Here at the Nashville Scene Election Center, as we were tabulating the votes for the 12th annual Country Music Critics' Poll, it quickly became clear that this year's contest was shaping up as a two-person race: Miranda Lambert the solo artist vs. Miranda Lambert the trio artist.
The two contenders offered strikingly different visions of country music to the poll's 77 voting journalists. The solo Lambert was campaigning on a broad-based platform designed to win over independents and moderates with a mix of Hot Country arena rock, alt-country poignancy and countrypolitan balladry. The trio Lambert, by contrast, appealed to her party's base by focusing on a consistently traditional, stripped-down, twangy sound.
The result was something of a split decision. Pistol Annies, Lambert's trio with Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley, won the Album of the Year voting with their debut effort, Hell on Heels, which established a comfortable lead over Lambert's No. 2 album, Four the Record. The title track from the Pistol Annies' album was voted the No. 2 single — edging Lambert's No. 3 "Baggage Claim" but falling short of Kenny Chesney and Grace Potter's No. 1 "You and Tequila." Pistol Annies were voted the Best Group or Duo and the Best New Artist, but Lambert was named the Best Female Vocalist, Best Songwriter and Artist of the Year.
Other big winners in the poll included Eric Church, Hayes Carll, Sunny Sweeney, Brad Paisley, The Civil Wars, Gillian Welch, Taylor Swift and the late Johnny Cash. But when you added her solo and trio votes together, Lambert (see sidebar on p. 14) dominated the Country Music Critics' Poll this year more than any artist ever has — more than Jamey Johnson did in 2010 and 2008, more than the solo Lambert did in 2009 and 2007, even more than The Dixie Chicks did in 2006 and 2002. And she did it not with the kind of middlebrow seriousness and sentimentality that win so many Oscars and Grammys but with unabashedly irreverent humor.
The title track from Hell on Heels, for example, rewrites Steve Martin's Dirty Rotten Scoundrels as an all-female, all-hillbilly production. The three women — Lambert casting herself as Lone Star Annie, Monroe as Hippie Annie and Presley as Holler Annie — take turns bragging about how they fleeced one rich man after another with ingenious con jobs.
They present themselves as polar alternatives to the pious Carrie Underwoods and Lady Antebellums of the world by bellowing out on another song: "Who in the hell's gonna pay these bills when one's drinkin', one's smokin', one's takin' pills?" Nearly as funny and irreverent is the solo Lambert, who delights in singing about a cross-dressing congressman, a promise-breaking, shoe-gazing fiancé and a '65 muscle car packed with a whiskey bottle and loaded gun.
Humor has always been a constant in country music, but sometimes it gets submerged beneath goody-two-shoes earnestness, especially when Music Row is gripped by dreams of crossover success and dresses up as if going to church — and later the bank. This has been true in recent years as country radio has tried to position itself as a refuge for socially conservative, well-heeled, mall-shopping suburbanites. Country playlists have been dominated lately by self-righteous, breast-beating songs where fathers and wives are implausibly perfect saints and where dirt roads and fishing ponds were a way of life threatened by heartless city slickers. (Who are these phantom enemies? How come I, who live amid urban liberals, have never met one of these back-road-haters in the flesh?)
But whenever country music becomes too pompous, too bloated, a hillbilly singer with a sharpened needle always comes along to pop the balloon. And it wasn't just Lambert, Monroe and Presley who were wielding barbs this year. Eric Church (No. 1 Male Vocalist, No. 3 Live Act, No. 5 Songwriter, No. 6 Artist of the Year and No. 7 Single) popped a few overinflated assumptions himself with the drinking tales on his No. 3 album Chief. This isn't the standard-issue fare of tough guys downing shots, but rather the sheepish confessions of a guy who messed up after "Jack Daniel's kicked my ass again last night."
Hayes Carll (No. 3 Songwriter, No. 5 Artist of the Year, No. 7 Male Vocalist) pushes the limits even further on his No. 4 album KMAG YOYO. Carll presents himself as a screw-up in the army (the title comes from Army slang: "Kiss my ass, guys, you're on your own"), as a target of his girlfriend's vicious insults and as a songwriter who "ain't a poet, just a drunk with a pen." On her No. 8 album, Concrete, Sunny Sweeney (No. 2 Female Vocalist) mixes alcohol and marriage with hilarious results, warning her inattentive husband that she's going to "Drink Myself Single" and allow "The Old Me" out of the closet if he doesn't watch out.
Lambert, Pistol Annies, Church, Carll and Sweeney weren't the only impolite comedians in country music this year, but they were the best. Because they knew it takes more than a good joke to earn a laugh; the music has to be part of the setup. If you're poking fun at human foibles, you're sabotaging yourself if your backing music is polished within an inch of perfection, compressed to an unchanging blob of sound and processed with enough effects to kill any pretense of spontaneity. Unfortunately, many would-be funny country songs were burdened by such production values this year — and by not particularly clever punch lines. Nothing is more excruciating than a song that tries to be funny but isn't.
The five acts above, however, know how to match let-it-hang-out commentary to let-it-hang-out music. Even though their five albums were careful studio constructions, they held back on the overdubs, compression and effects enough that you could hear dynamic differences between quiet and loud — you could hear a separation of instruments, and you could hear small mistakes and spontaneous gestures. There's an element of unpredictability in these performances — and that's an element crucial to comedy.
Brad Paisley (No. 1 Live Act, No. 2 Male Vocalist, No. 4 Artist of the Year, No. 9 Songwriter, No. 12 Single) knows how to deliver a funny song, as he does with "Camouflage," "Working on a Tan," "Toothbrush" and "Don't Drink the Water" on his No. 7 album This Is Country Music. But after his boldest, most ambitious release, 2009's American Saturday Night, this new album seems like a well-crafted but utterly safe retrenchment to consolidate his commercial base. That's a reasonable trade-off, but you can't expect critical huzzahs for such a move.
No one could deliver a comic song better than Johnny Cash, whose mock seriousness made preposterous lyrics even funnier before he allowed a sly smile at the end. You can hear his dry chuckle beneath "Jackson" and "I'm Just an Old Chunk of Coal" on the previously unreleased live recordings that make up his 2011 release, Bootleg Vol. III: Live Around the World, voted the year's No. 1 Reissue. You'd have thought that Columbia had already released every known Johnny Cash recording by now, but the label found 53 for this compilation and 57 more for Bootleg Vol. II: From Memphis to Hollywood, voted the No. 5 Reissue.
Comedy gets no respect from the Oscars and Grammys, but the Country Music Critics' Poll voters know that a funny song can illuminate human behavior as effectively as a sad one. If the greatest art explores the gap between the way the world should be and the way it actually is — or the gap between the way we see ourselves and the way we actually are — a sad song can reveal how painful our frustrations can be, but a funny song can show how ridiculous our shortcomings and hypocrisies can be. Each approach gets at a different kind of truth.
One could argue that in an era of housing foreclosures, mass layoffs and callous attitudes, comedy is out of place, what we need is a sober exploration of all the pain and cruelty out there. One could argue back, however, that in an era when our ongoing crisis is confronted by sanctimonious prescriptions with no basis in reality — prescriptions that flourish not only on country radio but also on pop radio and talk radio — that comedy is needed more than ever. Think of Carll and Pistol Annies as the hillbilly-music equivalents of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.
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