Country Music History – Essential Releases of 1998, Part I
The Dixie Chicks conquer the world.
1. “My Hometown,” Charlie Robison. Charlie Robison, the brother of singer/songwriter Bruce Robison and the former husband of Dixie Chick Emily Erwin, worked in Austin bands for several years and became a solo artist in the mid-1990s. His 1998 album “Life of the Party” includes “My Hometown,” an autobiographical look at Robison’s life, including his time as a college football player and life on the Austin and Nashville music scenes. Despite those dreams of fame, his real goal is to get back to Bandera, Texas. Robison released five major label albums, but only scraped into the country Top 40 once, oddly enough with a cover of NRBQ’s power pop tune “I Want You Bad.” Robison on his major musical influence, “I grew up in South Texas, and I grew up on Doug Sahm. He was my guy because he could play the most traditional country song, then an amazing blues song followed by a conjunto tune and a German polka and do it all perfectly in one concert. I loved that stuff.”
2. “One by One,” Billy Bragg and Wilco. Billy Bragg, “Woody (Guthrie) came from the English folk-song tradition, songs of 30 verses and no reprise. I would argue he’s the last of that ballad tradition and on the cusp of where folk music stops being folk and became music where people know who wrote it. He was the first singer-songwriter.” On the second selection from the “Mermaid Avenue” album in this series, Guthrie writes about the inexorable march to death, watching the seconds of his life tick away while hoping that his relationship with his lover will last eternally. Jeff Tweedy, who still regularly performs “Mermaid Avenue” material in concert, “I think Guthrie is one of the primary sources for American songwriters. As a kid growing up, I absorbed his music and his voice. It was elemental for me.”
3. “A Soft Place to Fall,” Allison Moorer. Southern Alabama Allison Moorer, the younger sister of singer Shelby Lynne and one time wife of Steve Earle, released her debut, titled “Alabama Song,” on MCA Nashville in 1998. Moorer wrote or co-wrote all the material on the record and displayed a vocal style more blues based than typical Nashville product. Stylistically, the weeping steel guitar and spare arrangement sound more like pre-countrypolitan Nashville than a modern production. Moorer swallows her pride and returns to a former lover on “A Soft Place to Fall,” a minor country hit that was included in the 1998 Robert Redford film “The Horse Whisperer.” Moorer’s released ten albums, but “A Soft Place to Fall” and her debut album’s title track “Alabama Song,” which has echoes of “The Weight” by The Band, remain her most popular releases.
4. “There’s Your Trouble,” Dixie Chicks. The Dixie Chicks originated as a quartet in the Dallas/Fort Worth area in 1989, taking their name from the Little Feat song “Dixie Chicken.” They evolved into their famed trio lineup when Natalie Maines, the daughter of Texas producer/musician Lloyd, joined the act in 1995. The group had released three albums on an independent label in the early 1990s, but quickly became a major commercial force after signing with Sony Records and releasing the 1998 “Wide Open Spaces” album. The Dixie Chicks went Top Ten with “I Can Love You Better” and had their first #1 single with “There’s Your Trouble,” which merged the bluegrass instrumentation of Emily Erwin and Martie Seidel with a contemporary country sound, while Natalie Maines instructs an object of her affection on his poor relationship decisions. Songwriters Mark Selby and Tia Sellers had moved from rock to country, having previously been collaborators with blues guitarist Kenny Wayne Shepherd.
5. “To Make You Feel My Love,” Garth Brooks. Bob Dylan’s “To Make You Feel My Love” is a straightforward pledge of devotion, the type of song that may have foreshadowed his later work in tackling The Great American Songbook. Oddly, it was first released by Billy Joel and that’s the version that Brooks first heard; Dylan released the song as “Make You Feel My Love” on his excellent 1997 “Time Out of Mind” album. Despite his incalculable influence on folk and Americana music, the Brooks version of “To Make You Feel My Love” was the first time that Dylan had a #1 song on the country charts. Adele recorded this song for her 2008 debut album and had an international pop hit (excluding the United States) that peaked at #4 in the U.K.
6. “When She Does Me Right She Does You Wrong,” The Wandering Eyes. In 1998 an ad hoc group of Austin musicians, including Dale Watson, Kelly Willis, Chris O’Connell, Rosie Flores and Jason Roberts, recorded a batch of classic cheating songs using the clever band name The Wandering Eyes. One of the highlights from the album is the cover of Fort Worth swing artist Chuck Cusimano’s “When She Does Me Right She Does You Wrong” with vocals by then Asleep at the Wheel fiddle player Jason Roberts. Performed in the Ray Price shuffle fashion, this number could fill the dance floor at any Texas honky tonk. Also, do yourself a favor and check out the Kelly Willis cover, with a gender change, of the 1970’s soul classic “Me and Mr. Jones.”
7. “Wide Open Spaces,” The Dixie Chicks. After moving from Texas to attend college in Montana, songwriter Susan Gibson penned “Wide Open Spaces,” a song about leaving home and the mixture of excitement and angst that life event creates. Lloyd Maines was producing Gibson’s band The Groobees, when he passed “Wide Open Spaces” to the Dixie Chicks, who found the song got a strong reaction, even before it was recorded. This #1 single became somewhat of an anthem for female independence, an acknowledgement that rewards always come from risks. That line about the dad yelling “check the oil” as his daughter drives away just wrecks me.
8. “Wild Irish Rose,” George Jones. George Jones, reflecting on his addiction issues in 1998, “You get lost like in this twilight zone. You are drowning. You forget even that God exists or that anybody does. The only thing that mattered was the ‘thrill’ and ‘fun’ of what you were doing. You can get lost in all of that and go down the wrong road.” “Wild Irish Rose,” a Bobby Braddock composition that was the lead track from the 1998 “It Don’t Get Any Better Than This Album” is about a veteran who becomes an alcoholic who dies on the street. That was a fate that Jones, who served in the Marine Corps during the Korean War, narrowly escaped. In less existential matters, MCA chose not to promote the last album Jones recorded for them to the point where the two released singles didn’t even hit the Top 100.
9. “You Just Can’t Beat Jesus Christ,” Billy Joe Shaver. Billy Joe Shaver enjoyed nothing more than covering Billy Joe Shaver material. He first released “You Just Can’t Beat Jesus Christ” on his 1987 “Salt of the Earth” album, but his son Eddy gave the salvation loving tune a Delta blues feel. In father, son, and Holy Ghost fashion, Shaver also recorded this song with fellow hell raiser, holy roller Johnny Cash in 2005. Shaver, “Waylon used to call me a Bible thumper, even when we were raising hell. Tell you the truth – it’s like when I was back dopin’, when I run across some real good stuff I’d call all my friends and say, ‘You got to get into this, it’s amazing, come on over.’ It’s the same with Jesus.”