On her first record, the throaty Kathleen Edwards sounded like Lucinda Williams with far fewer miles on the odometer, mining similar veins of hard living and love gone wrong for her lyrics. But Edwards doesn’t sound like an acolyte. She’s got moxie, but a refreshingly fragile honesty in her writing tones down the bravado. On “Hockey Skates,” when Edwards asks “if the ‘boys’ club’ will “crumble just because of a loud-mouthed girl,” the swagger and self-effacement form a neat balance. She’s aware of the cost, but not afraid to confront it. That symmetry pervades Failer. Edwards slips comfortably between song styles—from straight-ahead rockers (“One More Song the Radio Won’t Like,” “12 Bellevue”) to country and folk-tinged tunes (“Mercury,” “National Steel”)—without suggesting that she’s trying on any of them. Right from the beginning, she sounded like she’d been at it for decades. The arrangements help. The 10 songs include a nice range of instrumentation (organs, alto/baritone/soprano saxophones, vibes, banjo and pedal steel) all expertly done. But ultimately Edwards’ voice and lyrics stand out.—John Schact
Country pop or soft pop, with roots in the countrypolitan sound, folk music, and soft rock, is a subgenre that first emerged in the 1970s. Although the term first referred to country music songs and artists that crossed over to top 40 radio, country pop acts are now more likely to cross over to adult contemporary music. It started with pop music singers like Glen Campbell, Bobbie Gentry, John Denver, Olivia Newton-John, Anne Murray, B. J. Thomas, The Bellamy Brothers, and Linda Ronstadt having hits on the country charts. Between 1972 and 1975, singer/guitarist John Denver released a series of hugely successful songs blending country and folk-rock musical styles ("Rocky Mountain High", "Sunshine on My Shoulders", "Annie's Song", "Thank God I'm a Country Boy", and "I'm Sorry"), and was named Country Music Entertainer of the Year in 1975. The year before, Olivia Newton-John, an Australian pop singer, won the "Best Female Country Vocal Performance" as well as the Country Music Association's most coveted award for females, "Female Vocalist of the Year". In response George Jones, Tammy Wynette, Jean Shepard and other traditional Nashville country artists dissatisfied with the new trend formed the short-lived "Association of Country Entertainers" in 1974; the ACE soon unraveled in the wake of Jones and Wynette's bitter divorce and Shepard's realization that most others in the industry lacked her passion for the movement.
This evolutionary link seemed so essential to groups like the Byrds and Buffalo Springfield that (perhaps influenced by Bob Dylan’s similarly inclined 1967 album, John Wesley Harding) they sought to import country’s vocabulary and instrumentation into their countercultural pursuit of psychological and formal adventure. Under the sway of Gram Parsons, the Byrds created country rock’s pivotal album, Sweetheart of the Rodeo (1968), the country-purist goals of which seemed somewhat avant-garde in a rock world that had come to disdain all things conceivably old-fashioned. To hear the Byrds perform the Louvin Brothers’ country standard “The Christian Life” was to enter a distanced, hyperaestheticized realm where 1960s counterculture assumptions about the preeminence of loud volume and the obsolescence of tradition were called into question. Because the movement’s very instrumentation—pedal steel guitars, fiddles, mandolins, Dobro guitars, unobtrusive percussion—promoted milder, generally acoustic sonic auras, country rock’s overall effect seemed drastically different.
Brooks shattered the blueprint for what a country singer should sound like -– on stage and off. His music was a fusion of George Jones and James Taylor, and his concerts are like nothing a country fan has seen before or since. Brooks also changed the way that the format was thought about from a sales standpoint -– selling well over 100 million copies of his music, making a Brooks release date seem something akin to a national holiday for retailers across the globe.
There’s a long tradition of African-Americans playing old-time music, from blues legends Blind Blake, the Reverend Gary Davis and Josh White to artists such as the Mississippi Mud Steppers and Howard “Louie Bluie” Armstrong, whose early ragtime outfit, the Tennessee Chocolate Drops, has provided a lasting influence—and this modern-day act with its name. The Carolina Chocolate Dropsformed in 2005 at the Black Banjo Gathering in Boone, N.C., and since then the young trio has been determined to prove that “black folk were a huge part of the stringband tradition.” What they’ve also done is dust off a musical form seen today as either a novelty or the exclusive provenance of ethnomusicologists. To paraphrase Rakim’s immortal words, these Drops ain’t no joke: Their enthusiasm for the tradition is obvious even as the trio spans from traditional arrangements (the rollicking fiddle rave-ups “Trouble in Your Mind” and “Cindy Gal”) to self-penned works (the particularly terrific “Kissin’ and Cussin’”) and stringband makeovers of modern-day works (a hip-hop influenced cover of Blu Cantrell’s “Hit ’em Up Style (Oops!)” and Tom Waits’ “Trampled Rose”). Several generations removed from the origins of their chosen idiom, the Carolina Chocolate Drops are nonetheless the genuine article.—Corey DuBrowa
Breaking through in the traditional era of the 1960s, Lynn was anything but conventional. She wrote and performed songs that were very much different from the other women of the time. Hits like “Don’t Come Home A’Drinkin” and “The Pill” spoke to a generation that was going through the same exact thing. Her success with a more feisty approach led to her becoming the first female winner of the CMA’s Entertainer of the Year award -– as well as the cover of Newsweek -- and her influence can still be heard today from such artists as Miranda Lambert and Kacey Musgraves.
Sometimes it takes an ‘American Woman’ to break into the US charts, and that’s what Canadian powerhouse rock group, The Guess Who did in 1970, being the first Canadian group to have a US chart topper since 1954. Powered by the soulful vocals of Burton Cummings and Randy Bachman’s driving guitar and sardonic songwriter, the Winnipeg-based band found international success throughout the 60s and 70s, until disbanding when Bachman left the group and went on to form the hugely successful, Bachman-Turner Overdrive, with their hit single ‘You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet’.
The Kentucky band’s sprawling major-label debut did nothing to alter the independent spirit of singer-songwriter Jim James and his cohorts. The country-rock base retained elements of Memphis soul, classic ’70s rock and neo-psychedelic sounds, all drenched in salubrious washes of reverb. Besides, nothing says complete artistic freedom like 12 songs that average six minutes in length, many of which were recorded in a grain silo to give the reverb more reverb. Styles mix wantonly, songs meander but never go quite where you expect them to. What begins as an acoustic-driven folk song (“Magheeta”) morphs into a hard-rocking power ballad; a funkified homage to R&B clubs (“Dance Floors”) becomes an Exile on Main Street-era block party, powered by a propulsive horn section straight out of “Tumbling Dice”; and the minor-key melancholia of Neil Young’s Crazy Horse epics (think “Cortez the Killer”) forms the backbone of “Run Through” until it mutates at the chorus into the early ’80s Manchester sound reminiscent of New Order. Is it alt-country? That’s as good a descriptor as anything else.—John Schact https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r66QCpscnTA