Let’s Burn a Country Music CD

Folks who’ve heard a bit of country here and there and are looking to get a little more involved have often asked me for country recommendations. I never got the chance to swap vinyls but I do remember sharing cassette tapes and then, the crown-jewel of childhood music sharing, mixed compact discs. There’s still something wonderful about a burned CD mix, especially with the song titles written in sharpie on the front of the CD. In the spirit of putting together a mixed CD for you dear reader and friend, I thought I’d share what I would now put onto a mixed CD as a country music primer.

At least for the CDs I’d make as a kid, you could typically get 22 or so songs to fit on there, so that’s the list I’ve put together. By way of qualification, I don’t mean to suggest that I think the below songs are the best or even my favorite 22. This isn’t the country mix I’d choose if stranded on a desert island with only my boom box and one CD. And neither is this a listing of the songs I think represent the country music canon. Rather this is intended to serve as an introductory flight of country songs – a tasting of different eras and styles, so a new listener can wet their beak. It’s for this reason I’ve intentionally omitted certain artists or songs, especially if they are more well-known or contemporary. For example, it’s hard to put together a list like this and not include a song like The Devil Went Down to Georgia or anything by Johnny Cash, Garth Brooks or Dolly Parton. Similarly, if we were (virtually) doing one of those data CDs you could get more songs on, I would surely have put something by Carrie Underwood, Patsy Cline, Reba, Hank Jr., and Tim McGraw on here. But anyway I’ve tried in my selections to put together a mix that reflects at least some songs and artists folks might not be familiar with already together with some classics, so a listener can decide what they like best and what country roads they’d like to further explore.*

1. Mama Tried – Merle Haggard
2. L.A. Freeway – Guy Clark
3. Pancho and Lefty – Townes Van Zandt
4. Lost Highway – Hank Williams Sr.
5. Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain – Willie Nelson
6. Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man – Conway Twitty & Loretta Lynn
7. Forever and Ever, Amen – Randy Travis
8. Guitars, Cadillacs – Dwight Yoakam
9. Independence Day – Martina McBride
10. Me and Bobby McGee – Kris Kristofferson
11. Mountain Music – Alabama
12. Stand By Your Man – Tammy Wynette
13. Kiss an Angel Good Mornin’ – Charley Pride
14. Copperhead Road – Steve Earle
15. Wide Open Spaces – Dixie Chicks
16. He Stopped Loving Her Today – George Jones
17. Chattahoochee – Alan Jackson
18. I Can Still Make Cheyenne – George Strait
19. The Road Goes on Forever – Robert Earl Keen
20. This Time Around – Randy Rogers Band
21. Texas on My Mind – Pat Green
22. Colder Weather – Zac Brown Band

*This virtual CD is also presented with apologies, since I’ve not given credit to the songwriters or original recording artists in some cases, and instead I’ve listed the singers whose rendition I’d like to be on our CD.

Good Sunday Songs

Each day of the week is almost like a mini stage in life attached to certain activities and emotions and I like country songs that speak to this. Songs like George Jones’ “Finally Friday” and Garth’s (and Jones’) “Beer Run (B Double E Double Are You In?)” – neither written by Jones or Brooks – and Steve Azar’s “I Don’t Have to Be Me (‘til Monday)” – co-written by Azar – are great Friday songs.  They’re about checking out of work and blowing off steam from the week maybe with some beers.  The feel of a day like Friday or Monday or Wednesday is more straightforward, but Sunday has its own, less obvious, feel: basically collecting from the past week/end and the Take-This-Job-And-Shove-It-bosses and all of those George Jones six packs, reflecting with self, God and family and resting (and gearing) up for things to come.

Zac Brown Band’s “No Hurry” is one of the great Sunday songs. It’s great for a lot of reasons, but in terms of lyrical content really hits the Sunday vibe.  ZBB explicitly ignores of the boss calling on the telephone, household chores that need to be done and bills to be paid in favor of relaxing retreat:

There’s nothing wrong with an old cane fishing pole / and the smell of early spring
Sit down in a fold-up easy chair / on a quiet, shady river bank
Let the world go on without me / wouldn’t have it any other way,
cause I ain’t in no hurry today

The song takes the Sunday concept a little further, as a broader approach to life, and also focuses on getting right with the Lord – faith a core of the Sunday reflection and improvement themes.

Toby Keith hits the same themes in “My List”. This is fine song, not written by Keith but delivered well.  The narrator starts off crossing lots of weekend chores off the to-do list, but then comes around to those more important things in life to take care of.  The strength of this song (in addition to the direct but soft rhymes) is the really nice things on that life list:

  • like go for a walk, say a little prayer
  • take a deep breath of mountain air
  • put on my glove and play some catch
  • wade the shore and cast a line
  • look up a long lost friend of mine
  • sit on the porch and give my girl a kiss
  • raise a little hell, laugh ‘til it hurts
  • put an extra five in the plate at church
  • call up my folks, just to chat
  • stay up late, then oversleep
  • show her what she means to me
  • start livin’

Listing activities turns out to be a pretty effective means of conveying the Sunday theme. By sort of aggregating the feelings associated with each individual listed activity set in context, we get a sum total of Sunday.  Craig Morgan’s “That’s What I Love About Sunday” does it the same way, listing out church-going and family BBQ imagery in particular along with other typical Sunday activities.  My favorite verse is:

I stroll to the end of the drive / pick up the Sunday Times / grab my coffee cup
It looks like Sally and Ron / finally tied the knot / well it’s about time
It’s 35 cents off of ground round / Baby cut that coupon out!
That’s what I love about Sunday

The wedding announcements are a nice Sunday tradition, and it’s also the vivid routine of lazily and leisurely walking down to the end of the driveway to grab the paper. And it’s especially, in the context of the love- and family-oriented song, the family-driven and romantic love with which we imagine the narrator pouring over the coupons with his wife.  The music videos and album artwork associated with these songs are consistent with the themes: the narrator being outside communing with nature (even holding church outside), creating lasting memories with kids (of course weaving in baseball, what could be stronger father-and-song bonding?), retreating with and protecting family or laying on a couch looking up to God in the middle of a wide open field.

Other songs get at the same theme without such explicit listing. Alabama’s “I’m in a Hurry (And Don’t Know Why)” is also a great Sunday song.  While the tempo of the song is clearly in the “I’m in a Hurry” vein of the title, the content repudiates the rushing mentality and messages a slow down.  Kris Kristofferson’s “Sunday Mornin’ Coming Down” – one scarcely imagines being sung by anyone other than Johnny Cash – is another great example.  The song starts with the fallout from (and a bit of continuation of) the previous Saturday night and quickly turns to introspective reflection with the narrator taking in the Sunday sights, sounds and smells – kids playing, church songs and bells ringing, frying chicken – and engaging with God in thinking about the course of his life.

The feeling of Sunday is multi-faceted and hard to dig into and meaningfully capture, but I think there’s really a huge payoff in the form of such nice music when songs put this task in focus and are able to execute successfully.

Some Thoughts on the 2016 50th Annual Country Music Awards

The Country Music Awards are awesome. If there is any group of celebrities I actually want to celebrate it’s country music stars, particularly because these are pop culture folks, yes wearing tuxedos and fancy dresses on the red carpet but at the same time hokey and one imagines comparatively humble and kind.

As in recent years, Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood were the perfect MCs, witty but not trying too hard and topical but not political. Their routines are always creative, and funny in just the right way – we’re not laughing at anyone and if we even feel like we’re laughing at jokes we feel like we’re just laughing together because the routines are purposefully silly.

From a production perspective the CMAs bring everyone into the fold. The show opened with a wonderful (if far too short) tribute to the late, great Merle Haggard, and nice medley that featured Charlie Daniels’ fiddle positively smoking, and a reminder that any song Carrie Underwood sings (in this case Stand By Your Man) becomes hers for that moment. Of the performances delivered, my favorites were Brooks & Dunn with Brand New Man, Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood’s snippet of Jackson and I don’t care what anyone else says: Beyoncé fit right in on that stage. Daddy Lessons is a country song and a nice one at that, and Beyoncé’s performance was great – upbeat and enthusiastic, and of course with her impressive vocals – strong horns and harmonica giving the song a nice New Orleans feel. I also enjoyed Chris Stapleton and Dwight Yoakam’s rendition of Seven Spanish Angels (more so than Stapleton’s Tennessee Whiskey performance of 2015). I’m also a big Reba fan and her 9 to 5 Dolly Parton tribute cover was spot on. Also appreciated were fun appearances by Peyton Manning, Olivia Newton John and Matthew McConaughey.

Focusing in on the awards themselves, the first live category of Best Single was disappointing. There were actually two songs in this category I felt were arguably deserving of the award: Chris Stapleton’s Nobody to Blame and Maren Morris’s My Church, but the award went to what is in my opinion the worst nominated song Thomas Rhett’s Die a Happy Man.

The CMAs had a chance at redemption but My Church didn’t make Song of the Year either, arguably an even more appropriate award for this song. Note to Reader: this award is a favorite of mine since I don’t think songwriters get nearly enough recognition. Lori McKenna, this year’s winner is a fine and deserving songwriter, though I don’t think Humble and Kind is her best effort. My Church features fine lyrics (co-written by Morris) beautifully delivered, with religious redemption serving as a nice metaphor for country music and importantly and more specifically listening to country music on the freedom of the open road on the radio, and attendent features of religion serving as a nice delivery vehicle for references to country music legends. I was pleased that they at least gave Maren a bit of stage time for the song, and what a wonderful accompaniment of Preservation Hall Jazz Band (!), and Morris was definitely the right choice for New Artist of the Year. Looking back to some of the legends who have won this award in past years, I think Morris was the only credible choice among the nominees. I have some nice things to say about Cole Swindell, which I hope to get to one of these days perhaps in a post about Pop Country, but with Chillin’ It, Hope You Get Lonely Tonight and Ain’t Worth the Whiskey from Swindell’s 2013/2014 album I don’t really think of him as a new artist any longer.

On Album of the Year, I didn’t have strong feelings among the nominees but I think Mr. Misunderstood was a good choice (Storyteller would also have been a good choice) and appreciate that Church has at least co-writing credits on every song on this album (though Morris was in her own right a co-producer of Hero). For me the most conspicuous note here was the absence of ZBB’s Jekyll + Hyde from the nominees (also probably a contender for this award in 2015) – what’s going on here?

Miscellaneous Notes on a Few Other Awards:

The gents in Brothers Osborne do have solid vocals (re: Vocal Duo of the Year), though it’s hard to put them in the same tier as Brooks & Dunn or Sugarland. These guys combined do not have the pipes of Jennifer Nettles. The Vocal Group of the Year award was a travesty. Little Big Town has a couple things going for it, including the significant vocal contributions of all members of the band, but this award clearly should have gone to Zac Brown Band. Clearly. It’s hard to argue with Carrie Underwood as Female Vocalist of the Year – particularly in a year when Jennifer Nettles, Reba or Martina McBride didn’t make the finalists. Ditto for Chris Stapleton as Male Vocalist of the Year, though again I’m not sure how Zac Brown doesn’t at least make the nomination list for his individual vocals notwithstanding that he performs as part of ZBB.

Just a faint rumor of Garth Brooks releasing a new album would probably have been enough to garner him the award for Entertainer of the Year, and while I haven’t had the good fortune to see Garth live, the performances I’ve seen of his are obviously spectacular and combined with a strong first single from his new album, this fairly gets GB the win here.