna is one of America’s most gifted singer-songwriters. Working out of the home in the Boston suburbs that she shares with her plumber husband Gene and their five (count them, five!) children, Lori McKenna had released a series of four increasingly impressive independent albums—culminating in 2004 with the critically acclaimed Bittertown, before she was finally introduced to Nashville by her friend and fellow songwriter Mary Gauthier. At which point country music royalty immediately sat up and took notice.
While Sara Evans recorded a single Bittertown number, “Bible Song”, on her 2005 album Real Fine Place, Faith Hill included no fewer than three of McKenna’s songs on her 2005 release Fireflies. Hill’s choices were two of the stand-outs from Bittertown, “Stealing Kisses” and “If You Ask”, and the title track “Fireflies” which dates from McKenna’s 2001 release Pieces of Me. The Oprah Special that followed, “How Faith Hill Changed One Woman’s Life Forever”, could easily have been re-titled “How One Woman Dramatically Improved Faith Hill’s Last Album”. But you really have to take your cowboy hat off to Hill and McGraw for the open-hearted way in which they’ve befriended McKenna and introduced her into their world. Unglamorous was produced by McGraw and his long-time production partner Byron Gallimore and released on the pair’s Stylesonic Records through Warner Brothers; and McKenna was invited to open for Hill and McGraw on their 2007 Soul2Soul tour.
Unglamorous certainly shows signs of Nashville’s interference. The production is fuller, a little more polished, the playing is perhaps a little more tight, and a couple of the songs have been fine-tuned for radio-play. But McGraw and Gallimore haven’t imposed any kind of Faith Hill or Shania Twain straitjacket on McKenna. This is still very much her record. It’s familiar, full of gloriously detailed and narrative song-writing, and sung in the same simple, forthright style that she’s always used. While it lacks the intoxicating exuberance of Heartbreaker’s Hall of Fame, Unglamorous is a record rich with substance, insight, and meaning that will stay with listeners for a long, long time.
With a voice a little like a female Adam Duritz, McKenna always sings in the first person, effortlessly inhabiting her songs of everyday life in a manner that seems so simple, so natural, that you just know it must have taken a whole lot of skill and hard work to achieve. And when I say everyday life, I don’t mean red tag sales and soccer practice, I mean emotions like frustration and disappointment, love and hope, captured in their most natural habitat, the domestic settings in which we live our lives.
Though there’s nothing at all wrong with any of McKenna’s more upbeat numbers, her style works at its best on her slower songs. “Your Next Lover”, for example, is a rueful look at the end of a relationship (has it finished yet, or are they on the brink?) that sees the singer wishing:
“I hope she can fix you
I hope she’s someone who will never let you down
I hope she reminds you nothing of me and
As crazy as crazy as it sounds
I hope she’s beautiful”
—“Your Next Lover”
“Falter” recalls Bittertown‘s exceptional “Lone Star”. However, this time the singer is describing the way in which a high-school outsider faltered and eventually fell into the gutter because no-one would reach out to save him. She laments her own inaction—“What could I do? I was just a kid”—and wonders what she’ll say when her own kids ask her about him.
While Hill lends McKenna some soprano support on “Falter”, her husband contributes harmonies to the even darker “Drinkin’ Problem”. Set in the musical and lyrical shadows of the Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York”, this plaintive masterpiece takes an old country music theme and slowly, precisely, perfectly turns it right on its head. Although she’s calling in sick to work because her whole body hurts the morning after the night before, although she can’t get the clouds out of her head, although she believes that “this drinking might be the death of me,” the singer’s problem turns out to be with her husband: “No, I never touch the stuff / but Honey I’ll tell you what / you can’t count all the ways it touches me.”
There really isn’t a bad song on Unglamorous, but McKenna, McGraw, and Gallimore may have saved the very best for last. McKenna’s mother died when her daughter was six. And “Leaving This Life” shows all three sides of that coin: the way Lori McKenna believes she felt when her mother was dying, the way she feels now, and the emotions that she, as a mother of five, imagines her mother must have experienced.
“I don’t know what her voice sounds like
I don’t know what her skin feels like
I only know what it might feel like
When a mother holds her daughter
When that mother knows that she’s leaving this life”
—“Leaving This Life”
With the help of Hill, McGraw, and even Oprah, McKenna probably no longer needs to worry about the cost of putting her children through college. She has a song-writing credit on McGraw’s latest album and co-wrote three songs with Mandy Moore for her recent Wild Hope album. And in Unglamorous, she has absolutely the best country record of 2007. Even if some of her oldest fans disagree.
Now if only I can get Carrie Underwood to listen to Kate Jacobs.
Multiple songs: MySpace
Heartbreaker’s Hall of Fame
(Independent; US: 31 Oct 2006; UK: Unavailable)
Originally released independently in late 2006, Heartbreaker’s Hall of Fame pried itself through the narrowest of loopholes in the Nashville space-time continuum when it was picked up and re-released by Scott Borchetta’s Big Machine in March of this year.
And a good thing too, because Sunny Sweeney is natural where so much modern country music seems deliberate and forced. She’s sweet where others snarl for effect. And she’s fresh where too much NashVegas product is precisely that—shrink-wrapped, irradiated, and thoroughly soulless. And her Heartbreaker’s Hall of Fame is an irresistible debut from a newcomer who is Texas as hell and country to the core.
Singing with genuine gusto throughout, Sweeney starts by kicking a little extra honky tonk vim into Jim Lauderdale’s “Refresh My Memory” and then beats up on poor Libbi Bosworth’s “East Texas Pines” before sending herself up as the “Next Big Nothing”—“You won’t see my name on MTV… no one knows my name in Tennessee”.
Sadly, of course, Sunny Sweeney may well be the Next Big Nothing. Later on Heartbreaker’s Hall of Fame, she sings the tongue-twisting “If I Could” to especially good effect. A live crowd-pleaser for Sweeney, “If I Could” is also often performed by Elizabeth Cook, whose husband Tim Carroll actually wrote it, recorded it, and used it as the title track for a record of his own. Cook’s Balls may have been the fourth best country record of this year (official!) but it was also her fourth release this decade and while her name is known in Tennessee and she’s a regular performer at the Grand Ole Opry, she’s still a very long way from her first gold disc and no-one’s ever thought of asking her to stick her hands in wet concrete. So yes, Sweeney may disappear back to Longview, Texas while the likes of Carrie Underwood and Kellie Pickler cruise from well-orchestrated award ceremony to The Tonight Show and back again; but then again maybe we’ll all get lucky and she’ll be the next big something. Either way, none of those hermetically sealed country superstars will ever make a record as intoxicatingly authentic as Heartbreaker’s Hall of Fame.
“Lavender Blue” was originally a duet between Keith Sykes and Iris DeMent. In the hands of Sunny Sweeney and Jim Lauderdale, it’s drawling and wistfully melodic, and Sweeney seems totally at home singing the part of DeMent, who is truly one of America’s most marvelous singers. At a guess I’d say Sweeney’s just a fan, because she also covers DeMent’s own old-school Infamous Angel tearjerker “Mama’s Opry”.
On a record dominated by other people’s music, Sweeney’s own three original songs at least hold their own. “Slow Swinging Western Tunes” is shimmering and heartfelt with a twang that, oddly, seems to owe something to Mark Knopfler. “Heartbreaker’s Hall of Fame” is a down-and-dirty country blues waltz. And “Ten Years Past” is the overall stand-out track, making it clear that Sweeney is more than capable of taking on Miranda Lambert when it comes to eloquent songs about small towns in Texas.
Singing with a high end alto that’s travelled many a dusty road, Sweeney has a pure, wide-open country sound that refreshes the parts other country performers can’t reach. And during a frequently dull year for Nashville, her Heartbreaker’s Hall of Fame has been a much needed shot of ebullient epinephrine straight into the heart of Country Music.
Sunny Sweeney - Heartbreaker’s Hall of Fame
A trucker’s son with country music running rich in his blood, Joe Nichols is a modern classic country singer in the George Strait mold. And after three highly promising and increasingly successful major-label releases, the fourth, Real Things, sees Nichols taking his music to a new, higher level.
There’s nothing here as bouncy or brash as “Tequila Makes Her Clothes Fall Off”. And uncommitted audiences may have felt let down by the singer’s decision to downplay his rowdy radio-pleasing side on Real Things. But Nichols’ effortlessly tender baritone, his happy knack for wedding a contemporary sensibility to timeless tradition, and his apparently unerring taste in selecting material have all combined to make Real Things a latter-day masterpiece of understated country sentimentality and charm.
If you don’t believe me, first check out the quietly lovely “Who Are You When I’m Not Looking?” and then savor every last note of Nichols’ album-closing duet with Lee Ann Womack on the Blaze Foley-written, Merle Haggard staple “If I Could Only Fly”.
Multiple songs: MySpace
(Thirty Tigers; US: 1 May 2007; UK: 1 May 2007)
One of country music’s best kept secrets, Elizabeth Cook has the clearest, most beautiful country alto this side of the moon and it’s surely no coincidence that the near-title track of Balls, “Sometimes It Takes Balls to Be a Woman”, opened up like a punk rock “Stand By Your Man”, because Cook is all about coupling the old-school twang and traditions to her modern-day attitude.
Shunning the glossy country-pop sound, Cook covered the Velvet Underground’s “Sunday Morning” instead, kicking Lou Reed’s ass and making his song a country number whether it liked it or not. She also wrote and sang an achingly beautiful song about a troubled teenage girl called “Down Girl” that could have graced any Magnetic Fields record. Elsewhere, she does good things with old sounds. “Times Are Tough in Rock ‘N’ Roll” is a light-hearted lament about the state of the music industry that’s utterly dominated by a comically twanging mouth harp. “Don’t Go Borrowin’ Trouble” is a pure Loretta Lynn honky-tonk, rocked just so by husband Tim Carroll’s guitar. “He Got No Heart” rocks it like Wanda Jackson. The gently repetitive, melancholic and inspirational “Always Tomorrow” pitters perfectly under a precisely judged canopy of fiddle and piano. And “What Do I Do” drags us back to the honky tonk with some of the most outrageous vocal showboating this side of “Bohemian Rhapsody”. But then what else would you expect from a singer who named her cats after the Louvin Brothers?
Elizabeth Cook - Sometimes It Takes Balls to Be a Woman
It’s Not Big, It’s Large
(Lost Highway; US: 28 Aug 2007; UK: 27 Aug 2007)
Trapped behind an opening flourish of barnstorming country swing, Lyle Lovett is in resolutely introspective mood on It’s Not Big, It’s Large, his 50th birthday present to himself. A deep and solid work from an American original, it’s a record of the night, to be played when the shadows are drawing in and you’re beginning to feel aware of your own mortality. And yet, despite that somber description, it’s also chock-full of variety and fervor. The gospel-blues medley of “I Will Rise Up/Ain’t No More Cane”, for example, lasts a little over seven minutes and says more about the state of life, the universe and everything you care about than the Egos could manage in the 90-plus minutes of The Interminably Long Road Out of Eden. “All Downhill” is a jaunty examination of Lovett’s prospects over the next 50 years. Neither “Don’t Cry a Tear” nor “The Alley Song” would be out of place on Robert Plant and Alison Krauss’s Raising Sand. And “South Texas Girl” is a gloriously literary and tear-stained waltz across the breadth of Texas and (I think) the equally far-flung memories of youth. Elsewhere, “Up In Indiana” offers an upbeat lusty moment, while “No Big Deal” and “Make It Happy” both lead us off in the direction of something lazy, playful, and jazz-like. But then we return to church for a dedicated repeat performance of “Ain’t No More Cane” before Lovett leaves us with an acoustic and largely unnecessary version of “Up In Indiana”.
My neighbor Bubba told me he didn’t think It’s Not Big, It’s Large could really be counted as country music. So I sat him down, poured him a stiff one, played him the whole darn thing from start to finish, and asked him, “Well, if that’s not country, what is it?” He just grinned and asked me to play him “South Texas Girl” again.
Lyle Lovett and His Large Band - Sometimes Make It Happy
Apart from Joe Nichols, there’s no one at the New Nashville top table who understands country music like Brad Paisley. His music is simple, real, endlessly appealing, and absolutely country. Paisley never overreaches himself and when he does occasionally over-egg his down-home charm, at least it’s done for fun. With the exception of “Oh Love”, a tired duet with Carrie Underwood, there’s not one bum song on 5th Gear. Paisley’s fifth proper album continues the singer and guitarist’s enviable track record for wit, craft, and country traditions polished up just enough for Country Radio.
Multiple songs: MySpace
Ten years older than Miranda Lambert and either wiser or better advised, Gretchen Wilson successfully toned down her original balls-to-the-wall trailer persona on this, her largely excellent third album. While country rockers and beer-swillers show that Wilson remains utterly unafraid to rock, the persisting message of One of the Boys is that she’s still more compelled by introspection. The posters on her walls may still be Skynyrd, Kid Rock, Charlie Daniels, and Tanya Tucker, but this time around the CDs in her truck are all about Merle Haggard, Dolly Parton, and Loretta Lynn.
I guess you could say One of the Boys is Gretchen Wilson’s attempt to expose the super-secret identity behind her boisterous red neck super hero persona. If so, songs as strong as “Come to Bed”, “Pain Killer”, and “To Tell You the Truth” reveal an authentic. uncompromising woman steeped in the best traditions of this most marvelous music. Feminine, vulnerable, and strong, Wilson’s definitive moment here is “Heaven Help Me”, a confessional plea that someone should get Courtney Love to record, because it would make a marvelous book-end for her “Letter to God”.
“I have wounded those who love me
And refused to take the blame
I have hidden all my demons
But I cannot hide my shame
I’ve forgotten who I am
But I know you know me well
Heaven help me
Heaven help me
‘Cause I can’t help myself”
—“Heaven Help Me
More than one of the boys, indeed.
Multiple songs: MySpace
No. Really. The Blue States’ Most Hated, Toby Keith may have picked the wrong fight when he took on the Dixie Chicks, but his politics are considerably less rabid than you may have heard, and he’s slowly becoming my own personal Bruce Springsteen of Country. Not the self-important, dullardly Springsteen, you understand. But the bombastic, pedal to the metal of his HEMI-powered, chrome wheeled, fuel injected suicide machine, American icon Brooooooooce Springsteen.
Occasionally introspective, sometimes easy-going, always big-voiced, undeniably charismatic, quick-witted, and quite marvelous live, Keith is one of country music’s best performers and just about everything Rascal Flatts isn’t. And one day, when he really puts his mind to it, he will release an album that says something truly powerful about the state of America. While the unfortunately titled Big Dog Daddy is no such landmark release, it nestles nicely among Keith’s surprisingly impressive back catalog. Tracks such as “Wouldn’t Want to Be Ya”, “Love Me If You Can”, and—especially—his poignant cover of Fred Eaglesmith’s “White Rose” are worth a place on anyone’s iPod.
Toby Keith - Love Me If You Can
(Sony; US: 1 May 2007; UK: Available as import)
As demonstrated by the release of Live at Texas Stadium, Nashville has always occupied its own very special place in the space-time continuum, but I was still totally thrown by the decision of the Academy of Country Music to make Miranda Lambert its Best New Female Vocalist for 2007 at the expense of Taylor Swift. After all, Lambert released her eponymous debut album in 2002, placed third in the 2003 debut season of Nashville Star (USA/CMT), and released the million-selling Kerosene in 2005.
After her perfectly serviceable independent debut Miranda Lambert, Kerosene revealed all the progression and polish you might expect following three years growth and a substantial investment by Sony. Sadly, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend doesn’t continue the same artistic development and seems over-anxious to perpetuate Ran’s image as the Ashley Simpson of Country at the expense of her long-term career. Despite its excesses, the single “Kerosene” worked because of the conviction in Lambert’s delivery and the thrilling riff that underpinned her country wild-child angst. On Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, her attempts to dominate the uber-rebel role model market fall flat. The title track is simply a mistake: clumsy and ill-fitting, too frantic for her usually excellent vocals. And while “Gunpowder And Lead” is better, that fierce southern rocker flexes its six-string muscles too early, too often, and too long. Songs like these, essentially, are country music for people who don’t like country music.
And the true joys of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend are to be found—guess where—in proper country music. In Ran originals such as “Famous in a Small Town”, “Love Letters”, “Desperation”, and “More Like Her”; in accomplished covers of “Easy From Now On”, a languid ballad from Emmylou Harris’s Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town and—most particularly—Gillian Welch and David Rawlings’ “Dry Town”. The way Lambert delivers Welch’s conversational and witty lines is an absolute joy and a complete reaffirmation of her still young talent. Precise, deftly comic, and utterly felt, this version of Ran stands halfway, perhaps, between Tammy Wynette and Dolly Parton. Which, as someone once said, ain’t a bad place to be.
Multiple songs: MySpace
(Arista Nashville; US: 23 Oct 2007; UK: 29 Oct 2007)
Kelly Clarkson must occasionally rue the day she allowed 19 Management to direct her away from her obvious country roots. For all her intermittent pop success, there’s no doubt that if Kelly had gone country from the start, Carrie Underwood would be nothing but a foot-note. But you can only play the hand you’re dealt, and Underwood has certainly seized every opportunity with style and determination.
A significant improvement on 2005’s merely competent Some Hearts, Carnival Ride is also a little more country than Underwood’s very pop debut and gives the young singer plenty of opportunity to revel in her considerable vocal talents. Just 40 seconds into the opener “Flat on the Floor”, for example, she’s giving us phrasing worthy of Robert Plant on some very Led Zeppelin baby-baby-babies. On the down-side, there’s nothing exceptional here, too much that’s trite, and a little too much over-singing. “I Know You Won’t”, for example, could have benefited from a little less of Underwood’s kitchen sink. But on the whole, Carnival Ride gives us more than enough to indicate that it will take some shifting to get Underwood from the top of the young country pile. Then again, Kelly Clarkson is touring with Reba McEntire early next year, so who knows what 2008 may bring?
Multiple songs: MySpace