It’s Corb Lund’s strong ties to the authentic agrarian lifestyle on the eastern slopes of the Canadian Rocky Mountains that gives his music a lived-in perspective unique to a man who has his calloused fingers deep in what he sings about, and then marries these sentiments with his cunning use of language indicative of the old cowboy poets that has made Corb a country music treasure beyond Alberta and his Canadian homeland. Only a man who’s experienced the rigors and the loneliness of real ranch life can write formidable songs like the aching “September” or the humorous “Cows Around” found on his 2012 studio release Cabin Fever, and now he intermingles the inherent forlornness of life with the very true realities of equestrian duties in the new Christmas song “Just Me and These Ponies (for Christmas This Year).”
Christmas music is such a dicey proposition, and the farther you get away from the festive frau into either the gruffy country gut where sleigh bells sound grating, or the anti commercialization-leaning commoners of independent and Americana music, you tend to find even less reception for the annual December earaches. But none of this deterred New West Records from commissioning many of their own artists like John Prine, Emmylou Harris, Valerie June, and Nikki Lane, along with unwrapping some cataloged material from people like Johnny Cash and The Band to comprise the An Americana Christmas album released for this new holiday season. Corb Lund takes the point in promoting the album release with this new single, and a new video for his particular selection.
“Just Me and These Ponies” is a Christmas song for people who do not like Christmas songs, but still like country music and Corb Lund. And if you do happen to dig on a little ring ting tingling, you might find something to appreciate here too, even if the mood and perspective Corb works in is a dour one. Land locked in snow in the great frozen north, with plans either not laid or canceled for all of his familial cohorts, Corb tells the story of the lonely rancher trying to find some semblance of companionship from his stable of trusty steeds during a frigid Christmas holiday. Though the song is certainly written from some of Lund’s own experiences, the vessel of the story is an 80-year-old man snowed into his wooden ranch home. The music rises to to meet the passive emotional direst in the words with strings and comparably aching chord movements, while any sleigh bells are relegated to the extremities of the very beginning and end, almost as irony, or to further draw out the emotional tinge of the composition.
“Just Me and These Ponies” also utilizes a well-crafted video that contrasts the upper crust tuxedoed appearance of Corb in an antiseptic television studio, while an old man manning the wooden stables out in the cold ponders his lonely Yuletide fate.
It may not give Bing Crosby or Roy Rogers a run for their money, but “Just Me and These Ponies” might find warm company in the hearts of those who loathe such caroling, or don’t have any company of their own. And like all great Christmas songs, it may do so for years to come.
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Alright, before we get too deep into this matter, just understand that you’re going to want to be purchasing this album. It’s my job to sit here and gab at you for a while about it and explain why, and I’m flattered that you would entertain this notion and read the proceeding words. But you pretty much just need to get this album and thank me later.
What I’m trying to impart to you here is this might be the best record released in 2014 by any artist whose last name doesn’t rhyme with Pimpson. Who’s even heard of Tami Neilson? I sure as hell hadn’t. But apparently she won the New Zealand Music Award for “Best Country Album” in 2009, 2010, and 2011. Who knew? Sorry, but by happenstance I let my dues to the New Zealand Music Association lapse in 2008 and they ceased sending me newsletters. But here we are in 2014, and I almost feel like I owe an apology to the sainted Saving Country Music reader for not cluing you in on Tami Neilson prior to this moment.
That’s right, New Zealand has country artists, and if you thought that the folks there only listened to the Lord of the Rings soundtrack on repeat, you’re sorely mistaken. Let’s not just summarily lump New Zealand in with Australian country music either, but truth be known, that entire quadrant of the globe deserves more credit for their country music contributions than it regularly gets. Rugged, rural country produces the sound of a strained heart that is universal in its appeal regardless of what hemisphere it originates in.
But it just happens to be that Tami Neilson originally originated from North America. And get this, she even has country music skins on the wall. Growing up in Canada, Tami played in the Neilson Family Band that toured regularly and even opened for Johnny Cash and others. More recently she’s played with Emmylou Harris and Pokey LaFarge. But let’s not pretend that Tami is one of these artists you have to associate with other more well-known names just to get you interested. Her music speaks for itself.
Your brain is going to want to file Tami Neilson into the rockabilly lobe initially because of the angry bangs she’s rocking on the album cover and the rockabilly-ish opening track “Walk (Back To Your Arms),” and no doubt there’s a healthy dollop of that old school rock and roll vibe in her sound. But country is the most resounding influence on her new record Dynamite! released in March, and quite honestly her offerings dwarf many, if not most of the contributions from artists residing in country music’s native geography.
Frankly, I’m a little intimidated about where to start raining praises on this record, but let’s begin with Tami’s voice. Like a country music genetic experiment gone good, Tami Neilson sounds like the result of Patsy Cline and Wanda Jackson having a baby. Blow off everything else if you wish, but Dynamite! might be the best vocal performance turned in for quite a while. The song “Cry Over You” is downright shiver inducing, and shows itself as a strong contender for Song of the Year.
That leads us into a discussion on the sheer style of Tami’s music. This is totally a country throwback old-school 1950′s record with no tone or sentiment offered foreign to this time, and no anachronism overlooked. At the same time the songs are timeless, speaking to the modern heart as universally as they would have if they were released 60+ years ago. A big hand needs to be given to producers Ben Edwards and Delaney Davidson, the latter known for touring the U.S. regularly with Possessed by Paul James. So many albums try to evoke the throwback sound with close approximations of vintage tones and by simply relying on tubes and tape instead of true interpretations of styles. Just like Tami’s singing, if nothing else, Dynamite! might be one of the best-produced albums in recent memory. And not just in the tones, but in the instrumental performances themselves—the arrangements, the classic electric guitar, the pedal steel and fiddle. It’s all so splendidly compiled and blended to inflict the intended mood.
But you know how modern country fans love to complain about music that sounds just like grandpa’s. That’s where Tami Neilson’s songwriting comes in, making Dynamite! so much more than just a cool nostalgia record. Like any good country album, there’s moments where the songs simply pound at your emotional capacitors and make you relent; songs like “You Lie,” “Running To You,” and “Whiskey and Kisses.” Take these songs and overlay them with a hip-hop beat and they would still work brilliantly. Yes, there’s a lot of interpretation of style instead of originality on this album with songs like “Texas” that could have been ripped out of Patsy Cline’s song chronology, or “Woo Hoo,” which is just fun silliness. But a song like “Running To You” exhibits a lot of deep compositional brilliance.
There may be some songs here that are just simply fun, but there’s not a slouch in the entire bunch. And this album goes by so fast, like a succulent daydream you wake up too early from and try to fall back asleep to recapture. Luckily this isn’t 1954 and we have the aid of a repeat button.
Can’t say enough here. This is a good one, and a late edition to the albums that are being considered as the best in country music in 2014.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to delve into the rest of her catalog.
Two Guns Way Up!
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The story of the homeless Nashville singer-songwriter done good named Doug Seegers crossed the Saving Country Music news desk early on in the story’s cycle, before big outlets like NPR and the Wall St. Journal were running big features on the heartwarming tale, but for whatever reason, a story that seemed like it was fit for telling filled me with a bit of trepidation. Even though early samples of Seeger’s songs seemed quite promising, and so was the news that artists like Emmylou Harris and Buddy Miller were involved in an upcoming album, there was just something philosophical keeping me from really buying in to the story 100% as a testament to the human spirit, and the spirit of giving that everyone was making it out to be.
Homelessness is such a complex issue, and it’s so easy for people who have their positions secured in the social net to look at a homeless person as a product of laziness, or a problem of governmental neglect, when really what causes someone to slip through the cracks is an involved set of circumstances that includes fluid details of mental illness, addiction, lack of familial support, and so many other factors. What caused Doug Seegers to go from living in upstate New York with a wife and two kids to living on the streets of Nashville? The way the story was being presented was almost a little too Hallmark Channel and heartwarming. I needed to actually hear the music before I held the Doug Seegers story in some high regard.
And no offense to Doug Seegers, but why should he be chosen to be picked off the street and have a big production album made for him when there’s hundreds, maybe thousands of other artists out there patiently waiting their turn that may deserve this chance just as much, if not more, including artists who have shown initiative and self-discipline and reliance over years, making them arguably more worthy of investment?
As the story goes, Doug Seegers was a musician in Austin, TX and New York before he got married and moved upstate. At some point he showed up in Nashville by himself, and was living on the streets and hanging around The Little Pantry That Could in west Nashville, playing and singing at songwriter nights. Then through a set of circumstances, he was discovered by a Swedish television crew that happened to be in Nashville filming. The host Jill Johnson heard about Doug from a street food vendor who told her Doug could sing. The film crew found Seeger who played his song “Going Down To The River” for them, and later the show came back and taped a Doug Seegers performance at Johnny Cash’s recording cabin outside of town. When the Doug Seegers episode eventually aired in Sweden, Seegers became a cultural phenomenon in the country, and he was subsequently signed by Lionheart Music Group to record and release the Going Down To The River album.
Emmylou Harris was brought in to sing on a Gram Parsons song, and Buddy Miller who apparently knew Seegers from his days as an Austin musician was also brought on board. Will Kimbrough was named as the producer, and by the time Going Down To The River was released in Sweden, Doug Seeger’s popularity was such that it shot to #1 on the charts and was quickly certified Gold, helped along by a 60-date tour and a big festival appearance by Seegers in the Scandinavian country.
But was this a symptom of hype, or the result of good country music? The allure of a story about finding a diamond in the rough on the streets of Nashville, polishing him up, and making him a superstar is the perfect type of romantic notion for a Swedish television audience swept up in the fantasy of American culture, but would Doug Seegers’ music translate to even a viable listening product for well-cultured country music ears here in the States? We couldn’t even tell completely until October 8th when Going Down To The River finally received its U.S. release, nearly half a year after the songwriter had become a Swedish television and cultural icon.
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Featuring Gram Parson’s noted composition “She,” the classic Hank Williams song “There Will Be Teardrops Tonight,” and ten original songs penned solely by Seegers, Going Down To The River presents a troubled, but gentle and sweet man with a lifetime of pent up stories to tell, and a tear-soaked voice that despite its noticeable toothless lisp, conveys tremendous emotion and evidences remarkable phrasing instincts and delicate control. Going Down To The River has a classic, late 70′s smooth country feel to it with a traditional heart and a small taste of the blues, seeming to evoke the period stylings of the original era when Seegers’ songs were likely written many years ago.
“Down To The River” is the song that started all the Doug Seegers Swedish hype, and the classic story of atoning for sins in the muddy waters of the American South is done with such original flare and is a perfect exhibition for Seegers’ vocal strengths, the song feels worthy of its international praise. But “Angie’s Song”—the first song on the album—may just be the gem of the entire endeavor. Excellently written and tastefully produced, it’s the sound of Otis Redding meeting Hank Williams, and the warm love story at the heart of the song truly makes it something special.
There’s really not a slouch on this album. The songwriting and singing evidenced by Seegers on one track after another are really a remarkable display of the talent that can be picked off the Nashville streets and shine with a little polishing. “Lonely Drifter’s Cry” and “Pour Me” are pure, classic country songs plain and simple, and so is “Gotta Catch A Train” and “Burning a Hole In My Pocket.” And when I talk about how country some of these compositions are, I’m talking so classic and sweet, with just the right amount of steel guitar and laid back drumming and bass, you feel like you were listening to what Hank may have recorded if he’d lived a little longer and had a little more Motown or Memphis in his voice.
Even the two covers were handled so well they didn’t stick out as foreign to this song list, and if you notice these were the two songs Seegers collaborate with Emmylou and Buddy Miller on, leaving his original compositions as you may have heard them at the Little Pantry That Could songwriter showcases in west Nashville. Some of the more bluesy numbers, like the last song “Baby Lost Her Way Home Again,” and “Hard Working Man” felt a little out of place on what is overall a very classic-sounding country album, but this might have been Will Kimbrough doing his best on what probably are the album’s weakest tracks artistically.
It very well may be true that Doug Seeger’s story could be anyone’s, and that you could crash the streets of Nashville, Austin, New York, or Los Angeles, and put together an entire roster of remarkable talent that is currently sleeping on the streets, as even more worthy musicians sit teetering on the brink of homelessness themselves because they’ve been overlooked by the industry. But that doesn’t make Doug Seeger’s talent any less worthy of being singled out as it has, and as Going Down To The River attests, any and all praise Seegers has been showered with over the last six months and counting is worthy and warranted.
Once again, the European appetite and ear for American country music, and the willingness to dig deeper and offer support to worthy artists, wins out over the efforts of country music’s home once again. Of course Doug Seegers was a homeless man living on the streets, because that’s about the assessment of value American society has placed upon the classic style of country music. Doug Seegers may have demons in his back pockets or skeletons in his closets yet to be revealed, and he may have had his entire life to write this album. But Going Down To The River is as good of a classic country album as you will hear all year from anyone.
Two guns up.
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It’s hard enough to make it in music. There’s many who spend their entire lives trying to crack that nut and never even get enough momentum behind them to even fill half their local watering hole. It’s even harder to make it in music when you’re really not trying to. Or at least when you’re not trying very hard. But music that is begging to be heard always finds its path, and Austin’s Shakey Graves is a testament to that.
Given the name Alejandro Rose-Garcia by his parents, and Shakey Graves by some tripping patron of Austin’s Old Settler’s Fest a few years ago, he was a struggling actor with some musical chops when he decided to release a silly little album called Roll The Bones recorded in various living rooms around Los Angeles in January of 2011 through the DIY site BandCamp. That Shakey once appeared in a few episodes of Friday Night Lights as “The Swede” and had earned himself a smattering of speaking parts here and there was little help in getting folks to listen to his sparse, one man band musings set to blues-style guitar pluckings and the thump of a suitcase drum. But there was just something quirky enough about Shakey Graves to make the whole thing stick in the minds of the few that were exposed. And slowly the few became many.
Roll The Bones was never released on iTunes or Amazon. It never got picked up by some big time distributor or label. Simply by word of mouth and a few residencies in dive bars in his hometown of Austin like Hole In The Wall and The White Horse, the next thing you knew Shakey Graves was selling out clubs all across the country, touring with Shovels & Rope and playing the Newport Folk Fest, and being talked about as one of the fastest-rising commodities in American roots music. One of BandCamp’s first big independent stars, if you will.
“I considered the way I absorbed music: A band that a friend recommends influences me a thousand times more than a band iTunes recommends,” Shakey told Austin Chronicle‘s Kevin Curtin recently. “The idea for the first album was anti-marketing. I wanted to figure out how to acquire fans right now, different from the old model where artists were pushed at you. I spent the last three years building a fan base that felt like they discovered me, which they did. That’s something no one can ever take away.”
But despite all of Roll The Bones‘ word of mouth success, the experience of the album was somewhat limiting. It was a little bit eepish and underdeveloped. Granted, this was at the heart of the charm that many found so appealing, along with the message of Shakey’s stories. But it wasn’t a wholly original work to the well-seasoned ears of the Deep Blues crowd as it was to many of the individuals who incidentally stumbled upon it. And after a nearly four year hiatus, Shakey needed something to sustain the wave of momentum building behind him.
How to evolve into a full band setting while still holding onto what won you such rabid grassroots support was the precarious challenge Shakey Graves was asked to pull off with this new Dualtone release And The War Came, and it’s what he accomplishes with such alacrity, the listener remains delightfully unaware any such challenge even existed. You’re simply listening to Shakey Graves blossom from an obscure one man band for people in the know, to an artist worthy of a wide ear who could and should help define what the vanguard of roots music is in 2014.
And The War Came is still Shakey. It is still delightfully sparse and still includes some songs that are just him. In the end it’s about the textures and words, not about a head count of contributors for each song. Each track is appointed the proper instrumentation called for by the story and mood, and nothing more. Most notably there’s multiple contributions from singer/songwriter Esmé Patterson, who in conjunction with Shakey evokes the similar magic of singing pairings like Shovels & Rope and The Civil Wars.
The “boom, chick” nature of the beginning of this record may throw some off the scent of what’s really at play on this project, which is singing and songwriting. Where Shakey’s original incarnation was about the art of subtly and forged itself during the high tide of the early 2010′s hipster onslaught, this new effort is about Shakey rearing back and really discovering the range and capabilities of his voice, while being afforded the latitude to discover wider reaches of melody and rhythm from having more hands on deck. Almost like Emmylou Harris, Shakey knows exactly where his voice will fail him and smooth tone will become gravely warble, and this is an invaluable attribute for him in his effort to express emotion.
And The War Came is tell tale folk wayfaring blues with a dash of country roots, but like all artists who in turn help define their epoch in music, Shakey Graves elevates himself beyond definition, and presents music to the world that obscurity is no match for.
1 3/4 of 2 Guns Up.
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Moving in to fill the space once carved out between country and alternative rock by alt-country pioneers such as Uncle Tupelo and the Old 97′s, three sons of University of Virginia Southern Literature professor Bill Wilson and two other willing accomplices come together to form the Charlottesville-based Sons of Bill under the charge to help revitalize a discipline that in many respects has become forgotten in country’s subgenre landscape, and has shed bands and listeners to the more fashionable nomenclature of the day—Americana.
But Sons of Bill are still very much an alt-country band at heart, even if they have to adopt the ‘Americana’ term to save themselves from lengthy explanations. Admittedly ‘alt-country’ sounds a little bit tired as a term these days, and in some listener’s minds it evokes ideas of graying musicians who were hot in the mid 90′s trying to hold on to what was cool 20 years ago. But Sons of Bill is very much a band of now, and if it accomplishes nothing else, their new album Love and Logic is an example of this, and poses a challenging and expansive approach to composition and songwriting that the whole “three chords and the truth” of country simply doesn’t have the capacity to encapsulate.
In fact Love and Logic reaches further into the rock zone than even the alt-country designate traditionally affords, almost like indie rock with steel guitar in certain spots, with old-school Brit pop sensibilities in the form of answering chorus lines and keyboard sounds spread throughout this album. The full gamut of the Sons of Bill’s influences are on display here, from Townes Van Zandt and Gram Parsons, to R.E.M. and The Replacements. Merle and Hank are here too, but you’ll have to listen a little bit deeper to hear their legacy in the bones of these compositions.
Love and Logic is a very brooding, ethereal, almost spacey experience, with not a lot of pace to the music, but more of an immersive approach to enrapturing the listener and pulling the emotion out of them through the combination of sonic landscapes and literature set to music.
Where the more universal appeal for Sons of Bill can be found is in their songwriting. Love and Logic is smart and self-aware, and assumes an attentive and adept listener. They’re not afraid to unburden their fears or to offer their opinions through song, and this affords the same opportunity for the audience. The song “Brand New Paradigm” chimes the warning that can’t be heard enough about slowing one’s self down to let the rat race proceed without you. “Bad Dancer” iterates the dilemma of the brooding male like few others accomplish. “Arms of the Landslide” speaks to the overwhelming nature of simply being alive these days and being willing to submit yourself to a path that is inherently uncontrollable.
Though the sounds and approaches are new, there’s a lot of unapologetic 90′s influences flowing out from Love & Logic, especially in songs like “Arms of the Landslide” and “Brand New Paradigm.” But the old-school country influences come poking through too, like in the simple and warm approach to “Fishing Song.” Even when you feel they’ve reached well outside the realm of country, a banjo strike, the moan of a steel guitar, or a three part harmony grounds the Sons of Bill to those moments when brothers Sam, James, and Abe Wilson were being raised in a house where their father played traditional country music for the family.
Producer Ken Coomer, who played drums in both Uncle Tupelo and Wilco, and has produced albums for Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris, and Will Hoge to name a few, feels like he wields a heavy hand on what Love and Logic resulted in. Some may wince at the sedated nature, or the compositional Wilco-like approach of this album, while others may wonder just what exactly is country about it. But Love and Logic is worth giving a chance and trying to discover its beauty even if it initially hits outside one’s initial comfort zone.
1 3/4 of 2 Guns Up.
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This isn’t just your average album release, or even your average album release from Lee Ann Womack. There’s a lot of moving parts involved here that make this album one to watch, and one to pay a little extra attention to. Lee Ann Womack has earned the listening public’s undivided attention already from her years of stellar contributions, but this one has a little more special meaning for Womack since it is her first release without a major label, and a release that helps rate of progress for both women and traditional country artists looking to revitalize their place to a wider audience.
The evolution of The Way I’m Livin’ was a little strange. Made with Lee Ann’s husband Frank Liddell (producer for Miranda Lambert, Eli Young Band, others), the album has been finished now for two years and just sitting on a shelf. While still signed with MCA Nashville, label head Luke Lewis told Lee Ann to make the album that she wanted, to pick the songs herself and not worry about any commercial concerns. And so that is what she did.
The choices of where to find songs to record in Nashville are endless, but Lee Ann took a unique approach, especially for an artist who has amassed as many industry trophies as she has over the years. Her litmus test was that the song had to be written with the intent of being performed by that writer. Think of the exact opposite of Music Row’s songwriting-by-committee approach. She wanted songs culled from inspiration. This resulted in Womack acquiring material from a list of artists that is mouth watering all to itself: Chris Knight, Bruce Robison, Hayes Carll, Brennen Leigh, and Mando Saenz just to name some of them. This isn’t a rundown of the songwriting credits from a major Nashville release, this is an All-Star guitar pull lineup in Austin, TX on a Saturday night.
“In the past, Merle and Willie and Hank would sing real lyrics about life,” Womack tells Dallas News. “But today’s Music Row records don’t talk about those subjects, at least not in a grownup way. That’s one reason all these songs spoke to me.”
And though The Way I’m Livin’ began on Music Row with a major label, that’s not where it ended up. After Womack wiggled her way out of her MCA Nashville contract, she ended up working with the independent bluegrass label Sugar Hill Records to finally release this album. Even though it might officially symbolize Lee Ann taking a step down from the top-tier level she’s enjoyed for most of her career, she seems perfectly fine with that. “Let’s face it. Award shows are not really about who was best,” Womack continues to Dallas News. “They’re about selling advertising. I’m grateful for the awards I have, but if you came to our house, you’re not going to see any of them out. You’re gonna see guitars and music everywhere, but not awards or platinum records on the wall.”
This is still Lee Ann Womack though, and don’t think the industry isn’t paying close attention. That voice is too powerful, and her fans are too loyal to ignore. The title track off this album was the very first single to be added to Cumulus Media’s NASH Icon network as an example of new music from a seasoned artist that the new radio format boasts as wanting to champion. Lee Ann Womack hasn’t been put out to pasture by any stretch. She’s the female that is leading the pack of artists left behind by country radio and trying to revitalize the market for more classic-sounding country, and The Way I’m Livin’ is just the album to do it with both country roots and relevancy embedded in its songs, and a salivating public who’s waited six years for new, original music from the singer.
Recorded mostly live, The Way I’m Livin’ pins its eye to Lee Ann’s voice as its focal point, and never strays. You hear this emphasis immediately on the very first track “Prelude: Fly,” which leaves you inspired and primed for what lies ahead. The Way I’m Livin’ pulls from two primary influences: traditional country marked with loud and present steel guitar, and a more progressive “Americana” approach that has a lot of gospel and blues textures intermixed with a rootsy feel. God and Mammon are at war in The Way I’m Livin’ for the soul of the song’s protagonists more often than not, and though it would be a misnomer to label it a concept album, this battle is a recurring theme of the album, and one that illustrates the more true reality of things where good and evil are not always polar opposites separated by tremendous space, but side by side separated only by a thin membrane that temptation is always trying to pull you across.
This eternal pull and tug gives The Way I’m Living a vitality, whether it is portrayed in a gospel tradition like the song “All His Saints,” a more grounded atmosphere like in her take on Hayes Carll’s “Chances Are,” or the traditional country, folklore-style approach like on Brennen Leigh’s “Sleeping With The Devil.” These are story songs one after another filled with internal strife, and the arrangement present on The Way I’m Livin’ is truly masterful one track after another. There’s both a sparsity, and a robust presence to the instrumentation that makes sure nothing suffocates, and everything soars. There’s not a lot of layering that goes on here. You have your primary instruments only, and if there’s anything diverting your attention from Lee Ann’s voice, it is a singular lead instrument, usually a steel guitar set high in the mix that eventually gives way once again to Lee Ann. The song “Nightwind” isolates Lee Ann’s voice once again, and never on this album do you feel as if doubt or indecision filled what direction this record should take.
The Way I’m Livin‘s true country songs are slightly more backloaded towards the end of the project, but no matter where you start this album, it’s hard not to land on something to like. A few of the tracks came across as a little bit sleepy towards the center, and initially I was concerned that the song “Don’t Listen to the Wind” borrowed too much of the melody from the song “All My Tears” from Emmylou Harris’s Wrecking Ball album until I deduced both songs were written by Julie Miller.
Lee Ann Womack seems almost ethereal at this point in her career: timeless, and like an apparition of authentic country music who drifts above the rest of the genre’s singers and pickers as they slave away at their little songs and albums and daily deeds and dilemmas. Yet she still has that endearing element of the small town girl at home in the Texas pines, simply wanting to make a career out of what she would be doing if nobody was listening or watching. She’s an artist who has the freedom to truly do what she wants, while she still enjoys the attention of the industry, however muted it might be these days.
There may be a few more albums that are better than The Way I’m Livin’ that will be released this year, but none that are this good that will reach as many ears. Lee Ann Womack is a heavyweight for women, for hard country, and now for independent artists, and with this Sugar Hill release she releases and lands a haymaker.
1 3/4 of 2 Guns Up.
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Nashville will always be the home of country music, but Bristol, TN/VA was where the big bang of country music occurred. In 1927, recording pioneer Ralph Peer from the Victor Talking Machine Company set up his equipment in the Taylor-Christian Hat Company in downtown Bristol and started recording acts that would become the very foundation of what we know as country music today. The Bristol Sessions cataloged the music of The Carter Family, The Stoneman Family, Jimmie Rodgers, and many more, and country music as a recorded enterprise was born. Johnny Cash once said of the Bristol Sessions, “These recordings in Bristol in 1927 are the single most important event in the history of country music.”
Now the legacy of this historic moment will be put on display and preserved for future generations in The Birthplace of Country Music Museum set to open its doors this weekend in downtown Bristol. The 24,000 square foot facility is an affiliate of The Smithsonian, and will include 12,000 square feet of exhibit space, a rotating exhibit gallery, music mixing and listening stations, multiple theater experiences, and interactive, technology-infused media. They’ve even applied for a low-powered radio station to be based out of the museum. The Birthplace of Country Music Museum also plans to host year-round music events and educational programming to promote and preserve Ralph Peer’s work and the role of Bristol in the formation of country music.
This weekend the museum has many events scheduled to coincide with the grand opening. On Friday the museum is open for 1/2 price admission with a live concert commencing at 6 PM. Then on Saturday the Grand Opening Event Ceremony happens at 1:00 PM, and then Ralph Stanley, Carlene Carter, Jim Lauderdale, and The Whistles & The Bells are all set to perform. Then on Sunday NPR’s Mountain Stage will be happening at the Paramount Center for the Arts in Bristol as part of the grand opening festivities. It all coincides with the same time of year that Ralph Peer and country’s founders did their work in late July and early August of 1927. Before The Birthplace of Country Music even opens its doors, they’ve already held an “Educator’s Day” to help integrate with the local education community, proving that education and preservation are the centerpiece of the museum’s mission.
The museum is being organized by the same people that organize the annual Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion Music Festival every third weekend in September that sees 50,000 attendees drawn to the area. The museum is also working on a new album called Orthophonic Joy: The 1927 Bristol Sessions Revisited that will see a reinterpretation of the Bristol Session classics by artists like Marty Stuart, Dolly Parton, Vince Gill, Emmylou Harris, Ashley Monroe, Steve Martin, The Church Sisters, Doyle Lawson, and more. It is produced by Carl Jackson and will be released in October.
With strong community support and an excellent idea, The Birthplace of Country Music museum looks to become a cornerstone of country music history, and a must-see destination for any serious country music fan.
In the annals of country music, the amount of concept albums proffered to the public have been very very few. But these extra efforts have almost always gone on to loom larger than their more standard format counterparts, and become pillars of influence from which scores of other albums draw their inspiration. Johnny Cash’s Bitter Tears: Ballad of the American Indian was arguably country music’s first concept album, and has gone on to become a cult favorite. Willie Nelson’s Phases & Stages helped stimulate his rise in country as a performer, and his Red Headed Stranger is arguably the greatest country music album of all time. Hank Williams III’s Straight to Hell helped create a country music underground and put the 3rd generation star on the map. And even today, whether you consider Sturgill Simpson’s Metamodern Sounds in Country Music a concept album or not, it has critics singing its praises and marks the starting point of a fast-rising artist.
Lost among country music’s great concept albums though, unless you count yourself amongst the die hard Marty Stuart fans, was the 1999 offering from Marty called The Pilgrim released 15 years ago today. A commercial flop that was poorly-promoted but well-received by all the critics who happened to receive a copy, The Pilgrim produced no singles and no awards, but it wasn’t meant to. This was Marty Stuart flexing his creative muscles, and doing what he wanted to do at the end of a century, and the end of an era.
In 1999, Marty Stuart was at a crossroads. He still had his signature black hair and some semblance of a mainstream career, but the gray was filling in and he was quickly being forgotten by radio. He still was using The Rock & Roll Cowboys as his backing band. It wouldn’t be until his next album that Stuart would saddle up with his long-standing and current outfit The Fabulous Superlatives. The album was his last with MCA Nashville and an opportunity for Marty to do what he wanted, free of the commercial worry of a major label breathing down his neck about delivering on their investment. This brew of circumstances resulted in arguably the Philadelphia, Mississippi native’s crowning opus.
What some don’t know about The Pilgrim, even some of its apostles, is that the linear narrative of the album is based on a true story from Marty Stuart’s hometown. It begins with a man named Norman, characterized as “cross-eyed” but still able to land the town’s most beautiful woman by the name of Rita. When Norman becomes jealous and protective of Rita, she takes to the arms of “The Pilgrim”, who doesn’t know that Rita is married. When Norman finds out about the relationship, he commits suicide, and filled with guilt, The Pilgrim takes to traveling, ending up on the West Coast before returning eventually to be with Rita once more.
Along this journey, Marty Stuart takes the role of Norman, and other characters as he narrates the theme. Helping Marty unfurl the story of The Pilgrim is one of the most impressive collection of legendary country music names this side of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” session. The indelible voice of Emmylou Harris greets listeners early in the album, assuring that The Pilgrim will be full of surprises, turns, and towering contributions. Pam Tillis, George Jones, Ralph Stanley, Earl Scruggs, and Marty’s former boss and father-in-law Johnny Cash also contribute, with Cash helping to conclude the album with a haunting performance.
The Pilgrim consists of twenty total tracks, including instrumental interludes and recurring “acts” that lend corresponding sonic shades to compliment the arc of the story. And it’s all written by Marty Stuart himself, aside from some contributions here and there from notables like Gary Nicholson, and Mike Campbell (Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers). Other notable musicians lend their talents to the music of The Pilgrim including fiddle player Stuart Duncan and organist Barry Beckett. The instrumentation on the album is nothing short of world class, pulling out all the stops to paint The Pilgrims‘ story in vibrant colors, and endow it with the timeless touch of some of country music’s most noble torch bearers.
In the twenty tracks, The Pilgrim exemplifies tremendous range, almost like an audio timeline of country music’s evolution. From blistering bluegrass-inspired mandolin numbers from Stuart’s nimble fingers, to the more honky-tonk style electric rockers that Marty is known for now and during his near past, to the poetic and smoky surprise of the album, a song called “The Observations of a Crow” that show a beatnik style from Stuart seldom seen, the music of The Pilgrim is in no way an afterthought to the story, and so many of the compositions can be taken out of context and thrive autonomously, and often do when Marty reprises many Pilgrim tracks during live performances; some of them staples of his Marty Stuart Show with The Fabulous Superlatives by his side.
Fifteen years after the release of this somewhat forgotten, but unquestionably iconic album, Marty Stuart looks like the genius for pulling it off, especially when some of the contributors would unfortunately pass on, and others lose the essence of their skills so soon after the release. Whatever financial flops The Pilgrim recorded on the books of MCA Nashville, it did what many other commercially successful albums of the period couldn’t—withstand the test of time, and grew richer with age.
Two guns up!
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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.
“Many 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,” 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 wasn’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.”
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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Photo: Dolly Parton / Sony Masterworks
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.
“I am glad that people are enjoying the music from my new ‘Blue Smoke’ album. It feels great to be in the Top 10,” Dolly Parton says. “It’s always an honor to know the fans spend their hard earned money on my music. Thanks everybody!”
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.
“There are other Halls of Fame, but none quite like this,” Austin City Limits Executive Producer Terry Lickona says. “Austin 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.”
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. 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 Girls 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 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 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 there’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. 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, 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 single 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 himself 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 ½ 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, 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. It’s not that this hasn’t been done before, but it’s not been done nearly enough, and never with the fun, underground country twist Rattleshack displays.
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 Wölfersheim, 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.”
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. 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 Songwriting
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 didn’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 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.
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.
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