(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.
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?
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
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.
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
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
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,
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.
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
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.