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Saturday night was Clear Channel Radio’s inaugural iHeartRadio Country Festival in Austin, TX at the Frank Erwin Center—a mid-sized arena that the University of Texas uses for baskeball games, and that serves as the city’s largest indoor concert venue. The festival was the first major event in the new country music partnership between Clear Channel and CMT in their bid to make a multi-platform country music media empire. As Clear Channel was broadcasting the event through many radio stations and their iHeartRadio app, CMT.com was streaming the event online, and taping segments for future television programming. This type of collaboration is what we can expect as country media coagulates into huge companies duking it out for your attention. Clear Channel had their top personality, DJ Bobby Bones, as the emcee of the event, and CMT’s big star Cody was working the backstage area.
In typical Austin fashion, the event and live feed started 12 minutes late. Though iHeartRadio was touting the experience as a “festival”, the outdoor, multi-day and multi-stage discovery of new music that usually accompanies the music festival experience was swapped for a very structured environment centered around the most familiar names in the format, and instructional diatribes on the virtues of Clear Channel’s iHeartRadio app: the company’s seemingly sole plan for pulling out of their $300 million-plus quarterly loss tailspin. Of course making this plan a perilous one full of risk is the fact that every day the music streaming marketplace gets even more crowded as competition grows and the march of streaming startups and other companies looking to get into the streaming business seems endless.
The show opened with a shrill, cacophonous screech of legions of teenage girls driven mad by visions of Luke Bryan’s ass shaking in their heads, but first they would have to fight through Eric Church and his prog rock extravaganza. It was fortuitous of the festival’s organizers to put Church on first, because the festival’s corporate-driven demo definitely wasn’t home field for Eric’s “Outsider” message. His set would be the first and last time the festival crowd would be regaled by anything that couldn’t be labeled as “formula,” though it did set the tone that the night would be a rock show and nothing but, and a country show in name only.
Following was Jake Owen who started off with his stalled, Cadillac Three-penned single “Days of Gold,” and later had the 10,000-head Frank Erwin Center crowd singing in unison to a “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” rap he broke into in the middle of his song “Barefoot Blue Jean Night.”
The quizzical Dan + Shay taking the stage was the best opportunity for the sold-out crowd to drain their bladders in anticipation of the headliners, as they witnessed one of the most forced anointment’s of a country music super duo the format has ever seen. Despite their slick presentation, the iHeartRadio festival crowd was in no mood to sit through songs they’d never heard before. Dan + Shay made the rookie mistake of taking their whip to the crowd too many times with their “Let’s hear you make some noise!” pleas that grew less and less effective through their abbreviated and generally boring set. It was just too early in their career arc for them to attempt to fill a slot like this amongst the other big names. Lady Antebellum fared much better with songs readily familiar to a crowd whose alpha and omega of music are defined by Top 40 country playlists.
As arguably the hottest band in “country” music, Florida Georgia Line was well-received by the capacity crowd. Like master assassins who can choose their poison, the duo could call on any number of current blockbuster radio hits to ingratiate the crowd to their pop rock cologne-spritzed and wallet chain-draped show. “Thank you for helping us change country music history,” is what Tyler Hubbard said leading into their rendition of the longest-running #1 in the history of country music, “Cruise”. It seemed appropriate that they hadn’t “made” history, but completely “changed” the perception of what country music is by moving it so far in the pop direction and integrating so many hip hop elements into the format that they now feel like regular country fare.
Florida Georgia Line was the moment the astounding sameness of country music’s top mainstream acts became palpable. Where the traditional “festival” setting is driven by diversity and discovery, the lack of surprise is what this crowd was looking for. Florida Georgia Line’s radio tracks are slick a well-produced, but their live show was a little jarring, with pitch issues and too much energy spent on emitting enthusiasm instead of delivering good vocal performances.
Hunter Hayes, though certainly not rising to be considered in any way a highlight, did offer something a little different than the other performers preceding him on stage. Though his songs that cast him in submissive roles to his female counterparts, and a song decrying bullying were gut-wrenchingly, and sometimes downright objectionably sentimental in nature, at least he was singing from the heart, and had a message to deliver beyond naming off a laundry list of countryisms. Nonetheless, his set came across as calculating, safe, and left the distinguishing music fan wanting. But it was different, and at this point in the presentation, that was enough to label it refreshing.
With Taylor Swift burning her iHeartRadio chit during the 2012 pop version of this festival in Las Vegas, Carrie Underwood was tapped to be the female country powerhouse of the event. In a lineup of entertainers, Carrie distinguished herself as a singer, but of course she ran through a condensed set of her top singles that left little room for anything truly country or truly refreshing. Great voice, ravishing legs, and good sense of dynamics made her one of the more engaging acts of the night though.
You could tell when Jason Aldean took the stage why even though radio might be smiling greater on an act like Florida Georgia Line, there’s definitely a difference between a seasoned headlining performer, and the young pups still finding their way in how to perform for a crowd. The music? Of course it was terrible, but Aldean had a command that was only matched on the night by Carrie Underwood. While the younger stars had to sweat out their stage presence through sheer energy, Aldean was an efficiency of movements, hitting all the notes and bringing home solid renditions of his most popular songs. Where some top mainstream performers you may simply look at quizzically of why someone could like what they were doing, despite the music, you understood why Aldean is considered one of the very top male performers in the country format right now.
Luke Bryan represented the other end of the spectrum. Though his set was diverse and had a few attempts at heartfelt, deep moments, his booty shakers were all about his moves on stage, and by the time the next verse came around you got poor pitch, and too much breath in the microphone from a tired performer. Ironically, during Bryan’s “Rain Is A Good Thing” was the very first time the entire night that a traditional instrument (besides a couple of mandolins buried in the mix and mostly for show) made an appearance, when a fiddle found its way out of the case. There was also a steel guitar on the backline, though it was more seen than heard.
Having seen the presentation of iHeartRadio’s Las Vegas festivals, the Austin installment looked dark, and difficult to get a sense of depth or perception for those watching at home. The Frank Erwin Center is a somewhat cavernous, dim space, despite the modest seating capacity. Unlike some newer arenas, it is more round instead of oval, not really making it conducive to stage shows where fans on the wings feel far away. The crowd seemed somewhat less engaged and enthusiastic than you would expect from a mainstream show, and even the people in the front rows seemed a little too far from the stage to facilitate the type of interaction that many mainstream performers are now used to on tour—slapping hands as they strut across stage and yell “Come on, put your hands up!” The risers didn’t reach out into the crowd, and the stage presentation seemed a little cramped and unimaginative. But other mainstream concert tropes like allowing the crowd to finish lines to songs, and the calling out of “What’s up Austin!” dozens of times—despite likely half the crowd not even being from Texas—certainly made a nauseating amount of appearances on the night.
Was the event a success? Since the goal wasn’t necessarily to make money or even show off country talent, but to raise awareness of the iHeartRadio streaming option among country fans, that question is probably best answered by Clear Channel. But the presentation was relatively smooth once it got started, they didn’t really fall behind time (remember the Green Day blowup at the last iHeart fest?), and the performers did their thing as expected. Both Clear Channel & CMT can sit back and evaluate how successful their attempt at cross company synergy was, and iHeartRadio got their product in front of a new segment of fans.
But the brave new world of music consumption has yet to find a true pecking order, and nobody knows whose streaming options will find their way to the top, or even survive. Clear Channel is betting big on iHeartRadio and country music, and we may look back at this festival as the moment iHeartRadio solidified its hold on the country consciousness, or as a needless gargantuan expenditure that eventually led to Clear Channel’s demise under a mountain of debt.
Time will tell.
After 2 people were killed, and 23 injured in a horrific incident on Red River St. in downtown Austin early Thursday morning during the annual South By Southwest gathering, it’s easy to overreact, and point fingers, and lay blame. In the aftermath of such events, we tend to lose sight of just how rare occurrences like this are, and that no matter how hard you plan for safety and implement measures to prevent such incidences, you are never going to entirely eliminate tragedy from the human equation. You can only try to mitigate it as best as you can, while hopefully not impinging on the personal freedoms of individuals.
But make no mistake about it, on Thursday morning, SXSW changed forever, as well as it should. Was the accident the result of some direct action or oversight of the City of Austin, the official SXSW organization, or even the overarching umbrella of official and non-official entities, events, and organizations that all come together under the SXSW moniker every March? Of course not. It was the fault of one man, and in the end, that is where the blame directly lies, and that fact should never be lost sight of as people ask “Why?” and “How can we prevent this from happening again?”
But SXSW, even without this big, headline-grabbing accident, is, and has been for over a half decade or more, an absolute, colossal failure of logistics, planning, implementation, and in dealing with the human element in any sort of rational, accommodating, or intuitive manner. SXSW as currently constructed is completely unfeasible. It is a nightmare for musicians, patrons, media, workers, organizations, and the entirety of a metropolitan corridor and the general region, including workers and residents that have absolutely nothing to do with the event. In fact the question we should be asking isn’t “How could this happen?” For anyone that has had the miserable experience of being part of SXSW in any capacity in recent years, the question would be “How could have something like this never happened before?”
SXSW is too many people and too many events, cloistered in a area with not enough space, parking, resources, or infrastructure, beset by abominable planning and poor execution. Frustration with SXSW has become so institutionalized, it is just as much of the experience for artists and patrons as is the music, movies, or new technologies themselves. The knowledge of SXSW as a nightmare experience is beyond anecdotal, it is effusive throughout the music and entertainment culture in America, to where people that never would even consider attending SXSW know just how bad people are treated to be a part of it, and find amusement at the native Austin archetype that complains about its growth and systemic problems.
And as more big names attending SXSW increase—like Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga who jumped on the SXSW bandwagon this year—and Austin’s own growth and infrastructure issues completely autonomous from SXSW continue to become a more significant part of the equation, there’s every reason to think that these problems will only get worse, and potentially, more incidents such as the one on 3/13 will happen again, even if they are on a smaller scale but more widespread, and simply blend into the event to where they never make headlines, as they have done in years past. There has always been issues with death, injuries, and accidents at SXSW. It’s just now they were concentrated as such that we couldn’t ignore them.
Nobody wants to be a part of SXSW. Talk to the bands and artists, talk to the labels and organizations, and they will tell you how much they hate the annual exercise of heading down to Austin. They all look at it as massive headache, and a misappropriation of resources. They attend the event out of some strange sense of obligation to the industry. It’s peer pressure, while the madness is fueled by the remarkable amount of capital being pumped into the event by corporate and independent sponsors who believe the SXSW experience can somehow afford their brand more exposure and recognition, when it truth the average SXSW patron is so harried by simply dealing with the people problems the event presents, they don’t have time to recognize who sponsored the stage their favorite band played on, or supplied them the flavored water they gulped down as they got pinballed around from one overcrowded event to another.
And exactly how many artists, bands, and movies does SXSW actually launch annually? And what is the percentage of those launches compared to the number of attendees and performances? To many of the artists that attend the event, no real meaningful growth will come from their difficult, and many times costly experience.
Fundamentally, the problem with SXSW is that nobody is big enough to control it. Because the official SXSW organization has been so non inclusive over the years, the unofficial segment of the festival is the fastest-growing portion. And since these non-official events and organizations are so disparate, and many times are founded purposely to be against the official SXSW organization, there’s no way to control them, or equate their impact on things such as traffic and commerce in planning. Meanwhile the City of Austin seems to be asleep at the wheel at engaging the problem full on to find meaningful, actionable solutions to the many problems SXSW creates for the city annually.
It almost seems like the SXSW organization and the city want the event to be madness, because without gates, people problems are the only way they can control the scope of the event or the amount of people attending it. But now two people have died, and many have been injured. Again, SXSW and the City of Austin were not at fault for a drunk driver in any way. But if the people at SXSW moved, instead of stayed cued up in endless lines, or if traffic flowed more freely throughout the area, and if parking were more accessible and frustrations more in check, the likelihood of accidents, and even fatalities, would decrease.
So what’s the solution? I don’t know. But we no longer have the right to ignore the problem.
This week in Austin, TX is one of the greatest confluences of talent that occurs annually, as stars of music and film converge on the Texas state capitol for festivities surrounding SXSW, or South by Southwest. Some people forget though that early March is also the time for Austin’s famous rodeo that features many big names in country music stopping in for performances, including Willie Nelson that graced the Austin rodeo stage Sunday night, and had a surprise band member with him incognito.
Actor, music lover, and armchair musician Johnny Depp, sporting a vest, round shades, a ripped canvas wide-brimmed hat, and his Danelectro guitar, sat in with Willie’s family band for the set Sunday night. He was simply introduced as “John,” and traded licks with Willie Nelson’s son Lukas Nelson who was also sitting in with the band. Johnny played songs like “Good Hearted Woman” and “On The Road Again,” with most of the crowd unbeknownst who that was on the right of the stage.
As a guitar player, Johnny Depp is no slouch. He’s buddies with The Pogues frontman Shane MacGowan and appears on the singer’s first solo record. Depp also appears on numerous songs from Oasis, and was a member of the band ‘P’ that featured members of The Butthole Surfers, The Sex Pistols, and Red Hot Chili Peppers. He’s also appeared many times in movies and video playing guitar, contributed to many other songs and albums, and used to own The Viper Room music venue in L.A where Johnny Cash kicked off his American Recordings era.
Pictures provided by Almost Out Of Gas.
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One of the questions that comes up often in country music is “Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes?” There’s a lot of industry country stars that would love to tell you they’re the ones, and they record songs, print up merch, and proselytize at every turn for their candidacy to fill in for the lost country greats. But beyond the glitz and the market-driven image campaigns that surround some of mainstream country’s “New Outlaws” is an artist like Whitey Morgan and his band The 78′s—a no frills, hard-charging honky tonk outfit that tours more than anyone and brings the twang and Outlaw bass beat to country night in and night out, garnering a deep and loyal grassroots following.
But it has been around three and a half years since Whitey Morgan released a record, and rumors of an unreleased live album have been out there for the better part of two. Whitey has recently been hanging around Texas, playing some shows and getting ready to make an appearance at Dale Watson’s inaugural Ameripolitan Awards show on Tuesday, February 18th, and I sat down with him before a Friday night show at The Rattle Inn in west Austin to catch up, and ask him the question Saving Country Music has been swamped with from readers over the last few months.
People ask me this all the time and so I’ll ask you: What can you tell us about new music from Whitey Morgan?
There’s definitely been some label things happening. I’m actually off Bloodshot [Records] now. That was of my doing. I’m a do-it-yourself kind of dude. I just felt like I can do all of this on my own. The next record is going to be huge. I bust my ass out on the road like almost no other band does, and everything I have is from that. It was just time for me to do something on my own and not give away too much of my money to someone who maybe wasn’t holding up their end of the deal. I’m sure they’ll argue with you on that, but that’s a record label. I have a great booking agent now and great management. I can release a record tomorrow, on my own. I have the distribution outside of a label, I have everything I need. So what do I need a label for?
What’s the story of this live album that’s been swirling out there for a while?
The live album has been done for a year and a half. That was part of the Bloodshot thing. As soon as the live album got finished and I gave it to them is when the talk started from my end that I didn’t want to be on the label any longer. Understandably, they recoiled and said “we’re not going to really release this until we resolve whatever is going to happen in this relationship first.” It will come out when it comes out, but I’ve already forgotten about it.
So a new album is in the works?
We just recorded in El Paso for five days at an unbelievable studio with an killer producer. We got three songs just about in the bag, and we’ll be back in May for seven or eight days, and try to finish up the rest of it. It’s a place called The Sonic Ranch. It’s like no other studio I’ve ever been in or even heard about. They have three live rooms and three control rooms, all on a 3,000-acre property. They have accommodations for I think up to 30 or 40 people in different haciendas. They have a staff that does your laundry and cooks every meal for you. My management is friends with the owners. I hate the studio, but I didn’t hate this studio. I didn’t feel like I was in this studio because I could leave and walk out the studio and be forty feet to my front door and it’s just me; I have my own little hotel room right there. Most studios you can’t do that. You’re stuck in there. You can go out to the parking lot and sit in the van.
Creativity is squashed by studios that don’t have that kind of environment. I almost don’t want to tell anyone about it because I don’t need any more musicians recording there than there already are. And the equipment is unreal. Not just the recording equipment, they have tele’s galore, amps, and everything. It’s unreal. Anything you want, they have it. And it’s all because a guy that has money is passionate about music and recording. To him, it’s the ultimate dream to have musicians come hang out at his place. He’s a great dude.
I’m excited. One of the songs we recorded is an old Bobby Bare tune called “That’s How I Got To Memphis”. We put that one down and I’m really excited about that tune. It’s a little different than my kind of sound. It’s kind of got that early 80′s era sound; it’s got that minor chord in there. It’s slick. I’m trying to move on without moving too far. I know what everybody wants, they want another classic, Waylon-ish sounding album. This one’s going to be a little different, but it’s not going to be that different. We’re doing a Waylon song. I’m not going to say what Waylon song we’re doing, because I don’t think anyone’s ever covered it so I’ll keep my mouth shut on that one. But that was another song we recorded and it’s probably the best thing I’ve ever recorded in my life. The three songs are already leaps and bounds better than the last two albums I did.
The plan is we’re probably going to do an EP, maybe 7 songs. The plan is just to record as much as we can over the next few years. Even if it’s not albums, put out a 7-inch here and there, digitally release two songs. Just keep it going. Never a six month stretch without new songs. And now that I’ve got the studio I want to go to, I can’t wait to just start putting music out, now that I’m able to do it legally.
Who is the producer?
His name is Ryan Hewitt. He’s one of those guys who’s been in a lot of sessions where he was either mixing or engineering or co-producing. He mixed a lot of the Johnny Cash stuff with Rick Rubin, he did The Avett Brothers last three albums. I’ve only ever produced my shit myself. Maybe five years ago I would have been more stubborn. But now, when he’d open his mouth about something, instead of just automatically being like “No, it’s got to be my way,” I think about it from someone else’s point of view and most of the time he’s right. We worked really well together.
How are The 78′s treating you?
The last time I saw you I said that was the best band I ever had. It’s even better now. The band right now, we all get along like brothers on stage and off and that’s never happened in the history of my band. Right now, every night I’m smiling, I’m having a good time. It’s been a while. I’m trying to live a little better. But when we went into the studio my anxiety was through the roof because it’s been a while and I only had a few songs prepared really. And it just jelled.
So you feel like things are going in the right direction. Can you see it in the crowds?
Oh yeah. We’re doubling, tripling, quadrupling every show we play. The internet stuff’s been going better. Everything’s been going better. I never go into a show and it’s disappointing. It’s the management and the booking, but really it’s all of it together. The fucking band is good. The old days, we’d be touring forever but it was a half-assed band. Like I’d have a fill-in drummer for eight shows. And the last year and a half to two years it’s been a fucking good band. I would go see this band.
You played Dale Watson’s new bar down in San Antonio recently. How was that?
Big T’s Roadhouse. It’s cool man, its like Little Ginny’s Longhorn Saloon, but out in the middle of nowhere. It’s even white and red, just like Little Ginny’s. About the same-sized joint. We played it on Sunday; it was Chicken Shit Bingo. It was cool, really cool.
I want to know about your guitar.
It was brand new in 2001 I believe. But it was black with white binding. I loved it, but I always wanted a tobacco burst Tele. That’s the look I always love is tobacco burst anything. So I stripped it down, repainted it, and the “WM” I painted it on there by taking some pin striping, masking it, and spraying it. Once the original frets wore out, instead of getting a fret job, I just bought a new neck. That’s the third neck I’ve had on it. It’s the U-shaped, big baseball bat neck, and it’s got new Grover tuners on it. I love it. I go to these vintage shops and pick up these 70′s tele’s and I’m like, “Oh this thing is so rad,” and then I play it and I say, “Mine plays better” because I made it exactly how I want it to play. I ended up using mine in the studio even though they had like six unbelievable tele’s there from the 60′s and 70′s.
The 78′s are Brett Robinson – Pedal Steel, Tony Dicello – Drums, Benny James Vermeylen – Guitar and Backing Vocal, and Alex Lyon – Bass.
Country music has lost one of the most tasteful lead guitar players to ever fill a break. Will Indian, lead guitarist for country legend James Hand, as well as the guitarist for The Nortons, The Cornell Hurd Band, and many others, has passed after contracting a fatal infection last month. Will suffered from Hepatitis C. He died Wednesday night (1-8-14) according to his family.
Will Indian was the defining element of the James Hand sound, and so many other bands and artists that were fortunate to have him lend his guitar playing to them over the years. He was not a flashy or fast guitar player, but his taste was impeccable and unparalleled, and his use and appreciation for space, tone, and subtly in his playing is what won him wide appreciation amongst his peers. Indian toured the country and world with James Hand and others, and was a staple of legendary Austin venues like The Broken Spoke, the Saxon Pub, and Austin’s hottest new venue, The White Horse. In recent years, his illness kept him from playing on the road, but he remained a fixture of Austin clubs.
Friends, fans, and fellow musicians threw a benefit for Will in July 21st of 2013 at the Saxon Pub, to help with the cost of his Hepatitis C treatments; a disease he had battled for over 37 years. James Hand, The Rhythm Rats, The Nortons, and many other acts played the benefit. In an interview with the Austin Chronicle before the benefit, Indian led on to the severity of his condition, but had hope he would recover.
I’ve tried the cures, but none have worked for me. I now have cirrhosis that was complicated by a recent pulmonary embolism in my right lung. I have had to cut back on gigs but have Wednesday Happy Hours at the White Horse with the Nortons. I am on a liver transplant list at the Methodist Hospital in Houston. I am on a maintenance program with medications that keep me stable.
It feels great and humbling to have the support from the friends I have made and people who are fans that tell me how much my music has meant to them. I am starting to archive my musical history of television, recordings, and photographs for an upcoming webpage.
Will Indian also was a guitar teacher, and worked with the schools in Dripping Springs just outside of Austin where he lived. His most recent work can be heard on the recent Jame Hand record Mighty Lonesome Man and Cornell Hurd’s Drop In On My Dream.
‚ÄúI subscribe to the idea that music is a gift to share.‚ÄĚ — Will Indian
Today it was announced that Austin, TX would be the site for iHeartRadio’s first ever dedicated country music festival, transpiring at Austin’s Frank Erwin Center on March 29th, with a list of top tier headliner talent including Eric Church, Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean, Florida Georgia Line, Lady Antebellum, Carrie Underwood, Jake Owen, Hunter Hayes, and others to be announced. iHeart is the online radio streaming arm of American radio monolith Clear Channel, and rising Clear Channel “country” personality Bobby Bones, who got his Clear Channel start on Austin’s pop station, will serve as host.
There is so much that is ill-conceived about this, I’m not sure where to start. iHeart has been throwing “festivals” for a while now, but their traditional home has been Las Vegas. Clearly iHeart wanted to find an alternative to the obvious selection of Nashville, where they would have to compete with much more well-established country events clogging the civic calendar. But throwing a corporate country event in Austin, especially at that time of the year will be about as popular in Austin as running over a bicyclist in your Hummer.
About all this festival will be good for when it comes to the Austin populous will be as a curiosity for hipsters to oogle at through their Sally Jessy Raphael glasses as they ride their fixie bikes past the spectacle, sipping on raw food smoothies on their way to brainstorming sessions devising ways to defund Monsanto by setting up micro loans to African women and targeted eco-terrorism strikes.
The general Austin, TX population has so little interest in this iHeartRadio lineup,¬†it’s laughable that iHeart can’t even be perceptive enough to add even one or two local names to help dull the pain of such an obviously imported corporate country bill. Kudos to whoever in the local Austin government conned iHeart into thinking that Austin’s east downtown corridor is a destination spot for people who are willing to travel hundreds of miles to hear Jason Aldean sing “1994.” Instead of the garish finery of the Las Vegas strip, Luke Bryan and Florida Georgia Line fans can look forward to legions of homeless peddlers clogging their walking path, an army of construction cranes piercing the skyline in their headlong effort to erect an empire of prefabricated McCondo monstrosities, the 3rd worst traffic snarl in the United States of America, and crumbling fair trade coffee shops oozing with unbathed, deadlocked career students preaching that 9/11 was a conspiracy.
The worst part about iHeartRadio’s country festival might be the timing. Despite whatever best efforts they implement in regards to promotion, locally the event will be dwarfed by South by Southwest the week before, boasting thousands of free concerts, showcasing both local and independent talent, and big national names. South by Southwest is arguably one of the biggest music festivals in the entire world in regards to breadth and the amount of performances that transpire all across Austin over a 5 day period.
And don’t forget that Rodeo Austin also happens the week before, and is featuring its own lineup of big names, including Loretta Lynn, Dustin Lynch, Thompson Square, Chris Young, Josh Turner, Willie Nelson, Eli Young Band, Lee Brice, Scotty McCreery, and Dwight Yoakam. There’s already legions of Austinites that provision up when March comes and never leave the homes because of the nightmare South by Southwest and Rodeo Austin bring to their fair city. The idea that they’ll peek their head out and head downtown just because Hunter Hayes is finally making his way to Austin is quite ripe.
So will the iHeartRadio Country Festival be a colossal failure? Of course not, because they have the backing of the biggest corporate country network in the world to help promote it. Pliable corporate country music fans from all across the country will be more than happy to burn vacation time to see their favorite Budweiser and designer jeans sponsors in one place, edifying them with the finest of Music Row’s formulaic pap filtered through Auto-tuners.
Stock up on cans of Axe Body Spray and rape kits Austin, you’ll need ‘em.
When it comes to the business of saving country music, many villains get presented by fans as the face of the erosion of country’s roots, values, and quality; usually huge country music stars like Garth Brooks or Taylor Swift.¬† But behind-the-scenes there are other events, and other individuals that have just as much, if not more of a fundamental impact on country music than any single artist or band.
One of these such events was the Telecommunications Act of 1996 that was signed into law by then President Clinton, which for the first time allowed cross media ownership, meaning multiple media businesses like newspapers, and television and radio stations could be owned by a single person or corporation in the same market. The law was meant to deregulate the media business and spurn more competition, despite the concerns raised that the move would see the rise of big media giants and the lessening of local programming.
Within radio, these easing of the rules had a massive impact on radio station ownership. In 1996 when the Telecommunications Act first passed, Clear Channel, the largest radio station owner in the country, had a roster of 173 radio stations. In 2003 the FCC eased the ownership regulations for local radio stations even further, and by 2004, Clear Channel owned over 1,200 stations. In fact Clear Channel grew so quickly, the company incurred massive debt, and ended up going through a restructuring between 2006 to 2008 that included selling some of its stations, to where now Clear Channel owns around 850 stations total.
Since its restructuring as a private company, Clear Channel’s goal has been centralizing and nationalizing programming. The idea is instead of paying one DJ at each country station in the US for example, you can pay one DJ who can then be syndicated to all the country stations owned by the same company. Though Clear Channel’s station ownership has stayed steady, and even slowly increased in the last few years, they’ve been able to slash employees as they slowly implement a nationalized DJ roster. In January of 2009, Clear Channel laid off roughly 1,500 employees, and by May of 2009, that number had grown to 2,440 positions eliminated. Then in October of 2011, even more local positions were slashed, but the exact numbers have never been disclosed.
Then earlier this month, Clear Channel announced a partnership with CMT to create national country music programming to be distributed across 125 country radio stations, as well as some digital and television platforms. The move is meant to match a similar national syndicated format created by the second-biggest radio provider in the United States, Cumulus Media, who launched the NASH-FM national country network on 70 separate radio stations earlier this year. The deal means more programming will be created on a national level, and distributed to local stations. Though Clear Channel says the new deal will be good for local radio stations because it will give them access to national-caliber talent and programming through their¬†syndicated network that local stations would otherwise not have access to, the move continues the trend for radio to lose its local and regional flavor in favor of programming catering to a national audience.
At the forefront of Clear Channel’s country radio ideas is a DJ named Bobby Bones. Originally from Arkansas, Bobby started with Clear Channel as a local DJ in Austin, TX for the Top 40 pop station 96.7 KISS FM, with his Bobby Bones Show eventually being syndicated to a few other regional markets. Though Bobby had big offers to move to the West Coast, he stayed in Austin and became a local favorite, winning “Best Radio Personality” by the Austin Music Awards from 2004-2008.
Earlier this year, Clear Channel finally convinced Bobby to move to Nashville, and to make the switch from Top 40 radio to country. Bobby replaced the legendary country DJ Gerry House at WSIX in Nashville who retired in 2010, though some hypothesize that Gerry, like many other DJ’s on Clear Channel stations, was forced out. Gerry was also a songwriter, and country journalist Chet Flippo once said about Gerry that he was the “only reason I still listen to any mainstream country radio.”
Moving from pop to country, and replacing Gerry House, Bobby Bones symbolizes the changing of the guard on country radio to say the least. Bobby Bones doesn’t look country, doesn’t sound country, says he doesn’t own a cowboy hat or a belt buckle, but he reaches more country listeners than any other country music DJ.
The Bobby Bones Show started on the WSIX flagship station being syndicated to 15 other stations across the country, and in less than a year is already up to a total of 50 stations. With Clear Channel’s new syndicated country radio network coming, these numbers could dramatically increase, and Bobby Bones could cross over into television—something he has already started to do, doing spots at big awards shows, and once guest hosting on Live with Regis & Kelly in 2011. Along with his weekday show, Bobby Bones also does at weekend syndicated show, Country Top 30 with Bobby Bones. He also does a syndicated Fox Sports Radio weekend show with tennis player and friend Andy Roddick.
Bobby Bones is not your normal DJ. He doesn’t have your stereotypical DJ voice, and his quirky, yet honest personality is what endears him both to listeners, and to country artists who seem more than willing to lend their name to his show and stop by for interviews. Taylor Swift, Tim McGraw, Kellie Pickler, Luke Bryan, Lady Antebellum, and many more have appeared live on The Bobby Bones Show, and it is now the highest rated radio show in Nashville.
As a recent CBS feature points out, Bobby comes from very humble beginnings in Arkansas, from a very stereotypical “country” upbringing where his dad left him and his mom was a drug addict, being raised by his grandmother for part of the time. Bobby doesn’t drink or use drugs, and has a very hip, Austin-esque personality while still coming across as genuine to his listeners. Many old-school country fans and older radio listeners hate him. But with his current position at WSIX and Clear Channel’s big nationally-focused plan for country radio, Bobby Bones isn’t just poised to become the Gerry House of the next generation, he’s poised to become the biggest DJ in the history of country music.
Unless you’re one of those people who finds themselves so overwhelmed every year with the Christmas spirit that it’s a tough choice what Christmas sweater to wear, the annual dirge of Christmas movie releases is enough to turn your stomach like a glass of expired eggnog. But there is one movie out this year that may be worth your time, if for no other reason than the cast is built around country music royalty. Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Lyle Lovett, Harry Connick Jr, and Connie Britton from ABC’s TV drama Nashville make up the primary cast of When Angels Sing, based off a novel of the same name released in 1999 by Turk Pipkin.
The film stars Harry Connick, Jr. as a history professor who as a child loved Christmas, but after a tragic accident, grew to hate the holiday. As a grown up, he still can’t find the joy of Christmas, but as his son faces a tragedy, he rekindles his holiday spirit again. He gets a push in the right direction after the lease comes due on his current home and he meets a man named Nick (Willie Nelson) who sells him a house at half price, but only if he will keep up the traditions of the house and neighborhood, including maintaining the house as the centerpiece of the neighborhood’s Christmas celebration.
Kris Kristofferson plays Harry Connick Jr.’s father, Connie Britton plays Connick’s wife, and Lyle Lovett plays one of the neighbors. The film also includes cameos from female Texas country 4-piece The Trishas, Texas swing legend Ray Benson, Dale Watson, Sarah Hickman, Marcia Ball, Guy Forsyth, Joel Guzman, Kat Edmonson, Miss Lavelle , Eloise DeJoria, and others.
When Angels Sing, which is based in the Austin area, first debuted as part of the South By Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival in Austin on March 10th. “We already had a great start with Harry and Willie and Kris, so I told our casting director ‘let’s put everybody who’s a musician in the movie’,” director Tim McCanlies told Billboard.
Music wasn’t a part of the original script, but McCanlies saw a unique opportunity with so much music talent on the set to make it a seminal part of the movie. Some of the musical performances include Kris Kristofferson singing Willie Nelson’s “Pretty Paper,” and an original duet written by Willie and Harry Connick Jr. that plays over the ending credits. Each song in the movie was filmed with full performances, so a soundtrack for the movie is also a possibility.
Information on the distribution of When Angels Sing remains sketchy, but it received a very limited release to select theaters on Novemeber 1st, and is reportedly available on demand through Direc TV. Check back as more information on distribution becomes available.
You can watch more clips and behind-the-scenes interviews from the film on Fandango.
Best of luck pigeon-holing Leo Rondeau, the man or his music. The North Dakota-born, Austin, TX-based singer songwriter boasts about as many influences and textures as a patch quilt of found fabrics. A distinctly Italian first name, a last name that describes a form of old French poetry, and enough Native blood in him to be able to say in one song on his latest album Take It And Break It that his ancestors “fought the white man,” Rondeau speaks for many voices of the American experience. He’ll throw out a Cajun tune complete with accordion, and transition from rock to folk without a blink. But at his core is a country music songwriter in the legendary Austin mold, wowing you with his ease at turning a phrase and illuminating emotion and perspective in his songs.
For years Leo could be seen holding down a residence at Austin’s famed “Hole In The Wall” venue, and playing his part in a defiant scene of independent-minded country musicians, some of which appear on Take It And Break It like Jim Stringer, Brennen Leigh, and Beth Chrisman of The Carper Family. These artists both create a support network, and push each other stylistically. And as a respected songwriter, Rondeau songs have been recorded by folks like The Carper Family and Mike and the Moonpies.
Take It And Break It affords nine new original tracks from Rondeau, and is produced by R.S. Field who has previously worked with folks like Billy Joe Shaver and Hayes Carll, and produced Justin Townes Earle’s first two LP’s.
In Rondeau’s “Here’s My Heart,” he reveals the dichotomy inherent in many males—one of displaying a bellicose, bawdy front to the world, while hiding an inherently fragile romantic state beneath. “Bound To Be A Winner” has one of the most finely-crafted choruses you will find, reminding you of Tom Petty in his prime in its distinctly American candor and tone. “When It Was Around” also speaks to Petty in its driving beat and infectiousness.
“Blackjack Davey Revisited” is pure poetry from Rondeau. Its wit is delivered with dizzying rapidity, while the melody takes you right to the time and place of its sad story. “Alligator Man” gives Take It And Break It a bit of a spicy Cajun kick, while the epic “Whaler’s Tale” finishes out the album in an immersive audio experience. For years I’ve believed that Cajun music sits right on the edge of a big revival, just like we’ve seen recently in other sectors of the roots world. Rondeau could be an artist who has just enough Cajun texture mixed with country and rock sensibilities to benefit from that wave if it ever occurs.
But even if it doesn’t, Leo Rondeau is a songwriting lifer who you sense takes a wide, patient perspective, and has a belief in the power of song to outlast trends, obscurity, or even a song’s original creator when it is approached with heart. Rondeau and Take It And Break It are probably not for everyone. There was a slight lack of presence on this album that I found hard to pin down or explain that may hold it at arm’s length from some listeners. But this album has a great spirit and is a worthy receptacle for these original songs that now get to go out into the world and find inviting hearts.
1 1/2 of 2 guns up.
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It’s not that JD McPherson does anything different than many other artists have done before him. It’s just that he does it better.
Good music will always be relevant, and JD McPherson is living proof of this. A strict revivalist of the 1950′s rock & roll blues, his music has branched out and burrowed into the consciousness of many folks not regularly susceptible to the pull of a straight-laced throwback rock & roll show. Rockabilly fans appreciate his style, though his rockabilly influences are slight. Traditional country fans appreciate his classic taste, but he’s not really country. Blues fans appreciate his approach, but it still remains more rock & roll than blues. Punk fans love his energy, but he’s in no way a punk hybrid or derivative. And anyone with a pulse can’t help but be rocked when JD rears back and lets his powerful voice fly.
JD could very easily have gone in the punk-infused or rockabilly direction, and this may have been an easier step to music success to endear himself to an established scene. But this is where JD McPherson separates himself–by being a strict revivalist of the mid-century vibe and resisting all temptations to fall into the rage in music these days of mixing it all together. By keeping it pure, McPherson appeals to an even wider audience and becomes an even bigger bridge across musical differences than many genre benders could ever be.
On Saturday night 3-2-13, JD McPherson held forth at Antone’s in California-fying west Austin to a packed house house of folks whose Saturday night garb proved McPherson’s wide and diverse appeal. Opening the show was the incomparable James “Slim” Hand, promoting his recent release Mighty Lonesome Man, with Beth Chrisman of The Carper Family joining him on fiddle. The second act of the night was The Bellfuries who had been touring with McPherson for 5 days previous. Bellfuries frontman Joey Simeone wrote the song “Your Love (All That I’m Missing)” from McPherson’s album Signs & Signifiers, and the two had a special moment in the night as they shared the song on stage.
Without the showmanship of rockabilly or the visceral appeal of punk, JD McPherson relies on dynamics and adroit, dexterous players to make a more well-rounded sound devoid of trend or fashion. You never know where a JD McPherson song is going to take you. It could start off slow and stay there, or start slow and end out-of-control. At the same time there’s always a steadiness, a heartbeat that keeps each song grounded.
Many of JD’s songs could speed up so easily. They want to so badly, and by not doing so they create a tension in the music that enhances the energy level and experience. Though JD is commonly compared to Little Richard and Fats Domino, and more modern-day comparison would be the recently-deceased Nick Curran, who JD’s drummer was wearing a shirt of on the night. Nick’s unique gift was his ability to bring uncontrolled excitement to his music, and the wild-eyed approach and tempo is what appealed to people. JD McPherson’s energy–though certainly still evident to the naked eye and ear–resides just below the surface and emits a more steady, sustainable experience. It is akin to the difference between enjoyment and fulfillment.
JD McPherson’s band is world class. A spot behind McPherson must be one of the most coveted spots in the retro rock & roll world. It is capped by bass player, collaborator, and producer Jimmy Sutton, who took a couple of opportunities to lead the band himself. Behind every good #1 is a #2, and that is what Jimmy Sutton is to JD McPherson.
Watching JD McPherson live, you can tell why Rounder Records picked up his album Signs & Signifiers for re-release. You can tell why he was invited to play Letterman, Pickathon, and Bonnaroo. His is the rising star of the pure, rock & roll revivalists, and a treat to experience live.
Two guns up.
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In 1999, a true underground in country music was coming into form. Neo-traditionalists and country punks moved into lower Broadway in Nashville, revitalizing the area and establishing a home base for young, like-minded musicians offering up an alternative to whatever was going on a mile away on Music Row. BR549‘s residency at Robert’s Western World was in full swing, and Layla’s Bluegrass Inn was up and running with bands like Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers and Hillbilly Casino.
Then the grandson of Hank Williams put out a debut album with a neo-traditional style that featured three songs from an Austin, TX artist named Wayne “The Train” Hancock, taking the country music underground transcontinental. Along with Dale Watson, another superb Austin, TX performer, this three-headed monster started rattling the cage of the country music world, gnashing their teeth at Nashville and name dropping each other in songs and on stage.
Amongst all the bustle and big names in 1999, another superlative Austin talent released a debut album a little more quietly. The idea that there’s an amazing, world-class music talent on every corner of Austin, TX is not a myth, and Roger Wallace is a testament to that. But what many of Austin’s legendary local artists don’t have that Roger Wallace does is that one album, that one work that stands out from the crowd and withstands the test of time.
Named for the semi-famous Austin apartment complex he was living in at the time, Hillbilly Heights is a timeless treasure of country music. This album could be put out today, or in 1975, and its music would still sound just as fresh and engaging and speak to everyday lives as it did in 1999. If space aliens came down and asked me to choose one album that represented country music, after shitting myself from the shock of being accosted by aliens, I very well may hand them over a copy of Hillbilly Heights, worried that a Hank Williams album from the 50′s may be too classic for their taste, or a more modern album too pop.
But like so many of these Austin country music stars, self-promotion and the world outside of the Austin corridor is an afterthought with Roger, and that is how Hillbilly Heights and Roger have remained obscure to so many outside of Texas. A check of Roger’s website shows he hasn’t updated his show dates since George W. has his legs propped up in Oval Office. Austin becomes so comfortable for many musicians, it’s hard for them to leave or focus their energy elsewhere.
Hillbilly Heights is an album of instant classics. Populated with 9 Wallace originals and a smart batch of covers, it never slips up, never reveals a bad moment, it just keeps giving pure classic country gold. The formula for making good classic country these days is to get it to sound like the old stuff, yet to bring fresh themes and approaches to the songs. That’s easier said than done, but exactly what Roger Wallace does, like with the song “Don’t Nobody Love Me (Like My Baby)” that starts out as a good love song, but then reveals itself to be an even greater murder ballad.
I wouldn’t call Roger’s voice “big”, but what do all the ladies tell us? Roger’s size doesn’t matter because of how he uses it, with an acute sense of inflection and timing in his pentameter to squeeze the ultimate amount of pain and suffering out of his stories. And like Roger displays in his original “Nobody But Me”, he can go way up there in the register to really bring out the sorrow in a song. Writing songs that compliment your vocal strengths is something most artists struggle with. This is one of Roger’s greatest assets. Even in 1999, Roger was carrying an aged pain in his voice well beyond his years, yet he delivers it with a smoothness and confidence.
The late 90′s, early 2000′s here ten years later feel like the golden-era of the classic country resurgence, with some fans of Hank3 wishing he’d go back in that era, with Wayne Hancock fans finally wearing out their copies of Thunderstorms & Neon Signs, Dale Watson never reaching the same energy of Live in London again, and BR549 long since defunct. If you wish you could go back in time and re-live those same feelings or find out what you missed, Roger Wallace and Hillbilly Heights is where to start.
Today Roger Wallace can be seen on virtually any night of the week in Austin, plying his craft at legendary venues like The Continental Club, The Broken Spoke, and Ginny’s Little Longhorn, the same haunts Dale Watson keeps residence at when he’s in town as well. So why doesn’t he receive the same recognition as Dale and others nationally? One can’t say, but one listen to Hillbilly Heights will tell you that Roger Wallace is world class.
Two Guns Up!
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On Friday night (5-4-12) we attended a show of reigning Saving Country Music Artist of the Year Justin Townes Earle at Antone’s in Austin, TX’s increasingly-crowded west downtown district. The Bloodshot Records-signed son of Steve Earle was in town in support of his latest record Nothing’s Gonna Change The Way You Feel About Me Now, with a full band behind him for one of the first times on tour.
Opening support was given by Tristen, an indie rocker who was sporting a new short haircut (these things are important to the frau I have found) that was punctuated by an eternal tress clogging her vision on one side. She dazzled the crowd with high-charged and catchy original indie-rock compositions in a fun show, punctuated by her ending number where she shirked her electric guitar and business blazer to dance around the stage in her very short green sequined mini shorts, gesticulating the salient points of her song.
Tristen captures the retro feel of the best of Brit rock and 80′s glam, reminding us that pop was not always such an awful alternative to people who appreciated good music. Her performance left you wanting to check out her music further, which in the end is the perfect goal of any opening artist. She’s got a little Natalie Merchant in her (see Tristan from SXSW).
For the last few years Justin Townes Earle’s touring party featured Josh Hedley on fiddle, whose since moved on to work with Jonny Corndawg, and Bryn Davies, the beautiful upright bass player who is now part of Jack White’s all female band amongst other projects. There’s no drama behind the name changes. With the Memphis approach to the new material, fiddle was not needed, and when talking to new bass player Vince Ilgan, he said that Bryn was taking some time off to “have his baby.” John Radford also joined them on drums, and Paul Niehaus (Calexico) was on lead guitar and Sho-Bud pedal steel.
As first and foremost a singer-songwriter, and an elite one of the modern era at that, Justin Townes Earle started the set off solo, and on three other occasions stayed on stage while the band took a break. Justin is always at his best when he’s alone. Backing players are simply there for texture. The full sound complimented the new material well, which was showcased heavily in his set. Now on his 4th full-length release, he’s come to the point in his touring life where set list decisions are difficult. At one point a request was shouted out from the crowd. “I know what I’m doing,” Justin responded to the delight of the audience. “We’ve thought this all out very carefully.”
As one of the first dates on his national tour, this was a test run for Justin’s plan. The band chemistry was good, but you could tell it was still early in the development. After songs, the band would exchange glances, looking pleased and almost surprised that what they had been practicing was well-received by a crowd that went from rowdy at times to completely hushed from the respect Justin can command. It was a sold out show, with a strange mix of patrons that ranged from preppy college kids, rough-edged typical Bloodshot Records fans, to elder NPR listeners grumbling about no seating being provided.
Justin Townes Earle looked the healthiest I have ever seen him. Strong, alert and in the moment, wearing a paperboy’s hat with long sideburns creeping over his ears, and a vest over a long baby blue shirt with the sleeves rolled up showcasing his arm tattoos. A bead of sweat formed across his brow early on this hot and humid Texas evening; the moisture causing havoc with the guitar tuning marking the night’s only setback.
Along with most of the material from the new album, Justin played “My Starter Won’t Start” in his signature and unique guitar style borrowed partly from blues finger picking and and partly from clawhammer banjo, as well as “Mama’s Eyes” after unleashing an unveiled shot at his dad for not being around back when. “I may put my daddy in a home, but I’d never put my momma in a home, shit. She was the one that raised me.” He also featured the train-inspired “Halfway to Jackson”, the “Can’t Hardly Wait” Replacements cover, and the gospel-esque “Harlem River Blues” amongst others.
It was going to be impossible for Justin to eclipse or even match the feat of his last Austin show that I have since deemed one of the best shows I’ve ever seen live, and that is okay. The venue, the crowd which was noticeably younger than previous shows, the strength of material among other factors felt a little like challenges to overcome for Justin in comparison to previous performances, but he presented himself well, as he continues to make the case for himself as one of our generation’s premier songwriters and solo performers. Justin feels mere steps away from graduating to a theater circuit, which would probably be a better fit for his music and approach and the crowd it attracts. As would a wider audience, because that is what his music deserves.
Two guns up!
Today it was announced that a new statue of Willie Nelson will be erected in Austin, TX, commemorating the country music legend whose career now spans over 50 years. The bronze statue is a gift from the not-for-profit organization Capitol Area Statues. It stands 8-feet tall and weighs 1 ton, at a cost of about $300,000. It was created by sculptor Clint Shields, who told The Rolling Stone he had a difficult task of making sure he represented all the eras of Willie, from the Outlaw of the 70′s, to the face of Farm Aid in the 80′s, to today.
The statue will sit at the base of the stairs to ACL Live’s Moody Theater where Austin City Limits is taped, at the W Austin Hotel downtown. The statue was initially unveiled to a small group in Austin on November 14th (see image of statue), but the public unveiling will happen the same day Willie Nelson and many other artists are scheduled to perform at the “We Walk The Line” tribute commemorating Johnny Cash’s 80th birthday on April 20th, aka 4/20. The statue will also officially be unveiled at 4:20 PM “as a nod to the country star’s reputation as a stoner.”
As Saving Country Music pointed out last August, asking if Willie Nelson was becoming a “pot punchline”:
Willie Nelson is an American treasure, one of the worlds greatest pacifists, an advocate for farmers, biofuels, and countless other causes, as well as being one of the most revered living American artists, and one of the greatest country music legends of all time. His album Red Headed Stranger is disputably the greatest, most important country album ever. But as time goes on, what Willie seems to be best known for is a guy who happens to smoke pot.
…what I am concerned with is that Willie‚Äôs weed identity is trumping, if not marginalizing the other accomplishments of one of our country‚Äôs elder statesmen, including his marijuana advocacy work…If marijuana was legal, it would simply be a footnote to Willie‚Äôs legacy, like a baseball player‚Äôs favorite ice cream.
The 4/20 unveiling of the Willie Nelson statue happens to be a convenient date when Willie and other music dignitaries will already be in attendance at the Moody Theater, but unveiling it right at 4:20 PM reinforces what Willie Nelson’s legacy is becoming in the eyes of popular culture.
Statue creator Clint Shields said that while creating the likeness, he was concerned about the statue’s impact “especially a younger generation (that) grew fond of him during his more mature years.” Willie Nelson’s songs have long since left radio. He can’t be found on country awards shows. There’s no Willie Nelson videos on MTV or CMT. The way most of the younger generation and popular culture interface with Willie Nelson is through TMZ stories about his marijuana arrests, collaborations with Snoop Dogg on stoner songs, and stories like The Rolling Stone article above that mentions little about his music or other accomplishments.
Willie Nelson’s music, his legendary albums like Red Headed Stranger, Wanted: The Outlaws, and Stardust all constitute his musical legacy. His work with Farm Aid, and for biofeuls, world peace, environmentalism, and marijuana advocacy constitute his world legacy. Willie’s pot legacy is only his pop legacy, irrelevant in the face of such a reverent and inspiring life of work. To perpetuate a typecasting of Willie Nelson in the frame of an ironic joke at such a memorable moment as the unveiling of an eternal tribute seems like an unnecessary reduction of his legacy.
Some may want to commemorate Willie Nelson’s “reputation as a stoner”, but I choose to remember him as so much more, like his reputation as a world-class musician, a fighter for artists’ independence, an advocate for peace, and a spiritual inspiration.
I saw both of these acts recently at the Hillgrass Bluebilly Lunch Party, but because I was too busy managing the live internet audio stream during the Boomswaggler’s set, and the stage was so surrounded by teeming “dirtyfoots” for Possessed’s nightcap performance that I couldn’t steal even a peep, I headed down to Beerland in Austin, TX Friday night to take in the double bill of Hillgrass artists.
The Boomswagglers are a band on the rise people, mark my words. For an act with no formal release, and up to this point no major touring or even residency in a local scene, they have created quite the buzz and following. There were people there that night just to see The Boomswagglers, many of them singing along to songs and screaming out requests.
Unfortunately the sound was pretty muddy, and the beginning of their set was a little rough. But when they were joined on stage by Possessed by Paul James, they rallied:
A similar observation I had seeing them previously is that they are both extremely-talented guitar players, but their use of tones and volume doesn’t always lend to that being translated to the audience. Same could possibly be said for lyrics. But this one song emphasizes both:
Don’t take it so literally ladies.
And be aware, The Boomswagglers do have a big release and tour coming, but they are making sure to get it right, because they are worth it, so no specific details just yet on either.
Next was Possessed by Paul James, and of the three times I have seen him live, this was by far his most inspired performance. Not that the previous two were bad, but this was just a different, more rowdy energy. Konrad is a school teacher, and my guess would be a damn good one, but he mentioned during the show his frustrations for the red tape involved in teaching, and wondered aloud if his future wasn’t better cast in music. Like I iterated in my review of Feed The Family:
Possessed certainly has the chops to be a full-time performer if he wanted to, but he‚Äôs chosen his path from a belief of what is best for his family, and because of a dedication to service that was instilled in his Mennonite upbringing. I respect Possesessed‚Äôs decision, but I hope he understands that his music is a service as well; a touching, uplifiting, empowering experience that the world is a better place because of.
Regardless of the reasoning, Possessed was on fire on Friday. His gear was dogged by technical difficulties, but instead of adding hiccups to an otherwise good show, it created moments of spontaneous beauty, like when he couldn’t get his banjo and amp to work together, so he headed out into the crowd to make sure energy didn’t die:
When I posted this year’s Muddy Roots lineup, there was a reason I put Possessed by Paul James’ name second to the top. He is a headliner, and an elder of the fusion of country, folk, and blues, and has the songs, stories, road time, wisdom, and bald spot to back it all up. The lighting wasn’t good that night, and as per usual of a PPJ show, the front of the stage was crashed by rabid fans and sight lines were few if any. But the music and energy was great as always, and below are a few more vids worth checking out. I don’t know, but for some reason I am really digging what the bad lighting and sight lines created. I think they capture the magic of the night better than a clean video could.
In 2004, a legendary underground punk band called The Murder Junkies made a whistle stop in Austin, TX at a venue called Emo’s. 10 years before, Emo’s was the last place Johnny Cash ever played in Austin, and they have the stool he used that night hanging from the ceiling to prove it. The year before that Cash performance, The Murder Junkies became the backing band for the most infamous man in rock n roll ever, Mr. GG Allin. GG died shortly after, and at the time of the Murder Junkies 2004 stop in Austin, filling in as frontman for GG was a man named JB Beverley. It was the first time The Murder Junkies had played Austin in 12 years. Check it out:
Fast forward to Sunday night, and the scene was much different. JB Beverly was now fronting The Wayward Drifters, a straightforward, old-school, real country band. There may not be a better example of how as Nashville has abandoned it’s roots and the true country sound, musicians with punk and metal backgrounds have risen up to embrace those sounds and traditions. JB is also a great songwriter, and writes some of the best anti-pop/Nashville songs this side of Dale Watson:
The crowd was thin that night since this was a pickup gig on a Sunday, and they didn’t start playing until 12:30, but it was star studded. In the crowd that night was none other than Wayne “The Train” Hancock and his wife Gina.
Wayne regaled me with some very funny stories. Emo’s has two stages and two separate rooms. One time Wayne was playing on the bigger stage, where Hank III plays when he comes to town, but all the people were in the smaller room, where JB was on Sunday. So Wayne dropped a handful of stink bombs in the smaller room. The people fled and he doubled his crowd instantly. After telling me that story, Wayne stuck his hand deep into his black leather aviator’s jacket like he was digging for a flask, and let fly the loudest arm fart I’ve ever heard. A lady walking by turned and blushed. You’d never guess it, but “The Train” is quite the prankster.
You just knew Wayne was going to have to make it on stage at some point, and when he did, he serenaded his wife Gina with a new song:
Along with JB, the Wayward Drifters were filled out with the great fill-in bass player Braxton Brandenburg, and one of the best superpickers in the scene, the peerless “Banjer” Dan Mazer. Banjo, dobro, or mandolin, you will struggle to find a more proficient player. He played with Bill Monroe folks, and when double time is called for on the banjo, he can made your head spin with the speed. My favorite song of the set was a new one JB wrote called “Mad River High.” It is kind of a new sound for him, and really sucks you in:
I give the night overall two guns up, and afterward, JB Beverley and the boys headed back to the Hancock Hacienda, where the music kept going:
Here’s another video of JB Beverly performing “Dead Flowers” and Banjer Dan showing off his skills.
When Jamey Johnson released his critically-acclaimed album The Guitar Song this year and the four star reviews began to roll in, I so much wanted it to be an excellent album that I could sing the praises of, and that we could finally have a mainstream country project that was true to the roots, and more importantly, just enjoyable to listen to, and that all the disparate elements of “country” could unify behind. A similar reason is why I named Justin Townes Earle’s 2009 Midnight at the Movies SCM’s 2009 Album of the Year. Declaring The Guitar Song a home run would have made my life so much easier. But the problem is that I cannot tell a lie, and from my perspective, the album was only average, and I could not offer my support.
Similarly, it would make life much easier for me if on Saturday night, Justin Townes Earle put on the performance of a lifetime. With all the negative publicity he has received here and other places, but especially here, it has characterized me as a madman on a mission to destroy him. From NPR stuff, to more NPR stuff, to breaking the story on his arrest, it has branded me a Justin Townes Earle adversary in a way that has adversely effected my standing with many people I respect. And maybe, just maybe, if I could say one thing positive about Justin, it could lend credence to my assertions that my Justin coverage has been a matter of the way the cards played out, as opposed to a vendetta.
But I cannot tell a lie. I’ve built this website on giving my honest opinions at all times, damn the popularity or political fallout. So how was the Justin Townes Earle performance?
It was fucking phenomenal. Absolutely unbelievable. It was the best live performance I have seen all year. Hell, it may be the best music performance I have seen, ever. It was genuine, it was pure, and outright magical. Justin Townes Earle is gifted beyond words, and it seems almost foolish to try and describe it. I’ve given careful, sober thoughts to my reactions to his performance Saturday night at The Parish in Austin, TX, and I can say with confidence that Justin Townes Earle is nothing less than a national treasure.
Really, I’m speechless. I could put together pretty sentences with big words trying to describe what he does live, but that seems so banal when still basking in the natural high his performance afforded. I will say that Justin has a magical way about him, where he is like a concentrated explosion. It is like all the energy of a punk rock show concentrated and honed in his long, awkward body, and then that energy is emitted only when it can come out with class and infinite taste.
Does that mean that I have changed my mixed feelings about Harlem River Blues? No, in fact it has strengthened them. And strengthened the feeling of horror I felt when I saw him try to perform wired at 2010′s South by Southwest in March, and the downward spiral in my JTE coverage began. JTE wrote, produced, and performed that album while under the influence, and though on the outside everything seemed to be in order, for those who have a sense for these things, they could see beyond the music to the neuroses running deep beneath it’s surface. Justin’s path will always be a shaky and dogged one, but he must stay on it. Drugs and drinking or not, for most of 2010, JTE was off his path, and it showed, just like it would show in the underbelly of this article if I did not give my honest opinion, or my best effort.
If there was a lull in the set, it was when Justin performed “One More Night in Brooklyn,” but as weaker as the Harlem songs may have been, overall their live versions were much better than the album takes. Josh Hedley did an excellent job on fiddle, and I was very pleased to see Bryn Davies back on bass. Bryn had gone AWOL at least for a little bit after the Indy embrolio, and somehow her presence there on Saturday validated the whole thing. If JTE needed a bass player, the line would form to the left, and same can be said for the talented Bryn Davis if she was looking for a new band. If she wanted out, she had plenty of excuses to exit amicably. But she believed in Justin, and where he is right now, and stayed.
The arrest and Justin’s checkered past did come up, numerous times, and in numerous ways. Justin broached the subject first (see second video below), and then during in-between song banter he would allude to it at times. At one point to be comical, someone yelled out “Freebird,” and Justin, just like he did in Indianapolis replied “Fuck You,” in a fairly playful manner. Another person yelled, “Take your shirt off.” You have to give the crowd credit for being educated on the situation. But overall the attendees were unbelievably respectful. They had no choice, they were spellbound. At times the place was as quiet as I’ve ever heard a concert venue. When Justin came out for an encore, he performed “Louisiana 1927″ (see first video below), and the place was like church. The unbelievable silence became an element of the experience in its own right. When he took his solo set during the middle of the concert, the place was remarkably hush as well.
I also have to give kudos to The Parish in Austin for their smoke and light show. At first I though it was going to be annoying and overkill, but the visual element combined with Justin’s already engaging stage demeanor made for some cool visual moments beyond the music. Another cool moment was at the end of the set, when Justin invited opening act Caitlin Rose and her band onstage with Joe Pug for a performance of “Harlem River Blues” (see third video below).
I was planning on getting a few videos that night, but each song seemed so important to capture, so I captured what I could, and still missed JTE performing Tom Waits’ “Union Square” and a high energy blues song (got the tail end). I am still uploading video, but as they come online, I will added them to the collection of photos and such from the night to This Message Board Thread. You can also read a review of opener Caitlin Rose.
A lot of people criticize that I spend too much time dwelling on the negative, that I spend too much time fighting, and not enough time supporting. I fight because I believe in things. I don’t fight Nashville or country music because I hate them. I fight for them because they are worth fighting for, and I love them. Many things are NOT worth fighting for. It’s trivial if they spiral into obscurity or self-destruction. But Justin Townes Earle is not one of them. He’s worth fighting for, and I’m glad I have. I’m not running a popularity contest. Some will not understand. But that is irrelevant to me. I must do and say what I think is right in my heart, and let history judge it. And in my heart, I know that Justin Townes Earle is gold.
For the last 6 years, Wayne “The Train” Hancock playing Austin, TX’s legendary Continental Club on Thanksgiving Night has slowly morphed into a full blown tradition. Though Wayne is based out of Austin, he plays in town maybe twice a year, keeping his A-Town appearances exclusive, and special.
Opening this year was the greatness of Lucky Tubb with His Modern Day Troubadours. Lucky & Co. were their usual dapper selves, still holding on to the tightness they’ve acquired from much more consistent touring these days. They’d also acquired a new Tele player since I’d seen them last, a hot shot silly sider named Will Owen Gage that was a standout player in a night full of them (wait till you hear who Wayne boasted in his band).
My crossed fingers gave rise to the event I was hoping to see the last time I saw the Wayne/Lucky pairing, which was a live rendition of one of their duets off of Lucky’s new album Hillbilly Fever, and sure enough, The Train was called to the stage early and they rocked out a version of “West.” Unfortunately my moving picture camera was forgotten on the charger at the Saving Country Music headquarters, but the still one was in hand (see pics below) and so was a recording device:
Then it was Wayne Hancock’s turn, and man, Wayne was in rare form. I think this had a lot to do with Wayne being able to cherry pick all-star players from his past to fill out the night’s lineup. Hancock had a smile form ear to ear all night, as some of Austin’s best players traded licks back and forth across stage.
Musicians included Bob Stafford on lead guitar AND trombone, aka “Texaco” that you can hear Wayne call out on his early albums. A mad keys player TJ Bonta who played with Wayne on the album Wild, Free, & Reckless manned the side of the stage, Chris Darrell was on stand up bass, and the great Eddie Rivers was on stand up steel. Eddie is a legend around Austin who now plays with Asleep At The Wheel, but played with Wayne first.
Hancock has a funny way about him, where his smile and mood is infectious. I relate it somewhat to Ray Charles. When Ray Charles would smile, when you knew he was feeling warm, it made you feel warm; some sort of empathetic relationship with the audience that makes the moments that much more special. After each song, the packed Continental Club would burst with applause and cheers. I’ve never seen such reception for Wayne’s music. At one point I saw him utter “Wow” under his breath at the outcry, and Wayne and the band took that energy and reciprocated, as Wayne picked out a songlist that kept the mood moving just right.
Near the end, Wayne’s wife, Gina Gallina Rose Hancock, a performer in her own right, got up on stage for another rare moment. Never before has anyone made a cheat sheet look so hip, as the love birds belted out “I’ll Never Be Free.”
(The person growling “wow” from about 0.10 to 0.14 is Lucky Tubb)
Enjoy an extended picture gallery below.
Yesterday, fiddle phenom, multi-instrumentalist, songwriter and singer Ruby Jane turned 16. Less and less it feels right to call her a “prodigy” as she grows older and her skins on the wall continue to grow as well, surpassing the accolades many musicians twice her age have amassed: youngest fiddle player to ever play the Grand Ole Opry, touring with Willie Nelson and Asleep at the Wheel, being named MVP of the Austin City Limits Festival by many.
Ruby Jane has deserved to be judged against musicians of any age for years, but as she reaches 16, her songwriting and singing have become even more refined. She has developed her own style; a unique mark of brilliance beyond blazing fiddle breaks. Ruby is old school, but with a young energy and a fresh approach. Ask yourself how many 16-year-olds are covering Townes Van Zandt songs, or singing into effect mics to make their music feel authentic?
I was lucky enough to sit down with Ruby outside of the RV that Ruby and her mom have called home for three years now; a humble existence that has helped nurture the dreams of this young woman. We talked about her first appearance on the Grand Ole Opry (you can hear her reaction when told Hank Williams is not a member), what she likes to do besides music (Football? Yes, football!), as well as meeting Willie Nelson, influences in her music, and her young perspective on an old world that at times loses touch with their dreams. Find the audio and the important parts transcribed below.
You should also check out the interview with CBS news she did when she was 11, where she talks about playing the Grand Ole Opry, and writing a song inspired by Hank Williams.
The Triggerman: You have another passion, don’t you? You have a new song that says, “I like to eat, pie makes me very happy.” What are some of your favorite foods?
Ruby Jane: That’s a good question. Yeah, I do like pie. I like pretty much all pie. My mom makes this great¬† Dutch apple pie, it’s crumpled up brown sugar on top, and that’s probably my favorite pie ever. Everything from chocolate pie to quiche, which is a kind of pie I guess. I’m a big Japanese food fan. I love sushi. Chocolate, of course, I think every girl likes chocolate. Just in France which was amazing. When you go over to France, their pastries, I mean you can’t even compare French pastries. I got pretty addicted to French pastries when I was there. I think one day I even decided that I was gonna eat only pastries all day long. That didn’t really work out, I got a really bad stomach ache.
The Triggerman: Does it frustrate you that you’re only 15-years-old?
Ruby Jane: I’ve been lucky enough to gain respect at an early age, musically and artistically. When I was younger, 12 or 13,¬† people would kinda just look down at me, not really cut me down, but be “oh she’s 12, she doesn’t really know.” And now which is really great, people respect my opinion when I’m hanging out with other people in music. So I really don’t have a problem with that. I think the only thing that’s weird, it’s not really frustrating, but that’s strange about being 15, is that I go to online high school, so I’m not around other kids my age, hardly at all. I’m around adults 24/7 . If I’m not doing school, I’m doing rehearsals with adults, or playing a gig, or having a meeting. My friends are adults. What is strange sometimes is remembering I’m 15. But there’s nothing really frustrating.
The Triggerman: Is there anything that frustrates you about adults?
Ruby Jane: That’s a tough question. I’m definitely not the first person to judge anybody. Something that is definitely frustrating, and I know people would say, “That’s just because she’s 15, and she hasn’t got the needle in her balloon yet.” But I look at people who’ve kinda given up. I’ve been blessed to have done so much at an early age, and I realize not everybody has been given those kind of opportunities. People have said to me before “You’ll get older. Things change. You’ll realize that you can’t really do what you thought you could do.”¬† That to me is really frustrating. People say, “You never do what you thought you could do.” Well we can do whatever we want to do, truthfully.¬† If we set our mind to it.
Ruby Jane: Yes, I very much do. Its important for me to remember how lucky I’ve been, and that not a lot of people get those opportunities. Really all I can do is be thankful because I do realize that my life has been very strange and different from most people. And that because of people like my mom¬† that from the beginning put me before her own career. For me when I think about that, it’s like OK I’ve been given all this stuff. Now its just important for me to turn around and make sure I use it. It’s good though. I’ve had a cool life.
The Triggerman: Tell me about meeting Willie Nelson.
Ruby Jane: Most of the time I’m not really intimidated talking to famous people or whatever. But the one person that I really thought about before I met him, I thought “Oh my gosh I’m about to meet Willie Nelson, I hope I don’t faint.” When I was 4 or 5, it was for Christmas and my present was the Willie Nelson Teatro video with Emmylou Harris, that’s what I had asked my mom for, and when I got it I freaked out, and I just started running around the room screaming and none of the other kids understood it. So that was probably the one person I was scared to meet. And so I remember he walked in the room, and I had gone over the scenario, how it would happen in my head. So he walks in the room and he’s kinda short. He had a little tummy, he’d gained a little weight. And he just had this kinda goofy smile on his face. It was basically like your grandpa just walked in the room. I just remember meeting him, and him being the most down-to earth person. It was almost if it wasn’t even Willie Nelson. And ever since then he’s been the sweetest, most non-intimidating guy ever.
The Triggerman: So you toured with Willie on the Willie & The Wheel tour?
Ruby Jane: I did. I did some tours with him and his “Family Band” and then I did a tour with Willie & The Wheel because I recorded on that, which actually the first time I met him was back when they were recording the Willie & The Wheel CD. At that point they had already finished recording the whole CD, but Ray (Benson) had been talking to Willie about me, and Willie goes “OK let’s put her on the bonus track.” I met Ray about three months after coming into town (Austin).And I guess he found out about me because I’d been playing around town, and he was looking for somebody to be in the musical “A Ride With Bob.”
The Triggerman: So you get to Austin, you’re 12 years old, you pull your RV into town, and you’ve got your fiddle and your 12-year-old self, and you’re just going around to these different venues and trying to integrate into the Austin scene?
Ruby Jane: We went to a bunch of jam sessions. The first night in town we went to the Continental Club, and I can’t even remember how I got in, but Dale Watson was playing . Dale is very professional and is not the kind of guy that would just invite someone on stage that he’s never heard before. But luckily enough we got to talking, and I’d played with Marty Stuart and we had that mutual friend in common and he just said “Come play with me.” And we just started going around to jams and this great guy named Jim Stringer that plays guitar around town, I started sitting in with him, which was different for me, just getting up on stage and jamming, and we were doing that almost every night when I first got to town.
The Triggerman: Do you want to tour?
Ruby Jane: Oh yeah, definitely. My mom and I are both huge travel freaks. I’d much rather be traveling than in one place. So I can’t wait to get on the road. That’s a huge thing for me. I’m really looking forward to that.
The Triggerman: Tell me about your experience playing the Grand Ole Opry.
Ruby Jane: I’ve played the Grand Ole Opry twice. The first time I was nine-years-old. Second time I played I was like 11 or 12. The very first time I played with a guy named Mike Snider, this incredible banjo player and comedian. I got hooked up with Mike through Jim Brock who taught me fiddle for a long time. He played on the Opry for years with Jim & Jessie, and Bill Monroe. So I remember going to the Grand Ole Opry and I had it in my head that this was the make or break point. I thought if I do really good, I’ll be world famous, and if I do really bad, everyone’s gonna hate me and I’ll never do a show again. I was so nervous. I remember walking in and I told Jim my fiddle teacher and my mom I said, “These are the doors to fame or doom.” And I almost couldn’t even open the doors I was so nervous. Mike Snyder is a funny funny guy and was cracking jokes, and he could tell how nervous I was, so he took me on the back of the stage when the Whites were playing, and he said “I just want you to stand here for a minute, just take a deep breath and see what it feels like.”¬† So I did, and after that, I felt really comfortable.
The Triggerman: Did you know that Hank Williams was not a member of The Grand Ole Opry?
Ruby Jane: Really? Wow. That’s interesting. You would think obviously that Hank Williams would be. Wow. That’s interesting.
The Triggerman: So do you know what “soul” is? Can you hear it in music?
Ruby Jane: I’d like to think so.¬† I think it’s pretty easy to tell when someone’s playing just to play or making cliche rhymes. I think there’s a balance in saying exactly what you mean, and also making it sound good. I’ve also heard music where you can tell that person is pretty much just having sympathetic conversation with themselves and it doesn’t actually make sense musically or it isn’t actually catchy. On the other end there’s music that’s pure beats and catchy and you can tell they put absolutely no thought into what they’re writing. So I think there’s a happy medium in really expressing yourself and having soul, but also something that makes sense and sounds good.
The Triggerman: What do you like to do that’s not playing music?
Ruby Jane: It’s so weird because so much of what I do has to do with music, there’s almost no time for anything else. But hanging out with friends obviously. I’m a big reader, I love reading books. I’ve never been a big sports person, but I like playing football.
The Triggerman: So wait, you like playing football?
I like playing football when I get a chance. I don’t have a lot of chances, but there’s something about just tacking somebody that is so, I don’t know. And that’s really the only sport. I mean I like sports,¬† and I think they’re fun to play. I can’t watch them, but playing football, whether it being at a family reunion, I love playing football.
The Triggerman: Do you ever see yourself not playing music?
Ruby Jane: No. Like I’ve thought about “what if?” but I think so much of my life has been involved in it I really don’t think I’d know how to do anything else at this point. I like acting a lot, and I’d like to in the future do acting as well as music, and I’ve taken some acting classes and I enjoy that. But in terms of like full life, I can’t see myself doing anything besides music.
The Triggerman: I’m going to ask you a very weird question. And there’s no right or wrong answer. Sometimes, maybe when its late at night, maybe you’re in a hotel room somewhere on a tour. Do you ever feel like at times you get a weird pain in your chest, almost like there’s a hole in your chest? Or like there’s something missing?
Ruby Jane: No. I think if there were ever to be anything missing in my life, it would be if I wasn’t playing music. I feel pretty fulfilled. And I have thought about that before, you know I’ve thought about what would it be like if I didn’t play music, and I think it would be that hole that you’re talking about. I think at this point in my life, I think if I were ever to feel unhappy, it would be because I felt like I wasn’t doing what I was supposed to be doing. And I feel like I really am doing what I’ve been called to do, which is fulfilling. So no, I don’t, thank goodness.
On Saturday night the Hole in the Wall in Austin, TX was transformed into “Dirtyfoot” headquarters for fans, bands and extended family of Hillgrass Bluebilly Records for their Launch Party. Folks from as far as Canada, Seattle, Minnesota, and Boston flew in exclusively for the event and helped pack the walls of the Hole to near capacity, while over 150 people from around the world tuned in through SCM Live to share the experience.
7 bands and 5 hours of music meant both Hole in the Wall’s stages were pressed into service. Darren Hoff & The Hard Times got things stirring with their hard edged country on the smaller stage, while some started biting nails wondering if the second band The Boomswagglers were going to show for their second slot. As was explained later, “We forgot to put gas in the truck,” which they reportedly tried to remedy by pulling off a radiator hose and trying to siphon gas out of a motorcycle before calling someone to pick them up. Now if that ain’t country. . .
The Boomswagglers get the award for most authentic band of the night, in a night packed with authenticity. As they bled out their country/bluesy mix about bad women and hard times the shot glasses and beer jars stacked up on an amplifier like a mocking model of Austin’s ever-increasing skyline of posh condo buildings. Whatever the high rise condo represents, The Boomswagglers represent the polar opposite. Spencer Cornett is taller than a beanpole and skinnier than Shaggy on crack, while Lawson Benett is as tall is he is round. Together they are like dirty country’s Laurel and Hardy, with a larger-than-life, almost rock-star air around them even though they are the nicest, most down-to-earth “just blew in from the corn field” country boys you’ll ever meet.
The Boomswagglers were the one band that night I was most curious to see because I had no idea what to expect. Their song “Run You Down” that was featured on the Outlaw Radio Compilation has been one of the most popular songs in underground country, but was this just a one hit wonder? What I found was they are above-average pickers with solid and original songwriting ability that deserve whatever praise their small but loyal fans give them. Keep an eye out for their first Hillgrass Bluebilly release coming soon.
Next was Roger Wallace, who on such a stacked bill might have been overlooked by some, but was one of the standouts of the night. Roger is pure country, but with some soul and boogie to him as well. He also boasts one of the best bands to be found, with Jim Stringer on lead guitar, and the amazing Lisa Pankratz on drums. Lisa has also played with Dale Watson, Wayne Hancock, and Billy Joe Shaver to name a few. Like so many of the bands that performed, Roger deserves his own separate review.
Tom VandenAvond and his “Say Hey Kids” band afforded the most memorable moment of the night, when he finished his set on the main stage with the song “Brick by Brick,” and was joined on stage by the headliners Possessed by Paul James on fiddle and Larry & His Flask, as well as Brian and Molly Salvi in one of those family-feeling moments that can’t be rehearsed or staged.
The best flat out musician from the night, on a night filled with so many great ones, might be Jim Chilson who flew down with the rest of the Ten Foot Polecats from Boston exclusively for the event. The seemingly effortless trance-inducing guitar rhythms with ridiculous fingerwork put the blues in this Bluebilly event, and was accompanied by balls out singing from Jay Scheffler and expert drumming. Who needs bass?
Now we have come to the point where I am supposed to somehow explain with human language what it is like to see Larry & His Flask live, but no words, no videos do it justice. Larry & His Flask are sheer madness. They are the essence, the pinnacle of on-stage energy. I talk often about one man bands, and how they must put out the energy of a full band. Then there is Hillstomp, which is a two man band, with both men putting out the energy of an entire band, doubling the equation. Well play the analogy out, and Larry & His Flask are like a six man band. No, this isn’t stating the obvious because there’s six people in the band, what I aim to say is they put out the energy of six bands combined.
You might think that their punk approach to an eclectic combination of roots is not for everyone. Videos just make it seem like theater. You have to appreciate that NOTHING in music trumps Larry & His Flask in the amount of energy.
The night was capped by Possessed by Paul James on the small stage, which immediately after The Flask finished, was crowded around so thick even us 6+ footers had to settle for hearing and not seeing. Nothing can trump the energy of The Flask, but it was perfected in mood by Possessed’s heartfelt soul. At that point all these folks from all around the country, from different walks of life and varying musical slantings, young and old, male and female, were all family. It was no longer about launch parties or Austin, or any of that; it was about the fellowship that a dizzying night of music can create for the soul when it is capped so perfectly by true, heartfelt expression.
A few tears were shed as all joined in Possessed’s “We Welcome You Home” at the very end of the night, and the mood in the room was such that you might anticipate all participants would disintegrate into the cosmos in a moment of infinite bliss and communion with the almighty. However reality met you cold in the face the next day, but nonetheless the participants of the Hillgrass Bluebilly Launch Party, in person and online, will never be the same after their experience, and the joy and understanding will remain inside their souls till death and beyond.
Two guns up.
More videos and pictures can be found on the message board.
When reviews and videos surfaced from Bob Wayne’s recent tour with Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers, the big buzz was about Bob’s new fiddle player named Liz Sloan. Not that Bob hasn’t had great musicians in his band before, quite the contrary, and not that a woman should be considered out of place in Bob’s band, but still Liz’s presence was wildly intriguing because one knew there must be a good story behind it. After talking to her Saturday night (10-30) before a show at Austin’s Hole in the Wall, and seeing her perform live, I can say that the breadth of her skills and the depth of her story did not disappoint.
Liz Sloan was a classical violin prodigy, starting the violin at the age of 3. At age 8 her family moved to Dallas, TX so Liz could have better training, and became an understudy of Dallas Symphony Orchestra Concertmaster Emanuel Borok. Liz won numerous awards for her violin playing, and eventually a scholarship to Texas Christian University in Ft. Worth. Later she would transfer to The University of North Texas, which is known as one of the best public music schools in the country.
Liz was aggressively pushed by a religious mother to excel in the classical arena, but inside Liz was troubled by a different calling. She says she got “burned out” on music by the age of 13, and after a bad car wreck where her vehicle rolled four times, she walked away from music completely for two years. A boyfriend who introduced her to Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers is what got Liz interested in music that led to Bob Wayne. “His song ’27 Years’ really spoke to me,” Liz says, and she sent Bob an email, showing interest in playing in the Outlaw Carnies.
Right before going on tour with Bob, Liz was playing with a pop country band from Nashville.
I emailed (Bob) out of desperation. I said “Please rescue me because I can’t handle this music.” I felt like I was selling my soul, like I had gotten a big paycheck to play something that I wasn’t in to. . . I knew that being with Bob and being around Bob and the musicians he’s around that I would grow tremendously as a musician. And I wasn’t doing that before. Everyone has their own thing, it just wasn’t mine. I was kind of up there for a marketing scheme, to make this band seem more country.
Out of respect, Liz doesn’t want to name names of which pop country outfit she worked for, and I take her loyalty as a sign of character, but her story is a very poignant example of how Nashville pop country acts stifle creativity and are driven by image.
Liz and I also talked about her upbringing, musical influences, about other important fiddle players, and her plans for the future. Find the rest of the interview below, and look for my review of the Bob Wayne show and an interview with Bob coming soon.
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