by David D. Robbins Jr.
What is country music exactly? Does it have to be sung with a twang? Well, in that case, sorry Keith Urban, you’re out. Is it Neko Case, who sings with a voice that sounds more country than Urban? But Case’s music jumps all over the place — from folk to indie to Americana and back to country again. Or is “real country” popular country, like Lady Antebellum, who really are a hybrid of pop, rock and country? Or is it an old-schooler like Willie Nelson, who mixed bluegrass and twisted standards to fit his style on “Willie & the Wheel”? Well, I think there’s room for all of it. The more the merrier. I decided to make this list, in part, because a colleague of mine jokingly said I needed more country music on this blog. Well, you know, he’s right. Maybe it was my dislike specifically for modern popular country music that kept me from putting much of the genre on this blog. I’ve generally found popular country to be too clichéd, too reliant on pretty voices and pretty faces. But that’s really the case for popular music of all genres. All I know is I am a fan of country. This is my list of the Top 10 Country Songs of 2009. Right click on the artists’ names below and “open link in new tab” and it will take you to a video of the song or the song itself. Do the same for the album title and it will take you to the artists’ websites or a place to buy the music. Oh, and for the record, this is my my-kinda-country. (But please, bear in mind, I’m no country music expert):
1. Buddy and Julie Miller “Chalk”
Album: “Written in Chalk”
About: Stunning pair. Best country song of the year. There are so many good songs on their album “Written In Chalk” — that I nearly couldn’t make a decision. As a bonus, one track on their album actually features Robert Plant. (Yes, that Plant. Mr. Led Zeppelin himself.) I’d put three songs from this album on this list — but I vowed to myself not to repeat artists. ‘Chalk’ is a slow-burn song. The lyrics are hauntingly heartbreaking, especially with that winding country guitar and piano. Unreal. Yes, this is the same married couple whose “Somewhere Trouble Don’t Go” was covered by Miranda Lambert on “Revolution”. It’s a shame they aren’t more well known.
Lyrics: “I always pretended for your sake / So you wouldn’t know how you made my heart break / I tried so hard to save you from yourself / But I never could cry out loud for help / All I did was help you tell a lie / You never even knew it when I said goodbye / I ran so far / And I don’t know why / You never even knew who I was / You saw about as far as a blind man does / I carried you with me everywhere I went / I carried everything till my back was bent.”
2. Charlie Robison “Reconsider”
Album: “Beautiful Day”
About: Absolutely fantastic. Much of the buzz around this song was because Robison’s real-life marriage had fallen apart — and this song seems to suggest that a fictional wife “reconsider” coming home if the man tries really hard to do better. Sad. Robison didn’t actually write this song though. It was written by Keith “El Cerrito Place” Gattis for his 2005 album Big City Blues. How do the two versions compare? Well you’ll have to be the judge. But I will say this, I’ve played this song maybe 10 times already today — and it’s 6 p.m.
Lyrics: “Well, take another look around / Still waitin’ for a light to shine / But if you’d looked, you haven’t found me, baby / And I don’t wanna waste your time / If I tried, would you reconsider / Reconsider comin’ home.”
3. Jason Eady “Cry Pretty”
Album: “When the Money’s All Gone”
About: Beautiful and simple melody. I saw this video posted on a blog months ago and thought, “Damn, now this is music. This is how you sing a country ballad.” Or try his song “Judgement Day”, an old-school mountain music number, which would have made this list too but for my repeat rule.
Lyrics: “I know it’s been a while since I’ve seen you girl / Funny we should meet up at a place like this / Sure, I’ve gotta minute / But I can’t stay long / I got someone waitin’ for me outside / Damn, you sure look just like I remember / It’s too bad things turned out like they did / You got that same look in your eyes now / Last time I saw that you were leaving / Has anybody ever told you that you sure cry pretty?”
4. Justin Townes Earle “Mama’s Eyes”
Album: “Midnight at the Movies”
About: This is about as honest as songwriting gets. Nothing special in terms of poetics. But the honesty is brutal. Basically, Earle is saying “thanks dad” and “f-you dad” at the same time. But even more impressive is the guitar interlude and the sentiment he expresses about his mother. Just beautiful. It doesn’t get much prettier than this.
Lyrics: “I went down the same road as my old man / I was younger then / Now its 3 a.m. and I’m standing in the kitchen / Holding my last cigarette / Strike a match and I see my reflection / In the mirror in the hall.”
5. Drive-By-Truckers “George Jones Talkin’ Cell Phone Blues”
Album: “The Fine Print (A Collection of Oddities)
About: Totally bad-ass song. Powerful, darkly humorous — but sad too. The song’s chorus is a powerful hook — the music and words keep you going until the last note. Basically, that is what a great song should do.
Lyrics: “You were talkin’ on that cell phone, driving your Mercedes way too fast. / All of the sudden there was this dial tone, you hit the pylons on the overpass / Foot down heavy on the pedal, talking to your daughter in the car / Next sound you heard was twisted metal, another dead genius country star.”
6. Sarah Jarosz “Song Up In Her Head”
Album: “Song Up in Her Head”
About: Okay, I’m cheating. Jarosz sings more a bluegrass style than country. She has that old-world feel you get from listening to a long-gone blues artist like Son House. And if you like this song — bear in mind Jarosz’ newest album contains two covers — one a Tom Waits song, the other “Shankill Butchers” by The Decemberists. Her abilities are endless as she plays mandolin, clawhammer banjo, guitar, octave mandolin, and piano. She is an absolute virtuoso. Not to mention she writes lyrics that are out of this world.
Lyrics: “Virgin Mary, all dressed in blue / Since my first lover, for an audience of two / New York boy, all dressed in black / Old leather boots, soles intact / Time moves forward / And time moves back.”
7. Lyle Lovett “Natural Forces”
Album: “Natural Forces”
About: Lovett can’t be mistaken for anyone else. There is something naturally weird and otherworldly about the guy. Whether he’s writing songs about penguins or whooping cranes. While “Natural Forces” feels like a standard Lovett tune — he manages to enthrall with beautiful lyricism and haunting melodies.
Lyrics: “And now as I sit here safe at home / With a cold Coors Light and the TV on / All the sacrifice and the death and war / Lord, I pray that I’m worth fighting for / So, thank you mam / I must decline / For it’s on my RPG I ride / ‘Til earth and hell are satisfied / Well, I’m subject to the natural forces / And sometimes at night I hear their voices / Home is where my horse is.”
8. Dierks Bentley & Patty Griffin “Beautiful World”
Album: “Feel That Fire”
About: I honestly don’t know much about Bentley, but I do know Griffin well. She is one of the most talented musicians there ever was. As far as Americana songwriting goes — there’s Bob Dylan, Patty Griffin, Lucinda Williams, and a few others — but the list is short. This song normally would be a bit too literal for me — but the melodies and harmonies are too gorgeous to ignore. Reminds me a bit of Tim McGraw singing Ryan Adam’s “When the Stars Go Blue.” A perfect kind of pop-country. How Griffin is not the one of the world’s biggest stars is beyond me.
Lyrics: “All the noise and the voices are screamin’ what they have to say / And the headlines and soundbites are givin’ me demons to hate / And the man on TV / He tells me it’s ugly / But if you ask me, it’s a beautiful world.”
9. Guy Clark “Hemingway’s Whiskey”
Album: “Somedays the Song Writes You”
About: This old-timer still can write a tune. A damn good tune. Sometimes less really is more.
Lyrics: “Hemingway’s whiskey / Warm and smooth and mean / Even when it burns / It will always finish clean / He didn’t like it watered down / He took it straight up and neat / If it’s bad enough for him / You know it was bad enough for me.”
10. Carolyn Mark & NQ Arbuckle “Officer Down”
Album: “Let’s Just Stay Here”
About: Kinda reminds me of a softer sounding Lady Antebellum — but better. This is one of the sweeter, unaffected duets since Buddy and Julie Miller or Carrie Rodriguez and Chip Taylor. Mark and Arbuckle even drops the band ‘Drive-by-Truckers’ a nod, by mentioning the band in the lyrics of this song. I like the quotidian details and the harmony on the line, “… like vodka December.”
Lyrics: “Officer down / Juliette, echo, November / And the room falls apart / But we’ll pick it up / Put it back together.”
NOTE: No. 11 would be Ryan Bingham’s “Bluebird”, an intricate low-key song. I did enjoy Jason Aldean’s “The Truth” — which isn’t about tractors or grain bins. I also thought Chris Young’s “Gettin’ You Home” was fun, despite some of the cliched lyrics about candlelight and his woman’s dress “hitting the floor”. Todd Snider’s “The Last Laugh” sounds a lot like what Lyle Lovett was doing on “I Love Everybody”. Very cool. Lady Antebellum has a single out, called “American Honey” — promoting their 2010 album and it’s a good track. Charles Kelly takes a backseat on this one — letting Hillary Scott work it. It’s another interesting hybrid of country-pop-rock, with a bass beat that kicks in 37 seconds into the song. Is Neko Case country? If so, “Magpie to the Morning” would be on this list. It feels popish/folk in the way that Ricky Lee Jones is. Both are stellar hybrid-kinda musicians. Sometimes Case, when hitting certain notes, reminds me of Patsy Cline. Caitlin & Will’s “Even Now” is a good duet too. I liked a few tracks from Miranda Lambert — like “Dead Flowers”, and “White Liar” — but none as much as her older Steve Earle “borrowing” — “Kerosene”. And my hat’s off to Willie Nelson for his gorgeous “Willie and the Wheel.” Gorgeous and old-school. Try his song “Hesitation Blues” — and see if you can’t stop bobbin’ your head. Or his barbershop-styled “Sweet Jennie Lee.” Man, Willie can sure make music.