Joni Mitchell clocks in at #1, and obviously Janis Joplin made the top ten as well. Lucinda Williams and Dolly Parton are also in the top 20. Also appearing from the genres this blog covers: Loretta Lynn, Gillian Welch, Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt, Bonnie Raitt, Rosanne Cash, the Dixie Chicks, Tammy Wynette, Shania Twain, Joan Baez, Bobbie Gentry, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Alison Krauss and Union Station, Alabama Shakes, Miranda Lambert, Reba McEntire, Patty Griffin, and Iris DeMint.
Check out the full list. What do you think is missing? What would you put at #1?
Lots of great stuff in other genres from amazing, remarkable women, too, including many women of color. Check it out, and open up your Spotify to look up the artists and albums that are new to you!
Just a quick overdue post to say how excited I am about the mainstream media finally discovering Brandy Clark. (And what’s this? Back-to-back posts for the first time in months? Maybe I really am getting back in the saddle! )
Clark, along with Kacey Musgraves, was a big new name in 2013. Her album, “12 Stories,” was one of the year’s finest – honestly, while Musgraves might have the better voice, I liked Clark’s album better, and she even gets credit for co-writing Musgraves’ hit “Follow Your Arrow.” When people say it’s the women who are keeping country alive right now, they’re absolutely right, and these are the first two names that come to mind whenever I hear that refrain.
To date, Musgraves has been the one getting solid label support, and now Clark can claim that mantle too. Not only was she nominated for two major GRAMMY awards – Best New Artist and Best Country Album – she even performed during the televised portion of the award show, getting her some major exposure (it led to exactly the kind of massive boost in Spotify and Pandora plays you’d hope for). Dwight Yoakam provided harmony and guitar for her song “Hold My Hand” – and while I was initially irked that Yoakam was relegated to a backup role, he was actually perfect for it, giving the song just the right extra touch it needed. Like George Strait’s movie Pure Country, they stripped away all the GRAMMY hoopla and just sang – no lights, no pyrotechnics, no dancers or slideshows, just music. And y’all, it was one of the biggest standing ovations of the night.
On the heels of that performance, Clark is Yahoo’s Artist of the Month – and when Reba’s new album drops in May, it will feature THREE songs written by Clark. Check out her GRAMMY performance here, then go buy 12 Stories.
Trigger recently wrote that Clark’s “12 Stories” has the feel of formulaic songwriting by committee. I disagree (with the exception of the one she wrote for Toby Keith… fair enough, Trigger). Even if it is a committee, Clark is the chair of that committee, and they’re producing good stuff. As for formulaic – well, maybe, but if so, it’s a good formula, tried and true. Clark’s songs are stories about life’s harder moments, which is one area where country music really excels. They may not be overly personal or deep, but they do resonate with real life. And they truly are stories, even without being ballads, and with good melodies, which is all more than you can say for more than most of what’s out there today – but I think she also would have done well in past decades. So, here’s the rare bravo to the mainstream for grabbing a solid country act and lifting it up.
On a related note, my friend Shelly Page recorded a cover of Clark, and y’all, SHELLY CAN SING. Her cover is a little more poppy than country – electric instead of acoustic with a little less less twang, sort of reminiscent of the great women of the ’90s – but it’s still damn good. And when a song is good in multiple formats by multiple artists, you know the quality isn’t just the artists but also in the song itself. Anyway, check Shelly’s video out, then click around to check out a few of her other videos too while you’re at it.
Big Machine Label Group (BMLG) – the label for Reba, Taylor Swift, Florida Georgia Line, and many others – has signed a deal with Cumulus, the country’s second biggest radio conglomerate, to create a new format. They’ll launch stations that only play “classic” country artists from a 25-year period (likely 1989-2014, but I could also see something more like 1985-2010 to bring in more George Strait and Alabama and cut out all, not just future, hick-hop). This comes at the same that BMLG is looking to sign new legends like Garth Brooks and Alan Jackson and just after a station in Kentucky experimented with playing only Garth Brooks (and is now focused on ’90s hits, similar to the new Cumulus format).
This kind of a split would finally acknowledge that Florida Georgia Line and Luke Bryan aren’t even remotely the same genre of music as Trisha Yearwood or even Kenny Chesney. Pros for neo-traditional country fans: Finally the chance to hear “Blue Clear Sky” and “Fancy” on the radio more than twice a year again. Cons: BMLG CEO Scott Borchetta says the format would replace many of the current classic country stations, so all that extra Brooks & Dunn would actually come at the expense of what little Merle Haggard we currently get.
Do I think this split is a good idea? No, and not just because of what it means for country’s distant past. I’m also worried about what it means for the future of country music. Limiting a station format to only certain artists, rather than a certain sound, essentially enshrines that sound in history. It would basically ban any new artists with a neo-traditional sound from the airwaves – they would be neither hip-hoppy or poppy enough for one format nor old or established enough for the other.
That said, I am all for a split in country formats, just not this particular split. Base the split on sound, not time. Make it about the actual music, not a nostalgia for country “oldies.” Mix together all the different subgenres of country and even pop that draw on American roots – neo-traditional country, outlaw country, folk singer-songwriters, indie folk, newgrass – and let the hick-hop and country pop groups go off to do their lousy little thing. That would still accomplish Borchetta’s goal of bringing back Alan Jackson’s full catalog and playing the new stuff from older folks like Billy Joe Shaver, but it would also harness the power of the Avett Brothers to elevate lesser known acts (at least lesser known among the mainstream) like Sturgill Simpson, Nickel Creek, Kelly Willis, and Brandy Clark.
No, it’s not a perfect blend. I’m not pretending that Mumford & Sons and George Strait go together – but they go together a helluva lot better than Jerrod Niemann and Strait do. It may not be a great compromise, but it beats the one that’s been shoved down our throats these past few years, and it wouldn’t shut out newer roots voices like the new Cumulus plan would do.