Honor roll: Grammy Award for Best Country Album

Each of these albums has been nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Country Album. They are ranked by honors received.

Album:Be Here

Be Here

Keith Urban

Australian-born Keith Urban, hot off the double-platinum success of his 2002 sophomore album, Golden Road, is kind of like contemporary country’s Tom Cruise. The kid is just so unjustly talented, likeable, and good-looking that it’s hard not to hate him. But such jealousy is apt to melt into begrudging admiration and affection after a quick listen to this third album. True, some of Urban’s self-penned adolescent love laments and bright-eyed paeans to life in the slow lane do sound a bit callow and derivative. But, with his resolute tenor and his…

Album:Here for the Party

Here for the Party

Gretchen Wilson

Her mother was 16 when she had her, and her father moved on when she was two. By the age of 15, with a double-barrel shotgun always at the ready, she was managing a kicker bar in rural Illinois where the corn fields meet the pig farms. That gave Gretchen Wilson something to sing about, with attitude in spades. “You might think I’m trashy, a little too hardcore,” she admits on the smash single “Redneck Woman,” “but in my neck of the woods I’m just the girl next door.” Wilson, already the toast of Nashville before this full-length debut hit the shelves, isn’t just…

Album:Live Like You Were Dying

Live Like You Were Dying

Tim McGraw

On the back cover of his ninth album Tim McGraw sits atop a horse, which just happens to be standing in the foyer of an elegant home. McGraw sits backwards in the saddle, looking not at where he’s going, but where he’s been. The image tips off the theme of this solid, 16-song album—for a singer who doesn’t write, it’s as close to autobiography as it gets. “How Bad Do You Want It,” for example references not only bluesman Robert Johnson’s crossroads chat with ol’ Lucifer, but also the kind of relentless drive that got McGraw to the top of the Nashville heap. The…

Album:Tambourine

Tambourine

Tift Merritt

Merritt’s resonant if somewhat conventionally alt-country debut Bramble Rose did little to predict this blue-eyed-soul breakout. A mix of hard-charging guitar rockers, horn-charted grooves, and pensive singer-songwriter ballads, Tambourine might have resulted in a stylistic hodge-podge, but producer George Drakoulias lends the same punchy, live-tracked vitality that distinguished the best work of the Jayhawks, Black Crowes, and Maria McKee. Merritt taps deep into her southern musical roots to find her own voice, and that voice has fully…

Album:Cry

Cry

Faith Hill

Faith Hill finally owns up to what we knew all along. She may be from deep-dish Mississippi, but she isn’t a country singer, and never has been. This babe’s a diva now. And, as she says in her best Diana Ross voice on “Free,” “There ain’t nothin’ I can do about it.” But what she could exercise some control over, as the coproducer of her fifth studio album, is the quality and style of her particular brand of über-pop, which on Cry considerably ratchets up the noise factor from 1999’s Breathe. The songs, many written by tunesmiths long working…

Album:Live and Kickin'

Live and Kickin'

Willie Nelson, Various Artists

The great Willie Nelson tends to either thrill or sorely disappoint, depending on the kinds of projects he takes on—and his decision to be either a musician or a celebrity. This live recording, culled from his 2003 USA Network concert event, unfortunately falls into the latter category, and Nelson sounds as if he arrived just before show time and plunged in without rehearsing. On the album’s opener, “I Didn’t Come Here (And I Ain’t Leavin’),” almost everything is wrong—the chorines, the overwhelming bigness of the production, and most troublesome, Nelson’s…

Album:My Baby Don't Tolerate

My Baby Don't Tolerate

Lyle Lovett

Maybe it was that thigh-splitting encounter with a belligerent bull, but whatever put him there, Lyle Lovett is in a nostalgic mood on My Baby Don’t Tolerate, his first studio album of all new and original songs since the country-minded The Road to Ensenada in 1996. This is a mixed blessing—several songs sound like retreads from Lovett’s earlier efforts, even as a listener welcomes the reprised syncopated, hep cat, Louis Jordan-meets-Sister Rosetta Tharpe signatures that help define his quirky style. While a key tune, “In My Own Mind,” turns around…

Album:Run That By Me One More Time

Run That By Me One More Time

Willie Nelson, Ray Price

In September of 1961, Ray Price was a superstar and Willie Nelson was his bass player. As part of Price’s Cherokee Cowboys, Willie played on Price’s pioneering Bob Wills tribute LP San Antonio Rose. Twenty years later, after Willie had become superstar in his own right, the two re-teamed for a second San Antonio Rose, this one a set of honky-tonk and Western swing duets that yielded two Top 10 singles. Twenty-two years after that release, they’re back for yet another exquisite, relaxed romp through the same Texas-Southwestern axis. The tunes are…

Album:Up!

Up!

Shania Twain

Give Shania Twain points for honesty. Up!, her first new release in five years, offers both pop and country versions of the same 19 songs, the red disc boasting pop renditions while the green proffers country. It’s a smart idea, since it allows Twain the freedom to dress a song in whatever arrangements and instrumentation she pleases—without setting herself up for criticism as to whether Canada’s Queen of the Bare Midriff spat on the Holy Grail of Nashville. Often, the only difference is the substitution of pedal steel, fiddle, and banjo for…

Album:Drive

Drive

Alan Jackson

He sings straight, writes songs without a half dozen Music Row hacks pitching in their two cents, and keeps the music basic. On Drive, Jackson mixes wistful visions with satire, sorrow, and eloquence, using old cars—”Drive (For Daddy Gene)”—to explore growing up and, on “Work in Progress,” spoofing a woman obsessed with “improving” her man. As usual, he explores love’s joy (“When Love Comes Around”) and anguish (“The Sounds”). His flair for thoughtful, evocative expression reaches its zenith with his classic September 11 commentary “Where Were You (When…

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