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Early Morning Shakes is the 3rd record from the Texas music scene’s Southern rock contingent known as Whiskey Myers. No, Whiskey Myers isn’t the name of the front man, just the collective persona of five guys from the greater Palestine, TX area, helmed by singer and principal songwriter Cody Cannon. The band put out their first album in 2008 and have since become one of Southern rock’s most emboldened and energetic torch bearers, tearing it up across the country to packed houses of both country and rock fans.
Coming off the surprising success of their second album, 2011′s Firewater that debuted at #26 on the Billboard country charts, Whiskey Myers saddled up with producer Dave Cobb—the man who was behind three very successful albums in 2013: Sturgill Simpson’s High Top Mountain, Jason Isbell’s Southeastern, and Lindi Ortega’s Tin Star. Cobb’s reputation of bringing a signature touch to music that straddles the line between rock and country made him a perfect fit for the project. The result was many great, original song concepts being fleshed out with smart and tasteful production elements, adept guitar-driven instrumentation, and despite some ostentatious moments, a sincere and fun album that sets the standard high for all Southern rockers in 2014.
Southern rock has been in such a state of flux for years now, it’s hard to know where to place it on the relevancy arch on a given day. Its modes have been somewhat borrowed by mainstream country, yet as rock itself continues to amble directionless, Southern rock is one of the last bastions of pure, electric guitar-based music that’s not blaring metal, or eepish, hipster pretentiousness. Calling yourself “Southern rock” affords you a lot of latitude: You can build a song around a riff and not a lyric and not ruffle any feathers like you might in country, or play a straight up country song and still reside within Southern rock sensibilities. You can even add some soul elements like backup singers as Whiskey Myers does here and separate yourself even further from the increasingly-automated sounds of modern music.
Early Morning Shakes is bold and expansive for a 12-song project. There’s a lot going on in these songs, without any of the compositions coming across as especially busy. Songs like “Early Morning Shakes”, “Where The Sun Don’t Shine”, and “Time Off For Bad Behavior” are each built from a good premise, and fleshed out with excellent guitar work by Cody Tate and John Jeffers. So often these days Southern rock guitar can get wanky and self-absorbed. Whiskey Myers may trend slightly that way in certain places, but overall the band’s guitar battery does a good job of waiting for the battle to come to them, and landing their shots when the time is right and in a manner that showcases both their prowess and their taste.
The band takes some chances on this record, and generally they nail the landings like with the final song “Colloquy” that tries to evoke the emotional epic, and dutifully succeeds. There is depth here beyond the riff-driven nature of the songs, like in “Reckoning” or “Wild Baby Shake Me,” which starts off as a rump shaker, but then develops into so much more.
But the real star of the show are the pipes of Cody Cannon. The guy’s voice is built for Southern rock. Without a hint of fake inflections or put-on’s, he sings effortlessly and straight from the heart, growling and confident when he needs to be, and willing to express emotion and vulnerability when it’s called for.
One small concern would be some of the chest-puffing present on this album in a song like “Headstone.” There are a few of these self-indulgent moments on the album, but these may disappear from the Whiskey Myers repertoire over time, and already seem diminished from their previous albums. The second song on the album called “Hard Row To Hoe” is just way too similar to Zepplin’s “Heartbreaker” to work, which is strange from a project that otherwise is fairly remarkable at avoiding the well-worn ruts and striking an original path.
The crunchy slide guitar, rising steel, and good songwriting of “Dogwood” make it one of the album’s best songs, and one of the album’s decidedly country selections. The sensible “Shelter From The Rain” is another good country-inspired, story-based song worth a deeper listen. Include the aforementioned “Colloquy” and there’s a good amount here for listeners who are country fans first, and Southern rock appreciators second.
With Early Morning Shakes, the now well-seasoned Whiskey Myers crew affirms themselves as one of the preeminent bands in Texas music and beyond.
1 3/4 of 2 guns up.
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The distinctive, woody tone of a small-bodied, nylon string guitar draws you into a new single from country music powerhouse Miranda Lambert—presumably the first song from the much-anticipated new album, creating a heightened interest around the offering than would regularly greet a new single.
The title “Automatic” might get some revved up for an old-school woman-scorned revenge song that was the signature of Miranda’s early career, hoping weaponry will be brandished or tires will screech while a foreboding cigarette cherry glows from the shadows. But instead Miranda delivers a cool-headed, warm, reflective, nostalgic piece, very much in the sentimental realm of country music’s remorseful view of the changing times, waxing tropishly, but effectively on what we’ve given up as progress and priority has marched on.
Written by Miranda, frequent collaborator Natalie Hemby, and The Voice contestant Nicolle Galyon, the song refers back to outmoded artifacts of life like pay phones, Polaroids, and postage stamps, while not being patently about these items themselves like so many of the laundry list offerings from country music’s opposite sex, but the sentimental reflection on these bygone mementos as markers of a dying past, a wayward present, and a gloomy future, glued together by the weighty line, “‘Cause when everything is handed to you, it’s only worth as much as the time put in.”
“Automatic” starts with the earthy, rhythmic strumming of a single guitar accompanied by a bass drum, then additional rhythm is added during the second verse; a sort of crunchy boom-clack sounding back-layered track that could either be digitally generated, or real tones rendered through some vintage filtering, giving “Automatic” a little modern-day relevancy while not leaning on the rhythm to make up for lyrical shortcomings.
Strings float in—again, somewhat ambiguously derived from woods and wires, or ones and zeros—but effective in getting the song to crescendo consistently throughout, while smart chord selection helps breed the desired, nostalgic mood. The chorus rises, but in a tempered, tasteful manner, and is effective at highlighting the signature tones of Miranda’s award-winning voice.
Why “Automatic” is so important is because we wait to see how the women of country are going to handle the continued march toward idiocy the men of country continue to illustrate, and as the lead feline, Miranda sets the pace. “Automatic” is somewhat safe country pop, but the sentimentality it is able to evoke is very real.
1 1/2 of 2 guns up.
The fried chicken-eating, truck-wrestling, twisted metal, wild-assed, guitar-plucking, gray-whiskered, screaming and shouting, foot stomping “Dirty ‘Ol One Man Band” known as Scott H. Biram is back with a brand new album called Nothin’ But Blood from Bloodshot Records, and it’s a shoot-a-belt-of-whiskey and run-buck-wild-in-the-woods kind of good time, followed by the old-school repentance and cool-minded reflections of a Sunday morning. It’s all porch picking and domestic disputes, flashing cop lights and shack shows deep in the woods. Bury your no good woman with a shovel, and then sing a gospel song as the human soul pinballs between good and evil in the ever-restless struggle of a man baptized in the blood of his own sins.
Biram stands (well maybe innebriatingly-swaying) at the apex of artists that roll their punk influences in a dirty, spicy rub of Clarksdale, Mississippi blues, marinate them in a jerk of genuine Hill Country muddy water, and cook them over burning planks from the dilapidated shacks of what blues music once was. Add a little Texas twang, and what you have is something your cardiologist may not recommend for a heart healthy diet, but it’s one hell of a good time.
With a Scott H. Biram album, you know what you’re going to get. The Grammy Awards may not come calling, but he’s not going to lay an egg on your ass. The album starts off arguably with its best track, the foreboding “Slow and Easy” with its booming bass accentuations and grooving, moody sound. Nothin’ But Blood has some good singer-songwriter moments, like the sharply-written “Never Comin’ Home,” and though I want to question how much a soldier would want to return to the Far East because of the quality of their reefer, the sentiment of “Nam Weed” is still palpable.
Though the sub-genre most associated with Scott Biram is the punk blues showcased best in the rousing track “Only Whiskey,” Nothin’ But Blood‘s most hardcore moments almost trend more toward metal, like with the serrated edges of “Church Point Girls,” and the mostly-instrumental “Around The Bend” that also highlights Biram’s chicken-picking skills and his prowess as a tone monster. These tracks are almost like the death metal of dirty blues, with “Around The Bend” vying for the title as the album’s most bold, creative track.
There are many ghosts living underneath the skin of Scott H. Biram, and his ability to inhabit the many different souls of man in both his voice and style, and shape shift deftly between them from track to track, has always been a point of awe. But all the madness captured on Nothin’ But Blood is later absolved in three consecutive gospel tunes to finish the work off: “Amazing Grace,” “When I Die,” and “John The Revelator.”
Though there’s not really any scabs to pick at on Nothin’ But Blood aside from a few wonky moments in the timing that tends to be one of the signatures of a Biram recording, here some 11 albums into his career, a sameness has creeped into his music and the approach to where there’s nothing specifically wrong, but it may leave some long-term listeners wondering what else he’s got. Though every record is solid and consistent, it may be a little too consistent to keep certain ears attentive.
When looking at some of Biram’s contemporaries like Charlie Parr, who just put out an exclusively-instrumental and improvised album called Hollandale, or Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band that arguably put out his career’s best recently with Between The Ditches, and Possessed By Paul James who despite a similar solo approach to Biram was able to step it up with his last record There Will Be Nights When I’m Lonely, there has been an evolution—a slow progress if not a sea change that allows the artist’s career and catalog to remain spicy. Though there are some new wrinkles here and there on Nothin’ But Blood, it still begs the question, where does Scott Biram go next?
But reinventing yourself can be a tricky business, and it is where a lot of music careers have gone down in flames. Maintaining a high level of quality for 15 years and over 11 releases is hard enough. But that’s what Scott H. Biram has risen out of a bloody river to accomplish with Nothin’ But Blood.
Good album cover, by the way.
1 3/4 of 2 guns up.
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The great American folk singing legend and banjo player Pete Seeger passed away on January 27th, leaving the rest of us behind to ponder our slowly-diminishing roster of living folk musicians with truly original voices that will outlast their own lifetimes and beyond, while the hungry ear searches in vain through both the overwhelming crush of recorded material, and a veritable vacuum of anything that isn’t a derivative of something that came before, to hopefully discover a piece of recorded music that touches the heart in a truly original manner.
All but appropriate then that on the very next day, January 28th, one of our generation’s most venerable folk musicians, Duluth, Minnesota’s Charlie Parr released his 12th full-length album, and one that arguably mark’s the artist’s most bold, and most ambitious undertaking yet, not just of his career, but of the careers of many of his peers. It is called Hollandale, and it is a leap beyond measure, with no regard for the firmness of the landing. It is an act of both faith and improvisation, but bound and directed by the unspoken communion between a master musician and his instrument, immersed in the inspirational atmosphere that permeates an artist as he submits himself wholly to the musical experience and allows it to breathe through him.
Hollandale is like nothing you’ve heard, from Charlie Parr or anyone else, at least not like anything you’ve heard for a very, very long time, and with this amount of body and clarity behind the recording itself. Whatever you were expecting from this album, you are probably wrong, and in its stead you get an in-depth exploration into what it means to be alive, to be human, to feel pain and to yearn and reflect, without a single word being spoken on the entire work.
With his custom, unique tunings played on a resonator, Charlie Parr delivers a sound that is both full, and ambitiously stripped-down to the very root of primitive American music. It is bursting with colorful narratives, original characters, and auspicious wisdom without including a bit of grammar. And most importantly, Hollandale is a journey. It takes you places; wherever you want to go.
Hollandale consists of only 5 tracks, including a two-part movement that has the same name of Parr’s last album, “I Dreamed I Saw Paul Bunyan Last Night”. It also includes a 4 ½-minute collaboration with Alan Sparhawk of the Duluth band Low. But all told the album still delivers a stellar, 40-minute musical experience. This album is also exquisitely recorded, mixed, and mastered. The production is as much of an important component to the project as Charlie’s slide and his signature tunings in taking the record to a high level of critical recorded works. Hollandale was specifically engineered for vinyl, but even in the CD and streaming formats, the liveliness and warmth of the recording isn’t just an enhancement of the Hollandale experience, it is a seminal part of it.
Hollandale is a victorious moment for Charlie Parr, and shouldn’t just make it into your home’s music collection, but is one of those works you could hear being secured in the Smithsonian’s archives of important American instrumental music works. Charlie Parr has set the bar of creativity and originality that all folk, blues, and country musicians will be measured against throughout 2014 and beyond, and did what every musician would love to do 12 releases into their musical journey: make an impact larger than themselves.
Two guns up.
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“Artist to watch” is an often-used term that may or may not be a good fit for certain performers, especially young ones that still have so many decisions to make about their lives and careers, and have so many determinations to be made about their talent, drive, influences, and style. But when it comes to the 18-year-old singer-songwriter Mary Sarah, “artist-to-watch” might not be a strong enough designation to speak to the potential of this artist.
Born in Oklahoma, raised in Texas, and set on a path from a very young age to become a performer, Mary Sarah spent her adolescence traveling around in showcases for young, potential music stars, and signed to Los Angeles-based talent agencies. From the beginning, Mary Sarah has been groomed for the big time, and you can tell there is money and muscle behind this girl; in fact maybe a little too much money and muscle, where you wonder where the carefully-crafted image and marketing end, and the singing-songwriting 18-year-old girl begin.
Mary Sarah seems to be following the Taylor Swift career path in some respects. If you poke around YouTube and such, you can find a young Mary Sarah singing cover songs from Taylor Swift and other country pop and pop stars. At 14, she released her first album Crazy Good that resides very much in the young singer-songwriter country pop realm. She’s recently been spending a lot of time touring radio stations, which is also a sign of an artist wanting to take the direct, industry route to a country music career.
But this doesn’t tell the whole story of young Mary Sarah. She professes a deep love for traditional country music, and began performing on the local Opry circuit around Houston as she grew older, meeting the Oak Ridge Boys who saw a YouTube video of her singing and invited her on stage at the Galveston’s Grand Opera House in January of 2012. This led to Mary Sarah and her mother eventually moving from Texas to Nashville to work on a very interesting recording project from which a duet with the recently-passed Ray Price was released in tribute to the Country Music Hall of Famer.
Recorded at The Sound Kitchen in Franklin, TN with producer Kent Wells, the unreleased Mary Sarah legends album called Bridges matches up the young singer with an unbelievable roster of legacy country talent recording classic country songs, and not just the obvious names like Dolly Parton and Willie Nelson that appear on the album, but even artists like Lynn Anderson and Freddy Powers, not to mention Merle Haggard, The Oak Ridge Boys, Tanya Tucker, Vince Gill, Ronnie Milsap, Big Kenny, John Rich, and of course, Ray Price. Even more astounding is that Mary Sarah’s executive producer and mentor is Freddy Powers—the songwriting / guitar-playing powerhouse who has penned so many hits for Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson just to name a few. Mary Sarah is not just some industry ingénue, she has some of the best living representatives of traditional country music behind her.
One of the remarkable things about Ray Price is that right up to his passing, his voice was as boisterous and warm as ever, and when you cue up this “Heartaches By The Number” duet with Mary Sarah, you hear Ray Price come alive again with such clarity, with such body to his legendary, vibrato tone, it’s enough to raise hairs and overwhelm. But not to be outdone, Mary Sarah delivers a flawless performance herself that that rises to the level of complimenting Ray Price on this remarkable remake. The production and arrangement breathes new life into the track, while honoring the song’s classic lineage.
Mary Sarah could break either way at this point. She could become like an Amber Digby type and be a traditional country singer from Texas who has a solid, dedicated, sustainable, but smallish following, or she could become the next Taylor Swift. Or, even better, she could potentially bridge these two worlds with her Bridges album, and take traditional country music to a popularity level it hasn’t enjoyed in recent memory.
The reason teenagers and young adults love young pop country stars like Taylor Swift is because they can relate to them. Mary Sarah is an awfully beautiful young woman with all the stage presence, charm, and media savvy a young star needs to reach the very top of the music industry. In fact in some respects it’s all almost so perfect you tend to want to throw some dirt on it, and some may be untrusting of what they’re seeing and hearing because it’s so refined and flawless.
But as for the “Heartaches By The Number” duet, you can’t get much better, and that is coming from one that doesn’t like many remakes or cover songs. And to know there’s an entire album of similar material out there just makes you hungry for more. Mary Sarah’s Bridges album was initially slated for release in the Spring of 2013, and then the summer of 2013, but has yet to surface. It may be the fault of some Music Row bean counters sitting on their hands, or it could be Mary’s team is waiting for the exact right time and opportunity. Some chatter now has the album coming in the spring of 2014. But if Mary Sarah’s duet with Ray Price is any indication, this will be a release well worth the wait, and so will be the arrival of Mary Sarah on the national stage.
Two guns up.
It may not be possible to give The Reverent Horton Heat enough credit for his contributions to revitalizing the roots of American music. But since he never reached the mainstream level of success like a Brian Setzer for example, he never seems to get his proper due. To his loyal fans though, Jim Heath is nothing short of a guitar god (with his own signature Gretsch model to prove it). He’s arguably the biggest and most-influential name in modern day rockabilly/psychobilly music, was one of the first to expose the parallels between rockabilly, country, and punk, and deserves a pat on the back for bringing out opening bands like Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers, Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band, Hank3, and The Goddamn Gallows just to name a few.
The 90′s is when The Reverend Horton Heat established himself at the forefront of the independent roots world. Out of the gate with the band’s debut album Smoke ‘Em If You Got ‘Em, they proved they were somehow cooler than the punks, and better players to boot, and as authentic as the honky-tonkers. Then when the swing era came in the late 90′s, The Rev was once again ahead of the curve, releasing It’s Martini Time in the middle of 1996 right before the revival took stride. The Rev’s most well-rounded album might have been 2000′s Spend A Night In The Box. Already established as an influential force in both the guitar, punk, and rockabilly worlds, Jim Heath showed he could also be a noteworthy songwriter with tracks like “It Hurts Your Daddy Bad” and the countrified “The Bedroom Again.”
But the 2000′s found The Reverend Horton Heat somewhat adrift directionally, despite reaching new heights in both touring and popularity. The Rev was finally gaining some recognition, bolstered by a prominent appearance of the signature song “Psychobilly Freakout” in the wildly-popular video game Guitar Hero. But maybe the money usurped some of the muster for the music, and studio offerings like 2002′s Lucky 7 and 2004′s Revival felt a little forced despite a few notable moments, like the music wasn’t flowing, and they were trying to reach for the magic they had captured the decade before by just trying to play fast and hard.
Long-time drummer Scott Churilla left the band in 2006, replaced by Paul Simmons formerly of The Supersuckers. Jim Heath started a side project featuring blues, jazz, and rock standards called Reverend Organdrum that was considerably more sedated than the Horton Heat experience, leaving some to wonder if the days of stage leaps off of Jimbo’s upright bass were over. Hey, our favorite rockers all have to age at some point. Crowds went from moshing punks to blue collars and teenagers who knew The Rev through Guitar Hero first.
So here it is in 2014, and though Horton Heat has already established himself as the King of Psychobilly and a god of the rockabilly world, there’s the sense that the music needed a new start. But if you venture too far away from the established sound, you solicit sideways looks from your core audience, similar to how if you keep on serving up the same sounds, the routine could become stale.
Helping to shake things up, Scott Churilla has resurfaced on drums, and instead of overthinking it, The Rev seems to just lay back with the band’s most notorious lineup, and tap into the magic that has made The Reverend Horton Heat one of the most entertaining roots bands in the last quarter century.
The new album Rev makes use of the dual meaning of the ‘rev’ term, and is a pedal down, screaming-tires good time from the start to the finish line. The album begins with two songs that seamlessly segway into each other—”Victory Lap” and “Smell of Gasoline”—in that way The Rev has been known for over the years, harkening back to that badass moment at the beginning of 1994′s Liquor In The Front that began with “Big Sky” and “Baddest of the Bad” back to back.
Though the band is well in their groove here, long-time Horton Heat listeners will recognize they go to some of the same wells they’ve been to in the past a few times in the album. Songs like “Zombie Dumb,” “Schizoid,” and the first single “Let Me Teach You How To Eat” seem to take older song concepts and just shake around the riffs and lyrics a bit. Rev also doesn’t afford you any of those cool, gear-shifting stripped-down countrified songs like “Bales of Cocaine” or “The Bedroom Again” that gave some of the classic Horton Heat albums that extra flavor.
But what Rev does have is an infectiousness and vitality that was missing in some of their more recent offerings. Though “Never Gonna Stop It” doesn’t give much lyrically, this is Horton Heat finding the infectious pocket of his sound. “My Hat” is a is a fun, quick little tune, and “Longest Gonest Man” shows off the capable lyricist we know Jim Heath can be.
Rev is probably not the place to start for someone who’s never heard The Reverend Horton Heat before; I would fall back on Smoke ‘Em If You Got ‘Em or Spend A Night In The Box. But it is a solid, entertaining offering nonetheless, an improvement from some of the other recent projects, and will serve the dedicated Reverend Horton Heat fan quite well.
1 1/2 of 2 guns up.
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The country song protesting the direction of country music has in many respects just as much tradition and lineage in country music now as many of the genre’s other defining elements. From Waylon Jennings’ #1 single “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way” in 1975, to the song “Murder on Music Row” that was the CMA Song of the Year in 2001, to Dale Watson and Hank Williams III’s recent chest-pounding protest songs, as long as the business of country music has been trying to veer the music off of its true path, there’s been artists willing to take a bold stand and speak out against it.
In many ways the country protest song has become so prolific in its own right, sometimes they can trend toward cliche in a somewhat similar vein to the songs they are looking to criticize. But to see such sentiment coming from a 15-year-old songwriter and performer in an original composition speaks to both the depth and degree of country music’s current wayward trajectory, and the wisdom and talent of the songwriter and performer penning such a tune.
Williamson Branch is a bluegrass and country band from Nashville, and their 15-year-old fiddle and guitar player Melody Williamson recently wrote a song called “There’s No Country Here.” Despite her age, Music Row would be wise to remove themselves for their laundry list clatter and listen to what the future of country music has to say about where country music is headed.
5 out of 5 stars.
If you were asked to populate a list of current country music artists that with no frills and no variations lay down country music as country music was meant to be, Jason Eady would very have to be at or near the top of your list. And if you found yourself beset on all sides by ravenous legions of flesh-eating pop country music fans whose only bane was the authentic sound of true country music being blared in their general direction, Daylight & Dark just might be your ideal go to to win your ultimate escape.
As a followup to Jason Eady’s 2012, critically-acclaimed country offering AM Country Heaven, here comes a new one that picks up right where the old one left off, unflinchingly immersed in the traditions of country music, taking aim and hitting the bulls-eye at the heart of what country music truly is.
But despite the joys of AM Country Heaven, one of the one concerns I had with the record when reading back through my review was that it was a little too straightforward and mellow, with not enough variation or color to hold everyone’s attention. When talking with Eady recently, he said about this new album, “It’s a little more on the mellow side I think than ‘AM Country Heaven,’ not quite as honky tonk…” and I almost winced. Even more mellow? Eady continued, “To me the two styles of country music that I like the most are that barroom sound, and also the more Vern Gosdin, Don Williams, mellow side of it. And this one definitely leans that way.”
But the mellowness is not a burden on Daylight & Dark, it is where Jason Eady improved from his previous work. Where AM Country Heaven relied somewhat on the sheer countryness of the music, and the contrast that created compared to Eady’s previous musical direction, Daylight & Dark delves deeper into composition, poetry, and a linear story, stripping the music back even more to expose the soul and inspiration behind it.
Don’t go thinking there isn’t any good times or foot tapping on Daylight & Dark thought. Boiled down, this is every bit of a classic country drinking album, soaked in alcohol from stem to stern. It just takes a honest look at both sides of the drinking equation—the good times, and the consequences, and a life that bounces in between them searching for equilibrium.
Daylight & Dark finds Jason Eady paired up with his fiance Courtney Patton, who fans of his live show will be quite familiar with. Patton co-wrote three of the album’s tracks, and lends vocals on just about all of them, including the duet “We Might Just Miss Each Other.” “When we went into the studio, we had been singing those songs together for a year,” Eady explains. “Those parts grow over a long period of time, and makes it sound more natural.”
Two other famous names lend their talents to the lively track “A Memory Now” when Hayes Carll and Even Felker of the Turnpike Troubadours stop by the studio. Daylight & Dark is very much a Texoma effort, with geography being a player to the overall story and in songs like “OK Whiskey” about the scourge of Oklahoma’s government-mandated 3/2 diluted brew, and its followup “The Other Side Of Abilene.”
Where Jason Eady finds his sweet spot on the album is in these exquisite, understated, Don Williams-like songs that slow it so far down and strip it so far back that the raw manna of the music is exposed in all its pure, supple wonder. “Liars & Fools” is so tasteful and warm, and so referential to memory, it’s like crawling into a little country music womb. “Daylight & Dark” also captures this classic country warmth despite a little more tempo behind it. And then somehow Jason outdoes himself again, stripping it back even further in the sparse “Whiskey & You” that doesn’t leave a dry eye within earshot.
Sure, when you get this deep into the essence of true country music, you’re going to leave some folks behind. But Daylight & Dark isn’t for them, it’s for the folks that were left behind by what they now call country music many years ago.
1 3/4 of 2 guns up.
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It can be easy to overlook just what kind of impact Rosanne Cash has had on American music over the years. She seems to always be overshadowed by her father, by other famous sons and daughters of country legends, measured against them, and dogged by preceding labels that don’t always allow her to be judged on her own merit, while her musical accomplishments veer towards being somewhat misunderstood because she’s not always been nestled smack dab in the country realm as people want, expect, or anticipate.
Awareness of Rosanne in the public realm has also waned here recently because it’s been a full eight years since she put out an album of original material, and five years since she released The List—an interpretation of 12 classic country songs referred to her by her father. But Rosanne’s critical and commercial accomplishments are far more than complimentary, they define a very successful career: Eleven #1 country singles, twenty-one Top 40 singles, and thirteen Grammy nominations is nothing to sniff at, and ultimately might at least get her mentions as a potential Hall of Fame inductee.
The River & The Thread is an album that was worth waiting for. Produced and co-written with Rosanne’s husband, accomplished musician John Leventhal, this album is exhaustive, thematic, all-encompassing, and compromises nothing when it comes to desiring the highest degree of quality in songwriting and production.
The style of The River & The Thread refers very heavily to the current Americana approach, and will slide very nicely as bumper music between Terry Gross stories on NPR, and into the Americana Music Association selections come May. It has that slickness, that sophistication, that almost urbanity and upper-crust appeal despite the sometimes dirty, Southern themes the record is laced with. That “white people’s blues” sound is stamped in this album indelibly, and though this will make NPR/Americana crowd lick their lips, country listeners may wish that a little more grit was rubbed into this album beyond the words.
The beauty of this album is how it conveys with such reverence the spirit of the river region, with Rosanne’s birthplace of Memphis very much the fulcrum. The River & The Thread doesn’t discriminate in its description of human lives and the landscape in which they live amongst. They are all bound together into this universal body, connected by a cohesive filament sewn into the fabric of every life, artifact, and element, which in turn constitutes a tapestry that unfurls out like a linear story. The River & The Thread is the soundtrack to that story.
“Modern Blue” is the song on the album that will draw most folks in with its delicious, guitar-driven melody, but songs like “A Feather’s Not A Bird” and “World Of Strange Design” are the songwriting standouts in how they relay the unique, curious, and sometimes contradicting aspects on Southern life. “Night School” is the buried little masterpiece, with it’s sparse, almost early Tom Wait’s-esque atmosphere and excellent composition, both lyrically and sonically.
The River & The Thread is embossed by an impressive barn of players and harmony singers, including Rodney Crowell, Kris Kristofferson, Tony Joe White, Allison Moorer, John Prine, Derek Trucks, and John Paul White from The Civil Wars; not just adding a cast of celebrity names to help spread interest in this record, but endowing it with the honor and lineage these names bring that very much speaks to the thematic vision this album is approached with.
The concerns about the slickness, almost trending towards predictability in the production of this album are certainly here, especially during its first few listens. But in the end, the songwriting and overall effort are weighty enough to erode these worries and reveal a gem that should be the talk of the Americana world in 2014.
1 3/4 of 2 guns up.
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How to stay fiercely and authentically in touch with the roots of country music, yet do something that still feels fresh here some 60-plus years after the country genre was formed is the challenge that faces every band or artist that doesn’t simply want to be like a museum piece, or a live juke box rehashing country classics, and that would never have the wherewithal or disposition to run with the young bucks trying to capture mainstream popularity by running away from what country music once was. So many artists think that being country is only about extending your drawl or overdubbing steel guitar and miss that the spirit of the music is about original self-expression.
This is what The Ben Davenport Band understand, and approached their debut album Slow Start with, distributed trough Lone Star Records in 2013. It’s been a while since I’ve heard such great texture and diversity in a record that still clings tightly to its country roots. But one question that I had when I was cueing this album up and thumbing through the liner notes was, “Who is Ben Davenport?” Looking at the credits and listening to the music, the heart of the band seems to revolve around singer and songwriter Jim Yoss. No Ben Davenport is to be found.
“I spent 13 years working on the railroad as a trackman and living the life that went along with it out on the road,” Jim Yoss explains. “I would introduce myself to the ladies with names out of songs—Willie Lee, John Lee Pettimore—kind of as a joke but also to prevent my death from the hands of my now ex-wife. (I can laugh about it now, she’s still pretty sore about it. hah)
“One night in February ’05 I was staying at my friend’s place in Northern Ohio drinking Jack Daniels and eating a week old bowl of chili. We were watching Season 1 of The Dukes Of Hazzard and there was a scene where Cooter Davenport (Ben Jones) rode his motorcycle through the front door of The Boar’s Nest. My friend paused it and said ‘Ben Davenport, that’s your new name!’ So I stumbled to the bathroom, rehearsed it a couple times in the mirror and agreed. Chad was a great drummer and we said that when we’d start a band [we would] call it ‘The Ben Davenport Band.’
“That day never came. Chad was killed in an accident the day after Memorial Day that year. My son and I were the last ones from home to see him and give him a hug and tell him we loved him and we’d see him soon. I’ve had people tell me to change the name because it’s confusing. I told those people to kiss my ass.”
Ben Davenport’s album Slow Start feels like a victory. Reflecting back on a lifetime of memories, accomplishments, failures, and the fortunes and lessons that come with both, it is a self-critique and cathartic, fiercely personal, and an album you can tell Jim Yoss made for himself, be damned if anyone else likes it; a bookend on his life exposing vulnerability, toughness, honesty, and frailty—an album he had to make so the next chapter in his life could begin.
The opening track “Hell of a Day” refers heavily to a Southern rock influence, and features deft guitar work by Ben Davenport’s Josh Serrato who helps to set the tone of the band’s sound and also helped produce the album. The first song also features a soaring chorus with two part harmonies tastefully arranged, and a theme throughout Slow Start is going the extra mile to give each song the little bit of extra love and attention that it calls for.
Straight up country is what you get with the second song, “Ain’t Lovin’ Me;” a classic cheating song that in that authentic country spirit can speak to the heart of the cheater and and cheated in the same breath. What Slow Start does that so many other albums fail at is keeping you completely engaged in the music by being bold; keeping you on your toes for what is coming next.
One gem of Slow Start is “Don’t Know,” a total gear shift from the first few songs, tugging at the heart strings with piano, and haunting, multi-layered female vocals, and exquisite mandolin by Wesley Holtsford. This is followed by a stripped-down “Ball Drop” featuring just Jim Yoss and his guitar, exposing the songwriter’s skillful evocation of soul divested from any need of accompaniment.
As soon as you try to pigeonhole The Ben Davenport Band as hard-edged country rockers, they shake it up, and deliver something completely unexpected. This album has a poem on it, “My Ode to Billy Joe” (Shaver). Jim Yoss is no Shel Silverstein, but the plain-spoken approach and honest sentiment captured on the track make it one of the album’s standouts. “Ol’ Ghost of You” despite the dower story is a surprisingly bright-sounding arrangement with a free-spirited mandolin weaving and darting between verses. The album concludes with a song written and performed by a man named Russell Patterson; an oldtimer that once taught Ryan Bingham slide guitar, and played with Bingham for a few years.
Slow Start scores the highest of marks on production, arrangement, and originality. Some may find Jim Yoss’s vocals a little too rich and wish his inflections could be a little more understated, but it is the strength of composition and the overall production value of this album that suck you end and delineate it from the herd, while the diversity of content delivers something for everyone across a wide swath of country sensibilities.
This is a good one.
1 3/4 of 2 guns up.
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Between 1981 and 1984, Johnny Cash recorded an album with the legendary Hall of Fame producer Billy Sherrill called Out Among The Stars that was subsequently shelved by Columbia Records and lost to the world until the masters were recently discovered during a search for archival Cash material. The album in its entirety is scheduled to be released on March 25th, and ahead of the release we have a chance to hear the song “She Used To Love Me A Lot,” written by Dennis Morgan, Charles Quillen, and Kye Fleming.
Learned country fans will recognize “She Used To Love Me A Lot” as a David Allan Coe single released in early December of 1984 off his album Darlin’ Darlin’. That version of the song also emanated from Columbia Records, with Billy Sherrill as producer, though it’s probably not fair to call Cash’s version a cover of David Allan Coe because Cash’s version was very likely recorded first.
In the mid 80′s, David Allan Coe was experiencing a resurgence of interest in his career, and Darlin’ Darlin’ was a strange project for him, heavily produced in the Billy Sherrill style, and consisting mostly of songs written by others. Sherrill’s approach with Coe was to showcase his often-overlooked vocal prowess through the selection of compositions, and Coe’s version of “She Used To Love Me A Lot” lives up to that charge, with a stellar vocal performance that communicates a great sense of pain through the song’s structure and the dark, minor chords, overriding any concerns about the heavy production hand Sherrill employed. The song eventually reached #11 on the Billboard country charts.
If Out Among The Stars had been released in its time, David Allan Coe many have never cut “She Used To Love Me A Lot,” and it would be Cash’s version that all others would be measured against. But instead it is Coe who defines the established expectations and prejudices our ears cling to when we become comfortable with a version of a song.
Cash’s interpretation is certainly a more earthy, acoustic, and grounded take, driven by a fingerpicked acoustic guitar and a spirited mandolin handled by a young Marty Stuart, with the drums completely spared for some light percussion. Coe’s version hinged more on a thumping, Outlaw-esque bass drum beat and driving electric bass guitar, with the acoustic guitar along for the ride and drums filling the chorus. Coe is also more active in the verses with his cadence and range, where Cash seems to focus more on the conveyance of the story.
There’s the potential that some parts of the Cash recording were “fortified” after the fact, as archivists have said happened in a respectful manner as this album was being brought back to life. But the production and approach to “She Used To Love Me A Lot” is both tasteful and timeless; not striking the ear as indicative of any era as sometimes can be the concern with archive recordings.
Johnny Cash is blessed like few others with a warmly familiar timbre to his voice making anything he touches sound like mastery. To be afforded any new music from Cash a decade-plus after his death feels like a blessing in itself and best not heavily scrutinized. Nonetheless, even with a critical ear, there’s little to not love with this song.
1 3/4 of 2 guns up.
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2014 promises to be another great year for music, and the first part of the year might just be one of the busiest seasons for anticipated releases we have seen in quite a while. From a lost Johnny Cash album, to a new one from his daughter Rosanne, to Jason Eady, a big re-issue from Lucina Williams, and releases from Scott H. Biram and Robert Ellis, there’s enough here to get your music taste buds salivating.
Saving Country Music’s most anticipated album for 2014, Out Among The Stars is a complete album that was recorded between 1981 and 1984 by Cash, with songs that were meant to be together, but never saw the light of day. A true “lost album” if there ever was one. It was produced by Country Music Hall of Famer Billy Sherrill. READ MORE.
Rosanne Cash – The River & The Thread (January 14th)
NPR says: “Each song is rooted in the Southern soil connecting the old Cash homestead in Arkansas to the family’s ancestral Virginia homeland, expanding to survey the family’s artistic roots in Alabama and Tennessee. Some narratives are fictional, while others mine family lore.”
You’re not seeing double, this is Lucinda Williams’ critically-acclaimed 3rd album from 1988 that many give credit for launching her career. The album went out-of-print and is finally being re-issued by Thirty Tigers. It also comes with an album of live tracks. Just like Johnny Cash, this is not just another re-release, and stands as one of the most anticipated releases of 2014.
Doug Paisley – Strong Feelings (January 21st)
As we found out in 2013, Canada can do country, and do country right. And this Canadian has recruited an impressive list of his Canadian musician buddies including Garth Hudson from The Band to make one of the most-anticipated Canadian country releases of 2014. Did I say Canada enough? Canada Canada. That should do it!
Ray Benson – A Little Piece (January 21st)
Our generation’s King of Western Swing takes some time away from his full time duties as the front man for Asleep At The Wheel to release this solo project through his record label, Bismeaux.
If you love real country, you will love Jason Eady and Daylight & Dark. Following up his critically-acclaimed AM Country Heaven, Eady proves you can serve up country straight, and still have it sound fresh. This album was written with a linear story that runs through all the songs.
Hard Working Americans (Todd Snider) – Hard Working Americans (January 21st)
Yes, this is a band emanating from the unsettled mind of songwriter Todd Snider, and coaxing Neal Casal (Chris Robinson Brotherhood), keyboardist Chad Staehly (Great American Taxi) and Duane Trucks (King Lincoln) on drums to join him.This is a cover album of many songs from Snider’s alt-country/Americana friends.
This spellbinding, solo songwriter and performer from Minnesota is one of these criminally-underappreciated guys because he would never be a part of self-promotion or flashy presentation. Being released on Chaperone Records.
Dolly Parton – Blue Smoke (New Zealand, Australia – January. United States & Europe – May)
Yes, strange prioritizing on the release date, but it’s Dolly, so hush up! The release parallels her Blue Smoke World Tour and will be released on “Dolly Records” in conjunction with Sony Masterworks.
Hide the women and children, the “Dirty Ol’ One Man Band” is back out on the loose with a brand new one from Bloodshot Records that promises to be a bloody good time. Country punk stomp blues at its best!
Suzy Bogguss – Lucky (February 4th)
Suzy doing a Merle Haggard tribute record? This could be cool. “Merle is one of the most masculine songwriters I’ve ever heard, and I’ve been watching boys cover his music for years. I just thought, ‘Why couldn’t a girl do this?’”
Whiskey Myers – Early Morning Shakes (February 4th)
Texas Monthly says: “Early Morning Shakes” may not be destined to make a big impression on a country music audience that’s currently obsessed with pickups, blue jeans, and moonlight, but there are some thrills within for fans of dirty rock and roll.”
This could be Robert Ellis’s year. The young songwriter has a much-anticipated album, and also produced another much-anticipated album that may come later in 2014 from The Whiskey Shivers.
Hurray For The Riff Raff – Small Town Heroes (February 11th)
Alynda Lee Segarra was making waves all throughout 2013, and this album from ATO Records featuring her unique, stripped-down Appalachia sound should be a big one.
Lake Street Dive – Bad Self Portraits (February 18th)
2014 could be a big one for Lake Street Dive, and they deserve every bit of it from the talent this throwback band packs. Rachel Price, originally from Hendersonville, TN and a product of the New England Conservatory as a jazz singer is a bona-fide superstar waiting to happen. Feb. 18th can’t get here fast enough.
On the heels of her fun EP Boy Crazy, Loveless releases her much-anticipated sophomore LP from Bloodshot Records. Part country, part punk, and all attitude, this Ohioan evokes the best of the original punk-gone-country movement. This one should be fun.
Beck – Morning Phase (February)
Okay, you see Beck and you don’t immediately think country, but he has dabbled in the format in the past (go feast your ears on “Rowboat” and thank me later), and with this one he’s talking about it having a very heavy Gram Parson’s influence, so it may be worth a sniff from country fans.
The former (and current, really) front man for the Squirrel Nut Zippers never seems to receive proper acclaim even though he continually delivers one excellent album after another. Don’t sleep on this one.
- Mary Chapin Carpenter – Songs from the Movie (Jan 14th)
- Blue Highway – The Game (Jan 21st)
- Reverend Horton Heat – Rev (Jan 21st)
- Ronnie Milsap – Summer Number 17 (Jan 28th)
- Rhonda Vincent – Only Me (Jan 28th)
- Laura Cantrell – No Way There from Here (Jan 28th)
- Eric Church – The Outsiders (Feb. 11th) as if you already didn’t know
- Dierks Bentley – Riser (Feb 25th)
- Eli Young Band – 10,000 Towns (March 4th)
- Kevin Fowler – How Country Are Ya (March 4th)
- Martina McBride – Everlasting (March 4th)
- Drive By Truckers – English Oceans (March 12th)
The Rumor Mill
Bob Wayne – Back To The Camper
Bob Wayne is no longer with label Century Media, but word is he just finished up recording an album with Andy Gibson (Hank3) in Nashville and it will be released sometime in 2014. Included on the album will be a song with Elizabeth Cook called “20 Miles To Juarez” and a song with country legend Red Simpson. Stay tuned.
The Goddamn Gallows – The Maker
No info on a release as of yet. Was initially said to be released in late 2013.
The Whiskey Shivers
Currently being record or just finished up, this Robert Ellis-produced album could be The Whiskey Shivers’ breakout moment. They’ve been making tons of noise around Austin, playing ACL fest last October, and scheduled to play the Stagecoach Festival in California this year. They are definitely a band to watch.
His disposition is to record during the winter, and he dropped a hint of working on a new album on Facebook recently. For all we know from the last few release cycles from Hank3, he might drop 7 albums on our asses all at once, including one built from the sound of Black Cats blowing up found items from around his farm.
Justin Townes Earle
He is amid a contract dispute with a new label, but says, “ I will find a way to get new music out very soon. Will write and record a solo EP. Then Find some grown ups to work with.”
Rumor has it a new album is currently being recorded, and will take this underground country cult favorite to the next level. More deets coming.
Slackeye Slim is also working on a new album.
Matt Woods hopes to have a new album out in March.
Who else? Share your intel below!
Yes ladies and gentlemen, you’re seeing this right. Do not rub your eyes or adjust your monitors. In a wild upset, coming out of left field, and counter to just about every other music outlet’s top rated albums, Saving Country Music’s Album of the Year for 2013 is none other than the masterpiece from The Mavericks, the infectious celebration of the joys of life and music known as In Time.
Go ahead, leave your comments below about how this album is not country.
The Mavericks’ In Time cuts against the grain, and is counterintuitive to all of the well-noted and often-ballyhooed music trends of 2013. 2013 was coined as the “Year of the Woman” in country music by many, and the “Year of the Songwriter” by Saving Country Music and others. In Time doesn’t appreciably reside in either of those distinctions, though I would argue that it’s a much more deft songwriting presentation than it may seem on the surface. And no, it’s not especially country in the traditional sense.
But you reach a point in music where it is so good that no data points, no trends, no narrow-minded ties to genre matter. Music isn’t meant to be over thought as we so often do as active music fans, it is meant to be felt. And the best music simply grips you and allows you to lose yourself in it. In Time reminded this jaded music critic who must toil through reams of albums every day to find something even worthy of writing a few paragraphs about of what it meant to be a music lover all over again.
A masterpiece? I believe so. Singer Raul Malo is the the George Jones and Frank Sinatra of our time all rolled up into one, it’s just our time is gripped by the narrow, short attention span that doesn’t paying proper attention to talent like Raul’s towering vocal gifts that are unparalleled in virtually every corner of music this side of operatic maestros, or the tastefulness of guitar player and harmony singer Eddie Perez, or all of the admirable contributions of The Mavericks’ core and subsidiary players.
The country influences are certainly here, and anyone who asserts otherwise simply isn’t listening through the music to its inner soul. But without question, there are heavy Latin, cajun, surf, rock, and jazz influences here too. In Time is not simply the best album in country music in 2013, it is arguably one of the best, if not the best album in all of American music, and for it not to win the day in it’s home genre of country music would be a silly oversight, and tough to justify as In Time only becomes fortified by the test of time, divested from trend or taste as it is, and embedded with such universal appeal.
In Time by The Mavericks is the one; the only album that left no room for improvement, was both slick and tight, yet alive and breathing from the live aspect of the recording. It looked both forward, and behind. It led, but also paid tribute. It was a gift of music that gave more than any other in 2013, that also promises to continue to give for years to come.
Fans of this album will be the first to cry foul, but I will say what many long-time fans that knew Sturgill before this album will all admit: Sturgill has even more in him than High Top Mountain captures. I say this in an appreciative way as someone who has known Sturgill’s music longer than most. Sturgill has a whole career of albums ahead of him, and may win half a dozen Albums of the Year from Saving Country Music and others before it’s all done. But if an artist could have even done more than a particular album displays, however excellent that album may be, it must be considered when making a choice for Album of the Year. Nonetheless, consider High Top Mountain a very close runner up.
Jason Isbell’s Southeastern should also be considered a very close runner up to In Time. It is an astounding collection of songs, but in the end didn’t carry the weight as a complete album concept the way In Time did in my opinion.
Also interesting to note, I did tally all of the clear and obvious votes from readers for all of the Album of the Year nominees. The Mavericks and In Time beat out Southeastern 20 votes to 19. High Top Mountain got the most with 24, but Saving Country Music is also much more familiar ground for Simpson and Isbell fans. It was interesting to see just how close these three albums came to each other, and it did help influence the outcome.
And lastly I would say, before people scream about how another album should have won, my request is only do so after you have given In Time a chance.
I first heard about the rambunctious and ribald Bobby Joe Owens through guitar maestro Zach Sweeny—Wayne “The Train” Hancock’s lead guitarist that has also played with folks like Lucky Tubb, Danny Kay & The Nightlifers, and many others. Sweeny appeared on Bobby Joe’s first two albums, including 2010′s Watermelon Tea that prominently featured the Squirrel Nut Zipper’s Jimbo Mathus. Bobby Joe always seemed like an interesting character, but his recent release Liquor, Love & Laughter was my first chance to get a face full of his full tilt sidesplitting musical antics.
Recorded at the famous Cash Cabin—the cabin formerly owned by Johnny Cash in Hendersonville, TN that has been converted into a studio—Liquor, Love & Laughter is not a particularly slick album, with little flubs and hiccups here and there, and some mixing issues. But damn if this album isn’t a real good time and a wild ride from beginning to end.
Bobby Joe Owens is a guy who didn’t even start doing anything in music until 2006 when he started writing songs under the name “Robert J. Thompson.” He doesn’t play an instrument, is probably not going to win any singing competitions, but his songs will jerk tears from you, whether you’re laughing out loud, or relenting to a truly heartfelt ballad. The former Marine Corps veteran names off his occupations as inventor, entrepreneur, philanthropist, and despite all the signs that he comes to the music realm from the outside looking in, his songwriting will kick the ass of many who claim music as their full-time gig.
Liquor, Love & Laughter starts off with with a straight up rockabilly tune called “Hopeless Romantic,” and though the song captures a fun vibe, you start to worry, especially with a backing band by the name of “Retro Deluxe” that getting into this man’s music will require either a quaffed pompadour or Betty Page bangs. But one of the best parts about Bobby Joe Owens and this album is that it is all over the place as far as influence, touching on just about every texture of the American roots world, from straight up country and honky tonk, to singer-songwriter type Americana-feeling tunes, to no holds barred off-color comedy songs.
After the rockabilly intro, Owens careens straight into country music with the cunning and crafty “From Beer To There.” The drinking theme is carried over through most of the first half of the album, including the salty “Long Time Until Next Time” and “Drinkin’ My Heartbreak Away.” And then Bobby Joe takes you completely by surprise with an exquisitely-written, somber and sober ballad evoking the feeling of sincere heartbreak called “Don’t Forget To Forget.” Even if you think this dude is a complete goof, “Don’t Forget To Forget” is one diamond in the rough worth digging for. So is the spatial and mood-drenched “Tennessee Tar” that could come from your favorite songwriting-focused Americana band.
As the album progresses, the comedy songs start coming quick and often. No, “My Dickel” is not about Bobby Joe’s favorite uncle named Richard, but it will leave you in stitches like a head first dive off a couch into the side of the coffee table. “Friends Don’t Le Friends Face Book Drunk” (yes two words for “Face Book”) is the funny song whose off-color wit is what forced Bobby Joe Owens to include a Parental Advisory sticker on this album, and the jokes keep coming (no pun intended) in “Text Me You Love Me.”
Though I spoke about the little recording flubs here and there on this album, it is nothing short of expansive in how it was fleshed out by Retro Deluxe and a cast of mercenary musicians. Every song gets expansive treatment with quality and tasteful musicianship, backing vocals, and those extra treatments like mandolin, or the piano on “Don’t Forget To Forget” that fits the song perfectly instead of using what was easily available.
Not for everyone, but like a Roger Miller-style approach to country, Bobby Joe Owens and Retro Deluxe leave you quite entertained with a combination of wit and substance that speaks to a sincere appreciation for the joy of music.
1 1/2 of 2 guns up.
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So here it is January 3rd, the day that we were promised that everything would be revealed of why a month ago today, Eric Church’s marketing arm decided to post a psychotic and irresponsible “teaser” video for his upcoming The Outsiders album that depicted a shadowy figure in gloves obsessively watching a video of Taylor Swift explaining on the CMA Awards how it was Eric Church’s arrogant and idiotic torpedoing of a opening spot on a Rascal Flatts tour that eventually led to Taylor getting her big break in country music.
The Eric Church video was so creepy and so ripe to be misunderstood, Saving Country Music posted an expletive-laden tirade and demanded the video be taken down. Eventually it was before a public outrage could be launched, and despite many Church fans proclaiming the video as payback to Taylor Swift for calling out Eric Church on the CMA Awards, (and that it was completely justified, because you know, Eric Church isn’t part of the “in” crowd and is an “outsider”) a subsequent video explained that Eric Church “adores Taylor,” making Church’s fans have to each their own asses, while Eric Church himself back paddled harder than the Oxford University rowing team in a 4.2 mile heat race on the River Thames.
The video that Eric Church inc. posted in place of their Taylor Swift stalker video urged us all to “stay on course” and that on January 3rd “all will be revealed to you.” And as always with these dumbass teaser videos, nothing was revealed, nothing makes sense, none of the disturbing imagery from the December 3rd video is now somehow justified just because Eric Church released a new song that has nothing to do with any of it. It’s all just a bunch of marketing that distracts from the music and leaves the gawking country music fan wanting and confused, while the fact that the whole run up to Eric’s The Outsiders album is such an obvious ripoff of Shooter Jennings and how he marketed his last album The Other Life goes horrifically under reported.
But there is a new single here that needs to be dealt with called “Give Me Back My Hometown.” The song is very, very trope-like, residing deeply within the well-worn grooves of the often called-upon American music theme of the forgotten hometown and heartland decay. Is it a laundry list song, or as some like to couch it, “bro-country?” No, no it’s not. Is it a country rap? Not even close. Is it an alternative to the trash that permeates the mainstream country music airwaves? Sure it is. But before we proclaim it is something more than just another song, let’s not allow ourselves to reduce our measure of what is good simply because Music Row has deftly extended the boundary of what is positively awful into previously uncharted territory.
At the same time it is not unfair to couch “Give Me Back My Hometown” as a respite from the rest of mainstream male country. And the reason this small town theme works so often is because it resonates in a fairly universal manner, especially amongst country music fans. But the boldness of “Give Me Back My Hometown” is in the musical approach to the song. Once again Eric Church reveals himself on the progressive edge of country sonically compared to his Bon Jovi-esque and country rapping counterparts, delivering a rhythmic, banjo-driven bed that is catchy without feeling cliche, and a melody that reveals Church’s adeptness at carrying feeling in his voice into an impressively-high register.
To the mainstream country ear, “Give Me Back My Hometown” must sound nothing short of foreign and refreshing. But to an ear with a more wide sense of perspective, especially when the heavy bass drum beat and hand claps kick in about 1/3′rd of the way through the song, a strong, pungent Lumineers influence reveals itself quite obviously. A similar observation can be made of Lady Antebellum’s recent single, the banjo and clap-driven “Compass.” Once again we see a symptom of Music Row being 18 months behind the relevancy arch, and just now catching up with what was cool last year, despite feeling cutting-edge within the format.
All those observations aside though, simply based off of the ear test, “Give Me Back My Hometown” is not bad. The song works. And though with his first two singles off The Outsiders Eric seems to be focusing more on music and less on capturing the muse behind the story he wants to convey, give him credit for being willing to trod outside of popular music’s current modes, or at least mainstream country’s.
1 1/4 of 2 guns up.
Saving Country Music’s Artist of the Year, just like the Song of the Year and Album of the Year, is designed to eventually resolve down to one. But this is not always the case. For example in 2010 there were two Albums of the Year because with two worthy contenders giving up nothing to each other, it seemed irresponsible to supplant one for the other because of some silly notion that you can only have one. Such is the case here in 2013 when handing out the honor meant to not just highlight the music, but the man or woman behind it.
It was difficult to whittle down this decision even to two. Raul Malo of The Mavericks had one hell of a year. Songwriter and schoolteacher Possessed by Paul James with both a breakout album There Will Be Nights When I’m Lonely and a “Teacher of the Year” nod seemed to embody the balance of both a great person and a great artist that the Artist of the Year distinction is meant to honor. And if there was a runner up to the two men eventually selected, it would be a collection of all the inspiring women in country music in 2013 presented together as a collective Artist of the Year.
In the end though, two individuals in 2013 outshone all others.
Artists of the Year are not just measured against their peers, they are measured against themselves. We’re inspired by artists because they do things that we can’t. At the same time, the best artists inspire us to try to do things that we thought we never could. How many times does an artist’s finest work proceed an era of turmoil and/or redemption in their personal lives, almost to the point where if you start telling too many of the specifics of their success story, it just begins to feel like platitudes? Jason Isbell is the same man he was before 2013′s rousing success, gifted with the same skills as a guitar player and songwriter, influenced by the same legends and works, with the same Muscle Shoals roots intertwining with his fibers to create his unique interpretation of American roots music.
But 2013 is where it all aligned. You could blame his recently-found sobriety. You could blame his manager Traci Thomas and the entire Thirty Tigers organization that is on the cutting edge of the new music business paradigm of giving artist’s world-class support while allowing them to keep control of their music. Or you could blame the love and support of his new wife, Amanda Shires Isbell. But none of these people could write those songs, or deliver them with such feeling. None of them could get sober for Isbell, nor is getting sober the solution for every artist to stumble into the true essence of themselves, or the fortune to be able to share that essence with a wide, appreciative audience. It’s not like Isbell was some slouch to start, or wasn’t graced with attention or accolades in previous years. It just happens to be that when he was able to refine himself as a man, his music followed suit to create one of the most consensus picks for who outshone everyone else in a given year that we have seen in country/Americana music in a long time.
2013 was Jason Isbell’s year, and Southeastern was 2013′s songwriter album that all others will be measured against for very a long time.
The idea that country music needs to be saved is woven into the very fabric of the genre. It’s the reason the Outlaws were able to rise in the 70′s, and deliver country music’s first million-selling album. It’s the reason a song like “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way” can reach #1 in 1975, and a song like “Murder On Music Row” can win the CMA for Song of the Year in 2001.
And within this mythos of country music, and residing in the hearts of millions of despondent country fans is this idea, however fanciful or misguided, that an artist, or a group of artists, could rise up and return sensibility, substance, and the roots of country back to the music. Eric Church once mocked this idea in a song called “Country Music Jesus,” laughing at both the idea that country music needed to be saved, and that we needed some artist to do it.
Did Sturgill Simpson save the country music genre in 2013? Of course not. He didn’t even come close. But what he did do is fulfill that promise that the future of country music will be better than the present for the many true country fans who were fortunate to come in contact with his debut, breakout album High Top Mountain. Sturgill Simpson doesn’t want to save country music, he just wants to play it. He may not even want to call it country music, or care that anyone wants to save country….and that’s one of the reasons that he very well just might.
In some respects, Eric Church, and all the other mainstream artists and fans who say country music must evolve are right. And what Sturgill Simpson proved in 2013 is that country music can evolve, can still feel fresh, invigorated, and renewed, while still paying the highest regard and respects to the roots of the music. But maybe most importantly, and the truth that can bring shivers to all those fans hoping for that one artist that can help turn the country music ship around, is the fact that Sturgill Simpson is only just getting started. A brighter future for country music is what Sturgill Simpson delivered in 2013, and there’s no value or distinction that can repay what that means to the hearts of true country fans.
What any authentic music artist wishes to accomplish when they sit down to write a song is to convey the true emotion, story, and inspiration behind that song without any loss of detail or dilution of feeling. But of course this is easier said than done. Interpreting complex human emotions into words is a difficult enough task in itself. Then taking those words and setting them to music that does justice to those emotions makes the work that much harder. And however good an artist might be at formulating a song on paper or in their mind, the artist, and a group of other musicians, must then deliver performances that truly meet the lofty expectations of that story, those emotions, and the song’s inspiration.
Most every song starts off as a masterpiece in the artist’s mind, but most every song fails to reach that edifice because of the inherent human frailty present in all of us. And really, that frailty is what “Deadman’s Blues” by Matt Woods is about just as much as anything. He was just perfect at conveying that imperfection in song.
There’s so much that could be pinpointed in “Deadman’s Blues” that makes it special: the mournful steel guitar, the way the song slowly builds in a steady enrapturing motion that pulls you towards it, the stop near the end of the song when everything else drops out except for the voice of Matt Woods. But for me, the emotion captured in Matt’s voice is really what sets this song apart, and creates a peerless work worthy of the highest praise, and the widest ear.
Country music won’t be saved by websites, blogs, articles, organizations, or stupid awards with spurious legitimacy bestowed by Internet nerds. These things may help, but country music will be saved by songs, and songs only; songs that speak deeply, and universally to the human condition, that are bold and possess inescapable appeal and outreach, channeled through artists who are courageous enough to deliver them, and willing to sacrifice so that those songs can live. And Matt Woods, and his song “Deadman’s Blues,” are worthy of carrying that high distinction of being a song helping to save country music.
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“We ask a lot of our independent country and roots artists. We want them to release new music early and often, even though it stings them in the pocketbook to record. We want them to play our stupid town, even though it is way out of their way and the turnout will be light. We want them to perform in small, intimate venues, even though it’s not financially feasible for trying to take care of themselves, or God forbid, raise a family. We don’t want them to be too successful, lest their music loses its pain and soul. We don’t want them to age. We want them to see all the places, and do all the things we can’t, and maintain a party-filled lifestyle so we can then live vicariously though them as our own legs grow roots and our lives prosper from stability.
“We want them to sleep on floors and eat like shit and sweat on stage and drive 700 miles to entertain us for three hours before passing out in their own filth for very little money. Our favorite artists roll into town and we reach deep in our pockets and hand them over all manner of items to fuel this madness and bring misfortune to them because they trend toward addictive, self-destructive personality to a greater degree. Then we sit back and watch them fall apart right in front of our faces, because for some reason, we find a certain beauty in their struggle and undoing. We shed the desire to slowly kill ourselves in our youth, so we ask our favorite musicians to do it for us in our stead. And the musicians, driven by their dreams, are more than happy to oblige.
“And for what? If they sober up and try to find the straight and narrow, or solicit the suits for help with their music, we label them a sell out. If they don’t, it’s not very likely their music will ever afford them a sustainable living. And about the only way they will find suitable recognition for their artistic contributions is if they die young.”
Every New Years as revelers across the country celebrate the symbolic reset of the calendar, a much more somber anniversary passes in the realm of country music. On January 1st, 1953, Hank Williams passed away in the back seat of his powder blue Cadillac somewhere on the road near Oak Hill, West Virginia of heart failure, forever robbing country music of its first superstar at the age of 29. Hank’s death has gone on to become one of the most storied, and most intriguing moments in country music lore, somewhat shrouded in mystery because some of the facts surrounding his death are not known and never will be, and because of the weight the passing of Hank Williams put on the heart of country music.
The death of Hank Williams has taken on a greater reverence, and a deeper importance in the last year with the passing of some of the most important characters in Hank’s life, and in the story of his death. Braxton Schuffert, the man who arguably discovered Hank Williams, passed away earlier this year in April. Charles Carr, the driver of Hank’s powder blue Cadillac on that fateful trip and the last person to see Hank Williams alive, passed away in early July. A movie loosely based on Hank’s final days called The Last Ride was released June 6th. And this year marks 60 years after Hank’s death, and 90 years after his birth.
In remembrance of these significant events, milestones, and passings, traditional country artist Joey Allcorn has assembled a collection of songs in an album called Midnight – The Death of Hank Williams. The theme of the album is to relive the tragic passing of Hank Williams through music, though not all the songs are specifically about Hank. For example the album starts off with some words from Braxton Schuffert—only fitting because he was there at the very beginning of Hank’s career. Then the first song performed by traditionalist Jake Penrod is “Rockin’ Chair Daddy,” a song written by Schuffert with Hank Williams. Near the end of the album is a song called “Song For Charles” for Hank’s driver Charles Carr, written and performed by Bobby Tomberlin.
In between are songs that have great significance to the Hank Williams death narrative, including “The Death of Hank Williams” that as Joey Allcorn explains really inspired the project. “To me it was an interesting song because it was the very first Hank Williams tribute,” says Allcorn. “Nowadays, doing a Hank Williams tribute is just sort of par for the course.” The “Midnight” title track is a duet between Allcorn and Jake Penrod, and the traditional “Death Is Only A Dream” pairs Allcorn with Rachel Brooke. Other songs that were written about the death of Hank Williams include “Is There Something You Can Do (New Year’s 1953)” told from the perspective of Charles Carr, written and performed by Arty Hill, “A Legend Froze In Time” written and performed by David Church, and “Fallen Star” by Andy Norman.
Another interesting note about Midnight is the final track is a contribution by the recently-fallen country artist Wayne Mills who was shot and killed on November 23rd in Nashville. Along with Wayne’s guitar player Kyle Wilson and Joey Allcorn, they revitalize the Waylon Jennings tune “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way.” This was the last track that Wayne Mills recorded and officially released for sale before his death.
Midnight is not your typical album project, and should be approach with that understanding and reverence. The point is to help the modern ear reconnect with those somber moments in the wake of Hank’s passing, and with the love each track is approached with, it carries this task admirably. The vintage audio of Braxton Schuffert starting off the album and DJ Nelson King of WCKY making the announcement of Hank’s death on the radio, along with the vinyl effect on the song “Death Is Only A Dream” help to set the somber mood and send you back to that time and place.
This album is not available on iTunes, Amazon, Spotify, or anywhere else. The only way it can be purchased is through the Hank Williams Museum in Montgomery, AL, with the proceeds going directly to the museum. This is not an album that will suck you in with groundbreaking original music; that is not the point. But as a commemoration of Hank’s death for the purpose of helping to keep his legacy alive through the museum, it grades high on all marks.
Two guns up.
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My first interfacing with the fiery, spunky singer-songwriter simply known as Tristen was at a Justin Townes Earle concert in May of 2012. I didn’t know her or her music from Adam, but there she was on stage, all 5 foot nothing in glittering green hot pants, kicking our collective asses with her songs that were so easy to befriend and so hard to forget. And like any opening artist hopes for, there I was the next day dropping coinage on her 2011 record Charlatans At The Garden Gate, and Googling the hell out of her to my little music nerdy heart’s content.
Tristen is nothing short of a creative powerhouse. She’s a Chicago native, a member of independent music’s hot east Nashville contingent, akin to an artist like Caitlin Rose for example, who happens to be friends with Caitlin and has shared bass players with her in the past. Tristen is also a perennial performer on the cool country roots program Music City Roots. If you squint really hard, and maybe listen very selectively to her music, you might be able to convince yourself that what Tristen has done in the past could be construed with the right amount of rhetoric and coercion as “country,” but really Tristen is simply a songwriter, who seems to have little regard for a genre-specific career path, if she doesn’t downright loathe the idea.
Tristen is not a hunter, she’s a gatherer, listening intently to any song or influence regardless of format or era, and eagerly mining the little nuggets of nostalgic, retro gold that allow the warmth of memories to flow freely from the inner mind of listeners to lovingly embellish a song. She then embeds this warmth into her completely original, modern-day compositions resulting in music that is both fresh and hauntingly familiar. The magic Tristen spins is really akin in spirit what a band like BR549, or some other country neo-traditionalist act might do by referring to the past in the modern-day context, but Tristen has the confidence, knowledge base, and insight to not discriminate based on traditional genre distinctions.
Her 2011 album Charlatans At The Garden Gate is like a big, rotund watermelon: it just keeps on giving, parceling out little treats, and there’s not a soft patch to be had. Songs like “Eager For Your Love” and “Doomsday” are just screaming to be scooped up by some big name and be made into mega hits, while tunes such as “Avalanche” and “Battle Of The Gods” may be a little more fey, but refer to Tristen’s competency in advanced composition. “Baby Drugs” is sinisterly crafted, speaking right at the heart of how the modern-day 20-something brooding male is just about worthless, and frustrating in the arms of driven females looking for fulfillment and only finding unmotivated, drooling pot hungry video game addicts for sexual partners. The song is also accompanied by a genius video.
But if Charlatans At The Garden Gate had a wart, it’s that it seemed to be a little bit lacking in the production department; like Tristen’s vision and creativity outpaced the budgetary restrictions and artistic resources at her dispose. That is not the case with her 2013 album that she Kickstarted and then released in October through Thirty Tigers called C A V E S. It is expansive, and more than adequately fleshed out, pulling from a very broad spectrum of both analog, digital, and human-generated sounds to make it her most complete and ambitious project yet.
At the very end of that Justin Townes Earle opening slot Tristen played back in 2012, she completely shifted gears for the final song in both style and presentation, pulling out a tune called “No One’s Gonna Know,” (whose subsequent video would also include the glittering green hot pants), accompanied by these somewhat choreographed, somewhat improvised hand gestures and such, prancing across stage, telling you beyond the song itself that this was something completely different—a gear had been shifted—and that is exactly what you get from Tristen with C A V E S.
Yes, here comes that evil, evil ‘P’ word that we all love to lambast at every turn, but what Tristen does different in C A V E S compared to other so-called “pop” albums is that the point of the album is not to be “popular” in the sense of attempting to appeal to the masses by instilling the music with ultra-catchy drek or inane lyrics. It is pop music because it is not country, and not particularly rock & roll. Is this a project, like Slim Cessna’s Auto Club’s Unentitled, or other “pop” albums that use pop elements just as much for their irony or to prove a point instead of, or just as much for their inherent catchiness? You could almost infer that from the lyrical hook of the song “No One’s Gonna Know” that goes, “The only way to climb to the top is stepping on heads, you’re better off dead.”
But really, even though it is completely fair to call C A V E S “pop”, it is just as fair to call it an electronic-infused retro rock album that refers to popular music’s past to do what Tristen has always does best: pull the warmth of recollection out of the music experience and pay it forward into the modern context. By referring to popular music’s pop legacy with certain little 80′s and early 90′s-era electronic accoutrements in C A V E S, she quite simply makes an album that is splendidly-addictive and overall fulfilling to listen to. Yet still at the heart of this album is real people playing real instruments, and singer-songwriter Tristen Gaspadarek expressing herself through words to help commiserate with the human condition.
As stoppy and starty as “No One’s Gonna Know” is in places, it is damn hard to resist. The multiple harmony lines and other such layering of “Easy Out” really draws you in hard and holds you. And “Gold Star” might be the best song Tristen is responsible for so far in her career (see below), hiding a lot of in-depth creativity and composition behind what may seem to be a fairly simple pop song on the surface. Beyond these first three songs, this country critic found the rest of C A V E S somewhat elusive, aside from “Monster” getting my toe tapping, but that is probably the way the natural order of things should be, and not necessarily a knock on the project.
And as a country critic, I can’t help but point out that having had to dutifully listen to Taylor Swift’s recent records, you hear many somewhat similar retro electronic references back to the 80′s and 90′s in Swift’s material as you do in Tristen’s, including in Swift’s recent Soundtrack single “Sweeter Than Fiction,” and in songs like “Starlight” or “Enchanted.” What does this mean? I think it means that an artist like Tristen could be considered on the cutting edge, and starkly relevant despite the retro flavoring.
Is C A V E S country? God no; not even close. So why is Saving Country Music covering it? Because Tristen still feels like a part of the overall independent country/ East Nashville family, and an artist like her is even more prone to slip through the musical cracks unfairly because of her non-genre specific style. If steadfast country fans want to give Tristen a try, I would strongly suggest they start with Charlatans At The Garden Gate, and then give C A V E S a sniff if you like what you hear.
And I can’t help but wonder if the non-roots direction of C A V E S is on purpose. If Tristen, surrounded by the stultifying mainstream country environment in Nashville isn’t flexing her little arms with this album to say, “Don’t box me in!” and what we’ll hear from Tristen next time will be in some completely different direction to keep her fans on her toes, then I’ll eat my hat. But in whatever direction Tristen goes, I’d almost guarantee it will be steeped in the past of music and refer heavily to memory-churning elements, and that it will also be inescapably good.
Charlatans At The Garden Gate – 4 1/2 of 5 Stars
C A V E S – 3 1/2 of 5 Stars (with the first 3 songs strongly recommended)
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The greatest album, and the greatest recorded song will never be able to trump the truly live musical experience where music is shared in real time with both the artist and listeners. It is in this spirit that each year I assemble a list of the Best Live Performances to reinforce that as technology and the busying of life incrementally encroach upon us more and more every year, we must remember that the live music show deserves its own attention and reverence. This year for the first time, I’ve included some television performances and a live stream, because the weight these performances carried make them more than worthy to be included here.
Please understand, unlike Saving Country Music’s other yearly awards, since omnipresence isn’t an attribute I posses, this list is simply based on my own experiences, and not meant to capture the overall pulse of the live events that transpired all year. You are encouraged to share your own favorite live musical experiences from 2013 below.
10. Hellbound Glory – The Empire Control Room, Austin, TX
“Hellbound Glory started with a blistering, amplified version of Hank Williams’ “My Buckets Got A Hole In It” that reinvented and revitalized that tune originally learned by Hank Williams from Rufus Payne in the mid-30′s, and made it feel like an iconic 70′s-era Southern rock anthem. Not 30 seconds into the first song, and you could tell that Leroy had played so many shows in front of so many big crowds in 2013, that being on stage was second nature, and a downright showman had emerged from a man who is known as a songwriter first. Not that Leroy was a stiff before, but now he had a swagger about him—a sway and arm motions—engaging the crowd and carrying songs to another level with his ability to be completely uninhibited with the music.” (read full review)
9. Eric Church & Valerie June – The ACM Awards
Say what you will about Eric Church, he delivered the most memorable performance at the ACM Awards back in April, and he did it while showcasing the up-and-coming musical powerhouse Valerie June.
“Church, who is usually known for his baseball cap, aviator sunglasses, and rowdy country gone rock sound, kept it simple this time, accompanied only by his guitar and one harmony singer–a breathtaking female in a red dress, adorned with a crown of dreadlocks. As much as Eric Church’s performance caught the ACM crowd and Eric’s fans by surprise, so did this virtually unknown singer accompanying him.
“Valerie June didn’t announce her performance on the ACM’s. Her name was not mentioned in the credits or by the announcers. But like she always does, she left an indelible, unforgettable impact on the hearts and ears of the ACM attendees and viewers.” (read full review)
8. Andrew Bird & Tift Merritt – Pickathon Festival Woods Stage – Portland, OR
The Pickathon Festival on the outskirts of Portland, OR every August affords some of the best music moments a year can offer, while broadening the perspective of fans from all corners of the roots music world by assembling one of the most diverse and forward-thinking lineups in the festival realm. Many Picktathon moments could be listed here, but seeing the amazing Andrew Bird perform all manner of beyond-human vocal acrobatics accompanied by the accomplished Tift Merrit was truly something to behold.
“Andrew Bird on the Wood’s Stage was phenomenal. Maybe a little fey for some, but he’s a fiddling bluegrass maestro who has one of the best use of dynamics you will find. You also won’t find a better whistler in bluegrass. Joining him on stage for the set was Tift Merritt…” (read full Pickathon Live Blog)
7. Jayke Orvis & The Broken Band – The Scoot Inn
“Jayke finally declared earlier this year that he was taking his last tour with the Gallows, and trained his attention solely on a solid, permanent Broken Band lineup that includes guitarist James Hunnicutt, and former Bob Wayne Outlaw Carnies’ Liz Sloan and Jared McGovern on fiddle and upright bass respectively. With stability and a shared vision of making a band around Jayke’s music, but one where all musicians are treated as equal, Jayke Orvis & The Broken Band have re-captured the fervor and spellbinding performance aspect that made the .357 String Band such a force of music nature. If anything, The Broken Band may be taking it a step further with a deeper attention to composition, pushing all four players to the edge of their abilities, and the edge of human capability itself, balanced by slow and mid-tempo songwriter material.
Jayke Orvis & The Broken Band are the underground roots equivalent of the Punch Brothers, and are one of the top tier performers of the underground sub-genre.” (read full review)
6. LeAnn Rimes Patsy Cline Tribute – The ACA Awards
“And at the end of the medley, when LeAnn went a capella, and the tasteful sepia filter that the ACA’s had placed on the cameras to afford a vintage feel on the first part of the tribute turned back to color, a downright evocation emerged during Patsy’s “Sweet Dreams” that even the embattled and valiant LeAnn Rimes eventually couldn’t even fend off, bursting into tears during the final turn of the chorus.
“No video will ever do the moment justice, because it was a moment you had to share in live. At some point you saw LeAnn smile, like she recognized the spirit of Patsy had entered the room, and then the emotion immediately began to well up in LeAnn, and all who were paying attention.” (read full review)
5. The Mavericks -Gruene Hall – Gruene, TX
“Raul Malo is no doubt the rock and heart of The Mavericks, but the addition of guitar player Eddie Perez, who was Dwight Yoakam’s long-time touring guitar player before joining the band, is really what has allowed The Mavericks to give up nothing, and continue to grow in their nearly 25-year existence. From his masterful guitar work to his superhero-like ability to follow Raul Malo wherever he may go vocally, Eddie Perez is 1A to Raul in the Mavericks, with long-time rhythm guitarist Robert Reynolds and keys player Jerry Dale McFadden affording the buoyant vitality that makes The Mavericks’ sound so infectious, and drummer Paul Deacon holding the whole thing together and giving the The Mavericks their communicable groove.” (read full review)
4. Red 11 SXSW Showcase at the White Horse – Austin, TX
Eligibility on this list would normally only be open to single performances by a single band or artist, but the showcase put on by the booking agency Red 11 on Tuesday night (3-12) of South by Southwest at the White Horse in Austin was such a legendary lineup, it deserves its own distinction, beyond all the excellent artists that played it. Yes folks, the gritty, bluesy one man band Lincoln Durham, the Tejano-flavored The Crooks, The Dirty River Boys, The Turnpike Troubadours, followed by American Aquarium, and capped off by Jason Eady is the lineup that held forth at the intimate setting of The White Horse that night. Oh, and it was all free. I’m not sure there will ever be a moment when such a ridiculous amount of talent will be showcased in the same place, and in such a small space again, unless it happens at SXSW 2013.
3. Lee Bains III & The Glory Fires – XSXSW 6 – Austin, TX
Passing up an opportunity to see Lee Bains III & The Glory Fires live is a borderline criminal offense for any fan of hard rocking roots music. When they lit up the Frontier Bar as part of XSXSW 6, it was by far the most raucous set of music that still had real substance to it experienced in 2013. Later in the year when touring with Austin Lucas through Ft. Worth, Lee Bains got shut down and 86′d by the Live Oak Music Hall & Lounge for playing too loud. That’s how legendary Lee Bains live has become.
“As the room was still filling up with patrons, Lee Bains played like he was feeding of the energy of a packed house. This man sings with as much soul as anyone in rock & roll right now, and this was never evidenced more clearer then when he sang the title track of their latest album There’s A Bomb in Gilliead. For SXSW’s most acrobatic moment of 2013, at one point lead guitarist got on the shoulders of Lee Bains as they both walked out into the crowd with guitars blazing. This set was sick.” (from the SXSW 2013 live blog)
2. Jason Isbell – Live Stream of Austin City Limits Taping – August 19th
I admit, it seems strange to put a streaming event such as this on this list, and so high up no less. But if you witnessed it, you would know why. The technology is becoming such, and artists like Isbell are beginning to receive such recognition, that an online experience can sometimes be just as immersive as being there.
“On Monday night the Twitterverse blew up around the occasion of songwriter Jason Isbell recording an upcoming episode of Austin City Limits. The taping was streamed live online, and drew a remarkable amount of attention and praise from the online participants who took the time to tune in. Usually music confined to the online format is at such a distinct disadvantage, it is barely worth your time, and though Austin City Limits’ production value is world-class, this wasn’t what made the event special. Jason Isbell is quite the capable singer, and since he started out as a guitarist for the Drive By Truckers, it’s hard to denounce his musicianship either. His band The 400 Unit was sensational as well, and so was his wife Amanda Shires who sang and played fiddle for the set. But none of this is why the event became a singular experience for those who tuned in.
“It was Jason Isbell’s songs and his songwriting that made so many online watchers walk away with one of those feelings you get after watching a stellar movie—where your mind gets so immersed in the experience it is hard to return to the real world.” (from 2013: The Year of the Songwriter)
1. The Turnpike Troubadours – SXSW The White Horse – Austin, TX
The Red 11 South by Southwest showcase at The White Horse in Austin, TX was already given proper credit above, but the crown jewel of the night was the performance by Oklahoma’s Turnpike Troubadours, which also was the crown jewel of 2013.
“The Turnpike Troubadours were responsible for one of those once-in-a-lifetime musical experiences. The White Horse that had hovered around 3/4 capacity up to that point in the night swelled to where there was no elbow room, and a strong majority of the people there knew every word to the Troubadours songs and proved it by belting them out at every chance. When the band broke into their most popular tunes like ‘Every Girl,’ ’7&7′ and ‘Good Lord, Lorrie,’ the crowd would erupt. During the choruses, the singing of the crowd could become deafening, drowning out the band itself. Their high-energy, inspired performance was great in itself, but the camaraderie created by the crowd made it one of those moments hard to forget. The Turnpike Troubadours have no business playing a venue this small these days, and that is the type of unique experience SXSW can create. Their set was one for the record books.” (from the SXSW 2013 live blog)
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