Country Music History – Essential Releases of 2016, Part II
This is the final entry in my fourteen month project reviewing the history of country music from the 1920s. Thanks to everyone who jumped on the train at any point in the ride. Through fate’s intervention, I conclude this series with Sputnik Monroe and the Drive-By Truckers.
1. ‘Love Triangle,” RaeLynn. Southeast Texas native Racheal Lynn Woodward was signed to a major label after a series of appearances on “The Voice” in 2012 and went Top Ten in 2014 with “God Made Girls,” a song just as cringe inducing as the title would suggest. RaeLynn, a product of a broken home, grew up quickly with the divorce number “Love Triangle, where a family evolves into two single parents. RaeLynn, who co-wrote the song, “I grew up being that kid who was relaying information back and forth, walking on eggshells, knowing that when I’m with my dad I can’t talk with my mom because it would trigger things. As I got older, I realized that I shouldn’t have had to worry about that when I was 6 years old.”
2. “Mr. Misunderstood,” Eric Church. Eric Church seems to be singing to a younger version of himself on “Mr. Misunderstood,” the misfit turned superstar, who namechecks Elvis Costello, Ray Wylie Hubbard, and Jeff Tweedy, while having fond memories of Alabama Hannah. Church, “Throughout the song it’s more me trying to relate to somebody who is different. And that’s OK. I’ve been different. Everybody’s different. In a way it’s about owning it and making that a flag that you fly for good.” As a career achievement, this is where bro-country and puberty intersect.
3. “My Church,” Maren Morris. Maren Morris, a ‘90s baby in an ‘80s Mercedes, started her singing career at The Grease Monkey, an Arlington, Texas burger joint, and released her first album at the age of fifteen. After three independent releases that received little attention, Morris relocated to Nashville and had writing credits on album tracks by Tim McGraw and fellow Metroplex entertainer Kelly Clarkson. She had her breakthrough country hit with the gospel tinged “My Church,” where she finds salvation listening to Hank Williams and Johnny Cash on her FM radio dial (she obviously meant Sirius XM).
4. “A Place in My Heart,” Lucinda Williams. Williams, “I have to write. I’ve written a couple of songs about my brother who’s suffered from mental illness, which I am convinced is genetic because my sister has it, too. Another therapist told me I had survivor guilt, because I am the eldest of three and I did survive.” One of those songs about her brother is the shelter from the storm “A Place in My Heart” from the 2016 “The Ghosts of Highway 20” album. It’s a welcome reminder that our greatest songwriters understand the power of heartfelt simplicity.
5. “Quiet Corners and Empty Spaces,” The Jayhawks. The Jayhawks know all the perils of a moderately successful band – extended hiatuses, frequent turnover of personnel, financial problems, addiction issues…the stuff that dreams are made of. After a five year recording break and the departure of original member Mark Olson, The Jayhawks returned to the charts with their 2016 album “Paging Mr. Proust,” still replicating the lush beauty of The Byrds. No group has ever been more deserving of the adjective “shimmering.”
6. “Record Year,” Eric Church. Church, “I’m a vinyl fan back before it was in vogue, like it is now, but I can remember, there’s a line in the song that talks about ‘slowly planning my survival/in a three-foot stack of vinyl,’ and I remember, whatever it is that I had to get over or get past or get through, I remember records being my refuge during that time. It was a song, and it IS a song that I’m proud of and I think it’ll be one of the bigger ones in our career.” On “Record Year,” Church nurses his broken heart by plunging into his music collection, convalescing with John Lee Hooker and Stevie Wonder. This is a song that every music geek understands all too well.
7. “South Bend Soldiers On,” Robbie Fulks. Fulks, “It seems to me that the middle of the country bears the burden of that — the middle and the South — in terms of people volunteering to fight and people coming home in boxes.” On the second entry from the 2016 album “Upland Stories,” Fulks sings from the perspective of a father who has lost his son in a war and becomes emotionally adrift, stuck in time. Being a solid Midwestern man, he keeps himself together by reminding him of his responsibilities to his community (“Keep your burdens from your neighbor/Leave a good name when you’re gone”).
8. “Sputnik Monroe,” Otis Gibbs. Roscoe Monroe Brumbaugh, professionally known as Sputnik Monroe, is a legendary figure in Memphis, who set box office records in the city in 1959 working as a heel wrestler. The grappler with the silver streaked hair was hated by the masses, but beloved by the black community – as a white man who would socialize in “black” establishments on Beale Street, he was once arrested under the vague charge of “mopery.” Monroe’s appeal to black ticket purchasers overwhelmed the small segregated seating section at Ellis Auditorium and Monroe is credited for integrating entertainment audiences in Memphis. Gibbs salutes the man who was on “the right side of history” on this 2016 release.
9. “Stay Calm, Get Low,” Becky Warren. Becky Warren’s 2016 debut album “War Surplus” is a concept album based on her own life experiences. Warren was married to a deployed soldier during the late 2000’s and every song on “War Surplus” is voiced from a male or female perspective, documenting that experience. “Stay Calm, Get Low” is a life during wartime lyric, living in a reality where surviving bombings becomes boring through repetition. Warren’s husband returned from Iraq with PTSD and the couple eventually divorced. “Stay Calm, Get Low” is a reminder of the human, not political or economic, costs of our endless military conflicts.
10. “Vice,” Miranda Lambert. This #2 country hit was written after Lambert’s high profile divorce from Blake Shelton. Lambert, “I wrote this at the exact time of the shit hitting the fan. I think it’s great, though. It’s documented on paper with emotion. Everybody has a vice of some sort. Sometimes when you’re going through something in your life, you may run to some things you shouldn’t and run from some things you shouldn’t.” Lambert’s vices include heartbreak songs, booze, skipping town, and sex. It’s been a long time since the seductive nature of sin has been so effectively conveyed.
11. “What It Means,” Drive-By Truckers. I’ve never considered the Drive-By Truckers a country act, but the “Nashville Scene” critics did in 2016, so what do I know. “What It Means” is a political commentary on racially charged incidents in the United States and could have been this generation’s “For What It’s Worth” if the mass public took music seriously anymore. Patterson Hood might be criticized for using a hammer more than a flashlight lyrically, but, as Graham Parker once noted, passion is no ordinary word.