On Your Way Home (Epic)
Country music approaches the 2003 CMA Awards with its house divided. The Dixie Chicks, the hottest act in the genre over the last five years, aren’t appearing and aren’t expected to attend. The Chicks are upset at the way country radio fueled the backlash against lead singer Natalie Maines’ critical remark about the war in Iraqand about the lack of support the trio have received from other artists and the rest of the industry.
Toby Keith, the singer with the most CMA nominations, will sit in the audience under the weight of a giant chip on his shoulder. If he wins, he’ll likely again propose that he hasn’t received the industry recognition he’s due. In press interviews backstage, he’ll deal with the outspoken political and social commentary of his songswhich, of course, explains why industry voting splits into factions when it comes to the burly, right-wing Oklahoman.
Faith Hill and Shania Twain, two of country’s most successful acts, will not hear their names among the nominees. Already rapped on the wrist by country radio for pursuing a pop-crossover sound too aggressively, both artists also were spurned by the CMA voters. Lack of success at radio isn’t the reason: The two superstars were replaced in the female vocalist category by Alison Krauss and Dolly Parton, two beloved perennials who haven’t had new singles on commercial country radio since before Shania arrived on the scene. In a gracious move, Hill and Twain will participate in the awards show, Faith as a presenter, Shania as a performer. But despite these accommodating gestures, their absence from the nominations quietly speaks volumes about the behind-the-scenes fissures besetting the industry.
That said, there are a few things everyone in the industry agrees on. One is that Martina McBride deserves every bit of the success she’s experiencing. Another is that people are delighted that universally respected Patty Loveless has returned to radio and the awards ceremony.
McBride’s recent album, Martina, enjoyed the biggest opening week of her career, selling more than 126,000 copies; her current single, “This One’s for the Girls,” is one of the brightest spots on country radio. McBride is also the only top female star to maintain strong support from radio programmers over the last two years, and she’s heavily favored to take her second-consecutive Female Vocalist of the Year honor. It would be her third overall, and she’s also won the Academy of Country Music’s top female singer trophy for three consecutive years.
For the singer and her label, RCA Records, Martina was approached as the album that could lift her to the superstar status that has eluded her so far. As popular as she has become, McBride has yet to headline her own arena tour, and she’s yet to earn an Entertainer of the Year nominationa distinction reserved for the genre’s top stars. Indeed, there hasn’t been a female nominated in the entertainer category for two years nowor for five of the last 10 years, an indication of how out-of-balance country music has become when it relates to gender. For perspective, from 1983 to 1993, there was always at least one woman among the top entertainer nominees.
Martina may end up being the record that elevates McBride. But it also underscores the singer’s one artistic problem: Her albums are nearly indistinguishable from one another. The genre’s most capable female singerat least since Trisha Yearwood has taken a diminished role of lateMcBride has built her career on gutsy, memorable singles. She’s twice been nominated for CMA Single of the Year (“Blessed” in 2002, “A Broken Wing” in 1998), and her performance of “Independence Day” earned songwriter Gretchen Peters the 1995 CMA Award for Song of the Year.
By contrast, McBride’s albums are solid, functional collections. She’s never made a huge mistakeher six studio albums (and two Christmas releases) each have moments of glory and a crisp, snappy focus. Martina continues in this vein: Besides the first hit, the album has plenty of highlights, notably “In My Daughter’s Eyes,” “Wearin’ White,” “When You Love Me” and “Reluctant Daughter.” What it doesn’t have is a personality of its own. There’s nothing that separates it from Evolution, Emotion, Wild Angels or any of McBride’s other albums. They’re all good, but none of them is great. They all represent her talent well, but none of them captures a particular moment of her life or reflects something singular in her artistic growth.
That’s why McBride’s Greatest Hits album from 2001 remains her most successful releaseand the album on which to hear her at her best. That’s true of many country artists, who after all must work in a genre driven by singles. But the most successful of McBride’s peers also have issued albums that rise above and stamp that artist into the cultural consciousness in a way that singles don’t. Alan Jackson, the Dixie Chicks, Tim McGraw, Brooks & Dunn, Faith Hill, Shania Twain and Kenny Chesney all have certain albums that are emblematic of their times and that maintain a sentimental spot in the hearts of their fans. None of those artists counts greatest-hits collections as the pinnacle album of their careers.
Patty Loveless, on the other hand, consistently has made outstanding albums. The CMA has recognized this: She won Album of the Year honors in 1995 for When Fallen Angels Fly and was nominated in the best album category in 1996 and 1998.
Unlike McBride’s, Loveless’ career includes a misstep. Her 2000 release Strong Heart found her trying a more contemporary sound, as she attempted to compete with the rush toward modern-pop influences that nearly every female singer explored in the wake of Twain’s monumental success. The jittery rhythms and electronic experiments of the album’s lead-off single, “That’s the Kind of Mood I’m In,” didn’t work. Loveless sounded uncomfortable and out of her element, and the production of her husband Emory Gordy often seemed forced.
Loveless rebounded by digging deeper into her roots and came up with a career highlight, the bluegrass-influenced Mountain Soul. Rejuvenated artistically and commercially, Loveless returned this year with On Your Way Home, which blends down-home acoustic instruments with drums and electric guitars; with this latest record, she rivals the Dixie Chicks and Alan Jackson in showing how country can hold onto its identity and yet sound thoroughly modern. Country radio has already embraced Loveless’ cover of Rodney Crowell’s “Lovin’ All Night,” and hopefully those deejays and program directors will follow with unforgettable cuts like “I Don’t Want to Be That Strong,” “The Grandpa That I Know” and the title track.
As one of the great American artists of her era, Loveless has always transcended trends. But each of her best albumswhich, other than Strong Heart, includes everything she’s recorded since 1993stands on its own and stakes her ground at that moment in time. McBride, who’s continued to succeed by staying away from trends herself, can learn something from Loveless. The dynamic singer needs to show the same guts and willingness to take risks in her albums as she has in her selection of singles. It’s the last step on her way to the top.
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