Posts Tagged ‘Country Universe’

Favorite Songs By Favorite Artists – Martina McBride

August 23, 2011

Started by country blogger Leeann Ward from Country Universe, Favorite Songs by Favorite Artists (FSBFA) is a rundown of a writer’s 25 favorite songs by an artist. I felt compelled to compile a list of my own after going to see Martina in concert earlier this month.

Martina McBride is a singer easy to take for granted. She’s been a consistent hit maker for the last 18 years wrapping her booming voice around everything she touches.

Her career began selling t-shirts for Garth Brooks before she got sly and sent a purple envelope to the offices of RCA records containing her demo tape. Since they only heard submissions they approved, she wrote “requested material” across the bottom. Needless to say it all worked and she was quickly singed to the label, her home until late last year.

Her first album The Time Has Come didn’t spawn any major hits and was largely ignored by country radio. The follow-up, The Way That I Am put her on the national map. Lead single “My Baby Loves Me” quickly shot to #2 and “Life #9″ followed suit. But it was the release of “Independence Day,” a tune about domestic violence told from the point of view of an eight-year-old, that really grabbed attention. The controversial subject matter kept the song from reaching the top ten, but it still became her career record.

Her next album Wild Angles would contain her first #1 hit in the title track and she hasn’t looked back since. A 4 time CMA Female Vocalist of the Year winner, McBride is one of the most beloved vocalists of her generation.

And McBride has used that voice to tell many a tale mostly about various stages of relationships. In looking back over her career, I was pleasantly surprised to discover most of her best tunes cast her in various relationship roles whether it be a woman whose dreams are shattered by her man or a woman begging for what she wants to hear from a man who’s checked out of the relationship. She’s played the strong woman, a woman blinded by love, and even turned introspective in wondering if she’s the reason the love isn’t working out. While most of her songs tell a similar story, all add another layer to the various roles women play in their love lives.

While she hasn’t seen the top 10 since 2007, McBride keeps plugging away at her brand of country music. A new album Eleven (her 11th album consisting of 11 tracks) is due in stores October 11. Here’s my list:

25. “Everybody Does”

2007 – Waking Up Laughing

An above-avarage album track from Waking Up Laughing, “Does” is an instant mood enhancer with an feel good melody and production choices. What I love is that McBride isn’t striving for anything here but rather letting lose and having a good time. Some of her best songs are when she relaxes and moves with the groove, and “Does” is a perfectly executed example.

24. “Learning to Fall”

2003 – Martina

Sure it’s one of her pop-leaning songs, but it’s actually more country than most of what passes for country music these days. If you listen carefully, you’ll hear the steel guitar shining through.

What won me over with “Fall” was the chorus – like all great choruses, it’s fully-developed and instantly memorable due to its sing-songy nature. I love the guitar solo-bridge as well, it calls attention to the less is more approach to the production of this song.

23. “If I Had Your Name”

2007 – Waking Up Laughing

An example of where a killer hook is worth the weight of a song – “If I Had Your Name/I’d Be Changing It By Now.” It’s a fresh spin on a tale of seeing the writing on the wall before you jump in too far. This “prevention” approach is a change of pace from McBride who usually has to be hit upside the head before seeing the error of her ways.

22. “The Time Has Come”

1992 – The Time Has Come

The title track to her largely ignored debut album, “Come” opens with a nice mid-90s groove and steel guitar riff. This was one of the first instances of McBride’s infatuation with relationship songs and while the production is sunny and bright, the lyrics tell the story of a woman declaring that the time has come to end her current relationship. And unlike forthcoming hits like “Whatever You Say,” she’s able to see the writing on the wall – they’ve had their moment in the sun but that moment has now passed and it’s time to move on. And like the end of the relationship, the song passes like a feather in the wind, long enough to convey the message yet short enough to convey the fact she’s moving on without looking back.

21. “Wrong Baby Wrong Baby Wrong”

2009 – Shine

It took me a bit before I warmed up to this song. But the groove and less is more approach to the vocal and production is a huge selling point. She might have gone through a period of inconsistency with her overall albums, but there were real gems if you dug deep enough. “Wrong Baby Wrong” is one of those songs. The more I listen to it, the more I dig everything it has to offer. Too bad it stalled out at #11 last year.

20. “It’s My Time”

1999 – Emotion

Another instance of McBride playing a strong woman, “Time” finds her on the road, 100 miles out of her hometown, on the phone with the man she’s leaving in the dust. He asks where his dinner is, she’s replays she’s too far gone care because there’s a time to stand, fly, let go forever, grow, and discover that every second of life is precious. And for this woman, that time is now.

A blink and you missed it single from 1999, “Time” isn’t as polished as some of her other hits but the hurried nature of the track perfectly compliments her rush to be out with the old and in with the new. She isn’t getting any younger and she knows she better start living before any more of her life passes her by.

19. “Teenage Daughters”

2011 – Eleven 

Here’s a little twist – a relationship song from McBride that doesn’t cast the light on the couple but rather the kids. “Teenage Daughters” is the next evolution in her story – now in her 40s she’s singing about the challenges of raising teenage girls. Instead of running from or playing down her age she embraces it and succeeds in creating an anthem for anyone who is going through or has been through raising 13-18 year olds.

But most important of all she’s realized a simple truth – she’s been there before, herself. “At seventeen she’s just like me when I was seventeen so I don’t blame her” sings McBride will all the wisdom that comes with a full circle moment. The children might not be able to see it at the time, but their mom fully understands what they’re going through even if it might not seem that way at the time.

18. “Still Holding On (Duet with Clint Black)”

1997 – Evolution Nothing But The Taillights

A coming together of two talents at their commercial peak didn’t exactly burn up country radio, it peaked at #11, but always made an impression on me. I love how well both singers work together and the easiness in which they convey the story of still holding on to a love that’s slowly dying. McBride sings rings around Black on this one, but how could she not? When she lets loose on the bridge, there isn’t many who could match her.

17. “Over The Rainbow”

2003 – Martina

A closing concert staple and live bonus track from Martina, “Rainbow” is a moment easy to mess up – you’ve heard this song so many times before that to hear it again is almost overkill. But to hear McBride sing it, is to hear the song in a new light, like you’ve never heard it before. The way she comes in A Cappella and builds to the final boom is outstanding. I’ll never grow tired of hearing this one.

16. “Concrete Angel”

2001 – Greatest Hits

A tale of ignoring the signs right in front of you left “A little girl caught in the hands of fate.” She was dead by morning, all at the hands of her parents. How could it not have fully registered – this little girl walked to school with a lunch she packed herself in the same dress she wore the day before with linen and lace to hide her bruises.

Unless you’re without a soul, you can’t help but feel for the little girl, a nameless victim who, through no fault of her own, was raised by people unfit to parent and protect her. Of all her moments of social commentary this was easily her best and the strongest song on country radio at time of its release. It’s an unassuming masterpiece and the best modern example of the three part story arc done correctly. Plus, it’s one of my favorite videos she’s ever made.

15. “A Broken Wing”

1997 – Evolution

She has dreams, he just shoots them down. She wants to fly, and he tells her she’ll never leave the ground. But she loves him like he’s the last man on earth because she needs his protection. Imagine his shock when she doesn’t leave for church that Sunday morning. He finds a note and a blowing curtain, and she reveals her true strength.

The best of McBride’s ballads are tinged in sadness and touch upon a truth buried deep in America. She may be nameless in song but she’s out there in our suburbs and in our cities being told she isn’t good enough. But when she finally grasps the reality that real love doesn’t hurt, there’s no stopping her from soaring into the heavens.

14. “When God-Fearin’ Women Get The Blues”

2001 – Greatest Hits

The lead-off single to McBride’s Greatest Hits disc was a great departure upon its release in 2001. Coming off of the sappy “There You Are,” she needed something to either elevate her career to the next level or make an artistic statement. In the end she chose the latter, releasing a rocking warning to “lock up your husbands/lock up your sons/lock up the whiskey cabinets/girls lock up your guns” because a god-fearing woman has the blues.

Drenched in dorbro and steel guitar it’s hard to believe just ten years ago a song this country could get airplay on country radio let alone climb to #8. Even more amazingly, Dan Tyminski sings harmony on this track – which had McBride proclaiming in the liner notes of the album how excited she was to have a Soggy Bottom Boy on her record.

13. “I Just Call You Mine”

2009 – Shine

My favorite single from Shine, “Mine” might not be among McBride’s best loved hit singles even though it’s the best thing she’s released to country radio in years. I love everything – her vocal and the steel guitar laced production – about this song. It’s rare to hear a love song from her, but she can be convincingly romantic just like the best of them.

12. “Help Me Make It Through The Night”

2005 – Timeless

An exercise in restraint, this cover of the Kris Kristofferson classic is a modern gem. McBride uses a quiet whisper to bring the story of desperation to life that ranks among her best vocals ever on record.

11. “My Baby Loves Me”

1993 – The Way That I Am  

Arguably the most important single of her career, it turned the tide in her relationship with country radio and proved her staying power as a country singer in the 90s.

What’s remarkable is, “Love Me” still sounds fresh eighteen years later and sounds like it could’ve been on McBride’s last album. It’s a testament to her ability to choose great songs and Paul Worley’s timeless production values. And who wouldn’t their baby to love them just they way they were?

10. “I Love You”

1999 – Emotion

A perfectly timed summer smash, “I Love You” took McBride to the next level – it was the first song to sway the Country Music Association to award her Female Vocalist of the Year, an honor she would have four times throughout her career. With Trisha Yearwood out of the way, and Faith Hill still receiving a cold shoulder, there was no other clear winner that year.

With all the attention usually placed on her power ballads, it’s easy to forget that McBride can be sunny, cute, and approachable just like all her pop-country contemporaries. And when she does go up-tempo the results, as proven here, can be very good indeed.

9. “Blessed”

2001 – Greatest Hits

My favorite moment of optimism on record, “Blessed” is self-congradulatory without being self-indulgent. McBride sings about finding her way, thanking God for what she’s been given and being blessed with more than she deserves. After a career filled with relationship songs, it’s a nice change of pace to hear McBride take a moment to reflect on her own journey and put her sense of contentment into words. She might not have written this, her last #1 hit to date, but she could’ve very easily. That’s the mark of a well-chosen song.

8. “Anyway”

2007 - Walking Up Laughing

The first single of her career McBride had a hand in writing, “Anyway” is about doing it no matter what, even if it seems like it won’t matter in the end. A cooky concept that’s been done before, McBride seems to keep it fresh in her phrasing and delivery. Sure it’s another ballad to showcase the big voice, but it manages to pack a great deal of substance into the lyrics and a whole lot of passion into the vocal performance.

7. “Independence Day”

1993 – The Way That I Am

The career record that stalled at #12 became the video that turned any skeptic into a McBride believer. A rare moment of clever wordplay, “Independence” isn’t about the holiday it’s set during, but the release of an innocent eight-year-old girl, taken to the county home when her father blows up the family house taking him and her mother with him.

McBride would veer into social commentary mode a lot in her career, and even score some big hits in this vein, but little can top the words out of Gretchen Peters’ pen. This is her most played recurrent hit and one I could go without hearing for a while, but it shows where McBride can go when everything falls into place.

6. “Whatever You Say”

1997 – Evolution

Another relationship gone sour song, “Say” is a woman unable to get through to her husband. They both know how to talk, and she knows he can hear her, but nothing seems to be getting through.

She’s fed up and wants to leave, but is waiting for what’ll never come – his plea for her to stay. Unfortunately, her weakness is prevailing here. How long can you harp at someone just to get what you want before your spirit is compromised? If you’re relationship his diminished to the point  where you’re begging your man to say he needs and will never leave you, than you’re about as blind as they come. The writing is on the wall and you just have to walk out the door. But when love is at stake, the right thing isn’t always the easiest thing to do.

Until this write-up, I never really listened to the words of this song. I’ve spent the last twelve years caught up in her vocal – the way it builds from the verses to the choruses. But underneath the sheen is a lot of substance that makes you think about the choices you’ve made in your life for love.

5. “Reluctant Daughter”

2003 – Martina

Arraigned by Ricky Skaggs, this gem from Martina is a pure country delight. A story of a woman confessing to Jesus that she feels like a reluctant daughter to God, has everything – killer harmonies, fantastic mandolin and fiddle work, and spiritual undertones. It took me some getting used to, but unlike most of her album cuts, “Daughter” hasn’t aged a day and will be as timeless twenty years from now as it was in 2003. Couldn’t this “Daughter” have been released to radio instead of the prodding “In My Daughter’s Eyes?”

4. “Where Would You Be”

2001 – Greatest Hits

By the time “Where Would You Be” surfaced in 2001, it came off as another in a long line of love done wrong songs in McBride’s catalog. While the story line follows the familiar path (fighting for a man who isn’t pulling his own weight in the relationship), it strike a different tone with the booming chorus. She wraps her voice around those notes so well, you can’t believe a human being can pull that off.

But like all of her relationship songs, “You Be” adds another layer to the fold. She hasn’t yet taken off and realized it’s her time nor is she begging for her man to say what she wants to hear. Instead she’s wondering if maybe she’s been the problem all along – “Have I become the enemy?” she asks aloud in the bridge. “Is it hard to be yourself in my company?” she wonders always wanting to know the simple truth – where would he be if not with her.

3. “Wild Angles”

1995 – Wild Angles

It’s easy to see why “Wild Angles” a love song trying to explain how two people can stay together even though they still break each other’s hearts and spend nights on the jagged side, was McBride’s first chart-topping single. A mid-90s classic, “Angles” gets it all right – an opening guitar riff and infectious melody to draw the listener in, a perfectly orchestrated vocal that hits all the right notes, and an overall package that’s nothing but delightful. It’s no wonder it’s a fan favorite to this day.

2. “Swinging Doors”

1995 – Wild Angles

A largely forgotten low charting single, “Swinging Doors” is one of my favorite of McBride’s songs both lyrically and melodically, and has been since it’s release to radio in 1996.

This strong woman is done playing games with her ex and forcefully proclaims, “I won’t be leaving my heart open anymore” for a man who comes and goes whenever he pleases. It may be wrapped in an infectious package, but there’s much to uncover underneath the sunny sheen.

1. “Strangers”

1993 – The Way That I Am

The best song of her career never released to country radio, is one I never would have discovered had it not been resurrected on her Greatest Hitsalbum ten years ago, despite the fact I’ve owned the original album since 1995.

The story of the couple coming full circle from strangers on the street to strangers getting a divorce is the essence of a great country song. It’s easy to forget a time when lyrics made you think and singers put just the right emotion into their vocal performance to sell a story (and it also helps that Bobby Braddock, a 2011 Country Music Hall of Fame Inductee wrote this song). She would go on to score big hits in this vein, but her first power ballad is easily the best she has ever reordered.

An Appreciation: The 9513

May 3, 2011

The news that premier country music blog The 9513 is shutting down hit me in the gut. Online country music journalism lost a big voice and I lost the porthole that led me down the road I’m on today. I didn’t think the news would effect me this much, but it really has.

I’ve always held The 9513 in reverence because their writers revolutionized my thinking and understanding of country music. I have them to thank for opening my eyes to disintegrated state of mainstream country and for showing me why certain songs are fantastic while others are just overwrought cliches of the Nashville machine. The article that changed my perspective is Karlie Justus’s single review of Justin Moore’s “Small Town USA.” I don’t think I’ve disagreed more with a single review than that one. I couldn’t understand why anyone could rate that song a “thumbs down” because I happened to love everything about it, and still do. I got caught up in Moore’s delivery so much that I couldn’t see the song’s faults. But that review laid the groundwork for me to look at country music with fresh and new eyes.

Beyond their expertly crafted commentary on mainstream country music, the 9513, and a few other country music blogs, always knew that Nashville didn’t dictate the whole story of country music. The genre is much wider than what’s heard on the radio. By never losing sight of that they were able to paint a much clearer picture of the genre. They also never let the past remain as history. Whenever a new class of hall of fame inductees were announced you could always count on the site to begin the conversation of whether the acts were deserving, who was snubbed, and so fourth. The discussions about the genre were always first rate and displayed an intelligence rarely seen anywhere else.

My favorite discussions were those that weren’t recapping an event but predicating it. Like posts on what the nominees for the CMA or ACM awards should be before the nominations are announced. And my favorite, Paul W. Dennis’s post on who should be in the Hall of Fame. It was just such a post by Mr. Dennis that contained a comment I’ve never forgotten – that song for song, Tanya Tucker had a better musical catalog than Reba McEntire. (his full comment was “Tanya’s best songs blow the best songs of Reba or Barbara out of the water.”)

While both had the gift for choosing expertly crafted material, I’d never pitted their music up against each other in that way or even thought about comparing artists in that light. I’ve never given thought to the accuracy of that opinion, since I hold both artists in such high esteem. But it’s a very interesting thought-provoking comment I hadn’t read anywhere else.

In looking over the comments to their farewell post (linked in my opening paragraph), someone mentioned how much they’ve always loved the monthly mailbag features. I never really cared for them, only because the whole thing was made up, but they were a monthly dose of comic relief on the stupidity of country music. As random as they seemed, they were unique to the site. But the feature I would look forward to was the news updates. Everyday around noon I would excitedly log onto the site to get my daily round-up of the best in recent posts in the country music blogosphere as well as free downloads of some great music. They pulled it all together and had it in a neat little package for everyone on a daily basis.

The 9513 was also the place I engaged in my first real debate on country music. In the comment thread of Juli Thanki’s single review for Easton Corbin’s “Roll with It,” I made the comment ” In a way I wish Rory Feek would’ve kept the song (“A Little More Country Than That”) for himself…when you give away all your sure-fire radio smashes, you don’t stand a chance of having success yourself. That’s been the biggest mistake Joey + Rory have made.”

This lead to a back-and-fourth between me and Roughstock‘s Matt Bjorke where he got the final word:

Matt B: “Jonathan, There are some very strong songs on Joey+Rory’s Album #2.”

Me: “Thank you Matt. I look forward to checking it out. I just wish they wouldn’t give their songs away for others to record. Who knows where they would be today if they had kept “Some Beach” for themselves…”

Matt B: “Rory’s songwriting career has literally bought them a farm and more. They can afford things like a tourbus as well because of things like that. Giving away a few songs that wouldn’t work for them is just fine.”

It’s funny to look back because the “debate” as I call it was rather lame by my standard today. I didn’t hold up my end that well. Now I’m much more comfortable having a long back and forth with commenters. But it’s how I got my feet wet engaging others on the merit of country music. I don’t have these “debates” all that often, but I feel like I kind of know I’m talking about when I do. I think I defended my opinions well when Libby called me out about Tim McGraw and Gweynth Paltrow’s duet “Me and Tennessee” a few months ago (over at Country Universe).

And that’s the remarkable quality about The 9513 – it took me a second to figure out commenters weren’t just commenters or random country music fans, but actually connected to the country music industry in some fashion (i.e. fellow bloggers, radio DJs, etc). Of course there were others like me who are merely fans of this great music but a majority were heavy hitters. The community established within the comments sections of posts wasn’t duplicated anyplace else on the web, at least that I can find. I read many country music blogs on a regular basis and none were as community oriented or connected as The 9513.

But the rare and astonishing thing I found was The 9513 was slowly beginning the process of breaking down the barrier between artists and fans. Everyone, no matter if it were a big name in Nashville or a country music fan with a computer, would comment side by side. I remember just a few months ago, Sunny Sweeney commented on the single review of her song “Staying’s Worse Than Leaving.” And songwriter Robert Lee Castleman had  a comment to make in the single review of Alison Krauss and Union Station’s version of his song “Paper Airplane.” What this was doing for the future of country music was revolutionary. If we can get to a place where singers, songwriters, and fans can debate, interact, and coexist as one unit than we’ve changed open communication within the country music industry forever. With the rise of Facebook and Twitter has come another breaking down of the wall, and this was another step. Lets hope this wall can be further broken down in other places in the future.

I remember reading an article in Country Weekly, before I stopped reading it do to it’s demise in quality, that country music blogs had been taking over the job they were supposed to have by interviewing artists. I remember a time, in 2009, when The 9513 would conduct and transcribe what seemed like hundreds of interviews with some of country music’s biggest stars. And they always ended the interview with the same question – what is country music to you? It’s nice to see that Ben Foster has carried on this interesting tradition, because their answers were always fun to read. At the end of that year, The 9513 even compiled a list of the answers to that question from interviews over that given year – read it here. In looking back over that post, the answers are extremely thought-provoking. To hear these artists, from the likes of George Jones and Charlie Daniels, to Whitney Duncan and David Nail talk about the music in their blood is riveting. I haven’t really looked at this post in over a year and a half, but in looking at it with fresh eyes tonight, the George Jones comment that leads the responses really stands out to me. Not only did they get George Jones to talk to them but he really gave a substitutive response to the question.

Another reason The 9513 is held up to a high standard is their attack of all country music. They didn’t just comment on the singles, but took note of those extra special album cuts that should be catching our attention. In their year end best of lists, singles and album cuts stood side-by-side with album cuts winning out the majority of the time. They named “The House That Built Me” their song of the year a full year before the CMA and ACM did the same thing. They led the charge in championing Joey and Rory and their Life of a Song album and recognized the caliber of Sugarland’s “Very Last Country Song” even when no one else did. They dared to be different by standing out. I’ll always admire them for that.

The 9513 has met many things to many people. In reading the 1-to-10 Country Music Review tonight, it led Ben Foster to create the blog that’s given rise to his fine commentary on country music. It gave the fans a voice. And while it didn’t inspire me to write it did, like I said above, forever alter my thinking about the merits of country music. It also led me to Country Universe, my favorite of all the country music blogs because of the caliber of the writers and attention Kevin, Leeann, Dan, and Tara put into the details of making the site work. I will forever be indebted to The 9513 for that.

In looking back as I write this, I cannot believe how long I’d been reading The 9513 on a regular basis. It’s a testament to the excellence of all the writers whose work has been posted on the site over the years. They put in so much effort into making the site the shining example of what country music can and should be on the internet. The spirits of all the writers shown though and their passion for all things country music led the way. I want to personally give my gratitude to Brady and Brody Vercher for all their hard work in creating this exemplary community for fans of country music. I completely understand that when life gets in the way, passions that don’t dictate livelihoods must be put aside. And I also get the need to go out while everyone still holds you in such impossibly high esteem. I wish this wasn’t the end, and we would all go back tomorrow morning and watch another sideshow debate between Jon, Rick, Fizz, and Waynoe in the midst of insightful comments on another single or album review.

But as Alan Jackson sang “Too much of a good thing/is a good thing.” While this chapter may be closed, here’s to opening another one. The saga of country music blogs and the writers who made this site what it is, is far from over. And I’ll be there for every twist and turn ahead as we all move on to the next phase in this fabulous journey. Believe me, the best is yet to come.

New artist obsession: Emmylou Harris

April 9, 2011

Thanks, in no small part, to My Kind of Country, I’ve finally woken up to an artist I should’ve been loving years ago – Emmylou Harris. It’s weird, I’ve always known her musical catalog is incredible,  and I remember when all her classic records from the 70s were re-released in 2004. I even had the rare opportunity of scoring an old vinyl of Blue Kentucky Girl when my college radio station was having a record sale in 2009. But I never took the time to buy her music and give her a chance – until now. I didn’t have an epiphany when the My Kind of Country staff chose her as the latest addition to their spotlight artist series, but rather chose to right a wrong. I’ve always known she was critically acclaimed and I had to find out why, for myself.

As the story on that old Blue Kentucky Girl vinyl goes, I had my radio show (country music of course) the day before the sale and since I was alone in the station decided to look over the collection and take what I wanted before it would be gone. I didn’t even know they had any country records, and was shocked when I saw Emmylou sitting there. I had always hoped it was a real find, and not some record Emmylou made when she was past her prime. After conducting about a minute’s worth of research I saw it won her a Grammy for Best Country Female Vocal performance (back when albums were allowed to win in vocal races, a practice I’ll never understand) and was considered her most pure country release when it came out in 1979.  Better yet, it was a name your price sale and I only had to pay $1 for it. I’ll NEVER see that kind of deal again in my lifetime. I’m eagerly awaiting My Kind of Country’s review of that project.

Also, if I ever needed proof that Blue Kentucky Girl a gem, and my recent downloads of Pieces of the Sky, Elite Hotel, and Luxury Liner were worth their less then $10 price tag, it was something Kevin Coyne wrote on Country Universe yesterday morning – “She could’ve been Gram Parsons’ harmony singer for the rest of her career and been happy, but she ended up carrying on his legacy instead, becoming a Hall of Famer with the most consistently excellent catalog in country music history.” The proof is in the (really Kevin’s) writing.

In “discovering” her first two (at the time of this writing I haven’t listened to Luxury Liner) solo releases, I’ve found an artist with one of the most magnificent voices I’ve ever heard, marking her own distinctive path in the genre. In all my years listening to country music, I’ve never heard anyone quite like her. She has a voice like fine crystal and is a stunning balladeer. Harris can also pull off a honky tonk song better than most who came before her. But what I really respect and admire is her ability to create music that stands the test of time and doesn’t fall victim to trend. Listening to an Emmylou Harris album is like visiting a fine hotel – equal parts luxurious and sophisticated. Her’s is music for the ages and sounds even better in 2011 than it did more than forty years ago. By forging her own path she created a lasting identify that’s led her straight to the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Before this week, my only association with Ms.Harris was through her single, “If I Could Only Win Your Love” and her duet with Rodney Crowell, “My Baby’s Gone” from the excellent Livin’ Lovin’ Losin’ tribute album to the Louvin Brothers. I did purchase her 2003 Stumble Into Grace album but never could get into it (I’m giving it another spin in this new light). My grandfather had a copy of White Shoes and I never bothered to ask him why he only owned that particular recording of her’s. And of course, there was the Blue Kentucky Girl vinyl. I also own Trio II, the follow-up record with Harris, Dolly Parton, and Linda Ronstadt but have yet to buy their 1987 original. But now I am so immersed in her catalog, I want to get my hands on everything Harris has ever sung. I admire those who refuse to give in to pressure and do their own thing. By being an original, she’s carved her own place in history.

Which is odd given that Harris has sung more cover tunes than most singers I can remember. It’s partly true that if you name a hit country single, Harris has likely sung her own version of it. Throughout her career she’s wrapped her voice around “Sleepless Nights,” “Coat of Many Colors,”  “Sweet Dreams,” “To Daddy,” “Poncho and Lefty,” “On The Radio,” “Together Again,” and countless others. On many occasions Harris had big hit singles with these songs. For instance her cover of “Sweet Dreams” was the only version of the song to top the charts.

Even more than that, she’s influenced most female singers who’ve come along in her wake. Chely Wright paid tribute to Emmylou twice – recording “Actin’ Single/Seeing Double” on her 1997 album Let Me In and “C’est La Vie” on 2005′s The Metropolitan Hotel. Martina McBride lent her voice to “Two More Bottles of Wine” on her 1995 album Wild Angles, Miranda Lambert closed her 2007 Crazy Ex-Girlfriend album with a version of “Easy From Now On,” and Trisha Yearwood recorded “Women Walk The Line,” on 1992′s Hearts In Armor. None of these covers were released as singles, but they’re worth checking out. Plus, it’s also worth nothing that Wright’s cover of  “C’est La Vie,” a #6 single for Harris in 1977, is a cover of a cover – Chuck Berry wrote the song and released the first version of it in 1964. Plus, you can hear her influence in singer-songwriters Tift Merrit, Patty Griffin, and others. And while not a cover, Joey + Rory, as well as Australian country singer Catherine Britt, recored a tribute to Harris with the song “Sweet Emmylou.” It was written by Rory Feek and Britt and featured on J+R’s debut album The Life of a Song in 2008.

As I’m learning more and more about Emmylou Harris, I’m seeing how indelible her stamp on not only country but modern music continues to be. While she isn’t having chart hits today, she continues to release album after album and even has a new collection of music Hard Bargain and a single, “The Road” out right now. It’s also worth noting her contribution to the classic O Brother, Where Art Thou soundtrack and her 2005 Grammy win for her song “The Connection.” While the consistency of her newer music is up for discussion, she hasn’t stopped wowing music critics and fans alike since her days with Gram Parsons.

Another memory of Harris comes courtesy of the free digital download Sarah McLachlan gave fans who signed up for the Lilith newsletter in anticipation of the 2010 revival of the tour – a live duet version of “Angel” with McLachlan and Harris. This version blows the studio track out of the water with gorgeousness and a powerful intensity that elevates the song to new and far greater heights. When those two sing together, it’s magic. I really wanted Harris to be on the Boston date of the tour but it wasn’t in the cards. The recording more than makes up for it, but it couldn’t ever compare to the live experience. No recording ever can.

As it turns out, I may have been loving Emmylou Harris indirectly all these years. But now that I’ve put a direct focus on it, I’m discovering what I’ve been missing out on. It’s criminal that I’ve never heard “Boulder to Birmingham” before this week. A song of that stature is so rare and a vocal like that so delicate it’s amazing I’ve never crossed paths with this recording before. And if you haven’t heard it the song, you should.  You might not know the history of the track, it’s a tribute to Gram Parsons, but it doesn’t mean you’ll enjoy it any less. And as far as covers go, Parton recorded a version of “Birmingham” on her 1976 album All I Can Do.

And that’s what I’m finding with both Pieces of the Sky and Elite Hotel. It’s really cool to come at music from the perspective of a listener and a fan opposed to someone so focused on that particular album’s success. I have no history with her music, so I can enjoy every track with the same intensity. And unlike most singers, I’ve found every track as good and if not better than the last. Harris isn’t a filler artist, she knew how to make complete albums. I admire anyone who can look at a project as a whole, not as a couple of singles paired with forgettable fluff. Trust me when I say, there is nothing unmemorable about Emmylou Harris.

It’s funny, I’ve always been wondering which artists out there have done the near impossible – created complete discographies with their music. You know, where each album they make is as essential a listen as the one preceding it. Most artists have at least one dud among their many records. I’ve thought about the singers I love like Patty Loveless, Trisha Yearwood, Alison Krauss, and others who have made great albums throughout their careers. But I think Emmylou Harris comes closer than anyone else I’ve ever heard to doing so. When Kevin said that about Harris,  I knew my search was over.

The closest any artist has come to matching Harris’s unparalleled consistency is Miranda Lambert. With just three albums under her belt, she’s begun a career destined for the history books. While she has more of Loretta Lynn’s spunk, than Harris’s quiet intensity, Lambert has proven with every single she’s ever sent to radio, she knows a fantastic song when she hears it. And like Harris, she knows how to write them, too. Which is what I most admire about Lambert. she’s carrying on the same ideals artists like Lynn and Harris put into place forty to fifty years ago. You cannot ask for anything more in a modern country singer.

Which is what made Harris so important in the first place – she created the groundwork for every female country singer to come through the ranks after her. And most will never live up to her example not because they don’t want to, but they don’t have nearly what it takes. In thinking about what’s made her so special, I’ve come to understand why she’s such a revered legend. In my generation she’s known more for letting her hair go prematurely grey than she is for her music. Which is true for most of the artists who’ve built country music – they’re not known so much for their great music anymore.

And that’s why country music blogs are such an important piece of the overall listener experience. They help to bridge together the legends and the new folk so we don’t forget where we’ve come from or where we’re going. It’s that place in the middle country radio lost all those years ago. By bringing Emmylou Harris back to the forefront of American thinking, My Kind of Country has offered a sort of answer to why modern Nashville isn’t the great mecca it used to be. It isn’t because the artists of today will never match up to the greatness of those like Harris, but because the soul is missing in most of the hits of today. Emmylou Harris has that soul, and each of her records from the 70s proves that more and more.


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