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Up until this point Saving Country Music’s “10 Badass Moments” series has only featured men. But can women be badasses as well? Well if you look at the life and times of one Wanda Jackson, the answer would most certainly be “yes”. Whether it’s from a country or a rock & roll perspective, Wanda Jackson had a significant impact on both, and certainly deserves to be considered a badass right beside her male counterparts. Here’s 10 reasons why….
- 10 Badass Willie Nelson Moments
- 10 Badass Waylon Jennings Moments
- 10 Badass Johnny Cash Moments
- 10 Badass Hank3 Moments
- 10 Badass Merle Haggard Moments
- 10 Badass Marty Stuart Moments
- 10 Badass George Jones Moments
- 10 Badass Billy Joe Shaver Moments
1. Paying Dues in Hank Thompson’s Brazos Valley Boys
Wanda wasn’t a boy, but while she was still attending Capitol Hill High School in Oklahoma City, Hank Thompson heard Wanda performing on her own radio show she had on KLPR-AM. She was awarded the show for winning a talent contest. Hank Thompson was so impressed, he recruited her to sing in his Brazos Valley Boys band. Eventually she went on to record a duet with Billy Gray—the bandleader of the Brazos Valley Boys—called “You Can’t Have My Love”. The song was released in 1954, and went to #8 on the country chart. Wanda Jackson was well on her way to making a wide impact on the music world.
2. Proving The Boys At Capitol Records Wrong
After the success of her duet with Brazos Valley Boys’ bandleader Billy Gray on the song “You Can’t Handle My Love” on Capitol Records, Wanda asked the company if she could sign with them as a solo artist. That’s when Capitol producer Ken Nelson uttered the immortal words, “Girls don’t sell records,” emboldening Wanda Jackson even more to make a career in music. Rival label Decca Records was happy to have Wanda, and she went on to prove old Ken Nelson wrong many times over. After Wanda started having success, Capitol eventually did sign her.
Fighting the male establishment became a theme of both Wanda’s music and career, and her feistiness and tenacity finally won her much respect from many of her male counterparts, including a very big one . . .
3. Breaking Up with Elvis
After signing with Decca Records, Wanda Jackson went on tour opening for Elvis Presley. This is when Wanda became the female nexus between the country and rock & roll worlds. Elvis encouraged Wanda to develop a rockabilly sound and to push herself creatively, and she did. Wanda began writing her own songs and putting her own personal stamp on the music world. And then their professional relationship went further. “It wasn’t traditional dating,” Wanda explains. “My dad liked Elvis a lot, and it was okay with him that I could hang out a little bit with Elvis after a show.” Eventually Elvis asked Wanda Jackson to “be his girl” in early 1956, but Wanda, always the strong, spirited, independent woman, said no. When asked if Elvis was a good kisser, Wanda once said, “No, I was the good kisser.”
4. Being The First Woman To Record Rock & Roll
Wanda Jackson, despite being known as the “Queen of Rockabilly”, openly criticizes them term “rockabilly” herself. Her website to this day proclaims her more simply the “Queen of Rock.” What’s for sure is that Wanda was one of the very first, if not the first females to knowingly record rock & roll songs. Though other females like Rose Maddox certainly can claim an early stake in the rock game, Wanda, working right beside “The King” Elvis Presley, was knowingly mixing the emerging styles of country and rock & roll, many times on the same record, and sometimes in the same song.
Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the song “I Gotta Know.” The song starts off sounding like a syrupy, slow country ballad, and then shockingly launches into a boogie woogie beat, and then reverts back. “I Gotta Know” is Wanda proving her prowess with both styles. The song also shows off Wanda’s strong womanhood with which she approached many of her songs.
5. The Growl
According to Wanda, her father and manager Tom Jackson told her during an early studio session, “Wanda, rear back and sing that thing like it should be done!” As soon as Wanda did this “the growl was just there.” It has gone on to become Wanda’s signature, and just as significant and influential of a contribution to both country and rock & roll music as anything else Wanda is known for.
6. Having A #1 Hit …. in JAPAN!
Wanda Jackson recorded “Fujiyama Mama” on September 17th, 1957, and released it to the public to some concerns about the insensitivity of the lyrical content. A mere 10 years removed from the controversial nuclear bombings of Japan by the United States, and here Wanda was using the incident as hyperbole about an angry woman, with sexual undertones nonetheless. So what happened with the single? It blew up … in Japan! Jackson became an international superstar from the song, and briefly toured Japan in 1959.
“Fujiyama Mama” wasn’t Wanda’s only dalliance in international success. She also released a handful of singles in Germany between 1965 and 1970, including songs like “Komm Heim, Mein Wandersmann” and “Wer an Das Meer Sein Herz Verliert”. Her courting of international markets would prove to be savvy, as later in her career and even today Wanda Jackson enjoys great international recognition and acclaim.
7. Growing Old Gracefully
So many female music performers and actors feel the pressure to stay forever young, succumbing to procedure after procedure until their visage is almost a caricature of their former selves. But not Wanda. She’s grown old with gracefulness and dignity, never trying to be younger than she is, or trying to be anything she’s not.
8. Recording Albums with Jack White and Justin Townes Earle
When Wanda wanted to make a comeback record, she took a play out of Loretta Lynn’s playbook and recruited rocker and world-class record producer Jack White to work with. The result was 2011′s The Party Ain’t Over which presented Wanda Jackson to a brand new generation of fans and revived her career domestically and abroad.
When Wanda wanted to keep the party going, she worked with another young, rising star in Justin Townes Earle in 2012′s Unfinished Business. Where Jack White went in a more flashy direction, Justin Townes Earle took a more songwriter, tasteful approach. Both albums were critical successes, and stand right beside all of Wanda’s other works as career accomplishments.
9. Recording Amy Winehouse’s “You Know I’m No Good”
When Jack White was producing Wanda Jackson’s comeback album The Party Ain’t Over, he needed a bullet, and decided that Amy Winehouse’s “You Know I’m No Good” would be a good fit. Wanda initially refused to record the song because of some questionable content in the lyrics, so Jack White rewrote some parts, and wala, The Queen of Rock was covering Amy Winehouse, adding her custom growl to the popular composition.
The Party Ain’t Over was released in January of 2011. Less than six months later, Amy Winehouse died of a drug overdose. Wanda continued to perform the song in tribute to the troubled British songwriter.
10. Being Herself, Always
As a pretty young woman with a unique voice, surrounded by all the temptations of the music world and many different directions she could go, Wanda Jackson simply followed her heart, and stayed true to herself throughout her career, and does up to today. She loved country music and rock & roll equally, and shared her time with both, approaching both genres with respect, appreciation, and knowledge for their roots, knowing where to keep the line between the two. Though she was always sexy, she never sexualized herself simply as image to make up for musical shortcomings. And though she did her time in L.A. and Nashville, Wanda never truly left her roots in good old Oklahoma, and still lives there today.
BONUS 11. Never Losing Her Cool
When it comes to the preservation of the history and sound of country music, you can make the case there is nobody who does it better and with more passion and dedication than Marty Stuart. Tireless and true to his convictions, from his music, to his archive of memorabilia, to his presence on television and the Grand Ole Opry stage, and to some of the thankless things he does well out of the public eye, Marty Stuart embodies everything behind the idea of Saving Country Music, and is a badass of the genre if there ever was one.
- 10 Badass Willie Nelson Moments
- 10 Badass Waylon Jennings Moments
- 10 Badass Johnny Cash Moments
- 10 Badass Merle Haggard Moments
1. Paying His Dues with Johnny Cash & Lester Flatt
Unlike many of the country music prima donnas who’ve set up shop in country music recently, Marty Stuart comes from the school that believes you have to pay your dues in country music before it’s your turn in the spotlight. Marty Stuart started playing professionally as a sideman in Lester Flatt’s bluegrass band in the early 70′s at the tender age of 14 under the tutelage of legendary mandolin player Roland White. Marty stayed with the band until 1978 when it split up because of Lester’s failing health.
After spending a couple of years working with Vassar Clements and Doc Watson, Marty joined Johnny Cash’s band in 1980, and stayed there for half a decade as both a sideman and a studio musician. Stuart also married Cash’s daughter Cindy in 1983. The two divorced five years later after Marty left Cash’s band to pursue a solo career.
2. Keeping One of the Biggest Archives of Country Music Memorabilia
Marty’s vast collection of country music memorabilia is one of the biggest in country music. It has been featured at the Tennessee State Museum, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and pieces are regularly loaned to the Country Music Hall of Fame for exhibits.
“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.
“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.” (read full story)
3. Inviting Cool Artists Onto The Grand Ole Opry
Playing the Grand Ole Opry stage is one of the biggest thrills and highest honors any artist within the country music realm can be bestowed, but it is not an easy one achieve. One way to grace the stage is to be invited up by a standing member to play during their set, and that is how young, up-and-coming stars like Sturgill Simpson, to one of the oldest living country stars still around, the 90-year-old Don Juan Maddox of The Maddox Brothers & Rose both made their first appearances on the hallowed stage of the storied institution. Marty was also the man who officially invited Old Crow Medicine Show recently to become The Opry’s newest members; the first traditional -leaning band to be invited in the last half decade.
4. Hummingbyrd & The Clarence White Guitar
As explained above, Marty Stuart has many pieces of country music memorabilia, but none of them may be as prized as his guitar affectionately called Hummingbyrd. The 1965 Fender Telecaster was originally owned by famous guitarist Clarence White—a studio musician, member of The Kentucky Colonels, and most-famously, the guitarist for The Byrds (hence the “Y” in the name).
Hummingbyrd is no ordinary guitar. It was the original prototype for what is know as a “B-Bender” guitar—a custom job invented by Clarence White and Byrd drummer Gene Parsons, who happened to also be a machinist. The point of the custom job is to be able to mimic the moaning sounds of a steel guitar by bending the B-string up a whole tone through a series of levers activated by pushing on the guitar’s neck, body, or bridge. When Clarence White passed away, his wife sold the legendary guitar to Marty Stuart, who uses it as his primary instrument.
Included on Marty’s 2010 album Ghost Train: The Studio B Sessions is a instrumental called “Hummingbyrd” where Marty Stuart puts on a clinic on how to use this unique instrument. The song went onto win the Grammy for Best Country Instrumental Performance. Hummingbyrd shows both Marty Stuart’s passion for the preservation of country music’s history, and his prowess as a guitar player matched by few in the genre.
5. Standing Up To CBS / Columbia For Dropping Johnny Cash
A running theme in these 10 Badass Moments has been the firing of Johnny Cash from CBS Records in 1985. Merle Haggard mouthed off to CBS Executive Rick Blackburn about the firing, saying, “You’re the son-of-a-bitch that sat at that desk over there and fired Johnny Cash. Let it go down in history that you’re the dumbest son-of-a-bitch I’ve ever met.”
When Marty Stuart left Johnny Cash’s band, he signed to Columbia (previously CBS), and in 1988 recorded his second album for the label called Let There Be Country. However Columbia refused to release it. Though some have surmised it was because Marty’s first self-titled Columbia album didn’t sell well, in James L. Dickerson’s 2005 book Mojo Triangle, he explains Columbia didn’t release the album because Marty Stuart had a heated exchange with a Columbia record executive about the Johnny Cash firing. Columbia shelved the album in retribution, and Marty eventually left the label without recording another album for them. Marty then signed to MCA where he had his greatest commercial success, and amidst this success, Columbia decided to finally release Let There Be Country in August of 1992.
6. Hosting The Marty Stuart Show
Patterning itself around the classic country music variety shows of the past like The Porter Wagoner Show, Flatt & Scruggs, and Hee Haw, The Marty Stuart Show is one of the last bastions for true, classic country music on television. Carried by RFD-TV, this weekly show features Marty and his Fabulous Superlatives, his wife Connie Smith, and just about the coolest variety of country music artists you can see on TV—artists from the new generation like Justin Townes Earle, Brandy Clark, Sturgill Simpson, Hank3, and The Quebe Sisters, to older artists like Don Maddox, Del McCoury, and Stonewall Jackson, and to artists in between like Jim Lauderdale, and Corb Lund. If they’re good, they appear on The Marty Stuart Show, and after five seasons, it has become its own country music institution, and an important distinction for the artists invited to play the show.
7. Playing with Lester Flatt on the Porter Wagoner Show at 14
Are you kidding me? That’s Marty Stuart folks, playing mandolin and singing!
8. Releasing Badlands: Ballads of the Lakota
Similar to his mentor and hero Johnny Cash who released what was arguably the first country music concept album with his tribute to the American Indian called Bitter Tears in 1964, Marty Stuart released a concept album also in tribute to the American Indian called Badlands: Ballads of the Laokota in 2005. Recorded with his backing band The Fabulous Superlatives, it focused on the struggle of Native Americans, and was entirely written by Stuart except for one song, “Big Foot,” written by Johnny Cash. It was also recorded at the Cash Cabin in Hendersonville, TN, with John Carter Cash as co-producer.
But this album wasn’t just Marty patterning himself after Johnny Cash. Stuart has spent much time in the Dakotas learning about the Lakota Sioux, including studying at the Oglala Lakota College. For Marty, the poor treatment of Native Americans is a very real issue.
9. Marrying Connie Smith
Why would a handsome young Marty Stuart marry a woman 16 years his senior? Well first off, have you seen Connie Smith? Aside from how good time and country music has been to her, she is bona-fide country music royalty and one of the most familiar faces of the Grand Ole Opry. But this isn’t some celebrity sham marriage, the matrimony speaks to Marty’s undying appeal for all things country music and the love between the two country stars is deep. Together, they’re a classic country dynamic duo that is hard to stop (and I have my suspicion at night they dress up as superheroes and do battle with Music Row’s most evil villains).
10. This Quote:
“Today the most outlaw thing you can possibly do in Nashville, Tennessee, is play country music.” –Marty Stuart
As first reported by Saving Country Music back in February of 2013 when the iconic Outlaw country documentary Heartworn Highways was being released digitally for the first time, a followup to the movie called Heartworn Highways Revisited featuring some of the artists in the original film along with new, up-and-coming artists has been in the works.
Directed by Wayne Price, with producer Brian Devine, and original Heartworn Highways producer Graham Leader, Heartworn Highways Revisited is reported to be in post production, with hopes it will be released later this summer. They have also released a trailer for the new film on their website, and have revealed the new cast that includes Guy Clark, David Allan Coe, and Steve Young from the original film, as well as newer artists Jonny Fritz, Deer Tick, Robert Ellis, Andrew Combs, Phil Hummer, Matraca Berg, John McCauley, Josh Hedley, Bobby Bare Jr., Langhorn Slim, Shelly Colvin, Justin Townes Earle, and Shovels & Rope.
Similar to how the original film captured Clark, Coe, Young, Townes Van Zandt, Larry Jon Wilson, Rodney Crowell, Charlie Daniels and others in intimate, concert, and recorded environments, the new film hopes to capture similar organic and authentic moments from this new slate of artists. The new film also has some scenes where the original cast members and the new cast members hang out, meet, and collaborate.
The original Heartworn Highways is given credit by many for setting the standards for a musical documentary. Filmed in late 1975 and early 1976, but not released until 1981, Heartworn Highways chronicles the country music Outlaw movement and some of its most important contributors in the infancy of their careers. Some of the scenes and music have gone on to become some of the most memorable moments of country music lore.
2014 promises to be another great year for music, and the first part of the year might just be one of the busiest seasons for anticipated releases we have seen in quite a while. From a lost Johnny Cash album, to a new one from his daughter Rosanne, to Jason Eady, a big re-issue from Lucina Williams, and releases from Scott H. Biram and Robert Ellis, there’s enough here to get your music taste buds salivating.
Saving Country Music’s most anticipated album for 2014, Out Among The Stars is a complete album that was recorded between 1981 and 1984 by Cash, with songs that were meant to be together, but never saw the light of day. A true “lost album” if there ever was one. It was produced by Country Music Hall of Famer Billy Sherrill. READ MORE.
Rosanne Cash – The River & The Thread (January 14th)
NPR says: “Each song is rooted in the Southern soil connecting the old Cash homestead in Arkansas to the family’s ancestral Virginia homeland, expanding to survey the family’s artistic roots in Alabama and Tennessee. Some narratives are fictional, while others mine family lore.”
You’re not seeing double, this is Lucinda Williams’ critically-acclaimed 3rd album from 1988 that many give credit for launching her career. The album went out-of-print and is finally being re-issued by Thirty Tigers. It also comes with an album of live tracks. Just like Johnny Cash, this is not just another re-release, and stands as one of the most anticipated releases of 2014.
Doug Paisley – Strong Feelings (January 21st)
As we found out in 2013, Canada can do country, and do country right. And this Canadian has recruited an impressive list of his Canadian musician buddies including Garth Hudson from The Band to make one of the most-anticipated Canadian country releases of 2014. Did I say Canada enough? Canada Canada. That should do it!
Ray Benson – A Little Piece (January 21st)
Our generation’s King of Western Swing takes some time away from his full time duties as the front man for Asleep At The Wheel to release this solo project through his record label, Bismeaux.
If you love real country, you will love Jason Eady and Daylight & Dark. Following up his critically-acclaimed AM Country Heaven, Eady proves you can serve up country straight, and still have it sound fresh. This album was written with a linear story that runs through all the songs.
Hard Working Americans (Todd Snider) – Hard Working Americans (January 21st)
Yes, this is a band emanating from the unsettled mind of songwriter Todd Snider, and coaxing Neal Casal (Chris Robinson Brotherhood), keyboardist Chad Staehly (Great American Taxi) and Duane Trucks (King Lincoln) on drums to join him.This is a cover album of many songs from Snider’s alt-country/Americana friends.
This spellbinding, solo songwriter and performer from Minnesota is one of these criminally-underappreciated guys because he would never be a part of self-promotion or flashy presentation. Being released on Chaperone Records.
Dolly Parton – Blue Smoke (New Zealand, Australia – January. United States & Europe – May)
Yes, strange prioritizing on the release date, but it’s Dolly, so hush up! The release parallels her Blue Smoke World Tour and will be released on “Dolly Records” in conjunction with Sony Masterworks.
Hide the women and children, the “Dirty Ol’ One Man Band” is back out on the loose with a brand new one from Bloodshot Records that promises to be a bloody good time. Country punk stomp blues at its best!
Suzy Bogguss – Lucky (February 4th)
Suzy doing a Merle Haggard tribute record? This could be cool. “Merle is one of the most masculine songwriters I’ve ever heard, and I’ve been watching boys cover his music for years. I just thought, ‘Why couldn’t a girl do this?’”
Whiskey Myers – Early Morning Shakes (February 4th)
Texas Monthly says: “Early Morning Shakes” may not be destined to make a big impression on a country music audience that’s currently obsessed with pickups, blue jeans, and moonlight, but there are some thrills within for fans of dirty rock and roll.”
This could be Robert Ellis’s year. The young songwriter has a much-anticipated album, and also produced another much-anticipated album that may come later in 2014 from The Whiskey Shivers.
Hurray For The Riff Raff – Small Town Heroes (February 11th)
Alynda Lee Segarra was making waves all throughout 2013, and this album from ATO Records featuring her unique, stripped-down Appalachia sound should be a big one.
Lake Street Dive – Bad Self Portraits (February 18th)
2014 could be a big one for Lake Street Dive, and they deserve every bit of it from the talent this throwback band packs. Rachel Price, originally from Hendersonville, TN and a product of the New England Conservatory as a jazz singer is a bona-fide superstar waiting to happen. Feb. 18th can’t get here fast enough.
On the heels of her fun EP Boy Crazy, Loveless releases her much-anticipated sophomore LP from Bloodshot Records. Part country, part punk, and all attitude, this Ohioan evokes the best of the original punk-gone-country movement. This one should be fun.
Beck – Morning Phase (February)
Okay, you see Beck and you don’t immediately think country, but he has dabbled in the format in the past (go feast your ears on “Rowboat” and thank me later), and with this one he’s talking about it having a very heavy Gram Parson’s influence, so it may be worth a sniff from country fans.
The former (and current, really) front man for the Squirrel Nut Zippers never seems to receive proper acclaim even though he continually delivers one excellent album after another. Don’t sleep on this one.
- Mary Chapin Carpenter – Songs from the Movie (Jan 14th)
- Blue Highway – The Game (Jan 21st)
- Reverend Horton Heat – Rev (Jan 21st)
- Ronnie Milsap – Summer Number 17 (Jan 28th)
- Rhonda Vincent – Only Me (Jan 28th)
- Laura Cantrell – No Way There from Here (Jan 28th)
- Eric Church – The Outsiders (Feb. 11th) as if you already didn’t know
- Dierks Bentley – Riser (Feb 25th)
- Eli Young Band – 10,000 Towns (March 4th)
- Kevin Fowler – How Country Are Ya (March 4th)
- Martina McBride – Everlasting (March 4th)
- Drive By Truckers – English Oceans (March 12th)
The Rumor Mill
Bob Wayne – Back To The Camper
Bob Wayne is no longer with label Century Media, but word is he just finished up recording an album with Andy Gibson (Hank3) in Nashville and it will be released sometime in 2014. Included on the album will be a song with Elizabeth Cook called “20 Miles To Juarez” and a song with country legend Red Simpson. Stay tuned.
The Goddamn Gallows – The Maker
No info on a release as of yet. Was initially said to be released in late 2013.
The Whiskey Shivers
Currently being record or just finished up, this Robert Ellis-produced album could be The Whiskey Shivers’ breakout moment. They’ve been making tons of noise around Austin, playing ACL fest last October, and scheduled to play the Stagecoach Festival in California this year. They are definitely a band to watch.
His disposition is to record during the winter, and he dropped a hint of working on a new album on Facebook recently. For all we know from the last few release cycles from Hank3, he might drop 7 albums on our asses all at once, including one built from the sound of Black Cats blowing up found items from around his farm.
Justin Townes Earle
He is amid a contract dispute with a new label, but says, “ I will find a way to get new music out very soon. Will write and record a solo EP. Then Find some grown ups to work with.”
Rumor has it a new album is currently being recorded, and will take this underground country cult favorite to the next level. More deets coming.
Slackeye Slim is also working on a new album.
Matt Woods hopes to have a new album out in March.
Who else? Share your intel below!
Apparently while none of us were looking, Justin Townes Earle went off and got hitched. Mr. Mysterio divulged his new relationship status in some recent tweets, saying in part, “Oh yea I forgot to tell all!! I married the best most beautiful person I have ever known. I think I know what it means to be truly happy now.” According to a recent article in the Boston Globe’s Lifestyle section, the nuptials happened in mid October in Tahoe.
“It was kind of an immediate thing,” Earle explained to The Globe. “We met four months before we spent one week together in Texas and two weeks together in Salt Lake. We just decided to do it because our families tend to complicate our lives, and we thought this is our day and has nothing to do with anybody else and we shouldn’t have to run around on our wedding day and take care of people, which is exactly what would have happened. I believe it’s not about the other people. I think a lot of women want weddings . . . but it gets completely out of control. People are spending ridiculous amounts of money on weddings. Go buy a house. Take a vacation.”
Just like Justin Townes Earle, his wife is a tall one that likes tattoos. “My wife is pretty well ‘sleeved’ in the right arm and has pieced together tattoos diagonal across her body. When she was 11, she was the national US water-skiing champion and then she did freestyle half-pipe snowboarding when she was a teenager and then started racing Super-G. Her form is absolutely stunning. Now she’s a gyrotonics teacher so she’s 6’3’’ with an amazing body and those tattoos. And I’m 6’4”.”
Justin is between albums after finishing up a five contract stint with Bloodshot Records, and has been having trouble with his new label Communion Records who is insisting he turn in 30 songs to them before they will pay for studio time so the label can “help” him make the record. “I have not, and never will write 30 songs in a year,” Justin insists. “That isn’t art it’s vomit. I write a record. Quality matters not quantity!”
No name has been divulged yet on the new Mrs. Townes Earle.
My first interfacing with the fiery, spunky singer-songwriter simply known as Tristen was at a Justin Townes Earle concert in May of 2012. I didn’t know her or her music from Adam, but there she was on stage, all 5 foot nothing in glittering green hot pants, kicking our collective asses with her songs that were so easy to befriend and so hard to forget. And like any opening artist hopes for, there I was the next day dropping coinage on her 2011 record Charlatans At The Garden Gate, and Googling the hell out of her to my little music nerdy heart’s content.
Tristen is nothing short of a creative powerhouse. She’s a Chicago native, a member of independent music’s hot east Nashville contingent, akin to an artist like Caitlin Rose for example, who happens to be friends with Caitlin and has shared bass players with her in the past. Tristen is also a perennial performer on the cool country roots program Music City Roots. If you squint really hard, and maybe listen very selectively to her music, you might be able to convince yourself that what Tristen has done in the past could be construed with the right amount of rhetoric and coercion as “country,” but really Tristen is simply a songwriter, who seems to have little regard for a genre-specific career path, if she doesn’t downright loathe the idea.
Tristen is not a hunter, she’s a gatherer, listening intently to any song or influence regardless of format or era, and eagerly mining the little nuggets of nostalgic, retro gold that allow the warmth of memories to flow freely from the inner mind of listeners to lovingly embellish a song. She then embeds this warmth into her completely original, modern-day compositions resulting in music that is both fresh and hauntingly familiar. The magic Tristen spins is really akin in spirit what a band like BR549, or some other country neo-traditionalist act might do by referring to the past in the modern-day context, but Tristen has the confidence, knowledge base, and insight to not discriminate based on traditional genre distinctions.
Her 2011 album Charlatans At The Garden Gate is like a big, rotund watermelon: it just keeps on giving, parceling out little treats, and there’s not a soft patch to be had. Songs like “Eager For Your Love” and “Doomsday” are just screaming to be scooped up by some big name and be made into mega hits, while tunes such as “Avalanche” and “Battle Of The Gods” may be a little more fey, but refer to Tristen’s competency in advanced composition. “Baby Drugs” is sinisterly crafted, speaking right at the heart of how the modern-day 20-something brooding male is just about worthless, and frustrating in the arms of driven females looking for fulfillment and only finding unmotivated, drooling pot hungry video game addicts for sexual partners. The song is also accompanied by a genius video.
But if Charlatans At The Garden Gate had a wart, it’s that it seemed to be a little bit lacking in the production department; like Tristen’s vision and creativity outpaced the budgetary restrictions and artistic resources at her dispose. That is not the case with her 2013 album that she Kickstarted and then released in October through Thirty Tigers called C A V E S. It is expansive, and more than adequately fleshed out, pulling from a very broad spectrum of both analog, digital, and human-generated sounds to make it her most complete and ambitious project yet.
At the very end of that Justin Townes Earle opening slot Tristen played back in 2012, she completely shifted gears for the final song in both style and presentation, pulling out a tune called “No One’s Gonna Know,” (whose subsequent video would also include the glittering green hot pants), accompanied by these somewhat choreographed, somewhat improvised hand gestures and such, prancing across stage, telling you beyond the song itself that this was something completely different—a gear had been shifted—and that is exactly what you get from Tristen with C A V E S.
Yes, here comes that evil, evil ‘P’ word that we all love to lambast at every turn, but what Tristen does different in C A V E S compared to other so-called “pop” albums is that the point of the album is not to be “popular” in the sense of attempting to appeal to the masses by instilling the music with ultra-catchy drek or inane lyrics. It is pop music because it is not country, and not particularly rock & roll. Is this a project, like Slim Cessna’s Auto Club’s Unentitled, or other “pop” albums that use pop elements just as much for their irony or to prove a point instead of, or just as much for their inherent catchiness? You could almost infer that from the lyrical hook of the song “No One’s Gonna Know” that goes, “The only way to climb to the top is stepping on heads, you’re better off dead.”
But really, even though it is completely fair to call C A V E S “pop”, it is just as fair to call it an electronic-infused retro rock album that refers to popular music’s past to do what Tristen has always does best: pull the warmth of recollection out of the music experience and pay it forward into the modern context. By referring to popular music’s pop legacy with certain little 80′s and early 90′s-era electronic accoutrements in C A V E S, she quite simply makes an album that is splendidly-addictive and overall fulfilling to listen to. Yet still at the heart of this album is real people playing real instruments, and singer-songwriter Tristen Gaspadarek expressing herself through words to help commiserate with the human condition.
As stoppy and starty as “No One’s Gonna Know” is in places, it is damn hard to resist. The multiple harmony lines and other such layering of “Easy Out” really draws you in hard and holds you. And “Gold Star” might be the best song Tristen is responsible for so far in her career (see below), hiding a lot of in-depth creativity and composition behind what may seem to be a fairly simple pop song on the surface. Beyond these first three songs, this country critic found the rest of C A V E S somewhat elusive, aside from “Monster” getting my toe tapping, but that is probably the way the natural order of things should be, and not necessarily a knock on the project.
And as a country critic, I can’t help but point out that having had to dutifully listen to Taylor Swift’s recent records, you hear many somewhat similar retro electronic references back to the 80′s and 90′s in Swift’s material as you do in Tristen’s, including in Swift’s recent Soundtrack single “Sweeter Than Fiction,” and in songs like “Starlight” or “Enchanted.” What does this mean? I think it means that an artist like Tristen could be considered on the cutting edge, and starkly relevant despite the retro flavoring.
Is C A V E S country? God no; not even close. So why is Saving Country Music covering it? Because Tristen still feels like a part of the overall independent country/ East Nashville family, and an artist like her is even more prone to slip through the musical cracks unfairly because of her non-genre specific style. If steadfast country fans want to give Tristen a try, I would strongly suggest they start with Charlatans At The Garden Gate, and then give C A V E S a sniff if you like what you hear.
And I can’t help but wonder if the non-roots direction of C A V E S is on purpose. If Tristen, surrounded by the stultifying mainstream country environment in Nashville isn’t flexing her little arms with this album to say, “Don’t box me in!” and what we’ll hear from Tristen next time will be in some completely different direction to keep her fans on her toes, then I’ll eat my hat. But in whatever direction Tristen goes, I’d almost guarantee it will be steeped in the past of music and refer heavily to memory-churning elements, and that it will also be inescapably good.
Charlatans At The Garden Gate – 4 1/2 of 5 Stars
C A V E S – 3 1/2 of 5 Stars (with the first 3 songs strongly recommended)
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Songwriter and performer Justin Townes Earle has been on the warpath as of late through his always-entertaining Twitter account, taking to task a record label for standing in the way of a new release.
On October 19th, Justin seemed to allude through Twitter that he was done writing the material for a new album, posting “I might have finally finished writing this bitch!!!! Freedom!!!!!!!!”
Then more recently the tone has turned quite sour, with Justin posting on December 15th, “I have now learned that you can never trust a bunch of babies that ain’t worked a day in their lives. May Shane McGowan kick their asses. The only thing I hate about business is that it’s frowned upon to pistol whip the competition. Tweets are gonna be angry for awhile. Just found out I won’t be making a record for a while due to a bunch of pussies in an office. Never working with another record label.”
Shane MacGowan is the front man for the Irish rock group The Pogues.
Then on December 18th, Earle posted, “So I am being told that I agreed to write 30 songs and let the label “help” make the record. That for sent even sound like me! Like I would ever let some little twit fucking comb through my work. And calling me a liar well them is fighting words. Anytime bitch’s!”
Justin Townes Earle released his last album Nothing’s Gonna Change The Way You Feel About Me Now in March of 2012 through Bloodshot Records; a label he singed with in 2007 and subsequently released 5 albums through. The ambiguity of Earle’s tweets left some fans not certain about Earle’s contractual situation thinking Bloodshot was the target of his criticism. There was never any news of Earle signing with a new label. Co-owner of Bloodshot Nan Warshaw told Saving Country Music, “When Justin Townes Earle delivered his last album “Nothing’s Gonna Change The Way You Feel About Me Now”, that successfully and amicably completed his multi-album recording contract with Bloodshot Records. Bloodshot is honored to have his five releases in our catalog and to have helped launch his career. We wish Justin all the best.”
Instead it is apparently Communion Records—a British label owned by Ben Lovett, the accordion and keyboard player of Mumford & Sons, and Kevin Jones of Bear’s Den—that is drawing Justin Townes Earle’s ire. Justin clarified this today (12-19) through Twitter, saying “My rants have to do with communion records! not bloodshot. leave the good people at bloodshot alone! Badger the fucking Brits.”
Justin told VOX Magazine in April, “I’m trying to wrap up writing my next record. It’s one that I’m paying very close attention because I’ve completed my contract with Bloodshot (Records). I’m going to be moving on to probably a little bit bigger (label). I’m just trying to do my best, to be in control of my everything — producing records and all that stuff. We actually already have offers from labels. I’ve recorded one track mainly because a couple of the bigger record labels are looking at me. We made a teaser track just to say this is what we do, this is how we do it, and this is how we’re going to do it.”
The conflict appears to be with Communion Records requesting Justin turn in 30 songs that they can then vet to eventually be parred down to his next record, but Earle doesn’t have that many songs so the album-making process can’t move forward. What this means in the long run is that it could be a while for new Justin Townes Earle material.
UPDATE: Justin Townes Earle has posted some followup comments on Twitter:
“Let me make this clear! I have not, and never will write 30 songs in a year. That isn’t art it’s vomit. I write a record. Quality matters not quantity! I deliver records in sequence and have a pretty good record so far. I don’t need the new kids giving me tips. Lady’s and gents. I will find a way to get new music out very soon. Will write and record a solo EP. Then Find some grown ups to work with.”
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New Justin Townes Earle song from a recent show at the Southland Ballroom, NC:
About this time of year virtually every magazine, website, and blog is bombarding their readership with end-of-year lists of which artists they feel are worthy of the highest praise for their 2013 effort. The whole practice has become a little nauseating for the consumer as the redundancy on many lists and the sheer number of them being pushed through social media erode the underlying concept of the lists: to help listeners break through the din of an overpopulated music landscape to discover the best stuff. Then there’s the ethics questions if music should be approached as competition at all. Ultimately the reason there are so many lists is because they are effective and appealing in helping listeners determine what to listen to.
Included on many, if not virtually all of those 2013 lists, especially in the independent country and Americana realms is the latest effort by former Drive By Trucker turned solo artist Jason Isbell called Southeastern. Seen as the current watermark of his career and a captivating songwriting effort capturing a clear-eyed, post-rehab Isbell at his apex, Southeastern is one of those rare consensus builders amongst critics as one of the year’s best.
Nipping at the heels on some lists, and overtaking Southeastern on others is the debut album High Top Mountain from former Sunday Valley frontman, Kentucky’s Sturgill Simpson. A much more country effort compared to Isbell, but just as bold of a songwriting project, Simpson has many people labeling him as a country music savior, and the artist they have been waiting years for to emerge in the independent country scene.
And not to be outdone is the dark Canadian singing-songwriting vixen Lindi Ortega, and her tantalizing album Tin Star that has also found its way at or near the top of many 2013 lists; an album highlighting her rising voice and remarkable gift for story and composition.
Though the sound of these three respective albums is fairly disparate, their influences are certainly not the same, the artists are from different locales, and the genres they represent are varied shades of the country music theme, they all have one thing in common: a virtually unnoticed and rarely heralded behind-the-scenes producer named Dave Cobb.
Just as the prevalence of year-end lists has grown in recent years, so too it seems has the trend of performing artists getting into the producer game, and big, franchise name producers like T Bone Burnett being heralded more and more for their producer services. Not that someone like Jack White or even Justin Townes Earle can’t make a great producer, or that T Bone Burnett is some kind of slouch. But for some projects, it becomes more about the name on the back of the album in the fine print instead of the name on the front. A producer’s name can be used as a marketing tool, and to create interest from fans and media venues. “The new album produced by the same producer of The Civil Wars!” “The T Bone Burnett-produced debut album, produced by T Bone Burnett!”
The best producers are usually the ones who prefer to remain subordinate to the artists they work with. Similarly, the best producers don’t come in and mold an album to their sound, but help the artists they work with develop their own. Producers aren’t supposed to be noticed. Critics may sometimes mention a producer’s name and how they may have influenced a certain project, but everyday fans just know when they like an album or not. Noticing the production of an album is like noticing an offensive lineman in a football game. It’s rarely a good thing. The focus should be on the music itself.
But that doesn’t mean producers shouldn’t be heralded or receive credit, especially when they’ve had a banner year like Dave Cobb’s 2013. Cobb has enjoyed some other successful albums, and good years in the past too. Similar to how Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, and Lindi Ortega have become critical darlings in 2013, Jamey Johnson’s last two original albums that graced the top of many end-of-year lists, That Lonesome Song and The Guitar Song, both featured Dave Cobb at the helm. The Secret Sisters’ self-titled breakout album was also produced by Cobb, and so were Shooter Jennings’ first four records. And his list of producer credits goes on and on from there.
But you would never know all of this unless you went poking around, looking for producer credits and connecting the dots. Dave Cobb is not out to perpetuate his cult of personality through his producership role. He’s just looking to make good music. And in 2013, he certainly did.
Best of luck pigeon-holing Leo Rondeau, the man or his music. The North Dakota-born, Austin, TX-based singer songwriter boasts about as many influences and textures as a patch quilt of found fabrics. A distinctly Italian first name, a last name that describes a form of old French poetry, and enough Native blood in him to be able to say in one song on his latest album Take It And Break It that his ancestors “fought the white man,” Rondeau speaks for many voices of the American experience. He’ll throw out a Cajun tune complete with accordion, and transition from rock to folk without a blink. But at his core is a country music songwriter in the legendary Austin mold, wowing you with his ease at turning a phrase and illuminating emotion and perspective in his songs.
For years Leo could be seen holding down a residence at Austin’s famed “Hole In The Wall” venue, and playing his part in a defiant scene of independent-minded country musicians, some of which appear on Take It And Break It like Jim Stringer, Brennen Leigh, and Beth Chrisman of The Carper Family. These artists both create a support network, and push each other stylistically. And as a respected songwriter, Rondeau songs have been recorded by folks like The Carper Family and Mike and the Moonpies.
Take It And Break It affords nine new original tracks from Rondeau, and is produced by R.S. Field who has previously worked with folks like Billy Joe Shaver and Hayes Carll, and produced Justin Townes Earle’s first two LP’s.
In Rondeau’s “Here’s My Heart,” he reveals the dichotomy inherent in many males—one of displaying a bellicose, bawdy front to the world, while hiding an inherently fragile romantic state beneath. “Bound To Be A Winner” has one of the most finely-crafted choruses you will find, reminding you of Tom Petty in his prime in its distinctly American candor and tone. “When It Was Around” also speaks to Petty in its driving beat and infectiousness.
“Blackjack Davey Revisited” is pure poetry from Rondeau. Its wit is delivered with dizzying rapidity, while the melody takes you right to the time and place of its sad story. “Alligator Man” gives Take It And Break It a bit of a spicy Cajun kick, while the epic “Whaler’s Tale” finishes out the album in an immersive audio experience. For years I’ve believed that Cajun music sits right on the edge of a big revival, just like we’ve seen recently in other sectors of the roots world. Rondeau could be an artist who has just enough Cajun texture mixed with country and rock sensibilities to benefit from that wave if it ever occurs.
But even if it doesn’t, Leo Rondeau is a songwriting lifer who you sense takes a wide, patient perspective, and has a belief in the power of song to outlast trends, obscurity, or even a song’s original creator when it is approached with heart. Rondeau and Take It And Break It are probably not for everyone. There was a slight lack of presence on this album that I found hard to pin down or explain that may hold it at arm’s length from some listeners. But this album has a great spirit and is a worthy receptacle for these original songs that now get to go out into the world and find inviting hearts.
1 1/2 of 2 guns up.
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The rapping grandson of Waylon Jennings, one Will “Young Struggle” Harness, or “Struggle” as he prefers to go by now has a new album out called I Am Struggle, that doesn’t just borrow heavily from Waylon’s catalog, it is downright built from it. 7 of the 9 tracks on the country rap record directly incorporate samples and structures of Waylon tunes in an unprecedented intrusion of rap into the country music format and its catalog of legendary recordings from one of its most legendary artists.
What is the legacy of the sons and grandsons of country music royalty? It is of them getting a break in the music business because of their name, but then immediately rebelling against what the music world wanted them to be, which were living facsimile’s of their predecessors. Hank Williams Jr., Hank Williams III, Shooter Jennings, Justin Townes Earle, and on and on, and stretching to the daughters of country music like Carlene Carter and Rosanne Cash; they sweated blood and made deep sacrifices to divest themselves from familial expectations and industry shortcuts bestowed by their names to stand on their own two feet as artists.
With Struggle and this album, the approach seems to be the exact opposite, despite whatever words of explanation may accompany the project. It is taking from the Jennings family legacy and riding it as far as it will take him—so much so that it is hard to tell where Waylon’s music stops, and Struggle’s music begins. With the prohibitive costs of permissions in music these days, I Am Struggle would be impossible for anyone to make that didn’t have a direct line to the Waylon estate. Waylon’s primary estate executors Jessi Colter and Shooter Jennings actively participate in I Am Struggle, with both making appearances on the album. I Am Struggle is nepotism on steroids.
The use of Waylon’s songs in I Am Struggle brings up all sorts of ethical questions. Is it right to do this with a dead man’s songs? Does anyone have the right, beyond the legal aspects, to deem this practice appropriate with any deceased artist? What would Waylon think about country rap, and what would he think about his songs being turned into it? Would Waylon approve of Struggle’s style, and the free flow of iniquitous themes and vulgarity that accompany his music (and now Waylon’s by proxy)?
And that takes us to the actual content of I Am Struggle. Taking Waylon songs and incorporating them with dance beats or even adding rap verses to them is one thing. Taking a classic Waylon song like “Are You Ready For The Country” (originally written by Neil Young) and adding lines like, “Show me what is was and I’ll a show you what it will be. I got my hand on my nuts, can you feel me?” is something else entirely. Struggle’s lyrics commonly touch on criminal activity; a world he knows of first hand, having been indicted on federal drug trafficking charges and served time.
The precursor to I Am Struggle was a country rap single built from Waylon’s song “Outlaw Shit,” a slower, newer version of his classic “Don’t You Think This Outlaw Bit’s Done Got Out Of Hand?” The irony is that in the original Waylon song, Jennings espouses his disdain for the marketing of his music and persona as “outlaw,” and blames it for his own legal troubles. Struggle on the other had embraces this persona, with the words “Gangsta II The Bone” tattooed across his breastplate, and infusing his songs (or Waylon’s) with bellicose, urban gangster jargon and threats. The day Struggle’s “Outlaw Shit” was released as a single, he was incarcerated in a Davidson County jail. Many believe this was a marketing ploy to promote the song.
One thing we can assume is that Struggle has nothing less but undying respect for Waylon and his music. Struggle was not just some distant relative to Waylon that barely knew him who is now riding his name. Growing up, Struggle would spend summers on Waylon’s road crew, and his mother worked for a while as one of Waylon’s backup singers as she pursued her own career in music. However, Struggle has no blood relation to Waylon. His mother is the daughter from Jessi Colter’s first marriage to rock & roll guitarist Duane Eddy. Waylon only became Struggles named grandfather after the Jessi Colter / Duane Eddy divorce.
Something else worth pointing out about Struggle is that he is no Blake Shelton or Jason Aldean, and his songs are no “Dirt Road Anthem.” As I’ve also said about fellow Southern white rapper Yelawolf, Struggle has talent. He has a lot of talent. As offensive as I Am Struggle may be to the legacy of Waylon and to Waylon Jennings fans, some of the songs on the album are quite catchy, and some of the lines are infused with tremendous wit. The problem is with the way they are presented.
Hank didn’t do it this way, and neither did Waylon. Nor did Shooter, Hank Jr., or Hank3. How did we get to this point in country music when taking the life’s work of a country music legend and regurgitating it into vulgarity-laden country rap did not result in downright outspread public outrage? With the Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams project, there was protest, and a fundamental feeling that those songs were not anyone’s to do with what they pleased; a feeling shared by the executors of the Williams estate.
Would Waylon approve of this being done to his music? I can’t answer that question. Nobody can answer that question. That is why caution, and deference to the deceased should be used in these instances.
When Taylor Swift won her first CMA for Entertainer of the Year there was outrage because of the sense that country music was living too much in the present moment. I Am Struggle‘s use of Waylon songs is almost an audio version re-writing the past.
One song is one thing. But Struggle has too much talent, and the songs of Waylon are too important, and the subject of country rap too polarizing to make an entire album without the originator of the material being present to voice his pleasure or dissent. I Am Struggle leads country music down a very slippery slope where the catalogs of other country music greats could be opened and re-interpreted by country rappers or for other commercial purposes, forever soiling or superseding the original versions, and eroding their legacy.
This last weekend, the eyes of the country music world were affixed on the 7th Annual Stagecoach Festival in Indio, CA. Combining mainstream acts like Toby Keith and Lady Antebellum, with classic country acts like Marty Stuart and up-and-coming talent like Justin Townes Earle, Stagecoach and its 50,000 attendees comprise the starting gun for the summer’s big, corporate-run country music festivals.
But relatively unnoticed, and certainly less-covered in the national country media, the 25th annual Larry Joe Taylor Festival transpired outside of Stephenville, TX, with an equally-impressive 50,000-head crowd and a beefy lineup of Texas Country / Red Dirt headliners like The Departed and Jack Ingram, legends like Ray Wylie Hubbard and Chris Knight, and up-and-comers like The Damn Quails. The price of a Stagecoach? $239.00 for a general admission pass. Larry Joe Taylor Festival? $105 for five days of music instead of three.
On the Sunday after the Larry Joe Taylor Festival, many of the same performers and patrons trekked down to the Texas Music Theater in San Marcos for the 5th annual Lone Star Music Awards. Big winners were the Turnpike Troubadours for Album of the Year (Goodby Normal Street) and Song of the Year (“Good Lord, Lorrie”), and Ray Wylie Hubbard for Songwriter of the Year, Singer/Songwriter Album of the Year (The Grifter’s Hymnal), and Producer of the Year with George Reiff (see list of winners).
Performers at the awards included Robert Earl Keen, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Cody Canada & The Departed, Jason Eady, and Grammy-nominated John Fullbright among others, with each act playing four or five songs. The event was completely open-to-the-public, and the price of admission was $5.
Robert Earl Keen was arguably the biggest winner at this year’s Lone Star Music Awards, becoming the organization’s inaugural Hall of Fame inductee. In bestowing the honor to Keen, the owner of Lone Star Music said that Robert Earl was vital to the formation of Texas music’s own radio charts. That’s right, Texas music has its own radio charts. It also has its own radio stations and radio shows, and its own television programs like Ray Benson’s Texas Music Scene and others. It has its own hard print magazines, publications, and websites.
Of course the Lone Star Music Awards pale in the scope of mainstream country’s CMA’s or ACM’s. The Texas radio and TV infrastructure cannot compare to the CMA and CMT. And despite the recent success of headliner Texas artists like Jack Ingram, they’re still nowhere the draw of Music Row’s biggest acts. But what Texas/Red Dirt has that Music Row/Nashville doesn’t is a true sense of community and a handle on artistic quality that Texas/Red Dirt artists and fans would never swap for more exposure to the teeming masses.
Cody Canada of the Departed might be Red Dirt’s biggest star, and just looking a the guy with his outward rock star persona, you might mistake him for a man that could sell out stadiums. And if Cody had left Cross Canadian Ragweed years ago for a record deal on Music Row, he very well might have made it to that stature. The man just drips cool. But after the Lone Star Music Awards, Cody Canada didn’t retire to the back of his limousine or tour bus, he walked down the street with the rest of the average joe’s and was mingling with fans in a laid-back setting at a free admission afterparty at the Cheatham Street Warehouse in San Marcos. An up-and-coming Texas country band called The Hill Country Gentlemen were playing, and giving their CD’s away for free.
For artists and fans intimately involved in the Texas/Red Dirt movement, none of this is news. This is the reality they’ve been enjoying for many years now. What’s interesting about what is happening in the Texoma entertainment corridor is how little its sustainability and growth is being recognized by Nashville and the rest of the outside world. The scope and the depth of organization that Texas/Red Dirt boasts is nothing short of astounding when it is studied from the outside looking in.
Texas music is becoming hard wired and institutionalized, and this creates a few game-changing, long-term effects on the overall country music landscape. With it’s own infrastructure, the chances that the Texas music scene and the revenue it generates will ever re-integrate with mainstream country dwindles with each passing day. Though mainstream country is still very much alive in Texas and Oklahoma, and even overlaps when it comes to certain Texas/Red Dirt artists, the independent scene is able to thrive thanks to the entrepreneurial spirit of some to create enterprise around the music, the undying loyalty of fans, and the willingness of the artists to not abandon the roots that led to their success.
But maybe most importantly, Texas/Red Dirt is also offering a template to the rest of the music world, and not just country music, of how to regionalize and organize a group of like-minded musicians and fans together to where they’re not dependent on corporate America’s traditional musical industrial complex for sustainability; where you can have artistic integrity and an independent spirit, and not sacrifice financial success. Even other music scenes that exist in Texas right now–some that may not want to associate with Red Dirt because the ease with which it mingles country and rock–could learn how to get organized by the Red Dirt/Texas Country’s road map.
It is not all rosy in Texas/Red Dirt. Though the scene offers tremendous support to its artists, it also acts as a ceiling. It has been hard for some of the biggest regional names to graduate to national recognition once they get pegged as a Red Dirt act. And despite being so big and boasting impressive infrastructure, Texas/Red Dirt finds itself mired with the same trappings that some small music “scenes” do. Political drama, and a culture that sometimes doesn’t want to be critical of artists can result in mediocre music. As the movement has grown, quality control has become an issue, with some acts appearing to be “selling out” for commercial viability no different than mainstream Music Row acts.
But in Texas/Red Dirt, they’ve graduated from simply complaining that Nashville sucks to doing something real, something substantive about it, and something that has proven to be sustainable now over a period of years. JUst like many other “buy local” movements, fans are now considering where the dollars they spend end up. Is this a big threat to Nashville? The biggest threat may be if other regional, like-minded music movements pattern themselves around the Texas model, and begin to institutionalize as well. Either way, independent-minded artists, fans, and scenes should be paying more attention to what is happening down in Texas. And so should Nashville.
This Saturday, April 20th is the 2013 installment of Record Store Day–the annual event started in 2007 to help struggling independent record stores. As the event has grown over the years and has expanded to include an event on Black Friday before Christmas, artists and labels have stepped up to help with the cause, releasing limited-edition collectible pieces of vinyl to entice the public into visiting their local mom and pop music sellers.
2013 has some juicy releases, including some super rare Willie Nelson demo sessions, a split with Waylon Jennings and the Old 97′s, some cool live albums from Gram Parsons and Sarah Jarosz, and a re-issue of Justin Townes Earle’s first album, the Yuma EP. The below list are Record Store Day’s country and country-ish releases in alphabetical order.
Black Jack EP
Format: 7″ Vinyl
Release type: RSD Exclusive Release
Previously unreleased recordings by this guitar master
Midnight, Boo Boo Stick Beat, Blackjack, Blue Moon of Kentucky
Music From CMT Crossroads
Format: 7″ Vinyl
Label: Warner Music Nashville
Release type: RSD Exclusive Release
Limited edition split single. Randy Travis covers the Avett Brothers’ “February”, The Avett Brothers covers the Randy Travis song, “Three Wooden Crosses.
The Last Waltz
Format: 12″ Vinyl
Release type: RSD Exclusive Release
3 180 Gram LPs, Numbered RSD Edition. All original packaging with Embossing and two foils. All original inner sleeves plus 12-page booklet. Out of print for more than a decade.
Blitzen Trapper Deluxe Reissue
Format: 12″ Vinyl
Label: LidKerCow, LTD
Release type: RSD Exclusive Release
Blitzen Trapper’s debut album from 2003 will be available for the first time on vinyl in celebration of it’s 10th Anniversary. The record was remastered by Bruce Barielle and the lacquers were cut by Jeff Powell at Ardent Studios in Memphis, TN. A very limited edition run, the record is pressed on 180g vinyl with a free digital download of the entire record with five previously unheard bonus tracks from the original sessions.
Format: 12″ Vinyl
Release type: RSD Exclusive Release
Includes songs from ALGIERS as well as the Calexico catalog recorded live in Germany in June 2012 with the Radio Symphonic Orchestra Vienna and the Deutsches Filmorchester Babelsberg.
Format: 12″ Vinyl
Label: Sugar Hill
Release type: RSD Exclusive Release
A staple of the Americana genre, this release marks the first collaboration for these Australian husband-and-wife superstars. First time on vinyl.
Complete Paramount and Brunswick Recordings
Format: 12″ Vinyl
Label: Tompkins Square
Release type: RSD Exclusive Release
All sides recorded in New York, 1929. Liner notes by Poole authority Kinney Rorrer
I Lie When I Drink
Format: 45 Vinyl
Label: Red House
Release type: RSD Exclusive Release
Featuring fan-favorite songs “I Lie When I Drink” and “Thanks To Tequila,” 3,500 copies of the record were pressed on high quality red vinyl. The free 45 is only available at select independent record stores on Record Store Day.
Tecumseh Valley b/w Pancho & Lefty
Format: 7″ Vinyl
Label: 31 Tigers
Release type: RSD Exclusive Release
“Tecumseh Valley” b/w “Pancho & Lefty”
Studio versions of both artists covering Townes Van Zandt. They originally performed these songs on Late Night with David Letterman
Too Pretty To Work
Format: 7″ Vinyl
Label: Cooley Records
Release type: RSD Exclusive Release
Record Store Day 7″ featuring 2 live tracks recorded at shows in 2012.
1 – Self Destructive Zones (3:36)
2 – Get Downtown (3:12)
Format: 10″ Vinyl
Label: Bloodshot Records
Release type: RSD Exclusive Release
Previously released debut EP from Justin Townes Earle, now on vinyl for the first time. 10″ vinyl. Colored vinyl (opaque gold). Limited to 1000 copies, for RSD.
The Ghost of Virginia, You Can’t Leave, Yuma, I Don’t Care, Let the Waters Rise, A Desolate Angels Blues
Alejandro Escovedo/Chris Scruggs
78 rpm 10
Format: 10″ Vinyl
Label: Plowboy Records
Release type: RSD Exclusive Release
78 rpm 10″ A/B single release of two covers of Eddy Arnold standards by Alejandro Escovedo (A side) and Chris Scruggs (B side) for upcoming “You Don’t Know Me: Rediscovering Eddy Arnold” album project due in May 2013
a side : “It’s a Sin” by Alejandro Escovedo – B side: “Just A Little Lovin’ (Will Go A Long Way” by Chris Scruggs
Format: 7″ Vinyl
Label: New West
Release type: RSD Exclusive Release
This is a single A-side 7” pressed on heavyweight vinyl. The vinyl is black, hand-numbered 1-500, and Patty will sign Side B on 25 of the records, which will be randomly distributed. This song is from her forthcoming album, American Kid, due out 5/14/13. This will come in an all white sleeve with a stamped logo and a stickered UPC.
Live At The Troubadour
Label: Sugar Hill
Release type: ‘RSD First’ Release
Recorded in August of 2012, Live at the Troubadour finds the Grammy-nominated acoustic wunderkind in pristine form and marks Jarosz’s debut live recording.
TRACK LISTING: 1. Tell Me True 2. Kathy’s Song 3. Mansineedof 4. Shankill Butchers 5. Broussard’s Lament
Format: 7″ Vinyl
Release type: RSD Exclusive Release
SIDE A: Fire Bug / SIDE B: A Gentle Awakening
Format: 12″ Vinyl
Label: Yep Roc
Release type: RSD Exclusive Release
4-song 12″ featuring an unreleased track, a live track and two acoustic tracks from Traveling Alone. Covered with a tactile cross-stitched/embroidered record cover.
Live at Bull Moose
Format: 10″ Vinyl
Release type: RSD Exclusive Release
“”"I Will Wait”" “”Ghosts That We Knew”" “”Where Are You Now”" “”Awake My Soul”" — 3 or 4 songs from their bull moose instore – CD version”
Roll Me Up And Smoke Me When I Die
Format: 7″ Vinyl
Release type: RSD Exclusive Release
7″ Green Colored Vinyl, Numbered.
Side A – feat guest vocals by Snoop Dogg, Jamey Johnson & Kris Kristofferson
Side B – previously unreleased Willie solo version
Crazy: The Demo Sessions
Format: 12″ Vinyl
Label: Sugar Hill
Release type: RSD Exclusive Release
When Willie first got to Nashville he cut some demos for Ray Price and Hal Smith’s publishing company, Pamper Music. Though these cuts were used to pitch songs to artists (including ‘Crazy’ for Patsy Cline) and producers, many weren’t released. These 1960-1966 tracks are raw, real and really good, clearly the work of an artist/songwriter headed for stardom.
Old 97s/Waylon Jennings
Format: 7″ Vinyl
Label: Omnivore Recordings
Release type: RSD Exclusive Release
2 x 7″ Two tracks from Old 97s sessions with Waylon Jennings, and two additional Old 97s demo tracks. Cover art by Jon Langford of the Mekons and Waco Brothers, and famed painter of country icons.– Iron Road, The Other Shoe, Visiting Hours (1996 demo), Fireflies Take 2 (1996 demo)
Gram Parsons & The Fallen Angels-Live 1973 7
Format: 7″ Vinyl
Release type: RSD Exclusive Release
Originally released in 1982 as a bonus 7″ EP to Sierra Records “Live 1973″ LP release of Gram Parsons with Emmylou Harris with full color sleeve.
Side One: Medley- Bony Moronie, 40 Days, Almost Grown Side Two: Conversations, Doing It in the Bus, Broken EBS Box, Hot Burrito #1
Format: 7″ Vinyl
Label: New West
Release type: RSD Exclusive Release
This is a single A-side 7” pressed on heavyweight vinyl. This song is off of the releaseElectric (2/5/13). The vinyl is black, hand-numbered 1-500. Richard will sign Side B on 25 of the records, which will be distributed randomly.
Yonder Mountain String Band
Format: 12″ Vinyl
Release type: RSD Exclusive Release
Available for the first time on vinyl.
Forget all your stuffy old outmoded notions of what Nashville is. Right now Nashville is the center of the music universe in so many more ways than what is represented by the few city blocks of old houses and mini-rise office buildings on Music Row. Right here, right now, Nashville is the place to be for independent music. Sure, in a few years when the rest of the world catches on to that fact, they will move there in droves and ostensibly destroy what motivated them to move there in the first place (see Austin, TX circa now). And in many ways, especially in parts of east Nashville, this is already happening.
But right now, Nashville is that magical locale in the country where creativity is thriving because of the influx of talent coming in and the caliber of projects coming out. When you have so much talent and rabid creativity in one place, it compounds on itself in collaborations, it pushes individual artists to be better to keep up with their peers, and the end result is a mutual inspiration that rises all boats. It’s Haight Ashbury circa 1965. It’s Guy Clark’s kitchen in the movie Heartworn Highways.
This is just one clique of many, but right now in Nashville there is a crop of close-knit quasi-country musicians who represent the nucleus of the new Americana movement and the rebirth of creativity in Music City. Here they are, and how they inter-relate with each other.
Some people probably thought he was nuts for quitting the Drive By Truckers to pursue a solo career. Now he’s arguably one of the biggest names in Americana, and certainly one of the most current and influential. Jason Isbell is all about the power of the song. Originally from just outside of Muscle Shoals, his song “Alabama Pines” was the Americana Music Award’s Song of the Year in 2012. He was once married to Drive-By Truckers’ bass player Shonna Tucker. Now he’s married to Amanda Shires. He’s also good friends with Justin Townes Earle and appeared on his album Harlem River Blues, and played guitar for Justin when he performed the title track from the album on David Letterman.
A name made famous by others, but with a talent all his own, Bloodshot Records took a shot on this wild card with a rough past, and it paid off in spades. Along with Isbell, Justin Townes Earle is one of the most current and influential outlets for Americana music. Aside from putting out 5 stellar records, his resume is diverse, from being named one of GQ’s “Most Stylish Men” in 2010, to producing Wanda Jackson’s last record Unfinished Business. He’s good friends with Jason Isbell, who appeared on his album Harlem River Blues, and played guitar for Justin when he performed the title track from the album on David Letterman. Amanda Shires, who is married to Jason Isbell, is the girl that appears on the cover with Justin on his album The Good Life. Fiddle player Josh Hedley toured with Justin for a number of years, and Caitlin Rose has toured with Justin in a supporting role.
A fiddle prodigy that joined the legendary Texas Playboys at age 15, Amanda Shires’ talents began to be exposed to the alt-country/Americana world as a member of the Thrift Store Cowboys from her hometown of Lubbock, TX. Soon people began to catch on that Amanda was just as gifted as a singer and a songwriter as she was a giving, skilled, and attentive accompanist and collaborator, and she released her first solo album Being Brave in 2005. Amanda began playing with Jason Isbell both in a duo role, and with his band The 400 Unit a few years ago, eventually leading to their marriage in February of 2013. On twitter she now goes by “Amanda Isbell.” She appeared on the cover of Justin Townes Earle‘s The Good Life and has played fiddle for Justin as well.
Jonny Fritz (Corndawg)
The weird, quirky, sarcastic, but sincerely talented songwriter and performer whose silly songs may be an initial turnoff, but when delved into deeper reveal devilish wit and demonstrative scope. Like a Roger Miller of our time, I once overheard a concert attendee say about his music, “It’s like really bad country music that you can’t help but love.” His steadfast Tonto is fiddle player Josh Hedley, whose been with Jonny ever since he stopped touring with Justin Townes Earle. Jonny has shared Caitlin Rose‘s pedal steel player Spencer Cullum, and Jonny and Caitlin have appeared on stage together multiple times. They are both currently releasing albums through ATO Records.
The daughter of country music master songwriter Liz Rose, she has a powerful voice that matches her stellar songwriting skill and pedigree. Though the UK seems much more receptive than the US to her music at the moment, the boldness and accessibility of her recent release The Stand In should go far in making Caitlin a staple name in Americana for years to come. She has toured with Justin Townes Earle, and both have worked with studio producer Skylar Wilson. She has shared the stage and her pedal steel player Spencer Cullum with Jonny Fritz, and both Caitlin and Jonny are currently releasing albums through ATO Records.
Like Amanda Shires, Josh is the consummate, selfless, fiddle-playing sideman who also displays moments of brilliance when he steps into the frontman role. He’s opened for Eileen Rose as a solo artist, and released an EP called Green Eyes in 2009. He’s also done studio work for artists as big as Jack White, and is known to perform at Nashville’s fooBar, Full Moon Saloon, and other locations when not on the road. For years he played fiddle for Justin Townes Earle. He’s now the mainstay of Jonny Fritz‘s traveling band.
Other new artists making up Nashville’s creative nucleus: Sturgill Simpson, Austin Lucas, Tristen, Escondido, Rayland Baxter, Nikki Lane, Andrew Combs, Joshua Black Wilkins, Lindi Ortega, and who else?
Justin Townes Earle performing “Harlem River Blues” with Caitlin Rose and Josh Hedley
Justin Townes Earle Performing “Harlem River Blues with Jason Isbell & Amanda Shires
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.
Scoring high on all the basic music food groups–singing, songwriting, arrangement, instrumentation, production, and performances–there are songs on The Stand-In that Caitlin Rose will labor the rest of her career to top. This is a career album. This is an album the rest of the industry will use as a measuring stick in the coming years. By casting a wide sonic net that takes only the finest ingredients from country and rock’s classic era, and then emboldening them with modern, relevant sensibilities, The Stand-In grips you and won’t let go.
Don’t get your hopes up too high for a hard country album here folks. At times the steel guitar is penetrating and the depth of story is interminably palpable. But the magic of The Stand-In is that it is not really country. It’s Caitlin Rose. It’s an amalgam of one girl’s music quest interpreted through a cohesive vision by the production crew and players. At the same time, Caitlin knows when to be submissive to her collaborators, and the result is a unified artistic expression with a very fresh and robust sound. This is music for right here, right now, that shows that sensibilities do not always come at the compromise of substance, and that the seismic shift of sonic relevance in independent music from Austin to east Nashville is complete.
This album has so many monster songs. Let’s begin with “I Was Cruel,” one of the album’s most country offerings, and one of its standouts. The emotional moment at the end of this song is something some artists and songwriters work their entire lives to attain, yet Caitlin makes it look so effortless. “Only A Clown” is ridiculously good, and along with “Everywhere I Go” is ripe to be injected into a movie soundtrack or something. They have that devilish, universal appeal. These are the type of legacy songs that you thought music was no longer capable of.
“Dallas” is a Felice Brothers cover, and is another one of the more country-feeling tracks, featuring the always stirring out-of-place ‘F’ bomb. Caitlin has a howitzer of a voice, but heretofore could be accused of being too shy with it at times. But in “Dallas,” Caitlin’s voice shines, just as it does in a redemptive manner for some of the album’s lesser tracks like “Pink Champagne” and “Silver Sings.”
The production on The Stand-In is heavy-handed, yet remarkably unobtrusive to the songs. Producers Jordan Lehning and Skylar Wilson may be the real unsung heroes of The Stand In, deftly arranging Caitlin’s songs and separating them in style while not straying from under the unifying sonic umbrella defined by Caitlin’s broad influences. Skylar Wilson has worked with Justin Townes Earle in the past. Much like Townes Earle, Caitlin exhibits sonic leadership by evoking a sound that is equal parts rock and roots, yet fights to remain unconfined. But where Townes Earle relies on space and minimalist composition, Caitlin comes out with a full, bold approach.
Numerous times when listening to this album you want to question the direction of the production–the out front bass track on “Waitin’,” or the Tom Petty-esque feel at the beginning of “Silver Sings.” It’s not that The Stand-In is without warts. But this album has so many of those rising moments that music lives for, any potential misstep is chased by a redemptive moment. You can’t help but compare the album to some of the landmark production accomplishments of the past in how it brings Caitlin’s A-list songwriting to life.
Two other dudes who deserve props are Caitlin’s guitar player, the fresh faced Jeremy Fetzer, and pedal steel player Spencer Cullum who is also known to play with Jonny “Corndawg” Fritz. Both these guys bring a skill set of taste and instinct that is imperative to the Caitlin Rose sound.
The tile “The Stand In” alludes in part to Caitlin’s uneasiness as a front person. When I first saw her open for Justin Townes Earle in late 2010, her talent was blinding, but her confidence was confining. I knew then if the girl could just let loose, she could become a music powerhouse.
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.
Two guns up!
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In the mid 70′s Ray Wylie Hubbard went by the handle “The Forgotten Outlaw.” And though he leans much more towards the blues these days, his music is many times misappropriated for country. In the blues world, there’s an element in the mythos called “paying dues.” And Ray has payed his many times over. Of course the reason you pay your dues is to hopefully reach a payoff, and Ray was be cashing that in at least in some small part when he made an appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman Wednesday night (1-9-13).
“Well I know 66 is kinna old to be making my first appearance on late w/ night david letterman,” Ray said through Twitter. “But I didn’t wanna peak too soon.”
Though many A-list entertainers from a swath as wide reaching as Willie Nelson to Ringo Starr consider Ray Wylie both an influence and a friend, his name still remains in the “yeah, I think I’ve heard of him before” status with most of America, or like Ray puts it sarcastically, he’s a “Music book smudge, country music stain.”
It’s pretty telling that Ray has to travel 1,800 miles to play Letterman to get the national attention he’s deserved these oh so many years, when Austin City Limits–originally set up highlight Texas talent to the rest of the world–has mostly alluded him. His only appearance on the hometown format was when Hayes Carll invited him up on stage for a song a couple years back. Oh, and there was that time Willie Nelson pulled out Ray’s “Up Against The Wall Redneck Mother” on ACL’s pilot episode in 1975.
Meanwhile David Letterman whose locked in a ratings tussle with Leno and the recently-rescheduled Jimmy Kimmel decides to supplant booking a musical guest the American public already knows for one they damn well should. Along with other independent roots acts like Jason Isbell, Justin Townes Earle, and Jessica Lea Mayfield, Letterman and his peeps have stepped up to the plate when it comes to representing the rising Americana roots scene of which Ray Wylie is a pillar and patriarch of. Meanwhile ACL is pulling household name talent from the coasts, causing a criss-crossing of traveling musical acts that can’t be healthy for America’s carbon footprint. It sure is a strange, post-digitization music world out there.
“Mother Blues” is about the perfect song for Hubbard to play on Letterman because it is both specifically autobiographical and generally badass. It highlights many of the songwriting attributes that have made Ray the legendary “Wylie Llama” in songwriting circles: humor, ribald, and cunning songcraft. Even more appropriate that he would play it with his son Lucas Hubbard accompanying him on lead guitar because Lucas is referenced in “Mother Blues” along with Ray’s wife, and the song is named for the semi-legendary blues venue where Ray got his start in Dallas. And don’t forget that gold top Les Paul…
Marty Stuart is the man. More so than any other modern country music artist, Marty does everything right, from preserving the roots of country and helping to keep the traditions alive, to putting out fresh, fun, and relevant music, to taking up the cause of the oldtimers and the up-and-comers alike to keep the country music community both honorable and vibrant. You name it, Marty has done it, and done it many times away from the cameras and country writers, simply from a passion for country music, and from the kindness of his heart.
Marty Stuart breathes country music, and helps preserve it and pay it forward almost as if it was an involuntary action. He doesn’t know how to do anything different. The man is tireless, touring many months out of the year, and spending the majority of his time when home in Nashville on his Marty Stuart Show or playing the Grand Ole Opry, or other endeavors that many times seem to be about promotion someone other than himself. The amount of talent he has churning through the Marty Stuart Show set alone is boggling, and it is about the only place left in American popular media where you can see what real country entertainment once was.
You know, I’ve heard some folks say that Marty is “hokey,” probably partly in response to his RFD-TV Show. I’ve heard others remark that he’s just plain weird, maybe from his flamboyant hairdo or dress. What’s funny though is when it comes to Marty Stuart’s music, all of that stuff seems so superfluous. His recent output is responsible for some of the hardest-charging guitar music that exists in country right now, walking right up near the line of rock & roll, but cleverly knowing where not to cross it. The magic Marty is making with “Cousin” Kenny Vaughan and the double-barreled Telecaster twang-out sound is something that will go down in the annals of country music as one of its coolest eras.
Marty Stuart also has excellent ballads and beautiful instrumentals and traditionals that include some of the tightest musicianship and harmonies you will find, mostly the fault of his excellent band The Fabulous Superlatives. From gospel to Outlaw, Marty Stuart can work within all of country music’s colors, and practice the art of playing and living authentic country music that he preaches. As Marty says, “The most Outlaw thing you can do in Nashville right now is play country music.”
One thing that many folks don’t know about Marty Stuart is that he owns a vast archive of country music memorabilia, and not from a personal desire to horde expensive valuables, but a sincere desire to preserve these artifacts for future generations of country fandom.
I’ve heard many stories about Marty’s generosity from other artists over the years, but the one that sticks with me most was from 90-year-old Don Maddox, the last surviving member of the Maddox Brothers & Rose. When Don flew out from the West Coast to be a part of the opening of the Bakersfield Sound exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame, Marty acted as Don Maddox’s personal tour guide in Nashville, taking him to see the Maddox Brothers costumes Marty gobbled up years ago for safe keeping (some of which were given to the Hall of Fame for the Bakersfield exhibit), inviting Don to play with him on The Grand Ole Opry, and putting him on The Marty Stuart Show.
Marty’s generosity stretches out to all sectors of real country music, to up-and-coming acts like The Quebe Sisters and Justin Townes Earle that he’s invited on his TV show, to Hank Williams III who appears on a duet on Marty’s latest album Nashville Vol. 1 – Tear The Woodpile Down.
And in the end, Marty Stuart’s music is the reason he deserves this honor the most. The reason Marty is in a position to do all the great things that he does is because he is so revered by his peers, by country music’s historic institutions, and by the overall country music community.
Simply put, Marty Stuart is saving country music.
Here is the list of 25 albums Saving Country Music deems essential for 2012 listening, and then I added an extra one I couldn’t leave off. Please note this list only includes albums that have been reviewed so far. There are a few more good and important albums in 2012 that have yet to be reviewed. The first 7 albums on the list (from Little Victories to Lee Bains) were all serious considerations for Saving Country Music’s Album of the Year. PLEASE NOTE: None of the Album of the Year candidates are included on this list, so look over there before complaining about omissions. After the first 7 albums, they are listed in the order the albums were reviewed, not in order based on recommendation/quality/etc.
Saving Country Music reviewed twice as many albums as it did last year, but it is impossible to review everything. As always, your feedback is encouraged. What are your essential albums? What did we miss? What was released in 2012 that deserves a review? Please leave your feedback below.
Chris Knight – Little Victories
Every year there is one album and artist that admittedly gets screwed when it comes to Saving Country Music’s bigger awards, and this is the one that gets named the “Most Essential” album for a given year. This year, it is Chris Knight’s Little Victories.
“This is the exact album that the United States of America needs right here, right now, at this very moment in time. Finally, someone has the courage and the wisdom to use music to reassure people of the power of individual will, and the beauty of the rising action embedded in every human soul instead of as a vehicle to lay blame on everyone else for the problems the individual faces.
Little Victories is a big victory for Chris Knight, for country music, and for the level-headed, wise approach to life in an overly-politicized world.” (read full review)
Ray Wylie Hubbard – The Grifter’s Hymnal
“If there’s honor amongst thieves, then it only seems fitting there should be a Grifter’s Hymnal. And if there’s going to be a Grifter’s Hymnal, it’s only fitting Ray Wylie Hubbard should compose it. The ingredients of grifters are already mixed there on his palette: Tales of dead and dying things and dens of iniquity, the struggle or the soul between good and evil, and the difficulty sometimes of telling the two apart. But to have a hymnal you also must have a message, and you must be able to convey that message with eloquence, poetical prowess, wit and rhyme. Well don’t worry, it’s all here. Just open it up and sing along.” (read full review)
Rachel Brooke – A Killer’s Dream
“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.
“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.” (read full review)
Justin Townes Earle – Nothing’s Gonna Change The Way You Feel About Me Now
I thought this was an album of great songs, but not a great album if that makes sense. The whole Memphis vibe Earle tried to conjure worked at times, and didn’t at others. But you can’t deny the power of songs like “Unfortunately, Anna”, “Maria”, or “It Won’t Be The Last Time”. Anybody who says this is their favorite album of 2012, I wouldn’t argue with. Very solid offering from Justin Townes Earle.
“There is not a bad song on this album. We see JTE return to the honest, heavy-hearted songwriting that has become his signature. Though this album is hard to warm up to. JTE’s voice may come across as unusual at first, maybe even weak, and the production may seem out-of-place or even droning because it is such an unusual approach for him, or any artist originating out of the Americana world. But when you give it time, it all starts to work. I think time will be a great ally of this album, just as much as the short-term may be a hindrance.” (read full review)
The Calamity Cubes – Old World’s Ocean
“‘Old World’s Ocean’ puts The Calamity Cubes’ bevy of talents on glorious display. Excellent songwriting is conveyed through flawless vocal performances and inventive music. By being unafraid to display their vulnerabilities, yet having an inherent rawness to their music and releasing it through one of the most “hardcore” labels in roots circles in the form of Farmageddon Records, The Calamity Cubes create a unique and important nexus in string-based roots music, and do so while putting out creative, innovative, and entertaining tunes that touch all parts of the musical anatomy.” (read full review)
Marty Stuart - Nashville Vol.1 Tear The Woodpile Down
“Marty Stuart is on an amazing roll ladies and gentlemen. What he’s doing right now with lead guitar player “Cousin” Kenny Vaughan and The Fabulous Superlatives is stuff that legends are made of. You know those periods in an artists’ career that you look back on like they can’t do wrong, churning out amazing songs and albums one after another? Hank Jr. from Whiskey Bent & Hell Bound to The Pressure Is On, Willie & Waylon after they’d shaken loose from the grips of RCA in the mid 70′s. That’s the kind of epic and influential period were in the midst of right now with Marty Stuart, and what a blessing it is to realize this and to be able to experience it all in the present instead of trying to relive it through the past.” (Read full review)
Lee Bains & The Glory Fires – There’s A Bomb In Gillead
“This is an explosively-energetic album with influences and styles pulling from a wide range of American music. Lee Bains is well-versed in Southern modes from both sides of the tracks, and shows tremendous versatility in being able to conjure up the smoky mood of a blues singer, and the sweaty twang of a Southern rocker in the space of a breath, with The Glory Fires right on his heels with their authentic, spot-on sonic interpretations.” (read full review)
Paige Anderson & The Fearless Kin – Wild Rabbit
“One hard and fast rule around Saving Country Music is that I don’t review EP’s except for in “extreme cases.” There’s just too much music out there these days to consider half efforts, and in many cases, this is what EP’s are. I know they’re the hip thing, and a quicker way to get singles to fans in the digital age. But there’s something sacred about the album concept that I’m unwilling to let go of. So what is an “extreme case?” Well in 5 or so years, not once have I had an EP cross my desk that I felt qualified. Until now.
“Wild Rabbit is a remarkable collection of songs that illustrate all of Paige Anderson’s singular talents, including her solitary prowess as a female flatpicking guitar player; an attribute that has landed her numerous features in Flatpicking Guitar magazine and other periodicals. But her voice is what threatens to steal the spotlight, with its inherent conveyance of pain in a tone that is both youthful and old, wildly unique and undeniably accessible.” (read full review)
Joe Buck – Who Dat?
“‘Who Dat’ is a completely different direction for Joe Buck, while still being exactly what he’s always done. That’s the root genius of it. Yes, without question this album is a lot more tame, more tame than even ‘Piss & Vinegar’. But what this approach does is bring out the roar of quiet anger. In many ways, even though this album features much less distortion and more singing than shouting or screaming, it’s even harder, even more disillusioned and unbalanced as a byproduct of it’s muted approach. Joe Buck’s anger isn’t as obvious, it is seething beneath the surface, boiling and permeating these recordings with an unsettled feeling, like a pressure tank ready to burst. (read full review)
The Foghorn Stringband – Outshine The Sun
“‘Outshine the Sun’ is an excellent album, and where it makes its mark is in the positivity of its message. There are many bands these days digging up old standards from The Carter Family, The Stanley Brothers and the like, but that tend to seek out the darkness in roots music; songs about muder, and preferrably cocaine if you can find them, because they feel like those themes are what keep the music relevant.
“‘Outshine the Sun’ works boldly in the opposite direction, presenting the cheerful side of the roots from its formative years, in the lyrical content, and in the modes of the music, with bright, frolicking and fun compositions and instrumentals that make this a fresh approach to the roots despite the vintage age of the material. I grimaced when I saw 21 tracks on this album. I mean did they expect to hold my attention for that long? But they did, and they do by the sheer talent of the Foghorn roster, and the sincerity of their approach.” (read full review)
Rev. Peyton’s Big Damn Band – Between The Ditches
“I swear, it is almost like Reverend Peyton had a little window into my brain when making Between The Ditches, because virtually every one of the concerns I had about their sound going in was resolved, while still keeping what is at the heart of their raucous and rowdy Delta-blues sound completely alive.
“For an underground roots band, Reverend Peyton is “making it.” Worming their way on to the Warped Tour and opening for The Reverend Horton Heat, they’ve found some traction with their music by working hard and taking a professional approach as opposed to compromising their sound. That is what’s great about Between The Ditches. It’s not a change, it is a refinement. Thought Rev. Peyton still has the same bellowy voice, he’s figured out how to employ it better, keep it in check when it could be grating. Though the repetitiveness in some of the lyrics remains, it’s measured. And though there’s still the Vaudevillian feel, there seems to be new value put on the music over the show.” (read full review)
Sara Watkins - Sun Midnight Sun
“For me, Sun Midnight Sun was one of those albums that had some good songs that I latched on to, but the project never stuck to me as a whole. But those few songs though, let me tell you. I’m libel to recycle them over and over in one setting until I feel stupid about it. The opening track “The Foothills” may be the leader in the clubhouse for instrumental track of the year. This amazing folk/bluegrass composition is built in layers like a buttermilk biscuit. They stack upon each other gradually and meld in unison through a recording technique sure to be asked for its recipe by distinguishing ears for years to come. And beneath all of that is a heavy, progressive world-beat that burrows straight into your primal nerves.” (read full review)
Billy Don Burns – Nights When I’m Sober
“There are great songwriters, and then there are songwriters that define the apogee of the craft, songwriters like Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt…and Billy Don Burns. There are songs on Nights When I’m Sober that will rip at your heart like nothing else. There’s a great variety on the album with sweet songs and fun songs. And where Billy Don elevates the stakes is in the production and approach to each composition. With producer/guitar player Aaron Rodgers, they reinvigorate the late-era, rock-infused Outlaw sound that had Haggard and Paycheck seeking Billy Don’s services. (read full review)
James Leg & Left Lane Cruiser – Painkillers
“Listen to me folks, GET THIS ALBUM! I know it’s my job as some high fallutin’ music writer to come up with a bunch of stuff to say about music. But after listening to Painkillers, if I were you, I’d skip all the gabbing and just go get it. And then find the biggest, loudest audio player you can procure and crank it to 10. If you want to flatter me, come back and read the rest at some other point.
“‘Painkillers’ isn’t just a catchy idea to sketch some cover art around, it is the idea this album is built from, to take a bunch of timeless, kick ass songs, give them the dirty, heavy-handed Left Lane Cruiser/James leg punk blues treatment, with the result being an album that is perfectly concocted to kill pain. That’s what’s so genius about it. If they had released a batch of original songs under this concept, the painkilling would just be a placebo. By taking songs we all know and love already, songs that mean something to us, the medicine is potent, fast-acting, striking right at your gut.” (read full review)
Don Williams – And So It Goes
“This album has the ability to stimulate memory and reflection without coming across as dated or even nostalgic. This was the wisdom of going back and using Don’s original producer of Garth Fundis on this album. ‘And So It Goes’ is like an ice cream cone your grandfather bought you, the smell of your grandparent’s house, a tire swing on an old tree, the shade of the light when it hits a golden meadow just right at the turning of spring or fall.
‘”And So It Goes’ simply sends you to this soft place, and makes you second guess yourself if you overlooked some mainstream 70′s and 80′s country for lacking substance. It makes you wonder just how many of those Don Williams #1′s can you name. Not all of them? Well you better start digging and see what you missed.” (read full review)
Joseph Huber – Tongues of Fire
“”And that is what imbibes ‘Tongues of Fire’ with that intangible thing that makes certain albums feel warm to you. This album is about Joe searching and finding that sense of balance and purpose, while still recognizing that certain wild desires are there and will always be.
Though on the surface ‘Tongues of Fire’ may seem like a less poetic approach, after a few listens you find the poetry very much alive in songs like “An Old Mountain Tune” and “Dance Around The Daggers”. “Iron Rail” seems to speak to the hopeless, caged feeling Joe may have been laboring under in .357, while the theme can speak to frustrations in all of us. “Fell Off the Wagon” is the outright fun song that was lacking from Joe’s first release. And just about the time you wonder where Huber’s signature blazing banjo is on this album, here comes “Walkin’ Fine”.” (read full review)
Tom VandenAvond – Wreck of a Fine Man
“VandenAvond is a pure songwriter. As much as people love to babble on about how songwriting is such a noble art and pat their favorite artists on the back for being so great at it, few delve into the inner workings of the craft like Tom VandenAvond. Comparisons are made to Dylan because of VandenAvond’s voice. Artists comparisons are rarely fair to either side, yet this one is understandable because just like Dylan, VandenAvond is a writer that sings, not a singer that writes. When it feels like the music is getting in the way of the story, this can be a symptom of an upper stratosphere songwriter who it sometimes takes interpretations of their songs from other artists to make their work accessible to the wider public.” (read full review)
JP Harris & The Tough Choices – I’ll Keep Calling
“This true, honky-tonk, hard country music, with a little Western swing and rockabilly mixed in. Songs like “Badly Bent” and “Cross Your Name” tell hard-nosed stories that don’t need heavy language to drive home their heartbroken themes, and the up-tempo “Take It Back” and “Gear Jammin’ Daddy” gives this album a good variety and spice that keep it engaging throughout. All of these songs could be labeled cliche, but they’re so good, it’s hard to.
Can a long-bearded boy from Vermont make real country music? Can songs about letters stamped “Return To Sender” and and shots of whiskey to drown sorrow still be relevant? If I’ll Keep Calling is any indication, the answer is an adamant “Yes!”” (Read full review)
Willie Nelson- Heroes
This is truly a good album. It’s easy to look at it and say, “Well I’m a Willie fan so I guess I will like it,” but this is the best album he has put out in years, with great contributions from Willie’s son Lukas.
“As I said in my review of Lukas’s latest album, he is the offspring most rich with Willie blood, with top-shelf guitar playing abilities all his own to boot. If you want to know what a rock & roll version of Willie would be, look to Lukas. Close your eyes when Lukas is singing, and you can almost see Willie, with Lukas’s natural, high-register tone, and perfect pitch and control that doesn’t ape Willie, but evokes his memory.
“This album is good both because it is Willie, and because it is good. After years of navigating through a gray area in his career and having to dabble with some record labels probably less able to do a Willie release justice, he’s back with the same company who released ‘Red Headed Stranger’, and back to making albums worthy of the world stopping down to pay attention to.” (Read full review)
The Alabama Shakes – Boys & Girls
“This rootsy, soulful rock band is bound together by the force known as Brittany Howard, part Janis Joplin, part Kimya Dawson, both poetic, and fanatically possessed. Whenever I think of the true embodiment of the word “soul” I think of an old black woman. Whether it’s an old black female singer, or young white male guitar player, if they truly want to have soul, they must have an old black woman trapped inside of them somewhere, with 1,000 injustices fighting back tears in world-torn eyes, and infinite wisdom bred from bad choices by the self and others. Soul is anger only semi-controlled, and that is what Brittany Howard has. (“I’ll fight the planet!” she proclaims in the song “Heartbreaker”. )” (Read full review)
Jackson Taylor & The Sinners – 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.” (Read full review)
McDougall – A Few Towns More
“Scott McDougall from Portland, OR might be the last of the true Romantic-era troubadours: a bardic-like, almost fantasy character that arrives in town with a bass drum on his back and guitar in hand, and sets up at the local pub to sing songs, spin tales, slay lonesome moments, and save the spiritually repressed before whisking out of town like something out of a dream. The puffy beard, the cherubic features, his skill with wit, instrument, and lyric delivered with a wisp of Renaissance flair, he’s like an archetype pulled right out of the glossy illustrations of childhood fable.” (Read full review)
Davy Jay Sparrow - Olde Fashioned
“This album is just so refreshing. It’s refreshing for Western swing and for a neo-traditionalist album because it’s just so fun. This may be the most fun album I have heard in years. It’s not afraid to be spontaneous and whimsical. There’s a comic book element to it, and a Golden-Era silver screen dime store novel romanticism, yet in never crosses the line of being corny or cornpone. If anything, it’s “cool” in the traditional sense of the term. It’s like The Slow Poisoner meets The Stray Cats. With the funny names and cheese-colored cover, you may expect cheesiness, but it solves any of those concerns by being wonderfully structured and very astutely written, arranged, and performed.” (Read full review)
Lone Wolf OMB – A Walk in My Pause
“Katy bar the door and baton down the hatches folks because Lone Wolf, the Italian, trilingual, pizza spinning, gator wrestling, globe trotting, banjo plucking, banjo building, wild-assed Floridian from up North via Costa Rica has a new album headed your way. Warn the neighbors downstairs, cause it’s about to get loud and feet will be stomping!
“At this mature stage in the evolution of American music, it is extremely rare to hear something with a wholly unique approach. And to have that approach come from just one man and a very traditional, primitive instrument makes it even more exceptional. The combination of tempo and original technique derived from the clawhammer banjo style swirl for the most dizzying, disarming music experience imaginable when Lone Wolf is cued.” (Read full review)
Carolina Chocolate Drops - Leaving Eden
“The minute the Carolina Chocolate Drops were formed, the American music landscape was a much better place. Why, because we need yet another old-time juggy string band? God no. A mysterious yet very specific plague could wipe out half a hundred banjo-playing anthropology majors in suspenders busking in college town coffee shops and there would still be too many. The reason the Chocolate Drops are important is substance, sincerity, understanding of music, and rabid passion for exhuming the bones that form the skeleton that all the beauty of roots music hangs from.” (Read full review)
Restavrant – Yeah, I Carve Cheetahs
“This music comes at you like some crazy berserker dude kicking and swinging nun chucks, or a rooster with razor blades tied to its talons flying at your head. You may not exactly know what’s going on at first, but it certainly will get your heart pumping. Restavrant doesn’t play music for you, they beat you over the head with it. A two piece setup of screaming wierdo dudes originally from Victoria, TX, one armed with a gut-bending guitar and slide, and the other with common truck stop parking lot refuse that he wails on to create audible percussive-like noises. I’m pretty sure their form of expression is considered assault in certain countries. But for those with the right ear and disposition, it hurts so good.” (Read full review)
“Every so often in the sea of folks playing and learning every instrument imaginable, a talent emerges that sets the bar for others to come. I believe Paige Anderson is one of those talents. I first learned of her intense imagination and raw gift from playing and songwriting some years ago and she instantly became an artist that I will enjoy listening to for years to come as she flourishes and continues to set that bar for those of us around who aspire to learn more ourselves.” –Chuck Ragan
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One hard and fast rule around Saving Country Music is that I don’t review EP’s except for in “extreme cases.” There’s just too much music out there these days to consider half efforts, and in many cases, this is what EP’s are. I know they’re the hip thing, and a quicker way to get singles to fans in the digital age. But there’s something sacred about the album concept that I’m unwilling to let go of. So what is an “extreme case?” Well in 5 or so years, not once have I had an EP cross my desk that I felt qualified. Until now.
One of the few times an EP is permissible is when it is the first release from a young, burgeoning artist that has a real serious shot of making music a career. Justin Townes Earle’s Yuma or Samantha Crain’s The Confiscation are good examples. Paige Anderson and her EP Wild Rabbit is another.
Paige Anderson is only 18, but she has some serious skins on the wall as a performing musician already. As a flat picking prodigy and the front person for her family band Anderson Family Bluegrass, she has performed on the California bluegrass festival circuit for going on 8 years. Anderson Family Bluegrass has played at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, and toured on Chuck Ragan’s Revival Tour along such artists as Austin Lucas and Possessed by Paul James. Chuck Ragan has been so impressed with Paige, he wrote the quote above, and lends his voice to Wild Rabbit in the duet “Ballad of the Red River”. Paige Anderson is no random pretty-faced guitar player plucked out of thin air, she is a seasoned, flat-picking maestro that is making the transition from child prodigy to top-flight performer and songwriter.
Paige Anderson is in the most critical time for a “prodigy” musician turned original performer. So often this is the juncture when a whiz kid who is wonderful at memorizing music is exposed. Naturally we all give adolescent performers a greater benefit of the doubt. But when they’re old enough to vote, the cold reality of the judgmental music world scowls down upon them and pulls no punches. The leap from performing covers and traditionals to penning your own music is treacherous to say the least. Paige Anderson’s Wild Rabbit is not perfect, but I am delighted to report that she strides over one of the most difficult hurdles in a music career and sticks the landing.
This EP displays an uncanny adeptness of songwriting and arrangement beyond the formative age of the players, and conveys hope by forming a nexus between youthful appeal and artistic value. Its foundation is bluegrass, but Paige Anderson’s wise compositions draw influences from folk, country, indie rock, and roots music in an amalgam that is fiercely original. She is backed by The Fearless Kin consisting of her sister Aimee on fiddle and brother Ethan on mandolin, with mother Christy Anderson on bass. When the three Anderson siblings combine on harmonies, hearts stop.
Wild Rabbit is a remarkable collection of songs that illustrate all of Paige Anderson’s singular talents, including her solitary prowess as a female flatpicking guitar player; an attribute that has landed her numerous features in Flatpicking Guitar magazine and other periodicals. But her voice is what threatens to steal the spotlight, with its inherent conveyance of pain in a tone that is both youthful and old, wildly unique and undeniably accessible.
This may be the first you’re hearing about Paige Anderson & The Fearless Kin. Trust me, it won’t be the last.
Two guns up.
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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.
7 total made the list, with others admittedly getting completely screwed by their absence. Rachel Brooke’s A Killer’s Dream isn’t officially out until tomorrow, but trust me, it is epic, and still couldn’t make the list. It’s ridiculous that both Ray Wylie Hubbard’s Grifter’s Hymnal and Justin Townes Earle’s Nothing’s Gonna Change The Way You Feel About Me Now aren’t on here, but they will both show up very prominently in the Song of the Year list.
Lee Bains & The Glory Fires There’s A Bomb In Gillead and the Calamity Cubes’ Old World’s Ocean are other excellent offerings that on a lesser year for music may have won the award outright. But this year, competition is stiff, and you really had to shoot the moon to make the list. Another that probably should be considered, but I must recuse myself from considering because I was part of the production team is James Hand’s Mighty Lonesome Man. (Look for these and other album on SCM’s upcoming “Essential Albums” list.)
I already have a bead of sweat forming across my brow brought on by the impossible decision of who I’m supposed to pick off this list. As always, audience participation is very encouraged, including write-in candidates. Vote down in the comments section and I do take feedback into consideration for the final decision, especially if people tell me why it is the best candidate, instead of simply following a Facebook link and typing a name.
To be the Saving Country Music Album of the Year, you can’t just be good, or even great. You have to bring some intangibles to the table. You have to make an important impact on the greater music world. The way Goodbye Normal Street accomplishes this requirement is by its ability to branch out and create new fans for independent music. Find the most diehard pop country fan and play “Good Lord Lorrie” for them and watch them wither and want their own copy. It’s substance with accessibility, and that is a powerful, powerful weapon for real music.
“Call it a maturing or a coming into their own, but this album marks the most solid offering from this Oklahoma-based band yet, and a defining of their sound, their place in the music world, and as a band that music world should pay more serious attention to. Sharp wit, self-reflection, specific references to characters and situations in an almost Townes or Robert Earl Keen-like storytelling approach imbibes this music with a freshness and engaging nature, revitalizing the old-fashioned love and heartbreak songs in the modern, independent context.” (read full review)
The founding, underlying principle of Saving Country Music is the fight for creative freedom for artists. In 2012, no other album and no other artist defines that fight more than Kellie Pickler. Sacrificing her major label deal and a big payday to make the album she wanted, Kellie put out a strikingly traditional and engaging album that Chet Flippo, the same writer that covered the Outlaw country music scene back in the 70′s for Rolling Stone, called “the best pure country album in recent years.” But if 100 Proof wins, it won’t just be because of what the album symbolizes or its critical acclaim. It will be because it’s just so damn fun to listen to.
“If you are truly a fan of country music and have an open heart, you will like 100 Proof. In the Tammy Wynette, Loretta Lynn mold, 100 Proof revives the lost appreciation for the strong, yet sweet country woman, while staying away from the surface symbolism that erodes the substance from many of the other artists that attempt this difficult feat.” (read full review)
I swear, Olds Sleeper is the Tom Waits, Beck, and Townes Van Zandt of our generation all wrapped into one…while at the same time being some random dude with a straight job churning out songs in a spare bedroom, playing all the parts and recording the music himself. Someone putting out so much music in a year, and doing so in such a lo-fi context isn’t supposed to be this good. Olds Sleeper will churn out 3 or 4 albums, and 40-something songs a year under various pseudonyms. The songwriting is par-excellence, tearing at your heart, reducing grown ass men to tears at times. And at other times New Years Poem is a straight up headbanger. Be prepared for how dirty and under-produced this project is, but that’s all part of the fun. New Year’s Poem is breathtaking, Old’s magum opus up to this point. Oh, and it’s FREE.
“Old’s New Year’s Poem opens up a new chapter in his music, and name’s his most complete album yet. There’s a great balance between his balls-out fuzz jams and heart-straining ballads, and a good flow from stem to stern.” (read full review)
If I was picking the winner exclusively on creativity and originality, this album would win it running away. Coffin Up Blood gives you hope for music. It proves that there’s still new ways of making old music, and still uncharted territory yet to discover. At the same time it is one of the most purely entertaining albums of 2012. On the outside it may look like some horror gimmick, but this was an album that lots of time and love went into and was done right from start to finish.
“Forget the heavily death-infused concept, what The Bloody Jug Band has accomplished is releasing one of the most creatively-spellbinding albums in recent memory. Its funny. Its dark. It never takes itself too seriously. It is as engaging as any album I have listened to in years. You can’t stop listening to it, and when you’re not listening to it, you crave it. Think it’s all been done in roots music? Listen to Coffin Up Blood and prove your ass wrong.” (read full review)
Like the cowboy poets of old, Corb Lund is a master craftsman with the pen, knowing how to balance humor and heartbreak, irony and perspective to perfection. This album is angry, bordering on insane at times, but never loses its poetic, top-shelf aptitude with words. From a songwriting perspective, it’s 2012′s best while boasting some real fun music ranging from rock & roll to Western Swing.
“The United States is not the only land with lonesome cowboys and wide open spaces. Corb Lund grew up on his family’s farm and ranch in Alberta (the Canadian province, not your smelly aunt with 6 cats), and his rural cowboy life and thirst for country comes through in his music. There’s no corny hoser-ism here, Corb Lund is rich with ribald and wit, with forays into rock & roll and wild diversions of the mind from a man struggling to relate to modern society.” (read full review)
That’s right ladies & gentlemen, two Canadians are candidates for Saving Country Music’s Album of the Year. Lindi lands on the list for putting out the most tasteful, most stylistically-flawless album over the past 12 months, and one that has something for everyone. Lindi Ortega will be a big force in American country and roots music in the coming years. Mark my words.
“‘Cigarettes & Truckstops’ is a succulent endeavor into the very fabric of country music, dusting off country’s roots, adding a little rockabilly, and re-emerging with them in a sexy and relevant candor, talking care free about drugs and danger, and not doing anything to be cool but being herself. Lindi Ortega doesn’t need to paint flames on her chest, she’s hot enough. I certainly can see how folks from a very wide swath of the roots world could get into her music. From the underground to Americana, if you don’t like her music, you’re not listening to it right.” (read full review)
Eric Strickland – Honky Tonk Till I Die
If you’ve made to the bottom of the list here and were wondering where in the hell the music from just a simple Southern country boy belting out bad ass country songs with no strings attached was, well meet Eric Strickland. Straight laced as it may be, this album is still something special simply from the strength of the songs and the performances.
“This is what Saving Country Music is all about. This is the reason I put my pants on every morning. Everything else is just fluff, filibustering, treading water until I come across that one artist, that one album that embodies everything true country fans are looking for but have yet to find. That is what you have with Eric Strickland and his band The B Sides, and their album ‘Honky Tonk Till I Die.’” (read full review)
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