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Gone are the days of the legendary duet pairings in country music like George and Tammy, Loretta and Conway, right? Well they may not boast beehive doos or lamb chops, or grace the stage of the CMA Awards or come beaming into your home or buggy via the miracle of Clear Channel radio, but the Austin country scene’s power couple of Brennen Leigh and Noel McKay have revitalized the country duet concept album in a smart, brilliant, hilarious, and sweet offering called Before The World Was Made.
You’ll be sorely disappointed if you’re in the mood for sappy sonnets serenading the human love quotient. This is a love album for lovers who hate each other, and love each other all the same. It’s not that sentimentality doesn’t show its face here, but just like the real world, Before The World Was Made is not afraid to delve into the turbulence of love, to tickle the funny bone, and to tell it like it is.
This album is the perfect soundtrack to an “it’s complicated” relationship status, with ingenious songs like “Breaking Up Is Easy,” “Breaking Up and Making Up Again,” “Be My Ball and Chain,” and “Let’s Don’t Get Married.” Yes, it sounds like a gloomy outlook, but underlying every song of this “on again, off again” album is a sweet love story that you can’t help believing mirrors Brennen Leigh’s and Noel McKay’s real-life narrative.
You can relate to their silly little squabbles and how they plot to resolve them with a positive ending. The way these songs work is both classic and fresh. Even walking in to Before The World Was Made with a deep appreciation for the songwriting chops of both parties, you are still perplexed at how Brennen and Noel wrote this entire album themselves, simply from the strength and the “instant classic” caliber of these songs.
Even the more straightforward love songs like “The Only Person In The Room” and “Salty Kisses In The Sand” are so fresh and clever, they fit right in to the cunning style of this record. “Let’s Go To Lubbock on Vacation” is downright side-splitting (sorry Lubbock readers), while still at its core being a nectarous little love story.
Before The World Was Made doesn’t let up for one moment, and it’s not just all about the words. The album is bolstered by tasteful, classic country arrangements, edified by producer extraordinaire Gurf Morlix. This is a neo-traditional country album at its heart, and the music offers tasty accompaniment to these high-caliber compositions.
Can’t say enough about Brennen, Noel, and Before The World Was Made. They may not be willing to commit to each other, but the music they make together is definitely a keeper.
Two guns up.
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Listen to album below.
Best of luck pigeon-holing Leo Rondeau, the man or his music. The North Dakota-born, Austin, TX-based singer songwriter boasts about as many influences and textures as a patch quilt of found fabrics. A distinctly Italian first name, a last name that describes a form of old French poetry, and enough Native blood in him to be able to say in one song on his latest album Take It And Break It that his ancestors “fought the white man,” Rondeau speaks for many voices of the American experience. He’ll throw out a Cajun tune complete with accordion, and transition from rock to folk without a blink. But at his core is a country music songwriter in the legendary Austin mold, wowing you with his ease at turning a phrase and illuminating emotion and perspective in his songs.
For years Leo could be seen holding down a residence at Austin’s famed “Hole In The Wall” venue, and playing his part in a defiant scene of independent-minded country musicians, some of which appear on Take It And Break It like Jim Stringer, Brennen Leigh, and Beth Chrisman of The Carper Family. These artists both create a support network, and push each other stylistically. And as a respected songwriter, Rondeau songs have been recorded by folks like The Carper Family and Mike and the Moonpies.
Take It And Break It affords nine new original tracks from Rondeau, and is produced by R.S. Field who has previously worked with folks like Billy Joe Shaver and Hayes Carll, and produced Justin Townes Earle’s first two LP’s.
In Rondeau’s “Here’s My Heart,” he reveals the dichotomy inherent in many males—one of displaying a bellicose, bawdy front to the world, while hiding an inherently fragile romantic state beneath. “Bound To Be A Winner” has one of the most finely-crafted choruses you will find, reminding you of Tom Petty in his prime in its distinctly American candor and tone. “When It Was Around” also speaks to Petty in its driving beat and infectiousness.
“Blackjack Davey Revisited” is pure poetry from Rondeau. Its wit is delivered with dizzying rapidity, while the melody takes you right to the time and place of its sad story. “Alligator Man” gives Take It And Break It a bit of a spicy Cajun kick, while the epic “Whaler’s Tale” finishes out the album in an immersive audio experience. For years I’ve believed that Cajun music sits right on the edge of a big revival, just like we’ve seen recently in other sectors of the roots world. Rondeau could be an artist who has just enough Cajun texture mixed with country and rock sensibilities to benefit from that wave if it ever occurs.
But even if it doesn’t, Leo Rondeau is a songwriting lifer who you sense takes a wide, patient perspective, and has a belief in the power of song to outlast trends, obscurity, or even a song’s original creator when it is approached with heart. Rondeau and Take It And Break It are probably not for everyone. There was a slight lack of presence on this album that I found hard to pin down or explain that may hold it at arm’s length from some listeners. But this album has a great spirit and is a worthy receptacle for these original songs that now get to go out into the world and find inviting hearts.
1 1/2 of 2 guns up.
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The Carper Family is at it again with a brand new album called Old-Fashioned Gal, and it’s a family affair featuring The Carper Family troika of Melissa Carper, Beth Crisman, and Jenn Miori, right beside some of the brightest talents of Austin, TX’s old-school country scene. Produced and embellished with the lonesome sounds of Grammy-winning Cindy Cashdollar‘s steel guitar, and featuring performances by Carper Family cousin (as it were) Brennen Leigh, and the famous telecaster of notorious Commander Cody guitar player Bill Kirchen, Old-Fshioned Gal works like a sampler of the defiant spirit amongst Austin’s roots musicians still fighting for life in between encroaching condominium complexes and California incursion.
With aptitude, The Carper Family girls can shift from Western Swing, old-school country, folk, covers and originals, embellishing it all with tasteful instrumentation and exquisite three-part harmony. Each player brings a unique skill set that blends so well with their counterparts. Melissa Carper’s voice has the auspicious, wise, vintage tone of a natural born storyteller, while Jenn Miori’s is the classic sweet and supple sound of the simple country life. Beth Chrisman can blend tone with anything, while providing the solo parts for the music on the fiddle, and a battery of original songs like Old-Fashioned Gal standouts “Dollar Bill” and “Foolish Ramblin’ Man.”
A new batch of songs from Melissa Carper is something to smile and rub your hands together about like waiting for permission to cut into an apple pie. When you pop Old-Fashioned Gal out of the CD case, the first question you get served is who these people are in an old photograph under the CD tray standing in front of the Deeny Mogis Chevrolet dealership circa 1980-something. This is answered by the song “My Old Chevy Van” where Melissa superimposes the senses of love on a sentimental object. All three Carper girls collaborate on one of the funnest tracks of the album, “Fancy Pants.” which showcases how The Carper Family instills modern, relevant themes into their old-fashioned music—a signature of their fun and compelling sound.
Additional songwriters on the album include Brennen Leigh with the song “Precious Jewel” that her beau Noel McKay plays guitar on, and “Aunt Rose” by Gina Gallina who once shared the stage with Melissa Carper and Beth Chrisman in a group called The Camptown Ladies. “Aunt Rose” is one of the jewels of Old Fashioned Gal with its a capella arrangement really bringing out the 3-part harmonies of The Carper Family, and giving the album a little needed spice.
Another Jewel is The Carper Family’s rendition of Neil Young’s “Comes A Time.” Picking covers songs is more of an art than people think, and what the Carper girl’s do to Neil’s chorus invites shivers. Another excellent cover is Floyd Tillman’s “I Gotta Have My Back Back” driven by Jenn Miori’s confident performance, and piano by another Austin notable, Emily Gimble.
Co-produced by Billy Lee Myers Jr., Old-Fashioned Gal is probably not the selection to convert your Taylor Swift-listening fans over to the real stuff, but certainly is sweetness to the ear of folks who prefer the way things were. Old-Fashioned Gal is the soundtrack to simple pleasures.
1 1/2 of 2 guns up.
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I remember a few years ago I was at the Hole in the Wall bar in Austin, TX, right by the UT campus, watching songwriting couple Brennen Leigh and Noel McKay perform. Brennen Leigh told the crowd that right after the show, her and Noel had to drive to Nashville, and how she was dreading the trip. “But then Noel reminded me that since we’re going north, we get to stop in West for kolaches, and so now I’m super excited.”
What is a kolache? It is the baked pastry treat that West, TX is known for by many Texans and musicians. Situated right on the I-35 corridor running out of the world’s “Live Music Capital” of Austin, it is tradition for touring bands to stop in West and resuscitate or provision for the road from the “Czech Stop” gas station and bakery just off the highway. As you walk inside, you see the cases full of fresh kolaches, and autographed pictures of famous musicians from all around the world who’ve visited the Czech Stop lining the walls.
Aside from the kolaches or West’s premier location for road-bound musicians, there’s a warmth about the town that begs you to want to stop there, and makes you feel guilty if you don’t. Yes, the kolaches are tasty, but they’re simple bread and toppings. It’s the simple pleasure they convey that is important. West is one of the few places left in America where you feel like its still possible to live in the moment. There was never a town that deserved a tragedy less than West, TX.
About 6 weeks ago I stopped in West, for kolaches of course, and to drive through the town to take pictures. Country music artist James Hand, formerly singed with Rounder Records and now an artist for Hillgrass Bluebilly Records is from West, and I was working on a story about James’ new album Mighty Lonesome Man and the special relationship James has with his hometown.
“We moved up there in 1959.” James told me. “Boy there’s been a lot of changes. I told someone the other day, ‘If a man wants to make some money, all he’s got to do is open a hardware store and sell nothing but pulleys and sash cord.’ And the man said, ‘Why?’ And I said, “Because everyone’s gonna have the same clothesline before long.’ He said, “Let me tell you something you hillbilly, don’t you know people got washers and dryers now?’
James makes it sound like West is a boom town. When you’ve lived there for over 50 years, it may seem that way, but the population of West is a mere 2,800, with the town square giving off the same quaint feel it has for years. It’s not the kolaches that make West residents want to stay; they get tired of those things quickly. It’s because West looks and feels the same way it always has with the small town, Czech-settled quaintness. It’s the sincere sense of place that sets West apart.
“You live a couple of hours north of Austin, and you could have moved to Austin at some point,” I told James. “Or you could have moved to Dallas, or you could have gone to Nashville or somewhere else. You seem to have a pretty intimate relationship with West, and the land that you live on. What does West, TX mean to you?”
“Well, I know everybody there.” James answered. “I live in the exact same house where momma and daddy lived, and where my family was raised. I can’t throw nothing away hardly. There’s still drawers in there that I open up every now and then so I can smell momma and daddy. I don’t mean to be so sentimental about it, but I try to clean stuff up and clean the house up, and I see something I recognize from 15 or 20 years ago and I can’t do it. I just put it back in the drawer.”
I talked to a young West resident Shelby Janek about James, and West.
“One of those ‘everybody knows everybody’ towns. Once my younger brother was old enough and became aware of the music and James’ playing, he started asking about ‘Song Boy.’ It just stuck amongst my family, and we all still call him that to this day. And I’m damn proud that James is from my town.”
Highway 81 as it runs out of West is named “Willie Nelson Rd.” Willie’s hometown and birthplace, Abbott, TX, is only 7 miles north of West. Some residents in Abbott had their windows blown out from the force of Wednesday night’s blast.
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One of the reasons we all love music so much is because it gives you a feeling that nobody, and nothing can ever take away from you. Buildings, things, friends, family, and our own lives can be taken at a moment’s notice, but the memories will always remain ours and be forever precious.
So no matter what numbers end up being assigned to this tragedy, I will always remember the town of West, TX first for James Hand, Shelby Janek, The Czech Stop, all the towns beautiful people and their timeless spirit, and for the best damn kolcaches this side of Prague.
“There’s shadows where the magic was.”– James Hand
From Austin, TX comes a new album by The Carper Family, an Austin superband of sorts, as three women who’ve sat in with some of Austin’s most legendary country artists band together to make some legendary music of their own.
You might recognize Melissa Carper (aka Daddy Carper), and Beth Chrisman (aka Mama Carper) from the group The Camptown Ladies that also featured Gina Gallina. They join forces with Jenn Miori (aka Little Sister Carper) who played with The Corn Ponies amongst others, and with help from Austin country luminaries Brennen Leigh, and Cindy Cashdollar, they create excellent and authentic arrangements, and three part harmonies out of a tasteful selection of original and traditional songs.
Like all good country music, The Carper Family starts with strong songwriting and build out from there. I’ve been admiring Melissa Carper and her seemingly-effortless use of vintage country language in her songs for years, and she tops herself a couple of times on Back When. The country idiom in “Would You Like to Get Some Goats?” is absolutely sublime, where she uses farm chores and an idea for a “new brand of hot sauce” in allusion to love.
One of my music pet peeves is referening “texting” in songs because it seems so inevitable to be dated at some point, and it drives me even more crazy when modern references are mixed with a neo-traditional style like The Carper Family employs. But with Melissa’s swing-time song ‘Who R U Texting 2Nite?” she plays off of that anachronistic anomaly with such cunning wit, making tie-ins with past loves and land lines to where you can help but laugh out loud. (Sorry, too easy.)
…as you work that phone, with a true passion. Our love’s in the days by gone.
Beth Christman delivers her own stellar composition with the counter-intuitive “Don’t Treat Me Too Nice.” Is she being honest or ironic? Is she making reference to the fickle nature of the modern female heart? I prefer to leave that a mystery, because the ambiguity is one of the best elements of the song.
The song I liked the best was the opening “Loving Me Like You Do,” which puts in perspective that no matter how much Music Row wants to try and write authenticity into a female group like The Pistol Annies or the JanDear Girls, you can’t top three girls with true passion for the music singing for next month’s rent.
The cover songs on the album are all well-selected, and most fit into the Gene Autry, singing Cowboy, silver screen-era of country, songs like “There’s a Rainbow on the Rio Colorado” or “Pale Moon” that slip in smoothly amongst the Carper Family originals like “Texas, Texas, Texas.” There’s a lot of Western swing influence here, and a lot of just “Texan” influence. This is the kind of music you expect to hear when hanging out in an authentic Texas honky-tonk.
Criticisms? I don’t know, I guess at 15 songs, they could have weeded out a couple of the weaker tracks, and they maybe could’ve had a little more fun with the production, done an a cappella song to feature their harmony strengths, or messed with a little more reverb or dabbled with some percussion here and there to help separate the songs in style. But the album has such a good cohesiveness, how it works smoothly between the originals and covers, that I’m not sure I’d want to mess with it too much.
The Carper Family illustrates the unfair, unreasonable amount of talent, and specifically female talent, that can be found in Austin, TX on any given night. And that is what The Carper Family does; they are a working, local band, playing many nights a week at various Austin venues. Back When proves that this local band deserves more national, and international attention.
1 3/4 of 2 guns up!
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