As the decade ends, country music stands on two strong legs, once again weathering music-industry tumult by relying on its basic tenets: good storytelling, compelling personalities, solid musical talents, and real-life themes about home, responsibilities, consequences and the way people relate with each other as lovers, as family members and as citizens.
The strength extends in two directions: Music Row's contemporary stars have returned country music to a national profile reminiscent of the genre's mid-'90s peak, while the rebels and iconoclasts working outside the spotlight continue to find creative ways to exert individual takes on Southern roots music.
Taylor Swift dominated headlines, and deservedly so—clearly, her Garth-gantuan rise to the top of the American entertainment world is the year's biggest country music story. But just as important is how broad and how deep the country music current runs these days. The commercial industry currently touts a healthy inventory of successful recording and touring acts, and the creative underground keeps introducing interesting individualists while showing ongoing support allowing for careers sustained beyond the media mainstream.
As with all forms of popular entertainment, country radio still fills its hours with formulas and less-than-inspired work—the status quo provides an easy comfort zone for programmers, record executives and listeners. But 2009 saw more than its share of performers taking bold steps, from mid-level acts Joe Nichols, Charlie Robison and Jimmy Wayne to stars like Swift, Brad Paisley and Martina McBride to veterans Kris Kristofferson, Reba McEntire and George Strait.
Among albums released in 2009, it's those who took the greatest chances who often bore the most impressive work.
Miranda Lambert, Revolution (Columbia Nashville)
The Texas spitfire's third album digs deeper to explore the complex motivations and emotions of a young tough chick determined to enjoy life her way without accepting crap from anyone, including herself. Her Southern rock looks to the Georgia Satellites instead of Charlie Daniels, and for outside material she draws on the wit and grit of Fred Eaglesmith, Julie Miller and John Prine rather than the usual publishing-house suspects. To her credit, she also unearths a gem from Music Row veterans Tom Douglas and Allen Shamblin in "The House That Built Me," about a lost soul bum-rushing strangers residing in her childhood home in search of something she lost along the way. Best of all, her self-written songs stand tall alongside the potent covers she and co-producers Frank Liddell and Mike Wrucke custom fit to her strengths.
Loudon Wainwright III, High, Wide & Handsome:
The Charlie Poole Project (2nd Story Sound)
Steve Earle, Townes (New West)
Two forceful singer-songwriters take on their creative idols, both ne'er-do-wells who died early from the drinking and rambling that served as the foundation of their material and their lives. To their credit, Wainwright and Earle impress their own personalities on these formidable songs, then add to the legacy by writing striking songs about their subjects' conflicted characters. In both cases, the results paint portraits more varied and nuanced than the live-hard myths the legendary forebears left behind.
Brad Paisley, American Saturday Night (Arista Nashville)
Paisley's often plugged bold ideas and ambitious themes into his sly songs. This time out, he took even bigger chances—and proved he could be just as clever when taking on racial progress and international politics as he had been when writing about themes as big as technology and as intimate as marriage. From parenthood to leisure time, Paisley uses clever angles to uncover fresh insights, then fills the gaps with the most inventive instrumental work heard on country radio today.
Buddy and Julie Miller, Written in Chalk (New West)
The deep grooves cut by this country-soul-gospel couple have supplied the most consistent musical highlights of the decade. Their duo albums assume a lighter air than their solo work, but the mix of collaborative and solo excursions highlights their strengths and differences like a candid conversation. Julie's lustfulness and fragility play well against the bedrock foundation of her husband's searing examinations and tender revelations.
Holly Williams, Here with Me (Mercury Nashville)
Intensely personal and intimate, yet buoyed by flashes of a wide-open and playful personality, Williams' second album amps up the twang that comes natural to someone born into country music's most mythic family. But her strengths come from the casual way she deals with the most human of subjects, be it her relationship with her parents, her spiritual renewal after a catastrophic accident or running away for a few hedonistic days with a new acquaintance.
Kieran Kane, Somewhere Beyond the Roses (Compass)
Kane's ongoing search to find primitive ways to express intricate emotions and knotty stories took on a new richness when using Deanna Varagona's baritone sax in place of a bass. With Kane focusing on the ancient plunk of his banjo and the whispered words of a conjurer, he delves into a psychological landscape where dreams and nightmares, and blues and spirituals, become indistinguishable from each other—and altogether provocative.
Charlie Robison, Beautiful Day (Dualtone)
Robison has often assumed the role of a charming duplicitous rake, but this post-divorce album comes off like the last half hour of La Dolce Vita put to music by a Texas country rocker. The songs—from Robison, Bobby Bare Jr., Keith Gattis and Bruce Springsteen—explore what happens when the high life sputters into a maze of dark turns and dim consequences. Robison, with rollicking guitars and wistful acoustic ruminations, doesn't fall into the abyss as much as stand at its rim cracking wise, but with a mournful tone that reveals the black undercurrents pulling at his feet.
Joe Nichols, Old Things New (Universal South)
Nichols is the rare contemporary country singer who trusts that listeners will still enjoy a languid country baritone that balances somber reflection with a reserved, winking playfulness. For his first album since undergoing treatment for alcoholism, he brings layers of pathos to the year's most touching song, "An Old Friend of Mine," an emotionally complex song about leaving the bottle behind. He wraps that gift with several other weighty tunes, as well as a few lighthearted bouncers, proving Nichols handles novelty as well as he does heartbreak.
Rosanne Cash, The List (Manhattan)
After her last No. 1 country radio hit 20 years ago, Cash left country music in search of a sound that better fit the songs she was writing at the time. But after the death of her parents, she comes back to the fold with a moody, elegant album of covers taken from a list father Johnny gave her when she first started writing tunes. It's mostly a laid-back, late-night affair that focuses attention on Cash's smoky alto, the tastefully inventive arrangements of husband Jon Leventhal and, of course, songs that define the art of sincere, down-home songwriting.
George Strait, Twang (MCA Nashville)
Lately, Strait seems bent on achieving one of the few things he hadn't already accomplished: that is, surprising his fans. Sounding more adventurous than ever, and as frisky as a young colt, Strait serves up another career highlight by writing a few of his own songs for the first time in more than 25 years, as well as taking on everything from a classic mariachi ballad (which he sings in Spanish) to a zydeco stomper.
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