When Merle Haggard received one of the Kennedy Center Honors on Dec. 5, the 73-year-old singer sat in a balcony box next to fellow honorees Paul McCartney and Oprah Winfrey. Looking a bit uncomfortable in his tux and ribbon-strung medal, the Hag was obviously pleased, if bewildered that the songs he'd started singing in beer-and-a-shot bars along the Kern River were now being celebrated in this red-velvet-and-chandelier hall on the Potomac.
On the stage below, his old buddies in the Outlaw Country movement, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson, were reviving Haggard's old songs with gusto. But the songwriter had to wonder who might carry on that artist-as-hillbilly-outsider tradition. It wouldn't be the two interlopers from the rock world, Sheryl Crow and Kid Rock, who soon took the stage. It wouldn't be the next duo, Vince Gill and Brad Paisley, who may each be a miraculous fusion of George Jones and Chet Atkins, but are in no way outlaws. Who would it be? The answer finally materialized in the form of a chubby figure in a black leather coat, flowing hair and a forked beard that made him look like a Civil War officer.
That was Jamey Johnson. When he sang his verse in "Ramblin' Fever" in a half-spoken, half-chuckling drawl, it was clear he had the same road-tested authority and impish irreverence as Haggard. Johnson had recently released The Guitar Song, a double album of songs that portrayed working-class men at the breaking point — from either unpaid bills or unrequited love — with the same vivid detail and succinct storytelling as Hag's best. Here was the next link in the chain, and the 77 voters in the Scene's 11th annual Country Music Critics' Poll acknowledged it by voting The Guitar Song as the year's best album, "Playing the Part" as the sixth-best single, and Johnson himself as best male vocalist, best songwriter and artist of the year.
It was a victory as deserved as it was dominating — The Guitar Song garnered nearly twice as many votes as the runner-up, Dierks Bentley's Up on the Ridge. There were other notable winners in this year's poll — Miranda Lambert, Elizabeth Cook, Taylor Swift, Little Big Town, Hank Williams, Zac Brown and Easton Corbin — but Johnson's triumph eclipsed them all. He had scored a similar coup in the 2008 poll, but many wondered how he would follow it up. Would he trim his obvious ambitions and make a safe record to gain more radio play and chart success? Would he get carried away by ambition and make an artsy-fartsy monstrosity? Would he flame out as the once-promising Big & Rich had? Would he start acting out as Kanye West, another gifted critics' favorite, had?
Johnson avoided all these traps on his third album. He started right off by poking fun at himself as a spoiled celebrity on "Lonely at the Top," an unrecorded Keith Whitley song, and again on the original "Playing the Part." In an era when country hunks are as likely as rappers to be macho braggarts, Johnson was willing to 'fess up about his women problems on songs such as "Cover Your Eyes," "Dog in the Yard" and "Thankful for the Rain." In an era when Music Row pays lip service to country's past by banishing it to museum cases, Johnson kept old-timers in the air by salting his album with tunes by Kristofferson, Mel Tillis, Hank Cochran and Vern Gosdin, and by co-writing new songs with Bobby Bare Sr., Bill Anderson and Buddy Cannon.
Such humility is welcome in today's pop climate, but it didn't curtail Johnson's immense ambitions for this sprawling project, nor his willingness to ruffle feathers. By weaving the old numbers in with new songs just as good, Johnson emphasized the continuity in country music that made his appearance at the Kennedy Center Honors so appropriate. On songs such as "Poor Man's Blues" and "Can't Cash My Checks," Johnson was willing to instigate what Republicans like to call "class warfare" by rudely pointing out America's increasing inequality of wealth, and by making clear where his sympathies lie.
But the album's greatest achievements were the relationship songs. These are not the pop-rock dating songs that dominate country radio these days, but rather songs about marriage, the genre's truest subject. When Johnson sings "That's How I Don't Love You" or "My Way to You," he doesn't hold out the false promise that good intentions are enough. Marriage is an ongoing, challenging negotiation, and you can hear that struggle not only in Johnson's lyrics but also in the gravelly voice and shit-kicking band that seem to wrestle with ideals and temptations four times a measure.
Like Nelson, Johnson would never be mistaken as an advertising model, and as such he's an anomaly in modern country. Miranda Lambert, who was also at the Kennedy Center for Haggard's big night, could easily work as a model, but like her most obvious inspiration, Dolly Parton, Lambert uses her looks as both camouflage and bait for some of the smartest, most subversive songwriting in Nashville. She admits as much on her song "Only Prettier," a comic gem about disguising nefarious intentions with a sweet smile. Even better is "The House That Built Me," which evokes the past as a source of strength but also as a place where you can no longer live and can only visit with difficulty. Lambert didn't release an album in 2010, but the two singles above finished No. 10 and No. 1 respectively in the poll. She was also voted the year's top female vocalist and came in second only to Johnson in artist of the year voting.
Johnson and Lambert joined forces with Dierks Bentley to share the three-way lead vocal on "Bad Angel" from Bentley's Up on the Ridge, the poll's No. 2 album. Backed by some of Nashville's best bluegrass pickers, the trio employed the lyrics' religious imagery not to dismiss sin but to warily respect its dangerous allure. Bentley (No. 2 male vocalist, No. 4 live act, No. 9 songwriter, No. 4 artist) isn't the first country star to make a string-band record — Parton and Patty Loveless have both had success in this poll with similar projects — but Bentley is the first since Emmylou Harris to abandon Music Row's standard operating procedure for an acoustic album while still enjoying hit singles.
Bentley was as convincing as Harris, Parton and Loveless because he too came by bluegrass honestly. When he first arrived in Nashville from Phoenix in 1995, he hung around The Station Inn with Del McCoury's sons as much as he could. You could hear that brush with Appalachia in the humor and liveliness of Bentley's early albums, but the echo dwindled as he played it safer and safer on his later records. So it was a welcome surprise that he was willing to gamble his new-won stardom on such a left-field venture. He won that gamble — with the critics at least. The title track got only as high as No. 21 on the Billboard singles chart. Maybe Bentley isn't just along for the ride. Maybe he, too, will have a say in where country is going.
The most surprising string band in this year's poll, however, was The Carolina Chocolate Drops. This drummer-less African-American banjo-and-fiddle trio is about as far from the Music Row mainstream as an act can get, and yet the poll voters named Genuine Negro Jig the No. 7 album, and the trio the No. 5 duo or group, and the No. 8 artist of the year. The Chocolate Drops' Rhiannon Giddens even tied Laura Bell Bundy for No. 10 female vocalist of the year. The critics were no doubt tantalized by the trio's back story — three young kids on a mission to remind everyone that blacks as well as whites created Appalachian string-band music — but no country act rocked harder or shouted more contagiously in 2010 than this one.
Another quasi-string band, The Dixie Chicks (No. 3 reissue), dominated this poll in 2003 and 2006 as much as Johnson has in 2008 and 2010, but have gone missing-in-action since. If you want to blame Natalie Maines for something, though, it shouldn't be for the long wait since The Dixie Chicks' last studio album, for her George Bush comments or for deciding to stay home while her two bandmates, sisters Emily Robison and Martie Maguire, pursued the disappointing Court Yard Hounds project (No. 45 album, No. 57 single). You should blame her for bringing Fleetwood Mac mania to Nashville.
When her vocal sent The Dixie Chicks' remake of "Landslide" to No. 2 on the country charts in 2002, it gave labels the idea that they should start signing groups with punchy rhythms and breezy pop-rock harmonies — preferably with both female and male lead singers like Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham. This fit in with the trend of grooming '00s country acts to sound like '70s pop acts like The Eagles, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Jimmy Buffett and James Taylor, but it still seemed strange. The 1975-82 Fleetwood Mac was a much better band than The Eagles, but had much less of a country connection.
Nonetheless, Mac wannabes such as Lady Antebellum (No. 17 album, No. 16 single, No. 2 group, No. 6 artist) and Sugarland (no new album, No. 9 single, No. 7 live act, No. 4 group) soon emerged. The best of the neo-Mac acts in 2010, according to the poll voters, was Little Big Town (No. 10 album, No. 2 single, No. 3 group). The pell-mell rush of the single "Little White Church" proved irresistible because it didn't slavishly imitate the template but imagined what Buckingham and Nicks might have sounded like if backed by Ricky Skaggs' Kentucky Thunder. Meanwhile, the Zac Brown Band (No. 12 album, No. 5 single, No. 1 live act, No. 1 group, No. 6 artist) shifted from the Skynyrd-flavored sound of its 2008 breakthrough album, The Foundation, to the Buffett-flavored sound of its 2010 follow-up, You Get What You Give.
You would have expected Taylor Swift, the biggest commercial force in the genre today, to be celebrated by mainstream-country voters and shunned by alt-country voters. But in fact, the opposite happened. Only five voters named both the Swift and Lady Antebellum albums on their ballots; only four named Swift and Zac Brown. By contrast, 12 voters named Swift and the indie-label singer Elizabeth Cook on the same ballot; six named Swift and the Carolina Chocolate Drops. The data suggests that the mainstream camp — as much as it appreciates the bump that Swift gives country's aggregate sales figures — sees her as a threat to business as usual. Conversely, the alternative precincts seem to recognize Swift (No. 4 album, No. 7 single, No. 3 female vocalist, No. 9 live act, No. 2 songwriter, No. 3 artist) as an innovator exploring new territory in much the same way as Johnson, Cook, the Chocolate Drops and Justin Townes Earle (No. 6 album).
If this seems counterintuitive, it's because so many people assume that subject matter constrains art. But Swift is as radical in her treatment of her chosen territory (suburban adolescence) as Johnson is in treating his (blue-collar adulthood). Adolescence is often simplified to the twin poles of ecstatic freedom and despairing victimization with nothing in between (cf. Miley Cyrus, Justin Bieber, et al.), but Swift explores that in-between area where teenagers spend most of their time, where anger, guilt and inconvenient desire complicate matters. Adulthood is often similarly simplified (cf. Easton Corbin, Jerrod Niemann, et al.), but Johnson also wades into a no-man's land of mixed feelings and mixed messages.
It's too early to know whether Swift will ever make a country-sounding record as she matures into adult material. If she does, she already has the songwriting craft of visual detail and condensed dialogue to make it work. In that at least, she has more in common with Johnson and Haggard than most of the acts on country radio.
Haggard himself scored the poll's No. 9 album with I Am What I Am, a collection of memories set to stripped-down arrangements. His old duet partner, Willie Nelson, had the No. 8 album, Country Music, a collection of country classics produced by T Bone Burnett. Neither man has the vocal tone he had even a dozen years ago, but each has compensated by honing their phrasing to an ever more exact minimalism. Johnny Cash compensated the same way in his final years, and his estate continues to empty his vaults. The latest posthumous release, American VI: Ain't No Grave, begun in 2003 and overdubbed in the years since, was voted the No. 11 album. There's a hint of Lifetime Achievement Awards in these votes but also a respect for using accumulated knowledge to compensate for declining physical powers.
Kristofferson never had much vocal tone to begin with, but his songs have held up over the years; they even show up on the latest albums from Johnson and Cash. Kristofferson's earliest versions of his earliest songs, Please Don't Tell Me How the Story Ends: The Publishing Demos 1968-1972, was voted the No. 2 reissue, finishing behind Hank Williams' The Complete Mother's Best Recordings Plus, which documents his surviving 1951 radio shows on 15 CDs, a DVD and a hardcover book, all encased inside a wooden radio shell. Their example lives on. If Swift is already showing signs of Kristofferson's writing skills, Johnson has the potential to be a complete package like Williams or Haggard, a dominating force in the country music of his era.
At the end of his tribute at the Kennedy Center, Haggard, obviously struggling not to tear up, lifted his cowboy hat and waved it at the performers on the stage below. He looked like a black-hatted pope giving his blessing from a honky-tonk balcony in Vatican City. He nodded to his gray-bearded cardinals Nelson and Kristofferson before ordaining a new crop of bishops—Lambert, Paisley and Johnson—to carry on the illbilly gospel of hungry eyes, rambling fever and chasing each other around the room. Hag could not have chosen better.To view the poll results, please click here.