(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
This time of year, I always start thinking about planning Christmas gifts. I think you really can’t go wrong with getting the gift of music for special people in your life who love music. Here are some admittedly personal favorites I would suggest that you at least consider as gifts.
Pistol Annies, Hell on Heels: For my money, this is the album of the year. Miranda Lambert got together with Angeleena Presley and Ashley Monroe to try some new things out. The resulting album explores unconventional subject matter, fearlessly treads where more commercially-oriented artists dare not venture and obviously was written and recorded without a single thought or concern as to whether mainstream country radio would play it or not. Doesn’t matter. The listeners sought it out, even when it was first released only for online download. Listen to “Housewife’s Prayer” for a thorough workout in modern domestic despair.
Miranda Lambert, Four the Record: If you need proof Lambert can shoulder a solo career as well as a side-project girl group and handle being married to Blake Shelton, here’s your evidence. This is the most song-diverse of all her albums and speaks well to her emerging maturity as an artist. There are tinges of the Pistol Annies’ sensibilities and sounds here, but Lambert continues to forge her own musical identity.
Chris Isaak, Beyond the Sun: This two-CD set is obviously a labor of love, and it shows. It positively glows with respect and love for the Memphis and Sun Records tradition and the musical icons such as Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison and Elvis Presley that shaped Sun — and vice versa. In an era when respect for tradition and history is being eroded, I salute Isaak for paying tribute where it is due. This was inspired by the late Sun Records founder Sam Phillips remarking in an interview — in so many words — that Isaak greatly impressed him as one of the few modern-day artists fit to walk the halls of Sun Records.
Dale Watson & the Texas Two, The Sun Sessions: Another tradition-minded serious musician, the staunch Texas honky-tonker Dale Watson, visited the Sun Studio with his drummer and acoustic bass player and cut this album in one night. In his liner notes, he wrote that he penned six of the songs himself while piloting his Eagle bus from Texas to Memphis. The record beautifully evokes the rough but graceful feeling of the Sun sessions of Cash himself with his Tennessee Two, getting the same sort of fundamental sound from the little Sun studio. New music, new songs, same Sun sound.
Johnny Cash, Bootleg Vol. III: Live Around the World: This remarkable collection of Cash live shows over the years, from around the world, is well worth having for any Cash fan. The cherry here is the live 1970 Cash show at the White House after President Nixon had asked that Cash sing Nixon’s two favorite right-wing songs, “Okie From Muskogee” and “Welfare Cadillac.” Cash’s rebellious but respectful set stood up majestically to that.
Matraca Berg, The Dreaming Fields: Berg has been a major part of the Nashville songwriter scene for years and finally fully comes into her own as singer-songwriter with a confident and sparkling solo album. Her song “You and Tequila,” co-written with Deana Carter and marvelously recorded by Kenny Chesney and Grace Potter, deserves to be country song of the year. But there are other gems here, the title song being one of them, along with “Oh Cumberland,” and “Your Husband’s Cheating on Us.”
Taylor Swift, Journey to Fearless: This two-hour-plus DVD chronicling Swift’s mammoth tour of the same name is one of the most thorough tour DVDs ever filmed and produced. And it’s got all of the verve and flash and stardust of a Taylor live show. This glitzy package will be wrapped up under the tree for all the young girls who already have Taylor’s autographs and pictures all over their bedroom walls.
Caitlin Rose, Own Side Now: The young Nashville singer-songwriter sets a confident tone in her first solo album after her very promising EP, Dead Flowers. She is writing and sounding like she is growing now. Except for covering Fleetwood Mac’s 1987 song “That’s Alright,” all songs here are Rose writes or co-writes. While not as big-voiced as Linda Ronstadt or as nuanced as Stevie Nicks, she shares their musical sensibility. Wonderful country décor with musical messages.
Keith Richards, Life: This is a true, barebones, real music autobiography with some hair on its chest. The musical spirit of the Rolling Stones tells what a life in rock ‘n’ roll is truly like. Of course, his life has been lived in the rarefied atmosphere of the superstars, but it’s something you will enjoy experiencing, with many its warts and all. Keith makes it a very rewarding journey for the reader. It’s a long read but a good one. It’s written exactly in the same way that he speaks, so you can just imagine him (or Johnny Depp in full Keith pirate mode) sitting next to you and reading to you.
Rocky Hill, Texas Guitar Legend: Of all of the great rock guitar players to come out of Texas in recent years — think Stevie Ray Vaughan, his brother Jimmie Vaughan, Charlie Sexton, Billy Gibbons, Johnny Winter and Eric Johnson — the least known is the late Rocky Hill. The older brother of ZZ Top bassist Dusty Hill, Rocky started the band the Starliners in Dallas at age 15 and then formed the psychedelic group American Blues with Dusty and future ZZ Top drummer Frank Beard. They also worked as a backing band for blues singers Jimmy Reed and Freddie King. Dusty and Beard moved to Houston and formed ZZ Top with Billy Gibbons. Rocky Hill — often headstrong and difficult — proved to be his own handicap in his career, with many fitful stops and starts. John Lomax III, of the folklorist Lomax family, produced this album on Rocky in 1977 to show that Rocky — in addition to being an excellent blues player — could hold his own up against any of the greats of rock guitarists. And he proved that he could. As Billy Gibbons has noted, Rocky was built like a football linebacker and had tremendous arm and hand and finger strength and was able to bend guitar strings in ways not done before. And you can hear that unique sound on these songs. Great guitar playing all day long. Just imagine what might have been. Available on MP3.