NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Sugarland, Alan Jackson Lead 2008 Album Releases This Far

And Don't Forget George Strait and Willie Nelson

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

It’s well past the six-month peak for the year 2008, so let’s think about the music we’ve heard so far this year to consider what’s been good and what’s been very listenable.

I think this recent modern redefinition of country music by Michelle Branch is intriguing. If your memory needs refreshing, Branch converted to country a few minutes ago, as a convenient career niche for her. This is what she told Billboard: “I think the Wreckers for me was just so much fun and I felt so at home with it that I really feel that’s my place now. It’s more singer-songwriter than, I would say, country, but I think the term ’country’ is all relative now.”

Well, Michelle, my dear, I guess all country is all relative to some people, depending on where you’re coming from. And where you’re heading.

But, depending on what you’re hearing and reading, a lot of people want the definition of country to be very elastic these days. To be, like, as extremely commercial, immediately as possible. Like, to move these units today! And that is not a strictly modern dictum. It runs in cycles. Right now we’re inundated by country-rock, crossover music and cotton candy.

Look back to the bombast of Urban Country. And to the Nashville Sound era. But to get down to the music we listen to and love right now, there’ve been some records that are absolute keepers thus far in 2008. So let’s just concentrate on the positive. Here are some personal favorites.

Randy Travis’ first new country album in eight years, Around the Bend, finds him in excellent voice, in full charge of his talents and powers. This is truly timeless country, in the finest sense of the term.

Sugarland have a sure grasp on what the country music of the present and future is and can be. With Love on the Inside, to be released Tuesday (July 22) as a deluxe fan edition, they get back to what they do best: quirky, often-introspective, original songs from the folk-country side of the family.

And Patty Loveless, in Sleepless Nights, has a clear understanding of how the music’s past figures into its present. And she shows a clear love for these songs. Here, she selects some of the best country hits going back to Hank Williams and Webb Pierce. She knows this material inside and out and sings these classic songs with grace and expression. Fourteen classic country gems, from “There Stands the Glass” to “Color of the Blues” to the title cut. It’s due for release Sept. 9.

Willie Nelson teams with the great trumpeter Wynton Marsalis on Two Men With the Blues. Yeah, I know it’s called jazz, but it’s Willie, and he’s always really down-and-dirty-country in the end. And he’s converted a lot more people to country music than you or I have. So give it a listen. This is a masterful performance by all concerned.

You owe it to yourself to hear Jamey Johnson’s single of “In Color.” It’s not overpowering, but it’s a very moving saga about the human experience. Johnson’s upcoming album, That Lonesome Song, includes “In Color” and also 13 others, all but two written or co-written by Johnson. The exceptions are pretty good on their own: Allen Reynolds’ “Dreaming My Dreams” and “The Door Is Always Open,” written by Dickey Lee and Bob McDill. Due Aug. 5. For my money, Johnson is the best songwriter working in country right now. He strives to emulate, in his own words, the best songwriters, the Kristoffersons and Cashes. “Those songs were poetry — Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Dolly Parton,” he said. “You could crawl up inside those songs and examine yourself in one. Those people lived and breathed songs, and we need to reach people today the way they did.”

Alan Jackson continues to be a pillar of country music. He has written all 17 songs on his current CD Good Times, and some of them are very good indeed. He is the master of understated songwriting, if you know what I mean. In that, I mean he gets his points across subtly, without hitting you over the head with it or drawing you a picture.

Jackson’s old buddy George Strait just keeps rolling on. His new Troubadour continues the long Strait tradition of good and sometimes great songs by some of the best songwriters. Just as Jackson is a master of understated songwriting, Strait is a master of understated singing.

Ashton Shepherd arrived with great élan and the most country sound in years. Her Sounds So Good served notice that a new female voice had arrived. The fact that the voice also belongs to a very talented songwriter was good news for country.

James Otto is no newcomer, but he too has established himself this year critically and commercially with his Sunset Man. He has managed to return a sense of soul to country. A confident and assured vocalist, he’s another good songwriter. He was a co-writer on Jamey Johnson’s “In Color.”

Mark Chesnutt’s overlooked Rollin’ With the Flow, may sound as some critics have written, like an excellent ’80s album. But that doesn’t diminish its power and appeal. What’s so wrong with waltzes and ballads and shuffles and honky-tonk music? Nothing. Bravo for Chesnutt for sticking with what originally made him so appealing. As with Jamey Johnson, Chesnutt tips his hat to Waylon Jennings. There are plenty of worse musical role models.

Carlene Carter surprised a lot of people with her successful comeback from personal tragedies with Stronger. “Survivor” is an overused word in show business, but it accurately describes Carter. She’s back with a solid release — 13 years after her last album. Good for her.

New releases are expected later this year from Kenny Chesney, Taylor Swift, Brad Paisley, Trace Adkins, Lee Ann Womack, Gretchen Wilson, Billy Ray Cyrus, Kellie Pickler, John Rich and several others.