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Best of the aughts: Country’s kings and queens

Crooners still entertain with songs of family, faith and country

POSTED: December 31, 2009 1:00 a.m.
/McClatchy Newspapers file photo

George Strait performs Nov. 9, 2004, during the 38th annual Country Music Awards, held at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tenn.

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Country music at its best is about God and country, hard work and family, and cherishing the everyday life of rural folks.

Sometimes it is delivered with a sweet twang, and other times it is grizzly, life-worn and deep.

The following artists are country music's cream of the crop from the last decade.

To me, these artists represent the values of country music fans, producing songs that cut to the core of what we love.

Many have appeared consistently on Billboard's Top Country Songs charts since 2000, but all of them have sustained or improved the quality of country music in the last 10 years.

Johnny Cash

Until his death in 2003, Johnny Cash lived a country song.

He grew up picking cotton, hung out with Elvis Presley and Waylon Jennings, became addicted to narcotics, got arrested and divorced.

But he also sought forgiveness, stayed married to his second wife, June Carter Cash, and became friends with Billy Graham.

He was as real and as gritty as it gets, and it showed in his voice and his lyrics.

Cash's last recording, "American IV: The Man Comes Around," was released in 2002 and earned him three Country Music Association awards.

The video for his cover of the Nine Inch Nails song "Hurt" received an MTV award and a Grammy in 2003, proving that Cash's unique talent remains relevant.

George Strait

There are no fireworks at a George Strait concert. Smoke and backup dancers have no place on his stage.

All Strait has to do is stand there, slightly stiff in his tight jeans and cowboy boots, and play his guitar. There is the occasional wink or point to a fan, but Strait knows that he doesn't have to have all that extra stuff to put on a great show.

Perhaps one of the greatest appeals of Strait is that he reminds you of your dad. That is, if your dad is a dependable, stand-up guy.

And then, of course, there's his music.

Strait has had more than 20 hits in the last decade, and was honored as the Artist of the Decade by the Academy of Country Music.

My favorite Strait hit is "Give it Away," a song that somehow remains upbeat despite its story of a man whose wife has left him and urges him to give away everything that symbolizes their relationship.

The last lyric: "I've got a furnished house, a diamond ring and a lonely broken heart full of love, and I can't even give it away."

And Strait delivers it so well. Classic country music.

Brad Paisley

I went to Nashville, Tenn., for the first time in 2009, and saw Brad Paisley at the Grand Ole Opry.

He was a surprise guest, and sang two hits released this year, "Then," and "Welcome to the Future."

The crowd went wild.

Maybe it was his sincerity, or his obvious, humble respect for the Opry, one of country music's greatest institutions, but I became a huge Brad Paisley fan after that performance.

Paisley has charted at least one hit every year of the last decade.

He can croon them soft and slow, as he did in 2004's "Whiskey Lullaby" with Alison Krauss. But Paisley also excels at catchy, cornball humor like that displayed in 2002's "I'm Gonna Miss Her (The Fishin' Song)" as well as nostalgia-inducing tunes like this year's "Welcome to the Future."

If this were a high school yearbook, Paisley would get the title of Best All Around.

Carrie Underwood

Simon Cowell complained of her "old-fashioned" singing style when she was a contestant on "American Idol" in 2005, but that same style gave Carrie Underwood an open door into the hearts of country music fans.

Despite Cowell's complaints, Underwood won "Idol" and jumped right into the country music scene, gathering 10 No. 1 hits on her first two albums, "Some Hearts" and "Carnival Ride."

Like Paisley, Underwood can go from soft and sweet, like her 2005 hit, "Jesus Take the Wheel," or tear it up as she did with "Before He Cheats."

Her most recent album, "Play On," produced another No. 1, "Cowboy Casanova," but it's her poise and her transformation from a regular girl into a Faith Hill-esque country queen that makes Underwood one of the best country artists of the decade.

Tim McGraw and Faith Hill

They're not one person, sure, but Tim McGraw and Faith Hill rank together on my list because, to me, they are country music's Brangelina (Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.)

They're a power couple, but in a nice, country sort of way, as they politely conquer all forms of media from film to television to music.

McGraw's most recent film, "The Blind Side," took in $150 million at theaters.

His single, "Southern Voice," ranks fifth on this week's Billboard Country Songs charts.

Hill's 2002 effort, "Cry," and 2005's "Fireflies" both debuted at No. 1 on Billboard's Top Pop Album Chart and Country Chart.

The couple shared the stage for two successful concert tours, Soul2Soul Tour in 2000 and Soul2Soul II Tour in 2006, the second of which became the highest grossing country tour of all time.

Taylor Swift

Yes, she was famously dissed in the worst way by Kanye West at the MTV Video Awards this year. And yes, she handled it with poise and grace.

But it's Taylor Swift's talent and work ethic that make her one of the decade's best artists.

Her voice is airy, pure and imperfect, and her lyrics are windows into her life, from famous break-ups to secret crushes that became not so secret on her albums' release dates.

She is the youngest singer on this list - she was about 10 when this decade began - but she earned her way into country music from the start of her career at age 14, when she signed her first contract to write for Sony/ATV Publishing.

As this year's Country Music Association Entertainer of the Year, Swift has come a long way in a very short time.

Also worth noting is how Swift arguably brought country music to the digital age, creating a connection with fans not possible with traditional media.

Swift's fan following started on MySpace, where her songs have been played by users more than 250 million times.

Sugarland

Call it country or just plain redneck, Sugarland's Jennifer Nettles has one of the most recognizable voices in country music.

The duo, which also includes Kristian Bush, has produced three successful albums this decade, 2004's "Twice the Speed of Life," 2006's "Enjoy the Ride" and 2008's "Love on the Inside."

Part of the appeal of Sugarland is that their songs are just fun to sing along with.

She may sometimes sound cheesy, but Nettles also can dig deep, as she did with "Stay," Sugarland's wistful hit that got the duo nominations for the Country Music Association's Single of the Year and Video of the Year.

Sugarland has won the CMA "Vocal Duo of the Year" for the past three consecutive years.

Rascal Flatts

Since their debut in 2000, Rascal Flatts has released eight albums, had 27 songs on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart and won more than 20 various awards from the Academy of Country Music Awards, the Country Music Association Awards and the Grammy Awards.
Chances are, if you're a country music fan, you know most of their hits and you can sing along.

The reason for Rascal Flatts' success is their consistent ability to produce songs with beautiful harmonies, often with touching lyrics like 2005's "Skin (Sarabeth)," about a teenage girl with cancer.

Some may dismiss their songs as having too much of a pop flavor, but Rascal Flatts has more than proved that they can entertain a country audience.

Reba McEntire

Spunky, red-haired Reba McEntire has been a part of the country music landscape for decades.

She gets points for longevity, since she has gathered 33 No. 1 hits over her decades-long career, and her most recent hit, "Consider Me Gone," reached the top of the charts this week.

Her voice is instantly recognizable, and her music has kept its traditional country feel even as she collaborated with pop singers like Kelly Clarkson.



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