NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Joe Nichols Leads Highlights of 2007

His Real Things Is Gritty and Graceful Country

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

In looking back at events throughout 2007, here are a few things that linger in memory as country music highlights from the year.

Despite being out of action much of the year due to personal matters, Joe Nichols released a very good album, Real Things. This is, hands down, the most-overlooked country release of the year. Nichols continues to record solid country songs with considerable grit and grace. Here’s wishing him all the best for 2008.

Lyle Lovett continues to be his record label’s best-kept secret. Even so, his new CD It’s Not Big It’s Large, his first studio effort in four years, is well worth your efforts to seek out. I first heard about it in a Stephen King magazine column, where King cited it as one of his favorites of the year. I guess King’s on a more rarefied mailing list than I am.

Bobby Bare and Ray Stevens served up potent reminders of their musical mastery in their performances at the Country Music Hall of Fame Induction ceremony.

And, speaking of live shows, I felt that CMT Crossroads’ pairings of Ricky Skaggs with Bruce Hornsby and Alison Krauss with Robert Plant yielded some of the most inspiring musical performances Nashville has seen in a while.

Ashton Shepherd’s single release of “Takin’ Off This Pain” introduces a remarkable young songwriter and singer. An advance copy of her upcoming album is in constant rotation on my playlist.

Steve Earle recorded the best Greenwich Village folk music album since Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are A-Changin’ in 1964. Earle’s Washington Square Serenade opens with “Tennessee Blues,” in which he says “goodbye to Guitar Town” as he embraces the Village as his new home. But there’ll always be a seat reserved for Earle in Guitar Town.

The Time Jumpers got two well-deserved Grammy nominations and sadly lost the great steel guitar player John Hughey. Other noteworthy Grammy noms: the nifty pickers Russ Barenberg and Andy Statman. Dierks Bentley got four Grammy nods and I’m glad for him. And he also released a fine live album, Live & Loud at the Fillmore.

The irascible Billy Joe Shaver continues his lyrical musical preaching with Everybody’s Brother. I never tire of hearing him sing “If you don’t love Jesus, go to hell.” In another Shaver surprise, his new Storyteller: Live at the Bluebird is a stellar recording of a live Shaver show at Nashville’s storied club in 1992, with his late son Eddie playing some beautiful guitar.

More Behind the Picture Than the Wall finds Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver bringing more great bluegrass gospel. Lawson has delivered more good music with less fanfare than any bluegrass artist I can recall.

Also in bluegrass developments, Merle Haggard recorded The Bluegrass Sessions. And I somehow missed Bill Anderson’s Whisperin’ Bluegrass, which turns out to be a terrific album of country and gospel songs done up with bluegrass instrumentation. Nice duets with Vince Gill, Willie, Jon Randall and Dolly Parton.

Taylor Swift continues to be everybody’s favorite precocious little sister, who is fast becoming an accomplished singer and songwriter. That reminds me that Shirley Temple should have tried a country music career. If you don’t remember Miss Blonde Ringlets, Shirley Temple, Google her sometime.

And don’t miss Jim McGuire’s two magnificent books of country music photographs, Nashville Portraits: Legend of Country Music and Historic Photos of the Opry: Ryman Auditorium 1974. Other books I’ve enjoyed this year include Bobby Braddock’s memoir, Down in Orburndale, Craig Havighurst’s Air Castle of the South: WSM and the Making of Music City, Holly George-Warren’s Public Cowboy No. 1: The Life and Times of Gene Autry and Mitch Myers’ collection of essays titled The Boy Who Cried Freebird: Rock & Roll Fables and Sonic Storytelling.

Of 2007 boxed sets, you couldn’t do better than Emmylou Harris’ splendid Songbird: Rare Tracks & Forgotten Gems.

Of music DVDs released this year, I recommend the Country Music Hall of Fame’s series of The Best of Flatt & Scruggs TV Show, The Best of the Johnny Cash TV Show and Cowboy Jack Clement’s Shakespeare Was a Big George Jones Fan: Cowboy Jack Clement’s Home Movies. Ask Cowboy sometime about the outtake footage of Johnny Cash’s visit to A.P. Carter’s grave.