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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.
A few days ago, CMT launched a new format and website called CMT Edge with the intent of covering artists outside the norm of mainstream country music. Since then I’ve been asked many times what I think of it, and my stock answer has been that I don’t exactly know what I think of it yet. The venture is still in its infantile stages, and it will take time to determine just what CMT Edge will be, and the impact it will have.
Having said that, I see no reason at this point not to stay positive about it. It’s always good to have more avenues for good music to reach people. As I always say, I want good music to get popular, and popular music to get good. Any sense of ownership or desire for exclusivity anyone might feel with the independent music they love and worry that CMT Edge might erode that exclusivity is being silly and selfish. So far, they’ve featured artists like Sara Watkins, The Avett Brothers, Trampled by Turtles, and JD McPherson among others. They also appear to intend to use CMT Edge to cover older country artists like Dwight Yoakam and Patsy Cline; both who’ve been featured already.
If you look at the categories of the 11 features posted on CMT Edge so far, 8 of them are labeled “Americana”. I don’t think it’s coincidence CMT Edge was launched the same week the Americana Music Conference is going on in Nashville mere steps from the CMT headquarters. Americana is growing, and CMT would be fools to not try and tap into that market. Make no mistake that CMT, which is owned by Viacom, would have never launched this venture if they didn’t think there was a profit to be made, and that there’s demand for the content.
So what is the possible downside to CMT Edge? It could possibly take attention away from independent media outlets, especially ones in the Americana world like No Depression, Paste, or possibly in some small respects Saving Country Music. But again, more outlets for good music is generally a good thing, and if these outlets feel threatened, they should step up their game. And I doubt CMT Edge will dig as deep as many of the current independent outlets do. As much as bands like Trampled by Turtles and The Avetts are on the outside looking in when it comes to mainstream country coverage, they are also very successful bands making good livings playing music. To stay profitable, CMT Edge will stay with established acts who simply don’t fit comfortably in the mainstream country world. Don’t expect Hellbound Glory and Jayke Orvis to get features soon.
My biggest concern is in the underlying subconscious labeling of acts that could come with CMT Edge coverage. Some may see a band being featured on CMT Edge as an implication that they are a smaller tier, second rung act. By not putting these acts beside country music’s biggest names, but below them through an outlet meant to cover the “edge,” there’s the danger of typecasting these artists as cut-rate. It’s always been a belief of mine that the top tier independent talent deserves equal-billing with country’s top names. If just given a chance, an artist like Justin Townes Earle could possibly score just as high as Jason Aldean with the public. Consumers just need to be given that choice. CMT Edge in some respects kicks the “more choice” can down the road instead of confronting mainstream country’s issue of a lack of new talent entering the genre.
Mainstream country lacks a legitimate farm system. And once an artist is cast as Americana/Independent/Underground, etc. they’re usually beholden to those avenues for their music till eternity, many times facing low ceilings of success and no chance of mainstream radio play or media coverage. Meanwhile in mainstream country, there’s few artists working the traditional program, going from honky tonks, to clubs, to theaters, to eventually the arena and a major label deal. Instead, new country talent is culled from the safe, easy avenues of reality TV programming, or professional Nashville songwriting circles. This has left country creatively bankrupt, as the most-creative and brightest talent flocks to Americana because they don’t want to be labeled as “country” because of the non-creative, commercial stigma.
Americana may have a lower commercial ceiling than mainstream country, but it continues to find some very legitimate traction, and seems to be building in stature and infrastructure each year. NPR is now offering Americana a big radio outlet, festivals are forming and growing that appeal to the Americana crowd, and small to medium, sustainable music entities like Thirty Tigers, Bloodshot Records, Dolph Ramseur (the man behind the Avett’s success and the Carolina Chocolate Drops) are beginning to create real organization behind the Americana idea, and are even having success getting their artists on programs like The Late Show with David Letterman, and Jimmy Kimmel Live.
What does this all have to do with CMT Edge? Clearly the independent side of the music world is growing, and CMT doesn’t want to be left in the dust. As all popular music continues to coalesce into one big “popular” mono-genre, music that is indefinable by genre and/or appeals to micro-sects of people is expanding. Whether it is Americana, classic country artists, neo-traditionalists, or punk-country, appeal for independent music is increasing, and CMT Edge is proof of that. Is CMT Edge commercial exploitation of this music? We’ll have to see, but there’s no indication that is what is happening at the moment.
As much as I think that much of CMT’s reality programming perpetuates negative country stereotypes and that its parent company Viacom is generally a negative force in the media marketplace, there’s nothing from CMT Edge so far that irks me. So let’s stay positive about it, work as a music community to attempt to steer it in a positive direction, and be glad that better music is catching on and continues to find new outlets.
Reno, Nevada’s Hellbound Glory just finished up a big 6-week tour, and behind them they left a trail of rumors that a future album might have a contribution from electro pop star Ke$ha. Apparently the band met Ke$ha just after coming off another tour and hanging out at their favorite Reno bar called The Hideout the same night Ke$ha was in town playing a show. It still seems somewhat uncertain if the collaboration will actually happen, and if it does, it probably wouldn’t be a full blown duet with Hellbound Glory frontman Leroy Virgil, more just a female backing vocal track.
But all of this Ke$ha talk rekindled a fascination I had with the pop star and her country aspirations about two years ago. Certainly in my world, the meteoric rise of a pop star will not light a blip on my radar…until the rumors of them wanting to “Go Country” forces me into duty, sniffing around on celeb-pop websites like a ravaged beagle in an overturned trash can, squinting my eyes at glittertext, wading through pop-up ads for pimple creme and Southern California-based reality shows to try and substantiate the “Gone Country” claims.
Ke$ha told Papermag in July of 2010:
“I’m really inspired by country music–my mom wrote country music–and I love Dolly Parton and Johnny Cash. I think at some point there might be some country collaborations or records in the future.”
Earlier in 2010 she told popeater.com:
I think people should know the classics — Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, also Townes Van Zandt, I’m a huge fan of him. [Bob Dylan's Nashville Skyline is] one of my favorite albums of all time, because I grew up in Nashville, and so everything about that record is really special to me. When you listen to that record, especially on vinyl, and you’re either falling in love or waking up after a long night and you’re with all your friends, it just brings up a lot of nostalgia.
Pop stars positioning themselves for a country move by claiming they’ve always been into the music is nothing new. The difference with Ke$ha though is her references to her country roots and influences are actually true. Two years ago I wrote a whole article about how Ke$ha could become a huge force in country music but never published it, probably worried it would be misunderstood. Though on a later post about Lady Ga-Ga “going country” I claimed, “the pop star you really need to worry about going country, is Ke$ha. Mark my words.” And later in the comments explained why, how Ke$ha’s past was rooted in country.
Ke$ha’s mom is a country songwriter by the name of Pebe Sebert. Her song of note is Old Flames (Can’t Hold a Candle To You), which became a hit for Dolly Parton, Merle Haggard, and Johnny Cash. Pebe Sebert did not start off in country though. She was a singer in a punk band, and then wrote the hit song “as a joke” according to Kesha in an interview with Ryan Seacrest. Pebe moved from LA to Nashville in 1991 after signing a songwriting contract when Ke$ha was still very young.
Ke$ha grew up in a songwriting environment, surrounded by music, and was taught how to play and sing at an early age. The story goes that as a baby, Pebe would put Ke$ha in a guitar case on stage while she performed. As Ke$ha grew, they would write songs together. A young Ke$ha and mom Pebe appeared in an episode of the TV show “The Simple Life.” Through the dumb reality TV plot, you can get a good reading of what kind of person Pebe is. Ke$ha was a good student and scored “near perfect” SAT numbers before dropping out of high school to pursue music in LA.
Ke$ha got involved with high rollers in the LA music scene, the whole time she was writing her own songs, citing Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash, and classic country as big influences. Ke$ha is a strong singer, has appeared on a number of pop and hip-hop albums singing backups and harmonies, and has written songs for other pop stars including Brittney Spears and Miley Cyrus.
However when her debut album Animal came out, it was described by critics as the most predictable, un-apologetically pop-oriented ultra-catchy album put out in years. Of course, the spoon fed public ate it up. The debut song Tik Tok was a #1 hit in 11 different countries, and became the longest running number one debut single by a female artist since 1977. When questioned about critics, Ke$ha bristles, citing how she writes all of her songs, and is just “having fun” right now.
Even during Ke$ha’s mega success and worldwide tours, she’s still collaborated with other artists. It was her contribution of backing vocals on rapper Flor-ida’s hit “Right Round” that put her in the pop spotlight to begin with, though she didn’t get paid a dime for the contribution. That is when she adopted the “$” in her name, to be ironic, because even though she was well-known, she was living out of the back of a Lincoln Town Car in LA.
Since then she’s established a trashy persona that celebrates bad tattoos, mullets, Tran-Am’s, and reckless behavior. Though on the outside Ke$has seems sincerely pop, some have given her credit for mocking the system with her songs and persona, an anti-pop star so to speak. She publicly distances from the Paris Hilton party scene, and very well may be playing the pop world from the inside, writing stupid, catchy songs to prove a point while cashing in financially. If there was ever a Trojan Horse of the pop world, Ke$ha would make a good candidate.
The question isn’t if Ke$ha will go country, only when. But it won’t be on her next album due out later this year, self-described as guitar-driven “cock rock” that “capture(s) some of the true essence of what rock and roll is, and that’s just irreverence and sexiness and fun and not giving a fuck.” Hellbound Glory would be Ke$ha’s first country contribution, but you can bet it wouldn’t be her last.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, Ke$ha will be a force in country music.
That’s right ladies and gentlemen, your hero, the lord of underground roots, the savior of independent music, Shooter Jennings, is releasing a duet single and video with the most pop-ity pop of pop country uber douches, the “Nickelback of Country Music”, American Idol’s Bucky Covington. The song is called “Drinking Side of Country” and all indications is that it will suck hard enough to send a golf ball through a garden hose.
For those of you who have no idea who Bucky Covington is (and I would like to think that is the majority of the Saving Country Music readership) you could make a serious case that he is one of the worst artists pop country has ever seen, from numerous perspectives. The only difference between Bucky and Jason Aldean is people actually listen to Jason Aldean. There’s nothing more failed than a failed pop country star, and that is what Bucky Covington is.
Last week folks were in a tizzy because Jason Aldean dropped the tidbit that he simply listens to Nickelback. Ha! Bucky has him beat by 1000 miles. In 2010, Bucky Covington actually recorded and released an entire Nickelback song, “Gotta Be Somebody.” And no, this was not just as some demo bonus track, it was a full fledged radio single with a big budget video. Watch, if you dare:
The world first learned about Bucky Covington’s flowing locks of highlighted hair and his Dirk Diggle mustache when he was a contestant on American Idol in 2006, finishing 8th. Since then he’s been slaying America with his bland and generic take on the most formulaic of pop country and garnering tepid commercial success. He’s also pretty notorious for being dumb. In April of 2010, he recounted a story to The Boot about actor Billy Bob Thorton, proving just how dumb he is:
I went to his house and hung out drinking lukewarm Coronas. This guy is the epitome of cool. We were talking movies and music, and he brings up the movie ‘Sling Blade,’ and I said, ‘Were you in ‘Sling Blade’? That was a great movie!’ And he thanked me. I asked who he was in ‘Sling Blade,’ and he said, ‘Carl.’ I said, ‘That’s the main character!’ I didn’t even know he was in it! But actually technically that’s a huge compliment to an actor, that I watched the movie, and I didn’t know it was [him]! And he wrote the dang movie as well!
Bucky also has a twin brother, Rocky, and together they like to do stupid shit and then lie about it to the cops. In 1998 they were arrested for hit and run, leaving the scene of an accident, resisting arrest, giving fictitious information to a police officer, and driving with a suspended license. Brother Rocky was in a car accident and had a suspended license at the time, so he dialed up Bucky who raced over and told the 5-0 that he was actually the one driving. The cops sniffed it out, and eventually they confessed. Then in July of 2011 they both were charged with grand theft for stealing $1,500 from the cash box at a Florida show. The charges were later dropped from lack of evidence.
Shooter Jennings has been trying his little heart out to earn scene points with the “roots” underground after his glam rock, industrial rock, and mainstream country projects tanked. So why now is he buddying up with Bucky Covington? Because of corporate politics and cross marketing. Both Shooter and Bucky are signed to Entertainment 1 Records, which ironically is one of the biggest hip-hop labels in the world. As much as Shooter wants to talk a big game about how corporate music sucks and he’s for the little guy, here he goes trying to re-cultivate his mainstream legitimacy. Or even worse, he’s doing it because he wants to.
But I don’t blame Shooter for pairing up with Bucky Covington. That is what he should be doing. When it comes to country, Shooter has always been a mainstream artist with mainstream songs. Where he doesn’t belong is acting like he fits into anything that is related to underground roots music. He doesn’t record DIY. He releases his music through big corporate labels. And up to 18 months ago, he admits himself had no idea underground roots music existed.
And no, Kellie Pickler’s name is not relevant here. Apparently she has a cameo in the Shooter/Bucky duet video and she used to be an American Idol pop country product too. And yes, I’ve grown very fond of her last album 100 Proof, but nobody is saying Kellie Pickler should do a duet with Hellbound Glory or headline the Muddy Roots Festival. That would be out-of-context, just like anything Shooter has to do with “underground” country. And if this Bucky Covington business doesn’t make you realize that, then you have been completely duped by the Shooter Jennings cult of personality.
And sure, Bucky Covington could’ve had a change of heart about his music just like Kellie Pickler did, but this duet song “Drinking Side of Country” is an old song Bucky released in 2010. It’s not new. It’s a stupid laundry list country song, and even worse, he named drops “Outlaws” in the song. Yes, Bucky Covington, Bucky Covington is talking about Outlaws, the same thing Shooter Jennings called out in his song “Outlaw You”. The hypocrisy is so incredibly-thick and undeniable around this song, but we’ll deal with the actual content of the song in due course, trust me. Meanwhile check out Bucky’s effeminate moves in the original version of “Drinking Side of Country” that make Luke Bryan look like a lumberjack:
And for all the folks that will say, “Gee Trig, why you always gotta be so negative?” I have no choice in this matter. My hand is being forced. When some artist who is touting themselves as a product of the underground/independent world cuts a duet with Bucky Covington filled with hypocrisy, or points a tank at the Country Music Hall of Fame, or promotes a Waylon song turned into a rap song, or buddies up with The Moonshine Bandits, I have no choice but to put as much distance as possible between those actions and myself.
I don’t think that Shooter is without talent. He has some good songs, and I recognize he is trying to do some things to help promote smaller bands. But the road to hell is paved with good intentions. And furthermore with Shooter, it’s the disingenuousness, it’s the talking out of both sides of his mouth, it’s the wanting it both ways, it is the Svengali-ing of independent artists by acting like he has any means to help them “make it” when really he’s using them to be promoters of his cult of personality. It’s the manipulation. And I’m sure Shooter will say, “Let me explain”, just like he says every time he makes a dumb move in his career.
Sure, Shooter has gotten some scant play in dark recesses of the dying corporate radio world in severely off-peak hours for some artists. This whole cross-exposure back scratching scenester bullshit isn’t outreach, it’s simply people trying to prove how cool they are to each other. Shooter doesn’t have the power to increase the exposure of any act any more than anybody else. And since he is a wickedly-polarizing character (who likely will even become more polarizing after this Bucky Covington mess), for every fan the Shooter Jennings name may bring to an artist, it scares away two more.
And no, “Hey I met Shooter, and he seems like a nice guy,” is no excuse for his endless string of bad decisions and overt hypocrisy.
There is no Shooter/Triggerman rivalry. He is an artist and someone rying to further his career, and I am a writer whose charge it is to tell the truth the way I see it. And right now, the truth in my eyes is that Shooter has no compass, no principles, will do and say whatever he thinks he has to to create support and traction in his career. And that has always been the case with Shooter, throughout his career, along with coming very close to stealing ideas and personas. Shooter cutting a pop country laundry list song with Bucky Covington is him jumping the shark, and showing his true colors.
But I’m probably just jealous.
For months, Leroy Virgil of the infamous Hellbound Glory has been dropping little tidbits about a potential triple album coming out in the future to be called MericA. As Virgil told SCM at the beginning of the year, “Gonna come out in chapters or volumes, haven’t decided. Songs about real ‘merica.” Virgil is a virtual songwriting machine, and when you see him live expect to be regaled by brand new songs throughout the set. At some point the man will need to narrow the gap between what he’s written and what he’s recorded, and a triple album may be the only way to accomplish this.
A couple of weeks ago Hellbound Glory was in Nashville, in a studio session that included former Waylon Jennings’ drummer and right hand man Ritchie Albright, as well as Amanda Shires and Shooter Jennings among others. This was the first step in making what may become a landmark triple album of independent country a reality.
For the holiday, Leroy has released the lyrics to the upcoming title track, and in true Virgil fashion, they work just fine without the musical accompaniment.”MericA” plays off the broad theme Leroy has adopted of depicting rural America, one that is filled with broken dreams and bad habits; a more subversive view than corporate country likes to portray, but also one that is more accurate.
Stay tuned for more info on the album Merica.
The MericA Song (4 Bocephus)
(by Leroy Virgil of Hellbound Glory)
“There aint nothin like a gun to make you feel real tall
Like some alcohol, adderol,
Hey are you ready for some football?
You buy this truck rust and all
Its like a broke down American made
Suped up old Chevrolet
It aint our Government that makes us Great
And as long as we can make it
I think we got it made
In the good ole USA
Firing bottlerockets at the Ghetto Bird
Piss drunk July Third
Thats freedom honey aint you heard
It ain’t fun unless someone gets hurt
God bless the NRA through hard times and holidays
Sometimes we all just got to pull and pray
And as long as we can make it I think we got it made
In the good ole USA
I love pretty girls in shitty cars
High times in old divebars
Pissin beneath the moon and stars
God bless this land of ours
Its like a broke down American made
Suped up old Chevrolet and though it sound a little cliche
As long as we can make it I think we got it made
In the good ole USA”
(This story has been updated)
Every once in a while you have and artist or band come out that is so pure, so raw, and so good, it is destined to self-destruct from its own internal pressure. Such was the case with the original incarnation of The Boomswagglers, a two-piece band consisting of Spencer Cornett and Lawson Bennett. The name “Boomswagglers” came from their real-life experience of living in a shack, eating out of cans and living off the land, spending days hunting arrowheads like modern day Mark Twain characters.
During this period they both became highly-skilled guitar players and wrote some of the most authentic country songs you will find recorded in the modern era. Hillgrass Bluebilly Records in Austin, TX got a hold of The Boomswagglers long enough to try and record an album, but the project almost seemed doomed from the beginning; they were just too raw, too real. It resulted in a rough, disjointed project that Hillgrass didn’t feel confident enough to put their stamp on, yet as bits and pieces leaked out over the years, The Boomswagglers slowly became underground icons from their raw songs and occasional performances around Austin, TX. After years of the public itching for the project’s release, Hillgrass Bluebilly finally released a Boomswagglers album as a bootleg for a short period.
Something about the authenticity of the whole thing made The Boomswagglers’ bootleg arguably one of the best, most engaging projects released in all of 2011. At some point Hillgrass Bluebilly took the bootleg down, and since then Saving Country Music has been flooded with questions and requests of where to obtain this rare piece of audio gold. The original Boomswagglers album has become an underground classic, and Hillgrass Bluebilly has finally decided to give it a proper physical and digital release, with a brand new version completely remastered from the original studio sessions.
The new Bootleg Beginnings from the Shack Out Back physical copy will be a collector’s edition that will include a handmade emergency fishing kit attached to the CD, with a hook, line, and various lures. The physical release date was July 12th, with the CD Release party happening at Antone’s in Austin, TX, with Hellbound Glory and Cade Callahan performing as well. The digital worldwide release is today, August 21st.
Guitar player/songwriter Spencer Cornett still plays under The Boomswagglers name with other players, while Lawson Bennett is now the proprietor of the Mustache Podcast.
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Hollywood seems obsessed with finding talent among the masses with their silly reality show contests like American Idol and The Voice, when in reality there’s a boatload of talent just sitting there waiting to be discovered right under their surgically-crafted, cosmetically-sculptured noses. But of course they don’t want to actually find any talent, because then what would they have to sell commercials for boner pills and high fructose corn syrup in the next season?
So here’s a list of some bands that are go ready, right now, no excuses. These are not fey, artsy acts, goat worshipers, or punk gone country screamo shows. These are performers that even using Music Row’s shallow approach to music, are marketable, young, hip, with hit-caliber songs ready for country radio, excellent live shows, and would immediately improve the quality and appeal of the genre.
This is just my list, admittedly short, so if you have another artist in mind, please use the comments section to share. And no, this is not about selling out stadiums, it is about creating financial sustainability for talented artists that deserve it.
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If music was roulette and Sunday Valley were a square, I’d push my pile of chips and bet on them all in. Sturgill Simpson and the boys are in the studio as we speak making the “Album of their dreams” as Sturg puts it, that will include a guest appearance by Hargus “Pig” Robbins among others, just announced as a 2012 inductee to the Country Music Hall of Fame. But what puts this band over the top is their live performance that harkens back to how one must have felt when Hendrix or Stevie Ray Vaughn took the stage before their break: an unbelievable, dynamic, jaw-dropping experience that leaves you awe-stricken from the combination of originality and sheer talent. Buy your Sunday Valley stock now and watch it rise.
“2012 will be the year of Sunday Valley”. –that’s my quote.
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Hellbound Glory stock has been slowly rising over the last few years, but is still nowhere near where it needs to be. Leroy Virgil is like the Chris LeDoux and Keith Whitley of our time all wrapped up into one. The sideways smile, the legendary-caliber songwriting, there’s no excuses why Hellbound Glory shouldn’t be selling out mid-sized venues and making a fair living playing the type of country music that country music needs. At the least Music Row is a fool for not poaching the Hellbound Glory discography and Leroy Virgil’s brain for his songwriting gold to slot with their already established artists. Every day that goes by that Hellbound Glory remains mired in the underground is another day that country music isn’t putting its best foot forward, and is not making the best case of why it is an important, relevant genre.
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One of the best bands to see live, and Red Dirt DJ’s will tell you songs like “Every Girl” are great for radio. They have a new album coming out on May 8th called Goodbye Normal Street, and let’s hope this is the one that puts them over the top, and past the boundaries of the Texoma corridor. Unlike some of the other artists on this list who find themselves in their mid 30′s, where it feels like the window could be closing for them in the coming years, the Troubadour’s window feels like it is just opening. Potential has always been one of their best assets. Now it’s time for that potential to be cashed in for solid growth and success.
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When the question is posed of who is gonna fill the shoes of the true Outlaws and honky-tonkers, from the ones passed on like Waylon and Paycheck, to the ones going gray like Dale Watson and Marty Stuart, trust me, the answer is not going to be Justin Moore. Whitey Morgan & Co. are the true connection, the current torch bearers of the ballsy, twang-heavy true country sound that would expose all the pop country laundry list fluff from the first listen if only given a chance. Similar to how Bloodshot Records label mate Justin Townes Earle has popped in the last few years, now it is Whitey’s turn. Dues have been been paid. Now it’s time to cash in.
Young Up-And-Comers to Keep an Eye On
Paige Anderson’s ceiling is limitless. Amazing voice with natural pitch and control, and a highly skilled flat-picking guitar player, there’s nothing naturally holding Paige back. And as one of the young leaders in West Coast bluegrass circuits, and the leader of her family’s band “Anderson Family Bluegrass”, she’s shown the ambition and drive an artist needs in this competitive music environment. Young, beautiful, talented, there’s no excuses here, Paige Anderson is ripe to capture America’s heart.
Another heartthrob and superpicker bound for great heights and who started out in a family band, Mad Max & The Wild Ones. A natural leader, he’s been out before paying dues by playing lead guitar for the legendary Wayne “The Train” Hancock and can slide into just about any band or vintage style of music and make it shine. The look and technique are all there, but what puts Wyatt into elite company is his sense of style and taste. As a guitar player or as a band leader, the sky is the limit for young Maxwell.
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Another name I must mention is Ruby Jane, who will unmistakably be huge in music someday, so unmistakably in fact it doesn’t even seem germane to put her on this list. She has moved more into the jazz and singer/songwriter world in recent months and years after her time touring with Willie Nelson and Asleep At The Wheel, but is still a name all lovers of great music should keep up with.
Also the beautiful and talented Rachel Brooke may be a little fey for the wide masses, but her voice and talent is nonetheless undeniable. Just like how Emmylou Harris was the hottest commodity in female harmony singers to put on your album for so many years, Rachel could fulfill this role with the pain in her voice and such mastery of taste and control, while exposing her great original songs to the greater world.
Legendary country music songwriter Billy Don Burns, who over his 40 year career has written songs for Willie Nelson, Connie Smith, Sammy Kershaw, and many others has partnered up with Rusty Knuckles Records and will be releasing a new album this summer, Nights When I’m Sober (The Portrait of a Honky Tonk Singer), tentatively set for a July 10th release.
“This kid from South Carolina, Aaron Rodgers, ran me down and told me he was a big fan and wanted to produce a new CD on me.” Billy recently told Outlaw Magazine. “We did that and I am proud of it and I think it is one of my best ones.”
Rusty Knuckles, the home of acts like Hellbound Glory, Jay Berndt, and Ronnie Hymes found it hard to say no when a call from Billy Don came in. “What happens when you get a phone call by an underground legend whose songs have been recorded by individuals such as Willie Nelson and produced albums by Merle Haggard, Tanya Tucker and Johnny Paycheck? Here is what we did, we asked Billy Don Burns to join the team and allow us to release his next album.”
Billy Don Burns produced both a gospel album and a live album for Johnny Paycheck in the late 80′s, both that remain unreleased in one of the many story lines where Billy Don is rubbing elbows with big names and on the right side of real music.
In March, as Hellbound Glory was touring through North Carolina, Rusty Knuckles assembled their version of the Million Dollar Quartet, calling up Billy Don and Ronnie Hymes for a Barn Party Jam Session in Raleigh. Rumor has it some video was taken from the session that will be released in the future.
Stay tuned for more info on Nights When I’m Sober.
I think at this point it is pretty much a forgone conclusion that in 2012 we’re all going to die of death. You know, that whole Mayan thing. But I thought just to be on the safe side, just in case we all don’t die, we’ll probably want to listen to some music, so wouldn’t it be cool to know what some of your favorite artists have planned for 2012. So I asked them to tell us in their own words.
Leroy Virgil of Hellbound Glory is…
…working on a new project we’re just gonna call ‘merica. Gonna come out in chapters or volumes, haven’t decided. Songs about real ‘merica. Shitload of new songs. Also shit load of touring. Nationwide February and March.
…balancing two aging dogs, two little sons, 500 Elementary aged children, 4 chickens in coop & 1 debilitated claw toe while releasing a 10″ LP and new full length album. We also hope to be coming to your town whether in France, Tennessee or Canada. RAR RAR 2012!
Roger Alan Wade is…
…recording a new album, “The Last Request of Elijah Rose” – it’s a prequel to “Deguello Motel”. -I’ve got the songs written and just been playing them at home and sneaking a few in on shows getting ‘em broke in for the studio. This one feels good. And hittin’ the road a little more this coming year.
…going to put out a new album, spend thousands of miles on the road, and meet the girl of his dreams (not necessarily in that order).
Even as a child Ray Wylie Hubbard sensed the need for a hymnal for grifters. In 2012, he will release an album entitled “The Grifter’s Hymnal” consisting of 11 new original songs and a ringo starr cover; therefore fulfilling a life long quest and hopefully defying the Mayan calender.
Bob Wayne is…
…rollin till the wheels fall off …..(insert train whistle)!!! Yeeeehaaw!!!
Rachel Brooke is…
…heading back into the studio to release an analog full length record. And touring more. Also heading to the west coast where the 2012 earthquake will probably kill me.
Sturgill Simpson of Sunday Valley is…
…planning to win…period.
Ruby Jane is…
…going to remember the importance of loved ones and of being there for them no matter the circumstances. That is the most important thing I leaned from 2011.
…gonna play over 200 shows, just like we always do. See you at the honky tonk.
…already hard at work on a new release. We’re also hitting the road once the snow thaws. IN,IL,OK,AR,LA, and TX are up first. We’ll see ya this Spring!
Jayke Orvis is…
…hittin’ the studio, hittin’ Europe, and hittin’ Baby Genius in the penis.
Austin Lucas is…
…working on a follow up to “A New Home in the Old World”, tentatively with Tennessee legends Glossary as my backup band. I’ll also be heading into the studio with my family this summer for our first ever, official “Lucas Family Band” album. Heading out on the road in a few weeks.
James Hunnicutt is…
…going to kill the world with kindness in 2012 in a rootsy, metal sorta’ way
JB Beverley of the Wayward Drifters is…
…2012 is going to be a big one for me. I have the new Wayward Drifters record, my solo project, the Little White Pills, and Ghostdance. No rest for the weary nor the wicked!
Peewee Moore is…
…releasing his 2nd full length all original album in the Spring to be followed by a 100 + American City Support Tour.
…releasing their 2nd album in spring/early summer and will be touring the west coast, southwest, and southeast in early August and a possible movie appearance may occur if all goes well.
Slackeye Slim is…
… planning on doing a bunch of writing, and trying to get a band together in time for a summer tour of the US.
Lonesome Wyatt of Those Poor Bastards is…
…praying for the destruction of mankind and releasing many more hit songs.
Lone Wolf is…
…gonna be working on a new album which should be ready by February, touring the whole southeast with four other acts on a tour named “The Dukes of Juke Tour”, and also will be playing austin in march. His schedule is getting busier by the day…thats right folks, keep yer eyes and ears peeled cause the one man banjo speed demon may be coming to a town near you!!!!!!!!!
Derek Dunn is…
…putting out “Poisonous Serpents”, and touring around the U.S. and Europe.
Olds Sleeper is…
…releasing an album on Sunday, January 1, 2012 in preparation for the intended self-pocolypse of said year. “New Years Poem” will be free.
Willy Tea Taylor is…
…going to throw a perfect 9 innings during the wiffle ball game of his life.
First off, I want to give recognition to the other two candidates for the Saving Country Music 2011 Album of the Year. Austin Lucas‘s album A New Home in the Old World is excellent, and probably my “favorite” album of the year, meaning the one I’ve listened to the most. Twang Nation named it their Top Pick of 2011, and I can’t argue with that. And Hellbound Glory won last year, and was nominated this year for the superb Damaged Goods, and with the strength of Leroy Virgil’s songwriting there’s no reason to think that every year they put out an album, they’ll be the perennial frontrunner for the award.
In the end though, you can’t deny the masterpiece, the magnum opus that is Slackeye Slim‘s El Santo Grial, La Pistola Piadosa. This was one of those years when one artist shot the moon, released an album that was years and years in the making, tirelessly and patiently crafted, and so bold in it’s vision and goal that it just can’t be denied.
I’ll start by admitting to it’s shortcomings, one of which is not to say it is some rehashed, spaghetti-Western soundtrack as some might conclude after a quick sniff, or not listening into the second half. What it is saddled with is a lack of accessibility, and accessibility is something that ideally a Saving Country Music Album of the Year would have, to act as an ambassador for what independent / underground country can be. Also ideally this award would go to an artist or band that spends more time out on the road, that is taking more risk for the music so they may be in a better position to benefit from accolades.
But it is not like Slackeye Slim is some newcomer studio wizard with no skins. He been around as long as most, and participated in the now legendary “Murder in the Mountains” tours in Montana which went a long way in forging a true underground network in country and roots music. And even though this album may not be accessible from a traditional standpoint, by defying genre or label, it broadens it’s audience beyond preconceived pockets of appeal. I can see folks who just like good music of any form really getting into this album, because it may not just be the best in 2011 in regards to independent country and roots or the country and roots worlds in general, it may be one of the best in all of music.
Any mild concerns one might have with El Santo Grial can be immediately swept off the table by it’s overwhelming strengths; the strength of songwriting, the grand vision and approach, the arrangement and instrumentation. Graham Lindsey should also be given special recognition for helping with this album. El Santo Grial sets such a high bar, it may be years before something impresses us like this again, and you have to go back years, for me all the way back to Hank3′s Straight to Hell in 2006 to find a rival, or peer.
I’ve given many albums two guns up, and have and will hand out many Albums of the Year. But there’s only two albums I’ve reviewed that I’ve ever felt confident enough to refer to as masterpieces, and Slackeye Slim’s El Santo Grial, La Pistola Piadosa is one.
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El Santo Grial is also available from Farmageddon Records.
When I sat down to name the top 10 live performances of 2011 as seen through my eyes, I didn’t know what a mess I was making for myself, and it wasn’t until then that I realized what a power packed year for live music it has been. My 10 stretched to 15 fast, and I’m still leaving out acts like Hellbound Glory, Lucky Tubb, and Ray Wylie Hubbard. I will be the first to tell you that is bullsh, but the line had to be drawn somewhere.
Unlike the Album of the Year and Song of the Year, with my inability to see every live performance, this is simply based on my own experience. However live performances always go into consideration for other awards, like the three solid Hellbound Glory shows I saw were considered when nominating them for album of the year.
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I really enjoyed the Sundays each month that Ruby Jane played historic Gruene Hall down in the heart of Texas, but it was a random night at Austin’s Continental Club that gave rise to her standout performance of the year with composer Graham Reynolds. Ruby’s stellar musicianship and passion on fiddle is hard to match. The flourish at the end of this song was something to make the hair stand up on the back of your neck.
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This is what South by Southwest is designed to do: take people who are involved in the music business, and put them in front of the artists in intimate setting to bypass all the press release and preview track bullshit so you can decide if an artist is worthy of your attention or not. The Revolution Bar in gentrifying east Austin was the perfect place to catch an intimate performance by Austin Lucas, joined only by his sister Chloe who supplied sublime harmonies and banjo. His simple, honest, and heartfelt performance proved to me this was an artist I needed to bring into the Saving Country Music fold.
They screw up in the middle of this, and it is still awesome. Listen to how quiet it gets in the room at the end.
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Speaking of hushing rooms and heartfelt songwriting, by evoking character through his music like few others I’ve ever seen, Charlie Parr and his guitar suck you in with songs of heartache sung with immeasurable soul. Charlie doesn’t sing about subjects in third person, he becomes the subject of his songs in an uncanny channeling of character, and makes the story flesh and bone right before your eyes.
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Whitey Morgan played the Pickathon Festival as well and had two excellent sets, but the standout show for me happened back in Austin during Bloodshot Records’ annual showcase at the Red Eye Fly, where Whitey Morgan & The 78′s were booked as the headliners. The sound was positively awful that night. The Waco Brothers played their whole set with the only working speakers being their monitors on stage. Meanwhile Whitey and the boys were sitting in their van, passing a bottle and anticipating a train wreck by the time they took the stage.
Whitey climbed on stage and took no prisoners, cussing and swearing the stage hands straight before the even did anything wrong. Bloodshot owner Nan had her face in her hands, worried Whitey was about to make a scene when what he was really doing was making sure the ship was righted before they started, and trust me, after Whitey put the fear of God in everyone, it was. Then they delivered the best set I have seen them play, and playing the headliner spot of the Bloodshot Records showcase, that is when I knew Whitey Morgan & The 78′s had arrived.
Here they are sharing the stage with legendary Eddie Spaghetti of the Supersuckers.
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11. Micah Schnabel of Two Cow Garage – ninebullets.net SXSW Showcase
Maybe not country, but nonetheless mind blowing was Micah Schnabel, who when PA issues kept his band Two Car Garage from plugging in, he grabbed his acoustic and did the solo thing like few others can. This guy is one of the most authentically-passionate performers on stage I’ve ever seen. As I like to say: if Possessed By Paul James gives birth on stage, Micah Schnabel commits suicide on stage.
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I saw this same lineup, at the same place, two different times this year, and I still did not get my fill. The perfect traveling amalgam of music, it starts off with James Hunnicutt playing solo, then Jayke Orvis taking the stage with Hunnicutt, Fishgutz from The Gallows, and Joe Perreze on banjo making up the “Broken Band,” and then at some point they are all on stage as The Goddamn Gallows.
And then there’s fire.
Joined here on stage by Gary Lindsay.
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9. Slim Cessna’s Auto Club – SXSW Showcase @ Spiderhouse
For years, the two best bands to see live have been Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers and Denver, CO’s Slim Cessna’s Auto Club. In support of their new album Unentitled they made their way down to SXSW and played a set mixing their new pop mocking songs in with their long-time favorites. This band is mind blowing every time. (video is not the best; only one I could find from the show)
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In the middle of a nearly year-long hiatus from the road, Hank3 drove out to Austin for a one-off show at The Revival Festival, and it was a good one. Not having to save anything for the next day and having nothing to recover from the night before, and dragging the badass chicken-picking half-blind maestro Johnny Hiland with him out from Nashville, Hank3 threw down the best live show I’ve seen from him in the post-Joe Buck era. It was one for the ages.
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To see either of these bands alone is an opportunity you cannot pass up. But to put them together back to back was a music cream dream come true. These two bands and their dynamic frontmen were instrumental in the revival of lower Broadway in Nashville, and the same dynamic that gave rise to the abominable frontman of lower Broadway was on display Sunday night at Muddy Roots.
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Just about every one of Willie Nelson’s kids plays music in one capacity or another. How many do it well is another story. But Lukas Nelson and his band The Promise of the Real is the real deal my friends. Far beyond riding coattails or his daddy’s name, 2011 in many ways was a coming out party for Lukas Nelson, and his performance at the 2011 Willie’s 4th of July Picnic / Country Throwdown picnic proved why. The man simply stole the show.
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5.Various Artists – Muddy Roots Festival Late Night Jam
This might be the biggest live music memory of 2011, but without any specific artist to attribute it to, or any other real way to quantify it, I’m just not sure where to put it on this list. What I do know is when you get a legend like Wayne “The Train” Hancock leading JB Beverley, Banjer Dan, all of Hellbound Glory, and who knows else, it’s hard to leave it off the list. It may have not been pretty, but it certainly was legendary.
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4. Marty Stuart – Gruene Hall, Gruene, TX
This was the performance that convinced me that Marty Stuart might be the one to save country music (read full review). This wasn’t a punk gone country show, or a neo-traditional swing back bit, it was simply pure, true country, yet dripping with energy, an engaging nature, attitude, and gospel soul. And his band The Fabulous Superlatives might be one of the best collections of country talent ever assembled. Simply put, this was the best set of straightforward country I’ve seen in years.
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3. Possessed by Paul James – Muddy Roots Festival
First off, the fact that this moment sits at #3 for the year tells you just what a power packed year for music experiences in underground roots music 2011 has been, because really, this moment sets itself apart in the musical experiences of a lifetime.
I saw Possessed by Paul James play live 6 times from late 2010 until now, and in that period, I watched a rebirth of one of the most dynamic live performers I’ve ever seen. Voice issues put him on hiatus for a bit, and when he started performing again, there was a slight timidness, a lack of confidence in his new vocal reality he was struggling with. But over that period, the confidence and abandon came back in full force, to where now I cannot think of another solo performer I would place above him in ability and consistency. Possessed by Paul James delivers every time, and I have come to think of him as a true headliner, and a true legend in the live and recorded context. They say that Possessed By Paul James gives birth to his songs on stage. In 2011 we also saw a PPJ resurrection.
By the end of his Muddy Roots set, some folks were in tears, and everyone was talking about the mysterious burst of wind on that blisteringly hot day that hit the tent right as he began to play. Call that mysterious wind burst a sign of the divine, or quantify it by explaining the dramatic atmospheric wind shift that preceded a change from the hot weather to a tropical disturbance ushered in by Tropical Storm Lee that moved over middle Tennessee. Either way, PPJ channeled that energy through his music, and changed people’s lives.
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2. Sunday Valley – The Pickathon Festival, Portland, OR
I really don’t know what to say here, except that Sunday Valley was the best live band I discovered in 2011, and very possibly might be the best live band right now in all of country music. I know that may come across as a platitude, but I believe it, and to try and use words to describe their live experience almost seems insulting; you just have to experience it yourself. Sturgill Simpson is country’s version of Jimmy Hendrix or Stevie Ray Vaughan. Mark my words, 2012 might be the year of Sunday Valley. (read more in live review from Pickathon)
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1. Justin Townes Earle – The Parish, Austin, TX
I will start this off by saying I know some people will read this having also seen Justin Townes Earle at some point in 2011, and thinking I’m crazy for putting him here at the top spot. That is because JTE can be hit and miss live, because JTE has a drug and alcohol problem.
When I saw him live at SXSW in 2010, that is when I first recognized a sharp dropoff in the quality of his live show, and a few months later, called him out on it in connection with a rumored drug problem. Later that year in September, he got arrested in Indianapolis after tearing up a dressing room, and brawling with cops. Shortly therafter came a rehab stint, and by January of this year, he was back on tour. We know from subsequent stories that between now and January, JTE had another relapse with heroin, and a relapse while on tour in Australia, and I’ve heard mixed review of his live shows.
I am not omnipresent, so I can’t speak on all his performances, but in Austin, TX, Justin Townes Earle put on the performance of his lifetime. Nearly a year later, I still get chills as I sit here and write about it. Stone cold sober, having just been from hell and back, his own mortality and career hanging in the balance, Justin Townes Earle sang from the heart like nobody else I have ever seen, or possibly ever will see. Since the performance, I have had to come to grips with the fact that I may never be moved by another performance for the rest of my life, like the way I was moved that night. (read review)
There is nothing I take more seriously than naming what I think is the best album of any calendar year. The Album of the Year offers a guidepost for future generations to find the best music that was forgotten by the mainstream, while at the same time being a current ambassador to the mainstream to illustrate what great music they are overlooking. An Album of the Year can’t just be the best album to listen to, it has to be impactful, influential, and/or groundbreaking.
The decision of who to nominate is always difficult, but this year it seemed especially difficult because of the additional albums I could have included beyond these three. Both Rachel Brooke’s Down in the Barnyard and Lone Wolf’s self-titled album were excellent, breakthrough releases. Cody Canada & The Departed’s This Is Indian Land I thought was especially strong, though I may be alone in that thought. And there were a couple of landmark blues albums this year, Husky Burnette’s Facedown in the Dirt, and Scott Biram’s Bad Ingredients, and make no mistake, though it would have to fight an uphill battle, a blues album could win.
But in the end, if I had included one of those albums, I’d have to include them all to be fair to the requirements of all the nominees, and that would have diluted attention from the three albums that truly have a chance to win. And certainly those albums and many more will be included on the “2011 Essential Albums List” forthcoming.
Saving Country Music is a benevolent dictatorship, and I will make the end decision of the winner, but feedback will be taken into strong consideration, so please, leave your votes, comments, your own candidates, or write-in votes below. Just don’t make fun of the cheesball “2011 Album of the Year” logo I slapped together, or you comment will be disqualified.
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Of all the albums in 2011, this was the one I listened to the most. It is one of those albums where a few of the songs hit you the first time through, then after you’ve worn out those songs, the ones you didn’t like at first grow on you, and by the time those wear out, you’re favorites in the first place are renewed once again until 6 months have gone by and you never stopped listening. In this day of so much parody in music, this is such a rare feat.
A New Home in the Old World scores two guns up on every element of this album: the songwriting, the singing, the instrumentation, the production and accessibility. You can put this album on for one of your pop country friends, and they will like it, and you will too, and Lucas proved his wide appeal by appearing on Willie Nelson’s Country Throwdown Tour this summer. And it is solidly country, pure country, with steal guitars and fiddles and down home, but not apish harmony vocals, even though he comes to us from a punk music background, and through the Suburban Home Records scene.
Simply based on appeal, and our ability to hold up an album to Music Row and say, “See, there is music out there that is better, but still widely appealing, that could save your business model,” there is no better album in 2011 than A New Home in the Old World. (read review)
El Santo Grial is a masterpiece, a magnum opus, of the highest proportions. And it’s not just that this is the greatest masterpiece of 2011, it very well may be the best masterpiece that has been put out in the independent/underground country world, ever. And I’d go even another step to say there’s a good chance it will never be rivaled in that regard. The artistry, the vision, and the patience and uncompromising approach to see it through makes El Santo Grial one for the ages.
However artistry and vision is one thing, and appeal is another. Is this an album you can play for your pop country friends? Uh yeah, probably not. They’re not ready for it, and even many people who are not pop country fans are probably not ready for it. Ulysses may be the greatest novel of all time, but damn if most of us can’t make it past the first chapter. But even though El Santo Grial may not have mass appeal, I do think it could appeal to a mass variety of people by transcending genre and traditional ideas of taste, like what Tom Waits does, until it does command a big audience. And I do think there are songs here that can be picked out of the work and stand alone. (read review)
Originally I was not going to include Damaged Goods on this list; the 2011 Album of the Year was going to be a two horse race. Don’t get me wrong, I think the album is excellent, but I just don’t know if it is their best effort. I’m not saying it “isn’t” their best effort, I’m saying “I don’t know” if it’s their best effort, like I can say about A New Home and El Santo Grial. And I have to balance that against the fact that Leroy Virgil wanted to make an album that was an approximation of their live show, which these days is fairly stripped down because of budgetary restraints.
But when you take into consideration influence and appeal, it would be an injustice to leave Damaged Goods off. Austin Lucas could blow up, but Hellbound Glory would blow up if the right buttons were pushed by someone who has the power, and understands their aesthetic. Leroy Virgil could be the next Justin Townes Earle, a solid underground success story, or he could be the next Alan Jackson. I just wish he knew that the possibilities were in arms length of him, and I wish I knew how to get him that last step–not to afford him arbitrary measures of success like money and fame, but because the world needs Hellbound Glory’s music. (read review)
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