10 for ’01: Top Country Picks of the Year

Country.com’s critics have assembled their year-end Top 10 lists. During the week between Christmas and New Year’s, we share them with you: Dec. 27, Michael Gray; Dec. 28, Ed Morris; Dec. 29-30, Chet Flippo; Dec. 31-Jan. 1, Jay Orr.

10 for ’01: Top Country Picks of the Year

The horrific tragedies of Sept. 11 will resonate long and hard through country music and pop culture in general. In these times of great uncertainty and personal and national reflection, it felt soothing to have an inspired collection of optimistic and mournful songs from long ago dominate the top spot on the country album chart. The triple-platinum O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack was not only the surprise country hit of the year, it also offered authenticity when we needed it most. Since it was released in December 2000, it is not included in the list of 2001 releases below. Fortunately, several albums from this year’s crop fed the soul, too.

Top 10 Country Albums of 2001:

1. Merle Haggard — Roots, Vol. 1 (Anti-/Epitaph)

Now a legend in his own right, Haggard continues to pay tribute to his inspirations. These songs by Lefty Frizzell , Hank Thompson and Hank Williams are close to his heart, and he pulled his guitar hero, Norm Stephens, out of retirement to give the songs just the right touch. Stephens played on a number of Frizzell’s and Thompson’s original classics, and his sparse, swinging, tasteful playing is as wonderful today as it was a half-century ago. Recorded on vintage equipment in Haggard’s living room, Roots showcases the singer’s hard-won tenderness.

2. Lucinda Williams — Essence (Lost Highway/Mercury)

Williams ’ soulful voice, her descriptive but economical songwriting and her ragged-but-right approach to making music just about go unsurpassed these days. Essence is the most imperfect of her last four albums, but she’s an artist of such high caliber that her failures are more interesting than other’s successes. This set of forlorn, subdued songs (“Blue,” “I Envy the Wind,” “Lonely Girls,” “Reason to Cry”) doesn’t find a narrative center to compare with her 1998 masterpiece, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, which provided a travelogue of Williams’ South. Still, she lays bare her emotions, and her poetic lyrics and down-home twang retain their depth and beauty.

3. Alison Krauss & Union Station — New Favorite (Rounder)

In various permutations, Krauss , Dan Tyminski and the other sterling members of Union Station had a stunning year with the mammoth artistic and commercial success of the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack. They topped off 2001 with this solid studio release and a national tour that received glowing reviews. Krauss turns to songwriters Robert Lee Castleman (“Let Me Touch You for Awhile,” “The Lucky One”) and Gillian Welch (the title lament) for inspired new material. The songs, vocals, musicianship and production are right on the money, start to finish, making this a new favorite, indeed.

4. Ray Wylie Hubbard — Eternal and Lowdown (Philo/Rounder)

Veteran Texas songwriter Hubbard collaborates with producer/multi-instrumentalist Gurf Morlix for one of his bluesiest and finest albums to date. In the joyful “Joyride,” the storyteller gives in to advances at the Continental Club from a bombshell who looks like Mamie Van Doren and listens to Slim Harpo and Doug Sahm. Hubbard’s gritty Resonator slide guitar accents his story songs about shady poker games and New Orleans nightlife. “Didn’t Have a Prayer” is a pensive number describing Hubbard’s confrontation with past demons and his search for spiritual renewal.

5. Steve Earle, Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark — Together at the Bluebird Cafe (Koch Progressive)

Released six years after it was recorded, this club date marked one of Earle ’s first appearances after jail time and drug rehabilitation. His mentor, Van Zandt, would die an untimely death a little more than a year after the show. Recorded at Nashville’s intimate Bluebird CafĂ©, the longtime friends swapped priceless stories, jokes and some of their best songs (“My Old Friend the Blues,” “Randall Knife,” “Tecumseh Valley”). The respect, emotion and improvised interplay between the chums allows listeners a special opportunity to understand their friendship and learn a little about what makes these great writers tick. Unfortunately, not all the show’s great moments made it onto the live album, among them several songs performed by Emmylou Harris , who essentially became the fourth principal player of the night. The CD still stands as an important document of the ongoing legacy of Texas songwriting.

6. Gene Watson — From the Heart (RMG Records)

Watson here confirms that he remains one of country music’s greatest and most underrated vocalists and song stylists. The Texan also is the king of consistency, making dependable, bedrock country albums long after his commercial heyday in the ’70s and ’80s. Recorded while he was undergoing chemotherapy for colon cancer (now in remission), From the Heart finds Watson in fine voice and keeping the honky-tonk faith. “Next to Nothin'” is as good as any country hit this year, with Watson singing, “I’m next to nothin’ when I’m not next to you/Anything that’s close to me is next to lonesome, too.” Watson makes his own classics by Ray Price (“Take Me as I Am”) and Lefty Frizzell (“I Never Go Around Mirrors”). His subtle powers as a balladeer come through on “The Truth Is I Lied” and “Would It Be Cheatin’.” He offsets the weepers with a funny and clever novelty song, “No Trash in My Trailer.” If that ain’t enough, Watson and producer Ray Pennington convince their longtime friend Buddy Emmons to load the album with perfect steel guitar.

7. Rodney Crowell — The Houston Kid (Sugar Hill)

Funded with Crowell ’s own cash, The Houston Kid is a from-the-heart effort packed with imagery from his Texas childhood. Crowell writes about painful stories — such as domestic violence in “The Rock of My Soul” — in confessional, plainspoken language, without sounding stilted or romanticizing his pain. The musical memoir is not a complete downer. In “I Walk the Line (Revisited),” Crowell lovingly recalls the first time he heard Johnny Cash on the radio. Cash, his ex-father-in-law, makes a guest appearance on the song, giving it a wonderful gravity. And there is resolution in the final track, “I Know Love is All I Need.”

8. Chris Knight — A Pretty Good Guy (Dualtone)

Three years after his acclaimed debut, Knight returns with a dark album that shares a worldview with Steve Earle. Knight’s songs about rogues in rural towns are stark and vivid, and Dan Baird’s rough-and-ready roots production complements them perfectly. “Down the River” cuts the deepest, with its detailed account of a man’s revenge for his brother’s death.

9. Patty Loveless — Mountain Soul (Epic)

In a year when bluegrass and acoustic country enjoyed another round of popularity, Loveless delivered a fully realized back-to-roots album. Mountain Soul is a reflection of her native southeastern Kentucky, with old and new songs that deal with coal mining, old-time religion and loneliness. Loveless and Earl Scruggs breathe new life into the traditional “Shady Grove,” reworked and re-titled “Pretty Little Miss.” Loveless also enlists Ricky Skaggs , Stuart Duncan, Rob Ickes, Jon Randall , Clarence “Tater” Tate, the late Gene Wooten, Emory Gordy, Jr. (her producer and husband) and other A-list bluegrass pickers to give proper treatment to the songs. One of the newer compositions, Darrell Scott’s chilling “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive” holds its own with time-tested classics by Ralph Stanley , Reno & Smiley and Porter Wagoner & Dolly Parton .

10. Tammy Cochran — Tammy Cochran (Epic)

Country radio listeners will know “Angels in Waiting,” a sweet memorial to Cochran ’s two late brothers. However, “If You Can,” an incendiary, hard-country ballad, highlighted by Dan Dugmore’s weeping steel guitar, is what clinches this as the year’s best country debut. Not just another pretty voice, Cochran possesses enormous vocal power and brings emotional depth and creative integrity to the songs. Drawing comparisons to fellow Ohio native Connie Smith , Cochran sings with assured conviction throughout the album, from the heartbroken “What I Learned From Loving You” to the kiss-off “Going, Going, Gone.”

10 Best Country Reissues:

1. Clarence “Tom” Ashley — Greenback Dollar (County Records)

2. Don Rich & The Buckaroos — Country Pickin’: The Don Rich Anthology (Sundazed)

5. The Monroe BrothersVol. 2, Just a Song of Old Kentucky (Rounder)

4. Jimmy MartinThe King of Bluegrass (Audium)

5. Bob Wills

6. Various Artists — Old-Time Music From Southwest Virginia (County Records)

7. Red Allen — The Folkways Years 1964-1983 (Smithsonian Folkways Recordings)

8. Joe Maphis — Fire on the Strings (Columbia/Legacy)

9. Ralph Stanley — Clinch Mountain Gospel (Rebel Records)

10. Buck OwensYoung Buck, The Complete Pre-Capitol Recordings of Buck Owens (Audium)

— Michael Gray

10 Towering Tunes From 2001 — Edward Morris

Best of 2001 — Chet Flippo

O Brother, What a Year — Jay Orr