New West recording artist Austin Lucas has just announced a string of new tour dates across the United States and a few stops in Canada, but this won’t be your garden variety Austin Lucas tour. Joining him on stage in acoustic collaborations will be mandolin extraordinaire Jayke Orvis, Jon Snodgrass (aka the “guy with the glasses’ from Drag The River), Canadian singer/songwriter Northcote, and Caleb Caudle for select dates.
“It’s just a play on worlds because most of us are kind of rocker dudes but we play obviously different degrees of roots music,” Austin Lucas says of the tour’s “Minimum Overdrive” name. “So I just thought it’s a funny name with all acoustic guitars because there’s no amps or drums, but I feel like we can still bring the rock atmosphere.”
Austin says Minimum Overdrive patrons can expect maximum collaboration.
“It’s definitely going to be the kind of tour where everybody is collaborating with each other, and playing on each other’s songs. Especially Jayke and I are going to be doing a lot of stuff as a duo, playing each other’s songs. Basically the tour started because Jayke and I had been talking about doing a tour together for about the last six months. And we decided if we were going to do dates together, we wanted to do as much stuff where we were playing together, doing sort of a Bill Monroe and Doc Watson type of duo. I mean obviously we are not as good as those guys, but those Smithsonian Folkways albums have always been dear to my heart and Jayke’s heart as well, and we just wanted to do a two-man duo thing. So we’re going to split it up to where we both do duo stuff together, play each other’s songs, and then we’ll both be collaborating with Jon Snodgrass, with Northcote, and with Caleb Caudle when Caleb’s on the tour.”
Austin Lucas has already toured extensively with Jon Snodgrass from Jon’s years in Drag The River. “Bringing John on was a really good idea because I knew that John and I have a lot of songs in our pocket that we can play together. I wanted to bring people on that I really respected, and knew I would have a good time collaborating with.”
“To be honest with you, I didn’t really think about if other people would have a good time with anybody else on the tour,” Austin says. “Very selfishly, I just wanted to bring people out that I really like and respect and want to play with. We are going to do all sorts of different things. We’re just going to play it by ear. I think all of use are ‘fly by the seat of our pants’ performers anyway, so I think what we’re really focusing on is just making sure all of us get an ample amount of time on stage, and we’re just doing what’s comfortable.”
Minimum Overdrive Tour Dates:
Wed/Oct-01 Detroit, MI Small’s
Tues/Oct-2 Toronto, ON The Cave at Lees Place
Wed/Oct-3 Montreal, QC Divan Orange
Sat/Oct-04 Philly PA Milkboy
Sun/Oct-05 Asbury Park, NJ Asbury Lanes
Mon/Oct-06 Boston MA Great Scott
Tue/Oct-07 Brooklyn NY St. Vitus
Wed/Oct-08 Richmond, VA Strange Matter
Thu/Oct-09 Durham, NC Motorco
Fri/Oct-10 Atlanta, GA Eddie’s Attic
Sun/Oct-12 Orlando Will’s Pub
Tue/Oct-14 Dallas, TX Gas Monkey
Wed/Oct-15 Austin, TX Mohawk
Fri/Oct-17 Albuquerque, NM Low Spirits
Sat/Oct-18 Phoenix, AZ Last Exit
Sun/Oct-19 Santa Ana, CA Constellation Room
Tue/Oct-21 San Fransisco, CA Thee Parkside
Thu/Oct-23 Portland, OR Dante’s
Fri/Oct-24 Seattle, WA El Corazon Lounge
Sat/Oct-25 Missoula, MT The Palace
Sun/Oct-26 Boise, ID The Shredder
Tue/Oct-28 Denver, CO Hi-Dive
Wed/Oct-29 Wichita, KS Lizard Lounge
Thu/Oct-30 St. Louis, MO Demo
Fri/Oct-31 Minneapolis, MN Nether Bar
Sat/Nov-01 Chicago, IL Township
Sun/Nov-02 Milwaukee, WI Linnemans
Whether you love The Civil Wars (who just announced they’re officially kaput), or you found their vocal acrobatics a little too fey, it was hard to not root for the singing duo when they showed up in the nominations for country music’s major award shows. They were the one act with more of an Americana, substantive approach that you could get excited for. Sure, their “Steve Vai of Vocalists” approach and hot-burning sets sung virtually the entire time with the duo staring into each other’s eyes seemed doomed as an unsustainable approach from the beginning, but it was fun for many while it lasted.
So who could step up of in the country music vocal duo space who could duel with the heavyweights of the mainstream, and offer more substance to that category like The Civil Wars did? Of course there will only be one Civil Wars and nobody will be able to replace them completely, but here are some ideas who could have a similar impact.
First Aid Kit
If there was ever a duo that was poised for a big push into the mainstream of county, and whose songs would immediately deliver an entirely new paradigm of substance and roots to the genre without compromising melodic sensibilities, it would be the Swedish sister duo of Johanna and Klara Söderberg. Their songs are screaming for more radio play and a wider American audience, and they are supported by stellar video releases and a major American label in Columbia Records. First Aid Kit could not only deliver country music the critical entree in the duo category it craves, they could also deliver country some much needed girl power. Like the Kacey Musgraves of singing duos, but without some of the political baggage and sedated performances that have somewhat saddled Kacey, First Aid Kit could become a big player in the space vacated by The Civil Wars. Of course the duo would have to commit more deeply to the North American market, but their potential as a commercial and critical powerhouse is definitely there, and their new album Stay Gold is the ideal springboard.
Shovels & Rope
As dubbed by Saving Country Music, Shovels & Rope is “The Civil Wars for the rest of us.” Where The Civil Wars seemed somewhat saddled by the eloquence and sentimentality, Shovels & Rope is rough, dirty, sweaty, ugly, and real. At the same time, they deliver the same heated passion in their music that made The Civil Wars so compelling, and unlike The Civil Wars, that passion isn’t pretend because Shovels & Rope are also true life partners. Though they probably don’t have the same widespread commercial potential as a project like First Aid Kit or The Civil Wars did, their strong grass roots network across the United States gives them a deep base to work from. At some point this Americana powerhouse graduating to the mainstream could do wonders for both spheres of roots music, and with their new album Swimmin’ Time scheduled to come out August 25th, this could be the moment Shovels & Rope step up their game from their already quick-won success.
The Secret Sisters
Just like First Aid Kit, everything is in place for this singing sister duo to step it up to the next level. Unlike many of the other duo acts currently residing in the Americana realm, The Secret Sisters enjoy the support of a major label in Universal Republic, and have found quite a bit of success under the auspices of super producer T Bone Burnett who worked with The Civil Wars in their collaboration with Taylor Swift. The Secret Sisters have the songs, and the spice that it takes to take a duo to the top levels, combining authentic country roots with contemporary styling that could reach and resonate with a wide audience if only given a chance. All that is needed for The Secret Sisters to explode is a deeper commitment from the industry. In the vacuum left by The Civil Wars, this could be the duo’s chance.
The Milk Carton Kids
The intimacy of The Civil Wars, and their ability to do so much with simply two voices and a guitar is what made them captivating to a wider audience than what regularly would transpire from such a stripped-down production. This is also the allure of The Milk Carton Kids, who like Shovels & Rope, have seen a meteoric rise in the Americana ranks. Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan may be a little too strange, a little too eepish for the wide ear compared to some of the other Civil Wars alternatives, but they certainly capture the vibe that made The Everly Brothers, Simon & Garfunkel, and the Gillian Welch & Dave Rawlings pairings a success that stretched into the sphere of mainstream acceptance. They also enjoy the support of ANTI records—one of the strongest of the independent labels.
The Church Sisters
Potentially the singing duo with the most upside potential because they’re still so young, sisters Sarah and Savannah Church from the coal mining region of Dickerson County, Virginia bring some of the most exquisite harmonies to their love for traditional country and gospel music. The fraternal twins have been making big waves in the traditional country, Gospel, and bluegrass circuits, and they certainly have the talent to take them to higher places in the future. Since their still somewhat in their developmental phase, the question of The Church Sisters is if they will develop a more original style or stick with standards, and if they will have enough secular material in their mostly religious music lineup to create the type of widespread acceptance they would need to take it to the next level. Either way, The Church Sisters will surely be making new fans across the country as long as they keep singing.
The Cactus Blossoms
Maybe not with the commercial potential of the rest of the field because of their fairly traditional bent, The Cactus Blossoms from Minnesota are nonetheless one of the most engaging and enjoyable vocal duos out there that deserve to discover a wider audience and greater success. Page Burkum and Jack Torrey have definitely tapped into that Louvin Brothers / Everly Brothers mojo with the ultra-tight harmonies and ear for styling that can send shivers down the back of your neck. The unsigned duo is certainly worthy of a wider ear.
Kelly Willis & Bruce Robison and their “Bruce & Kelly Show” is another interesting candidate for The Civil Wars replacement. The husband and wife duo might be a more established duo like Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings, but performing together specifically is a more recent incarnation for the Texas music royalty couple. With the backing of the strong base of Texas country listeners and a renewed spirit, Kellie & Bruce can do what The Civil Wars did, and then some.
Mandolin Orange and Carolina Story are other promising Americana duo.
The Urban Pioneers would be the underground roots entry into the singing duo that has the legitimacy of also being a real life couple. Cut from the cloth of Jayke Orvis’s now dissolved Broken Band, it will be enjoyable to watch how this duo develops.
Old Crow Medicine Show’s new album Remedy is the first album the string band has released since officially minting a #1 song in the form of Darius Rucker’s take on “Wagon Wheel”, and the first as the freshest members of the prestigious Grand Ole Opry. 2013 was a big year for the buskers, and the band has gone from riding praise from Doc Watson and the kind mentoring from David Rawlings, to entering some of the highest, and most regarded circles in the alternative country world. As a band that has achieved top industry recognition without compromising who they are, they have enough mustard to rub elbows with artists like Lucinda Williams and Rodney Crowell now, yet the vitality to feel like even better years could still be ahead.
As much as some independent music fans might want to shake their fists at Hootie, or cup their hands over their ears when “Wagon Wheel” comes on, or correct you when you attribute the song to Old Crow without mention that Bob Dylan had a hand in the track too, the simple fact is Old Crow Medicine Show’s “Wagon Wheel” has now become an American music standard in an era when music standards no longer exist. And along with this accolade, they’ve become one of the first traditional-oriented outfits to join the Opry in recent memory. No matter the unpleasantness in the mainstream overall, Old Crow Medicine Show has been responsible for a few promising chutes of life springing from the creatively-barren landscape, while still maintaining their underdog charm and independent spirit.
Are there string bands out there that are better than Old Crow Medicine Show? Sure, whether from a technical standpoint with a band like Nickel Creek, or an energetic standpoint with an artist like Jayke Orvis. And the more string bands you listen to (and there’s one on every corner these days), the more this becomes evident. But Old Crow Medicine Show is the band that showed up in Nashville and were able to maintain their true and original form of expression, and have it stick. The trendy string band craze of 2012 topped by Mumford & Sons came and went, and Old Crow Medicine Show is still here.
The one price Old Crow pays for the loyalty to themselves is that the range of expression as a busking band is limited. Maybe they can take a few stabs at some deeper material that shows off their songwriting side, but veer too far away from the history of the band and it could result in sneers. Since this is the case, most every Old Crow album lays out in a similar manner. You have your wild-eyed elbow swinging hoedown songs, your few moments of sedated songwriting material, and Medicine Show always seems to work in a song or two about the troops and other social issues, antiquated just right to fit their old-school style. This has made any new Old Crow project somewhat predictable from an approach standpoint. At least, this is what the critic inside me says. But the music fan inside me after a few rounds through this album can’t help but to feel the infectious joy embedded in these tracks, the humorous turns of language, and the fiddle burns that instinctively get you off your feet. It’s a tried and true formula for Old Crow Medicine Show because it works, and sends the spirit reeling.
The big press release story surrounding Remedy has been that Old Crow and Bob Dylan have collaborated once again. “Sweet Amarillo” constitutes the album’s first single and video, and as much as it seems like a gimmick to go back to the same well “Wagon Wheel” was drawn from, “Sweet Amarillo” is quite fetching, and may end up being the album’s most memorable track. Another tune called “Mean Enough World” works very much in the style of an old Dylan song, and combined with the speed and offbeat approach of Old Crow, it results in a track that shows off all the band’s best attributes.
Another cool track is “Doc’s Day”, referring back to the band’s earliest incarnation when Doc Watson discovered them and helped set the string band on the successful path they’re enjoying today.
Overall if this album has a theme or a muse, then the Volunteer State would be it. The Tennessee flag on the front cover was no happenstance. Many string bands like Old Crow who show up in Music City end up with Nashville in their rear view, a middle finger out the window, and their Tennessee flags burning. But as discussed above, the biz has been quite favorable to Old Crow, especially for the last little while. Almost as if to pay homage, they canonize many of the features of Tennessee and Nashville in the songs “O Cumberland River” and “Tennessee Bound”. Other songs not necessarily about Tennessee on the surface—like the somber “Dearly Departed Friend” about a fallen soldier that references Tennessee beating Georgia in a college football game—still hold Tennessee as an underlying setting.
Though I’m not sure how much the world is helped by some of their silly songs like “8 Dogs, 8 Banjos”, you can’t help but get swept up in the enjoyment of “Brushy Mountain Conjugal Visit” or “Shit Creek.” The album concludes in a “Seven Bridges Road” moment for the seven piece when they perform the sorrow-filled “The Warden” in stacked harmony. It may not be any “Wagon Wheel” in moneymaking muscle, but “The Warden” performance rivals any other of Old Crow’s recorded tracks.
Somewhat predictable, but very enjoyable, Old Crow Medicine Show’s Remedy continues their reign as America’s preeminent string band, while ushering in a new era of success and recognition that will see the band go down in history as an important influence.
1 3/4 of 2 guns up.
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Call them the underground roots house band or the underground roots All-Star Band, either way the super couple of fiddle player Liz Sloan, and upright bass player (and banjo player, apparently) Jared McGovern have comprised, and do comprise the backbone of so many hard-working, road-weary roots bands, it’s a wonder they have any time to breathe, let alone record their own album. But here they are dubbing themselves the Urban Pioneers and releasing Addicted to the Road: a primitive, rootsy, Appalachian-style record showcasing a lot of heart, all original songs, and surprising skill in songwriting from two players who are mostly known as sidemen.
Jared and Liz first met the day before Halloween in 2010 right before a gig with country music wild man Bob Wayne at Austin, TX’s infamous Hole in the Wall venue. Liz Sloan was already touring with Bob, and Jared McGovern saddled up with the outfit that night, and the rest is history. For a good while they stared at the back of Bob Wayne nearly every evening, criss crossing the country many times, and dashing over to Europe, while in between shows working with other bands like Filthy Still, sitting in on recording sessions with a slew of other outfits, and eventually amicably parting ways with Bob and becoming badasses in the world-class Broken Band that backs former Saving Country Music Artist of the Year Jayke Orvis.
When I first heard about the Urban Pioneers, I was a little worried. Sometimes when sidemen decide to slide over to stage center, it can be a little rough. Not that McGovern and Sloan showed chinks in their armor; in fact it’s quite the contrary. The latest evolution of Jayke Orvis’s Broken Band is one of the most premium displays of string band talent out there right now, pushing the respective players to perfect themselves beyond the natural-given skill sets in an awesome display of spellbinding adeptness. But can these two really sing and write their own songs and hold an audience by themselves? The answer conveyed through Addicted to the Road is “Yes”.
The key to the success of the Urban Pioneers project was their decision to take it in a primitive, old time country direction. It is perfect for the skills that Jared McGovern and Liz Sloan bring to the table, is complimentary of their strengths and weaknesses, while giving them the ability to mostly re-create what you hear on the album in the live context. The singing on this album isn’t perfect; it’s lacking a little bit of confidence with some of the songs. And while that confidence will come with time, the simple approach to the singing on the album actually fits the Appalachian style of being just a couple of pickers on a back porch playing home spun tunes, not really resulting in a detriment to the album, but bolstering its authenticity.
Addicted to the Road has some really great tunes that fit very well in the old time style with cadence, theme, and perspective. This is Ralph Peer type stuff, really clever and informed in how they choose their words, honoring the era of the music so the lyrics and musical style coincide. Some of the songs near the end get a little thin, but “Apparition In The Fog,” “Autumn Time,” “Ain’t Gonna Work,” “Izzy’s Song,” “Liz’s Reel” and others are excellent little compositions written sincerely and arranged well.
There’s a lot of Hackensaw Boys and Foghorn Stringband in the Urban Pioneers approach: authentic, energetic, while resisting the urge to pass completely into the punk roots realm. There’s also a cool change-of-pace in the song “Broken Down” that features James Hunnicutt on electric guitar, and more of a Dave Dudley, hard country sound. Not a perfect project, but an excellent start, very fun to listen to, and makes me really look forward to what the Urban Pioneers might cook up in the future.
1 1/2 of 2 guns up.
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The Urban Pioneers are currently on tour. Cover by Lou Shields.
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)
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)
It’s been nearly 5 years since songwriter, performing artist, and pioneer of underground country J.B. Beverley released his last album with the country band The Wayward Drifters, and now he’s finally back with a new record, but it’s not with The Wayward Drifters, or exclusively a country project. Instead it’s a very introspective and conceptualized work that touches on many sonic shades referring to Beverly’s wide musical palette that he’s explored with various projects he has been a part of over the years.
Since Stripped to the Root and some of its songs might lend to a little curiosity or downright confusion, we decided to place a call to J.B. to get his take on what people can expect from Stripped to the Root. The entirety of the 20-minute interview can be heard below, and the meat of the interview is transcribed below that.
There’s been some big news here lately. A good Outlaw country artist named Wayne Mills has passed away. Did you know Wayne very well, and if so what did his music mean to you?
I didn’t know Wayne very well in the big scheme of things, as far as for a long time. The joke we made when we were hanging out in Altamont [at the Outlaw and Legends tribute concert] was that we knew of each other a lot longer than we’ve known each other. But he impacted my life in a great way, both personally and musically. An amazing, from the heart and from the gut songwriter, very pure, very true to his personality and cultural roots. And as a man, he’s was as stand up of a guy as I’ve been around since I can remember. He was a really remarkable person that was taken out of this world too early, that’s for sure.
You’ve said about your new album Stripped to the Root that it’s not a country record; that there’s some country stuff included, but it’s not a Wayward Drifters record which is your country band. Explain to folks what the idea and inspiration is behind the album, and what they can expect.
The album was sort of a happy accident. It wasn’t something that I planned to do. I had the same band in the Wayward Drifters for a long time, and Johnny [Lawless] took a temporary retirement from the road, Dan Mazer my banjo player had moved to the West Coast, so for the first time in a decade I found myself without a band and some time to kill. And I was going through some really tumultuous personal stuff. My long-term girlfriend of several years and I had split up, a couple of my friends had passed away, my dad had taken ill, and I left Virginia and moved to North Carolina. But through all of this, what became Stripped to the Root basically was a collection of songs both that I had written, or either heroes or friends in some capacity had written that were helping me get through that time.
The best way to put it is that it’s not so much a record, or if it is a record, it’s a concept record. And to look beyond that, a good friend of mine named Cameron Romero who’s a filmmaker said it best, he said, “This is less an album in a conventional sense, and more a soundtrack to the last three years of your life, which is very bold and very naked.” There’s a certain vulnerability to this record. Every song is very personal. This album was very cathartic for me. It was something that I had to do, and something I don’t think I could ever do twice.
What made you decide to release Stripped to the Root through the Rusty Knuckles label?
I have a lot of love and respect for the folks at Farmageddon, but it wasn’t working out the way I wanted it to. I really wanted the album to come out, and the Rusty Knuckles folks offered me finishing funds and a means of really promoting the album and getting it properly distributed, and really just wanted to see it happen as bad as I did. At the time I’m sitting here with medical bills and legal bills, plus my fans have gone since 2009 without a Wayward Drifters record. I had to do something. I couldn’t wait another six months or a year. I really had to move on it. And so it really came down to just having to get it out, and doing what was best for the record and for the fans.
You say these songs are really personal to you, so let’s talk about a couple of them. The first one “Disappear On Down The Line” has been out there for a little while. It’s a song that has spoken to a lot of people. What was the inspiration behind that song?
That song, and the song “Stripped to the Root,” I kind of call them sister songs in a way. They were both written on the same night. And they were the two songs that led to my concept behind the record. So I can thank both of those songs for being the springboard. The actual story behind “Disappear On Down The Line” is pretty much transliterated through the lyrics. 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.
“Disappear On Down The Line” and “Stripped to the Root,” both those songs, I wrote those songs to avoid picking up my pistol and doing something real stupid. There’s no real other way to put it. I’ve never been a suicidal type, I’ve never tried it, I’ve never threatened it, I’ve never really entertained the idea. But at that point in my life, I was so down and out, I did find myself sitting there staring at my pistol. And the instant that I felt that way, I knew I had to get it out of my system or I was gonna die. So I penned those songs in an effort to get through that night and keep from doing something stupid. And the beautiful part is that I’ve been able to treat the execution of this record as a catharsis, as in the sense that you have all these negative feelings and all this stuff weighing on your ticker and spirit, and if you’re able somehow to leave it in the art work, leave it in the song, then it no longer haunts you.
There’s another song “All The Little Devils” co-written by Ronnie Hymes…
Yeah, Ronnie is singing on it as well. I was working on that song, and Ronnie had just come by my studio to visit, and he made a couple of lyrical suggestions. And after his second or third suggestion that I actually liked better than what I had written, I just said, “Okay man, I’m going to use your words and you officially co-authored this song with me. So it kind of came about impromptu. It was really organic.
And what’s the message you’re trying to convey with “All The Little Devils”?
I’ve seen a transition in music in recent years. I’ll give you an example. I loved what Hank3 did with Straight to Hell. I felt in a very real way it was a concept record with a very honest depiction of where his heart was at the time. But what I saw in the aftermath of the popularity of that record has been a wide variety of bands that are basically trying to cash in on the whole “drinking, drugs, Satan, let’s raise hell.” There’s a time and place for all that. I like to have a good time. I’ve fucked up many things in my life. I’ve not always been a great person. But at the same time, I don’t understand why a lot of these people feel the need to celebrate being a degenerate, to celebrate having no honor. I just don’t get it.
Like I say in the song, I’m not saying I’m any better. I’ve made many of those same mistakes. The difference is I learned over the years, and I no longer celebrate it. It ain’t me trying to force feed my politics or spiritual beliefs on anybody. I’m not trying to put anybody down. I’m all for people trying to reflect their feelings, and their sentiments, and their dreams however they choose to. But the problem is that there’s got to be more to it. You can’t have all Saturday night without Sunday morning. You’ve got to have some inner reflection. You’ve got to have that honest look in the mirror and say, “Am I choosing to be a decent person, or am I choosing to serve that lower order? Am I choosing to corrupt and corrode?”
You’re also a renegade studio owner now. What are some of the projects you have done, or may have coming up with Rebel Roots Studio?
The first thing I ever did was the last Wayward Drifters album Watch America Roll By in 2009. I did Jayke Orvis’s first record It’s All Been Said, and I did Owen Mays’ first record. Matt Kellie and the Idle Americans. Husky Burnette’s album I engineered, produced, and played bass on. Carolina Still’s album. Man, there’s been a bunch. Me and Buck (Thrailkill) have been staying pretty busy since I’ve been down here. It was sort of a default thing. I had to reconfigure my lineup, I had to take care of some family stuff, I couldn’t tour like the way I had been, so I figured the logical thing was if I can’t do what I’ve been doing for the next year or so, at least not full time, and there’s no work to be had here, you might as well use one of your other skills. And I had been doing recording before I moved to North Carolina, but Buck and I stepped up the workload once I got here because I wasn’t touring as much. So I sort of defaulted into it.
One of the great things about roots music is its Gothic legacy of cautionary tales, ghost stories, murder ballads, messages to the infirmed, and other such methods of macabre that allow country and roots artists to paint in dark colors when they so choose. This makes roots music one of the best realms to draw from when putting together your Halloween playlist. Here is a list of some of the artists who dabble in the dark side of country and roots.
The things that hide under beds, in closets, and eerily disappear when you shine a light their direction are what conspire and collaborate to create the inspiration for Lincoln Durham and his dark tales of murder and inner mayhem, belted out with a voice that can meld like a shape shifter and carries behind it the soul of 1000 black men. A conjugation of deep blues, Gothic country, and dark folk, Durham fits nowhere and everywhere in the music world all at the same time. Halloween is tailor made for Lincoln Durham’s music, and so is his recently-released album Exodus of the Deemed Unrighteous.
You can’t get more Halloween and country than the “Kang” of Country & Western Troubadours that happens to also be a 300-year-old vampire. Unknown Hinson has what you need to keep your country-themed Halloween soundtrack rolling by blending a classic country sound with his creepy, blood-thirsty pursuits of “womerns” that always seems to take the darkest of turns. After saying in 2012 he was done for good, the man who also is the voice of the character Early Cuyler from Cartoon Network’s Squdbillies announced he was back from the dead, and will be touring regularly. Unknown’s alter ego Stuart Daniel Baker also happens to be one hell of a guitar player.
The Bloody Jug Band
When you have The Bloody Jug Band to listen to, you can celebrate Halloween all year. Similar to Unknown Hinson mentioned above, they make their dark music doubly entertaining by instilling humor into it. But The Bloody Jug Band is no bit. Their debut album Coffin Up Blood was a nominee for Saving Country Music’s 2012 Album of the Year from the creativity and innovation they display though music that is dark and funny, but also shows how roots music can evolve while still paying respect and residing within its heritage.
Lonesome Wyatt & The Holy Spooks
There’s nothing better for Halloween than a good ghost story, and Lonesome Wyatt & The Holy Spooks have a whole catalog of them, including the freshly-exhumed album released just for this season called Halloween Is Here, complete with ghost stories and songs molded in the classic Halloween album style. Parental guidance would be strongly suggested, but some of Lonesome Wyatt’s songs and stories even work well for kids. And for all your year-round gloomy needs, look no further than Lonesome Wyatt’s other Gothic country concept, Those Poor Bastards.
Like a foreboding raven who sits high on her perch and caws out her cautionary tales of murder, deceit, and a world gone mad, Rachel Brooke’s music is dark as it is wise. From ghost stories to murder ballads, Rachel has Halloween covered, with numerous songs from her catalog ripe for the witching hour. Another spooky project worth dropping in your trick or treat bag is the collaborative effort with the aforementioned Lonesome Wyatt called A Bitter Harvest.
The Slow Poisoner
Halloween was made for The Slow Poisoner, and The Slow Poisoner was made for Halloween. As equally creepy as he is creative, this comic book writer and illustrator haunts the San Francisco public schools as a substitute teacher by day, and puts on one of the most entertaining live one man shows you can see by night, complete with big creepy cue cards and other live props while he peddles his Egyptian oils and other wares through his dark music.
Sons of Perdition
From the disturbed imagination of Zebulon Whatley comes one of the core bands of the modern Gothic country era. Similar to Lonesome Wyatt and the Those Poor Bastards (who’ve been known to collaborate with the Sons of Perdition in the past) Zebulon draws heavily on religious dogma mixed with a dark perspective for inspiration. The Sons of Perdition’s ghastly hymns are enough to keep the ghosts haunting you all night, and released a new album Trinity last year.
The Goddamn Gallows
If you like your roots music dark, it doesn’t get any darker than The Goddamn Gallows. With their old soul tales from a scarier time, The Gallows are like a freak medicine show set to music, or a haunted carnie ride rattling off its tracks and plunging you into a deep, dark place where only the most unsettled of thoughts go. Complete with pounding drums and a washboard player that breathes fire, these guys are like the soothsayers of the Apocalypse.
Other Dark Roots Bands Ripe for Halloween:
- Pine Box Boys
- The Haunted Windchines
- Those Poor Bastards
- Slim Cessna’s Auto Club
- Jay Munly
- Ray Wylie Hubbard
- Johnny Cash
- Nick Cave
- Slackeye Slim
- Viva Le Vox
- Black Jake & The Carnies
- The Perreze Farm
- The Slaughter Daughters
- Lindi Ortega
- Tom Waits
- Jayke Orvis & The Broken Band
- Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers
- Larry & His Flask
- Shakey Graves
- .357 String Band
- Joe Buck Yourself
- O’ Death
- The Dinosaur Truckers
- Creech Holler
- Reverend Glasseye
- The Devil Makes Three
- Dad Horse Experience
- Joel Kaiser & The Devil’s Own
- Jesse Dayton
- Walter Sickert and the Army of Broken Toys
- Pinebox Serenade
- Filthy Still
- Serial Killer
**NOTE: The image from the very top is from a now out-of-print dark roots compilation called Rodentia.
The underground country movement initially formed around the mid 90′s not because somebody launched a website or a record label. It wasn’t because of a festival or because someone came up with a special name for a new genre. It wasn’t because some personality who was bestowed a famous name took the reigns and began promoting music. The strength, the support, and the fervor that went into forming underground country and the bonds and infrastructure that is still around today came from the songs artists were writing, recording, and performing; songs that spoke very deep to the hearts of hungry listeners. In the end, all leadership and must come from the music. A good song will solve its own problems. Like water, it will eventually find a path to thirsty ears, and funnel support to the artist and infrastructure that surrounds it.
This isn’t necessarily a list of the greatest underground country songs, or even the most influential. It is simply 12 songs that were so good, they helped create something where there was nothing before.
Wayne “The Train” Hancock – “Juke Joint Jumpin’”
Wayne Hancock is one of the fathers of underground country, and he’s also the King of Juke Joint Swing, so it’s only appropriate to include one of his signature songs here. The very first song on his very first album Thunderstorms & Neon Signs from 1995, it made listeners wonder if they were hearing the ghost of Hank Williams. Later Hancock would perform the song as a duet with Hank Williams III.
Hank Williams III – “Not Everybody Likes Us”
Hank3 has probably written better songs, but not that speak to the spirit of underground country so well. “Not everybody like us, but we drive some folks wild” epitomizes the philosophy behind the country music underground—that it doesn’t matter if the masses like your music, only if you and your friends do. Add on top of that a big dig at country radio, and “Not Everybody Likes Us” has become a rallying cry of underground country music.
.357 String Band/ Jayke Orvis – “Raise The Moon”
This song is so good, it has been released twice, been played regularly by three different bands, and still is not tired. Written by Jayke Orvis, “Raise The Moon” originally appeared on the .357 String Band’s first album Ghost Town in 2006. When Jayke Orvis left .357 for a solo career and a spot in the Goddamn Gallows, the song appeared on the Gallows’ album 7 Devils. 7 years later and the song still remains a staple of Jayke’s live show, and a defining sound of underground country.
The Boomswagglers – “Run You Down”
Authenticity is such an unattainable myth in modern music these days that it is nearly impossible to find a truly original and untainted sentiment. But that is what The Boomswagglers serve up with “Run You Down.” It is one of those songs that immediately sticks in your head and stays with you for a lifetime. Defying style trends, it is simply good, and its story, like much of The Boomswagglers music, is deceptively deep. Songs like this withstand the test of time.
Hank Williams III – “Straight to Hell”
The title track off of Hank3′s magnum opus Straight to Hell from 2006 was the “hit” of underground country if it ever had one. It has risen to become one of Hank3′s signature songs, and he regularly uses it to start off his live shows.
Bob Wayne – “Blood to Dust”
Bob Wayne may be best known for his wild-assed party songs laced with drugs, loose women, and running from the cops, but that doesn’t mean he can’t write a deep song when he wants. As Bob will tell you, every word in this song is true, and the personal and poignant nature of the story makes it very hard to not be affected emotionally when it is listened to with an open heart. “Blood to Dust” speaks to the broken nature of many of underground country’s artists and fans. The song appears on Bob Wayne’s very first album of the same name, and his first big release Outlaw Carnie on Century Media.
JB Beverley & The Wayward Drifters – “Dark Bar & A Juke Box”
Underground country isn’t just a sound, it is a sentiment; a feeling that something is wrong in country music, and something needs to be done about it. This is the foundation for the title track off of JB Beverley & The Wayward Drifter’s 2006 album. At the time JB Beverley may have been better known for fronting punk bands. But unlike many of the underground country bands that would come along later, blurring the lines between punk and country, JB Beverley serves “Dark Bar & A Juke Box” up straight, in a sound that refers Wayne Hancock’s throwback style.
Wayne “The Train” Hancock – “Johnny Law”
If “Juke Joint Jumpin’” is Wayne Hancock’s signature song, then Johnny Law is his defining jam. This song has become a showcase for some of the greatest musicians in the history of underground country during the extended breaks for both the guitar and upright bass player. It might also go down in history as one of the most requested songs in underground country.
Dale Watson – “Nashville Rash”
For a precious time in the late 90′s ans early 2000′s, the triumvirate of Wayne Hancock, Hank Williams III, and Dale Watson looked like they were going to take the country music world by storm. It was because they were willing to speak out, and lead by example, both sonically and lyrically. Dale is still leading today, and his legacy of country protest songs like “Nashville Rash” still gets you pumping your fist.
Rachel Brooke & Lonesome Wyatt – “Someday I’ll Fall”
Rachel Brooke, The Queen of Underground Country, and one of the founding fathers of Gothic country, Lonesome Wyatt from Those Poor Bastards, teamed up in 2009 for the landmark album A Bitter Harvest. The album, and specifically the song “Someday I’ll Fall” symbolize the collaborative spirit inherent in underground country—where two artist come together to become greater than the sum of their parts. “Someday I’ll Fall” is also a great example of taking old school influences and embedding them in a new, fresh approach.
Joe Buck Yourself – “Planet Seeth”
One of the men responsible for helping to revitalize the hallowed ground of lower Broadway in Nashville in the mid 90′s delivers this bloodletting of a song where the audience is actively encouraged to release their hate in Joe Buck’s direction. Though the language and music may be too hard for most, the concept and execution of “Planet Seeth” is nonetheless genius. It embodies the participatory aspect of underground country, where the crowd is as much a part of the show as the artist, giving back in energy what they receive from the performer in a symbiotic relationship.
Wayne “The Train” Hancock – “Thunderstorms & Neon Signs”
Few songs can evokes mood and reminiscent memory like Hancock’s “Thunderstorms & Neon Signs.” It set the standard for the old-school style of country swing that was so seminal to the formation of underground country. The song’s legacy was cemented when Hank Williams III covered it on his first album Risin’ Outlaw, introducing Wayne Hancock to a whole new audience, and vice versa. “Thunderstorms & Neon Signs” helped cement the underground country movement.
I actually come from the camp that believes that if Mumford & Sons weren’t so popular, more core roots fans would respect them. But it is really hip to hate and undervalue Mumford right now. Let’s hope that the current backlash doesn’t hurt every band with a banjo, because there’s many great string bands out there that and mix high energy and heartfelt songs into the string band concept.
Devil Makes Three
The West Coast’s preeminent string band for years that has garnered a massive underground following, Devil Makes Three is finally getting the recognition and large crowds their music has deserved since they started in 2002. The trio was one of the first to bring a punk attitude to string band music, and with a new Buddy Miller-produced album coming out soon, they only promise to find more fans.
The Dirty River Boys
If you’re looking for a Mumford-like alternative from the Texas music scene, The Dirty River Boys from El Paso have the high-energy, heartfelt songwriting thing covered and then some. Like so many successful Texas bands, they’re able to balance substance with sensibility to bring real music to a wider audience.
Larry & His Flask
One of the most dynamic, off-the-wall live acts you can see, Larry & His Flask launched themselves into the wider consciousness when traveling on the Warped Tour in 2011, and continue to leave fans gasping for breath from the sheer madness they evoke on stage. If energy and showmanship is what you’re looking for from your string band, look no further than Larry & His Flask.
They’re no longer officially around, and they’re still better than Mumford & Sons. The .357 String Band broke up in late 2011, but they left behind a legacy of some of the most full-tilt string band music you will find. They were the pinnacle of speed, skill, and songwriting in string band music.
Split Lip Rayfield
Never given enough credit and regularly overlooked, Wichita’s Split Lip Rayfield was one of the very first bands to infuse string band music with punk. Formed in 1995 and releasing their first album with Bloodshot Records in 1998, the band has seen a decline in output and touring over the last few years after the death of founding member and guitarist Kirk Rundstrum, but remain one of the biggest treasure troves of high octane string band music.
If there is a legacy band in the throwback old-time string band concept, it is these guys. Just invited to become Grand Ole Opry members and now with a #1 song to their name in the form of Darius Rucker’s “Wagon Wheel” cover, Mumford & Sons could and burn like a fad, but Old Crow Medicine Show is here to stay.
Founding .357 String Band member Jayke Orvis has taken his solo project into hyper drive lately, and has himself one of the most well-orchestrated string bands pushing well-written material. Like many underground roots bands, Jayke Orvis suffers from a lack of outside recognition, but their talent rivals any other string band at the moment.
The Hackensaw Boys
Given credit as one of the very first bands of the current string band revolution, Hackensaw Boys member David Sickmen and former member Rob Bullington had a band called the Route 11 Boys with Ketch Secor and Chris “Critter” Fuqua who would later go on to found Old Crow Medicine Show. Hackensaw Boys have been sort of a proving ground for musicians, including Tom Peloso who went on to join indie rock group Modest Mouse. Most of the string bands you speak to will list The Hackensaw Boys as a big influence.
Since they ostensibly are one of the primary influences of Mumford & Sons and their original concept can be seen all throughout Mumford’s approach, it’s only appropriate that The Avett Brothers are included here. The Avett’s were one of the very first bands to evolutionize string music and give it a shot of punk energy, and to bring it to an audience outside of the traditionally-defined roots world.
The Foghorn Stringband
One of the most traditionalist-style string band’s in the recent uprising, but one who proves that style and craftsmanship can outlast speed or over-sentimentality in songwriting when the music is done right.
Trampled by Turtles
Another band that has seen big success from the rise in popularity of string music, and just sits below the big boys like The Avett Brothers and Old Crow Medicine Show in draw. Trampled by Turtles can pick as fast as anyone, but tend to favor the songwriting aspect more in their most recent album.
More String Bands Better Than Mumford & Sons: Carolina Chocolate Drops, The Calamity Cubes!, Yonder Mountain String Band, The Tillers, Carolina Still, The Pine Hill Haints, The Dinosaur Truckers, Gators in the Sawgrass, Chatam County Line, The Gourds, The Pawn Shop Saints, and…
2013 has come on strong here recently for quality albums, with some real contenders for the coveted “Album of the Year” distinction released just in the last week. Any “Best Of” album list for 2013 is also going to reflect the leadership and creativity displayed by country music women, which has become one of the year’s underlying themes so far.
PLEASE NOTE: This list only includes albums that have already been reviewed by Saving Country Music. There are many other excellent albums sitting in the review que, for example John Moreland’s In The Throes that many are hyping as an Album of the Year candidate. And please feel free to leave your opinions and suggestions about what are the best albums of 2013 so far down below.
The Mavericks – In Time
“Some bands like to espouse themselves “defying genre,” when many times this is just a front for lacking a musical compass or an original sound, hoping disparate elements will meld together simply from the uniqueness of the experience. That is not the case with The Mavericks. Every one of their songs is a country song. Every one is a Latin song. And every one is rock n’ roll, all the way through. It’s because their influences overlay each other in parallel layers instead of being haphazardly mixed together. They aren’t a blend of genres, they’re every classic genre all at the same time.
“This is not just a great album for The Mavericks, it is a great addition to the American songbook as an example of the melting pot of cultures that have come together to birth some of the most vibrant and compelling music heard by man.” (read full review)
Sturgill Simpson – High Top Mountain
“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.
“Emerging from the coal region of Kentucky, to working on trains in Utah, to Nashville, TN to tackle the nasty business of trying to make it in music, Sturgill’s path has been windy, but like the stitches on the cover of High Top Mountain, it has lead to a sunny ending of seeing the realizations of his dreams—dreams that we all benefit from in the form of a great new gift of country music.” (read full review)
Caitlin Rose – The Stand-In
“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.
“It’s really hard to look at this album and not see it as a springboard. This is Caitlin Rose’s moment. She’s no stand in, she’s an A1 girl. Caitlin Rose is in full bloom on The Stand-In.” (read full review)
Jason Isbell – Southeastern
“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…It’s potent enough that it doesn’t need additional content to keep you entertained for longer because even when you walk away from it, the songs are still playing in your head, and the emotions it conjures are still ripe.
“Completely unfair Isbell, completely unfair. And selfish too. You should have saved some of these songs for others.” (read full review)
Eric Strickland – I’m Bad For You
“Eric Strickland is Country with a capital ‘C’ and couldn’t make a bad album if he tried. He may be more locally-oriented than the other big names in honky tonk music, but gives up nothing to his more well-known comrades when it comes to cutting songs and records….At the heart of Strickland’s appeal is his ability to take what on the surface may seem like tired, clichè country themes, and give them a fresh, new feel.
“Real deal, true blood, hard driving, but daring to be sweet in moments, Eric Strickland and The ‘B’ Sides are doing their part to save country music. Now it’s time to do your part by giving them your ear and attention.” (read full review)
The Dinosaur Truckers – The Dinosaur Truckers
“Can four dudes from Germany make American roots music and still be authentic? Do they have the ear, the personal history, the DNA, the dirt under their fingernails to do what American-based string bands do, or will they be forever relegated to being once removed from the American musical experience? If The Dinosaur Truckers and their new self-titled LP are any indication, the answer would be “Ja! Natürlich!”
“German or not, The Dinosaur Truckers give up nothing to their cross-ocean string band brethren, and maybe could even teach a thing or two to some of the awful punk-gone-country string bands who bring the energy and anger, but not the songwriting and attention to detail. The Dinosaur Truckers are the full package.” (read full review)
Jason Boland & The Stragglers – Dark & Dirty Mile
“If Red Dirt spans a wide sonic palette that ranges from hard country to straight rock n’ roll—with alt-country, country rock, Southern rock, and even some country pop thrown in between—then Jason Boland is the hard-edged bookened defining Red Dirt’s country border. In other words, it is pretty difficult to be more country than Jason Boland and the Stragglers.
“You know what you’re going to get from a Jason Boland show and a Jason Boland song. Dark & Dirty Mile continues on with that consistency and strength, and assures that as Red Dirt grows and ages, Jason Boland & The Stragglers will still be one of the movement’s premier acts, and one preserving the country roots in the Red Dirt legacy.” (read full review)
Jayke Orvis & The Broken Band – Bless This Mess
“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…” (read full review)
Holly Williams – The Highway
“Before this album, I’d been mostly opinion neutral on Holly Williams. Being the granddaughter of Hank Williams, the daughter of Hank Jr., and the sister of Hank3 appointed her music the respect of more than a cursory look. The pedigree runs too deep in that family to handle her otherwise.
‘The Highway’ puts Holly Williams smack dab in the middle of this revolutionary crop of young women that threatens to completely shake up the country music world and mindset. Along with Kacey Musgraves, Caitlin Rose, and Ashley Monroe, Holly Williams now has a career-caliber album that exemplifies the leadership and creativity coming from country’s young women.” (read full review)
Other Notable 2013 Albums So Far
- Wayne Hancock’s Ride
- Ashley Monroe’s Like A Rose
- Carolina Still’s The Color of Rust
- The Carper Family’s Old-Fashioned Gal
- The Ten Foot Polecats Undertow
- Willie Nelson’s Let’s Face The Music & Dance
- The Deadstring Brothers’ Cannery Row
- Rattleshack’s Rattleshack
- Fifth On The Floor’s Ashes & Angels
- Son Volt’s Honky Tonk
- Nellie Wilson’s Not This Time
- The Highballer’s Soft Music & Hard Liquor
- Olds Sleeper’s Before & After The Here And Now
- Ray Lawrence Jr.’s More Raw Stuff
- Dale Watson’s El Rancho Azul
- Jimbo Mathus’s The White Buffalo
- Daniel Romano’s Come Cry With Me
- Roger Alan Wade’s Southbound Train
- Amber Digby – The World You’re Living In
- Kacey Musgraves – Same Trailer, Different Park
For years we took for granted that the mainstream music industry was in a calamitous free fall, spiraling towards cataclysmic implosion. We were so sure of this diagnosis, we used it as the crux of all our music theories. Then lo and behold, the industry figured out how to pull out of the tailspin, and independent artists that years before we’d never dream of seeing getting big breaks began to get noticed. Hellbound Glory has been out on arena tours. Sturgill Simpson is touring with Dwight Yoakam. The Alabama Shakes are playing SNL, Shovels & Rope is playing ACL, and everyone is playing Letterman. All of a sudden it’s not appropriate to be so sullen about the direction of music.
But if you’re looking for an act that is still virtually unknown, one that is buried deep in the underground and that embodies the raw energy of the roots movement and not just a commercially-viable watered-down derivative, one whose active ingredient still works on even the most hardened of roots addicts, then Jayke Orvis and The Broken Band might be your drug.
A founding member and the mandolin player for the groundbreaking .357 String Band, Jayke Orvis may have taken a long and windy road to finding his way in the music world, but if his current sonic output is any evidence, he has found his path, and it is righteous. What made the .357 String Band so singular was that it was four dudes testing the very limits of human ability with instrumentation, while positively debilitating you with the emotion of their songwriting. When Orivs was undutifully released from .357 (the band eventually disbanded in late 2011), he became more of a singer/songwriter type of performer, sometimes favoring the guitar over his mandolin.
As the name alluded, Jayke’s “Broken Band” was a hodgepodge of plug-in players that all did dutiful jobs, but never had the stability to congeal enough to hone in on everything that the music could be. Orvis himself was a revolving member of the Gothic roots outfit The Goddamn Gallows, and regularly borrowed from their players for his Broken Band on dual Orvis/Gallows tours. The collaborations were enthralling and memorable in their own right, but never allowed Jayke the intimate focus on his own music that it needed to realize its true potential.
Jayke finally declared earlier this year that he was taking his last tour with the Gallows, and trained his attention solely on a solid, permanent Broken Band lineup that includes guitarist James Hunnicutt, and former Bob Wayne Outlaw Carnies’ Liz Sloan and Jared McGovern on fiddle and upright bass respectively. With stability and a shared vision of making a band around Jayke’s music, but one where all musicians are treated as equal, Jayke Orvis & The Broken Band have re-captured the fervor and spellbinding performance aspect that made the .357 String Band such a force of music nature. If anything, The Broken Band may be taking it a step further with a deeper attention to composition, pushing all four players to the edge of their abilities, and the edge of human capability itself, balanced by slow and mid-tempo songwriter material.
Jayke Orvis & The Broken Band are the underground roots equivalent of the Punch Brothers, and are one of the top tier performers of the underground sub-genre. But as Jayke explains, he’s not looking for recognition from the Americana Music Association or berths on arena tours with big country names. “I want to open for Slayer,” Jayke told me right after their live set at Austin, TX’s Scoot Inn on 5/06. “Well I mean that may be a little hard now, but I want to show punk and metal kids that roots music can be cool.”
As the overall roots world seems to be benefiting from a rising tide, it’s not hard to wonder if some of the best of the underground are being left behind, and how long this rising tide will last before the popularity arch begins to fade. Jayke Orvis is one of those artists who has stuff that could catch fire. He’s one that could benefit when roots fans conclude that Mumford & Sons just doesn’t have the mustard to hold their attention long-term.
Jayke Orvis & The Broken Band recently released their 2nd album, Bless This Mess on Farmageddon Records. His first album It’s All Been Said constituted the formation of that record label. Though the album has officially been out for a while, you won’t find it on Amazon or iTunes. You can’t stream it on Spotify or Pandora. I secured my copy at a live show, and was told there was only a few more copies left in their merch bag before they would be able to restock in a few days. A good problem to have in some respects, but one that makes the outreach of the music problematic when people can’t get it.
Bless This Mess didn’t have a well-promoted release date, if any true release date at all. No promotional push paralleled its availability. No review copies were sent out to independent music outlets, including Saving Country Music which named Jayke Orvis its 2010 Artist of the Year. In 2013, statistics show that for every song bought, 100 are streamed, and that albums that are streamed for free prior to their release sell more copies. To not make an album available at all digitally puts the album and the artist at an unparallelled disadvantage. This does not necessarily mean this is neglect on the part of Jayke or his label. All of this very well may be on purpose, and I’m sure it will be available digitally eventually. But the point of releasing music is to get it in as many hands as possible, and an artist holds no more potent promotional tool than when they release an album.
When I loaded Bless This Mess into my computer, the tracks were unmarked. I got “Unknown Artist” and “Unknown Songs” with the track times and numbers. If the idea is that this is an underground approach to releasing music, this is somewhat misguided. Jello Biafra was such a genius because he was able to get his music right beside the music of big labels in record stores by doing it the right way. Legions of hopeful artists with awful music release albums every day that in no way reach the quality level of Bless This Mess, but get more attention because they’re released the right way. You want to know what so much popular music sounds so bad? Because some people are willing to understand the correct approach. Jayke Orvis’s music is too good to put limitations on it by not following the easy and well-established modes of how to release an album.
The counter-point is that Jayke’s fan base is so loyal, all these concerns are silly. But the goal of any artist, even one that is not driven by fame or money, is to attain a healthy sustainability that hopefully factors in at least some moderate growth.
Though Bless This Mess seems like it may be one step behind where Jayke & The Broken Band are right now with their live show, it still boasts some excellent arrangements and performances, and a wonderful lineup of both originals and covers. Hank’s “Kaw-Liga,” Ralph Stanley’s “Bound to Ride,” and The Weary Boys’ “Pick Up The Steam” round out a remarkable set of well-interpreted renditions. Banjo player and part-time Broken Band member Joe Perreze also offers up one of the albums standout instrumentals in “Clankertown.”
This all leads into Jayke’s original material. Whether its blazing instrumentals like “Murder of Crows,” or more singer/songwriter-style material like “West Wind,” and what may be the album’s legacy track “Crooked Smile,” Jayke Orvis shows himself as one of the premier purveyors of Gothic-infused American string music worth a wide ear and critical acclaim. And let’s not gloss over that Jayke also scores well on the intangibles. With the way he presents himself and his stage presence, he has that essential charisma to hold an audience captive, while at the same time the humility to defer to his players and make it more about the music than himself.
Jayke Orvis & The Broken Band is a name that deserves to be ready on the tongue whenever folks query for names of top flight string bands to check out. But it will only get there if at least cursory attention is paid to the promotional side of things. Making good music isn’t enough. Marking track names on albums and distributing an album digitally is the easy part. The hard part is making music that touches you on a human level, and does so in a pioneering way, and this is what Jayke Orvis & The Broken Band do with almost unfair effortlessness.
Two guns up on the Jayke Orvis live show
1 3/4 of 2 guns up on Bless This Mess
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The Farmageddon Records family suffered a grave loss last week when Richard Laferte II unexpectedly passed away Saturday, January 5th while visiting family and friends over the holidays in his home state of Maine. Richard, who was living in California with his wife of 4 years, Holly Atkinson Laferte, moved to Maine in 1983, and grew up in the Bangor area. Richard was involved in Little League baseball and youth hockey, and graduated from John Bapst Memorial High School in 1999. He was part of the YMCA Leader’s School, and received the Fellowship Cup during his last year in attendance.
Later in life Richard Laferte was a tireless friend of music and a right hand man at Farmageddon Records, helping to promote bands on the label’s roster and others in the underground and independent roots world. On Thursday, January 10th, music friends from all around the country trekked to the Peakes Hill Lodge in Dedham, Maine just southeast of Bangor to pay their respects and return the music favors Richard had bestowed to them over the years. Following a formal time of remembrance, the gathering turned to celebrating Richard’s life through music.
The celebration included the reunification of 3 original members of the .357 String Band, Jayke Orvis, Derek Dunn, and Joseph Huber. Though all 3 members have moved on to solo careers in music, this is the first time all three men were together since Jayke Orvis left the band in June of 2009. Other musicians in attendance were Graham Lindsey, James Hunnicutt, St. Christopher, and Braxton Brandenburg from the Ugly Valley Boys. Darren and Johnny Wrong of Farmageddon, as well as many other close friends and family were also in attendance.
Richard A. Laferte II was 31. Along with his wife Holly Atkinson Laferte, Richard is survived by his parents Dick and Debbie Laferte of Bangor.
Folks wanting to contribute to Richard’s family are asked to make a donation in his name to the Bangor YMCA Leader’s School in his name, Bangor YMCA 17 Second St., Bangor, ME 04401.
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.357 String Band Reunites for Richard Laferte:
Left: Richard Laferte. Right: Richard in YMCA Leaders School
Richard Laferte in the crowd at the Muddy Roots Festival 2011.
Original members of .357 String Band reunite for Richard
James Hunnicutt pays tribute to Richard.
Pictures from Richard Laferte celebration by Darren of Farmageddon and Braxton Brandenburg.
Where 2011 felt like a high water mark year for live performances and an average year for recorded projects, 2012 feels vice versa. When I look back on 2011, it seemed like there were moments I experienced that I will never top the rest of my life. 2012 is the year that some albums and songs were released that may never be topped. Still there were a quite a few memorable performances worth noting.
Unlike Saving Country Music’s other yearly awards, since omnipresence isn’t an attribute I posses, this is simply based on my own experiences, not meant to capture the overall pulse of the live events that transpired all year. And please consider that even though I may have attended events like Pickathon, The Muddy Roots Festival, or SXSW, I was unable to catch every performance, or enough of certain performances for it to feel fair to include them here. If you feel there is an omission, please share it with the rest of us below.
15. The Calamity Cubes – XSXSW 5 – Austin, TX
Usually in music you get the raw, primal, gut punching experience, or you get the introspective, heartfelt, cerebral experience. The Calamity Cubes are one of those few live performers who can deliver both. They put on a great set at the Muddy Roots Festival in Tennessee as well, but their XSXSW performance in a more intimate, tight-knit setting rose to being something special.
Kody Oh! doing a bass stand in the center of the crowd:
14. Jayke Orvis – Stage 2 – Muddy Roots Festival
Jayke Orvis is always a crowd favorite, and Jayke and the crowd were pretty miffed when the sound crew pulled the plug on them at 2-something in the morning. But sometimes the worst situations breed the most memorable moments, and that’s what happened when Jayke and his Broken Band hopped into the crowd and kicked it acoustic style, sound guys be damned. Other highlights of the set were JB Beverley singing “Streets” with Jayke from his album It’s All Been Said, and Rachel Brooke singing her duet with Jayke “Hold Me Tight” from the .357 String Band’s magnum opus, Fire & Hail.
13. L.C Ulmer – Stage 2 – Muddy Roots Festival
L.C.’s friend Robert Belfour deserves praise for the craziest performance story of 2012. Crashed out on the highway from the torrential rains of the tropical storm that had made its way to middle Tennessee, Robert hopped into the tow truck and told them forget the car for now and point their nose to the Muddy Roots site, he had a gig to play. He showed up late, but he showed up, with the tow truck driver carrying his amplifier and guitar.
Meanwhile during the delay, L.C. Ulmer laid down one of the baddest-assed extended sets of blues music all weekend, chicken hopping across the stage and playing guitar behind his back. It was one of the most surprising sets of music I saw all year.
12. Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band – Stage 2 – Muddy Roots Festival
The first time I ever saw Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band live I straight up walked out. Too much chicken and fried potatoes for me. Granted, I was mainly there to see Austin Lucas who opened the show, and it was at the armpit of Austin music venues–the now condemned and shuttered Emo’s. But nonetheless after 15 minutes, I was done.
Rev. Peyton did something in 2012 though. He figured out the right formula for his music, both recorded and live. And his set at Muddy Roots was sheer madness from downbeat. It culminated in the crowd throwing handfuls of hay up in the air while Washboard Breezy lit her washboard on fire in a mad scene I will never forget, and neither will drummer Aaron “Cuz” Persinger who has an acute hay allergy and had to rush off the stage after the last song to keep his lungs from collapsing.
Audio sucks in the video below, but you get the drift.
11. Lake Street Dive – Workshop Barn – Pickathon
After seeing them perform at Pickathon’s “Pumphouse”–a small shack isolated in the woods where bands go in and make top notch videos for the site Live & Breathing–I made a vow to catch their set on Sunday at Pickathon’s Workshop Barn. Right up there with Thee Oh Sees, Lake Street Dive from Boston was one of the new take-aways for me from 2012 Pickathon. Though maybe a little more polished and jazzy for traditional Saving Country Music fare, their style and musicianship was enthralling and made me a fast fan. After their last Workshop Barn song, they got the biggest ovation I think I have ever seen for a live performance, possibly ever. I was afraid the floor was going to cave in.
10. Thee Oh Sees – The Galaxy Barn – Pickathon
Yes I know, not really country. At all. Though I would say there’s some serious roots influences at play here. Regardless of what you want to label them, Thee Oh Sees are a force of nature in the live context, and it is about time that they busted out of their San Francisco scene to find a place in the greater music consciousness. They are sonic craftsmen (and craftswoman) who seem to understand intuitively how to tickle all the nerves that make your mind and body submit to music and make you wiggle around like an unruly child. Thee Oh Sees are a must see.
9. Bob Wayne – The Continental Club, Austin, TX & Muddy Roots
Three times in 2012 I was regaled by Bob Wayne and his Outlaw Carnies, but there was something special about the night at The Continental Club. Seeing him in one of Austin’s most legendary venues, and with probably his best Outlaw Carnie lineup yet in Ryan Clackner on guitar, Lucy B. Cochran on fiddle, Elmer on bass, and with a full-time drummer in the lineup for the first time, they laid down an ass whooping of a set. This is where I realized that Bob Wayne had completely separated himself from the crowd of crusty, post-punk screamo bands with banjos to become a professional touring act capable of breaking into the next level. Like his music or not, Bob Wayne has arrived and can put on one hell of a show.
Picture from Muddy Roots:
8. Lucky Tubb w/ Don Maddox – Johnny B’s – Medford, OR
Lucky Tubb is not just another famous name. He’s bursting with authentic, classic talent, and wields one of the best voices in country music by combining cadence and style. Sometimes discipline can keep this from being evidenced in full force, but when he’s on, he’s on. And he was on Halloween night and so was his excellent band, with the added bonus of sharing the stage with the legendary, 90-year-old Don Maddox of the Maddox Brother & Rose. (see videos and full review)
7. Slim Cessna’s Auto Club/Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers/The Goddamn Gallows – Muddy Roots Festival
I can’t say enough about these bands, and at this point I’m afraid to say anything more from fear of coming across as redundant. Every year when I talk about live bands, they topped the list. And they will continue to top the list of bands you must see, except for Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers who at least for the moment are no more, giving you even more reason to make sure you see these bands live any chance you get because you may not get another. Slim Cessna’s Auto Club, Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers, and The Goddamn Gallows are as good as it gets live.
Col JD Wilkes of Th’ Shack Shakers:
6. Joe Buck Yourself – Stage 1 – Muddy Roots Festival
One of those “you had to be there” moments when Joe Buck, surrounded by a sea of his fans chanting every word of his songs, created one of those magical moments of musical camaraderie.
5. Austin Lucas & Glossary – The Mohawk – Austin, TX
This is a touring combination I had wanted to catch for a long time. To hear Glossary is one thing. To hear Austin Lucas is another. And then to hear them together is completely something else. It is two autonomous music acts that you swear were built to compliment each other. There is no better way to experience Austin Lucas than with Glossary behind him, and there’s no better band to hear before Austin Lucas than Glossary. It is because they both build their music from the songs out, but still give such great attention to the live performance, and their styles of roots and rock take the same approach and blend perfectly.
4. Sturgill Simpson – The Rattle Inn- Austin, TX
I’ve been open about my reservations about the retooled Sturgill Simpson following the dissolving of his previous band Sunday Valley. Putting an acoustic guitar in his hands seemed like such a travesty after experiencing Sturgill in the raw with the electric guitar and the country music power trio. But however exciting it was, it was a hollow experience for Sturgill in the long run. Many songwriters covet the idea of being listened to instead of heard, but Sturgill actually has the talent to have one of his best tools taken out of his hands and still command an audience. Now Sturgill is making you listen, betting himself to see if he can hush a room, and winning that bet. (read full review)
3. Anderson Family Bluegrass – Scott Valley Bluegrass Festival, California
“People first, then music” is the mantra on this site, and it is such a blessing when you discover people who are just as inspiring as the music they make. Such is the case with the Anderson Family Bluegrass Band from Grass Valley, CA. Hovering above the fray of most stock family bands and stock bluegrass bands, there is a realness to their music that sets them apart. Yes, their set lists include many standards you would expect from any bluegrass band, but then they’ll completely surprise you with some spice, like Iris Dement’s “Our Town” or Hank Williams III’s “D Ray White.”
I went to the Scott Valley Bluegrass Festival hoping to catch the Anderson Family’s set and shake their hands, and the Anderson Family ended up making me feel like one of the family for the weekend (Trigger Anderson, if you will). The music is excellent, but this is just the excuse to get you to pay attention to the profound warmth and by-gone family strength the Anderson Family conveys. (read full review)
2. Restavrant – Stage 2 – Muddy Roots Festival
There are two types of primary music experiences: visceral and carnal. Uh yeah, this one would be firmly ensconced in the carnal category. A Restavrant set is like a physical, violent assault on your personage that in some weird, masochistic way you addictively crave. I don’t think I still have fully processed exactly what happened on that stage. But rest assured, if I had another chance to see these chaps perform, I’d blow paychecks and cross state lines to put myself in harm’s way and let them run me over like a barreling Mack truck again and again. Restavrant has always been an amazing live experience, but with the addition of drummer/junk smasher Tyler Whiteside, it’s downright out of control.
1. Ralph Stanley – Stage 2 – Muddy Roots Festival
It goes without saying that any time you get to see a true music deity on stage, it will be memorable. Sometimes when this happens, especially with a performer in their 80′s, you have to go in knowing the performance itself may not be the greatest, that they’ve aged beyond their abilities, which will happen to us all. What made Ralph Stanley’s set at the Muddy Roots Festival so memorable is how his band had really thought out how to take a legendary performer who was probably is no longer fit to put on a full set of music himself, and still make you feel like you were taking in a performance from him in his prime.
But true music lovers live for those extremely rare moments when everything comes together, the sky parts and the world hushes, and the very fabric of human experience bends to the will of a truly magical musical moment. That my friends is what unfolded when Ralph Stanley stood in the center of the Muddy Roots stage looking out across a disheveled, soaking wet sea of rednecks and post-punk refugees who all fell as silent as the day after the end of the world when Ralph Stanley recited “O’ Death.” Your goosebumps got goosebumps. And for that brief moment, all of it, all of the reasons we live and struggle, the importance of friends and family and community, and everything we do to ensure music is a part of our lives, the sacrifices, the money, the travel, all came into full reflection.
The underground country movement started roughly in the mid 90′s on lower Broadway in Nashville that at the time was a run down part of town. Young musicians from around the country, some from punk backgrounds, came together from their mutual love of authentic country music to create a counterbalance to the pop country that was prevailing on Music Row a few blocks west.
Underground country started with mostly neo-traditionalists like Wayne “The Train” Hancock, Big Sandy, and Dale Watson, but spread to the punk and heavy metal world through acts like Hank Williams III and Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers. This list does not just consider the appeal of these albums, but also the influence they had on other underground artists and albums, and on country music and music in general.
Please understand that this list is just for underground country albums. This means artists better defined by the Deep Blues like Scott H. Biram or Possessed by Paul James, or Texas artists like James Hand or Ray Wylie Hubbard, or country artists who may work on the fringes of underground country but would not necessarily be considered underground like BR549 or Roger Alan Wade, are not included. Americana acts are not included. This is strictly underground country’s opportunity to bask in the spotlight.
Please feel free to leave your own list below.
16. The Boomswagglers- Bootleg Beginnings – 2011
This very well may be the most authentic album of music put out in the modern era for any genre. The Boomswagglers have always been and continue to be more myth than reality, with original Boomswaggler Lawson Bennett long gone and a cavalcade of replacements shuffling in an out with Spencer Cornett. Even if they never put out another album, The Boomswagglers made their mark, and it is a deep one.
“The music is wildly entertaining and deceptively deep. If you’re going to be a Boomswagglers song, someone’s got to die, and likely a woman. Some may find this silly, monotonous, or even offensive, but you have to listen beyond the lyrics, and unlock the carnal wisdom that is hidden in these songs.” (read full review)
15. JB Beverley & The Wayward Drifters – Dark Bar & A Juke Box – 2006
Dark Bar & A Juke Box was an instant underground country classic, and so was the anti Music Row song that the album got its name from. JB and his Wayward Drifters grit out a superb selection of songs displaying taste, restraint, and a sincere appreciation for the roots of country music, which may have surprised some who knew JB more for his work with heavy metal bands like The Murder Junkies and the Little White Pills. Dark Bar & A Juke Box also boasts appearances from the famous son and grandson of a country music royal family, who due to contractual issues had to work incognito (wink wink).
14. Lucky Tubb & The Modern Day Troubadours – Del Gaucho – 2011
Some (including Lucky himself) may point to Hillbilly Fever as being the seminal Lucky Tubb album with its big budget and appearances by Wayne “The Train” Hancock. But Del Gaucho is where Lucky Tubb came into his own, found his sound, and the unique musical flavor only he has to offer the world. Dirty, rowdy, rocking, but still steadfastly neo-traditionalist country, Del Gaucho scores off the charts when it comes to style points. When you’re talking about some of the greatest neo-traditional country albums and artists of all time, Lucky Tubb and Del Gaucho deserve to be in that conversation.
13- Bob Wayne & The Outlaw Carnies – Blood to Dust – 2008
They say you have your whole life to write your first album, and what makes Bob Wayne’s Blood to Dust so special is how true and touching he told his life’s story through song. His subsequent albums aren’t too shabby either, but with signature songs like “Blood to Dust”, “Road Bound”, and “27 Years”, this still stands out as his signature album, and a signature album of the underground country movement. It was performed, produced, and recorded by an all-star cast of contributors that included Donnie Herron, Joe Buck and Andy Gibson, and brought Bob Wayne out from behind-the-scenes as Hank3′s guitar tech, and made him one of the movement’s most well-known songwriters and performers.
12. Jayke Orvis – It’s All Been Said – 2010
This is the album that launched Farmageddon Records, and that launched Jayke Orvis as a formidable, premier front man in underground country. One of the founding members of the now legendary .357 String Band, Jayke was asked to leave the band because of irreconcilable differences and almost immediately began touring with The Goddamn Gallows and trying to make this album happen. The result was a slick, tightly-crafted LP showcasing excellent songwriting and instrumentation. From ballads to blazing instrumentals, Jayke Orvis has proved himself to be one of the singular talents of underground country roots.
11. Lonesome Wyatt & Rachel Brooke – A Bitter Harvest – 2009
This album was destined to become an underground country classic. The mad genius music mind of Lonesome Wyatt of the Gothic country duo Those Poor Bastards has the uncanny ability to procure the absolute most appropriate sounds to evoke the desired dark mood in his music. Then you combine that with one of the best voices not just in underground country, but in all of music in Rachel Brooke, and magic was bound to happen. The creativity on A Bitter Harvest is spellbinding. More of an artistic endeavor than a toe tapper, Lonesome Wyatt and Rachel create a soundtrack to human emotion and despair. For people looking for a place for country music to evolve, A Bitter Harvest shows how you can take authentic country themes and an appreciation for the roots of the music, and envelop it in layers of textural color culled from the wide experience of human sounds.
10. Justin Townes Earle – Midnight At The Movies – 2009
Midnight At The Movies was Saving Country Music’s 2009 Album of the Year. Today it would be difficult to characterize Justin Townes Earle as underground country because the quality of this album launched him into the inner sanctum of Americana.
“Justin Townes Earle has done an awesome thing with this album; he has figured out a way to unite all the displaced elements that make up the alternative to mainstream Nashville country, while still staying somewhat accessible to the mainstream folks as well. You might even catch the bluegrass folks nodding their head while listening to it. Folkies like it, and there’s a few tunes blues people can get into. This isn’t just the REAL country album of the year, it is the “Alt-country” album of the year and the “Americana” album of the year.” (read full review)
9. Slackeye Slim - El Santo Grial, La Pistola Piadosa – 2011
“Every once in a while, an album comes along that changes everything. It’s an album that inspires other albums, and dynamic shifts in tastes and approach throughout a sector of music, while at the same time dashing the dreams of other artists, as the purity and originality are way too much to attempt to rival. Slackeye Slim’s El Santo Grial, La Pistola Piadosa is one of those albums.
“El Santo Grial is a masterpiece, exquisitely produced, arranged, and performed. This is a patient, uncompromising album. You can tell time was never introduced into this project as a goal. The goal was to flesh out Slackeye’s vision without ever settling for second best, and that goal was accomplished.” (read full review)
8. Wayne “The Train” Hancock – That’s What Daddy Wants – 1997
Thunderstorms & Neon Signs is the Wayne Hancock album most people gravitate towards as their favorite because it was their first, and the first to showcase Wayne Hancock’s unique blend of country, Western Swing, rockabilly, and blues. But pound for pound, That’s What Daddy Wants is just as good of an offering, boasting some of The Train’s signature songs like “87 Southbound” and “Johnny Law”. Wayne Hancock has never put out a bad album, and distinguishing between them is difficult. But it’s not difficult to say that the underground country movement would have not had as much class if That’s What Daddy Wants hadn’t seen the light of day.
7. .357 String Band – Fire & Hail – 2008
“They were all the absolute best possible musicians you could find at their respective positions, each challenging each other, pushing each other to keep up with the band’s demands for artistic excellence in both instrumental technique and creative composition.
“Listening back now at Fire & Hail, with so much talent in one place, no wonder the project was untenable, and no wonder the respective players have moved on to become their own trees instead of respective branches of the same project. Still, the loss of .357 String Band may go down as underground country’s greatest tragedy.” (read full review)
6. Hank Williams III - Lovesick, Broke, & Driftin’ – 2002
BR549 and Wayne “The Train” Hancock spearheaded the neo-traditionalist movement in the mid 90′s, but Hank Williams III was the one to carry it into the oughts and introduce it to a brand new crop of fans he brought along from his dabblings in the punk/heavy metal world. After having to tow the line somewhat for his first album Risin’ Outlaw, Hank3 was unleashed and able to showcase his own songwriting, heavily influenced by Wayne Hancock and Hank3′s famous grandfather, but still all his own. His voice was wickedly pure with a heart wrenching yodel and commanding range. The songwriting was simple, but powerful. This is a masterpiece, and remains an essential title of the neo-traditionalist era.
5. Hellbound Glory – Old Highs & New Lows – 2010
Hellbound Glory had already been around for years, but they burst into the underground with this magnificent, hard country album highlighted by head man Leroy Virgil’s world class songwriting. Despite the “hell” in their name and the hard language in their songs, Hellbound Glory hadn’t gone through any retooling as post punk refugees. They were pure country through and through and Old Highs & New Lows combined excellent Outlaw-style bar stompers and ballads with some of the most wit-filled songwriting since Keith Whitley. As far as honky tonk albums go, it may be years before this one is trumped. And when it is, it might be Leroy Virgil and Hellbound Glory doing the trumping.
4. Dale Watson – Live in London…England – 2002
Dale comes out on stage and starts slinging guitars, cutting classics, and speaking the truth. Before Dale was the hometown boy and house band for Austin, he was pissed off and willing to sing about it. Dale’s anti-Nashville classics “Real Country Song”, “Nashville Rash”, and “Country My Ass” can all be found here, but Live in London isn’t all pissing and moaning. Songs like “Ain’t That Livin’” showed off Dale’s superlative voice and suave style. Honky tonk albums are sometimes hard to make because it is hard to capture that live, sweaty energy in the recorded context. So what better way to solve that problem than making a live one? Live in London remains the best Dale album to date.
3. Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers – Cockadoodledon’t – 2003
This was one of the first albums to bust out of the burgeoning music scene on lower Broadway in Nashville where one can argue the undergorund country movement started. It showed the world what kind of mayhem could be created by mixing country, blues, and punk music together without compromising taste and soul. It is the album which acts as a guidepost to the eclectic, yet intuitive and inter-related mix of influences that you will find in underground country: honest to goodness appreciation to the roots of American music, with a punk attitude and approach. And if you ever wondered why Joe Buck is considered part of underground country, appreciate that he played most of the music on Cockadoodledon’t.
2. Wayne “The Train” Hancock – Thunderstorms & Neon Signs – 1995
There are two albums that you can look back on an make a serious case that if they did not exist, underground country music may not exist–the album below this one on this list, and Wayne Hancock’s Thunderstorm & Neon Signs. There are two types of music artists: originators and imitators. Sometimes imitators can be very successful, and very creative artists themselves. But it always takes the originators to set the plate for the imitators to do what they do. Thunderstorms & Neon Signs was an original album from one of America’s most original country roots artists of all time. It doesn’t get much better or more influential than this.
1. Hank Williams III – Straight to Hell – 2006
This album isn’t underground country’s Red Headed Stranger. It isn’t underground country’s Honky Tonk Heroes. It is both. It is the album that both was a novel concept, a breakthrough sonically and lyrically, and had a massive impact on the business side of music, for artists winning control of their music and inspiring and showing artists how to do it themselves. The deposed son of country music royalty had taken on a major Nashville label, and won, and all while being one of the first to successfully bridge the energy and approach of punk and heavy metal music with traditional country, all while keeping the music solidly country in nature.
It was the first album to be put out through the CMA with a Parental Advisory sticker. It was the first to ever be recorded outside of a traditional studio setting. Of course only a select few were paying attention, but it broke through many barriers that to this day have changed music in significant ways, sonically and behind the scenes.
The approach also had wide-ranging impacts outside of underground country and country music in general, to rock music and punk and heavy metal, inspiring thousands of rock kids to put down their electric guitars and AC/DC records, and pick up banjos and Johnny Cash records. The impact on mainstream music may have not been seen, but it was felt, and just like all great albums, it’s legacy will grow and be more appreciated and understood as the future unfolds.
Rachel Brooke is one of the few select artist with enough mustard to rise out of the ashes of the country music underground and become a force in the greater roots world. Like an early Emmylou Harris, the music industry should be shuttling her across the country to lend her singular vocal texture to other projects in between putting out excellent solo albums that time finds hard to forget.
The first thing that must be said about A Killer’s Dream is that it’s a blues album. And when I say “blues” I’m not talking about Deep Blues, or punk-infused blues, or country blues. I’m talking the type of straightforward 12-bar blues where the first line repeats itself; the most common progression you think of when you think “blues.”
But this isn’t something far outside of what was heard from the original country bluesmen like Hank Williams and Jimmie Rodgers. And people who think this is a wholly new direction for Rachel (who I’ve dubbed “The Queen of Underground Country” in the past) aren’t versed on her early material like “Bottle Tippin’ Blues” and “Blackin’ Out” that were similarly based deep in blues modes.
Florida duo Viva Le Vox was hired on as the house band for A Killer’s Dream, and I can’t say enough about the taste they brought to this record. These songs afforded them so much space, and they had so many opportunities to walk all over Rachel’s voice or hijack the attention. Instead they laid back and listened, letting their musical wisdom guide them in creating a foreground for Rachel to be framed in, while still somehow imbibing the album with their distinct Viva flair and macabre.
And Viva is just the start of the instrumentation. The amount of textures A Killer’s Dream touches on is impressive: Saw, 30′s jazz horn sections, kettle drum and xylophone just to name a few. The approach to A Killer’s Dream can only be described as “bold.” It’s also an audiophile’s dream. Recorded live to 2-inch tape and not touched by computer until mastering, A Killer’s Dream conveys tremendous warmth and presence.
A Killer’s Dream cracks the speakers with the haunting “Have It All” that isolates and showcases Rachel’s singular attribute–her voice that I once heard best described by mandolin player Jayke Orvis as, “Carrying so much pain.”
After this succulent little bit of audio melts into a reverberating pool reminiscent of Rachel’s landmark collaboration with Lonesome Wyatt called A Bitter Harvest, the album starts in earnest with the bluesy “Fox In A Henhouse”. Immediately your ears train on that Viva Le Vox flavor I alluded to above, and right when you’re ready to accuse this song of being cliche with it’s line, “There ain’t no devil in my heart, ’cause I ain’t a man,” Rachel slays you with the payoff, “But there’s been one in my kitchen, she’s been cooking with my pots and pans.”
It’s always risky to release a second version of a song, but in the case of “Late Night Lover”, the listener is rewarded with a bolstered, energized interpretation that employs trumpet and timpani and an attack to Rachel’s voice in the chorus that both trump the previous version, and make you appreciate the previous version more for its simplicity.
The Fats Domino cover “Every Night About This Time” took a little time to warm up to, but what drew me in was the “oh-oh-oh-oh’s” Rachel sings. They set the table for the 50′s-era vibrations Rachel works with on later offerings like the solid “Only For You” and the title track, “A Killers Dream”. The quivering and cursed “The Black Bird” with its choir of saw shrieks breeds a sense of fear and despair frosted with a vintage patina.
One possible issue with A Killer’s Dream is how many times Rachel goes to drink from the straightforward blues well. Also the middle songs on this album–the stripped down, acoustic “Life Sentence Blues” and the droning “Old Faded Memory”–act sort of like a speed bump on the momentum. Lonesome Wyatt of Those Poor Bastards singing in a higher register than most of us have heard before makes “Old Faded Memory” something special from a sonic standpoint. But the story meanders, the music is sort of flat, and at nearly 7:00, it tests the will.
Individually, the blues songs like “Life Sentence Blues” and “Serpentine Blues” aren’t bad, but in an album that sonically is so diverse, the structure of the blues numbers begins to feel burdensome.
All of these sins are atoned though when Rachel offers up the gem of A Killer’s Dream, the Beach Boys-inspired title track. Possibly Rachel Brooke’s best song ever from a compositional standpoint, the usually reserved Rachel takes risky, daunting leaps and sticks the landings remarkably well. Aside from just being fun and a wholesale change from what we’re used to from Rachel, the writing on this song is its best attribute, which can’t be overlooked for how actively the song pulls you in from a visceral standpoint. This song “makes” this album, proves Rachel’s versatility and musical prowess, while at the same time being completely ridiculous and silly.
How to grow and evolve yet still hold on to what makes you unique and who you truly are is the balance all artists must attain to continue to move forward. Rachel shows she’s up to these alchemical feats in A Killer’s Dream, and proves that she’s musical gold, worthy of the attention of the greater Americana / roots world.
Two guns up.
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“A Killer’s Dream” video that just premiered on CMT Edge:
In 2008, a fledgling Saving Country Music named its first “Album of the Year”. The award went to the blazing punk bluegrass band from Milwaukee, the .357 String Band, and their magnum opus Fire & Hail. Then on New Years Eve of 2010, Saving Country Music announced its “Top 10 Albums of the Decade” in all of country music, and Fire & Hail made it on that list too.
There is no harsher critic, nor more revealing force in music than time. Time reveals all warts and washes away any help from trends and current tastes. But here nearly four years later, no revisions need to be made, no clarifications are called for. Fire & Hail remains a preeminent, timeless release, and one of the most important ever in underground country, surpassed possibly only by Hank Williams III’s Straight to Hell.
.357 String Band put out 3 excellent albums before officially calling it quits in November of 2011. But Fire & Hail is where banjo player Joesph Huber revealed himself as a brilliant songwriter of marksman first-class caliber. It’s where mandolinist Jayke Orvis revealed his depth of composition, from penning one of the band’s signature songs “Raise The Moon” on their first album, to procuring the heart wrenching “Hold Me Tight” duet with underground country queen Rachel Brooke. It’s where guitar player Derek Dunn codified himself as the hub of the band, and where Rick Ness established himself as one of the most solid back beats wielding an upright bass.
And they were all the absolute best possible musicians you could find at their respective positions, each challenging each other, pushing each other to keep up with the band’s demands for artistic excellence in both instrumental technique and creative composition. Listening back now at Fire & Hail, with so much talent in one place, no wonder the project was untenable, and no wonder the respective players have moved on to become their own trees instead of respective branches of the same project.
Still, the loss of .357 String Band may go down as underground country’s greatest tragedy. I can think of no other project that was so ripe for becoming a success story of authentic American underground roots. They were brilliant, but accessible at the same time. Seeing the success these days of Mumford & Sons, The Avett Brothers, Trampled by Turtles, and Old Crow Medicine Show to name a few, it’s baffling how .357–a superior gaggle of talent–somehow missed the boat. It is a great sin of American music.
Luckily we still have the legacy of .357 String Band to reflect back on, and the respective work and side projects of the individual players–including Billy Cook who filled in for Jayke Orvis in later years–to see us through a period that feels mired and creatively discounted without the muse, and the challenge to inferior talent the .357 String Band embodied. That is why it is such great news that the band has reissued the seminal Fire & Hail on split-color red/while limited-edition numbered vinyl.
But even if vinyl is not your bag, if you’ve never heard of this band or never owned Fire & Hail, do yourself a favor and stop down and get yourself a copy. And for the rest of us, the warmth of analog sound will be a tide over until our glorious .357 rises from the ashes to reproduce their magic that has been stricken from the ear too long. Or at least, that’s what we will tell ourselves to cope with the fact they continue to no longer be around. And in a similar vein, there’s talk from them of a “Best Of” with some unreleased tracks seeing the light of day soon, so maybe there’s still a chance to satiate a little more of the .357 String Band thirst that haunts us, eternally unreplenished as long as their hiatus remains active.
If you have a record player, get this. And if you don’t, get a record player. And then get this.
Two guns up!
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…or you can also paypal $19 to streetgrass77 at gmail dot com. Free US shipping, add $5 for Canada, and $9 for Europe.
A few days ago, CMT launched a new format and website called CMT Edge with the intent of covering artists outside the norm of mainstream country music. Since then I’ve been asked many times what I think of it, and my stock answer has been that I don’t exactly know what I think of it yet. The venture is still in its infantile stages, and it will take time to determine just what CMT Edge will be, and the impact it will have.
Having said that, I see no reason at this point not to stay positive about it. It’s always good to have more avenues for good music to reach people. As I always say, I want good music to get popular, and popular music to get good. Any sense of ownership or desire for exclusivity anyone might feel with the independent music they love and worry that CMT Edge might erode that exclusivity is being silly and selfish. So far, they’ve featured artists like Sara Watkins, The Avett Brothers, Trampled by Turtles, and JD McPherson among others. They also appear to intend to use CMT Edge to cover older country artists like Dwight Yoakam and Patsy Cline; both who’ve been featured already.
If you look at the categories of the 11 features posted on CMT Edge so far, 8 of them are labeled “Americana”. I don’t think it’s coincidence CMT Edge was launched the same week the Americana Music Conference is going on in Nashville mere steps from the CMT headquarters. Americana is growing, and CMT would be fools to not try and tap into that market. Make no mistake that CMT, which is owned by Viacom, would have never launched this venture if they didn’t think there was a profit to be made, and that there’s demand for the content.
So what is the possible downside to CMT Edge? It could possibly take attention away from independent media outlets, especially ones in the Americana world like No Depression, Paste, or possibly in some small respects Saving Country Music. But again, more outlets for good music is generally a good thing, and if these outlets feel threatened, they should step up their game. And I doubt CMT Edge will dig as deep as many of the current independent outlets do. As much as bands like Trampled by Turtles and The Avetts are on the outside looking in when it comes to mainstream country coverage, they are also very successful bands making good livings playing music. To stay profitable, CMT Edge will stay with established acts who simply don’t fit comfortably in the mainstream country world. Don’t expect Hellbound Glory and Jayke Orvis to get features soon.
My biggest concern is in the underlying subconscious labeling of acts that could come with CMT Edge coverage. Some may see a band being featured on CMT Edge as an implication that they are a smaller tier, second rung act. By not putting these acts beside country music’s biggest names, but below them through an outlet meant to cover the “edge,” there’s the danger of typecasting these artists as cut-rate. It’s always been a belief of mine that the top tier independent talent deserves equal-billing with country’s top names. If just given a chance, an artist like Justin Townes Earle could possibly score just as high as Jason Aldean with the public. Consumers just need to be given that choice. CMT Edge in some respects kicks the “more choice” can down the road instead of confronting mainstream country’s issue of a lack of new talent entering the genre.
Mainstream country lacks a legitimate farm system. And once an artist is cast as Americana/Independent/Underground, etc. they’re usually beholden to those avenues for their music till eternity, many times facing low ceilings of success and no chance of mainstream radio play or media coverage. Meanwhile in mainstream country, there’s few artists working the traditional program, going from honky tonks, to clubs, to theaters, to eventually the arena and a major label deal. Instead, new country talent is culled from the safe, easy avenues of reality TV programming, or professional Nashville songwriting circles. This has left country creatively bankrupt, as the most-creative and brightest talent flocks to Americana because they don’t want to be labeled as “country” because of the non-creative, commercial stigma.
Americana may have a lower commercial ceiling than mainstream country, but it continues to find some very legitimate traction, and seems to be building in stature and infrastructure each year. NPR is now offering Americana a big radio outlet, festivals are forming and growing that appeal to the Americana crowd, and small to medium, sustainable music entities like Thirty Tigers, Bloodshot Records, Dolph Ramseur (the man behind the Avett’s success and the Carolina Chocolate Drops) are beginning to create real organization behind the Americana idea, and are even having success getting their artists on programs like The Late Show with David Letterman, and Jimmy Kimmel Live.
What does this all have to do with CMT Edge? Clearly the independent side of the music world is growing, and CMT doesn’t want to be left in the dust. As all popular music continues to coalesce into one big “popular” mono-genre, music that is indefinable by genre and/or appeals to micro-sects of people is expanding. Whether it is Americana, classic country artists, neo-traditionalists, or punk-country, appeal for independent music is increasing, and CMT Edge is proof of that. Is CMT Edge commercial exploitation of this music? We’ll have to see, but there’s no indication that is what is happening at the moment.
As much as I think that much of CMT’s reality programming perpetuates negative country stereotypes and that its parent company Viacom is generally a negative force in the media marketplace, there’s nothing from CMT Edge so far that irks me. So let’s stay positive about it, work as a music community to attempt to steer it in a positive direction, and be glad that better music is catching on and continues to find new outlets.
I bet when you saw Bob Wayne‘s name in the title of this article, you had some sort of immediate emotional reaction, didn’t you? You either thought, “That foul mouthed punk, I can’t even stand to see his ugly face,” and you blame him for perpetuating a perversion of country music. Or, you saw his name and said “Hell yeah,” remembering the last time you saw him live and how he rocked your face off, or how how one of his deeper, heartfelt songs helped you through a hard time.
Like him or not, Bob Wayne has arrived. One way you can tell this is by the polarization that precedes his name (just check out the comments on his last album review). In music, it’s always better that people have an opinion about you than to be ambivalent or unbeknown to your existence. Usually where there’s sharp, contrasting opinions, there’s success. Take Shooter Jennings and Hank Williams III for example. You won’t find two more polarizing, or more successful figures in underground/independent country music. But unlike Hank3 and Shooter, Bob Wayne has not had help from his given name, nor the burden of unrealistic expectations being a famous namesake can bestow.
Instead his success is a symptom of relentless touring in America and Europe; a tour schedule whose tireless nature rivals any other in music today. And one thing Bob Wayne has that country’s famous sons don’t is fantastic label support. Century Media may be way better known for metal music, but they fit in that sweet spot for present day labels: big enough to be considered a “major” with an expansive network and Rolodex, but small enough to be considered an “independent” with the ability to offer strong, healthy, catered support to each of their artists.
Though the crowds for Bob Wayne are certainly growing domestically, Europe is where he’s made his strongest foothold, like many independent country and roots artists that made the jump from amateur to professional before him. In certain Euro stops, Bob Wayne is pulling 800 capacity crowds in, just to see him, not as a support act. This is likely one of the reasons Century Media decided to put out his last album Till The Wheels Fall Off on their European imprint People Like You, an unusual move for an artist based in the States. Bob has also bought a van and a complete set of backline instruments for his band that he permanently stores in Europe to facilitate his frequent overseas tours and save on expenses.
Instead of worrying about pulling a profit or working some master plan, Bob Wayne simply put his head down and booked his own breakneck tours for years, figuring out how to include European stints in them when he could. He would work construction jobs in his home state of Oregon to get the money to buy European plane tickets for him and the band, tour the country from West to east, fly out to Europe, and then start the whole cycle over again. All of that touring led to a tight live show and a professional attitude on stage from Bob and his talent-packed “Outlaw Carnies”.
Over the years, the Outlaw Carnies have become a proving ground for underground country talent. With a loose arrangement, players are allowed to come and go as they please, but they all must provide stellar musicianship to keep up with Bob and the band’s budding legacy. Joe Buck, Andy Gibson, Donnie Herron, and Dan Infecto are just a few of the names that have contributed to Bob either live or recorded in the past, and then continued on to make bigger names for themselves. The dating duo of fiddler Liz Sloan and bassist Jared McGovern cut their teeth as Carnies, and now play with Jayke Orvis and Filthy Still among others. The entire .357 String Band once did a stint as Bob’s backing band.
The newest edition is Lucy B. Cochran on fiddle. At first glimpse you might mistake her for Liz Sloan who she replaced, but the two female fiddles have very different styles. Lucy goes to the bluegrass shuffle like few fiddlers I’ve seen, and adds a more countrified element to the Carnies. The current Carnies also feature “Elmer” on standup bass, and Ryan Clackner who can serve up some of the hottest leads licks on Telecaster that you can find. Bob’s current lineup is as sharp as any you will find in underground country, and so is Bob’s show…that is of course if Bob Wayne is your thing. If it’s not, then he could resurrect Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys to back him up and it still wouldn’t be enough.
It’s the swear-filled lyrics and racy themes in many of his songs that will always keep Bob at odds with many country faithful, and understandably so. They will also unfortunately keep those same people from enjoying many of his deeper songs that don’t feature racy topics or bad language.
The cold, hard fact is many favorite underground country bands may never be able to make the leap from being amateur, underpaid musicians, to professionals making a reasonable, living wage, despite the quality of their music or their desire or ability. But Bob Wayne has, and with continued label support, creative freedom, a stellar backing band, and a bottomless pit of energy and enthusiasm for touring, he also seems to have plenty of upside potential.
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Bob Wayne is playing the Muddy Roots Festival on Friday 8/31 at 11 PM on Stage 2.
Farmageddon Records, home to such roots acts as Jayke Orvis and The Goddamn Gallows, has announced they’re throwing a full-scale, 3 day festival this summer, July 20-22, just outside of scenic West Yellowstone, Montana, behind the Longhorn Saloon on Hebgen Lake.
Farmageddon founder Darren D knows a little something about promoting shows, and even more about Montana, being from the Big Sky State. He started in the music business on a mission to bring roots talent to the region.
“We decided to throw a festival to give the Western half of the US a destination to see roots music,” says Darren. “There has been a lot of momentum building up to the festival in the last few months, and we have had a fair share of international interest as well. We are certainly aiming to make our festival a destination for anyone and everyone who enjoys this kind of music.“
So why West Yellowstone?
“If you are going to throw a music festival it’s important to make it a destination point for the folks that are making a long distance trek to be there. West Yellowstone is home to the label and is right on the SW entrance to Yellowstone National Park. This is a great way to make a summer vacation out of the trip.”
“This particular part of the country is stunning, and if folks haven’t had a chance to visit the park yet this is a great excuse to do so. There are ample places to camp in and around West Yellowstone Montana, and there are also plenty of motels and hotels in the area. West Yellowstone is a small town, and it defiantly gives off a small town feel when you visit. It’s really the perfect place to do a festival.”
A few years ago, the one last piece that seemed to be missing out of the underground country/roots structure was a good festival, or group of festivals. Since then many artists have participated in festivals like The Heavy Rebel Weekender and Pickathon. The Deep Blues Festival has been resurrected, the 2nd Annual Lowebow Fest will be going down in Orlando March. And The Muddy Roots Festival has risen to become the flagship festival for underground roots/country. Folks worried that the Farmageddon Festival may somehow take away from Muddy Roots, or that Farmageddon artists may no longer participate, need not worry according to Darren.
“We will be promoting the Muddy Roots Festival heavily at the first Farm-Fest. There is easily enough folks out there to support both festivals, and we wouldn’t be surprised if you see familiar faces at both events. We are huge supporters of what Muddy Roots is doing, and we will continue to support them and their efforts. We are all planning on attending Muddy Roots this year again, how could you miss it! This is really geared toward the folks who live on the left side of the country, and it’s not going to be a carbon copy of Muddy Roots, so people who decide to attend both won’t be seeing too many repeat performances.“
As can be seen from the lineup below, there will not just be Farmageddon artists performing, but many folks from the greater underground roots community. (note: lineup can change)
- Shooter Jennings
- Southern Culture on the Skids
- Slim Cessna’s Auto Club
- The Goddamn Gallows
- Jayke Orvis & The Broken Band
- Stevie Tombstone
- Graham Lindsey
- The Calamity Cubes
- Filthy Still
- JB Beverley & The Wayward Drifters
- Calamity Cubes
- Soda Gardocki
- Black Eyed Vermillion
- Bob Wayne & The Outlaw Carnies
- Carolina Still
- The Pereeze Farm
- James Hunnicutt
- Ugly Valley Boys
- Cletus Got Shot
- Sean K Preston
- Danny K & The Nightlifers
- Owen Mays
- Tales From Ghost Town
- The Deadnecks
- Tom VandenAvond
- Angie & The Carwrecks
- Shivering Denizens
- Husky Burnette
- Dog Bite Harris
- The Cheatin’ Hearts
- Philip Roebuck
- Whiskey Dick
- Ronnie Hymes
- Slackeye Slim
- Ando Ehlers
- Danny Infecto
- Saint Christopher
- The Dead Tree String Band
- Aran Buzzas
- Hard Money Saints
- Carrie Nation & The Speakeasy
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