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Yes ladies and gentlemen, you’re seeing this right. Do not rub your eyes or adjust your monitors. In a wild upset, coming out of left field, and counter to just about every other music outlet’s top rated albums, Saving Country Music’s Album of the Year for 2013 is none other than the masterpiece from The Mavericks, the infectious celebration of the joys of life and music known as In Time.
Go ahead, leave your comments below about how this album is not country.
The Mavericks’ In Time cuts against the grain, and is counterintuitive to all of the well-noted and often-ballyhooed music trends of 2013. 2013 was coined as the “Year of the Woman” in country music by many, and the “Year of the Songwriter” by Saving Country Music and others. In Time doesn’t appreciably reside in either of those distinctions, though I would argue that it’s a much more deft songwriting presentation than it may seem on the surface. And no, it’s not especially country in the traditional sense.
But you reach a point in music where it is so good that no data points, no trends, no narrow-minded ties to genre matter. Music isn’t meant to be over thought as we so often do as active music fans, it is meant to be felt. And the best music simply grips you and allows you to lose yourself in it. In Time reminded this jaded music critic who must toil through reams of albums every day to find something even worthy of writing a few paragraphs about of what it meant to be a music lover all over again.
A masterpiece? I believe so. Singer Raul Malo is the the George Jones and Frank Sinatra of our time all rolled up into one, it’s just our time is gripped by the narrow, short attention span that doesn’t paying proper attention to talent like Raul’s towering vocal gifts that are unparalleled in virtually every corner of music this side of operatic maestros, or the tastefulness of guitar player and harmony singer Eddie Perez, or all of the admirable contributions of The Mavericks’ core and subsidiary players.
The country influences are certainly here, and anyone who asserts otherwise simply isn’t listening through the music to its inner soul. But without question, there are heavy Latin, cajun, surf, rock, and jazz influences here too. In Time is not simply the best album in country music in 2013, it is arguably one of the best, if not the best album in all of American music, and for it not to win the day in it’s home genre of country music would be a silly oversight, and tough to justify as In Time only becomes fortified by the test of time, divested from trend or taste as it is, and embedded with such universal appeal.
In Time by The Mavericks is the one; the only album that left no room for improvement, was both slick and tight, yet alive and breathing from the live aspect of the recording. It looked both forward, and behind. It led, but also paid tribute. It was a gift of music that gave more than any other in 2013, that also promises to continue to give for years to come.
Fans of this album will be the first to cry foul, but I will say what many long-time fans that knew Sturgill before this album will all admit: Sturgill has even more in him than High Top Mountain captures. I say this in an appreciative way as someone who has known Sturgill’s music longer than most. Sturgill has a whole career of albums ahead of him, and may win half a dozen Albums of the Year from Saving Country Music and others before it’s all done. But if an artist could have even done more than a particular album displays, however excellent that album may be, it must be considered when making a choice for Album of the Year. Nonetheless, consider High Top Mountain a very close runner up.
Jason Isbell’s Southeastern should also be considered a very close runner up to In Time. It is an astounding collection of songs, but in the end didn’t carry the weight as a complete album concept the way In Time did in my opinion.
Also interesting to note, I did tally all of the clear and obvious votes from readers for all of the Album of the Year nominees. The Mavericks and In Time beat out Southeastern 20 votes to 19. High Top Mountain got the most with 24, but Saving Country Music is also much more familiar ground for Simpson and Isbell fans. It was interesting to see just how close these three albums came to each other, and it did help influence the outcome.
And lastly I would say, before people scream about how another album should have won, my request is only do so after you have given In Time a chance.
I first heard about the rambunctious and ribald Bobby Joe Owens through guitar maestro Zach Sweeny—Wayne “The Train” Hancock’s lead guitarist that has also played with folks like Lucky Tubb, Danny Kay & The Nightlifers, and many others. Sweeny appeared on Bobby Joe’s first two albums, including 2010′s Watermelon Tea that prominently featured the Squirrel Nut Zipper’s Jimbo Mathus. Bobby Joe always seemed like an interesting character, but his recent release Liquor, Love & Laughter was my first chance to get a face full of his full tilt sidesplitting musical antics.
Recorded at the famous Cash Cabin—the cabin formerly owned by Johnny Cash in Hendersonville, TN that has been converted into a studio—Liquor, Love & Laughter is not a particularly slick album, with little flubs and hiccups here and there, and some mixing issues. But damn if this album isn’t a real good time and a wild ride from beginning to end.
Bobby Joe Owens is a guy who didn’t even start doing anything in music until 2006 when he started writing songs under the name “Robert J. Thompson.” He doesn’t play an instrument, is probably not going to win any singing competitions, but his songs will jerk tears from you, whether you’re laughing out loud, or relenting to a truly heartfelt ballad. The former Marine Corps veteran names off his occupations as inventor, entrepreneur, philanthropist, and despite all the signs that he comes to the music realm from the outside looking in, his songwriting will kick the ass of many who claim music as their full-time gig.
Liquor, Love & Laughter starts off with with a straight up rockabilly tune called “Hopeless Romantic,” and though the song captures a fun vibe, you start to worry, especially with a backing band by the name of “Retro Deluxe” that getting into this man’s music will require either a quaffed pompadour or Betty Page bangs. But one of the best parts about Bobby Joe Owens and this album is that it is all over the place as far as influence, touching on just about every texture of the American roots world, from straight up country and honky tonk, to singer-songwriter type Americana-feeling tunes, to no holds barred off-color comedy songs.
After the rockabilly intro, Owens careens straight into country music with the cunning and crafty “From Beer To There.” The drinking theme is carried over through most of the first half of the album, including the salty “Long Time Until Next Time” and “Drinkin’ My Heartbreak Away.” And then Bobby Joe takes you completely by surprise with an exquisitely-written, somber and sober ballad evoking the feeling of sincere heartbreak called “Don’t Forget To Forget.” Even if you think this dude is a complete goof, “Don’t Forget To Forget” is one diamond in the rough worth digging for. So is the spatial and mood-drenched “Tennessee Tar” that could come from your favorite songwriting-focused Americana band.
As the album progresses, the comedy songs start coming quick and often. No, “My Dickel” is not about Bobby Joe’s favorite uncle named Richard, but it will leave you in stitches like a head first dive off a couch into the side of the coffee table. “Friends Don’t Le Friends Face Book Drunk” (yes two words for “Face Book”) is the funny song whose off-color wit is what forced Bobby Joe Owens to include a Parental Advisory sticker on this album, and the jokes keep coming (no pun intended) in “Text Me You Love Me.”
Though I spoke about the little recording flubs here and there on this album, it is nothing short of expansive in how it was fleshed out by Retro Deluxe and a cast of mercenary musicians. Every song gets expansive treatment with quality and tasteful musicianship, backing vocals, and those extra treatments like mandolin, or the piano on “Don’t Forget To Forget” that fits the song perfectly instead of using what was easily available.
Not for everyone, but like a Roger Miller-style approach to country, Bobby Joe Owens and Retro Deluxe leave you quite entertained with a combination of wit and substance that speaks to a sincere appreciation for the joy of music.
1 1/2 of 2 guns up.
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So here it is January 3rd, the day that we were promised that everything would be revealed of why a month ago today, Eric Church’s marketing arm decided to post a psychotic and irresponsible “teaser” video for his upcoming The Outsiders album that depicted a shadowy figure in gloves obsessively watching a video of Taylor Swift explaining on the CMA Awards how it was Eric Church’s arrogant and idiotic torpedoing of a opening spot on a Rascal Flatts tour that eventually led to Taylor getting her big break in country music.
The Eric Church video was so creepy and so ripe to be misunderstood, Saving Country Music posted an expletive-laden tirade and demanded the video be taken down. Eventually it was before a public outrage could be launched, and despite many Church fans proclaiming the video as payback to Taylor Swift for calling out Eric Church on the CMA Awards, (and that it was completely justified, because you know, Eric Church isn’t part of the “in” crowd and is an “outsider”) a subsequent video explained that Eric Church “adores Taylor,” making Church’s fans have to each their own asses, while Eric Church himself back paddled harder than the Oxford University rowing team in a 4.2 mile heat race on the River Thames.
The video that Eric Church inc. posted in place of their Taylor Swift stalker video urged us all to “stay on course” and that on January 3rd “all will be revealed to you.” And as always with these dumbass teaser videos, nothing was revealed, nothing makes sense, none of the disturbing imagery from the December 3rd video is now somehow justified just because Eric Church released a new song that has nothing to do with any of it. It’s all just a bunch of marketing that distracts from the music and leaves the gawking country music fan wanting and confused, while the fact that the whole run up to Eric’s The Outsiders album is such an obvious ripoff of Shooter Jennings and how he marketed his last album The Other Life goes horrifically under reported.
But there is a new single here that needs to be dealt with called “Give Me Back My Hometown.” The song is very, very trope-like, residing deeply within the well-worn grooves of the often called-upon American music theme of the forgotten hometown and heartland decay. Is it a laundry list song, or as some like to couch it, “bro-country?” No, no it’s not. Is it a country rap? Not even close. Is it an alternative to the trash that permeates the mainstream country music airwaves? Sure it is. But before we proclaim it is something more than just another song, let’s not allow ourselves to reduce our measure of what is good simply because Music Row has deftly extended the boundary of what is positively awful into previously uncharted territory.
At the same time it is not unfair to couch “Give Me Back My Hometown” as a respite from the rest of mainstream male country. And the reason this small town theme works so often is because it resonates in a fairly universal manner, especially amongst country music fans. But the boldness of “Give Me Back My Hometown” is in the musical approach to the song. Once again Eric Church reveals himself on the progressive edge of country sonically compared to his Bon Jovi-esque and country rapping counterparts, delivering a rhythmic, banjo-driven bed that is catchy without feeling cliche, and a melody that reveals Church’s adeptness at carrying feeling in his voice into an impressively-high register.
To the mainstream country ear, “Give Me Back My Hometown” must sound nothing short of foreign and refreshing. But to an ear with a more wide sense of perspective, especially when the heavy bass drum beat and hand claps kick in about 1/3′rd of the way through the song, a strong, pungent Lumineers influence reveals itself quite obviously. A similar observation can be made of Lady Antebellum’s recent single, the banjo and clap-driven “Compass.” Once again we see a symptom of Music Row being 18 months behind the relevancy arch, and just now catching up with what was cool last year, despite feeling cutting-edge within the format.
All those observations aside though, simply based off of the ear test, “Give Me Back My Hometown” is not bad. The song works. And though with his first two singles off The Outsiders Eric seems to be focusing more on music and less on capturing the muse behind the story he wants to convey, give him credit for being willing to trod outside of popular music’s current modes, or at least mainstream country’s.
1 1/4 of 2 guns up.
Saving Country Music’s Artist of the Year, just like the Song of the Year and Album of the Year, is designed to eventually resolve down to one. But this is not always the case. For example in 2010 there were two Albums of the Year because with two worthy contenders giving up nothing to each other, it seemed irresponsible to supplant one for the other because of some silly notion that you can only have one. Such is the case here in 2013 when handing out the honor meant to not just highlight the music, but the man or woman behind it.
It was difficult to whittle down this decision even to two. Raul Malo of The Mavericks had one hell of a year. Songwriter and schoolteacher Possessed by Paul James with both a breakout album There Will Be Nights When I’m Lonely and a “Teacher of the Year” nod seemed to embody the balance of both a great person and a great artist that the Artist of the Year distinction is meant to honor. And if there was a runner up to the two men eventually selected, it would be a collection of all the inspiring women in country music in 2013 presented together as a collective Artist of the Year.
In the end though, two individuals in 2013 outshone all others.
Artists of the Year are not just measured against their peers, they are measured against themselves. We’re inspired by artists because they do things that we can’t. At the same time, the best artists inspire us to try to do things that we thought we never could. How many times does an artist’s finest work proceed an era of turmoil and/or redemption in their personal lives, almost to the point where if you start telling too many of the specifics of their success story, it just begins to feel like platitudes? Jason Isbell is the same man he was before 2013′s rousing success, gifted with the same skills as a guitar player and songwriter, influenced by the same legends and works, with the same Muscle Shoals roots intertwining with his fibers to create his unique interpretation of American roots music.
But 2013 is where it all aligned. You could blame his recently-found sobriety. You could blame his manager Traci Thomas and the entire Thirty Tigers organization that is on the cutting edge of the new music business paradigm of giving artist’s world-class support while allowing them to keep control of their music. Or you could blame the love and support of his new wife, Amanda Shires Isbell. But none of these people could write those songs, or deliver them with such feeling. None of them could get sober for Isbell, nor is getting sober the solution for every artist to stumble into the true essence of themselves, or the fortune to be able to share that essence with a wide, appreciative audience. It’s not like Isbell was some slouch to start, or wasn’t graced with attention or accolades in previous years. It just happens to be that when he was able to refine himself as a man, his music followed suit to create one of the most consensus picks for who outshone everyone else in a given year that we have seen in country/Americana music in a long time.
2013 was Jason Isbell’s year, and Southeastern was 2013′s songwriter album that all others will be measured against for very a long time.
The idea that country music needs to be saved is woven into the very fabric of the genre. It’s the reason the Outlaws were able to rise in the 70′s, and deliver country music’s first million-selling album. It’s the reason a song like “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way” can reach #1 in 1975, and a song like “Murder On Music Row” can win the CMA for Song of the Year in 2001.
And within this mythos of country music, and residing in the hearts of millions of despondent country fans is this idea, however fanciful or misguided, that an artist, or a group of artists, could rise up and return sensibility, substance, and the roots of country back to the music. Eric Church once mocked this idea in a song called “Country Music Jesus,” laughing at both the idea that country music needed to be saved, and that we needed some artist to do it.
Did Sturgill Simpson save the country music genre in 2013? Of course not. He didn’t even come close. But what he did do is fulfill that promise that the future of country music will be better than the present for the many true country fans who were fortunate to come in contact with his debut, breakout album High Top Mountain. Sturgill Simpson doesn’t want to save country music, he just wants to play it. He may not even want to call it country music, or care that anyone wants to save country….and that’s one of the reasons that he very well just might.
In some respects, Eric Church, and all the other mainstream artists and fans who say country music must evolve are right. And what Sturgill Simpson proved in 2013 is that country music can evolve, can still feel fresh, invigorated, and renewed, while still paying the highest regard and respects to the roots of the music. But maybe most importantly, and the truth that can bring shivers to all those fans hoping for that one artist that can help turn the country music ship around, is the fact that Sturgill Simpson is only just getting started. A brighter future for country music is what Sturgill Simpson delivered in 2013, and there’s no value or distinction that can repay what that means to the hearts of true country fans.
What any authentic music artist wishes to accomplish when they sit down to write a song is to convey the true emotion, story, and inspiration behind that song without any loss of detail or dilution of feeling. But of course this is easier said than done. Interpreting complex human emotions into words is a difficult enough task in itself. Then taking those words and setting them to music that does justice to those emotions makes the work that much harder. And however good an artist might be at formulating a song on paper or in their mind, the artist, and a group of other musicians, must then deliver performances that truly meet the lofty expectations of that story, those emotions, and the song’s inspiration.
Most every song starts off as a masterpiece in the artist’s mind, but most every song fails to reach that edifice because of the inherent human frailty present in all of us. And really, that frailty is what “Deadman’s Blues” by Matt Woods is about just as much as anything. He was just perfect at conveying that imperfection in song.
There’s so much that could be pinpointed in “Deadman’s Blues” that makes it special: the mournful steel guitar, the way the song slowly builds in a steady enrapturing motion that pulls you towards it, the stop near the end of the song when everything else drops out except for the voice of Matt Woods. But for me, the emotion captured in Matt’s voice is really what sets this song apart, and creates a peerless work worthy of the highest praise, and the widest ear.
Country music won’t be saved by websites, blogs, articles, organizations, or stupid awards with spurious legitimacy bestowed by Internet nerds. These things may help, but country music will be saved by songs, and songs only; songs that speak deeply, and universally to the human condition, that are bold and possess inescapable appeal and outreach, channeled through artists who are courageous enough to deliver them, and willing to sacrifice so that those songs can live. And Matt Woods, and his song “Deadman’s Blues,” are worthy of carrying that high distinction of being a song helping to save country music.
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“We ask a lot of our independent country and roots artists. We want them to release new music early and often, even though it stings them in the pocketbook to record. We want them to play our stupid town, even though it is way out of their way and the turnout will be light. We want them to perform in small, intimate venues, even though it’s not financially feasible for trying to take care of themselves, or God forbid, raise a family. We don’t want them to be too successful, lest their music loses its pain and soul. We don’t want them to age. We want them to see all the places, and do all the things we can’t, and maintain a party-filled lifestyle so we can then live vicariously though them as our own legs grow roots and our lives prosper from stability.
“We want them to sleep on floors and eat like shit and sweat on stage and drive 700 miles to entertain us for three hours before passing out in their own filth for very little money. Our favorite artists roll into town and we reach deep in our pockets and hand them over all manner of items to fuel this madness and bring misfortune to them because they trend toward addictive, self-destructive personality to a greater degree. Then we sit back and watch them fall apart right in front of our faces, because for some reason, we find a certain beauty in their struggle and undoing. We shed the desire to slowly kill ourselves in our youth, so we ask our favorite musicians to do it for us in our stead. And the musicians, driven by their dreams, are more than happy to oblige.
“And for what? If they sober up and try to find the straight and narrow, or solicit the suits for help with their music, we label them a sell out. If they don’t, it’s not very likely their music will ever afford them a sustainable living. And about the only way they will find suitable recognition for their artistic contributions is if they die young.”
Every New Years as revelers across the country celebrate the symbolic reset of the calendar, a much more somber anniversary passes in the realm of country music. On January 1st, 1953, Hank Williams passed away in the back seat of his powder blue Cadillac somewhere on the road near Oak Hill, West Virginia of heart failure, forever robbing country music of its first superstar at the age of 29. Hank’s death has gone on to become one of the most storied, and most intriguing moments in country music lore, somewhat shrouded in mystery because some of the facts surrounding his death are not known and never will be, and because of the weight the passing of Hank Williams put on the heart of country music.
The death of Hank Williams has taken on a greater reverence, and a deeper importance in the last year with the passing of some of the most important characters in Hank’s life, and in the story of his death. Braxton Schuffert, the man who arguably discovered Hank Williams, passed away earlier this year in April. Charles Carr, the driver of Hank’s powder blue Cadillac on that fateful trip and the last person to see Hank Williams alive, passed away in early July. A movie loosely based on Hank’s final days called The Last Ride was released June 6th. And this year marks 60 years after Hank’s death, and 90 years after his birth.
In remembrance of these significant events, milestones, and passings, traditional country artist Joey Allcorn has assembled a collection of songs in an album called Midnight – The Death of Hank Williams. The theme of the album is to relive the tragic passing of Hank Williams through music, though not all the songs are specifically about Hank. For example the album starts off with some words from Braxton Schuffert—only fitting because he was there at the very beginning of Hank’s career. Then the first song performed by traditionalist Jake Penrod is “Rockin’ Chair Daddy,” a song written by Schuffert with Hank Williams. Near the end of the album is a song called “Song For Charles” for Hank’s driver Charles Carr, written and performed by Bobby Tomberlin.
In between are songs that have great significance to the Hank Williams death narrative, including “The Death of Hank Williams” that as Joey Allcorn explains really inspired the project. “To me it was an interesting song because it was the very first Hank Williams tribute,” says Allcorn. “Nowadays, doing a Hank Williams tribute is just sort of par for the course.” The “Midnight” title track is a duet between Allcorn and Jake Penrod, and the traditional “Death Is Only A Dream” pairs Allcorn with Rachel Brooke. Other songs that were written about the death of Hank Williams include “Is There Something You Can Do (New Year’s 1953)” told from the perspective of Charles Carr, written and performed by Arty Hill, “A Legend Froze In Time” written and performed by David Church, and “Fallen Star” by Andy Norman.
Another interesting note about Midnight is the final track is a contribution by the recently-fallen country artist Wayne Mills who was shot and killed on November 23rd in Nashville. Along with Wayne’s guitar player Kyle Wilson and Joey Allcorn, they revitalize the Waylon Jennings tune “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way.” This was the last track that Wayne Mills recorded and officially released for sale before his death.
Midnight is not your typical album project, and should be approach with that understanding and reverence. The point is to help the modern ear reconnect with those somber moments in the wake of Hank’s passing, and with the love each track is approached with, it carries this task admirably. The vintage audio of Braxton Schuffert starting off the album and DJ Nelson King of WCKY making the announcement of Hank’s death on the radio, along with the vinyl effect on the song “Death Is Only A Dream” help to set the somber mood and send you back to that time and place.
This album is not available on iTunes, Amazon, Spotify, or anywhere else. The only way it can be purchased is through the Hank Williams Museum in Montgomery, AL, with the proceeds going directly to the museum. This is not an album that will suck you in with groundbreaking original music; that is not the point. But as a commemoration of Hank’s death for the purpose of helping to keep his legacy alive through the museum, it grades high on all marks.
Two guns up.
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My first interfacing with the fiery, spunky singer-songwriter simply known as Tristen was at a Justin Townes Earle concert in May of 2012. I didn’t know her or her music from Adam, but there she was on stage, all 5 foot nothing in glittering green hot pants, kicking our collective asses with her songs that were so easy to befriend and so hard to forget. And like any opening artist hopes for, there I was the next day dropping coinage on her 2011 record Charlatans At The Garden Gate, and Googling the hell out of her to my little music nerdy heart’s content.
Tristen is nothing short of a creative powerhouse. She’s a Chicago native, a member of independent music’s hot east Nashville contingent, akin to an artist like Caitlin Rose for example, who happens to be friends with Caitlin and has shared bass players with her in the past. Tristen is also a perennial performer on the cool country roots program Music City Roots. If you squint really hard, and maybe listen very selectively to her music, you might be able to convince yourself that what Tristen has done in the past could be construed with the right amount of rhetoric and coercion as “country,” but really Tristen is simply a songwriter, who seems to have little regard for a genre-specific career path, if she doesn’t downright loathe the idea.
Tristen is not a hunter, she’s a gatherer, listening intently to any song or influence regardless of format or era, and eagerly mining the little nuggets of nostalgic, retro gold that allow the warmth of memories to flow freely from the inner mind of listeners to lovingly embellish a song. She then embeds this warmth into her completely original, modern-day compositions resulting in music that is both fresh and hauntingly familiar. The magic Tristen spins is really akin in spirit what a band like BR549, or some other country neo-traditionalist act might do by referring to the past in the modern-day context, but Tristen has the confidence, knowledge base, and insight to not discriminate based on traditional genre distinctions.
Her 2011 album Charlatans At The Garden Gate is like a big, rotund watermelon: it just keeps on giving, parceling out little treats, and there’s not a soft patch to be had. Songs like “Eager For Your Love” and “Doomsday” are just screaming to be scooped up by some big name and be made into mega hits, while tunes such as “Avalanche” and “Battle Of The Gods” may be a little more fey, but refer to Tristen’s competency in advanced composition. “Baby Drugs” is sinisterly crafted, speaking right at the heart of how the modern-day 20-something brooding male is just about worthless, and frustrating in the arms of driven females looking for fulfillment and only finding unmotivated, drooling pot hungry video game addicts for sexual partners. The song is also accompanied by a genius video.
But if Charlatans At The Garden Gate had a wart, it’s that it seemed to be a little bit lacking in the production department; like Tristen’s vision and creativity outpaced the budgetary restrictions and artistic resources at her dispose. That is not the case with her 2013 album that she Kickstarted and then released in October through Thirty Tigers called C A V E S. It is expansive, and more than adequately fleshed out, pulling from a very broad spectrum of both analog, digital, and human-generated sounds to make it her most complete and ambitious project yet.
At the very end of that Justin Townes Earle opening slot Tristen played back in 2012, she completely shifted gears for the final song in both style and presentation, pulling out a tune called “No One’s Gonna Know,” (whose subsequent video would also include the glittering green hot pants), accompanied by these somewhat choreographed, somewhat improvised hand gestures and such, prancing across stage, telling you beyond the song itself that this was something completely different—a gear had been shifted—and that is exactly what you get from Tristen with C A V E S.
Yes, here comes that evil, evil ‘P’ word that we all love to lambast at every turn, but what Tristen does different in C A V E S compared to other so-called “pop” albums is that the point of the album is not to be “popular” in the sense of attempting to appeal to the masses by instilling the music with ultra-catchy drek or inane lyrics. It is pop music because it is not country, and not particularly rock & roll. Is this a project, like Slim Cessna’s Auto Club’s Unentitled, or other “pop” albums that use pop elements just as much for their irony or to prove a point instead of, or just as much for their inherent catchiness? You could almost infer that from the lyrical hook of the song “No One’s Gonna Know” that goes, “The only way to climb to the top is stepping on heads, you’re better off dead.”
But really, even though it is completely fair to call C A V E S “pop”, it is just as fair to call it an electronic-infused retro rock album that refers to popular music’s past to do what Tristen has always does best: pull the warmth of recollection out of the music experience and pay it forward into the modern context. By referring to popular music’s pop legacy with certain little 80′s and early 90′s-era electronic accoutrements in C A V E S, she quite simply makes an album that is splendidly-addictive and overall fulfilling to listen to. Yet still at the heart of this album is real people playing real instruments, and singer-songwriter Tristen Gaspadarek expressing herself through words to help commiserate with the human condition.
As stoppy and starty as “No One’s Gonna Know” is in places, it is damn hard to resist. The multiple harmony lines and other such layering of “Easy Out” really draws you in hard and holds you. And “Gold Star” might be the best song Tristen is responsible for so far in her career (see below), hiding a lot of in-depth creativity and composition behind what may seem to be a fairly simple pop song on the surface. Beyond these first three songs, this country critic found the rest of C A V E S somewhat elusive, aside from “Monster” getting my toe tapping, but that is probably the way the natural order of things should be, and not necessarily a knock on the project.
And as a country critic, I can’t help but point out that having had to dutifully listen to Taylor Swift’s recent records, you hear many somewhat similar retro electronic references back to the 80′s and 90′s in Swift’s material as you do in Tristen’s, including in Swift’s recent Soundtrack single “Sweeter Than Fiction,” and in songs like “Starlight” or “Enchanted.” What does this mean? I think it means that an artist like Tristen could be considered on the cutting edge, and starkly relevant despite the retro flavoring.
Is C A V E S country? God no; not even close. So why is Saving Country Music covering it? Because Tristen still feels like a part of the overall independent country/ East Nashville family, and an artist like her is even more prone to slip through the musical cracks unfairly because of her non-genre specific style. If steadfast country fans want to give Tristen a try, I would strongly suggest they start with Charlatans At The Garden Gate, and then give C A V E S a sniff if you like what you hear.
And I can’t help but wonder if the non-roots direction of C A V E S is on purpose. If Tristen, surrounded by the stultifying mainstream country environment in Nashville isn’t flexing her little arms with this album to say, “Don’t box me in!” and what we’ll hear from Tristen next time will be in some completely different direction to keep her fans on her toes, then I’ll eat my hat. But in whatever direction Tristen goes, I’d almost guarantee it will be steeped in the past of music and refer heavily to memory-churning elements, and that it will also be inescapably good.
Charlatans At The Garden Gate – 4 1/2 of 5 Stars
C A V E S – 3 1/2 of 5 Stars (with the first 3 songs strongly recommended)
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The greatest album, and the greatest recorded song will never be able to trump the truly live musical experience where music is shared in real time with both the artist and listeners. It is in this spirit that each year I assemble a list of the Best Live Performances to reinforce that as technology and the busying of life incrementally encroach upon us more and more every year, we must remember that the live music show deserves its own attention and reverence. This year for the first time, I’ve included some television performances and a live stream, because the weight these performances carried make them more than worthy to be included here.
Please understand, unlike Saving Country Music’s other yearly awards, since omnipresence isn’t an attribute I posses, this list is simply based on my own experiences, and not meant to capture the overall pulse of the live events that transpired all year. You are encouraged to share your own favorite live musical experiences from 2013 below.
10. Hellbound Glory – The Empire Control Room, Austin, TX
“Hellbound Glory started with a blistering, amplified version of Hank Williams’ “My Buckets Got A Hole In It” that reinvented and revitalized that tune originally learned by Hank Williams from Rufus Payne in the mid-30′s, and made it feel like an iconic 70′s-era Southern rock anthem. Not 30 seconds into the first song, and you could tell that Leroy had played so many shows in front of so many big crowds in 2013, that being on stage was second nature, and a downright showman had emerged from a man who is known as a songwriter first. Not that Leroy was a stiff before, but now he had a swagger about him—a sway and arm motions—engaging the crowd and carrying songs to another level with his ability to be completely uninhibited with the music.” (read full review)
9. Eric Church & Valerie June – The ACM Awards
Say what you will about Eric Church, he delivered the most memorable performance at the ACM Awards back in April, and he did it while showcasing the up-and-coming musical powerhouse Valerie June.
“Church, who is usually known for his baseball cap, aviator sunglasses, and rowdy country gone rock sound, kept it simple this time, accompanied only by his guitar and one harmony singer–a breathtaking female in a red dress, adorned with a crown of dreadlocks. As much as Eric Church’s performance caught the ACM crowd and Eric’s fans by surprise, so did this virtually unknown singer accompanying him.
“Valerie June didn’t announce her performance on the ACM’s. Her name was not mentioned in the credits or by the announcers. But like she always does, she left an indelible, unforgettable impact on the hearts and ears of the ACM attendees and viewers.” (read full review)
8. Andrew Bird & Tift Merritt – Pickathon Festival Woods Stage – Portland, OR
The Pickathon Festival on the outskirts of Portland, OR every August affords some of the best music moments a year can offer, while broadening the perspective of fans from all corners of the roots music world by assembling one of the most diverse and forward-thinking lineups in the festival realm. Many Picktathon moments could be listed here, but seeing the amazing Andrew Bird perform all manner of beyond-human vocal acrobatics accompanied by the accomplished Tift Merrit was truly something to behold.
“Andrew Bird on the Wood’s Stage was phenomenal. Maybe a little fey for some, but he’s a fiddling bluegrass maestro who has one of the best use of dynamics you will find. You also won’t find a better whistler in bluegrass. Joining him on stage for the set was Tift Merritt…” (read full Pickathon Live Blog)
7. Jayke Orvis & The Broken Band – The Scoot Inn
“Jayke finally declared earlier this year that he was taking his last tour with the Gallows, and trained his attention solely on a solid, permanent Broken Band lineup that includes guitarist James Hunnicutt, and former Bob Wayne Outlaw Carnies’ Liz Sloan and Jared McGovern on fiddle and upright bass respectively. With stability and a shared vision of making a band around Jayke’s music, but one where all musicians are treated as equal, Jayke Orvis & The Broken Band have re-captured the fervor and spellbinding performance aspect that made the .357 String Band such a force of music nature. If anything, The Broken Band may be taking it a step further with a deeper attention to composition, pushing all four players to the edge of their abilities, and the edge of human capability itself, balanced by slow and mid-tempo songwriter material.
Jayke Orvis & The Broken Band are the underground roots equivalent of the Punch Brothers, and are one of the top tier performers of the underground sub-genre.” (read full review)
6. LeAnn Rimes Patsy Cline Tribute – The ACA Awards
“And at the end of the medley, when LeAnn went a capella, and the tasteful sepia filter that the ACA’s had placed on the cameras to afford a vintage feel on the first part of the tribute turned back to color, a downright evocation emerged during Patsy’s “Sweet Dreams” that even the embattled and valiant LeAnn Rimes eventually couldn’t even fend off, bursting into tears during the final turn of the chorus.
“No video will ever do the moment justice, because it was a moment you had to share in live. At some point you saw LeAnn smile, like she recognized the spirit of Patsy had entered the room, and then the emotion immediately began to well up in LeAnn, and all who were paying attention.” (read full review)
5. The Mavericks -Gruene Hall – Gruene, TX
“Raul Malo is no doubt the rock and heart of The Mavericks, but the addition of guitar player Eddie Perez, who was Dwight Yoakam’s long-time touring guitar player before joining the band, is really what has allowed The Mavericks to give up nothing, and continue to grow in their nearly 25-year existence. From his masterful guitar work to his superhero-like ability to follow Raul Malo wherever he may go vocally, Eddie Perez is 1A to Raul in the Mavericks, with long-time rhythm guitarist Robert Reynolds and keys player Jerry Dale McFadden affording the buoyant vitality that makes The Mavericks’ sound so infectious, and drummer Paul Deacon holding the whole thing together and giving the The Mavericks their communicable groove.” (read full review)
4. Red 11 SXSW Showcase at the White Horse – Austin, TX
Eligibility on this list would normally only be open to single performances by a single band or artist, but the showcase put on by the booking agency Red 11 on Tuesday night (3-12) of South by Southwest at the White Horse in Austin was such a legendary lineup, it deserves its own distinction, beyond all the excellent artists that played it. Yes folks, the gritty, bluesy one man band Lincoln Durham, the Tejano-flavored The Crooks, The Dirty River Boys, The Turnpike Troubadours, followed by American Aquarium, and capped off by Jason Eady is the lineup that held forth at the intimate setting of The White Horse that night. Oh, and it was all free. I’m not sure there will ever be a moment when such a ridiculous amount of talent will be showcased in the same place, and in such a small space again, unless it happens at SXSW 2013.
3. Lee Bains III & The Glory Fires – XSXSW 6 – Austin, TX
Passing up an opportunity to see Lee Bains III & The Glory Fires live is a borderline criminal offense for any fan of hard rocking roots music. When they lit up the Frontier Bar as part of XSXSW 6, it was by far the most raucous set of music that still had real substance to it experienced in 2013. Later in the year when touring with Austin Lucas through Ft. Worth, Lee Bains got shut down and 86′d by the Live Oak Music Hall & Lounge for playing too loud. That’s how legendary Lee Bains live has become.
“As the room was still filling up with patrons, Lee Bains played like he was feeding of the energy of a packed house. This man sings with as much soul as anyone in rock & roll right now, and this was never evidenced more clearer then when he sang the title track of their latest album There’s A Bomb in Gilliead. For SXSW’s most acrobatic moment of 2013, at one point lead guitarist got on the shoulders of Lee Bains as they both walked out into the crowd with guitars blazing. This set was sick.” (from the SXSW 2013 live blog)
2. Jason Isbell – Live Stream of Austin City Limits Taping – August 19th
I admit, it seems strange to put a streaming event such as this on this list, and so high up no less. But if you witnessed it, you would know why. The technology is becoming such, and artists like Isbell are beginning to receive such recognition, that an online experience can sometimes be just as immersive as being there.
“On Monday night the Twitterverse blew up around the occasion of songwriter Jason Isbell recording an upcoming episode of Austin City Limits. The taping was streamed live online, and drew a remarkable amount of attention and praise from the online participants who took the time to tune in. Usually music confined to the online format is at such a distinct disadvantage, it is barely worth your time, and though Austin City Limits’ production value is world-class, this wasn’t what made the event special. Jason Isbell is quite the capable singer, and since he started out as a guitarist for the Drive By Truckers, it’s hard to denounce his musicianship either. His band The 400 Unit was sensational as well, and so was his wife Amanda Shires who sang and played fiddle for the set. But none of this is why the event became a singular experience for those who tuned in.
“It was Jason Isbell’s songs and his songwriting that made so many online watchers walk away with one of those feelings you get after watching a stellar movie—where your mind gets so immersed in the experience it is hard to return to the real world.” (from 2013: The Year of the Songwriter)
1. The Turnpike Troubadours – SXSW The White Horse – Austin, TX
The Red 11 South by Southwest showcase at The White Horse in Austin, TX was already given proper credit above, but the crown jewel of the night was the performance by Oklahoma’s Turnpike Troubadours, which also was the crown jewel of 2013.
“The Turnpike Troubadours were responsible for one of those once-in-a-lifetime musical experiences. The White Horse that had hovered around 3/4 capacity up to that point in the night swelled to where there was no elbow room, and a strong majority of the people there knew every word to the Troubadours songs and proved it by belting them out at every chance. When the band broke into their most popular tunes like ‘Every Girl,’ ’7&7′ and ‘Good Lord, Lorrie,’ the crowd would erupt. During the choruses, the singing of the crowd could become deafening, drowning out the band itself. Their high-energy, inspired performance was great in itself, but the camaraderie created by the crowd made it one of those moments hard to forget. The Turnpike Troubadours have no business playing a venue this small these days, and that is the type of unique experience SXSW can create. Their set was one for the record books.” (from the SXSW 2013 live blog)
You really don’t ever need a good excuse to head down to the little hamlet called Gruene (pronounced “green”) that’s nestled just outside of New Braunsfels in central Texas, which is now the home of the oldest of the historic Texas dance halls, Gruene Hall. The pull of the place, how time slows down and the appreciation of living rises once you enter its little old-town setting, is reason enough to rearrange plans to seek some R&R within its homely confines. But when you add the regalia that is unfurled in Gruene around the holidays, and a two-night stop by the world class country band The Mavericks on the 18th and 19th of December as entertainment, making time for a Gruene Hall trek becomes a top priority.
Watching The Mavericks take the humble, but prestigious Gruene Hall stage, you have to remind yourself that at one time The Mavericks were the biggest group in country music, taking home the Vocal Group of the Year from both the CMA and ACM in 1995. At the same time, this is in no shape or form a band on the skids, or one riding off of their past glory days. The Mavericks feel as relevant and as fresh as they ever have. Raul Malo has the visage and voice of a superstar that’s slowly morphing into a downright legend, and is flanked by world-class musicians making up the Mavericks front lineup. The Mavericks also carry along a two piece horn section and a full-time accordion player to make it one the most full-sounding live experiences in country music this side of Lyle Lovett’s large band.
The diversity of influences that go into The Mavericks’ unique sound were on display from the very beginning. As the band took the stage, the sound of the ascending “Zorba The Greek” tune played over the house speakers, whipping the crowd into a frenzy while The Mavericks quickly took their spots and lit into three choice cuts from their excellent comeback album In Time to start off a set that stretched over two hours.
One focal point of interest in experiencing The Mavericks live was to see if and how they could match the deft vocal performance on In Time that captures such seamless harmonies on many of its songs that it seems unattainable without the aid of studio magic. Raul Malo is no doubt the rock and heart of The Mavericks, but the addition of guitar player Eddie Perez, who was Dwight Yoakam’s long-time touring guitar player before joining the band, is really what has allowed The Mavericks to give up nothing, and continue to grow in their nearly 25-year existence. From his masterful guitar work to his superhero-like ability to follow Raul Malo wherever he may go vocally, Eddie Perez is 1A to Raul in the Mavericks, with long-time rhythm guitarist Robert Reynolds and keys player Jerry Dale McFadden affording the buoyant vitality that makes The Mavericks’ sound so infectious, and drummer Paul Deacon holding the whole thing together and giving the The Mavericks their communicable groove.
The Mavericks mostly stuck close to their new material with a few of the older, more well-known songs thrown in as well, but some notable, customized songs added to the set appropriate to the time and setting were an excellent version of Merle Haggard’s “Okie From Muskogee” that seemed to be a complete oddball pick, yet totally perfect at the same time, and two songs in tribute to the recently-passed Ray Price that Malo regarded from the stage as the greatest country music singer in his estimation. And at the beginning of the encore, Raul Malo came out by himself, and regaled the crowd with a couple of Christmas carols. “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” with simply Malo and a guitar was sensational, and then the accordion player came out to accompany Raul on a splendid version of “Silent Night” (see video below).
The Mavericks have always existed in sort of a strange offshoot of the country music world, never really fitting in perfectly, but including so much talent that country music would be a fool not to embrace their sound. Big Machine Records owner Scott Borchetta spied this, and took a chance on a band well outside the mainstream that hadn’t released a studio album in a decade. But there’s something about Raul Malo and The Mavericks that makes you feel like it’s only a matter of time before the rest of the world catches on to what they have been missing, and the legacy of this band rises to become nothing short of legendary.
Two guns up.
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The Sadies from Toronto, Canada should be modern day music gods. All they do is stand on their head every time they put on a live show or release an album, throwing a proverbial musician’s clinic with their cutting-edge instrumentation and jawbreaking prowess. Their music appeals to a broad panoramic of the music listening public: from punks, to country, to mod, surf, blues, rockers, and rockabilly types alike, moving through influences with ease and credibility from their adept and studious knowledge of American music modes.
They may not be household names, but amongst their musical peers The Sadies are a prized commodity, working as the recording and touring band behind such names as Neko Case, Randy Bachman from The Guess Who, Andre Williams, Jon Doe, Neil Young, and Jon Langford just to name some. Brothers Dallas and Travis Good who buoy The Sadies are about the best musicians to ever suck air, seamlessly harmonizing with each other as effortless as breath, and backed by the power rhythm section of Sean Dean and Mike Belitsky.
The Sadies 2013 offering Internal Sounds is a concept album of sorts, though really every Sadies album and song is conceptualized to some extent, or at least stylized in the sense that their songs send you to another time and place, are drenched with mood-altering rhythms and melodies that are both melancholic and reflective, and afford that overall immersive experience that all true music fans crave. Dark psychedelic mod country punk, if you insist on confining their sound with words.
If The Sadies had a visual artist equivalent, they might be matched up with M.C. Escher in how they are brilliantly creative, but in a very linear, analytical, geometric way. The Sadies don’t like to leave any loose ends dangling. They’re perfectionists, and like things to have a beginning and an end, for things to wrap up when a complete circle has been etched, while still being able to see the analytical truth and beauty in imperfection and discordance. Looking at the track list of Internal Sounds may explain this a little better:3. The Very Beginning 4. Starting All Over Again 5. The Very Ending 6. Another Tomorrow Again 7. Another Yesterday Again
You wouldn’t label The Sadies as amazing songwriters in the sense that it’s not their poetry that is meant to wow you, but rather be the clothing for their compositions to make their songs more fulfilling to the complete music palette. But Internal Sounds does have a few stripped-down, songwriting moments, like the mandolin-driven and harmonious second track “So Much Blood,” and the honky-tonk styling of “Leave This World Behind.” And though the turns of phrases like in the opening track “The First 5 Minutes” may not help you commiserate with the human condition by conveying a very personal story, their use of cunning word play is no less enlightening and inspiring.
A band like The Sadies can do virtually whatever they want, at least within the confines of a 4-piece lineup. But it’s always refreshing when a band can play with blazing speed, like The Sadies do in “Another Tomorrow Again,” but choose to not feature it predominately, laying on tempo like a crutch or trick to make up for a lackluster musical imagination. There’s a little Phish or Frank Zappa in their approach in how their music rises and is strong from a standpoint of music theory. It doesn’t take long listening to The Sadies to determine why so many artists want them on their side.
Don’t know if this would be a great first pick for someone just getting into The Sadies. They are probably a band best experienced live, and the live experience is what helps you realize what to listen for in their albums. But if you appreciate your country music served up with a fierce dose of guitar driven soul with a bit of classic mod dressing, The Sadies and Internal Sounds might be the sound you’re looking for.
1 3/4 of 2 guns up.
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You can listen to the entire album in the YouTube playlist below.
The modern-day music video is a really strange enterprise. Lots of money is spent by artists, and sometimes labels to produce something special; something that really represents the spirit of a song well. But when you look at what people watch, especially when it comes to independent musicians, many times it’s the fan video captured on a consumer-grade piece of technology that draws the most interest. Meanwhile mainstream music videos, especially from male stars, are the epicenter of country music’s decline.
It was just announced that CMT has picked up a whopping 7 new reality shows for their upcoming season. It looks like the era of quality music videos continues to be in decline. But there are still a few artists, and film/video makers out there committed to the art of music videos, and to doing it right.
10. Kacey Musgraves – “Follow Your Arrow”
Okay I’ll admit it, I wouldn’t like this video half as much if Kacey Musgraves didn’t look so good in blue hot pants.
9. Kenny Chesney Concert PSA
In the aftermath of the massive mess and 73 arrests at the Kenny Chesney / Eric Church concert June 22nd at Pittsburgh’s Heinz Field, resulting in shocking photos at the amount of litter left by fans, benstonium.com posted this hilarious parody of the crying Indian PSA. Don’t ask what a “Yinzer” is.
8. Caitlin Rose – “Only A Clown”
Caitlin Rose is one of the few artists that has a nose for the offbeat, engaging video. Last year’s “Piledriver Waltz” video was a standout as well.
“The video for ‘Only a Clown’ is executed with great vision by Michael Carter, resurrecting the VHS format for texture and capturing the thin line between fun and forlornness that accompanies the freedom of the 20-something existence.” (read full review)
7. Sturgill Simpson - “Sturgill Simpson – “You Can Have The Crown / Some Days” (Live at Sun King Brewery)
What scripted videos usually lack is that ability to capture a magical moment in time where it all “clicks” and you get the shivers that only a live experience can afford. This two-song video from the Sun King Brewery has a few of them.
6. Sturgill Simpson – “Railroad of Sin”
“Sturgill threatens to take the high-flying act international by boarding a puddle jumper and puttering over to the Land of the Rising Sun to record the video for his heart-pounding, hot plate, house on fire, country as hell, soon to be hit single ‘Railroad of Sin.’ ‘Godzillabilly’ is what’s he’s patterning the theme, as the Kentucky native and Nashville resident takes a high arching swan dive deep into culture shock.
Johnny Cash may have not been born in Nagasaki, and bullet trains may not be equipped with lonesome whistles, but the Orient is where Hank Jr. picked up his official nickname for Waylon Jennings: ‘Watashin!’ which means, ‘old #1′ and you’d be hard pressed to find a more modern resemblance to Waymore than one Sturgill Simpson. So keep clear of the closing doors, strap in tight, and get ready to speed away on Sturgill Simpson’s ‘Railroad of Sin.’” (read full review)
5. Jason Isbell – “Elephant” Live at SiriusXM Outlaw Country
Capturing the true emotion and inspiration behind a song is what we all want from a video. Yet it so often becomes elusive by the superfluous additions in the production of a full-blown music video. Sometimes all you need is just the man and a guitar.
4. Fred Eaglesmith – “Johnny Cash”
This video stimulated a little controversy when it was released in March. Is Eaglesmith being too harsh, too judgmental? Maybe, but it’s hard to argue that he made one hell of a video.
“When the prevailing image of Johnny Cash in culture is one of him flipping the bird, the argument can be made that it’s the wholesale reduction of a man of such towering accomplishments and time-tested faith. At some point the imagery and cult-of-celebrity of Johnny Cash trumped the man himself, and society lost sight of his greatest contribution: his noble and charitable spirit.” (read full review)
3. Lindi Ortega – “Tin Star”
This video of Lindi’s Song of the Year Nominee “Tin Star” captures the spirit and theme of her emotionally-drenched foray into the realities that many independent-minded musicians face so well.
2. Matt Woods – “Deadman’s Blues”
The point of any video is to get you to pay attention to an artist and their song. One of the problems with many videos is they take an artist’s song and try to interpret too literally, eroding the mystery from the song, robbing it of its ability to mean different things to different people. The video for “Deadman’s Blues” is quite literal, but done so well and with such heart, it bucks this trend. Though I put “I’ll Sing About Mine” a step ahead, it really is #1 and #1A with these two videos. They represent really listening to the songs and then interpreting their messages in the visual format.
1. Josh Abbott Band – “I’ll Sing About Mine”
“The best part about Josh Abbott’s “I’ll Sing About Mine” video is the faces of the people. I’ll guaran-damn-tee you all of these people are real folks from real places. What’s even better is these scenes they’re in are the same scenes you see in pop country videos–the back of pickup trucks, out on the farm, on a tractor or 4-wheeler, at a football game. But the scenes are 100% real. These people are so ragingly authentic and their faces tell such gripping stories, you want to take every single one of them and put them in your pocket so you can feel the honest, simple goodness in their souls all day long. If a picture is worth 1,000 words, then a face is worth a million.” (read full review)
So here you go ladies and gentlemen, the worst of the worst that 2013 had to offer in country music. As you might suspect, a list of mainstream country’s worst misdeeds in 2013 is mostly populated by an ear-serrating cacophony of country rap songs. With only a couple of exceptions, country rap has replaced what last year at this time was a parade of laundry list-themed songs.
PLEASE NOTE: To qualify for this list, the song had to be released as a single. And with such a crowded field, only the worst of the worst were selected. Feel free to share your most vilified songs of 2013 below.
Jason Aldean – “1994″
When I originally ranted about this song in February, I called it the worst country song ever. If I only knew what the rest of 2013 would have in store.
“In Music Row’s everlasting quest to train all of its resources on scouring America to unearth only the finest, most purest form of audio diarrhea, they have struck the mother of all motherloads originating from the unholy bowels of Macon, Georgia’s Jason Aldean. Yes Nashville, pat yourself on the back, let all of the Auto-Tuned stars sing out in unison as Stratocasters bray out a cacophony of stadium rock riffs in unified celebration–you have officially discovered the shittiest country music song to ever touch the human ear drum.
Do I understand the levity and the long history of country music that must be considered to declare “1994″ the worst country song that has ever been released? Yes, yes I do. And yet I still stand firmly behind that opinion.” (read full rant)
Florida Georgia Line – “Cruise”
What can make a bad song worse is when it becomes so ubiquitous throughout society that it pursues you like a bad nightmare—playing at the grocery store, blaring out of the car next to you at a red light. “Cruise” was officially released in 2012, but since this was the year it achieved historical success as the longest-running #1 in the history of the country genre (though that record when you look deeper into the numbers is somewhat spurious), it would only be fair to include 2013′s summer anthem here.
“Originating from the Republic Nashville imprint of Big Machine Records, the duo consisting of Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley met while attending the Mike Curb College of Music at Nashville’s private and exclusive Belmont University. I know, right? Doesn’t get more country than that! Apparently they were both enrolled in the “How To Be A Upper Middle Class Douchebag But Pretend To Be A Country Boy And Filch Rednecks Out Of Their Hard Earned Money, 101″ class. They made eyes across the classroom, and afterwards discussed their mutual desire for world music domination over $175 haircuts, manscaping, and colonics. Next thing you know, Florida Georgia Line is born.
Florida Georgia Line is a horrible combination of Rascal Flatts pretty boy hyper-pop, and designer jeans Jason Aldean “backroad” laundry list bullshit. They are everything bad about quotation mark “country” in 2012 combined into one big stuffed crotch sandwich.” (read full rant)
Blake Shelton – “Boys ‘Round Here”
“The Decider’s” offering to the 2013 resurgence of the country rap trend.
“Just when we thought the American public was finally getting wise to the fact that country rap is a Cancer of Western Civilization, needing to be cut out and radiated like the grapefruit-sized, puss-filled tumor it is, here it comes roaring back like a raging case of bleeding hemorrhoids.
“Blake Shelton’s “Boys ‘Round Here” is songwriting by algorithm and analytics, fashioning together words and sounds known to have the widest impact on mainstream radio’s weak-of-mind demo. The “boys” in the title of “Boys ‘Round Here” is fitting, because this song is rank immaturity. It’s the audio equivalent of sneaking out of your mom’s house to smoke pot behind a Pizza Hut.” (read full review)
Montgomery Gentry – “Titty’s Beer”
Yes, this actually exists, was even released as a single with an accompanying video.
“This isn’t a cry for relevancy folks, this is a blood-curdling scream; a banshee yawp from the innermost depths of holy hell, destined to beset the eardrums of all rationally-minded music listeners with a cursed memory so potent and terrible, it will be well-documented as a clinically-certified precursor to the most acute and debilitating onset of post traumatic stress disorder, terrorizing the very sanity of any semi-intelligent human.
“If a truly good country song is represented by a delicate pair of supple female breasts, then Montgomery Gentry’s “Titty’s Beer” would be a rack of cellulose-addled man boobs replete with coarse and graying disheveled chest hair, pock marked with skin Cancer and bisected by a grizzly double bypass scar. Originally recorded by the Country Music Grimmace Colt Ford, “Titty’s Beer” is an ode to idiocracy and a battle hymn for the forces of misogynistic cultural reduction. The premise doesn’t even make sense, but you can see some oaf going, “Well hell. I like titties, and I like beer, so….” (read full rant)
Joe Diffie feat. D. Thrash – “Girl Ridin’ Shotgun”
What is worse than Jason Aldean’s “1994″ ? Joe Diffie’s “answer” song.
“Did you feel that Oklahoma? That was the earth tremor caused by your native son Joe Diffie selling out so violently it measured 2.1 on the Richter scale. The mulleted, cop mustached 90′s semi-star has released an “answer” song to what many consider the worst song in country music history, Jason Aldean’s country rap “1994,” and it is as embarrassing as puberty.
“The beats for “Girl Ridin’ Shotgun” sound like they were composed by a 7th grader who just snorted his ADD meds, just like all of the beats of the Jawga Boyz’s bombastic and trashy tracks. The beat doesn’t even get five seconds into the song without going off meter. There’s biscuit crumbs in Joe Diffie’s mustache that could compose a better beat. And then D Thrash’s first line doesn’t even rhyme. Are you effing serious with this song? “Girl Ridin’ Shotgun” makes me want to make out with my cousin and bet on a dog fight.” (read full rant)
Tyler Farr – “Redneck Crazy”
There’s bad, and then there’s downright wrong. Tyler Farr’s “Redneck Crazy” crosses that line.
“Tyler Farr’s “Redneck Crazy” isn’t for jilted male lovers looking for solace, it is for socially awkward, introverted, creepy-ass chronic masturbaters that hold a minor in megalomania. This song doesn’t need a rant, it needs a restraining order and ankle bracelet. It’s an insult to both the terms “redneck” and “crazy.” True rednecks ride their problems out, rub their wounds in the dirt and move on, not whine about them like a panty waist, eliciting threats and enlisting their loser friends to enact adolescent acts of vandalism as some sort of self-righteous recompense.”
“About the only thing this song is good for is turning in for state’s evidence of why Tyler Farr shouldn’t be allowed within 200 yards of his ex’s or any elementary school.” (read full rant)
Luke Bryan – “That’s My Kind Of Night”
Outmatched only by Florida Georgia Line’s “Cruise” for the longest-charting single in 2013.
“Let’s start this off by dispatching with the 700 lb gorilla in the room and say what everyone is thinking, but few are willing to say publicly: The only reason Luke Bryan’s “That’s My Kind Of Night” is a #1 song is because bored suburban moms and their daughters want to fuck him. Luke Bryan’s music has the nutritional value of notebook paper, and is the clinical result of when an entertainer spreads his arms wide in a submissive pose and relents his entire will to the country music industrial complex, saying “Do your worst.” Luke Bryan has no soul. He is more machine than man. He has the integrity of a Guatemalan mule bridge with a squadron of M1 tanks trying to cross it. “That’s My Kind of Night” is like a diabolically-specialized form of audio diarrhea that marries the ideal ratio of water to solids so when it is sent through an industrial fan it inflicts the widest collateral damage on as many people as possible.
“A little Conway a little T-Pain?” Yep, that pretty much sums up American music in 2013, sans the Conway—replaced by Luke Bryan and his vomit-inducing country rap trend-chasing ilk.” (read full rant)
Jerrod Niemann – “Drink To That All Night”
Listening to this song is as traumatic as waking up naked in a stranger’s bed, with pacifiers and spent glowsticks littering the sheets around you, other people’s bodily fluids encrusting on your bare skin of your midriff, your eyebrows shaved, and the unsettled sense like you spent the night before indulging in designer drugs and weird sex against your will. Yes ladies and gentlemen, in 2013, country music when there—to the techno-rave glitterdance sounds of Jerrod Niemann and his woman’s ball cap that he got on clearance from Ross.
When the words kick in to this awful, awful song, you think it must be some sort of Saturday Night Live parody. But no, this song is a serious single from Jerrod. Luckily it skidded off the charts pretty rapidly, but “Drink To That All Night” symbolizes another new low for country music in 2013, with an excruciatingly-boring video.
- Darius Rucker’s version of “Wagon Wheel,” spared only from the above list because in the end “Wagon Wheel,” however ubiquitous, is still a good song.
- Justin Moore’s country rap “I’d Want It To Be Yours,” spared from the above list because it was never released as a single, and because it was released at the insistence of Scott Borchetta.
- Brad Paisley’s haphazard and ill-advised “Accidental Racist.” Also never officially released as a single.
- Any song from Florida-Georgia Line, including the stupid “Shine On” and the just-released single “It’z Just What We Do.”
You won’t see Reno, Nevada’s Hellbound Glory at the top of anyone’s ‘Best Of’ lists this year, unless it relates to touring or live performances. Leroy Virgil & the boys didn’t leave much time for recording and releasing albums in 2013; they were too busy ripping off one of the toughest, busiest, and arguably the most notable touring schedules in 2013 from an independent country act. It started in February as an opening band on Kid Rock’s “Rebel Soul” arena tour of which a retooled Hellbound Glory did two legs of, all the while playing smaller shows here and there when possible, and then revisiting many of the same areas afterwards on their own bills in the proceeding weeks and months.
Then most recently Hellbound went on a breakneck, two month tour with The Supersuckers, covering 40-something dates spanning the US. When Leroy Virgil rolled into Austin, TX on Friday Dec. 6th to play a quick set at the Empire Control Room downtown, he’d been rode hard and put away wet, and Hellbound Glory had not a familiar face from the members who had started out with him at the beginning of the year. However he’d recruited the very capable guitarist ‘Metal’ Marty Chandler, and drummer Chris VonStreicher from the Supersuckers, and Adam Kowalski from North Carolina on bass and band manager duties.
Aside from the music, the night was weird all around. They started at 9 PM, which is very early for a weekend show in Austin, and a few straggling fans missed some of the set. Hellbound was supposed to play outside, but 20-degree weather and a stiff north wind scrapped those plans. The Empire Control Room was more ambient for a rave than a real country show, with pacifier-sucking, glowstick-twirling visuals projecting onto the walls, and a mandate on Hellbound to stop after an hour so a DJ could spin house music to an entirely empty room. This was all quite in contrast to Leroy’s prominent “Hank” suspenders strapped over his shoulders, and his beer chugging honky tonk tunes.
But when Leroy Virgil and Hellbound Glory 4.0 hit the stage, none of that mattered. Leroy started with a blistering, amplified version of Hank Williams’ “My Buckets Got A Hole In It” that reinvented and revitalized that tune originally learned by Hank Williams from Rufus Payne in the mid-30′s, and made it feel like an iconic 70′s-era Southern rock anthem. Not 30 seconds into the first song, and you could tell that Leroy had played so many shows in front of so many big crowds in 2013, that being on stage was second nature, and a downright showman had emerged from a man who is known as a songwriter first. Not that Leroy was a stiff before, but now he had a swagger about him—a sway and arm motions—engaging the crowd and carrying songs to another level with his ability to be completely uninhibited with the music.
Leroy’s electric guitar sounded horrible. It was a black and white Squier Stratocaster that had “$100″ written on the pick guard in permanent marker like he’d just bought it off the side of the road. It’s the kind of guitar you buy your 14-year-old son when you know he’s only going to ignore it, with stock pickups that sound like the smell of ass. But Leory was just holding down the rhythm anyway, and then getting out of the way for ‘Metal’ Marty to rip into some of the juiciest solos Hellbound’s music has ever been graced with. Despite the ‘Metal” addendum to his name, Marty referred to a heavily influenced and versed knowledge of country guitar modes and licks that he displayed with confidence and abandon. It was a high volume, electric country show, and more than a stone’s throw from the days of Leory sitting on a bass drum, playing it with the back of his heel while strumming an acoustic guitar.
Leroy played a lot of his more well-known Hellbound Glory songs, a few more covers like his rendition of Hank Jr.’s “Women I’ve Never Had” and Springsteen’s “I’m On Fire.” He was also featuring a ferocious growl that punctuated parts of songs and overall became one of the highlights and takeaways of the set. Leroy’s voice has become tattered around the edges like a cheap blue tarpaulin pulled over an apartment’s worth of shit made susceptible to the wind on a cross-country move, and then marinated by a thousand shots of whiskey lined up all across the front of the stage by well-meaning fans. But like an old tinker, Leroy has taken what he’s been given, and made it into one of his finest tools: a road-worn and weathered bellow with which he can unfurl and blow a crowd away with.
Forget how many new players make up the Hellbound Glory cast, when Leroy gave a subtle hint to whatever song he wanted to play next, his band was right there behind him, hitting every change, and holding every sustain as good or better as any Hellbound Glory lineup. Leroy has never been good at keeping new material a secret, and the set featured a few new songs, and so did the half hour or so after the set when he pulled out his acoustic guitar and gave a personal concert to all who stuck around on the side of the stage.
Whenever Hellbound Glory’s name is mentioned these days, the next question you hear is, “When’s the new album coming out?” Though I wasn’t able to glean that specific intel from Leroy, I can tell you he’s recently been doing some recording in Aberdeen, WA. I wouldn’t hold your breath on hearing the results of that anytime soon, but if the new songs Leroy’s been playing are any indication, when new music does emerge, it promises to be worth the wait.
Until then, you can use the below Leroy Virgil recap of the last year or so to tide you over.
Two guns up.
About this time of year virtually every magazine, website, and blog is bombarding their readership with end-of-year lists of which artists they feel are worthy of the highest praise for their 2013 effort. The whole practice has become a little nauseating for the consumer as the redundancy on many lists and the sheer number of them being pushed through social media erode the underlying concept of the lists: to help listeners break through the din of an overpopulated music landscape to discover the best stuff. Then there’s the ethics questions if music should be approached as competition at all. Ultimately the reason there are so many lists is because they are effective and appealing in helping listeners determine what to listen to.
Included on many, if not virtually all of those 2013 lists, especially in the independent country and Americana realms is the latest effort by former Drive By Trucker turned solo artist Jason Isbell called Southeastern. Seen as the current watermark of his career and a captivating songwriting effort capturing a clear-eyed, post-rehab Isbell at his apex, Southeastern is one of those rare consensus builders amongst critics as one of the year’s best.
Nipping at the heels on some lists, and overtaking Southeastern on others is the debut album High Top Mountain from former Sunday Valley frontman, Kentucky’s Sturgill Simpson. A much more country effort compared to Isbell, but just as bold of a songwriting project, Simpson has many people labeling him as a country music savior, and the artist they have been waiting years for to emerge in the independent country scene.
And not to be outdone is the dark Canadian singing-songwriting vixen Lindi Ortega, and her tantalizing album Tin Star that has also found its way at or near the top of many 2013 lists; an album highlighting her rising voice and remarkable gift for story and composition.
Though the sound of these three respective albums is fairly disparate, their influences are certainly not the same, the artists are from different locales, and the genres they represent are varied shades of the country music theme, they all have one thing in common: a virtually unnoticed and rarely heralded behind-the-scenes producer named Dave Cobb.
Just as the prevalence of year-end lists has grown in recent years, so too it seems has the trend of performing artists getting into the producer game, and big, franchise name producers like T Bone Burnett being heralded more and more for their producer services. Not that someone like Jack White or even Justin Townes Earle can’t make a great producer, or that T Bone Burnett is some kind of slouch. But for some projects, it becomes more about the name on the back of the album in the fine print instead of the name on the front. A producer’s name can be used as a marketing tool, and to create interest from fans and media venues. “The new album produced by the same producer of The Civil Wars!” “The T Bone Burnett-produced debut album, produced by T Bone Burnett!”
The best producers are usually the ones who prefer to remain subordinate to the artists they work with. Similarly, the best producers don’t come in and mold an album to their sound, but help the artists they work with develop their own. Producers aren’t supposed to be noticed. Critics may sometimes mention a producer’s name and how they may have influenced a certain project, but everyday fans just know when they like an album or not. Noticing the production of an album is like noticing an offensive lineman in a football game. It’s rarely a good thing. The focus should be on the music itself.
But that doesn’t mean producers shouldn’t be heralded or receive credit, especially when they’ve had a banner year like Dave Cobb’s 2013. Cobb has enjoyed some other successful albums, and good years in the past too. Similar to how Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, and Lindi Ortega have become critical darlings in 2013, Jamey Johnson’s last two original albums that graced the top of many end-of-year lists, That Lonesome Song and The Guitar Song, both featured Dave Cobb at the helm. The Secret Sisters’ self-titled breakout album was also produced by Cobb, and so were Shooter Jennings’ first four records. And his list of producer credits goes on and on from there.
But you would never know all of this unless you went poking around, looking for producer credits and connecting the dots. Dave Cobb is not out to perpetuate his cult of personality through his producership role. He’s just looking to make good music. And in 2013, he certainly did.
Sometimes you can find the most stunning beauty in the strangest of places.
The Fox Network’s 2013 American Country Awards did not go particularly well by a number of measures. Forget that the fabricated awards show really has no weight in the grand country scheme compared to its more established and revered competition in the CMA and ACM Awards, and it seemed to struggle to garner both media attention and top tier country music talent in support of its 2013 effort. The simple transitions between performances, presentations, and commercial breaks seems to find new frontiers of live TV awkwardness, while the fumbling of words was at moments excruciating.
We all can make mistakes and feel the pressure of the live television camera, but Gary Allan wobbled so hard in one segment he had to start completely over. Co-host Trace Adkins invented a new word, “Simular,” which is a cross between ‘singular’ and ‘similar’, which ironically mean the exact opposite things. And the half-assed feel of the entire night was encapsulated when the night’s biggest award for Artist of the Year went to Luke Bryan, but instead of playing a Luke Bryan song as the star made his way to the stage, a Florida Georgia Line song played instead.
It’s not clear if the snafu was the fault of a lowly board operator, or the house DJ (yes, instead of a band, the ACA’s had a DJ), one Deejay Silver, who brought the audience back once from commercial break with a straight up hip-hop song—not a country rap or even a rap song by a country artist—just simply a rap song, which seemed somewhat appropriate on a night when rapper Big Smo said on national TV, “There was a time when you had to choose between country or hip-hop. But not any more!”
The ACA’s generally served their purpose of selling ad time to sponsors, and showcasing some second-tier names that normally don’t receive any face time on the bigger award shows, artists like Justin Moore, Kellie Pickler, and Rhett Atkins, but the whole thing felt tainted, because of the circumspect nature of the awards themselves, and because the production and writing team did no favors for the hosts, presenters, and performers.
But then here came a Patsy Cline tribute in the last quarter of the show and the whole sad sack theme of the night did a complete 180. In a year that saw the death of George Jones, honoring anyone but The Possum seems a little strange on its own, and why after a solid 1 1/2 hours of smearing the legacy of country’s roots the producers decided to go in this direction seems even more curious. But there was LeAnn Rimes, singing a medley of Patsy Cline songs, and who better to do it than her? Since the beginning of LeAnn’s career, the Patsy comparisons have come pouring in.
But LeAnn, a once top flight country artist full of promise, has fallen on hard times in the court of public perception. Unfavorable headlines about infidelity and divorce have put her at odds with the foot the country music industry wants to put forward with its female artists. LeAnn has been virtually forgotten by the industry, but ironically that’s what made her a perfect fit for the ACA’s.
So the LeAnn Rimes medley of Patsy Cline songs starts, and you’re glad to have a respite from all the pop country shenanigans, but you’re not expecting too much. Medleys are always frustrating to some extent because you never get to feel the full brunt of any individual song. But LeAnn, having been a tireless student of Patsy Cline since her formative years, continued to elevate the moments more and more as the tribute transpired until your attentive hate watching of a circumspect award show fell by the side and you were completely enthralled at the channeling of Patsy Cline’s ghost transpiring before your very eyes. And at the end of the medley, when LeAnn went a capella, and the tasteful sepia filter that the ACA’s had placed on the cameras to afford a vintage feel on the first part of the tribute turned back to color, a downright evocation emerged during Patsy’s “Sweet Dreams” that even the embattled and valiant LeAnn Rimes eventually couldn’t even fend off, bursting into tears during the final turn of the chorus.
No video will ever do the moment justice, because it was a moment you had to share in live. At some point you saw LeAnn smile, like she recognized the spirit of Patsy had entered the room, and then the emotion immediately began to well up in LeAnn, and all who were paying attention.
Trace Adkins, after the commercial break, broke script, took off his hat, and complimented LeAnn with a sincere token and acknowledgement of that singular moment LeAnn was able to create, that was anything but similar to what the ACA’s, and really any modern country music award show is able to deliver.
In a mainstream country landscape searching for female stars, to the point of going outside the genre to field awards show nominees, and in a genre that has virtually abandoned its roots, LeAnn Rimes proved that there’s female talent screaming to be showcased, and continued value in music that has withstood the test of time to deliver moments to remember. Booty-shaking anthems and buxom broads singing songs forged in a cubicle farm aren’t just unfortunate because of the lack of nutritional value of their tunes, it is because they push aside those sweet musical moments that we will reminisce on for the rest of our lives.
Two guns up!
Here they are folks, the 45 albums Saving Country Music deems essential for listening in 2013. I dramatically increased the amount of albums in this list from previous years in the spirit of trying to get more music out to more people. Similarly, I reviewed many more albums in 2013 than ever before. Please feel free to share your essential albums below in the comments section.
Also Possessed by Paul James’ There Will Be Nights When I’m Lonely has been excluded from this list and all of SCM’s year end lists and any other opinion-based coverage because I had a hand in the making of it. But I still encourage you to check it out and consider it one of the year’s best. Also EP’s and short-run albums like Lydia Loveless’s Boy Crazy and the Waylon Jennings / Old 97′s split are also excluded. But you’re encouraged to check out those projects as well.
PLEASE NOTE: This list only includes albums that have been reviewed so far. There are a more good and important albums in 2012 that have yet to be reviewed, and that will hopefully be reviewed shortly.
PLEASE NOTE: None of the Album of the Year Nominees are included on this list, so look over there before complaining about omissions. After the first 7 albums, they are listed in the order the albums were reviewed, not in order based on recommendation/quality/etc.
The White Buffalo – Shadows, Greys, & Evil Ways
Shadows, Greys, and Evil Ways is a concept album, and this is a fact Jake Smith is happy to share with his audience, along with a more in-depth explanation of the narrative, instead of letting you stumble into that truth like some artists find sport in doing. It follows the characters Jolene and Joe, their falling in love, the struggles of life that separate them in both body and spirit, and the sinister things this separation and life does to a man who struggles between sin and redemption. (read full review)
JB Beverley – Stripped to the Root
“I was going through some really tumultuous personal stuff. My long-term girlfriend of several years and I had split up, a couple of my friends had passed away, my dad had taken ill, and I left Virginia and moved to North Carolina. But through all of this, what became Stripped to the Root basically was a collection of songs both that I had written, or either heroes or friends in some capacity had written that were helping me get through that time.” (read full interview)
Billie Joe & Norah Jones – Foreverly
Foreverly is not a tribute album in the traditional sense, it is a reboot of a specific album, a reinterpretation of the 1958 Everly Brothers’ Songs Our Daddy Taught Us, song by song, line by line, with virtually the same track list, ratcheting up the strange factor yet another notch. What this results in of all things is a stripped-down, old-time, primitive country record, referring back to the Ralph Peer era in country music; very rootsy, with murder ballads and Gothic American textures, and traditional, folksy themes and compositions. (read full review)
Cody Canada – Some Old, Some New, Maybe A Cover Or Two
Acoustic and live albums naturally get relegated in an artists’ discography, fair or not, because it takes less effort to create them. But almost with that sense, Canada puts every effort into making each take on this album something special. At the same time, the ease and comfort level of this record is magnanimous and magnetic, like you’re sharing in the music with Canada instead of listening to a star on a stage. (read full review)
Kellie Pickler – The Woman I Am
Though The Woman I Am sort of dashes any hopes for Kellie Pickler as an artist that could crash the Music Row party from the inside out and foster a new spring of substance and roots in mainstream country music, that doesn’t mean there isn’t some good songs, and good music here. “Kellie Country” is still much better than mainstream country, and though it may be a stretch to label her an Outlaw, she is certainly a rebel, and continues to be a refreshing choice. (read full review)
Copper & Coal – Copper & Coal
Some musical performers entertain, while others stun. With instincts for blending harmony normally only reserved for siblings, the stunning female vocal duo of Copper & Coal from Portland, Oregon breathe new life into an old-style of honky tonk music with their sultry original compositions of lost and found love, and wild adventures of the heart. Their name derived from the raven and red hair that crown these nearly six-foot beauties and the eternal rural themes of culling the earth of its resources that have lend so many stories and so much inspiration to the country music canon over the years, Copper & Coal’s Leslie Beia and Carra Stasney are something to behold, commanding attention with their Siren-like countenance, crafty lyrics, and seamless delivery. (review – album stream)
Devil Makes Three – I’m A Stranger Here
The Devil Makes Three can’t be denied, and after a few listens, you’re wearing out your repeat button. What The Devil Makes Three does so well is the same thing Pokey LaFarge does: they pick up on all the subtleties and nuances of vintage string music, not just the big, obvious flavors and modes. What then separates The Devil Makes Three from Pokey is that they pay that appreciation forward with a punk attitude. This one may take a few initial spins, but you very well may find your next favorite record. (read full review)
Brennen Leigh & Noel McKay – Before The World Was Made
Gone are the days of the legendary duet pairings in country music like George and Tammy, Loretta and Conway, right? Well they may not boast beehive doos or lamb chops, or grace the stage of the CMA Awards or come beaming into your home or buggy via the miracle of Clear Channel radio, but the Austin country scene’s power couple of Brennen Leigh and Noel McKay have revitalized the country duet concept album in a smart, brilliant, hilarious, and sweet offering. (read full review)
The Defibulators – Debt’ll Get ‘Em
There’s no doubt that in 20 years or so, roots revival bands in their vests and suspenders will be the laughing stock of popular culture just like hair metal bands are today, but the Defibulators ask why wait 20 years when you can make fun of them right now, and in some ways make fun of yourself by proxy? Being a country band from New York City is somewhat campy itself, so why not embrace your fate, own it, revel in it, and most importantly, not let it get in the way of making great music, or the music you want. (read full review)
Charlie Robison – High Life
High Life is sitting back nice and easy on a bench at Gruene Hall, with the warm Texas air tickling the senses, and a sense that all is right in the world. This album does an amazing job setting the mood of a time and place that you want to be in. For my money, the two can’t miss songs of High Life are “Out Of These Blues” and “Monte Carlo,” both written by sister Robyn Ludwick. (read full review)
Lindi Ortega – Tin Star
Lindi Ortega is a creature of the darkness. She highlights the beauty in the world not by shining a light on it, but painting the rest black until the beauty is all that is left. She cherishes life by celebrating death. She makes you feel joy by bringing you to tears. She is the antithesis to an obvious, transparent world, all freshly fallen snow and onyx—biting, contrasting, revitalizing the attention to life and its many dark beauties simply by her presence. (read full review)
Alan Jackson – The Bluegrass Album
There’s so much else Alan Jackson could have done with his next release, and he chose to do this. And what has been the result so far? With the Alan Jackson name behind it, we’ve seen a 100% traditional bluegrass album chart at #3 on Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart, and come in at #11 on the all-genre Billboard 200. So much for the idea that traditional country is no longer commercially viable. (read full review)
Hank3 – Brothers of the 4X4
Whether it is because the expectations are lowered, because the album is more country than his last, or because Hank3 has found a way to re-ignite his creative spark, Brothers of the 4×4 symbolizes a retrenching of Hank3 as a creative force in country, capable of generating inspiring moments in music. It’s just a shame you have to dig somewhat to find them. (read full review)
Sarah Jarosz – Build Me Up From Bones
Build Me Up From Bones is a bold work of progressive bluegrass that showcases young Jarosz’s developed songwriting and adeptness at composition, while not sacrificing the whimsy and fun an album from a 22-year-old must have to be genuine. Jarosz isn’t playing over her head or having to make up for anything. She’s deep in the pocket of her own original musical expression, built upon the roots of the bluegrass discipline, and inspired by its lore. (read full review)
Austin Lucas – Stay Reckless
“I wrote the song “Stay Reckless” about my brother. He has a saying, “Everything in moderation, including moderation.” I just re-entered the world of being single, and I was partying a lot. And it just really spoke to me, those two words put together. And the overarching theme of the record is really that. It is coming to terms with getting a divorce and being single again, and figuring out my limits.” (read full interview)
Davy Jay Sparrow – All Nite Long
No ladies and gentlemen, Western Swing is not dead; not when Davy Jay Sparrow is on the job, doing his level best to keep the distinguished country music sub-genre fresh and fun by forging ahead with his fast-paced and frolicking take on one of country music’s original modes. All Nite Long includes 11 all new original songs, and two delicious traditionals. Put it all together and you have one of the most entertaining albums released so far in 2013. (read full review)
Danny Kay & The Nightlifers – Crazy Lonesome Blue
Crazy Lonesome Blue comes at you with no frills, offering up a bevy of original songs, a few covers and traditionals, and an all-star cast comprising the Nightlifer’s lineup. It’d take a DNA test to convince me that Danny Kay isn’t a cousin of Lucky Tubb in the way his lonesome drawl with a rounded cadence really pulls the emotion out of the words to a song while pulling the listener’s ear right in. After laying down the foundation and setting the story of the song, Danny’s gets out of the way and lets the hillbilly maestros in the Nighlifers do their handiwork. (read full review)
Larry & His Flask – By The Lamplight
For the people that like to complain about the sameness of Mumford & Sons’ music, if you wanted to experience a mirror opposite of that, but a band in a similar stylistic direction, Larry & His Flask might be your best option. Just ask The Grateful Dead how tough it is as a notorious live band to translate that magic into the studio, but with Larry & His Flask’s latest album By The Lamplight, they accomplished this feat yet again. (read full review)
Valerie June - Pushin’ Against A Stone
What we get is a record that is easier defined by geography than genre. Pushin’ Against A Stone is the sound of Memphis if it could ever be defined by one album. It is the sound of the city expressed through this native Memphis girl in the form of sweaty horns and soul, mournful, bellowing lyrics, and a spirit of defiance. It is like the streets rising up in a blue collar orchestra, expressing pain and struggle, and a yearning for redemption and victory. (read full review)
Guy Clark – My Favorite Picture of You
Like a great sage that only speaks his wisdom once every few years, when Guy Clark releases an album, you stop down, and you listen. A Guy Clark album, and a Guy Clark song doesn’t need much. Once he’s written the words down and sketched the shape with an acoustic guitar (that Guy Clark the luthier likely built himself), his job is pretty much done. This lends to his compositions doing what they do best: going out into the world, influencing other songs and songwriters, melding to the personal narratives of his listeners, and being graced with enough ambiguity where other performers can take Guy’s spark of inspiration and make the songs their own. (read full review)
The Tillers – Hand on the Plow
Leave behind the world of nagging priority that is screaming at your for attention through various flashing doo dads streaming threads of bad news and worse entertainment choices, and go back to a time when people played songs on their back porches from the simple love of the music, and the only way to evoke entertainment was to breed fellowship with friends and family and sing and play along. (album stream-review)
Leo Rondeau – Take It And Break It
Take It And Break It affords nine new original tracks from Rondeau, and is produced by R.S. Field who has previously worked with folks like Billy Joe Shaver and Hayes Carll, and produced Justin Townes Earle’s first two LP’s. This album has a great spirit and is a worthy receptacle for these original songs that now get to go out into the world and find inviting hearts. (read full review)
Jackson Taylor – Crazy Again
Can I just go ahead and declare that Jackson Taylor & The Sinners are officially the funnest band in country music right now? Do I have the unilateral authority to do that? Can we somehow get that certified through oath and affirmation? Because hot damn, if their latest album Crazy Again doesn’t leave you in a good mood, then you’re one hell of a red ass. Where in the country music world does Jackson Taylor & The Sinners belong? If Crazy Again is any indication, they don’t need to belong anywhere specifically, they deserve to belong everywhere. (read full review)
Patty Griffin – American Kid
American Kid is a worthy specimen if someone asked you produce an album that exemplifies Americana’s influence and artistry. From the ultra-traditional “Mom & Dad’s Waltz” by Lefty Frizzell, to the progressive and airy “Highway Song” co-penned by Robert Plant, American Kid presents itself like a tree hanging heavy with fruit, with all but the two aforementioned songs written by Griffin solely. Though in no way a full-on collaboration with Patty and Plant, his presence here and there gives American Kid an additional layer of compelling character. (read full review)
The Carper Family – Old Fashioned Gal
With aptitude, The Carper Family girls can shift from Western Swing, old-school country, folk, covers and originals, embellishing it all with tasteful instrumentation and exquisite three-part harmony. Each player brings a unique skill set that blends so well with their counterparts. Melissa Carper’s voice has the auspicious, wise, vintage tone of a natural born storyteller, while Jenn Miori’s is the classic sweet and supple sound of the simple country life. Beth Chrisman can blend tone with anything, while providing the solo parts for the music on the fiddle. (read full review)
Eric Strickland – I’m Bad For You
Eric Strickland is Country with a capital ‘C’ and couldn’t make a bad album if he tried. He may be more locally-oriented than the other big names in honky tonk music, but gives up nothing to his more well-known comrades when it comes to cutting songs and records. At the heart of Strickland’s appeal is his ability to take what on the surface may seem like tired, clichè country themes, and give them a fresh, new feel. (read full review)
Carolina Still – The Color of Rust
If you gave me only one word to describe this album, it would be “Yes!” The Color of Rust will downright wear your country ass out. Carolina Still are not necessarily superpickers, and if they were, it might take away from the spirit of their music. Instead they rely on good ears to craft catchy elements to reel you in. (read full review)
The Dinosaur Truckers – The Dinosaur Truckers
Can four dudes from Germany make American roots music and still be authentic? Do they have the ear, the personal history, the DNA, the dirt under their fingernails to do what American-based string bands do, or will they be forever relegated to being once removed from the American musical experience? If The Dinosaur Truckers and their new self-titled LP are any indication, the answer would be “Ja! Natürlich!” (read full review)
Jason Boland & The Stragglers – Dark & Dirty Mile
Jason Boland & The Stragglers have benefited over the years from their consistency. You know what you’re going to get from a Jason Boland show and a Jason Boland song. Dark & Dirty Mile continues on with that consistency and strength, and assures that as Red Dirt grows and ages, Jason Boland & The Stragglers will still be one of the movement’s premier acts, and one preserving the country roots in the Red Dirt legacy. (read full review)
Jayke Orvis & The Broken Band – Bless This Mess
Whether its blazing instrumentals like “Murder of Crows,” or more singer/songwriter-style material like “West Wind,” and what may be the album’s legacy track “Crooked Smile,” Jayke Orvis shows himself as one of the premier purveyors of Gothic-infused American string music worth a wide ear and critical acclaim. Jayke Orvis & The Broken Band is a name that deserves to be ready on the tongue whenever folks query for names of top flight string bands to check out. (read full review)
Ten Foot Polecats – Undertow
The Ten Foot Polecats out of Boston bring the serious, full-tilt North Mississippi deep blues mojo on their new chest-pounding, groove-infested long player rightly entitled Undertow. As the name implies, this bad boy sucks you down and doesn’t quit tugging you asunder until you wholly submit to the deep muddy abyss of booty-shaking rhythms. (read full review)
Deadstring Brothers – Cannery Row
If you’re looking for superpickers to get your spine tingling or superlative poetic exorbitance, you’re sorely missing the point of the Deadstring’s Cannery Row. This album is an evocation of warm memory, burrowing deep into your brain matter to reprise moments that meant something in your life and allowing you to relive them. It tugs at your heart strings, but not in the traditional way. It does it from the inside out–with a familiarity of feeling that is customized to your personal ear and experience. (read full review)
Son Volt – Honky Tonk
As one of the original members of Uncle Tupelo, Son Volt frontman Jay Farrar is one of the forebearers of the alt-country sound that now has morphed into the all-encompassing Americana behemoth that here in 2013 is enjoying a meteoric rise in influence. But instead of trying to figure out how to ride that popularity wave, Farrar and Son Volt release an album that is so doggone country, you could almost call it conceptualized. (read full review)
Lonesome Wyatt – Ghost Ballads
Where Lonesome’s Those Poor Bastards material usually carries more anger, and angular, abrupt themes, Ghost Ballads is like a lost collection of Edgar Allan Poe poems written as if they were for children, but that were truly meant for adults. Then he sets it all to music. Lonesome Wyatt is a timeless artist, and I’m sure Ghost Ballads along with his entire discography will be haunting Gothic fans long after he’s in the grave.(read full review)
Kacey Musgraves – Same Trailer, Different Park
When you boil it all down, this is a quintessential Americana album, not a country one, with intelligent songs and sparse arrangements. There’s more drums in 30 seconds of any given Rush song than on this entire album. There’s really no solo parts, and the one’s there are stick very close to the melody. It’s not the best mainstream album to come out in years, but its probably the best album that will actually be represented on mainstream radio and awards shows. And with its authentic, inspiring, and intelligent content, this can only be a good thing. (read full review)
Holly Williams – The Highway
Produced by Holly and Charlie Peacock, and written mostly by Williams herself, The Highway puts Holly Williams smack dab in the middle of this revolutionary crop of young women that threatens to completely shake up the country music world and mindset. Holly Williams now has a career-caliber album that exemplifies the leadership and creativity coming from country’s young women. (read full review)
Ashley Monroe – Like A Rose
Like A Rose is a short and sweet, classic country album that encapsulates Ashley Monroe’s skills as a formidable traditional country songwriter with a sweet voice embellished with sincere pain. All the songs on Like A Rose were written by Monroe,but they all include collaborators as well, most notably Vince Gill who is also the executive producer of the album. Ashley Monroe is at the very top of that crop of beautiful, bold, and talented women. (read full review)
Nellie Wilson – Not This Time
Where Nellie rises and really makes Not This Time a remarkable work is in her vocal performances and writing. Knowing the Nellie Wilson story, and listening to this album, you can tell that Nellie fought for this music and really pushed herself to put all of her resolve in making an album that was a true refection of her talent, her instincts, and her abilities. (read full review)
Wayne Hancock – Ride
A new Wayne Hancock album is like a gift from the country music gods; the same gods that bestowed upon him the capacity to be the closest living thing you can find to Hank Williams today (according to Hank Williams III among others), yet still be a wholly unique artist who finds himself in the very exclusive ranks of true music originators–those rare musical souls who’ve germinated their own genres and genealogy trees full of new artists inspired by their work. (read full review)
Amber Digby – The World You’re Living In
It takes a certain amount of courage to make an album like The World You’re Living In–so unapologetically steeped in the traditions of country music, specifically many of the traditions that set Texas country apart from other classic sounds originating further east or west. Making an album that is so blind to trends or trade industry desires, without a care if 98.1 will show courtesy to it in their rotation is a sign of character from Amber. (read full review)
Olds Sleeper – Before & After The Here And Now
You tend to get so immersed in the artistry of Olds Sleeper’s music, it’s sometimes easy to overlook what a good musician he is. His guitar work and composition match the wit of the words in “Unpack Your Heart,” and the playful instrumental “Primitive” is another one of Before And After‘s preeminent tracks. (read full review)
Dale Watson – El Rancho Azul
You know what you’re going to get with a Dale Watson album–good old-fashioned honest-to-goodness honky tonk country music. Bred for dancing, El Rancho Azul is taken straight out of the honky tonks Dale Watson plays 8 nights a week while home in Austin. Drinking and heartache are the prevailing themes, and maybe not just because this is a country album, but because Dale just recently went through a breakup and a divorce himself. (read full review)
Jimbo Mathus – White Buffalo
With White Buffalo, Jimbo Mathus captures more sweat in the recording than anything this side of Sticky Fingers.White Buffalo is a journey through the South. And no, not in Jason Aldean’s king cab with air conditioning and buckets seats, but in an old beater with panty hose and coat hangers procured for spare parts. With song titles like “Hatchie Bottom” and “Fake Hex,” you know you’re in for an interesting trip, and you’re glad to have a local as your guide. (read full review)
Daniel Romano – Come Cry With Me
Daniel Romano is not a neo-traditionalist in the traditional sense. He’s not trying to regale the modern ear with a new take on the classic country sound. Instead Daniel Romano is like the method actor of classic country, carving his niche by offering a strict interpretation of classic country’s modes with striking accuracy. It’s not a retro sound, it is a strict, methodical re-enactment. Everything fits the period–the words, the instrumentation, the song structure. (read full review)
Ray Lawrence Jr. – More Raw Stuff
Like Chris Knight, Ray Lawrence Jr. is a simple man who has this sensational talent to be able to put defining moments of the human experience to words and music in a way that rekindles the feelings of those moments. Ray’s simplicity becomes his strength by imbibing his music with a blue collar, colloquial grace. Since Ray’s wisdom isn’t defined by a Master’s degree or a master vocabulary, it manifests itself in a cunning wit that takes themes and language culled from real life experiences, and weaves them into high art through honesty and authenticity of expression. (read full review)
This is one of the questions that has plagued the second half of my 2013, as devotees of the shadowy, Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter pursue me, knowing what a sucker I am for narrative-based songwriting told through a thematic album. And that’s just what The White Buffalo, aka Jake Smith delivers in his latest record Shadows, Greys, and Evil Ways released in September.
But how would you know about him unless you have your nose buried deep in the soundtrack credits for Sons of Anarchy where he’s appeared several times, or were aware of his similar inclusion on the recent soundtrack for The Lone Ranger movie? The White Buffalo is about as independent as the enigmatic beast that lends to his pseudonym. Lots of artists would love to boast how they defy genre, but few can pull off the feat, borrowing from scattered influences instead of truly forging their own path like The White Buffalo does. He’s certainly roots, he’s somewhat country, but he’s 100% his own animal standing out from the herd.
Shadows, Greys, and Evil Ways is a concept album, and this is a fact Jake Smith is happy to share with his audience, along with a more in-depth explanation of the narrative, instead of letting you stumble into that truth like some artists find sport in doing. It follows the characters Jolene and Joe, their falling in love, the struggles of life that separate them in both body and spirit, and the sinister things this separation and life does to a man who struggles between sin and redemption.
Unlike some concept albums whose songs are linked through contiguous interludes or by referring back to certain global riffs or melodies, the songs of Shadows, Greys, and Evil Ways are fairly autonomous, especially at the beginning. Near the end, you being to latch on to some sonic similarities, but especially through the first few songs of the album, this record is not what you would call seamless. The albums starts of very sweet with “Shall We Go On” and “The Getaway,” but then turns unabashedly belligerent in the song “When I’m Gone” that’s like a dirty-mouthed underground country anthem.
Jake Smith is not afraid to shift gears and catch you off guard at any time in the album, yet the story remains linear throughout. One benefit to the autonomy the songs contain despite the concept is there’s quite a few songs on this album that can reside excellent on their own, including virtually every full track on the second half of the album.
Shadows, Greys, and Evil Ways is a creeper, especially if you don’t go into it knowing it is conceptualized. You recognize immediately there’s something cool here, but you may not be sure exactly what is going on, or what the overall appeal might be. Then after a few listens, despite the weight and artistry of the material, you begin to find the songs downright infectious. Nasty, viral grooves and hooks reveal themselves embedded in the content without jeopardizing the overall narrative that is the web holding the album together. The wit of the lyrics doesn’t wear off, it becomes enhanced as you to pick up on its subtleties, as the message of the story begins to reveal itself and you begin to identify and find empathy with the characters more and more.
By nature a concept album is harder to pull off because as an artist you must be beholden to the narrative instead of following your heart towards wherever inspiration grips you. But once the story finds its own path, the difficulty can be capturing it in the recorded format while the feelings are fresh, and doing justice to the story in the limiting confines of an audio record. Along on this journey with The White Buffalo are Jake Smith’s rhythm section Matt Lynot on drums, and Tommy Andrews on bass. The trio also calls on steel guitar, fiddle, cello, and keyboards in places to enhance the music that reaches towards Townes and Guy Clark in its lyrical depth, while referring to Tom Waits and Waylon Jennings sonically.
Shadows, Greys, and Evil Ways is as ambitious as it is accomplishing, and should be considered in the same breath as some of the best albums of 2013.
Two guns up.
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When you sit down to assemble a list of candidates for Song of the Year, you almost start to tremble in the face of so much creativity, inspiration, and insight, and grow humbled by how fortunate we are to live in such a bountiful time for music. Candidates for Song of the Year can’t just be songs we enjoy, they are songs that make you change the way you see the world, or change the way you see yourself.
Honorable mentions go to just about any song on John Moreland‘s Album of the Year candidate In The Throes. There were a few on the Brennen Leigh & Noel McKay‘s Before The World Was Made that nearly made it. Hank3‘s “Broken Boogie” was on the bubble, and would have made it in a year with a less-crowded field, and so would songs from some of 2013′s breakout female songwriters like Ashley Monroe, Caitlin Rose, Valerie June, and Brandy Clark, whose “Stripes” could have very well made it if the candidates were extended beyond the already hefty field of 10.
Audience participation is strongly encouraged, and will influence the outcome. Leave your opinions, write-in candidates, or other observations or opinions below in the comments section. This is not simply an up and down vote though. I make the final decision, so it is your job to convince me why the album you feel deserves to win is the right pick.
Josh Abbott Band – “I’ll Sing About Mine” from Small Town Family Dream
Written by Adam Hood and Brian Keane, “I’ll Sing About Mine” appears on 2012′s Small Town Family Dream, but was released as a single with a new video in early 2013. It was 2013′s first strong Song of the Year candidate, and very well may be the best.
“The great thing about “I’ll Sing About Mine” is the non-judgmental, even-keeled manner with which it delivers its message. It takes a lot of patience and a lot of heart to say what this song says without flying off the handle or flipping birds. It makes its point with as few pointed words as possible… It understands that really, few words need to be said, because deep down every human knows what’s real and what isn’t. They just have to be reminded, and then the momentum of the truth will do the rest.” (read full review)
Matt Woods – “Deadman’s Blues”
There are so many artists, so many songs and albums out there today, for any individual artist to stand out, they darn near have to stand on their head and turn somersaults to get our attention. It’s sad but true, but that’s what Matt Woods does with “Deadman’s Blues.”
“We ask a lot of our independent country and roots artists. We want them to release new music early and often, even though it stings them in the pocketbook to record. We want them to play our stupid town, even though it is way out of their way and the turnout will be light. We want them to perform in small, intimate venues, even though it’s not financially feasible for trying to take care of themselves, or God forbid, raise a family. We don’t want them to be too successful, lest their music loses its pain and soul. We don’t want them to age. We want them to see all the places, and do all the things we can’t, and maintain a party-filled lifestyle so we can then live vicariously though them as our own legs grow roots and our lives prosper from stability.” (read full review)
Wade Bowen – “Songs About Trucks”
Written by Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally, “Songs About Trucks” is 2013′s most cunning protest song. But it’s a protest song that offers a little something more.
“Once again a member of the Texas music scene has delivered a song that gives voice and reason to how the rest of us feel. Wade Bowen’s “Trucks” aims its big, diamond-plated bumper at the incessant references to tailgates and four wheel drives in modern pop country songs and slams on the gas. At the same time, it practices what it preaches, making sure to instill some story and soul into the song along the way, instead of just being a vehicle for protest.” (read full review)
Lindi Ortega – “Tin Star” from Tin Star
Lindi Ortega can melt your heart and make you feel the pain of a song like few others, and the beauty of “Tin Star” is the personal nature of the narrative, and how Lindi delivers it’s humble message with such loving care. She coddles this song like one would a malnourished kitten that shows up on your doorstep, or and old pair of scuffed and dusty boots found at a thrift store that she then nurses back to health and vitality, polishes and buffs up to shine to present to the world proudly.
“It’s admittedly hard to hold on to your objectivity when this raven from the Great White North rises in song and such a wave of emotion and beauty grips you that your rationality is sent reeling and all your senses are completely submerged and made submissive to her sway. Lindi Ortega is a creature of the darkness. She highlights the beauty in the world not by shining a light on it, but painting the rest black until the beauty is all that is left. She cherishes life by celebrating death. She makes you feel joy by bringing you to tears. She is the antithesis to an obvious, transparent world, all freshly fallen snow and onyx—biting, contrasting, revitalizing the attention to life and its many dark beauties simply by her presence.” (read full review of the album Tin Star)
Charlie Robison – “Monte Carlo” – from High Life
I’m nominating “Monte Carlo” here officially, but it has a companion song “Out Of These Blues” that is also on High Life and that pairs with it so perfectly, and is also written by Robison’s sister Robyn Ludwick. If someone asked me to play them an example of quintessential Texas country music, these would be the songs I would choose. Texas country masterpieces.
“Can’t say enough about these tracks, the excellence in songwriting they achieve, and Charlie’s ability to interpret their stories perfectly through song. They’re both very similar, and different all the same in the way they convey a feeling of forlornness, but still are imbibed with such a warm sense of memory that a sad story leaves you filled with a happy feeling. The way the chorus of ‘Monte Carlo’ strings you out for so long, hanging in the bubbly moments only the best music can attain, you wish this song could go on forever, and it’s so good it probably could.” (read full review of High Life)
Austin Lucas – “Alone In Memphis” from Stay Reckless
Austin Lucas proves he’s worth the label as one of 2013′s breakout artists with this lead single from his New West debut, Stay Reckless.
“Whether electric or acoustic, Austin only knows one way to perform a song: with 100% passion, until the song’s inspiration manifests right there on stage and coats every word. Even if you hate the lyrics, or can’t connect to the story of ‘Alone In Memphis,’ it is written perfectly to pull the emotion right out of Austin every time and spill it out amongst the audience in a moment of shared reflection and commiseration on one of the most fundamental failings of the human condition—our inability to feel stable without the company of another.
“Great songwriters know how to write to their strengths, and that is what Austin does in ‘Alone in Memphis.’” (read full review)
Sturgill Simpson – “Life Ain’t Fair and the World Is Mean” from High Top Mountain
Due to a technicality in Saving Country Music’s vast and complex bylaws, even though this song was considered for Song of the Year in 2012, since it was released on an album this year, it qualifies to be considered again.
“The magic of “Life Ain’t Fair” is the way it trivializes all the issues it raises by simply pointing out the obvious: that life’s unfairness is inherent, and complaining about it or using it as an excuse to not pursue your dreams is foolish. It’s cynical and inspirational all at the same time, and that feat of acrobatics can’t be performed without some acute dexterity and prowess with the pen.” (read full review)
JB Beverley – “Disappear On Down The Line” from Stripped to the Root
It’s a shame that the best songs tend to come from the deepest despair, creating the paradoxical, and sometimes self-destructive existence that many of the most talented and storied songwriters live. As JB Beverley says about “Disappear On Down The Line”:
“I was in my home, totally isolated and alone, my woman had left, I’d buried my friends, and all the proverbial voices of doubt and chaos, and all this negative stuff was fueling my mind at the time. I use the parable that the demons were dragging me down. Granted, there weren’t literally ghouls in the room tugging me through the floorboards, but as far as the emotional, spiritual, and mental direst and in some instances torment I was under, it was very real.” (read full interview)
Holly Williams – “Drinkin’” – from The Highway
This is one of those songs every other songwriter beats themselves up for not writing. Beautifully complex in its simplicity, both enigmatically deep and pleasantly colloquial, Holly Williams proves the Williams’ bloodline is still virile with an unconventional tune with universal impact on the weary soul yearning for respite. Where has Holly Williams been? She may have taken the roundabout way to finding herself, but she’s here now, and our ears couldn’t be happier.
“Where Holly Williams’ career and releases left her neither here nor there before, now she has found her voice, has found her place, and that place is amongst the talented women doing what they can to return the greater country music world to a place of substance.” (read full review for The Highway)
Jason Isbell – “Elephant” from Southeastern
Trying to pick one song from Jason Isbell’s album Southeastern to represent on this list is like asking a rainbow its favorite color. So if you think another song is more worthy, you’re opinion is probably warranted, so just put your chips on “Elephant” in its stead.
“‘Elephant’ is just downright unfair. Though this trend of token Cancer songs dotting nearly every country album released in the past few years is alarming, Isbell’s offering is far from a saccharine and sappy vie for radio play. It is a complete deconstruction and compromising of the emotional guards protecting a listener’s heart told in shockingly-real language, allowing the chemicals of empathetic response to run pure.” (read full review of Southeastern)
2013 has been self-proclaimed by Saving Country Music as the “Year of the Songwriter,” and this list of candidates for SCM’s Album of the Year reflect that dynamic of an elevated bar of songwriting excellence that these 8 artists have set. There is no arbitrary number of slots for candidates for this award. Nominees are chosen only if they have a legitimate chance of winning, whether that number is 2 or 12, and as we start the process of deciding who will win, the field is wide open.
One album you will not see on this list, but one that is at the very top of my personal list is Possessed by Paul James‘s There Will Be Nights When I’m Lonely. But since I had a small hand in the making of that album, I have recused it from consideration here, and from all of the end-of-year accolades. But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be considered in yours.
Lindi Ortega‘s Tin Star, and Austin Lucas‘s Stay Reckless are both valiant efforts that very easily could have made this list of candidates if it was stretched out a little farther, but something tells me you might see these names on the Best Songs list coming up shortly. Jayke Orvis‘s Bless This Mess, Valerie June‘s Pushin Against A Stone, and Eric Strickland‘s I’m Bad For You were also right on the bubble, and so was The White Buffalo‘s Shadows, Greys, and Evil Ways, and you will see these albums and many more on the much more expansive “Essential Albums” list that is coming up shortly. So if you don’t see an album you love, don’t freak out, it still may be up for an end-of-year distinction yet.
Audience participation is strongly encouraged, and will influence the outcome. Leave your opinions, write-in candidates, or other observations or opinions below in the comments section. This is not simply an up and down vote though. I make the final decision, so it is your job to convince me why the album you feel deserves to win is the right pick.
Caitlin Rose – The Stand-In
2013 is the Year of the Woman, and the Year of the Songwriter in country music, and this puts one Caitlin Rose right in the sweet spot of the relevancy arch. What elevates The Stand-In to “Album of the Year” status is that her songwriting deftly avoids all the well-worn grooves and modes that many songwriters tend to lean on when looking for ideas and inspiration. Also, whether The Stand-In wins or not, this is the most well-produced album of 2013. The production squeezes every bit of potential out of every song just as classic albums like The Beatles Rubber Soul and Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors do.
“Ladies and gentlemen, Caitlin Rose has arrived. It may take some time for the rest of the world to wake up to this realization. But they will. The strength of ‘The Stand-In’ assures it. The Stand-In is frighteningly good. It’s an enterprise in the evocation of rich human emotions, interwoven with delicious hooks and intelligent riffs, stirring vocal performances delivering meaningful, elevated lyricism, and a towering production performance that may go down in the history books. Just simply… Wow.” (read full review)
Sturgill Simpson – High Top Mountain
As far as a Country album with a capital ‘C’, Sturgill Simpson takes the crown hands down with High Top Mountain. No frills, no gimmicks, just straight down the middle honest to goodness country music. High Top Mountain is fair to consider a front runner, but the field is heavy this year on the fringes of the country genre, and Sturgill will have to fend off stiff competition if he is to win. And despite how great High Top Mountain is, the case can be made that Simpson still has some upside potential.
“Real country fans are just going to have to get comfortable with the new reality that their favorite music is on a surprising uptick. No more mopey faces, no more plotting midnight graffiti runs to Music Row as retribution for keeping your favorite artists down. Regardless of what kind of filth is still transpiring on country radio, a new spring of vibrant, independent country music is blooming and finding surprising support, and there may not be a better example of this new season than Kentucky native Sturgill Simpson and his breakout album ‘High Top Mountain.’” (read full review)
The Mavericks – In Time
When talking about sheer enjoyment one can get from an album, The Mavericks and In Time take the cake in 2013. I mean this album has you dancing around your living room or doing the Latin shake while you’re behind the wheel like nothing else. Is it a country album? That’s up for debate, but The Mavericks and Raul Malo are certainly more country than what you hear on country radio these days, and deserve to be considered as strong contenders here. Every day you do not have this album in your life is a day you’re missing out on that much more enjoyment. This is the Album of the Year if you throw out considerations of genre.
“Take the West Coast country coolness of Dwight Yoakam, the haunting tremolo of Roy Orbison, the sweaty rhythms of Los Lobos, and what you get is Miami’s indescribable and enigmatic throwback old-school all-things-to-all-people house band for America known as The Mavericks. They’re like some strange Central American fruit you purchase in South Texas that once you cut open the rind a bounty of greatness starts gushing out. Its taste is both exotic and warmly familiar, and its supple membranes are revitalizing to both the body and spirit.” (read full review)
Brent Amaker & The Rodeo – Year of the Dragon
Who and the who, and the year of what? That’s right, this dark horse nominee from the Pacific Northwest rides smack dab into the middle of this distinguished company from the sheer creative brilliance and sonic innovation Year of the Dragon displays. Every year there is an album that pushes boundaries and sets a precedent for the progression of the genre in a manner that still respects its roots, and this bold project with a futuristic scope and vibe leads the pack in 2013. Brent Amaker & The Rodeo are no anomaly. They could win this thing.
“If someone asked me to pony up an example of how in 30 years from now when we all have jet packs and flying cars, how country music could still respect and represent its roots, but still offer a relevant sound, I would hand them over a copy of ‘Year of the Dragon.’ It strikes that always-elusive balance between substance and wide-ranging appeal. Though the appeal will be hidden from some for the aforementioned reasons (monotone lyrics and similar rhythms between songs), once you delve beneath the surface, this album offers succulent melodies and catchy moments that make it downright addicting beyond the intellectual appeal of the artistry and lyricism.” (read full review)
John Moreland – In The Throes
I’ll be honest with you, this is the one candidate that I am not 100% on. Though John Moreland’s songwriting effort here is world class and easily competes with any other album listed here, to be an SCM Album of the Year winner, you must bring a complete package, and the production and recording effort with this album leaves room for improvement. It is one thing if you’re going for the lo-fi vibe, but John Moreland’s songs are too good to bring anything less than a superlative effort to recording them for release out into the big scary world. At the same time, out of respect for Moreland’s world-class songwriting, and so many people who put this album on the top of their 2013 lists, it’s being included it here, and who says I can’t be convinced that despite whatever warts, it still deserves to win from the caliber of Moreland’s songwriting performance.
“If John Moreland was a boxer, he’d be a bruiser, a punnisher. No fancy footwork, no bobbing and weaving here. Every single line John Moreland throws out is like a lyrical haymaker meant to score an empathic knockout punch right between the eyes. Even the most emotionally-fraught songwriters tend to give you a short breath somewhere from the morose moments, but not Moreland. He is relentless in how he unburdens his soul without any worry of exposing his vulnerabilities, or how the emotional fortitude of the listener will handle such despondency delivered with such honesty.” (read full review)
Jason Isbell – Southeastern
To become a Saving Country Music Album of the Year, you effort must be at a career-caliber level, and that’s what we get from Jason Isbell and Southeastern. This is the album, and 2013 is the year that Isbell emerged to have an impact well beyond the in-the-know crowd of Americana to become a voice of leadership in re-instilling substance and tireless attention to the craft of songwriting into the wider music world. Jason Isbell has arrived, and revealed himself as one of our generation’s legacy songwriters and performers.
“On ‘Southeastern’ Isbell goes right for the gut with an elegiac knife, thrusting and stabbing in a morose and unrelenting ritual of emotional evocation. Southeastern is downright suffocating in spots in its weight. It is bold, and merciless in how in preys on the faint-of heart, and can make a faint-of-heart out of even the most devout Stoics. Completely unfair Isbell, completely unfair. And selfish too. You should have saved some of these songs for others.” (read full review)
Robbie Fulks – Gone Away Backward
In a nominee field with a few dark horses, Robbie Fulks’ Gone Away Backward might be the album worth characterizing as the most criminally-underrated record in all of 2013. Because of the humble, non-commercial nature of this guy, he will never get the recognition his legacy of wisdom through songwriting should afford him. A true treasure of our time, this traditional country record with an epic songwriting effort is a must-have.
“With a gift for poetry like Townes Van Zandt, and a penchant for the whimsical, progressive approach to bluegrass akin to John Hartford, Robbie Fulks releases a stunningly entertaining, brilliantly-balanced, deep, yet instantly-engaging comeback album called Gone Away Backward through longtime associates Bloodshot Records. Steeped in the roots of bluegrass and old time, this sparse, acoustic-only album offers a traditional sound that is brought up to modern-day relevancy by the staggeringly-cunning use of wit in Robbie’s verses. This is one of those albums you can cull a litany of quotes from, while not giving anything away sonically. Buoyed by one amazing line after another, songs like “I’ll Trade You Money For Wine” and “Where I Fell” speak right to the heart of folks who take their music like medication.” (read full review)
Brandy Clark – 12 Stories
In a year of inspiring success stories, Brandy Clark’s might be the biggest. A pure songwriter who strikes the perfect balance between appeal and substance, Brandy Clark’s breakout album 12 Stories tells the tale of how in 2013, women and songwriters are leading the charge to save country music.
“The hidden dystopia seething under the smile of sweet suburban life, and the general dysfunction plaguing any and all affairs of the heart is the broken-minded madness that Brandy taps into with this album, following fed up and frustrated fraus who are willing to medicate themselves and match the misdeeds of their men sin for glorious sin. Frail, turbulent, vengeful, but still somehow empowered and held together by the strength and perseverance of womanhood, the heroins of Brandy Clark’s 12 Stories are as inspiring as they are shameful, and tragic as they are real.” (read full review)
It’s been nearly 5 years since songwriter, performing artist, and pioneer of underground country J.B. Beverley released his last album with the country band The Wayward Drifters, and now he’s finally back with a new record, but it’s not with The Wayward Drifters, or exclusively a country project. Instead it’s a very introspective and conceptualized work that touches on many sonic shades referring to Beverly’s wide musical palette that he’s explored with various projects he has been a part of over the years.
Since Stripped to the Root and some of its songs might lend to a little curiosity or downright confusion, we decided to place a call to J.B. to get his take on what people can expect from Stripped to the Root. The entirety of the 20-minute interview can be heard below, and the meat of the interview is transcribed below that.
There’s been some big news here lately. A good Outlaw country artist named Wayne Mills has passed away. Did you know Wayne very well, and if so what did his music mean to you?
I didn’t know Wayne very well in the big scheme of things, as far as for a long time. The joke we made when we were hanging out in Altamont [at the Outlaw and Legends tribute concert] was that we knew of each other a lot longer than we’ve known each other. But he impacted my life in a great way, both personally and musically. An amazing, from the heart and from the gut songwriter, very pure, very true to his personality and cultural roots. And as a man, he’s was as stand up of a guy as I’ve been around since I can remember. He was a really remarkable person that was taken out of this world too early, that’s for sure.
You’ve said about your new album Stripped to the Root that it’s not a country record; that there’s some country stuff included, but it’s not a Wayward Drifters record which is your country band. Explain to folks what the idea and inspiration is behind the album, and what they can expect.
The album was sort of a happy accident. It wasn’t something that I planned to do. I had the same band in the Wayward Drifters for a long time, and Johnny [Lawless] took a temporary retirement from the road, Dan Mazer my banjo player had moved to the West Coast, so for the first time in a decade I found myself without a band and some time to kill. And I was going through some really tumultuous personal stuff. My long-term girlfriend of several years and I had split up, a couple of my friends had passed away, my dad had taken ill, and I left Virginia and moved to North Carolina. But through all of this, what became Stripped to the Root basically was a collection of songs both that I had written, or either heroes or friends in some capacity had written that were helping me get through that time.
The best way to put it is that it’s not so much a record, or if it is a record, it’s a concept record. And to look beyond that, a good friend of mine named Cameron Romero who’s a filmmaker said it best, he said, “This is less an album in a conventional sense, and more a soundtrack to the last three years of your life, which is very bold and very naked.” There’s a certain vulnerability to this record. Every song is very personal. This album was very cathartic for me. It was something that I had to do, and something I don’t think I could ever do twice.
What made you decide to release Stripped to the Root through the Rusty Knuckles label?
I have a lot of love and respect for the folks at Farmageddon, but it wasn’t working out the way I wanted it to. I really wanted the album to come out, and the Rusty Knuckles folks offered me finishing funds and a means of really promoting the album and getting it properly distributed, and really just wanted to see it happen as bad as I did. At the time I’m sitting here with medical bills and legal bills, plus my fans have gone since 2009 without a Wayward Drifters record. I had to do something. I couldn’t wait another six months or a year. I really had to move on it. And so it really came down to just having to get it out, and doing what was best for the record and for the fans.
You say these songs are really personal to you, so let’s talk about a couple of them. The first one “Disappear On Down The Line” has been out there for a little while. It’s a song that has spoken to a lot of people. What was the inspiration behind that song?
That song, and the song “Stripped to the Root,” I kind of call them sister songs in a way. They were both written on the same night. And they were the two songs that led to my concept behind the record. So I can thank both of those songs for being the springboard. The actual story behind “Disappear On Down The Line” is pretty much transliterated through the lyrics. I was in my home, totally isolated and alone, my woman had left, I’d buried my friends, and all the proverbial voices of doubt and chaos, and all this negative stuff was fueling my mind at the time. I use the parable that the demons were dragging me down. Granted, there weren’t literally ghouls in the room tugging me through the floorboards, but as far as the emotional, spiritual, and mental direst and in some instances torment I was under, it was very real.
“Disappear On Down The Line” and “Stripped to the Root,” both those songs, I wrote those songs to avoid picking up my pistol and doing something real stupid. There’s no real other way to put it. I’ve never been a suicidal type, I’ve never tried it, I’ve never threatened it, I’ve never really entertained the idea. But at that point in my life, I was so down and out, I did find myself sitting there staring at my pistol. And the instant that I felt that way, I knew I had to get it out of my system or I was gonna die. So I penned those songs in an effort to get through that night and keep from doing something stupid. And the beautiful part is that I’ve been able to treat the execution of this record as a catharsis, as in the sense that you have all these negative feelings and all this stuff weighing on your ticker and spirit, and if you’re able somehow to leave it in the art work, leave it in the song, then it no longer haunts you.
There’s another song “All The Little Devils” co-written by Ronnie Hymes…
Yeah, Ronnie is singing on it as well. I was working on that song, and Ronnie had just come by my studio to visit, and he made a couple of lyrical suggestions. And after his second or third suggestion that I actually liked better than what I had written, I just said, “Okay man, I’m going to use your words and you officially co-authored this song with me. So it kind of came about impromptu. It was really organic.
And what’s the message you’re trying to convey with “All The Little Devils”?
I’ve seen a transition in music in recent years. I’ll give you an example. I loved what Hank3 did with Straight to Hell. I felt in a very real way it was a concept record with a very honest depiction of where his heart was at the time. But what I saw in the aftermath of the popularity of that record has been a wide variety of bands that are basically trying to cash in on the whole “drinking, drugs, Satan, let’s raise hell.” There’s a time and place for all that. I like to have a good time. I’ve fucked up many things in my life. I’ve not always been a great person. But at the same time, I don’t understand why a lot of these people feel the need to celebrate being a degenerate, to celebrate having no honor. I just don’t get it.
Like I say in the song, I’m not saying I’m any better. I’ve made many of those same mistakes. The difference is I learned over the years, and I no longer celebrate it. It ain’t me trying to force feed my politics or spiritual beliefs on anybody. I’m not trying to put anybody down. I’m all for people trying to reflect their feelings, and their sentiments, and their dreams however they choose to. But the problem is that there’s got to be more to it. You can’t have all Saturday night without Sunday morning. You’ve got to have some inner reflection. You’ve got to have that honest look in the mirror and say, “Am I choosing to be a decent person, or am I choosing to serve that lower order? Am I choosing to corrupt and corrode?”
You’re also a renegade studio owner now. What are some of the projects you have done, or may have coming up with Rebel Roots Studio?
The first thing I ever did was the last Wayward Drifters album Watch America Roll By in 2009. I did Jayke Orvis’s first record It’s All Been Said, and I did Owen Mays’ first record. Matt Kellie and the Idle Americans. Husky Burnette’s album I engineered, produced, and played bass on. Carolina Still’s album. Man, there’s been a bunch. Me and Buck (Thrailkill) have been staying pretty busy since I’ve been down here. It was sort of a default thing. I had to reconfigure my lineup, I had to take care of some family stuff, I couldn’t tour like the way I had been, so I figured the logical thing was if I can’t do what I’ve been doing for the next year or so, at least not full time, and there’s no work to be had here, you might as well use one of your other skills. And I had been doing recording before I moved to North Carolina, but Buck and I stepped up the workload once I got here because I wasn’t touring as much. So I sort of defaulted into it.
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