- Marty Stuart: Keeper Of Country Music's Cowboy Couture
- Willie Watson on NPR's Mountain Stage
- Fader Interviews Lucinda Williams
- Chuck Mead on NPR's Mountain Stage
- Apple Reportedly In Talks with Majors for Cheaper Music
- Ricky Skaggs, Sharon White Release New Album "Hearts Like Ours"
- If You Missed It: Lucinda Williams on Fallon 9-30
- SXSW Probably Isn't Going Anywhere But Big Changes Loom
- Revisiting Cowboy Jack Clement, Country Music's Jester and King
- Audiobook Review: Tom T. Hall "The Storyteller's Nashville"
- Mac Wiseman Featured in The Wall St Journal
- Live Nation Moving Off of Music Row
- After SiriusXM Success, The Turtles Take on Pandora
- American Songwriter reviews new Sons of Bill album
- Cool Music Photos from New "Still Moving" Picture Book
- The Telegraph "Sturgill Simpson: Space Cowboy"
- Jambands Reviews Cory Branan's "No Hit Wonder"
- Zoe Muth at WAMU's Bluegrass Country
- A night in the life of Austin City Limits ringleader Terry Lickona
- Sons of Bill Release New Album "Love and Logic"
- Can the people Nashville hopes to attract afford to move to Nashville?
When it comes to country music documentaries, especially when they center around often-overlooked independent artists, European filmmakers don’t just have American filmmakers beat, the sad prognosis is that there’s just very few if any American filmmakers to compete with. For whatever reason, the collective will to raise the capital to chronicle American roots music exists in much greater numbers in the Old World than in country music’s place of origin. Country music ambassadors like the recently-passed George Hamilton IV planted the seeds of appeal for the authenticity of American country music and roots, and that desire has remain steadfast over the years, and manifested into material support for artists in both the performance and journalistic realm.
Working with German-based outfit Art Haus Musik, filmmaker Marieke Schroeder takes a deep dive into the American South and the artists at the forefront of the next generation in Country Roads, The Heartbeat of America. Making appearances during the 90-minute documentary are John Carter Cash, Caitlin Rose, her mother and songwriter Liz Rose, Woody Guthrie’s daughter Norah Guthrie, Kevin Costner, Papa Joe and the Carter Family Fold, The Ryman Auditorium, Robert’s Western World in Nashville and Brazilbilly, and most prominently, Justin Townes Earle in possibly the most intimate look at the 2nd generation performer we have seen to date. Other notables that make quick appearances include Ashley Monroe, Angaleena Presley, and Miranda Lambert in the capacity of The Pistol Annies, Amanda Shires, and Lisa Marie Presley. Stock footage of Johnny Cash and others is also used in the film.
Acting as a guide through both the explanation of the roots of country music and the streets of Nashville, Justin Townes Earle and many others try best to define “country” for a foreign audience in the film. If there was a second most-featured character in the film, it would be Woody Guthrie. From Earle’s deep study of the man, to the appearance of his daughter, to his influence on the music being made even today, Woody, and to an extent The Carter Family, become the centerpiece-in-spirit of the story. The Country Roads DVD also includes an entire Justin Townes Earle concert performed at Pace University on October 26th and 27th of 2012 called “The Spirit of Woody Guthrie.” The presentation doesn’t include Woody Guthrie songs, but instead features songs inspired by Woody’s musical legacy and performed by Justin.
Something else Country Roads affords for Americana music aficionados is intimate footage of Justin Townes Earle recording his 2012 album Nothing’s Gonna Change The Way You Feel About Me Now, and the actual studio session where Caitlin Rose is singing her now highly-regarded Arctic Monkeys cover of “Piledriver Waltz.” This tells you that the film was shot roughly two-and-a-half years ago, and so in some ways you feel like you’re looking a little bit towards the past, though the film presents itself as being a relevant, here-and-now project, making for a slightly unusual sense of timing. Both Caitlin and Justin Townes Earle have subsequently put out newer music.
“This is one of our few untouched things in Nashville—RCA Studio ‘B’,” Justin explains in one portion of the film while standing amidst the heart of Nashville’s Music Row. “But then you just look around at all the crap that has been built around it. This is like the belly of the beast right here. This is where all the bad ideas are thought up. This is where all the bad country songs come from. This is where they’re all recorded. In all these buildings, this is where all the ‘geniuses’ that are thinking all the crap up and what they’re gonna do … It’s amazing to me that the people that work here now can hold their heads up, that they can walk these streets and think that if Hank Williams wasn’t here right now he wouldn’t whip their fucking ass.”
Country Roads is exquisitely shot, and does a great job capturing the dirty details of the South from a cinematic standpoint. The film is interspersed with rolling footage taken from the vantage point of a traveler on country roads, presenting both the most humble of existences in the form of outdated singlewides on stilts and backwoods cabins, to stately new upper class suburbs. Filmmaker Marieke Schroder, who in the mid 80′s lived in the United States in a school exchange and discovered the emotionalism present in Southern culture, makes stops along these roads to talk to common people: shopkeepers, the unemployed and retired, oyster fishermen dealing with the aftermath of the BP oil spill, and others. In these encounters you get a glimpse of the South beyond the music.
What the American audience and seasoned country music listeners should approach this film with is the understanding that at its core this movie is not made for them. It is made to be a primer to country music and the American South. The narration of the film comes across in the English version as quite presumptive about Southern culture and certain events, romanticizing the plight of the recent economic downturn and the depravity the South finds itself in, as well as getting other specific details a little off. For example, a couple of times the film says that Southerners now mostly hang out at gas stations. Though that may be true for some communities, that is not necessarily true for the entire Southern region. Some things may have been lost in the translation, while other broad generalities made in the narration may actually be a concise way to explain the complexities of the South to a foreign and unfamiliar audience.
What the established country music audience does get from Country Roads is a quite valuable and involved portrait of Justin Townes Earle, and a lesser, but still insightful glimpse at Caitlin Rose, John Carter Cash, The Carter Family Fold, and other important cultural players and institutions.
- – - – - – - – - – - – - – -
“Who is that mysterious woman hanging on the shoulder of Steve Earle’s son?” That is the question some were asking when Justin Townes Earle released his first LP called The Good Life in 2008. That mysterious woman turned out to be fiddle player Amanda Shires, who as a young prodigy was once a member of Bob Wills’ legendary backing band The Texas Playboys, and is now known as Amanda Isbell, a renown solo artist and wife of Jason Isbell.
Subsequently every Justin Townes Earle album cover has featured Earle himself and a pretty woman somewhere in close vicinity to him, and just exactly who these pretty women are is part of the fun and mystery. But Justin Townes Earle broke from this tradition on his latest record Single Mothers and put someone else on the cover instead of himself. There’s a girl on the cover yet again, holding the hand of the male protagonist, but that’s not Justin Townes Earle. Or is it?
Prodigies in the music world usually come in the form of instrumentalists, like Amanda Shires. It is rare to find a prodigy whose passion is songwriting, and even more rare to find a young songwriter who can garner acceptance and notoriety from the established music world at such a young age. Generally speaking, younger artists just don’t have the type of bevy of experiences to pull from to enthrall the listener with compelling sentiments, and they just don’t have the cognitive capacity to understand the subtly and nuance necessary to engage an audience in true storytelling.
And then there’s Sammy Brue.
Sammy Brue is the 13-year-old songwriter whose defiant gaze and long locks reaching out beneath a wide-brimmed black hat landed on the cover of Single Mothers. Sammy is originally from Portland, OR, and in his very short career has already made friends with Justin Townes Earle, Joshua Black Wilkins (who was also the photographer who shot the cover, and Justin Townes Earle’s other covers), and many other songwriters of the wider country and Americana communities. Just in the last couple of years, Sammy Brue has opened for Asleep At The Wheel, Hayes Carll, John Moreland, and Lukas Nelson to name a few. His father bought him a guitar for Christmas in 2011 after the family moved to Utah to keep him occupied, and he wrote his first song at the age of ten called “The Woody Guthrie Song.” Since then he’s learned material from legends such as Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan, and more contemporary like Justin Townes Earle and Gillian Welch. He’s also written over a dozen original songs.
Sammy Brue has just released an EP through NoiseTrade of all original songs and is working on a second one, and will be performing at the Americana Music Conference coming up this week.
The Single Mothers cover was shot in Dragon Park in Nashville, which is park of Fannie Mae Dees Park in the city’s southwest portion. “Justin grew up playing there,” Sammy Brue tells me, which is further validation towards my initial theory that Sammy is supposed to represent a younger Justin Townes Earle, who grew up with a single mother after Steve Earle left the home.
As for who the girl is, “I only met that girl the one time,” Sammy says. Joshua Black Wilkins didn’t have much more insight into the cover concept either. “It was all [Justin's] idea,” Wilkins says.
But I think I know enough. I’ll take the suggestion of Sammy Brue from the cover and call it good. Who the girl is, and the other particulars, I prefer they remain a mystery. Because sometimes the things you don’t know make for the best art.
- – - – - – - – - – -
This release might mean just a little bit more to Justin Townes Earle. The harder you work for things, the more value they tend to hold. After concluding a five-album contract with the scrappy and street-accredited independent label Bloodshot Records, Justin Townes Earle moved on to what he hoped would be greener pastures, and quickly got his nose pushed in. Earle saddled up with British-based label Communion Records owned in part by Ben Lovett—the accordion and keyboard player of Mumford & Sons. The situation got sideways between Justin and Communion when the label required him to turn in 30 tracks that they could then cull through and select what they wanted to release. Earle would have none of it, and went into rebellion mode, resulting in his eventual extraction from Communion to release this new album Single Mothers through California-based label Vagrant.
For starters, the cover art for this album deserves to be commended. Such a lost art in this digital age, artists go into projects having no clue how to sync up their expression with the first image listeners see to prepare them for the experience. The defiance in the eyes of these two youngsters, the innocence at believing their intertwined lives will remain this way forever, and the wonder and promise the whole scene evokes is something worthy of individual praise. It stimulates the mind and imagination, readying them to receive Justin’s musical notions with more of an agape consciousness.
It may seem hard to sense Justin Townes Earle as a seasoned artist since he’s the son of an established performer and still resides in his early 30′s, but this is Earle’s sixth overall project. He’s already spent years out on the road, and he’s already been anointed by Americana’s independent industry. He won the Americana Music Award for Emerging Artist half a decade ago, and now he draws large crowds across the country and world as an Americana stalwart, and a leader of the subgenre’s second generation.
The occasion of Earle’s sixth album also sees the songwriter settling into his established sound for better or worse. Where in his early days Justin would swing from influences in the country and bluegrass worlds to songs more fit for folk distinction, and then chart into the blues and even a more soulful Motown sound, now Earle seems to understand what he does best, and doesn’t venture too far away from it. Though you may still hear the moan of the steel guitar in places, or the cajoling of his eclectic and signature style of playing the acoustic guitar with heavy plucking and strumming, really Justin Townes Earle, the singer and producer, has settled into a firm pocket of finding the heartbeat of black Memphis and Motown and reviving it for the modern ear.
Placing aside the songwriting effort for a second, this steadiness has made Earle’s compositions comfortable to the ear, but also somewhat predictable. During the transition of the first two songs on Single Mothers, you almost have to look at the display of your media device to be assured the first song isn’t actually repeating in the way the two tracks sound so similar. The album is fairly straightforward throughout with the guitar tone, brushes on snare, and a similar style to Earle’s voice, with some notable exceptions.
As Justin Townes Earle will tell you, he’s a songwriter first, and that is what the listener should clue in on most intently on a JTE project. The production and instrumentation is simply the clothing. But in this established sound Justin has sired over his last few albums, you tend to miss Earle’s other signature attribute, which is his solo stylings. Justin Townes Earle doesn’t need a band. His songs, his voice, and his clawhammer hybrid-style plucking on a parlor-sized guitar is sound enough to send hearts pounding. The music on Single Mothers at times feels like it gets in the way of the experience, while also being a little unimaginative and undercooked if he was going to go for the full band sound. When he opens up the space, like he does in the magnificent “Picture In A Drawer,” the composition comes alive. Or when the backing band is allowed to step out a little bit more like on the final track “Burning Pictures,” you find a little more energy drawn from Earle’s original idea. In the middle though, you feel like Justin’s inspiration is represented a little thinly.
What works here the best are the songs themselves, speaking cohesively about a forlornness towards past memories and experiences. The title of Single Mothers speaks very personally to Earle’s own narrative as a boy growing up, abandoned by his father, and now looking at the world through the eyes those experiences forged. “My Baby Drives” appears to allude to his recently wedded bride that according to Earle has put him in a very happy place. But he promises that he still has a lifetime of bad experiences to reflect on for forlorn inspiration, and it is this type of past-tense reflection that gives Single Mothers its singular, distinct, and wistful flavor.
The songs of this album very much live up to the still-emerging, but growing legacy of Justin Townes Earle as an award-winning songwriter. It’s just a shame a little more vision wasn’t brought to some of the music, and it’s hard to hear those few songs that you can pluck from the crowd and play as examples of his genius. “Time Shows Fools” though is a great specimen of how to express a timeless sentiment in an undiscovered way.
Perhaps in the rush and melee this album experienced as a result of the label issues, the right chemistry wasn’t found to make the finishing results reside in the ideal. But Single Mothers is an album that takes nothing away from Justin Townes Earle, and may be his most personal yet.
1 1/2 of 2 Guns Up.
- – - – - – - – - – - – - -
“You can’t just roll into town anymore. It’s a fucking arms race to find the last affordable rental. More Wayne Newton than Waylon Jennings.” — Caitlin Rose
It’s that penultimate moment—that tipping point—when a town or neighborhood known for it’s cool, rich, and creatively-vibrant culture becomes so awash with interlopers, gentrifying hipsters, and retiring baby boomers that the critical mass point is reached in redevelopment, rising rents, and real estate prices and the entire thing implodes, leaving in ruin the whole reason people desired to be in the area in the first place, and taking with it the inspiration that brews beneath the streets, the collaboration that is fostered in its venues and low rent space, and a magical time and place on the musical timeline falls victim to imported money and urban renewal, maybe to be harbored once again in another part of town or another town altogether, or maybe not.
Nashville—not Music Row Nashville—but the independent underbelly of Nashville and specifically the East Nashville portion of town, have been the rallying point for the current generation of vibrant country and Americana artists that make up the heart of what independent roots music has been all about for the last half decade to decade or so, but even going back to the 70′s when songwriters from Texas were moving to the city to be closer to artists who may cut their songs. East Nashville’s affordability gave artists the ability to be flexible with their income, allowed them to be able to only work part time, or dedicate themselves solely to their craft in a way that wouldn’t be possible amidst a higher cost of living. East Nashville was the creative generator of Music City, churning out songs that inspired the rest of the town, and the rest of the industry.
But all that might be changing, or has changed, depending on who you ask.
In late June Saving Country Music published an article entitled How Nashville’s Economic Boom Could Kill Its Creativity, later to be reposed by American Songwriter. In just the short two-month period that has since passed, as more and more development breaks ground and other massive building projects get announced, Music City may have finally reached the point of no return; at least that is what some of the artists are now saying.
On August 21st, performer and songwriter Caitlin Rose, daughter of well-known songwriter Liz Rose, went on a Twitter rant about what she sees currently going on in Nashville.
“Everyone can stop moving to Nashville now. We’re full. Thanks.” Caitlin said in part. “Did y’all hear they’re tearing down all of Nashville and putting one giant Margaritaville in its place? People come to Nashville for the music. They stay for the expensive chain restaurants and condo culture. They never leave… Everyone’s got dreams of making it in Music City, USA. Most of them don’t. Like barely any of them.”
This marrying of concerns about the percentage of independent businesses and the ability for young artists to make it in the city speaks to complexity of the gentrification issue. It’s not just the low rents, or even the concentration of creative types in a certain locale that sees the formation of a creative epicenter, it’s also the inspiration that can be drawn from cool old buildings, independently-owned business, mural art and graffiti, and a menagerie of other community elements that go into building a creative forward environment. “Just saw badass dude biking down Charlotte with a raccoon on his shoulder and a box full of blankets. Fuck new Nashville and condo culture,” Caitlin Rose tweeted out a few days later.
Justin Townes Earle, son of alt. country forefather Steve Earle, has been another vocal opponent of Nashville’s gentrification. Earle grew up in the city, and regularly takes to Twitter to complain about the bulldozing of landmarks, the building of condos, and the general scrubbing away of everything Music City is supposed to be about. Earle recently told American Songwriter, “Nashville is where I was born and raised, I never got away from the city, but the city is definitely not the city that I grew up in…Itâs pretty crazy, people here think they live in New York. They live in Nashville, and itâs hard to swallow sometimes. I had a fucked up childhood so I lived in over 30 houses in the city, and I think that maybe two of them are still standing, and one of them is part of an apartment complex.“
Otis Gibbs is one of East Nashville’s most identifiable musician residents, and offers a slightly different perspective. His Thanks For Giving A Damn podcast regularly features friends and neighbors from his East Nashville haunt, and he likes to hoot and harp on the East Nashville way of living regularly on Twitter.
“Amy Lashley and I moved here seven years ago from Indianapolis, but the growth in East Nashville started long before we came along,” says Otis. “People like Chuck Mead, Skip Litz, Joe McMahan, Kevin Gordon, Sergio Webb, Mike Grimes and later Todd Snider were living here and touring the world twenty years ago, or more. Back before that people like Guy Clark, Marty Robbins, Roy Acuff, Grady Martin and a lot of others lived here. This has been a neighborhood full of creative people over the last few decades, but the national media is just now catching on.”
Otis shared a picture with Saving Country Music of Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, and Susanna Clark on Guy Clark’s porch in East Nashville that speaks to the history of East Nashville as a bastion for creative types.
“Nashville is home to the best pickers in the world,” says Otis Gibbs. “It’s an embarrassment of riches and it’s easily my favorite part of living here. I played a venue in Zurich, Switzerland a couple of weeks ago and saw a poster advertizing my neighbor’s band. He owns the house next to mine and he’ll be playing that same club next month. The first time I ever met that same neighbor was when we both played a festival in Springfield, Illinois. He walked up to me back stage and said, “I think you live in the house next to mine.” That sort of thing happens all the time. I once learned who moved into the house down the street from me by reading his name on his road cases as he was moving in.”
Otis says home ownership for East Nashville’s musicians is one way to hold on to heart of what the community has become over the years.
“It’s always nice to see musicians in my neighborhood who own their homes. It’s cheaper than renting and if property values get as crazy around here as some people suspect, they’ll have something to show for it. I have friends in South Austin who bought their homes back in the day and have seen their homes quadruple in value.”Â
The problem is when those homes values increase, if the musicians aren’t already locked into ownership, they are locked out of the community in rising prices and rents, and that is the new dilemma arising for many of East Nashville’s musicians. One of the biggest points of contention in the community is the splitting of lots so that two new homes can be built on the same original lot. Along with the demolition of older apartment complexes, this has seen the inventory of older and cheaper housing in the city dry up, and with it, much of the original character of East Nashville neighborhoods. Some neighborhoods, including East Nashville’s Inglewood and Rosebank districts are looking to restructure zoning laws to help stem the tide of gentrification.
Still, growth and lot division is occurring because of the demand for more living space in East Nashville, and where there are losers, there’s winners as well. Craig Havighurst, a writer and the co-host of Music City Roots has a different take on condos and all of the commotion about Nashville growth.
Urban creative hives require urban scale and urban density, which is something I feel weâre only beginning to approach from South of Broadway all the way out to Green Hills. Two houses on one lot are a way to provide critical housing supply without sprawling. It might prove to be one of the best accidental policy ideas the cityâs ever had. Because better to build in and up than out. Complaints that the houses are too large for their lots are entirely subjective and based on the look and feel of a kind of neighborhood that isnât necessarily compatible with urban dynamism. The new people fill new restaurants and coffee shops, where those aspiring musicians find jobs while they develop. And a lot of those new arts and music professionals bought starter homes in Inglewood and Sylvan Park. We can empathize with folks who are seeing their rents rise and still acknowledge that for many, this was a good investment that will make their future more secure.
What everyone can agree on is that the cultural dynamic that exists in Nashville at the moment and has helped give rise to artists like Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, Caitlin Rose, Justin Townes Earle, Cory Branan, Tristen, Lindi Ortega, many more countless names in the past, and who knows who in the future, is in every music fan’s interest in seeing preserved because of the musical riches it has afforded us for the last few years, and for decades before.
The wait by both Justin Townes Earle and his fans for new music is finally seeing a light at the end of the tunnel. Justin will be releasing his 5th studio album Single Mothers on September 9th on Vagrant Records—the California-based label that is also home to artists like Black Joe Lewis, Blitzen Trapper, Edward Sharpe, and PJ Harvey. The album will be the first from Justin since his last and final record with Chicago-based Bloodshot Records, Nothing’s Gonna Change The Way You Feel About Me Now released in March of 2012.
After the resolution of Earle’s five-album Bloodshot contract, the son of Steve Earle and the namesake of Townes Van Zant found himself in the midst of an intense battle with the British-based label Communion Records owned in part by Ben Lovett, otherwise known as the accordion and keyboard player of Mumford & Sons. According to Earle, the company expected him to turn in 30 songs per his contract, which the label could then par down into an album release. The result was a December 15th Twitter tirade where Earle said, âI have now learned that you can never trust a bunch of babies that ainât worked a day in their lives. May Shane McGowan kick their asses. The only thing I hate about business is that itâs frowned upon to pistol whip the competition. Tweets are gonna be angry for awhile. Just found out I wonât be making a record for a while due to a bunch of pussies in an office. Never working with another record label.â
Later, on December 18th, Earle continued, “âSo I am being told that I agreed to write 30 songs and let the label âhelpâ 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 bitchâs! … Let me make this clear! I have not, and never will write 30 songs in a year. That isnât art itâs vomit. I write a record. Quality matters not quantity! I deliver records in sequence and have a pretty good record so far. I donât need the new kids giving me tips. Ladyâs 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.â
Justin Townes Earle recently played the title track to Single Mothers on NPR’s Mountain Stage.
Earle has received critical acclaim for his music and songwriting since releasing the Yuma EP in 2007. In 2009 he won the Americana Music Award for New and Emerging Artist of the Year, and won Saving Country Music’s Album of the Year in 2009 for Midnight At The Movies, as well as SCM’s 2011 Artist of the Year.
Justin Townes Earle was also recently married.
Single Mothers Track List:
1. Worried Bout The Weather
2. Single Mothers
3. My Baby Drives
4. Today And A Lonely Night
5. Picture In A Drawer
6. Wanna Be A Stranger
7. White Gardenias
8. Time Shows Fools
9. Itâs Cold In This House
10. Burning Pictures
In an era when nothing in music is universal, and music has become one of the primary battlefronts in the culture war, the likeability of Jack White was one of the few things that passed for a consensus builder. Like former Nirvana drummer and current Foo Fighter Dave Grohl, Jack White was hard to hate, even if you weren’t particularly fond of his music, past or present. His accidental superstardom, his respect and proficiency with music from many different genres, his forward-thinking, quirky style at promotion, and his independent spirit made him a champion of almost every conscious music lover. He was the rock star that wasn’t one: the prototype of the new-school, likeable guy that just happened to become famous, and that we could relate to and appreciate as one of us, no matter how “us” was defined.
And then something changed. I’m not exactly sure where or when specifically, but it changed. At some point it seemed like Jack White has started to buy into his own image and marketing, while his image began to reveal itself as marketing. He kept getting older, yet refused to lose the whiteface or black hair. And then the gimmicks started rolling in, and now the feuds.
August of last year is when the first major cracks in the Jack White facade began to appear. Amidst the divorce proceedings from his wife Karen Elson, it came out that she was alleging Jack was both verbally and physically abusive toward her, that she had asked for a restraining order and a psychiatric evaluation, and then she released emails to the public where White was portrayed as spiteful toward The Black Keys guitarist (and another one of music’s few universally-likeable guys, Dan Auerbach), speaking on the circumstance of the two’s kids being in the same school, “You arenât thinking ahead. Thatâs a possible twelve fucking years I’m going to have to be sitting in kids chairs next to that asshole with other people trying to lump us in together. He gets yet another free reign to follow me around and copy me and push himself into my world.â
If you were anything like me, at the time this information came out, you put yourself in both Jack White and his ex-wife’s shoes, and felt it was a shame that the information had been made public. And of course there were counter-suits by Jack, claiming it was all lies and smear. Who is right or wrong in affairs of the heart is usually anyone’s best guess, and it’s usually better for the whole business to be kept under wraps and out of the public consumption feed before speculation and misnomers are allowed to thrive. But still, there it was; a chink in the armor. If this info was coming out about Axl Rose or Jason Aldean, whether you were a fan of their music or not, you’d be likely to shrug your shoulders and say, “Yeah, sounds about right.” But this was our likeable, champion of independent music Jack White; the guy that wasn’t a bastard, on stage or off.
It was the the Tiger Woods effect. Nobody was surprised, and nobody cared when it was found out that Michael Jordan, or Shaquille O’Neil cheated on their wives. Of course they did. But Tiger Woods had been sold to us for years as this upstanding, product-endorsing family man. Jack White was supposed to be the champion of all independent music; the sage leader who wouldn’t lose his temper, and was blessed with the ability to see everything both ways.
But really the erosion of Jack White looming large over the musical landscape started years before. I remember when it was first announced that he would be partnering with Wanda Jackson to make a revival album in the same vein of his award-winning and critically-acclaimed work with Loretta Lynn on 2004′s Van Lear Rose. My country music head just about exploded from excitement at this news (and here too is where you see why Jack White has an important and worthy country music connection). 2011′s The Party Ain’t Over from Wanda Jackson was one of the most anticipated records of 2011 in rock, rockabilly, and country. And what happened when it was released? No much. Nowhere near the zeal and accolades piled up as they did for Van Lear Rose.
The Jack White-produced The Party Ain’t Over felt flat. It seems to be about Jack first, and Wanda second. Her signature growl wasn’t present, her voice was buried in the mix. Jack White’s guitar wankery ruined songs in places, and seemed to be the predominant feature of the project. And Jack’s insistence on cutting directly to tape gave the entire recording a filmy, ever-present hiss, despite whatever “warmth” it captured. The album wasn’t terrible, don’t get me wrong. But it was one of those records you listen to once or twice, return to its sleeve, and then never think about again—Wanda’s cover of Amy Winehouse’s “You Know I’m No Good” notwithstanding.
So maybe Jack White wasn’t flawless, says the 2011 me to myself. Then I began to think what the last Jack White project was that really spoke to me. Of course, I’m a country guy, so maybe I’m not the best test specimen, but the one I came up with was The Raconteurs first album Broken Boy Soldiers, and that was from way back in 2006. But I’d tasted pretty much everything he’d done subsequently, and hey, Jack had won himself a good bit of latitude to stretch his wings if he wanted, or even turn in some missed targets and snoozers because he was Jack White. Music aside, I liked the guy, and he never put out anything that seemed downright ill-advised or bad.
And then the bits started: the all-girl band, the record booth, the tying of records on balloons and releasing them in downtown Nashville, and this with records, and that with records. Yes, we all love vinyl. It sounds so much better! But at some point it all was starting to feel like one big gimmick. This year during Record Store Day when Jack White pulled another bit by making the “World’s Fastest Record,” it seemed to symbolize the whole silliness and extreme of the new vinyl revolution, where we’re putting out records without any quality control or thought, stuff like Ron Jeremy playing classical piano just to get people to pay to collect something nobody would ever want if it wasn’t being pushed by hype and being sold as an exercise in independent values. Everybody was trying to look cool for each other, and somewhere the focus on the music itself got lost in the shuffle.
And then here comes Jack White late last week talking shit on Adele, his ex White Stripes partner, The Black Keys, and pretty much everyone else in modern music to Rolling Stone. But wait a second, I thought White’s hatred for The Keys was all hyped in the mudslinging of his divorce? And almost making it worse, he comes out 48 hours later to apologize. White seemed like he wanted to have his cake and eat it too: get the idea out there that The Black Keys and pretty much all popular guitar-based music is a ripoff of him and The White Stripes, and then turn around and apologize as everyone is lobbing grenades back at you so you look like the bigger person. Justin Townes Earle, the artist that produced Wanda Jackson’s subsequent album Unfinished Business, let rip on Twitter yesterday, “Jack White is such a pussy,” illustrating that one of independent music’s untouchables had now become a whipping boy.
The simple fact is though, Jack White is right, at least to some extent. Last weekend I was attending redneck comedian Jeff Foxworthy’s inaugural Red Fest on the outskirts of Austin, TX. While hanging out with one of the performing artists, they elucidated to me unsolicited and out-of-context, “You know, everything these days just sounds like bad White Stripes to me.” And they’re pretty much right. This two-piece, new rock, blues and roots-referencing scream fest has pretty much permeated American popular music, and with it, the misguided notion that everything must be cut directly to tape and pressed on vinyl to where we’re now making a bunch of great music that purposely sounds bad. This is Jack White’s contribution to planet Earth at the moment, and maybe he has a reason to be pissed off, and wanting to piss off others because of it.
But of course, Jack White has his influences as well. Ever heard of the Flat Duo Jets, or Dex Romweber? In fact Romweber just put out a new album through Bloodshot Records called Images 13. He plays in a duo with a girl drummer. Even Jack will admit, Dex was a big origination point for The White Stripes and his later incarnations. Dex recorded a live album at White’s 3rd Man Records in 2010. “It was obvious when you watched Dexter perform, he didnât care what people though about him, he just wanted to express these songs that were coming out of him,” says White on Dex. Is Dex Romweber pissed off that everyone’s running around, copying him by playing cheap Harmony guitars in two-piece bands, including Jack White? We may never know until he gets divorced.
So lo and behold, the whole time we were holding Jack White up on a pedestal for being just like the rest of us, in private he was juggling family bullshit, and hiding resentment … just like the rest of us. And now you know the importance behind the saying, “It’s all about the music.”
Sturgill Simpson has arrived ladies & gentlemen, thanks to the resounding critical success of his new album Metamodern Sounds of Country Music that has permeated just about every corner of the independent roots music culture. From NPR, to The New York Times, to Billboard, to important periodicals in Europe, wherever you turn, someone is singing the praises of the Kentucky native.
This resounding success has made some, if not many, wonder where does Sturgill Simpson go from here? Just how big can he get? Could we possibly hear Sturgill Simpson songs on mainstream radio? Could we see him get a nomination from the CMA? Could Sturgill Simpson and Metamodern Sounds be the artist and album to save country music? Without a doubt he’s that one artist this is resonating, right here, right now, and unlike other artists that have done so recently such as Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson is decidedly country, potentially giving him the ability to be considered for attention by country music’s largest institutions.
I think we all need to take a douse of realism, while at the same time understanding that Sturgill Simpson becoming something bigger than just a mid-level club act is very realistic if the right things fall into place. But there is a long, long way to go, and a lot of the talk surrounding him at the moment is sort of like playing fantasy football. In the long run, for an artist like Sturgill to reach the CMA level, a lot of specific watermarks must be reached, and it’s imperative on his fans, and Sturgill himself, not to set unrealistic expectations that can end up deflating the positive momentum he’s created. So in the end, a “Let’s just do the best we can, and see where this goes” mentality is probably the most wise course of action. Though someone who might read artcles on savingcountrymusic.com on a regular basis might see Sturgill Simpson’s name everywhere they turn and think this thing is in the midst of something historic, out in the big scary world, he’s still very much an unknown. For now.
But you also can’t discount the magic of music when it is matched up with the right moment for the world to hear it. That’s how all great movements in music start, by one person doing something the world has a great hunger for. And can anyone disagree that a hunger for someone like Sturgill Simpson exists in country music right now? As silly as the notion may seem to some, the indelible part of the country music mythos that hopes for a savior to come and return balance to the genre is a very real force all to itself, and carries its own weight and momentum.
It’s also worth pointing out that Sturgill Simpson isn’t the only one who deserves credit for what is becoming a meteoric rise. Some very wise moves have been made in marketing him, and how his music has been released. Normally, releasing albums less than a year apart is frowned upon these days. For Sturgill, this move was fortuitous. Just as the High Top Mountain‘s cycle was losing steam, here he comes with an album that regardless of where he goes from here, will be looked back upon as a landmark; as an important moment in his development. Now Sturgill has all the momentum at his back, and that, along with an excellent management team, has allowed Sturgill to reach far beyond what we normally see from independent artists that may feel very intimate to us because we’ve seen them in half empty barrooms, or heard their music before anyone else.
Sturgill’s manager Marc Dottore (also Marty Stuart’s manager), has been able to get him in front of big audiences at the Opry, on The Marty Stuart Show, and opened up many doors not normally accessible to independent artists. Sturgill’s booking agent got him on some big tours opening for Dwight Yoakam. And Sturgill and his band have been pounding the pavement, playing strange tour runs that are not always intuitive when they’re drawn on a map, and that take a toll on the band’s personal lives and sanity, but in the end got him in front of the right people to have an impact. There are a lot of talented country artists, and a lot of artists like Sturgill that have worked very hard. But Sturgill, his band, and his management team and publicists didn’t just work hard, they worked smart. And that, just as much as Sturgill’s talent, the appeal of the music, and the fortuitous timing of it, lent to where he is today.
Could Sturgill Simpson Be Picked Up By A Major Label?
Could he? Sure. Since he’s signed with new school distribution company Thirty Tigers, Sturgill still retains his rights, and the freedom to do whatever he wants with his music, whether it is the music on Metamodern Sounds, or music he makes in the future. This is one of the specific reasons Sturgill decided to go with Thirty Tigers, despite being offered other deals by other labels before High Top Mountain. And there’s precedent here with other artists. Chase Rice, one of the writers of Florida Georgia Line’s blockbuster song “Cruise”, started out as a Thirty Tigers artist, releasing music through the label before making a partnership through Columbia Records in March to distribute his EP and his “Ready, Set, Roll” single.
Speaking of Florida Georgia Line, they have a somewhat similar story, where they made an EP called It’z Just What We Do that after it went crazy, landed them a deal with Big Machine Records. Much of the music from that EP ended up on their first major full-length release.
But let’s be realistic. Do we really think real deal Sturgill Simpson is going to sign with a major label that would more than likely mean handing over the rights to his songs, and potentially artistic control? Granted, this isn’t always a pitfall of the major label world. There are some artists that with the right leverage power have been able to negotiate contracts in their favor that didn’t include all the traditional trappings of a major label deal. But unless it is perfect, Sturgill Simpson isn’t going to take it. Sturgill is a peculiar, cantankerous individual; an idealist that isn’t motivated by fame and money beyond wanting to provide for his family.
So the next question would be is, would the combination of Thirty Tigers and Sturgill’s current management structure be able to handle some major meteoric rise that would result in the gross equivalent of a major label deal? It’s kind of hard to know, but simply asking the question may be getting way ahead of ourselves.
Could Sturgill Simpson Be Nominated for a CMA Award?
Not to throw cold water on anything, but shaking my magic ’8′ ball, what I’m coming up with is “not likely”. Maybe in the future, when Sturgill has taken a few more steps, and his name recognition is such that the wider industry is paying more attention. But for now, Sturgill must conquer the Americana and independent ranks. He may very well do that with Metamodern Sounds, and this may create the gateway to greener pastures. But we can’t take this happening as a given.
One benefit he has over artists like Jason Isbell or Justin Townes Earle who’ve both had big success in Americana, is that Sturgill Simpson is purely country. This means hypothetically that the sky is the limit, unlike with Americana.
But the CMA, and especially the ACM are set up to promote the country music industry, just as the Americana Music Awards are set up to promote the Americana industry. And right now, Sturgill Simpson isn’t part of that industry. He may play country music, but that doesn’t immediately make him a contender, let alone visible to the CMA voters, even though he may technically qualify. What would put him on their map is strong, prolonged commercial success along with his critical acclaim: solid showings on MediaBase and Billboard charts for sales and plays.
The other thing he would need to do to be considered by the CMA is to have mainstream radio play. And with the climate these days at mainstream radio, where it realistically takes sometimes $500,000 to $1 million dollars to promote a single, especially from an unknown artist, that possibility may be the most out-of-reach for Sturgill. Besides, I’m not sure Metamodern Sounds contains any “single” material for modern-day radio.
However there is hope that a critical darling can crack through all the commercial hurdles that hold many artists out of the CMA process. Though Kacey Musgraves resides on a major label, appreciate that without even one Top 10 single to her name, she walked away with the Album of the Year trophies at both the Grammy Awards and ACM’s this year. When faced with overwhelming consensus about a critical favorite, whether it’s Musgraves’ Same Trailer, Different Park, or Jamey Johnson’s That Lonesome Song, industry awards will step up to at least dole out nominations to these projects. An Americana Grammy for Sturgill is a very real possibility, but remember last year they completely snubbed Jason Isbell, who by all accounts was the clear favorite going in.
- – - – - – - – - – - – - – -
More realistically, Sturgill Simpson just needs to eat what’s on his plate, and focus on growing his name recognition. Sturgill will continue to focus on touring, and creating a fan base that can support him at the club level. That will open up the possibility for bigger opening slots, and more exposure.
We have been at this crossroads before, where an artist feels like he’s on the brink of blowing up and rising to the mainstream level. In 2008 when Hank Williams III was riding off of huge momentum from a critically-acclaimed and commercially-successful release Straight to Hell, it looked for a minute that he may break through the walls of the mainstream and completely shake up the industry. Williams had been touring like crazy for a half decade. He had all the momentum at his back. When his next album came out, Damn Right, Rebel Proud in 2008, it debuted at #2 on the Billboard charts. Williams had climbed nine rungs up a ten rung ladder, and he had done it his way, fighting against his label to win creative freedom, and finding success despite a lack of radio play.
But Damn Right, Rebel Proud was a step down in quality from his previous releases, and Hank3 proceeded to take 18 months off of touring. Subsequent releases charted decently as well, but he never reached the same heights. Hank3 had been right there, right at the precipice of breaking through, and for whatever reason, lost the drive, lost the momentum, had pushed himself too hard, and had to step back.
Hellbound Glory, also finding great critical acclaim, landed the opportunity to open for Kid Rock on an arena tour, and it looked like the doors would finally start opening for them. And some doors did. But a year later, Leroy Virgil had not a single member in his band that had been around for the Kid Rock tour, and in many respects landed right back where he started. Jamey Johnson reached the very top of the industry, penning #1 songs and being nominated for big awards. But then a label dispute stopped him in his tracks, and it’s been nearly four years since he’s released an original song.
Whether the fault of the artists or others, the ninth rung of that ten rung ladder has been where these artists have stalled, one after another. And the dream, the promise of returning the balance back to country music stalls with it. Whether it’s artists losing their hunger, being hindered by the industry, or never really having a chance to begin with, the dream wasn’t fully realized. It wasn’t played out to its last, exhaustive breath. But with Sturgill Simpson, we have another opportunity.
And if something magical does happen with Sturgill Simpson, we shouldn’t see it as a shot from nowhere. George Strait just won Entertainer of the Year for both the CMA’s and ACM’s. Kacey Musgraves has been winning awards left and right. Both traditionalism and substance are resonating again in country music, despite however buried they may appear by bro-country.
The most important thing is that Sturgill Simpson keeps on growing, and that the independent community does what they can to help foster that growth. Sturgill Simpson said it best when he posted the day of the release of Metamodern Sounds:
I have said it many times and I will continue to say it, as it is the truth and I whole heartedly believe itâŚguys like me and the countless others others out there attempting to offer an alternative are not capable of change. We are not the catalyst of change. You guys are. We can only do our best to make the best records we are capable of but it is up to you the listener to have your voices heard. This is the only road to the true change that a lot of you I talk to at shows are seeking. If you connect with something that moves you it’s up to you to share it/burn it/ steal it/ give it away. As long as it finds and connects with as many people as possible that is all we wish for.
From the bottom of our hearts, thank you all for everything YOU have done and are collectively doing to make our dreams come true. It goes without saying that I am about as sick of hearing/talking about me as I have ever been in my entire life. With that said, we are anxiously looking forward to taking this show on the road for the rest of our lives.
Sturgill, Kevin, Miles, & Little Joe
Our dreams can be the most uplifting, most fulfilling element inherent in the human design. And they can also be the most destructive. When realized, dreams can fill cavities in the human heart that we never even knew existed and that have no physiological parallels, making us feel whole for the first time in our lives. Or in the disillusion of our dreams, the cavities become like caverns, like sticks of dynamite were stuck in them, and the explosion of negative emotions inflicts permanent, collateral damage on our souls, leaving us with a lost connection to the very thing evolution has instilled in every one of us that pushes us forward in hopes that in the grace of history we can be measured as something more than the sum of our human parts—that our indelible mark will linger, and that somebody beyond our own time will remember that we were here, and that our mark will leave the world one measure better.
This drive is what sent our ancestors trekking out across barren middle America, and deposited settlers into the breadbasket to seek their fortunes in the tilled soil of the plains. Fredericksburg, Virginia songstress Karen Jonas sings about this in the title track of her new album, Oklahoma Lottery—how some came with heads full of dreams, and when they scratched the surface of their little appointed marks in the American dirt, they came up blank. No cherries aligned, no stars formed a diagonal pattern, no doubler hit, and no consolation prize was awarded. And so they moved on, their backs a little more bowed, their eyes a little more glazed.
Karen Jonas, whether she knew it or not, heeded the advice of the great Ray Wylie Hubbard to all songwriters: don’t just listen to The Ghost of Tom Joad, read The Grapes of Wrath. How do we know this? It’s not just from the wisdom interwoven in the lyrics, it’s from the amount of pain Ms. Jonas is able to capture in her performance. This isn’t just an inflected interpretation, but the very evocation through herself of the troubled ghosts of the story —not just wrapping herself in their clothes, but walking a mile in their shoes, and then conveying the pain she knows they felt from the aching of her own blisters.
Similar to how the settlers of Oklahoma toiled at the yoke without a thought of rest, Karen Jonas, after putting her pair of young children to bed every night, tip toes to the other side of the house, takes the guitar in hand, and digs, hoping to unearth the riches of song. And lucky for her and the rest of us, the ground that she tilled ended up to be quite fertile, and the result a verdant display of artistic release.
If music was a lottery, then Karen Jonas hit big. But this is no fortune to be chocked up to sheer luck. The toil, the heart that Karen Jonas put into this music and this record is eminently palpable. And it is not just the result of talent, but talent honed and refined through cutting self-criticism, study, discipline, and work.
This music starts with a girl, her guitar, her stories, and her demons. Similar to Justin Townes Earle in the way she plays the guitar in a hybrid of the clawhammer banjo style—a plucking with her thumb and then striking the strings with the nail side of her fingers—shows a refined study of her instrument, not just a rudimentary running through of chords while letting the words tell her story, with no sense of style to match up with the mood. This musical approach exacerbates the lead-heavy, almost unbearable tension that Karen is able to instill in her music. Her music aches like a broken heart; heaves and creaks like the boards of an old wooden floor under heavy weight.
Karen Jonas tells stories, like in the aforementioned “Oklahoma Lottery”, and the first track of the album “Suicide Sal” which refers to the Bonnie & Clyde saga. And then she gets quite personal, alluding through numerous offerings about her tragic, recurring frailty when it comes to matters of the heart, and men. You get the sense with Karen Jonas that there’s a deeper narrative here; a tragic story underlying all the little glimpses she gives us, but a story she never completely reveals, which once again goes into building the tension that elevates her music above the din of musical noise.
Karen didn’t just make this record to entertain us, or even to convey some expression or message. She made it to prove something, to herself and to others, that her choices, though not always right, were hers, and she was willing to take ownership of them, and redeem herself through music.
Karen Jonas is hungry. She is eager to fill the holes that still remain in her heart. This is reflected in this album, and she’s done all she could. The seeds are planted in fertile ground. The next question is, should anyone pay attention beyond her little groove in Fredericksburg, Virginia? My answer would be that they most certainly should.
Two guns up!
- – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – -
Country music isn’t just a genre of music, it is a musical religion, a way of life, a cultural lineage passed down from generation to generation and preserved through the blood and bond of its performers and fans. That’s why it seems country music performers so very often tend to turn out to be the parents of country music performers themselves.
Let’s take a look at some of country music’s greatest sons and daughters.
Justin Townes Earle
Son of alt-country pioneer Steve Earle, and middle namesake of the man who was good friends with his father and considered one of the greatest songwriters ever, Justin Townes Earle has spent the last seven or so years trying to live up to the lofty expectations of both names, and has done so valiantly. Releasing a startling debut EP in 2007 called Yuma, Earle and his obsession with the craft of songwriting have led to critical success for the five albums he’s released through Bloodshot Records. Considered by many as one of the biggest names in the new generation of alt-country/Americana performers, Justin has done it not by being a chip off the old block, but by forging his own path.
Justin’s relationship with his father has been rocky over the years. Steve Earle left Justin and his mother when Justin was just 2-year-old, and the younger Earle had a tumultuous, troubled, and at times, drug-fueled childhood. But he has soldiered on to carry a name all his own.
The son of Willie Nelson’s long-time guitarist Jody Payne and Grammy Award-winning country music singer Sammi Smith, Waylon is named after his Godfather, Waylon Jennings. Raised by his aunt and uncle due to his parents’ heavy touring schedules, Payne attended seminary after high school and was on track to become a minister before catching the music bug. For a while Payne was part of the popular Eastbound and Down country night at the King King Club in Hollywood where performers would swap classic country songs. Payne later released the album The Drifter in 2004 through Republic Universal.
Music isn’t Waylon Payne’s only creative calling though. He may be known more as an actor than a musician. In the award-winning Johnny Cash film I Walk The Line, Payne played Jerry Lee Lewis. He also played country great Hank Garland in a small film called Crazy, along with making numerous television appearances, including on CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.
Hank Williams III (or Hank3)Â
The grandson of Hank Williams and the son of Hank Jr., if there was ever a spitting image of country music’s first superstar, it would be him. He not only carries the visage and build of Hank Sr., but also the voice and writing style when he wants to go in that direction. The youngest Hank though has a hankering to delve into the wild side of music as well, and has released multiple punk albums during his career that has now stretched into two decades.
Hank3 started out playing drums and guitar in underground punk bands, with no real drive to be a part of the country music machine. But when a paternity suit put him in court, he decided to sign with Curb Records, and entered into a tumultuous period with the label that at the least resulted in multiple landmark records, including the neo-traditional country stalwart Lovesick, Broke, & Driftin’, and his double album opus Straight to Hell. Hank3 is now an independent artist, and carries on the family tradition of doing the music he wants and defying expectation.
The granddaughter of Hank Williams, daughter of Hank Jr., and half sister of Hank Williams III has had a somewhat strange musical journey, but one that has seen her bloom recently to become one of the leading females in country/Americana, keeping the music true to its roots while moving it forward.
Holly’s early career saw her sign to major labels like Universal South and Mercury Nashville, trying to break into the big time, but always seemingly with one foot in, and one foot out of that mainstream approach to music. She was also seriously injured in a near fatal crash in 2006 along with her sister Hilary who also is a performer. Then in February of 2013, Holly released The Highway independently, and since then has become a critical darling and a live performer not to miss. Though there were some that at times wondered if Holly was just a famous name, she’s proven recently that she’s so much more.
The son of Merle Haggard and an official member of Merle’s legendary backing band The Strangers, Ben is a chip off the old block when it comes to slinging Telecasters and perfecting the West Coast, twangy Bakersfield tradition of loud and electric country music. Patterned in the mold of the pioneer of the craft, the under-appreciated Roy Nichols, Ben can be seen plying his craft and staring at the back of his father on any given night out on the road. This isn’t just your usual slot filled by a family member on stage. Ben’s skills are regarded by his musician peers as being standalone from any famous name.
The only child of Waylon Jennings and Jessi Coulter, Shooter started his musical journey in the rock band Stargunn before signing with Universal South in 2005 and releasing his first country record, Put The ‘O’ Back In Country. He subsequently released two more country records infused with some Southern rock & roll before putting out his rock opus, the experimental album Black Ribbons. Shooter re-established his country roots with the 2012 album Family Man, followed up by 2013′s The Other Life.
Like many of country music’s famous sons and daughters, Shooter Jennings marches to his own drum, but always seems to come back to the country music fold.
Jubal Lee Young
Son of legendary Outlaw country songwriter and performer Steve Young (Lonesome, Onry & Mean, Seven Bridges Road), and songwriter Terrye Newkirk, Jubal Lee Young from Muskogee, Oklahoma put out an album in 2011 called Take It Home that included the song “There Ain’t No Outlaws Any More” that loudly proclaims, “Here comes another badass sellinâ Nashville rock and roll, long hair, denim and tattoos, lookinâ onâry and mean. Singinâ songs about that lonesome road, some of âem might even be true. But there ainât no outlaws anymoreâŚ”
Hank Williams Jr.
The most obvious and most successful of country music’s greatest sons, Hank Williams Jr. is very likely a future country music Hall of Famer, and has won multiple CMA Entertainer of the Year Awards and sold millions of albums. He started out his career as a virtual impersonator of his famous father, but rebelled against this preordained future to become so much more. Hank Jr. took a precipitous fall off of Ajax Mountain in Montana in 1975, landing on his face, and having to go through multiple surgeries before he could return to performing. And when he did, he quickly became known as “Rockin’” Randall Hank as he emerged with a sound that was just as much Southern rock as country.
In the mid 80′s, Hank Williams Jr. was one of country’s biggest stars, and now sits as a legend in the genre. He also is responsible for two other famous country offspring: Hank Williams III and Holly Williams, and a 2nd daughter Hilary Williams has also been a performer.
The only daughter of the country music super pairing of George Jones and Tammy Wynette, Georgette was said to have a recording contract on the day she was born. She recorded her first song at the ripe age of ten with her dad called “Daddy Come Home.” From there Georgette began singing backup for her mom, and she has gone on to become an accomplished songwriter and solo performer herself. Georgette has released numerous albums, including three for Heart of Texas Records. Her latest album Til I Can Make It On My Own is a tribute to her mother.
Georgette also appeared in the TV Series Sordid Lives and recorded numerous songs for the soundtrack, including Tammy Wynette tunes. She also recently released a memoir called The Three of Us: Growing Up with Tammy and George, Georgette Jones.
Daughter of David Allan Coe, Shelli was born in Nashville and raised in Austin, and appeared at the tender age of 3-years-old on her father’s Family Album project. She later worked as a backup singer for her father before landing in Branson, MO for a while where she performed in clubs, collaborated with other songwriters and appeared on the album Branson Songwriters Out in the Streets. Shelli subsequently returned to Austin where she is known to perform off and on. Her first full-length CD A Girl Like Me was released in 2010, and is worth a listen for folks that like traditional country music.
Surrounded by a bevy of musical siblings and one awfully famous father, the argument can be made that Lukas was the Willie offspring that received the most potent douse of Willie’s musical genes, and has a powerful voice to match his father’s. A dynamic, top-flight performer with a sound that trends much closer to rock than country, but still has an earthy, rootsy feel nonetheless, Lukas is on a fast track to becoming a superstar all his own.
From his towering leg kicks, to playing the guitar with his teeth, at only 23-years-old, Lukas could already be crowned as a guitar god. Leading his band The Promise of the Real, they’ve made waves in the music world on big tours. About the only thing holding the young star back is that rock music is in a weird spot right now, and guitar blazers are not what the masses are particularly looking for. But like his father, Lukas is not worried about anything but following his heart, and he promises to have a very bright future ahead of him with a tower of talent to draw from.
Son of Outlaw country legend Billy Joe Shaver, Eddie Shaver was one of the best country music guitar shredders to ever take the stage. Aside from being his fatherâs right hand man for many years, Eddie Shaver studied under Dickey Betts of The Allman Brothers, played with Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, Guy Clark, The Eagles, and was Dwight Yoakamâs guitar player for the first two years of Dwight’s career.
Itâs only because of Eddieâs untimely death that heâs not better known. He was scheduled to release his first solo album in 2001 when he died of a heroin overdose on New Years Eve of 2000. Though Billy Joe Shaver is known most for his songwriting, and Eddie as a guitar slinger, it only takes a glimpse at either to see that the musical talent runs very deep with the Shaver clan.
Though one might first think of June Carter as more of a mother of famous country artists instead of a daughter of them, June Carter is arguably the first daughter of country music. Her mother is “Mother” Maybelle Carter, given her nickname for being the mother of her performing daughters, and arguably the mother of country music. June began performing at the age of ten in 1939 as part of the landmark country outfit The Carter Family. It was through their mutual love of country music that she would eventually meet and fall in love with Johnny Cash, and the two went on to be one of country music’s powerhouse couples. June Carter was a muti-instrumentalist with a classic voice, and defines the nexus between country music’s primitive, classic, and modern eras.
It can be easy to overlook just what kind of impact Rosanne Cash has had on American music over the years. She seems to always be overshadowed by her father, by other famous sons and daughters of country legends, measured against them, and dogged by preceding labels that donât always allow her to be judged on her own merit, while her musical accomplishments veer towards being somewhat misunderstood because sheâs not always been nestled smack dab in the country realm as people want, expect, or anticipate.
But Rosanneâs critical and commercial accomplishments are far more than complimentary, they define a very successful career: Eleven #1 country singles, twenty-one Top 40 singles, and thirteen Grammy nominations is nothing to sniff at, and ultimately might at least get her mentions as a potential Hall of Fame inductee.
The only offspring between the country music super marriage of Johnny Cash and June Carter, John Carter Cash has spent his time as a singer and performer, but many of his important contributions to country music have come behind-the-scenes as a producer, songwriter, author, and general champion of the Cash estate and all things country music. It’s remarkable how many places you see John Carter’s name attached to projects as his puts effort out to make music happen in whatever capacity he can help in. Like his father, he has that selfless streak of service that surfaces in some of the most generous and cool ways.
Bobby Bare Jr.
Born in Nashville, TN to the original Outlaw Bobby Bare, Bobby Bare Jr. grew up next door to Tammy Wynette and George Jones in Hendersonville, and was nominated for a Grammy next to his father for the Shel Silverstein-written song “Daddy What If” from his father’s tribute album to Silverstein. Fronting roots rock bands like “Bare Jr.” and “Young Criminals Starvation League”, Bare’s career has been the result of avoiding “working a real job at any cost,” despite earning a psychology degree from the University of Tenessee, and not really getting deep into his own music until later in life. His high energy on stage and dark sarcasm in his songs have won him fans worldwide.
Other Famous Sons & Daughters:
Pam Tillis – 1994 CMA Female Vocalist of the Year, and daughter of country great Mel Tillis
The Carter Family Daughters – Carlene Carter, Helen Carter, Anita Carter, Rosie Nix Adams.
Jett Williams – Daughter of Hank Williams that found out about her famous father later in life. Jett has been a performer and plays an important role as one of the executors of the Hank Williams estate.
Jesse Keith Whitley – Son of Lorrie Morgan and Keith Whitley
Marty Haggard, Noel Haggard, and Scott Haggard- More performing sons of Merle.
Dean Miller – Son of Roger Miller
Lilly Hiatt – Daughter of John Hiatt
Chelsea Crowell – Daughter of Rosanne Cash and Rodney Crowell
Paula Nelson – Leader of The Paul Nelson Band.
Tyler Mahan Coe – Guitar player and writer who spent years touring in his father’s band.
Folk Uke – Made up Willie Nelson’s daughter Amy, and Arlo Guthrie’s daughter Cathy.
Whey Jennings – The son of Terry Jennings, and grandson of Waylon Jennings.
Lucas Hubbard – Son of Ray Wylie Hubbard who often plays lead guitar with his father.
Lucky Tubb – Not technically a son or daughter, but a great nephew of Ernest.
Bluegrass – There are many performing sons and daughters of famous bluegrass musicians, but for fear of forgetting some and getting yelled at for it, this sentence is in dedication to them all. You rock! Or pick, or strum, or pluck! Go YOU!
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 attendingÂ 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 Decca Records, Wanda asked Capitol Records 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!”Â 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”Â
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 thatâs just as important if itâs 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 theyâre getting away fast.
“Everything was changing in country music. The look of it, the sound of it, and this stuff was just a throwawayâŚThe 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), âWell I want to do that, but they tell me I have to be like so and so.â But weâve 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, “Youâre the son-of-a-bitch that sat at that desk over there and fired Johnny Cash. Let it go down in history that youâre the dumbest son-of-a-bitch Iâve ever met.â
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:
âToday 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,Â 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 âlost albumâ 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 Iâve ever heard, and Iâve been watching boys cover his music for years. I just thought, âWhy couldnât a girl do this?ââ
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 â Songs from the Movie (Jan 14th)
- Blue Highway – The Game (Jan 21st)
- Reverend Horton Heat – Rev (Jan 21st)
- Ronnie Milsap â Summer Number 17 (Jan 28th)
- Rhonda Vincent â Only Me (Jan 28th)
- Laura Cantrell â 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 â 10,000 Towns (March 4th)
- Kevin Fowler â How Country Are Ya (March 4th)
- Martina McBride â 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 shouldnât have to run around on our wedding day and take care of people, which is exactly what would have happened. I believe itâs not about the other people. I think a lot of women want weddings .â.â. 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 sheâs a gyrotonics teacher so sheâs 6â3ââ with an amazing body and those tattoos. And Iâm 6â4â.”
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 isnât art itâs 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.Â 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)
- – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – -
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 âNothingâs Gonna Change The Way You Feel About Me Nowâ, that successfully and amicably completed his multi-album recording contract with Bloodshot Records.Â Bloodshot is honored to have his five releases in our catalog and to have helped launch his career.Â 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, “Iâm trying to wrap up writing my next record. Itâs one that Iâm paying very close attention because Iâve completed my contract with Bloodshot (Records). Iâm going to be moving on to probably a little bit bigger (label). Iâm just trying to do my best, to be in control of my everything â producing records and all that stuff. We actually already have offers from labels. Iâve 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 weâre 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.”
- – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – -
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.
- – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – -
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.Â 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.
Support SCM and start
your Amazon shopping here
- Karen on Review – Carrie Underwood’s “Something In The Water”
- Melissa on A Meow Mix Commercial Speaks To Bro-Country’s Critical Mass
- Kay Williams on 2014 Country Music Hall of Fame Picks & Prognostications
- Eric on J.P. Harris Just Wants To Keep It Country
- Sarah on Review – Carrie Underwood’s “Something In The Water”