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Voters' comments on the Critics' Poll
MIRANDA AND CARRIE:

2007 was awash with artistic lightweights—Carrie Underwood, Sugarland or Taylor Swift. The core of what has enabled country music to endure, decade after decade, is now threatened by these glammed-out and puffed-up personalities. Rather than dig deep and find something worth saying, most of Nashville’s current crop of superstars would rather stitch together an album overseen by a committee of songwriters. It’s a trend that made the discs from Miranda Lambert and Josh Turner all the more welcome: youthful performers who can write their own tunes and deliver a sound rooted in the venerable past and the Facebook’d future. —Preston Jones

Underwood’s incisor-sharp bite on “Before He Cheats” helped this tune become the anthem for every female ever done wrong by a no-good, low-down, cheatin’ dog. —Lorie Hollabaugh

Miranda Lambert’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend passed for the cause célèbre country record of the year, at least with critics. Plenty good, plenty vengeful in all the right places. But I don’t think it married bad old Nashville to good old alt-country in any meaningful way. Perfectly serviceable mainstream country, complete with sound effects. I voted for its single. —Edd Hurt

In the Artist of the Year category, give Miranda Lambert every point you can and nothing to anyone else—conceptually, she ruled. —Robert Christgau

ROBERT AND ALISON:

In the spring of 1995, I was editor of New Country magazine and we did the first national cover story on Alison Krauss. In the story, written by Jim Macnie, Krauss sang the praises of the Cox Family and Dolly Parton. Less predictably, she gushed about bumping into Lou Gramm, lead singer for Foreigner, in an airport. Anyone who remembers that story probably wasn’t surprised to hear that Krauss and Robert Plant were collaborating in 2007. That Raising Sand turned out to be one of the year’s musical highlights is a fitting tribute, not only to its visionary principals, but to country music’s unpredictable boundaries. —David Sokol

It feels absurd to be typing Robert Plant’s name on top of a country music poll. But there it is. And I sure played this record more than I watched the YouTube videos from the London Led Zep reunion. For a dude never renowned for his subtlety, Plant has become quite an artist. And Alison Krauss remains my biggest country music hero. —Will Hermes

MAINSTREAM:

Country radio in 2007 was too often like listening to a high school motivational speaker expounding upon America’s two most pervasive and pernicious slogans. First, you can be and do anything if only you want it badly enough, and second, there’s nothing worth wanting that you don’t already have. There’s not one thing wrong with songs of uplift—we should all be more grateful than we are for friends and family. And I know that both “You can be anything” and “You should treasure what you have” are meant to be life-affirming. My concern is that if the bulk of mainstream country can only tell us that our problems may be remedied by a shot of positive attitude or that our problems aren’t really problems at all—well, then we aren’t affirming life, we’re denying its built-in complexity. We can’t do anything we want, after all, and sometimes all the precious things we have may still be fatally insufficient. Country music used to know these realities by heart. They were part of what made country country. But in ’07, a lot of big-time country was living in a fantasy world. Call it Sugarland. —David Cantwell

Today I’m in the diner, finally getting what I’m always being served, which is the nasality-as-gentle-astringency, the everywhere-at-once yet tastefully compressed hard-shell hard sell: the tirelessly, carefully flattened hills of Sugarland. Can’t remember the name of the song, which is one of the ways I know I’m in Sugarland, served up just right, by the shining morning face of Jennifer Nettles, although that smiling busboy’s hat has something to do with it too, and today I’m glad to see them both. —Don Allred

Sonically, country lets me down a lot. On the other hand, one of the weirdest and most gratifyingly overproduced records of the year was Big & Rich’s Between Raising Hell and Amazing Grace. It had a kitchen-sink aesthetic I found energizing in small doses—bizarre retro-camp, anonymous and annoying country-pop at a whole new level of achievement. Anyway, the record had great arrangements, lots of variety and the worst wedding song in history—precisely because they wrote it to be a wedding song. —Edd Hurt

Paisley’s 5th Gear was commercial country at its best, witty without pandering, corn-fed without being corny. You sensed even the punch lines were heartfelt—especially those in “Online.” For a genre that dwells more on the timeless than the timely, that one hit the zeitgeist right between the eyes. —Will Hermes

Josh Turner’s “Firecracker” was limp and devoid of the sexual energy that he can obviously deliver—he is a singer who works better with monogamy than with fury. Like all good, soppy, over-emotional Southern Baptists, the only thing that trumps monogamy is an erotic attachment to the savior. It’s all there on “Me and God”—a desire for discipline and attachment, to be broken and to be restored. —Anthony Easton

Keith Urban offered up the year’s best mainstream country single with the emotionally raw, complex “Stupid Boy,” written by Sarah Buxton, Dave Berg and Deanna Bryant. Written as third-person observation, Urban’s sly implication that the “Stupid Boy” of the title was the singer himself made for six minutes of ruthless self-examination capped by a raging guitar solo mercilessly chopped from the radio edit. Sneaking subversive sentiments onto playlists is one thing—taking up valuable advertising time is quite another. —Chris Neal

I was impressed by the video for Kenny Chesney’s “Shiftwork,” a song about shitwork that everyone can relate to, and which featured clips of real workers singing along with Kenny, who seemed to be hanging out in Jamaica. He went on vacation and got his audience to do his work for him—very crafty. —Edd Hurt

Taylor Swift: an 18-year-old singing about how sad it feels to be 18, the Connie Francis of New Nashville, and I mean that as the deepest compliment. —Anthony Easton

ALT-COUNTRY:

Lori McKenna managed to sound totally salt-of-the-earth while name-checking D.H. Lawrence, and on the title track of Unglamorous, she sings that line “Peanut butter on ehhhv-reee-thing” with an amazing mix of desperation and hard-won pride. There’s nothing like a singer-songwriter putting their own material over. I mean, I doubt Faith Hill could’ve delivered that song without making me laugh. —Will Hermes

Freaky country proved more interesting than almost anything else I heard. I liked some of the new string bands that are everywhere, like The Hackensaw Boys and The Red Stick Ramblers. They seemed pleasantly road-weary, sophisticated. The Avett Brothers seemed a novelty act, like The Oak Ridge Boys but maybe with better beards. They presage a widespread yokelism that might be just the thing to lift Americana out of its funk. It’s going to be a funny world when Bob Wills’ influence overtakes The Beatles’. —Edd Hurt

Jason Isbell’s “Dress Blues” is a memorial ode to a friend who died at 18 as a marine. From the intoning of “He was 18” to the clarion calls towards mother and family without the rhetoric of the state, makes it one of the more profound anti-war anthems in recent memory, especially the line: “American boys hate to lose / But you never planned on the bombs and the sand / or sleeping in your dress blues.” —Anthony Easton

Patti Scialfa’s “Looking for Elvis” could be a No. 1 audio/visual country hit should some young Nashville babe decide to give it a whirl. And while we’re at it, has anyone played Amy Winehouse’s “Rehab” for George Jones yet? —Rick Mitchell

Thanks to my local independent music store owner, hanging on as an artifact of an industry that was, I discovered Sam Baker this year. What a find. He’s among the best storytellers to come along since Springsteen, Prine and Olney. —Jim Morrison

OLD TIMERS:

I know the album was produced by Marty Stuart, and that it came out on the certifiably cool Anti- label, and that it is a sentimental favorite because the artist passed away this year. But would it get me kicked off the Opry if I reminded my fellow hillbilly aesthetes that Porter Wagoner was never all that great on his own, before or after Dolly? —Rick Mitchell

To me, Bettye LaVette’s riveting and emotionally charged take on Willie Nelson’s “Somebody Pick Up My Pieces” was the best country performance of the year. You feel the devastation, the breaking apart. LaVette inhabits Nelson’s song so completely she makes it an autobiography of real-life experience, one that mirrors our very own, something country music excels at. I haven’t been moved this much by a song and singer in a long time—maybe since George Jones’s “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” —Ellis Widner

Having just this morning completed my Social Security application—and yes, young people, there will be money there for you too if you don’t believe the hype—I feel I have a special right to say that, where Willie-Merle-Ray’s Last of the Breed proves that old men can still make vital music, Porter Wagoner and Johnny Bush’s albums prove that age doesn’t guarantee effective wisdom, musical or otherwise. I mean, of course I’m sorry Wagoner died. But I’m a lot sorrier that Benazir Bhutto did. —Robert Christgau

The best live country music I heard last year was played in a log house in the middle of the woods in upstate New York by Arkansan Levon Helm, his daughter Amy, and some friends. Like many older cats, he’s wrestled with health and financial problems. His solution was to open his home studio for live performances a couple Saturdays a month. It’s a potluck food spread, BYO whatever, and about four hours of joyous house-rocking. Check him next time you’re near Woodstock. He even went and cut one of the year’s best albums, Dirt Farmer, after surviving throat cancer with that ancient-mariner yowl pretty much intact. Long may he run. —Will Hermes

WHAT IS COUNTRY MUSIC?:

I’m sure I’m one of the few people who has the Pine Leaf Boys on their list, but if country remains working class, domestic music, then they certainly qualify as country. Then again, I may be defining country as it was, as I want it to be and not as it is. My choices reflect a general preference for Americana more than true country, but I’m not sure that including Americana in a country poll isn’t a cheat, a way to champion a kind of country that reflects the traditional values I don’t find in country these days. —Alex Rawls

What you won’t find on my list is anything that came within shouting distance of mainstream country radio, which has become ever more unlistenable than in recent years. Nor will you find much that represents the new generation of Texas songsters and Red Dirt rockers, whose inbred white-boy clichés have come to rival those of the Nashville brown-nosers. Would I rather chance upon Pat Green on the radio dial than Kenny Chesney? Sure. Would I prefer to sit through a live set by Cross Canadian Ragweed than Rascal Flatts? Of course. But would I put any of the above in the same class with Alison Krauss or Levon Helm or Lucinda Williams? Come on. —Rick Mitchell

If you like Merle Haggard, you’re probably more likely to enjoy an act previously categorized as rock as one currently on commercial country radio rotation. How by any definition is Keith Urban classified as country other than which station plays his music? Whether you love it or hate it, it’s closest relatives are all rock artists from the 1970s and ’80s. Of course, a similar argument could be made all the way back to the father of country music, Jimmie Rodgers. Other than it being performed by a white musician, it was just as much blues as it was “country.” —Wayne Bledsoe

I tend to think that albums like Wilco’s Sky Blue Sky represent my thinking about country music, circa 2007: It’s country in the same way that Dylan’s John Wesley Harding or Nashville Skyline is country: informed by the genre’s rustic sounds, working-class roots and rural myths rather than boxed in by the pure sonic tradition of it all. I guess this is what made people like Gram Parsons so visionary in the first place: He had the imagination to picture a place where genre, labels and all the associated bullshit took a backseat to the emotional connections/power of the music at hand. And let it rip. —Corey DuBrowa

I like mutts. They’re smarter and better adjusted than purebred dogs, and they don’t have as many health problems. Keeping a bloodline limits genetic variety and the possibilities of the species as a whole. That’s why I don’t give a damn about what is “country” and what isn’t. Purists screamed when a drum set was first hauled onstage at the Grand Ole Opry, when Ray Price shared studio space with a string section, when Garth Brooks smashed his guitar and when Cowboy Troy coined the term “hick-hop.” They’re screaming now about incursions into the genre’s airspace by rock acts like Bon Jovi, The Eagles and John Mellencamp, and you can bet they’ll scream about the next threat to the purity of country’s bloodline. The thrilling vocal harmonies on Little Big Town’s A Place to Land, easily the best album of the year, are influenced more by Fleetwood Mac and Crosby, Stills & Nash than The Statler Brothers and the Oak Ridge Boys. So is it country? It’s a magnificent mutt, and it’ll always be welcome at my house. —Chris Neal

If Sunny Sweeney is too “country” for anyone outside of Texas then I’m worried about proverbial punching bag Rascal Flatts’ long-term effect on the genre. —Tom Alesia

To be honest, it wasn’t a great year for country music. After ruling the past few years, Gretchen Wilson and Big & Rich delivered records that had their moments, but not much more. Little Big Mac (oops, I mean Little Big Town) made a fun record of boy-girl harmonized country-rock after cribbing notes from Rumours, though I hope they borrow more from Tusk next time. And even the best records—Lori McKenna’s major label debut, and the Krauss/Plant set—were modest pleasures, not exactly dance-on-the-bar material. But I’m an optimist, and with what sound like great new records by Shelby Lynne and Kathleen Edwards on deck, and a new president in the wings, I’m all about 2008. —Will Hermes

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