Best Country of 2006 -- The Next 15
The Dixie Chicks
Here in Holland, Texas, we’ve reluctantly concluded that records as fine as Cat Power’s The Greatest, Band of Horses’ Everything All the Time and Destroyer’s Destroyer’s Rubies are officially Not Country. Not so Amy LaVere’s equally excellent debut. Slight, but never insubstantial, This World Is Not My Home brings together elements of blues, jazz, and country into an often dark but compelling whole. Gliding effortlessly from Latin rhythms to classic old school honkytonk to cajun rhythms and back again, LaVere can be justifiably compared to artists as accomplished and respected as Lucinda Williams, Mazzy Star, and Jolie Holland.
Pretty Little Stranger
(Vanguard; US: 14 Nov 2006; UK: 13 Nov 2006)
Hoping to annoy the Sam Heck out of Alan Jackson, the hippy dippy creator of “One of Us” has moved on from empowered eastern themes and bland R&B covers to record one of the best country albums of the year. Six covers. Six originals. Pretty Little Stranger is all about balance. Beautifully performed songs from the likes of the Grateful Dead, Patty Griffin, and Beth Nielsen Chapman sit at ease against Osborne’s own material. And while the standout track is a heartfelt rendition of Kris Kristofferson’s “Please Don’t Tell Me How the Story Ends”, it’s actually only slightly better than originals like “After Jane” and the title track, which throbs, twangs, and intrigues in roughly equal measures.
Ripple in the Water
(Self-released; US: 3 Jan 2006; UK: Available as import)
Full of down-home charm and unlikely, sometimes cheeky rhymes, Ripple in the Water is a warm and engaging work, ripe with authentic detail. The title track is a direct feminine equivalent to the likeable braggadocio of songs like Dierks Bentley’s “What Was I Thinking”. Elsewhere, slow country blues rub shoulders with happy-sad country pop. And the stand-out track, “Jackson”, is the tale of a woman who gave away her child when she was just 15. Despite its heart-rending storyline, “Jackson” was actually inspired by Kessel’s dog of the same name, who had to be put down recently. Perhaps there’ll be another song for Jackson on her next CD?
Unglorious Hallelujah / Red, Red Rose
(Back Porch; US: 18 Jul 2006; UK: 18 Jul 2006)
Does anyone really have the time to listen to a four-disc collection from Vince Gill, except maybe his close family and friends? Not here in Holland, Texas, that’s for sure. However, Chip Taylor’s double CD—his first solo work in over five years—certainly hits the spot. Since Mark Knopfler and Emmylou Harris’s All the Roadrunning turned out to be considerably less than the sum of its parts, and Robert Earl Keen’s Live at the Ryman found itself appended to the dictionary definition of “disappointing”, it was a major relief to discover songwriters like Guy Clark and Taylor still on top of their game. Delivering quantity as well as quality, Taylor weaves fascinating tapestries of comment and protest, beauty and love, humor and sorrow across this pair of complementary CDs.
Bloom, Red and the Ordinary Girl
(Yep Roc; US: 7 Mar 2006; UK: Available as import)
Where debut Sweetwater bore sparse and plaintive southern textures, the second release from this North Carolina trio is musically more dense, and comes wrapped in smoky soul shades and occasional blurred jazz tones. These darker production values tend to elevate Caitlin Cary’s vocals above those of her colleagues Lynn Blakey and Tonya Lamm, and her deep rich emotive singing—at once both grounded and soaring—provides just about every highlight. Cary’s simply so very much at home in this setting it should probably be illegal.
(Thrill Jockey; US: 12 Sep 2006; UK: 11 Sep 2006)
While Lucinda Williams continues to agonize over her next release, Angela Desveaux is this year’s best substitute. Not even Anne McCue can get close. Full of self-assured, well-crafted, country pop variants, Wandering Eyes moves nimbly from contemplation to power pop, or from sorrow to pedal-steel swing, and never comes close to losing its footing.
(Big Machine; US: 31 Dec 1969; UK: Unavailable)
Despite intermittent resentment from the Old Guard, the best thing that’s happened to Country Music lately has been the revival of interest from the youth market. Gretchen Wilson’s empowered redneck helped. The tousled-haired interchangeables like Keith Urban and Dierks Bentley did their part. And the terminal absence of charisma elsewhere will certainly have encouraged the trend. But underneath it all, the country establishment can probably thank American Idol for helping Nashville to shift units in ever-increasing quantities.
According to Nielsen Soundscan, country sales are up more than ten percent over last year, while every other genre have declined and overall sales are down almost five percent. Although no one really believes Carrie Underwood was the best female singer in Country Music this year, she certainly did more than Sara or Martina to bring in all those Junior High dollars, and that has to have been worth a CMA award or two in anybody’s money.
While Underwood and lesser Idol competitors such as Kellie Pickler have minimal credibility at present, the 16 year-old Taylor Swift is the real deal. She’s had a full songwriter’s publishing deal since she was 14 and, most often in collaboration with Liz Rose, she penned every single song on her debut album, including the massive hit “Tim McGraw”. Combining Disney Pop with Country in approximately equal proportions, Taylor Swift is the pop-country album of the year.
(Capitol Records Nashville; US: 15 Aug 2006; UK: Unavailable)
A big man with a big hat, a likeably warm baritone, and a fine ear for a crowd-pleasing song, Trace Adkins is largely happy to take a good-humored look at the southern stereotypes he tends to espouse. But at the same time, there are some issues he takes too seriously for joking. Radio-friendly, video-friendly, Adkins is one of the very best performers in Hat County.
Although Rhonda Vincent is the undisputed Queen of Modern Bluegrass and a splendid singer to boot, her awards and industry plaudits become all but irrelevant when she phones in a tired collection like this year’s All American Bluegrass Girl. Alecia Nugent may not have the instrumental chops or voice of Vincent, but she’s trying harder. Never less than entirely convincing as she navigates the complete emotional scale, Nugent’s second album blends acoustic country and bluegrass with a satisfying pop sensibility.
It Just Comes Natural
(MCA Nashville; US: 24 Oct 2006; UK: 30 Oct 2006)
Strait’s 34th album does exactly what it says on the tin. It comes natural. There’s nothing forced here. No gimmicks. No clever-clever, too cool for school lyrics. Just traditional country with an occasional hint of swing. It Just Comes Natural is full of well-constructed, expertly delivered, and misleadingly simple songs. Like Bruce Robison’s “Wrapped”, four marvelous minutes of uplifting country pop. Or “Give It Away”, Strait’s 53rd number one hit single.
(Dualtone; US: 17 Oct 2006; UK: 10 Jul 2006)
At 65, Guy Clark sounds at least a generation younger than William Elliott Whitmore, and here on his 15th (I think) album, the Texan troubadour demonstrates he’s lost none of his knack for a phrase or melody. Openers “Walkin’ Man” and “Magdalene” set the bar almost too high, but the story-telling ballads “Funny Bone” and “Out in the Parking Lot”, the high-steppin’ Texas two-step “Exposi”, and the irresistible “Cinco De Mayo in Memphis” all rise to the challenge.
William Elliott Whitmore
Song of the Blackbird
(Southern; US: 29 Aug 2006; UK: 17 Jul 2006)
If Magnolia Electric Co. is stretching the country envelope in the direction of indie rock and the desert, then William Elliott Whitmore is pulling hard the other way. A performer who sings like his grandfather, Whitmore mines the roots of country music: blues, folk, gospel, and old-time. The final part of a trilogy that began with Hymns for the Hopeless and continued on Ashes to Dust, Song of the Blackbird is significantly better than its predecessors, and a distinct rural song cycle in its own right. Drought and deluge, growth and harvest, death and redemption, these are the themes that dominate this sparse and weathered work. Whitmore’s songs invite you to immerse yourself in the unadorned, purifying beauty of his lone voice and banjo, occasionally a guitar. And then, when he adds a little minimalist percussion and a keyboard to songs like “Red Buds” and “The Chariot”, the effect is quite magical.
Magnolia Electric Co.
(Secretly Canadian; US: 12 Sep 2006; UK: 9 Oct 2006)
The low-key hype says Magnolia Electric Co. has four distinct new albums in the can, and that Fading Trails features songs recorded for each of the four. Still, there are no glaringly mis-matched joins here. Whether the recordings were produced by Steve Albini (Nashville Moon), David Lowery (The Black Ram), or whoever, there’s an underpinning sense of voice and continuity that makes Fading Trails a deeply satisfying collection of dusty, damaged moments. Now if only Neil Young doesn’t sue.
Slaid Cleaves grew up in Maine, lives in Texas, and writes songs. He’s known for it. But Unsung is a collection of other people’s songs. Poignant, wistful, and frequently lovely, it’s a quiet record that repays your attention in multiples of ten. Karen Poston’s “Flowered Dresses” was the stand-out track on her 2001 release, Too Bad. In the hands of Cleaves, who accompanied the Austin-based Poston on the original, it becomes something quite different. Stripped of its hooks and tempo, this small-town tale of generations of struggling women assumes a mantra-like quality that has me reaching for the repeat button and planning a Flowered Dresses mix-tape. Unsung is rich with such moments.
George Jones and Merle Haggard
Jones Sings Haggard, Haggard Sings Jones: Kickin’ Out the Footlights…Again
(Bandit; US: 24 Oct 2006; UK: Available as import)
Jones sings Haggard. Haggard sings Jones. And the pair gives us four top-notch duets. Time has clearly taken its toll, but this is still a pleasant classic country groove—courtesy of two of its last living legends. Country Music seems to be in a funny place these days. While shiny country pop and barely disguised southern rock continue to drag the genre further into the mainstream, there’s also a rediscovered reverence for the old. Especially when it’s prepared to embrace the new. So it’s nice to see that this grand old pair has resisted the temptation to cover the Velvet Underground, Led Zeppelin, and Rammstein. Instead, their first collaboration since 1982 has something of the quality of a Frank Sinatra-Dean Martin stage show. Wouldn’t it be cool to see them take it out on tour?