Brad Paisley has an uncanny way of clipping thoughtful, often witty, commentary out of society and dropping it into his songwriting. Roger Miller and John Prine are obvious influences, but he has expanded themes of the American Heartland, such as the working class, religion and social stereotypes, to reach a new generation. Through numerous studio records, from his 1999 debut We Need Pictures to 2017's solid Love and War collection, he has commanded the airwaves with such classics as "He Didn't Have to Be," "Whiskey Lullaby" (with Alison Krauss), "Waitin' on a Woman" and more. But what about those deep tracks which often get overlooked in the digital age of instant downloads and streaming services? Well, they simply fade away into history--but many of them are among Paisley's best work.
Regardless where we go in life, our roots ground us, inspire us to stay true to who we once were and propel us to forge ahead a future as bright and jarringly-comfortable as when we were kids. We can still change with the passing of the seasons and wish we hadn't-- but that's the nature of finding who we were destined to become. In many ways, that's exactly what the Zac Brown Band have done.
In the aftermath of the well-intended, but poorly-executed, "Accidental Racist," from 2013's Wheelhouse, Brad Paisley became accidentally gun shy. The album stands among his most musically-ambitious, lyrically-dynamic records--but the backlash of that one track sent him into a tailspin. With the follow-up, 2014's Moonshine in the Trunk, it quickly became apparent he was afraid of experimenting or pushing the envelope any longer. Then, he stepped back and took stock of his career. Last summer, he made a bid for the youth market with a collaboration with pop singer Demi Lovato, on "Without a Fight." But when that failed to become a reasonable chart hit, Paisley's new album Love and War was postponed (and then postponed again). 16 songs seems on the heavy side for a major label release: packed with vanilla-flavored filler including the Timbaland-assisted "Solar Power Girl" and the bluegrass-inspired "Grey Goose Chase" (also starring Timbaland). Even "Meaning Again" seems half-baked and devoid of passion.
Paisley's stereotypically witty, goofy commentary on life, love and digital trends makes a startling comeback, though, and for the most part, works to get effect. "selfie#theinternetisforever" is especially crucial, poking fun at millennials who feel the need to take selfies at funerals, in the bathroom on the toilet and attaching hashtags like #sadday. As one of country's best guitarists and longest-lasting superstars, he has built his entire career on such simple but timely constructs.
But, for all the humor and desperate attempts to remain relevant, Paisley excels with his mid-life reflections on time. "Last Time for Everything" and "Today" (which happen to be the set's first two singles) showcase him at this best, bemoaning the sands in the hourglass and resolving to live each day as his most authentic self. The title track, a moving lament about this country's abuse of veterans, is one of his finest moments of his career.
John Fogerty is an apt and skilled companion to the story, needling together his rough-hewn vocal with Paisley's more polished down-home country-boy inflection. Meanwhile, "Gold All Over the Ground" (music set to a Johnny Cash poem) is Paisley's most intimate, and quite frankly, honest tune. And "The Devil is Alive and Well" is chilling, a personal and thoughtful musing on all the hate and violence polluting our world. "Same old story every day. Hateful words that we all use. So much anger, so much pain," he grieves, over gusting, lonesome guitar and hearty percussion.
Paisley has lost much of his luster through the years. But he is still very capable of rising dutifully with guitar in hand to keep the format thriving--if only the pressure to collect radio hits wouldn't get in the way. When he disregards airplay, those moments (however fleeting) are warm reminders of his ongoing importance.
Must-Hear Tracks: "Last Time for Everything," "Love and War," "The Devil is Alive and Well," "Gold All Over the Ground"
Grade: 3 out of 5
There is no voice who can shatter mountains and make you weep in the same verse as Alison Krauss'. Between her solo work (including her exquisite covers album Windy City) and collaboration with Union Station, she has tremendously shifted the country landscape, as well as that of bluegrass, through the years. Her voice is unmistakable and her musicianship is equally as marvelous. Her debut album Too Late to Cry (on Rounder Records) arrived exactly 30 years ago this year. One Country takes a look back at her extensive songbook to curate her 10 finest moments.
Since they released their self-titled debut album in 2002, Little Big Town has continued to hit their stride time and time again. When you think they've earned their last big hit, they come back even stronger. From The Road to Here in 2005 to 2012's defining Tornado and their most recent record, 2017's The Breaker, the harmonious four-piece push boundaries but remain true to country's ethos. With such a massive hit in 2016 with "Better Man," the stage was set for an even more intriguing chapter. One Country takes a look back at their incredibly impressive catalog for their best songs of all time. There are hits, sure, but some of their best work is nestled as deep cuts.
10 Best Songs From Little Big Town:
"Beat Up Bible" (from 2017's The Breaker)
Kimberly Schlapman really can sell a ballad like no other. Focused on the importance of faith, and, most importantly, the Bible, she reflects on the passage of time, death and how to cope. It's one of the group's most visceral moments...ever. "All you gotta do is just believe...in this beat-up Bible," she whispers.
"Wounded" (from 2005's The Road to Here)
Before the band really began pushing the stylistic boundaries on later albums, their early work was bluegrass-inspired, with plenty of steel guitar and banjo. "I'm wounded, all tore up inside over you," the four-piece lament, juxtaposed against the high-powered plucking and jovial melody.
"Sober" (from 2012's Tornado)
Terrestrial radio can be rather disappointing. Case in point: this smoldering mid-tempo did not go No. 1. How and why is an utter mystery. The quartet compare love to the high of alcohol, and it's magical.
"Shut Up Train" (from 2010's The Reason Why)
As the title suggests, the song unravels the story of an overbearing locomotive disrupting her thoughts. In the aftermath of a breakup, Karen Fairchild wallows in her sorrow over one lone acoustic guitar, but she can't seem to get her feelings in order. "I don't need no more pain, so, shut up, train," she coos.
"Evangeline" (from 2007's A Place to Land)
The group details a harrowing story of verbal abuse, which, they warn, can be just as damaging as physical. They plead with a woman named Evangeline that "it ain't love" and that "he won't lay a finger on you / he won't wreck your pretty face / but hell tell you that your worthless, just to put you in your place." Probably one of their most underrated recordings.
"Tornado" (from 2012's Tornado)
With evident southern-gothic inspiration, particularly in the witchy music video, the song is heavy on the percussion and the metaphors. Fairchild compares herself to the unrelenting force of nature, that of a tornado and it's power to lift a house from its foundation and ability to "toss it in the air."
"Stay" (from 2005's The Road to Here)
The track was originally recorded for their 2002 self-titled debut, but they revisited it on their follow-up. They've stripped away the pop-country production for a earthier rendition. Schlapman once again takes the lead vocal, and they offer up some of their most satisfying harmonies ever.
"Little White Church" (from 2010's The Reason Why)
A strong woman gives her suitor an ultimatum: "you can't ride this gravy chain," "no more calling me baby," "no more lovin' like crazy" until we get married. From the swinging bluegrass-lean to the killer guitar solo, this remains one of LBT's best toe-tappers. "Momma warned me about your game," Fairchild later avows.
"Bones" (from 2005's The Road to Here)
From the swampy guitar playing to the feverish lead vocals, this mid-tempo rattles with the past--lurking in the shadows and "waiting til the sun to go down." Most of the song is sung in unison, with harmonies sprinkled throughout, but the charm lies in the mood they create.
"Silver and Gold" (from 2014's Pain Killer)
LBT's sixth studio album is, perhaps, their most musically-adventurous. They dabble in harder southern rock and adult contemporary pop than they had previously done. The bookend "Silver and Gold" is an atmospheric send-off; their gliding harmonies are among their finest here, creating a mood to encompass the entire journey--rather than having an explosive ending.
Despite a slew of big hits, Little Big Town has never forgotten their roots. "I'm proud of where I came from," they sing on their classic "Boondocks" track. Their delicious harmonies are unmistakably groundbreaking, harkening to the days of The Carter Family. They pour their hearts and their talents out on every song they record, so it's no wonder they've broken out in big ways the past 5 years. Through numerous studio albums, they've delighted fans with their understanding of the past and how to best serve country music in the long run. Their live shows are even more mesmerizing. Don't believe us?
The influence of Wanderlust is inherently subtle on the Little Big Town's eighth studio album. The Pharrell Williams-produced pop record drew upon tropical house, psychedelia and a dash of Justin Bieber schooling of Top 40. As soon as it dropped last summer, all promotion vanished-- the tragicness of such an immersive pop record falling by the wayside is among many of 2016's alarming miscalculations. But, The Breaker is just as sunny a modern country record as you could imagine; in many ways, it is a return to Little Big Town's granular roots, as they forge a dalliance with Red-era Taylor Swift on "Better Man" and throbbing '60s funk with the feel-good opener "Happy People." They comb moody atmospheres, too, as you'll find on the glossy "Lost in California" and "Don't Die Young, Don't Get Old," a new wave-influenced slow-jam.
With producer and long-time collaborator Jay Joyce (Eric Church) returning to the helm, the album is polished but lit with the band's inescapable harmonies and feverish understanding of determined melodies. "Night on Our Side," "Drivin' Around" and "Rollin'" are among their most high-escape recordings, steeped in heavy classic rock undertones and a redefinition of their uptempo template. They are rollicking and fun and youthful on much of the album's 12 tracks.
But then they toss in a 1-2 emotional punch later on the record--the moments are so undeniable, you can't help but stop in your tracks. "Beat Up Bible" is one of their most searing career songs, rich with Kimberly Schlapman's charming but raw lead vocal. Her delivery pours from her soul, as she reflects on the significance of her faith to get her through life's most troubling times, most of all: death. Then, Jimi Westbrook takes the lead on "When Someone Stops Loving You," a potent heartbreak song which touches on all the essential experiences: sorrow, pain, anger and release. "When someone stops loving you, it don't make the evening news," he wails. "It don't keep the sun from rising, the clock from winding, your heart from beating...even when you want it to..."
The Breaker is polished down but resembles a band coming to terms with what it means to be progressive but hold onto country's roots in 2017. Already making a bid for one of the year's best mainstream country records, it's poppy and breezy but not without a spiritual and quite affecting life line. It's a roller coaster, for sure, which zips through the sky at a blood-curdling rate and gives the listener little room to process it all.
Must-Listen Tracks: "Beat Up Bible," "When Someone Stops Loving You," "We Went to the Beach," "Happy People"
Grade: 4.7 out of 5
Believe it or not, it has been 12 years since Carrie Underwood took the "American Idol" crown. Through five studio albums and one greatest hits compilation, she has blazed her way from a shy girl from Checotah, Oklahoma to one of the biggest superstars on the planet. Last fall, she headlined the prestigious Madison Square Garden to a sold-out crowd, further cementing her place as one of country music's greatest assets. Her continued radio success is the exception, not the rule--out of 20 (plus) singles shipped to radio, they have all peaked within the Top 3 on either Mediabase or Billboard's Country Airplay scorecard. Her most enduring hits include "Jesus Take the Wheel," "Before He Cheats," "Cowboy Casanova," "Blown Away" and "Something in the Water," among others. But often times, her deep cuts are far riskier and musically-ambitious; just take a listen to 2015's Storyteller LP. On her fifth studio album, she explores Delta Blues, Patti Page-bent pop, alt-country and the signature sounds of her songbook.
10 Best Deep Cuts From Carrie Underwood:
10. "Do You Think About Me" (from 2012's Blown Away)
Underwood rarely sings a song as sweet. It's one of her most subdued vocals. She lets the plucky melody guide her, as she reflects on a past flame and if he thinks about her, too, and what could have been. Given her penchant for glory notes, this was a lovely change of pace on an otherwise dramatic record.
9. "Get Out of This Town" (from 2007's Carnival Ride)
Being wild and free is not problem for Underwood, who packs up her entire life and plans to run away into the dead of night. "Let's get out of this town tonight, nothing but dust in the shadows," she wails. "Gone by morning light. Somewhere we won't never get caught, never be found." It's that feeling of escapism that's universally felt; we've all wanted to get away from our lives, if even for a day.
8. "What Can I Say," featuring Sons of Sylvia (from 2009's Play On)
In the aftermath of a relationship, Underwood plays a call-and-response with Sons of Sylvia frontman Ashley Clark (who has since pursued a solo career). They both consider the pain they've caused each other, not pointing fingers but wishing it had ended differently. The production is soft rock with a hint of classic Underwood pop. This could have been such a huge hit at radio.
7. "Someday When I Stop Loving You" (from 2009's Play On)
The powerhouse can pretty much pull off any genre. But when she goes traditional, she truly shines. Touching upon such influences here as Alan Jackson, she pulls back the reigns for one of her most restrained recordings. From the howl of steel guitar and the pitter-patter of percussion, the song creates such a special moment.
6. "Starts with Goodbye" (from 2005's Some Hearts)
Coming off "Idol," Underwood had established a pretty diverse fan base, including plenty of pop fans. When listening to her debut album, there is a country half and a pop half. On many of the songs, she delights in production those pop fans would enjoy the most, even on the searing ballads. This cut frames her vocals in the best way possible, and the arrangement never seems cluttered.
5. "Relapse" (from 2015's Storyteller)
Underwood finds herself caving into her craving for a former lover. "Don't think I'm coming back, it's just a relapse," she attests. While her and her lover do have a storied past, she's not above getting a quick fix. The heavy pop production conjures up '80s influences, with pounding drums and very few country inflections (except for her inescapable twang, of course).
4. "I Know You Won't" (from 2007's Carnival Ride)
Lyrically, it's rather mundane and repetitive, but Underwood's otherworldly voice really sells it. For fans who adore her ability to hit the stratosphere, this song is one power note after another. The vocal acrobatics are a perfect fit for the song's sorrowful message.
3. "Like I'll Never Love You Again" (from 2015's Storyteller)
Tapping into the magical era of the Nashville Sound--ripping a page out of the Patsy Cline playbook--Underwood also tips her hat to Patti Page, who crossed over into country with "The Tennessee Waltz." It contains a hazy, magical feel and paints a rather vivid portrait of love. It's quite different than most of what Underwood has explored in her career, and she would be wise to push the envelope even further.
2. "Wine After Whiskey" (from 2012's Blown Away)
Featuring a smokey guitar line and noticeable stripped production, Underwood's gritty portrayal of heartache is magnetizing. It's one of the closest moments she's gotten to infusing alt-country influences into her work. There's a lonesomeness in the arrangement which serves as atmospheric pressure to the story. Again, how this did not see the light of day at radio is such a travesty.
1. "Choctaw County Affair" (from 2015's Storyteller)
Sometimes it feels like "The Twilight Zone" when such excellent work as this misses out on a radio release. It would certainly be a gamble, possibly jeopardizing her winning streak. Reportedly, Underwood's Storyteller is finished, ending with her latest No. 1 hit "Dirty Laundry." Written by Jason White (also the writer behind Tim McGraw's "Red Ragtop"), "Choctaw" is the best thing Underwood has ever recorded. Tragically, it only got one TV performance on "CMA Music Festival: Country's Night to Rock" last summer.
Martina McBride is one of the greatest voices in all of country music history. From the first note she sings in every song, her tone vibrates across the dashboard and into the eardrums; there's no mistaking her for anyone else. Throughout her impressive career, she has permeated the airwaves with empowering inspirational ballads and toe-tapping uptempo numbers--radio might have long abandoned her, but she continues proving her mettle. Her 2016 Reckless album saw the singer return to her storytelling roots with one of her finest collections in a number of years.
To celebrate her career, One Country takes a look back and curates her greatest performances of all time. Read on for our picks. Did your favorite moment make the cut?
10 Greatest Performances From Martina McBride:
"Independence Day" (1995 TNN/MCN Awards)
The song which never hit the Top 10 at country radio is McBride's most enduring classic. It's harrowing topic was controversial at the time and led the way for women to feel empowered to reclaim their lives.
"Where Would You Be" (2001 Radio Music Awards)
Yep. She can shatter mountains and bring you to your knees--this is easily within her top three performances of all-time. Excuse the muted audio.
"Whatever You Say" (1999 ACM Awards)
As the defining power-note belter of the '90s and early '00s, McBride shows the full color of her voice on this sweeping mid-tempo ballad. This performance should be enough to send chills down your spine.
"Anyway" (2007 CMT Music Awards)
McBride's sweet spot for inspirational gemstones reaches unbelievable new heights on this standout performance. Beginning with just a piano tinkling in the background, the singer digs her voice into one of the biggest hits of her career. When the band kicks in, she takes the entire crowd in the palm of her hand.
"A Broken Wing" ("CMA 40th Anniversary Celebration: Country Music's Biggest Homecoming," 1998)
When McBride was on her A-game, she hit it out of the park. This is a case of a talent singer shaking the earth to its core and sending up a heartfelt prayer to heaven's gate. Perhaps her greatest performance ever.
"Does He Love You?," Reba & Linda Davis Cover featuring Kelly Clarkson (2006 "CMT Giants")
What voice could possibly match the strength of McBride's? Kelly Clarkson, of course. The tender, forlorn ballad is an appropriate showcase of both singers abilities to dig into real human emotions and soar higher than the clouds. Stunning.
"I'm Gonna Love You Through It" (2011 "Late Night with David Letterman")
McBride's message songs helped define her as one of the best modern-day storytellers. This song about the ugly c(ancer) word reminded the country crowd exactly why she has such an enduring legacy. Stunning, really.
"I Never Promised You a Rose Garden," with Lynn Anderson (2005 Grand Ole Opry)
Not many people can match the sweetness of this Lynn Anderson standard, but McBride certainly exceeds expectations. What's even better? Turning the song into a duet!
"Stand By Your Man," Tammy Wynette cover (2003 "CMT 100 Greatest Songs of Country Music" concert)
Subject matter aside, McBride can tackle pretty much any song in the country pantheon, including classic Wynette. She builds the song with an appropriate amount of tenderness and bravado, reaching the climax power note with relish and ease.
"Concrete Angel" (2003 Grammy Awards)
One of the biggest stages on the planet became a platform for sending a powerful message. McBride's songbook is peppered with stories of abuse, but this one focuses on a young girl who is trapped by fate and ultimately pays the price. The sheer emotion in this performance is enough to crush any heart.
Honorable Mention: Some say, she's lost her voice, but evidence--like this sterling performance of "My Baby Loves Me" on her 2016 tour--begs to differ.