Country Music History – Essential Releases of 2002
The Smashing Pumpkins, shootin’ dice, and subtle lesbianism.
1. “17,” Cross Canadian Ragweed. The band Cross Canadian Ragweed was formed in rural Oklahoma in 1994 and soon became leaders in the alt-country “Red Dirt” movement, a genre based upon geography as much as sound. After two independent releases, they signed with Universal for their eponymous major label debut album. Cody Canada, the band’s primary songwriter, penned “17,” a look at small town life and being stuck in time. What this version of CCR managed to do was to find a new audience for classic rock music, by adding a hint of twang.
2. “Does My Ring Burn Your Finger,” Lee Ann Womack. Buddy Miller is a versatile musician who worked for extended times in Austin, New York, and Nashville as bandleader, sideman, and solo act. Miller’s never been a major chart presence, but his songs have been covered by LeAnn Rimes, Maren Morris, the Dixie Chicks, Dierks Bentley, Patty Loveless, Levon Helm, and many others. Buddy and his wife Julie wrote “Does My Ring Burn Your Finger” and it was originally released on his 1999 album “Cruel Moon.” Womack sounds downright Appalachian here as she casts stones at a departed lover, questioning her self-worth and her ability to emotionally recover. Cinematic country blues, a sound rarely heard on commercial radio.
3. “Drive (For Daddy Gene),” Alan Jackson. It seemed like Alan Jackson’s career was cooling off a bit when he released three albums from 1998 to 2000 that were only certified platinum. He had a major comeback with the quadruple platinum 2002 album “Drive.” The single “Drive (For Daddy Gene)” is a salute to Jackson’s father and his memories of steering the wheel of a fishing boat and half ton truck with his old man beside him. Jackson, on his father who passed away in 2008, “He was just a little old car mechanic. He’d work on people’s cars on the weekends just to help them out or something. A lot of times they would barter things, give him a lawn mower or something, and he’d fix their car. I saw all these people show up (at his funeral) like he was somebody. I was so surprised, and I realized how he had touched so many people in his small way.”
4. “False Hearted Lover’s Blues,” Ralph Stanley. Ralph Stanley had been a professional musician for over sixty five years when he released the 2002 “Ralph Stanley” album, produced by T-Bone Burnett, Bob Neuwirth, and Larry Ehrlich. Released on Columbia Records, this was his first record to hit the country album charts. Trailblazing Appalachian banjo player Dock Boggs had recorded “False Hearted Lover’s Blues” in 1927 and Stanley’s stark cover is suitably morbid. The lyrics fret about the narrator’s infatuation with pretty women who callously empty your wallet, leaving you both lonely and penniless. Corn whiskey and a handgun also make an appearance. Ralph Stanley released his last album in 2015 and died the following year. Jim Lauderdale, “He was the king of mountain soul and a force of nature. He left such a huge mark on the world. I think he really stands among the greatest musicians in any genre.”
5. “I’m Gonna Miss Her (The Fishing Song),” Brad Paisley. Brad Paisley’s partnership with long time producer Frank Rogers started at Belmont University, where the two men wrote “I’m Gonna Miss Her (The Fishing Song)” as a way to interject humor into Paisley’s live performances. Thematically, this is a tune about a squabbling couple and a man who chooses fishing over his woman. Paisley worried that the lyrics might offend his female listeners, but his hook filled effort created no snags. Constructed as a party, sing along number, it highlights Paisley’s fundamental good natured image as an artist who is more likable than clever.
6. “Landslide,” Dixie Chicks. Stevie Nicks wrote “Landslide” for her new band’s surprise 1975 breakthrough album “Fleetwood Mac.” The group’s “California sound” was one of the defining element in America’s 1970’s pop music and had multi-generational influence. Billy Corgan, perhaps incorrectly rationalizing that he could sing no worse than Stevie Nicks, released a cover of “Landslide” in 1994 with the Smashing Pumpkins. However, this phases of life song didn’t go mainstream until the Dixie Chicks release, hitting both Top Ten pop and country. Natalie Maines, “I could have sung the song five years ago, but it never hit me like it did at this age. And after having a child and taking some time off and growing and maturing, I just really connected to the song.”
7. “Lone Star Blues,” Delbert McClinton. Delbert McClinton’s 2002 “Room to Breathe” release was his highest charting album on the country charts, peaking at #12. Recorded in Austin and co-produced by McClinton and Gary Nicholson, the Texas singer/songwriter community is well represented with appearances by The Flatlanders, Guy Clark, Rodney Crowell, Marcia Ball, and Billy Joe Shavers, all of whom may be singing on “Lone Star Blues.” On this Alaska sized yarn, McClinton’s bull dies on him mid-ride, he loses his boots shootin’ dice, and gets his bell rung working as a bouncer at Billy Bob’s. He sounds more bewildered than downtrodden over his predicaments. Nice touch – rhyming “Brown and Root” with the “Cut and Shoot,” the name of an actual Texas town. George Strait covered “Lone Star Blues,” with less zest than the original, in 2011.
8. “Long Time Gone,” Dixie Chicks. Songwriter Darrell Scott recorded the you can’t go home again number “Long Time Gone” in 2000, taking a few well honed shots at contemporary country radio in the process. If you listen carefully, you’ll note that the Dixie Chicks didn’t change the gender perspective, giving the lyrics a church flirtation with lesbianism. Scott was shooting straight about Music City, noting in 2015, “I’ve lived in Nashville 23 years now and I never met anyone who’s more angry about the shape of country music over the last few decades than myself.” The band’s six times platinum 2002 “Home” album also contained the conceptual b-side to “Sin Wagon” with the baby’s on the way “White Trash Wedding.”
9. “The Man Comes Around,” Johnny Cash. Johnny Cash had ambitions of biblical proportions on the title track to his 2002 and nobody has ever sounded more righteous than The Man in Black. Supposedly, Cash was inspired to write the song after a dream where the Queen of England remarked, ““Johnny Cash, you’re just like a thorn tree in a whirlwind.” While there have been no shortage of songs about death in folk music, few, if any, have the poetic gravitas of “The Man Comes Around,” which serves as a non-ironic testament to the breadth of Cash’s vision. Bob Dylan, “Johnny was and is the North Star; you could guide your ship by him — the greatest of the greats then and now. I first met him in ’62 or ’63 and saw him a lot in those years. Not so much recently, but in some kind of way he was with me more than people I see every day.”
10. “Mendocino County Line,” Willie Nelson and Lee Ann Womack. Willie Nelson had been off Top 40 country radio for over a decade when “Mendocino County Line,” his collaboration with Lee Ann Womack, peaked at #22. It was the first single from Nelson’s “The Great Divide” album, a collection of duets with hot artists of the day including Rob Thomas and Kid Rock (those names listed for anyone who thinks that Nelson’s judgment is unquestionable). This post relationship remorse song was written by pop producer Matt Serletic with famous Elton John lyricist Bernie Taupin and both singers convincingly cling to a romantic past as a coping mechanism for their current depression. Nelson would be back on radio with a higher profile in 2003, singing on Toby Keith’s street lynching anthem “Beer for My Horses.”
11. “Not Pretty Enough,” Kasey Chambers. Kasey Chambers grew up in a family who lived primarily off the land in Australia’s Nullarbor Plain during her childhood and then, in what sounds like a sitcom, they evolved into an Australian country/pop rock act known as the Dead Ringer Band. Kasey started her solo career in 1998, becoming a significant pop star in her homeland. “Not Pretty Enough” is the most insecure song you’ll hear this side of Loudon Wainwright III. It’s a more feminine and more vulnerable version of Rosanne Cash’s “I Don’t Know Why You Don’t Want Me,” where Chambers describes her pain in a way that’s clearly tied to her gender. Her lyrics weren’t a public pose, she later suffered from eating disorders.
12. “Wrapped Around,” Brad Paisley. Brad Paisley is so gifted in the craft of making country music than his ease can sound uninspired, but he’s having fun on this Top Five single. There’s a subtle rockabilly guitar sound on “Wrapped Around,” a buying the ring commitment since he’s already wrapped around her finger. Chet Flippo on the Paisley mystery in 2009, “Brad Paisley is often overlooked as a major architect of the structure that is modern country music. I’m not saying he’s a genius or anything. I don’t think we have any around today. I don’t mean this as any kind of testimonial, but I think Paisley is due some thanks for what he’s done and is still doing. What I think he has stood for is a genuine attempt for sincerity and authenticity in his songwriting and musicianship (especially his flair on lead guitar), his obvious devotion to family ties and his respect for tradition and heritage.”