(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
Let us now praise those musical artists who are advancing — as opposed to obstructing — the music’s development. You know what I mean.
I mean music that is not constructed to feed the daily beast of commercial radio and TV consumption, with disposable lyrics and melodies. When you listen to music that is truly created — as opposed to an artificial construct — and when you can hear what is original, or you can hear what is fresh. Even if it’s a recreation of an older song, and it clicks with you, and you identify with it, then you know it’s music that matters in your life. It’s music that’s not copying songs that were recent radio hits. And then were promptly forgotten. It’s music that is not just background sounds to listen to while you drive or you work on the computer or you jog. It’s music that matters.
I started thinking about this the other night at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum during the medallion ceremony that inducted Ferlin Husky and Billy Sherrill into the Hall. There were some extraordinary musical performances that evening that resonated. Two that remain with me demonstrate the eternal appeal of a special vocal talent matched to a great song.
The first was Shelby Lynne, who knocked out an electrifying version of the Sherrill-Tammy Wynette co-written hit, “Stand by Your Man.” Ronnie Milsap, who is no piker in the vocal department himself, was up next with his own excellent version of Charlie Rich’s “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World.” Milsap good-naturedly complained he should not have to follow Shelby Lynne when she is at the top of her game. The second performance of special note was Lee Ann Womack’s total conquest of the difficult-to-tame George Jones hit “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” That was an exquisite pairing of great singer and great song.
Here are a few things I’ve been listening to lately that I think hit a similar bar, at least in offering music that matters.
The songs I’ve heard from Jamey Johnson’s two fall album releases are very encouraging.
With Up on the Ridge, mainstream artist Dierks Bentley is taking a large risk in releasing what is a bluegrass and roots music album. Bluegrass is not a commercial genre, either at retail or at radio, although it does enjoy a healthy festival and concert life.
Bentley pretty much cut his musical teeth at Nashville’s Station Inn, which is bluegrass’ ground zero, and he has assimilated the form well. With Ridge, he has surrounded himself with unimpeachable pickers and singers on the order of friend and touring partner Del McCoury and members of his band, along with Chris Thile and the Punch Brothers, Sam Bush, Miranda Lambert, Jamey Johnson and Kris Kristofferson.
Give a listen to Kristofferson’s composition “Bottle to the Bottom” or “Down in the Mine,” which Bentley wrote with Jon Randall Stewart, who produced the album.
Bentley should be applauded for taking a bold musical chance, instead of settling for recording the current country clichés. He is, after all, “a little more country than that,” to cite another recent Music Row cliché. Reaching for more than the flavor of the week should be rewarded.
Chris Young is a talented young up-and-coming artist with a distinctive deep voice and a laid-back air about him, and his music is beginning to become more and more interesting.
What I really like is what he posted on his website (chrisyoungcountry.com) as a collection of songs from his upcoming Voices EP. The classic songs he selected to cover?
These days, for God’s sake, you have to be first of all impressed by any young artists who know anything at all about country music history. Many, many would-be new artists today are total blank slates with no music history at all, just good looks and youth and glam, waiting to be programmed. May as well implant a music chip in their brain.
But I like the fact that Young knows Gosdin’s immortal “Chiseled in Stone,” which you will never hear on American Idol or on any other TV show, for that matter, because it’s too earthy and real. It may well be the saddest song ever written. It is one of the enduring country classics that will continue to be sung 10, 20 or 30 and more years from now. It is a song that will deeply touch any person who hears it. How many contemporary songs can you say that about?
Shel Silverstein juggled several careers at once, including being a successful country music songwriter, a children’s book author and a cartoonist for Playboy magazine. His hit songs included Johnny Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue” and Dr. Hook’s “The Cover of the Rolling Stone.” His books included Where the Sidewalk Ends and A Light in the Attic.
A new CD titled Twistable Turnable Man: A Musical Tribute to the Songs of Shel Silverstein has versions of his songs recorded by such artists as My Morning Jacket, Kristofferson, John Prine, Sarah Jarosz, Ray Price, Bobby Bare Sr. and Bobby Bare Jr., Lucinda Williams and Nanci Griffith. If you’ve never listened to Shel’s songs or looked at his books, I think you might be pleasantly surprised.
Darrell Scott has written such songs as “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive,” which has been recorded by the likes of Brad Paisley and Patty Loveless, and “Long Time Gone,” a hit for the Dixie Chicks. He is also quite a tasteful singer and picker. His eighth album, A Crooked Road, has 21 original songs and shows why some people speak of him in the same league as Leonard Cohen. He also played all of the instruments on the album.
One of these days, Elizabeth Cook is going to attract the wide audience she deserves. She’s a fearless songwriter and singer who’s been a frequent performer on the Grand Ole Opry. Her latest album is named Welder for the trade her father learned while in prison doing time for running moonshine. Family topics are a staple for Cook, with such songs as “Mama’s Funeral” and “Heroin Addict Sister.”
“She’s my heroin addict sister/And I hate to see her go/And I hate to see her holdin’ on/At the end of the same old rope.”
Now there is some country music for you, brothers and sisters.