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Call them the underground roots house band or the underground roots All-Star Band, either way the super couple of fiddle player Liz Sloan, and upright bass player (and banjo player, apparently) Jared McGovern have comprised, and do comprise the backbone of so many hard-working, road-weary roots bands, it’s a wonder they have any time to breathe, let alone record their own album. But here they are dubbing themselves the Urban Pioneers and releasing Addicted to the Road: a primitive, rootsy, Appalachian-style record showcasing a lot of heart, all original songs, and surprising skill in songwriting from two players who are mostly known as sidemen.
Jared and Liz first met the day before Halloween in 2010 right before a gig with country music wild man Bob Wayne at Austin, TX’s infamous Hole in the Wall venue. Liz Sloan was already touring with Bob, and Jared McGovern saddled up with the outfit that night, and the rest is history. For a good while they stared at the back of Bob Wayne nearly every evening, criss crossing the country many times, and dashing over to Europe, while in between shows working with other bands like Filthy Still, sitting in on recording sessions with a slew of other outfits, and eventually amicably parting ways with Bob and becoming badasses in the world-class Broken Band that backs former Saving Country Music Artist of the Year Jayke Orvis.
When I first heard about the Urban Pioneers, I was a little worried. Sometimes when sidemen decide to slide over to stage center, it can be a little rough. Not that McGovern and Sloan showed chinks in their armor; in fact it’s quite the contrary. The latest evolution of Jayke Orvis’s Broken Band is one of the most premium displays of string band talent out there right now, pushing the respective players to perfect themselves beyond the natural-given skill sets in an awesome display of spellbinding adeptness. But can these two really sing and write their own songs and hold an audience by themselves? The answer conveyed through Addicted to the Road is “Yes”.
The key to the success of the Urban Pioneers project was their decision to take it in a primitive, old time country direction. It is perfect for the skills that Jared McGovern and Liz Sloan bring to the table, is complimentary of their strengths and weaknesses, while giving them the ability to mostly re-create what you hear on the album in the live context. The singing on this album isn’t perfect; it’s lacking a little bit of confidence with some of the songs. And while that confidence will come with time, the simple approach to the singing on the album actually fits the Appalachian style of being just a couple of pickers on a back porch playing home spun tunes, not really resulting in a detriment to the album, but bolstering its authenticity.
Addicted to the Road has some really great tunes that fit very well in the old time style with cadence, theme, and perspective. This is Ralph Peer type stuff, really clever and informed in how they choose their words, honoring the era of the music so the lyrics and musical style coincide. Some of the songs near the end get a little thin, but “Apparition In The Fog,” “Autumn Time,” “Ain’t Gonna Work,” “Izzy’s Song,” “Liz’s Reel” and others are excellent little compositions written sincerely and arranged well.
There’s a lot of Hackensaw Boys and Foghorn Stringband in the Urban Pioneers approach: authentic, energetic, while resisting the urge to pass completely into the punk roots realm. There’s also a cool change-of-pace in the song “Broken Down” that features James Hunnicutt on electric guitar, and more of a Dave Dudley, hard country sound. Not a perfect project, but an excellent start, very fun to listen to, and makes me really look forward to what the Urban Pioneers might cook up in the future.
1 1/2 of 2 guns up.
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The Urban Pioneers are currently on tour. Cover by Lou Shields.
2014 promises to be another great year for music, and the first part of the year might just be one of the busiest seasons for anticipated releases we have seen in quite a while. From a lost Johnny Cash album, to a new one from his daughter Rosanne, to Jason Eady, a big re-issue from Lucina Williams, and releases from Scott H. Biram and Robert Ellis, there’s enough here to get your music taste buds salivating.
Saving Country Music’s most anticipated album for 2014, Out Among The Stars is a complete album that was recorded between 1981 and 1984 by Cash, with songs that were meant to be together, but never saw the light of day. A true “lost album” if there ever was one. It was produced by Country Music Hall of Famer Billy Sherrill. READ MORE.
Rosanne Cash – The River & The Thread (January 14th)
NPR says: “Each song is rooted in the Southern soil connecting the old Cash homestead in Arkansas to the family’s ancestral Virginia homeland, expanding to survey the family’s artistic roots in Alabama and Tennessee. Some narratives are fictional, while others mine family lore.”
You’re not seeing double, this is Lucinda Williams’ critically-acclaimed 3rd album from 1988 that many give credit for launching her career. The album went out-of-print and is finally being re-issued by Thirty Tigers. It also comes with an album of live tracks. Just like Johnny Cash, this is not just another re-release, and stands as one of the most anticipated releases of 2014.
Doug Paisley – Strong Feelings (January 21st)
As we found out in 2013, Canada can do country, and do country right. And this Canadian has recruited an impressive list of his Canadian musician buddies including Garth Hudson from The Band to make one of the most-anticipated Canadian country releases of 2014. Did I say Canada enough? Canada Canada. That should do it!
Ray Benson – A Little Piece (January 21st)
Our generation’s King of Western Swing takes some time away from his full time duties as the front man for Asleep At The Wheel to release this solo project through his record label, Bismeaux.
If you love real country, you will love Jason Eady and Daylight & Dark. Following up his critically-acclaimed AM Country Heaven, Eady proves you can serve up country straight, and still have it sound fresh. This album was written with a linear story that runs through all the songs.
Hard Working Americans (Todd Snider) – Hard Working Americans (January 21st)
Yes, this is a band emanating from the unsettled mind of songwriter Todd Snider, and coaxing Neal Casal (Chris Robinson Brotherhood), keyboardist Chad Staehly (Great American Taxi) and Duane Trucks (King Lincoln) on drums to join him.This is a cover album of many songs from Snider’s alt-country/Americana friends.
This spellbinding, solo songwriter and performer from Minnesota is one of these criminally-underappreciated guys because he would never be a part of self-promotion or flashy presentation. Being released on Chaperone Records.
Dolly Parton – Blue Smoke (New Zealand, Australia – January. United States & Europe – May)
Yes, strange prioritizing on the release date, but it’s Dolly, so hush up! The release parallels her Blue Smoke World Tour and will be released on “Dolly Records” in conjunction with Sony Masterworks.
Hide the women and children, the “Dirty Ol’ One Man Band” is back out on the loose with a brand new one from Bloodshot Records that promises to be a bloody good time. Country punk stomp blues at its best!
Suzy Bogguss – Lucky (February 4th)
Suzy doing a Merle Haggard tribute record? This could be cool. “Merle is one of the most masculine songwriters I’ve ever heard, and I’ve been watching boys cover his music for years. I just thought, ‘Why couldn’t a girl do this?’”
Whiskey Myers – Early Morning Shakes (February 4th)
Texas Monthly says: “Early Morning Shakes” may not be destined to make a big impression on a country music audience that’s currently obsessed with pickups, blue jeans, and moonlight, but there are some thrills within for fans of dirty rock and roll.”
This could be Robert Ellis’s year. The young songwriter has a much-anticipated album, and also produced another much-anticipated album that may come later in 2014 from The Whiskey Shivers.
Hurray For The Riff Raff – Small Town Heroes (February 11th)
Alynda Lee Segarra was making waves all throughout 2013, and this album from ATO Records featuring her unique, stripped-down Appalachia sound should be a big one.
Lake Street Dive – Bad Self Portraits (February 18th)
2014 could be a big one for Lake Street Dive, and they deserve every bit of it from the talent this throwback band packs. Rachel Price, originally from Hendersonville, TN and a product of the New England Conservatory as a jazz singer is a bona-fide superstar waiting to happen. Feb. 18th can’t get here fast enough.
On the heels of her fun EP Boy Crazy, Loveless releases her much-anticipated sophomore LP from Bloodshot Records. Part country, part punk, and all attitude, this Ohioan evokes the best of the original punk-gone-country movement. This one should be fun.
Beck – Morning Phase (February)
Okay, you see Beck and you don’t immediately think country, but he has dabbled in the format in the past (go feast your ears on “Rowboat” and thank me later), and with this one he’s talking about it having a very heavy Gram Parson’s influence, so it may be worth a sniff from country fans.
The former (and current, really) front man for the Squirrel Nut Zippers never seems to receive proper acclaim even though he continually delivers one excellent album after another. Don’t sleep on this one.
- Mary Chapin Carpenter – Songs from the Movie (Jan 14th)
- Blue Highway – The Game (Jan 21st)
- Reverend Horton Heat – Rev (Jan 21st)
- Ronnie Milsap – Summer Number 17 (Jan 28th)
- Rhonda Vincent – Only Me (Jan 28th)
- Laura Cantrell – No Way There from Here (Jan 28th)
- Eric Church – The Outsiders (Feb. 11th) as if you already didn’t know
- Dierks Bentley – Riser (Feb 25th)
- Eli Young Band – 10,000 Towns (March 4th)
- Kevin Fowler – How Country Are Ya (March 4th)
- Martina McBride – Everlasting (March 4th)
- Drive By Truckers – English Oceans (March 12th)
The Rumor Mill
Bob Wayne – Back To The Camper
Bob Wayne is no longer with label Century Media, but word is he just finished up recording an album with Andy Gibson (Hank3) in Nashville and it will be released sometime in 2014. Included on the album will be a song with Elizabeth Cook called “20 Miles To Juarez” and a song with country legend Red Simpson. Stay tuned.
The Goddamn Gallows – The Maker
No info on a release as of yet. Was initially said to be released in late 2013.
The Whiskey Shivers
Currently being record or just finished up, this Robert Ellis-produced album could be The Whiskey Shivers’ breakout moment. They’ve been making tons of noise around Austin, playing ACL fest last October, and scheduled to play the Stagecoach Festival in California this year. They are definitely a band to watch.
His disposition is to record during the winter, and he dropped a hint of working on a new album on Facebook recently. For all we know from the last few release cycles from Hank3, he might drop 7 albums on our asses all at once, including one built from the sound of Black Cats blowing up found items from around his farm.
Justin Townes Earle
He is amid a contract dispute with a new label, but says, “ I will find a way to get new music out very soon. Will write and record a solo EP. Then Find some grown ups to work with.”
Rumor has it a new album is currently being recorded, and will take this underground country cult favorite to the next level. More deets coming.
Slackeye Slim is also working on a new album.
Matt Woods hopes to have a new album out in March.
Who else? Share your intel below!
The greatest album, and the greatest recorded song will never be able to trump the truly live musical experience where music is shared in real time with both the artist and listeners. It is in this spirit that each year I assemble a list of the Best Live Performances to reinforce that as technology and the busying of life incrementally encroach upon us more and more every year, we must remember that the live music show deserves its own attention and reverence. This year for the first time, I’ve included some television performances and a live stream, because the weight these performances carried make them more than worthy to be included here.
Please understand, unlike Saving Country Music’s other yearly awards, since omnipresence isn’t an attribute I posses, this list is simply based on my own experiences, and not meant to capture the overall pulse of the live events that transpired all year. You are encouraged to share your own favorite live musical experiences from 2013 below.
10. Hellbound Glory – The Empire Control Room, Austin, TX
“Hellbound Glory started with a blistering, amplified version of Hank Williams’ “My Buckets Got A Hole In It” that reinvented and revitalized that tune originally learned by Hank Williams from Rufus Payne in the mid-30′s, and made it feel like an iconic 70′s-era Southern rock anthem. Not 30 seconds into the first song, and you could tell that Leroy had played so many shows in front of so many big crowds in 2013, that being on stage was second nature, and a downright showman had emerged from a man who is known as a songwriter first. Not that Leroy was a stiff before, but now he had a swagger about him—a sway and arm motions—engaging the crowd and carrying songs to another level with his ability to be completely uninhibited with the music.” (read full review)
9. Eric Church & Valerie June – The ACM Awards
Say what you will about Eric Church, he delivered the most memorable performance at the ACM Awards back in April, and he did it while showcasing the up-and-coming musical powerhouse Valerie June.
“Church, who is usually known for his baseball cap, aviator sunglasses, and rowdy country gone rock sound, kept it simple this time, accompanied only by his guitar and one harmony singer–a breathtaking female in a red dress, adorned with a crown of dreadlocks. As much as Eric Church’s performance caught the ACM crowd and Eric’s fans by surprise, so did this virtually unknown singer accompanying him.
“Valerie June didn’t announce her performance on the ACM’s. Her name was not mentioned in the credits or by the announcers. But like she always does, she left an indelible, unforgettable impact on the hearts and ears of the ACM attendees and viewers.” (read full review)
8. Andrew Bird & Tift Merritt – Pickathon Festival Woods Stage – Portland, OR
The Pickathon Festival on the outskirts of Portland, OR every August affords some of the best music moments a year can offer, while broadening the perspective of fans from all corners of the roots music world by assembling one of the most diverse and forward-thinking lineups in the festival realm. Many Picktathon moments could be listed here, but seeing the amazing Andrew Bird perform all manner of beyond-human vocal acrobatics accompanied by the accomplished Tift Merrit was truly something to behold.
“Andrew Bird on the Wood’s Stage was phenomenal. Maybe a little fey for some, but he’s a fiddling bluegrass maestro who has one of the best use of dynamics you will find. You also won’t find a better whistler in bluegrass. Joining him on stage for the set was Tift Merritt…” (read full Pickathon Live Blog)
7. Jayke Orvis & The Broken Band – The Scoot Inn
“Jayke finally declared earlier this year that he was taking his last tour with the Gallows, and trained his attention solely on a solid, permanent Broken Band lineup that includes guitarist James Hunnicutt, and former Bob Wayne Outlaw Carnies’ Liz Sloan and Jared McGovern on fiddle and upright bass respectively. With stability and a shared vision of making a band around Jayke’s music, but one where all musicians are treated as equal, Jayke Orvis & The Broken Band have re-captured the fervor and spellbinding performance aspect that made the .357 String Band such a force of music nature. If anything, The Broken Band may be taking it a step further with a deeper attention to composition, pushing all four players to the edge of their abilities, and the edge of human capability itself, balanced by slow and mid-tempo songwriter material.
Jayke Orvis & The Broken Band are the underground roots equivalent of the Punch Brothers, and are one of the top tier performers of the underground sub-genre.” (read full review)
6. LeAnn Rimes Patsy Cline Tribute – The ACA Awards
“And at the end of the medley, when LeAnn went a capella, and the tasteful sepia filter that the ACA’s had placed on the cameras to afford a vintage feel on the first part of the tribute turned back to color, a downright evocation emerged during Patsy’s “Sweet Dreams” that even the embattled and valiant LeAnn Rimes eventually couldn’t even fend off, bursting into tears during the final turn of the chorus.
“No video will ever do the moment justice, because it was a moment you had to share in live. At some point you saw LeAnn smile, like she recognized the spirit of Patsy had entered the room, and then the emotion immediately began to well up in LeAnn, and all who were paying attention.” (read full review)
5. The Mavericks -Gruene Hall – Gruene, TX
“Raul Malo is no doubt the rock and heart of The Mavericks, but the addition of guitar player Eddie Perez, who was Dwight Yoakam’s long-time touring guitar player before joining the band, is really what has allowed The Mavericks to give up nothing, and continue to grow in their nearly 25-year existence. From his masterful guitar work to his superhero-like ability to follow Raul Malo wherever he may go vocally, Eddie Perez is 1A to Raul in the Mavericks, with long-time rhythm guitarist Robert Reynolds and keys player Jerry Dale McFadden affording the buoyant vitality that makes The Mavericks’ sound so infectious, and drummer Paul Deacon holding the whole thing together and giving the The Mavericks their communicable groove.” (read full review)
4. Red 11 SXSW Showcase at the White Horse – Austin, TX
Eligibility on this list would normally only be open to single performances by a single band or artist, but the showcase put on by the booking agency Red 11 on Tuesday night (3-12) of South by Southwest at the White Horse in Austin was such a legendary lineup, it deserves its own distinction, beyond all the excellent artists that played it. Yes folks, the gritty, bluesy one man band Lincoln Durham, the Tejano-flavored The Crooks, The Dirty River Boys, The Turnpike Troubadours, followed by American Aquarium, and capped off by Jason Eady is the lineup that held forth at the intimate setting of The White Horse that night. Oh, and it was all free. I’m not sure there will ever be a moment when such a ridiculous amount of talent will be showcased in the same place, and in such a small space again, unless it happens at SXSW 2013.
3. Lee Bains III & The Glory Fires – XSXSW 6 – Austin, TX
Passing up an opportunity to see Lee Bains III & The Glory Fires live is a borderline criminal offense for any fan of hard rocking roots music. When they lit up the Frontier Bar as part of XSXSW 6, it was by far the most raucous set of music that still had real substance to it experienced in 2013. Later in the year when touring with Austin Lucas through Ft. Worth, Lee Bains got shut down and 86′d by the Live Oak Music Hall & Lounge for playing too loud. That’s how legendary Lee Bains live has become.
“As the room was still filling up with patrons, Lee Bains played like he was feeding of the energy of a packed house. This man sings with as much soul as anyone in rock & roll right now, and this was never evidenced more clearer then when he sang the title track of their latest album There’s A Bomb in Gilliead. For SXSW’s most acrobatic moment of 2013, at one point lead guitarist got on the shoulders of Lee Bains as they both walked out into the crowd with guitars blazing. This set was sick.” (from the SXSW 2013 live blog)
2. Jason Isbell – Live Stream of Austin City Limits Taping – August 19th
I admit, it seems strange to put a streaming event such as this on this list, and so high up no less. But if you witnessed it, you would know why. The technology is becoming such, and artists like Isbell are beginning to receive such recognition, that an online experience can sometimes be just as immersive as being there.
“On Monday night the Twitterverse blew up around the occasion of songwriter Jason Isbell recording an upcoming episode of Austin City Limits. The taping was streamed live online, and drew a remarkable amount of attention and praise from the online participants who took the time to tune in. Usually music confined to the online format is at such a distinct disadvantage, it is barely worth your time, and though Austin City Limits’ production value is world-class, this wasn’t what made the event special. Jason Isbell is quite the capable singer, and since he started out as a guitarist for the Drive By Truckers, it’s hard to denounce his musicianship either. His band The 400 Unit was sensational as well, and so was his wife Amanda Shires who sang and played fiddle for the set. But none of this is why the event became a singular experience for those who tuned in.
“It was Jason Isbell’s songs and his songwriting that made so many online watchers walk away with one of those feelings you get after watching a stellar movie—where your mind gets so immersed in the experience it is hard to return to the real world.” (from 2013: The Year of the Songwriter)
1. The Turnpike Troubadours – SXSW The White Horse – Austin, TX
The Red 11 South by Southwest showcase at The White Horse in Austin, TX was already given proper credit above, but the crown jewel of the night was the performance by Oklahoma’s Turnpike Troubadours, which also was the crown jewel of 2013.
“The Turnpike Troubadours were responsible for one of those once-in-a-lifetime musical experiences. The White Horse that had hovered around 3/4 capacity up to that point in the night swelled to where there was no elbow room, and a strong majority of the people there knew every word to the Troubadours songs and proved it by belting them out at every chance. When the band broke into their most popular tunes like ‘Every Girl,’ ’7&7′ and ‘Good Lord, Lorrie,’ the crowd would erupt. During the choruses, the singing of the crowd could become deafening, drowning out the band itself. Their high-energy, inspired performance was great in itself, but the camaraderie created by the crowd made it one of those moments hard to forget. The Turnpike Troubadours have no business playing a venue this small these days, and that is the type of unique experience SXSW can create. Their set was one for the record books.” (from the SXSW 2013 live blog)
A big battle ground in country music right now is the presence of so many songs about trucks. Everywhere you turn, there is a song being released by a big country music personality that drones on and on about tailgates, Chevy’s, lift kits, mud flaps, etc. etc. Though this recent popularity trend seems especially sinister in its simplistic, incessant nature, it is not necessarily unprecedented in country. From the early 60′s into the mid 70′s, songs about semi-trucks and truck drivers were all the rage, with big names like Merle Haggard, Del Reeves, and Buck Owens getting in on the action, and professional country songwriters writing songs to specifically to capitalize off the trend similar to what is happening in country music today.
The difference of course was many of these classic trucker songs were considered very well-written, with many of them delving into deep issues like death, loneliness, loss of family, etc. Country music’s new crop of truck songs and their respective songwriters and performers could learn a thing or two about storytelling and soul from these traditional country truck driving songwriters and performers.
Maybe the best known of the country trucking crooners, with the most-recognized, most-covered trucking song in “Six Days On The Road,” Dave Dudley is an overlord of the country music truck driving music subset. Holding an honorary solid gold membership card to the Teamsters Union, he broke out with “Six Days On The Road” in 1963 and never looked back. Other great country trucker classics like “Truck Drivin’ Son-Of-A-Gun,” “Trucker’s Prayer,” and “Keep On Truckin’” are also attributed to Dudley, but like many of the old truck singers, he had his standard country hits too. Dave Dudley was actually the first to cut Kris Kristofferson’s song “Viet Nam Blues” that first put Kristofferson on the songwriting map, and Dudley’s only #1 song was the Tom T. Hall-written number “The Pool Shark.” Dudley had hits for over a decade, with his last big single “Me and Ole C.B” peaking at #12 on the charts in 1975.
Red Sovine was known for his trucking songs, but his particular twist was how he would talk in prose instead of singing his songs in rhyming verses. Sovine’s speaking style would have significant influence on the rest of country outside the trucking sub genre, while his trucking songs set the bar for emotional impact and storytelling. Sovine’s #1 “Teddy Bear” is right up there with Dave Dudley’s “Six Days On The Road” as one of the most well-recognized country trucking songs, and Sovine also charted another #1 with “Giddyup Go.” His song “Phantom 309″ wasn’t a huge hit, but it found a new audience when Tom Waits included a live version of it on his album Nighthawks At The Diner. Sovine also had a non-trucking #1 hit in a duet with Webb Pierce in 1955 with the song “Why Baby Why.”
With a patch over his right eye, Dick Curless was considered a throwback even in his own time. He was one of the pioneers of country trucking music, with his first big hit “A Tombstone Every Mile” making an appearance as a top five country hit in 1965. Songs like “Traveling Man,” “Highway Man,” and “Big Wheel Cannonball” established Dick’s persona as a man constantly on the move, and won him a spot on the nationwide Buck Owens All American tour. Like many of country’s trucker song stars, Curless spent a lot of time in California and was signed to Capitol Records, though he was known to frequently go back to his home in Maine to recover from a grueling schedule of touring and performances.
While Red Simpson may have not had the huge hits of his trucker song counterparts, he was also the one most dedicated to the specialized version of country. With only a few exceptions, virtually all of Red Simpson’s songs are about trucking or the highway patrol. He was the trucker songwriter other trucker songwriters listened to, and wrote many trucker hits for other artists. Based out of Bakersfield, he co-wrote songs with Buck Owens, and became a hot commodity when trucker songs became popular. The trucking song “Sam’s Place” that went on to become a #1 for Buck Owens was written by Red, and in 1975, Red landed his own big hit with “I’m A Truck.” At 79, Red is the last of the original country trucker song stars still around. In 1995, he recorded two duets with Junior Brown, “Semi Crazy” and “Nitro Express.” He is still recording, recently doing a duet with underground country artist Bob Wayne, and rumored to have an album called The Bard of Bakersfield in the works.
C.W. McCall got a late start in the trucking genre, joining the second wave of the movement in the mid-70′s. But his contribution was significant, especially with his #1 hit, the trucking song standard and generally epic “Convoy.” The song inspired a movie of the same name that starred Kris Kristofferson in 1978, and McCall was regarded in some circles as the “Outlaw” of the country trucker song performers. “Convoy” became so big, some consider McCall a one hit wonder, but he had numerous successful songs, inside and outside the trucking realm. His first charting single was “Old Home Filler-Up an’ Keep On-a-Truckin’ Cafe,” and he also had a #2 single with “Roses For Mama.” C.W. McCall’s popular career was pretty short, ranging from roughly 1974-1978, but his impact, especially with “Convoy” cannot be understated.
Though Del Reeves is known for contributing much more to the country music genre than just trucking songs, his two significant cuts, the #1 hit “Girl On The Billboard” from 1965, and the top 5 hit “Looking at the World Through a Windshield” from 1968 make Del Reeves and honorary trucking song god if there ever was one, and an important performer in the development of the sub genre. Reeves also put out an album called Trucker’s Paradise in 1973.
…and to an extent their sister band Asleep At The Wheel deserve honorary mention for being inspired and a part of the 70′s-era trucker song revolution, though it is widely considered they were somewhat on the outside looking in. Nonethess, Commander Cody’s second album that consisted mostly of covers called Hot Licks, Cold Steel & Truckers Favorites from 1972 might be one of the most prized albums of the sub genre.
Not really known exclusively as singer of truck driver songs, but his albums The Truckin’ Sessions (1998) and The Truckin’ Session, Vol. 2 certainly deserve mention, with the first one considered by many to be the album that launched Dale’s career. Dale has also been known to drive trucks and his own bus upon occasion.
Another artist not primarily known for trucker songs, but Junior Brown has them scattered throughout his discography, including the title track off of his 1996 album, Semi Crazy. Junior’s signature song “Highway Patrol” rekindles the symbiotic relationship between trucker songs and highway patrol songs first started by Red Simpson, who he recorded two duets with in 1995.
Aaron Tippin may be best known for his more patriotic songs, but he’s peppered trucker songs here and there throughout his career. In 2009, Tippin released an album called In Overdrive that included many truck driving cover songs and closed out with two originals. His truck driving cred is helped by the fact that he was a real-life truck driver before launching his career in country music.
A lesser-known underground country artist, but one who includes trucker songs (usually of a pretty seedy nature) on every one of his albums, including his 2nd album 13 Truckin’ Songs. Bob Wayne recently performed and recorded a duet with Red Simpson after re-discovering him in a Bakersfield trailer park.
Merle Haggard & Buck Owens as part of the Bakersfield Sound both had quite a few big trucker anthems. One of Jerry Reed’s signature songs is “East Bound & Down” from the Smokey & The Bandit movies where he played a trucker. Tom T. Hall wrote and recorded a few trucking songs. And there’s many other artists who’ve recorded more than one trucker song. Who are some of your favorites?
During Johnny Cash’s legendary concert at San Quentin Prison in 1969, photographer Jim Marshall said to Johnny backstage, “John, let’s do a shot for the warden.” The result was the photograph above that mostly remained under wraps until 1998. That is when producer Rick Rubin decided to use the iconic photo in an ad in Billboard magazine decrying country radio’s lack of love for Johnny’s second album on Rubin’s American label called Unchained. Despite no industry support, Unchained went on to win the 1998 Grammy for “Best Country Album.”
Since then the image of the angry face and the raised middle finger has become an iconic symbol of defiance against the direction of country music. As indecent as a raised middle finger happens to be in the first place (and the propensity for some seedy country fans and artists to over-saturate its use in every single photo of them), it has come to mean much more than its vulgar connotation in the fight to save country music.
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Willie Nelson’s middle finger photo was shot by a photographer named Sean Moorman on Willie Nelson’s tour bus on July 26, 2002. The title of image is “Willie Nelson Sending Jim Marshall Regards.” Both the Jim Marshall photo of Johnny Cash and the Sean Moorman photo of Willie stimulated litigation when Urban Outfitters printed up Johnny Cash middle finger T-shirts without permission, and Spencer Gifts did the same with Willie.
Dale Watson doing his best Johnny Cash impression:
Hank Williams III and David Allan Coe in younger days:
Jonny (Corndawg) Fritz telling a fan they’re #1 (Kayley Luftig – Photographer):
Bob Wayne, adding the stink eye for extra emphasis:
Jeff Austin of the Yonder Mountain String Band doing the double bird (Chad Smith Photography):
Keith Richards’ middle finger is insured for $1.6 million. Yes, that one he’s point at you. And no, I’m not kidding.
The wet cigarette of country music, Kid Rock. And Saving Country Music friend “Pointer” from a downtown Nashville excursion in 2011 getting his picture with Kid Rock on the front of Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge.
Townes Van Zandt, from the back cover of his 1972 album The Late Great Townes Van Zandt.
Kellie Pickler telling Kanye West “Fuck You!” for not liking country music (see video).
Lenny Kravitz giving the crowd at the 2013 CMA Fan Fest the double bird because they “couldn’t get with love” during his elongated set that left the crowd underwhelmed.
A sign hanging up in the Johnny Cash themed bar and music venue in Austin, TX called the Mean Eyed Cat.
The ad Rick Rubin placed in Billboard Magazine after Johnny Cash won the 1998 Grammy for Best Country Album:
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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For years we took for granted that the mainstream music industry was in a calamitous free fall, spiraling towards cataclysmic implosion. We were so sure of this diagnosis, we used it as the crux of all our music theories. Then lo and behold, the industry figured out how to pull out of the tailspin, and independent artists that years before we’d never dream of seeing getting big breaks began to get noticed. Hellbound Glory has been out on arena tours. Sturgill Simpson is touring with Dwight Yoakam. The Alabama Shakes are playing SNL, Shovels & Rope is playing ACL, and everyone is playing Letterman. All of a sudden it’s not appropriate to be so sullen about the direction of music.
But if you’re looking for an act that is still virtually unknown, one that is buried deep in the underground and that embodies the raw energy of the roots movement and not just a commercially-viable watered-down derivative, one whose active ingredient still works on even the most hardened of roots addicts, then Jayke Orvis and The Broken Band might be your drug.
A founding member and the mandolin player for the groundbreaking .357 String Band, Jayke Orvis may have taken a long and windy road to finding his way in the music world, but if his current sonic output is any evidence, he has found his path, and it is righteous. What made the .357 String Band so singular was that it was four dudes testing the very limits of human ability with instrumentation, while positively debilitating you with the emotion of their songwriting. When Orivs was undutifully released from .357 (the band eventually disbanded in late 2011), he became more of a singer/songwriter type of performer, sometimes favoring the guitar over his mandolin.
As the name alluded, Jayke’s “Broken Band” was a hodgepodge of plug-in players that all did dutiful jobs, but never had the stability to congeal enough to hone in on everything that the music could be. Orvis himself was a revolving member of the Gothic roots outfit The Goddamn Gallows, and regularly borrowed from their players for his Broken Band on dual Orvis/Gallows tours. The collaborations were enthralling and memorable in their own right, but never allowed Jayke the intimate focus on his own music that it needed to realize its true potential.
Jayke finally declared earlier this year that he was taking his last tour with the Gallows, and trained his attention solely on a solid, permanent Broken Band lineup that includes guitarist James Hunnicutt, and former Bob Wayne Outlaw Carnies’ Liz Sloan and Jared McGovern on fiddle and upright bass respectively. With stability and a shared vision of making a band around Jayke’s music, but one where all musicians are treated as equal, Jayke Orvis & The Broken Band have re-captured the fervor and spellbinding performance aspect that made the .357 String Band such a force of music nature. If anything, The Broken Band may be taking it a step further with a deeper attention to composition, pushing all four players to the edge of their abilities, and the edge of human capability itself, balanced by slow and mid-tempo songwriter material.
Jayke Orvis & The Broken Band are the underground roots equivalent of the Punch Brothers, and are one of the top tier performers of the underground sub-genre. But as Jayke explains, he’s not looking for recognition from the Americana Music Association or berths on arena tours with big country names. “I want to open for Slayer,” Jayke told me right after their live set at Austin, TX’s Scoot Inn on 5/06. “Well I mean that may be a little hard now, but I want to show punk and metal kids that roots music can be cool.”
As the overall roots world seems to be benefiting from a rising tide, it’s not hard to wonder if some of the best of the underground are being left behind, and how long this rising tide will last before the popularity arch begins to fade. Jayke Orvis is one of those artists who has stuff that could catch fire. He’s one that could benefit when roots fans conclude that Mumford & Sons just doesn’t have the mustard to hold their attention long-term.
Jayke Orvis & The Broken Band recently released their 2nd album, Bless This Mess on Farmageddon Records. His first album It’s All Been Said constituted the formation of that record label. Though the album has officially been out for a while, you won’t find it on Amazon or iTunes. You can’t stream it on Spotify or Pandora. I secured my copy at a live show, and was told there was only a few more copies left in their merch bag before they would be able to restock in a few days. A good problem to have in some respects, but one that makes the outreach of the music problematic when people can’t get it.
Bless This Mess didn’t have a well-promoted release date, if any true release date at all. No promotional push paralleled its availability. No review copies were sent out to independent music outlets, including Saving Country Music which named Jayke Orvis its 2010 Artist of the Year. In 2013, statistics show that for every song bought, 100 are streamed, and that albums that are streamed for free prior to their release sell more copies. To not make an album available at all digitally puts the album and the artist at an unparallelled disadvantage. This does not necessarily mean this is neglect on the part of Jayke or his label. All of this very well may be on purpose, and I’m sure it will be available digitally eventually. But the point of releasing music is to get it in as many hands as possible, and an artist holds no more potent promotional tool than when they release an album.
When I loaded Bless This Mess into my computer, the tracks were unmarked. I got “Unknown Artist” and “Unknown Songs” with the track times and numbers. If the idea is that this is an underground approach to releasing music, this is somewhat misguided. Jello Biafra was such a genius because he was able to get his music right beside the music of big labels in record stores by doing it the right way. Legions of hopeful artists with awful music release albums every day that in no way reach the quality level of Bless This Mess, but get more attention because they’re released the right way. You want to know what so much popular music sounds so bad? Because some people are willing to understand the correct approach. Jayke Orvis’s music is too good to put limitations on it by not following the easy and well-established modes of how to release an album.
The counter-point is that Jayke’s fan base is so loyal, all these concerns are silly. But the goal of any artist, even one that is not driven by fame or money, is to attain a healthy sustainability that hopefully factors in at least some moderate growth.
Though Bless This Mess seems like it may be one step behind where Jayke & The Broken Band are right now with their live show, it still boasts some excellent arrangements and performances, and a wonderful lineup of both originals and covers. Hank’s “Kaw-Liga,” Ralph Stanley’s “Bound to Ride,” and The Weary Boys’ “Pick Up The Steam” round out a remarkable set of well-interpreted renditions. Banjo player and part-time Broken Band member Joe Perreze also offers up one of the albums standout instrumentals in “Clankertown.”
This all leads into Jayke’s original material. Whether its blazing instrumentals like “Murder of Crows,” or more singer/songwriter-style material like “West Wind,” and what may be the album’s legacy track “Crooked Smile,” Jayke Orvis shows himself as one of the premier purveyors of Gothic-infused American string music worth a wide ear and critical acclaim. And let’s not gloss over that Jayke also scores well on the intangibles. With the way he presents himself and his stage presence, he has that essential charisma to hold an audience captive, while at the same time the humility to defer to his players and make it more about the music than himself.
Jayke Orvis & The Broken Band is a name that deserves to be ready on the tongue whenever folks query for names of top flight string bands to check out. But it will only get there if at least cursory attention is paid to the promotional side of things. Making good music isn’t enough. Marking track names on albums and distributing an album digitally is the easy part. The hard part is making music that touches you on a human level, and does so in a pioneering way, and this is what Jayke Orvis & The Broken Band do with almost unfair effortlessness.
Two guns up on the Jayke Orvis live show
1 3/4 of 2 guns up on Bless This Mess
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Reno, Nevada’s Hellbound Glory has just come off two legs of arena shows opening for Kid Rock on his nationwide Rebel Soul tour, and are recovering now to get ready for their own tour in early summer. “Just signed on with Agency Group to book us and our agent is a big supporter and a legitimate badass so it’ll be rad to have them in our corner for future tours,” front man Leroy Virgil tells Saving Country Music. “Look for us in June all around the country.”
The Kid Rock tour was a big success for the band according to Leroy. “We gained a lot of fans throughout the tour who we can’t wait to see them when we come through with our show next time and made a lot of friends. Also I learned a shit load of things from Kid Rock and his crew and it was awesome to be treated so well after years of slugging it out in clubs. Everyone from the sound techs, the promoters, to Kid Rock and his band treated us like what we we’re doing was worth something which hasn’t always been the case in some of the places we’ve played over the years. All I know is I’m happy to take every opportunity I have to promote my songs and to eat their food and drink their booze, etc. etc. I think its been a more than even trade and we appreciate the help.”
While in the midst of the Kid Rock tour, Hellbound Glory released a new song called “The Feud.”
“I wrote the Feud a few days after seeing Bob Wayne play in Folsom CA with .357 [String Band] backing him,” Leroy explains. “…I wrote it about some relatives and other people I know who work in the medicinal industry. On a two week break from the Rebel Soul tour when we were offered some recording time in a big studio so I figured I’d embrace my Northwest roots and make a big-sounding grunge country song. I wasn’t sure I’d ever get the chance to work with such hi tech equipment again so I used it for everything it was worth. Anything else would have seemed contrived to me and I think we did a great job of getting that modern country sound on a song about farmers, violence, and weed.”
“To me it turned out more country than country. However, for anyone who prefers a stripped down version I’ve made available thru SCM the first recording we did a few years back as a two piece called the Excavators with just guitar, lap steel, bass drum, voice, and harmonica.”
Whenever the name Hellbound Glory is mentioned, the next question is when fans may get to hear some new music.
“Going to be doing as much recording as time and money will allow.” Leroy says. “Whether it be with Shooter, with our buddies Mike Lattanzi and Tommy Byrnnes (who did the Feud) or by myself if I can learn the technology. Can’t wait to hit everyone with our next single, not sure what it’ll be yet but if anyone has any suggestions we’d like to hear em….. Although I do have a batch of new songs I think will knock people’s socks off that I’m chomping at the bit to record as well. Gonna try to keep the bender broadcasts coming as well. Got about 5 of them up right now on iTunes and a bunch of acoustic stuff in the can we’ll put out once its put together. Just need to get Rico (Hellbound’s slide player) to get some more skits going one of these days. And if anyone has request, get them to us and we’d be happy to give ‘em a shot.”
“Thanks to everyone for the support. It takes support from a whole lot of people to get a band like us even this far in this day and age and we appreciate every single one of you skumbags and hags out there.”
Just Released: Hellbound Glory plays Hank’s “Lovesick Blues”
With all the junkets underground country bands have logged to and from Europe over the years, it was only a matter of time before the sprouts of the seeds they planted began to spring from the fertile Euro dirt. A fresh new crop of bands are joining some of Europe’s already established independent roots acts, and this includes the UK’s Rattleshack who’ve just released their debut, self-titled album.
For a long time a serious hunger for someone to trace back the original roots of country music cross global to the UK has been sitting out there ready to be tapped, and that is what Rattleshack does on this release. From Celtic jigs and folksy tales, to the legacy of the American storytelling song and Southern anthems, Rattleshack traces a nexus between English-speaking country and folk music, and marks a guidepost for the listener to see how the roots of the music all intertwine and share the same origin. It’s not that this hasn’t been done before, but it’s not been done nearly enough, and never with the fun, underground country twist Rattleshack displays while still conveying an accessibility and intelligence through really well-composed and well-written tunes.
The album starts off with the song “Dead Man’s Creek” written by the band’s bass player Gène Pellier, featuring lyric support by America’s Bob Wayne and a blend of female vocals from Rattleshack’s fiddle player Georgia Shackleton that give you that nerve-tingling vibe only experienced when the most well-orchestrated lyric line hits your ear. Yet you may listen to this lead single and think they’re just another short branch off the Hank3 influence tree. That’s when they hit you with the whimsical “Untrue Story” where Georgia Shackleton bears her naked accent out there unabashedly in a fairytale-ish story that still fits Rattleshack‘s largely dark mood. This leads into the Old World “Hit The Door” jig overlayed on the banter from an American automobile auctioneer. Both songs underscore Rattleshack’s compositional smarts and instrumental skill with guitar, mandolin, and fiddle.
All of a sudden you begin to sense this isn’t just another “same song, different flavor” run-of-the-mill underground country album. Rattleshack takes their music seriously, and can move between influences from a wide swath of the roots world with dexterity and adeptness. It never feels like they’re on the outside looking in of anything. At times the feeling is that they understand the music more than some of the originators. Take for example the hell-raising “Hillbilly Hick.” This could be taken as total seriousness, or absolute parody, but either way it encapsulates the influence of the Hank3 “punk-gone-country” era perfectly, and overrides any preconceived notions anyone may have with country punk to simply be enjoyable.
Andy Stanhope is Rattleshack’s primary singer and songwriter, and in tracks like “Son o’ Dixie” he shows his studiousness and breadth of knowledge with America’s songbook beyond his primary underground country influences. A lot of Rattleshack is spent with storytelling songs that include very specific characters, like the moonshine-running “Legend of Jackie Tiger.” Georgia Shackleton offers her own story in the short and sweet “Tracy Lynn.” Though at times some of the storytelling songs become a bit tedious, one of the biggest takeaways from Rattleshack is the variety this album boasts, being able to jump around from influence to influence, and even from continent to continent, yet still offer a seamless expression all their own.
As underground country continues to grow older, its not always the bigger, established, more recognized names of the movement that are defining the cutting edge of creativity. It’s the bands and artists working on the fringes that take the influences of these legacy underground artists and continue to push forward. With their debut album, Rattleshack announces themselves as one of those bands defining the cutting edge.
1 3/4 of 2 guns up.
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The annual Muddy Roots Festival held over Labor Day weekend announced their initial lineup last week (see below) and at the top of the list was the name of legendary Bakersfield Sound songwriter Red Simpson, chiefly known for his devotion to the story of the American truck driver. Living on the outskirts of Bakersfield in an old trailer park, Red was recruited for Muddy Roots during a chance meeting with Century Media recording artist Bob Wayne who was touring through town.
In a strange turn of events, Bob Wayne found himself sitting in Red Simpson’s trailer at 6 AM, swapping songs and stories with a man he considered a hero, and who country music has so unfortunately forgotten over time.
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Bob Wayne: When I first started touring with Hank3, mainly Andy Gibson (Hank3 steel guitar) turned me on to him. Basically when we’re on tour and rolling down the road, we’re listening to music that we love, and turning each other on to music. Andy was like “Man, you’ve got to hear Red Simpson,” and he has all his CD’s. As soon as I heard it, I immediately fell in love with it and we would constantly be listening to it. He’s always singing about truck driving, or being a highway patrolman. We just thought it was so funny that was his only two topics pretty much. We obsessed over him for years. I was a huge fan, but I never looked him up to see what he was doing. I knew he was still alive but I figured he was really old.
Trigger: He must have been a big influence on your music as well. Your 2nd album was 13 Truckin’ Songs and since then you’ve put out even more trucking songs.
Bob Wayne: Definitely. When we we’re recording (with Andy Gibson), he was one of the guys we would go to to get the sound we were looking for. We’d listen to Johnny Paycheck, Red Simpson…just pull up these records and listen to them, and we really listened to Red Simpson’s guitar players. In fact we gave him a little tribute in the song “Mack.” It’s kind of subliminal, it’s in the background, but there’s a little guitar lick in there about Mack the truck driver. Red’s sound is just amazing.
Trigger: So how did it come about that you were hanging out with Red Simpson in Bakersfield and all of a sudden you’re helping book him at the Muddy Roots Festival?
Bob Wayne: It goes back to my guitar player Ryan (Clackner). He’s got a really big beard. He was in downtown Nashville–this goes back to last summer I think–and he was just sitting there hanging out, and this woman came up to him that was probably in her 60′s, and came up to Ryan out of the blue and said, “I just love your beard, and your aura.” She told him, “I work at the Crystal Palace in Bakersfield.” It’s a famous museum and restaurant down there in Bakersfield, and she gave him her number and said if he was ever in Bakersfield he could have a free tour or whatever.
This was all before Ryan joined my band. So he joins the band now, and we’re in Bakersfield and he ends up calling this girl and she comes to our show. We get to talking and I mentioned Red Simpson, not knowing she knew him or anything like that. I said, “I love Bakersfield, this is where Red Simpson is from.” And she said, “Do you like Red Simpson?” and I said, “I love Red Simpson, you don’t even know.” About 15 minutes later she walks over with the phone and says, “Someone wants to talk to you.” I’m like “Okay?” And I get on the phone and it’s like, “Hey, this is Red. How’s it going man?”
We started talking. Ended up he knew Donnie Herron of BR549 who now plays with Bob Dylan and whose played on all of my albums. Donnie used to live in Bakersfield. So we had that connection. And then Red was like, “Why don’t you come over tomorrow morning and we’ll drink some coffee? We’ll trade songs.” Just listening to him talk, I’m such a fan of his–like the way he laughs, he gives a little “heh” like he does at the end of some of his songs I was like, “Oh my God this is really him.” I was a little star struck. This is one of my heroes. He says, “How about 6 AM?” and I’m like, “Oh my God.” He’s 78 I think, so he’s up there. So I got up early, none of the band wanted to go that early.
He lives in a trailer park in Bakersfield, right in between the cemetery and the dump in this old ass trailer park. He’s got two old Cadillacs sitting out in the front, just like my old Cadillac limo. We ended up sitting there talking for hours, drinking coffee. He showed me all his demos, he played me all the unreleased Red Simpson songs that he’s just written. He’s just sitting in his trailer writing all these songs. He said, “Man, I’d really like it if you’d cut this one.” He gave me a couple of songs he really wants me to record. I asked him, “Do you still play gigs?” And he said, “I play down at the nursing home every Monday night for a free meal.”
So anyway we ended up hanging out all day until I had to leave. We we’re driving up to the next gig and I thought, “Man, I wonder if he would want to play Muddy Roots?” So I called Jason (Muddy Roots promoter), and Jason said, “Oh hell yeah.” So I called up Red and he said, “Well, I don’t have any band up there. And so I said, “We’ll learn your songs and do a good job.” Andy (Gibson) was really excited too. He said, “One minute we’re driving down the road listening to Red Simpson, now we’re going to be playing with him!”
Red is also going to do a show at the Country Music Hall of Fame February 23rd, and I’m actually going to pick him up in my limo and give him a ride to it. We’re going to hang out, he’s gonna come by the house, and we may do some recording and stuff. So Red Simpson is gonna be going to the Country Music Hall of Fame in my limo, and I’m gonna blow the big bullhorn for him and open the door and everything!
Trigger: This is all so appropriate because the Country Music Hall of Fame, their big exhibit is highlighting the Bakersfield Sound, which of course Red Simpson was a part of as much as anybody. It’s all about finding these old guys that time has forgotten, and giving them the props that they deserve.
Bob Wayne: Yeah, and it was funny because after I called him, about 10 minutes after he called me again and said, “Hey man, thank you so much for doing that. And uh…if you can get me any more gigs…” (laughing). So I’ve been putting out some feelers for him. Now I’m friends with him, it’s weird. We call, I talk to his wife and stuff. It’s crazy. — Purchase Tickets to the Muddy Roots Festival
Where 2011 felt like a high water mark year for live performances and an average year for recorded projects, 2012 feels vice versa. When I look back on 2011, it seemed like there were moments I experienced that I will never top the rest of my life. 2012 is the year that some albums and songs were released that may never be topped. Still there were a quite a few memorable performances worth noting.
Unlike Saving Country Music’s other yearly awards, since omnipresence isn’t an attribute I posses, this is simply based on my own experiences, not meant to capture the overall pulse of the live events that transpired all year. And please consider that even though I may have attended events like Pickathon, The Muddy Roots Festival, or SXSW, I was unable to catch every performance, or enough of certain performances for it to feel fair to include them here. If you feel there is an omission, please share it with the rest of us below.
15. The Calamity Cubes – XSXSW 5 – Austin, TX
Usually in music you get the raw, primal, gut punching experience, or you get the introspective, heartfelt, cerebral experience. The Calamity Cubes are one of those few live performers who can deliver both. They put on a great set at the Muddy Roots Festival in Tennessee as well, but their XSXSW performance in a more intimate, tight-knit setting rose to being something special.
Kody Oh! doing a bass stand in the center of the crowd:
14. Jayke Orvis – Stage 2 – Muddy Roots Festival
Jayke Orvis is always a crowd favorite, and Jayke and the crowd were pretty miffed when the sound crew pulled the plug on them at 2-something in the morning. But sometimes the worst situations breed the most memorable moments, and that’s what happened when Jayke and his Broken Band hopped into the crowd and kicked it acoustic style, sound guys be damned. Other highlights of the set were JB Beverley singing “Streets” with Jayke from his album It’s All Been Said, and Rachel Brooke singing her duet with Jayke “Hold Me Tight” from the .357 String Band’s magnum opus, Fire & Hail.
13. L.C Ulmer – Stage 2 – Muddy Roots Festival
L.C.’s friend Robert Belfour deserves praise for the craziest performance story of 2012. Crashed out on the highway from the torrential rains of the tropical storm that had made its way to middle Tennessee, Robert hopped into the tow truck and told them forget the car for now and point their nose to the Muddy Roots site, he had a gig to play. He showed up late, but he showed up, with the tow truck driver carrying his amplifier and guitar.
Meanwhile during the delay, L.C. Ulmer laid down one of the baddest-assed extended sets of blues music all weekend, chicken hopping across the stage and playing guitar behind his back. It was one of the most surprising sets of music I saw all year.
12. Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band – Stage 2 – Muddy Roots Festival
The first time I ever saw Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band live I straight up walked out. Too much chicken and fried potatoes for me. Granted, I was mainly there to see Austin Lucas who opened the show, and it was at the armpit of Austin music venues–the now condemned and shuttered Emo’s. But nonetheless after 15 minutes, I was done.
Rev. Peyton did something in 2012 though. He figured out the right formula for his music, both recorded and live. And his set at Muddy Roots was sheer madness from downbeat. It culminated in the crowd throwing handfuls of hay up in the air while Washboard Breezy lit her washboard on fire in a mad scene I will never forget, and neither will drummer Aaron “Cuz” Persinger who has an acute hay allergy and had to rush off the stage after the last song to keep his lungs from collapsing.
Audio sucks in the video below, but you get the drift.
11. Lake Street Dive – Workshop Barn – Pickathon
After seeing them perform at Pickathon’s “Pumphouse”–a small shack isolated in the woods where bands go in and make top notch videos for the site Live & Breathing–I made a vow to catch their set on Sunday at Pickathon’s Workshop Barn. Right up there with Thee Oh Sees, Lake Street Dive from Boston was one of the new take-aways for me from 2012 Pickathon. Though maybe a little more polished and jazzy for traditional Saving Country Music fare, their style and musicianship was enthralling and made me a fast fan. After their last Workshop Barn song, they got the biggest ovation I think I have ever seen for a live performance, possibly ever. I was afraid the floor was going to cave in.
10. Thee Oh Sees – The Galaxy Barn – Pickathon
Yes I know, not really country. At all. Though I would say there’s some serious roots influences at play here. Regardless of what you want to label them, Thee Oh Sees are a force of nature in the live context, and it is about time that they busted out of their San Francisco scene to find a place in the greater music consciousness. They are sonic craftsmen (and craftswoman) who seem to understand intuitively how to tickle all the nerves that make your mind and body submit to music and make you wiggle around like an unruly child. Thee Oh Sees are a must see.
9. Bob Wayne – The Continental Club, Austin, TX & Muddy Roots
Three times in 2012 I was regaled by Bob Wayne and his Outlaw Carnies, but there was something special about the night at The Continental Club. Seeing him in one of Austin’s most legendary venues, and with probably his best Outlaw Carnie lineup yet in Ryan Clackner on guitar, Lucy B. Cochran on fiddle, Elmer on bass, and with a full-time drummer in the lineup for the first time, they laid down an ass whooping of a set. This is where I realized that Bob Wayne had completely separated himself from the crowd of crusty, post-punk screamo bands with banjos to become a professional touring act capable of breaking into the next level. Like his music or not, Bob Wayne has arrived and can put on one hell of a show.
Picture from Muddy Roots:
8. Lucky Tubb w/ Don Maddox – Johnny B’s – Medford, OR
Lucky Tubb is not just another famous name. He’s bursting with authentic, classic talent, and wields one of the best voices in country music by combining cadence and style. Sometimes discipline can keep this from being evidenced in full force, but when he’s on, he’s on. And he was on Halloween night and so was his excellent band, with the added bonus of sharing the stage with the legendary, 90-year-old Don Maddox of the Maddox Brother & Rose. (see videos and full review)
7. Slim Cessna’s Auto Club/Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers/The Goddamn Gallows – Muddy Roots Festival
I can’t say enough about these bands, and at this point I’m afraid to say anything more from fear of coming across as redundant. Every year when I talk about live bands, they topped the list. And they will continue to top the list of bands you must see, except for Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers who at least for the moment are no more, giving you even more reason to make sure you see these bands live any chance you get because you may not get another. Slim Cessna’s Auto Club, Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers, and The Goddamn Gallows are as good as it gets live.
Col JD Wilkes of Th’ Shack Shakers:
6. Joe Buck Yourself – Stage 1 – Muddy Roots Festival
One of those “you had to be there” moments when Joe Buck, surrounded by a sea of his fans chanting every word of his songs, created one of those magical moments of musical camaraderie.
5. Austin Lucas & Glossary – The Mohawk – Austin, TX
This is a touring combination I had wanted to catch for a long time. To hear Glossary is one thing. To hear Austin Lucas is another. And then to hear them together is completely something else. It is two autonomous music acts that you swear were built to compliment each other. There is no better way to experience Austin Lucas than with Glossary behind him, and there’s no better band to hear before Austin Lucas than Glossary. It is because they both build their music from the songs out, but still give such great attention to the live performance, and their styles of roots and rock take the same approach and blend perfectly.
4. Sturgill Simpson – The Rattle Inn- Austin, TX
I’ve been open about my reservations about the retooled Sturgill Simpson following the dissolving of his previous band Sunday Valley. Putting an acoustic guitar in his hands seemed like such a travesty after experiencing Sturgill in the raw with the electric guitar and the country music power trio. But however exciting it was, it was a hollow experience for Sturgill in the long run. Many songwriters covet the idea of being listened to instead of heard, but Sturgill actually has the talent to have one of his best tools taken out of his hands and still command an audience. Now Sturgill is making you listen, betting himself to see if he can hush a room, and winning that bet. (read full review)
3. Anderson Family Bluegrass – Scott Valley Bluegrass Festival, California
“People first, then music” is the mantra on this site, and it is such a blessing when you discover people who are just as inspiring as the music they make. Such is the case with the Anderson Family Bluegrass Band from Grass Valley, CA. Hovering above the fray of most stock family bands and stock bluegrass bands, there is a realness to their music that sets them apart. Yes, their set lists include many standards you would expect from any bluegrass band, but then they’ll completely surprise you with some spice, like Iris Dement’s “Our Town” or Hank Williams III’s “D Ray White.”
I went to the Scott Valley Bluegrass Festival hoping to catch the Anderson Family’s set and shake their hands, and the Anderson Family ended up making me feel like one of the family for the weekend (Trigger Anderson, if you will). The music is excellent, but this is just the excuse to get you to pay attention to the profound warmth and by-gone family strength the Anderson Family conveys. (read full review)
2. Restavrant – Stage 2 – Muddy Roots Festival
There are two types of primary music experiences: visceral and carnal. Uh yeah, this one would be firmly ensconced in the carnal category. A Restavrant set is like a physical, violent assault on your personage that in some weird, masochistic way you addictively crave. I don’t think I still have fully processed exactly what happened on that stage. But rest assured, if I had another chance to see these chaps perform, I’d blow paychecks and cross state lines to put myself in harm’s way and let them run me over like a barreling Mack truck again and again. Restavrant has always been an amazing live experience, but with the addition of drummer/junk smasher Tyler Whiteside, it’s downright out of control.
1. Ralph Stanley – Stage 2 – Muddy Roots Festival
It goes without saying that any time you get to see a true music deity on stage, it will be memorable. Sometimes when this happens, especially with a performer in their 80′s, you have to go in knowing the performance itself may not be the greatest, that they’ve aged beyond their abilities, which will happen to us all. What made Ralph Stanley’s set at the Muddy Roots Festival so memorable is how his band had really thought out how to take a legendary performer who was probably is no longer fit to put on a full set of music himself, and still make you feel like you were taking in a performance from him in his prime.
But true music lovers live for those extremely rare moments when everything comes together, the sky parts and the world hushes, and the very fabric of human experience bends to the will of a truly magical musical moment. That my friends is what unfolded when Ralph Stanley stood in the center of the Muddy Roots stage looking out across a disheveled, soaking wet sea of rednecks and post-punk refugees who all fell as silent as the day after the end of the world when Ralph Stanley recited “O’ Death.” Your goosebumps got goosebumps. And for that brief moment, all of it, all of the reasons we live and struggle, the importance of friends and family and community, and everything we do to ensure music is a part of our lives, the sacrifices, the money, the travel, all came into full reflection.
The underground country movement started roughly in the mid 90′s on lower Broadway in Nashville that at the time was a run down part of town. Young musicians from around the country, some from punk backgrounds, came together from their mutual love of authentic country music to create a counterbalance to the pop country that was prevailing on Music Row a few blocks west.
Underground country started with mostly neo-traditionalists like Wayne “The Train” Hancock, Big Sandy, and Dale Watson, but spread to the punk and heavy metal world through acts like Hank Williams III and Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers. This list does not just consider the appeal of these albums, but also the influence they had on other underground artists and albums, and on country music and music in general.
Please understand that this list is just for underground country albums. This means artists better defined by the Deep Blues like Scott H. Biram or Possessed by Paul James, or Texas artists like James Hand or Ray Wylie Hubbard, or country artists who may work on the fringes of underground country but would not necessarily be considered underground like BR549 or Roger Alan Wade, are not included. Americana acts are not included. This is strictly underground country’s opportunity to bask in the spotlight.
Please feel free to leave your own list below.
16. The Boomswagglers- Bootleg Beginnings – 2011
This very well may be the most authentic album of music put out in the modern era for any genre. The Boomswagglers have always been and continue to be more myth than reality, with original Boomswaggler Lawson Bennett long gone and a cavalcade of replacements shuffling in an out with Spencer Cornett. Even if they never put out another album, The Boomswagglers made their mark, and it is a deep one.
“The music is wildly entertaining and deceptively deep. If you’re going to be a Boomswagglers song, someone’s got to die, and likely a woman. Some may find this silly, monotonous, or even offensive, but you have to listen beyond the lyrics, and unlock the carnal wisdom that is hidden in these songs.” (read full review)
15. JB Beverley & The Wayward Drifters – Dark Bar & A Juke Box – 2006
Dark Bar & A Juke Box was an instant underground country classic, and so was the anti Music Row song that the album got its name from. JB and his Wayward Drifters grit out a superb selection of songs displaying taste, restraint, and a sincere appreciation for the roots of country music, which may have surprised some who knew JB more for his work with heavy metal bands like The Murder Junkies and the Little White Pills. Dark Bar & A Juke Box also boasts appearances from the famous son and grandson of a country music royal family, who due to contractual issues had to work incognito (wink wink).
14. Lucky Tubb & The Modern Day Troubadours – Del Gaucho – 2011
Some (including Lucky himself) may point to Hillbilly Fever as being the seminal Lucky Tubb album with its big budget and appearances by Wayne “The Train” Hancock. But Del Gaucho is where Lucky Tubb came into his own, found his sound, and the unique musical flavor only he has to offer the world. Dirty, rowdy, rocking, but still steadfastly neo-traditionalist country, Del Gaucho scores off the charts when it comes to style points. When you’re talking about some of the greatest neo-traditional country albums and artists of all time, Lucky Tubb and Del Gaucho deserve to be in that conversation.
13- Bob Wayne & The Outlaw Carnies – Blood to Dust – 2008
They say you have your whole life to write your first album, and what makes Bob Wayne’s Blood to Dust so special is how true and touching he told his life’s story through song. His subsequent albums aren’t too shabby either, but with signature songs like “Blood to Dust”, “Road Bound”, and “27 Years”, this still stands out as his signature album, and a signature album of the underground country movement. It was performed, produced, and recorded by an all-star cast of contributors that included Donnie Herron, Joe Buck and Andy Gibson, and brought Bob Wayne out from behind-the-scenes as Hank3′s guitar tech, and made him one of the movement’s most well-known songwriters and performers.
12. Jayke Orvis – It’s All Been Said – 2010
This is the album that launched Farmageddon Records, and that launched Jayke Orvis as a formidable, premier front man in underground country. One of the founding members of the now legendary .357 String Band, Jayke was asked to leave the band because of irreconcilable differences and almost immediately began touring with The Goddamn Gallows and trying to make this album happen. The result was a slick, tightly-crafted LP showcasing excellent songwriting and instrumentation. From ballads to blazing instrumentals, Jayke Orvis has proved himself to be one of the singular talents of underground country roots.
11. Lonesome Wyatt & Rachel Brooke – A Bitter Harvest – 2009
This album was destined to become an underground country classic. The mad genius music mind of Lonesome Wyatt of the Gothic country duo Those Poor Bastards has the uncanny ability to procure the absolute most appropriate sounds to evoke the desired dark mood in his music. Then you combine that with one of the best voices not just in underground country, but in all of music in Rachel Brooke, and magic was bound to happen. The creativity on A Bitter Harvest is spellbinding. More of an artistic endeavor than a toe tapper, Lonesome Wyatt and Rachel create a soundtrack to human emotion and despair. For people looking for a place for country music to evolve, A Bitter Harvest shows how you can take authentic country themes and an appreciation for the roots of the music, and envelop it in layers of textural color culled from the wide experience of human sounds.
10. Justin Townes Earle – Midnight At The Movies – 2009
Midnight At The Movies was Saving Country Music’s 2009 Album of the Year. Today it would be difficult to characterize Justin Townes Earle as underground country because the quality of this album launched him into the inner sanctum of Americana.
“Justin Townes Earle has done an awesome thing with this album; he has figured out a way to unite all the displaced elements that make up the alternative to mainstream Nashville country, while still staying somewhat accessible to the mainstream folks as well. You might even catch the bluegrass folks nodding their head while listening to it. Folkies like it, and there’s a few tunes blues people can get into. This isn’t just the REAL country album of the year, it is the “Alt-country” album of the year and the “Americana” album of the year.” (read full review)
9. Slackeye Slim - El Santo Grial, La Pistola Piadosa – 2011
“Every once in a while, an album comes along that changes everything. It’s an album that inspires other albums, and dynamic shifts in tastes and approach throughout a sector of music, while at the same time dashing the dreams of other artists, as the purity and originality are way too much to attempt to rival. Slackeye Slim’s El Santo Grial, La Pistola Piadosa is one of those albums.
“El Santo Grial is a masterpiece, exquisitely produced, arranged, and performed. This is a patient, uncompromising album. You can tell time was never introduced into this project as a goal. The goal was to flesh out Slackeye’s vision without ever settling for second best, and that goal was accomplished.” (read full review)
8. Wayne “The Train” Hancock – That’s What Daddy Wants – 1997
Thunderstorms & Neon Signs is the Wayne Hancock album most people gravitate towards as their favorite because it was their first, and the first to showcase Wayne Hancock’s unique blend of country, Western Swing, rockabilly, and blues. But pound for pound, That’s What Daddy Wants is just as good of an offering, boasting some of The Train’s signature songs like “87 Southbound” and “Johnny Law”. Wayne Hancock has never put out a bad album, and distinguishing between them is difficult. But it’s not difficult to say that the underground country movement would have not had as much class if That’s What Daddy Wants hadn’t seen the light of day.
7. .357 String Band – Fire & Hail – 2008
“They were all the absolute best possible musicians you could find at their respective positions, each challenging each other, pushing each other to keep up with the band’s demands for artistic excellence in both instrumental technique and creative composition.
“Listening back now at Fire & Hail, with so much talent in one place, no wonder the project was untenable, and no wonder the respective players have moved on to become their own trees instead of respective branches of the same project. Still, the loss of .357 String Band may go down as underground country’s greatest tragedy.” (read full review)
6. Hank Williams III - Lovesick, Broke, & Driftin’ – 2002
BR549 and Wayne “The Train” Hancock spearheaded the neo-traditionalist movement in the mid 90′s, but Hank Williams III was the one to carry it into the oughts and introduce it to a brand new crop of fans he brought along from his dabblings in the punk/heavy metal world. After having to tow the line somewhat for his first album Risin’ Outlaw, Hank3 was unleashed and able to showcase his own songwriting, heavily influenced by Wayne Hancock and Hank3′s famous grandfather, but still all his own. His voice was wickedly pure with a heart wrenching yodel and commanding range. The songwriting was simple, but powerful. This is a masterpiece, and remains an essential title of the neo-traditionalist era.
5. Hellbound Glory – Old Highs & New Lows – 2010
Hellbound Glory had already been around for years, but they burst into the underground with this magnificent, hard country album highlighted by head man Leroy Virgil’s world class songwriting. Despite the “hell” in their name and the hard language in their songs, Hellbound Glory hadn’t gone through any retooling as post punk refugees. They were pure country through and through and Old Highs & New Lows combined excellent Outlaw-style bar stompers and ballads with some of the most wit-filled songwriting since Keith Whitley. As far as honky tonk albums go, it may be years before this one is trumped. And when it is, it might be Leroy Virgil and Hellbound Glory doing the trumping.
4. Dale Watson – Live in London…England – 2002
Dale comes out on stage and starts slinging guitars, cutting classics, and speaking the truth. Before Dale was the hometown boy and house band for Austin, he was pissed off and willing to sing about it. Dale’s anti-Nashville classics “Real Country Song”, “Nashville Rash”, and “Country My Ass” can all be found here, but Live in London isn’t all pissing and moaning. Songs like “Ain’t That Livin’” showed off Dale’s superlative voice and suave style. Honky tonk albums are sometimes hard to make because it is hard to capture that live, sweaty energy in the recorded context. So what better way to solve that problem than making a live one? Live in London remains the best Dale album to date.
3. Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers – Cockadoodledon’t – 2003
This was one of the first albums to bust out of the burgeoning music scene on lower Broadway in Nashville where one can argue the undergorund country movement started. It showed the world what kind of mayhem could be created by mixing country, blues, and punk music together without compromising taste and soul. It is the album which acts as a guidepost to the eclectic, yet intuitive and inter-related mix of influences that you will find in underground country: honest to goodness appreciation to the roots of American music, with a punk attitude and approach. And if you ever wondered why Joe Buck is considered part of underground country, appreciate that he played most of the music on Cockadoodledon’t.
2. Wayne “The Train” Hancock – Thunderstorms & Neon Signs – 1995
There are two albums that you can look back on an make a serious case that if they did not exist, underground country music may not exist–the album below this one on this list, and Wayne Hancock’s Thunderstorm & Neon Signs. There are two types of music artists: originators and imitators. Sometimes imitators can be very successful, and very creative artists themselves. But it always takes the originators to set the plate for the imitators to do what they do. Thunderstorms & Neon Signs was an original album from one of America’s most original country roots artists of all time. It doesn’t get much better or more influential than this.
1. Hank Williams III – Straight to Hell – 2006
This album isn’t underground country’s Red Headed Stranger. It isn’t underground country’s Honky Tonk Heroes. It is both. It is the album that both was a novel concept, a breakthrough sonically and lyrically, and had a massive impact on the business side of music, for artists winning control of their music and inspiring and showing artists how to do it themselves. The deposed son of country music royalty had taken on a major Nashville label, and won, and all while being one of the first to successfully bridge the energy and approach of punk and heavy metal music with traditional country, all while keeping the music solidly country in nature.
It was the first album to be put out through the CMA with a Parental Advisory sticker. It was the first to ever be recorded outside of a traditional studio setting. Of course only a select few were paying attention, but it broke through many barriers that to this day have changed music in significant ways, sonically and behind the scenes.
The approach also had wide-ranging impacts outside of underground country and country music in general, to rock music and punk and heavy metal, inspiring thousands of rock kids to put down their electric guitars and AC/DC records, and pick up banjos and Johnny Cash records. The impact on mainstream music may have not been seen, but it was felt, and just like all great albums, it’s legacy will grow and be more appreciated and understood as the future unfolds.
On Saturday November 17th, two of the most important acts in underground country played what very well could be their final shows. Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers, a band that was there at the very beginning of underground country and the revitalization of the lower Broadway in Nashville announced they are calling it quits after 16 years, at least for now, playing their final show at Nashville’s Mercy Lounge. Meanwhile in Covington, Kentucky, Unknown Hinson, one of underground country’s greatest ambassadors from his work on Cartoon Network’s Squidbillies, played his final show as a touring act after 17 years, saying he was done, “Period.”
Both these acts had their specific reasons for calling it quits, and certainly the door is open for them to return. And for JD Wilkes, the long-time front man of The Shack Shakers, he still has his Dirt Daubers routine which has apparently retooled to a more electric sound. But you add these huge, high-profile, highly-important artists leaving on top of bands like .357 String Band dissolving, Sunday Valley re-aligning, and Leroy Virgil losing all his original players in Hellbound Glory, and all of a sudden underground country feels like it’s fighting a war of attrition, and losing.
I have been struggling to write this article for almost two years, but have been putting it off because there’s some hard things to say, and I didn’t want to “talk down” a movement that was already trying to deal with pretty alarming trends. But I think that especially now, zooming out and trying to be honest and critical in a constructive way is important, because there is positively no doubt that underground country is dying, and has been for years.
Why? Here are some ideas.
An aging fan base and aging artists
There are exceptions of course, but if you look at who comprises the underground country movement, it is predominantly people in their 30′s, and people from lower incomes. And what do people do in their 30′s? They settle down, they get married and have kids, they get better and more stable jobs, they buy houses. This gives them less time to spend partying, hanging out on the internet talking about music, going to shows on weeknights. In your 30′s, instead of being able to hit every underground country show rolling through town, you have to pick that one show a month you want to attend and pay a babysitter.
The same goes for the artists making underground country music. As they age, their motivations to keep working at music that doesn’t seem to want to stick commercially begin to fade. Health concerns begin to become an issue, and not being able to afford health insurance is a real concern. This was one of the primary issues facing the Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers. Yearning for more stability is a recurring theme in the attrition underground country is facing in its talent roster, from banjo player Joe Huber of the .357 String Band, to drummer Chico from Hellbound Glory.
Something else worth noting is the large sect of sober people who make up underground country, in both the artist and fan ranks. Over time, some people must move away from the music and party scenes to find their sobriety, and others may just not identify any more with music that tends to have foundations in a party lifestyle.
Meanwhile the infusion of youth into underground country is anemic. There are some exceptions. The Boomswagglers from Texas and The Slaughter Daughters are promising, young bands, and artists like Lucky Tubb and Wayne Hancock have been integrating side musicians into the scene for some time. But they rarely stick, partly because of a general lack of support. Any younger musician if they’re smart doesn’t attempt to start their rise in underground country, which seems to be trending down and never had much long-term infrastructure to begin with. They look towards Americana, or the Texas/Red Dirt scene, or bluegrass, where the support is much easier to count on.
A Lack of Leadership
Since the beginning of underground country, if you looked at the top of the pyramid you saw Hank Williams III, and that is still the case in regards to records sales and concert tickets sold in any given year. But in 2008, Hank3 took over a year off from the road, and shortly after he started touring again, he stopped carrying opening bands. Then he put out a succession of albums of questionable quality, and all of a sudden a career on the rise has been stagnant for going on 5 years, and same goes for the the scene that revolves around it.
It was not Saving Country Music or Free Hank III, or even MySpace that comprised the first information portal about underground country. It was Hank3′s “Cussin’ Board” forum. And people didn’t go there just for Hank3 news, but news about all the underground country bands, with artists like JB Beverley and Rachel Brooke participating in the discussions regularly. These days, the “Cussin’ Board” feels like a ghost town compared to its vibrant past.
Shooter Jennings has stepped up in the last two years to attempt to fill the leadership vacuum left by Hank3, and has done some positive things and had some marginal success. But his polarization has kept him from completing the task of becoming a solid leader everyone can look up to. Similarly, where Hank3 was once the most unifying factor in underground country, his obvious step back from the “scene” has now made him a polarizing figure as well, questionably capable of taking back the reigns of underground country even if he was motivated to, and which he’s shown positively no signs of wanting to do. I can’t blame Hank3 for wanting to take a step back, because there were so many people wanting to take from him, believing his name was their stepping stone to success.
Leadership must come from the artists, and it must come from the music first, and that is Shooter Jennings’ inherent problem. This was illustrated when he cut the “Drinking Side of Country” duet with Bucky Covington, or on his industrial rock album Black Ribbons. Whether you like these Shooter projects or not, they illustrate his lack of consistency that has lead to his ineptness as a leader of underground country, and his acute polarization that reaches as far as Eric Church fans, and fans of his father. Hank3 never professed himself a leader. He led by example, and used causes like Reinstate Hank to lead the charge of taking country music back.
The Scene Has Replaced The Movement
One of the reasons an underground of country music was founded was from a wide ranging dissent about the direction of country music. This dissent is where the varying range of musical styles united, taking the country punk of Hank3, the neo-traditional approach of Wayne Hancock, the Texas/Outlaw country of Dale Watson, the bluegrass of the .357 String Band, the blues of Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers, and the Gothic country of Those Poor Bastards and piling them all together in the overall underground country movement. It was united by issues, like the reinstatement of Hank Williams to the Grand Ole Opry, the opening and extension of the Williams Family Exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame, the fight for creative freedom of artists from record labels, and the fight against the infiltration of pop on country radio.
Now these issues that defined, united, and energized the country music underground are seen as tired, if not counter-productive or annoying to many in the underground population. When issues arose with the sale of the Grand Ole Opry to Marriott International, or the changing of Billboard’s chart rules, the underground met them with apathy, if not anger at them being offered up as relevant to their music world. Issues are what made outreach possible for underground country, and now exclusivity seems to be what is yearned for by the majority of underground country fans. The “we have our music, screw the masses” attitude is what prevails, taking away one of the primary promotional tools for independent-minded underground ideals to reach out to other country music fans who also might be feeling disenfranchised with the mainstream.
Scenes and Cliques
Image and exclusivity seem to be the important dynamics in today’s country music underground, dragging on the commercial viability of the music, and making it hard for outsiders to integrate with the underground country culture. Though some on the outside looking in may enjoy the music, they may not understand the verbiage, anecdotes, and style that seem to be important with “fitting in” to the underground. So as long-time underground country fans taper off because of age, no new blood is there to take their place.
Facebook has also narrowed the perspectives of underground country fans, making them feel like how you present yourself is more important than what you do. An unhealthy culture of cloistered, inbred cross-promotion prevails through underground country, where small cliques of fans and bands have formed around labels, blogs, and podcasts, catering content to a select few.
These cliques promote each other within the clique, and at times may branch out farther to the “scene,” but rarely reach new blood because they are based on narrow perspectives and anecdotal experiences. It’s an “I’ll scratch your back, you scratch mine” culture where quality and creativity are lightly regarded compared to political importance in the scene. And if you don’t participate in this culture of narrow, ineffective promotion of the other people in the scene or clique, you risk being ostracized. Intention is measured over effectiveness. These cliques and their differences have also given rise to eternal conflict, with the bigger overall “Shooter fans vs. Hank3 fans” splitting underground country squarely in half.
Saving Country Music, and I specifically have at times enhanced or enabled unnecessary “scene” drama, and this has potentially affected the fate of underground country adversely.
There are lot’s of entities in underground country and roots who attempt to promote music that seem to get lost in promoting their branding and merch first, and the music second. There are many general reasons underground country is dying, but the specific one is lack of money. Underground country is funded by the $40 hoodie, and this creates a paradox for the music that is supposed to be the focus.
Though there is lots of talk about shared responsibility for keeping underground music alive, and there’s many folks who re-post bulletins on Facebook, take pictures and videos of shows, run podcasts, or boutique “labels” attempting to make a difference in the music, the effect is confined to cliques and micro-scenes, and is more catered to serving the few and propagating image and branding.
For example the Pickathon Festival in Portland that caters to a wide variety of independent roots movements, including underground country, boasts over 300 volunteers annually. The Muddy Roots Festival, which almost exclusively caters to underground country and roots had roughly a dozen volunteers this last year, with multiple people who signed up to volunteer to get discounted or free tickets either not working their shifts, walking off their shifts, or generally being unhelpful. Pickathon’s issues with people sneaking onto the site are marginal. Muddy Roots’ issues of people sneaking on site without paying are major. The most helpful volunteers at the 2012 Muddy Roots were a representative from a hair gel sponsor, and the Voodoo Kings Car Club who have very few ties to the music.
There seems to be little understanding that if bands, labels, and festivals are going to continue to exist, there must be a shared sacrifice from the fans. And not just symbolic sacrifice, but substantive efforts to offer real support to the entities making the music happen. Without any corporate funding, that’s how an underground music movement works.
A Lack of Creativity
Underground country was founded on creativity. The creativity found on albums such as Hank3′s Straight to Hell, Wayne Hancock’s Thunderstorms & Neon Signs, Dale Watson’s Live in London, and Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers’ Cockadoodledon’t is what caused a country music underground to form in the first place. In the mid 2000′s, you could confidently say that the creativity in underground country outlasted that of the mainstream per capita. These days underground country is mired in trying to recapture that creativity, in a practice that lends to the aping of styles and the rehashing of themes. Capturing a “punk gone country,” “honky tonk Outlaw”, or “old-time” aesthetic seems more important than carving out a new creative niche like the originators of underground country did.
Meanwhile any true creativity existing in underground country quickly evolves beyond it to greener pastures in Texas country or Americana, like Justin Townes Earle did. The lack of infrastructure, the presence of scenesters, and the general disorganization of the underground dissuades talented artist from associating themselves with it. Americana, Red Dirt, Texas, and West Coast circuits offer much more hospitable and palatable scenes, while underground country generally discourages cross-pollination with these kindred, independent-minded movements, misunderstanding them as either mainstream, or too high-minded for the music they like.
A step removed from the influence of the scene, Europe continues to thrive and grow their support for underground country. There seems to be more general thankfulness that underground country music exists in Europe, and a stronger focus on the music itself instead of the scene that surrounds it. There’s more support, more of a volunteering attitude, and more of a willingness to help make the music happen by the fans. Europe continues to be the most commercially-viable place for many underground country bands to tour and sell albums, and that support is continuing to grow.
A Few Breakout Bands
Bands like Larry & His Flask, Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band, and The Goddamn Gallows have found some decent success over the past few years playing on some bigger tours like The Warped Tour and opening for The Reverend Horton Heat. Bob Wayne has found traction in Europe and domestically being singed with label Century Media. Justin Townes Earle is now a big concert draw, and Scott Biram is getting his music played on television shows.
But many of these artists are moving on from the traditional underground country infrastructure to find their success, and others like Leroy Virgil and Sturgill Simpson still seem to be one step behind where their creative potential should be taking them commercially.
Festival & Touring Infrastructure
This is something underground country was lacking for years, and now has a healthy dose of. Unfortunately rising gas prices and dwindling crowds sometimes means it’s too little too late for some bands. The reason Unknown Hinson says he quit touring was because it was costing him too much money.
There are more festivals in all shapes and sizes catering to underground country and roots than ever before. But again, with a dwindling fan base, these different festivals are competing with each other for the same anemic and contracting population.
The Deep Blues
The Deep Blues seems to be on a more sustainable path, and also seems to be able to divest itself from the drama that is confounding underground country. However since it shares much of the same infrastructure as underground country, the issues in underground country can bleed over to the deep blues as well. There is better sustainability in Deep Blues, but the growth is still marginal. In many ways, the Deep Blues is the only thing keeping underground country alive, and that could hinder Deep Blues from moving forward as it drags underground country along.
What Can Be Done To Save Underground Country
To save underground country there must be a renewed interest in finding and developing younger bands, attracting younger fans, and focusing on talent and creativity over forming exclusive scenes. “Young” should not be mistaken for the same connotations it carries in mainstream country. Talent and creativity should still remain key, as well as trying to reach the folks that “get it.” But if underground country wants to continue to remain a viable part of the overall country music landscape, it must recruit new bands and new listeners to replace the natural contraction within its population.
Underground country must quit being so reactionary about the outside world. It must diversify. It must find common ground, common struggle, and common tastes with Americana, Red Dirt, and Texas music, and promote its best and brightest talent to those worlds and then reciprocate. It must stick to its founding principles of preserving the roots of the music and fighting for creative control for artists, and seize on the opportunities current events create to promote those principles to the rest of the music world, promoting the music of underground country by proxy.
It needs leadership, big bands, breakout albums and songs that breathe new fervor into the movement. It needs and end to the “I got mine” mentality.
And it needs it now, before it ends up like Communism: a great idea whose devil is in the application.
Lower Broadway in Nashville has a new songstress haunting the streets, and she’s a good one. Sarah Gayle Meech, originally from the sticks of Washington State, showed up in town via LA and is doing what she can to make sure the once epicenter of the underground of country music doesn’t become just a row of corporate bars and crappy music.
If you want to know how to put out one badass independent/underground country album in Nashville, you could use One Good Thing as a template. First you line up the greatest renegade studio owner in town, one Andy Gibson, maybe more famous for being Hank Williams III’s steel and dobro player, but the man who tweaked the knobs on such legendary albums as Hank III’s Straight to Hell, .357 String Band‘s Fire & Hail, and every piece of recorded music Bob Wayne has ever released.
Then you line up the best superpickers in town, namely the superlative “Cousin” Kenny Vaughan (Marty Stuart, many others), and the legendary Chris Scruggs (BR549, many others). Just with these assets, if underground country were an arms race, Sarah Gayle Meech would have just announced herself a superpower.
But none of these dude’s names are on the cover, and none of them wrote these songs. Sarah and her songwriting are the center of attention here, and with impeccable country taste and instincts, Sarah assembles 12 original and authentic honky-tonk hard country songs for your listening enjoyment.
Don’t let the sleeves of tattoos scare you, this is country and country only. There’s no screams coming out of those red lips, or goat horns concealed under that raven black hair. Sarah Gayle Meech and One Good Thing are country through and through, piercing the breastplate of honky tonk with an adrenaline shot right to its heart.
Lying, cheating, heartache, and one night stands are the colors Sarah swirls together on her palette and then paints on to the canvas with a strong voice and a stellar band. I’ve seen Sarah live (at Muddy Roots) and can vouch One Good Thing isn’t just a product of studio magic, that live the material might even be more engaging, as in many instances honky-tonk-style country is. Sarah has set up residency at Lower Broadway’s famed Bluegrass Inn, and plays Robert’s Western World next door as well. She boasts a professional band and attitude, and her dedication, heart, and willingness to sacrifice to do it right is woven into the fabric of this album.
One Good Thing is a great debut album from Sarah, but what I want to see from here is how she develops and figures out a way to separate herself sonically from the overwhelming crowd of traditional bands and artists playing honky tonk music these days. She’s cut her teeth now, proven her country cred and how the modes and love of true country music coarse through her veins. But all the greats in the genre brought something unique to the table. They added something, or took something away, or reached deep down inside themselves to find a way to separate themselves from the herd.
I won’t say the material and music on One Good Thing is cliche, but the lyrics and licks are common enough that I’m afraid it will sound like “just another traditional country album” to some. This is a common issue for honky tonk artists, even for folks like Dale Watson.
Sarah Gayle Meech gives new blood to old music, and with a bold style and a professional attitude, she should be keeping Lower Broadway true to itself and hopefully expanding to parts beyond in the years to come.
1 1/2 of 2 guns up.
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Sarah at Robert’s on Lower Broadway
The Shivering Denizens and frontman Ron E. Banner epitomize gonzo-style West Coast country. The alternative rag in their local port of Seattle felt compelled to compare them to a dumbed down version of the Drive By Truckers, when the answer to the Denizens’ music lineage could be found right under Seattle Weekly’s Starbucks-stained noses. Just like fellow Seattle-based punk gone country group The Supersuckers, The Shivering Denizens serve up a fun, sarcasm-laden version of country that refuses to take itself too seriously.
Not as salacious as Bob Wayne & The Outlaw Carnies, and more solidly country than what the Supersuckers usually serve up during their “country” set, The Shivering Denizens are like Ken Kesey meets Merle Haggard.
That is why I was a little leery at first to hear their new album was somewhat “conceptualized.” Concept albums are better suited for space jams and serious forays into the depths of the human soul than sarcasm. Baker-Whiteley was a small, coal-mining town in Pennsylvania, now a ghost town where Ron E. Banner’s roots trace back. His grandfather settled there as a Hungarian immigrant, and this album plays out as a story of America through the evolution of Banner’s family over the years. Luckily though, it is still tinged with that dark, Shivering Denizen sense of humor we’re used to from their previous works.
Baker-Whiteley doesn’t set any new land speed records and probably requires a disposition to like underground-style country to get into, but the concept is true and is carried through with some good songs. The theme is the decay of the agrarian lifestyle in America.
This album starts off telling the story of papa Banner making his way from Ellis Island to the Baker-Whiteley coal mines and partaking in the local Allegheny moonshine. This is tied into the modern-day homemade innebriant of choice of methamphetamine during the next song, “Hartwood Train”. “Double Shot” goes from the fields to the factories and the fibrosis of the liver that usually follows, with Ron E. pulling out his best lyrical hook in the album, turning the self-loathing line “poor me” into the ordering of booze.
Not all the songs fit comfortably into the Baker-Whiteley concept, but still tie in to the loss of values and sanity, like the song “Richard Ramirez” that explores the rock star fascination America has with serial killers. “She’s Not On The Menu” is complete silliness, but seems to work positioned late in the album where you’re caught off guard by the overt raunchiness.
Similar to other artists like Bob Wayne, Eddie Spaghetti, and the Supersuckers, sometimes when they do decide to get serious, it’s hard to re-adjust your perspective. “The Whistler” is about the simple beauty of hard work, faith, and farm life. The message of “Angel’s Last Waltz” is a little hard to gather, but seems to center somewhere around the loss of religious values. These songs are worth not overlooking.
Baker-Whiteley is a really well-made album with diverse and solid instrumentation including piano, accordion, and female harmony singing. Whatever the songs called for, the Denizens made sure to procure. The wild nature of their music depends a lot on their use of harmonies, background vocals, and the way they’re arranged.
As curious as it may seem to some, The Shivering Denizens, along with many other Pacific Northwest-based country bands prove again just what a modern-day proving ground the top left corner of the country is for the roots.
1 1/2 of 2 guns up.
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I bet when you saw Bob Wayne‘s name in the title of this article, you had some sort of immediate emotional reaction, didn’t you? You either thought, “That foul mouthed punk, I can’t even stand to see his ugly face,” and you blame him for perpetuating a perversion of country music. Or, you saw his name and said “Hell yeah,” remembering the last time you saw him live and how he rocked your face off, or how how one of his deeper, heartfelt songs helped you through a hard time.
Like him or not, Bob Wayne has arrived. One way you can tell this is by the polarization that precedes his name (just check out the comments on his last album review). In music, it’s always better that people have an opinion about you than to be ambivalent or unbeknown to your existence. Usually where there’s sharp, contrasting opinions, there’s success. Take Shooter Jennings and Hank Williams III for example. You won’t find two more polarizing, or more successful figures in underground/independent country music. But unlike Hank3 and Shooter, Bob Wayne has not had help from his given name, nor the burden of unrealistic expectations being a famous namesake can bestow.
Instead his success is a symptom of relentless touring in America and Europe; a tour schedule whose tireless nature rivals any other in music today. And one thing Bob Wayne has that country’s famous sons don’t is fantastic label support. Century Media may be way better known for metal music, but they fit in that sweet spot for present day labels: big enough to be considered a “major” with an expansive network and Rolodex, but small enough to be considered an “independent” with the ability to offer strong, healthy, catered support to each of their artists.
Though the crowds for Bob Wayne are certainly growing domestically, Europe is where he’s made his strongest foothold, like many independent country and roots artists that made the jump from amateur to professional before him. In certain Euro stops, Bob Wayne is pulling 800 capacity crowds in, just to see him, not as a support act. This is likely one of the reasons Century Media decided to put out his last album Till The Wheels Fall Off on their European imprint People Like You, an unusual move for an artist based in the States. Bob has also bought a van and a complete set of backline instruments for his band that he permanently stores in Europe to facilitate his frequent overseas tours and save on expenses.
Instead of worrying about pulling a profit or working some master plan, Bob Wayne simply put his head down and booked his own breakneck tours for years, figuring out how to include European stints in them when he could. He would work construction jobs in his home state of Oregon to get the money to buy European plane tickets for him and the band, tour the country from West to east, fly out to Europe, and then start the whole cycle over again. All of that touring led to a tight live show and a professional attitude on stage from Bob and his talent-packed “Outlaw Carnies”.
Over the years, the Outlaw Carnies have become a proving ground for underground country talent. With a loose arrangement, players are allowed to come and go as they please, but they all must provide stellar musicianship to keep up with Bob and the band’s budding legacy. Joe Buck, Andy Gibson, Donnie Herron, and Dan Infecto are just a few of the names that have contributed to Bob either live or recorded in the past, and then continued on to make bigger names for themselves. The dating duo of fiddler Liz Sloan and bassist Jared McGovern cut their teeth as Carnies, and now play with Jayke Orvis and Filthy Still among others. The entire .357 String Band once did a stint as Bob’s backing band.
The newest edition is Lucy B. Cochran on fiddle. At first glimpse you might mistake her for Liz Sloan who she replaced, but the two female fiddles have very different styles. Lucy goes to the bluegrass shuffle like few fiddlers I’ve seen, and adds a more countrified element to the Carnies. The current Carnies also feature “Elmer” on standup bass, and Ryan Clackner who can serve up some of the hottest leads licks on Telecaster that you can find. Bob’s current lineup is as sharp as any you will find in underground country, and so is Bob’s show…that is of course if Bob Wayne is your thing. If it’s not, then he could resurrect Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys to back him up and it still wouldn’t be enough.
It’s the swear-filled lyrics and racy themes in many of his songs that will always keep Bob at odds with many country faithful, and understandably so. They will also unfortunately keep those same people from enjoying many of his deeper songs that don’t feature racy topics or bad language.
The cold, hard fact is many favorite underground country bands may never be able to make the leap from being amateur, underpaid musicians, to professionals making a reasonable, living wage, despite the quality of their music or their desire or ability. But Bob Wayne has, and with continued label support, creative freedom, a stellar backing band, and a bottomless pit of energy and enthusiasm for touring, he also seems to have plenty of upside potential.
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Bob Wayne is playing the Muddy Roots Festival on Friday 8/31 at 11 PM on Stage 2.
Hank Williams III has been known for years as a big advocate for animals, taking in strays and using his celebrity status to find them new homes, and partnering with Happy Tails Humane in Franklin, TN to raise awareness and money for the no kill shelter. On Friday August 3rd Hank3 played his 4th Happy Tails concert benefit at the Marathon Music Works in Nashville, a newer venue who donated the space for the event. Dubbed “One Big Wag,” Hank3 and his fans raised a whopping $18,000 for Happy Tails, the most money Hank3 has pulled in for a Happy Tails event so far.
“The event was very successful,” says Hank3 fan Cathy Pippin who made the drive from Kentucky. “I saw some of the regulars, folks from out of state, just a great bunch and everyone had a blast. Shelton & the band rocked country & hellbilly sounds for 2 1/4 hours non-stop!”
Opening for Hank3 was Tomi Lunsford (watch video), and also in attendance was Bob Wayne, Hank3′s mother, and his sister Holly Williams who later took to Twitter to say, “What an amazing show by HANK_III tonight, you all need to find a city near you to check it out… ”
Hank3 will be leaving on a Texas/West Coast tour in a few days.
“Happy TALES Humane has been fighting the good fight for the homeless pet population in middle Tennessee since 1996,” says Kat Hitchcock. “We are thrilled that Hank3 would support our mission. He doesn’t just support it, he lives it. He is a genuine advocate for animal welfare. We are extremely fortunate. We can’t thank him enough.”
Along with ticket sales, there was also a raffle for a bass guitar singed by Hank3, his band, and Bob Wayne. You can watch the full concert below:
*Thanks to Cathy Pippin and Wayne Titsworth for photos and video
Not everybody will be able to make the trek to The Farmageddon Music Festival going down on July 20th-22nd in West Yellowstone, Montana at Hebgen Lake. But if you’re sitting on the fence, hemming and hawing, sweating because you only have two days left before you have to ask off for that extra day of work, here’s 12 random reasons to pull the trigger.
1. Slim Cessna’s Auto Club
Of all the artists and bands I’ve seen live over the years counting any style of music, Slim Cessna’s Auto Club is right up there for putting on the best live performance possible. They don’t throw themselves around with tremendous energy or evoke epic guitar solos. Instead they rely on conjuring up the similar incantations to the old school snake oil salesmen and tent preachers did, preying on some inherent human frailty that allows you no other option than to submit to their spell. You may not know exactly what’s going on, but you will love every minute of it.
2. Hebgen Lake
This is where Farm Fest is happening? What more needs to be said?
***UPDATE*** It has been moved to 10 Denny Creek Road off of Targhee Pass HWY/HWY 20. GET FULL DETAILS
3. The Drive There
Yeah, Farmageddon Fest’s out-of-the-way location may be prohibitive for some folks, but it also one of the festival’s best assets. Whether you’re packing up the station wagon and heading out from Osh Kosh, or flying into Jackson Hole and renting a sub compact, and some point you will find yourself surrounded by some of the most beautiful country the United States boasts. It may be hard to get to, but it will be even harder to leave behind.
In the Farmageddon Fest lineup, you have some of the most dynamic performing bands in all the land. The aforementioned Slim Cessna’s Auto Club for starts, then add on top of that the fire-breathing Goddamn Gallows, The Calamity Cubes, Husky Burnette, Southern Culture on the Skids, and Bob Wayne & The Outlaw Carnies just to name a few. These are bands that will melt your face off with their performances.
Tom VandenAvond, McDougall, James Hunnicutt, Stevie Tombstone, the legendary Soda Gardocki, and Graham Lindsey are just some of the high-caliber songwriters who will bring depth and soul to the Farmageddon stage. This is not just a one-trick festival, but one that will cater to a variety of musical moods and sensibilities.
6. Artists You May Not Get Another Opportunity To See
From the 2011 Saving Country Music Album of the Year winner Slackeye Slim to local boy Aran Buzzas, a lot of the bands playing Farmageddon Fest don’t have the means to tour full time or nationally so this is your chance. Farmageddon Fest helps you out by putting them all in one place.
7. The Bands You’ve Never Heard Before
I’ve never understood folks who look at a festival lineup and scruch their nose at it saying, “But I’ve never heard of a lot of these bands.” The discovery is half the fun. If a festival does their job right, their should be unfamiliar names. And if you do your job right, you walk away from the weekend with a few new favorite bands.
8. The Ugly Valley Boys
Just because their album Double Down is so damn good and I can’t get enough of it.
The bands scheduled to play is a known quantity. What isn’t is the random, improvised, and amazing collaborations that could break out at any moment, at any place, on stage, in the campground, in some bar back in town, you name it. “Oh my god I just saw Husky Burnette playing with Avery from the Goddamn Gallows on washboard and James Hunnicutt playing guitar, and then The Calamity Cubes were playing with Soda Gardocki and the Dead Tree String Band!” This is what your thumbs will be feverishly working to post to Facebook, and what is bound to happen when you put this many bands who are familiar with each other in one place.
Inevitably, whenever anyone attends a festival like this, they walk away boasting about the bands, the grounds, etc., but it is the fellowship, the camaraderie that is created when assembling such a collection of like-minded folks together for three days is what you walk away with valuing the most. The experiences can never be captured in photos or videos to the extent they will be in your heart.
11. Because if you don’t support independent festivals, they will go away.
12. The Lineup
There’s never been a question in anyone’s mind if Johnny Cash actually shot a man in Reno just to watch him die. But that lyric, and Johnny’s song “Folsom Prison Blues” have gone on to become an iconic piece of country music history. This language was nothing new in 1955. Murder ballads and gunslinger tales trace back to the very roots of country music and America’s Gothic, violent identity.
Stretching the boundaries of lyrical content was something at the very foundation of the early Outlaw movement in country music. As has been pointed out many times before about American culture, violence is perfectly acceptable, but sex can be taboo. Nobody batted an eyelash at “Folsom Prison Blues”, but when the original Outlaw Bobby Bare recorded Tompall Glaser’s “Streets of Baltimore” with it’s fairly docile and veiled reference to a man leaving his wife, it caused a controversy.
Kris Kristofferson pushed the limit for drug references with his song “Sunday Morning Coming Down.” Johnny Cash later cut the song himself, and despite the “stoned” lyric, the song went on to be the CMA’s Song of the Year in 1970. The boundaries are continuously being pushed in country, until now in many respects country has lost most of its family friendly identity.
In underground country, racy lyrics have been at the very foundation of the movement, though in no way are they required. Hank Williams III’s Straight to Hell album was the first to ever be released under the CMA with a Parental Advisory, but the salty content is many times misunderstood as being autobiographical, or condoning the behavior being sung about. Sometimes it is, but sometimes, just like with “Folsom Prison Blues” it is telling a story with the real language and themes people face in modern day life.
“There’s just a little misconception…” Hank3 told IBWIP on their 5th Anniversary episode. “All the Williams’ have had a rowdy crowd, whether its Hank Sr., Jr., or myself. Most of my songs have been, you know I’ve lived a lot of them. And once in a while I’ll kind of put myself in other people’s shoes. Like the song “#5″ was some friends of mine that have been hung up on some really hard stuff, you know with the heroin and stuff like that. I just put some hopeful songs out there. Once in a while I’ll put out a little bit of a fantasy out there like the dedicated song to GG (Allin). Those kind of songs I haven’t done anything like some of the topics that hit on that song. I can just project, or put myself in that mode for a little bit.”
“One of the reasons I sing about smoking and drinking and all that stuff so much is because I try to create a partyin’, good time atmosphere when people come to see me. I’m not trying to bring them down, I’m trying to lift them up so they can forget about all their problems and all the stuff that’s happening in the world. And for two or three hours, they can come out to a show and just have some fun. And I always try to tell folks to pace it out as much as possible.”
When reviewing Bob Wayne’s recent album, the topic came up in a heated debate Bob Wayne participated in personally. “…So you’re telling me DAC (David Allan Coe) killed a women in TN then broke out of jail… I think a lot of his songs a true man… But I think he is also a storyteller,” Bob replied to critics. Bob Wayne regularly sings about drinking and drugs while in real life remaining completely sober, just like many underground country artists with racy lyrics like Joe Buck Yourself and Lonesome Wyatt.
It is hard to fault country music fans who do not want to see foul language or hard themes in a genre so tied to traditional values. Just like any genre of music, this is the reason well-defined lines are important so people can steer clear of content they may find offensive. But it is also unfair to fault artists carrying on the same storytelling traditions Johnny Cash and Hank Williams did while modernizing the language no different than how it’s being modernized in the mainstream of country. It’s also unfair to say singing songs you haven’t lived somehow makes them invalid. Street cred, dues, skin’s on the wall, or however you want to phrase it will always be important in country music, but the should never be essential to telling a story.
Hard language presents a challenge to underground country and its aging demographic. Most underground country fans are now in their 30′s. When Hank3′s Straight to Hell came out they were in their 20′s, and could relate better to many of the racy themes. Now, like many of the artists themselves, the fans have grown up, taken real jobs, have kids and spouses, sobered up possibly, and sometimes the hard language songs can come across as immature or hard to relate to.
Barring something similar to the Middle East’s Islamic Revolution, the trend will always arch towards the breaking down of moral barriers to artistic content in culture. With this freedom comes a responsibility to make sure people are only presented with questionable content when they want to be. Instead of looking at other people’s tastes and judging them, maybe we should feel fortunate we live in a time when censorship is lax and people can enjoy the music they find appropriate and appealing without it being run through a filter of other people’s opinions, tastes, or views.
And let’s all hope that the country music themes of morality vs. sin, good vs. evil, sober vs. imbibing, and law vs. the outlaw remain eternal in country music until kingdom come, because this eternal struggle is what we all face every day, and the reason country music speaks to us like nothing else.
Over the years I’ve been a big Bob Wayne proponent, and to some folks he’s been a very hard sell. I’ve always counseled to look beyond the persona to the songwriting. With his new album Till The Wheels Fall Off, Bob Wayne frankly makes that task much harder. At the same time, he’s put out his most enjoyable album yet.
Since the beginning, there’s been two sides to Bob Wayne: the introspective songwriter side, and the “Hellbilly” side. In between are his storytelling songs that tend to draw from both worlds. Despite the bandana and salty language, what Bob is doing is not much different than what Johnny Cash did. Johnny didn’t shoot a man in Reno just to watch him die, or take a shot of cocaine before shooting his wife. It was a persona created to tell a story. Bob has maybe modernized some of the language and themes, but country music songs on the sinful life are a staple of the genre.
What he has done as his career has progressed is tip the scales from the more introspective material to the more hellraising material, and this is where he’s left some listeners scratching their heads. With his first few albums, songs like “Blood To Dust,” “27 Years,” and “The Final Walk” made it easy for the music brain to understand Bob, and then enjoy the hellraising songs right along with the crowd who may see a song like “27 Years” as too artsy.
But with Till The Wheels Fall Off, there are very few of those guideposts. Bob’s first album Blood to Dust was weighted in favor of the deep songwriting material. This album is skewed to the “hellbilly” side, giving detractors heavy ammunition to pass off the whole Bob Wayne presentation as a bad bit. Even some of the songs on Till The Wheels Fall Off that are presented to be deep, like the lead single “Get There When I Get There” is more ambiguous in nature than artistic. There’s little of that stone cold hard reality that tears at your heart like many of his previous offerings.
Does that leave Till The Wheels Fall Off vacuous or non-entertaining? Not at all. Not whatsoever. “Devil’s Son” may be the funnest song Bob Wayne has ever put out. And “Wives Of Three,” though on the surface a shallow and silly song, may be one of his best attempts at songwriting.
Let’s take “Wives of Three” as a case study. The first time I listened to this song, I hated it, saying to myself, “Come on Bob, you’re killing me out here!” Then I understood the genius behind it. This song is more David Allan Coe than David Allan Coe. It evokes a whole range of emotions, from creepiness and weirdness, to humor, to sincerity and true love. Most importantly to the success or failure of a songwriter, Bob is able to transport you to a scene where he’s standing in his childhood home with these three women, presenting them to his mother.
You can visualize the whole thing, his mother’s sense of shock and dismay, yet a creepy sense of pride, Bob’s sense of awkwardness and hope that this lifestyle will be accepted, and these three women that in a 3-minute song, Bob is able to present to where you can visualize them, their faces, their stories and motivations. It’s all bullshit that is totally believable and makes your mind explore the inner depths of morality, family, and love.
The words and persona are what everyone seems to focus on when it comes to Bob, but let none of that distract you from the fact that the instrumentation on this album is par excellence. Andy Gibson, Hank3′s steel guitar player and the engineer on all of Bob’s albums, along with an all-star cast of contributors put together an amazing album of music. From conjuring the spirit of Jerry Reed in “Ain’t No Diesel Trucks In Heaven” to the lonesome teardrop steel sounds in “Hunger In My Soul”, this album is a 10 out of 10 on how Bob’s vision was fleshed out.
Your feelings on Till The Wheels Fall Off are going to be based on taste even more so than on most albums. It is my job as a reviewer to divest personal taste for a more true judgement on the work. Do I personally like the strictly hellraising songs like “All Those One Night Stands” and “Spread My Ashes On The Highway”? No, no I really don’t. But I also recognize the appeal and the wit embedded in the songwriting, and won’t let them repeal my love for a song like “Hunger In My Soul”. But not all music is for everyone, and that’s okay. It is not fair to strictly base taste on calling something bad, and it is not fair to call someone’s tastes bad just because they are different from yours. Bob Wayne seems to drive home the importance of these points more than most.
Where I take some points away from Till The Wheels Fall Off is when measuring it against what I know Bob is capable of. He is capable of writing songs that can change people’s lives. If he changes someone’s life with this album, it may not be for the better. There are also issues with the continuity in his storyline. With some of his previous works, his sobriety is a theme, where in this album, it is the breaking of that sobriety. Is this true in Bob’s real life, or an extension of the persona? Either way it is okay, it’s the ambiguity in how you’re supposed to approach these songs that may be the issue.
Instead of just writing on the road, I think Bob needs to get in better touch with his inner dialogue through solitude, so the guideposts leading listeners to the realization of his songwriting prowess are more present.
But this is not a bad album. It is fun as hell. At times you are laughing out loud at some of the lines. Are we so uptight we can’t enjoy music for the visceral experience? Isn’t it fun to go on a vicarious exploration of the id through music and character? This is what Bob Wayne delivers in Till The Wheels Fall Off; an escape, a good time. Sure maybe we, maybe underground country has grown up from most of this behavior, but isn’t that the theme here, that Bob will never change, that he’s going Till The Wheels Fall Off? And there’s nothing wrong with siting back and watching his ride.
1 1/2 of 2 guns up.
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