Country Music History – Essential Releases of 2001
Multiple snake handling references.
1. “Ashes by Now,” Lee Ann Womack. Rodney Crowell wrote “Ashes by Now,” a song about a love that burns in the wrong way, and originally recorded his composition in a Muscle Shoals blues style in 1978. Two years later it was a minor country hit for Crowell and Emmylou Harris cut a sparely arranged cover in 1981. Lee Ann Womack’s Top Five single version, her followup hit to “I Hope You Dance,” is radically different from a production standpoint, with a percussion sounds that sound like modern dance music. Another example of commercial country’s evolution toward pop and adult contemporary music as traditional Top 40 went for rap, R&B, and boy bands.
2. “The Big Revival,” John Anderson. Attributed to Jesus Christ from the Book of Marks, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.” Good Lord, the Holy, Blue Eyed, Bearded One just unleashed speaking in tongues, snake handling, and faith healing in one fell swoop. Playing with snakes in the name of Jesus became a practice in the Holiness sect of the Appalachian Pentecostal Church in the early 1900s. Songwriter Dennis Linde had some fun with that concept on “The Big Revival” with its tagline “Praise the Lord and pass me a copperhead.” A perfect fit for Anderson’s comic persona. Kenny Chesney sucked the life out of the song for his paint by numbers 2014 album title version.
3. “The Cape,” Jerry Jeff Walker. “The Cape” originated from a conversation between songwriters Jim Janosky and Susanna Clark about the innocence of childhood and the belief that anything is possible. Susanna’s husband, Guy Clark, helped to complete the song and it was recorded by Kathy Mattea in 1994 and by Clark in 1995. The playful sense of adventure in the lyrics made it a perfect fit for Texas charm machine Jerry Jeff Walker. “The Cape” is an appeal to adults to maintain the risk taking courage that children often have. Or, as the lyrics say, “Spread your arms and hold your breath and always trust your cape.”
4. “Down the River,” Chris Knight. Chris Knight had his one major label shot with his 1998 debut release and he’s been on indies ever since. The centerpiece of his 2001 album “A Pretty Good Guy” is “Down the River,” an almost seven minute tale of Southern family violence similar to The Drive-By Truckers’ “Decoration Day.” When Knight sings about running trot lines in his thick Kentucky drawl, you know he’s lived that life, making the multiple ensuing murders sound completely feasible. Knight wasn’t selling butterflies and lollipops on this album. On the song “North Dakota,” his lover loses a battle with a brutal winter storm and she isn’t discovered until the rain washes away the snow.
5. “Get Right with God,” Lucinda Williams. Williams on the Holy Ghost revival spirit of “Get Right with God,” “I was just making a statement about how far people will go to their faith . . . like sleeping on a bed of nails or snake handling. Those kinds of things show how deeply people believe in God. So to me, this record is like religious folk art. It’s kind of my statement.” Williams won a Grammy for this upbeat gospel mixed with blues take on the lengths she would go to please her savior. The track includes typically superlative accompaniment from Charlie Sexton, whose guitar licks are positively serpentine.
6. “Jacksonville Skyline,” Whiskeytown. Ryan Adams’ band Whiskeytown became embroiled in record label drama during the late 1990s and had broken up before their 2001 album “Pneumonia” was released. Adams grew up in Jacksonville, North Carolina and his song “Jacksonville Highway” is about a hometown that Adams yearns to leave and then quickly pines for when he does. Adams, “On the very edge of (Jacksonville) there used to be a line where it was pawn shop, tattoo shop, strip club, pawn shop, tattoo shop, pawn shop, strip club, car dealership, pawn shop. Then, there were all these big pine trees, and behind them was the military base. And the base was between us and the beach. They took all that land.” On a personal level, I know those off post military ghettos way to well.
7. “I Wanna Talk About Me,” Toby Keith. Bobby Braddock is primarily known for writing major hits for Tammy Wynette and George Jones. However, in the 1990s and 2000s, he wrote Top Ten singles for Tracy Lawrence (“Texas Tornado” and “Time Marches On”), Mark Chesnutt (“Old Flames Have New Names”), Billy Currington (“People Are Crazy”), and Toby Keith’s “I Wanna Talk About Me,” a #1 single theoretically in the “country rap” genre. (Rural and suburban whites could easily ignore white rap during the Vanilla Ice era, but Eminem got everybody’s attention). Having a background chorus sing “Me! Me! Me!” seems like the perfect representation of Keith’s entire career.
8. “If I Fall You’re Going Down with Me,” Dixie Chicks. Elvis Costello gave the following warning on his 1978 album track “Hand in Hand”: “Don’t ask me to apologize/I won’t ask you to forgive me/If I’m going down/You’re gonna come with me.” Songwriters Matraca Berg and Annie Roboff took a different spin on that theme with lyrics about being on the verge of plunging into love on “If I Fall You’re Going Down with Me.” This Earth moving, tree shaking infatuation number peaked at #3. Berg, “We just wanted to write a really fun song. I wasn’t in that Dixie Chicks’ camp of writers, so I was very surprised and very appreciative. I couldn’t believe the sales. I’ve never been on a record that big.”
9. “I’m Tryin’,” Trace Adkins. Much more of an entertainer than an artist, Trace Adkins spent many years as a regional performer in Northeast Louisiana before moving to Nashville in the early 1990s. He went Top Five in 1996 with the divorce number “Every Light in the House.” Adkins eventually had twelve Top Ten singles between 1996 and 2011, crossing over to the pop charts with 2005’s “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk” (Jesus) and 2008’s “You’re Gonna Miss This.” On 2001’s “I’m Tryin’,” a divorced dad works double shifts trying to support himself and his ex-family. This empathetic working class number is at least a minute too long, but anybody who releases “Brown Chicken Brown Cow” as a spoof of the porn music phrase “bow chicka wow wow” has an issue with self-awareness.
10. “Lucky 4 You (Tonight I’m Just Me),” SHeDAISY. SHeDaisy looked like a group put together in a Nashville boardroom, a trio of attractive women – one blonde, a brunette, and a redhead. That color scheme happened by fate or a salon treatment as the group was comprised of three Mormon sisters who started performing together in The Beehive State in the late 1980s. SHeDAISY had three Top Ten singles from their 1999 debut album “The Whole SHeBANG,” with their fourth release, “Lucky 4 You (Tonight I’m Just Me)” peaking at #11. Co-written by band member Kristyn Osborn, the lyrics are a tongue in cheek look at male stereotypes of female moods/personalities on this more pop than country outing. The sisters had one more Top Ten hit in 2005 with “Don’t Worry ‘bout a Thing” (not a cover of the Stevie Wonder 1973 hit “Don’t You Worry ‘bout a Thing) and faded away from the airwaves the following year.
11. “The Lucky One,” Alison Krauss & Union Station. Taylor Swift, Faith Hill, Laura Branigan, Freedy Johnston, and Alison Krauss have all recorded different songs titled “The Lucky One,” so the theme has been passed around like a crack pipe at a Lamar Odom family reunion. Krauss has performed many songs over the years written by musician/truck driver Robert Lee Castleman who originally recorded “The Lucky One” as a first person account of positivity. Rhyming “one night stand” with “happy man” wasn’t going to make radio happy, but the single did win a Grammy for Best Country Song in 2002. Castleman, “I was sitting in my truck in Sevierville, Tennessee, with a load of scrap metal. The cell phone rang and it was Allison. She was so excited. Here I am in dirty, filthy clothes, been up all night driving from the coast of Alabama to get to Sevierville. I had been up about 20 hours when she told me I got nominated for a Grammy. I almost soiled myself.”
12. “Neva Sawyer,” K.T. Oslin. After a five year break from recording, K.T. Oslin released her “Live Close By, Visit Often” album in 2001 to limited fanfare and public interest. “Neva Sawyer” is a pop/funk story tale about a circus high wire walker who ignores the romantic advances of the world’s strongest man. The song is campier than the premise, if you can imagine that, but Oslin’s good time is thoroughly infectious (Climatic lyric – “Somebody yelled ‘Bitch fight! Bitch fight!’/Fur started to fly”). K.T. Oslin on her legacy, “Gretchen Peters said, ‘When I heard your album, the first one, I turned to someone I was with who was also a writer and said, ‘Can we say things like that? Well, I guess we can.’ It sort of changed what people thought they could write.”
13. “Rainbow Connection,” Willie Nelson. Songwriter Paul Williams, “Kenny Ascher and I sat down to write these songs, and we thought… Kermit, he’s like ‘every frog.’ He’s the Jimmy Stewart of frogs. So how do we show that he’s a thinking frog, and that he has an introspective soul, and all that good stuff? We looked at his environment, and his environment is water and air and light. And it just seemed like it would be a place where he would see a rainbow. But we also wanted to show that he would be on this spiritual path, examining life, and the meaning of life. It tells you that he’s been exposed to culture: ‘Why are there so many songs about rainbows?’ Which means, obviously, he’s heard a lot of songs. This is a frog that’s been exposed to culture, whether it’s movies, or records, or whatever. And I also like the fact that it starts out with the negative: ‘Rainbows are only illusions, rainbows have nothing to hide.’ So the song actually starts out as if he’s going to pooh-pooh the whole idea, and then it turns: ‘So we’ve been told, and some choose to believe it. I know they’re wrong, wait and see.’ And again, he doesn’t have the answer: ‘Someday we’ll find it.’” Originally released by Jim Henson as ‘Kermit the Frog’ in 1979 and it’s the answer to the question, “What is Steve Crawford and Beth Crawford’s love song?”
14. “Telephone Road,” Rodney Crowell. Crowell on his 2001 album, “For the most part, this record is autobiographical. At some point, the story of ‘The Houston Kid’ takes my experiences from 6 to 15 years old, and it sort of cross-pollinates with other kids in my neighborhood. It fuses their experiences with what was going on in my life.” Crowell endures poverty and Gulf Coast storms on “Telephone Road,” but also remembers make shift ponds, drive-in movies, burger joints, and dance halls. Much of the album deals with Crowell’s alcoholic father and domestic violence within his family. Not a party record, but a damn brave one.
15. “When You Come Back Down,” Nickel Creek. The musicians who formed Nickel Creek started performing as pre-teens in 1989, being home schooled and working bluegrass festivals. After a few independent releases in the 1990s, the band met Alison Krauss who produced their 2000 “Nickel Creek” album. “When You Come Back Down” was originally performed by folk musician Tim O’Brien, who co-wrote the song with Danny O’Keefe of “Good Time Charlie’s Got the Blues” fame. The Nickel Creek version peaked at #48 on the country charts and while “The Lighthouse’s Tale” fared no better, the album still got enough exposure to go platinum. “When You Come Back Down” is a love song of support, letting a partner pursue their dreams and vowing to catch them if they fall.
16. “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive,” Patty Loveless. East Kentucky native Darrell Scott is a respected Nashville session musician who has written hits for Sara Evans, Travis Tritt, the Dixie Chicks, and the Zac Brown Band. While never a hit single, “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive” has been recorded by Patty Loveless, Kathy Mattea, Brad Paisley, and Dave Alvin, among others. The lyrics are about the economic trap of living in a coal mining community, where a better life is often an unrealistic dream and the mines can result in an early grave. Patty Loveless, also a native of Eastern Kentucky, performs the song in a bluegrass dirge style and gives the vocal performance of her life.