Saturday Night Barn Dance #005
aturday Night Barn Dance is a new recurring column on contemporary country music, wherein Stylus aims to survey the landscape of the genre by briefly considering some of its more notable and/or superlative recent releases.
Rantin’ and Ravin’
As you might’ve guessed, I’ve got a few thoughts on this year’s CMA Award nominations. (The full list can be found here.)
The first is obvious, but still worth noting: what does the CMA seem to have against Faith and, particularly, Tim? For two years in a row they’ve hit the road with what’s been one of the biggest tours ever in country music, they’re guaranteed hitmakers, easily the highest-profile couple in country (i.e. they sell tabloids as well as albums), and yet between ‘em they’ve got one CMA nod this year, and it’s a minor one (for McGraw’s contribution to Tracy Lawrence’s “Find Out Who Your Friends Are”—and seriously, how is Tim & Faith’s gorgeous “I Need You” not up for Musical Event of the Year, instead of I-kid-you-not Alison Krauss and John Waite!?!). Tim’s debut performance of “If You’re Reading This” on the ACM broadcast a few months back was one of the biggest moments of the year in country, let alone one of the genre’s precious few watercooler moments this year. Yet he’s got no nomination for Male Vocalist, Album, or Single of the Year. Admittedly, Faith has had a mostly quiet year leading up to the release of a new hits collection, but Tim’s lack of an Entertainer of the Year nomination is really befuddling.
Speaking of the ignored, Toby Keith, c’mon down! He’s bitched for years about how the CMAs seem to diss him year after year, and he’s got a point. One of the genre’s biggest stars gets seemingly no respect from the establishment (see also: Trace Adkins). This year, Toby’s launched his own label (hmm, could that be a clue why the industry’s ignoring him as best they can?) and racked up his usual slew of hits along with another #1 album, Big Dog Daddy. How many CMA nominations does he have to show for it? Zero.
The biggest single of the past year was arguably Rodney Atkins’ “If You’re Going Through Hell (Before the Devil Even Knows).” To my ears it’s hokey chain-jerking pabulum, but it seemed to resound with its intended audience, sitting at #1 for an entire month—yet it’s not up for Single nor Song of the Year, and neither is Kenny Chesney’s massive “Never Wanted Nothing More,” one of his better singles of recent vintage. Martina McBride’s 80th overblown inspirational ballad (when she’s good she’s great, but when she’s bad she’s oh-so-boring), “Anyway,” however, is nominated for both. Insert “WTF” here, apparently. Carrie Underwood’s nation-conquering “Before He Cheats” should (but that doesn’t mean it will) win both, though, (ahem) anyway.
Also of note: three “American Idol” contestants, including two winners, are up for CMA Awards this year (Kelly Clarkson for her duet with Reba, the aforementioned Underwood, and Horizon nominee Kellie Pickler), while only one Nashville Star alum is (Miranda Lambert, a surprise nominee for Female Vocalist). Do the math yourself. If Brad Paisley’s “Online,” directed by Jason friggin Alexander, beats “Before He Cheats” for Video of the Year, I will be very, very angry. And the best of the nominees for Album of the Year is also the true surprise in the category and least likely to win: Vince Gill’s good-to-great-but-almost-never-boring four-disc behemoth These Days.
The CMA Awards will be handed out on November 7th.
Travis Tritt - The Storm (Category 5)
Tritt, one of the ‘90’s bigger hitmakers, moves not just to an indie label with this effort, but in the direction of irrelevance as well. It’s not that Tritt can’t cut it; he’s got a body of work that proves unquestionably that he can. In this case, it’s his choice of collaborators—mainly, one Randy Jackson, who co-produced this album with Tritt. Jackson is the epitome of professional, which is precisely the problem here. The Storm is far too tidy and clean—and for pete’s sake, there’s a pair of Diane Warren compositions here, along with another two by Richard Marx (to be fair, one of which is a Tritt co-write). “What If Love Hangs On,” co-written by Tritt and Rob Thomas—a/k/a Mr. Matchbox 20!—could be by anyone, it’s so blanded out, and it’s not even particularly country; this is adult contempo balladry at its most bathetic. There’s not nearly enough Tritt here, just depressing by-the-numbers Nashville-by-way-of-L.A. albumcraft. At one point, a decade or so ago, it looked as if Tritt might be a new generation’s Hank, Jr. One listen to this album, sadly, makes that notion sound ludicrous.
Merle Haggard - Working Man’s Journey (Cracker Barrel)
On this new album of six new songs and six re-recorded classics, Haggard proves that a) his voice is still a thing of wonder, and b) his songwriting isn’t quite what it used to be. “In the Mountains to Forget” is a case in point: hearing the Hag sing about missing a “call from Larry King” and taking down his website is just disconcertingly odd, and unnecessary. I’ll argue that topical songs, bar a few like “Okie from Muskogee,” aren’t Haggard’s strongest suit; songs about relationships and the (ahem) common man are. That’s why songs such as 1974’s “If We Make It Through December” and 1969’s “Workin’ Man Blues” still hold up today, decades after they topped the country chart. Hag sings as well as he ever has—honestly, age has made his voice both richer and wiser—and his band is superb, so Working Man’s Journey is worth hearing, but it’s not an essential.
Trisha Yearwood - Greatest Hits (MCA Nashville)
This new record company cash-in (Yearwood was let go by MCA Nashville after her last album, 2005’s career peak Jasper County; her forthcoming album will appear on indie label Big Machine—see Single File, below) takes the 1997 comp Songbird, subtracts two songs from it, and adds seven others. Those seven are a pair apiece from ‘96’s Everybody Knows and ‘98’s Where Your Road Leads, one from 2001’s Inside Out (the gorgeous “I Would’ve Loved You Anyway”), and two from the “previously unreleased” file. Jasper County is sadly unrepresented, and there are no liners here, just producing, writing, and album credits. Get this anyway. It’s certainly arguable that Yearwood deserves a double-disc hits record, but until that day, this Greatest Hits will fill in nicely.
These songs are nearly all classics and worthy of the designation (save the icky “How Do I Live,” but it’s hard to begrudge her that monster hit): this disc is a master class in how to make contemporary country both radio-friendly and artistically triumphant, from Yearwood’s debut single “She’s in Love with the Boy” (which sounds as fine today as it did in the summer of 1991) to the aforementioned “Anyway,” which means this album nicely covers a decade of true solid gold. The two new songs are solid additions to Yearwood’s canon, particularly the fiddle-drenched two-step “Nothin’ to Lose,” produced, like her first four albums, by the incredibly talented Garth Fundis. Fun fact: the second single Yearwood ever released, “Like We Never Had A Broken Heart,” is co-written and features backing vocals by her now-husband Garth Brooks.
Garth Brooks - “More Than A Memory” (Pearl)
Guess who’s back, back again? The King returns with an instantly anthemic, powerful song that’s already returned him to his rightful place atop the country singles chart—and deservedly so. This is Garth’s best single in years, a soaring number that skillfully entwines country with a bit of rock influence (check that beautifully winding guitar line) and makes a song that’s totally Garth. It’s a potential classic—really, it’s that good—and all the more reason that his Ultimate Hits should be one of the fall’s biggest albums. Welcome back, cowboy.
Josh Turner - “Firecracker” (MCA Nashville)
Turner launches his third album with the most uptempo single he’s ever released, an ode to his best girl. This is seriously honky-tonk music that should please purists, with enough contemporary polish to make his increasing legions of female fans (those eyes! That voice!) swoon and do some boot-scootin’. Coming off the huge success of his sophomore effort Your Man, Turner could join the big leagues with his next album—and by the sound of this single, he’s more than ready.
Trisha Yearwood - “Heaven, Heartache and the Power of Love” (Big Machine)
Yes, THAT VOICE is in superb form here, of course, but there’s more to Yearwood’s new single than that thing of wonder. A southern soul-slash-gospel-touched rave-up that’s still 100% country, “Heaven” rows familiar lyrical territory for Yearwood (“Heaven—that’s where I’m going / Heartache—that’s where I’ve been”), but she sells it oh-so-well that it sounds fresh all over again. Garth must really be good for her, because Trisha’s not sounded quite this buoyant in years. Simply great.
Trace Adkins - “I Got My Game On” (Capitol Nashville)
This is the kind of song that few can pull off with Adkins’ élan, mainly because Adkins is somehow able to convince listeners that he can successfully balance being a redneck shitkicker and a rico suave. (I mean, when the last time you heard a mainstream country artist sing about his Armani suit and not sound like a complete boob?) “Game” is nothing great, but it’s light and entertaining enough that it gets over on the back of Adkins’ attitude. And for what it’s worth, you know the video’ll be fun.