It's a thrill, as always, to be a part of Nashville Scene's annual Country Music Critics' Poll, especially in such a terrific year for the genre. Check out the full coverage below, including my own reflection.
File this under sentences I never thought I'd write: In the 11 months that I’ve lived in Qatar, I’ve visited nearly 20 different cities in 10 different countries. Traveling has been the greatest privilege of living overseas, sweetened by the company of some of the most special people in my life.
I’ve done shamefully little writing in this time, and that will change. But immersing myself in other cultures has made me more curious, more inquisitive and more understanding, all qualities I hope will eventually shape me into a stronger writer. Like my favorite writing experiences, traveling prompts me to think deeply about what threads us as a human race, which in turn helps me better understand myself. It tests and strengthens and molds my convictions.
That may be why, living 8,000 miles from Texas, I feel more connected to country music than I have in years. Country songs have always felt intrinsic to me, like an extension of myself and my emotions. It's an inexplicable bond in some ways, but it also makes sense: Country music was built on shared stories of humanity.
Living overseas has made me more diligent in my hunt for quality country music and more appreciative of the artists who truly invest themselves in the creative process. And what a year it's been for the genre: Despite SaladGate and the frustrating decline of mainstream country music, old and new artists alike have released outstanding music that's sparked intelligent, critical discussion around the genre.
This is especially true of female country artists, the genre's underdogs who have steadily and thoughtfully released some of the best music of the year. Their visions vary, but they share a commitment to finding new and incisive ways of expressing themselves. It's these women who have reinvigorated my love for the genre and, better yet, reconnected me to a community of country music writers that I consider myself lucky to know.
So here's to the music, the travels and the gratitude for both that marked this year. As for those next 11 months? I'm still following my arrow.
1. Venice, Italy
The scene: A rare moment of serenity during Carnival of Venice, about six hours before chaos would spread through the city.
The song: Laura Bell Bundy, "Let's Pretend We're Married," off of her second album Another Piece of Me. The song isn't nearly as campy or over-the-top as her famed work, but it's just as unapologetic.
2. Krabi Province, Thailand
The scene: The prettiest rainstorm we never knew we needed, even if it cut short our time on this tiny, pristine island near the Phi Phi Islands.
The song: Lee Ann Womack, "Send it On Down," a haunting prayer for redemption from The Way I'm Livin', which ranked third on our Best Albums of 2014 list over at Country Universe. Womack was brave enough to release it as a single this year.
3. Khao Yai National Park, Thailand
The scene: A surreal end to a day of firsts: riding an ox cart, preparing lunch at a Thai farm and riding this guy through the jungle.
The song: Ashley Monroe, "On To Something Good," a frivolous song on her excellent album The Blade, but the most personal to me in a year that turned my life on its head when I needed it most.
4. London, England
The scene: London's version of a speakeasy, a discrete, cocktail-perfecting paradise in Shoreditch that was well worth the 45 minutes it took to find (because, that minuscule sign).
The song: Cam, "My Mistake," which finds her shrugging off the consequences of messy romantic decisions in the name of exhilaration. The clean pop-country production is stellar.
5. Boppard, Germany
The scene: A sparkling view of Rhine Valley during a hike from the quaint, white wine-infused town of Boppard.
The song: Maddie & Tae, "Downside of Growing Up," a fine representation of the duo's debut album, Start Here, which is quickly becoming one of my favorite albums of the year. Aside from their skillful jab at bro-country, the newcomers (one of whom hails from my hometown of Sugar Land) have a knack for lilting harmonies and youthful, age appropriate songs that are still insightful and universal.
6. Madrid, Spain
The scene: An iconic cocktail bar called Museo Chicote, frequented by Ernest Hemingway during the Spanish Civil War. Another patron: my man Frank Sinatra.
The song: Tami Neilson ft. Marlon Williams, "Lonely," a gorgeous doozy of a song that's best described by one of my Country Universe co-bloggers.
7. Barcelona, Spain
The scene: Lo de Flor, a small restaurant off the beaten path, owned by this fierce, fabulous and slightly terrifying woman. She dictated our orders and gave us the most authentic meal of the trip.
The song: Carrie Underwood, "Smoke Break," the debut single from her fifth album, Storyteller, out Oct. 23. If there's one word that defines Underwood's decade-long legacy, it's empathy, and with "Smoke Break" she finds a new and unexpected way to empathize with people who often get overlooked.
8. Manama, Bahrain
The scene: A guided tour of the majestic Al Fateh Grand Mosque, which gave me the cultural reflection time that everyday life in the Middle East doesn't always allow.
The song: Kacey Musgraves, "Dime Store Cowgirl," her autobiographical tune that's grown on me the longer I've been away from Texas. What felt simplistic at first now feels truthful and direct, as are most of the songs on her sharp sophomore album, Pageant Material.
9. Azeitão, Portugal
The scene: A storybook garden in the middle of José Maria da Fonseca Winery, visited during a cathartic road trip through Portugal.
The song: Sunny Sweeney ft. Will Hoge, "My Bed." Sweeney's voice often skews too nasal for me, but her tone works well here, underscoring the melancholy theme of a passionless marriage.
10. Lisbon, Portugal
The scene: A charming back street I stumbled onto after exploring the city for hours on foot. I was lost, as I usually am, but exquisitely so.
The song: Ashley Monroe, "The Blade," my favorite song of the year, which uses a devastating metaphor to depict the alternate sides of a break-up. Monroe sidesteps hyperbole and delivers an elegant and impassioned explanation of how some people simply hurt more than others.
*Post title inspired by the farewell "card" my Houston colleagues gave me nearly a year ago, a copy of the Dr. Seuss classic.
Six months in Doha? Impossible. I've spent the time:
Exploring Dubai (where my first Ski Dubai experience ended in an hour of me going around the ski lift):
Catching up with this talented rising musician who's performing at The St. Regis' Vintage Lounge:
... which wasn't nearly as trippy as witnessing Carnival in Venice ...
Celebrating my first Easter without family at a local church, where the kindest strangers helped me and a friend out of a sitcom-like parking mishap.
Crashing the British Embassy's birthday party for The Queen:
Surviving my first sandstorm (and subsequent trip to the ER for a swollen eye).
Quadrupling my knowledge of sports with my first handball game, equestrian competition, tennis tournament (at which David Beckham made an inexplicable appearance) and club "football" match. I'm as surprised as you are:
Being enamored with this guy's insanely good solo album:
Applauding this parody that smartly tackles rape culture:
Digging this (unbelievably, May 25 marks 10 years since this creative force won "American Idol"):
Standing by my best friend of 15 years on her wedding day, and getting ready to join the festivities for another in a few days ...
... and feeling humbled by new perspective, new challenges and new friends, one of whom anonymously gave me this oddly endearing housewarming gift (identify yourself!):
...my new home gave to me:
Twelve more months to seize my 20s. More on that in a second.
Eleven bottles of red wine: eight purchased with my newly acquired liquor permit at the only store that sells it, and three gifted by kind (read: empathetic) neighbors during my first week.
Ten rows of falcons at Souq Waqif, an eclectic marketplace that's forcing me to learn the art of bargaining.
Nine ways (at least) I could have failed my two-part driver's license test, thanks to the language barrier, the insanity of Doha driving and my arch-nemesis The Roundabout. Miraculously, I passed and will be braving these roads in a very un-Tara-like SUV come next week.
Eight hours at the Singing Sand Dunes - and yes, they do in fact sing.
Seven courses at the lovely IDAM restaurant on top of the Museum of Islamic Art.
Six songs performed by Rayla Sunshine and her band at Jazz at Lincoln Center Doha. Live music is hard to come by in this city, which makes the recent Bellamy Brothers' concert all the more amusing (sadly, I had not yet arrived).
Five weeks at the local office, where I'm constantly learning from my incredibly welcoming colleagues, both culturally and professionally.
Four Arabic words I've learned to say - so basic that I'm embarrassed to mention all but:
Three nearby countries I'm itching to explore --Thailand, Oman and India--, the third of which I haven't visited since I was 12 years old.
Two Thanksgiving dinners that helped nurse my homesickness, hosted by gracious new friends...
...and one birthday with girlfriends (and a fun bartender) who were nice enough to celebrate with someone they'd only known for a week. Here's to spending the next 349 days topping off the decade that taught me to laugh at myself, embrace change and, most importantly, treasure my relationships.
(And, shamefully, zero attempts at writing - hold me to it in the new year.)
*Post written to the tune of this sweet song on Lee Ann Womack's The Way I'm Livin', soon to land on my best-of-2014 list.
In the four years since I launched this website to kickstart my freelance career, I’ve had the privilege of writing alongside some of the sharpest, most creative people in Houston and elsewhere. They continuously inspire me and humble me, and sometimes they even let me call them friends.
Over the past few months, I've been working with a fantastic local web designer to redesign this site. I had hoped a fresh site would give me a boost of motivation - that it would energize me to expand my freelance network, explore new forms of writing and grow as a writer. But not soon after we perfected that lovely Houston skyline above did I receive an offer from my company to really grow. In Doha, Qatar.
I could write about how grateful I am that this opportunity not only came my way, but did so at such a pivotal time in my life, when, in true millennial form, the questions have seemed to outweigh the answers. I could reflect on how touched I've been by the sweet send-off my friends and family have given me these past few weeks. But writing about my personal life has never been gratifying to me; instead, the most fulfilling way to express myself has always been through the things I choose to write about and the way I choose to write about them.
I write about people because they’re my favorite puzzles to solve. I review songs and albums because the best music elicits in me the purest emotion. I dissect those silly, wonderful, entertaining pop culture nuggets because, strange though it may sound, to a varying degree they all help inform and challenge my convictions about life. My favorite writing experiences are those that force me to think critically about that unexplainable glue that binds us as human beings - and in turn, I learn more about myself.
So that’s my plan for the next two years in Qatar: Show up, work hard, absorb. Look for that glue and find new ways to write about it. Grow. And, as this ballsy chick from Texas would say, follow my arrow wherever it points:
*Post title inspired by Kacey Musgraves' recent quirky tour stop in Houston. She covered "No Scrubs" - need I say more?
“Nashville” is decidedly more soapy this season, but the music is still impactful. I fell for the melody of “A Life that’s Good” –written by Ashley Monroe and Sarah Siskind– within seconds. You can hear Siskind's version of the song here, performed at the Bluebird Cafe:
I have a love-hate relationship with “Girls,” but this I just love:
A handful of things that brightened my August:
This spawn of Mumford & Sons and techno music (neither of which I enjoy):
Entertainment Weekly’s excellent Season 9 coverage of “How I Met Your Mother”:
(Discovered: TheSlapbetCountdown.com –indicating the next slap will be doled out on Nov. 18–, the return of Ellen D. “Nobody asked you, Patrice!” Williams, and the growing awesomeness of Cristin Miloti as the mother.)
My aforementioned favorite country single of the year that I reviewed over at Country Universe:
And this Texas road trip classic:
…re-discovered during my second consecutive trip to my college town this summer, which never (ever, ever) gets old: