Look, country music, we’re trying to work with you here. You are an original American artform. You spring from a deep storytelling tradition of struggle and woe, describing universal truths about the human condition in a plain but somehow poetic way. Sometimes it just seems like you’ve lost the plot completely, but then our faith is often restored by some of the artists working a bit outside of the mainstream, from Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson to the legendary Steve Earle or his son Justin Townes Earle.
But then the 2013 Country Music Awards happen and make the entire genre look like a caricature of big hats and mediocre pop masquerading as country. When the headlines coming off your awards show all highlight a parody performance by the redneckiest reality TV stars ever (Duck Dynasty), rather than a surprise win for Entertainer of the Year by respected country star George Strait, you better start doing some soul-searching. And how about the “Pinnacle Award” being awarded to a pop star who hasn’t recorded a country song in years (Taylor Swift)?
Then again, there were more good moments this year than last. In addition to Strait’s win, we got a tribute (featuring Strait and Alan Jackson) to one of the all-time greats, George Jones, who died this year, and nods to Kenny Rogers, an appearance by Alison Krauss, and Dave Grohl rocking the drum kit with the Zac Brown Band.
Below is the full list of winners. Until next time, save country music.
Life is full of surprises, and sometimes, so is pop music. In recent weeks, it’s recovered its long-dormant ability to shock, or at least catch us off guard with the unlikely hit, or the unexpected comeback.
Several months ago, I never dreamed I would ever ask the question that is the title of this article. It had been more than twenty-five years since Lionel Richie’s commercial heyday, and on the charts, he had been succeeded by younger romantic leads in pop and R&B many times over (Babyface, Usher, Ne-Yo, among others).
Then came one of those surprise developments seldom seen in pop anymore: On Billboard magazine’s Top 200 album chart for the week following the March 26 release of Tuskegee, Richie’s first studio album since 2009’s Just Go (which didn’t make the US Top 20 and failed to go gold), he debuted at No. 2 with first-week sales of 199,000 copies, right behind Madonna’s latest, MDNA.
Scotty McCreery, Lauren Alaina, Ricky Skaggs and Phil Vassar are just some of the country stars that are ready to brighten your holidays with their down-home music. Sure, you’re overwhelmed with all kinds of lists”shopping and otherwise”during this season but take a look at the stellar line up of artists offering you holiday-themed country music and enjoy.
Think of American Idol alums Scotty McCreery and Lauren Alaina as melodic bookends of the holidays. McCreery, who performed in the annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, is also featured in the Disney Christmas Day parade that will be televised on ABC. Find out when it will be aired in your area by going to the Disney Web site. Lauren Alaina will join other artists on American Country New Year’s Eve at 11 p.m. on December 31 on FOX. Find out more about the show on this Web site.
John Hiatt believes in miracles.
And why not? It doesn’t seem that long ago that he was just coming off weeks on the road and found that he and his wife were each at the end of their ropes, trying to cope with their long periods of separation while raising a family. Since that time, the much-lauded singer-songwriter has stayed on the road but actively works to carve out a somewhat more forgiving schedule. Sometimes that works. Sometimes it doesn’t. When it doesn’t, he heeds the words his wife offered at one such point.
“I came home angry and lonely and tired and [my family] had gone on with their lives,” said Hiatt. “I complained to my wife that there is no place for me in the family. She told me to make one.”
Hiatt chuckles as he relates that he did just that, though it isn’t always easy.
“It can be very hard; the reentry is tough. But we just celebrated our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary in June,” said Hiatt, pausing for a few beats. “It’s a miracle.”
That sensitivity is arguably why the much-lauded Hiatt, who is a member of the prestigious Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, has created heart tugging music even before his first solo album Hangin’ Around the Observatory, was released in 1974. His true breakthrough came about a decade later with the 1987 album Bring the Family.
You may well be more familiar with Hiatt’s songs that have been covered by a host of artists than those he recorded himself. Some of these songs include “Have a Little Faith in Me,” (covered by Bon Jovi, Joe Cocker, Kenny Rogers and Jewel); “Icy Blue Heart” (covered by Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris); “Memphis in the Meantime” (covered by Gregg Allman, Sam Bush and Chris Smither); “Thing Called Love,” (covered by Bonnie Raitt); “Through Your Hands” (covered by Joan Baez, David Crosby and Don Henley)”and that’s just for starters.
Months of pre-holiday music can make even the most ardent country music fan weary of the traditional tunes. Yet it’s easy enough to rock around the Christmas tree or ring in the New Year by downloading some of the plentiful, just-released holiday songs by your favorite country artists. Check out our picks for the Top 10 don’t-want-to-miss albums”old, new and re-issued.
1.”A Merry Little Christmas” by Lady Antebellum. Six GRAMMY nominations, and a sleigh full of CMA, AMA and Teen Choice awards indicate the trio’s time has arrived. Not bad when you consider that Hillary Scott”who joins Charles Kelley and David Haywood in the group”tried out for American Idol and never made it past the first stage. Despite all the hoopla surrounding the band and it’s Need You Now album and single, the trio has released a new six-song CD with such classics as “Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow” and a country cover of “Silver Bells.” Want an original? “On This Winter’s Night,” co-written by Tom Douglas, is made even more haunting with the addition of a children’s choir.
2. “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas” by Suzy Bogguss. You know Suzy from her platinum and gold songs and albums plus her CMA awards, but she has recently turned what many call the best country vocals in contemporary music to the holidays. Her new release includes classics such as “White Christmas” and “I’ll be Home for Christmas,” and her own spunky versions of songs including “You’re a Mean One Mr. Grinch.” All the songs were recorded with her band that just completed a holiday tour.
3. “Holly Happy Days” by the Indigo Girls. Combine Amy Ray’s rock sound, Emily Saliers folk tendencies, add a dose of bluegrass thanks to guests including renowned banjo player-guitarist Alison Brown and bassist Viktor Krauss (brother of Alison Krauss) and you have the makings of a classic. The duo recorded the album”which is a mix of nine classic holiday tunes and three originals”during two weeks in Nashville.
4. “The Taylor Swift Holiday Collection” by Taylor Swift. In this celebrity news-heavy world, Swift must hold the title of most famous 21-year-old on the planet. The most commercially successful country (or country-pop) artist in music history, according to Nielsen SoundScan”who seems to win awards daily”released a holiday collection last year. With all the news that swirls around Taylor, it’s understandable if you missed it. Check it out though, and when you hear Swift crooning such classics as “Santa Baby” and “Silent Night” you’ll understand why Taylor’s gorgeous voice has placed her at the top of the country music world.
5. “Merry Christmas” by Shelby Lynne. Even if you missed the first tour between Lynne and her singer-songwriter sister Allison Moorer, you can still ring in the holidays with Lynne’s first holiday album. Besides the usual standards, Lynne included two new originals. One listen to her charming versions of “O Holy Night” and “Sleigh Ride/Winter Wonderland,” and you won’t be surprised that Lynne learned the songs as a child when her mom drove her and her sister to school.
6. “Merry Christmas” by Jessica Simpson. Before you scoff, remember that Simpson hails from Texas and has the twangy vocals and country sensibility to prove it. Her new release is a lot of fun because she only tackles a few classic holiday tunes such as “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” but concentrates more on lesser-known-but-still-loved songs including “Here Comes Santa Claus” and “Mary Did You Know?” You won’t want to miss her duet with Willie Nelson on “Merry Christmas Baby.”
7. “Christmas is the Time (to Say I Love You)” by Katherine McPhee. We know you think of McPhee”the American Idol alumni”as more pop than country, but let’s just agree that she’s a terrific all-around performer who’s scored both pop, holiday and country success. This new release debuted at No. 11 on the Billboard Top Holiday Albums charts. Plus her rendition of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” hit No. 16 on the Billboard Adult Contemporary Chart. And don’t forget her single “Love’s Never Leavin,'” a song McPhee co-wrote with country singer Chelsea Field. The Tammany Humane Society of Covington, La., will receive 100% of the proceeds. Check out the music and you’ll under McPheever.
8. “Christmas Comes Alive” by the Brian Setzer Orchestra. Setzer has come a long way since his days of singing “The Stray Cat Strut” as the frontman of the rockabilly band The Stray Cats. But don’t think that means he’s dulled down his sound. In this new holiday collection, which includes “Angels We Have Heard on High,” and “The Nutcracker Suite,” Setzer mixed rockabilly, big band and jazz sounds for a hot holiday sound.
9. “Christmas Music Live,” by Kenny Rogers. Looking at Kenny’s dozens and dozens awards from the CMT, AMA, CMA and GRAMMYs gives you only a piece of insight into the man who made songs such as “The Gambler” and “Lucille” beloved country anthems. Don’t forget that Rogers has made holiday songs and his annual “Christmas & Hits tour” a holiday tradition for many. Now he’s released his first live CD of holiday tunes Christmas Live, so you can join Kenny in singing “Joy to the World,” “O Come All Ye Faithful,” other holiday classics as you sit in front of the fireplace.
10. “Christmas with Glen Campbell” by Glen Campbell. Baby boomer alert! Remember when Campbell’s weekly variety show was must-see TV in your house? Now the 1995 holiday album by the Rhinestone Cowboy has been re-released so you can hear him belt out “Jingle Bell Rock,” “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman,” and other holiday faves that Campbell recorded in Branson.
By Nancy Dunham
Nancy Dunham writes about music for Country Weekly, AOL Music’s site The Boot, The Washington Post, Relix and other publications.