Country Music History – Essential Releases of 2009
A.P. Carter, Townes Van Zandt, Barack Hussein Obama.
1. “Bury Me Under the Weeping Willow,” Rosanne Cash. “Weeping Willow Tree” was a traditional folk ballad that was recorded several times before The Carter Family changed the title to “Bury Me Beneath the Weeping Willow” and A.P. Carter magically took credit for writing the song in 1928. This jilted lover number was largely forgotten about until the 1960s, when it was rediscovered by folk and bluegrass performers. Rosanne Cash covered the song on her 2009 album “The List,” comprised of twelve country covers selected from a list of 100 essential country songs that she was given by her father when she was 18. (Much to my chagrin, Rosanne has steadfastly refused to publish the entire list). The Rosanne Cash version simultaneously represents country music history and her family’s legacy within the genre.
2. “High Wide & Handsome,” Loudon Wainwright III. Loudon Wainwright’s 2009 Grammy award winning double album “High Wide & Handsome: The Charlie Poole Project” was an effort to raise the profile of country music’s true first superstar performer. The album is primarily filled with songs that Poole performed, but also includes original material from Wainwright and producer Dick Connette to provide context about the “rambling, hard-drinking, crazy Southern showman.” The title track relates Poole’s bravado and his love of song, wine, and women. Proof that hedonism didn’t originate with the rock ‘n’ roll era.
3. “In Color,” Jamey Johnson. Alabama native Jamey Johnson served in the Marines before relocating to Nashville in 2000. He had writing credits on hits by Trace Adkins and George Strait while trying to establish a solo career, then scored his first country hit in 2006 with “The Dollar,” a look at trying to balance family time with economic realities. “In Color,” Johnson’s biggest hit, is a moving look at a discussion with his grandfather, as the older man tells his life story through old photographs. For a hot minute, Johnson was promoted as the next big deal in country music, but his career momentum quickly faded.
4. “Last Call,” Lee Ann Womack. Shane McAnally was signed as a recording artist in the late 1990s and scraped into the country Top 40 with 1999’s “Are You Eyes Still Blue.” After failing to become a successful commercial artist, he moved to Los Angeles to work on movie soundtracks. He returned to Nashville in 2007 and had his first major writing credit with “Last Call,” Lee Ann Womack’s last Top Twenty country hit. Playing off the theme of a bartender’s last call for drinks, in this emotionally dark number Womack realizes that she is the last person a former lover will contact when he’s drunk and needs help. McNally went on to write #1 singles for Kenny Chesney, Jake Owen, The Band Perry, and Sam Hunt, while also becoming a successful producer. Also, check out the slow burn blues groove of Womack’s 2009 single “Solitary Thinkin’.”
5. “Loretta,” Lyle Lovett. Townes Van Zandt wrote “Loretta,” which is not about the iconic country singer, but is a tale about being seduced by the sweet lies of a barroom girl who “spends my money like water falls.” Townes recorded the number on his “Live at the Old Quarter, Houston, Texas” album, which was recorded in 1973 and released in 1977, and a studio version is the lead track on his 1978 “Flyin’ Shoes” release. Lyle Lovett covered “Loretta” on his 2009 “Natural Forces” album, where he conveys the attraction and sadness of a mutually beneficial relationship built upon pretense. Lovett, “The first time I met Townes was backstage at the Kerrville Folk Festival in 1985. I was walking offstage and he introduced himself, saying, ‘Some people I respect say you’re alright.’ Guy (Clark) had mentioned me to him, and I just thought, ‘Whoa, I can’t imagine higher praise.’”
6. “Need You Now,” Lady Antebellum. Lady Antebellum formed in Nashville in 2006 with some roots in the genre, female vocalist Hillary Scott is the daughter of Linda Davis, who scored a #1 country duet with Reba McEntire in 1993 with “Does He Love You.” With songs primarily written by the band, their 2008 debut album was certified double platinum and included the soft rock inspired #1 country single “I Run to You.” The late night drunken desperation of “Need You Now” not only topped the country charts, but crossed over for a #2 pop hit and was an international pop smash. The bleary eyed sense of regret was reinforced by being voiced from both the male and female perspective. Hillary Scott, “All three of us know what it’s like to get to that point where you feel lonely enough that you make a late night phone call that you very well could regret the next day.” As of this writing, Lady Antebellum has thirteen Top Ten singles with six of those topping the charts.
7. “Seven Nation Army,” The Oak Ridge Boys. Jack White wrote “Seven Nation Army” and was included on the White Stripes 2003 album “Elephant.” The underlying riff has become one of the most recognizable in modern popular music and the song, oddly enough, has become a modern high school band standard. The expiration date on the commercial viability of The Oak Ridge Boys had passed in 1990, but they have continued to record and their 2009 album “The Boys Are Back” included covers from John Lee Hooker, Neil Young, Shooter Jennings, and this mind blowing effort. This is hysterically so bad its good kitsch of the highest order – a rendition that will make you believe you are on mind altering substances, no matter how sober you are.
8. “Then,” Brad Paisley. Brad Paisley set aside his habit of trying to be too clever for his own good with the straight ahead romantic ballad/#1 country hit “Then,” a song about the type of love that never stops growing. Paisley, “The one thing that you can find complete respite from in these times is true love. If you fall in love with somebody, then you’re not even worried about your bills. Love can take your mind off of anything. That’s the kind of song that I wanted to hear in these times.”
9. “Those I’ve Loved,” Eric Church. Eric Church’s popularity started to increase with his 2009 platinum “Carolina” album, featuring the image defining “Smoke a Little Smoke” and his first Top Ten singles, “Love Your Love the Most” and the melodic pop of “Hell on the Heart.” “Those I’ve Loved” is an album track that reflects on family members and friends who helped the narrator progress in his life. The extended solo on the fade out is another reminder that this is a country music generation more influenced more by the hard rock of the 1970s and 1980s than by Hank Williams or George Jones.
10. “Welcome to the Future,” Brad Paisley. Brad Paisley’s “Welcome to the Future” would be a most unusual modern country song simply for embracing technological innovations and, gulp, multi-culturalism. However, Paisley absolutely put his manhood on the potential chopping block by addressing racism via Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King. As a Barack Obama supporting country star, Paisley managed to avoid any significant backlash and walked away with a #2 country hit. Proving he isn’t infallible by any means, Paisley tried to address racial tensions in America in 2013 on “Accidental Racist,” a collaboration with LL Cool J that was a bad idea incompetently executed.
11. “White Liar,” Miranda Lambert. Miranda Lambert sounds like an updated version of Loretta Lynn on “White Liar,” as a woman who has been wronged and has no problems with confrontation. Lambert’s revenge is revealing that she has been lying/cheating, too. Lambert on the arrangement and lyrics, “I just had been listening to tons of Buddy and Julie Miller and the Steeldrivers, that rockin’ bluegrass music. Cheatin’ in a small town basically is what it’s about.” This #2 single was Lambert’s first Top Five hit.
12. “You Belong with Me,” Taylor Swift. Taylor Swift plunged back into teenage romantic angst on “You Belong with Me,” a lyric about a jealous girl simultaneously empathizing with and yearning for a boy in a relationship that she views as self-destructive. This unresolved revenge of the nerd fantasy resulted in a #1 country hit and a #2 pop crossover hit. One of the reasons why Swift didn’t lose her status with country music fans while becoming a pop sensation is that she retained the narrative story telling tradition in her songwriting approach.