Most years, the Music Row pickings are so slim that compiling a list of the best country albums from the preceding 12 months involves stretching the truth some, or at least stretching your definition of what constitutes country music. The process of coming up with an annualping like this: Load up on records by alt-leaning singers like Steve Earle and Emmylou Harris, and hope to find a couple-three mainstream titles you can legitimately slip into the lower half of your Top 10.
Of course, it helps if old reliables like Alan Jackson, George Strait, and Patty Loveless all put out records during the year in question, and if once-and-future unknowns like Bobbie Cryner and Chris Knight also happened to enjoy their 15 minutes during the eligibility period. In other words, for those whose tastes don’t line up with the Billboard charts or the rotation on CMT, annual best-ofs usually amount to statements of protest or very pointed wish lists: They say a whole lot more about what’s wrong with country music than what’s right about it.
So how did things get so messed up this year? Not only did the past 12 months see loads of good music roll off Music Row’s assembly line, a good bit of itparticularly records by Allison Moorer, Lee Ann Womack, Trisha Yearwood, and Aussie wunderkind Kasey Chamberswas actually better than the offerings that came from the indie or alt-country margins. Meanwhile, Alan, George, Patty, and West Coast dissident Dwight Yoakam all weighed in with decent records, and the Chicks’ reign continued unabated. The result has been a convergence of quality and popularity, the likes of which Nashville hasn’t seen since, say, the early ’70s, when Tammy, George, Dolly, Porter, Loretta, Conway, Sammi, Connie, Waylon, Tanya, and others were consistently making good-to-great albums.
Which isn’t to say Music Row didn’t crank out its share of dreck in 2000. Hardly. Vince Gill, Toby Keith, and Mark Willis all stunk up the place, and though it has a 1999 date on it, Faith Hill’s Breathe was a constant reminder of just how low you can go. (And that’s to say nothing of country radio, where fluff still dominates.) Yet even with these lapses, I still couldn’t find enough room in my Top 10 for any number of deserving commercial country records that hit the racks this yearthe aforementioned gimmes by Alan, George, Dwight, and Patty, and also debuts by ’grassers Johnny Staats and Sonya Isaacs, honky-tonker Darryl Worley, and shit-kicker Clay Davidson. Not to mention worthy left-of-center albums by perennial contenders Earle and Harris, as well as solid or better showings by legends like Porter, Loretta, and Johnny.
So, again, why this glut of good country music out of Nashville, much of it suggesting that instead of murder, there’s new life on Music Row? It was likely just a fluke, but don’t count out any of the following:
1. A Return to Substance: More Music Row acts are making records of depth and complexity, in the process luring substance-starved listeners back to country radio. Womack, Yearwood, Davidson, Moorer; ’99 holdovers Brad Paisley and Gary Allan; veterans Jackson, Strait, and Lovelesseach of these singers is connecting with people who’ve done a bit of living, people for whom songs about young love are no longer relevant, people who are raising kids, grieving loved ones or faded dreams, hungering for relationships that offer both romance and commitment.
Nowhere was this adult sensibility more evident than in Womack’s “I Hope You Dance,” an epochal single that, more than just a Hallmark card, struck at the heart of every parent’s deepest hopes and fears. Here, as Womack sweetly urges her daughters to live life to the fullest, baleful strings betray her awareness that they won’t always heed her advice, and that some of the risks they end up taking will give way to heartache and loss. Country radio rarely plays songs that convey such conflicted emotions for fear they will induce listeners to switch off their signals, but this past summer Womack’s single sat at No. 1 for five straight weeks, and just last week she sang it at ceremonies for the Nobel Peace Prize in Norway.
2. The Influx of Alt-Country, or “The Buddy Miller Effect”: More singers are looking beyond the committee-penned ditties being churned out by the Nashville hitmill and turning to alt-country-identified writers for songs that express complex adult perspectives akin to their own. Everyone from Kim Richey and Jim Lauderdale to Bruce Robison, Kimmie Rhodes, and Buddy and Julie Miller has been getting the call, while Moorer and her husband Butch Prim have so much to say they just write their own stuff. Moorer’s album was a bona fide wonder, a record that evinces both the cinematic sweep of Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger and the disarming intimacy of Sammi Smith’s “Help Me Make It Through the Night.”
But it’s more than just material. Singers like Womack and Yearwood (and their producers) are broadening their sonic palettes to match the affective range of their material, working in rootsier styles and, in some cases, with pickers and singers from outside the Row. And Moorer’s and Chambers’ records were alt-country, even if they were released on Nashville majors; both owed way more to Lucinda Williams than to Martina McBride.
Why not just chalk it all up to the influence of Buddy Miller? These days his guitar playing, harmonies, and cowrites (with wife Julie) are popping up all over the place, suggesting that Music Row may be more open to outside inspiration than the latest Lonestar single might have us think.
3. The Resurgence of Bluegrass: Bluegrass is making a comeback, and not just in the new Coen Brothers movie. This year saw both Johnny Staats and Sonya Isaacs make ’grassy albums for Nashville majors, and Randy Travis and Lee Ann Womack cut bluegrass songs. And there’s no denying the banjo’s renaissanceon the Chicks’ records and those by Travis, Womack, and Moorer, and also on recent singles by Sara Evans and Terri Clark. (Whoever let the fabulous Rhonda Vincent defect to an indie, though, deserves a pink slip.)
4. New Faces at the Grand Ole Opry: Young Music Row acts like Brad Paisley and Chely Wright are making commitments to performing regularly on the Opry, rubbing shoulders not just with Opry old-timers but with the many new alt-country and Americana acts the show’s management started booking a year or so ago. The sense of history and possibility such associations afford can only bode well for country music.
Top 10 albums
1. Allison Moorer, The Hardest Part (MCA)
2. Lee Ann Womack, I Hope You Dance (MCA)
3. Kasey Chambers, The Captain (Asylum)
4. Trisha Yearwood, Real Live Woman (MCA)
5. Ray Price, Prisoner of Love (Buddha)
6. Jimmie Dale Gilmore, One Restless Night (Windcharger)
7. Rhonda Vincent, Back Home Again (Rounder)
8. Jerry and Tammy Sullivan, Tomorrow (Ceili)
9. Willie Nelson, Me and the Drummer (Luck)
10. Laura Cantrell, Not the Tremblin’ Kind (Diesel Only)
Top five reissues
1. Various artists, Tennessee Jive: Country Music on Nashville’s Independent Labels, 1945-1955 (Bear Family)
2. The Monroe Brothers, What Would You Give in Exchange for Your Soul? (Rounder)
3. Various Artists, Nashville: The Early String Bands (County)
4. The Carter Family, In the Shadow of Clinch Mountain (Bear Family)
5. Various artists, Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, Vol. 4 (Revenant)
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