Archive for February, 2011

Modern country classics

February 23, 2011

There is no disputing that throughout its history, country music has had its fair share of classic songs – instances when the combination of vocal, lyric, and melody mix to create a sense of magic. Get anyone in the know in a room and they’ll likely agree that “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” “Stand By Your Man,” “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” “El Paso,” and “Crazy” are among songs considered quintessential to the genre. Moments in country history worth preserving so that everyone for as long as time will get a chance to enjoy them. As the decades go on, we see countless singers come and go as single climb and fall off the charts. Most are mediocre at best – drivel that fall prey to exploiting every last cliche in the book. But every now and then a song comes along worthy of joining the revered list of classics. The following are 11 songs, since the turn of the century, that I would put in the company of every great country song ever recorded.

2000 – “I Am A Man of Constant Sorrow” – The Soggy Bottom Boys

A novelty in its purest form, “Sorrow” was a marvel – it helped sell 8 million copies of the O Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack without the support of country radio. Led by Dan Tymenski, the Soggy Bottom Boys were a fictitious band created by producer T Bone Burnett for use in the movie. No one expected the CMA to crown the song its single of the year or the Grammys to choose the soundtrack over a very popular U2 LP for album of the year but they did. A word of mouth success story, “Sorrow” is an example of why country radio rarely tells the whole country music story.

2001 – “Where Were You (When The World Stopped Turning)” – Alan Jackson

Written in response to the 9-11 terror attacks, “Where Were You” is a snapshot of emotion; a quantifier of our feelings. Jackson was able to capture the mood of the nation so poignantly  you forgot the best country songs come from real world experience. When he sings “I’m Just A Singer of Simple Songs” he captures not only his own truth, but the goal of every country singer who’s ever had the music in their soul. A moment in time that never felt so raw or was so heartbreakingly real.

2002 – “I’m Gonna Miss Her (The Fishin’ Song)” – Brad Paisley

The story of a man who must choose between his woman and love of fishing, marks the moment Paisley came into his own as a songwriter, artist, and videographer. He would go on to make his mark by using humor to tell many a story, but “Miss Her” was the first and arguably the best novelty song he’s ever recorded.

2003 – “Traveling Soldier” – Dixie Chicks

At #1 when Natalie Maines famously denouced then President George W. Bush on British soil, you never saw a song fall so hard, so fast. It’s a shame because “Soldier” is the hit that deserved to be yet never should have been – a nearly five minute acoustic love song about a waitress with a bow in her hair and the three days passed 18 years old soldier who needed someone back home to care about. Neither pro nor anti military, songwriter Bruce Robinson uses the heartbreak of war to tell a greater story about eternal love. The highlight of their masterful Home album, “Solider” is a reminder of all that perished when the world turned a deaf ear to the greatest band country music ever produced.

2004 – “Live Like You Were Dying” – Tim McGraw

Nothing elicits emotion like the loss of a parent, and Tim McGraw knows that well. Although penned by Craig Wiseman and Tim Nichols, its as if McGraw had written the words himself. He asks us all to live as though we’ve reached our final days and gives us a laundry list of what he’d do (sky dive, climb the Rocky Mountains, ride a bull for 2.7 seconds) if given the chance. Introspection at its finest, “Dying” is a battle cry to live for today in case tomorrow never comes.

2005 – “Somebody’s Hero” – Jamie O’Neal

A fleeting moment in country music history, “Hero” is the anthem for all women who had to grow up perfect daughters and then, with children of their own to raise, care for their ailing parents. It’s the story of a vicious cycle every family must endure on a path to wholeness. When O’Neal sings, “The envy of the nursing home/she drops by every afternoon/feeds her mother with a spoon,” you can hear women everywhere shedding a tear for when they were in the character’s shoes themselves. It’s a gentler and kinder relationship women of that generation had with their mothers, and O’Neal captures it perfectly with her sweet yet powerful vocal that enhances – not hinders – the message of the song.

2006 – Little Big Town – “Boondocks”

By late 2005 Little Big Town had been cast off in the bargain bin. Their self-titled debut album proved they were nothing special – yet another generic act with nothing revelatory about their makeup, sound, or look. To turn opinions around would be a major undertaking and they did it as only Little Big Town can. With “Boondocks” they had modified their sound just slightly, and were given the second chance only the rare few are allowed to make. The only spectacular addition in a long line of dismal “where you come from” songs to hit country radio in the decade, “Boondocks” stands out not because its an outstandingly well written, sung, and produced record, but because it injected life into the genre at a time when country music was begging for a new force to be reckoned with.

2007 – “Our Song” – Taylor Swift

Back in high school, Swift debuted this song at a talent show. She only sang it once, yet by the next morning, the whole school was singing it too. When the world got ahold of it, “Song” shot to #1 and stayed their six weeks. The story of a couple who don’t, but are always on the lookout for, a tune to define their relationship, “Song” is a perfect confection of country/pop and easily the best thing Swift has ever sent to country radio. She’ll be chasing the flawlessness of this record for the rest of her career, mark my words. “Song” isn’t just a snapshot of an artist on the rise, it’s the career record only the fortunate few are blessed to have. It’s here the world fell in love with Swift and made her the star everyone who watched that assembly knew she would become.

2008 – “Stay” – Sugarland

Inspired by Reba McEntire’s “Who’s Ever In New England,” and written from the mistress’s point of view, “Stay” proves Jennifer Nettles is a double threat- singer and writer. The sparse arraignment and aching vocal only add to the intensity building in the lyrics. Nettles has never shined brighter than she does here, and like Swift before her, will be chasing this little piece of magic for the rest of her career. She may have also solely written “Shine The Light” as well, but nothing will ever compare to the heights she reached on this instant classic.

2009 – “In Color” – Jamey Johnson

A picture may be worth 1,000 words but according to Johnson and co-writers Tommy Lee Miller and James Otto, “You can’t see what those shades of grey keep covered/you should’ve seen it in color.” A brilliant ode to a simple pleasure we all take for granted, “Color” brings our modern world into perspective and gives new meaning to those old 8x10s sitting in our attics. Songs about pictures are nothing new, but “Color” revives the theme with an intensity lacking from most of modern country. Heartfelt and sincere yet commanding and attentive, “Color” is the epitome of country music and a foundation towards a (hopefully) promising future.

2010 – Miranda Lambert – “The House That Built Me”

“I know they say, you can’t go home again,” sings Lambert in an ode to finding yourself through the walls of your childhood home. A quiet gem that made a huge statement, “House” is the hit no one saw coming from the artist radio could no longer ignore. Songs like “House” rarely come along and when they do, you’d be a fool not to grab them. The video only enhances the quality of the lyric with the home movies woven throughout. Lambert was a fine country singer before she snag this song, but after, she just may be the best female country star having hits today.

Country music’s cruel new dictator

February 18, 2011

I had an epiphany last week when I was filling out the latest “Highway Patrol” survey from Sirius/XM’s The Highway where you have to listen to a bunch of songs and offer comments on them. Much like the old Sesame Street song, “One of these things is not like the other,” one tune in particular stood out like a sore thumb (for the wrong reasons) against the rest: Miranda Lambert’s “Heart Like Mine.”

It wasn’t the lyrical content or Lambert’s vocal that caught me off guard but the production values of the track. Upon the release of her Revolution album in 2009, The 9513, did an eye-opening article on album entitled “Everything Louder Than Everything Else.” In the article author Chris Neal says, “This album is too damn loud. I knew immediately that what should have been one of the best albums of the year had been ruthlessly defaced, and that the Loudness War had well and truly come to Nashville at last.”

Neal goes on to say, “Here’s a difference between “volume” and “loudness.” The former you can control with the knob or button on your stereo/radio/computer/iPod/Victrola/whatever. The latter is decided upon before you ever buy the music. “Loudness” is the built-in volume of each element of each track, levels that are usually determined in the mixing or mastering stage of music production. The more “loudness” is applied to a track, the less it has in the way of dynamics—the quiet parts of a song become just as loud as the noisy parts. When “Maintain the Pain” slams into its chorus, for instance, the dramatic impact is lessened because the “quiet” intro isn’t really quiet at all.”

Hearing “Heart Like Mine” mixed in with other current singles and recent hits were to be bombarded by a wall of noise I wasn’t expecting. The intensity doesn’t ruin my enjoyment of the song, but it brings into question the need to add that extra element to the track and album.

Lambert doesn’t need extra volume to bring her music to life and thankfully, the whole album isn’t affected by noise. One listen to “The House That Built Me” and you’ll hear everything modern country should aspire to be.

The shock of “Heart Like Mine” got me thinking about the role production plays in modern country music. Why are some songs over produced while others are under produced and when do people strike the perfect balance and get it right?

A trend I’ve noticed is to make songs thicker and fuller sounding than they should be. Two good examples are Chris Young’s “Voices” and James Wesley’s “Real.” When I heard “Voices” for the first time after “Getting You Home” and “The Man I Want To Be,” I noticed it retained more of the Nashville machine then Young’s previous two singles. Where those were straight ahead country, “Voices” seemed to attack you, like the instruments were being potted in at full-throttle and thus making the song more produced than it should’ve been. Luckily, Young has a voice that can cut through tick production and he was able to rise above the obvious shortcomings. So much so, the song recently hit number one.

As for Wesley’s “Real,” the song is just too loud. I was listening to the song today and it has no innocence. The production is mashed together making the song seem inauthentic. Plus, Wesley has to struggle to be heard.

Another place I noticed production taking over was on Lady Antebellum’s Need You Now tour with David Nail. When I go to a concert, I want to be able to hear the artists and not have them drowned out blaring acoustics. Nail’s set was so piercing that I couldn’t understand a word he was singing nor could I distinguish between any of his songs. He made a very poor impression on me and I didn’t come away a fan. His set was a prime example of negative exposure.

During Lady A’s set, the back-to-back playing of “Stars Tonight” and “Love This Pain” was way too much noise to handle. I really enjoy both those songs on the album, but they were too amped up and bled into each other so much you couldn’t wait for Lady A to launch into one of their ballads.

Of course the exceeding loudness of concerts is nothing new, heck it’s been going on forever. But that doesn’t make it necessary. What’s new is the increasing thickness of country records and it needs to stop. The quietness of the music is something to treasure, not erase.

A debate I’ve seen recently is the production values of Shania Twain and Carrie Underwood. Reviewers have often stated that Underwood’s “Last Name,” “Cowboy Casanova,” and “Undo It” is direct descendants of Twain in her heyday. They go on to suggest Underwood could actually learn a thing or two from Twain – that less is more.

I have to agree. I was listening to both Underwood’s “Cowboy Casanova” and Twain’s “Man! I Feel Like A Woman” back-t0-back recently and noticed something – while both have a distinct driving drum beat, Twain’s song isn’t nearly as thick as Underwood’s. In other words, Underwood’s music is a fuller and more bombastic version of what Twain was pioneering over a decade ago.

But why has country music evolved into this new rock sound? I wrote about this two months ago in my progress report post – the rise of stadium concerts has led to an expansion of what it means to be called country. And to expand is to lose all of the intimacy that makes country music distinctive.

Luckily, there are still plenty of examples of where production doesn’t get hinder a great song.  A case in point is Joey + Rory’s latest single, “That’s Important To Me.” When I first heard the song it was so restrained that it took me aback. Where was the bombardment of reverberation? But then I remembered something – all great country records sounded like this, simple-minded lyrics and melodies that didn’t fight to be heard. Listen to any of the Judds big hits and you’ll see this in action. Production wise, Joey + Rory’s song brings to mind the Judds’ classic “Grandpa (Tell Me Bout The Good Ole Days).”

While you’re at it, listen to Joey + Rory’s song. “That’s Important To Me” is more than just country music done well – it’s a prime example of simplicity conveying heart and soul. Everyone can learn something here.

Another instance where quietness enhances beauty is Zac Brown Band’s “Colder Weather.” In between the couplet “At a truck stop diner just outside of Lincoln/The night’s as black as the coffee he was drinking,” you can hear the faint moan of an organ echoing the whipping winds of icy winter days. Keith Stegall was smart to give the production room to breathe because without those two very distinct moments of instrumentation, the song wouldn’t have been so chill inducing.

Those songs have me longing for the day when many of today’s superstars used to sing a straightforward country music. On “Two People Fell In Love” and “Wrapped Around,” Brad Paisley was able to kick butt while retaining simplicity. There wasn’t any of that muscular heaviness that has spoiled his recent work. While a dose of bulk is fine every now and then, to include it on every song is overload.

Another artist in need of minimalism is Blake Shelton. His career has evolved because he plays closely by the rules of Nashville. As a result, the quality of his music has paid dearly. Putting aside the atrociousness of “Kiss My Country Ass,” Shelton has lost all of what he does best – singing real country music.

I’m really enjoying his latest single, “Who Are You When I’m Not Looking,” because it represents the kind of tune Shelton excels with.  I’m not much into party music he’s been putting out lately and never really have been.  I also find his new beer drinking frat boy image very off-putting.

Now I know what everyone’s thinking – how on earth do you have a discussion of modern country without bringing in Jason Aldean? Honestly, you can’t. But unlike Paisley and Shelton, his music didn’t evolve to its current sound – he came out of the gate with “Hicktown” and hasn’t looked back.

My problem with Aldean is that he isn’t honoring the genre. His duet with Kelly Clarkson, “Don’t You Wanna Stay,” is arguably the hottest single at country radio right now, but it’s pop/rock power ballad and should be labeled as such. Also, Kelly is a fantastic vocalist, and I don’t want to take anything away from her, but she wasn’t born to sing country music. It’s no wonder top 40 radio can’t get enough – that’s where “Stay” has always belonged from the beginning.

Aldean seems to have a hold on the genre unlike many of his contemporaries. Thompson Square’s “Are You Gonna Kiss Me or Not” follows his trademark sound very closely, and surprise, is gaining airplay. With My Kinda Party recently hitting #1, it looks like Aldean’s rock inspired sound is the new normal. That wouldn’t be a bad thing but his sound isn’t worth embracing – by anyone, let alone him.

On the contrary, there is one country rocker I actually like – Eric Church. With two albums under his belt, he’s proven that you can amp up your sound while also keeping it country at its core. The production on his songs isn’t overly heavy and his music is just cool. I love “Smoke A Little Smoke” because it calls attention to itself for all the right reasons – it may be loud, but it’s also unlike anything on country radio right now. It commands your attention for all the right reasons. “Smoke” (and Church) is country rock done very well.

As Church and others make clear, country songs don’t need to be descendents of pysdo-rock to gain attention. The loudness of “Heart Like Mine” made it stand out from the others in the survey – for all the wrong reasons. The song, which is doing very well, doesn’t need an extra oomph to be heard – the lyrical content stands on its own. What it and most modern country need is to be toned down so listeners can hear the songs as intended. Wouldn’t that be nice for a change?


ALBUM REVIEW – Lori McKenna – Lorraine

February 2, 2011

Lori McKenna


The mark of a great album lies in the ability to match exceptionally well-written and well-crafted songs, with an equally as powerful a singer. When one element is missing, the whole project fails. In the case of McKenna, she has crafted perfection. Lorraine is also the best country album by a female artist since Miranda Lambert’s Revolution. The mixture of both heartbreak and hope, coupled with a sense of deep longing, make this project sparkle. Never has the emptiness of loosing a parent at a young age (McKenna lost her mother when she was seven) been so palpable and the ache in moving forward so heartbreakingly real.

To listen to McKenna is to hear the truth of a woman who has endured and lived. She lives with her husband, a plumber, and their five children in Stoughton, Massachusetts. She was quietly perfecting her sound when, in 2005, she caught the ear of Faith Hill. Hill was so taken aback by what she heard, she demanded to hear everything McKenna had ever written. As a result, Hill included three of McKenna’s songs (“Stealing Kisses”, “Fireflies,” and “If You Ask”) on her 2005 Fireflies album. McKenna has since gone on to record a major label country album (2007’s Unglamorous) and have her songs covered by the likes of Sara Evans, Tim McGraw, singer/actress Mandy Moore, Jimmy Wayne, and most recently Keith Urban. And a track she co-wrote, “Chances Are,” was sung by actor Garrett Hedlund and included in the movie Country Strong. The major label deal has since ended, and her new album Lorraine, her given name, and that of her mother, is self-released through Signature Sounds.

McKenna’s greatest appeal isn’t her singing and songwriting – it’s the throwback nature of her music. She isn’t bred from the same cloth as Jennifer Nettles or Carrie Underwood and she’s more accessible to the mainstream audience than either Patty Griffin or Lucinda Williams. McKenna is most importantly a thinking person’s country singer, a modern day Emmylou Harris, and the rightful torchbearer of that all but dead subset of the genre. Her country is neither polished or glossy – it’s just her truth as she knows it.

On the 13 tracks, McKenna proves she is leaps and bounds ahead of her peers by actually having something substantive to deliver to her audience. By staying clear of the cliche machine that is Nashville, she never once succumbs to the trickery of the business. Making her mark by taking complete creative control and forging her own path, McKenna puts quality first – something sorely missing from 99 percent of the recordings emerging from Music City. Lorraine showcases a woman free to do what she pleases and deliver spectacular results.

The opening song, “The Luxury of Knowing,” recently scooped up by Keith Urban for the deluxe edition of his Get Closer album, sets the scene. Both somber and brooding, “Knowing” commands attention for McKenna’s stunning vocal alone. She stretches her unmistakeable twang further than ever before, creating an emotional ache so palpable you feel right along with her. Credit must also go to Urban who clearly knows a true gem when he hears it. It’s just too bad his version will never bring the song the mainstream attention it deserves. It hardly matters anyway, after hearing McKenna’s performance on the song, no one else will dare touch it.

Another standout track, “Still Down Here,” the story of a person talking to their loved ones up in heaven, is an early favorite for song of the year. Anyone who has suffered the loss of a close relative or friend will instantly relate to McKenna’s yearning to be remembered by those from beyond the grave. With all the attention focused squarely on “Knowing,” “Here” will likely be left in the cold. But if you only buy one song this year, make it this one. Very rarely does a song come along, especially nowadays, so compelling in nature. It’ll haunt you long after it’s over.

The remarkable thing about Lorraine is the production – never too loud or too soft, the musical arraignments fit each song perfectly. One mark of a great album is the ability to let the lyrics take center stage. When the musical arraignment swallows both the lyrics and vocal performances, all potential for greatness is lost. One could argue McKenna needs to rock a bit harder every now and then but what would that prove? Optimism and joy aren’t her nature and it isn’t like she’s looking to stand alongside Kenny Chesney at football stadiums. With Lorraine she’s found the perfect marriage every major label artist should be striving for – you don’t need to make noise to be heard. Let it be a lesson for everyone.

One could argue that McKenna spends far too long as the brooding sufferer – the wife begging for attention from the man who once couldn’t get enough (“Stealing Kisses”) or the woman allowing herself to forgive the man who strays (“If You Ask”). To listen to her music is to listen to someone hurting. You could also fault McKenna for still seeming stuck by the most significant moment of her childhood. But to write her off is to turn your back on one of the most important singer-songwriters working today. Lorraine is a masterpiece because of its authenticity and because it’s a clear anecdote to every current trend in country music. Simply put, Lorraine has visible heart and soul. She doesn’t pander or succumb to anyone but her own gut – and she’s all the better for it in the end. I couldn’t ask for more.