I stumbled upon a New York Times article this week that made a big claim about rock music. The author basically says that when our grandchildren’s grandchildren look at rock music, the only name that’ll matter is Chuck Berry. Not Springsteen, Zeppelin, the Stones, or The Beatles, but Chuck Berry. I’m not saying he’s wrong about Berry being a figurehead and representative of rock music, but rock’s different styles don’t warrant such a narrow-minded claim. Yes, “Johnny B. Goode” is an excellent song and Chuck Berry fathered rock music like Hank fathered country. The author says Berry made simple, direct, rhythm based music, which best exemplifies rock music. He’s not wrong, but I think it’s wrong to pigeon-hole the genre into one song.
The big part of his claim comes from the fact that when NASA sent Voyager I into space, they included a mix record which included “Johnny B. Goode” on the track list – the only rock song on the list. So this got me thinking, is it possible to narrow down country music into one song that best represents the genre over the 70+ years of artists and songs who’ve done so much? I’ll argue that you need a Mount Rushmore of songs, not just one, because even country’s best songs and artists had different styles that are all country music.
Take “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” arguably the best country song of all time. Listening to the song with its grand crescendo and a faint steel guitar, it’s vastly different from Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues,” a song electric guitars and simple percussion beat, also argued to be the best country song. Both songs sound way different, yet they’re both country music, and they’re both great representations of the genre. Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings couldn’t be more different in their sounds, yet both artists not only exemplified the Outlaw movement, but country music as a whole. Waylon’s rock sound is more in line with Cash’s style, but even then, the two artists are distinctly different.
The Bakersfield Sound has its own unique flair different from the aforementioned artists, yet Merle Haggard and Buck Owens are just as influential to country music. Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette don’t exactly sound like Kitty Wells, but all of their music is a big part of country’s history. Many of these styles stem from Hank Williams, and all these styles are equally important to country’s roots. These are the styles that have influenced many of today’s Americana and Country stars. The early generation brought out singers like George Strait, Reba, and Alan Jackson, who have gone on to influence the likes of Kacey Musgraves, Sturgill Simpson, Cody Jinks, and pretty much everyone we’ve reviewed here.
The point is I think it’s impossible to simply try to find one song or artist to represent a music genre rich with history and talent. Country, Rock, Rap, and every other genre has their top-tier of artists who’ve gone onto to influence the genre. At the end of the day, one can always trace the history back to the root of the genre, which is never a bad option to choose as a genre head. But dismissing Waylon or Merle as a defining artist of country music because their sound was not Hank’s country sound is blasphemous, as is dismissing rock’s eclectic history because it’s not as simple and rhythmic as Chuck Berry.
Upcoming/Recent Country Music Releases
On July 8, Mark Chesnutt’s new album, Tradition Lives will be released.
David Nail’sFighter will be released the following week on the 15th.
At the end of the month on July 29, Lori McKenna’sThe Bird & The Rifle will be released.
Shovels and Rope recently released a new single called “I Know.” Their new album Little Seeds will be out October 7.
Southern rockers/Texas Country band Whiskey Myers are working with producer Dave Cobb on their new album, Mud. The first single from the album is “Lightning Bugs and Rain.”
Throwback Thursday Song
“False Accuser’s Lament” by Jason Boland and the Stragglers. I’ve been listening to a lot of Boland lately, and this song has jumped up my list of favorites from him. “False Accuser’s Lament” can be found on Rancho Alto, one of Boland’s best albums in my opinion.
Velvet Portraits by Terrace Martin – an album mixed with Jazz, Hip Hop, and R&B, Velvet Portraits is a diverse album. It’s a fun listen though, with the relaxing Jazz instrumentals and hip hop lyrical deliveries on the others. It’s different, but worth the listen.
Tweet of the Week
In conclusion: Listen to what you want. Not these idiotic playlists by streaming apps serving you up Sam Hunt & other corporate dogshit.
Wheeler Walker, Jr. is a great follow on twitter if you don’t mind some profanity on your timeline. As streaming continues to rise, labels getting songs on “featured playlists” on Spotify or Apple Music will be the new way of getting on the charts.
A Chase Rice iTunes Review
Chase Rice’s new single, “Everybody We Knows Does,” is the same generic BS from every other generic bro before him. After his letter apologizing for “Whisper,” I expected at least something that shows a little effort in a follow-up single, but I was mistaken.
Albums are an important art form lost in a digital realm demanding instant gratification. Most music listeners don’t want to think about music as anything more than a soundtrack for life. It’s background noise to improve mundane activities and dance to at parties. Now combinations of music and dance is a different art form in itself. But an album can be an equally great, sometimes overlooked expression of art. Albums can tell stories. They can draw out feelings from deep inside the listener, feelings that you may not even realize you could feel at that moment.
Albums were a big talking point in Country Perspective’s first podcast episode. If you haven’t already done so, I encourage you to give it a listen. Josh did a great job with the first installment of our new weekly feature, and the podcast will only improve. In the first episode of The Country Perspective Show, and in the subsequent comments, points were raised about how albums in country music today are nothing more than a collection of single-worthy, radio driven songs. No care is given to the idea of an album being meaningful. All that matters is that there are 10-13 songs of various themes and genres, ready for whatever road country radio turns down next.
Take Eric Church’s The Outsiders. This jarring album had Eric Church ready for just about anything: rock (“The Outsiders,” “That’s Damn Rock & Roll”), pop-country (“Give Me Back My Hometown,” “Talladega”), and R&B influence (“Like a Wrecking Ball”). Listening to it as an album, The Outsiders is a jarring, sporadic listen with no cohesive theme or style to latch onto. However, the variety of musical stylings and genres has sustained Eric Church with a few successful radio singles and long-term album sales. Luke Bryan’s Crash My Party and Brantley Gilbert’s Just As I Am are two other albums that have sustained long-term success through building the albums with hit single after hit single.
With a big enough name, labels can build albums with songs ready to keep radio relevancy alive through long stadium and arena tours. The trade-off, though, is the concept of crafting an album that flows from start to finish: an album with cohesive themes and productions, a conceptual story, and even a creative cover to compliment the musical offerings.
Good cover art on an album can subtly add to or allude to the music heard. Take Gretchen Peters’ Blackbirds for example. The cover isn’t complicated, but the simplicity is detailed and tells quite a bit. Gretchen is raising her arms up, draped in the cloth from her black dress. As a result, she looks like she’s raising black wings. The surrounding brush and shrubbery are brown and dying, with the grim, gray sky above. The image implies darkness, death, emptiness. The cover art (correctly) suggests that the album will be dark, grim, and uneasy.
William Clark Green’s Ringling Road cover is an illustration of the title track. While it’s not a direct reflection of the entire album, in listening to “Ringling Road,” you can see the characters and situations described. On Wanted! The Outlaws you have Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Jessi Colter, and Tompall Glaser depicted on an old Wanted! flyer you’d find in an old western town. The album adds to the “outlaw” depiction of the four artists. Outlaw meaning going against the grain of Chet Akins’ Nashville Sound and creative control, in favor for self-control of the music.
The point is, there was thought and effort put into these cover photos in order to add to the album as a whole. Nowadays, with albums simply being a random assortment of made-for-radio singles, you see Luke Bryan and Thomas Rhett simply posing as JC Penny Catalog models. Most of mainstream country’s album covers add nothing to the, well, nothingness you’ll find in the album. The album cover is essentially a means to an end nowadays.
When it comes down to it, what makes an album a true album is cohesiveness and flow from start to finish. When previewing and gearing up for the release of Uncaged, Zac Brown Band multi-instrumentalist Clay Cook told Taste of Country, “This is the first record that we’ve made from start to finish in one thought…The previous albums have been a collection of songs … this is an album.” If you listen to the album in its entirety, you can hear and feel the flow from one song to the next. It’s smooth, it’s focused, and even the inclusions of rock, reggae and R&B feel grounded in the Zac Brown Band country sound. The Foundation and You Get What You Give, while great, are the type of song collection albums you see today more-so than albums that flow.
Will Hoge’s Small Town Dreams has several songs that deal directly with the dreams of small town people: big city dreams vs. settling down with a family (“Little Bitty Dreams”), trying to make ends meet and sustain a family life (“Desperate Times”), and everyday life in small town U.S.A. (“Middle of America”). Back to Peters’ Blackbirds, the dark themes of death and life’s struggles are found in every song. The tone and the lyrics set the mood as depicted in the cover. Sturgill Simpson’s Metamodern Sounds in Country Music is as true an album name as you can get. The songs, rooted in traditional country outlaw sound, are mixed with modern effects and sounds to create something new for the country ear. The metamodern sounds and lyrics challenge the modern: modern country sounds, modern views. It’s a theme, it’s a description of an album, and it’s cohesive and consistent when listening to the album.
These themes and feelings are lost when you rope together various songs of various styles and genres with nothing holding them together. That’s why Jekyll + Hyde is such a mess, especially compared to Uncaged. The Zac Brown Band, again, dip their toes in various genres, but it’s too extreme and jarring to flow as an album should. Jekyll + Hyde showed no grounded cohesion for the tracks to be grouped together through an album lens. This cohesion is what makes good albums great, and it’s the type of feature you’ll find in pretty much every album we’ve graded an 8 or higher here on Country Perspective.
Concept Albums take albums a step further, and tell one story over the course of the songs. This practice is rarer in country music compared to other genres like rock or indie. But one of country’s most famous albums is a concept album. Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger is an album where an outlaw finds himself running from the law after murdering his wife and the man she had an affair with. Using songs and brief reprises of various sections of those same songs, Nelson tells the story beautifully. A move unheard of in country music in 1975, but Nelson’s risk paid off and launched his country music career, making him the legend he is today.
We may soon be treated to another concept album in country music with Brandy Clark’s next released. She’s hinted that it’ll “have a bit of a concept.” Concept albums can be great because it’s truly a unique way to tell a story. Arguably the most famous concept album in music, Pink Floyd’s The Wall, is a detailed rock opera that was even adapted into a live action movie. Concept albums are more difficult to pull off because it takes thought and effort to craft a single flowing story from track one until the album ends.
All in all, with the demand for singles and instant satisfaction, mainstream country has lost its grip on the power an album can have. There are plenty of artists outside the mainstream realm that appreciate and understand the importance of the album as a whole. These are just a few example of my favorite and recent albums that I believe hit these points well. There are many more artists and albums that care about delivering the art of music in a way that’s deeper than a three-minute anthem with a 6 month shelf life. That’s how the Nashville producers see music today. Thankfully there are true musical artists who care enough to build their careers around albums for their fans who will buy those albums. Albums are where the magic of music truly lies.
Upcoming/Recent Country Music Releases
Tomorrow Jason Isbell’sSomething More Then Free and Alan Jackson’sAngels and Alcohol will be released.
Will Hoge has debuted a new song called “Still a Southern Man.” This is a song Hoge wrote in response the Confederate Flag debate that followed the church shooting in Charleston, SC. This isn’t the first time Will Hoge has been political with his music, releasing two EPs (2004’s The America EP and 2012’s Modern American Protest Music), as well as some album cuts of politically active songs.
The Eli Young Band have joined forces with Andy Grammer for a “country remix” of Grammer’s “Honey, I’m Good.” Spoiler alert: it’s not even close to a country song. Admittedly, I haven’t heard Andy Grammer sing before. However, with the use of vocal effects here, I’d have no idea Mike Eli was singing the second verse if no one had mentioned it.
Today in Country Music History
This is my addition to “The Hodgepodge” features. As I was thinking of an effective regular feature to pitch to Josh, before being handed the reigns of “The Hodgepodge,” I kept coming back to building it around a “this day in country music history.” So, now that I’m writing this column, I figured I’ll just tack this onto the rest of the sections here.
In 1990, Garth Brooks hits number 1 with “The Dance.” “The Dance” became Brooks’ signature song, and was the first of 5 straight number 1 singles for Garth in the early 1990s.
In 2012, Kitty Wells passes away from complications with a stroke. Wells was featured on last week’s Hodgepodge with “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels.” Kitty Wells was the first female country music artist to have number 1 single.
Throwback Thursday Song
“17” – Cross Canadian Ragweed. This Saturday, I’ll be going to see Cody Canada & The Departed at Cain’s Ballroom in Tulsa, OK. In honor of the concert, my throwback song is one of the best songs Cody Canada has written, in my opinion. This is from the CCR era of Canada’s musical career. As hometown/small town country songs go, it doesn’t get much better than “17.”
*Also, if any of you readers are going to the show Saturday, feel free to reach out. I’d be happy to say hi.
Non-Country Suggestion of the Week
Father John Misty’s I Love You, Honeybear. With today’s discussion of albums, it seems fitting to include one of my favorite non-country albums from this year. Father John Misty (an alter ego of Josh Tillman) wrote this concept album about himself, with many of the songs inspired from his wife and their relationship. This indie album has excellent songwriting!
Before I dive into today’s topic, I just want to take the opportunity to express how excited I am to take over The Hodgepodge. In its short life, this weekly column has become a favorite feature to our readers. I always looked forward to reading Josh’s thoughts on whatever country music topic he tackled. I hope that I can continue to bring the excellence to this feature that Josh did week in and week out. I’m thankful that Josh passed this onto me, and I’m excited for his next great idea to take form and be delivered out through the site.
The common argument used among pop country fans to defend their favorite artists’ new crappy songs is that “country music must evolve.” And I’ll be up front about it, I agree. Despite what Darius Rucker may think, I don’t want music released today to sound like Hank Williams Sr. If I want music that sounds like Hank Williams, than I’ll play my Hank Williams’ Very Best Of two-disc collection. And Hank Williams is important because he was country music’s first big superstar with his first hits coming in the late 1940s. Taking a look a country music’s trail through history, one can see that there’s been quite the musical evolution over the almost 70 years.
Johnny Cash could be considered the next big star after Hank Williams, with Cash pushing Hank’s country sound and adding a little bit of rock and roll to it. From there, we see the outlaws come in and further push away from the Nashville Sound, with Waylon Jennings blending even more rock and roll with country, and Willie Nelson providing more jazz and folk into his country-style. While neither of these two hit widespread acclaim until the 1970s, they kept pushing their sound throughout the 1960s until the Nashville suits caved for them.
During that time, George Jones found his first wave of success with “White Lightning” in 1959, and Merle Haggard found his footing with the Bakersfield sound in the mid-1960s. And while these men made their marks, ladies like Kitty Wells and Patsy Cline were breaking ground for females in the genre with hits in the 50s and early 60s. Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette broke through in the late 60s and 70s, continuing to challenge the men and become country legends in their own right. In the 1970s, Conway Twitty emerged on the scene with his country music, while Charlie Daniels and Hank Williams Jr. continued the rowdy country and southern rock blend with Waylon. These men rode high into the 1980s, where George Strait, Randy Travis, and Keith Whitley began their careers, sticking to more traditional, smoother sounds of country music. The mid 1980s also found Dwight Yoakam working outside the norm, establishing his hillbilly rock form of country. And how can we forget Reba McEntire blasting through the 1980s and 90s, becoming one of the most successful female artists in country music.
I know this is a basic overview, but as we can see thus far, we have the narrow country path paved by the likes of Hank, Cash, Tammy Wynette, George Jones, Loretta Lynn, George Strait, Randy Travis and Keith Whitley. Hank Williams and Johnny Cash also planted a bit of rock and roll roots, which were further grown by the likes of Waylon Jennings, Charlie Daniels, and Hank Jr. This rock path was a little off the country path, but their roots were the same, and they were headed in the same direction.
The Class of 1989 opened up more doors and carved new paths for country music, primarily due to the rousing success of one Garth Brooks. Alan Jackson’s emergence that same year continued down the pure country path; a path which artists like Kenny Chesney, Tim McGraw, and Brad Paisley started on, and continued until relevancy began to fade and cries for attention got louder. However, Garth veered off the path and opened up more pop doors for country music. The country music path through the late 1990s and early 2000s was a little wider and continued to grow, but there were still songs rooted from the music of the heroes singers today love to name-check. That is until Jason Aldean took a hard left turn and brought popular country on a whole new path, devoid of any roots from 1940s.
The success of rap country in “Dirt Road Anthem” opened up a new can of worms and possibilities for country music. Rap, pop, R&B, and rock are all the sounds you hear nowadays on country radio. Gone are the roots planted by Hank, the Possum, and Johnny Cash. Now we have Keith Urban and Jake Owen releasing pop songs, Florida Georgia Line and Luke Bryan further pushing hip-hop influences into country, and Jason Aldean’s slow jams. All the while, they defend their messes of songs by claiming “country music must evolve.” A loose defense their fans quickly echo.
The problem is that these songs don’t evolve the country sound, they abandon it. The electronics of “Burnin’ It Down” and pop beats of “John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16” carry no sounds that in any way resemble the musical stylings established in the genre of country music. Whereas, singers like Whitey Morgan, Chris Stapleton, Kacey Musgraves, Brandy Clark, and Gretchen Peters (just to name a few) are keeping country roots alive, while adding modern Americana twists to the traditions of Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings. And perhaps there is no greater example of a country song using modern-day elements than Sturgill Simpson’s “Turtle’s All The Way Down” or “It Ain’t All Flowers.”
As depicted in the evolution diagrams like the one above, the theory of evolution argues that humans evolved from primates. Why? Because we share many visual characteristics and mannerisms with one another. Regardless of your beliefs, it’s not an illogical argument. The similarities between humans and primates help the argument make sense. But you aren’t going to say that a shark evolved from a gorilla because that doesn’t make sense. Saying that the pop music infecting country radio and Nashville is a true evolution of country music is like saying that Jaws is a truly evolved form of King Kong. It doesn’t work and it sounds stupid.
The point is country music has evolved, but you won’t hear the evolved country music coming out of Nashville. Most of what’s “country” nowadays are pop blends of rap, rock, and hip hop with generic images of dirt roads and southern pride to make listeners believe its country.
Upcoming/Recent Country Music Releases
Luke Bryan’s Kill The Lights is due out August 7. Bryan recently revealed the track list for his new album, which includes 6 Luke Bryan co-writes, and a duet with Little Big Town’s Karen Fairchild. All in all, the album contains 13 songs, with 27 total credited songwriters (16 and 29 including the Target edition). And as expected, Dallas Davidson has a few songs on the album as well.
Brandy Clark has recently announced she’s working with producer Jay Joyce for her next album. Clark hinted that it’ll be something of a concept album. She plans to release a single this fall, with the album released early next year. This is an interesting combination with Clark being a critical darling for her traditional country sounds, while Joyce has faced criticism on our site for his overproduced messes like Little Big Town’s Pain Killer or Eric Church’s The Outsiders.
Jerrod Niemann will be releasing a new single called “Blue Bandana” tomorrow. This is likely a single to kick off a campaign for a new album. Many will remember that Neimann earned Country Perspective’s Worst Song of 2014 Award with “Donkey.” With July being a slower month, there’s a good chance we’ll have the time to review it, assuming there’s something worthwhile to say about the song (good or bad).
Ashley Monroe’s new album, The Blade, will be released July 24. We will have a review on this album when it’s released.
Throwback Thursday Song
“It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” by Kitty Wells. With today’s discussion of evolution, it seems appropriate to jump back to the beginning stages of country music. In 1952, this tune not only gave Kitty Wells her first number one country song, but it was the first number one song for a female country singer! The lyrics are full on girl power calling out men for their reckless ways and ruining relationships. In the 1950s, this was a song with a message that was way ahead of its time.
Non-Country Suggestion of the Week
Grateful Dead. This past weekend, the Grateful Dead played a 3 night stand at Chicago’s Solider Field: the place where the band played their last show with former front man, the late Jerry Garcia. This weekend’s Fare The Well reunion shows came 20 years after the passing of Garcia, and 50 years since the band’s formation. The band’s notoriety comes from their constant touring with devoted fans, “Deadheads,” following the band from show to show. The Grateful Dead are considered one of, if not, the most influential jam band of all time. American Beauty, released in 1970, is arguably the band’s best studio album (though the other 1970 album, Workingman’s Dead, is pretty great as well, and also more country influenced). However, it’s their live shows more than their studio albums that secured the Dead’s legacy.
Tweet of the Week
Country Radio Advisory: Despite social media excitement, the Women’s World Cup should take up no more than 19% of tomorrow’s sports report.
Double Zing! Women are just as underrepresented in the sports’ world as they are in country music. It’s a harsh reality, and Grady Smith has been one of the many who’ve been outspoken against Keith Hill’s comments. Grady Smith, columnist for The Guardian, is always a treat on Twitter. You should follow him if you don’t already. Also, congratulations to the U.S. Women’s National Team on their World Cup victory!
iTunes Reviews That Will Make You Shake Your Head
The first review was left under Kacey Musgraves’ Pageant Material. According to this reviewer, the album isn’t country music and that is what’s wrong with our society. If I had to guess, I’d bet this reviewer thinks “Kick the Dust Up” is the most groundbreaking country song since Florida Georgia Line’s “Sun Daze.”
The second review is for Kelsea Ballerini’s The First Time. Soccer986 defends this album claiming that though it sounds pop, if you listen to acoustic versions of the songs (you know, taking out all the pop instrumentation and pop music effects) than the songs sound country. Seeing as acoustic guitars have been in country music forever, you could probably make AC/DC sound country if you played “You Shook Me All Night Long” on an acoustic guitar only. That’s a terrible defense for pop “country” music.
One last note. I’m going to interview a small town country radio DJ for a Hodgepodge in the near future. If you have any questions you’d like to ask a country radio DJ, feel free to submit in the comments below. I can’t make any promises they’ll all be asked or answered, but you never know!
Selecting just one song as the top song of a year is never an easy task. Each artist is different, and many different artists have delivered quality songs worthy of being crowned as the song of the year here at Country Perspective. There were three songs that Josh and I ultimately had this narrowed down to for song of the year. Sturgill Simpson’s “Turtles All The Way Down” defined the best country album of the year with its use of classic country sounds with some modern electronic effects to create a truly unique, and equally great, country song. Karen Jonas’ “Oklahoma Lottery” stood out with her haunting delivery of a family stricken by the hardships of a drought. A topic that’s hardly brushed upon in country music, Karen sells the story and captures the appropriate mood with an incredible blues influenced country production. However, those two songs didn’t quite measure up to the third option. Josh and I both agreed that Country Perspective’s 2014 Song of the Year winner is Tami Neilson’s “Cry Over You.”
Tami Neilson has been compared to Patsy Cline, and rightfully so. She has a strong, captivating voice that grabs your attention from the first note. Her new album, Dynamite!, was another favorite album this year, and this song is the standout of that album. On “Cry Over You,” Neilson covers a great area of vocal notes: dropping to the lower spectrum during the verses and soaring to the higher end on the chorus. More importantly, she comfortably and impressively hits every note she touches. Tami doesn’t stretch herself in an attempt to add extra, unnecessary emphasis. From the first listen, I was sold on this vocal performance.
What makes “Cry Over You” stand out the most from its counterparts is the timeless musical production behind Tami. There’s no attempt to modernize the sound here. “Cry Over You” is a simple, historical recreation of the sound that made country music great. The song could have been released 60 years ago and still not sound out of place. Patsy could have sang this song, so could Tammy Wynette, Kitty Wells, Loretta Lynn, the list goes on; simply put: “Cry Over You” is timeless, it’s universal, and it’s brilliant. Tami Neilson deserves every accolade she’s been awarded; she continues to release music at the best quality, and “Cry Over You” is the best example of top-notch quality music.
Congratulations to Tami Neilson for recording and releasing “Cry Over You”: Country Perspective’s 2014 Song of the Year!