[6 December 2011]
At first it seemed like an especially quiet year in country music, and in some ways it might have been. The first six months saw only a few big-name acts, or even semi-big ones, release albums. Several of the top sellers on the country charts, for much of the year, were albums released last year or the year before. More importantly, there were there few big surprises, not many exciting new movements or trends to stop you in your tracks. That was true whether you tend to be drawn more to the biggest-selling acts, to the “alt-country” side of the genre, or to the most traditional of today’s performers.
At the same time, country is country. Like the mountains, rivers, and wind that country singers sing about (or, for that matter, the pick-up trucks, the cold beer and the wise man sitting at the bar; the modern equivalents), it always is. It rolls on. The surface-level styles shift and mutate, but at its heart country music is. So this seeming off year for country was also a stellar year for country. The apparent state of stasis might have made, in the end, for a more exciting year for the genre, one where there wasn’t one dominant voice or story, and definitely not one obvious approach to take in tackling the genre.
The expected and the unexpected happened. Big stars released albums that landed with a thud of nonchalance, while others quietly surprised us. Legends kept steadfastly at it, adjusting for our times, while younger artists followed in their steps, yet followed in their own distinctive ways.
The story of the year was about the new and the old. Half of our top ten list is taken up by singers who started recording somewhere between 1961 and 1981. The other half includes three debut albums, a third album from a major-label artist following his own track in that world, and a fourth album from an indie-label group still getting their name out there. The old-timers and the newcomers alike are looking both backwards and forwards. The same can be said for the genre itself, which is always about its past as much as its present and future. Mostly, they all come together at once, and share a beer at that proverbial honky-tonk. Dave Heaton
Ghost on the Canvas is Glen Campbell’s final album. Diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2009, Campbell disclosed his illness earlier this year as he prepared for Ghost’s release and a subsequent tour. He and producer Julian Raymond co-wrote many songs on the album, although the Paul Westerberg-penned title cut remains the record’s real triumph. There’s an undeniable sense of both resignation and victory in Campbell’s voice as he sings the track, a performance that would easily make a younger man’s career and here makes the veteran performer’s impending departure all the more poignant. Other highlights include “Hold on Hope” (from Guided By Voices leader Robert Pollard) and Teddy Thompson’s typically fine “In My Arms”. The Campbell and Raymond numbers, namely “A Thousand Lifetimes” are equally fine and mighty in their resonance. To borrow a phrase from Westerberg, sadly beautiful. Jedd Beaudoin
9Girls Guns and Glory
Girls Guns and Glory’s Sweet Nothings showcases an alt-country band coming firmly into its own at long last, a worthy album to push the band closer to mainstream acceptance. Though they’re still far from household names outside their native Boston, Ward Hayden and company bring traditional honky-tonk country and Americana into a modern country rock setting, melding Yoakam-esque vocals with the most uncompromising musicianship you’ll find outside the confines of Nashville. Hayden’s songwriting takes a big leap forward on this album, featuring crisp, clean melodies which stick in your head without feeling overly cluttered with conflicting ideas. A clear standout is “Nighttime”, with the straight-ahead propulsion Johnny Cash popularized, layered atop steel guitar, handclaps, and mandolin pickings, all providing perfect balance to Hayden’s trademark wail. Sweet Nothings blazes its own trail, proving Girls Guns and Glory are ready to play with anyone, anytime, anyplace. Jonathan Sanders
Co-ed duo Steel Magnolia is that loud couple you’d rather not double date with, because they’ll spend the whole evening making out, fighting, talking in cutie-pie voices, and busting out two-part harmonies with one another. Listen anyway. What might seem gloopy and embarrassing from a table away sounds like vibrant couples (or coupling?) music on record, especially as produced by Dann Huff, himself no stranger to bright shiny pop hits. These 12 duets represent a thorough tour of true love at every stage, and the album comes alive in Meghan and Joshua’s voices—they seem to derive physical, even erotic, pleasure from the act of harmonizing together. Josh Langhoff
After 25 studio albums, we don’t expect George Strait to surprise us. He’ll do something slightly different, like one Spanish song, and it’s treated like news. While this does feel like just another solid Strait album, it also surprises. It has a dual nature; half more laidback than usual and half especially serious. The lead singles were the upbeat face of the album; hiding behind them is a stark portrait of alcoholism, a song about how we’re all addicted to some kind of poison, and an especially moody, almost Gothic lost-love song. Then there’s a ridiculous goof of a fishing song, reminding us that his music is more well-rounded than we think. Dave Heaton
At 74 Merle Haggard continues to surprise and continue the fine tradition of the Bakersfield sound. The California-born legend wrote or co-wrote the majority of the songs here (including revisiting some past glory), proving that he remains one country’s best songwriters. “Too Much Boogie Woogie”, “Down on the Houseboat” and “Laugh It Off” (in which Haggard, who once boasted about Oklahomans not smoking marijuana, sings the praises of Humboldt Co. bud) are three of the best, although “Workin’ Man Blues” (with pal Willie Nelson and son Ben Haggard) holds its own with those as well. The spirit of Johnny Cash hovers in a few corners, namely “Cocaine Blues” and the charmingly imperfect “Jackson” with current wife Theresa Haggard. Truth be told, it sounds like The Hag is just getting started. Jedd Beaudoin
Dolly Parton’s 41st studio album, Better Day set out to liven up contemporary country music by taking things back to her gospel roots, while shying away from the doomsday predictions we’ve all heard so much about. “People’ve been talking about the end of times ever since the world began,” she says on “In the Meantime,” which serves as a perfect call to arms: if the world’s going to end eventually—whether it’s in a day, a week, or a million years—why don’t we enjoy life while we’ve got it? Dolly’s certainly taking her own advice, as Better Day is her most lively, entertaining work in the last decade, at the very least. Packed full of gems, the album is one you can play from start to finish and continue to find hidden reasons to love it long after the first play. “Together You & I” showcases Dolly’s amazing voice, deserving to be a hit single even if she’ll never get the radio distribution working on her own terms. But it’s “I Just Might” which stands mountains above the rest, a stunning ballad which, when the dust settles, may go down among this legend’s best work. Better Day isn’t a comeback, because Dolly Parton’s never gone anywhere and she’s not apologizing for that. Rather, this is a statement that she’s heading into her sixth decade as a recording artist while showing no signs of falling off artistically. That’s more than enough reason to stand up and cheer. Jonathan Sanders
Like other great musicians breaking into Nashville, Randy Montana’s debut album got delayed and released quietly, digital only. That wrangling doesn’t show in the songs, but it fits them—his people are always running to escape bad situations. Montana has an eye for images that capture the feelings in his songs precisely, and an unassuming way of keeping the music in sync with that mood. Details haunt us like they haunt the song’s characters: roses that disappear into thin air; a matchbook with a would-be mistress’ phone number and name scrawled on it (he thinks it says Kate); rain hitting a window, sounding like it’s trying to speak. Each stands in for complex stories, emotions, and ideas. The album is filled with all three, centered especially on the decisions we make and second-guess. Why do we keep losing, why do we keep running, what should we have done? The people in these songs ask those, but are moving too often to stop and ponder for long. Dave Heaton
On Chief, Eric Church plays the cad, honing his voice into pure aggressive TWANG. He’ll pick a fight with your boyfriend and then graciously let you buy him a drink. After you dump his sorry liver, he’ll drown his sorrows in breakup songs that sting like prime Taylor Swift. It figures that this album’s most perfect line, “Here’s to all us haters of old lovers’ new last names”, is a toast. But rather than weepy honky-tonkers, Church and producer Jay Joyce have made wall-to-wall classic rock tunes, including a Springsteen ode that sounds more like John Waite. And the singles are phenomenal. In 2011, no song embodied America’s racial and class tensions like “Homeboy”; few songs chronicled our subsequent need to medicate those tensions like “Drink in My Hand”. Josh Langhoff
You’re forgiven if you’re imagining a full-out six-string assault from this album. Sure, there are some tasty licks, laudable leads, and plenty of hot playing, but the focus, as you probably truly expect, is on top-notch songwriting, which Gill delivers front to back, starting with the opening title track. Along the way we’re treated to soulful turns such as “When the Lady Sings the Blues” and “Threaten Me with Heaven”. Songwriting doesn’t get much better than what Gill gets up to with “When Lonely Comes Around”, “Bread and Water” and “The Old Lucky Diamond Motel”. Gill’s wife, Amy Grant, has a few co-writes here, including “True Love”, which the couple performs as a duet. The Oklahoma native’s foray into more traditional country (with a little bit of gospel thrown in) on the closing “Buttermilk John” is as fine as anything he’s done and reminds us that there’s not much he can’t do. Gill remains a rare and fascinating talent and still one to watch. Jedd Beaudoin
Pistol Annies’ Hell on Heels opens with a hinting tease that Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe, and Angaleena Presley made a deal with the devil to make them just pretty and smart enough to break a million hearts. Regardless of whether they’ll make it that far, this auspicious debut for the country supergroup proves wholeheartedly that this trio, and in particular Lambert, have the talent, drive, and darkness-tinged wit to completely own the country scene in 2011 and beyond. This is country music like nothing else recorded this year, filled with honest examples of real people in real situations. “Housewife’s Prayer” is perhaps the strongest example of their point of view: “I’ve been thinking about setting my house on fire,” Lambert sings. “I can’t see a way out of the mess I’m in and the bills keep getting higher…God I’m getting tired.” It’s like nothing you’ll hear from anyone else, and in a year where country hitmakers were surprisingly underwhelming with their releases, Hell on Heels is refreshing proof that there’s still music out there worth cheering about. Jonathan Sanders