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The greatest album, and the greatest recorded song will never be able to trump the truly live musical experience where music is shared in real time with both the artist and listeners. It is in this spirit that each year I assemble a list of the Best Live Performances to reinforce that as technology and the busying of life incrementally encroach upon us more and more every year, we must remember that the live music show deserves its own attention and reverence. This year for the first time, I’ve included some television performances and a live stream, because the weight these performances carried make them more than worthy to be included here.
Please understand, unlike Saving Country Music’s other yearly awards, since omnipresence isn’t an attribute I posses, this list is simply based on my own experiences, and not meant to capture the overall pulse of the live events that transpired all year. You are encouraged to share your own favorite live musical experiences from 2013 below.
10. Hellbound Glory – The Empire Control Room, Austin, TX
“Hellbound Glory started with a blistering, amplified version of Hank Williams’ “My Buckets Got A Hole In It” that reinvented and revitalized that tune originally learned by Hank Williams from Rufus Payne in the mid-30′s, and made it feel like an iconic 70′s-era Southern rock anthem. Not 30 seconds into the first song, and you could tell that Leroy had played so many shows in front of so many big crowds in 2013, that being on stage was second nature, and a downright showman had emerged from a man who is known as a songwriter first. Not that Leroy was a stiff before, but now he had a swagger about him—a sway and arm motions—engaging the crowd and carrying songs to another level with his ability to be completely uninhibited with the music.” (read full review)
9. Eric Church & Valerie June – The ACM Awards
Say what you will about Eric Church, he delivered the most memorable performance at the ACM Awards back in April, and he did it while showcasing the up-and-coming musical powerhouse Valerie June.
“Church, who is usually known for his baseball cap, aviator sunglasses, and rowdy country gone rock sound, kept it simple this time, accompanied only by his guitar and one harmony singer–a breathtaking female in a red dress, adorned with a crown of dreadlocks. As much as Eric Church’s performance caught the ACM crowd and Eric’s fans by surprise, so did this virtually unknown singer accompanying him.
“Valerie June didn’t announce her performance on the ACM’s. Her name was not mentioned in the credits or by the announcers. But like she always does, she left an indelible, unforgettable impact on the hearts and ears of the ACM attendees and viewers.” (read full review)
8. Andrew Bird & Tift Merritt – Pickathon Festival Woods Stage – Portland, OR
The Pickathon Festival on the outskirts of Portland, OR every August affords some of the best music moments a year can offer, while broadening the perspective of fans from all corners of the roots music world by assembling one of the most diverse and forward-thinking lineups in the festival realm. Many Picktathon moments could be listed here, but seeing the amazing Andrew Bird perform all manner of beyond-human vocal acrobatics accompanied by the accomplished Tift Merrit was truly something to behold.
“Andrew Bird on the Wood’s Stage was phenomenal. Maybe a little fey for some, but he’s a fiddling bluegrass maestro who has one of the best use of dynamics you will find. You also won’t find a better whistler in bluegrass. Joining him on stage for the set was Tift Merritt…” (read full Pickathon Live Blog)
7. Jayke Orvis & The Broken Band – The Scoot Inn
“Jayke finally declared earlier this year that he was taking his last tour with the Gallows, and trained his attention solely on a solid, permanent Broken Band lineup that includes guitarist James Hunnicutt, and former Bob Wayne Outlaw Carnies’ Liz Sloan and Jared McGovern on fiddle and upright bass respectively. With stability and a shared vision of making a band around Jayke’s music, but one where all musicians are treated as equal, Jayke Orvis & The Broken Band have re-captured the fervor and spellbinding performance aspect that made the .357 String Band such a force of music nature. If anything, The Broken Band may be taking it a step further with a deeper attention to composition, pushing all four players to the edge of their abilities, and the edge of human capability itself, balanced by slow and mid-tempo songwriter material.
Jayke Orvis & The Broken Band are the underground roots equivalent of the Punch Brothers, and are one of the top tier performers of the underground sub-genre.” (read full review)
6. LeAnn Rimes Patsy Cline Tribute – The ACA Awards
“And at the end of the medley, when LeAnn went a capella, and the tasteful sepia filter that the ACA’s had placed on the cameras to afford a vintage feel on the first part of the tribute turned back to color, a downright evocation emerged during Patsy’s “Sweet Dreams” that even the embattled and valiant LeAnn Rimes eventually couldn’t even fend off, bursting into tears during the final turn of the chorus.
“No video will ever do the moment justice, because it was a moment you had to share in live. At some point you saw LeAnn smile, like she recognized the spirit of Patsy had entered the room, and then the emotion immediately began to well up in LeAnn, and all who were paying attention.” (read full review)
5. The Mavericks -Gruene Hall – Gruene, TX
“Raul Malo is no doubt the rock and heart of The Mavericks, but the addition of guitar player Eddie Perez, who was Dwight Yoakam’s long-time touring guitar player before joining the band, is really what has allowed The Mavericks to give up nothing, and continue to grow in their nearly 25-year existence. From his masterful guitar work to his superhero-like ability to follow Raul Malo wherever he may go vocally, Eddie Perez is 1A to Raul in the Mavericks, with long-time rhythm guitarist Robert Reynolds and keys player Jerry Dale McFadden affording the buoyant vitality that makes The Mavericks’ sound so infectious, and drummer Paul Deacon holding the whole thing together and giving the The Mavericks their communicable groove.” (read full review)
4. Red 11 SXSW Showcase at the White Horse – Austin, TX
Eligibility on this list would normally only be open to single performances by a single band or artist, but the showcase put on by the booking agency Red 11 on Tuesday night (3-12) of South by Southwest at the White Horse in Austin was such a legendary lineup, it deserves its own distinction, beyond all the excellent artists that played it. Yes folks, the gritty, bluesy one man band Lincoln Durham, the Tejano-flavored The Crooks, The Dirty River Boys, The Turnpike Troubadours, followed by American Aquarium, and capped off by Jason Eady is the lineup that held forth at the intimate setting of The White Horse that night. Oh, and it was all free. I’m not sure there will ever be a moment when such a ridiculous amount of talent will be showcased in the same place, and in such a small space again, unless it happens at SXSW 2013.
3. Lee Bains III & The Glory Fires – XSXSW 6 – Austin, TX
Passing up an opportunity to see Lee Bains III & The Glory Fires live is a borderline criminal offense for any fan of hard rocking roots music. When they lit up the Frontier Bar as part of XSXSW 6, it was by far the most raucous set of music that still had real substance to it experienced in 2013. Later in the year when touring with Austin Lucas through Ft. Worth, Lee Bains got shut down and 86′d by the Live Oak Music Hall & Lounge for playing too loud. That’s how legendary Lee Bains live has become.
“As the room was still filling up with patrons, Lee Bains played like he was feeding of the energy of a packed house. This man sings with as much soul as anyone in rock & roll right now, and this was never evidenced more clearer then when he sang the title track of their latest album There’s A Bomb in Gilliead. For SXSW’s most acrobatic moment of 2013, at one point lead guitarist got on the shoulders of Lee Bains as they both walked out into the crowd with guitars blazing. This set was sick.” (from the SXSW 2013 live blog)
2. Jason Isbell – Live Stream of Austin City Limits Taping – August 19th
I admit, it seems strange to put a streaming event such as this on this list, and so high up no less. But if you witnessed it, you would know why. The technology is becoming such, and artists like Isbell are beginning to receive such recognition, that an online experience can sometimes be just as immersive as being there.
“On Monday night the Twitterverse blew up around the occasion of songwriter Jason Isbell recording an upcoming episode of Austin City Limits. The taping was streamed live online, and drew a remarkable amount of attention and praise from the online participants who took the time to tune in. Usually music confined to the online format is at such a distinct disadvantage, it is barely worth your time, and though Austin City Limits’ production value is world-class, this wasn’t what made the event special. Jason Isbell is quite the capable singer, and since he started out as a guitarist for the Drive By Truckers, it’s hard to denounce his musicianship either. His band The 400 Unit was sensational as well, and so was his wife Amanda Shires who sang and played fiddle for the set. But none of this is why the event became a singular experience for those who tuned in.
“It was Jason Isbell’s songs and his songwriting that made so many online watchers walk away with one of those feelings you get after watching a stellar movie—where your mind gets so immersed in the experience it is hard to return to the real world.” (from 2013: The Year of the Songwriter)
1. The Turnpike Troubadours – SXSW The White Horse – Austin, TX
The Red 11 South by Southwest showcase at The White Horse in Austin, TX was already given proper credit above, but the crown jewel of the night was the performance by Oklahoma’s Turnpike Troubadours, which also was the crown jewel of 2013.
“The Turnpike Troubadours were responsible for one of those once-in-a-lifetime musical experiences. The White Horse that had hovered around 3/4 capacity up to that point in the night swelled to where there was no elbow room, and a strong majority of the people there knew every word to the Troubadours songs and proved it by belting them out at every chance. When the band broke into their most popular tunes like ‘Every Girl,’ ’7&7′ and ‘Good Lord, Lorrie,’ the crowd would erupt. During the choruses, the singing of the crowd could become deafening, drowning out the band itself. Their high-energy, inspired performance was great in itself, but the camaraderie created by the crowd made it one of those moments hard to forget. The Turnpike Troubadours have no business playing a venue this small these days, and that is the type of unique experience SXSW can create. Their set was one for the record books.” (from the SXSW 2013 live blog)
You won’t see Reno, Nevada’s Hellbound Glory at the top of anyone’s ‘Best Of’ lists this year, unless it relates to touring or live performances. Leroy Virgil & the boys didn’t leave much time for recording and releasing albums in 2013; they were too busy ripping off one of the toughest, busiest, and arguably the most notable touring schedules in 2013 from an independent country act. It started in February as an opening band on Kid Rock’s “Rebel Soul” arena tour of which a retooled Hellbound Glory did two legs of, all the while playing smaller shows here and there when possible, and then revisiting many of the same areas afterwards on their own bills in the proceeding weeks and months.
Then most recently Hellbound went on a breakneck, two month tour with The Supersuckers, covering 40-something dates spanning the US. When Leroy Virgil rolled into Austin, TX on Friday Dec. 6th to play a quick set at the Empire Control Room downtown, he’d been rode hard and put away wet, and Hellbound Glory had not a familiar face from the members who had started out with him at the beginning of the year. However he’d recruited the very capable guitarist ‘Metal’ Marty Chandler, and drummer Chris VonStreicher from the Supersuckers, and Adam Kowalski from North Carolina on bass and band manager duties.
Aside from the music, the night was weird all around. They started at 9 PM, which is very early for a weekend show in Austin, and a few straggling fans missed some of the set. Hellbound was supposed to play outside, but 20-degree weather and a stiff north wind scrapped those plans. The Empire Control Room was more ambient for a rave than a real country show, with pacifier-sucking, glowstick-twirling visuals projecting onto the walls, and a mandate on Hellbound to stop after an hour so a DJ could spin house music to an entirely empty room. This was all quite in contrast to Leroy’s prominent “Hank” suspenders strapped over his shoulders, and his beer chugging honky tonk tunes.
But when Leroy Virgil and Hellbound Glory 4.0 hit the stage, none of that mattered. Leroy started with a blistering, amplified version of Hank Williams’ “My Buckets Got A Hole In It” that reinvented and revitalized that tune originally learned by Hank Williams from Rufus Payne in the mid-30′s, and made it feel like an iconic 70′s-era Southern rock anthem. Not 30 seconds into the first song, and you could tell that Leroy had played so many shows in front of so many big crowds in 2013, that being on stage was second nature, and a downright showman had emerged from a man who is known as a songwriter first. Not that Leroy was a stiff before, but now he had a swagger about him—a sway and arm motions—engaging the crowd and carrying songs to another level with his ability to be completely uninhibited with the music.
Leroy’s electric guitar sounded horrible. It was a black and white Squier Stratocaster that had “$100″ written on the pick guard in permanent marker like he’d just bought it off the side of the road. It’s the kind of guitar you buy your 14-year-old son when you know he’s only going to ignore it, with stock pickups that sound like the smell of ass. But Leory was just holding down the rhythm anyway, and then getting out of the way for ‘Metal’ Marty to rip into some of the juiciest solos Hellbound’s music has ever been graced with. Despite the ‘Metal” addendum to his name, Marty referred to a heavily influenced and versed knowledge of country guitar modes and licks that he displayed with confidence and abandon. It was a high volume, electric country show, and more than a stone’s throw from the days of Leory sitting on a bass drum, playing it with the back of his heel while strumming an acoustic guitar.
Leroy played a lot of his more well-known Hellbound Glory songs, a few more covers like his rendition of Hank Jr.’s “Women I’ve Never Had” and Springsteen’s “I’m On Fire.” He was also featuring a ferocious growl that punctuated parts of songs and overall became one of the highlights and takeaways of the set. Leroy’s voice has become tattered around the edges like a cheap blue tarpaulin pulled over an apartment’s worth of shit made susceptible to the wind on a cross-country move, and then marinated by a thousand shots of whiskey lined up all across the front of the stage by well-meaning fans. But like an old tinker, Leroy has taken what he’s been given, and made it into one of his finest tools: a road-worn and weathered bellow with which he can unfurl and blow a crowd away with.
Forget how many new players make up the Hellbound Glory cast, when Leroy gave a subtle hint to whatever song he wanted to play next, his band was right there behind him, hitting every change, and holding every sustain as good or better as any Hellbound Glory lineup. Leroy has never been good at keeping new material a secret, and the set featured a few new songs, and so did the half hour or so after the set when he pulled out his acoustic guitar and gave a personal concert to all who stuck around on the side of the stage.
Whenever Hellbound Glory’s name is mentioned these days, the next question you hear is, “When’s the new album coming out?” Though I wasn’t able to glean that specific intel from Leroy, I can tell you he’s recently been doing some recording in Aberdeen, WA. I wouldn’t hold your breath on hearing the results of that anytime soon, but if the new songs Leroy’s been playing are any indication, when new music does emerge, it promises to be worth the wait.
Until then, you can use the below Leroy Virgil recap of the last year or so to tide you over.
Two guns up.
The following story is a guest post by Mike Fiedler, proprietor of the Shore Road Tavern in northeast Philadelphia.
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Back in October of 2012, Leroy Virgil and the boys from Hellbound Glory flew into New York City for a handful of East Coast shows including one at The Shore Road Tavern. We run the place like a true roadhouse by maintaining a third floor apartment above the bar, which is reserved strictly for the touring musicians that play our venue. It has become a welcome stop on the road as it allows musicians a chance to relax after their set, hang out with the crowd, or chill in the apartment, and to not have to worry about loading out until the next day. This was to be our third time hosting the ‘scumbags’ and, needless to say, we were really looking forward to their company as always. But this trip held a special purpose for Leroy.
Jimmy Lloyd, host of NBC’s The Jimmy Lloyd Songwriter Showcase, had chosen Leroy Virgil, along with singer songwriter Sean Walsh, to participate in the inaugural episode of his “Live Songwriter-in-the-Round Series” at Hill Country BBQ, located near 26th and Broadway in New York City. The event was being taped by NBC Digital Networks for a future broadcast, and immediately after the hour long taping, Hellbound Glory was to play a full-band set.
Leroy invited us to come up for the Thursday night show. Since it was going to be such a big night for the band, and we live a very convenient 90 miles from Manhattan, we didn’t hesitate to say yes. Plus we had a large case of Hellbound Glory shirts that were shipped to the bar, in advance of their upcoming Philly show that Saturday, so I figured they’d come in handy.
The “Songwriter Showcase” followed a format that saw each songwriter perform one of their songs, one after another, followed by a discussion about the meaning of the song and how it evolved. Throughout the evening, Leroy was the clear standout.
After Hellbound Glory finished playing at Hill Country, the guys opted to ride back to Philly with us that night instead of taking a train the next day, but they had a 1am show to do somewhere in the East Village first. We started to load their gear into our SUV, and as Leroy was putting his guitar case in the back, he muttered “I’m tired of dragging this thing around” “I’m gonna’ leave it in Philly”. “Yeah, yeah, right Leroy”, I said. With a camera crew in tow, that had apparently been following Leroy around New York City all day, we squeezed in to a few vehicles and set out for the East Village.
After a late show, and an uneventful ride back to Philly, we pulled up to the bar and started to unload the truck. As Leroy pulled his guitar case out of the back, he reiterated, “I am, I’m leaving this thing here, I’m tired of dragging this thing around”. “Yeah, yeah, right Leroy”, I said. We dropped them off at the apartment and went home to crash. We returned to the bar later that afternoon because, as willing as they were to rely on Amtrak for this handful of shows, they were equally willing to accept the offer of my truck to run down to DC for a show that night. As they loaded up the truck, Leroy again repeated how he was leaving his guitar “here at the apartment in Philly”.
By now, knowing how mischievous Leroy can be, and how much he loves fucking with people, I am pretty much dismissing him outright as ‘Leroy just being Leroy’.
They came back from DC Saturday afternoon and pretty much laid low in the apartment until showtime. The boys once again played to a packed house, throwing down another raucous three hour show that we’ve become accustomed to whenever they play Philadelphia. We hung out until well after closing and, since they really had no place to be until they flew back to Reno on Monday, they decided to stick around for another night. We surely didn’t care as long as they didn’t mind sharing the apartment with the acts scheduled to play that Sunday night, James Hunnicutt and Filthy Still (which, at the time, featured Jared McGovern and Liz Sloan as touring members). Of course they didn’t mind.
With a lighter turnout on Sunday night, and so many musicians milling about, the night broke out into some spontaneous music, both in the bar after Filthy Still’s set, and well into the night as James Hunnicutt, Jared McGovern, and Liz Sloan continued to work on some things in the empty floor above the bar. At one point, I walked in to see Leroy sitting in the corner, leaning back in a chair, watching them play with that shit eatin’ grin of his. I pulled up the chair next to him, sat down, and said “yo, that’s Django Reinhardt they’re doing”. He just grinned even wider as he slowly nodded his head. We just sat there for the next 5-10 minutes or so, watching these three virtuosos without saying a word.
The night wound down shortly after that and, as we were socially preparing for the inevitable parting of our separate ways, Leroy once again reinforced his desire to leave his guitar at the apartment as the “house guitar” and to “let everybody play it”. By this point, I was a bit worn down by his dogged persistence and single-mindedness, and for the twelfth time that weekend I said, “yeah, yeah, right Leroy, OK”. We hugged, offered our salutations and well wishes, and went our separate ways until our paths would, inevitably, cross again.
Everybody had left the apartment by Monday afternoon and I didn’t have a chance to get down there and clean until Tuesday morning. As I walked up to the third floor apartment, sure as shit, there it was just like he said. Sitting at the top of the staircase, leaning against the wall with the case open was Leroy Virgil’s beat up old Esteban guitar. I shook my head and thought to myself ‘that’s Leroy being Leroy’ and, with a slight smirk on my face, I picked her up and then just let out a sigh as I placed it into one of the closets. As I was cleaning up the apartment, processing all the events of the last couple days, I kept thinking about one thing in particular that Leroy had said, “let everybody play it”. I then thought about how he had left me in stewardship of his old guitar, an instrument that, from my perspective, already has provenance and should rightly wind up in a museum one day. I decided that, to honor that trust he had in me, I would continue to add to the instrument’s already storied life by doing a running portrait series of every musician that plays his old guitar.
Saving Country Music’s 2010 Album of the Year winner, Reno, Nevada’s Hellbound Glory has just released an entire concert set worth of video footage from a show in Memphis earlier this year while on the Kid Rock tour. Whether you’ve heard the name before but never had the right excuse to check them out, or are a wiley old Hellbound Glory veteran looking for your next Hellbound fix, this video footage will set you right.
“On March 21st, Hellbound Glory descended up on the city of Memphis, Tennessee and the renown FexEx Forum in support of Kid Rock and the Rebel Soul tour. With much respect to the city’s musical heritage (and a visit the day before), the band laid into a blistering 30 minute set, putting into motion a series of events that only time a whiskey will ultimately divulge. This video document is testament to that fateful night Hellbound Glory came to town.
The audio captured here is a “board mix” and has not been altered or remastered in any way.”
For more information, visit hellboundglory.com. They are currently on tour with The Supersuckers.
Another Bender Might Break Me
Hank Williams Records
Cliche Country Singer
Women I’ve Never Had (Hank Jr. Cover)
Baby’s Got A Sugar Daddy
Showin’ Off Sure Is Fun
Repo Man (Medley)
On August 15th, the plans for the upcoming Outlaw Country Music Hall of Fame and an accompanying Outlaw Music Association were made public. 5,000 sq. ft. of space has been allocated for the new Hall of Fame in Lynchburg, TN, and a Board of Directors has been formed that includes Jeremy Tepper of SiriusXM, Terry Jennings of Korban Music Group, author of Outlaws Still At Large Neil Hamilton, Joe Swank at Bloodshot Records, mayor of Lynchburg Sloane Stewart, Professor of Entertainment Law David Spangenburg, architect Thomas Bartoo, and CEO of Sol Records Brian DeBruler.
The announcement stimulated a lot of speculation about what direction the upcoming Hall of Fame would take, but not many serious answers. So Saving Country Music reached out to Gary “Sarge” Sargeant, the spearhead of the Outlaw Country Hall of Fame, to try and clear up many questions about what folks can expect from the upcoming institution.
Sarge is also putting on a charity event coming up October 25-27 for Troy Rector who suffered a debilitating medical accident. The event will be at Chopper Hill in Altamont, TN (More information). The inaugural class of inductees to the Outlaw Hall of Fame will be announced during the event.
You can listen to the entire interview below. For those who prefer a written form, the meat of the interview is transcribed below as well.
Gary Sargeant: I’m a lifelong fan, 55 years old, of Outlaw music, independent artists and labels, and just firmly believe in people who stay true to themselves and their music, and don’t compromise. It all started at a David Allan Coe benefit that I attended back in June. He was in an accident and wasn’t able to tour. I was kind of upset that David Allan Coe required a benefit. That at 73, he had to tour just to pay his bills because back in the day, things happened and he doesn’t own his catalog. And I was trying to think of a way we could support legends, and recognize people like David, or any number of people that have contributed so much to this music, and have never compromised. I wanted to make sure we had a place to recognize those folks who will never get recognized by anybody else, and then also be able to support today’s Outlaws—the Pete Berwick’s, the Gurf Morlix’s. Its time has come, and we’re going to do this.
When you announced the Outlaw Country Music Hall of Fame, you included a Board of Directors. Why have a Board of Directors?
Well, again it goes back to me being just a fan. I’m a fan with an idea. But I knew if we were going to do this and be taken seriously, and if it was going to be successful, I needed to put together a group of industry professionals.
The term “Outlaw” has already been taken by Music Row and used for marketing purposes. It’s safe to say that there’s music consumers out there that think Outlaw means Justin Moore, Eric Church, and others. How do you distinguish yourself from Music Row’s version of Outlaws when Music Row’s reach is so vast?
Nashville can tell somebody to dress in black jeans, grow a five day stubble, put on these boots, act all bad boy. That doesn’t make you Outlaw. Outlaw to me is not a genre of music. Outlaw is an attitude. Outlaw is a refusal to compromise your music or your beliefs in order to make a dollar. It is traveling up and down the roads, thousands of miles a year, traveling 500 miles to play a $150 show. True Outlaws are doing it for the love of the music only. I believe there’s going to be a lot of defections from Nashville music once the Outlaw Music Association and Hall of Fame are established and up and running. The definition of Outlaw should be made by those that are truly Outlaw, not some publicist sitting in an ivory tower in Nashville thinking that this will sell records.
Some may say the term Outlaw is outmoded because Nashville is taking it and using it with very prominent artists like Justin Moore—that the term doesn’t hold the same sway or meaning it once did. Are you saying that term needs to be fought for?
I’m saying it needs to be clearly defined. Of course Nashville is going to try and take anything successful and try to co-opt it. But them jumping on the bandwagon doesn’t make them independent artists. They’re playing to a formula. But the formula doesn’t work. Listen to the stuff coming out of Nashville.
How do you feel about Dale Watson’s Ameripolitan movement, and how does it fit in your plans for the Outlaw Music Association? Will there be overlap? Could there be potential conflict? Is it splitting the independent-minded or Outlaw populous of country music into two segments?
I wouldn’t think so. My hope would be that people going in that direction, because that’s very narrowly focused right now, I hope they would go, “Hold on a second, here’s something that has come along, that is exactly what we’re trying to do, but encompasses even more people, and hopefully is a very inviting and open Association.” Because I believe if we start putting restrictions on who is going to be in it, then we’re no better than the CMA or anybody else. Great music is great music, whether it be Texas Swing, or Southern rock country, or traditional country. If you’re an artist and you believe in what you’re doing, and you’re good at what you do, we’re going to give you all the support in the world, whether it be Dale Watson, or Shooter Jennings who can go off in different tangents and experiment with different music, or Hank3 who is so excellent. There’s so many artist out there that don’t have a place to call home, and that’s what the Outlaw Music Association is gonna be. It’s gonna be a place where independent labels and artists can receive support, promotion, and have a place they can call home and feel welcomed for who they are instead of something somebody else wants them to be.
We’ve seen in the past, for example with Shooter Jennings’ “XXX” movement and Dale Watson’s Ameripolitan movement, there’s been a lot of conflict and dissension with these attempts to unify the music behind a common purpose. I think that may be what is at the root of some fear and concern of what the Outlaw Music Association and Outlaw Country Music Hall of Fame will become. There’s a history of trying to find a uniting element apart from the CMA in the history of country music. Back in the 70′s there was “ACE” that was set up after Olivia Newton-John and John Denver had won CMA Awards. Traditional country artists met at the house of George Jones and Tammy Wynette and tried to form a new thing. The Academy of Country Music was set up because West Coast entertainers felt like the CMA was bias against California country artists. ACE never really took off, and the ACM just became a doppelganger of the CMA….
…and you forgot to mention the AMA, the Americana Music Association.
Sure, which I personally have said in the past is very narrow in focus, even though a lot of the artists they help promote are great artists.
I couldn’t agree with you more. To me, there is an extreme hunger and thirst out there to have an alternative to what’s being pushed down everybody’s throats by Nashville, the record labels, and the conglomerate of radio stations that are out there. Our focus is not narrow. I don’t care if it’s Dale Watson, or Hellbound Glory, or Jamey Johnson, it doesn’t matter. There’s a whole group of artists out there that deserve to be supported. We are not going to impose conditions. If you’re talented, and your music speaks for itself, and your music speaks to fans, our goal is to make sure that we support you. We’re not guaranteeing success for anybody. But we’re not going to say, “You’re not worthy.” Everybody’s worthy if they’re a musician, and they work hard, they write their own music and stay true to it, and they have some fans and are successful, we’re going to make sure they have an opportunity to be even more successful. We are a non-profit. Our proceeds go to supporting the legends, and also supporting the independent artists of today.
The narrowing of perspective seems to be a really big challenge of independent music right now, whether it is with the Americana Music Association, or just these little scenes that have popped up in independent music. How do you insulate yourself from that trend?
Technology is changing by leaps and bounds every month, let alone every year. The money to be made in today’s world is through touring…touring and merchandise. So we are going to support tours. As a non-profit—it’s kind of being dubbed the Outlaw iTunes—where independent artists can upload their music, and we will turn around and allow it to be downloaded for 99 cents a download, and we give all of it back to the artists while not taking 63 cents. We will be asking for a small donation that will go back to the legends. Technology is changing so quickly, and we have some very good people who are up to speed on today’s technology and the future of music distribution. Those are the areas we want to educate independent artists and labels on, and assist them in giving them an outlet to distribute their music, and use the Hall of Fame to support tours, and get [artists] out in front of the people. Are we going to be the savior? Hell no. But are we going to do everything that we can to help these folks who are working so hard and believe in what they’re doing? Yes, we’re going to do everything we can. Is it guaranteeing success? No. Is it guaranteeing effort? Yes.
There’s a lot of people out there touring and writing their own songs, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that their music is valuable enough to be heard by the masses. What’s to keep people who may not embody the Outlaw spirit from just becoming part of this if there’s no governor to keep anybody and everybody from applying?
The fans of Outlaw music are by far the most discerning fans in the world. Otherwise, these artists wouldn’t have any success. An artist will make it if his fans want him to make it. The fans are going to decide if you make it or not, not the Association.
The assertion about Music Row is that they choose who is going to be the stars, and then they push that to the fans. What you’re saying with the Outlaw Music Association is the fans would choose the stars, and the OMA just gives them the platform and the support so that the fans can make that choice.
Eloquently put. And shouldn’t that be the way it is? Shouldn’t the fans be able to say what they like and don’t like? They shouldn’t be told what’s good and not good. With the focus being so narrow and money dictating who is going to be the next star, we’re all robbed. The fans are robbed, the artists are robbed, everybody is robbed of the next potential star. It’s not my job to decide who is good and who’s not good.
Tompall Glaser recently passed away. Right after he died, I posted a quote that came from him back in the 70′s that goes, “Damn it, the fight isn’t in Austin and it isn’t in Los Angeles. It’s right here in Nashville, right here two blocks from Music Row, and if we win–and if our winning is ever going to amount to anything in the long run–we’ve got to beat them on their own turf.” And I’ve heard some similar criticisms about Dale Watson’s Ameripolitan genre where it seems like, “Okay, were going to give up on Nashville and country music, and we’re just going to call it what we want to call it.” What would be your rebuttal to that as far as setting up something that’s apart from Nashville and Music Row?
Lynchburg, TN is not but 55 miles south of Nashville. It’s close enough to pull resources from the Nashville area, but still far enough away and separated enough to say, “Hey, this is separate. This is an alternative.” The people, the demographics that are visiting Lynchburg on a daily basis are the same people that are going to visit our Hall of Fame. It’s all about inclusion. This country is based on freedom, and I believe artists ought to have the freedom to practice their music the way they want without the almighty dollar driving their product.
In closing, I would just like to say to all the fans of Outlaw country music, thank you, and if you really want to make a difference, you have an opportunity. But you have to express your voice. You can’t just sit in your truck or in your house and say, “This sucks,” and expect it to change. If you want change, this is your opportunity. This is a grass roots movement. This is your Hall of Fame. This is your Association. If you want to support artists that made the music what it is today, and those that are continuing in that same vein, support the Hall of Fame, support the Association. Let your artists know that you support us, that you support them by supporting us. This is only going to work if the average fan stands up and says, “I’ve had enough. I want a hand in what I listen to.”
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.
During Johnny Cash’s legendary concert at San Quentin Prison in 1969, photographer Jim Marshall said to Johnny backstage, “John, let’s do a shot for the warden.” The result was the photograph above that mostly remained under wraps until 1998. That is when producer Rick Rubin decided to use the iconic photo in an ad in Billboard magazine decrying country radio’s lack of love for Johnny’s second album on Rubin’s American label called Unchained. Despite no industry support, Unchained went on to win the 1998 Grammy for “Best Country Album.”
Since then the image of the angry face and the raised middle finger has become an iconic symbol of defiance against the direction of country music. As indecent as a raised middle finger happens to be in the first place (and the propensity for some seedy country fans and artists to over-saturate its use in every single photo of them), it has come to mean much more than its vulgar connotation in the fight to save country music.
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Willie Nelson’s middle finger photo was shot by a photographer named Sean Moorman on Willie Nelson’s tour bus on July 26, 2002. The title of image is “Willie Nelson Sending Jim Marshall Regards.” Both the Jim Marshall photo of Johnny Cash and the Sean Moorman photo of Willie stimulated litigation when Urban Outfitters printed up Johnny Cash middle finger T-shirts without permission, and Spencer Gifts did the same with Willie.
Dale Watson doing his best Johnny Cash impression:
Hank Williams III and David Allan Coe in younger days:
Jonny (Corndawg) Fritz telling a fan they’re #1 (Kayley Luftig – Photographer):
Bob Wayne, adding the stink eye for extra emphasis:
Jeff Austin of the Yonder Mountain String Band doing the double bird (Chad Smith Photography):
Keith Richards’ middle finger is insured for $1.6 million. Yes, that one he’s point at you. And no, I’m not kidding.
The wet cigarette of country music, Kid Rock. And Saving Country Music friend “Pointer” from a downtown Nashville excursion in 2011 getting his picture with Kid Rock on the front of Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge.
Townes Van Zandt, from the back cover of his 1972 album The Late Great Townes Van Zandt.
Kellie Pickler telling Kanye West “Fuck You!” for not liking country music (see video).
Lenny Kravitz giving the crowd at the 2013 CMA Fan Fest the double bird because they “couldn’t get with love” during his elongated set that left the crowd underwhelmed.
A sign hanging up in the Johnny Cash themed bar and music venue in Austin, TX called the Mean Eyed Cat.
The ad Rick Rubin placed in Billboard Magazine after Johnny Cash won the 1998 Grammy for Best Country Album:
You may have been a little shocked to read the above title in reference to the wild-assed, ribald-laced, gonzo front man of the legendary West Coast punk rock band The Supersuckers, but die hard fans of Eddie Spaghetti don’t need to be sold on the idea that when Eddie wants to wipe the smirk off of his face, he can pen (or sing) a pretty heartfelt composition, and that even his more silly material still coveys solid elements of wit.
This is what Steve Earle picked up on when he decided to do an album with The Supersuckers, and what country fans heard when the band surprising released a real country record in 1997 called Must’ve Been High. It’s also what has motivated Eddie Spaghetti to continue to release solo country records while continuing his Supersucker duties, including his latest one The Value of Nothing co-porduced by Jesse Dayton in Austin, TX, and dropped a few weeks ago through Bloodshot Records.
The Supersuckers will be hitting the road with up-and-coming country outfit Hellbound Glory on September 1st (see dates below). Eddie was kind enough to take a few minutes to talk to me about The Value of Nothing and the songwriting legacy he’s trying to leave behind.
Trigger: The Value of Nothing is your first solo country or country-ish album of all original songs. Was this on purpose, or did it just sort of happen that way?
Eddie Spaghetti: No it was sort of on purpose. I decided that I should probably start taking this solo thing that I do a little bit more seriously. I always wrote a couple songs for each solo record but I never really bothered to write a whole record, because it was more fun for me to do a bunch of covers. I didn’t take the whole solo artist thing too seriously. And I still don’t think that I take it that seriously. But I appreciate that it’s a real thing for me to be able to get to do now. I just kind of wanted to start leaving a legacy of solo material behind.
You’ve been working pretty hard. You put out another solo album Sundowner in 2011 and you’re working on a new album with your main gig being the front man for The Supersuckers. What motivates you to keep releasing music? You mentioned leaving behind a legacy. Is that what is driving you?
Yeah, that’s kind of what it’s turned into. When we started The Supersuckers, that wasn’t really something we thought about. We just wanted to be a big arena rock and roll band. But it wasn’t in the cards for us, so that’s when you start shifting your priorities and you start realizing, “Wow, I’ve really written a lot of good songs.” And you just try to maintain that level of quality and hope that eventually people will notice.
No, because it is such a part of who I am. It’s a real passion for me to just make up good songs, whether they be country songs or rock songs. But I just think that a good song is a valuable thing to everybody. Who doesn’t want to hear a good song?
The Value of Nothing has a cool cover that speaks to the title with this girl that’s got all this money that’s been ink splattered, or whatever they call that when they rob a bank. Where did the inspiration of that come from?
My wife came up with the whole idea, with the concept of the cover. She collaborated with the art guy that we use for all the solo record covers. She’s actually the model for the cover. It worked out really well. I think it made sense in a loose kind of way to the title.
In 1997 The Supersuckers released Must’ve Been High, a sort of landmark album that was the precursor to the whole “punk gone country” movement that would come later, and allowed y’all to get to play behind folks like Steve Earle and Willie Nelson. There were a few others before you like The Knitters, but at the time did you feel like you were doing something cutting edge and innovative, or were you just out to have a good time and it turned out that way?
Yeah, it was kind of a little bit of both. We knew we were up to something cool. We knew what we were doing was really cool. And when the record came out our fans were so shocked. The reaction to the record was pretty crappy. No one really liked it. No one got it. Everyone thought we were just taking a piss, and throwing our last contractual obligation to Sub Pop down the toilet. But we didn’t feel like that at all. We thought we were going to make this real good real country record, and it’s going to stand the test of time. And it turns out it has. It’s become our big record.
Now that there’s so many punk bands turning their electric instruments in for acoustic ones, do you feel like it has become more of a hip thing instead of one driven by heart for punk bands to go country, or is it a cool phenomenon?
I think it’s a little bit of both. Some of these bands are just in it for the fashion of it, because you know they can’t really play fast, or they can’t do the things they initially thought they could do. But it turns out they can play an acoustic guitar okay, so they switch. You know, if you’re a remedial artist, you’re going to be a remedial songwriter. It takes someone really special to make it, and I think the cream usually rises to the top. Eventually people notice who’s good, and who’s kind of pretending at it. I don’t bother myself with insulting bands too often unless they’re just really crappy.
You’re about to go out on tour with Hellbound Glory; a band that’s finally getting some worthy attention. Do you know their music, and what do you think about them?
I like them, I think they’re good. I think they’re quality, and they’re the real deal. They put on a really good live show. I’m really looking forward on going on tour with them.
Supersuckers Tour Dates with Hellbound Glory:
|09/01/13||Providence, RI||Fête||Hellbound Glory|
|09/02/13||DeWitt, NY||Lost Horizons||Hellbound Glory|
|09/04/13||Cambridge, MA||The Middle East||Hellbound Glory|
|09/05/13||New Haven, CT||Cafe Nine||Hellbound Glory|
|09/06/13||Stanhope, NJ||Stanhope House||Hellbound Glory|
|09/07/13||Brooklyn, NY||The Bell House||Hellbound Glory|
|09/08/13||New Hope, PA||Fran’s Pub||Hellbound Glory|
|09/10/13||West Chester, PA||The Note||Hellbound Glory|
|09/11/13||Baltimore, MD||Ottobar||Hellbound Glory|
|09/12/13||Washington, DC||Rock N Roll Hotel||Hellbound Glory|
|09/14/13||Cleveland, OH||Beachland Ballroom||Hellbound Glory|
|09/15/13||Hamtramck, MI||Small’s||Hellbound Glory|
|09/17/13||Buffalo, NY||Tralf Music Hall||Hellbound Glory|
|09/18/13||Pittsburgh, PA||Altar Bar||Hellbound Glory|
|09/19/13||Altoona, PA||Aldo’s Lounge||Hellbound Glory|
|09/20/13||Lancaster, PA||Chameleon Club||Hellbound Glory|
|09/21/13||Long Branch, NJ||The Brighton Bar||Hellbound Glory|
|09/26/13||Lexington, KY||Cosmic Charlie’s||Hellbound Glory|
|09/27/13||St Louis, MO||Fubar||Hellbound Glory|
|09/28/13||Kansas City, MO||Knuckleheads Saloon||Hellbound Glory|
|09/29/13||Des Moines, IA||Vaudeville Mews||Hellbound Glory|
|10/01/13||Minneapolis, MN||Triple Rock Social Club||Hellbound Glory|
|10/02/13||Green Bay, WI||Crunchy Frog||Hellbound Glory|
|10/03/13||Lombard, IL||Brauerhouse||Hellbound Glory|
|10/04/13||Lombard, IL||Brauerhouse||Hellbound Glory|
|10/05/13||Waterloo, IA||Spicoli’s Bar & Grill||Hellbound Glory|
|10/06/13||Omaha, NE||The Waiting Room Lounge||Hellbound Glory|
|10/08/13||Fort Collins, CO||Hodi’s Half Note||Hellbound Glory|
|10/10/13||Denver, CO||Larimer Lounge||Hellbound Glory|
|10/11/13||Denver, CO||Larimer Lounge||Hellbound Glory|
|10/13/13||Salt Lake City, UT||Burt’s Tiki Lounge||Hellbound Glory|
|10/16/13||Las Vegas, NV||LVCS (Las Vegas Country Saloon)||Hellbound Glory|
|10/17/13||Costa Mesa, CA||Tiki Bar||Hellbound Glory|
|10/18/13||West Hollywood, CA||Viper Room||Hellbound Glory|
|10/20/13||San Diego, CA||Soda Bar||Hellbound Glory|
|10/22/13||Walnut Creek, CA||Blu 42 Sports Lounge||Hellbound Glory|
|10/23/13||San Francisco, CA||DNA Lounge||Hellbound Glory|
|10/24/13||Santa Rosa, CA||Russian River Brewing Company||N/A|
|10/25/13||Portland, OR||Dante’s||Hellbound Glory|
|10/26/13||Seattle, WA||Tractor Tavern||Hellbound Glory|
|10/27/13||Bainbridge Island, WA||Treehouse Cafe||Hellbound Glory|
You know how you may root for a hometown sports team for years even though they’re terrible, and then out of the blue when they start to get good you don’t know how to behave because you’ve identified with losing for so long? Well that is what is happening in 2013 with many of the artists Saving Country Music and so many loyal fans have been following for years. Acts that we got in a habit of using as evidence of how the industry was woefully neglecting legitimate talent are now finally starting to find success, reshaping our theories on music’s downward spiral.
There is still much to do, but in 2013 we can find signs hope in the success of these artists.
When Saving Country Music named Hellbound Glory’s Old Highs & New Lows its 2010 Album of the Year, we were hoping someday the Reno, NV-based band might find the bigger audience they deserved, but who knew that only a few years later they would be playing to sold out arenas as an opening act on a Kid Rock tour. Hellbound Glory’s road was winding, and with the strength of front man Leroy Virgil’s songs they could still grow from here, but 2013 is the year we will point back on as the time they finally got their boot in the door.
With all the talk of 2013 being the “Year of the Woman” in country music, Caitlin Rose’s name has been appearing right beside names like Ashley Monroe and Kacey Musgraves as evidence that country’s new crop of women are the ones restoring substance to the genre. Once thought of as the UK’s best kept independent country secret, Caitlin’s scope is now coast to coast here across the pond as the songs from her critic’s favorite The Stand-In speak to a wide audience with both accessibility and smarts. Working with the Dave Matthews-backed ATO Records, Caitlin’s voice is finally starting to find an audience, and with a voice like hers, the sky is the limit.
There is nobody in roots music who has worked harder, toured more, come so close to finally getting his break so many times, and deserves the sweet rewards of success more than Austin Lucas. Though Austin had received some fortunate breaks in the past touring on Chuck Ragan’s Revival Tour and the Country Throwdown Tour, a year ago after seeing Austin Lucas deliver an inspiring show at Austin, TX’s Mowhawk club, he confided in me he was concerned if his music would ever stick, and how he was growing older by the day. The very next show Austin played resulted in him eventually being signed to New West Records, who is scheduled to release his latest album Stay Reckless on August 27th. Austin Lucas is a positive example of why you never give up, and how the power of the song can still override the concerns of the traditionally shallow music industry.
If there is one artist symbolizing hope for real country music in 2013, it is Sturgill Simpson. Like all of these artists, he’s put the hard work in as well, but the biggest lesson to take away from Sturgill’s success is to never settle for second best, and to believe in yourself. By allowing his music and personality to remain more of an enigma than a known quantity, Sturgill was able to make sure he wasn’t boxed in to any scene or subtext so when the time was right he could present his music to the world on his terms. Working with Thirty Tigers, and having been out on tour with folks like Dwight Yoakam and Junior Brown, Strugill is building a formidable career in country music.
Valerie June received the mother of all opportunities in 2013 when she was asked to appear in front of a national audience as part of an intimate duet with Eric Church at this years ACM Awards. But that might just be the beginning for Valerie, whose highly-anticipated album Pushing Against A Stone set to be released on August 13th is already receiving buzz from big media outlets like Billboard and NPR. Like Ashley Monroe and Caitlin Rose, Valerie June is primed to join the class of inspiring up-and-coming country women taking shape in 2013.
Over the last few months we have finally begun to see a few success stories be made of some excellent songwriters that sat under the radar for way too long—folks like Sturgill Simpson and Leroy Virgil of Hellbound Glory. If you were looking for another name of a songwriter that’s been criminally overlooked for too long, and has that uncompromising honky tonk sound like Dale Watson and Whitey Morgan, then the man you seek is North Carolina’s Eric Strickland, and his backing band The ‘B’ Sides.
Eric Strickland is Country with a capital ‘C’ and couldn’t make a bad album if he tried. He may be more locally-oriented than the other big names in honky tonk music, but gives up nothing to his more well-known comrades when it comes to cutting songs and records.
At the heart of Strickland’s appeal is his ability to take what on the surface may seem like tired, clichè country themes, and give them a fresh, new feel. Take “whiskey” for example, maybe the most worn out word in country music. His last album Honky Tonk Till I Die ends with the song “Drinkin’ Whiskey” that went on to be nominated for SCM’s 2012 Song of the Year. Strickland starts off I’m Bad For You right where the last album ended, with the excellent booze-drenched “The Whiskey Seems To Always Change My Mind,” pulling you in with its walking bass line in the chorus and cutting, true lyrics.
Strickland serenades even harder stuff later on the album with another standout, the chicken-picking “Methamphetamines.” This leads into the album’s best ballad, “Brandy On My Mind” written by ‘B’ side guitarist and harmonizer Gary Braddy. The song “I’m Bad For You” is another great honky tonk classic belted out with just as much bravado as honesty.
The album concludes in two rousing live tracks–a real treat because as Eric Strickland fans can attest, as good as his albums are, his live show may even be better. His backing band The ‘B’ Sides are more seasoned than some bands that play 280 shows per year. All you you need to do is listen to their rendition of Little Richard’s “Lucille” and you’ll hear it for yourself. It’s got some of those moments that make it feel like a feather is being raked on the back of your neck. It’s followed by an excellent live version of “18 Wheel of Hell On The Highway” from Eric’s last album.
One concern with I’m Bad For You is that after the first song, the album slows the tempo down, and stays there for quite a while. No song is bad, but this doesn’t really allow the album to suck you in. But with the overall line up of stellar songs on this album, it rivals any other released so far in 2013.
Real deal, true blood, hard driving, but daring to be sweet in moments, Eric Strickland and The ‘B’ Sides are doing their part to save country music. Now it’s time to do your part by giving them your ear and attention.
Two guns up.
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For years we took for granted that the mainstream music industry was in a calamitous free fall, spiraling towards cataclysmic implosion. We were so sure of this diagnosis, we used it as the crux of all our music theories. Then lo and behold, the industry figured out how to pull out of the tailspin, and independent artists that years before we’d never dream of seeing getting big breaks began to get noticed. Hellbound Glory has been out on arena tours. Sturgill Simpson is touring with Dwight Yoakam. The Alabama Shakes are playing SNL, Shovels & Rope is playing ACL, and everyone is playing Letterman. All of a sudden it’s not appropriate to be so sullen about the direction of music.
But if you’re looking for an act that is still virtually unknown, one that is buried deep in the underground and that embodies the raw energy of the roots movement and not just a commercially-viable watered-down derivative, one whose active ingredient still works on even the most hardened of roots addicts, then Jayke Orvis and The Broken Band might be your drug.
A founding member and the mandolin player for the groundbreaking .357 String Band, Jayke Orvis may have taken a long and windy road to finding his way in the music world, but if his current sonic output is any evidence, he has found his path, and it is righteous. What made the .357 String Band so singular was that it was four dudes testing the very limits of human ability with instrumentation, while positively debilitating you with the emotion of their songwriting. When Orivs was undutifully released from .357 (the band eventually disbanded in late 2011), he became more of a singer/songwriter type of performer, sometimes favoring the guitar over his mandolin.
As the name alluded, Jayke’s “Broken Band” was a hodgepodge of plug-in players that all did dutiful jobs, but never had the stability to congeal enough to hone in on everything that the music could be. Orvis himself was a revolving member of the Gothic roots outfit The Goddamn Gallows, and regularly borrowed from their players for his Broken Band on dual Orvis/Gallows tours. The collaborations were enthralling and memorable in their own right, but never allowed Jayke the intimate focus on his own music that it needed to realize its true potential.
Jayke finally declared earlier this year that he was taking his last tour with the Gallows, and trained his attention solely on a solid, permanent Broken Band lineup that includes guitarist James Hunnicutt, and former Bob Wayne Outlaw Carnies’ Liz Sloan and Jared McGovern on fiddle and upright bass respectively. With stability and a shared vision of making a band around Jayke’s music, but one where all musicians are treated as equal, Jayke Orvis & The Broken Band have re-captured the fervor and spellbinding performance aspect that made the .357 String Band such a force of music nature. If anything, The Broken Band may be taking it a step further with a deeper attention to composition, pushing all four players to the edge of their abilities, and the edge of human capability itself, balanced by slow and mid-tempo songwriter material.
Jayke Orvis & The Broken Band are the underground roots equivalent of the Punch Brothers, and are one of the top tier performers of the underground sub-genre. But as Jayke explains, he’s not looking for recognition from the Americana Music Association or berths on arena tours with big country names. “I want to open for Slayer,” Jayke told me right after their live set at Austin, TX’s Scoot Inn on 5/06. “Well I mean that may be a little hard now, but I want to show punk and metal kids that roots music can be cool.”
As the overall roots world seems to be benefiting from a rising tide, it’s not hard to wonder if some of the best of the underground are being left behind, and how long this rising tide will last before the popularity arch begins to fade. Jayke Orvis is one of those artists who has stuff that could catch fire. He’s one that could benefit when roots fans conclude that Mumford & Sons just doesn’t have the mustard to hold their attention long-term.
Jayke Orvis & The Broken Band recently released their 2nd album, Bless This Mess on Farmageddon Records. His first album It’s All Been Said constituted the formation of that record label. Though the album has officially been out for a while, you won’t find it on Amazon or iTunes. You can’t stream it on Spotify or Pandora. I secured my copy at a live show, and was told there was only a few more copies left in their merch bag before they would be able to restock in a few days. A good problem to have in some respects, but one that makes the outreach of the music problematic when people can’t get it.
Bless This Mess didn’t have a well-promoted release date, if any true release date at all. No promotional push paralleled its availability. No review copies were sent out to independent music outlets, including Saving Country Music which named Jayke Orvis its 2010 Artist of the Year. In 2013, statistics show that for every song bought, 100 are streamed, and that albums that are streamed for free prior to their release sell more copies. To not make an album available at all digitally puts the album and the artist at an unparallelled disadvantage. This does not necessarily mean this is neglect on the part of Jayke or his label. All of this very well may be on purpose, and I’m sure it will be available digitally eventually. But the point of releasing music is to get it in as many hands as possible, and an artist holds no more potent promotional tool than when they release an album.
When I loaded Bless This Mess into my computer, the tracks were unmarked. I got “Unknown Artist” and “Unknown Songs” with the track times and numbers. If the idea is that this is an underground approach to releasing music, this is somewhat misguided. Jello Biafra was such a genius because he was able to get his music right beside the music of big labels in record stores by doing it the right way. Legions of hopeful artists with awful music release albums every day that in no way reach the quality level of Bless This Mess, but get more attention because they’re released the right way. You want to know what so much popular music sounds so bad? Because some people are willing to understand the correct approach. Jayke Orvis’s music is too good to put limitations on it by not following the easy and well-established modes of how to release an album.
The counter-point is that Jayke’s fan base is so loyal, all these concerns are silly. But the goal of any artist, even one that is not driven by fame or money, is to attain a healthy sustainability that hopefully factors in at least some moderate growth.
Though Bless This Mess seems like it may be one step behind where Jayke & The Broken Band are right now with their live show, it still boasts some excellent arrangements and performances, and a wonderful lineup of both originals and covers. Hank’s “Kaw-Liga,” Ralph Stanley’s “Bound to Ride,” and The Weary Boys’ “Pick Up The Steam” round out a remarkable set of well-interpreted renditions. Banjo player and part-time Broken Band member Joe Perreze also offers up one of the albums standout instrumentals in “Clankertown.”
This all leads into Jayke’s original material. Whether its blazing instrumentals like “Murder of Crows,” or more singer/songwriter-style material like “West Wind,” and what may be the album’s legacy track “Crooked Smile,” Jayke Orvis shows himself as one of the premier purveyors of Gothic-infused American string music worth a wide ear and critical acclaim. And let’s not gloss over that Jayke also scores well on the intangibles. With the way he presents himself and his stage presence, he has that essential charisma to hold an audience captive, while at the same time the humility to defer to his players and make it more about the music than himself.
Jayke Orvis & The Broken Band is a name that deserves to be ready on the tongue whenever folks query for names of top flight string bands to check out. But it will only get there if at least cursory attention is paid to the promotional side of things. Making good music isn’t enough. Marking track names on albums and distributing an album digitally is the easy part. The hard part is making music that touches you on a human level, and does so in a pioneering way, and this is what Jayke Orvis & The Broken Band do with almost unfair effortlessness.
Two guns up on the Jayke Orvis live show
1 3/4 of 2 guns up on Bless This Mess
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There’s been much talk so far this year about how the women of country are outpacing the men when it comes to the quality of music, and we’ve talked about possible reasons why that is. But we haven’t talked about some of the men that if simply given a chance, could shoot an immediate injection of substance into the country music format. They just need similar chances to their female counterparts.
It’s not that the men of country have any less talent. One of the problems is that many talented country men are making their way to Americana, tired of beating their heads against Music Row’s walls, and not wanting to be lumped in with the laundry list arena rock or country rap currently plaguing the mainstream male country ranks. If country music can’t facilitate the rise of their careers, country will lose their talent to other avenues.
A lack of talent has never been country music’s problem, it’s been recognizing that talent and allowing it to thrive by expressing its originality and creativity. Here are seven men that right now could enter into prominent positions in the country format and immediately make it better.
If you wanted one name, one man to watch in country music in 2013, that name would be Sturgill Simpson. Poised to take the country music world by storm (or at least the independent side of things), Sturgill’s debut solo album High Top Mountain is going to blow the doors off of country music when it’s released on June 11th. Sturg is already making waves out there on the road opening for Dwight Yoakam, and has one of the best management and booking teams behind him. Everything is in place. The next question is, will country music pay attention?
The truth is you’re already hearing Will Hoge on mainstream country radio, you’re just hearing his songs being sung by others. Hoge is one of those songwriters that has been right on the brink of breaking through for 15 years, but has always just been one important puzzle piece away. Eli Young Band had a #1 hit last year with Will’s song “Even If It Breaks Your Heart,” and at the time the songwriter didn’t even have a publishing deal. Recently Lady Antebellum recorded his song “Better Off Now.”
Will is now signed to BMG Nashville as a songwriter, and has been signed as a performer to Atlantic Records and Rykodisc in the past. Though Will has struggled to find the exact right opportunity to take his music to the next level, he is a battle-tested performer, a proven songwriter with commercially-viable material, and an artist the industry is familiar with that could immediately step in amongst country music’s mainstream men and bring more substance to the format, open up new themes, and hopefully challenge other male performers and writers to release more formidable material.
Whitey Morgan and his band The 78′s are the authentic, modern-day extension of country music’s true Outlaw country movement. It doesn’t get more hard country and honky tonk than this. Music Row’s batch of fake Outlaws will only be able to go so far before the American public wakes up to the fact they’ve been sold a bill of goods. Whitey Morgan is country music’s “new Outlaw” for the long haul.
With Evan Felker and the Turnpike Troubadours, the question is not if, but when. You may not be able to find a better example of a songwriter that can bring true country substance yet still find appeal with the masses. Like Hootie taking Old Crow’s “Wagon Wheel” to #1, Felker songs like “Every Girl” “7 & 7″ and “Good Lord, Lorrie” are just screaming to be cut by a bigger name, letting the rest of the world know what a treasure the Texoma region has in this young and exciting band. The hardest thing for a Red Dirt / Texas country band to do is make that transition from regional stars to national recognition, and to do it without streaking their hair with highlights or releasing songs with obviously aims at radio success. The next couple of years are very critical for this band, but if Nashville had any sense, they’d hop on the Turnpike Troubadours bandwagon now.
A former Turnpike Troubadour himself, and a former member of the Mike McClure band, John Fullbright became a serious force in the music world when he released his critically-acclaimed From The Ground Up album last year that rose all the way to winning the young man from Bearden, Oklahoma a Grammy nomination for Best Americana Album. Isn’t it just like Americana to snatch up all of country’s promising male talent? But with the strength of his songs, John Fullbright could find a home in both country and Americana if he wished. At only 25-years-old (it’s his birthday today), the sky’s the limit for this emerging talent.
If you’re wondering where our generation’s Keith Whitley or Chris Ledoux is, look no further. Though Leroy will probably never play Nashville’s game, he’s got country music’s most formidable song catalog just waiting to be cherry picked and matched up with top-tier talent. In the meantime, Leroy and his band Hellbound Glory could be playing sold-out big club/theater shows and headlining grassroots festivals.
Virgil and Hellbound Glory are fresh off opening for Kid Rock on a nationwide arena tour and signing with the prestigious Agency Group for booking. It may be only a matter of months before we stop complaining of why Hellbound Glory isn’t bigger, and start proclaiming that they’ve made it. Time may be running out to get on board with Leroy Virgil at the ground level and enjoy the rise.
If country music was looking for its rough equivalent of Mumford & Sons, The Lumineers, and other acoustic string bands that are all the rage right now, look no further than El Paso, TX’s Dirty River Boys. Way more than just Americana’s version of a boy band, The Dirty River Boys have a grit and authenticity to them many of these other bands so woefully lack. Yet the Dirty River Boys can still can engage large crowds in sincere singalongs that tap into that sense of camaraderie that many music fans are looking for these days.
Other names that could infuse more quality into country: Austin Lucas, Jason Boland & The Stragglers, Corb Lund, Hayes Carll, Jason Eady, Jackson Taylor, Garth Brooks.
Reno, Nevada’s Hellbound Glory has just come off two legs of arena shows opening for Kid Rock on his nationwide Rebel Soul tour, and are recovering now to get ready for their own tour in early summer. “Just signed on with Agency Group to book us and our agent is a big supporter and a legitimate badass so it’ll be rad to have them in our corner for future tours,” front man Leroy Virgil tells Saving Country Music. “Look for us in June all around the country.”
The Kid Rock tour was a big success for the band according to Leroy. “We gained a lot of fans throughout the tour who we can’t wait to see them when we come through with our show next time and made a lot of friends. Also I learned a shit load of things from Kid Rock and his crew and it was awesome to be treated so well after years of slugging it out in clubs. Everyone from the sound techs, the promoters, to Kid Rock and his band treated us like what we we’re doing was worth something which hasn’t always been the case in some of the places we’ve played over the years. All I know is I’m happy to take every opportunity I have to promote my songs and to eat their food and drink their booze, etc. etc. I think its been a more than even trade and we appreciate the help.”
While in the midst of the Kid Rock tour, Hellbound Glory released a new song called “The Feud.”
“I wrote the Feud a few days after seeing Bob Wayne play in Folsom CA with .357 [String Band] backing him,” Leroy explains. “…I wrote it about some relatives and other people I know who work in the medicinal industry. On a two week break from the Rebel Soul tour when we were offered some recording time in a big studio so I figured I’d embrace my Northwest roots and make a big-sounding grunge country song. I wasn’t sure I’d ever get the chance to work with such hi tech equipment again so I used it for everything it was worth. Anything else would have seemed contrived to me and I think we did a great job of getting that modern country sound on a song about farmers, violence, and weed.”
“To me it turned out more country than country. However, for anyone who prefers a stripped down version I’ve made available thru SCM the first recording we did a few years back as a two piece called the Excavators with just guitar, lap steel, bass drum, voice, and harmonica.”
Whenever the name Hellbound Glory is mentioned, the next question is when fans may get to hear some new music.
“Going to be doing as much recording as time and money will allow.” Leroy says. “Whether it be with Shooter, with our buddies Mike Lattanzi and Tommy Byrnnes (who did the Feud) or by myself if I can learn the technology. Can’t wait to hit everyone with our next single, not sure what it’ll be yet but if anyone has any suggestions we’d like to hear em….. Although I do have a batch of new songs I think will knock people’s socks off that I’m chomping at the bit to record as well. Gonna try to keep the bender broadcasts coming as well. Got about 5 of them up right now on iTunes and a bunch of acoustic stuff in the can we’ll put out once its put together. Just need to get Rico (Hellbound’s slide player) to get some more skits going one of these days. And if anyone has request, get them to us and we’d be happy to give ‘em a shot.”
“Thanks to everyone for the support. It takes support from a whole lot of people to get a band like us even this far in this day and age and we appreciate every single one of you skumbags and hags out there.”
Just Released: Hellbound Glory plays Hank’s “Lovesick Blues”
Fans of Reno, Nevada’s Hellbound Glory who’ve been waiting patiently for new music since the release of their critically-acclaimed album Damaged Goods in November of 2011 can tide themselves over on a brand new single just released called “The Feud.” A fiery, raucous account of the rigors of rural living, the song features a more rock vibe compared to most Hellbound Glory material, and raw, gunpowder-stained lyrics. Devout listeners of Hellbound’s frontman Leroy Virgil will recognize the song as one he’s been playing live for years, but will rejoice in finally having a studio version to listen to.
As a songwriter, Leroy Virgil is one of the best-kept secrets in country music, but may not be for long as Hellbound Glory traverses the country in a supporting role playing arena shows with Kid Rock. As Leroy told Saving Country Music in an interview right before the tour, “You know, I’m a really stubborn person, and I’m not gonna change any way I don’t want to change. In fact I think over the last couple of years I’m even more hardcore than I’ve ever been. And the new material is going to show that…”
Songs are how country music will be saved; songs that can’t be kept down, whose allure can’t be denied. Like water, they will find a path to listener’s ears eventually. Take Old Crow Medicine Show’s ubiquitous song “Wagon Wheel” that was just cut by Darius Rucker. It was just too good to only exist in independent circles. Or take the example of Kacey Musgraves who just was nominated for “Female Vocalist of the Year” by the ACM Awards right beside Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood, and she’s never even released a major album. But she’s released a major song, and the strength of that carried her to one of the genre’s highest accolades.
Every day hundreds of people wake up, put their pants on, and head to Music Row in Nashville to try to find “the next one”–that song that will take an artist, a publishing house, or a label on a ride up the charts and make one lucky writer financially set. They cull through reams of new material being produced by big songwriting operations, when right under their noses are battle tested songs with proven appeal waiting to be cherry picked from the independent and underground music world. Here are just a few that could be big radio hits for the original artists, or for a top-tier artist who wants to cut their own version.
Turnpike Troubadours – “Every Girl,” “Good Lord Lorrie”
Though “Good Lord Lorrie” from the Turnpike Troubadours’ more recent album Goodbye Normal Street would be a good album cut for a big time artist looking to add a little substance to their project, “Every Girl” that started off the Troubadours’ first album Diamonds & Gasoline is a smash hit single waiting in the weeds.
Jason Isbell – “Alabama Pines”
According to Isbell, a big Nashville name already did take one of his songs and made it a hit when Dierks Bentley made Jason’s “In A Razor Town” into “Home.” Apparently since then the issue has been dropped, but in the meantime someone else should cut “Alabama Pines” and reward Isbell for the influence he’s been spreading around the Americana and country world. Even if “Home” wasn’t taken from “In A Razor Town,” the sonic similarities speak to Isbell’s influence. The way the chorus of “Alabama Pines” rises and then is followed by a down-stepping, infectious singalong bestows it with the level of accessibility a radio hit needs.
Hellbound Glory – “Rusted Up Old Pickup Trucks,” “Be My Crutch,” “She Left Me in Modesto”
Leroy Virgil of Hellbound Glory is one of those songwriters who could catch fire at any moment. Leroy could not only benefit from having one of his songs cut by a big star whose looking to capitalize off of a trend, like Keith Whitely, Leroy Virgil could become the trend, where all of a sudden artists are lining up to cut his songs. Is it probable? Maybe not. Is it possible? With the level of quality and the volume of songs Leroy has pouring out of him, you bet it is. And with Hellbound Glory on tour right now with Kid Rock, the possibility may have just become that more probable.
Shooter Jennings – “The Long Road Ahead”
The problem has never been that Shooter Jennings can’t write a good song. It’s that he can also write a really bad one, or bury a good song with a bad decision, like including Tom Morello’s guitar solo on this song that otherwise could have been a super-hit from the way the chorus comes in and is wickedly infectious. Shooter may be too typecast these days as a middling, club-level draw to ever be given a fair chance by country radio, but I could see a bigger name, especially one of these boy/girl duo or group pairings that could pull off both the Shooter and Elanor Whitmore parts cutting this song and having great success with it.
Josh Abbott Band, Adam Hood, Brian Keane – “I’ll Sing About Mine”
As difficult as it may be to crunch in the brain, anti-Nashville, anti-pop country sentiment has become a popular theme in mainstream country music as Music Row attempts to re-integrate country fans that have been disenfranchised by Nashville’s current direction. Many people who might otherwise find this song appealing from the lyrics may find themselves turned off by the safe sonic approach, but this is where “I’ll Sing About Mine” could find strength as a radio hit, and where it’s revealing message could find a wider audience. Josh Abbot has released the most popular version of this song so far, but songwriters Adam Hood and Brian Keane have released their own versions as well.
Left Arm Tan – “Wish”
Saving Country Music’s 2009 Song of the Year is very similar to “I’ll Sing About Mine” in how it resolves in an anti-Music Row message about being yourself, in an otherwise mainstream-sounding song. Where “Wish” might have an advantage over “I’ll Sing About Mine” is how the song waits until the end to deliver it’s subversive message. “Wish” is a radio hit waiting to happen.
I don’t think it is a stretch to say that Leroy Virgil of Hellbound Glory, and specifically his vast collection of remarkable country songs, is one of the most overlooked and untapped resources in country music. Music Row should be pilfering his song library, and yet the man sits here without even a serious publishing deal. Leroy Virgil is country music’s best kept secret, but the cat may soon be out of the bag as none other than Kid Rock has tapped Hellbound Glory as the opener on the first two legs of his 29-date arena tour.
With Kid Rock’s place as a polarizing figure to some of the same country fans that Hellbound Glory appeals to, the association has drawn some ire. At the same time, it’s hard to not credit Kid Rock for doing something that no other major music artist or entity has done up to this point: recognize Leory’s immeasurable talent and give it a greater outlet.
As Leroy Virgil does a circuit of small town gigs in Idaho to prepare for the big tour, I talked to him about the opportunity, about the concerns of some fans about the Kid Rock affiliation and their worries the opportunity is too much too fast, and about where Leroy and Hellbound Glory go from here.
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Trigger: In my review of Hellbound Glory’s last album Damaged Goods I said, “It’s time for someone to step up. It’s time for Hellbound Glory to graduate, for someone a step higher to step up and put these boys as the opener on a serious tour.” And when I said that, I didn’t have any names in my back pocket of who that would be. But Kid Rock was the guy that ended up stepping up, seeing the potential and talent and putting y’all on his tour. How did that come about?
Leroy Virgil: It’s kind of a funny story. When I first became aware that Chico (former drummer) was going to leave the band, I started doing this bass drum thing. And I started by going every Wednesday and Thursday night to a bar and play there for 4 hours. Rico (slide guitar player) would go down there as well. It’s a bar called Davidson’s in Reno, where we took the picture for the back cover of Scumbag Country. It was a biker bar, and they would play a lot of Kid Rock on the juke box. Me and Rico listened to it so much we were just like, “Yeah, someday we’re gonna tour with Kid Rock.” We never really expected it to happen, and then 6 or 7 months later we get a call, and it was an offer for that cruise ship thing (Kid Rock’s Chillin’ The Most Cruise), and of course we took it. I think Kid Rock may have had access to our music through our manager. I don’t know if it was his decision, but we got the call and there was no way we could turn that down.
Trigger: So you played the Kid Rock Cruise almost a year ago. How did that evolve to this tour? I mean this is a big tour–two months. You’re playing a lot of dates here.
Leroy Virgil: It’s 29 dates over the course of two months. And it’s the first two legs. I’ve got my fingers crossed that we will be invited to the 3rd and 4th leg. When we we’re on the cruise, we got a chance to hang out with him, my wife and I, partied with him some, had a good time. We all just hit it off, so that may have something to do with how we got on this tour.
Trigger: What do you have to say to folks who say, “I don’t want to see Hellbound Glory in a big arena. I don’t want to have to pay for an expensive ticket.” Will those folks still get a chance to see Hellbound Glory in a smaller, cheaper setting in the future?
Leroy Virgil: As far as the whole expensive ticket thing, I can understand. The economy is rough. I couldn’t afford to go to the show if I wasn’t playing at it. But if they’re fans of Hellbound Glory, the shows are going to be great. I’ve got a couple of new guys, a great drummer and bass player. NASCAR Nick came back, he’s on Old Highs & New Lows. So it’s gonna be loud, and it’s gonna be rocking. We’ve got a wild set going. I think it’s going to blow some people’s minds to be honest with you. I can’t wait for people to hear it. But as far as playing smaller show, I don’t think I’ll ever get sick of playing in small, intimate places. I enjoy playing small places, and four, five hour sets of my songs and country classics, drink whiskey on stage and bullshit with the crowd. It’s really becoming a thing where I’d like to play arenas and big places whenever I want, but I definitely don’t want to lose the grass roots, underground following that we have. I hope our fans and people that know our music come up to us and we get a chance to hang out. We don’t want to be isolated. That’s not where good songs come from.
Trigger: Along those same lines, do you think this tour will change Hellbound Glory? And if so, how?
Leroy Virgil: You know, I’m a really stubborn person, and I’m not gonna change any way I don’t want to change. In fact I think over the last couple of years I’m even more hardcore than I’ve ever been. And the new material is going to show that too. If anyone has any reservations about Hellbound Glory being on the road with Kid Rock or being mainstream or whatever, I just want the music to speak for itself. Just listen to the music and if you don’t like it, alright, then you don’t like it. But don’t write anything off just because of anything we’re doing. I’m not changing. I’m still the same person I’ve always been.
Trigger: So you’ll be standing up now, and playing acoustic, or electric, or a little of both?
Leroy Virgil: Yeah I just got this little Harmony guitar that I got from a friend. It’s a 1950′s Harmony arch top acoustic electric. It’s pretty old school. So yeah, I’ll be standing up. I’m trying to get back into that whole mojo of standing up, being a little big more of a front man just because I spent the last 2 1/2 years sitting on that bass drum. It’s exciting. A whole new venture, because I think we had gotten stale. Not with the lineup, just with the setup we had. And you know, I’ll probably continue changing. Who knows what I’ll be doing next year. I’ve got to do something to keep everything fresh. Wait till you hear the new material. You may hate it, you may dig it. No matter what, it’s country. Even if I was playing heavy metal, it’s still country. It’s where I come from. The whole Nashville thing would have never worked out for me anyway. Can you imagine Hellbound Glory, I don’t know, rubbing elbows with Jason Aldean? It’s two completely different worlds. So I’m just kind of eeking out my own thing. I feel like I part of a lot of the scenes, but at the same time I’m on the outside of it too. I think I’m in a pretty good place. I couldn’t be happier than where I am right now.
Trigger: You mentioned new material. I know that you’ve done some recording on this project you’ve called ‘Merica. When can people expect new music from you, or is that in the offing?
Leroy Virgil: I’ve done some work with Shooter (Jennings) but we really haven’t had the time to get everything to where it’s really moving yet. I mean, I don’t want to scrap these songs, I’ve spent a lot of time working on them. But I’m continuing to write new ones. And now I’m kinda sick of those ones so I want to do something new.
Trigger: So you’ve got a glut of material?
Leroy Virgil: I just want to have a microphone going all the time. Record old Hank Williams songs, old Lefty Frizzell songs and just give them away.
The underground country movement started roughly in the mid 90′s on lower Broadway in Nashville that at the time was a run down part of town. Young musicians from around the country, some from punk backgrounds, came together from their mutual love of authentic country music to create a counterbalance to the pop country that was prevailing on Music Row a few blocks west.
Underground country started with mostly neo-traditionalists like Wayne “The Train” Hancock, Big Sandy, and Dale Watson, but spread to the punk and heavy metal world through acts like Hank Williams III and Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers. This list does not just consider the appeal of these albums, but also the influence they had on other underground artists and albums, and on country music and music in general.
Please understand that this list is just for underground country albums. This means artists better defined by the Deep Blues like Scott H. Biram or Possessed by Paul James, or Texas artists like James Hand or Ray Wylie Hubbard, or country artists who may work on the fringes of underground country but would not necessarily be considered underground like BR549 or Roger Alan Wade, are not included. Americana acts are not included. This is strictly underground country’s opportunity to bask in the spotlight.
Please feel free to leave your own list below.
16. The Boomswagglers- Bootleg Beginnings – 2011
This very well may be the most authentic album of music put out in the modern era for any genre. The Boomswagglers have always been and continue to be more myth than reality, with original Boomswaggler Lawson Bennett long gone and a cavalcade of replacements shuffling in an out with Spencer Cornett. Even if they never put out another album, The Boomswagglers made their mark, and it is a deep one.
“The music is wildly entertaining and deceptively deep. If you’re going to be a Boomswagglers song, someone’s got to die, and likely a woman. Some may find this silly, monotonous, or even offensive, but you have to listen beyond the lyrics, and unlock the carnal wisdom that is hidden in these songs.” (read full review)
15. JB Beverley & The Wayward Drifters – Dark Bar & A Juke Box – 2006
Dark Bar & A Juke Box was an instant underground country classic, and so was the anti Music Row song that the album got its name from. JB and his Wayward Drifters grit out a superb selection of songs displaying taste, restraint, and a sincere appreciation for the roots of country music, which may have surprised some who knew JB more for his work with heavy metal bands like The Murder Junkies and the Little White Pills. Dark Bar & A Juke Box also boasts appearances from the famous son and grandson of a country music royal family, who due to contractual issues had to work incognito (wink wink).
14. Lucky Tubb & The Modern Day Troubadours – Del Gaucho – 2011
Some (including Lucky himself) may point to Hillbilly Fever as being the seminal Lucky Tubb album with its big budget and appearances by Wayne “The Train” Hancock. But Del Gaucho is where Lucky Tubb came into his own, found his sound, and the unique musical flavor only he has to offer the world. Dirty, rowdy, rocking, but still steadfastly neo-traditionalist country, Del Gaucho scores off the charts when it comes to style points. When you’re talking about some of the greatest neo-traditional country albums and artists of all time, Lucky Tubb and Del Gaucho deserve to be in that conversation.
13- Bob Wayne & The Outlaw Carnies – Blood to Dust – 2008
They say you have your whole life to write your first album, and what makes Bob Wayne’s Blood to Dust so special is how true and touching he told his life’s story through song. His subsequent albums aren’t too shabby either, but with signature songs like “Blood to Dust”, “Road Bound”, and “27 Years”, this still stands out as his signature album, and a signature album of the underground country movement. It was performed, produced, and recorded by an all-star cast of contributors that included Donnie Herron, Joe Buck and Andy Gibson, and brought Bob Wayne out from behind-the-scenes as Hank3′s guitar tech, and made him one of the movement’s most well-known songwriters and performers.
12. Jayke Orvis – It’s All Been Said – 2010
This is the album that launched Farmageddon Records, and that launched Jayke Orvis as a formidable, premier front man in underground country. One of the founding members of the now legendary .357 String Band, Jayke was asked to leave the band because of irreconcilable differences and almost immediately began touring with The Goddamn Gallows and trying to make this album happen. The result was a slick, tightly-crafted LP showcasing excellent songwriting and instrumentation. From ballads to blazing instrumentals, Jayke Orvis has proved himself to be one of the singular talents of underground country roots.
11. Lonesome Wyatt & Rachel Brooke – A Bitter Harvest – 2009
This album was destined to become an underground country classic. The mad genius music mind of Lonesome Wyatt of the Gothic country duo Those Poor Bastards has the uncanny ability to procure the absolute most appropriate sounds to evoke the desired dark mood in his music. Then you combine that with one of the best voices not just in underground country, but in all of music in Rachel Brooke, and magic was bound to happen. The creativity on A Bitter Harvest is spellbinding. More of an artistic endeavor than a toe tapper, Lonesome Wyatt and Rachel create a soundtrack to human emotion and despair. For people looking for a place for country music to evolve, A Bitter Harvest shows how you can take authentic country themes and an appreciation for the roots of the music, and envelop it in layers of textural color culled from the wide experience of human sounds.
10. Justin Townes Earle – Midnight At The Movies – 2009
Midnight At The Movies was Saving Country Music’s 2009 Album of the Year. Today it would be difficult to characterize Justin Townes Earle as underground country because the quality of this album launched him into the inner sanctum of Americana.
“Justin Townes Earle has done an awesome thing with this album; he has figured out a way to unite all the displaced elements that make up the alternative to mainstream Nashville country, while still staying somewhat accessible to the mainstream folks as well. You might even catch the bluegrass folks nodding their head while listening to it. Folkies like it, and there’s a few tunes blues people can get into. This isn’t just the REAL country album of the year, it is the “Alt-country” album of the year and the “Americana” album of the year.” (read full review)
9. Slackeye Slim - El Santo Grial, La Pistola Piadosa – 2011
“Every once in a while, an album comes along that changes everything. It’s an album that inspires other albums, and dynamic shifts in tastes and approach throughout a sector of music, while at the same time dashing the dreams of other artists, as the purity and originality are way too much to attempt to rival. Slackeye Slim’s El Santo Grial, La Pistola Piadosa is one of those albums.
“El Santo Grial is a masterpiece, exquisitely produced, arranged, and performed. This is a patient, uncompromising album. You can tell time was never introduced into this project as a goal. The goal was to flesh out Slackeye’s vision without ever settling for second best, and that goal was accomplished.” (read full review)
8. Wayne “The Train” Hancock – That’s What Daddy Wants – 1997
Thunderstorms & Neon Signs is the Wayne Hancock album most people gravitate towards as their favorite because it was their first, and the first to showcase Wayne Hancock’s unique blend of country, Western Swing, rockabilly, and blues. But pound for pound, That’s What Daddy Wants is just as good of an offering, boasting some of The Train’s signature songs like “87 Southbound” and “Johnny Law”. Wayne Hancock has never put out a bad album, and distinguishing between them is difficult. But it’s not difficult to say that the underground country movement would have not had as much class if That’s What Daddy Wants hadn’t seen the light of day.
7. .357 String Band – Fire & Hail – 2008
“They were all the absolute best possible musicians you could find at their respective positions, each challenging each other, pushing each other to keep up with the band’s demands for artistic excellence in both instrumental technique and creative composition.
“Listening back now at Fire & Hail, with so much talent in one place, no wonder the project was untenable, and no wonder the respective players have moved on to become their own trees instead of respective branches of the same project. Still, the loss of .357 String Band may go down as underground country’s greatest tragedy.” (read full review)
6. Hank Williams III - Lovesick, Broke, & Driftin’ – 2002
BR549 and Wayne “The Train” Hancock spearheaded the neo-traditionalist movement in the mid 90′s, but Hank Williams III was the one to carry it into the oughts and introduce it to a brand new crop of fans he brought along from his dabblings in the punk/heavy metal world. After having to tow the line somewhat for his first album Risin’ Outlaw, Hank3 was unleashed and able to showcase his own songwriting, heavily influenced by Wayne Hancock and Hank3′s famous grandfather, but still all his own. His voice was wickedly pure with a heart wrenching yodel and commanding range. The songwriting was simple, but powerful. This is a masterpiece, and remains an essential title of the neo-traditionalist era.
5. Hellbound Glory – Old Highs & New Lows – 2010
Hellbound Glory had already been around for years, but they burst into the underground with this magnificent, hard country album highlighted by head man Leroy Virgil’s world class songwriting. Despite the “hell” in their name and the hard language in their songs, Hellbound Glory hadn’t gone through any retooling as post punk refugees. They were pure country through and through and Old Highs & New Lows combined excellent Outlaw-style bar stompers and ballads with some of the most wit-filled songwriting since Keith Whitley. As far as honky tonk albums go, it may be years before this one is trumped. And when it is, it might be Leroy Virgil and Hellbound Glory doing the trumping.
4. Dale Watson – Live in London…England – 2002
Dale comes out on stage and starts slinging guitars, cutting classics, and speaking the truth. Before Dale was the hometown boy and house band for Austin, he was pissed off and willing to sing about it. Dale’s anti-Nashville classics “Real Country Song”, “Nashville Rash”, and “Country My Ass” can all be found here, but Live in London isn’t all pissing and moaning. Songs like “Ain’t That Livin’” showed off Dale’s superlative voice and suave style. Honky tonk albums are sometimes hard to make because it is hard to capture that live, sweaty energy in the recorded context. So what better way to solve that problem than making a live one? Live in London remains the best Dale album to date.
3. Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers – Cockadoodledon’t – 2003
This was one of the first albums to bust out of the burgeoning music scene on lower Broadway in Nashville where one can argue the undergorund country movement started. It showed the world what kind of mayhem could be created by mixing country, blues, and punk music together without compromising taste and soul. It is the album which acts as a guidepost to the eclectic, yet intuitive and inter-related mix of influences that you will find in underground country: honest to goodness appreciation to the roots of American music, with a punk attitude and approach. And if you ever wondered why Joe Buck is considered part of underground country, appreciate that he played most of the music on Cockadoodledon’t.
2. Wayne “The Train” Hancock – Thunderstorms & Neon Signs – 1995
There are two albums that you can look back on an make a serious case that if they did not exist, underground country music may not exist–the album below this one on this list, and Wayne Hancock’s Thunderstorm & Neon Signs. There are two types of music artists: originators and imitators. Sometimes imitators can be very successful, and very creative artists themselves. But it always takes the originators to set the plate for the imitators to do what they do. Thunderstorms & Neon Signs was an original album from one of America’s most original country roots artists of all time. It doesn’t get much better or more influential than this.
1. Hank Williams III – Straight to Hell – 2006
This album isn’t underground country’s Red Headed Stranger. It isn’t underground country’s Honky Tonk Heroes. It is both. It is the album that both was a novel concept, a breakthrough sonically and lyrically, and had a massive impact on the business side of music, for artists winning control of their music and inspiring and showing artists how to do it themselves. The deposed son of country music royalty had taken on a major Nashville label, and won, and all while being one of the first to successfully bridge the energy and approach of punk and heavy metal music with traditional country, all while keeping the music solidly country in nature.
It was the first album to be put out through the CMA with a Parental Advisory sticker. It was the first to ever be recorded outside of a traditional studio setting. Of course only a select few were paying attention, but it broke through many barriers that to this day have changed music in significant ways, sonically and behind the scenes.
The approach also had wide-ranging impacts outside of underground country and country music in general, to rock music and punk and heavy metal, inspiring thousands of rock kids to put down their electric guitars and AC/DC records, and pick up banjos and Johnny Cash records. The impact on mainstream music may have not been seen, but it was felt, and just like all great albums, it’s legacy will grow and be more appreciated and understood as the future unfolds.
Reno, Nevada’s Hellbound Glory with be touring with Kid Rock on his “Rebel Soul” tour to transpire at the very start of 2013, trekking through the Midwest and South. Buckcherry will also be playing in a supporting role. From press release:
Kid Rock is proud to announce the first dates of his “Rebel Soul” worldwide tour in support of his recently released album bearing the same name. The tour kicks off February 2nd at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, MO with the first leg winding down March 2nd in Louisville, KY. More dates are expected to be announced shortly. Backed as always by his Twisted Brown Trucker band, the full-scale arena tour will feature Buckcherry and Hellbound Glory as support.
Leroy Virgil, the frontman of Hellbound Glory is one of country music’s best kept secrets in regards to songwriting. The band first rubbed elbows with Kid Rock on his “Chillin The Most” cruise down in Florida last March.
Feb 2 Kansas City, MO – Sprint Center, On Sale 12/14 @10am http://www.axs.com/
Feb 5 Springfield, MO – JQH Arena, On Sale 12/14 @10am http://bit.ly/SoJhlr
Feb 7 Beaumont, TX – Ford Park Event Center, On Sale 12/7 @10am http://bit.ly/4xGq0V
Feb 9 Tulsa, OK – BOK Center, On Sale 11/30 @ 10am http://bit.ly/LScMF
Feb 10 Wichita, KS – INTRUST Bank Arena, On Sale 12/7 @10am http://bit.ly/40v9cG
Feb 13 Bossier City, LA – CenturyLink Center, On Sale 12/7 @10am http://bit.ly/4xGq0V
Feb 15 Nashville, TN – Bridgestone Arena, On Sale 12/21 @10am http://bit.ly/4xGq0V
Feb 16 Greenville, SC – Bi-Lo Center, On Sale 12/7 @10am http://bit.ly/4xGq0V
Feb 18 Fort Myers, FL – Germain Arena, On Sale TBD
Feb 20 Pensacola, FL – Pensacola Civic Center, On Sale 12/14 @10am http://bit.ly/4xGq0V
Feb 21 New Orleans, LA – New Orleans Arena, On Sale 12/8 @10am http://bit.ly/4xGq0V
Feb 23 Birmingham, AL – BJCC Arena, On Sale 12/7 @10am http://bit.ly/4xGq0V
Feb 24 Huntsville, AL – Von Braun Center, On Sale 12/7 @10am http://bit.ly/4xGq0V
Feb 26 Greensboro, NC – Greensboro Coliseum Complex, On Sale 12/15 @10am http://bit.ly/4xGq0V
Feb 27 Knoxville, TN – Knoxville Civic Auditorium, On Sale 12/7 @10am http://bit.ly/147jQp
Mar 1 Memphis, TN – FedEx Forum, On Sale 12/8 @10am http://bit.ly/4xGq0V
Mar 2 Louisville, KY – KFC Yum! Center, On Sale 12/21 @10am http://bit.ly/4xGq0V
UPDATE: More Dates Just Added
March 18 – Sioux Falls, SD – Sioux Falls Arena
March 20 – Madison, WI – Memorial Coliseum at Alliant Energy Center
March 22 – Toledo, OH – Huntington Center
March 23 – Columbus, OH – Nationwide Aren
March 25 – Youngstown, OH – Covelli Center
March 26 – Ft. Wayne, IN – Allen County War Memorial Coliseum
March 28 – Bloomington, IL – US Cellular Coliseum
March 29 – Omaha, NE – Centurylink Center
April 1 – Evansville, IN – Ford Center
April 3 – Grand Rapids, MI – Van Andel Arena
April 5 – Saginaw, MI – Dow Event Center
April 6 – Saginaw, MI – Dow Event Center
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As for my personal thoughts? I think there’s no mistaking I haven’t been a fan of Kid Rock over the years, coining the nickname for him of “The Wet Cigarette”. However, Hellbound Glory may be the most under-the-rader band in country music right now, and they deserve this opportunity and exposure. I think it is times like these that the term “bittersweet” is in order. Ask me in a couple of days how I feel about it, but at the moment I can’t help but to be happy for Hellbound Glory for the opportunity, and however much I may dislike Kid Rock, giving him credit for seeing the potential of Leroy Virgil.
As I said over a year ago in my review of their last album Damaged Goods:
It is time for someone to step up. They don’t deserve the SCM Album of the Year, they deserve something better, something more than I can give. It is time for them to graduate, for someone a step higher to step up, put these boys as the opener on a serious tour, get them out of having to battle with a juke box full of rap music at brokedown bars, but also someone who understands their element, and how a loss of authenticity would be their demise.
Apparently, Kid Rock was the one to do that.
On Saturday November 17th, two of the most important acts in underground country played what very well could be their final shows. Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers, a band that was there at the very beginning of underground country and the revitalization of the lower Broadway in Nashville announced they are calling it quits after 16 years, at least for now, playing their final show at Nashville’s Mercy Lounge. Meanwhile in Covington, Kentucky, Unknown Hinson, one of underground country’s greatest ambassadors from his work on Cartoon Network’s Squidbillies, played his final show as a touring act after 17 years, saying he was done, “Period.”
Both these acts had their specific reasons for calling it quits, and certainly the door is open for them to return. And for JD Wilkes, the long-time front man of The Shack Shakers, he still has his Dirt Daubers routine which has apparently retooled to a more electric sound. But you add these huge, high-profile, highly-important artists leaving on top of bands like .357 String Band dissolving, Sunday Valley re-aligning, and Leroy Virgil losing all his original players in Hellbound Glory, and all of a sudden underground country feels like it’s fighting a war of attrition, and losing.
I have been struggling to write this article for almost two years, but have been putting it off because there’s some hard things to say, and I didn’t want to “talk down” a movement that was already trying to deal with pretty alarming trends. But I think that especially now, zooming out and trying to be honest and critical in a constructive way is important, because there is positively no doubt that underground country is dying, and has been for years.
Why? Here are some ideas.
An aging fan base and aging artists
There are exceptions of course, but if you look at who comprises the underground country movement, it is predominantly people in their 30′s, and people from lower incomes. And what do people do in their 30′s? They settle down, they get married and have kids, they get better and more stable jobs, they buy houses. This gives them less time to spend partying, hanging out on the internet talking about music, going to shows on weeknights. In your 30′s, instead of being able to hit every underground country show rolling through town, you have to pick that one show a month you want to attend and pay a babysitter.
The same goes for the artists making underground country music. As they age, their motivations to keep working at music that doesn’t seem to want to stick commercially begin to fade. Health concerns begin to become an issue, and not being able to afford health insurance is a real concern. This was one of the primary issues facing the Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers. Yearning for more stability is a recurring theme in the attrition underground country is facing in its talent roster, from banjo player Joe Huber of the .357 String Band, to drummer Chico from Hellbound Glory.
Something else worth noting is the large sect of sober people who make up underground country, in both the artist and fan ranks. Over time, some people must move away from the music and party scenes to find their sobriety, and others may just not identify any more with music that tends to have foundations in a party lifestyle.
Meanwhile the infusion of youth into underground country is anemic. There are some exceptions. The Boomswagglers from Texas and The Slaughter Daughters are promising, young bands, and artists like Lucky Tubb and Wayne Hancock have been integrating side musicians into the scene for some time. But they rarely stick, partly because of a general lack of support. Any younger musician if they’re smart doesn’t attempt to start their rise in underground country, which seems to be trending down and never had much long-term infrastructure to begin with. They look towards Americana, or the Texas/Red Dirt scene, or bluegrass, where the support is much easier to count on.
A Lack of Leadership
Since the beginning of underground country, if you looked at the top of the pyramid you saw Hank Williams III, and that is still the case in regards to records sales and concert tickets sold in any given year. But in 2008, Hank3 took over a year off from the road, and shortly after he started touring again, he stopped carrying opening bands. Then he put out a succession of albums of questionable quality, and all of a sudden a career on the rise has been stagnant for going on 5 years, and same goes for the the scene that revolves around it.
It was not Saving Country Music or Free Hank III, or even MySpace that comprised the first information portal about underground country. It was Hank3′s “Cussin’ Board” forum. And people didn’t go there just for Hank3 news, but news about all the underground country bands, with artists like JB Beverley and Rachel Brooke participating in the discussions regularly. These days, the “Cussin’ Board” feels like a ghost town compared to its vibrant past.
Shooter Jennings has stepped up in the last two years to attempt to fill the leadership vacuum left by Hank3, and has done some positive things and had some marginal success. But his polarization has kept him from completing the task of becoming a solid leader everyone can look up to. Similarly, where Hank3 was once the most unifying factor in underground country, his obvious step back from the “scene” has now made him a polarizing figure as well, questionably capable of taking back the reigns of underground country even if he was motivated to, and which he’s shown positively no signs of wanting to do. I can’t blame Hank3 for wanting to take a step back, because there were so many people wanting to take from him, believing his name was their stepping stone to success.
Leadership must come from the artists, and it must come from the music first, and that is Shooter Jennings’ inherent problem. This was illustrated when he cut the “Drinking Side of Country” duet with Bucky Covington, or on his industrial rock album Black Ribbons. Whether you like these Shooter projects or not, they illustrate his lack of consistency that has lead to his ineptness as a leader of underground country, and his acute polarization that reaches as far as Eric Church fans, and fans of his father. Hank3 never professed himself a leader. He led by example, and used causes like Reinstate Hank to lead the charge of taking country music back.
The Scene Has Replaced The Movement
One of the reasons an underground of country music was founded was from a wide ranging dissent about the direction of country music. This dissent is where the varying range of musical styles united, taking the country punk of Hank3, the neo-traditional approach of Wayne Hancock, the Texas/Outlaw country of Dale Watson, the bluegrass of the .357 String Band, the blues of Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers, and the Gothic country of Those Poor Bastards and piling them all together in the overall underground country movement. It was united by issues, like the reinstatement of Hank Williams to the Grand Ole Opry, the opening and extension of the Williams Family Exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame, the fight for creative freedom of artists from record labels, and the fight against the infiltration of pop on country radio.
Now these issues that defined, united, and energized the country music underground are seen as tired, if not counter-productive or annoying to many in the underground population. When issues arose with the sale of the Grand Ole Opry to Marriott International, or the changing of Billboard’s chart rules, the underground met them with apathy, if not anger at them being offered up as relevant to their music world. Issues are what made outreach possible for underground country, and now exclusivity seems to be what is yearned for by the majority of underground country fans. The “we have our music, screw the masses” attitude is what prevails, taking away one of the primary promotional tools for independent-minded underground ideals to reach out to other country music fans who also might be feeling disenfranchised with the mainstream.
Scenes and Cliques
Image and exclusivity seem to be the important dynamics in today’s country music underground, dragging on the commercial viability of the music, and making it hard for outsiders to integrate with the underground country culture. Though some on the outside looking in may enjoy the music, they may not understand the verbiage, anecdotes, and style that seem to be important with “fitting in” to the underground. So as long-time underground country fans taper off because of age, no new blood is there to take their place.
Facebook has also narrowed the perspectives of underground country fans, making them feel like how you present yourself is more important than what you do. An unhealthy culture of cloistered, inbred cross-promotion prevails through underground country, where small cliques of fans and bands have formed around labels, blogs, and podcasts, catering content to a select few.
These cliques promote each other within the clique, and at times may branch out farther to the “scene,” but rarely reach new blood because they are based on narrow perspectives and anecdotal experiences. It’s an “I’ll scratch your back, you scratch mine” culture where quality and creativity are lightly regarded compared to political importance in the scene. And if you don’t participate in this culture of narrow, ineffective promotion of the other people in the scene or clique, you risk being ostracized. Intention is measured over effectiveness. These cliques and their differences have also given rise to eternal conflict, with the bigger overall “Shooter fans vs. Hank3 fans” splitting underground country squarely in half.
Saving Country Music, and I specifically have at times enhanced or enabled unnecessary “scene” drama, and this has potentially affected the fate of underground country adversely.
There are lot’s of entities in underground country and roots who attempt to promote music that seem to get lost in promoting their branding and merch first, and the music second. There are many general reasons underground country is dying, but the specific one is lack of money. Underground country is funded by the $40 hoodie, and this creates a paradox for the music that is supposed to be the focus.
Though there is lots of talk about shared responsibility for keeping underground music alive, and there’s many folks who re-post bulletins on Facebook, take pictures and videos of shows, run podcasts, or boutique “labels” attempting to make a difference in the music, the effect is confined to cliques and micro-scenes, and is more catered to serving the few and propagating image and branding.
For example the Pickathon Festival in Portland that caters to a wide variety of independent roots movements, including underground country, boasts over 300 volunteers annually. The Muddy Roots Festival, which almost exclusively caters to underground country and roots had roughly a dozen volunteers this last year, with multiple people who signed up to volunteer to get discounted or free tickets either not working their shifts, walking off their shifts, or generally being unhelpful. Pickathon’s issues with people sneaking onto the site are marginal. Muddy Roots’ issues of people sneaking on site without paying are major. The most helpful volunteers at the 2012 Muddy Roots were a representative from a hair gel sponsor, and the Voodoo Kings Car Club who have very few ties to the music.
There seems to be little understanding that if bands, labels, and festivals are going to continue to exist, there must be a shared sacrifice from the fans. And not just symbolic sacrifice, but substantive efforts to offer real support to the entities making the music happen. Without any corporate funding, that’s how an underground music movement works.
A Lack of Creativity
Underground country was founded on creativity. The creativity found on albums such as Hank3′s Straight to Hell, Wayne Hancock’s Thunderstorms & Neon Signs, Dale Watson’s Live in London, and Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers’ Cockadoodledon’t is what caused a country music underground to form in the first place. In the mid 2000′s, you could confidently say that the creativity in underground country outlasted that of the mainstream per capita. These days underground country is mired in trying to recapture that creativity, in a practice that lends to the aping of styles and the rehashing of themes. Capturing a “punk gone country,” “honky tonk Outlaw”, or “old-time” aesthetic seems more important than carving out a new creative niche like the originators of underground country did.
Meanwhile any true creativity existing in underground country quickly evolves beyond it to greener pastures in Texas country or Americana, like Justin Townes Earle did. The lack of infrastructure, the presence of scenesters, and the general disorganization of the underground dissuades talented artist from associating themselves with it. Americana, Red Dirt, Texas, and West Coast circuits offer much more hospitable and palatable scenes, while underground country generally discourages cross-pollination with these kindred, independent-minded movements, misunderstanding them as either mainstream, or too high-minded for the music they like.
A step removed from the influence of the scene, Europe continues to thrive and grow their support for underground country. There seems to be more general thankfulness that underground country music exists in Europe, and a stronger focus on the music itself instead of the scene that surrounds it. There’s more support, more of a volunteering attitude, and more of a willingness to help make the music happen by the fans. Europe continues to be the most commercially-viable place for many underground country bands to tour and sell albums, and that support is continuing to grow.
A Few Breakout Bands
Bands like Larry & His Flask, Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band, and The Goddamn Gallows have found some decent success over the past few years playing on some bigger tours like The Warped Tour and opening for The Reverend Horton Heat. Bob Wayne has found traction in Europe and domestically being singed with label Century Media. Justin Townes Earle is now a big concert draw, and Scott Biram is getting his music played on television shows.
But many of these artists are moving on from the traditional underground country infrastructure to find their success, and others like Leroy Virgil and Sturgill Simpson still seem to be one step behind where their creative potential should be taking them commercially.
Festival & Touring Infrastructure
This is something underground country was lacking for years, and now has a healthy dose of. Unfortunately rising gas prices and dwindling crowds sometimes means it’s too little too late for some bands. The reason Unknown Hinson says he quit touring was because it was costing him too much money.
There are more festivals in all shapes and sizes catering to underground country and roots than ever before. But again, with a dwindling fan base, these different festivals are competing with each other for the same anemic and contracting population.
The Deep Blues
The Deep Blues seems to be on a more sustainable path, and also seems to be able to divest itself from the drama that is confounding underground country. However since it shares much of the same infrastructure as underground country, the issues in underground country can bleed over to the deep blues as well. There is better sustainability in Deep Blues, but the growth is still marginal. In many ways, the Deep Blues is the only thing keeping underground country alive, and that could hinder Deep Blues from moving forward as it drags underground country along.
What Can Be Done To Save Underground Country
To save underground country there must be a renewed interest in finding and developing younger bands, attracting younger fans, and focusing on talent and creativity over forming exclusive scenes. “Young” should not be mistaken for the same connotations it carries in mainstream country. Talent and creativity should still remain key, as well as trying to reach the folks that “get it.” But if underground country wants to continue to remain a viable part of the overall country music landscape, it must recruit new bands and new listeners to replace the natural contraction within its population.
Underground country must quit being so reactionary about the outside world. It must diversify. It must find common ground, common struggle, and common tastes with Americana, Red Dirt, and Texas music, and promote its best and brightest talent to those worlds and then reciprocate. It must stick to its founding principles of preserving the roots of the music and fighting for creative control for artists, and seize on the opportunities current events create to promote those principles to the rest of the music world, promoting the music of underground country by proxy.
It needs leadership, big bands, breakout albums and songs that breathe new fervor into the movement. It needs and end to the “I got mine” mentality.
And it needs it now, before it ends up like Communism: a great idea whose devil is in the application.
About this time every four years the political rhetoric reaches critical mass as TV, radio, and the internet are permeated with political ads, while your personal social network feed is filled with political memes and other such oversimplifications of issues we’ve been fighting to resolve for decades.
One of the beautiful things about music is it’s ability to unify us under the universal appeal of rhythm. That’s why I’m usually turned off by political music, because it evokes the very things you reach out to music to escape from. If a song can’t say it subtly, then it might as well not say it at all.
In that spirit, here are some apolitical, or anti-political songs to help survive the political season.
Leroy Virgil (Hellbound Glory) – What’s This World Coming To (If It Ain’t Coming To An End)
“Well now all them corporate Christians, and the goddamn Democrats, and them blood-sucking Republicans, they aught to all get off our backs. And I’ll say it again. I’ll never trust no government. ‘Cause what’s this old world coming it, if it ain’t coming to an end.”
“Crashing planes and Saddam Hussein and ever since them towers fell. If we ain’t fighting with the whole damn world we’re fighting with ourselves.”
By being an equal opportunity offender and focusing in on how the polarization of the country is causing more problems than the respective sides are trying to fix, Leroy finds some genius through the power of simple perspective while communicating the fear we all have that the divisiveness is dragging us all down, regardless of our political stripes. (unreleased)
(recorded at the house of .357 String Band’s Derek Dunn)
Merle Haggard – Rainbow Stew
“When they find out how to burn water, and the gasoline car is gone. When an airplane flies without ay fuel and the sunlight heats our home. When the President goes through the White House door, and does what he says he’ll do, well I’ll be drinkin’ that free bubble-up, and eating that rainbow stew.”
From a man who was well-known for his flag-waving anthems early in his career, here came this strange, obtuse, but nonetheless brilliant song off his 1981 Rainbow Stew Live At Anaheim Stadium album. Merle makes you read between the lines, and seems to be challenging the ideas of a utopian society while at the same time praying for them. Or as one person put it, “It refers to stubbornly having a positive outlook in the face of great adversity.” Is it using sarcasm to knock environmentalism, or promoting it? “Rainbow Stew” is like a chameleon, shaping it’s colors to the character of the individual listener, making it mean whatever you want it to mean. I’ve always thought it was Merle’s greatest song.
Chris Knight – Nothing On Me
“And their layin’ ‘em off down at Kankakee, and there’s boards on the windows up and down the street. And they’re saying that it’s gonna get darker before the dawn. But you can bet your ass I’ll keep the lights on, keep my babies fed and throw a dog a bone. ‘Cause I’m a bring it on, git ‘er done, don’t run S.O.B. Times are tough, but they ain’t got nothing on me.”
While the world is busy pointing fingers, Chris Knight is busy writing poignant songs preaching about the virtue of self-preservation and self-reliance and looking at tough times and laughing. His latest album Little Victories has a few good songs like this and is a political album done right.
Lee Bains III & The Glory Fires – Centreville
“If your ears are bleeding it just me and the boys, we’re over-educated and we’re underemployed.”
“We’re low down and pitiful, we’re broke down in Centreville, we got to rock on.”
“On the banks, the (??? – citation needed), the President or the press, lay the blame on every damn thing but yourself.”
This is about as rocking as Lee Bains and the Glory Fires get, and they get apolitical on your ass by finding character and pride in their own pathetic state of affairs as opposed to pointing the menacing finger of blame towards others in a refreshing and wise sense of perspective.
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