When you move a lot of product, you gain a lot of clout. That's as true in country music as in any other corner of pop culture, and the challenge is always the same: What do you do with that clout once you have it?
There's the Garth Brooks model, where you use that influence to get a better financial deal and new marketing platforms but leave your hit-making formula alone. And there's the Willie Nelson model, where you use that influence to pursue every artistic dream you've ever had, whether it's singing jazz standards or cooking up concept albums.
The big news in this year's Country Music Critics Poll was not that Rosanne Cash and Buddy & Julie Miller released superb alt-country albums—though they did—nor that George Strait made yet another brilliant George Strait record—though he did. The big news was that Brad Paisley and Miranda Lambert, famous enough to follow the Garth Brooks Model, followed the Willie Nelson Model instead. They bet their reputations on edgier songwriting and edgier performances, trying to fix something that wasn't even broken. They gambled and won.
The 77 writers from all over North America who voted in the 10th annual Country Music Critics Poll named Paisley Artist of the Year and Male Vocalist of the Year and cited his latest release, American Saturday Night, as the year's second best album. They voted Miranda Lambert's Revolution as the year's best album and her "White Liar" as the year's best single; they also named her Female Vocalist of the Year and runner-up Artist of the Year.
Taylor Swift and Jamey Johnson didn't have new albums in 2009, but the voters highlighted them in every other category. Swift was voted Live Act of the Year and Johnson was named Songwriter of the Year; they were voted the third- and sixth-best Artists of the Year. With Paisley and Lambert, Swift and Johnson completed the Mount Rushmore of country music's near future—four relatively young singer-songwriters who are inventing new ways to mix carefree jokes and reluctant confessions, twanging guitar and banging drums. It's been a while since the prospects for hillbilly music looked so bright.
Nowhere was the dominance of these four artists as pronounced as in the voting for the year's best singles, where the quartet occupied nine of the top 14 slots. Lambert held down No. 1 ("White Liar") and No. 6 ("Dead Flowers"). Paisley landed in No. 3 ("Welcome to the Future"), No. 11 ("Then") and No. 13 ("American Saturday Night"). Swift won No. 4 ("You Belong With Me") and No. 10 ("Fifteen"). Johnson grabbed No. 2 ("The High Cost of Living") and No. 14 ("In Color").
No one had more to lose by gambling than Brad Paisley, perhaps the biggest star Music Row has produced this decade. He got there by playing it safe and relying on his spectacular gifts as a songwriter, guitarist and singer—telling jokes that were funny but not too funny, playing solos that were edgy but not too edgy, and singing ballads that were sad but not too sad. His most memorable artistic moments, though, have come when he has stepped outside his comfort zone, as when he sang Bill Anderson & Jon Randall's "Whiskey Lullaby" with Alison Krauss in 2003. On American Saturday Night, he defies his own formula more than ever—and without guests to lean on.
It's easy for Bruce Springsteen or Steve Earle to deliver a progressive political message to their audiences—they're just preaching to the choir. But for someone like Paisley, whose audience overlaps more than a little with Glenn Beck's, it took considerable courage to endorse multiculturalism on his title track, feminism on "She's Her Own Woman" and the civil rights movement on "Welcome to the Future." Just as brave in their own way are the Beatle-esque backward-tape swirl that opens the first song, the 6/8 R&B organ feel that undergirds the second, and the extended rockabilly guitar solo that ends the third.
"Welcome to the Future" begins as a typical Paisley single, contrasting his childhood self and adult self over a perky Dire-Straits-meets-Buck-Owens country-rock groove. After singing about the great advances in transportation, computer games and international relations, the song's predictability dissolves in a heady guitar solo and the unusual chord changes of the bridge. When the verse melody reappears, Paisley is singing about a cross burning on the lawn of a high-school pal, a black football player who asked out a popular white girl.
It's not that unusual for country-music stars to express sympathy for an unfairly treated individual (cf. The Blind Side, the Tim McGraw movie about charitable Republicans). But Paisley widens the focus to thousands of such victims. He suggests that individual charity is not enough—the only real solution is an organized political movement. And then he gives us a vision of that movement in a tumbling, wailing guitar coda that sounds like demonstrators marching and chanting through the streets.
Paisley translated the old poster, "A Woman Without a Man Is Like a Fish Without a Bicycle," into the song, "She's Her Own Woman," and Lambert has translated the same poster into an entire album, Revolution. Not only can she be as good as any man, she declares, she can also be just as bad. "I've been lying too," she sings; "I got a mouth like a sailor," she adds, and "I always get stronger when I'm on my second drink." Here's a feminism that refuses to accept that equality must be premised on saintliness; she wants the same right as any man to be fully human.
It's not just in the lyrics either. It's in the swaggering aspiration of every arrangement, whether it's the hillbilly-rock stomp of "Only Prettier" or the country-pop sumptuousness of "Dead Flowers." If you listened to these tracks without the vocals, you'd never know if they were meant for Lambert or Wilco. Lambert has solved the innovation/tradition dilemma that always confronts country artists by widening her reach to embrace it all. While most modern country stars borrow their loud guitars and drums from '70s arena rock, Lambert takes hers from '90s indie rock, employing them to underline the tension rather than the sentiment. At the same time, her thick Texas drawl is more pronounced than ever, rooting her stories in a continuum of small-town girls from Cindy Walker to Dolly Parton who found it just as difficult to navigate American adulthood.
It's true that the two best-written songs (though not the best performances) on Revolution are Julie Miller's "Somewhere Trouble Don't Go" and John Prine's "That's the Way the World Goes 'Round." But it says something about Lambert's ambition that she picked these songs and then tries to match them in the extravagant metaphors of "Dead Flowers," "Me and Your Cigarettes" and "Virginia Bluebell." And the fact that Miller and Prine raise the bar for Lambert is a reminder of how much we need alternative-country, for where will the new ideas and high standards incubate if not on the margins?
The top two albums on my own ballot were Buddy & Julie Miller's Written in Chalk (No. 4 overall) and Sam Baker's poorly distributed Prine-like gem Cotton (No. 45 overall). Music Row is likely to be plundering the Millers' album for years to come, but they'll never improve on the original. When Kenny Chesney and Kellie Pickler record their duet version of the Millers' "Gasoline and Matches," they'll replicate the rambunctious sexiness of it, but they'll never capture the implication that a gas-fed romance can be as dangerous as it is stimulating. When Keith Urban sings "Ellis County," he'll get the nostalgia and the mesmerizing melody, but he'll never get the bittersweet sense that the past described in the song is gone and will never return.
One artist who could use some alt-country influence is Taylor Swift. I caught the first show of her summer tour at the Merriweather Post Pavilion in Maryland, and I was astounded all over again by her improbable combination of good writing, good singing, good looks and strong presence. She wasn't shy about using theatrics—a high-school marching band set the mood for "Fearless," a 17th century European court for "Love Story"—but she was most effective when she simply sat in a blue summer dress on a barstool, a 12-string acoustic guitar in her lap, to sing "Fifteen."
Maybe she's had some vocal problems on award shows, but on that night in June she sounded like the best thing to happen to American pop music in a long time as she delivered one of the truest songs about adolescence I've ever heard. There was little that marked this hooky ode to teenage confusion as country music, however, and it raised the question of where Swift's career is headed. Is she the next Madonna, the next Dusty Springfield or the next Dolly Parton?
Swift was only 18 when she first released "Fifteen" in 2008. By the time Parton turned 18 in 1964, she had released a bunch of bubblegum-rock singles that gave little indication that she would evolve into one of the greatest, countriest singer-songwriters of all time—thanks in large part to the mentorship of Porter Wagoner. The full story of her mostly forgotten start and remarkable development is on her four-CD box set, Dolly, which won this year's Best Reissue voting by a landslide margin.
When Rosanne Cash turned 18 in 1973, she was a diehard rock 'n' roll fan who only joined The Johnny Cash Show that summer so she could spend time with her remarried dad. He was so appalled by her lack of knowledge about country music that he gave her a list of 100 songs she should learn. Cash's long, fertile career in country music was sparked by her father's suggestion, and she acknowledged as much by releasing The List (No. 3 Album of the Year) this past autumn.
Swift is already further along than Parton or Cash were at the same age and seems to possess many of the same qualities. But she's at a crucial transition period where the guidance of a Porter Wagoner, a Johnny Cash or the like could make all the difference. She needs to tap into the subsoil of country-music history or else she will easily be toppled by the changing winds and trends of pop. And that would be a shame.
On the other hand, Jamey Johnson doesn't need anyone else's list. When the rabbinical-bearded honky-tonker in the plain black T-shirt wound up his spring tour at northern Virginia's Birchmere in May, he took advantage of the club setting to extend his set by surrounding his breakthrough 2008 album, That Lonesome Song, with nearly every old song he knew. Whether it was Gregg Allman's "Midnight Rider," Kris Kristofferson's "For the Good Times" or Johnny Paycheck's "Take This Job and Shove It," Johnson captured not just the words and music but also the essential working-class-hero spirit of each number.
He followed his composition, "Between Jennings and Jones," with Jones' own hit, "Who's Gonna Fill Their Shoes?" Johnson didn't have to respond to the song's question—the answer was that obvious.