Comments From the Critics 

If The Long Way Home ultimately buckled under the weight of its own history, it still had some great songs (many co-written with Midwestern blue-state rock dudes Gary Louris and Dan Wilson) and loads of unassailable chutzpah.

THE DIXIE CHICKS

If Taking the Long Way ultimately buckled under the weight of its own history, it still had some great songs (many co-written with Midwestern blue-state rock dudes Gary Louris and Dan Wilson) and loads of unassailable chutzpah. And their movie was a kick. All I can say to the DJs, writers, editors, TV brass, former fans and country singers who turned on Natalie Maines for suggesting the current president and his administration might not be due the traditional respect is this: after all we’ve learned in the past year, don’t you feel a little stupid now? —WILL HERMES, NEW YORK TIMES

To my ears, the Dixie Chicks are just boring. I see no need to turn into another kind of listener for country music when I already am a fan of pop music in general. I admire their stance and share their politics, but there was nothing on their latest record to make me stand up and take notice. They did come across as intelligent when they spoke to the press, and that certainly counts for something. —EDD HURT, NASHVILLE SCENE

Much as Usher and Justin Timberlake allow us to secondhandedly enjoy Michael Jackson without the 1,000-pound gorilla of lurid public scandal, The Wreckers offered an alternate universe where fandom of the Dixie Chicks could carry on divorced from political haranguing. Certainly controversy gave the Chicks a narrative charge, but it burdened their melodic buoyancy; Michelle Branch and Jessica Harp were beset by lechers, alcoholic boyfriends and suburban sprawl, but still sounded giddy by comparison. —JOSHUA LOVE, RALEIGH NEWS & OBSERVER

I do not think that good politics necessarily equals good music, or vice versa, but any of these Dixie Chicks tunes would have been an enormous improvement over most of what passes for country music on mainstream radio stations. As long as country radio (notably Clear Channel, big Bush backers since his days as governor of Texas) continues to press the issue, we should ask ourselves who the real patriots are: the politicians who distorted facts to justify war, or the three brave women who dared to stand up to the new King George? —RICK MITCHELL, UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS PRESS

THE CASH FAMILY

Rosanne Cash’s Black Cadillac was the album we all needed to really come to grips with the passing of Johnny and June Carter Cash. Whereas so many of the big records this year were just that—“big”—this is an intensely personal, intimate record, which, frankly, is a place country music would do well to visit more often. The more the genre grows commercially, there’s a tendency toward anthems instead of poems, and a lot of what’s great about country is the rawness and human scale of a Hank Williams tune, or of course a Johnny Cash classic. Roseanne Cash gets that. —JEFF LEVEN, PASTE

Johnny Cash wasn’t beneath any rhetorical trick he could find to make the story better; he was filled with cheap theatrics. An album by an alt-country queen talking about her dead daddy for an hour shows that Roseanne has learned every one of her father’s lessons except humor and humility. So the album is leaden but unavoidable in its power. —ANTHONY EASTON, STYLUS

I had to decide how to consider Rosanne Cash’s Black Cadillac. Country? Urban singer-songwriter? With this record’s themes and stories, with sounds as country as those Rosanne produced in her country chart hit years, dang. Sure, it’s a country record—arguably, more so than the Dixie Chicks’ fine pop CD, for instance. —BARRY MAZOR, NO DEPRESSION

THE COLOR BARRIER

Forty-plus years since Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music and two years since the film Ray reminded everyone of it, I’m struck by the number and variety of acts swirling together “black” and “white” Southern music. Solomon Burke’s Nashville was this year’s country-soul standout. But Alan Jackson made quite a record too, a country-soul reimagining of Sinatra’s In the Wee Small Hours that may have suffered from uneven song selection but displayed the best singing he’s ever done. Al Anderson did much the same thing, with a lesser instrument and better songs, on After Hours. Tony Joe White put out both a retrospective box and a new set of country-fried, wah-wah-powered swamp-blues. And there was a dandy reissue by some guy named Bob Wills who apparently had some similar ideas. —WILL HERMES, NEW YORK TIMES

Country music doesn’t have the best image in regard to race relations. So it’s good to see Montgomery Gentry—of all acts—tackling this issue head-on with the single Some People Change. Perhaps the duo will drag its decidedly redneck audience into a more enlightened mind-set. Too bad Troy Gentry’s poor hunting choices are overshadowing this remarkable development. —RON WARNICK, SAUK VALLEY NEWSPAPERS

How ironic that the best album made in Nashville all year, Solomon Burke’s Nashville, was made by a guy who would not have been served in the finest restaurants and who would have had to come through the back door of most hotels in the era when Nashville was defining its sound. Since Charley Pride, the back door hasn’t really opened, either. —RICK MITCHELL, UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS PRESS

WHAT IS COUNTRY?

I thought Neko Case made the year’s best country record because, well, what else would you call it? It tells impressionistic stories about hard-bitten characters, most of them implicitly working-class and often out on the highway, wrestling with sorrow and loss and regret and wild, self-destructive streaks that won’t be tamed, despite the shadow of the Bible that hovers over the proceedings. There are big, twangy, reverby guitars and Hawaiian steel, waltz rhythms and Garth Hudson’s baroquely woodsy keyboards. And, of course, Case’s voice, which for my money is, at this moment, for both its majesty and its grit, the best country vocal instrument around. —WILL HERMES, NEW YORK TIMES

I seldom listen to country radio; my 19-year-old daughter seldom listens to anything but. Where we totally agree is on Julie Roberts. As for what is country, I recognize that radio doesn’t categorize either Rosanne Cash or Bob Dylan as country, but Johnny Cash would embrace both his daughter and his friend as kindred spirits, and that’s country enough for me. —DON MCLEESE, NO DEPRESSION

Despite being the most commercially successful genre of popular music in America right now, it still seems like the only time country gets any significant mainstream media pub is when one of its stars is linked romantically to a non-country celeb. Just look at Kenny Chesney and Renee Zellweger, Keith Urban and Nicole Kidman and now Carrie Underwood and newly hot Dallas Cowboys QB Tony Romo. Could someone kindly inform Miranda Lambert that Tom Brady just went back on the market? —JOSHUA LOVE, RALEIGH NEWS & OBSERVER

Jenny Lewis with the Watson Twins nearly made my list for best new act alongside The Duhks, until I chickened out, thinking that maybe they weren’t country enough. Although how, say, Tim McGraw’s “When the Stars Go Blue” (a song I quite like, by the way) is more “country” than Lewis’ “Rabbit Fur Coat” is beyond me. —WILL HERMES, NEW YORK TIMES

I came across one very heartening trend in 2006—at least here in Lincoln, Neb.: the ascendance of what I’ve been calling the next generation of outlaws. Hank III packs local clubs when he plays here, Shooter Jennings tore up an outdoor festival and the Red Dirt acts from Oklahoma—Cross Canadian Ragweed and Jason Boland & the Stragglers—draw as well or better than the new Nashville acts. That may have something to do with Lincoln being a college town, but the music I hear from Shooter, Hank III, Wayne “The Train” Hancock, Dale Watson and The Derailers is what I call country. —KENT WOLGAMOTT, LINCOLN JOURNAL STAR

For me, the best moments in country 2006 were tinged with pop, and gaudy, neon pop at that. The Wreckers’ debut was one of the most enjoyable efforts of the year, and they seemed willing to address issues of success and the meaning of same in ways that put the lie to criticisms of “pop-country.” It’s the laziest kind of retro-snobbery and outright evasion of reality to dismiss them, or Sugarland, as mere fluff. This is what Nashville does, and if you have a problem with it, you have a problem with popular music. To say that Jones-Haggard-Cash-Newbury-Van Zandt represents “real country” might be a nice bit of nostalgia, but that’s all it is. When someone tells me that Johnny Cash is an icon and a symbol of incorruptibility, I agree, but what about his “Chicken in Black,” a ridiculous tale of brain transplants and bank robbery? How do you reckon that fits into any scheme of Things Were Better Then? —EDD HURT, NASHVILLE SCENE

I found way more interesting country music this year on Bob Dylan’s Theme Time Radio Hour on XM Satellite than I did on any particular “country station” in my geography of choice. At the end of the day I end up thinking of country as “soul music for the culturally repressed” in this post-attention-deficit age, in a culture still trying to define itself, what it believes in, surrounded by the flotsam and jetsam of political destruction, senseless war and societal ruin. —COREY DUBROWA, SEATTLE WEEKLY

MAINSTREAM

I want to like Toby Keith, especially when he gives you great stuff like the pitch-perfect paycheck-to-paycheck optimism of “Can’t Buy You Money.” Then he tries to make young girls feel guilty about having abortions (“Ain’t No Right Way”) and I remember he’s just an immensely talented prick. —JOSHUA LOVE, RALEIGH NEWS & OBSERVER

Lee Ann Womack’s 2005 crit favorite There’s More Where That Came From started off wallowing in old-time heartache but eventually turned sunnily benign. There’s really no such letup on Julie Roberts’ Men & Mascara, which reels unrelentingly from one boozy breakup to the next, filling inanimate objects like pillows and oscillating fans with so much devastating power you’d swear everything in the world was conspiring against this woman’s happiness. Unequivocal lyric of the year: “I ain’t 19 / I ain’t naive / that ain’t the way I make my bed.” —JOSHUA LOVE, RALEIGH NEWS & OBSERVER

It was the year Nashville discovered the power of the earworm, giving us delightful, stick-in-your-head country confectionery like “Give It Away,’’ “Brand New Girlfriend’’ and, the summer’s best and bounciest joyride,’ Rodney Atkins’ “If You’re Going Through Hell,’’ which practically dared you not to sing along and forget your troubles. —KENDRA MEINERT, GREEN BAY PRESS-GAZETTE

Carrie Underwood is a fine singer, but her material was mostly the same old place-name mania. Her “Jesus, Take the Wheel” was a deserving hit, but it got annoying quickly, and as a secularist I found the premise less than energizing. Far better was her cheating song, which really was powerful. Kellie Pickler’s debut seemed more musically interesting, but in the end, I detected no real ideas there, and ideas matter in pop music when the music and the lyrics are as received as they were on her record. —EDD HURT, NASHVILLE SCENE

GEEZERS

If last year we often seemed to be hearing plenty of echoes of Waylon in some of those hard-hitting, rambling-guy songs, this year the ghost in the sound is that of Conway Twitty, in his “I’d Love to Lay You Down” mode. Ballads like Josh Turner’s “Your Man” and the so-far less-heard “No Rush,” or Dierks Bentley’s “Come a Little Closer” and “Settle for a Slowdown,” or Blake Shelton’s “Nobody But Me” and Trace Adkins’ less ba-donking material are bringing the easy, assured sexuality of grown men back into country music—and without the powder-blue leisure suit. This has been the most positive addition to the music mix this year. —BARRY MAZOR, NO DEPRESSION

Bob Dylan throws together a mish-mash of public domain blues lyrics, 19th century poetry and random observations, takes the writing credit for all of it, and croaks it out over a hot little rock ’n’ roll band. This is the country album of the year? Well, yeah. I can’t explain it, but I can’t stop listening to it. —RICK MITCHELL, UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS PRESS

Willie Nelson may well be reading the lyrics to half the songs on Songbird for the first time, even the ones he wrote—it sounds like it—but it works well enough, between the way his voice and his guitar cue the steel guitarist, and the rest of the Cardinals, and even when he leadeth them to squash “$1,000 Wedding,” he puts the nightmarish lyrics across like he’s umpiring a public atrocity, which he is, of course. —DON ALLRED, VILLAGE VOICE

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