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Move over Jamey Johnson and Kacey Musgraves. There’s a new critical darling in country music, and he’s neither country nor worthy of critical acclaim. Yes, I’m talking about the suave-haired cocaine club EDM-fueled country music marketing colossus and Svengali of the country music public named Sam Hunt.
This isn’t hard people. Toby Keith’s song “Drunk Americans” isn’t “social commentary,” Kenny Chesney’s new album The Big Revival is not “progressive,” and Sam Hunt and his music have nothing to do with country aside from the channels it’s been chosen to be peddled under because the historically pliable country music fan won’t question as a turd sandwich is shoved down their throat and called tuna.
In country music’s big pivot from the shallowness of Bro-Country, apparently they believe you don’t have to materially improve your music, you just have to say that you are, and country music media will lap it up. Unlike the dunces in Florida Georgia Line or Brantley Gilbert who I’ve yet hear form a complete sentence, when you shove a microphone in the face of Sam Hunt, actual coherent language comes out, and apparently that feat is enough to woo country music’s literati into believing he has a legitimate place not just under the country music umbrella, but perched on the crown of it. Oh, and if you don’t see the country music merit Sam Hunt, it’s because you’re a closed-minded, shallow-listening purist who needs to remove the stick from your ass and understand that country music has evolved, yo.
In a barrage of recent press, Sam Hunt apologists pontificate how country music’s answer to the rise of EDM is not just legitimately qualified to be considered “country,” but that his music is of high quality, and is healthy for the genre. Excuse me, but can someone please ship the “quality” version of Hunt’s Montevallo to the Saving Country Music headquarters, because sweeping aside all of the arguments of what is country or not, “quality” is something that never ever crossed my mind when listening to that aggressively mind-numbing exploration of musical tropes and oft called-upon clichés machine gunned out in unmerciless succession.
It seems some of the theories of how excellent Sam Hunt’s album is are based off of the involvement of songwriter Shane McAnally—a critic’s superstar at the moment because of his work with Kacey Musgraves on many of her acclaimed songs. This was an important point made in a recent Entertainment Weekly interview with Sam Hunt, and in another piece by the great Barry Mazor (who has an excellent new book out about Ralph Peer) writing for Engine 145. “Hunt’s written the ten songs with the likes of Zach Crowell, Josh Osborne and Shane McAnally—the latter pair wrote ‘Merry Go Round’ with Kacey Musgraves, and Crowell and McAnally produced the set, keeping these particular pop country sounds tightly and appropriately tied to the songs’ meanings and levels of emotionality. Sam Hunt brings to all that the assured vocal finesse that can give ‘polished’ a good name.”
But what these taste makers are overlooking is that McAnally’s list of song credits has always been a mixed bag of semi-quality, yet still formulaic offerings for the mainstream, along with unapologetic commercial tunes. As Saving Country Music pointed out in September of 2013 in an article called Dallas Davidson & Country Music’s Narrowing Songwriting Consortium, “On the surface he seems to be a writer who works with more substance compared to Luke Laird and Dallas Davidson, but he’s also given credit for co-writing Florida Georgia Line’s ‘Party People,’ and Lady Antebellum’s ultra-saccharine ‘Downtown.’”
No offense to Shane McAnally; it’s great that he’s been able to be a part of songs that at least attempt to instill some quality in the mainstream, but that shouldn’t allow him a lifelong hall pass from hearing about it when he helps to write rubbish, like Toby Keith’s “Drunk Americans” or Sam Hunt’s “Leave The Night On.” In my opinion McAnally has burned through his critical cred long ago, and at the least is on an even keel when looking critically at any future creative output, not grading him on a curve.
And besides, the songwriting is arguably where Sam Hunt and Montevallo suffer the most. While Hunt’s defenders focus on trying to explain why it is okay to call urban club music “country,” they also lean on the songwriting as the consensus builder of the album and what ultimately makes it “country.” Sam Hunt tells Entertainment Weekly, “I feel like they’re all country songs lyrically. They’re just stories about country life.” And Barry Mazor says Sam Hunt is “potent music that reflects the lives, responses and rhythms” of low-income country folks. But aside from the lyrics of “Break Up in a Small Town” which nestles down in what has to be the one of the most overused cliché tropes of modern country, I fail to see what is so country about these songs, while some of them venture so far into urban themes they could illustrate the absolute antithesis of country from a lyrical standpoint, punctuated by urban annunciations, artifacts, behavior, and jargon.
I truly question if I’m listening to the same damn album as these other writers. I hear Sam Hunt quoting Train’s “Drops of Jupiter,” and saying lines like “It’s still early out in Cali,” “Blame it on the bikinis, party girls, and martinis,” “Tanned legs in the nights, sliding out of the sea, stilettos at the crosswalk,” and “All dolled up at the bar, with debit cards, they don’t know how pretty they are
City girls, city girls.”
Doesn’t sound very country to me.
As Saving Country Music said in the review of Montevallo, it is “an excruciatingly-typical urban dance album that does Molly-laced grinds up against every single worn out trope of the velvet-roped, indirect-lighted, $15 cocktail club scene and the music thereof. Aside from the banjo in the song “House Party,” the steel guitar in “Single for the Summer,” and the sentiment in “Break Up In A Small Town,” this ten-song LP is a product of the pop/EDM world 100%.”
Barry Mazor also says that some critics “notice only that the subject territory seems similar to that of a lot of ‘Chart Country’ guyz lately, and the record’s tone on the more pop end of the spectrum…” He also goes on to call Sam Hunt and Montevallo, “fine country music.”
The Fader goes one step further, with writer Duncan Cooper penning a piece called Why Sam Hunt is Good for Country Music. In the article he contrasts the success of Sam Hunt with the rise of Sturgill Simpson. He also talks to Mr. Hunt, and even reads him a quote from the aforementioned SCM review of Montevallo that goes, “Nice guy and good songs or not, Sam Hunt isn’t stretching the ‘country’ term, he is a downright attacking it, and represents a fulfillment of the mono-genre that should be roundly rejected by country music or face potentially dire long-term consequences.”
Sam Hunt’s response is, “My intention was not to try to convince any skeptics that my music was country. It’s hard to understand everybody’s definition of what country music is, and mine may not fit the definition of my critics, so it’s kind of pointless for me to get involved in an argument where we just have different ideas about what country music is. In an argument like that, I think two people can be right.”
Sorry Sam, but you’re wrong, and you know it, and you know this entire project was hatched as a calculated marketing angle that has paid off in spades. Now you and others are trying to justify this pursuit because it clearly doesn’t fit within the country music panorama.
The Fader‘s Duncan Cooper does make a valiant attempt in a well-written piece to say that both traditional-sounding artists like Sturgill Simpson, and EDM artists like Sam Hunt, can be called country, and we can all join hands and sing “Kumbaya” under one big cohabited tent. However the truth is country music has become the veritable ground zero for the contentious culture war by taking musical elements and members of different segments in society and trying to scrunch them all together uncomfortably in one genre for the marketing expediency of major labels. There is absolutely nothing wrong with EDM music, or hip-hop, or rock, or pop, or even combining these styles when it is done with heart and taste. If Sam Hunt wants to make urban dance music, then hey, he should do that. But he should call it what it is and push it through the appropriate channels as opposed to being a catalyst for conflict by predicating his music on sonic misnomers that breed misunderstanding.
Music as a gateway drug only works if it accurately represents where you’re trying to lead listeners.
With all respect to The Fader and Duncan Cooper, he misidentifies the concerns of country traditionalists by saying, “Large corporations have seen reason to give supercountry a boost, and in doing so, have implicitly crowded out more traditional styles that might’ve been promoted instead, derailing hypothetical futures where roots-minded artists might, with equal exposure, attain equal audiences.”
This is where people who wish to defend the integrity of the term “country” and the genre it represents are commonly misunderstood. Sturgill Simpson doesn’t want to be signed to a major label or win big awards, and neither do his fans. They’re perfectly happy seeing him in packed clubs or small theaters, and fear the day they have to squint at him on a stadium stage. Sturgill doesn’t want to be associated with what is being played on the radio. There is no envy or jealousy whatsoever. Should Sturgill Simpson be recognized by the CMA Awards or be played on the radio? Of course he should, but if it is done by Sturgill Simpson compromising who he is instead of the industry truly recognizing what they’ve missed, there’s no value in it. They would rather stick to the independent world.
There is this diseased sentiment that is currently being carried by country that you should strive to be the biggest of everything, and that is how success is measured. That is why the country industry is pushing artists like Sam Hunt so strongly. But in striving to be the biggest, you detach yourself from your roots, you don’t grow sustainably, and holes begin to populate the integrity of what you’re doing, putting you on unsure footing and the path for an eventual fall from grace. See rock music.
Diversity is what makes music both beautiful and healthy, and a vibrant tapestry for consumers to explore and find fulfillment in ways that enrich their lives in a manner that speaks to them more personally based off their predisposed tendencies and cultural upbringing. And somehow when you come to the defense of this diversity, and challenge the idea that all music should sound different and be accurately classified to aid this exploratory endeavor, it is mischaracterized as closed-minded or being unwilling to evolve.
Before there was Sam Hunt and “We Can Leave The Night On,” there was Jerrod Niemann and “I Can Drink To That All Night.” Anyone heard from Jerrod Niemann lately? Anyone even keeping up on how his last two singles have been huge failures? He stretched the boundaries too far, and though he succeeded in garnering himself some short-term attention, in the end it wasn’t only unsustainable, it was ultimately detrimental to his career. And that is the same risk country music runs by betting its future on Sam Hunt, EDM, or anything else that resides out of country’s historical fold.
Oh, and let’s not forget that Sturgill Simpson has been hinting at the possibility of collaborating with electronic elements in his future projects.
Sam Hunt seems like a great guy and a smart cookie, and good for him. And if country critics or listeners find a guilty or an non-guilty pleasure in his music, who is it for me or anyone else to step in front of the enjoyment of that music? But the simple fact is he’s not country, and the CMA, radio station programmers, label executives, critics, and even fellow country stars should stand up for the integrity of the country genre, put forward and celebrate it’s virtues instead of the virtues of other genres, and be happy playing second fiddle to pop instead of trying to take over the popular music world by incorporating it.
Let’s celebrate the diversity of music, not attempt to resolve it.
One year ago Sunday, 11-23, Outlaw country artist and songwriter Wayne Mills was killed—shot in the back of the head at the Pit & Barrel Bar in Nashville, TN. Now almost a year to the day of Wayne Mills’ death, one of the many artists that Wayne Mills mentored on their way up the ranks paid a touching tribute to the fallen star on Monday night’s (11-24) episode of NBC’s reality singing competition The Voice, arguably the most recognition the fiercely-independent Mills received his entire career.
Country rocker Craig Wayne Boyd from Mesquite, TX had previously shared the stage with Wayne Mills, as well as with mutual friend Jamey Johnson many times, but has been given the opportunity of his life by finding himself in the Top 10 of this year’s The Voice competition. Originally chosen by Blake Shelton and then stolen by judge Gwen Stefani, Craig Wayne Boyd was later stolen back by Blake Shelton. This was only appropriate, because Blake Shelton too was mentored by Wayne Mills early on in his career. While a struggling performer just trying to gain attention, Wayne Mills let Blake Shelton open for him and showed him the ropes of how to make it in country music. Though Wayne Mills is not considered a household name, many of the young artists he helped shepherd, like Blake Shelton, Craig Wayne Boyd, and Taylor Hicks, have gone on to great things. Wayne Mills was the prototype.
On Monday night’s episode, before Craig Wayne Boyd’s performance of Johnny Cash’s “I Walk The Line,” Craig Wayne took a replica of the now famous “WM” necklace that Wayne Mills wore at all times (see above picture) from Wayne’s widow Carol, and presented it to Wayne’s former pupil, Blake Shelton. The circle was now completed, and then Craig Wayne Boyd sang “I Walk The Line” in a ballad style in tribute to Wayne Mills as eyes watered on the live set and in homes across the country.
“I’m not a country girl but I could see right away with you that you were a star,” his former coach Gwen Stefani said. Pharrell said, “I remember when you first came across the stage. I thought to myself that man is super sure of himself. There is nothing like coming across an artist who knows who they are.” Blake Shelton simply called the performance “magic.”
Craig Wayne Boyd has been doing very well on the competition, hitting #1 on the iTunes Country Chart last week. On Tuesday, the results of Monday’s voting will be revealed to see if the country singer will continue in the competition. Meanwhile the elevation the legacy of Wayne Mills received through The Voice presentation is something that cannot be overvalued. Even a year after his passing, the Wayne Mills influence lingers in some of the highest echelons of popular music.
The video below shows the Wayne Mills moment. The video below that is a better quality performance of Craig Wayne Boyd’s performance.
Fans of country music traditionalist Jamey Johnson are about to have their Christmas wishes of new music from the awarded and acclaimed songwriter answered. As first reported by Saving Country Music on November 18th, Jamey Johnson will be releasing The Christmas Song, a 5-song “genre-defying” Christmas album will arrive on store shelves December 9th. It includes Jamey’s take on four Christmas standards, collaborations with The Secret Sisters and Lily Meola, and an original Christmas tune penned by Johnson with Bill Anderson and Buddy Cannon called South Alabam Christmas—the first original Jamey Johnson song released in over 4 years.
But that’s not where the goodies stop from the songwriter. Announced today, November 24th, Jamey Johnson is starting his own record label called Big Gassed Records. The first release from the new label will be the Christmas EP, but there will be much more music on the way.
“From now on, as soon as I can get it written and recorded, we will make it available,” says Johnson about the new label. “I am looking forward to getting new music out there. I know our fans have been asking about it and I’m going to do my part to see that we get it to them. I’m excited about the new label because it gives me freedom and control of my own releases and music. It lets me release my music to my fans when I’m ready. I will be able to put out a new song without it having to be on an album. I’m a songwriter. Sometimes I write songs that fit records, sometimes I write songs that fit other people’s records and sometimes I write songs that don’t fit anywhere. I also like to produce—I had a blast producing the Blind Boys of Alabama—and we could release those projects on our label.”
Big Gassed Records is located at 30 Music Sq. W.—the same building that houses the historic Studio ‘A’ that was just saved by preservationist Aubrey Preston. Johnson has been a long-time tenant of the building.
February of 2013 is when Johnson first let on that a contract dispute was the reason for his lack of creative output, telling Rolling Stone, “Financially speaking, they treat me worse than they ever did the Dixie Chicks. I feel pretty used by the music industry, in that my contracts are written in such a way that I don’t get paid … I wish I could tell you that I am writing. I’m not. I wish I could tell you I’m gonna go home next week and record another album. It’s not likely to happen.” It then came out that Jamey’s issue was not with his label, Mercury Records, but with his publisher.
Now Jamey Johnson will have the freedom to release music how he chooses. And patient fans for the songwriter hope he chooses to release more new music soon.
“Seldom in Montgomery did we have a cold Christmas, much less thinking it was our lucky year that it would snow, so the song opens with, ‘Ain’t no snow gonna fall this Christmas,’” Jamey says of the “South Alabam Christmas” song. “And when I was a young kid, it would confuse me and my sister as to how Santa would make it into our trailer because we didn’t have a chimney or a fireplace, and the song deals with that too.”
As for the Hawaiian Christmas song “Mele Kalikimaka,” Jamey says, “It’s in that movie ‘Christmas Vacation,’ where Clark Griswold is looking out the window into his back yard and daydreaming about the pool he is planning on putting in his backyard. Bing Crosby did it with the Andrews Sisters and I did it with the Secret Sisters,” he says. “Our version is a take on Bing Crosby’s version. Our guys did a really good job of it and I’m proud of it. But it makes me laugh every time I hear it because I think of Cousin Eddie bouncing around on that high dive.”
One year ago today, Outlaw country artist and songwriter Wayne Mills was shot in the back of the head at the Pit & Barrel Bar in Nashville, TN at approximately 5:00 AM after an altercation erupted with the bar’s owner, Chris Michael Ferrell—a friend of Wayne’s who was hosting an after hours gathering following a tribute concert to George Jones earlier in the evening at the Bridgestone Arena. Mills died later that day of his wounds in a Nashville hospital, and after a protracted investigation, Chris Ferrell was indicted by a Grand Jury on 2nd Degree murder charges. Ferrell is currently out on bond and under electronic surveillance ahead of his trial set to begin on March 2nd, 2015. Meanwhile many questions continue to linger about the circumstances of Wayne’s death as fans, friends, and family remember the fallen performer on this solemn anniversary.
A year has passed, and still very little makes sense, or even is known about Wayne Mills’ death. Early reports had the altercation starting over smoking in a non-smoking section of the Pit & Barrel bar that had recently been remodeled as part of the Spike TV reality series Bar Rescue, but later Ferrell claimed in a preliminary court hearing that Mills’ had come to the bar to “rob and kill” him—something that goes completely against the character of the songwriter who was known by many as a gentle giant. When Ferrell shot Mills, he did not do it from close range according to the autopsy report, which also revealed Wayne Mills had been heavily beaten, with bruises and cuts on every sector of his body and multiple broken ribs. Still, it was Chris Ferrell who initially called 911 after the shooting, and as his attorney says, he didn’t “run for tall weeds” after the incident, but cooperated fully with police, and turned himself in immediately when the indictment was handed down, insisting on his innocence.
The investigation into the death of Wayne Mills resulted in some very curious circumstances in itself. The police initially misidentified Wayne as another Nashville songwriter, Clayton Mills, and worked under this assumption for some ten hours into the investigation. This unfortunate error resulted in Wayne Mills’ widow, Carol Mills, confined to a hospital waiting room while her husband lay fighting for life behind closed doors that the staff would not let her past because they couldn’t confirm she was family. Meanwhile Chris Ferrell was able to come and go freely, and though Wayne was subjected to a toxicology test as part of his autopsy, it is still unclear if a similar test was done on Ferrell. And even if Chris Ferrell was acting in self-defense, why was a fatal shot needed, and one that was fired at a distance and from behind, meaning Wayne at the time was likely not in a position to pose a threat to Ferrell. Two guns were presented to police when they arrived on the scene, and later a private investigator hired by Ferrell found a second bullet embedded in the Pit & Barrel’s wall.
There were no direct witnesses to the Wayne Mills killing. Country performer Shooter Jennings and his manager Jon Hensley had left shortly before, and everyone else in the bar had filed outside amidst the altercation, leaving only Chris Ferrell and evidence collected at the scene as a way to piece together what truly happened, making the upcoming trial of Chris Ferrell all the more important. Beyond the fans, family, and friends of Wayne Mills who want justice, many in the music community and Nashville at large simply want answers of why a man died seemingly so unnecessarily.
Jerald Wayne Mills was laid to rest on December 8th, 2013 after a memorial service was held for him in his hometown of Arab, Alabama. A man who had been a friend and mentor to stars as far ranging as Blake Shelton and Jamey Johnson, and had left a vibrant legacy of songs and music was gone. Wayne Mills is survived by his wife Carol, and his young son Jack, and thousands of fans who were touched by his music.
On the one year anniversary of Wayne Mills’ death, it is important to remember and celebrate Wayne’s legacy. But it is also important to remember that we still don’t have the answer to why he was killed. As citizens of the music community, it is important that we continue to ask this question, and to remain vigilant in the face of the passage of time and the distraction of daily news until this important answer is found.
(This article has been updated)
When you navigate to jameyjohnson.com, it darn near takes the home page 15 seconds to load because the above banner proclaiming new music on the way is so damn big. Jamey’s fans aren’t complaining though. They’ve been waiting so long for new, original music from the songwriter, they’ll take any sign as a good one. After a protracted legal battle, it’s about time the creative reigns on one of country music’s most successful modern day traditionalists were loosened.
A Christmas album though? That may not be exactly what many Jamey Johnson fans were hoping to find under their country music Christmas tree. But others will find a treat in the new release nonetheless, and this does not mean a new album of non Holiday-oriented music still isn’t on the way.
Jamey Johnson’s The Christmas Song, a 5-song “genre-defying” Christmas album will arrive on store shelves December 9th. It includes Jamey’s take on four Christmas standards, collaborations with The Secret Sisters and Lily Meola, and an original Johnson-penned Christmas tune—the first original Jamey Johnson song released in over 4 years. The Christmas Song is being released through Jamey Johnson’s own record label Big Gassed Records.
The album is described as, “four timeless holiday standards and a much-anticipated new Christmas song. The genre-defying collection could be describe as Trains, Trailers and Tikis, because it features traditional and jazz-inspired Christmas sounds reminiscent of Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra, an uplifting Hawaiian holiday feel and powerful country songs. Johnson is joined by The Secret Sisters on ‘Mele Kalikimaka (Hawaiian Christmas Song)’, while singer Lily Meola shares the microphone on ‘Baby, It s Cold Outside.’ In addition, Johnson offers his interpretation of ‘The Christmas Song’ and Willie Nelson’s ‘Pretty Paper.’ The award-winning songwriter was inspired to write a new song, ‘South Alabam Christmas,’ which ends with a lullaby to soothe anxious children to sleep on Christmas Eve.”
February of 2013 is when Johnson first let on that a contract dispute was the reason for his lack of creative output, telling Rolling Stone, “Financially speaking, they treat me worse than they ever did the Dixie Chicks. I feel pretty used by the music industry, in that my contracts are written in such a way that I don’t get paid … I wish I could tell you that I am writing. I’m not. I wish I could tell you I’m gonna go home next week and record another album. It’s not likely to happen.” It then came out that Jamey’s issue was not with his label, Mercury Records, but with his publisher. The Christmas Song may tide thirsty fans over until a new full-length is ready to release.
- Baby It’s Cold Outside
- Mele Kalikimaka
- South Alabam Christmas
- Pretty Paper
- The Christmas Song
Jamey Johnson has “New Music Coming Soon.” This is according to the above banner splayed across his website this weekend, and syncs up with a message left on his Facebook page Thursday telling fans, “We will be announcing some very exciting things soon,” and urging fans to sign up for Jamey’s newsletter. This news comes after a protracted wait for new original music from Jamey that goes back to September of 2010 when he released his last original album of music, The Guitar Song. In 2012 Jamey also released Living For A Song: A Tribute to Hank Cochran, but it did not contain any new Jamey Johnson-penned songs.
For a man known as a songwriter, it was certainly strange when four years passed without a peep of new music. February of 2013 is when Johnson first let on that a contract dispute was the reason for his lack of creative output, telling Rolling Stone, ““Financially speaking, they treat me worse than they ever did the Dixie Chicks. I feel pretty used by the music industry, in that my contracts are written in such a way that I don’t get paid … I wish I could tell you that I am writing. I’m not. I wish I could tell you I’m gonna go home next week and record another album. It’s not likely to happen.”
This led to speculation that the issue was with Jamey Johnson’s record label, Mercury Records. But when Saving Country Music contacted Mercury, they said Jamey Johnson was no longer signed to the label. Then finally in a Nashville Scene interview with Jewly Hight on July 9th, Johnson finally explained that it was not his label, but his publisher, EMI Music Publishing, that he had the contract beef with.
“I’ve already reached an agreement with Mercury Records that gave me what I wanted ultimately, which was my freedom,” Jamey told Nashville Scene. “I just wanted the ability to go, and they gave that to me. They also gave me the ability to come back, if I decided I wanted to come back. To me, that looks a lot like a revolving door, and that’s what I wanted. But most importantly, I wanted to be able to leave. If I can’t leave, then what’s the point in coming back? My appreciation to Mike Dungan [UMG Nashville Chairman/CEO] and the whole team at Mercury Records for allowing me that ability to come back after I leave. They could’ve slammed the door and locked it and said, ‘Man, enough.’”
Jamey Johnson may have been coy about the specifics of the contract dispute because he didn’t want to bad mouth his publisher publicly, or speaking out against the publisher directly may put him in violation of his contract, or may hurt his chances of receiving a fair solution through the legal process.
There is no news yet if Johnson’s contract disputes are over, or if he is just tired of fighting and is ready to release new music. There’s also no word on when this new music might be coming or in what capacity. But it is on the way nonetheless, and Jamey’s large and loyal fan base of traditional country fans could not be happier.
Lucinda Williams is getting ready to release a double LP called Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone on September 30th through her new label Highway 30 Records on Thirty Tigers. The 20-song release will see appearances by Tony Joe White, Ian McLagan, Bill Frisell, and the Wallflowers’ Jakob Dylan and Stuart Mathis. The album starts off with a song called “Compassion” based off a poem by Lucinda’s father Miller Williams, and also includes a cover of J.J. Cale’s “Magnolia.”
Lucinda Williams stopped down to talk to Rolling Stone about the release recently, saying in part, “I was on a writing binge, and we just kind of got on a roll. We actually ended up recording enough for three albums. So we decided, ‘What the hell, let’s break the rules and do a double album.’”
She also had some interesting things to say when asked if she pays attention to mainstream country much these days.
Oh, God, no. Are you kidding? No. It’s not the lack of talent, necessarily. It’s just the production on the albums – I just can’t stand it. There’s that guy Jamey Johnson, he’s amazing. He’s great. And there’s a handful of ‘em. But I don’t know. Some of these girls now, you hear about them, and somebody says, “Oh, she’s really different. She’s really pushing the envelope and really edgy,” and all that. And I go, “OK.” I listen to it, and I go, “Really? This is edgy?”
Then Lucinda really took the gloves off.
Yeah. It’s like John Ciambotti once said: “Country music today is like Seventies rock without the cocaine.” You know? They need to come up with another name for it.
John Ciambotti was the bass player for the Bay Area-based 70′s rock band Clover, that among other accomplishments backed Elvis Costello on his debut album. Costello’s current rhythm section appears on Lucinda’s Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone.
Lucinda Williams rose into the national spotlight as the songwriter for numerous hits by more well-known female performers including Mary Chapin Carpenter whose rendition of “Passionate Kisses” won a Grammy Award for Best Country Song in 1994. Lucinda’s breakout success was her 1998 album Car Wheels On A Gravel Road produced by Steve Earle. She has released 11 total albums, including reissuing her self-titled album from 1988 earlier this year.
After his award-winning work with artists like Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell, Jamey Johnson, and so many more, when you see the name Dave Cobb associated with an artist, it’s probably worth paying a little bit closer attention. And such is the case when it comes to burgeoning country artist Lucette from Edmonton, Canada, who just released her first single and video, and is about to release her debut album, Black Is The Color.
Lucette met producer Dave Cobb through a strange series of events. At a concert in Edmonton, she sang backup for an former American Idol contestant named Michael Johns, who incidentally died on August 1st after a blood clot formed in his ankle. “We became good friends from our mutual love of Otis Redding,” says Lucette of Michael Johns, and Dave Cobb had worked as a producer for Michael Johns previously. But Lucette didn’t start working with Dave Cobb in the beginning. Instead she was working with big industry movers and shakers in Canada in the camp of legendary producer and songwriter David Foster. Lucette was being groomed for the big time, but the results were something she was not happy with. “It was a big, Celine Dion-sounding record. The music coming out of these other people, it was terrible. I can’t explain how inaccurate it sounded to my style and my interests.”
She was only 18-years-old at the time and was being presented with the biggest music opportunity of her life, but she was miserable with the results. So she confided in Michael Johns for guidance, who told her, “‘You have to talk to my friend Dave Cobb,’ and of course when I looked Dave up, he’d already produced half of my favorite records.”
Lucette then flew to Nashville and started working on a new record with Dave. She came to Nashville in 2011 with 20 songs ready to record, and ended up scrapping every one of them. “We wrote the album in three weeks, and recorded it,” she says. “Dave and I wrote half the songs together.” Lucette made subsequent trips to Nashville to complete the record, and it was finally finished last year.
The centerpiece of the project was a song called “Bobby Reid.” “Out of the songs I wrote, and the ones that we co-wrote, the ones we co-wrote definitely stood out. They had a certain vibe to them, and that’s where the Bobby Reid character was born. We wrote it in one night, and recorded it in one take the next day. And one song kind of changed the whole mood of the album. I was writing mostly 50′s and 60′s country, almost like Skeeter Davis, but this Bobby Reid character kind of changed the way that I write, and the way I think about music. I was 19 when I wrote that song.”
Dave Cobb was excited about the song as well, and saw it as the single off the album, and the one to target for a video. So Dave called up filmmaker Blake Judd, who dreamed up the concept of an old-school river baptism, and recruited his circle of musician contacts to help fulfill the cast, including Sturgill Simpson, and Col. JD Wilkes of Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers and the The Dirt Daubers. “At this point, Sturgill Simpson hasn’t even put out ‘High Top Mountain,’” Blake Judd explains. “Sturgill said, ‘Yeah, I like the song, I like Dave, and I like you.’ And then I called J.D. Wilkes and asked him if he wanted to reprise his role as a creepy preacher. So everyone converged in Greensburg, Kentucky in August of 2012, and we made the video.”
But the song “Bobby Reid,” the video starring Sturgill Simpson, and Lucette’s Dave Cobb-produced album almost never saw the light of day. Lucette’s management at the time was not fond of the old-school, dark Americana road she was going down. They believed Lucette’s future was in a more mainstream direction. “I met with four or five major labels. A few of them I went back to several times,” Lucette explains. “But there were several meetings with a couple of labels that led me to a lot of inner turmoil because they basically said, ‘This song has to be shorter. This song has to be longer. You have to cut this one.’ And then it came to the point where someone said, ‘You’re not going to be able to do this as a career.’”
But once again Lucette listened to herself instead of the industry, and saw that the work she did with Dave Cobb was the right direction. “I’m glad I went with my gut. I’m glad that I’ve had people in my life that kind of got my vibe and understood me enough to know that my record might not be a huge thing to a major label. But to the people that get it, I think they will really get it.”
Dave Cobb is one of those people that gets the young Canadian songwriter. “Lucette really brings out the dark side of American turn of the century folk when it seemed the world was gonna end, and breathes new light into it,” says Dave Cobb. “We had a blast making the record. I’ll never forget sitting in a booth right next ta her playin guitar and hearing bobby Reid coming through the headphones. It felt timeless.”
Lucette’s album Black Is The Color is set to be released on August 26th, and the video for “Bobby Reid” just debuted on CMT Pure.
On November 12th, artists from across the country and Southern rock world will be coming together to pay tribute to Lynyrd Skynyrd in a unique way. Not your typical tribute concert, and not your typical tribute album, One More For The Fans! — Celebrating The Songs & Music of Lynyrd Skynyrd will be a combination of both ideas taking place on the stage of the famed Fox Theatre in Atlanta. 17+ artists and an all star band directed by producer Don Was will be celebrating the music of Lynyrd Skynyrd in the intimate space while camera crews roll to produce a multi-platform Lynyrd Skynyrd project to be released next year.
Using the 4,700-seat Fox Theatre as the backdrop for this tribute is symbolic. When Lynyrd Skynyrd cut their 1976 live album One More For The Road in the Atlanta venue, it was scheduled for demolition. The live album helped revitalize the venue, and the title of this tribute, One More For The Fans! is an homage to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s history with the historic venue.
Artists scheduled to perform as part of the concert include Lynyrd Skynyrd, Alabama, Gregg Allman, Jason Isbell, Jamey Johnson, Charlie Daniels, Warren Haynes, Peter Frampton, John Hiatt, Aaron Lewis, Govt. Mule, Robert Randolph, Blackberry Smoke, Cheap Trick, Donnie Van Zandt, and Trace Adkins. More performers are expected to be announced in the future, and surprise guests will also be part of the presentation.
One More For The Fans! was dreamed up by Kevin Wortman. Wortman, Ken Levitan, and Ross Schilling are acting as executive producers for the project. Tickets for the show will go on sale to the general public at 10 AM on Monday, August 18th.
Though there is no shortage of Lynyrd Skynyrd tribute albums floating around out there—in fact they may be one of the most tributed bands in history—to have the remaining Lynyrd Skynyrd members participate, along with such a star-studded lineup in the historic Fox Theater, One More For The Fans! might become the definitive Skynyrd tribute for the ages.
The saga to save Nashville’s historic Studio ‘A’ and other Music Row landmarks sees another setback as Ben Folds says he’s being forced out of the space he’s spent over a decade renting and spent over $1 million on in rent and renovations. Because of raised rent of 124% from the new ownership, Ben Folds says he’s planning to vacate Studio ‘A’ by November. The building that resides at 30 Music Square West was officially sold on Monday (7-28) to Bravo Development, who immediately put the building back up for sale to other potential developers, and raised rents across the board for all the building’s tenants, including Ben Folds, and country artist Jamey Johnson.
Bravo Development’s assessment of the building is bleak, citing asbestos, bad plumbing and wiring, a leaky roof, and mold in the ducts. Though Bravo said initially it was their intention to attempt to preserve this historic studio even if the rest of the building was to be razed, they’re now saying their main intention is to resell the property as soon as possible to someone else. Bravo stated right after the sale went through that increased rent to the building’s tenants was on the way.
The fight to save Studio ‘A’ is very much a centerpiece in the preservation fight for many of Nashville’s historic places as development encroaches on many of the city’s cultural districts, including Music Row where Studio ‘A’ is located.
Studio ‘A’ was built in 1964 by Chet Atkins, and was originally called “RCA Victor Nashville Sound Studio.” It was built was to have a big enough studio space to record the string instrumentation that found itself onto many of the country music recordings of the time. It has since been used for many legendary recordings in country music and many other genres.
You can find the entirety of Ben Folds’ statement below.
After closing on the purchase of 30 Music Square West, home of historic RCA Studio A (of which I’ve been tenant for 12 years) Tim Reyholds of Bravo Development in Brentwood TN has just informed us that our rent will be raised 124%. Haha, okay Tim, we got it, and we’re moving out as soon as our current lease runs out. That means we will be there until end of November. He is on public record saying he will not demolish the building, though I’m not sure how any studio owner could make bottom line with rent that high.
We have and will continue to send investors and planners his way who have ideas on how to both preserve the space, keep the studio working and make everyone the money they want. I will continue to raise public awareness of the grand history of Music Row that is threatened by hasty development. Today we did Morning Joe and an NPR segment on 360 will also air soon – many more outlets to come. My hope is that all our efforts have given us a moment to pause and consider how Nashville might continue to grow, while also retaining the identity and culture that has made it Music City.
Since the rally was held at the studio on June 30, a group called Music Industry Coalition has formed, elected a Board, begun filing its official papers with the state, fashioned a mission statement and collected over 1500 members. Their mission is to give the working folks in the music industry a voice and to work with city officials on a plan for Music Row that allows our music culture to co-exist with new growth. I will continue to help them in any way I can.
Yeah, I’m sad personally, but I had a good decade plus run and will be recording as much of my new album as I can there before November, including with the absolutely incredible sextet yMusic from New York. The Nashville Symphony and I recorded my Concerto For Piano and Orchestra there recently. What other studio can handle 80-piece orchestras in one take?
This whole #SaveStudioA and #SaveMusicRow thing was never about me (or the former owners or Tim Reynolds) and that’s why the issue has resonated with people here and around the world who are concerned about retaining Nashville’s identity, culture and music economy. Thanks for reading, and for the concern and effort! It’s working. That’s all I got to say.
Man. If you want to make a live music DVD, get yourself a Southern rock band. And if you’re looking for a Southern rock band, you best be looking in the direction of Atlanta, GA’s Blackberry Smoke. These days you can find all manner of variations on the Southern rock theme, and there’s some damn good ones out there—folks mixing Southern rock with Motown soul, and Southern rock with surf, punk, and so much more. But if you’re looking for the band that defines what Southern rock is in the modern day world, Blackberry Smoke is your poison. They’re the guys taking the torch that was first lit by Lynyrd Skynyrd and The Allman Brothers, then was passed on to bands like The Black Crowes, and are doing one of the South’s most storied subgenres all manner of proud in making sure that sound is passed on to a new generation.
Just look at these bastards. They look like they could make the inside of a tour bus smell like steak and motor oil just by looking at it, or walk into a Southern buffet and bankrupt it in one sitting. These are some long-haired, burly, and badass dudes who drip nothing but cool and authenticity. Lead singer Charlie Starr’s mutton chops are longer than the Florida panhandle. And when all those pop country guys get up there on stage and start trading Stratocaster licks doing their best to be cool, a band like Blackberry Smoke is who they are trying to emulate. But it will never be as real as a Blackberry Smoke show.
Two years after releasing their last studio album The Whippoorwill to critical-acclaim, Blackberry Smoke is back with a double live album and DVD called Leave A Scar: Live in North Carolina. There’s a few ways you can choose to partake in this live experience: You can either hear it on a double disc CD set (or download), or you can get the DVD and watch and listen. Or you can do both. The DVD gives you the option to either watch the entire concert seamlessly, or see it with a series of background spots about the band. The background portions probably don’t go as in-depth as a full-fledged documentary, but offer great insight about the band, their families, their cars, their kids, and how they all fit into the band and help make Blackberry Smoke tick so well both on and off the stage.
Your tour guide is Blackberry Smoke front man and primary songwriter Charlie Starr. He introduces you to the two brothers: bass player Richard Turner and drummer Brit Turner, the latter who also acts as the band’s archivist and avid business man. Piano and organ player Brandon Still tells the story about being hired by Blackberry Smoke, and the only stipulation was he had to give up his ‘new wave’ X-wing keyboard stand for a psychedelic-draped piano stand to join. “I was like ‘You know what? We can get rid of the X-wing stand,’” Brandon recalls, and the rest is history. Brandon and lead guitar player Paul Jackson are good friends outside the band as you see on the DVD. “Brandon hangs out, and he’s like Uncle Brandon to Paul’s kids,” says Charlie Starr.
But the music is what we’re here for, and the performances on Leave A Scar: Live in North Carolina are as tight and entertaining as you would expect for a band who’s been going at it for going on 15 years. They’re beyond road-tested, and can play these songs in their sleep. A good mixture of Blackberry’s catalog is featured in this CD/DVD project, and aside from breaking into Memphis Minnie & Led Zepplin’s “When The Levee Breaks” in the middle of one song, it features all original Blackberry Smoke material.
Hard work and hard play isn’t just a marketing mantra for these guys and their fans. It’s the only thing they know, and that’s what comes through most evident on this project. Seeing some of the shots from the crowd and the fans singing along in the perfect-sized venue for this type of undertaking really captured the relationship and value Blackberry Smoke has with the fandom they’ve earned over the years. The project is keenly shot by Judd Films, with Neltner Creative supplying the cover art, and a great engineering feat by Logan Patton doing the live vibe justice and giving the recording the perfect amount of crowd noise to put you right there in the room.
Though I might still recommend to someone who has never heard Blackberry Smoke to start with one of their studio projects, Leave A Scar: Live in North Carolina is a treasure trove for the hardcore Blackberry fan, including bonus footage on the DVD that shows the band recording with Jamey Johnson and the recently-deceased country legend George Jones.
Blackberry Smoke likes to take their time between studio releases, which can be frustrating for some salivating fans. Leave A Scar: Live in North Carolina is the perfect thing to tide them over, and chronicle what one of the most important modern-day bands in the Southern music realm do on a nightly basis for appreciative fans.
1 1/2 of 2 guns up.
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The Jamey Johnson contract dispute that has kept the songwriter from releasing any new original material since his double album The Guitar Song in 2010 is not with his label as some have surmised, but with his publisher according to a new interview posted Wednesday (7-9) in The Nashville Scene. Though sometimes labels can function as publishers either directly or through subsidiaries, this is not always the case. Where a label is more concerned with releasing, distributing, and promoting music, a publisher deals more with the songwriting side of things like collecting royalties and distributing rights.
Johnson first let on that he was having contractual issues in February of 2013 “Financially speaking, they treat me worse than they ever did the Dixie Chicks,” Johnson told Rolling Stone. “I feel pretty used by the music industry, in that my contracts are written in such a way that I don’t get paid … I wish I could tell you that I am writing. I’m not. I wish I could tell you I’m gonna go home next week and record another album. It’s not likely to happen. We haven’t reached such a gridlock that we can’t continue to do work with them in the future. But we can’t do anything right now until that gets resolved.”
Since then we’ve been left mostly in the dark about what specifically is holding Jamey Johnson down. When Saving Country Music contacted Mercury Records, they explained Johnson was no longer signed with the label. So where was the dispute? Did it still have to do with Mercury even though he officially wasn’t under contract?
Last week Johnson spoke to Peter Cooper of The Tennessean, and once again Johnson was quite vague about the situation. “I’d have to contact three managers, and some lawyers and all kinds of people to come up with a reasonable answer for that,” Johnson said about his situation, but didn’t say if it was because of the label, or the publisher. “Contracts are hard to read. Attorneys are hard to get on the phone. But if you’re in a situation where you’re supposed to be making money and you’re not, buddy, it’s up to you whether you quit or not.”
Now when speaking to Jewly Hight of The Nashville Scene, it was finally clarified that it is indeed a publishing issue.
“You’re out of your record deal, but you still have the same publishing deal, right?” Jewly asked.
“Yes, ma’am, I do,” Jamey responded. “In an earlier interview last week a good friend asked me a question, and I responded with the wrong answer. He was referring to my record label contract. I’ve already reached an agreement with Mercury Records that gave me what I wanted ultimately, which was my freedom. I just wanted the ability to go, and they gave that to me. They also gave me the ability to come back, if I decided I wanted to come back. To me, that looks a lot like a revolving door, and that’s what I wanted. But most importantly, I wanted to be able to leave. If I can’t leave, then what’s the point in coming back? My appreciation to Mike Dungan [UMG Nashville Chairman/CEO] and the whole team at Mercury Records for allowing me that ability to come back after I leave. They could’ve slammed the door and locked it and said, ‘Man, enough.’”
Jamey Johnson’s publisher is EMI Music Publishing in Nashville. Johnson was signed by music publisher Gary Overton after being introduced by producer and songwriter Buddy Cannon in the early 00′s. Johnson rose through the ranks of country music first as a songwriter, penning the big hit “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk” that put him on the map in 2005. Also in 2005, he singed a recording contract with BNA with the help of Buddy Cannon and Gary Overton, but was later dropped when his album The Dollar performed poorly. Eventually Johnson moved on to Mercury.
The news explains beyond Johnson’s sincere love for Hank Cochran why his last album was a tribute to the late songwriter, and not an album of original material. Jamey didn’t have a problem delivering a new album to Mercury, he had a problem publishing new music through EMI under the same unfavorable conditions.
While we still don’t know the specifics of what is causing the contract dispute between Jamey Johnson and EMI Music Publishing, we finally know who specifically is on the other end of the conflict. Jamey Johnson may have been coy this whole time about who was to blame because he didn’t want to bad mouth his publisher publicly, or speaking out against the publisher directly may put him in violation of his contract, or may hurt his chances of receiving a fair solution through the legal process. Johnson could be tongue tied, whether legally or self-imposed.
Whether Jamey Johnson is able to speak or not, his fans still can. And many are—frustrated that one of their favorite artists is being robbed of some of his most productive years, and is not being fairly compensated for his songwriting work.
Ahead of a benefit in Nashville that Johnson will play Wednesday, July 9th at Marathon Music Works for the Nikki Mitchell Foundation for pancreatic cancer, the songwriter let it be known that he’s still not writing, and there’s no resolution to his label issues in sight.
“When I get ready to write, I’ll write,” Jamey Johnson told Peter Cooper of The Tennessean succinctly. “Until then, like Hank Cochran said, I’m living for a song.”
Jamey’s last album was a 2012 tribute to the late Hank Cochran, who was recently named the Country Music Hall of Fame’s newest inductee under the songwriting category. But his last album of original music was the double LP The Guitar Song released way back in September of 2010. For someone primarily known as a songwriter, the screeching halt to Johnson’s output has created an unwanted vacuum in the listening habits of many of his fans.
Johnson first explained that he was in the midst of label problems in February of 2013. “Financially speaking, they treat me worse than they ever did the Dixie Chicks,” Johnson told Rolling Stone. “I feel pretty used by the music industry, in that my contracts are written in such a way that I don’t get paid … I wish I could tell you that I am writing. I’m not. I wish I could tell you I’m gonna go home next week and record another album. It’s not likely to happen. We haven’t reached such a gridlock that we can’t continue to do work with them in the future. But we can’t do anything right now until that gets resolved.”
In January Johnson spoke about the matter on stage in St. Petersburg, FL, but instead of clearing things up, it seemed to further complicate the matter.
“Last time we did a show without a record deal was ’06. Tonight’s our first show without a record deal. And somehow we’re still on the same label. We just didn’t have nowhere else to go. They set it up where now we just don’t have to stay. And here’s one for all of our friends back at Mercury Records in Nashville, Tennessee.”
In May, Saving Country Music reached out to Johnson’s label to see if his contract status could be determined, and Mercury not only confirmed that Johnson was no longer signed to the label, but the lady who answered the phone had no idea who Jamey Johnson was.
Peter Cooper in Wednesday’s interview with Jamey wasn’t able to ascertain anything more from Johnson. “I’d have to contact three managers, and some lawyers and all kinds of people to come up with a reasonable answer for that,” Johnson said. “Contracts are hard to read. Attorneys are hard to get on the phone. But if you’re in a situation where you’re supposed to be making money and you’re not, buddy, it’s up to you whether you quit or not … We play our instruments, and we have our time, and when we’re done we go visit with people until everybody’s too tired to talk anymore, and then we leave. Then we come back and do it again the next time.”
In other words people, don’t hold your breath.
Willie Nelson, who just released his latest record Band of Brothers on June 17th though Sony’s Legacy Recordings, has crested at the very top spot on Billboard’s Country Music Album’s chart, landing at #1. It is Willie’s first #1 in 28 years, since his 1986 album The Promiseland. It is also his second-best showing ever on Billboard’s all genre Billboard 200 chart, coming in at #6. Band of Brothers is only the third time Willie has cracked the Billboard 200′s Top 10. He came in at #2 with Always On My Mind in 1982, and his last album, a duets project To All The Girls came in at #9. Willie sold roughly 37,000 copies of his new album to land the top spot.
Willie Nelson now has a total of ten #1 records to his name in an unprecedented country music career. He joins a resurgent crowd of country music greats who’ve had renewed chart success recently, including Dolly Parton’s May release Blue Smoke. It gave Dolly her first Top 10 on the Billboard 200 of her entire career when she came in at #6. She also charted at #2 on the Country Albums chart. Johnny Cash’s posthumous release of his lost album Out Among The Stars also saw surprising chart success, debuting at #1 in country, and #3 on the Billboard 200.
Band of Brothers is Willie’s fourth album with Legacy Recordings, all of which have been produced by Buddy Cannon. The album is the first from Willie in 17 years to feature mostly self-penned, new material, and also features a duet with Jamey Johnson on Billy Joe Shaver’s song “The Git Go”, and contributions from Vince Gill and Bill Anderson.
Why all the surprising chart success for older country music artists in 2014? It’s partly because the fans of older country music stars actually buy albums instead of streaming them online, or just downloading individual songs. This makes older artists more lucrative for labels, and allows the artists to outpace their much younger competition on the charts. Once again with Willie hitting #1, it proves that country music’s older artists can deliver when they’re given a chance, even without any radio play.
Let’s face it. Willie Nelson could take his sweaty, old man-smelling headband off, slingshot it out to center stage, and it would still be more enriching than what most of modern country radio has to offer. Simply the tone of his voice immediately puts the inertia of nearly a century of noble contributions to country music behind whatever he does. A few plucks of his guitar “Trigger,” and the woody tones can can make you break out in bone-deep shivers. Just the visage of Willie—the Pocahontas braids and the folds of wisdom feathered by white whiskers enveloping one of the world’s most respected faces—commands immediate reverence, and a warm feeling usually reserved only for the proximity of close family.
Band of Brothers finds Willie Nelson once again united with producer Buddy Cannon for their fourth offering on Sony’s Legacy Recordings imprint. Where the first album Heroes felt like a significant retrenching for Willie, the subsequent Let’s Face The Music & Dance and To All The Girls felt a little more forced in their premise, though undoubtedly delivering some fine music. Band of Brothers comes across much more like an inspired, purposeful effort, with the point being to showcase the 81-year old’s continuing proficiency as a songwriter—the skill that got him into all of this country music nonsense in the very first place. Though Willie has written and recorded many original songs recently, this is the first album in some 17 years that finds his own handiwork featured in the majority.
And where Willie’s last two albums were a little more refined and light, which can only be expected from such an aged performer, Band of Brothers has some piss and vinegar to it; some balls, and even some bawdy, bellicose language. In many respects this is a hard, true country album in the material, if not exactly in the tone, which finds Willie sticking close to his established sound: light drums, his own leads, and Mickey Raphael’s familiar harp fleeting in and out.
Though the rhetoric around this album is about how much of it Willie wrote, the contributions mark many of the album’s most noteworthy moments. While some of Buddy Cannon’s albums can be a little too collaboration happy, Band of Brother’s sole duet is on the Billy Joe Shaver-penned song “The Git Go”, where Jamey Johnson shows up to sing a few lines. This troika of country music talent makes the rendition well worth your attention, and the smoky, lounge-like take on this song does the original justice. Shaver also shows up in the songwriting credits for “Hard To Be an Outlaw”, which features a straight up country protest line in the second verse.Some super stars nowadays, gets too far off the ground Singing about the backroads, they never have been down They go and call it country, but that ain’t the way it sounds It’s enough to make a renegade want to terrorize the town
You combine this with the adulterous sentiment of “Wives and Girlfriends,” the very entertaining and adventurous “The Songwriters” by Gordie Sampson and Bill Anderson, and the S-bombs Willie drops in the Dennis Morgan-written “I’ve Got a Lot of Traveling To Do,” and you’re surely made aware that Willie still has plenty of fire left in him.
Where Band of Brothers shines brightest however is in the introspective song “The Wall”. As was said in the song review, isn’t it interesting how we look upon Willie Nelson as such a saint of not just music or country music, but of the nation and world, and here he is releasing a song that instead of reveling in his accomplishments and resting on his laurels, catches the 81-year-old country legend looking back upon his past mistakes, self-deprecating and pensive, yet understanding how those mistakes made him the man he is today. Though some aspects of Willie’s recent Buddy Cannon pairing seem like taking it safe—like Cannon showing up as a co-writer on all of Willie’s original songs for this album, almost like it was mandated by Sony or something—the production of “The Wall” spreads its wings, and the song benefits from it.
The opening song “Bring It On” is quite good too, and fresh-feeling, with Willie puffing his chest out, inviting a good challenge. “I Thought I Left You” shows that classic love songwriting is still running thick in Willie’s blood, and is rivaled by Vince Gill’s “Whenever You Come Around,” which was a worthy inclusion, despite a rough beginning in Willie’s vocals. The album’s theme song, “Band of Brothers”, rekindles that old “On The Road Again” sentiment of camaraderie.
Having seen Willie Nelson numerous times recently, the case could be made that a slippage of skills is slowly starting to catch up with him, which can only be expected. And some of those moments get captured on this album. Though Buddy Cannon never seems to completely wow you, he’s consistent. This really is a great collection of songs, despite some soft patches, and a few well-trodden paths that are tough for holding the attention. However incrementally diminished his skills might be, Willie Nelson shows a lot of spirit, a lot of fight in Band of Brothers, and any swan song seems far off.
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1 3/4 of 2 guns up.
Many of mainstream country’s big stars came to Nashville with the best of intentions. They had a sincere love of country music, a belly full of talent, and big hopes to make music their way and ascend the country music ladder with their integrity still in tact….
…and then the Music Row machine did it’s worst.
When you look back at some of the early songs, early albums, and even the early image of some of country’s biggest current stars, it can stimulate downright culture shock. Of course styles change naturally over time, but many of these artists came from small towns and had simple dreams. But the problem with money and fame is that you can always have more of it, and next thing you know, they become shells of their original selves.
Below are some illustrations, not necessarily listening suggestions, but examples of some of the dramatic changes we have seen in some of country music’s biggest artists since their start.
Blake Shelton – “Austin”
With long hair hanging down past his shoulders and a cowboy hat, Blake Shelton and his first single and first #1 hit “Austin” from 2001 seems light years away from the rapped verses and hip hop beat of “Boys ‘Round Here.” Not an exceptional song, but one that has a sincere story, steel guitar, and shows that Blake Shelton did have a soul once upon a time and didn’t mind singing a song for the “Old Farts & Jackasses.”
Luke Bryan – “I’ll Stay Me”
With his baseball cap facing the right way and a goofy smile, Luke Bryan from the small town of Leesburg, GA made his way to Nashville, and after penning big songs for Travis Tritt and Billy Currington, signed with Capitol Records Nashville in 2007 and released an album called I’ll Stay Me. Yes, let’s not let the irony of that title escape us. Bryan wrote or co-wrote all of the songs on the album, compared to his latest album Crash My Party that has only two co-writes from Bryan in the entire 13 tracks. Though there is certainly the early leanings toward a laundry list style of lyricism on “I’ll Stay Me,” it also has a lot of sincerity and a pretty authentic country flavor.
Jason Aldean – “Amarillo Sky”
Before Jason Aldean became the mainstream champion for country rap with “Dirt Road Anthem” and became one of the Godfathers of laundry list country with its caricaturist portrayals of rural life, he put out a song called “Amarillo Sky” on his debut, self-titled album in 2005, releasing it as a single in 2006. Instead of clichés about dirt roads, beer, & trucks that mark Aldean’s current offerings, “Amarillo Sky” tells a pretty authentic story about the struggle of American farmers, while the video featuring real sons of farmers does it one better. The song was written in part by Big & Rich.
Jerrod Niemann – “Good Ride Cowboy”
Jerrod Niemann has become the poster boy for the gentrification of country music with his EDM-laced radio superhits like “Drink To That All Night”, but can you believe that he once co-penned a tribute to Chris LeDoux cut by Garth Brooks called “Good Ride Cowboy”? Neimann actually had Garth record three of his co-writes, and had Jamey Johnson and Neal McCory record his songs as well. “Good Ride Cowboy” wound up at #3 on the Billboard charts in 2005. Below Niemann can be seen sporting an actual cowboy hat instead of his signature club-hopping fedora. Where did you go wrong Jerrod?
Brantley Gilbert – “What’s Left of a Small Town”
When Brantley Gilbert started out in country music, you wouldn’t even be able to recognize him compared to today. Brantley Gilbert ver. 2014 is all attitude with his ball cap pulled down over his eyes, singing country rap songs in a complete vacuum of self-awareness, but as many long-time Gilbert fans can attest, back in the day he wrote and sang some very sincere country songs, while being known to pay homage to the roots by playing many country classics. His first album released in October of 2009 called Modern Day Prodigal Son gave many hints to the bro-country king Brantley would become, but it also had a few really sincere songs, including one called “What’s Left of a Small Town”.
Sugarland – “Tennessee”
Remember when Sugarland’s Jennifer Nettles actually had a Southern accent, Kristian Bush had a cowboy hat instead of an outfit pattered off the leprechaun on the Lucky Charms box, and they had a third member that looked like a 40-something female volleyball coach? Yes, it was 2004, and light years away from “Stuck Like Glue.” Oh how I would have loved to be a fly on the wall during that uncomfortable meeting at Mercury Records when some suit demanded Jennifer lose her twang, and the band lose their third wheel.
Florida Georgia Line
….oops, they started bad and stayed there.
Fans of Lee Ann Womack have been waiting not-so-patiently since 2008′s Call Me Crazy for new music from the multi-Grammy and multi-CMA Award winner, and on September 23rd they’ll finally get their wish. After years on major labels, Womack has teamed up with renown label Sugar Hill Records (Don Williams, Marty Stuart) to release The Way I’m Livin’ this fall. The record will be produced by Lee Ann’s husband, Frank Liddell.
As exciting as the news is about the new album from a new label, the list of songwriters she’s slated to draw songs from makes the prospects of The Way I’m Livin’ even more enticing. Contributors include Chris Knight, Hayes Carll, Bruce Robison, Buddy Miller, Roger Miller, as well as Neil Young, Mindy Smith, and Mando Saenz.
“I wanted songs that talked about how life really is, the raw spots, the tough places, the meltdowns and messy parts,” says Womack. “Hard, sad, rough… all the stuff people pretend doesn’t exist! Because once you embrace that, you can figure out what to do; or not do! I live to sing great songs that tear holes in life – just show living for what it is … And knowing these songs were written to be performed, not pitched, sets a bar! Every songwriter wrote intending to sing’em, to tell these stories, show these postcards, and you can feel the way they built the characters! Bringing that to music was just so incredible for everyone on the sessions.”
“Lee Ann wanted something wide open,” says husband and producer Frank Liddell. “So we immediately tracked the record with a handful of sides, just six people, and the rest of it with four people. So it’s a very sparse record and hopefully her voice is wide open and right in the middle of it. That’s our focus. We didn’t get too worried about songs or what she needed to say. We just took a bunch of great songs we’d amassed over the years and went into the studio. We’ve always gotten along real well song-wise.
The next album from Lee Ann Womack has been a much-rumored process. She released a single called “There Is A God” in October of 2009 that was supposed to be part of an upcoming album, but the album never came. Womack was also said to be working on new music in February of 2010. No word if issues with her previous label Mercury Nashville stalled previous attempts at new albums, but upon signing with Sugar Hill, Womack said, “I was looking for the right home for this record. I knew I wanted a label where passion for music and artistic integrity drive the decision-making.”
Musical contributors to the album include steel guitar player Paul Franklin, Matt Chamberlain on drums, Glen Whorf on bass, guitar player Duke Levine, and acoustic guitarist/pianist Mac McAnally.
After Lee Ann found great commercial and critical success with her signature song “I Hope You Dance”, the Jacksonville, TX native has struck a decidedly more traditional note lately, and considering the label and list of songwriters for The Way I’m Livin’, fans can anticipate more of the same. Lee Ann also recently contributed to Jamey Johnson’s Hank Cochran tribute, singing a duet with Johnson on the song “This Ain’t My First Rodeo”.
From Lee Ann’s previous album:
Sturgill Simpson has arrived ladies & gentlemen, thanks to the resounding critical success of his new album Metamodern Sounds of Country Music that has permeated just about every corner of the independent roots music culture. From NPR, to The New York Times, to Billboard, to important periodicals in Europe, wherever you turn, someone is singing the praises of the Kentucky native.
This resounding success has made some, if not many, wonder where does Sturgill Simpson go from here? Just how big can he get? Could we possibly hear Sturgill Simpson songs on mainstream radio? Could we see him get a nomination from the CMA? Could Sturgill Simpson and Metamodern Sounds be the artist and album to save country music? Without a doubt he’s that one artist this is resonating, right here, right now, and unlike other artists that have done so recently such as Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson is decidedly country, potentially giving him the ability to be considered for attention by country music’s largest institutions.
I think we all need to take a douse of realism, while at the same time understanding that Sturgill Simpson becoming something bigger than just a mid-level club act is very realistic if the right things fall into place. But there is a long, long way to go, and a lot of the talk surrounding him at the moment is sort of like playing fantasy football. In the long run, for an artist like Sturgill to reach the CMA level, a lot of specific watermarks must be reached, and it’s imperative on his fans, and Sturgill himself, not to set unrealistic expectations that can end up deflating the positive momentum he’s created. So in the end, a “Let’s just do the best we can, and see where this goes” mentality is probably the most wise course of action. Though someone who might read artcles on savingcountrymusic.com on a regular basis might see Sturgill Simpson’s name everywhere they turn and think this thing is in the midst of something historic, out in the big scary world, he’s still very much an unknown. For now.
But you also can’t discount the magic of music when it is matched up with the right moment for the world to hear it. That’s how all great movements in music start, by one person doing something the world has a great hunger for. And can anyone disagree that a hunger for someone like Sturgill Simpson exists in country music right now? As silly as the notion may seem to some, the indelible part of the country music mythos that hopes for a savior to come and return balance to the genre is a very real force all to itself, and carries its own weight and momentum.
It’s also worth pointing out that Sturgill Simpson isn’t the only one who deserves credit for what is becoming a meteoric rise. Some very wise moves have been made in marketing him, and how his music has been released. Normally, releasing albums less than a year apart is frowned upon these days. For Sturgill, this move was fortuitous. Just as the High Top Mountain‘s cycle was losing steam, here he comes with an album that regardless of where he goes from here, will be looked back upon as a landmark; as an important moment in his development. Now Sturgill has all the momentum at his back, and that, along with an excellent management team, has allowed Sturgill to reach far beyond what we normally see from independent artists that may feel very intimate to us because we’ve seen them in half empty barrooms, or heard their music before anyone else.
Sturgill’s manager Marc Dottore (also Marty Stuart’s manager), has been able to get him in front of big audiences at the Opry, on The Marty Stuart Show, and opened up many doors not normally accessible to independent artists. Sturgill’s booking agent got him on some big tours opening for Dwight Yoakam. And Sturgill and his band have been pounding the pavement, playing strange tour runs that are not always intuitive when they’re drawn on a map, and that take a toll on the band’s personal lives and sanity, but in the end got him in front of the right people to have an impact. There are a lot of talented country artists, and a lot of artists like Sturgill that have worked very hard. But Sturgill, his band, and his management team and publicists didn’t just work hard, they worked smart. And that, just as much as Sturgill’s talent, the appeal of the music, and the fortuitous timing of it, lent to where he is today.
Could Sturgill Simpson Be Picked Up By A Major Label?
Could he? Sure. Since he’s signed with new school distribution company Thirty Tigers, Sturgill still retains his rights, and the freedom to do whatever he wants with his music, whether it is the music on Metamodern Sounds, or music he makes in the future. This is one of the specific reasons Sturgill decided to go with Thirty Tigers, despite being offered other deals by other labels before High Top Mountain. And there’s precedent here with other artists. Chase Rice, one of the writers of Florida Georgia Line’s blockbuster song “Cruise”, started out as a Thirty Tigers artist, releasing music through the label before making a partnership through Columbia Records in March to distribute his EP and his “Ready, Set, Roll” single.
Speaking of Florida Georgia Line, they have a somewhat similar story, where they made an EP called It’z Just What We Do that after it went crazy, landed them a deal with Big Machine Records. Much of the music from that EP ended up on their first major full-length release.
But let’s be realistic. Do we really think real deal Sturgill Simpson is going to sign with a major label that would more than likely mean handing over the rights to his songs, and potentially artistic control? Granted, this isn’t always a pitfall of the major label world. There are some artists that with the right leverage power have been able to negotiate contracts in their favor that didn’t include all the traditional trappings of a major label deal. But unless it is perfect, Sturgill Simpson isn’t going to take it. Sturgill is a peculiar, cantankerous individual; an idealist that isn’t motivated by fame and money beyond wanting to provide for his family.
So the next question would be is, would the combination of Thirty Tigers and Sturgill’s current management structure be able to handle some major meteoric rise that would result in the gross equivalent of a major label deal? It’s kind of hard to know, but simply asking the question may be getting way ahead of ourselves.
Could Sturgill Simpson Be Nominated for a CMA Award?
Not to throw cold water on anything, but shaking my magic ’8′ ball, what I’m coming up with is “not likely”. Maybe in the future, when Sturgill has taken a few more steps, and his name recognition is such that the wider industry is paying more attention. But for now, Sturgill must conquer the Americana and independent ranks. He may very well do that with Metamodern Sounds, and this may create the gateway to greener pastures. But we can’t take this happening as a given.
One benefit he has over artists like Jason Isbell or Justin Townes Earle who’ve both had big success in Americana, is that Sturgill Simpson is purely country. This means hypothetically that the sky is the limit, unlike with Americana.
But the CMA, and especially the ACM are set up to promote the country music industry, just as the Americana Music Awards are set up to promote the Americana industry. And right now, Sturgill Simpson isn’t part of that industry. He may play country music, but that doesn’t immediately make him a contender, let alone visible to the CMA voters, even though he may technically qualify. What would put him on their map is strong, prolonged commercial success along with his critical acclaim: solid showings on MediaBase and Billboard charts for sales and plays.
The other thing he would need to do to be considered by the CMA is to have mainstream radio play. And with the climate these days at mainstream radio, where it realistically takes sometimes $500,000 to $1 million dollars to promote a single, especially from an unknown artist, that possibility may be the most out-of-reach for Sturgill. Besides, I’m not sure Metamodern Sounds contains any “single” material for modern-day radio.
However there is hope that a critical darling can crack through all the commercial hurdles that hold many artists out of the CMA process. Though Kacey Musgraves resides on a major label, appreciate that without even one Top 10 single to her name, she walked away with the Album of the Year trophies at both the Grammy Awards and ACM’s this year. When faced with overwhelming consensus about a critical favorite, whether it’s Musgraves’ Same Trailer, Different Park, or Jamey Johnson’s That Lonesome Song, industry awards will step up to at least dole out nominations to these projects. An Americana Grammy for Sturgill is a very real possibility, but remember last year they completely snubbed Jason Isbell, who by all accounts was the clear favorite going in.
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More realistically, Sturgill Simpson just needs to eat what’s on his plate, and focus on growing his name recognition. Sturgill will continue to focus on touring, and creating a fan base that can support him at the club level. That will open up the possibility for bigger opening slots, and more exposure.
We have been at this crossroads before, where an artist feels like he’s on the brink of blowing up and rising to the mainstream level. In 2008 when Hank Williams III was riding off of huge momentum from a critically-acclaimed and commercially-successful release Straight to Hell, it looked for a minute that he may break through the walls of the mainstream and completely shake up the industry. Williams had been touring like crazy for a half decade. He had all the momentum at his back. When his next album came out, Damn Right, Rebel Proud in 2008, it debuted at #2 on the Billboard charts. Williams had climbed nine rungs up a ten rung ladder, and he had done it his way, fighting against his label to win creative freedom, and finding success despite a lack of radio play.
But Damn Right, Rebel Proud was a step down in quality from his previous releases, and Hank3 proceeded to take 18 months off of touring. Subsequent releases charted decently as well, but he never reached the same heights. Hank3 had been right there, right at the precipice of breaking through, and for whatever reason, lost the drive, lost the momentum, had pushed himself too hard, and had to step back.
Hellbound Glory, also finding great critical acclaim, landed the opportunity to open for Kid Rock on an arena tour, and it looked like the doors would finally start opening for them. And some doors did. But a year later, Leroy Virgil had not a single member in his band that had been around for the Kid Rock tour, and in many respects landed right back where he started. Jamey Johnson reached the very top of the industry, penning #1 songs and being nominated for big awards. But then a label dispute stopped him in his tracks, and it’s been nearly four years since he’s released an original song.
Whether the fault of the artists or others, the ninth rung of that ten rung ladder has been where these artists have stalled, one after another. And the dream, the promise of returning the balance back to country music stalls with it. Whether it’s artists losing their hunger, being hindered by the industry, or never really having a chance to begin with, the dream wasn’t fully realized. It wasn’t played out to its last, exhaustive breath. But with Sturgill Simpson, we have another opportunity.
And if something magical does happen with Sturgill Simpson, we shouldn’t see it as a shot from nowhere. George Strait just won Entertainer of the Year for both the CMA’s and ACM’s. Kacey Musgraves has been winning awards left and right. Both traditionalism and substance are resonating again in country music, despite however buried they may appear by bro-country.
The most important thing is that Sturgill Simpson keeps on growing, and that the independent community does what they can to help foster that growth. Sturgill Simpson said it best when he posted the day of the release of Metamodern Sounds:
I have said it many times and I will continue to say it, as it is the truth and I whole heartedly believe it…guys like me and the countless others others out there attempting to offer an alternative are not capable of change. We are not the catalyst of change. You guys are. We can only do our best to make the best records we are capable of but it is up to you the listener to have your voices heard. This is the only road to the true change that a lot of you I talk to at shows are seeking. If you connect with something that moves you it’s up to you to share it/burn it/ steal it/ give it away. As long as it finds and connects with as many people as possible that is all we wish for.
From the bottom of our hearts, thank you all for everything YOU have done and are collectively doing to make our dreams come true. It goes without saying that I am about as sick of hearing/talking about me as I have ever been in my entire life. With that said, we are anxiously looking forward to taking this show on the road for the rest of our lives.
Sturgill, Kevin, Miles, & Little Joe
Isn’t it interesting how we look upon Willie Nelson as such a saint of not just music or country music, but of the nation and world, and here he is releasing a song that instead of reveling in his accomplishments and resting on his laurels, catches the 81-year-old country legend looking back upon his past mistakes, self-deprecating and pensive, yet understanding how those mistakes made him the man he is today.
Willie Nelson’s next album Band of Brothers is set to be released June 17th, and his latest original song in a legendary, if not unparalleled songwriting career is simply called “The Wall.” Band of Brothers breaks from Willie’s recent output of albums of mostly covers by including nine Nelson-penned tracks as part of the 14-track album. The covers include Billy Joe Shaver’s “The Git Go” (a duet with Jamey Johnson), Vince Gill’s “Whenever You Come Around”, and “Songwriter” by Bill Anderson and Gordie Sampson. As with the last few Willie Nelson releases, the producer duties are being handled by Buddy Cannon.
Like the words, the chord selection of “The Wall” helps give rise to memory and reflection, and shows that Willie has lost little in his ability to convey a feeling in his advanced age. Long-time harmonica-playing compatriot Mickey Raphael adds the color to the composition, as does the familiar tone of Willie Nelson’s nylon string guitar in a rather stripped down track whose beat is kept with simple brushes that rest at the beginning of the chorus to give the song an extra little emphasis. Though Willie’s voice can sometimes be hit or miss in the live setting these days, it is as strong as ever here, holding that singular tone that looms so large in the ethos of classic country fans.
Where Willie Nelson’s two 2013 albums with Legacy Recordings—Let’s Face The Music and Dance, and To All The Girls…—felt somewhat like side projects, with little truly new material, Band of Brothers is already beginning to look more like 2012′s Heroes— Willie’s first with Legacy Recordings, and an album that very much felt like a retrenching.
The accompanying video for “The Wall” works counter-intuitively from the song, running down a list of all of Willie’s biggest accomplishments as Willie reflects, “I took on more than I could handle. I bit off more than I could chew, I hit the wall. I went off like a Roman candle. Burning everyone I knew, I hit the wall.”
With no discounts for age or sliding scales because of his legendary status, Willie Nelson’s “The Wall” still captures the heart and stirs the memory, and makes for quite an enjoyable piece of music.
Two guns up.
It has been since September of 2010 that fans of CMA Award-winning country music star Jamey Johnson have heard new music from the singer and songwriter. His critically-acclaimed double album The Guitar Song has had to tide listeners over for a protracted period, from an artist that before had been quite prolific. Johnson did release another album in October of 2012, but it was a tribute album, Living For A Song: A Tribute to Hank Cochran.
Since then fans have been in a fog about when new music could be expected from the Alabama native, or even the nature of his label status. Then in an interview with Rolling Stone published February 10th, 2013, Jamey Johnson spelled out in specific detail that he felt he was getting a raw deal from his long-time label, Mercury Records Nashville.
“Financially speaking, they treat me worse than they ever did the Dixie Chicks,” Johnson explained to Rolling Stone. “I feel pretty used by the music industry, in that my contracts are written in such a way that I don’t get paid. It’s time for us to regroup and it’s time for us to look at these contracts. The problem is, I don’t trust any of the people that I’ve worked with so far. I believe they’ve all hidden the truth from me or lied to me or deceived me in one way or another. Because the end result is that no matter what they said or did or what they said they did, I didn’t get paid… As a musician I never studied music law. I can’t even read the contracts I’ve signed. But I’m fairly sure they don’t say what I thought they said.”
Beyond The Dixie Chick’s public blackballing from country music after making disparaging comments about then President George W. Bush, they also were part of their own contract dispute, and claimed they didn’t get paid properly for their music. Jamey also explained that the ordeal had put a damper on his desire to write songs.
Well, I wish I could tell you that I am writing. I’m not. I wish I could tell you I’m gonna go home next week and record another album. It’s not likely to happen. We haven’t reached such a gridlock that we can’t continue to do work with them in the future. But we can’t do anything right now until that gets resolved.
Well apparently it has been, though initially the nature of that resolution still left us with more questions. While playing the Mahaffey Theater at the Progress Energy Center in St. Petersburg, FL on January 17th of this year, Jamey Johnson said to the crowd,
“Last time we did a show without a record deal was ’06. Tonight’s our first show without a record deal. And somehow we’re still on the same label. We just didn’t have nowhere else to go. They set it up where now we just don’t have to stay. And here’s one for all of our friends back at Mercury Records in Nashville, Tennessee.” (video below)
After the remarks, Jamey launched into the Waylon Jennings song, “Freedom To Stay.”
Jamey’s remarks would seem to allude that he’d stayed with the label, but also that he’d left it. Or that maybe they had restructured his deal so he could leave, but he decided to stay anyway. The comments seemed to create more questions than answers—more questions there had been before. But maybe that was Jamey’s intention.
So Saving Country Music, wanting to get to the bottom of Jamey’s contract status—called Mercury Records. This is a rough sketch of how the phone conversation went.Hello this is Trigger from Saving Country Music. I’m calling to see if I can ascertain the contract status of Jamey Johnson. Jamey who? I don’t know who that is. Jamey Johnson? I don’t know. Does he or she work here? Jamey Johnson. Is that a new artist or something? Won a CMA for Song of the Year? Wrote “Honky Tonk Badona Donk”? (going for the least common denominator in desperation) Huh. I’ve never heard that name. The rest of the staff is in a meeting. I will have to find out for you.
About 5 minutes later I receive a phone call back from Mercury Records Nashville.No. Jamey Johnson is no longer signed with us. So he didn’t restructure his deal or anything? He’s not signed to the label whatsoever? No. He was here, but he’s no longer signed with us. That’s all the information I can give you.
So there you go. Jamey Johnson has been stricken from the consciousness of Mercury Records Nashville and has moved on. Though this is no guarantee there’s new music coming from him, this certainly moves him one step closer.
Jamey’s remarks about his contract status can be seen at the 28:55 mark in the video below.
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