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In February it was announced that the the era-defining album Wrecking Ball released in 1995 by country music songstress Emmylou Harris was getting the reissue treatment, with a remastering of the original album, a new disc of demos and outtakes, and a DVD delving into the making of the album, all set to be released on April 8th.
If you’re not familiar with the Emmylou Harris discography or the influence Wrecking Ball has had on the modern country ear, you may wonder why this was the album picked out of the choir for a reissue, and why now. Wrecking Ball wasn’t a particularly great seller. Released when Emmylou was 48, the former Gram Parsons understudy had settled in as a “legacy” act in country, and was already well off the radar of country radio and award show attention by the time of the release. So why not stretch your wings and try something different? And try something different she did.
The influence of Wrecking Ball is evoked on Saving Country Music, and many other country and Americana websites regularly. Its impact on alt-country and Americana may only be outdone by Uncle Tupelo’s 1990 album No Depression, or Steve Earle’s late 80′s Guitar Town, and may not be outdone by any when it comes to the alt-country subset sometimes described as “progressive” country, or specifically when it comes to influencing the women in alt-country and Americana. And in the nearly 20 years since it was originally released, Wrecking Ball‘s influence hasn’t waned a bit, as one female artist after another tries to match or best its watermark.
Many country purists hated Wrecking Ball when it was first released. Early on in Emmylou’s career, some in country’s traditional ranks had been leery of the Alabama-born singer because of her folk rock past and her carousing with Gram Parsons. But in the wake of Gram’s passing, Emmylou won over nearly the entirety of the country music listening public with the sheer power of her voice, and her propensity to mix traditional country material with her more folk-oriented songs. By 1995, Emmylou’s career had been defined as a songbird, and as an acoustic, almost bluegrass-like performer, and a counter-balance to country’s newly-defined stadium era with superstars like Garth Brooks.
And then here came Wrecking Ball, completely unexpected, crashing through the conventional thinking on Emmylou. It was produced by Daniel Lanois for crying out loud; a guy known best for working with the rock band U2. Country critics for the first time were having to employ words like “atmospheric” and “spatial” to describe what they were hearing. Instead of working with more conventional cast of country songwriters and session players on the album, Emmylou had assembled Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams, Gillian Welch, Neil Young, and even covered (however subdued) a Jimi Hendrix song.
Though at its core, the themes of Wrecking Ball were still very traditional. The song “All My Tears” written by Buddy Miller’s wife Julie, was a spirited Gospel song, despite the strange burpings that comprise the sonic bed of the composition. Bob Dylan’s “Every Grain of Sand” placed in the center of the album had a very subdued, acoustic approach to ground the album from getting too weird. But the sweeping, bold, alternative thinking and approach to how Wrecking Ball presented its songs would be by far the biggest takeaway and the most lasting impact of this album in the end.
In the crux of the current culture war for the heart of country music is the argument being made by mainstream, commercially successful males that country music must progress. But the answer of how country music can progress why still holding on to the spirit of its roots has been held in the women of country for almost two decades, and it arguably started with Emmylou’s Wrecking Ball. Rhythmic elements that capture the attention of fresh ears, while not sacrificing melody or the thematic heart of what makes country music special, is the splendid balance that Emmylou Harris forged on Wrecking Ball.
Wrecking Ball also birthed some indelible compositions, specifically the title track written by Neil Young, the haunting, ominous “Deeper Well,” and the first song “Where Will I Be?” written by producer Daniel Lanois. But really you can’t go wrong with any track on Wrecking Ball.
However the legacy for this album is not all rosy. Just like the influence of Emmylou’s mentor Gram Parsons that while spreading the message of country music to a wider audience incidentally spawned some watered-down West Coast offshoots, so has Emmylou’s Wrecking Ball made some producers and artists unnecessarily strive to reach a similar bar or to make a similar sound instead of trying to find a better approach more within the true style of the artist and the era. One of the most interesting notes about Wrecking Ball and its live followup from a few years later called Spyboy is that it was preceded by one of Emmylou’s most traditional eras, when she assembled the bluegrass-inspired Nash Ramblers and helped revitalize The Ryman Auditorium and ostensibly the entire Lower Broadway portion of Nashville by recording and releasing an album from the abandoned venue.
And maybe most important to note about Wrecking Ball beyond its influence is that after eighteen albums and at the age of 48, one can argue that this was the album that Emmylou’s voice truly came into full bloom. The way her tone strains and breaks so eloquently, the intelligent way the chords are picked to compliment this phenomenon and put Emmylou uncomfortably between her regular tone and falsetto to squeeze the greatest degree of pain out of each composition is award winning in itself, and along with all of the album’s other notable achievements, is one of the reasons it won the Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Recording in 1996.
Wrecking Ball was the result of Emmylou Harris following her heart, searching for a voice she never knew she had, and a vein of country music nobody knew existed before. And even here nearly 20 years after its release, its influence, its beauty, and its place as one of the most important markers on the country music timeline, remains untarnished.
Two guns up.
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You can’t go long talking about badasses in country music without bringing up the one, the only Billy Joe Shaver. Though he may have never received the recognition of Willie, Waylon, or even Coe or Paycheck, his influence is arguably just important. When you have Elvis cutting one of your songs, Willie Nelson calling you his favorite songwriter, have Bob Dylan name dropping you, and had none other than Waylon Jennings record an entire album of your work, there’s no doubt you’re a badass.
Here’s 10 Badass moments from Billy Joe Shaver.
- 10 Badass Willie Nelson Moments
- 10 Badass Waylon Jennings Moments
- 10 Badass Johnny Cash Moments
- 10 Badass Hank3 Moments
- 10 Badass Merle Haggard Moments
- 10 Badass Marty Stuart Moments
- 10 Badass George Jones Moments
1. Growing Up In Honky Tonks …. Literally
If Billy Joe Shaver is anything, he’s the real deal, and as cliché as it may sound, his life was like a country song if there ever was one. Shaver was born in Corsicana, TX, and his dad left his mom before he was even born. Left to fend for herself, Shaver’s mother would leave him with his grandmother in Corsicana so she could work in honky tonks in Waco, but sometimes the young, impressionable Shaver would accompany his mother to the big town.
For a while Shaver’s mom ran a Waco honky tonk called Green Gables. According to Waylon Jennings, “She was a good-looking woman, red-headed and tough, and it was a classic dive, a dance hall with sawdust on the floor, spittoons, and a piano in the corner.” Billy Joe would run around the place bumming nickels from soldiers from nearby Fort Hood, and by the time he got a little older was known as quite a dancer and ladies man. His whole Green Gables childhood experience was later recapped in the song “Honky Tonk Heroes” that became the title track of Waylon Jennings’ famous 1973 album featuring all Billy Joe Shaver songs except for one.
2. Getting Four Fingers Lopped Off At A Lumber Mill
Talk about tough and gritty, Billy Joe Shaver has the scars to prove it. He didn’t get involved in music seriously until he was nearly 30, and it’s partly due to a lumber mill accident he suffered back in the 60′s when he severed off a good portion of two fingers and parts of two others when his right hand got hung up in a piece of machinery. A post-accident infection eventually made it even worse. Since Shaver was a right paw, it made him virtually worthless as a general laborer, and so he turned to music as a living.
According to Waylon Jennings, Shaver has a sense of humor about his missing digits.
“He was sitting on a bed one time playing guitar,” Waylon recalls. “And a guy who worked for me came in and said, ‘Billy Joe, if you don’t mind me asking, what happened to your fingers?’ Billy started glancing around and digging in his pocket. ‘Damn,’ he said. ‘They were here just a while ago.’”
3. Hitchhiking to Los Angeles … and ending up in Nashville.
When Billy Joe Shaver decided to give country music a serious go, he got advice from old friend Willie Nelson to head out to Nashville. But Billy Joe Shaver didn’t listen, and instead decided to point his nose towards Los Angeles. Not having a car, and without any money for a bus, Billy Joe stood on the side of Interstate 10 in Texas, waiting for someone westward bound to pick him up. And he waited, and waited, and nobody stopped. Eventually Shaver got so frustrated, he switched over to the other side of the highway heading east. The first car that passed him stopped, picked him up, and took Shaver all the way to Memphis, TN. He then made his way to Nashville, where he soon had a job writing songs for $50 a week. The rest is history.
The experience was later recalled in part in the Billy Joe Shaver song, “Ride Me Down Easy”.
4. Threatening to Kick Waylon’s Ass If He Didn’t Record His Songs
Waylon Jennings decided to record an entire album of Billy Joe Shaver songs in 1973 called Honky Tonk Heroes, and that was the turning point in both men’s career. Waylon was finally flexing his creative freedom, and Billy Joe would forever be on the country music map. But it didn’t happen pretty. Bobby Bare introduced Shaver to Waylon and after Waylon heard “Ride Me Down Easy,” he fell in love with Shaver’s music and first floated the idea of recording an entire album of his songs. Later at the Dripping Springs Reunion in Texas, Waylon heard “Willie & The Wandering Gypsy,” and loved that one too. But for one reason or another, Billy Joe was always one step behind Waylon, even though Waylon insisted he loved Billy Joe’s songs and wanted to record them, it was beginning to look like it was never going to happen. At one point Billy Joe Shaver began to bug Waylon so bad, he reportedly offered Billy Joe $100 just to leave him alone.
“…I was always in a meeting or on another call or ‘not in.’” Waylon recalls. “This went on for months….He caught me one night at RCA recording. ‘I got these songs,’ he said, ‘and if you don’t listen to them, I’m going to kick your ass right here in front of everybody.”
“He could have been killed there and then by some of my friends lining the walls,” Waylon continues. “But I took Billy Joe in a back room and said, ‘Hoss, you don’t do things like that. I’m going to listen to one song, and if it ain’t no good, I’m telling you goodbye. We ain’t never going to talk again.’ Billy played me ‘Old Five and Dimers,’ and then kept on going. He had a whole sackful of songs, and by the time he ran out of breath, I wanted to record all of them.”
5. Being The Father of Eddie Shaver
The name may not ring a bell to you right off the bat, but for those familiar know that Billy Joe Shaver’s son was one of the best country music shredders to ever fill the spot. Aside from being his father’s right hand man for many years, Eddie Shaver studied under Dickey Betts of The Allman Brothers, played with Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, Guy Clark, The Eagles, and was Dwight Yoakam’s guitar player for the first two years.
It’s only because of Eddie’s untimely death that he’s not better known. He was scheduled to release his first solo album in 2001 when he died of a heroin overdose on New Years Eve of 2000. Though Billy Joe Shaver is known most for his songwriting, and Eddie as a guitar slinger, it only takes a glimpse at either to see that the musical talent runs very deep with the Shaver clan.
6. Surviving the Death of His Mother, Wife, and Son In a Very Short Period
Shaver has been tested many times in his life and suffered through some rough patches, but few have suffered through what shaver did near the turn of the Century. In 1999, Billy Joe Shaver lost both his mother, Victory, and his wife, Brenda, to Cancer. The next year is when his son, guitar player, and right hand man Eddie Shaver died of a heroin overdose. It was a very dark period for Shaver, and it became even darker when he was performing at Gruene Hall in Texas on Independence Day in 2001 and suffered a massive heart attack on stage. Shaver nearly died, and had to undergo quadruple bypass surgery.
But he soldiered on, releasing a new album called Freedom’s Child in 2002.
7. Shooting A Man in Self Defense at Papa Joe’s (“Where Do You Want It?”)
Shooting a man in the face could be either very badass, or not badass at all depending on how you look at it. But when you take into account Billy reportedly did it in self-defense and was so found by a jury of his peers and acquitted of all charges, it’s hard not to include the story here, especially seeing how the whole incident inspired its own famous song.
On March 31st, 2007, Billy Joe was in a saloon called Papa Joe’s in Waco, TX drinking when a man by the name of Billy Bryant Coker came up to Shaver and stirred Shaver’s drink with a knife. After some words were exchanged, Shaver decided it was time to leave, and Billy Coker followed. Out in the parking lot, Billy Joe Shaver was overheard asking Coker, “Where do you want it?” while brandishing a small handgun. Shaver later testified in court he actually said, “Why do you want to do this?” to Coker, but either way, eventually Shaver shot Billy Coker in the face.
The news made it down to Austin where Dale Watson decided to write a song about it. “We were making jokes about what kind of song he’d write about this ’cause he writes songs about everything,” says Gloria Tambling, the owner of Papa Joe’s that’s been an I-35 landmark for around for 19 years.
Billy Coker’s wound was not life-threatening, and Shaver was arrested on April 2nd, 2007 for aggravated assault, later to be found not guilty for acting in self-defense in a trial that saw Willie Nelson and Robert Duvall as a character witnesses. Dale Watson wrote “Where Do You Want It?”, but Whitey Morgan & The 78′s were the first to cut it on their self-titled album with Dale’s blessing. Dale later cut it on his album El Rancho Azul. Willie Nelson also wrote a song about the incident called, “I Want My Bullet Back.”
8. Singing the Opening Theme to The Squidbillies
When Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim launched a series about anthropomorphic hillbilly squids living in the Appalachian portion of Georgia, who better to contract for the theme song than Billy Joe Shaver? The song itself is actually called “Warrior Man.”
9. Being Deemed a Hero by Willie Nelson
Long-time friend Willie Nelson has never turned his back on Billy Joe, even in his darkest hour. When Billy Joe was accused of shooting a man in Waco, Willie offered himself up as a character witness. Willie has called Billy Joe Shaver his favorite songwriter. A couple of years ago Willie offered his services up to cut a duet with Billy Joe called “Wacko from Waco.” And Willie proved his love and loyalty for his long-time friend on his 2012 comeback album on Sony called Heroes. The default title track of the album “Hero” not only features Billy Joe Shaver, but is about Billy Joe Shaver and how it seems he’s been forgotten by time.
10. Being The Most Badass Country Music Performers in His 70′s
If you have seen Billy Joe Shaver perform recently, you know what I mean. And if you have never seen Billy Joe Shaver perform, you better get on it.
At 74, with a replaced knee, bum shoulder, and quadruple bypass, Billy Joe Shaver comes out kicking, punching, gesticulating like crazy, putting on one of the best, most-energetic country music shows from a performer of any age. It isn’t one of those shows with a solitary spotlight shone on a stool at stage center, it is full tilt country rock, rowdy and rambunctious, fueled by one of the best young bands you will find backing up a legend.
Former Hootie & The Blowfish frontman turned country artist Darius Rucker was on sports personality Dan Patrick’s radio show Tuesday (3-4), and had some interesting things to say about who the new torch bearers are for country music’s Outlaw legacy. Outlaw artists like Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, David Allan Coe, and Johnny Paycheck shook up the country music world in the mid 70′s by re-instituting a harder country sound and taking back control of their music, and now according to Darius Rucker and Dan Patrick, the new Willie and Waylon is Luke Bryan and Eric Church.
The Darius Rucker interview starts out with Dan Patrick giving some playful ribs to Rucker about his lack of country music bad boy credentials. “I mentioned at the end of last hour that, you know, Luke Bryan’s the new bad boy, and Eric Church is the new bad boy in country,” said Patrick. “Darius Rucker can’t be a bad boy ’cause he was the lead singer of Hootie & The Blowfish. Right? No matter what …. How can you be a bad boy? You know you can’t be Tim [McGraw], you can’t be Hank Williams. You know, you were Hootie & The Blowfish.”
“That’s funny but true,” Rucker responds, laughing. “You’re absolutely right. I’m always going to be country lite, there’s nothing I can do about that … Brad [Paisley]‘s not a bad boy. Rascal Flatts, they’re not bad boys. Not everyone can be a bad boy. You know, that’s cool.”
Then Dan Patrick asks, “But there’s so much money in country now that can you be a bad boy and be crazy like Waylon and Willie used to be?”
“Yeah man, we’ve still got those guys,” Rucker says. “You know, Jamey Johnson, he’s a bad boy that’s for sure, and he’s doing well. You know, like you said Luke and Eric, Eric’s probably the closest we got to Waylon & Willie I think.”
This was not the first time Darius Rucker has made interesting statements on the Dan Patrick Show. In November of 2013, Darius said on the show that he thought he deserved a Grammy nomination for his cover of the Old Crow Medicine Show / Bob Dylan song “Wagon Wheel” or quote “country music’s screwed.” Dan Patrick and Darius Rucker are good friends, going back to the time when Darius was winning Grammy Awards with Hootie & The Blowfish.
You can see the entire interview below.
What made Johnny Cash the ultimate badass was his ability to bridge people together regardless of taste in music, cultural differences, or political ideology. Johnny Cash could tackle some of the most difficult issues facing a tumultuous American society as it saw the emergence of rock and roll and the counterculture because they man had such an air of respect about him. When he spoke, everyone quieted, and listened. Great music and musicians dominate genres. Legends transcend genres. It’s is quite the daunting challenge to find someone who doesn’t have something nice to say about Johnny Cash regardless of sex, race, creed, status, or cultural background.
1. Intercepting the News of the Death of Joseph Stalin
That’s right, the first American to hear about the death of the ruthless Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin and report it to the United States government was none other than the Man in Black. Johnny Cash spent 4 years in the Air Force, rising to Staff Sargent, and working in Landsberg, West Germany for the Air Force Security Service. The name of Cash’s first band was “The Landsberg Barbarians,” an homage to the German town he called home.
While stationed in Landsburg, Cash was working as a Morse Code Intercept Operator, monitoring transmissions from the Soviet Army. Around March 5th, 1953, he was translating Morse signals when can came upon the important information. At the height of hostilities during the Cold War, this intelligence was considered crucial.
Cash was honorably discharged from the Air Force in July of 1954 to pursue his career in music.
2. Recording “Sunday Morning Coming Down”
It was the song that made Kris Kristofferson a household name, but it wasn’t Ray Stevens’ version of it in 1969 that stalled at #55 on the charts, or Kristofferson’s own version which didn’t chart at all that made it such an iconic part of the American songbook. It was Johnny Cash’s take on “Sunday Morning Coming Down” that took it all the way to #1 in 1970, and eventually to being named Song of the Year by the Country Music Association.
It’s because only Johnny Cash had the credibility and undying loyalty of the country music community to sing what was a controversial song at the time, and have people listen through the controversy to the heart of the story that Kristoffersoon had so eloquently captured.
Johnny Cash wasn’t a country music Outlaw in the traditional sense, but he was an honorary Outlaw in every sense, and when he sang “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” he took Kristofferson from a barely-known songwriter to a national celebrity.
3. Concerts and Albums From Folsom and San Quentin Prisons
Probably the most obvious of Johnny Cash’s badass moments, but ones that cannot be understated in their significance both musically and culturally, Johnny Cash performed at The Folsom State Prison and the San Quentin Prison—two notorious lockups in California—in 1968 and 1969 respectively, with the live recordings taken from the concerts becoming significant and commercially successful live albums that are given credit for being some of the best ever in country music.
Johnny Cash played two shows at Folsom Prison on January 13, 1968, resulting in 15 live tracks for the At Folsom Prison Album. At San Quentin was recorded on February 24, 1969 and was more of a linear recording of the event, though the original LP took out some songs because of space restrictions. The two albums are given credit for resurrecting Cash’s career, while raising awareness about the issues facing individuals in incarceration, and bridging cultural differences between music fans during a tumultuous time in America. If people were not aware before, Johnny Cash’s prison albums announced to the world inside and outside of country music that he truly was a badass.
4. Having A Smoke With A.P. Carter
Depending on who to talk to, the father of country music is either the singing brakeman Jimmie Rodgers, or the patriarch of the Carter Family, A.P. Cater. Seeing how Johnny Cash married into the Carter Family, he would probably say the answer is the latter.
Producer, songwriter, and cosmic music man “Cowboy” Jack Clement was famous for shooting home movies when hanging around his musical friends and cohorts, and he was fortunate enough to have captured the moment Johnny Cash decided to drive out to the grave site of A.P. Carter at the Mount Vernon Methodist Church Cemetery in Virginia to have a smoke with the man responsible for the first ever commercial country music group. The clip below comes from the movie Shakespeare Was A Big George Jones Fan: Cowboy Jack Clement’s Home Movies.
Johnny Cash’s efforts to help the less fortunate throughout his life have been well-documented, and on June 10th 1978 at the annual United Nations Citation Dinner in New York City, he was presented with the United Nations Humanitarian Award.
6. Hosting the Million Dollar Songwriter Circle
You’ve all heard about the “Million Dollar Quartet”—the recording session at legendary Sun Studios in Memphis on December 4th, 1956 that compiled the talent of Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash. Well if there was an equivalent to the Million Dollar Quartet in the songwriting world, it would be the one night in January of 1969 when Kris Kristofferson, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Graham Nash, and Shel Silverstein all spent an evening at Johnny Cash’s home in Hendersonville, TN on the banks of Old Hickory Lake, swapping songs and stories from their respective spheres of the music world.
The music that was showcased for the first time ever at the intimate songwriter circle became the soundtrack for a generation, and the gathering would go down in history as one of the most potent assemblages of songs showcased for the first time in one place. “That night in my house [was] the first time these songs were heard…” Johnny Cash explains. “Joni Mitchell sang ‘Both Sides Now,’ Graham Nash sang ‘Marrakesh Express,’ Shel Silverstein sang ‘A Boy Named Sue,’ Bob Dylan sang ‘Lay Lady Lay,’ and Kristofferson sang ‘Me & Bobby McGee.’ That was the first time any of those songs were heard.” (read more on the Million Dollar Songwriter Circle)
7. Sharing an Apartment with Waylon Jennings
Before Johnny Cash married June Carter, and before Waylon Jennings married Jessi Colter, and the two men were picking up the pieces from recent divorces, they shared a pad at the Fontaine Royal Apartments in Madison, Tennessee, just north of Nashville. At that time in the mid-60′s, Johnny Cash was a star, but Waylon was still a newcomer. By all accounts, the two men would barely see each other, and would be in and out at all manner of the day and night, leave on tour, come back, be out the next morning for a studio session, usually while taking trucker pills and sleeping very little.
Stories abound about some of the happenings at Fontaine Royal, with some considering it to be the equivalent of a country music “stabbin’ cabin.” One story says as the two men would walk by the swimming pool on their way in or out, throwing money into it for the neighborhood kids to dive in and retrieve. Oh, to be a fly on that wall….
8. Releasing Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian
Many artists and people talk and good talk about supporting the so often wronged American Indian, but Johnny Cash stepped up to the plate and did so in a big way when he released this concept album paying tribute to the stories and struggles of the American Indian. Johnny Cash had Cherokee blood in his family, and claims this was one of the inspirations for the album.
Aside from the music, this album is significant in so many other ways. Though Willie Nelson’s conceptualized albums Phases and Stages and Red Headed Stranger are often given credit for being the first conceptualized albums in country music, Bitter Tears came out in 1964; a decade before those Willie records. Furthermore the album was released ahead of the popularization of Native American issues that happened in the late 60′s as part of the counterculture movement. Way more than a trendy work looking to exploit a pet issue of guilt-riddled baby boomers, Bitter Tears was a groundbreaking approach to the album concept in country music that carried a sincere concern and reverence for the American Indian, illustrating Cash’s dedication as a humanitarian throughout his career.
9. Inviting Bob Dylan on the Johnny Cash Show
The Johnny Cash show was badass enough in its own right in how Johnny reached out to every corner of the American music world to create magical, legendary moments on a weekly basis from the Ryman Auditorium. The Johnny Cash Show Ran from ran from June of 1969 to March of 1971 on ABC, featuring a total of 58 episodes and not a bad one in the bunch.
But if one episode stood out, it was Bob Dylan’s appearance in 1969 around his recording of his Nashville Skyline record. It symbolized the confluence of two music worlds, and two titans of them and the results were magic. From the original Rolling Stone article covering the event:
The Dylan appearance was no secret in Nashville, fortunately. It goes without saying that Cash fans are as baffled by Dylan’s emergence here as Dylan freaks were startled at the news of this new axis. But they all lined up outside the Opry: businessmen and their wives, country boys, bald heads, acid heads, bee-hive bouffant blondes, drawling teenyboppers and other assorted traveling wonderers. There is no doubt that a good part of the audience was there just to see Cash and didn’t know what all the fuss was about. But the seats and aisles of the Opry were full, and Dylan did not lack a fine representation of people familiar with his work.
10. Recording “Hurt” From NIN’s Trent Reznor
There were many songs, especially from Johnny Cash’s American Recordings era that The Man In Black took from great to legendary, but none resonated so deeply with a generation like this one. “Hurt” off of the Nine Inch Nails’ album The Downward Spiral from 1994 was nominated for a Grammy in 1996, but wasn’t an especially well-known song outside of the industrial music mindset. It certainly wasn’t on the radar of country fans when Cash cut it in 2002, but it became arguably his last big hit, and the doorway for an entire new generation of fans to find love for Johnny Cash, helped along by an iconic video.
11. (Bonus) Flipping The Warden The Bird
Johnny Cash’s famous middle finger photo was shot at the Cash concert in 1969 at California’s San Quentin prison by photographer Jim Marshall. The pose was the result of Cash’s response to the request: “John, let’s do a shot for the warden.” Marshall has since said it was “probably the most ripped off photograph in the history of the world.”
But the picture remained relatively obscure until 1998 when Johnny was working with legendary producer Rick Rubin on his American Recordings albums. The second American album Unchained won the 1998 Grammy for Best Country Album. But could you hear Johnny Cash’s music on the country radio? Not so much. Rubin called country radio a “trendy scene,” and decided to fire a shot right at Music Row. Rubin dug deep and pulled out $20,000 to take a full page ad out in Billboard Magazine. The ad featured the famous Cash bird flipping, and the caption: “American Recordings and Johnny Cash would like to acknowledge the Nashville music establishment and country radio for your support.” (read more on the middle finger photo)
“Wagon Wheel” is the long-suffering country music tune that started as a chorus from a Bob Dylan demo that was in turn fleshed out by Ketch Secor of Old Crow Medicine Show and released on their 2004 Major label debut album O.C.M.S. Despite little or no radio play, the Old Crow version was certified gold from its cult following amongst independent music fans. Then Darius Rurcker cut a version of the song on his 2013 album True Believers that has since been certified platinum.
Darius Rucker made the comments during an interview with sports personality Dan Patrick.
“‘Wagon Wheel’ did okay, that was a big hit. I’m waiting for the Grammy nomination,” Rucker said. “I haven’t had one of those in a long time (laughs). If ‘Wagon Wheel’ doesn’t get nominated for a Grammy, country music’s screwed. It’s simple as that. If it doesn’t get nominated for a Grammy, country music’s screwed. I really believe that. I’m not saying it should win it, but it should be nominated.”
Why exactly country music is “screwed” if the song is not nominated was not elaborated upon by Rucker. Though the comments were made in a somewhat jocular moment with Dan Patrick, Rucker did repeat himself, and emphasize “I really believe that.” Whether Rucker is perceiving some bias or even racism, or if it is a somewhat subtle jab at the recent direction of country and specifically its male performers and their flight from substance is hard to determine.
The appeal of “Wagon Wheel” amongst country music fans of all stripes is hard to deny from its commercial success in multiple realms. But its propensity to be overplayed and blurted out as a request by inebriated fans has dubbed it the “Free Bird” of our generation. Rucker said he initially “didn’t really get” the song until he saw a school performance with his daughter that included it. The song was nominated for both Single of the Year and Song of the Year at the CMA Awards held last week, but did not win either category.
Rucker’s comments can be heard at the 9-minute mark.
The 22-year-old Texas native Sarah Jarosz symbolizes a victory by so many measures, even before you delve into the substance of her new album Build Me Up From Bones. Just about one of the most difficult maneuvers in music is for the childhood prodigy to transition into the adult performance world with deftness and grace. Jarosz not only mastered this move and stuck the landing, she did so with such ease that her story could be used as a blueprint of how to navigate these treacherous, and sometimes career-ending waters.
Sure, since you were 10-years-old you’ve been charming audiences with your cute songs, ruddy cheeks, and how fast you can move your fingers, but 2013 is the year of the song, and the only value technique and memory have is when they accompany an original story that can touch deep.
Possibly the best lesson to glean from Sarah Jarosz is patience. She already had mastered the mandolin, and her music career was well on its way when she ran off to the New England Conservatory for Music in 2009. But Jarosz doesn’t seem to like things easy. Despite dizzying workloads, she managed to release two albums through Sugar Hill Records and play a slew of shows and tours that never led on to her growing fan base that she was pulling double duty between work and schooling. No worries about a rickety foundation or a lack of preparation from this girl. The seed has been nurtured good and plenty and is blooming at the right time.
Build Me Up From Bones is a bold work of progressive bluegrass that showcases young Jarosz’s developed songwriting and adeptness at composition, while not sacrificing the whimsy and fun an album from a 22-year-old must have to be genuine. Jarosz isn’t playing over her head or having to make up for anything. She’s deep in the pocket of her own original musical expression, built upon the roots of the bluegrass discipline, and inspired by its lore.
The sultry opening number “Over The Edge” with its fiery electric guitar makes it known that our cute little Sarah Jarosz has matured and is ready to take the world by storm, but it may have some worried that she has run from her bluegrass past. Any of these concerns are alleviated with the very next number “Fuel The Fire” that is driven by the familiar chuck of a clawhammered banjo accompanied by fiddle. From there Jarosz works to satiate a myriad of influences without straying too far from a unified sound, including tackling the dizzying verses of Joanna Newsom’s “The Book Of Right-On,” and Dylan’s “Simple Twist of Fate” that Jarosz revitalizes with a very sparse approach, showcasing how her adeptness with instrumentation and songwriting gives up nothing to her vocal prowess.
Her multi-instrumental training goes far in picking the colors for Build Me Up From Bones, though the work in general feels much more like an exhibit in songwriting as much as anything. Of Sarah’s originals, the “Build Me Up From Bones” title track, and the fingerpicked “Dark Road” came across as standouts, but Build Me Up From Bones fails to deliver one sleepy track, even though some ears may yearn for a little more meat than what Jarosz offers in her progressive approach.
It’s boggling when the arguments that bleed over from the country world question how country can respect its roots and still evolve, when time and time again talented artists from a virile and healthy bluegrass world offer such inspiring illustrations of this very practice. Though bluegrass can be hard to break into, it is tooled for evaluating, cultivating, and nurturing talent instead of trying to maximize its returns financially. The result is a system that sees the budding of world-class music worthy of a wide audience, and this is where Sarah Jarosz and Build Me Up From Bones resides.
1 3/4 of 2 guns up.
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You’ve all heard about the “Million Dollar Quartet”—the recording session at Memphis’s legendary Sun Studios on December 4th, 1956 that compiled the talent of Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash. Well if there was an equivalent to the Million Dollar Quartet in the songwriting world, it would be the one night in January of 1969 when Kris Kristofferson, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Graham Nash, and Shel Silverstein all spent an evening at Johnny Cash’s home in Hendersonville, TN on the banks of Old Hickory Lake, swapping songs and stories from their respective spheres of the music world. The music that was showcased for the first time ever at the intimate songwriter circle became the soundtrack for a generation, and the gathering would go down in history as one of the most potent assemblages of songs showcased for the first time in one place.
The Who and Why
Johnny Cash was in the midst of recording his famous The Johnny Cash Show at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, and Bob Dylan was in the studio in Nashville recording his landmark country album Nashville Skyline (that Johnny Cash appears on). Bob was staying at Johnny’s Hendersonville house at the time. Meanwhile Joni Mitchell was in town recording an appearance on The Johnny Cash Show (she appears on the 1st & 6th episodes of the 1st season in 1969) and was currently dating Graham Nash who tagged along for the adventure. Kris Kristofferson and Shel Silverstein were in the habit of showing up anywhere where their songs might be heard by big name performers, and together they all formed one star studded songwriting circle.
Johnny Cash was the glue of the whole thing, bridging the differences between the dispirit music realms the 6 participants came from with The Johnny Cash Show being the catalyst. Performers on the show regulary stayed at Johnny’s Hendersonville home. “Music is for everybody,” Johnny Cash explained when telling the story of the legendary night to David Letterman in 1985. “And although I’m known as a country artist, [The Johnny Cash Show] was a network show, and I wanted to see some people on it that I knew the people wanted to see.”
“That night in my house [was] the first time these songs were heard…” Johnny Cash went on. “Joni Mitchell sang ‘Both Sides Now,’ Graham Nash sang ‘Marrakesh Express,’ Shel Silverstein sang ‘A Boy Named Sue,’ Bob Dylan sang ‘Lay Lady Lay,’ and Kristofferson sang ‘Me & Bobby McGee.’ That was the first time any of those songs were heard.”
David Letterman’s poignant reaction to Cash’s run down of talent and songs was, “Did you have snacks?”
All five songs became very successful charting singles. “Me & Bobby McGee” went on to become a #1 hit for Janis Joplin (awarded posthumously), and “A Boy Named Sue” a #1 hit for Johnny Cash. “Both Sides, Now” has now been recorded by over 70 artists, including Frank Sinatra, Willie Nelson, Bing Crosby, and Jimmie Rodgers. Dylan’s “Lay Lady Lay” is considered a country standard, and has been recorded by artists as varied as The Byrds, to Duran Duran, to Ministry.
There is one minor correction to Johnny Cash’s recollection. Even though Joni Mitchell most likely sang “Both Sides, Now” that night, the song was first recorded by Judy Collins in 1967, meaning the first time it was heard would not be that night at Johnny’s house in Hendersonville. And though “Marrakesh Express” wasn’t released until May of 1969, some reports have the song being recorded in 1968 for Crosby, Stills, & Nash’s self-titled album.
Nonetheless, the music showcased that night all in one place by the original songwriters is something to behold, and certainly was one of the most diverse, most star-packed, and most hit-packed songwriter circles in the history of popular music.
It was later memorialized by The Highwaymen in “Songs That Make A Difference” from their 1990 album Highwaymen II.
Shel Silverstein – “A Boy Named Sue”
Joni Mitchell – “Both Sides, Now”
Kris Kristofferson – “Me & Bobby McGee”
Bob Dylan – “Lay Lady Lay”
Graham Nash – “Marrakesh Express”
When looking at the historical timeline of country music, many times it is big events that set the wheels of change in motion, for the good and the bad. Whether it is intrusion of pop or rap into country, or the ill-treatment of country music greats, here are some of the most embarrassing moments in country music history.
Shuttering of the Country Music Mother Church
The Grand Ole Opry needed a bigger home and the move was inevitable, but the result was the complete shuttering Ryman Auditorium, also known as the Country Music Mother Church, for 20 years. Aside from being opened by special permission to shoot videos for folks like Jason & The Scorchers, John Hartford, and for parts of the Coal Miner’s Daughter movie, the venue was abandoned between 1974 and 1994, also allowing the surrounding lower Broadway area to be overrun with strip clubs and dirty bookstores. It wasn’t until Emmylou Harris recorded a live album at the Ryman that a renewed interest in the historic venue was sparked, eventually leading to its restoration and re-opening.
Garth Brooks Goes Flying Over Texas Stadium
In 1993 at the old Texas Stadium in Irving, TX, Garth Brooks does a video shoot and decides to pull a Sandy Duncan and go flying over the crowd suspended with wires. Though it was a one-off demonstration, it illustrated Garth’s influence of turning country into more of a commercial, arena-rock presentation.
Jessica Simpson plays the Grand Ole Opry
You already forgot that reality star Jessica Simpson had a stint trying to be a country performer, didn’t you? Her career lasted weeks, but that was long enough for the Opry to decide to give her an opportunity to be on the sainted Opry stage on September 6th, 2008, while many other more worthy performers still wait indefinitely in the wings for the distinguished Opry opportunity.
Unfinished Hank Williams Songs Turned Into Lost Notebooks Album
Publisher Sony ATV cashed in on a collection of lyric sheets left behind by Hank Williams—some unfinished, and all without music—by doling them out surreptitiously to Bob Dylan, and a bevy of undeserving artists including Jakob Dylan and Sheryl Crow, to finish and record. The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams raised the ire of many, including Hank’s daughter and Williams estate executor Jett Williams who said about the project, “It was like ‘here are some lyrics’ instead of trying to think, “If Hank Williams was sitting here with me and it’s got his musical footprints all over it.” You would think that when you heard the song being sung by the artist, that it would have some kind of (Hank) feel to it, which I’m not feeling it myself.”
DeFord Bailey Fired from the Grand Ole Opry
Harmonica player and Country Music Hall of Famer DeFord Bailey was one of the early stars of the Grand Ole Opry, and was an official member from 1927 to 1941 when a dispute with BMI-ASCAP wouldn’t allow him to perform his most famous songs on the radio. Instead of standing behind one of their founding performers, the Opry fired DeFord. This ended his performance career and DeFord shined shoes for the rest of his life to make a living. DeFord did not play the Opry again until 1974 when he appeared on an “Old Timers’ Show.”
Jason Aldean Performs “Dirt Road Anthem” with Ludacris on CMT Awards
“History has been made baby!” Ludacris declared from the stage in June of 2011 when country music saw its first rap performance on an awards show, and the first live mainstream collaboration with a rap artist. This event and “Dirt Road Anthem” hitting #1 would open the country rap flood gates.
Olivia Newton-John and John Denver Winning CMA Awards
Olivia Newton-John’s CMA for “Female Vocalist of the Year” in 1974, and John Denver’s CMA for “Entertainer of the Year” in 1975 symbolized the historic intrusion of pop into the country format in the mid-70′s. The trend was staved off the next year when Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings ushered in the Outlaw movement in country.
Taylor Swift Wins First CMA for Entertainer of the Year
The date 11/11 was not good luck for country music in 2009, when Taylor Swift took home her first Country Music Association “Entertainer of the Year” award along with three other trophies on the night. Teen pop had now taken center stage in country music.
Induction of Keith Urban, Rascal Flatts, & Darius Rucker Into The Grand Ole Opry
The Grand Ole Opry had already been wanting to appeal to a younger, more youthful crowd, but in recent years they have ratcheted it up another notch, completely ignoring older country stars worthy of induction for pop country’s latest trends.
“Struggle” Turns Waylon Songs Into Rap
It was bad enough when rap infiltrated country music. Now it has gone back in time to overwrite the songs of country greats that have passed on. Waylon Jennings’ grandson-in-law nicknamed “Struggle” (his real name is Will Harness, and his real grandfather is Duane Eddy) took 7 Waylon Jennings songs, and rehashed them into rap songs in an album entitled I Am Struggle released in May of 2013. It was an unprecedented intrusion of rap into country music’s past, perpetrated by one of the few people who could get the blessing of the Waylon estate to do so. (read more)
Stonewall Jackson Stonewalled by the Grand Ole Opry
After having his performances on the Grand Ole Opry cut back so much that he lost his health benefits, Stonewall Jackson sued the Opry claiming age discrimination against Opry General Manager Pete Fisher. Stonewall claimed the Opry breached a long-standing code that if stars performed a set number of dates each year, even when they could make more money playing tour dates, they would always have a place to play at the Opry even in their older age. The lawsuit was eventually settled in court, and though the specific details of it were never revealed, Stonewall was happy with the outcome, and his performance schedule increased afterward.
Garth Brooks Becomes Chris Gains
In 1999, a bored Garth Brooks created a fictional dark pop character from Australia called Chris Gaines and released an album called The Life of Chris Gains. It gained Garth one Top 5 hit, “Lost In You,” but Brooks’ Chris Gaines idea met with very heavy criticism and confusion from fans, and after only a few weeks, Chris Gains rode off into the sunset and Garth Brooks re-appeared before a planned movie The Lamb could go into production.
The Grand Ole Opry’s Refusal to Reinstate Hank Williams
Even though there is a Hank Williams impersonator to greet Opry attendees at the door, the institution has refused to reinstate one of country music’s most legendary icons, and one that made the Opry an internationally-known institution, even in a symbolic gesture. Hank was dismissed from the Opry in 1952 for missing performances and rehearsals due to alcoholism, and was told he could return once he sobered up. Hank never got that opportunity, dying on New Years Eve of that year. A movement called Reinstate Hank looks to reinstate the country star back into the institution.
George Jones “Choices” & Other CMA Performances Cut Short
At the 1999 CMA Awards, George Jones was asked to perform an abbreviated version of his song “Choices.” George refused and boycotted the show, and in response Alan Jackson, while preforming his song “Pop A Top,” cut his own song short, and launched into George’s “Choices.” (read more)
This was actually the second time an artist boycotted the CMA’s. In a much less publicized event, Waylon Jennings refused to perform an abbreviated version of “Only Daddy That’ll Walk The Line.” Waylon recalls, “They told me not to get smart. Either I did it or I got out. They said, ‘We don’t need you.’ I decided that was true and left.”
As you might suspect, at the halfway point of 2013 a list of mainstream country’s worst misdeeds is mostly populated by an ear-serrating cacophony of country rap. With only a couple of exceptions, country rap has replaced what last year at this time was a parade of laundry list-themed songs. Country rap has become the next devolving plateau in mainstream country’s tireless effort to find the true meaning of “lowest common denominator.”
Florida Georgia Line – “Cruise” (remix ft. Nelly)
Just take a moment to appreciate that this song was on Saving Country Music’s 2012 “Worst Country Songs So Far,” yet nearly a year later it still sits at #1 on Billboard’s country chart. “Cruise” very well might go down as the biggest single in the history of country music. So with that in mind, we’ll re-qualify it for this dubious distinction on the technicality that they remixed it with rapper Nelly in 2013.
Jason Aldean – “1994″
“In Music Row’s everlasting quest to train all of its resources on scouring America to unearth only the finest, most purest form of audio diarrhea, they have struck the mother of all motherloads originating from the unholy bowels of Macon, Georgia’s Jason Aldean. Yes Nashville, pat yourself on the back, let all of the Auto-Tuned stars sing out in unison as Stratocasters bray out a cacophony of stadium rock riffs in unified celebration–you have officially discovered the shittiest country music song to ever touch the human ear drum.
“Do I understand the levity and the long history of country music that must be considered to declare “1994″ the worst country song that has ever been released? Yes, yes I do. And yet I still stand firmly behind that opinion.” (read full rant)
Michael Jackson Montgomery – “I Support The Troops More Than You”
After slipping into an Affliction T-Shirt two sizes too small and shoving a couple of tennis balls down his skinny jeans to embellish the silhouette of his manhood, the pop country star that never was named Michael Jackson Montgomery makes us cringe from the sappy, mawkish, flag-waving hyper patriotism that goes far enough beyond the line of patriotic decorum to be called an American embarrassment. A terrorist might die every time this song is played, but the tender ears of the freedom-loving world is the collateral damage. Eat your heart out Toby Keith.
Brad Paisley & LL Cool J – “Accidental Racist”
“Brad Paisley is bored. And he’s been bored with country music for years now. It doesn’t mean he doesn’t love country. Brad is the savant of country music, but like the gifted kid in elementary school who when not challenged begins to lose focus or even lash out, Brad has fallen deeper into joke songs and gimmickry to keep himself engaged with country as time has gone by.
“Accidental Racist” is outside of what is relevant in music right now. Sappy racism songs went out of vogue in the 90′s. And it’s an oversimplification of the issue. Race in the United States is in a very fluid state at the moment. We have a black President. One of the largest concentrations of black Americans is in the South. If you’re white and living in Texas, you’re a minority. This is not 1991, and we’re not living in the shadow of the Rodney King trial. It doesn’t mean racism is dead, but in no way does it help to revert back to old platitudes and plays for emotionalism.” (read full review)
Blake Shelton – “Boys ‘Round Here”
It may lose out to Jason Aldean’s “1994″ as the worst country song ever, but it is a close second. What makes “Boys ‘Round Here” more dangerous is people actually like it, resulting in it becoming a #1 hit.
“Just when we thought the American public was finally getting wise to the fact that country rap is a Cancer of Western Civilization, needing to be cut out and radiated like the grapefruit-sized, puss-filled tumor it is, here it comes roaring back like a raging case of bleeding hemorrhoids.
“Blake Shelton’s “Boys ‘Round Here” is songwriting by algorithm and analytics, fashioning together words and sounds known to have the widest impact on mainstream radio’s weak-of-mind demo. The “boys” in the title of “Boys ‘Round Here” is fitting, because this song is rank immaturity. It’s the audio equivalent of sneaking out of your mom’s house to smoke pot behind a Pizza Hut.” (read full review)
Darius Rucker – “Wagon Wheel”
It’s not that this song is terrible, or even that Darius Rucker’s version is that bad. It just that this song’s legacy has become so quagmired and convoluted, you can’t like it anymore, even though you still kind of do. Earlier this year on NBC’s The Voice, one group of contestants performed the song and attributed it to Darius Rucker, when it should have been attributed to Old Crow Medicine Show….which really should have been attributed to Bob Dylan.
It is a good song. But good gosh, let it ride off into the sunset already.
“As if legions of college town string bands full of anthropology majors mercilessly regurgitation “Wagon Wheel” over and over to try and score hummers from undergrads after the show in their Volvos with the back windows tattooed with political stickers wasn’t enough, now Hootie has lent his back to the collective toil of the Western World to do everything humanly possible to run this song into the proverbial ever-loving ground so hard that it taps the mantle of the earth and causes a catastrophic volcanic and tectonic event that wipes out the entire human $@#*ing race.” (read full rant)
Joe Diffie feat. D. Thrash – “Girl Ridin’ Shotgun”
“Did you feel that Oklahoma? That was the earth tremor caused by your native son Joe Diffie selling out so violently it measured 2.1 on the Richter scale. The mulleted, cop mustached 90′s semi-sta has released an “answer” song to what many consider the worst song in country music history, Jason Aldean’s country rap “1994,” and it is as embarrassing as puberty.
“The beats for “Girl Ridin’ Shotgun” sound like they were composed by a 7th grader who just snorted his ADD meds, just like all of the beats of the Jawga Boyz’s bombastic and trashy tracks. The beat doesn’t even get five seconds into the song without going off meter. There’s biscuit crumbs in Joe Diffie’s mustache that could compose a better beat. And then D Thrash’s first line doesn’t even rhyme. Are you effing serious with this song? “Girl Ridin’ Shotgun” makes me want to make out with my cousin and bet on a dog fight.” (read full rant)
If you would’ve told The Avett Brothers back in 2007 when they released their album Emotionalism that in five years, the best-selling album in all of music and the Grammy winner for Album of the Year would be from a roots band playing acoustic instruments and featuring emotional, singer/songwriter material, they’d probably call you crazy. And the Avetts probably would’ve never guessed in 2007 that they’d be performing with said roots band, UK’s Mumford & Sons, along with Bob Dylan nonetheless, on the 2011 Grammy presentation. But that is the power one album can have to launch a formidable music career and spurn a new movement in popular music when the right combination of sonic leadership, accessibility, and sincerity are struck.
Certainly the rise of Mumford & Sons and the mass commercial success of roots music isn’t singularly predicated on just one album from one band, but if you wanted to put on your archeology hat and start digging deep into what led to popular interest in roots music, you will trace many of the clues back to The Avett’s Emotionalism.
You certainly can trace the Avett Brother’s success back to Emotionalism at least. Before Emotionalism, the Avetts were a steadily-rising acoustic roots band garnering an enthusiastic following from their high energy shows and heartfelt songwriting, signed to the small, but resourceful Ramseur Records label. After Emotionalism, the band was picked up by uber-producer Rick Rubin and added to his American label, consistently selling out theater-sized venues coast to coast. People began to talk about the “Avett Brothers Model” for making it in music; one built around the idea of not hitting it big overnight or benefiting from a big push of capital and promotion to launch a career, but a slow and steady rise formed from hard, constant touring and grass roots support. It was a version of the “get in the van and drive” model from the punk music world, but one that had the potential of breaking through the usual ceiling put on independent music. The Avett Brothers became the biggest band that nobody had ever heard of, and in many ways they still are.
Emotionalism wasn’t just a breakthrough, it was a template; a how-to for many facets of music, including what direction to take roots music to keep it relevant while still respecting its roots, how to market music in the dawning digital age, and how to get the “accessibility” quotient right where it didn’t disrespect the authenticity of the music or a band’s already-established fan base. The Avetts first album from 2002 was called Country Was, and worked from a similar ideal as Bloodshot Records’ “Death of Country Music,” i.e. that commercial country had lost its way, and with respect for its foundations, new life needed to be breathed into the format.
Emotionalism took The Avett Brother’s wholly original lineup and idea, and made it universally appealing. Banjo, guitar, upright bass, piano in places, with both Avett brothers playing percussion with their feet is where the Avetts built their sound from, while their songs delved into the emotional side of the human experience.
The two greatest Avett Brothers attributes are their songwriting, and their energy, and Emotionalism captured both vibrantly. In the opening track “Die. Die. Die.” you immediately pick up on the approach of the album that is both authentic to the Avett’s sound, but not afraid to make the song’s appeal far reaching. The band is afforded the latitude to be simple and fun at times from the brute strength of their songwriting, evidenced in songs like “Shame” and “The Weight of Lies.” So when you get to a more saccharine tune like the almost do-woppy “Will You Come Again?” you can enjoy it fully, almost craving a break from the depth instead of wondering if the song is some transparent play for mainstream attention.
Like all Avett Brothers albums, Emotionalism features a lot of starts and stops in the songs, and heavy composition, which may come across as foreign to the country or rock ear at first. But if you want a starting point with the Avetts, Emotionalism would be it, especially the first few songs. Some might find a song like “The Ballad of Love and Hate” a little too sappy. But this is the type of fearless foray into the vulnerability of human emotion that is one of the Avett’s calling cards, and one of most appealing attributes to their die-hard fans.
Emotionalism also helped to bridge different musical perspectives. The Avetts fan base consists of roots fans, some bluegrass fans, punk fans from the Avett’s past and from the band’s energy, and alt-country/Americana fans from the craftsmanship of their songs. Emotionalism also featured appearances by anti-folk founder Paleface, and former BR549 fiddle player Donnie Herron, who now tours with Bob Dylan and has appeared on albums from Hank3 and Bob Wayne.
It’s unlikely acoustic roots music will stay hot forever, if it hasn’t already started a precipitous decline. There’s more than a good chance popular music will look back at this music era years from now and laugh at all the vests and beards and upright basses and wonder what was wrong with them for getting wrapped up in roots music so deeply. But the the good stuff from any era regardless of trend will always hold up through time, and it’s hard not to see The Avett Brothers’ Emotionalism being graced with such an auspicious destiny.
Two guns up.
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The case can be made that Mumford & Sons is the biggest thing in all of music right now, with Babel winning the Grammy for Album of the Year and their worldwide sales rivaling all other artists. This is a weird reality for many roots fans who fell into favor with acoustic music many years ago.
Roots music has always been a quiet, shy sphere of the music world, not really craving popularity or hype. Meanwhile Mumford’s wild success has some talking about a roots backlash, and has opened up the possibility of an impending crash in the popularity arch that could leave elements of the roots world feeling like a fad, like 60′s folk or late 90′s swing.It all makes you wonder if Mumford’s music wouldn’t be better received in some circles if it just wasn’t so damn popular.
Many of the bold changes in the direction of popular music begin with artists that are too fey, too polarizing to become popular themselves. So it takes others who understand how to soften music with sensibilities to make it accessible to the masses, and hopefully, if time is on their side, transect the popularity timeline, resulting in superstardom.
With Mumford & Sons, there were many other bands, artists, and events that set the table for their wild success, buttering up crowds, building an appreciation for acoustic roots music throughout varying demographics and origination points. Here are a few of them.
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O Brother Where Art Thou created its own roots music tempest and bluegrass revival when it was released in 2000, and since it originated in the cinematic world instead of the music world, its impact on popular culture was far reaching, finding its way down avenues that otherwise would not be exposed to roots music. From that big bloom, the seeds were planted that would later sprout and blossom into the Mumford & Sons’ ubiquitous, widespread appeal, making acoustic roots into full-blown popular music.
Old Crow Medicine Show was one of the main ingredients in both influencing the sound of Mumford & Sons, and setting the table for their mass appeal. Marcus Mumford says of Old Crow, “I first heard Old Crow’s music when I was, like, 16, 17, and that really got me into, like, folk music, bluegrass. I mean, I’d listened to a lot of Dylan, but I hadn’t really ventured into the country world so much. So Old Crow were the band that made me fall in love with country music.” Ketch Secor of Old Crow concurs, saying, “Those boys took the message and ran with it.”
Meanwhile Old Crow Medicine Show, and specifically their gold-certified song “Wagon Wheel” created the fervor for roots music that Mumford & Sons are currently feeding off of.
Old Crow Medicine Show might be the band named as Mumford’s primary influence, but when looking at the band from the standpoint of lineup, instrumentation, energy, and the emotional context of their lyricism, The Avett Brothers’ fingerprints can be found all over Mumford & Sons.
The easiest similarity to distinguish is how the two bands line up on stage. Scott Avett was one of the first acoustic roots frontmen to play a bass drum with his foot while standing at center stage, while his brother Scott played a hi-hat cymbal the same way. The brothers also had the propensity to move around stage behind different instruments, specifically the drums, just like Marcus Mumford does. The high, punk-esque energy The Avett Brothers bring to their show alongside a softening of the edges of roots music is something else Mumford emulates, as are their songs that seem to drip with emotionalism. This emotional approach to roots music is what separated The Avett Brothers from their bluegrass forebears when The Avetts started out in 2000; a full 7 years before Mumford & Sons’ first release.
Whereas Mumford & Sons’ rise has been meteoric, The Avett Brothers enacted a very slow build, van touring incessantly on a small club circuit until their infectious approach to roots music saw them graduate to small theaters, large theaters, and then signing with Rick Rubin in 2008, nearly a decade after they started out. The Avett Brothers approach, and the sweat equity they built from tireless touring over many years is at the very fabric of Mumford & Sons’ sound and success. Mumford is not an Avett Brothers rubber stamp, but it’s hard not to give The Avetts props for blazing a wide, clear path for them.
Bob Dylan is given great credit as a Mumford & Sons’ influence, and this is primarily evidenced in the poetic, and sometimes veiled nature of Mumford’s lyrical writing. In that same respect, Shakespeare and Plato are Mumford influences. Both characters and others from classical literature are originators of language that has appeared in Mumford & Sons songs. Marcus Mumford once said, “You can rip off Shakespeare all you like; no lawyer’s going to call you up on that one.” They also draw from American novelist John Steinbeck in their songs “Dust Bowl Dance” and “Timshel.”
The Devil Makes Three is never given enough credit for impacting the roots music revolution. It’s probably a stretch to say they had any direct influence on Mumford & Sons, but when The Devil Makes Three started in 2002, they were one of the very first bands, and virtually the only band on the West Coast that brought a high-energy, punk-inspired approach to acoustic roots music. Rarely spoken about east of the Mississippi or away from their native Vermont, The Devil Makes Three draws massive crowds in California and have inspired many spawns across the country. They are responsible for countless new acoustic roots fans, and helped allow the cross-continent permeation of Mumford mania.
Along with the obvious bluegrass greats like Bill Monroe, Jimmy Martin, Flatt & Scruggs, Doc Watson, and Ralph Stanley, newer artists like Wayne “The Train” Hancock, The Civil Wars, Trampled by Turtles, The Hacksensaw Boys, Split Lip Rayfiled, Larry & His Flask, The .357 String Band, The Foghorn Stringband, The Wiyos, The Goddamn Gallows, Reverend Peyton, and many more laid a foundation for alternative roots music appreciation in America that Mumford & Sons now enjoys.
As if legions of college town string bands full of anthropology majors mercilessly regurgitation “Wagon Wheel” over and over to try and score hummers from undergrads after the show in their Volvos with the back windows tattooed with political stickers wasn’t enough, now Hootie has lent his back to the collective toil of the Western World to do everything humanly possible to run this song into the proverbial ever-loving ground so hard that it taps the mantle of the earth and causes a catastrophic volcanic and tectonic event that wipes out the entire human fucking race.
Even fat assholes in football jerseys and orange Crocks who make it a force of habit to yell “Free Bird!!” at every single live music event they’ve ever attended are listening to this thing and going, “Really?”
“Wagon Wheel” isn’t the “Free Bird” of our generation, it is our generation’s sonic equivalent of inserting a corkscrew into your earhole and giving it a nice good healthy turn. The song, initially…ahem… “borrowed” from a Bob Dylan demo by Old Crow Medicine Show’s Ketch Secor with a “better to ask forgiveness than permission” approach, officially holds the title of the most ubiquitous song in the history of mankind that nobody’s heard. Darius is on a mission to fix that last part.
Yeah, I liked “Wagon Wheel” just like you did when it was released nearly a decade ago, but the incessant versions and Darius’s specifically is nauseating to the point of inducing violence. Actually Hootie starts it off harmless enough, it’s the chorus where the layers of harmonies and the egregious use of Auto-tune makes him sound like Tron 2000 giving oral sex to R2-D2. Like Obi-Wan would say in his infinite wisdom, “His voice is more machine than man now.”
Oh wait, it’s Lady Antebellum singing harmonies with Darius on this thing? Shit, maybe I’m letting it off too easy. Check it out for yourself…
Oh sorry, that’s Hootie whoring himself for the Burger King Tendercrisp Bacon Cheddar Ranch. Here it is…
And who is the prick from “Save Country Music” on FACEBOOK that put the above video together? So he stole my name, then he stole this song, that Darius took from Old Crow, that Old Crow took from Dylan, and that all collectively comes together so that this idiot can solicit “likes” on his stupid ding-dong Facebook page? Let me give you a little piece of advice “Save Country Music” on Facebook: “likes” have no cash value, and ripping off folks will bullhorns as big as mine is never a good idea.
Two guns down for Hootie! Two guns down for this version of “Wagon Wheel!” Two guns down for fake Facebook “like” pages! Two guns down for Burger King! And down guns down for the Tendercrisp Back Cheddar Ranch!
…actually, scratch that last one. That sandwich is pretty damn good.
The annual Muddy Roots Festival held over Labor Day weekend announced their initial lineup last week (see below) and at the top of the list was the name of legendary Bakersfield Sound songwriter Red Simpson, chiefly known for his devotion to the story of the American truck driver. Living on the outskirts of Bakersfield in an old trailer park, Red was recruited for Muddy Roots during a chance meeting with Century Media recording artist Bob Wayne who was touring through town.
In a strange turn of events, Bob Wayne found himself sitting in Red Simpson’s trailer at 6 AM, swapping songs and stories with a man he considered a hero, and who country music has so unfortunately forgotten over time.
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Bob Wayne: When I first started touring with Hank3, mainly Andy Gibson (Hank3 steel guitar) turned me on to him. Basically when we’re on tour and rolling down the road, we’re listening to music that we love, and turning each other on to music. Andy was like “Man, you’ve got to hear Red Simpson,” and he has all his CD’s. As soon as I heard it, I immediately fell in love with it and we would constantly be listening to it. He’s always singing about truck driving, or being a highway patrolman. We just thought it was so funny that was his only two topics pretty much. We obsessed over him for years. I was a huge fan, but I never looked him up to see what he was doing. I knew he was still alive but I figured he was really old.
Trigger: He must have been a big influence on your music as well. Your 2nd album was 13 Truckin’ Songs and since then you’ve put out even more trucking songs.
Bob Wayne: Definitely. When we we’re recording (with Andy Gibson), he was one of the guys we would go to to get the sound we were looking for. We’d listen to Johnny Paycheck, Red Simpson…just pull up these records and listen to them, and we really listened to Red Simpson’s guitar players. In fact we gave him a little tribute in the song “Mack.” It’s kind of subliminal, it’s in the background, but there’s a little guitar lick in there about Mack the truck driver. Red’s sound is just amazing.
Trigger: So how did it come about that you were hanging out with Red Simpson in Bakersfield and all of a sudden you’re helping book him at the Muddy Roots Festival?
Bob Wayne: It goes back to my guitar player Ryan (Clackner). He’s got a really big beard. He was in downtown Nashville–this goes back to last summer I think–and he was just sitting there hanging out, and this woman came up to him that was probably in her 60′s, and came up to Ryan out of the blue and said, “I just love your beard, and your aura.” She told him, “I work at the Crystal Palace in Bakersfield.” It’s a famous museum and restaurant down there in Bakersfield, and she gave him her number and said if he was ever in Bakersfield he could have a free tour or whatever.
This was all before Ryan joined my band. So he joins the band now, and we’re in Bakersfield and he ends up calling this girl and she comes to our show. We get to talking and I mentioned Red Simpson, not knowing she knew him or anything like that. I said, “I love Bakersfield, this is where Red Simpson is from.” And she said, “Do you like Red Simpson?” and I said, “I love Red Simpson, you don’t even know.” About 15 minutes later she walks over with the phone and says, “Someone wants to talk to you.” I’m like “Okay?” And I get on the phone and it’s like, “Hey, this is Red. How’s it going man?”
We started talking. Ended up he knew Donnie Herron of BR549 who now plays with Bob Dylan and whose played on all of my albums. Donnie used to live in Bakersfield. So we had that connection. And then Red was like, “Why don’t you come over tomorrow morning and we’ll drink some coffee? We’ll trade songs.” Just listening to him talk, I’m such a fan of his–like the way he laughs, he gives a little “heh” like he does at the end of some of his songs I was like, “Oh my God this is really him.” I was a little star struck. This is one of my heroes. He says, “How about 6 AM?” and I’m like, “Oh my God.” He’s 78 I think, so he’s up there. So I got up early, none of the band wanted to go that early.
He lives in a trailer park in Bakersfield, right in between the cemetery and the dump in this old ass trailer park. He’s got two old Cadillacs sitting out in the front, just like my old Cadillac limo. We ended up sitting there talking for hours, drinking coffee. He showed me all his demos, he played me all the unreleased Red Simpson songs that he’s just written. He’s just sitting in his trailer writing all these songs. He said, “Man, I’d really like it if you’d cut this one.” He gave me a couple of songs he really wants me to record. I asked him, “Do you still play gigs?” And he said, “I play down at the nursing home every Monday night for a free meal.”
So anyway we ended up hanging out all day until I had to leave. We we’re driving up to the next gig and I thought, “Man, I wonder if he would want to play Muddy Roots?” So I called Jason (Muddy Roots promoter), and Jason said, “Oh hell yeah.” So I called up Red and he said, “Well, I don’t have any band up there. And so I said, “We’ll learn your songs and do a good job.” Andy (Gibson) was really excited too. He said, “One minute we’re driving down the road listening to Red Simpson, now we’re going to be playing with him!”
Red is also going to do a show at the Country Music Hall of Fame February 23rd, and I’m actually going to pick him up in my limo and give him a ride to it. We’re going to hang out, he’s gonna come by the house, and we may do some recording and stuff. So Red Simpson is gonna be going to the Country Music Hall of Fame in my limo, and I’m gonna blow the big bullhorn for him and open the door and everything!
Trigger: This is all so appropriate because the Country Music Hall of Fame, their big exhibit is highlighting the Bakersfield Sound, which of course Red Simpson was a part of as much as anybody. It’s all about finding these old guys that time has forgotten, and giving them the props that they deserve.
Bob Wayne: Yeah, and it was funny because after I called him, about 10 minutes after he called me again and said, “Hey man, thank you so much for doing that. And uh…if you can get me any more gigs…” (laughing). So I’ve been putting out some feelers for him. Now I’m friends with him, it’s weird. We call, I talk to his wife and stuff. It’s crazy. — Purchase Tickets to the Muddy Roots Festival
For years, the principals of the Hank Williams estate (Hank Jr. and Jett) were warring back and forth, and this kept the treasure trove of Hank Williams’ legacy recordings relegated to bootlegs and listening parties for the select few with access to the Acuff/Rose archive. But the last couple of years have seen a dizzying dump of previously-unheard material from country’s first superstar, enough to make navigating and delineating between the various projects a little difficult.
This week yet another new release of music was announced, called the Lost Concert Recordings set for release on October 2nd. The collection includes two live concerts, one from Niagara Falls, NY on April 25, 1952, and another from Sunset Park in West Grove, PA on July 13, 1952. The collection also includes the only known live recording of “Are You Walking and A Talking,” and a rare radio interview conducted on September 14, 1951 (see more details below).
Some folks who may have been listening to the Hank’s Mother’s Best bootlegs for years may see these new box sets as pricey extravagances, but Time Life has done a remarkable job putting together collections to appeal to various people and that make great gifts filled with extensive liner notes and photos. Whether you have the inclination to purchase them or not, it is good to see Hank’s complete legacy now finally available for all the world to hear.
Here is a complete list of Hank Williams’ recent legacy recording releases.
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Release Date: October 28, 2008
This was the first of the Hank Williams legacy recordings to be officially released by Time Life, and includes 54 songs that Hank recorded as part of a Mother’s Best Flour-sponsored show on WSM in Nashville weekday mornings during 1951. When Hank was out of town on tour, he would pre-record the shows on an acetate format. The acetate discs remained on the shelves of WSM for years until they were thrown away and a studious WSM studio worker rescued the recordings in a dumpster. After an 8-year court battle, the Williams estate finally gained ownership of the recordings. This first collection only includes a potion of the much-larger Mother’s Best collection, but also includes some of its choicest cuts. The Complete Mother’s Best recordings would be released later (see below). A bootleg of the Mother’s Bestrecordings was circulated for years before this official release.
It is available on vinyl, as well as CD and MP3 format.
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Release Date: May 5, 2009
Another collection culled from The Mother’s Best Recordings, but is only one, 15-song CD showcasing the best gospel cuts from Hank’s weekday morning show.
- I’m Gonna Sing
- I Heard My Savior Calling Me
- Precious Lord, Take My Hand
- I’ve Got My One-Way Ticket to the Sky
- Thirty Pieces of Silver
- When God Dips His Love in my Heart
- Farther Along
- From Jerusalem to Jericho
- When the Fire Comes Down
- Drifting Too Far from the Shore
- The Old Country Church
- Lonely Tombs
- Where the Sould Never Dies
- Where He Leads Me
- I Saw the Light
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Release Date: November 3, 2009
This is the second 54-song installment of the original Mother’s Best recordings, and like the first, comes with 3 discs and a 40-page booklet in the physical form, but this one is not available on vinyl.
One of the highlights from this collection is it showcases Jerry Rivers and Hank’s Drifting Cowboy Band on multiple tracks. This box set has sold significantly less copies as the first Unreleased Recordings and wasn’t as heavily promoted, possibly because the cuts are deeper into the Mother’s Best sessions. However for serious Hank Williams fans, Revealed holds just as many audio treasures.
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Release Date: April 5, 2011
This is the mother load of the Hank Williams Mother’s Best recordings, all 365 tracks, 143 songs, on 15 discs and one DVD. The collection comes in a collector’s “radio box” with an embedded sound chip, and includes a 108-page hardcover book with information and photos, an introduction by Hank Williams Jr. and an afterward by Jett Williams, and a poster that chronicles Hank’s 1951 touring schedule. The collection went on to be nominated for a Grammy.
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Release Date: September 13, 2011
Another release by Time Life, but the first not to include recordings from the Mother’s Best acetate collection. Instead this 3-disc set includes 8 15-minute recordings from his first real syndicated radio program, “The Health and Happiness Show” sponsored by Hadacol, 4 previously-unreleased recordings from 1940 that Jett Williams bought at an auction from a collector, and recordings from 1938 when then teenager Hank Williams recorded his first ever songs in the kitchen of DJ Uncle Bob Helton in Montgomery, AL. on acetate. This collection includes truly the earliest and most-rare Hank Williams recordings, including his first ever recorded song, a blues number called “Fan It”.
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Release Date: October 4, 2011
This is the most controversial of Hank Williams’ legacy releases, and the only one not released by Time Life but rather Bob Dylan’s label. The Lost Notebooks takes unfinished song sheets from Hank found after his death and combines them with big names in music today to finish them like Jack White, Sheryl Crow, and Alan Jackson. In a story very similar to the acetate recording from Hank Mother’s Best collection, 17 songs from these “lost notebooks” were allegedly found thrown away by an employee at the offices of music publisher Sony ATV (previously Acuff/Rose). The employee then sold them to a collector and after an extended legal battle, Sony ATV re-acquired the lost songs.
Allegedly as part of The Country Music’s Hall of Fame’s Williams Family exhibit, Bob Dylan was given the songs to finish them, though Saving Country Music discovered Dylan had been in discussion to finish the songs as early as 2004. Dylan finally decided to hand the songs out to various folks to finish. There continues to be questions surrounding The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams project, but that hasn’t stopped it from becoming one of the best-selling of Hank’s recent legacy projects.
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Release Date: October 2nd, 2012
This collection includes two live concerts, one from Niagara Falls, NY on April 25, 1952, and another from Sunset Park in West Grove, PA on July 13, 1952, and boasts the only known live recording of “Are You Walking and A Talking,” and a rare radio interview conducted on September 14, 1951. In between the songs, Hank shares personal anecdotes about himself, his band members and his songs.
Niagara Falls, New York: April 25, 1952.
1. Comedy with Hank and the Drifting Cowboys
2. I Can’t Help It
3. Jerry Rivers and the Drifting Cowboys: Orange Blossom Special
4. Why Don’t You Love Me
5. Are You Walking and A Talking
6. The Funeral
7. Hey Good Looking
8. Cold, Cold Heart
9. Lovesick Blues
Sunset Park, West Grove, PA: July 13, 1952.
11. Hey Good Looking
12. Comedy with Hank and the Drifting Cowboys
13. Jerry Rivers and the Drifting Cowboys: Fire On The Mountain
14. Lonesome Whistle
16. Long Gone Lonesome Blues
17. Half As Much
18. I Saw The Light
19. Lovesick Blues
20. Interview: Hank interviewed by Mack Sanders, KFBI, Wichita, Kansas, September 14, 1951.
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Release Date: June 25th, 2013
Another Time Life release that includes songs from the original Mother’s Best acetate recordings, the one disc Sacred Songs II features tracks that can be found on other Mother’s Best compilations, but focuses on the gospel selections that Hank loved to sing. Sacred Songs II also includes the bonus of a complete radio show from 1951 finishing the album Hank Williams singing his hit Lovesick Blues among others.
The current landscape of hip American music is like a lyric out of a classic Bob Dylan song about the changing times. Old is new, and nerdy is cool. It is in this environment that the Alabama Shakes have flourished like the imperceptible germs on the tips of your fingers when rubbed into a Petri dish and left to fester. A style that notched a bullseye smack dab in the middle of the wave of current popular appeal without sacrificing artistic purpose is the reason The Alabama Shakes are becoming an American music success story we can actually be proud of for once.
This rootsy, soulful rock band is bound together by the force known as Brittany Howard, part Janis Joplin, part Kimya Dawson, both poetic, and fanatically possessed. Whenever I think of the true embodiment of the word “soul” I think of an old black woman. Whether it’s an old black female singer, or young white male guitar player, if they truly want to have soul, they must have an old black woman trapped inside of them somewhere, with 1,000 injustices fighting back tears in world-torn eyes, and infinite wisdom bred from bad choices by the self and others. Soul is anger only semi-controlled, and that is what Brittany Howard has. (“I’ll fight the planet!” she proclaims in the song “Heartbreaker”. )
This is backed up by the rest of The Shakes, a solid group of musicians who know how to flesh out the vintage vibe Brittany’s original compositions are written to convey. This is a very youthful, energetic-sounding album, which is refreshing to hear coming from roots circles that generally are dominated by post-punk or indie rock-converted 30-somethings studying under gray-haired alt-country elders. The Alabama Shakes sound only a few steps outside of the garage, and that’s a great approach to hear with music that is textured to feel aged.
This their first full length album Boys & Girls has some fun moments and some rocking moments that really touch on a groove, and then some very deep, tearful moments. It is exquisitely arranged where Brittney is never buried by anything else going on, though even if the mix was imbalanced, it would still be impossible not to be drawn to her presence in the music. I guess you would call that magnetic. In such a shallow, simple-minded world, she would command a room full of magazine models. Brittney is bold; a power generator of a human earth being.
The best part about Boys & Girls is the promise you can hear in this music. Man, I love when you can hear promise, when you can enjoy how good the music is here and now, but also spy the branches where something even better will spring from.
There’s nothing really country about The Alabama Shakes, though some country foundations are there if you listen deep. And with their soul and roots sound, you could slip them between a Wayne “The Train” Hancock and Scott H. Biram on a bill and nary an eyelash would be batted. Maybe a guilty pleasure for some country fans, certainly a better music choice for the masses, we shall see what fate awaits The Alabama Shakes as the fickle winds of style and appeal blow back and forth in the American conscious. We will also see if any band or scene or style is big enough to contain Brittany Howard, or if she will burn too bright to sustain.
The Alabama Shakes are not for everyone, but I struggle to find a wart to point at.
Two guns up!
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Preview & Purchase Tracks from Amazon (only $5 right now)
Isn’t Arron Lewis bored yet and ready to return to butt rock? Apparently not, as he told The Tennessean late last week he’s planning to release a “very country” album in June. What does “very country” mean? If his previous song “Country Boy” is any indication, it will be songs with laundry list country lyrics, and that’s exactly what you get with his new single “Endless Summer” just released to the always gullible and complicit entity known as country radio.
Since Aaron Lewis doesn’t know shit about country music, we can’t expect him to stray too far from The 6 Pop Country Song Formulas, but someone forgot to tell Arron Lewis it looks dumb when you publish the “Summer Song” formula verbatim without filling in any of the blanks to complete the ruse. Didn’t they at least have Mad Libs in the power elitist, ultra-affluent area code 413 hamlet of Longmeadow, Mass. where he grew up?
In this dumb, unremarkable song, Aaron does do two pretty remarkable things. The first is he name drops Jason Aldean of all people. That’s right, designer jeans fashionista Jason Aldean is now cool enough to name drop in a song when you’re a struggling, aging rocker grasping, clawing for any tiny bit of mainstream relevancy or attention. And then after Aaron says how proud he is that his girls sing along to Jason Aldean, he calls out Miley Cyrus, saying, “It makes me smile just a little bit because it’s not a Miley Cyrus song.”
Miley Cyrus is a colossal trainwreck as well, but at least she is true to herself. A couple of years ago when she was interviewed by Parade, Miley said she is steering clear of country because country “feels so contrived on many levels.” Guess who Miley is talking about Aaron, she’s talking about your genre-hopping ass, the transparency of your stupid summer song, and your designer jeans model buddy Jason Aldean.
I wonder if Lewis will have Fred Durst of Limp Bizkit sit in with him like he did on “Outside”.
I can see through you Arron, see your true colors. Inside you’re ugly, ugly like Miley.
Actually I thought Miley did a decent job covering Bob Dylan’s legendary “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” for the Chimes of Freedom Compilation. I’d take it over anything from Aaron Lewis any day.
Two guns down!
Scott McDougall from Portland, OR might be the last of the true Romantic-era troubadours: a bardic-like, almost fantasy character that arrives in town with a bass drum on his back and guitar in hand, and sets up at the local pub to sing songs, spin tales, slay lonesome moments, and save the spiritually repressed before whisking out of town like something out of a dream. The puffy beard, the cherubic features, his skill with wit, instrument, and lyric delivered with a wisp of Renaissance flair, he’s like an archetype pulled right out of the glossy illustrations of childhood fable.
Like most of McDougall’s music, A Few Towns More is a travelogue, with cautionary tales of the ill-fated life intermixed. “Come along,” he says, and then takes all of us chumps more weighted down by life’s priorities on his journey spanning both geography and personal exploration.
The album starts off with an evocation of the warmth and fellowship of one of those late-night pub scenes alluded to above called “Coleraine”, where this folk-based one man band gets some help from friends with chants and claps. “Evening Tide” is where McDougall shows off his inner Bob Dylan, in a sweet and slow composition laid out so eloquently it sticks to memory with ease.
McDougall is skilled, but not a superpicker, and he knows how to use this to his advantage. Instrumentals like “Ask That Pretty Girl To Be My Wife” and “Cuttin’ The Grass/ Tom & Willy Go To Town” (I presume about fellow troubadours Tom VandenAvond and Willy “Tea” Taylor) dazzle you with an authenticity that would be lost if they were just some excuse for technical showboating. Instead the speechless wonder of the songs really helps capture the magic of the moments alluded to by their titles.
The gospel offering “When God Dips His Love In My Heart” is when McDougall’s skill at singing is shown off, but the epic “The Travels of Frederick Tolls – Part 2″ is the standout track of the album; starting off with the Celtic flavor McDougall brings to much of his banjo and guitar playing, and then morphing into a sonic and thematic anthem, encapsulating all of McDougall’s tricks and trades and philosophies into one song with the power to change a life’s perspective.
Always my concern with McDougall is accessibility, a concern I doubt he’s concerned with personally as he traverses the country, singing his songs to any willing audience from paying crowds to porch parties. The album’s send off track, “Ready, Begin” includes one of the most modern-sounding rhythms I’ve heard McDougall employ, and his loud, ringing play on the bass drum in songs like “Cuttin’ The Grass” may suck people in from the simple visceral joy of the rhythm. McDougall uses bass drum not just to keep the beat like many one man bands, but to add a whole new rhythm dimension to the music.
A Few Towns More is a journey worth taking.
1 3/4 of 2 guns up.
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(will be available on Amazon, iTunes, CD Baby soon)
Country music madman, the Outlaw Carnie Bob Wayne has just announced he has a new album coming out May 22nd, 2012 (April 9th in Europa) from Century Media called Till The Wheels Fall Off, and that the album will feature a duet with none other than Hank Williams III called “All My Friends” that will be released MONDAY (3-26-12). ***UPDATE – Song has been released and can be PURCHASED HERE.
“When I recorded my first album Blood to Dust, I had about 30 songs written to choose from.” Bob explains. “The next two albums I recorded were a lot of older songs that I had in the bank. Then with the Century Media release of Outlaw Carnie we made kind of a “best of” album. I can tell you this, this album is EXACTLY where I’m at right now in life!”
Bob Wayne began his country career after years in metal bands when touring with Hank3 as a guitar tech. Wayne and his song “Working Man” appeared on Hank3′s 2008 album Damn Right, Rebel Proud as a duet. His new album, just like all of his albums, was recorded by Hank3′s steel guitar player Andy Gibson, and Hank3 had a little input as well.
“I had just gotten home from 312 shows in 17 different countries with no break. The day I got home Andy and I started breaking everything out and getting it going. My ears were completely burned out from touring so hard and I had gone over to his (Hank3′s) house to play him some tracks and he gave it a listen. It was pretty funny because I thought we were almost done mixing, and he looked over at me and goes, ‘Wheres the acoustic guitar?’ Then I started really listening and he was right!”
Though Andy Gibson has always recorded Bob Wayne’s albums, Bob explains that the process has evolved dramatically over time.
“Back then we were recording on an 8 track machine. The next two records were also done in this fashion. As Andy helped with several more Hank 3 albums and a Goddamn Gallows album and several .357 String Band records, his studio became more and more advanced, better mics, more recording knowledge, better gear all around, etc. Also through the years I was touring constantly on these songs and I became more confident in my singing. I think that’s pretty obvious in the performance differences from my early recordings to now.”
“The funny thing is when I hear people talk about really liking the old cd’s and now that Century Media signed us were all overproduced or whatever, that’s really funny to me because they have nothing to do with the recording except give us money (laughing), it is still just me and Andy in here grinding it out. The biggest difference in the way we recorded back then and the way we record now is we track the drums and bass and acoustic guitar and vocals live. Before we didn’t have enough equipment to do that so we had to record everything one at a time. I really like recording the foundation of the record live as it is more true to what we actually sound like.”
Along with Hank3 and Andy Gibson, Wayne also had help on the album from Donnie Herron (BR549, Bob Dylan) on the title track that was written at the 2011 Muddy Roots Festival.
“It was at Muddy Roots hanging outside my camper one night. Brook from The Calamity Cubes happened to be walking by and Jean “La Diabla” from Holland was there as well. We ended up writing the song together right there in the campgrounds! A few fans even stopped by and listened! “Spread My Ashes On The Highway” is probably my favorite song on there. It actually kind of got me chocked up while writing it. The lyrics about all my friends quitting their jobs and hitting the road to travel and have fun kind of got to me. I actually wrote most of that driving by myself down some highway in Holland after playing the last show of a 312 day run.”
Here in 2012, we live in a wickedly polarized environment, especially with the United States being in an election cycle. There seems to be very little that is gray. Either someone is saving the world, or you’re stenciling a Hitler mustache on them and posting it to Facebook. A musical parallel to this was illustrated when Jason Isbell blamed Dierks Bentley for ripping off his song “In A Razor Town”. The fervor quickly became political on Isbell’s side, with the former Drive By Trucker lumping Dierks in with all of country music’s pop-oriented fare, even going as far as saying he hopes that people that come to the defense of Dierks “don’t vote” through his Twitter feed.
Certainly a little perspective seems to be called for. Though I happen to agree that Isbell has a great case for “In A Razor Town” being ripped off by Dierks’ “Home”, the assailant is likely not Dierks, but the other songwriter Dan Wilson. Furthermore, lumping Dierks with the Justin Moore’s and Rascal Flatts’ of the world and calling him a “douche” makes Isbell come across as bitter, and more importantly, uninformed. Trust me, I’ve called many a pop country star a “douche” over the years, but I have also gone out of my way to say it is important to draw distinctions when talking about pop country stars.
And that’s what leads us to Dierks Beltley’s Up On The Ridge from the summer of 2010, an album I’ve been asked to review many times, because despite the “where” and the “who” it came from, shows remarkable heart, progressiveness, and independence.
When I’ve given positive reviews to some mainstream country albums, many times I’ve had to gerrymander the system to factor in that they were made under the very obtrusive and controlling Music Row environment in Nashville. The elements of safety and formula go without saying for these types of albums. But Up On The Ridge doesn’t have that feel. If anything, it feels like it originated from the alt-country or Americana world, with a lot of progressiveness, and a “clean” aspect more indicative of play for the NPR demographic than mainstream radio.
The idea is that this is a “bluegrass” album, but Flatt & Scruggs fans shouldn’t get their hopes up too much. Though there is some straight up bluegrass here like the song “Rovin’ Gambler”, most of the music is more of a progressive take on bluegrass, incorporating drums for example. Nonetheless, it is fervently true to it’s concept, and to a fresh approach. There’s virtually no electric instruments on the album. That in itself is supremely bold for modern-day Music Row fare.
This album started off as a side project that grew into something more, and with the tremendous amount of collaboration in it, that can be seen. The Punch Brothers and Chris Thile appear numerous times. Del McCoury, Rob McCoury, Ronnie McCoury, Kris Kristofferson, Alison Krauss, Sam Bush, Miranda Lambert and Jamey Johnson are some of the other names that might get you excited just by seeing the list of contributors. This album is very much a collaborative effort. Though Bentley is not given sole songwriting credit on any song, he’s given some credit on all of the album’s standout tracks, including “Up On The Ridge”, “Rovin’ Gambler”, “Draw Me A Map”, “You’re Dead To Me”, and “Down In The Mine”.
Instead of taking a myopic view on one bluegrass approach, Up On The Ridge takes a world view and attempts to hit on most aspects; more a bluegrass primer, meant for the unfamiliarized masses than the devotees of the sub-genre, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Because of this approach, I sense there might be some cherry picking of it’s tracks contingent on listener’s tastes, but this also means this album has a lot of spice and keeps the ear attentive, and makes you appreciate the different styles even if they’re not normally your flavor. Dierks bluegrass take of U2′s “Pride (In The Name Of Love)” with Del and The Punch Brothers is something I’d probably not be up for normally, but the way the song illustrates the parallels between bluegrass and classical composition is brilliant.
“Down In The Mine” has the essence of an Old Crow Medicine Show song, with it’s overt message and language. “Draw Me A Map” feels like the Alison Krauss-style of bluegrass: mainstream sensibilities without compromising a tie to the roots. Only two songs on this album felt like they didn’t work: a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Señor (Tales of Yankee Power)” that wasn’t necessarily awful as much as it was out of place, and the Miranda and Jamey collaboration “Bad Angel”. If there is a play for commercial appeal on this album, this song is it.
Is this a great bluegrass album? Of course not. But a great bluegrass album would also not be a vehicle to introduce a generation of people to Del McCoury, Kris Kristofferson, and bluegrass music in general. Is it the album that Dierks set out to make without commercial consideration or label meddling? I kind of think it is, and it’s moderate sales seem to reflect that.
Being a hardcore Dierks fan of any stripe might be a little maddening. If you’re a fan of pop country, you might see a project like this and wrinkle your nose at it, while if you love this album, the potentially-Isbell ripped-off song “Home” may make you feel betrayed or embarrassed. I don’t know if to characterize it as a balance or a war, but Dierks’ career has been a tale of commercial appeal and artistic concerns all intertwined. The greater lesson is that it is rarely fair to pigeon hole an artist or their music against a polarized ideal. It would not be fair to Jason Isbell, and it is not fair to Dierks. Up On The Ridge proves that.
1 1/2 of 2 guns up.
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This weekend, former guitarist for the Drive By Truckers and current solo artist Jason Isbell accused Dierks Bentley of ripping off his song “In A Razor Town” through his Twitter feed. “‘Dierks’ has officially ripped off my song ‘In A Razor Town.’” Isbell fired off on Friday. “Dierks is a douchebag. The song of Dierks is called ‘Home.’” Dierks defended himself and the song’s co-writer Dan Wilson by referring to an interview with Dan from ASCAP about the writing of the song. El Trash seems to think the Dierks camp ripped off Matt King as well.
So now what happens is people break to whatever side they were predisposed to break to according to their fandom affiliation with either Isbell or Bentley, and I guess since I run a website called “Saving Country Music”, I am obligated to post an article about it, while the rest of folks listen hard to subtleties in YouTube videos to see if they can rule one way or another.
The simple fact is that songs get ripped off all the time, and artists accuse each of ripping off songs all the time, but when you break it all down there is an actual hard science that goes into determining if a song was ripped off or not that is used by the only entity whose opinion truly matters: the courts. When you take a song and write out the notes and rhythms and chords, either they match up, or they don’t. Even then, sometimes the similarities are coincidental, or too subtle to to judge. Or maybe the reason the two songs are similar is because they both ripped off another song with a similar structure, or because that is a popular structure for songs currently.
Both Isbell and Bentley occupy a place for me that as soon as I start hating them, they do something cool, and as soon as I start warming up to them, they do something stupid, like I don’t know, rip someone’s song off, or take to Twitter to call someone a “douche” instead of handling the matter more civilly.
I can’t help but think back to the situation surrounding Old Crow Medicine Show’s unbelievably overplayed but nonetheless catchy song “Wagon Wheel”. Old Crow’s Ketch Secor admits he took the chorus of the song from an old unfinished Dylan outtake and really only fessed up to it when he went to copyright the song in 2003 after already putting it on an EP and playing it for years. However Dylan was cool about it. They both are now credited as songwriters on the track, and the song has gone to become the new “Free Bird”, guaranteed to whip all of our asses to infinity by being massively overplayed for years to come. I also think back to the Gretchen Wilson/Black Crows brushup a few years back, where the Robinson brothers ended up being credited as songwriters on “Work Hard, Play Harder” in a feud that was handled rather privately.
As I’ve been saying for years, there is too much music, and these songwriting feuds are just a symptom of it. I guess some people fancy Jason Isbell as an independent artist, and Dierks Bentley as a mainstream artist, but as the songs and the conflict illustrate, their sounds are very similar, which begs the question, why do we need both? Is mainstream music mining song ideas and structures from the independent world for use with their franchise entertainers? Well of course they are, it’s been going on for years. Is Dierks Bentley a franchise mainstream country star? It depends on who you talk to. Some people you talk to would say that Isbell is a pretty big franchise as well.
I guess my point is that I’ll wait for the courts to decide, while maybe giving a slight edge to Isbell. But this is only going to become more and more common, and much harder to sort out as every single pattern and possibility of notes and chords gets occupied by the unnecessary amount of songs, albums, and artists out there taking advantage of the Western World’s excessive amount of free time and capitol. There’s plenty of music out there right now to last us until eternity. So write a song to bare your soul, not to meet some predetermined release schedule to keep your career on track, or to live out your American rock n’ roll fantasy. And if you do that, I’d bet dollars to donuts you won’t get accused of getting your roses from another man’s vine, and you’ll have a song that is so wholly original, it is impossible to steal.
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