O Brother, What a 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.

1. Alison Krauss & Union Station, New Favorite (Rounder)

In many ways, this outfit was the catalyst for the O Brother, Where Art Thou? phenomenon and for the resurgence of bluegrass in 2001. This set goes well beyond extolling the virtues of tradition, however. New Favorite is the first CD by the band to make full use of the talents of its newest member, Jerry Douglas , but every player is a star. The throbbing title track is one of the great heartbreak songs of all time. With Krauss, Dan Tyminski and Ron Block taking turns singing lead, the unit demonstrates tremendous versatility.

2. John Hartford , Hamilton Ironworks (Rounder)

Before his death this year, Hartford revisited his roots, recording fiddle tunes and recalling the people he learned them from. He plays lively and sweet on more than 20 old dance tunes and throws in little singing parts to explain their origins. The connection between music and community has seldom been made as powerfully.

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

Haggard’s music lives in parallel worlds. In one, he pours his emotions into his own honest songs. In the other, he pays homage to his heroes by recording their songs. Here, the worlds intersect. Lefty Frizzell’s “Always Late (With Your Kisses)” and Haggard’s own “I’ve Got a Tender Heart” come from the same place — country music’s soul.

4. Rodney Crowell , The Houston Kid (Sugar Hill)

In semi-autobiographical mode, Crowell fills this collection chock-full of vivid details about growing up in Southeast Texas. Like the best fiction — or memoir writing — there’s context, confession and confrontation, which wouldn’t matter much if the music didn’t hold up like it does. With nothing to lose and no record company operatives to please — he financed the recording himself — Crowell aimed high and hit his mark.

5. Bruce Robison , Country Sunshine (Boars Nest Records)

Robison, writer of Tim McGraw ’s “Angry All the Time,” already has earned his place in the line of great country songwriters from Texas. On one song here he pays humorous homage to their patron saint, Willie Nelson . Wife Kelly Willis sings on a couple of first-rate twangers, “Bed of Ashes” and “Friendless Marriage.” In “Blame It on Me” Robison makes a complete and utterly disarming admission that he has made a mess of things.

6. Rhonda Vincent , The Storm Still Rages (Rounder)

Along with her band, the Rage, Vincent this year was named entertainer of the year by the International Bluegrass Music Association. The honor recognizes years of achievement capped by this album, produced with an assured hand by Vincent herself. The repertoire is solid, the playing superb. The title comes from “I’m Not Over You,” a passionate, hard-country song written by Carl Jackson and Melba Montgomery .

7. Trisha Yearwood , Inside Out (MCA Nashville)

After demonstrating in 2000, on Real Live Woman, that she still has a place in her heart for the rootsier side of country and country-rock, Yearwood this year delivered this uptown gem. There’s a drum machine here and there, and three first-rate, heart-wrenching ballads — “I Would’ve Loved You Anyway,” “Melancholy Blue” and “When We Were Still in Love.” Her re-make of Rebecca Lynn Howard ’s “I Don’t Paint Myself Into Corners,” with Vince Gill on backing vocals, betrays her still-beating country heart.

8. George Jones , The Rock: Stone Cold Country 2001 (Bandit/BNA)

Like Chet Atkins and John Lee Hooker, Jones is a master of his chosen form. And Jones, God bless him, is still with us. Listen and give thanks. This collection is loaded with evidence that the Possum can still find his way to the center of a great country song. “I Am” looks back from a perspective of mature self-assurance, and “Honey Hush” is as peaceful and pleasant a love song as you’re likely to hear in any genre. Just as poignantly, on “Wood and Wire,” Jones sings about a blue-collar worker who finds solace in after-hours guitar strumming. The title is truth in advertising, and Jones is still the master.

9. The Derailers , Here Come the Derailers (Lucky Dog)

A keen sense of vintage style — in dress and sound — serves this Austin quartet well. “Mohair Sam” meets the Buckaroos. Roy Orbison hosts the party.

10. Various Artists, O Brother, Where Art Thou? (Mercury)

Shrewdly assembled and tastefully presented, this set made a loud statement — beginning but not ending with “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow” — about the enduring power of traditional music. It came out at the very end of 2000 but sustained its appeal through 2001. It seems reasonable to expect that it will resonate with players and audiences alike for months or years to come.

— Jay Orr

10 for ’01: Top Country Picks of the Year — Michael Gray

10 Towering Tunes From 2001 — Edward Morris

Best of 2001 — Chet Flippo