Country Music History – Essential Releases of 2013
More songs about pot and lesbians.
1. “Better Dig Two,” The Band Perry. The Band Perry had their major country and pop breakthrough in 2010 with “If I Die Young,” then resurrected their death theme with the 2013 #1 country single “Better Dig Two.” Thematically, the song covers the same ground as the 2008 Randy Travis “Dig Two Graves” and this was the first major writing credit for Brandy Clark, who we will hear more from later. The Band Perry mixed Americana/country goth with old school hard rock territory on “Better Dig Two,” even rhyming “meth” with “breath.” This sibling act scored seven Top Ten singles between 2010 and 2013, then unsuccessfully tried to change their mortal gimmick. Their 2015 single “Live Forever” barely scraped into the Top 30.
2. “Come Unto Me,” The Mavericks. The Mavericks were inactive from 2004 to 2012, then returned with the extraordinary “In Time” album in 2013. With their mix of pre-Beatles rock ‘n’ roll fundamentals, Raul Malo’s Roy Orbison meets Pavarotti vocals, and their use of Latin/Cuban rhythms, The Mavericks created a powerful and inimitable sound, much closer to Los Lobos than Rascal Flatts in execution. “Come Unto Me” is a vow from Malo to fight for his love. Malo, “To me the song represents the idea of the knight in shining armor – more than a partner, a protector of sorts. The sentiment may be a bit archaic perhaps. But it is equally romantic and noble. That’s what we tried to convey with this song.” The ear candy quotient is colossal.
3. “Cover Me Up,” Jason Isbell. With the assistance of girlfriend turned wife Amanda Shires, Jason Isbell received treatment for drug and alcohol addiction and made a huge artistic and commercial leap with his 2013 “Southeastern” album. On “Cover Me Up,” Isbell comes to term with his personal failures and also finds his future in the woman that he loves. This is music as absolution, as hope, and as an emotional release after surviving the storm. Isbell, “It’s not easy to sit down and open yourself up and say, ‘This is how much I love you,’ you know? It’s scary to do that.”
4. “Elephant,” Jason Isbell. It’s hard to imagine a song with more emotional weight than Jason Isbell’s “Elephant.” The lyrics are about a platonic couple, who might be more than friends, if the unnamed female wasn’t dying from cancer. The narrator becomes the spiritual and physical caretaker of the woman who’s been abandoned by her family, cheering her up anyway he can – whether singing classic country songs or smoking joints together. His sole goal is to ignore he elephant in the room, that her death is imminent. This isn’t the type of song that jerks tears, it creates waterfalls.
5. “Hush Hush,” Pistol Annies. After going gold with their 2011 debut album, the Pistol Annies released their second and potentially their last album with 2013’s “Annie Up.” Some combination of Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe, and Angaleena Presley wrote every song on the record, often displaying more attraction than fear of sin. Like Robert Earl Keen’s “Merry Christmas from the Family” or the Drive-By Truckers’ “The Thanksgiving Filter,” “Hush Hush” is a dysfunctional holiday number, with family scandals of rehab, vodka abuse, and pot smoking. However, some things aren’t polite dinner conversation.
6. “I Lie When I Drink,” Dale Watson. A fine singer in the Merle Haggard honky tonk tradition, Dale Watson is a bit obsessive about drinking songs. His repertoire includes “I Drink to Remember,” “Thanks to Tequila,” “Drink Drink Drink,” “I Hate to Drink Alone,” “A Hangover Ago,” “Honkiest Tonkiest Beer Joint,” “Wine Wine Wine,” “Whisky or God,” “Wine Don’t Lie,” etc. His most popular song is the honky tonk shuffle of “I Lie When I Drink,” an old fashioned tear in my beer, heartbreak number that could have been released in the 1960s. Watson has mined the sounds of the past to become the modern day era king of the Texas two step honky tonk circuit.
7. “I’ll Trade You Money for Wine,” Robbie Fulks. Talent was never an issue for Robbie Fulks and as he’s aged/matured, his focus has shifted from an elbow throwing attitude to a palpable dedication to his craft. Produced by punk rock legend Steve Albini, Fulks’ 2013 album “Gone Away Backward” was an updated version of the stark, often discomforting, Appalachian sound. On “I’ll Trade You Money for Wine,” an old man who used to chase dollars now only chases his next drink and is a much happier man for the trade. Noting “it’s a short life and a long time underground,” nobody has ever made a better argument for alcoholism.
8. “It Ain’t the Whiskey,” Gary Allen. Gary Allen released eleven Top Ten singles from 1996 to 2012, yet his raspy, pain conveying voice deserved better material than he often received. On his minor 2013 hit “It Ain’t the Whiskey,” Allen laments at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting that his vices (alcohol, cigarettes, drugs) aren’t his real problem, it’s the love that he can’t forget that’s killing him. The arrangement mixes modern country, gospel, and blues in a seamless manner. Once described by Chuck Eddy as “one of country’s most reliably velvet-voiced beautiful losers,” Allen is a case study in wasted potential. With the right producer and songwriters, he could have been remembered more like Keith Whitley than Keith Urban.
9. “Long Way Home,” Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis. Texas songwriter Bruce Robison penned the #1 singles “Travelin’ Soldier” by the Dixie Chicks and “Wrapped” by George Strait and his wife Kelly Willis was a Nashville project that never paid off during the 1990s. The duo’s 2013 “Cheater’s Game” album included songs written by Don Williams, Dave Alvin, Razzy Bailey, Robert Earl Keen, and the Hayes Carll composition “Long Way Home.” Kelly takes the vocal lead on this heartache song about a lost love and a missed opportunity and the woman is a heartbreak specialist.
10. “Mama’s Broken Heart,” Miranda Lambert. Written by Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally, and Kacey Musgraves, Miranda Lambert went #2 country/#20 pop with this look at post relationship temporary insanity. Lambert compared the emotions of the song to “crazy teenage love – you think the world is ending if you break up.” This is a generational conflict number – while Miranda wants to succumb to her self destructive emotions, her southern mama reminds her it “don’t matter how you feel, it only matters how you look.” Lambert, unsurprisingly, completely sells the simmering turned explosive rage making it another career defining moment for country music’s favorite modern bad girl.
11. “Merry Go Round,” Kacey Musgraves. East Texas native Kacey Musgraves took the circuit through Austin to Nashville and was signed by Mercury Nashville in 2012. Her 2013 release “Same Trailer Different Park” was certified gold and Musgraves received Grammys for Best Country Album and Best Country Song. The latter award was for her debut single “Merry Go Round,” a lyric of small town malaise, where limited opportunities result in people settling down “like dust.” Musgraves raised even more eyebrows later in 2013 with “Follow Your Arrow,” where she went Top Ten while making a positive reference to lesbianism.
12. “My Favorite Picture of You,” Guy Clark. Iconoclastic Texas singer/songwriter Guy Clark released his final album in 2013, the Grammy award winning “My Favorite Picture of You.” Susanna Clark, Guy’s wife of forty years, passed away in 2012. The song was inspired by an old Polaroid photo of Susanna, who was in a rage after coming home and finding Guy and Townes Van Zandt in exactly the physical condition you would expect. Despite Susanna’s obvious anger in the photo, which is used on the album artwork, Guy can only see the positive qualities of the woman that he loved. Every drunken songwriter needs a guardian angel. “Hell Bent on a Heartache,” another popular track for Clark’s final album, was co-written with a pre-fame Chris Stapleton and his wife Morgane. Clark passed away in May of 2016, living 74 adventure filled years.
13. “Old King Coal,” Sturgill Simpson. Kentucky native Sturgill Simpson was a late bloomer, enlisting in the Navy and working in a railroad freight shipping yard before releasing his debut album at the age of 35. His 2013 release “High Top Mountain” was a self funded effort that received attention for Sturgill’s traditional country sound and his vocal similarities to Waylon Jennings. Simpson’s mother came from a multi-generational coal mining family and “Old King Coal” reflects on the death of that lifestyle in communities with no other viable economic opportunities. Country Music Hall of Famer Hargus “Pig” Robbins provides the old school plunky piano notes.
14. “Red,” Taylor Swift. By the time of the 2012 album “Red,” Taylor Swift was bigger on the pop charts than she was on country radio. The mind numbing “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” was a #1 pop single, while “I Knew You Were Trouble” peaked at #2. An exception to this rule was the title track, “Red” peaked at #6 on the pop charts and was a #2 country hit. A modern merger of country and pop with building block banjo sounds buried under electronic hooks, “Red” was a color spectrum look at the emotions of a lost love. Whatever you think of Swift, she has mastered the art of writing material built for arena sized consumption.
15. “Stripes,” Brandy Clark. Pacific Northwest native Brandy Clark went to college on a basketball scholarship, then relocated to Nashville to pursue her songwriting dreams. After co-writing hits for The Band Perry (“Better Dig Two”), Miranda Lambert (“Mama’s Broken Heart”), and Kacey Musgraves (“Follow Your Arrow”), Clarke released “12 Stories,” her debut album in 2013. On “Stripes,” Clark thinks about killing a cheating lover, but decides that prison garb doesn’t gel with her image. Or, as she pithily states, “There’s no crime of passion worth a crime of fashion.” Clark, “”I think my music is a dark comedy, just as I think life is a dark comedy.”
16. “Two Black Cadillacs,” Carrie Underwood. Although she’s written most of her biggest hits, Carrie Underwood is viewed more of a performer/actress than as serious artist, a distinction that has given her breathing room to address whatever subject she wants. “Two Black Cadillacs” is soap opera goth, a tale of a married woman and a mistress forming a partnership and killing the man who lied to both. Underwood, ““When we were writing it, the story was just so juicy. It’s such a visual song, you can see it all playing out in your head when you’re listening.” One listen to “Two Black Cadillacs” and you know why Reba McEntire is no longer relevant.
17. “Weed Instead of Roses,” Ashley Monroe. Despite being in the Pistol Annies and writing #1 singles for Jason Aldean and Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe has never been able to break through as a solo star. Her 2013 album “Like a Rose” went Top Ten, but received little interest from country radio. “Weed Instead of Roses” peaked at #39, despite Monroe’s call for whips and chains, pot, leather and lace apparel, and creative uses for whipped cream. Also worth seeking out is the classic country sound of “Two Weeks Late,” which is about more than not having money to pay the rent.