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Take a Pacific Northwest songwriting gem and refine her with the finest of care by some of Austin, TX’s best master craftsmen, and the result is the 3rd and defining studio album from Seattle-based songbird Zoe Muth called World of Strangers. Backed by her touring band The Lost High Rollers on her two previous releases, Zoe ratcheted up the game with the new album by retaining the services of well-respected producer, engineer, and bass player George Reiff, known as one of the masterminds behind successful projects from The Band of Heathens, Ray Wylie Hubbard, and many more. This pairing proves prosperous on World of Strangers, delivering an album that is both genuine to Muth’s creative spark, yet enhanced by the the respectful and well-versed ear of someone who knows how to endear those original expressions to an appetent audience.
They call Zoe Muth the “Emmylou Harris of Seattle”. Then maybe Emmylou Harris is the Zoe Muth of the rest of the world. Either way, Emmylou is fair company for comparison to Muth as a way to express the measures of country, folk, and Americana Muth purposes for her music, and for the positive, and sometimes haunting way the music resonates with an audience. Ranging from downright alcohol-soaked honky-tonk to spatial spiderwebs of subtly and string sections, Zoe Muth and World of Strangers dazzle with range and adeptness at capturing the mood present at the genesis of a song.
Joining Zoe Muth and George Reiff in this journey were other notable Austin names such as Brad Rice (Sun Volt, others) and Bruce Robison, and whatever the songs of World of Strangers called for, it was procured in the manner of piano, strings, or accordion, giving the album incredible spice beyond the savory nature of Muth’s unembellished compositions.
â€śMany of these new songs had been in my head for a long time, and I needed a change of scenery and sound to let them find their way out,â€ť says Zoe about the album. “This was a whole new studio experience for me, more experimental. We agreed from the start that we wanted something different, more ethereal, but George took these songs in a direction I wasnâ€™t expecting. It worked so well because we have so many common influences. It was really exciting, how the musicians would jump from one idea to another without hesitation. We were able to capture all the emotion you hear in the songs because the band could get them down in just a few takes. I knew this was why I had come to Austin.â€ť
Like the faces of children, each song on World of Strangers has something hard not to be endeared to. The faraway cry of the steel guitar on the opening number “A Little Piece of History”, the empathetic character at the heart of “Mama Needs A Margarita”, the aching in “Annabelle”, the timelessness of “Waltz of the Wayward Wind”, and the story so easy to relate to in “What Did You Come Back Here For?”
World of Strangers does not grab you by the gruff and make you listen, it’s a creeper that burrows itself into your bones. It’s not a flood that comes crashing in with waves, it’s the one that rises unexpectedly until you’re knee deep. A similar action accompanies Zoe’s voice—not flashy or even necessarily distinguishing, but slowly infectious and warm. The high artistry may be too aloof in moments for the red meat crowd, but World of Strangers still has something for anyone who labels themselves a roots fan.
No offense to Zoe Muth’s touring band that does a valiant job backing her up on a nightly basis, but the decision to go big with World of Strangers resulted in an album that should make her a familiar name throughout the roots world.
Two guns up.
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Yet another sign that the appeal for traditional country and country music’s legacy artists is alive and well.
Dolly Parton released her 49th overall studio album Blue Smoke on May 13th, and the record has earned Dolly Parton a distinction she’s never experienced in her decorated, historic career. Blue Smoke marks Dolly’s highest charting solo album in her career’s history, debuting at #6 on the all-genre Billboard 200 chart. Surprisingly, this is the first time ever that Dolly Parton has reached the Top 10 of the Billboard 200 with a solo release. The closest she’s ever come to a Top 10 album was 1981′s 9 to 5 and Odd Jobs that reached #11. Her collaborative album Trio with Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt also reached #6 in 1987.
Blue Smoke came in at #2 on the Billboard Country chart as well, beating out albums from artists such as Luke Bryan and Florida Georgia Line. 42 of Dolly’s 49 albums have reached the Top 10 on the dedicated country chart, including six #1 albums during her storied career.
â€śI am glad that people are enjoying the music from my new ‘Blue Smoke’ album. It feels great to be in the Top 10,â€ť Dolly Parton says. â€śItâ€™s always an honor to know the fans spend their hard earned money on my music. Thanks everybody!â€ť
Dolly Parton joins Johnny Cash who also made chart history recently with his posthumous release Out Among The Stars. Cash came in at #3 on the Billboard 200, and #1 on the country chart in early April. And unlike some new releases that have glittering debuts only to fade quickly, Cash remained at #9 on the Country Albums chart last week—six weeks after the original release date. Older, traditional country artists can still factor heavily into the album charts despite a lack of radio play or mainstream promotion because of the loyalty of their fans, and the propensity of those fans to purchase full albums instead of cherry-picking singles or streaming the release, resulting in greater revenue for the artists and labels.
Austin City Limits, the 40-year-old Texas music and public television institution, has announced the formation of a Hall of Fame in conjunction with their 40th Anniversary, with an inaugural induction ceremony to be held on April 26th at the shows original home, KLRU’s legendary Studio 6A on the University of Texas campus.
Inaugural inductees to the Austin City Limits Hall of Fame include Willie Nelson, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble, University of Texas football coach Darrell K. Royal, and Austin City Limits creator, Bill Arhos. Darrell Royal and Stevie Ray Vaughan will be inducted posthumously.
Performers at the initiate April 26th inauguration will include Doyle Bramhall II, Mike Farris, Buddy Guy, Emmylou Harris, Lyle Lovett, Lukas Nelson, Robert Randolph and Kenny Wayne Shepherd. Former University of Texas football coach Mack Brown will also participate in the ceremony, as well as other guests to be announced later. April 26th will also be when the details of the physical Austin City Limits Hall of Fame will be unveiled.
â€śThere are other Halls of Fame, but none quite like this,â€ť Austin City Limits Executive Producer Terry Lickona says. â€śAustin City Limits has become a unique American institution, in both the worlds of popular music and television. It has such a rich history and legacy that we decided it was time to celebrate and honor the artists and individuals who made it what it is today.â€ť
Each inaugural inductee has a special tie to the Peabody Award-winning music showcase. Willie Nelson played on the very first pilot episode of the series on October 14th, 1974. The show was set up to be the video companion to Jan Reed’s marquee book on the Texas music scene, The Improbable Rise of Redneck Rock, to chronicle the unique music phenomenon transpiring in Texas at the time. A bronze statue of Willie sits outside the entrance of The Moody Theater where Austin City Limits is currently taped.
Stevie Ray Vaughan is arguably the show’s most memorable performer, and a stalwart of the Austin, TX music scene. His shows in 1984 and 1990 are called by ACL, “the most iconic performances in ACL history.” The members of his backing band Double Trouble are also being recognized: Chris Layton, Tommy Shannon and Reese Wynans.
In 1974 when PBS asked member stations to help produce original programming, the program director of Austin PBS affiliate (at the time called KLRN) Bill Arhos decided to prototype a program to feature the world-class music scene brewing in the city. After the successful pilot with Willie Nelson, Austin City Limits was green lighted, and the rest is history.
Though Darrell Royal on the surface may seem like a strange pick for the Austin City Limits Hall of Fame, Royal was a big music lover and supporter of the Austin music scene, and was a friend to many of the artists, convincing performers like George Jones and Merle Haggard to perform on the show. He also inspired the show’s “songwriter specials” from the guitar pulls he used to host at his house.
In February it was announced that the the era-defining album Wrecking Ball released in 1995 by country music songstress Emmylou Harris was getting the reissue treatment, with a remastering of the original album, a new disc of demos and outtakes, and a DVD delving into the making of the album, all set to be released on April 8th.
If you’re not familiar with the Emmylou Harris discography or the influence Wrecking Ball has had on the modern country ear, you may wonder why this was the album picked out of the choir for a reissue, and why now. Wrecking Ball wasn’t a particularly great seller. Released when Emmylou was 48, the former Gram Parsons understudy had settled in as a “legacy” act in country, and was already well off the radar of country radio and award show attention by the time of the release. So why not stretch your wings and try something different? And try something different she did.
The influence of Wrecking Ball is evoked on Saving Country Music, and many other country and Americana websites regularly. Its impact on alt-country and Americana may only be outdone by Uncle Tupelo’s 1990 album No Depression, or Steve Earle’s late 80′s Guitar Town, and may not be outdone by any when it comes to the alt-country subset sometimes described as “progressive” country, or specifically when it comes to influencing the women in alt-country and Americana. And in the nearly 20 years since it was originally released, Wrecking Ball‘s influence hasn’t waned a bit, as one female artist after another tries to match or best its watermark.
Many country purists hated Wrecking Ball when it was first released. Early on in Emmylou’s career, some in country’s traditional ranks had been leery of the Alabama-born singer because of her folk rock past and her carousing with Gram Parsons. But in the wake of Gram’s passing, Emmylou won over nearly the entirety of the country music listening public with the sheer power of her voice, and her propensity to mix traditional country material with her more folk-oriented songs. By 1995, Emmylou’s career had been defined as a songbird, and as an acoustic, almost bluegrass-like performer, and a counter-balance to country’s newly-defined stadium era with superstars like Garth Brooks.
And then here came Wrecking Ball, completely unexpected, crashing through the conventional thinking on Emmylou. It was produced by Daniel Lanois for crying out loud; a guy known best for working with the rock band U2. Country critics for the first time were having to employ words like “atmospheric” and “spatial” to describe what they were hearing. Instead of working with more conventional cast of country songwriters and session players on the album, Emmylou had assembled Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams, Gillian Welch, Neil Young, and even covered (however subdued) a Jimi Hendrix song.
Though at its core, the themes of Wrecking Ball were still very traditional. The song “All My Tears” written by Buddy Miller’s wife Julie, was a spirited Gospel song, despite the strange burpings that comprise the sonic bed of the composition. Bob Dylan’s “Every Grain of Sand” placed in the center of the album had a very subdued, acoustic approach to ground the album from getting too weird. But the sweeping, bold, alternative thinking and approach to how Wrecking Ball presented its songs would be by far the biggest takeaway and the most lasting impact of this album in the end.
In the crux of the current culture war for the heart of country music is the argument being made by mainstream, commercially successful males that country music must progress. But the answer of how country music can progress why still holding on to the spirit of its roots has been held in the women of country for almost two decades, and it arguably started with Emmylou’s Wrecking Ball. Rhythmic elements that capture the attention of fresh ears, while not sacrificing melody or the thematic heart of what makes country music special, is the splendid balance that Emmylou Harris forged on Wrecking Ball.
Wrecking Ball also birthed some indelible compositions, specifically the title track written by Neil Young, the haunting, ominous “Deeper Well,” and the first song “Where Will I Be?” written by producer Daniel Lanois. But really you can’t go wrong with any track on Wrecking Ball.
However the legacy for this album is not all rosy. Just like the influence of Emmylou’s mentor Gram Parsons that while spreading the message of country music to a wider audience incidentally spawned some watered-down West Coast offshoots, so has Emmylou’s Wrecking Ball made some producers and artists unnecessarily strive to reach a similar bar or to make a similar sound instead of trying to find a better approach more within the true style of the artist and the era. One of the most interesting notes about Wrecking Ball and its live followup from a few years later called Spyboy is that it was preceded by one of Emmylou’s most traditional eras, when she assembled the bluegrass-inspired Nash Ramblers and helped revitalize The Ryman Auditorium and ostensibly the entire Lower Broadway portion of Nashville by recording and releasing an album from the abandoned venue.
And maybe most important to note about Wrecking Ball beyond its influence is that after eighteen albums and at the age of 48, one can argue that this was the album that Emmylou’s voice truly came into full bloom. The way her tone strains and breaks so eloquently, the intelligent way the chords are picked to compliment this phenomenon and put Emmylou uncomfortably between her regular tone and falsetto to squeeze the greatest degree of pain out of each composition is award winning in itself, and along with all of the album’s other notable achievements, is one of the reasons it won the Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Recording in 1996.
Wrecking Ball was the result of Emmylou Harris following her heart, searching for a voice she never knew she had, and a vein of country music nobody knew existed before. And even here nearly 20 years after its release, its influence, its beauty, and its place as one of the most important markers on the country music timeline, remains untarnished.
Two guns up.
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Inspired by the mountains, valleys, streams, and roads that the residents of rural Southern Oregon and Northern California pray for safe passage on as they try to scratch out livings in some of the most treacherous terrain in the Western United States, singer/songwriter Sage Meadows with aid from her band High Country serenade the rugged landscapes of the American West, while telling real stories of love, struggle, and loss in the new album River Roads.
Raised on Waylon Jennings and riverside gold claims in the tiny, isolated community of Forks of Salmon, California, Sage Meadows eventually made her way north of the California border where her memories manifested into an authentic country music narrative that has named her to many as the “Emmylou Harris of Southern Oregon.” From the immediately-identifiable honky tonk edge of songs like “Portland” and “Bluebird,” to the rockabilly influence of “Cousins,” to the more progressive approach of “Settle Down,” Sage Meadows satiates every segment of the country music palette with her sincere songwriting and a soaring voice.
You can stream River Roads in its entirety below, but please feel free to support this artist if the music speaks to you.
(Disclaimer: I, Trigger, had a very small hand in this album, so no review or rating will be given for “River Roads.”)
I remember back in the early 90′s, someone told me they had done a complete archival scan of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s body using lasers, so that even in the future he could star in action movies. I’m not sure if that was an urban myth or not, and certainly the technology to pull off something like that would be in much better order today than when Arnold was starring in Terminator 2.Â But whatever the technology was then, and whatever it is now, they really should employ it and in full measure towards making sure the sound of Willie Nelson’s voice, and that earthy tone of his guitar Trigger never disappear from the face of the earth. Because few things can make that warm feeling roll over you from head to toe like Willie.
To All The GirlsÂ is Willie Nelson’s third album to come from his recent partnership with Sony’s Legacy Recordings, and the second to come out this year. The record features an ample 18 tracks, each constituting a duet with a female counterpart drawing from a wide swath of talent that includes both legacy names like Loretta Lynn and Emmylou Harris, and some new names like The Secret Sisters and Brandi Carlile. The pairings alone are enough to make the country music listener salivate, while the variety of names passively bridges tastes and segments residing under country music’s big tent.
Though Willie Nelson doesn’t make the easiest duet partner because of the unusual phrasings he uses—a trait that over the years has become his signature (and continuously more pronounced)—Willie, each of his dance partners, and producer Buddy Cannon do a good job arranging the singing parts to where Willie could still call on his avant-garde phrasings, yet the duet could come across seamless. The vocal performances are superb, and the 18 ladies on To All The Girls illustrate just how much female talent country music boasts, regardless of how rarely their names may show up on the top of the country charts these days.
But despite the names and the commendable performances, To All The Girls is a somewhat sleepy as a whole. This may seem unconscionable to say with so much star power, but out of the 18 songs, only 2 could be characterized as residing in the mid tempo, and only two as up tempo. The rest are slow to very slow, and sparse, and though no one song could be singled out as being a snoozer, taken all together they can become the sonic equivalent of Unisom. Even the most up tempo track, the re-cut of Willie’s “Bloody Mary Morning” with Wynonna Judd features some amazingly hot guitar, steel, and piano solos, but they get somewhat buried in the mix almost as to not be an interruption.
There isn’t really a lot of texture or spice between the tracks, except for maybe the Spanish feel of “No Mas Amor” with Alison Krauss, or the Motown feel of the duet with Mavis Staples, “Grandma’s Hands.” Maybe this album was built more for the digital age to be cherry picked by respective fans of the guest artists instead of trying to take it as a whole, but by the end you wish this album could have been condensed into fewer tracks so it would result in some more memorable moments.
Did we really need 18 songs? Any time you can pair Willie Nelson with Dolly Parton, magic will happen. The songs are not the problem, though there are quite a few recognizable covers. It’s that the instrumentation that varies very little. I know, the Â music varies very little on Red Headed Stranger as well, but this album isn’t trying to take a conceptualized approach.
Willie Nelson started off his new deal with Sony utilizing producer Buddy Cannon on the album Heroes, which really showed a lot of vitality from the Willie camp, and was arguably one of his best albums in years. But one small thing that saddled the album as I explained in my review was the excessive collaborations that made the album feel a little too busy. Another Buddy Cannon-produced album, Jamey Johnson’s Living For A Song, A Tribute to Hank Cochran, drew a similar observation, and I even linked back to Willie’s Heroes review for context.
It ["Living For A Song"] makes the same mistake Willie Nelsonâ€™s last albumÂ HeroesÂ does of having too many guests. And may I point out that both albums were produced by Buddy Cannon. LikeÂ I said aboutÂ “Heroes”:
Where the album may come across as too busy or unfocused is the amount of contributors to each composition, and to the album as a wholeâ€¦Sure, many of these names we love, but thereâ€™s too many of them, diverting focus from any one pairing or performance.
And once again here is a Buddy Cannon-produced album that leans very heavily on collaborations and cover songs.Â Willie Nelson can still write and select good, original songs, and we saw that with Heroes. What I’m worried is we’re seeing an approach to sell albums creep into the album making process, Â loading albums up on celebrity names that can later be used in promotional copy, or maybe trying to make up for what is perceived as a lack of appeal for Willie alone. Somewhere the music may have gotten lost as the most important thing.
But that’s not to take away from any singleÂ To All The Girls song. Maybe it’s because “Always On My Mind” is such a timeless tune, but this duet with Carrie Underwood kills it. “Grandma’s Hands” with Mavis Staples carries a lot of depth and meaning, maybe because Willie was Â himselfÂ raised by his grandmother. The Western swinging “Till The End of the World” with Shelby Lynne was a real standout, and so was Willie’s duet with his daughter Paula Nelson singing the CCR song “Have You Ever Seen The Rain.” And though Willie may have played “Bloody Mary Morning” 10,000 times by now, this might be the recorded version that is the best.
To All The Girls is a brilliant concept. I just wish a little more care would have been taken with the type of names and star power it assembled to really try to make a new generation of Willie classics and introduce him to a new generation of listeners through the names that lent their time to the project. But as well have all learned over the nearly 60-something years of his career, when it comes to Willie, the sound of his voice and that earthy tone from Trigger is enough to raise goosebumps all on their own.
1 Â˝Â of 2 guns up. 3 of 5 stars.
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You talk to most any independent country, roots, or Americana artist, and to a man they will tell you their fortunes tend to be better in the European market. Whether it is because the competition is less, or the support for the arts in general is more, European tours are what allow many of your favorite artists to make it in the music business. With so many European tours and the continued spread of American country music, it was only a matter of time before country began to rub off on the locals and American roots music spread like wildfire throughout the Old World.
This is in no way a complete list or compendium of the dozens upon dozens of country and roots artists and bands that call Europe home. It’s simply a cross section of some cool examples of how Europeans from many different countries, and in many different disciplines from traditional country to bluegrass have taken up the country cause. You’re encouraged to leave your own lists and examples below.
If you’ve been wondering whatever happened to the classic, beautiful sound of the country music duet, look no further than the UK’s My Darling Clementine. Spellbinding voices mixed with a 50′s-60′s golden era styling make this English pairing something the whole world can enjoy.
You may chuckle at the name, but G-runs ‘n Roses from the Czech Republic are an energetic, high-octane bluegrass band that can bring the roots as deep as any of their transcontinental counterparts. Language and cultural barriers be damned, once they launch into song, you might as well be in Kentucky.
Maybe the most commercially-successful band on this list, this pair of Swedish sisters offer succulent harmonies and stellar songwriting in music that is inspired heavily from the Gram Parsons/Emmylou Harris camp. Born into a house where folk and country was ever-present, and not hindered whatsoever by barriers of language or culture, the only thing giving these girls away as not being from the US is their lack of pretentiousness. First Aid Kit gives many American singing duos a run for their money.
A super fun band from the UK featuring guitar player Russ Williams sandwiched between two hot girls in Wild Lucy Williams slapping on double bass and Nicole Terry on a sweet, smokin’ fidddle. The Rip Roaring Success have a distinct, stripped-down Western-swing style that’s hard to not start moving to when they get going.
One of the most unique performers you will ever see or hear, Dad Horse Experience from Germany is a banjo-playing one man band accompanying himself on bass organ with his feet and sometimes sporting a kazoo. His songs serenade a bereft world with cautionary wisdom, while the music is not afraid to work in fun and whimsy.
From Celtic jigs and folksy tales, to the legacy of the American storytelling song and Southern anthems,Â UK’s Rattleshack traces a nexus between English-speaking country and folk music, and marks a guidepost for the listener to see how the roots of the music all intertwine and share the same origin. Itâ€™s not that this hasnâ€™t been done before, but itâ€™s not been done nearly enough, and never with the fun, underground country twist Rattleshack displays.
Possibly the pinnacle of new-school punk-infused bluegrass from Europe, the Dinosaur Truckers can be as fast and precise as any, regardless of continent. But music is not a skills competition, and the best part about this band is that they know how to slow it down and make it about the song as well. Their recent, self-titled album was awarded a full two gun up review by Saving Country Music.
One of Europe’s oldest country bands originally formed in 1999, Crooks & Straights from Rijeka, Croatia might be the most straightforward country, honky tonk style band on this list. Known for excellent musicianship and players, aside from a slight Croatian accent to the lyrics, you would never know this band didn’t originate in North America.
From the underground/hellbilly side of country, Henrich Steuernagel from WĂ¶lfersheim, Germany brings a hellish take to country and bluegrass in self-penned songs. Germany is one of the epicenters for underground country in Europe, and Heinrich is also known for being an ambassador/tour guide/liasion for American bands touring through locally.
Maybe one of the most familiar bands stateside since they have been based in the US for many years, the Swiss-born Kruger Brothers consisting of brothers Jens, Uwe, and Joel are considered one of the top folk and bluegrass trios in the entire discipline. They have released a total of 16 albums, and banjo player Jens Kruger just won the Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass Music.
That’s right. A scandalous accusation I know, but one I stand behind with puffed chest and other such countenance to covey, “Yeah, I said it. You got a problem with that ?!?!”, and one that holds up when taking the most basic look at our little genre known as country music, and simply asking, “Where in the hell are the women?” Especially on country radio.
No, I don’t have any hidden camera footage of country music scheming with his fraternity brother that runs HR to systemically keep the women of country music at a lower pay scale. But if country music in 2013 were the equivalent of an office worker, it would be a douche-tastic, handsy, shallow, down-looking chauvinist with triple sec on his breath after lunch that specializes in subtle pelvic thrusts during elongated, unnecessary hugs, and pubic hair jokes.
Currently on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs Chart, there is not one single female artist in the Top 20. Not even one. Not even a Taylor Swift, Miranda Lambert, or Carrie Underwood. Not even a song from a country music group like The Band Perry or Lady Antebellum that has a female member. And this isn’t the first time in recent memory that this has happened. In fact aside from the occasional errant single from one of the aforementioned girls, a country music sausage fest is the default setting for country music’s Top 20 in 2013.
A deeper look into Billboard’s other charts and Neilsen’s radio ratings reveals similar discrepancies when it comes to the female gender and country music. But it doesn’t just stop there. The term “sexism” has two definitions:
That’s right. It’s not just that the women of country music are getting locked out of the process, being ignored by radio programmers who are predominantly male, and are being under-developed by the male-dominated industry. It’s also that the songs, artists, and albums that are dominating the charts and that are being pushed first and foremost by the industry are portraying women in a very objectified, stereotypical manner, both in the lyrics of the songs and in the accompanying videos.
Hey, I’m a red blooded male with fully-functioning male plumbing and a propensity to want to look at T&A just as much as the next guy. All males were instilled with the stupid gene to drool at cleavage through evolution. But there is a time and a place for everything, and when I’m walking through the grocery store with my young, impressionable niece to buy her a freeze pop, I don’t want to be accosted by a Luke Bryan song that works like the soundtrack to a date rape terrorizing our ears. Do these assholes not have women in their lives that they hope will be respected by other men? There’s a time for all adults to get raunchy, but country radio is supposed to be that one place of respite on the FM dial. Here in 2013, Top 40 country music is just as much of a den of iniquity as anything.
Artists like Luke Bryan, Tyler Farr, and Florida Georgia Line have no respect for women, and they have no respect for country music. Or if they do, there’s no evidence of it in their songs and videos. It’s just stereotypical fashion-plate models in bikini’s in objectified roles with the sole purpose of being oogled at just like their shiny new jacked up pickup trucks.
But even worse, when I watch concert footage of these country music cocks of the walk up on stage strutting it like Chippendale’s dancers, I’m not seeing a bunch of men of the front row pumping their fists. No, this female-less country phenomenon is not just about males using their physical superiority and good ole boy system to keep women down. The women of mainstream country are taking the role of willing accomplices, inviting this cultural degradation and humiliation with their hands raised in their air submissively and screaming for Luke Bryan to shake his butt. The problem isn’t just that male record executives and male program managers at radio stations aren’t giving women their proper due. It’s that the women are the ones that are demanding this drivel and driving the market.
And no, I’m not just calling for an equal playing field for women. If you have to, you gerrymander the damn system to makes sure you have at least one song on the charts that showcases female talent. Are you telling me there’s nothing out there from a female fit for the Billboard Top 20? There are many women who could immediately make country music better right now—professional, proven, beautiful, appealing, relevant, and ready to take their music big time and represent women in a positive light in a genre that has always been about showcasing strong women like Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, and Alison Krauss.
Come on country music, let’s do this. I’m tired of telling folks I’m a fan of country music, and then having to put a paper bag over my head in shame, or load it down with qualifying points. We have an obligation to discover, nurture, and showcase female talent. If country music was a board room of 20 members and not one female, some uptight women’s league would be suing their asses from hell to breakfast. So why should country music be held to a different standard?
The dirty little reason that women are not being showcased on country radio is because they’re not willing to sell out like the men. The women of country music respect themselves just fine. It’s the male performers of country music, their industry counterparts, and the women who fawn on them that are driving this trend.
And I’m mad as hell about it.
As much as we may love the older music performers we grew up with, or cherish the performers from a past beyond our own, there might be nothing worse to behold as a music fan than watching an aging artist who refuses to come to grips with reality, and won’t let go of the spotlight. Of course it is a shame that the music business is so callous towards its aging talent and seems so quick to cast its older entertainers off. But all artists eventually age and experience the passing of mass interest, and must face a new set of realities.
As much as Ronnie Dunn started out showing promise as a substantive artist and one willing to speak his mind about the state of the country music business after the Brooks & Dunn breakup, he’s now out there now kinking his hair and cutting country rap songs. Hank Williams Jr. might be the poster boy for the country artist who’s unwilling to face their fate; carousing with Kid Rock and taking great care not to show any gray in his mane. Remember when Alabama collaborated with ‘N Sync? Or the catastrophe of Kenny Rogers’ facelift? Even our beloved Willie Nelson had a moment when he thought the best thing for his career was to cut a Dave Matthews song produced by Kenny Chesney. We can’t blame our country heroes for not wanting to call it quits from the mainstream spotlight until they’re absolutely sure it’s time, but sometimes you wonder why they just can’t rest on their laurels, appreciate their years of success and the financial windfall it afforded them, and simply refocus on the music as their first priority.
That is exactly what we are seeing from two of country music’s most prestigious previous heavyweights: Alan Jackson and Vince Gill. With 34 CMA Awards, over 20 Grammys, and and some 80 million records sold between the two, they both have seen their share of overwhelming commercial success, public notoriety, and peer recognition. But over the last few years the writing has been on the wall that their time has come, and their days of widespread radio play and big awards are over.
And so what did these two men do? Did they shake their fists at the system and criticize it for being unfair? Did they try to mix it up with some young artist outside of the genre to hopefully rekindle interest? Did they debut a new look to try to hide their age? No, they both did something out-of-the-ordinary—they embraced their roles as legacy artists, and put out albums that paid homage to the roots of the music that brought them both so much fortune over the years.
Vince Gill teemed up with legendary steel guitar player Paul Franklin and put out an impressive and energetic tribute to the West Coast influence on country called Bakersfield, swapping songs from California country titans Merle Haggard and Buck Owens. For all the chatter about country having to evolve to stay commercially viable, Bakersfield debuted at #4 on the charts and sold an impressive 12,000 copies its first week—virtually unheard of for a tribute album, especially one from an older artist.
Right on the heels of Bakersfiled‘s success, Alan Jackson has just released an album of bluegrass music simply called The Bluegrass Album. It includes 8 Jackson originals all done in authentic bluegrass style, and covers artists like Bill Monroe and The Dillards. The record is a critic’s favorite and has been creating tremendous buzz.
As much as country music, especially in the current era, may feel like a business of the here and now, one thing that still separates country from other genres is the role of the legacy artist. Rock once had this as well, but there is a reason a 51-year-old Sheryl Crow decided to bring her act to country in 2013. As much as it may pain purists when pop and rock artists cross over to country, it also speaks to how despite the conventional thinking of modern country as a kid’s game, country still deliver strength to older artists. Sure, artists like Vince Gill and Alan Jackson may no longer be able to sell out arenas, but they’re also not considered “has-been’s” simply because the big hits have stopped coming. You may not be treated as a superstar in the twilighting of your country career, but you’re still doted on as a legend by core fans who will never forget your contributions. That was one of the unfortunate things about the early passing of Waylon Jennings. He never got that opportunity to take a victory lap and stand as a country music elder statesman.
Like Emmylou Harris allowing her raven hair to turn a shimmering silver, watching an artist age in country music can be a splendid thing to behold when the artist performs the transition with grace, class, and wisdom, and the industry allows this process to unfold naturally instead of shutting them out. By setting new parameters of success that don’t have to do with sales and flashy awards, an artist can craft the finishing touches on their legacy while the genre shows their respects for their contributions.
But moreover, what Vince Gill and Alan Jackson have proven is they still have plenty of tread on the tires, and aging artists can still have a sizable impact and contribution to the country music canon.
(Full list of winners below)
The 2013 Americana Music Awards once again transpired in Nashville at the historic Ryman Auditorium as part of the week-long Americana Music Conference. Top winners were Shovels & Rope with two awards for Emerging Artist of the Year and Song of the Year, and Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell with two awards for Album of the Year and Duo/Group of the Year.
Delbert McClinton lead off presentation with Hank Williams’ “Hey, Good Lookin,’” leading into MC Jim Lauderdale giving a poignant introduction that included the line, “The past matters, traditions matter, even when we explore ways to have those traditions extended and expanded.”Â
Hank Williams was named the recipient of the President’s Award, presented to his granddaughter Holly Williams by filmmaker Ken Burns who is currently working on a documentary about country music.Â In the acceptance speech, Holly said, “Hank would be Americana if he was alive today.” She then played “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” on the same stage that her grandfather graced so many times.
This was followed by a performances by John Fullbright and Shovels & Rope, and then Jim Lauderdale presented the Lifetime Achievement Award in Songwriting to Robert Hunter. The famous songwriting counterpart to Jerry Garcia then played an acoustic performance of “Ripple.” It was his first public performance in nearly a decade.
Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison played their duet “Border Radio,” followed by Richard Thompson performing “Good Things Happen To Bad People,”eventually leading into prominent Nashville resident Dan Auerbach from The Black Keys presenting the Lifetime Achievement Award for Performance to Louisiana’s Dr. John. JD McPherson followed this up with a performance of his song “Northside Gal.”
Billy Bragg and Tift Merritt awarded Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell with the Duo / Group of the Year. “We were Americana before it had a name,” Emmylou said in her acceptance speech. This was chased by The Stellas (the two young girls from ABC’s “Nashville” show) singing The Lumineers “Ho, Hey!”
Guitar player Ry Cooder presented Jack Emerson with the Lifetime Achievement Award for Executive. Then Jim Lauderdale introduced the newest members of the Grand Ole Opry, Old Crow Medicine Show, who proceeded to play the song that has since become a #1 for Darius Rucker, “Wagon Wheel.” This led to actor/comedian Ed Helms presenting Old Crow with the Trailblazer Award—a WW2 Harmony guitar with the lyrics of “Wagon Wheel” written on it.
Nicki Bluhm and Sam Bush presented the 2013 Artist of the Year award to Dwight Yoakam, who was not in attendance, but Sam Bush said he accepted it on Dwight’s behalf and wore the “tightest pants I have.” This was followed by a performance from the Milk Carton Kids, and the Americana house band led by Buddy Miller, with Jim Lauderdale joining in with a song from the duo’s recent album.
BBC Radio’s Bob Harris presented the Lifetime Achievement Award for Instrumentalist to Duane Eddy. “Hank Williams was my mentor, though he didn’t know it,” Eddy said in his acceptance speech, and then played his most famous song, “Rebel Rouser.”
Shovels & Rope and “Birmingham” won the Song of the Year award, followed by a performance by Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell. Emerging Artist of the Year was presented next to Shovels & Rope by members of Wilco, making Shovels & Rope the first multi-award winner of the night. The Spirit of Americana Freedom of Speech award went to Stephen Stills, who played the signature Buffalo Springfield hit “For What It’s Worth” with Kenny Wayne Shepherd joining in.
And handing out the final award, Rosanne Cash and Alejandro Escovedo presented the Album of the Year to Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell for their album Old Yellow Moon. Dr. John led the final song, “Leaving Louisiana In The Broad Daylight,” with Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell, and many more joining the band.
Emerging Artist of the Year
Shovels & Rope
Album of the Year
Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell’s Old Yellow Moon.
Artist of the Year
Song of the Year
“Birmingham” by Shovels & Rope
Duo/ Group of the Year
Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell
Instrumentalist of the Year
Lifetime Achievement in SongwritingÂ
Lifetime Achievement Award for Performance
Lifetime Achievement Award for Instrumentalist
Lifetime Achievement Award for Executive
Old Crow Medicine Show
Spirit of Americana Freedom of Speech Award
“You know, when you get old, in life, things get taken from you. I mean, that’s a part of life. But, you only learn that when you start losing stuff.” –Al Pacino, playing Coach Tony D’Amato in the movie Any Given Sunday.
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This news of Linda Ronstadt losing her voice due to Parkinson’s Disease seems like an especially sinister storyline. What a cruel machination of mother nature to rob a woman of her one defining gift while she still has life and clear cognitive factories to contemplate her fate. This isn’t any voice, or any woman. But Linda Ronstadt is smart and strong, and I’m sure she will come to peace with it.
And we must come to peace with it, but how do we replace the Linda Ronstadt voice? With Miley Cyrus twerking up a wall and dropping immature drug references in her droning dance club songs? With Brittney Spears, and the images of her shaving her head to avoid a positive drug test in a custody battle, and making out with Madonna on the VMA Awards? With Taylor Swift, who arguably can’t even sing? It’s just one voice, but it’s one we can’t replace. None of the voices that lent their talent to defining the American culture as the preeminent showcase for artistry and talent are being replaced as the greats falter and disappear and their contemporaries are relegated to obscurity. Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio…indeed.
Linda Ronstadt’s first solo album, Hand Sown…Home Grown, was arguably the first ever alt-country record. Like Gram Parsons, Ronstadt was responsible for showing legions of music fans that country music could be cool. Ronstadt’s 1987 collaboration with Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris called Trio resulted in one of country’s most timeless records.
She fell out of favor with some of the core of country fandom when her career moved in a more rock and pop direction. But Linda didn’t strike her widespread, universal appeal by being a genre-bending, attention-thirsty trend chaser, she did it by exploring and satiating the different influences she was exposed to as a child and young adult. She didn’t release a classic Mexican album at the height of her career because that is what the masses were clamoring for. It is because it is what she wanted to do, and lo and behold, the record had more mass appeal than expected despite the language barrier because Linda Ronstadt’s voice was so powerful.
With the way social networking works today, when it comes to celebrity tragedies like Linda Ronstadt losing her voice, we all seem to be more wrapped up in the dissemination of the news than the deep contemplation of what it all actually means. We like to be the first of our friends to see the reports and post it on our respective feeds, we want to have the most poignant quip and get the most retweets and the most shares. It’s like in a moment of supposed empathy, we become somewhat selfish in this new paradigm of experiencing and sharing the grieving process in a public manner, in real time, for people we rarely know on a personal basis, with people we rarely know on a personal basis. It becomes just as much about us as it does the victim or the tragedy.
Then again, we all are victims here. Linda Ronstadt didn’t just lose her voice, we all lost Linda Ronstadt’s voice. And the sounds of life will be one more shade towards grey henceforth.
Of all the people you could have picked to become an outspoken dissenter to the direction of country music, Rodney Crowell would have been pretty far down the list. Not that he doesn’t have the skins on the wall to say such things and have them carry weight, or that he doesn’t practice what he preaches when it comes to his own approach to music. Rodney is in the direct lineage of legacy-caliber songwriters like Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt, and came up playing in Emmylou Harris’s “Hot Band.” He and Emmylou recently released a duet’s album together, but he always seemed to be more of a reserved soul when it came to such things as saying country music is headed in the wrong direction.
Well he’s not being very reserved at the moment, taking his second opportunity in the last month to decry the direction of country in a recent interview:
I watch these young country artists come in and burst onto the scene, and I always have to remind myself that these artists didnâ€™t experience Hank Williams Sr. or Big Joe Turner or Kris Kristofferson, who was able to bring the bedroom and sensual poetry into country music. These artists came from a different set of archetypal images. If I took the old school curmudgeon approach, I would say these guys are really missing the boat.
A couple of weeks ago, Crowell made similar disparaging remarks about the direction of country, carefully worded, coy, and cunning in the way the words cut right to the heart of the problem, saying in part:
Ever since country music entered the back door of main stream commercialityâ€”most noticeably in the early sixtiesâ€”the debate over who possesses the more noble heart, the purists or the popular entertainers has never stopped. (Remember the credibility scare of the late 80â€˛s.) Generally speaking, the purists make the more timeless music.
Pop culture is a disposable culture, therefore it stands to reason that those who want the big bucks and the power are inclined to produce slick and disposable music. I donâ€™t see anything wrong with artists getting rich by pigging out at the trough of poor taste.
Rodney Crowell may be no Dale Watson when it comes to the temper he brings to his country music dissent, but the more voices speaking out and reaching different audiences, the better. By saying many of today’s pop country artists are “missing the boat,” Crowell is showing the leadership country music needs to help right the ship.
Grammy Award winning Country/Americana artist Rodney Crowell took to his social network feeds late last week to voice his displeasure at the current state of mainstream country music. Crowell, who had 5 consecutive #1 singles off of his 1988 album Diamonds & Dirt, and two top 5 hits off of the follow up Keys to the Highway, has in recent years run more in Americana circles, and also works as a producer.
Ever since country music entered the back door of main stream commerciality—most noticeably in the early sixties—the debate over who possesses the more noble heart, the purists or the popular entertainers has never stopped. (Remember the credibility scare of the late 80′s.) Generally speaking, the purists make the more timeless music.
Pop culture is a disposable culture, therefore it stands to reason that those who want the big bucks and the power are inclined to produce slick and disposable music. I don’t see anything wrong with artists getting rich by pigging out at the trough of poor taste.
For the purists, the Americana Music Association is fighting a good battle to see that the work of, say, Guy Clark, is forever in the back of our minds. Go on ITunes and download a few Doc Boggs tunes. Timeless music is more available than ever.
Crowell moved to Nashville in 1972 where he was discovered by Jerry Reed, and later became friends with fellow songwriter Guy Clark. In 1975 he joined Emmylou Harris’s “Hot Band” for a brief period before releasing his debut solo album in 1978. His latest album, a collaboration with Emmylou Harris called Old Yellow Moon debuted at #4 on the country charts and is nominated for the Americana Music Association’s Album of the Year.
Songstress Patty Griffin lives one charmed life. Her breaks in the music business came late, but they came, and now she finds herself ensconced on the top shelf of influential and respected Americana singers and songwriters from her solid song catalog and impressive resume of vocal accoutrements lent to the music of others.
Even better, recently a worthy beau by the name of Robert Plant came courting, and all of a sudden Patty and her music find themselves the subject of international intrigue, and withstanding any cynicism by way of Griffin’s sincerity as both an artist and person.
American Kid is a worthy specimen if someone asked you produce an album that exemplifies Americana’s influence and artistry. From the ultra-traditional “Mom & Dad’s Waltz” by Lefty Frizzell, to the progressive and airy “Highway Song” co-penned by Robert Plant, American Kid presents itself like a tree hanging heavy with fruit, with all but the two aforementioned songs written by Griffin solely. Though in no way a full-on collaboration with Patty and Plant, his presence here and there gives American Kid an additional layer of compelling character.
Some may consider Griffin more of a songwriter than a performer or singer since her credits include such heavyweight names as The Dixie Chicks, Martina McBride, and Miranda Lambert just to name some. But Patty’s voice might be her most exclusive gift.
Immediately on American Kid, Griffin brandishes her sweet tone that has gone so astoundingly untouched by time on the opening song “Go Wherever You Wanna Go.” This is chased by the rhythmic, foot-pounding “Don’t Let Me Die in Florida” that grabs you by the scruff and pulls you right into the American Kid experience. “Ohio” evokes all the artistry and influence of Emmylou Harris’s Wrecking Ball album in the present-day context with help from Robert Plant on harmonies, leading into the beautiful colloquial expressionism of the rural-feeling “Wild Old Dog.”
You may initially want to hate “Highway Song” as some audition for a fantasy film soundtrack, but the tune grows on you until it becomes one of your favorites. American Kid does turn in some weaker moments towards the end, and the gender of the voice of some of American Kid‘s final songs like “Get Ready Marie” and “Not A Bad Man” may confuse some. But listeners should heed that Patty wrote this album to be a tribute to her father who passed away recently. This decision is what imbibes this project with an inspired feel, honing Patty’s grief and reflection into the music until it elevates this effort to where the argument can by made it is Patty’s best, showcasing her impressive breath of talents, from songwriting, to singing, arrangement, and the intangible elements that make songs grow on you. The personal nature of the material becomes shared with the listener through Griffin’s talent and sincerity.
So many strong projects in the Americana realm right now might make the consumer feel a little overwhelmed, but Patty Griffin’s American Kid deserves as much attention as any.
1 3/4 of 2 guns up.
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The Americana Music Awards just announced their 2013 nominees, and the dirty duo from South Carolina Shovels & Rope leads the way with a whopping four nominations, while Buddy Miller and Emmylou Harris both clock in with three. On September 18th, the awards will once again be held at the prestigious Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, and once again the nominations show a very narrow focus on the dramatically broadening world of Americana music.
One could make the case that Americana is two, maybe even three times larger of a genre than what it was only a few years ago. The Americana Music Association itself has said that it is the the “fastest growing music community today.” But again the awards read like a list of usual suspects from the founding members of the movement and their close friends getting together each year to pat each other on the back instead of paying attention to and benefiting from the dramatic growth gripping the “Americana” term as the most nationally-recognized and broad alternative to mainstream country.
In April, the Americana Music Association announced the new “Cross Country Lines Music Festival,” aimed at “breaking borders, breaking boundaries and coming together as a larger community.” Yet aside from the Instrumentalists, only 11 names of artists or groups compile the entire field of 2013 Americana Awards nominees, with most of the names being perennial nominees and winners from years past. It all begs the question, why the awards can’t grow with the genre?
Album of the Year
Buddy & Jim, Buddy Miller & Jim Lauderdale
Cheaters Game, Kelly Willis & Bruce Robison
From The Ground Up, John Fullbright
O Be Joyful, Shovels and Rope
Old Yellow Moon, Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell
There are no two bigger names in the close-knit Americana community than Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale, and when they together to cut an album, it’s no surprise the Americana world would go ga-ga over it. Same could be said about Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell, making them a close second. Small chance O Be Joyful could pull off the upset with such attention and so many nominations. John Fullbright is still riding on the momentum he received when From The Ground Up was nominated for a Grammy.
Artist of the Year
Wow, what an anemic list. Love all of these artists, but on a year when there were so many breakout Americana bands, to go back to these usual suspects seems a little bit lazy an unimaginative. If you’re going to nominate The Lumineers for Song of the Year, then why not for Artist? Did they not have a huge impact? If we’re only nominating oldtimers, why not Ray Wylie Hubbard with the success he’s had with Grifter’s Hynmal?
Duo/Group of the Year
Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis
Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale
Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell
Shovels & Rope
Notice that we are only three nominations in, and every name that appears in this category has appeared in a previous category. Now notice that these are the exact same nominees for Album of the Year, just without John Fullbright, and with no other name added to take his place.
Emerging Artist of the Year
The Milk Carton Kids
Shovels & Rope
Shovels & Rope has to be the shoe in here with so many other nominations. Is JD McPherson really “emerging”? Or is he just emerging in the mindset to the cloistered Americana decision makers? Lindi Ortega? First Aid Kit? If you’re going to include the former Turnpike Troubadour John Fullbright, why not include the Turnpike Troubadours?
Song of the Year
“Birmingham” – Shovels & Rope
“Good Things Happen to Bad People” – Richard Thompson
“Ho Hey” – The Lumineers
“North Side Gal” – JD McPherson
“Birmingham” should win this. Richard Thompson would be the other strong contender. So we’re going to nominate “Ho Hey,” bolstered by its appearance in numerous commercials, but we won’t consider bands like The Lumineers, The Avett Brothers, Mumford & Sons, and many others for awards when they have been expanding the boundaries of Americana music more than any other bands or artists in its history?
Instrumentalist of the Year
We’ve talked about 7 Men Who Could Immediately Make Country Music Better, now let’s take a look at 9 women who could do the same. It’s been well documented that here in 2013, the women of country are outpacing the men when it comes to the quality of music–women like Kacey Musgraves who’ve seen breakout commercial success. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t more women who could still strengthen the substance of country music if only given a chance.
Valerie June positively slayed the audience when unannounced and unexpectedly, she appeared on the 2013 ACM Awards in a duet role with Eric Church during his song “Like Jesus Does.” But that is just the very beginning folks. That moment very well may all be trumped when her album Pushin’ Against A Stone drops August 13th, and it puts her in the elite company of country women leading the creative revolution. Don’t rest on this name. Valerie June will be a force in country music.
If you’re looking for the one person, the one name of a female country artist, or an artist of any gender with a traditional sound that is poised at the brink of breaking into the big time, there’s no better candidate than Ashley Monroe. Signed to a major label, and already on the mainstream’s radar from her work with The Pistol Annies, Ashley is one of the chosen few artists that can run with the big boys on Music Row, but still do it her own way. With sad eyes the size of Cajun tires, a sincere voice inflected with so much pain, and a solidly traditional bent to her songwriting, she may be just one breakout song away from taking traditional country big time. Fingers crossed.
A somewhat accidental band that has become a powerhouse of the Texas music scene, The Trishas score high on every one of the major music food groups. Class, character, creativity, four-part harmonies, fully-developed songwriting, and maybe most importantly, the fun atmosphere that can develop when you toss four talented ladies into a tight knit group. They are The Dixie Chicks for the new century, and the Pistol Annies for the rest of us.
It’s said all of the time. “Be yourself.” But it’s amazing how we get so sidetracked from this maxim as we chase shallow measures of success. I don’t know that anyone had a solid grasp on who Holly Williams was, maybe not even Holly Williams herself, until she decided to shirk herself of wrangling label producers and the expectations of what being the offspring of country royalty should be and just simply opened up a window to her soul and started singing. Her latest album The Highway has put her right there in the mix of strong country women attempting to lead the music in a more substantive direction, and it’s hard not to look at her last name and not consider the potential that pedigree affords.
Rachel Brooke is the Emmylou Harris of our time, it’s just that the greater country music world has yet to wake up to that truth. You listen to her albums, or maybe more importantly the albums of others that she appears on, and you get that same tingly feeling on the back of your neck you did the first heard Emmylou harmonize with Gram on Grevious Angel. Rachel’s voice should be all over country albums. She should be criss crossing the continent contributing to studio sessions, while in the meantime cutting her own critically-acclaimed records. Rachel’s voice is a national resource that’s downright criminal for us not to tap.
Don’t look now, but Shovels & Rope just recorded an episode of Austin City Limits, played Letterman a while back, and has been rocketing up the music ladder like no other band of their ragtag stature I have ever seen. In the vacuum of the The Civil Wars hiatus, Shovels & Rope and their authentic, gritty, and sweaty music has touched the mother of all nerves of music fans, and Carry Ann Hearst is the primary catalyst for it all. With a voice like Loretta and songwriting chops like Dolly, she’s threatening to take Shovels & Rope to a whole new level for dirty roots music.
With only one word to describe Lindi Ortega, I would pick “stunning.” I don’t know if she could ever atone for all the sins of her fellow female Canadian country singer Shania Twain perpetrated on the genre, but Lindi’s style is something that is both hip and classic, and cuts across traditional lines of taste to bridge fans of any good music. Lindi’s fierce independent streak is probably something that will always keep her hovering more around the independent channels of music, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t have a voice and songs fit for the masses that are so malnourished by their mainstream radio diet.
These absolutely spellbinding sisters from Sweden are a perfect example of how you can take a sincere passion for the traditional foundations of country music, and infuse them with a more progressive, more modern sound to make them universally relevant to the current ear. Their close harmonies and ear for composition are unparalleled in country music right now.
Yes, compared to many struggling up-and-coming artists, including many of the other names on this list, Kellie Pickler has already seen her fair share of the spotlight. But she left all of that behind to pursue her passion for traditional country music, and became saddled by a label unwilling to give her music the attention it deserved; music that when listened to, baffles the mind on how it went so ignored by country radio. If simply given the opportunity, “Kellie country” could crash the pop party at the top of the country charts. Whereas for some other artists their reality show pasts have become a burden to finding acceptance from critics and true country fans, Kellie is using it like a Trojan horse. She’s one of the top leaders on this season’s Dancing With The Stars, and combined with her American Idol celebrity cred, she could inflict some serious damage on creatively-bankrupt music from her combination of celebrity and substance. Go Kellie!
Other women who couldÂ bring more quality to country: Caitlin Rose, Elizabeth Cook, Sarah Gayle Meech, Amber Digby, The Carper Family, Zoe Muth, Kasey Chambers, Brandi Carlile, Star Anna, The Secret Sisters, Paige Anderson, Sarah Jarosz …
Before this album, I’d been mostly opinion neutral on Holly Williams. Being the granddaughter of Hank Williams, the daughter of Hank Jr., and the sister of Hank3 appointed her music the respect of more than a cursory look. The pedigree runs too deep in that family to handle her otherwise. But Holly only seemed to have only one foot in the music business, unsure if it was the way she wanted to spend her life, though aware that her family’s lineage was probably her quickest way to success.
Her first two albums The Ones We Never Knew in 2004 and Here With Me in 2009, both released on major labels, left one wondering about Holly’s true music identity. Neither were particularly commercially successful–she’s yet to have a single hit the Top 50 threshold–but she really didn’t seem to align with the independent world of music either. She was neither here nor there, and with a lack of scene support her career sort of drifted.Â The Highway, released on her own Georgiana label, changes all of that.
Produced by Holly and Charlie Peacock, and written mostly by Williams herself, The Highway puts Holly Williams smack dab in the middle of this revolutionary crop of young women that threatens to completely shake up the country music world and mindset. Along with Kacey Musgraves, Caitlin Rose, and Ashley Monroe, Holly Williams now has a career-caliber album that exemplifies the leadership and creativity coming from country’s young women.
The Highway takes a more Americana route than a country one, with sparse arrangements and a focus on deep lyricism. The music stays soft while the words are cutting. There’s a few exceptions like the twangy, steel-guitar soaked “Railroads,” but mostly The Highway takes advantage of the emerging commercial viability of Americana by bringing a refined ear to the compositional process and focusing the listener on the art of the song.
There’s still a lot of meat here though for the country music fan. The music might be refined, but the words come from the downtrodden life, with a lot of depression, addiction, and sorrow in the stories. “Drinkin’” is the track that other songwriters will listen to and beat themselves up for not writing. Its unconventional structure reels you in while Holly’s voice strikes that healthy balance of conveying country inflections without felling like a “put-on” act.
The biggest takeaway from The Highway might Be Holly’s voice. Not really known as a notable singer heretofore, Williams embarks on a discovery of her vocal strengths on this album, learning to accentuate the unique aspects of her tone, and even to take her vocal weaknesses and turn them into strengths such as great singers like Emmylou Harris have done in the past. There are a few Emmylou-like moments on this release, with Holly’s earthy tones and strain in her voice emphasizing the emotion of the story. “Gone Away From Me” is where this is exhibited best, while a song like “A Good Man” featuring a trailing vibrato has enough soul to be found on an R&B chart if it weren’t for the fiddle.
About the only hiccup on The Highway may be Holly’s propensity to write in a 3rd-person male voice that sort of confuses the perspective of some of the songs, most notably the anthemic final track, “Waiting on June.” This issue is short lived though, as you understand that when listening to the story it is more honest and true because it is being told from the male perspective instead of Holly attempting to augment the inspiration for the song to fit a female voice.
Where Holly Williams’ career and releases left her neither here nor there before, now she has found her voice, has found her place, and that place is amongst the talented women doing what they can to return the greater country music world to a place of substance.
1 3/4 of 2 guns up.
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It’s always somewhat of a sticky proposition when mainland Europeans attempt their hand at American roots music. You have to tip your hat to them. European’s fervor for American roots seems to be in no less degree than it is here in the States. In fact in many instances, Europe supports American roots music even more than the folks right here in the native land that birthed it. Many American independent country and roots bands have paid their way in life by touring Europe, and were doing so way before Mumford & Sons was selling a million records.
Nonetheless, there’s something about the Old World ear that seems to handicap native European artists when they attempt to re-create the American roots experience. It’s a once removed syndrome, like they see the forest, but not the trees. In many instances I’d rather hear European’s take on their own roots music with maybe an American roots flavor. These are the European roots bands that tend to perk my ear. I heard the Dali Llama once say he didn’t want Americans to convert to Buddhism. He wasn’t discouraging it either, but he said the religions that fit more into their history and customs would probably be better fit for Americans. I think there’s a music equivalent to this philosophy.
Being an American-flavored country roots band from the UK is a tough enough proposition. Take two girls whose native tongue isn’t even English, and tackling the task of trying to get the North American continent to pay attention to what they’re trowing down seems even more daunting. But that is exactly what the Sorderberg sisters from Sweden have done with their sincere and authentic, yet still individualized take on Americana called First Aid Kit.
If it wasn’t for me taking three paragraphs to explain it, listening to First Aid Kit’s music for the first time you would have never guessed they weren’t from Bloomington, or Boise, or Bakersfield. And that’s not just from their lack of accents or their skill at interpreting American roots, it’s because your ear trains on how excellent their harmonies are–the type of tight harmonies that can only be synced with such precision by sibling familiarity–and how sparkling, yet earthy their songwriting is, rendering notions about nationality or native tongue as trivial.
First Aid Kit isn’t just advanced for their adeptness at Americana as foreigners, they’re advanced for their age. Hell, I think there’s more than just a few American country and roots bands that could learn a few things from what First Aid Kit is doing, especially in their use of language. And for two young, sweet sisters, First Aid Kit features some bite. There’s no sonnets to cute boys here, there’s serious forays into the depths of the human soul with a dark shade cast over almost everything they do, partly due to the Depression-era Carter Family closeness of their harmonies. First Aid Kit is the sound the soul makes when it weeps intensely. It awakens memory like the most treasured of family artifacts.
Johanna and Klara’s tones match so sweetly, but separate with distinction when one sings alone. You crave their voices. This is music meant to move you. It’s from old souls, to old souls, steeped remarkably in the modes of the colorful, poetic tendencies of the English language, and the American dialect specifically. They make you feel ashamed in places that you do not know how to wield English words so well. Each song takes you somewhere–has a purpose or a moral. By the end of this album you’re both exhausted, and fulfilled.
And classic country fans shouldn’t immediately wince at this music as too artistic or fey. Songs like “Emmylou,” or their rendition of Tammy Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man” show that First Aid Kit’s study of American country music has been tedious. At the same time, the mark of their Swedish perspective is an indelible and positive attribute. The Nordic balladry and epicness, and the romanticism of the human experience affords this music an old, folkloric sound full of meaning and impact.
First Aid Kit’s simple attention to harmonic bliss is just the kind of substance roots music needs as it enjoys the rising action of commercial acceptance. And it’s something Americans need to remind themÂ how relevant and enthralling the primitive modes from where popular American music came from can still be. In Sweden, First Aid Kit is pop music. In America, we could only be so blessed.
Two guns up.
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Rachel Brooke is one of the few select artist with enough mustard to rise out of the ashes of the country music underground and become a force in the greater roots world. Like an early Emmylou Harris, the music industry should be shuttling her across the country to lend her singular vocal texture to other projects in between putting out excellent solo albums that time finds hard to forget.
The first thing that must be said about A Killer’s Dream is that it’s a blues album. And when I say “blues” I’m not talking about Deep Blues, or punk-infused blues, or country blues. I’m talking the type of straightforward 12-bar blues where the first line repeats itself; the most common progression you think of when you think “blues.”
But this isn’t something far outside of what was heard from the original country bluesmen like Hank Williams and Jimmie Rodgers. And people who think this is a wholly new direction for Rachel (who I’ve dubbed “The Queen of Underground Country” in the past) aren’t versed on her early material like “Bottle Tippin’ Blues” and “Blackin’ Out” that were similarly based deep in blues modes.
Florida duo Viva Le Vox was hired on as the house band for A Killer’s Dream, and I can’t say enough about the taste they brought to this record. These songs afforded them so much space, and they had so many opportunities to walk all over Rachel’s voice or hijack the attention. Instead they laid back and listened, letting their musical wisdom guide them in creating a foreground for Rachel to be framed in, while still somehow imbibing the album with their distinct Viva flair and macabre.
And Viva is just the start of the instrumentation. The amount of textures A Killer’s Dream touches on is impressive: Saw, 30′s jazz horn sections, kettle drum and xylophone just to name a few. The approach to A Killer’s Dream can only be described as “bold.” It’s also an audiophile’s dream. Recorded live to 2-inch tape and not touched by computer until mastering, A Killer’s Dream conveys tremendous warmth and presence.
A Killer’s Dream cracks the speakers with the haunting “Have It All” that isolates and showcases Rachel’s singular attribute–her voice that I once heard best described by mandolin player Jayke Orvis as, “Carrying so much pain.”
After this succulent little bit of audio melts into a reverberating pool reminiscent of Rachel’s landmark collaboration with Lonesome Wyatt called A Bitter Harvest, the album starts in earnest with the bluesy “Fox In A Henhouse”. Immediately your ears train on that Viva Le Vox flavor I alluded to above, and right when you’re ready to accuse this song of being cliche with it’s line, “There ain’t no devil in my heart, ’cause I ain’t a man,” Rachel slays you with the payoff, “But there’s been one in my kitchen, she’s been cooking with my pots and pans.”
It’s always risky to release a second version of a song, but in the case of “Late Night Lover”, the listener is rewarded with a bolstered, energized interpretation that employs trumpet and timpani and an attack to Rachel’s voice in the chorus that both trump the previous version, and make you appreciate the previous version more for its simplicity.
The Fats Domino cover “Every Night About This Time” took a little time to warm up to, but what drew me in was the “oh-oh-oh-oh’s” Rachel sings. They set the table for the 50′s-era vibrations Rachel works with on later offerings like the solid “Only For You” and the title track, “A Killers Dream”. The quivering and cursed “The Black Bird” with its choir of saw shrieks breeds a sense of fear and despair frosted with a vintage patina.
One possible issue with A Killer’s Dream is how many times Rachel goes to drink from the straightforward blues well. Also the middle songs on this album–the stripped down, acoustic “Life Sentence Blues” and the droning “Old Faded Memory”–act sort of like a speed bump on the momentum. Lonesome Wyatt of Those Poor Bastards singing in a higher register than most of us have heard before makes “Old Faded Memory” something special from a sonic standpoint. But the story meanders, the music is sort of flat, and at nearly 7:00, it tests the will.
Individually, the blues songs like “Life Sentence Blues” and “Serpentine Blues” aren’t bad, but in an album that sonically is so diverse, the structure of the blues numbers begins to feel burdensome.
All of these sins are atoned though when Rachel offers up the gem of A Killer’s Dream, the Beach Boys-inspired title track. Possibly Rachel Brooke’s best song ever from a compositional standpoint, the usually reserved Rachel takes risky, daunting leaps and sticks the landings remarkably well. Aside from just being fun and a wholesale change from what we’re used to from Rachel, the writing on this song is its best attribute, which can’t be overlooked for how actively the song pulls you in from a visceral standpoint. This song “makes” this album, proves Rachel’s versatility and musical prowess, while at the same time being completely ridiculous and silly.
How to grow and evolve yet still hold on to what makes you unique and who you truly are is the balance all artists must attain to continue to move forward. Rachel shows she’s up to these alchemical feats in A Killer’s Dream, and proves that she’s musical gold, worthy of the attention of the greater Americana / roots world.
Two guns up.
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“A Killer’s Dream” video that just premiered on CMT Edge:
How important was Hank Cochran as a songwriter? I’ll let Willie Nelson tell you.
Well, really, when you start talking about songwriters, you’ve got to say his name first. Then you start talking about everyone else.
Jamey Johnson’s Living For a Song is a tribute to his musical hero; a man he met in 2008 when Cochran was already suffering from pancreatic cancer. Johnson would visit Cochran regularly in the hospital, and according to Hank’s widow Suzy, “Jamey was there when a lot of people weren’t coming around.” Hank Cochran died on July 15th, 2010. Cochran’s death is said to inspire this project.
I’ve always had great respect for Jamey Johnson the man, and his dedication and desire to see this project through elevates him yet another notch. It’s hard not to regard him as one of the most sincere and authentic men in country music today, and the hope is that this project will elevate the name recognition of one of country’s greatest songwriters.
And you will find no more critically-acclaimed performer in country music at the moment, or in the last half-decade than Jamey Johnson. And though I appreciate Jamey the person and his honest, traditional approach to the music, in both the recorded and live context, I’ve found his music to be fundamentally lacking energy, enthusiasm, or the ability to engage the ear in virtually any manner. And unfortunately, Living for a Song falls into that same category.
This is what I don’t get about this album: We are sold this idea that Jamey Johnson is the best songwriter of our generation. But here it is over two years after his last album release, and this superlative, prolific songwriter is putting out an album of someone elses songs. Granted, his last album The Guitar Song was a double album, but like I pointed out when the The Guitar Song was released, there was a curious amount of covers and co-writes there as well.
I understand this is a tribute album, but most tribute albums are side projects; something you do outside of your normal album cycle as an artist. Living for a Song however is Jamey Johnson’s newest major release in his country music career. Can anybody tell me what other hits or critically-acclaimed songs Jamey Johnson has written for other artists since The Guitar Song’s release? What I’m getting at here is I think our generation’s best and most-prolific songwriter is in the midst of a multi-year writers block. That’s the only explanation I can come up for releasing this album as his sole recorded contribution to music in the last two years, aside from some guest spots.
What is Jamey Johnson known as? As a performer? As a singer? No. He might be capable at these two tasks, but he’s known primarily as a songwriter. So how am I supposed to get excited about him singing songs written and popularized by someone else? Do we really think he can sing “I Fall To Pieces” better than Patsy Cline? Is what we really need in a demonstratively-glutted music world milder versions of songs we’ve already heard?
And for all the Jamey Johnson fans who sell him as the solution to how to get folks re-engaged with traditional country, how does this album do the trick? Are any of these songs radio singles that can compete with Taylor Swift? They’re songs that will make the kiddos put their hands over their mouths in the universal sign of sleepy time. Jamey Johnson is like the country music sedative. His super power is the ability to make any country music song boring. He’s the exact reason fans of Brantley Gilbert and Colt Ford say country needs to evolve. And in this instance, they are right.
What is the cliche about good cover songs? That the covering artist “made it their own.” At no time on Living for a Song does it feel like Jamey Johnson makes a song his own. Granted, these songs are country. They’re very country. They’re so country, they’re cliche. But just because something is country doesn’t mean it’s good. As I have said about other Jamey Johnson projects, I believe that people are so used to hearing country that doesn’t sound like country, when someone actually plays country music they’re charmed into thinking it’s superb.
If this was a side project cover album, such criticism may not be appropriate. But this album is being so ballyhooed by critics all over the place that it creates the need for a little perspective. Even when looking at Living for a Song as a tribute and a tribute only, the album feels way too busy. It makes the same mistake Willie Nelson’s last album Heroes does of having too many guests. And may I point out that both albums were produced by Buddy Cannon. Like I said about Heroes:
Where the album may come across as too busy or unfocused is the amount of contributors to each composition, and to the album as a whole…Sure, many of these names we love, but thereâ€™s too many of them, diverting focus from any one pairing or performance.
It’s difficult to focus on Hank Cochran’s songwriting–the purpose of this album–because the people singing switch back and forth so often. Every song but one is a duet, and one song has three singers, one four singers, and one five. Some songs feel mere steps away from “We are the World”.
Willie, Merle, Emmylou, Kristofferson, Bobby Bare and others, these are all great names and I don’t doubt for a second the love for Hank Cochran all the Living for a Song contributors have. But the music is diminished by the sheer number of contributions. For Jamey, this may be a sincere tribute, but to the label, it feels similar to the Hank Williams Lost Notebooks project, like an excuse to showcase talent and shovel money towards Sony/ATV who owns the publishing on these songs.
Aside from the excessive singing parts, there’s nothing wrong with this album. But there’s nothing right either. All the musicians and singers do excellent jobs. The issue is with the approach.
God bless Jamey Johnson for putting together a heartfelt tribute to a country great that has passed on. But Living for a Song is about as lifeless as traditional country music gets. If you want to listen to a great classic country album released in 2012, listen to Don Williams’ And So It Goes. It resides in the same tempo, but brings a uniqueness and a soul that Living for a Song lacks. Or even better, go listen to Hank Cochran’s originals, or the original songs others made hits. These do a better job at selling Cochran’s legacy than this.
If Jamey Johnson wasn’t sold to us so hard, I might begin to appreciate his music on some level. But shoot me that I like my pulse raised when I put on an album.
1 gun up for a beautiful tribute to a fallen country great.
1 gun down for an album that is too busy, overproduced, and downright boring.
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