Never before has a newcomer dominated the Country Music Critics Poll the way Jamey Johnson has this year's edition. Just two years after being dropped from his label and disappearing from view, Johnson has come from nowhere to claim the No. 1 album (That Lonesome Song) and the No. 1 single ("In Color") in addition to topping the voting for Best Male Vocalist, Best Songwriter and Best Overall Act.
With his dark hair hanging down his back and a long, narrow beard dangling from his chin like an icicle, Johnson resembles either a Hell's Angel biker or a Chinese hermit philosopher—and there is a bit of both in his songs about addiction, divorce and vanishing traditions.
He has a biker's willingness to offend the tender sensibilities of preachers and radio programmers by singing about smoking pot in a Baptist church parking lot and about mowing down his ex-wife's rose garden. But he also has a philosopher's willingness to admit that daily intoxication and impulsive vengeance come with a price that's often steeper than advertised. And when he sings that his albums are filed "Between Jennings and Jones," there's a blend of growling and purring in Johnson's robust baritone that makes the boast much more than a clever joke. As Muhammad Ali said, "It ain't bragging if it's true."
His obvious debt to Waylon Jennings and George Jones—and to Merle Haggard and John Anderson as well—made Johnson more than just another talented newcomer. He was proof positive that every country-music critic's dream could come true. It was possible in 2008, Johnson proved, to write Haggardesque songs about the losers and survivors in a blue-collar world of cheap highs, short paychecks and tottering marriages—and to sing them in hard-country arrangements with steel and twang without sounding hopelessly retro, being consigned to commercial obscurity or, worse, the alt-country ghetto. It was still possible to turn songs about America's forgotten down-and-outers into hits on country radio.
That's what distinguished Johnson from the two other relative newcomers in the Critics Poll's upper ranks: Hayes Carll is steeped in honky-tonk traditions but hasn't penetrated country radio, while Taylor Swift has dominated country radio without any apparent ties to the genre's past. As singers and songwriters, Carll and Swift are every bit as talented as Johnson, but of the three only Johnson has pulled off the elusive trick of making the sound and intent of Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams and Willie Nelson connect with a broad country audience in 2008.
Carll's second major-label release, Trouble in Mind, the No. 2 album and "She Left Me for Jesus" was voted the No. 4 single. As the latter title implies, the young Texan—who was also voted the No. 2 songwriter and No. 7 male vocalist—has a wry sense of humor that makes him the new Willie to Johnson's new Waylon.
Carll's album contains co-writes with Darrell Scott and Ray Wylie Hubbard and a Tom Waits cover, indicating Carll's ambition to join the literary hillbilly ranks of Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt and Steve Earle—an ambition he largely fulfills on his latest, best-by-far effort. The new album takes its title from "Faulkner Street," a song about a drunken party on a dilapidated Arkansas porch. Carll evokes the setting and characters as skillfully as Johnson does in similar songs, but instead of nailing down the costs and benefits of such hillbilly hedonism, as Johnson would, Carll prefers to imply his conclusions through irony. Irony, of course, is catnip to critics but anathema to radio, and that's what separates Johnson from Carll.
Swift's second CD, Fearless, was voted the No. 7 album, and she claimed the No. 6 slot as both songwriter and female vocalist. She probably would have done better if critics didn't have such ambivalence about her identity as a country-music artist.
When the 18-year-old singer-songwriter croons in that translucent soprano over big pop-rock guitars about how easily it is to be fooled by love at "Fifteen," she captures something essential about suburban adolescence. It's a terrific record, but there's nothing about its sound or its subject matter or its vocal that links it to the country-music tradition of Kitty Wells, Loretta Lynn and Emmylou Harris. Swift has far more in common with the rock 'n' roll tradition of Lesley Gore, Laura Nyro and Jenny Lewis—pop-operatic chroniclers of teenage angst.
Do these distinctions really matter? I think they do. Suburban teenagers need their own bards who can work the established themes and techniques of pop-rock into something new. But small-town, divorced, blue-collar wastrels also deserve their own bards who can draw from a hillbilly history of song-making. All music grows out of the past, and if we refuse to distinguish one lineage from another, the discussion of new music becomes hopelessly muddied. Swift is a great artist, but it's not clear that she's a great country artist. And how can we fully appreciate her achievement if we can't recognize her true musical context?
There's no mistaking Lee Ann Womack's true context. Though she's made some moves in the pop-crossover direction (successfully on 2000's I Hope You Dance, disastrously on 2002's Something Worth Leaving Behind), she's clearly most at home in the hard-country milieu that her East Texas DJ daddy raised her in. Womack's honky-tonk masterpiece, There's More Where That Came From, topped the 2005 poll, and her nearly-as-good follow-up, Call Me Crazy, finished No. 3 in this year's poll. Womack also came in with the No. 2 single ("Last Call") and as the No. 1 female singer this year.
The point here is not that Womack's twangy song about getting a phone call from her drunken ex-husband is somehow better or more authentic than Swift's guitar-pumped song about a 15-year-old friend getting seduced and jilted by a high school boy. The point is that Womack is working with the themes, vocabulary and sound that a traditional country audience uses, while Swift uses the materials of a pop-rock audience. Each audience deserves its own songs, and while there is no danger of the young pop-rock audience getting cut off from its supply of songs, there is a danger for the older country audience.
Alt-country was created to provide an alternative supply route for adult hillbilly music. It's not clear that alt-country records are actually reaching an audience of any size, but Carll proves that the songs are often of real quality. Lucinda Williams and her protégé Kasey Chambers, two alt-country heroes who seemed to lose their way in recent years, both made impressive comebacks this year: Williams with her bluesiest record in years, the No. 6 album Little Honey, and Chambers on a collection of duets with fellow Aussie singer-songwriter Shane Nicholson, the No. 12 album Rattlin' Bones.
The SteelDrivers, the bluegrass quintet co-founded by alt-country legend Mike Henderson, had the No. 14 album, the highest poll ranking ever for a bluegrass act not named Alison Krauss, Dolly Parton, Soggy Bottom Boys or Patty Loveless. This year Loveless turned her attention to older country songs associated with the likes of George Jones, Ray Price, Webb Pierce and Hank Williams. Sleepless Nights was voted the No. 5 album and Loveless the No. 2 female vocalist.
The reissues category was dominated by the three-CD box set of Hank Williams' dazzling 1951 radio shows, The Unreleased Recordings, and by the two-CD set of Johnny Cash's complete At Folsom Prison: Legacy Edition. Williams and Cash had an uncanny ability to combine immense dignity and humbling vulnerability, but that combination is not a thing of the past. You could hear it in the new music from Alan Jackson (No. 2 male vocalist, No. 9 album), George Strait (No. 4 male vocalist, No. 8 album) and Randy Travis (No. 5 male vocalist, No. 15 album).
Jamey Johnson has that same blend of poised self-assurance and humbling self-revelation, that contrarian belief that confession can bolster pride, not undermine it. One can only hope that such emotional honesty is returning to the fore in country music.
We may have to settle, however, for mere musical honesty. In an era when it's an open secret that many country records are processed to correct every wrong note, poll voters rewarded those acts whose live shows prove they don't need such studio correction. Jennifer Nettles can really sing, and her duo Sugarland was voted the No. 1 group and the No. 2 Artist of the Year with the No. 4 album. Ashton Shepherd can really sing, and she was voted the year's Best New Artist with the No. 9 single. Brad Paisley can not only really sing, but he can also really play the guitar. He was voted the No. 2 live act, the No. 3 male vocalist and the No. 4 Artist of the Year.
It may not be as satisfying as emotional catharsis, but virtuosity is nothing to sneer at.
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