Top Country Albums of the Decade (#20-#11)

Staff | December 9th, 2009


The penultimate installment of our countdown may be dominated by legends like Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, The Louvin Brothers, Loretta Lynn and Johny Cash, but it’s a husband and wife duo from down under who come up at the top of this segment, just one notch shy of the Top 10.

  • You Don't Know Me: The Songs Of Cindy Walker (2006)20. You Don’t Know Me: The Songs Of Cindy Walker (2006) – Willie Nelson

    Nelson’s gorgeous tribute to the pen behind several American standards and countless Bob Wills classics gained unexpected poignancy when Walker passed away just days after its release, but it didn’t require that odd twist of fate to distinguish itself in Nelson’s crowded catalog. After all these years, it’s as easy to take Nelson’s weathered voice and idiosyncratic phrasing for granted as it is to forget that Walker’s songs, timeless as they may seem, were the creation of a living, breathing person, not an in-built part of the musical landscape. This tribute showcases both to great effect, with Nelson’s craggy voice bringing new life to Walker’s strikingly economical compositions, and vice versa. Neither had sounded this good in years. — CM Wilcox

  • Little Sparrow (2001)19. Little Sparrow (2001) – Dolly Parton

    Little Sparrow is the Empire Strikes Back of Parton’s bluegrass trilogy: it’s the best of the three, building on 1999’s The Grass is Blue and serving as a solid lead-in to Halos & Horns. Parton’s songwriting is as strong as ever here, with mini-epic “Mountain Angel” feeling like a Lee Smith novel condensed into seven minutes of storytelling perfection. She also chooses to reprise “Down from Dover,” but it’s not all dead babies and insanity here; “Marry Me” is an infectiously catchy, girlish tune about young love. In addition to several Parton-penned tracks, Little Sparrow boasts a collection of excellent bluegrassy covers, including “Seven Bridges Road,” a version of American songbook standard “I Get a Kick Out of You,” and her version of Collective Soul’s alternative hit “Shine,” which won a GRAMMY. — Juli Thanki

  • Livin', Lovin', Losin' - Songs Of The Louvin Brothers (2003)18. Livin’, Lovin’, Losin’ – Songs Of The Louvin Brothers (2003) – Various Artists

    You don’t hear much good country harmony these days. Back in 2003, producer Carl Jackson’s loving tribute to the Louvin Brothers found an abundance of it in a series of right-on vocal combinations, including Joe Nichols and Rhonda Vincent, Alison Krauss and James Taylor, Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell, and Ronnie Dunn and Rebecca Lynn Howard. In hooking its all-star cast up with some of the best songs they had recorded in years, the album–the winner of the GRAMMY for Best Country Album in 2003–also contributed to a renewed interest in the music of the Louvin Brothers, paving the way for Charlie’s recent career resurgence. — CM Wilcox

  • Like Red On A Rose (2006)17. Like Red On A Rose (2006) – Alan Jackson

    Country music doesn’t abide albums that grow on you. Usually, they aim to strike fast and hard. Jackson, on the other hand, has made the best grower of the decade, a smoky-sounding record that reveals new mysteries with each listen. These are songs that celebrate the simplest and sturdiest of joys: the continuing excitements of monogamous passion, the pleasure of settling down, the wonder of wisdom and experience. And Jackson sings them gently and tenderly, as if he’s both quietly declaring his love and slyly getting you into bed. — Stephen M. Deusner

  • Van Lear Rose (2004)16. Van Lear Rose (2004) – Loretta Lynn

    Jack White dedicated the White Stripe’s 2001 album White Blood Cells to Loretta Lynn, and just a few years later, he produced her comeback album, the hard-hitting and harder-living Van Lear Rose. The raw, live-in-one-take sound comes from White, the title comes from Lynn’s mother, and the songs come from a life of toughening experiences. Like Cash before his comeback, she’d been making albums in relative obscurity, and while it took another name in the project to get her noticed again, she proved she hadn’t lost an iota of back-holler sass. — Stephen M. Deusner

  • Dailey & Vincent (2008)15. Dailey & Vincent (2008) – Dailey & Vincent

    Coming from two established bluegrass supergroups, and garnering plenty of hype even before they had completed an album, Dailey & Vincent didn’t try to achieve anything groundbreaking with their self-titled debut, but approached the chosen blend of gospel and secular material with excellence in mind and it was excellence they achieved. Their tight, nearly perfect harmonies and finely polished picking elevate what might have otherwise been considered a mostly ordinary collection of songs and allowed them to take home six trophies at the IBMA Awards in 2008, including Entertainer, Album, Male Vocalist, and Vocal Group. Not bad for a group that also won Emerging Artist the same night. — Brady Vercher

  • Call Me Crazy14. Call Me Crazy – Lee Ann Womack (2008)

    As one of two artists with two albums in the Top 15, it goes without saying Lee Ann Womack is one hell of a singer. She can twist and tangle words and phrases to wring out every last drop of heartache unlike any other female country singer of the decade, and that quality is on full display here. Like the many drinks consumed on the album, Call Me Crazy is a carefully measured mixture of one part stark traditionalism (of There’s More Where That Came From ilk) and one part feel-good pop, as found on I Hope You Dance. Like the title implies, that can makes for a sometimes schizophrenic collection, but Womack proves her reputation as a master stylist and interpreter of modern country music. — Karlie Justus

  • American V: A Hundred Highways (2006)13. American V: A Hundred Highways (2006) – Johnny Cash

    Cashmania was in full swing by 2006, thanks in part to Walk the Line, which had raked in 186 million at the box office the previous autumn. American V, released on July 4, debuted at #1 (Cash’s first #1 record since 1969) and went gold. The album is a somber meditation on life and the hereafter, with “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” serving as a stern, footstomping warning to ramblers, gamblers, and back-biters everywhere. Songs like Springsteen’s “Further on Up the Road,” Ian Tyson’s “Four Strong Winds,” and “I’m Free From the Chain Gang Now” are given new, poignant meaning, as Cash sounds ready to be released from the shackles of mortality. — Juli Thanki

  • Sleepless Nights (2008)12. Sleepless Nights (2008) – Patty Loveless

    Fourteen country classics are steered by one of the greatest country singers ever. Sleepless Nights is a fascinating portrayal of a woman under extreme duress, with Loveless performing a series of heartache tunes that never veer into self-pity. Husband-producer Emory Gordy, Jr. reimagines a bygone era with glorious steel flourishes and flashes of high-strung fiddle, all neatly wrapped around Loveless’ aching alto. The highlights are two lesser-known songs: Vince Gill guests on the title cut, a woeful ballad from another husband-wife team, Felice and Boudleaux Bryant. And with the former Dolly/Porter duet “The Pain of Loving You,” Loveless sounds like a woman bound to eternal unhappiness. — Blake Boldt

  • Rattlin' Bones11. Rattlin’ Bones – Kasey Chambers & Shane Nicholson

    Australian alt-country darling Kasey Chambers teamed up with husband/rocker Shane Nicholson to strip country music down to (and re-build it from) its elemental roots, the end result being one of the decade’s freshest sounding records and proof positive that roots music need not be stuck in the past. A thematic exploration of the coarseness of the human condition and the sweetness of redemption, Rattlin’ Bones exudes grit and sounds completely organic, as if it spouted up from some bush country soil; really, it’s a carefully constructed synthesis of bluegrass, folk and traditional country that expands each influence well beyond its normal bounds. — Jim Malec

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  1. [...] producer. Carl Jackson was responsible for that majestic Louvin Brothers tribute that landed inside The 9513’s Top 20 Albums of the 2000s, and a quick scan of the liner notes reveals that his voice helps fill out the harmonies on a full [...]
  1. Paul W Dennis
    December 9, 2009 at 9:35 am

    Great set of albums – I have all ten of these and only the Alan Jackson album doesn’t belong. I liked ALL of the songs on it BUT the album was less than the sum of its parts and badly needed some tempo variation.

    The Willie sings Cindy album was an exquisite effort

  2. Razor X
    December 9, 2009 at 9:48 am

    Not much to argue with here. Nice set of albums.

  3. Jon
    December 9, 2009 at 9:51 am

    Van Lear Rose should’ve been ranked higher and I love the mention of Patty Loveless’s end of the decade masterpiece, Sleepless Nights. Both of these CDs are amazing albums and display the full talent of the singer. The Lee Ann Womack disc, is my favorite of hers…it doesn’t get better than that. Good list, today.

  4. merlefan49
    December 9, 2009 at 9:55 am

    great set. I kinda got a feeling I may have picked the same cd as my number one choice as you did.

  5. Truersound
    December 9, 2009 at 9:59 am

    sweet, if american V is in the top 20, then I – IV must be on the Top 10!

  6. Brady Vercher
    December 9, 2009 at 10:02 am

    Johnny Cash: the only artist with albums not released this decade appearing on a list of this decade’s best albums!

  7. Leeann Ward
    December 9, 2009 at 10:33 am

    Brady, I’m confused.

  8. Brady Vercher
    December 9, 2009 at 10:36 am

    I was just being sarcastic because Truersound said I-IV must be in the Top 10 even though I and II were released in the 90s.

  9. Michael
    December 9, 2009 at 10:43 am

    Oh, man! All of these albums are so great! My guess for the other artist with another album in the Top 15 is Patty Loveless (Mountain Soul). Can’t wait for the last installment.

  10. cody
    December 9, 2009 at 10:54 am

    waitin on joey & rory!!!! must be top ten!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  11. merlefan49
    December 9, 2009 at 10:55 am

    Joey and Rory are all ready listed.

  12. Kelly
    December 9, 2009 at 11:05 am

    I agree with Jon on Van Lear Rose, but the other voters didnt see it my way…I had that disc really high.

  13. Dave D.
    December 9, 2009 at 11:53 am

    Patty Loveless is my favorite female country singer, but if Sleepless Nights made the Top 20 then Martina’s Timeless better be in the Top 10.

    Really enjoying this list.

  14. Truersound
    December 9, 2009 at 11:54 am

    Brady: DOH! I forgot about that little exception. Though III, IV, and the Box Set were released this decade!

    I’m thinking IV is going to definitely be in the top 10….top 5 maybe….not sure. It had Hurt on it, AND When The Man Comes Around. III should make the top 10 too for the simple fact it has Solitary Man, Mercy Seat, I See A Darkness, and Country Trash. But I have a feeling they will only include one and it will be IV because of it’s signifigance.

  15. Rick
    December 9, 2009 at 12:17 pm

    Its nice to see the Louvin Brothers Tribute make the list and gain a well deserved high position. This list has be righted and is back on the tracks…

    Its too bad the Cindy Walker tribute and Sleepless Nights weren’t recorded when the artists were at their vocal peaks. Willie’s voice is a bit too weathered for me these days and Patty’s voice has lost some of its amazing clarity. Oh well…

  16. Leeann Ward
    December 9, 2009 at 12:29 pm

    Truer Sound,
    I, over all, like American III better than IV as well.
    Rick, I do not notice the decline in Patty’s voice that you keep mentioning, though I’ve noticed it in Willie’s latest, American Classics.

  17. Drew
    December 9, 2009 at 1:28 pm

    Love every one of these albums. Great work guys.

  18. Razor X
    December 9, 2009 at 1:31 pm

    Rick, I do not notice the decline in Patty’s voice that you keep mentioning, though I’ve noticed it in Willie’s latest, American Classics.

    Patty sounds as great as she ever has. I don’t know how anyone can say that her vocals weren’t strong on Sleepless Nights . Willie’s voice has deteriorated but he still sounds good for a 76-year-old.

  19. Leeann Ward
    December 9, 2009 at 1:46 pm

    Amen, Razor.

  20. Ashley
    December 9, 2009 at 1:50 pm

    I’m loving this list – I’m in hopes when all is said and done, you’ll post just a plain ole printer friendly list – no descriptions, just album, artist, rank and maybe year. Thanks, and keep up the great work!

  21. Jon
    December 9, 2009 at 2:38 pm

    “High-strung fiddle?”

  22. Chris D.
    December 9, 2009 at 4:09 pm

    Well we know one of the top 10 is “There’s More Where That Came From”! Of the albums I have here, I love them- if I had more money I’d get the others…

  23. Rick
    December 9, 2009 at 4:20 pm

    Razor & Leeann, I stand by my contention that while Patty Loveless’ voice is still functioning at a 95% level (or higher), the crystalline purity of her earlier vocals has been replaced by an age related “mellowness” instead. Her vocals on the first Mountain Soul album vs. Mountain Soul II reveal this contrast clearly, well to my ears anyway. I just liked it better when her vocals had a bit more “edge” and I’m not referring to recording technique and production values (i.e. equalization) alone.

    I never expected to see “Like Red on a Rose” included here, but then again some of the other Alan Jackson albums included on the list didn’t do much for me either. I’d rename this album either “Like the Clothes on an Emperor” or maybe “Like Stink On a S….”. Well, never mind…

  24. Razor X
    December 9, 2009 at 4:24 pm

    Well, cheer up, Rick. Maybe BOMSHEL’s album will be in the Top 10.

  25. Jon
    December 9, 2009 at 4:30 pm

    Am I missing something, or is Joe Nichols absent from the list so far?

  26. Dan Milliken
    December 9, 2009 at 4:48 pm

    Strong set here. I want to like the Nelson and Loveless albums more than I actually do, and I wouldn’t put the Jackson album this high, but still, good to great albums all around.

  27. Noeller
    December 9, 2009 at 4:50 pm

    Interesting – I’ve never listened to any of these discs. Think the LAW one will be on my must-buy list, though.

  28. Rick
    December 9, 2009 at 5:17 pm

    Razor, the original BOMSHEL album featuring Buffy Lawson might have made the list if southern rockin’, ballsy female country duos had been a priority (and if had ever been released by the CURB label.) The new Bomshel is just too mainstream for my twisted taste in music…

    See, Dan M. from Country Universe isn’t sold on Patty’s current vocal prowess either in his comment: “I want to like the Nelson and Loveless albums more than I actually do…”. HA! (lol)

  29. Blake Boldt
    December 9, 2009 at 5:25 pm

    @Jon: Correct. Joe Nichols has not been featured in entries 100-11.

    @Rick: I nearly had a knee-jerk reaction when you questioned Loveless’ vocal ability at this stage of her career, but your second comment makes a whole lot of sense (to me). When I first heard both Sleepless Nights and Mountain Soul II, I told everybody that she’s never sounded better. I stand by that opinion.

    But those two albums lack some of the electricity in her ’90s records with Epic and on Mountain Soul. I think that’s more a matter of the (slow-tempo) material than any decline in her voice. She’ll always be best-known for her ballads, but I think she’s an underrated singer of rock- and blues-tinged country. And some of that influence is missing from her last two releases, great though they are. I think she’s more than capable of having that “edge” to her voice that you mention, as long as the songs ask for it.

    @Kelly: Speaking of rock “edge,” I placed Van Lear Rose in my top ten. Loved that record.

  30. Jon
    December 9, 2009 at 5:45 pm

    @Jon: Correct. Joe Nichols has not been featured in entries 100-11.


  31. Leeann Ward
    December 9, 2009 at 6:22 pm

    Joe has a great voice, but I’ve been underwhelmed by all of his records.

  32. Rick
    December 9, 2009 at 7:00 pm

    Hey, and what about Blake Shelton’s “Barn & Grill”? That album is far more worthy that most of the Alan Jackson / Brad Paisley stuff included thus far…

  33. Paul W Dennis
    December 9, 2009 at 7:10 pm

    For some reason, female voices tend to age faster than male voices do. I am not sure why this is so, but whereas octogenarians like Ferlin Husky or Ray Price (and before them Porter Wagoner and Hank Thompson)still had it at age 80, very few female singers do. Loretta Lynn lost that bell-like quality to her voice about 20 years ago, Dolly has suffered some deterioration as as Jean Shepard (although in Jean’s case it a loss of power rather than qualty).

    Like Rick, I have noticed a little decline in Patty Loveless’s voice although the decline is very small

  34. Blake Boldt
    December 9, 2009 at 7:37 pm

    She’s definitely singing in a more full-bodied, twang-emphasized register now, very much in the George Jones vein. I sense she’s lost just a touch of range, but there’s a richer, heartier tone to her voice that I really enjoy. Again, I would like to hear her record a more diverse disc next time around to hear all she has to offer.

  35. Mayor JoBob
    December 9, 2009 at 7:40 pm

    I don’t like where this list is going….

  36. Razor X
    December 9, 2009 at 7:41 pm

    I thought her voice sounded better than ever on Sleepless Nights .

  37. Blake Boldt
    December 9, 2009 at 7:56 pm

    @Razor X: You enjoyed Mountain Soul II just as well, right? I believe you gave it an “A.” Just to clarify my last comment, I think the new richness in her voice more than makes up for maybe losing the slightest bit of power.

  38. Razor X
    December 9, 2009 at 8:21 pm

    Yes, I liked Mountain Soul II a lot. I commented specifically on Sleepless Nights because it was her first album in three years and I half-expected that she might have lost some range, but I was somewhat surprised at how powerful her voice sounded on that album. Admittedly, I’ve got an amateur’s ear, but I couldn’t detect any loss of range at all. I expect she’s got a few years yet before there is any noticeable decline in her voice; most female vocalists’ voices seem to hold up until the mid-50s before they start fading.

    It’s interesting because I when I listened to Lorrie Morgan’s new album I thought there was quite a noticeable deterioration in her voice, but a lot of people didn’t think it had declined as much as I did. So who knows?

  39. Blake Boldt
    December 9, 2009 at 8:40 pm

    I think scaling down her touring schedule has helped Loveless preserve her voice. She’s undergone two vocal cord surgeries, the most recent in ’04 or ’05, and having a reduced workload takes some of the strain away. After both operations, her voice has come back with a more-husky tone, though she can still wail away when need be. In Morgan’s case, I think smoking has caused some of that deterioration.

  40. Dan Milliken
    December 9, 2009 at 8:43 pm

    Don’t read too much into what I said, Rick Ol’ Boy. I just meant that I don’t think You Don’t Know Me and Sleepless Nights are much more than well-performed covers albums. They’re more notable to me for their “cool” factor than for any particularly incredible quality about their execution which might place them in the decade’s highest ranks. Patty still sounds as good as I’ve ever known her to sound, although I’m admittedly not knowledgeable enough about her early work to compare too much.

  41. Razor X
    December 9, 2009 at 8:44 pm

    I wasn’t aware that she’d had a second surgery on her vocal chords. And I agree that smoking is the big culprit in Morgan’s case.

  42. Rick
    December 9, 2009 at 8:48 pm

    An aside: In my opinion one of the purest female voices in country music these days (in the Lee Ann Womack vein) is Shelly Brinkley of the brother and sister duo Mustang Creek. Shelly doesn’t sound like she has Lee Ann’s vocal range, but within her range her voice is borderline angelic. Now if only Mustang Creek could get a hold of the kinds of songs Lee Ann has access to. Hmmm…

    Mustang Creek:

  43. Blake Boldt
    December 9, 2009 at 9:28 pm

    @Razor X: It was underreported and a less-serious situation than her bout in the early ’90s. She thanked the Vanderbilt medical team (who also performed the first surgery) in the liner notes of Dreamin’ My Dreams.

  44. Josh
    December 10, 2009 at 12:40 am

    For me, the 1st half is unfamiliar, while the 2nd half I already own and enjoy from time to time. Especially the Aussie pair duo. Never thought that KC would be the Aussie charted on this list, but then again I am not surprised. Personally, I have a bias for Keith Urban to be somewhere in here, but I understand/recognize the pop/rock reference critics talk of him leading him not being on this list…that and the fact that he’s still “young” into the mainstream, despite him playing all of his life.

  45. luckyoldsun
    December 10, 2009 at 1:00 am

    I have mixed feelings about A.J.
    I don’t despise him as you apparently do. He’s really been the only mainstream superstar singer-songwriter who does COUNTRY music for the past 20 years.

    I think Jackson often seems very provincial and shallow in his songwriting. All he remembers about “1976” is “Rocky” movies and the “Six Million Dollar Man”–He has no opinions of anything of substance that went on in that era. And he still likes baloney and is country because he drives a pickup. I usually feel shortchanged by his albums–like he wimps out rather than really say something meaningful but that might be controversial.

    Even his “masterpiece”–“Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning?” doesn’t say anything–other than that he doesn’t know Iraq from Iran.

  46. Mayor JoBob
    December 10, 2009 at 1:07 am

    Alan Jackson does strike me as frustratingly simple. Still love him though.

  47. Steve from Boston
    December 10, 2009 at 1:13 am

    I too detect no loss of range at all with Patty’s vocals. I also had concerns during her three year sabbatical wondering if her voice had declined, but the whole Sleepless Nights album quickly put those fears to rest. Patty’s range, tone and timbre sound richer and fuller than ever, and her voice still has that edge of crystal clarity, to my hearing anyway. The “ole” gal’s still got it, and then some.

    Still, I had wondered if she could do her chart toppers from the ’80s and 90’s just as well. But the five PL concerts I had attended since the Fall of ’08 was all it took. (actually, I was convinced after the first concert of hers I had attended, and that was in Morristown,NJ, Oct ’08) She covered her own classics brilliantly, better than ever. This is no “garden-party” nostaglia act, no Branson-ready has-been. Patty Loveless is still very much an artist on the acendancy, and to my hearing she often outshines her mentors and her own musical heroes.

    MS II is further confirmation, Loveless retains all the qualities that make her perhaps the finest pure-Country vocalist of our time, and one of the greatest ever. Patty’s sense of nuance is fully developed, bolstered by years of hard gained artistic maturity, and without the loss of youthful vigor or any diminishment of her pure mountain timbre. She is exceptional in this regard, especially when compared with her contemporaries, some of whom have also recently released covers albums.

    Doubters and detractors please pick up a copy of MS II and check out the contrasts she has set up for herself by revisiting her own standards. Check Blue Memories against her own original, and Handful of Dust likewise. Half Over You as well, her progress is evident and uncanny.

    And as for losing some of her vocal power, quite the contrary, check out her “spoon-bending” rendition of Working On a Building, both on record and in concert. Some may remember Patty singing with Ralph Stanley and bringing down the rafters holding that “kneeeelt” note on Pretty Polly. “Building” proves she can still do that.

    Give a listen to her recorded version of Harlan, then go see her in concert. Patty’s live performance of this signature song of hers has to be heard to be believed. It is chill inducing and borders on the supernatural. Loveless hits and holds the key notes longer, and with more resonant depth and clarity than ever before. It is easy to imagine that Patty Loveless’s current performances of You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive have to rank among the finest, most transcendant in all of popular music.

  48. Steve from Boston
    December 10, 2009 at 1:48 am

    Nice write up Blake, on Sleepless Nights. And I can certainly live with this great album landing just outside of the top ten of the decade.

    I also really like Little Sparrow, and the Louvin’s tribute album.

  49. Route66News
    December 10, 2009 at 9:30 am

    I can think of one female country singer who’s lost very little range over the years, and that’s Dolly Parton. I saw her during the bluegrass tour for the “Mountain Angel” album, and I started crying when she sang “Coat of Many Colors” because I suddenly thought: “My God … she sounds exactly the way she did when I first heard it on the radio in 1971.” And that’s when she was pushing 60.

    As for Alan Jackson, I really do think he’s a excellent standard-bearer for trad country and Bakersfield country. I agree that his material tends to not be edgy. But, then again, I thought “Little Man” (a slap at Wal-Mart) and “Monday Morning Church” (a man losing his religion) were some of the most risk-taking songs I’ve ever heard on country radio. And you don’t find many people who would record a gospel album and make it go platinum — simply by making it sound sincere and gorgeous.

  50. Brandie
    December 10, 2009 at 11:36 pm

    Are you all nuts?
    It’s a decent list, but where is Carrie Underwood?
    “Some Hearts” sold more albums than half of these albums listed, and she’s won more accolades than half the artists on here for that album alone. The 9513 really likes to pound down Carrie Underwood, kind of like the reviews they give her albums. Honestly, this is ridiculous. If Taylor Swift’s second album can make it to 69, then Carrie’s 1st AND 2nd album should be up there. Miranda Lambert’s “Revolution” placed in the Top 30. “Some Herts” sold more than that album’s first-week sales in a matter of 5 days. The people who made this list obviously used their hatred and negativity towards Underwood to the best of their abilities, and this list without a couple of her albums is completely insane. Not saying her albums are THE list or the main part of the list, but “Some Hearts” should have been in AT LEAST the Top 25. With all of the #1’s that came off of that album, it’s a shame that they even had (or DIDN’T have) the common sense to leave it off.

  51. Jim Malec
    December 10, 2009 at 11:38 pm

    And McDonald’s has served over 99 billion. That don’t make ‘em the best burgers in town…

    What’s your point, Brandie?

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