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If you asked me point blank who I thought was the best songwriter of our generation regardless of genre, scene, commercial or critical success, I would tell you without hesitation that it is Willy “Tea” Taylor from the interior valley cattle town of Oakdale, CA. His ability to enrich the perspective of life and all of its many wonders is unparalleled.
Willy “Tea” Taylor is an enigma, while at the same time being the most down-to-earth person you would ever meet. The co-frontman of The Good Luck Thrift Store Outfit, who also has a robust solo career, is cherished amongst his songwriting circles as someone who both challenges and inspires his contemporaries, making better songwriters out of the artists he comes in contact with. This is the motivation behind the 52 Week Club that Willy founded with fellow songwriters Tom VandenAvond and Chris Doud. Set in a game format, it pushes songwriters to increase their output and refine their craft through healthy competition, and has resulted in some of the remarkable output we’ve see from songwriters such as Olds Sleeper.
The mythos that bonds the songwriting circles around Willy “Tea” Taylor is embodied in the phrase “Searching for Guy Clark’s Kitchen”— inspired by the moments in the classic Outlaw country film Heartworn Highways where legendary songwriters like Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, and Steve Earle shared their most intimate compositions before they were known outside of Austin. Willy and Tom VandenAvond have a living film project shot in both HD and Super 8 also called Searching For Guy Clark’s Kitchen. “It’s gonna be at least 10 years, maybe 20 years before we finish it. I mean, do you ever find Guy Clark’s kitchen?” Willy says to me when he was gracious enough to sit down for a conversation ahead of a show at Austin’s White Horse Tavern.
Willy also shared how his love for baseball is interchangeable with his love for music and friends, why his tool of choice is a 4-string tenor guitar, and what makes him tick as both a songwriter and a person.
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The people that know about Willy “Tea” Taylor, almost to a man will say that you’re the best songwriter they know, but not many people seem to know Willy “Tea” Taylor. You don’t really come across as a guy who wants to promote yourself. What is your goal with music?
I’m not sure. I think I’m a lot like my grandad. He passed away a couple of years ago. He was just a cattleman, and that’s all he did. Until the day he died, he went and fed his cows. I’m a lot like him, because I think I’m just a songwriter. He surrounded himself with cattlemen. He wasn’t a world-renown cattleman, but around his circles, he was one of the best damn cattleman they had ever met. That’s just kind of what we know I reckon. It’s what I know. I really like meeting people. That’s probably the main thing. We’re all in the same web. If we’re really going to live together as one and be at peace, we should meet as many of each other if we can. And I think that’s kind of fun. So maybe it’s just fun to be an ambassador to my family and friends, go around and meet awesome people and introduce them to each other, and that’s a big part of it.
Kind of using music as a forum to break down barriers between people and create relationships and connections?
And create. It’s like an old ball glove. You can just smell it. That’s kind of how I want to feel as I live, is that smell. And everything I want to do and portray, that’s like the foundation of me is that smell of old saddles and old leather. There’s something swift going on, and it even gets me sometimes. It’s going way too fast for a lot of people to catch up, and most of us, we have a hard time just taking a break and realizing what’s real anymore, and what that baseball glove smells like. Then it’s hard to even trust anything anymore, and then you forget how to trust. And it’s all just going so fast. And it’s got me a little depressed as a human.
How important is your hometown of Oakdale, CA to you and your music?
It’s all of it. 38 years. I’m almost 38. It’s pretty much everything I reckon. Going through the country, there’s other inspirations, but I always seem to come back to where I’m at. Tom VandenAvond, he sings about every town. He just pulls from everywhere and it’s so amazing. He’s such a great writer, such an observer, and a thoughtful person. I think I maybe just get more self-absorbed in my town and my history, maybe just trying to figure myself out. Once I decided to just be a songwriter…because I used to be a construction worker, I used to be a glass blower. I used to be a pizza guy throughout my life. I’m like, “I’m just gonna be a songwriter.” If I can say I’m a construction worker, I can just as easily say that I’m a songwriter. And it magically starts providing in this weird way if you become what you really are.
You’re also in a band called the Good Luck Thrift Store Outfit with this other excellent songwriter Chris Doud. The relationship y’all have is as dual songwriters for this band. Do you see it as more like a healthy, friendly competition, or ….
That’s definitely it. When me and Tommy (Tom VandenAvond) started the 52 Week Club, that’s all it was, and Chris Doud has always been in that spirit since we were young. He’s one of the best creators I know. He’s a teacher, he’s got 2 kids, he all over the place, he’s always recording, and I have no idea where he finds the time. But he dazzles me all the time. He’s one of the best songwriters I know. When me and Tommy first met, every song from there on out has been from that meeting. It was like, “Hey, where you been? There’s my best friend.” And then it’s just been this creation and we started this giant web of songwriting. Like, “You want to write a song? Bring it! Do it!” And there’s so many people that had never done it before, and Chris, Me, and Tom just came out on fire with that. Chris keeps up on it all the time; he likes that game a lot. I imagine he’s got like hundreds and hundreds of songs that are just great and nobody’s ever heard, and he’s always working on something. I’m just the total opposite. It just comes when it comes, you know. It’s all about finding where your groove is I guess.
I want to talk about your guitar. You play this 4-string tenor guitar. Your original one, was it a Gibson?
Yeah, a 1929 Gibson.
And now you showed me today a new one you got.
A 1927 Martin. This one’s a little smaller. But man is she groovy. I like her a lot. I love the Gibson. I haven’t played it in a while. The Gibson is beautiful. I just learned to play the banjo first, and then I learned to play the mandolin, and I thought there’s got to be something in the middle there. And I always remembered there was an Irish guitar I saw in a book. I’m like, “Well that’s got 4 strings.” Tune it like a banjo, and there you go. A ‘G’ tuning mostly. I’ve found all kinds of fun tunings, but mostly just in a standard open ‘G’.
Does baseball and music have more similarities than people would think?
Oh yeah. Baseball has more similarities to Earth. It’s quite a sport, I’ll tell you that right now. It’s pretty special. The more I learn similarities is being on the road with your pals, and you realize, we’re actually a barnstorming baseball team right now. We’re going from town to town, and you’re obviously a starting pitcher, you’re obviously a 3rd baseman in the way you play the banjo and just carry yourself. You can see the similarities of who a second baseman is, or who’s got potential as a pitcher, and you learn your friends. And if you learn your team, you can go to The World Series, or you can be the Bad News Bears, which is fine too. That’s kind of what the baseball movie I’m making is about. It’s basically a team of ten dudes, and all the characters are based on all my friends who are traveling musicians. If you were like, “How do I go back to a barnstorming baseball team? What we’re they thinking?” And then I’m sitting in a van with Larry & His Flask for a month and I’m like, “Oh, I know what they’re thinking.” It’s exactly the mentality of it. It’s great. You know your buddies and you’re like, “Dude, you’re going to The Show.” There’s no doubt about it. He’s batting .400. And you watch your friends and they go to The Show. It’s far out.
You’ve talked about how you feel the world is speeding up too much and people are becoming cattle. Do you have an underlying theme or message that you’re trying to convey through your music?
I’m just trying to pull myself out of the herd. I don’t necessarily want to preach to anybody. I’m afraid of going through the cattle shoot myself. I’d rather live as a rogue bull. I guess if I was to evaluate my game if I was catching, my music is just kind of notes I take. Maybe it’s something to look at myself. I find that I write songs that, I don’t know why I wrote them, but then three years later it’s like, “Oh, I wrote that for myself, and now here I’m at,” and I get past fucking it up again. You know, from being with women, being with my kids. You know, just learning how to live. Sure, sometimes I like to make a fun story up, but usually there’s a purpose behind it that is partly to do with my learning in life.
For years the top tier of country music coverage was simply a cloistered and closed-minded exercise in recycling the same already-established names in puff pieces proselytizing the virtues of pop country and very little else. As independent music as a whole continues to gain market share from the mainstream, it’s becoming more and more pertinent for big news outlets to pay attention to the rising tide of independent music, and the renewed interest in legends of the genre. CMT created CMT Edge to cover Americana, bluegrass, legacy artists and other independent acts, and other outlets have stepped up their independent coverage in one capacity or another. But that one mainstream outlet that really gives equal footing to artists regardless if they have the big money of a major label behind them has remained elusive…at least in country music’s traditional stomping ground of the United States.
Once again the Europeans out class their cross Atlantic counterparts with the newly-launched Country Music Magazine from Team Rock—the same people who’ve brought the UK the long-running and widely-distributed Classic Rock Magazine. Despite the generic name, this magazine is anything but, with 132 extra wide (8 ½” x 12″) glossy full-color photo-showcasing pages, accompanied by a free, 15-track CD with music from the likes of Sturgill Simpson and Guy Clark.
Amongst its content is a full 60 pages of in-depth features on folks like Johnny Cash, Tony Joe White, Kacey Musgraves, Sturgill Simpson, steel guitar player Buddy Emmons, Kris Kristofferson, Guy Clark, LeAnn Rimes, Steve Martin, Wanda Jackson, and many more. There’s also a rundown of “69 Must-Have Classics of Modern Country” and smaller features on Fifth on the Floor, Austin Lucas, Jack Clement, and others. The last 30 pages of the mag are dedicated to dozens of album reviews and a buyers guide of releases and re-issues complete with ratings from a wide swath of the country music world. Even the few, unobtrusive ads in the mag are for cool country folks like Daniel Romano and Laura Cantrell. Both the current and archival photos for the respective artists are astounding in their full page context.
When I first heard about this magazine and saw the lineup of who they were planning to feature, I was interested to see how it would all play out once it went to print. It sounded almost too good to be true, but Country Music Magazine seems to be determined to do right by the country music name.
And to be fair, the mag doesn’t ignore bigger, mainstream artists. There’s album reviews for Florida-Georgia Line, Blake Shelton, and Brad Paisley because they’re part of the country music community too. But the reviews for these big names are right beside reviews for people like Bill Kirchen and Patty Griffin. And it can’t be stressed enough how much content is here. It’s a magazine you can’t put down, but seems to take forever to get through because past every page turn is something you want to read, and read again.
About the only base that maybe wasn’t thoroughly touched was the Texas/Red Dirt side of country, but from mainstream to Americana and independent country, they have it all covered. Another concern would be that they set the bar so high with this inaugural issue, it will be interesting to see if they can match it at quarterly intervals. Nonetheless, this is the country music magazine we’ve all be waiting for.
Two guns up!
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Country Music Magazine is edited by Ed Mitchell, with contributions by Grant Moon, Emma Wicks, and Max Bell. Comes shipped in an outer protective cover that includes the magazine and free CD. The magazine costs £7.99 in the UK, £9.99, which is roughly $15.00 US to have it shipped to the States.
Country music in 2013 feels like the best of times, and the worst of times. While a few top male performers perpetrate untold atrocities on the integrity of the genre, the rise of independent music and infrastructure in the marketplace is now almost to the point where it equals its corporate counterpart. Quality songs and worthy artists are beginning to see more and more support, while current events and new outlets create avenues for substantive music to find its way to hungry ears. It is so easy to focus on the negative because it still seems to pervade the popular consciousness. But here are twelve reasons it is looking up for country music in 2013.
Yes, Kacey Musgraves. Even if you see her as some Music Row machination meant to offer an alter ego to the Taylor Swift’s of the world (Taylor equals Kacey’s noms with 6 herself), at least mainstream country is now offering a choice to consumers. What Musgraves’ symbolizes is that you don’t have to prove overwhelming commercial success to get noticed. Her biggest hit “Merry Go ‘Round” didn’t even make the Top 10 of Billboard’s Hot 100 Country Songs. Musgraves is a songwriter in a traditional sense, even if some of her best, and most-heady material didn’t make her big debut album. The reason she was able to rake up so many nominations is because of her songwriting credits, accounting for half of her CMA considerations. Kacey Musgraves’ 6 CMA nominations proves that regardless of how stupid country music’s leading males are trying to make the genre, in 2013, songs matter.
Yes ladies and gentlemen, it is getting dirty out there, and the more artists that speak out, the more other artists gain the courage to join the chorus. And not to shy away from the fight, Kacey Musgraves could be characterized as leading the charge, coming out multiple times to complain about where country music is headed. Alan Jackson also had some choice words recently, as did Gary Allan, Tom Petty, and most recently Zac Brown. Country music may be crossing more unfortunate lines than ever, but at least it’s genuine artists are being vocal about their dissent.
Yes, it was bad that Blake Shelton had to disrespect large segments of country music listeners when he ostensibly called them “old farts and jackasses,” but the backlash that ensued became a unifying element for disenfranchised country fans. Ray Price wrote a blistering letter to Blake Shelton, resulting in Blake having to make a public apology. Dale Watson wrote a song about the whole incident which has since become one of the most popular numbers of his show. An “Old Farts & Jackasses” group on Facebook boasts over 93,000 “likes,” and the list goes on from there. Blake Shelton awakened a beast, and gave it a rallying cry. Who would have thought in 2012 that people would be proudly calling themselves “Old Farts & Jackasses” ?!?
The days of inducting traditionally-leaning artists and bands seemed to be over with the Grand Ole Opry’s recent membership invitations to Darius Rucker, Keith Urban, and Rascal Flatts. But lo and behold, the Grand Ole Opry can still get it right, inducting an act that has paid their dues many times over, and deserve to be recognized as one of the forefathers to the re-popularization of string bands that has seen the rise of bands like Mumford & Sons, The Avett Brothers, and The Lumineers. The news is not only good for Old Crow Medicine Show, but other artists who may not be top tier names in country music, but deserve the distinction.
It’s so easy to read the headlines and see the top of the Billboard country charts and say that all is lost in the genre. But as long as Sturgill Simpson is out there touring, you can’t say country music is dead. Out on tour with Dwight Yoakam, playing the Grand Ole Opry, inspiring critics from coast to coast and overseas to sing his praises, Sturgill Simpson is giving hope for the future to country fans that has a value beyond his music specifically.
Yeah, I’m not too much for the silly cliffhanger drama-laden plot lines either, but Nashville has become an invaluable teacher of how the music business works, specifically on the songwriting side of things. An educated consumer makes better choices, and if they see and understand how backroom politics stultify the creativity and freedom of artists, and how a song goes from inspiration to the big stage, they just may make better choices, and think about where the music they enjoy comes from. Furthermore, Nashville has become a music outlet to a nationwide audience that may otherwise not be exposed to the music of independent artists like Caitlin Rose, Lindi Ortega, Ashley Monroe, Shovels & Rope, and so many more.
There are many good, independent country bands that are enjoying a rise in interest in 2013, but there may not be a bigger rags to riches story (so to speak) than Hellbound Glory landing an opening spot on a Kid Rock arena tour. Going from playing half-empty bar rooms to sold-out arenas, Hellbound Glory is seeing the recognition their quality country music has been deserving for years. And the opportunity has been paralleled by bigger crowds and better support even after the arena tour ended.
Caitlin Rose, Valerie June, Lindi Ortega, Austin Lucas, Amanda Isbell, Cory Branan, Jonny “Corndawg” Fritz, and so many more that call east Nashville home (or at least to some extent) have seen career watermarks and burgeoning interest in 2013. Forget Music Row or the circus downtown, Nashville, not Austin, is the new vibrant epicenter for independent music, and the artists there pushing and supporting each other is fostering a creative environment that regardless for how long it lasts, will be looked back upon fondly in the future as a time and place that got it right, and set the bar for artistry and substance. Add on top of that already-established and influential artists like Jack White and Dan Auerbach, and Nashville is the place to be in 2013.
“Cowboy” Jack Clement and Bobby Bare Inducted Into the Country Music Hall of Fame
Yes, two very important players in the rise of country music’s “Outlaw” movement finally got their due this year, and it was especially timely for “Cowboy” Jack Clement who would pass away only a few months after the announcement. Though there is still a long list of worthy inductees that many fans worry will never get in, these two men prove that the Outlaws will not be forgotten, and move other important country music icons one step further to being inducted themselves.
If you feel like the Outlaws of country music have not been dealt a fair deal and they need need a new institution to give them the support and recognition they deserve, your wishes were granted in 2013 when it was announced there will be a new Outlaw Country Music Hall of Fame in Lynchburg, Tennessee coming soon. Nashville may have swept their legacy off the streets like common refuse, but at least somewhere the Outlaws will ride eternally.
If you desire more validation that 2013 is the “Year of the Song,” then behold the overwhelming breakout success of Jason Isbell in 2013. Bolstered by his manager Traci Thomas, a bulldog of the Thirty Tigers group, Jason Isbell is becoming the defining songwriter of our generation. If you ever wished you could go back and re-live the heyday of Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt in their prime, watching Jason Isbell and his 2013 tear is the next best thing.
With radio becoming less and less accessible through every measure of consolidation by Clear Channel and Cumulus, new outlets must open up to support independent music. And they are in 2013, and sometimes in the most uncanny places. David Letterman not only has been giving his stage over to artists like Dale Watson, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Pokey LaFarge, Shovels & Rope, and so many more, he’s been seeking out this talent to play his show as a fan of the music. Where big network TV debuts for independent artists seemed to be a thing of the past, now they seem to be a weekly occurrence.
If you’ve been wishing for a print magazine that would cover cool up-and-coming country artists right beside the big names, and not just focus on the here and now but take the time to look back on the past greats of the genre, well you may just have received your wish. From the same people that have been publishing England’s high quality and highly-circulated Classic Rock Magazine since 1998 comes Country Music Magazine presented by Classic Rock, with the inaugural issue being released September 11th.
The first issue features a cover story on Johnny Cash and how he fought back from depression and drug addiction to release his two greatest albums At Folsom Prison and At San Quentin. The issues also includes features on Leann Rimes and her new album Spitfire, Kacey Musgraves, Guy Clark, Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, Wanda Jackson, Tony Joe White, and an exclusive interview with pedal steel guitar legend Buddy Emmons.
And best of all, right beside these big names are features on Sturgill Simpson, Austin Lucas, Fifth on the Floor, UK’s My Darling Clementine, Case Hardin, Carrie Rodriguez, and more. UK-based or not, its hard to look at this first issue and accuse them of not knowing their way around country music. The 132-page magazine will also feature a free 15-song CD of the artists it included in each issue.
“The magazine will feature the best writers, photographers, and will document Americana and roots music at its coolest,” says Country Music Magazine Editor, Ed Mitchell. “If it twangs, whines or breaks your heart, it’ll be in the pages of Country Music Magazine”.
There will also be a two hour, weekly radio show that will launch on Sunday September 8th on TeamRock Digital One radio. Hosted by Rob Hughes, who has a wealth of experience presenting country on 6Music as well as contributing to the magazine’s Johnny Cash cover story. The shows content will largely reflect the content of the magazine, playing the songs by the artists interviewed each quarter.
Once again, leave it to European-based organization to take up the slack where the American market has lapsed in covering its own indigenous art forms. As Country Music Magazine is proving, the appeal for true country music from the past and present is international, and deserves more attention. And who knows, you may see some contributions from some of your favorite country music writers you’re already familiar with .
Country Music Magazine can be pre-ordered now for £9.99 (roughly $15 US). Stay tuned for more info about US availability and distribution.
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.
Like a great sage that only speaks his wisdom once every few years, when Guy Clark releases an album, you stop down, and you listen.
Like the tone of Willie Nelson’s guitar or Johnny Cash’s voice, a Guy Clark song has become an ineffaceable institution of American music. Even if you’re only familiar with his songs though the performances of others, or songs he’s influenced by others, Guy Clark’s handiwork is embedded in the very ethos of what we know as songwriting in American music, even if that influence is imperceptible to the average listener. If you need any more evidence of the influence of Guy Clark, just appreciate he’s the only one that has the legitimate ability to claim himself the honorary fifth Highwayman, and that he was a primary influence on one of his best friends, Townes Van Zandt.
Guy Clark paid off his penances to the world through his song contributions many years ago. But like a wily old tinkerer who can’t stop tooling on those cars out in the yard, and finding new motivation to express himself from the recent passing of his wife and fellow songwriter Susanna, Guy Clark has released a very personal album called My Favorite Picture Of You, filled with reflection and forlornness, without forsaking the stories of rough characters and other country interludes that make a Guy Clark album very personal to his devout listeners.
A Guy Clark album, and a Guy Clark song doesn’t need much. Once he’s written the words down and sketched the shape with an acoustic guitar (that Guy Clark the luthier likely built himself), his job is pretty much done. Maybe bring in a few instrumental accompaniments and some harmony contributions from the bevy of famous female voices always willing to lend a harmony line to one of Clark’s empirical offerings, and you’re done. Don’t bother with drums or any of that nonsense, Guy Clark’s words and acoustic tones are clothing enough. This lends to his compositions doing what they do best: going out into the world, influencing other songs and songwriters, melding to the personal narratives of his listeners, and being graced with enough ambiguity where other performers can take Guy’s spark of inspiration and make the songs their own.
When you boil it all down, Guy Clark’s greatest gift is his ability to use words to describe feelings and memories that most humans are confounded in being able to express. Take the dichotomy of the hero for example, how they seem to lift us up as much as they disappoint us. “Heroes” from this latest album is not just another troop tribute, it is a testament to how the frailty of the human condition grips even the best among us. “The High Price of Inspiration” deals with another dichotomy; how many times we must suffer to find our muse. “Hell Bent On A Heartache” is one of those songs begging to be picked up and recorded by someone else with a full band, while a song like “Conrmeal Waltz” is just plain fun.
If you’re looking to get your face melted off, then you’ve come to the wrong place. But when you’re looking for world class songwriting, you can never go wrong with Guy Clark.
1 3/4 of 2 guns up.
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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.
If there is such a thing as a superstar in Americana music, then right now, Jason Isbell is it. What we very well may be witnessing is a songwriting legend in the making. He’s the songwriter that in the future songwriter-philes will hearken back to as proof of how the craft is lost. He’s the guy right now making sure that it isn’t. He is the Townes Van Zandt or Guy Clark of our time. So savor these moments, and feel blessed that you’re getting to live them in their original era, because they’re the ones future generations will look back on with fondness, and envy.
Jason Isbell has always been one of those generation-defining musical talents, dating back to his time with The Drive By Truckers and the start of his solo career in 2007. What we never foresaw when he was putting out songs like “In A Razor Town” was that Isbell was only going to get better over time. Isbell’s last album Here We Rest was a solid effort without a bad track, but boiled down it was mostly the tale of two high caliber songs, “Codeine” and “Alabama Pines,” and both relied just as much on melody as cutting lyrics.
On Southeastern Isbell goes right for the gut with an elegiac knife, thrusting and stabbing in a morose and unrelenting ritual of emotional evocation. Southeastern is downright suffocating in spots in its weight. It is bold, and merciless in how in preys on the faint-of heart, and can make a faint-of-heart out of even the most devout Stoics.
The hardest thing for a songwriter to do is to write to their vocal strengths—to lead themselves out of their comfort zones so the emotions can come out in their tone and not just their words. Isbell finds the sweet spot of his voice in the higher registers of the deeply personal opening track “Cover Me Up.” Then comes the flawless harmonies and familiar, accessible story of “Stockholm.” No matter how foreign the specifics of Isbell’s songs are to your personal narrative, they always seem to be hauntingly written just for you. Very few won’t be able to find camaraderie with the sentiment of wanting to share life’s beauty with someone else embodied in the story of “Traveling Alone.”
“Elephant” is just downright unfair. Though this trend of token Cancer songs dotting nearly every country album released in the past few years is alarming, Isbell’s offering is far from a saccharine and sappy vie for radio play. It is a complete deconstruction and compromising of the emotional guards protecting a listener’s heart told in shockingly-real language, allowing the chemicals of empathetic response to run pure.
Once again “Songs She Sang in the Shower” shows off what may be Isbell’s best songwriting attribute: his ability to spy specificities in life that will speak to us all universally and put us back in a place where we can reconnect with the emotions of a very personal moment. The unexpected “Super 8″ and its rocking, basement band approach might be easy to pick on as Southeastern‘s misstep because it is such a departure from the mood. But any sins are atoned for simply by the strength of the writing. This is one of those albums you could create a small catalog of T shirts and bumper stickers of pulled lines from, both of the witty and wisdom-filled persuasion.
And the album is refreshingly quick, lean and deft. It’s potent enough that it doesn’t need additional content to keep you entertained for longer because even when you walk away from it, the songs are still playing in your head, and the emotions it conjures are still ripe.
The educated, informed music listener these days is blessed with an unbelievable bounty of talent to entice the ears and revitalize the spirit. It’s not that you can’t find songwriters that could be measured as Isbell’s peer. It’s that Isbell is the full package. His management team is unparalleled, and he is proving that you don’t need the traditional music industry infrastructure to enact a successful release. Jason Isebll isn’t just a great songwriter, he’s a great songwriter that is finding a way to people’s ears. He is the poster boy for the new paradigm in music where an independent artist can rise to rival industry talent.
And whoever said that sobriety was the pathway to bad music? If Southeastern is any indication, Isbell’s recent recovery has only purified his musical Tao.
Completely unfair Isbell, completely unfair. And selfish too. You should have saved some of these songs for others.
Two guns up.
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Forget all your stuffy old outmoded notions of what Nashville is. Right now Nashville is the center of the music universe in so many more ways than what is represented by the few city blocks of old houses and mini-rise office buildings on Music Row. Right here, right now, Nashville is the place to be for independent music. Sure, in a few years when the rest of the world catches on to that fact, they will move there in droves and ostensibly destroy what motivated them to move there in the first place (see Austin, TX circa now). And in many ways, especially in parts of east Nashville, this is already happening.
But right now, Nashville is that magical locale in the country where creativity is thriving because of the influx of talent coming in and the caliber of projects coming out. When you have so much talent and rabid creativity in one place, it compounds on itself in collaborations, it pushes individual artists to be better to keep up with their peers, and the end result is a mutual inspiration that rises all boats. It’s Haight Ashbury circa 1965. It’s Guy Clark’s kitchen in the movie Heartworn Highways.
This is just one clique of many, but right now in Nashville there is a crop of close-knit quasi-country musicians who represent the nucleus of the new Americana movement and the rebirth of creativity in Music City. Here they are, and how they inter-relate with each other.
Some people probably thought he was nuts for quitting the Drive By Truckers to pursue a solo career. Now he’s arguably one of the biggest names in Americana, and certainly one of the most current and influential. Jason Isbell is all about the power of the song. Originally from just outside of Muscle Shoals, his song “Alabama Pines” was the Americana Music Award’s Song of the Year in 2012. He was once married to Drive-By Truckers’ bass player Shonna Tucker. Now he’s married to Amanda Shires. He’s also good friends with Justin Townes Earle and appeared on his album Harlem River Blues, and played guitar for Justin when he performed the title track from the album on David Letterman.
A name made famous by others, but with a talent all his own, Bloodshot Records took a shot on this wild card with a rough past, and it paid off in spades. Along with Isbell, Justin Townes Earle is one of the most current and influential outlets for Americana music. Aside from putting out 5 stellar records, his resume is diverse, from being named one of GQ’s “Most Stylish Men” in 2010, to producing Wanda Jackson’s last record Unfinished Business. He’s good friends with Jason Isbell, who appeared on his album Harlem River Blues, and played guitar for Justin when he performed the title track from the album on David Letterman. Amanda Shires, who is married to Jason Isbell, is the girl that appears on the cover with Justin on his album The Good Life. Fiddle player Josh Hedley toured with Justin for a number of years, and Caitlin Rose has toured with Justin in a supporting role.
A fiddle prodigy that joined the legendary Texas Playboys at age 15, Amanda Shires’ talents began to be exposed to the alt-country/Americana world as a member of the Thrift Store Cowboys from her hometown of Lubbock, TX. Soon people began to catch on that Amanda was just as gifted as a singer and a songwriter as she was a giving, skilled, and attentive accompanist and collaborator, and she released her first solo album Being Brave in 2005. Amanda began playing with Jason Isbell both in a duo role, and with his band The 400 Unit a few years ago, eventually leading to their marriage in February of 2013. On twitter she now goes by “Amanda Isbell.” She appeared on the cover of Justin Townes Earle‘s The Good Life and has played fiddle for Justin as well.
Jonny Fritz (Corndawg)
The weird, quirky, sarcastic, but sincerely talented songwriter and performer whose silly songs may be an initial turnoff, but when delved into deeper reveal devilish wit and demonstrative scope. Like a Roger Miller of our time, I once overheard a concert attendee say about his music, “It’s like really bad country music that you can’t help but love.” His steadfast Tonto is fiddle player Josh Hedley, whose been with Jonny ever since he stopped touring with Justin Townes Earle. Jonny has shared Caitlin Rose‘s pedal steel player Spencer Cullum, and Jonny and Caitlin have appeared on stage together multiple times. They are both currently releasing albums through ATO Records.
The daughter of country music master songwriter Liz Rose, she has a powerful voice that matches her stellar songwriting skill and pedigree. Though the UK seems much more receptive than the US to her music at the moment, the boldness and accessibility of her recent release The Stand In should go far in making Caitlin a staple name in Americana for years to come. She has toured with Justin Townes Earle, and both have worked with studio producer Skylar Wilson. She has shared the stage and her pedal steel player Spencer Cullum with Jonny Fritz, and both Caitlin and Jonny are currently releasing albums through ATO Records.
Like Amanda Shires, Josh is the consummate, selfless, fiddle-playing sideman who also displays moments of brilliance when he steps into the frontman role. He’s opened for Eileen Rose as a solo artist, and released an EP called Green Eyes in 2009. He’s also done studio work for artists as big as Jack White, and is known to perform at Nashville’s fooBar, Full Moon Saloon, and other locations when not on the road. For years he played fiddle for Justin Townes Earle. He’s now the mainstay of Jonny Fritz‘s traveling band.
Other new artists making up Nashville’s creative nucleus: Sturgill Simpson, Austin Lucas, Tristen, Escondido, Rayland Baxter, Nikki Lane, Andrew Combs, Joshua Black Wilkins, Lindi Ortega, and who else?
Justin Townes Earle performing “Harlem River Blues” with Caitlin Rose and Josh Hedley
Justin Townes Earle Performing “Harlem River Blues with Jason Isbell & Amanda Shires
You want to get the majority of country music critics singing your praises? Put out a traditional country album through mainstream channels. Most critics got into the business because of a passion for true country, and after having their ears burned out by the latest singles from Florida-Georgia Line and Luke Bryan, anything with the most minute measure of twang will get the Nashville press corps reaching for their Thesauruses to shower you with plaudits. Meanwhile down here in the independent trenches where twang is a given, you’ve got to have a little more than just the right sound. The music and words must still ring true. Luckily with Ashley Monroe, they do.
First, kudos are probably warranted for Miranda Lambert. Whatever one’s feelings might be on her, for a solid top 3 lady in country music to take on a side project like The Pistol Annies speaks to her passion for the music, and specifically the music of fellow Pistol Annie Ashley Monroe. Ashley still may have made this record without the Pistol Annies bump, but there may have not been nearly as many people paying attention to it. And kudos to Ashley for staying within herself on Like A Rose. She could have taken her Pistol Annies exposure and cashed out with a career in country pop.
Like A Rose is a short and sweet, classic country album that encapsulates Ashley Monroe’s skills as a formidable traditional country songwriter with a sweet voice embellished with sincere pain. All the songs on Like A Rose were written by Monroe, but they all include collaborators as well, most notably Vince Gill who is also the executive producer of the album, and Guy Clark who co-writes the album’s namesake track, “Like A Rose.” This album speaks to a rough and troubled life, with some of the songs taken verbatim from Ashley’s past. The sincerity of her music is palpable. The very first lyric on the album, “I was only 13, when daddy died,” parallels Ashley’s real life experience, and however much fiction plays into the material for the rest of the album, you tend to believe every word.
The approach to Like A Rose is traditional, but light in the way the rhythm is laid back and some of the textures are ambient, making it in some respects a cross between country and Americana, broadening the appeal of the record. By only including 9 tracks, each offering benefits from a potency of content. This album never tires. At the same time, as a songwriter dyed in the Music Row ink, (granted, in circles with a more of a traditional leaning) there is a formulaic feel beneath some of the songs that make you say, “I’ve heard this song before, just in a different way.” You get this feel from songs like “Used” and “Two Weeks Late.” The wild-eyed “Weed Instead Of Roses” once again reinforces the theory that country has finally picked up that marijuana is good music marketing and now the subject will permeate the genre.
Nonetheless, the wit of a song like “She’s Driving Me Out Of Your Mind” and the simple enjoyment of “Monroe Suede,” or really the simple enjoyment of all of these songs can’t be denied. Even the duet with Blake Shelton “You Ain’t Dolly (And You Ain’t Porter)” is pretty good. Blake may be a turd burglar, but nobody ever accused him of not being able to sing. His tone and cadence fits the classic style very well.
Where Like A Rose may be a little bit light on the deep substance for songwriting snobs, or short on the hard country sounds some classic/traditional fans enjoy, Ashley Monroe’s place as a Pistol Annie with a major label deal make the prospects of this music wetting the whistle of passive country music fans for a more authentic country sound are very promising. Male-driven pop country continues to get worse as every moment passes in country, but a promising crop of bold female artists continue to impress at every turn as they try to steer country in a more substantive direction. Ashley Monroe is at the very top of that crop of beautiful, bold, and talented women.
1 3/4 of 2 guns up.
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The legendary Outlaw country documentary Heartworn Highways, featuring Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, David Allan Coe, Rodney Crowell, Gamble Rogers, Steve Young, The Charlie Daniels Band, and many more, has finally been released completely remastered for digital on-demand viewing and download. Filmed in late 1975 and early 1976, but not released until 1981, Heartworn Highways captures the country music Outlaw movement and some of its most important contributors in the infancy of their careers. Some of the scenes and music have gone on to become some of the most memorable moments of country music lore.
The new remastered, online version of the film was released on December 25th, (2012), but because of the holidays, went virtually unnoticed. Original copies of Heartworn Highways, including copies of the 2005 DVD release regularly sell for $90 and over on eBay and Amazon, speaking to the wild demand for the movie. The DVD included additional scenes not in the original movie. The new remastered version is available on Amazon, iTunes, YouTube (see links below), and other online streaming services. The filmmakers released a statement on Christmas for the re-release.
As part of the small filmmaking team, this release is extremely special, one we’ve been cautiously anticipating a very long time. Despite the initial favorable reviews and enthusiastic response at festivals, our film did not make it at the theatrical box office when it was initially released over 30 years ago. Few people understood it back then. So, it has been deeply gratifying to watch the film, which somehow survived underground, until the DVD was released 10 years ago. There is now a burgeoning community of folks who love the film for its timeless pleasures, honest evocation of that moment in American history and of the lives & music of such extraordinary talent. Thanks to your awareness and support we have been able to digitally save and clean the original release negative so that today we can finally bring it to you fully remastered: here it is, Heartworn Highways, in HD and Stereo, enjoy & share it.
Merry Christmas & Happy Holidays from Graham Leader, Producer, and Phillip Schopper, Editor.
On Sunday February 10th at 2 PM EST, the filmmakers will be participating in an online chat on Facebook about the film. A brand new trailer for the film can be seen below, followed by one of the film’s most iconic scenes.
Stay tuned for Saving Country Music’s review of the remastered Heartworn Highways.
What a treasure this album is.
I’ll spare you the lengthy diatribe about what shame it is that Billy Don Burns isn’t a more heralded and recognized elder of the greater country music community. But rest assured, he should be. When you’ve produced albums for Johnny Paycheck and Merle Haggard, and had Willie Nelson cut your songs and appear on your albums, you deserve to be thrown a few more bones than what Billy Don has found at his feet. But you don’t need to drop names to know what a one-of-a-kind talent Billy Don Burns is, all you have to do is listen.
Then again, the demons that have pursued Billy Don throughout his life and career, dogging his successes with lapses into addiction and destitution make the start and stutter nature of his career understandable. Those battles are also what have fueled and elevated his status as a songwriter in certain circles. He’s deity-like to the people who know and love him, yet the general public is unfamiliar with the name (though they may recognize music he’s written or produced). Billy Don Burns is a force behind the music.
There are great songwriters, and then there are songwriters that define the apogee of the craft, songwriters like Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt…and Billy Don Burns. There are songs on Nights When I’m Sober that will rip at your heart like nothing else. There’s a great variety on the album with sweet songs and fun songs. And where Billy Don elevates the stakes is in the production and approach to each composition. With producer/guitar player Aaron Rodgers, they reinvigorate the late-era, rock-infused Outlaw sound that had Haggard and Paycheck seeking Billy Don’s services.
Aside from maybe Tom Waits, Hank Williams and a few others, I have never heard an artist be able to pull as much emotion out of a composition as Billy Don Burns does by slowing everything down in the tear-jerking songs that constitute the backbone of this album. “Is He the Writer?” and “Stranger” are two excellent selections that work in the traditional Keith Whitley-style self-referential method that calls on both wit and irony to drive home a tragic story. “When Lonesome Comes Around” is a lot more of a loose arrangement, and takes “darkness” to all new depths as Billy Don tells the story of a man inviting in illusion as the one last antidote to alleviate chronic sorrow.
The dark songs are counterbalanced with some really warm offerings, specifically “Gaylor Creek Church” about the by-gone culture of community churches and the warmth they instilled in a child’s soul, and “Wouldn’t Have It Any Other Way” with its fun acoustic lead-in and lead-out and its positive take to life on the road. “Wouldn’t Have It…” is awfully fetching and probably constitutes the “hit” of the album. Night’s When I’m Sober is always on the move, with the motorcycle story “Born to Ride” and the touring tale “Aaron Rodgers and Me”.
What elevates this album the most, the intangible of Nights When I’m Sober is the authenticity Billy Don Burns can approach these songs with. The battle will rage on forever about if songwriters and performers have to live what they sing and write about to be authentic, but with Billy Don, the point is moot.
In the song “Is He the Writer?” Billy Don mentions the classic tale of the artist cutting off his ear to suffer so he can draw inspiration. Many artists and their fans love this romantic notion of art and inspiration, but few artists have the commitment to see it through. You get the sense that with Billy Don, if times were tough, he wouldn’t hesitate looking for a fillet knife, and that he’s done the rough equivalent of cutting his ear off many times before, and will again before it’s all over.
Billy Don Burn’s albums Train Called Lonesome and Heroes, Friends, & Other Troubled Souls are also worth picking up, but I think one could make the case for Night’s When I’m Sober being Billy Don’s defining release.
Two guns up!
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The following videos showcase songs from Nights When I’m Sober with luthier Richard Peek making a gas can banjo in the background.
The last time I saw Ray Wylie Hubbard perform was in a church. Actually strike that, the last time I saw him perform was at Willie Nelson’s 4th of July picnic, but the time before that was in a church in Wimberley, TX, nestled in the Texas Hill Country. What, you think that Ray’s songs about drunkards and strippers and “whiskey bottles scattered like last nights clothes” are inherently incompatible with a house of worship? Well, then you’ve never been to Wimberley.
If there’s honor amongst thieves, then it only seems fitting there should be a Grifter’s Hymnal. And if there’s going to be a Grifter’s Hymnal, it’s only fitting Ray Wylie Hubbard should compose it. The ingredients of grifters are already mixed there on his palette: Tales of dead and dying things and dens of iniquity, the struggle or the soul between good and evil, and the difficulty sometimes of telling the two apart. But to have a hymnal you also must have a message, and you must be able to convey that message with eloquence, poetical prowess, wit and rhyme. Well don’t worry, it’s all here. Just open it up and sing along.
With a raspy voice more fit for a medicine show shaman than a silver-lined church choir, Hubbard elucidates about the ugly things that lie beneath, or as he says in the song “Lazarus”: “We in the mud and scum of things…”
As a preacher of the “grit, groove, tone & taste” approach to songwriting and recording, Hubbard must deliver knowing his congregation’s ears are extra bent to hear if he practices what he preaches. Some may hear the words of the sermon, but not the message, and mistake “grit” for “dirty”, relying too much on primitive instruments or poor recording practices, or “tone” for “trashy”, trying to squeeze that vintage vibe through busted or inadequate gear. Hubbard instead starts with things that were pretty once, whose stories then scarred and tarnished them until the beauty of American imperfection was achieved. Ray Wylie digs through the rubble of America’s wayward trajectory to find the forgotten things that have lost their sheen, but not their soul. Wipe the grime away and walla, there the soul is: vibrant, irreplaceable, unable to be duplicated. Then he uses that soul to eulogize about the things that are too late to save.
Grit, groove, tone and taste mostly, but not all, have to do with sounds and music. What I want to proselytize to you about is Ray Wylie’s words. You get a sense that if he wanted to, he could go all Guy Clark on your ass, throwing down one jaw dropping line after another. But he never forgets this isn’t poetry, it is music, and he wants you to feel the music first, then listen, and keep you wondering what lyrical brilliance he might have left up his sleeve, instead of emptying the lyrical kitchen at you as a crutch for sonic afterthought or weakness.
“Coricidin Bottle” gets you warmed and revved up for this album, and is Ray having fun showing off his sonic and lyrical strengths with help from his son Lucas on lead guitar. I was worried the wordy pentameter of the chorus in “Lazarus” would hold this song back, but the words are just too good to concern yourself too much about timing. “Red Badge of Courage” has a Tom Waits-esque quality about it, the political, yet non-polarizing look through the eyes of a soldier. “New Year’s Eve at the Gates of Hell” and “Henhouse” have some of the best lines and wordplay you will find throughout Hubbard’s career, or anybody else’s. “He couldn’t commit wholly to the devil’s side. His ink reads 6-6-5.9″ is the line every other songwriter will regret not writing for years to come.
About the only song that didn’t initially draw me in was “Coochy Coochy”, which is the only song Hubbard did not write, and instead is attributed to the same guy who wrote “Octopus’s Garden” from Abbey Road. Probably a good bet to get a Beatle on your record by hook or crook, and you can tell this was a song Ray wanted to play. The gem of the album might be “Mother Blues”. They say write about what is close to you, and nothing is closer than your own story and your own family, and Hubbard sketches a family portrait that is both enlightening and entertaining. “Count My Blessings” and “Ask God” hem up the Grifter’s theme of quitting while you’re ahead and looking for redemption.
One of my beefs with The Grifter’s Hymal is that you open it up to no words for the songs. Granted, in the MP3 age, a jewel case is no more than an expensive coaster, and by the way, as coasters go, Javi Garcia designed a pretty good one embodying Ray Wylie’s concept. But these words are too good to leave us guessing at.
I nominated Hubbard’s 2010 album A. Enlightenment B. Enderkenment for SCM Album of the Year. I think The Grifter’s Hymnal is better. A. Enlightenment was made partially to be the score of a movie that shall not be named, and though brilliant and engaging, was a slower, more textured album meant to work behind pictures and a separate story, with some songs more about the mood than message, in a slow, almost dirge-like tempo. The Grifter’s Hymnal is downright danceable at times, and benefits from it’s own autonomous and cohesive thematic quality.
And in the end what is conveyed through The Grifter’s Hymnal is despite the gray hairs, and the career path that never got him to that next level, Ray Wylie Hubbard is cool. No need to preach to this choir, I’ll tuck my Grifter’s Hymnal under my arm and go out amongst the world to spread the Ray Wylie gospel, and become a fisher of men who want great music.
Two guns up!
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I sit down to peck at my keyboard once again, fully knowing what I am about to say will be unpopular, if not downright blasphemous to many folks. But I’m not running a popularity contest here, and unlike many independent country “entities”, I don’t need to build a consensus or flatter people to propagate my brand. All I’m trying to do is keep myself sane in a mad world by asserting my honest, unfettered opinions, and hopefully I turn some folks on to some good music in the process, but it’s not always about that. Music is just the metaphor. In truth, Saving Country Music is about people.
You will find no harsher critic of Taylor Swift over the years than right here, me, The Triggerman. As a glittering teenage pop star with a mild voice, nobody has been more responsible for the homogenization of America’s most traditional music genre than Taylor Swift. But tonight, when the biggest night in country music goes down, there will be no other performer, no other award nominee or winner, who deserves more recognition, or is as honest or sincere, as Taylor Swift.
As simply as I can put it, however we got here, however you want to quantify it, Taylor Swift is the best thing going on right now in mainstream country music, and it isn’t even fucking close. The fakery, the debaucherous over-calculated market-driven focus on financial gain is so rabid right now, it is a wonder how it stays so obtuse in the mainstream public consciousness. It is so bad, so sinister, that I can’t help but put all allegiances to genre and even taste aside, to trumpet the very last glimmer of hope that honesty can at least be given a fair shake in the mainstream world.
We were wrong about Taylor Swift. I was wrong about Taylor Swift. We were blinded by our prejudices. When Taylor Swift first came on to the scene, she sang cheesy teenage pop songs, and we chastised her for it, when in truth, she was doing what all the great songwriters from Hank Williams to Guy Clark to Townes Van Zandt did over the years: write what they knew about, what inspired them. She was a skinny, blond-haired little girl from an upper-middle-class Pennsylvania family. What else is she going to write about? And do we blame her personally for Music Row taking her music and elevating it to way beyond its intrinsic value? But when Taylor’s latest album Speak Now came out, she showed a dramatic elevation of maturity. She wrote every song on that album. By herself. Inspired by her own personal experiences of heartbreak, and of having the whole world turn against her for not being able to sing.
I’m a fighter, not a lover. And when Taylor Swift came on the scene, my inclination was to fight against her influence and popularity. But I always fight with respect, especially when respect is deserved. In the beginning, in my opinion, Taylor Swift did not deserve much respect. When she blew her performance with Stevie Nicks on The Grammy’s in 2009 and the world turned against her (Read my take on her Grammy performance), this was the first time I found true respect for Taylor. But not as an artist, as a human, because the next almost inevitable event that was going to happen to Taylor Swift was her absolute demise, as the same public that had propped her up on an unrealistic and undeserved pedestal was poised to tear her down, like they do so often with falling stars. It’s a classic narrative: pop star hits it big, pop star reveals they’re human, pop star is humiliated, and spit out of the asshole of the corporate culture machine to be the punch line of jokes until their swallowed by obscurity as quickly as they rose.
How often does that narrative play out when a big star makes a big mistake? 90% of the time? 95%? But I’ll be damned. Taylor Swift, Taylor fucking Swift, took society’s best shot, fell as hard as anyone, had the world turning against her, and somehow, within moments of being counted out, she picked herself up off the mat, brushed the hair out of her face, straightened her back, and of all things, wrote a song about the experience in the form of “Mean”, that is now up for Song of the Year. That doesn’t just illustrate good songcraft, that shows pluck. That shows guts. And goddamnit, as a fighter, you have to look at someone who takes the best shot the world can deliver to the ego, and then is fearless enough to return fire, and have nothing but respect.
Now I’ll be honest, I hate the song “Mean”. It might be the worst song on the Speak Now album. It’s jealous and bitter. In the song she tries to make fun of her accusers by saying someday she’ll be “living in a big ol’ city,” implying that she is something, and they, or we, are nothing. Taylor Swift does not deserve any more recognition than the rest of us for finding success in a corrupt business, or for winning trophies through a rigged system, or for writing a song that was an antithesis to the maturing trend present in her Speak Now songwriting. What she does deserve recognition for is inspiring scores of people through a song that shows how to take a negative experience and make something positive out of it.
And I don’t want to hear anybody say, “Well all that’s great, but you know what, her music still sucks and the music I like is great, so all the rest can go fuck themselves.”
No! No no no! This affects us all! This is important to all of us. Try saying that when you have a daughter, or a sister, or a niece, and you try to turn on the boob tube or the radio and find positive role models for them in adult culture. It is difficult to impossible. Our society is structured to turn our daughters into whores to keep an over-consumptive economic system in place. Bad culture creates bad people; the asshole on the help desk, or working at the restaurant.
I know there’s better role models for young girls out there than Taylor Swift, but see if you can get young girls to care about them, or how about those young girls who don’t have anyone looking to put positive role models in front of them? Think of all the vermin out there propagated by the Disney World of dysfunction.
And I can’t defend Taylor’s Cover Girl endorsement deals, or her $100+ concert tickets, or even many elements of her music. But goddammit, we’re losing here, on all fronts. Everywhere you look, the American ideal is crumbling around us. So why not be inspired by a little girl’s dream that became a reality in Taylor Swift? Why not celebrate honest, true songwriting? Why not celebrate young women who actually fucking respect themselves for a change?
And Taylor Swift is still not country, but I’m not sure I want to blame her for that any more. She was told she was country when she still thought Romeo and Juliet was a good subject to write a song about, and trusted the adults caretaking her career. Blame the country music anti-Christ Scott Borchetta for that.
And maybe she’s not country because she transcends genre. I’m not kidding. There’s songs on Speak Now that clock in at 6 and 7 minutes. As much as some want to scream at her for being a pop star, there was not one #1 song on Speak Now; it was too good, too in-depth in the songwriting for pop radio.
I might be putting myself on an island here, but I don’t care. There’s no more country music to save. Don’t you remember? Back in 2009 when Taylor won it all and we declared country music dead? Now I’m praying for a Taylor Swift sweep. I’ve got the pleated skirt on and the pom pom’s waving. Go Taylor go! Because Taylor Swift, Taylor fucking Swift, is the last hope that a shred of reality can remain in popular music, and more importantly, Taylor Swift is good people, and deserves it.
When I saw a new Ryan Adams album was coming down the pike, I honestly didn’t know what to think. I’ve been so hot and cold on the guy over the years as he shape shifts from the whims of identity crises and style changes, it’s harder to form a solid opinion about him than it is to conjure up a firm stool after 6 weeks in interior Mexico.
His early stuff with Whiskeytown and during those formative Bloodshot Records years holds some serious Gram Parson’s-inspired country music gold. And then all of a sudden he’s popping his collar, frizzing his hair, and playing pop rock. And then comes a period where he’s putting out anything and everything he a can cook up in a studio with no governor, like he’s Beck or something and can pull that kind of thing off. At some point I caught the Neil Young syndrome with him, where I like him, but absolutely can’t stand the dude at the same time. And didn’t he marry Mandy Moore and quit music just a couple of years ago? Hell I don’t know.
When I saw NPR had fingered Ashes & Fire for one of their ‘First Listens’, I thought hell, I’ll navigate over there and give it a sniff, and I swear, 30 seconds in I knew this album was going to be brilliant. And it is….in places.
First you must understand this album is not country, and it’s not rock n’ roll. It is solidly Americana, in the true Americana mold that Ryan helped codify during the early oughts, not so much some of the current Americana crop that sounds like pandering to the NPR demographic, or some others trying to out-Guy Clark each other. Regardless of the quality, I think this is the album Ryan Adams wanted to make, irrespective of trends.
Adams has been known to play the producer role in music, Willie Nelson’s Songbird from 2006 for example, and with this album, you can tell why. This might be one of the most well-produced albums I’ve ever heard. Helping Adams as producer was the famous Brit Glyn Johns, who is the second Johns to work with Ryan Adams. Glyn’s son Ethan Johns produced Adams’ Heartbreaker and Gold in the early 2000′s.
The problem with this album is that it lacks mustard. It really drew me in, but did not hold me. It never got off the ground. It was like the beautiful, brand new car, perfect in every way, that you’re scared to take out on the road because it might get a scratch. I kept wanting it to just go, for Ryan to unleash, but he never did. He was almost too careful, too perfect. To many people, this is what will speak to them in this music. For me it held it back. There’s an undefinable inhibition to this album. All of these beautiful elements there, but they never get flowing all in the same direction.
Soft arrangements and space can be good, but songs like “Come Home” and “Rocks” captured the sleepiness of a castrated James Taylor, while “Chains of Love” made me feel like I was soaring through the clouds on the back of a silver luck dragon with its wistful poppiness. But damn if “Ashes & Fire” isn’t a great, mid-tempo song, or that “Dirty Rain” doesn’t have some great lyrics. For all the great production, this album still lacks spice, from the lack of contrast between the songs, or cutting depth or sharp wit in the lyrics.
So I guess I’ll have to continue to hate to love to hate Ryan Adams. I’m not sure I could find the heart to argue against anyone who told me this album was brilliance, or that it was complete frap. Depends on taste I guess. But I can’t deny the effort is more solid than not. And you know, solid is good. Better than a Mexico-inspired lower GI travel illness.
1 1/4 of 2 guns up.
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I really want to like Hayes Carll. He’s a Texas boy, and I’m a Texas boy. He’s on a great label in Lost Highway Records. He’s an understudy of the great Ray Wylie Hubbard and other Texas songwriting legends. People like to compare him to Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt and Tom Waits. But in the end, though he’s a good songwriter, he’s not a great one, and the overselling and mischaracterizing of his music has led to some unnecessary criticism, and a missing of the point that his music is fun, and meant to be enjoyed.
When I first saw the cover of KMAG YOYO (military acronym for “Kiss My Ass Guys, You’re On Your Own) I was in fear for the soul of this album. The hipster pose in an ironic sweater made me worry that maybe our Texas boy had gone indie rock. Fortunately the music itself helps dispel this worry patently, though it makes me hate the cover even more.
Despite some verbiage I’ve read saying that with this album Carll distances himself sonically from the Texas scene, I would disagree. First off, this album is country, Texas country, being country with a dash of rock and blues and elevated songwriting. There’s steel guitar and witty penmanship. However there’s not a whole lot that is new or special here, sonically or in the songwriting.
Hayes Carll’s persona seems to be that he’s a wandering, bumbling drunk with a pen, in the Earnest Hemingway/early Jerry Jeff Walker mold. The problem is that you don’t always believe him; it comes across more as a bit. His inflections feel forced and rehearsed, and though his lyrics hold the appearance of hard living, they don’t hold the biting soul that actually comes from it. I have no doubt that Hayes likes to drink. A lot. So do many others. The effects of hard living can in some cases lend to good songwriting, but recounting the hard living itself in songwriting can sometimes feel shallow.
Hayes has been compared to Tom Waits, but Waits has the ability to roll from playing a downtown drunk, to a maniacal rural recluse, to a swanky piano player in a smoky bar, and even though you know none of this is true, you believe him. Carll doesn’t try to pull off even half of this diversity in contrast, and still only does it half as well.
Songs like “Hard Out Here” and “Another Like You” are great examples of this: ambling, slurred, sloppy songs that are fun, but don’t say much in the end.
The songs are sometimes witty, sometimes deep, but not always both at the same time like the great songwriters can do. And the music is not original enough, or visceral enough to make that something that draws you in either. Not everybody can be Guy Clark or Townes Van Zandt, and that’s OK. But if you can’t, maybe you shouldn’t try. By the end of the album the one-liners and clever rhymes almost work against Hayes, as they expose the shallow bones behind his songwriting method while still trying to assert that his songwriting is top shelf.
The songs I did like were the ones that took a simplistic approach, and are probably the ones most people will pass over. “Chances Are” doesn’t over-try, it just tells the story and works. I’m normally out on any song that is about Christmas, but “Grateful for Christmas” is a good, sad song most can relate to, though by the 11th song of the album, rhymes like “Let’s play cards and watch the news channel. I love you too, and thanks for the flannel” just fall flat. Carll’s lines in “Bottle in My Hand” are pretty good, but Corb Lund’s and Todd Snider’s lines (the two also appear on the track) are better, and the song works well save for the silly “swaying Irish drunks” production.
I hear a lot of rehashing of songs in the music. The bluesy songs feel very Bonnie Raitt. The title track “KMAG YOYO” and its machine gun lyrics is a close cousin to Garth Brooks’ “‘Till The Sun Comes Up” and so many other songs that also use this formula. “The Lovin’ Cup” sounds like half a dozen Tom Petty songs in the chorus, and nearly a pop country song during the rest.
The instrumentation is bland and safe. You may not even recognize there’s instruments being played unless you listen for them. It has that soul-less, session player’s feel, even though Hayes used his own band. He also says that he wrote the music first, and then added the lyrics to it. This segregation of lyric and music can be heard in the finished product. I especially disliked the organ parts. You can almost hear the folks in the studio going “What this song needs is organ,” and then they add it to the track, lightly and safe in the back, and trailing off at the end of the song with an extra-long tail, enamored with the tone instead of objectively asking if it enhances the song. The exceptions are “The Letter” and “Bye Bye Baby” which accomplish a lot by trimming up the arrangements to only what’s necessary, and really doing justice to the heart of the song.
The organ and drums at the beginning of “Grand Parade” scream early 90′s Bonnie Raitt, which may be exactly what some are looking for, but I’m looking for something I’ve never heard before, or at least something unexpected. In some ways this music comes across as dirty music for clean people, as country for folks with master’s degrees in anthropology. It’s country for people who like the rootsy feel, but want to know that the artist has the same political beliefs as them.
I’m saying all these mean things about this album, but in the end it is a really fun album to listen to, and I give it a lot of credit for that, and really, it is fun enough to look over many of these criticisms. And it is accessible, without exorcising all soul, substance, or sincerity. I would love to hear Hayes Carll take over country radio, because on the whole, it would be so much better than most of the stuff found there, and it has a good enough, and accessible enough sound to be given consideration in radio rotations.
But there’s so much better. When you’ve listened to albums like Roger Alan Wade’s Deguello Motel, it’s so hard for music like this to be potent on you. And when you compare Hayes Carll to Tom Waits and Guy Clark, then that is who I am going to compare him against, and that’s when his music starts to fall apart. Everybody seems to want to crown him as the next great Texas songwriting god. How about just calling him a good songwriter, with above average Texas country music with some soul that’s fun to listen to and doesn’t make you feel stupid like the stuff on the radio. That’s something I can get behind.
One gun up for a fun, accessible, witty, and sometimes soulful album. One gun down for predictable song structures, a lack of unique production, and hints of inauthenticity.
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Every once in a while an album comes along that you can tell the extra effort was put out to make it right. It’s far beyond just a collection of songs, it unfolds like a story, with all the songs together becoming stronger than the sum of their parts. Its an album that shows patience and wisdom. There’s a grand vision, and more importantly, that vision is realized in the final cut. Deguello Motel is one of those albums.
The inspiration for Deguello Motel may have been thirty years of hard living, but the approach was a sober one. The first challenge was for Roger Alan Wade to get sober. The second challenge was to see if he could write a song that way. But that wasn’t enough for Wade. He had something to prove. “He was good till he kicked the drinking and drugs” is how the cliche goes. Years of prejudice and misguided notions were waiting to be quashed. Wade quashed them, and then kept moving. He wasn’t satisfied proving the notions wrong, he wanted to prove that the opposite was right.
Wade is a high caliber journeyman songwriter, whose penned a #1 hit for Hank Jr., as well as songs for Willie, Waylon, George Jones, and others. His personal career however has been mostly songs with irreverent humor. Deguello Motel catches people looking the other way. You keep waiting for the next song to be the goofy one, and it never comes, adding gravity to the songs, making you perk up and pay attention, saying to yourself, “This is serious stuff.”
I will put the songwriting of this album up against any. Bring your classic 70′s Texas songwriters, bring the best from BMI’s stables. It starts off with the title track that keeps impressing you with its wit at every turn.
There’s an old Mexican dirge, this place is named after. And I heard it once in a box office disaster. The duke told his boys, said it means “leave or die.” I don’t know much Spanish, but John Wayne don’t lie.
And I live in a room with a green radio, curled in the womb of a 29 year low. Four walls from heaven and one sin from hell. In room 17 at Deguello Motel.
The next song “Rock, Powder, Pills,” keeps it going, with a biting soul, and an edginess that would appeal to street rappers just as much as cocaine cowboys or heroine sheiks. That’s right. What, did you think all this sober talk meant that this album didn’t have an edge? On the contrary. The “I Saw The Light” stuff might be coming from Wade, but for now, it is fighting fire with fire, and telling the hard, cold, ugly truth, with a poet’s wit and wisdom. This album is like a catharsis, with the lyrics like toxins being purged out in all their candid rawness.
Morning breaking on the street. Baby’s sick on potted meat. Sally’s begging John for more. Tired of licking specks up off the floor. Neighbor look like Dr. Dre. He says “Tough guy you wanna play?” John digs out a wad of bills. Rock powder pills. SHOOT. Rock powder pills.
Yeah rock crushes powder, powder covers pills, pills cut the rock till it’s time to burn to kill.
As impressive as the first two songs are, my favorite of the album is “Ruins of Paradise” where Wade bears all, singing with such emotion, such conviction you wonder if he can hold it together till the end, with deep breaths punctuating the pain in lyrics not afraid to bear weakness. It also shows Wade’s adeptness with chords and changes to create the mood; a trait of Roger’s music that can be overlooked because of the mesmerizing nature of the words.
The heart of the album is restless, with lots of movement and lost love, and running from past mistakes. Themes and characters are introduced and revisited. Songs like “Dequello Lullaby,” an addiction-infused nursery rhyme that does an excellent job of painting the absolute submersion that a life of sin endures, reminds you this is all taking place in the “leave or die” atmosphere of addiction.
One thing that could have improved this album would be fleshing out a few songs with a full band. That might have helped sell the concept even more. But even just with Roger and his guitar, Deguello never gets boring like some acoustic solo albums can. And that’s the fun of being a songwriter: you create the skeleton, and then other performers can come in and elaborate.
In the final song “3rd Chance Blues,” Wade cans all the indirect language and illustrations, and spells it out cold. Something he pointed out to me when I interviewed him in April was that he never uses curse words in his songs. You think he would with songs like “Poontang” and “Butt Ugly Slut,” but like Seinfeld, he felt cursing was the easy way out. With the final song he breaks this tradition, to say what he needs to say.
I had to give up what I was good at, and get back down to good things. I quit that shit before it killed me, but not before it made me not wanna bend them guitar strings.
This simple life it suits me, my dreams are wild, my mind is strong and clear. Truth is I just got sick of dying, ain’t no telling what kind of shit you’re gonna hear.
I wouldn’t walk away with the impression that this album is preachy. Wade may preach to himself, or about himself, but you’re too busy enjoying the album to feel like he’s preaching to you, or trying to. He is singing about his experiences, and songs like “Honkey Tonk Rose” and “Old Dixie Highway” are just good old country songs that only follow the recovery theme loosely.
Deguello Motel is THE album from Roger Alan Wade, the one that brings him out of the shadow of being Johnny Knoxville’s cousin or a writer of silly songs, and puts him in the company of people like Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt as a premier songwriter.
It may have taken Wade 30 years to get here, but however long it was going to take, Wade, and the world, are better for it.
Two guns up. Five stars. 9.7 on a 10 scale.
I’d love to tell you that I know a lot about Larry Jon Wilson, who died Monday at 69 from a stroke, but truth is I only know him through the bits of his music that have passed under my nose over the years, and from his appearance in the documentary Heartworn Highways. There isn’t a lot to be known about Wilson, because for nearly 30 years of his life, he wanted it that way.
Larry Jon Wilson is the textbook definition of a “Forgotten Outlaw.” His golden era is filled with songs and albums that are as entertaining and influential as anyone’s. Forgotten or not, Wilson was the complete package. He had the moxy and the taste for soul of Waylon Jennings. He had the songwriting, poetic prowess of Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark. He had deep, deep pipes that made Johnny Cash sound like a pre-pubescent. And he was a hell of a guitar player. Mix it all together and Larry Jon Wilson was an American original, whose due we can only hope will come posthumously, and whose legend deserves to eternally grow.
And he was an Outlaw plain and simple, maybe more so than most:
“Some people have used the ‘Outlaw’ tag effectively for a career move, but I don’t think ‘career move’ has ever entered my thinking. When I was in Nashville, we did the streets an awful long time, and we weren’t exactly holding prayer meetings. I loved my drinking days… I’m not ashamed of any of it.”
Born in Georgia, Wilson put out four relatively obscure, but critically acclaimed and loyally adored albums between 1975 and 1979 on the Monument imprint of CBS Records: New Beginnings (1975), Let Me Sing My Song to You (1976), Loose Change (1977), and The Sojourner (1979). If you find one of these albums in any format, buy it. They are as rare and highly sought after.
In 1980, Larry left the music business disillusioned after no real commercial success of any sort. His music just didn’t fit in any marketable scene. It was country, but with soulful, funky influences. Wilson’s music maybe was not influential to the outside world, but in the 70′s country Outlaw scene he was an artist the artists listened to. After 1980 he slipped into obscurity, doing voice-over work to pay the bills. Just last year he came out of the shadows to release Larry Jon Wilson which was beginning to spark new interest in his body of work.
Larry was also a champion of the very rare, but very coveted by true audiofiles song trilogy.
Larry Jon Wilson is one of the reasons savingcountrymusic.com exists, to make sure singular talents like this are not forgotten, and that our generation of talent doesn’t slip into obscurity like so many greats before. Do yourself a favor, skip on over to YouTube, ask around for his albums, and discover this artist. He’s one of those type of artists who you might say “name sound familiar,” but when you’re sat down and really exposed to him, all of a sudden a whole new world of music is opened up to you.
You can also read an amazing interview with him by Stephen M. Deusner HERE.
From Heartworn Highways:
My favorite Larry Jon Wilson song:
“Every great artist has had a place where their music could be birthed.”
That quote from the new documentary Anderson Fair – For The Sake of The Song about a small, long-lived acoustic room in Houston puts into perspective how important the venue is to music more than any other I could procure. We talk starry-eyed about our favorite musicians and songwriters, but without the independent venue to nurture their career, we might never hear of them.
Though mostly known for music, South by Southwest is also a film festival, and I was lucky enough to be able to attend the world premier of For The Sake of the Song at this year’s event. Anderson Fair’s stable of people who either got their start or rose to fame because of the venue is sick: Townes van Zandt, Guy Clark, Robert Earl Keen, Nanci Griffith, Lyle Lovett, and Lucinda Williams just to name a few.
Anderson Fair is one of many great independent venues all over the country, but it’s one of the very few where an artist cannot be insulated by a full band and backing drums. It’s just the artist and a guitar, and either they’re exposed, or they outright shine.
Do you have a favorite local, independent venue? And no, your city’s chapter of the House of Blues doesn’t count.
From Anderson Fair:
Lately so much music has been coming out from oldtime artists I follow, I can hardly keep up. Hopefully in the future I will have features or reviews on all of these projects, but in the meantime here they all are to bring you up to speed. If there’s one album you like to see reviewed in particular, please feel free to chime in below.
I’ve heard some compare this in a production and theme sense to Johnny Cash’s American Recordings. There is a great review on the9513.com by one of my favorite country writers, Juli Thanki, HERE.
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Another Texas songwriting legend. OK, maybe he’s not an “oldtimer,” but he been around for a long time writing some of the best storytelling songs and inspiring countless acolytes in the Texas scene. A great review of The Rose Hotel can be found on ninebullets.net.
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A Texas songwriting legend who apparently still has a little something in the tank, and I’m not talking about fumes and dregs. Here’s a review from No Depression.
If you thought that an artists that’s been dead for 50 years was incapable of putting out new music, think again. As a follow up to the Hank Williams Unreleased Recordings, on November 3rd another three disc set, Hank Williams: Revealed will be released. It is now available for pre-order. This is another compilation culled from the “Mother’s Best Flour” recordings that have been circulating around in bootleg form for years.
And Waylon Jennings is getting on the posthumous kick as well. Six of Waylon’s 70′s albums are planned to be re-released on vinyl. I think I would still prefer to find the original issue for buck at a garage sale, but this is still good to see.
And if you like all this music from these old farts, make sure to check out the latest episode of It Burns When I Pee:
So which album would like to see reviewed first? Guy Clark, Kristofferson, or Keen?
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