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Country Music History – Essential Releases of 2006

Hell hath no fury.

1. “Before He Cheats,” Carrie Underwood. Checotah, Oklahoma native Carrie Underwood launched her career by winning the 2004 season of “American Idol” and had her first #1 country hit in 2005 with guardian angel themed “Jesus, Take the Wheel.” The revenge number “Before He Cheats” was penned by Chris Tompkins, who played in a garage band with Jason Isbell as a teenager, and Josh Kear, who also has a writing credit on Lady Antebellum’s “Need You Now.” Underwood captures a simmering rage turned retribution violence on “Before He Cheats,” which coupled with the ascendance of Miranda Lambert demonstrated that country female artists were moving away from the heartbroken victim role. A #1 country single and a Top Ten pop hit, Underwood’s image may be wrapped in Southern Baptist trappings, but her signature song reflects nothing but disgust for women who can’t shoot whiskey.

2. “Before She Does,” Eric Church. After graduating with a marketing degree in his native state of North Carolina, Eric Church relocated to Nashville, first getting a publishing deal and shortly thereafter being signed to Capitol Records. His 2006 debut album “Sinners Like Me” yielded three Top Twenty country singles and was eventually certified gold. The non-charting lead track “Before He Does” is a redneck twang look at love gone wrong, where Church notes that Jesus will return before his woman does. He also takes the time to convict O.J. Simpson and pardon Lee Harvey Oswald.

3. “Cowboys Are Frequently Secretly (Fond of Each Other),” Willie Nelson. Musicologist/author Ned Sublette was living in Manhattan in 1981 in an apartment near a gay country bar. Sublette, “”Gay life in 1981 was very vibrant in those days. It was part of the culture of the city and cowboy imagery is a part of gay iconography.” Willie Nelson recorded the song after hearing it during the mid-1980s, “I thought it was the funniest goddamn song I’d ever heard. I had it on the bus for 20 years, and people would come in and I’d play it. When (the movie) ‘Brokeback Mountain’ come out, it just seemed like a good time to kick it out of the closet.” Country radio wasn’t radio for a queer waltz, but it got enough airplay to be Nelson’s biggest pop hit since 1982. Nelson returned to the theme in 2009 with another non-original, the hetero “Ain’t Goin’ Down on Brokeback Mountain,” which includes a cowboy chorus concluding “that shit ain’t right.”

4. “Enough Rope,” Chris Knight. On the title track of his 2006 album release, Chris Knight rewrites Bruce Springsteen’s “The River,” describing his limited life options with an accent that has nothing to do with New Jersey. The trailer park inhabitant narrator, however, is happy with his blue collar job and the fact that, unlike a named cousin, he isn’t in a penitentiary. He’s also resigned to and pleased with the reality that he doesn’t have enough rope to hang himself. “Cry Lonely,” a Knight/Gary Nicholson composition that was the only single from the album, was covered by Cross Canadian Ragweed on their 2007 Top Ten album “Mission California.”

5. “God’s Gonna Cut You Down,” Johnny Cash. “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” is a traditional folk song, first recorded by the Golden Gate Quartet in 1947 and released by Elvis using the title “Run On” in 1967. This tale of biblical justice had also been recorded by Odetta, Sweet Honey in the Rock, and The Blind Boys of Alabama with the last two acts using the title “Run On for a Long Time.” Producer Rick Rubin gave the Cash version a stripped down, powerful arrangement mixing acoustic thunder with The Man In Black’s Old Testament physical and lyrical imagery. Cash had the gift to sing about the power of religion/spirituality without ever sounding sanctimonious in the process.

6. “Kerosene,” Miranda Lambert. Miranda Lambert left her first visit in Nashville in disgust – not that the music business had rejected her, but she hated the material she was given. After returning to East Texas, she learned to play guitar so she could write he own songs. After appearing on the music competition program “Nashville Star,” Lambert signed with Epic Records and her debut album was released in 2005. “Kerosene,” the album title track, was the third single released and was her first Top Twenty hit. On this stomping rewrite of Steve Earle’s “I Feel Alright,” Lambert responds to a cheating lover by, perhaps, setting his house on fire. Lambert’s no nonsense attitude replicated what Waylon and Willie did during the 1970s, she brought a rock ‘n’ roll spirit to country music.

7. “Leave the Pieces,” The Wreckers. The Wreckers were a short lived experiment. Michelle Branch had gained fame in the early 2000s with her Top Ten pop single “All You Wanted” and singing on the Santana #5 pop hit “The Game of Love.” Jessica Harp provided backing vocals on Branch’s 2005 album “Hotel Paper” and the idea for a country duo was born. The duo’s 2006 album “Stand Still, Look Pretty” went to #4 on the country charts and was certified gold. “Leave the Pieces” was written by 1994 Miss California Jennifer Hanson with Billy Austin. On this #1 country hit, Branch and Harp harmonize about a broken relationship, bringing somewhat of a 1970’s soft rock with violins approach to country music. If that sounds like an insult, the 70’s were a really good time. After one album, The Wreckers were dismantled.

8. “Not Ready to Make Nice,” The Dixie Chicks. After being ritually disemboweled by commercial country radio in 2002, the Dixie Chicks took an extended break before releasing their 2006 double platinum album “Taking the Long Way.” Band member Emily Robinson on how serious the hatred had become, ““There was one specific death threat on Natalie. (It) had a time, had a place, had a weapon. I mean, everything. ‘You will be shot dead at your show in Dallas.’” “Not Ready to Make Nice” is an unregenerate look at the controversy with Natalie Maines stating she had no intention of backing down. Despite this powerful Top Five pop hit, the big losers in all the drama were country music fans – one of the most consistently interesting and entertaining acts in the genre’s history hasn’t released a new album since 2006.

9. “Snake Farm,” Ray Wylie Hubbard. Hubbard, “There’s an old snake farm down here between Austin and San Antonio. It’s been there 40 or 50 years, and I’ve probably driven by it ten thousand times. One time, I had been reading Flannery O’Connor, and I drove by it. For whatever reason, even though I’d driven by it countless times up to that point, something inside me said, ‘That just sound nasty.’ And bingo, there it was. A song idea.” Joe Nick Patoski, “A persistent legend among many young Texas males is that if you asked for change for a 20 at the Snake Farm, your double sawbuck would be kept and you’d be directed to one of the trailers out back, where a lady of the night would be waiting, in the tradition of the Chicken Ranch in La Grange.” After thirty years as a recording artist, Hubbard’s nasty “Snake Farm” grit and groove gave him his most popular release.

10. “Things Have Gone to Pieces,” George Jones and Merle Haggard. If you were making a Mount Rushmore of country music legends, it would be hard to keep George Jones and Merle Haggard off the granite. Theses mutual admirers scored a #1 country hit in 1982 with “Yesterday’s Wine” and put their aging tonsils to the test for the 2006 album “Kickin’ Out the Footlights…Again.” The album is a compilation of new recordings of previously released material by Jones and Haggard, with each superstar often covering hits by the other. The Leon Payne composition “Things Have Gone to Pieces” had been a Top Ten single for Jones in 1965. The long suffering lyrics almost border on satire, but the voices and arrangement take you back to county music’s simpler and less pretentious era.

11. “Thunder on the Mountain,” Bob Dylan. One of the many titles that could be bestowed upon Bob Dylan is “The Father of Americana Music” and he returned in expert form for the 2006 “Modern Times” album. “Thunder on the Mountain” is a blues shuffle that kicks off the proceedings by reworking Memphis Minnie’s “Ma Rainey” to salute Alicia Keys. Later, Dylan recruits an army from the orphanages and drinks the milk from a thousand cows. This is prime Bobby Z – impenetrable, mysterious, and fun at the same time. Rockabilly legend Wanda Jackson covered “Thunder on the Mountain” in 2011 with typical meteorological turbulence.

12. “Up to the Mountain,” Solomon Burke & Patty Griffin. Philadelphia born soul singer Solomon Burke was raised in the world of gospel music. He released a string of unsuccessful singles on Apollo Records during the 1950s, then became a soul star after signing with Atlantic Records in 1960. Burke is best known for his 1964 hit “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love,” which was covered by The Rolling Stones, but his biggest crossover hit was 1965’s “Gotta Get You Off of My Mind,” a #22 pop hit/#1 soul single. A year before Ray Charles released his 1962 landmark album “Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, Burke released a county cover of the 1953 Faron Young hit “Just Out of Reach (Of My Two Open Arms),” using a countrypolitan style that Charles may have replicated. Burke went country again with his 2006 release “Nashville,” primarily a collection of country standards and duets with female country stars. “Up to the Mountain” was a new composition, written by Patty Griffin and inspired by Martin Luther King, Jr’s “Dream” speech. A mountain of a man himself, Burke returned to his gospel roots on this spiritual folk number about overcoming life’s challenges with a dream of a heavenly reward. Patty Griffin on Solomon’s version, “”He sang it ten times I think, and I could tell when he got his take—little chills came on my arms.”

13. “When the Stars Go Blue,” Tim McGraw. Ryan Adams released the love ballad “When the Stars Go Blue” on his 2001 “Gold” album and it certainly did not sound like a potential modern day country hit. Tim McGraw, who may have heard the song from the 2002 folk rock version by The Corrs, included his cover on a 2006 greatest hits compilation, putting less emphasis on the abstract lyrical content about a woman who chose the wrong man and providing the requisite sing along chorus. Still, a rather moody and unusual Top Five country hit for its time. Adams, “That song has had a very strange life. It’s been covered more than once. It’s been covered by a couple of singer-songwriters, and by The Corrs. I guess the most recognizable version would be Tim McGraw’s. Another year will pass, and I’ll hear like, ‘Oh, so-and-so is doing ‘When the Stars Go Blue.’ It’s like the song that wouldn’t go away.”

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