The List: Country Music in the Aughts
I’m tempted to say that it’s been a good month for country. Within the last couple of weeks, Patty Loveless released her second Mountain Soul recording, celebrating the traditional music of the hills. Kris Kristofferson cut a sparse, poetic set called Closer to the Bone. Miranda Lambert continued her quest to bring a punk edge to mainstream country with Revolution. And just this week, Lyle Lovett returns with another fine, wry singer-songwriter set called Natural Forces, while Terri Clark released a fiery mainstream country disc in The Long Way Home.
But again, I’m only tempted to call this a good month for country, if only because the entire decade has been a good one for country. Nashville is maligned in music critic circles, and not always unfairly– certainly, it’s a scene prone to formula– but even as mainstream country has grown stale, a number of artists have kicked against the stagnation of their beloved music with records that have been vibrant and often brilliant.
This is my tribute to the country music of the last ten years, inspired in large part by my favorite country album of this year, Rosanne Cash’s The List. You’ve probably heard the story behind that one: Old man Johnny gave his teenage daughter a list of the 100 essential country music songs, twelve of which are covered on her new LP. My own list isn’t of songs, but of albums; and it isn’t of all-time classics, but of modern-day classics.
Note that this isn’t necessarily a list of my ten favorite country discs of the 00s, but, rather, ten albums that demonstrate the range and depth of what’s coming out of the genre. Also, I’ve tried to restrict these choices to albums that have some kind of clear connection to traditional country forms. And finally, since I’ve already written about newer albums from Cash, Kristofferson, and the rest, I’ve left those out– for now.
On to the list:
I’ve heard it said that country music is really just soul music, an adage that I’ve shamelessly used in my own writing more than once. That connection is made implicit in this recording, in which the king of soul music dons a cowboy hat, takes up arms with producer Buddy Miller, and makes one of the most authentic and expressive country music albums of the decade.
Caitlin Cary and Thad Cockrell
It might sound like hyperbole to say that these are some of the finest country duets this side of Gram and Emmylou, but get a listen of these heavenly harmonies and try to disagree. This is the good stuff: Tears-in-beer ballads mixed with driving, heartland country-rock.
Not even Tom Waits’ sprawling Orphans set can top this one in terms of sheer scope and generosity; at four discs of all-new, all-original material, this one is king of the mountain. The four discs are divided according to style, which shows just how diverse and far-reaching the Nashville sound can be when a pro like Gill is given the space to do his thing.
Like Red on a Rose
Jackson has spent most of his career making good-times anthems for the honky tonk; Alison Krauss has earned acclaim as a bluegrass virtuoso. Together, they made a late-night saloon album that has less in common with their normal gigs than with Sinatra’s In the Wee Small Hours. I’m not sure how they pulled it off either, but it’s a singularly moving record, perfect for late-night listening.
Dreamin’ My Dreams
Though she’s spent most of the decade mining traditional country sounds in her fine Mountain Soul records and the all-covers Sleepless Nights, her finest work might be Dreaming My Dreams, a knockout set that represents a perfect blending of traditional and modern country trappings.
Van Lear Rose
It’s not just one of the best country albums of the decade, but one of the biggest comebacks, in any genre: A storytelling masterpiece that combines autobiography with a healthy dose of garage rock mayhem, the latter thanks to superfan and producer Jack White.
Buddy and Julie Miller
Buddy and Julie Miller
I know of few recordings that capture the joys of love– or the pains of heartache– with as much vigor as this flirty, fun set from country’s best husband-wife team; musically, this one touches on everything from acoustic country ballads to swaggering, Stonesy rock.
Of late, Willie has proven himself willing to collaborate with pretty much anyone, but who would have thought that one of his best albums in years would be a joint effort with Ryan Adams? This set has Nelson songs, Adams songs, and covers of everything from Leonard Cohen to “Amazing Grace,” and everything here is killer.
Love, Pain, and the Whole Crazy Thing
It’s the Sgt. Pepper of mainstream country music– not in terms of impact, maybe, but certainly with regard to its baroque arrangements. But there ain’t nothin’ artsty about it: This is thrillingly bold, colorful music that blends the best of country, pop, and guitar rock.
World Without Tears
I know I’m in the minority, but I think this is Williams’ best record: Part country, part folk, part rock, all raw emotion, pain and heartache. It’s sharp, strong and sexy– and though it dabbles in classic rock and talking blues, the close-to-the-bone human poetry is country through and through.