Country Music History – Essential Releases of 2011
Gold digging, pill popping, tequila drinking.
1. “Bottle in My Hand,” Hayes Carll. There is a paucity of material about hobos in modern country music, but Hayes Carll made a superb contribution to the genre with “Bottle in My Hand.” A vocal collaboration with Corb Lund and Todd Snider, the lyrics are a romantic look at the ramblin’ life, to include stealing kisses, passing bottles in boxcars, and chowing on rainbow stew. On this jig like melody, the trio wonder what will happen to men who choose to sleep with rain and dance with thunder instead of lining up for a regular paycheck. The future gets no more definitive than playing a fiddle tune and seeking another adventure.
2. “Codeine,” Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit. Jason Isbell didn’t have his significant breakthrough as a solo artist until his 2013 “Southeastern” album, but even with his addiction issues, his talent was unquestionable. “Alabama Pines,” the wanna go home lead track from his 2011 album “Here We Rest,” won Song of the Year at the 2012 Americana Music Awards. Isbell takes a droll look at a bad relationship in “Codeine,” perpetually confused at how to deal with his love interest’s pill popping. Isbell, “It didn’t take any longer to write than it took to write down. Prescription drugs have never been seductive to me, but they put some realism in a song. More people are addicted to legal drugs than illegal ones.”
3. “Colder Weather,” Zac Brown Band. Zac Brown is a Georgia native who was more inspired by James Taylor than George Jones. After six years of regional touring, the Zac Brown Band received a major label deal and immediately had a #1 hit in 2008 with “Chicken Fried,” a bad song with an irresistible hook. The act is somewhat like a modern day version of Alabama in that the consistently release #1 country singles with moderate crossover appeal and are loathed by critics. “Colder Weather” is a 1970s style singer/songwriter piano ballad about a ramblin’ man who can’t balance life between his lover and the pursuit of his dreams. This is the perfect mixtape companion piece to Dave Loggins’ “Please Come to Boston,” but who would ever put Dave Loggins on a mixtape.
4. “Cost of Livin’,” Ronnie Dunn. The country duo Brooks & Dunn scored over forty Top Ten singles from 1991 to 2008, many of which sounded like demos for Chevy truck commercials. After splitting up in 2010, both men released solo material to moderate public interest. The 2011 “Ronnie Dunn” album went to #1 on name recognition and momentum, but contained only one Top Ten single, the overripe power ballad “Bleed Red.” Dunn is a working class man, begging for employment and trying to keep the wolves at bay, on “Cost of Livin’.” His record label wasn’t too keen about this slice of economic realism, telling him he was “too wealthy” for the material.
5. “Ghost on the Canvas,” Glen Campbell. It was believed at the time that 2011’s “Ghost on the Canvas” album would be the final release for an Alzheimer’s afflicted Glen Campbell. That sense of finality regarding the man who may have invented and certainly perfected country pop music provided an additional layer of emotional depth and the spectral theme of the Paul Westerberg title track reinforced the feeling of loss. This is technicolor AM radio pop with a transcendent, dream like quality, and is one of the career artistic highlights of both The Wrecking Crew era musician/pop star and the highly regarded post punk songwriter.
6. “Hell on Heels,” The Pistol Annies. Miranda Lambert and Ashley Monroe began a songwriting collaboration circa 2009 and both women were fans of the unfiltered musical approach of Angaleena Presley. The trio began recording material that wouldn’t fit the style/image of their solo releases, resulting in the 2011 “Hell on Hells” album. On the title track, written by all three performers, womanly wiles result in substantial material gains and they are looking for their next sugar daddy victims. Miranda Lambert on the band concept, “There’s really two things we are about: being honest and being strong in your womanhood. It’s kind of the theme of what we are individually and what we are together.”
7. “Hit ‘Em Up Style,” Carolina Chocolate Drops. The Carolina Chocolate Drops are an African-American act who formed in 2005 with a mission statement to be a celebration and a continuation of the Piedmont/Carolinas string brand tradition. Their oeuvre is a compilation of material from traditional and modern sources and their 2010 release “Genuine Negro Jig” won a Grammy for best traditional folk album. “Hit ‘Em Up Style (Oops)” was a #2 pop hit in 2001 for R&B/hip hop artist Blu Cantrell in 2001. The Chocolate Drops cover dropped the proposition and took gold digging back to the early 1900s in spirit. While this sounds like a novelty number, Rhiannon Giddens and her bandmates attack the material with pure conviction, sounding like an Appalachian thunderstorm.
8. “If I Were a Boy,” Reba McEntire. “If I Were a Boy” was an international pop hit for Beyonce in 2008. Written by aspiring artist BC Jean (Brittany Jean Carlson) and Toby Gad, the lyrics represent a female perspective on how men should approach romance. Reba, “When I got the song and the lyrics, I thought it was an incredible song. To me, it turned out to be a country song, when we got our instrumentation on it.” While perhaps best voiced by a younger woman, this is a rare modern example of two divas from different genres coving the same material. No longer a commercial force, Reba scored 58 Top Ten singles from 1980 to 2010 and, while not an icon with the stature of Patsy or Loretta or Dolly or Tammy, she’s the best selling country female artist of all time. (That is to say, I think we can all agree that Shania Twain wasn’t really a country artist).
9. “Jack Daniels,” Eric Church. Eric Church moved into country arena act/superstar status with his multi-platinum 2011 album “Chief,” which includes the #1 singles “Drink in My Hand” and “Springsteen.” The album track “Jack Daniels” is a return to the old school country mentality of alcohol as misery, as just another way to get your ass kicked while trying to recover from heartache. Of course, the difference is that George Jones and Webb Pierce, besides being much better vocalists, would have used euphemisms to discuss their backsides.
10. “KMAG YOYO,” Hayes Carll. Hayes Carll updates the word slinging and musical style of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” on the title track of his 2011 “KMAG YOYO” album, the acronym being a military term for “Kiss my ass, guys, you’re on your own.” While ostensibly this is a tale about the drug hallucinations of a rogue soldier, it’s really more about sound/attitude than narrative. Carll, “I thought it was a pretty great (album) title because it just sums up the whole thing; the idea that the whole album was about somebody just checking out from society and moving out to the desert and saying, ‘Screw it, I’m going on my own on this.’”
11. “A Man Don’t Have to Die,” Brad Paisley. Brad Paisley continued his hot streak with the 2011 album “This is Country Music.” The overworked title track went to #2 on the charts, followed by the #1 singles “Old Alabama,” about the band, and “Remind Me,” a romantic ballad with Carrie Underwood. Better than anything shipped to radio was “A Man Don’t Have to Die,” a reminder that hell can be experienced on Earth. Hellish experiences cited include strip club guilt, economic pressures, and divorce. Self-pity never goes out of style in this genre.
12. “Sparks Fly,” Taylor Swift. Singles from Taylor Swift’s “Speak Now” album filled country radio airwaves in 2011 with the former lover apology “Back to December” peaking at #2, as did the anti-bullying “Mean.” “Sparks Fly,” a song Swift wrote when she was sixteen, took her back to the top slot. A typically big chorus pop song about romance, it’s interesting how much of Taylor’s material could be rearranged and fit into power pop. However, why conquer a special interest genre when the entire world is available.
13. “The Road Goes On and On,” Robert Earl Keen. Throwing elbows at other artists has been a fairly common practice in rock music and a staple of hip hop, but has traditionally been less common in country music. After Toby Keith released his single “Bullets in the Gun,” an absolute blatant rip off of Robert Earl Keen’s “The Road Goes on Forever,” Keen responded with this vicious takedown. After telling Keith that he’ll have to Google “liar’s paradox,” he notes that the opportunistic flag waver is his own biggest fan. Keen, “You know what they say about people from Oklahoma: They’ll steal your hat and help you look for it.”
14. “Takin’ Pills,” The Pistol Annies. The Pistol Annies catalogue their sins and their low budget lifestyle on “Takin’ Pills.” Fueled by Prozac, cigarettes, truck stop burgers, booze, fast men, and cheap guitars, the women wonder who will be the responsible party in their band. Or, as they put it, “Who in the hell’s gonna pay these bills?/One’s drinkin’, one’s smokin’, and one’s takin’ pills.” Perfectly arranged for a trio format with an edgy sense of humor that never gets tiresome. Angaleena Presley on the band’s love/hate relationship with men, “We don’t just break balls, we like ‘em, too.”
15. “Tryin’ to Get to Church,” Ashton Shepherd. Alabama singer Ashton Shepherd released two albums on MCA Nashville, but critical acclaim never translated into sales. She worked with several top Nashville songwriters on her 2011 “Where Country Grows” album, including Dean Dillon, Bobby Pinson, Brandy Clark, and Shane McAnally. The latter two wrote “Tryin’ to Get to Church” with Shepherd, a song where her Saturday night adventures overwhelm her Sunday morning intentions. The groove is a bit reminiscent of The Georgia Satellites’ “Keep Your Hands to Yourself,” but Dan Baird, with all his cow experience, never had to fight a “husband stealing heifer.”
16. “Wildflower,” the JaneDear girls. Multi-instrumentalists Susie Brown and Danelle Leverett formed the JaneDear girls in 2004, but didn’t get signed until 2010 with their lone album produced by John Rich of Big ‘N’ Rich fame. I’m not sure if “Wildflower” is an intended or unintended parody of modern country music, but it’s quite amusing in either context. A song of sexual confidence with typical modern hard rock production values used in the genre, the girls primp and preen while the boys rubberneck in their direction. A slow building chart effort, “Wildflower” was released in May of 2010 and peaked at #15 in March of 2011. Susie Brown now gives online music lessons. Denelle Leverett performs under the name Nelly Joy as part of the alternative duo High Dive Heart with her husband Jason Reeves.
17. “Working in Tennessee,” Merle Haggard. Merle Haggard’s sixty-third and final studio album is another solid late career effort with political statements (“What I Hate”, “Under the Bridge”), a trucking number (“Truck Driver’s Blues”), and classic covers (“Jackson,” “Cocaine Blues,” his own “Working Man’s Blues”). “Working in Tennessee” has Merle back in Bob Wills meets Louis Armstrong territory. Lyrically slight, this upbeat Western swing number is more about its fast shuffle and solos than being profound.
18. “You and Tequila,” Kenny Chesney featuring Grace Potter. Kenny Chesney’s been one of the most successful nostalgia peddlers in country music for the past few decades, building a world where heaven is forever being 17 and being with a hot girl after a football game bonfire on a Saturday night. That’s not completely true, sometimes he also recycles Jimmy Buffett’s beach themes. Matraca Berg and Deana Carter wrote “You and Tequila,” where love is equated to the poison in alcohol. Pop star Grace Potter is Chesney’s duet partner on this Top Ten country hit and both vocalists deserve credit for a non-competitive, serve the song performance. Potter on the experience, “I don’t think he thought that the record we made would feel as good as it did, that there would be a chemistry. Or that the song would resonate with so many people. It was a reset button for both of us in a lot of ways. Also, about how responsive fans could be to a complete genre-bend.”