Country Music History – Essential Release of 2010
Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Jerry Lee Lewis.
1. “Ain’t No Grave,” Johnny Cash. “There Ain’t No Grave Gonna Hold Me Down” was written by Claude Ely, a Pentecostal Holiness preacher, in 1934. It was first recorded by Bozie Sturdivant in the African-American spiritual tradition as a Library of Congress field project. An upbeat gospel adaptation was recorded by Sister Rosetta Tharpe as “Cain’t No Grave Hold My Body Down” in 1947 and Claude Ely released a version that sounds like The Holy Ghost fronting a rockabilly outfit in 1953. After being used in a ditch digging scene in the 1967 Paul Newman film “Cool Hand Luke,” the song was largely forgotten until becoming the title track of Johnny Cash’s posthumous 2010 release “American VI: Ain’t No Grave.” Recorded with the Avett Brothers, Cash returns to the forlorn spirit of Bozie Sturdivant’s original, where the concept of the eternal leap to Heaven sounds more like wishful thinking than a statement of fact.
2. “Draw Me a Map,” Dierks Bentley. Dierks Bentley was one of the hottest acts of the 2000s, but the sensitive ballad “Draw Me a Map” failed to register with country radio, peaking at #33. Co-writer Jon Randall, “We approached it from this groove that we both really love; it’s by that band the Shins. It’s almost a bluegrass groove, but it’s the way that that acoustic drives that whole track, and we started playing around with that.” Strangely, there’s also some echoes of U2’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday” in the melody.
3. “Drop on By,” Laura Bell Bundy. Kentucky native Laura Bell Bundy has worked extensively in television acting and musical theater, while also releasing five albums since 2007. She was signed to Mercury Nashville for her 2010 effort “Achin’ and Shakin’,” which included the minor Motown meets Nashville hit “Giddy On Up.” “Drop On By” peaked at a wan #48 on the charts, but it’s nice slice of 1960’s Muscle Shoals meets “Dusty in Springfield” meets Atlantic Soul sound. Bundy on her Nashville experience, “It has been frustrating because there has been some stigma with ‘the Broadway girl who went to country,’ but really, it’s the country girl that went to Broadway and then went back again.”
4. “Drunken Poet’s Dream,” Ray Wylie Hubbard. “Drunken Poet’s Dream” was written as an email/computer software collaboration between Ray Wylie Hubbard and Hayes Carll. Both Texas songwriters have released the song, but with different lyrics. Hubbard, “We were throwing out lines. We had the first verse and the chorus and then kinda after that it took on a separate identity of whoever was writing at that point.” Nudity, mescaline, a pistol, Louis L’amour, and, of course, whiskey all appear in this decadent view of romance. Hubbard on sobriety and his late career achievements to include working with Ringo Starr, “A week before I got sober I had a gig somewhere in Dallas at Charlie’s Airport Lounge where I shared the bill with a lingerie show. I came from that airport lounge to having a fucking Beatle on my album.”
5. “El Camino,” Elizabeth Cook. While far from a household name, Elizabeth Cook raised her profile considerably with her critically acclaimed 2010 album “Welder” and also started working on Sirius radio during that same timeframe. With a twang that makes Dolly Parton sound cosmopolitan, Cook balanced serious themes like “Heroin Addicted Sister” and “Mama’s Funeral” with the more carnal attitudes of “Yes to Booty” and “El Camino.” On the funk meets blues of “El Camino,” Cooks better judgment submits to the sexual charisma of a man who is firmly implanted in the 1970’s disco era. Couplet of the decade, “If I wake up married, I have to annul it/Right now my hands are in his mullet.”
6. “From a Table Away,” Sunny Sweeney. Texas native Sunny Sweeney started working the Austin music scene after graduating from college and released her debut album on an independent label in 2006. She received a major label deal in 2009 and her first and only Top Ten single in 2010 with “From a Table Away.” Co-written by Sweeney with Nashville songwriters Bob DiPiero and Karyn Rochelle, this cheating song takes place in a restaurant, where the narrator sees her love interest with his ex and realizes she’s been fed a steady stream of lies. No revenge, no clever wordplay, just good old fashioned heartbreak.
7. “The House That Built Me,” Miranda Lambert. Although not written by Lambert, “The House That Built Me” resonated with her. While growing up, her parents experienced bankruptcy and resided with relatives. They eventually amassed the resources to rent a small country residence, one facing the prospect of being bulldozed, in East Texas. The family eventually renovated one room at a time to build Lambert’s childhood home. Lambert, “It’s really a sad story, but it’s really such a happy story, because it really built our family back.” This sentimental lyric about visiting her childhood home gave Lambert her first #1 single.
8. “I Am What I Am,” Merle Haggard. After a three year break from recording, Merle Haggard released his “I Am What I Am” album in 2010. On the autumnal title track, Haggard confesses he’s no longer a fugitive, but he’s a rambler and a seeker and a sinner. Life with wife number five wasn’t quite as rowdy as his younger days. Haggard, “Theresa (Lane) has made my life better. We’ve both become adamant followers of the Bible. We study the King James version of the Bible, and that’s what we do in our pastime because we enjoy it.”
9. “If I Die Young,” The Band Perry. The Band Perry is comprised of Mobile, Alabama siblings who were signed to Republic Nashville in 2009. Success came quickly with their 2010 eponymous debut album going platinum behind the #1 country/#14 pop hit “If I Die Young.” Written by lead singer Kimberly Perry, “If I Die Young” is so strangely positive it seems like a death wish anthem. Perry, “We wanted to write a song about making the most of whatever time you’re given – whether it’s two years, twenty years or two hundred. We really have gotten to live and love at our young ages. ‘If I Die Young,’ for us, is about if it all ends at this moment, look at what we’ve gotten to do. Whatever time we’re given will be absolutely enough as long as we make the most of it.”
10. “I’ve Seen it Go Away,” Merle Haggard. Merle Haggard seemed to be perpetually complaining about whatever modern era he was in, but those feelings deepened as he aged. “I’ve Seen it Go Away” is a sad recognition that the best days of the United States where in the rearview mirror. Like Hunter S. Thompson recognizing the tidal wave of freedom rolling back on the leftists during the 1970s, Haggard documents an irreversible national malaise and decline. Haggard, who name checked Elvis and Bob Wills in this song, also had a healthy disrespect for modern country music. From a 2015 interview, “They’re talking about screwing on a pickup tailgate and things of that nature. I don’t find no substance. As far as I’m concerned, Sturgill Simpson’s the only one out there. The rest of them sound like a bunch of shit to me.”
11. “It’s a Good Day,” Asleep at the Wheel featuring Leon Rausch & Jason Roberts. Missouri native Leon Rausch was the lead singer for Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys during the late 1950s/early 1960s and returned to the fold for the 1975 Wills’ “For the Last Time” album. Rausch was in his early 80s when the 2010 “It’s a Good Day” album was released and was the primary vocalist on the record. The title track is a pop standard that was written by Peggy Lee and big bandleader Dave Barbour in 1946. Rausch, longtime Wheel fiddle player Jason Roberts, and Wheel frontman Ray Benson bring the song into a new genre and era, giving it a welcome dose of the carefree spirit of the best of Western swing. Rausch still performs regularly with Western swing acts in DFW and at the annual Bob Wills Day in Turkey, Texas.
12. “Little White Church,” Little Big Town. Little Big Town is comprised of musicians who left Alabama for Nashville and left contemporary Christian music for country radio. They went Top Ten on the country charts in 2005 and 2006 with the rural pride of “Boondocks” and the love song “Bring It on Home.” After floundering for a few years, they returned to the Top Ten with “Little White Church,” a demand from vocalist Karen Fairchild for her love interest to put a ring on her. There’s no sadder sight for a young man than the free milk truck driving into the sunset.
13. “Mean Old Man,” Jerry Lee Lewis. After a four year break from recording, Jerry Lee Lewis released his “Mean Old Man” album in 2010. The record is a compilation of duets with rock and country artists covering, wouldn’t you know it, classic rock and country tunes. “Mean Old Man,” performed with Rolling Stones guitarist Ronnie Wood, is a table setter – the lead track to set the tone. Originally performed by Kris Kristofferson, the theme of the song fits Lewis better, who never met a rule that he didn’t cherish breaking. Despite having 28 Top Ten country hits between 1957 and 1981, Jerry Lee isn’t in the County Music Hall of Fame. He has a right to be testy.
14. “Mine,” Taylor Swift. “Mine” begins with Swift’s typical romantic angst, then turns into a perhaps a coming of age sexual relationship (“You made a rebel of a careless man’s careful daughter”). Like an episode of “The Love Boat,” Swift goes for the romance, conflict, reconciliation theme here. Everyone’s forever a teenage in Swift land and the emotions always crash like waves on the sand.
15. “Only Prettier,” Miranda Lambert. “Only Prettier” may have been a Top 15 country single, but it’s pure rock ‘n’ roll in sound and attitude. A class warfare song about country girls versus the cultured elite, Lambert and co-writer Natalie Hemby build the lyrics around one of the best insult lines in modern music, “We’re just you, only prettier.” Hemby, “The song is kind of a smack in the face, but you don’t realize it. It’s like, wait … did you just insult me? What girl hasn’t been through that kind of situation where you have to get along with somebody you don’t like?” Perhaps no other Lambert release capture’s her insouciant irreverence better than “Only Prettier.”
16. “Trouble About My Soul,” The Trishas. A quartet of Austin female alt-country performers, The Trishas originally formed to perform at a tribute gig to singer/songwriter Kevin Welch. Instead of immediately disbanding as planned, they have stayed together to release one EP, an album, and they still perform on the Texas music scene. The traditional “Trouble About My Soul” is an exploration of Appalachian darkness iced with first class harmonies. Also worth seeking from their 2012 EP “They Call us the Trishas” is their bluegrass meets gospel version of “Till I’m Too Old to Die Young.”
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