Juke Joint Jumpin’ is a recurring feature in which I loosely go through some of what has been in my listening rotation lately, with the primary purposes being to discuss various eras in country music history, offer recommendations, and to talk anecdotally about why these songs connect with me.
It’s been too long, I know. This is the first of two editions of this series, and is meant as something of a catch-up edition for my two-week absence earlier this month (and judging by where things are going, another absence may be imminent, folks. Sorry). Anyway, onward!
David Ball, “Riding With Private Malone” (written by Wood Newton and Thom Shepherd)
No personal story to open this first selection; I just saw someone online mention how David Ball was underrated and thought, “You know, you’re right.” Now, for the younger readers out there, Ball was a relatively minor hitmaker in the early ‘90s that pulled from a very distinct brand of hard-edged honky tonk – enough to where 1994’s “Thinkin’ Problem” was considered a surprise hit of the year – after a failed attempt at stardom in the late ‘80s. And sadly, that’s about where the story starts and ends, at least until we move ahead seven years and witness a comeback like few others.
You see, I always love rooting for the underdogs that have the talent but not the means to market it or capitalize off of it, and in 2001, Ball surpassed expectations with the independently released “Riding With Private Malone,” which eventually became a top five hit even without major label support. Now, I’d be remiss not to mention that this song honoring a fallen soldier’s memory by having a fellow solider ride around in his old car skyrocketed up the charts after the events of 9/11, but it’s the type of strong story song that could have easily stood on its own if released on a major label. At any rate, I’ve always loved the wistful, serious outlook of this song that still carries a little bit of rollick to it that’s both solemn and celebratory as well as contains a last verse that gets to me every time. Yeah, underrated, indeed.
John Michael Montgomery, “Letters From Home” (written by David Lee and Tony Lane)
You know, I’ve never done a “Best Hit Songs of 2004” feature before, but this is a serious contender for that top spot if I ever make one and a serious contender for one of my favorite hit songs of the entire 2000s, especially when it’s John Michael Montgomery’s last big song to hit the charts. And yeah, coming off of “Riding With Private Malone,” all I can say is that this randomly came on during a morning walk after playing that song and I forgot just how excellent it really is, capturing wartime atmosphere in a way that doesn’t feel pandering in capturing the family relationship across the world.
And really, it’s always been what isn’t said here that really grips me here, especially when there’s obvious tension between a son who chose to enlist and an estranged father trying to come to terms with it. And I love that it never explicitly outlines what causes that tension, whether it be that the father also enlisted at one point and doesn’t want his son to witness the horrors he did, whether the timeliness of the song’s release was supposed to say all that needed to be said, or whether it was something else entirely. Either way, that final verse is a real gut-punch, and when you have a great performer like Montgomery against generally warm tones in the dobro and harmonica and excellent acoustics, it’s a song that goes down effectively.
Sarah Shook & the Disarmers, “Dwight Yoakam” (written by Sarah Shook)
… I mean, if you saw one of my most recent pieces, you know how I stumbled upon this one. And really, if it wasn’t for the unfortunate drama and controversy surrounding Bloodshot Records (and even that feels like I’m downplaying it when I absolutely don’t mean to), we would have had that follow-up to 2018’s Years by now. At any rate, Sarah Shook is one of my favorite discoveries of the 2010s, the sort of hardbitten performer who blended the sad desperation of country music at its best with hard-driving blasts of punk that inevitably earned comparisons to Loretta Lynn like Lydia Loveless did earlier in the decade. And with both artists, I’m comfortable saying they eventually captured an essence that was all their own. “Dwight Yoakam,” as to be expected from the title, is country gold, if we’re going for an easy cliché. But it’s also a song that plays against expectations, in that this isn’t a song built around references made to the titular singer. No, instead it’s a heartbreak song in which the narrator’s significant other ditches them after a chance encounter and hookup with a famous country star who very well could be … well, you know. I mean, the audacity to frame it like that. It’s every bit as cool as that titular singer. What always gets me is the biting delivery of it, in which the downtrodden arrangement earns its potency for a character truly screwed over in more ways than one. Still one of my favorites from Shook.
Pistol Annies, “Beige” (written by Miranda Lambert and Ashley Monroe)
Not that I follow any act that closely online or that you should quote me on this, but apparently the Pistol Annies are cooking up something together soon, and I just want to say that all three of their studio albums hold up. Seriously, if you want a snapshot of all three of the individual artists that comprise this group at their best (Miranda Lambert, Angaleena Presley, and Ashley Monroe, for the record), pick up any Pistol Annies album and you’ll have it. Most folks will tell you that 2018’s Interstate Gospel is the best of the three albums they’ve made together, but I’m over here kicking myself for not writing about 2011’s Hell on Heels for last year’s “favorite albums of the decade” series. “Beige” is the song that always gets to me from this album, a song that, like pretty much every other track here, explores small town life in a way that trades in celebration for a grounded sense of realism … and because of that, despair, as well. And this Ashley Monroe-led song is a real gut-punch, a song about one’s wedding day that should be happy and joyous. After all, she’s with child. But it’s a small town, and instead of congratulations, all she gets from those around her are looks of shame, which Monroe sells with aching conviction. A track rivaled only by “Housewife’s Prayer” for raw emotion on display on this album.
Reba McEntire, “The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter” (written by Mark D. Sanders, Kim Williams, and Ed Hill)
Is it wrong to say that the only No. 1 single from Reba McEntire’s Read My Mind album feels like its most forgotten single? OK, so maybe it isn’t, but it’s among her most underrated (and best) in a broader context. I always couple it with “The Fear of Being Alone” in terms of her best songs of sheer desperation – a search for love out of need rather than want that’s surprisingly relatable in its execution, especially when you have a huge presence like McEntire to carry it. But what I love about this is that in spite of all of that, there’s real regret present in the misspent expectations of this hookup that adds weight to it, unlike “The Fear of Being Alone,” which is smart enough to put an end to things before they really get going. As far as ‘90s country-pop goes, it rarely got better than this, folks.
Alabama, “Mountain Music” (written by Randy Owen)
The conclusion of Country Universe’s Sirius rankdown has made me realize how unfair I was to Alabama during its run. In truth, I’m not sure how to directly capture my experience with the band. In some ways, due to heavy recurrent play, their singles act as part of the soundtrack to my childhood – even in the 2000s. And yet I liken them to, say, George Strait: an act with so many hits that it’s impossible to say you’ve heard them all and can remember all of them, at that. Now, unlike Strait, Alabama is a bit all over the place in terms of sound and style, and I would easily say I prefer their hard-driving, fast-paced tunes that lean into hard country and southern-rock over their ballads.
And after picking up a greatest hits of theirs recently … well, that’s all mostly still true. But I do look at those past hits a little more fondly now, and when they’re at their best, there’s a reason they were the biggest band of the ‘80s and have held that status as one of the most influential country acts of all time. Plus, they were a self-contained outfit that handled their instruments and vocals; it’s hard not to respect that. This is probably my favorite single of theirs, if only because it’s so damn infectious and earnest in what it’s trying to capture, another secret strength of this band. Plus, songs about reminiscing on the pure joys of how music can soundtrack a childhood are always going to work for me in some way, especially when it comes with an awesome instrumental outro that’s as fun as the song itself.