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“Country must evolve” is the way it is sold to the country music public when pop and hip-hop influences are invited into the country music fold. What these folks fail to point out is that country has been trying to evolve for 30 some odd years right under their noses, and instead of incorporating this creativity and innovation into country that could spurn a broadening of the country music tent, these artist who’ve crafted ways to both respect the roots of country yet push them forward have been excommunicated for years to alt-country, and are now being gobbled up by the all-encompassing “Americana” term, robbing country of some of the most premium talent the roots world has to offer.
And when you look at the gaggle of artists that are combining the country roots of the past with the present and future, it tends to be strong, beautiful, and talented women leading that charge. Where the trend started may depend on who you ask. I would point to Emmylou Harris‘s Wrecking Ball era with the atmospheric approach, but I’m sure some other jumping off points could be found. Lucinda Williams, Gillian Welch, Neko Case, and Iris Dement certainly deserve some credit as well. The men of progressive country, like Béla Fleck and the current-era Punch Brothers are impressive specimens of musical aptitude no doubt, but tend to lack the accessibility the women are able to display without compromising artistic expression or prowess.
Many of these women started out as young promising talents, many specifically as musicians, before being forced out by the mainstream country genre that seems to be obsessed with male machismo and the women that pander to it. There are strong women in country no doubt, but in the progressive country world, strong women rule the roost.
Are you looking for true progress and evolution in country music? Look no further than the list of women below.
The former fiddle player with Chris Thile (The Punch Brothers) in Nickel Creek, Sara put out an excellent progressive country album in 2012 called Sun Midnight Sun that showcased progressive elements mixed with classic country roots influences, maybe best displayed in the opening instrumental track, “The Foothills.” Sara shined amongst the boys, but away from them, she bloomed.
As the gentler half of the Americana super couple with Jason Isbell (I think they also secretly fight crime in their free time), Amanda Shires was a country music fiddle prodigy that veered toward Americana as she matured. Amanda has become a major influence of how to integrate a true love and passion for country’s roots with a new-school, progressive understanding of where roots music is going. You couldn’t take the country out of her voice if you tried, and integrating it with an atmospheric approach to music stimulates sheer wonder.
With her song “Merry Go ‘Round” stuck in the Billboard charts for what seems like an eternity, and a summer tour coming up with Kenny Chesney, Kacey Musgraves proves that progressive country can be commercially viable if it is only given a chance. Kacey Musgraves gives you hope for country music, and the non-conforminst, non-formulaic music that she composes.
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This sister duo from Sweden is an example of how country is missing out on a lot of commercial potential and the possibility of creating beach heads in other countries and cultures. Seen as pop stars in Scandinavia, their ability to conjure up the close harmonic bliss of The Carter Family in songs that still communicate new-school, relevant sensibilities, First Aid Kit can appeal to country fans of all ages.
The “Queen of Underground Country” whose risen with her last album A Killer’s Dream to become one of Americana’s most promising upcoming women, Rachel’s timeless voice could be a tireless resource for country music on her own music, and as a contributor to the music of others. Influenced just as much by Hank Williams and The Carter Family as Tom Waits and The Beach Boys, Rachel Brooke proves there’s still many avenues under the “country” umbrella still left to explore.
Coming from a strong songwriting pedigree (hit maker Liz Rose is her mother), Caitlin Rose and her singular voice is capable of stunning the listener, while their heart is captured by Caitlin’s sincere stories. Steel guitar and a strong country background mixed with influences from the indie rock world create Caitlin’s unique approach that is only limited in commercial success by the power brokers on Music Row letting it through.
Like Amanda Shires and Sara Watkins, Abigail Washburn is a musician first; a master of the clawhammer banjo discipline who steered toward the more progressive side of country as she came up through the ranks. Starting off in the all-girl quartet Uncle Earl on Rounder Records, and then releasing her first solo album Song of the Traveling Daughter produced by Béla Fleck, Washburn is an example of how country instrumentation and a more reserved, intelligent approach can intermix into a sustainable future for country music that integrates more refined listeners.
Yet another young female fiddle prodigy who was the youngest invited fiddle player ever on the Grand Ole Opry, she grew up sharing the stage with Willie Nelson, Asleep At The Wheel, and Dale Watson. Ruby has now moved to the more progressive side of the roots world as possibly one of the one of the most-talented violin players in the world. Her potential is endless.
The smoky, jazzy, Houston, TX native with a unique voice has an impressive catalog of songs that illustrate the heavy handed, yet spatial mark of progressive country. A founding member of the Be Good Tanya’s, Jolie Holland is the artist other progressive country artists listen to, winning the praises of many of her peers, including fellow ANTI label mate, Tom Waits.
Another young, up-and-coming artist whose worth watching, Paige has played for years in her family band Anderson Family Bluegrass as a front person and a flat-picking guitar maestro. Her latest project with her brother and sister called The Fearless Kin just released a new EP. Having played the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival and on Chuck Ragan’s “Revival Tour,” Paige Anderson is versatile if nothing else, and when it comes to writing songs, she pulls from a varying tapestry of influences–the mark of the progressive country approach.
The Austin, TX native has already signed to Sugar Hill Records and been nominated for a Grammy at only 21. A superb talent on the mandolin that can also handle the banjo, guitar, and just about anything with strings, her debut album Song Up In Her Head featured Chris Thile, Stuart Duncan, Darrell Scoot, and Jerry Douglas. Béla Fleck appeared on her follow up, Follow Me Down. An excellent songwriter, Sarah has a bright future in the realm of progressive country.
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Other women helping to evolve country music: Zoe Muth, Lydia Loveless, Lindi Ortega, The Trishas, Kasey Chambers, Brandi Carlile, Star Anna, The Secret Sisters, Those Darlins….
Who are some other women leading the evolution of country?
If there’s one guy you can count on in country music, it is Dale Watson. No, he’s not going to lick his proverbial finger and stick it in the air to find out what to say or what to play. He’s going to be himself no matter how much money it makes him, or how many enemies he garners. Suave, slick, super-cool and confident. Maybe even a little bit arrogant. But he can afford to be, because the ghosts of country music have his back.
Take when Blake Shelton decided to make some disparaging comments about the “old farts and jackasses” that populate Dale’s side of the country music world. Dale and his Lone Stars were mere ticks away from having to embark on a 20-day European tour, and Dale figures out how to squeeze out an anti-Blake song and post a video for it before his boarding time at ATX. No Mr. TSA officer, that ain’t a six shooter setting off the metal detector, those are Dale’s big steel cajones hanging down in his Texas tweeds.
You know what you’re going to get with a Dale Watson album–good old-fashioned honest-to-goodness honky tonk country music. He never veers off the path too far. There was his last album, the Cash-esque Sun Sessions, and the long-rumored Dale/Elvis concept album Dalevis that apparently is finally going to see the light in February. But a Dale Watson album usually holds few surprises. You aren’t going to see him in hipster glasses chasing the uke and Theremin craze to expose a lot of “vulnerability” in his music. Dale Watson is all about keeping the honky tonk traditions alive, and that is what he channels in El Ranco Azul.
Bred for dancing, El Rancho Azul is taken straight out of the honky tonks Dale Watson plays 8 nights a week while home in Austin. Drinking and heartache are the prevailing themes, and maybe not just because this is a country album, but because Dale just recently went through a breakup and a divorce himself. “I Lie When I Drink” and “I Drink to Remember” reinforce the idea that these eternal country themes will never wear thin, while Dale’s supple country drawl delivered with breadth, emotion and control breathe new life into old, familiar narratives.
Maybe Dale is being sarcastic, but one of the fun songs on the album is “We’re Gonna Get Married,” chased by one of the album’s standouts, the tearful and touching “Daughter’s Wedding Song.” Then it’s on to two songs whose purpose for dancing is thinly veiled, “Quick Quick Slow Slow,” and “Slow Quick Quick” meant for two-stepping and waltzing respectively. Then it’s on to more drinking songs, then a few more drinking songs, and another drinking song to close the album out. But the direction never feels stale because of Dale’s country gold voice, and the little bits of character Dale adds to each one of his compositions.
Another El Rancho Azul offering worth note is “Where Do You Want It?” A story song about the time Billy Joe Shaver shot a man at the Papa Joe’s Bar in Waco, TX, it originally was given to Whitey Morgan & The 78′s. Since it has become one of Whitey’s signatures, the Dale version may come across a little strange to an ear used to the other, but nonetheless it is a cool edition to this song’s legacy from its original writer.
My concern about Dale has always been that he writes so many songs and releases so many albums, not one song or one album stands out as a signature. At the same time, it’s hard to find a bad Dale Watson album or song. You certainly won’t find one here with El Rancho Azul, only the genuine, real deal country music that Music Row has forgotten, and all of Blake Shelton’s “old farts and jackasses” crave.
1 3/4 of 2 guns up.
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For years fans of Dale Watson have been anticipating an album release from a Dale’s alter ego called “Dalevis,” a mix of Dale and Elvis. Well friends and neighbors, the wait is over. Dalevis is now officially available digitally, with physical copies to be made available in mid February. It includes 12 new songs recorded at the legendary Sun Studio in Memphis. Along with Dale, the album also features Chris Crepps on upright bass, and Mike Bernal on drums among others.
This is not the first Dalevis album Dale Watson has released. As he told Saving Country Music in October of 2011, “Back in 2000 I did a Christmas record there (Sun Studios). I didn’t make a big deal about recording at Sun, it’s just what we did. Then I did a little vanity project I just sold off the stage, 1,000 copies of a thing called “Dalevis”, kind of like what Chris Isaak is doing, but raw, more in the style of old Sun.”
Dale Watson’s last record The Sun Sessions was recorded at Sun with a distinct Johnny Cash vibe. “Elvis and Johnny were the biggest influences on me of the Sun folks. When I wrote the songs I kept that in mind.”
Dale’s latest release El Rancho Azul is also being released today (1-29-13).
1. Big Frank
2. I Love Too Much
3. That’s All
4. It Was Us
5. Lord I’m Proud
6. Color Me Gone
7. Forever Valentine
8. Rich In Love
9. You Can’t Undo The Wrong
10. I’m Gonna Start Livin’
11. You’ll Cry Too
12. Hit The Road
The reigning Country Music Association Entertainer of the Year and reality TV personality Blake Shelton made some disparaging remarks about traditional country fans in a recent interview with GAC as part of their Backstory series. The “Hillbilly Bone” singer and judge on NBC’s The Voice made the remarks as part of an update to the original GAC Backstory episode to include more information on Blake Shelton’s continued success. In connection with Blake’s first CMA for “Male Vocalist of the Year” award in 2010, Blake Shelton said,
If I am “Male Vocalist of the Year” that must mean that I’m one of those people now that gets to decide if it moves forward and if it moves on. Country music has to evolve in order to survive. Nobody wants to listen to their grandpa’s music. And I don’t care how many of these old farts around Nashville going, “My God, that ain’t country!” Well that’s because you don’t buy records anymore, jackass. The kids do, and they don’t want to buy the music you were buying.
The new version of Blake Shelton’s GAC Backstory aired first in mid December 2012, and will be airing numerous times in February.
Blake Shelton’s comments are not only hurtful to classic and traditional country fans, they are incorrect. According to a study of country radio conducted by Edison Research and released during last year’s Country Radio Seminar in Nashville, listeners actually want more classic country on radio, and the lack of it has been given credit for the contraction being experienced in the radio format. Edison Research President Larry Rosin last February said,
I believe that we as an industry have really made a mistake in our conception of our own stations. While many people don’t want to listen to classic country music, some still do, and we’ve let them float away…We run the risk that we just are more and more pleasing to fewer and fewer people until all we are is ecstatically pleasing a tiny, unsustainable number of people.”
Blake Shelton also specifically mention “records,” but statistics shows that older music listeners are the ones that still by music in physical formats, while younger listeners (aka “kids”) tend to download music illegally, stream it at very low margins for artists and their labels, or purchase individual songs.
Furthermore Blake Shelton brought up the common misconception that classic and traditional country fans do not want country music to evolve. Though this may be true for some traditional fans, as Saving Country Music pointed out in a piece titled Progress Vs. Traditionalism in Country Music, the progression of country music while still keeping it tied to its roots is the foundation of Americana which has benefited from tremendous growth over the last few years.
Blake Shelton has landed in hot water before for making inflammatory comments, especially on his infamous Twitter account. In May of 2011 Blake got in trouble for seemingly advocating violence against gays by re-writing the words to a Shania Twain song. The singer later apologized.
1-24-13 (11:43 AM CST): Country music legend Ray Price has just responded to Blake Shelton’s comments through his Facebook page.
It’s a shame that I have spend 63 years in this business trying to introduce music to a larger audience and to make it easier for the younger artists who are coming behind me. Every now and then some young artist will record a rock and roll type song , have a hit first time out with kids only. This is why you see stars come with a few hits only and then just fade away believing they are God’s answer to the world. This guy sounds like in his own mind that his head is so large no hat ever made will fit him. Stupidity Reigns Supreme!!!!!!! Ray Price (CHIEF “OLD FART” & JACKASS”) ” P.S. YOU SHOULD BE SO LUCKY AS US OLD-TIMERS. CHECK BACK IN 63 YEARS (THE YEAR 2075) AND LET US KNOW HOW YOUR NAME AND YOUR MUSIC WILL BE REMEMBERED. – Ray Price
1-24-13 (11:55 AM CST): After receiving numerous comments and posts of this story and others, Blake Shelton took down one of his Facebook fan pages. SCM is also attempting to confirm reports that numerous radio stations are pulling Blake Shelton songs from their rotation. SCM also asks that people be respectful to Blake in their comments.
1-24 -13 (4:14 PM CST): Blake Shelton has responded through Twitter:
Whoa!!! I heard I offended one of my all time favorite artists Ray Price by my statement “Nobody wants to listen to their grandpas music”..And probably some other things from that same interview on GAC Backstory.. I hate that I upset him.. The truth is my statement was and STILL Is about how we as the new generation of country artists have to keep re-inventing country music to keep it popular. Just EXACTLY… The way Mr. Price did along hid journey as a main stream country artist.. Pushing the boundaries with his records. “For The Goodtimes” Perfect example with the introduction of a bigger orchestrated sound in country music.. It was new and awesome!!! I absolutely have no doubt I could have worded it better(as always ha!) and I apologize to Mr. Price and any other heroes of mine that it may offended.. I meant every word I said. Country music is my life and it’s future AND past is important to me. I’ll put my Lo(v)e and respect and knowledge About it up against anybody out there… ANYBODY…
1-24-13 (5:56 PM CST): Ray Stevens has also joined the fray saying, “I just heard Blake Shelton’s remarks about ‘old farts and jackasses’ and all I want to know is how he found out the title to my next single because it’s been a closely guarded secret here at the ‘Home.’ It will be available on vinyl or 8-Track at your nearest Tower Records store.” Brandon Fulson beat Ray to it though, recording a song “Old Farts and Jackasses.”
Dale Watson has also chimed in: “Ray price is the best voice in country music period !!!! And some supremely Mediocrre voice like this fuck Blake Shelton should whince!” He is the Lance Armstrong of country music !! HYPE, Mr. Miranda Lambert!”
1-25-13 (11:31 AM CST):
A few of Blake Shelton’s music peers have risen up to defend him. Martina McBride posted on Twitter, “Just catching up on this. We all know where your heart is Blake. Love you.” Chris Young posted on Twitter, “Love what you meant by your quote buddy. Know how much you love country music history. Love your music brother and who you are.”
Dale Watson has written a new song inspired by Blake Shelton’s comments
1-26-13 (3:14 PM CST): Country Music Hall of Famer and Blake Shelton friend Bobby Braddock weighed in on Facebook saying in part:
I think his point recently was that to be viable, country music has to keep reinventing itself. It’s clear from his statements that he’s terribly sorry that he’s offended his heroes like Ray Price. I think what’s controversial is not what he said but the way he said it. That was just Blake being Blake, going for the outrageous and trying to get a rise out of people.
1-26-13 (4:24 PM CST): Jean Shepard is the latest to chime in, saying, ““We’ve got a young man in country music who has made some pretty dumb statements lately. What did he say? That traditional country music is for old farts and jack-you-know-whats? Well, I guess that makes me an old fart. I love country music. I won’t tell you what his name is….but his initials is BS….and he’s full of it!”
Ray Price’s Facebook page was apparently blocked because of his Blake Shelton comments. “HELLO FOLKS, SINCE I MADE THE COMMENT ABOUT BLAKE SHELTON, FACEBOOK HAS BLOCKED ME FOR 30 DAYS FROM ACCEPTING FRIENDS REQUESTS.
1-29-13 (10:41 AM): In response to Blake Shelton’s comments, Willie Nelson has renamed his current tour the “Old Farts & Jackass” tour. Also, on the 26th, Ray Price accepted Blake Shelton;s apology, saying in part, “I HAVE ACCEPTED BLAKE SHELTON’S APOLOGY TO ME PERSONALLY. I think Blake is a fine young man with a big future in Country Music. I AGREE that he should be given a chance to restore his credibility with the MILLIONS OF FANS who were deeply offended by those HURTFUL WORDS AND RENAMING US ALL AS…..well, you know what he said. I would regret it if the words I have spoken would in any way harm Blake personally or his career and his chances for the future.”
2-1-13 (12:20 CST): Country Weekly reports that Blake Shelton met with Ray Price prior to Ray’s performance at the Choctaw Casino Resort in Durant, Oklahoma on Thursday (1-31). Price also invited Blake Shelton up on stage where he warmly introduced him to the audience. Durant is about an hour from where Blake Shelton lives with Miranda Lambert, who also attended the Ray Price performance. See Photo of Blake, Ray, and Miranda. and Photo on Ray’s Bus
2-6-13 (8:20 CST): Joe Don Rooney of Rascal Flatts has weighed in on Blake Shelton’s comments, saying in part, “Country music does have to evolve and it has evolved to where it is, and it’s going to keep evolving into whatever it’s going to be. I think that’s kind of his point, from my side, being serious, he’s kind of right. But, he didn’t have to be so edgy about it.”
Evangelist Records has posted a new “official” video for Dale Watson’s song “Old Farts & Jackasses.”
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Blake Shelton’s comments can be seen at the very end of this video. UPDATE: THE VIDEO OF BLAKE SHELTON MAKING THE COMMENTS HAS BEEN REMOVED DUE TO COPYRIGHT CLAIM.
Thanks to Greg Morris for the tip on this story.
Anti-Nashville, anti-Music Row, and anti-pop country songs have a long and proud tradition in country music that stretches almost all the way back to the beginning of the genre. As long as there’s been country music, there’s been folks arguing about how to define it, what it should sound like, and speaking out when they think it’s going in the wrong direction.
The amount and the approach of protest songs seems to parallel the trends in country music. When the genre begins to move more in a pop direction, country’s traditional artists pipe up in song. After compiling this list, it was clear the majority of them were written around the early 2000′s. This was the heyday for anti-Nashville sentiment, though there’s been a recent rash of new anti songs here recently.
Let’s look back at some of the most memorable country music protest songs, and below that is a semi-complete list of all of the protest songs we could aggregate from around the web in no certain order. If you see one that is left off, please pipe up in the comments section, and if it is a song whose existence can be verified, we’ll add it to the list. And the song needs to be at least somewhat “country,” and needs to be mostly about speaking out; not just a line or two in a song. And no, this doesn’t include parodies.
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Dale Watson – Country My Ass, Nashville Rash, Real Country Song
Maybe the king of the country protest warrior poets, Dale Watson’s arsenal of anti-Nashville songs rivals anyone’s. All three of his big ones appear on his 2002 album Live in London…England. He’s since moved on somewhat from his early 2000′s orneriness, though you can still hear light jabs at Music Row in most all of Dale’s 20+ albums.
Larry Cordle – Murder on Music Row
Arguably the most successful country protest song of all time, it was written by Larry Cordle and Larry Shell, and originally appeared on an album of the same name with Cordle’s band Lonesome Standard Time in 1999. It was made popular as a duet between Alan Jackson and George Strait, first being performed on the 1999 CMA Awards, then awarded the 2000 Vocal Event of the Year award by the CMA, and then winning the CMA Song of the Year in 2001. “Murder On Music Row” was never officially released as a single, but still charted #38 on Billboard’s country chart. In 2006, Dierks Bentley and George Jones recorded a version of the song only made available on a Cracker Barrel compilation.
Hank Williams III – Trashville, Dick in Dixie, The Grand Ole Opry (Ain’t So Grand)
Probably the loudest and the most foul-mouthed of the anti-Nashville bunch, the grandson of Hank Williams pulls no punches. No, “Dick in Dixie” ain’t about a guy named Richard, nor is that what Hank3 suggests Jimmy Martin would tell the current Opry managers all to “suck” if he were still around in the song “The Grand Ole Opry (Ain’t So Grand).” Immature or not, Hank3 made tremendous strides in raising awareness about many of the issues arising in Music City.
Waylon Jennings – Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?
One of the earliest country protest songs and possibly the most potent. With two chords and the truth, Waylon lays the wisdom down thick about how country music had lost its way in 1975 while in the midst of the “Nashville Sound” era. The song became a #1 hit, and spent 16 weeks on the Billboard country chart. It remains one of Waylon’s most signature songs, and the standard bearer for country protest songs, with the lyrical theme being reworked many times (and many replacing Hank’s name with Waylon’s) in modern songs of protest. Waylon was not known as a prolific songwriter, but he wrote this one himself.
Other Waylon Protest Songs: If Ol’ Hank Could Only See Us Now, Nashville Bum, Nashville Rebel
Darrell Scott / The Dixie Chicks – Long Time Gone
Everyone got so swept up in the political blowup surrounding The Dixie Chicks, they forgot they were a serious, substantive country roots group. Their excellent album Home included the most commercially successful country protest song of all time, and the 2nd best in chart performance, only rivaled by Waylon’s “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way.” Written by Darrell Scott and originally appearing on the album Real Time with Tim O’Brien, the song tells the story of a farm boy that moves to Nashville, become disenfranchised, and moves back. It became a #2 hit on Billboard’s country chart, and #7 on Billboard’s Hot 100.
The bridge begins the protest portion of the song, followed by the pointed 3rd verse: “Listen to the radio, they hear what’s cooking, but the music ain’t got no soul. Now they sound tired but they don’t sound Haggard. They’ve got money but they don’t have Cash. They’ve got Jr. but they don’t have Hank…”
George Jones- Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes?
The most subtle of the protest songs, George Jones asks who will fill the shoes of all the country greats of the past. It was the title track on his 1985 release from Epic Records, and reached #3 on the Billboard country charts, written by Max D. Barnes and Troy Harold Seals. The song was also accompanied by a great video.
List of Songs of Country Protest
- Tom T. Hall – The Last Country Song
- Hank Williams Jr. – Old Nashville Cowboy
- Eleven Hundred Springs – Hank Williams Wouldn’t Make It Now in Nashville, Tennessee
- Josh Abbott Band – I’ll Sing About Mine
- Robbie Fulks – Fuck This Town
- Dough Sahm – Oh No, Not Another One
- John Hartford – Tear Down The Grand Ole Opry
- BR549 – Movin’ The Country, A-1 On The Jukebox
- Jesse Dayton – Hey Nashvegas!
- Alan Jackson – Three Minute Positive Not Too Country Up-Tempo Love Song
- Jason & The Scorchers – Greetings From Nashville
- Cory Morrow – Nashville Blues
- The Carter Family III – Maybelle’s Guitar
- Willie Nelson – Sad Songs & Waltzes, Write Your Own Songs
- Sturgill Simpson – Life Ain’t Fair & The World Is Mean
- David Frizzell & Bobby Bare – Cowboy Hat
- Vince Gill – Young Man’s Town
- Jason Eady – AM Country Heaven
- Brad Paisley, Bill Anderson, Buck Owens, George Jones – Too Country
- Dallas Wayne – If That’s Country
- Marty Stuart – Tip Your Hat (not really a protest song, but very close)
- Brigitte London – Mr. Nashville
- Hellbound Glory – Waylon Never Done It Their Way
- Jello Biafra & Mojo Nixon – Let’s Burn Ole Nashville Down
- Shooter Jennings – Outlaw You, Solid Country Gold, Put The ‘O’ Back In Country
- The Waco Brothers – Death of Country Music
- JB Beverley & The Wayward Drifters – Dark Bar & A Juke Box
- Barbara Mandrell – I Was Country When Country Wasn’t Cool
- Tom VandenAvond – Wreck of a Fine Man
- Cross Canadian Ragweed – Anywhere But Here, Record Exec.
- The Geezenslaws – Bad Rock and Roll
- Austin Cunningham – 15 Songs
- Corey Smith – If That’s Country
- Houston Marchman – Viet Nashville
- Kenneth Brian – Something’s Wrong with the Juke Box, Nashville Line
- Laney Strickland – Ca$hville
- The Hackensaw Boys – Nashville
- Jamie Richards – I Guess They’ve Never Been to Texas
- Those Poor Bastards – Radio Country
- The Rounders – That Ole Jukebox
- Joey Allcorn – In Nashville, Tennessee; This Ain’t Montgomery
- Brent Amaker & The Rodeo – Sissy New Age Cowboy
- Joe Buck Yourself – Music City’s Dead
- Emily Herring & Henpecked – Has Country Gone To Hell
- Heather Myles – Nashville’s Gone Hollywood
- The Skeeters – Country Pop
- Erik Koskanen Band – Ain’t No Honky Tonks
- The Gin Palace Jesters – Nashville Penny
- Tommy Alverson – Purty Boys
- Ronnie Hymes – Dueling Kazoo (a Finger for Trashville)
- John D. Hale Band – Outlaw Groove
- Bobby Bare – Rough on the Living
- Marty Stuart – Sundown in Nashville
- Merle Haggard – Too Much Boogie Woogie
- Josh Thompson – Too Country
- Daryl Singletary – I Still Sing This Way
- Gary Gibson – I’ve Had All of Nashville I Can Stand
- John Anderson – Takin’ The Country Back
- Keith Whitley – Buck
- George Jones – Billy B. Bad
- Will Hoge & Wade Bowen – Song Nobody Will Hear
- Jackson Taylor & The Sinners – Country Song
- Jarrod Birmingham – Where’d You Go Country Music
- Reckless Kelly – New Moon Over Nashville
- Red Eye Junction – Living Proof
- Rebel Son- Stereo
- Lance Miller – The Beach
- Audrey Auld – The Next Big Nothing
- Pale Horse – Outlaw Breed
- Lummox – New Country
- Tim Hus – Country Music Lament
- Tex Schutz – Put The Country Back in the Music (and the Rock Back in the Ground)
- Roger Alan Wade – Jingle Jangle Angel
- The Deep Dark Woods – The Won’t Last Long
- Tom Russell – The Death of Jimmy Martin
- Jamey Johnson – The Last Cowboy
- Jerry Kilgore – Ain’t Got One Honky Tonk
- Whitey Morgan & The 78′s – If It Ain’t Broke
- The Divorcees – You Ain’t Gettin’ My Country
- Wesley Dennis – Country Enough
- Rodney Hayden – Goodbye Country Music
- Davey Smith – Country Went to Hell
- Ernie Clifton – Goodby Country Music Hall of Fame
2013 is already shaping up to be an excellent year for real country music, with some of the heavy hitters slating new releases before we even hit Easter. Just announced, Dale Watson and his Lone Stars have a brand new album titled El Rancho Azul to be released January 29th through Red House Records, featured 14 original songs and being touted as his “honkiest tonkiest” album yet of his 21-album career.
Recorded at Willie Nelson’s legendary Pedernales Studio in Austin, Dale used his own band of Chris Crepps on upright bass, Mike Bernal on drums, Don “Don Don” Pawlak on pedal steel, with Danny Levin sitting in on piano and fiddle.
Originally it was announced that the album would be titled I Lie When I Drink (the opening track) when the first single from the album “Daughter’s Wedding Song” was released in late August of 2012. “I’m often asked to recommend a song for the father/daughter dance,” Dale says. “I usually say Merle Haggard’s ‘Farmers Daughter.’ The only problem is that, in the song, the mother is gone. So one day I told this couple I would write one special for the dance. While writing, I drew on my two daughters for inspiration and started crying halfway through it. I figured if it hit my heart strings, maybe it’ll hit the heart strings of fathers and daughters everywhere.”
The recently-divorced Dale takes the listener on a journey through love and heartache in El Rancho Azul. As you can expect with Dale spending most of his time entertaining Texas two-steppers in Austin’s dancehall haunts like The Broken Spoke, the album includes some songs written specifically for dancing. “Quick Quick Slow Slow” is a two-step tune, while the following “Quick Slow Slow” is a waltz.
|1. I Lie When I Drink|
|2. Where Do You Want It|
|3. I Drink to Remember|
|4. Cowboy Boots|
|5. We’re Gonna Get Married|
|6. Daughter’s Wedding Song|
|7. Quick Quick Slow Slow|
|8. Slow Quick Quick|
|9. Give Me More Kisses|
|10. Drink Drink Drink|
|11. I Can’t Be Satisfied|
|12. I Hate to Drink Alone|
|13. Smokey Old Bar|
|14. Thanks to Tequila|
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.
The last time I talked about Peewee Moore at length, he’d recently arrived in Austin, TX and was just getting his hands dirty in the country scene of the world’s “Live Music Capitol.” Now he’s a mainstay of Austin’s honky tonk music circuit along such names as Roger Wallace, The Carper Family, Jim Stringer, and the El Capitan Dale Watson. Any given night you might see Peewee haunting the stages of The Continental Club, Ginny’s Little Longhorn, and The Whitehorse Saloon with his permanently-haggard raccoon eyes, and his Tele riddled with battle wounds slung over his shoulder.
Peewee will never get too far away from his Chattanooga roots though with that unmistakable and thick northwest Georgia, southeast Tennessee accent. Just like fellow Chattanooga native son Husky Burnette, Peewee played lead guitar back in the day for the Choo Choo City’s country music patron saint, Roger Alan Wade. With Roger, and with his first band The Tennessee Rounders, Peewee cut his mold as a hard country, honky tonking Outlaw, way before that term would be so horrifically subverted by Music City pretty boy carpetbaggers looking to distract you from their slick, arena rock songs and silver spoon upbringings.
I initially had a little trouble getting into Making Sure The Story’s Being Told, I think because the first three songs came from such a similar vein: describing Peewee’s hardtack life as a traveling musician. Maybe I thought he was talking a little too much shop, but over time and taken individually, all three songs revealed themselves as worthy, especially the slow and plodding “Worn Out Old Guitar”, and specifically the line, “When you ain’t in the spotlight, you’re all stuck in a van.” Peewee Moore is the real deal, which means he’s not perfect. He’s like the personification of the American struggle, and that’s why he fits right into sensibilities of real music fans so well.
Further on the album revealed that it was brimming with variety. For my two cents, the best song on the album is the brilliant “Beneath The Cold, Cold Ground” where Peewee’s excellent guitar work sends your mind reeling around an infectious chord groove, while his vocals reach the sweet spot of his tone before distorting into a growl for emphasis. This is followed in order with the very fun and well-written foot stomper “Running Moonshine”.
“Samuel Colt & His Cartridge Gun” is probably the biggest surprise of the album, with its intelligent story craft brought to life with a tasteful trumpet part. “So They Call You An Outlaw” is not what you may think from the title. Instead of directly calling out fake Outlaws, Peewee gets crafty by conveying that “Outlaw” is not a term you can bestow on yourself, but must be given to you by others; and how that’s not necessarily a glamorous or fortuitous as some would have you believe.
These honky tonk albums are hard ones to make in 2012. Everyone else in country is trying to carve their niche, bending and blending genres and doing any manner of outlandish things to get folks to pay attention to them in a glutted music world. Meanwhile the charge of the honky tonk musician is to keep the traditions alive through purity. When it comes to artists like Peewee, I wonder if they wouldn’t be better off mixing in a few songs from other artists on their albums instead of writing all their own material; adding their best cuts of with the best cuts of others to bolster a project.
At the same time, what makes Peewee Moore distinct is that he plays his own leads and writes his own songs with a gutsy, lunch pail approach. Peewee Moore may never be big, but you can always count on him being Peewee. And for those not distracted by image or hype, that authenticity is what makes him special.
1 1/2 of 2 guns up.
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Making Sure The Story’s Being Told was released July 28th. It is only available at Peewee Moore shows at the moment, or by contacting Peewee at Peewee Moore at Yahoo dot com. Check back for online availability.
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.
In the natural history of the Earth, there’s a period known to biologists as The Cambrian Explosion. It was an era when the rate of evolution accelerated so rapidly that even Charles Darwin, the father of the evolutionary theory, admits it stands as one of the main objections to his findings on natural selection. In a relatively short period of time compared to the rest of evolution, the animal world was completely re-organized, leading eventually to the modern animal structure we live in today.
Over the last few months, and the last few weeks specifically, we have been going through a country music Cambrian Explosion of sorts, with massive, earth-moving events completely re-shaping the style and infrastructure of a genre that has been around for over 70 years. Arguably there’s been more significant events in a short period than any other time in country’s history.
- Billboard changing the way it computes songs on the “Hot 100″ charts.
- Gaylord Entertainment re-organizing into Ryman Hospitality and going under the control of Marriott International.
- Jason Aldean and Taylor Swift, “country’s” two biggest stars releasing albums on consecutive weeks, with Swift’s becoming the best-selling debut album in a decade in all of music.
- Scott Borchetta going from a budding label owner to arguably the most powerful man in Nashville, making a household name for himself and wholesale changing the way Music Row does business.
Even the way downtown Nashville looks is changing, with the massive Music City Center being erected, the Songwriters and Musician’s Hall of Fame being swapped as part of the project, a water park that was supposed to be built in partnership with Dolly Parton falling apart because of Gaylord’s sale, and Ryman Hospitality putting the naming rights to The Grand Ole Opry and the Country Music Mother Church, The Ryman Auditorium, up for bid. Downtown Nashville, the holy land of country music, is being revamped from the inside out just like the music business that it’s home to.
And this doesn’t even begin to take into consideration the sonic changes to country music, from the hyper-driven pop songs from Taylor Swift dominating the charts, to the intrusion and mainstream acceptance of country rap, and the increased exposure of all of country music’s drama in the new popular television show Nashville.
Aside from Taylor Swift’s first CMA win for Entertainer of the Year in 2009, virtually all the major events a country music historian may use to erect a timeline of how country became what we will know it to be in the future have happened in very recent memory. It’s human habit to think you’re always living in the most important, critical time in whatever it is you’re following, but in this case, the concern seems to have merit.
But one of the things I find most curious about the recent string of current events is how it has been received in certain sectors of the country music population. The country music underground was virtually birthed out of the rapid move to pop in country that was ushered in around the late 90′s, early 2000′s. Without the fervor and dissension around the direction of Music Row and mainstream country music, there may have never been as strong of support for acts like BR549, Hank Williams III, and Dale Watson. For a decade the underground was the sector of country music organizing against the intrusion of pop in country and trying to preserve country’s roots.
But where are those voices now? As these historic issues have been presenting themselves one after another in recent months, Saving Country Music has not only had to work overtime to at least attempt to cover them from an independent viewpoint (let alone attempt to organize against them), but to fight off a strange form of active apathy that militantly wants to not give a shit.
Meanwhile where is there support for attempting to preserve the roots of the music coming from? Carrie Underwood fans of all places. Carrie Underwood fans! They have been making front page headlines for being against Billboard’s new chart rules, even when as Billboard’s Editorial Director Bill Werde points out, Carrie Underwood could very easily be one of the beneficiary’s of the new system. Carrie’s fans’ reaction wasn’t based soley on their self interests, but for better interests for the entire country genre.
The Billboard issue has had massive reverberations throughout the music industry, with fans of R&B, rap, and rock up in arms that artists with “Crossover” pop appeal are virtually entrenched in the top positions on Billboard’s charts. Spin called the new rules “clueless.” The biggest paper in the world, The New York Times interviewed me to get my point of view, even though many of my readers found the issue boresome.
One thing that did not happen that was anticipated with Billboard’s new rules is a complete Taylor Swift dominance of the country song chart, like Mumford & Sons did when they released their new album. Why? Partly because Swift and her label Big Machine purposely limited the sale of her new album Red to certain outlets. For example, the album couldn’t be bought on Amazon until a week after its release, and Scott Borchetta refuses to make the album available on Spotify, Rhapsody, and other streaming services that are now counted in Billboard’s song charts.
So what does all this mean? It means that the elements of country music that used to keep it in check with its roots increasingly don’t care any more. Like refugees, they’re retreating to their little independent scenes and micro-scenes, and forming an elitist “we have ours, screw the masses” bent. But that’s the same flawed logic of saying, “I have a job, who cares if my neighbor does?” Eventually, the creatively-bankrupt nature of mainstream music is destined to creep into your world.
Meanwhile Music Row and the big money forces in Nashville can do whatever they want without fear of retribution or reprisal from the roots of the genre. Carrie Underwood fans? They can be managed; cast them off as crazy. That Saving Country Music guy? He’s a self-absorbed wacko whose losing relevancy.
At the CMA Awards, we could have a country rap song win Song of the Year, and a girl with a song that they purposely made to be pop, and purposely did not release a country version win Entertainer of the Year, and the howls will be half as much as when Eddie Rabbit released “I Love A Rainy Night” in 1981.
It’s no longer cool to criticize what is happening to country music. In fact, it’s now cool to not criticize what’s happening, and to criticize the folks that are.
So what’s the solution? Honestly I don’t know. I wish I had a red bow to tie this article up nicely with, but I don’t. All I know is that the commercial forces aiming to restructure country music into America’s predominant pop genre have never been better poised to do so. Little is stopping them.
Like most fictional characters in popular culture, the characters of ABC’s new drama Nashville are probably based more on stereotypes than real-life folks. But for fun, let’s see if we can’t match up who the real-life inspiration is for the principals of the Nashville cast, and through the experiment see if the show really does represent all aspects of the Nashville music scene.
Real Life Counterpart(s): Reba McEntire and/or Martina McBride
“Well you can kiss my decision as it’s walking out the door.”
Aging country pop queen concerned about her sagging skin has to worry about the kiddos running under foot and the budding buxom starlet on the rise trying to trample her career. On the outside she sticks to her principles, but on the inside she will do whatever she can to save her stardom.
Real Life Counterpart: Taylor Swift? No, girl from Dale Watson’s “Country My Ass”
“Oh, I’m always nice.”
Out of all of the Nashville characters, this is probably the one most based on a stereotype instead of an actual person. The creators of the show have said Juliette is not supposed to be Taylor Swift. Swift is seen as the proper, good girl who doesn’t use Auto-tune, while Juliette Barnes nails anything she can to get ahead except the proper note. The mold that fits Juliette Barns perfectly can be found in a Dale Watson song. “She can’t sing a lick, and in a bucket, she couldn’t carry her tune. She’s pretty as a picture, and she sure has a nice set of…wits. And she misses her producer that seduced her–I mean produced her a hit.”
Real Life Counterpart: Mike Curb
“That’s alright if you see me as your enemy. Don’t you be foolish enough to make that a two-way street. ‘Cause my enemies don’t fare too damn well.”
Just like Mike Curb using the money he usurped from country music artists to spread his name all across Nashville under the guise of charity and civic duty, Lamar Wyatt wants a new baseball stadium and is willing to use his money and influence to appoint a puppet mayor of Nashville that he can use to run the city through behind-the-scenes. These old-guard aristocratic megalomaniacs are like two peas in a pod.
Real Life Counterpart: Caitlin Rose
“They’re just poems, not songs.”
A reluctant, timid songwriter that lacks nothing in talent either as a writer or performer, that when coaxed into action can rear back and command a crowd with both passion and skill.
Real Life Counterpart: Justin Townes Earle
“I guess I’m just naturally suspicious of anyone that confident.”
Long, lanky, a songwriter, and a gentleman (as opposed to the “punk country” Avery Barkley), he’s more Americana than country, symbolizing the new independent approach to Nashville that emphasizes artistic appeal and substance as opposed to commercial success.
Real Life Counterpart: Ryan Adams
“It’s kind of an alt-country punk, but more cerebral.”
Dangerous sideburns and a confident swagger, the chicks swoon over him and his bad boy persona and rock star attitude. But watch out, he’ll probably do them wrong.
Real Life Counterpart: David Rawlings
“I promise to not use it as a coaster.”
The consummate loyal sideman whose an excellent guitar player and an accomplished songwriter himself. A true music good guy whose willing to lurk in the shadows most of the time to allow good music to come to life. Whether there’s something romantic going on with the boss or not, it’s easy to assume there is.
Real Life Counterpart: A Young Scott Borchetta
“Take the money and run.”
Savvy, slick, new-school business man who Svengali’s a young starlet into signing with him so he can springboard to a seven-figure music executive career in the coming years. Glenn is a Scott Borchetta starter kit.
If there’s one thing you can expect from Dale Watson, it’s a new album on the way. With 21 major albums under his belt in 17 years, the iconic pompadoured Texas music legend has been nothing less than prolific.
His last album The Sun Sessions with its Johnny Cash-infused vibe came out in October of 2011 so you’d figure it’s about time for him to release some new material, and that’s exactly what he’ll do on Monday (8-27) when he debuts his new single “Daughter’s Wedding Song”; the first single from his upcoming album I Lie When I Drink due out in early 2013.
“I’m often asked to recommend a song for the father/daughter dance,” Dale says. “I usually say Merle Haggard’s “Farmers Daughter.’” The only problem is that, in the song, the mother is gone. So one day I told this couple I would write one special for the dance. While writing, I drew on my two daughters for inspiration and started crying halfway through it. I figured if it hit my heart strings, maybe it’ll hit the heart strings of fathers and daughters everywhere.”
Like The Sun Sessions, I Lie When I Drink will be released on Red House Records. And for those that can’t wait for some Dale, he will be playing at the Muddy Roots Festival in Cookeville, TN Friday night (8-31), right after Little Jimmy Dickens, and right before Wayne “The Train” Hancock.
Here’s Dale performing the song “I Lie When I Drink”
ABC has announced that a new TV drama called Nashville has been picked up for their Fall season. The show intimately involves Nashville’s mainstream music scene, with former Friday Night Lights actress Connie Britton portraying an aging country star trying not to be overtaken by the up-and-coming young starlet Hayden Panettiere from NBC’s Heroes. The pilot was written by Callie Khouri of Thelma & Louise fame and shot in Nashville last month.
A look at the trailer for the series seems to hint that Nashville will follow a similar story to the 2010 country music movie Country Strong starring Gwyneth Paltrow, though Nashville may even get more specific and more salacious, with the young Hayden Panettiere nailing anything not tied down, and producers mentioning Auto-tune out in the open. The themes and characters look like they could have been ripped out of a Dale Watson song or a story on Saving Country Music.
The biggest difference between Country Strong and Nashville will be that the TV version dramatizing country music’s eternal culture war will have to fill hour-long segments for a whole season. Old vs. young, twang vs. pop may be explored with greater detail than ever before, though many times television dramas as they age (hospital dramas for example) tend to veer away from the hard information that creates their setting, and focus more on love threads and side stories between characters.
It will take the airing of the show to really flesh out what Nashville‘s impact will be on the greater country music world, but just from watching the trailer it is safe to say that country music’s culture war has gone mainstream, a development that has been evolving for a while now. The idea that country’s aging talent is being unfairly pushed aside and its roots being neglected for the crossover flavor of the month is no longer a fringe, underground idea. It now goes without saying, and to Nashville‘s similarity to Country Strong, it may even be cliche.
This also speaks to the commercialization of the anti-Nashville sentiment. A few years ago, Music Row and Nashville’s major labels saw this anti-Nashville trend growing, and to commercialize it and reintegrate those fans they launched a new generation of “Outlaws” with songs complaining about pop stars and how nothing on the radio is country anymore, in songs that ironically sound way more like rock and originate from the same labels as the pop country performers do. Nashville could be the television version of anti-Nashville monetization. That leads us to who the big money is behind the Nashville series: Gaylord Entertaiment.
Gaylord is the owner of The Grand Ole Opry (which is featured prominently in the pilot) and many other core Nashville country music and non-music institutions, and reportedly is a big producer and financier of Nashville. Anyone concerned about what impact this series may have on country music and the city of Nashville should focus in on this relationship first.
The Grand Ole Opry stage is one of the biggest theaters in the country music culture war, with constant battles being fought over who deserves stage time and membership to country’s most important institution. It could be argued that without the drama Gaylord has already created through its management of The Opry, the Nashville series would not be possible. It seems only appropriate that the initial conflict between the series’ two main characters in the pilot happens at The Opry. Instead of answering or resolving the issues many country fans and performing artists have with the way The Opry is run, they appear to be using it as plot for a television show.
It is in the portrayal of the cultural divide that polarizes country music where it will be deemed if the Nashville series’ impact will be positive or not on country music, on The Grand Ole Opry, and on the city of Nashville. It appears from the pilot that a mayoral race is involved, so Nashville’s political dynamic will be part of the drama as well. As someone who grew up in Dallas, I can attest to how a single television series can create very strong, and sometimes very negative stereotypes about a city and its people that sometimes takes generations to erode and unwind afterwards.
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UPDATE 10/09/12: Scott Borchetta and his Big Machine label continue to empire build in Music City. They have signed an exclusive deal with ABC to market the music from Nashville.
“Music has to feel organic, appropriate and authentic when it is paired with on-camera visuals,” said Scott Borchetta in a statement about the deal. “When I saw the pilot for ‘Nashville,’ I knew instantly we needed to be part of it. Not only does our partnership make sense given how closely the show reflects the nature of the music business, but the show’s talent has created some incredible music.”
The music on the show is being produced by industry powerhouse T Bone Burnett. Some of the original songs for the series have been written by The Civil Wars, Lucinda Williams, and Elvis Costello.
Saving Country Music will be keeping a close eye on Nashville.
In 1999, a true underground in country music was coming into form. Neo-traditionalists and country punks moved into lower Broadway in Nashville, revitalizing the area and establishing a home base for young, like-minded musicians offering up an alternative to whatever was going on a mile away on Music Row. BR549‘s residency at Robert’s Western World was in full swing, and Layla’s Bluegrass Inn was up and running with bands like Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers and Hillbilly Casino.
Then the grandson of Hank Williams put out a debut album with a neo-traditional style that featured three songs from an Austin, TX artist named Wayne “The Train” Hancock, taking the country music underground transcontinental. Along with Dale Watson, another superb Austin, TX performer, this three-headed monster started rattling the cage of the country music world, gnashing their teeth at Nashville and name dropping each other in songs and on stage.
Amongst all the bustle and big names in 1999, another superlative Austin talent released a debut album a little more quietly. The idea that there’s an amazing, world-class music talent on every corner of Austin, TX is not a myth, and Roger Wallace is a testament to that. But what many of Austin’s legendary local artists don’t have that Roger Wallace does is that one album, that one work that stands out from the crowd and withstands the test of time.
Named for the semi-famous Austin apartment complex he was living in at the time, Hillbilly Heights is a timeless treasure of country music. This album could be put out today, or in 1975, and its music would still sound just as fresh and engaging and speak to everyday lives as it did in 1999. If space aliens came down and asked me to choose one album that represented country music, after shitting myself from the shock of being accosted by aliens, I very well may hand them over a copy of Hillbilly Heights, worried that a Hank Williams album from the 50′s may be too classic for their taste, or a more modern album too pop.
But like so many of these Austin country music stars, self-promotion and the world outside of the Austin corridor is an afterthought with Roger, and that is how Hillbilly Heights and Roger have remained obscure to so many outside of Texas. A check of Roger’s website shows he hasn’t updated his show dates since George W. has his legs propped up in Oval Office. Austin becomes so comfortable for many musicians, it’s hard for them to leave or focus their energy elsewhere.
Hillbilly Heights is an album of instant classics. Populated with 9 Wallace originals and a smart batch of covers, it never slips up, never reveals a bad moment, it just keeps giving pure classic country gold. The formula for making good classic country these days is to get it to sound like the old stuff, yet to bring fresh themes and approaches to the songs. That’s easier said than done, but exactly what Roger Wallace does, like with the song “Don’t Nobody Love Me (Like My Baby)” that starts out as a good love song, but then reveals itself to be an even greater murder ballad.
I wouldn’t call Roger’s voice “big”, but what do all the ladies tell us? Roger’s size doesn’t matter because of how he uses it, with an acute sense of inflection and timing in his pentameter to squeeze the ultimate amount of pain and suffering out of his stories. And like Roger displays in his original “Nobody But Me”, he can go way up there in the register to really bring out the sorrow in a song. Writing songs that compliment your vocal strengths is something most artists struggle with. This is one of Roger’s greatest assets. Even in 1999, Roger was carrying an aged pain in his voice well beyond his years, yet he delivers it with a smoothness and confidence.
The late 90′s, early 2000′s here ten years later feel like the golden-era of the classic country resurgence, with some fans of Hank3 wishing he’d go back in that era, with Wayne Hancock fans finally wearing out their copies of Thunderstorms & Neon Signs, Dale Watson never reaching the same energy of Live in London again, and BR549 long since defunct. If you wish you could go back in time and re-live those same feelings or find out what you missed, Roger Wallace and Hillbilly Heights is where to start.
Today Roger Wallace can be seen on virtually any night of the week in Austin, plying his craft at legendary venues like The Continental Club, The Broken Spoke, and Ginny’s Little Longhorn, the same haunts Dale Watson keeps residence at when he’s in town as well. So why doesn’t he receive the same recognition as Dale and others nationally? One can’t say, but one listen to Hillbilly Heights will tell you that Roger Wallace is world class.
Two Guns Up!
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Hollywood seems obsessed with finding talent among the masses with their silly reality show contests like American Idol and The Voice, when in reality there’s a boatload of talent just sitting there waiting to be discovered right under their surgically-crafted, cosmetically-sculptured noses. But of course they don’t want to actually find any talent, because then what would they have to sell commercials for boner pills and high fructose corn syrup in the next season?
So here’s a list of some bands that are go ready, right now, no excuses. These are not fey, artsy acts, goat worshipers, or punk gone country screamo shows. These are performers that even using Music Row’s shallow approach to music, are marketable, young, hip, with hit-caliber songs ready for country radio, excellent live shows, and would immediately improve the quality and appeal of the genre.
This is just my list, admittedly short, so if you have another artist in mind, please use the comments section to share. And no, this is not about selling out stadiums, it is about creating financial sustainability for talented artists that deserve it.
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If music was roulette and Sunday Valley were a square, I’d push my pile of chips and bet on them all in. Sturgill Simpson and the boys are in the studio as we speak making the “Album of their dreams” as Sturg puts it, that will include a guest appearance by Hargus “Pig” Robbins among others, just announced as a 2012 inductee to the Country Music Hall of Fame. But what puts this band over the top is their live performance that harkens back to how one must have felt when Hendrix or Stevie Ray Vaughn took the stage before their break: an unbelievable, dynamic, jaw-dropping experience that leaves you awe-stricken from the combination of originality and sheer talent. Buy your Sunday Valley stock now and watch it rise.
“2012 will be the year of Sunday Valley”. –that’s my quote.
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Hellbound Glory stock has been slowly rising over the last few years, but is still nowhere near where it needs to be. Leroy Virgil is like the Chris LeDoux and Keith Whitley of our time all wrapped up into one. The sideways smile, the legendary-caliber songwriting, there’s no excuses why Hellbound Glory shouldn’t be selling out mid-sized venues and making a fair living playing the type of country music that country music needs. At the least Music Row is a fool for not poaching the Hellbound Glory discography and Leroy Virgil’s brain for his songwriting gold to slot with their already established artists. Every day that goes by that Hellbound Glory remains mired in the underground is another day that country music isn’t putting its best foot forward, and is not making the best case of why it is an important, relevant genre.
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One of the best bands to see live, and Red Dirt DJ’s will tell you songs like “Every Girl” are great for radio. They have a new album coming out on May 8th called Goodbye Normal Street, and let’s hope this is the one that puts them over the top, and past the boundaries of the Texoma corridor. Unlike some of the other artists on this list who find themselves in their mid 30′s, where it feels like the window could be closing for them in the coming years, the Troubadour’s window feels like it is just opening. Potential has always been one of their best assets. Now it’s time for that potential to be cashed in for solid growth and success.
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When the question is posed of who is gonna fill the shoes of the true Outlaws and honky-tonkers, from the ones passed on like Waylon and Paycheck, to the ones going gray like Dale Watson and Marty Stuart, trust me, the answer is not going to be Justin Moore. Whitey Morgan & Co. are the true connection, the current torch bearers of the ballsy, twang-heavy true country sound that would expose all the pop country laundry list fluff from the first listen if only given a chance. Similar to how Bloodshot Records label mate Justin Townes Earle has popped in the last few years, now it is Whitey’s turn. Dues have been been paid. Now it’s time to cash in.
Young Up-And-Comers to Keep an Eye On
Paige Anderson’s ceiling is limitless. Amazing voice with natural pitch and control, and a highly skilled flat-picking guitar player, there’s nothing naturally holding Paige back. And as one of the young leaders in West Coast bluegrass circuits, and the leader of her family’s band “Anderson Family Bluegrass”, she’s shown the ambition and drive an artist needs in this competitive music environment. Young, beautiful, talented, there’s no excuses here, Paige Anderson is ripe to capture America’s heart.
Another heartthrob and superpicker bound for great heights and who started out in a family band, Mad Max & The Wild Ones. A natural leader, he’s been out before paying dues by playing lead guitar for the legendary Wayne “The Train” Hancock and can slide into just about any band or vintage style of music and make it shine. The look and technique are all there, but what puts Wyatt into elite company is his sense of style and taste. As a guitar player or as a band leader, the sky is the limit for young Maxwell.
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Another name I must mention is Ruby Jane, who will unmistakably be huge in music someday, so unmistakably in fact it doesn’t even seem germane to put her on this list. She has moved more into the jazz and singer/songwriter world in recent months and years after her time touring with Willie Nelson and Asleep At The Wheel, but is still a name all lovers of great music should keep up with.
Also the beautiful and talented Rachel Brooke may be a little fey for the wide masses, but her voice and talent is nonetheless undeniable. Just like how Emmylou Harris was the hottest commodity in female harmony singers to put on your album for so many years, Rachel could fulfill this role with the pain in her voice and such mastery of taste and control, while exposing her great original songs to the greater world.
From the outside looking in, one may look at the lineup of The Muddy Roots Festival for example, and wonder how a throwback legend from Texas like Wayne “The Train” Hancock, a hillbilly punk freak from Tennessee like Joe Buck, a golden-throated singer from Michigan like Rachel Brooke, a crazy hellbilly songwriter from the Pacific Northwest like Bob Wayne, and a blues legend from Mississippi like T-Model Ford could all be booked right beside each other and it work seamlessly.
This illustrates the dramatic sonic and geographical diversity that goes into creating what we know now as the underground country roots, or “Muddy Roots” world. Below is a list of the disparate origins of Muddy Roots music that came together from a mutual understanding and appreciation of the roots of American music, and the epicenters where this music originated from and/or is thriving today.
The revitalization of Lower Broadway in Nashville.
In the early 90′s, lower Broadway street in downtown Nashville comprised the last bastion of old buildings that symbolized what Music City used to be. Overrun with dirty bookstores and titty bars, and The Grand Ole Opry’s original home The Ryman shuttered, young cowpunk and neo-traditionalist musicians like BR549, Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers, Hillbilly Casino, Greg Garing, and Joe Buck and Layla, commandeered lower Broadway and revitalized the strip into the tourist destination it is today. Emmylou Harris‘s legendary concert with the “Nash Ramblers” in 1994 also breathed new life into The Ryman, and later Hank Williams III would cut his teeth in lower Broadway venues like Layla’s Bluegrass Inn.
The fierce appreciation for country’s roots combined with an independent, punk mentality is what revitalized the most historic portion of downtown Nashville, and created the foundation for the blending of country, blues, and punk that Muddy Roots music would spring from.
Not just Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, but Bobby Bare, Kris Kristofferson, and especially Tompall Glaser’s “Hillbilly Central” renegade studio in Nashville is the origin of the Outlaw spirit behind underground country roots, the “Do It Yourself” attitude to not allow labels to arrest creative control from the artists and to always respect the elders and traditions of the country genre while also allowing the music to innovate.
Underground country and Muddy Roots is very much a construct of the “post punk” music landscape. As punk music and scenes began to become stale or gentrify, punk artists and fans looking for the raw approach to music, and many times raised on traditional country and bluegrass, began to turn back to their own roots and put down their Flying V guitars for fiddles and banjos. This is where some of the fast, aggressive approach to roots music comes from, on both the country and the blues side, as well as the DIY spirit, and the grassroots approach to scene building and album production.
After Hank Williams III’s stint with the punk metal band Superjoint Ritual is when many punk and metal heads found themselves listening to country music again. In 2006, when Hank3 recorded his album Straight to Hell at home on a consumer-grade machine and put out an album with a Parental Advisory sticker on the front through one of Nashville’s major labels, many barriers were broke down and parameters set for how Muddy Roots music would evolve.
North Mississippi Hill Country Blues & Deep Blues
One of the reasons both country and blues music can work right beside each other in Muddy Roots is because in many cases they are both being infused with punk, just like artists Scott Biram and The Black Diamond Heavies do. Many times the infusion is with a very specific type of blues from the North Mississippi Hill Country, brought to the attention of the rest of the world by Fat Possum Records in the early 90′s, just about the same time lower Broadway in Nashville was being revitalized by young country punks.
One of the first events that put these like-minded blues and punk blues musicians all in one place, and included a few country-based artists as well was the Deep Blues Festival put on by Chris Johnson in Minnesota starting in the mid 2000′s. Deep Blues fest was where the relationship between blues, punk, and a deep appreciation for the roots of blues by young white musicians was codified.
In a similar way to infusing both country and blues music with a punk edge and mentality, rockabilly artists in the early 90′s like The Reverend Horton Heat pioneered “pyschobilly”, a punk version of rockabilly. Just like their blues and country counterparts, they were neo-traditionalists, staunchly educated in and preservers of the roots of the music.
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Part and parcel with the sonic diversity of underground country roots is the geographic diversity. Unlike many other past music movements that sprang up in specific geographical areas (or maybe in a few general areas, like East Coast vs. West Coast), Muddy Roots has epicenters all across the country as illustrated in the map below.
1. Tennessee (Nashville)
As explained above, Nashville has played the most vital role in the formation of underground country roots, from the Outlaw country music movement in the mid-70′s, to the revitalization of lower Broadway beginning in the mid-90′s, and today with the Muddy Roots Festival just an hour east in Cookeville, Nashville and Tennessee remain the major Muddy Roots epicenter, including the up-and-coming east Nashville, home to many venues supporting underground musicians, and the home of Hank Williams III, arguably the most important musician to the formation of a country music underground.
2. Austin, TX
As the”Live Music Capitol of the World” and a huge music town, Austin follows only Nashville in it’s importance to Muddy Roots music. Home to Wayne “The Train” Hancock, Scott Biram, Dale Watson, and many other underground roots musicians, as well as one of the epicenters of the original country music Outlaw movement and a lot of independent music infrastructure, Austin is a vital epicenter in underground roots.
3. The North Mississippi Hill Country
It’s not just any old blues that builds the nexus between blues and country into that unique underground roots concoction, it is a specific type of blues from the north Mississippi Hill Country. Fat Possum championed the sound of artists like RL Burnside, Junior Kimbrough, T Model Ford, and many others beginning in the early and mid 90′s. That sound has since been picked up and combined with punk by artists like Scott Biram, The Ten Foot Polecats, Restavrant, and The Black Keys to form what is more commonly referred to today as “Deep Blues”.
4. Michigan – (Detroit, Flint)
On the surface maybe one of the most unlikely epicenters for country and roots music is also possibly one of the most vibrant. The home base for artists like Whitey Morgan & The 78′s, Rachel Brooke, The Goddamn Gallows (Lansing), as well as a vibrant local scene with bands like Some Velvet Evening, Michigan has grown just about as many underground roots acts as anywhere else. To grow good roots bands you need support, and events like the legendary “Honky Tonk Tuesdays” at Club Bart in Ferndale created the community and collaboration that have allowed Michigan roots music to thrive.
5. The Upper Midwest (Minnesota, Wisconsin)
The Upper Midwest is the proving ground for many early and influential Muddy Roots bands, including the Gothic country stalwarts Those Poor Bastards from Madison, WI, the premier punk/bluegrass .357 String Band from Milwaukee, and Trampled by Turtles from Duluth, MN. When you throw in Michigan as an Upper Midwest state as well, the region becomes one of the strongest in the country for roots music.
Minnesota was also the scene of the crime for the original Deep Blues Festivals, and is the home of Chris Johnson, the founder of Deep Blues, and the owner of Bayport BBQ, a blues-based venue near St. Paul. Along with Weber’s Deck in French Lake, MN, they make Minnesota an Upper Midwest roots haven.
6. Arizona (Phoenix)
It only seems appropriate that one of the places where Waylon Jennings began his legacy from would years later become an underground country epicenter. The original home of Hillgrass Bluebilly Records, and a must-stop for touring bands going to or coming from The West Coast, Phoenix feels like home for many, and is home to artists like Ray Lawrence Jr. , Junction 10, and “Valley Fever” every Sunday night at the Yucca Tap Room. Hillgrass Bluebilly events are where many underground roots artists would meet for the first time, sparking collaborations on albums and tours that created a coagulating effect in an otherwise spread-out movement.
7. The Pacific Northwest
The Pacific Northwest is like a factory for underground roots talent. Bob Wayne, Larry & His Flask, McDougall, James Hunnicutt, Hillstomp, and Brent Amaker are all from there, and the list goes on and on. And then when you start digging deeper, many artists who are now based out of other places originated from there, like some of the original members of BR549. Both Loretta Lynn and Willie Nelson did time in the Pacific Northwest early in their careers. And we can’t forget the punk world’s Eddie Spaghetti and the Supersuckers started doing country side-projects in the late 90′s and collaborated with Steve Earle.
Bluegrass is big in the area, and there seems to be a kindred spirit between the rainy west and the deep South because of the rural life and landscape, and because many of the original settlers of the Northwest were originally from the South. With a population that tends to support the arts and music, and many specific neighborhoods and venues and festivals like Pickathon that cater to the roots scene, the Pacific Northwest is one of underground roots’ biggest power players.
Montana may look like a lowly outpost on the map, but it played a vital roll in the formation of underground roots in the mid to late oughts, specifically with a promotion company called Section 08 Productions putting together the “Murder in the Mountains” tours. By bringing together artists from all around the upper part of the country like Rachel Brooke, JB Beverley, .357 String Band, Bob Wayne, Slackeye Slim and others, they were one of the first to take the theoretical underground roots scene, and give it some substance. Section 08 Productions has since morphed into Farmageddon Records, and is still based in Montana.
9 – California
California has always been the force in country music just behind Nashville and Texas, and that counts for underground country and roots as well. Where California played a key role in the formation of underground country was the interjection of punk influences and the transition of punk fans. Mike Ness of Social Distortion, Jon Doe and Exene Cervenka from the band X doing country side projects in the 80′s and 90′s is what led to the punk/country nexus. The Devil Makes Three from Northern California were one of the very first bands to bring a punk attitude to string music, The Pine Box Boys from San Francisco were one of the pioneers of Gothic bluegrass, and Los Duggans from LA were an important Deep Blues band.
10. North Carolina
Boasting some great music towns and big time roots music labels like Rusty Knuckles, Ramseur Records, and Yep Rock, North Carolina can make the case for itself as having the best music music scene and the most infrastructure right behind the big boys of Nashville and Austin. It also doesn’t hurt that one of the most successful roots acts in recent history, The Avett Bros., call North Carolina home.
11. Chicago, IL (Bloodshot Records)
Chicago will always be a big important part of underground roots as the home of Bloodshot Records. Bloodshot was one of the first labels to put their money where there mouth was in 1994, being “drawn to the good stuff nestled in the dark, nebulous cracks where punk, country, soul, pop, bluegrass, blues and rock mix and mingle and mutate.” As home to artists as important and wide ranging as Justin Townes Earle, Scott Biram, and Wayne “The Train” Hancock, Bloodshot Records’ impact and influence will always make Chicago a roots epicenter.
12. Central Florida
The scene in Central Florida is young, but burgeoning. Being the home of artists like the legendary Ben Prestage, Lone Wolf OMB, The Everymen, and many more, Florida is primed to become one of the underground country and roots hot spots.
13. Lawrence, Kansas
As a college town with a music school, Lawrence, KS is one of the best mid-sized music towns out there. Lawrence brings the support for live music, and not just for the usual college-town indie rock fare. It is home to bands like the long-running Split Lip Rayfield, and the high energy Calamity Cubes, and some of the coolest music venues you can find, like the Jackpot Music Hall, 8th St. Tap Room, and The Bottleneck.
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Other important epicenters: Little Rock, Arkansas, and specifically the legendary Whitewater Tavern. Bloomington, Indiana, a big music and roots town, and home to Austin Lucas, Davy Jay Sparrow, and many more. And Denver, CO, home to Slim Cessna’s Auto Club amongst many others.
When Toby Keith went to make a video for his song “Red Solo Cup”, he decided to give it a “viral” feel, trying to take advantage of a trend in video production that many independent artists use out of necessity. “Viral” videos started as a phenomenon in the amateur ranks, and then became a stylistic approach by independent artists who could not afford big video productions.
Though the “Red Solo Cup” video starts with a fuzzy screen and a “record” light blinking in the corner, make no mistake, the video was painstakingly planned out and produced. But the “viral” feel of the video, and of the song itself, (Toby calls it “the stupidest song he’s ever recorded), is probably a big reason the video has been #1 on CMT for going on 2 weeks. However you won’t find the song “Red Solo Cup” anywhere in the Billboard charts, at least for the moment. And if you do in the future, it will likely be from the strength of the video.
In late August, Shooter Jennings released a video for his song “Outlaw You”, shot in a true, one-take “viral” format that rocketed to the top 5 of CMT’s video chart with no attention paid to radio at all. The postulate that YouTube is the new radio may be more true than ever. It was thought “video killed the radio star” went out of vogue when MTV pulled most of its music programming for reality TV and began to focus myopically on the teenage demographic. Sometime in the late 90′s, videos became an elective in music. But since the death of MySpace, and since Facebook pays little attention to the social networking aspect of music in a direct manner, YouTube might be music’s most dominant social networking tool.
Following this success and attention to video, many independent artists are making video a bigger priority. And not just one video, but multiple videos, “serial” video releases if you will, of both viral and more conceptualized varieties, to keep their music in the forefront of fan’s minds over a longer period than just an album’s initial release. Dale Watson released an original video for each song from his recent The Sun Sessions album. Through Paste, Scott H. Biram has been releasing a video a week from his latest Bad Ingredients project. And Hellbound Glory has just released two videos from their upcoming Damaged Goods record, with more on the way. Both Hellbound videos are directed by Blake Judd of Judd Films, and edited by Cody Meek.
As the filmmaker for some of Scott Biram’s new videos, all the new Hellbound Glory videos, and Shooter’s viral “Outlaw You” video, Blake Judd has a good perspective on the resurgence of videos in music.
From my point of view, the game is changing. Venues can’t promote like they used to, fans don’t go to show as much, and bands aren’t getting the exposure on the road that they once did. It’s all moving online. You can reach far more people through online content now than you can on the road. You still have to get on the road, even though most bands lose money or just break even, to build that fan base and get to that great but small group of people that still go to shows, to help spread the word and make personal connections. But the point is, sometimes less is more with online content, and at the same time, more is better.
And I don’t know exactly what the term “viral” means. They’re just single-take or two-take videos that give you a feel of a band and their music. Like I keep saying to some of these bands who need content, less production and more videos that just represent their music in a solid manner will benefit them greatly.
Judd Films will be filming videos this week for Shooter Jennings’ upcoming album Family Man due in early 2012.
Dale Watson‘s gray hair may be filling in nicely, but he’s not slowing down. On the heels of his recent release The Sun Sessions, he is releasing a video for each individual song with the help of 2020 Memory Productions. He’ll also be doing an exclusive tour with his “Texas Two” lineup come January in Europe. But at the moment he is also mourning the loss of his long-time bass player Gene Kurtz, who passed away over the weekend.
Gene Kurtz was way more than a bass player. Most notably he wrote the huge hit “Treat Her Right” that has been recorded by over 30 artists. He performed on Edgar Winter’s critically-acclaimed album Entrance. And though folks might not be quick to think of Dale Watson’s Lone Stars as allies of industry, Gene held the honorable distinction of being a member of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, meaning he had a vote in The Grammy Awards. And according to Dale Watson, there’s nobody else you rather have out on the road with you.
Triggerman: You had legendary bass player Gene Kurtz who just passed away share the stage with you for many years. Can you share some thoughts about Gene for folks who may not know much about him?
Dale Watson: I only had great experiences with Gene. The one thing I would describe him as is the most consummate musician there ever was. He was the road warrior of all road warriors. Even though he started touring with me in his 50′s, he never complained, not once. He took everything like it came. He was a professional road dog. As far as the music, he was always the most prepared. He wrote charts for the band when we needed it for TV shows and stuff like that. He was the most experienced music wise. Knowledgeable, but he also rolled with the punches. The Indian name we gave him was “Last Man Standing” because he was always the last guy at the bar, making friends with whoever, but he was the first one up in the morning. He was just the most professional guy as far as being a musician. Off the stage, he was the funniest guy I ever had in my band. He always had a pun ready for you, and had a million stories.
Triggerman: How long did he play with you, and when did he stop?
Dale Watson: 7 years. He stopped playing with me when we thought he had COPD. We noticed him slowing down, he didn’t slow us down, he just wasn’t the normal Gene Kurtz who was always ahead of us. On the last European tour we thought something was wrong, and he went and got checked out. They just said it was pneumonia, which is still a pretty big deal when you’re traveling. But we realize in hind sight what was really in place is he already had stage 3 cancer, they just didn’t catch it. But he was still touring. Like I said, he never complained. His doctor told him “You can keep doing what you’re doing and live 10 years, or continue and live 2.” So I told him to get off the road. And he did, and he didn’t. He still toured with James Hand some, because he did what he loved.
Triggerman: There seems to be a lot of interest lately in the Memphis sound and Sun Studios, and of course last week you just released The Sun Sessions.
Dale Watson: It’s weird that it coincided with a bunch of that stuff, because I’ve been in and out of the Sun Studios for almost 15, 18 years. And just this year everyone seems to be going in there.
Triggerman: Where did you get you inspiration to do this whole album at Sun Studios?
Dale Watson: Back in 2000 I did a Christmas record there. I didn’t make a big deal about recording at Sun, it’s just what we did. Then I did a little vanity project I just sold off the stage, 1,000 copies of a thing called “Dalevis”, kind of like what Chris Isaak is doing, but raw, more in the style of old Sun. I’ve always wanted to do this record there, or a record like this. When we had a gig get canceled in Memphis, we’ll make a bad situation good. Just all the stars lined up to do the album.
Triggerman: So it’s just one take stuff? Just go in there and throw it down?
Dale Watson: 7 of the songs I wrote on the way there. Some of the songs may sound unrehearsed, but that didn’t bother me because that was kind of the vibe that those guys had when they recorded their stuff back in the 50′s.
Triggerman: There’s a distinct Johnny Cash vibe to the album.
Dale Watson: That was no mistake (laughing). Elvis and Johnny were the biggest influences on me of the Sun folks. When I wrote the songs I kept that in mind. Johnny’s just been a big influence on me lately.
Triggerman: How was the approach different between The Sun Sessions and another album of yours, From the Cradle to the Grave, that also had a Johnny Cash vibe, that was recorded in Johnny Cash’s old cabin owned by Johnny Knoxville? When you were writing these songs, was it a similar approach?
Dale Watson: It was way different because I had my whole band there. I wrote the songs, me and the band, staying up there for 10 days. The instrumentation of the bands opened it up to more things, from Roy Orbison to that Waylon Jennings groove. I would’ve never done that 1/2 time groove at Sun Studios. It just wouldn’t feel right. The Sun Studios, the magic of that sound, if you go in there and record a reggae album it’s just not going to mean anything. There’s something about that room, and the birthplace of roots music, and the blending of roots music. The big boom happened right there. The frequencies coming out of that room seems to bless the roots sound. You put something more progressive in there, well that can be recorded anywhere.
Triggerman: It seems like over the last few years, Dale Watson and Austin, TX have become one in the same. Your name is all over the place down here. It seems like every time I watch the news, you’re playing some benefit. You seem to have a sense of community with the town of Austin. Is this just a symptom of the fact that you’re a workaholic and you’re always playing and you happen to live in Austin, or are you trying to make a purposeful effort to become part of the Austin music legacy?
Dale Watson: This town, whenever it sees anything that needs help, they jump on it. And if my schedule permits it, I’ll be one of the first ones to volunteer. That’s the beauty of this town, the love to help each other. That’s probably why the music scene has thrived so much. People support live music. So the live music supports the people.
Triggerman: In the early and mid 2000′s, it seemed like you, Wayne “The Train” Hancock, and Hank Williams III were kind of like the Three Musketeers. Before then, there had always been a honky tonk circuit, but there had never been an underground in country music like there was in other genres.
Dale Watson: We were definitely the loudest mouths (laughing). We had been in that mindset for so long, I think we’ve all kind of mellowed. We got where we were preaching to the choir of the folks that would listen to us. I think that all of us have learned to say our opinions when they count now. At some point you get repetitious, and you come across as bitter, and that’s not what any of us want to do. We’re trying to make a point, and now I think we’re doing it more with our music than our mouths. Even though we did it with our music before, we’re just less vocal about it. I’ve read some stuff at Saving Country Music, and that’s great, that’s what we need. Thanks to the internet, a lot of things have changed. People know where to go to be pointed to the next thing coming up to Save Country Music.
With popular music coagulating into the two super genres of country and hip-hop, rock music finds itself the odd man out. An inadvertent by-product has been the emergence of rock n’ roll as bona fide roots genre. Along with that, in the last few years there’s big a big resurgence in the Memphis sound centered around the historic Sun Studios. Sun has always been influential on music, but now we are seeing a slew of new projects squarely focused on trying to recapture that Sun sound.
Chris Isaak’s newest album Beyond The Sun was recorded at the historic studio where Elvis, Johnny Cash, and so many others got their start. Justin Townes Earle has iterated that his next album with have a distinct Memphis/Sun vibe to it, and he recorded a version of his song “Ain’t Waitin’” at Sun Studios in May. But beating them both to the punch is Austin, TX’s Dale Watson with The Sun Sessions, recorded with Mike Bernal and Chris Crepps, named the “Texas Two”, an homage to Johnny Cash’s original “Tennessee Two”.
And this isn’t where the homages to Johnny Cash end. In fact in The Sun Sessions, it’s hard to determine where Johnny Cash ends, and Dale Watson begins. Dale isn’t simply trying to capture the essence of an era and adapt it to his original material, he is mimicking virtually everything about Sun-era Johnny Cash, from the tic-tac rhythm, to Cash’s singing style, to the themes and verbiage in the songs. Aside from the songs being original compositions by Dale, this is Dale Watson doing his best Johnny Cash impression circa 1955.
I’m concerned this avant-guarde approach will make this project polarizing in certain circles. It also makes it a very difficult one to grade and criticize. Am I supposed to grade it on how uncannily close Dale mimics the Johnny Cash character? Because if so, give it a 10 out of 10. Or does mimicking Johnny Cash so closely somehow make the album less authentic, or less of an original artistic expression?
It also is worth noting that Dale’s approach to album making has always been unique. He’s not going to waste time trying to cut hit singles or try to garner a mainstream following, so instead he can just have fun, and do whatever he wants. His last album Carryin’ On was unusual because it was one of the few straightforward albums he’s ever done.
In the end, I had to simply try and listen to the songs, and judge them on their merit. I can’t lie, shaking the Johnny Cash similarities was not easy at all, but boiled down, the album is solid, and very fun. I wouldn’t call it a deep or soulful or original album, though it has moments of all three, this is more of an entertaining and engaging album, full of simply-written, honest and tasteful, sweet and primitively-themed songs, that remind you that despite all the great advances of society, we still may never top the simple sweetness of those 50′s-era compositions.
Aside from the Cash similarities, many of the songs have original appeal, like the opening track “Down, Down, Down, Down, Down, Down.” The only track I felt like I could connect the dots to a specific Cash song was “Drive, Drive, Drive”, which felt a little too close to “Cry, Cry Cry”, but the remarkable thing about this album is with songs like “Johnny At The Door” and “George O’Dwyer”, there is a haunting exactitude to Cash in the simple way the lyrics work.
I’m not sure many other artists, even the ones that are big Johnny Cash fans, would be up for pulling this project off with this adeptness. It would almost take a small team of musical historians, creative writers, and musicians to evoke what Dale Watson does in a seemingly effortless manner simply from his fandom, understanding, and deep appreciation for The Man in Black.
The approach of this album is so unique, I really think it will be years before we really know the impact of it and how to judge it in the chronology of Dale’s albums and career, and the current and upcoming crop of Sun Studios-inspired projects. I could see it becoming a fey, but interesting little project that only core Dale fans know about and can only be bought as an import in the US like so many of his other albums, or it could explode into a cult classic buffered by Dale and Cash and Sun Studio fans alike. Either way Johnny Cash…I mean Dale Watson…has put an album out that both Watson and Cash fans can enjoy.
1 1/2 of 2 guns up.
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The release of The Sun Sessions was accompanied by numerous “official videos” that can all be seen below.
Dale Watson has a brand new album coming out on October 11th, and like the name implies, it was recorded in the historic Sun Studios of Memphis, TN. Dale pairs up with the small rhythm section of drummer Mike Bernal and Chris Crepps on upright bass to imbibe his 14 original tracks with the classic Johnny Cash vibe that was originally captured at Sun in the mid-1950′s by Johnny and his “Tennessee Two”.
This isn’t the first time Dale has used an historic place to inspire his music, or Johnny Cash as the muse. His 2007 album From The Cradle To The Grave was recorded in a cabin formerly owned by The Man in Black, and loaned to Dale by Jackass star Johnny Knoxville. The 14 selections of The Sun Sessions go by quick in the half hour album, with many of the songs reviving the classic Cash “tic-tak” sound, and clocking in under 2 minutes. It also includes two re-recorded Dale originals, “Johnny at the Door” from his 1999 album People I’ve Known, Places I’ve Been, and “Elbow Grease, Spackle And Pine- Sol”, a Sun Sessions spin on the song “Holes in the Wall” from Dale’s first ever album in 1995 Cheatin’ Heart Attack.
The Sun Sessions is being released through Red House Records, and is already available in the UK and parts of Europe, and in the US as an import. Samples can be heard on the Amazon UK site for the album, and three complete songs can be heard through Continental Record Services on bandcamp. The video for “My Baby Makes Me Gravy” can be seen below (must watch till the end!).
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