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Country music in 2013 feels like the best of times, and the worst of times. While a few top male performers perpetrate untold atrocities on the integrity of the genre, the rise of independent music and infrastructure in the marketplace is now almost to the point where it equals its corporate counterpart. Quality songs and worthy artists are beginning to see more and more support, while current events and new outlets create avenues for substantive music to find its way to hungry ears. It is so easy to focus on the negative because it still seems to pervade the popular consciousness. But here are twelve reasons it is looking up for country music in 2013.
Yes, Kacey Musgraves. Even if you see her as some Music Row machination meant to offer an alter ego to the Taylor Swift’s of the world (Taylor equals Kacey’s noms with 6 herself), at least mainstream country is now offering a choice to consumers. What Musgraves’ symbolizes is that you don’t have to prove overwhelming commercial success to get noticed. Her biggest hit “Merry Go ‘Round” didn’t even make the Top 10 of Billboard’s Hot 100 Country Songs. Musgraves is a songwriter in a traditional sense, even if some of her best, and most-heady material didn’t make her big debut album. The reason she was able to rake up so many nominations is because of her songwriting credits, accounting for half of her CMA considerations. Kacey Musgraves’ 6 CMA nominations proves that regardless of how stupid country music’s leading males are trying to make the genre, in 2013, songs matter.
Yes ladies and gentlemen, it is getting dirty out there, and the more artists that speak out, the more other artists gain the courage to join the chorus. And not to shy away from the fight, Kacey Musgraves could be characterized as leading the charge, coming out multiple times to complain about where country music is headed. Alan Jackson also had some choice words recently, as did Gary Allan, Tom Petty, and most recently Zac Brown. Country music may be crossing more unfortunate lines than ever, but at least it’s genuine artists are being vocal about their dissent.
Yes, it was bad that Blake Shelton had to disrespect large segments of country music listeners when he ostensibly called them “old farts and jackasses,” but the backlash that ensued became a unifying element for disenfranchised country fans. Ray Price wrote a blistering letter to Blake Shelton, resulting in Blake having to make a public apology. Dale Watson wrote a song about the whole incident which has since become one of the most popular numbers of his show. An “Old Farts & Jackasses” group on Facebook boasts over 93,000 “likes,” and the list goes on from there. Blake Shelton awakened a beast, and gave it a rallying cry. Who would have thought in 2012 that people would be proudly calling themselves “Old Farts & Jackasses” ?!?
The days of inducting traditionally-leaning artists and bands seemed to be over with the Grand Ole Opry’s recent membership invitations to Darius Rucker, Keith Urban, and Rascal Flatts. But lo and behold, the Grand Ole Opry can still get it right, inducting an act that has paid their dues many times over, and deserve to be recognized as one of the forefathers to the re-popularization of string bands that has seen the rise of bands like Mumford & Sons, The Avett Brothers, and The Lumineers. The news is not only good for Old Crow Medicine Show, but other artists who may not be top tier names in country music, but deserve the distinction.
It’s so easy to read the headlines and see the top of the Billboard country charts and say that all is lost in the genre. But as long as Sturgill Simpson is out there touring, you can’t say country music is dead. Out on tour with Dwight Yoakam, playing the Grand Ole Opry, inspiring critics from coast to coast and overseas to sing his praises, Sturgill Simpson is giving hope for the future to country fans that has a value beyond his music specifically.
Yeah, I’m not too much for the silly cliffhanger drama-laden plot lines either, but Nashville has become an invaluable teacher of how the music business works, specifically on the songwriting side of things. An educated consumer makes better choices, and if they see and understand how backroom politics stultify the creativity and freedom of artists, and how a song goes from inspiration to the big stage, they just may make better choices, and think about where the music they enjoy comes from. Furthermore, Nashville has become a music outlet to a nationwide audience that may otherwise not be exposed to the music of independent artists like Caitlin Rose, Lindi Ortega, Ashley Monroe, Shovels & Rope, and so many more.
There are many good, independent country bands that are enjoying a rise in interest in 2013, but there may not be a bigger rags to riches story (so to speak) than Hellbound Glory landing an opening spot on a Kid Rock arena tour. Going from playing half-empty bar rooms to sold-out arenas, Hellbound Glory is seeing the recognition their quality country music has been deserving for years. And the opportunity has been paralleled by bigger crowds and better support even after the arena tour ended.
Caitlin Rose, Valerie June, Lindi Ortega, Austin Lucas, Amanda Isbell, Cory Branan, Jonny “Corndawg” Fritz, and so many more that call east Nashville home (or at least to some extent) have seen career watermarks and burgeoning interest in 2013. Forget Music Row or the circus downtown, Nashville, not Austin, is the new vibrant epicenter for independent music, and the artists there pushing and supporting each other is fostering a creative environment that regardless for how long it lasts, will be looked back upon fondly in the future as a time and place that got it right, and set the bar for artistry and substance. Add on top of that already-established and influential artists like Jack White and Dan Auerbach, and Nashville is the place to be in 2013.
“Cowboy” Jack Clement and Bobby Bare Inducted Into the Country Music Hall of Fame
Yes, two very important players in the rise of country music’s “Outlaw” movement finally got their due this year, and it was especially timely for “Cowboy” Jack Clement who would pass away only a few months after the announcement. Though there is still a long list of worthy inductees that many fans worry will never get in, these two men prove that the Outlaws will not be forgotten, and move other important country music icons one step further to being inducted themselves.
If you feel like the Outlaws of country music have not been dealt a fair deal and they need need a new institution to give them the support and recognition they deserve, your wishes were granted in 2013 when it was announced there will be a new Outlaw Country Music Hall of Fame in Lynchburg, Tennessee coming soon. Nashville may have swept their legacy off the streets like common refuse, but at least somewhere the Outlaws will ride eternally.
If you desire more validation that 2013 is the “Year of the Song,” then behold the overwhelming breakout success of Jason Isbell in 2013. Bolstered by his manager Traci Thomas, a bulldog of the Thirty Tigers group, Jason Isbell is becoming the defining songwriter of our generation. If you ever wished you could go back and re-live the heyday of Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt in their prime, watching Jason Isbell and his 2013 tear is the next best thing.
With radio becoming less and less accessible through every measure of consolidation by Clear Channel and Cumulus, new outlets must open up to support independent music. And they are in 2013, and sometimes in the most uncanny places. David Letterman not only has been giving his stage over to artists like Dale Watson, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Pokey LaFarge, Shovels & Rope, and so many more, he’s been seeking out this talent to play his show as a fan of the music. Where big network TV debuts for independent artists seemed to be a thing of the past, now they seem to be a weekly occurrence.
Country Music Hall of Famer, legendary producer, songwriter, musician, and cosmic music man “Cowboy” Jack Clement has died according to the Nashville newspaper The Tennessean. Jack Clement was just inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame this year. He was 82.
Jack Clement got his start working at Sun Studios in Memphis under Sam Phillips while playing steel guitar in college. He would later use this important position to become a seminal figure in the formation of both country and rock and roll music in the mid 50′s. Sam Phillips hired Jack on as an engineer, and Jack would arrange such hits as Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire,” and write Cash’s “Ballad of a Teenage Queen.” Jack discovered Jerry Lee Lewis when Sam Phillips was away on vacation one time, and many of those early Sun Studios recordings have Jack Clement’s fingerprints on them.
Clement would later go on to operate a renowned studio out of his home called the “Cowboy Arms Hotel and Recording Spa.” Similar to Tompall Glaser’s “Hillbilly Central” studio, Jack Clement’s house became a symbol of country music’s Outlaw revolution, facilitating a relaxed environment where creativity and free expression were encouraged and cultivated with country music’s progressive artists—a sharp contrast to the authoritarian studios of Nashville’s Music Row. At Clement’s home studio, Waylon Jennings’ Dreaming My Dreams was produced and recorded, as well as albums by Johnny Cash, Townes Van Zandt, Charley Pride, John Prine, Bobby Bare, Dolly Parton, and many more. The studio was destroyed in a fire in late June of 2011, taking with it many priceless recordings and photographs.
Jack Clement’s mystique only grew over time. In 1987 he was asked by U2 to produce tracks at Sun Studios. Though Jack had no idea who U2 was at the time, he accepted. He also hosted a radio program on Sirius XM’s “Outlaw Country” station all they way up to his death. A 2005 documentary Shakespeare Was a Big George Jones Fan chronicled the environment of Clement’s Cowboy Arms Hotel and Recording Spa, and captured his cosmic approach to music that facilitated so many heirloom recordings from music masters.
Jack Clement was also an inductee to the Songwriters Hall of Fame, The Music City Walk of Fame, and the Rockabilly Hall of Fame. He was considered a close friend and spiritual confidant to many country music performers.
He passed away in the remnants of the Cowboy Arms Hotel and Recording Spa this morning. Cowboy Jack was suffering from liver Cancer, and is survived by two children, a daughter, Alison, also a singer and writer, and a son, Niles, an engineer and photographer.
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.