Country Music History – Essential Releases of 2012
Bruce Springsteen, Coldplay, Petty theft.
- “Bible on the Dash,” Corb Lund (featuring Hayes Carll). Canadian singer/songwriter Corb Lund was raised in a Alberta ranching family, but his non-dairy interests lead him to being the bassist for the Smalls, an Edmonton based hardcore outfit. Lund started a solo career in the mid-1990s, performing acoustically or working with The Corb Lund Band/The Hurtin’ Albertins. After having three albums certified gold in Canada, Lund began receiving attention in the States with his 2012 “Cabin Fever” album. “Bible on the Dash,” co-written by Lund, Jason Boland, and Hayes Carll, has a decidedly Dylan-esque sound. Hayes Carll adds his quirky vocal tics to this humorous number about keeping a well-placed Good Book in the car, as a holy method for avoiding speeding tickets.
- “Birmingham,” Shovels and Rope. Musicians Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent met while both were working in the Charleston, South Carolina music scene. The duo formed in 2008 and married the following year. Still, they didn’t fully commit to the duo project in 2012 with the release of their “O’ Be Joyful” album. The semi-autobiographical “Birmingham” reflects on the couple’s individual pasts, but also on their commitment to each other (“Making something out of nothing with a scratcher and our hope/With two old guitars like a shovel and a rope”). Hearst and Trent, “It’s a story of two people working it out in the midst of turmoil, each faced with the decision to blindly sacrifice a part of their self for the good of the pair… and trusting that it would all work out in the end.”
- “Drink in My Hand,” Eric Church. Much of modern country music would have been classified as pop or rock music for earlier generations. The listeners of Top 40 and AOR radio stations during the 1970s and 1980s turned to country stations to avoid hip hop and programmers rewarded them with familiarity. “Drink in My Hand” is a guitar based celebration of alcohol, with instrumentation straight of the classic rock handbook. If Sammy Hagar was raised in North Carolina and had a twang heavy vocal style, this is what he would produce. This party number was Church’s first #1 single.
- “Even If It Breaks Your Heart,” Eli Young Band. This Denton, Texas outfit peaked in 2010 and 2011 with the #1 country singles “Crazy Girl” and “Even If Your Heart Breaks.” Tennessee songwriter Will Hoge originally released “Even If It Breaks Your Heart” in 2009, a song he co-wrote with Eric Pasley. (Pasley scored a Top Ten country single in 2013 with “Friday Night”). The Eli Young Band’s arrangement brightens the tone of “Even If It Breaks Your Heart,” giving the chasing the musical dream lyrics a more positive outlook. Without trying to, the Eli Young Band make the argument that if Tom Petty had debuted in this century, he’d be a country star.
- “I Just Come Here for the Music,” Don Williams (featuring Alison Krauss). Country superstar Don Williams had his last major hit with the cliché filled “Lord Have Mercy on a Country Boy” in 1991, but has continued to release new material on major and independent labels since that time. His 2012 “And So It Goes” album includes cameos from Keith Urban, Vince Gill, and Alison Krauss, who provided her vocal expertise on “I Just Come Here for the Music.” This lyric about two broken souls too afraid to connect provides one of the best moments in Williams’ career. With a vocal approach based on mellowness, Gibson’s voice has never seemed to age.
- “Little Sweet Cigars,” The Trishas. The Trishas released their only full length album in 2012, with the perhaps Loudon Wainwright III inspired title “High, Wide & Handsome.” “Little Sweet Cigars” is about sexuality that involves all the senses – eye contact, physical touch, sweat, smoke, covered scars, sticky heat. There is no happy ending as the women are kissed by a fool and fooled by a kiss. This album also featured the original version of “Cheater’s Game,” written by Trishas Liz Foster and Savannah Welch with Bruce Robinson. That song served as the title concept of Robinson’s highly regarded 2013 duet album with wife Kelly Willis.
- “New Year’s Eve at the Gates of Hell,” Ray Wylie Hubbard. Ray Wylie Hubbard released the best album of his career in 2012, “The Gryfter’s Hymnal,” a roots rock record with soul and attitude. Arriving at Satan’s doorstep on “New Year’s Eve at the Gates of Hell” gives Hubbard a chance to survey the “Fox News whores” burning for eternity, while praising Jim Morrison, Les Paul guitars, Laozi, Otis Rush, and Martin Luther King. Salvation also seems to be a risky proposition, according to Hubbard, for people who intentionally wear plaid.
- “The Night I Learned How Not to Pray,” Iris Dement. Iris DeMent was raised in the Pentecostal faith and her religious roots come through strongly in her music, especially in her piano playing. Her 2012 “Sing the Delta” album was her first since 2004’s “Lifeline,” which was a collection of traditional Pentecostal gospel songs. DeMent is feeling much less spiritual gratitude on “The Night I Learned How Not to Pray,” a story song about a four year old child watching a younger sibling die after a household accident. DeMent on her gut wrenching lyric, “It’s about a friend of mine who told me he was an atheist, and when I asked him why, he told me the story of losing his little brother when he was 8. It took me a long time, but when I got that line – ‘the night I learned how not to pray’ – I was able to finish the song. Who doesn’t relate to that disillusionment at a young age? I’m still figuring out how I think about religion and faith.”
- “Nothing on Me,” Chris Knight. Chris Knight’s released “Little Victories” in 2012, his last album as of this writing although he is still an active performer. “Nothing on Me” is more of the hard life, digging a bullet out of your leg after a bar fight and walking twenty miles in a blizzard. Still, he’s completely assured that he’s tougher than any obstacles life will throw in his path. He also has glowing pride in his scrappy dog’s fighting scars. Knight isn’t a major artist, but the world needs a smart compilation of his best work.
- “Safe & Sound,” Taylor Swift (featuring The Civil Wars). Nashville musicians Joy Williams and John Paul White formed the Americana duo The Civil Wars in 2009. Their 2011 “Barton Hollow” album was certified gold and the dead man walking title number won a Grammy for Best Country Duo/Group Performance. Taylor Swift and T-Bone Burnett collaborated with The Civil Wars on “Safe & Sound,” a track included on the companion album to the 2012 film “The Hunger Games.” “Safe & Sound” is a disquieting lullaby, where peace is ultimately achieved only through death. Swift on Burnett’s work as a producer, “There’s so many things he could’ve done production-wise to make that song bigger sonically than it is, but I think that would have possibly been a mistake. For him to have left the song as a lullaby is brilliant.”
- “The Scientist,” Wille Nelson. “The Scientist” was originally released as a piano ballad by the English pop band Coldplay in 2002. Willie Nelson included his cover version on his 2012 album “Heroes,” which also included his cover of Pearl Jam’s “Just Breathe,” and collaboration with Snoop Dog, Kris Kristofferson, and Jamey Johnson with the ashes to ashes title “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die.” Nelson’s version of “The Scientist” was originally used in a short film written to promote sustainable farmland and emphasizing the tagline “Back to the Start” as an argument against contemporary corporate livestock practices. Nelson was in Zen Willie mode when asked about his cover, “It was for a (Chipotle) commercial first and it was pretty well received, so we decided to put it out on the new album.”
- “Springsteen,” Eric Church. Teen romance/sex nostalgia has become a big part of bro country music and Church wraps that theme, figuratively, around Bruce Springsteen – the guy who was the radio star in the 1980s (that is to say that “Born in the USA” and “Glory Days” are namechecked, “Jungleland” isn’t). Supposedly, based on a real romance/concert moment, but it didn’t involve The Boss. Church, “I went to a concert when I was younger with a girl, and to this day, when I hear that artist, it’s the soundtrack to that girl. I never think about her any other time, except when that song is on. That’s where the “Springsteen” came from, and he seemed to be the perfect guy to craft that story around because of my love for him. I have such a reverence for Bruce Springsteen’s career and how he’s built it.”