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Isn’t it interesting how we look upon Willie Nelson as such a saint of not just music or country music, but of the nation and world, and here he is releasing a song that instead of reveling in his accomplishments and resting on his laurels, catches the 81-year-old country legend looking back upon his past mistakes, self-deprecating and pensive, yet understanding how those mistakes made him the man he is today.
Willie Nelson’s next album Band of Brothers is set to be released June 17th, and his latest original song in a legendary, if not unparalleled songwriting career is simply called “The Wall.” Band of Brothers breaks from Willie’s recent output of albums of mostly covers by including nine Nelson-penned tracks as part of the 14-track album. The covers include Billy Joe Shaver’s “The Git Go” (a duet with Jamey Johnson), Vince Gill’s “Whenever You Come Around”, and “Songwriter” by Bill Anderson and Gordie Sampson. As with the last few Willie Nelson releases, the producer duties are being handled by Buddy Cannon.
Like the words, the chord selection of “The Wall” helps give rise to memory and reflection, and shows that Willie has lost little in his ability to convey a feeling in his advanced age. Long-time harmonica-playing compatriot Mickey Raphael adds the color to the composition, as does the familiar tone of Willie Nelson’s nylon string guitar in a rather stripped down track whose beat is kept with simple brushes that rest at the beginning of the chorus to give the song an extra little emphasis. Though Willie’s voice can sometimes be hit or miss in the live setting these days, it is as strong as ever here, holding that singular tone that looms so large in the ethos of classic country fans.
Where Willie Nelson’s two 2013 albums with Legacy Recordings—Let’s Face The Music and Dance, and To All The Girls…—felt somewhat like side projects, with little truly new material, Band of Brothers is already beginning to look more like 2012′s Heroes— Willie’s first with Legacy Recordings, and an album that very much felt like a retrenching.
The accompanying video for “The Wall” works counter-intuitively from the song, running down a list of all of Willie’s biggest accomplishments as Willie reflects, “I took on more than I could handle. I bit off more than I could chew, I hit the wall. I went off like a Roman candle. Burning everyone I knew, I hit the wall.”
With no discounts for age or sliding scales because of his legendary status, Willie Nelson’s “The Wall” still captures the heart and stirs the memory, and makes for quite an enjoyable piece of music.
Two guns up.
There are few things that will immediately restore your faith in country music quicker than listening to a record from North Carolina’s John Howie Jr. and his stellar band The Rosewood Bluff. The former frontman of the renown, but now defunct Two Dollar Pistols never disappoints, and with his new album Everything Except Goodbye, he even manages to exceed expectations.
John Howie Jr. is one of those artists you don’t have to spend any time warming up to. Right off the bat you know this is real country, and real good. Pedal steel, a true country voice, and rock solid songs suck you in and have you saying to yourself, “Now this is what I mean when I say country music.” No need for “alt” or “Americana” qualifiers here, this is country music how it’s supposed to be.
John Howie Jr. has always loomed large as a frontman and singer, but there’s a few tracks on Everything Except Goodbye where he figures out how to downright outdo himself. He simply sings the hell out of the songs on this album, testing his range and dexterity like never before, resulting in him really squeezing the true emotion out of the story and drawing your ear in. His excellent vocal performances start with the title track. He hits a bass note on “Everything Except Goodbye” that would even make Richard Sterban of the Oak Ridge Boys go “Damn,” while a lonesome warble and other delicate inflections define the very sound of heartache. The slow “Goin’ Under (All Over Again)” is another one Howie sings the hell out of. Howie’s vocals really speak to the extra effort he put out on this album.
Though this is very much a straightforward country record from start to finish, a lot of different textures are touched on. “A Hell Of A Note” has to be one of the album’s best songs. Such a classic country story, it’s a song you would have expected one of country’s legendary heroes to have written years ago. “The Wash-Up” shows a different, growling, more honky tonk, or Waylon side of Howie that he rarely shows off, but nails on the head when he does. And if you’re going to tackle Mickey Newbury, especially the oft-covered “Why You Been Gone So Long,” you better stand on your head and deliver a flawless performance, and that’s what John Howie Jr. & Rosewood Bluff do.
Speaking of Rosewood Bluff, as much as Howie impresses pulling off his duties as singer and songwriter, his band matches the high bar Howie sets. Joining him is the stunning female bass player Billie Feather. With her flaming red hair and adept bass work, she adds that fire and legitimacy to the band that only a female can. She also contributes banjo to the album’s final track “Blue” which is the little extra wrinkle that makes that song something special. Pedal steel player Nathan Golub is the guy that really deserves the blame of the music itself on Everything Except Goodbye sounding so damn good. And Dave Hartman on drums and electric guitar player Tim Shearer have that “in-the-pocket” expertness that really gets John Howie Jr.’s sound.
About the only head shaker is when John Howie Jr. decides to cover notorious Compton, California gangsta rap artist Easy-E’s X-rated song “Nobody Moves, Nobody Gets Hurt” off of his controversial 1988 release Eazy-Duz-It … Okay I’m screwing with you, “Nobody Moves, Nobody Gets Hurt” is actually Howie doing what he does best: making those simple observations of life and referencing them in meaningful ways through the witty use of language.
John Howie Jr. & Rosewood Bluff really have the country music formula down of how to sound familiar, while still sounding fresh and original.
A great country album.
Two guns up.
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“I was driving. My two daughters, Violet and Harper, who are eight and five years old, started singing along. I was so happy and relieved that my two girls were singing a popular song on the radio that had some substance and depth, which I considered to be healthy for them as kids. I know that sounds kind of parent-ish.”
This was the revelation former Nirvana drummer and and current Foo Fighter Dave Grohl had when listening with his kids to a song from one of the world’s biggest pop stars right now: Lorde. Grohl went on to tell Rolling Stone, “When I met her I said, ‘When I first heard your song on the radio and my kids sang along I felt like there was hope for my kids to grow up in an environment which is more than just superficial.’”
Between 2011 and 2013, the biggest-selling pop star in the world was not Britney Spears, Miley Cyrus, or Lady Gaga. It was Adele. Her album 21 absolutely dominated popular music for two straight years, and had critics raving about the style and substance the singer exuded, while not fitting the form of the typical pop star stereotype. Lorde does not fit the pop star stereotype either. She razzes on photo reporters for blotching out her less-than-perfect skin, and tight fitting fare doesn’t seem to be her bag.
The whole theorem that pop music is just an excuse to oogle at pretty people has a problem holding up when you look at some of the recent trends in much of the pop world. Of course there’s still exceptions, and the weighty nature of Lorde and Adele can be debated. But even when looking at other Top 10 artists like Pharrell, Justin Timberlake, and Ed Sheeran, these aren’t the customary pop specimens with zero substance that are solely based on image. The pasty, short, red-headed Sheeran with his original songs and acoustic guitar is nothing similar to the showy pop performers of yesteryear. And though their names might be splattered all over the press, artists like Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber aren’t placing as well in the charts or sales numbers as one might expect.
Meanwhile you take a look at country music’s leading artists, and what do you see? You see image-driven, shallow males with even shallower songs, squeezed into ultra-tight jeans that have become the spandex tights of our time. Maybe backwards baseball caps have replaced kinked hair, but the servitude to image has stayed the same. Trend-focused and willing to do anything for fame, not standing on principles or worried about the legacies they’re forging, popular country music has become the new bastion for the shallow performer and the sellout; the pop of our time, camouflaged in denim.
I don’t have any data to back my assertions up. No pie graphs or chart analyses; this is strictly anecdotal. But I’ll be damned that if in 2014, your average pop star isn’t more likely to outpace your average country star when it comes to substance and depth in their music. Recently critically-acclaimed country star Kacey Musgraves announced she’d be writing and playing some concert dates with Katy Perry. Oh how the hounds erupted about what a travesty this was. But at least Kacey Musgraves is writing her own songs, with another artist that writes her own songs, and those songs are about something more than lists of countryisms with no narrative. Isn’t this a better alternative than Dallas Davidson and three other drunk douchebags in a round robin throwing “beer, truck, girl” into a hopper and writing a song depending on however they land? It may say more about mainstream country music than it says about Kacey Musgraves that she has to reach out to the pop world to find collaborators she feels she can relate to.
Even with Taylor Swift, at least her songs are about something. They may be about some ex-boyfriend’s scarf or other trivial matter, but at least there’s a story arc. At least her songs are coherent on paper, and are drawn from inspiration. Compare that with the verses of your average Florida Georgia Line song and Swift feels like Faulkner.
“Pop” is the perennial bad word in country music to where even pop country stars tend to shy away from the term. Why? Because it infers a lack of artistic merit. Some of the biggest pop stars in the world still want to be regarded as artists of substance by their peers and fans. We already see many artists now residing in the ranks of the Americana and bluegrass worlds shy away from the term “country” even though their music may fit that term traditionally, simply because they don’t want to be lumped in with the stuff being played on the radio. This trend is robbing mainstream country of some of the critical talent it could use to create more balance and substance in the format. Country used to be the safe place on the dial, and you wouldn’t have to worry about listening to it with your kids in the car, unlike KISS-FM. Now that dynamic has flipped, and it leaves one wondering if in the future “country” will be that bad word that infers a lack of artistic merit. Or if we haven’t already arrived there.
Welcome ladies and gentlemen to Saving Country Music’s LIVE blog of the festivities transpiring as part of the 6th Annual Lone Star Music Awards. The event will be at The MARC (formerly the Texas Music Theater) in beautiful San Marcos, TX, just south of Austin. I’ll be doing my best all night to keep you informed of all the events, performances, and winners. You should get those refresh fingers stretched out, and don’t be shy to pipe up below in the comments section if you have your own observances you would like to share.
This event is not planned to be televised or broadcasted, so I’ll do my best to immerse you in the experience through words and pictures.
This years awards show will feature performances by Reckless Kelly, Joe Ely, William Clark Green, Thieving Birds, Chris King, Slaid Cleaves, Bruce Robison & Kelly Willis, Zane Williams & Kylie Rae Harris. You can find all the nominees and categories by the link below.
6th Annual Lone Star Music Award Winners:
- Album of the Year – Jason Boland & The Stragglers “Dark & Dirty Mile”
- Song of the Year – William Clark Green “She Likes The Beatles”
- Songwriter of the Year – Jason Isbell
- Live Act of the Year – Turnpike Troubadours
- Americana / Roots-Rock Album of the Year – Reckless Kelly
- Singer-Songwriter / Folk Album of the Year – Guy Clark “My Favorite Picture of You”
- Producer of the Year – Lloyd Maines
- Album Artwork of the Year – Dierks Canada
- Country Album of the Year – Bruce Robison & Kelly Willis
- Emerging Artist of the Year – The Thieving Birds
- Hall of Fame Inductees – Kent Finay and Joe Ely
10:50 - Alright folks, things are wrapping up here at The Marc! I’ll be recapping the winners and then I will be out of here to the after party at the Cheatham Street Warehouse. Reckless Kelly is closing out the night playing Tom Petty.
Thanks to everyone for following along!
Overall it was an excellent night of some great country music of all colors. So many great musical takeaways on the night. It’s great to be turned onto some new names, and see some deserved names get recognition. It is especially good to see Jason Isbell get some recognition. He was so screwed at the Grammys, it’s good that someone is recognizing what he’s doing, even if it is folks in Texas who he’s once removed from. I think it shows the character of Texas music fans (who voted on these awards) to see he deserved it, as well as giving recognition to Kacey Musgraves who after all, is from the state.
Overall my biggest takeaway might be the very first performers, Zane Williams & Kylie Rae Harris. They made a huge impression. So did Chris King, and William Clark Green. I would have preferred that the organizers would have allowed performers to play a few extra songs, or had something else planned when they began running ahead of schedule, or just finished early. It sapped a little of the enrgy from the place. But overall, it was an excellent night of Texas music fellowship.
10:37 - Everyone who left early is missing out. Reckless Kelly is proving why the deserve the headliner spot.
10:28 - Another picture of Joe Ely with Reckless Kelly because they were so badass.
10:23 - I have to say, I had heard William Clark Green’s “She Likes The Beatles” before, but he really sold me on that song with his performance tonight. Reckless Kelly just took the stage to close out the night.
WINNER 10:21 - The Lone Star Music Award for Album of the Year goes to Jason Boland & The Stragglers for “Dark & Dirty Mile”.
WINNER 10:18 – The Lone Star Music Award for Song of the Year goes to William Clark Green for “She Likes The Beatles”.
10:17 Whoa! Joe Ely just killed it! That was Reckless Kelly backing him up by the way. Song of the Year award coming up!
10:13 - Joe Ely playing a super extended version of “Cool Rockin’ Loretta”. The original country rocker is killing it!
10:07 - Joe Ely & his band take the stage!
9:58 - Robert Earl Keen and Joe Ely accepting his Lone Star Music Hall of Fame induction.
9:56 - And Joe Ely takes the stage! Playing “Dallas”. “Have you ever seen Dallas from a DC9 at Night…” Love this.
9:52 - Joe Ely: “Nothing fills up those empty spaces like a song.”
INDUCTEE 9:49 - Robert Earl Keen surprises the crowd by coming out to induct Joe Ely into the Lone Star Music Hall of Fame.
INDUCTEE 9:47 - Kent Finay is inducted into the Lone Star Music Hall of Fame. Kent works with the Cheatham Street Warehouse in San Marcos, TX.
9:39 - Reckless Kelly or Joe Ely coming up next!
9:33 - So as I explained earlier, somehow this thing got way ahead of schedule (inexplicable for an awards show), and that has made from some awkward pauses in the presentation and some questionable filibustering from the podium. We are waiting right now for the next band to take the stage.
WINNER 9:29 - The Lone Star Music Award for Live Act of the Year goes to The Turnpike Troubadours.
9:25 - Jason Isbell is not on site, so a video plays of him accepting the award, thanking everyone for accepting him into the Texas scene (he’s from Alabama, but married to Texan Amanda Shires who was also up for a couple of awards). Then a Sturgill Simpson plays as they get ready for the next award.
WINNER 9:21 - The Lone Star Music Award for Songwriter of the Year goes to Jason Isbell!
9:18 - William Clark Green playing “She Likes The Beatles”. Really digging this song!
9:13 - William Clark Green singing about his hometown of Tyler, TX. He’s up for the award for Songwriter of the Year, which according to the screens, is coming up next.
9:09 - By the way, The Marc is the same venue you see if you’ve ever watched The Texas Music Scene with Ray Benson, or seen the videos on YouTube.
9:04 - After five incessant minutes of wiener dog jokes to stall, William Clark Green takes the Lone Star Music Awards stage.
WINNER 8:59 - The Lone Star Music Award for Americana / Roots-Rock Album of the Year goes to Reckless Kelly for “Long Night Moon”.
8:56 - So they’re literally filibustering now to kill time as the next band sets up.
WINNER 8:50 - The Lone Star Music Award for Singer-Songwriter / Folk Album of the Year goes to Guy Clark and My Favorite Picture of You .
8:48 - So apparently this thing is 20 minutes ahead of schedule. Very strange for an awards show.
8:46 - Bruce Robison & Kelly Willis!
8:36 - The cover that Dierks Canada did, if you haven’t seen it.
8:34 - Bruce Robison & Kelly Willis take the Lone Star Music Awards stage!
8:30 - One of the coolest moments of the night so far. Dierks Canada—Cody Canada’s son named after Dierks Bentley—accepting his award for Album Artwork of the Year. His acceptance speech is great. That’s the proud father hiding behind the monitor speaker, taking a picture with his phone.
WINNER 8:25 - The Lone Star Music Award for Producer of the Year goes to Lloyd Maines! Lloyd is not here, so a video of him accepting the award (and playing his famous steel guitar) plays on the screens.
WINNER 8:24 - The Lone Star Music Award for Album Artwork of the Year goes to Cody Canada â€“ Some Old, Some New, Maybe A Cover Or Two! It was done by Dierks Canada, Cody’s young son (named for Dierks Bentley), who comes out to accept. Very cool moment!
8:20 - The Thieving Birds left a path of destruction, and now to more awards!
8:14 - The Thieving Birds reminding us that what makes Texas music is a mix of country AND rock acts. And below that is a shot of The Marc now filled to the brim with fans.
8:08 - And The Thieving Birds take the stage. It’s about to get LOUD!
WINNER 8:06 - The Lone Star Music Awards winner for Festival of the Year goes to MusicFest in Steamboat Springs, CO!
WINNER 8:04 – The Lone Star Music winner for the Gruene Hall Venue of the Year goes to the Cheatham Street Warehouse! (where the after party will be).
8:01 - Slaid Cleaves appropriately ends his set with his “Texas Love Song”. He started with “Still Fighting The War”, and told a funny story about finding a piece of graffiti in a New York bathroom that said, “I hate this part of Texas.”
7:58 - Slaid Cleaves takes the Lone Star Music stage, and Cody Canada accepts his Male Vocalist award.
7:51 - The amazing Slaid Cleaves now takes the stage for an acoustic set, accompanied by mandolin.
WINNER 7:48 - The Lone Star Music Award for Musician of the Year goes to Cody BraunÂ of Reckless Kelly!
WINNER 7:46 - The Lone Star Music Award for Male Vocalist of the Year goes to Cody Canada!
WINNER 7:42 - The Lone Star Music Award for Female Vocalist of the Year goes to Kacey Musgraves!
7:35 - Chris King is kicking our asses!
7:30 - Sturgill Simpson probably had little chance of winning for Album of the Year because people are still learning the name, but it was really cool to hear his name called for an award here deep in the heart of Texas, right beside people like Bruce, Kelly, and Kacey Musgraves.
7:28 - Texas songwriter Chris King takes the stage!
WINNER 7:24 - The Lone Star Music Award for Country Album of the Year goes to Bruce Robison & Kelly WillisÂ for “Cheaterâ€™s Game”!
WINNER 7:20 - The Lone Star Music Award for Emerging Artist of the Year goes to The Thieving Birds!
7:18 - Wow. Zane and Kylie positively stunned. Shivers moment here at the Lone Star Music Awards.
7:14 - Zane Williams & Kylie Rae Harris play “Pablo & Maria”. Breathtaking.
7:11 - Zane Williams & Kylie Rae Harris. Zane introducing the third song says that Kylie wasÂ “The most serendipitous thing that has happened in my career.” He tells the story of how she walked out of the crowd at a show in McKinney, TX and asked if she could sing with him. The rest is history.
7:04 - The presentation stars off with Zane Williams & Kylie Rae Harris playing an acoustic set. The sound in this place is great.
7:00 - The screen has been raised. Here we go! This will be a fun night!
6:56 - The Marc is a beautiful music venue, with excellent sound and great sight lines. THere is a bottom concert area, and then huge balconies flanking the sides and along the back of the venue. The ruffles you see on the ceiling is for acoustics. There are two big screens flanking the stage, and between acts, a large white screen descends to hide the band changes, while awards are presented on stage right. If it is like last year, each performer will perform around three songs: a breath of fresh air compared to most award shows. It has really filled in since I took these pics. As you can see, the panty line formed early ;).
6:50 - So to help set the setting, here are some pictures of where we are. San Marcos is just south of Austin, and has a beautiful downtown square where The Marc is situated. Like many county seats (San Marcos is the seat of Hays County), there’s a big court house in the center, with a square of old brick buildings around it. I want to say the marquee was a lot more impressive before it because The Marc, but I may be wrong.
As if the Austin, TX guitar slinger-songwriter, and Chili Cold-Blood and Moongangers-fronting Doug Strahan didn’t have enough pots boiling on the stove, here he is throwing together a new project called Doug Strahan and the Good/Bad Neighbors, and releasing a new album Coal Black Dreams, Late Night Schemes that etches yet another notch on his barrel of badass releases. Straight out of a 1970′s time machine, this roots-fusing, country funky, genuine Austin freak of the old-school variety sounds like the smell of your chain-smoking crazy uncle’s old coat, and looks just as cool.
Many try to resurrect that heroine sweat sound of the 70′s. They throw reel to reel seances. They blow all manner of money on vintage gear. But I’ve never heard someone get so close to the true heart of that sound as Doug Strahan does on this album. He doesn’t strike the mood of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors or Eric Clapton’s Slowhand, he hits on the vibe of the albums that inspired those—that deep, gritty shit from JJ Cale, The James Gang, and Faces before Rod Stewart started screwed everything up. This is the real deal folks. The textures on this album are sublime, delivered with this incredible depth perception that few have the patience or expertise to pull off, making this album a vintage Audiophile’s paradise even if Strahan was reading from a phone book or covering Bobby McFerrin.
Maybe a little more classic rock than country for the most part, but still with some excellent country songs, Cold Black Dreams, Late Night Schemes has a little something for everyone … well except for those glow stick-twirling EDM freaks and Florida Georgia Line losers, but they can go suck black lemons; we like it loose and a little off-time, and that’s what Doug Strahan delivers with blurry-eyed beatnik coolness.
If you want to talk about real deal country, feast your ears on the steel-guitar-laden and twangy “Third Get Go”. With lines like “…sometimes love just falls out of you,” Strahan proves that he isn’t all tone and presence; he can write one hell of a song too. I’ll be damned if the ultra-sad and personal “Sunny Day” that closes out the album couldn’t have been written by Hank Williams himself.
From there the album evokes a bit more of a rock aura, though always with that country/blusey/rootsy underbelly, dirtied just right by running everything through a 40-year-old throwback filter. “I’ll Make It Rain” ropes you in with a nasty Waylon phase guitar, with the faraway Charlie Watts-style drums making for a catchy rhythm as Strahan moans in the background sounding like he’s a room away. Another of the good songwriting performances is the opening track co-written with Marissa Cox and Skye Cooley called “Good Cross Winds” which shows off Doug’s soulful side, while the harmonies in the chorus of “Down Time Abilene” inspire shivers.
Something else I like about this album is that it’s only eight songs. Maybe this is the talk of a jaded reviewer, but there’s something to be said about packing a punch and leaving the audience wanting more. This philosophy is something else Strahan imports from the early 70′s that other musicians could learn from.
For us lost souls that woke up in 2014 and wondered what the hell happened, Coal Black Dreams, Late Night Schemes sounds like home.
1 3/4 of 2 guns up.
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The Good Bad Neighbors are Matt Puryear – drums & percussion. Ethan Shaw – upright bass, pedal steel, banjo, vocals. Sweney Tidball – dirty keys and organ.
Nickel Creek: Better together than apart. That’s for sure. They certainly can’t be blamed for wanting to take some time for themselves when they announced back in 2006 that they’d be going on an indefinite hiatus. What a wild ride they’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 2000′s on the heels of O’ 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.
From a very young age, the trio found themselves in a scenario indicative of many bluegrass prodigies: home schooling, music camps, grueling practice routines, out-of-town performance trips in the parents’ conversion vans, and a perspective on the outside looking in to what normal life entailed. Then they rose to the very top of their craft as one of the most critically-acclaimed progressive bluegrass outfits of our time. After their Farewell (For Now) Tour in 2007, Chris Thile, Sara Watkins, and Sean Watkins no longer need the Nickel Creek name to make it through life—their names now carried enough weight on their own. But what made Nickel Creek so successful in a discipline so crowded with world-class talent is how well the individual parts of Nickel Creek compliment each other.
Chris Thile’s post Nickel Creek project called The Punch Brothers was the perfect forum for this mandolin genius to let his creativity flow unfettered, and it did so in a project that tested the very boundaries of what bluegrass could be. But Thile isn’t for everyone. At the helm of such brilliance, he can get wrapped up in the pursuit of challenging and impressing himself to the point where his music can come across as too heady and esoteric for the common, or even the advanced ear.
Sara Watkins on the other hand is the one who possesses the sensibility that helps balance Thile’s brilliance into music that can win wide appeal. Her ability to craft melodies that are both deft and catchy, and bringing the softness of a female voice to a composition is what made her self-titled solo album, and the followup Sun Midnight Sun so appealing to people beyond the bluegrass realm.
Sean Watkins is the rock; the solution that can resolve Thile and Sara’s natural musical conflict into something where the sum equals something greater than the parts. Sean also possesses one of the best ears in music—one that can hear the magnetism behind an indie rock song and how to translate it into the string band concept. His work with the supergroup Works Progress Administration showed his talents can be fluid and find a home in virtually any vessel.
But maybe it took Nickel Creek’s separation to truly realize the virtues each player possessed, both as a listener, and for the player’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.
A Dotted Line very much starts where Nickel Creek left off—bravely challenging the conventions and boundaries of bluegrass with not just a progressive approach, but an aggressive approach that delivers thought-provoking composition and instrumentation, dazzling just as much from its acrobatic adeptness as it does from its infectiousness. The first single from the album called “Destination” is Nickel Creek doing what they do best: starting off with a sumptuous melody from Sara Watkins, with harmonies blended effortlessly by the boys to draw you in, to then deliver the substance of a well-crafted song. It’s this combination of sugar and medicine that makes a Nickel Creek song not only enjoyable, but sustainable and uplifting.
The Sean Watkins’ led “21st of May” is another of A Dotted Line‘s featured tracks, and his superb flatpicking draws you in to get lost in the end-of-days story inspired by a preacher named Harold Camping who foretold that date in 2011 to be the end of the world. The album’s opening track “Rest Of My Life” and a later one” Love Of Mine” is where the awe-striking brilliance of Chris Thile is on display, punctuated by gripping dynamics, and his ability to rise into the falsetto register with such ease and presence.
The trio really shakes things up when they whip out the song “Hayloft”; a cover from a Canadian indie-rock band called Mother Mother that is just weird and cool enough to work—though it will no doubt inspire many traditionalists to reach for the volume knob and give it a forceful turn to the left.
Nickel Creek has always been mostly catnip for the higher brow, upper crust roots aficionado, and A Dotted Line is not going to be suited for just anyone. This is not an album to be heard, but listened to, and appreciated for its gilded, artistic merit more than it’s gritty authenticity. However by challenging the ear, Nickel Creek can also open the heart to new appreciations for music and composition in an era when commercial concerns often begrudge the brightest musicians of our time.
1 3/4 of 2 guns up.
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Produced by T Bone Burnett, the new Secret Sisters album called Put Your Needle Down—the sister duo’s first record in nearly four years—was produced by T Bone Burnett. T Bone Burnett produced this sophomore effort, and lending his efforts in a production role was T Bone Burnett. T Bone Burnett, T Bone Burnett, T Bone Burnett.
Did I mention that T Bone Burnett produced this album? Okay good. Because apparently that’s a more important point than who this album is by and what it’s titled, and T Bone’s name must precede this information in any copy or conversation.
It’s not that T Bone Burnett isn’t an accomplished and successful producer. I mean hell, you can’t stick your nose anywhere in the Americana realm without finding apostles of T Bone telling you how brilliant he is. The problem though is the hype around his work has become so pervasive, I’m afraid he’s begun to believe it himself, and uses it as justification to employ an extremely heavy hand in his producer capacity, relegating the artists he works with as secondary, if not arbitrary to furthering the weight behind his own name. Or at least, that’s the way it sounds.
No doubt T Bone Burnett is a towering man of music. There’s no denying his record. But that doesn’t give him the right, or make it right to overhaul, supplant, or bury the God-given sound, style, and talent the artists he works for are born with. People can come to T-Bone’s defense and say that this is the fate these artists chose when they signed up to work with him, but it still doesn’t erase the fact that the role of a producer is supposed to be one of a subordinate. Yes, the producer should guide and mentor, but the best producers in the business do not reshape artists into their own appointed image, they coax the best attributes already alive in artists out into the open to be captured in the recorded context. Inexplicably, with The Secret Sisters and Put Your Needle Down, T Bone Burnett does both.
This album shouldn’t be characterized as The Secret Sisters with T Bone Burnett. It should be couched as The Secret Sisters versus T Bone Burnett. Such an over-produced wall of serrated sounds punishes the ear throughout this album, it’s like trying to view the Eiffel Tower through a plague of locusts: You know there’s something very pretty and breathtaking there, but you have to fight with flailing arms to see, and you’re rarely allowed to relax and bask in its beauty.
T Bone Burnett’s production doesn’t seem to have any sense or respect for the time and place The Secret Sisters’ music naturally evokes; their music seems only the canvas for T Bone to do his worst. After the very first song, I was already tired of the ever-present tambourine on this album, which permeates this record deeper than a sheepdog’s flea dip. The tambourine rattles inside your skull like a ricocheting bullet; steadfast and unrelenting. I couldn’t get the iconic image of Will Ferrell banging on a cowbell from that famous Saturday Night Live skit out of my head, but replaced by a round, jingle-filled adult-sized death rattle. Mucky, incongruent moans of excessively chorus-inflected guitar tones burden this work like the apparitions that keep you in slow motion as you’re being pursued in a nightmare by an apex predator.
Am I being a teeny bit harsh here maybe? Is some deep-seated, unnecessary hatred for all things T Bone shining through and compromising my integrity? Perhaps, but I’ll tell you, despite the monstrosity T Bone constructed though his work on this album, I love Put Your Needle Down. I think this album is great—one captivating song after another. Why? Because no different than how the primitive artists of country had to fight through poor production situations when they were making the very first country albums, or in the 60′s when Music Row producers couldn’t resist adding strings and choruses to every damn song, or in the 80′s when everyone decided the best thing to do was get into the keyboard business and over-modulate the hell out of the drum signals, good songs, and good artists will always shine through. And that’s what The Secret Sisters are, and that’s what The Secret Sisters did on Put Your Needle Down.
And if we’re going to smear T Bone with such colorful language, we also have to give him credit. Whether it was by accident, on purpose, or despite his best efforts, on Put Your Needle Down, the sheer, untouched genius of The Secret Sisters was unearthed in all of its dazzling beauty, and captured so splendidly despite the production woes, that you could fall under it’s spell even if you had to listen through an A-bomb blast.
Sisters Laura and Lydia Rogers were born and raised in one of the holy lands of American music: Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Fertilized with music from George Jones, Merle Haggard, and Doc Watson, and singing in a church that had no instruments, their Southern harmonies were born with such a purity that can only be found in sister siblings. When The Secret Sisters harmonize, it is the sound a pining heart makes, or the sound emitted when a crack cleaves the soul. Or it’s the salve that mends the heart and soul, depending on the theme of the story their soaring voices carry.
Their first, self-titled album from 2010 was a selection of classic country-style songs and was produced by Dave Cobb–famous for working recently with both Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson on their critically-acclaimed albums—with T Bone Burnett breathing down Cobb’s neck as an “executive producer.” The Secret Sisters debut captured them in their most native environment, and in a sincere, country offering. No, my defacing of T Bone’s effort has nothing to do with him taking this album in a non-country direction; it’s that he didn’t respect the natural sound of The Secret Sisters. He could have added some rock or progressive sounds here and there, but the production effort of Put Your Needle Down was a complete whitewashing. And get this: I’m so dug in on this stance, I don’t even care if The Secret Sisters disagree.
But damn if I don’t love virtually everything The Secret Sisters themselves do on this album. Put Your Needle Down differs, and his enhanced from their first album by featuring mostly original songs. The pain and desperation captured in their performances on tracks like “Iuka” and “The Pocket Knife” evoke the plight inherent in the female condition when it’s torn and tested by the villainous priorities of men. The heights reached in the chorus of the 50′s-ish do woppy “Black And Blue” with the sisters harmonies dancing and twirling in such synchronicity, like smoke-trailed acrobats rising eloquently and unresponsive to gravity until it is impossible to discern them apart in formation, is nothing short of awe-inspiring.
One respite from T Bone the Terrible’s reign is on the subdued and simple “Lonely Island”, which if recorded 50 years ago, would be a standard of the country music song book today. It is simply a masterpiece.
And as jarring and inappropriate as the production of this album is, you even get to a point where you’re okay with it, if for no other reasons than refusing to let it ruin what was going on here beneath the layers and layers of over-production, and the fogginess that besets this album—sometimes a symptom of when a project’s mixes have been reworked too many times, especially when they are recorded on 2-inch tape to capture the “warmth” that Audiophiles love to preach about. And yes, I understand what T Bone was trying to do here: he was trying to take something classic and pure, and make it hip and progressive to appeal to a wider audience. On paper, there’s nothing wrong with that. But from a production standpoint, it didn’t work. T Bone was not the right one to try this feat with this particular project.
And why did it take nearly 1 1/2 years for this album to get to our ears? It was recorded in December of 2012, and January of 2013. I think there’s a story there in itself, if only to answer why two young women with the wind behind their backs from their first album had to wait so long for a second release.
But I’ll be damned, I really, really enjoy this album overall. Simply put, The Secret Sisters are the best female duo out there right now, and Put Your Needle Down comes highly recommended….with the obvious production caveat.
1 3/4 of 2 guns up.
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With Martina McBride at the crossroads that every big country music superstar knows they must ultimately face at some point in their career, where their radio relevancy is slipping through their fingers and the industry is slowly relegating them to the ranks of legacy acts, Martina does something very, very curious: she releases an album solely consisting of soul and R&B standards.
It was only a few years ago when Martina McBride was one the names on the list of nominees for the ACM and CMA Female Vocalist of the Year on a perennial basis. When her name slipped from those lists, that is when we entered this almost comical round-robin era we’re currently in, exemplified by shoehorning names into that fifth spot like Kelly Clarkson who isn’t country, Sheryl Crow who just recently turned country, and Kacey Musgraves before she even had released her first major album. After winning the CMA Female Vocalist three consecutive years between 2002 and 2004, if they could in any way justify McBride’s name being on a nominations list, it would be. Hell, it seems like just yesterday she was performing her big sentimental Cancer hit “I’m Gonna Love You Through It” on the CMA Awards. Now she seems like refugee of the country music industry.
This isn’t the first time Martina has done an album of standards. 2005′s Timeless featured McBride performing 18 classic country songs. Martina’s last album, 2011′s Eleven was championed by the Scott Borchetta imprint Republic Nashville. Borchetta has made a mint picking off aging talent from other labels, including Tim McGraw and Reba McEntire, Trisha Yearwood, and Rascal Flatts. However Everlasting was released through Kobalt Music Services, which by looking at their roster, specializes in being a safety net for aging talent and boasts about allowing artists to retain their rights. That’s all well and good, but it leaves Martina without the mainstream industry she’s enjoyed for nearly 20 years. Martina’s name still held enough strength to see Everlasting debut at #1 on the country charts, but with only an anemic 21,000 albums sold. I remember when Toby Keith once won the dubious distinction of having the lowest-selling #1 ever when his 2010 offering Bullets In The Gun sold 71,000 copies. My, how the times have changed.
Country music needs Martina McBride—or at least it did need her. With the showing of women in country in nothing short of a crisis, and Martina still possessing one of the most powerful female voices the genre has ever witnessed, it would have been nice for her first album in three years to be a retrenching; to bring some worthy singles to the table to at least challenge country radio’s male-dominated oligarchy to consider them. You can’t fault Martina for doing what she wants to do, though. Pardon me for mentioning a lady’s age, but she’s 47-years-old now and has been playing the game for many years. If Everlasting is the album she wanted to make, then that’s all the justification anyone should need. “You have to follow your instinct and your creative voice, and my creative voice was saying, ‘This is what you need to do at this time,’” Martina says. Though it may have been nice to see Martina challenge country’s ageism and sexism with a serious country offering, it just wasn’t in the cards.
What was in the cards was recruiting noteworthy producer Don Was, and working through a fairly recognizable list of Motown-style hits, including “If You Don’t Know Me By Now”, “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted”, and Van Morrison’s much-covered “Wild Night”. What’s there to hate about these songs? Not much. Don Was brings in horn sections to bolster the recordings, and Martina of course nails every damn performance. The record is very cohesive, made to listen to from cover to cover. But they played it very safe here with these songs; very down-the-middle. No risks were taken, no “interpretations” or true liberties were made with the songs. They’re simply Martina’s versions.
There’s a lot of reasons one could find to hate on this album. Why did Martina abandon country? I’m not sure she has for more than just this album, so this may not be a fair accusation to make. Why did Martina not put out an album of original music? Maybe because she’s finally free to do what she wants, and she didn’t want to. Why couldn’t she at least given these songs some sort of a country twist? That’s a good question, but she may have wanted to stay within the original spirit of the compositions.
On paper, I wanted to take this album and Frisbee it across the room. No offense to Martina, but there’s just very little useful purpose for an album like this in regards to championing the cause of music. But listening to it, I surprisingly didn’t want to immediately turn it off. It was well done, for what it is, and Martina McBride can still sing.
Martina McBride made something very clear here: If she was going to be put out to pasture, she was going to do it her way. And it’s very hard to fault her for that.
1 1/4 of 2 guns up.
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On Monday (4-21), The Outlaw Carnie Bob Wayne will be releasing his latest album called Back To The Camper. It will be his first independent release in the United States after releasing two album with the heavy metal label Century Media, though Bob is still signed with the label’s European counterpart, People Like You. Back to the Camper symbolizes that Bob’s back to the DIY style of music, and the album marks a renewed attention to the story side of his songwriting style. Before a show at Austin, TX’s White Horse honky tonk, I sat down with Bob to talk Back To The Camper and catch up with his other doings.
Tell us about the album. Give us the scoop. What can people expect?
Every record I’ve done so far I’ve been pretty happy with. This one has got a lot more story songs. It’s got a couple of hellraiser-type “yee-haw!” songs. But I get a little bit more into my storytelling side. I spent a couple months at my property in Alabama, and I just sat by the fire with my banjo and guitar. I don’t know, the story songs were just really hitting me.
I got a duet on there with Elizabeth Cook. I actually wrote that song a couple years ago and I’ve been looking for the right girl to sing it, and the voices just haven’t quite been what exactly what I’ve wanted. I’m pretty picky, especially with that song because I really liked it. So one night I was watching Squidbillies, and I heard her singing, and I dropped everything and said, “Who is that?” My buddy was like, “Thatâ€™s Elizabeth Cook.” I found her on Facebook, I sent her a shitty iPhone recording of the song and was like, “Hey, I heard your voice, Iâ€™ve been holding onto this song forever.” She wrote me back, “Hell yeah!” Turns out she just lives down the street from Andy Gibson [the engineer & Hank3 steel player] and sheâ€™s really busy. She ended up coming over and nailed it.
Red Simpson. Me a Red put this song together. Recording it with Andy Gibson—Andy knows his country music. Andy knows all things country. Andy was the one who showed me Red Simpson ten years ago. We’ve done a lot of miles listening to him. Now me and Red are really good friends. We talk on the phone all the time. It sounds like classic Red Simpson with a little bit of a darker tone to it that Andy kind of brings with his steel. But the song is positive. It’s called “Dope Train” and it says, “Don’t get on the dope train, don’t get on the devil’s dope train.” It’s all anti-drugs and taking about “trust in the Lord” and all this stuff.
There’s this ballad I wrote about my Great Great Great Aunt. My Great Aunt from Ireland was a famous pirate queen, and I was actually on tour in Ireland and I felt close to her, and I was driving by her castle, and I ended up writing this song for her. I always write about the female element. There’s always a kind of strong, female element: Liza, La Diabla.
Overall I’m super, super happy with how that all turned out. It has a different feel. I’ve had some people bitch about the cursing and whatnot. There is a couple cuss words on here, like on one song “Sam Tucker”. But that’s just because what else rhymes with “Tucker”? You know what I mean (laughing)? It’s a rhyming game. But overall it’s a pretty family friendly record besides those couple words.
So you’re still with People Like You which is over in Europe, but the album is Back To The Camper which is hyperbole because you’re self-releasing it in the States, right?
Yes. Century Media owns People Like You. In Europe, they’ve fucking killed it. They’ve done a really good job. When you join with someone like a record label, it should be a team thing where both sides are helping each other out. I brought the music, and their job was to help me get it out there. And in Europe, they were making phone calls, getting us on big festivals, putting their neck out to push us, and now we’ve got a bunch of big festivals. They really helped us, so I’m really happy with that partnership.
With the USA, it wasn’t that they didn’t try or anything, I just don’t think it was that great of a fit being that they were more metal where the Century Media in Europe had a more punk label. So we’re more punk; we kind of fit into that a little bit. We’re not punk, but we’re a punk country kind of hillbilly, you know. We have that edge, so they got it. Whereas Century Media America with the newer metal type stuff wasn’t anything like what we’re doing. So I gave them one more record in Europe, and I took my rights back to the rest of the world, which I’m happy with because I don’t mind burning CD’s. People don’t go to Wal-Mart to buy our CD’s anyway. We sell our CD’s at shows. For me, it’s better financially. No middle man, just straight from me to you. And Back To The Camper kind of symbolizes that I’m burning now again in the States.
Now you’ve got a place in Alabama. You’re originally from the Pacific Northwest, your recording apparatus is in Nashville, and you decide to hoof it down to Alabama and put your stake there. Why Alabama?
Well you know it’s funny because I have that song “Everything’s Legal In Alabama”, but it has nothing to do with it. Yeah, I ended up in Nashville, and the thing is I’ve been touring, like I had a camper parked out at Shelton’s (Hank3) house for years when I was working for him, and then I had my van out there, kind of living out of my van and campers for years, and then I bought a John Deere motorhome and was rolling around in that. All the while I haven’t paid rent since 2004. Any bit of money I made I was saving up. I always had a vision of a place out in the woods somewhere where I could put all my campers, have my band park their campers where we wouldn’t have to pay rent, we could just live for free out on the land, and tour. Basically I have this vision for Carnie town. My band members and family and friends who want to come out there.
Well I just happened to be on tour and I met this guy in Alabama, we were playing, and him and his wife were talking about this property that they weren’t gonna get that was like marked down from $40,000 to $15,000. We I went out there and looked at it. It was five acres of woods out in the middle of nowhere next to a lake with a house on it. A condemned house, but the power worked. I offered $12,000, they said “yes”. So for $12,000 I bought Carnie Town. And I’ve already started dragging all my cars out there. Right now the John Deere’s out there, my limo, the van, I’ve got campers. So yeah, Carnie Town is born now. It was mainly a price thing. It was just the fact that it was $12,000. My John Deere motorhome was $18,000, so my house and five acres was cheaper.
It’s actually cool, it’s right by Kawliga. Hank Sr. actually had a cabin five minutes from my house in Kawliga, Alabama. You know the famous picture of Hank Sr. in jail, where he’s all skinny and in jail? That jail is five minutes from my house. I actually went to the jail to see it. The town is where Hank Sr. used to hang out and party. It was kind of a good omen for me when I found out.
So you’ve got this new album coming out, and you’ve still got your deal in Europe. Do you feel like it’s all moving in the right direction? Do you feel like you’re growing as an artist?
Yes, definitely. Tonight we had three people that drove here from Mexico City with their 8-year-old son. I said, “So you came here for something else?” and they were like, “No, we came here to see you.” They drove from Mexico City to Austin to see us. So the growth thing, yes, it’s cool that more people show up to shows. But I’m a lifer. I was doing this for years when ten people were showing up every night, and that didn’t stop me. I didn’t care that ten people were at our shows, because ten people got up off their asses. I know what it means to get up and go to a show. People are excited and they like the music. I can’t wait for this new CD to hit because I’m excited to share it with everybody. I’m all about the songs and the stories. I can’t not write songs and play music.
Now this is what I’m talking about.
I’ve been wanting to tug on the sainted Saving Country Music reader’s ear about Moot Davis for years, and who knows what all kinds of dumb excuses have conspired up to this point to not allow that to happen. But the release of his latest Goin’ In Hot is just about the perfect damn opportunity if there ever was one to stop everything else down and sing the praises of this man’s superlative country music contributions.
Despite his name lending naturally to that “I’ve heard that name before” clichÃ©, it’s confounding why Moot isn’t much better known within the ranks of classic country and neotraditional fans. Maybe it’s because he’s terrible at promoting himself or playing that whole social network game, or because he’s nestled way up there in New Jersey these days, out of the earshot of country music’s well-established shipping channels. But I’ll be damned if this guy can’t go hard on the twang as much as anyone, and gets the true spirit behind country songwriting better than most.
Moot has put out one good country music project after another, but we better count ourselves lucky as hell we even get to listen to Goin’ In Hot. In June of 2013 the studio in Nashville where the album was recorded went up in flames, and the fear was everything was lost. The whole thing was already in the can, mixed, and ready to go when a blaze gutted the control room of guitarist Joe McMahan’s home studio. Miraculously, the hard drive from McMahan’s scoarched and water-soaked computer was salvaged and somehow the master files for Goin’ In Hot survived. Now if that isn’t one hell of a baptismal for your record, I don’t know what is.
What got me especially worked up about this release was the Gram Parsons-esque cover and the communication ahead of the album that it had some inspiration from the Stones’ Keith Richards. That whole needle & spoon era and the sweat captured on those recordings is something many bands strive for and very few perfect, and that dirty, loose sound is something missing in country today. With songs like “Just Left Home” and “Made For Blood”, Moot does his best to recapture that magic while not just trying to be interpretive, but let the inspirations flow through his own music and style.
Still at its heart Goin’ In Hot is a country music record and covers tremendous ground in both style and influence. From shit kickers like the rousing “Midnight Train” or the Yoakam-like “Love Hangover”, to more somber, singer-songwriter tracks like “The Reason” that very easily could have been written by Merle Haggard, Moot grabs the country-leaning listener by the scruff right off the bat and pulls you into this album; steel guitar moaning and squalling high in the mix like Ralph Mooney, “Cousin” Kenny Vaughan (Marty Stuart’s guitar player) playing producer and putting his proven country music touch all over this record, and the sweet and talented Nikki Lane lending her voice to the effort in spots. Along with Moot’s backing band, “The Good Americans” that includes Michael Massimino, drummer Joe Mekler and guitarist Bill Corvino, they make a record that is both timeless and relevant, and satiates all sectors of your salivating country music palette.
The way the tracks are ordered on Goin’ In Hot could have been handled a little better. After the first couple of songs, the whole Gram/Richards-inspired tracks are a little too front loaded, and if they’re not your speed, may act as a wormhole for your attention span. But the country tracks come hard and heavy later in the album, and the country/drug rock influences blend quite well in the album’s final offering, the fun and freaky “25 Lights”.
Moot Davis was once called “thinking man’s country” by NPR, and maybe because he’s known as a world traveler and runs in different circles than most independent country artists, he’s seen as some sort of upper crust crooner as opposed to an authentic country soul. But what Moot gets more than most is the simplicity of perspective inherent in good country music. Maybe that perspective is bred more from an intelligent ear than authentic personal experiences, or maybe it comes from both. Either way, Moot is able to communicate those depths of human emotion in a way that doesn’t usurp the joy from the music, making for an approach that feels fresh, yet familiar, and making it worthy of a wide audience.
Two guns up.
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In a world of plastic banana music monkeys, Bradford Lee Folk is the real deal. Spending his days on a tractor or in a field as a farmer and rancher, and his nights picking out tunes in one of Nashville’s few remaining venues that still accommodate authentic bluegrass music, Bradford Lee Folk is a lifer when it comes to scratching out an honest living in the traditional agrarian style that puts character in your blood and authenticity behind your music.
On April 15th, the former frontman for the Rounder Record’s signed bluegrass band Open Road will be releasing his latest title called Somewhere Far Away through Hearth Music. Though mostly a bluegrass affair, you can also hear the chutes of country roots and Americana poke through his energetic approach. Once a mainstay of Colorado’s independent bluegrass scene, Bradford moved to back east to cause a rumble right in the belly of the beast in Nashville, TN, supported by his skilled and hungry Bluegrass Playboys.
The lineage of bluegrass from legendary bands like Flatt & Scruggs is in good hands with Bradford Lee Folk and the Bluegrass Playboys, and nowhere is that truth more evident than when listening to their song “Foolish Game of Love” off Somewhere Far Away. And you can hear it here first before the rest of the world.
When it comes to primitive American recordings of country music, it is Ralph Peer and his Bristol Sessions from 1927 capturing Jimmie Rodgers, The Carter Family, and others in their most primitive state that defines the sound of what country music was before commercial concerns corrupted the purity of the expressions of America’s rural people. Even today, the simplicity and innocence embodied on those recordings sets the standard for neo-traditional country, bluegrass, old time, Americana, and folks artists looking to recapture the raw emotion and untouched virtue inherent in early 20th Century rural America.
Though they may try, modern artists will always fail to some degree to rekindle that primitive magic. Even if they get close to the sound and the sentiment, it’s only from interpretation, not from authenticity. Modern society has long since laid its indelible, spoiling touch on all of us, and that is what makes the appeal for early recordings so priceless and incomparable.
However there’s one record, newer than the Bristol Sessions, but still a vintage recording, that captures the pureness of American country music in its primitive state that has never properly received its due as a heavy influence on the modern ear and country modes.
Unlike Jimmie Rodgers and The Carter Family who were plucked right out of the American countryside and plopped in front of a field recorder, The Kossoy Sisters come from New York City; born some 11 years after the Bristol Sessions. The identical twins started singing together at the age of six, taking their cues from their mother and aunt who sung in close harmonies to old-time and Appalachian tunes around the house. The sisters attended a summer camp at the age of fifteen where folk legend Pete Seeger performed, and suddenly found themselves engrossed in the burgeoning folk scene in New York’s Greenwich Village in the 1950′s.
By the time they were seventeen, it was 1956 and sisters Irene and Ellen were recording their first, and only album from the period called Bowling Green. Helping them along was songwriter and musician Erik Darling, best known for replacing Pete Seeger in The Weavers in 1958. Irene sang lead mezzo soprano and played guitar, while Ellen supplied soprano harmony parts and played banjo.
Though The Kossoy Sisters were surrounded by the folk revival, much of the inspiration and compositions for their music originated farther south in the Southern Appalachians. Their focus was gospel and primitive country murder ballads. Most importantly, that innocence and purity that the world had scarcely heard since those original Ralph Peer Bristol Sessions was present in their music. The close harmonies the sisters employed also set a more Southern tone, indicative more of The Louvin Brothers than other folk performers of the time.
The Kossoy Sisters as identical twins were unmatched in how effortlessly they could sync pitch, anticipate changes, and craft harmony lines with each other. But this isn’t the only thing that makes Bowling Green a treasure of the American musical lexicon. The dark pall that lingers over their music from the Gothic, sometimes disturbing themes—many that refer to death and murder with striking honesty and vibrant recollection—matched with The Kossoy Sister’s dry, innocent, 17-year-old voices, make such a contrast that even when they sing an uplifting spiritual like “I’ll Fly Away” it seems to refer more to poor desperation, hunger, and the chronic fear and wonder that pervaded the early American experience. The paired voices of The Kossoy Sisters don’t sound like they originate from the material world, but from a memory captured in a faded, black-and-white photo enclosed in a tarnished locket clasped tightly in the hand of a dying 1800′s Appalachian settler.
After Bowling Green, The Kossoy Sisters never made another record until 2002, and why would they? They had struck perfection with their first one, and as they grew older and got swept up in the 50′s folk revival—playing at the prestigious Newport Folk Festival in 1959 along with other noteworthy festivals and venues—it could be argued they would never be able to capture that raw, untouched, and innocent sound again. And similar to many of their Ralph Peer-discovered predecessors, The Kossoy Sisters really weren’t interested in fame. They were two young women that sang for love and life, and nothing more.
The Bowling Green album received some renewed attention when the Kassoy Sisters’ version of “I’ll Fly Away” found its way onto the O Brother, Where Art Thou soundtrack in 2000, but that song just scratches the surface of what The Kassoy Sisters and Bowling Green have to offer. It was one of the very first American country records that set out to capture the magic of a by-gone era, and was one of the only ones to truly succeed.
Two guns up!
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Jackson Taylor & The Sinners are the best hard-driving country band you’ve never heard of. How do I know you’ve never heard of them? Because nobody has, except for the people that have, and as those people can attest, nobody has heard of them. Hell even when despite all their unknown-ness, they were somehow nominated for one of those Dale Watson Ameripolitan Awards a while back, at the awards banquet in February the presenter called them “JASON Taylor and the Sinners” when reading off the names of nominees. For the people in attendance who knew about the band, it seemed every bit appropriate. Why? Because nobody knows about them. Here they were amongst friends, and they were still unknown. “And the winner is…” the presenter then continued, and someone yelled out from the crowd, “Jason Taylor!” Unfortunately for them neither Jackson Taylor nor Jason Taylor won. But dammit, everyone in attendance that night will remember Jason Taylor from here on out, while Jackson Taylor remains sandwiched in some sort of weird no man’s land between Red Dirt,Â underground country, and Southern rock & roll.
It ain’t from a lack of sweat equity that Jackson Taylor & The Sinners aren’t any better known. They’ve paid their dues and then some. Maybe it’s because the uptight crowd that would usually get into their hard country sound don’t like the cussing, and the underground cusses don’t care to pay attention to anything outside of their Facebook feeds. But the jokes on them, because Jackson Taylor & The Sinners is one hell of a good time. Just ask the people who know about them.
Don’t take it that Jackson Taylor & The Sinners are like the sisters of the poor. They’ve had their days in the sun, and it certainly must be a proud achievement for them to be featured a part of the prestigious, critically-acclaimed, world-renown, and long-running album series called Live At Billy Bob’s Texas right beside names like Willie Nelson, David Allan Coe, Billy Joe Shaver, and on and on from there. Created by Rick Smith some years back and recorded at the “World’s Largest Honky Tonk” in Ft. Worth, it’s a high honor to be asked on the series even if you get up there on stage and lay an egg.
Luckily we don’t have to worry about that outcome with Jackson Taylor. They come out swinging like Joe Frasier with some of their most lethal haymakers right out of the gate like “Jack’s Drunk Again” and “Old Henry Rifle”. And when they’ve pinned you to the ropes only four songs in, they shift gears into some of their more subdued, songwriting material like “The Mirror” and “Sunset”.
Something cool to note about this set captured live in both excellent audio and full concert DVD is that it all transpired on July 27th, 2013, only a few months after the passing of the Ol’ Possum, Mr. George Jones. So despite this being very much a signature set of Sinner’s music, No Show is there in spirit and is given a healthy tip of the hat when they cover “He Stopped Loving Her Today” (capped off with some of Jackson’s alternative lyrics), as well as their song “No Show” early in the set.
Jackson Taylor is one of these guys you can’t take too seriously or you lose touch with the total enjoyment you can get from him, while at the same time he can be deceptively deep when you read between the lines, or when he performs a song like “Faulkner By Dashboard Lights”—a true and personal track from Jackson and one of the standouts from the set.
Can you really still be unknown and have your own Live At Billy Bob’s release? That wouldn’t seem right, and this 16-song disc/DVD combo that includes an interview with Jackson is probably the perfect introduction to a band for someone who isn’t scared off by the warning that Jackson isn’t shy about cussing a little and getting a little strange, or mixing some over-driven rock guitar into his country. But Jackson Taylor & The Sinners is still country no doubt with the Johnny Cash train beat behind most everything they do, and they do great justice to the weight behind the Live At Billy Bob’s stamp that marks this album’s cover.
1 3/4 of 2 guns up.
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To do Ronnie Dunn and his new album Peace, Love & Country Music justice, one doesn’t need to write an album review, one needs to do something in between an in-depth psychoanalysis and a diagramming treatise. There’s so much going on here, so many tentacles to the current Ronnie Dunn story, and ones that reach far beyond the music itself, that it’s hard to know where to even start, or to end for that matter.
I guess the first place to start is to try and set the context of just where Ronnie Dunn is in his career, and where he came from. Because Brooks & Dunn was so overshadowed in their day by Garth Brooks, George Strait, Alan Jackson, and the other solo artists of the 90′s, and because his name was only given half credit as a member of a duo, it may be difficult to appreciate just what a mark Ronnie has put on country music. But his impact has been nothing short of towering. Brooks & Dunn sold 30 million records. Their signature album Brand New Man sold over 6 million alone. They had 30 #1 singles. They won the CMA for Vocal Duo of the Year a remarkable 13 out of 14 years between 1992 and 2006, and won Entertainer of the Year in 1996. Their career and impact were historic, and Hall of Fame worthy.
And now, Ronnie Dunn is a defector. He is one of the leading voices of dissent against the institutions presiding over American country music. He has created a loyal and rabid following of tens of thousands of disenfranchised music fans. On a weekly, and sometimes daily basis, Ronnie Dunn is decrying Music Rows ways, specifically criticizing the exclusivity of radio, the stamping out of creativity by record labels, and the way the business treats its talent, young and old.
Think about it: This is one of Nashville’s biggest bread winners of the last 25 years, and he’s now a turncoat. The quotes from Dunn and the topics he’s broached about Music Row’s debauchery are so numerous, I couldn’t even start to delve into them and do it all justice. But long story short, this is a guy that fought Nashville’s wars for a nearly a quarter of a century, and now he’s fighting against them. “I did it for 20 years, and I learned all it was was the mainstream way of doing things was just where ideas go to die these days,” Dunn said in a recent interview. “Mainstream is the road to mediocrity. And it took me 20 years to realize that. But it got to the point to where everything we would come up with to do as maybe an idea or something we thought was fairly innovative, we would get cut off at the pass. So it’s time. It felt like time to start to try to do different things.”
And doing things different is what he’s done. Ronnie Dunn is a completely independent artist now who owns his own record label called Little Will-E Records. During the CMT Awards in Nashville last summer, Dunn set up an encampment on lower Broadway guerrilla style, and as the throngs of people poured out of the Bridgestone Arena, Ronnie played three of his new songs off the album on the roof of a nearby building as a promotional stunt. No permission, no permits. He even got in trouble with the Opry for shining a light banner on the roof of the Ryman asking “Who’s Ronnie Dunn?” Depending on your perspective, Dunn had either lost his mind, or finally found it and come to the side of believing in music over money.
All of this was great. Here was one of mainstream country’s biggest stars spouting the same type of rhetoric that one may find on Saving Country Music on a regular basis. Then there was news he was writing songs and recording with none other than Texas music guru Ray Wylie Hubbard. Everything was setting up quite nicely for the release of Ronnie Dunn’s first independent record to be a sort of musical insurrection perpetuated by one of Nashville’s own, with reverberations reaching who knows how far into the dug in foundations of Music Row.
But then one little pesky problem materialized just as it seemed like Ronnie Dunn might be the chosen one we’d all been waiting for to lead country music out of its current wasteland. Despite all of Ronnie’s talk about how unjust it was that classic country no longer had a place on country radio, and how aging talent was getting pushed aside for young pups with no respect for the genre and playing music that was more indicative of rock than country, here comes Ronnie releasing songs that sound exactly like the music he’s criticizing.
One of the first songs we heard from Peace, Love & Country Music was called “Country This”—a complete hard rock guitar-driven bro-country mega anthem with ultra-stereotypical laundry list lyrics and absolutely no story or soul. I mean this thing was terrible. And I wasn’t the only one all of a sudden taking a second look at what Ronnie Dunn was doing. “Kiss You There” was another one of Peace, Love & Country Music‘s first offerings, and despite affording a little more story, it almost seemed to be walking the edge of country rap, with little EDM moments peppered throughout the song.
However promising Ronnie’s off-the-stage rhetoric had been, to say his music wasn’t syncing up with his words is a gross understatement. Remember those songs he wrote with Ray Wylie Hubbard? Interestingly one of them showed up in the repertoire of Sammy Hagar, called “Bad On Fords and Chevrolets“. Some in Ronnie Dunn’s camp wanted to revolt, but Ronnie calmed nerves when he seemed to allude that he was using these first singles almost as Trojan horses. He told everyone he wasn’t wasn’t abandoning the revolution, but that he needed to give radio one last shot, maybe to prove that even when he put out songs that were ripe for country’s new format, they would still be ignored if you weren’t in the good graces of Music Row’s major labels. â€œMainstream radio does not dictate the full flavor of a multi-song CD,” Dunn assured.
So after many months of spirited discourse from Dunn through Facebook and interviews, the confounding first few tracks, we now finally get to hear the full breadth of Ronnie’s independently-released record. And what do we get? Pretty much what we got in the run up: crossed signals and conflicting messages, though a few good songs here and there.
It’s not that Ronnie Dunn is trying to take advantage of the growing anti-Nashville sentiment, similar to someone like Eric Church and other “new Outlaws” where the rhetoric seems to be nothing more than marketing and a distraction from the music. It seems much more innocent than that, like Ronnie has spent so much time residing within the system and was raised so deeply within its inner workings, that to Ronnie this record and many of its songs are groundbreaking. But when you bring a more global, a more informed ear to the project—one that has truly been versed in independent country and country protest music—it seems almost like parody.
Meanwhile the contradictions are nothing less than striking. Peace, Love & Country Music has a straight up protest song in it called, “They Still Play Country Music in Texas”.I turn on the radio theyâ€™re mixinâ€™ heavy metal with twang People on TV doinâ€™ anything for fame Iâ€™m not one to cling to the past But some of this new stuff burns my ass Thank God and Willie some things stay the same
Yes, awesome! Let’s all pump our fists and praise Ronnie Dunn for speaking up! … except that numerous songs on this album are “mixin’ heavy metal with twang,” exclusively. I mean, that’s the whole premise some of these songs are built around.
Ronnie Dunn has all the right sentiments, all the right ideas and philosophies. But when it comes to his actual sonic output, he needs guidance, and guidance in a big way if the message is going to match up with the music. He needs to spend a weekend with Marty Stuart or Vince Gill. He needs someone to walk him through their record collection, explaining to him how we got here. He needs to see Sturgill Simpson at the Station Inn. Though I understand many from the mainstream perspective will hear this album as rebellious, forward-thinking, or even groundbreaking, the simple fact is that it isn’t. It is still a very, very mainstream album. Maybe it’s a mainstream album with good moments, but it’s still one that is cast in predictable turns of phrases and phrasing, and well-worn tones and textures; one that panders for attention, relevancy, and radio play.
As cool as it is to get a protest song like “They Still Play Country Music in Texas” from him, I wish it wasn’t on the album because the hypocrisy inherent in it drags down the rest of the project. Songs like “Country This”, “Cowgirls Rock & Roll”, and “Thou Shalt Not” are every bit dependent on their rock guitar riffs. Hell, “Cowgirls Rock & Roll” is one of the worst “country” songs I may have ever heard, no different than a single you’d hear from Brantley Gilbert or Jason Aldean, with Auto-tuned inflections on the vocal track indicative of modern Jerrod Niemann or Tim McGraw.
And look at these lyrics:Que Paso Hey Pard Yo Yo Play Back In Black Set Em Up Joe… Goth Black Ponytail Ink On Her Arm Out Here In The Way Back Doinâ€™ Things She Shouldnâ€™t Be Doin Like That Ghost Of Hank Still Hangin On Snoop n Willie Keep Singin That Song Brown Jar Liquor Got A Shotgun Kick Got It Goin On Out Here In The Sticks
Then again, there’s some very worthy tracks on Peace, Love & Country Music. The first two songs “Grown Damn Man” and “Cadillac Bound” start off the record right. “You Should See You Now” and “Wish I Smoked Cigarettes” are excellently written, and no matter what Ronnie Dunn is singing, it’s hard to escape the fact that he still holds one of the best voices in the business, and came from a time when you couldn’t fake it, or let your fame ride off a pretty face.
Something else that seems to hinder this album is that it took so long to go to print. Ronnie Dunn seems to be in the precarious position of trying to maintain his mainstream relevancy, while at the same time come to grips with the new realities of his career. He wants to lead a revolution, but he wants to hold onto the last vestiges of the spotlight for one last moment. But you can’t have it both ways. There are songs on this album that could have been worthy of radio, whether it’s because they’re good enough and would elevate the format, or because they’re bad enough to be radio hits in country’s current climate. But neither will be given a chance because of all of Dunn’s sabre rattling off stage. Dunn’s plan came off as half baked, and in need of some guidance and perspective from people who really understand where the trends in music are headed.
I like Ronnie Dunn’s spirit, and I feel like there’s a kinship in his fight. And make no mistake, there are many, many country music fans who are listening to his every word about what is happening in country, because his words are rooted in truth. And because of this and a few pretty good songs, I can’t give it a negative review. But don’t get bogged down by the bravado surrounding this album. If you simply listen, you will find it is an album addled by stark contradictions.
One gun up for some good songs and an independent spirit.
One gun down for some very, very bad songs, and a conflicting message.
The pretty good:
The very, very bad:
It says a lot about the state of music today that the two biggest names in music in the last couple of months have been Kurt Cobain and Johnny Cash. Cash, who passed away in 2003, recently crowned the country music charts once again at #1 with his posthumous, lost album release Out Among The Stars, and came in at #3 in all of music.
Amidst the renewed attention for Johnny and his music, the PBS series Blank on Blank has brought the Man in Black back alive in an animated interview. The 6-minute conversation originally recorded in October of 1996 withÂ British journalist Barney Hoskyns is not just your average Q&A with Cash. Sensing the gravity and character that Johnny exudes in the segment inspired PBS to do something a little more special before releasing it to the public.
Cash is caught speaking so candidly about himself that it makes him feel alive again, and animator Patrick Smith does a tasteful, and accurate representation of the type of spirit Johnny Cash was that it gives you chills to listen, and watch. Cash delves into a litany of personal narratives in the interview, from his work on the Johnny Cash show with performers like The Who, to drugs and addiction, God and religion, to dressing in black and his Sun Studios buddy Elvis Presley.
These 6 minutes, and the revelation that there’s still much archived Johnny Cash audio still to be heard, spells out that even a decade after his passing, Johnny Cash’s legacy is still very much alive and well among us.
The Outlaw Carnie Bob Wayne is set to release his latest record Back To The Camper on April 21st, and in anticipation of the release, he’s unleashed the album’s first single, a duet with Outlaw girl and general badass Elizabeth Cook called “20 Miles to Juarez”, a excellent twin-fiddle storyteller country song.
“I actually wrote the song a couple of years ago and I’ve been looking for the right girl to sing it,” Bob tells Saving Country Music. “The voices haven’t been exactly what I wanted. I’m pretty picky, especially with this song because I really like it. So one night I was watching Squidbillies, and I heard her singing, and I dropped everything and said, ‘Who is that?’ My buddy was like, ‘That’s Elizabeth Cook.’
I found her on Facebook, I sent her a shitty iPhone recording of the song and was like, ‘Hey, I heard your voice, I’ve been holding onto this song forever.’ She wrote me back, ‘Hell yeah!’ Turns out she just lives down the street from Andy Gibson [the engineer & Hank3 steel player] and she’s really busy. She ended up coming over and nailed it.”
The aptly-titled Back to the Camper is Bob Wayne’s 5th Studio album and the first after becoming an independent artist again since working with metal label Century Media in the United States on his last two albums. He’s still signed to People Like You—Century’s European counterpart—in the European market.
The first 2,000 copies of Back to the Camper come signed and hand-numbered by Bob, burned in the back of his camper DIY style like his first three albums. Also if you pre-order the album, you immediately receive and email to download 3 tracks, including an exclusive track called “A.C.A.B.” that won’t appear on the album itself. Back to the Camper also includes a duet with legendary country trucker song overlord Red Simpson.
Our dreams can be the most uplifting, most fulfilling element inherent in the human design. And they can also be the most destructive. When realized, dreams can fill cavities in the human heart that we never even knew existed and that have no physiological parallels, making us feel whole for the first time in our lives. Or in the disillusion of our dreams, the cavities become like caverns, like sticks of dynamite were stuck in them, and the explosion of negative emotions inflicts permanent, collateral damage on our souls, leaving us with a lost connection to the very thing evolution has instilled in every one of us that pushes us forward in hopes that in the grace of history we can be measured as something more than the sum of our human parts—that our indelible mark will linger, and that somebody beyond our own time will remember that we were here, and that our mark will leave the world one measure better.
This drive is what sent our ancestors trekking out across barren middle America, and deposited settlers into the breadbasket to seek their fortunes in the tilled soil of the plains. Fredericksburg, Virginia songstress Karen Jonas sings about this in the title track of her new album, Oklahoma Lottery—how some came with heads full of dreams, and when they scratched the surface of their little appointed marks in the American dirt, they came up blank. No cherries aligned, no stars formed a diagonal pattern, no doubler hit, and no consolation prize was awarded. And so they moved on, their backs a little more bowed, their eyes a little more glazed.
Karen Jonas, whether she knew it or not, heeded the advice of the great Ray Wylie Hubbard to all songwriters: don’t just listen to The Ghost of Tom Joad, read The Grapes of Wrath. How do we know this? It’s not just from the wisdom interwoven in the lyrics, it’s from the amount of pain Ms. Jonas is able to capture in her performance. This isn’t just an inflected interpretation, but the very evocation through herself of the troubled ghosts of the story —not just wrapping herself in their clothes, but walking a mile in their shoes, and then conveying the pain she knows they felt from the aching of her own blisters.
Similar to how the settlers of Oklahoma toiled at the yoke without a thought of rest, Karen Jonas, after putting her pair of young children to bed every night, tip toes to the other side of the house, takes the guitar in hand, and digs, hoping to unearth the riches of song. And lucky for her and the rest of us, the ground that she tilled ended up to be quite fertile, and the result a verdant display of artistic release.
If music was a lottery, then Karen Jonas hit big. But this is no fortune to be chocked up to sheer luck. The toil, the heart that Karen Jonas put into this music and this record is eminently palpable. And it is not just the result of talent, but talent honed and refined through cutting self-criticism, study, discipline, and work.
This music starts with a girl, her guitar, her stories, and her demons. Similar to Justin Townes Earle in the way she plays the guitar in a hybrid of the clawhammer banjo style—a plucking with her thumb and then striking the strings with the nail side of her fingers—shows a refined study of her instrument, not just a rudimentary running through of chords while letting the words tell her story, with no sense of style to match up with the mood. This musical approach exacerbates the lead-heavy, almost unbearable tension that Karen is able to instill in her music. Her music aches like a broken heart; heaves and creaks like the boards of an old wooden floor under heavy weight.
Karen Jonas tells stories, like in the aforementioned “Oklahoma Lottery”, and the first track of the album “Suicide Sal” which refers to the Bonnie & Clyde saga. And then she gets quite personal, alluding through numerous offerings about her tragic, recurring frailty when it comes to matters of the heart, and men. You get the sense with Karen Jonas that there’s a deeper narrative here; a tragic story underlying all the little glimpses she gives us, but a story she never completely reveals, which once again goes into building the tension that elevates her music above the din of musical noise.
Karen didn’t just make this record to entertain us, or even to convey some expression or message. She made it to prove something, to herself and to others, that her choices, though not always right, were hers, and she was willing to take ownership of them, and redeem herself through music.
Karen Jonas is hungry. She is eager to fill the holes that still remain in her heart. This is reflected in this album, and she’s done all she could. The seeds are planted in fertile ground. The next question is, should anyone pay attention beyond her little groove in Fredericksburg, Virginia? My answer would be that they most certainly should.
Two guns up!
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Early on in the Sundy Best story, I was tipped off to the Kentucky duo and handed some demo songs and such, but I didn’t really know what to make of them. The first song on their 2013 released Door Without A Screen called “Kentucky Women” makes reference to Southern drawls, moonshine, and chicken frying, almost like they were wanting to bark up the whole laundry list/bro country tree. Then when you read their literature, there’s references to 70′s classic rock, and wanting to emulate the work of The Eagles, Bob Seger, and Tom Petty.
Top that with the fact that one of the two players of the band Kris Bentley is solely responsible for playing the cajÃ³n: a sort of primitive meets modern percussion instrument from Peru that has six sides and various tones a player can produce by slapping and pounding on it with his or her hands. It’s a cool instrument to whip out in drum circles, guitar pulls, and college parties when a drum set would be overkill, but what kind of impact could it have in the country or rock world? It’s considered by many to be a hippie instrument—sort of gimmicky, despite the cool nature of the groove a skilled cajÃ³n player can set.
So here’s this strange, two-piece kind of rootsy rock college party duo with some interesting songs, but not really knowing what to make of them or how they would fit into the musical world puzzle, I put them on a shelf to see what developed later. Well lo and behold, they’re latest album released March 4th called Bring Up The Sun blew up and charted at #11 on the Billboard Country Albums chart, speaking to the resonance and camaraderie this band has forged with their loyal fans that have been flocking to venues to see this offbeat duo’s stripped-down, acoustic show, but one that is able to create a much bigger atmosphere than the sum of its parts.
Sundy Best ended up being just crazy enough to work; a unique approach that struck a chord in this very time and place to help define what is relevant instead of trying to follow it. And similarly with other bands of young men out to have a good time first and letting the business of music follow (like the Turnpike Troubadours, the Dirty River Boys, and The Whiskey Shivers), the honest, good time and heartfelt approach to their music is quite infectious with their fans.
Bring Up The Sun features mostly what you will hear from the band live, but tasteful, electric overdubs grace just about every track. To be honest, some of my original concerns about the sound of this band still remain after listening to the album, even after weighing in the band’s undeniable success. The sound just sounds a little shallow. Even with the overdubs, you find yourself wanting a little bit more from the music. What insulates Sundy Best somewhat from this concern though is how good their live show is. When you’re able to rock an entire club sized venue with just an acoustic guitar and a cajÃ³n, then the album will offer so much more to their sound and come across as much more vibrant and complete.
The songs of Sunday Best is where the real magic of the band resides. They are able to strike that balance between accessibility and substance that is critical for bands who want to be successful, but still hold onto themselves. Remember me saying some of those early Sundy Best tracks were a little bit shallow? Well Bring Up The Sun certainly shows maturing and improvement from the band. They touch on so many thematic textures throughout their music, from happy songs that makes you feel good without it feeling like a guilty pleasure, to really deep, touching tracks about heartbreak and self-discovery. This is a young band, and they deserve a little slack. They’re no Townes Van Zandt or Guy Clark, but their songwriting serves them well, and hints on improving as time goes on. They’re in a period of self-discovery, and if you sign on to be a Sundy Best fan, you’re signing on to go on that journey with them.
I kind of wish Bring Up The Sun didn’t include fifteen tracks, because by the end, especially with the limitations of the two-piece setup, the sound lagged a little bit in places. At the same time, there’s a full album of songs here that are easy to fall for. Is it country? Is it classic rock? It’s sort of a hybrid. They may talk big about wanting to emulate Bob Seger, but these boys can’t hide their Kentucky Roots.
Sundy Best could be one of these bands that helps set the relevancy arch and really blows up. It’s sensibility with depth, a lot of energy, a great live show, and a promise of even better things in the future. The sweet bird of musical fortune is smiling down upon Sunday Best fondly.
1 1/2 of 2 Guns Up.
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It was announced Monday that the song “Medicine” by Shakira featuring Blake Shelton will be performed by the cross genre duo at the 49th Annual ACM Awards on Sunday, April 6th. Aside from whatever ills the song itself might contain, the slotting of the performance on a major country awards show once again illustrates country music trying to use stars of other genres to promote itself, instead of showcasing the virtues of country and why the genre is worthy of attention on its own.
Having a performer from outside of the genre collaborate with a country artist is certainly not unprecedented for an awards show, or a radio single, or any general cause for alarm. What makes this case somewhat exceptional though is that this is Shakira’s song, appearing on Shakira’s album, especially when you consider there is so much noise leading up to the ACM Awards about a lack of space to showcase worthy country artists, including this reasoning being one of the justifications for the ACM’s breaking their rules and nominating Justin Moore for New Artist of the Year when he’s clearly ineligible. There’s also a lack of solo female representation in the ACM’s current performance plans and on country radio. Replacing a worthy female country voice with one from the pop world seems short-sighted.
Making matters worse, Shakira isn’t just releasing this song in her home genre of pop. It has entered the Country Airplay charts this week at #57. “Medicine” is Shakira’s “gone country” moment. All that said, “Medicine” as a song is not all that bad … for a pop song. In fact if you compared it with many of the top songs in country right now like Jerrod Niemann’s “I Can Drink To That All Night,” Brantley Gilbert’s “Bottom’s Up”, or Tim McGraw’s “Lookin’ For That Girl”, it is downright refreshing. Whether it’s a symptom of just how far down the pop/EDM/rap road country has traveled or any true merit “Medicine” actually contains, I’m finding it hard to get worked up about this song either way.
Pop country stars use it as rationale all the time to smooth over their commercial outreach into the pop world: they say that country has always had its pop leanings and sensibilities with artists like Patsy Cline and Eddy Arnold. And you know what, they’re right. What has changed now is that country has backslid so much, a pop song can sound like a dalliance with substance and roots compared to your average country radio offering, or even sound more country than your average country song. That is what you get with “Medicine”, along with the common phenomenon of when non country artists do country songs, they tend to gussy it up in things like fiddle and steel guitar to insulate it from easy criticism.
Lo and behold, a subtle, but present steel guitar starts off “Medicine”. ClichÃ©, but classic lyricism about heartbreak create the structure of the song that does a serviceable job showcasing the vocal abilities of both Shakira and Shelton, which is really what this song is all about. I definitely could do without Blake’s “Po po po poppin’ the pills” part, but these are the little catchy elements that appeal to nubile pop ears, so they’re understandable in this context. Shakira has an interesting, unique cadence that draws the ear in, and the song is effective in widening the exposure of her talents. “Medicine” is a song about being unable to drown the misery of a broken heart, which despite being done many times in country and other genres, will always have a relevant and rather universal appeal.
With top male country music in such a downward spiral, while at the same time systematically dominating the top of the format, we may have to get used to the new reality that pop music may in fact hold more depth and more artistic merit than most mainstream country. This has been the case made by many Taylor Swift apologists for years, and can also be seen in the rise of pop artists like Adele and Lorde.
Is “Medicine” a good song? God no. Is it country? Not really, but there’s some country elements there. If it had remained in the pop format where it belongs, then there would be no reason to cry foul. But it didn’t. Nonetheless, there’s much bigger fish to fry than Shakira releasing a silly, one-off pop country song.
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1 Gun Up for decent lyricism, strong vocal performances, and unoffensive music for a pop song.
1 Gun Down for at its core being a wistful and quickly forgettable pop song calling itself country.
Country music isn’t just a genre of music, it is a musical religion, a way of life, a cultural lineage passed down from generation to generation and preserved through the blood and bond of its performers and fans. That’s why it seems country music performers so very often tend to turn out to be the parents of country music performers themselves.
Let’s take a look at some of country music’s greatest sons and daughters.
Justin Townes Earle
Son of alt-country pioneer Steve Earle, and middle namesake of the man who was good friends with his father and considered one of the greatest songwriters ever, Justin Townes Earle has spent the last seven or so years trying to live up to the lofty expectations of both names, and has done so valiantly. Releasing a startling debut EP in 2007 called Yuma, Earle and his obsession with the craft of songwriting have led to critical success for the five albums he’s released through Bloodshot Records. Considered by many as one of the biggest names in the new generation of alt-country/Americana performers, Justin has done it not by being a chip off the old block, but by forging his own path.
Justin’s relationship with his father has been rocky over the years. Steve Earle left Justin and his mother when Justin was just 2-year-old, and the younger Earle had a tumultuous, troubled, and at times, drug-fueled childhood. But he has soldiered on to carry a name all his own.
The son of Willie Nelson’s long-time guitarist Jody Payne and Grammy Award-winning country music singer Sammi Smith, Waylon is named after his Godfather, Waylon Jennings. Raised by his aunt and uncle due to his parents’ heavy touring schedules, Payne attended seminary after high school and was on track to become a minister before catching the music bug. For a while Payne was part of the popular Eastbound and Down country night at the King King Club in Hollywood where performers would swap classic country songs. Payne later released the album The Drifter in 2004 through Republic Universal.
Music isn’t Waylon Payne’s only creative calling though. He may be known more as an actor than a musician. In the award-winning Johnny Cash film I Walk The Line, Payne played Jerry Lee Lewis. He also played country great Hank Garland in a small film called Crazy, along with making numerous television appearances, including on CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.
Hank Williams III (or Hank3)Â
The grandson of Hank Williams and the son of Hank Jr., if there was ever a spitting image of country music’s first superstar, it would be him. He not only carries the visage and build of Hank Sr., but also the voice and writing style when he wants to go in that direction. The youngest Hank though has a hankering to delve into the wild side of music as well, and has released multiple punk albums during his career that has now stretched into two decades.
Hank3 started out playing drums and guitar in underground punk bands, with no real drive to be a part of the country music machine. But when a paternity suit put him in court, he decided to sign with Curb Records, and entered into a tumultuous period with the label that at the least resulted in multiple landmark records, including the neo-traditional country stalwart Lovesick, Broke, & Driftin’, and his double album opus Straight to Hell. Hank3 is now an independent artist, and carries on the family tradition of doing the music he wants and defying expectation.
The granddaughter of Hank Williams, daughter of Hank Jr., and half sister of Hank Williams III has had a somewhat strange musical journey, but one that has seen her bloom recently to become one of the leading females in country/Americana, keeping the music true to its roots while moving it forward.
Holly’s early career saw her sign to major labels like Universal South and Mercury Nashville, trying to break into the big time, but always seemingly with one foot in, and one foot out of that mainstream approach to music. She was also seriously injured in a near fatal crash in 2006 along with her sister Hilary who also is a performer. Then in February of 2013, Holly released The Highway independently, and since then has become a critical darling and a live performer not to miss. Though there were some that at times wondered if Holly was just a famous name, she’s proven recently that she’s so much more.
The son of Merle Haggard and an official member of Merle’s legendary backing band The Strangers, Ben is a chip off the old block when it comes to slinging Telecasters and perfecting the West Coast, twangy Bakersfield tradition of loud and electric country music. Patterned in the mold of the pioneer of the craft, the under-appreciated Roy Nichols, Ben can be seen plying his craft and staring at the back of his father on any given night out on the road. This isn’t just your usual slot filled by a family member on stage. Ben’s skills are regarded by his musician peers as being standalone from any famous name.
The only child of Waylon Jennings and Jessi Coulter, Shooter started his musical journey in the rock band Stargunn before signing with Universal South in 2005 and releasing his first country record, Put The ‘O’ Back In Country. He subsequently released two more country records infused with some Southern rock & roll before putting out his rock opus, the experimental album Black Ribbons. Shooter re-established his country roots with the 2012 album Family Man, followed up by 2013′s The Other Life.
Like many of country music’s famous sons and daughters, Shooter Jennings marches to his own drum, but always seems to come back to the country music fold.
Jubal Lee Young
Son of legendary Outlaw country songwriter and performer Steve Young (Lonesome, Onry & Mean, Seven Bridges Road), and songwriter Terrye Newkirk, Jubal Lee Young from Muskogee, Oklahoma put out an album in 2011 called Take It Home that included the song “There Ain’t No Outlaws Any More” that loudly proclaims, “Here comes another badass sellinâ€™ Nashville rock and roll, long hair, denim and tattoos, lookinâ€™ onâ€™ry and mean. Singinâ€™ songs about that lonesome road, some of â€˜em might even be true. But there ainâ€™t no outlaws anymoreâ€¦”
Hank Williams Jr.
The most obvious and most successful of country music’s greatest sons, Hank Williams Jr. is very likely a future country music Hall of Famer, and has won multiple CMA Entertainer of the Year Awards and sold millions of albums. He started out his career as a virtual impersonator of his famous father, but rebelled against this preordained future to become so much more. Hank Jr. took a precipitous fall off of Ajax Mountain in Montana in 1975, landing on his face, and having to go through multiple surgeries before he could return to performing. And when he did, he quickly became known as “Rockin’” Randall Hank as he emerged with a sound that was just as much Southern rock as country.
In the mid 80′s, Hank Williams Jr. was one of country’s biggest stars, and now sits as a legend in the genre. He also is responsible for two other famous country offspring: Hank Williams III and Holly Williams, and a 2nd daughter Hilary Williams has also been a performer.
The only daughter of the country music super pairing of George Jones and Tammy Wynette, Georgette was said to have a recording contract on the day she was born. She recorded her first song at the ripe age of ten with her dad called “Daddy Come Home.” From there Georgette began singing backup for her mom, and she has gone on to become an accomplished songwriter and solo performer herself. Georgette has released numerous albums, including three for Heart of Texas Records. Her latest album Til I Can Make It On My Own is a tribute to her mother.
Georgette also appeared in the TV Series Sordid Lives and recorded numerous songs for the soundtrack, including Tammy Wynette tunes. She also recently released a memoir called The Three of Us: Growing Up with Tammy and George, Georgette Jones.
Daughter of David Allan Coe, Shelli was born in Nashville and raised in Austin, and appeared at the tender age of 3-years-old on her father’s Family Album project. She later worked as a backup singer for her father before landing in Branson, MO for a while where she performed in clubs, collaborated with other songwriters and appeared on the album Branson Songwriters Out in the Streets. Shelli subsequently returned to Austin where she is known to perform off and on. Her first full-length CD A Girl Like Me was released in 2010, and is worth a listen for folks that like traditional country music.
Surrounded by a bevy of musical siblings and one awfully famous father, the argument can be made that Lukas was the Willie offspring that received the most potent douse of Willie’s musical genes, and has a powerful voice to match his father’s. A dynamic, top-flight performer with a sound that trends much closer to rock than country, but still has an earthy, rootsy feel nonetheless, Lukas is on a fast track to becoming a superstar all his own.
From his towering leg kicks, to playing the guitar with his teeth, at only 23-years-old, Lukas could already be crowned as a guitar god. Leading his band The Promise of the Real, they’ve made waves in the music world on big tours. About the only thing holding the young star back is that rock music is in a weird spot right now, and guitar blazers are not what the masses are particularly looking for. But like his father, Lukas is not worried about anything but following his heart, and he promises to have a very bright future ahead of him with a tower of talent to draw from.
Son of Outlaw country legend Billy Joe Shaver, Eddie Shaver was one of the best country music guitar shredders to ever take the stage. Aside from being his fatherâ€™s right hand man for many years, Eddie Shaver studied under Dickey Betts of The Allman Brothers, played with Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, Guy Clark, The Eagles, and was Dwight Yoakamâ€™s guitar player for the first two years of Dwight’s career.
Itâ€™s only because of Eddieâ€™s untimely death that heâ€™s not better known. He was scheduled to release his first solo album in 2001 when he died of a heroin overdose on New Years Eve of 2000. Though Billy Joe Shaver is known most for his songwriting, and Eddie as a guitar slinger, it only takes a glimpse at either to see that the musical talent runs very deep with the Shaver clan.
Though one might first think of June Carter as more of a mother of famous country artists instead of a daughter of them, June Carter is arguably the first daughter of country music. Her mother is “Mother” Maybelle Carter, given her nickname for being the mother of her performing daughters, and arguably the mother of country music. June began performing at the age of ten in 1939 as part of the landmark country outfit The Carter Family. It was through their mutual love of country music that she would eventually meet and fall in love with Johnny Cash, and the two went on to be one of country music’s powerhouse couples. June Carter was a muti-instrumentalist with a classic voice, and defines the nexus between country music’s primitive, classic, and modern eras.
It can be easy to overlook just what kind of impact Rosanne Cash has had on American music over the years. She seems to always be overshadowed by her father, by other famous sons and daughters of country legends, measured against them, and dogged by preceding labels that donâ€™t always allow her to be judged on her own merit, while her musical accomplishments veer towards being somewhat misunderstood because sheâ€™s not always been nestled smack dab in the country realm as people want, expect, or anticipate.
But Rosanneâ€™s critical and commercial accomplishments are far more than complimentary, they define a very successful career: Eleven #1 country singles, twenty-one Top 40 singles, and thirteen Grammy nominations is nothing to sniff at, and ultimately might at least get her mentions as a potential Hall of Fame inductee.
The only offspring between the country music super marriage of Johnny Cash and June Carter, John Carter Cash has spent his time as a singer and performer, but many of his important contributions to country music have come behind-the-scenes as a producer, songwriter, author, and general champion of the Cash estate and all things country music. It’s remarkable how many places you see John Carter’s name attached to projects as his puts effort out to make music happen in whatever capacity he can help in. Like his father, he has that selfless streak of service that surfaces in some of the most generous and cool ways.
Bobby Bare Jr.
Born in Nashville, TN to the original Outlaw Bobby Bare, Bobby Bare Jr. grew up next door to Tammy Wynette and George Jones in Hendersonville, and was nominated for a Grammy next to his father for the Shel Silverstein-written song “Daddy What If” from his father’s tribute album to Silverstein. Fronting roots rock bands like “Bare Jr.” and “Young Criminals Starvation League”, Bare’s career has been the result of avoiding “working a real job at any cost,” despite earning a psychology degree from the University of Tenessee, and not really getting deep into his own music until later in life. His high energy on stage and dark sarcasm in his songs have won him fans worldwide.
Other Famous Sons & Daughters:
Pam Tillis – 1994 CMA Female Vocalist of the Year, and daughter of country great Mel Tillis
The Carter Family Daughters – Carlene Carter, Helen Carter, Anita Carter, Rosie Nix Adams.
Jett Williams – Daughter of Hank Williams that found out about her famous father later in life. Jett has been a performer and plays an important role as one of the executors of the Hank Williams estate.
Jesse Keith Whitley – Son of Lorrie Morgan and Keith Whitley
Marty Haggard, Noel Haggard, and Scott Haggard- More performing sons of Merle.
Dean Miller – Son of Roger Miller
Lilly Hiatt – Daughter of John Hiatt
Chelsea Crowell – Daughter of Rosanne Cash and Rodney Crowell
Paula Nelson – Leader of The Paul Nelson Band.
Tyler Mahan Coe – Guitar player and writer who spent years touring in his father’s band.
Folk Uke – Made up Willie Nelson’s daughter Amy, and Arlo Guthrie’s daughter Cathy.
Whey Jennings – The son of Terry Jennings, and grandson of Waylon Jennings.
Lucas Hubbard – Son of Ray Wylie Hubbard who often plays lead guitar with his father.
Lucky Tubb – Not technically a son or daughter, but a great nephew of Ernest.
Bluegrass – There are many performing sons and daughters of famous bluegrass musicians, but for fear of forgetting some and getting yelled at for it, this sentence is in dedication to them all. You rock! Or pick, or strum, or pluck! Go YOU!
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