Since this has been such a disappointing year for music, it figures that country music would suffer. There are normally only three or four very good country albums in a good year so, in a year like 2012, it’s practically hopeless.
My friend, and thequietus.com writer, Alfred Soto (a bigger country fan than I) said the Dwight Yoakam and Kellie Pickler albums from this year are excellent. They certainly aren’t bad, but I hear little in them that can stand up to the Pistol Annies and Eric Church albums from last year.
But even in a year like this, alt-country artists can still show the Nashville performers how it’s done. Two albums I can classify as great country records have been released this year, but both are so outside of the country mainstream that it almost feels inappropriate calling them that.
One of them is Iris DeMent’s “Sing the Delta,” one of my very favorite albums of 2012. It has no songs that are likely to appear on country radio stations, but much of it is perhaps more country than the average country hit. The other is Rhett Miller’s “The Dreamer,” his first self-produced album and the most country-sounding record he has ever released.
Miller is most famous for fronting Old 97’s, the most melodious group to form in the ’90s alt-country scene. With nine Old 97’s albums and four solo albums, Miller has proven to be one of the great living songwriters. He crafts melodies that are obvious not because you’ve heard them before, but because some other geniuses should have gotten to them first.
Bob Dylan hated Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold” because he knew he should have written it first. Every great songwriter should feel the same way about Miller’s “Bird in a Cage” and “Our Love.”
Miller’s work has always been country, but he’s rarely embraced it as much as he does on “The Dreamer.” The opening track, “Lost Without You,” is particularly sad, as country is supposed to be.
“I was going through a hell of a time, when suddenly you showed up,” he sings, “You gave me hope but I lost mine, but hope is not enough. I loved you so hard, it broke my heart, and you weren’t like the rest, until you left.”
Throughout this 13-song album, Miller holds his love of country music out in the open. He’s traditional enough for the songs to contain a certain purity of the genre that you don’t hear often in modern country.
If the future goes in a weird enough direction, songs like “Long Long Long” (“This ain’t love, but it ain’t bad. And when you leave, I’ll be sad, sad, sad”), “Sleepwalkin’” (“She had a prominent nose, she took off all her clothes”) and “Swimmin’ in Sunshine” (“Put a lie detector on my heart”) may become standards. That’s the future I’m hoping for, anyway.
“The Dreamer” hits its peak with “Marina,” possibly the most beautiful song Miller has ever written, and “As Close As I Came to Being Right,” a duet with Rosanne Cash. They’re not Gram and Emmylou, but Rhett and Rosanne work well together. They at least do the fantastic melody justice.
“The Dreamer” is not Miller’s best album; it’s not even his best solo album. But, it is one of his most important releases, showing him going all-out in the genre that has always been a prime influence in his music. As if the album wasn’t country enough, he ends it with a song called “Sweet Dreams,” which is also the name of one of my favorite country songs of all time (the Patsy Cline one). His “Sweet Dreams” doesn’t come close to topping that “Sweet Dreams” (how could it?), but it is a fine closing track.
Key Tracks: “Marina,” “As Close as I Came to Being Right,” “Long Long Long” and “Lost Without You.”