I used to have a theory about country music, which I don’t think holds up, but it went something like the following. There are off years and on years: every other year, there’s a raft of great records; every other year, not so much. If such a theory were to hold true, then this year feels very much like an on-year. Mind you, it took till summer’s end for most of the good stuff to kick in.
Terms of Surrender
Let’s start with the most recent release, out today: Terms of Surrender by Hiss Golden Messenger continues MC Taylor’s prolific run of releases (more or less an album a year for 10 years). Preview tracks included “I Need a Teacher” (which I think is objectively great, even though I am a teacher) and his personal “Happy Birthday, Baby” message to his daughter. If you listen to the words, this is intense stuff. As he admits in a Rolling Stone magazine interview, after his father’s heart attack and a bout of depression, he started to think about mortality and what he would want his final recorded words to be. These intense songs about love and personal crises have the distinctive sound of HGM, a unique vibe that is restful to the soul and beguiling to the ear. Nobody else quite sounds like Taylor: he’s almost a genre in himself.
I was there at the start of Sheryl Crow’s solo career, with Tuesday Night Music Club, which had its moment back in 1993. But it was only a moment, for me, and I lost interest in her output after that. Unlike MC Taylor, she does not sound particularly distinctive to my ears, and I couldn’t really pick her voice from a line-up. On Threads, her purported last record (why?), she pairs up with a variety of celebrity friends to perform songs across a number of genres. There’s something for everyone here, and there’s a lot of it, to the extent that you could pick a dozen or so of these songs and make yourself a great album. The pick of the bunch, for me, is “Prove You Wrong”, performed with Stevie Nicks and Maren Morris, a terrific, barnstorming, singalong country-rock track. Then there are numbers with Bonnie Raitt & Mavis Staples; Chris Stapleton; Eric Clapton, Sting, & Brandi Carlile; Jason Isbell; Keith Richards; and so on. It’s not a bad collection, and reminds me a bit of the Don Henley solo record of a few years ago.
Wow. Trisha Yearwood released her last proper album of new music, Heaven, Heartache and the Power of Love in 2007. Two thousand and seven. And after a run of strong records in the 90s and early 00s, her productivity had slowed considerably before then. Her last really strong set was Inside Out in 2001, and then there were just two more before the Long Silence descended.
The silencing of Ms. Yearwood’s extraordinary voice coincided with the horrible descent of country radio into its current state of decay: a format that will play a record by literally anybody with testicles and a baseball cap, even if nobody knows who the fuck they are and only their mum and 70 high school friends bought their record; but will not play music by a woman, even if she’s selling out stadia (Carrie Underwood) or going platinum (Miranda Lambert) or objectively better at music than anybody else. Trisha Yearwood’s vocal technique rivals Sinatra’s.
So is it any wonder that Yearwood, Faith Hill, The Dixie Chicks, et al all stopped releasing records around the same time?
But here she is, back: and it’s a strong set. Fourteen tracks, killer vocals, terrific songs, everything we’ve been missing. The title track, “Every Girl in This Town” is an instant favourite, and there are whiskey songs, lonely songs, and duets with the likes of Kelly Clarkson, Garth Brooks, Patty Loveless and Don Henley. Welcome.
All of which leads to this. Listening to the radio while she was on tour, Amanda Shires idly decided to determine the ratio of male to female voices on country radio stations. She knew it was bad: everybody knows it’s bad. She thought it might be as bad as 10 men to one woman; but as she took notes, she realised it was much, much worse. Nineteen. Nineteen tracks by men, followed by a lone female artist. And then the whole thing cycled around again. She phoned the radio station. “Why don’t y’all play more tracks by women?” Well, they have to be requested. And then voted up. On Facebook.
But how are people going to request/vote for something they’ve never heard?
Country radio is full of excuses as to why they don’t play women. There’s no demand (see above); listeners, particularly women, complain (um, fuck ‘em); they’re not really proper country, it’s more, you know, Americana. Etc. Furthermore, the problem of only one woman at a time being allowed onto the playlist encourages female artists to act as if they’re in competition with each other.
Enter the Highwomen: Amanda Shires, Brandi Carlile, Natalie Hemby, and Maren Morris. It’s hard to underestimate how powerful that lineup is. Brandi Carlile was nominated for 6 awards at the 2019 Grammy’s, and won in three categories. Her last three albums were #1 in the US Folk chart, and the most recent two were also #1 on the US Rock chart. Meanwhile, Maren Morris has a huge hit album on her hands, following her previous hit album, and unlike the others, has even had a #1 single on the Country Airplay chart. For her to align with the others is a powerful show of solidarity. Amanda Shires has won Americana and Grammy awards and rocked the Americana scene with her 2018 album To the Sunset. The fourth member, Natalie Hemby is less known for her own recordings (although I have her record and love it), but has written many songs for other artists, including no less than 5 #1 Billboard singles.
And here they all are, with this terrific, knock-down, take no prisoners, collection of brilliant country music, which is already both #1 on the US Country chart and #10 in the mainstream album chart.
The highlights for me are the title track, a reworking of Jimmy Webb’s original “The Highwayman”; “If She Ever Leaves Me”, a drop dead gorgeous lesbian love song; “My Only Child”, a heartbreaking song about not being able to have more children; and “Loose Change”, a classic I’m-too-good-for-you number. It’s an unapologetic set of songs by women and about women in the great, long tradition of country music — a genre that Ken Burns’ new documentary series will show has always given equal status to female artists.
Needless to say: highly recommended. This needs to happen.