Tragic news out of Nashville where where prolific and beloved bass player Henry Strzelecki has passed away after being struck by a vehicle while out for a walk Monday, December 22nd. Strzelecki experienced severe injuries including major head trauma in the accident, and was in a coma over the holidays. He eventually passed away from the injuries on December 30th.
“Needless to say, this Christmas has brought a new perspective for our family,” said Henry’s niece Heather Barnes, speaking for the family. “At the end of the day it doesn’t matter what present you got, or how the turkey tastes, it matters who you’re with. Look around at your loved ones and appreciate them for who they are. They are the best presents you’ll ever get.”
Henry Strzelecki was an elite bass player in country music, playing in Hee Haw’s “Million Dollar Band,” the “Nashville Superpickers,” and over his storied career, playing bass for Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, Chet Atkins, Loretta Lynn, Ray Charles, Roy Orbison, Jim Reeves, Boxcar Willie, George Strait, Elvis, Charlie Rich, and many more. Some noted studio sessions that involved Henry Strzelecki include Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde, and Roy Orbison’s iconic song “Pretty Woman.” Strzelecki also played on the very last recording session with Louis Armstrong in Nashville produced by “Cowboy” Jack Clement.
Strzelecki was originally from Birmingham, Alabama, graduated from Jones Valley High School in 1958, and began playing country music in his teen years, recording with Baker Knight on Decca Records and playing in a group called The Four Flickers with his brother Larry. He also had a publishing and production company in Nashville and was nominated for Bassman of the Year at the 23rd Academy of Country Music Awards.
But the most identifiable contribution by Henry Strzelecki might have not involved his bass playing, but his songwriting. Strzelecki was the songwriter for the novelty song “Long Tall Texan,” first performed by The Four Flickers in 1959, and later recorded and released by artists such as The Beach Boys, Lyle Lovett, and many more. The catchy comedy tune has been tickling funny bones for over 50 years, and promises to continue to do so for years to come.
A “Celebration of Life” will be held for Henry on January 17th at 2 PM at the Pennington United Methodist Church in Nashville.
RIP Henry Strzelecki
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Singing with Jim Reeves
Henry Strzelecki’s “Long Tall Texan”
Rejoice Southern rock fans. If you’re looking for a refill of your favorite poison, Atlanta, Georgia’s formidable Southern rock outfit Blackberry Smoke has just announced they have a brand new album on the way called Holding All The Roses, due on shelves from Rounder Records on February 10th, 2015. It’s the followup to 2012′s acclaimed The Whippoorwill, and their first with Rounder. “I think that this record does a really good job of conveying what we do and what we’re about,” says singer, frontman, and songwriter Charlie Starr.
Holding All The Roses is also the band’s first record with noted producer, mixer, and musician Brendan O’Brien, best known for his work with The Black Crowes, Pearl Jam, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and Bruce Springsteen to name a few. Brendan was the producer the band had always wanted to work with. “We didn’t go in and overthink any of the arrangements of the songs with preproduction,” Starr told Lagniappe Weekly in early October. “We just talked on the phone and we went in the studio. We did it and eight days later, we were finished.”
Blackberry decided to go with Rounder after Zac Brown’s Southern Ground label which released The Whippoorwill wasn’t working out. “Southern Ground kind of got shook up, and Zac kind of dissolved it for a while. It was a shame, because he’s our friend. It’s a shame to see a friend have something that doesn’t or didn’t work.”
Starr says listeners can expect more contrast on Holding All The Roses, with more harder-edged material, but also more laid-back material on the 12-track album. “People who enjoyed the ride of ‘The Whippoorwill’ and the way those songs flowed, these are more up and down.”
The band, which is currently in Europe, is also planning to tour the album hard and heavy, including a tour with Leon Virgil Bowers in March.
“The plan for this record is to go out and play as much as we can, and just take it to the people,” Charlie Starr continues. “There’s so much that’s out of your hands when you release a record, but that’s the part that we can control. That, and making an effort to make a better record every time.”
Holding All The Roses is currently available of pre-order, including in limited-edition red vinyl.
Holding All The Roses Track List:
1. Let Me Help You (Find the Door)
2. Holding All the Roses
3. Living in the Song
4. Rock and Roll Again
5. Woman in the Moon
6. Too High
7. Wish in One Hand
8. Randolph County Farewell
9. Payback’s a Bitch
10. Lay It All on Me
11. No Way Back to Eden
12. Fire in the Hole
The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville, TN has announced what will be their next major two-year exhibit to replace the current Bakersfield Sound exhibit in the museum’s largest revolving exhibit space. It will be called Dylan, Cash, & The Nashville Cats, and it will primarily focus on folk songwriting icon Bob Dylan, Country Music Hall of Famer and Legend Johnny Cash, and the “Nashville Cats,” which include many of Nashville’s unheralded studio musicians from the late 60′s, early 70′s era.
The exhibit will take on a The Johnny Cash Show vibe—the Cash-hosted prime time television show where Johnny Cash famously collaborated with Bob Dylan on stage. Cash later appeared on Dylan’s landmark Nashville Skyline album which opened up Music City to an entirely new generation of musicians and songwriters. The exhibit is scheduled to open up on March 27th, 2015 for a proposed two-year run.
“Nashville has always been a more nuanced music center than it commonly gets credit for,” says museum director Kyle Young. “And the same thing could be said for the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. We strive to tell the full story of country music’s evolving history using a mix of provocative learning experiences, and this exhibit is a great opportunity to talk about the early confluence of country and rock. Dylan recorded Blonde on Blonde, John Wesley Harding, and Nashville Skyline here. The Byrds made Sweetheart of the Rodeo, Neil Young recorded Harvest, and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band created Will the Circle Be Unbroken. Albums like these had a profound influence on popular music as well as establishing Nashville as a music hub and cool southern city with a sense of place.”
Here is how the Country Music Hall of Fame breaks down what people can expect from this three-pronged exhibit:
While recording his album Highway 61 Revisited in 1965, Dylan was in New York working with producer Bob Johnston, a former Nashville resident who hired multi-instrumentalist Charlie McCoy to lead sessions in Nashville. McCoy attended one of Dylan’s New York sessions and was invited to play guitar on “Desolation Row.”
Taken with McCoy’s musicianship, Dylan was encouraged by Johnston to record in Nashville where there were other musicians as skilled as McCoy. Dylan took Johnston’s advice and arrived in Nashville in 1966 to make Blonde on Blonde, one of the great achievements of Dylan’s long career and a benchmark of American popular music. Dylan returned to Nashville to record John Wesley Harding, Nashville Skyline, and portions of Self Portrait.
Having met several years before, and having cemented their friendship at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival, Dylan and Johnny Cash were reunited in Nashville, in February 1969. Dylan already had recorded most of Nashville Skyline when he and Cash went into the studio. They cut more than a dozen duets in two days. “Girl from the North Country” appeared on Nashville Skyline, and Cash wrote Grammy-winning liner notes for the album.
Later that same year, Cash began hosting a weekly show for ABC. The Johnny Cash Show was shot at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium and became an outlet through which country artists and folk, pop and rock musicians could reach new audiences. Dylan and Joni Mitchell were guests on the first show, and Ronstadt, James Taylor, Young, Lightfoot and Eric Clapton’s Derek & the Dominos appeared on subsequent shows.
Many artists who followed Dylan’s lead and made the pilgrimage to Nashville to record or appear on Cash’s show were rewarded with the opportunity to work with world-class musicians. In several cases, the experiment yielded some of the artists’ most successful or influential albums, thanks to the accomplished players drawn from a core group of Nashville studio musicians including David Briggs, Kenny Buttrey, Fred Carter Jr., Charlie Daniels, Pete Drake, Mac Gayden, Lloyd Green, Ben Keith, Grady Martin, Charlie McCoy, Wayne Moss, Weldon Myrick, Norbert Putnam, Jerry Reed, Pig Robbins, and Buddy Spicher, among others.
In the political climate of the era, Nashville’s mainstream country recordings were perceived as the music of the conservative South, overtly slick and commercial. In stark contrast were the folk-oriented, politically charged songs coming from Baez, Buffy Sainte-Marie and other left-leaning artists who looked past their differences to work with Nashville’s accomplished musicians.
This is not primarily a story of cultural or political divisions, but rather of people coming together from very different backgrounds and moving past perceived divisions to find common ground through music.
Between 1966 and 1974, while contributing to countless country music classics, Nashville session musicians also played on landmark pop and rock songs such as Dylan’s “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” and “Lay Lady Lay”; Young’s “Heart of Gold”; the Byrds’ “Hickory Wind”; Ronstadt’s “Long Long Time”; Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Boxer”; Cohen’s “Bird on a Wire”; Cale’s “Crazy Mama”; Baez’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”; and McCartney’s “Sally G.”
Dylan, Cash, and the Nashville Cats opens March 27, 2015, and runs through December 31, 2016. It will be accompanied by a series of educational programs, including live performances, panel discussions, films, instrument demonstrations and more. The exhibition will follow the nearly three-year run of The Bakersfield Sound: Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, and California Country, which closes December 31.
When this is the opening stanza to the opening song of an album, you may be safe to assume that you’re in store for a rambunctious and potentially lewd exploration of the human id in all of its glorious misbehaving malcontentedness. And in the case of Sweet GA Brown’s new album Wordsmith you would be right, at least partially. But you would be wrong to assume that this is all this self-described wordsmith has to offer in these 13 songs, and be surprised that amidst the salty language and brashness is one of the best-written albums so far this year, and one which is embedded with the virtues of simple wisdom, stretching all the way to a sincere spirituality that is as fulfilling as it is refreshing.
Though he may be a stranger to your ears, Sweet GA Brown has been slaving away at writing songs for years, and has released five complete albums and an EP since striking out as a solo artist in 2009. Aiding him in this 2014 effort is renown blues guitar player Husky Burnette and Dave “Burma Shave” Dowda on drums, but first and foremost this is a songwriter’s album that focuses on Brown’s words and melodies as he saws away on his acoustic guitar while whoever else happens to be around plays catch up. This is not a slick album by any stretch, but just like Dylan back in the day it really doesn’t matter. The audience is tasked to listen with their heart, and whatever imperfections may persist can be taken as character.
Sweet GA Brown is the real deal when it comes to songwriters—sweating under a blue collar all day to earn the right to sing in swill joints at night. His music emanates from the small town of Ringgold, GA just outside of Chattanooga; that’s the Georgia-Tennessee-Bama region that has seen the rise to other songwriters who like to cut their hard-hitting realism with humor like Roger Alan Wade.
There’s a lot of Bob Dylan in Brown’s writing in the way he sometimes ambles and makes you think he’s going to lose his train of thought or not be able to pull off the next rhyme, only to prime you for a lyrical sucker punch whose welt remains well after the song is over. There is some Chris Knight in him in the respect of just being a simple guy living a simple life, and the simplicity in how his stories deliver their moral is what sets him apart. And Sweet GA Brown’s spirituality seems to underwrite everything he does, even when on the surface it may not seem as such, like how the opening stanza articulated above is really about how our demons are our undoing, and at every turn life is there to serve them to us on a silver platter.
With his Amish-style beard and a baseball cap bent over his eyes so you can barely see them, Sweet GA Brown can pull of a song like the uncensored “Wordsmith,” saying, “Some do it for the fame, some doing it for the riches, I’m just a motherfucking wordsmith … bitches. Well we all live in a yellow submarine, someone’s gotta clue me in on what the hell that means. ‘Cause I gotta get up in the morning and go to work.” Then with the very next song called “Cookie of Gold,” he comes across as brilliant and wise as an Asian proverb, only relayed in the endearing colloquial language of the American South.
As Wordsmith carries on, Sweet GA Brown’s spirituality is revealed when he sings a very humble and understated version of “Will The Circle Be Unbroken?” which then dovetails into one of the album’s best songs, “Don’t Curse God.” The way in which Brown first endears himself to you through poetry and humor allows him to delve into non-secular material without making you feel like you’re being preached to. This allows the message to become the most important thing to take away for the song as opposed to the vessel, making the songs inviting for both religious and non-religious listeners. And just to make sure this album doesn’t turn too serious, it concludes with a cover of Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy” backed by the Pine Box Boys.
Sweet GA Brown and Wordsmith are a pleasant surprise and shouldn’t be frowned upon because of somewhat crude production, potty mouth language, and religious leanings. Within this music is the message of living life with a grin on your face and kindness in your heart, and no matter what your stripes, that’s a message that can resonate with all of us.
1 3/4 of 2 Guns Up.
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The Man in Black may be gone, but his legacy lives on, and so do many of the personal artifacts that tell the story of Johnny Cash that he left behind. One such important piece of history is about to go to the auction block in Las Vegas: a 1970 “build-to-order” Black Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow automobile owned by Johnny Cash that has quite the interesting story.
Between 1969 and 1971, Johnny Cash hosted a total of 58 episodes of “The Johnny Cash Show” on ABC. All the greats of the day from country music and beyond appeared on the show, including historic appearances by people like Bob Dylan and Bob Hope. To show their appreciation, ABC purchased the Rolls-Royce in a custom black color and presented it to Johnny Cash as a gift. The automobile was a long wheelbase, long door “Saloon” model, and boasted a privacy partition, and custom “JRC” gold lettering in the rear doors. This was one serious motor coach.
The vehicle was owned by Johnny Cash until about 1985 when he sold it to another private owner, and on September 25th, the car will go up for grabs to the highest bidder as part of Barrett-Jackson’s Las Vegas auto auction at the Mandalay Bay Events Center.
This is not the first time the car has been put up for sale recently. In a 2013 episode of the reality show Pawn Stars, the car was offered up for $350,000 but was passed on. The price was then reduced to $150,000, but it still wasn’t sold. The upcoming Las Vegas auction will have no reserve, so it is sure be sold this time.
There were roughly 36,000 Rolls-Royce Silver Shadows produced in many different styles, but only one like Johnny Cash’s. It has a twin-carbureted 412 CID aluminum V8 engine, independent front and rear suspension, and four wheel disc brakes. It only has 32,000 original miles on the odometer, and is mostly in original condition. The hood and trunk lid were also aluminum. Included with the car are various pieces of original paperwork that have Johnny Cash’s signature on them as the official owner.
For more information on the auto auction, visit www.barrett-jackson.com.
Since the Johnny Cash Museum opened in downtown Nashville in May 2013, it has become one of Music City’s must-see spots and an international destination point for country music fans and Johnny Cash fans alike. Barely a year has passed since its initial opening and the museum is already tackling its first new addition. On August 15th, the museum will unveil its “Legends of Sun Records” exhibit celebrating the legendary Memphis studio that gave rise to Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, and of course, The Man in Black himself.
“Johnny Cash began his musical career at Sun Records,” says Johnny Cash Museum Founder Bill Miller. “Sun was the launch pad for several young men whose music would forever impact the world. Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison and Johnny came from similar backgrounds and humble beginnings. Once they walked through the door at the Memphis Recording Service, their lives would never be the same. We are proud to showcase Johnny’s labelmates from this historic period in rock and roll history.”
The Legends of Sun Records exhibit will showcase many artifacts and much information about the original class of Sun Records stars, but one man, and one particular piece of memorabilia might be worth paying a little bit of extra attention to.
W.S. “Fluke” Holland is not a name that is as familiar to music fans as the other big Sun Recordings stars, but his significance to early country and rock & roll cannot be overstated.
W.S. Holland was Johnny Cash’s drummer for 40 years, and is considered by many as the “Father of the Drums.” When he joined Johnny Cash’s band in 1960, the famous “Tennessee Two” officially became the “Tennessee Three,” but it was a fluke the drummer joined the band at all, leading to his now inseparable nickname.
W.S. Holland never intended to be a drummer. He was raised in Bemis, TN and worked for an air conditioning company after high school. He was a big music fan, and would go out after work to see Carl Perkins play with his two brothers at a local bar. Holland used to beat his hands on the side of the upright bass to the rhythm of music, and on a whim the Perkins clan invited Holland on a trip to Sun Records, and told him to borrow a drum set to play. One thing led to another, and W.S. Holland became one of Sun Records’ go-to session drummers.
W.S. Holland was the drummer for the famous “Million Dollar Quartet” session that matched up Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley, and Jerry Lee Lewis (he got paid $11.50 for the gig—union scale at the time). He played on many other famous Sun Records recordings, including Johnny Cash’s “I Walk The Line”, “Folsom Prison Blues”, and “Ring of Fire”, not as a member of Johnny’s band, but as a session player. Holland also played on many other famous Sun recordings, including “Blue Suede Shoes.”
Later W.S. Holland would take the same drum set used in many of those famous Sun Studios sessions, and they would become the first full drum set ever used on The Grand Ole Opry. Though Bob Wills back in 1945 brought his Texas Playboys to the Ryman, including their full-time drummer, The Opry forbade Bob from playing the drum set on stage. An argument ensued, and eventually The Opry caved and allowed the drummer to play a partial set behind a curtain. It’s said that Bob at one point said, “Move those things out on stage!” and the drums made a quick and controversial appearance, barring Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys from the Opry for life. But the set owned by W.S. “Fluke” Holland, and the set that is on display as part of the Johnny Cash Museum’s “Legends of Sun Records” is the first full drum set, and the first officially approved set to ever grace The Grand Ole Opry’s hallowed stage.
The biggest “fluke” occurred for W.S. “Fluke” Holland when he was hired by Johnny Cash to play a quick two week run of shows in New York and Atlantic City. That two weeks lasted 40 years in Johnny Cash’s band, and the rest is history. Later when Johnny Cash formed The Highwaymen with Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Kris Kristofferson, W.S. “Fluke” was the supergroup’s full-time drummer. “Fluke” also played on Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue” and “Sunday Morning Coming Down”, played on the Live at Folsom Prison and Live at San Quentin albums, and was also the session player for Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline record.
The quaint, four-piece drum set on display at the Johnny Cash Museum could be considered the most important drum set in this history of country music—and rock and roll music for that matter, or American music in general. Along with all the other important artifacts that make up the “Legends of Sun Records” exhibit, it makes this new museum addition a worthy visit for music fans of all stripes.
W.S. “Fluke” Holland still plays drums and tours today in his W.S. Holland Band.
Photos by Jarrett Gaza
Old Crow Medicine Show’s new album Remedy is the first album the string band has released since officially minting a #1 song in the form of Darius Rucker’s take on “Wagon Wheel”, and the first as the freshest members of the prestigious Grand Ole Opry. 2013 was a big year for the buskers, and the band has gone from riding praise from Doc Watson and the kind mentoring from David Rawlings, to entering some of the highest, and most regarded circles in the alternative country world. As a band that has achieved top industry recognition without compromising who they are, they have enough mustard to rub elbows with artists like Lucinda Williams and Rodney Crowell now, yet the vitality to feel like even better years could still be ahead.
As much as some independent music fans might want to shake their fists at Hootie, or cup their hands over their ears when “Wagon Wheel” comes on, or correct you when you attribute the song to Old Crow without mention that Bob Dylan had a hand in the track too, the simple fact is Old Crow Medicine Show’s “Wagon Wheel” has now become an American music standard in an era when music standards no longer exist. And along with this accolade, they’ve become one of the first traditional-oriented outfits to join the Opry in recent memory. No matter the unpleasantness in the mainstream overall, Old Crow Medicine Show has been responsible for a few promising chutes of life springing from the creatively-barren landscape, while still maintaining their underdog charm and independent spirit.
Are there string bands out there that are better than Old Crow Medicine Show? Sure, whether from a technical standpoint with a band like Nickel Creek, or an energetic standpoint with an artist like Jayke Orvis. And the more string bands you listen to (and there’s one on every corner these days), the more this becomes evident. But Old Crow Medicine Show is the band that showed up in Nashville and were able to maintain their true and original form of expression, and have it stick. The trendy string band craze of 2012 topped by Mumford & Sons came and went, and Old Crow Medicine Show is still here.
The one price Old Crow pays for the loyalty to themselves is that the range of expression as a busking band is limited. Maybe they can take a few stabs at some deeper material that shows off their songwriting side, but veer too far away from the history of the band and it could result in sneers. Since this is the case, most every Old Crow album lays out in a similar manner. You have your wild-eyed elbow swinging hoedown songs, your few moments of sedated songwriting material, and Medicine Show always seems to work in a song or two about the troops and other social issues, antiquated just right to fit their old-school style. This has made any new Old Crow project somewhat predictable from an approach standpoint. At least, this is what the critic inside me says. But the music fan inside me after a few rounds through this album can’t help but to feel the infectious joy embedded in these tracks, the humorous turns of language, and the fiddle burns that instinctively get you off your feet. It’s a tried and true formula for Old Crow Medicine Show because it works, and sends the spirit reeling.
The big press release story surrounding Remedy has been that Old Crow and Bob Dylan have collaborated once again. “Sweet Amarillo” constitutes the album’s first single and video, and as much as it seems like a gimmick to go back to the same well “Wagon Wheel” was drawn from, “Sweet Amarillo” is quite fetching, and may end up being the album’s most memorable track. Another tune called “Mean Enough World” works very much in the style of an old Dylan song, and combined with the speed and offbeat approach of Old Crow, it results in a track that shows off all the band’s best attributes.
Another cool track is “Doc’s Day”, referring back to the band’s earliest incarnation when Doc Watson discovered them and helped set the string band on the successful path they’re enjoying today.
Overall if this album has a theme or a muse, then the Volunteer State would be it. The Tennessee flag on the front cover was no happenstance. Many string bands like Old Crow who show up in Music City end up with Nashville in their rear view, a middle finger out the window, and their Tennessee flags burning. But as discussed above, the biz has been quite favorable to Old Crow, especially for the last little while. Almost as if to pay homage, they canonize many of the features of Tennessee and Nashville in the songs “O Cumberland River” and “Tennessee Bound”. Other songs not necessarily about Tennessee on the surface—like the somber “Dearly Departed Friend” about a fallen soldier that references Tennessee beating Georgia in a college football game—still hold Tennessee as an underlying setting.
Though I’m not sure how much the world is helped by some of their silly songs like “8 Dogs, 8 Banjos”, you can’t help but get swept up in the enjoyment of “Brushy Mountain Conjugal Visit” or “Shit Creek.” The album concludes in a “Seven Bridges Road” moment for the seven piece when they perform the sorrow-filled “The Warden” in stacked harmony. It may not be any “Wagon Wheel” in moneymaking muscle, but “The Warden” performance rivals any other of Old Crow’s recorded tracks.
Somewhat predictable, but very enjoyable, Old Crow Medicine Show’s Remedy continues their reign as America’s preeminent string band, while ushering in a new era of success and recognition that will see the band go down in history as an important influence.
1 3/4 of 2 guns up.
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Kris Kristofferson may have never shot anyone or spent time in prison, but when you look at his life and accomplishments, it is an absolute marvel of the American experience. From starting off as a Rhodes Scholar, to becoming a helicopter pilot in the Army, to being responsible for a Hall of Fame career in country, to becoming a Hollywood superstar and dating singers and actors to making daring moves to further his career, Kris Kristofferson is not just a country music badass, he’s one of the most badass Americans to ever be born.
More in this series:
- 10 Badass Waylon Jennings Moments
- 10 Badass Merle Haggard Moments
- 10 Badass Wanda Jackson Moments
- 10 Badass Marty Stuart Moments
- 10 Badass George Jones Moments
- 10 Badass Hank3 Moments
- 10 Badass Billy Joe Shaver Moments
1. Becoming a Rhodes Scholar
Kris Kristofferson is a smart one to say the least. The Rhodes Scholarship is an Oxford University postgraduate distinction that is considered the world’s most prestigious academic scholarship and scholastic accolade. Created in 1902, and the first international scholarship program of its kind, Rhodes Scholars are considered to have any job available to them throughout their lives, and many have gone on to be Presidents, Prime Ministers, and prominent business leaders. Only about 80 scholars are selected each year from around the world, and Kris Kristofferson was one of them to be bestowed with the Rhodes Scholar honor in 1958. While at Oxford, Kristofferson studied literature at Merton College—the same college J.R.R. Tolkien was a professor at during the period. Kristofferson also earned his “Blue” in boxing as a collegiate athlete.
It was at Oxford that Kristofferson first tried his hand in the music business. He recorded for a label called Top Rank Records under the name Kris Carson, and was dubbed the “Yank at Oxford”. But the pursuit didn’t go anywhere after a record company in the United States claimed they owned Kristofferson’s rights.
2. Flying Helicopters as a Captain in the Army
Possibly country music’s most well-known veteran, Kris Kristofferson came from a strong military family. After college at Oxford, his parents pushed him to enlist and Kristofferson went into the United States Army as an officer, attending Ranger school and achieving the rank of Captain as a helicopter pilot. Kristofferson received his training at Fort Rucker, Alabama before being deployed to West Germany as part of the 8th Infantry Division. After serving out his tour of duty, Kristofferson was scheduled to become an English Literature professor at West Point, but decided to pursue a career in songwriting instead. The American Veterans Awards named Kris Kristofferson “Veteran of the Year” in 2003. His first successful songwriting hit was called “Viet Nam Blues” originally recorded by Dave Dudley.
Kristofferson later flew helicopters commercially, especially in Louisiana, traveling back to Nashville to pitch songs. He wrote “Help Me Make It Through The Night” on an oil platform in the gulf, and “Me & Bobby McGee” also while in Louisiana.
3. Taking a Janitor Position to Help Become a Songwriter
Being from a proud military family, Kris Kristofferson was not only expected to do his duty to his country during his youth, but to follow a military career throughout his life. Flying helicopters and spending five years in the military apparently wasn’t enough, and when Kris relayed his plans to move to Nashville and become a songwriter, Kristofferson’s family officially disowned him. They never completely reconciled.
Cut off from his support network, Kris Kristofferson struggled. This Rhodes Scholar and Oxford graduate that could fly helicopters resorted to taking a janitorial position at the studios of Columbia Records simply to be one step closer to his dream of becoming a songwriter. Kristofferson was in the studio when Bob Dylan was cutting his album Blonde on Blonde, but was too bashful to approach him. He did get the courage to befriend Johnny Cash, who was warm to Kristofferson and considered some of his songs, but never took the young songwriter seriously until….
4. Landing a Helicopter on Johnny Cash’s Lawn to Deliver Demos
At the time, Kristofferson was working as a janitor at the offices of Columbia Records where Johnny Cash was signed. Kristofferson had met Cash a number of times, in the studio and backstage at The Grand Ole Opry, but Cash wouldn’t show any attention to young Kristofferson’s songwriting aspirations. Kris would slip Cash demos of his work, or give them to June Carter or Luther Perkins when he had a chance, but according to Cash, he would take them home to the Hendersonville house and toss them into Old Hickory Lake.
Kristofferson took part-time work with the National Guard to help pay bills, and desperate to get Johnny Cash’s attention, decided to deviate from his flight plan while on a training run and land his helicopter in the Hendersonville property’s front yard. What happened next depends on who you ask. According to Cash, Kristofferson came sauntering out of the helicopter with a beer in one hand, and his demo tapes in another, demanding to be heard. But Kristofferson paints a more subdued picture. “Y’know, John had a very creative imagination,” Kristofferson recalled. “I’ve never flown with a beer in my life. Believe me, you need two hands to fly those things.” In fact Kristofferson doesn’t even remember Cash being at the house at the time, though he does say, “I still think I was lucky he didn’t shoot me that day!”
What was the result of Kris Kristofferson’s aeronautical attention grab? It got Johnny Cash to invite him up on stage at the Newport Folk Festival later that year, which put Kris Kristofferson on the country music map.
5. Writing “Sunday Morning Coming Down”
There are songs that are hits, and then there are songs that change the whole course of music. “Sunday Morning Coming Down” was one of those songs, and it cemented Kris Kristofferson’s place in history. Simply about the lonliness of a Sunday morning when you have no friends or family and the bars don’t open until 1 PM, the song touched a nerve and in a poetic way country music had never done before.
Ray Stevens was the first to cut the song in 1969, but it stalled at #55 on the charts. Kristofferson’s own version didn’t chart at all. It was Johnny Cash’s take on “Sunday Morning Coming Down” that took it all the way to #1 in 1970, and eventually to becoming the Song of the Year by the Country Music Association. 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.
6. Opening Up Country Music To More Risque Themes
Where Kris Kristofferson played a seminal role in the history of country music, and specifically in the Outlaw movement of the early 70′s was by opening up the music to new themes that previously had been considered risque in the family friendly environment of country. Though country had contained risque and adult themes previously, the Countrypolitan movement taking over Nashville at the time looked to appeal to the opposite crowd of the counterculture, and anything suggestive was regularly written out of country songs, if they even got cut at all when they including something thought to be objectionable.
It wasn’t just the “stoned” word in the song “Sunday Morning Coming Down” that Johnny Cash helped Kristofferson normalize in country music when Cash performed the song on his The Johnny Cash Show. Other suggestive lyrics like “Lay your warm and tender body close to mine” from the song “For The Good Times” stretched the boundaries of country music, and allowed other songwriters and performers to tackle subjects previously off limits.
Many of Kristofferson’s songs were banned from country radio early on. But as his performance career suffered, his peers continued to push to be able to cut Kristofferson songs until the rules keeping Kristofferson’s songs down had been completely broken.
7. Dating Janis Joplin and “Me & Bobby McGee”
We all know Janis was the one to make Kris Kristofferson’s “Me & Bobby McGee” into an American standard, but their relationship went much deeper than songwriter and performer. Before Kristofferson fell in love with Rita Coolidge, and right before Janis would eventually die of a heroin overdose, the two Texas natives engaged in a wild relationship with “Me & Bobby McGee” as the backdrop.
Kris and Janis were introduced by songwriter and performer Bobby Neuwirth. Kristofferson had just played in Greenwich Village, and Neuwirth suggested they fly out to Larkspur, California where Janis was currently staying. The three ended up residing there for weeks, and Kristofferson immediately became the apple of Joplin’s eye. “I’d a split there,” Kris recalls. “I dug her, but I had itchy feet. I’d get up intending to get out, and in she comes with the early morning drinks and pretty soon you’re wasted enough and you don’t care about leaving. She’d definitely let ya know when she was being abused, and she thought so a lot. She was always jangling around talking about how everybody was living off of her, but she had people she’d bring into the house and then she’d bitch because she was giving them bed and board.”
It was 1970, and Kristofferson was finally beginning to make it as a songwriter. He wanted Joplin to cut “Me & Bobby McGee” to help pay bills, but sources close to the steamy couple insist Kristofferson didn’t shack up with Janis simply to convince her to record the song. Joplin truly loved the song, and decided to release it on her next album, which ended up being her last. After Kristofferson left, Janis fell back into heroin use. Kristofferson tried to come to her aid, but Joplin’s demons ran much deeper than her short-term relationship with Kris. “You won’t be around,” Janis retorted to Kris. “None of ‘em will be.”
Joplin recorded “Me & Bobby McGee only a few days before her death in October of 1970. When her final album Pearl came out in January of 1971, and “Me & Bobby McGee” became Joplin’s only #1 hit.
8. Winning a Golden Globe for Best Actor
There are a lot of actors who have become musicians, and musicians who have become actors. But few have excelled at both disciplines to the point where they’re awarded some of the highest distinctions the respective industries can bestow. Already a decorated Captain in the Army, already a Rhodes Scholar, already a winner for the CMA’s Song of the Year, Kristofferson gets into acting, and eventually is given the Golden Globe of Best Actor to put on his mantle.
Kristofferson’s acting credits are too numerous to list, and depending on who you talk to, they rival if not exceed his musical contributions. But in 1976, Kristofferson delivered the performance of his lifetime across from Barbara Streisand in A Star Is Born. Though the film was a remake and had been released two times previous, it became a blockbuster and made $80 million, partly from the savvy casting right as Kristofferson was coming into his prime as a Hollywood heartthrob. The movie sent his hunk status into hyperdrive, and Kris became ‘A’ list material. The film also won four other Golden Globes, and an Academy Award.
Kristofferson loved receiving the distinction, but he hated making the movie. He later expressed it was “worse than boot camp.”
Overall Kris Kristofferson has acted in over 100 films.
9. Playing The Very Top Mob Boss in the Movie Payback
In the 1999 movie Payback starring Mel Gibson, Mel’s character Porter is looking to get the $70,000 owed to him after an underling of a criminal syndicate does him wrong in a deal. As the movie transpires, Mel keeps killing off underlings and bosses in the syndicate, working higher hand higher up the chain looking for his payback. “One man. You go high enough, you always come to one man,” Porter keeps saying throughout the movie. Eventually Porter does get to the very top, and who does he find? None other than Kris Kristofferson, playing the role of Bronson, the very top mob boss.
What makes the role work and the scene where the top boss is finally revealed so powerful is because of the weight that the simple sight of Kris Kristofferson holds.
10. Having Over 450 Artists Cover His Songs
Just think about that. When you talk about imitation as the sincerest form of flattery, it doesn’t get any more flattering than that. Some of the most notable artists that have covered Kris Kristofferson songs include:
Dave Dudley, Janis Joplin, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Jerry Lee Lewis, Faron Young, Roger Miller, Ray Stevens, Ray Price, Waylon Jennings, Sammi Smith, Bobby Bare, Joe Simon, Patty Page, O.C. Smith, and pretty much any other performing artist who has any taste in music.
“The great thing about being a songwriter is you can hear your baby interpreted by so many people that have creative talents vocally that I don’t have,” Kris once said.
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If you see someone roll up in a rig with Oklahoma license plates claiming to be a songwriter, you’d be smart to pay a little bit closer attention these days. From country artists like Evan Felker and The Turnpike Troubadours, to more Americana stuff from artists like John Moreland and Parker Milsap, Oklahoma is spitting out songwriters at a rate that has the rest of the country on high alert and working double hard to match their output. Something in the water, something in the soil, or something in the lineage of a state that birthed Woody Guthrie, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Jason Boland, and many more—whatever the chemistry is, Oklahoma is hatching one landmark songwriter after another. And not one songwriter in Oklahoma or anywhere else may loom as large at the moment as the fresh-faced farm boy originally from Bearden, Oklahoma named John Fullbright.
As the lives of most songwriters go, John Fullbright has lived a charmed one for sure. His debut studio release, 2012′s From The Ground Up found its way to the very highest reaches of industry accolades when it was nominated for Best Americana Album at the 55th Grammy Awards, and he seemed to be quickly and inexplicably, but deservedly anointed as a songwriting golden boy right out of the gate. This is great for a songwriter, right? Get all the momentum behind your back, get the industry recognizing your contributions, and get where you can put food on the table plying your craft and begin to set yourself up on a path to comfort.
Or is this a favorable destiny for a songwriter? The romantic notion of what makes great songwriting is a scene of poverty and self-loathing, depression and sometimes addiction; someone who can’t seem to come to grips with the world they live in, letting their pain express itself in soul-stirring poetry that discerning ears yearn for. They must endure, so we can enjoy, and to that end many songwriters seem to perpetually sew conundrums for themselves and makes shambles of their personal lives so they can find the next vein of inspiration; the whole Van Gogh cutting off his ear archetype.
John Fullbright however doesn’t adhere to these notions in his new album simply entitled Songs, he challenges them. You could tell from Fullbright’s first album that his writing style works more from method instead of madness. It wasn’t as much the wit or the rawness that gave his writing an indelible hold on the listener, it was his ability to weave stories and deliver insight in both a poetic, and a refreshingly-understated way.
Songs finds John Fullbright talking shop about songwriting rather candidly and deftly, questioning the entire notion of where inspiration comes from, and toying with the rules and methodology that govern the craft. It starts off with the first song “Happy”, catching Fullbright wondering “Every time I try to write a song, it seems to start where we left off … And tell me what’s so bad about happy?” In the center of the album is the brilliant “Write A Song”, where Fullbright is able to enact the same effect of setting up two mirrors on opposing walls where you see infinite reflections, only he does it with words while still conveying a deep life moral. “Write A Song” song captures Fullbright at the apex of his gifts, and may be marked down as one of the best song contributions of the year. And then he ends the album with “Very First Time,” proclaiming, “I feel alright, for the very first time”; tying in with the first song “Happy”, and giving this album a cohesive theme and thread whose overall result is the shattering of the notion that songwriting and suffering are inseparable.
For a 26-year-old who must feel the pressure of fulfilling the expectations his first album set, Fullbright is positively fearless in Songs. And in between the first, middle and last song of this album that sketch the moral arc of his intended message, he entertains with wistful mentions of love, and extended bouts of storytelling, built just as much upon piano and organ tone as it is guitar, and with generally sparse, but always ample and appropriate musical arrangements that achieve the goal of highlighting the words and little else.
This is a songwriter’s album, and songwriters and people who study the craft and have patient, attentive ears will be singing the praises of this album for the rest of the year and beyond. The general population though may find it too broody and melancholic, and may find Fullbright’s voice nondescript, while still recognizing the craft illustrated and the mood set. There’s moments in this album where you can’t help thinking of Tom Waits, especially when keys are the centerpiece, or Mickey Newbury with all the extended spatial moments, and even Bob Dylan with all the self-aware and referential elements in the writing. Songs and John Fullbright are worthy of being referred to in this company, and not just from the writing itself, but from creating songs that unearth fountains of emotion like few others from the marriage of words and song.
With Songs, John Fullbright sets the standard by which all other songwriters will be measured by in 2014.
Two guns up.
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On Tuesday April 22rd, the lakefront property on Old Hickory Lake in Hendersonville, TN just north of Nashville that was Johnny Cash’s home for 40 years, was sold to a real estate holdings company. The previous owner, Bee Gee’s frontman Barry Gibb bought the house on four lots in January of 2006 to make it a songwriter’s retreat, but his plans were foiled when a house fire burned the seven-bedroom “nature house” to the ground in April 2007 during the renovation process, leaving any hope for a future country music Graceland up in smoke.
Aside from supplying a roof over Johnny Cash and June Carter for so many years, the Johnny Cash lakehouse became famous for some of the most legendary guitar pulls and songwriting parties popular music has ever seen. As an example, in 1969, Johnny Cash hosted Bob Dylan, Kris Kristofferson, Joni Mitchell, Graham Nash, and Shel Silverstein all in the same sitting. “That night in my house [was] the first time these songs were heard…” Johnny Cash recalled. “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.’” The gathering has since been coined by Saving Country Music as the “Million Dollar Songwriter Circle.”
And that’s just where the stories about Cash’s Hendersonville home begin. Arguably the most legendary tale transpired earlier in 1969 when Kris Kristofferson, a former helicopter pilot during the Vietnam War, landed a National Guard chopper on the lawn of of the Hendersonville house to hand-deliver demos to Cash in an act of desperation.
At the time, Kristofferson was working as a janitor at the offices of Columbia Records where Johnny Cash was signed. Kristofferson had met Cash a number of times, in the studio and backstage at The Grand Ole Opry, but Cash wouldn’t show any attention to young Kristofferson’s songwriting aspirations. Kris would slip Cash demos of his work, or give them to June Carter or Luther Perkins when he had a chance, but according to Cash, he would take them home to the Hendersonville house and toss them into Old Hickory Lake.
Kristofferson took part-time work with the National Guard to help pay bills, and desperate to get Johnny Cash’s attention, decided to deviate from his flight plan while on a training run and land his helicopter in the Hendersonville property’s front yard. What happened next depends on who you ask. According to Cash, Kristofferson came sauntering out of the helicopter with a beer in one hand, and his demo tapes in another, demanding to be heard. But Kristofferson paints a more subdued picture. “Y’know, John had a very creative imagination,” Kristofferson recalled to UnCut. “I’ve never flown with a beer in my life. Believe me, you need two hands to fly those things.” In fact Kristofferson doesn’t even remember Cash being at the house at the time, though he does say, “I still think I was lucky he didn’t shoot me that day!”
What was the result of Kris Kristofferson’s aeronautical attention grab? It got Johnny Cash to invite him up on stage at the Newport Folk Festival later that year, which put Kris Kristofferson on the country music map. Cash would finally go on to give some attention to those Kristofferson demos, and eventually cut Kris’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down.” The song went on to become a #1 hit. It also won the CMA’s Song of the Year in 1970, and is given credit as one of country music’s first “Outlaw” moments of stretching the lyrical boundaries in the genre.
No word of what the new owners have in store for the hallowed ground on Old Hickory Lake in Hendersonville, but one hopes it respects the history of that place. And maybe they should consider installing a helipad.
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.
- 10 Badass Waylon Jennings Moments
- 10 Badass Merle Haggard Moments
- 10 Badass Marty Stuart Moments
- 10 Badass George Jones Moments
- 10 Badass Hank3 Moments
- 10 Badass Billy Joe Shaver Moments
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 Kristofferson 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)
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“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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