(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
So, here are my favorite country albums of 2012. Before you hit the "outrage" button, consider this: I am not saying that these are the best albums of the year. I am saying that these are my personal favorites. If you haven't heard them, I recommend a listen before you send down judgment from on high.
Jason Aldean's Night Train is a powerhouse album distinguished by fine songwriting and particularly well executed guitar work. I guess you could say it's a solid country album by a singer with a really fierce road band.
Kellie Pickler's 100 Proof is probably the best pure country album in recent years. There are raw and troubling songs, painful personal truths and family sorrows laid bare. But there's also an indomitable human will to survive and even rejoice in that survival.
The joy of Willie Nelson's Heroes is discovering how satisfying it is to hear him still being relevant at this stage in his career. Especially good is his cover of Pearl Jam's "Just Breathe" in a duet with his son, Lukas. It becomes an eerie mix of the young Willie and the ancient Willie singing side by side.
Little Big Town are back, and it's wonderful to hear these smooth vocal harmonies again. With Tornado , they remind us that country music can also be fun and sexy and soulful without being stupid.
What a pleasure it is to aurally experience a true craftsman hewing out a classic from some of the timeless material he loves. Bobby Bare returns to some of the classic American folk songs that he's heard all of his life. In Darker Than Light, he presents a straight-ahead primer of some the songs that fashioned and depicted American music history.
For Alive at Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary, Mark Collie and his Reckless Companions band and producer Tony Brown trekked some years ago to that Tennessee prison for some raucous recording sessions that were just released this year. Country music needs this sound, this feel, this raw energy again. Sure, this was inspired by Johnny Cash's live prison albums, but what's wrong with that?
Jamey Johnson's heartfelt Living for a Song tribute to the late songwriter Hank Cochran is an emotional rollercoaster, going from maudlin to sad to truly sad to tragic. Beautiful stuff. He covers 16 of Cochran's well-known and not-so-well-known songs in duets with artists ranging from Willie Nelson to Emmylou Harris.
Alan Jackson's 30 Miles West proves that he's still country music's conscience and, maybe, its barometer, as well. If you don't know him by now, it's time for a baptism.
My introduction to the Avett Brothers came with the winsome lament of "I and Love and You," and my first thought was, "Where have you guys been? This sound is exactly what country has been missing." With The Carpenter, they are still proving it. Go and take a look/listen at their excellent collaboration with fellow North Carolinian Randy Travis on CMT Crossroads.
Some questions from the audience -- women? Why are there only nine albums? Aren't these lists supposed to be 10? Well, if I had tried to stretch it to 10, there would have been a five-way tie, which would have been fair to none of them.
Where are the other women on my list? Tell me, where are they in country music these days? Radio, by and large, hates them. Therefore, the record labels face huge obstacles in selling and marketing them. Pickler was dropped by her major record label after cutting 100 Proof, the best work of her life and one of this year's best -- and most county. It was not pop enough for what is passing for modern country. Kellie, when I start my label, you'll be up in the country penthouse, babe.
There is a crop of young women singers coming along, mainly at smaller labels, and I'll be watching closely to see how they develop next year. But, as we all know, it depends on the right song.
Why are there so many mature artists on my list? Well, again, these are my favorite records of the year. That doesn't mean there weren't other records I liked. But I find that, with experience, mature artists still know how to make albums, as opposed to slapping together a mishmash collection of songs that are often predetermined by the artist's producer and record label. Mature artists tend to be better song judges and are often songwriters themselves.
Mature artists are also artists, not acts. I trust you know the difference. Radio artists, especially new ones, primarily make singles, not albums, because they're desperate for mainstream radio play. Mature artists make albums, not singles, because they know they won't get mainstream radio play, so they record what they want. Vince Gill cut albums for many years before getting a hit single. These days, he'd be dropped after two failed singles -- and he'd get no chance at an album.
Unfortunately, Vince is approaching an age where he -- along with just about anyone else over 40, except maybe George Strait -- isn't wanted on country radio.
I once had a discussion with the famed clothier Manuel about country fashion and what elevated an artist above an act. This was, mind you, in the days before T-shirts and jeans became accepted concert wear. (Even so, some of those jeans and T-shirts can get very pricey indeed, especially when they're well-tailored for the individual.)
Manuel discussed, of course, the glory days of the flashy -- and very expensive -- suits he and his mentor Nudie fashioned for the stars. He lamented the passing of the day of high country fashion, especially such finely-turned out suits as Porter Wagoner's royal blue seemingly plain business suit that was laden throughout with tiny rhinestones so it flashed -- tastefully -- when hit by stage lighting.
There was one very popular male act in those days who I said I thought I could dress for under $500. After all, I said, all he wears is jeans and boots, a leather belt with a big buckle, a Western shirt and a cowboy hat.
Manuel just laughed and went down each of those items. He pointed out the difference between cheap, mediocre and quality and about how each of those look in the harsh glow of the spotlight and what expert tailoring can do for a person's body. The audience can tell the difference, Manuel said. Well, before you know it, my price tag for putting this dude onstage with the right look was up in the five figures. An act looks cheap, Manuel said. An artist looks like an artist.
Well, I don't know how we got sidetracked into all this talk about outfits. I guess the point I'm trying to make is this:
Acts record singles. Artists record albums. Acts have occasional hits. Artists have steady careers.