Country Music History – Essential Releases of 2015
Finally, a Metallica reference.
1. “24 Frames,” Jason Isbell. After the success of Jason Isbell’s 2013 “Southeastern” release, his 2015 album “Something More Than Free” was one of the most anticipated releases of the Americana singer/songwriter genre during that year. “24 Frames,” with a title referencing the number of frames used per second in films, is a contemplative number with a more ambiguous narrative approach than most of Isbell’s material. The lyrics may be about whether you or a higher power directs the movie that is your life, but you could project (get it?) all different kinds of meanings onto the song. Isbell, perhaps noting the Michael Stipe vibe, described “24 Frames” as “the way indie rock sounded when I was 15.”
2. “Burning House,” Cam. Camaron Marvel Ochs grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and developed an appreciation for country music from her California ranch running grandparents. She released a pop album in 2010, under the name Camaron Ochs, which received no attention, but later demos found their way to Scott Siman, Tim McGraw’s manager. Her name was shortened to “Cam” and she had her first, and only, major hit in 2015 with “Burning House,” a song built off the guitar riff Metallica used for “Nothing Else Matters.” Cam proved that there was not only room for 1990’s party metal in modern country music, but you could also revisit the spirit, if that’s the right word, of the Lilith Fair generation.
Listen to the phrasing, not the lyrics, and you could easily imagine Tracy Chapman voicing this woman in pain number.
3. “Buy Me a Boat,” Chris Janson. Chris Janson escaped from rural southeast Missouri to pursue his Nashville dreams. He has writing and vocal credits on the 2009 Holly Williams album “Here with Me” and co-wrote the 2012 Tim McGraw single “Truck Yeah,” a song that manages to be more dim witted than the title sounds. Perhaps inspired by the David Lee Roth quote, “Money can’t buy you happiness, but it can buy you a yacht big enough to pull up right alongside it,” Janson had his first/only major hit in 2015 with “Buy Me a Boat,” a lottery player’s dream of changing his lifestyle with a boat, a truck, and a cooler full of beer. His lack of followup success may mean that the world isn’t pining for a new Trace Adkins with the same redneck attitude and one-fifth of his bad influence’s voice.
4. “Copper Canteen,” James McMurtry. “Honey, don’t you be yelling at me when I’m cleaning my gun/I’ll warsh the blood off the tailgate when deer season’s done” are the opening lines to “Copper Canteen” and the 2015 James McMurtry album “Complicated Game.” While it sounds like an outlaw theme, “Copper Canteen” is a Dylan inspired number addressing the parallel themes of economic and marital stress. Ultimately, the lyrics are about the necessary compromises in long term relationships, where the partnership is needed to survive life’s hardships. The always on point Mark Deming, “McMurtry is one of the best American songwriters in the game, inhabiting the lives of the people he writes about with an unaffected sincerity and filling his lyrics with telling details that are sometimes witty, sometimes affecting, and always brilliantly observed.”
5. “Crash and Burn,” Thomas Rhett. Georgia native Thomas Rhett has a keen understanding of the modern country audience, which has resulted in eight Top Ten singles since 2013 and writing credits on hits by Jason Aldean (“1994”), Lee Brice (“Parking Lot Party”), and the beloved Florida Georia Line (“Round Here”). Rhett started getting country airplay in 2012 with the sexual “Something to Do with My Hands” and the execrable “Beer with Jesus,” (feel free to point to that song in another ten years when “dry counties” start disappearing throughout the southern United States). “Crash and Burn,” surprisingly written by Chris Stapleton and Jesse Frasure, is more Justin Timberlake than Hank Williams, part of the growing use of R&B dance beats in modern country music. Depending on your point of view, the song either includes a homage to or a ripoff of Sam Cooke’s “Chain Gang.”
6. “Dime Store Cowgirl,” Kacey Musgraves. Kacey Musgraves continued to reap critical praise with her 2015 album “Pageant Material,” without much support from country radio. The too cute lead single “Biscuits” (“Mind your own biscuits and life will be gravy”) peaked at #28 on the country charts. Although she has a presence in both worlds, she is primarily viewed more as a songwriter/album artist than as a mainstream commercial country act. On “Dime Store Cowgirl,” Musgraves reflects on her travels and successes, but maintains that she’ll always have a small town soul, even mentioning her hometown of Golden, Texas, a place she had to leave and a place that will never leave her. Also worth hearing is the love/hate relationship of “Family is Family” where “They might smoke like chimneys, but give you their kidneys.”
7. “Dixie,” Ashley Monroe. Pistol Annie Ashley Monroe released “The Blade” in 2015, her most successful album to date, peaking at #2 on the country charts. Country radio remained unimpressed as the sole single from the album “On to Something Good,” which sounded like Tammy Wynette covering Dusty Springfield, stalled at #53 on the charts. “Dixie” has a swamp country vibe reminiscent of “Ode to Billy Joe.” Instead of spouting hollow platitudes to the South, Monroe views “Dixie” as a really good place to leave.
8. “Head Over Heels,” JD McPherson. Rural Oklahoma native Jonathan David McPherson grew up with a strong interest in rockabilly music and worked for several years as a middle school teacher in Tulsa. Getting fired from that position lead him to pursue his passion and he released his first album (“Signs and Signifiers” on Rounder Records) in 2012. McPherson has developed a small but devoted fanbase with his passionate modernization of 1950’s rock ‘n’ roll. “Head Over Heels,” not a Tears for Fears or Go-Gos cover, from his 2015 “Let the Good Time Roll” album is a reverb rich record, that is as sleek as it is infectious. Two chord minimalism at its finest.
9. “Girl Crush,” Little Big Town. Penned by Lori McKenna, Hillary Lindsey, and Liz Rose, “Girl Crush” was the critical and commercial country sensation of 2015, a brooding look at jealousy with a potential hint of lesbianism. The chords sound like the intro of Bonnie Tyler’s “It’s a Heartache,” yet Karen Fairchild narrates a tale of tactile jealousy that’s as devastating as Elvis Costello’s “I Want You.” Although eventually “Girl Crush” became a #1 country single and a crossover pop hit, some radio programmers and listeners found the lyrics disturbing in these times of automatic outrage. Fairchild on the controversy, “That’s just shocking to me, the close-mindedness of that, when that’s just not what the song was about, but what if it were? It’s just a greater issue of listening to a song for what it is. Maybe the real controversy is that a 6/8 ballad is on country radio.”
10. “Girls from Texas,” Pat Green (Lyle Lovett). Pat Green took the commercial view of the Texas singer/songwriter genre to Nashville in the 2000s, releasing five major label albums and going to #3 on the singles chart in 2003 with the generic Christianity number “Wave on Wave,” (perhaps the U2/Edge sounding guitar riff is ironic). Back on independent labels, Green teamed up with Lyle Lovett in 2015 to pay tribute to the women of Tejas, relocating the theme of The Beach Boys’ “California Girls” with a much slower tempo. Lovett’s familiar drawl rescues Green from his fatally generic sound.
11. “It’s All Going to Pot,” Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard. Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard returned to #1 on the country album charts in 2015 with the collaboration effort “Django & Jimmie,” the title concept being a tribute to Django Reinhardt and Jimmie Rodgers. The single “It’s All Going to Pot” was penned by album producer Buddy Cannon with Jamey Johnson and Larry Shell. This celebration of the demon weed was released on 4/20/2015 and the mariachi horns contribute to the easy going, up in smoke attitude. While Nelson’s views on cannabis may be more widely known, Haggard developed “Merle’s Girls,” his own strain of marijuana that he hoped to sell in Colorado. Haggard, on the lyrics to this tune, “Somebody’s got some weird shit they’re smoking.”