Country Music History – Essential Releases of 2003
Fare thee well, John R. Cash.
1. “The Back of Your Hand,” Dwight Yoakam. Dwight Yoakam’s last Top Twenty country hit was his 1999 Queen cover “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” and he lost commercial relevance quickly thereafter, despite his 2001 golden oldie twang cover of Cheap Trick’s “I Want You to Want Me.” His 2003 album “Population Me” went Top Ten, despite no hit singles, and Pete Anderson was still working his production magic. “The Back of Your Hand” was penned by film/television actor Gregg Henry and while the lyrics are somewhat unusual (“Who’s the dude with the extra roll/What’s the verse, the line, the chapter, the page?), the swelling strings and quiet guitar convey a sense of doomed emotional desolation.
2. “Better Than You,” Terri Clark. Terri Clark had two Top Five singles from her 2003 “Pain to Kill” album – the slow burn of “I Just Wanna Be Mad” and the bucket list travelogue “I Wanna Do It All.” However, the highlight of the set is “Better Than You,” a tale of a damaged woman who is unimpressed by a new suitor. Clark, “’Better Than You’ was about a friend going through divorce. She started dating again. She got an online dating service, met this guy and went out to dinner and he was a real jerk. I was telling my co-writer (Rory Feek) about it and we wrote it. I think friends are afraid to tell me about their lives, afraid it will turn up on their next album.” The weeping fiddles and steel guitar sound straight out of the 1960s.
3. “Carla Came Home,” Chris Knight. Chris Knight was still mining the backwoods violence theme on “Carla Came Home” from his 2003 “The Jealous Kind” album. With his typically dark country meets bluegrass instrumentation, Knight serves as a bystander as his sister comes home beaten up and his father kills his brother-in-law. If the Dixie Chicks “Goodbye Earl” hadn’t been played for laughs, this is what it would have sounded like. Knight, “It started just with an idea that I had about a boy and his older sister and maybe how things happen through his eyes. You know how families all get together in Christmas and sometimes they get in a big argument and things happen? I wanted to write a song about something like that where some kind of trouble went down on Christmas day. As far as minor to moderately serious scrapes with the law, I know a little about that.”
4. “Earthbound,” Rodney Crowell. Rodney Crowell’s 2003 album “Fate’s Right Hand” is an introspective effort, where the singer ruminates about life’s bigger questions whether pretending to know the answers. Bela Fleck provides a bright banjo riff on “Earthbound,” an upbeat number about rolling with the flow and squeezing all the enjoyment you can out of life. Crowell ends the lyrics with shout-outs to Walter Cronkite, the Dalia Lama, and Charlie Brown. As proof he was no longer in the Nashville mainstream, “Fate’s Right Hand” won the Americana Album of the Year award. If Crowell had half the voice of his onetime father-in-law Johnny Cash, he would be a legend instead of a critical favorite.
5. “Flowers,” Gene Watson. Gene Watson scored 22 Top Ten singles between 1975 and 1988 with most of his work being instantly forgettable generic radio fare. He released an independent album titles “Sings” in 2003 that almost nobody heard, with a rare exception being music critic Chuck Eddy, who included “Flowers” on his annotated list/essay “50 Country Songs That Don’t Suck.” Nashville songwriters Billy Yates and Monty Criswell wrote this brutal ballad that the narrator sings to his wife. His dead wife. His wife who is dead because Mean Gene was driving drunk and killed her. Oh, and he killed her after she begged him not to drive. This ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco, this ain’t no foolin’ around.
6. “Hurt,” Johnny Cash. Trent Reznor wrote “Hurt,” a song about self-hatred and self-abuse, for the 1994 Nine Inch Nails album “The Downward Spiral.” “Hurt” was an alternative radio hit for Nine Inch Nails in 1995, but did not receive mainstream attention. A frail Johnny Cash with a significantly diminished voice sounds both physically and spiritually damaged on “Hurt,” as though his life has been a betrayal to himself and to those who had loved him. Rick Rubin’s slow building, tension filled production makes Cash sound claustrophobic, like he is swimming against a tide that his taking him away. Cash passed away six months after “Hurt” was released as a single, giving the public one of the most powerful and moving performances in the history of the genre as a parting gift. Trent Reznor on hearing the Cash version, “That song isn’t mine anymore.”
7. “Lucky Break,” Bottle Rockets. The Bottle Rockets had emulated the ground stomping roar of Neil Young’s band Crazy Horse early in their careers. “Lucky Break,” the lead track to the 2003 “Blue Sky” album begins like folkie Neil, with future Lynyrd Skynyrd touring bassist Robert Kearns providing the plaintive harmonica sound. Thematically, this is inverted version of the song “Welfare Music” from the band’s “The Brooklyn Side.” Instead of a woman receiving government assistance due to poverty, a man receives worker’s compensation for an on the job injury. The punch line – he couldn’t be happier. Bottle Rockets fan/author Tim Steil, “Brian Henneman, as an interpreter of American culture, is Raymond Carver in a cowboy hat. Such perfect slices of life, without a whiff of pretension.”
8. “My Love Will Not Change,” The Del McCoury Band. Del McCoury spent decades toiling on the bluegrass scene and working day jobs in relative obscurity, even being a member of Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys for a short stint in the early 1960s. McCoury relocated to Nashville in 1992 and he began routinely winning awards from the International Bluegrass Music Association and received a further profile boost after performing on the Steve Earle 1999 album “The Mountain.” Americana percussionist Pat McInerney wrote “My Love Will Not Change” with bluegrass musician Cary Van Eaton and it was released on The Del McCoury Band’s 2003 album “It’s Just the Night.” Rhythmically, this tune is as insistent as McCoury’s declaration of ceaseless, rolling river love. “My Love Will Not Change” has been covered by Americana musician/producer Shawn Camp and rockabilly artist Billy Burnette.
9. “Outfit,” Drive By-Truckers. Jason Isbell was taught to play music by his extended family members in North Alabama and even made a Grand Ole Opry appearance at the age of 16. After dropping out of college, Isbell returned to the Muscle Shoals music scene and joined the Drive-By Truckers during their “Southern Rock Opera” tour. Isbell quickly filled the George Harrison role of that band, providing low quantity, high quality songwriting support. “Outfit” is a poignant tale of a son reciting the advice he received from his father – a father who wants his son to have a better life than he could provide for him (“Don’t let me catch you in Kendale with a bucket of wealthy man’s paint”). Isbell, “He liked it a lot. He has a good sense of humor and he understands what parts of that song are serious and what parts aren’t. And even the parts that aren’t are in tribute to the kind of person he is. I don’t think that any part of it was shocking to my father, except perhaps the quality of the song.”
10. “Remember When,” Alan Jackson. I’ve never been convinced that Alan Jackson is an equal of, say, George Jones or Charlie Rich artistically. Generally, he’s a talented musician who hits the mark more due to his dedication to his craft than genuine inspiration. However, a few more efforts like “Remember When” might tip the scales of that calculation. A song about his wife Denise, Jackson reflects on their life on “Remember When” from being young lovers to betrayal/reconciliation to seeing their parents die and their children grow. It’s a lyric about celebrating their journey together. The string section elbows in way too hard, but this is the essence of country music – family and love.
11. “Screw You, We’re from Texas,” Ray Wylie Hubbard. Musicians don’t always have the privilege of performing to the converted when they take their act on the road. At a Ray Wylie Hubbard gig in the early 2000’s, some young fans from Nashville requested that Hubbard cover some contemporary country music or what Hubbard has called “really bad rock ‘n’ roll records with a fiddle.” This exchange inspired “Screw You, We’re from Texas,” a celebration of Hubbard’s contemporaries and peers. Hubbard, on how his song was received, “The problem with irony is not everybody gets it.” I was chatting with a nice woman at a Unitarian Church in Dallas several years ago and we discussed a Hubbard standing room only appearance there. “After the show, he hands me a bumper sticker that says, ‘Screw You, We’re from Texas.’ What in the WORLD am I supposed to do with THAT!”
12. “September When It Comes,” Rosanne Cash (featuring Johnny Cash). Rosanne Cash had written the lyrics to “September When It Comes,” a song about emotional closure, during the 1990s. John Leventhal, Rosanne’s husband, completed the music and urged her to sing it with her father. In the verses that he sings, Johnny notes his own frailty and suggests that much of his former strength was illusory. Rosanne, “When we did a duet of ‘September When It Comes,’ he was so sick that morning. And I said, ‘Dad, you don’t have to do it.’ And he goes, ‘Well, I’ll give it a try.’ We went over to the studio and as he started singing he started to feel better. His energy came up. You could see it in his face: he changed. Then he wanted to do another take, then another. He exhausted himself, but it gave him back his life.” Author Kevin John Coyne, “As he sang the lyrics, Rosanne cried quietly on the other side of the recording glass.”
13. “Tell Me Something Bad About Tulsa,” George Strait. Merle Haggard once informed Red Lane that Lane was the third greatest songwriter in the world, slotted behind Hank Cochran and, who else, Merle Haggard. “Tell Me Something Bad About Tulsa,” a lyric about avoiding a city and a heart-breaking woman, was first recorded by Haggard in 1986 and his son, Noel Haggard, had a minor hit with a 1997 cover. Strait gives a surprisingly bluesy reading of the song on his 2003 #11 single, recorded with some hesitation. Strait, “I really wanted to do it, but it’s intimidating to do something that Haggard’s already done.” By the way, the first album that inspired Strait to perform country music – Haggard’s 1970 release “A Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World (Or My Salute to Bob Wills).”
14. “That’s the News,” Merle Haggard. Merle Haggard wasn’t doing any flag waving during the Bush administration, criticizing the political establishment and the mainstream media who often focused on tabloid material on “That’s the News.” Haggard, “I had different views in the ‘70s. As a human being, I’ve learned. I have more culture now. I was dumb as a rock when I wrote ‘Okie From Muskogee.’ We have troops that we should be proud of, but are we getting the straight story, do we have all the facts, or are we short of information like the President?”
15. “Travelin’ Soldier,” Dixie Chicks. Songwriter Bruce Robison often mentions that no record has ever went from #1 and fell off the charts completely faster than the Dixie Chicks version of “Travelin’ Soldier.” Musically, it’s a complete tearjerker about an 18-year-old who gets killed in Vietnam and the emotional impact his death has on a high school girl who quickly fell in love with him. When this song was peaking, the Dixie Chicks criticized the Bush administration while on tour in England and learned a harsh lesson about modern day American tribalism. While the band would never have another significant country hit, Natalie Maines lives with no regrets, “I’m really proud of what went down. I spoke up for what I believe — that’s what art is about and musicians should be about. And if I’d known anybody was listening, I would have said something to really make a mark.”
16. “What Was I Thinkin’,” Dierks Bentley. Dierks Bentley spent a decade in Nashville before being signed by Capitol Records with one of his day jobs doing video research for The Nashville Network cable channel. Bentley had a #1 hit with “What Was I Thinkin’,” his first single, written by Bentley with frequent collaborator Brett Beavers and Deric Ruttan. The song is an inventory of lust filled questionable judgments that the narrator can’t wait to replicate. I think it was Epicurus who said, “Sometimes in life there is nothing more satisfying than a bad decision.”