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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With the appeal for roots music on the rise throughout the music landscape, it’s no wonder Southern rock is making a resurgence. Where a few years ago Southern rock seemed to be all about nostalgia and/or rehashing the same old tired twangy rock guitar riffs, the sub-genre now finds itself flush with a new crop of talent bringing creativity and a fresh, more progressive approach to the format, continuing the work of bands like The Drive By Truckers, Lucero, Old 97′s, The North Mississippi All-Stars, and The Bottle Rockets.
The success of The Zac Brown Band has also led to labels, festivals, management companies, etc. recognizing Southern rock as one of the long-standing staples of American music that’s worthy of renewed attention. Though Zac Brown is pushed through country channels, he’s said himself that he’s more Southern rock, and his leadership as a label owner has led to new opportunities for Southern rock bands.
Here’s some of the younger, newer, up-and-coming bands in Southern rock to check out, and when you look into them deeper, what is universal in all of these bands is their dedication, and how they are all a tight knit group of friends first.
From Birmingham, Alabama, Lee Bains III rose from the ashes of the equally fierce Dexateens to form a band that takes all the varying influences of Southern rock and combines them into a raucous perspective into the Southern identity. Sometimes sounding more like The Allman Brothers than the Allman Brothers themselves, their study of Southern rock modes is tireless. Yet they’re not scared to play a pure rock song or sing with soul just as akin to Motown as Montgomery. Explosive live, Lee Bains III and the Glory Fires are force in new school Southern rock.
Pouring their hearts out through their music, leaving it all out on stages, and making poetry out of an ugly, gritty, drug-laced portrayal of the downtrodden Southern identity, American Aquarium are the tireless troubadours of Southern rock. Rarely at home in North Carolina, they regularly can be found on stage delivering those most potent lyric lines that physically knock you back when you hear them.
From Murfreesboro, Tennessee, Glossary is already on their seventh record, and like American Aquarium, has garnered a smallish, but very loyal and dedicated fan base from hard touring and songwriting sincerity that crowds relate to. They have more of a progressive sound than you would expect from a garden variety Southern rock band, but with the appearance of steel guitar, harmonies, and other Southern twang elements, they are just as much Southern rock as anything else. It’s also great to catch them backing up solo artist Austin Lucas.
A recent up-and-comer who is trying to make the leap to becoming a full-time traveling band, Fifth on the Floor brings a hard-nosed, guitar heavy sound indicative of Southern rock, without being scared to slip in a few country ballads here and there. Their latest release Ashes & Angels was just released on Entertainment One records to rave reviews.
The little band that could. Just a rag tag group of friends from Athens, Alabama the were getting together to play music, never making too much of it until it blew up from their endearing sincerity and Brittney Howard’s dominating presence. Now they’ve played Austin City Limits and Saturday Night Live. This is one popular band you’re not ashamed to say you like, and their mix of rock and soul and a splash of country have made Southern rock relevant again.
When you’re latest album starts out with audio of a quote from William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech, you know your Southern roots run deep. This exemplifies the smart, progressive approach The Sons of Bill from Charlottesville, Virginia bring to their version of Southern rock. As their name implies, they’re made up of three brothers (their dad’s name is Bill), and like many Southern rock bands, you get this sense that you are looking into a very tight group of friends regardless of blood affiliation that you can’t help finding an affection for that helps you connect with the music.
Trumped in popularity and draw in Southern rock only by their frequent tour partners the Zac Brown Band, Blackberry Smoke is the other top act right now in Southern rock. They’re singed to Zac Brown’s Southern Ground label, and their last album The Whippoorwill was both a critic’s favorite and a breakout commercial success, hitting #8 on the Billboard country album chart, bolstered by the single “Pretty Little Lie.” When they started out 13 years ago, their sound had a little more edge than what it features now. Unlike many of the other bands in this list that are slightly different versions or derivatives of the classic meaning of “Southern Rock,” Blackberry Smoke just about fits the description perfectly, while slipping in a few straight country tunes on you here and there.
Probably not as well known as many of the other bands on this list because of long droughts between album releases and tours, the Wrinkle Neck Mules nonetheless forge a great sound by combining powerful songwriting with a country rock sound. There’s a very epic approach to their music, and their last album Apprentice To Ghosts is a great example of modern-day Southern rock.
Borrowing parts from the previous bands of Scrappy Hamilton and Old Pike, Truth & Salvage was formed in late 2005 and caught the ear of Black Crowes singer Chris Robinson who signed the band to his Silver Aarow label in 2008. They released their self-titled debut in May of 2010. Truth & Salvage is truly a collaborative effort, with six full-time members and four who pull frontman duty at some point during a live set, including the drummer Bill “Smitty” Smith.
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Some solo artists who could be considered Southern rock: Jimbo Mathus, Jason Isbell, Austin Lucas, Shooter Jennings, Leroy Powell.
Other bands to check out: Truck Stop Darling, Whiskey Myers, Kenneth Bryan Band, The Cadillac Black, Doc Dailey, Magnolia Devil, Uncle Lucius, Iron Orchard.
Wednesday night (9-12-2012) country music’s mother church The Ryman Auditorium was alive with the sounds of The 2012 Americana Music Awards that saw an always talented, eclectic (and sometimes confusing) flock of musicians, songwriters, and performers amass to give credit to the best and brightest of the year. Part of the greater Americana Music Conference happening in Nashville this week, the awards featured excellent performances from legends such as studio great Booker T. Jones and songwriter Richard Thompson, as well as Emerging Artist nominees The Alabama Shakes and Deep Dark Woods.
Some highlights of the night were Booker T sitting in with The Alabama Shakes, Cary Ann Hearst of Shovels & Rope doing the “Another Like You” duet with Hayes Carll, and my favorite part of the night, when Song of the Year winner Jason Isbell thanked his manager Traci Thomas of Thirty Tigers, and then took a shot at The Country Music Anti-Christ saying he wanted an empty chair onstage “…so I could yell at an invisible Scott Borchetta.” Generations were bridged when Patterson Hood of the Drive By Truckers, the son of a famous studio musician David Hood of the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section gave an excellent speech inducting Booker T Jones as an Americana Lifetime Achievement Award recipient for instrumentation.
Lifetime Achievement Award for Performance inductee Bonnie Raitt closed out the festivities with two songs, including her signature “Thing Called Love” before the stage filled with Americana dignitaries including Bonnie and John Hiatt to do a stirring rendition of The Band‘s “The Weight” in tribute to the late Levon Helm, who was remembered along with Doc Watson and Earl Scruggs.
Jim Lauderdale hosted the event, and Buddy Miller, Don Was and others worked all night as the Americana house band.
How to define the term “Americana” was the running joke all night (and is somewhat of a tradition of the awards), but whether you were listening in through NPR’s live stream or lucky enough to subscribe to the right service get it on the TV, it was hard to argue with the talent and accolades the Americana Music Association used to define the 2012 awards.
2012 Americana Music Award Winners
Instrumentalist of The Year
Dave Rawlings, Gillian Welch’s guitar accompanist.
Album of the Year
“This Ones For Him” A Tribute to Guy Clark
Song of the Year
Jason Isbell’s “Alabama Pines” off the album Here We Rest
Emerging Artist of the Year
The Alabama Shakes
Artist of the Year
Duo/Group of the Year
The Civil Wars
Lifetime Achievement Award for Performance
Lifetime Achievement Award for Songwriting
Lifetime Achievement Award for Instrumentalist
Booker T. Jones
Lifetime Achievement Award for Executive
If you’re looking for what is hip, what is hot right now in the confluence of American roots and rock music, you could make a strong case for the young, energetic roots rock bands emerging from the deep South as the epicenter of enthusiasm and influence. With the Alabama Shakes blowing up, the freedom to boldly mix blues, rock, country, and a large measure of soul has been endowed to bands with ample amounts of hunger, talent, and skill.
After years of nerdcore shoegazers being the most hip part of the scene, with their ukes and theremins and some pink haired girl in Sally Jessy Raphael glasses banging away at a Fisher-Price xylophone toy with a spatula, balls and back beat have re-emerged, including in the Birmingham, Alabama-based Lee Bains III & The Glory Fires whose debut album There’s a Bomb in Gilead was released on Alive-Naturalsound Records in May.
This is an explosively-energetic album with influences and styles pulling from a wide range of American music. Lee Bains is well-versed in Southern modes from both sides of the tracks, and shows tremendous versatility in being able to conjure up the smoky mood of a blues singer, and the sweaty twang of a Southern rocker in the space of a breath, with The Glory Fires right on his heels with their authentic, spot-on sonic interpretations.
There’s A Bomb in Gilead has some great tracks, anchored by the rocking “Centreville” which boasts some sick and stirring lyrical lines. Then Lee Bains and the boys show off how quick they can switch gears with the slow, country-feeling “Reba”. “Righteous, Ragged Songs” and “Red, Red Dirt of Home” hearken back to the golden-era of Allman-style Southern rock, while “Opelika” takes it over to the poor, dark side of town on a front porch, with good distance captured in the recording.
Overall the album conveys that “sweaty” sound The Rolling Stones perfected back in their Exile-Sticky Finger needle & spoon days that so many bands yearn for but few realize. There’s a Bomb also has some some very deep soulful moments that I hear in a lot of these Southern roots rock bands; Motown stuff that they call upon with the same frequency and confidence as the country and blues vibes.
Not to carry out The Alabama Shakes comparisons too far, but a similar concern I had with them I hear with Lee Bains too. With the wild variety in styles between songs, there is no one universal or unique style that defines the band, and it necessitates the listener shifting listening gears between songs. This also happens to keep the album spicy and your ears alert, but I would like to see Lee Bains & The Glory Fires do more to define their own sound, not just master the sounds of others.
Still this album passes the listening test, meaning you find yourself coming back and listening to it over and over. If you come to this album as a die hard country fan, you will come to it from the outside looking in, but with the song “Reba” and a strong Southern rock influence, there will be enough familiarity with it to allow you to warm up to the rest of the material.
This is a good first album with some great songs and great energy, and I look forward to hearing what Lee Bains III & The Glory Fires offer up in the future.
1 3/4 of 2 guns up.
(10-20-12) After much thought and listening to this album, I have decided to do the unprecedented and boost the rating of this album to a full “Two Guns Up!”. Though my concern remains that Lee Bains needs to further develop what is own unique sound is going to be, the listenability and appeal of the songs is just too great to deny it the best rating I have to give.
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The current landscape of hip American music is like a lyric out of a classic Bob Dylan song about the changing times. Old is new, and nerdy is cool. It is in this environment that the Alabama Shakes have flourished like the imperceptible germs on the tips of your fingers when rubbed into a Petri dish and left to fester. A style that notched a bullseye smack dab in the middle of the wave of current popular appeal without sacrificing artistic purpose is the reason The Alabama Shakes are becoming an American music success story we can actually be proud of for once.
This rootsy, soulful rock band is bound together by the force known as Brittany Howard, part Janis Joplin, part Kimya Dawson, both poetic, and fanatically possessed. Whenever I think of the true embodiment of the word “soul” I think of an old black woman. Whether it’s an old black female singer, or young white male guitar player, if they truly want to have soul, they must have an old black woman trapped inside of them somewhere, with 1,000 injustices fighting back tears in world-torn eyes, and infinite wisdom bred from bad choices by the self and others. Soul is anger only semi-controlled, and that is what Brittany Howard has. (“I’ll fight the planet!” she proclaims in the song “Heartbreaker”. )
This is backed up by the rest of The Shakes, a solid group of musicians who know how to flesh out the vintage vibe Brittany’s original compositions are written to convey. This is a very youthful, energetic-sounding album, which is refreshing to hear coming from roots circles that generally are dominated by post-punk or indie rock-converted 30-somethings studying under gray-haired alt-country elders. The Alabama Shakes sound only a few steps outside of the garage, and that’s a great approach to hear with music that is textured to feel aged.
This their first full length album Boys & Girls has some fun moments and some rocking moments that really touch on a groove, and then some very deep, tearful moments. It is exquisitely arranged where Brittney is never buried by anything else going on, though even if the mix was imbalanced, it would still be impossible not to be drawn to her presence in the music. I guess you would call that magnetic. In such a shallow, simple-minded world, she would command a room full of magazine models. Brittney is bold; a power generator of a human earth being.
The best part about Boys & Girls is the promise you can hear in this music. Man, I love when you can hear promise, when you can enjoy how good the music is here and now, but also spy the branches where something even better will spring from.
There’s nothing really country about The Alabama Shakes, though some country foundations are there if you listen deep. And with their soul and roots sound, you could slip them between a Wayne “The Train” Hancock and Scott H. Biram on a bill and nary an eyelash would be batted. Maybe a guilty pleasure for some country fans, certainly a better music choice for the masses, we shall see what fate awaits The Alabama Shakes as the fickle winds of style and appeal blow back and forth in the American conscious. We will also see if any band or scene or style is big enough to contain Brittany Howard, or if she will burn too bright to sustain.
The Alabama Shakes are not for everyone, but I struggle to find a wart to point at.
Two guns up!
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