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- NPR Tiny Desk Concert with Lucinda Williams
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- New Song from Cody Canada and the Departed "Easy"
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- Ardent Studios Founder John Fry Dies at 69
- Windowing New Music May Not Goose Sales, Study Shows
- Engineer and Producer John Hampton Dies
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- Proof How Much The Music Industry Has Changed In The Last Ten Years
- NY Times' Jon Caramanica's Top 10 Albums Includes Sturgill Simpson
- Galleywinter's Favorites of 2014
“You can paint a wall green and call it blue, but it’s clearly not blue. That would go over badly, because people know. When people trust you, they believe you’re investing them with a piece of your life—and their lives in turn, so you want to keep that trust at every level.”
No this isn’t some illumination by a country music purist criticizing the excessive use of the term “country” these days to describe what is really pop, rap, rock, or some other form of music. These are the sage words from none other than Taylor Swift of why she decided to call her new album 1989 pop instead of country.
Taylor Swift went on to say, “So, it felt like it was important to tell people what  was…I don’t really think people were surprised I made a pop album; I think they were surprised I was honest about it.”
Contrast this with Sam Hunt, and his new album Montevallo. Forget all of the tired arguments about what is country and what is pop, and how pop has always been a part of country. All of that goes without saying when broaching discussions on acts like Luke Bryan or Florida Georgia Line, to the point of calling them not country is as cliché as their vacuous laundry list lyrics. But this Sam Hunt business enters an entirely new stratosphere of “country” term-perversion.
In a nutshell, Sam Hunt and Montevallo are not country, and this goes beyond opinion. So what that a couple of songs feature a banjo or a steel guitar. This arguably makes the offense even worse because it proves they know they’re trying to put one over on consumers. For every element someone presents to claim this album is country, I can present fifteen that prove it patently isn’t. And it’s not really even close.
Montevallo is country music in marketing only. This is EDM/pop. So the next question is, where is the label MCA Nashville in all of this, and the Country Music Association? Don’t they have a stake in making sure at least some control is levied and boundaries set around what country music actually is? Where are the radio programmers putting up the stop sign, protecting the integrity of the genre? How about Billboard who is including Sam Hunt’s albums and songs in their country charts?
At the moment, Sam Hunt’s Montevallo album bests all other country albums, sitting at #1 on Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart for its debut week. His lead single “Leave The Night On” is #1 on the Country Airplay chart, meaning no song was played more on country radio in the last week. And it is also #1 on the Hot Country Songs chart, meaning overall it’s received more attention than any other song by radio and consumers. There was barely time to pay attention to Hunt’s X2C EP released in August before his full-length was announced to take advantage of his rapidly-rising demand. This is not Jerrod Niemann striking out with a gimmicky EDM song as the last dying gasp of a sputtering career, this is an artist poised to become a country music mega-star. But he’s not country, in really any capacity.
Montevallo is an excruciatingly-typical urban dance album that does Molly-laced grinds up against every single worn out trope of the velvet-roped, indirect-lighted, $15 cocktail club scene and the music thereof. Aside from the banjo in the song “House Party,” the steel guitar in “Single for the Summer,” and the sentiment in “Break Up In A Small Town,” this ten-song LP is a product of the pop/EDM world 100%.
This is the type of gaming of the country music term that has become typical over the past couple of years. Label managers looks for what they perceive as vacancies in the marketplace and interject manufactured stars to fill them. Hey, claiming rap and rock as country has been quite lucrative, so why not just launch your own EDM star and make believe it’s organic and erudite for the genre. Sam Hunt showed up into Nashville as a songwriter, and not a terrible one at that. But his most valuable asset revealed itself to be a willingness to make himself a blob of silly putty for marketing executives to fashion into whatever monster they so choose. Not that Sam doesn’t have his own motivations of money and stardom, or even sonic inspirations to take his music in this direction. If Sam Hunt’s music can make it in country, literally any type of music that exists on the planet can, and be successful enough where it tops the charts. This is not hyperbole. This is proven by Sam Hunt’s success.
Montevallo sits down in a space occupied by young white affluent to semi-affluent Americans that frequent the glitzy clubs of the shallow “see and be seen” world. Its lack of breadth and unifying emotional sentiments are striking. The songs “Break Up In A Small Town” and “Take Your Time” make use of the awful trend in EDM of talking verses in hushed tones, and transitioning over to heavily-infused Auto-Tuned singing towards the end. Jealousy and other signifiers of the under-maturated late-teen, early 20-something world are big players on Montevallo in songs like “Ex to See” and “Make You Miss Me,” while drum machines, DJ scratches, and synthesized accoutrements are featured unflinchingly. Though these things may be new to country, they come across as typical, if not tired elements of the EDM/dance world that has generally moved on to more complicated structures. Montevallo feels dated and unimaginative even in its native genre.
About the only saving grace of Sam Hunt and Montevallo is that the dude genuinely does not seem like the type of waste of human flesh that some of pop country’s other worst offenders embody. Sam Hunt seems more misguided. Similarly, a lot of these songs aren’t heavily-offensive to the ear on their own. The only reason to call them offensive is because they’re being called country—the same conundrum cast against Taylor Swift early in her career. The other question is why a 29-year-old is singing about the emblematic behavior of young adults just now exploring their legal right to drink?
Sam Hunt and Montavello symbolize nothing less than a dangerous, bordering on cataclysmic paradigm for country music where the genre could lose its identity long-term, rendering its autonomy and the entire meaning of “country” inert. Nice guy and good songs or not, Sam Hunt isn’t stretching the “Country” term, he is a downright attacking it, and represents a fulfillment of the mono-genre that should be roundly rejected by country music or face potentially dire long-term consequences.
Two Guns Way Down.
It’s the fall of 2007, and a mother and daughter from the little town of Lindale in east Texas are driving through New Braunfels, TX, just south of Austin, known nationally as the home of the historic Gruene Hall, when their car breaks down. Instead of stressing out about it, they decide to get a hotel room and a drink, and stumble into a rustic old bar called Tavern In The Gruene.
It is a Tuesday night, and like most every Tuesday night at the Tavern In The Gruene, Texas singer songwriter Ray Wylie Hubbard is doing his Roots and Branches radio show live on KNBT, showcasing songwriters from the Texas scene. On the stage is a well-seasoned, but somewhat obscure songwriter named Adam Hood from Opelika, Alabama. The two stranded travelers from Lindale listen intently to Adam’s songs and are so impressed, the daughter waits until after the show to talk to him and Adam gives her a copy of his current album.
After listening to Hood’s music and falling in love with it, the mother and daughter decide to book Adam Hood to play a birthday party in November in Chicago for the daughter. The mother’s name was Beverly Lambert, and her daughter had just released a CD of her own, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend the went on to be named the ACM Album of the Year. As you might have guessed, Miranda Lambert was the weary traveler who’d stumbled on to Adam Hood, and knew she’d just discovered songwriting gold.
Soon Adam Hood was signed with Carnival Music Publishing and Carnival Records, the baby of Miranda’s producer Frank Liddell—the man also known for producing records for Stoney LaRue, and being married to (and producing) Lee Ann Womack. It’s a small world, but Adam Hood soon became a big songwriting cog in it, moving to Nashville to work as a professional songwriter, and becoming one of the most prolific song contributors to the Texas scene, churning out signature tracks for Wade Bowen, the Josh Abbott Band, Whiskey Myers, and too many more to name, and even some songs for some bigger names like Little Big Town. Hood wrote “I’ll Sing About Mine” with Brian Keane that was nominated for Saving Country Music’s 2013 Song of the Year.
It’s because of both the prolific nature and aptitude of Adam Hood as a songwriter that you almost have to remind yourself that he’s a performer too, and a damn good one. Miranda brought Hood out on tour numerous times, as has Willie Nelson and Leon Russell. He’s currently touring with Jason Eady, who included one of Hood’s songs on his latest album Daylight & Dark. But since Adam Hood is the epitome of a songwriter who makes it look effortless—penning stories that wrench the heart and encapsulate sentiments so poignantly that his peers are flush with admiration and envy—Adam’s songwriting is where it all starts. Though as he says on a song on this new album, “It takes a whole lot of hard work to make it look easy.”
Adam Hood is not a native of Texas or Oklahoma, but he is an honorary member of the Texas country scene if there ever was one. And now that he’s officially called Frank Liddel’s Carnival Records quits, he’s back releasing his music independently and calling his own shots. Only appropriate then that he would release an album that is strikingly personal in a very palpable and meaningful manner, making the music hold a weight that it otherwise wouldn’t if it was a collection of disparate perspectives. Adam Hood has written plenty of songs for others. He wrote and recorded Welcome to the Big World for himself.
Starting out loud and heavy, Welcome To The Big World opens almost like a Will Hoge record—more rock than country, but with a country heart. Hoge wrote one of the songs for the album with Adam Hood, but it isn’t one of the beginning ones, it’s one of the more country offerings called “Postcards and Payphones” that helps anchor the more country and subdued second half of the album. The opening song “Don’t That Sound Like Love” takes a realistic, if not dystopian view of love in a very heavy bluesy style, followed up by the full tilt rocking “Trying To Write A Love Song.”
From there is where the album turns more personal, starting with title track that Hood wrote just as much for his daughter as for himself about dealing with life’s inherent struggles and trying to forge a positive attitude about things you can’t control. “Bar Band” is deceptively deep in its perspective, uniting all of America’s watering holes with the mood that can be found on any given Friday night when local musicians are providing the entertainment. “Whole Lot of Hard Work,” “Postcards and Payphones,” and “Way Too Long” is where Hood’s songwriting brilliance is revealed in full force, while the duet with Sunny Sweeney called “The Countriest” offers a simple and fun palette cleanser amongst Hood’s heavy hitting material. “He Did” written about Hood’s dad lands another gut punch, and despite all the other noteworthy songs on the album, “I Took A Train” bringing up the caboose feels like the most timeless, like an instant standard.
Adam Hood did his time on big stages, gave his shot to Nashville where he still haunts songwriting rounds with some of his friends, and his mark will forever be left on the music even if his pen fell silent tomorrow. But now he seems content with the world and his place in it.
It was a random performance at the Tavern In The Gruene that landed Adam Hood on the greater country music map, but the songwriter never left the spirit of the intimate performance and the conveyance of a personal feeling that spoke to Miranda Lambert that night, and still rings pure and potent in the 11 tracks of Welcome to the Big World.
1 3/4 of 2 Guns Up.
- – - – - – - – - – -
Here we go folks, our annual gathering of old souls and independent-minded country fans to collectively commiserate and contemplate what the hell has happened to our fair genre known as country music as the pomp and circumstance of the CMA Awards transpires right before our shocked and disgruntled eyes. Be forewarned that all sense of decorum and courtesy will be tossed aside in lieu of admittedly immature and reactionary snark delivered with little or no governor. This is a night to get small and speak our minds, while at the same time being willing to give credit to any glimmers of true talent or hope.
So get your refresh fingers ready, and feel free to chime in yourself below in the comments.
Also, if you’re wondering why we pay attention to the CMA Awards if we hate them so much, please read the disclaimer at the bottom.
Pot right? Let’s wheel ‘em around!
2014 CMA Award Winners
- Luke Bryan – Entertainer of the Year
- Miranda Lambert – Female Vocalist of the Year
- Blake Shelton – Male Vocalist of the Year
- Little Big Town – Vocal Group of the Year
- Florida Georgia Line – Vocal Duo of the Year
- Miranda Lambert’s “Platinum” – Album of the Year
- Kacey Musgraves’ “Follow Your Arrow” – Song of the Year
- Miranda Lambert’s “Automatic” – Single of the Year
- Brett Eldredge – New Artist of the Year
- Miranda Lambert and Keith Urban “We Were Us” – Vocal Event of the Year
- Dierks Bentley’s “Drunk on a Plane” – Video of the Year
- Mac McAnally – Musician of the Year
- Vince Gill - Irving Waugh Award of Excellence
10:13 - Not as an exciting ending as last year when George Strait won Entertainer of the Year, but the writing was on the wall that Luke Bryan would win, especially after he got shut out in other categories. However there were some minor award victories, including Kacey Musgraves for Song of the Year, and not just because of the message of “Follow Your Arrow,” but because she’s a traditional artist, a female artists, and a songwriter. Also Brandy Clark is now a CMA award winner, which is big. But overall the awards were very same old, same old, and predictable. The CMA is going to have to do something about the Blake/Miranda Male/Female monopoly. It just doesn’t represent the music well, especially for Blake Shelton whose new record was a virtual flop.
What was positive was the overall presentation. Aside from Little Big Town’s neon silliness, most of the performances were sedated and tasteful, even if they weren’t especially entertaining. Carrie Underwood was the highlight as expected, as were Kacey Musgraves and Loretta Lynn. The Vince Gill award was a big surprise, and so was The Band Perry paying tribute to the ailing Glen Campbell. No Bro-Country was possibly the biggest story, aside from maybe Jason Aldean, which shows just how out-of-touch Bro-Country is becoming. Aldean’s performance seemed out of place.
Thanks everyone for reading. More tomorrow on the awards maybe…
10:02 - THANK YOU THANK YOU everyone who stopped by, read, commented, reposted, liked, retweeted, and everything else! I am going to compose some final thoughts, recap the winners, and then we’ll be done. More to come!
9:59 - Doobie Brothers weren’t bad taking it out though. They still got chops.
9:58 - Yeah, we should take our anger over the Luke Bryan Entertainer of the Year Award “To The Streets.” I need a Doobie.
9:56 - Your Saving Country Music alternative Entertainer of the Year is Sturgill Simpson!
9:54 - You don’t know how much it angered the blood to write that last line.
9:53 WINNER: The CMA for Entertainer of the Year goes to Luke Bryan.
9:52 - Nooooooooooooooooooooo!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
9:51 - CMA’s give Garth Brooks a standing ovation as he comes out to hand out the Entertainer of the Year.
9:47 - Your Saving Country Music alternative Female Vocalist of the Year is Karen Jonas!
9:46 - This is Miranda Lambert’s 5th consecutive CMA for Female Vocalist, EXACTLY like her HUSBAND, Blake Shelton. Go wild conspiracy theorists. It also sets her up for the biggest CMA night ever if she wins Entertainer of the Year.
9:45: WINNER - The CMA for Female Vocalist of the Year goes to Miranda Lambert
9:44 - Sam Hunt needs to get busy bussing my table and filling my glass.
9:43: Normally I’d make a quip here about how this is the most country thing all night, but it actually isn’t for a change thanks to Musgraves and Loretta.
9:42: Yeah, maybe turn The Doobie Brothers’ mics on Pimples the Engineer boy.
9:40 - Shit, when I heard The Doobies were performing, I thought it was going to be a mashup of Eric Church and Kacey Musgraves. #legalizeoregon
9:38 - Remember for the ACM Awards, Luke Bryan’s peeps bitched when he got locked out. http://www.savingcountrymusic.com/members-of-luke-bryan-camp-mad-over-george-strait-acm-win
9:37 - Yes folks, that means Blake Shelton has now won five CMA Male Vocalist of the Year awards in a row. A deserved shout out to Earl Thomas Conley doesn’t deaden that sting at all. This is also another award many thought Luke Bryan would win, and he gets shut out once again. Expect the bitching from his camp to come out in full force if he doesn’t win Entertainer of the Year.
9:32 - Your Saving Country Music alternative Male Vocalist of the Year is Don Williams!
9:30 WINNER – The CMA for Male Vocalist of the Year goes to Blake Shelton.
9:29: Seriously, no offense to Eric Church, but why can’t we get the reigning Entertainer of the Year by himself in what might be his last CMA performance? He kind of stole the show.
9:27: Seeing Eric Church performing with George Strait is like looking at a really hot woman with a screaming, hairy mole on her cheek.
9:25: Irving Waugh was a veteran broadcaster who was instrumental in gaining national television exposure for country music during the ’50s and ’60s. He died in 2007. Johnny Cash was awarded the Irving Waugh Award in 2003. He was the only other ARTIST to win the award. Other winners include 1987 Frances Preston, 1991 Jo Walker-Meador, and 2009 Walter Miller. It is considered an industry award.
9:22 - Had never even heard of this Irving Waugh award before, but it was very well deserved for Vince Gill.
9:20 - WINNER: Vince Gill is Awarded the CMA Irving Waugh Award of Excellence, only awarded to one other artist before, Johnny Cash.
9:15 - Looks like Vince Gill may be getting the Willie Nelson Lifetime Achievement Award. If so, very deserved.
9:14 - Anyone check with Vegas on what the over/under is on how much Little Big Town paid for their Vocal Group of the Year trophy? More, or less than the Opry induction?
9:12 - Too many voices on Miranda’s “Smokin’ & Drinkin’”. This is not working. The song is flat to begin with. Tasteful instrumentation though.
9:11 - Could this Miranda Lambert / Little Big Town mashup start off more monotone?
9:07 - Also, Kacey Musgraves and Loretta Lynn, The Band Perry covering Glen Campbell. I’m telling you folks, still some terrible music out there, but you feel things slowly changing.
9:03 - Notice that there’s pretty much been NO Bro-Country so far? Even Luke Bryan is pulling out his adult contemporary material. Somebody sent out a memo.
9:01 - Your Saving Country Music alternative Vocal Group of the Year is the Turnpike Troubadours!
9:00 – WINNER: The CMA for Vocal Group of the Year goes to Little Big Town.
8:58 - I know some might find it screamy, but damn, I’m breaking out in goosebumps at this Carrie Underwood performance. The best singer right now in country music, period. Very inspiring. Two guns way up.
8:56 - Whoa! Which one of you bastards slipped the LSD in the beef stroganoff I was wolfing down in the commercial break? I’m seeing tracers, dude.
8:55 - Yes, there’s “Something In The Water,” but hopefully the preggo Carrie Underwood doesn’t drop hers when she hits that high note…
8:54 - Biggest awards coming up folks, hang in there!
8:47 - Great to see Ashley Monroe get some screen time, but this song does so little for me, and her teaming up with Blake Shelton is about as lame as when your parents showed up on Facebook. What’s up with all of this adult contemporary schlock?
8:42 - Yawn, Paisley. You’re lyrical hook is more flat than a pre-pubescent.
8:40 - Also, the producer of Miranda’s “Platinum” is Frank Liddel, who is the same producer of the new Stoney LaRue album.
8:38 - Miranda Lambert winning Album of the Year is a big development. This means she could have a HUGE night if she pulls off the upset for Entertainer of the Year. She’s already won two CMA’s for songs, and she’s pretty much a shoe-in for Female Vocalist. Also, this is another award Luke Bryan did NOT win. Surprising win for Miranda.
8:35 – WINNER: The CMA for Album of the Year goes to Miranda Lambert’s “Platinum”
8:30 – I think Dierks’ Riser album is tits, but “Drunk On A Plane” is an awful song in my opinion. Where’s a bunch of drunk Ukrainian separatists playing Galaga with a $500 million rocket launcher when you need them?
8:25 - Thanks to everyone leaving comments down below. Some great zings and observations!
8:24 - Let’s be thankful for the little gifts, like Cole Swindell only getting 60 seconds before getting cut off by commercials.
8:22 - Your Saving Country Music alternative Duo of the Year is First Aid Kit!
8:21 – WINNER – The CMA for Vocal Duo of the Year goes to Florida Georgia Line. And water is wet.
8:20 - Brandy Clark getting lots of face time tonight. Good for her.
8:19 - From Rawhide & Velvet on Twitter: “After the show Little Big Town will be outside Bridgestone Arena doing the traffic control.”
8:17 - “Truck Yeah” or truck no, Tim McGraw released on of the better mainstream country records so far this year. Not great, but just solid, unoffensive pop country music. Love the steel lick in this song.
8:14 - Overall though, this has been a pretty understated presentation comparatively. This keeps with the trend that started a couple of years ago. So far, no rap, no fire.
8:11 - But hey Little Big Town’s album cuts are REALLY REALLY good (please).
8:10 - Nobody told all the little glowing drummers boys what would happen if you brought a geiger counter close to their glow-in-the-dark suits. That was a performance to bee seen, not heard for sure.
8:09 - Talk your shit on Ariana Grande all you want, but it was the best $2.99 I ever spent at Taco Bell.
8:07 - Yes, that’s Little Big Town, who we gave a friggin’ Grand Ole Opry induction to in order to pad sales of their new album, and they still could only managed 40K.
8:05 - Better clean those cheeseballs up off stage before Luke Bryan gets up and waxes out on them.
8:02 - Jason ALdean spent $700 to have to rips in his jeans custom choreographed just for the CMA Awards. #lesserknownfacts
8:01 - Shouldn’t this asshole be in LA somewhere feeling up an American Idol castoff?
7:59 - So the “surprise legend” turned out to be Loretta. Would have loved to see Hank3′s reaction if it was Tom Hiddleston aping Hank Williams and singing “Jambalaya” with a Westminster accent. Would have loved to see MY reaction if it turned out to be Shania Twain in leopard skin stretch pants and a Madonna-esque cone bra. I’d be like Bob Knight whipping a chair across the room.
7:56 - Knew Brandy Clark didn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of winning New Artist, but when they started with Brr…, I almost thought it was going to happen. Brantley Gilbert needs to get the damn marbles out of his mouth and quit being such a raging douchewad.
7:54 – WINNER – The CMA for New Artist of the Year goes to Brett Eldredge.
7:52: Kacey Musgraves sings Loretta Lynn’s “You’re Looking At Country” with the backdrop of the Grand Ole Opry barn. Loretta Lynn makes a suprise (somewhat) appearance and makes it a duet! Two guns up!
7:50 - Holy shit, someone is playing country music on the CMA Awards! Security!
7:48: “Follow Your Arrow” was also written by Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally, meaning Brandy Clark is now a CMA Award winner.
7:44: The Band Perry is usually one of the most underwhelming performers on these things, but this Glen Campbell “Gentle On My Mind” rendition is really refreshing.
7:42: Kacey Musgraves on the Song of the Year win for “Follow Your Arrow” – “Do you know what this means for country music?”
7:40: WINNER: Kacey Musgraves wins Song of the Year for “Follow Your Arrow.”
7:38 : Tim Tebow: “Seriously America. I REALLY need work. Anything.”
7:36: Yes, Keith Urban. The only 47-year-old still adolescently-fascinated with owning a car and mugging down in the back of it. But with those highlights, he doesn’t look a day over 46.
7:34 – WINNER: Mac McAnally won a 7th consecutive Musician of the Year award. But of course that didn’t make the telecast.
7:32 - On the Miranda Lambert win for “Automatic”: Sort of an underwhelming song, but not a bad pick, especially for the more commercially-oriented “Single” instead of “Song” of the year.
7:30 - Don’t worry Florida Georgia Line fans, I’m sure they’ll be back later to shoot lasers out of their assholes!
7:28 - Sorry folks, but I don’t think Florida Georgia Line’s “Dirt” song is terrible. Much better to get this than that “Sun Daze” bullshit. They needs to re-alight the blow holes on their damn guitars though. It’s sending my OCD into overdrive.
7:26 - “Hey Bartender” by Lady Antebellum has got so much nothing. And that one guy looks like he should be a elementary school librarian that really into puppets, not a country star.
7:24 - Care of Rawhide & Velvet:
7:21 - I stand corrected. Apparently the picture I posted below of Carrie Underwood and Brad Paisley did not include a homeless woman, but Bonnie Raitt. My apologies to Bonnie.
7:18 – WINNER: The CMA for Single of the Year goes to Miranda Lambert & the songwriters for “Automatic.”
7:17 - Quit being so mean America! I think Steven Tyler makes a very handsome older woman!
7:16 - Arena rocker Steven Tyler, “Country is the new rock and roll.”
7:15 - Now they’re razzing on Taylor Swift, Rene Zellweger, and naked selfies, as they do a grand tour of cliches of the American zeitgest.
7:10 - The opening monologue is pretty flat compared to last year, when they played off all the country music feuds. Ebola was last week.
7:08 - Brad Paisley & Carrie Underwood doing a dumb bit about George Strait. Meanwhile millions of Florida Georgia Line fans are wondering who the shit they’re talking about.
7:06 - For the record, I think Meghan Trainor is just fine.
7:04 - What does Miranda Lambert use to make her skin have the sheen of a bowling alley? Asking for a friend…
7:03 - If you’re wondering why Meghan Trainor is performing tonight, she’s a Nashville resident and actually co-wrote two songs on Rascal Flatts’ last album. She also once helped get Flatts’ frontman Gary LeVox’s head unlodged when he got it stuck between two rungs of a Carl’s Jr. jungle gym. The key was slathering LeVox’s head in an industrial-sized jar of Mayonnaise. True story.
7:00 - Here we go!
6:57 - Aww, Carrie Underwood and Brad Paisley invited an older homeless woman to hang out with them backstage. #caring
6:53 - Some stuff of note from the red carpet. Yes, that is Kacey Musgraves’ hair, and meanwhile Sam Hunt looks like he should be fetching more lime wedges for my fish entreé.
6:50 - One thing we can be guaranteed of is that the opening performance will be the most non-country thing to transpire all night as ABC tries to lure in non-country viewers. Be ready for an unmerciful onslaught of your senses.
6:49 - Some late-breaking intelligence on potential performances: Rumor has it Eric Church will be joining George Strait for his performance, and Loretta Lynn might be performing with Kacey Musgraves, which might be the “surprise legend” ballyhooed to be performing. And in case you missed it, the producer of the CMA’s said, “There’s going to be a surprise guest in one of our performances from one of the biggest legends of country music of all time.”
6:47 - For those drinkers out there, Farce The Music has put together a satirical CMA Awards Drinking Game. It’s satirical because if you actually participated, you’d be in the ICU with alcohol poisoning.
6:45 - Some awards have already been doled out. This morning on Good Morning America, it was announced Keith Urban and Miranda Lambert won for Musical Event of the Year for “We Were Us,” and Dierks Bentley won Music Video of the Year for “Drunk On A Plane.”
DISCLAIMER: So every year when we engage in this LIVE blog exercise, people complain, “If you hate the CMA Awards so much, why do you watch?!?” Or, “If you really want to save country music, you should be taking about something positive instead of wasting your time with this.” First, understand that the CMA Awards are the single most significant membership drive Saving Country Music engages in every year as hundreds of thousands of people turn on their TV sets, find themselves in abject horror at what they’re seeing, and take to the internet to find like-minded souls. By directly engaging with the CMA Awards—undisputably the most important night on the country music calendar (whether we like it or not)—it creates a place for those disenfranchised country music fans to connect with the independent world and discover the riches of artists and music it has to offer. This is not a theory. It has been proven to be effective year after year.
Saving Country Music’s mission is not to abandon the storied country music institutions like the CMA Awards to the money changers to do with what they wish, but to challenge them by directly engaging with them and offering our dissent. We have seen significant gains in the pursuit to return balance back to country music in the radio format that is currently splitting to represent more older artists. We could see similar successes with the Awards shows in the coming years, but only if we let our voices be heard. And when you see artists like George Strait winning Entertainer of the Year, and songwriters like Brandy Clark being nominated for major awards, you can see inroads being formed, regardless of how awful the Florida Georgia Line’s and Luke Bryan’s of the world are.
If you don’t want to watch the CMA Awards, I completely understand, trust me. I am not promoting the CMA’s, nor am I encouraging people to watch. But as part of the dirty job of running Saving Country Music, I must watch. And if I’m going to watch, I might as well have some fun with it. Because as soon as we stop laughing, that’s when they truly win.
–The Triggerman, savingcountrymusic.com
No matter where you stand on it, the enigma that is Maddie & Tae’s “Girl In A Country Song” has made for grand country music theater in 2014, marking one of the most talked about musical offerings since Kacey Musgraves’ “Merry Go ‘Round.” The song takes a swipe at the same sort of Bro-Country that has completely permeated country music’s airwaves, while still remaining playful enough where egos can’t be bruised (mostly) or turf wars can’t break out between the country music sexes.
But similar to Kacey Musgraves, we didn’t really know what to make of Maddie & Tae beyond this one song because we didn’t really have any other offerings to balance it with aside from a few acoustic performances at radio stations. Was this simply another Scott Borchetta pop country Frankenstein brought forth to be an alternative to Bro-Country to where the country music industrial machine gets you coming and going no matter what side of the debate you stand on? Cute little 18-year-old girls releasing a song that starts of with a hip-hop beat seemed so easy to refute, even if the sentiments of the song struck a favorable chord.
Make no mistake, the emergence of Maddie & Tae is the result of tactical gaming of country music’s notoriously malleable masses by label types, but that doesn’t mean that the music can’t be any good. “Girl In A Country Song” really didn’t help answer the question of, “Who are Maddie & Tae?” It exacerbated it. Were the hip-hop elements simply there for irony? Were these girls really influenced heavily by classic country as they said?
So now the young duo has released a four-song EP, and all of a sudden a brand new set of parameters emerge. You do hear those classic country leanings in the songwriting. You hear fiddle solos and steel guitar by god. You hear two girls singing in close harmony with heavy twang about similar themes once championed by Tammy Wynette and Loretta Lynn. And you begin to realize that whether Maddie & Tae are a machination of Big Machine Records or not, their music truly is living up to the more traditional and tasteful approach they were touted as embodying when they first emerged.
Granted, we only have four songs to draw from. But from what I’m hearing, the Maddie & Tae EP might just be the best offering of mainstream country so far in 2014, and I’m not kidding. Moreover, listening to “Girl In A Country Song” in the context of additional music refutes many of the concerns it initially posed, and emphasizes the song’s strengths. Maddie & Tae really are traditionally-leaning country girls who love to instill wit and a strong sense of feminine values into music that is both smart and fun, and fairly well suited for the listening enjoyment of both sexes and a general audience.
The other song floating out there in acoustic form before the release of this EP was “Sierra.” Already a witty and smart tune in its raw form, when fleshed out in the studio, we really see the potential of the Maddie & Tae project come to life. Up tempo and twangy, with fiddle and steel guitar right out front and a story fit for Dolly or Tammy with a few modernizations, this song announces Maddie & Tae as that potential act that can bridge strong country roots with present-day relevancy. Even the slight presence of electronic accoutrements doesn’t feel like a detriment here, but a tasteful way to bring the roots of country forward to a new audience.
This is followed by “Fly”— the sentimental offering in the group that revitalizes the inspiring style of female country indicative of the early careers of Lee Ann Womack and Martina McBride. It may be a little too adult contemporary for some, but “Fly” is a solid offering that illustrates a deeper side to these girls’ otherwise silly and smart approach. And again the song endears itself to discerning country ears by relying on fiddles to fill the solo allotment instead of Stratocasters.
“Your Side of Town” is where the electric guitars show up in force, and this is the song that sounds more similar to what we’re used to from country music’s leading ladies of today like Miranda Lambert, with attitude dripping from the lines and the fiddle fighting for attention. But the song still fits into the interesting space the duo has carved out for itself with this EP. Maddie & Tae are great singers as well, though I suspect their twang is so pronounced, it will be polarizing for some listeners.
Like every good EP should set out to accomplish, this collection of songs introduces you to what Maddie & Tae are all about without exposing too much, and wets your whistle for what else might be in store. With “Girl In A Country Song” cracking the Top 10 of the Country Airplay and Hot Songs charts on Billboard, we might expect a fairly quick turnaround to a full-fledged album. But for now, this EP offers a fun experience, and good insight into what this much debated and ballyhooed duo have in store.
Color me impressed.
1 3/4 of 2 Guns Up.
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Some will tell you that when you get to the very top of Texas country it becomes difficult to tell the difference between it and Nashville. It’s true that with your foremost Texas acts like Eli Young Band, Randy Rogers Band, Josh Abbot Band, and Wade Bowen, there’s an element of pragmatism to their sound. Texas country has traditionalism plenty covered with artists like Aaron Watson and Jason Eady, but some of the bands will mix a fair bit of rock and roll flair into their music, and worry more about captivating an audience than capturing strict interpretations of country music’s traditions.
This however is not necessarily a knock on them. This in itself is a tradition of Texas country that can be traced back to Willie and Waylon. Some country artists who happen to be born in Texas leave for Nashville as soon as they can and never look back, and those are the ones who quickly become synonymous with Nashville instead of the Lone Star State. Others can’t stay gone from Texas no matter how hard they try. The suits in Nashville have just enough sense to understand that something truly special is going on in Texas and that they want to be a part of it, just like a lot of Texas acts know that to bust through the corrugated tin roof of Texas country, at some point you have to make the dreaded trek to Music Row.
I-40 is well-grooved with the rubber of Texas country acts coming and going. You’ll have a band try their hand at the Nashville thing, like the Josh Abbot Band, and meanwhile another is calling it quits and heading back home, like Wade Bowen. They meet up at a Chinese buffet in Little Rock and swap stories about pencil pushers who beat themselves up trying to tame the wanton talent of Texas with only marginal success. Texas country artists are nice enough to give anything a shot with an open mind, but stubborn enough to refuse to be pigeonholed. It’s the perfect formula to drive Music Row completely mad. But they’ll keep trying, because Texas artists are the ones with the authenticity they yearn for.
Wade Bowen tried his hand with the big boys, specifically BNA Records with his 2012 release The Given. It brought him a Top 10 country album, which is a career achievement he can be happy with. But now he’s back releasing albums independently. Almost as a playful parting shot of his experience with the big time, Bowen released a track called “Songs About Trucks” written by Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally ahead of this new album. Antagonistic and timely, it took Bowen’s star and made it shine even brighter. It was assumed (at least in some corners) the song was the lead single from this new album, but Bowen was wise to keep it off and leave it out there as its own animal. The acrimonious nature of “Songs About Trucks,” though justified and poignant, doesn’t really fit the mood and spirit of this project.
Ahead of this self-titled release, the buzz was immense. There was a sense this wasn’t going to be simply another Wade Bowen album—that his experiences of the last few years helped Wade see himself for who he really is, instead of who everyone else wants him to be.
Two songs in, and this album already delivers on any promises and expectations preceding it. “When I Woke Up Today” written by Bowen and Rodney Clawson is the type of song nobody has the balls to record anymore; songs that are both deep and sunny. And Bowen has something that trend chasers can never top, which is an established sound that immediately upon hearing it fills the listener with a warmth of familiarity. You pop this record in, and you’re immediately swept over by a change of perspective like the opening song portrays.
This is followed by “Sun Shines on a Dreamer” and a very similar mood-enhancing effect. Not just the lyrics, but the drums and bass on this song really emphasize the natural tension and resolution of the tune. Excellent arrangement and good writing makes this song one of the top standouts of the project. This album is marked by some really big songs—songs that tend go on to define a career. Yet another is the waltz-timed and mood heavy “West Texas Rain.” Count it amongst Wade’s greatest, written by Bowen with Travis Meadows.
Where you get into the material that some may say strays too near a commercial mindset, you come to a song like the up-tempo and rocking “When It’s Reckless” with its screaming guitar solos and rambunctious attitude. A couple of songs—”My California” and “Hungover”—take a smooth, almost R&B approach in the production, even though the heart of the story could still be considered a country song. The more country offerings are the solid “My Leona,” the aforementioned “West Texas Rain,” and one of the funnest moments of the album, “Honky Tonk Road,” which sees Randy Rogers, Cody Canada, and Sean McConnell each sing a verse. Other special guests on the album include Will Hoge on “When It’s Reckless” (which he co-wrote with Bowen), Sarah Buxton on “California,” and Vince Gill on “West Texas Rain.”
Releasing a self-titled album seven albums deep into your career is making a statement. “This is me,” Wade Bowen is saying, and with a cadre of great songs turned in on this album, “me” in regards to Wade Bowen is something worth listening to.
1 3/4 of 2 Guns Up.
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“This site’s called savingcountrymusic.com. Why are you talking about Taylor Swift? She’s not country. She never was. Now she’s even saying she isn’t.”
Well guess what, tough titty. This is my damn website, and if I want to talk about Taylor Swift, I will. And guess what, you’ll probably read about it.
It’s true that Taylor Swift has officially left country, and the majority of the country music media needs to ween themselves off the Taylor Swift click bait and recuse themselves from running features on every Instagram picture she posts. But I can make the case that when it comes to this specific album, 1989, it is the most relevant, most important album released in country music in the entirety of 2014, let alone in music overall, and for a host of reasons, even though it’s not country. Thinking otherwise is vanity, and ill-informed, to the point where it would be almost irresponsible not to broach the subject of this album, and the potential repercussions it could have on the country genre at large.
For starters, if you trace back to the origination point 1989, it will lead you to the corporate headquarters of Big Machine Records—an independent label located at 1219 16th Ave South in a portion of the City of Nashville known by locals as Music Row, aka the mother brain of the country music industrial complex. Not to mention that said Big Machine Records also happens to be up for sale according to reports that first surfaced the third week of October, and have subsequently been stoked anew, and specifically name this album, 1989, it’s success, and the success and contract status of Taylor Swift as linchpins to the entire deal.
But let’s not bog down in business jargon and behind-the-scenes details. The reason 1989 is important to country music is not in lieu of Taylor Swift declaring herself and this album pop, it is because of it. Country music isn’t mad at Taylor Swift for leaving the genre, they’re mad because she blew their cover. Of course she’s not country, and never has been. Nor is the majority of what is clad in country clothing. It just happens to be that Taylor Swift is the only artist with the balls to say it, and the balls to admit she wants to make pop music. Oh my heavens, what a shock! Meanwhile the rest of country is syncing up banjos with drum machine beats, and singing about getting high in the bathrooms of downtown clubs. Say they’re not country though, and they’ll admonish you as a closed-minded purist, and claim what they’re doing is “evolution.” If nothing else, give Taylor Swift some damn credit for being honest with herself and her fans. That’s one big monkey off her back … at least for now.
But genres aside, 1989 has already revealed itself as transcendent from a commercial perspective. I don’t know if it’s even possible for us to quantify what kind of feat this album has achieved by selling more albums in a week than any other project in a dozen years. When you factor in the unchecked flight from physical product and now even downloads that is absolutely ramrodding the music marketplace into a downward spiral, this feat is nothing short of miraculous. Would this be the equivalent of selling 2.5 million records on debut in 1989—the year the album is named for? Three million? More?
The decision to not make 1989 available on Spotify proved to be a smart one, as 14-year-old girls all across the country crashed their local Target stores to obtain their copy. Remember the Taylor Swift op-ed from the Wall Street Journal and her fearful plea? “Music is art, and art is important and rare. Important, rare things are valuable. Valuable things should be paid for. It’s my opinion that music should not be free,” she said. “In mentioning album sales, I’d like to point out that people are still buying albums, but now they’re buying just a few of them. They are buying only the ones that hit them like an arrow… It isn’t as easy today as it was 20 years ago to have a multiplatinum-selling album…”
Unless you’re Taylor Swift.
Why is Taylor Swift’s 1989 relevant to a country music website? Because it is relevant to any music website, because we very well may be looking at the very last American album sold in a physical form that permeates the entire population. Vinyl collectors will tell you, if you crash any given pile of records, whether at a garage sale, a thrift store, etc., you always see the same revolving titles: John Denver’s Greatest Hits, Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass for example. It’s uncanny, and doesn’t matter where you are in the country. It’s because everybody bought those records. Or at least the people that bought records did. 1989 may be the last record of that lineage, and the only person or album that might have a chance at besting or repeating this deed would be Taylor Swift in two years when she releases her next one. It was Taylor Swift’s last album Red that 1989 broke the record for a debut week initially, until the tally of 1989 sales started to reach past 1.25 million, and we had to go all the way back to 2002′s The Eminem Show to find a peer. That is an illustration of how Taylor Swift truly is the artist of a generation, even before factoring music’s dramatic sales slide. And the fact she accomplished all of this after declaring herself no longer country is a footnote worth not glossing over.
How did she do it? The Spotify embargo helped, but she also did it by showing love to the physical format. The cover of Swift’s 1989 is fairly nondescript, but purposely so, and you can almost squint and tell how over time it could become iconic with its retro attitude. But it really was the little treats Taylor Swift put inside each package that made her many fans and even passers by decide to go physical. In each package is a card that enters listeners into a sweepstakes for a chance to meet Taylor Swift. A Willy Wonka golden ticket so to speak. It also comes with a little package that says “Photos” that includes 13 cards, or mock Polaroids of Taylor Swift, each numbered as part of a bigger sequence, with the lyrics to songs scribbled in Sharpie on the bottom.
This all gives a physical representation to the incredible amount of social traffic Taylor Swift generates. It’s something tangible that separates her from the virtual stars of today. Like the spinning cover of Led Zepplin’s III‘s original album cover where you could change what’s peeking through the windows, it shows imagination, and effort.
The problem with 1989 though is that it is just not a very good album. Country, or not. The analogy employed for Taylor Swift albums by this country music critic for her previous releases was that of an Italian food critic sent to a Chinese restaurant, and asked to judge the Chinese food … as Italian food. Clearly the result would be a failing grade, and that is what Taylor Swift received, regardless of how good the music was as pop. But judging it as pop music specifically, it was hard to not admit that the music had its moments, and its depth and value.
1989 has some depth too, and some value here and there, but overall you feel like you’re getting the worst of all those older Taylor Swift albums—the unabashed pandering to the public at large in smash singles, and some of the self-ingratiating sentimentality—all condensed into one. There are respites, and as Taylor Swift says herself, this is the most cohesive album she’s ever made sonically, and that may be true. But I’m not sure that is something to be boasting about when this is the result.
Taylor Swift’s 1989 could have been great, and you get a sense that it almost was. The idea of this retro, 25-year throwback perspective personified in new music is probably a worthy one. That 25-year marker is thrown around regularly as the measurement of when music of the previous generation reaches its apex of emotional virility and maximum memory response in its listeners. Before the 25-year window, the music feels unfashionable. Beyond it, and it feels outmoded. 25 years is the sweet spot, and that is why country music is seeing a revival of its “Class of ’89″ artists like the recently-unretired Garth Brooks, and Alan Jackson who is going on a 25-year Anniversary tour.
25 years ago was a big time in country music, or at least the time of a big freshman class. But what about pop? 1989 was the year of Milli Vanilli. The 80′s were already an era of music that would be called lost by some, and laughable by others. Why does a lot of commercial country today sound like bad 80′s hair metal? Why did Taylor Swift’s Big Machine record label release a Mötley Crüe tribute album this year? Because it hits on that 25-year sweet spot. But hair metal and Milli Vanilli were godawful, just like much of 80′s music.
If you wanted to look for what has withstood the test of time from the 80′s era of pop, you look to New Wave, and one hit wonders. Yes, this was the era when synthesized music took hold in earnest, but it was also the time of tantalizing melodies and arrangement—guilty pleasures for Audiophiles and ear worms galore for the masses. And we’ve already seen Taylor Swift tap into this retro music magic, and rather successfully ahead of the 1989 release.
A song like “Enchanted” from Taylor Swift’s 2010 album Speak Now has that 80′s synth pop thing going strong. On 2012′s Red, a perfect example of this is the song “Starlight.” And the single that preceded this album called “Sweeter Than Fiction” that appeared on the soundtrack of the film One Chance also found Taylor Swift revitalizing the New Wave vibes that marked some of the best moments of 80′s pop, and doing it with Jack Antonoff as producer—the guitar player for the band Fun, and the man who also co-wrote and produced two songs for 1989, including one of the lead singles, “Out of the Woods.”
Listening to “Sweeter Than Fiction” and some of Swift’s other synth-pop songs from the past, you though that if this was the direction 1989 took, the results could be quite tantalizing. Taylor has proven to be adept at re-imagining the 80′s. But I hate to say, this album did not take that direction, really whatsoever. If “Sweeter Than Fiction,” or even “Starlight” or “Enchanted” were included on this album, they would immediately become the best tracks by far. One of the surprising things about 1989 is how much it resides solidly in the here and now, startlingly so. There’s not really any retro vibe. Instead we get Max Martin/Shellback smash single formulas, a fairly lackluster, unimaginative, and disappointing performance by Jack Antonoff, and only a few songs that really simulate any intrigue to the discerning ear.
1989, just like the year itself, is sort of a bore. The cohesiveness of the album eliminates any spice or suspense. The modes of production are transparent, and the melodies are rendered powerless by rhythmic seizures, excessive repetitiveness, and poor decision making in the composition. This album is just kind of a mess in places, guessing at what might make a song a smash hit instead of doing the inspiration justice.
It’s been the assertion by Saving Country Music that all popular music is slowly transitioning to simply being noise scientifically formulated to stimulate the highest possible dopamine response in the brain. Swedish hitmakers Max Martin and Shellback—who joined Taylor’s team at the behest of Scott Borchetta during Red—are the precursors to this impending era. They were responsible for Red‘s three huge pop hits, but like Taylor accurately picked up on, their compositions came out of nowhere on that album, like interjections to the listener, and hurt her overall effort, regardless of the success of the songs themselves. She avoids that same mistake here, but unfortunately she does it by enacting this Max Martin/Shellback composition-by-formula across the board on these 13 tracks.
Whatever the original melodies to these songs were, we’ll never know. Taylor herself has probably forgotten them already. I have little doubt most of the words are her own. But then she brought them into the studio, was asked to sing them a certain way, and then they were summarily dumped into a sound file, cut and pasted like text from a Wikipedia page into a student’s history report, and then used as the producers wished to craft what they believed would be infectious patterns for mega hits. The result is that any and all inspiration behind the songs has been scrubbed from the performances. Taylor Swift’s words and voice are just another sonic elements to fit into a pre-arranged composition optimized for mass consumption. The curly-haired awkward girl sitting in her bedroom writing down her feelings while playing her acoustic guitar was not only lost in this process, she was murdered.
What’s the most shocking about this is that we can expect this kind of behavior from the music cretins like Max Martin and Shellback, who along with Joey Moi and other producers are really at the heart of destroying American popular music. But Jack Antonoff of Fun, and Ryan Tedder—the OneRepublic frontman who also co-writes and produces a couple of songs on this album—seem so eager to play ball with this formulaic approach. This was possibly the fatal flaw of bringing in Max Martin on not just as a songwriter and producer, but as the executive producer of the project. Everything was exposed to his corrupting mandibles, aside from maybe the song “This Love” that Swift did with her long-time original producer Nathan Chapman.
In fact the guest producers do such a poor job and this album is such a lowering of the bar overall, the songs that shine the brightest are arguably the ones Max Martin and Shellback had the heaviest hand in—a complete role reversal from Red. Even Imogen Heap’s contribution on the final track “Clean” feels tired, forced, and unimaginative. However, this is nothing close to praise of the Swedish pair. It’s just happens to be that a few of the songs they didn’t completely suffocate the melodies or ruin the songs with rhythmic pap, though many of them they still did.
The song “Style” works well as a modern pop song, and the theme about being classic and above style trends is really smart, while the song also conveys the story of a passionate romance. The other standout of the album is “How You Get the Girl.” Despite being hamstrung by the annoyingly-rhythmic confusion at the beginning of the song, it rallies to evidence one of the most catchy moments on an album that is curiously lacking in them for a pop project. “This Love”—the only solo write by Swift on the entire album and produced by Nathan Chapman—is alright, but is a little too flat and Enya-like to hold the attention for very long, even though for once on this album you get the sense you’re listening to something very personal.
Other songs like “All You Had To Do Was Stay” would have been good, buy why, why choose to put some ridiculous banshee yawp enhancement on the final “stay” of every phrase to take a perfectly fine pop song and make it polarizing? “Wildest Dreams,” “I Wish You Would,” are just okay, and don’t even get me started with the album’s lead singles: “Shake It Off,” “Out of the Woods,” and “Welcome To New York.” These songs are just bullshit. “Out of the Woods” can’t be saved by the inclusion of a personal narrative because it is simply caustic to the ears with its rhythmically disjointed repetitiveness. “Bad Blood” is downright annoying. The entire project is so racked with poor rhythm decisions, repeated words and sounds, Shellback loading up Taylor Swift’s voice in a memory bank and playing it back on a MIDI controller like a Moog, it’s just objectionable to the ear in many places. 1989 is the worst album Taylor Swift has every made.
But how about the words, is there any redemption here? Sure, maybe. But once again we’re asked to praise Taylor Swift the songwriter when her words have been buried beneath layers of synthesizer beds and over-production that screams out for the predominant attention, while the lead single of the album is built around the vacuous “Players gonna play, and haters gonna hate” über cliché of our era. If Taylor Swift wants respect as a lyricist, she needs to put the material out front that flatters these attributes, not that refutes them. Yes, there are some good lines, and good sentiments on 1989‘s lyrical set. But we’re not seeing Taylor Swift evolve. When she was fifteen, we were amazed at the maturity and self-awareness she embedded in her cute little pop songs. Now you’re starting to wonder if and how her fame has stunted her emotional development.
That doesn’t mean songs like “Wildest Dreams,” “This Love,” and “I Know Places” don’t have a little something. But songs like “Blank Space” and “Bad Blood” come across as immature and self-indulgent. Let’s not forget that Taylor Swift is still only 24. But where before she was a 15-year-old writing as a 24-year-old, now it feels like she’s a 24-year-old writing as an 18-year-old in segments of this album.
Where does 1989 rate when it comes to the great pop albums of this generation? It’s fate is probably secured in being considered top grade simply because of its commercial performance. Hell, the City of New York has already named Swift their “ambassador” for the next two years based off of 1989‘s lead song and Swift buying and apartment in Manhattan. But I’m sorry to say, “Welcome to New York” as a song offers nothing. At all. 1989 held up against Lorde’s Pure Heroine, or Adele’s 21, or even taking a further step back and looking at Nelly Furtado’s Loose for example, and you feel like it would be patently unfair to compare those projects to what Taylor Swift has offered up here. It’s more on par with Ke$ha’s Animal—simply a collection of digital production performances and studio magic with some flashes of fair writing.
Swift seems to think that to loosen the bonds of country, she had to completely go away from instrumentation. Virtually the entirety of 1989 was sequenced on Mac computers, and you can feel that in the results. Yet you listen to where the rest of pop music is headed, and you see it beginning to favor instrumentation more and more, like the standup bass in Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass” that has consistently bested Swift’s “Shake It Off” in the charts.
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There are some decent moments on this album, and I don’t want to downplay this opinion. And I would be interested in hearing the songs that did not make the cut, as I’m sure there were many fleshed out in the studio that we’re not getting a chance to hear.
But it’s over. That young girl with big dreams and an acoustic guitar sitting on the edge of her bed writing silly little heartfelt songs that became America’s sweetheart has become just a franchise name for dubious-intentioned producers to do with what they will. Max Martin finished the job in 1989 he started on Red. The fact that Taylor Swift still writes most of her lyrics is simply a facade that she has complete control over what is transpiring, misleading not just her fans and the public, but more disappointingly, herself. The problem with money and success is that you can always have more of it, and this is usually where the compromising of principles occurs, trying to best records you’ve already broken. When you attain goals by reaching outside yourself, the losses are greater than the gains.
1989 does not represent the year Taylor Swift was born, it represents the moment her music died as a form of her original expression.
1 1/2 of 2 Guns Down.
Less country music Christmas albums, and more country music Halloween albums I say. And if a cottage industry happened to crop up for spooky country music every October, it would stand to reason Madison, Wisconsin’s Those Poor Bastards would have the market cornered. Beware interlopers and carpetbaggers, these bastards have been purveyors of their self-described “Country Doom” for over a decade, dealing out an unlucky 13 albums to date, including their latest dreadful offering Vicious Losers freshly-exhumed just this Halloween month. And that doesn’t include the more ghost and goblin-oriented side project of Those Poor Bastard’s principal member Lonesome Wyatt called The Holy Spooks, whose multiple releases include Ghost Ballads and Halloween is Here released last year.
But Those Poor Bastards is not some Disney version of “H E double hockey stick” horror, and this is not some seasonal pursuit. Lonesome Wyatt and The Minister have become the kings of Gothic country over their terrible tenure, and are made to be imbibed in year round. The duo’s dark and artistic oriented music draws directly from country music’s formative years and the exploration of sin, guilt, depravity, and death that were very much at the heart of these tunes—I’m speaking of artists like The Carter Family, The Louvin Brothers, and even Hank Williams and Johnny Cash, where sin and redemption weren’t polar opposites, but separated by a thin membrane that the forces of good and evil were constantly at war trying to pull you across. Then all of this was cast in a mood of desperation from the death, hopelessness, and chronic poverty that gripped country music’s Appalachian homeland in the late 1800′s and early 1900′s, and still lingers throughout the hills and hollers of that region today.
Imagine condensing the dark sentiments from all of these early country pioneers together, and adding a few new methods of composition and sound from more modern apparitions such as Tom Waits and Nick Cave, and you have a sound that however niche it might be, has cast a wide net of loyal parishioners all over the world who collect Those Poor Bastards’ short run colored vinyl projects and pour over their artistically-oriented music as fine art, no matter how hauntingly it may screech and moan to get its dreadful point across.
Part of the pleasure in Those Poor Bastards is to try and glean the moral and motivations of their music. As disturbed as it clearly presents itself from song one, there is also a profound sense of morality, economic justice, and concern for the lost souls of modern men confined to the rat race that punctuates any Those Poor Bastards’ effort. But don’t think that recuses them from delving into the temptations of sin or the unsettled recesses of the brain where where silent killers and psychopaths in all of us await. Whether you’re truly disturbed, or simply love to immerse yourself in that dark side of humanity inherent in us all by design, Those Poor Bastards can be a vessel for your journey.
Those Poor Bastards have already amassed a fine catalog that defines Gothic country, including songs like “Behold Black Sheep,” “With Hell So Near,” “Crooked Man,” “The Dust Storm,” their cover of Johnny Cash’s “I Walk The Line,” and “Pills I Took” once covered by Hank Williams III. Vicious Losers now adds another 13 songs to their repertoire, ranging from the raging, serrated and harsh “I Am Lost” opening track, to the simple clawhammer banjo driven “Strange Dark Night,” or the quieted 40-seconds of “Big Trees.”
Words and textures are one in the same with Those Poor Bastards, and one thing Lonesome Wyatt can never get enough credit for is his prowess as a vocalist that is virtually unparalleled this side of Tom Waits in conveying mood and character with such range. Vicious Losers has a couple of songs where Lonesome Wyatt puts on a clinic, shape-shifting between his evil growl, his bass-heavy belly voice, and a clear and eerily beautiful high range whose total breadth on the tone scale would best most any of mainstream country’s top singers. The song “Lonely Man” is a perfect example of this.
“Give Me Drugs” is a cautionary tale to America’s pill problem, but to balance becoming too preachy, it is followed up by the unhinged and ribald “Dolled Up.” Vicious Losers ends with an 11-minute noise opus called “Today I Saw My Funeral;” a song that could have been written by The Carter Family, beginning as a primitive country ballad whose refrain then floats in and out as the song descends into an extended foray of disturbed noises. Another hallmark of Those Poor Bastards is Lonesome Wyatt’s ear for the everyday sounds of life that trigger dark memories. This song on loop would be the perfect ambient noise for your neighborhood’s haunted house.
On second thought, I don’t know that I want all of the country artists who are inclined to make Christmas records deciding instead to dip their toes in the Gothic country realm. Those Poor Bastards have it covered just fine.
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Stoney LaRue: One of the few artists the national media will label as “Red Dirt” and actually be right about …. though it will still be by mistake from the common misconception that “Red Dirt” and “Texas Country” are interchangeable.
The Texas born, Southeastern Oklahoma-bred singer and songwriter who once swept the floors at the Tumbleweed Dancehall was just as famous for his own songs as he was for being the brother of Bo Phillips and the “guy in the bandanna” in the Red Dirt scene until his 2011 album Velvet really put him on the map as his own man. His earlier career had been filled with a lot of heartfelt music and mostly live recordings—he was the life of the Red Dirt party so to speak—but by his own admission it was mostly driven by just really wanting to be involved in the music he was surrounded by as opposed to putting his own signature stamp on it.
Velvet changed all of that, and it wasn’t symbolized just by the few cents extra that he splurged on to have the jewel cases covered with short, wine-colored fur. This was Stoney asking and answering the question “Who am I, and what is my sound?” Still as great as that album was, there was sort of a safeness, a pensiveness to the approach you could sense if you put your ear to the ground, almost like Stoney knew he hit on something right, but still didn’t have the confidence in it completely to deliver it with 100% commitment. He needed to get it out there in the public to see how it was received before fully buying in that what he was feeling was right, and good.
With his new album Aviator, you not only get that great, signature Stoney LaRue sound, you get it with Stoney and all the involved parties buying in by not just showing confidence, but even showing a little boldness and willingness to do some things a little offbeat, run some songs together and carry others out a little longer than they should be, and this all results in that enriching Stoney LaRue mood becoming even more enhanced.
Aviator isn’t one of those albums you cherry pick through to the best songs. That would be like choosing a favorite child, because all of these songs are great and work so well together and in succession. This is one of those albums you put on for a long road trip or a restful backyard barbecue and then press repeat when you get to the end. It is the embodiment of that laid back Texoma flavor that doesn’t just remind you to take a deep breath and appreciate life for the moment, it demands it.
From an “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mindset, Stoney LaRue assembles the same team to work on Aviator as he did for Velvet, including producer Frank Liddell, most famous for his efforts with Miranda Lambert (including getting Stoney to sing backup on Miranda’s 2013 hit “All Kinds of Kinds”), and producer Mike McCarthy. Cut mostly live and to 2-inch tape in Nashville’s historic Studio ‘A’, the album has an organic, loose feel, with a lot of the live energy embedded in the tracks. Along those lines, this is an album that makes you want to hear these songs on stage. Though one of the underlying factors in Aviator‘s inspiration was LaRue’s recent divorce, even the dark moments are turned gray or rosy from the easy-hearted attitude that permeates this project.
Written with his common co-conspirator Mando Saenz, and released by eOne Music who should help Stoney enjoy a little more exposure though this release, Aviator is one of those albums that defines a career when many of the Red Dirt originators are growing long in the tooth, and a lot of Texas country headliners are letting the Nashville influence seep in a little too much. This is good country music, and bonus tracks “Natural High (for Merle Haggard)” and “Studio A Trouble Time Jam” are also worth hunting down.
Not just an album of great songs, Aviator is a great album cover to cover.
1 3/4 of 2 Gun Up.
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Mostly known by industry types as a songwriter whose pen to paper has resulted in some very memorable cuts, including the recent Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers duet “You Can’t Make Old Friends,” one of the most recognizable songs from ABC’s drama Nashville called “Don’t Put Dirt On My Graves Just Yet,” and even some songs from bigger names such as Jason Aldean and Lady Antebellum, Caitlyn Smith steps out from the songwriting shadows to release a seven song EP full of wide ranging emotions, slickly-penned sentiments, and spectacular vocal performances worthy of wider attention.
When you talk about an artist known as a songwriter first, you tend to look for the strength in the lyric. But Caitliyn Smith is very much a multi-tool performer, and her vocals can rival any in country music’s top tier, and she’s a great musician as well. Her style is very sensible—country pop in the traditional sense, with rising choruses, juicy melodies, and familiar themes of love, loss, and hope. But similar to how Caitlyn Smith songs are the ones artists and managers gravitate toward when they’re looking for something with more body beyond a smash radio hit, instilled in all of Caitlyn’s work is a sincerity, authenticity, and the ends of country roots sticking out from the surface.
Though it may be a stretch to call this Everything To You EP traditional, the amount of banjo on this album is surprising, and really comprises the sonic base for a few of these songs. And I’m not talking about the six-string version of the banjo with a Stratocaster head stock and flames painted down the side, these are songs bred from inspiration, not formula, even if a few songwriting hands were employed before calling them finished. Fiddle and mandolin float in and out as well, as does some heavier guitar riffs when the composition calls for it. But really the focus of Everything To You is squarely on Caitlyn, her songs, and her voice, which is where it should be, and this is where this album will build its greatest consensus amongst listeners with country sensibilities.
Everything To You starts out with the driving “Fever” with its two-part chorus and towering requests for Caitlyn to immediately hit top-register notes and nail them, which she does with ease. This leads into the more subdued and acoustic “Dream Away”—an empowering testament about sticking to your dreams; something Caitlyn can speak about from the experience of being a small town girl from Minnesota desiring to be a songwriter and now singing along to some of her co-writes on the radio.
“Wasting All These Tears” takes a more somber pitch, almost like a jilted Taylor Swift song from earlier in her career, then the autobiographical “Everything To You” immediately shifts gears to a more happier tone. “Grown Woman” finds Caitlyn evoking the common “I’m a woman, hear me roar” attitude we’ve been hearing often from mainstream women, while the yearning and wrenching of “Novocaine” cuts at the listener’s emotional stability. The album ends with the thankful and sweet “All My Lovers” about Caitlyn finding her way to her husband.
Though Everything To You never turns you off, it never really takes any chances either, or sails into the uncharted waters beyond the familiar harbors of co-write country. The songs all seem to authentically emanate from Caitlyn’s life story and this feels like a very personal album, but you can’t escape the feeling that you’ve heard a version of some of these songs before. Slick arrangements, production, and instrumentation make Everything To You accessible, though not necessarily challenging. However Caitlyn Smith and Everything To You very much embody the idea that there are artists out there with mainstream-caliber chops who if just given a chance could shift country in a more substantive, and even sustainable direction.
2013 was considered by many to be the “Year of The Woman” in country music from the concentration of forward-thinking and nourishing projects proffered to the public by females who could nip at the edges of the mainstream, but still find friendly ears in the independent world. Caitlyn Smith may be a year too late to be considered in that class, but she belongs with the other ladies of country music leadership trying to keep at least a modicum of respect in the genre, even if those women struggle compared with their male counterparts in chart performance and cash flow.
Before Garth Brooks decided to go with “People Loving People” as his first single after coming out of retirement, another song on his new album called “Tacoma”—written by Caitlyn Smith and Bob DiPiero—was scheduled to be the return single. Only stands to reason “Tacoma” will be released as a single eventually, and with the timely release of this EP, it very well may deliver an extra bit of interest to a well-deserving and hard working songwriter with a voice worthy of much more than the audience listening song pitches on demo tapes.
1 1/2 of 2 Guns Up.
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Nothing is more satisfying for the music devotee than stumbling upon a new top shelf songwriter you’ve never heard of before. Though maybe if you were paying a little bit better attention, you would have already heard of Eliot Bronson. The Atlanta, GA-based songwriter has released two solo albums since exiting Atlanta’s The Brilliant Intentions duo some years back, and was awarded the 1st place prize for the Chris Austin Songwriting Contest at MerleFest in 2013. But being brilliant, and being the best does not always mean being visible, especially in this day of skewed priorities in the musical arts.
One name that has been receiving worthy recognition for his contributions recently has been producer Dave Cobb. In the last 24 months, Dave has gone from a mostly industry-known working man’s version of more famous producer T Bone Burnett, to becoming producer du jour— just as hot, if not a hotter commodity than T Bone and other big name producers from his proven success with Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, Lindi Ortega, Whiskey Myers, and so many others.
Dave Cobb has now entered the stratum where more times than not his name is preceding whatever artist he’s working with, and though this seems like both an unfair balancing of priorities in music, and against Dave Cobb’s otherwise long-standing temperment to prefer to stay behind-the-scenes, boy it sure makes for smart marketing. Whenever you see Dave’s name attached to a project, you’re probably wise paying a little closer attention.
Sensing this, and wanting to see his music score more heavily with people outside of the local Atlanta music mindset, Eliot Bronson reached out to Cobb coldly, looking for a long shot chance to land the producer for a definitive-minded, self-titled project. And to Eliot’s surprise, not only did Cobb respond, he responded favorably from the brilliance he found in Bronson’s poetry. “I was stunned when I got a response,” says Eliot. “It was really validating for me because I sort of had him on a pedestal.” Next thing you know the two are hanging out in Cobb’s home studio making a record.
Eliot Bronson is Americana in the truest sense of the word—instead of simply falling back on the term as a default. His lyrics come inspired from America’s country and roots past, but the music refers to more progressive folk rock and blues legacies. First and foremost though, his self-titled LP is a songwriter’s showcase, capturing moments of spectacular insight and feeling, and giving words to what previously were thought to be unmentionable, and undefinable feelings, and doing it all with a deep sense of mood and melody that make the emotions drip from the edges of the notes like tears.
This is the type of album we wished all our favorite old songwriters would make again. This is the type of album that made us first love all of those old songwriters. It concentrates some of the best characteristics of Justin Townes Earle and Chris Issak, while capturing a sentiment unique enough to feel fresh and undone. Eliot Bronson would not be considered a singer unique to our time from his voice’s natural tone or cadence, but the way he cups the emotions in his words and pours them out at the most opportune times makes for a vocal performance that lives up to the lyricism, while he’s not afraid to rely on “ooh’s and aah’s” to covey the weight of moments where words would invariably fail.
The music of this album is tastefully understated, but comes out growling when called for. Dave Cobb’s analog studio underpins a vintage warmth to the entire project, even if at times a palpable hiss or seemingly unbalanced sounds show up like in the song “Sleep On It.” The old-school audio approach is one of the watermark’s of Cobb’s handiwork recently, and as has been stated before in regards to other projects, can bestow both virtues and failings in the recording process.
Standout tracks on this album come mostly towards the center of the track list, with the hopping “Comin’ For Ya North Georgia Blues” being one of the album’s best foot tappers, and both “You Wouldn’t Want Me If You Had Me” the later solo acoustic number “Never Been A Friend of Mine” being excellent vessels for raw emotion. “New Pain” finds a slightly-familiar, old school Paul Simon vibe, while “Just Came Back To Tell You That I’m Leaving” is a punching, country heartbreaker fleshed out with bluesy slide guitar for one of the album’s most lively moments. “Time Ain’t Nothin’” with it’s haunting “Talk to momma, talk to momma” verses really unguards the listener. Bronson’s songs are easy to love, yet lasting in their appeal.
You get the sense listening to this album that Eliot Bronson is not just releasing his latest album, but the one he sacrificed pieces of his soul to make. This is “the one” so to speak, and that sense of purpose, if not desperation and pent up frustrations at being a 30-something songwriter still struggling to find his place and the proper attention from the public results in a passion that is palpable, and music that is memorable.
1 3/4 of 2 Guns Up.
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This song from former The Voice contestant and now Valory Music-signed 20-year-old country music starlet Raelynn has been lurking out there for a while now, garnering tacit approval from the country music listening public and sitting down in the 30-something range in chart performance, while driving other listeners crazy for a host of reasons. “God Made Girls” looked like it was destined to ride off into the sunset, and possibly, take Raelynn’s puttering country career with it. But a renewed push from Clear Channel’s well-meaning but controversial “On The Verge” program meant to give extra attention to up-and-coming artists may very well see a re-emergence of this song and a reset of its topside potential. On The Verge was the impetus behind the making of recent stars like Iggy Azalea and misappropriated EDM/country star Sam Hunt.
Requests have trickled into Saving Country Music headquarters to properly roast this offering for various offenses, including its potentially subservient representation of females as being made by God simply to be pretty objects and companions for men. But this is no “Girl In Your Truck Song.” It’s tough not to recognize there could be an acquiescence of the female perspective here, but that’s sort of a stretch, and I find it a little hard to get too exercised about it, while some female listeners may even find the song empowering. Plus if you’re evoking God in the conversation, there’s that whole rib and apple story to contend with.
What is more troubling, or at least annoying about “God Made Girls” is the immature/fairy tale aspect the whole song takes on to an almost unhealthy degree, especially when you consider this song is for grown ass adults and country music fans. Raelynn is all giggles and coos in this song, tilting her head and gazing into mirrors like a still emotionally-developing adolescent-aged cutesty wootsy star struck suburban American princess watching Frozen on continuous repeat. Not even a 15-year-old Taylor Swift evidenced such an abandonment of maturity as Raelynn does in this song. Though even with this criticism, “God Made Girls” yearns for depth by talking about girls being an emotional crutch for men, and being the ones to “drag his butt to church.”
The music of “God Made Girls” is generally unoffensive, though it’s also fairly unremarkable too. The one tough hurdle for this song to overcome is how it repeats the chorus line “He stood back and told the boys I’m ’bout to rock your world” twice per refrain instead of either evolving or resolving the line the second time through as would traditionally be done in more elaborate, or even average songcraft. But “God Made Girls” is catchy, and buoyed by Raelynn’s young, naturally cute voice and aspect. It’s probably also worth pointing out that this is a song for girls, by girls, and will resonate along sex lines disproportionately, which there’s nothing inherently wrong with. It was co-written by Nicolle Galyon, Lori McKenna, and famous early Taylor Swift co-writer Liz Rose. Joey Moi, the madman behind Nickelback and now Florida Georgia Line, is the producer of the track.
The video for “God Made Girls” works to reinforce the adolescent nature of the song, and even takes creative license to exacerbate it with endless staircases ascending into the sky and fairytale dress and scenarios—even images of young girls playing pretend. One strange aspect of the video is a woman on horseback that seems to be interjected for no apparent reason into the narrative, especially at the 2-minute mark of the video where she randomly appears shirtless.
“God Made Girls” is not terrible, and not even as bad as some country music fans with their dander up looking for songs to destroy would have you believe. But it does serve an an excellent example of country music’s current obsession with youth and unwillingness to mature beyond the 15-year-old perspective, along with conveying a questionable value of women in society, even if it does attempt to increase the sense of value in themselves.
1 1/2 of 2 Guns Down.
This past weekend from October 9th thru 12th was the inaugural gathering of Outlaw Fest at Edge Hill Farms in Oakland, Kentucky. Despite passing rain showers throughout the weekend and the linchpin of the festival Marty Shine having a health setback that sidelined him for most of the event, according to festival goers a good time was had by all, and festival sidekick Kenneth Marr made sure the entire presentation went off without a hitch.
Though inclement weather kept Billy Joe Shaver from attending the event as planned, the weekend was packed with “Outlaw” talent which included 3rd generation artists such as Whey Jennings and Raelyn Nelson, modern day headliners like The SteelDrivers and The Dallas Moore Band, and a host of other artists who entertained patrons between rain clouds.
Below is a selection from the over 1,700 pictures taken by Cathy Pippin, aka VintageQueen54 during the weekend.
Vintage Queen is also in the process of loading up videos from the weekend.
Whey Jennings (Grandson of Waylon)
Raelyn Nelson (Granddaughter of Willie Nelson)
The SteelDrivers – Brent Truitt
The Steeldrivers – Tammy Rogers
The SteelDrivers – Gary Nichols
The SteelDrivers - and Mike Fleming and Gary Nichols
The SteelDrivers – Richard Bailey
Master of Ceremonies – Gordon “Big G” Ames
Mr. Bandana & Big G
The Urban Pioneers
2 Country 4 Nashville
Pure Grain – Scott Siefferman
Pure Grain – Michelle D’Amico
JB Beverley of the Wayward Drifters
The Dallas Moore Band
The story of the homeless Nashville singer-songwriter done good named Doug Seegers crossed the Saving Country Music news desk early on in the story’s cycle, before big outlets like NPR and the Wall St. Journal were running big features on the heartwarming tale, but for whatever reason, a story that seemed like it was fit for telling filled me with a bit of trepidation. Even though early samples of Seeger’s songs seemed quite promising, and so was the news that artists like Emmylou Harris and Buddy Miller were involved in an upcoming album, there was just something philosophical keeping me from really buying in to the story 100% as a testament to the human spirit, and the spirit of giving that everyone was making it out to be.
Homelessness is such a complex issue, and it’s so easy for people who have their positions secured in the social net to look at a homeless person as a product of laziness, or a problem of governmental neglect, when really what causes someone to slip through the cracks is an involved set of circumstances that includes fluid details of mental illness, addiction, lack of familial support, and so many other factors. What caused Doug Seegers to go from living in upstate New York with a wife and two kids to living on the streets of Nashville? The way the story was being presented was almost a little too Hallmark Channel and heartwarming. I needed to actually hear the music before I held the Doug Seegers story in some high regard.
And no offense to Doug Seegers, but why should he be chosen to be picked off the street and have a big production album made for him when there’s hundreds, maybe thousands of other artists out there patiently waiting their turn that may deserve this chance just as much, if not more, including artists who have shown initiative and self-discipline and reliance over years, making them arguably more worthy of investment?
As the story goes, Doug Seegers was a musician in Austin, TX and New York before he got married and moved upstate. At some point he showed up in Nashville by himself, and was living on the streets and hanging around The Little Pantry That Could in west Nashville, playing and singing at songwriter nights. Then through a set of circumstances, he was discovered by a Swedish television crew that happened to be in Nashville filming. The host Jill Johnson heard about Doug from a street food vendor who told her Doug could sing. The film crew found Seeger who played his song “Going Down To The River” for them, and later the show came back and taped a Doug Seegers performance at Johnny Cash’s recording cabin outside of town. When the Doug Seegers episode eventually aired in Sweden, Seegers became a cultural phenomenon in the country, and he was subsequently signed by Lionheart Music Group to record and release the Going Down To The River album.
Emmylou Harris was brought in to sing on a Gram Parsons song, and Buddy Miller who apparently knew Seegers from his days as an Austin musician was also brought on board. Will Kimbrough was named as the producer, and by the time Going Down To The River was released in Sweden, Doug Seeger’s popularity was such that it shot to #1 on the charts and was quickly certified Gold, helped along by a 60-date tour and a big festival appearance by Seegers in the Scandinavian country.
But was this a symptom of hype, or the result of good country music? The allure of a story about finding a diamond in the rough on the streets of Nashville, polishing him up, and making him a superstar is the perfect type of romantic notion for a Swedish television audience swept up in the fantasy of American culture, but would Doug Seegers’ music translate to even a viable listening product for well-cultured country music ears here in the States? We couldn’t even tell completely until October 8th when Going Down To The River finally received its U.S. release, nearly half a year after the songwriter had become a Swedish television and cultural icon.
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Featuring Gram Parson’s noted composition “She,” the classic Hank Williams song “There Will Be Teardrops Tonight,” and ten original songs penned solely by Seegers, Going Down To The River presents a troubled, but gentle and sweet man with a lifetime of pent up stories to tell, and a tear-soaked voice that despite its noticeable toothless lisp, conveys tremendous emotion and evidences remarkable phrasing instincts and delicate control. Going Down To The River has a classic, late 70′s smooth country feel to it with a traditional heart and a small taste of the blues, seeming to evoke the period stylings of the original era when Seegers’ songs were likely written many years ago.
“Down To The River” is the song that started all the Doug Seegers Swedish hype, and the classic story of atoning for sins in the muddy waters of the American South is done with such original flare and is a perfect exhibition for Seegers’ vocal strengths, the song feels worthy of its international praise. But “Angie’s Song”—the first song on the album—may just be the gem of the entire endeavor. Excellently written and tastefully produced, it’s the sound of Otis Redding meeting Hank Williams, and the warm love story at the heart of the song truly makes it something special.
There’s really not a slouch on this album. The songwriting and singing evidenced by Seegers on one track after another are really a remarkable display of the talent that can be picked off the Nashville streets and shine with a little polishing. “Lonely Drifter’s Cry” and “Pour Me” are pure, classic country songs plain and simple, and so is “Gotta Catch A Train” and “Burning a Hole In My Pocket.” And when I talk about how country some of these compositions are, I’m talking so classic and sweet, with just the right amount of steel guitar and laid back drumming and bass, you feel like you were listening to what Hank may have recorded if he’d lived a little longer and had a little more Motown or Memphis in his voice.
Even the two covers were handled so well they didn’t stick out as foreign to this song list, and if you notice these were the two songs Seegers collaborate with Emmylou and Buddy Miller on, leaving his original compositions as you may have heard them at the Little Pantry That Could songwriter showcases in west Nashville. Some of the more bluesy numbers, like the last song “Baby Lost Her Way Home Again,” and “Hard Working Man” felt a little out of place on what is overall a very classic-sounding country album, but this might have been Will Kimbrough doing his best on what probably are the album’s weakest tracks artistically.
It very well may be true that Doug Seeger’s story could be anyone’s, and that you could crash the streets of Nashville, Austin, New York, or Los Angeles, and put together an entire roster of remarkable talent that is currently sleeping on the streets, as even more worthy musicians sit teetering on the brink of homelessness themselves because they’ve been overlooked by the industry. But that doesn’t make Doug Seeger’s talent any less worthy of being singled out as it has, and as Going Down To The River attests, any and all praise Seegers has been showered with over the last six months and counting is worthy and warranted.
Once again, the European appetite and ear for American country music, and the willingness to dig deeper and offer support to worthy artists, wins out over the efforts of country music’s home once again. Of course Doug Seegers was a homeless man living on the streets, because that’s about the assessment of value American society has placed upon the classic style of country music. Doug Seegers may have demons in his back pockets or skeletons in his closets yet to be revealed, and he may have had his entire life to write this album. But Going Down To The River is as good of a classic country album as you will hear all year from anyone.
Two guns up.
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Forget that now the last six Toby Keith singles in a row very heavily involve drinking— that’s “Beers Ago,” “Red Solo Cup,” “Hope on the Rocks,” “I Like Girls That Drink Beer,” and “Drinks After Work” for those of you counting at home—this is a song with a message dammit!
I can just hear this thing playing in the background as superimposed stomping Budweiser Clydesdales go trailing off into the ether, while the foreground fills with a Dallas Cowboys fan and a Washington Redskins fan hugging it out in slo mo while their brats burn on the tailgate-sized barbecue during an instant replay television timeout. Because no matter what our differences, no matter our disparate backgrounds, our differing beliefs, our skin color, sexual persuasion, or even our choice of headgear, we can all come together and enjoy the splendid beauty of American over-consumption and the chronic addictions it breeds.
“Drunk Americans” from a musical standpoint is a swaying sea chanty of a pub singalong whose catchiness and anthemic nature is questionable enough to make you wonder if its desired effect of getting an entire bar room singing in unison will ever be realized, let alone if radio programmers will give it any more than a strong sniff simply because of whose name is attached to it. Hats off for the inclusion of banjo and even accordion in this song, but “Drunk Americans” is still songwriting by committee and formula, relying on the often-trodden out trope of juxtaposed opposites shoved together to create contrast that however witty in places, still feels a bit tired, to where not even a key change 2/3rds of the way through really gives you hope that this song will stick in any significant way in the craw of the American zeitgeist. Then again this is America, and as has been proven time and time again, success can be bought.
This song is not bad. There’s certainly worse. But what makes it a little difficult to stomach is this idyllic, hopeful picture it paints of the American reality that is so far off the mark, it is the equivalent of taking your bar dart, aiming for the bullseye, but landing it in the eye of some unlucky patron stumbling out of the men’s room. Sorry, but America is as polarized, untrusting, and closed-minded of its fellow citizens as it has ever been in its history save for The Civil War, especially when disturbed minds become even more lubricated by the aid of alcoholic libations. America in the fall of 2014 is the virtual equivalent to a bar brawl—from the suburbs of St. Louis, to state houses, to football stadiums, to country music concerts. We’re all pissed off at people who are different from us.
I understand that the hope is a song like this will open people’s eyes and inspire them to set aside differences, but the deep problem here is that this song is acting like this is the current reality, as opposed what should be yearned for. Yes, reactionary polarization is tearing the American ideal apart at the seams, and anyone who attempts to take up a contrary position to this trend should be commended. But attempting to veil this message in alcohol, like the spoon full of sugar to help the medicine go down, is both transparent and ineffective. We hate each other, and instead of truly working to resolving this issue, “Drunk Americans” simply reminds us of the fact that we’re a 50/50 nation scribbling Hitler mustaches on any one who may disagree with us, and seeking out media that simply reinforces our one-sided reality-tunneled perspectives. And let’s not forget our raging alcohol problem.
“Drunk Americans” was written by hot independent/traditional songwriting commodity Brandy Clark, and her regular sidekick and songwriting genius Shane McAnally, along with Bob DiPiero. Brandy says about the song, “You see that title and you think, ‘Oh, it’s a drinking song,’ which it is, but I hope that people can listen to it and see that it’s really an American song.” That is, unless you’re an American that doesn’t drink, which is roughly 1/3 of the population, many of which had previous problems with the sauce, or are banned from doing so by edict from the bench. That is what’s so great about the classic version of the country drinking song. By looking at both sides of the drinking coin, not just the party time aspect, country music truly built a universal consensus in the listener through shared experiences. Now country music has become a vehicle for the same polarization this song attempts to decry.
The approach of this song feels somewhat like “Follow Your Arrow” 2.0, or a different version of Garth’s misguided “People Loving People.” It is trying to save the world through song, so it’s hard to fault it too harshly. But how about simply feeling a human emotion, and then expressing that through song without the taint of rewrites and tweaks over Skype sessions to craft a song into something commercially accessible? Whatever soul this song has feels drained, the chorus and melody feel a little flat, and unfortunately I’m just not hearing the catchiness it would take to even be a big commercial hit.
“Drunk Americans” tries to be sobering, but it’s kind of just a drunken mess.
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1 1/4 of 2 Guns Down.
It’s hard enough to make it in music. There’s many who spend their entire lives trying to crack that nut and never even get enough momentum behind them to even fill half their local watering hole. It’s even harder to make it in music when you’re really not trying to. Or at least when you’re not trying very hard. But music that is begging to be heard always finds its path, and Austin’s Shakey Graves is a testament to that.
Given the name Alejandro Rose-Garcia by his parents, and Shakey Graves by some tripping patron of Austin’s Old Settler’s Fest a few years ago, he was a struggling actor with some musical chops when he decided to release a silly little album called Roll The Bones recorded in various living rooms around Los Angeles in January of 2011 through the DIY site BandCamp. That Shakey once appeared in a few episodes of Friday Night Lights as “The Swede” and had earned himself a smattering of speaking parts here and there was little help in getting folks to listen to his sparse, one man band musings set to blues-style guitar pluckings and the thump of a suitcase drum. But there was just something quirky enough about Shakey Graves to make the whole thing stick in the minds of the few that were exposed. And slowly the few became many.
Roll The Bones was never released on iTunes or Amazon. It never got picked up by some big time distributor or label. Simply by word of mouth and a few residencies in dive bars in his hometown of Austin like Hole In The Wall and The White Horse, the next thing you knew Shakey Graves was selling out clubs all across the country, touring with Shovels & Rope and playing the Newport Folk Fest, and being talked about as one of the fastest-rising commodities in American roots music. One of BandCamp’s first big independent stars, if you will.
“I considered the way I absorbed music: A band that a friend recommends influences me a thousand times more than a band iTunes recommends,” Shakey told Austin Chronicle‘s Kevin Curtin recently. “The idea for the first album was anti-marketing. I wanted to figure out how to acquire fans right now, different from the old model where artists were pushed at you. I spent the last three years building a fan base that felt like they discovered me, which they did. That’s something no one can ever take away.”
But despite all of Roll The Bones‘ word of mouth success, the experience of the album was somewhat limiting. It was a little bit eepish and underdeveloped. Granted, this was at the heart of the charm that many found so appealing, along with the message of Shakey’s stories. But it wasn’t a wholly original work to the well-seasoned ears of the Deep Blues crowd as it was to many of the individuals who incidentally stumbled upon it. And after a nearly four year hiatus, Shakey needed something to sustain the wave of momentum building behind him.
How to evolve into a full band setting while still holding onto what won you such rabid grassroots support was the precarious challenge Shakey Graves was asked to pull off with this new Dualtone release And The War Came, and it’s what he accomplishes with such alacrity, the listener remains delightfully unaware any such challenge even existed. You’re simply listening to Shakey Graves blossom from an obscure one man band for people in the know, to an artist worthy of a wide ear who could and should help define what the vanguard of roots music is in 2014.
And The War Came is still Shakey. It is still delightfully sparse and still includes some songs that are just him. In the end it’s about the textures and words, not about a head count of contributors for each song. Each track is appointed the proper instrumentation called for by the story and mood, and nothing more. Most notably there’s multiple contributions from singer/songwriter Esmé Patterson, who in conjunction with Shakey evokes the similar magic of singing pairings like Shovels & Rope and The Civil Wars.
The “boom, chick” nature of the beginning of this record may throw some off the scent of what’s really at play on this project, which is singing and songwriting. Where Shakey’s original incarnation was about the art of subtly and forged itself during the high tide of the early 2010′s hipster onslaught, this new effort is about Shakey rearing back and really discovering the range and capabilities of his voice, while being afforded the latitude to discover wider reaches of melody and rhythm from having more hands on deck. Almost like Emmylou Harris, Shakey knows exactly where his voice will fail him and smooth tone will become gravely warble, and this is an invaluable attribute for him in his effort to express emotion.
And The War Came is tell tale folk wayfaring blues with a dash of country roots, but like all artists who in turn help define their epoch in music, Shakey Graves elevates himself beyond definition, and presents music to the world that obscurity is no match for.
1 3/4 of 2 Guns Up.
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Moving in to fill the space once carved out between country and alternative rock by alt-country pioneers such as Uncle Tupelo and the Old 97′s, three sons of University of Virginia Southern Literature professor Bill Wilson and two other willing accomplices come together to form the Charlottesville-based Sons of Bill under the charge to help revitalize a discipline that in many respects has become forgotten in country’s subgenre landscape, and has shed bands and listeners to the more fashionable nomenclature of the day—Americana.
But Sons of Bill are still very much an alt-country band at heart, even if they have to adopt the ‘Americana’ term to save themselves from lengthy explanations. Admittedly ‘alt-country’ sounds a little bit tired as a term these days, and in some listener’s minds it evokes ideas of graying musicians who were hot in the mid 90′s trying to hold on to what was cool 20 years ago. But Sons of Bill is very much a band of now, and if it accomplishes nothing else, their new album Love and Logic is an example of this, and poses a challenging and expansive approach to composition and songwriting that the whole “three chords and the truth” of country simply doesn’t have the capacity to encapsulate.
In fact Love and Logic reaches further into the rock zone than even the alt-country designate traditionally affords, almost like indie rock with steel guitar in certain spots, with old-school Brit pop sensibilities in the form of answering chorus lines and keyboard sounds spread throughout this album. The full gamut of the Sons of Bill’s influences are on display here, from Townes Van Zandt and Gram Parsons, to R.E.M. and The Replacements. Merle and Hank are here too, but you’ll have to listen a little bit deeper to hear their legacy in the bones of these compositions.
Love and Logic is a very brooding, ethereal, almost spacey experience, with not a lot of pace to the music, but more of an immersive approach to enrapturing the listener and pulling the emotion out of them through the combination of sonic landscapes and literature set to music.
Where the more universal appeal for Sons of Bill can be found is in their songwriting. Love and Logic is smart and self-aware, and assumes an attentive and adept listener. They’re not afraid to unburden their fears or to offer their opinions through song, and this affords the same opportunity for the audience. The song “Brand New Paradigm” chimes the warning that can’t be heard enough about slowing one’s self down to let the rat race proceed without you. “Bad Dancer” iterates the dilemma of the brooding male like few others accomplish. “Arms of the Landslide” speaks to the overwhelming nature of simply being alive these days and being willing to submit yourself to a path that is inherently uncontrollable.
Though the sounds and approaches are new, there’s a lot of unapologetic 90′s influences flowing out from Love & Logic, especially in songs like “Arms of the Landslide” and “Brand New Paradigm.” But the old-school country influences come poking through too, like in the simple and warm approach to “Fishing Song.” Even when you feel they’ve reached well outside the realm of country, a banjo strike, the moan of a steel guitar, or a three part harmony grounds the Sons of Bill to those moments when brothers Sam, James, and Abe Wilson were being raised in a house where their father played traditional country music for the family.
Producer Ken Coomer, who played drums in both Uncle Tupelo and Wilco, and has produced albums for Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris, and Will Hoge to name a few, feels like he wields a heavy hand on what Love and Logic resulted in. Some may wince at the sedated nature, or the compositional Wilco-like approach of this album, while others may wonder just what exactly is country about it. But Love and Logic is worth giving a chance and trying to discover its beauty even if it initially hits outside one’s initial comfort zone.
1 3/4 of 2 Guns Up.
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Silly me for thinking that the experience of having his home ripped apart by his own selfish actions, and his entire life smattered across tabloid covers would elicit at least a slight recalibration of priorities for Jason Aldean, or for goodness sakes, at least stimulate a few moments of introspection or something close to the semblance of a deep thought. But instead what we get with Old Boots, New Dirt is a doubling down of Aldean’s errant behavior. The album is the singer breaking free of the repressive sexual bonds of marriage and country music’s rigid moral regime to reclaim his wild 16-year-old post-adolescent oats at the age of 37. On Old Boots, New Dirt, Jason Aldean proclaims the world his oyster, and presents such a flaunting of the human id, even Charlie Sheen would cock an eyebrow and give it a nodding approval.
Bad mouth Jason Aldean’s previous accomplishments all you want, but heretofore his career has been defined by the defiant spirit of interior America’s lost populous—disenfranchised and forgotten in the age of technology as they unflinchingly continue on with their way of life inherited down from generations. It was the rumination on water towers and wondering what if they could talk, the troubling thoughts at watching grain silos slowly run empty and fall into disrepair just like the towns that sit in the shadows of them. It was starring at the dirt underneath your fingernails every evening and the age slowing cracking across your face, while you brood in the same house your grandparents lived in. And yes, it was even driving down dirt roads, swerving like your George Jones, with memory lane up in the headlights, and pondering your place in this fast-changing world and the intimidating passage of time.
Now what do we get from Jason Aldean? A simple enumeration of his sexual conquests one after another, with very little respite.
“I knew the minute that I picked you up, it was gonna be a wild ride,” the very first song “Just Gettin’ Started” starts off. “You kissed me like you couldn’t get enough. Barely made it out of your drive.”
The second song “Show You Off” unfolds just about as you would expect it to. “I just want to show you off. Drive them all crazy, watch all the boys hate me. This ain’t so wrong, come on.” This is what passes for Aldean being “sweet.” This leads into the lead single from the album, the already much maligned and ultra-sexualized “Burnin’ It Down,” …and on and on from there.
And all of this is punctuated with these softcore-style bubbly, smooth jazz R&B electronic sex beats that are the sonic foundation for this album. Jason Aldean has apparently morphed into the country music equivalent of the classic Saturday night Cinemax lineup—showing just enough skin to get you somewhat steamy-feeling, but not conveying enough of either truly revealing material or depth of story to leave you either satisfied or fulfilled. It’s all froth.
Old Boots, New Dirt sees Jason Aldean doing what he did with “Dirt Road Anthem,” which went on to become a landmark moment for rap in country music. Where artists like Jerrod Niemann and Sam Hunt tried to push country music aggressively towards an EDM era, Aldean and his production team understood that to truly take the idea mainstream, you have to smooth off the edges and homogenize it so when you serve it up en masse to the public, they don’t gag as it is getting shoved down their throat. That was at the heart of the success of “Dirt Road Anthem,” and that is what’s at play here. Country rap had already been around for years, but Aldean figured out how to make it palatable for white America’s corporate country consumer. “Burnin’ It Down” (which has been widely successful) and Old Boots, New Dirt do this for country’s new EDM/R&B era.
This all begs the question of what mainstream country music is going to do next since it’s burning through genre bending ideas at about one genre per year. Before we know it, someone will be figuring out how to work polka into pop country (and god knows it would probably be an improvement). But for now, EDM/R&B country is likely to be very financially lucrative for Aldean and others.
There are a couple of moments where Jason tries to evidence some vulnerability and depth on this album. “Tryin’ To Love Me” seems to talk about reflecting back on relationship fights and understanding that the conflict was really coming from love and not spite, and could be taken in the context of Aldean’s recent marital troubles as something true to his personal experiences. But of course this is immediately followed up with “Sweet Little Somethin’” that makes the sentiment behind Maddie & Tae’s “Girl In A Country Song” feel so very timely, and songs like “Laid Back” and “Tonight Looks Good On You” are every bit as awful as their titles imply.
The second half of the album is a little better though, and ends with the best song, “Two Night Town,” which is so classic and well-written, it’s a shame someone like Aldean had to cut it and bury it as a final track. But it is too little too late for this epilogue to Aldean’s era of enumerating the simple virtues of the Heartland ideal and the everyday injustices perpetuated against it through the march of time. Old Boots, New Dirt is Jason Aldean’s Benedict Arnold moment. It is the moment the corn farmer’s son comes home wearing a flat-brimmed baseball cap and listening to Wiz Khalifa. It’s inevitable, but still somehow a shame—not because Wiz Khalifa is evil necessarily, but because it symbolizes the end of an era. Once upon a time, this was something that made for good Jason Aldean songs.
Two guns down.
Here’s to watching what you wish for. For a while we’ve been clamoring for these Bro-Country types to put a little story in their songs instead of simply listing off the stuff they see as they sit on their tailgate with their iPhone notepad pulled up trying to write a song. Unfortunately those results regularly turn out to be worse than the latter as we get these unsavory insights into the truly self-absorbed, sometimes bordering on sociopathic tendencies that make these douchebags tick. We saw this with Tyler Farr’s “Redneck Crazy,” and now I enter into state’s evidence Cole Swindell’s “Hope You Get Lonely Tonight.”
This song has been swirling out there for a while, but it seems we’re living in a country music world where even ‘B’ level male music talent is entitled to scoring #1′s while the genre’s best females fight back obscurity. Last week “Hope You Get Lonely Tonight” bested all others on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart. That’s right, there’s no other song out there that DJ’s felt more inclined to spin than a song about the controlling male in a caustic and unhealthy relationship manipulating his other half into regrettable sex. “If you’ve got some room for a little regret, let me know girl I’ve already left.”
“I Hope You Get Lonely Tonight” starts off with your stereotypical EDM drum machine beat idiosyncratic of today’s stupid and uninspired country, careening into Whitesnake-style super riffs of arena guitar. When Cole starts singing, you immediately sense the infiltration of 1′s and 0′s on his vocal track indicative of Auto-Tune’s involvement, and from the first line—“I could go for a tipsy tailgate kiss, baby taste the moonshinin’ off of your lips”—the listener can immediately discern that the overlords of tailgate country—Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelly of Florida Georgia Line—had their tentacles all over this songwriting-by-committee monstrosity.
But to give this song its due credit, it does touch on a section of the young adult emotional experience rarely elucidated upon to any significant degree. Most of us have experienced that difficult time in the post-relationship setting where even though you’ve steadfastly determined from an intellectual standpoint that it is time to move on, the emotional and physical pull of someone you have invested heavily in over a period is still too powerful to overcome. It’s something that takes time, and usually a new lover, to fully divest from. However instead of delving into this moment of vulnerability with a candid attempt at understanding, Cole Swindell, with an air of smugness and arrogance, grins at his own power to coax his previous lover into a compromising situation he knows will be unhelpful to her long-term mental state. The whole “I hope you get lonely” refrain speaks to the inherent selfishness at the heart of this song.
The sad fact is that a lot of mainstream country’s target demo can relate to a song like this, including many female listeners who while sneering at this type of behavior on the outside, find the allure of the “bad boy” archetype so enthralling and savory that they play along, fully knowing they have “room for a little regret” awaiting them.
With “Hope You Get Lonely Tonight” scoring Cole Swindell his 2nd #1 in as many tries, this former merch salesman for Luke Bryan makes the case for being both one of mainstream country’s fastest-rising stars, and one of the worst offenders for anyone trying to implement some modicum of quality control in the genre.
1 3/4 of 2 Guns Down.
If you’re looking for a brand of country music that is country and country only, not country rock, country punk, “evolved” country, alt-country or Americana, then J.P. Harris & The Tough Choices just might be right in your wheelhouse. J.P. lets it be known he’d rather you leave your hyphenated country labels and long-winded qualifiers clear of what he does. And when you listen to his music, that’s exactly what you get: country music as the original concept of what the term “country” implies with very little wiggle room.
J.P. Harris has had a busy couple of weeks. While attending the Americana Music Conference in Nashville, he released his second album through Cow Island Music called Home Is Where The Hurt Is, and just like his highly-lauded last album I’ll Keep Calling, it brings the country heartbreak drenched in twang, while featuring contributions from Nikki Lane and Old Crow Medicine Show’s Chance McCoy.
And if that didn’t lump enough on J.P.’s plate, he decided to help launch a music event called the Keep It Country Festival happening Oct. 3rd thru 5th at Bandit Town in the Sierra Nevada foothills in California. Red Simpson, Whitey Morgan & The 78′s, Nikki Lane, Joe Fletcher, Sam Outlaw, Miss Lonely Hearts, and Paige Anderson & The Fearless Kin are all playing the event.
As J.P. was driving across the desert Southwest, he spoke to Saving Country Music by phone about his various pursuits, and about the Keep It Country concept.
On your new album Home Is Where The Hurt Is, are you trying to interpret traditional country into the modern day context, or are you singing about your real life, and just doing so in a traditional country style? Or is it a combination of both?
I’d probably say it’s a little bit of both. All of the songs I’ve written have some real world experience for me. I would like to make up awesome stories that go to song just perfectly and beautifully out of thin air, but unfortunately I only gain inspiration through experiences whether they’re good or bad, and in this case they’re usually bad or heartbreaking. So there’s always at least a portion of a song that’s an interpretation of my own life. But at the same time, when I write songs there’s classic themes or classic vocal sounds or rhyming schemes that just come out naturally because I listen to so much country music. And so I’m sure by default I’m always interpreting the modern world through traditional country music, but at the same time, I’m just re-interpreting stories from my own life, especially on this record. A handful of those songs are pretty true to the letter to actual situations that have happened in my life over the last couple of years since the last record came out. In some ways the songs on this album feel more personal to me than ones from the last record. I shaped them a lot more I think to fit within a sound that I envisioned for each song, and on this record I feel like they just took their own shape and they just worked themselves out. I didn’t do as much hammering at the anvil on them.
You go out of your way to say that your music is country and country only. No prefixes, no suffixes, no brand new compound words. Why is this important to you, and do you believe the term “country” is worth fighting for or preserving?
For the last 50 years in American history, country music is the one thing that is universally identifiable as an American soundtrack, as an American kind of music. More than any other type of exclusively American music—old rock and roll, old black blues, old-time bluegrass or fiddle music—I think that country music more broadly represents a bigger segment of people in America. Keeping that tradition alive and seeing that country music has played an amazing role in unifying different segments politically and culturally of American people, it’s worth fighting to keep that identifiable.
Do you think all of these disparate terms that have popped up lately like Americana or alt-country or even something like Ameripolitan are potentially hurting the cause of of independent country music because there’s only so much of a pie slice to begin with, and then you cut the pie slices even smaller by these different terms and making people choose what to call it?
Yeah, the honest truth is that the longer I play country music and tour playing that music, and work with other country musicians, the less I get concerned about people wanting to delineate their own music to some sort of ‘hyphenated country music’ as I call it. Because I feel like the bottom line is that what people are trying to do by trying to broaden and come up with all these different terms that involve the word ‘country’ or ‘American’ is these folks really want to identify with what the country music mindset was in the 60′s or 70′s. And I think there’s probably room for people to do that, it’s just in my own music I don’t. There’s been a handful of shows we’ve played where people review us or write about it and say, “Classic Texas Country & Western music,” and I’m like, “Hold on, you’re putting too many delineations on this thing. It’s just straight up country music. Plain and simple.
I think there’s room for the expansion of country music, and on a personal level I do feel like fighting for the term of country music is worth doing, and the way I’ve taken about doing it these days is make my opinion plain and simple by saying that I don’t think what they play on the radio and call country music is in any way benefiting or furthering the tradition of country music. It is so far off the mark. And I think people say and sometimes validly in the commercial country world, “Country music can’t survive if we don’t continue to evolve.” As an individual artist, sure I believe that each artist has to evolve in their songwriting and their singing and their playing and everything else. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that glossing over your music to make it more commercially viable in any way equates to an evolution of music.
I feel people continuing to have a dialog about it, and people saying that what’s on the radio is not country music, it’s just as applicable to all of these country punk bands, a lot of which are friends of mine, and people I know and respect as coming from a similar musical background or upbringing. But you can say the same thing about bands that are touring and saying, “We’re country music,” and it’s like “Well you’re a bunch of punk kids beating the shit out of your instruments, you’re not working that hard at your arranging or singing.” That’s not country music either. It’s a whole other type of music. So I feel like spending too much time being self-righteous about it as part of my platform as a musician is not something I want to spend much energy on. My opinions haven’t changed at all and I respect people who have made a platform out of it, that they’re willing to stand really hardline behind what they believe in. But there isn’t a way that movement will destroy pop country. It will never go away. Which is a sad fact because it’s really a bummer that it even exists.
I think that re-arranging ways to appreciate and acknowledge country musicians like what Dale Watson has spearheaded with Ameripolitan, I think that’s great because that’s a way within out community to create our own hierarchy as country music is judged in our opinions. And since none of us are going to get into the CMA’s, why don’t we just make our own stuff?
Along those same lines, you have a new festival coming up called the “Keep It Country Festival.” How did that come about, and what inspired you to bite off such a big responsibility as helping to throw a festival?
It started for a couple of reasons. My friend Jen who runs Bandit Brand clothing bought this really awesome reproduction Wild West town that was built back in the 70′s and sat totally abandoned for a bunch of years, and used to be a really vital part of that rural community in the Sierra foothills in California. She’s someone who is really involved in sort of promoting Outlaw culture, and she’s making really cool clothing that’s American made. She and I met a while ago and just really hit it off. So we kind of joked about throwing a party out there sometime and I said, “Hey, if I could get Red Simpson to come out and play, do you think we should try and throw a festival out there?” And she said, “Well shit yeah, let’s do it.”
Really the basis of the whole thing started because I wanted to put together some sort of a showcase of what I considered to be the new generation of people continuing on the tradition of country music. And I won’t say that every band there is strictly 100% traditional country by any means. But I felt like we needed something out West that could be a clearinghouse weekend for that, and do it somewhere cool that kind of represents the attitude behind the music. So it all just kind of came together.
I got a hold of Red [Simpson] and we probably spent a good hour and a half on the phone, and he agreed to do it. Since then we’ve been on the phone a dozen times, and most of the time it’s just us shooting the shit about old country music. But it’s been cool getting to know him and I’m excited. I think to a lot of people … we just had the AMA [Americana] musical festival thing in Nashville, which I think is a good thing that’s really starting to open its doors to a lot more musicians and become a lot more inclusive, but at the same time being there and kind of looking around, I realized that 90% of the people have no idea who Red Simpson is. They would know the Buck Owens song “Close Up The Honky Tonks” or they would know the Merle Haggard song “You Don’t Have Very Far To Go.” But these are songs that Red wrote. They know “Highway Patrol,” but they think it’s a Junior Brown song when it’s actually an old Red Simpson tune. And I just realized this guy is sort of a unsung hero outside of real diehard country fans. And I wanted it to be more than just, “Hey, we’re a bunch of snotty-nosed 30-something kids playing country music, and we’re badass.” I wanted to have somebody here that is validating what we’re doing and shows where what we’re doing is coming from. This is a tangible piece of country music history.
So it’s really been by the seat of our pants. Everyone’s playing for super super cheap, and we’re all just putting this together as we figure it out. We’ve got help from Dee Fretwell at the West Coast Country Music Festival. And Jen [from Bandit Brand] is getting her feet pretty wet this summer with events out there. Another reason for this is I felt like I knew a lot of different people from different country music cliques, and I just wanted to find a good way to connect the dots there. I just felt like I needed to cross pollinate all these different people. Someone who knows my music through Nikki Lane or knows Nikki Lane’s music through mine should know who our buddy Sam Outlaw is, or should know who Whitey Morgan is. I feel like there’s not enough cohesion because the independent country music scene in America is not inter-connected enough yet that it’s easy for people to stumble upon other bands all the time. If nothing else we’re going to have one hell of a time. It’s gonna be a raging party to not forget.
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I don’t know how Marty Stuart does it. He’s like Gandalf on the back of his white steed, galloping here and there and everywhere in his pursuit to save country music. He’s scouring the country to secure important country music artifacts for preservation. He’s opening a cultural center in his hometown. He’s starring in The Marty Stuart Show and touring constantly. And here he is releasing a double album through his Superlatone record label.
Saturday Night / Sunday Morning unfolds just like its title implies. The first album is the secular country music fare you’ve come used to hearing from Marty Stuart with his mainstay backing band of recent years The Fabulous Superlatives, where the telecasters are loud and twangy, and the style is honky tonk and traditional. Then the second album unfolds very much like you would expect if you’ve heard Marty Stuart and the Superlatives perform their version of rocking country Gospel and a cappella compositions with their captivating four-part harmonies. It’s Gospel, but it’s Marty Stuart Gospel. It’s electric, with a vitality and energy not always heard in the discipline.
Like his mentor Johnny Cash, as Marty Stuart has grown older, he’s evidenced an increasingly deeper appreciation for Gospel music. Most any Marty Stuart album is going to boast a Gospel song or two, but with this release he takes the time to make an entire album of religiously-inspired music. Marty actually released another Gospel album called The Gospel Music of Marty Stuart somewhat quietly in April that includes live performances of many recognizable Gospel songs regularly performed on The Marty Stuart Show. But Saturday Night / Sunday Morning is Stuart putting his personal stamp on Gospel, and making sure to serve both sides of his fan base by not just including Gospel songs exclusively.
If you think about it, this strategy is pretty smart. Unfortunately, some listeners are turned off when they hear an album is only going to include religious material. You combine two albums together, and you can lead right into it since folks are already listening. It’s like your mother giving you sugar with the medicine. Next thing you know, you’re appreciating the Gospel music just as much as Marty’s other stuff, if not more.
Saturday Night / Sunday Morning should not be considered a concept album. There’s no deep-seated story with recurring characters or themes referenced throughout like Marty’s landmark concept album The Pilgrim from 1999. The two albums are more just a style and approach delineation, though like all of Marty’s music, there are still important themes and messages to heed, hard lessons learned, harrowing stories, and personal awakenings to be had amongst these 23 new tracks.
Marty gives us a lot of music to crunch through in this release, and a lot of notable appearances. Included on Saturday Night / Sunday Morning beyond the Fabulous Superlatives is Hall of Famer Hargus “Pig” Robbins on piano, who makes appearances throughout the Saturday Night album. Both Hargus and and Willie Nelson’s long-time harmonica player Mickey Raphael pretty much carry the second song “Geraldine.” The great Mavis Staples makes an important appearance to begin the Sunday Morning portion of the release, lending her vocal talents to the classic “Uncloudy Day.” And Evelyn Hubbard also shows up on the Gospel album. Who is Evelyn Hubbard you ask? Well she’s a pastor at the Commerce Missionary Baptist Church in Robinsonville, Mississippi of course.
Saturday Night / Sunday Morning begins with Marty Stuart reviving the sound that has graced his records since enlisting the Superlatives as his backing band. Though people talk about the great guitar-slinging frontmen of country music today like Brad Paisley and Keith Urban, the combination of Marty Stuart and “Cousin” Kenny Vaughan makes for about the best Telecaster-based country music you can find these days, and based not just off of technique, but off of tone and taste. Since Saturday Night is chased by Gospel, Marty and the boys put the pedal down on the first album and rarely let off. Think of old school honky tonk country rock.
The middle of this album gets just a little bit sleepy. There’s a decent amount of covers on this record, and in stretches you feel like Marty is doing a little too much interpreting of old song styles than offering more original-sounding material like on recent albums. But there’s not a slouch anywhere on this track list either.
Sunday Morning continuously builds toward the end of the album, to where the brilliant four part harmonies of Marty, “Cousin” Kenny, “Handsome” Harry Stinson, and “Apostle” Paul Martin unfold into some brilliant, and spine-tingling works of inspirational music. For years the foursome has been performing one of the best renditions of “Angels Rock Me To Sleep” ever bestowed to human ears, and we finally get a recorded version of this masterpiece. And the album resolves in the mostly-a cappella original “Heaven” that is so haunting and touching, it should be considered one of the essential recordings of Marty Stuart’s entire career.
Once again Marty Stuart and the Fabulous Superlatives prove they are at the core of keeping the traditions of country music alive, while doing so in a manner that is energetic, inviting, informed, and broad-based where people of all stripes—the Saturday night and Sunday morning people—can come together and enjoy the gift of good country music together.
1 3/4 of 2 Guns Up.
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