When I wandered into HMV to buy something cool I could not believe that they were playing Dolly Parton on the store’s sound system. It was 2002 and the world was re-discovering Dolly Parton as she took her music career back to its Bluegrass roots. Counter-intuitively moving away from mainstream Country-Pop to the narrower, older form of Bluegrass widened Dolly’s appeal like never before, and won her critical acclaim across the music industry.
Yet her three Bluegrass albums, released in quick succession, did not chart as Dolly had hoped. The credibility she had rightly earned needed to be leveraged. To give credit where it’s due it was the arrival of a manager, Danny Nozell, that set Dolly on the trajectory that took her in 2014 to the main stage as the headline artist for Glastonbury – a traditionally heavy rock mecca. At the age of 68 Dolly found herself performing to the biggest audience on the biggest tour in her career.
To my surprise I loved what Dolly was bringing into the 21st century and have been a die-hard fan ever since. The album that won me over was her 39th studio album, Halos and Horns. This song is from her 38th – The Grass is Blue (1999). It was the album that opened up this whole new chapter for Dolly – and the genres that she represents.
The performance below is from her incredible set at Glastonbury in 2014. Bear in mind, this is not Dolly’s audience, yet watch the audience respond to her song, and watch the band respond to the audience. And don’t forget as you listen to Dolly’s voice, this is a live performance with no overdubs. Wonderful.
Like many, I still remember where I was when I first heard Eva Cassidy’s voice. I had to find out, whose voice is this? Clean, soulful, easy, nuanced with an innocent simplicity Eva’s posthumous albums take the hearer to a place where songs are really sung. No Diva theatrics. Just sung sweetly and artfully. That’s why, I believe, Eva enjoyed the posthumous success that she did. There are many places where Country, Bluegrass and Gospel meet. This song is one of them. Eva’s is my favourite rendition.
Peter, Paul and Mary were a product of genius when Albert Grossman put them together. Some, mentioning no names, looked down on them as a confected folk band. But for me and for millions the combination of their sound brought a sincerity, intensity and innocence to the American Folk Revival. The power of their appeal as a band brought the work of artists like Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan and Woodie Guthrie to a wider audience than ever before. The conviction with which they performed meant that they could sing the simplest, three-chord song and turn it into an anthem, something moving, memorable and powerful. That’s why I feel they well deserve their place in the great hall of fame.
Lyle Lovett needs no introduction from me! He has a voice, a uniqueness, a musical integrity and a wit that shows us some of the best of the Country tradition has to offer. Thank you, Bruce Pont, for introducing me 21 years ago to such an amazing talent. Here he is on home turf with a wonderful infusion of Gypsy Swing into the mix too! I cannot watch this performance without a big smile on my face. You try!!
Country music tells stories. Wit, irony and pathos – and the essential element of a compelling voice – are the vital ingredients bring it all home. Here’s a once heard never forgotten contribution from the fabulous Bobby Gentry.
How could The Voice fail even to allow Hillary Scott to compete with such classic vocal and song-writing skills? There must be an answer. Am so thankful that Hillary did not let that knock back stop her. Fronting her own group Lady Antebellum, Hillary took this song to the world. It absolutely has the feeling and resonance of a classic and rightly earned her and the group Five Grammies in 2011. Way to go!
Great talent, skill, conviction and musicianship are often what allow songs to cross over and open up a genre to new audiences. This is what this classic piece of music from the Charlie Daniels Band achieved in 1979. The fiddle deserves a bigger place in contemporary music. The Charlie Daniels Band reminded us what it can do!
Country Music bears that name because it is profoundly about place. Farming country. Wild country. Hill country. And the character of such country. But because the hopes, fears and struggles dramatized in country music are so universal it’s a genre that shares country feeling and culture with the world. Hence a song about one family and the goings on down Copperhead Road.
Colbie Caillat brings a feeling of warmth and familiarity with her musical canon. For me there is something guileless and natural about her compositions and her delivery. Her style brings her close to the audience and makes us each feel sung to!
For me A Thousand Miles by Vanessa Carlton is full of personality and authenticity while feeling very rooted in Country & Western music. The arrangement really brings the song’s heritage to the fore with subtle strains of The Big Valley for those who remember!
Dolly is known for her phenomenal devotion to her home country its people, its economy and its folklore. All come together with Dolly’s message of love and understanding in this layered story – told with a touch of theatre, heaps of affection and a sweet sense of humour. Below is an impromptu performance in a pub in County Kerry, Ireland where Dolly was vacationing in 1990. Australian Irish artist Steve Cooney (the guitarist) was performing a set in the pub that night and asked Dolly if she would sing a song for them – as he knew all her songs! No rehearsal. No auto-tune. Here it is:
I would suggest Kenny Rogers is the king of country storytelling. This song is at the zenith of that genre. It doesn’t need my praise for you to know how good it is! Just sit back and enjoy!
The small town focus, the poignant story-telling lyric and the musicality of Richard Marx’s “Hazard” for me place this beautiful, sad song truly in the Country pantheon. I have seen this song categorized as soft rock. But see for yourself. If you pick up a guitar and sing either the verse or the chorus of Hazard you will quickly discover there is no way to sing it other than Country!
Richard Marx’s first cut was a #1 Country hit. At the age of 19 he wrote two number one hits for Kenny Rodgers. He has since written for Vince Gill, Jennifer Nettles and Keith Urban. In “Hazard” Marx draws us into a swirling world of questions surrounding disability and the death penalty, and the dangerous power of prejudice.
The events depicted in Hazard are fictitious but no-one who listens to it can avoid the feeling that this sad song is telling us a truth. The song’s message is carried by the lyric and the overwhelming feeling the song embodies. For all those reasons I consider “Hazard” a prophetic presence in the great spectrum of Country.
Rod Stewart needs no commendation from me. One of Britain’s most popular, biggest selling and longest-lived of musical exports, Rod Stewart has created a sound and a niche within pop-rock that I would suggest carries many of the themes of Country. I think it is fair to say that most Brits have no idea how huge Rod is on the international stage. Here Rod sings very proudly with the wonderful Amy Belle whose emotion and vocal tone are filled with Country texture . I love the moment where Rod shows Belle how much the audience owns this particular song.
Personally, I think this song is one of Rod’s best. It is one of those songs we all hear and can recognize the truth of it instantly. Almost all of us have moments in our lives and relationships where such a song is needed to express the pain of it and help us recognize and inhabit the moment. That much is clear when the audience at the Royal Albert Hall sing the song back to the Rod and Belle. A wonderful moment.
In the early 2000’s I experienced a trauma in my life. It triggered a dramatic weight gain and PTSD. Through an 18 months period of healing and recovery, I refurbished and sold a house, got my feet back on the ground and made a fresh start. Dolly Parton’s bluegrass revelations and the intimate sound of Norah Jones’ music were the soundtrack of my recovery. They shared many a meal with me and kept me company while I refurbished and redecorated my home. Their music touches me deeply to this day. Dolly’s three bluegrass albums, released in quick succession, were a return to her own roots at a time when her career needed to re-centre and re-calibrate. So there’s something incredibly humanizing and grounding in the spirit of her bluegrass offerings.
I love Katie de Veau’s voice. Live, she is charismatic, winsome and compelling. Her music is all about storytelling and effortlessly draws us into familiar, meaningful worlds, crystallizing and expressing all the emotions of life. This song perpetually speaks to me and for me! Thank you Katie!
Country aficionados may regard Shania Twain as more pop than country, but artists like Shania, whose whole approach to song-writing and performance is birthed out of Country heritage, provide a gateway into the world of Country for many who arrive from other cultural start points.
Faith Hill is another wonderful crossover artist who provides an compelling invitation for pop audiences to enter into country territory. Hence, “This Kiss!”
I can’t doff my hat to Country without a nod to Trucking Music. Country music was a major presence in the UK in the 70’s. And Trucking Music enjoyed its own spot within Country’s limelight at that time. This song was the way in to that scene for a great many of us. Here is CW Mcall in 1976 with Convoy.
The natural beauty of family, singing in close harmony has always been a special part of the Country sound. Country is often winked at for having an “I’m just fit to lay me down and die,” spirit! But, with Suzanne Cox’s sweet, soulful sound, the Cox Family show that such a song speaks what we all feel from time to time. And by adding beauty to the expression of it, such a song gives us a sound, and a feeling of being known, to help carry us through our moments of vulnerability. For my money, that’s what makes this sweet song such a gem.
Country gold. Country royalty. Enough said!
Bonnie Raitt’s textured voice, her skillful reinterpretation and delivery of great songs, and her unapologetic stage presence make her a megastar of Country. The dirty, “masculine” way she plays that slide guitar continues to win over new generations of fans. Bonnie Raitt’s longevity speaks for itself and collaborations with artists like John Lee Hooker, and BB King have brought new audiences to her. When John Mayer first hit the big time he was asked in a spontaneous interview who he would consider a collaboration with. Without a breath the answer was Bonnie Raitt. And I’m not surprised!
Studio recordings really don’t do Bonnie’s charisma justice by a long shot, but I share this song because, with its clean and quiet production, it lets us simply listen to her voice and the subtlety that Bonnie always brings to the party. And I like this song! Songs allow us to own and express the feelings and realities of our lives. Sometimes you may need a song that says, “Too late buddy! I’ve moved on!” This is that.
Nobody could deny that Willie Nelson has the “it” of country-rock and folk. His style embodies enormous personal authenticity. Has Willie Nelson always been this old? Kind of! Willie Nelson’s image has such an antique quality to it that he becomes somehow ageless and timeless. It’s this quality that allows him to incarnate a whole musical tradition and bring its flavour to whatever he does.
The resignation to death and mortality marks a lot of Bluegrass music. And it really stands out in this arresting song from Willie’s more recent canon. I have to say it’s hard to pick just one Willie Nelson song. I like this one for it’s nakedness and the way it makes you stop and listen. Enjoy!
When artists respect each other everyone wins! When audiences see artists collaborating across genres it sends a powerful message. Each artist benefits from a new audience. And we the audience learn to look and listen differently to someone we may otherwise have overlooked. Thank you Faith and and thank you Santana for this one!
Here are the Sirens from the Coen Brothers’ adaptation of Ulysses – “O Brother Where Art Thou?” Thank you the Coen Brothers for introducing us to more sweet country harmony!
Once again we hear Country’s devotion to specific places. And yet the message is universal. It becomes a celebration of love and life. I love Sugar Hill, though I have never been there. Then again, perhaps I have!
Here again Shania brings something fun and uplifting, this time with an hilarious homage to Robert Palmer’s seminal video for Addicted to Love. For me, the intersection of Country, Country-Rock, Folk and Pop. It’s a winning fusion. Come on, who doesn’t want to line dance to the work of these fabulous writers and performers?!