In a particularly strong year for country music, the superstars got most of the press, while a handful of truly talented artists quit looking in the mirror long enough to make spectacular records. Here are my picks for the 10 best country albums of 2002.
1. Home, Dixie Chicks
Indulging their creative side, the Texas trio skipped Nashville to record this breathtaking album. Aside from not knowing what the heck “pearls of water of my hips” (from the Patty Griffin-penned “Truth No. 2″) means, Home lives up to its promise of artistic growth. They are changing the way they do business — and more power to them.
Special recognition goes to this new band for resurrecting the long-forgotten Dolly Parton ballad, “Falling Out of Love With Me.” The whole album shines with youthful energy, but good ol’ heartbreak never hurt anybody. Credit their impeccable taste to hearing a zillion songs in Nashville clubs.
3. Rise and Shine, Randy Travis
Far from a Bible-thumping testimonial, the divine Rise and Shine resurrects traditional themes like mama, prayer and Sunday mornings. Knowing the ending of “Three Wooden Crosses” never diminishes the impact of the last verse. Even better, Travis’ baritone still trembles on the low notes. Hallelujah!
4. Starting Over, Ronnie Bowman
Late of the Lonesome River Band, Bowman turns in an understated, easygoing album that should instantly appeal to fans of Alison Krauss & Union Station. Hear “Rye Whiskey” once, hum it all day. Start to finish, the most highly recommended bluegrass album of the year. Wonderful title track, too.
5. Drive, Alan Jackson
Sure, an album with “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)” needed some levity, but take away the fluff and you’ve still got “A Little Bluer Than That,” “Bring on the Night” and “Drive,” the most energized Alan Jackson tune in years. A solid, mid-career tune-up.
6. No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problems, Kenny Chesney
“Young” and “The Good Stuff” dominated the airwaves, but “Big Star” tells the whole story. Like many in the biz, I dismissed his sudden notoriety as a fluke. Until I heard the record. Good job, Kenny, and keep it up.
7. I Miss My Friend, Darryl Worley
“Back Where I Belong” should soothe all Southern souls who have ventured afar, while the title track sprinkles the nostalgia even further. And “Family Tree” is a hoot. What a treat to hear a new artist with a mature perspective.
8. Halos & Horns, Dolly Parton
Dolly’s personality may be larger than life, but shattered love songs like “Not for Me,” “What a Heartbreak” and “If Only” resonate with everyone. It’s not all misery, though. “These Old Bones” cracks me up every time.
9. Freedom’s Child, Billy Joe Shaver
Wouldn’t we all like to possess such swagger at age 63? Somehow, the silly song “That’s What She Said Last Night” doesn’t incriminate him as a dirty old man, and the rest of this honky-tonk affair proves him as wily as ever.
10. 1000 Kisses, Patty Griffin
It never dawned on me that this elegant songwriter might be considered country until “Chief” aired on CMT. She possesses the truly rare gift of conveying worlds of emotion in just a few carefully chosen lyrics. Now, if she could just clarify her lyrics about “pearls of water on my hips. …”
See the complete Best of 2002.