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At any point in the greater country music realm, there’s going to be that one artist that sets the cutting edge for artistic expression and critical merit to where a consensus surrounds them as someone other artists should measure themselves against. They make critics swoon and cultured music fans nod with approval, as NPR, American Songwriter, and other such outlets regale them with the highest accolades, no matter how much their music may remain elusive from the mainstream perspective.
Texas native and current Nashvillian Robert Ellis is certainly a candidate to take that critical acclaim baton from Jason Isbell and run with it as an artist who seems to effortlessly deliver songs with cutting emotional moments in an awe-inspiring display of deft creativity. His much-anticipated new album Lights From The Chemical Plant is full of those instances that give you shivers from their bold illustration of wit and self awareness. There’s this sort of graceful command to his songwriting, a confidence beyond his 25 years, to where even when he turns a phrase that you can anticipate or that feels tired, he’ll throw a little hitch in the timing almost as to announce to the listener it’s cliche, in turn erasing the banality of the moment.
The last album from Robert Ellis, 2011′s Photographs, started out as a mostly-acoustic work that trended toward a downright honky tonk sound by the end, and won him deserved critical praise. The Lights From The Chemical Plant, though certainly with its country moments, is overall more of a classic pop album, referring to influences like a post-Garfunkel Paul Simon and James Taylor. The first song on the album “TV Song” is very much out of the Randy Newman playbook, full of irony, but graced with such a loving perspective for its object of ire, you can’t help but be awed by the intellectual skill such a song displays.
“Hipster” is an often-overused and ill-defined term for people to describe others that they generally don’t understand and that happen to be young, and many times white. As time marches on, hipsters seem to be standing out less, and the term generally tends to just represent young artistic-minded white people in general who rely on elements such as exclusiveness and irony to define their cultural attributes. Their perspective is steeped in a whole new set of parameters compared to the multiple generations of slightly older to much older music listeners from many past generations whose musical understanding is centered around structured ideas of eras, genres, and generational gaps.
Many 25-year-olds don’t hate their parents, and never did. There’s not that inherent sense of emptiness and despair, but a sense of quiet celebration. With The Lights From The Chemical Plant, Ellis celebrates the other side of his musical upbringing, that likely wasn’t presented to him as being in conflict with his country roots, but in concert with them. However, much of the current Robert Ellis sound still emanates from the acoustic guitar and pedal steel. The de facto title track “Chemical Plant” is a sweeping, rising, memory-inducing song, very much bemoaning the march of progress and time no different than more accessible country music fare might, just conveyed in a much more intelligent way.
“Steady As The Rising Sun” takes a dedicated look in the liner notes to convince one it was not indeed written by James Taylor, while Paul Simon’s “Still Crazy After All These Years” is a little more obvious as a cover. There are a few very long songs on this album, and at times it becomes somewhat of a problem. The 6 1/2-minute “Bottle of Wine” does a good job capturing a sullen, Tom Waits-esque mood, but the tone of the piano seems a little to resonant and bright, and the song just goes on a little too long to maintain the mood or story. “Houston” is one of the album’s best at highlighting Robert’s strength of songwriting, but the fusion jazz-like ending gets buried somewhat, despite its functionality at offering something different and spicy for the album.
The 7-minute “Tour Song” however could probably go on even longer in the way Ellis weaves a masterful web of language clearly told from his own, heartfelt perspective. “Pride” and “Only Lies” work very well in a way that is unique and new, but that also refers back to the classic mode of 70′s songwriter material. “Sing Along” is the up-tempo, and most-decidedly country song on the album, though it’s counter-religious message might ruffle its core sonic audience. Appeal for “Good Intentions” will be much more universal. In an album with a fiercely artistic bent, this song is rousing and infectious without compromising it’s substance and creativity.
The “Not For Everyone” stamp should be slapped in red letters across the cover of this album, especially for people who consider themselves more country fans than Americana or singer-songwriter fans. But Robert Ellis has done superlative work, and will be graced by the singing praises of critics and cultured roots fans that will likely last all the way until they compile their end-of-year lists.
1 3/4 of 2 guns up.
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Sometimes it’s the unscripted moments when you get to see the true character of individuals that your primary interaction with is either through their music or watching them on stage. Case in point is Saving Country Music’s reigning Artist of the Year Jason Isbell, who at a show at the Barrymore Theatre in Madison, Wisconsin on February 7th was confronted with a few brawling fans near the front rows and had to stop the show down.
In stark contrast to the culture surrounding many of mainstream country’s male stars who seem to condone and even promote fighting, including Eric Church who once bragged to Playboy Magazine about the fighting culture that permeates his concerts which was then evidenced a few weeks later in the massive melees, multiple arrests, and colossal mess left in the wake of one of his concerts with Kenny Chesney in Pittsburgh last summer, Jason Isbell stopped down the concert to deal civilly with the fracas.
But the best part was Isbell’s mix of swear words to let the offending parties know he meant business, and the “aw shucks” authenticity of a guy originally from Muscle Shoals, Alabama that made a rather common concert occurrence into an endearing display of character.
Nothing gets my motor running more than established talent giving worthy up-and-comers a hand up, and rising stars helping to introduce legendary talent to a new generation of fans. This is the way country music is supposed to be—spanning generations and cross-pollinating fans bases to create a healthy environment of support. And an upcoming, nationwide, early summer tour is scheduled to do that very thing.
Willie Nelson and his legendary Family Band, Alison Krauss with her legendary Union Station band including Jerry Douglas, are scheduled to embark on a 35-date tour running from May 1st to July 18th, supported at various whistle stops by the critically-acclaimed Jason Isbell, the recently Grammy-decorated Kacey Musgraves, and country punk pioneers Devil Makes Three. This will be a lineup not to miss….unless you’re in Texas or California.
May 1 Murray, KY CFSB Center/Murray State University*
May 2 Atlanta, GA Chastain Park Amphitheatre *
May 3 Knoxville, TN Thompson Boling Arena*
May 4 Cary, NC Koka Booth Amphitheatre*
May 6 St. Augustine, FL St. Augustine Amphitheatre*
May 8 Daniel Island, SC Family Circle Cup Stadium*
May 9 Simpsonville, SC Charter Amphitheatre*
May 10 Greensboro, NC White Oak Amphitheatre*
May 11 Huntington, WV Big Sandy Superstar Arena*
May 13 Roanoke, VA Roanoke Civic Center*
May 14 Columbus, OH Schottenstein Center*
May 16 Nashville, TN The Woods at Fontanel*
May 17 Birmingham, AL BJCC*
May 18 Augusta, GA James Brown Arena*
June 5 Southaven, MS Snowden Grove Amphitheater #
June 6 Louisville, KY Waterfront Park+
June 7 Lewiston, NY Artpark #
June 8 Bethel, NY Bethel Woods Center For the Arts #
June 10 New York, NY Radio City Music Hall #
June 13 Philadelphia, PA Mann Center #
June 14 Columbia, MD Merriweather Post Pavilion
June 15 Simsbury, CT Simsbury Meadows #
June 17 Boston, MA Blue Hills Bank Pavilion #
June 19 Bangor, ME Darling’s Waterfront Pavilion #
June 20 Gilford, NH Bank of NH Pavillion at Meadowbrook #
June 21 Canandaigua, NY CMAC Performing Arts Center #
July 6 Kansas City, MO Starlight Theatre ~
July 7 Rogers, AR Arkansas Music Pavilion ~
July 9 Oklahoma City, OK Zoo Amphitheatre ~
July 11 Council Bluffs, IA Harrah’s Stir Cove~
July 12 Chicago, IL Ravinia Festival~
July 13 Detroit, MI Freedom Hill~
July 15 Rama, ON Casino Rama
July 17 Interlochen, MI Kresge Auditorium~
July 18 Toledo, OH Toledo Zoo
*The Devil Makes Three
# Kacey Musgraves
~ Jason Isbell
+ The Wild Feathers
Early Morning Shakes is the 3rd record from the Texas music scene’s Southern rock contingent known as Whiskey Myers. No, Whiskey Myers isn’t the name of the front man, just the collective persona of five guys from the greater Palestine, TX area, helmed by singer and principal songwriter Cody Cannon. The band put out their first album in 2008 and have since become one of Southern rock’s most emboldened and energetic torch bearers, tearing it up across the country to packed houses of both country and rock fans.
Coming off the surprising success of their second album, 2011′s Firewater that debuted at #26 on the Billboard country charts, Whiskey Myers saddled up with producer Dave Cobb—the man who was behind three very successful albums in 2013: Sturgill Simpson’s High Top Mountain, Jason Isbell’s Southeastern, and Lindi Ortega’s Tin Star. Cobb’s reputation of bringing a signature touch to music that straddles the line between rock and country made him a perfect fit for the project. The result was many great, original song concepts being fleshed out with smart and tasteful production elements, adept guitar-driven instrumentation, and despite some ostentatious moments, a sincere and fun album that sets the standard high for all Southern rockers in 2014.
Southern rock has been in such a state of flux for years now, it’s hard to know where to place it on the relevancy arch on a given day. Its modes have been somewhat borrowed by mainstream country, yet as rock itself continues to amble directionless, Southern rock is one of the last bastions of pure, electric guitar-based music that’s not blaring metal, or eepish, hipster pretentiousness. Calling yourself “Southern rock” affords you a lot of latitude: You can build a song around a riff and not a lyric and not ruffle any feathers like you might in country, or play a straight up country song and still reside within Southern rock sensibilities. You can even add some soul elements like backup singers as Whiskey Myers does here and separate yourself even further from the increasingly-automated sounds of modern music.
Early Morning Shakes is bold and expansive for a 12-song project. There’s a lot going on in these songs, without any of the compositions coming across as especially busy. Songs like “Early Morning Shakes”, “Where The Sun Don’t Shine”, and “Time Off For Bad Behavior” are each built from a good premise, and fleshed out with excellent guitar work by Cody Tate and John Jeffers. So often these days Southern rock guitar can get wanky and self-absorbed. Whiskey Myers may trend slightly that way in certain places, but overall the band’s guitar battery does a good job of waiting for the battle to come to them, and landing their shots when the time is right and in a manner that showcases both their prowess and their taste.
The band takes some chances on this record, and generally they nail the landings like with the final song “Colloquy” that tries to evoke the emotional epic, and dutifully succeeds. There is depth here beyond the riff-driven nature of the songs, like in “Reckoning” or “Wild Baby Shake Me,” which starts off as a rump shaker, but then develops into so much more.
But the real star of the show are the pipes of Cody Cannon. The guy’s voice is built for Southern rock. Without a hint of fake inflections or put-on’s, he sings effortlessly and straight from the heart, growling and confident when he needs to be, and willing to express emotion and vulnerability when it’s called for.
One small concern would be some of the chest-puffing present on this album in a song like “Headstone.” There are a few of these self-indulgent moments on the album, but these may disappear from the Whiskey Myers repertoire over time, and already seem diminished from their previous albums. The second song on the album called “Hard Row To Hoe” is just way too similar to Zepplin’s “Heartbreaker” to work, which is strange from a project that otherwise is fairly remarkable at avoiding the well-worn ruts and striking an original path.
The crunchy slide guitar, rising steel, and good songwriting of “Dogwood” make it one of the album’s best songs, and one of the album’s decidedly country selections. The sensible “Shelter From The Rain” is another good country-inspired, story-based song worth a deeper listen. Include the aforementioned “Colloquy” and there’s a good amount here for listeners who are country fans first, and Southern rock appreciators second.
With Early Morning Shakes, the now well-seasoned Whiskey Myers crew affirms themselves as one of the preeminent bands in Texas music and beyond.
1 3/4 of 2 guns up.
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THE 56th ANNUAL GRAMMY AWARDS
• When: 7 PM Central, 8 PM Eastern, 5 PM Pacific on CBS.
• Where: The Stapes Center, Los Angeles, CA.
• Host: LL Cool J
THINGS TO WATCH FOR
More Traditional Country Than One Might Expect
• Though the Grammy Awards are all-encompassing, there will be quite a bit of country, including classic country on the night with Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson scheduled to perform. Just like we saw with the CMA Awards in November, there is a renewed push to at least include something for classic country’s often-overlooked fans. There will also be a tribute to the recently-passed Phil Everly. See a complete list of the country performances below.
Kacey Musgraves To Push Boundaries…again.
• Similar to the CMA Awards, Kacey Musgraves will be performing her song “Follow Your Arrow.” At the CMA’s, the line “roll up a joint” was censored by ABC. We’ll see if CBS follows suit. She is also up for Best Country Album, Best Country Song for “Merry Go ‘Round,” and the all-genre Best New Artist. With her status as a critic’s favorite, and the propensity for the Grammy Awards to traditionally be more about artistic appeal than commercial success, Kacey should at least be considered a strong nominee, at least for the country awards. The 56th Grammy Awards could be where the Kacey Musgraves experiment sticks if she walks away with the top prizes.
THE COUNTRY PERFORMANCES
• Merle Haggard, Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, and Blake Shelton will all perform a medley of songs together (which one of these things is not like the others?). The performance will begin with Willie and Kris singing the Jimmy Webb-penned song “The Highwayman.” Then all the men will sing a version of “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys,” and end with Haggard’s “Okie From Muskogee.”
• Miranda Lambert & Billie Joe Armstrong will perform a Everly Brothers tribute. Phil Everly recently passed away, and Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day recently released a tribute album to the brother duo with Norah Jones. No word why Miranda is the duet partner and not Norah.
• Kacey Musgraves will reportedly be performing her current single “Follow Your Arrow” that had the “roll up a joint” line censored by ABC during the CMA Awards in November.
• Hunter Hayes will be performing a brand new anti-bullying single called “Invisible.”
• Taylor Swift is rumored to be performing “All Too Well.”
• Keith Urban will be performing with John Legend in a salute to the Beatles.
• Hunter Hayes, Zac Brown, and Martina McBride will be award presenters.
• See the list of the non-country performances below.
These awards have already been given out as part of The Grammy Award’s per-televised events.
• Kris Kristofferson was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award.
• Kris Kristofferson‘s first, self-titled album was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
• Dolly Parton‘s song “Jolene” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
COUNTRY AWARD NOMINEES & PREDICTIONS
The most shocking story of this Grammy Awards season was the snub of Jason Isbell from even being nominated for the Americana Album of the Year. This is a perfect example that the Grammy community is very much on the outside looking in when it comes to country music, especially the sub-genres like Americana and bluegrass.
At the same time, The Grammy Awards have a better history of picking artists based on their artistic merit as opposed to their commercial success. Remember it was the Grammy Awards that recognized Johnny Cash’s comeback during his American Recordings years when the country music industry was still ignoring him. Similarly the Grammy Awards tend to vote more down political lines, like when they recognized The Dixie Chicks after their blackballing from country music. This all sets up well for an artist like Kacey Musgraves.
The Grammy Awards are notoriously hard to predict, but I’ll do my best.
Best Country Album
I see this as a two horse race. Though the women of country are such underdogs these days, Kacey Musgraves as the critical favorite, and Taylor Swift as the commercial favorite, have to be considered the likely winners. There’s an outside chance for Blake Shelton because of his high profile from The Voice, but he would be an upset. Aldean & McGraw have no chance. In the end I think Swift will take it, but don’t rule out Kacey.
- Jason Aldean, Night Train
- Tim McGraw, Two Lanes of Freedom
- Kacey Musgraves, Same Trailer Different Park – Other Potential Winner
- Blake Shelton, Based on a True Story…
- Taylor Swift, Red – Winner
Best Country Solo Performance
Probably a race between ‘I Drive Your Truck” that won the CMA, or Darius Rucker’s version of ‘Wagon Wheel.’ Outside chance again for Blake Shelton because he’s so well-known, and there will be pressure to give him something. Understand this award is mainly for the performance, not the song. But if ‘Mama’s Broken Heart’ wins, it would be a noteworthy win for songwriters Kacey Musgraves and Brandy Clark, and if ‘Wagon Wheel’ wins, for Ketch Secor of Old Crow Medicine Show, and Bob Dylan. Remember when Darius Rucker said he better be nominated or “Country Music’s Screwed“?
- Lee Brice, ‘I Drive Your Truck’ – Winner
- Hunter Hayes, ‘I Want Crazy’
- Miranda Lambert, ‘Mama’s Broken Heart’
- Darius Rucker, ‘Wagon Wheel’ – Other potential Winner
- Blake Shelton, ‘Mine Would Be You’
Best Country Duo/Group Performance
The Civil Wars have been Grammy darlings in the past, and may still win despite the band dissolving last year. Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton would be the sentimental vote, but they should be considered a long shot. We may see Scott Borchetta assert his power here and have ‘Highway Don’t Care’ walk away with the hardware. It is cool to see a lot of good country names in this category, including Vince Gill. This is a very hard one to pick.
- The Civil Wars, ‘From This Valley’ – Other potential Winner
- Kelly Clarkson feat. Vince Gill, ‘Don’t Rush’
- Little Big Town, ‘Your Side of the Bed’
- Tim McGraw, Taylor Swift & Keith Urban, ‘Highway Don’t Care’ – Winner
- Kenny Rogers with Dolly Parton, ‘You Can’t Make Old Friends’ – Other potential Winner
Best Country Song
Another wide open field. Lee Brice once again has to be thought of as a front runner, but this very well may be Kacey Musgraves’ moment. This win would arguably mean more to her than any other nominee. And remember, Kacey and Brandy Clark also win if Mama’s Broken Heart’ is ultimately selected. I don’t really see Taylor Swift or Blake Shelton having a chance with this one.
- Taylor Swift, ‘Begin Again’
- Lee Brice, ‘I Drive Your Truck’ – Other potential Winner
- Miranda Lambert, ‘Mama’s Broken Heart’
- Kacey Musgraves, ‘Merry Go ‘Round’ – Winner
- Blake Shelton, ‘Mine Would Be You’
All Genre Awards
- Taylor Swift’s Red is the sole country album up for Album of the Year, and it is my pick for the winner. The other strong contender would be Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories.
- Kacey Musgraves is up for Best New Artist, but it is hard to see her outlasting Macklemore + Ryan Lewis, Kendrick Lamar, or Ed Sheeran.
AMERICANA & BLUEGRASS NOMINEES
Once again the Americana genre is saddled by its very narrow perspective in nominees. And except for Sarah Jarosz, they are all older artists this year. Compare this with last year when John Fullbright, The Avett Brothers, Mumford & Sons, and The Lumineers were all nominees. The Americana nominees really show how much the Mumford backlash took root, and how that was very much last year’s trend. Jason Isbell got completely screwed, and so did many other deserving artists.
Not going to make any predictions for these awards because they are all wide open fields. Anybody could win here. These awards will be given away before the televised portion of the awards, so check the Saving Country Music LIVE blog for winners.
***UPDATE – In the pre-televised Grammy presentation….
- The Grammy for Best American Roots Song went to Edie Brickell and Steve Martin for “Love Has Come For You“.
- The Grammy for Best Americana Album went to Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell for “Old Yellow Moon“.
- The Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album went to Streets of Baltimore from the Del McCoury Band.
- And the Grammy for Best Folk Album went to My Favorite Picture of You by Guy Clark.
Best Americana Album
- Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell — Old Yellow Moon
- Steve Martin & Edie Brickell — Love Has Come For You
- Buddy Miller And Jim Lauderdale — Buddy And Jim
- Mavis Staples — One True Vine
- Allen Toussaint — Songbook
Best Bluegrass Album
- The Boxcars — It’s Just A Road
- Dailey & Vincent — Brothers Of The Highway
- Della Mae — This World Oft Can Be
- James King — Three Chords And The Truth
- Del McCoury Band — The Streets Of Baltimore
Best Folk Album
- Guy Clark — My Favorite Picture Of You
- The Greencards — Sweetheart Of The Sun
- Sarah Jarosz — Build Me Up From Bones
- The Milk Carton Kids — The Ash & Clay
- Various Artists; Chris Strachwitz, producer — They All Played For Us: Arhoolie Records 50th Anniversary Celebration
Best American Roots Song
- “Build Me Up From Bones”
- Sarah Jarosz, songwriter (Sarah Jarosz)
- Steve Earle, songwriter (Steve Earle & The Dukes (& Duchesses))
- “Keep Your Dirty Lights On”
- Tim O’Brien & Darrell Scott, songwriters (Tim O’Brien And Darrell Scott)
- “Love Has Come For You”
- Edie Brickell & Steve Martin, songwriters (Steve Martin & Edie Brickell)
- “Shrimp Po-Boy, Dressed”
- Allen Toussaint, songwriter (Allen Toussaint)
OTHER GRAMMY PERFORMERS
- Beyonce and Jay Z will open the show with “Drunk In Love.”
- Gary Clark, Jr.
- Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue
- Sara Bareilles featuring Carole King
- Daft Punk featuring Nile Rodgers, Stevie Wonder and Pharrell Williams
- Kendrick Lamar and Imagine Dragons
- Macklemore & Ryan Lewis
- Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr
- Metallica featuring Lang Lang
- Nine Inch Nails, Queens of the Stone Age, Dave Grohl and Lindsey Buckingham
- Katy Perry featuring Juicy J
- Pink featuring Nate Ruess
- Robin Thicke featuring Chicago
Yes ladies and gentlemen, you’re seeing this right. Do not rub your eyes or adjust your monitors. In a wild upset, coming out of left field, and counter to just about every other music outlet’s top rated albums, Saving Country Music’s Album of the Year for 2013 is none other than the masterpiece from The Mavericks, the infectious celebration of the joys of life and music known as In Time.
Go ahead, leave your comments below about how this album is not country.
The Mavericks’ In Time cuts against the grain, and is counterintuitive to all of the well-noted and often-ballyhooed music trends of 2013. 2013 was coined as the “Year of the Woman” in country music by many, and the “Year of the Songwriter” by Saving Country Music and others. In Time doesn’t appreciably reside in either of those distinctions, though I would argue that it’s a much more deft songwriting presentation than it may seem on the surface. And no, it’s not especially country in the traditional sense.
But you reach a point in music where it is so good that no data points, no trends, no narrow-minded ties to genre matter. Music isn’t meant to be over thought as we so often do as active music fans, it is meant to be felt. And the best music simply grips you and allows you to lose yourself in it. In Time reminded this jaded music critic who must toil through reams of albums every day to find something even worthy of writing a few paragraphs about of what it meant to be a music lover all over again.
A masterpiece? I believe so. Singer Raul Malo is the the George Jones and Frank Sinatra of our time all rolled up into one, it’s just our time is gripped by the narrow, short attention span that doesn’t paying proper attention to talent like Raul’s towering vocal gifts that are unparalleled in virtually every corner of music this side of operatic maestros, or the tastefulness of guitar player and harmony singer Eddie Perez, or all of the admirable contributions of The Mavericks’ core and subsidiary players.
The country influences are certainly here, and anyone who asserts otherwise simply isn’t listening through the music to its inner soul. But without question, there are heavy Latin, cajun, surf, rock, and jazz influences here too. In Time is not simply the best album in country music in 2013, it is arguably one of the best, if not the best album in all of American music, and for it not to win the day in it’s home genre of country music would be a silly oversight, and tough to justify as In Time only becomes fortified by the test of time, divested from trend or taste as it is, and embedded with such universal appeal.
In Time by The Mavericks is the one; the only album that left no room for improvement, was both slick and tight, yet alive and breathing from the live aspect of the recording. It looked both forward, and behind. It led, but also paid tribute. It was a gift of music that gave more than any other in 2013, that also promises to continue to give for years to come.
Fans of this album will be the first to cry foul, but I will say what many long-time fans that knew Sturgill before this album will all admit: Sturgill has even more in him than High Top Mountain captures. I say this in an appreciative way as someone who has known Sturgill’s music longer than most. Sturgill has a whole career of albums ahead of him, and may win half a dozen Albums of the Year from Saving Country Music and others before it’s all done. But if an artist could have even done more than a particular album displays, however excellent that album may be, it must be considered when making a choice for Album of the Year. Nonetheless, consider High Top Mountain a very close runner up.
Jason Isbell’s Southeastern should also be considered a very close runner up to In Time. It is an astounding collection of songs, but in the end didn’t carry the weight as a complete album concept the way In Time did in my opinion.
Also interesting to note, I did tally all of the clear and obvious votes from readers for all of the Album of the Year nominees. The Mavericks and In Time beat out Southeastern 20 votes to 19. High Top Mountain got the most with 24, but Saving Country Music is also much more familiar ground for Simpson and Isbell fans. It was interesting to see just how close these three albums came to each other, and it did help influence the outcome.
And lastly I would say, before people scream about how another album should have won, my request is only do so after you have given In Time a chance.
Saving Country Music’s Artist of the Year, just like the Song of the Year and Album of the Year, is designed to eventually resolve down to one. But this is not always the case. For example in 2010 there were two Albums of the Year because with two worthy contenders giving up nothing to each other, it seemed irresponsible to supplant one for the other because of some silly notion that you can only have one. Such is the case here in 2013 when handing out the honor meant to not just highlight the music, but the man or woman behind it.
It was difficult to whittle down this decision even to two. Raul Malo of The Mavericks had one hell of a year. Songwriter and schoolteacher Possessed by Paul James with both a breakout album There Will Be Nights When I’m Lonely and a “Teacher of the Year” nod seemed to embody the balance of both a great person and a great artist that the Artist of the Year distinction is meant to honor. And if there was a runner up to the two men eventually selected, it would be a collection of all the inspiring women in country music in 2013 presented together as a collective Artist of the Year.
In the end though, two individuals in 2013 outshone all others.
Artists of the Year are not just measured against their peers, they are measured against themselves. We’re inspired by artists because they do things that we can’t. At the same time, the best artists inspire us to try to do things that we thought we never could. How many times does an artist’s finest work proceed an era of turmoil and/or redemption in their personal lives, almost to the point where if you start telling too many of the specifics of their success story, it just begins to feel like platitudes? Jason Isbell is the same man he was before 2013′s rousing success, gifted with the same skills as a guitar player and songwriter, influenced by the same legends and works, with the same Muscle Shoals roots intertwining with his fibers to create his unique interpretation of American roots music.
But 2013 is where it all aligned. You could blame his recently-found sobriety. You could blame his manager Traci Thomas and the entire Thirty Tigers organization that is on the cutting edge of the new music business paradigm of giving artist’s world-class support while allowing them to keep control of their music. Or you could blame the love and support of his new wife, Amanda Shires Isbell. But none of these people could write those songs, or deliver them with such feeling. None of them could get sober for Isbell, nor is getting sober the solution for every artist to stumble into the true essence of themselves, or the fortune to be able to share that essence with a wide, appreciative audience. It’s not like Isbell was some slouch to start, or wasn’t graced with attention or accolades in previous years. It just happens to be that when he was able to refine himself as a man, his music followed suit to create one of the most consensus picks for who outshone everyone else in a given year that we have seen in country/Americana music in a long time.
2013 was Jason Isbell’s year, and Southeastern was 2013′s songwriter album that all others will be measured against for very a long time.
The idea that country music needs to be saved is woven into the very fabric of the genre. It’s the reason the Outlaws were able to rise in the 70′s, and deliver country music’s first million-selling album. It’s the reason a song like “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way” can reach #1 in 1975, and a song like “Murder On Music Row” can win the CMA for Song of the Year in 2001.
And within this mythos of country music, and residing in the hearts of millions of despondent country fans is this idea, however fanciful or misguided, that an artist, or a group of artists, could rise up and return sensibility, substance, and the roots of country back to the music. Eric Church once mocked this idea in a song called “Country Music Jesus,” laughing at both the idea that country music needed to be saved, and that we needed some artist to do it.
Did Sturgill Simpson save the country music genre in 2013? Of course not. He didn’t even come close. But what he did do is fulfill that promise that the future of country music will be better than the present for the many true country fans who were fortunate to come in contact with his debut, breakout album High Top Mountain. Sturgill Simpson doesn’t want to save country music, he just wants to play it. He may not even want to call it country music, or care that anyone wants to save country….and that’s one of the reasons that he very well just might.
In some respects, Eric Church, and all the other mainstream artists and fans who say country music must evolve are right. And what Sturgill Simpson proved in 2013 is that country music can evolve, can still feel fresh, invigorated, and renewed, while still paying the highest regard and respects to the roots of the music. But maybe most importantly, and the truth that can bring shivers to all those fans hoping for that one artist that can help turn the country music ship around, is the fact that Sturgill Simpson is only just getting started. A brighter future for country music is what Sturgill Simpson delivered in 2013, and there’s no value or distinction that can repay what that means to the hearts of true country fans.
The greatest album, and the greatest recorded song will never be able to trump the truly live musical experience where music is shared in real time with both the artist and listeners. It is in this spirit that each year I assemble a list of the Best Live Performances to reinforce that as technology and the busying of life incrementally encroach upon us more and more every year, we must remember that the live music show deserves its own attention and reverence. This year for the first time, I’ve included some television performances and a live stream, because the weight these performances carried make them more than worthy to be included here.
Please understand, unlike Saving Country Music’s other yearly awards, since omnipresence isn’t an attribute I posses, this list is simply based on my own experiences, and not meant to capture the overall pulse of the live events that transpired all year. You are encouraged to share your own favorite live musical experiences from 2013 below.
10. Hellbound Glory – The Empire Control Room, Austin, TX
“Hellbound Glory started with a blistering, amplified version of Hank Williams’ “My Buckets Got A Hole In It” that reinvented and revitalized that tune originally learned by Hank Williams from Rufus Payne in the mid-30′s, and made it feel like an iconic 70′s-era Southern rock anthem. Not 30 seconds into the first song, and you could tell that Leroy had played so many shows in front of so many big crowds in 2013, that being on stage was second nature, and a downright showman had emerged from a man who is known as a songwriter first. Not that Leroy was a stiff before, but now he had a swagger about him—a sway and arm motions—engaging the crowd and carrying songs to another level with his ability to be completely uninhibited with the music.” (read full review)
9. Eric Church & Valerie June – The ACM Awards
Say what you will about Eric Church, he delivered the most memorable performance at the ACM Awards back in April, and he did it while showcasing the up-and-coming musical powerhouse Valerie June.
“Church, who is usually known for his baseball cap, aviator sunglasses, and rowdy country gone rock sound, kept it simple this time, accompanied only by his guitar and one harmony singer–a breathtaking female in a red dress, adorned with a crown of dreadlocks. As much as Eric Church’s performance caught the ACM crowd and Eric’s fans by surprise, so did this virtually unknown singer accompanying him.
“Valerie June didn’t announce her performance on the ACM’s. Her name was not mentioned in the credits or by the announcers. But like she always does, she left an indelible, unforgettable impact on the hearts and ears of the ACM attendees and viewers.” (read full review)
8. Andrew Bird & Tift Merritt – Pickathon Festival Woods Stage – Portland, OR
The Pickathon Festival on the outskirts of Portland, OR every August affords some of the best music moments a year can offer, while broadening the perspective of fans from all corners of the roots music world by assembling one of the most diverse and forward-thinking lineups in the festival realm. Many Picktathon moments could be listed here, but seeing the amazing Andrew Bird perform all manner of beyond-human vocal acrobatics accompanied by the accomplished Tift Merrit was truly something to behold.
“Andrew Bird on the Wood’s Stage was phenomenal. Maybe a little fey for some, but he’s a fiddling bluegrass maestro who has one of the best use of dynamics you will find. You also won’t find a better whistler in bluegrass. Joining him on stage for the set was Tift Merritt…” (read full Pickathon Live Blog)
7. Jayke Orvis & The Broken Band – The Scoot Inn
“Jayke finally declared earlier this year that he was taking his last tour with the Gallows, and trained his attention solely on a solid, permanent Broken Band lineup that includes guitarist James Hunnicutt, and former Bob Wayne Outlaw Carnies’ Liz Sloan and Jared McGovern on fiddle and upright bass respectively. With stability and a shared vision of making a band around Jayke’s music, but one where all musicians are treated as equal, Jayke Orvis & The Broken Band have re-captured the fervor and spellbinding performance aspect that made the .357 String Band such a force of music nature. If anything, The Broken Band may be taking it a step further with a deeper attention to composition, pushing all four players to the edge of their abilities, and the edge of human capability itself, balanced by slow and mid-tempo songwriter material.
Jayke Orvis & The Broken Band are the underground roots equivalent of the Punch Brothers, and are one of the top tier performers of the underground sub-genre.” (read full review)
6. LeAnn Rimes Patsy Cline Tribute – The ACA Awards
“And at the end of the medley, when LeAnn went a capella, and the tasteful sepia filter that the ACA’s had placed on the cameras to afford a vintage feel on the first part of the tribute turned back to color, a downright evocation emerged during Patsy’s “Sweet Dreams” that even the embattled and valiant LeAnn Rimes eventually couldn’t even fend off, bursting into tears during the final turn of the chorus.
“No video will ever do the moment justice, because it was a moment you had to share in live. At some point you saw LeAnn smile, like she recognized the spirit of Patsy had entered the room, and then the emotion immediately began to well up in LeAnn, and all who were paying attention.” (read full review)
5. The Mavericks -Gruene Hall – Gruene, TX
“Raul Malo is no doubt the rock and heart of The Mavericks, but the addition of guitar player Eddie Perez, who was Dwight Yoakam’s long-time touring guitar player before joining the band, is really what has allowed The Mavericks to give up nothing, and continue to grow in their nearly 25-year existence. From his masterful guitar work to his superhero-like ability to follow Raul Malo wherever he may go vocally, Eddie Perez is 1A to Raul in the Mavericks, with long-time rhythm guitarist Robert Reynolds and keys player Jerry Dale McFadden affording the buoyant vitality that makes The Mavericks’ sound so infectious, and drummer Paul Deacon holding the whole thing together and giving the The Mavericks their communicable groove.” (read full review)
4. Red 11 SXSW Showcase at the White Horse – Austin, TX
Eligibility on this list would normally only be open to single performances by a single band or artist, but the showcase put on by the booking agency Red 11 on Tuesday night (3-12) of South by Southwest at the White Horse in Austin was such a legendary lineup, it deserves its own distinction, beyond all the excellent artists that played it. Yes folks, the gritty, bluesy one man band Lincoln Durham, the Tejano-flavored The Crooks, The Dirty River Boys, The Turnpike Troubadours, followed by American Aquarium, and capped off by Jason Eady is the lineup that held forth at the intimate setting of The White Horse that night. Oh, and it was all free. I’m not sure there will ever be a moment when such a ridiculous amount of talent will be showcased in the same place, and in such a small space again, unless it happens at SXSW 2013.
3. Lee Bains III & The Glory Fires – XSXSW 6 – Austin, TX
Passing up an opportunity to see Lee Bains III & The Glory Fires live is a borderline criminal offense for any fan of hard rocking roots music. When they lit up the Frontier Bar as part of XSXSW 6, it was by far the most raucous set of music that still had real substance to it experienced in 2013. Later in the year when touring with Austin Lucas through Ft. Worth, Lee Bains got shut down and 86′d by the Live Oak Music Hall & Lounge for playing too loud. That’s how legendary Lee Bains live has become.
“As the room was still filling up with patrons, Lee Bains played like he was feeding of the energy of a packed house. This man sings with as much soul as anyone in rock & roll right now, and this was never evidenced more clearer then when he sang the title track of their latest album There’s A Bomb in Gilliead. For SXSW’s most acrobatic moment of 2013, at one point lead guitarist got on the shoulders of Lee Bains as they both walked out into the crowd with guitars blazing. This set was sick.” (from the SXSW 2013 live blog)
2. Jason Isbell – Live Stream of Austin City Limits Taping – August 19th
I admit, it seems strange to put a streaming event such as this on this list, and so high up no less. But if you witnessed it, you would know why. The technology is becoming such, and artists like Isbell are beginning to receive such recognition, that an online experience can sometimes be just as immersive as being there.
“On Monday night the Twitterverse blew up around the occasion of songwriter Jason Isbell recording an upcoming episode of Austin City Limits. The taping was streamed live online, and drew a remarkable amount of attention and praise from the online participants who took the time to tune in. Usually music confined to the online format is at such a distinct disadvantage, it is barely worth your time, and though Austin City Limits’ production value is world-class, this wasn’t what made the event special. Jason Isbell is quite the capable singer, and since he started out as a guitarist for the Drive By Truckers, it’s hard to denounce his musicianship either. His band The 400 Unit was sensational as well, and so was his wife Amanda Shires who sang and played fiddle for the set. But none of this is why the event became a singular experience for those who tuned in.
“It was Jason Isbell’s songs and his songwriting that made so many online watchers walk away with one of those feelings you get after watching a stellar movie—where your mind gets so immersed in the experience it is hard to return to the real world.” (from 2013: The Year of the Songwriter)
1. The Turnpike Troubadours – SXSW The White Horse – Austin, TX
The Red 11 South by Southwest showcase at The White Horse in Austin, TX was already given proper credit above, but the crown jewel of the night was the performance by Oklahoma’s Turnpike Troubadours, which also was the crown jewel of 2013.
“The Turnpike Troubadours were responsible for one of those once-in-a-lifetime musical experiences. The White Horse that had hovered around 3/4 capacity up to that point in the night swelled to where there was no elbow room, and a strong majority of the people there knew every word to the Troubadours songs and proved it by belting them out at every chance. When the band broke into their most popular tunes like ‘Every Girl,’ ’7&7′ and ‘Good Lord, Lorrie,’ the crowd would erupt. During the choruses, the singing of the crowd could become deafening, drowning out the band itself. Their high-energy, inspired performance was great in itself, but the camaraderie created by the crowd made it one of those moments hard to forget. The Turnpike Troubadours have no business playing a venue this small these days, and that is the type of unique experience SXSW can create. Their set was one for the record books.” (from the SXSW 2013 live blog)
On Saturday evening (12-21), a writer for Entertainment Weekly named Grady Smith, who recently has become an outspoken advocate for giving independent country musicians equal time, and has been critical about the direction of the male-dominated country music mainstream, posted a video called “Why Country Music Was Awful in 2013“. According to Grady, it was in response to when he posted his 10 Best Country Albums of 2013, naming Jason Isbell, Lindi Ortega, and Sturgill Simpson to the top spots, and readers complained he wasn’t representing the mainstream fairly.
I saw the video from Grady roughly an hour after it was posted, tweeted it out through the official Saving Country Music twitter, and put it as the first item in the News Feed that scrolls off at the top of every page. Nonetheless, as sites both small and large picked up the video and it circulated on social network, I got barraged with messages from anywhere and everywhere wondering if I had seen it. I didn’t respond to any of them, nor did I feel the need to get in on the fun by posting my own dedicated story about the video, because I knew as soon as I saw the video that it would go mega viral and a sense of sheer dread swept over me. Subsequently the video has received nearly 1.5 million views at the time of this post.
Why did a sense of sheer dread sweep over me? Because this is not the type of thing that needs to go viral.
This is not a criticism of Grady Smith. He deserves great credit for making the video, and kudos to him for coming up with the brilliant idea and executing it well. However it took more guts, and deserves more praise for posting his end-of-the-year list on Entertainment Weekly. That is what he should be commended for foremost, and that is what should have gone viral, along with the albums he was recommending with it.
But it didn’t, and they didn’t. Why? Because when you boil it all down, in 2013, the vast majority of people, including many of the people who pride themselves in being active and enlightened country music fans, truly don’t give a shit about “supporting” the music, despite of what they will tell you, or post on social media. This video going viral proves what has been brewing over the last few years, which is that independent country fans, and other country fans otherwise disenfranchised from the mainstream, are many times just as shallow as their mainstream counterparts, finding entertainment in the least common denominator and at the expense of others.
This is the moment when some of you will start laughing, as this statement coming from Saving Country Music is like the pot calling the kettle back. First, I don’t want to diminish whatever effectiveness the video might have at enlightening some folks about the current idiocy of some modern country music. That is why Grady made it; not to entertain the masses that already know this as fact. Grady may have hoped the video would go viral, but rarely do any of us know what button to push to spurn a viral event, or we’d do it on a daily basis.
But why does it take a video like this for a piece of media to go viral? There were many excellent independent country videos this year that great effort was put into that could proselytize the virtues of true music way better than the “Why Country Music Was Awful in 2013″ video. As much as Saving Country Music and other sites might love to make fun of the mainstream, the focus should always be on the positive first. But more and more, album reviews, artist features, song and video premiers, and other such wholesome music coverage is virtually ignored for the latest viral craze.
Saving Country Music, like Entertainment Weekly, posted a lot of end-of-year lists touting recommendations based on this calendar year: a songs list, albums list, video list, etc. But by far the list that got the most attention was are list of the Worst Songs of the Year. That particular list got twice as much traffic as all the other lists combined. It went viral in its own right. Criticism is an important, if not vital part of the spectrum of coverage that ensures a healthy artistic environment. But it can’t be the focus, either by the media, or by the fans. Most of the time, the media does their job. Music journalists got into the business because they love music. But it’s still a business, and they must meet the demands fans are requesting in coverage.
What I’m getting at here is that if similar attention was paid to one video, or one song, or one artist from the top of Grady Smith’s Best Of list instead of this viral video, then today we may be touting Jason Isbell, Lindi Ortega, or Sturgill Simpson straight up busting into the mainstream and making an historic racket for an independent artist, and incidentally, if it was a video or song from one of these artists’ songs, it would have made them a decent amount of money as well. But instead what is the end result of this viral video? We’re all simply assured of what we’d known before about mainstream male music in 2013, while the mainstream fans that listen to this drivel laugh us off as Prius-driving elitists.
And most importantly, I don’t think country music in 2013 was awful, and you don’t have to go any farther than Jason Isbell, Lindi Ortega, or Sturgill Simpson to see why. I think 2013 in country was amazingly positive, inspiringly positive, and I mean that. In the nearly 7 years of running this site, this was the year when I felt a dent was finally made in the pursuit of Saving Country Music.
So I made this video below to illustrate this. Will it go as viral as “Why Country Music Was Awful In 2013″? Of course not. So let’s all as music fans, journalists, advocates, activists, and artists sit back and think about what that really means, and see if in 2014 we can’t make sure to keep our priorities more in focus. I for one vow to.
The modern-day music video is a really strange enterprise. Lots of money is spent by artists, and sometimes labels to produce something special; something that really represents the spirit of a song well. But when you look at what people watch, especially when it comes to independent musicians, many times it’s the fan video captured on a consumer-grade piece of technology that draws the most interest. Meanwhile mainstream music videos, especially from male stars, are the epicenter of country music’s decline.
It was just announced that CMT has picked up a whopping 7 new reality shows for their upcoming season. It looks like the era of quality music videos continues to be in decline. But there are still a few artists, and film/video makers out there committed to the art of music videos, and to doing it right.
10. Kacey Musgraves – “Follow Your Arrow”
Okay I’ll admit it, I wouldn’t like this video half as much if Kacey Musgraves didn’t look so good in blue hot pants.
9. Kenny Chesney Concert PSA
In the aftermath of the massive mess and 73 arrests at the Kenny Chesney / Eric Church concert June 22nd at Pittsburgh’s Heinz Field, resulting in shocking photos at the amount of litter left by fans, benstonium.com posted this hilarious parody of the crying Indian PSA. Don’t ask what a “Yinzer” is.
8. Caitlin Rose – “Only A Clown”
Caitlin Rose is one of the few artists that has a nose for the offbeat, engaging video. Last year’s “Piledriver Waltz” video was a standout as well.
“The video for ‘Only a Clown’ is executed with great vision by Michael Carter, resurrecting the VHS format for texture and capturing the thin line between fun and forlornness that accompanies the freedom of the 20-something existence.” (read full review)
7. Sturgill Simpson - “Sturgill Simpson – “You Can Have The Crown / Some Days” (Live at Sun King Brewery)
What scripted videos usually lack is that ability to capture a magical moment in time where it all “clicks” and you get the shivers that only a live experience can afford. This two-song video from the Sun King Brewery has a few of them.
6. Sturgill Simpson – “Railroad of Sin”
“Sturgill threatens to take the high-flying act international by boarding a puddle jumper and puttering over to the Land of the Rising Sun to record the video for his heart-pounding, hot plate, house on fire, country as hell, soon to be hit single ‘Railroad of Sin.’ ‘Godzillabilly’ is what’s he’s patterning the theme, as the Kentucky native and Nashville resident takes a high arching swan dive deep into culture shock.
Johnny Cash may have not been born in Nagasaki, and bullet trains may not be equipped with lonesome whistles, but the Orient is where Hank Jr. picked up his official nickname for Waylon Jennings: ‘Watashin!’ which means, ‘old #1′ and you’d be hard pressed to find a more modern resemblance to Waymore than one Sturgill Simpson. So keep clear of the closing doors, strap in tight, and get ready to speed away on Sturgill Simpson’s ‘Railroad of Sin.’” (read full review)
5. Jason Isbell – “Elephant” Live at SiriusXM Outlaw Country
Capturing the true emotion and inspiration behind a song is what we all want from a video. Yet it so often becomes elusive by the superfluous additions in the production of a full-blown music video. Sometimes all you need is just the man and a guitar.
4. Fred Eaglesmith – “Johnny Cash”
This video stimulated a little controversy when it was released in March. Is Eaglesmith being too harsh, too judgmental? Maybe, but it’s hard to argue that he made one hell of a video.
“When the prevailing image of Johnny Cash in culture is one of him flipping the bird, the argument can be made that it’s the wholesale reduction of a man of such towering accomplishments and time-tested faith. At some point the imagery and cult-of-celebrity of Johnny Cash trumped the man himself, and society lost sight of his greatest contribution: his noble and charitable spirit.” (read full review)
3. Lindi Ortega – “Tin Star”
This video of Lindi’s Song of the Year Nominee “Tin Star” captures the spirit and theme of her emotionally-drenched foray into the realities that many independent-minded musicians face so well.
2. Matt Woods – “Deadman’s Blues”
The point of any video is to get you to pay attention to an artist and their song. One of the problems with many videos is they take an artist’s song and try to interpret too literally, eroding the mystery from the song, robbing it of its ability to mean different things to different people. The video for “Deadman’s Blues” is quite literal, but done so well and with such heart, it bucks this trend. Though I put “I’ll Sing About Mine” a step ahead, it really is #1 and #1A with these two videos. They represent really listening to the songs and then interpreting their messages in the visual format.
1. Josh Abbott Band – “I’ll Sing About Mine”
“The best part about Josh Abbott’s “I’ll Sing About Mine” video is the faces of the people. I’ll guaran-damn-tee you all of these people are real folks from real places. What’s even better is these scenes they’re in are the same scenes you see in pop country videos–the back of pickup trucks, out on the farm, on a tractor or 4-wheeler, at a football game. But the scenes are 100% real. These people are so ragingly authentic and their faces tell such gripping stories, you want to take every single one of them and put them in your pocket so you can feel the honest, simple goodness in their souls all day long. If a picture is worth 1,000 words, then a face is worth a million.” (read full review)
About this time of year virtually every magazine, website, and blog is bombarding their readership with end-of-year lists of which artists they feel are worthy of the highest praise for their 2013 effort. The whole practice has become a little nauseating for the consumer as the redundancy on many lists and the sheer number of them being pushed through social media erode the underlying concept of the lists: to help listeners break through the din of an overpopulated music landscape to discover the best stuff. Then there’s the ethics questions if music should be approached as competition at all. Ultimately the reason there are so many lists is because they are effective and appealing in helping listeners determine what to listen to.
Included on many, if not virtually all of those 2013 lists, especially in the independent country and Americana realms is the latest effort by former Drive By Trucker turned solo artist Jason Isbell called Southeastern. Seen as the current watermark of his career and a captivating songwriting effort capturing a clear-eyed, post-rehab Isbell at his apex, Southeastern is one of those rare consensus builders amongst critics as one of the year’s best.
Nipping at the heels on some lists, and overtaking Southeastern on others is the debut album High Top Mountain from former Sunday Valley frontman, Kentucky’s Sturgill Simpson. A much more country effort compared to Isbell, but just as bold of a songwriting project, Simpson has many people labeling him as a country music savior, and the artist they have been waiting years for to emerge in the independent country scene.
And not to be outdone is the dark Canadian singing-songwriting vixen Lindi Ortega, and her tantalizing album Tin Star that has also found its way at or near the top of many 2013 lists; an album highlighting her rising voice and remarkable gift for story and composition.
Though the sound of these three respective albums is fairly disparate, their influences are certainly not the same, the artists are from different locales, and the genres they represent are varied shades of the country music theme, they all have one thing in common: a virtually unnoticed and rarely heralded behind-the-scenes producer named Dave Cobb.
Just as the prevalence of year-end lists has grown in recent years, so too it seems has the trend of performing artists getting into the producer game, and big, franchise name producers like T Bone Burnett being heralded more and more for their producer services. Not that someone like Jack White or even Justin Townes Earle can’t make a great producer, or that T Bone Burnett is some kind of slouch. But for some projects, it becomes more about the name on the back of the album in the fine print instead of the name on the front. A producer’s name can be used as a marketing tool, and to create interest from fans and media venues. “The new album produced by the same producer of The Civil Wars!” “The T Bone Burnett-produced debut album, produced by T Bone Burnett!”
The best producers are usually the ones who prefer to remain subordinate to the artists they work with. Similarly, the best producers don’t come in and mold an album to their sound, but help the artists they work with develop their own. Producers aren’t supposed to be noticed. Critics may sometimes mention a producer’s name and how they may have influenced a certain project, but everyday fans just know when they like an album or not. Noticing the production of an album is like noticing an offensive lineman in a football game. It’s rarely a good thing. The focus should be on the music itself.
But that doesn’t mean producers shouldn’t be heralded or receive credit, especially when they’ve had a banner year like Dave Cobb’s 2013. Cobb has enjoyed some other successful albums, and good years in the past too. Similar to how Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, and Lindi Ortega have become critical darlings in 2013, Jamey Johnson’s last two original albums that graced the top of many end-of-year lists, That Lonesome Song and The Guitar Song, both featured Dave Cobb at the helm. The Secret Sisters’ self-titled breakout album was also produced by Cobb, and so were Shooter Jennings’ first four records. And his list of producer credits goes on and on from there.
But you would never know all of this unless you went poking around, looking for producer credits and connecting the dots. Dave Cobb is not out to perpetuate his cult of personality through his producership role. He’s just looking to make good music. And in 2013, he certainly did.
When you sit down to assemble a list of candidates for Song of the Year, you almost start to tremble in the face of so much creativity, inspiration, and insight, and grow humbled by how fortunate we are to live in such a bountiful time for music. Candidates for Song of the Year can’t just be songs we enjoy, they are songs that make you change the way you see the world, or change the way you see yourself.
Honorable mentions go to just about any song on John Moreland‘s Album of the Year candidate In The Throes. There were a few on the Brennen Leigh & Noel McKay‘s Before The World Was Made that nearly made it. Hank3‘s “Broken Boogie” was on the bubble, and would have made it in a year with a less-crowded field, and so would songs from some of 2013′s breakout female songwriters like Ashley Monroe, Caitlin Rose, Valerie June, and Brandy Clark, whose “Stripes” could have very well made it if the candidates were extended beyond the already hefty field of 10.
Audience participation is strongly encouraged, and will influence the outcome. Leave your opinions, write-in candidates, or other observations or opinions below in the comments section. This is not simply an up and down vote though. I make the final decision, so it is your job to convince me why the album you feel deserves to win is the right pick.
Josh Abbott Band – “I’ll Sing About Mine” from Small Town Family Dream
Written by Adam Hood and Brian Keane, “I’ll Sing About Mine” appears on 2012′s Small Town Family Dream, but was released as a single with a new video in early 2013. It was 2013′s first strong Song of the Year candidate, and very well may be the best.
“The great thing about “I’ll Sing About Mine” is the non-judgmental, even-keeled manner with which it delivers its message. It takes a lot of patience and a lot of heart to say what this song says without flying off the handle or flipping birds. It makes its point with as few pointed words as possible… It understands that really, few words need to be said, because deep down every human knows what’s real and what isn’t. They just have to be reminded, and then the momentum of the truth will do the rest.” (read full review)
Matt Woods – “Deadman’s Blues”
There are so many artists, so many songs and albums out there today, for any individual artist to stand out, they darn near have to stand on their head and turn somersaults to get our attention. It’s sad but true, but that’s what Matt Woods does with “Deadman’s Blues.”
“We ask a lot of our independent country and roots artists. We want them to release new music early and often, even though it stings them in the pocketbook to record. We want them to play our stupid town, even though it is way out of their way and the turnout will be light. We want them to perform in small, intimate venues, even though it’s not financially feasible for trying to take care of themselves, or God forbid, raise a family. We don’t want them to be too successful, lest their music loses its pain and soul. We don’t want them to age. We want them to see all the places, and do all the things we can’t, and maintain a party-filled lifestyle so we can then live vicariously though them as our own legs grow roots and our lives prosper from stability.” (read full review)
Wade Bowen – “Songs About Trucks”
Written by Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally, “Songs About Trucks” is 2013′s most cunning protest song. But it’s a protest song that offers a little something more.
“Once again a member of the Texas music scene has delivered a song that gives voice and reason to how the rest of us feel. Wade Bowen’s “Trucks” aims its big, diamond-plated bumper at the incessant references to tailgates and four wheel drives in modern pop country songs and slams on the gas. At the same time, it practices what it preaches, making sure to instill some story and soul into the song along the way, instead of just being a vehicle for protest.” (read full review)
Lindi Ortega – “Tin Star” from Tin Star
Lindi Ortega can melt your heart and make you feel the pain of a song like few others, and the beauty of “Tin Star” is the personal nature of the narrative, and how Lindi delivers it’s humble message with such loving care. She coddles this song like one would a malnourished kitten that shows up on your doorstep, or and old pair of scuffed and dusty boots found at a thrift store that she then nurses back to health and vitality, polishes and buffs up to shine to present to the world proudly.
“It’s admittedly hard to hold on to your objectivity when this raven from the Great White North rises in song and such a wave of emotion and beauty grips you that your rationality is sent reeling and all your senses are completely submerged and made submissive to her sway. Lindi Ortega is a creature of the darkness. She highlights the beauty in the world not by shining a light on it, but painting the rest black until the beauty is all that is left. She cherishes life by celebrating death. She makes you feel joy by bringing you to tears. She is the antithesis to an obvious, transparent world, all freshly fallen snow and onyx—biting, contrasting, revitalizing the attention to life and its many dark beauties simply by her presence.” (read full review of the album Tin Star)
Charlie Robison – “Monte Carlo” – from High Life
I’m nominating “Monte Carlo” here officially, but it has a companion song “Out Of These Blues” that is also on High Life and that pairs with it so perfectly, and is also written by Robison’s sister Robyn Ludwick. If someone asked me to play them an example of quintessential Texas country music, these would be the songs I would choose. Texas country masterpieces.
“Can’t say enough about these tracks, the excellence in songwriting they achieve, and Charlie’s ability to interpret their stories perfectly through song. They’re both very similar, and different all the same in the way they convey a feeling of forlornness, but still are imbibed with such a warm sense of memory that a sad story leaves you filled with a happy feeling. The way the chorus of ‘Monte Carlo’ strings you out for so long, hanging in the bubbly moments only the best music can attain, you wish this song could go on forever, and it’s so good it probably could.” (read full review of High Life)
Austin Lucas – “Alone In Memphis” from Stay Reckless
Austin Lucas proves he’s worth the label as one of 2013′s breakout artists with this lead single from his New West debut, Stay Reckless.
“Whether electric or acoustic, Austin only knows one way to perform a song: with 100% passion, until the song’s inspiration manifests right there on stage and coats every word. Even if you hate the lyrics, or can’t connect to the story of ‘Alone In Memphis,’ it is written perfectly to pull the emotion right out of Austin every time and spill it out amongst the audience in a moment of shared reflection and commiseration on one of the most fundamental failings of the human condition—our inability to feel stable without the company of another.
“Great songwriters know how to write to their strengths, and that is what Austin does in ‘Alone in Memphis.’” (read full review)
Sturgill Simpson – “Life Ain’t Fair and the World Is Mean” from High Top Mountain
Due to a technicality in Saving Country Music’s vast and complex bylaws, even though this song was considered for Song of the Year in 2012, since it was released on an album this year, it qualifies to be considered again.
“The magic of “Life Ain’t Fair” is the way it trivializes all the issues it raises by simply pointing out the obvious: that life’s unfairness is inherent, and complaining about it or using it as an excuse to not pursue your dreams is foolish. It’s cynical and inspirational all at the same time, and that feat of acrobatics can’t be performed without some acute dexterity and prowess with the pen.” (read full review)
JB Beverley – “Disappear On Down The Line” from Stripped to the Root
It’s a shame that the best songs tend to come from the deepest despair, creating the paradoxical, and sometimes self-destructive existence that many of the most talented and storied songwriters live. As JB Beverley says about “Disappear On Down The Line”:
“I was in my home, totally isolated and alone, my woman had left, I’d buried my friends, and all the proverbial voices of doubt and chaos, and all this negative stuff was fueling my mind at the time. I use the parable that the demons were dragging me down. Granted, there weren’t literally ghouls in the room tugging me through the floorboards, but as far as the emotional, spiritual, and mental direst and in some instances torment I was under, it was very real.” (read full interview)
Holly Williams – “Drinkin’” – from The Highway
This is one of those songs every other songwriter beats themselves up for not writing. Beautifully complex in its simplicity, both enigmatically deep and pleasantly colloquial, Holly Williams proves the Williams’ bloodline is still virile with an unconventional tune with universal impact on the weary soul yearning for respite. Where has Holly Williams been? She may have taken the roundabout way to finding herself, but she’s here now, and our ears couldn’t be happier.
“Where Holly Williams’ career and releases left her neither here nor there before, now she has found her voice, has found her place, and that place is amongst the talented women doing what they can to return the greater country music world to a place of substance.” (read full review for The Highway)
Jason Isbell – “Elephant” from Southeastern
Trying to pick one song from Jason Isbell’s album Southeastern to represent on this list is like asking a rainbow its favorite color. So if you think another song is more worthy, you’re opinion is probably warranted, so just put your chips on “Elephant” in its stead.
“‘Elephant’ is just downright unfair. Though this trend of token Cancer songs dotting nearly every country album released in the past few years is alarming, Isbell’s offering is far from a saccharine and sappy vie for radio play. It is a complete deconstruction and compromising of the emotional guards protecting a listener’s heart told in shockingly-real language, allowing the chemicals of empathetic response to run pure.” (read full review of Southeastern)
2013 has been self-proclaimed by Saving Country Music as the “Year of the Songwriter,” and this list of candidates for SCM’s Album of the Year reflect that dynamic of an elevated bar of songwriting excellence that these 8 artists have set. There is no arbitrary number of slots for candidates for this award. Nominees are chosen only if they have a legitimate chance of winning, whether that number is 2 or 12, and as we start the process of deciding who will win, the field is wide open.
One album you will not see on this list, but one that is at the very top of my personal list is Possessed by Paul James‘s There Will Be Nights When I’m Lonely. But since I had a small hand in the making of that album, I have recused it from consideration here, and from all of the end-of-year accolades. But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be considered in yours.
Lindi Ortega‘s Tin Star, and Austin Lucas‘s Stay Reckless are both valiant efforts that very easily could have made this list of candidates if it was stretched out a little farther, but something tells me you might see these names on the Best Songs list coming up shortly. Jayke Orvis‘s Bless This Mess, Valerie June‘s Pushin Against A Stone, and Eric Strickland‘s I’m Bad For You were also right on the bubble, and so was The White Buffalo‘s Shadows, Greys, and Evil Ways, and you will see these albums and many more on the much more expansive “Essential Albums” list that is coming up shortly. So if you don’t see an album you love, don’t freak out, it still may be up for an end-of-year distinction yet.
Audience participation is strongly encouraged, and will influence the outcome. Leave your opinions, write-in candidates, or other observations or opinions below in the comments section. This is not simply an up and down vote though. I make the final decision, so it is your job to convince me why the album you feel deserves to win is the right pick.
Caitlin Rose – The Stand-In
2013 is the Year of the Woman, and the Year of the Songwriter in country music, and this puts one Caitlin Rose right in the sweet spot of the relevancy arch. What elevates The Stand-In to “Album of the Year” status is that her songwriting deftly avoids all the well-worn grooves and modes that many songwriters tend to lean on when looking for ideas and inspiration. Also, whether The Stand-In wins or not, this is the most well-produced album of 2013. The production squeezes every bit of potential out of every song just as classic albums like The Beatles Rubber Soul and Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors do.
“Ladies and gentlemen, Caitlin Rose has arrived. It may take some time for the rest of the world to wake up to this realization. But they will. The strength of ‘The Stand-In’ assures it. The Stand-In is frighteningly good. It’s an enterprise in the evocation of rich human emotions, interwoven with delicious hooks and intelligent riffs, stirring vocal performances delivering meaningful, elevated lyricism, and a towering production performance that may go down in the history books. Just simply… Wow.” (read full review)
Sturgill Simpson – High Top Mountain
As far as a Country album with a capital ‘C’, Sturgill Simpson takes the crown hands down with High Top Mountain. No frills, no gimmicks, just straight down the middle honest to goodness country music. High Top Mountain is fair to consider a front runner, but the field is heavy this year on the fringes of the country genre, and Sturgill will have to fend off stiff competition if he is to win. And despite how great High Top Mountain is, the case can be made that Simpson still has some upside potential.
“Real country fans are just going to have to get comfortable with the new reality that their favorite music is on a surprising uptick. No more mopey faces, no more plotting midnight graffiti runs to Music Row as retribution for keeping your favorite artists down. Regardless of what kind of filth is still transpiring on country radio, a new spring of vibrant, independent country music is blooming and finding surprising support, and there may not be a better example of this new season than Kentucky native Sturgill Simpson and his breakout album ‘High Top Mountain.’” (read full review)
The Mavericks – In Time
When talking about sheer enjoyment one can get from an album, The Mavericks and In Time take the cake in 2013. I mean this album has you dancing around your living room or doing the Latin shake while you’re behind the wheel like nothing else. Is it a country album? That’s up for debate, but The Mavericks and Raul Malo are certainly more country than what you hear on country radio these days, and deserve to be considered as strong contenders here. Every day you do not have this album in your life is a day you’re missing out on that much more enjoyment. This is the Album of the Year if you throw out considerations of genre.
“Take the West Coast country coolness of Dwight Yoakam, the haunting tremolo of Roy Orbison, the sweaty rhythms of Los Lobos, and what you get is Miami’s indescribable and enigmatic throwback old-school all-things-to-all-people house band for America known as The Mavericks. They’re like some strange Central American fruit you purchase in South Texas that once you cut open the rind a bounty of greatness starts gushing out. Its taste is both exotic and warmly familiar, and its supple membranes are revitalizing to both the body and spirit.” (read full review)
Brent Amaker & The Rodeo – Year of the Dragon
Who and the who, and the year of what? That’s right, this dark horse nominee from the Pacific Northwest rides smack dab into the middle of this distinguished company from the sheer creative brilliance and sonic innovation Year of the Dragon displays. Every year there is an album that pushes boundaries and sets a precedent for the progression of the genre in a manner that still respects its roots, and this bold project with a futuristic scope and vibe leads the pack in 2013. Brent Amaker & The Rodeo are no anomaly. They could win this thing.
“If someone asked me to pony up an example of how in 30 years from now when we all have jet packs and flying cars, how country music could still respect and represent its roots, but still offer a relevant sound, I would hand them over a copy of ‘Year of the Dragon.’ It strikes that always-elusive balance between substance and wide-ranging appeal. Though the appeal will be hidden from some for the aforementioned reasons (monotone lyrics and similar rhythms between songs), once you delve beneath the surface, this album offers succulent melodies and catchy moments that make it downright addicting beyond the intellectual appeal of the artistry and lyricism.” (read full review)
John Moreland – In The Throes
I’ll be honest with you, this is the one candidate that I am not 100% on. Though John Moreland’s songwriting effort here is world class and easily competes with any other album listed here, to be an SCM Album of the Year winner, you must bring a complete package, and the production and recording effort with this album leaves room for improvement. It is one thing if you’re going for the lo-fi vibe, but John Moreland’s songs are too good to bring anything less than a superlative effort to recording them for release out into the big scary world. At the same time, out of respect for Moreland’s world-class songwriting, and so many people who put this album on the top of their 2013 lists, it’s being included it here, and who says I can’t be convinced that despite whatever warts, it still deserves to win from the caliber of Moreland’s songwriting performance.
“If John Moreland was a boxer, he’d be a bruiser, a punnisher. No fancy footwork, no bobbing and weaving here. Every single line John Moreland throws out is like a lyrical haymaker meant to score an empathic knockout punch right between the eyes. Even the most emotionally-fraught songwriters tend to give you a short breath somewhere from the morose moments, but not Moreland. He is relentless in how he unburdens his soul without any worry of exposing his vulnerabilities, or how the emotional fortitude of the listener will handle such despondency delivered with such honesty.” (read full review)
Jason Isbell – Southeastern
To become a Saving Country Music Album of the Year, you effort must be at a career-caliber level, and that’s what we get from Jason Isbell and Southeastern. This is the album, and 2013 is the year that Isbell emerged to have an impact well beyond the in-the-know crowd of Americana to become a voice of leadership in re-instilling substance and tireless attention to the craft of songwriting into the wider music world. Jason Isbell has arrived, and revealed himself as one of our generation’s legacy songwriters and performers.
“On ‘Southeastern’ Isbell goes right for the gut with an elegiac knife, thrusting and stabbing in a morose and unrelenting ritual of emotional evocation. Southeastern is downright suffocating in spots in its weight. It is bold, and merciless in how in preys on the faint-of heart, and can make a faint-of-heart out of even the most devout Stoics. Completely unfair Isbell, completely unfair. And selfish too. You should have saved some of these songs for others.” (read full review)
Robbie Fulks – Gone Away Backward
In a nominee field with a few dark horses, Robbie Fulks’ Gone Away Backward might be the album worth characterizing as the most criminally-underrated record in all of 2013. Because of the humble, non-commercial nature of this guy, he will never get the recognition his legacy of wisdom through songwriting should afford him. A true treasure of our time, this traditional country record with an epic songwriting effort is a must-have.
“With a gift for poetry like Townes Van Zandt, and a penchant for the whimsical, progressive approach to bluegrass akin to John Hartford, Robbie Fulks releases a stunningly entertaining, brilliantly-balanced, deep, yet instantly-engaging comeback album called Gone Away Backward through longtime associates Bloodshot Records. Steeped in the roots of bluegrass and old time, this sparse, acoustic-only album offers a traditional sound that is brought up to modern-day relevancy by the staggeringly-cunning use of wit in Robbie’s verses. This is one of those albums you can cull a litany of quotes from, while not giving anything away sonically. Buoyed by one amazing line after another, songs like “I’ll Trade You Money For Wine” and “Where I Fell” speak right to the heart of folks who take their music like medication.” (read full review)
Brandy Clark – 12 Stories
In a year of inspiring success stories, Brandy Clark’s might be the biggest. A pure songwriter who strikes the perfect balance between appeal and substance, Brandy Clark’s breakout album 12 Stories tells the tale of how in 2013, women and songwriters are leading the charge to save country music.
“The hidden dystopia seething under the smile of sweet suburban life, and the general dysfunction plaguing any and all affairs of the heart is the broken-minded madness that Brandy taps into with this album, following fed up and frustrated fraus who are willing to medicate themselves and match the misdeeds of their men sin for glorious sin. Frail, turbulent, vengeful, but still somehow empowered and held together by the strength and perseverance of womanhood, the heroins of Brandy Clark’s 12 Stories are as inspiring as they are shameful, and tragic as they are real.” (read full review)
A couple of days ago, The Stagecoach Festival out in California announced their 2014 lineup, capped by headliners Eric Church, Jason Aldean, and Luke Bryan. Since its inception 7 years ago, Stagecoach has been the California contingent to America’s big corporate country music festivals, but what makes Stagecoach different is that they actually include independent and up-and-coming artists as well—something most festivals in the corporate country field either completely avoid, or only include with a few token names.
For example if you look at the 2013 CMA Fan Fest in September in Nashville, the LP Field lineup consists of a who’s who of mainstream country, with no room for up-and-coming or independent acts. Same goes for the Northeast’s primary corporate country festival called Taste of Country Festival, with virtually all the performers consisting of acts in the mainstream and on major labels.
But at Stagecoach, the majority of the acts on the bill are independent, up-and-coming, or legacy artists, despite its big headliner names. When Stagecoach made its 2014 lineup announcement, my social network channels blew up with folks incensed that an artist like Luke Bryan would be listed in a bigger font than Loretta Lynn. But my reaction was completely opposite.
The big, mainstream names go without saying at a festival like this, and are in no way out of the norm of what we’ve seen from Stagecoach, or any other corporate festival over the last decade. What I was excited to see were names like Jason Isbell, The Whiskey Shivers, Corb Lund, Holly Williams, Sarah Jarosz, Shovels & Rope, and Shakey Graves on a bill with arguably mainstream country’s three biggest current names. The opportunities and exposure a festival bill like this can open up for these artists can’t be understated. If there’s any beef with their lineup, it would be that there’s not a woman represented in the top 2 tiers.
Envision the Stagecoach lineup as a radio playlist. If you went to CMA Fest, the lineup would virtually mirror the playlists of corporate radio. If you went to Taste of Country Festival, it would mirror corporate radio, with maybe a few more smaller and older names mixed in. But if the Stagecoach lineup mirrored a radio playlist, country radio would immediately flip-flop and improve ten fold, even if the names in bigger fonts got more plays.
The Stagecoach lineup is actually a great test case and example of how pragmatism and choice could be used to improve the country music format. What hardline purists and hardline independent fans need to understand is that big pop country acts have always, and will always dominate the country music landscape. Completely eliminating names like Jason Aldean from the picture would be great, but setting out to do this is an idealist, fool’s errand. The more reasonable approach is to simply lobby for choice—for traditional country and independent artists to simply be given a place at the table and an opportunity to reach the ears of the masses just like the big names. This would allow listeners to be able to decide what is best instead of a few select radio programmers. And this is what a lineup like the one for Stagecoach does. Jason Isbell vs. Jason Aldean? I’ll take that match. I’ll make that bet. And even if Isbell loses, he will benefit from the exposure the opportunity gives him.
I agree the marking of importance of artists based on font size, which has now become the norm in American festival culture, is always unfair, and Stagecoach is just as guilty as any. But it’s not arbitrary, and saying that this approach doesn’t make sense is being a little short sighted. Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan, and Eric Church regularly sell out arenas. Loretta Lynn doesn’t. The font size of a given artists’s name is directly tied to the draw of that artist. This says more about the priorities of society than it does how Stagecoach decides to market their lineup. They invert the font sizes to make some happy, and their festival loses. And so do the artists, including the smaller, up-and-coming artists looking to capitalize off the opportunity to play to the same-sized crowds as country’s top headliners.
For Aldean, Church, and Bryan, Stagecoach is just another tour stop. To Jason Isbell and Loretta Lynn, it is potentially the biggest crowd they will play to all year, and the biggest opportunity to reach new fans. And virtually every festival takes this stupid font size approach, including independent ones. The independent-minded Muddy Roots Festival last year made all of its other performers subordinate to the punk band Blag Flag that was only sporting one original member, and had a rival version of the band touring at the same time.
The angry feeling some people have for the Stagecoach lineup underlines many of the inherent problems with America’s emerging festival culture. For years in Europe, summer music festivals have dominated the live music landscape. Over the past decade, the US has also become more dependent on a seasonal festival schedule, making lineup announcements and fonts sizes an annual exercise in publicity stunts and polarization. Festivals are popping up everywhere, hungry for patrons and performers, and being pressured to make big splashes with their lineups. We’ve reached the point where both the artists and patrons are getting squeezed, while the emerging festival season is draining interest in the single music show on any given night that many artists are dependent on to make a living throughout the year. Some artists are playing to empty venues because fans are passing them over in lieu of the festival experience.
Massive corporate festivals like Bonnaroo, ACL Fest, and Lollapalooza that blend all genres further complicate the festival landscape. The music is getting lost in the bustle by promoters, sponsors, and corporations trying to land cool names for their festivals, trying to outdo their competition, trying to rack up “likes” on Facebook, etc., with patrons caught in the middle trying to do what is best to support the music getting stuck with tough decisions, and falling to the mercy of the guilt game.
It all almost makes you want to stay home. But if I had an opportunity to go to Stagecoach, I would, and I may. Because no matter whose name is in the biggest print, there are plenty of names in their lineup worth paying attention to. Is it a shame that Loretta Lynn’s name isn’t as big in a lineup card as Luke Bryan’s? Of course it is. But that’s better than Loretta’s name not being there at all, which it isn’t for the majority of the country’s corporate music festivals. Many facets of the country music business could learn from the Stagecoach model.
The last few weeks might go down in history as one of country music’s most feud-laden moments. From Gary Allan going off about country music and indirectly accusing Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood of not being country, to Zac Brown calling out Luke Bryan’s song “That’s My Kind of Night,” and Jason Aldean calling out Zac Brown in Luke’s defense.
Though country music feuding may be on a sharp rise here recently, it is not an uncommon or recent occurrence in country music by any stretch. Many artists have had a beef with the Grand Ole Opry over the years, including Johnny Cash and Stonewall Jackson. Curb Records has been in the middle of many feuds, most notably with Leann Rimes, Hank Williams III, and a big one with Tim McGraw that pitted cross-town heavyweights Mike Curb and Scott Borchetta against each other. But nothing gets folks talking like a good old artist on artist donnybrook. Here are some of the most infamous over the years.
Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner were one of country music’s most legendary pairings, but when Dolly wanted to leave the Porter Wagoner camp in 1974, things turned heated. Parton did the best she could to leave Porter’s side in an amicable way, even penning and performing her legendary song “I Will Always Love You” for her long-time singing partner. But Porter turned around and sued her for $3 million in a breach of contract suit in 1979.
However, the two made up eventually, and Porter performed with Dolly on her TV variety show in 1988. Dolly Parton was also by Porter Wagoner’s side when he passed away in 2007.
In the midst of Billy Ray Cyrus’s “Achy Breaky Heart” success, Travis Tritt was asked what he though about it, and always willing to be a lightning rod, Travis Tritt responded, “I haven’t seen his show so I can’t say anything about that. I haven’t seen the man personally, so I can’t say anything about him personally. I haven’t listened to his albums, so I can’t make a statement about that. But I have seen the video and I have heard “Achy Breaky Heart”, and I don’t care for either one of them. It just seems kind of frivolous. The video doesn’t appeal to me because it shows him stepping out of a limousine in front of thousands and thousands of fans, and nobody’s even heard of this guy.. Garth Brooks didn’t even do that. It doesn’t seem very realistic to me.”
Travis Tritt recalled in his autobiography Ten Feet Tall and Bulletproof, “I apologized to Billy Ray, told him I hoped he sold ten million copies of the record. Went home. I sent Billy Ray a peace lily and a get well card because I heard he’d been feeling bad enough to cancel his Fan Fair appearance. Headline in the local paper the next day. ‘Travis Tritt Trashes Billy Ray Cyrus.’ The more I said about it, trying to rectify the situation, the worse it got.”
Waylon Jennings really didn’t like Garth Brooks, and wasn’t very good at hiding it. Though in the portions about Garth in Waylon’s autobiography he was careful not to use Garth’s name, during interviews in the 90′s Waylon would regularly let his anti-Garth anger slip. For example in an interview with The Inquirer form September, 1994, Waylon said about Garth, “I think he’s the luckiest s.o.b in the world. He’s gotten more out of nothing than anybody I can think of. I’ve always accused him of sounding like Mr. Haney on Green Acres.”
There’s another Waylon quote about Garth that goes something along the lines of “Garth Brooks did for country music what panty hose did for finger fucking.” But there has yet to be a verifiable attribution of the quote.
Still to this day, not much is known about the exact details of the feud between these two men, but in the mid-70′s you couldn’t find two artists more tied to the hip than Waylon and Tompall. Tompall was the proprietor of Hillbilly Central in Nashville—a renegade studio where Waylon mixed and mastered his album Honky Tonk Heroes, and recorded his album This Time. Waylon and Tompall appear together on Wanted: The Outlaws—country music’s first million-selling album. The two became close friends and were kindred spirits from their hated of Music Row’s business practices. They would spin long hours battling each other on pinball machines or picking out tunes or playing pranks on each other. But when the friendship went south in the late 70′s, it went south hard, and the two men never resolved their differences before their respective deaths, despite both men still insisting on their deep love and appreciation for each other.
The crux of the beef between two of country music’s most famous sons is that Hank3 felt Shooter Jennings stole his persona. Hank3 had a song called “Dick In Dixie” that included the line, “I’m here to put the Dick in Dixie, and the cunt back in country.” Shooter, who previously had been in a rock band called Stargunn, came out with his first country record entitled Put The ‘O’ Back In Country in 2005, and Hank3 perceived the title was a little too close for comfort.
If you wanna go down that road and rip us off, mutherfucker, I’ll see you in ten years and five thousand shows down the road.” Hank3 said. We’ll see where the fuck you’re at. You know, I called him out and just flat out said, “fuck you if you’re gonna rip us off like that on your first release.”
Shooter for his part seemed unwilling to reciprocate the feud, saying “You know what, I don’t even comment on these things, really. I don’t even know him. I met him once, I think, for a second. And somehow all this stuff started about how he hates me. I don’t know. It’s, like, stupid.”
In fairness to Shooter, Carlene Carter had used the line “If that doesn’t put the cunt back in country, I don’t know what will” at a show in New York in 1979 when her mother June Carter and father-in-law Johnny Cash were in attendance. Eventually Shooter and Hank3 reportedly buried the hatchet.
Hank3 is the legitimate son of Hank Williams Jr., but Hank Jr. was not Hank3′s everyday father. Hank3 was raised by his mother, and usually only saw Hank Jr. once a year when growing up. In 2001, Hank Jr. began collaborating with Kid Rock in songs like “The ‘F’ Word” and others, and Hank Jr. often referred to Kid Rock as his “rebel son.” This stimulated a rumor that Kid Rock was in fact Hank Jr.’s biological offspring. Though both men denied it, the urban myth grew legs, and Hank Williams III began to be asked by people if Kid Rock was his brother, which didn’t sit too well.
Then the situation escalated when Kid Rock accosted Hank3 at a show in Detroit, trying to patch up the strained relationship between Hank3 and his father. “He kept trying to come on the bus, you know, him and Pam Anderson, and all that shit,” Hank3 recalls. “And I said, ‘Tell that motherfucker I got nothing to say to him,’ and then he finally get his way back in there and tells me how I need to be treating my father, and I’m like, ‘All right, you crossed the line motherfucker.’ And I don’t know how many times I have to say it: No, he’s not my fucking brother . . .”
The altercation eventually led to the line in Hank3′s song “Not Everybody Likes Us,” “Just so you know, so it’s set in stone, Kid Rock don’t come from where I come from. Yeah it’s true he’s a Yank, he ain’t no son of Hank, and if you though so god damn you’re fucking dumb.”
It is considered one of country music’s most legendary moments—when Charlie Rich took out his lighter at the 1975 CMA Awards and burned the envelope announcing John Denver as Entertainer of the Year while Denver watched via satellite. Rich had clearly been drinking, and his antics were taken as an act of defiance against the intrusion of pop influences into country music, and have since become a rallying cry for country music purists.
Recently when video surfaced of the incident, people began to question what Charlie Rich’s true intentions were because Rich didn’t appear to look as malicious as the moment had been materialized in many people’s minds without the aid of the archived footage. Though historians and the Country Music Hall of Fame clearly spell it out as being considered a conflict at the time, Charlie’s son Charlie Rich Jr. says that his father was simply trying to be funny. So maybe there was a Charlie Rich vs. John Denver, or maybe there wasn’t, but the moment still makes for great country music lore.
Probably not much more than the names of these two needs to be said to to infer that they wouldn’t get along. Maines started the scuffle in response to Toby Keith’s song “Courtesy of the Red, White, & Blue” saying, “I hate it. It’s ignorant, and it makes country music sound ignorant. It targets an entire culture—and not just the bad people who did bad things. You’ve got to have some tact. Anybody can write, ‘We’ll put a boot in your ass’ … ”
Toby Keith’s response? “I’ll bury her. She has never written anything that has been a hit…” Maines kept up the heat, wearing a shirt with the letters F.U.T.K. on the 2003 ACM Awards. And of course, all of this was exacerbated when Maines criticized President George Bush at a concert in London a month before.
Keith was the one to publicly bury the hatchet, saying in August of 2003, “You know, a best friend of mine lost a two-year-old daughter to cancer. I saw a picture of me and Natalie and it said, ‘Fight to the Death’ or something. It seemed so insignificant. I said, ‘Enough is enough’ People try to make everything black and white. I didn’t start this battle. They started it with me; they came out and just tore me up. One thing I’ve never, ever done, out of jealousy or anything else, is to bash another artist and their artistic license.”
Toby Keith vs. Kris Kristofferson
It sure made for a juicy story at the time, but according to both of the named belligerents, it was a feud that never was. In April of 2009, actor Ethan Hawke published a story in Rolling Stone that without naming his name, accused Toby Keith of saying to Kris Kristofferson at Willie Nelson’s 70th birthday in 2003, ““None of that lefty shit out there tonight, Kris.” According to Hawke, a rolling argument ensued that ended with Kris Kristofferson saying, ““They’re doin’ to country music what pantyhose did to finger-fuckin’” (see Waylon Jennings vs. Garth Brooks above.)
However, according to both Toby Keith and Kris Kristofferson, the incident never happened. Even more damming to Ethan Hawke and Rolling Stone, though Toby Keith became famous from his flag-waving songs, he’s a registered Democrat, making the likelihood Kieth saying to Kristofferson “lefty shit” very unlikely. Ethan Hawke and Rolling Stone stood by their story, but the press who perpetuated it got an earful from Toby about it at the 2009 ACM Awards.
Feuds that involve accusations of songs getting ripped off can get especially nasty, and this was the case when Jason Isbell took to Twitter to accuse Dierks Bentley of ripping off his song “In A Razor Town.” “‘Dierks’ has officially ripped off my song ‘In A Razor Town.’” Isbell fired off. “Dierks is a douchebag. The song of Dierks is called ‘Home.’” Isbell continued to pummel Dierks through Twitter, even getting political because of the flag waving nature of “Home.” Dierks in his defense referred to an interview one of the song’s co-writers Dan Wilson did with ASCAP that explained how the song came together.
The result? Though Isbell went silent after he said he was told to do so by his lawyer, if there was ever litigation over the song, the results were never made public. Isbell has since in interviews blamed his heavy drinking at the time for his Twitter tone. Though the two songs do sound similar, whether it was truly a ripoff or not seems to remain inconclusive.
Robert Earl Keen put Toby Keith in his crosshairs when he believed Keith lifted the melody from his song “The Road Goes On Forever” for his 2010 song “Bullets In The Gun.” Keen recalls, “I got all these calls from my friends. They were saying, ‘This is ridiculous. What are you gonna do? I felt like this individual had been picking on me for a long time, and I was sick of it. So instead of getting really ugly about things—I don’t really believe in lawsuits or threats—I took the Alexander Pope road and answered this guy in song.”
Keen recorded “The Road Goes On And On” as a shot at Toby Keith (though he never mentions his name), with lines that included:
You’re a regular jack in the box
In your clown suit and your goldilocks
The original liar’s paradox
Your horse is drunk and your friends got tired
Your aim grew weak and uninspired . . .
Toby Keith has never formally responded to the accusations.
This battle of heavyweights ensued when Eric Church was quoted in Rolling Stone in late April of 2012 saying, “Honestly, if Blake Shelton and Cee Lo Green turn around in a red chair, you got a deal? That’s crazy. I don’t know what would make an artist do that. You’re not an artist. Once your career becomes about something other than the music, then that’s what it is. I’ll never make that mistake. I don’t care if I starve.”
Miranda Lambert, who is married to Blake Shelton and also has a reality show past, came out swinging, saying through Twitter, “I wish I misunderstood this . . .Thanks Eric Church for saying I’m not a real artist. You’re welcome for the tour in 2010,” referencing Church’s opening spot on one of her tours.
Eventually Eric Church apologized, saying, “The comment I made to Rolling Stone was part of a larger commentary on these types of reality television shows and the perception they create, not the artists involved with the shows themselves. The shows make it appear that artists can shortcut their way to success… I have a problem with those perceived shortcuts, not just in the music industry…I have a lot of respect for what artists like Carrie Underwood, Kelly Clarkson, and my friend Miranda Lambert have gone on to accomplish. This piece was never intended to tear down any individual and I apologize to anybody I offended in trying to shed light on this issue.”
As some have pointed out since, Eric Church apologized to Miranda, but never apologized to Blake.
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Eric Church also created a firestorm with Rascal Flatts in 2006. While playing in an opening slot, he purposely played too loud and for too long after numerous requests to respect the tour’s wishes, resulting in him being kicked off the tour. It also resulted in a young starlet named Taylor Swift getting a chance to open on the big tour, which many experts give credit for helping Taylor’s meteoric rise.
Blake Shelton vs. Ray Price
When Blake Shelton’s comments about how he considered country music’s traditional fans “Old Farts and Jackasses” came out, Country Music Hall of Famer Ray Price shot back, saying, “Every now and then some young artist will record a rock and roll type song , have a hit first time out with kids only. This is why you see stars come with a few hits only and then just fade away believing they are God’s answer to the world. This guy sounds like in his own mind that his head is so large no hat ever made will fit him. Stupidity Reigns Supreme!!!!!!! Ray Price (CHIEF “OLD FART” & JACKASS”) ” P.S. YOU SHOULD BE SO LUCKY AS US OLD-TIMERS. CHECK BACK IN 63 YEARS (THE YEAR 2075) AND LET US KNOW HOW YOUR NAME AND YOUR MUSIC WILL BE REMEMBERED.”
Blake Shelton later apologized, saying, “Whoa!!! I heard I offended one of my all time favorite artists Ray Price by my statement “Nobody wants to listen to their grandpas music”..And probably some other things from that same interview on GAC Backstory.. I hate that I upset him.. The truth is my statement was and STILL Is about how we as the new generation of country artists have to keep re-inventing country music to keep it popular. Just EXACTLY… The way Mr. Price did along hid journey as a main stream country artist.. Pushing the boundaries with his records. “For The Goodtimes” Perfect example with the introduction of a bigger orchestrated sound in country music.. It was new and awesome!!! I absolutely have no doubt I could have worded it better(as always ha!) and I apologize to Mr. Price and any other heroes of mine that it may offended.”
Ray also later apologized to Blake Shelton for being so harsh, and along with wife Miranda Lambert, they attended a Ray Price show in Oklahoma to patch things up in person.
I’ll be honest with you, I wanted to hate this album, and for many reasons. It begins with a general dislike of tribute, compilation, and cover albums altogether. We live in such a crowded music world, do we really need to hear a song that was perfectly fine the first time done some other way, or virtually the same way from a different artist? Sure it’s cool when they sneak one in on you in the context of an original album, but 14 reconstituted tracks stacked together can get unbearable.
And this particular album seemed like such a ploy. Alabama doesn’t really hold any sway on the heart of your average independent roots artist or their listeners—generally speaking of course—so it seemed like the idea of taking Americana names like Jason Isbell and Jessica Lea Mayfield, and mixing them with Texas/Red Dirt country artists like the Turnpike Troubadours and Jason Boland was just a way to trick people into paying attention to Alabama who otherwise wouldn’t.
And yeah, I’ll say it: Though I’ve always found a good handful of Alabama songs entertaining enough, and maybe some of their album cuts hold a little more substance than they tend to get credit for, they were sort of a mild band when looking at them in the big country music picture.
Alabama was quick to call on stereotypical references to the South and Alabama and evoke artifacts of Southern living in their songs, certainly laying at least some of the groundwork leading up to the parade of laundry list songs country music is plagued with today. That’s not to discount their entire catalog in any way or to imply their songs weren’t enjoyable, but Alabama “was what they were” so to speak—an accessible, sort of one-trick, songs-about-the-South pony that probably doesn’t deserve two tribute albums coming out for them in a month span.
And that’s the other thing. While Americana/Red Dirt fans were pouring over the lineup for High Cotton: A Tribute To Alabama, salivating at names such as JD McPherson, Bob Schneider, John Paul White (The Civil Wars), and Shonna Tucker (Drive By Truckers), on the other side of the music world amidst the multiple wallet chains and Auto-tuned voices of mainstream land, they were looking at a completely other tribute album called Alabama & Friends that includes names like Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan, and Florida Georgia Line. This 1 – 2 punch seemed to be part of a plan to create a widespread Alabama resurgence across the entire music panorama, tricking us into losing perspective on Alabama’s overall stature in the country music pantheon.
And wouldn’t it be so typical of one sect of fans to rally behind their particular Alabama tribute, and poo poo the other. Isn’t there enough new, original music out there right now that is more worthy of our time and ears instead of engaging in some culture war over ho hum, rehashed music?
But believe it or not, I like this album. I like it a lot. And its appeal goes beyond the sexy names of contributors, which is how they get you in the door. High Cotton: A Tribute To Alabama offers a great mixture from how the respective artists approach each song. Your country artists, like the Turnpike Troubadours with “If You’re Gonna Play in Texas (You Gotta Have a Fiddle In The Band),” and Jason Boland with “Mountain Music,” play it pretty close to the original, not trying to get too cute.
Then you have more progressive artists like Jessica Lea Mayfield going in a completely different direction with her rendition of “I’m In A Hurry (And I Don’t Know Why)”—wholesale changing the feel and theme of the original composition without touching a word, making a fun song into a haunting indictment of modern life. Then you have an artist like JD McPherson truly putting his own throwback, 50′s-vibe on a song with “Why Lady Why.” As the cliché for cover songs go, he “made it his own.”
High Cotton: A Tribute To Alabama gets right what so many cover and tribute albums get wrong, including its 2013 counterpart Alabama & Friends. A good tribute album doesn’t just pay tribute to the band or artist. It should be a 50/50 proposition, with the contributing artists also benefiting from the name recognition the tributee affords. You can tell the contributors had any and all latitude they desired to take these songs wherever they wanted, or to leave them pretty much the same if they so chose. And most importantly, when you’re listening to this album, you being to think, “Damn, Alabama did have some pretty good songs, didn’t they?” That’s how you know when a tribute album was a successful endeavor, when it has the power to change a mind, or remind you of something you had forgotten, or introduce something to a generation who has no sentimental tie to it.
A fun exercise with this album is to simply turn it on before looking at the track list and trying to determine which artist the song is being done by simply from the style and the singer’s voice. It is sort of an aptitude test to check your level of independent country and roots knowledge. There’s a few moments on the album that lost me, like T Hardy Morris extending the guitar solo at the end of “High Cotton” so long seemed a little self-indulgent, but even this will be cherished by the right ear. The Bind Boys of Alabama finishing off the album with “Christmas in Dixie” works even in the swelter of mid September because of the inspired performance they turn in.
Cover and tribute albums will always be held at a disadvantage because of their lack of original content, but I would put High Cotton: A Tribute To Alabama near the top of some of the stronger tribute efforts to grace the ears of the country music world.
1 3/4 of 2 guns up.
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Country music in 2013 feels like the best of times, and the worst of times. While a few top male performers perpetrate untold atrocities on the integrity of the genre, the rise of independent music and infrastructure in the marketplace is now almost to the point where it equals its corporate counterpart. Quality songs and worthy artists are beginning to see more and more support, while current events and new outlets create avenues for substantive music to find its way to hungry ears. It is so easy to focus on the negative because it still seems to pervade the popular consciousness. But here are twelve reasons it is looking up for country music in 2013.
Yes, Kacey Musgraves. Even if you see her as some Music Row machination meant to offer an alter ego to the Taylor Swift’s of the world (Taylor equals Kacey’s noms with 6 herself), at least mainstream country is now offering a choice to consumers. What Musgraves’ symbolizes is that you don’t have to prove overwhelming commercial success to get noticed. Her biggest hit “Merry Go ‘Round” didn’t even make the Top 10 of Billboard’s Hot 100 Country Songs. Musgraves is a songwriter in a traditional sense, even if some of her best, and most-heady material didn’t make her big debut album. The reason she was able to rake up so many nominations is because of her songwriting credits, accounting for half of her CMA considerations. Kacey Musgraves’ 6 CMA nominations proves that regardless of how stupid country music’s leading males are trying to make the genre, in 2013, songs matter.
Yes ladies and gentlemen, it is getting dirty out there, and the more artists that speak out, the more other artists gain the courage to join the chorus. And not to shy away from the fight, Kacey Musgraves could be characterized as leading the charge, coming out multiple times to complain about where country music is headed. Alan Jackson also had some choice words recently, as did Gary Allan, Tom Petty, and most recently Zac Brown. Country music may be crossing more unfortunate lines than ever, but at least it’s genuine artists are being vocal about their dissent.
Yes, it was bad that Blake Shelton had to disrespect large segments of country music listeners when he ostensibly called them “old farts and jackasses,” but the backlash that ensued became a unifying element for disenfranchised country fans. Ray Price wrote a blistering letter to Blake Shelton, resulting in Blake having to make a public apology. Dale Watson wrote a song about the whole incident which has since become one of the most popular numbers of his show. An “Old Farts & Jackasses” group on Facebook boasts over 93,000 “likes,” and the list goes on from there. Blake Shelton awakened a beast, and gave it a rallying cry. Who would have thought in 2012 that people would be proudly calling themselves “Old Farts & Jackasses” ?!?
The days of inducting traditionally-leaning artists and bands seemed to be over with the Grand Ole Opry’s recent membership invitations to Darius Rucker, Keith Urban, and Rascal Flatts. But lo and behold, the Grand Ole Opry can still get it right, inducting an act that has paid their dues many times over, and deserve to be recognized as one of the forefathers to the re-popularization of string bands that has seen the rise of bands like Mumford & Sons, The Avett Brothers, and The Lumineers. The news is not only good for Old Crow Medicine Show, but other artists who may not be top tier names in country music, but deserve the distinction.
It’s so easy to read the headlines and see the top of the Billboard country charts and say that all is lost in the genre. But as long as Sturgill Simpson is out there touring, you can’t say country music is dead. Out on tour with Dwight Yoakam, playing the Grand Ole Opry, inspiring critics from coast to coast and overseas to sing his praises, Sturgill Simpson is giving hope for the future to country fans that has a value beyond his music specifically.
Yeah, I’m not too much for the silly cliffhanger drama-laden plot lines either, but Nashville has become an invaluable teacher of how the music business works, specifically on the songwriting side of things. An educated consumer makes better choices, and if they see and understand how backroom politics stultify the creativity and freedom of artists, and how a song goes from inspiration to the big stage, they just may make better choices, and think about where the music they enjoy comes from. Furthermore, Nashville has become a music outlet to a nationwide audience that may otherwise not be exposed to the music of independent artists like Caitlin Rose, Lindi Ortega, Ashley Monroe, Shovels & Rope, and so many more.
There are many good, independent country bands that are enjoying a rise in interest in 2013, but there may not be a bigger rags to riches story (so to speak) than Hellbound Glory landing an opening spot on a Kid Rock arena tour. Going from playing half-empty bar rooms to sold-out arenas, Hellbound Glory is seeing the recognition their quality country music has been deserving for years. And the opportunity has been paralleled by bigger crowds and better support even after the arena tour ended.
Caitlin Rose, Valerie June, Lindi Ortega, Austin Lucas, Amanda Isbell, Cory Branan, Jonny “Corndawg” Fritz, and so many more that call east Nashville home (or at least to some extent) have seen career watermarks and burgeoning interest in 2013. Forget Music Row or the circus downtown, Nashville, not Austin, is the new vibrant epicenter for independent music, and the artists there pushing and supporting each other is fostering a creative environment that regardless for how long it lasts, will be looked back upon fondly in the future as a time and place that got it right, and set the bar for artistry and substance. Add on top of that already-established and influential artists like Jack White and Dan Auerbach, and Nashville is the place to be in 2013.
“Cowboy” Jack Clement and Bobby Bare Inducted Into the Country Music Hall of Fame
Yes, two very important players in the rise of country music’s “Outlaw” movement finally got their due this year, and it was especially timely for “Cowboy” Jack Clement who would pass away only a few months after the announcement. Though there is still a long list of worthy inductees that many fans worry will never get in, these two men prove that the Outlaws will not be forgotten, and move other important country music icons one step further to being inducted themselves.
If you feel like the Outlaws of country music have not been dealt a fair deal and they need need a new institution to give them the support and recognition they deserve, your wishes were granted in 2013 when it was announced there will be a new Outlaw Country Music Hall of Fame in Lynchburg, Tennessee coming soon. Nashville may have swept their legacy off the streets like common refuse, but at least somewhere the Outlaws will ride eternally.
If you desire more validation that 2013 is the “Year of the Song,” then behold the overwhelming breakout success of Jason Isbell in 2013. Bolstered by his manager Traci Thomas, a bulldog of the Thirty Tigers group, Jason Isbell is becoming the defining songwriter of our generation. If you ever wished you could go back and re-live the heyday of Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt in their prime, watching Jason Isbell and his 2013 tear is the next best thing.
With radio becoming less and less accessible through every measure of consolidation by Clear Channel and Cumulus, new outlets must open up to support independent music. And they are in 2013, and sometimes in the most uncanny places. David Letterman not only has been giving his stage over to artists like Dale Watson, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Pokey LaFarge, Shovels & Rope, and so many more, he’s been seeking out this talent to play his show as a fan of the music. Where big network TV debuts for independent artists seemed to be a thing of the past, now they seem to be a weekly occurrence.
On Monday night the Twitterverse blew up around the occasion of songwriter Jason Isbell recording an upcoming episode of Austin City Limits. The taping was streamed live online, and drew a remarkable amount of attention and praise from the online participants who took the time to tune in. Usually music confined to the online format is at such a distinct disadvantage, it is barely worth your time, and though Austin City Limits’ production value is world-class, this wasn’t what made the event special. Jason Isbell is quite the capable singer, and since he started out as a guitarist for the Drive By Truckers, it’s hard to denounce his musicianship either. His band The 400 Unit was sensational as well, and so was his wife Amanda Shires who sang and played fiddle for the set. But none of this is why the event became a singular experience for those who tuned in.
It was Jason Isbell’s songs and his songwriting that made so many online watchers walk away with one of those feelings you get after watching a stellar movie—where your mind gets so immersed in the experience it is hard to return to the real world. Jason’s songs are also why the event was able to cross traditional barriers of genre and taste. Jason Isbell is on a meteoric rise right now, and even though he finished off the night’s performance with a mostly instrumental cover of The Rolling Stones’ “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking,” Isbell’s ability to evoke story is at the center of his success.
Another artist who is seeing success in 2013 is Sturgill Simpson. I once dubbed Sturgill the “Stevie Ray Vaughn of Country Music” because of his incredible guitar playing. But one of the keys to Sturgill’s rise has been his decision to set the Telecaster down and retool his music to be more about his songs.
Everywhere in the independent music world you’re seeing songwriters who have struggled for years finally starting to get signed to record labels and releasing career-caliber albums: Valerie June, Caitlin Rose, Austin Lucas, Amanda Shires, and the list goes on from there, and they are all in the middle of this emerging and relevant rise of independently-minded Nashville songwriters that more established songwriters like Jason Isbell and Justin Townes Earle are the leaders of. Whereas other sectors of the music industry seem to be gripped by the fear that digitization and streaming may ultimately doom the business of music, talented songwriters are benefiting from the search for the next writer to break out with bold and fresh material, and a renewed belief by the independent industry that songwriting is important, even if it is marginally profitable. Nobody wants to pass up the next Jason Isbell.
The biggest divide between active and passive music listeners might be the conscious awareness of songwriting. Passive listeners just subconsciously connect with a song either physically or emotionally without giving it much thought, while active listeners attempt to determine why. Popular music consistently offering less and less choice and substance is not hindering this trend, it is enhancing it as many listeners are fleeing the mainstream ranks for more thoughtful music, and in turn are becoming aware of what truly makes a song worth hearing. Even ABC’s new prime-time drama Nashville broaches the subject of how songs are written on a regular basis—many times delving into great detail on the process—making consumers more enlightened and engaged about how a song is constructed and why songwriting is important.
The Nashville show has also become a new outlet for original songs as the industry attempts to address the dramatic glut of songwriter material worthy of a wider audience. Many Nashville songwriters in this new, up-and-coming crop were featured on the series’ inaugural season, including Caitlin Rose, Lindi Ortega, and Shovels & Rope. Sales of music may be declining sharply, but royalty rates, especially for songwriters whose material appears on television and movies, remain substantial. And this songwriter resurgence is not just confined to the independent music world. Even in the mainstream, songwriters with more substantive material like Kacey Musgraves and Ashley Monroe made their big debuts in 2013. David Letterman has been featuring more songwriters on his show, including ones who’ve never had a network TV break like Ray Wylie Hubbard, Dale Watson, and Pokey LaFarge.
For every era in music, there is a defining element that sets the standard of what is tasteful and relevant. It could be the presence of a powerful guitar riff, a certain style or tone to the music, a specific thematic thread like feelings of melancholy or happiness, or even a stylistic visual element that has little to do with the music itself. In 2013, in the independent music world and beyond, that defining element appears to be the well-written song.
Much ado has been made about Rolling Stone giving accused Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev rock star treatment by putting his mug on their latest issue. Though it’s a free country with free press and I would fight for the right of Rolling Stone to put whatever they want on their cover, here are some simple, friendly, and current alternative ideas of what could have graced the front of Rolling Stone‘s July 2013 issue.
A country music superstar who won wide cross-genre appeal despite his heavy traditionalist sound, and who’s currently in the struggle of his life after suffering a major heart ailment and subsequent stroke, who better deserves to be on the cover right now than Randy?
One of rock & roll’s most legendary bands just released a comeback record called “13″ that both critics and fans are raving about, produced by studio extraordinaire, Rick Rubin. This story is custom made for the Rolling Stone cover.
He just released a career album in Southeastern that has critics falling all over themselves. The former Drive By Trucker is beginning to be recognized as one of the great songwriters of our generation, and a Rolling Stone cover could help solidify this distinction and broaden his audience. (In fairness, their last issue did have a story on Isbell).
Mavis is a force of music nature who is seeing a massive resurgence in interest in both her work as a Staple Sister and a Gospel Goddess. She’s worked with folks as wide ranging as The Band, George Jones, and Ray Charles, and even made an appearance on a Johnny Paycheck tribute album. Mavis just released an album called One True Vine, and would be a good candidate to grace the Rolling Stone cover.
Because he’s Willie Nelson. And yes I know he’s been on the cover before. But again, he’s Willie Nelson. Nuff said.
Caitlin Rose & Country’s Inspiring Women
Rolling Stone justified their use of Tsarnaev on the cover saying that he was at an age that their readers could relate to. Well so is Caitlin; a young, budding starlet with a very interesting story of how her mom is the woman who helped write many of Taylor Swift’s hits. Caitlin’s music has a fresh and relevant take, and if Caitlin isn’t big enough for you, consider including all the women that have made a splash in country in 2013 that have many proclaiming (including former Rolling Stone senior editor Chet Flippo) 2013 the “Year of the Woman” in country music.
I don’t know if there is a neotraditional artist that has benefited from such a meteoric rise like Pokey LaFarge in the history of music. Pokey’s now got Jack White pushing him, and he just played Letterman. Pokey’s crossing genres, and surely deserves a bigger spotlight.
After all, Chet was a towering personality in music journalism, and called Rolling Stone home starting in graduate school, working his way up to Rolling Stone‘s New York Bureau Chief, and eventually to Senior Editor in 1974. He wrote books about The Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, David Bowie, and Hank Williams, and having passed away last month, could have surely been a worthy choice for the cover.
The Town of West, TX
If you want to delve deep into the anatomy of a tragedy, the toll it takes on a community and the psyche of its people, and end it with a positive statement on the resiliency of man, there’s no better example than here.
The People of Boston
For being courageous and persevering through and unspeakable tragedy foisted upon them unexpectedly.
“If there is one thing I can respect more than anything, it’s individuality in music. And I think back in the early era of country music that was so apparent. Like you could really tell your Johnny Cash from your Waylons from your Merles. They all had a distinct thing happening. And they were all really great at what they did. It was really important for me to etch out my own thing as a student of that.” — Lindi Ortega
Exquisitely antiqued and strikingly original, old school country singer and native Canadian Lindi Ortega is the northern emissary for country music’s current female revolution. A class act all around that is regarded just as highly for her self-penned songs as her heavenly (or devilish) voice, Lindi is a creative maelstrom that sends the room spinning from her ability to expose the most blinding beauty from life’s inherent darkness.
Now living in Nashville, and benefiting from some song placements in the new ABC drama series named after her new home, Lindi is starting to pack venues across the country, leaving a trail of broken hearts and positive buzz. After a rousing show at Austin’s most legendary listening room The Cactus Cafe on Monday (7-1), the gracious and arresting songwriter was kind enough to sit down and explain the inspiration behind her music.
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Trigger: There’s sort of two burgeoning movements in country music right now, and you’re part of both of them. Last year and this year we keep getting great albums from Canadians. How is it being a Canadian playing country music, as a perspective?
Lindi Ortega: I never really think about that when I do what I do. I just know what I listen to and what I’m inspired by. I don’t think about the fact that I wasn’t born in the southern United States and raised on a farm. I feel like maybe in a past life I might have been. That’s why it speaks to me. My mom was really into country music when I was growing up. She sort of planted the seed in my mind; a seed that grew into a great love and appreciation for especially old school country; you know Johnny Cash and Loretta Lynn, Waylon and all of them. So I don’t really think about the fact that I’m from Canada when I’m writing songs, or paying tribute or homage to that music. I just happen to be.
Trigger: You’re also part of this revolution of young, beautiful, talented women that are giving country a shot of substance and showing respect to the music’s roots. There’s a lot of people talking about 2013 as the “Year of the Woman” in country music. Names like Caitlin Rose and Kacey Musgraves are brought up, and so is Lindi Ortega as an example. Why do you think the women are outpacing the men right now as far as substance in country music?
Lindi Ortega: I don’t know, but I’m glad that it’s happening. It’s so great because when I started doing country-inspired music in Toronto, I didn’t know anybody who was doing it. I didn’t even hear it around me. Then the more I was doing it, the more I would hear about it. And then of course I moved to Nashville and it’s all around me. It’s so great that people are appreciating the old school way. It’s nice to know that that art of live off-the-floor recordings, and not a shitload of Auto-tune and fancy stuff is going on. I’m glad that’s not a dying art. And I’m glad that females are doing it.
Trigger: So back in Toronto, you’re playing music and you had the nickname “Indie Lindi.”
Lindi Ortega: I still do!
Trigger: So you’re playing this music, and you weren’t in a scene in Toronto of rootsy musicians?
Lindi Ortega: Yeah I was a little bit autonomous. I was kind of anti-social to a fault I guess. I just stayed in my room and wrote songs. I wasn’t really part of any scene. There was a scene. When I was doing music there was much more of an indie rock scene. Now it’s a bit different, there’s a little more variety there. But there’s wasn’t a whole lot of alt-country back then. Now it’s everywhere.
Trigger: Is that what you consider yourself? Because you said “country-inspired” before and you’re saying “alt-country” now.
Lindi Ortega: Well there’s so many labels for it and I don’t know I guess. Some people don’t think I’m country at all. And I guess if you’re listening to the radio, I don’t sound country. I like to say I’m very much inspired by old-school country. And what kind of country that is in this day and age in the modern era, I don’t know. Hey, you can call it whatever you want. As long as people are listening to it is all that’s important to me.
Trigger: Did Cigarettes and Truckstops feel like your breakout album?
Lindi Ortega: In a way, yeah. I feel like there were a lot of things that led to having successful shows. One would be the Social Distortion tour that I did; the crazy pairing with me and Social D and I did two tours with them and it exposed me to a wide audience. Amazingly they were very accepting of me and the music I’ve done. And of course the Nashville TV show, and having a few song placements on there helped.
Trigger: Have you physically seen a bump from the Nashville TV exposure?
Lindi Ortega: Yeah. People tell me at shows, “I heard your song on Nashville and I checked you out.” I think it’s amazing that it was able to resonate that way. It actually led to people coming out to shows which is great.
Trigger: Attractive women are not supposed to be as talented as you are. Usually if someone is strong in one suit, they’re not strong in another. You just don’t see a lot of beautiful women that are creative dynamos. (READ if this part of the question offends you.) Where does your motivation to make music that may not appeal to everyone come from?
Lindi Ortega: You’re too kind to me. I spent my whole day going, “I’m getting old!” But my motivation comes from my influences, and people that have stuck to their guns. I read a lot of biographies. If there is one thing I can respect more than anything, it’s individuality in music. And I think back in the early era of country music that was so apparent. Like you could really tell your Johnny Cash from your Waylons from your Merles. They all had a distinct thing happening. And they were all really great at what they did. It was really important for me to etch out my own thing as a student of that.
I don’t care about money. I honestly don’t. I don’t give a shit. I could stay at a shitty motel, I think it’s more fun. And I like riding in little vans and I love doing it that way. I think there’s a story in that, and I write songs that are stories and that tell stories. My influences inspire me to have integrity and to do what I love and be passionate about it. I don’t care about making millions or any of that. Of course if it happens, like everyone says it’s icing on the cake. But I’m happy doing what I do. I love what I do, and this is a beautiful existence for me. I get to tour. I get to go to different cities and see the world. I can’t imagine a better existence than this.
Trigger: Are you a road dog?
Lindi Ortega: I love it. I get antsy when I’m not on the road. I start to miss it and I can’t wait to get back out. It gets to a point where hotel rooms feel more like home.
Trigger: How do birds inspire your music and image?
Lindi Ortega: Yeah, I’m a bird lover. And recently I guess ravens have been my thing. But I love all birds. I have a tattoo that says, “Bird On A Wire.” It’s a Leonard Cohen song. The image of a bird on a wire and that whole song just speaks to me. Something about flying in the sky and that type of free existence resonates with me. I always think my style’s a little bit of Frida Kahlo meets Wonder Woman meets Johnny Cash. The Johnny Cash thing is of course the black thing. I always think of that movie and the line and the manager saying to him, “Johnny, why are you wearing black? You look like you’re going to a funeral.” And he’d say, “Well maybe I am.” And I was like, “Oh, that’s brilliant! I want to go to that funeral too!” I’m half Mexican, so that whole Dia de los Muertos thing, and dying and death and the whole fleeting of our existence is always running through my mind. And I don’t always think of it in a morbid way. I guess I think of it in the more Mexican way, the colorful aspect.
Trigger: You mentioned Frida Kahlo and I saw a picture of your guitar case and Frida Kahlo is all over it. How did she influence your music?
Lindi Ortega: Well I saw the movie a long time ago. That was the first thing that inspired me because she was such a character. And then I learned more about her life and read biographies about her. And I thought in the midst of all her emotional pain she was so full of life, and it was so interesting to me. And her art was so incredible. Her self-portraits I found most fascinating because the expression on her face I felt was very familiar to one I’ve seen in the mirror a couple of times; moments of loneliness and it spoke to me. I love her. I think she’s an incredible artist and a strong woman, an inspiration and I’m slightly obsessed, and I have a song about her on my next record.
Trigger: Speaking of that, is there any hints of new stuff that you can tell us? Do you have a new album coming out?
Lindi Ortega: I do. I have a new one coming out hopefully in the fall. I’m really excited about it. Dave Cobb was the producer. He did Secret Sisters and Jason Isbell. We had a blast, it was a lot of fun. Everyone that played on it was awesome.
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