Country Music History – Essential Releases of 2004
Portland, Oregon and sloe gin fizz.
1. “Big Cheeseburgers and Good French Fries,” Blaze Foley. The 2004 “Oval Room” album was the second posthumous release of Blaze Foley material recorded live from the Austin club The Outhouse. “Big Cheeseburgers and Good French Fries” is a witty look at ambition, or perhaps the lack thereof, that is reminiscent of Todd Snider’s stoner feel good humor. Blaze and Townes Van Zandt were drinking bodies whose consumption often outpaced their income. It’s been said that after Blaze was murdered, Townes realized that a pawn shop ticket for one of Van Zandt’s guitars was most likely in Foley’s coffin suit jacket pocket. So, Townes and his band members went to the gravesite, got an employee to dig out the grave, unsealed the coffin, and walked away with the paperwork to getting his guitar out of hock. Drinking story or truth? The world will never know.
2. “Choctaw Bingo,” James McMurtry. James McMurtry, the son of author Larry McMurtry, has never been a member of a glee club. With his perpetual scowl and inhospitable countenance, he looks like the kind of guy who snacks on desert scorpions and whizzes snake venom. There are no artist orchestrated crowd hand clapping moments or dance step instructions at a McMurtry gig. Whiskey trembles when approaching his lips. McMurtry started recording in 1989 and has gained a sizable cult with his pull no punches, alt-country attitude. The almost nine minute long live version of “Choctaw Bingo” from 2004 is a surreal mix of meth dealing and cousin lust. McMurtry, “’Choctaw Bingo’ started out as a writing exercise because I wanted to see if I could get all of that weird stuff into a song. For a while were always going up and down US-69 in Oklahoma and there were always weird things all along the road. There was a bingo parlor called Choctaw Bingo, a gun shop called Pop, Knife, and Gun. Further up in Kansas there was a lingerie shop with a bunch of pink neon Rolling Stone lips. I wrote that song, and within a year all those stores had changed.”
3. “Girls Lie Too,” Terri Clark. Tracy Byrd scored a Top Twenty hit in 2003 with the painfully unamusing “The Truth About Men,” a rowdy, good ole boy number about men telling their partners white lies for convenience sake. After stereotyping every human with a Y chromosome as a Neanderthal, the Byrd hit inspired the answer song “Girls Lie Too,” a #1 single for Terri Clark. Clark’s lists of mistruths include income, appearance, status symbols, fantasies, and something about size. One could say that artistically that Clark owned Byrd by comparison, but she probably wouldn’t want something of so little intrinsic value.
4. “Goin’ Away Party,” Merle Haggard. Merle Haggard returned to Capitol Records for his 2004 release “Unforgettable,” an album primarily comprised of pop standards to include “Stardust,” “Pennies from Heaven,” and “As Tears Go By.” The production has a late night jazz/blues feel with Haggard singing slow tempo material in his late career crooner mode. “Goin’ Away Party” sounds like a pop song that could have been released in the 1940s, but it was first recorded by Bob Wills in 1974. Cindy Walker penned this somber tune about saying goodbye to a dream, noting her party won’t be loud because, “Dreams don’t make noise when they die.” Even Willie Nelson couldn’t match Haggard’s leisurely pace when he covered “Goin’ Away Party” in 2007.
5. “Live Like You Were Dying,” Tim McGraw. Tim McGraw, the son of major leagues baseball pitcher Tug McGraw, had his first major hit on country radio with 1994’s “Indian Outlaw” and became part of the first couple of country pop music after marrying Faith Hill. As of this writing, McGraw has racked up 28 #1 singles, 54 Top Ten country singles, and 32 crossover pop Top 40 hits. Songwriters Craig Wiseman and Tim Nichols wrote “Live Like You Were Dying,” partially inspired by a family member of Wiseman’s who was diagnosed with leukemia and then booked a shark dive in Belize. From McGraw’s perspective, his father passed away two weeks before he recorded the song. McGraw, “We were in the studio around midnight. My uncle was there – my dad’s older brother. The studio was all decked out. We sent an interior designer up to the studio, which was at the top of a mountain with three feet of snow around it. There was a big fireplace and candles. I had a glass vocal booth built in the middle of the center of the room where I could conduct everybody in the band. No lights were on. All the candles were going. That was an inspired track.”
6. “Play a Train Song,” Todd Snider. Oregon native Todd Snider made pilgramages through Austin and Memphis before releasing his debut album in 1994 and later defining the modern stoner/folkie aesthetic. “Play a Train Song” from Snider’s highly regarded 2004 “East Nashville Skyline” release is a tribute to Skip Litz who passed away in 2003 and at one time served as Snider’s tout manager. Snider, “Every night he had six or seven bars that he had to stop by – there were bar tenders who needed joints, women who needed to be told how pretty they were. He was one of those guys from the movies. He drove a long black beat up Cadillac with no plates and no driver’s license. He always had pot in the trunk and he always sped and when he pulled into a bar, he literally parked on the side walk right up to the door where you had to sidestep his car to get in. The owners never minded because they all new that the site of that car meant their bar would soon be full of musicians and girls. Every time skip entered a bar with music playing he’d yell ‘Play a fucking train song!’ until he got one and he always got one.”
7. “Portland, Oregon,” Loretta Lynn featuring Jack White. Loretta Lynn’s last major hit as a songwriter was the 1973 #1 single “Rated X” and her airplay significantly decreased in the 1980s. Loretta didn’t release an album during the 1990s and a 2000 release was instantly forgotten. Jack White of the White Stripes produced the 2004 “Van Lear Rose” album and, more importantly, inspired or prodded Loretta to write again. Like many of Loretta’s compositions, “Portland, Oregon” resulted from her turbulent relationship with her husband Oliver “Doolittle” Lynn. Feeling ignored while her husband was having a golf vacation, Loretta and a bandmate decided to fake an affair to inspire jealousy and attention. Loretta’s scheme didn’t work in the short run, but did result in her most recognizable song in decades. Also, check out another “Doo” inspired “Van Lear Rose” track, the lonely “Miss Being Mrs.”
8. “Restless,” Alison Krauss & Union Station. Alison Krauss has a delicate, soprano voice that conveys a warm intimacy. Even when she sings about mature themes there’s an underlying innocence to her vocals. “Restless” is a Robert Lee Castleman composition about a desired romantic reconciliation, a minor country hit that Alison delivers with a tone that exhibits more confidence than anxiety. Also, he backing unit Union Station could be the hottest jam band in the history of the genre, if not for their virtuosic discipline. Guitarist Jerry Douglas, “Playing, that’s the easy part. It’s alchemy. There’s a sound to this band that no other band has and you can recognize this band within four bars of any song you hear us play.”
9. “Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy),” Big & Rich. John Rich first found success as a member of the MOR country act Lonestar, best known for their soppy ballad “Amazed,” which topped both the country and pop charts in 1999 and 2000. Kenny Alphin started as a pop/rock artist using the name Big Kenny and started a songwriting partnership with Rich in the early 2000s, penning the Martina McBride 2002 #4 country hit “Amarillo Sky.” Big & Rich signed with Warner Brothers Records in 2003 and proved how much country radio had changed with their #11 2004 hit “Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy),” a mixture of metal guitar, rap phrasing, and banjos. This is the “Ice, Ice Baby” of white boy country rap music with all the gleeful schlock and reservations inherent in that comparison.
10. “Songs About Rain,” Gary Allan. Southern California native Gary Allan played in honky tonks while in high school and sold cars before getting the green light in Nashville. As of this writing, Allan has released eleven Top Ten singles, including four #1 songs. “Songs About Rain” was written by Pat McLaughlin and frequent Taylor Swift collaborate Liz Rose. This is a vocal showcase and Allan’s ragged but commanding performance almost makes you forget how awkwardly different “rain songs” (“Rainy Night in Georgia,” “Kentucky Rain,” etc.) are plugged into the chorus. Allan would return to this stormy theme with the 2012 #1 country hit “Every Storm (Runs Out of Rain).”
11. “Stealing Kisses,” Lori McKenna. Faith Hill recorded three Lori McKenna songs on her 2005 #1 country album “Fireflies,” including the title track and minor Top 40 hit “Stealing Kisses.” However, McKenna had first recorded “Stealing Kisses” on her 2004 album “Bittertown,” an independent release that was later picked up by Warner Brothers. More traditional singer/songwriter than Nashville material, “Stealing Kisses” is about the emptiness that people can feel, even within the context of marriage and family. McKenna, “One of the things that I found so striking as I got older and as I had my kids is – I live in a little tiny house, and we have five children, and you can still feel lonely.” The solution? “I think the real gift is being able to find what that talent is and what your dream is. I think there’s a lot of people that just can’t figure it out.”
12. “Tonight We Ride,” Tom Russell. Ex-rancher Tom Russell has written songs with Dave Alvin and Nanci Griffith and his material has been covered by Joe Ely and Johnny Cash. His work often has an Old West meets Tex Mex border town quality and those influences are prominent on the accordion suffused cowboy anthem “Tonight We Ride.” Russell aims to skin Pancho Villa, kill Apaches, visit whorehouses, and rob a Juarez liquor store, but his final reward will be bleaching his bones on the desert floor. There’s all kinds of malarkey in this world. This is one of the entertaining strains.
13. “Wagon Wheel,” Old Crow Medicine Show. The first reference to being rocked/rolled like a wagon wheel that I’m aware of comes from the Melvin “Lil Son” Jackson 1950 recording “Rockin’ and Rollin’.” B.B. King took Jackson’s lyrics and incorporated them into his 1964 hit “Rock Me Baby,” giving the concept greater exposure. Bob Dylan used that concept for an unreleased/unfinished song in 1973 and decades later Ketch Secor of the Americana act Old Crow Medicine Show wrote a set of verses around Dylan’s chorus (the two men signed a co-writing agreement afterwards). Their version sounds like a homage to both Dylan and the Band and while it wasn’t a chart hit, the singalong chorus became inescapable in alt-country music circles. Darius Rucker had a #1 hit with his 2013 cover version, ruining a once good thing in typical Hootie fashion.
14. “Whiskey Lullaby,” Brad Paisley featuring Alison Krauss. “Whiskey Lullaby” is a less honorable version of “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” In both cases, the protagonist grapples with a missing life long love. In the case of George Strait, the couple were reunited in heaven. In “Whiskey Lullaby,” written by country legend Bill Anderson and Jon Randall, a dumped man drinks himself to death. Meanwhile, the guilt ridden female character also commits suicide by putting a bottle to her head and pulling the trigger. Booze drenched gothic Americana that went to #2 on the country charts.