Sunday, February 19, 2017

The 20 Worst Country Songs of All-Time

It's only fair.  I just revised my list of the best songs to ever come out of country music.  Now it's time for the worst.  This is an incomplete list of course, limited to my lifetime.  Even the hardest-core fans of old country music readily admit that catastrophically terrible music was recorded and released as singles back in the 1960s and 1970s, but most of those bad songs have been excised from most peoples' memories and are pretty scarce even in the oldies' country radio show circuits I've come across.  Thus, I will limit this list, save one, to songs from my lifetime.

Now I'm somebody who complains a lot about how bad country music has gotten and, for that matter, how much crap one had to wade through even in the genre's mid-90s heyday to find the sparkling gems, but most of what I define overarchingly as "bad" is merely bland and soulless.  It's a relatively small lineup of songs I will categorize as viscerally awful.  When Rick Trevino's horrendous 1995 song "Save This One for Me" fails to make the list by one position, you know you have a horrible list.  But below are 20 songs that meet the criteria, for a variety of different reasons....

#20.  Okie from Muskogee--Merle Haggard (1969)...............It's hard not to put a black mark on Merle Haggard's impressive and distinguished multi-decade career in country music when looking back at the way he stoked societal divisions during the Vietnam War, and never more than with the flag-waving, hippie-baiting anthem "Okie from Muskogee".  Haggard redeemed himself in the final couple decades of his life, when he became a pretty liberal cat, vocally opposing the war in Iraq and then endorsing and repeatedly standing up for President Obama amongst incessant criticism.  Nonetheless, it feels like he's rewriting an embarrassing prior chapter of his life when he said the narrator of "Muskogee" and other songs like it didn't reflect his own view, but were merely giving voice to a point of view of the silent majority.  I'm not really buying that, but it makes it even worse if he did, lending cover to closed-minded assholes.  The ultimately irony is what became of both the city and the singer who lionized it in this song 40-some years after its release.  Haggard, the guy who proclaimed that "we don't smoke marijuana in Muskogee", recorded a duet with Willie Nelson a couple of years ago called "It's All Going to Pot", where the video shows Merle and Willie passing the joint around in the studio.  Meanwhile, the mythically puritanical Muskogee, Oklahoma, is so ravaged by drugs that the city of 38,000 has nine drug treatment facilities and one of the highest rates of single-parent homes in the nation.

#19.  She's My Kind of Rain--Tim McGraw (2003).....I've always admired Tim McGraw's instinct for experimentation.  He's never been one to play it safe, and that's part of what's kept him relevant for nearly 25 years now.  But as is always the case with singers who are more experimental, they semiregularly find themselves releasing some real crap.  McGraw is certainly not immune to that and has at least a half dozen cringeworthy trainwrecks to his name going back to his mid-90s origins.  In terms of sheer unintentional comedy though, it's hard to top the manure pile that was 2003's "She's My Kind of Rain", which nearly manages to gloss over its herculean levels of sappiness and gloppiness with its lyrical pretentiousness and high-pitched falsetto vocals.  I know of few people who didn't fall out of their chair laughing at how silly this song was, but McGraw nonetheless got it up to #2 on the charts!

#18. One, Two, I Love You--Clay Walker (1997)..........I've cited before that country music hit a wall in the mid-1990s, very rapidly getting fat and lazy after the spectacular creative spurt it enjoyed in the first half of the 1990s.  The "sensitive guy" takeover was one of the worst offending trendlines, and specific to that trend were love songs with lyrics commingled with nursery rhymes.  One came blame 20-year-old "sensitive guy" pioneer Bryan White for this trend with his 1995 #1 hit "Rebecca Lynn", but for as off-puttingly gooey of a song as "Rebecca Lynn" was, it seemed sincere to who White was as a barely-out-of-high-school artist.  But it was another story altogether when Clay Walker continued this pattern a year later with a far worse song.  Walker was an artist who came out of the starting gate with a fantastic debut album in 1993, showcasing a stylistic and narrative range capable of belting out above-average contemporary uptempo fare while skillfully selling a sad country ballad like "Where Do I Fit in the Picture" and "My Heart Will Never Know" as good as anyone of his era.  Unfortunately, as his career proceeded, Walker mostly steered in the safe lane of commercial country music and occasionally stumbled into the worst gimmicks of the era, such as this smarmy and infantile love song referencing the impact of Mother Goose on a couple's trajectory.

#17. Comin' to Your City--Big and Rich (2005)........The oddball pairing of liberal hippie Big Kenny Alford and archconservative West Texas cowboy John Rich was just crazy and provocative enough to work when they came out in 2003.  As clunky as the songs on their debut album were, nobody could accuse them of being generic.  Unfortunately, right out of the starting gate on their sophomore album a year and a half later, they managed to combine their annoying genre-bending sound with the hollow, self-indulgent lyrics of a song that was pretty much an ode to their own awesomeness.  The outcome was not good, and it killed the modest momentum the duo had on the charts based on their first album.  At least at the time, it looked like the Big and Rich story was already nearing its end, but they got the last laugh, latching on to a few more mainstream songs and scoring bigger hits, breaking up as a duo based on personal grievances, and then reuniting a few years back and are STILL on the charts.  If anybody had told me 10 years ago that Big and Rich would still be on the charts come 2017 I'd have thought they were nuts....yet somehow they still are.

#16.  Live Forever--The Band Perry (2015)......From the outset of their 2010 debut, there was just something really weird about the two-brothers-and-a-sister trio The Band Perry.  They had a few above-average songs during their half decade of country hitmaking, but by and large it was an unsettling ride of oddball tunes that were more annoying than endearing and usually didn't sound like country.  There was always a pop crossover undercurrent with The Band Perry, but rarely has a mainstream act been so bold in attempting to sell a Katy Perry-style histrionic pop anthem as a "country" song the way The Band Perry did in 2015 with the first single from their fourth album, a shrill, self-indulgent, and overproduced assault on the ears that predictably flopped on the country charts and laid the ground work for their formal transition to the pop charts in 2017.  Nothing personal guys, but after trying to get away with this hot mess as a country song, good riddance!

#15.  Little Miss Honkytonk--Brooks and Dunn (1995)......This can probably be said about any act that had a two-decade career, but the legacy of country's most successful duo of all-time, Brooks and Dunn, is a decidedly uneven one.  Lead vocalist Ronnie Dunn has a soulful voice with a considerable range, and that range served the act well on a long list of songs with a variety of different styles over the years.  But Dunn's voice also often had the ability to make a crummy, gimmicky song all the more unbearable...the equivalent of putting sauerkraut on top of spinach.  This criticism applies to at least a half dozen of Brooks and Dunn's hits, but none were as embarrassingly intolerable as "Little Miss Honkytonk", a steaming pile of shit that emerged during the height of country's music line dance era.  As a general rule in the 90s, if a song had the word "honkytonk" in the title it was almost certainly going to suck (the one exception to that rule is Sammy Kershaw's eloquent 1998 ode to the small-town watering hole "Honkytonk America").  But at no other time did it suck worse in the 90s than when Ronnie Dunn was wasting his vocal talents bellowing out "I'm her big cat daddy...she's my little miss honkytonk".

#14.  Bob That Head--Rascal Flatts (2008)......The legacy of country-pop boy band Rascal Flatts is very similar to that of Brooks and Dunn for me, for many of the same reasons.  They've found some good songs over the years and the range of lead singer Gary LeVox has lent some additional emotional resonance to songs like "Here", "Skin (Sarabeth)", "Stand", and the Natasha Bedingfield duet "Easy".  With the help of a fierce closing electric guitar riff, Levox's vocals even came close to salvaging the lyrically empty unsung hero anthem "Every Day".  The flip side is that Levox's range and general vocal style have a tendency to make bad songs that much more shrill.   The annoying "Mayberry", and the even more insufferable "Summer Nights" and "Payback" were all viable contenders for this worst-song list, but nothing Rascal Flatts ever recorded (at least that I've heard) can compare to the combination of stupidity and aural punishment as "Bob That Head", a song that's just as empty as its title suggests, about partiers bopping to the music.  Ironically, the song's generic musical arrangement will have nobody "bobbing their head" to the sound even as they twist facial muscles cringing at the awful lyrics.  Most insulting of all is that in a music scene where literally hundreds of thousands of struggling singer-songwriters can't catch a break, Rascal Flatts can release a piece of garbage called "Bob That Head" in their peak hitmaking years and get to #15 on the charts with it.

#13. Hey! Baby!--Anne Murray (1982)......Somewhat lost among the female country singer legends of yore is Anne Murray, who combined satin-smooth vocals with a number of great songs for a very successful career spanning 20 years in the 70s and 80s, frequently crossing over into the pop charts.  Working against Murray's legacy is her fondness for dated and overly sentimental ballads like "You Needed Me" and "I Just Fall in Love Again" that were popular at the time but don't hold up that well now because of their gooieness, although we may still enjoy listening to those songs behind closed doors with our curtains drawn and headphones on!  But even if those syrupy 70s ballads of Murray's remain a guilty pleasure, one of her hits most certainly does not.  The childish exclamation points in the title of "Hey! Baby!" pretty much tell you all you need to know about the immaturity of this song, and in this case you can judge a song by its title.  It's not saved by a bouncy beat or sophisticated musical arrangement either as the sound is as generic as the sentiment.  Even a teenage Taylor Swift wouldn't have written or recorded a "girl wants boy" ditty this banal, but the fact that Anne Murray was 36 when she recorded it makes it that much more of an embarrassment looking back.

#12.  Get Over Yourself--SheDaisy (2002)......The sister act trio SheDaisy had a more impressive run than one may have expected when they first popped up on the country music scene in 1999, their relentless gimmickry being just clever enough and sprinkled in with just enough above-average songs to keep country listeners interested up until 2006 when they faded away.  It also didn't hurt that all three women were incredibly hot and marketable.  But they almost blew their early momentum with the first single from their second album, "Get Over Yourself", an ironically fitting title for the auteurs of this headache-inducing three minutes of noise, representative of country-pop at its most stereotypically bubblegummy.  The first two versus and choruses are bad enough but the song saves its worst moments for the bridge portion.  Anybody who can make it through that bridge to the song's closing notes is a stronger person than I.

#11.  Wrapped Up in You--Garth Brooks (2001)......There are no other examples I can think of where a successful artist had two phases to their career as diametrically opposed in terms of quality.  For Garth Brooks, the pivot point came after the release of his 1994 "The Hits" anthology.  Pretty much everything he put out before that was inspired, provocative, and memorable, on the front lines of taking country music to a different place than it had been before.  Pretty much everything Brooks put out after "The Hits" was shallow, unmemorable, and lacking soul, not just failing to live up to his prior hits, but well below average even compared to what the new generation of pretty boy crooners of the late 90s and early 2000s were putting out.  Brooks hit bottom with the release of his eighth studio record, "Scarecrow", in 2001, where the first single "Wrapped Up in You" was just a mealy-mouthed mess all-around, lacking anything even remotely attractive in either its sound or lyrics.  How was it possible that the man who had such a great ear for so many memorable songs in his early 90s heyday was now reduced to repeatedly chanting "ba-ba-bababa-ba-ba, ba-babababa-ba" as the LEAD SINGLE from a new album?  Needless to say, his days of consistent hitmaking were nearly at their end.

#10.  Bobbie Sue--Oak Ridge Boys (1982)......Another country act that had two pretty distinct "chapters" was the Oak Ridge Boys, who had a mainstream late 70s country sound in their first few years and had their fair share of quality material.  Their career record, "Elvira", came in 1981, and although it was silly, I'd have been happy to let them get away with it if they returned to more mature material afterwards.  Instead, they doubled-down, releasing a significantly dumber and more annoying ripoff of "Elvira" called "Bobbie Sue" a year later, and were regretfully rewarded with another #1 hit.  The Oak Ridge Boys just got weird from there, releasing a litany of "can't-we-all-just-love-each-other"-style anthems of varying degrees of dorkiness throughout the rest of the 80s, but never did they match the level of insipidness of "Bobbie Sue", which is effectively an avatar of what a terrible country song sounds like in the minds of the genre's critics.

#9. Vacation--Thomas Rhett (2016)......When I was in high school, there was no other country singer I connected to more than Rhett Akins, a young guy with a debut album that seemed to directly cater to guys my age both lyrically and musically, with the most convincing hybrid I've come across of mainstream 90s country and late 80s hair band rock.  Rhett Akins had only modest success with the few albums he released in the mid-90s and nothing else he recorded matched the stunning accomplishments of that 1995 debut album.  However, Rhett Akins went on to be a prolific Nashville songwriter with dozens of hits for other artists on his resume....and his son has gone on to have the career that his father didn't.  After a shaky start a few years back, Thomas Rhett has gone on to become one of the biggest things going in country music today.  He shares his father's diverse musical tastes and inclination to experiment and push the country music boundaries, but for the most part he doesn't share his father's song quality.  Never was that more clear than last year when Rhett attempted to get away with a mindless pile of shit called "Vacation" that makes The Go-Gos 1982 namesake seem downright cerebral by comparison.  Even though Thomas Rhett has been unable to do anything wrong of late, country radio drew the line and kept "Vacation" from becoming a hit.  It takes a lot for country radio these days to say "that ain't country" to a song from one of its biggest hitmakers, but three and a half of minutes of incessantly repeating "hey...let's party like we're on vacation" with a decidedly non-country backbeat was apparently a bridge too far even for them.

#8.  Bumper of My SUV--Chely Wright (2004).......There were quite a few eye-rollingly dumb patriotic anthems to arise at the outset of the war in Iraq, some of them directly endorsing military action, but most of them I was able to dismiss as the ignorant musings of a jingoistic entertainer who was simply offering his own opinion, however worthless that might be.  But it was the cases where the chickenhawks started belittling those who don't share their opinion where I cried foul.  In the case of Chely Wright, she was inspired to write this song based on a lady in traffic giving her the finger, her assumption being that it was based on her U.S. Marines bumper sticker in honor of her brother.  Through the course of the song, the narrator demagogued the motives of the story's antagonist with lame strawmen and ad hominem attacks that reduced the narrator to the level of the woman flipping the bird.  And as other critics of the song have pointed out, it's ironic that the driver cluelessly pointed to the bumper sticker on her "SUV" in reference to a war that was fought over oil.  As was the case with so many of the country crooners responsible for the most egregious one-dimensional pro-war songs, Chely Wright was quite three-dimensional herself.  Sean Hannity embarrassed himself when he invited her on his show during the peak of the 2004 election campaign, assuming he had an ally but discovering that Wright was actually a liberal and did not support George W. Bush.  A few years later, she was the first major country artist to come out of the closet as gay.  Nonetheless, she definitely shamed her legacy by aligning herself with supporters of an indefensible war and using the most mindless arguments to attempt to discredit its critics.

#7. Honkytonk Badonkadonk--Trace Adkins (2006)........One of the best examples of a guilty pleasure in country music history is Mel McDaniel's 1985 hit "Baby's Got Her Blue Jeans On".  Despite its almost cartoonish chauvinism ogling over a woman's body, it was an undeniably catchy song that's hard not to crank up when it came on the radio.  But McDaniel's song seemed comparatively feminist next to its counterpart 20 years later, which begins and ends with a bunch of guys in a dance club ogling over the female form with the crudest and most comically infantile lyrical language.  As a straight heterosexual male, it was hard not to watch the even more offensive video of a bunch of faceless women shaking their "moneymakers" in front of the singer and other generic guys.  I don't consider myself a prude on these matters, but in the pantheon of objectifying women, this song and its accompanying video managed to insult my intelligence more than it was able to pacify my male instincts.  When country music starts going to strip clubs for its narrative inspiration, we have a problem.

#6.  I'm in Love With a Capital U--Joe Diffie (1995)......One prolific country singer of the 1990s I was never a huge fan of was Joe Diffie.  I just didn't like his voice that well.  His vocals took some of the power away from great songs like "Ships That Don't Come In", put an asterisk of diluted potential next to good songs like "John Deere Green" and "A Night to Remember", and made otherwise merely lackluster songs like "Pickup Man" and "Bigger than the Beatles" sound like grating dreck.  Diffie managed to find some genuinely God-awful songs like "Honkytonk Attitude", "C-O-U-N-T-R-Y", and "Poor Me" that further stains his legacy for me, and any one of them would have fit right in on this list of the worst songs least if he had never released "I'm in Love With a Capital U", a song from Diffie's catalog that stands in a league of its own on the spectrum of aural assault and lyrical larceny.  The song's celebration of an illiterate suitor's misspelled and grammatically challenged love letter to his girlfriend would be painful enough in the hands of a smooth-toned crooner, but Diffie's vocals make it absolutely wretched.

#5.  Kiss This--Aaron Tippin (2000).......If there was one country singer of the 90s whose vocals annoyed me more than Joe Diffie, it was Aaron Tippin, the gruff and nasally toned South Carolina redneck who nonetheless dragged his hitmaking career out for more than 10 years.  Unlike Diffie though, Tippin's raw sound lent an air of blue-collar authenticity to some of his better songs like "I Got It Honest" and the bluesy "Without Your Love".  But few crooners in Nashville were capable of making an already terrible song sound more grating than Tippin, which he proved on numerous occasions, but never more so than "Kiss This".  Tippin seriously turned a story about a couple getting into a fight and the wife telling the husband to kiss her ass into a three-minute song.  And it was a #1 hit!  It becomes easier to understand why Donald Trump was elected President when you look at some of the public's questionable choices that led up to that moment!

#4.  1994--Jason Aldean (2013)......This song starts with a great ode to 1994, the best year in country music history.  How can one possibly go wrong with a song that pays tribute to that great year?  It's easy to tell in the first five seconds that this is a painfully bad redneck rap song disguised as country, immediately betraying the legacy of the year the song waxes nostalgic towards with a sound not at all reflective of the music of the time.  And then the song proceeds to pay tribute primarily to one of the mid-90s least impressive artists....Joe Diffie....going so far as to not-so-subtly include the titles of a dozen or so of Diffie's songs in the lyrics and then rap out Diffie's name specifically as what qualifies as a "chorus" for the song.  It has to be heard to be believed.....for anyone with a high enough threshold for pain to endure four minutes of this monstrosity.  In general, Jason Alden is not my kind of country music, but most of his music is at least listenable.  With "1994", he managed to find a song so bad that country radio couldn't catapult it into the top-10 the way it has every other song he's released since 2008.

#3.  Friend Zone--Danielle Bradbery (2015)......I've only watched a few random hours of "The Voice" over the years but I do know that in the show's most highly rated season, mid-teen country cutie Danielle Bradbery was the winner.  Bradbery oozed a special kind of innocence and wholesomeness that almost certainly contributed to her win and defined her brand.  She released two singles from a rushed album right after her "Voice" victory that were semi-hits and stayed in her lane.  But when Bradbery returned a year or so later for her sophomore effort, somebody in her orbit opted for a wholesale departure.  The final product of that effort was the toxic waste dump that passed for a "country" song "Friend Zone", a soul-draining hip-hopped mess where the country cutie gets superficially sassy and brassy in describing to a male friend how he needs to step up his game.  Even worse than the crime against mankind that was the song was the video.  Presumably Bradbery had just turned 18 when the video was produced, and spent half the video shaking her ass into the camera at extremely close range, in the accompaniment of a bunch of skanky, tattoo-covered barely legal female friends behaving just as inappropriately.  It's hard to think of another scenario where an artist and her handlers so badly misjudged their audience.  It was way too early to turn Bradbery's image into a slutty sex kitten in the minds of the "Voice" viewers who voted for her yearning for a sweet, innocent girl singing virtuous songs.  There was plenty of time for her to morph into a "naughty girl" in the years ahead, but after jumping the gun in doing so, they probably ruined her career. 

#2. Planet Texas--Kenny Rogers (1989)......When Kenny Rogers went country in the late 70s, he came out of the starting gate with several classic songs that gave him considerable leverage to proceed the directions he wanted to creatively from there.  He dominated country's early 80s "urban cowboy" era with the pop-sweetened love songs produced by Lionel Richie, and then really ventured in some strange directions in the second half of the 80s.  He went full-on Bruce Springsteen rock with "The Pride is Back", a patriotic anthem co-opted in an ad campaign for Plymouth cars.  But in 1989, he released the most surreal song in country music history with "Planet Texas", which plays more like a children's tale set to music describing an alien invasion of cowboy boots-wearing spacemen who descended upon a dusty West Texas town.  The video was even more surreal, with 80s-era graphics depicting Kenny riding in outer space on horseback over the rings of Saturn, and later with his cowboy hat covered in ice after riding past Pluto.  It's impossible to imagine who could have thought this was a good idea for a commercial country song, but clearly somebody did as it was the debut single from a new album and a pretty healthy budget appears to have been spent on that hilariously bad video.  I usually give some bonus points for songs outside the box, but when they're outside the solar system, I tend to think the Nashville writers should probably have snorted a little less cocaine in the studio while musing over song ideas.

#1. Have You Forgotten?--Darryl Worley (2003)......I've cited in some of the previous write-ups how most of the singer-songwriters of country's most jingoistic anthems are more three-dimensional than you'd think in their political views.  Even Toby Keith has described himself as a conservative Democrat and has been fairly active in the Oklahoma Democratic Party over the years.  But one guy who is every bit as much of a cartoon character as his lyrics indicate is Darryl Worley, writer of the country song that more than any other song in American history is responsible for us getting involved in a war.  Like "Bumper of My SUV", "Have You Forgotten's" poison stems from its sneering judgments, strawmen, and non-sequitirs aimed at critics of the war rather than merely stating "one man's opinion".  Worley insists that the song was written about US military involvement in the war in Afghanistan rather than Iraq, and that may be true, but if so it makes matters worse because the song was hastily recorded, rapidly rushed to radio stations, and timed for an album release just as the war in Iraq began in the spring of 2003.  That certainly made the interpretation of the lyrics transferable to waging war against Saddam Hussein to avenge 9/11.  For the longest time, a majority of the public bought into the never-spoken-but-always-implied association between Hussein and the attacks on 9/11.  Even more than the Bush administration, the chart success of "Have You Forgotten?" cemented that false narrative.  "Have You Forgotten?" was a garbage song all-around, but given that it was intractably linked to the advancement of the biggest foreign policy blunder in our nation's history, it stands alone at the bottom of the sewer as country music's all-time worst song.

Oh I suppose I could have done a "bottom-25 list" here.  As I was compiling the list, I just remembered Jerrod Niemann's 2014 howler "Donkey", which Niemann himself admitted may have been the worst song ever, but the very fact that it's performer concedes that the song is that bad oddly takes it out of contention.  So I think I'll let the list stand by itself.  Unlike my top-300 list which there aren't that many songs from the past several years, you may notice that this list is pretty heavily weighted towards the last several years.  Unfortunately, the trajectory of country music today suggests that my list is likely to be obsolete in a year or two.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Revising My Top-300 Country Song List of All-Time

Ten years ago on Super Bowl weekend, I put together a list of my 150 favorite country songs of all-time, ranking them chronologically from #1 to #150.  That was a fun exercise and I figured a decade later it was worth a revisit and an expansion.  This year I originally did a list of 250 of my favorite country songs singled out, but since I found myself with so many more songs I'd classify as "great" that I expanded it to 300 songs in my second edit.  I also arranged the list differently.  I'll go through cycles where one song really hits me and I find it to be the best thing ever recorded, while other songs I loved at their peak can burn out for me and lose their magic.  With that in mind, I didn't want to do a pecking-order list this time, so instead decided upon a chronological listing of the songs that comprise my top-300 list, going from oldest to newest.  Here's the list, with some additional commentary at the end....
Sixteen Tons--Tennessee Ernie Ford (1955)
Walk the Line--Johnny Cash (1956)
The Battle of New Orleans--Johnny Horton (1959)
Sink the Bismarck--Johnny Horton (1960)
Big Bad John--Jimmy Dean (1961)
I've Been Everywhere--Hank Snow (1962)
Ring of Fire--Johnny Cash (1963)
Six Days on the Road--Dave Dudley (1963)
King of the Road--Roger Miller (1965)
Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’ (With Loving on Your Mind--Loretta Lynn (1966)
Wichita Lineman--Glen Campbell (1968)
Mama Tried--Merle Haggard (1968)
A Boy Named Sue--Johnny Cash (1969)
Galveston--Glen Campbell (1969)
Snowbird--Anne Murray (1970)
Take Me Home, Country Roads--John Denver (1971)
Coat of Many Colors--Dolly Parton (1971)
Burgers and Fries--Charley Pride (1971)
The Man in Black--Johnny Cash (1971)
Billy Dee--Kris Kristofferson (1971)
Uneasy Rider--Charlie Daniels Band (1973)
The Most Beautiful Girl in the World--Charlie Rich (1973)
Danny's Song--Anne Murray (1973)
Jolene--Dolly Parton (1973)
If We Make it Through December--Merle Haggard (1973)
Smoky Mountain Memories--Mel Street (1975)
Convoy--C.W. McCall (1975)
One Piece at a Time--Johnny Cash (1976)
Lucille--Kenny Rogers (1977)
Rollin' with the Flow--Charlie Rich (1977)
Don't It Make My Brown Eyes Blue--Crystal Gayle (1977)
Luckenbach, Texas--Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson (1977)
Here You Come Again--Dolly Parton (1977)
There Ain't No Good Chain Gang--Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash (1978)
Sleeping Single in a Double Bed--Barbara Mandrell (1978)
Tulsa Time--Don Williams (1978)
The Gambler--Kenny Rogers (1978)
Why Have You Left the One You Left Me For?--Crystal Gayle (1978)
Back on My Mind Again--Ronnie Milsap (1979)
The Devil Went Down to Georgia--Charlie Daniels Band (1979)
Shadows in the Moonlight--Anne Murray (1979)
Sail Away--Oak Ridge Boys (1979)
Family Tradition--Hank Williams, Jr. (1979)
Missing You--Charley Pride (1979)
Broken Hearted Me--Anne Murray (1979)
Coward of the County--Kenny Rogers (1980)
Like We Never Said Goodbye--Crystal Gayle (1980)
He Stopped Loving Her Today--George Jones (1980)
Drivin' My Life Away--Eddie Rabbitt (1980)
The Legend of Wooley Swamp--Charlie Daniels Band (1980)
Good Old Boys Like Me--Don Williams (1980)
Do You Wanna Go to Heaven?--T.G. Sheppard (1980)
Tumbleweed--Sylvia (1980)
Smoky Mountain Rain--Ronnie Milsap (1981)
Who's Cheatin' Who?--Charly McClain (1981)
Tight Fittin' Jeans--Conway Twitty (1981)
Drifter--Sylvia (1981)
Angel of the Morning--Juice Newton (1981)
Louisiana Saturday Night--Mel McDaniel (1981)
Somebody's Knockin'--Terri Gibbs (1981)
Seven Year Ache--Rosanne Cash (1981)
I Loved 'Em Every One--T.G. Sheppard (1981)
Queen of Hearts--Juice Newton (1981)
Rainbow Stew--Merle Haggard (1981)
I Wouldn't Have Missed it for the World--Ronnie Milsap (1982)
Lord, I Hope This Day is Good--Don Williams (1982)
Blue Moon with a Heartache--Rosanne Cash (1982)
Nobody--Sylvia (1982)
16th Avenue--Lacy J. Dalton (1982)
Mountain of Love--Charley Pride (1982)
A Country Boy Can Survive--Hank Williams, Jr. (1982)
Kansas City Lights--Steve Wariner (1982)
Mistakes--Don Williams (1982)
Like Nothing Ever Happened--Sylvia (1983)
Inside--Ronnie Milsap (1983)
Amarillo by Morning--George Strait (1983)
Pancho and Lefty--Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard (1983)
He's a Heartache--Janie Frickie (1983)
Stranger in My House--Ronnie Milsap (1983)
Highway 40 Blues--Ricky Skaggs (1983)
The Ride--David Allan Coe (1983)
The Sound of Goodbye--Crystal Gayle (1984)
Still Losing You--Ronnie Milsap (1984)
God Bless the USA--Lee Greenwood (1984)
The City of New Orleans--Willie Nelson (1984)
Angel in Disguise--Earl Thomas Conley (1984)
Some Fools Never Learn--Steve Wariner (1985)
Old Hippie--Bellamy Brothers (1985)
Meet Me in Montana--Dan Seals and Marie Osmond (1985)
I Don't Know Why You Don't Want Me--Rosanne Cash (1985)
Don't Call it Love--Dolly Parton (1985)
The Highwaymen--Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings, and Johnny Cash (1985)
Nobody Falls Like a Fool--Earl Thomas Conley (1985)
Back to the Heartbreak Kid--Restless Heart (1985)
Never be You--Rosanne Cash (1985)
Bop--Dan Seals (1986)
Guitar Town--Steve Earle (1986)
Hold On--Rosanne Cash (1986)
Everything That Glitters Is Not Gold--Dan Seals (1986)
In Love--Ronnie Milsap (1986)
You Can't Stop Love--SKO (1986)
80s Ladies--KT Oslin (1987)
Baby's Got a New Baby Now--SKO (1987)
The Weekend--Steve Wariner (1987)

The Pride is Back--Kenny Rogers and Nickie Ryder (1987)
In Another World--Gary Morris and Crystal Gayle (1987)
The Way We Make a Broken Heart--Rosanne Cash (1987)
A Sure Thing--Foster and Lloyd (1987)
Midnight Girl in a Sunset Town--Sweethearts of the Rodeo (1987)
One Step Forward--Desert Rose Band (1987)
Tennessee Flat Top Box--Rosanne Cash (1988)
Where Do the Nights Go?--Ronnie Milsap (1988)
I Wouldn’t be a Man-Don Williams (1988)
It's Such a Small World--Rodney Crowell and Rosanne Cash (1988)
If It Don’t Come Easy--Tanya Tucker (1988)
Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses--Kathy Mattea (1988)
I Told You So--Randy Travis (1988)
She's Crazy for Leaving--Rodney Crowell (1988)
The Bluest Eyes in Texas--Restless Heart (1988)
Runaway Train--Rosanne Cash (1988)
Don't Close Your Eyes--Keith Whitley (1988)
Addicted--Dan Seals (1988)
Song of the South--Alabama (1988)
Big Dreams in a Small Town--Restless Heart (1989)
Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old)--Garth Brooks (1989)
Bayou Boys--Eddy Raven (1989)
My Arms Stay Open All Night--Tanya Tucker (1989)
She Don't Love Nobody--Desert Rose Band (1989)
Where've You Been?--Kathy Mattea (1989)
I'm Gonna be Somebody--Travis Tritt (1990)
Two Dozen Roses--Shenandoah (1990)
Little Things--Marty Stuart (1990)
Dumas Walker--Kentucky Headhunters (1990)
Hard Rock Bottom of Your Heart--Randy Travis (1990)
Bordertown--Dan Seals (1990)
Sticks and Stones--Tracy Lawrence (1991)
Unanswered Prayers--Garth Brooks (1991)
In a Different Light--Doug Stone (1991)
Hurt Me Bad in a Real Good Way--Patty Loveless (1991)
Tempted--Marty Stuart (1991)
Hooked on an Eight-Second Ride--Chris LeDoux (1991)
Fancy--Reba McEntire (1991)
Feed Jake--Pirates of the Mississippi (1991)
Straight Tequila Night--John Anderson (1991)
Neon Moon--Brooks and Dunn (1992)
The Thunder Rolls--Garth Brooks (1992)
Billy the Kid--Billy Dean (1992)
Cafe on the Corner--Sawyer Brown (1992)
Aces--Suzy Bogguss (1992)
Nowhere Bound--Diamond Rio (1992)
Maybe it was Memphis--Pam Tillis (1992)
Past the Point of Rescue--Hal Ketchum (1992)
I'm in a Hurry (And Don't Know Why)--Alabama (1992)
Boot Scootin’ Boogie--Brooks and Dunn (1992)
Seminole Wind--John Anderson (1992)
Letting Go--Suzy Bogguss (1992)
When She Cries--Restless Heart (1992)
He Would be Sixteen--Michelle Wright (1992)
Tell Me Why--Wynonna (1993)
When You Leave That Way You Can Never Go Back--Confederate Railroad (1993)
I’d Rather Miss You--Little Texas (1993)
Chattahoochee--Alan Jackson (1993)
Let Go--Brother Phelps (1993)
Every Little Thing--Carlene Carter (1993)
Nobody Wins--Radney Foster (1993)
The Hard Way--Mary Chapin Carpenter (1993)
Mama Knows the Highway--Hal Ketchum (1993)
Holdin' Heaven--Tracy Byrd (1993)
On the Road--Lee Roy Parnell (1993)
What's it to You?--Clay Walker (1993)
Reckless--Alabama (1993)
My Baby Loves Me--Martina McBride (1993)
Someplace Far Away--Hal Ketchum (1993)
Wild One--Faith Hill (1994)
I Just Wanted You to Know--Mark Chesnutt (1994)
He Thinks He'll Keep Her--Mary Chapin Carpenter (1994)
Hey Cinderella--Suzy Bogguss (1994)
Live Until I Die--Clay Walker (1994)
Oh What a Crying Shame--The Mavericks (1994)
Words by Heart--Billy Ray Cyrus (1994)
Holding My Own--Lee Roy Parnell (1994)
Unbreakable Heart--Carlene Carter (1994)
Little Rock--Collin Raye (1994)
I Wish I Didn't Know Now--Toby Keith (1994)
How Can I Help You Say Goodbye?--Patty Loveless (1994)
I Take My Chances--Mary Chapin Carpenter (1994)
Daddy Never was the Cadillac Kind--Confederate Railroad (1994)
Foolish Pride--Travis Tritt (1994)
Spilled Perfume--Pam Tillis (1994)
The Cheap Seats--Alabama (1994)
Independence Day--Martina McBride (1994)
I Sure Can Smell the Rain--BlackHawk (1994)
She Thinks His Name was John--Reba McEntire (1994)
Calling Baton Rouge--Garth Brooks (1994)
Has Anybody Seen Amy?--John and Audrey Wiggins (1994)
Now I Know--Lari White (1994)
What They're Talking About--Rhett Akins (1994)
Southbound--Sammy Kershaw (1994)
Lipstick Promises--George Ducas (1995)
That's How You Know When You're in Love--Lari White (1995)
House of Cards--Mary Chapin Carpenter (1995)
Cain’s Blood--4-Runner (1995)
My Heart Will Never Know--Clay Walker (1995)
If I Were You--Collin Raye (1995)
That's Just About Right--BlackHawk (1995)
And Still--Reba McEntire (1995)
My Girl Friday--Daron Norwood (1995)
Just My Luck--Kim Richey (1995)
She Can't Love You--Boy Howdy (1995)
In Between Dances--Pam Tillis (1995)
That Ain't My Truck--Rhett Akins (1995)
Dust on the Bottle--David Lee Murphy (1995)
If the World Had a Front Porch--Tracy Lawrence (1995)
Heaven Bound (I’m Ready)--Shenandoah (1995)
Heart Half Empty--Ty Herndon and Stephanie Bentley (1995)
No News--Lonestar (1996)
The River and the Highway--Pam Tillis (1996)
She Said Yes--Rhett Akins (1996)
Miracle Man--Smokin' Armadillos (1996)
Living in a Moment--Ty Herndon (1996)
Home Ain’t Where His Heart is Anymore--Shania Twain (1996)
When Cowboys Didn't Dance--Lonestar (1996)
One Way Ticket--LeAnn Rimes (1996)
King of the World--BlackHawk (1996)
Where Corn Don't Grow--Travis Tritt (1997)
Cold Outside--Big House (1997)
Dark Horse--Mila Mason (1997)
A Dozen Red Roses--Tammy Graham (1997)
Everywhere--Tim McGraw (1997)
The Fool--Lee Ann Womack (1997)
Thank God for Believers--Mark Chesnutt (1997)
One Solitary Tear--Sherrie Austin (1997)
Postmarked Birmingham--BlackHawk (1997)
Bye, Bye--Jo Dee Messina (1998)
Matches--Sammy Kershaw (1998)
Dream Walkin'--Toby Keith (1998)
Innocent Man--Sherrie Austin (1998)
Holes in the Floor of Heaven--Steve Wariner (1998)
Don't Laugh at Me--Mark Wills (1998)
Honkytonk America--Sammy Kershaw (1998)
How Do You Sleep at Night?--Wade Hayes (1998)
I'll Think of a Reason Later--Lee Ann Womack (1999)
Please Remember Me--Tim McGraw (1999)
Fool I’m a Woman--Sara Evans (1999)
Give My Heart to You--Billy Ray Cyrus (1999)
Your Own Little Corner of My Heart--BlackHawk (1999)
You Were Mine--Dixie Chicks (1999)
Something Like That--Tim McGraw (1999)
He Didn't Have to Be--Brad Paisley (1999)
Smoke Rings in the Dark--Gary Allan (1999)
Goodbye Earl--Dixie Chicks (2000)
I Hope You Dance--Lee Ann Womack (2000)
Feels Like Love--Vince Gill (2000)
The Little Girl--John Michael Montgomery (2000)
Just Another Day in Paradise--Phil Vassar (2000)
The Hunger--Steve Holy (2001)
Go Back--Chalee Tennison (2001)
Why They Call it Falling--Lee Ann Womack (2001)
Rose Bouquet--Phil Vassar (2001)
There You'll Be--Faith Hill (2001)
Only in America--Brooks and Dunn (2001)
Austin--Blake Shelton (2001) 
No Fear--Terri Clark (2001)
Real Life--Jeff Carson (2001)
Riding with Private Malone--David Ball (2002)
That's When I Love You--Phil Vassar (2002)
Ol' Red--Blake Shelton (2002)
The Impossible--Joe Nichols (2002)
Life Happened--Tammy Cochran (2002)
Waitin' on Joe--Steve Azar (2002)
When You Think of Me--Mark Wills (2003)
Brokenheartsville--Joe Nichols (2003)
Three Wooden Crosses--Randy Travis (2003)

One Last Time--Dusty Drake (2003)
What Was I Thinking--Dierks Bentley (2003)
Long Black Train--Josh Turner (2003)
On Your Way Home--Patty Loveless (2003)
Texas Plates--Kellie Coffey (2004)
Whiskey Lullaby--Brad Paisley and Allison Krauss (2004)
Me and Emily--Rachel Proctor (2004)
Trip Around the Sun--Jimmy Buffett and Martina McBride (2004)
My Better Half--Keith Urban (2005)
If Heaven--Andy Griggs (2005)
Don't Ask Me How I Know--Bobby Pinson (2005)
He Oughta Know That by Now--Lee Ann Womack (2005)
Kerosene--Miranda Lambert (2006)
What Hurts Most--Rascal Flatts (2006)
I Loved Her First--Heartland (2006)
I Keep Comin' Back--Josh Gracin (2007)
I Don't Want To--Ashley Monroe (2007)

Love Lives On--Mallary Hope (2008)
Man of the House--Chuck Wicks (2009)
Need You Now--Lady Antebellum (2009)
Till Summer Comes Around--Keith Urban (2009)
American Honey--Lady Antebellum (2010)
Raymond--Brett Eldredge (2010)
Guinevere--Eli Young Band (2010)
Turning Home--David Nail (2010)
From a Table Away--Sunny Sweeney (2011)
Back to December-Taylor Swift (2011)
Let it Rain--David Nail (2011)
I Don't Want This Night to End--Luke Bryan (2011)
Amen--Eden's Edge (2011)
The Sound of a Million Dreams--David Nail (2012)
Tornado--Little Big Town (2013)
Mama’s Broken Heart--Miranda Lambert (2013)
Blowin’ Smoke-Kacey Musgraves (2013)
Sunny and 75--Joe Nichols (2013)
Drunk on a Plane--Dierks Bentley (2014)
What We Ain’t Got-Jake Owen (2014)
Biscuits-Kacey Musgraves (2015)
Song for Another Time--Old Dominion (2016)

So what's on the list....

Original Songs Released As Singles That Charted--Some were big hits, others were flops.  But they all hit the charts.  And there are plenty of outstanding remakes of classics that deserve a separate list, but even though I prefer Lonestar's 2003 version of "Walking in Memphis" to any other version I've heard, it wasn't their song and shouldn't be held up as such.  There are exceptions to the rule though.  If an artist turned an otherwise low-profile song from another performer into their own hit, and managed to own the song in a way that virtually nobody knows the song wasn't theirs originally--such as Willie's "The City of New Orleans"--then I'll put them on the list.

Mid-90s Awesomeness Abounds--Most people are sentimentally partial to the music of their most formative years and I'm no exception.  But it's not just nostalgia in play here.  The first half of the 1990s was a truly stunning era in country music with an exciting wave of new artists making the charts bringing fresh sounds and a different style of lyrics to country music.  At the time, the old-timers grunted about country music's transformation into something they didn't recognize, but I think now most people have come to appreciate what a great and diverse period in country music it was before the pretty boys in cowboy hats singing "sensitive" love songs took over in the second half of the 90s and the creative momentum came to an abrupt halt.

Sad And Depressing--All too often, critics of country music wrinkle their noses at the format because "it's just too depressing".  There's very little in the way of songs of that caliber on the country music airwaves in the 2010s, but I wish there was!  I have the utmost respect for the country music that successfully takes me to an emotional ditch, either with straight up tear-in-my-beer depressing lyrics or story songs with emotionally charged lyrical and vocal flourishes.  My list is packed with these types of songs.

Songs That Are Unique in Sound or Lyric--I've always sought out songs that are a little outside the box and even push the envelope a little bit.  This can go too far as I'm not likely to go for the new wave of autotuned EDM rock, hip-hop, and beatboxing fused into modern country, but I loved how country embraced rock as a natural component of its sound with escalating frequency in the 1980s and 1990s, along with saxophones and synthesizers.  I love the traditional sound of country music, but so long as a good song kept one foot planted in that traditional sound, I'm more than happy to entertain and reward some experimentation. Likewise with the lyrics.  If the lyrics say something different or controversial and say it well, I'm more often than not a fan.

What's Not on the List.....

Really Old Stuff--I've long said that the golden era for country for me was 1975-1995, and I added up to see that 188 of these 300 songs come from that timespan.  There was plenty to like from the preceding generation of country, but not a ton to love.  I like to think I've given the original era of commercial country music a fair shake and, while there are certainly some diamonds to be found, the production values generally aren't high enough for me to be viscerally drawn to.  And a fair percentage of the music is just straight-up dreadful, even worse than the laughably shallow Thug Country era we're suffering through today.  But even among what was considered the best music of the era, I like Hank Williams and Patsy Cline, but the sound and the lyrics are just intangibly dated for me in a way that I can't qualify them among the ranks of my all-time favorites.  I'm sure if I was a generation older, I'd have a completely different viewpoint.

The New Stuff--There are a number of issues in play as to why this list has so few entries from songs from the 2010s.  The primary problem is that the music has gone downhill in a big way.  The lyrics are shallower, the artists are less distinguished, and the musical arrangements are far less sophisticated.  Last night I listened to a dozen or so songs from the early-to-mid-90s on this list that I hadn't heard for a while and that really provided a reinforcement to what comparative thin gruel you get listening to an hour's worth of today's country radio. Beyond that, I've always found it hard to judge contemporary songs with "the classics" and have always felt I need five years removal from a song's chart reign to appreciate its worthiness.  Even by that standard, I don't suspect we're looking at a future groundswell of songs from the 2010s saturating this list, but perhaps in time, more songs will hold up well enough to seem worthy of the greats of yore.

A Lot of Beloved Artists Got Short-Changed--When compiling a list of this nature, it's always amazing how quickly you get to the magic number and realize you're out of slots.  There are a number of singers like Tanya Tucker, Mark Chesnutt, and Waylon Jennings I've always held up as above-average crooners with above-average material, but in all three cases, only two of their songs qualified for this list.  If I added 100 songs to the list, all three would likely get more than one new entry each, but that's just the way the cookie crumbled.  Other very high profile artists had their share of good material over their long careers and will turn the sound up on the radio when they come on, but there was little from Alan Jackson or Vince Gill that I absolutely LOVED.  Some artists you just don't connect that closely with.  Ditto for the likes of George Strait, Kenny Chesney, and Carrie Underwood, superstars I've never fully connected with.  I don't dislike them per se, but even after combined decades worth of collective songs from the three of them, there's little that makes me jump out of my skin.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

It's Gonna Be a Long Eight Years!

Unfortunately, I didn't mistype.  Despite his terrible inaugural approval ratings, his dark and hostile inaugural address, the assurance of endless personal scandal, and a policy forecast suggesting America's 45th President plans to govern in direct contrast to his populist propaganda, I think we're stuck with him until January 20, 2025.  And I come to this conclusion not simply as an overcorrection for underestimating Trump in November.  After all, I was sounding alarm bells throughout the year that Trump was gonna be stronger than people thought given his message and the dynamics of the race.  I think Trump gets a second term because he's uniquely skilled at shoring up a larger slice of the tribal, culture war pie.

The consensus opinion is that Trump's inaugural speech yesterday was unlike anything we've seen in living memory, defying tradition by provoking rather than unifying a divided nation.  Trump recognizes it's futile to try to pacify his critics, and is coming right out of the gate by proclaiming solidarity with those--and only those--who bought into the Trump message at the outset.  This may portend nasty things for a permanently inflamed divisions in the country, but it's great politics because.....Trump knows those divisions will be inflamed anyway.  And given that his governing blueprint is likely to cause even more economic disruptions for his blue-collar base, Trump's highest political priority needs to be keeping the cultural divide at a permanently elevated posture so that his coalition is more distracted by their rage at "those people" than they are about their continued decline, a decline that will be accelerated if Trump and the GOP Congress steals their health care and cuts their Social Security and Medicare as now looks incredibly likely.

Republicans have long been masterful at maintaining the least natural demographics of their coalition by constantly provoking the culture war, but Trump has taken it to a whole different level and managed to bring in millions more downscale voters into the coalition by advancing an economic worldview that contrasts sharply with the laissez faire Republican consensus dating back to the Reagan years (and even before).  Most people in the media and even many of Trump's own downscale voters insist that he's merely on probation with this demographic and they'll abandon him if he doesn't deliver.  It seems unlikely for two key reasons.... 

First, Trump is a pathological liar....and no matter how good or bad economic and jobs numbers are three years from now, he will insist they've never been better, and his conservative media echo chamber will validate those claims and soften the edges of whatever unmistakable damage has been done in terms of, say, 20 million Americans having their health insurance taken away.  Second, Trump knows exactly how to talk to his voters, while the opposition party and especially its rank-and-file have absolutely no clue how to talk to Trump's voters.  Trump will continue to make provocative us-versus-them polemics like yesterday's inaugural speech throughout his entire term, and the left will always respond with snooty tone-deafness.  One of Trump's most brilliant rhetorical moments during the 2016 campaign was his proclamation that he "loves the poorly educated", setting up the emissaries of the "people's party" to loudly sneer at the expense of the "poorly educated".  Trump knows exactly what buttons to push and what strawman enemies to build and burn down.  He's not gonna get less good at this in the years ahead....and given their empty bench, it's very unlikely the Democrats are gonna get better at responding to it when he does.

And about that empty Democratic bench?  Where do they go from here?  Who is the face of the Democratic Party in 2020 after they've spent three of the last four election cycles watching all of their rising stars getting voted out en masse?  All the chatter among progressives is that if Democrats had run Bernie Sanders in 2016, he'd be President right now.  I'm not so sure.  Even if Sanders was able to do well enough with the white working class to win Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, he'd have been much easier to define as an unthinkable socialist among the cosmopolitan suburbanites in Colorado and Virginia, which are every bit as necessary to get to 270 electoral votes as the Rust Belt states.  North Carolina and Florida would likely have been completely off the table as battleground states if the Democrats had run Bernie.  That's all Monday morning quarterbacking, but especially now with Trump having so thoroughly claimed the mantle as the voice of the white working-class, it's hard to see much of an opening for a Democrat of Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren's pedigree to poach those voters back, at least without forfeiting moderate voters in the Democratic coalition.

So do the Democrats go with a cosmopolitan slickster of the Gavin Newsom fold, running primarily on a social justice platform and campaigning almost exclusively in big cities in hopes of hanging onto the volatile Obama coalition and winning over just a few more center-right upscale suburbanites embarrassed by Trump to thread an Electoral College needle?  We know how well that worked in 2016.....when Trump was completely untested and thus more vulnerable to defining as unacceptable.  Incumbent Presidents are hard to beat because even if voters don't really like them, they've proven themselves merely by having governed before.  Only if we're mired in a deep recession as we were in 1932, 1980, and 1992, do voters take seriously the idea of throwing out a sitting President in favor of an untested replacement.  And given the magnitude of the tribal fault lines in American politics today, I'm not even sure a huge recession would be enough for the majority coalition to abandon their candidate, particularly with as good as Trump is in defining any and all opposition as unacceptable.

Trump started his Presidency yesterday by throwing Molotov cocktails at his critics because he understands what they don't.  Success in American politics today has nothing to do with bringing a divided nation together, it has to do with cobbling together a bare plurality of voters by exacerbating the nation's divisions.  Trump will spend four years stoking that and the clueless left will respond in kind, continuing to be unaware of just how toxic cultural liberalism is in Middle America.  With that in mind, the biggest question will be what the tone of Trump's next inaugural speech on January 20, 2021, will be when he has no more campaigns to run.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Here's Wishing 2016 Could Go On Forever.....

In the last couple of weeks, I've been reading plenty of good riddance messages to the year 2016 from personal acquaintances and national media figures alike.  Far as I can tell, the celebrity body count is the primary source of their consternation with the year 2016.  I guess 2016 did have more than its share of VIP casualties, but that strikes me as a pretty small grievance with a year that ends with 7 1/2 years of ongoing economic expansion, a very limited wartime footprint, and sane political leadership.  I'll give you a reason why 2017 is gonna make 2016 look like the good old days.....a raging sociopath is about to become the most powerful man in the world!

I've never been one to look to the future with naive optimism, but it's been a very long time since I've approached a new year with as little to be enthusiastic about than I do 2017.  Some personal bummers approach me in 2017, including turning 40 years old and the likelihood that my boyhood home will be bulldozed, but far and away the biggest iceberg on the horizon is that 20 days into the new year, an unhinged, narcissistic loose cannon will officially become America's President, a man who is arguably less suited for a position of national political leadership than anyone else who lives in America.  The possibilities are not endless for 2017, they are bottomless.  Don't toast champagne at midnight on Sunday, chug Jack Daniels from the biggest bottle you can.

Monday, November 28, 2016

A Rural Survival Story: How Three Democratic Congressmen From Rural Minnesota Overcame The Trump Wave

Having grown up in rural Minnesota, I had a feeling Hillary Clinton would play poorly there and that Donald Trump had the potential to do well.  Some of the internals in the few quality Minnesota polls suggested Hillary was struggling a little more than the typical Minnesota Democrat outstate, but as the election got closer, I anticipated the numbers would get even uglier on election night.  But even I wasn’t prepared for the historic blowout Hillary was handed in virtually every corner of rural Minnesota, with counties that have been Democratic strongholds for decades suddenly going for Trump by 20 points and several swing counties that went for Al Franken just two years ago going more than 2-1 for Trump.  The wave took out several Democratic members of the state House and Senate in outstate Minnesota as well, two years after the first round of rural Minnesota casualties in the Legislature.

Rural Minnesota’s three Democratic members of Congress were not immune to this Republican tidal wave either, but all of them narrowly avoided being washed away by it.  Long-time western Minnesota Democrat Collin Peterson held on by 5 points, while southern Minnesota’s Tim Walz was elected to his sixth term by less than 1 percentage point and northeastern Minnesota's Rick Nolan, the only one of the three who was considered vulnerable leading up to the election, also prevailed by less than one percentage point.  Having looked at the precinct returns in-depth, I thought I’d offer some insights on how the three of them survived even as Trump was winning all of their respective districts by double digits….

MN-01—This was the district I grew up in, and a few weeks before the election, a friend of mine asked me what I thought of the race between Tim Walz and GOP challenger Jim Hagedorn.  Nothing to see here, I assured him.  Hagedorn was penniless and running a barebones campaign against a popular Democratic incumbent.  Hagedorn gave Walz a pretty good run two years ago but there was little indication he had built any momentum since then.  I told my friend that perhaps with the right challenger and the wrong political climate, Walz could be beaten but that Hagedorn wasn’t the guy and this year wasn’t the year.  If about 1,500 people had voted differently, I’d have been forced to eat a giant plate of crow over that prediction.  This result, along with so many others this year, has been an excellent reminder to never be overconfident about anything in American politics.

So how did Walz get such a close shave?  I think the biggest factor the led to Walz’s vulnerability was MNSure, Minnesota’s Obamacare exchange, which saw the highest premium hikes in the nation in the individual insurance market only weeks before the election.  Farmers, small businessmen, and the self-employed—groups that are a disproportionate share of the population in rural southern Minnesota—were the ones impacted by the MNSure premium hikes and Tim Walz was the only of the three Minnesota Democrats who voted for the Affordable Care Act, making him especially vulnerable to the sour sentiment at that snapshot in time.  Another friend of mine back home, a small business owner, volunteered to me after the election that he thought the fresh sting of those premium hikes contributed greatly to the anti-Democratic mood.

There was more going on though.  Republican challenger Jim Hagedorn’s father Tom Hagedorn was a GOP Congressmen in the old MN-02 when it covered south-central Minnesota back in the 1970s, and his legacy surname carried some weight in the rural counties surrounding Mankato even in the more friendly Democratic environment in 2014, and he managed to hold Walz to a single-digit win districtwide based largely on his competitiveness in the western half of the district.  This year, Hagedorn crushed Walz in those western counties, winning most of them by 20 points or more.  Even in city of Mankato, Walz’s hometown and his long-time base, there was some obvious erosion in Walz’s numbers as Hagedorn’s father represented Mankato back in the day as well.

But Walz’s weakened numbers were hardly limited to the western side of the district as he lost a handful of medium-sized counties in the eastern half of the district as well, including Waseca, Steele, Dodge, Le Sueur, and Rice, all of which he won in 2012 and 2014.   Walz still won the blue-collar union legacy counties of Freeborn and Mower, but his numbers took a big hit there.  In fact, Walz was ahead by only 30 votes with all but one county reporting in the middle of the night after the election, and that was Mower County which I figured would come in for Walz and did, but certainly not by the 25-point blowout that Democrats can typically count on in Mower County on Presidential election years.  Walz’s bacon was saved by Presidential turnout in Rochester and Winona.  Walz’s numbers weren’t up to par in those counties either, but the number of raw votes in urban Rochester and the college town of Winona were substantial enough to rescue him in a way they wouldn’t have in a midterm cycle.

Clearly, the national Republicans were caught napping here or else they’d have funded Hagedorn enough for him to run a semblance of a campaign.  Had they done that, Hagedorn would probably be a Congressman-elect right now.  Furthermore, popular southern Minnesota House Republican Tony Cornish was flirting with the idea of running for this seat two years ago but then backed away.  Had Cornish run, with the full backing of the party or possibly even without it, he may well have won as well.  Walz got a very spooky wake-up call in a state where this sort of unpredictability and last-minute reversals of momentum seem to happen a lot.  Southern Minnesota’s population centers have been trending Democratic so heading into future cycles where Trump’s GOP is at the top of the ticket, one would think Walz would have an advantage again, but Walz is in his sixth term now and MN-01’s last two representatives (Tim Penny and Gil Gutknecht) have sailed away after their respective sixth terms, through retirement in Penny’s case and being voted out in Gutknecht’s case, so history isn’t necessarily on Walz’s side heading into 2018.

MN-07—If Tim Walz’s challenger Jim Hagedorn was a third-rate challenger on paper, then Collin Peterson’s GOP challenger David Hughes was fourth-rate, with no media presence at all and less than $100,000 in his campaign coffers.  Peterson got his first serious challenge in two decades in 2014 from State Senator Torrey Westrom, and prevailed by a surprisingly robust 8-point margin.  The size of Peterson’s victory and the fact that Westrom’s Senate seat came up again in 2016 scared him away from running again, but I’ll bet Westrom and the Republicans generally are kicking themselves for giving Peterson a pass given that one of this cycle’s most hopelessly invisible candidates (Hughes) fought Peterson to within 5 points, all thanks to the headwinds of Donald Trump who won Peterson’s conservative district more than 2-1.  Last spring, Peterson, the most conservative Democrat left in Congress, raised some eyebrows when he endorsed Socialist Bernie Sanders for President, but seeing Hillary’s disastrous performance in his district on November 8th, I think we now see why.

All of the demographic challenges that faced Tim Walz this year in southern Minnesota were even more intense in Peterson’s vast rural district which doesn’t have the Democratic-leaning larger communities that MN-01 does.  In fact, with the exception of Clay County (Moorhead), most of MN-07’s population centers are its most conservative redoubts.  Looking at the county map of MN-07 and seeing where Peterson won and what percentages he got in them, you’d figure it was a Peterson blowout given the number of blue counties and how substantial his margins were in them, but Peterson has always done best in the thinly populated farm counties on the North and South Dakota border, and most of these counties have fewer than 2,500 voters (and losing) meaning even those counties where he wins more than 60% add up slowly when he’s either losing outright in the more populated Otter Tail, Douglas, Stearns, and McLeod counties or barely winning the larger population county of Kandiyohi or his home county of Becker.

There weren’t substantial changes in Peterson’s path to victory this year compared to 2016, although Peterson did substantially better in the thinly populated west-central Minnesota counties that are home to Westrom’s Senate district, particularly Grant and Stevens counties which shifted 5 and 10 points, respectively, in Peterson’s direction.  Peterson’s numbers slipped a little in his long-time base among the Red River Valley counties in Minnesota’s northwest corner, but not substantially.  The same could be said about the counties in southwestern Minnesota, most of which Peterson won.  Where Hughes made substantial gains versus Westrom was in the southeastern portion of the district.  The aforementioned Kandiyohi County, home of the large-for-this-district city of Willmar, Peterson dropped from a 9-point margin of victory two years ago to less than 3 points in 2016.  Neighboring Meeker County to its east went from a 4-point Peterson win to a 10-point Hughes victory, and McLeod and Sibley counties, which both went Westrom by small margins two years ago, went for Hughes by margins in the mid-teens this year.

Peterson’s relative close shave on November 8th underscores how big of a challenge it will be for Democrats to hold this seat when Peterson retires, provided he does so before 2022 when the district stands a good chance of being triaged.  In order to eke out even a narrow victory, as Al Franken did there in 2014, a Democrat has to score huge margins in dying Scandinavian-settled farm counties that are otherwise trending GOP, while holding down losses to far less than usual in the district’s growing German-settled lakes-and-cabins areas.  Minnesota Democrats did have a pretty decent bench with which they may have been able to pull that off before the last two cycles when the majority of them got booted out of office in the Minnesota Legislature.  With that in mind, Democrats had better hope Peterson sticks around three more terms.

MN-08—The most expensive House race in the nation was home to the most improbable Democratic victory in 2016.  Mills Fleet Farm scion Stewart Mills was inundating the airwaves early and often last summer, long before Nolan was able to afford to do the same, giving a second shot at taking down an old-school Democratic Congressman in a district that’s becoming more challenging for the Democratic Party.  I was struck in 2014 by the softness of Nolan’s winning margins in what should have been his strongest area—Duluth and the Iron Range.  In fact, Nolan hung on in great measure because Mills underperformed in the conservative southern half of MN-08, an exurban Twin Cities area that’s been deluged with NRA types in the last 20 years and driven the entire district considerably to the right.  I knew Nolan couldn’t count on better-than-expected margins out of Isanti and Chisago counties, or the general Lake Mille Lacs area, to save him every two years, so I had cause for serious concern about this race heading into the fall.

Adding to the challenge for Nolan, the ancestrally Democratic Iron Range is growing very impatient with state Democrats over a controversial new copper nickel mining project hanging in the balance that most metro area Democrats consider too much of an environmental risk to proceed with.  Trump’s promises to rebuild America’s steel industry made his candidacy right in the wheelhouse of these voters and Nolan acknowledged his internal polling had Hillary losing in the district, and not by a small amount.   Survey USA came out with a poll in September showing Trump 12 points  ahead in MN-08 and Mills 4 points ahead.  Survey USA has not had a good track record with polling northeastern Minnesota in the past so I dismissed it saying that if Nolan is really running 8 points ahead of Hillary in the district then he will surely win.  Nolan did win, but the spread was even wider than the SUSA poll indicated, with Trump winning districtwide by 17 points and Nolan winning by a half-percentage point, down from the 1.5-point victory Nolan scored over Mills in 2014.

How did Nolan do it?  A cluster of places moved incrementally his way to cancel out the areas that moved away from him.  As expected, those southern counties in MN-08 went stronger for Mills this year, particularly bright red Morrison County, Trump’s best county in Minnesota, and the entire Mille Lacs area in east-central Minnesota, where most of the counties moved several percentage points in Mills’ direction.  Interestingly, exurban Isanti and Chisago counties at the far southern end of MN-08 still came in less strongly for Mills than I’d have expected.  Even in far north-central Minnesota, long-standing Democratic strongholds Koochiching County (International Falls) and Itasca County (Grand Rapids) softened a couple points for Nolan and he eked out low-single-digit victories there.  The heat was on for Duluth and the Iron Range to deliver, and they did by just enough….

The four MN-08 counties that held out for Hillary saw Nolan’s margins grow.  Tiny, touristy Cook County in the state’s far northeastern corner was Nolan’s best while blue-collar Lake and Carlton counties increased by more than a percentage point each for Nolan compared to 2014.  The motherlode of MN-08 Democratic votes always come from St. Louis County, however, and Nolan increased by 2 points compared to 2014 and won the county with 61%, reminding me of the old adage that a 60% victory in St. Louis County is hard for a Republican to overcome.  That’s becoming less true as St. Louis’s population stagnates and the conservative portions of MN-08 grow, but the rule still held up this year.  It also needs to be said, however, that MN-08’s second most populous county—Crow Wing—also contributed to Nolan’s survival simply by not getting any worse for him.  The upscale Brainerd Lakes area has always leaned Republican and is the home base of the Mills family’s Fleet Farm empire.  Nolan also lives in the area, however, and negated some of Mills’ advantage.  In the end, Mills’ 18-point advantage in Crow Wing County in 2014 was locked in place in 2016, contributing to Nolan’s near-miraculous 2,000-vote victory.

One other contributor to Nolan’s victory was the lack of third-party competition.  In 2014, a Green Party candidate named Skip Sandman got like 3% of the vote and almost certainly took most of his votes from Nolan.  Had Sandman or another third-party candidate been on the ballot this year, it seems unlikely Nolan could have prevailed over Mills.  When it comes to Walz and Peterson, I’m more inclined to believe they’ve weathered the storm of a brutal political climate and can expect smoother sailing in coming cycles should they choose to run again.  Whether that’s true or not, I’m almost certain that Nolan will face more stressful cycles ahead, particularly as the growth in his district seems to be coming from conservatives while an unfavorable outcome on the PolyMet mining project at the hands of Democratic-appointed state regulators, an outcome I think more likely than not, would be very bad news for the Democratic Party’s prospects of continued strength in a region that was for decades the backbone of Minnesota Democrats, responsible for the margin of victories for Dem candidates ranging from Walter Mondale in 1984 to Paul Wellstone in 1990 to Governor Mark Dayton himself in 2010.  Despite Nolan’s extremely impressive win, the Democrats have some ambitious young legislators on the Iron Range who may be better suited to weather the storm moving forward as the region is extremely parochial and would probably be most inclined to vote for one of their own amidst sinking prospects for the party upballot in the region.

Encouraging as it was to see these three Democrats prevail despite the top of the ticket losing by double digits in all three districts, the laws of political gravity nonetheless portend problems ahead.  It’s too early to know how a President Trump will govern and be received in these parts.  Hillary Clinton seemed to be uniquely untenable as a candidate here as I’ve never in my lifetime see any Democrat in any race do as badly as she did in outstate Minnesota, but the pattern of incremental shifts to the GOP was ongoing long before either Trump or Hillary came along, with the very Democratic World War II generation dying off and taking the Democratic base with it in the farm and factory towns.  Union participation has dramatically shrunk while farms grow into agribusinesses, and the sons, daughters, and grandchildren of the Democratic farmers and union stewards have either moved out or lack the same perspective, all leading to a party base that gets smaller every year in the places where Minnesota’s progressive tradition was born.  It’s all a pretty bleak picture, but at least for this snapshot in time in 2016, following a devastating national election, still provides a glimmer of ongoing Democratic relevance in demographically unlikely places to hold up as blueprints for party survival.