Country Music History – Essential Releases of 2014, Part II
The LSD edition.
1. “Motor City Man,” Kelly Willis & Bruce Robison. Wife and husband Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison teamed up again for the 2014 album “Our Year,” the title coming from their cover of the Zombies hopeful love song “This Will Be Our Year.” “Motor City Man” was penned by Walter Hyatt, the lead singer of the almost mythically revered 1970’s Austin alt country act Uncle Walt’s Band. Lyrically, “Motor City Man” is a closing-the-factories, time-to-move-on number, but what’s most memorable is the solid groove and Robison’s harmonica fills. Willis and Robison are adept are working in the established country tradition while not sounding like manufactured nostalgia.
2. “Platinum,” Miranda Lambert. Miranda Lambert released her fifth album in 2014, hitting Top Five on the country charts with “Automatic” and going to #1 with the Carrie Underwood duet “Somethin’ Bad,” which sounds like bad arena rock. The title track was never released as a single, but it’s one of Lambert’s strongest cuts. Written by Lambert with Nicolle Galyon (a onetime contestant on “The Voice”) and Natalie Hemby, Lambert explains the social climbing attributes of platinum blonde hair (“What doesn’t kill you, only makes you blonder/My heels and my hotel, they just got taller”). There’s nothing wrong with being calculated when your talent and charisma outshines everyone else in your field.
3. “Right Time,” Nikki Lane. South Carolina high school dropout Nikki Lane lived in Los Angeles and New York, before concentrating her talents on country music, updating Loretta Lynn’s tough gal attitude and Wanda Jackson’s vocal style for the era of casual profanity. Lane’s 2014 “All or Nothin’” album, produced by Dan Auerback of the Black Keys, leads with “Right Time,” a funky track that sounds simultaneously retro and modern where Lane asserts that “it’s always the right time to do the wrong thing.” Lane on her music, “I try to say I’m acid country. I love country, but I love psychedelic and grunge and rock and roll. I’ve met people that I’ve worked with that have been like, ‘Oh, you’re 100 percent Tammy Wynette.’ No, I want to be Tammy Wynette on acid.”
4. “She Used to Love Me A Lot,” Johnny Cash. Johnny Cash may have been dead for over a decade in 2014, but that doesn’t mean he still couldn’t release a #1 country album. “Out Among the Stars” was a collection of songs recorded in 1981 and 1984 with producer Billy Sherrill. “She Used to Love Me A Lot” was written on the Nashville assembly line and was a #11 country hit for David Allen Coe in 1984. Cash’s version makes a broken relationship sound like a life or death situation. I guess, sometimes it is.
5. “Sour Times,” The Civil Wars. The English trip hop band Portishead formed in 1991 and released two platinum albums in the U.K. during the 1990s with their mixture of electronic and psychedelic sounds. “Sour Times,” a dire song of romantic rejection was a #13 U.K. pop hit for Portishead in 1995. The Civil Wars disbanded in 2014, with their final release being the “Between the Bars” EP, a four song effort covering The Romantics, Michael Jackson, Elliott Smith, and bringing “Sour Times” into Americana. In 2014, I wrote that this cover “is a creepy tapeworm that burrows underneath your skin and crawls throughout your body leaving you in a state of utter panic and helplessness.” Enjoy it with your favorite cold beverage.
6. “Truck Stop Gospel,” Parker Millsap. Parker Millsap was raised in a Pentecostal family in small town Oklahoma and that background informs, but doesn’t define, his music. A 2012 homemade debut album received little attention, but Millsap became a junior heavyweight version of Jason Isbell with his eponymous 2014 #1 Americana release. It’s impossible to know if traveling fire and brimstone of “Truck Stop Gospel” is satire and Millsap is too smart to commit either way. Still, you must admire the integrity of a man who kicks a lot lizard out of his semi without even discussing pricing options.
7. “Turtles All the Way Down,” Sturgill Simpson. Jason Isbell was the struggling Americana act who became a major star in his genre in 2013 on the strength of one good album, moving from small clubs to headlining mid-sized arenas. Sturgill Simpson replicated that feat in 2014, even touring with Isbell, as his “Metamodern Sounds in Country Music,” buoyed by Waylon Jennings imitation, resulted in a Top Ten album and endless critical raves. The Glen Campbell meets Kurt Cobain meets Waylon on Psilocybin “Turtles All the Way Down” may be the best hallucinogenic drug song in the history of country music. Of course, I really can’t think of another one.
8. “The Way I’m Livin’,” Lee Ann Womack. Lee Ann Womack is the modern day version of Moe Bandy, an artist who has enjoyed mainstream commercial success, but with less industry respect than deserved. Womack was no longer on a major label for her 2014 “The Way I’m Livin’” album and her failed singles reflect that reality. Still, she covered smart material by Bruce Robison, Hayes Carll, Neil Young, and Chris Knight, among others. On the title track, written by Alan Jackson nephew Adam Wright, Womack gets seduced by Satan’s magic drinking solution. Womack finds the most positive aspect of being hell bound as being a negative role model for those with higher ambitions.
9. “Who’ll Buy My Memories,” Willie Nelson and Bobbie Nelson. “Who’ll Buy My Memories” is a Nelson composition that goes back to his struggling Nashville days, it was first recorded as a honky tonk plaint by Joe Carson (who had a hit with Nelson’s “I Gotta Get Drunk”) in 1963. Nelson resurrected the tune for the 1984 “Music from Songwriter,” a soundtrack to a Kristofferson/Nelson buddy comedy film. In 2014 Nelson released the “Willie’s Stash, Vol. 1: December Day” album, a collection of old favorites recorded with his piano playing sister Bobbie. This version of “Who’ll Buy My Memories” is decidedly autumnal. While it may not be helpful to cling to a bad memory, it’s better than having nothing to cling to at all.
10. “Your Children’s Children,” Carolina Story. Ben and Emily Roberts are a married couple/Nashville based Americana duo who released two EPs in 2013/2014 and are in dire need of a publicist. Ben looks like he wandered out of the Allman Brothers circa 1971 and Emily shakes a tambourine. (Where have you gone Tracy Partridge, a nation turns its lonely eyes to you.) “Your Children’s Children” is an Appalachian pluck rock tune about building a life that leaves you smiling when you’re old and gray. This is what The Civil Wars would have sounded like if John Paul White and Joy Williams had liked each other.