Modern Sounds In Country And Western Music
The Nashville way of making music is unlike any other, comparable only to the studio system of Hollywood's golden age— a closed system of songwriters, producers, record labels and artists that creates most of the sounds you don't want to admit you listen to on the radio when no one else is in the car.
This system is designed to create consistently good, but not great, music. For the latter to occur, an unpredictable element must be introduced, a ghost in the machine that animates the gears and brings the whole contraption roaring to life with a cybernetic melding of skill and soul. These are the happy accidents responsible for most—but not all—of the albums to find a home on country radio in 2006.
(Disclaimer: The best mainstream country album of the year, the Dixie Chicks' Taking the Long Way, received little to no airplay on country radio, and is therefore ineligible for this list. How could something that idiotic happen, you ask? Um ... it's a long story.)
Like R&B, commercial country is at its heart aproducer's medium
. For instance, if you're an Alan Jackson fan, you're also a fan of producerKeith Stegall
, who's helmed nearly all of Jackson'sumpteen hits
. So when Jackson tappedAlison Krauss
to produce his new album, listeners expected a sidetrack into bluegrass. Instead, we got this: A shimmering suite ofmature
, thoughtful country songs about thedifficulty
of reconciling the youthful ideal ofromance
with the reality ofadulthood
music gets made in Nashville because the artist becomes so popular that he or she earns the right to assumefull artistic control
over his or her work. That's why Jackson was able to call on Krauss, and why Urban now gets to fully explore his previously hinted-at vision of amerging of mainstream country
with thepanoramic rock of Joshua Tree-era U2
, stitching it all together withpassion, melodic invention
andfurious (and fully rock 'n' roll) guitar work
Okay, this one's almost aringer
— Gill hasn't seen the inside ofBillboard's country Top 10 singles char
t (except in his role as a prolific harmony singer) since2000
. But the recent"The Reason Why"
lodged in the Top 40, and the four-disc set from which it springs is nothing less than country's ownSign o' the Times
: An example of ascarily talented singer
, songwriter andinstrumentalist
with a playfulwit
, randysense of humor
and flair for genre-hopping, finally allowed to demonstrate all the different things he can do in oneglorious
, extended tour de force.
is as well-entrenched as Strait's, even atiny digression
can make a difference.It Just Comes Natural
stands out from his dozens of other fine albums by dint of its length (15 songs, and not a clinker in the bunch
) and by the fact that for the recording, Strait, band and producerTony Brown
decamped to atiny Florida studio
owned by palJimmy Buffett
. The result is afreshness
that's occasionally been missing from Strait's work, wedded to thevocal mastery
and canny song selection that hasn't.
Hits settle all questions inMusic City
. Can a potty-mouthed young pop singer who'sbared half her ass in Maxim
be welcomed inultraconservative
(at least in public) Nashville? With a hit like The Wreckers' sterling"Leave the Pieces,"
it's not a problem. That song rose to number one and turnedMichelle Branch
— who formed the duo with morecountry-centric collaborator Jessica Harp
— into a countrystar
. And if you've got ahit
in your pocket, Nashville wants to buy you a
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SHOW ME HOW
too. -CHRIS NEAL
Look for Part II of The Top Ten Country Albums, 2006 in tomorrow's blog.