The First Annual No Depression Critics’ Poll
Bringing It All Back Home
The year’s two best albums — i.e., the two that resonate most universally — are the two most rooted in the specifics of the artists’ home turf.
The Drive-By Truckers’ Decoration Day is a series of snapshots from northern Alabama — stories about a farmer turned down by the bank, about a house painter warning his son against the same fate, about a son laying a stone on his daddy’s grave, about a former hell-raiser growing tired of the pills. The Bottle Rockets’ Blue Sky does something similar for blue-collar Missouri by giving voice to the guy who’s glad he broke his leg so he can take a break from hanging sheet rock, to the guy kept behind the security line at the St. Louis airport, to the guy driving past a hand-built white cross on the highway shoulder, to the guy who still mows his dead parents’ front lawn.
For most of us, these details aren’t our details, but they echo nonetheless. That’s because our lives aren’t lived in the vague generalities of most pop songs, but in eccentric specifics. We’re more likely to identify with music grounded in the world’s particulars, even if they’re not our particulars.
It helps that both the Truckers and the Rockets intersperse their serious songs with funny, irreverent rockers, and fuel everything with chest-pounding rhythms and ear-grabbing tunes.
This is country-rock that owes a lot more to Ronnie Van Zant than to Gram Parsons. These are songs about the working-class communities between the glamour coasts, the kinds of neighborhoods country music once spoke for so eloquently, before abandoning them to chase the suburban dollar. In that sense, these badly groomed, badly dressed rock ‘n’ rollers made the best country music of 2003.
Into the Music Row
2003 was the year Music Row beat alt-country/Americana at its own game.
Patty Loveless made a mountain-pop stunner as good as anything in Alison Krauss’ catalogue — indeed, better. Universal South put out a Louvin Brothers tribute good enough to make fans of Gram and Emmylou cream. George Strait made an archetypal Texas dancehall record, while Hank Jr. and Toby Keith released wry, empathetic, kickass-sounding albums worthy of the Bottle Rockets. OK, nearly worthy in Keith’s case, but apart from a couple-three of his patented blunders, damn close.
And this is to say nothing of strong showings by everyone from Vince Gill and Garry Allan to newcomers on the Row such as Dierks Bentley, Jeff Bates and Josh Turner.
Best of all, though, was Brooks & Dunn’s Red Dirt Road, Music Row’s answer to the Drive-By Truckers’ Decoration Day, except this time both Dunn and Brooks sing with enough country soul to make Buddy Miller proud. (Latecomers to the party like me will understand why Brooks & Dunn jumped all over Miller’s “My Love Will Follow You” back in the day.)
Alt-country acts accounted for a number of terrific records this year as well, notably Decoration Day, the Bottle Rockets’ Blue Sky, the Jayhawks’ Rainy Day Music and Caitlin Cary’s I’m Staying Out (a marvel of neo-southern pop) — but none were better than Brooks & Dunn’s. The disc has all the rootsy “authenticity” that card-carrying alt-countryites crave — punch, heart, and existential and sonic reach, including allusions to retro touchstones such as Skynyrd, Springsteen, the Stones, Stax-Volt and the Shelter People.
Had standard-bearers Uncle Tupelo made an album as meaty and beaty as Red Dirt Road — and as filled with transcendence and grace, much of it earned and little of it cheap — alt-country indeed might have become the next big thing.
Someone Else’s Songs
Since 1988’s Folkways: A Vision Shared, which paid tribute to Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly, it seems each week’s new-release list has included at least one tribute album. Most of these efforts are wildly inconsistent and not nearly so inspirational as the work that inspired them. But this only means tributes suffer from the same weaknesses as most albums.
2003 was no different. Many of this year’s encomiums came so burdened by leaden performances and stupid artistic choices that they seemed more insult than tribute. For instance, on an album dedicated this year to Hank Williams Jr., both George Jones and John Anderson were reduced to providing backing vocals for Chad Brock, a strategy akin to hiding your light under a bushel, encasing it in concrete, and heaving it into the sea.
But the pleasant surprise lately has been the high number of memorable tributes. Indeed, 2003’s finest various-artist tribute albums — those to the Louvin Brothers, Dolly Parton and Bill Monroe — were as consistent and powerful as nearly any records released all year. Tributes to Waylon Jennings, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Van Morrison, John Hiatt and Johnny Cash featured far more hits than misses, too; ditto for the gospel community’s praising of Bob Dylan, as well as the soundtrack to Masked And Anonymous, a de facto tribute that Dylan arranged for himself.
Combine those discs with 2002’s batch of very-good-to-great tributes — to Webb Pierce, Motown’s Funk Brothers, John Hartford, and (twice more) Johnny Cash; plus Pam Tillis’ nod to her father Mel and the Bottle Rockets’ salute to Doug Sahm — and we have all the evidence needed to proclaim this the Golden Age of the Tribute Album.
It’d be nice to discover some new artists as tribute worthy as Woody or Dolly, Dylan or Cash. Until then, paying tribute well will have to do.