(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
Here are some modest suggestions for Vol. II of my Christmas shopping list for music lovers.
2011 will not go down in history as one of the best years ever for country music. Too many good artists were not recording good or new work. The new radio-dictated promotional campaign process requiring six to 12 months to work a single to radio success inhibits new album planning and further stifles any releases of other EPs or even new single downloads.
When an artist such as Tim McGraw has not released all that much original material in his thus-far two-decade history with his record label — while his longtime label has issued seven different greatest hits McGraw albums — things get pretty stale. (Curb Records has released 11 McGraw albums of new material. During that same time frame, George Strait — no whirling dervish of feverish activity himself — has issued 16.) Overall result: Very little memorable new music has been appearing this annum.
If the I’m-so-country wing of music is what you’re looking for, then you’re sitting in the wrong pew here. I honestly don’t find much that’s very interesting or fresh or of substance there.
In my last little music gift guide, I mentioned some of my favorite new releases from this year and they are holding up very well. The Pistol Annies’ Hell on Heels album remains a very memorable aural lap dance and more in stereo, Caitlin Rose’s debut CD Own Side Now is holding its own, Miranda Lambert’s Four the Record stands up well, Taylor Swift’s CD/DVD of her Journey to Fearless tour continues to thrill granddaughters everywhere, Dale Watson’s The Sun Sessions is a gritty glimpse of real life back in the day, Matraca Berg’s superb The Dreaming Fields is an emerald-shimmering vision of what could be, and Ashton Shepherd’s Where Country Grows is quietly gaining a following. I also like the Johnny Cash live retrospective Bootleg Vol. 3: Live Around the World as a solid documentary of how country music should conduct its business.
Some of the songs that are still enduring from throughout the year remain the Matraca Berg/Deana Carter composition “You and Tequila,” recorded by Kenny Chesney and Grace Potter, Eric Church’s “Homeboy,” Ronnie Dunn’s “Cost of Livin'” — and there’s not too much else of lasting substance.
George Strait’s Here for a Good Time is a perfect example of the meat-and-potatoes staple music that every country fan needs and is sorely missing these days. There’s not too much else playable music available this year for the truck’s sound system.
The Mumford & Sons/Avett Brothers wing of music is growing on a lot of people, and I think that’s a very healthy development. Their music feels very much in sync here in country and in Nashville. And I want to add the Nashville duo the Black Keys, as well as the nice new duo the Civil Wars, to that mix. That’s some pretty substantial music there. You know that new American Pickers retail store in Marathon Village here in Nashville? Those four groups’ music should be playing there all the time. The music has the same vibe and harmonies as the AP TV show and the store.
There are several more music CDs I could see living on many Christmas gift lists.
Hunter Hayes is a multi-gifted, multi-instrument-playing young artist with a wide-open future. His debut CD is opening many eyes and ears.
Darrell Scott is one of the marvelous unclassifiable singer-songwriters usually associated with country and Americana. His is a singular take on life. Scott’s new project, Long Ride Home, is due at the end of January.
When I worked at Rolling Stone magazine in New York, we used to call the great staff writer Paul Nelson the “stone cutter” because he seemed to create his articles so laboriously, one word at a time, as if he were chiseling them out of stone. But when he was done, he had created a beautiful and enduring work. Well, Guy Clark’s exquisite hand-crafted songs and the hand-built guitars he makes along the way are completed in the same studied and contemplative way.
The new double CD, This One’s for Him: A Tribute to Guy Clark, is a beautiful example of what country music can be — and sometimes is. Many of Guy’s best songs are interpreted here by such old friends as Emmylou Harris, Lyle Lovett, Kris Kristofferson and Joe Ely. The musical standards are high, the contributing artists are among the best, and the songs — well, the songs are some of Guy’s best, which mean they are among the best anywhere and deserve your full attention. No fluff here.