In an attempt to discover and highlight the best music every month, I’ll be publishing a list of the best songs released throughout that period. Hopefully, this will present an opportunity for everyone to discuss the month’s releases, discover new and worthwhile music, and debate over the order of the list and the inclusion or exclusion of particular songs.
The only criteria are that the song must be on an album released during the month prior to the list being compiled. The list will be limited to 20 songs with no more than three songs from a particular artist making the cut, which means it could get pretty hairy if there aren’t many releases during a certain month. Covers of well known songs that don’t bring much new to the table will also be left off in favor of fresher material.
(Bonus Instrumental) “Glide” – Jerry Douglas
All of the instrumentals on Douglas’ album Glide seemingly tell a story, but the title track stands out for it’s laid back, peaceful undertones. Be sure to check out “Home Sweet Home” featuring Earl Scruggs and Tony Rice, as well.
20. “That Old Time Feeling” – Darrell Scott
Darrell Scott is already well known for his songwriting abilities, so it’s a bit ironic that he’d put out an album of covers to show off his vocal chops. Nevertheless, his cover of the Guy Clark tune, like much of Modern Hymns, is a bit theatrical, but it’s the perfect way to end this list the same way Scott ends the album, with a great song that sounds like it could be an old time hymn. His respect for the song and it’s influential writer make this this seem like an ode to Clark as much as a spiritual psalm.
19. “Wreck You” – Heidi Newfield
The title phrase was a little awkward on the first few listens, but after getting over that little detail, “Wreck You” makes for a well crafted lyric, like most Lori McKenna tunes. While the song is solid at best, Newfield’s emotional performance is what makes this song shine. She has great potential with a better collection of songs than was present on What Am I Waiting For.
18. “What Do I Have To Do” – Crystal Shawanda
An anthem for women in neglectful relationships, “What Do I Have To Do” stands out among the contemporary glam and sometimes grating vocals on Shawanda’s Dawn Of A New Day. She borders on melodrama while showing vulnerability in her performance, but masterfully, never crosses the line as she pleads for nothing more than a simple conversation with her lover. It’s interesting to note how long the theme has been a topic of country music and the different way it’s been approached; check out Ernest Tubb & Loretta Lynn’s duet of “Won’t You Come Home And Talk To A Stranger” from 1969 in which the title pretty much sums up the sentiment.
17. “All I Want Is You” – Glen Campbell
Continuing with another cover–and certainly not the last on this list in a month full of them–Campbell’s version of U2′s “All I Want Is You” is lent poignancy by his noticeably aged, but still viable voice–a voice that tells us this is a man that has experienced life and all it’s offerings, but in the end all he wants is the one he loves.
16. “May Not Be Love” – Jason Boland
Slightly reminiscent of “It’s Not Love (But It’s Not Bad)” by Merle Haggard, “May Not Be Love” is a story of two people who have found a relationship that isn’t quite love, but what they have works because “it’s better than most.” And though they’ve found something that works for them, the feeling lingers that they both want more of each other. Boland’s plaintive vocal suits the song perfectly.
15. “Jesus” – Glen Campbell
Rather than a cacophony of sound like other songs on the album, the production here adds to the aural pleasure. The lyric is decidedly simple, consisting of only a handful of lines repeated a few times over, but Campbell expertly expresses the despair and search for atonement that makes this song work.
14. “Wouldn’t Put It Past Love” – Cadillac Sky
It’ll make a man sacrifice his life, save a man going to hell, make a sane man crazy, and make a crazy man sane. Nothing is too absurd when love enters the mix–that’s the premise behind this song from the progressive bluegrass group Cadillac Sky. The group experiments with the arrangement and melody during the instrumental break, but it doesn’t diminish the message that does what it can to tarnish love’s reputation.
13. “Can’t Let Go” – Heidi Newfield
Newfield’s cover of the Randy Weeks penned tune adds a little polish to Lucinda Williams’ version, which, in this instance, isn’t a bad thing. It’s an irresistibly catchy rendition dripping with attitude and oozing desperation as Newfield softens to a whisper at the end–all while featuring a rich, interesting arrangement. It’ll have you singing along in no time.
12. “He’s Still Dancin’ With Her” – Jason Allen
Allen’s latest, Twilight Zone, wasn’t quite able to achieve it’s goal, but when he sticks to what he’s good at, he’s capable of crafting a worthwhile listening experience. In “He’s Dancin’ With Her,” the narrator wonders about a man dancing alone and the bartender tells him that the man visits the bar every Friday night to play his late wife’s favorite song on the jukebox and prays that he’ll dance with her again one day. It isn’t deep or particularly original, but it’s an example of what country music can be by sticking to the basics; it’s simple and heartfelt.
11. “The Devil” – Darrell Scott
Scott digs up an old Hoyt Axton song in “The Devil” and gives us a blistering acoustic/bluegrass rendition, adding in a couple of extended instrumental breaks for good measure.
10. “Comal County Blue” – Jason Boland
There’s enough going on in this brilliantly written title track from Jason Boland that it can’t be absorbed in one listen, but that doesn’t drag it down, rather it makes the song a pleasure to listen to over and over again. With the slow, steady chug of a train, Comal County Blue is a metaphor to describe Boland himself as a man who “has a harmless habit of being fine where ever [he is].” The relaxed and unassuming nature of his delivery take some of the edge off of what is otherwise a biting commentary on the unfriendliness of vistors to Comal County: “But it’s the only place made colder/Around here in the middle of June/By endless string of strangers/Brought by the summer moon.”
9. “These Days” – Glen Campbell
Even in it’s simplicity, Jackson Browne’s “These Days” as sung by Campbell sure seems to say a lot. Perhaps it’s his age and the pondering of what life has left to offer from a man who’s acutely aware of his position in life that makes the meaning a little more immediate or perhaps it’s the contrast of the richly layered accompaniment that hints at a hopefullness for what’s to come. Either way, it’s the best song on Campbell’s recent album and makes for an affecting listen.
8. “Dreaming My Dreams With You” – Jamey Johnson
As far as interpretation goes, this one doesn’t stray from Waylon Jennings’ version, but the reverence with which Johnson treats the song imbues it with an intensity that makes this cover special.
6. “Bottle By My Bed” – Jason Boland
Comparing his life to the empty bottle by his bed, this song serves as the story of Boland’s recovery from his addiction to alcohol. He seemingly extends an invitation to hear his testimony when he sings, “Don’t be afraid to stop me/When I pass you by/We’ll sit and watch the sun go down/As the waters turn to red/If you’d like I could tell you/About the bottle by my bed.” Without being overt, it’s one of the most spiritual songs on this list.
5. “High Cost Of Living” – Jamey Johnson
Displaying the harshness of reality with gritty honesty, Johnson packs a wallop into a simple turn of phrase: “The high cost of livin’/Ain’t nothin’ like the cost of livin’ high.” It doesn’t quite reach the pinnacle to which it aspires, but Johnson has the talent to one day get there.
4. “Long Hard Road (A Sharecropper’s Dream)” – Jerry Douglas (feat. Rodney Crowell)
This dobro-driven, slightly tweaked cover, featuring Rodney Crowell on vocals, has a sense of urgency not present when Nitty Gritty Dirt Band sang it. This is nostalgia and country life done right–without all the silly posturing of song’s like “Country Man” and “Holler Back.”
3. “The Window Up Above” – George Jones with Leon Russell
Perhaps the best description of this song was said by Ben: “I thought especially that the Leon Russell duet on “Window Up Above” [was] funky as hell, and could live on a ‘greatest duets’ CD.”
2. “Bible By The Bed” – Cadillac Sky
In this gripping tale of spousal abuse, a wife torn by the vows she made and the hopelessness of her situation keeps a Bible by the bed and a gun under her pillow. If one doesn’t stop her abusive husband, the other one will. It’s a little overwrought, but sometimes the best bluegrass songs step out of bounds.
1. “A Marriage Made In Hollywood” – Jerry Douglas (feat. Travis Tritt)
The best song of the month has a lot going for it–a catchy melody and driving beat, some sweet dobro pickin’, a social message–but it raises one important question: what the hell is Travis Tritt doing chasing radio success when he could be recording material like this.