Country Music History – Essential Releases of 2007
Let’s hear it for the girls.
1. “Close Up the Honky Tonks,” Amber Digby. Amber Digby has consistently stayed under the radar, performing in small Texas clubs and honky-tonks for over a decade. In 2005, country music historian John Morthland observed, “If there’s a more promising hard-country singer on the horizon than Amber Digby, I’ve been kept in the dark.” Digby is shuffling like 1950’s Ray Price on “Close Up the Honky Tonks,” a Red Simpson composition that was a Top Twenty single for Charlie Walker in 1965 and was later covered by The Flying Burrito Brothers. Her version of country music is about as raw and unadorned, or as traditional, as you’ll ever hear during this century.
2. “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” Miranda Lambert. Perhaps still somewhat spooked by what the Dixie Chicks did to Earl, Miranda Lambert’s “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” the title track to her 2007 album release, peaked at #50 on the country charts. On this co-write between Lambert and Travis Howard, Miranda is a pistol packin’ mama, breathing fire and plotting revenge. Musically, this effort is a mixture of blues rock and upbeat modern country, showing the type of eclecticism that would become one of Lambert’s trademarks as she equally wowed audiences and critics over the next decade. Lambert ushered in a new era of unrepentant country bad girls, going places where Terri Clark and Gretchen Wilson never even dared to dream.
3. “Dress Blues,” Jason Isbell. After leaving the Drive-By Truckers, Jason Isbell released “Sirens of the Ditch,” his first solo album in 2007. “Dress Blues,” which was covered by the Zac Brown Band in 2015, was inspired by Corporal Matthew Conley, a high school colleague of Isbell’s who was killed in the Iraq War. This look at a small town reaction to a war tragedy is stamped by Isbell’s inherent Southern perspective, from scriptures placed on grocery store signs to drinking sweet tea from Styrofoam cups. When Isbell refers to the fallen as sleeping in his dress blues, he’s describing a military burial. This is the type of slow, sad song where Isbell rips your heart out and leaves you wanting more pain.
4. “Famous in a Small Town,” Miranda Lambert. Miranda Lambert grew up in Lindale, Texas, a small conservative town in East Texas where the school board was busy banning books like “To Kill a Mockingbird” during the 1990s. Lambert, “’Famous in a Small Town’ is really how it was growing up in Lindale.” This tale of small minded gossip and accidental infamy also explains the allure of eternal notoriety, where being talked about can be more fun that urban anonymity. This Top Twenty single was one of the reasons that the “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” album went Top Ten and was certified platinum, a concept she would expand upon later.
5. “My Life’s Been a Pleasure,” Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, and Ray Price. It’s not unusual for aging country artists to bash out quick albums covering country classics, but the trio of Nelson, Haggard, and Price convey a spirit of amiable camaraderie that’s seldom been matched. Their 2007 “Last of the Breed” album kicks off with “My Life’s Been a Pleasure,” a Jesse Ashlock composition first released by Bob Wills in 1942. Nelson and Haggard have always been naturals at Western swing and Price could effectively croon over any arrangement or genre. Comfort nostalgia at its most rewarding.
6. “Our Song,” Taylor Swift. Taylor Swift made her first trip to Nashville at the age of eleven and then suffered in anonymity for five more years before having her first Top 40 country hit in 2006 with “Tim McGraw.” She wrote or co-wrote all the material on her 2006 debut album, including “Our Song,” a #1 country hit and a crossover Top Twenty pop single. In fact, Swift knocked “Our Song” out in twenty minutes in preparation for a high school talent show. Her confidence and undeniable talent are on full display here, a teenager with remarkable pop instincts and a knack for capturing the moment. In the words of Iman Lababedi, “As joyful as music can be.”
7. “The Story,” Brandi Carlile. High school dropout Brandi Carlile worked the Seattle club scene as a teenager and was signed by Columbia Records in 2004. Her second album, 2007’s “The Story,” was eventually certified gold due to critical acclaim and with the title track being used in several television ad campaigns. Written by her touring bassist/collaborator Phil Hanseroth and definitely more alt than trad country, Carlile sounds like a female Kurt Cobain, or a major Janis Joplin fan, on this love as pain number. “The Story” was covered by Dolly Parton in 2017, who smartly didn’t try to match Carlile’s gut punching intensity.
8. “Sunday Morning,” Elizabeth Cook. Here’s a great quote from Wikipedia about Elizabeth Cook’s father, “He honed his skills playing upright bass in the prison band while serving time for running moonshine.” Cook left her music making family to attend Georgia Southern University and self-released her first album in 2000. Rodney Crowell produced Cook’s 2007 album “Balls,” the title being a shortened version of the song “Sometimes It Takes Balls to Be a Woman.” “Sunday Morning” is a cover of the John Cale/Lou Reed Velvet Underground classic with Cook bringing her pronounced twang to that unique post Saturday night vibe.
9. “Teardrops on My Guitar,” Taylor Swift. Taylor Swift had her first major country and crossover hit with “Teardrops on My Guitar,” a song about a real life unrequited high school crush. (She didn’t refer to “Drew” to protect the innocent, that was the actual kid’s name.) This is jealousy meeting heartbreak meeting that first cut is the deepest emotion. Swift, “About two years after the album came out in the States, he (Drew) showed up in my driveway. Apparently, he and his girlfriend had broken up so that was his first stop when he was back in town. I was like ‘you are so late, ya know.’”
10. “Unsuffer Me,” Lucinda Williams. An atmospheric blues number that Lucinda has described as one of her favorite songs, “Unsuffer Me” is a request to be rescued, to be unshackled, to find ecstasy again. More Daniel Lanois than Hank Williams, yet an entrancing peak into the mind of a natural poet and there’s a surprising amount of ear candy in the arrangement. Lucinda on inspiration, “I guess you could write a good song if your heart hadn’t been broken, but I don’t know of anyone whose heart hasn’t been broken.”
11. “What Do Ya Think About That,” Montgomery Gentry. Kentucky good ol’ boys Eddie Montgomery and Troy Gentry scored sixteen Top Ten singles from 1999 to 2011, including five #1 hits. “What Do You Think About That” rips off the sound of Steve Earle during his “Copperhead Road” era for this country rap track about supposed nonconformity. Overall, artistically, these guys were a poor man’s Brooks and Dunn, which is both (a) true and (b) a bigger insult than I meant for it to be.
12. “Witness to Your Life,” Lori McKenna. Co-produced by Tim McGraw and released by Columbia Records, Lori McKenna’s 2007 album “Unglamorous” was her best breakthrough shot as a solo artist, but being a 38-year-old mother of five isn’t a recipe for modern Nashville success. “Witness to Your Life” is about the type of emotional support that can only come from a long term relationship. McKenna writes about what she knows, she met her husband in third grade. McKenna on making the most out of her limitations, “I live in the same town I grew up in. I only have a sixth grade vocabulary and I only know three chords. This is who I am and I really don’t have time to take a piano class or anything.”