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As yet another great example of how the girls of country are getting the whole “Anti Bro-Country” thing completely wrong, singer Meghan Linsey formerly of the Big Machine-signed and now defunct singing duo Steel Magnolia, has submitted her own Anti Bro offering up for the public’s listening pleasure, or displeasure as the case may be.
Written with Corey Crowder and James Otto, “Try Harder Than That” joins the already-crowded field of songs trying to juxtapose the gender perspective of Bro-Country, while still unfortunately imbibing in the same stereotyping and listing off of country artifacts that makes Bro-Country so awful in the first place. It’s like everyone got the same anti Bro-Country idea in Nashville at the same time, rushed their songs through production to piggy back off of the backlash, and now we’re hearing the half-baked results in rapid succession. It’s like a high school dance where all the girls accidentally wore the same dress.
“It’s an anthem for women, I feel like,” Meghan tells Chuck Dauphin of Billboard Magazine. “I know that people are likening it to the anti-bro-country songs, and I guess there may be a hint of that. However, it’s more about empowering women, and telling guys they need to step it up. That’s the message I was trying to get across.”
Instead it feels like Linsey is stepping down to the Bro’s level with shallow and predictable lyricism. It’s not necessarily Meghan’s fault that so many other women decided to put out similar songs at the same time, but what makes “Try Harder Than That” one measure worse than the competition is bringing on hick hopper Bubba Sparxxx to offer his slurred, lazy, and virtually-incoherent lyrical slop on the song as Meghan Linsey’s foil. Meghan doesn’t do much better with her offerings, especially at the beginning of the song with the incessant “boy” this and “boy” that indicative of hip-pop from five years ago laid over an instrument bed that stays curiously away from drum machines or EDM, but nestles quite nicely into pop rock sensibilities.
“Try Harder Than That” does not symbolize the worst of what country music has to offer in 2014, but it certainly does not do justice to the sensational talent inherent in country music’s women, including Meghan Lindsey. She has a good voice. It’s just a shame she had to use it in this unsavory, ill-fitting context. It is Meghan Linsey who should have tried harder, because unlike the “Bros,” she knows better.
1 3/4 of 2 Guns Down.
The occasion of Brad Paisley’s new album release finds the singer and guitar player at a crossroads in his career. The three-time CMA Male Vocalist of the Year and a man responsible for over 12 million records sold is in that precarious position of an artist trying to hold on to his mainstream prominence as the young pups all around are nipping at his heels, while still trying to hold on to some semblance of the identity his career was built upon.
The narrative surrounding the release of his last album, 2013′s Wheelhouse, slipped away from the country music veteran in some respects when the story about his LL Cool J collaboration “Accidental Racist” became such seductive water cooler talk that Saturday Night Live was running skits about it. The album still went on to sell over 100,000 copies in its first week and debut at #1, but it felt like a career that in many ways had become punctuated by joke songs was being relegated to a punch line in itself. Though “Accidental Racist” was never supposed to be any more than an album cut, when the country music funny man tried to get serious, he was accused of jumping the shark. His new album Moonshine In The Truck is expected to sell about half the amount of copies upon its debut as Wheelhouse, despite a headlong effort to promote it ahead of the release.
As Paisley’s career arc has been sketched, more and more it has become defined by humor. He’s become the Carrot Top of country music, with a deep bag of tricks and a deadpan delivery that is endearing to some, and off-putting for many others. As he was “leaking” this album against his label’s wishes before the release (which for anyone with half a brain could tell was nothing but a marketing ruse), once again Paisley showed off his propensity to carry a joke too far until the humor has well worn out its effectiveness.
Moonshine In The Trunk delivers exactly what many mainstream country consumers want and expect from their country music: an affirmation about the steadiness and social acceptance of the corporate culture of working very hard at drab occupations, and then getting 48 hours every week to release with your favorite brand-name beverage sweating in your hand. It’s the soundtrack to the consumer mindset that keeps revenue pumping into the government in the form of income taxes, and recreational expenditures pumping into corporations as consumers slave away living one or two steps above their means.
The album starts off just about how you would expect, with the vapid weekend Joe anthem “Crushin’ It” followed by the record’s lead single—the equally shallow and non-nutritious “River Bank.” Then we move on to the album’s first love song called “Perfect Storm” which appears to borrow its sonic palette from Limahl’s Neverending Story soundtrack with its sweeping synthesizer beds, open and ringing chords, over-modulated drums, and white boy tribal chants. The appearance of a buried steel guitar drifting in later in the track barely offers any redeeming value. This interludes into the album’s first joke song called “High Life” where Paisley brags about suing Chick-Fil-A and Carrie Underwood under spurious pretenses.
But from there the album begins to smooth out a bit, and as you delve into some of the album cuts, you begin to warm up to Paisley’s effort. We can only hope naming the album after the song “Moonshine In The Truck” symbolizes that the song will be released as a single at some point, because even though it starts off with a little unnecessary electronic unsavoriness, it slides into an good little up-tempo and kicking country song complete with steel guitar, fiddle, takeoff banjo, and some Johnny Hiland-style electric guitar chicken picking that is sure to send the pulse of country purists’ racing, whether they’ll admit it to their friends on Facebook or not.
“Shattered Glass” is the first of two songs on Moonshine In The Trunk—the second being the bluesy, and electronic dance beat-driven “You Shouldn’t Have To”—that speak directly to the elevation of women country music is trying to enact with mixed results, both commercially and critically. Though neither of these songs, especially “You Shouldn’t Have To,” are worth much more than a few spins, the effort feels honest, and is hard not to appreciate. And though these songs veer towards the mawkish, it doesn’t feel like pandering as many similar mainstream efforts do.
If there is a defining “Bro-Country” moment on the album, it certainly is zeroed in on “4WP,” which is so Bro-Country, it almost makes you wonder if Brad Paisley is being facetious. If there is a traditional, acoustic song on the album it is “Going Green,” but it too takes on the predictable Paisley joke form in its lines about solar panels and hybrid cars, and you wonder if the countrified production or the message of the song will be lost on the potential audience.
Brad Paisley gets deep, and quasi-political with “American Flag On The Moon.” Its precursor “JFK 1962″ plays Kennedy’s speech challenging the United States to reach the moon. By placing these tracks near the end of the album, Paisely maybe hopes to bury them to avoid another replay of the “Accidental Racist” fiasco, but this is one of the moments on the album most worthy of being heard. Though like Moonshine In The Trunk‘s mawkish female odes, “American Flag On The Moon” might send some reeling from the sappiness, the message is sincere and deserves to be heard. The song is about how gridlock has restricted Americans from doing great things, and no matter where you sit on the political divide, it’s hard not to recognize the importance of this message.
The final song, “Country Nation,” ends where the album starts off: reaffirming an earn-and-spend, work-and-play culture that country music slavishly tries to pander to in order to attract both spend-happy consumers and the corporate brands they love as advertising partners.
With the incredibly labor-intensive social network “leak” campaign Brad Paisley deployed, and his prominent position of ABC’s new reality singing competition Rising Star, you would think the reception for this album would have been much greater. Brad Paisley is clearly in the listing moment of his career arc, and there may not be much he can do to save it. But Paisley deserves some credit for not using this album to chase current trends, or pine for relevancy. The Bro-Country moments are isolated, and there’s no hick-hop present on the album itself (though there is a “River Bank” remix floating out there). Sure there was compromise, and there was also the inclusion of some non-country electronic accoutrements in songs to try and stay up-to-date as best as Paisley could while still staying within his own style. But staying within his own style is ultimately what Paisley achieved. This album has a lot of traditional country music instrumentation for a major mainstream release, even though it is usually blended heavily with electric rock guitar.
Brad Paisley has made a career out of being a fun-loving and jovial entertainer and doing what he can to make the listener forget their mundane problems by delivering humorous lyrical hooks and slick guitar playing. Brad is not going to change the world or offer some soul-searching epic, and he shouldn’t try, and nor should it be expected of him or should he be shunned for not trying. As much as you can complain about the lack of substance on an album like this, there’s a few moments that refute that viewpoint. And this album will make some people smile, while not really furthering the ills of the genre. And in the end, it’s hard to hate on that outcome.
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1 Gun Up for some solid album cuts, good instrumentation in places, and a couple of songs with good messages.
1 Gun Down for some ineffective silliness, Bro-Country moments, and a general creative malaise.
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The pretty good:
The pretty bad:
The talent pool of country music women is so rich right now, stepping back and really trying to behold just how much genius and aptitude resides there can seize your breath. But of course you won’t see this reflected in the mainstream where the panorama for female country artists is so bleak, it takes the genre’s two very top stars screaming and yelling in a “Somethin’ Bad” moment of smeared mascara just to get the zeitgeist’s attention and raise a blip on the charts. But below the surface, you almost can’t lose with a female country record cut in the last few years.
One problem however is when you narrow your female selection down to something that is truly traditional country—but not so fuddy-duddy it feels tired, or so kitschy it sounds like the Howdy Doody Show—the pickings get a little more slim. Artists like Caitlin Rose, Holly Williams, and First Aid Kit are great, but have a little more Americana and indie rock in them than real deal country. Rachel Brooke and Lindi Ortega enlist the dark, Gothic side of classic country, but come up a little short when it comes to the moaning steel guitar that really gets your country music juices flowing. And though artists like Kacey Musgraves and Brandy Clark have found their way to some industry success, sometimes their songwriting can feel more like writing from formula rather than the muse of real life experience.
If you’re looking for the country music female revolution’s representative for true neotraditional country, yet one that gives up nothing to her peers in songwriting, if not setting the current standard, Kelsey Waldon might just be your perfect match. This petite little native Kentuckian rears back and gives you twelve new original songs on her album The Gold Mine that rivals most any other batch of tunes from any other female or male for that matter from this calendar year. Strikingly traditional, yet still fresh feeling with enough evolved moments to be connected to the current mood, The Gold Mine is a boon of audio treasures mined from the great American music unknown.
If this album was released in the 70′s, it would have birthed a slew of indelible country standards. Such inconsolable heartbreak, such sorrow-drenched insight is captured on these tracks and then embellished with tasteful production, you want to pull these songs close to your chest and never let go. “Town Clown” is a vessel for the ghost of Kitty Wells. “One Time Again” re-imagines the sonic textures of Tammy Wynett’s “Your Good Girls Gonna Go Bad.” And songs like “Not My First Time,” “The Gold Mine,” “Me & You Again,” and “Getting There” speak to the aching, eternal sorrow of an authentic country music soul looking for relief through song.
To have a great album, you need a great song that transcends even its fellow track mates and can tug on a wider ear, and The Gold Mine has one in “High In Heels.” From an album whose biggest takeaway is how traditional country it is, here comes a total alt-country/Americana moment that arguably creates the deepest crater in the heart of the listener during the entire offering. The somber resignation to fate is the encapsulating mood the pervades The Gold Mine, and makes it feel like one of those projects for the ages.
About the only scab to pick at is the verse to “Town Clown” is a little too similar to Merle’s “Okie From Muskogee,” but let’s be honest, is this really a bad thing?
The Gold Mine benefits greatly from the help Kelsey Waldon wrangled together for this project, including guitar player Jeremy Fetzer who you may have seen playing previously with Caitlin Rose, and who comprises half of the band “Steelism.” Brett Resnick does an excellent job on steel guitar duty, and so does Skylar Wilson on the keyboards. And producer and bass player Michael Rinne really deserves extra kudos for doing such a tremendous job in shepherding Kelsey’s songs to our ears with such taste and care. The effort by all parties on The Gold Mine feels triumphant in its results.
It may seem almost intimidating to navigate through all the worthy female country and roots artists you can resign your music time to these days. But if your leanings are more towards traditional country, Kelsey Waldon and The Gold Mine aren’t just the perfect starting point, they’re the current apex.
Two Guns Up.
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Blake Shelton. The Decider. Mount BS. Mr. Lambert.
On August 18th, he released his latest single called “Neon Light” from his upcoming Bringing Back The Sun album. As a rather sedated, nondescript, somewhat country, but ultimately sort of boring offering, it was really hard to get worked up about it one way or the other. Sure it has a banjo and a somewhat country setting, but it’s no “Tear In My Beer.” And sure it starts off with a stupid hip-hop beat, but that’s every damn song on mainstream country radio today. Starting a song with a hip-hop beat isn’t expected in 2014, it’s required. That stop sign was blown through and a couple of pedestrians mowed over on country music’s way to careening head on into a retaining wall some nine months ago. In 2007 this song would have made us all want to drink Drano, but in 2014? Eh, there’s much bigger fish to fry, and much better stuff to listen to.
But either Blake Shelton let some Twitter troll get the best of him, or he’s decided to tilt at windmills to give a little jolt to the song’s deflated reception, and he’s struck out on the warpath against the “haters.” “Of course, Iâ€™m always going to have the haters and critics out there that say it’s not [country],” Blake told Rolling Stone Country. “But then, kiss my ass! I know more about those records than a lot of people.”
Whoa, slow down there speed racer. First off, who exactly has a huge problem with this song? I’ve scoured the world wide internet looking for negative reviews for “Neon Light” and came up with a big bag of nothing. You check all the usual suspects of Blake Shelton hate, including Saving Country Music, and mum’s the word on “Neon Light.” Not to say there isn’t someone chirping out there in some social network comment section, but that’s for every song. And what’s up with unilaterally tearing into our country music knowledge for criticisms that don’t exist?
Blake Shelton then goes on to say, “The song, the melody, the chorus is so George Jones or George Strait. It really is.”
Oh okay Blake, so just because your song has banjo and is loosely about seeking refuge in a bar it’s now fitting company to be compared with the overlords of the genre? Is it really up to an artist to decide where a song fits in the pantheon of country music, or is that the job of history?
The simple fact is that Blake Shelton’s “Neon Light,” aside from the opening hip-hop beat—which should immediately relegate songs to the trash heap of country music history—is symbolic of the very slow, but very present return of a little bit more sustainable country sounding substance that is being evidenced across country music in the emerging post Bro-Country era. “Neon Light” should in no way be compared to George Jones and George Strait, no matter what measuring stick or perspective is employed. But is it better than Blake’s “Boys ‘Round Here”? Sure. Of course this is all a symptom of the diminishing returns we’ve been receiving from country music for the past few years, but you can’t help but identify the green chutes of promise when they begin to emerge out of the barren landscape of horrendously bad music.
“Neon Light” is not terrible, but it’s not good either. That’s about the best I can give it. It still is slavish to the rhythmic trends plaguing country music in the way the song repeats words in triples, but the chorus shows off Shelton’s vocal range. How it will fare on the country music charts will be almost exclusively tied to how much money the label decides to put behind it in promotion, because it’s not good enough to have a life of its own. Blake Shelton knows he can’t compete with the worst of Bro-Country, so he’s trying to carve out his niche as the popular traditionalist.
But George Jones, or even George Strait? I’m sorry, that’s BS.
From the fertile Outlaw country ground that comprises the hills and hollers of Boone County, West Virginia comes a homespun, but inspired and deftly-written insight into the American experience called No Place Lower Than High. Composed and performed by the virtual unknown singer and songwriter Justin Payne, this no budget project cut in a 100-year-old coal camp house is rough-hewn, scratchy, and sometimes hard to listen to through the production shortcomings. But hiding under all of the coal dust is a soul-bearing, bare-chested, and unfettered account of one man’s dreams and demons more than worthy of listening in on.
When I use the term “Outlaw” to describe Justin Payne, I mean the Merriam-Webster version, the Waylon Jennings circa 1974 version, with the half time bass beat holding everything together and the Telecaster phase guitar turned high. This album is Outlaw in every sense of the classic terminology, but it’s not just tone, bravado, and style like the stereotypical Waylon or Paycheck interpretation of Outlaw. This album has the Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark legacy of the Outlaw era in it too with intense, weighty songwriting lurking within these tracks, and a troubadour’s heart hiding beneath Payne’s brambly exterior.
When it comes to the songwriting on No Place Lower Than High, Justin Payne measures high on all gradients. Vulnerable, honest, insightful, and personal, Payne aims right for the heart and sinks his lyrical dagger true. Justin doesn’t undertake in character generation on this album. This isn’t a work of folklore or fiction. Payne’s narratives are ripped right out of his own experiences in those Boone County hills, and the truth behind the words of these songs is what makes them so gripping.
What holds No Place Lower Than High back is simply the way it sounds in certain places. Though in the same regard, the style is one of the album’s strengths. Foggy, slightly muted, unmastered, and employing some very strange tones in places, especially in the drums that sound at times electronic (whether they are or not), this is the unfortunate assessment that will probably keep certain listeners at arm’s length. But generally, Justin has the arrangements and even the tones and styles spot on; it’s just the production level leaves a layer of film on the project that passive music fans might not be able to listen through. Conversely this haziness is also what makes the album sound classic and cool, and there’s a lot of accidental genius and endearing simplicity in the way this album was cut and glued together. A song like “The Fall” came out perfect, and would be criminal to tinker with.
Strip away all the music, and simply on paper this album has so many great compositions. “The Man I Should Be,” “The Fall,” “Life Is A Country Song,” “Papers,” “Sunday Song”—they just keep coming. The only song that seems unfortunate to have made the cut is “Your Kind.” Destined to be taken the wrong way by certain listeners, it falls into more of the stereotype of what one might expect from this album, instead of what one actually gets from the other nine songs. It’s just very divisive in its tone, where the rest of No Place Lower Than High barrels you over with the unexpected poetry and wisdom.
Justin Payne is no crooner, but similar to the production of the album, you root for him, and he surprises you with his vocal adroitness, and sense of timing and dynamics, making the most of his given attributes and authentic drawl.
It wouldn’t be fair to not dock No Place Lower Than High for the flaws of the project illuminated above, but you get the sense with this inaugural album that there is something very strong here, something extremely promising that just needs a little polishing, while at the same time, taking great care not to compromise what makes Justin Payne so cool and authentic, and greatly enjoying what he’s already done with this album.
No Place Lower Than High is a superb underground gem sifted out of a mess of coal rubble, in an era when such discoveries seem much too far between.
1 3/4 of 2 Guns Up.
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When perusing the bereft landscape of mainstream country music and searching for a female performer with some substance and an independent spirit who could possibly still raise a blip at the highest levels, Sunny Sweeney is one of the first names to come to mind. It’s not too hard to envision the Texas native making a splash in the mainstream because she has done it before. In 2010, her single “From A Table Away” made it all the way to #10 on the Billboard charts—a feat for any woman in this particular country music climate. Of course it helped that Sweeney had Scott Borchetta’s Big Machine Records behind her at that time. Sweeney was one of the very first Big Machine signees along with Taylor Swift, and when Borchetta opened up the Republic Nashville imprint, Sweeney was the label’s inaugural artist.
These days the particulars of Sunny Sweeney’s business dealings are much different. Her latest album Provoked was released through Thirty Tigers—the same independent, champion-of-the-little-guy distributor that artists like Sturgill Simpson and Jason Isbell use. But Sweeney’s sound still remains very much steeped in that space that can find consensus amongst both mainstream fans, and traditional/independent fans from leanings that are traditional, expressive, yet still accessible to the wide ear.
Just like Miranda Lambert and Kacey Musggraves, Sunny Sweeney is an east Texas girl at her core, and no matter what Nashville does, it’s never possible to completely quiet those jangling spurs or smooth out that accent. Sweeney though, compared to Miranda and Kacey for example, seems to have held onto her decidedly Texas style even more so over the years. She very much fits that mold of the Texas country artist that got big enough to be recognized by Music Row, but always felt just a little too authentic to do much more than experience that world from the outside looking in.
At the same time, Sunny Sweeney also has some quickly-identifiable fingerprints of the industry in her sound. Sometimes it feels like instead of hearing three chords and the truth, you’re hearing three professional songwriters and a hook. It might still be a hook that is hard to escape the appeal of, but the formulas and tropes find their way into the female side of country music too, and there’s a few of those overt moments on Provoked. The album’s two beginning tracks—”You Don’t Know Your Husband” and “Bad Girl Phase”—strike at that female answer to Bro-Country vein in portraying the sassy, non-behaving female quite directly.
“Front Row Seats” is a sensational track on this album, superbly written and pointed in its message, but it still plays very much to this Kacey Musgraves anti-conformist formula that the success of “Merry ‘Go Round” has given rise to. A song like “Sunday Dress” shows that when it comes to the women in country, ‘mama’ is the female version of the men’s ‘tailgate,’ and disobeying her wisdom is expected on an album at least a few times. From another perspective though, many of these trends and tropes are hot right now, and Sunny’s contributions overall are just a little more thoughtful, and little more developed, and a little more country than most of her country peers who’ve seen mainstream success.
Sweeney also strikes out on some limbs, and in moments let’s her traditional influences shine through unapologetically. The gem of this album might be the swing-timed “Find Me.” It is so aching, so brilliant in the way it builds tension both in the story and sonically until Sunny has swept you up in a wave of emotions. Like all but two of the songs on Provoked, “Find Me” is co-written by Sweeney, and feels like a very personal expression. The only true cover on the album is Randy Weeks’ “Can’t Let Go” which has been done many times by many artists, maybe most notably by Lucinda Williams, but Sweeney really nails her version, with the song seeming to be custom-made to fit her Southern twang, and the half-time beat highlighting the chorus being the perfect call in the arrangement.
“My Bed” with Will Hoge is another Provoked highlight, and is a good example of how Sweeney also translates well into the more progressive, Americana-style of production that a few of the album’s tracks veer toward. And though the sassy, non-behaving female formula was decried above, the final track on the album, “Everybody Else Can Kiss My Ass” is just too damn fun, the lyrics too good, and the steel guitar too hot to give it anything less than two guns up.
Sunny Sweeney has a very sweet, very alluring natural tone to her voice, but it has always felt like she stops her phrasing a little too short, as evidenced on Provoked in the song “Second Guessing.”
In the end it is not Sunny Sweeney’s super heartbreaking sentimentality, or her high caliber songwriting that makes her stand out in the crowd. It is her practical, pragmatic, bridge-building approach to country music for all that stays true to her nature that has you rooting for her no matter what the color of your country music stripes.
1 1/2 of 2 guns up.
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You see the mural above? It is currently on display in East Nashville where a rising swell of songwriters is currently setting the pace for artistry and depth in the greater country and roots world. And chief among these cutting edge artists at the moment might be the Mississippi-born and Memphis-bred Cory Branan, who has just released his second album with Bloodshot Records called The No-Hit Wonder.
Steeped very much in the muse that resides in the independent underbelly of Nashville and challenges songwriters from the rabid nature of the friendly competition and healthy collaboration fostered between performers in such close proximity, The No-Hit Wonder could be looked at as a good road map to the East Nashville music experience, or at least a starting point. With a number of contributions from Jason Isbell, and appearances by other notable East Nashville apparitions such as Austin Lucas, Caitlin Rose, and Tim Easton, we may look back at The No-Hit Wonder when the rabid gentrification of East Nashville has finally scattered the artist class to the four winds as a project exemplifying the artistry and collaboration that once ruled that turf in an important era of roots music.
If you’re gazing slunk shouldered at your Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson records as so loved that you’re tired of listening to them, The No-Hit Wonder may just be the project to point your nose toward next. Though the strong rock performances in songs like “You Make Me” and “The No-Hit Wonder” are likely to be what get the most people chirping, the album is very much steeped in country traditions, like that old guard alt-country spirit that started with country, and sped it up a bit from a punk rock approach.
You can draw all sorts of lines from Cory to other famous musicians, like Chuck Ragan who calls Cory the “greatest songwriter of our generation,” or Lucero who once immortalized Cory in the song “Tears Don’t Matter Much,” saying Cory Branan’s got “words that’ll bring you to your knees.” He’s one of these songwriters that has gone far in inspiring and challenging his peers, and the fingerprints of Cory’s style can be found in independent roots music far and wide.
But these musical types are not always the most successful themselves. In some ways it is their lot to be sung about in Lucero songs, but remain a serious challenge for labels and publicists to know what to do with. This is the symbolic message contained in the cover and title of his new album—how his career can be defined by some incredible praise, but in the end an artist like Cory Branan will always find difficulty connecting with the average American. It is all of the substance, but none of the hype. This is the theme of The No-Hit Wonder, and an eternal theme of the East Nashville scene.
Cory’s first album on Bloodshot Records after a six year recording hiatus was 2012′s Mutt—a wide-ranging, curious affair that couldn’t be denied of its songwriting moments, but challenged the ear possibly a little too much to the point where the brain got tired of shifting sonic gears by the end. Cory called it “Mutt” to describe the disparate influences and styles that went into the album, but in the end he may have proved why genres still matter, or at least why approaching an album with more of a cohesive mood does.
The No-Hit Wonder is a completely different story. This is old school country rock at its finest, with exquisitely-crafted, cunning lyrical runs that make you laugh, amazing insight enhanced by brilliant timing and pentameter, and musical clothing that enhance each song’s strengths and endear them to the audience, pointing them the way to the album’s enjoyment. Yet there’s still some great variations here throughout the record to keep the listener enthralled. “Sour Mash” with Tim Easton is a perfect little country tune with its take off Telecaster. “C’mon Shadow” and “All The Rivers in Colorado” are great little country tunes as well. “All I Got And Gone” is where you hear Cory’s Tom Waits influence seeping through, while the final track, “The Meantime Blues” shows of Cory’s finger picking prowess on the acoustic guitar that some say challenges Cory’s songwriting as his most noteworthy skill.
This is the album Cory Branan needed to write, record, and release. Enough time had passed since his earlier works in the 00′s, and a whole new crop of listeners have emerged for this type of music to where it was necessary to re-introduce himself to the musical world in a way that could open his entire body of work to a hungry audience always looking for new songwriters to sink themselves into. The No-Hit Wonder may not pole vault Cory into the Top 10 on Billboard and make the title a bit of irony, but it should land him a wider audience beyond the notoriety of an East Nashville mural.
1 3/4 of 2 guns up.
Every day tens of thousands of people put on the police uniform and put their lives on the line to protect and serve the citizens of the United States, and do it with a servant’s heart and a sincere desire to protect their local communities. But others step over bounds, grow power hungry in their positions, and some communities have dealt with corruption and brutality in policing for decades to where over the years it has become an eternal theme in American music, and in country music specifically.
Many country music songs deal with characters being incarcerated, being sent on the lamb, or being killed for things they have done that are wrong. However the following songs are ones that question if anything was done wrong in the first place, or decry how the system doesn’t allow previous wrongdoers to truly rehabilitate.
Here are 10 country songs criticizing the police state.
Johnny Cash – San Quentin
Many of Johnny Cash’s songs speak out about the inequality and ineffectiveness of America’s jails and the police state in general, and he punctuated this sentiment throughout his career with his legendary prison concerts. But no Johnny Cash song spells it out more clearly than “San Quentin”.
“And I leave here a wiser, weaker man. Mr. Congressman, you can’t understand.”
Kris Kristofferson – “The Law Is For Protection of the People”
From Kris Kristofferson’s first, self-titled album from 1970 which also included iconic Kristofferson-written tunes like “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” “Me & Bobby McGee,” and “Help Me Make It Through The Night,” “The Law Is For Protection of the People” is arguably Kristofferson’s most powerful counter-cultural, anti-authoritarian statement of his career. Another song from the album, “Best Of All Possible Worlds” also carries a strong message about the police, but one where Kristofferson admits to his own drunken culpability.
“So thank your lucky stars you’ve got protection
Walk the line, and never mind the cost
And don’t wonder who them lawmen was protecting
When they nailed the savior to the cross.”
J.J. Cale – “If You’re Ever In Oklahoma”
Native Oklahoman J.J. Cale’s calling out of middle America’s aggressive police state has also been covered famously by Cody Canada & The Departed, and by numerous bluegrass bands including the Yonder Mountain String Band and the Hutchinson Brothers. It is from J.J.’s 1973 album Really.
“They got fines, they got plenty. They’ll hold you up for days on end. Threaten your life, take your money. Make you think you’re there to stay.”
Waylon Jennings -”Don’t You Think This Outlaw Bit’s Done Got Out of Hand”
The song is about Waylon’s cocaine arrest in 1977 for conspiracy and possession of cocaine with intent to distribute. A courier tipped off Federal agents that a package sent to Waylon from his lawyer/manager Neil Reshen contained 27 grams of cocaine. As authorities waited to obtain a search warrant, Waylon flushed the drugs down the toilet, and the charges were later dropped. Waylon blamed the whole episode on the marketing of his music as “Outlaw.” The song includes one of the best lines of any country song decrying the police state.
“I’m for law and order, the way that it should be. This song’s about the night they spent protecting you from me.”
Waylon Jennings -Â “Good Ol’ Boys” (Dukes of Hazzard Theme)
“Just some good ol’ boys, never meaning no harm…”
Waylon says in his biography, “They thought that was good but said all it needed was something about two modern-day Robin Hoods, fighting the system. So I wrote, ‘Fighting the system, like two modern-day Robin Hoods,’ and they didn’t even know they wrote the damn line. It was my first million-selling single.”
Merle Haggard – “Branded Man”
Speaking out about the difficulty felons find in the world after they’re released from jail, this classic country tune was the title track off of Merle’s fourth album released in 1968. Though there is no shortage of prison songs in country music complaining about how tough it is in the clink or once you get out, “Branded Man” speaks specifically about the inability of the police state to rehabilitate and re-indoctrinate ex convicts back into society.
“I paid the debt I owed ‘em, but they’re still not satisfied. Now I’m a branded man out in the cold.”
Wayne “The Train” Hancock – Johnny Law
One of Wayne Hancock’s signature tunes about being pulled over for doing nothing wrong, “Johnny Law” is something most any American can relate to.
“You ain’t nothin’ but a bully withÂ a star on your chest.”
The Bottle Rockets – “Radar Gun”
The cowpunk/alt-country entry into the list, “Radar Gun” was The Bottle Rockets biggest hit, reaching #27 on Billboard’s rock charts. It was released on their album The Brooklyn Side in 1994, later re-issued by Atlantic Records in 1995.
“Schedule 19 on a special election
Got our money problems right in hand
Droppin them limits like a hot potato
50 down to 30, oh man, oh man.”
Johnny Cash & Bruce Springsteen – “Highway Patrolman”
Though “Highway Patrolman” is seen by many as being against the police state, its message is much more subtle than most. Written and performed originally by Bruce Springsteen on his 1982 album Nebraska, it tells the tale of a Highway Patrolman who regularly looks the other way when his brother does wrong in the local community the officer is charged to protect. Johnny Cash covered the song on his album from the following year, Johnny 99—titled from another Bruce Springsteen song off of Nebraska.
“Well if it was any other man, I’d put him straight away
But when it’s your brother sometimes you look the other way.”
James Hand – “Old Man Henry”
When the 97-year-old Henry refuses to relinquish his land for a highway being built through town, he gets shot down by police who think he’s reaching for his rifle when he goes to pick up his cane. “Old Man Henry” off of Jame Hand’s 2012 album Mighty Lonesome Man is based partially off of true events.“40 rifles raised, from 40 men half crazed. As the bullets struck all around him, his house it caught ablaze. 40 rifles then, raised and fired again. As the fatal bullets hit him, Henry fell across Mary’s grave. A man of 97 years, lay dead upon the ground. As his soul winged up to heaven, a gentle rain came down. Henry laid across his Mary, their little home a pile of ash. Nothing left but the memories, they got their damned highway at last.”
What the forces that would sway popular American music to only focus on youth fail to regard is where simply the tone of a voice and the visage of a legendary performer can evoke such a reverence and place such immeasurable weight of an entire remarkable career behind it that an immediate elevation of whatever music being performing occurs in a measure that could never be challenged by the simple exuberance of youth.
2014 has been a retrenching of sorts for many of country music’s legacy artists. Dolly Parton and Billy Joe Shaver have released albums after multi-year hiatuses from the studio, and to high praise and successful chart performances. The release of Johnny Cash’s lost album Out Among The Stars treated classic country fans to an entire album’s worth of unheard material and collaborations with stars who’ve passed on, including Waylon Jennings and June Carter.
The song “It Ain’t You” off of Ray Benson’s album A Little Piece continues this trend of offering both something unheard, but something wrought during the living era of a legendary artist, and paid forward with reverence and care by those still around who are inspired by their legacy.
Originally written by Waylon Jennings with Gary Nicholson, “It Ain’t You” was never recorded, and was relatively unknown except to a select few for many years. When Asleep At The Wheel frontman Ray Benson was looking for material to release on his first solo album in a decade, the song was suggested to him by Sam “Lightnin’” Seifert who co-produced the effort with Lloyd Maines. Benson was blown away that nobody had ever recorded the “undiscovered gem,” and he called up Willie Nelson who agreed to do the song with Ray. Willie recorded his part in his Western ghost town of Luck, TX. With Ray being 64, and Willie being 81, but both performers being very much in charge of their faculties and charging forward with their music careers, the pairing was perfect to embody the theme of “It Ain’t You” about growing old but staying young.
“It Ain’t You” is exquisitely written, and makes one wonder how this song went unheard for so long. It has the similar self-reflective and age-recognizing tone of other Waylon-performed songs like “Memories of You And I”—pondering one’s own mortality and how age sees the sifting of abilities through your fingers. At the same time there’s a defiant strength woven through the lines; a reassurance that even though wrinkles may appear on the surface, the soul of a man continues to become refined over time.
The music, and both Ray Benson’s and Willie’s performances are chilling enough, but the video for “It Ain’t You” takes it a step further, fully understanding what’s at the heart of the song, and pulling out all the stops to not only do the song justice, but enhance the experience through the visual medium. The wisdom of knowing what the simple sight of Willie’s battle-worn hands can stir in the beholder, while crafting a way to capture the spirit of the long-time friendship between Ray and Willie so purely is worth watching even if the song itself doesn’t strike a particular chord with the listener.
Even without the legacies of Ray Benson, Asleep At The Wheel, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Gary Nicholson behind it, “It Ain’t You” would still be a song for the ages. Like the song’s writers, caretakers, and performers, it is destined to grow in stature over time.
Two guns up!
No this is not one of these American Idol alums who made it into the Top 20 of the show and tries to do everything they can to hold on to that glimmer of notoriety in an ill-fated attempt at a mainstream music career, this is Jason “Wolf” Hamlin who had the minds of many independent music fans reeling at the possibility of a genuine country roots artist making a real splash on America’s premier singing competition.
Of course Hamlin was a little too hard-edged to get very far on the show, but during the preliminary tryout phase of the 2012 season, American Idol selected him out of the crowd to be showcased in one of their extended segments on contestants. The 24-year-old engine mechanic carrying a “guit-fiddle” handmade by his recently-deceased father had a story, a look, and a voice that resonated with a crowd that was quite counter-intuitive to the American Idol audience. Wolf was singing Johnny Cash covers and showing a lot of attitude behind his music, despite maybe the Idol producers pushing the “Wolf” thing a little too hard.
“I hadn’t even planned on auditioning until I found out my wife was headed to San Diego a couple weeks before the auditions took place,” Wolf Hamlin explains. “I was told they were gonna be holding them there and figured, ‘Why not?’ It was never a make or break thing for me. People were able to see my father’s guitar and I was able to kickstart a career … People think either you’re a sell out or the next best thing when you go on American Idol. You realize that the level of vocalists and musicians is far beyond what is actually portrayed on the show. The competition out there is amazing.”
Hamlin got axed during Hollywood week and headed back home to Livermore, CA to start right back right where he left off, but with a renewed energy to pursue music further. “I came home with an all new outlook on music and what I wanted from it. I play with my band and other local musicians on a regular basis. I still work a full time job as a mechanic and last September married the woman of my dreams.”
In old-school back porch country music fashion, Jason Hamlin gathered together musicians from the surrounding area, his wife picked up the fiddle, and Wolf Hamlin became “Wolf Hamlin and the Front Porch Drifters.” Wolf says he loves his band. “I can’t thank them enough for what they do. It shows each and every time they get off work at 5pm, travel 2 to 3 hours to a gig, play ’till 2 AM, and drive 2 to 3 hours home.”
On July 30th, the band released their first, self-titled album independently. “The album is as real as possible. By that I mean it was recorded live In 48 tiring hours. We rehearsed for months, wrote a million songs, then hit the studio.” It’s a rough-hewn, raucous affair with its fair share of subdued songwriting moments, and some of the studio banter left on the tracks and a Southern rock flavor in stretches.
“It was a Friday night in February,” Wolf recalls. “We started at 4 PM and had booked the studio for the weekend. We a sat in separate rooms with our instruments and head phones and just pounded it out take after take ’till we got it right. Our theory was we wanted an album that was authentically us. If you see us play, this is what we sound like. No bells and whistles, no Auto-Tune, just good old fashion music being recorded.”
“In the song ‘Wolf Hotel’ at the end you will hear our drummer hold the beat a second to long and screams ‘Fuck!’ We left it in because it was a real emotion. We had done numerous takes on that song and changed a few progressions throughout the takes. It was 2 AM and we were all spent. He captured what everyone was feeling. That’s the side of musicianship we want people to see …Â I label it Outlaw country cause that my favorite type of music. I am frequently told that it has a Southern rock sound and I love that also. I grew up listening to John Prine, John Hartford, the Stones, you name it. I am particularly fond of the songwriting portion.”Â
The ironic part of Wolf Hamlin’s American Idol experience is it seemed to reinforce in him the most important part of music and the foundation for country music specifically, which is sharing music with friends, loved ones, and each other on back porches and in local watering holes. Not every musician can be in the national spotlight. “Life has been great, we travel and enjoy the the little things like a front porch jam with complete strangers.”Â
But Wolf Hamlin would love to have the opportunity to share his music with more people. “[I'd love to] play with my band everywhere we can. Sell records. Tour! Â Hell I’m not sure but as long as we can keep creating and bringing those creations to people I’m good with it.”
And no matter what happens with Wolf, his father’s handmade guitar will be right beside him. “When I write a song it’s me and my father’s Acoustic. From there I bring it to the band and that’s when the Magic happens … I will always play my Fathers guit-fiddle. It’s part of me!”
“Quarterback” is a song by female Canadian country star Kira Isabella; the first single from her upcoming Sony Music Canada release Caffeine & Big Dreams. It was released to the Canadian market on March 25th, and has performed fairly well, cresting Canada’s Hot Country Billboard songs chart at #10. Written by Rivers Rutherford, Bobby Hamrick, and Marti Dodson, the song tells the story of a young girl from the high school freshman class who is seduced by the star quarterback of the football team. After being disarmed by some sips of alcohol, the freshman girl ends up having unwanted sex with the quarterback in the back of a truck, complete with embarrassing photos being posted on the internet the following day.
The song was released to the American country market on May 19th, but did not fare well for a number of reasons, principally that Kira Isabella’s US radio promo company HitShop Records recently realigned to focus more on satellite and streaming options because the American radio climate is so difficult to promote singles in these days. But recent headlines and current events have created a resurgence of interest in the single. With its strong female voice and perspective, “Quarterback” could very much be considered another anti “Bro-Country” addition to the country music song landscape—a precursor to Maddie & Tae’s “Girl In A Country Song” if you will. Similarly, with a slew of high-profile rape events at country concerts, including one where many concert patrons apparently stood idly by and watched and took video and photos during a rape, and another where a woman was allegedly raped by multiple men, the merging of rape and country music has become a hot topic.
“Quarterback” was not written to tackle either Bro-Country, or country music’s recent rape problem though; it was meant to tackle the rape issue plaguing the scholastic sports environment in both high school and college, and the propensity for athletic programs and universities to institutionally look the other way when allegations are levied, especially when it comes to star players. The song was originally pitched to the American market and Carrie Underwood who almost cut it, but Carrie did not want her previous relationship with Dallas Cowboys’ star quarterback Tony Romo to lead to speculation that the song was about him.
“Quarterback” has a very Carrie Underwood feel it it—solidly pop country, but still substantive, with an very emotional quotient that allows the message to resonate deep in the listener. Kira Isabella does not have the voice of Carrie Underwood, but she fits herself into the song quite nicely, and the strings and other sonic accoutrements compliment the weighty drama of the story.
The video for “Quarterback” is also an asset. It includes just enough abstraction, and just enough realism to convey the story without coming off as too dramatic or objectionably preachy or sentimental, while still giving a strong illustration to the storyline. An interesting note, there are many elements of “Quarterback” that mirror those of Taylor Swift’s “You Belong With Me”, including the leading lady being in the marching band, the leading male being the star of the football team, and the video showing shots of the marching band girl in her bedroom. Obviously, the circumstances in “Quarterback” are a little different.
Some are touting “Quarterback” as if it could be revolutionary to country music. But if the song is going to pull off a revolution, it first must be heard. And the idea of “Quarterback” making a late game rally on US country radio at this point seems slim. And it’s not necessarily because stodgy radio programmers refuse to play a song denouncing date rape, it’s because the song really doesn’t have the push behind it at the moment from a major radio promotional outfit.
Charles Aaron of Wondering Sound wrote a great piece about “Quarterback”, asking, “Is Country Radio Ready for a Song about Date Rape?”, though he also seemed to let a personal agenda pepper the article, starting off by observing, “One of the most threatening things that a woman can do these days, it seems, is report a sexual assault, or to assert that there is a pervasive sexual-assault problem, or to push for schools to address the issue of sexual assault on campus, or to start a hashtag where women can tweet about being assaulted.”
I’m not sure if that’s really the case, even in the traditionally-conservative country music world. And I’m not sure that two high-profile rape incidents at country concerts recently constitute an epidemic just yet. Of course Charles Aaron was probably using at least part hyperbole, but it seems that country music is commonly painted with a closed-minded brush when the reality of things is a much different picture. Johnny Cash had a #1 hit with “Sunday Morning Coming Down” in 1970. Loretta Lynn released “The Pill” in 1975. And Kacey Musgraves has seen a couple of songs do quite well in country music despite controversial themes, principally “Merry Go ‘Round” and “Follow Your Arrow”. Sometimes people on the outside looking into country seem surprised country fans have the mental competency to even tie their own shoes.
In fact one of the most remarkable things about “Quarterback” is how it comes across as simply a story that is resonant and in many ways universal in its ability to be recognized as an eternal theme of American society. It is about date rape specifically, but generally it is about the doors that are opened by power and fame, and the doors that are closed by obscurity, illustrated on a yearly basis by the casting of American society by high school royal court popularity contests. The controversy in Musgraves’ “Merry Go ‘Round” and “Follow Your Arrow” was much more overt. “Quarterback” conveys its message with feeling in a narrative that is hard to not feel compassion for.
The primary problem with “Quarterback” is the same problem with many modern-day country songs written by committee, which is they create non-linear scenarios for the performers of these songs to dwell in. One of the reasons the Outlaws of country music resonated so deeply back in the mid 70′s is because they understood that the songs they sung became extensions of the persona, whether that persona was true to themselves, or not.
Kira Isabella’s previous single before “Quarterback” was a song called “Blame It On Your Truck”. Released a full year before Maggie Rose’s very submissive “Girl In Your Truck Song” (another single beset with the shuttering radio promotions department), “Blame It On Your Truck” takes a very similar subservient female position, and ironically, in the back of a guy’s truck—the same setting where the “Quarterback” date rape scene occurs.“I know you like the jeans I’m wearing, ’cause I can tell by the way you keep staring. There’s a place we like to go way back in the woods, everybody think’s we’re up to no good… Â Don’t wanna think about it now, but my mama will be freaking out when I don’t make it home before 2 AM. I’ll say it wouldn’t start or maybe we got stuck, I know my daddy he’ll be waiting up. Let’s blame it on your truck.”
You get the sense that Kira Isabella is just singing the song put in front of her instead of drawing on inspiration to tell a heartfelt story. There’s nothing about her performance that would allude to this; it’s more a symptom of the country music system churning out songs through committee instead of doing their best to take a truly original human expression forged from inspiration and convey it to the wide masses. It would be a fair accusation against “Quarterback” to say that the song is simply pandering to the emotional vulnerability of the audience.
The unfortunate fact is “Quarterback” has little to no chance of being heard en masse, or even receiving any sizable radio play unless Sony somehow calls a cross-border audible and puts some promotion behind it. And who knows, with Kira’s new album coming out in a week, stranger things could happen. The story of “Quarterback” is a good one, and let’s hope it gets heard by more people. But let’s also hope that its moral doesn’t become even more poignant as this summer of seediness at mainstream country music concerts continues.
“I don’t remember having stood through an opening act’s show in quite some time. But I couldn’t seem to leave. The were that engaging.” –Billy Gibbons.
There’s no shortage of post-punk rootsy bluesy bands assembling a strange collection of found objects on stage to clang on really hard and really fast to call it music for country punks, just like there’s no shortage of post-grads getting duded up in suspenders and fedoras to play eepish banjo music to hipsters. And the only difference between theses two overindulged disciplines seems to be the socioeconomic backgrounds of the respective players and listeners. What there is a shortage of however is bands who can break through the trendy nature of the roots music business and do it well enough to deserve an audience beyond their local pub.
The Ben Miller Band from Joplin, Missouri is one of those bands, and they illustrate their prowess and commitment to the music in their new album on New West Records called Any Way, Shape, or Form. Procuring the foundation for their music from the pre-war and Delta blues, and jug and string bands of the deep South, their amorphous sound is like a seance for the creaky bones of past generations to animate back to life from the inalienable pull of an infectious groove. Though you’ll hear many of the calling cards of what has become the established Deep Blues sound—including the vintage tone of hollow body guitar, the pluck of a gutbucket bass, and the grate of the washboard—there’s also a more progressive ear brought to this project that results in a sound that is both hauntingly archaic and freshly relevant. Regardless of the lines drawn around your musical identity, the Ben Miller Band finds an end around and gets you to listen and feel.
The mowhawked Ben Miller is the ringleader of this trio, but one of the primary things that makes the Ben Miller Band work is the amalagam-like nature of how the band approaches the music. Doug Dicharry is the washboard player and drummer, but is apt to pick up a string instrument just the same. “I don’t know how to play any of these instruments I pick up,” he freely admits, but Doug has a keen sense of what sound a song needs, and the patience and insight to find that sound from whatever happens to be at hand. Scott Leeper is primarily the bucket bass player, but will creep behind the drum set and beat on a big iron piece of orphaned industrial machinery if it’s what the song calls for.
One of the signature elements to many of the Ben Miller Band’s songs is when they run a percussive item through a wah guitar pedal. The result is a very contagious texture that to some might be mistaken as an EDM element in its rhythmic nature, but is much more primal and analog at its heart. This somewhat basic sonic discovery is one of the multiple elements that separates the Ben Miller Band from the flotsam and jetsam of overdone roots music.
And though their foundation is R.L. Burnside / Robert Johnson blues with a more upbeat tempo, the Ben Miller Band exhibit quite a bit of variety and latitude on Any Way, Shape, or Form, including multiple stripped-down country offerings. The steel guitar moans loud in the curiously-sedated “I Feel For You”. “Twinkle Toes” is played primarily on banjo and dobro, and is much more indicative of Appalachia than the Mississippi Delta. And “Prettiest Girl” could have been written by Hank Williams with its swing timing and resolving moral.
It might be a stretch to call Any Way, Shape, or Form a songwriter album, but those shades do pop up in segments, including the very witty “23 Skidoo” that sees the band shape shift once again to a ragtime style. Something that may hold the band back for some is their propensity to veer towards the political in places. The Ben Miller Band’s music should also be approached with the understanding that this is a live band first, though they really put the effort out to make an album that respects the recorded format by adding those little extra moments of composition and extra instrumentation for the home audience.
If anything, this album leaves the listener wanting a little more of their primal, punk blues moments to revel in, but leaving the crowd salivating is probably a good thing. A band like this will always face criticisms of being gimmicky, and will always fall fey to mainstream ears. But they do a good job of diversifying their sound to offer at least something for most listeners in the wide roots audience.
With Any Way, Shape, or Form, the Ben Miller Band carves out a distinctive niche for themselves, and one that elevates them above the common, overdone ruts, while not traveling too far from the primal familiarity of roots music that makes it such an eternal gift.
1 3/4 of 2 guns up.
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Whether you love The Civil Wars (who just announced they’re officially kaput), or you found their vocal acrobatics a little too fey, it was hard to not root for the singing duo when they showed up in the nominations for country music’s major award shows. They were the one act with more of an Americana, substantive approach that you could get excited for. Sure, their “Steve Vai of Vocalists” approach and hot-burning sets sung virtually the entire time with the duo staring into each other’s eyes seemed doomed as an unsustainable approach from the beginning, but it was fun for many while it lasted.
So who could step up of in the country music vocal duo space who could duel with the heavyweights of the mainstream, and offer more substance to that category like The Civil Wars did? Of course there will only be one Civil Wars and nobody will be able to replace them completely, but here are some ideas who could have a similar impact.
First Aid Kit
If there was ever a duo that was poised for a big push into the mainstream of county, and whose songs would immediately deliver an entirely new paradigm of substance and roots to the genre without compromising melodic sensibilities, it would be the Swedish sister duo of Johanna and Klara SĂ¶derberg. Their songs are screaming for more radio play and a wider American audience, and they are supported by stellar video releases and a major American label in Columbia Records. First Aid Kit could not only deliver country music the critical entree in the duo category it craves, they could also deliver country some much needed girl power. Like the Kacey Musgraves of singing duos, but without some of the political baggage and sedated performances that have somewhat saddled Kacey, First Aid Kit could become a big player in the space vacated by The Civil Wars. Of course the duo would have to commit more deeply to the North American market, but their potential as a commercial and critical powerhouse is definitely there, and their new album Stay Gold is the ideal springboard.
Shovels & Rope
As dubbed by Saving Country Music, Shovels & Rope is “The Civil Wars for the rest of us.” Where The Civil Wars seemed somewhat saddled by the eloquence and sentimentality, Shovels & Rope is rough, dirty, sweaty, ugly, and real. At the same time, they deliver the same heated passion in their music that made The Civil Wars so compelling, and unlike The Civil Wars, that passion isn’t pretend because Shovels & Rope are also true life partners. Though they probably don’t have the same widespread commercial potential as a project like First Aid Kit or The Civil Wars did, their strong grass roots network across the United States gives them a deep base to work from. At some point this Americana powerhouse graduating to the mainstream could do wonders for both spheres of roots music, and with their new album Swimmin’ Time scheduled to come out August 25th, this could be the moment Shovels & Rope step up their game from their already quick-won success.
The Secret Sisters
Just like First Aid Kit, everything is in place for this singing sister duo to step it up to the next level. Unlike many of the other duo acts currently residing in the Americana realm, The Secret Sisters enjoy the support of a major label in Universal Republic, and have found quite a bit of success under the auspices of super producer T Bone Burnett who worked with The Civil Wars in their collaboration with Taylor Swift. The Secret Sisters have the songs, and the spice that it takes to take a duo to the top levels, combining authentic country roots with contemporary styling that could reach and resonate with a wide audience if only given a chance. All that is needed for The Secret Sisters to explode is a deeper commitment from the industry. In the vacuum left by The Civil Wars, this could be the duo’s chance.
The Milk Carton Kids
The intimacy of The Civil Wars, and their ability to do so much with simply two voices and a guitar is what made them captivating to a wider audience than what regularly would transpire from such a stripped-down production. This is also the allure of The Milk Carton Kids, who like Shovels & Rope, have seen a meteoric rise in the Americana ranks. Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan may be a little too strange, a little too eepish for the wide ear compared to some of the other Civil Wars alternatives, but they certainly capture the vibe that made The Everly Brothers, Simon & Garfunkel, and the Gillian Welch & Dave Rawlings pairings a success that stretched into the sphere of mainstream acceptance. They also enjoy the support of ANTI records—one of the strongest of the independent labels.
The Church Sisters
Potentially the singing duo with the most upside potential because they’re still so young, sisters Sarah and Savannah Church from the coal mining region of Dickerson County, Virginia bring some of the most exquisite harmonies to their love for traditional country and gospel music. The fraternal twins have been making big waves in the traditional country, Gospel, and bluegrass circuits, and they certainly have the talent to take them to higher places in the future. Since their still somewhat in their developmental phase, the question of The Church Sisters is if they will develop a more original style or stick with standards, and if they will have enough secular material in their mostly religious music lineup to create the type of widespread acceptance they would need to take it to the next level. Either way, The Church Sisters will surely be making new fans across the country as long as they keep singing.
The Cactus Blossoms
Maybe not with the commercial potential of the rest of the field because of their fairly traditional bent, The Cactus Blossoms from Minnesota are nonetheless one of the most engaging and enjoyable vocal duos out there that deserve to discover a wider audience and greater success. Page Burkum and Jack Torrey have definitely tapped into that Louvin Brothers / Everly Brothers mojo with the ultra-tight harmonies and ear for styling that can send shivers down the back of your neck. The unsigned duo is certainly worthy of a wider ear.
Kelly Willis & Bruce Robison and their “Bruce & Kelly Show” is another interesting candidate forÂ The Civil Wars replacement. The husband and wife duo might be a more established duo like Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings, but performing together specifically is a more recent incarnation for the Texas music royalty couple. With the backing of the strong base of Texas country listeners and a renewed spirit, Kellie & Bruce can do what The Civil Wars did, and then some.
Mandolin Orange and Carolina Story are other promising Americana duo.
The Urban Pioneers would be the underground roots entry into the singing duo that has the legitimacy of also being a real life couple. Cut from the cloth of Jayke Orvis’s now dissolved Broken Band, it will be enjoyable to watch how this duo develops.
Forget all the Johnny Come Lately’s ladies and gentlemen. If you want to witness the last remaining vestige of what once was the high flying revolutionary original Outlaw movement in country music, if you want to see the last remaining example of the piss and vinegar, the cowboy poetry, the tried and true rebellious nature that defined what an original country music Outlaw really was, Billy Joe Shaver is the last living true specimen of the genre. He’s the one who never came down off that mountain, who never gave up the ghost, who is still fighting tooth and nail every day and night for what he has, and hasn’t given up one speck of ground when it comes to energy and appetite for the music over his legendary career.
When you watch Billy Joe Shaver perform live, you don’t have to rely on the mythos surrounding the man to enjoy his show. Billy Joe Shaver is no museum piece. He doesn’t come out and ride off of his past accomplishments while sitting on a stool with his laurels stuffed in his back pockets. He puts on a show that kicks the ass of most performers a third of his age—punching and bobbing and singing and performing his guts out like it’s his last performance ever, and all of this from a man who’s arguably known first and foremost as a songwriter, not a performer. If you put a stool out on stage for him, he’d kick its ass during the first stanza of “Georgia On A Fast Train” and then dance a jig around its splintered corpse during the guitar solo. Billy Joe Shaver is what Outlaw country music is all about: never giving in.
We have waited seven damn years for the 74-year-old to finally put out another album of original music, and Long In The Tooth is well worth the wait. The album finds Billy Joe Shaver sitting tall in the saddle, shouting and spitting, brandishing his fists and taking potshots, and shining in moments of unexpected sentimentality.
In some respects this album can be taken as a companion piece to Shaver’s dear friend Willie Nelson’s recent album Band of Brothers. On that album, Willie featured two Billy Joe Shaver-penned songs, “The Git Go” and “Hard To Be An Outlaw”, and those are two of the first three tracks on Long In The Tooth. Honesty, and as you would expect, Shaver’s versions are slightly better, and are sung with such conviction it can give you shivers. Shaver might now be in his 70′s, but his current songwriting output holds up to the lofty standards he set for himself years ago. “The Git Go” and “Hard To Be An Outlaw” are the two biggest takeaways from Long In The Tooth, and for completely different reasons. “Hard To Be An Outlaw” is the bellicose, “climb-the-highest-building-in-Nashville-like-King-Kong-and-shoot-the-double-bird” type of song, while “The Git Go” is pious, poetic, yet still grounded and folksy in its wrinkled wisdom.
Long In The Tooth comes out of the shoot like a bronking bull. Billy Joe Shaver announces immediately that this is not going to be some gray-haired, geriatric affair. He may be 74, but he will still kick everyone’s ass in the room if he has to, and do it in the name of Jesus. As the album proceeds though, there are some astounding moments where Shaver, whose zeal can sometimes exceed his vocal prowess, shows off a set of pipes in love songs that stir the heart with the same ferocity as his boot stompers shake the bones. “I Love You As Much As I Can” and especially “I’m In Love” capture timeless performances from Shaver, whose voice sounds as strong and sincere as it ever did. It’s almost shocking, especially with the throat gravel Billy Joe unearths on some of the other tracks, how remarkably Shaver has held onto his singing voice and the control he displays.
The controversial song on the album (if you want to call it that) is the title track. It has some people (including Shaver himself in certain interviews) saying that he’s rapping, though I’m not sure that’s how I would characterize it. The song is drenched in Crybaby guitar pedals and spit on the microphone as Shaver does his best to scare off old age in a merciless exploration of whatever is left of his id and machismo. If a song like this came from someone like Hank Williams Jr. or another country star who is trying desperately (and embarrassingly) to hold on to their youthful career, we’d be laughing and labeling them a sellout. But Shaver is so far beyond that phase, this song is simply meant to be taken as fun, and it should be. It is good for a few passes, though it certainly is not representative of the best music the album has to offer.
Shaver’s songwriting continues to impress as the album progresses, including with the train number “Sunbeam Special”, and the witty song for the common man, “Checkers And Chess”.
Blame the seven year hiatus for helping to refine his material, blame his immortal spirit that refuses to let him sit down, or blame the talent within him that appears to be bottomless. But at 74-years-old, Billy Joe Shaver is still schooling an army of artists who would love to label themselves Outlaws, but don’t have the acumen to truly understand what the word even means, let alone the skills to pull it off, or the history to back it up.
In Outlaw country music in 2014, there’s Billy Joe Shaver, and everyone else.
1 3/4 of 2 Guns Up
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As the thoughts and prayers of millions of fans keep vigil over Randy Travis in hopes the ailing singer someday will be able to share his gift for song with the world once more, life moves on and the release of Randy’s second installment of Influence: The Man I Am series approaches on August 12th. As a reflection back upon the artists and songs that created the foundation of Randy’s storied career, it only seems fitting that Waylon Jennings would work his way onto Randy’s The Man I Am track list. And not wanting to be too obvious by picking one of Waylon’s super hits from the Outlaw era, Randy selects “Only Daddy That’ll Walk The Line”; a hard-driving, thumping number that when released in 1968 was uncharacteristic for Waylon who at the time was known as the purveyor Nashville’s country folk fare. Of course as we know now, the style and attitude the song was recorded with would later become Waylon’s signature for the rest of his career.
Written by Nashville session guitarist Jimmy Bryant and produced by Chet Atkins, the original “Only Daddy That’ll Walk The Line” was perhaps Music Row’s answer to the more rough-hewn sound emanating from Capitol Records and the Bakersfield Sound of the time. The song went to #2 on the Billboard Country Singles chart and has since become a standard of the genre. Linda Ronstadt released a role-reversed version of the song in 1969, and The Kentucky Headhunters also recorded a famous version of the song in 1991 for their Electric Barnyard album.
The Randy Travis version of “Only Daddy That’ll Walk The Line” is a pretty straightforward, no frills take on the song. “Only Daddy” is one of those compositions whose original will likely never be outdone by the predecessors. But Randy gives the song a new spirit and audience, and simply hearing Randy’s voice once again, especially reprising this classic piece of country music history, reminds us of how important Randy was to revitalizing country music’s classic tones in the mainstream commercial space in the mid and late 80′s and beyond.
Randy’s voice might be silent for the moment and Waylon may have long since passed, but this multi-generational country music collaboration reminds us that all the country music greats will be around forever through their timeless music.
You can also hear Randy Travis cover Marty Robbins in “Don’t Worry ‘Bout Me“.
In 1,000 years from now will country music as presently constructed still be around and practiced in popular form? I’m not quite sure. But bluegrass I’m quite sure in one form or another will always be around as long as there are humans sucking air. There’s just something inherent about bluegrass: the beauty of wood and wire, and sentiments conveyed in their most simple, acoustic form. Bluegrass is the eternally-relevant form of country. It represents country’s most primitive, and its most advanced state.
The problem with bluegrass in 2014 is where to take it. Bluegrass is the the tale of two worlds in many respects. One world consists of absolutists, preserving the music in its most pure expression, playing it like it has always been played. On the other side are the progressives, taking the genre to the highest reaches of human capacity in displaying talent. Both are beautiful in their own ways, and boast their prodigies and maestros. Yet they’re also both very limiting in many respects. The absolutists are saddled by never being able to evolve. The progressives many times come off as bored. After they have mastered their craft and are able to move their fingers as fast as they can and switch from chord to chord with the fleetness of a bounding deer, where to go? So they make bluegrass songs out of indie rock, or take it to places that sound fey to the common ear.
Somewhere in the pursuit of bluegrass perfection, the simplicity of the subgenre got forgotten: the wood and the wire, and the beauty of universal sentiments conveyed through inviting melody. This re-attention to the beauty side of bluegrass is what is found on Bradford Lee Folk’s new album Somewhere Far Away with The Bluegrass Playboys.
A simply-stated, wholesome, traditional yet original bluegrass album, Somewhere Far Away delves into the emotion-stirring exploration of melody like few other projects inside or out of the bluegrass world. Bradford’s voice is warm, soothing, and understated in a good way, never getting too exercised like the ideal voice of wisdom and reason, which is only fitting for the sage-like sentiments these songs convey. The high lonesome tone that seems as effortless as breath to Bradford evokes the majesty of wide vistas, stoking the imagination.
The music from the Bluegrass Playboys—consisting of Robert Trapp on banjo, Christian Sedelmyer on fiddle, David Goldenberg on mandolin, and Ashleigh Caudill / John Fabke on upright bass—sets a premier balance between technical impressiveness and attention to melody that allows you to enjoy the songs based on multiple parameters. Similar observances are relevant to the songwriting: intelligent and expressive, yet always mindful of making the listener not just think, but feel.
Something else endearing about this album is there’s only eight tracks, and not a skip over in the bunch. Often these days artists stretch track lists to unnecessarily lengths, not allowing busy listeners the time to really get to know each track. It’s like the difference between going to a crowded party and only walking away with snippets of conversations with quick acquaintances, and exploring the themes of life with a few close buddies around a campfire.
Bradford Lee Folk is the former frontman for the Rounder Recordâ€™s-signed bluegrass band Open Road, and for years was a mainstay of Coloradoâ€™s independent bluegrass scene. He’s now moved back east to Nashville, looking to ride the rising tide in Music City, while still spending many days on a tractor or in a field as a farmer and rancher to keep his heart tied to the history of the music and the land strong.
Somewhere Far Away may not win any grand accolades from the bluegrass circuit because it doesn’t represent an extreme of the discipline. But unlike some of the speed demons, compositional wizards, and purists setting the pace in bluegrass proper, Bradford Lee Folk, the Bluegrass Playboys, and Somewhere Far Away are simply a joy to listen to.
Two guns up.
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When looking for country music that is smart and still tied closely to the roots of the genre, it’s never a bad option to look north of the border to many of Canada’s formidable country outfits. Corb Lund, Lindi Ortega, Daniel Romano, and so many more make up a large chunk of the best listening independent country has to offer. So last year when the Toronto-based country band New Country Rehab released their second album Ghost Of Your Charms, it wasn’t like it didn’t raise a bleep on my radar. But I looked at the cover with a lotus-like flower rising from one corner and a butterfly fluttering along the bottom, and then saw/heard their video for the song “Home To You” and thought, “Okay cool, they’re a quaint little non-offensive country band, I’ll have to check them out a little deeper when I get a chance.”
But lurking behind the butterflies, flowers, love songs, and the unfair stereotype of thinking of Canadians as soft-edged by default, was so much more. Dubbing themselves “Outlaw” country, New Country Rehab very much defines the space that refers heavily to country music’s storied past, while instilling it with a new set of sonic parameters and progressive values. The lilting love songs are certainly present here, but so is a heavy handed douse of social commentary that struggles to hide its anger, dark characters troubled by what the world is made of them, and songwriting that holds to it’s poetic leanings even when in the midst of a panic attack. There are overturned luxury vehicle burning out of spite, and hidden corpses of bankers on this album. And overall, there is a much deeper and diverse emotional experience than one may expect.
New Country Rehab and Ghost Of Your Charms is evolved country in every sense—the true result when country music progresses, but still holds firmly to its roots. For example they cover the Hank Williams tune “The Image of Me” and in a very reverential manner on this album. But they also veer towards elements of almost a prog indie rock in places. It all fits together cohesively though, and doesn’t feel like a stretch to call it country, even when they go out the farthest on sonic limbs.
There is a lot of young man anger in this album, coming close to an unfair idealism, though never crossing that line, and never imbibing the music with too many specifics that may give it a polarizing political bent. The song “Luxury Motel” makes for an angry, direct statement about the acquisition of land for recreation and what this can do to the residents living in the community. “Rollin’” goes in the direction of the mildly psychotic in how it portrays a dystopian perspective on the discrepancy between the haves and the have nots. The songs “Lizzy Dying of a Broken Heart” and “The Bank and The Army” tell similar tales of the toll the soldier’s life can take on the soul and sanity.
But this album also has a few vulnerable, tender moments that touch deeper than they would normally because of the contrasting company they keep on the project as a whole—songs like the aforementioned “Home To You”, or the very spatial, and emotionally-open “Midnight Cargo”. New Country Rehab say a lot on this album, but they still find the time to touch many sectors of the emotional palette.
The music of New Country Rehab varies pleasantly, sometimes matching the anger behind the inspiration for the song, or becoming very uplifting with multiple fiddle lines filling the composition with emotion. There is very much is a old-school country foundation here that may not be obvious at first, but is revealed in the bones of the songs. Hank’s influence is certainly present, not from loud steel guitar or blues progressions, but from the overall poetic approach to the entire New Country Rehab experience. And singer John Showman’s tone is something that feels both fresh and timeless—something that a band can hang its hat on, while his fiddle playing is quite endearing.
I’m admittedly late to the game here. It took a while for New Country Rehab to win me over. But won me over they have, and Ghost Of Your Charms should be characterized as nothing less than a treasure trove of unburdening emotional experiences and insightful tales that deserve a wide audience.
Two guns up!
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Pickathon is the roots music experience like no other. It offers one of the most forward-thinking lineups in the independent festival circuit, is two steps ahead in featuring artists that are on the verge of becoming the next big thing, and presents the artist in some of the most unique settings to be found. Even if you can’t make it to the Northwest extremity of the country next weekend to revel with the others just outside of Portland at the Pendarvis Farm, you can still check out these 10 great artists whose talents will be featured over the weekend.
I know very little about Valerie June, and aspire to keep it that way. A natural mystery swirls around this woman similarly to the tresses emanating from her topside like a living, organic crown. Valerie June seems more apparition than womanâ€”vanishing and appearing in the most random moments like a mythical character born in the mind of an early European troubadour that goes on to become a seminal player in mythology. Sheâ€™s like a damsel in the middle of some struggle pitting man vs. Gods for the right to sit in audience with her siren melodies; the Gods coveting the beauty of her tone, but the claim belonging to man since the vessel of such beauty is a mortal. The imagination Valerie June can evoke is a greater audio enhancement than any studio magic can muster, and is one of her musicâ€™s greatest attributes.
Shakey Graves is quickly becoming an inspiring independent roots music success story and in a big way, despite what seem to be his best efforts to remain as unassuming, humble, and non-commercial as possible, while people gladly shove dollar bills at him left and right for his music that speaks to them in such a crafty and sincere manner. Heâ€™s becoming sort of a unknown superstar, a cult enigma, not from sly marketing, but because heâ€™s really as socially awkward and troubled, yet full of light and brilliance as he seems, all while still coming across as unusually grounded and affable for someone with such a robust creative spark. Heâ€™s simply a dude who wants to share his songs with you, and remains as surprised as anyone how much his simple, one man presentation has been embraced warmly by appreciative, attentive, and distinguishing fans of roots music and songwriting.
Shakey has recently secured a band for a different approach to his music, and will be releasing his new album And The War Came on October 7th from Dualtone Records.
Nickel Creek: Better together than apart. Thatâ€™s for sure. They certainly canâ€™t be blamed for wanting to take some time for themselves when they announced back in 2006 that theyâ€™d be going on an indefinite hiatus. What a wild ride theyâ€™d endured; starting off in a pizza joint when the oldest member of the trio was only twelve, to getting swept up in the whole bluegrass craze that ushered in the 2000â€˛s on the heels of Oâ€™ Brother and Alison Krauss producing a Grammy-nominated album for them. Brother and sister Sean and Sara Watkins, and Chris Thile are lifers, but they needed to take some time to discover life beyond each other.
But maybe it took Nickel Creekâ€™s separation to truly realize the virtues each player possessed, both as a listener, and for the playerâ€™s themselves. With lessons learned and life beyond Nickel Creek explored, they can come together once again to create fellowship through music and share it with an audience hungry from the seven year hiatus.
Possessed By Paul James
If there is one artist who can completely lose himself in the music and let it take over every fabric of their being, and then commune that complete loss of self with the crowd to where the experience borders on the religious, it is Texas school teacher turned music madman and spiritual medium Possessed by Paul James. With Possessed By Paul James, itâ€™s not just about the music and words, itâ€™s about the entire human experience, the bubbling up of emotion and memory with music simply being the excuse. You will walk away from a Possessed by Paul James experience a changed person.
With a gift for poetry like Townes Van Zandt, and a penchant for the whimsical, progressive approach to bluegrass akin to John Hartford, you never know exactly what youâ€™ll get with Robbie Fulks. If youâ€™re confused already, that is right where Robbie wants you; intrigued, guessing, and on your toes about whatâ€™s coming next, with the long-time Fulks fans following him since the first slew of late 90â€˛s Bloodshot albums fully knowing whatever it is, it is going to be good.
Robbie released a stunningly entertaining, brilliantly-balanced, deep, and instantly-engaging comeback album called Gone Away Backward in 2013, and it went on to be nominated for Saving Country Music’s 2013 Album of the Year.
From the tales of dying and dismembered men, to the disenfranchised, homeless, lost souls and forgotten, they are all canonized through Charlieâ€™s honesty and amazing clarity into perspective. Charlie doesnâ€™t sing about subjects in third person, he becomes the subject of his songs in an uncanny channeling of character, and makes the story flesh and bone right before your eyes.
That is, until his latest about called Hollandale that is an instrumental master work and maybe the most stunning album of his 12-album career. Hollandale 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.
The Black Lillies
The Sadies from Toronto, Canada should be modern day music gods. All they do is stand on their head every time they put on a live show or release an album, throwing a proverbial musicianâ€™s clinic with their cutting-edge instrumentation and jawbreaking prowess. Their music appeals to a broad panoramic of the music listening public: from punks, to country, to mod, surf, blues, rockers, and rockabilly types alike, moving through influences with ease and credibility from their adept and studious knowledge of American music modes.
Though they might be best known for backing up such big names as Neko Case, John Doe, Jon Langford, or Andre Williams, in both the recorded and live formats, they really shine when they simply let loose as their own band. The Sadies are like a controlled explosion, shocking you with how good they are, bringing mod style and stupid good musicianship to the country & western context.
One of the founding members of Old Crow Medicine Show who left the formidable throwback outfit back in 2011, Willie Watson has re-emerged with a new album and a very, very old approach to country and folk music. Willie took what he did with Old Crow Medicine Show and boiled it down even further to the kernel of his creative genius where heâ€™s channeling with almost ghostly authenticity the very folk singers, country troubadours, and blues men he seeks to resurrect through his music. Stern faced and focused, he comes out and sings with such a fierceness, dedication, and heart to the emotions and humanity behind the stories heâ€™s singing about, Willie Watson comes across more like Woody Guthrie than Woody Guthrie.
His new album Folk Singer Vol. 1 comes very highly recommended.
Man. If you want to make a live music DVD, get yourself a Southern rock band. And if you’re looking for a Southern rock band, you best be looking in the direction of Atlanta, GA’s Blackberry Smoke. These days you can find all manner of variations on the Southern rock theme, and there’s some damn good ones out there—folks mixing Southern rock with Motown soul, and Southern rock with surf, punk, and so much more. But if you’re looking for the band that defines what Southern rock is in the modern day world, Blackberry Smoke is your poison. They’re the guys taking the torch that was first lit by Lynyrd Skynyrd and The Allman Brothers, then was passed on to bands like The Black Crowes, and are doing one of the South’s most storied subgenres all manner of proud in making sure that sound is passed on to a new generation.
Just look at these bastards. They look like they could make the inside of a tour bus smell like steak and motor oil just by looking at it, or walk into a Southern buffet and bankrupt it in one sitting. These are some long-haired, burly, and badass dudes who drip nothing but cool and authenticity. Lead singer Charlie Starr’s mutton chops are longer than the Florida panhandle. And when all those pop country guys get up there on stage and start trading Stratocaster licks doing their best to be cool, a band like Blackberry Smoke is who they are trying to emulate. But it will never be as real as a Blackberry Smoke show.
Two years after releasing their last studio album The Whippoorwill to critical-acclaim, Blackberry Smoke is back with a double live album and DVD called Leave A Scar: Live in North Carolina. There’s a few ways you can choose to partake in this live experience: You can either hear it on a double disc CD set (or download), or you can get the DVD and watch and listen. Or you can do both. The DVD gives you the option to either watch the entire concert seamlessly, or see it with a series of background spots about the band. The background portions probably don’t go as in-depth as a full-fledged documentary, but offer great insight about the band, their families, their cars, their kids, and how they all fit into the band and help make Blackberry Smoke tick so well both on and off the stage.
Your tour guide is Blackberry Smoke front man and primary songwriter Charlie Starr. He introduces you to the two brothers: bass player Richard Turner and drummer Brit Turner, the latter who also acts as the band’s archivist and avid business man. Piano and organ player Brandon Still tells the story about being hired by Blackberry Smoke, and the only stipulation was he had to give up his ‘new wave’ X-wing keyboard stand for a psychedelic-draped piano stand to join. “I was like ‘You know what? We can get rid of the X-wing stand,’” Brandon recalls, and the rest is history. Brandon and lead guitar player Paul Jackson are good friends outside the band as you see on the DVD. “Brandon hangs out, and he’s like Uncle Brandon to Paul’s kids,” says Charlie Starr.
But the music is what we’re here for, and the performances on Leave A Scar: Live in North Carolina are as tight and entertaining as you would expect for a band who’s been going at it for going on 15 years. They’re beyond road-tested, and can play these songs in their sleep. A good mixture of Blackberry’s catalog is featured in this CD/DVD project, and aside from breaking into Memphis Minnie & Led Zepplin’s “When The Levee Breaks” in the middle of one song, it features all original Blackberry Smoke material.
Hard work and hard play isn’t just a marketing mantra for these guys and their fans. It’s the only thing they know, and that’s what comes through most evident on this project. Seeing some of the shots from the crowd and the fans singing along in the perfect-sized venue for this type of undertaking really captured the relationship and value Blackberry Smoke has with the fandom they’ve earned over the years. The project is keenly shot by Judd Films, with Neltner Creative supplying the cover art, and a great engineering feat by Logan Patton doing the live vibe justice and giving the recording the perfect amount of crowd noise to put you right there in the room.
Though I might still recommend to someone who has never heard Blackberry Smoke to start with one of their studio projects, Leave A Scar: Live in North Carolina is a treasure trove for the hardcore Blackberry fan, including bonus footage on the DVD that shows the band recording with Jamey Johnson and the recently-deceased country legend George Jones.
Blackberry Smoke likes to take their time between studio releases, which can be frustrating for some salivating fans. Leave A Scar: Live in North Carolina is the perfect thing to tide them over, and chronicle what one of the most important modern-day bands in the Southern music realm do on a nightly basis for appreciative fans.
1 1/2 of 2 guns up.
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“Believe in yourselves, it’s the hardest thing you’ll ever have to do.”Â –Petunia
From the dark, weary, poetic side of the roots world, where lost souls born into the wrong time period go to dwell and dispel their misery in song, comes Petunia & The Vipers—aÂ complexly influenced country and roots band with a mutable sound whose only constant is a call back to the earliest times of popular music when people like Woody Guthrie and Django Reinheardt were contemporaries, and when rock & roll and country were just forming and their sounds were virtually interchangeable.
Hailing from high on the Western Hemisphere in Vancouver, British Columbia, Petunia & The Vipers shift from primitive country, to rockabilly, to jazz chording and Latin rhythms like they’re one in the same—like a Canadian version of Wayne “The Train” Hancock with a sound that is completely original while still being referential to the better days of music.
Their latest album Inside of You works almost like a guided tour through the gilded era of early American music influences. The first song “Runaway Freight Train Heart” is very much a rockabilly number with an up-tempo train beat driver, while the next song finds the listener transported to a smoky French cabaret, with Petunia’s vocal warble and exotic jazz chords challenging the ear. Next comes “Bicycle Song” which sees the rise of the disarming sounds of Hawaiian-influenced steel guitar stoking memories of warm breezes and a carefree disposition, while the very austere, dearthy, almost monotone “Holy Budge Winters” refers heavily to the depression-era rolling prose of Woody Guthrie, almost painful to listen to as it evokes memories of hard times, tragedy, and ultimate redemption. This wild swing of styles continues throughout the album, keeping the listener on their toes, engaged, and guessing where Petunia & The Vipers will head next.
Petunia’s voice is the foundation of this band. It has been described by some as an upside down yodel, but he can yodel right side up just as strongly, and as strong as anyone ever has. His level of control and unique cadence has to be universally regarded, whether you enjoy the sound it makes or not. Petunia very much fits the form of his music—a more artistic approach, purposely fey in places to ward off any potential interlopers just looking for a simple good time. There are certainly many moments on Inside of You that find your pulse racing and your feet tapping. In fact there’s a whole album’s worth of that material, and that can be the alpha and omega of your Petunia experience. But the Quebec native wants to get your gray matter hopping too, throwing you off his scent as soon as you think you’ve figured out his game, and giving you moments that make you think as much as feel.
The title track is one of the most stripped down moments of the album, featuring just an acoustic guitar and Petunia waxing poetically about the wayward path of man, and how the world has a tendency to hide the notion of who we truly are from ourselves. Though what Petunia says is nothing new, it nonetheless hits home in the hearth he builds for the message.
Some of these songs are just going to be too fey for some ears. “Holy Budge Waters” will be misunderstood by some who have not studied early American folk tradition, while Petunia’s strange tone on the chorus of “Primitive Love” will have certain people reaching to lower the volume, despite the production of the track being one of the best on the album. Inside of You concludes with some of its most country offerings, like the fiddle-driven “Gunned Down” doing fair justice to the dower, almost Gothic mood that many of Petunia & The Vipers’ songs reside in. The last two tracks once again take the rhythm in an upbeat direction, ending the album strongly and tied to the country and rockabilly roots.
Some bands and artists are so creative, their stories etch a tragedy of never finding the commercial recognition they deserve. Other artists must take their inspiration and interpret it to a more accessible audience. Petunia & The Vipers are one of these creative generators and innovators, and their music and moxy can be found defining the cutting edge of what is considered creative in country and roots today, while still keeping alive what made country music great in the past.
1 3/4 of 2 guns up.
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If you like what you hear, also check out Petunia & The Vipers’ first album.
“Cricket Song” from Petunia & The Vipers’ first album.
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