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Country music loves to pride itself in supporting the troops and the cause of the military more than any other genre. Though some of it may be bravado meant more for marketing, there are many legends in the country music ranks that served their country as young men. Here’s a list of country heroes who served the county.
Possibly country music’s most well-known veteran, Kris Kristofferson came from a family that pushed him to enlist after attending Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar and graduating with a degree in literature. Yes, Kristofferson was a smart one to say the least, and achieved the rank of Captain in the US Army as a helicopter pilot and Ranger. He received his training at Fort Rucker, Alabama before being deployed to West Germany as part of the 8th Infantry Division. After serving out his tour of duty, Kristofferson was scheduled to become an English Literature professor at West Point, but decided to pursue a career in songwriting instead. The decision meant he was disowned by his family, but that didn’t stop the American Veterans Awards from naming Kris “Veteran of the Year” in 2003. Kristofferson’s first job in music was sweeping floors at Columbia Studios. His first successful songwriting hit was “Vietnam Blues” recorded by Dave Dudley.
Willie Nelson may be known as one of the world’s greatest pacifists, but he grew up in an era when military service was expected of young men, and the draft was in full force. So he voluntarily joined the Air Force in 1951 in the midst of the Korean War, wanting to be a jet pilot. He received his first basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, but it was concluded Willie was too “absentminded” (as Willie puts it) to be in the cockpit of a jet. So the Air Force shipped him to Shepherd Air Force Base in Wichita Falls, TX, and eventually to Scott Air Force Base in Illinois for more basic training. Eventually they made him a medic, but years of bailing hay in Willie’s hometown of Abbott, TX had given him a bad back condition and he was discharged after 9 months of service.
In 1950, a year before Willie Nelson made his way to Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio to enlist in the Air Force, future fellow Highwayman Johnny Cash did the same. Cash spent 4 years in the service, rising to Staff Sargent, and becoming a Morse Code intercept operator working in Landsberg, West Germany. Johnny is given credit for intercepting the first radio transmission announcing the news of the death of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. The name of Cash’s first band was “The Landsberg Barbarians,” an homage to the German town he called home. When Cash was honorably discharged in July of 1954, he returned to Texas to marry his first wife Vivian Liberto who he’d met at a roller rink when in basic training.
Before Shel Silverstein penned “A Boy Named Sue” for Johnny Cash, “Put Another Log on the Fire” for Tompall Glaser, and many other country hits, and before he’d go on to sell over 20 million children’s books, he was an illustrator for the Pacific Stars & Stripes military publication. Silverstein was drafted into the Army in 1953 and served in both Korea and Japan. When it was clear Silverstein was not fit for combat, he began illustrating an article series called Take Ten, amusing service members with his drawings and anecdotes about military life. Later his cartoons would be featured in two books: Take Ten and Grab Your Socks!, becoming big sellers for Ballintine Books, and introducing the world to Shel’s illustrative and comedic genius.
There’s many “new Outlaws” in mainstream country music right now walking around with dogs tags, but Jamey Johnson is the only one with actual military cred to back the fashion accessory up. After dropping out of Jacksonville State University, Johnson enlisted in the Marine Corps where he served for 8 solid years, rising to the rank of corporal as a mortarman in the 23rd Marines, 3rd Batallion. During his Marine Corps stint, he was known for playing his original songs for bunk mates, and two of the songs on Jamey’s first self-released album mention the Marines. By coincidence, Johnson was discharged from the military 1 week before his unit deployed to Iraq, but he’s been to both Iraq and Afghanistan multiple times since, making regular appearances on USO tours.
George Jones was enlisted in the Marine Corps in the early 1950′s during The Korean War, stationed in San Jose, California until he was discharged in 1953.
Roger Miller enlisted in the Army and served in the Korean War to avoid being arrested for stealing a guitar when he was 17.
Wayne “The Train” Hancock was in the Marines, and gives credit to his time in Okinawa for endowing him with his love for the steel guitar sound.
George Strait was enlisted in the Army from 1971 to 1975, stationed in Hawaii for the later half of his career as part of the 25th Infantry Division. He performed in an army-sanctioned country band called “Rambling Country.”
Songwriter Billy Don Burns was a paratrooper from 1968-1970.
Charlie Louvin of The Louvin Brothers served in both World War II and The Korean War.
Hank Thompson served in the Navy in Word War II.
Texas country traditionalist Jason Eady served in The Air Force for six years as a translator.
There are songwriters, and then there are songwriters; those folks that so effortlessly set words to the moods and moments of life and that can make you weep like a baby or wildly happy to be alive. These songwriters are there for us, creating a soundtrack for our most enduring memories, making the most of the life experience by enhancing it with music.
But the best of the best songwriters can do something even more. They can set our lives on a completely separate path by showing us the way to discovering ourselves. Something that they say can make us quit that bad job, leave that bad relationship, start a new relationship, or rekindle lost love. It’s not always about preaching or teaching, it’s about showing us a new, better path by touching something inside of us through song. He are a few songwriters who are capable of such magic.
If you only have time for one name of a songwriter that could change your life, I would go with Willy “Tea” Taylor. As a solo artist and the co-frontman for the California-based Good Luck Thrift Store Outfit, Willy’s song catalog works like a medicine cabinet for the soul, with a cure at the ready for any type of emotional ailment. Like the antidote or vaccine for the most common and debilitating of human inflictions, it should be an international imperative to spread the songs of Willy “Tea” far and wide. Willy “Tea” Taylor is where your quest to find the best music you’ve never heard ends.
This Canadian country star is a master craftsman with words, but unlike many of his songwriting counterparts that tend to ace only one aspect of the human condition, Corb Lund can tickle the full palette of human emotions. He has the bone-splitting wit of Shel Silverstein, the cutting emotion of Townes, and the common man understanding of universal struggles of Willie Nelson. And the most unfair part about Corb’s songwriting is that he makes it all seem so damn effortless. Corb Lund is a Canadian treasure the whole world can share in.
You want a musical experience that will change your life? Then get your ass front and center at an Austin Lucas show and watch the man spill his guts out right in front of you in an experience that can be one of the most life-altering mixtures of music and emotion. Whether he’s playing for thousands of people like he did on the Country Thunder Tour in 2011, or a last-minute house show for 7 people on the outskirts of Baton Rouge, Lucas and his songs can leave you speechless. It’s not just about the song with Austin, it is also about the evocation of the emotion and inspiration behind it. This Indiana native now living in Nashville is poised to blow up in 2013. Get on the bandwagon now.
The great thing about Chris Knight is that he’s not some wildly gifted wordsmith who seems to call upon a limitless fountain of vocabulary brilliance to stagger the mind, he’s the everyman poet that works with raw and real language that you can relate to no different than the words of your brother or your neighbor or your best friend. Chris Knight’s authenticity is as real as wood, and when he writes a song, the characters he conjures seem to be culled right from your own world, going through the same struggles, sharing the same simple pleasures. There is a warmth and familiarity of Chris Knight’s music that is unparallelled.
Fans of the .357 String Band already knew Joseph Huber was a skilled composer, but when he stripped it all down after the departure of .357 where it was just Huber and his thoughts, a shimmering brilliance emerged, evidenced on his first solo record Bury Me Where I Fall, and the follow up Tongues of Fire. Huber takes an overarching sorrow and impales it with wisdom to the delight of the mournful and yearning ear.
Arguably one of the greatest American songwriters that nobody has heard of, the enigmatic and influential Will Oldham who performs and records under the stage name Bonnie “Prince” Billy is a songwriter that songwriters listen and look up to. Johnny Cash performed Will’s song “I See A Darkness” on 2000′s American III: Solitary Man, but that is just where Will’s songwriting credits and influential clout begin. You’ll struggle to find a song composer in the greater alt-country/Americana world who doesn’t take the Bonnie “Prince” Billy name with reverence.
If there is one many who can completely lose himself in the music and let it take over every fabric of his being, and then commune that complete loss of self with the crowd to where the experience borders on the religious, it is Texas school teacher turned music madman and spiritual medium Possessed by Paul James. With PPJ, it’s not just about the music and words, it’s about the entire human experience, the bubbling up of emotion and memory with music simply being the excuse. You will walk away from a Possessed by Paul James experience a changed person.
Others songwriters that can change your life: Billy Don Burns, Olds Sleeper, Joe Pug, McDougall, Charlie Parr, Jason Molina, Justin Townes Earle, Tom VandenAvond, Micah Schnabel of Two Cow Garage, and….
The April 28th issue of Country Weekly features Saving Country Music’s 2012 Artist of the Year Marty Stuart and his legendary 20,000-piece archive of country music collectibles, clothing, instruments, and other memorabilia. As Marty Stuart tells the magazine, his passion for preserving artifacts led to his career in country music.
When I was in John’s [Johhnny Cash's] band, the first time I went to London, I ran into a guy named Issac Tigrett who was the co-founder of Hard Rock, a Southern guy. And I went to the first Hard Rock and I saw The Beatles, The Stones, Otis Redding, The Who, all their stuff on the wall. And in my mind I went, “Well that’s just as important if it’s Porter Wagoner, Hank Williams, George Jones, and who on. And so when I came back to America, I made it a mission. I mean it became my whole focus at that time. Get a record deal, start a band, make them look cool, and get all of the country music artifacts you possibly can and preserve them, lock them down, because they’re getting away fast.
Marty says he would find boots, suits, and other sundries from country music legends just sitting in thrift stores and second-hand shops in Nashville, forgotten and unwanted from the changing times.
Everything was changing in country music. The look of it, the sound of it, and this stuff was just a throwaway…The ultimate mission is not just to preserve this stuff, protect it, promote it, save it, but to get the music into the hands and hearts of young people that are coming through and [saying), “Well I want to do that, but they tell me I have to be like so and so.” But we’ve already got one of those. Be who you are, at any cost.
In the early 90′s Marty Stuart was singed to MCA Records and had multiple hits. Along with Travis Tritt, the two were known as “No Hat” acts. Then as the 90′s wore on Marty’s mainstream popularity waned.
It’s a lonely life sometimes, but it’s rewarding. I wouldn’t trade what’s going on in my life these days for what happened in the 90′s when the records were hitting and popping. I wouldn’t trade it for any amount of money because this is the real stuff.
This is not just country music history, this is American history. And you cannot just dismiss this stuff because it doesn’t matter to anybody’s chart anymore or anybody’s demographic. It’s bigger than all of that.
Much more on Marty Stuart and his collection can be found in this week’s Country Weekly, and in the videos below. You can also check out a recent Marty Stuart interview with Eddie Stubbs.
The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville, TN has just announced their 2013 inductees. The new members to country music’s most prestigious institution are “Cowboy” Jack Clement, Bobby Bare, and Kenny Rogers.
Honorary host Bill Anderson made the announcement from the Hall of Fame rotunda Wednesday morning (4-10). The Country Music Hall of Fame inductees are selected through a committee process appointed by the CMA. Since 2010, the selection process has been split up into three categories. 1) Modern Era (eligible for induction 20 years after they first achieve “national prominence”). 2) Veterans Era (eligible for induction 45 years after they first achieve “national prominence”). 3) Non-Performer, Songwriter, and Recording and/or Touring Musician active prior to 1980 (rotates every 3 years).
“Cowboy” Jack Clement (non-performer) is one of country music’s most legendary songwriters, producers, and personalities. Clement got his start at Sun Studios, helping record and produce the original hits for Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and Carl Perkins. Later he would start his own home studio, where greats such as Waylon Jennings, Charley Pride, and Townes Van Zandt recorded with Clement in the producer’s role. He also wrote successful songs from Dolly Parton, Bobby Bare, and Jim Reeves. “I’ve been chosen for the Country Music Hall of Fame?” Clement said. “I thought I was already in the Hall of Fame, I could have gotten in there any time I wanted. Kyle [Young] (Hall of Fame President) gave me a key.”
Bobby Bare (Veteran’s Era) is the original country music Outlaw. Bare was one of the very first to fight for creative freedom in country music, and also pushed the limits for lyrical content in country when he released the song “Streets of Baltimore” written by Tompall Glaser. Glaser recognized Jerry Reed in his speech at the announcement. “Reed played on every hit I ever had. He was kicking it in the ass.” His son Bobby Bare Jr. is also a musician.
Kenny Rogers (Modern Era) aka “The Gambler” is one of country music’s greatest ambassadors. Kenny became a country hitmaker beginning in the late 70′s with the song “Lucille.” His work in movies like The Gambler and Six Pack, as well as collaborations with Dolly Parton and Dottie West helped sell country to new fans and a new generation.
Fred Eaglesmith puts fresh-faced country music interlopers riding a popularity wave in their place in “Johnny Cash,” a song off of his 2012 release 6 Volts, and whose new video was just released this month. Eaglesmith chides the brittle, shallow understanding of Johnny Cash that starts with his American Recordings era, but overlooks his prolonged career struggles, and Johnny’s well-documented and deep religious devotion.Where were you in 1989, when it looked like Johnny was on the decline? His career was fading and his shows weren’t selling. You were listening to heavy metal. But you sure do like Johnny Cash now. Now that they’ve put him in the ground. You sure do like when he sang the Nine Inch Nails, when he looked like he was dying in that video. You love that picture he was giving them the finger. Too bad about all that religion. But you sure do like Johnny Cash now.
When the prevailing image of Johnny Cash in culture is one of him flipping the bird, the argument can be made that it’s the wholesale reduction of a man of such towering accomplishments and time-tested faith. At some point the imagery and cult-of-celebrity of Johnny Cash trumped the man himself, and society lost sight of his greatest contribution: his noble and charitable spirit.
Fred Eaglesmith is a Canadian-based singer-songwriter whose been touring and releasing albums for going on 35 years. Known for his banter between songs when performing live, he can be a great storyteller, as well as a social advocate in a similar vein as James McMurtry or Steve Earle. Eaglesmith’s subjects mostly rage from canonizing the mechanized world in songs about trains and tractors, to the tribulations of the family farm. The album 6 Volts is a stripped-down, lo-fi affair, with “Johnny Cash” capturing a very Neil Young & Crazy Horse vibe.
The message of “Johnny Cash” is pointed and poignant, but to play devil’s advocate, it’s also a little presumptuous to assume some Cash fans whose knowledge of him is more recent still don’t have a sincere understanding of the man and his music. Some of those Cash fans may have not been born in 1989, and is it a bad thing if heavy metal kids find themselves being drawn into Cash’s music, and country music by proxy?
It is if they do it from the rawness of the imagery or from his most recent burst of popularity that fails to fully encompass his entire body of work. That seems to be the lesson of “Johnny Cash.”
1 1/2 of 2 guns up.
In Red Dirt music, there is a place called “The Farm.” It was a 5-bedroom house outside of Stillwater, Oklahoma owned by Bob Childers where the Red Dirt movement started in earnest. No matter what happens in Red Dirt henceforth, whether it continues to grow or it fades away, the few Red Dirt members who called “The Farm” home in those formative years will always have their place in history cemented as forefathers of the music.
If underground country had a version of “The Farm,” Lonesome Wyatt would be one of its inhabitants. Lonesome Wyatt is a pioneer of Gothic country with his band Those Poor Bastards, and one of the originators of underground country whose song “Pills I Took” was covered by Hank Williams III on his landmark album Straight to Hell, he is one of the few artists who will never be forgotten regardless of the long-term fortune of the underground country sub-genre.
Gothic country is not for everyone. Similar to how punk and reggae may not have many similarities on the surface, but whose structures are steeped in similar modes when you explore the music deep at its core, Gothic country may come across initially as counter-intuitive, or even corrosive to someone who calls themselves a country fan. But within Gothic country, you find the stark distinctions of good and evil indicative of The Louvin Brothers and gospel, you find the the murder balladry of Doc Watson and Johnny Cash, you find the Gothic identity and presence of death of The Carter Family, and the empowerment of the poor of Woody Guthrie.
Lonesome Wyatt and his “Holy Spooks” side project may even be less accessible that other Gothic country because the sound is fairly stripped back and the approach quite fey. This is music to be listened to, not heard; music that you sit back and appreciate its textures as opposed to banging your head or tapping your foot to. But for those brave souls not scared off by the spooky dressing, they will discover some striking artistic expression interwoven with timeless storytelling in an album that reveals itself to be more entertaining and even prone to losing yourself in than you would initially expect.
If Lonesome Wyatt was an actor, he’d prefer the method approach to the craft. And if his music were a movie, it would be a graphic novel. Where Lonesome’s Those Poor Bastards material usually carries more anger, and angular, abrupt themes, Ghost Ballads is like a lost collection of Edgar Allan Poe poems written as if they were for children, but that were truly meant for adults. Then he sets it all to music. This is where Lonesome Wyatt’s singular artistic contribution to the world is evidenced, which is his ability to cull the perfect sounds from the universe to conjure a desired mood. A master craftsman of audio textures who is not afraid to pull from both the analog and electronic worlds, his ear is wickedly adept at picking up the most delicious subtleties in sounds that universally trigger dark responses in the human palette.
And just when he has you in the darkest of all moods, the creepy bastard springs into the saccharine, 50′s-ish do-woppy “Dream of You” making the whole experience feel even that much more sinister.
Reportedly recorded surreptitiously at the haunted Maribel Caves Hotel in Maribel, WI, Ghost Ballads may not be the best starting point to get into Lonesome Wyatt’s uniquely dark and creative approach to music, but is a good selection if you’re looking for music to create camaraderie with a dark mood, or are looking to evoke one.
Lonesome Wyatt is a timeless artist, and I’m sure Ghost Ballads along with his entire discography will be haunting Gothic fans long after he’s in the grave.
1 1/2 of 2 guns up.
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I’m not going to go as far as to call it sacrilege, but Thomas Rhett’s song “Beer With Jesus” proves that when it comes to trying to write a pop country hit, nothing is sacred. I’m sorry, but beer and Jesus just don’t go together, like country and rap, or Blake Shelton and common sense. When I think of Jesus, I don’t think of beers and bars. It’s just horrifically out-of-place.
But if we’re going to say that it is okay or even creative songwriting to “have a beer with Jesus,” where do we draw the line? Well just in case Thomas Rhett is thinking about cutting any more songs in his Jesus saga, here’s some suggestions of other things that might be fun to do with the Son of God.
How better to have you life flash before your eyes than with Jesus strapped to your back?
Go Raving with Jesus
Maybe nitrous balloons, glow sticks, and LSD are the way Thomas Rhett can get right with Christ.
Sure Jesus can walk on water, but can he clear 20 yards of black Texas gumbo after a hard rain in a 1985 Chevy with an 18-inch lift? Yee-haw.
Maybe off of a hooker’s buns! Maybe Mary Magdalene is available.
Who doesn’t think this sounds like a good time? Maybe get back at Pontious Pilate for sentencing Jesus to crucifixion. Have you ever tried to get half-caked Charmin out of an olive tree after a night of light drizzle? Not easy folks, not easy.
Can’t think of a better way to bond than to dress up like sperms, straddle each other, and go hurdling down a frozen, high banked surface at 80 mph cutting through the crisp Winter air.
Or maybe Christ prefers to bowl up or roll it. Or maybe like Willie Nelson, Jesus uses a nebulizer these days to save his voice. Gotta hit that falsetto for the hymns on Sunday!
Start a Methamphetamine Manufacturing and Distribution Ring with Jesus.
Hey, there’s a reason Breaking Bad is one of the hottest things on TV right now. I admit though, it’s a little wordy to fit in the chorus of a song.
Have a Mescaline-Infused Vision Quest in the Desert, with Johnny Cash Manifested as a Coyote Acting As Your Spirit Guide…with Jesus
Hey, it worked for Homer Simpson.
Write a Song That Doesn’t Attempt to Exploit Two Upwardly Rising Trends in Pop Country Lyricism…with Jesus
Nah you’re right. That doesn’t sound like any fun.
Yes, Aaron Lewis, the ultra-emotional singer from Staind that done “gone country” a couple of years back has a new album called The Road, and I have to say, this was not nearly as bad as I was expecting.
Aaron Lewis busted onto the country scene like a ruptured colostomy bag with his gawd awful single “Country Boy” late in 2010. Going back and reading my review, I wasn’t impressed. Then last Spring Lewis released the lead single from The Road called “Endless Summer” that wasn’t much better, name dropping Jason Aldean among other atrocities.
So I wasn’t giving The Road much of a chance until my inbox began to fill with messages from folks swearing this album had something. So reluctantly, like a dog contritely contemplating its own fresh vomit, I gave it a timid sniff. Next thing I knew my nose was buried deep in The Road.
Fundamentally, this album suffers from similar issues as Arron’s first two singles. As a country music outsider, Lewis seems to rely too much on songwriting formulas, and tends to get political on your ass in a way that comes across as pandering to demographics instead of a byproduct of sincere songwriting. But beyond those transgressions, and the “Endless Summer” single that’s clearly a play for radio attention, The Road is a hard country, steel guitar, half-time, waltz beat, honest-to-goodness honky tonk album with some surprisingly good moments.
I can’t believe I typed that last sentence, but it’s true. The Road sucks in the real country listener with the first two tracks “75″ and “The Road” that are just good, straightforward honky tonk road songs with no pretense, no transgressions, just simple music with an honest message. Then of course The Road hits a speed bump with the awful “Endless Summer,” but that song is so bad you can just write it off completely and move on.
An important thing to remember is just because a song is real country, doesn’t mean it is real good. Most of the songs on The Road are solidly real country from a sonic standpoint, but there are still some misses. “Red, White, and Blue” has a classic country sound, but it’s sullied by a really formulaic approach to the lyrics. They’re full of bravado about how poor his grandparents were and how he’s the offspring of people who fought in the military. But all you can think is that devoid of any true country or military cred himself, Lewis is attempting to supplant that cred from his ancestors.
In the end an otherwise well-crafted song is relegated to a braggadocios, glorified family portrait with Aaron looking like the one that broke the traditions instead of carrying them on. A similar feeling pervades “Granddaddy’s Gun,” that would be a very warm story about a family artifact if Arron didn’t use it to interject his political views.
Subtly of message is not a skill that Aaron Lewis possesses. “State Lines” also has some unhealthy, self-indulgent bravado as Lewis endeavors to write his own history instead of living it and writing compelling stories from it. That’s one of the differences between rock and country Aaron has yet to decipher, that bragging is for butt rock, while country is the format of aw-shucks. Ironically, his classic country style and sound make this discrepancy more obvious. If he was playing laundry list “new Outlaw” country pop, then he’d just be following the herd. Here, his novice approach to country lyricism is glaring in spots.
But its impressive in others, like “Lessons Learned” that despite name dropping Johnny Cash, displays a lot of depth in songcraft and vocal range. A past gripe about Lewis has been his droning monotone voice in both his country and Staind material. But I’ll be damned if The Road doesn’t give rise to Lewis showcasing some remarkable and refreshing vocal dexterity and range on a number of occasions. Something else refreshing about his voice is there’s no put-on Southern accent at all. At times the music and lyrics beg for it. But to Aaron’s credit, he abstains.
“Anywhere But Here” is another selection that shows curious, refreshing depth, though this is chased by “Party in Hell” that otherwise would be a fun, rocking end to the album if it wasn’t for the incessant name dropping in it. Waylon, Whitley, Haggard, “No Show”, Jimmy, Janis, and on and on.
Despite the forays into depth and the deep tie to the roots of the music in The Road, Arron Lewis proves he’s still green to the genre. From a broad view, it’s best put that it is a classic country album with mainstream country lyrics. But The Road also has something that is typically neglected in many modern albums: a theme. To have a universal thread to run along the backbone of the songs always makes an album greater than the sum of its parts, and Aaron employs this well in The Road.
I’m going to eek out a positive review here, meaning I don’t recommend this album, but if someone told me they loved it, I wouldn’t argue with them either. Worth a sniff maybe, but Aaron Lewis still has to grow as a lyricist if he seriously wants to be considered a true country artist. At the same time, kudos to him for the growth displayed on The Road. I’ve been hard on this dude over the years, and it’s good to see him at least make beginning motions in the right direction.
1 1/4 of 2 guns up.
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Not everybody can pick up a guitar, cue up a microphone, and cut a baker’s dozen of songs completely dry with no enhancements or accompaniments and call it a record. Then again, not everyone can write like Chattanooga’s patron saint of country music, Roger Alan Wade.
Known to some as the behind-the-scenes songwriter that wrote Hank Jr.’s #1 hit “Country State of Mind” and songs for Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, and George Jones; and known to others as Johnny Knoxville’s first cousin who penned music for the Jackass movie franchise, and funny songs like “Poontang” and “But Ugly Slut,” Roger Alan Wade is both prolific and versatile to say the least. But from this bear’s perspective, Wade’s best work comes when he tries to be neither commercial nor comical and just simply writes from the heart. That’s what we got from his release Deguello Motel that went on to become Saving Country Music’s co-Album of the Year in 2010, and that’s what we get on Southbound Train.
Southbound Train is a reflective album that doesn’t shy away from having a little fun. It doesn’t take the fully conceptualized approach that Deguello Motel did with a universal thread running along the backbone of every song, though it does delve into the same waters of exploring the depths of human emotion, moral decay, redemption, and cool reflection. There’s a lot of mortality on Southbound Train as well, with the title track serving as a symbolic request of what to do with Roger’s soul when he passes, and the sweet “Too Long Is The Time” bemoaning the space in eternity when souls matched on earth must wait between death to reunite.
“If Guitars Were Guns” is a boot-kicking good time. “I play what I please, out-of-tune and out-of-time. If guitars were guns, I’d be Jesse James. Out stealing the show, like robbing them trains.”–a proclamation that would come across as silly, cocksure bravado from a younger guitar picker. But from Roger Alan Wade, is simply badass. “Wine Dripping From Your Lips” is another fun one, with Roger reaching that sweet spot in his range where his passion really shines through in his vocals.
The gem of the album though is the nostalgic and transporting “Chickamuga Creek” that despite the specifics in the song, jars the warmest of moments of the individual listener’s memory and allows them to rise to the surface. The other gem is the all-encompassing and epic “Chillicothe Rain.” This is the song where Roger conveys the underlying theme that has defined his serious work since he found his sobriety and re-energized faith. In a non-judgemental, non-pushy way, Roger transmits the wisdom of the importance of being willing to re-invent yourself in the mid-stream of life to find a more purposeful, fulfilling place. He accomplishes this through masterful songcraft. “Some people stay in hell, just because they know the names of the streets. Some lay their soul on the anvil and the hammer, that’s me.” Besides, how cool is it to figure out how to work the town name of “Chillicothe” into a song?
I do worry though as I did with Deguello Motel about the completely stripped-down nature of this album. The formula Wade has for recording is to get Johnny Knoxville in the studio with him as producer and to keep it simple. As much as this allows the listener to focus on the art of the song and it continues to be a successful approach, I can’t help but wonder what the experience would be if even on a few of the songs a full band was invited in to flesh them out, or if even a little harmony, a few light lead parts, or some percussion on a few tracks–kind of like Johnny Cash’s American Recordings did–if that may not better fulfill the destiny of these songs.
Regardless, Southbound Train once again reaffirms that Roger Alan Wade and the term “living legend” deserve to be mentioned closer together than farther apart. He is the continuation of both country music’s Outlaw legacy, and its songwriting maestro legacy. Chattanooga should be proud.
Two guns up!
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The fight for the purity of country music is almost as old as the genre itself. The conflict between pop and traditionalism, and the fight for creative control for artists runs like a thread throughout country music’s history, defining it as much as the twang of a Telecaster, or the moan of a steel guitar. Here are some of the most iconic images of country music revolution, and the stories behind them.
Fanning The Flames
Charlie Rich was tapped to present the trophy for Entertainer of the Year at the CMA Awards in 1975. Knowing what name the little envelope contained (and not being too happy about it), Rich pulled out his bic and lit it on fire, announcing the winner as “My friend, Mr. John Denver.” Denver wasn’t in attendance and accepted via satellite, unaware of the pyrotechnics. Rich, who’d won 5 CMA Awards in the past, was never invited back to the CMA’s, and was never nominated again.
Flipping The Bird
Johnny Cash’s famous middle finger photo was shot by photographer Jim Marshall at California’s San Quentin prison during a concert in 1970. The pose was the response to Jim’s request: “John, let’s do a shot for the warden.” Where it became an iconic image of American culture was years later, when Johnny Cash was making his American Recordings records with Rick Rubin. Cash’s album Unchained had won the Grammy for “Best Country Album”, but was being virtually ignored by country radio. So Rick Rubin ran an ad with the obscene image, along with the caption, “American Recordings and Johnny Cash would like to thank the country music establishment and country radio for your support.” (read full story)
On March 17th, 18th, and 19th of 1972, The Dripping Springs reunion, aka the “Country Music Woodstock” went down just outside of Austin, TX. It was a commercial flop, but a fundamentally-important event nonetheless because it established Austin, TX as a serious alternative to the restrictive environment of Nashville, with Willie Nelson leading the charge. Similar to the underground/independent movements in country music today, The Dripping Springs Reunion paid respects to the older legends like Bill Monroe, Earl Scruggs, Buck Owens, and Roger Miller who all attended and performed, while establishing in earnest the Outlaw movement with native Texans Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Kris Kristofferson at the helm.
Tompall Glaser saved his pennies from his days in The Glaser Brothers and bought himself a renegade studio / clubhouse that would later be known as Hillbilly Central. Located on 19th Ave. right off of Music Row, it broke the monopoly RCA, Chet Atkins, and Studio “B” had on country music at the time. It allowed artists like Waylon Jennings and Billy Joe Shaver to record their music the way they wanted and use their own bands as opposed to Nashville’s unionized studio musicians. In the words of Outlaw writer Michael Bane, it was “the home of all those records Nashville really didn’t want to make,” including such iconic albums as Waylon Jennings’ Honky Tonk Heroes and John Hartford’s Aereo Plain.
Though the Grand Ole Opry continues to use the likeness of Hank Williams prominently, he was never reinstated as a member after being dismissed in 1952. The understanding was that Hank would sober up and make a triumphant return to the Opry that he so loved, but he died on New Year’s Day 1953 at the age of 29 and never got the opportunity. Hank’s grandson Hank Williams III started a movement called “Reinstate Hank” that now boasts over 54,000 signatures on its online petition. (photo courtesy of minnemynx)
Wanting to take creative control of his music and to be released from the budgetary restraints of the studio, Hank Williams III did the unprecedented for an artist signed to a major country music record label under the CMA umbrella. He took a a Korg D-1600–a consumer-grade piece of recording gear–and cut his record Straight to Hell in the house of his bass player, Joe Buck. It was the underground mentality brought to the mainstream, with the result being Hank3′s magnum opus.
(from left to right: Andy Gibson, Hank Williams III, Joe Buck)
On Thursday Oct. 4th, Nashville Mayor Karl Dean announced plans to permanently locate the Songwriters Hall of Fame to the new Music City Center, the behemoth convention center and hotel complex in downtown Nashville being built right beside the Country Music Hall of Fame. It was announced previously that the Country Hall Of Fame would be connected to Music City Center and have some shared space between the two buildings. Now the Songwriters Hall of Fame whose home has been virtual up to this point, will have a permanent place as part of the project.
But there is an important wrinkle to this story that is going unreported.
As important of an institution as the Songwriters Hall of Fame is, it may not be the most deserving of a spot in Music City Center. If all things were equal, that opportunity would go to the Musicians Hall of Fame: the institution that was imminent domained by the City of Nashville and given a week to remove its artifacts before being bulldozed to make way for the new building. And more importantly, the Musicians Hall of Fame was the one initially promised the space.
The Musicians Hall of Fame opened in June of 2006 just across 4th St. from the Country Hall of Fame in Nashville, with the charter of showcasing the unsung heroes of music: the musicians behind the big names, and the big names that are excellent musicians as well. Though located in Nashville, the Musicians Hall of Fame didn’t showcase just country music, but all genres, and hosted music lessons and workshops, as well as private events in their museum space.
When plans were launched for the new Music City Center complex, it was determined by the City of Nashville that the Musicians Hall of Fame had to go. Nashville initially reached out to the institution and offered them a space in the new building.
“We were told that they would provide us a place to go for free while the construction was goin’ on for the convention center for the next three years, and then we would move into the new convention center,” says Joe Chambers, the founder and CEO of the Musicians Hall Of Fame. “They brought plans over, they had the plans drawn out for us.”
Where things went south was when the city’s appraiser valued the Musicians Hall of Fame land for $4.8 million, half of what a private appraiser, and the same appraiser that evaluated the property when the Musicians Hall of Fame bought it in 2003 valued it at; $9.8 million. When Chambers refused the City of Nashville’s discounted offer, Nashville took the matter to the courts and had the property seized through governmental fiat. Then the Musicians Hall of Fame was only given 7 days to vacate the 30,000 sq. ft. of space filled with the museum’s priceless artifacts.
This is where the story gets worse.
Since the Musician’s Hall Of Fame was a museum with no home, they were forced to put all of their artifacts in storage. Then in the middle of May, 2010, when downtown Nashville experience historic flooding, the storage place housing the museum’s artifacts was flooded, destroying many of the priceless instruments, including the first drum ever played on the Grand Ole Opry, the upright bass played in Hank Williams’ last recording session, and guitars from people such as Jimi Hendrix, Peter Frampton, and Johnny Cash.
Eventually the Musicians Hall of Fame did find a new home a mile down the road at the Nashville Municipal Auditorium. The Hall of Fame will be housed in the building’s basement, and the name of the building is being changed to “Musicians Hall of Fame at the Municipal Auditorium” but this is no gift from the City of Nashville. The Hall of Fame is having to lease the space from the city instead of owning it like the previous location. They also must pay for all the expenses due to the name change of the auditorium.
The good news is the Musicians Hall Of Fame did eventually find a new home, and one that still exists in downtown Nashville. The Musicians Hall Of Fame is still not open at its new site. Its website says the hope to open sometime later in 2012. Calls and emails to them from Saving Country Music for comment were not immediately returned.
The question that citizens of the City of Nashville and citizens of the music community should be asking is how did the Songwriters Hall Of Fame and the Musicians Hall Of Fame get swapped in the Music City Center project? If there is enough room for a hall of fame on the premises, why would the preference not go to the one initially promised the space, and whose home got razed in the construction?
No offense to the Songwriters Hall Of Fame. It is great they finally have a physical home, and it appears that the Musicians Hall Of Fame is happy with their location at the municipal auditorium, and that the city is working with them to attempt to make it right. But with the announcement of the Songwriters Hall Of Fame being part of the Music City Center complex, if feels like an injustice has been done to the Musicians Hall Of Fame. Once again.
Because Dwight is just so damn cool, and because it’s been quite a while since his heyday, it’s easy to forget that at one point he was one of the biggest things going in mainstream country music; selling out arenas, and shaking up the sound with his neotraditional, Bakersfield-fueled tunes. Yoakam has sold over 25 million records and charted 30 singles, but you don’t think of him as a mainstream success, he’s the man you shake your fist at, but love all the same because he will always be cooler than you.
7 years is a long time to be absent from an original release, though Yoakam has plenty of excuses and been plenty busy with numerous movie appearances. He says the long lapse was not planned, but after coming off the joyride that was the mid 80′s through the early 2000′s for Dwight, crowds and sales were beginning to dwindle. Where he once played arenas, he was now headlining county fairs and releasing albums on smaller labels like Koch and New West.
Now he’s back on Warner where his career started in earnest after coming up playing mostly in rock and punk circles and being branded too “out there” by Nashville. You probably won’t see Yoakam’s name on your local arena’s marquee (he plays a lot of concert-catering casinos these days), but it feels like the Yoakam hiatus allowed his career to baste and simmer until now he’s re-emerged as a younger, but bona fide country music legend; a much more appetizing alternative to grasping to hold on to your youth and mainstream relevancy (see Hank Jr.). 3 Pears debuted at #3 on Billboard’s country chart, and was helped along by a top-notch media push by a big label.
It would have been impossible to screw up 3 Pears. With Dwight’s molasses voice, all you have to do is cut open a live mic in a studio and magic will happen. What’s the old saying about singing the phone book? When Johnny Cash has cited you as his favorite country singer, you know the talent is natural. All it needs is an outlet.
After giving 3 Pears an extended listen, I was curious of why even though I liked all of the songs, only a few of them seemed to grow on me to the point of where I craved them. I think this is a product of the production. Though none of the approaches to the songs are necessarily wrong, some feel like they are stretching, like they are trying to make sure the songs sound hip and fresh instead of letting them breathe and find their own path.
For example, the very first song, “Take Hold of My Hand” starts off with a very hip bass line. This is a song that Yoakam had been sitting on for 20 years and reached out to Kid Rock to help finish. No offense to bass guitar (or Kid Rock), but when I hear a Yoakam song, I don’t want to notice the bass. I want to be grabbed by the collar by Yoakam’s voice and have everything else compliment it. Similar bass action starts of the song “Trying”, an otherwise excellent song and one of the best on the album. But despite whatever production miscues, the strength of the material rallies.
Beck also helped out on 3 Pears, collaborating and recording two songs at his Malibu studio, “Missing Heart”, and in my opinion the gem of the project, “A Heart Like Mine”. This song is where everything comes together. Where some of the tracks on 3 Pears come across as a little too polished, here the guitar is dirty, the words a hard to make out, and that’s the way I want my Dwight. If I can’t understand the words because Yoakam’s voice is in that sweet spot for his drawl and inflections, that’s perfect, because that means I can feel them.
One of the hardest things for an excellent singer to do is to write to their vocal strengths. That’s one of the reasons Dwight has released 4 cover albums, and why some of his biggest hits were version of recognizable songs, (ex: “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” and “Streets of Bakersfield”). Yoakam finds that magical combination of originality and his singing sweet spot a few times on 3 Pears. He also let’s fly a great cover of the oft-covered “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke” that has its roots in the original Bakersfield Sound that Dwight helps carry on and that is being showcased right now (and that song specifically) at the Country Music Hall of Fame’s Bakersfield Sound exhibit.
Dwight Yoakam is an important figure in the quest to save country music. He’s authentic, real, and original. Yet he’s also successful, accepted, proven, palatable to the mainstream, and perfect for outreach with his acting career. He’s country’s king of cool (despite what he looks like without a hat), and 3 Pears is a solid contribution that will hopefully re-ignite interest in this iconic, one-of-a-kind country music talent that generations deserve to hear.
1 3/4 of 2 guns up.
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Texas country music legend James Hand will be releasing his brand new studio album Mighty Lonesome Man on October 16th. The 12-track album will include all original material, and contributions from an All-Star cast of Austin, TX’s country music talent. It will be released digitally, and on CD and vinyl, with the CD exclusively offering two bonus tracks, including a cover of Johnny Cash’s “Get Rhythm”. There is also a Collector’s Edition that will include a Mighty Lonesome Man t-shirt, poster, and guitar pick, along with both vinyl and CD copies of the album.
Contributors to Mighty Lonesome Man include Earl Poole Ball, aka “Mr. Honky Tonk Piano” who played with Johnny Cash for over 20 years, played on Gram Parsons Safe At Home, and has played with a grocery list of other country music greats, including Merle Haggard, Marty Robbins, and Marty Stuart.
Other contributors include Will Indian, Speedy Sparks (of Doug Sahm’s Texas Tornadoes), steel guitar player and Grammy award winner Cindy Cashdollar, fiddlers Bobby Flores and Alvin Crow, and Beth Chrisman of The Carper Family.
James Hand recorded the album this spring at Summit Street Studios in Austin, and has a busy year ahead of him. He will be headlining Friday night at The Muddy Roots Festival August 31st in Cookeville, TN, where word is a few advanced copies of Mighty Lonesome Man might be available. He is starring in an upcoming film Thank You A Lot about a music agent whose forced to sign his reclusive, legendary father.
Hand has released four previous studio albums, all to critical acclaim including his last two, Truth Will Set You Free and Shadow On The Ground, both on Rounder Records. Mighty Lonesome Man will be Hand’s first album with Austin-based Hillgrass Bluebilly Records. The cover photos were taken by CC Ekstrom of Almost Out Of Gas, with layout provided by J Anderson of prettygoodposters.com.
Mighty Lonesome Man track List:
- Mighty Lonesome Man
- Years I’ve Been Loving You
- Lesson In Depression
- Please Me When You Can
- The Drought
- Old Man Henry
- Now Not Later
- My Witness
- Wish You Would Kiss Me
- You Almost Fell
- Favorite Fool
- You Were With Me Then
- Get Rhythm
- You’re An Angel
Reno, Nevada’s Hellbound Glory just finished up a big 6-week tour, and behind them they left a trail of rumors that a future album might have a contribution from electro pop star Ke$ha. Apparently the band met Ke$ha just after coming off another tour and hanging out at their favorite Reno bar called The Hideout the same night Ke$ha was in town playing a show. It still seems somewhat uncertain if the collaboration will actually happen, and if it does, it probably wouldn’t be a full blown duet with Hellbound Glory frontman Leroy Virgil, more just a female backing vocal track.
But all of this Ke$ha talk rekindled a fascination I had with the pop star and her country aspirations about two years ago. Certainly in my world, the meteoric rise of a pop star will not light a blip on my radar…until the rumors of them wanting to “Go Country” forces me into duty, sniffing around on celeb-pop websites like a ravaged beagle in an overturned trash can, squinting my eyes at glittertext, wading through pop-up ads for pimple creme and Southern California-based reality shows to try and substantiate the “Gone Country” claims.
Ke$ha told Papermag in July of 2010:
“I’m really inspired by country music–my mom wrote country music–and I love Dolly Parton and Johnny Cash. I think at some point there might be some country collaborations or records in the future.”
Earlier in 2010 she told popeater.com:
I think people should know the classics — Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, also Townes Van Zandt, I’m a huge fan of him. [Bob Dylan's Nashville Skyline is] one of my favorite albums of all time, because I grew up in Nashville, and so everything about that record is really special to me. When you listen to that record, especially on vinyl, and you’re either falling in love or waking up after a long night and you’re with all your friends, it just brings up a lot of nostalgia.
Pop stars positioning themselves for a country move by claiming they’ve always been into the music is nothing new. The difference with Ke$ha though is her references to her country roots and influences are actually true. Two years ago I wrote a whole article about how Ke$ha could become a huge force in country music but never published it, probably worried it would be misunderstood. Though on a later post about Lady Ga-Ga “going country” I claimed, “the pop star you really need to worry about going country, is Ke$ha. Mark my words.” And later in the comments explained why, how Ke$ha’s past was rooted in country.
Ke$ha’s mom is a country songwriter by the name of Pebe Sebert. Her song of note is Old Flames (Can’t Hold a Candle To You), which became a hit for Dolly Parton, Merle Haggard, and Johnny Cash. Pebe Sebert did not start off in country though. She was a singer in a punk band, and then wrote the hit song “as a joke” according to Kesha in an interview with Ryan Seacrest. Pebe moved from LA to Nashville in 1991 after signing a songwriting contract when Ke$ha was still very young.
Ke$ha grew up in a songwriting environment, surrounded by music, and was taught how to play and sing at an early age. The story goes that as a baby, Pebe would put Ke$ha in a guitar case on stage while she performed. As Ke$ha grew, they would write songs together. A young Ke$ha and mom Pebe appeared in an episode of the TV show “The Simple Life.” Through the dumb reality TV plot, you can get a good reading of what kind of person Pebe is. Ke$ha was a good student and scored “near perfect” SAT numbers before dropping out of high school to pursue music in LA.
Ke$ha got involved with high rollers in the LA music scene, the whole time she was writing her own songs, citing Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash, and classic country as big influences. Ke$ha is a strong singer, has appeared on a number of pop and hip-hop albums singing backups and harmonies, and has written songs for other pop stars including Brittney Spears and Miley Cyrus.
However when her debut album Animal came out, it was described by critics as the most predictable, un-apologetically pop-oriented ultra-catchy album put out in years. Of course, the spoon fed public ate it up. The debut song Tik Tok was a #1 hit in 11 different countries, and became the longest running number one debut single by a female artist since 1977. When questioned about critics, Ke$ha bristles, citing how she writes all of her songs, and is just “having fun” right now.
Even during Ke$ha’s mega success and worldwide tours, she’s still collaborated with other artists. It was her contribution of backing vocals on rapper Flor-ida’s hit “Right Round” that put her in the pop spotlight to begin with, though she didn’t get paid a dime for the contribution. That is when she adopted the “$” in her name, to be ironic, because even though she was well-known, she was living out of the back of a Lincoln Town Car in LA.
Since then she’s established a trashy persona that celebrates bad tattoos, mullets, Tran-Am’s, and reckless behavior. Though on the outside Ke$has seems sincerely pop, some have given her credit for mocking the system with her songs and persona, an anti-pop star so to speak. She publicly distances from the Paris Hilton party scene, and very well may be playing the pop world from the inside, writing stupid, catchy songs to prove a point while cashing in financially. If there was ever a Trojan Horse of the pop world, Ke$ha would make a good candidate.
The question isn’t if Ke$ha will go country, only when. But it won’t be on her next album due out later this year, self-described as guitar-driven “cock rock” that “capture(s) some of the true essence of what rock and roll is, and that’s just irreverence and sexiness and fun and not giving a fuck.” Hellbound Glory would be Ke$ha’s first country contribution, but you can bet it wouldn’t be her last.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, Ke$ha will be a force in country music.
There’s never been a question in anyone’s mind if Johnny Cash actually shot a man in Reno just to watch him die. But that lyric, and Johnny’s song “Folsom Prison Blues” have gone on to become an iconic piece of country music history. This language was nothing new in 1955. Murder ballads and gunslinger tales trace back to the very roots of country music and America’s Gothic, violent identity.
Stretching the boundaries of lyrical content was something at the very foundation of the early Outlaw movement in country music. As has been pointed out many times before about American culture, violence is perfectly acceptable, but sex can be taboo. Nobody batted an eyelash at “Folsom Prison Blues”, but when the original Outlaw Bobby Bare recorded Tompall Glaser’s “Streets of Baltimore” with it’s fairly docile and veiled reference to a man leaving his wife, it caused a controversy.
Kris Kristofferson pushed the limit for drug references with his song “Sunday Morning Coming Down.” Johnny Cash later cut the song himself, and despite the “stoned” lyric, the song went on to be the CMA’s Song of the Year in 1970. The boundaries are continuously being pushed in country, until now in many respects country has lost most of its family friendly identity.
In underground country, racy lyrics have been at the very foundation of the movement, though in no way are they required. Hank Williams III’s Straight to Hell album was the first to ever be released under the CMA with a Parental Advisory, but the salty content is many times misunderstood as being autobiographical, or condoning the behavior being sung about. Sometimes it is, but sometimes, just like with “Folsom Prison Blues” it is telling a story with the real language and themes people face in modern day life.
“There’s just a little misconception…” Hank3 told IBWIP on their 5th Anniversary episode. “All the Williams’ have had a rowdy crowd, whether its Hank Sr., Jr., or myself. Most of my songs have been, you know I’ve lived a lot of them. And once in a while I’ll kind of put myself in other people’s shoes. Like the song “#5″ was some friends of mine that have been hung up on some really hard stuff, you know with the heroin and stuff like that. I just put some hopeful songs out there. Once in a while I’ll put out a little bit of a fantasy out there like the dedicated song to GG (Allin). Those kind of songs I haven’t done anything like some of the topics that hit on that song. I can just project, or put myself in that mode for a little bit.”
“One of the reasons I sing about smoking and drinking and all that stuff so much is because I try to create a partyin’, good time atmosphere when people come to see me. I’m not trying to bring them down, I’m trying to lift them up so they can forget about all their problems and all the stuff that’s happening in the world. And for two or three hours, they can come out to a show and just have some fun. And I always try to tell folks to pace it out as much as possible.”
When reviewing Bob Wayne’s recent album, the topic came up in a heated debate Bob Wayne participated in personally. “…So you’re telling me DAC (David Allan Coe) killed a women in TN then broke out of jail… I think a lot of his songs a true man… But I think he is also a storyteller,” Bob replied to critics. Bob Wayne regularly sings about drinking and drugs while in real life remaining completely sober, just like many underground country artists with racy lyrics like Joe Buck Yourself and Lonesome Wyatt.
It is hard to fault country music fans who do not want to see foul language or hard themes in a genre so tied to traditional values. Just like any genre of music, this is the reason well-defined lines are important so people can steer clear of content they may find offensive. But it is also unfair to fault artists carrying on the same storytelling traditions Johnny Cash and Hank Williams did while modernizing the language no different than how it’s being modernized in the mainstream of country. It’s also unfair to say singing songs you haven’t lived somehow makes them invalid. Street cred, dues, skin’s on the wall, or however you want to phrase it will always be important in country music, but the should never be essential to telling a story.
Hard language presents a challenge to underground country and its aging demographic. Most underground country fans are now in their 30′s. When Hank3′s Straight to Hell came out they were in their 20′s, and could relate better to many of the racy themes. Now, like many of the artists themselves, the fans have grown up, taken real jobs, have kids and spouses, sobered up possibly, and sometimes the hard language songs can come across as immature or hard to relate to.
Barring something similar to the Middle East’s Islamic Revolution, the trend will always arch towards the breaking down of moral barriers to artistic content in culture. With this freedom comes a responsibility to make sure people are only presented with questionable content when they want to be. Instead of looking at other people’s tastes and judging them, maybe we should feel fortunate we live in a time when censorship is lax and people can enjoy the music they find appropriate and appealing without it being run through a filter of other people’s opinions, tastes, or views.
And let’s all hope that the country music themes of morality vs. sin, good vs. evil, sober vs. imbibing, and law vs. the outlaw remain eternal in country music until kingdom come, because this eternal struggle is what we all face every day, and the reason country music speaks to us like nothing else.
Today we learned of the death of Adam Yauch, aka “MCA” from the hip-hop and hardcore punk group The Beastie Boys. You may wonder why such news would be germane on a country music website, but 25 years after the release of The Beastie Boys commercial blockbuster album License To Ill, country music is attempting to fight off an incursion of the most awful, ill-advised, and poorly-executed attempts to bridge country and hip-hop influences into something called “country rap”.
In my Survival Guide to Country Rap, I pointed out many reasons why the fusion of country and rap rarely works, and how it can be harmful to the health of both genres by killing contrast and aiding the formation of one popular mono-genre of American music. But I also left open the idea that at times, when approached with respect and understanding, the two polar genres of country and rap could be bridged successfully.
Today many people will be pouring their brass monkey’s while listening to License to Ill, but it was not The Beastie Boys 1986 blockbuster that had the most influence in music, it was their 1989 follow up Paul’s Boutique that is considered their magum opus. Along with albums such as Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger and The Sex Pistols’ Nevermind The Bullocks, I and other music critics would put Paul’s Boutique up there as one of the most influential albums in all of music, for all time.
The reason for this is because Paul’s Boutique created many of the trends that continue to be alive in popular music today, the biggest being the use of sampling in songs. Though many music listeners, especially country music listeners may see this practice as cheating, this was a completely inventive approach at the time, and a way to make old-school-sounding music in a music world The Beastie Boys had difficulty relating to. The Beastie Boys were the old-school pioneers of the late 80′s, similar to the neo-traditionalists of country today. Feeling an inferiority with present day sounds, they borrowed from the past to create feeling and nostalgia through their music. The Beastie Boys were embarrassed of being labeled one hit wonders and hacks, and wanted to assert their creative influence on the music world.
Where the country world comes in is in the heavy-handed and stark use of country and Southern influences in Paul’s Boutique. In many ways, country and Southern sounds and themes are the foundation for the album. The problem with Paul’s Boutique was that it was not very popular in its time, and was considered a flop compared to License to Ill.
The most important mark of the project on popular culture was how it interjected violent themes into rap music. At the time, “Word To Your Mother!” was about as violent as rap got, while Johnny Cash had been serenading prisons about killing a man just to watch him die for 35 years. The Beastie Boys and Paul’s Boutique took stark country and western themes and lyric modes and set them to hip hop beats built in many cases from Southern sounds and artists. Many people credit Paul’s Boutique as being the formation of “gangster rap”, and country music themes may be just as much to blame for this as The Beastie Boys and The Dust Brothers who DJ’d the album.
Paul’s Boutique’s Country & Southern Foundations
“5-Piece Chicken Dinner” is the most obvious example, a simple fiddle and banjo riff put in the album to be completely ironic, but at the same times speaks to an appeal for country music that runs like a vein through the most influential hip-hop album of all time.
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“Looking Down The Barrel of a Gun” borrows from the Southern rock anthem “Mississippi Queen” from another from another New York band called Mountain, though most of the track is played live by Adam Yauch (MCA) and Adam Horovitz (Ad-Rock). This song is the best example of the violent influences of country mingling with hip-hop beats into what would become “gangster rap”.
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“High Plains Drifter” is the best example of Paul’s Boutique taking classic country and western themes and adapting them into a modern hip-hop song, and how this allowed the violent “Wild West” storytelling element of country music to assert influence on hip-hop. Sonically the song borrows heavily from The Eagles’ “Those Shoes”.
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“Johnny Ryall” is another storytelling song about a “rockabilly Star from the days of old” who “got a platinum voice but only gold records” who now is a homeless bum living on the streets of New York. This song that also references Bob Dylan’s song “Maggie’s Farm”. The amazing thing about “Johnny Ryall” is how closely it mirrors the tragedy songs written about Nashville’s forgotten stars and songwriters, songs like “Murder On Music Row” that wasn’t released until a decade later. As much of the song seems to be centered around making fun of a homeless man, the underlying message is of a forgotten rockabilly great who never was given his due.
Whole album is below, “Johnny Ryall” starts at the 4:48.
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Paul’s Boutique is an example of where country elements can be integrated with hip-hop successfully, but it also teaches us the lesson of why in the end there is no country rap, there’s only country, and hip hop. At the very beginning of the formation of hip hop, of which Paul’s Boutique is an essential element of, it became a genre of music that borrowed from other genres, like the country elements in Paul’s Boutique.
Nobody would argue that Paul’s Boutique is a country record, for the same reasons you can argue Colt Ford isn’t country either: because as soon as you integrate hip-hop elements into country music, it ceases to be country and becomes hip hop. Hip-hop elements have no history, and no place in country music, while country music, just like every other music genre, went into forming hip hop. The lessons learned from Paul’s Boutique prove this.
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Two guns up for Paul’s Boutique.
RIP Adam Yauch, aka (MCA)
(Fellow Beastie boy Mike D also has an alter ego “Country Mike”, and recorded an album “Country Mikes Greatest Hits” for friends and family in 2000).
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There may be no artist people have requested more I review over the years than Jackson Taylor & The Sinners. But when I finally got around to opening a line of communication with the band I was told I would have to wait even longer; they had something special coming down the pike. Jackson Taylor had just jettisoned his management and stripped his band down to a 3 piece, and had something new and wild in store. That new, wild something turned out to be Bad Juju.
This fiery, unfettered, full tilt assault on country music strikes that perfect chord of being both inescapably familiar yet remarkably fresh. Johnny Cash on cocaine may be the most appropriate description. More Memphis than Nashville, more madness than melancholy. But moreover, Bad Juju is just one hell of a good time.
This is fun music in the truest sense of the term. You don’t conjure up Bad Juju to commiserate with your pain, you conjure it up to forget about it. Jackson Taylor & The Sinners found their mojo by stripping it back to the simplest of lineups: Acoustic guitar and vocals, lead guitar, and drums. And when they found that mojo, they stuck with it, refined it, worked at it until it was perfect and its power both undeniable and universal on the human body.
The reason this album is so enjoyable is because the enjoyment Jackson Taylor & The Sinners have playing this music is so obvious and infectious. They recorded this album live in all of three short days, no overdubs, no over-thinking, boom! This is what you get, just what you’ll see live, no apologies, no over-production, just the raw Juju in your face and unapologetic.
And when they realized what magic they had found, they couldn’t help but give this stripped down treatment to other people’s songs. Frequent readers of Saving Country Music may know I care little for cover songs, especially familiar cover songs, and how much more familiar can you get than Elvis’s “That’s Alright Mama” or Johnny Cash’s “Stripes”? But where The Sinners’ sin is forgiven is in the amazing, energetic, and fun treatment they give these songs, and how they intermingle them with their originals with energy and attitude to their approach.
With such a stripped down lineup, dynamics were the key to making these song arrangements shine. Take Willie Nelson’s “It’s Not Supposed To Be That Way”. The sinners on this song go from barely even playing, to blazing out this sweet ballad like its hair was on fire. The dynamics they employ and the way each player is able to work in such unison with the feel of the song and each other is what makes this album something special.
Austin “Slate” Garret’s amazing guitar work is like the nose tackle in a 3/4 football defense charged with filling a tremendous gap in such a small lineup. He pulls it off brilliantly without overplaying or relying on tricks or effects. Jackson Taylor’s voice can go from screaming to sweet in a heartbeat, and gets your heart beating by the emotions he brings out in these songs. Brandon Burke may have the hardest task of all, keeping up with these two monsters and holding together compositions that sometimes go from genteel to explosive in a single phrase.
My concerns about this album are few. Could they put out half a dozen albums with this lineup and the approach hold up? Probably not. That’s what’s so great about this album though, it is absolutely perfect for this time in music, with this band, with these songs, right now. The whole Memphis/Cash thing continues to be hot, yet at the same time Jackson Taylor is able to clearly delineate himself from the herd with this approach and attitude.
Ideally I would want to see more depth from the songwriting. Amongst originals like “Cocaine”, “Whiskey”, “Humboldt County Grown”, there’s not many songs that speak deep to the cerebral cortex. But in the context of this approach, mushy crap would just be in the way, dragging down this album. Jackson Taylor and the Sinners get a pass from being branded with the “Whiskey, Devil, Cocaine” parody tag by simply having so much fun with this album. They never take themselves too seriously. In fact there’s some dialogue embedded in this album (I won’t give away the punch line) that as gratuitous and immature as it is, shows the light side and ribald sense of humor this music is approached with.
The last little nit pick is the lack of low end here without a bass guitar. It comes across as a little difficult on the ear, especially at first because you’re used to the bass notes being there in this style of music. Along those same lines, long-time fans of Jackson Taylor will notice that despite 7 of the 10 songs being originals, some of the songs have been previously released. So if you’re familiar with these songs, it may cause old version/new version conflict in your music brain. But in the end, no concerns I had for this album were able to mitigate any of its strengths.
Please understand, this is not a family album (despite what Jackson Taylor may say jokingly on one of the tracks), this is for mommy and daddy time, for the hellraisers and hellbillies out there. But the balls out approach is something everyone will find infectious, and just plain fun.
Two guns up!
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Country music songwriting legend and original Outlaw Billy Joe Shaver will be releasing a loaded 20-song CD package with companion DVD called Live at Billy Bob’s Texas on July 17th, recorded in the “World’s Largest Honky Tonk”. This will be Shaver’s first album in five years after winning a court battle for aggravated assault in April of 2010, and heart surgery in May of 2010, and after taking some time off from touring due to a shoulder issue.
From The Press Release:
The fully loaded special package includes 20 live renditions of some of his most notable compositions on an audio CD and DVD as well as two bonus tracks, and is the first set of new concert recordings since 1995 to be issued to the public. Included among Shaver classics and favorites are two new songs: “Wacko From Waco” (co-written with his longtime friend Willie Nelson) and “The Git Go,” proving that his muse remains as fertile as ever.
As a songwriter, Shaver’s songs have been recorded by Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Kris Kristofferson, The Allman Brothers, Bobby Bare, BR549, Elvis Presley, John Anderson, George Jones, Tex Ritter, and Patty Loveless amongst others. Waylon’s landmark album Honky Tonk Heroes included all Billy Joe Shaver songs except for one.
Billy Joe Shaver will be the 42nd artist to release a “Live at Billy Bob’s” album, company that includes David Allan Coe, Willie Nelson, and Merle Haggard. He recorded the album with his young, rocking band guitarist Jeremy Woodall, drummer Jason Lynn McKenzie, and bassist Matt Davis. Even at 72, Shaver still delivers a very high energy set, punctuated by his punching and personality on stage.
Some of the Shaver songs to be included on Live at Billy Bob’s are:
- Heart of Texas
- Georgia on a Fast Train
- Honky Tonk Heroes
- Old Chunk of Coal
- Live Forever
- Old Five and Dimers
- That’s What She Said Last Night
- Black Rose
- Hottest Thing in Town
- Good Old USA
- I Couldn’t Be Me Without You
- Star in My Heart (a Capella)
- You Can’t Beat Jesus Christ
- Wacko From Waco (studio bonus)
- The Git Go (studio bonus)
Today it was announced that a new statue of Willie Nelson will be erected in Austin, TX, commemorating the country music legend whose career now spans over 50 years. The bronze statue is a gift from the not-for-profit organization Capitol Area Statues. It stands 8-feet tall and weighs 1 ton, at a cost of about $300,000. It was created by sculptor Clint Shields, who told The Rolling Stone he had a difficult task of making sure he represented all the eras of Willie, from the Outlaw of the 70′s, to the face of Farm Aid in the 80′s, to today.
The statue will sit at the base of the stairs to ACL Live’s Moody Theater where Austin City Limits is taped, at the W Austin Hotel downtown. The statue was initially unveiled to a small group in Austin on November 14th (see image of statue), but the public unveiling will happen the same day Willie Nelson and many other artists are scheduled to perform at the “We Walk The Line” tribute commemorating Johnny Cash’s 80th birthday on April 20th, aka 4/20. The statue will also officially be unveiled at 4:20 PM “as a nod to the country star’s reputation as a stoner.”
As Saving Country Music pointed out last August, asking if Willie Nelson was becoming a “pot punchline”:
Willie Nelson is an American treasure, one of the worlds greatest pacifists, an advocate for farmers, biofuels, and countless other causes, as well as being one of the most revered living American artists, and one of the greatest country music legends of all time. His album Red Headed Stranger is disputably the greatest, most important country album ever. But as time goes on, what Willie seems to be best known for is a guy who happens to smoke pot.
…what I am concerned with is that Willie’s weed identity is trumping, if not marginalizing the other accomplishments of one of our country’s elder statesmen, including his marijuana advocacy work…If marijuana was legal, it would simply be a footnote to Willie’s legacy, like a baseball player’s favorite ice cream.
The 4/20 unveiling of the Willie Nelson statue happens to be a convenient date when Willie and other music dignitaries will already be in attendance at the Moody Theater, but unveiling it right at 4:20 PM reinforces what Willie Nelson’s legacy is becoming in the eyes of popular culture.
Statue creator Clint Shields said that while creating the likeness, he was concerned about the statue’s impact “especially a younger generation (that) grew fond of him during his more mature years.” Willie Nelson’s songs have long since left radio. He can’t be found on country awards shows. There’s no Willie Nelson videos on MTV or CMT. The way most of the younger generation and popular culture interface with Willie Nelson is through TMZ stories about his marijuana arrests, collaborations with Snoop Dogg on stoner songs, and stories like The Rolling Stone article above that mentions little about his music or other accomplishments.
Willie Nelson’s music, his legendary albums like Red Headed Stranger, Wanted: The Outlaws, and Stardust all constitute his musical legacy. His work with Farm Aid, and for biofeuls, world peace, environmentalism, and marijuana advocacy constitute his world legacy. Willie’s pot legacy is only his pop legacy, irrelevant in the face of such a reverent and inspiring life of work. To perpetuate a typecasting of Willie Nelson in the frame of an ironic joke at such a memorable moment as the unveiling of an eternal tribute seems like an unnecessary reduction of his legacy.
Some may want to commemorate Willie Nelson’s “reputation as a stoner”, but I choose to remember him as so much more, like his reputation as a world-class musician, a fighter for artists’ independence, an advocate for peace, and a spiritual inspiration.
From the tale of blues godfather Robert Johnson selling his soul to the devil at the crossroads, to The Louvin Brothers’ singing about how “Satan Is Real”, to Hank Williams III screaming the dark lord’s name out in “Hellbilly” country, Satan, or the devil is the most recurring folk character American roots music has ever seen.
You would think in a country founded by puritans, whose percentage of population identifying itself as “religious” in a traditional manner hovers around 70%, God and Jesus would also be big players in popular music. But due to the secularization of American culture, God and Jesus have been mostly segregated into gospel and contemporary Christian music world. Mention the devil all you want in songs, in either a negative or positive context. But talk of God, or especially Jesus in a song typecasts it as “religious” content and limits the audience. Or at least that’s how it used to be.
The Country Music Hall of Fame duo The Louvin Brothers for example started out as a gospel act, but to appeal to a wider audience made the move to secular music, so the could “sell tobacco” as Charlie Louvin said. Hank Williams developed the “Luke The Drifter” persona to sing his gospel songs under, afraid gospel would hurt the standing of the Hank Williams name with disc jockeys and the commercial crowd. Even in the 1950′s, religious music was a hard sell to the masses.
One of the reasons the devil makes such a good folk character or icon in music is because the term “devil” itself has become secularized. The devil is not always a religious figure, though it can be, it can also be simply a personification of evil.
Slowly over the past few years we’re seeing the re-emergence of both God and Jesus in roots music content, and the popularization of gospel. Why? Possibly for the same reason the devil works so well, because God and Jesus are beginning to re-emerge as “folk” characters too, that even non-religious people can identify with as personifications of good. This has taken some of the polarizing edge off of these religious terms, and opened them up as useful tools to songwriters.
From mainstream country and R&B where God is now more regularly referenced than ever before, to underground roots where it’s re-emerged after years of overuse of the “devil” and “Satan” terms, Jesus, God, and gospel are hot right now. You can see this everywhere. Shooter Jennings’ new album has a cross prominently displayed on the front. Ray Wylie Hubbard’s new album “Grifter’s Hymnal” has religious connotations throughout, and culminates in a Gospel song called “Ask God”. McDougall, a folk musician from the Northwest has a new album out early next week called A Few Towns More with a song “When God Dips His Love In My Heart”. Eric Church’s has a song called “Country Music Jesus” (possibly about yours truly), and the “Jesus, take the wheel” theme is very popular in popular country music at the moment.
Examples of Jesus, God, gospel music and elements of gospel being used in traditionally-secular music by believers and non-believers alike are everywhere. Why is this? Here’s a few ideas.
The Power of Gospel
With the renewed interest in roots music, more artists and fans are understanding what an important role gospel played in the formation of country, bluegrass, folk, and other roots art forms, how the use of harmony from gospel is an essential sonic element to American music, and how gospel can be an uplifting and enjoyable component to add to both recorded and live performance.
Beginning in the middle of the last decade and trending upwards from there, the use of the devil and Satan in lyrical content became hyper popularized, to the point now where the trend is beginning to reach parody and burnout. However the battle between good and evil is such an eternal theme in music, new ways must be found to communicate the good/evil struggle. The nature between God and Satan is such that the terms can almost be interchangeable in certain contexts, where you can take a negative song about Satan, turn it into a positive song about God, yet the underlying theme of the song never changes. This gives artists the ability to still say what they want to say, but not use Satan, whose name as a lyrical element may be becoming outmoded.
Irony and Trend
As with nearly all elements of American culture today, people could be using God and Jesus and religious symbols and language to be ironic instead of literal. It’s funny to sing a song about Jesus in a band that is otherwise secular or even counter to religious or Christian beliefs. However that could have unintended ramifications and alter meanings depending on the audience. A religious person could still listen to these songs and identify with the message, and it could also desensitize an audience to the use of such religious terms that for years were kept at arms length for fear of religious typecasting.
And God and Jesus just might be cool right now. Just like pink is the new black, Jesus could be the new devil. The trend may be towards these benevolent religious figures as hip terms.
The imagery, songs, and legacy of Johnny Cash which is laden heavily with his religious beliefs may be one of the primary reasons God, gospel, Jesus, crosses, and other religious elements are trending up in roots music. Cash’s continued popularity even nearly a decade after his death, and his cross-genre, ageless appeal makes him a great ambassador for re-integrating religious content back into American music. Remember, Johnny Cash isn’t just a Country Music Hall of Fame inductee, he’s also in the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame, and the Gospel Music Hall of Fame.
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Whatever the reasons, religious content is re-emerging in American roots music, and it’s hard to not get excited, whatever your religious beliefs are, to see what artists do when a whole new set of terms, themes, and modes is added to their creative palette.
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