Nov
7

Americana Loses Its Greatest Ambassador, & Gains Another

November 7, 2012 - By Trigger  //  Random Notes  //  33 Comments

Yesterday it was announced the the vocal duo The Civil Wars were canceling all remaining performances and going on an indefinite hiatus. Through Facebook they released this statement:

“It is something we deeply regret. However, due to internal discord and irreconcilable differences of ambition we are unable to continue as a touring entity at this time. We thank each and every one of you for your amazing love and support. Our sincere hope is to have new music for you in 2013.”

The note has mixed messages to say the least. I always thought “irreconcilable” meant there was no solution, but they also say they hope to make more music next year. They also talk about “ambition” which gets the brain cells firing about what all that might mean. Though I appreciate their honesty, their comments lend to more questions than answers.

Either way, the decision means that Americana music and the more general independent roots world lose possibly their greatest ambassador. I never was able to get terribly into The Civil Wars. Ever since I stood on a stage 5 feet from them in Austin during SXSW 2010, right as they were beginning to blow up on the national stage, I had serious concerns about how viable their vocal bit would be long term. My token phrase for them was “The Steve Vai of Vocals” but that doesn’t mean they weren’t good, and weren’t a much better alternative to the majority of garbage being sold on mainstream country radio these days.

Like them or not, The Civil Wars were able to effect massive exposure onto the alternative to mainstream country. Being nominated for Vocal Duo of the Year by the CMA  Awards, and being nominated right beside Taylor Swift for their work on the Hunger Games soundtrack, were historic moments when independent music was placed right beside its mainstream counterpart. Their mark on ABC’s new show Nashville is undeniable. At the least they exposed people to the idea that there is a whole other world of music out there to discover.

So where does Americana and independent roots music go from here? In my opinion, the man that has been showing the steadiest rising action in his career over the past decade, and has the ability through style and a universal appeal for his music to entice not only the upper crust NPR crowd, but all the way to the crusty underground country fans, is Justin Townes Earle.

I once named Justin Townes Earle a leading candidate as country’s possible next savior (in the same article that likely helped inspire Eric Church’s “Country Music Jesus”), and Justin’s name also came up when I broached the subject of how “country” had become an embarrassing term for some acts that otherwise would fall under that umbrella.

Justin broached both subjects on the stage at The Majestic Theater in Detroit a few days ago (11/2/12, see video below) to a packed audience.

When I made my first record, I wanted to be a country singer. But see something has happened to country where it doesn’t mean the same thing that it used to. I don’t like what it means anymore. Taylor Swift actually works for herself. I mean she’s the least of our worries, the LEAST of our worries. I think where country music went wrong in the first place is when it lost its connection to the blues. Hank Williams introduced the 12-bar blues into country music, where the stars before him like “Uncle” Dave Macon were nowhere near as popular as he was. But he (Hank Williams) introduced the 12-bar blues to the Grand Ole Opry and changed country music.

And then Justin launched into his song “Ain’t Glad I’m Leaving” that practiced what he preached.

What Justin Townes Earle has that The Civil Wars don’t is long-term substance. No offense to The Civil Wars, but where their act is based on acrobatic vocal abilities that can be polarizing, Justin builds from the song out, and happens to be a great singer and a unique guitar player on top of that. And Justin gives nothing away to them on style. He may not be as pretty a face as The Civil Wars, but he’s been named one of GQ’s most stylish men for example, and somehow has positioned himself as a heartthrob outside of the music world. And most importantly, Justin Townes Earle exemplifies leadership through music.

Justin’s substance abuse issues could always flare up again, and maybe this is the 500 lb. anvil hanging over his career at all times. But if Americana and the greater roots world is looking for either an alternative or a replacement as their ambassador to the outside world, Justin Townes Earle could very well be their man as he continues to exude both wide appeal and creative prowess.

33 Comments to “Americana Loses Its Greatest Ambassador, & Gains Another”

  • Great article, however I assume you mean “loses” not “losses” :P

       1 likes

    • Still looking for that editor that can work for no pay, be available 24 hrs a day, and at a moments notice. And a cartoonist. Same conditions.

      Inquire within.

         9 likes

  • JTE would make a terrific ambassador but he’s gonna need a co-sign from Taylor Swift first like the Civil Wars did. even Steve Vai needed David Lee Roth.

       0 likes

    • one more thing…Steve Vai smoked The Karate Kids’ ass at the end of Crossroads too.

         2 likes

    • The Civil Wars had plenty going on for themselves before the Taylor Swift collaboration. Taylor Swift needed that collaboration just as much as The Civil Wars did.

         0 likes

      • she gave them the nod for an EP called Live At Eddie’s Attic in a tweet long before The Hunger Games. that led to the Grey’s Anatomy,and then Barton Hollow and so on and so forth..

           1 likes

        • I’m sorry but all I’m hearin’ is Taylor Swift, blah blah blah, she is not country music, she is not Americana folk, she is covergirl’s spokeperson and a manufactured pop sweet heart. Whew. Now. Back to real music.

             0 likes

          • Let me ask you a hypothetical question. Say one of your favorite underground artists on a small record label was able to successfully promote her music to a wide audience using online social networking tools, and then sold albums to this new fan base, resulting in her and her label becoming wealthy. Say that despite this wealth this artist continues to create her own music and apply her authentic experiences to her work. Would you say that she has suddenly turned into a “manufactured sweet heart” just because she is now successful?

               0 likes

          • Let me put this a little more respectful Eric.

            In no way should Justin Townes Earle’s remarks be construed as an endorsement of Taylor Swift’s music, or even Taylor Swift as a person. He was simply stating a fact that she has creative control of her music (mostly, see Max Martin / Shellback songs) unlike many other Music Row artists.

            Now you may not care, and that is totally fine. But don’t think that Earle’s words mean he’s a fan, or that I am a fan just because I put them in print. Or that this article is in any way about Taylor Swift either primarily or secondarily.

               4 likes

  • It is funny. As soon as I heard JTE say this last Friday I thought of you.. The Theatre was packed indeed and the show was awesome despite the fact that a whistler and a heckler needed to be thrown out on their faces.. Good article man.

       1 likes

  • Shame about the Civil Wars; I really like their song “Barton Hollow”… (Also, I wonder if their “new music for you in 2013″ comment could just mean they’d already been working on their 2nd album, and that they hope to finish and release in it the next year…)

    ***

    Speaking of JTE, have you heard that new Wanda Jackson album he produced yet?

       0 likes

    • My review should be coming up soon.

         1 likes

  • JTE is the man. He dabbles in things like ragtime, folk, soul, and bluegrass, but he definitely is country above all else, especially on his earlier stuff. I’m also a big fan of Steve, and I have to say I’m impressed by how different yet awesome Justin’s style is from Steve’s. Keep up the good work!

       1 likes

  • Just saw Justin last night for the first time and was blown away. He constructs his sets in such a perfect way and the different versions of some songs are amazing. Thinking of driving out of state to catch his show tonight.

       0 likes

  • Well, the Civil Wars must have been doing something right cos the first I knew about this was coverage on the BBC website over here in the UK. Coverage of country music (including any which falls into Americana) normally only gets the attention if someone’s died or get themselves involved in some sort of scandal!

       0 likes

  • Justin Townes Earle is one of my favorites. I’d have to say his album “The Good Life” is my favorite he’s made.

       0 likes

  • JTE ,like what I hear a lot hope to see him live soon. Yes I love his dad and was a tad suprissed how radically different they were musically. However, it is a good thing really. If J.T. Van Zandt ever deceided to pursue music full time he could be another second generation large figure in alternative music.

       1 likes

  • JTE is a great musician and a creative artist.

    I watched a little of the Civil Wars on ACL recently and did not care for them.

    It was kind of like some of the mediocre songs that Graham Nash and David Crosby used to sing.

    I liked CSNY a lot, but, by themselves, Nash and Crosby sang some pretty boring harmonies from some rather banal tunes.

    Ditto the Civil Wars.

    And if you don’t already like and respect JTE, keep in mind that he lets tapes post his concerts for our free consumption on Archive.org.

       0 likes

  • @ Eric, inevitably, any artist that becomes wealthy and achieves mega star status takes the chance of losing their creditblilty edge because if you sell yourself out then you destroy the fire inside you . . . that fire that says I want to make and play music from my heart instead of for the paycheck. It’s a classic dilemma . . . but once you sign the dotted line you take the job of losing your musical guts. That’s my opinion on it. Taylor Swift is a pop country music princess that albeit may have SOME creative control can’t seem to produce much more than jilted lover’s revenge songs and cotton candy hook lines. I’m sure someone is proofreadin’ her lyrics and “helping” her make creative decisions. It’s nothing against her as a person, I just don’t like her music or what pop country music in general stands for. To answer your question Eric, if an underground artist suddenly found fame I’d have to answer with another question . . . Did they sell out to do it? And are they still true to country roots? You’re right, it is a hypothetical question.

       0 likes

    • “I’m sure someone is proofreadin’ her lyrics and “helping” her make creative decisions.”

      If you are going to make assumptions like this, you must be specific about it. When you put the word “help” in quotes, exactly what do you mean by that?

      “Taylor Swift is a pop country music princess that albeit may have SOME creative control can’t seem to produce much more than jilted lover’s revenge songs and cotton candy hook lines.”

      All you have heard from Taylor are “revenge songs” and “cotton candy hook lines”? Have you listened to Taylor’s songs at all beyond her radio singles?

      I think your comment shows the exact area in which Big Machine has underserved Taylor: radio singles. For Speak Now in particular, Big Machine chose to release the catchiest songs to radio while leaving the best songs in the album. So far, the same appears to have held true for Red, with the exception of the Begin Again release. As a result, too many people, just like you, have gotten the impression that the radio singles are representative of the whole body of Taylor’s work, while in reality they include almost none of Taylor’s best work.

         0 likes

      • You seem like a great supporter of her music and with that I must ask . . . if the Big Machine is withholding her best material then why would that be? For radio sales? And for the popular vote? And so . . . where is HER outrage and creative muscle? Why wouldn’t she be upset about it instead of accepting so many accolades for the more mediocre material? She seems very happy to be labeled a pop country music princess.

           0 likes

        • 1. she might not care that you or anyone else labels her a pop country princess. Mush like Waylon never cared about being called an Outlaw.
          2. She is under contract. So she can’t exactly just walk out.
          Remember when HankIII was under contract?
          We were told how much was being held back by the label, did he just walk out? No, he bitched about it and rode out the contract.

          So, maybe Taylor is doing the same thing? Just not the pouting/bitching part. And as Eric pointed out, she seems to have many songs that don’t make radio that are deeper and more creative freedom than the radio hits. What I took from Eric’s post was that Big Machine pushes her revenge songs, which make them money, and that has been unfortunate for Taylor as she is seen as a teen break up revenge song artist when clearly she has more to offer.

             4 likes

        • I think there is an aspect of fear on the part of Big Machine regarding radio. They’re worried that radio audiences will reject the most substantive songs if that is what they hear first. So they release the catchier songs to radio with the hope that these songs will get more people to buy her albums, where they can hear the full body of Taylor’s work. The release of We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together, which many critics (and I) believe is her worst song ever, as the lead single from Red clearly proves this fear of radio.

          If you look at the accolades that Taylor has received, very few of them have been for her singles. Almost all of her awards have been for her albums and for her overall songwriting.

             0 likes

    • If you think that Taylor’s songs are all about “revenge” or catchy hooks, then I would suggest that you listen to the following songs (all of these are on Youtube, although some videos may have pitch-shifted audio):

      From Taylor’s debut album:

      Tied Together with a Smile
      Mary’s Song
      The Outside (she wrote this at the age of 13)
      Teardrops on My Guitar
      A Place in This World

      From Fearless:

      Breathe
      The Best Day
      Fifteen
      Change
      Come in with the Rain

      From Speak Now:

      Never Grow Up
      Last Kiss
      Long Live
      Ours
      Back to December
      Innocent

      From Red:

      Sad Beautiful Tragic
      State of Grace
      Treacherous
      I Almost Do
      The Last Time
      Begin Again

         0 likes

    • Let me get this straight. You think Taylor’s songs are bad, yet you don’t think she could possibly have written them by herself?

         0 likes

  • Jte is one the best out there right now, but that quote shows a lack of understanding regarding the history of country music. Hank Williams was the product of a long string of influences starting with Jimmie Rodgers on down through Ernest Tubb and Merle Travis.
    While he was one of the greatest writers to ever he sure didnt originate his style so much as refine it to new levels.

       1 likes

  • My tattoo artist got me hip to JTE when he showed me the poster he painted for a show of his in Santa Cruz. “Townes VanZandt and Steve Earl had a kid together? “. I really kinda like his stuff. The Civil Wars? Not so much.

       0 likes

  • I cannot disagree more with your view that the Civil Wars career is “based on acrobatic vocal abilities” bit Joy Williams and John Paul White had careers as singer/songwriters before forming TCW.Though their approach, like their Brit counterparts Mumford and Sons, mint hew too close to mainstream there is no denying the songwriting chops underlying the vocal dexterity.

    Justin Townes Earle certainly gaining a much larger commercial following and I certainly wish him the best , but the savior of country music? Hardly. i had hope of Jamey Johnson and Miranda Lambert’s commercial success pulling music Row into another , traditional, direction…..alas

    TCW were lightening in a bottle. They caught a perfect storm of sound, aesthetics, commercial appeal, mass media exposure (featured on Grey’s Anatomy) as well as superstar boosterism from Swift that will be tough to match. Unfortunately it looks like that success too a toll.

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    • No doubt there was some great songwriting underlying The Civil Wars, but you had to fight through the vocal acrobatics and Joy Williams’ gesticulations to get there. There was no subtly, no sense of balance. And I think that is what may have led to their demise. I take the “ambition” word as a hint that one of them felt the thing was phony, or that they had to get more phony for it to grow commercially. I may be wrong, but seeing them first hand before the got big, I knew they didn’t long-term potential.

      http://www.savingcountrymusic.com/recap-south-by-southwest-2011

      “The Civil Wars were an unexpected treat as well, though just like I tweeted afterwards, I have serious reservations that a duo that spends their whole set lovingly gazing into each other’s eyes has any staying power or deep appeal. It’s just too hokey, effeminate, and in the end inaccessible by most for admittedly bias and unfair reasons. Their vocal antics cannot be denied though. They were the best two singers I saw all week, and paired up they were better than the sum of their parts, but I walked away with question marks about their songwriting as they covered a nursery rhyme, and Michael Jackson’s “Billy Jean”. They smacked of a trend.”

      And nobody is saying Justin Townes Earle IS the savior of country music. I do think he’s one of the few that may have that potential though.

         0 likes

  • I cannot disagree more with your view that the Civil Wars career is “based on acrobatic vocal abilities” bit Joy Williams and John Paul White had careers as singer/songwriters before forming TCW.Though their approach, like their Brit counterparts Mumford and Sons, mint hew too close to mainstream there is no denying the songwriting chops underlying the vocal dexterity.

    Justin Townes Earle certainly gaining a much larger commercial following and I certainly wish him the best , but the savior of country music? Hardly. i had hope of Jamey Johnson and Miranda Lambert’s commercial success pulling music Row into another , traditional, direction…..alas

    TCW were lightening in a bottle. They caught a perfect storm of sound, aesthetics, commercial appeal, mass media exposure (featured on Grey’s Anatomy) as well as superstar boosterism from Swift that will be tough to match. Unfortunately it looks like that success took a toll.

       0 likes

  • [...] • After a triumphant year and a recent Americana Music Awards win, does this spell the end of The Civil Wars??? [...]

       0 likes

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