September saw a rash of superb releases that tended to dominate the list, although eleven different albums end up making an appearance. I have to think artists that know what they’re doing are able to duplicate quality while others only reach greatness every once in awhile due to luck. A couple of interesting notes about songs released last month: three well respected men sang songs from a female perspective (Rodney Crowell, Hal Ketchum, and Bruce Robison) and Dom Perignon was mentioned by two artists (Hal Ketchum and Darius Rucker). I didn’t pay attention, but were there that many songs about beer?
With the number of releases, there’s bound to be some disagreement, so let’s hear what you consider to be some of the best songs of September 2008. And yes, I realize it’s late, but you’ll have to forgive me of my transgressions.
20. “Flowers” – Lonesome River Band
Closing out the list is the final track on Lonesome River Band’s No Turning Back. Written by Billy Yates and Monty Criswell, “Flowers” is reminiscent of Sugarland’s “Joey,” but provides a stronger lyric. And while it’s a bit schmaltzy, it makes for perfect bluegrass material.
19. “All I Want” – Darius Rucker
“All I Want” is among the few bright spots on Darius Rucker’s promising, but rather lackluster debut country album. And though, like many of the songs on Learn To Live, it isn’t necessarily original (see “Give It Away”), the combination of Rucker’s distinguishable vocal, the attitude in his performance, and the barroom piano make this the standout track.
18. “Heart Of Stone” – Chris Knight
I happen to agree with Ben Cisnero’s claim that Knight is content with occupying the tough guy persona, so despite making for a pleasurable listen, the album failed to provide any absolute gems. The title track, however, is one of a couple that delve a little deeper and with a line like “The baby didn’t make it/So neither did we,” it’s worth highlighting. Knight’s voice is an acquired taste, but it allows him to more fully inhabit the characters of his songs.
17. “Larosse” – Bruce Robison
This tale of a man trying to sell his horse is both humorous and heartbreaking and yet it’s unclear whether anything the narrator says is actually truth. As Mike Parker describes it, it’s “a master class in subtext.”
16. “This Is My Son” – Cherryholmes
Considering Cia Cherryholmes is only 24, the maturity of “This Is My Son” is a little surprising. It serves as a prayer by the narrator to keep her son safe and draws a parallel between God’s sacrifice and her own as her son goes off to fight a war for people he doesn’t even know. Cia’s plaintively restrained performance proves singers don’t need to test the limits of their vocal abilities to make a song standout. Look for this group to crossover to country and keep your eye out for this particular song to be remixed with a piano and drums and sent to country radio.
15. “Turn On The Lights” – Wade Bowen
Affecting and heartening, Wade Bowen wrote “Turn On The Lights” while his wife was suffering from postpartum depression. To describe what they were going through, he likened the experience to a child being afraid of the dark and the song serves as an affirmation of Bowen’s dedication to help bring her out of the dark.
14. “Sweetest Waste Of Time” – Kasey Chambers & Shane Nicholson
The title phrase serves as a curious way for Chambers and Nicholson to express their love for one another, but it’s original and works in a charming sort of way. And with the strong steel presence, it also sounds fairly traditional.
13. “Wildflower” – Kasey Chambers & Shane Nicholson
In this beautifully haunting track about the intricacies of a relationship, Chambers voice sounds ethereal as her and Nicholson trade lines before joining each other on harmony. Good stuff.
12. “Twistin’” – Bruce Robison
This little boogie-woogie rockabilly number is easily the catchiest of the month. It’s near impossible to keep from groovin’ (or tappin’ your toes for the tamer folks) while this one’s flooding from the speakers.
11. “The Greatest Hustler of All” – Old Crow Medicine Show
Clocking in at just over seven minutes, “The Greatest Hustler of All” is one of the longer songs you’re liable to stumble across this month. Like “Sweetest Waste of Time,” saying a woman hustled your heart is a curious way to phrase it, but it’s certainly imaginative. It may drag on too slow for some, especially in comparison to some of the torrid material found on Tennessee Pusher, but the sparse arrangement, evocative imagery, and distinctive vocal combine for a totally unique performance. Besides, we could always use a little more harmonica.
10. “Continental Farewell” – Hal Ketchum
The brutal honesty of this track provides for an experience that’s just as shocking after repeated listens. Backed by circus-like music, it’s a hardcore smack down on a fling that you’re unlikely to find anywhere else. It’s quite brilliant!
9. “Lift Him Up” – Old Crow Medicine Show
It’s surprising that these uplifting words, written by Blind Alfred Reed, about treating your fellow man with kindness in his time of greatest need aren’t accompanied by a spiritual message. Nevertheless, this song serves as a creed by which we should aspire to live our lives.
8. “They Say I’ll Never Go Home” – Ralph Stanley II
Guilty without a chance for innocence is the verdict in “They Say I’ll Never Go Home.” The narrator is told he’ll never return home, but I guess they never heard “Green, Green Grass of Home.” He does indeed go “home” after paying for a crime he never committed. Stanley’s vocal isn’t the most pristine, but it’s filled with character and his emotive ability ranks amongst the best.
7. “I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know” – Patty Loveless
Among the less heralded songs on Loveless’ album of choice covers, her performance on “I’ Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know” comes straight from country’s soul without sounding dated. The production and her performance stay out of the way of the lyric and let it speak for itself. If only current artists would take heed.
6. “L.A. County” – Ralph Stanley II
Although Stanley’s cover of this tale of a murder committed in jealousy doesn’t really bring anything new to Lyle Lovett’s original, it’s a song worth hearing. Country music could use more murder ballads.
5. “Rattlin’ Bones” – Kasey Chambers & Shane Nicholson
Like the rest of the songs on Rattlin’ Bones, the title track features the duo’s vocal harmonies and somewhat bare instrumentation, but it also features Nicholson on trash can. How’s that for different? It has a catchy beat and singable lyrics along with this killer line: “Late one night, sorrow come round/Scratching at my door.”
4. “Cold Cold Heart” – Patty Loveless
The predominant instrument on this Hank Williams standard is Loveless’ impeccable voice. I said well-known covers wouldn’t play prominently in these lists, but Loveless sufficiently changes the arrangement and interpretation for it to qualify and when you pair a classic country song with a true country voice, it’s kinda hard not to sing its praises.
3. “Yesterday’s Gone” – Hal Ketchum
Not many songs deal with the aging of a loved one and it’s not clear whether or not that’s due to mainstream songwriters not being talented enough to capture the sentiment or country’s preoccupation with younger generations. Indeed, it may be a tough topic, but it’s something nearly everyone experiences and makes for a worthy song. Ketchum nails the sentiment as the young narrator tries to cope with the frailty of his once strong grandfather.
2. “Lord Help Me Find My Way” – Ralph Stanley II
Stanley’s vocal exudes sincerity as he pleads with the Lord to help him find his way on the closing track of This One Is Two. It’s a deeply personal and touching account of a man trying to follow in his father’s footsteps and measure up to his standards. And it’s almost heart-wrenching to listen to Stanley as he ponders his father’s mortality: “I know there’ll come a time/When we’ll have to say goodbye/But he’s left me a roadmap/That keeps me riding high/So Lord, help me find the way/To bless me with the words that I want to say/Lord, help me find the way/To be the man he wants me to be/Each and every day.”
1. “Sparrow” – Hal Ketchum
The truth is, Hal Ketchum had a number of tracks that were worthy of featuring on this list and it’s a travesty that he’s largely ignored these days, so supporters of good country music need to purchase his album posthaste. Though “Sparrow” is based during the Civil War, it’s implications on any war are readily apparent and it’ll send shivers down your spine as Ketchum sings “Well, we belly-crawled our way through the corn rows/Sherman’s boys were waiting in the willows/They cut us down ’til we were only ten/May I never feel that kind of cold again.” Can you say wow?