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(This story has been updated with a statement from Jason Aldean-see below)
You know, I normally would steer clear of stories like this. But the fact that every time I’ve headed down to the general store for provisions for the Saving Country Music hideout over the last month I’ve had Jason Aldean’s sparking photoshopped teeth whiter than the wind-driven snow starring back at me from a People Magazine cover story showcasing the country singer’s “softer, romantic side” and his “daddy skills,” I thought it would be apropos to point out that TMZ just caught Aldean red handed cheating on his wife.
Aldean, who was performing this weekend in Southern California was snapped at a prominent bar on the Sunset Strip holding onto the hips and kissing former “A.I.” show contestant Brittney Kerr right out in the open. As People Magazine points out, Aldean married his high school sweetheart Jessica Ussery in 2001, and they have two daughters, ages 9 and 5.
And I don’t want to hear anyone say this is the first “country” thing that Jason Aldean has ever done. True, cheating songs are a common theme in country music, but cheating is also against everyone’s values no matter where you’re from, or who you are. This incident is unfortunate, and I feel sorry for Aldean and his family that this information is being dealt with in the public eye, but what’s even more sickening is how the pop machine tried to sell this guy to us as a family man just this month, while millions of country music fans are looking up to him as the highest-selling star in the business right now.
I hope Jason Aldean and his family can work though this difficult time amicably, but I also hope that people realize what a sham they are sold regularly through popular media, on checkout stands, smattering the public airwaves in ridiculous entertainment shows, and on the internet. We all make mistakes, and don’t for a second look down your nose at Aldean and think you’re better. But that is why instead of painting idyllic scenes full of perfectitude that are inevitably going to let us down, the approach should be honesty.
Jason Aldean is up for Entertainer of the Year, Male Vocalist of the Year, and Single of the Year at the CMA Awards in a month, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the People Magazine cover story was part of a propaganda machine attempting to influence votes. Well see if this illumination of Alden’s true colors does any damage to his chances.
Jason Aldean released a statement Sunday night admitting to acting inappropriately, and apologizing to fans.
Hey Guys – I wanted to talk to you directly, so you were hearing the truth from me and not just reading allegations made about my personal life on gossip web sites.
The truth is that I screwed up. I had too much to drink, let the party get out of hand and acted inappropriately at a bar. I left alone, caught the bus to our next show and that’s the end of the story. I ultimately ended up embarrassing my family and myself. I’m not perfect, and I’m sorry for disappointing you guys.
I really appreciate being able to work through this privately with my family and for all your continued support.
The Shivering Denizens and frontman Ron E. Banner epitomize gonzo-style West Coast country. The alternative rag in their local port of Seattle felt compelled to compare them to a dumbed down version of the Drive By Truckers, when the answer to the Denizens’ music lineage could be found right under Seattle Weekly’s Starbucks-stained noses. Just like fellow Seattle-based punk gone country group The Supersuckers, The Shivering Denizens serve up a fun, sarcasm-laden version of country that refuses to take itself too seriously.
Not as salacious as Bob Wayne & The Outlaw Carnies, and more solidly country than what the Supersuckers usually serve up during their “country” set, The Shivering Denizens are like Ken Kesey meets Merle Haggard.
That is why I was a little leery at first to hear their new album was somewhat “conceptualized.” Concept albums are better suited for space jams and serious forays into the depths of the human soul than sarcasm. Baker-Whiteley was a small, coal-mining town in Pennsylvania, now a ghost town where Ron E. Banner’s roots trace back. His grandfather settled there as a Hungarian immigrant, and this album plays out as a story of America through the evolution of Banner’s family over the years. Luckily though, it is still tinged with that dark, Shivering Denizen sense of humor we’re used to from their previous works.
Baker-Whiteley doesn’t set any new land speed records and probably requires a disposition to like underground-style country to get into, but the concept is true and is carried through with some good songs. The theme is the decay of the agrarian lifestyle in America.
This album starts off telling the story of papa Banner making his way from Ellis Island to the Baker-Whiteley coal mines and partaking in the local Allegheny moonshine. This is tied into the modern-day homemade innebriant of choice of methamphetamine during the next song, “Hartwood Train”. “Double Shot” goes from the fields to the factories and the fibrosis of the liver that usually follows, with Ron E. pulling out his best lyrical hook in the album, turning the self-loathing line “poor me” into the ordering of booze.
Not all the songs fit comfortably into the Baker-Whiteley concept, but still tie in to the loss of values and sanity, like the song “Richard Ramirez” that explores the rock star fascination America has with serial killers. “She’s Not On The Menu” is complete silliness, but seems to work positioned late in the album where you’re caught off guard by the overt raunchiness.
Similar to other artists like Bob Wayne, Eddie Spaghetti, and the Supersuckers, sometimes when they do decide to get serious, it’s hard to re-adjust your perspective. “The Whistler” is about the simple beauty of hard work, faith, and farm life. The message of “Angel’s Last Waltz” is a little hard to gather, but seems to center somewhere around the loss of religious values. These songs are worth not overlooking.
Baker-Whiteley is a really well-made album with diverse and solid instrumentation including piano, accordion, and female harmony singing. Whatever the songs called for, the Denizens made sure to procure. The wild nature of their music depends a lot on their use of harmonies, background vocals, and the way they’re arranged.
As curious as it may seem to some, The Shivering Denizens, along with many other Pacific Northwest-based country bands prove again just what a modern-day proving ground the top left corner of the country is for the roots.
1 1/2 of 2 guns up.
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Fallout from the sale of Gaylord Entertainment to Marriott International continues. Shareholders approved the $210 million dollar deal on Tuesday (9-25-2012) despite one of the leading investors in the company wanting Gaylord to spin off its Grand Ole Opry assets. Now the deal has ruffled the feathers of a country music heavyweight: Dolly Parton.
In January, Dolly Parton and Gaylord announced intentions to partner up and build a snow and water-themed amusement park in Nashville. The 114-acre, $50 million park was to be located near the Gaylord Opryland hotel on an entertainment zone off Briley Parkway. But when Gaylord Entertainment let it be known they had plans to sell the company to Marriott International and restructure the company into an REIT or Real Estate Investment Trust, Dolly Parton began to get cold feet, saying at an August 10th press conference:
There are a lot of changes going on. Gaylord is actually involved at the moment with some changes of their own, so we are just kind of waiting until they get their things straightened out before we go forward with that.
Now Dolly Parton has completely pulled out of the deal and is not mincing words about why, apologizing to the City of Nashville and the State of Tennessee, but seemingly laying fault at the feet of Gaylord.
Gaylord makes decisions that they feel are good for their company and their stockholders and I have to make decisions based on what is best for me and the Dollywood Company. Governor Haslam, Mayor Dean, and all the folks in government have been great to work with. I really appreciate their support through this process.
The proposed theme park was one of the Gaylord Entertainment assets that was scheduled to be re-aligned under Marriott International control like other Gaylord properties in Nashville, including the General Jackson Showboat and the Wildhorse Saloon. Gaylord is keeping managerial control of its large hotel properties and The Grand Ole Opry under the new Marriott umbrella, and renaming the company to Ryman Hospitality.
Dolly Parton owns the Dollywood theme park in Pigeon Forge, TN, and Gaylord was hoping for the country music legend to bring her high-caliber name and theme park expertise to the new amusement project. Now they are left looking for new partners. The Nashville theme park was originally planed to be a 50/50 venture between Gaylord and Dolly.
The Gaylord/Marriott deal is also turning out to be a job killer, at least for the Nashville area. The dissolution of the Dolly/Gaylord deal could cost Nashville as many as 450 jobs the theme park was hoping to create, and that doesn’t include the construction jobs to build the park. That is on top of the 310 positions expected to be cut in Nashville in the coming days with Gaylord restructuring into Ryman Hospitality.
The first thing this album does is remind you that Waylon Jennings left us too early. The strength of the compositions validate that sentiment. All artists go though peaks and valleys in their careers, but passing away at 64, Waylon was never afforded the legacy era that his fellow Highwaymen have enjoyed; the “Golden Years” of an iconic country career.
Goin’ Down Rockin’: The Last Recordings is a very unique project, and should be approached as such. Not the mish mash of ill-fitting songs that are sometimes swept together to make a posthumous release, though not necessarily an album that was fully completed stem to stern and then locked away in a time capsule to be released later. It started when Waylon called up his long-time collaborator Robby Turner, and told him he wanted to lay down some tracks, just him and his acoustic guitar, with Robby playing bass. They were recorded to multi-track, so that the masters could be called upon in the future to add additional instruments.
Waylon’s estate was very careful after his death to not exploit the moment, and let the time come to them when things like unreleased recordings and tribute albums should see the light of day. As Robby Turner says in the Goin’ Down Rockin’ EPK (see below), he took a similar approach to this project, waiting until his heart told him it was right to finish these songs, as was Waylon’s wish.
Waylon wrote all the songs on the album except one, which is somewhat unique in its own right. Though Waylon wrote many of his biggest and most important songs, he would not necessarily be labeled as prolific. But Goin Down Rockin’ was where Waylon was at this moment in his life, sensing the end was nearer than farther, and mere footsteps from the failing health that would make him unable to pursue music any further. Waylon’s mortality feels like a thread that runs along the spine of many of these songs, adding a tingling, reverent weight and depth.
Waylon’s guitar player Reggie Young, and Waylon’s right hand man for years, drummer Ritchie Albright were called upon to put flesh on the Goin’ Down Rockin’ recordings with Robby Turner. Tony Joe White also appears, and is responsible for the title track. But make no mistake, this album is Robby Turner’s baby, and you can sense that throughout the recording; the care and reverence with which he approached the task.
I did his last 9 albums before this one. And when me and Reggie would work in the studio with him, he never told us what to do. We would play until we saw him smile. So that was our thing and that’s what I told Reggie. I want us to do this record, and I want us to play until we see him smile.
You can’t come to this album expecting to find some brand new Waylon super-hits that will help you relive the experience of your first time hearing legendary Waylon albums like This Time or Honky Tonk Heroes. Let’s be real, the end of Waylon’s career was not his peak of creativity and influence. But I’ll be damned if I was not surprised by the strength of many of Goin’ Down Rockin‘s offerings.
“Belle Of The Ball” was the only song on 1977′s Ol’ Waylon that Jennings wrote himself, and though my ear tends to steer away from remakes, this one captures the same sublime warmth of mind as the original, helped along by the confidence of Waylon’s voice, and Robby Turner’s idyllic steel guitar. But I’m not sure how you can do this song wrong; it is written so well. Waylon’s son Shooter’s take on the first The Music Inside Waylon Tribute is the gem of those releases.
The other superlative of Goin Down Rockin’ is the previously-unreleased “I Do Believe”; a thesis on Waylon’s religious theology that holds such grace, wisdom, and beauty, without coming across as too weighty or judgmentally wrong-minded. It really is a master stroke of the pen. I can see why Waylon was so eager to get these songs out to the world.
Despite the “Rockin’” title, there’s some waltzing and melody in this album, including “Sad Songs And Waltzes” which is not a cover of the old Willie Nelson tune, but Waylon’s similar, sister-take on the song. And the album ends with a fiddle-driven, Cajun-flavored waltz “Wrong Road To Nashville”.
The production of this album is one of its most present aspects. In places it is very heavy-handed, and very progressive. As a whole, I feel that Waylon would likely have smiled upon the approach, and it fits within the era from which these songs came. But in that same respect, in certain places it feels outmoded to the modern ear, like with the 80′s-ish feeling “If My Harley Was Runnin’” or some of the bass work on “Friends In California”, or the way the drums in certain places have that over-echo saturation.
But in most of Goin Down Rockin’, composition and production feels pretty seamless. Probably the most talked-about approach will be on the epically-produced “Ways of the World” which starts off just Waylon and his guitar, but then is bolstered by floaty, synth-sounding guitar layers and backwards-looped steel. I wouldn’t argue with someone who said it was too much, but I kind of like it.
Enjoying this album I believe depends greatly on how you approach it. Understand that this album isn’t just from Waylon, it is about Waylon; a celebration of his life through his own music, brought to fruition by the reunification of his friends. It is a tribute, and a truly original final offering all the same; a period at the end of his epic career.
It is worth your ear.
1 3/4 of 2 guns up.
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On Tuesday (9-25-12), the Tennessee Court of Appeals upheld a lower Chancery Court ruling denying a request by Curb Records to block Tim McGraw signing and recording with another record label. Barring another appeal being accepted by the Tennessee Supreme Court, this means Tim McGraw is finally free from Curb Records, his label for 20 years who tried to keep him perpetually under contract by claiming the material from his final Curb album Emotional Traffic was recorded too soon after his previous album, and by releasing a comical parade of “Greatest Hits” compilations.
The court battle began in May of 2011 when Curb Records sued Tim McGraw for breach of contract. It got even muddier when during the litigation process, McGraw signed with Scott Borchetta’s Big Machine Records on May 21st, 2012 and announced he’d recorded 20 songs with the label. Curb refused to acknowledge the new signing, asserting that McGraw was still under contract with them and the 20 songs were their intellectual property. Then in a battle of Music Row heavyweights, Curb and Big Machine began releasing competing singles. The courts have since ruled against Curb in a number of smaller decisions leading up to Tuesday’s big decision that should put McGraw’s label status mostly to rest.
“All recordings made after December 1, 2011, belong to McGraw,” the Tennessee Appeals Court ruled. “We find no error in the trial court’s preliminary determination regarding the ownership of masters…We affirm the judgment of the trial court and assess the costs of this appeal against the appellant, Curb Records.”
However Tim McGraw still must navigate the trial hurdle for the original breach of contract issue. Though the courts have ruled that McGraw can now make and release music with a new label, they still must determine if he indeed recorded the music for his last album Emotional Traffic to soon, and if so, what the penalty will be. Curb released a statement after the court ruling, saying in part:
The fundamental issue in this case is whether Tim McGraw fully performed under his contract with Curb Records. That issue has yet to be ruled on by any court, and will be the subject of a full trial on the merits scheduled for later this year.
We respectfully disagree with today’s ruling by the Court of Appeals on that issue, and we intend to continue to pursue this issue, including through the further appeals process as appropriate, in light of the significance of the underlying principles involved.
Those principles include our belief that contracts must be enforced as written, and in particular that exclusive personal services agreements with individuals, such as Mr. McGraw, who possess unique and extraordinary talent, must be subject to enforcement by injunctive relief.
Tuesday morning (9-25-12), Gaylord Entertainment shareholders approved a $210 million dollar deal to have Marriott International buy the company and take over management of certain Gaylord assets. The vote also sets in motion Gaylord’s plan to covert the company into an REIT, or Real Estate Investment Trust. Shareholders voted at an 85 percent rate in favor of the deal according to The Tennessean.
As part of the SEC filing, Gaylord also revealed plans to change the name of the company to Ryman Hospitality Properties, the “Ryman” being from The Ryman Auditorium; the “Country Music Mother Church” and the first major home of the Grand Ole Opry. The name change also solidifies the company’s hold on The Grand Ole Opry and it’s assets, which includes The Ryman and radio station WSM-AM. According to The Nashville Post, then name change is part of the company’s “plans to have the Ryman brand, along with the Grand Ole Opry and WSM-AM, play a prominent role in their future operations.”
Whether The Grand Ole Opry assets would be part of the deal was called into question when large Gaylord investor Gabelli Funds LLC suggested Gaylord spin off the Opry assets, believing they would thrive better outside of Gaylord’s new structure that will be focused on real estate instead of entertainment, but Gabelli did not hold enough stock to thwart the deal. Gabelli’s Gaylord holdings are near 15%, but it is unclear if he comprised the 15% that opposed the deal. A call to Gabelli by Saving Country Music was not immediately returned. The largest Gaylord stockholder, TRT holdings, also opposed the deal before being bought out by Gaylord to allow the deal to go through.
“Nothing will change at these iconic assets,” said Gaylord CEO Collin Reed last week. “And we look forward to continuing to offer the same level of world-class entertainment that has made them such prominent music institutions.”
Though Marriott International is the new umbrella organization Ryman Hospitality will reside under, Ryman Hospitality will continue to own its assets and manage its resort hotels and the Grand Ole Opry. Marriott will take over management of other Gaylord assets, including Nashville’s General Jackson Showboat and Wildhorse Saloon.
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The sale and ownership change at The Grand Ole Opry represented a unique opportunity for the institution to break free of from corporate control for the first time since 1982, and refocus its assets on the business of music. With the name change, Gaylord’s mark on the Grand Ole Opry now becomes indelible, and the possibility of Opry autonomy unlikely.
On Monday night, the anger of many country music fans boiled over when they finally woke up to the realization that their favorite country stars had been swapped out for scab “replacement” stars by the country music industry, with many of the replacements being castaways from pop.
Fans took to social media to vent their anger, posting “meme’s” and citing specific artists and songs they are hearing on the radio right now, including The Ford Truck Man Toby Keith’s song “Red Solo Cup”.
“It’s a song about a ****ing plastic cup!” wrote John from Ohio on his Facebook page. “Why are my ear holes being subjected to this bullsh**!?!? And another song is called “Corn Star” ?!?! REALLY?! I wouldn’t let me parakeet sh** on this mess!”
Arthur from Florida wrote via Twitter.“Ahhhh! I swear, if I hear another ding dong song about trucks, I’m gonna start drowning adorable little baby animals!”
Others showed concern about country music as an institution, like Mary from Texas.
“With country rap, bad pop acts, and nearly every song about pickups trucks or ice cold beer, I am seriously worried about the integrity of the genre moving forward. I love you country music, but if it stays like this for much longer, I’m no longer going to listen.”
The reason for the replacement country stars is a contract dispute between real country music artists and Music Row–Nashville’s concentration of major labels. Apparently Music Row wants the real artists to sign on to restrictive stipulations that would limit their creative freedom, restrict their earnings from their music, and make them virtual slaves to label demands. Meanwhile the replacement stars are more than happy to just have an opportunity in the music business, many because their talents are not good enough to make it in music traditionally, or to cut it in other genres.
Professor of music sociology at Vanderbilt University Gertrude Frankenfurter explains why the outrage is occurring now:
Take the situation surrounding the NFL’s striking officials. People woke up to the fact that poorly-trained, unskilled officials would not work out almost immediately. But with country music, the use of replacement stars was implemented slowly over time, so people wouldn’t get wise that they were slowly being fed a lesser product. But maybe the country music industry crossed a line with its current batch of stars and songs, and people are finally realizing what has happened.
Professor Frankenfurter says country music is unique in how it seems to reward mediocrity.
As we see with the NFL right now, hiring lesser-talented individuals might help you make more money for a while, but eventually the lack of talent will begin to erode the integrity of the industry. That’s what’s happening in country music. Or let’s say the NFL hired officials based on their physical attractiveness as opposed to their talents. There seems to be very few industries that reward mediocrity, but country music appears to be one of them. The best and brightest are left in the shadows while the lesser-talented flourish.
“Kenny Cheseny sucks!” wrote Bubba from Iowa last night on Facebook. “He should take his butt buddy Tim McGraw on a vacation to Kandahar and hopefully get blowed up!”
Replacement country star, The Ford Truck Man Toby Keith released this video response to the replacement country star controversy.
On Tuesday morning (9-25-12) Gaylord Entertainment, the owners of The Grand Ole Opry and its various assets will conduct a board meeting to finalize their sale to Marriott International for $210 million and restructure the company into an REIT or Real Estate Investment Trust. Though the deal has been opposed by the two top investors in Gaylord, TRT Holdings and Gabelli Funds, the deal is expected to go through by most experts, but you never know what can happen.
TRT Holdings, Gaylord’s biggest shareholder, had to be bought out make Gaylord’s REIT restructuring possible, and the other big investor Gabelli wants Gaylord to spin off the company’s Grand Ole Opry investments before the restructure, worried these assets will get smothered in a real estate model. With the TRT buyout, Gaylord will likely have the shareholder votes to make the deal go through.
But sitting on the sidelines seems to be the fans of country music and their best interests. Tuesday will be the first time since 1982–when Gaylord purchased The Grand Ole Opry, WSM, and all of it’s various properties–that The Opry will have an opportunity to be free of a larger company’s control, a company that must meet shareholder’s demands, and figure out how to fit an old, historic institution into a modern-day corporate management structure.
Many diehard and purist fans of country music have been saying that The Grand Ole Opry has been mismanaged for years. They feel disenfranchised by the Opry’s recent moves of showcasing more pop, and more younger members of the country music industry. Others cite various causes like the Stonewall Jackson lawsuit that exposed the Opry dilemma of how to handle aging talent, or the campaign to Reinstate Hank to the Opry.
But where is this opposition in the argument for the Opry’s fate that could very well be decided tomorrow? They seem curiously absent. Instead of anger at what has become of arguably country music’s most important institution, there seems to be apathy and resignation to the fact that it is over, that the Opry will never return to its prominence of the past, or to a healthier balance, where both young, up-and-coming talent, as well as aging and traditional country artists share the billing.
But this quite possibly is the moment when the tide has turned. How much influence can the country music public have on the sale of a company? None if they don’t speak up in favor or opposition, but for the first time, they have the business men who make the decisions on their side, echoing the same sentiments Gaylord detractors have for years about Gaylord mismanagement.
The shuttering of The Ryman Auditorium for 20 years would have never happened without the complicit nature of the country music public. The Opry will never fit well in a modern-day corporate structure, and like shareholder Gabelli points out, things could get worse under the new system.
When Gaylord initially purchased the Opry in 1982, there were concerns then about how it would be managed in Gaylord’s complex and diverse portfolio. Marriott showed interest in the Opry in 1982 also, and so did MCA and Anheuser-Busch before passing on the deal, unable to resolve how to take the complex Opry assets and manage them fairly and efficiently. That’s when Gaylord recognized the power of the “Opry” brand and pounced, and since has been poorly managing assets that don’t fit in its structure as a media company, and now as a real estate company.
The folks opposed to the current direction of the Opry should be salivating at this opportunity instead of being resigned to the loss. Maybe it is because of the complexity of the Opry/Gaylord/Marriott deal; they just don’t understand how ripe the moment is. This is the time to be in full throat, to be most vocal. This is the time to be marching on the temple and overturning the tables of the money changers who’ve set up shop in the Opry institution.
Shareholders and bylaws can say whatever they want about who owns the Opry, but the true owners of the Opry will always be the people of country music. Without them attending the shows and listening to the programs, the Opry doesn’t exist. And for the first time in years, there’s allies in the boardroom, parroting similar sentiments to Gaylord’s detractors, not from a heartfelt love from the traditions of country music, but from very cold and concrete analyses of business and management.
At the same time, it is also time for pragmatism. Bad words and calls for bowls of blood have done nothing to re-engage the Grand Ole Opry with the roots of the music, they’ve only typecast the arguments against Gaylord’s ownership regime. The Opry must keep the institution relevant by showcasing younger, popular stars. What must be yearned for is balance, where young, traditional and neo-tradional stars, as well as older stars still putting out relevant material are given equal footing. The Opry needs to re-emerge as the fulcrum in a country music farm system to evaluate and develop emerging talent in an industry that has become creatively stagnant.
And this vote on Tuesday may not be the end of this fight, but only the beginning. As Gaylord restructures into an REIT, the opportunity will linger, if not present itself even more that the Opry assets must be spun off for the health of the Opry, Gaylord, and the new Marriott parent company.
This is not the time to sit back and let Gaylord tighten their reigns on Opry control, it’s time to point out that Edison Research says folks want more classic country, that the Reinstate Hank petition now has over 53,000 signatures. And that what the Opry needs, just like Gabelli says, is autonomy, or an owner who cares.
The Grand Ole Opry is the founding institution of country music, and will always be worth fighting for.
I’m not sure if I can come up with a more touching country music story in 2012 than that of Don Maddox. Think about it, 90-year-old man whose spent the last 54 years in virtual obscurity from the music world makes headlines by receiving standing ovations at the Grand Ole Opry and is featured at the Country Music Hall of Fame along with the rest of his family as part of the Bakersfield Sound exhibit. The last surviving member of the Maddox Brothers and Rose has been paling around with Merle Haggard, Marty Stuart, and “Little” Jimmy Dickens while being one of the headliners of the Muddy Roots Festival in Cookeville, TN over Labor Day weekend.
As the fiddle player and comedian “Don Juan” (his stage name), his brothers and sister Rose were seminal in creating not only the sounds of country music, but rockabilly and rock n’ roll as well. As Depression-era refugees, they moved from Alabama to California when the siblings were still young, and sick of trying to make it as laborers, decided to form a band that is mentioned by people like Merle Haggard as one of the most important and influential bands during the 30′s through the 50′s. Unlike other bands of that time, the Maddox Brothers and Rose mixed boogie woogie in with hillbilly music, making them one of the first rockabilly bands.
Earlier in the summer I spent a day at the Maddox Revolution Ranch in Ashland, OR with Don and his wife Barbara as part of writing a feature on country’s “oldest, newest singing sensation” (as Don like to call himself), and here is the full content of my hour-long interview with him. In the interview he talks about how Maddox Brothers and Rose may have influenced the style of Elvis, his adventures surrounding the Bakersfield Sound exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame, and how he became a rancher and the pillar of the Maddox family post-music. It is much more entertaining to listen to because Don is such a funny, entertaining guy, but I have also transcribed the meat of the conversation below, and included some interesting pictures.
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Trigger: So you were born on December 7th, 1922.
Don Maddox: There was two disasters happened on December 7th. One was Pearl Harbor, and I was born (laughing).
Trigger: Lately you’ve had a resurgence in your career. You played the Muddy Roots Festival last year out in Cookeville, TN. And then this year, the Country Music Hall of Fame opened up a brand new exhibit highlighting the Bakersfield Sound and California Country, which the Maddox Brothers and Rose were seminal to.
Don Maddox: And besides that, while I was back there (Nashville) for the Bakersfield country music exhibit, I was on the Grand Ole Opry! Who ever thought I’d be on the Grand Ole Opry? I didn’t.
Trigger: Were you on the Grand Ole Opry originally with the Maddox Brothers and Rose?
Don Maddox: No. We started recording in 1946, and then in 1947 we got a guest spot on the Grand Ole Opry, and then in 1949 we had a guest spot on the Grand Ole Opry. But this time I was on the Grand Ole Opry in my own name right as Don Maddox with Marty Stuart, and I got a standing ovation! I didn’t think anybody had ever heard of the Maddox Brothers and Rose. It blew my mind.
Trigger: It’s because there’s been a resurgence in The Maddox Brothers and Rose and when you go back and listen to the music it makes sense because it’s timeless. It’s so important to so many different elements of American music. It’s easy to pigeon hole you into country music. But when you started off, you didn’t call yourself country music, did you?
Don Maddox: Three of my brothers and Rose started before I came along. I was only about 13 at that time; 1935 or so. And then about 1940, I joined the band. At that time, it wasn’t called country or Western, it was called hillbilly music. And then about 1950 or something, hillbilly wasn’t going over too well, that’s when the pop artists came in. And now, the so-called hillbilly country music has transformed into pop country. But when we were hot it was just straight hillbilly music. Then rockabilly came in about 1950. I hear that Maddox Brothers and Rose were instrumental in creating the rockabilly sound. I didn’t know we were, but I did a song on the stage at that time, I was spoofing rockabilly. I did Ray Charles’ song “I’ve Got A Woman” except I parodied it and changed it into a comedy thing called “The Death of Rock & Roll”. It never got played here much in the United States, but I hear it was a big hit in Europe.
Trigger: So you were big in creating rockabilly because unlike some other hillbilly bands, you would add some elements of boogie woogie in there. It wasn’t even called rock & roll at that point, it was called boogie woogie, and mixing the two was rockabilly. And your brother Fred was one of the first guys to create the slap style of playing bass.
Don Maddox: The reason he did a slap bass is because he didn’t know how to play the bass, and all he was doing was playing rhythm anyhow, but he didn’t know the notes so he’d just slap the bass for the rhythm part and everybody thought he put on a great show and thought he was the best bass player there was.
Trigger: Tell me about the experience of going out to this new Country Music Hall of Fame exhibit. I read a quote from Merle Haggard saying that if you don’t have The Maddox Brothers as part of this exhibit, then you may as well not have it, or something like that. How did it feel to be out there and realize just how much influence y’all had to the formation of American music?
Don Maddox: Speaking of Merle Haggard, I’ve read his autobiography, and the first time he saw the Maddox Brothers and Rose he was only about 12-years-old, and we were playing at a dance in Bakersfield, CA. Somebody told him we had the best guitar player in the world, and he (Merle) wanted to be a guitar player. The guitar player we had was Roy Nichols. Merle went down there to see Roy Nichols but he happened to see us too. We got to know him better in later years, and Fred and Rose worked with him after Maddox Brothers and Rose broke up.
But I’ve been out of the entertainment business for 50 years. I’ve been hibernating here in Ashland (Oregon), and nobody here either knew or cared that I was Don Maddox of the Maddox Brothers and Rose. Well we flew back (to Nashville for the HOF opening), got me on the Grand Ole Opry, and the guy that met us at the airport was from the Hall of Fame, and the first words he says to me was, “Did you hear what Merle Haggard said about you?” And I said, “No.” and he said that Merle Haggard said, “If you don’t get Don Maddox back here for this exhibit, you might as well not have it at all.” And then every person that I saw that was associated with the museum after that would say, “Did you hear what Merle Haggard said about you?” It just blowed my mind, I couldn’t believe it.
Trigger: So at the Country Music Hall of Fame, they have a whole section dedicated to The Maddox Brothers and Rose as part of the Bakersfield Sound exhibit.
Don Maddox: They’ve got a whole exhibit, showing our uniforms and pictures. They’ve got Cal’s guitar in there. Marty Stuart, he owns all of the Maddox Brothers and Rose’s colorful uniforms that we wore because he collects uniforms like that. He was out here playing a fair last year, and I had a couple of boots I made special for me in 1950, and I had wore them out. They cost $50 a pair. They were 60-years-old at this time and I sold them to him for $100 a pair, and when I went back for the exhibit, there were my boots sitting out there right in front.
Trigger: I just learned something about your role in the band. I knew you played the fiddle, but you say you were the comedian in the band which makes perfect sense. When I saw you perform live, and just sitting down here, you’re a very funny guy. So that was part of your role in the band, you we’re the comedian. How did that come about?
Don Maddox: Well I’m shy and introverted (laughing). And when you read about other comedians, they’ll say they’re shy and introverted, unless they’re “turned on.” But I am shy and introverted, and that’s the only way I could get attention was to make the people laugh, and over a period of time of doing that, I got pretty good at it.
Trigger: I heard that Elvis opened for y’all back in the day.
Don Maddox: Well, he didn’t open for us, we were playing a show in Beaumont, TX. It was a package show with us, Elvis, Slim Whitman, and some others at the auditorium. And we had on our fancy outfits, the ones with the bell bottoms on them, and all the flowers and all that stuff. Elivs was just coming on the scene at that time. It was just him and the two guys that played with him and they came in with their street clothes on. That’s all they had back then. It was pretty hot in Beaumont at that time, so we took off our fancy jackets and hung them up backstage. And when we came off stage and went back there to get our jackets, Elvis had on one of our fancy jackets and was parading around backstage. And when Mama saw Elvis wearing our jacket, she made him take it off. And he said, “One of these days I’m gonna get me a fancy outfit like this.”
Trigger: And when you say “Mama” are you taking about Rose?
Don Maddox: No, I’m talking about the mother. Mother was the ram rod of The Maddox Brothers and Rose. She was the one that kept us together, and she was the boss, we were just the kids. We were just a family, and no matter how old we got, we were still just the kids. I was 37-years-old when I was forced out on my own when Mama, Rose, and Cal went back to Nashville. They left me sitting there on my own, I’d never done anything for myself in my life.
Trigger: In Ashland, OR, you have a barn that says, “Maddox Revolutionary Angus” on your ranch. It’s such a bold statement to call your angus “revolutionary.” What brought you to Ashland? How did you end up a rancher?
Don Maddox: The band broke up in 1955. We had reached a plateau. The only income we had was from personal appearances, and we had played so many places so many times, the crowds began to taper off. And Rose decided she was actually the star, and she decided she could make as much money as the whole band got and had to split it 5 ways. So she decided to take off on her own, and she got in touch with Nashville and The Grand Ole Opry with just her and my brother (Cal) going with her to play guitar. And they left me, and my brothers Fred in Henry sitting there in Hollywood, and none of us was good enough to play with another band. We were good enough for Maddox Brothers and Rose, but not good enough to play with other bands.
So there I was sitting there in Hollywood with all the money going out and none of it coming in, and I had always wanted to be a cowboy, a range rider. I didn’t know anything about cows or anything like that, so they had a college of agriculture in the San Fernando Valley, and I only lived 10 miles from that. So I decided I would enroll in that college of agriculture and get some book learning. I never even went to high school, much less got a diploma. I was 37-years-old at this time. After I had my goal set, which is where I’m at, sitting here on the ranch in Ashland, OR, all the ways and means just presented themselves.
I was looking in trade magazines for cattle and a ranch and I saw one advertised in Ashland, OR for $35,000. 300-acres, some irrigated, with a house on it. Actually I wanted to go to the Napa Valley, but there was nothing there I could afford. I’d just bought me a 1957 pink Cadillac and I’d driven it up here. I didn’t have much use for a pink Cadillac on a ranch, I needed a pickup truck. So I tried to trade him my pink Cadillac as a down payment on the place, but he didn’t have any use for a pink Cadillac either, but he said he would knock off the real estate commission, and I could have it for $27,500. That was a lot of money at that time, but you couldn’t buy an acre of this land now for $100,000. So here I am, I’ve been working the place for 54 years, and nobody recognized me as a famous country music singer until now.
Trigger: Is this still a working ranch?
Don Maddox: Yes. I sold my cattle and I’m leasing the ranch out now, but I’ve been working the ranch up until now, but I’m getting to where I can’t do the work.
Trigger: But now the music is coming back.
Don Maddox: This is my golden years. I heard about the golden years when I was a younger man and thought, “Yeah right.” But since I’ve been in the golden years, I’ve got a new thing of my own, I’ve been on the Grand Ole Opry as myself, I’m in the Hall of Fame back there. This is the golden years for me.
And how I got the Revolution thing, when I went into the cattle business I was raising registered Angus cattle. So I went to a bull sale in Reno and bought the grand champion bull up there, about 1970. They had this bull that I really wanted, and his name was Ben Bond Revolution #73. I waited until everyone had stopped bidding, and then I started bidding, and there was a guy who wanted him as bad as I did. I bid him up to $10,000 and he wouldn’t bid more than that because $10,000 was his limit. I latched on to that “Revolution” and I was gonna revolutionize the cattle industry with that “Revolution” bull, and I named my ranch “Maddox Revolution Angus Ranch.” And I kept that bull for two years and he gave me some good calves, and then he went sterile on me! And I had to sell him at hamburger prices at 25 cents a pound. So I didn’t revolutionize the cattle industry because nobody would join my revolution.
Trigger: Rose lived in Ashland too, so Ashland kind of became the home of Maddox Brothers and Rose post your heyday. We’re you the one that brought the family up here?
Don Maddox: Well I bought the ranch, and Rose and Cal had gone back to Nashville for a year, and things didn’t work out for them in Nashville. So I sold them 5 acres of my ranch, and they built a house there. So Mama (mother Maddox), Rose, and Cal lived there together all their lives. Rose’s son, he had a family, and when mom and Cal died, Rose’s son and his wife and kids moved in with Rose and wrecked the house and all of that good stuff. Then Rose was in bad health and fell on bad financial circumstances. She borrowed some money on the house and couldn’t pay it back. So in order to help her out, I bought the house from her, and then I gave her a lifetime estate so she could live there the rest of her life like she owned the place. And then my brother Henry, he went out on his own to play music, and he couldn’t make it on his own, so he moved up here then. And then he got kidney failure, and he was broke so he moved in there in the house with Rose.
Trigger: So you became the rock of the Maddox Brothers and Rose family. You’re the one that took the last little bit of wealth that you had from the Maddox Brothers and Rose experience and invested it in this cattle ranch, and you kind of became the pillar of the family. You helped support them over time. This ranch supported the Maddox Brothers and Rose, and it still does.
Don Maddox: Well, when I bought the ranch, I bought it to raise cattle on. I wanted to be a cowboy. But the fringe benefits of owning the ranch have made me a wealthy person today.
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Newspaper clip about the Maddox family (name spelled wrong) pre-music days from the Country Music Hall of Fame:
This is the exact album that the United States of America needs right here, right now, at this very moment in time. Finally, someone has the courage and the wisdom to use music to reassure people of the power of individual will, and the beauty of the rising action embedded in every human soul instead of as a vehicle to lay blame on everyone else for the problems the individual faces.
This album presents a challenge. Are you going to sit there and take the easy way out by framing your life in the form of a negative thought? Or are you going to be awed by the amazing riches afforded to the modern American no matter how poor they are and be thankful? Are you going to make an excuse, or are you going to make a plan?
And like only Chris Knight can, brunt force diatribes are abandoned in favor of building believable characters out of the ruins of America’s rural landscapes, and telling their stories of heartbreak, bad luck, and redemption to make the points. What a refreshing, poignant, timely, and telling message; a hot dagger in the heart of the wicked polarization that grips our country and divides our purpose; the antidote to the depression of the apolitical person in the height of the political season.
Chris Knight’s Little Victories has little mention of scapegoats. There’s no long-winded, unveiled bitching about the government, corporations, the media, religion, the left or the right. Instead there’s touching, personal stories of low living filled with glimmering hopes and gratefulness. It is a political album that doesn’t oversimplify arguments and frame sides, it erodes these things by illustrating that everyone has a personal story, and nobody has the power to shape that personal story more than the individual. Little Victories is deep and altruistic while remaining simple and plaintive. It’s message and points are subtle and smooth in their delivery, but somehow still biting in their impact. And most importantly, Little Victories is enjoyable to listen to.
The songs in the heart of this album are what convey the timely theme. “Nothing On Me” looks at tough times and laughs. Title track “Little Victories” with John Prine reminds us to be thankful for the small things, and to take life one day at a time. “Out Of This Hole” teaches that we’re usually all responsible for where we are, and are equally responsible to get where we want to go. And “You Can’t Trust No One” spells out the folly of our judgmentalism with poetic truth and weightiness.
And there’s plenty of the songs of heartbreak and desperation that make a Chris Knight album a Chris Knight album, like “You Lie When You Call My Name” co-written by Lee Ann Womack, the fun, yet truthful and hard-nosed “Low Down Ramblin’ Blues”, and the excellent sense of story and character in “Hard Edges”.
The Kentuckian and honorary Texan whose been writing and releasing music under his own name since the late 90′s has always been a little hard to define as far as style and place. He’s written songs for Montgomery Gentry and Randy Travis, and his country roots are obvious. But the style he records his own stuff under has that hard, electric, rock-infused country feel that would have fit perfectly under the “alt-country” title years ago.
Today, he’s claimed in part by Red Dirt and Texas Country, and his music carries that “safe” feel of the Texoma corridor, where it is never bad, but never too bold either. But it’s Chris Knight’s songwriting that has won him fans all the way from the rock world to Western Europe, and the timely nature of the Little Victories material makes it worth arguing if this is his best effort yet.
Little Victories is a big victory for Chris Knight, for country music, and for the level-headed, wise approach to life in an overly-politicized world.
Two guns up.
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When I first proposed the theory that all popular music was coalescing into one big mono-genre where even the two traditionally polarized genres of country and hip-hop would be living side by side, even I didn’t think the conversion would happen so quickly and be so indisputable. Looking at country music, the top albums, the top songs, and the top artists all have ties to the merging of all popular music. It is truly a man bites dog world out there in music these days. Here’s 7 signs the mono-genre is here.
The King of Country Rap Colt Ford’s latest album was released August 7th and debuted at #1 on the Billboard country charts, unprecedented for an artist who receives relatively no radio play and is not a huge concert draw. Sometimes albums in their debut week will cause an anomaly in the charts, starting off really high but then falling precipitously weeks after, but Declaration of Independence has remained in the Top 10 now for over a month, currently sitting at #7 on Billboard. At some point, radio will have no choice but to quit ignoring Colt.
When the reigning Entertainer of the Year for both the Country Music Association and the Academy of Country Music releases a song and the other version is the country one, this is a pretty good sign country music is losing its autonomy. While the country version of “We Are Never…” is falling on the charts, debuting at #13 on Billboard and sliding now to #19, the “pop” version has done something no other song had done from a country artist since 1980: stay on top of Billboard’s Hot 100 chart for 3 weeks straight. Kenny Rogers’ “Lady” was the last one to accomplish this feat, a song written by Lionel Richie (see below). And don’t forget Taylor’s “Both of Us” duet with rapper B.o.B.
Rap or country, city farm, it don’t matter who you are
It’s one thing to have an artist known for country rap to gain acceptance, or to have a pop star whose always been more pop than country go even more pop. But when a bona-fide top-tier country music franchise comes out with what is ostensibly a rap song that name drops Lil’ Wayne, talks about “subs pumpin’” and being “up in the club,” there’s no question major genre line blurring has gone mainstream. “Truck Yeah” is like the mono-genre National Anthem.
It’s old news that Aldean’s country rap “Dirt Road Anthem” co-written by Colt Ford was the best-selling song of 2011, but the song is not done making headlines just yet. “Dirt Road Anthem” was certified triple platinum in June, is up for Song of the Year at the CMA Awards in November, and Aldean is also a frontrunner for the CMA’s most coveted trophy: Entertainer of the Year. His upcoming album reportedly includes another country rap, and it’s hard to dispute that Jason Aldean is anything but a country music mega-star, with billing just as high as Taylor Swift, if not higher. It was his milktoast, softcore version of country rap that made the genre-merging music mainstream.
Lionel Richie proved that a non-country artist with non-country songs on a non-country album of all previously-released material can use country infrastructure and avenues to release an album and it can go on to be a massive blockbuster success. Tuskegee was the best selling album for the first half of 2012, not just in country, but in all of music. It had sold 912,000 copies by mid July, and has since been certified platinum. Much of this is the fault of the Academy of Country Music running an hour-long special on Lionel earlier in the year; a gesture not extended to any other country artist.
This may seem like a subtle thing, but the symbolism is significant. Country music and the CMA’s seem to be perpetually wanting to apologize for their countryness these days, and how better to do that than to move the CMA announcement to the most metropolitan part of the country? Meanwhile the Grammy’s, paying homage to the increasing importance of the country music super-genre, are announce their nominations where the CMA’s should be: in downtown Nashville.
The Grammy’s might also paying tribute in part to Nashville’s burgeoning independent scene. Depending who you talk to, Nashville is considered the epicenter of independent music, existing right under the nose of Music Row with little acknowledgement or regard. The Grammy’s recognize the indie world as one of the fastest-growing segments in music. Remember, the mono-genre is not just about all popular music becoming one, but how micro-genres and independent music will increase as mainstream listeners search for choice.
The more mainstream music consolidates, the more independent music will increase due to the listeners falling through the cracks and becoming disenfranchised with the lack of choice and diversity. Mainstream artists will also be enticed to the independent world by the lure of creative freedom and a more attentive, engaged audience. According to Nielsen SoundScan, independent sales are up 61% since 2006 to a record $26.2 million annually. Spotify is also reporting an increased payout to independent labels.
Just like its Viacom-owned sister wives of MTV and VH1, CMT seems to be slowly making the transition from a music video format to a reality show network anchored by its popular series of “redneck” programs. Redneck Vacation, Redneck Island, and now Redneck Rehab, there seems to be no limit to what CMT will do with rednecks: driving them to The Hamptons, flying them over the pond to scare uptight English aristocrats, shipping them off to islands to do potato sack races all day (or whatever the hell they have them doing). CMT apparently has no trouble using “rednecks” as a faceless commodity for comedic fodder.
And of course these rednecks are usually portrayed in a negative light: fat, stupid, unemployed, easily entertained by a simple pool of mud. CMT and their redneck franchises has made magnificent leaps in solidifying negative stereotypes about rural life and rural residents. Of course every once in a while there’s a canned, teary moment to attempt to add some depth or moral to the shows (and of course most everything is canned and scripted), but by that point the permanent damage is already done.
But if CMT is going to fill 24/7 with redneck programs, they’re going to need some more ideas. So being the always helpful, altuistic soul that I am, I thought I’d throw them some fresh concepts as how to use rednecks to fill programming (and show off my novice Photoshop skills while doing it).
The Romans; now they knew how to put on a show. Imagine the ratings bonanza if you dropped a bunch of rednecks in the middle of an arena full of voracious wild animals hell bent on eating their asses. Or screw the animals, just have the rednecks fight each other to the death, over a plate of fried chicken and cornbread, or a brand new 4-wheeler or something. Now that would make some riveting television. Viewer discretion is advised.
Let’s face it, eventually rednecks splashing in the mud in the safe harbor of the Western world will get old, so why not send them to Syria, Afghanistan, and other theaters of war to spice things up. I can see it now, a bunch of rednecks mud wrestling and eating weird redneck shit in the middle of a bombed-out street as rocket propelled grenades and artillery shells go streaming to and fro overhead. Hell, maybe a redneck will become collateral damage. Imagine the ratings bonanza then!
Alright, admittedly this idea may only be good for one episode, or maybe a sweeps week special presentation, but you could stretch it out nice and good. Think of the hilarity that will ensue trying to get the fat dad squeezed into his barrel. They’d have to grease him up and use a human-sized shoehorn. Jr. and sis could fight back and forth about who gets to go over first. Jr. gets pissed when they won’t let him take his PSP on board. Sounds like television magic to me.
What will they do when they get there? Who knows, but it’s bound to be stupid, and we’re bound to laugh at it. Everything is funnier at zero gravity. Someone call up Richard Branson and get this done! It’s fucking outer space for crying out loud!
Use Rednecks For Biological Research
Forget the entertainment purposes, since rednecks have no intrinsic value and shouldn’t be afforded even the most basic of human dignities, why not use them for biomedical experimentation? Hell, think of how many diseases we could cure if we had an ample supply of humans we could do unabated research on with no regard for safety or outcome? Think of all the people that could be saved that are actually worth saving? Or even better, we can harvest their organs…oh wait, nobody would want redneck organs. They probably smell, and will make you quit your job and play in the mud all day.
Back on April 30th, Saving Country Music asserted that The Grand Ole Opry was ripe to be spun off and sold from its parent company of Gaylord Entertainment, to the humor of many. Then a month later, lo and behold, Gaylord and The Grand Ole Opry were officially sold to Marriott for $210 million. But apparently the two top shareholders in Gaylord are unhappy with the Marriott deal, with the first one having to be bought out, and the second one Gabelli Funds LLC with a 15% percent stake in Gaylord, specifically asking Gaylord to spin off its Grand Ole Opry assets for the exact reasons Saving Country Music has asserted it should.
As Reuters reports, Gabelli’s concern is that with Gaylord transforming from a broadcasting and entertainment company to a real estate holdings company, Gaylord management will be unable to deal with the specific needs of The Grand Ole Opry. Gabelli said to a letter to Gaylord that under the Marriott deal, The Grand Ole Opry would suffocate and be neglected, but if it was spun off…
…with dedicated and focused management, Opry should better flourish and be an enormous success for shareholders.
Over the last 15 years, Gaylord Entertainment has dramatically shifted their business model from a broadcast and entertainment company, to a hospitality resort-holdings, real estate-based model. Gaylord used to own over 10 local television stations, as well as CMT, TNN, WKY Radio in Oklahoma City, The Daily Oklahoman newspaper, and the massive Acuff-Rose music publishing firm (now Sony ATV). All of these have now been sold off, with The Opry’s WSM the only remaining broadcasting arm of the business.
Today Gaylord’s core business is its 5 resorts and convention centers in Nashville, Orlando, Grapevine, TX (Dallas), National Harbor, MD, and Denver (scheduled to open 2014), as well as other real estate assets. If you take away the real estate and tourist component from The Grand Ole Opry, the Opry franchise sticks out like a sore thumb in the current Gaylord Entertainment business structure.
As part of the sale to Marriott, Gaylord wants to officially restructure into an REIT, or Real Estate Investment Trust, to unlock certain tax incentives, but both Gabelli, and the previous #1 investor in Gaylord, TRT Holdings, think that Gaylord negotiated a bad deal, and that restructuring into an REIT is a bad idea, especially because of Gaylord’s Grand Ole Opry assets. To satiate TRT holds, which owed a 21% stake in the company, Gaylord bought back 5 million of its shares for $185 million in July, making Gabelli now Gaylord’s #1 investor. Now that Gabelli is opposing the deal, and specifically because includes the Grand Ole Opry asset, the possibly the Grand Ole Opry will be spun off from Gaylord has never been greater.
The sale of Gaylord to Marriott comes up for a shareholder vote this week, where the fate of Gaylord’s future as an REIT and the status of The Grand Ole Opry will be big topics.
Why Is It Important Who Owns The Grand Ole Opry?
As Gabelli explains, if the Grand Ole Opry is buried in a corporate structure managed by people that are not aware or not used to managing a historic institution like the Opry, the likelihood is that it will not reach it’s fullest potential, as an institution or as an investment. If The Opry assets were either owned autonomously (if The Opry owned itself), or by another company that is better suited to understanding the specific needs of the Opry, it is more likely to earn a greater return for investors.
Hypothetically this would also be a better outcome for country music fans who have been frustrated by the current management and direction of The Opry. As it stands, many Opry decision are run through a corporate structure designed to manage hotels and real estate, not stage performers and country music personalities. Hypothetically, Gaylord coming under the Marriott umbrella would only make this worse, and The Opry being spun off could only make it better.
Let’s not mince words: Eric Church is a two-faced prick. He’s cheesed off more of the mainstream country establishment than he hasn’t, and not for good reasons, but for being rude, arrogant, and at times hypocritical. And then there’s the whole thing where he swears he’s not an Outlaw, but then sells shirts that say that he is.
But the job of any honest music reviewer is to divest any off-stage drama or personal feelings about a man from his music. I’m still being nailed to the cross in some circles for giving Eric’s album Chief 1 1/2 guns up. Much of that positive review stemmed from the strength of this song.
Let’s first get the most obvious complaint out of the way. “Creepin’” isn’t country, it’s a rock song with some country-inspired elements. In parts it’s driven by arena rock riffs, and the chorus comes across as a little obvious. Just because something is rock though doesn’t mean it’s wrong, it just means it is mischaracterized in the country format.
The catch-all, stock argument made against folks that complain that rap, rock, and pop influences are encroaching too heavily into the country genre is to say that country must evolve. Eric Church has made that argument himself in the boldest of terms when he wrote the song “Country Music Jesus”, inspired by an article on Saving Country Music.
There’s this writer, at the time that kinda had written a critique of the new country Outlaw movement. Said something about “I wish all these new guys would do it like the old guys did it, and make the same music, the same way, over and over.”
Of course this is an erroneous take of Saving Country Music’s stance. Many times adding influences from genres outside of country results in devolution of the music because the motivation is to make the music appeal to the widest possible audience by attaining the lowest common denominator. Of course country music must evolve, and it has been in the independent, Americana, and underground country worlds for years to the general ambivalence of the mainstream.
But none of this has to do with “Creepin’”. In the mainstream of a genre that has grown stale with laundry list cliche songs, gimmicky pop and country rap fare, and droning adult contemporary ballads, Eric Church and “Creepin’” display bold, creative leadership. This song takes chances. There’s few “sensibilities” here, no resorting to the easy avenues of country lyrics delivered in rap pentameters, or overt pop elements to draw a bigger crowd. Instead there is striking out in uncharted mainstream country territory.
“Creepin’” has a very catchy, rhythmic base, but adds a depth dimension by layering and texturing the rhythms with different tones and instrumentation. This gives it a sort of epic, evolving, breathing nature. By Eric Church mouthing the hook of the song at the very beginning, it’s almost like he’s saying, “Okay, here’s the starting point. Now watch what we do with this.”
Country purists will be bemoan Eric’s moderate, but obvious use of vocal filters and loops, but the approach of these sonic tools is to replicate and emphasize decay as opposed to let’s say Auto-tune meant to deceive by feigning perfection. Eric’s employment of technology is more akin to megaphones and moog than drum loops and synth, and it is well-balanced. Any more and it would have eroded any “roots” in this song, any less and the spatial, trippy nature he envisioned may not have been realized. This is no different than what Emmylou Harris did on Wrecking Ball some 17 years ago, just this song may receive widespread radio play.
Lyrically “Creepin’ is refreshingly ambiguous and fey; subtle and oozy where it can crawl into the contours the mind of each individual listener to be interpreted differently by different perspectives. As Church told the Rolling Stone:
It’s a lot deeper than some people think. It’s really about this guy who’s haunted by a ghost of some sort, the main female character. What you don’t know is she’s the one feeding the coal that makes this train get crazier and go farther and take him back through all these memories.
None of this is easy to translate to the physical representation needed for a video, but that’s exactly what Eric Church does in this gritty, train-themed cinematic-style short.
Eric Church has a large army of detractors that will look at this video, see his little rat-looking face and won’t care what transpires next; they won’t like it. And with all of his off-stage extra-curricular activity, it’s hard to blame anyone with an anti-Eric Church reactionary prejudice, or wonder why some will say “Creepin’” is Eric exploiting underground influences for mainstream fare.
I certainly don’t have much love for the guy and certainly don’t find the appeal in many of his songs. But he struck gold here, however intentional or accidental, and it’s good to see some substance finally “creep” onto mainstream country radio, even if it’s really rock.
1 3/4 of 2 guns up.
File My Graveyard Jaw and their album Coming Winds under “Pleasant Surprises of 2012.” Sort of like a poor man’s Punch Brothers, this acoustical string band that features guitar, banjo, violin (not fiddle), cello, and upright bass catches you completely off guard with their progressive approach, excellent songs, and ear for composition.
When you first see the imposing frontman/songwriter Michael James in his big gallon hat, black vest, and permanently-inked mime-like face markings, you feel ripe to be regaled by a revitalization of Outlaw country all about snorting cocaine and shooting your wife. Yeah, not so much with My Graveyard Jaw. Yes, their haunting arrangements can at times evoke the chills of macabre, but this is not a scary, nor a hard or heavy band. The only thing “hardcore” about them is how vigilantly they explore the inner depths of human emotion, and how they astutely set that emotion to music.
Michael James starts this album off blindsiding you with a sweet voice conveying an even sweeter song in “Lucy Lu,” but this is not the tone that bellows from him for the majority of Coming Winds. Instead it is a haughty, tempered growl that is evoked from somewhere in his inner depths, and as it rises, it collects all the innermost emotions and personal dialogues of a man’s life until it is seasoned through with soul, authenticity and character.
This is an album that requires you to listen to the instrumentation to appreciate. As time goes on, you recognize subtleties in the compositions as they grow on you. I would be lying if I said I thought the instrumentation was expert, but that is where the authenticity and roots of this music is aroused. It is a concerto for country folks, to be played where dusty boots meet wooden floors, and where the beauty of American decay and imperfection surround you.
At the same time, the players in spots will totally surprise you, like Scott Potts’ upright bass in the song “Ho Down”, where he momentarily goes away from slapping the notes to playing some crazy, cerebral, noodling part that blows your mind, or when violin player Densie Bonis gives tonal life to the little ghosts that haunt the human brain during the dark hours in “Waste For The Evening.” Michael James never loses sight of the importance of making the music engaging through rhythmic sensibility though, like his enticing banjo parts in those two aforementioned songs. “Waste For The Evening”, “Ho Down”, and “Lucy Lu” were my biggest takeaways from Coming Winds.
Some of the songs did feel a little under-developed, but one of the best parts about this band and this album is you hear a lot of potential and room for growth. Michael James and My Graveyard Jaw are different enough to where they could discover an untapped niche in music and really carve a bold, creative path. I don’t think a band like this could come from anywhere else but New Orleans. They’re just too cool, too weird, and too in tune with their own trends instead of trying to fit in to whatever might be popular in certain scenes.
Please understand, this album could be classified classical just as it could be country. This music is not for everyone, or for every mood. I think the best way to describe it is to say it’s whatever comes out when Michael James rakes the first chord and starts to sing. His songwriting is very folk-like. The instrumentation is where the jazzy, orchestral feel is ordained. Altogether it is just great music no matter what title you name to it.
Keep an eye on this band. They are not what you expect.
1 3/4 of 2 guns up.
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Alright, so first what you need to do is get right with the idea that The Defibulators come to country from the outside looking in. This doesn’t mean they’re not country, or that they’re not good. It’s country with a wily, sideways grin, with just the right dollop of humor and sarcasm to be fresh, edgy, and fun, without completely stimulating a pestilence of hipsters to dart towards them on their “fixie” bikes like moths to the light.
They’re not as ironic as let’s say a Johny Corndawg. There’s no “fucking underwater in a Chevy Beretta” on this album…though there is a semi full of go-go dancers…oh, and I forgot about the story of a mountain man making love to a bear. Okay, strike that point, but what I’m trying to get at here is that there’s more substance here than tongue and cheek, but there’s still tongue and cheek. Am I making any sense?
The Defibulators build from a classic country sound infused with the speakeasy style of female singer Erin Bru, add some hot Telecaster licks, a fiddle bed, and a little Western space into an Eastern seaboard-style of revitalized neo-traditional country. Officially the band hails from New York City (Everyone together: “NEW YORK CITY ?!?!”), but there’s no need to get a rope. Front man Bug Jennings is originally from Texas as he explained to Who I Met:
I grew up in Texas…I started listening to more and more country music after I moved to New York City. It was something I really wasn’t exposed to growing up in Texas. I was definitely exposed to top 40 country, Garth Brooks and stuff like that. Which is fine. But none of that stuff related to me…I started listening to old school country and all that resonated with me. I got obsessed with it and wanted to hear more and more of it and play it. I felt like I had been cheated- this was right under my feet, figuratively in the soil the whole time I was growing up. I wanted to reinterpret it from my perspective.
And a reinterpretation of classic country in their own vision as opposed to the attempt at an accurate portrayal is what allows The Defibulators to separate their steer-horned emblem from the herd through substance and creativity. It also helps that they approach the music with a level of respect and admiration instead of seizing on it as fodder for irony. It’s music that gets it, for people that get it.
Corn Money touches on many different moods. To the sultry, flapper-era throwback “Get What’s Coming” with Erin Bru at the point, to the feisty and fun “Corn Money” and “Ol’ Winchester,” to the refreshingly-serious “Your Hearty Laugh” and the danceable “The Gravy Shake”, The Defibulators keep their style a little hard to define beyond calling it classic, and country, and engaging. They keep you on your toes, and deliver an album that has spice as an attribute.
You know me, no matter how good the album, I usually find a scab to pick at, and with Corn Money I found the production approach to be a little stifling. Many albums attempt to evoke a classic feel with a recording and/or mastering technique, and I think this one resulted in less of a patina, and more of a fog. The harmony vocals, the lyrics, and some of the instrumental performances were so good I wanted to listen with a clear ear that instead felt a little frustrated and strained. I think the music needed to be allowed to breathe more. In fairness, this album was released 3 years ago and may have felt much different to a 2009 palate.
Either way, I like this album and this band, and you will too if you approach it with the right frame of mind. In short, if The Defibulators were playing loudly in my neighbors backyard at an inappropriate hour, I wouldn’t call the cops, I’d pull up a lawn chair.
1 3/4 of 2 guns up.
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Wednesday night (9-12-2012) country music’s mother church The Ryman Auditorium was alive with the sounds of The 2012 Americana Music Awards that saw an always talented, eclectic (and sometimes confusing) flock of musicians, songwriters, and performers amass to give credit to the best and brightest of the year. Part of the greater Americana Music Conference happening in Nashville this week, the awards featured excellent performances from legends such as studio great Booker T. Jones and songwriter Richard Thompson, as well as Emerging Artist nominees The Alabama Shakes and Deep Dark Woods.
Some highlights of the night were Booker T sitting in with The Alabama Shakes, Cary Ann Hearst of Shovels & Rope doing the “Another Like You” duet with Hayes Carll, and my favorite part of the night, when Song of the Year winner Jason Isbell thanked his manager Traci Thomas of Thirty Tigers, and then took a shot at The Country Music Anti-Christ saying he wanted an empty chair onstage “…so I could yell at an invisible Scott Borchetta.” Generations were bridged when Patterson Hood of the Drive By Truckers, the son of a famous studio musician David Hood of the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section gave an excellent speech inducting Booker T Jones as an Americana Lifetime Achievement Award recipient for instrumentation.
Lifetime Achievement Award for Performance inductee Bonnie Raitt closed out the festivities with two songs, including her signature “Thing Called Love” before the stage filled with Americana dignitaries including Bonnie and John Hiatt to do a stirring rendition of The Band‘s “The Weight” in tribute to the late Levon Helm, who was remembered along with Doc Watson and Earl Scruggs.
Jim Lauderdale hosted the event, and Buddy Miller, Don Was and others worked all night as the Americana house band.
How to define the term “Americana” was the running joke all night (and is somewhat of a tradition of the awards), but whether you were listening in through NPR’s live stream or lucky enough to subscribe to the right service get it on the TV, it was hard to argue with the talent and accolades the Americana Music Association used to define the 2012 awards.
2012 Americana Music Award Winners
Instrumentalist of The Year
Dave Rawlings, Gillian Welch’s guitar accompanist.
Album of the Year
“This Ones For Him” A Tribute to Guy Clark
Song of the Year
Jason Isbell’s “Alabama Pines” off the album Here We Rest
Emerging Artist of the Year
The Alabama Shakes
Artist of the Year
Duo/Group of the Year
The Civil Wars
Lifetime Achievement Award for Performance
Lifetime Achievement Award for Songwriting
Lifetime Achievement Award for Instrumentalist
Booker T. Jones
Lifetime Achievement Award for Executive
At some point, maybe when his previous album Bullets in The Gun was awarded the dubious distinction of being the lowest-selling #1 debut album of all time, he decided to screw it all and start making stupid songs. Bullets In The Gun didn’t give Toby Keith even one Top 10 hit; the first time that happened in his 14-album career. So Keith, being the business-savvy artist that he is, searched for the popular trends and decided that stupid songs about beer were the rule of the day, giving rise to songs like “Beers Ago” and the ode to the onset of idiocracy “Red Solo Cup.”
Well now he’s back with a new single “I Like Girls That Drink Beer,” a piece of trend-chasing laundry list cliche crap that plays off the same class warfare and cultural line drawing that dogs most of country radio today. It also sets a historic precedent for hypocrisy. The song and chorus start off…
Bye bye baby I’m leaving
You can keep your mansion and your money
Oh Toby, you seem to have forgotten that you live in one of the biggest mansions country music can boast, and are the highest paid person in country music, making more money than even Sailor Twift. Keith banked a whopping $50 million dollars last year according to Forbes and owns a vast business empire that includes his own major label in Show Dog Universal, his “I Love This Bar & Grill” restaurant chain, and massive endorsement deals with Ford and Mezcal beverages.
And as for the mansion? Check out the particulars of Oklahoma’s Chateau Toby from a People Magazine cover story:
“(It) includes an 8,900-sq.-ft. main house featuring a state-of-the-art theatre room and kitchen and a 2,500-sq.-ft. cabana with spaces for swimming, relaxing and grilling. The property also includes a well-stocked lake where the family can fish for bass, perch and catfish or just relax out on the dock and watch water shoot up from the lake-fed fountain…His racquetball court, where he and Tricia, who have been married 27 years, can compete against their three kids…”We can play at midnight if we want to,” says Keith. “Everybody in the family is good.”
And Toby says in “I Like Girls That Drink Beer” that he doesn’t want to go to the “ball in your chariot” but check out the specs and inventory of his carriage house:
…an eight-car, two-story, 6,000-sq.-ft. garage with space for his three Harley-Davidson motorcycles, a black Ford Expedition limousine and his prized collector cars-a ’69 Mach 1 Ford Mustang, a ’72 Oldsmobile Cutlass, a ’77 Pontiac Trans Am (“It’s a Smokey and the Bandit car,” Keith says) and a ’63 Chevy Impala.
And none of this includes his 300-acre horse ranch or million-dollar mansion in Nashville.
Beyond that, this song is a vapid pile of checklist countryisms.
- Beer – Check!
- Girls – Check!
- Trucks- Check!
- Two lane and/or dirt road – Check!
- Honky Tonks – Check!
- People from the city and people with money suck – Check and check!
- Cornbread and/or fried chicken – Oops, missed one Toby!
And watching the video, I can’t tell if Toby likes girls that drink beer, or girls that haven’t said no to a man since puberty. There’s more shots of silicone in the video than it took to remodel Toby Keith’s palatial master bathroom. And though on the surface it may seem this song is targeted at men, this is a song about girls, and for girls, because that’s the last demographic that actually buys music. Hypocrite or not, Toby Keith is a mad genius when it comes to marketing and he hits on all marketing cylinders in “I Like Girls That Drink Beer”. All of the close-up shots of people in the crowd are of girls, except for the one with the porcupine-looking dude with the paint-on tan on the left. Now how “country” does he look?
The truth is sonically “I Like Girls That Drink Beer” really isn’t that bad, and comparative to most of the songs on country radio, it’s pretty country. The chord progression is engaging, the structure is good in the way it starts on the chorus, and I’ll be damned if you can’t even hear some fiddle and steel guitar in the mix. Too bad he wasted it on such a hypocritical theme.
I don’t want to belittle Toby Keith’s wealth. Congratulations to him for living his version of the American dream. The problem is with the hypocrisy, how he uses this song as a tool of class envy and stereotype while living the very life he is besmirching. No, performers don’t always have to live the exact life that they sing about. This is an unfair requirement that most artists can’t live up to. But when you’re singing derogatory lyrics with the intent of downgrading the very thing that your life embodies simply because it appeals to certain trends and demographics, a big line is crossed.
Being country means being yourself and being honest. And by belittling the very life that he lives, Toby Keith makes an embarrassment of himself, and of country music.
Two guns down.
A few days ago, CMT launched a new format and website called CMT Edge with the intent of covering artists outside the norm of mainstream country music. Since then I’ve been asked many times what I think of it, and my stock answer has been that I don’t exactly know what I think of it yet. The venture is still in its infantile stages, and it will take time to determine just what CMT Edge will be, and the impact it will have.
Having said that, I see no reason at this point not to stay positive about it. It’s always good to have more avenues for good music to reach people. As I always say, I want good music to get popular, and popular music to get good. Any sense of ownership or desire for exclusivity anyone might feel with the independent music they love and worry that CMT Edge might erode that exclusivity is being silly and selfish. So far, they’ve featured artists like Sara Watkins, The Avett Brothers, Trampled by Turtles, and JD McPherson among others. They also appear to intend to use CMT Edge to cover older country artists like Dwight Yoakam and Patsy Cline; both who’ve been featured already.
If you look at the categories of the 11 features posted on CMT Edge so far, 8 of them are labeled “Americana”. I don’t think it’s coincidence CMT Edge was launched the same week the Americana Music Conference is going on in Nashville mere steps from the CMT headquarters. Americana is growing, and CMT would be fools to not try and tap into that market. Make no mistake that CMT, which is owned by Viacom, would have never launched this venture if they didn’t think there was a profit to be made, and that there’s demand for the content.
So what is the possible downside to CMT Edge? It could possibly take attention away from independent media outlets, especially ones in the Americana world like No Depression, Paste, or possibly in some small respects Saving Country Music. But again, more outlets for good music is generally a good thing, and if these outlets feel threatened, they should step up their game. And I doubt CMT Edge will dig as deep as many of the current independent outlets do. As much as bands like Trampled by Turtles and The Avetts are on the outside looking in when it comes to mainstream country coverage, they are also very successful bands making good livings playing music. To stay profitable, CMT Edge will stay with established acts who simply don’t fit comfortably in the mainstream country world. Don’t expect Hellbound Glory and Jayke Orvis to get features soon.
My biggest concern is in the underlying subconscious labeling of acts that could come with CMT Edge coverage. Some may see a band being featured on CMT Edge as an implication that they are a smaller tier, second rung act. By not putting these acts beside country music’s biggest names, but below them through an outlet meant to cover the “edge,” there’s the danger of typecasting these artists as cut-rate. It’s always been a belief of mine that the top tier independent talent deserves equal-billing with country’s top names. If just given a chance, an artist like Justin Townes Earle could possibly score just as high as Jason Aldean with the public. Consumers just need to be given that choice. CMT Edge in some respects kicks the “more choice” can down the road instead of confronting mainstream country’s issue of a lack of new talent entering the genre.
Mainstream country lacks a legitimate farm system. And once an artist is cast as Americana/Independent/Underground, etc. they’re usually beholden to those avenues for their music till eternity, many times facing low ceilings of success and no chance of mainstream radio play or media coverage. Meanwhile in mainstream country, there’s few artists working the traditional program, going from honky tonks, to clubs, to theaters, to eventually the arena and a major label deal. Instead, new country talent is culled from the safe, easy avenues of reality TV programming, or professional Nashville songwriting circles. This has left country creatively bankrupt, as the most-creative and brightest talent flocks to Americana because they don’t want to be labeled as “country” because of the non-creative, commercial stigma.
Americana may have a lower commercial ceiling than mainstream country, but it continues to find some very legitimate traction, and seems to be building in stature and infrastructure each year. NPR is now offering Americana a big radio outlet, festivals are forming and growing that appeal to the Americana crowd, and small to medium, sustainable music entities like Thirty Tigers, Bloodshot Records, Dolph Ramseur (the man behind the Avett’s success and the Carolina Chocolate Drops) are beginning to create real organization behind the Americana idea, and are even having success getting their artists on programs like The Late Show with David Letterman, and Jimmy Kimmel Live.
What does this all have to do with CMT Edge? Clearly the independent side of the music world is growing, and CMT doesn’t want to be left in the dust. As all popular music continues to coalesce into one big “popular” mono-genre, music that is indefinable by genre and/or appeals to micro-sects of people is expanding. Whether it is Americana, classic country artists, neo-traditionalists, or punk-country, appeal for independent music is increasing, and CMT Edge is proof of that. Is CMT Edge commercial exploitation of this music? We’ll have to see, but there’s no indication that is what is happening at the moment.
As much as I think that much of CMT’s reality programming perpetuates negative country stereotypes and that its parent company Viacom is generally a negative force in the media marketplace, there’s nothing from CMT Edge so far that irks me. So let’s stay positive about it, work as a music community to attempt to steer it in a positive direction, and be glad that better music is catching on and continues to find new outlets.
Warning: Rank classless immaturity ahead.
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As some of you may already know, I’ve got a good friend named Pointer, and every year we get together for an annual trip to downtown Nashville around Labor Day. Pointer and I are great friends and we both love country music, but we couldn’t be on more opposite sides of the country music spectrum. You see, I like the old stuff and the cool independent stuff of today, while Pointer loves pop country. But that’s okay, we’re such good friends we get along with each other and enjoy our annual trip to Nashville together.
Last year Pointer and I visited downtown Nashville and had a great time. He loves to have his picture taken in front of things. So I thought I’d share some snapshots from Pointer’s and I’s 2012 downtown Nashville trip.
The first thing we saw as we were pulling into downtown Nashville on I-40 was a huge billboard advertising Rascal Flatts!
Pointer is a HUGE Rascal Flatts fan, and so he had to get his picture taken with it!
Then we headed into downtown Nashville proper. Nashville has such a beautiful skyline. I snapped this picture when Pointer and I were strolling along the Shelby Street Pedestrian Bridge across the Cumberland River.
Pointer loves the Nashville skyline too. He’s also a HUGE fan of CMT’s new reality programming like Redneck Vacation and Bayou Billionaires. I don’t like those shows because I think they perpetuate negative country stereotypes, but it’s all Pointer watches. So when we were strolling downtown, he insisted he get his picture taken in front of their building!
Then we walked across Broadway to the Country Music Hall of Fame!
I was really excited to go to the Hall of Fame to check out their new Bakersfield Sound Exhibit!
One of the things I love about the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum is that they house the largest archive of country music memorabilia that exists. The most important part of the collection is called “The Precious Jewel” which is 6 of some of the most-important instruments to ever be played in the genre: Bill Monroe’s Gibson F-5 mandolin, Hank Williams’ Martin D-28 guitar, Lester Flatt’s D-28, Jimmie Rodgers’ Martin 00-18 guitar, “Mother” Maybelle Carter’s Gibson L-5 guitar, and Chet Atkins’ D’Angelico Excel.
With such important and historic relics housed in one place, you can imagine my horror when Shooter Jennings and his XXX movement decided a good way to push their branding was to point a tank at a museum hosing these precious icons. Pointer was neither here nor there on Shooter until his recent duet with The Nickelback of Country Music, Bucky Covington. Pointer LOVES Bucky, and loves the duet “Drinking Side of Country” so he wanted to get his picture taken at the place where Shooter pointed his belligerent tank at the last remaining country music institution preserving its history and traditions.
For some reason, Pointer insisted on holding the lens cap when taking the picture. I wonder about that boy sometimes.
So then it was starting to get dark so we decided to hike down to Music Row, the place in downtown Nashville where all the major labels have their home offices. Last year our big stop on Music Row was Curb Records. This year Pointer wanted to find the elusive, unmarked offices of his favorite label, Taylor Swift’s Big Machine Records owned by the Country Music Anti-Christ Scott Borchetta. They purposely leave their building unmarked, but after some cyber-sleuthing and asking around, we found the proper place and Pointer couldn’t wait to get his picture taken in front of it!
Many Music Row offices are housed in older houses, and some tear down the old houses and build bigger buildings as the label grows. According to Pointer and I’s sources, the building being constructed right beside Big Machine’s current home office will be their new office soon, so Pointer wanted to be pictured in front of that as well!
Oh but I’m leaving out the best part! As we were trolling around, looking for Big Machine’s building, who did Pointer and I see than none other than Scott Borchetta himself! I can’t you how much Pointer would have LOVED to get his picture with him, but by the time we had pulled over and located the camera, Scott had slithered inside. So Pointer had to settle for getting a picture with Borchetta’s car.
Pointer and I really enjoyed our trip to Nashville once again, and looking forward to many fun Nashville adventures in the coming years.
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