The Year In Review: Top 20 Country Music News Stories Of 2008
Outside of American Idol winner Carrie Underwood and Nashville Star castoff Miranda Lambert, the spate of talent competitions that we’ve endured since the advent of reality TV has produced few artists who could be said to possess a level of talent that aligns them with the top tier of country stars. Idol also-ran Kellie Pickler’s bubbly personality, for example, is far more attractive than her mediocre voice, while counterpart Bucky Covington’s major label signing is simply inconceivable in other circumstances, as he has neither a particularly good singing voice nor particularly good looks. Add to the mix the legions of Nashville Star winners and finalists who have immediately faded into irrelevance, and you’re left with a group of “artists” who have sprung forth from a pop culture phenomenon without having anywhere near the talent or artistic savvy of their more well-traveled peers.
It is more than a little surprising, then, that one of 2008′s most talented new acts was born from such a competition, and it is even more surprising still that it was born from a talent competition that aired on the Viacom (MTV) owned CMT–a network which, in many ways, shares in the responsibility for building a mainstream format where image outweighs musical ability. The fact that a past-their-prime (in the eyes of a youth-hungry industry) husband and wife duo who openly adore each other could rise from that scenario defies all logic, and reminds us that even in our genre’s dark times there is still hope for the future of the music.
In a year that saw an alarming number of pop-to-country crossover acts, it was an artist who has never officially made a crossover attempt who claimed one of the format’s most successful and most pervasive singles. And not for the first time. Following in the genre-hopping footsteps of 2004′s Top 10 hit “Picture,” Kid Rock’s derivative (but catchy) “All Summer Long” successfully bridged the format gap and become the definitive anthem of Summer, 2008.
A cross format hit that dominated radio worldwide, it was the song’s rustic setting, carefree attitude and southern rock ties that endeared it to country audiences. With lyrics that urged us not to worry about tomorrow, it was a fitting and soothing sing-along for a time in which we had many things–a war, an election, a failing economy–to worry about. Kid Rock’s “All Summer Long” may not have been country, but it served as a welcome reprieve from the daily turmoil of American life in this often unsettling year.
It was a bit of surrealism when once-notable rock band The Black Crowes sued once-notable country singer Gretchen Wilson.
It was Wilson’s “Work Hard, Play Harder” (which was used as a promo for the TNT original series Saving Grace) that caused the Crowes’ to get their feathers ruffled. The band alleged that Wilson infringed on its 1990 hit “Jealous Again,” with their manager claiming: “We find the musical verses of Wilson’s song to be such an obvious example of copyright infringement that I expect all parties to reach a relatively quick resolution to avoid litigation.”
Perhaps the most striking thing about Crowes v. Wilson, however, was the fact that it was Wilson’s most identifiable moment from 2008. Once considered a leading lady of country music’s next generation, Wilson continued an artistic decline that began with 2006′s “Politically Uncorrect”; Wilson, who burst onto the scene with a string of five consecutive Top 10 hits, hasn’t broken the Top 20 with any of her eight most recent singles.
Leading Alt-Country/Americana magazine No Depression crumbled under the pressure of a shifting retail music landscape, generally declining print readership and a poor economy that lead to declining advertising revenue. The magazine, which became a bible of sorts for fans of a form of less commercialized country music, published for 13 years and it’s demise and re-emergence in online form reminded us that no part of the music industry or the media is immune to the ongoing evolution of information consumption.
Nashville Star‘s first winner, who scored two major hits in 2003 with “Help Pour Out The Rain” and “Sweet Southern Comfort,” tried to resurrect his dying career with the polarizing “This Ain’t Mexico,” a song that decried illegal Mexican immigrants. While the song served as a brief rallying cry for those who agreed with its central message (brief because it gained zero traction at radio), its lyrics were widely criticized for being offhandedly offensive.
Although Jewell refers to our current border situation as “an invasion,” It was not so much his expression of his opinion that rubbed some people the wrong way. Rather, it was the fact that the lyrics of “This Ain’t Mexico” were dismissive in a way that seemed to embrace certain topical aspects of Mexican culture while belittling the people from whom that culture comes from. Jewell declares his love for “Margaritas and them sizzlin’ fajitas,” in a way that seems to imply these things are at the core of his understanding of Mexican culture.
Few people could have predicted that Mercury, home to mainstream acts including Sugarland, Billy Currington and Julliane Hough, would have picked up Jamey Johnson’s previously independent release That Lonesome Song, an album which opens with a song that references weed, cocaine and whores. More unpredictable still is that fact that from that album would come a genuine mainstream country radio hit. Johnson’s “In Color” somehow managed to claw its way up the charts and into the Top 10, an acoustic beacon of traditional country music in the midst of so much pop confection. Johnson’s success was one of the year’s most heartening stories, as it proved that real country music remains not only artistically significant, but commercially viable.
Entirely unexpected was the news that Shania Twain and her husband of 15 years Mutt Lange were ending their relationship. Lange, who has produced some of rock’s biggest albums, worked extensively with Twain throughout her career and was largely responsible for helping the Canadian singer mold her sound into one that would make her one of the best selling country artists of all time.
The couple, who lived in semi-seclusion in Europe, had kept mostly out of the public eye since 2002′s Up!, Twain’s most recent studio album (which has sold more than 11,000,000 copies to date).
Twain was met with a standing ovation when she appeared at November’s CMA Awards to present Entertainer Of The Year.
December found Dixie Chicks lead singer Natalie Maines in a potentially sticky situation after being sued for defamation over comments she made at an Arkansas “West Memphis Three” rally in 2007. Maines was speaking on behalf of three individuals who were controversially convicted of murder in 1993. Terry Hobbs, who is a stepfather to of one of three eight-year-old boys killed in the incident, claimed that Maines “recklessly published or caused to be published malicious, libelous, slanderous, and false statements.”
Hobbs was referring to a 2007 letter posted on the band’s website in which Maines cites DNA evidence that allegedly links Hobbs to the victims.
With the news that Nashville Star was moving from USA to NBC, there was an air of hope that a major network could usher in a new era of heightened competition and respectability to a show that had largely remained inconsequential throughout its first five seasons. Exactly the opposite happened. Hosted by Billy Ray Cyrus, and boasting a judging panel that consisted of a non-country singer (Jewel), a highly successful but largely unknown country songwriter (Jeffrey Steele), and an egomaniac (John Rich), Nashville Star was more formulaic, with more artificial drama and commercial pandering, than ever before. What’s worse was that this so-called “country” competition featured very little country music of any kind, as the contestants were routinely led through a series of bizarre musical themes.
It was, in a way, American Idol without the occasional brilliant Idol performance–not a single moment stands out as memorable or in any way remarkable. In that sense, it was a show that celebrated mediocrity to an almost unprecedented degree.
Every year we are faced with the loss of those who helped shape country music, but that fact never makes the losses any easier or less painful. 2008 saw the passing of a number of truly great individuals, all of whom will be missed.
Ken Nelson, 96 (January 6): Nelson, who was inducted in the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2001, is recognized as one of the leading figures in the growth of country music. Nelson produced hits for artists including Merle Haggard, Buck Owens and Hank Thompson.
Bobby Lord, 74 (February 16): Lord hosted The Bobby Lord Homefolks Show and reached the Top 10 in 1956 with the single “Without Your Love.” Lord will also be remembered for his book Hit The Glory Road, of which The 9513′s Paul W. Dennis writes: “[It] remains as fascinating to read today as it was when first published. The book includes interviews with such notables as Roy Acuff, Bill Anderson, Boudleaux & Felice Bryant, Skeeter Davis, Jake Hess and Tex Ritter, discussing their concepts of religion, morality and country music, as well as relaying a number of truly funny stories.”
Eddy Arnold, 89 (May 8): Eddy Arnold sold more than 85,000,000 records, pioneered the “Nashville Sound,” was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1966, and won the CMA’s first ever Entertainer of the Year award in 1967. Eddy Arnold will be remembered as one of country music’s biggest and most beloved stars. Legendary is the only fitting word.
Don Helms, 81 (August 11): A member of Hank Williams Sr.’s band the Driftin’ Cowboys, Helms’ influential steel guitar work appears on over 100 of Hank’s recordings and is an indispensable part of a number of the artist’s hit. Helms also played on Patsy Cline’s “Walkin’ After Midnight” and Lefty Frizzell’s “Long Black Veil,” among many others.
Buddy Harman, 79 (August 21): Buddy Harman was a renowned session drummer and the first house drummer on The Grand Ole Opry. He is credited as having appeared on over 18,000 recordings.
Jerry Reed, 71 (August 31): Jerry Reed was a singer, actor, and immensely talented guitar player. Known for his defining hits “Amos Moses,” “When You’re Hot, You’re Hot,” and “East Bound and Down,” Reed also appeared in 12 feature films and received a Grammy for Best Male Country Vocal Performance in 1972. Reed is widely considered one of country music’s all-time great guitarists.
Charlie Walker, 81 (September 12): Walker was an Opry member (1967) who was best known for his hit “Pick Me Up On Your Way Down.” Walker also worked as a DJ and was inducted into the Country Radio Hall of Fame (1981). He also appeared in Sweet Dreams, the 1985 film about Patsy Cline.
Danny Dill, 84 (October 23): Danny Dill was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1975. He wrote “Detroit City,” as well as the classic Lefty Frizzell hit “Long Black Veil.”
Although 2008 found us mourning a number of losses, it also found us celebrating the life and vitality of one of our most beloved icons. Willie Nelson, who turned 75 in April, released an adventurous (if not entirely successful) new album with producer Kenny Chesney (Moment of Forever), collaborated with trumpeter Wynton Marsalis on a full-length album titled Two Men With The Blues, stared with Toby Keith in a movie (Beer For My Horses), co-wrote a Western novel (A Tale Out Of Luck), had a biography (An Epic Life) and a Box Set (One Hell of a Ride) released, and played dozens of shows all around the country.
We should all hope to be that badass at 75. God bless Willie Nelson.
Taylor Swift’s self-titled debut album wasn’t an instant classic–it took weeks for that album to claw its way up to the #1 spot on Billboard’s Country Albums chart. But once Swift made it to the summit, she stayed there. Taylor Swift continued to dominate the charts in 2008, and when July’s Wal-Mart exclusive Beautiful Eyes EP sold 45,000 copies in its first week, landing at #2 behind Taylor Swift, the teen sensation became the first country artist to hold the top two slots since another teen sensation, LeAnn Rimes, did it in 1997.
Swift continued to flex her sales muscles with her sophomore release Fearless, which sold nearly 600,000 copies in its first weak to debut as the number one album in the country (in all genres). Currently, Fearless sits at #1 while Taylor Swift sits at #4, although the two have a strong possibility of claiming the top two spots when #2 (Faith Hill – Joy To The World) and #3 (Elvis – Christmas Duets) lose their holiday sales boost.
Trace Adkins proved that he is as formidable a force in the board room as he is in the recording studio when he outlasted all but one of his opponents on NBC’s The Celebrity Apprentice. Adkins, who was competing to raise money and awareness for the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network, lost the competition to British media personality Piers Morgan.
Adkins skillfully maneuvered through the show’s tasks as the episodes went on and the pool of contestants was whittled down, but his ultimate undoing came at the hands of Morgan’s ability to bring out big spenders to a end-of-series charity auction. Morgan raised $376,000 to Adkins’ $64,000.
Before announcing Morgan as the winner, Apprentice host Donald Trump had this to say about Adkins: “Trace, you have an amazing family, beautiful children. You’re a special guy–you’re a special human being. A beautiful guy. I’ll always love you.”
The 9513′s Matt C. correctly predicted that Underwood would be the next (at that point) named to the Opry roster, and later described the selection as a “perfect choice.” Underwood was surprised with the announcement by Randy Travis as she sang a cover of his classic “I Told You So,” and was later inducted by fellow Oklahoman Garth Brooks.
Also inducted in 2008 were Charlie Daniels and Craig Morgan. Morgan later expressed surprise at not being asked to join earlier, saying: “But when she [Underwood] was asked to be a member, it was like, ‘Wow, you know, I’ve kind of been at this a while.’”
Kid Rock may have earned the right to perform on the CMA Awards by producing one of the biggest songs of the year, but that does nothing to explain the association’s inclusion of The Eagles, The Wailers, Lil’ Wayne, or Kellie Pickler, who sang a super-slick power pop song while prancing around in a rubber go-go dress. Add in Sugarland’s abstract and utterly perplexing umbrella choreography, and a Taylor Swift performance that reminded of a poorly executed high school musical, and the result was an evening that was many things but country.
What started out as the possibility of a new beginning for trouble country singer Mindy McCready quickly deteriorated in a series of disappointing setbacks. McCready, who has been hospitalized for substance abuse and who had twice (prior to 2008) attempted suicide, was released from jail in January after serving an abbreviated sentence for probation violation (stemming from a drug arrest). At the time, McCready said that she was “The happiest girl in the world.”
McCready was able to keep a low profile for much of the early part of the year, and even began talking about piecing her debilitated career back together. But April’s headline-grabbing news report that she had, since the age of 15, been engaging in an affair with baseball pitcher (and alleged steroid user) Roger Clemens brought her a wealth of unhealthy attention. Two days after the story broke, McCready all but confirmed the relationship, stating simply, “I cannot refute anything in the story.”
Then, in June, McCready was again arrested on probation violation, this time for allegedly falsifying documents pertaining to her community service requirements. In September, McCready voluntarily surrendered to the police, and was set to serve a 60-day sentence stemming from the June arrest.
McCready served only 30 days of her sentence and was released on Halloween. Then, on December 18th, the singer was taken to a Nashville hospital for “treatment and a psychological evaluation,” after apparently severing a tendon in what would be her third on-record suicide attempt to date.
Not long after the release of Sugarland’s highly anticipated third album Love On The Inside, the duo was swept up in the news that they were being sued by former bandmate and founder Kristen Hall to the tune of $1.5 Million. Hall claims that Sugarland was a three-way partnership from its inception, and that she had an agreement with Jennifer Nettles and Kristian Bush to share all future profits from the band (not just royalties for which she was legally due).
The lawsuit raised further questions about Hall’s departure from the band, and shed light on a number of inconsistencies surrounding the situation. There had previously been rumors that Hall, an openly gay woman, was forced out of the group, though those rumors have consistently been denied by essentially all parties (though Hall has never directly responded).
In the light of Sugarland’s upbeat image, this lawsuit served as a harsh reminder about the big money behind big-name country music.
Here are a few of my top John Rich moments from 2008
- March 11: John Rich unleashes Gone Country Season 1 winner Julio Iglesias Jr.’s John Rich-produced country single “The Way I Want You.”
- March 24: John Rich announces that John Rich will host the Get Rich talent search.
- May 5: John Rich is infuriated by American Idol because it’s not as good as Nashville Star.
- May 6: John Rich begins another season as host of Gone Country, the CMT “reality” show where people you don’t care about sing songs you never want to hear.
- June 16: John Rich has a moment of clarity in which he (correctly) tells “Underwear Boy” Justin Gaston that he doesn’t belong on a country talent competition. John Rich fails to see any irony in this statement.
- July 26: John Rich is reportedly asked to leave a number of Nashville honky-tonks after trying (repeatedly) to bring in an underage woman.
- October 17: John Rich is involved in a brawl with former Danzig bassist Jerry Montano. Sources for TMZ claim that Rich got into an argument with “two tattooed, large gentlemen,” when things escalated and he swung a beer bottle at Montano, hitting him in the face, supposedly breaking his nose. Following the clash, Montano repeatedly mumbled, “the little guy hit me.”
- November 13: John Rich gets sued by Jerry Montano for smashing Jerry Montano’s nose on October 17. The suit alleges that Rich intentionally hit Montano after realizing that one of his female friends “was only interested in talking to him and nothing else.”
- November 17: John Rich releases solo single, thinks it’s really good.
- December 11: John Rich sets fire to guitar on stage in Vegas using a bottle of rum and matches.
John Rich may have penned the John McCain theme song “Raising McCain,” but it was Rich’s comments about another John that caused a firestorm. “I’m sure Johnny Cash would have been a John McCain supporter if he was still around,” Rich told an audience at a Florida concert in August.
Rosanne Cash, the late icon’s daughter, fired back:
“It is appalling to me that people still want to invoke my father’s name, five years after his death, to ascribe beliefs, ideals, values and loyalties to him that cannot possibly be determined and to try to further their own agendas by doing so. Even I would not presume to say publicly what I ‘know’ he thought or felt. This is especially dangerous in the case of political affiliation. It is unfair and presumptuous to use him to bolster any platform.”
No story in 2008 is more telling than the pop exodus that lead so many former superstars to Nashville’s promised land. Darius Rucker, Jewel, and Jessica Simpson have each sold millions of albums, and each turned to country music as their careers continued to trend into irrelevance. Of the three, Rucker’s conversion was the most interesting and most successful, although his album Learn To Live had its country sensibilities tempered by a label who was looking for something more pop-sounding that the shuffles and two-steps Rucker originally brought to the table.
While Rucker claimed that he had always wanted to make country music, having grown up listening to it and having been especially drawn to Buck Owens, Jewel insisted (somewhat awkwardly) that she had always been making a form of country music, but that it had simply never been marketed correctly. Perfectly Clear featured a small number of truly outstanding country pieces which showcased the incredible quality of the singer’s voice, but most of the John Rich-produced collection was as bland and uninteresting as the later part of her pop catalog.
Jessica Simpson, on the other hand, didn’t even try to claim that there was artistic merit behind her stylistic switch. Her qualifications seemed to be that she listened to some country music while she was growing up in Texas, and more than once she name-dropped Patsy Cline, as if that name were some sort of ticket to credibility within our community of country bumpkins.
- Jack Hanford: For those who are interested, there is a new 90-minute documentary video about Tompall & the Glaser Brothers on DVD …
- joe morris: how come nobody mentions his fan club which started 1950 and was called the " the penny pushers " which …
- jane: I'm reading this article in 2013 and I've yet to hear anything from the album played on the radio.....
- Catwandy: I guess Matt C. is eating his well-deserved crow 'bout now. Critics....gotta love 'em , bless their little hearts.
- Ed McClendon: Saw the brothers in Greeley CO on the occasion of Tompall's 50th birthday. The show wasn't well promoted and there …
- Roby Fox: I'm sure no one else will know, or even care about this little tidbit of trivia. "Keep Your Change" was …
- kate wonders: Roni Stoneman is still on Hee Haw every Sunday night on RFD channel.
- Marsha Blades: Tommy, You were so kind to me during a tough time in my life and I don't think I ever …
- Leona Jones: I seen Chris at the Grand Ole Opry last week.. First time I have heard of him.. He rocked the …
- Sonicjar Music: Agree with Lucas, But one thing is certain, for a song to come to existence, so many things have to …