(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
Not surprisingly, CD sales continued to decline in the first half of 2009. Alarmingly for the music industry, growth of sales of digital albums also declined. Billboard and Nielsen SoundScan report that combined sales thus far in 2009 of CD albums and digital albums are down 23 million units from the same period a year ago. (Digital albums include TEA -- track-equivalent albums, wherein 10 digital track sales equal one album.)
Country CD sales continue to slide, but download sales are up, with country leading all music genres in rate of increase in growth. Country album downloads increased to 2.35 million -- still a relatively low number, but the rise amounted to about 55 percent.
As expected, Taylor Swift's Fearless is the biggest-selling album of the year in any music genre, with 1.3 million CD copies sold in 2009. Fearless is currently selling about 5,000 digital downloads a week. Interestingly, Brad Paisley's American Saturday Night sold approximately 129,000 CDs in its debut last week and also notched 26,000 in digital sales.
This has been a comparatively lean year thus far for new country albums, especially by major artists. Albums are expected later this year from George Strait (Twang), Tim McGraw (Southern Voice) and an as-yet untitled album from Carrie Underwood. I'm particularly looking forward to Patty Loveless' Mountain Soul II, Rosanne Cash's The List (both in October) and Radney Foster's new studio album, Revival, coming in September.
Here is some music I've especially enjoyed thus far this year and that I find I keep going back to.
Brad Paisley, American Saturday Night: Of the major male country singer-songwriters, Paisley has proven to be the most adept at exploring the possibilities of modern country music. This is a solid work from beginning to end.
Billy Currington, "People Are Crazy": From out of the blue came one of the better songs of this year. And no wonder why: The song was co-written by Bobby Braddock, who has penned such works as "He Stopped Loving Her Today," "D-I-V-O-R-C-E," "Golden Ring" and "I Wanna Talk About Me." His co-writer is Wayne Jones, who includes Kenny Chesney's "Shiftwork" in his portfolio.
Buddy and Julie Miller, Written in Chalk: Two soulful songwriters and singers like no others. Add to that Buddy's musical virtuosity and you've got something special. More than once, I've heard a record producer say that the track he just finished recording on singer X will sound fine "once I rub some dirt on it." Buddy's music doesn't need dirt rubbed on it. It comes naturally from the soil.
Scott H. Biram, Something's Wrong/Lost Forever: This is, thankfully, unclassifiable. This is organic music that comes from dirt that's still crawling with worms. It's fascinating, dark music, unlike anything else you'll hear today. "Still Drunk, Still Crazy, Still Blue," the most accessible song on the album, would be a radio hit if there were any justice in the universe.
Holly Williams, Here With Me: One of the smartest singer-songwriters working today, she crafts believable story songs with life and depth to them. It's never been proven that the gift of songwriting is hereditary, but, then, her grandfather is Hank Williams.
The Parks, Born Into It: Real sawdust-on-the-floor Texas honky-tonk from a Texas father and son with some real heft to the music. You can't pretend with this stuff, and they're not fooling around.
Steve Earle, Townes: The student salutes the teacher with a tender reading of Townes Van Zandt's work. It's been said that Townes' music is an acquired taste for some. I say it's an acquired taste only if the listener has never developed an appreciation of good songwriting.
Loudon Wainwright III, High Wide & Handsome: The Charlie Poole Project (due Aug. 18): Charlie Poole has come to be regarded as country music's first outlaw. He did not write, but he was country's first great song interpreter. Besides being the early popularizer of the banjo, Poole explored the very dark side of country and mountain songs. The equally rakish singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright III got over having his huge radio hit in 1973 with "Dead Skunk" and went on to a career of quirky, individualistic and often dark songs. Now, Wainwright has immersed himself in Poole's life and work, writing nine new songs about Poole and his life and times and music in this two-CD package. And the result of Wainwright's own interpretations of Poole's songs, as well as his story, is pretty impressive. The album title comes from one of Poole's expressions. He often said that he would like to go out "high, wide and handsome." He died at age 39 in 1931, as a result of a dissolute life.