The year 2003 was one of death and tragedy for the Carter-Cash clan. It began Feb. 12 when Howie Epstein, Carlene Carter’s common-law husband from 1987 through 2002, died in New Mexico. On May 15, June Carter Cash, the family’s reigning matriarch, died unexpectedly during an operation. Johnny Cash, already in fragile health, was staggered by his wife’s death and passed on Sept. 12. Less than two weeks later, his stepdaughter Rosey Nix died in Clarksville, Tenn.
And yet it was also a year of tremendous artistic achievement for the family. When 90 music writers from North America and Europe voted in the fourth annual Country Music Critics Poll, they turned again and again to the many-branched Carter-Cash tree. The critics named the last single of Johnny Cash’s life, “Hurt,” the Best Single of 2003, and they named his posthumous box set, Unearthed, the year’s Best Reissue. Not only did those two records win, they won by the largest margins in the poll’s history. (The poll previously appeared in the now defunct Country Music magazine.)
Voters cited Fate’s Right Hand by Cash’s ex-son-in-law Rodney Crowell as the year’s Best Album. Two tracks from that album finished in the top 20 of the Best Singles voting, and Crowell was named the year’s Best Songwriter. Crowell’s ex-wife and Cash’s daughter, Rosanne Cash, finished in the top 10 for Best Album, Best Female Vocalist, Best Songwriter and Best Artist.
June Carter Cash’s Wildwood Flower was voted the year’s seventh Best Album, and her Live Recordings From the Louisiana Hayride was the 12th Best Reissue, right behind her husband’s album of the same name. Johnny Cash was also voted the second-best Artist and the second-best Male Vocalist. Marty Stuart, another of Cash’s former sons-in-law, was cited as the seventh Best Live Act and for the 11th Best Album.
It’s tempting to chalk up these votes to sentimentality, as confirmation of the old saw that “death is the best career move.” After all, Johnny Cash also won three awards from the Americana Music Association in September and three more from the Country Music Association in November. But death and loss were much more than just a publicity hook for these records; they provided the subject matter and context for the songs. This was once standard operating procedure for country music, but now it is so rare that it seems almost shocking.
It’s true that the songs were written before the tragedies, but while June’s death was a surprise, the others weren’t. Johnny Cash had already had several close calls and was living on borrowed time, and the personal demons afflicting Epstein and Nix were no secret. When Cash recorded Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt,” he was clearly contemplating his own mortality. Backed by minimal guitar and piano, he sings, “Everyone I know goes away in the end.” He doesn’t expect pity; he doesn’t hold out false hope; he unflinchingly confronts the truth of it, a truth that hasn’t been heard on country radio in years. When that vocal was coupled with film footage of his puffy, blotched face, the result was the rare music video where sound and image combined into a whole greater than the parts.
Even more powerful was Johnny’s duet with Rosanne, “September When It Comes,” a recording that might have received more votes if it had been released as a single before the polling began, rather than halfway through it. Rosanne’s composition is not a radio-friendly tale of uncomplicated parent-child love; it’s a story of a tremendously complex relationship, marked by absence and resentment, acknowledged by both father and daughter. The love never seems diminished by these acknowledgements, however; it seems all the richer for them. When Johnny becomes the autumnal father and, dropping all facades, sings, “I cannot be who I was then; in a way, I never was,” the effect is devastating.
Something similar happens in Rodney Crowell’s “Earthbound,” a song about looking back over “50 years of livin’ and your worst mistakes forgiven.” There’s even a verse about a cantankerous father-in-law who could well be Johnny Cash. But the song’s main point, driven by a bouncy, sparkling guitar figure, is that no matter how we dream of rising to perfect love and triumphant careers, we remain stubbornly earthbound.
This is the great achievement of Johnny Cash’s children. They took his willingness to talk frankly about the bedrock issues of American households and added the complications of the post-Beatles eranot only in the ironies of their lyrics, but also in the unpredictable changes of their chords and the push-and-pull of their rhythms. And by his children, I mean not only his kids and sons-in-law, but also artistic heirs like Patty Loveless, Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams, Guy Clark, Jim Lauderdale, The Mavericks, Emmylou Harris and Buddy & Julie Miller.
One could label them alternative-country, but most of these artists have visited the upper reaches of the Billboard country charts as performers or songwriters, thus proving there is a broad audience for their music. So let’s call it Cash-country instead.
The Country Music Critics Poll began at the end of 2000 in Country Music magazine, and it ran there for three years. When that publication shut down this past year, however, the poll found a new home here at the Scene. The goal, now as then, has been to provide a critics poll for country music analogous to the pop poll in the Village Voice and the jazz poll in DownBeat. The goal has been to reach a critical consensus not only on the best country artists and recordings of the year, but also on just what country music is at any given point in time.
In 2000, that consensus settled on Lee Ann Womack (who won Best Album, Best Single and Best Female Vocalist) and on the Dixie Chicks (who won Best Artist, Best Group and Best Live Act and placed four singles in the top 15). In 2001, the consensus coalesced around O Brother, Where Art Thou? and related acts like the Soggy Bottom Boys (Best Single), Patty Loveless (Best Album) and Alison Krauss & Union Station (Best Artist). In 2002, the consensus yielded an across-the-board, landslide victory for the Dixie Chicks, who won Best Album, Best Single, Best Live Act, Best Group and Best Artist.
Cash-country may be the main theme of the 2003 poll, but it’s far from the only story. It was also a triumphant year for Brooks & Dunn, who scored the third-best single and fourth-best album. Red Dirt Road isn’t the duo’s best work, but it’s good enough to allow critics to change their collective minds about this perennially underrated act, who mixed melody and muscle better than anyone in mainstream country last year.
Also mixing melody and muscleand meaningwere the Drive-By Truckers, a country act in the same sense that Lynyrd Skynyrd and Charlie Daniels were country acts. The Truckers finished in the top six for Best Album, Best Live Act, Best Group and Best Artist, and they probably would have finished higher if several voters had resolved their quandary about whether this quintet from Alabama are really a country act. But if country music is about giving voice to average folks in Southern small towns, the Drive-By Truckers may well have been the most country act of 2003. And the Bottle Rockets weren’t far behind.
Nothing captured the best impulses of country music in 2003 better than the tribute album Livin’, Lovin’, Losin’: Songs of The Louvin Brothers. Not only did this CD finish third in the critics’ Best Album vote, it also included contributions from just about every top finisher in the poll.
There are several ways to understand this phenomenon. On the one hand, the album’s a throwback to the 1950s, when Charlie and Ira Louvin exemplified the virtues of classic countryfrank talk about marriage and money problems delivered with twangy instrumentation and aching vocals. At the same time, Livin’, Lovin’, Losin’ is an obvious successor to O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and the simplicity of the new album’s mostly acoustic arrangements appealed to critics for the same reason.
But the true importance of Livin’, Lovin’, Losin’ isn’t its classicism but its modernity. It was The Louvin Brothers, after all, who provided the model for the Emmylou Harris and Gram Parsons duets that did more than anything to launch the alternative-country movement. And after Parsons died, Harris clung to the Louvin model in her early work with Rodney Crowell and Ricky Skaggs. In those three partnerships, she forged a new kind of country music, a music that recognized the lineage from the Louvins to The Everly Brothers to The Beatles, a music that applied John Lennon’s irony and Paul McCartney’s rhythm-driven harmonies to the working-class, married-life subject matter of Johnny Cash and the Louvin Brothers.
By closing that circle, Harris argued that country songs should modernize by digging deeper into the contradictions of adult romance and Southern music rather than by smoothing over them with bland reassurances and arena-rock arrangements. And it’s that vision that offers country music its best hope for the future.
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Thanks so much for the fun read! Have a great summer.
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