Posts Tagged ‘Nickel Creek’

Album Review: Nickel Creek “A Dotted Line”

April 10, 2014

Nickel Creek

A_Dotted_Line_(Album_Cover)

A Dotted Line

* * * *

One of the most welcomed surprises late last year was the news that Nickel Creek, easily my favorite acoustic band, were reuniting to record their first album of all-new material in nine years. Produced by Eric Valentine, the mastermind behind Why Should The Fire Die, the project marks their twenty-fifth anniversary as a band.

Whenever an act disbands, especially in the prime of their abilities, there’s always a sadness marked by countless ‘what could’ve been’ thoughts had they stayed together. But more now than ever, it’s easy to see that the members of Nickel Creek (Chris Thile, Sara Watkins, and Sean Watkins) were more than just members of a group, but rather vibrant solo artists who needed to explore life apart from the musical force that had guided their lives since they were teenagers. Their personal growth away from Nickel Creek has been extraordinary; with solo projects and other unique ventures serving to further hone their creative geniuses and better inform them as a band now that they’ve reunited.

Our first taste of their reinvigoration came from “Destination,” the fiery Sara Watkins-led first single. The track is an outstanding addition to their legacy and perfectly matches Thile’s rip-roaring mandolin with Watkins’ smoky yet biting vocal. Two more songs were released in advance of the album – “Love Of Mine,” a gorgeous ballad led by Thile’s mandolin and Watkins’ fiddle and “21 of May,” a crisp traditional bluegrass number showcasing Sean’s glorious talents with acoustic guitar. The latter is my favorite of three, and one of their greatest performances as a band. Rarely have they ever sounded this tightly engaged.

As far as Nickel Creek albums go, A Dotted Line is a fairly conventional set, with relatively few stylistic surprises. That’s a good thing, though, as the music is allowed to stand for itself without too much experimentation getting the best of them. As far as progressive bluegrass bands go, they show why they’re the best of the bunch on “Rest of My Life,” a soaring ballad showcasing the high lonesome side of Thile’s voice in marriage with his signature crashing mandolin picking. He takes the lead again on the excellent rapid-fire “You Don’t Know What’s Going On,” a stunningly aggressive number with a punkish attitude and enduring angry rock sensibility. If only all such songs would sound like this.

“Where Is Love Now,” a Sam Phillips cover, finds Sara singing lead once again, with a delicate ballad that gives her room to breathe. As a vocalist, Watkins is a curious case in that her voice is often obstructed by production (especially on Sun Midnight Sun) that drowns her out. She has the ability to keep up with muscular production, “Destination” is a good example of this, but on lush ballads Thile’s mandolin and Sean’s acoustic guitar is the right amount of production to let her shine. What I love the most here is how the song rolls along conventionally until the chorus, when the three-part harmony kicks in beautifully, allowing the track to soar to new heights.

“Christmas Eve” is the rare moment Sean sings lead, and he more than holds his own with the story of a guy pleading with his girl not end their relationship. The track distinguishes itself in lyric alone, as it’s the most story-centric number on A Dotted Line. There’s a tinge of sadness in Watkins’ vocal that mares his conviction, but it works in allowing him to lay open his broken heart. “Christmas Eve” is skillfully subtle in all the right ways.

In contrast to the rest of the album, the band gives us one track brazenly unafraid to reimagine the definition of what a Nickel Creek song can sound like. “Hayloft” is a duet between Sara and Thile where they assume the rolls of a couple being chased by her disapproving father (“My daddy’s got a gun,” wails Watkins in the refrain). The track, originally done by Mother Mother, an indie rock band from British Columbia, is wacky, nonsensical, and the album’s standout number simply for daring to be different. I wanted to hate it, but Watkins infuses it with the personality she brought to her solo albums and its so endearing that the proceedings are nothing less than charming. If Watkins hadn’t made those two solo albums, I doubt “Hayloft” would even exist – her growth and newfound confidence as a musical being is astounding.

As if eight lyrical numbers weren’t enough, we’re also gifted two instrumentals that are as excellent as anything on A Dotted Line. “Elsie” is a strong mandolin and fiddle ballad that rolls along quite nicely while “Elephant In The Corn” picks up the tempo a bit and features a wonderful acoustic guitar breakdown from Sean. I’m not usually one to go crazy for instrumentals, preferring songs with lyrics, but these are excellent.

So, after nine years, was A Dotted Line worth the wait? More than anyone involved in its creation will ever know. With the rise in popularity of Mumford & Sons and The Avett Brothers, I’m come to appreciate Nickel Creek (and Thile’s other band The Punch Brothers) even more because they approach their music from a bluegrass and not rock perspective.

With purely acoustic instruments and lush not aggressive vocals, they make this acoustic progressive bluegrass the way it’s supposed to sound. That they do it with exceptional lyrical compositions is just an added bonus. Their asaterical lyrics have always been their downfall, but they’ve grown by leaps and bounds as writers on A Dotted Lineas well as singers and musicians. Lets hope it’s not another nine years before we’re gifted with their next set of new music.

EP Reviews: Lori McKenna – “Heart Shaped Bullet Hole” and Punch Brothers – “Ahoy!”

November 29, 2012

A commanding drum beat and cheeky 1980s style electric guitars greet the listener on “Heart Shaped Bullet Hole,” a Disney jam session meets “Down At The Twist and Shout” confection that anchors Lorrie McKenna’s EP of the same name, her six-song follow up to last year’s highly emotional Lorraine. It’s by far the most experimental thing she’s ever done, and the results are phenomenal. In this instance, taking creative risks pays off in spades.

McKenna then goes on to incorporate these creative instincts in the other tracks, showcasing a willingness to step beyond the familiarity of the lush acoustic sound she’s honed for the better part of her career. These differences, sometimes far subtler than others, make most of the EP an enjoyable listen.

An electric guitar penetrates the musical bed of “Whiskey and Chewing Gum,” a Troy Verges co-write, while the acoustic guitar underpinnings of “All It Takes” (co-written with her ‘sixth child’ Andrew Dorff) gives the track a fun, folksy vibe. Both songs are also standouts lyrically, with more than an abundance of memorable lines.

With three such strong forward thinking songs, the rest of the EP sounds a bit like a retreat back to the comfortable with McKenna sticking firm to her coffee-house roots. That isn’t necessarily a bad choice on her part, but I wanted more, especially since she’s surrounded herself with such ear-catching songs. The lush arrangements actually get in the way of two tracks – “Sometimes He Does” and “This and the Next Life,” which are both excellent songs in their own right, but feel predictable, with the latter a bit too slow for me to fully engage with.

I had similar thoughts with her Ashley Ray co-write “No Hard Feelings,” but the hook is strong, and their twist on the classic break-up ballad (“Once it’s gone – it’s gone/So no hard feelings”) is stunning – they leave the listener hanging – how is she able to break off their love so cleanly? Did she ever really love him at all? That simple mystery gives the track its allure.

Punch Brothers, one of the coolest – and criminally underrated – bands making music today take similar strides, serving up Ahoy! their companion EP to February’s masterwork Who’s Feeling Young Now?, one of my favorite albums of 2012. Consisting of five tracks, the project brilliantly displays Chris Thile’s continued growth since Nickel Creek, proving why he so richly deserves his MacArthur Grant.

Thile is seemingly unmatched as both a mandolin virtuoso and effective vocalist, but Ahoy! proves he and his band mates are also equally skilled as musical interpreters, turning the set’s three cover songs into completely reimagined takes on the originals. The vastly different tunes, singer/songwriter Josh Ritter’s “Another New World,” Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings’ “Down Along The Dixie Line” and Noise Rock group Mclusky’s “Icarus Smicarus” all feel right at home in the progressive folk settings Punch Brothers frame them in.

Ritter’s ethereal “Another New World,” a slightly ambiguous epic, is the least transformed, staying true to the original. But the addition of Thile’s mandolin and the accents of fiddle give the track grounding, adding dimension to the somewhat tragic story. “Down Along the Dixie Line,” from Welch’s 2011 The Harrow and the Harvest is the complete antithesis, morphing from a southern gothic ballad into a fiery romp. Both are effective readings, although Punch Brothers barely give the lyric room to breath, nearly suffocating the story by speeding it up a little too fast.

The real delight is “Icarus Smicarus,” a noise rock disaster turned progressive bluegrass delight. One of Punch Brothers’ core appeals is their left of center oddity, which is fully explored in this song’s brilliant eccentricity. The lack of any significant narrative structure, let alone the usual verse/chorus/verse/bridge pattern of country songwriting will alienate anyone in search of tangible meaning, but the connectedness of the group cannot be denied.

“Moonshiner,” the traditional folk song made famous with versions by The Clancy Brothers and Bob Dylan is my personal favorite on the set, showcasing the band’s wicked instincts with a killer narrative. The lone original is the wonderfully titled “Squirrel of Possibility,” an elegant mandolin and fiddle driven instrumental.

As a whole, both McKenna and Punch Brothers have turned in some exquisite work, each exploring different facets of their creativity all the while staying true to themselves as visionaries. I still would like to see McKenna challenge herself even more, with further exploration of songs in the vein of “Heart Shaped Bullet Hole.” Her ballads are still effective but are too frequent and beginning to fade into sameness, thus stripping them of their potent emotion.

Luckily Punch Brothers seem nowhere near the peak of their artistry, and Ahoy! shows a band built on taking daring risks that more often than not feature big pay offs for the listener. I can only dream about where the coming decades will take them, and if they stay as crisp and in tune as they are now, it’s going to be one heck of a prosperous musical odyssey.

Heart Shaped Bullet Hole* * *

Ahoy!* * * *

So, how musically healthy am I?

May 20, 2012

Last week the good folks at Country California issued a mid-year battle cry – “You’re overdue for your seasonal music check-up.”

The exam is as follows, in these simple steps:

1) grab your media player of choice

2) turn your head to the left

3) Shuffle 20 times

In doing so, and without any editing of embarrassing results, my returns are as follows:

  1. Miranda Lambert – “Guilty In Here”
  2. Don Williams – “The Flood (Wish I Was In Nashville)”
  3. Connie Smith – “I’m So Afraid Of Losing You Again”
  4. Patty Loveless – “You Don’t Even Know Who I Am”
  5. Trisha Yearwood – “The Woman Before Me”
  6. Connie Smith – “Blue Little Girl”
  7. Jamey Johnson – “Lonely At The Top”
  8. Tracy Lawrence – “If The Good Die Young”
  9. Randy Travis – “Forever Together”
  10. Rosanne Cash – “Big River”
  11. Patty Loveless – “Feelings Of Love”
  12. Rosanne Cash – “707”
  13. Emmylou Harris – “Ooh Las Vegas”
  14. Bradley Gaskin – “I’m All About It”
  15. Tanya Tucker – “Down To My Last Teardrop”
  16. Garth Brooks – “Shameless”
  17. Nickel Creek – “Scotch and Chocolate”
  18. Sugarland – “Something More”
  19. Eric Church – “Like Jesus Does”
  20. Collin Raye – “I Think About You”

I was amazed, actually, at what my iPod spit back. This could’ve gone in so many ways and yet the random shuffle actually showcased some of the better tunes in my collection. It’s never a bad day when the likes of Connie Smith, Emmylou Harris, Trisha Yearwood, Rosanne Cash, Patty Loveless, and Tanya Tucker show up in the same random 20 song sampling.

At least my copies of Kip Moore’s Up All Night and Tim McGraw’s Emotional Traffic were no where in sight.

Album Review – Punch Brothers – “Who’s Feeling Young Now”

March 26, 2012

The Punch Brothers

Who’s Feeling Young Now?

* * * * 1/2

With Who’s Feeling Young Now, the Punch Brothers have completed the musical trifecta (which also includes For The Good Times and Hello Cruel World) shaping my current listening experience. There’s a joy and delight to this album that only becomes deeper and further realized with each play though.

As a rabid Nickel Creek fan, I’ve understood Chris Thile’s genius for more than a decade. But I was hesitant in diving into the Punch Brothers after feeling alienated by his How To Grow A Woman From The Ground. Thile’s knack for high-pitched singing was foreign to my ears and his experimental nature jolted me too far out of my musical comfort zone without smooth transition. But that didn’t stop me from diving into Who’s Feeling Young Now, my first foray into his latest musical creation.

Like any great musical work, the album transports the listener into a world all its own, a place nonexistent on the geological map. The mix of mandolin and fiddle ground the record in a post-apocalyptic meets gypsy-like setting (think “Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us” by Robert Plant & Alison Krauss), and the instraments used throughout fuse together to create a sound completely unique and original.

This is most obvious on the opening track, “Movement and Location,” a rousing mix of mandolin, upright bass, and haunting fiddle inspired by former Major League Baseball Player and Cy Young Award recipient Greg Maddux. Thile uses the range of his talents to full effect and brings an otherworldly element to the track by going places with his voice I never dreamt possible.  You’re not likely to hear a more interesting song this year.

Another example of the band’s animalistic prowess is “Patchwork Girlfriend,” a weirdly off-beat traveling circus-like number that opens with a downward fiddle crescendo that leads into Thile’s dazzling manipulation of the mandolin. But the combination of his outlandish yet ordinary vocal delivery proves he’s mastered the comedic undertones of the lyrics, but isn’t trying to reach parody in his delivery.

Going even further into this eccentrically experiential universe is “Don’t Get Married Without Me,” in which strokes of mandolin gel beautifully with frantic bursts of fiddle and touches of banjo. The track benefits greatly from a lack of fullness musically, as the darkness of Thile’s vocal and the harmonies with his fellow band members shine through.

But for all the improvisation going on, Who’s Feeling Young Now has its fare share of “normal” moments, too. The art of Progressive Bluegrass, which the band is categorized under, is to sound completely modern in your approach to the acoustic stylings of Bluegrass while still maintaining a sound mixture familiar to purists. While there isn’t anything traditional about their approach, they hit this melting pot head on. A few of the tracks seem to evoke a touch of pop/rock almost like a roots version of Mumford and Sons.

My favorite of their less funky numbers is the bouncy “This Girl” which elicits the joy of young love and the rekindling of a father/son relationship. The driving mandolin blankets the song in a sunny warmth and the rapid-fire lyrics bring fourth the intensity of his feelings towards the prettiest backslider in the world.

Another standout is the title track, the most pop/rock influecned on the whole album. The opening mix of mandolin and acoustic guitar is heightened by the introduction of fiddle to create a layering of instruments giving the listener the feeling of a full band. It’s my other favorite song on the album because I’m drawn to the receptive nature of the lyrics, in which Thile repeats they tried to tell us and at times we tried to listen to almost primal screams in the final moments of the song. But beyond that, the lyrics, written by the band, are genuinely crafted. The way they’re able to string words together is a work of art.

As much as Who’s Feeling Young Now is an upbeat, full of driving beats, and not-much-heard musical manipulations, there are a few slower moments that add depth to the overall sound. “No Concern Of Yours” may be the closest thing to Krauss’s trademark style, while “Soon or Never” brings back found memories of Nickel Creek’s early days (i.e. “When You Come Back Down” and “The Reason Why”). Of the slower songs, “Clara” is easily the most progressive, and showcases Thile’s higher register, which in the six years since How To Grow A Woman From The Ground, has become a taste I’ve happily acquired.

Like any great acoustic band, time to show off your instrumental abilities is key when giving the audience the fullest picture of yourselves as a band. Plus, its the time to let loose and just play for playing sake. That’s almost unnecessary here, though, because every song more than accomplishes that directive. But, nonetheless, we have “Flippin (The Flip),” a rousing number that gives ample time for Thile to showcase his skills as a mandolin prodigy, Gabe Witcher a spotlight for his fiddle playing, and Chris Eldridge another chance to blend in his acoustic guitar. The less straightforward “Kid A” is also in the mix, and brings the album back to its gypsy-like beginnings.

Overall, in pinning the three albums in the trifecta against each other, Who’s Feeling Young Now comes out on top. Without a doubt, its the most exhilarating album I’ve heard in quite a long time and, in my book, the best country/bluegrass/roots album of 2012 so far. I’ll be quite surprised if any mainstream country release will be able to top this in the coming months.


30 Day Song Challenge

June 4, 2011

A recent trend on Facebook is the ever popular “30 Day Song Challenge” a game that has people posting a song a day relating to a theme. When the 30 days are through, all of your friends will know just a little more about you – though the songs that shaped you in some way. I’ve been working on my list since April 26 and have found it both fun and frustrating because I want to think outside the box and pick songs that aren’t predictable for each day.

NOTE: A sincere apology in the tardiness of this post – I was trying to embed a YouTube clip for each song, but was encountering so many technical difficulties, I decided to abandon that idea all together.

To listen to the songs below, please follow this link to the notes section of my Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/note.php?note_id=10150162533882511

Day 1 – your favorite song – Eagles “Lyin Eyes”

The story of a woman who can open doors with just a smile, “Eyes” is the purest country song in the Eagles catalog. An epic tale of cheating, the protagonist knows exactly where to find what her husband can’t give her.

On the cheating side of town resides the man with fiery eyes and dreams no one can steal, but even as she rushes to his arms, she knows it’s only for a while. She promises to leave her man with hands as cold as ice, but she’s so far deep into emotional betrayals, she doesn’t even know what she wants. Even a sane girl can draw the shades, hang her head to cry, and wonder how it ever got this crazy. In the end she’s the same old girl she used to be – hoping a new life would change what only she can fix from inside herself.

“Eyes” is my favorite song, a distinction that took a long while to figure out, because of the vivid nature of the story and the masterful songwriting of Glen Frey and Don Henley. To think that two living legends were able to craft something so perfect is almost beyond my comprehension. This is a once and a lifetime gem worthy of its place among the greatest pieces of recorded music.

Day 2 – Your Least Favorite Song – Jason Aldean “Crazy Town”

A colossal failure, “Town’s” core message – the fakeness of those trying to make it in the country music industry – is lost in a sea of rockish guitars and shier noise. Much like the message in the lyrics, Aldean comes off as a pseudo-rocker, shouting to be heard.

The juxtaposition of “Town’s” message and the song’s production are most perplexing – if Aldean wanted to get his message across, why do it by adding to the problem? If country music really has become Hollywood with a touch of twang, than you’d think he’d do his part to keep his music on the other end of the spectrum.

Day 3 – A Song That Makes You Happy – Mary Chapin Carpenter “I Take My Chances”

A tough choice, I had it between two Carpenter classics – “Chances” and “The Hard Way,” songs that elicit a feeling of jubilation and never fail to brighten my mood.

The production by John Jennings is everything I love about 90s country – crisp and clean yet modern in its sensibilities. “Chances” is an anthem for anyone assessing risk – a statement on stepping out of a comfort zone  and a timeless message that’s grown with me my whole life.

Day 4 – A Song That Makes You Sad – Pirates of the Mississippi “Feed Jake”

The heartbreaking tale of a man and the dog he wants taken care of if he should ever leave this world, is one of the saddest expressions of love I’ve ever heard. Anytime a dog is involved in anything, I’m a puddle. 

Growing up with dogs, I know the bond first hand – they’re more than pets, but extensions of who we are. They’re members of the family, yet appendages attached to us at the hip. A big shout out to songwriter Danny “Bear” Mayo for writing this masterful song. 

Day 5 – A Song That Reminds You of Someone – Stevie Nicks “Landslide”

Who knew that when we chose this song for my grandfather’s funeral back in January, it would appear around every corner for the rest of the year? Lets see, it was covered by Gwyneth Paltrow, Heather Morris, and Naya Rivera on Glee and by Nicks herself on Oprah (with an assist by Sheryl Crow) and Dancing With The Stars.

The lyrics speak to the essence of my grandfather – the message about climbing mountains and seeing your reflection in snow covered hills – speaks to how his spirit is going to live on in the land around our condo in Bretton Woods, a place he found for us now 17 years ago. 

More than mine, it’s really my mother’s story of her relationship with him. When Fleetwood Mac returned in 1997 for their The Dance reunion concert Nicks prefaced this song with “This is for you Daddy.” It’s the version most heard on radio, and the one cemented in our hearts forever. 

Day 6 – A Song That Reminds You of Somewhere – Lonestar “Everything’s Changed”

The singular power of great works is their ability to transport us back to that special place and time. In every day life, it’s music that accomplishes the time time travel most often, taking us back to memories long over but hardly forgotten. 

My memory of this song began bright an early on the last day of a vacation in Cleveland, Ohio, the last week of August 1998. Instead of the generic alarm, the clock was tuned to the local country station where this song woke me from a slumber. I was overwhelmingly distraught that day, not wanting to leave. 

Whenever I want to go back to that week, I can turn on this song, a number #2 hit that year, and relieve a great moment in my life. 

Day 7 – A Song That Reminds You of a Certain Event – Garth Brooks “Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old)”

In 1997, when my grandfather was turning 75, we thought it would be fun if I would play this song at the celebration we were throwing for friends and family. I’m not a singer or guitar player but got by on the fact it was entertaining.

Looking back, I had much fun doing it – I had the cowboy hat and everything – and regard it as one of the more memorable events of my life.

Day 8 – A Song You Know All The Words To – Faith Hill “Breathe”

I know all the words to many a country song, but none stick out in my mind as Faith Hill’s turn of the century smash. 

When this song first came out I was enthralled by her breathy vocal. I loved the sexiness of the verses coupled with the booming power of the choruses. I’d never heard a country song command so much attention and much such a statement as “Breathe” did. It took me a few listens to remind myself that Faith Hill was singing. I was so obsessed with the song, it never left my head.

This, of course, led to the explosion of Faith Hill in 2000. She was everywhere – on our television screens, the covers of our magazines, selling out our concert venues, and representing country music on a mass scale. Hill dealt with her share of criticism for leaning too far into the mainstream, but she couldn’t do wrong in my eyes. “Breathe” is the symbol of a moment in time when the stars aligned for a girl next door turned pop diva. Hill may never be this iconic again, or release a more perfect music video, but with one song she made her mark on music history.

Day 9 – A Song You Can Dance To – John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John “You’re The One That I Want”

A hard category to come up with something groovy enough to get you on your feet, I chose this iconic classic when nothing else would come to mind.

The overall magic of the musical accompaniment mixed with an actor with musical chops and a singer who can act,  will get even the whitest male on the dance floor.

Day 10 – A Song That Makes You Fall Asleep – Alan Jackson “Good Imitation of the Blues.” 

Nothing is more soothing then slow balladry, Alan’s deep voice, and production by the queen of relaxation Alison Krauss. 

Jackson’s Like Red On A Rose is one CD I could never quite wrap my head around – slow and lounge-like yet cold and off-putting, the overall package wares on you after a while and makes it almost impossible to get through without being lulled to sleep. The album, and especially this song, are not meant to be heard when driving.

Like Red on a Rose was supposed silence the critics looking for something new from the iconic singer, but he went a bit too far away from his roots. Many liked it after repeated listenings, but I never could get into it all that much.

Day 11 – A Song From Your Favorite Band – Dixie Chicks “Cold Day in July”

The least remembered single from Fly, “July” is a story of dissolve, regret, and moving on – A masterclass of musicianship and vocal prowess. 

The Dixie Chicks are my favorite band because they never fail to stand out, rise above, and command attention. There hasn’t ever been anyone like them and there never will again – they brought Bluegrass to the mainstream and won the hearts of fans the world over.

Never has an act gone from universal love to calculated hate so fast. But through it all, the music remains at a quality rarely surpassed and that’s all that really matters.

Day 12 – A Song From A Band You Hate – JaneDear Girls “Wildflower”

The puzzling mix of winey girl-like vocals and embarrassing production values mix with inane lyrical content to create a duo that would only be signed to the Nashville of today – a town hell bent on a fast dollar and easy marketability. Talent often takes a backseat in this new model and it shows here.

When thinking of the group/band evolution in country music you have The Carter Family laying the foundation and everyone from The Statler Brothers, Oak Ridge Boys, Alabama, Diamond Rio, Highway 101, Restless Heart, Blackhawk, Shenandoah, Dixie Chicks, and more recently, Lady Antebellum, Zac Brown Band, Little Big Town, and The Band Perry building on that foundation.

Against those that paved the way, JaneDear Girls are a step below in all aspects and not worthy of building on or adding to the legacy that precedes them.

They did a better than average job on the recent ACM Women of Country special, but it’s hard to take them seriously in their quest to be the next great band in country music.

Day 13 – A Song That Is A Guilty Pleasure – The Carpenters “Top Of The World”

When it comes to music, I’m not afraid to stand up and lay claim to something I love, no matter how corny or embarrassing it may be.

“Top of the World,” a massive hit for The Carpenters in the early 70s, is just such one of those songs. The sunny production and proclamation of a young romance are irresistible. Sure, the whole thing is dated by about forty years but it doesn’t matter – music, and not just country, is a feeling and this never fails to bring out my optimistic side.

Day 14 – A Song No One Would Expect You to Love – Paul Simon “You Can Call Me Al”

This tale of mid-life crisis is a wordy gem in need of a deeper listen. The magic isn’t in Simon’s weightless vocal but in the lyrics themselves. It’s a masterclass in clever wordplay and a cool record in an era where style outranked substance. 

Day 15 – A Song That Describes You – Tim McGraw “The Cowboy In Me”

If ever the lyrics of a song were meant to mirror my life, it’s this one. When searching for a song to fit this category, I was looking at McGraw’s Set This Circus Down album jacket and re-read the words to “Cowboy” and just knew I’d found it. 

I’m that guy who doesn’t know why he acts the way he does, like he doesn’t have a single thing to lose. Without a doubt I’m my own worst enemy. My life is definitely one most would love to have, yet I can’t seem to really fundamentally get that through my head. And yes, I’ve been known to wake up fighting mad.

Maybe it is just the cowboy in me, or at least the pseudo-cowboy, since I’m as far from “cowboy” as Jason Aldean is from hardcore traditional, but this is the song that best describes the essence of my being.

Day 16 – A Song You Used to love but now hate – Shania Twain “You’re Still The One”

A first-rate pop/country love song, “One” is, at it’s core, a really good song. It’s an iconic record that defines an era and has one of the sexiest music videos of its day.

But with all it has going for it, it has a major problem – It doesn’t hold up well after repeated listenings and since it was a major hit, radio played the fire out of it in 1998. Due to its success, I can’t stand it to this day – even after more than a decade of not hearing it, I’m still extremely sick of it.

But that’s just me.

Day 17 – A Song you Hear Often On The Radio – Jessica Andrews “Who I Am”

This is too weird. As I go to write my piece on this song, it’s playing on my local country station. You think I hear it often?

I chose Andrews’s sole number one hit because it would’ve been too easy to chose Jason and Kelly’s duet or Sara Evans’s latest. I wanted to go with a song that either hasn’t died or has seen a resurgence in recent years and this one fit the bill perfectly. Plus, I’ve always loved the song, so I can’t complain about being able to hear it again.

Day 18 – A Song You Wish You Heard on the Radio – Trisha Yearwood “Nothin’ Bout Memphis”

My favorite non-single of the last ten years, “Memphis” is a masterclass in vocal prowess, expert storytelling, and using your talents to full effect.

The story of a women visiting a town with a new love that was made famous through memories made with a former flame, is the single greatest missed opportunity in years. This is the kind of song country radio needs – intelligent and introspective yet modern and classy. Unfortunately, it’s too good for country radio which kind of makes me happy it wasn’t a single. To watch it bomb, a la “This Is Me You’re Talking To,” would have been much too painful.

Day 19 – A Song From Your Favorite Album – Dixie Chicks “More Love”

Upon its release in August 2002, Home grabbed my attention and  stole my heart. I had an admiration for the Chicks since 1997, but this is when I first fell in love with they had to offer country radio. I loved all of their previous hits but I had a deeper affection for them after Home.

My favorite track from the album is “Truth Number 2,” but I chose to highlight “More Love” here because I wanted to go with a track not herald over on the project; one needing more attention.

Day 20 – A Song You Listen to when you’re Angry – Sheryl Crow “If It Makes You Happy”

No one does angry, angst ridden rock better then Sheryl Crow. Which is why I’ve steered away from her recent output of out of character music. 

But “Happy” is one of her best songs and one of her most country. It’s the perfect tune to throw on when you just feel like screaming. There’s nothing better than belting the chorus to relieve negative energy pent up inside.

(NOTE: My runner-up choice is Dixie Chicks “Not Ready To Make Nice,” the song I would’ve gone with had they not appeared twice in 20 songs already)

Day 21 – A Song You Listen to When You’re Happy – Ashton Shepherd “The Bigger The Heart”

This little number from 2008’s Sounds So Good shouldn’t fail to put anyone in a good mood. It’s the kind of upbeat traditional country Patty Loveless brought to the mainstream in the 90s and Shepherd is nicely updating it for the 21st century.

It’s the right kind of sunny excitement and a case where you can be upbeat and happy without sacrificing substance. The whole package (production and Shepherd’s vocal) is so intoxicating you can’t help but be drawn right in. This is how uptempo country music used to and should still sound. Here’s a perfect example of it done right.

Day 22 – A Song You Listen to When You’re Sad – Alison Krauss and James Taylor “How’s The World Treating You”

When sadness penetrates you, it’s best to play an equally dreary song to turn around your mood and get you out of your funk.

And for me, this Grammy winning duet does it every time. When they sing about empty schedules and blue Mondays, its so over the top gut wrenching, you can’t help but foster a smile. It’s comforting to know you aren’t feeling this down and out and it helps turn you around.

Day 23 – A Song You Want To Play At Your Wedding – Charlie Daniels Band “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” 

To go the classic love song route would’ve been too easy. How many people do you think went and posted “I Cross My Heart” or “Keeper of the Stars?”

I chose to go from a different angle and pick CDB’s 1979 classic, the perfect get on your feet and dance number. Its already livened up a few weddings I’ve been to, and trust me, it does the trick every time. As much as you want romance, the guests have to dance the night away, right?

Day 24 – A Song You Want To Play At Your Funeral – Vince Gill “Go Rest High On That Mountain”

Unlike the out-of-the-box wedding pick, I went ubber-traditional with this one. Believe me, it wasn’t because I wanted to, but I couldn’t think of the perfect “he lived a good life” song. 

In the end, though, this timeless tale that honors both Keith Whitley and Gill’s late brother, is the perfect song for anyone being laid to rest because when the time comes, your work on earth really is done.

Day 25 – A Song That Makes You Laugh – Mark Chestnut “Going Through The Big D”

Country music has had its share of quirky lyrics but this tale of divorce is a play on words laugh fest that turns a serious event into brilliant comic fodder.

As the story goes, the couple married after six moths and bought a house in a sub-divided neighborhood. Pretty quickly the fuses were short, the night were long, and it was over before they knew what they had gotten themselves into. Problem is, divorce is never final because they’re “still paying on the vinyl.”

Maybe the multi-colored waterproof flooring in the laundry room did the marriage in, or was it the warning from his friends who said he jumped into the river of love a little soon?

But he shouldn’t be complaining – she got the lemon of a house while he made off easy with the Jeep. At least we know what’s really important in all this – when you’re going through the “Big D” it doesn’t mean Dallas.

Day 26 – A Song You Can Play On An Instrument – NO SELECTION

That’s right, folks. I can’t play a single instrument so I opted out of this category.

Day 27 – A Song You Wish You Could Play On An Instrument – Nickel Creek “Sweet Afton” 

I credit this song, their version of the lyrical Robert Burns poem set to music, with making me love the mandolin. I’d never heard such a beautiful sound in my life. If I could learn any instrumental part of a song, it would be that one.

Please listen to this recording if you haven’t already – it’s a flawless record that bridges the best of bluegrass with the storytelling made famous by country music and creates a marriage sweet and pure. It’s one of the best records I’ve ever heard in my life.

Day 28 – A Song That Makes You Feel Guilty – Tracy Lawrence “Lessons Learned”

They don’t call this a song challenge for nothing – I couldn’t think of a single song to fit this theme. Instead I went with a song about being guilty, this top 5 hit from 2000. 

Through any guilt you inevitably learn something not just about the situation but about yourself. And the best lessons are those that run deep, don’t go away, or come cheep because this world turns on those lessons we’ve learned.

Day 29 – A Song From Your Childhood – Lila McCann “I Wanna Fall In Love”

Probably among the easiest of categories, I could assemble a list a mile wide of defining songs from my childhood. But in the spirit of choosing just one, I picked McCann’s sole chart topper from 1997 because it stands out as one I couldn’t get enough of back then, and still love today.

The infectious vocal and melody were perfect for McCann’s young age and showcased the promise of her talent while framing her with the right mix of country and pop. Plus, the lyrical content help this from becoming an embarrassment all these years later. I’m as proud to say I love this now, as I did back then.

Day 30 – Your Favorite Song From This Time Last Year – Miranda Lambert “The House That Built Me”

Its fitting that the end of this challenge comes with one of the best songs in recent memory. In May 2010, I hadn’t yet heard “From A Table Away” or “If I Die Young,” so this was still number one on my list at the time.

A timeless tale of finding yourself from within the walls of your childhood home, “Me” is at the heart of the human journey to becoming whole. We look to what built and shaped us to recapture the innocence taken from us by the journey into adulthood. Problem is, you can never recapture a memory or a feeling no matter how much you try; it’s going to turn out differently every time. But those feelings of innocence are in the essence of our souls, and to tap into them, is to bring you closer to your authentic self, the person you were put on this planet to become.



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