It Don’t Feel Like Sinnin’ to Me 

The winners in this year’s Country Music Critics’ Poll cross the line and earn their uplift

Former Stars Perhaps the most interesting creative dynamic in country music over the last decade or so is that so many artists who were once radio staples have experienced an artistic resurgence after country radio has written them off. From Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson through Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell and Marty Stuart, great artists who no longer feel compelled to confirm to the dictates of the format have made some of the greatest music of their careers. —Don McLeese I am mightily glad of Stuart's ambition and drive and progressively conservative weirdness, but I wish he wouldn't work so hard to convince everyone that he is the heir to John R. Cash's throne. Easy, Marty—no one else is stepping up, you got it. Now have fun with it. —Matt Cibula I found Bobby Bare's The Moon Was Blue highly entertaining, despite my reservations about its attempt to turn countrypolitan goop into avant-garde pop. A generation ago, Willie Nelson's Stardust took the casual intensity of Western swing as a given, and gave us schmaltz-free standards for the ages. Bare's album gives us the standards with the schmaltz, and I'm not sure if there's any real gain in sophistication. But I'm still listening. —Edd Hurt What Is Country Music? This was the year I decided to stop bitching about how country music writers systematically ignore tejano and banda and duranguense music, and rhythm and blues, and just about everything that doesn't fit the suit. Hell, if everyone fit the same suit, there never would have been a Nudie Cohn. But, come on, people, would it kill you to put on your local Latin station, which probably plays more music by cowboy-hatted dudes than your average country station or AAA alt.country outlet, just once or twice a week? —Matt Cibula I venture to guess that, given the watered down, white-bread, citified state of what passes for country music today, a growing number of teens actually living in the country are as interested in 50 Cent and Nelly as they are in Shania or Faith or Big & Rich, or in Rascal Flatts and their North Korean hair styles (although B&R are definitely homing in on that audience with their redneck rap overtones). —William Smith It's a cliché but accurate to say that Country & Western is split emotionally between a desire for home and family on the one hand and the urge to range wild and free on the other. This can either be a profound paradox or a lazy inconsistency depending on the artistry involved. Shannon Brown's "Corn Fed" is very catchy but appalling in its stupidity. On the one hand, she says that in her happy heartland they leave doors unlocked so as not to keep anybody out, on the other she brags that there ain't nothin' but country on the radio. The average eight-year-old can see the hypocrisy in that one, and for an adult to write such a song and not notice its bullshit requires a deliberate deadening of the intellect. (Gawd, if there were an actual community that said this about itself, how would its teenagers avoid growing up insane? By listening to Young Jeezy records, perhaps, and dreaming of being gangstas.) —Frank Kogan The problem posed by any discussion of what qualifies as “country” is that the term refers both to an expansive musical category and a restrictive radio format. One reflection of this is the disconnect on my ballot between the top country albums and singles. I fill out the former category, exercising a lot of critical latitude as to what constitutes country. My 18-year-old daughter fills out the latter, based on preferences formed by power-rotation airplay. I almost never listen to country radio; she almost never listens to anything else. Yet not only do we both love country music, we appreciate a lot of the same country music (from Shooter Jennings and Alison Krauss to Gretchen Wilson and Brooks & Dunn). Maybe these two countries aren’t totally different after all. —Don McLeese Trendy country is as usual gorging itself to death. Redneck songs—done, now. Hick songs—button up and please go away. T&A songs and videos—get dressed and go home. Stupid get-drunk songs—already over the legal limit. Pro-War songs: mission not-quite-accomplished. Stupid stripper-bar songs: not worthy of the people singing them in most cases (trading your birthright for a mess of pottage). —Chet Flippo As usual, women made the year bearable, in country music as elsewhere. Mary Gauthier made an excellent Lucinda Williams record; so, for that matter, did Kathleen Edwards and Lucinda herself, who is casting a long shadow these days. (Even Laura Cantrell’s fine CD had a lost Lucinda-penned gem on it.) Lee Ann Womack made her best record by going retro with a primo set of originals, Martina McBride by going retro with a primo set of covers. 2005’s other great covers album came from Jimmie Dale Gilmore—-who is of course a boy, but kinda sings like a girl. —Will Hermes To my ears, the three best country debuts of 2005 were made by Miranda Lambert, the Wrights and Bobby Pinson, and other critics nearly agreed, voting them #1, #4 and #6 in the New Acts category. All three were mainstream acts on major labels with solid industry connections: Lambert was co-produced by Lee Ann Womack's husband; Adam Wright is Alan Jackson's nephew, and Pinson had previously written songs for Blake Shelton, LeAnn Rimes and Tracy Lawrence. But while Lambert enjoyed unarguable hits, Pinson couldn’t crack the Top 10 with his funny, catchy single, “Don’t Ask Me How I Know" (#18 in the poll) and the Wrights couldn’t crack the charts at all with their tuneful, heartfelt single, “Down the Road” (#36 in the poll). If country radio, which is always complaining about a lack of new blood, can’t embrace songs this accessible and this satisfying, what hope is there? —Geoffrey Himes CMA in New York Hey Nashville, thanks for coming up to see us in New York City for the CMA Awards. The running joke was that we don’t have a country radio station. Boo-fucking-hoo. The trade-off for not having a spigot spewing Rascal Flatts and truck ads 24/7 is being able to see Lee Ann Womack in a nightclub or Brad Paisley in a small theater when they’re playing arenas elsewhere. It’s weird that country superstars are often like cult acts in the nation’s media capitol. But that’s fine by me. —Will Hermes Country fashion spread of the year: The New York Times Thursday style section the week of the CMA Awards, condescendingly chronicling female country artists' newfound obsession with designer labels. For instance, did you know they don't leave price tags on their hats anymore? Well, they don't, so there! Actually, the most interesting thing about the piece was the graphic that compared Faith Hill's, Martina McBride's and LeAnn Rimes' down-home mid-'90s CD covers to their much more fashionable (and way hotter, though it doesn't say that) recent ones. And the piece even mentioned LeAnn's "heaving bosom." Take that, Minnie Pearl! —Chuck Eddy Technology The country audience is tenaciously holding onto the CD as the primary music delivery system, as it were, and—as long as country listeners spend a great deal of time in their trucks, SUVs and cars—that will probably endure for as long as CDs exist. At the same time, I see a gradual shift, especially to satellite radio. I don’t see Wal-Mart shoppers jumping to MP3s immediately. —Chet Flippo This summer; we drove approximately 8,000 miles from upstate New York down South, then out West to California and back. Occasionally, we'd try to tune in local stations but all too often got horrific Clear Channel. So we'd go running back to our brand-new (for the trip) Sirius Satellite Radio. We're addicted, and though we have three great indie radio stations up here in Rural NY State, we listen to Sirius at home too. We tried lots of different Sirius channels (some of which have since changed their names) but our overall favorite was Outlaw Country, followed by Sirius Disorder, what was then called Folktown (now Coffeehouse or something) and Roadhouse. —Holly George-Warren CMT is the best damned country station in America. They played frigging Nelly and Tim’s “Over and Over,” for Pete’s sake! Nelly, on CMT, back-to-back with the likes of Brooks & Dunn! How bizarre, you might think, but in the CMT context, it totally worked. Marc Broussard works there, too, as does Rhonda Vincent, and even John Mellencamp, alongside Trisha and Jo Dee and Gretchen and, would you believe, the ol’ Possum, George Jones. No “hot country” radio station in the U.S. will touch oldsters like Jones or Parton, but CMT loves, and plays, ’em all. —Thomas Inskeep Politics In his superb new book, Rednecks & Bluenecks: The Politics of Country Music, Entertainment Weekly writer Chris Willman takes you on a fascinating psychological tour of the Row, a place where performers are usually (but not always!) red, record label execs are (surprisingly!) mostly blue, and, got-damn, we’re talking bottom-line stuff here, so let’s just call ourselves strange bedfellows and get back to shifting units! Willman also deftly traces the divergent historical paths of country and folk, where the former eventually became the pulse beat of the GOP and the latter sired alt-country. (The lengthy section on alt-country is brilliantly titled “Steve Earle’s Mouth Is Gonna Rise Again.”) By peeling away readers’ preconceptions and challenging us to understand why certain people talk and act the way they do, Willman is actually engaging in politics himself—the politics of inclusion. —Fred Mills It is too eerie how Mary Gauthier's Mercy Now, released early in 2005, prophesied the destruction of New Orleans, from the never-again Bourbon Street parade of characters on "Wheel Inside the Wheel" to the apocalyptic "It Ain't the Wind, It's the Rain." Gauthier, who lived in New Orleans, also connects the political dots on the title track: "My church and country could use a little mercy now / As they sink into a poisoned pit / That's going to take forever to climb out." Currently, more than 100,000 refugees from Hurricane Katrina are living in my town of Houston, as the Bush Administration seems more concerned with pretending to rebuild Iraq than pretending to rebuild New Orleans, and Congress has suddenly discovered fiscal restraint after gorging itself on pork. We all could use a little mercy now. —Rick Mitchell My most telling country music anecdote of ’05: I was in the bathroom at a Brooks & Dunn show in Arkansas after the Big & Rich set, which was wicked fun of course and included Cowboy Troy on “Ballad of B&R” and “I Play Chicken With the Train”—and, as I was washing my hands, I hear an obviously drunk guy talk to friends about how he likes B&R and that Cowboy Troy was good, you know, for a nig.... B&R are going head-to-head with latent racism and yeah, it's still out there, but I like to believe they are winning. —Werner Trieschmann It's not that Toby doesn't take himself seriously, as a casual listener to "As Good As I Once Was" might think. It's that he understands his limitations more than the average blowhard. The most telling line of the song is "I might have just enough." Really. That's it. Not too much. Just enough to finish the job without too much embarrassment, if also without anything left for a second round. It's what men know, but are scared shitless to admit. Would have probably kept us out of Iraq if heard by the right people at the right time. —Jon Caramanica Fuck This Town Robbie Fulks is best known for “Fuck This Town," his kiss-off to Nashville, the city that gave the Chicagoan a publishing deal and a major-label contract and then had no idea what to do with his brilliant but idiosyncratic songs. In retrospect, Fulks’ farewell number was not the final slam of the door but rather the false bravado of a jilted lover who still carried the torch. All he wanted was to have his love of Music City and its traditions to be requited. One suspects that much of the grumbling on the part of alt-country acts camouflages a similarly thwarted love. Fulks was back in Nashville recently to record Georgia Hard, an album that betrays an undiminished crush on the town's best music. The city would be wise to seize this offer of reconciliation, for these are some of the smartest, catchiest, funniest and warmest country songs of 2005. —Geoffrey Himes This year’s 99 voters were: Grant Alden, Tom Alesia, Don Allred, Billy Altman, Brian T. Atkinson, Mike Berick, Jim Bessman, Peter Blackstock, Bliss Bowen, Jon Bream, Jim Caliguri, David Cantwell, Jon Caramanica, Nancy Cardwell, Matt Cibula,  Howard Cohen, John Conquest, Randy Cordova, Rick Cornell, Greg Crawford, Kandia Crazy Horse, Erik Danton, John T. Davis, Dan DeLuca, Kerry Dexter, Kerry Doole, Dan Durchholz, Anthony Easton, Chuck Eddy, Dan Ferguson, Tim Finn, Chet Flippo, Janis Fontaine, Bill Friskics-Warren,  Tom Geddie, Holly George-Warren, Jon Gilbertson, Gary Graff, Joey Guerra, Bob Gulla, Russell Hall, Jim Harrington, Stacy Harris, Shane Harrison, Will Hermes, Chris Herrington, Dylan Hicks, Geoffrey Himes, Edd Hurt, Thomas Inskeep, Roy Kasten, Thomas Kintner, Frank Kogan, Steve LaBate, Randy Lewis, David Lindquist, John Lomax, Josh Love, Barry Mazor, Michael McCall, Don McLeese, Kendra Meinert, Fred Mills, Rick Mitchell, Darryl Morden, Stuart Munro, Kyle Munson, Jim Musser, Chris Neal, Ralph Novak, George Paul, Bob Paxman, Tim Perlich, Rick Petreycik, J. Poet, Doug Pullen, Bobby Reed, David Royko, Lloyd Sachs, John Schacht, Eric Schumacher-Rasmussen, Craig Shelburne, Hazel Smith, W.M. Smith, David Sokol, John Swenson, Bruce Sylvester, Bob Townsend, Werner Trieschmann, Shannon Wayne Turner, Ron Warnick, Jon Weisberger, Mark Whittington, Tom Wilk, Chris Willman, Kent Wolgamott, Mikael Wood, Ron Wynn, Gregory Yost. Our voters wrote for the following publications in 2005: Acoustic Guitar, allaboutjazz.com, Amazon.com, American Profile, Amplifier, Arizona Republic, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Athens Banner-Herald, Atlanta Journal Constitution, Austin Chronicle, Austin Statesman-American, Backstreets, Baltimore City Paper, Baltimore Magazine, Billboard Magazine, Bluegrass Now, Bluegrass Unlimited, Boston Globe, Boston Phoenix, Buddy, Charlotte Observer, Chicago Sun-Times, Chicago Tribune, City Pages, Cleveland Plain Dealer, CMA Close-Up, CMT Magazine, CMT.com, Country Standard Time, Country Update, Country Weekly, Creative Loafing, Des Moines Register, Detroit Free Press, Detroit Metro Times, Dirty Linen, Disney Magazine, Entertainment Weekly, Exclaim, Fade In, Flint Journal, Folk Alley, FolkWax, Fort Worth Weekly, Goldmine, Green Bay Press-Gazette, Harp, Hartford Courant, Hearsay, Houston Chronicle, Houston Press, Ice, Indianapolis Star, International Bluegrass, Iowa City Press-Citizen, Irish Emigrant, Irish Newsletter, Jazz Times, Journal of Country Music, Kansas City Star, Lincoln Journal Star, Los Angeles Times, Magnet, Maverick Country, Mean Street Magazine, Memphis Flyer, Miami Herald, Minneapolis Star Tribune, Nashville City Paper, Nashville Scene, National Public Radio, New Orleans Gambit, New York Times, No Depression, Now Magazine, Oakland Tribune, Offbeat, Ontario Daily Bulletin, Orange County Register, Palm Beach Post, Pasadena Weekly, Paste, People Magazine, Performing Songwriter, Philadelphia Inquirer, Pitchforkmedia.com, PopMatters.com, Ptolemaic Terrascope, Red Flag Media, Relix, Riverfront Times, Rockgrrl, Rolling Stone, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, San Bernardino Sun, San Jose Mercury News, Sauk Valley Newspapers, Seattle Weekly, Songwriters, Southern Rhode Island Newspapers, Spin Magazine, Stacy’s Music Row Report, Stereophile, Stomp & Stammer, Stylus Magazine, Tennessee Tribune, Texas Music, The Des Moines Register, Third Coast Music, Tracks, UPI, Village Voice, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Wisconsin State Journal, Worcester Telegram & Gazette, Words & Music. Brad Paisley's explicit traditionalism works against him. His songs with women are often misogynist, his political work is often retrograde, and his humor is borscht belt stale, but his God work is astonishing. A song like “When I Get Where I’m Going” features his simplest playing and his deepest singing. There is nothing new here, but because it lacks evangelism and does not tie God to the flag, its holiness moves slowly and earnestly. In this age of Bush and Blair, of fake churchgoing and bad pseudo-metal in churches the size of small towns, which look architecturally like Wal-Marts, having something that sounds like this is like a balm in Gilead. —Anthony Easton Sara Evans' "Coalmine" is about a woman who is so horny that she keeps her husband awake all night—and her husband is a coalminer. If this is the love that transcends human limitations, it's also the music that avoids any real recognition of working-class politics. Who needs sleep, or unions, when you have Sara Evans? So, business as usual in Nashville, and a pretty good song. —Edd Hurt Keith Urban is fun to look at. He doesn't wash his hair. Or okay, I know, he looks like he just got off his surfboard and it's still wet and so are all the ladies screaming for him. What a himbo! And he was named the CMA's male country singer of the year, which is ridiculous, because he's got like the most average voice on earth. At the award show, his beat sounded more disco than Big & Rich's. His songs never have an effect until he takes a guitar solo, which he never does anyway near long enough. Perhaps it's assumed his audience demographic does not like guitar solos? Could be. A shame, because he can play. I think all he needs are better songs, but maybe since he always just rolled out of bed or off the waves he's too sleepy and lazy to hunt around for good ones. —Chuck Eddy Alternatives Whatever happened to Americana and alt-country? One answer: find more than one artist willing to go on the record as calling himself or herself an Americana artist or an alt.country artist. It’s not in their nature to be so categorized. Plus, it’s pure poison when it comes to being racked at retail. —Chet Flippo I once considered Robbie Fulks a considerable country talent undermined by a grating voice and a smart-ass attitude. But age now agrees with him—his voice has deepened, and he’s gained maturity. Most of the Georgia Hard songs feel like long-lost jukebox classics. Fulks keeps some of the smarty-pants attitude with “Countrier Than Thou,” but it’s with a wink instead of a sneer. —Ron Warnick Mary Gauthier's Mercy Now is not your average Nashville or country album, but it is utterly of the South, with an intensity and eye for telling detail that evokes classic Southern novelists like Flannery O’Connor. Like O’Connor, Gauthier grasps the essential duality of Southern life and history; she neither rejects nor celebrates it, but instead accepts it with open eyes. —Bliss Bowen He’s loyal to his Nebraska roots, though he’s working the big cities now. He put out an excellent record of songs about loving and living (just like Trace Adkins), full of twangy yearning and pedal steel and Emmylou Harris cameos. And he sang a riveting song about God and the President on The Tonight Show—wearing a Stetson—that was clearly written by someone who cherishes our nation’s ideals. So tell me why Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst shouldn’t be considered the year’s best country act? —Will Hermes

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