Country Music History – Essential Releases from 2000
Murder/suicide, Puddles Pity Party, Earl dies.
- “Baptism,” Randy Travis. After signing with DreamWorks Nashville, Randy Travis made a commercial comeback in the late 1990s – his 1998 “You and You Alone” album produced three Top Ten singles. That commercial momentum didn’t last long and by 2000 he changed his focus to gospel music. The song “Baptism,” also known as “Down with the Old Man (Up with the New),” was recorded as a duet by Kenny Chesney and Travis in 1999, before Travis released his solo take in 2000. Travis touts the psychological powers of spiritual rebirth, but the minor miracle is that he was singing like he cared again. Travis, “I didn’t come from a background that had any religion whatsoever. I was about as lost as you could get. I was arrested no telling how many times and an alcoholic and an addict. They said, ‘We want you to promote this in churches, and I said, ‘You want me to go where and do what?’”
- “Cowboy Take Me Away,” Dixie Chicks. Dixie Chicks fiddle player Martie Maguire co-wrote “Cowboy Take Me Away” with Nashville songwriter Marcus Hummon. Maguire, “It was inspired by my sister finding the love of her life. I always kind of worried about her, and I’m just so glad she found a good guy.” Conceptually, it has a similar feel to “Wide Open Spaces,” in that the narrator is looking for a chance for personal growth, but with a supportive partner along for the ride on “Cowboy Take Me Away.” The musicians and producers deserve credit for seamlessly integrating traditional bluegrass instrumentation into a contemporary merger of pop and country sounds, without sounding like a cheap gimmick in the process.
- “The Galway Girl,” Steve Earle. For American audiences, “The Galway Girl” is a tuneful Steve Earle album track that never gained any traction beyond his cult. If you lived in Ireland, you would know every word to this song and you would either hear it as a cause for celebration or dread. Earle spent some time living and working in Ireland in the late 1990s and this folk tale of puppy love gone wrong resulted from a romantic infatuation. It was originally released in 2000 on individual albums Earle and by Irish musician Sharon Shannon, who collaborated with Earle on the song. A 2008 version by Irish singer/songwriter Mundy (Edmund Enright) with Sharon Shannon on accordion has become one of the ten best-selling songs in that country’s history and it has become somewhat of a modern standard, used in commercials, films, and covered at least a dozen times since 2003, often by Irish musicians. Pop star Ed Sheeran nicked the “Galway Girl” title for a major international hit in 2017.
- “Goodbye Earl,” Dixie Chicks. Working in an industry build upon self-promotion, songwriter Dennis Linde was one of the most reclusive songwriters in the business. Once described as “a publicist’s nightmare and a singer’s dream,” he developed an unusual method for inspiration. From his 2006 New York Times obituary, “On a wall of his home, he hung a map of his own fictitious town, where the offbeat characters in his songs lived and worked, drank and died.” Linde had referenced “Earl” in several songs and decided to kill him off with the spousal abuse revenge number “Goodbye Earl.” Linde described his effort as “a little story with lots of attitude. No message. I thought I was writing a black comedy, like ‘Arsenic & Old Lace’ or ‘The Trouble with Harry.’” Some country radio programmers were offended by the “Goodbye Earl,” because, God knows, there had never been any violent themes in the genre. Still, it crossed over for a Top 20 pop hit with the humor reinforcing their theme of female independence.
- “I Hope You Dance,” Lee Ann Womack. Lee Ann Womack edged away from traditional country music for the pop ballad “I Hope You Dance,” which was immediately and correctly identified as a “career record” by “Billboard. Songwriter Tia Sellers, “I had just broken up with someone, going through a brutal divorce. I needed to get away, so I went to a beach on the Florida Gulf Coast. Sitting on the beach and reflecting about the break-up, I felt so small and inconsequential. But out of this difficult time came the inspiration to write ‘I Hope You Dance.’ As I was leaving the beach, I remember thinking that things weren’t really so bad, that I would get through it. That’s when I came up with the line, ‘I hope you still feel small when you stand beside the ocean.’” Womack, “You can’t hear those lyrics and not think about children. It turned into a prom and graduation theme.” A crossover Top 15 pop hit and a #1 country single, but also a peak that Womack couldn’t follow. Despite releasing a series of quality albums, she only had two more Top Ten singles after making the world sway and reflect.
- “If I Could Only Fly,” Merle Haggard. Merle Haggard, arguably the most gifted all around performer in the history of country music, had a lost decade artistically during the 1990s. Haggard on label owner Mike Curb, “He used me as a billboard for younger acts. He got people like LeAnn Rimes and Tim McGraw. He didn’t do anything to promote my records. I’d like to publicly challenge him to a boxing match.” Haggard also declared bankruptcy during that decade, but also kicked his addiction issues and found wife number five. “If I Could Only Fly” was first recorded by Haggard and Nelson in 1987 and peaked at a mere #58 on the country charts. Haggard obviously loved the song, not just putting in his set during the 1990s, but also singing it at Tammy Wynette’s funeral. The 2000 re-recording of this Blaze Foley cover served as the title for Haggard’s critically acclaimed return to form. If you didn’t read the credits, you’d think this was a Haggard original.
- “A Little Gasoline,” Terri Clark. For the past decade, Nashville has churned out sassy gals faster than Don Rickles hurled insults, but there was still a conservative line to toe in the late 1990s/early 2000s. Terri Clark, who busted out of Medicine Hat, Alberta, Canada as fast as she could to get to Nashville, was a bit edgier than the typical Barbie doll (or Shania doll or Faith doll) working the circuit at the time. Clark, a onetime card carrying member of the Reba McEntire fan club, scored nine Top Ten singles from 1995 to 1999. On “A Little Gasoline,” Clark happily says goodbye to a bad relationship, tearing up the love letters, and rolling down the highway. She wouldn’t have made a credible victim.
- “Me Neither,” Brad Paisley. West Virginia native Brad Paisley started playing guitar when he was eight and became a regular on the “Wheeling Jamboree” radio program as a teenager. He also literally studied the music business as a college student at Nashville’s Belmont University, then penned the David Kersh Top Five single “Another You” in 1997. He scored his first #1 single as a recording artist in 1999 with the soggy stepfather tribute “He Didn’t Have to Be.” His 2000 failed pickup line song “Me Neither” is positively Ramones paced for country music, with the actual verses ending at the 1:40 mark. The instrumentalists do the freight train boogie for the equally long fade out.
- “The Mercy Seat,” Johnny Cash. Australian musician Nick Cave has developed a dour public persona that makes Tom Waits comparatively look like Richard Simmons. His romance with darkness has resulted in a sizable cult following and his 1988 gothic industrial take on capital punishment, “The Mercy Seat,” is a perfect subject for the ever popular tortured artist effect. Cash covered “The Mercy Seat” on his 2000 “American III: Solitary Man” album and the unusual, quickly paced stream of consciousness lyrics give the Cash version both of sense of urgency and discomfort. It’s not every day that you get to thematically spend some time in the mind of a man who is being electrocuted. Cave, “Like all the songs he does, he made it his own. He’s a great interpreter of songs – that’s part of his genius. These are the things that can’t be taken away from you.”
- “Papa Was a Rodeo,” Kelly Hogan and the Pine Valley Cosmonauts. Kelly Hogan worked with indie acts in her native Georgia in the mid-1990s, performing everything from country to cabaret. She became a member of the Chicago alt-country scene in the late 1990s and teamed with Jon Langford’s Pine Valley Cosmonauts for her 2000 album “Beneath the Country Underdog,” a typically eclectic take on the genre. Hogan’s cover of The Magnetic Fields’/Stephin Merritt’s “Papa Was a Rodeo” is a perfect mixture of melancholy and fear of commitment. I’m still a little perplexed by the “love was a trucker’s hand” line, but that’s par for the Meritt course. Mike Geier sings on the last verse of this song, making it a surreal duet. Geier is now better known by a different persona, he performs using the sad clown routine as Puddles Pity Party.
- “Red Dirt Girl,” Emmylou Harris. Emmylou Harris was known as an interpreter of other writer’s material during her years as a successful commercial artist. For her Grammy winning 2000 album “Red Dirt Girl,” Emmylou wrote the majority of the material, including the often covered title track. Using contemporary/atmospheric production values, Emmylou describes how a family fell apart after a son was killed in Vietnam and his sister’s dreams seemed to die with him. The inspiration for the song came from the biographical movie “Boys Don’t Cry.” Harris, ““It unnerved me not only because of the violence, but also because of the underlying theme of how trapped those young people were. We all come into this world with so much potential and so many dreams. Who knows why some people escape and other people don’t?”
- “Ruby’s Shoes,” Lori McKenna. Massachusetts born late bloomer Lori McKenna was 27 when she started writing songs, already married with three kids at the time. Five years later, the woman who would later write the Tim McGraw’s “Humble and Kind” and co-write Little Big Town’s “Girl Crush,” released her debut album, the 2000 release “Paper Wings and Halo.” Ruby Bridges, who as a six year old girl who was one of the first African-Americans to desegregate schools in New Orleans in 1960, is the subject of “Ruby’s Shoes.” McKenna folk sings about the pain of being socially ostracized as a child due to institutional prejudice. Ruby Bridges on her first day of school, “Driving up I could see the crowd, but living in New Orleans, I actually thought it was Mardi Gras. There was a large crowd of people outside of the school. They were throwing things and shouting, and that sort of goes on in New Orleans at Mardi Gras.”
- “Send Me Down an Angel,” Alison Moorer. On August 12th, 1986, Franklin Moorer had a dispute with his wife, Laura Moorer, that resulted in a murder suicide. Alison Moorer’s 2000 album “The Hardest Part” is a concept record about her parent’s troubled relationship. On “Send Me Down an Angel,” a woman stands by her man, even though she can’t comprehend why she does. Sister Shelby Lynne, “Mama was a wreck. She was a gentle soul, sharing, the life of the party, but she wasn’t a fighter. Daddy drank a little.” This is a decidedly country effort, but includes some interesting Beatles psychedelic era production touches. By the way, you know that angel is going to be late to the party.
- “Texas Me,” Doug Sahm. Doug Sahm, one of the most iconic figures in Texas music history, died at the age of 58 in 1999, passing away from a heart attack in a Taos motel. His (unplanned) final studio album has been completed and “The Return of Wayne Douglas” was released in 2000. Sahm had originally recorded “Texas Me” with the Sir Douglas Quintet in 1969, but three decades of reflection hardened those long held emotions about his Lone Star home. It was the perfect sentiment as the last song on his final album, in many ways Texas defined who Doug Sahm was and Doug Sahm defined what Texas was or should be. Also check out “I Can’t Go Back to Austin,” where a night of sin gets Doug banned from his spiritual home base.
- “Wishing All These Old Things Were New,” Merle Haggard. Haggard’s penchant for nostalgia could seem a bit manufactured when he was a major star, but after turning sixty and being tossed aside by corporate Nashville, he earned the right to complain. Haggard wishes he could do more about injustice, but misses his tobacco and cocaine more than anything else. For a less somber number, check out “Bareback” from the “If I Could Only Fly.” It’s a Western swing number that has nothing to do with horses.