by Julian Spivey
10."She's Crazy for Leaving" by Rodney Crowell
Rodney Crowell and his mentor Guy Clark wrote the fun break-up song “She’s Crazy for Leaving” in the early ‘80s and it first appeared on Clark’s 1981 album The South Coast of Texas. Nearly 10 years later in the early part of 1989 the song, off Crowell’s 1988 classic Diamonds & Dirt, would become Crowell’s third consecutive no. 1 (of what would wind up a record-setting five from one album). Crowell’s version of “She’s Crazy for Leaving” is truly one of the underrated country songs of all-time with its infectious fun in spite of lost love.
9. "I Sang Dixie" by Dwight Yoakam
It’s almost hard to believe, but Dwight Yoakam has only had two no. 1 singles in his career, and both were released in 1988: “Streets of Bakersfield” with Buck Owens and “I Sang Dixie.” “I Sang Dixie, released in late 1988, would top the country music chart in early 1989. The song describes its narrator meeting a dying old man on the busy Los Angeles streets and how the old man longs to be back home in Dixie. It’s a song any Southerner away from home can completely understand.
8. "The Road Goes on Forever" by Robert Earl Keen
Robert Earl Keen’s great outlaw story song “The Road Goes on Forever” debuted on his 1989 sophomore album West Textures and has gone on to become one of the many fan-favorites in his live concert set. The song never became a hit, none of Keen’s songs truly have as he’s remained someone of a cult favorite, despite being one of America’s greatest singer-songwriters of the last 30-plus years. The story of Sonny and Sherry gained a bit more fame in the mid-‘90s when recorded by the country supergroup The Highwaymen featuring Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson.
7. "Runnin' Down a Dream" by Tom Petty
Tom Petty took a bit of a minor risk in 1989 with his first solo album Full Moon Fever, though many members of his band the Heartbreakers did play on the album, but that risk turned into the biggest selling album of his career. “Runnin’ Down a Dream,” which has become of the great rock music driving songs, was the second single off the album in 1989 and would top the Billboard Mainstream Rock chart, while also becoming a top 25 Billboard Hot 100 charter. The song would remain a staple in Petty’s live shows until his death in 2017.
6. "I'm No Stranger to the Rain" by Keith Whitley
“I’m No Stranger to the Rain” was Keith Whitley’s fifth and final single from his 1988 album Don’t Close Your Eyes. It would also be the final single released before his tragic and untimely death in May of 1989 at just 33 years old. “I’m No Stranger to the Rain” hit no. 1 on the country charts just a few weeks before Whitley’s death. The song is incredibly hopeful about being no stranger to the worst and life and coming out the other side. It’s a shame that’s not what would happen in real life for Whitley. This is one of the genre’s most underrated songs of all-time.
5. "The Dance" by Garth Brooks
1989 was the year we were first introduced to Garth Brooks, who would soon skyrocket to becoming one of the biggest smashes in the history of country music. His self-titled debut was released on April 12, 1989 and included three of the greatest songs he’s ever recorded: “Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old), “If Tomorrow Never Comes” and “The Dance.” “The Dance” wouldn’t be released as a single until 1990, but we’ll include it here as it was released on the album that year. The song about living life to the fullest because you never know when it’s going to end would become one of Brooks’ greatest hits and won Song of the Year at the 1990 Academy of Country Music Awards. In 2003, CMT named “The Dance” as the 14th greatest country song of all-time.
4. "I Won't Back Down" by Tom Petty
“I Won’t Back Down” was the very first single ever released by Tom Petty without his band The Heartbreakers and did very well on the Billboard charts hitting no. 12 on the Hot 100 and no. 1 on the Mainstream Rock chart. The song, which would sort of become Tom Petty’s theme song, is an unapologetic ode to never giving up. The song was co-written by Petty and Full Moon Fever producer, fellow Traveling Wilburys member and Electric Light Orchestra leader Jeff Lynne and would see a second life after the devastating terrorist attacks of 9/11 when it turned into a rallying cry four country, especially after Petty performed it on a televised telethon just 10 days after the attacks.
3. "Killin' Time" by Clint Black
Around the middle ‘80s there was a comeback of traditional country music sounds and values led by artists like Randy Travis and Dwight Yoakam, but the second wave of this sound would show up in 1989 with artists like Garth Brooks, Clint Black and Travis Tritt all debuting that year. Brooks has gone on to become the greatest of them all, but nobody had a better 1989 in country music than Black. Black’s debut album Killin’ Time would see the two biggest hits in country music of the entire year with his debut single “A Better Man” being the no. 1 song of the year and his second single “Killin’ Time,” which I believe is the best release of his career, coming it at no. 2. Just that opening guitar lick of “Killin’ Time” is one of the greatest sounds in the history of country music. Black also released the single “Nobody’s Home” in 1989, which might give him the greatest first three singles to start a career of anybody in country music history.
2. "Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old) by Garth Brooks
I know I’m in the minority, but I fully believe “Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn),” the very first single of Garth Brooks career, is the greatest song he’s ever recorded. The song, which talks about how hard life can be for a rodeo man, topped off at no. 8 on the Billboard country chart in 1989. “Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old)” is likely the second greatest rodeo song of all-time, just behind George Strait’s 1982 release “Amarillo by Morning.”
1. "Free Fallin'" by Tom Petty
Tom Petty absolutely owned the world of popular and rock music in 1989 with his first solo album Full Moon Fever. “Free Fallin’, co-written by Petty and Jeff Lynne, was the album’s third single and its best received topping out at no. 7 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, the highest charting single of Petty’s career. “Free Fallin’” also became the third straight no. 1 single off the album on the Mainstream Rock chart. Petty’s dominance of 1989 can’t be stressed enough considering this was a time when rock music just wasn’t crossing over to the pop charts as well as it had before. Petty’s three singles from 1989 would all remain staples of his career, so much that they were three of the four songs he and the Heartbreakers would perform during their Super Bowl halftime show in 2008.
Let us know what your favorite song from 1989 was ...
by Julian Spivey
Singer-songwriters Will Hoge and Elizabeth Cook, two of the best within the Americana/Alt-Country genre, brought some great songs and a whole lot of fun with them to Stickyz Rock ‘n’ Roll Chicken Shack in Little Rock, Ark. on Friday, April 12.
Hoge, who’s music I’m more familiar with of the two performing Friday night, performed his set first and of the two sets during the night it would be my favorite. Hoge’s eleventh studio My American Dream, released last year, was one of my favorites of the year and highly political, which could rub some the wrong way. The album is essentially a protest song based on all of the bad shit happening in the country right now mixed into one record.
Hoge would begin his set on Friday night with the track “Oh Mr. Barnum” from that album, which is a nicely written allegory where “Mr. Barnum” is a stand-in for our current President Donald Trump and his disappointing circus for his presidency. But, if you just want to take it as a song about a disappointing circus and ringmaster, I guess you could do that, as well.
Hoge would mix songs from throughout his career to good measure on Friday night at Stickyz giving us stuff from recent albums like “The Reckoning,” “Through Missing You” and “Young as We Will Ever Be,” one of the highlights of his performance, coming from his 2017 release Anchors and older stuff like “Secondhand Heart” and “Better Off Now (That You’re Gone)” from all the way back on 2003’s Blackbird on a Lonely Wire.
Around the midpoint in his set Hoge told the packed room that it was the point in his set that they would either realize that they liked him or they didn’t before playing the comical, but important messaged “Jesus Came to Tennessee” about Jesus Christ showing up at Hoge’s house in Nashville and seeing some disturbing stuff, even from hypocritical Christians. The song comes from Hoge’s 2012 EP Modern American Protest Music, which is essentially a precursor to My American Dream.
A few songs later Hoge would perform my favorite song of his on the night “Still a Southern Man,” which appears on My American Dream, but was originally released as a non-album single in 2015 and is about how the South’s continued love of the Confederate flag is basically bullshit and an image of continued hatred. The performance was well-received, which is great, because it’s a rather controversial topic to bring up in the South – but certainly an important one.
Despite not being afraid to get political in song and during this concert, there weren’t too many politically charged or message songs in Hoge’s 14-song set Friday night. I spoke briefly to him after his set to tell him how much I appreciated his music, especially last year’s release, and asked him if he received any pushback to his music. Unfortunately, he responded that he’d received quite a bit of push back, which was somewhat shocking to me as he’s not been afraid to speak his mind in song throughout his career. But I think it just shows a divide in his fan-base between those who actually know him and his music and those who just love his song “Strong” from an old Chevrolet commercial and know that he wrote “Even If It Breaks Your Heart,” which became a No. 1 hit for Eli Young Band in 2012.
Hoge performed “Even If It Breaks Your Heart,” the song which earned him a Grammy nomination for Best Country Song, on Friday night and it was fantastic. I wish that Hoge had seen success with it as a performer, he did release it as a single three years before Eli Young Band topped the charts with it.
Hoge ended his terrific set with “A Little Bit of Rust” from Anchors.
When you’re as talented of a songwriter as Hoge you’re going to have to leave some truly great songs out of your set and the only disappointment I had from him on Friday was these songs I enjoy not being in the set like “Middle of America,” “17” and basically anything he didn’t perform from My American Dream.
I’ve known who Elizabeth Cook was for years, she was one of the favorite performers and guests of one of my personal heroes David Letterman when he hosted his late night talk show, and I know she’s a award-nominated DJ for SiriusXM’s Outlaw Country station, which may be the best station on SiriusXM, but I hadn’t paid enough attention to her music before her most recent release Exodus of Venus dropped in 2016. That was my mistake.
Cook is an incredibly talented songwriter and performer and just incredibly cool.
She performed a bunch of stuff from her most recent release on Friday night including “Dyin’,” which she opened her set with. Other fantastic performances from Exodus of Venus included the just absolutely cool sounding and catchy “Methadone Blues” and “Broke Down in London on the M25.”
Cook would also give roaring performances of “Slow Pain,” featuring some great guitar work from Andrew Leahey, and “Dharma Gate.”
Maybe my favorite performance of Cook’s set was “El Camino” from her 2010 release Welder, which was nominated for Song of the Year at the 2011 Americana Awards. It’s just a cool (I know I’m overusing that, but it fits her so well) song with some great and comical lyrics like: “I told him your car is creepy man/and not in a gansta kinda way/but in a perv kinda way.”
Cook’s set, especially because she was the second act of the night, was shockingly short and didn’t include an encore, which was strange. I’m not sure if her set was planned to be that short or if she just wasn’t feeling it, but if the set lasted 10 songs that’s pushing it and it was certainly shorter than Hoge’s opening set.
by Julian Spivey
So, my full-time job of doggie daycare, did something crazy this week – we hosted a Puppy Prom. If you had mentioned to me five years ago that I would be a part of something called a “Puppy Prom.” I don’t think I would’ve understood what you were talking about. At best I would’ve thought it was extremely “extra” or “bougie,” as my younger co-workers like to say.
But here I was on Wednesday so into this idea of a Puppy Prom that I figured I, as a huge music buff, would compile a music playlist for the Puppy Prom. It’s probably not that surprising working at a place that would throw a Puppy Prom to find out that I wasn’t the only one interested in crafting a Puppy Prom Playlist. My friend Brittany was already on it.
She graciously accepted my collaboration.
So, how does one go about crafting a Puppy Prom Playlist?
Well, as the 100 songs on the final playlist would prove – overboard. Completely overboard.
Brittany is more of a popular music fan than I am, but honestly who isn’t? She populated her list with mostly a “best of” of the ’80s feel. I believe she was going for what the pet parents, who would be witnessing their puppies “prom it up” from a viewing area (and they seemed to have just as much fun as their dogs), would’ve enjoyed from their prom days. So, if you’re a pet parent who was of prom age in the ‘90s or ‘00s it’s Brittany who thinks you’re old and not I.
I’m a fan of throwback music, but I kind of like it a bit further back than the ‘80s. However, her choices were excellent for a Puppy Prom Playlist with selections of “You Make My Dreams” by Hall & Oates, “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” by Whitney Houston, “Kiss” by Prince, “Hungry Like a Wolf” by Duran Duran and “Total Eclipse of the Heart” by Bonnie Tyler.
If you want someone to craft a fun playlist that you can absolutely groove to you need to hit up Brittany Oviedo.
I don’t know if I saw too many movies of a certain era or listened to too much oldies radio growing up, but there is a certain era of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s that just screams “prom music” to me. Maybe these songs played in prom or dance scenes on something I saw as a kid and just stuck with me. I had to add a bunch of these songs to the playlist – songs like “This Magic Moment” (I prefer the cover by Jay & the Americans), Dion & the Belmonts’ “A Teenager In Love,” “Earth Angel” by The Penguins, “Twist and Shout” by The Beatles and, of course, “Save the Last Dance for Me” by The Drifters.
It’s probably the stuff our grandparents were dancing to at their proms, but these songs feel timeless to me.
Then there are the songs you just want to move along to … Brittany added Walk the Moon’s “Shut Up and Dance” and “Love Shack” by The B-52s. The classic rock/hip-hop mashup of “Walk This Way” by Aerosmith and Run-D.M.C. and “Wild Night” by Van Morrison were my choices. Side Night: If you want to see this big white boy move throw on some Van Morrison.
We also took suggestions and our friend Alea’s suggestion of Baha Men’s one-hit wonder from 2000 “Who Let the Dogs Out” was quite possibly the most important track on the entire playlist. “Who Let the Dogs Out” should be the theme song for any Puppy Prom and we tried to make sure it was played once every hour for the four-hour event.
Our friend Heidi suggested Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’,” which is something of an inside joke between myself and my co-workers and friends because of how much I despise Journey and that song in particular. But Heidi is the nicest person in the world – the embodiment of Disney – and she gets whatever she wants. “Don’t Stop Believin’” made the cut and, I’m not sure if anybody realized, but was the very first song played at Puppy Prom on Thursday night so I could get it out of the way.
The most important aspect of crafting the Puppy Prom Playlist for me was to try to get dog themed songs into the set.
This isn’t an easy task because there aren’t that many dog-related songs in general. And, many songs that are dog related are slower and a good number of them feature the death of the dog by the end – not exactly an appropriate mood for a Puppy Prom.
So, some songs that simply had the word “dog” in the title made the cut: “Dog Days Are Over” by Florence + the Machine I’m looking at you.
Anything that fit with the Puppy Prom theme made the cut: “Howlin’ For You” by The Black Keys, “Like My Dog” by Billy Currington, “Dogs Are Everywhere” by Pulp (which was so freakin’ true on Thursday night) and “I Wanna Be Your Dog” by The Stooges. I don’t think a Puppy Prom is what “The Godfather of Punk” Iggy Pop had in mind when he wrote that one, but it works. We also got “Snoopy Theme” from the Peanuts cartoons in there.
During the song “8 Dogs 8 Banjos” by Old Crow Medicine Show Brittany came up to me and said, “It’s getting a bit too ‘yee haw’ in here.” I assured her it was the only bluegrass number on the playlist.
I tried to get Blake Shelton’s “Ol’ Red” on the playlist, but I got overruled. I told Brittany it was “the ultimate dog love song.” She said, “it’s not about a dog being in love, but being horny.” I guess she has a point. I guess it says a lot about men and women with how that is viewed in that song.
If there was a second theme song of the Puppy Prom Playlist it would have to have been George Clinton’s “Atomic Dog” with its infectious: “Bow-wow-wow-yippie-yo-yippie-yeah/bow-wow-yippie-yo-yippie-yeah.” That one got multiple spins during the night.
But, the ultimate Puppy Prom Song, the one that gets all of the canines and their paternals swooning is Paul Anka’s 1960 classic “Puppy Love.” It’ll make you want to find the nearest Great Dane and just slow dance the night away.
We put a lot of work into crafting this Puppy Prom Playlist. Hopefully it was enjoyed, if it could be heard at all over the barking of happy pups and the swooning of pet parents snapping photos and telling other pet parents how cute their dogs looked in their tuxes and dresses.
The idea of a puppy prom might be insane to many, like it would’ve been to me just a few years ago, but if there is anything more insane than throwing a puppy prom it’s attempting to meticulously craft the perfect playlist for said puppy prom.
by Julian Spivey
Grammy-nominated Americana singer Iris DeMent performed at The Center for Humanities and Arts on the campus of Pulaski Tech in North Little Rock, Ark. on Sunday, April 7 as part of a charity show benefiting Compassion Works for All.
Compassion Works for All is a nonprofit organization that helps those in prison through therapeutic programs like meditation and yoga.
DeMent’s set on Sunday night was certainly one filled with compassions and much of her work dealt with the theme in one way or another, including a number of gospel hymns, which is interesting from an artist who is the first to admit that she isn’t quite sure whether or not there is a God. However, compassion runs through DeMent’s body and words passionately and her Episcopal upbringing mixed with learnings from life bring out a very spiritual performance from an artist whose work has explored religious skepticism in the past.
DeMent began her show with an excellent cover of Merle Haggard’s “Pray,” a lesser known track of his from his 2007 album The Bluegrass Sessions. Performances of “Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior,” “He Reached Down” and the original “The Kingdom Has Already Come,” from her most recent album of original work 2012’s Sing the Delta, were very moving and beautifully showed off DeMent’s one-of-a-kind voice that’s both startingly unique and incredibly beautiful at the same time.
DeMent is an Arkansas product having been born in Paragould but moved at a very early age to California when her father sought a better life for his 14 children. Still, the Arkansas Delta is in her blood and spirit and this come through in the excellent performance of “Sing the Delta,” the title track off her 2012 release.
A couple of remarkably enchanting performances from DeMent’s set on Sunday were the back-to-back “Like a White Stone” and “Song About Songs,” which come from her most recent album 2015’s The Trackless Woods which has set the words of Russian poet Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966) to music. DeMent spoke very eloquently of Akhmatova’s work and beauty and how she accomplished much of her work while in a sort of incarceration of her own, being an enemy of Joseph Stalin and Communist Russia.
DeMent has proven to be one of the highest praised Americana songwriters since her debut Infamous Angels in 1992 and was recently honored by the Americana Association with the Trailblazer Award, which according to the Association “exemplifies what it means to forge your own path in the music industry.” Previous honorees of that award include Old Crow Medicine Show, Lyle Lovett and Don Henley.
DeMent’s songwriting skills were on full display on performances like “Livin’ on the Inside,” “My Life” and “Mornin’ Glory” on Sunday night at the small, but cozy venue that features great sound.
One of the true highlights of DeMent’s entire set was what was seemingly her debut of her fan-favorite “Our Town” on piano. The song was requested by someone in the audience and she claimed she couldn’t do it because it was “a guitar song” and she was only performing on piano during this show. But she offered to give it a shot and maybe do a verse. She ended up performing a lot of the song, and it was truly fascinating to see her perform this song beautifully on piano that she had said she’d never even messed around with before at home on the instrument. She had previously told the audience earlier in the night that the piano was a magical instrument that she basically taught herself and thought any novice could make sound nice.
DeMent finished her set with “Justice Rolls Like Water,” which was inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech in which he paraphrased from the Book of Amos. It was a terrific message to end the night that was benefiting Compassion Works for All.
Before DeMent’s set the evening was opened up by singer-songwriter Claire Holley, originally from Mississippi, but hailing from Los Angeles, who dazzled the audience with her beautiful voice and originals like “Beauty School,” which was inspired by the friendship of Dolly Parton and Tammy Wynette, and “Kudzu,” which was inspired by a poem from Mississippi Poet Laureate Beth Ann Fennelly. Holley also put a different spin on Bob Marley reggae classic “Three Little Birds.”
by Julian Spivey
Robert Earl Keen, a legendary singer-songwriter in both the Texas Country and Americana communities, brought his terrific storytelling songs to Little Rock’s The Revolution Room on Saturday, April 6 for a 21-song set that had the loyal audience eating out of his hand.
Keen kicked off his set with “What I Really Mean,” from his 2005 album of the same name, and there would be no letting up as far as excellent performances for the remainder of the night.
Keen does a terrific job at peppering his show with what could be deemed his “greatest hits” throughout the set list and it starts off near the very beginning with “Feelin’ Good Again,” my personal favorite of his, and “Gringo Honeymoon” coming as the second and third songs of his show.
Keen typically makes one or two stops at The Rev Room annually and has a loyal fan-base in Little Rock and that fan-base sold out the venue on Saturday night and frequently sang every word to their favorites throughout the night.
Among the highlights of Keen’s set were fan-favorites “Mariano,” from Keen’s sophomore album West Textures in 1989, and “Ride,” from What I Really Mean. Things really got rocking when Keen performed what he called his “Texas Trilogy” that included a great cover of Terry Allen’s “Amarillo Highway,” his fan-favorite “Corpus Christi Bay” – which was arguably got the biggest reaction from the sold out crowd – and a cover of James McMurtry’s “Levelland.”
One of the highlights of seemingly every Robert Earl Keen show is his performance of “The Front Porch Song,” one of the oldest in his repertoire and the only song he played on Saturday night from his excellent 1984 debut No Kinda Dancer (I really wish he’d play that album’s title track in concert). Keen often will tell the story about how he co-wrote this song with his good friend and longtime buddy Lyle Lovett while they were struggling college students at Texas A&M many decades ago. “The Front Porch Song” is just a great example of Keen’s perfect knack for writing story songs that are almost novelistic.
Among the other highlights in Keen’s set were “I’m Comin’ Home,” another personal favorite of mine from his discography, and the raucous, extended jam on “The Road Goes on Forever,” which really is one of the all-time great jam songs in country music history. It’s also another terrific story song.
Keen got a chance to play some slower stuff on Saturday night that really was nice to hear like “If I Were King,” “So I Can Take My Rest” and the excellent new song “Silver Spurs and Gold Tequila,” which he just debuted last month and I hope it a sign that he might have a new album coming sometime in the near future.
Another pleasant surprise from Keen’s show at The Rev Room was his reveal that he will be hosting a podcast in association with the Americana Music Association titled “Americana” that will debut on April 29 and I absolutely cannot wait to check out.
Keen ended his set with his excellent track “I Gotta Go,” from his 2011 album Ready for Confetti, an obviously fitting song to end a set.
But, The Rev Room audience certainly wasn’t going to let Keen get away from them without an encore and the legend obliged with a two-song encore of the bluegrass standard “Hot Corn, Cold Corn” and the modern Holiday classic “Merry Christmas From the Family,” which has become such a standard of his that he must play it year around. Keen and his excellent band would leave the stage but return shortly after for a second encore for a performance of “All I Have is Today.”
Seneca by Charles Wesley Godwin
I always spoil what my favorite album of a calendar year is at the halfway point, so I see no reason why I can't spoil it at the end of the first quarter. As of March 2019, my favorite album in the country universe is Charles Wesley Godwin's Seneca. For a debut album, I'm mostly impressed at how much care went into crafting this record. Every little detail from the crow noise on “Seneca Creek” to the menacing horns that kick in at the climax of “The Last Bite” add layers of depth to the project. As a lyricist, Godwin's love letter to Appalachian life and the history behind it is evident, and he's a stellar vocalist at that. Overall, this is a debut album that doesn't feel like a debut album, but rather the work of someone who's excelled at his craft for decades. Godwin was born to make this record.
by Zackary Kephart of The Musical Divide
Forever by Vandoliers
I was torn with this decision. At first, I was convinced I’d go with Flatland Cavalry’s Homeland Insecurity. Such a warm, inviting band. Tight production, smart and meaningful lyrics with beautiful harmonies. But ultimately I decided to go with the record I couldn’t get out of my mind- Vandoliers’ Forever. Their brand of alternative country has appealed to me since their first record, which included plenty of country punk in the manner of Uncle Tupelo. Call me a sucker, but I immediately gravitate toward Americana bands that are able to authentically record alternative country in the vein of Uncle Tupelo. But what makes Forever stand out even more are the risks it takes. Horns open both “All on Black” and “Fallen Again.” Acoustic rockers like “Cigarettes in the Rain” provide a perfect amount of slow-down to the otherwise rollicking record. Vandoliers also chase even harder than their previous records some heartland themes not uncommon from bands like Whiskey Myers or the aforementioned Flatland Cavalry (“Tumbleweed” being the best example.). Forever kind of snuck up on me with it being a rather quiet release day, but I was blown away from the first track. The whole album is a great trip worth taking. As a side note, I’d also put forth Gary Clark Jr.’s This Land as a record that deserves your attention from the first quarter of the year.
by Nathan Kanuch of Shore2Shore Country
Homeland Insecurity by Flatland Cavalry
My favorite album of 2019 thus far has been Flatland Cavalry's Homeland Insecurity. Flatland Cavalry has continued to establish themselves as one of the best groups not only in the Texas scene but in all of country music. Homeland Insecurity is solid from top to bottom with the standouts being "Come Back Down" and "Sleeping Alone." Two things in particular really stand out in this album and that is the songwriting and the instrumentation. Flatland Cavalry is simply a pleasant band to listen to with songwriting akin to the quality of a Turnpike Troubadours record.
by Grant Ludmer of Critically Country
What It Is by Hayes Carll
You know a singer-songwriter is truly something when he releases an album that’s probably only your fourth favorite of his career and it still becomes your favorite of the first quarter of the year. That’s where I sit with Hayes Carll and his sixth studio album What It Is. What It Is features Carll’s typically great songwriting infused with his sense of humor, but it’s also his most political record to date – which he eloquently wrote about recently in No Depression. Carll pokes fun at white conservatism in “Fragile Men,” everybody pointing their fingers at everybody these days for every little thing in “Wild Pointy Finger,” and a billionaire trying to tell everybody he’s being treated unfair (an obvious message about President Donald Trump) in “Times Like These,” one of the true highlights of the album. It’s always a risk for a performer whose audience is probably drawn down the middle of political lines get political, but it makes them more badass for not really giving a damn and telling it like they see it. What It Is isn’t entirely political though with some of its best tracks like “None’ya” being about Carll’s relationship with fellow singer-songwriter Allison Moorer and the story song “Jesus and Elvis,” one of his career best that previously appeared on a Kenny Chesney album. Carll has been one of the best singer-songwriters in the Alt-Country/Americana genres for over a decade now and shows no signs of slowing down.
by Julian Spivey of The Word
Seneca by Charles Wesley Godwin
Two albums, incredibly both debuts, have blown me away so far in 2019, but I'd have to give a slight edge to Seneca by Charles Wesley Godwin over Emily Scott Robinson’s Traveling Mercies. Godwin’s album was crafted with so much care for every detail, from the songwriting to the instrumentation to the intricate production. This record is a journey through Appalachia, the stories of its people set against a backdrop that often makes it sound as if Godwin recorded the whole thing in lonely mines or on deserted mountainsides. It's not an album to play in the background; Seneca is a record made for opening the vinyl to study each lyric and listening to repeatedly so as not to miss any detail. It’s a nearly flawless record, especially for a debut.
by Megan Bledsoe of Country Exclusive
"Here in Eden" by Charles Wesley Godwin
For my favorite song of the year thus far, I have to turn toward Charles Wesley Godwin’s Seneca for an answer. At first, my favorites shifted between “Windmill (Keep On Turning)” and “Seneca Creek,” both for the instrumental tones and storytelling, respectively. As of now, my favorite is actually “Here In Eden,” the closing track on the album. To me, this track not only connects the thematic arc of the album, but also showcases just how much this land means to Godwin. His tone is reverent, but also stern toward those who choose to not take it seriously. This moody, minor acoustic closer has slowly grown to become my favorite song of the year thus far.
by Zackary Kephart of The Musical Divide
"Ghost in Every Town" by Emily Scott Robinson
Emily Scott Robinson's debut album Traveling Mercies is full of moments that cut to the heart, but no song hit me quite like "Ghost in Every Town." This is a song of simplicity and unflinching honesty, never using particularly deep language or clever metaphors, but simply painting the stark portrait of life for so many forgotten people all over the country and the world. It tells a harsh truth, but this is the beauty of a great song, to illustrate the human condition in words and melodies, in that special way only music can.
by Megan Bledsoe of Country Exclusive
"Father" by Robert Ellis
My favorite song of 2019 has been "Father" by Robert Ellis. Oftentimes it amazes me how a song that I don't necessarily relate to on a personal level can hit me so hard. "Father" is an example of masterful storytelling, truly putting you in the place and time of the interaction with his estranged father. The narrator learns of his father's address from a cousin and goes to ask his father all sorts of questions. Why did he leave, what was his mother like when they were together and simple things like did his father bite his lip like he did when he was thinking. What he really wanted growing up was a father but now he would settle for just knowing the man and being his friend. The narrator is in no way judgmental of his father and is very understanding though we never hear from the father. There were a few songs that I considered for best song so far but, "Father" is the clear winner for me.
by Grant Ludmer of Critically Country
"Seneca Creek" by Charles Wesley Godwin
In the last half decade we’ve seen names of singer-songwriters come out of nowhere to capture the interest of country music fans on the outskirts of mainstream – names like Sturgill Simpson, Colter Wall and Tyler Childers. The name that’s turning heads in 2019 has been Charles Wesley Godwin with his debut Seneca. My favorite song of the first quarter of 2019 has been “Seneca Creek” from this album. The song, which tells the story of an at least half-century long Appalachian relationship from start-to-finish, with hardships (surviving war service, hard winters, floods, sickness) and all. It’s not your typical Hollywood fairytale, but it’s the kind of fairytale many down home Americans hope for. Godwin’s entire album gets this Appalachian feel – in both lyrics and sound – down perfectly as it’s truly what’s in his blood as a West Virginian. There are two versions of “Seneca Creek” on Godwin’s debut album – a fully fledged performance with a group of musicians and an acoustic track tacked on at the album’s end that’s just Godwin’s voice and guitar. It’s the acoustic version I’m drawn to more as it truly pulls this beautiful story out more.
by Julian Spivey of The Word
"Blue," "Hot House" and "Stones" by Ryan Bingham
Rather than pick a *single* song here, I feel like I have to include a trilogy of songs from Ryan Bingham’s American Love Song. Back-to-back-to-back, they are “Blue,” “Hot House” and “Stones.” I wasn’t disappointed with Bingham’s latest release; I was just a little underwhelmed with how long it ran at times. Basically, the low moments held the album back, but the high moments were just another example of Bingham’s work as one of the greatest modern songwriters in music. I’m hesitant to call the album Bingham’s Exile on Main Street considering it’s my favorite Stones’ album, and American Love Song rates near the bottom of my favorite Bingham albums, but the comparison does have its merits. The three songs I mentioned, however, fit together so nicely. “Blue” and “Stones” are classic Bingham songs coming from the deepest part of the heart while “Hot House” is more of a blues rocker that nonetheless explores a serious story. “Blue” finds Bingham tackling a relationship with his trademark spin; he never resorts to typical heartbreak themes. But “Stones” is the pièce de résistance of the album. It’s a something I’d hold up next to other Bingham songs like “Ever Wonder Why” or “Hallelujah” as some of his best material. “Stones” once again finds Bingham exploring some of the deepest questions of the human condition. If anything, “Blue,” “Hot House” and “Stones” further solidified Bingham’s reputation as a brilliant songwriter and one of the best artists of this generation.
by Nathan Kanuch of Shore2Shore Country
by Julian Spivey
Alan Jackson, Country Music Hall of Famer and an artist known as being one of the genre’s most staunchly traditional artists, has been touring the country over the last two years on a tour known as the “Keepin’ It Country Tour.”
However, a deeper look into Jackson’s set lists and concert videos on sites like YouTube and Twitter shows that the multiple time Grammy, CMA and ACM winner doesn’t always live up to his word on the “Keepin’ It Country Tour” by throwing in covers of popular hip-hop artists sporadically throughout his sets. Yes, you have his No. 1 country hits like “Chattahoochee,” “Don’t Rock the Jukebox” and “Remember When,” but a search online of his tour setlists shows he also likes to mix things up at his live shows with covers of Wiz Khalifa’s “We Dem Boyz,” which he fittingly mashes up with his own 2008 hit “Country Boy,” as well as Lil Wayne’s “Love Me.”
Recently at a show in Bossier City, La. Jackson performed spot on covers of Post Malone’s “Psycho” and Cardi B.’s “Bodak Yellow,” which left many in the jam-packed audience confused with some even going so far as to boo Jackson.
Country music and hip-hop aren’t as culturally divided as they once were with the hip-hop genre’s influences proving to be mighty popular with the mainstream country genre over the last decade with artists like Florida Georgia Line, Sam Hunt and others mixing sounds of the two to great success. But, Jackson, who once recorded the song “Murder on Music Row” with George Strait that excoriated the sounds of other genres infiltrating country, was thought to be a stalwart who would never back down from his traditionalist views.
His recent acceptance of this new, more modern country music sound really does wave the white flag of surrender for many who’ve been trying to save traditional sounding country music from a slow death over the last decade or more.
Jackson once sang: “the almighty dollar and the lust for worldwide fame/slowly killed tradition and for that someone should hang.” But times have surely changed for the Georgia boy who recently performed the lyric, “I’ve been fuckin’ hoes and poppin’ pillies/Man, I feel just like a Rockstar” at a show in Madison, Wis.
Alan Jackson may have the sick beats, but many traditionalists now have the blues.
by Julian Spivey
John Mellencamp brought his road show to Memphis’ legendary Orpheum Theater on Sunday, March 17 for a show that featured a ton of hits, some lesser known gems and proof that the Rock & Roll Hall of Famer hasn’t missed a step at 67.
Uniquely Mellencamp’s show began with a 25-minute opening film that gave biographical information about the Indiana native and essentially told why he does what he does. It’s something I’ve never seen from any other artist and while it was interesting, ultimately, I believe it was unnecessary and it seemed to leave many in the audience twiddling their thumbs and definitely had folks around my seats holding conversations over it, making it hard to hear at times.
The opening film would be the only down point of the show. Once the music began with Mellencamp and his talented band performing “Lawless Times,” off his 2014 album Plain Spoken, it was a fun event for all from there on out.
One of the early high points of the show was Mellencamp’s performance of his 1986 top-10 hit “Small Town,” which is one of my all-time favorites from the heartland rocker. For me the song is essentially Mellencamp’s theme song and encompasses what he and his music is all about, bringing that heartland, hardworking, small town American life to life via song.
Mellencamp doesn’t speak much throughout his show and is able to run through a 20-song set in just 90 minutes, which is an impressive feat. But when he does speak, he’s both incredibly honest and funny. The first time he spoke, a few songs into his set, he told the audience that they were going to hear some songs they know and some they don’t, some to sing along and dance to and others that are quiet and to please not yell and scream during the quiet ones. He claimed, he understood because he used to be that guy, but if you had to just go out in the hall and do it. He used a bit more colorful language while going through his spiel.
Among the surprising bits of the show were old-timey covers of Robert Johnson’s “Stones in My Passway,” which he recorded for his most recent album Other People’s Stuff, and a sing along with the audience on Louis Armstrong’s “Long Gone (From the Bowlin’ Green),” which he would reprise a bit later to end his show.
Mellencamp would pump up the crowd with performances of some of his greatest hits in “Lonely Ol’ Night” and “Check It Out” before telling his best story of the night, which I’d previously heard before on either a televised performance or interview, but was still terrific about how his 100 year old grandmother prayed with him one day and told the lord that she and Buddy (her nickname for Mellencamp) were “ready to come home.” Mellencamp responded with the slip of the tongue: “Grandma, what the fuck?” She then gave him some great advice about growing old and making the best of life by saying: “life is short/even in its longest days.” The story led into “Longest Days” from his 2008 album Life, Death, Love and Freedom. It was one of his best vocal performances of the night.
Mellencamp then launched into an acoustic version of crowd favorite “Jack & Diane,” which he allowed the audience to take the lead on the chorus with the sounds of a sold out audience singing “Oh yeah, life goes on …” in unison rising to the top of the beautiful old cathedral of music. It’s a moment all Mellencamp fans can rejoice in and understand that no matter who you are or what you believe are sharing this great moment together.
Mellencamp’s unbelievably talented violinist Miriam Sturm and accordionist (who also played beautiful piano) Troye Kinnett followed with an excellent instrumental, which included portions of some of Mellencamp’s hits he wouldn’t get to during the night.
Once Mellencamp returned to the stage following this instrumental it would be nothing but classic hits for the remainder of his set – no doubt the most fun part of the evening and a great way to send the sold out audience home smiling ear-to-ear. He kicked off this portion of his show with a terrific performance of “Rain on the Scarecrow,” which has sort of become the Farm Aid anthem for the downtrodden American farmer with Mellencamp being on the board of directors for the event he helped to start with Willie Nelson and Neil Young in the ‘80s.
Mellencamp would continue with rocking performances of “Paper in Fire,” “Crumblin’ Down” and “Authority Song,” which all had the audience on their feet and grooving along with the music. Mellencamp even showed off some moves of his own when he threw a sing along portion of Wilson Pickett’s “Land of 1000 Dances” into the middle of “Authority Song.” “Authority Song” may include Mellencamp’s all-time greatest verse: “I call up my preacher/I say: ‘Gimme strength for round five/He said: ‘You don’t need no strength, you need to grow up, son’/I said: ‘Growing up leads to growing old and then to dying/And dying to me don’t sound like all that much fun.” It’s even better when you get to see him perform it live and scream it along with him.
Mellencamp would finish his fantastic night of music with the one-two punch of “Pink House,” his 1983 Grammy-nominated track that I believe is his career best, and “Cherry Bomb,” his 1987 nostalgic top-10 hit that really makes for a fun way to send an adoring audience home.
Mellencamp’s Orpheum show on Sunday night was truly everything a fan of his could possibly ask for.
The Country Music Hall of Fame typically announces its new class of inductees around the end of March every year. I thought it would be fun to gather some of my favorite (and best) country music bloggers on the Internet to come up with our own class of inductees and publish our fictional ballots for such a class giving reasoning to why we’ve made our picks. The Country Music Hall of Fame inducts three people annually, one in each category of Modern Era, Veterans Era and Non-Performer, and while I personally don’t agree with this way of selecting hall of famers (I’d prefer a percentage of votes to be inducted like the Baseball Hall of Fame does) we’re going to adhere to it for our ballots. – Julian Spivey
Joining me for this piece are Megan Bledsoe of Country Exclusive, Zackary Kephart of The Musical Divide and Nathan Kanuch of Shore2Shore Country. Please check out their fine work, which is linked on their website names
If I had to make a guess as to which country artist would be inducted via the Modern Era category this year it would be country music’s most successful duo of all-time Brooks & Dunn. And, while there’s no denying that Brooks & Dunn should be Country Music Hall of Famers, they don’t get my vote quite yet.
That’s because Dwight Yoakam has been eligible for hall induction for about eight or so years now and has been passed over for musicians such as Ricky Skaggs, Alan Jackson, Randy Travis and Oak Ridge Boys – all of which are deserving, except for the Oak Ridge Boys (the worst inductees in modern history for me). Yoakam was one of the most important musicians in country music for helping to save country music long before it became a popular thing to try to do, along with Travis and Steve Earle (who should be a hall of famer too, but likely never will), with bringing back traditional sounds after the Urban Cowboy era. Nearly 35 years after his debut Yoakam is still recording terrific songs and albums long after many of his era have seen their careers enter legacy phases or simply have faded away.
The thing that’s keeping Yoakam out of the Hall of Fame, though I do believe he’ll one day be enshrined, is he’s always sort of been a Nashville outsider – coming from California and adopting the Bakersfield Sound created by Buck Owens and Merle Haggard and keeping it alive – and he’s never been one to do things the way most do on Music Row. He’s also had fewer hits than most who see enshrinement into the Hall with only a shocking two No. 1 hits (both coming in 1988). My predicted pick Brooks & Dunn had 20 No. 1s.
For helping to save country music, keep an important part and sound of country music alive and continuing to do things his way to this day and record incredible music Yoakam would have my vote if I had one. – Julian Spivey
In my mind, there’s no artist who deserves this honor more than Dwight Yoakam does at the moment. Not only does Yoakam still consistently make great music, he’s part of the underrated class of ’86 in country music, a class that shifted the paradigms of country music. Thankfully, Randy Travis has already been inducted, and Steve Earle will likely always be too much of a wild card for consideration. Yoakam on the other hand was quintessential for making country music “cool” to the general public. Before releasing his debut album, Yoakam honed his craft in Los Angeles, away from the Urban Cowboy movement going on in country music in Nashville at the time. He played punk rock venues and clubs with acts like X and The Blasters. He was appealing to an audience vastly different than the one that was tuning into country radio, and the result equated to Yoakam finding his niche and audience. It’s that independent spirit and drive that’s made Yoakam such an outstanding figure in the genre. And if you think his punk rock roots deter him from being considered for any “country” music distinctions, just listen to his albums, particularly his debut. It’s some of the finest music ever produced in the genre.
If I had a second pick though, I’d easily give my vote to Marty Stuart. – Zackary Kephart
I have been a proponent of inducting Keith Whitley into the Hall of Fame for years. I even wrote a detailed case for his induction in 2017. The question with Whitley is always: Did he do enough in his young career to merit Hall of Fame distinction? In addition to giving us the country standards "Don't Close Your Eyes," "I'm No Stranger to the Rain" and "When You Say Nothing at All," Whitley's influence cannot be overstated. This influence was mainly on the class of ‘89, including Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson, Travis Tritt and Clint Black. Brooks and Jackson are now in, and Garth specifically named Whitley in his own induction as someone who should have been given the honor before him. Brooks even tried to turn his induction down. Ricky Skaggs, another of Whitley's contemporaries, joined the Hall last year, and it seems like Whitley should be a front-runner. Another, and very close second, pick would be Dwight Yoakam. – Megan Bledsoe
Keith Whitley will get in one day. His legacy has sparked a renewed interest in his career and tragic life. But now, with Alan Jackson, Ricky Skaggs and Randy Travis all having been deservingly inducted over the past several years, it’s Dwight Yoakam’s year.
When looking at Yoakam’s career, it’s the full body of work that is most striking. He has the hits. He has a fantastic collection of records to his name. And he’s done it by always staying true to himself. No compromises. On top of his music, Yoakam has been a fantastic ambassador for country music. Not just the genre itself but country’s roots as well. He’s stayed the course and never wavered. You’ve done Buck proud, Dwight. – Nathan Kanuch
It's hard to even begin to compile a case for inducting Hank Williams Jr. because it has grown almost ludicrous that he isn't already in the Hall. With multiple Entertainer of the Year Awards from both the CMA and the ACM, as well as millions of records sold and numerous singles topping the charts, it seems like Hank Jr. should just be in by now. Like Keith Whitley, his influence on generations is unquestioned. The Hall of Fame's legitimacy is being called into question by the lack of Bocephus, and the voters just need to fix this. Other candidates on my ballot would be Jerry Lee Lewis, Linda Ronstadt and Tanya Tucker, but at this point, it feels like they'd all be cutting Hank Jr. in line. – Megan Bledsoe
Much like Waylon Jennings’ attitude toward the institution, Hank Williams Jr. could care less if he ever gets into the Country Music Hall of Fame. As soon as Hank Jr. started going his way, the industry did all it could to ignore him. But he wouldn’t be denied. And Nashville was forced to take notice. Thirteen No. 1 albums and 10 No. 1 singles. Plus, two CMA Entertainer of the Year Awards and three ACM Entertainer of the Year Awards. And he did it all without the support of mainstream Nashville.
Hank Jr. has always had his detractors. From the people who were unhappy he didn’t sound like his dad to those today who don’t like his politics. But, as always, Hank Jr. really doesn’t care. He created his own sound and own identity. And he should be in the Country Music Hall of Fame. – Nathan Kanuch
I know Gary Stewart is a wild card pick, but this piece centers around artists we wish would make it into the Hall of Fame, not necessarily who will. It’s a shame that Stewart only has one No. 1 to his credit, because he’s hands down one of the most underrated performers in the genre. He was the love child of Jerry Lee Lewis and Hank Williams who injected his music with his own flair of honky tonk depression. Out of Hand is a top five country album of all time in my book, and “Ten Years Of This” is considered one of Bob Dylan’s favorite songs. Forget commercial relevance; what other proof do you need?
My second vote would likely be split between Tanya Tucker and Vern Gosdin. – Zackary Kephart
I can’t help but wonder how much of Hank Williams Jr.’s not caring if he ever makes the Country Music Hall of Fame and unwillingness to play the Nashville game has hurt him in his case, much like it did in taking Waylon Jennings many years to be inducted. But, much like it was with Waylon, it’s ridiculous that Hank Jr. isn’t in the Country Music Hall of Fame. Now, this isn’t exactly like a Baseball Hall of Fame without Willie Mays or Hank Aaron, but it does sort of make the entire place seem a bit incomplete without Hank Jr. His bucket load of awards, hits and top-selling albums should have him as a lock.
Hank Williams Jr. has done and said some dumbass stuff, some of which have come out in his songs, in the past that has likely hurt his case, but so has Charlie Daniels, who was inducted three years ago. It’s time the Country Music Hall of Fame voting committee put this controversy to rest and let Hank Jr. in. – Julian Spivey
Unlike many of today’s country music “journalists,” Chet Flippo understood and respected the roots of country music. He also didn’t use country music as a vessel to promote his own personal agenda. For Flippo, the music came first.
Flippo’s contributions cannot be ignored. By writing about artists like Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson while with Rolling Stone in the ‘70s, Flippo successfully exposed the country genre to an audience more obviously disposed to rock. Then years later, Flippo worked for CMT, penning his “Nashville Skyline” column. He basically wrote about whatever topic he felt like, whether it was an album review or analysis of an event happening in the genre. He was open-minded but also held strong beliefs about the genre. Flippo would be a fitting inductee. – Nathan Kanuch
There’s little doubt in my mind that this honor will go to a producer, songwriter or sessions player as it frequently does, but I think it’s time to think a bit outside of the box and give it to someone who’s had a positive affect and grown the genre of country music in their own way and that person is Chet Flippo.
I’m a journalism nerd. I love the medium that might be the most hated medium in the world. I have incredible respect for those who do the job and do it well and when it comes to country music few, if any, journalists have ever written about it as well as Flippo, who covered the genre for Rolling Stone for years and who I enjoyed reading as a teenager on CMT.com. Country music has always been sort of the “uncool” music genre – mostly because people don’t know what they’re talking about – but, Flippo helped to make it a bit cooler by writing about acts like Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton and others in Rolling Stone in pages next to the likes of The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan. He’s just as important for the growth of the genre as many of the musicians who’ve long been inducted into the hallowed halls of the Country Music Hall of Fame. – Julian Spivey
To be honest, it was tough narrowing this choice down, even more so than the others. It’s inevitable that country music scholars don’t get the respect they deserve. Music Row is more concerned with the next big thing than preserving the country music genre’s roots. My personal pick, therefore, is Charles K. Wolfe. I’ve personally read a few of Wolfe’s books, including A Good Natured Riot: The Birth of the Grand Ole Opry and Classic Country: Legends of Country Music as well as his contributions to other books. If nothing else, Wolfe was certainly one of country music’s most prolific writers, publishing 19 works of his own and reportedly working on several more at the time of his death. What I personally like about Wolfe’s works are that he focuses on wide-ranging specific topics in country music and doesn’t leave a stone unturned. His attention to detail and ability to guide the listener through a story (despite it being pure history) is magic. For anyone looking to educate themselves on the true origins of country music and some of its earliest events, Wolfe is definitely an author you need to check out. – Zackary Kephart
Admittedly, my knowledge in this category is very limited, and there are surely lots of deserving candidates of which I am not even aware. But Shelby Singleton, already a member of the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, should be a contender for the Country Music Hall. He is most famous for being the man behind Jeannie C. Riley's massive 1968 crossover hit, "Harper Valley PTA," but he worked, first at Mercury and later on his own label, with many other artists throughout the ‘60s, both in country and blues. He later purchased Sun Records and is responsible for releasing some of the earliest recordings of Elvis, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis. He had a reputation for knowing hit songs when he heard them and pairing the right artists with songs. Upon his death, his friend and successor at Mercury Jerry Kennedy called him "the all-around record man." There is no doubt many others who also deserve induction in this category, but my nomination goes to Singleton. – Megan Bledsoe
Well, it seems we have ourselves a consensus with at least two of us agreeing on an artist or figure in each of the three Hall of Fame categories. So, if the Country Music Hall of Fame voting committee consisted of Megan, Nathan, Zachary and me our 2019 Country Music Hall of Fame inductees would be Dwight Yoakam, Hank Williams Jr. and Chet Flippo.
It wouldn’t surprise me if there isn’t a single person, we voted for in this entire piece not inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame this year, but I’d put our 2019 class up against any other possible one. – Julian Spivey
Who do you think should be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame this year? Let us know in the comments section!