Country Music History – Essential Releases of 2015, Part II
This entry is dedicated to Serge Salameh.
1. “Little Red Wagon,” Miranda Lambert. Western swing artist Hank Penny asked “Won’t You Ride in My Little Red Wagon” way back in 1941, inviting his sweetheart on a cheap date of adventure. (That song was written by Rex Griffin, whose song “Everybody’s Trying to Be My Baby” had no small influence on the Carl Perkins tune with the same name). On Miranda Lambert’s 2015 Top Ten country single “Little Red Wagon,” she notes her jaw dropping swagger and puts the breaks on a potential suitor, sounding much less innocent than Hank Penny did on his 1940’s joyride. Lambert, “When I heard it, I thought, ‘Oh, god. This girl is ridiculous. So, I stalked down songwriter Audra Mae. We’re the same age, and she’s from Oklahoma. I asked her point blank: ‘What’s your plan for “Little Red Wagon”? Can I cut it? Can I even try to be a hair on the ass of how you did it?’”
2. “Murder in the City,” Brandi Carlile. Carolina folk rockers The Avett Brothers released “Murder in the City” in 2008 on their “The Second Gleam” EP. Somewhat like “Lookout Mountain” by the Drive-By Truckers it’s a rumination of what emotions might transpire in loved ones after the narrator dies. Carlile released an Americana goth cover of “Murder in the City” on her 2015 album “The Firewatcher’s Daughter,” with the weeping cellos leading the way. Carlile also makes a subtle lyrical change, reflecting her personal life and celebrating marriage equality by stating, “Make sure my wife knows that I love her.”
3. “My Shit’s Fucked Up,” Kinky Friedman. Singer/songwriter Warren Zevon did not spend his fifty-six years on this planet as a health and fitness guru. In 2000, three years before his death, Zevon released his “Life’ll Kill Ya” album which included “My Shit’s Fucked Up,” a sardonic look at his body’s malfunctioning machinery. Legendary Texas crank Kinky Friedman covered Zevon’s tune with even more fragility on his 2015 album “The Loneliest Man I Ever Met,” featuring harmonica player Mickey Raphael punctuating the sadness of Friedman’s predicament. The future Trump supporter also viewed his cover tune as a statement on the broken political climate of the United States.
4. “Send It on Down,” Lee Ann Womack. Lee Ann Womack’s modern album making formula is not dissimilar to what Emmylou Harris did in the 1970s – delivering a traditional sound with strong material from underappreciated contemporary songwriters. In the era of party, bro-country music, she was dismissed from country radio way too quickly. The spiritual edged “Send It on Down” was written by Chris Knight and David Leone and involves a young woman asks Jesus for help in escaping her hometown and her drinking problem. Too honest to serve up the prosperity gospel, this single from a Grammy nominate album didn’t even break the Top 100.
5. “Smoke Break,” Carrie Underwood. As a performer, Carrie Underwood may be more like Reba McEntire than Loretta Lynn, yet she also has something in common with Tammy Wynette – she doesn’t get credit for her talent as a songwriter. Underwood goes blue collar on “Smoke Break,” a look at the pressures of the multi-job modern economy, where a good Christian might need a puff or a swig as a medicinal coping mechanism. Underwood, on her understated feminism, “For the storyline, I really just wanted it to be mainly about strong women – strong, beautiful women who are doing everything that the boys do. And, at the end, we all get together and have our break.”
6. “Take Me to Texas,” George Strait. Although not an artistic peer, George Strait represents to the modern country music audience the same stature that George Jones held to a previous generation, a genre defining superstar with decades of sustained success. Country radio finally tired of Strait after his 2012 Top Ten single “Give It All We Got Tonight,” but a singer with over eighty Top Ten hits shouldn’t have any complaints. “Take Me to Texas” is an album track written by Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally from the 2015 “Cold Beer Conversation” album. The song has a cinematic quality, comparing to Texas to heaven without being too heavy on the corn syrup.
7. “Tennessee Whiskey,” Chris Stapleton. The 2016 Academy of Country Music Awards (CMAs) was a coming out party for Chris Stapleton, who won “Album of the Year,” “Song of the Year,” “Songwriter of the Year,” “New Male Vocalist of the Year,” and “Male Vocalist of the Year.” The traditionalist crowd cheered Stapleton’s success as a major victory and his version of “Tennessee Whiskey” went to #1 on the country charts based on that momentum. Ironically, “Tennessee Whiskey” was a cover tune for Stapleton, it was written by Dean Dillon and Linda Hargrove and was a #2 single for George Jones in 1983 (David Allen Coe released the original version in 1981 with limited success). How do you define a traditionalist in modern country music – a person who sings about alcohol in terms of heartbreak instead of a good time.
8. “Top Shelf Drug,” Ryan Bingham. Americana performer Ryan Bingham seemingly appeared out of nowhere to win a Grammy in 2009 for the song “The Weary Heart” from the movie “Crazy Heart,” a Jeff Bridges star turn based on the life of Texas singer Hank Thompson. Bingham had previously worked the Texas rodeo circuit after leaving a tough home life at seventeen – his parents’ substance abuse issues resulted in his mother’s death and his father’s suicide. Bingham’s 2015 release “Fear and Saturday Night” was his fifth album and includes “Top Shelf Drug.” Comparing a relationship to an addiction is nothing new, but sounding like a Texas version of Mick Jagger brings new life to the party.
9. “Washed Up Rock Star Factory Blues,” Corb Lund. Canadian singer Corb Lund released his tenth album in 2015, a Top Ten effort in his home country titled “Things That Can’t Be Undone.” “Washed Up Rock Star Factory Blues” is an inverted “Take this Job and Shove It” involving a former anti-authority rock star getting a janitor gig to pay the rent. Fortunately, for Lund (or his character) the scene was just a bad dream and he’ll stop bitching about long car rides to his next performance. Lund, on his own economic model, “For me, records have never been a profit thing. I started out in the 90s in the indie world and we used to give records away because the whole point of a record is to build up an audience so they come to your shows. Ever since I got into music, the whole point of it has been to play live.”
10. “When the Nights Are Cold,” Joe Ely. The Flatlanders have always worked as a mutual appreciation society, frequently covering each other’s material on solo albums. Butch Hancock wrote “When the Nights Are Cold” and Jimmie Dale Gilmore included his version on his 1989 eponymous release. After a four year break from recording, Ely released his “Panhandle Rambler” album in 2015, featuring the rippling accordion work of Joel Guzman on the I-can’t-give-you-anything-but-love “When the Nights Are Cold.” Guzman is the perfect side man, somebody who could take a star turn at any given second, but is too humble to do anything but serve his boss and the song.