Country Perspective’s 2014 Female Artist of Year Winner

This past year was another strong year for female artists. You wouldn’t know it if you turned on award shows, country radio, or looked at the charts, but female artists who made country music this year made some quality music; some of the best. There were many good selections for our nominees; many great albums and great performances that these women stood upon in 2014. Josh and I spent a good amount of time thinking and debating with ourselves over who to choose. We felt there were four or five women who could conceivably win this award with all fairness and votes from readers were across board. With all that said, your 2014 Country Perspective Female Artist of the Year is a tie! Your co-winners are Lee Ann Womack and Karen Jonas!

Now six of our seven nominees had fantastic album releases this year. All those albums were top-tier country albums that impressed both Josh and I. However, Karen Jonas’ Oklahoma Lottery is simply a damn good debut album.  As Josh said, “When it comes to Oklahoma Lottery though, I just can’t find anything wrong. I mean if you’re really nitpicking you could say it’s too raw at times, but I think the rawness adds another layer to the album. Really it enhances it and makes the more emotional songs stand out. I find it very hard for anyone who likes traditional country music to not like this album.” The thing is, Karen accomplishes this on her own. She brought the band together and got them in the studio to record. She spearheaded the production of Oklahoma Lottery. Karen Jonas didn’t have connections like Lucette with Dave Cobb or Angaleena Presley; she wasn’t already established like Tami Neilson or Sunny Sweeney. Karen Jonas put in the blood, sweat, and tears to create an album that stands up next to the best of the mainstream and established artists. For that, Karen Jonas must be recognized for the quality outcome from her hard work.

Let’s be frank here: Karen Jonas’ dark, witty vocal delivery on the album is brilliant, and her song writing is fantastic.

 

Lee Ann Womack also had a hell of year. The Way I’m Livin’ has captured critic’s ears across the board. This album from Womack came six years after her previous release, and Womack’s first release from an independent label. Lee Ann Womack cut some great songs from Nashville songwriters and released an album from her roots and made a grand return to country music. The biggest news for Lee Ann this year, and a big reason for us awarding her alongside Karen Jonas, is that The Way I’m Livin’ received a Grammy nomination for Best Country Album. Gaining a nomination for one of music’s most prestigious awards is fantastic and certainly well deserved for Lee Ann Womack.

 

However, Womack’s return to the country spotlight has brought out some great TV appearances and performances. She and Jamey Johnson sang George Strait’s “Give It Away” at the George Strait All Star Concert in honor of his retirement. And back at the CMT awards in June, Lee Ann Womack and Kacey Musgraves honored Alan Jackson by singing his hit, “Livin’ On Love,” before Jackson accepted the Impact Award. The rendition was the show’s top moment, and one of country music’s best moments this year. Jackson himself complimented the performance saying he’d never heard the song sound more beautiful.

Both Karen Jonas and Lee Ann Womack stood out the most in a year where women stood out in country music. It’s a shame that the Nashville machine and the mainstream circuit ignores these women. You could argue that these females are some of country’s most talented artists. We at Country Perspective don’t ignore these female artists, we praise them and enjoy their music. Thankfully, these women are determined to make their music in their own way, and they don’t let anything stand in the way of making it happen. Karen Jonas and Lee Ann Womack are a glimpse of what talent and drive are capable of achieving. While they certainly aren’t the only ones who do that, in 2014, these two stood out among the crowd with great albums and have both earned Country Perspective’s (co-)Female Artist of the Year award.

Derek’s Top Ten Country Songs – September 2014

 

There were quite a bit of music releases this month, so for me to narrow this down to ten wasn’t as easy as I thought.  In my opinion, the best song released this month was Keeley Valentino’s “Burned.” I said quite a bit about the song in my review of her EP, here’s a snippet: Perhaps the most impressive part of the whole song is the fact that Keeley hits such a high note in the choruses. Her high-notes combined with the echoing instrumentation create a sort of haunting emptiness that captures the emotions of the song’s characters.” Without a doubt that was the song that stood out to me the most this month. Number two is Lee Ann Womack’s “Same Kind of Different” which was easily her best song on The Way I’m Livin’. I’m not surprised that women hit the top two marks on my top ten. Female country singers have been releasing a number of quality albums over the past few years, and I hope to see that trend continue. The Phillip Fox Band gets a spot at number three with the impressive Country Fried Rock N’ Roll western tune “Nothin’ Worse Than Weak.” Number four is The Roy’s heartbreaking, yet well-written Alzheimer’s song called “Sometimes.” Rounding out the top five, I have my favorite song from Tim McGraw’s Sundown Heaven Townhis duet with Catherine Dunn called “Diamond Rings and Old Barstools.”

The Phillip Fox Band appears again at number six with “Ava Lee”, the upbeat love song about a couple living life in the fast lane, and the man debates if he should settle down and have a future with her. Josh Turner’s new single, “Lay Low” comes in at number seven. Lee Ann Womack shows up again at number eight with “Prelude: Fly.” I was captivated by this track during my first listen and it features some great vocal work from Womack. Keeley Valentino makes another appearance on the list with “Love Will Come Around Again” at number nine. It’s a great song about getting over a break up and preparing yourself for when the next person comes to capture your heart. Finally, concluding the top ten is Wade Bowen with “When I Woke Up Today.”  This fun song is about finding joy in life and remaining positive while the trials of a life on the road take form. It’s a great lead off single for his new self-titled album due out late next month.

Honorable Mentions:

  • “Your Daddy’s Boots” by Dustin Lynch – I really wanted this song in my top ten. It’s easily the best song on Where It’s At and possibly Lynch’s best of his young career.
  • “Sick of Me” by Tim McGraw – Another standout track from Sundown Heaven Town. Great song writing and a good, mid-tempo traditional/modern blend of country music.
  • “Writin’ a New Damn Book” by Phillip Fox Band. A great up-beat southern rock song about marking your own path through life.
  • “Heaven Needed Her More” by The Roys. A beautiful song about getting over a death of a loved one and remaining positive through the heartbreak.

October has a ton of albums due out.  Next month’s top ten list might be even harder!

Album Review – Lee Ann Womack’s The Way I’m Livin’

The return of Lee Ann Womack to country music couldn’t have come at a better time. Female country artists are struggling to make a dent in mainstream country music in radio and older artists are being pushed further from radio every day. Womack falls in both of these categories, making her album even more significant. She’s also no longer part of a major label, joining bluegrass label Sugar Hill Records. With this newfound creative freedom and some extended time off, the anticipation for her new album The Way I’m Livin’ has certainly been high. I should note from the beginning that she did not write a single song on this album, but this is not a problem. Instead of writing her own songs, she went out and did something I’ve been begging mainstream country artists to do. She brought in an all-star cast of writers for the songs on this album. Garth Brooks has been rumored to do the same thing with his album. There are so many talented writers out there that deserve to be noticed and by bringing in these great writers, it allowed Womack to focus more on her vocal performance on this album (which shines brightly I might add).

The album begin with the prelude, “Fly.” It’s a soft song about Womack wishing she was in heaven flying above and seeing the whole world. Her vocals are absolutely stellar (get used to me saying this throughout the review). The writers for this song are Reed Foehl and Brent Cobb. If you recall, Cobb also co-wrote and performed the background vocals on “Poor Sweet Me” on Lucette’s debut album. This song was also a good way to transition into the second song on the album, “All His Saints.” It’s an upbeat song about Womack looking to get to heaven someday. The song is definitely Christian-oriented. The instrumentation on this is pretty good and the beat really draws you into the song. Mindy Smith was the writer of this song.

“Chances Are” is a song about a woman’s tough luck romantic life and this sets the scene for her in a bar where she wonders what her chances are with the guy across the room. It’s a heartbreak song that features strong country instrumentation. Womack’s twangy and dynamic vocals really shine on this song. Fellow country artist Hayes Carll wrote this song and it’s great to see Carll’s work featured on a big album like this one. I’m looking forward to his new album next year. This song is followed by “The Way I’m Livin’,” the debut single from this album. I already reviewed this song (click here for the full review) and here’s the main snippet of the review: “This song is a traditional country song without a doubt, but it feels fresh and new still. This is the kind of sound all country artists need to be striving for, which is honoring tradition and brining new elements in to make it fresh.”  I will say after hearing the whole album that this song doesn’t come off as strong as I originally thought because there are better songs on the album.

The next song on the album is “Send It On Down,” which is about a woman praying to God to help her get out of her hometown. She wants to escape for many reasons, from her father’s hardware store being out of business to the men in the town having the unrealistic expectation that women should be rich to be attractive. It’s a real soulful song and I like the inclusion of the piano in the song. Chris Knight and David Leone do a great job with the songwriting. The great song writing continues on the Buddy Miller penned “Don’t Listen To The Wind.” It’s a song about a woman getting over a breakup and having a hard time escaping the memory of her ex. Womack’s vocals are excellent and she shows such great emotion in her voice at the right moments. The instrumentation is great too. One of the best songs on the The Way I’m Livin’.

Womack gets even better on “Same Kind Of Different.” It’s a stripped down love song about two different people who are really not different and are actually quite the same. They may not have experienced the same things in their life, but the feelings from these experiences are the same and this connects them. Natalie Hemby and Adam Hood exhibit top-notch songwriting and Womack once again blows me away with her vocals. This song is really the whole package and is arguably the best on the entire album. “Out On The Weekend” and “Nightwind” are two solid love songs from Womack, but each have a distinctive sound. The Neil Young song “Out On The Weekend” has a more Americana sound and “Nightwind,” written by Bruce Robison, has more of a country sound. The latter was a little more complex too, as the metaphors used in the song make you really pay attention to the story being told.

The low point of this album I feel is “Sleeping With The Devil.” It’s a song about a woman sleeping with a man who she believes is the devil. I’m not the song is bad, but it’s a bit repetitive and the theme is cliché. Womack already sang about the devil in “The Way I’m Livin’,” so maybe that’s why it feels repetitive. It is well written though, so kudos to Brennen Leigh. “Not Forgotten You” is another Bruce Robison penned song and it’s about a woman who continues to remember a man in her past. I felt this song could have had a little bit more to it, but it’s solid nonetheless. Although I found both of these songs to be slightly underwhelming, Womack’s vocals and the instrumentation are great on both of them.

Womack caps off her album with a bang in the final two songs. “Tomorrow Night In Baltimore” starts off with the beat of a drum and acoustic guitar. The instrumentation used in this song gives it a fresh and modern feel, yet traditional. It really has a distinctive sound compared to the rest of the album. The song is about a man who is still in love with his ex-girlfriend, who is a singer, and he’s determined to win her heart back. Despite her fame, he continues his pursuit of her. The writer of the song, Kenny Price, tells a nice little story through the lyrics. The album closes with “When I Come Around.” The song is about a woman looking for a man she lost contact with several years ago and she continues to wait for him around the spot where they last saw each other, hoping she can find him again. Again it’s a well written song that tells a good story that draws the listener in. Mando Saenz shows just how fantastic of a songwriter he really is and I hope more artists take notice of his talent.

Womack took several well-written songs on this album and just knocked them out of the park with her outstanding vocals. I’m going to reiterate once again what a great decision it was for her to recruit these fantastic songwriters for her album. Her husband and producer of the album, Frank Liddell, deserves credit too for a well produced album. The instrumentation never overtook Womack’s stellar vocals, which is important. When you have a vocalist with the talent of Womack you should always go lighter on the instrumentation and just let the vocals do the heavy lifting. Womack’s album is already being met with critical praise and her lead single, “The Way I’m Livin’,” is receiving radio time. And Womack did it her way too. She didn’t sell out to a major label nor did she try to play to radio programmers with her music. She made the music she wanted to and in the end when you make quality music like this people are bound to take notice. This album lived up to expectations and I certainly thinks it’s a top ten country album of the year. The Way I’m Livin’ comes highly recommended.

Grade: 9/10

Review – Lee Ann Womack’s “The Way I’m Livin'”

Everyone knows country music artist Lee Ann Womack, whether they realize it or not. This is because everyone has surely heard Womack’s biggest hit “I Hope You Dance” at some point in their life. You’ve either heard it at a wedding reception, a school dance or those “Live a Better Life” PSAs they play on TV all of the time. “I Hope You Dance” went #1 on the country and pop charts, along with winning a Grammy. It made Womack a household name. After having such a huge hit, it’s hard to follow it up. She also dealt with label problems. This explains the six year absence of new music from Womack. After parting ways with MCA Nashville in 2012, Womack signed with Sugar Hill Records in April and is now set to release her new album The Way I’m Livin’ on September 23. She revealed to the Wall Street Journal a couple of weeks ago her first single from it, the album’s title track. And today I’m going to review it.

You will be able to tell right away that “The Way I’m Livin'” is an acoustic song rooted in the traditions of country music. This song is a traditional country song without a doubt, but it feels fresh and new still. This is the kind of sound all country artists need to be striving for, which is honoring tradition and brining new elements in to make it fresh. The song itself is about a woman living a life of sin. This sin is brought into the woman’s life by a man who offers her a drink and would later represent the “devil” ruining her life. Even though the woman knows she is living the life of sin, it’s just feels too right to give it up. Yet she seems to pleads to her mom for help. The emotion of the song is split between desperation and satisfaction and the songwriting perfectly gets this across. One of the best lines in the song is: “You know I’d change if I could/But being bad it feels so good.” Adam Wright’s writing is fantastic.

The instrumentation is absolutely phenomenal. It’s really hard to explain and is something you just need to hear for yourself. The guitar and violin play goes together seemlessly to give the song its new roots feel. I like the hints of folk influence throughout the song too that makes the song feel seasoned. Womack’s vocals are still as great as ever. After listening to this song, I had realized I had forgotten how her voice is so dynamic. She’s been there and done it and it shows in this song. “The Way I’m Livin'” will make you fall in love with Womack’s voice again.

I have absolutely no criticism for this song. I can’t even nitpick it. Every female country artist performing today needs to listen to this song and take notes. This is how you do country music in 2014. This is only one song off Womack’s new album and it has me eager to hear the rest of it. I’m anticipating one of the best country albums in 2014 in The Way I’m Livin’.

“The Way I’m Livin'” will be available to purchase on June 23 and when it’s released I highly recommend getting it. For now, you can just replay it over and over on Soundcloud. You can’t do much better than “The Way I’m Livin’.”

Grade: 10/10