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If you wanted to pin the title of “First Family of Texas Country” on a worthy house, the Robison clan might be a pretty good pick. Brothers Bruce and Charlie Robison are as seasoned of players and songwriters as you will find anywhere in Texas country, and their sister Robyn Ludwick is also an accomplished songwriter and performer. Bruce Robison has penned multiple #1 songs, is married to singer/songwriter Kelly Willis, and the duo recently released an album together called Cheater’s Game that was nominated for the Americana Music Association’s “Album of the Year.” Charlie Robison was once married to Emily Robison—a founding member of the Dixie Chicks and Courtyard Hounds. The couple had 3 children before divorcing in 2008, but Emily continues to use the Robison name and the two remain best friends. Altogether, that’s not a bad little list of music kudos for team Robison.
Older brother Charlie Robison may have never had the big #1 hits that younger brother Bruce did, but they tabulate those types of things far away in Nashville and New York City, and by the time that news trickles down to Texas it seems so trivial to the laid back, easy-feeling mood of the Lone Star State. Being just a year shy of 50, Charlie isn’t looking to make a big splash, set records, or sniff the top of the charts, he’s simply releasing music that he wants to listen to and play, and for the rest of us that get the fortune of peering into his little party, it’s quite entertaining to follow along.
Don’t be spooked too much by the Haight-Ashbury circa 1967 album cover on this record. There’s no acid trips or space jams inside, though in its own way the cover conveys the laid back mood that the music of High Life embodies, and the harkening back to the cowboy hippie vibe of Austin in the mid 70′s that this album evokes. What you do get with High Life is some damn fine Texas country, and interestingly, 9 songs that Charlie Robison didn’t write. Normally it is Charlie doing the writing for himself and others, but Charlie’s decision to leave the pressure behind of penning new material is what allows the party-like, laid-back Saturday night feel of this album to flourish.
Charlie didn’t have to reach very far for the material for High Life. With songs by brother Bruce and sister Robyn, and songs from Texas songwriters like Doug Sahm and Kinky Friedman, High Life fits very nicely within the vibe of what Robison music is all about. Two songs from The Band—”Look Out Cleveland” and the Dylan-penned “When I Paint My Masterpiece”—even seem to slide right into the song selection fairly seamlessly.
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. Opening track “Brand New Me” written by brother Bruce sets the table for this post-breakup/get-back-to-life record. Doug Sahm’s “Nuevo Laredo” and Ry Cooder’s “The Girls from Texas” help set the party atmosphere by bringing the Mexican border and the album’s sense of place that much closer. Bobby Bare Jr’s “Patty McBride” keeps the party going, and is probably the most solidly rock track on an album that could be offered up as a ideal example of how Texas country can mix in rock influences while still respecting its country roots.
But 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. 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.
Nine songs is all you get with High Life and that’s good and plenty. Charlie Robison does his worst, and leaves you immersed in good vibes before the moments have a chance to stale.
1 3/4 of 2 guns up — 4 1/2 of 5 stars
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You talk to most any independent country, roots, or Americana artist, and to a man they will tell you their fortunes tend to be better in the European market. Whether it is because the competition is less, or the support for the arts in general is more, European tours are what allow many of your favorite artists to make it in the music business. With so many European tours and the continued spread of American country music, it was only a matter of time before country began to rub off on the locals and American roots music spread like wildfire throughout the Old World.
This is in no way a complete list or compendium of the dozens upon dozens of country and roots artists and bands that call Europe home. It’s simply a cross section of some cool examples of how Europeans from many different countries, and in many different disciplines from traditional country to bluegrass have taken up the country cause. You’re encouraged to leave your own lists and examples below.
If you’ve been wondering whatever happened to the classic, beautiful sound of the country music duet, look no further than the UK’s My Darling Clementine. Spellbinding voices mixed with a 50′s-60′s golden era styling make this English pairing something the whole world can enjoy.
You may chuckle at the name, but G-runs ‘n Roses from the Czech Republic are an energetic, high-octane bluegrass band that can bring the roots as deep as any of their transcontinental counterparts. Language and cultural barriers be damned, once they launch into song, you might as well be in Kentucky.
Maybe the most commercially-successful band on this list, this pair of Swedish sisters offer succulent harmonies and stellar songwriting in music that is inspired heavily from the Gram Parsons/Emmylou Harris camp. Born into a house where folk and country was ever-present, and not hindered whatsoever by barriers of language or culture, the only thing giving these girls away as not being from the US is their lack of pretentiousness. First Aid Kit gives many American singing duos a run for their money.
A super fun band from the UK featuring guitar player Russ Williams sandwiched between two hot girls in Wild Lucy Williams slapping on double bass and Nicole Terry on a sweet, smokin’ fidddle. The Rip Roaring Success have a distinct, stripped-down Western-swing style that’s hard to not start moving to when they get going.
One of the most unique performers you will ever see or hear, Dad Horse Experience from Germany is a banjo-playing one man band accompanying himself on bass organ with his feet and sometimes sporting a kazoo. His songs serenade a bereft world with cautionary wisdom, while the music is not afraid to work in fun and whimsy.
From Celtic jigs and folksy tales, to the legacy of the American storytelling song and Southern anthems, UK’s Rattleshack traces a nexus between English-speaking country and folk music, and marks a guidepost for the listener to see how the roots of the music all intertwine and share the same origin. It’s not that this hasn’t been done before, but it’s not been done nearly enough, and never with the fun, underground country twist Rattleshack displays.
Possibly the pinnacle of new-school punk-infused bluegrass from Europe, the Dinosaur Truckers can be as fast and precise as any, regardless of continent. But music is not a skills competition, and the best part about this band is that they know how to slow it down and make it about the song as well. Their recent, self-titled album was awarded a full two gun up review by Saving Country Music.
One of Europe’s oldest country bands originally formed in 1999, Crooks & Straights from Rijeka, Croatia might be the most straightforward country, honky tonk style band on this list. Known for excellent musicianship and players, aside from a slight Croatian accent to the lyrics, you would never know this band didn’t originate in North America.
From the underground/hellbilly side of country, Henrich Steuernagel from Wölfersheim, Germany brings a hellish take to country and bluegrass in self-penned songs. Germany is one of the epicenters for underground country in Europe, and Heinrich is also known for being an ambassador/tour guide/liasion for American bands touring through locally.
Maybe one of the most familiar bands stateside since they have been based in the US for many years, the Swiss-born Kruger Brothers consisting of brothers Jens, Uwe, and Joel are considered one of the top folk and bluegrass trios in the entire discipline. They have released a total of 16 albums, and banjo player Jens Kruger just won the Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass Music.
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.
Whereas Lindi’s last album Cigarettes & Truckstops had a definitively dark, Gothic tinge, Tin Star is more of an equitable, neotraditional take, though the dark shades still tickle the edges and emerge from the shadows here and there. In fact Tin Star is downright boot stomping in places, traversing the carnivorous streets of Nashville defiantly, taking a trip down to Louisiana to serenade the chorus of songs bleeding through weathered shutters out into the streets, and even to south of the border to find inspiration in the tragic character of Frida Kahlo.
Produced by Dave Cobb who was also at the helm for Sturgill Simpson’s critically-acclaimed High Top Mountain, Tin Star captures Lindi Ortega very much in the current moments of her life as a Canadian songbird with a fiercely independent spirit living amongst the daunting skyscrapers and superstars of Music City. Dare I say there’s even an air of bravado and downright protest in some of Tin Star‘s songs, including the title track:
“Well you don’t know me, I’m a nobody. I sing on the Strip, for a few pennies. I’ve got a busted string, and a broken guitar. I’ve been singing for tips down at the local bar. Like an old tin star I’m beat up and rusting, lost in the shining stars of Nashville, Tennessee Well I wrote this song for those who are like me, lost in the shining stars, the shining stars…
The song “All These Cats” ratchets up the bravado another notch, brandishing balled-up little fists towards any and all Lindi detractors trying to “run her out of town.” Tin Star has some fight in it, some tempo here and there, and teeters towards downright rock and roll in places, like in the desirous “I Want You.” Tin Star is spicy, touching on a wide range of emotions and textures.
But the real message and worth of Tin Star lies in Lindi’s poetic disposition, rivaling the wordsmith skills of most any other present-day balladist in its depth and artistic evocation, maybe most evidenced in the song “Something For You” that is appropriately about finding the words to express your true feelings. And as always, Lindi’s voice is both fragile and confident, smoky and pleasantly patina’d; naturally diminishing into an adorable vibrato at the end of phrases to press any and all of your emotional buttons.
Lindi Ortega may see her star as old, beat up, and rusting. But I for one am blinded by its splendor.
Two guns up / Five Stars
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“I always tell people that one day my book will be entitled “Five Feet From Stardom.” – Zachary Sweeny
The fate of the sideman in music is one of always playing second fiddle to the big star. But one of the things we love about the other players in a country band is they generally don’t care. Though many times they do an equal share, if not the majority of the heavy lifting for the music, they’re just fine blending into the background.
My first encounter with the young, fresh-faced Zach Sweeny was when he was playing with Lucky Tubb at a Halloween show last year at Johnny B’s in Medford, OR. He was on loan from Wayne Hancock’s band and was setting the place on fire. It was one of those moments where you have to tap your neighbor on the shoulder and ask, “Is that kid for real?” As effortless as breath, Zach was raising the ghost of hollow body guitar god Hank Garland, while waylaying the wild crowd decked in their Halloween regalia.
Wayne “The Train” Hancock’s band over the years has been like its own Hall of Fame/proving ground for remarkable guitar players. From the incomparable Eddie Biebel, to James Hunnicutt, to Wyatt Maxwell (of Mad Max & The Wild Ones), Wayne has had some of the best in the business at his side. Zach Sweeny gives up nothing to these players and has become one of the most ubiquitous sidemen in underground country, appearing on albums from Danny Kay and the Nightlifers, working in the studio with Jimbo Mathus, and wowing crowds coast to coast as the anchor of Wayne Hancock’s band.
How old are you?
I was born January 31, 1990. So that makes me twenty three years old.
Where are you from?
Beltsville, Maryland. It’s between Baltimore and Washington DC. It was a great place to grow up playing music because I could play in Washington D.C., Baltimore and northern Virginia. I had lots of opportunities to play and not overexpose my self too much.
Where do you live now?
Right now I live with Wayne Hancock in Denton, Texas. It’s about forty miles north of Dallas.
Who are the current artists or bands that you play with?
At this time I am just playing with Wayne Hancock. He goes out on the road like clockwork two weeks on and two weeks off. I really enjoy touring with him. He lets me shine on every song all night long. It’s a great gig for developing your chops as a soloist and I love every minute of it.
Who are artists or bands that you used to play with?
I have been in so many bands over the years I could not possibly name them all but I’ll name some that were important to me. One band is Danny Kay and the Nightlifers. I’ve played on two of his records Heading Home and Crazy Lonesome Blue. Another band is Retro Deluxe with my friend Bobby Joe Owens. We recorded a record called Watermelon Tea down in Mississippi with Jimbo Mathus from the Squirrel Nut Zippers. I played on Bobby Joe’s solo record Please Rise—Jimbo was also a part of that project as well. Other bands I have played with but have never recorded with are Glenn Moomau and the Blue Flames, who have a standing gig every Friday at Berthas Mussels in Fells Point in Baltimore. Brook Yoder is a really good singer, a traditional Rockabilly band called the Garnet Hearts, and countless bar bands and last minute call when someone cancelled at the last minute.
How did you get starting playing with Wayne Hancock and Lucky Tubb?
Up until a few years ago I only played mostly with older musicians and I made a conscious decision to find younger bands to play with. So I joined Danny Kay and the Nightlifers and The Garnet Hearts. On a trip to Fayetteville, North Carolina with Danny Kay, I met a singer songwriter named Ronnie Hymes. He sat in on a few songs that night and we exchanged business cards. A few months later in July he contacted me and asked if he could pass my number on to Lucky Tubb because he had a tour coming up and his steel player and guitarist backed out at the last minute. I said, “That would be fine” thinking nothing would come from it. About 5 hours later, Lucky called me and asked me if I could do the tour and the first stop was in Eureka Springs, Arkansas at Chelsea’s. All I had to do was get there. Lucky offered me a bus ticket but I didn’t think Greyhound would get me there on time so I drove out in my car having no idea how this gig would go.
At Chelsea’s in Eureka Springs I met a woman named Gina Gallina who happened to be Wayne Hancock’s wife. She filmed me on her phone during the show and sent a video to Wayne. Gina offered to let me leave my car at her house while I was on tour with Lucky. While I was still on the same tour with Lucky, Wayne called me up and said he needed a guitarist pronto, I told him when I finished out the tour with Lucky I would meet him in NC the next day to start the tour with him. Wayne offered me a job after the tour so I took it, but for a few tours I did double duty with Lucky and Wayne. Lucky and I parted very amicably and will play together in the future most likely. That being said I hope to be with Wayne for a long time. I am very proud to be in his band and grateful to Ronnie and Gina for giving me great opportunities.
Who are your primary guitar influences?
I have a lot of guitar influences but one of my favorite players is Hank Garland. I like his tone and note choice. He also was a very in demand session musicians which is what I want to do. Another guitarist that I admire is George Barns. Unlike a lot of people my age, I grew up liking live music and playing in bar bands and I met some very talented musicians in my own area growing up that showed me how to be a well rounded musician. Two of my favorites are guitarist Rusty Bogart and Chick Hall Jr. They are just great guitarists that can play almost any kind of music. Since I’ve been in Wayne Hancock’s band, I have really been studying Paul Skelton and Dave Biller’s playing trying to get all of their nuances, phasing and tones. They are both fabulous players. I also like Junior Brown’s playing a lot.
Who are your primary influences in music in general?
My primary non-guitar influence is defiantly Oscar Peterson. What an amazing musician. Another non-guitar influence is Nat King Cole; he had a very unique soloing style especially in his early trio recordings that was personal and articulate.
Do you ever see yourself fronting your own band, or do you consider yourself a pure sideman?
I hope to be part of a band one day where everyone is on the same page musically, business wise and has the time and energy to put into something special. If that’s a sideman or front man will depend on how my life turns out. That being said I always tell people that one day my book will be entitled “Five Feet From Stardom.”
Is it true you never drink or smoke?
I don’t drink alcohol or smoke anything. It really is just a personal choice of mine I made a long time ago. I always want to play my best for people. I started playing bar gigs at around 13 or 14 and people would always try to get me to drink with them and I never did, I just never wanted to. People used to say to me “you know that you’ll be 21 one day” or “one beer won’t kill you.” I think I just got tired of sorority chicks and frat boys yelling “Free Bird” and “Mustang Sally” after the band had already played them. Another reason is I have seen what that lifestyle does to people on all sides of the equation, so I keep it out of my life.
When did you start playing guitar, and who introduced you to playing music?
I first started playing bass guitar at age 8. My dad played in bands in high school as a bassist. Before I was born my mother gave him a guitar. Growing up I did not have to ask my parents to buy me an instrument; I was simply able go and get it out of the case when I showed an interest in music. My dad introduced me to music; he was always bringing home new music and learning songs by ear just because he wanted to when I was younger. My father taught me to figure songs out by ear, and sometimes he would show me how a song went, but mostly he would nicely tell me that I was close but not quite right yet. This was great for me, but at the time I didn’t realize it. I would get frustrated sometimes but he never got frustrated with me.
My mother and father really fed my brother and I’s musical interests; my brother plays classical guitar, piano and is a good drummer. When I was twelve my mom found a guitar teacher for me and we got along really well. His name is Bruce Casteel he is a very dedicated musician and a great teacher, I studied with him for a long time. He taught me how to apply what I had learned by ear to music theory and helped me build a classical repertoire. Bruce also taught me to read music and to Travis pick. Around the same time I started attending open mic nights. This taught me to improvise and learn how to play well with other musicians. A few years later I started getting calls for gigs and I started running my own open mics, at one point in time I was running four open mics a week and playing gigs the other nights. I did this until I started going on the road full time.
What type of guitars do you play, through what amp?
My favorite guitar to play is a 1993 Gibson ES-165 Herb Ellis. I like the tone and feel of it. I can do anything I hear in my head with this guitar. My second guitar is a Gretsch 6120. I bought this guitar when I was seventeen years old. It was my favorite till I bought the Gibson but it is a great guitar nonetheless. My other guitar is a Dean Palomino, I bought this guitar so I could have a nice hollow body guitar that I could put on an airplane if need be. My main amplifier is a 1971 Fender twin reverb. I bought it in Austin after my second tour with Wayne because I wanted a nicer amp to tour with. My backup amplifier is a Reverend King Snake amp. I have had it since I was fifteen. I don’t like to use pedals. I prefer to get all my sounds by picking technique and manipulating the knobs on both the guitar and amp. But if I need to use an effect pedal to get the right sound I am not against it, I just prefer to play straight into the amplifier.
Where would you like to see yourself in 20 years?
Hopefully in twenty years I’ll be playing music for a living. Ideally I would be a studio musician playing on lots different kinds of projects in all genres of music, but I love going out on the road. I would be happy if I could do both studio and live work equally for the rest of my life.
It’s not that you can’t find a better bluegrass album released in 2013. It’s not that you can’t find a more intriguing collection of songs, or a better showcase of instrumentation. The bluegrass world these days is filled with such unparalleled and inspiring musical talent, the sub-genre might mark the biggest concentration of aptitude in popular Western music. But to have Alan Jackson—3-time CMA Entertainer of the Year winner, and a man that has sold more than 60 million records worldwide—release a straightforward, traditional bluegrass album with no caveats, no tangents, simply straight ahead acoustic instrumentation in a traditional style, is a feat and a victory all on its own. And the music ain’t too bad either.
The Bluegrass Album isn’t completely unprecedented. Dierks Bentley a few years back took a step back from the mainstream spotlight to cut the bluegrass-inspired Up On The Ridge. Dolly Parton’s The Grass Is Blue from 1999 gave bluegrass a similar mainstream boost. But 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.
Another remarkable thing about The Bluegrass Album is it is very much Alan Jackson’s original expression. Jackson wrote the majority of the album himself, including many of the standout tracks. When you think about bluegrass, you think about instrumentation just as much, if not more than you think of songwriting. But The Bluegrass Album is as much as songwriter’s album as any. Without any real blazing speed, and featuring journeymen pickers without flashy names except for maybe Rob Ickes on resonator, this album doesn’t set off to wow you with anything but its words, and its simple honesty.
The Bluegrass Album resides well within the common themes of bluegrass music like mountains, faith, and family. If Jackson had wanted to go with a less generic title, it would’ve still needed to feature the word “blue” somewhere. The color and its corresponding emotions, landscapes, and inferences run like a thread through this record. Jackson’s “Blue Ridge Mountain Song” and “Blue Side of Heaven” jump out you initially as two of the album’s strongest tracks, while Bill Monroe’s bluegrass standard “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” “Wild and Blue” original popularized by John Anderson and written by John Scott Sherill, and “Way Beyond The Blue” mark the album’s best covers.
Another interesting track is “Blacktop,” which praises the arrival of paved roads to rural locations. Despite being smart, well-written, and relatable on its own, depending on the perspective and sensibilities of the listener, this song could also be interpreted as a subtle protest to modern pop country songs surreptitiously praising roads of the dirt persuasion. Because as anyone who has actually lived beyond where the blacktop ends knows, bumpy roads and muddy ruts can be a beating when you have to face them daily instead of on a recreational basis.
“Blacktop” in a way is a good summation for The Bluegrass Album—taking gratitude in simple pleasures, and being different simply by being honest and straightforward. Jackson’s dedication to bluegrass, at least for the moment, is true. He introduced this album by playing an intimate show at Nashville’s smallish Station Inn. He’s signed on to play MerleFest in April. Alan Jackson is no carpetbagger or interloper. His grass is blue, and The Bluegrass Album shows his breadth of knowledge and dedication to a style of music that helped lay a foundation beneath his storied career.
1 3/4 of 2 guns up.
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One hard and fast rule I have is that I review EP’s or splits only in very exceptional cases. Well a collaboration between country music Outlaw legend Waylon Jennings and alt-country pioneers the Old 97′s recorded some 17 years ago but only unearthed recently would certainly qualify as very exceptional.
Originally cut in Nashville in 1996 and sitting on the shelf ever since, Old 97′s & Waylon Jennings is a remarkable little gem unearthed these many years later, offering a window into a time right before Waylon’s health began to fail him, and right as the Old 97′s were rising in the alt-country tide alongside bands like Wilco and Whiskeytown. Along for the ride and to flesh out the collection released on October 1st are four Old 97′s demos also from 1996, giving you six tracks total. The two primary tracks involving the Old 97′s and Waylon Jennings were first sold to a very lucky few on limited edition vinyl as part of Record Store Day in April. But now they are available in digital and CD form to everyone through Omnivore Records.
The collaboration came about after the Old 97′s played a radio convention in Atlanta in ’96. Waylon was sitting in the front row and as the band recalls, Jennings perked up and started clapping when they delivered the line, “It takes a worried man to sing a worried song,” in their tune “Big Brown Eyes”—a call back to The Carter Family. Waylon later raved about the band to The Austin Chronicle and on the advice of their label, the Old 97′s reached out to Waylon to see if he wanted to collaborate.
“He replied that he’d like to cut a couple of tracks in Nashville,” Rhett Miller recalled to Texas Monthly. “I think we were auditioning to do a full Waylon album where we’d be his band. After lunch, he cut the vocals for ‘The Other Shoe.’ He got to the second verse, where the cuckolded husband is under the bed and imagining the murders he’s about to commit. There’s a line, ‘You’ll try to find a doctor that will prescribe an elixir that’ll make everything better.’ He kept saying ‘excelsior.’ It got tense in the control room because he’d keep getting through the whole song and mess up that word. Eventually, I had an idea. I told him to just use the phrase “Annie licks her.” He started laughing. ‘I like you, you’re sick,’ he told me. And he nailed it on the next take.”
Where it could be easy to over-hype this collaboration and get swept up in simply hearing new music from Waylon, Old 97′s & Waylon Jennings truly does deliver. “Iron Road,” written by Old 97′s bassist Murry Hammond is a cool piece of music because it fits within the Old 97′s alt-country sound of the time, but with Waylon singing instead of Old 97′s front man Rhett Miller. At the same time, the piece fits Waylon perfectly, and he sings it with a confidence as if he had written it on his own.
With “The Other Shoe,” the shoe goes on the other foot, with the Old 97′s doing their best to reside within Waylon’s sound, and pulling it off with confidence and ease. Once again you’re struck by how strong and confident Waylon’s voice is singing the song written by Rhett Miller. In fact near the end, Waylon hits a high note in a register I haven’t heard him touch this side of the 60′s.
Next comes demo takes of 4 Old 97′s songs, the first of which is “Visiting Hours” that also appears in a more fleshed-out version on their latest album The Grand Theatre Vol.2. Whether you’re an Old 97′s stalwart or someone who needs a primer on what the band is all about, these tracks rise beyond their humble production by showcasing the blinding poetic proficiency the Old 97′s have evidenced throughout their 20 year existence.
1 3/4 of 2 guns up.
Few things get people talking in the independent channels of country music like a Hank3 release. From his neotraditional days in the early 2000′s when he had traditionalists singing his praises, to his magnum opus Straight to Hell from 2006 that saw his punk and metal influences bleed over into a hard country approach, to his last few releases that have become a polarizing subject with many fans—some still saying he’s the torchbearer and king of underground country, while others speak about the quality issues and lack of diversity in the lyricism.
The first observation that must be given about Brothers of the 4×4 is just how much music is included here. The album contains 16 songs—a big bushel to begin with. But then factor in that out of those 16 songs, 9 of them are over 5 minutes, 7 of them are over 6 minutes, 3 of them are over 7 minutes, and one, which happens to be the opening track, clicks in at 8:34. Forget scaling music for radio play, Brothers of the 4×4 is the country music equivalent to a rock opera, with wide, sweeping, monster undertakings of music, playing out grooves with fiddle, banjo, and guitars trading breaks until their exhaustive end. This approach in itself is an expression of creativity and a new direction for country that is more akin to a Frank Zappa, or Grateful Dead approach, but without the heady, or space jam baggage.
And according to Hank3, he wrote, recorded, mixed, and mastered this entire album, along with a completely separate punk album called A Fiendish Threat in 4 months. Though this may be unusual for the country crowd, this isn’t unusual if you go back and look at the output and approach a Frank Zappa would take with his music for example. And that’s the vein this album should be taken in—one of a late 60′s, early 70′s experimental project as opposed to a straight-laced 3-chords and the truth-type approach to 3-minute country songs.
But the breadth of the project lends to Brothers of the 4×4‘s biggest problem, which is the same problem with many of Hank3′s latest releases: quality control.
If this album was boiled down to maybe half of its current weight, and just a little more time was spent on whatever was left, you very well may have a 2 guns up, 5 star album here. But because you have to wade through a decent amount of chaff, and because Hank3 goes to similar wells so many times, by the end of the album he is showing his hand in places, and your ears are physically tired. At the same time Hank3 achieves some moments that harken back to his golden era in the early and mid 2000′s, while still forging new ground and achieving new marks that he will struggle to meet in the future.
Beyond the volume that Hank3 seems to be trying to achieve, there are two main issues keeping him from putting out another landmark album. The first is that he continues to insist on using the same consumer-grade Korg D1600 tracking machine that he recorded Straight to Hell on nearly a decade ago, even though there are much better means for home recording that would in no way impinge on his DIY, home recording philosophy. The continuance of the D1600 era casts a film on all of his recordings from its inferior technology, while still not giving it the warmth an analog recording affords, which is the “new” old way of making records.
Second, he’s not writing songs, he’s writing music, and then putting words on top of that music to make songs. Or at least this is the way the priority of things comes across in the music. We see the appearance of the same tired phrases and themes that felt original and fresh on Straight to Hell, but now are beyond tired. But to Hank3′s credit, there seems to be fewer of these songs on Brothers of the 4×4 than you would expect. Hank3 exists in a very unique niche of music, where he takes bold, creative leaps sonically and structurally, while sometimes residing in a very predictable place lyrically. The most unfortunate part of this is it clouds people’s perspectives from seeing just how progressive and downright groundbreaking Hank3 can be, evidenced on the other half of his last country record, Guttertown. His core audience is hellraising rednecks, and this isn’t the place you would traditionally look for progressive country being pushed to its cutting edge.
Another big point to make about Brothers of the 4×4 is that it is very, very country. His famous yodel makes a reappearance, though it is run through a megaphone-sounding filter to help bolster the tone. Maybe the album’s greatest achievement is once again striking that balance he struck so well in Straight to Hell, where he brought his punk and metal influences right up to crossing the line, but still kept the music solidly country. That accomplishment is what won Hank3 the widest audience in underground country, and he does it again on this album.
When it comes to the songs themselves, Brothers of the 4×4 is somewhat of a mixed bag, but with more good points than bad. “Broken Boogie” is downright epic, and must be named in the same breath with Hank3′s other signature songs. Unlike some of the album’s other 6 and 7-minute tracks, the lyrics are actually an asset instead of a detriment, and the song achieves an infectiousness and depth that sucks you into a fully-immersive musical experience. The sparse, mandolin-driven “Gettin’ Dim” is the shortest song on the album, but holds just as much boldness as it’s longer counterparts. I kept waiting for the 8-minute opening track “Nearly Gone” to turn boring, but it never does, driven by Hank3′s rediscovered yodel. “Possum in a Tree,” though in no way a deep or meaningful song, is still one of the album’s fun ones, featuring banjo legend Leroy Troy.
On the other side of the coin, “Hurtin’ For Certin’” just may be one of the worst songs Hank3′s has every written, with completely contrived lyrics and music set in a register that is unflattering to Hank3′s tone. Songs like “Toothpickin’,” “Outdoor Plan,” and the title track “Brothers of the 4×4″ are big offenders of going to the whole “runnin’ and gunnin’” and “lookin’ for a good time” set of themes that have become Hank3′s substandard signature. But something about their approach on this particular album makes the lyrics either more tolerable, or at least forgivable, because the music is just so much fun. This is a fun album more than anything, and the listener should approach it as such.
Yes, Hank3 is as an isolated and disconnected artist to the rest of the music world as you will ever find. When he’s not on tour, I picture him perpetually mowing his lawn in east Nashville with his fingers in his ears, unbeknownst to the groundswell of resurgent roots artists that is happening right in his own neighborhood. Would he benefit from some slightly new equipment and a few more voices in the room as he’s recording? No doubt, and this is not because he lacks creativity or fresh ideas, it is because he doesn’t. But just like we all do, it takes feedback and collaboration to see those ideas come to their most ideal fruition, and compromises should be made to make those collaborations possible and foster an environment of growth.
But 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.
1 1/2 of 2 guns up.
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The first song to ever be featured on Breaking Bad was a classic country tune by Stonewall Jackson, and the finale prominently featured Marty Robbins’ country classic “El Paso.”
They may not play real country on the radio anymore, but there’s many different ways you can skin a cat. As popular and critically-acclaimed TV series like Breaking Bad breathe new life into television, they have become an invaluable market for showcasing quality country and roots music from the past and present. From legends of country like Stonewall Jackson, Conway Twitty and James “Slim” Hand, to cool independent roots acts like the Be Good Tanyas and Left Lane Cruiser, the creators of Breaking Bad delivered quality music to a wide audience.
Here are 10 great country and roots songs featured in the Breaking Bad series, in order of when they appeared.
Stonewall Jackson, “Come on Home and Have Your Next Affair With Me”
From Season 1, in the pilot episode, it was the first song showcased on Breaking Bad.
J.J. Cale, “Any Way the Wind Blows”
From J. J. Cale’s 4th album Okie from 1974, “Any Way The Wind Blows” was featured in Episode 1 of Season 2 called “Seven Thirty Seven.”
The Be Good Tanyas, “Waiting Around to Die”
The Canadian trio’s take on the very first song Townes Van Zandt ever wrote was showcased on Episode 3 of Season 2, “Bit Like A Dead Bee.”
Featured in Season, 2, Episode 8 entitled “Better Call Saul,” the instrumental was first featured in the soundtrack for the movie Sprout in 2004.
The Marshall Tucker Band, “Heard It In A Love Song”
Arguably the Southern rock band’s signature song from 1977, it found its way on to Season 2, Episode 10
The Outlaws, “Green Grass & High Tides”
The Southern rock 10-minute epic from 1975 was featured in Season 2, Episode 12 entitled “Phoenix.”
Left Lane Cruiser, “Waynedale”
From their 2009 album All You Can Eat, the Deep Blues band made it on to Season 3, Episode 8.
Conway Twitty, “I Can’t Believe She Gives it all to Me”
Written by Conway and released on his 1975 album Play Guitar Play, it became Conway’s 18th #1 hit. It was featured in Season 4, Episode 8 playing in a diner.
James Hand, “Here Lies A Good Old Boy”
From James Hand’s 2006 album The Truth Will Set You Free, the song from one of the last authentic Texas troubadours was heard on Season 4, episode 6 playing in a diner.
Marty Robbins, “El Paso”
Featured in the series finale and considered seminal to the message the show’s creators were trying to convey, Marty Robbins’ classic “El Paso” helped put a period on the Breaking Bad phenomenon. The final episode was also entitled “Felina,” which is the name of the girl in “El Paso.”
It would be so easy to play the typical cynical country music critic and blast Sheryl Crow’s new “country” album as nothing more than re-packaged pop rock looking to carpetbag off of country’s continued willingness to take in aging talent from other genres. Without listening to a single note of the new record, that is a very plausible conclusion that would make sense to a public that is eager to draw polarizing contrasts and paint everything in black and white.
And though it pains me of how predictable it is to take that stance and then justify it through further dialogue, that is exactly what you get with Feels Like Home. In fact “predictable” might be the best buzz word for this project. No, it’s not that there aren’t some token homages to mark her move into the country format—some subtle changing of words, maybe a little steel guitar here and there and a few songs with some super-compressed string arrangements—but overall, except for one song that we will get to in due course, there is very, very little contrast between Feels Like Home and what Sheryl Crow was calling rock for the body of her career.
But that doesn’t necessarily paint Feels Like Home, or Sheryl Crow, or her career as bad. Sure, calling something country when it is really more indicative of rock is always a poor foot to start on. My favorite analogy is if you invited a barbecue critic to come and rate your Chinese restaurant…as a barbecue restaurant. The critic would get quite confused, and probably give you a failing grade even if your food was great. But nonetheless, unlike much of male-dominated pop country these days, inadvertently interfacing with a Sheryl Crow song doesn’t immediately enact a gag reflex. It is simple, straightforward, innocuous background noise for music consumers who don’t want to put too much thought into their music. But that in itself is not enough justification to call it “bad.” It is a symptom of music elitism to think that all music must be listened to actively and analyzed in-depth when much of it is simply meant for busy consumers looking for some noise to jazz up their commute to work and back.
But where Sheryl Crow takes it to the next level and creates a polarizing environment around herself and her music is: 1) The ubiquitousness of her and her music. 2) The formulaic nature of her approach. Even as someone who mostly knows Sheryl Crow’s songs indirectly through mass media, I immediately could pick out obvious similarities in approach, structure, and lyrical theme to many of the songs on Feels Like Home, and previous songs from the Sheryl Crow canon.
The first two songs “Easy” and “Shotgun” offer absolutely nothing to discern them as either country, or anything different from songs Sheryl Crow has done before. Even “Shotgun” whose title might seem to infer a country theme is more of just an anthem to grease the unquestioning consumer culture that Sheryl Crow makes the perfect soundtrack for with the chorus line, “What’s the point of money if you ain’t gonna spend it?” “Give It To Me” might be the first song construable as country on the album, and is the first of multiple appearances of these over-compressed and ill-advised string section overdubs that seem to be trying to refer to country’s Nashville Sound of the 60′s, but simply come across as cheesy and superfluous.
“We Oughta Be Drinkin’” may again look like a good country song title on paper by how it is stereotypically misspelled, but is hauntingly similar to Sheryl’s also misspelled 1993 super hit “All I Wanna Do” with it’s bouncy pop beat and dismissive tone, shining a light on just how shallow the Sheryl Crow creative wellspring is.
“Waterproof Mascara” co-written by Brad Paisley is by far the most country-sounding track on the album, and it is also the album’s worst. Though the attempt at writing and recording a classic country song is admirable, with lines like “Thank God they make waterproof mascara, ’cause it won’t run, like his daddy did” are so objectionably sentimental and out-of-date, they sound more appropriate for an Unknown Hinson spoof than a serious, mainstream song effort. Add on top of that the most prominent appearance of the cheese ball string sections on the album, and “Waterproof Mascara” delivers some outright “laugh out loud” moments.
“Homecoming Queen” is another unfortunate decision of Feels Like Home. Even the super grouping of songwriters Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally, and Luke Laird couldn’t revitalize this country song concept that has been done so many times, it felt cliche in the 80′s.
Feels Like Home does have its bright moments, even for jaded music listeners wise to Sheryl’s predictable modes. The lyrical hook for “Nobody’s Business” works quite well, and though its stylistic approach to country fits very comfortably in the blueprint of late 90′s Shania Twain, at least it reaches out of Sheryl’s comfort zone. “Stay At Home Mother” comes across as a very personal track from single mom Sheryl, and it is hard to not hear the honesty and emotion in her tone while the dialed back approach of the production brings out the touching nature of the song.
And aside from maybe “Waterproof Mascara” and the mis-labeling of some of the songs as country, there is really nothing wrong with this album. Sheryl Crow may not be offering anything new, but she’s not setting the genre back. In fact, putting all the tired arguments of what is country and what is not aside, an album like this helps tip the mainstream country balance at least back in the direction of being somewhat harmless, though this may speak more to the lengths at which country’s male stars are going towards running country right into the ground than Sheryl’s efforts. One half of country music listeners—the passive ones who just want something to sprinkle their life with a little more color—will get a kick out of Feels Like Home, and I’m not sure it is the duty of the other half to judge them for it.
1 gun up for a fun, and fairly innocuous album with a few good moments.
1 gun down for labeling some of the music as country, and for not allowing the mascara to run.
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“Honestly it was just the result of screwing around,” says John Johnson, aka Lord Johnny Buckets, one half of the now 12-year-old Deep Blues project from Portland, OR known as Hillstomp. “I was not a drummer, and I was not playing in bands anymore at the time, and Henry and I worked together in a restaurant. He said he wanted to try a duo thing with drums, and I always wanted to play the drums but didn’t have any. Really it was just an excuse to drink beer.”
In the 12 years since Hillstomp’s inception, John Johnson, and guitar player Henry Christian have become one of the Pacific Northwest’s most well-known underground roots duos, garnering a loyal following and making fast fans from their avant-garde approach to blues that combines elements of punk, trance, and most notably, a beat that is delivered by a drum set centered around a bucket instead of a snare drum, accompanied by other orphaned percussion instruments and found objects. “I literally grabbed like a soup pot, a cardboard box, and a bucket out of the kitchen at work, and there was a barbecue lid under my basement stairs, and we just went in the basement and started banging on stuff. And it quickly became apparent it was fitting for the music, and of course as soon as we played a live show, it was cemented. Even if I wanted to change, there’s really no option for that now.”
For 10 solid years, Hillstomp terrorized the Pacific Northwest and parts beyond, including playing in Europe a few times. Blame the buckets, blame the duo’s songwriting, blame their energy or Henry Christian’s slide guitar work, but the band has become an inspiration to many others, specially in the bucket department where now it is not uncommon to see a band employ alternatives to traditional drums. Smash, boom, bang. But in September of 2011, the band went on what they dubbed their “Final Tour (for now),” filling fans with the fear of what a world without Hillstomp would sound like.
“We were just kind of worn out on it,” John explains. “Worn out with each other, didn’t really know what we wanted to do and if it was still going to have legs or not. Fortunately we took a break at just the right time. And within six months, we were like, ‘Dude this sucks. I want to play again.’ We missed each other and we missed playing. So we were off for about a year exactly, and then we started writing and playing again.”
In between John Johnson formed a side project with fellow Northwest blues wanderer and songwriter Scott McDougall called Brothers of the Last Watch, releasing an album and playing runs of shows when possible.
“Scott had been doing quite a bit of touring with Hillstomp, so we just had a lot of time hanging out and scheming, and we have a love and respect for each other and wanted to do something. So we got together, made that record, and yeah, it’s been great. We don’t do a lot because Scott is so busy with his solo stuff. I also have another band called Hong Kong Banana. It is as much of a late 60′s, early 70′s Rolling Stones ripoff as we can muster. I play bass.”
The key to Hillstomp’s longevity and to cultivating a strong following has been centered around focusing on their home region instead of trying to hit it big by taking on the world.
“We were never cut out for being in the van for long periods,” John explains. “We realized early on that 2 1/2 weeks or three weekends was pretty much it before we really couldn’t do it anymore. For a long time that was a source of frustration for me. I wanted to tour out to try and make a bigger splash outside of the region. But truthfully we’ve seen a lot of bands do that, burn themselves out, and disappear. Looking at it now, we’ve got a really good thing going on right now in Oregon, Washington, Northern California, and Montana. And I think the way we’ve done it has a lot to do with the fact that 12 years later, we’re still able to do it. We do well enough in those parts to make it worthwhile.”
2013 will go down as the year that the final living piece to the North Mississippi Hill Country’s blues legacy was lost when the legendary T Model Ford passed away—the last of the blues greats first memorialized by Fat Possum Records in the early 90′s that also included greats like R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough. A new generation of blues players who favor the groove-laden, sweaty, stomp style of blues the North Mississippi region is known for continue on. Scott Biram who started playing out in the late 90′s is seen as one of the forefathers of this style of what would become known as Deep Blues by many. Right on his toes was Hillstomp—the Northwest’s Deep Blues chapter, along with Seattle’s Gravelroad that regularly backed T Model Ford up. The term Deep Blues is still used by a small annual festival formed by blues fanatic and barbecue entrepreneur Chris Johnson in Bayport, MN.
“It’s kind of like a big family reunion,” says John Johnson. “I remember one of the years we did it with the Black Diamond Heavies and Van said it felt like an island of misfit toys. Because we play regular blues festivals too, and we’re always the weird one. And then we get to go to that thing, and everybody’s a weirdo. Great people, love all the music. Chris Johnson is probably, he’s a legend, he’s so awesome.”
Recently Hillstomp announced they they had launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund their new album. But after only a week, the duo decided to bail on it.
“We originally wanted to do it because we wanted to make a record in a way that we’ve never been able to make a record before, which is go in to a bigger studio and work with someone who has a track record of making great records. The thing about making records these days is technology change in a way that now anyone with $3000 can make a shitty record. But it still takes knowledge, skill, and experience to make a truly great record.
“I don’t know, it just felt weird. I love the crowd funding thing. Fans like to do it, they obviously choose to do it. It just wasn’t right for us. I think if we had made the record already and we were raising funds to release the record, which a lot of bands do, that would be one thing. But at this point, the entire thing is totally intangible. But the truth is, no matter how hard you try, no matter what your intentions are, you can go in the studio and make a turd. Once it went up there, we both saw ourselves in the studio with the record button on, realizing we were spending other people’s money, who were then going to be waiting for the result, and it just didn’t feel right. We’ll find a way to make the record.”
Hillstomp plans to record their new album this winter, and have it on sale for fans in the spring or early summer. They also are planning a few West Coast tours, to travel to Ontario, and possibly do their first ever East Coast tour in 2014.
The son of Hank Jr. and the grandson of Hank Williams known as Hank3 is poised to release two new albums next week, and embark on an extended tour of Texas, the West Coast, and upper Midwest. Brothers of the 4X4 and A Fiendish Threat come on the heels of an extended touring hiatus after Hank3′s drummer Shawn McWilliams required shoulder surgery. Hank3 was gracious enough to talk with us ahead of the tour and releases to let fans know what they can expect, and about other issues around the independent music world.
You can listen to the entire interview below. For those who prefer a written form, the meat of the interview is transcribed below as well.
Trigger: On Octobers 1st you’ll be releasing two new albums, Brothers of the 4X4 on the country side of things, and A Fiendish Threat on the punk side. These come out of an extended period when you were not touring because your drummer needed shoulder surgery. Was it your plan to put out new albums now, or did they come out of the tour void?
Hank3: Basically, I always record records in the winter time. So since Shawn was down for a while, I picked up the pen at the end of January and everything was written and recorded and done by April on both records. So they came pretty naturally. A couple of the songs that in my eyes are more of the traditional roots, songs like “Loners For Life” or “Deep Scars,” we’re getting a little more old school. “Possum In A Tree” was specifically written for Leroy Troy, a clawhammer banjo player. I had him in mind when I wrote that song, and went over to his place and had some fun and captured the sound we were going for. At least on Brothers of the 4X4, it gives you a a couple of the old roots ones, it gives you a couple of songs like “Lookey Yonder Commin’” that at least the first part of the song has some of the bluegrass feel on the drive of it. And then you have a couple of songs that are not necessarily country, like “Ain’t Broken Down” is almost like your Spaghetti Western / Pink Floyd kind of sounding song. So there’s quite a few different moods on it.
With your last country-ish album Ghost to a Ghost, you went out of your way to say that you really didn’t think it was country. With Brothers of the 4X4 you’re saying there’s traditional country tracks on it. Can people expect to hear something more similar to what they heard on your earlier records as opposed to the more recent ones, or is that simplifying it?
I still think every record has its own different sound, and a different approach. The players change, I change. Even though it’s different, it will have the roots on it. If you put it up against and pop country radio song, yeah, it has a lot more of a traditional feel in my eyes. I always make sure I have the banjo and the stand up bass, stand up steel guitar, the acoustic, and fiddle, and just have that foundation there.
As time has gone on, you have assumed more and more responsibilities in your album making process to the point where now you’re doing most everything on the country record except for playing the lead instruments. You’ve talked before about how you hate producers. Do you feel like you’re missing out on something by not engaging in the collaborative process of music, or do you feel like you work best by yourself?
I don’t hate producers. I hate it when people are trying to tell you, “You need to do this to make your song better.” I’m totally in to people who know a million things about sound and all that stuff. But I know my sound, I know my songs, I write songs for myself. Buzz from The Melvins is the exact same way. He totally agrees with that same philosophy. Some people don’t want to have anything to do with the songwriting process, and want people to tell them, “Hey, do this.” But when you’re dealing with someone as creative as me or as creative as Buzz, we know our sound, we know our riffs, we know what we’re going for. So that can be a problem. If I wake up at 5:30 in the morning and I’m ready to start playing drums, especially on the punk rock record where there’s pretty intense moments, if I have to wait two hours for somebody to show up, then the spark is usually gone by the time they get there and get everything set up. I like being able to play when I’m ready to play. And sometimes I pull some pretty long days. That’s pretty much the reason, for now, I’m taking on everything. Some producers are good to work with, and some aren’t. It just depends the environment. But most of the time I’m into just going for it.
Speaking of collaborations, you recently had a song come out with David Allan Coe. It seemed like a long time coming, but it finally did. How did “The Outlaw Ways” come about?
I’ve known him since I was a child. I’ve always looked up to him on stage and touring, and he’s been a good friend to me, and a hero. Basically we talked about it, and over time we were able to get some lyrics where we wanted them, he came by the house, and we got it sounding how he was envisioning the song. It was a fun process, and glad to be able to give back to one of my heroes.
I’ve only heard a couple of people talk about it. It is what it is. Hopefully they’ll get it up and running. I know opening up any kind of business is always tough to do. Good luck for them, and hope for the best for it.
Have you heard about Dale Watson’s Ameripolitan movement, and have any thoughts on that?
I’ve been kind of out of the loop just trying to get all the new players and new drummers and trying to get the road crew, and everything lined up for the tours. That’s been basically 24 / 7 so I’m kind of out of the loop on that right now.
Despite going on some pretty long tour hiatuses over the last few years, you still seem to be drawing pretty consistently live—still selling-out decent-sized venues. What do you attribute this to?
I would just say hard work, paying respects to the fans, and always keeping the hard working men and women in mind on the money. Trying to give them the longest show for the cheapest ticket price. I’ve always gone out of my way to fight for that. A lot of times when you show respect, you get respect back in return. I would just say a hard work ethic has paid off.
Along those same lines, Shooter Jennings recently started charging people $85 for meet and greets before his shows. Is that something you would ever do?
No. The old country way is you do your show and you say “hello.” That’s the way I’ve done it ever since I’ve been on the road. Why would I change it now? I think if I did that, my fans would definitely would be like, “What’s this?” I’ve always done the show, and after I shake every hand, take every picture, and I make my fans feel connected to what we do.
You seem to be a guy who is really big into artifacts, whether it be your boots that you wore for a long time that you had duct taped, I know you had a hat that was important to you stolen a few years back, and you’ve been wearing the same pants and vests. Why do you think you have such a draw to artifacts of your life?
It’s just like a frame of mind. A lot of different people and crews have worked on those. You got a lot of drifting kids, a lot of train kids. Basically it’s just like art. You create, and then you destroy. So a lot of people over the years have helped me rebuild a lot of that stuff. So it has a lot of heart to it, and a lot of meaning to it. Those are my work clothes for right now.
I recall a recent comment of yours that there might be some upcoming activity on your attempt to get Hank Williams reinstated into the Grand Ole Opry. Do you have any updates for us?
All we can do is just talk about it. As long as we talk about it, you know, we’re not asking for a $100,000 statue, we’re just asking for one night, paying some respects, and that’s basically it. As long as we talk about, sometimes people come and go in the business, and all it takes is one person to be re-hired in a position, and there you go, it could happen as simple as that.
There’s nothing worse than inadvertently coming within ear shot of one of those songs—the idiotic country music laundry list / checklist ditty, or even worse when the performer is inclined to get all hip-hop on your ass and start rapping the lyrics over a drum machine beat. Even when you do your level best to avoid corporate radio, they’ll sneak up on you at the grocery store, come spilling out of some douche-mobile stopped beside you at a red light, or show up in some commercial when you’re watching the boob tube. If you’re anything like me, they can stimulate a strong negative physical reaction that can only be cured by the good stuff—true country music.
The select songs below aren’t country protest songs per se, though they may have those elements. They’re simply songs of a very personal nature with authentic themes told in real language, that speak to being unable to relate to an inauthentic world, and how to value the things in life that are real. Hopefully if you find yourself bent over and fighting back a gag reflex from Class A country checklist exposure, these songs will help cure what ails you.
Josh Abbott Band – “I’ll Sing About Mine”
As bad as the country rap songs are, the videos cause even more cultural corrosion by portraying an adulterated view of true rural people trying to hold on to their agrarian identity. Bare midriffs, buxom gyrations, and badass cars are no match for the curves and character of real country faces served cold. Neither is the caricaturish, shallow, and materialistic portrayal of rural life in country rap compared to the sense of family and community, and the fulfillment of hard work that accompanies true country living. All of these things are embodied in the song and video for Josh Abbott Band’s “I’ll Sing About Mine,” written by Adam Hood and Brian Keane. (read song/video review)
Willy “Tea” Taylor – “Life Is Beautiful”
The “laundry list” song formula doesn’t have to be used for the dark purpose of creating a corporate culture based on artifacts and behavior. Naming off artifacts of the country can be a great way to convey the beauty of life through illustrating it’s simplicity. Without question Willy’s “Life Is Beautiful” is a laundry list song; a laundry list song that schools all of it’s counterparts by simply being honest, and thankful. (read song review)
Wade Bowen – “Trucks”
The idiocy on display during a country radio segment is enough to fill one with self-doubt about the entire direction of humanity, especially these long-belabored laundry list songs coming from country’s top male performers. You listen, and say to yourself, “If I hear another song about trucks, I’m going to shoot myself.”
But the beautiful part about music is that as much as it can be the culprit for personal angst, it can also be the antidote. 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 song review)
Sturgill Simpson – “Life Ain’t Fair & The World Is Mean”
The miraculous thing about “Life Ain’t Fair & The World Is Mean” is how many subjects Sturgill touches on while saying so little. This ridiculous “new Outlaw” movement in country, how famous country sons dominate the independent country landscape, the way mainstream labels and producers manipulate artists, and how the system is rigged against authenticity; all these subjects are touched on in a song that when you really boil it down is actually a very personal story about Sturgill and his struggles and choices, and coming to grips with the inherent injustices in life and saying “that’s okay.” (read song review)
Left Arm Tan – “Wish”
I think it is important when we talk about saving country music, that we don’t work from a position of envy. In truth the joke is on them. They may have the big money, the control of the radio stations and the media. But we have each other, and true themes mined from real life experiences. Let them have their fake world, we have real music. But “Wish” isn’t necessarily an anti-Nashville song, it is more about the singer realizing that he shouldn’t be envying people living fake lives when he has something true already. (read song review)
The 22-year-old Texas native Sarah Jarosz symbolizes a victory by so many measures, even before you delve into the substance of her new album Build Me Up From Bones. Just about one of the most difficult maneuvers in music is for the childhood prodigy to transition into the adult performance world with deftness and grace. Jarosz not only mastered this move and stuck the landing, she did so with such ease that her story could be used as a blueprint of how to navigate these treacherous, and sometimes career-ending waters.
Sure, since you were 10-years-old you’ve been charming audiences with your cute songs, ruddy cheeks, and how fast you can move your fingers, but 2013 is the year of the song, and the only value technique and memory have is when they accompany an original story that can touch deep.
Possibly the best lesson to glean from Sarah Jarosz is patience. She already had mastered the mandolin, and her music career was well on its way when she ran off to the New England Conservatory for Music in 2009. But Jarosz doesn’t seem to like things easy. Despite dizzying workloads, she managed to release two albums through Sugar Hill Records and play a slew of shows and tours that never led on to her growing fan base that she was pulling double duty between work and schooling. No worries about a rickety foundation or a lack of preparation from this girl. The seed has been nurtured good and plenty and is blooming at the right time.
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.
The sultry opening number “Over The Edge” with its fiery electric guitar makes it known that our cute little Sarah Jarosz has matured and is ready to take the world by storm, but it may have some worried that she has run from her bluegrass past. Any of these concerns are alleviated with the very next number “Fuel The Fire” that is driven by the familiar chuck of a clawhammered banjo accompanied by fiddle. From there Jarosz works to satiate a myriad of influences without straying too far from a unified sound, including tackling the dizzying verses of Joanna Newsom’s “The Book Of Right-On,” and Dylan’s “Simple Twist of Fate” that Jarosz revitalizes with a very sparse approach, showcasing how her adeptness with instrumentation and songwriting gives up nothing to her vocal prowess.
Her multi-instrumental training goes far in picking the colors for Build Me Up From Bones, though the work in general feels much more like an exhibit in songwriting as much as anything. Of Sarah’s originals, the “Build Me Up From Bones” title track, and the fingerpicked “Dark Road” came across as standouts, but Build Me Up From Bones fails to deliver one sleepy track, even though some ears may yearn for a little more meat than what Jarosz offers in her progressive approach.
It’s boggling when the arguments that bleed over from the country world question how country can respect its roots and still evolve, when time and time again talented artists from a virile and healthy bluegrass world offer such inspiring illustrations of this very practice. Though bluegrass can be hard to break into, it is tooled for evaluating, cultivating, and nurturing talent instead of trying to maximize its returns financially. The result is a system that sees the budding of world-class music worthy of a wide audience, and this is where Sarah Jarosz and Build Me Up From Bones resides.
1 3/4 of 2 guns up.
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Nope. And that’s how you know it’s good.
When people start naming off the epicenters of music in America, North Carolina never gets its fair due. Folks gravitate to Nashville or Austin, while in many parts of North Carolina, music is just as much a focus of life. Whether it is the music scenes in Chapel Hill or Boone, the whole Ramseur Records outfit with acts like The Avett Brothers, or true, down home country acts like John Howie, Jr. and Eric Strickland, North Carolina can hold is own when it comes to birthing out American roots music worthy of ears. Hell, the Defibulators from New York just released a song about all the North Carolina musicians migrating to the big city and stealing all the banjo jobs.
You receive an album from North Carolina, and chances are the manna will come pouring out like cutting open the rind of some exotic fruit. After recently reviewing albums from Eric Strickland and John Howie Jr., they both reached out to me unsolicited and autonomous from each other and said, “Dude, you got to check out this guy over here, Jonathan Parker.” And no question, Jonathan Parker and The Bel-Airs live up to the stamp of North Carolina goodness.
If you like country, and I mean country, then Jonathan Parker’s They’ll Never Play My Songs In Nashville has you covered. This guy has a country growl that’s like Waylon Jennings mixed with the DNA of a hard-nosed bulldog. He’s quick to go to the half-time beat and really knows how to pull the misery out of a song. This is hard country, honky tonk music in its purest incantation. No frills, just lean forward and belt it out.
Just like Eric Strickland, Johnathan Parker doesn’t waste any time trying to wrangle a gaggle young buck musicians looking to tour and take their portion of the spotlight. He knows the best licks come from the wily old veterans of the honky tonks, and he assembles some of the best North Carolina has to offer in the Bel-Airs, including regional celebrity and steel guitar maestro Clyde Mattocks; a man that also had a hand in Eric Strickland’s latest album. Jonathan Parker doesn’t need to do much but set the table for these honky tonk heroes, and they proceed to conjure the ghosts of country music past from a time when you didn’t have to chase your proclamation as a country fan with qualifying statements.
Similar to other hardcore honky tonkers like Dale Watson and Whitey Morgan, sometimes straightforward hard country can be difficult translate into the recorded format, because you don’t have the honky tonk setting to help set the mood, or the energy that only live music can evoke. This is the reason when Waylon went to make albums, he recorded so many ballads. True country fans won’t have any trouble getting into They’ll Never Play My Songs in Nashville, but this may not be a good gateway drug to lure your pop country friends toward the real stuff. Jonathan Parker has no qualms bringing the misery and slow heartache song after song, or speaking out about the current state of country music like he does in the title track.
“The Encounter” is the song where Jonathan Parker’s evocation of emotion is at its most powerful, while “Circles” is the album’s surprise—picking up up the tempo just a bit, rolling off the hard drawl, and accompanied by a female harmony to really give it a classic country feel harkening back to a time before Waylon.
A good album from a solid group of men, recommended if you like your country music hard and uncut.
1 1/2 of 2 guns up.
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On August 15th, the plans for the upcoming Outlaw Country Music Hall of Fame and an accompanying Outlaw Music Association were made public. 5,000 sq. ft. of space has been allocated for the new Hall of Fame in Lynchburg, TN, and a Board of Directors has been formed that includes Jeremy Tepper of SiriusXM, Terry Jennings of Korban Music Group, author of Outlaws Still At Large Neil Hamilton, Joe Swank at Bloodshot Records, mayor of Lynchburg Sloane Stewart, Professor of Entertainment Law David Spangenburg, architect Thomas Bartoo, and CEO of Sol Records Brian DeBruler.
The announcement stimulated a lot of speculation about what direction the upcoming Hall of Fame would take, but not many serious answers. So Saving Country Music reached out to Gary “Sarge” Sargeant, the spearhead of the Outlaw Country Hall of Fame, to try and clear up many questions about what folks can expect from the upcoming institution.
Sarge is also putting on a charity event coming up October 25-27 for Troy Rector who suffered a debilitating medical accident. The event will be at Chopper Hill in Altamont, TN (More information). The inaugural class of inductees to the Outlaw Hall of Fame will be announced during the event.
You can listen to the entire interview below. For those who prefer a written form, the meat of the interview is transcribed below as well.
Gary Sargeant: I’m a lifelong fan, 55 years old, of Outlaw music, independent artists and labels, and just firmly believe in people who stay true to themselves and their music, and don’t compromise. It all started at a David Allan Coe benefit that I attended back in June. He was in an accident and wasn’t able to tour. I was kind of upset that David Allan Coe required a benefit. That at 73, he had to tour just to pay his bills because back in the day, things happened and he doesn’t own his catalog. And I was trying to think of a way we could support legends, and recognize people like David, or any number of people that have contributed so much to this music, and have never compromised. I wanted to make sure we had a place to recognize those folks who will never get recognized by anybody else, and then also be able to support today’s Outlaws—the Pete Berwick’s, the Gurf Morlix’s. Its time has come, and we’re going to do this.
When you announced the Outlaw Country Music Hall of Fame, you included a Board of Directors. Why have a Board of Directors?
Well, again it goes back to me being just a fan. I’m a fan with an idea. But I knew if we were going to do this and be taken seriously, and if it was going to be successful, I needed to put together a group of industry professionals.
The term “Outlaw” has already been taken by Music Row and used for marketing purposes. It’s safe to say that there’s music consumers out there that think Outlaw means Justin Moore, Eric Church, and others. How do you distinguish yourself from Music Row’s version of Outlaws when Music Row’s reach is so vast?
Nashville can tell somebody to dress in black jeans, grow a five day stubble, put on these boots, act all bad boy. That doesn’t make you Outlaw. Outlaw to me is not a genre of music. Outlaw is an attitude. Outlaw is a refusal to compromise your music or your beliefs in order to make a dollar. It is traveling up and down the roads, thousands of miles a year, traveling 500 miles to play a $150 show. True Outlaws are doing it for the love of the music only. I believe there’s going to be a lot of defections from Nashville music once the Outlaw Music Association and Hall of Fame are established and up and running. The definition of Outlaw should be made by those that are truly Outlaw, not some publicist sitting in an ivory tower in Nashville thinking that this will sell records.
Some may say the term Outlaw is outmoded because Nashville is taking it and using it with very prominent artists like Justin Moore—that the term doesn’t hold the same sway or meaning it once did. Are you saying that term needs to be fought for?
I’m saying it needs to be clearly defined. Of course Nashville is going to try and take anything successful and try to co-opt it. But them jumping on the bandwagon doesn’t make them independent artists. They’re playing to a formula. But the formula doesn’t work. Listen to the stuff coming out of Nashville.
How do you feel about Dale Watson’s Ameripolitan movement, and how does it fit in your plans for the Outlaw Music Association? Will there be overlap? Could there be potential conflict? Is it splitting the independent-minded or Outlaw populous of country music into two segments?
I wouldn’t think so. My hope would be that people going in that direction, because that’s very narrowly focused right now, I hope they would go, “Hold on a second, here’s something that has come along, that is exactly what we’re trying to do, but encompasses even more people, and hopefully is a very inviting and open Association.” Because I believe if we start putting restrictions on who is going to be in it, then we’re no better than the CMA or anybody else. Great music is great music, whether it be Texas Swing, or Southern rock country, or traditional country. If you’re an artist and you believe in what you’re doing, and you’re good at what you do, we’re going to give you all the support in the world, whether it be Dale Watson, or Shooter Jennings who can go off in different tangents and experiment with different music, or Hank3 who is so excellent. There’s so many artist out there that don’t have a place to call home, and that’s what the Outlaw Music Association is gonna be. It’s gonna be a place where independent labels and artists can receive support, promotion, and have a place they can call home and feel welcomed for who they are instead of something somebody else wants them to be.
We’ve seen in the past, for example with Shooter Jennings’ “XXX” movement and Dale Watson’s Ameripolitan movement, there’s been a lot of conflict and dissension with these attempts to unify the music behind a common purpose. I think that may be what is at the root of some fear and concern of what the Outlaw Music Association and Outlaw Country Music Hall of Fame will become. There’s a history of trying to find a uniting element apart from the CMA in the history of country music. Back in the 70′s there was “ACE” that was set up after Olivia Newton-John and John Denver had won CMA Awards. Traditional country artists met at the house of George Jones and Tammy Wynette and tried to form a new thing. The Academy of Country Music was set up because West Coast entertainers felt like the CMA was bias against California country artists. ACE never really took off, and the ACM just became a doppelganger of the CMA….
…and you forgot to mention the AMA, the Americana Music Association.
Sure, which I personally have said in the past is very narrow in focus, even though a lot of the artists they help promote are great artists.
I couldn’t agree with you more. To me, there is an extreme hunger and thirst out there to have an alternative to what’s being pushed down everybody’s throats by Nashville, the record labels, and the conglomerate of radio stations that are out there. Our focus is not narrow. I don’t care if it’s Dale Watson, or Hellbound Glory, or Jamey Johnson, it doesn’t matter. There’s a whole group of artists out there that deserve to be supported. We are not going to impose conditions. If you’re talented, and your music speaks for itself, and your music speaks to fans, our goal is to make sure that we support you. We’re not guaranteeing success for anybody. But we’re not going to say, “You’re not worthy.” Everybody’s worthy if they’re a musician, and they work hard, they write their own music and stay true to it, and they have some fans and are successful, we’re going to make sure they have an opportunity to be even more successful. We are a non-profit. Our proceeds go to supporting the legends, and also supporting the independent artists of today.
The narrowing of perspective seems to be a really big challenge of independent music right now, whether it is with the Americana Music Association, or just these little scenes that have popped up in independent music. How do you insulate yourself from that trend?
Technology is changing by leaps and bounds every month, let alone every year. The money to be made in today’s world is through touring…touring and merchandise. So we are going to support tours. As a non-profit—it’s kind of being dubbed the Outlaw iTunes—where independent artists can upload their music, and we will turn around and allow it to be downloaded for 99 cents a download, and we give all of it back to the artists while not taking 63 cents. We will be asking for a small donation that will go back to the legends. Technology is changing so quickly, and we have some very good people who are up to speed on today’s technology and the future of music distribution. Those are the areas we want to educate independent artists and labels on, and assist them in giving them an outlet to distribute their music, and use the Hall of Fame to support tours, and get [artists] out in front of the people. Are we going to be the savior? Hell no. But are we going to do everything that we can to help these folks who are working so hard and believe in what they’re doing? Yes, we’re going to do everything we can. Is it guaranteeing success? No. Is it guaranteeing effort? Yes.
There’s a lot of people out there touring and writing their own songs, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that their music is valuable enough to be heard by the masses. What’s to keep people who may not embody the Outlaw spirit from just becoming part of this if there’s no governor to keep anybody and everybody from applying?
The fans of Outlaw music are by far the most discerning fans in the world. Otherwise, these artists wouldn’t have any success. An artist will make it if his fans want him to make it. The fans are going to decide if you make it or not, not the Association.
The assertion about Music Row is that they choose who is going to be the stars, and then they push that to the fans. What you’re saying with the Outlaw Music Association is the fans would choose the stars, and the OMA just gives them the platform and the support so that the fans can make that choice.
Eloquently put. And shouldn’t that be the way it is? Shouldn’t the fans be able to say what they like and don’t like? They shouldn’t be told what’s good and not good. With the focus being so narrow and money dictating who is going to be the next star, we’re all robbed. The fans are robbed, the artists are robbed, everybody is robbed of the next potential star. It’s not my job to decide who is good and who’s not good.
Tompall Glaser recently passed away. Right after he died, I posted a quote that came from him back in the 70′s that goes, “Damn it, the fight isn’t in Austin and it isn’t in Los Angeles. It’s right here in Nashville, right here two blocks from Music Row, and if we win–and if our winning is ever going to amount to anything in the long run–we’ve got to beat them on their own turf.” And I’ve heard some similar criticisms about Dale Watson’s Ameripolitan genre where it seems like, “Okay, were going to give up on Nashville and country music, and we’re just going to call it what we want to call it.” What would be your rebuttal to that as far as setting up something that’s apart from Nashville and Music Row?
Lynchburg, TN is not but 55 miles south of Nashville. It’s close enough to pull resources from the Nashville area, but still far enough away and separated enough to say, “Hey, this is separate. This is an alternative.” The people, the demographics that are visiting Lynchburg on a daily basis are the same people that are going to visit our Hall of Fame. It’s all about inclusion. This country is based on freedom, and I believe artists ought to have the freedom to practice their music the way they want without the almighty dollar driving their product.
In closing, I would just like to say to all the fans of Outlaw country music, thank you, and if you really want to make a difference, you have an opportunity. But you have to express your voice. You can’t just sit in your truck or in your house and say, “This sucks,” and expect it to change. If you want change, this is your opportunity. This is a grass roots movement. This is your Hall of Fame. This is your Association. If you want to support artists that made the music what it is today, and those that are continuing in that same vein, support the Hall of Fame, support the Association. Let your artists know that you support us, that you support them by supporting us. This is only going to work if the average fan stands up and says, “I’ve had enough. I want a hand in what I listen to.”
I’ll be honest with you, I wanted to hate this album, and for many reasons. It begins with a general dislike of tribute, compilation, and cover albums altogether. We live in such a crowded music world, do we really need to hear a song that was perfectly fine the first time done some other way, or virtually the same way from a different artist? Sure it’s cool when they sneak one in on you in the context of an original album, but 14 reconstituted tracks stacked together can get unbearable.
And this particular album seemed like such a ploy. Alabama doesn’t really hold any sway on the heart of your average independent roots artist or their listeners—generally speaking of course—so it seemed like the idea of taking Americana names like Jason Isbell and Jessica Lea Mayfield, and mixing them with Texas/Red Dirt country artists like the Turnpike Troubadours and Jason Boland was just a way to trick people into paying attention to Alabama who otherwise wouldn’t.
And yeah, I’ll say it: Though I’ve always found a good handful of Alabama songs entertaining enough, and maybe some of their album cuts hold a little more substance than they tend to get credit for, they were sort of a mild band when looking at them in the big country music picture.
Alabama was quick to call on stereotypical references to the South and Alabama and evoke artifacts of Southern living in their songs, certainly laying at least some of the groundwork leading up to the parade of laundry list songs country music is plagued with today. That’s not to discount their entire catalog in any way or to imply their songs weren’t enjoyable, but Alabama “was what they were” so to speak—an accessible, sort of one-trick, songs-about-the-South pony that probably doesn’t deserve two tribute albums coming out for them in a month span.
And that’s the other thing. While Americana/Red Dirt fans were pouring over the lineup for High Cotton: A Tribute To Alabama, salivating at names such as JD McPherson, Bob Schneider, John Paul White (The Civil Wars), and Shonna Tucker (Drive By Truckers), on the other side of the music world amidst the multiple wallet chains and Auto-tuned voices of mainstream land, they were looking at a completely other tribute album called Alabama & Friends that includes names like Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan, and Florida Georgia Line. This 1 – 2 punch seemed to be part of a plan to create a widespread Alabama resurgence across the entire music panorama, tricking us into losing perspective on Alabama’s overall stature in the country music pantheon.
And wouldn’t it be so typical of one sect of fans to rally behind their particular Alabama tribute, and poo poo the other. Isn’t there enough new, original music out there right now that is more worthy of our time and ears instead of engaging in some culture war over ho hum, rehashed music?
But believe it or not, I like this album. I like it a lot. And its appeal goes beyond the sexy names of contributors, which is how they get you in the door. High Cotton: A Tribute To Alabama offers a great mixture from how the respective artists approach each song. Your country artists, like the Turnpike Troubadours with “If You’re Gonna Play in Texas (You Gotta Have a Fiddle In The Band),” and Jason Boland with “Mountain Music,” play it pretty close to the original, not trying to get too cute.
Then you have more progressive artists like Jessica Lea Mayfield going in a completely different direction with her rendition of “I’m In A Hurry (And I Don’t Know Why)”—wholesale changing the feel and theme of the original composition without touching a word, making a fun song into a haunting indictment of modern life. Then you have an artist like JD McPherson truly putting his own throwback, 50′s-vibe on a song with “Why Lady Why.” As the cliché for cover songs go, he “made it his own.”
High Cotton: A Tribute To Alabama gets right what so many cover and tribute albums get wrong, including its 2013 counterpart Alabama & Friends. A good tribute album doesn’t just pay tribute to the band or artist. It should be a 50/50 proposition, with the contributing artists also benefiting from the name recognition the tributee affords. You can tell the contributors had any and all latitude they desired to take these songs wherever they wanted, or to leave them pretty much the same if they so chose. And most importantly, when you’re listening to this album, you being to think, “Damn, Alabama did have some pretty good songs, didn’t they?” That’s how you know when a tribute album was a successful endeavor, when it has the power to change a mind, or remind you of something you had forgotten, or introduce something to a generation who has no sentimental tie to it.
A fun exercise with this album is to simply turn it on before looking at the track list and trying to determine which artist the song is being done by simply from the style and the singer’s voice. It is sort of an aptitude test to check your level of independent country and roots knowledge. There’s a few moments on the album that lost me, like T Hardy Morris extending the guitar solo at the end of “High Cotton” so long seemed a little self-indulgent, but even this will be cherished by the right ear. The Bind Boys of Alabama finishing off the album with “Christmas in Dixie” works even in the swelter of mid September because of the inspired performance they turn in.
Cover and tribute albums will always be held at a disadvantage because of their lack of original content, but I would put High Cotton: A Tribute To Alabama near the top of some of the stronger tribute efforts to grace the ears of the country music world.
1 3/4 of 2 guns up.
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Yes, yes, and yes!
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.
Since Sparrow released his last album Olde Fashioned, he’s migrated west from Indiana to Portland, OR and traded in his “Well Known Famous Drovers” for a gaggle of “Western Songbirds”. Together they have released a stellar and entertaining album called All Nite Long complete with dancing horn sections, Sparrow’s spellbinding vocal acrobatics, 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.
What makes Davy Jay Sparrow so special is the way he revives the showmanship aspect of Western Swing. As the music style evolved from its pioneers like Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys, the Light Crust Doughboys, and Hank Thompson, it had to lose some of what many would consider its hokey nature to stay relevant, resulting in more modern acts like the Western Swing mainstay, Ray Benson’s Asleep At The Wheel. But since Western Swing was formed during the golden era of entertainment, you could make the case that the showmanship is an essential element that makes Western Swing work.
To counteract the Howdy Doody hokey nature of the music, Davy Jay Sparrow sends all the showmanship elements into hyper drive, showcasing the Bob Wills calls, the yodels, and the overall entertainment focus of the music in such a charming way, you can’t help but get sucked in. The result is music that is both intellectually stimulating and challenging from its complexity and the talent that the music brandishes, while still being so entertaining and accessible, you could swap this for your kid’s Disney records and they’d thank you for it.
The presence of a keenly-talented horn section is what really propels All Nite Long! over the top, and allows Davy Jay Sparrow to touch on elements of jazz and ragtime, giving the album incredible spice. Everything about All Nite Long! is crisp. Even in the mid tempo and slow songs, there’s this underlying energy and eternal smile to the music, even in their excellent cover of “My Bucket’s Got A Hole In It” that keeps you laying on the repeat button. Sparrow’s yodeling, calling, and general vocal dexterity that is seamlessly worked into his studious songwriting is also what propels Davy Jay Sparrow and His Western Songbirds to the point of superlative distinction.
Not for everyone of course, you have to be an old soul with that old-school flavor for life to appreciate what Davy Jay is throwing your way. But man, what a fun time All Nite Long! is.
Two guns up!
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The underground country movement initially formed around the mid 90′s not because somebody launched a website or a record label. It wasn’t because of a festival or because someone came up with a special name for a new genre. It wasn’t because some personality who was bestowed a famous name took the reigns and began promoting music. The strength, the support, and the fervor that went into forming underground country and the bonds and infrastructure that is still around today came from the songs artists were writing, recording, and performing; songs that spoke very deep to the hearts of hungry listeners. In the end, all leadership and must come from the music. A good song will solve its own problems. Like water, it will eventually find a path to thirsty ears, and funnel support to the artist and infrastructure that surrounds it.
This isn’t necessarily a list of the greatest underground country songs, or even the most influential. It is simply 12 songs that were so good, they helped create something where there was nothing before.
Wayne “The Train” Hancock – “Juke Joint Jumpin’”
Wayne Hancock is one of the fathers of underground country, and he’s also the King of Juke Joint Swing, so it’s only appropriate to include one of his signature songs here. The very first song on his very first album Thunderstorms & Neon Signs from 1995, it made listeners wonder if they were hearing the ghost of Hank Williams. Later Hancock would perform the song as a duet with Hank Williams III.
Hank Williams III – “Not Everybody Likes Us”
Hank3 has probably written better songs, but not that speak to the spirit of underground country so well. “Not everybody like us, but we drive some folks wild” epitomizes the philosophy behind the country music underground—that it doesn’t matter if the masses like your music, only if you and your friends do. Add on top of that a big dig at country radio, and “Not Everybody Likes Us” has become a rallying cry of underground country music.
.357 String Band/ Jayke Orvis – “Raise The Moon”
This song is so good, it has been released twice, been played regularly by three different bands, and still is not tired. Written by Jayke Orvis, “Raise The Moon” originally appeared on the .357 String Band’s first album Ghost Town in 2006. When Jayke Orvis left .357 for a solo career and a spot in the Goddamn Gallows, the song appeared on the Gallows’ album 7 Devils. 7 years later and the song still remains a staple of Jayke’s live show, and a defining sound of underground country.
The Boomswagglers – “Run You Down”
Authenticity is such an unattainable myth in modern music these days that it is nearly impossible to find a truly original and untainted sentiment. But that is what The Boomswagglers serve up with “Run You Down.” It is one of those songs that immediately sticks in your head and stays with you for a lifetime. Defying style trends, it is simply good, and its story, like much of The Boomswagglers music, is deceptively deep. Songs like this withstand the test of time.
Hank Williams III – “Straight to Hell”
The title track off of Hank3′s magnum opus Straight to Hell from 2006 was the “hit” of underground country if it ever had one. It has risen to become one of Hank3′s signature songs, and he regularly uses it to start off his live shows.
Bob Wayne – “Blood to Dust”
Bob Wayne may be best known for his wild-assed party songs laced with drugs, loose women, and running from the cops, but that doesn’t mean he can’t write a deep song when he wants. As Bob will tell you, every word in this song is true, and the personal and poignant nature of the story makes it very hard to not be affected emotionally when it is listened to with an open heart. “Blood to Dust” speaks to the broken nature of many of underground country’s artists and fans. The song appears on Bob Wayne’s very first album of the same name, and his first big release Outlaw Carnie on Century Media.
JB Beverley & The Wayward Drifters – “Dark Bar & A Juke Box”
Underground country isn’t just a sound, it is a sentiment; a feeling that something is wrong in country music, and something needs to be done about it. This is the foundation for the title track off of JB Beverley & The Wayward Drifter’s 2006 album. At the time JB Beverley may have been better known for fronting punk bands. But unlike many of the underground country bands that would come along later, blurring the lines between punk and country, JB Beverley serves “Dark Bar & A Juke Box” up straight, in a sound that refers Wayne Hancock’s throwback style.
Wayne “The Train” Hancock – “Johnny Law”
If “Juke Joint Jumpin’” is Wayne Hancock’s signature song, then Johnny Law is his defining jam. This song has become a showcase for some of the greatest musicians in the history of underground country during the extended breaks for both the guitar and upright bass player. It might also go down in history as one of the most requested songs in underground country.
Dale Watson – “Nashville Rash”
For a precious time in the late 90′s ans early 2000′s, the triumvirate of Wayne Hancock, Hank Williams III, and Dale Watson looked like they were going to take the country music world by storm. It was because they were willing to speak out, and lead by example, both sonically and lyrically. Dale is still leading today, and his legacy of country protest songs like “Nashville Rash” still gets you pumping your fist.
Rachel Brooke & Lonesome Wyatt – “Someday I’ll Fall”
Rachel Brooke, The Queen of Underground Country, and one of the founding fathers of Gothic country, Lonesome Wyatt from Those Poor Bastards, teamed up in 2009 for the landmark album A Bitter Harvest. The album, and specifically the song “Someday I’ll Fall” symbolize the collaborative spirit inherent in underground country—where two artist come together to become greater than the sum of their parts. “Someday I’ll Fall” is also a great example of taking old school influences and embedding them in a new, fresh approach.
Joe Buck Yourself – “Planet Seeth”
One of the men responsible for helping to revitalize the hallowed ground of lower Broadway in Nashville in the mid 90′s delivers this bloodletting of a song where the audience is actively encouraged to release their hate in Joe Buck’s direction. Though the language and music may be too hard for most, the concept and execution of “Planet Seeth” is nonetheless genius. It embodies the participatory aspect of underground country, where the crowd is as much a part of the show as the artist, giving back in energy what they receive from the performer in a symbiotic relationship.
Wayne “The Train” Hancock – “Thunderstorms & Neon Signs”
Few songs can evokes mood and reminiscent memory like Hancock’s “Thunderstorms & Neon Signs.” It set the standard for the old-school style of country swing that was so seminal to the formation of underground country. The song’s legacy was cemented when Hank Williams III covered it on his first album Risin’ Outlaw, introducing Wayne Hancock to a whole new audience, and vice versa. “Thunderstorms & Neon Signs” helped cement the underground country movement.
We live in a charmed time in music where if all you want to listen to is the throwback, neo-traditional sounds of artists like Wayne “The Train” Hancock, Lucky Tubb, BR549, and early Hank Williams III, then you can bury your nose deep in the internet and find darn near enough bands of that style that you don’t have to listen to anything else. And if you’re one of those country throwback types that prefers the drums be replaced with the slap of an upright bass while the lonesome sounds of swinging country blues fills your ears, Danny Kay and the Nighlifers can quench that rumble deep in your old school country music gut.
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.
It starts off with blazing lead guitarist Zach Sweeney from both Wayne Hancock’s and Lucky Tubb’s touring bands laying down some of the sickest, most tasteful leads you can find in country music. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again about Sweeny—he is a guitar-playing superstar of independent country, and deserves to get way more buzz and recognition. Then comes Liz Sloan (also in Jayke Orvis’s “Broken Band”) who matches Sweeny note for note for style and taste, while her beau and fellow Broken Band member Jared McGovern slaps out a dizzying bed of bass notes.
And Danny Kay is willing to share the spotlight with his Nightlifers. Crazy Lonesome Blue offers up two instrumental tracks, including “Urban Pioneer” that was penned by his sidemen. Dustin Delage offers some minimal, tasteful drums on a few tracks, and Mark Whiskey handles backing vocals.
Standout tracks for this listener were the aforementioned instrumental “Urban Pioneer,” “Heart of a Fool,” “Nothing’s Wrong (But There Sure Ain’t Nothing Right)” and the fun “Must Have Been Drunk.”
While listening to Crazy Lonesome Blue, you get the sense that acts like BR549 and Wayne Hancock are the teachers, while Danny Kay is still the student, but Danny Kay would probably tell you just as much himself. Nonetheless there’s not a bad track on this album, and it’s good to see new blood make their voice heard in the neo-traditional ranks.
1 1/2 of 2 guns up.
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I like Will Hoge. I think he’s a good songwriter. A few months ago I wrote an article about 7 Men Who Could Immediately Make Country Music Better, and I included Will Hoge on that list.
Will Hoge is a man who could make a difference. While delving into the business of Saving Country Music, folks can get baited into falling into the routine of lampooning anything construable as pop country, and championing anything independent or traditional. But in the end it may be artists like Will Hoge who reside between these two worlds—who have both commercial appeal and artistic substance—that have the greatest chance of making fundamental change in the mainstream music world.
When Will Hoge scored a #1 as a songwriter for Eli Young Band, he was destined to become a hot Nashville commodity, and that is exactly what has happened. His latest release is a song called “Strong,” and like so many of Will’s compositions, it demonstrates heart, depth, soul, and taste. There’s a lot of emotion in this song. It’s weighty. But in the immortal words of Ralphie from A Christmas Story, it’s….
That’s right. The song itself is not a commercial per se. It was written to stand on its own. But just like Bob Seger’s “Like A Rock,” and John Mellencamp’s “Our Country,” it has been tapped to become the official song of the Chevy Silverado—destined to be played half a dozen times during every single football game for the next two years at least, and maybe longer. You may love this song now, but let’s see how you feel about it after the Super Bowl in 2015.
Unlike the other Silverado songs, “Strong” was never released on its own before being assigned this distinct position. Here in 2013, the official song of the Chevy Silverado feels just as much like an indelible American institution as anything. You can guess someone’s age by asking them what song they heard in Chevy commercials growing up. Does it make it somewhat shady, or blur the lines even more between commercial and artistic content that the song was never given its own legs before being released in this way?
I say no, and yes. By definition, this is a sellout move by Will Hoge, whether we like him as an artist, or not. Would it be fair to give him any less criticism than some people give an artist like, let’s say, Toby Keith, who’s made many appearances in Ford commercials over the years, and calls himself “The Ford Truck Man”? Does it make any difference that, unlike Toby’s Ford jingles, “Strong” actually has substance, and that it’s from an artist whose built a career on sincerity?
And then we get to the whole business of trucks, commercials, and country music to begin with, and my little semi-conspiracy that auto companies have been targeting the country music demographic with their marketing, and that is why there are so many truck songs in country music these days. And this leads to the conversation about the blurring of lines between what is music, and what is marketing. Jay-Z releases an album for free to people who buy a certain phone. Will Hoge releases a song through a Chevy commercial. At some point, it may become commonplace for artists and labels may use commercials and promotional product giveaways to release music in lieu of radio. But then again, who can blame them when corporate radio has become so collusive?
In the end, is the song good? Yes. For certain fans that worry about such things, is it unfortunate that it was released in a commercial? Of course. It’s a new paradigm that were likely to be faced with increasingly as music revenue continues to dwindle and artists and labels continue to try and discover new avenues to get their music to the masses. In the end, it was probably better that it was Will Hoge getting the payday for his truck song (that only mentions a truck once), instead of Jason Aldean or Tim McGraw, and that we will all be subjected to “Strong” over and over through the NFL season, and not McGraw’s “Truck Yeah.”
1 1/4 of 2 guns up.
(the 1 1/4 for a good song, the 3/4′s for releasing it as a commercial)
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