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The greatest album, and the greatest recorded song will never be able to trump the truly live musical experience where music is shared in real time with both the artist and listeners. It is in this spirit that each year I assemble a list of the Best Live Performances to reinforce that as technology and the busying of life incrementally encroach upon us more and more every year, we must remember that the live music show deserves its own attention and reverence. This year for the first time, I’ve included some television performances and a live stream, because the weight these performances carried make them more than worthy to be included here.
Please understand, unlike Saving Country Music’s other yearly awards, since omnipresence isn’t an attribute I posses, this list is simply based on my own experiences, and not meant to capture the overall pulse of the live events that transpired all year. You are encouraged to share your own favorite live musical experiences from 2013 below.
10. Hellbound Glory – The Empire Control Room, Austin, TX
“Hellbound Glory started with a blistering, amplified version of Hank Williams’ “My Buckets Got A Hole In It” that reinvented and revitalized that tune originally learned by Hank Williams from Rufus Payne in the mid-30′s, and made it feel like an iconic 70′s-era Southern rock anthem. Not 30 seconds into the first song, and you could tell that Leroy had played so many shows in front of so many big crowds in 2013, that being on stage was second nature, and a downright showman had emerged from a man who is known as a songwriter first. Not that Leroy was a stiff before, but now he had a swagger about him—a sway and arm motions—engaging the crowd and carrying songs to another level with his ability to be completely uninhibited with the music.” (read full review)
9. Eric Church & Valerie June – The ACM Awards
Say what you will about Eric Church, he delivered the most memorable performance at the ACM Awards back in April, and he did it while showcasing the up-and-coming musical powerhouse Valerie June.
“Church, who is usually known for his baseball cap, aviator sunglasses, and rowdy country gone rock sound, kept it simple this time, accompanied only by his guitar and one harmony singer–a breathtaking female in a red dress, adorned with a crown of dreadlocks. As much as Eric Church’s performance caught the ACM crowd and Eric’s fans by surprise, so did this virtually unknown singer accompanying him.
“Valerie June didn’t announce her performance on the ACM’s. Her name was not mentioned in the credits or by the announcers. But like she always does, she left an indelible, unforgettable impact on the hearts and ears of the ACM attendees and viewers.” (read full review)
8. Andrew Bird & Tift Merritt – Pickathon Festival Woods Stage – Portland, OR
The Pickathon Festival on the outskirts of Portland, OR every August affords some of the best music moments a year can offer, while broadening the perspective of fans from all corners of the roots music world by assembling one of the most diverse and forward-thinking lineups in the festival realm. Many Picktathon moments could be listed here, but seeing the amazing Andrew Bird perform all manner of beyond-human vocal acrobatics accompanied by the accomplished Tift Merrit was truly something to behold.
“Andrew Bird on the Wood’s Stage was phenomenal. Maybe a little fey for some, but he’s a fiddling bluegrass maestro who has one of the best use of dynamics you will find. You also won’t find a better whistler in bluegrass. Joining him on stage for the set was Tift Merritt…” (read full Pickathon Live Blog)
7. Jayke Orvis & The Broken Band – The Scoot Inn
“Jayke finally declared earlier this year that he was taking his last tour with the Gallows, and trained his attention solely on a solid, permanent Broken Band lineup that includes guitarist James Hunnicutt, and former Bob Wayne Outlaw Carnies’ Liz Sloan and Jared McGovern on fiddle and upright bass respectively. With stability and a shared vision of making a band around Jayke’s music, but one where all musicians are treated as equal, Jayke Orvis & The Broken Band have re-captured the fervor and spellbinding performance aspect that made the .357 String Band such a force of music nature. If anything, The Broken Band may be taking it a step further with a deeper attention to composition, pushing all four players to the edge of their abilities, and the edge of human capability itself, balanced by slow and mid-tempo songwriter material.
Jayke Orvis & The Broken Band are the underground roots equivalent of the Punch Brothers, and are one of the top tier performers of the underground sub-genre.” (read full review)
6. LeAnn Rimes Patsy Cline Tribute – The ACA Awards
“And at the end of the medley, when LeAnn went a capella, and the tasteful sepia filter that the ACA’s had placed on the cameras to afford a vintage feel on the first part of the tribute turned back to color, a downright evocation emerged during Patsy’s “Sweet Dreams” that even the embattled and valiant LeAnn Rimes eventually couldn’t even fend off, bursting into tears during the final turn of the chorus.
“No video will ever do the moment justice, because it was a moment you had to share in live. At some point you saw LeAnn smile, like she recognized the spirit of Patsy had entered the room, and then the emotion immediately began to well up in LeAnn, and all who were paying attention.” (read full review)
5. The Mavericks -Gruene Hall – Gruene, TX
“Raul Malo is no doubt the rock and heart of The Mavericks, but the addition of guitar player Eddie Perez, who was Dwight Yoakam’s long-time touring guitar player before joining the band, is really what has allowed The Mavericks to give up nothing, and continue to grow in their nearly 25-year existence. From his masterful guitar work to his superhero-like ability to follow Raul Malo wherever he may go vocally, Eddie Perez is 1A to Raul in the Mavericks, with long-time rhythm guitarist Robert Reynolds and keys player Jerry Dale McFadden affording the buoyant vitality that makes The Mavericks’ sound so infectious, and drummer Paul Deacon holding the whole thing together and giving the The Mavericks their communicable groove.” (read full review)
4. Red 11 SXSW Showcase at the White Horse – Austin, TX
Eligibility on this list would normally only be open to single performances by a single band or artist, but the showcase put on by the booking agency Red 11 on Tuesday night (3-12) of South by Southwest at the White Horse in Austin was such a legendary lineup, it deserves its own distinction, beyond all the excellent artists that played it. Yes folks, the gritty, bluesy one man band Lincoln Durham, the Tejano-flavored The Crooks, The Dirty River Boys, The Turnpike Troubadours, followed by American Aquarium, and capped off by Jason Eady is the lineup that held forth at the intimate setting of The White Horse that night. Oh, and it was all free. I’m not sure there will ever be a moment when such a ridiculous amount of talent will be showcased in the same place, and in such a small space again, unless it happens at SXSW 2013.
3. Lee Bains III & The Glory Fires – XSXSW 6 – Austin, TX
Passing up an opportunity to see Lee Bains III & The Glory Fires live is a borderline criminal offense for any fan of hard rocking roots music. When they lit up the Frontier Bar as part of XSXSW 6, it was by far the most raucous set of music that still had real substance to it experienced in 2013. Later in the year when touring with Austin Lucas through Ft. Worth, Lee Bains got shut down and 86′d by the Live Oak Music Hall & Lounge for playing too loud. That’s how legendary Lee Bains live has become.
“As the room was still filling up with patrons, Lee Bains played like he was feeding of the energy of a packed house. This man sings with as much soul as anyone in rock & roll right now, and this was never evidenced more clearer then when he sang the title track of their latest album There’s A Bomb in Gilliead. For SXSW’s most acrobatic moment of 2013, at one point lead guitarist got on the shoulders of Lee Bains as they both walked out into the crowd with guitars blazing. This set was sick.” (from the SXSW 2013 live blog)
2. Jason Isbell – Live Stream of Austin City Limits Taping – August 19th
I admit, it seems strange to put a streaming event such as this on this list, and so high up no less. But if you witnessed it, you would know why. The technology is becoming such, and artists like Isbell are beginning to receive such recognition, that an online experience can sometimes be just as immersive as being there.
“On Monday night the Twitterverse blew up around the occasion of songwriter Jason Isbell recording an upcoming episode of Austin City Limits. The taping was streamed live online, and drew a remarkable amount of attention and praise from the online participants who took the time to tune in. Usually music confined to the online format is at such a distinct disadvantage, it is barely worth your time, and though Austin City Limits’ production value is world-class, this wasn’t what made the event special. Jason Isbell is quite the capable singer, and since he started out as a guitarist for the Drive By Truckers, it’s hard to denounce his musicianship either. His band The 400 Unit was sensational as well, and so was his wife Amanda Shires who sang and played fiddle for the set. But none of this is why the event became a singular experience for those who tuned in.
“It was Jason Isbell’s songs and his songwriting that made so many online watchers walk away with one of those feelings you get after watching a stellar movie—where your mind gets so immersed in the experience it is hard to return to the real world.” (from 2013: The Year of the Songwriter)
1. The Turnpike Troubadours – SXSW The White Horse – Austin, TX
The Red 11 South by Southwest showcase at The White Horse in Austin, TX was already given proper credit above, but the crown jewel of the night was the performance by Oklahoma’s Turnpike Troubadours, which also was the crown jewel of 2013.
“The Turnpike Troubadours were responsible for one of those once-in-a-lifetime musical experiences. The White Horse that had hovered around 3/4 capacity up to that point in the night swelled to where there was no elbow room, and a strong majority of the people there knew every word to the Troubadours songs and proved it by belting them out at every chance. When the band broke into their most popular tunes like ‘Every Girl,’ ’7&7′ and ‘Good Lord, Lorrie,’ the crowd would erupt. During the choruses, the singing of the crowd could become deafening, drowning out the band itself. Their high-energy, inspired performance was great in itself, but the camaraderie created by the crowd made it one of those moments hard to forget. The Turnpike Troubadours have no business playing a venue this small these days, and that is the type of unique experience SXSW can create. Their set was one for the record books.” (from the SXSW 2013 live blog)
One of the great things about roots music is its Gothic legacy of cautionary tales, ghost stories, murder ballads, messages to the infirmed, and other such methods of macabre that allow country and roots artists to paint in dark colors when they so choose. This makes roots music one of the best realms to draw from when putting together your Halloween playlist. Here is a list of some of the artists who dabble in the dark side of country and roots.
The things that hide under beds, in closets, and eerily disappear when you shine a light their way are what conspire and collaborate to create the inspiration for Lincoln Durham and his dark tales of murder and inner mayhem, belted out with a voice that can meld like a shape shifter and carries behind it the soul of 1000 black men. A conjugation of deep blues, Gothic country, and dark folk, Durham fits nowhere and everywhere in the music world all at the same time. Halloween is tailor made for Lincoln Durham’s music, and so is his just-released album Exodus of the Deemed Unrighteous.
You can’t get more Halloween and country than the King of Country & Western Troubadours that happens to also be a 300-year-old vampire. Unknown Hinson has what you need to keep your country-themed Halloween soundtrack rolling by blending a classic country sound with his creepy, blood-thirsty pursuits of “womerns” that always seems to take the darkest of turns. After saying last year he was done for good, the man who also is the voice of the character Early Cuyler from Cartoon Network’s Squdbillies announced earlier this year he was back from the dead, and will be touring regularly. Unknown’s alter ego Stuart Daniel Baker also happens to be one hell of a guitar player.
The Bloody Jug Band
When you have The Bloody Jug Band to listen to, you can celebrate Halloween all year. Similar to Unknown Hinson mentioned above, they make their dark music doubly entertaining by instilling humor into their music. But The Bloody Jug Band is no bit. Their debut album Coffin Up Blood was a nominee for Saving Country Music’s 2012 Album of the Year from the creativity and innovation they display though music that is dark and funny, but also shows how roots music can evolve while still paying respect and residing within its heritage.
Lonesome Wyatt & The Holy Spooks
There’s nothing better for Halloween than a good ghost story, and Lonesome Wyatt & The Holy Spooks have a whole catalog of them, including the freshly-exhumed album released just for this season called Halloween Is Here, complete with ghost stories and songs molded in the classic Halloween album style. Parental guidance would be strongly suggested, but some of Lonesome Wyatt’s songs and stories even work well for kids. And for all your year-round gloomy needs, look no further than Lonesome Wyatt’s other Gothic country concept, Those Poor Bastards.
Like a foreboding raven who sits high on her perch and caws out her cautionary tales of murder, deceit, and a world gone mad, Rachel Brooke’s music is dark as it is wise. From ghost stories to murder ballads, Rachel has Halloween covered, with numerous songs from her catalog ripe for the witching hour. Another spooky project worth dropping in your trick or treat bag is the collaborative effort with the aforementioned Lonesome Wyatt called A Bitter Harvest.
The Slow Poisoner
Halloween was made for The Slow Poisoner, and The Slow Poisoner was made for Halloween. As equally creepy as he is creative, this comic book writer and illustrator haunts the San Francisco public schools as a substitute teacher by day, and puts on one of the most entertaining live one man band shows you can see by night, complete with big creepy cue cards and other live props while he peddles his Egyptian oils and other wares through his dark music.
Sons of Perdition
From the disturbed imagination of Zebulon Whatley comes one of the core bands of the modern Gothic country era. Similar to Lonesome Wyatt and the Those Poor Bastards (who’ve been known to collaborate with the Sons of Perdition in the past) Zebulon draws heavily on religious dogma mixed with a dark perspective for inspiration. The Sons of Perdition’s ghastly hymns are enough to keep the ghosts haunting you all night, and are set to release a new album Trinity on November 12th.
The Goddamn Gallows
If you like your roots music dark, it doesn’t get any darker than The Goddamn Gallows. With their old soul tales from a scarier time, The Gallows are like a freak medicine show set to music, or a haunted carnie ride rattling off its tracks and plunging you into a deep, dark place where only the most unsettled of thoughts go. Complete with pounding drums and a washboard player that breathes fire, these guys are like the soothsayers of the Apocolypse.
Other Dark Roots Bands Ripe for Halloween:
- Pine Box Boys
- The Haunted Windchines
- Those Poor Bastards
- Slim Cessna’s Auto Club
- Jay Munly
- Ray Wylie Hubbard
- Johnny Cash
- Nick Cave
- Slackeye Slim
- Viva Le Vox
- Black Jake & The Carnies
- The Perreze Farm
- The Slaughter Daughters
- Lindi Ortega
- Tom Waits
- Jayke Orvis & The Broken Band
- Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers
- Larry & His Flask
- Shakey Graves
- .357 String Band
- Joe Buck Yourself
- O’ Death
- The Dinosaur Truckers
- Creech Holler
- Reverend Glasseye
- The Devil Makes Three
- Dad Horse Experience
- Joel Kaiser & The Devil’s Own
- Jesse Dayton
- Walter Sickert and the Army of Broken Toys
- Pinebox Serenade
- Filthy Still
- Serial Killer
**NOTE: The image from the very top is from a now out-of-print dark roots compilation called Rodentia.
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.
Good music is entertaining. Great music changes lives. And on the front lines of life altering music experiences are the one man bands. Courageous, pioneering, persevering through obscurity and misunderstanding, one man bands might make up a majority of the music world’s boldness and creativity per capita. Here’s 16 of them from a wide swath of the roots world.
The “Dirty Ol’ One Man Band” signed to Bloodshot Records is one of the best-known longest-touring one man bands out there on circuit. His mixture of old blues with a little bit of country and punk influence is an infectious combination when he gets sliding on strings and stomping on the stage. He once had his guts spilled out on the highway after tangling head on with a semi, and lived to tell the tale.
Canada’s primary offering of a one man band is more Elvis than Elvis. With machismo dripping from him like the gobs of Dapper Dan fighting to keep the cold black hair out of his face, Bloodshot Bill is a one man wrecking crew who was also one of the first to revitalize the discipline in the modern era. He was once banned from touring in the USA. Feel free to make up your own reasons why.
That’s right, why can’t a woman be a one man….er, on person band too? Molly Gene gives the boys a run for their money when she gets behind her pedal kit and starts sliding on the strings and singing the deep blues.
The premier storyteller and poet of the one man bands, the ANTI-signed William Elliot Whitmore, made a name for himself opening for punk bands, and has gone on to be considered one of the top entertainers in the discipline. Whitmore’s songwriting is sublime, and his voice has the wisdom of 1,000 old men. No wonder he doesn’t need a band.
Possessed by Paul James isn’t just a one man band, he is a religious experience. This is no novelty act, this is a man who channels an unworldly passion through his music that emanates through him like some sort of sonic séance. Simply put, seeing Possessed by Paul James will change your life.
Drink up sinners! If one man band’s were like vintage television shows, Reverend Deadeye would be Sanford & Son mixed with MacGyver. You’ll never see another ragtag assemblage of clanging bangers then when Deadeve takes the stage, but this isn’t all Vaudeville. The Rev can really sing a song, and does Gospel as good as anyone. Probably not the rev you want at your wedding ceremony, but he sure does sound good.
I’m blown away why there’s not more chatter about this guy in the Deep Blues world. A one man band with a dirty, soulful approach, switching from old Gibson arch tops to resonator guitars, to a banjo, to one-stringed diddley bow, it doesn’t get much better than Lincoln Durham when it comes the dirty, low down approach to music. His last album was produced by Ray Wylie Hubbard.
The pizza twirling, gator wrestling, Florida via NYC with a short stint in South America Italian Stallion of one man bands is the fastest damn banjo player you’ll ever hear, and seems to add a new percussion instrument he’s playing with a foot, knee, shoulder, whatever every time you see him. Lone Wolf works at the world renown Gold Tone banjo works in FLA, but his latest album Mine Up 13 features mostly guitar.
One of the few one man bands who may be fit for mass consumption, but giving up nothing to his counterparts in artistry or songwriting, Shakey Graves is a quirky, but handsome old school entertainer you can’t help but engage with.
The former .357 String Band banjo player and songwriter was forced to go solo when the band broke up, but featuring some of the best songwriting you can find and tight multi-instrument skills, Joseph Huber is no worse for the wear. Huber is not a conventional one man band—the approach comes more from the mother of necessity, and he will still take other players when he can get them.
From the tales of dying and dismembered men, to the disenfranchised, homeless, lost souls and forgotten, they are all canonized through Charlie’s honesty and amazing clarity into perspective. Charlie doesn’t sing about subjects in third person, he becomes the subject of his songs in an uncanny channeling of character, and makes the story flesh and bone right before your eyes.
An animal. A force of nature. Joe Buck Yourself is like a caged animal, unleashed on a crowd to inflict the wildest possibly damage on idiot thoughts and ego. The former Hank3 bass player and original lower Broadway revitalizer that used to pal around with BR549 and partly owned Layla’s Bluegrass Inn is now mostly know for spit wielding snarls, heart pounding songs, and rivers of feedback. Not for the faint of heart.
This wily old songwriting veteran who now resides quite prominently in east Nashville is not as much a proper one man band as a guy who doesn’t need much more than a guitar and a song, and some stories in between to keep an audience entertained. As time goes on, he may be becoming just as popular for his podcasts that capture some of the coolest music cats in their natural east Nashville habitat.
The troubadour of the one man bands and one of the best storytellers and purveyors of wisdom, Scott McDougall has an Old World charm to his music, like a wandering sage who walks into the local tavern to regale a crowd before slipping out again, not to be seen for many more months. A lover of friends, campfires, and conversations, McDougall is the best friend you’ve never met.
Bob Log III is like a one man Marine expeditionary demolition crew, cutting, burning, pillaging and plundering with a thunderous, ominous blues sound. Best known for playing while veiled behind a full face helmet (is Daft Punk ripping him off? Anyone? Anyone?), he’s one of the most entertaining one man bands out there.
The creepiest, and one of the most creative of the one man bands, this comic book writer and substitute teacher from San Francisco puts on one of the most entertaining live shows you can see, complete with big creepy cue cards and other props while he peddles his Egyptian oils and other wares through his music.
Other one man bands: Brownbird Rudy Relic, T Model Ford (RIP), Hasil Adkins (RIP), Mark “Porkchop” Holder, Reverend Beatman, Right On John, Dead Elvis & His One Man Grave, Ben Prestage, Smokestack and the Foothill Fury, Phillip Roebuck, Bloody Ol’ Mule, Seasick Steve, Tales From A Ghost Town, Ghostwriter, Crankshaft, Patson, Dad Horse Experience, Eagle Eye Williamson, Malcome Holcombe, and …
Can four dudes from Germany make American roots music and still be authentic? Do they have the ear, the personal history, the DNA, the dirt under their fingernails to do what American-based string bands do, or will they be forever relegated to being once removed from the American musical experience? If The Dinosaur Truckers and their new self-titled LP are any indication, the answer would be “Ja! Natürlich!”
You didn’t know I knew German, did you? “Ich bin Ausländer, ich spreche nicht gut Deutsche!” That roughly translates to, “The Dinosaur Truckers are great, and you should buy their album.”
Many comparisons have been made between The Dinosaur Truckers and the legendary underground .357 String Band that disbanded in late 2011, especially after Saving Country Music posted a couple of videos of the Truckers that presented them as a close facsimile of the .357′s dark, unplugged, punk-infused speedgrass approach. But that is why videos will always be a limited medium compared to an album or a live performance. Listening to The Dinosaur Truckers, the band displays tremendous breadth of sound and influence. Sure, there are still a few compositions that have a similar instrumental lineup to the .357 String Band and blaze out a fast-paced bluegrass songs, but this album also boasts electric and steel guitar, even accordion and trumpet. There are rockabilly influences here, and an attention to lyricism that draws inspiration from Townes Van Zandt.
One of the most surprising things about The Dinosaur Truckers is that it shows a lot of restraint in regards to tempo. These are four guys who can play as fast as anyone, but instead of hanging their hats on their most-obvious asset, they make the choice of trying to wow you with composition, lyricism, and tone. They take possibly their best tool out of their repertoire to let you know there’s so much more going on here, that this is not a gimmick, and they don’t have to resort to an instrument-based speed competition to make their music competitive and engaging.
The Dinosaur Truckers are dark, very dark, but not in the easy, devilish, growling lyrics sort of way. They do it with their chord selection, and the message of their songs that never stray too far from a disillusioned sense of a dying world, decreeing their disdain for the direction of man. This is fairly angry music, but not from a lack of intelligence, and not at the expense of playing or singing pretty when the sentiment turns that way. At nearly every turn, you are surprised at how tuned the Truckers’ ears are to the English language, to American roots music, and how smart this music is, evidenced for example in the song “Wolves In The Streets.”Back when I was a little child You looked down and told me with a smile There ain’t a goddamn thing that can’t be sold Now half of us are poppin’ pills in vain Tryin’ to find a way to kill this pain Of failin’ to adopt our given roles
For those hoping for a new source to scratch their unfulfilled .357 String Band itch though, don’t fret, The Dinosaur Truckers have you covered with blazing acoustic songs like “Burn The Place to the Ground” and “Hey People.” But for my money, the can’t miss track of the album is the slow, space-filled, and exquisitely-crafted “Leave Everything Behind.”
The darkness of The Dinosaur Truckers I fear will leave this album inaccessible to some, especially the hardcore twang, old-school country crowd. But as I rummage deep into this album, I fail to find any reason to give it anything else than a top rating. German or not, The Dinosaur Truckers give up nothing to their cross-ocean string band brethren, and maybe could even teach a thing or two to some of the awful punk-gone-country string bands who bring the energy and anger, but not the songwriting and attention to detail. The Dinosaur Truckers are the full package.
Two guns up.
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For years we took for granted that the mainstream music industry was in a calamitous free fall, spiraling towards cataclysmic implosion. We were so sure of this diagnosis, we used it as the crux of all our music theories. Then lo and behold, the industry figured out how to pull out of the tailspin, and independent artists that years before we’d never dream of seeing getting big breaks began to get noticed. Hellbound Glory has been out on arena tours. Sturgill Simpson is touring with Dwight Yoakam. The Alabama Shakes are playing SNL, Shovels & Rope is playing ACL, and everyone is playing Letterman. All of a sudden it’s not appropriate to be so sullen about the direction of music.
But if you’re looking for an act that is still virtually unknown, one that is buried deep in the underground and that embodies the raw energy of the roots movement and not just a commercially-viable watered-down derivative, one whose active ingredient still works on even the most hardened of roots addicts, then Jayke Orvis and The Broken Band might be your drug.
A founding member and the mandolin player for the groundbreaking .357 String Band, Jayke Orvis may have taken a long and windy road to finding his way in the music world, but if his current sonic output is any evidence, he has found his path, and it is righteous. What made the .357 String Band so singular was that it was four dudes testing the very limits of human ability with instrumentation, while positively debilitating you with the emotion of their songwriting. When Orivs was undutifully released from .357 (the band eventually disbanded in late 2011), he became more of a singer/songwriter type of performer, sometimes favoring the guitar over his mandolin.
As the name alluded, Jayke’s “Broken Band” was a hodgepodge of plug-in players that all did dutiful jobs, but never had the stability to congeal enough to hone in on everything that the music could be. Orvis himself was a revolving member of the Gothic roots outfit The Goddamn Gallows, and regularly borrowed from their players for his Broken Band on dual Orvis/Gallows tours. The collaborations were enthralling and memorable in their own right, but never allowed Jayke the intimate focus on his own music that it needed to realize its true potential.
Jayke finally declared earlier this year that he was taking his last tour with the Gallows, and trained his attention solely on a solid, permanent Broken Band lineup that includes guitarist James Hunnicutt, and former Bob Wayne Outlaw Carnies’ Liz Sloan and Jared McGovern on fiddle and upright bass respectively. With stability and a shared vision of making a band around Jayke’s music, but one where all musicians are treated as equal, Jayke Orvis & The Broken Band have re-captured the fervor and spellbinding performance aspect that made the .357 String Band such a force of music nature. If anything, The Broken Band may be taking it a step further with a deeper attention to composition, pushing all four players to the edge of their abilities, and the edge of human capability itself, balanced by slow and mid-tempo songwriter material.
Jayke Orvis & The Broken Band are the underground roots equivalent of the Punch Brothers, and are one of the top tier performers of the underground sub-genre. But as Jayke explains, he’s not looking for recognition from the Americana Music Association or berths on arena tours with big country names. “I want to open for Slayer,” Jayke told me right after their live set at Austin, TX’s Scoot Inn on 5/06. “Well I mean that may be a little hard now, but I want to show punk and metal kids that roots music can be cool.”
As the overall roots world seems to be benefiting from a rising tide, it’s not hard to wonder if some of the best of the underground are being left behind, and how long this rising tide will last before the popularity arch begins to fade. Jayke Orvis is one of those artists who has stuff that could catch fire. He’s one that could benefit when roots fans conclude that Mumford & Sons just doesn’t have the mustard to hold their attention long-term.
Jayke Orvis & The Broken Band recently released their 2nd album, Bless This Mess on Farmageddon Records. His first album It’s All Been Said constituted the formation of that record label. Though the album has officially been out for a while, you won’t find it on Amazon or iTunes. You can’t stream it on Spotify or Pandora. I secured my copy at a live show, and was told there was only a few more copies left in their merch bag before they would be able to restock in a few days. A good problem to have in some respects, but one that makes the outreach of the music problematic when people can’t get it.
Bless This Mess didn’t have a well-promoted release date, if any true release date at all. No promotional push paralleled its availability. No review copies were sent out to independent music outlets, including Saving Country Music which named Jayke Orvis its 2010 Artist of the Year. In 2013, statistics show that for every song bought, 100 are streamed, and that albums that are streamed for free prior to their release sell more copies. To not make an album available at all digitally puts the album and the artist at an unparallelled disadvantage. This does not necessarily mean this is neglect on the part of Jayke or his label. All of this very well may be on purpose, and I’m sure it will be available digitally eventually. But the point of releasing music is to get it in as many hands as possible, and an artist holds no more potent promotional tool than when they release an album.
When I loaded Bless This Mess into my computer, the tracks were unmarked. I got “Unknown Artist” and “Unknown Songs” with the track times and numbers. If the idea is that this is an underground approach to releasing music, this is somewhat misguided. Jello Biafra was such a genius because he was able to get his music right beside the music of big labels in record stores by doing it the right way. Legions of hopeful artists with awful music release albums every day that in no way reach the quality level of Bless This Mess, but get more attention because they’re released the right way. You want to know what so much popular music sounds so bad? Because some people are willing to understand the correct approach. Jayke Orvis’s music is too good to put limitations on it by not following the easy and well-established modes of how to release an album.
The counter-point is that Jayke’s fan base is so loyal, all these concerns are silly. But the goal of any artist, even one that is not driven by fame or money, is to attain a healthy sustainability that hopefully factors in at least some moderate growth.
Though Bless This Mess seems like it may be one step behind where Jayke & The Broken Band are right now with their live show, it still boasts some excellent arrangements and performances, and a wonderful lineup of both originals and covers. Hank’s “Kaw-Liga,” Ralph Stanley’s “Bound to Ride,” and The Weary Boys’ “Pick Up The Steam” round out a remarkable set of well-interpreted renditions. Banjo player and part-time Broken Band member Joe Perreze also offers up one of the albums standout instrumentals in “Clankertown.”
This all leads into Jayke’s original material. Whether its blazing instrumentals like “Murder of Crows,” or more singer/songwriter-style material like “West Wind,” and what may be the album’s legacy track “Crooked Smile,” Jayke Orvis shows himself as one of the premier purveyors of Gothic-infused American string music worth a wide ear and critical acclaim. And let’s not gloss over that Jayke also scores well on the intangibles. With the way he presents himself and his stage presence, he has that essential charisma to hold an audience captive, while at the same time the humility to defer to his players and make it more about the music than himself.
Jayke Orvis & The Broken Band is a name that deserves to be ready on the tongue whenever folks query for names of top flight string bands to check out. But it will only get there if at least cursory attention is paid to the promotional side of things. Making good music isn’t enough. Marking track names on albums and distributing an album digitally is the easy part. The hard part is making music that touches you on a human level, and does so in a pioneering way, and this is what Jayke Orvis & The Broken Band do with almost unfair effortlessness.
Two guns up on the Jayke Orvis live show
1 3/4 of 2 guns up on Bless This Mess
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You can get downright humid-eyed when remembering some of the great modern revivalist bands of country music who are so unfortunately no longer around, outfits like BR549 and the .357 String Band. When a band that is so adept at recruiting new true country converts to the cause goes belly up, it makes the task of Saving Country Music that much harder.
When naming off bands and artists that were leaders of the late 90′s neo-traditional movement in independent country, an act often overlooked is North Carolina’s Two Dollar Pistols and their point man John Howie Jr. Started in 1996 and signed to the independent powerhouse label Yep Rock, the Two Dollar Pistols released five superb full-length albums and an EP before their breakup in 2008. The 1999 EP with then-unknown fellow North Carolinian Tift Merritt is given credit in many circles for launching the songstress’s career. Like the Two Dollar Pistols, Cackalacky is too often carelessly overlooked as one of the nation’s premier music regions, harboring numerous music towns like Chapel Hill and Boone, and it’s own distinct musical traditions and dialects.
After the dissolving of the Two Dollar Pistols, John Howie Jr. soldiered on, playing in a regional all-star band called The Sweethearts, and forming Rosewood Bluff along with Two Dollar Pistols drummer Matt Brown. In 2011 they reunited with well-known producer Brian Paulson who produced the Pistols’ final Yep Roc album, and Rosewood Bluff released their first album Leavin’ Yesterday, a brilliantly-written, steadfastly country old school tearjerker that doesn’t relent on the heartaches once in the album’s 13 stellar tracks. Just a glance at song titles like “I’m So Happy I Could Cry” and “That Makes 3 Of Us” lets you know you’re in store for a stone cold and felonious hard country heart stabbing.
Drenched in pedal steel guitar, John Howie Jr. illustrates in Leavin’ Yesterday how you can still revive the classic country sound without being cliche. No lonesome train whistles on this album, just sincere ballads of heartbreak that will always be pertinent to the human condition no matter what the place and time. This album could squeeze tears from a turnip, yet has great variety that never allows the album to stale or eddy. The songwriting, simple tempo changes between songs, and adding strings to a couple of tracks keeps the country ear engaged with this album from stem to stern. And what old-school class on John Howie’s part to put possibly the album’s best song and the title track very last on the album.
As much credit is due to John Howie Jr. for writing these songs and singing them with such patent authenticity, pedal steel guitar player Nathan Golub bears responsibility for really tying Leavin’ Yesterday together with one of the most tasteful instrumental performances I’ve heard in a while. He hits all the right notes, not wowing you with technique, but winning you over from his uncanny ear for hearing what the song is begging for. All of Rosewood Bluff deserves praise for bringing flesh to John Howie’s vision.
For people who’ve never heard of John Howie Jr. or the Two Dollar Pistols before, Leavin’ Yesterday opens up a new vein of country music to discover, while also making you giddy for what John Howie Jr. and Rosewood Bluff may be throwing down in the future.
Two guns up.
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Reno, Nevada’s Hellbound Glory has just come off two legs of arena shows opening for Kid Rock on his nationwide Rebel Soul tour, and are recovering now to get ready for their own tour in early summer. “Just signed on with Agency Group to book us and our agent is a big supporter and a legitimate badass so it’ll be rad to have them in our corner for future tours,” front man Leroy Virgil tells Saving Country Music. “Look for us in June all around the country.”
The Kid Rock tour was a big success for the band according to Leroy. “We gained a lot of fans throughout the tour who we can’t wait to see them when we come through with our show next time and made a lot of friends. Also I learned a shit load of things from Kid Rock and his crew and it was awesome to be treated so well after years of slugging it out in clubs. Everyone from the sound techs, the promoters, to Kid Rock and his band treated us like what we we’re doing was worth something which hasn’t always been the case in some of the places we’ve played over the years. All I know is I’m happy to take every opportunity I have to promote my songs and to eat their food and drink their booze, etc. etc. I think its been a more than even trade and we appreciate the help.”
While in the midst of the Kid Rock tour, Hellbound Glory released a new song called “The Feud.”
“I wrote the Feud a few days after seeing Bob Wayne play in Folsom CA with .357 [String Band] backing him,” Leroy explains. “…I wrote it about some relatives and other people I know who work in the medicinal industry. On a two week break from the Rebel Soul tour when we were offered some recording time in a big studio so I figured I’d embrace my Northwest roots and make a big-sounding grunge country song. I wasn’t sure I’d ever get the chance to work with such hi tech equipment again so I used it for everything it was worth. Anything else would have seemed contrived to me and I think we did a great job of getting that modern country sound on a song about farmers, violence, and weed.”
“To me it turned out more country than country. However, for anyone who prefers a stripped down version I’ve made available thru SCM the first recording we did a few years back as a two piece called the Excavators with just guitar, lap steel, bass drum, voice, and harmonica.”
Whenever the name Hellbound Glory is mentioned, the next question is when fans may get to hear some new music.
“Going to be doing as much recording as time and money will allow.” Leroy says. “Whether it be with Shooter, with our buddies Mike Lattanzi and Tommy Byrnnes (who did the Feud) or by myself if I can learn the technology. Can’t wait to hit everyone with our next single, not sure what it’ll be yet but if anyone has any suggestions we’d like to hear em….. Although I do have a batch of new songs I think will knock people’s socks off that I’m chomping at the bit to record as well. Gonna try to keep the bender broadcasts coming as well. Got about 5 of them up right now on iTunes and a bunch of acoustic stuff in the can we’ll put out once its put together. Just need to get Rico (Hellbound’s slide player) to get some more skits going one of these days. And if anyone has request, get them to us and we’d be happy to give ‘em a shot.”
“Thanks to everyone for the support. It takes support from a whole lot of people to get a band like us even this far in this day and age and we appreciate every single one of you skumbags and hags out there.”
Just Released: Hellbound Glory plays Hank’s “Lovesick Blues”
Holy mother. Find something big and heavy to grab on to and hold on tight, because Deutschland’s Dinosaur Truckers are about to blow your ass DOWN!
Not since the legendary days of the .357 String Band have we seen this combination of machine gun speed and precision mixed with sheer energetic madness. Instrumentation at the height of human abilities and high caliber songwriting and composition like this defy all the stereotypes when you must resort to using “punk” as a prefix to describe a band’s blazing speed and unrelenting attitude. While the Mumfordization of roots music has left so many string bands looking for the right watered-down derivative to forge mass appeal, The Dinosaur Truckers offer up the pure, uncut, unadulterated form–potent and dangerous and not for the faint of heart. Listen to The Dinosaur Truckers at your own risk.
I know what you’re asking. How in the world can four guys from Germany, so foreign to the soil that bred bluegrass music be so good? Free from scene or stereotypes or silly arguments and expectations of what bluegrass is or is supposed to be, The Dinosaur Truckers can simply put their music out unhinged and uninhibited, and wait for the rest of the world to figure it out.
And these dudes might be new to us, but they’re not new. Their first album Songs For Homefolks came out in 2008, and their followup Down This Road was released in 2009. Their latest, self-titled album will be released in Germany on April 12th, and according to Amazon will hit the US April 26th. They’ve played more than 100 shows in 2011 and 2012 respectively, and have toured Germany, Austria, Switzerland, The Netherlands, Belgium, and will be playing Muddy Roots Europe this summer.
With a new album to poised to invade the English-speaking world and a wild-eyed energy, The Dinosaur Truckers are a band to watch, and you can do that below.
(review of their new album coming soon…)
The case can be made that Mumford & Sons is the biggest thing in all of music right now, with Babel winning the Grammy for Album of the Year and their worldwide sales rivaling all other artists. This is a weird reality for many roots fans who fell into favor with acoustic music many years ago.
Roots music has always been a quiet, shy sphere of the music world, not really craving popularity or hype. Meanwhile Mumford’s wild success has some talking about a roots backlash, and has opened up the possibility of an impending crash in the popularity arch that could leave elements of the roots world feeling like a fad, like 60′s folk or late 90′s swing.It all makes you wonder if Mumford’s music wouldn’t be better received in some circles if it just wasn’t so damn popular.
Many of the bold changes in the direction of popular music begin with artists that are too fey, too polarizing to become popular themselves. So it takes others who understand how to soften music with sensibilities to make it accessible to the masses, and hopefully, if time is on their side, transect the popularity timeline, resulting in superstardom.
With Mumford & Sons, there were many other bands, artists, and events that set the table for their wild success, buttering up crowds, building an appreciation for acoustic roots music throughout varying demographics and origination points. Here are a few of them.
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O Brother Where Art Thou created its own roots music tempest and bluegrass revival when it was released in 2000, and since it originated in the cinematic world instead of the music world, its impact on popular culture was far reaching, finding its way down avenues that otherwise would not be exposed to roots music. From that big bloom, the seeds were planted that would later sprout and blossom into the Mumford & Sons’ ubiquitous, widespread appeal, making acoustic roots into full-blown popular music.
Old Crow Medicine Show was one of the main ingredients in both influencing the sound of Mumford & Sons, and setting the table for their mass appeal. Marcus Mumford says of Old Crow, “I first heard Old Crow’s music when I was, like, 16, 17, and that really got me into, like, folk music, bluegrass. I mean, I’d listened to a lot of Dylan, but I hadn’t really ventured into the country world so much. So Old Crow were the band that made me fall in love with country music.” Ketch Secor of Old Crow concurs, saying, “Those boys took the message and ran with it.”
Meanwhile Old Crow Medicine Show, and specifically their gold-certified song “Wagon Wheel” created the fervor for roots music that Mumford & Sons are currently feeding off of.
Old Crow Medicine Show might be the band named as Mumford’s primary influence, but when looking at the band from the standpoint of lineup, instrumentation, energy, and the emotional context of their lyricism, The Avett Brothers’ fingerprints can be found all over Mumford & Sons.
The easiest similarity to distinguish is how the two bands line up on stage. Scott Avett was one of the first acoustic roots frontmen to play a bass drum with his foot while standing at center stage, while his brother Scott played a hi-hat cymbal the same way. The brothers also had the propensity to move around stage behind different instruments, specifically the drums, just like Marcus Mumford does. The high, punk-esque energy The Avett Brothers bring to their show alongside a softening of the edges of roots music is something else Mumford emulates, as are their songs that seem to drip with emotionalism. This emotional approach to roots music is what separated The Avett Brothers from their bluegrass forebears when The Avetts started out in 2000; a full 7 years before Mumford & Sons’ first release.
Whereas Mumford & Sons’ rise has been meteoric, The Avett Brothers enacted a very slow build, van touring incessantly on a small club circuit until their infectious approach to roots music saw them graduate to small theaters, large theaters, and then signing with Rick Rubin in 2008, nearly a decade after they started out. The Avett Brothers approach, and the sweat equity they built from tireless touring over many years is at the very fabric of Mumford & Sons’ sound and success. Mumford is not an Avett Brothers rubber stamp, but it’s hard not to give The Avetts props for blazing a wide, clear path for them.
Bob Dylan is given great credit as a Mumford & Sons’ influence, and this is primarily evidenced in the poetic, and sometimes veiled nature of Mumford’s lyrical writing. In that same respect, Shakespeare and Plato are Mumford influences. Both characters and others from classical literature are originators of language that has appeared in Mumford & Sons songs. Marcus Mumford once said, “You can rip off Shakespeare all you like; no lawyer’s going to call you up on that one.” They also draw from American novelist John Steinbeck in their songs “Dust Bowl Dance” and “Timshel.”
The Devil Makes Three is never given enough credit for impacting the roots music revolution. It’s probably a stretch to say they had any direct influence on Mumford & Sons, but when The Devil Makes Three started in 2002, they were one of the very first bands, and virtually the only band on the West Coast that brought a high-energy, punk-inspired approach to acoustic roots music. Rarely spoken about east of the Mississippi or away from their native Vermont, The Devil Makes Three draws massive crowds in California and have inspired many spawns across the country. They are responsible for countless new acoustic roots fans, and helped allow the cross-continent permeation of Mumford mania.
Along with the obvious bluegrass greats like Bill Monroe, Jimmy Martin, Flatt & Scruggs, Doc Watson, and Ralph Stanley, newer artists like Wayne “The Train” Hancock, The Civil Wars, Trampled by Turtles, The Hacksensaw Boys, Split Lip Rayfiled, Larry & His Flask, The .357 String Band, The Foghorn Stringband, The Wiyos, The Goddamn Gallows, Reverend Peyton, and many more laid a foundation for alternative roots music appreciation in America that Mumford & Sons now enjoys.
The Farmageddon Records family suffered a grave loss last week when Richard Laferte II unexpectedly passed away Saturday, January 5th while visiting family and friends over the holidays in his home state of Maine. Richard, who was living in California with his wife of 4 years, Holly Atkinson Laferte, moved to Maine in 1983, and grew up in the Bangor area. Richard was involved in Little League baseball and youth hockey, and graduated from John Bapst Memorial High School in 1999. He was part of the YMCA Leader’s School, and received the Fellowship Cup during his last year in attendance.
Later in life Richard Laferte was a tireless friend of music and a right hand man at Farmageddon Records, helping to promote bands on the label’s roster and others in the underground and independent roots world. On Thursday, January 10th, music friends from all around the country trekked to the Peakes Hill Lodge in Dedham, Maine just southeast of Bangor to pay their respects and return the music favors Richard had bestowed to them over the years. Following a formal time of remembrance, the gathering turned to celebrating Richard’s life through music.
The celebration included the reunification of 3 original members of the .357 String Band, Jayke Orvis, Derek Dunn, and Joseph Huber. Though all 3 members have moved on to solo careers in music, this is the first time all three men were together since Jayke Orvis left the band in June of 2009. Other musicians in attendance were Graham Lindsey, James Hunnicutt, St. Christopher, and Braxton Brandenburg from the Ugly Valley Boys. Darren and Johnny Wrong of Farmageddon, as well as many other close friends and family were also in attendance.
Richard A. Laferte II was 31. Along with his wife Holly Atkinson Laferte, Richard is survived by his parents Dick and Debbie Laferte of Bangor.
Folks wanting to contribute to Richard’s family are asked to make a donation in his name to the Bangor YMCA Leader’s School in his name, Bangor YMCA 17 Second St., Bangor, ME 04401.
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.357 String Band Reunites for Richard Laferte:
Left: Richard Laferte. Right: Richard in YMCA Leaders School
Richard Laferte in the crowd at the Muddy Roots Festival 2011.
Original members of .357 String Band reunite for Richard
James Hunnicutt pays tribute to Richard.
Pictures from Richard Laferte celebration by Darren of Farmageddon and Braxton Brandenburg.
Where 2011 felt like a high water mark year for live performances and an average year for recorded projects, 2012 feels vice versa. When I look back on 2011, it seemed like there were moments I experienced that I will never top the rest of my life. 2012 is the year that some albums and songs were released that may never be topped. Still there were a quite a few memorable performances worth noting.
Unlike Saving Country Music’s other yearly awards, since omnipresence isn’t an attribute I posses, this is simply based on my own experiences, not meant to capture the overall pulse of the live events that transpired all year. And please consider that even though I may have attended events like Pickathon, The Muddy Roots Festival, or SXSW, I was unable to catch every performance, or enough of certain performances for it to feel fair to include them here. If you feel there is an omission, please share it with the rest of us below.
15. The Calamity Cubes – XSXSW 5 – Austin, TX
Usually in music you get the raw, primal, gut punching experience, or you get the introspective, heartfelt, cerebral experience. The Calamity Cubes are one of those few live performers who can deliver both. They put on a great set at the Muddy Roots Festival in Tennessee as well, but their XSXSW performance in a more intimate, tight-knit setting rose to being something special.
Kody Oh! doing a bass stand in the center of the crowd:
14. Jayke Orvis – Stage 2 – Muddy Roots Festival
Jayke Orvis is always a crowd favorite, and Jayke and the crowd were pretty miffed when the sound crew pulled the plug on them at 2-something in the morning. But sometimes the worst situations breed the most memorable moments, and that’s what happened when Jayke and his Broken Band hopped into the crowd and kicked it acoustic style, sound guys be damned. Other highlights of the set were JB Beverley singing “Streets” with Jayke from his album It’s All Been Said, and Rachel Brooke singing her duet with Jayke “Hold Me Tight” from the .357 String Band’s magnum opus, Fire & Hail.
13. L.C Ulmer – Stage 2 – Muddy Roots Festival
L.C.’s friend Robert Belfour deserves praise for the craziest performance story of 2012. Crashed out on the highway from the torrential rains of the tropical storm that had made its way to middle Tennessee, Robert hopped into the tow truck and told them forget the car for now and point their nose to the Muddy Roots site, he had a gig to play. He showed up late, but he showed up, with the tow truck driver carrying his amplifier and guitar.
Meanwhile during the delay, L.C. Ulmer laid down one of the baddest-assed extended sets of blues music all weekend, chicken hopping across the stage and playing guitar behind his back. It was one of the most surprising sets of music I saw all year.
12. Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band – Stage 2 – Muddy Roots Festival
The first time I ever saw Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band live I straight up walked out. Too much chicken and fried potatoes for me. Granted, I was mainly there to see Austin Lucas who opened the show, and it was at the armpit of Austin music venues–the now condemned and shuttered Emo’s. But nonetheless after 15 minutes, I was done.
Rev. Peyton did something in 2012 though. He figured out the right formula for his music, both recorded and live. And his set at Muddy Roots was sheer madness from downbeat. It culminated in the crowd throwing handfuls of hay up in the air while Washboard Breezy lit her washboard on fire in a mad scene I will never forget, and neither will drummer Aaron “Cuz” Persinger who has an acute hay allergy and had to rush off the stage after the last song to keep his lungs from collapsing.
Audio sucks in the video below, but you get the drift.
11. Lake Street Dive – Workshop Barn – Pickathon
After seeing them perform at Pickathon’s “Pumphouse”–a small shack isolated in the woods where bands go in and make top notch videos for the site Live & Breathing–I made a vow to catch their set on Sunday at Pickathon’s Workshop Barn. Right up there with Thee Oh Sees, Lake Street Dive from Boston was one of the new take-aways for me from 2012 Pickathon. Though maybe a little more polished and jazzy for traditional Saving Country Music fare, their style and musicianship was enthralling and made me a fast fan. After their last Workshop Barn song, they got the biggest ovation I think I have ever seen for a live performance, possibly ever. I was afraid the floor was going to cave in.
10. Thee Oh Sees – The Galaxy Barn – Pickathon
Yes I know, not really country. At all. Though I would say there’s some serious roots influences at play here. Regardless of what you want to label them, Thee Oh Sees are a force of nature in the live context, and it is about time that they busted out of their San Francisco scene to find a place in the greater music consciousness. They are sonic craftsmen (and craftswoman) who seem to understand intuitively how to tickle all the nerves that make your mind and body submit to music and make you wiggle around like an unruly child. Thee Oh Sees are a must see.
9. Bob Wayne – The Continental Club, Austin, TX & Muddy Roots
Three times in 2012 I was regaled by Bob Wayne and his Outlaw Carnies, but there was something special about the night at The Continental Club. Seeing him in one of Austin’s most legendary venues, and with probably his best Outlaw Carnie lineup yet in Ryan Clackner on guitar, Lucy B. Cochran on fiddle, Elmer on bass, and with a full-time drummer in the lineup for the first time, they laid down an ass whooping of a set. This is where I realized that Bob Wayne had completely separated himself from the crowd of crusty, post-punk screamo bands with banjos to become a professional touring act capable of breaking into the next level. Like his music or not, Bob Wayne has arrived and can put on one hell of a show.
Picture from Muddy Roots:
8. Lucky Tubb w/ Don Maddox – Johnny B’s – Medford, OR
Lucky Tubb is not just another famous name. He’s bursting with authentic, classic talent, and wields one of the best voices in country music by combining cadence and style. Sometimes discipline can keep this from being evidenced in full force, but when he’s on, he’s on. And he was on Halloween night and so was his excellent band, with the added bonus of sharing the stage with the legendary, 90-year-old Don Maddox of the Maddox Brother & Rose. (see videos and full review)
7. Slim Cessna’s Auto Club/Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers/The Goddamn Gallows – Muddy Roots Festival
I can’t say enough about these bands, and at this point I’m afraid to say anything more from fear of coming across as redundant. Every year when I talk about live bands, they topped the list. And they will continue to top the list of bands you must see, except for Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers who at least for the moment are no more, giving you even more reason to make sure you see these bands live any chance you get because you may not get another. Slim Cessna’s Auto Club, Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers, and The Goddamn Gallows are as good as it gets live.
Col JD Wilkes of Th’ Shack Shakers:
6. Joe Buck Yourself – Stage 1 – Muddy Roots Festival
One of those “you had to be there” moments when Joe Buck, surrounded by a sea of his fans chanting every word of his songs, created one of those magical moments of musical camaraderie.
5. Austin Lucas & Glossary – The Mohawk – Austin, TX
This is a touring combination I had wanted to catch for a long time. To hear Glossary is one thing. To hear Austin Lucas is another. And then to hear them together is completely something else. It is two autonomous music acts that you swear were built to compliment each other. There is no better way to experience Austin Lucas than with Glossary behind him, and there’s no better band to hear before Austin Lucas than Glossary. It is because they both build their music from the songs out, but still give such great attention to the live performance, and their styles of roots and rock take the same approach and blend perfectly.
4. Sturgill Simpson – The Rattle Inn- Austin, TX
I’ve been open about my reservations about the retooled Sturgill Simpson following the dissolving of his previous band Sunday Valley. Putting an acoustic guitar in his hands seemed like such a travesty after experiencing Sturgill in the raw with the electric guitar and the country music power trio. But however exciting it was, it was a hollow experience for Sturgill in the long run. Many songwriters covet the idea of being listened to instead of heard, but Sturgill actually has the talent to have one of his best tools taken out of his hands and still command an audience. Now Sturgill is making you listen, betting himself to see if he can hush a room, and winning that bet. (read full review)
3. Anderson Family Bluegrass – Scott Valley Bluegrass Festival, California
“People first, then music” is the mantra on this site, and it is such a blessing when you discover people who are just as inspiring as the music they make. Such is the case with the Anderson Family Bluegrass Band from Grass Valley, CA. Hovering above the fray of most stock family bands and stock bluegrass bands, there is a realness to their music that sets them apart. Yes, their set lists include many standards you would expect from any bluegrass band, but then they’ll completely surprise you with some spice, like Iris Dement’s “Our Town” or Hank Williams III’s “D Ray White.”
I went to the Scott Valley Bluegrass Festival hoping to catch the Anderson Family’s set and shake their hands, and the Anderson Family ended up making me feel like one of the family for the weekend (Trigger Anderson, if you will). The music is excellent, but this is just the excuse to get you to pay attention to the profound warmth and by-gone family strength the Anderson Family conveys. (read full review)
2. Restavrant – Stage 2 – Muddy Roots Festival
There are two types of primary music experiences: visceral and carnal. Uh yeah, this one would be firmly ensconced in the carnal category. A Restavrant set is like a physical, violent assault on your personage that in some weird, masochistic way you addictively crave. I don’t think I still have fully processed exactly what happened on that stage. But rest assured, if I had another chance to see these chaps perform, I’d blow paychecks and cross state lines to put myself in harm’s way and let them run me over like a barreling Mack truck again and again. Restavrant has always been an amazing live experience, but with the addition of drummer/junk smasher Tyler Whiteside, it’s downright out of control.
1. Ralph Stanley – Stage 2 – Muddy Roots Festival
It goes without saying that any time you get to see a true music deity on stage, it will be memorable. Sometimes when this happens, especially with a performer in their 80′s, you have to go in knowing the performance itself may not be the greatest, that they’ve aged beyond their abilities, which will happen to us all. What made Ralph Stanley’s set at the Muddy Roots Festival so memorable is how his band had really thought out how to take a legendary performer who was probably is no longer fit to put on a full set of music himself, and still make you feel like you were taking in a performance from him in his prime.
But true music lovers live for those extremely rare moments when everything comes together, the sky parts and the world hushes, and the very fabric of human experience bends to the will of a truly magical musical moment. That my friends is what unfolded when Ralph Stanley stood in the center of the Muddy Roots stage looking out across a disheveled, soaking wet sea of rednecks and post-punk refugees who all fell as silent as the day after the end of the world when Ralph Stanley recited “O’ Death.” Your goosebumps got goosebumps. And for that brief moment, all of it, all of the reasons we live and struggle, the importance of friends and family and community, and everything we do to ensure music is a part of our lives, the sacrifices, the money, the travel, all came into full reflection.
The underground country movement started roughly in the mid 90′s on lower Broadway in Nashville that at the time was a run down part of town. Young musicians from around the country, some from punk backgrounds, came together from their mutual love of authentic country music to create a counterbalance to the pop country that was prevailing on Music Row a few blocks west.
Underground country started with mostly neo-traditionalists like Wayne “The Train” Hancock, Big Sandy, and Dale Watson, but spread to the punk and heavy metal world through acts like Hank Williams III and Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers. This list does not just consider the appeal of these albums, but also the influence they had on other underground artists and albums, and on country music and music in general.
Please understand that this list is just for underground country albums. This means artists better defined by the Deep Blues like Scott H. Biram or Possessed by Paul James, or Texas artists like James Hand or Ray Wylie Hubbard, or country artists who may work on the fringes of underground country but would not necessarily be considered underground like BR549 or Roger Alan Wade, are not included. Americana acts are not included. This is strictly underground country’s opportunity to bask in the spotlight.
Please feel free to leave your own list below.
16. The Boomswagglers- Bootleg Beginnings – 2011
This very well may be the most authentic album of music put out in the modern era for any genre. The Boomswagglers have always been and continue to be more myth than reality, with original Boomswaggler Lawson Bennett long gone and a cavalcade of replacements shuffling in an out with Spencer Cornett. Even if they never put out another album, The Boomswagglers made their mark, and it is a deep one.
“The music is wildly entertaining and deceptively deep. If you’re going to be a Boomswagglers song, someone’s got to die, and likely a woman. Some may find this silly, monotonous, or even offensive, but you have to listen beyond the lyrics, and unlock the carnal wisdom that is hidden in these songs.” (read full review)
15. JB Beverley & The Wayward Drifters – Dark Bar & A Juke Box – 2006
Dark Bar & A Juke Box was an instant underground country classic, and so was the anti Music Row song that the album got its name from. JB and his Wayward Drifters grit out a superb selection of songs displaying taste, restraint, and a sincere appreciation for the roots of country music, which may have surprised some who knew JB more for his work with heavy metal bands like The Murder Junkies and the Little White Pills. Dark Bar & A Juke Box also boasts appearances from the famous son and grandson of a country music royal family, who due to contractual issues had to work incognito (wink wink).
14. Lucky Tubb & The Modern Day Troubadours – Del Gaucho – 2011
Some (including Lucky himself) may point to Hillbilly Fever as being the seminal Lucky Tubb album with its big budget and appearances by Wayne “The Train” Hancock. But Del Gaucho is where Lucky Tubb came into his own, found his sound, and the unique musical flavor only he has to offer the world. Dirty, rowdy, rocking, but still steadfastly neo-traditionalist country, Del Gaucho scores off the charts when it comes to style points. When you’re talking about some of the greatest neo-traditional country albums and artists of all time, Lucky Tubb and Del Gaucho deserve to be in that conversation.
13- Bob Wayne & The Outlaw Carnies – Blood to Dust – 2008
They say you have your whole life to write your first album, and what makes Bob Wayne’s Blood to Dust so special is how true and touching he told his life’s story through song. His subsequent albums aren’t too shabby either, but with signature songs like “Blood to Dust”, “Road Bound”, and “27 Years”, this still stands out as his signature album, and a signature album of the underground country movement. It was performed, produced, and recorded by an all-star cast of contributors that included Donnie Herron, Joe Buck and Andy Gibson, and brought Bob Wayne out from behind-the-scenes as Hank3′s guitar tech, and made him one of the movement’s most well-known songwriters and performers.
12. Jayke Orvis – It’s All Been Said – 2010
This is the album that launched Farmageddon Records, and that launched Jayke Orvis as a formidable, premier front man in underground country. One of the founding members of the now legendary .357 String Band, Jayke was asked to leave the band because of irreconcilable differences and almost immediately began touring with The Goddamn Gallows and trying to make this album happen. The result was a slick, tightly-crafted LP showcasing excellent songwriting and instrumentation. From ballads to blazing instrumentals, Jayke Orvis has proved himself to be one of the singular talents of underground country roots.
11. Lonesome Wyatt & Rachel Brooke – A Bitter Harvest – 2009
This album was destined to become an underground country classic. The mad genius music mind of Lonesome Wyatt of the Gothic country duo Those Poor Bastards has the uncanny ability to procure the absolute most appropriate sounds to evoke the desired dark mood in his music. Then you combine that with one of the best voices not just in underground country, but in all of music in Rachel Brooke, and magic was bound to happen. The creativity on A Bitter Harvest is spellbinding. More of an artistic endeavor than a toe tapper, Lonesome Wyatt and Rachel create a soundtrack to human emotion and despair. For people looking for a place for country music to evolve, A Bitter Harvest shows how you can take authentic country themes and an appreciation for the roots of the music, and envelop it in layers of textural color culled from the wide experience of human sounds.
10. Justin Townes Earle – Midnight At The Movies – 2009
Midnight At The Movies was Saving Country Music’s 2009 Album of the Year. Today it would be difficult to characterize Justin Townes Earle as underground country because the quality of this album launched him into the inner sanctum of Americana.
“Justin Townes Earle has done an awesome thing with this album; he has figured out a way to unite all the displaced elements that make up the alternative to mainstream Nashville country, while still staying somewhat accessible to the mainstream folks as well. You might even catch the bluegrass folks nodding their head while listening to it. Folkies like it, and there’s a few tunes blues people can get into. This isn’t just the REAL country album of the year, it is the “Alt-country” album of the year and the “Americana” album of the year.” (read full review)
9. Slackeye Slim - El Santo Grial, La Pistola Piadosa – 2011
“Every once in a while, an album comes along that changes everything. It’s an album that inspires other albums, and dynamic shifts in tastes and approach throughout a sector of music, while at the same time dashing the dreams of other artists, as the purity and originality are way too much to attempt to rival. Slackeye Slim’s El Santo Grial, La Pistola Piadosa is one of those albums.
“El Santo Grial is a masterpiece, exquisitely produced, arranged, and performed. This is a patient, uncompromising album. You can tell time was never introduced into this project as a goal. The goal was to flesh out Slackeye’s vision without ever settling for second best, and that goal was accomplished.” (read full review)
8. Wayne “The Train” Hancock – That’s What Daddy Wants – 1997
Thunderstorms & Neon Signs is the Wayne Hancock album most people gravitate towards as their favorite because it was their first, and the first to showcase Wayne Hancock’s unique blend of country, Western Swing, rockabilly, and blues. But pound for pound, That’s What Daddy Wants is just as good of an offering, boasting some of The Train’s signature songs like “87 Southbound” and “Johnny Law”. Wayne Hancock has never put out a bad album, and distinguishing between them is difficult. But it’s not difficult to say that the underground country movement would have not had as much class if That’s What Daddy Wants hadn’t seen the light of day.
7. .357 String Band – Fire & Hail – 2008
“They were all the absolute best possible musicians you could find at their respective positions, each challenging each other, pushing each other to keep up with the band’s demands for artistic excellence in both instrumental technique and creative composition.
“Listening back now at Fire & Hail, with so much talent in one place, no wonder the project was untenable, and no wonder the respective players have moved on to become their own trees instead of respective branches of the same project. Still, the loss of .357 String Band may go down as underground country’s greatest tragedy.” (read full review)
6. Hank Williams III - Lovesick, Broke, & Driftin’ – 2002
BR549 and Wayne “The Train” Hancock spearheaded the neo-traditionalist movement in the mid 90′s, but Hank Williams III was the one to carry it into the oughts and introduce it to a brand new crop of fans he brought along from his dabblings in the punk/heavy metal world. After having to tow the line somewhat for his first album Risin’ Outlaw, Hank3 was unleashed and able to showcase his own songwriting, heavily influenced by Wayne Hancock and Hank3′s famous grandfather, but still all his own. His voice was wickedly pure with a heart wrenching yodel and commanding range. The songwriting was simple, but powerful. This is a masterpiece, and remains an essential title of the neo-traditionalist era.
5. Hellbound Glory – Old Highs & New Lows – 2010
Hellbound Glory had already been around for years, but they burst into the underground with this magnificent, hard country album highlighted by head man Leroy Virgil’s world class songwriting. Despite the “hell” in their name and the hard language in their songs, Hellbound Glory hadn’t gone through any retooling as post punk refugees. They were pure country through and through and Old Highs & New Lows combined excellent Outlaw-style bar stompers and ballads with some of the most wit-filled songwriting since Keith Whitley. As far as honky tonk albums go, it may be years before this one is trumped. And when it is, it might be Leroy Virgil and Hellbound Glory doing the trumping.
4. Dale Watson – Live in London…England – 2002
Dale comes out on stage and starts slinging guitars, cutting classics, and speaking the truth. Before Dale was the hometown boy and house band for Austin, he was pissed off and willing to sing about it. Dale’s anti-Nashville classics “Real Country Song”, “Nashville Rash”, and “Country My Ass” can all be found here, but Live in London isn’t all pissing and moaning. Songs like “Ain’t That Livin’” showed off Dale’s superlative voice and suave style. Honky tonk albums are sometimes hard to make because it is hard to capture that live, sweaty energy in the recorded context. So what better way to solve that problem than making a live one? Live in London remains the best Dale album to date.
3. Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers – Cockadoodledon’t – 2003
This was one of the first albums to bust out of the burgeoning music scene on lower Broadway in Nashville where one can argue the undergorund country movement started. It showed the world what kind of mayhem could be created by mixing country, blues, and punk music together without compromising taste and soul. It is the album which acts as a guidepost to the eclectic, yet intuitive and inter-related mix of influences that you will find in underground country: honest to goodness appreciation to the roots of American music, with a punk attitude and approach. And if you ever wondered why Joe Buck is considered part of underground country, appreciate that he played most of the music on Cockadoodledon’t.
2. Wayne “The Train” Hancock – Thunderstorms & Neon Signs – 1995
There are two albums that you can look back on an make a serious case that if they did not exist, underground country music may not exist–the album below this one on this list, and Wayne Hancock’s Thunderstorm & Neon Signs. There are two types of music artists: originators and imitators. Sometimes imitators can be very successful, and very creative artists themselves. But it always takes the originators to set the plate for the imitators to do what they do. Thunderstorms & Neon Signs was an original album from one of America’s most original country roots artists of all time. It doesn’t get much better or more influential than this.
1. Hank Williams III – Straight to Hell – 2006
This album isn’t underground country’s Red Headed Stranger. It isn’t underground country’s Honky Tonk Heroes. It is both. It is the album that both was a novel concept, a breakthrough sonically and lyrically, and had a massive impact on the business side of music, for artists winning control of their music and inspiring and showing artists how to do it themselves. The deposed son of country music royalty had taken on a major Nashville label, and won, and all while being one of the first to successfully bridge the energy and approach of punk and heavy metal music with traditional country, all while keeping the music solidly country in nature.
It was the first album to be put out through the CMA with a Parental Advisory sticker. It was the first to ever be recorded outside of a traditional studio setting. Of course only a select few were paying attention, but it broke through many barriers that to this day have changed music in significant ways, sonically and behind the scenes.
The approach also had wide-ranging impacts outside of underground country and country music in general, to rock music and punk and heavy metal, inspiring thousands of rock kids to put down their electric guitars and AC/DC records, and pick up banjos and Johnny Cash records. The impact on mainstream music may have not been seen, but it was felt, and just like all great albums, it’s legacy will grow and be more appreciated and understood as the future unfolds.
On Saturday November 17th, two of the most important acts in underground country played what very well could be their final shows. Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers, a band that was there at the very beginning of underground country and the revitalization of the lower Broadway in Nashville announced they are calling it quits after 16 years, at least for now, playing their final show at Nashville’s Mercy Lounge. Meanwhile in Covington, Kentucky, Unknown Hinson, one of underground country’s greatest ambassadors from his work on Cartoon Network’s Squidbillies, played his final show as a touring act after 17 years, saying he was done, “Period.”
Both these acts had their specific reasons for calling it quits, and certainly the door is open for them to return. And for JD Wilkes, the long-time front man of The Shack Shakers, he still has his Dirt Daubers routine which has apparently retooled to a more electric sound. But you add these huge, high-profile, highly-important artists leaving on top of bands like .357 String Band dissolving, Sunday Valley re-aligning, and Leroy Virgil losing all his original players in Hellbound Glory, and all of a sudden underground country feels like it’s fighting a war of attrition, and losing.
I have been struggling to write this article for almost two years, but have been putting it off because there’s some hard things to say, and I didn’t want to “talk down” a movement that was already trying to deal with pretty alarming trends. But I think that especially now, zooming out and trying to be honest and critical in a constructive way is important, because there is positively no doubt that underground country is dying, and has been for years.
Why? Here are some ideas.
An aging fan base and aging artists
There are exceptions of course, but if you look at who comprises the underground country movement, it is predominantly people in their 30′s, and people from lower incomes. And what do people do in their 30′s? They settle down, they get married and have kids, they get better and more stable jobs, they buy houses. This gives them less time to spend partying, hanging out on the internet talking about music, going to shows on weeknights. In your 30′s, instead of being able to hit every underground country show rolling through town, you have to pick that one show a month you want to attend and pay a babysitter.
The same goes for the artists making underground country music. As they age, their motivations to keep working at music that doesn’t seem to want to stick commercially begin to fade. Health concerns begin to become an issue, and not being able to afford health insurance is a real concern. This was one of the primary issues facing the Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers. Yearning for more stability is a recurring theme in the attrition underground country is facing in its talent roster, from banjo player Joe Huber of the .357 String Band, to drummer Chico from Hellbound Glory.
Something else worth noting is the large sect of sober people who make up underground country, in both the artist and fan ranks. Over time, some people must move away from the music and party scenes to find their sobriety, and others may just not identify any more with music that tends to have foundations in a party lifestyle.
Meanwhile the infusion of youth into underground country is anemic. There are some exceptions. The Boomswagglers from Texas and The Slaughter Daughters are promising, young bands, and artists like Lucky Tubb and Wayne Hancock have been integrating side musicians into the scene for some time. But they rarely stick, partly because of a general lack of support. Any younger musician if they’re smart doesn’t attempt to start their rise in underground country, which seems to be trending down and never had much long-term infrastructure to begin with. They look towards Americana, or the Texas/Red Dirt scene, or bluegrass, where the support is much easier to count on.
A Lack of Leadership
Since the beginning of underground country, if you looked at the top of the pyramid you saw Hank Williams III, and that is still the case in regards to records sales and concert tickets sold in any given year. But in 2008, Hank3 took over a year off from the road, and shortly after he started touring again, he stopped carrying opening bands. Then he put out a succession of albums of questionable quality, and all of a sudden a career on the rise has been stagnant for going on 5 years, and same goes for the the scene that revolves around it.
It was not Saving Country Music or Free Hank III, or even MySpace that comprised the first information portal about underground country. It was Hank3′s “Cussin’ Board” forum. And people didn’t go there just for Hank3 news, but news about all the underground country bands, with artists like JB Beverley and Rachel Brooke participating in the discussions regularly. These days, the “Cussin’ Board” feels like a ghost town compared to its vibrant past.
Shooter Jennings has stepped up in the last two years to attempt to fill the leadership vacuum left by Hank3, and has done some positive things and had some marginal success. But his polarization has kept him from completing the task of becoming a solid leader everyone can look up to. Similarly, where Hank3 was once the most unifying factor in underground country, his obvious step back from the “scene” has now made him a polarizing figure as well, questionably capable of taking back the reigns of underground country even if he was motivated to, and which he’s shown positively no signs of wanting to do. I can’t blame Hank3 for wanting to take a step back, because there were so many people wanting to take from him, believing his name was their stepping stone to success.
Leadership must come from the artists, and it must come from the music first, and that is Shooter Jennings’ inherent problem. This was illustrated when he cut the “Drinking Side of Country” duet with Bucky Covington, or on his industrial rock album Black Ribbons. Whether you like these Shooter projects or not, they illustrate his lack of consistency that has lead to his ineptness as a leader of underground country, and his acute polarization that reaches as far as Eric Church fans, and fans of his father. Hank3 never professed himself a leader. He led by example, and used causes like Reinstate Hank to lead the charge of taking country music back.
The Scene Has Replaced The Movement
One of the reasons an underground of country music was founded was from a wide ranging dissent about the direction of country music. This dissent is where the varying range of musical styles united, taking the country punk of Hank3, the neo-traditional approach of Wayne Hancock, the Texas/Outlaw country of Dale Watson, the bluegrass of the .357 String Band, the blues of Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers, and the Gothic country of Those Poor Bastards and piling them all together in the overall underground country movement. It was united by issues, like the reinstatement of Hank Williams to the Grand Ole Opry, the opening and extension of the Williams Family Exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame, the fight for creative freedom of artists from record labels, and the fight against the infiltration of pop on country radio.
Now these issues that defined, united, and energized the country music underground are seen as tired, if not counter-productive or annoying to many in the underground population. When issues arose with the sale of the Grand Ole Opry to Marriott International, or the changing of Billboard’s chart rules, the underground met them with apathy, if not anger at them being offered up as relevant to their music world. Issues are what made outreach possible for underground country, and now exclusivity seems to be what is yearned for by the majority of underground country fans. The “we have our music, screw the masses” attitude is what prevails, taking away one of the primary promotional tools for independent-minded underground ideals to reach out to other country music fans who also might be feeling disenfranchised with the mainstream.
Scenes and Cliques
Image and exclusivity seem to be the important dynamics in today’s country music underground, dragging on the commercial viability of the music, and making it hard for outsiders to integrate with the underground country culture. Though some on the outside looking in may enjoy the music, they may not understand the verbiage, anecdotes, and style that seem to be important with “fitting in” to the underground. So as long-time underground country fans taper off because of age, no new blood is there to take their place.
Facebook has also narrowed the perspectives of underground country fans, making them feel like how you present yourself is more important than what you do. An unhealthy culture of cloistered, inbred cross-promotion prevails through underground country, where small cliques of fans and bands have formed around labels, blogs, and podcasts, catering content to a select few.
These cliques promote each other within the clique, and at times may branch out farther to the “scene,” but rarely reach new blood because they are based on narrow perspectives and anecdotal experiences. It’s an “I’ll scratch your back, you scratch mine” culture where quality and creativity are lightly regarded compared to political importance in the scene. And if you don’t participate in this culture of narrow, ineffective promotion of the other people in the scene or clique, you risk being ostracized. Intention is measured over effectiveness. These cliques and their differences have also given rise to eternal conflict, with the bigger overall “Shooter fans vs. Hank3 fans” splitting underground country squarely in half.
Saving Country Music, and I specifically have at times enhanced or enabled unnecessary “scene” drama, and this has potentially affected the fate of underground country adversely.
There are lot’s of entities in underground country and roots who attempt to promote music that seem to get lost in promoting their branding and merch first, and the music second. There are many general reasons underground country is dying, but the specific one is lack of money. Underground country is funded by the $40 hoodie, and this creates a paradox for the music that is supposed to be the focus.
Though there is lots of talk about shared responsibility for keeping underground music alive, and there’s many folks who re-post bulletins on Facebook, take pictures and videos of shows, run podcasts, or boutique “labels” attempting to make a difference in the music, the effect is confined to cliques and micro-scenes, and is more catered to serving the few and propagating image and branding.
For example the Pickathon Festival in Portland that caters to a wide variety of independent roots movements, including underground country, boasts over 300 volunteers annually. The Muddy Roots Festival, which almost exclusively caters to underground country and roots had roughly a dozen volunteers this last year, with multiple people who signed up to volunteer to get discounted or free tickets either not working their shifts, walking off their shifts, or generally being unhelpful. Pickathon’s issues with people sneaking onto the site are marginal. Muddy Roots’ issues of people sneaking on site without paying are major. The most helpful volunteers at the 2012 Muddy Roots were a representative from a hair gel sponsor, and the Voodoo Kings Car Club who have very few ties to the music.
There seems to be little understanding that if bands, labels, and festivals are going to continue to exist, there must be a shared sacrifice from the fans. And not just symbolic sacrifice, but substantive efforts to offer real support to the entities making the music happen. Without any corporate funding, that’s how an underground music movement works.
A Lack of Creativity
Underground country was founded on creativity. The creativity found on albums such as Hank3′s Straight to Hell, Wayne Hancock’s Thunderstorms & Neon Signs, Dale Watson’s Live in London, and Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers’ Cockadoodledon’t is what caused a country music underground to form in the first place. In the mid 2000′s, you could confidently say that the creativity in underground country outlasted that of the mainstream per capita. These days underground country is mired in trying to recapture that creativity, in a practice that lends to the aping of styles and the rehashing of themes. Capturing a “punk gone country,” “honky tonk Outlaw”, or “old-time” aesthetic seems more important than carving out a new creative niche like the originators of underground country did.
Meanwhile any true creativity existing in underground country quickly evolves beyond it to greener pastures in Texas country or Americana, like Justin Townes Earle did. The lack of infrastructure, the presence of scenesters, and the general disorganization of the underground dissuades talented artist from associating themselves with it. Americana, Red Dirt, Texas, and West Coast circuits offer much more hospitable and palatable scenes, while underground country generally discourages cross-pollination with these kindred, independent-minded movements, misunderstanding them as either mainstream, or too high-minded for the music they like.
A step removed from the influence of the scene, Europe continues to thrive and grow their support for underground country. There seems to be more general thankfulness that underground country music exists in Europe, and a stronger focus on the music itself instead of the scene that surrounds it. There’s more support, more of a volunteering attitude, and more of a willingness to help make the music happen by the fans. Europe continues to be the most commercially-viable place for many underground country bands to tour and sell albums, and that support is continuing to grow.
A Few Breakout Bands
Bands like Larry & His Flask, Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band, and The Goddamn Gallows have found some decent success over the past few years playing on some bigger tours like The Warped Tour and opening for The Reverend Horton Heat. Bob Wayne has found traction in Europe and domestically being singed with label Century Media. Justin Townes Earle is now a big concert draw, and Scott Biram is getting his music played on television shows.
But many of these artists are moving on from the traditional underground country infrastructure to find their success, and others like Leroy Virgil and Sturgill Simpson still seem to be one step behind where their creative potential should be taking them commercially.
Festival & Touring Infrastructure
This is something underground country was lacking for years, and now has a healthy dose of. Unfortunately rising gas prices and dwindling crowds sometimes means it’s too little too late for some bands. The reason Unknown Hinson says he quit touring was because it was costing him too much money.
There are more festivals in all shapes and sizes catering to underground country and roots than ever before. But again, with a dwindling fan base, these different festivals are competing with each other for the same anemic and contracting population.
The Deep Blues
The Deep Blues seems to be on a more sustainable path, and also seems to be able to divest itself from the drama that is confounding underground country. However since it shares much of the same infrastructure as underground country, the issues in underground country can bleed over to the deep blues as well. There is better sustainability in Deep Blues, but the growth is still marginal. In many ways, the Deep Blues is the only thing keeping underground country alive, and that could hinder Deep Blues from moving forward as it drags underground country along.
What Can Be Done To Save Underground Country
To save underground country there must be a renewed interest in finding and developing younger bands, attracting younger fans, and focusing on talent and creativity over forming exclusive scenes. “Young” should not be mistaken for the same connotations it carries in mainstream country. Talent and creativity should still remain key, as well as trying to reach the folks that “get it.” But if underground country wants to continue to remain a viable part of the overall country music landscape, it must recruit new bands and new listeners to replace the natural contraction within its population.
Underground country must quit being so reactionary about the outside world. It must diversify. It must find common ground, common struggle, and common tastes with Americana, Red Dirt, and Texas music, and promote its best and brightest talent to those worlds and then reciprocate. It must stick to its founding principles of preserving the roots of the music and fighting for creative control for artists, and seize on the opportunities current events create to promote those principles to the rest of the music world, promoting the music of underground country by proxy.
It needs leadership, big bands, breakout albums and songs that breathe new fervor into the movement. It needs and end to the “I got mine” mentality.
And it needs it now, before it ends up like Communism: a great idea whose devil is in the application.
About this time every four years the political rhetoric reaches critical mass as TV, radio, and the internet are permeated with political ads, while your personal social network feed is filled with political memes and other such oversimplifications of issues we’ve been fighting to resolve for decades.
One of the beautiful things about music is it’s ability to unify us under the universal appeal of rhythm. That’s why I’m usually turned off by political music, because it evokes the very things you reach out to music to escape from. If a song can’t say it subtly, then it might as well not say it at all.
In that spirit, here are some apolitical, or anti-political songs to help survive the political season.
Leroy Virgil (Hellbound Glory) – What’s This World Coming To (If It Ain’t Coming To An End)
“Well now all them corporate Christians, and the goddamn Democrats, and them blood-sucking Republicans, they aught to all get off our backs. And I’ll say it again. I’ll never trust no government. ‘Cause what’s this old world coming it, if it ain’t coming to an end.”
“Crashing planes and Saddam Hussein and ever since them towers fell. If we ain’t fighting with the whole damn world we’re fighting with ourselves.”
By being an equal opportunity offender and focusing in on how the polarization of the country is causing more problems than the respective sides are trying to fix, Leroy finds some genius through the power of simple perspective while communicating the fear we all have that the divisiveness is dragging us all down, regardless of our political stripes. (unreleased)
(recorded at the house of .357 String Band’s Derek Dunn)
Merle Haggard – Rainbow Stew
“When they find out how to burn water, and the gasoline car is gone. When an airplane flies without ay fuel and the sunlight heats our home. When the President goes through the White House door, and does what he says he’ll do, well I’ll be drinkin’ that free bubble-up, and eating that rainbow stew.”
From a man who was well-known for his flag-waving anthems early in his career, here came this strange, obtuse, but nonetheless brilliant song off his 1981 Rainbow Stew Live At Anaheim Stadium album. Merle makes you read between the lines, and seems to be challenging the ideas of a utopian society while at the same time praying for them. Or as one person put it, “It refers to stubbornly having a positive outlook in the face of great adversity.” Is it using sarcasm to knock environmentalism, or promoting it? “Rainbow Stew” is like a chameleon, shaping it’s colors to the character of the individual listener, making it mean whatever you want it to mean. I’ve always thought it was Merle’s greatest song.
Chris Knight – Nothing On Me
“And their layin’ ‘em off down at Kankakee, and there’s boards on the windows up and down the street. And they’re saying that it’s gonna get darker before the dawn. But you can bet your ass I’ll keep the lights on, keep my babies fed and throw a dog a bone. ‘Cause I’m a bring it on, git ‘er done, don’t run S.O.B. Times are tough, but they ain’t got nothing on me.”
While the world is busy pointing fingers, Chris Knight is busy writing poignant songs preaching about the virtue of self-preservation and self-reliance and looking at tough times and laughing. His latest album Little Victories has a few good songs like this and is a political album done right.
Lee Bains III & The Glory Fires – Centreville
“If your ears are bleeding it just me and the boys, we’re over-educated and we’re underemployed.”
“We’re low down and pitiful, we’re broke down in Centreville, we got to rock on.”
“On the banks, the (??? – citation needed), the President or the press, lay the blame on every damn thing but yourself.”
This is about as rocking as Lee Bains and the Glory Fires get, and they get apolitical on your ass by finding character and pride in their own pathetic state of affairs as opposed to pointing the menacing finger of blame towards others in a refreshing and wise sense of perspective.
In 2008, a fledgling Saving Country Music named its first “Album of the Year”. The award went to the blazing punk bluegrass band from Milwaukee, the .357 String Band, and their magnum opus Fire & Hail. Then on New Years Eve of 2010, Saving Country Music announced its “Top 10 Albums of the Decade” in all of country music, and Fire & Hail made it on that list too.
There is no harsher critic, nor more revealing force in music than time. Time reveals all warts and washes away any help from trends and current tastes. But here nearly four years later, no revisions need to be made, no clarifications are called for. Fire & Hail remains a preeminent, timeless release, and one of the most important ever in underground country, surpassed possibly only by Hank Williams III’s Straight to Hell.
.357 String Band put out 3 excellent albums before officially calling it quits in November of 2011. But Fire & Hail is where banjo player Joesph Huber revealed himself as a brilliant songwriter of marksman first-class caliber. It’s where mandolinist Jayke Orvis revealed his depth of composition, from penning one of the band’s signature songs “Raise The Moon” on their first album, to procuring the heart wrenching “Hold Me Tight” duet with underground country queen Rachel Brooke. It’s where guitar player Derek Dunn codified himself as the hub of the band, and where Rick Ness established himself as one of the most solid back beats wielding an upright bass.
And they were all the absolute best possible musicians you could find at their respective positions, each challenging each other, pushing each other to keep up with the band’s demands for artistic excellence in both instrumental technique and creative composition. Listening back now at Fire & Hail, with so much talent in one place, no wonder the project was untenable, and no wonder the respective players have moved on to become their own trees instead of respective branches of the same project.
Still, the loss of .357 String Band may go down as underground country’s greatest tragedy. I can think of no other project that was so ripe for becoming a success story of authentic American underground roots. They were brilliant, but accessible at the same time. Seeing the success these days of Mumford & Sons, The Avett Brothers, Trampled by Turtles, and Old Crow Medicine Show to name a few, it’s baffling how .357–a superior gaggle of talent–somehow missed the boat. It is a great sin of American music.
Luckily we still have the legacy of .357 String Band to reflect back on, and the respective work and side projects of the individual players–including Billy Cook who filled in for Jayke Orvis in later years–to see us through a period that feels mired and creatively discounted without the muse, and the challenge to inferior talent the .357 String Band embodied. That is why it is such great news that the band has reissued the seminal Fire & Hail on split-color red/while limited-edition numbered vinyl.
But even if vinyl is not your bag, if you’ve never heard of this band or never owned Fire & Hail, do yourself a favor and stop down and get yourself a copy. And for the rest of us, the warmth of analog sound will be a tide over until our glorious .357 rises from the ashes to reproduce their magic that has been stricken from the ear too long. Or at least, that’s what we will tell ourselves to cope with the fact they continue to no longer be around. And in a similar vein, there’s talk from them of a “Best Of” with some unreleased tracks seeing the light of day soon, so maybe there’s still a chance to satiate a little more of the .357 String Band thirst that haunts us, eternally unreplenished as long as their hiatus remains active.
If you have a record player, get this. And if you don’t, get a record player. And then get this.
Two guns up!
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…or you can also paypal $19 to streetgrass77 at gmail dot com. Free US shipping, add $5 for Canada, and $9 for Europe.
By all accounts, I should hate these dudes, and this album by proxy. Like many others, I’ve had it stuck in my head for a while now that Mumford & Sons is simply a bad British parody of the Avett Brothers. I mean the way they put out excessive energy on stage, the way their songs have an emotional air, even down to the way Marcus Mumford plays bass drum with his foot, exactly like Scott Avett does. I mean come on. Mumford even covers some Avett Brothers songs. It just all seems a little too obvious.
And then it was announced that Babel was the best-selling debut so far in 2012, selling 600,000 copies and outpacing folks like Justin Bieber. Really? Has the “roots” revolution reached such a point that it is the most popular, mainstream thing going in music these days? How am I supposed to be okay with that, and where is this leading?
I saw Mumford perform on Austin City Limits, and granted, since ACL these days is pandering to the short American attention span and sponsor requirements from Budwesier and Lexus, you only get 24 minutes to get a reading on a band, but the way Mumford member Ben Lovett wrenches behind the keyboard while holding down 3 simple notes like he’s enjoying the writhing, dirty pleasures of a truck stop glory hole is just too much to stomach. And no, the music didn’t make up for the transparent stage antics.
All good music reviewers try to leave any baggage behind when they pipe up a new album, but we’re human and can’t help walking in with some preconceived notions. That’s why I was blown away by how approachable I found Babel. It was not only approachable, it was pretty damn good. And the reason my reluctant turnaround became a wholesale change-of-heart was “passion.”
By taking away the visual element from this band live, however contrived it is or isn’t, I was able to see that Mumford & Son’s passion is authentic, and is woven into their songs that are refreshingly innovative and boldly anthemic. Mumford & Sons go for it at every moment. They hold back nothing. This is music that grabs you by the gullet and says, “Listen to me, and what I have to say!”
Yeah I agree, as some say, a lot of Mumford’s songs work the same, with that driving, bellowing beat. But they work nonetheless. And I’m glad that the songs are born of a British ear because that gives them an authentic tie to Mumford’s roots, not just roots music, and gives their music the strength of distinct dialect and perspective. I dare say they’ve even tamed their stage antics ever so slightly these days, finding the balance between conveying energy and being real.
Babel also reminds you of the primal power of the banjo. Yes, banjo is all over the place these days, in “indie” rock and in legions of silly eepish rootsy hipster bands. Even Eric Church and Taylor Swift are sporting banjos these days, but few know how to play them the right way like “Country” Winston Marshall of Mumford. No clawhammer, no playing it like a guitar or a hybrid spinoff Kermit the Frog’s strumming style that misappropriates the instrument simply for a “rootsy” tone or as a stage prop. No, Winston Marshall is fingerpicking all the way, and the primal, biting, cyclical crack of banjo notes creates a grounded element for Mumford & Sons’ otherwise ethereal, atmospheric compositions.
What I realized listening to Babel and cross-referencing it against Mumford’s wild success is that this is the music for right here, right now. The most popular of music is always a reduction or a rehash of what others mired in obscurity are doing much better, but it doesn’t mean that it isn’t good. You go back and listen to The Cranberries for example, and in that era, they carried a voice and style that worked perfect for that time. Tastes shift and move, and time passes things by, and if Mumford & Sons want to stay where they are, they must move as well. But for now, they’re right where they need to be to take advantage of all the current trends in music, including a renewed thirst for the roots.
It is music with passion, music with emotion, and just enough “roots” to be relevant, yet not stuffy, hip, or outmoded. And their success doesn’t necessarily have to fly in the face of other “roots” bands, it means the ceiling has been raised for roots music’s potential. How many high school kids are now going to be hitting up Google with word strings like “Bands like Mumford & Sons” and pulling up Trampled by Turtles, .357 String Band, and The Calamity Cubes?
I will probably still hold some bit of a grudge against Mumford and bemoan the cheese corn elements of their live presentation. But I won’t blame the masses for getting behind Babel. It is a breath of fresh air in popular American music.
1 3/4 of 2 guns up.
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Lower Broadway in Nashville has a new songstress haunting the streets, and she’s a good one. Sarah Gayle Meech, originally from the sticks of Washington State, showed up in town via LA and is doing what she can to make sure the once epicenter of the underground of country music doesn’t become just a row of corporate bars and crappy music.
If you want to know how to put out one badass independent/underground country album in Nashville, you could use One Good Thing as a template. First you line up the greatest renegade studio owner in town, one Andy Gibson, maybe more famous for being Hank Williams III’s steel and dobro player, but the man who tweaked the knobs on such legendary albums as Hank III’s Straight to Hell, .357 String Band‘s Fire & Hail, and every piece of recorded music Bob Wayne has ever released.
Then you line up the best superpickers in town, namely the superlative “Cousin” Kenny Vaughan (Marty Stuart, many others), and the legendary Chris Scruggs (BR549, many others). Just with these assets, if underground country were an arms race, Sarah Gayle Meech would have just announced herself a superpower.
But none of these dude’s names are on the cover, and none of them wrote these songs. Sarah and her songwriting are the center of attention here, and with impeccable country taste and instincts, Sarah assembles 12 original and authentic honky-tonk hard country songs for your listening enjoyment.
Don’t let the sleeves of tattoos scare you, this is country and country only. There’s no screams coming out of those red lips, or goat horns concealed under that raven black hair. Sarah Gayle Meech and One Good Thing are country through and through, piercing the breastplate of honky tonk with an adrenaline shot right to its heart.
Lying, cheating, heartache, and one night stands are the colors Sarah swirls together on her palette and then paints on to the canvas with a strong voice and a stellar band. I’ve seen Sarah live (at Muddy Roots) and can vouch One Good Thing isn’t just a product of studio magic, that live the material might even be more engaging, as in many instances honky-tonk-style country is. Sarah has set up residency at Lower Broadway’s famed Bluegrass Inn, and plays Robert’s Western World next door as well. She boasts a professional band and attitude, and her dedication, heart, and willingness to sacrifice to do it right is woven into the fabric of this album.
One Good Thing is a great debut album from Sarah, but what I want to see from here is how she develops and figures out a way to separate herself sonically from the overwhelming crowd of traditional bands and artists playing honky tonk music these days. She’s cut her teeth now, proven her country cred and how the modes and love of true country music coarse through her veins. But all the greats in the genre brought something unique to the table. They added something, or took something away, or reached deep down inside themselves to find a way to separate themselves from the herd.
I won’t say the material and music on One Good Thing is cliche, but the lyrics and licks are common enough that I’m afraid it will sound like “just another traditional country album” to some. This is a common issue for honky tonk artists, even for folks like Dale Watson.
Sarah Gayle Meech gives new blood to old music, and with a bold style and a professional attitude, she should be keeping Lower Broadway true to itself and hopefully expanding to parts beyond in the years to come.
1 1/2 of 2 guns up.
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Sarah at Robert’s on Lower Broadway
I bet when you saw Bob Wayne‘s name in the title of this article, you had some sort of immediate emotional reaction, didn’t you? You either thought, “That foul mouthed punk, I can’t even stand to see his ugly face,” and you blame him for perpetuating a perversion of country music. Or, you saw his name and said “Hell yeah,” remembering the last time you saw him live and how he rocked your face off, or how how one of his deeper, heartfelt songs helped you through a hard time.
Like him or not, Bob Wayne has arrived. One way you can tell this is by the polarization that precedes his name (just check out the comments on his last album review). In music, it’s always better that people have an opinion about you than to be ambivalent or unbeknown to your existence. Usually where there’s sharp, contrasting opinions, there’s success. Take Shooter Jennings and Hank Williams III for example. You won’t find two more polarizing, or more successful figures in underground/independent country music. But unlike Hank3 and Shooter, Bob Wayne has not had help from his given name, nor the burden of unrealistic expectations being a famous namesake can bestow.
Instead his success is a symptom of relentless touring in America and Europe; a tour schedule whose tireless nature rivals any other in music today. And one thing Bob Wayne has that country’s famous sons don’t is fantastic label support. Century Media may be way better known for metal music, but they fit in that sweet spot for present day labels: big enough to be considered a “major” with an expansive network and Rolodex, but small enough to be considered an “independent” with the ability to offer strong, healthy, catered support to each of their artists.
Though the crowds for Bob Wayne are certainly growing domestically, Europe is where he’s made his strongest foothold, like many independent country and roots artists that made the jump from amateur to professional before him. In certain Euro stops, Bob Wayne is pulling 800 capacity crowds in, just to see him, not as a support act. This is likely one of the reasons Century Media decided to put out his last album Till The Wheels Fall Off on their European imprint People Like You, an unusual move for an artist based in the States. Bob has also bought a van and a complete set of backline instruments for his band that he permanently stores in Europe to facilitate his frequent overseas tours and save on expenses.
Instead of worrying about pulling a profit or working some master plan, Bob Wayne simply put his head down and booked his own breakneck tours for years, figuring out how to include European stints in them when he could. He would work construction jobs in his home state of Oregon to get the money to buy European plane tickets for him and the band, tour the country from West to east, fly out to Europe, and then start the whole cycle over again. All of that touring led to a tight live show and a professional attitude on stage from Bob and his talent-packed “Outlaw Carnies”.
Over the years, the Outlaw Carnies have become a proving ground for underground country talent. With a loose arrangement, players are allowed to come and go as they please, but they all must provide stellar musicianship to keep up with Bob and the band’s budding legacy. Joe Buck, Andy Gibson, Donnie Herron, and Dan Infecto are just a few of the names that have contributed to Bob either live or recorded in the past, and then continued on to make bigger names for themselves. The dating duo of fiddler Liz Sloan and bassist Jared McGovern cut their teeth as Carnies, and now play with Jayke Orvis and Filthy Still among others. The entire .357 String Band once did a stint as Bob’s backing band.
The newest edition is Lucy B. Cochran on fiddle. At first glimpse you might mistake her for Liz Sloan who she replaced, but the two female fiddles have very different styles. Lucy goes to the bluegrass shuffle like few fiddlers I’ve seen, and adds a more countrified element to the Carnies. The current Carnies also feature “Elmer” on standup bass, and Ryan Clackner who can serve up some of the hottest leads licks on Telecaster that you can find. Bob’s current lineup is as sharp as any you will find in underground country, and so is Bob’s show…that is of course if Bob Wayne is your thing. If it’s not, then he could resurrect Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys to back him up and it still wouldn’t be enough.
It’s the swear-filled lyrics and racy themes in many of his songs that will always keep Bob at odds with many country faithful, and understandably so. They will also unfortunately keep those same people from enjoying many of his deeper songs that don’t feature racy topics or bad language.
The cold, hard fact is many favorite underground country bands may never be able to make the leap from being amateur, underpaid musicians, to professionals making a reasonable, living wage, despite the quality of their music or their desire or ability. But Bob Wayne has, and with continued label support, creative freedom, a stellar backing band, and a bottomless pit of energy and enthusiasm for touring, he also seems to have plenty of upside potential.
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Bob Wayne is playing the Muddy Roots Festival on Friday 8/31 at 11 PM on Stage 2.
Ascending from the ashes of the country music underground’s ultimate proving ground known as the .357 String Band, banjo player and songwriter Joseph Huber releases his second solo offering, Tongues of Fire. With some songs originally meant for the now deceased .357 project, and some that speak to the causes of its demise and dealing with its aftermath, Huber compiles an engaging and surprisingly bright-sounding album that speaks true to his life, and is easy to relate to yours.
It is difficult to describe Tongues of Fire without comparing it to Joseph’s first solo album Bury Me Where I Fall which in contrast was very dark, and not from the easy avenues of screams and Satan references, but from deep and intelligent songwriting and eery chord structures. Tongues of Fire takes almost an exact opposite approach, with a lighter feel to virtually all these songs even when the lyrics deal with dark subject matter. In this respect Bury Me Where I Fall and Tongues of Fire make an excellent tandem. They create a duality, a fulfilling yin and yang approach where the two projects combined become better than the sum of their parts.
Joseph Huber doesn’t fit the average mold of an ultra-talented musical artist. We’re used to the best and brightest being tortured and fey, yet Joe is surprisingly clear-eyed and relate-able. He’s just like you and I…well…except for being one of the best banjo players I have ever seen, yet giving absolutely nothing up when it comes to his songwriting, and also being able to master guitar and fiddle. He’s a creative dynamo, but the struggles he goes through are simple: trying to find his place in the world, searching for balance; not the deep torment or torturous pursuit for meaning that usually comes with the hyper-creative archetype.
And that is what imbibes Tongues of Fire with that intangible thing that makes certain albums feel warm to you. This album is about Joe searching and finding that sense of balance and purpose, while still recognizing that certain wild desires are there and will always be.
Though on the surface Tongues of Fire may seem like a less poetic approach, after a few listens you find the poetry very much alive in songs like “An Old Mountain Tune” and “Dance Around The Daggers”. “Iron Rail” seems to speak to the hopeless, caged feeling Joe may have been laboring under in .357, while the theme can speak to frustrations in all of us. “Fell Off the Wagon” is the outright fun song that was lacking from Joe’s first release. And just about the time you wonder where Huber’s signature blazing banjo is on this album, here comes “Walkin’ Fine”.
On some songs like “Where the Shadows Shiver to Sleep” I wondered how it would sound with a darker approach to match the song’s dark theme, instead of the playful one it employs. Huber shows a better mastery of DIY recording in his second attempt, though on his first album his lack of recording skills did nothing but compliment his dark approach. It is still good to see his home engineering skill set dramatically improve, yet not grow past the one-man-band approach so Tongues of Fire still gives a fair representation of what you will see from Joseph live.
“Hello, Milwaukee” in the heart of the track order is also the heart of this album. It spells out the struggles Joe has faced, and then the sense of fulfillment when he finds out what he’s been searching for is what he left. This sense of fulfillment is what permeates this album, beyond any of the songs or words or any individual instrumental performances, to make this album special and give it an infectious warmth. Listening to this album, you are happy for Huber.
And whether you can relate to Huber’s sense of content or you are driven by the faith that your contentment still lingers out there waiting for you to find, Joseph Huber’s Tongues of Fire finds a way to speak to you.
Two guns up!
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