Country Music History – Essential Releases of 2008
Graves and babies and Taylor Swift and Jesus.
1. “Blue Side of the Mountain,” The Steeldrivers. Chris Stapleton was raised in an Eastern Kentucky coal mining family and escaped to Nashville to attend Vanderbilt University. He quickly dropped out of college, but by 2008 he had writing credits on #1 singles by Josh Turner (“Your Man”) and Kenny Chesney (“Never Wanted Nothing More”). Stapleton joined the bluegrass group The Steeldrivers in 2008 and performed lead vocals on their 2008 eponymous debut album. Stapleton and Mike Henderson co-wrote the Grammy nominated “Blue Side of the Mountain,” which features some of the most legitimate Appalachian stomp that you’ll hear during these precious Americana times. Stapleton left the band in 2010 and after a few quiet years became a major solo country star in 2015.
2. “Dig Two Graves,” Randy Travis. Songwriters Ashley Gorley and Bob Regan have credits on a slew of country hits with Gorley being especially prolific in modern times writing for Carrie Underwood, Brett Eldredge, and Luke Bryan. Their composition “Dig Two Graves” was a single from the 2008 Randy Travis album “Around the Bend,” which was his first traditional country release in almost a decade. Either steadfastly romantic or horribly morbid, Travis decides his life won’t have any value when his significant other dies. Therefore, only one headstone will be needed for both bodies. Three singles were released from the album and the once biggest star in the genre didn’t touch the charts with any of them. Travis suffered a major stroke in 2013, but recovered enough to perform at his induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2016.
3. “Gravedigger,” Willie Nelson. Dave Matthews became a major pop star in the 1990s with his navel gazing brand of jam band mush. He released “Gravedigger” in 2003, scoring a minor modern rock hit and a Grammy award with this thought provoking walk through the boneyard. Willie Nelson covered the song on his 2008 “Moment of Forever” album, providing an unsettling sense of inevitability from a septuagenarian’s perspective. Produced by Kenny Chesney and Buddy Cannon, Nelson manages to navigate through a modern commercial production sound without compromising his voice/perspective in the process.
4. “Gunpowder & Lead,” Miranda Lambert. On this revenge fantasy number, Lambert waits for her abusive significant other to get out of prison, while she smokes a cigarette, gets drunk, and prepares to fill him with bullets. This Top Ten, double platinum single is the trailer park version of Martina McBride’s “Independence Day.” Co-songwriter and fellow Lindale, Texas native Heather Little, “”When those songs were released, I was in the middle of a divorce. And in Texas, any song I wrote was considered community property. So, I took a job at Lindale High School as a janitor. I was cleaning the bathroom in the school Miranda Lambert had attended, and a teacher walked in. Her phone rang, and the ringtone was our song, ‘Gunpowder and Lead.’ And I’m cleaning the bathroom.”
5. “I Saw God Today,” George Strait. Twenty seven years into his career as a major label artist, George Strait was still regularly hitting #1 on the country album and singles charts. His 2008 release “Troubadour” included the Top Ten title hit, as well as the #1 singles “River of Love” and “I Saw God Today.” The latter number is about a newborn baby creating a religious epiphany. Songwriters Rodney Clawson, Monty Criswell, and Wade Kirby deserve credit for developing an explicitly Christian themed song without being preachy or judgmental. Strait, “Sometimes we take a lot of things for granted, especially anybody that’s had a child. When they first see that child, if they’re in the delivery room or not, it truly is a miracle.”
6. “Last Name,” Carrie Underwood. Carrie Underwood racked up four #1 singles, including this one, as well as a crossover Top Ten pop hit with her cover of “I Told You So” by Randy Travis, from her 2007 “Carnival Ride” album. “Last Name,” co-written by Underwood with Nashville songwriters Hillary Lindsay and Luke Laird, is a modern country mix of hard rock power chords with banjo picking and fiddle breaks. Despite being a completely unconvincing bad girl, Underwood has a booze inspired Vegas romance with the punchline that a quickie wedding leaves her unaware of her “Last Name.” Underwood on the song’s true inspiration, “I met a guy at an after-party and asked him his last name three times, but it never stuck. He got my number, we talked a few times, and I didn’t know what his last name was. I was way past the point where I should have known his last name, and if I asked him, I knew it would offend him.”
7. “Love Story,” Taylor Swift. Taylor Swift took a real life situation concerning a family rejected romantic interest and turned it into a Shakespearean triumph on “Love Story,” also squeezing in a Nathaniel Hawthorne reference in the process. The emotional sweep of illicit but undeniable true love is a powerful concept, one built for Swift’s girl next door turned princess image. Having seen Swift in concert twice, her genius has been her ability to emotionally relate to and connect with an extremely broad female demographic, perhaps as the fairytale embodiment of their most escapist dreams.
8. “Moneyland,” Del McCoury. The 2008 Del McCoury multi-artist album “Moneyland” is a look at economic injustice, featuring appearances by Chris Knight, Emmylou Harris, Merle Haggard, and Bruce Hornsby, among others. The title track is one of music’s more interesting anti-capitalism efforts with McCoury repeating “money, money, money, money” and “more, more, more, more” in his high pitched bluegrass vocal style. McCoury opines that in America the amount of freedom someone has is directly related to the size of their bank account. Pink Floyd’s “Money” sounds absolutely subdued in its criticism by comparison.
9. “She Left Me for Jesus,” Hayes Carll. Shaggy dog Texas singer/songwriter Hayes Carll is completely perplexed on “She Left Me for Jesus,” wondering exactly who that sandal wearing hippie is that stole his woman and hoping to kick his ass. Carll, “It’s not aimed at anyone’s religion. It’s aimed at intolerance and poking fun at somebody who calls himself a Christian and yet would beat up Jesus if he walked into a bar right now. That was the idea behind it.” Perhaps not trusting the audience reaction, Hayes never played “She Left Me for Jesus” during the several year period when I saw him perform regularly in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. I would have loved to have seen the response at Billy Bob’s.
10. “Troubadour,” George Strait. The George Strait Top Ten single “Troubadour” sounds like his riding into the sunset tune, as he reminisces about reflecting about his years as a performer. If the reflections sound a bit generic, well, that’s Nashville songwriting for you. A model of consistency, Strait scored eighty-six Top Ten singles from 1981 to 2012, including forty-four #1 hits. Never a major crossover act and more built on familiarity than innovation, Strait believed in the style of music he performed and made millions translating that belief to an audience who preferred contentment over excitement.
11. “Walls,” Glen Campbell. The 2008 “Meet Glen Campbell” album is produced in the style of his late 1960’s pop hits with covers of songs released by Jackson Browne, Lou Reed, John Lennon, Green Day, the Foo Fighters, Paul Westerberg, etc. Glen’s version of Tom Petty’s “Walls” has a powerful string intro reminiscent of “Galveston,” then morphs into modern day jangle pop. The, um, wall of sound is a bit thick, but “Walls” pulls off the trick of being nostalgic and contemporary at the same time. This was the last album Campbell recorded before being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2009.