Country Music History – Essential Releases of 2016, Part I
Willie, Loretta, George Strait, Marlene Dietrich.
1. “Alabama at Night,” Robbie Fulks. Writer James Agee and photographer Walker Evans travelled to Alabama in 1936 to document the lives of sharecropper families during the Dust Bowl era. Their images were published in the book “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” and captured a stark poverty that one would associate with pre-Civil War conditions in America. Songwriter Robbie Fulks documents that experience, singing from the perspective of Walker Evans, who has empathy for his subjects, yet knows that he has not ability to change their reality. This was the lead track from the 2016 “Upland Stories,” which received my vote for best country album of last year.
2. “All That I Require,” Radney Foster. Radney Foster had a short commercial run in the late 1980s, as part of the duo Foster & Lloyd, and another short commercial run as a solo act in the early 1990s. He’s continued to release albums and his songs have been covered by Guy Clark, Los Lonely Boys, Sara Evans, Luke Bryan, Darius Rucker, and many others. “All That I Require” was released in October of 2016 and it’s an outspoken critique of politicians who traffic in hate based identity group politics. For a mild mannered man, Foster has released the most stinging anti-Trump rebuke of our era.
3. “Blue Ain’t Your Color,” Keith Urban. Keith Urban travelled from his native New Zealand to Australia before finding fame in Nashville and marrying actress Nicole Kidman. He’s been a fixture on American country radio since 2000, with 39 Top Ten singles, 22 of which have climbed to #1. “Blue Ain’t Your Color” is a waltz time slice of modern pop country with a touch of a traditional R&B feel. Urban seductively croons to a woman who hasn’t “felt the fire” in a while and even though he’s pushing 50, he has no problem playing the heartthrob role. If he ever loses that talent, he’ll be history.
4. “Falling in Love Again,” John Prine featuring Alison Krauss. Legendary songwriter John Prine’s 2016 album, “For Better, Or Worse,” is a collection of classic country songs, recorded as duets with Iris Dement, Lee Ann Womack, Miranda Lambert, and others. The exception, genre was, was “Falling in Love Again,” penned by German composer Friedrich Hollaender and the signature song of Marlene Dietrich. Prine cut his version with Alison Krauss, it was reportedly her father’s favorite song, in an elegantly understated and beautiful manner. Prine, “(Producer) Jim Rooney asked me, “How in the heck can that be a country song?’ I told him to put some steel on it.”
5. “Fight Like a Girl,” Kalie Shorr. Kalie Shorr is like our old friend Dick Curless, who moved from Maine to Nashville to find fame and fortune. Unlike Dick, she has two functioning eyes. Written by Shorr, Hailey Steele, and Lena Stone, “Fight Like a Girl” is a response to modern Nashville’s decision to limit airplay by female artists. Mixing high heels and boxing gloves, this perfume sweet, whiskey strong female empowerment statement is a proclamation of invincibility. Of course, it never touched the country charts.
6. “Girl Next Door,” Brandy Clark. One way you can tell that Brandy Clark is a traditional country artist is by her song titles – “Love Can Go to Hell,” “Big Day in a Small Town,” and “Drinkin’, Smokin’, Cheatin’,” cover heartbreak, rural realities, and self-destructive tendencies, just like George or Conway would. One way you can tell that Brandy Clark isn’t a traditional country artist is that she is openly gay, although she’d rather not talk about it. Ergo, when Clark declares “she’s not the girl next door,” her personal life adds a layer of complexity to a dreary cliché. She’s more of an actress than a legit badass, but reasonable facsimiles are a modern era way of life.
7. “Hang Me in the Tulsa County Stars,” John Moreland. John Moreland grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma, poor guy, where he went through his punk rock phase as a teenager and his Steve Earle phase with his late 2000’s act the Black Gold Band. Moreland then ventured into solo folk/Americana albums including his 2015 release “High on Tulsa Heat.” The meditative “Hang Me in the Tulsa County Stars” is, on one hand, about shutting out the noise in the world to make a commitment to a relationship. However, in a less literal mode, it’s about the poetic folk beauty of where a talented singer/songwriter meshes the simple with the sublime.
8. “Heaven Sent,” Parker Millsap. Millsap was raised in a Pentecostal church, where speaking in tongues was as normal as passing the collection plate. That Pentecostal fervor informs his music – he can sing a straightforward ballad, but when performing uptempo material, he howls, screams, bellows, and throws his entire body into the music. “Heaven Sent” also reaches back to his roots, with the theme of a gay man addressing his sexuality to his preacher father. Millsap is arguing/coaxing/begging for acceptance and love in the song. The resolution? There isn’t one.
9. “How the Mighty Have Fallen,” Margo Price. Like Suzy Bogguss, Margo Price was raised in Aledo, Illinois, which is a few loose meat sandwiches away from the Iowa/Illinois Quad Cities. Her 2016 debut album, “Midwest Farmer’s Daughter,” was recorded at Sun Studios in Memphis and was listed among the best releases of the year by seemingly every major publication. More Loretta than Reba, Price once said, “What I always liked about country music was the stories, the ability to talk about very real things like divorce and drinking and death and jail.” “How the Mighty Have Fallen” modifies the intro to The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby,” then documents the lost stature of a cheating man. She welcomes him back, but his ego is going to take a beating.
10. “Humble and Kind,” Lori McKenna. Tim McGraw first released the Lori McKenna maternal advice number “Humble and Kind” in early 2016, scoring a #1 country hit and winning the CMT “Song of the Year” award. McKenna, who made sure that there was a line in the song that addressed each of her five children, included her version on her 2016 release “The Bird & The Rifle.” “Humble and Kind” has the same passing down wisdom appeal as the Drive-By Truckers/Jason Isbell song “Outfit,” but with a much softer approach and a much needed message in the social media age.
11. “Kicked Outta Country,” George Strait. Written by Strait with Jamey Johnson, “Kicked Outta Country” is an acknowledgement that King George has been banished by mainstream country radio, but also notes that reality also hit George Jones, Johnny Cash, Waylon, Willie, and The Hag. Instead of lamenting his fate, Straight notes that those legends kept pushing on, with the implication being that their work was more important than a current radio format decision. Strait, “It was kind of a poke at country radio and it’s because it is harder for me to get ’em to play my records now. But I knew that was going to happen at some point and I always said I was going to accept it, there’s nothing I can do about it.
12. “Lay Me Down,” Loretta Lynn featuring Willie Nelson. Vietnam vet Mark Marchetti has been described by Todd Snider as “a poet, a songwriter, and last of the drunken high wire acts.” Marchetti has a writing credit on the 2015 #1 country hit “My Baby’s Got a Smile on Her Face” by Craig Wayne Boyd, but has generally existed outside of the mainstream in country music. “Lay Me Down” is the closing track from Loretta Lynn’s 2016 album “Full Circle,” her first album since 2004’s “Van Lear Rose.” With the softness of a lullaby, Loretta and Willie sing about leaving this world in peace, being comforted in their religious faith. This ranks up there with Billy Joe Shaver’s “Live Forever” as one of the best songs ever written about Christianity, mainly because neither song beats you over the head with its message.