Browsing articles tagged with " Justin Townes Earle"
Nov
17

Justin Townes Earle Let’s Wanda Be Wanda in “Unfinished Business”

November 17, 2012 - By Trigger  //  Reviews  //  11 Comments

Wanda Jackson w/ Producer Justin Townes Earle

Let’s be honest. The chances of Wanda Jackson putting out some groundbreaking, landmark album these days are slim. Her immeasurable influence spanning country, rockabilly, and rock and roll is undeniable. But at age 75, you’re not looking for something sensational, you’re just looking for something solid, something that rekindles the memories of her past magic and imparts some new memories along the way.

Same thing goes for these celebrity producerships that seem to be all the rage in music these days. You just want them to work. Hey, I’m one of the first to fall for them hook, line, and sinker. I see a high-caliber producer name attached to some upcoming project and my music pants start going crazy, and certainly that was the case when I heard Justin Townes Earle was producing Wanda’s Unfinished Business. But really, what is the success rate of these celebrity producer collaborations? Are big name musicians really qualified to be producers, or is this all marketing?

There’s been some hits with this formula, like Jack White’s work with Loretta Lynn on the album Van Lear Rose. And there’s been some, well, not hits, like when Jack White hooked up with Wanda on her last album The Party Ain’t Over. The result was decent, but a little too much Jack and not enough Wanda.

A good producer’s job is not to be noticed, but to get you to notice the talents of whoever they’re producing. And that’s what Justin Townes Earle does in Unfinished Business. He gets the hell out of the way and let’s Wanda Jackson do her thing, while still lending a creative and influential hand.

Wanda Jackson’s greatest asset is her voice. Like a brand new switchblade polished with Windex, it cuts with class. At 75, her voice is probably going to show some age and we can accept that, if not even enjoy its character in patches. Possibly the reason Jack White felt inclined to bring in bellowing horn sections on the last album was possibly to bolster, or bury Wanda’s voice from fear of it showing its age. But what Jack’s approach did was suffocate what makes Wanda special.

With Unfinished Business, instead of setting up a one band, one formula approach for most of the album, Justin Townes Earle approached each song individually, and this is where this album shines: the customized treatment for each track that creates a brilliant contrast of moods. Where Jack White seemed wanting to make a statement through Wanda, Justin Townes Earle just wanted to have fun.

If Wanda Jackson’s greatest asset is her voice, her second is her coolness and style. Earle was wise to pick up on that and utilize that in composition, like in the first track “Tore Down”. Bringing in backup singers for Wanda’s version of the Etta James number “Pushover” was a brilliant call that also called on Wanda Jackson’s cool factor.

Great, great song selection on this album. “It’s All Over Now”, a song first cut by the Valentino’s that then went on to be The Rolling Stone’s first #1 hit in 1964 was an excellent selection for the track list. Lower Broadway revivalist Greg Garing’s “Down Past The Bottom” may be the best track on the album.

Justin Townes Earle may have made an effort to make sure this album wasn’t all about him, but he’s far from sitting in the background. Wanda’s hard country version of Justin’s “What Do You Do When You’re Lonesome” is another standout track. And Earle shares the mic with Wanda in the somber duet, “Am I Even A Memory?”, where once again he does a great job playing the part instead of trying to stamp his signature on the song.

I’m not sure of the epicness yearned for in the ending track “California Stars” is captured, but the song is solid nonetheless. And I seem to always want to hear more of the Wanda rockabilly growl than what I get on her albums. But Unfinished Business touches on a tremendous amount of textures, styles, and moods, including lots of country and steel guitar, which is only appropriate because of Wanda’s wild, varying influence on American music. And most importantly, Unfinished Business let’s Wanda be Wanda.

As far as I’m concerned, Wanda Jackson has no “unfinished business” to attend to. She’s given her heart and soul to the music, and the music is better off because of it. She’s got nothing to prove, but she proves it anyway in Unfinished Business. And so does Justin Townes Earle.

1 3/4 of 2 guns up.

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Buy Unfinished Business from Wanda Jackson / Sugar Hill Records

Preview & Purchase Tracks from Amazon

Nov
7

Americana Loses Its Greatest Ambassador, & Gains Another

November 7, 2012 - By Trigger  //  Random Notes  //  33 Comments

Yesterday it was announced the the vocal duo The Civil Wars were canceling all remaining performances and going on an indefinite hiatus. Through Facebook they released this statement:

“It is something we deeply regret. However, due to internal discord and irreconcilable differences of ambition we are unable to continue as a touring entity at this time. We thank each and every one of you for your amazing love and support. Our sincere hope is to have new music for you in 2013.”

The note has mixed messages to say the least. I always thought “irreconcilable” meant there was no solution, but they also say they hope to make more music next year. They also talk about “ambition” which gets the brain cells firing about what all that might mean. Though I appreciate their honesty, their comments lend to more questions than answers.

Either way, the decision means that Americana music and the more general independent roots world lose possibly their greatest ambassador. I never was able to get terribly into The Civil Wars. Ever since I stood on a stage 5 feet from them in Austin during SXSW 2010, right as they were beginning to blow up on the national stage, I had serious concerns about how viable their vocal bit would be long term. My token phrase for them was “The Steve Vai of Vocals” but that doesn’t mean they weren’t good, and weren’t a much better alternative to the majority of garbage being sold on mainstream country radio these days.

Like them or not, The Civil Wars were able to effect massive exposure onto the alternative to mainstream country. Being nominated for Vocal Duo of the Year by the CMA  Awards, and being nominated right beside Taylor Swift for their work on the Hunger Games soundtrack, were historic moments when independent music was placed right beside its mainstream counterpart. Their mark on ABC’s new show Nashville is undeniable. At the least they exposed people to the idea that there is a whole other world of music out there to discover.

So where does Americana and independent roots music go from here? In my opinion, the man that has been showing the steadiest rising action in his career over the past decade, and has the ability through style and a universal appeal for his music to entice not only the upper crust NPR crowd, but all the way to the crusty underground country fans, is Justin Townes Earle.

I once named Justin Townes Earle a leading candidate as country’s possible next savior (in the same article that likely helped inspire Eric Church’s “Country Music Jesus”), and Justin’s name also came up when I broached the subject of how “country” had become an embarrassing term for some acts that otherwise would fall under that umbrella.

Justin broached both subjects on the stage at The Majestic Theater in Detroit a few days ago (11/2/12, see video below) to a packed audience.

When I made my first record, I wanted to be a country singer. But see something has happened to country where it doesn’t mean the same thing that it used to. I don’t like what it means anymore. Taylor Swift actually works for herself. I mean she’s the least of our worries, the LEAST of our worries. I think where country music went wrong in the first place is when it lost its connection to the blues. Hank Williams introduced the 12-bar blues into country music, where the stars before him like “Uncle” Dave Macon were nowhere near as popular as he was. But he (Hank Williams) introduced the 12-bar blues to the Grand Ole Opry and changed country music.

And then Justin launched into his song “Ain’t Glad I’m Leaving” that practiced what he preached.

What Justin Townes Earle has that The Civil Wars don’t is long-term substance. No offense to The Civil Wars, but where their act is based on acrobatic vocal abilities that can be polarizing, Justin builds from the song out, and happens to be a great singer and a unique guitar player on top of that. And Justin gives nothing away to them on style. He may not be as pretty a face as The Civil Wars, but he’s been named one of GQ’s most stylish men for example, and somehow has positioned himself as a heartthrob outside of the music world. And most importantly, Justin Townes Earle exemplifies leadership through music.

Justin’s substance abuse issues could always flare up again, and maybe this is the 500 lb. anvil hanging over his career at all times. But if Americana and the greater roots world is looking for either an alternative or a replacement as their ambassador to the outside world, Justin Townes Earle could very well be their man as he continues to exude both wide appeal and creative prowess.

Oct
17

ABC’s “Nashville” Cast’s Real Life Counterparts

October 17, 2012 - By Trigger  //  Random Notes  //  39 Comments

Like most fictional characters in popular culture, the characters of ABC’s new drama Nashville are probably based more on stereotypes than real-life folks. But for fun, let’s see if we can’t match up who the real-life inspiration is for the principals of the Nashville cast, and through the experiment see if the show really does represent all aspects of the Nashville music scene.

Nashville Character: Rayna Jaymes

Real Life Counterpart(s): Reba McEntire and/or Martina McBride

“Well you can kiss my decision as it’s walking out the door.”

Aging country pop queen concerned about her sagging skin has to worry about the kiddos running under foot and the budding buxom starlet on the rise trying to trample her career. On the outside she sticks to her principles, but on the inside she will do whatever she can to save her stardom.

Nashville Character: Juliette Barnes

Real Life Counterpart: Taylor Swift? No, girl from Dale Watson’s “Country My Ass”

“Oh, I’m always nice.”

Out of all of the Nashville characters, this is probably the one most based on a stereotype instead of an actual person. The creators of the show have said Juliette is not supposed to be Taylor Swift. Swift is seen as the proper, good girl who doesn’t use Auto-tune, while Juliette Barnes nails anything she can to get ahead except the proper note. The mold that fits Juliette Barns perfectly can be found in a Dale Watson song. “She can’t sing a lick, and in a bucket, she couldn’t carry her tune. She’s pretty as a picture, and she sure has a nice set of…wits. And she misses her producer that seduced her–I mean produced her a hit.”

Nashville Character: Lamar Wyatt

Real Life Counterpart: Mike Curb

“That’s alright if you see me as your enemy. Don’t you be foolish enough to make that a two-way street. ‘Cause my enemies don’t fare too damn well.”

Just like Mike Curb using the money he usurped from country music artists to spread his name all across Nashville under the guise of charity and civic duty, Lamar Wyatt wants a new baseball stadium and is willing to use his money and influence to appoint a puppet mayor of Nashville that he can use to run the city through behind-the-scenes. These old-guard aristocratic megalomaniacs are like two peas in a pod.

Nashville Character: Scarlett O’Connor

Real Life Counterpart: Caitlin Rose

“They’re just poems, not songs.”

A reluctant, timid songwriter that lacks nothing in talent either as a writer or performer, that when coaxed into action can rear back and command a crowd with both passion and skill.

Nashville Character: Gunnar Scott

Real Life Counterpart: Justin Townes Earle

“I guess I’m just naturally suspicious of anyone that confident.”

Long, lanky, a songwriter, and a gentleman (as opposed to the “punk country” Avery Barkley), he’s more Americana than country, symbolizing the new independent approach to Nashville that emphasizes artistic appeal and substance as opposed to commercial success.

Nashville Character: Avery Barkley

Real Life Counterpart: Ryan Adams

“It’s kind of an alt-country punk, but more cerebral.”

Dangerous sideburns and a confident swagger, the chicks swoon over him and his bad boy persona and rock star attitude. But watch out, he’ll probably do them wrong.

Nashville Character: Deacon Claybourne

Real Life Counterpart: David Rawlings

“I promise to not use it as a coaster.”

The consummate loyal sideman whose an excellent guitar player and an accomplished songwriter himself. A true music good guy whose willing to lurk in the shadows most of the time to allow good music to come to life. Whether there’s something romantic going on with the boss or not, it’s easy to assume there is.

Nashville Character: Glenn – Juliette Barnes’ Manager

Real Life Counterpart: A Young Scott Borchetta

“Take the money and run.”

Savvy, slick, new-school business man who Svengali’s a young starlet into signing with him so he can springboard to a seven-figure music executive career in the coming years. Glenn is a Scott Borchetta starter kit.

 

Sep
12

This New CMT Edge Outlet

September 12, 2012 - By Trigger  //  Random Notes  //  12 Comments

A few days ago, CMT launched a new format and website called CMT Edge with the intent of covering artists outside the norm of mainstream country music. Since then I’ve been asked many times what I think of it, and my stock answer has been that I don’t exactly know what I think of it yet. The venture is still in its infantile stages, and it will take time to determine just what CMT Edge will be, and the impact it will have.

Having said that, I see no reason at this point not to stay positive about it. It’s always good to have more avenues for good music to reach people. As I always say, I want good music to get popular, and popular music to get good. Any sense of ownership or desire for exclusivity anyone might feel with the independent music they love and worry that CMT Edge might erode that exclusivity is being silly and selfish. So far, they’ve featured artists like Sara Watkins, The Avett Brothers, Trampled by Turtles, and JD McPherson among others. They also appear to intend to use CMT Edge to cover older country artists like Dwight Yoakam and Patsy Cline; both who’ve been featured already.

If you look at the categories of the 11 features posted on CMT Edge so far, 8 of them are labeled “Americana”. I don’t think it’s coincidence CMT Edge was launched the same week the Americana Music Conference is going on in Nashville mere steps from the CMT headquarters. Americana is growing, and CMT would be fools to not try and tap into that market. Make no mistake that CMT, which is owned by Viacom, would have never launched this venture if they didn’t think there was a profit to be made, and that there’s demand for the content.

So what is the possible downside to CMT Edge? It could possibly take attention away from independent media outlets, especially ones in the Americana world like No Depression, Paste, or possibly in some small respects Saving Country Music. But again, more outlets for good music is generally a good thing, and if these outlets feel threatened, they should step up their game. And I doubt CMT Edge will dig as deep as many of the current independent outlets do. As much as bands like Trampled by Turtles and The Avetts are on the outside looking in when it comes to mainstream country coverage, they are also very successful bands making good livings playing music. To stay profitable, CMT Edge will stay with established acts who simply don’t fit comfortably in the mainstream country world. Don’t expect Hellbound Glory and Jayke Orvis to get features soon.

My biggest concern is in the underlying subconscious labeling of acts that could come with CMT Edge coverage. Some may see a band being featured on CMT Edge as an implication that they are a smaller tier, second rung act. By not putting these acts beside country music’s biggest names, but below them through an outlet meant to cover the “edge,” there’s the danger of typecasting these artists as cut-rate. It’s always been a belief of mine that the top tier independent talent deserves equal-billing with country’s top names. If just given a chance, an artist like Justin Townes Earle could possibly score just as high as Jason Aldean with the public. Consumers just need to be given that choice. CMT Edge in some respects kicks the “more choice” can down the road instead of confronting mainstream country’s issue of a lack of new talent entering the genre.

Mainstream country lacks a legitimate farm system. And once an artist is cast as Americana/Independent/Underground, etc. they’re usually beholden to those avenues for their music till eternity, many times facing low ceilings of success and no chance of mainstream radio play or media coverage. Meanwhile in mainstream country, there’s few artists working the traditional program, going from honky tonks, to clubs, to theaters, to eventually the arena and a major label deal. Instead, new country talent is culled from the safe, easy avenues of reality TV programming, or professional Nashville songwriting circles. This has left country creatively bankrupt, as the most-creative and brightest talent flocks to Americana because they don’t want to be labeled as “country” because of the non-creative, commercial stigma.

Americana may have a lower commercial ceiling than mainstream country, but it continues to find some very legitimate traction, and seems to be building in stature and infrastructure each year. NPR is now offering Americana a big radio outlet, festivals are forming and growing that appeal to the Americana crowd, and small to medium, sustainable music entities like Thirty Tigers, Bloodshot Records, Dolph Ramseur (the man behind the Avett’s success and the Carolina Chocolate Drops) are beginning to create real organization behind the Americana idea, and are even having success getting their artists on programs like The Late Show with David Letterman, and Jimmy Kimmel Live.

What does this all have to do with CMT Edge? Clearly the independent side of the music world is growing, and CMT doesn’t want to be left in the dust. As all popular music continues to coalesce into one big “popular” mono-genre, music that is indefinable by genre and/or appeals to micro-sects of people is expanding. Whether it is Americana, classic country artists, neo-traditionalists, or punk-country, appeal for independent music is increasing, and CMT Edge is proof of that. Is CMT Edge commercial exploitation of this music? We’ll have to see, but there’s no indication that is what is happening at the moment.

As much as I think that much of CMT’s reality programming perpetuates negative country stereotypes and that its parent company Viacom is generally a negative force in the media marketplace, there’s nothing from CMT Edge so far that irks me. So let’s stay positive about it, work as a music community to attempt to steer it in a positive direction, and be glad that better music is catching on and continues to find new outlets.

Jul
10

Wanda Jackson’s ‘Unfinished Business’ Produced by Townes Earle

July 10, 2012 - By Trigger  //  News  //  15 Comments

In an unexpected nugget of news that has my music pants going crazy, The Rolling Stone has just announced that Wanda Jackson will be releasing a new album entitled Unfinished Business on October 9th, and that the album’s producer will be none other than Saving Country Music’s 2011 Artist of the Year Justin Townes Earle.

“I’ve had a wonderful time working with Wanda and creating this new record,” Earle says in the video below. “Hopefully everyboy’s going to enjoy it…well I know they will. They don’t really have a choice, do they?”

This will be Wanda Jackson’s 31st studio album and will be released on Sugar Hill Records. Wanda will turn 75 two weeks after Unfinished Business will be released, yet she’s showing no signs of slowing down. She released The Party Ain’t Over in early 2011 with another famous artist/producer in Jack White.

“From day one I really liked Justin’s idea to take me back to my roots and make a record of country, blues, and rockabilly songs,” Jackson told Rolling Stone. “The band was extra tight and great to work with during the whole process. The record just sounds terrific and I’m hoping that my fans enjoy listening to it as much as I enjoyed making it.”

 

Jun
14

Best Songs of 2012 So Far

June 14, 2012 - By Trigger  //  Reviews  //  38 Comments

Some confusion always seems to dog my lists of top songs, because I’m not just looking for that catchy tune you can’t take off of repeat, I’m looking for the song that changes your world. For a song to qualify, it must be original, and barring exceptional circumstances, it must be composed by the performer. These are songs that take you somewhere. Any thoughts on additions, omissions, and your own individual lists are encouraged below in the comments section.

Turnpike Troubadours – Gone, Gone, Gone – from Goodbye Normal Street

The Turnpike Troubadours have now officially arrived. If you’ve been sitting on the sidelines, sniffing at them from afar, waiting to see what happens before you drop a Hamilton on one of their albums, it’s time to jump in. There are a couple of Goodbye Normal Street songs that could have made this list, “Good Lord Lorrie” and “Wrecked” were possibilities, but “Gone Gone, Gone” raises to that special quality by slowing it all down and really speaking to the soul.

Tom VandenAvond – Wreck of a Fine Man – from Wreck of a Fine Man

What’s curious about this song is that Tom V usually composes such autobiographical material, yet this one feels so outside himself, it gives it an unusual aspect. And Tom’s songs usually drone, but this one is strong and defiant despite it being about a dissolving and disillusioned life. Any song that can work in referencing The Ryman is going to get bonus points. Aside from VandenAvond’s signature song, the anthemic singalong “Brick By Brick,” this might be his best composition to date.

Justin Townes Earle – Unfortunately, Anna – from Nothing’s Gonna Change…

Justin Townes Earle may be the best pound for pound songwriter in music right now. He’s not prolific, but his profoundness has no peer. As much as the story and words of “Unfortunately, Anna” are enough to tear at your heart strings, it is the arrangement, the music and the stripped-down approach that really sends this song over the top.

Justin Townes Earle – It Won’t Be the Last Time – Nothing’s Gonna Change…

Self-realization is such a biting, dirty, and difficult exercise. We expect our songwriters to charge down into the depths of the inner soul to regions we ourselves are too scared to explore, to mine the sacred gold of truth to tantalize our senses, and this is what Justin Townes Earle does with haunting honesty in this song. “It Won’t Be The Last Time” is about Earle’s always-fragile sobriety. Listen to me folks and listen good; Justin Townes Earle’s sobriety is not just his own responsibility, it is all of our responsibilities as a music community.

Shooter Jennings – Daddy’s Hands – from Family Man

When I wrote my review for Shooter’s latest album I was under the impression this song was about Waylon. Since then we’ve learned it was in fact about Shooter’s fiance Drea DeMatteo’s side, which makes it even more cool in my opinion. As I said in the introduction, to be the best song all year, you have to move people, and many times songs that move us come from real life instances when an artist was moved themselves.

Olds Sleeper – Bigsky/Flatland – from New Year’s Poem

There were a few other songs I could have picked off of Olds’ New Year’s Poem album, including the title track and the excellent “Born To Lose,” but this is the one that has moved me more consistently, whose spell refuses to wear out. No it’s not that I like this album so much I had to pick one song from it to include on this list, it’s that this list would be woefully incomplete without the simplicity and soul Olds Sleeper evokes in this heart-wrenching and easy-to-relate-to story told with the perfect sonic accompaniment and inflections.

Ray Wylie Hubbard – New Years Eve at the Gates of Hell – Grifter’s Hymnal

I say that Song of the Year candidates cannot just be viscerally enjoyable, they must move you, make you a better person, communicate wisdom. Well in the case of this song, it is both a physical and intellectual uplift. The song is strikingly simple in its structure, really no more than rhythm and a few simple chord changes. But that is what makes it so potent. It awakens your primal nature, at the same time the words challenge your intellect and inspire your spirit. It’s unfairly witty.

Eric Strickland – Drinking Whiskey – from Honky Tonk Till I Die

Eric Strickland so far is 2012′s biggest surprise. It may take a little fudging of the rules to put this song in 2012 contention since it has been released as a different version before, but it’s too good to be an omission. The best part about this song is how on the surface the subject matter seems so plaintive. It’s the way Eric squeezes the soul out of the words and story that take this song from great to something special.

McDougall – The Travels of Fredrick Tolls (Part 2) – from A Few Towns More

I’m afraid McDougall’s latest album is becoming the greatest overlooked album of 2012 so far, which is unfortunate for so many reasons, including that it includes this resounding, life-altering, wisdom-imparting epic of a song that starts of like a Celtic frolic, and ends in a soul-shaking repatriation of the human spirit. “If known what it’s like to be the one who went hungry, now will you be the one that feeds?” is the line that inspires me to redouble my efforts to reach the musically-hungry masses who if they could only hear songs like this, could be uplifted with the inspiration of music and lead more fulfilling lives.

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NOTE: There are no female artists on this list, thought I’m sure the feminine side of things will rally by year’s end. A few songs worth checking out that almost made the list were Rachel Brooke‘s “Lonesome Turns Boresome” (written by her fiance Brooks Robbins), Kellie Pickler‘s “The Letter (to Daddy)” (written by who knows), and Kara Clark‘s “Southern Hospitality.”

Jun
4

Top Albums of 2012 So Far

June 4, 2012 - By Trigger  //  Reviews  //  28 Comments

2012 so far has been a remarkable year for top flight albums throughout the country world. That compelled me to tweak my regular mid-year format to not just include any album that has received a positive review (though these are all listed at the bottom), but instead highlight the ones that I think have a serious chance to be considered for Album of the Year. So though this list may be shorter than normal, this is the best of the best. To already have six Album of the Year contenders in only 6 months speaks to just how strong the upper eschalon of albums could be, and already is in 2012. A bumper crop to say the least.

Please understand this list just includes albums that have already been reviewed by SCM. There may be others out there still needing to be reviewed. And if you see an album you feel is left off, or you want to leave a list of your own, by all means, navigate to the comments section and share.

Marty StuartNashville Vol. 1, Tear The Woodpile Down

Right now, nobody is doing more to save country music than Marty Stuart. And he doing it by revitalizing the roots of country why still being cool, fresh, relevant, and loud.

“You know those periods in an artists’ career that you look back on like they can’t do wrong, churning out amazing songs and albums one after another? Hank Jr. from Whiskey Bent & Hell Bound to The Pressure Is On, Willie & Waylon after they’d shaken loose from the grips of RCA in the mid 70′s. That’s the kind of epic and influential period were in the midst of right now with Marty. What a blessing it is to realize this and to be able to experience it all in the present instead of trying to relive it through the past.” (read full review)

Olds SleeperNew Years Poem

Can an album from some local musician who doesn’t tour much win Album of the Year? He did last year in the name of Slackeye Slim. How about an album that’s given away for free? Why not when it’s this good, and the always-assiduous Olds has put out yet another free album I haven’t even had time to process yet called Head First. Olds Sleeper may be some musical genius that it takes years to discover the depths of.

“The fact that he’s just some weird guy, hunkered down in a walk-in closet with a 4-track or something, who plays all his own instruments and does all his own recordings, rarely plays out live, and puts out albums at a 4-per year clip and makes them all cheap or free, doesn’t diminish from one’s ability to take him seriously, it adds to his mystique. Sure, there’s tons of armchair musicians out there balancing studio time in their basement between a bad job and honey-do’s, but they rarely, if ever have the level of substance, heart, and dedication that Olds Sleeper does.” (read full review)

Ray Wylie HubbardThe Grifter’s Hymnal

Hubbard’s previous album A. Enlightenment was nominated for SCM’s Album of the Year in 2010, and as I said in the review for The Grifter’s Hymnal, this one is better. The songs are more song-like, the album is a more cohesive concept. Hubbard may not be country, but he’s real, and that makes him more country than most of what flies that flag.

“If there’s honor amongst thieves, then it only seems fitting there should be a Grifter’s Hymnal. And if there’s going to be a Grifter’s Hymnal, it’s only fitting Ray Wylie Hubbard should compose it. The ingredients of grifters are already mixed there on his palette: Tales of dead and dying things and dens of iniquity, the struggle or the soul between good and evil, and the difficulty sometimes of telling the two apart. But to have a hymnal you also must have a message, and you must be able to convey that message with eloquence, poetical prowess, wit and rhyme. Well don’t worry, it’s all here. Just open it up and sing along.” (read full review)

Kellie Pickler100 Proof

Saving Country Music likes an album put out by a former American Idol contestant that came from Music Row? You bet it does, and unabashedly so. The industry may be ignoring this record, but I refuse to. And yes, there is a chance it may be named the best all year. And if it is, it won’t be just to send a flying middle finger at the radio DJ’s and industry type ignoring it, it will be because it is the best.

“If you are truly a fan of country music and have an open heart, you will like 100 Proof. In the Tammy Wynette, Loretta Lynn mold, 100 Proof revives the lost appreciation for the strong, yet sweet country woman, while staying away from the surface symbolism that erodes the substance from many of the other artists that attempt this difficult feat. This is one of the best albums to come off of Music Row in years, and may turn out to be one of the best in 2012, period–an opinion I fear we may see validated in lackluster sales and the absence of hit singles from it. The mainstream may not support in en masse, but I will.” (read full review)

Turnpike TroubadoursGoodbye Normal Street

I still feel like the Turnpike Troubadours have room to grow, which is so very exciting when you already hear the strength displayed in this album.

“Call it a maturing or a coming into their own, but this album marks the most solid offering from this Oklahoma-based band yet, and a defining of their sound, their place in the music world, and as a band that music world should pay more serious attention to…The Turnpike Troubadours make songs about love cool to listen to again. This is also their ace-in-the-hole, what makes them a band that could break out…Goodbye Normal Street says goodbye to the silly love and heartbreak song formulas that saddle corporate FM, and says hello to how love songs and sad stories in country music should be.” (read full review)

Justin Townes EarleNothing’s Gonna Change…

I didn’t even give this album the full two guns up in the review, though I left it open for augmentation in the future. I still have reservations about the whole “Memphis” album concept and how that relates to some of the songs, but when you talk about strength of songwriting, it doesn’t get any better than Nothing’s Gonna Change…. I still may change the review to two guns up, and it still might win Album of the Year without it. Songs like “Maria”, “It Won’t Be The Last Time,” and “Unfortunately, Anna” are just that magnificent.

“There is not a bad song on this album. We see JTE return to the honest, heavy-hearted songwriting that has become his signature. Though this album is hard to warm up to. JTE’s voice may come across as unusual at first, maybe even weak, and the production may seem out-of-place or even droning because it is such an unusual approach for him, or any artist originating out of the Americana world. But when you give it time, it all starts to work. I think time will be a great ally of this album, just as much as the short-term may be a hindrance.” (read full review)

Other Great Albums to Check Out:

(click on link for review)

May
31

2012 Americana Music Award Nominees Show Narrow Perspective

May 31, 2012 - By Trigger  //  Random Notes  //  46 Comments

Today the nominees for the 2012 Americana Music Awards were announced at the Clive Davis Theatre in Los Angeles, with Lucinda Williams, Buddy Miller, and other artists performing before and after actor John C. Riley read the lists of nominees. The awards will be handed out September 12th at The Ryman in Nashville.

What immediately struck me as I watched the presentation being broadcast online was how overtly cliquish the Americana Music Association has become, or continues to be, as they narrowcast out awards to the same pool of networked-in, dramatically-familiar, and specifically-focused artists that all tend to know each other, and carry the same politics.

This is a difficult and conflicting conclusion to come to, because all of these artists, and the entities that make up the AMA are ones that I love, respect, and look up to. But they must be more worldly in their perspective to create legitimacy behind their product, their presentation, the term “Americana” in general, and these awards specifically.

The Americana genre is growing in leaps and bounds, and the AMA must grow and evolve with it. When it started out in 2002, it needed to keep its perspective narrow and its network strong so it did not become a flash in the pan or a fad term. There is nothing wrong with sustainability and attempting to grow slowly and smartly, but there can be issues with not attempting to grow at all.

Sure, up to this point there may have been little reason for the AMA to branch out, but after numerous grumbles over the last few years about an underserved audience and talent base, and the lingering question about what Americana actually is, something needed to happen. This feels like such a missed opportunity. As Americana continues to grow, it could put pressure on the CMA for example, and create channels for outreach to the scores of disenfranchised roots music fans left behind by the corporate music world. But instead we get many of the same names, names of the same people in different categories, many of the same names from years past, and names who know each other on a personal level, who’ve played in each other’s bands, produced and played on each other’s albums, and in the case of Steve and Justin Townes, are related.

No, nobody should be discriminated against just because they know each other or because of who their father is or because they’ve won before. And yes, there’s are some new names here. It is great to see the names in the Emerging Artist category, but why does the this category have fewer names than any other? I know there is a process of how these names are derived, but how does it hurt to add another name or two that could benefit from the spotlight an AMA nomination could cast?

Maybe the AMA doesn’t understand just how big Americana has become. Again, I can’t disagree with any of the names of the nominees here. The talent level is ridiculous and inspiring, and the decisions are without question difficult to make. And the AMA should be praised, not criticized for keeping their system sustainable and manageable. But we needed something new, a new category, more names, fresh names, a broader perspective, a better system for finding and evaluating emerging talent. Because in the end this list just comes across as a myopic perspective and tired, and that could create challenges to its legitimacy.

These comments are meant to be constructive, and are not just based on one person’s perspective.

Album of the Year
Here We Rest – Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit
I’ll Never Get Out of this World Alive – Steve Earle
The Harrow & The Harvest – Gillian Welch
This One’s For Him: A Tribute to Guy Clark – Various Artists

Artist of the Year
Gillian Welch
Hayes Carll
Jason Isbell
Justin Townes Earle

Emerging Artist of the Year
Alabama Shakes
Dawes
Deep Dark Woods

Song of the Year
“Alabama Pines” – Written by Jason Isbell and performed by Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit
“Come Around” – Written and performed by Sarah Jarosz
“I Love” – Written by Tom T. Hall and performed by Patty Griffin
“Waiting On The Sky to Fall” – Written and performed by Steve Earle

Instrumentalist of the Year
Buddy Miller
Chris Thile
Darrell Scott
Dave Rawlings

Duo/Group of the Year
Carolina Chocolate Drops
Civil Wars
Gillian Welch & Dave Rawlings
Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit
Punch Brothers

May
6

Live Review – Justin Townes Earle – Antone’s Austin, TX

May 6, 2012 - By Trigger  //  Reviews  //  10 Comments

On Friday night (5-4-12) we attended a show of reigning Saving Country Music Artist of the Year Justin Townes Earle at Antone’s in Austin, TX’s increasingly-crowded west downtown district. The Bloodshot Records-signed son of Steve Earle was in town in support of his latest record Nothing’s Gonna Change The Way You Feel About Me Now, with a full band behind him for one of the first times on tour.

Opening support was given by Tristen, an indie rocker who was sporting a new short haircut (these things are important to the frau I have found) that was punctuated by an eternal tress clogging her vision on one side. She dazzled the crowd with high-charged and catchy original indie-rock compositions in a fun show, punctuated by her ending number where she shirked her electric guitar and business blazer to dance around the stage in her very short green sequined mini shorts, gesticulating the salient points of her song.

Tristen captures the retro feel of the best of Brit rock and 80′s glam, reminding us that pop was not always such an awful alternative to people who appreciated good music. Her performance left you wanting to check out her music further, which in the end is the perfect goal of any opening artist. She’s got a little Natalie Merchant in her (see Tristan from SXSW).

For the last few years Justin Townes Earle’s touring party featured Josh Hedley on fiddle, whose since moved on to work with Jonny Corndawg, and Bryn Davies, the beautiful upright bass player who is now part of Jack White’s all female band amongst other projects. There’s no drama behind the name changes. With the Memphis approach to the new material, fiddle was not needed, and when talking to new bass player Vince Ilgan, he said that Bryn was taking some time off to “have his baby.” John Radford also joined them on drums, and Paul Niehaus (Calexico) was on lead guitar and Sho-Bud pedal steel.

As first and foremost a singer-songwriter, and an elite one of the modern era at that, Justin Townes Earle started the set off solo, and on three other occasions stayed on stage while the band took a break. Justin is always at his best when he’s alone. Backing players are simply there for texture. The full sound complimented the new material well, which was showcased heavily in his set. Now on his 4th full-length release, he’s come to the point in his touring life where set list decisions are difficult. At one point a request was shouted out from the crowd. “I know what I’m doing,” Justin responded to the delight of the audience. “We’ve thought this all out very carefully.”

As one of the first dates on his national tour, this was a test run for Justin’s plan. The band chemistry was good, but you could tell it was still early in the development. After songs, the band would exchange glances, looking pleased and almost surprised that what they had been practicing was well-received by a crowd that went from rowdy at times to completely hushed from the respect Justin can command. It was a sold out show, with a strange mix of patrons that ranged from preppy college kids, rough-edged typical Bloodshot Records fans, to elder NPR listeners grumbling about no seating being provided.

Justin Townes Earle looked the healthiest I have ever seen him. Strong, alert and in the moment, wearing a paperboy’s hat with long sideburns creeping over his ears, and a vest over a long baby blue shirt with the sleeves rolled up showcasing his arm tattoos. A bead of sweat formed across his brow early on this hot and humid Texas evening; the moisture causing havoc with the guitar tuning marking the night’s only setback.

Along with most of the material from the new album, Justin played “My Starter Won’t Start” in his signature and unique guitar style borrowed partly from blues finger picking and and partly from clawhammer banjo, as well as “Mama’s Eyes” after unleashing an unveiled shot at his dad for not being around back when. “I may put my daddy in a home, but I’d never put my momma in a home, shit. She was the one that raised me.” He also featured the train-inspired “Halfway to Jackson”, the “Can’t Hardly Wait” Replacements cover, and the gospel-esque “Harlem River Blues” amongst others.

It was going to be impossible for Justin to eclipse or even match the feat of his last Austin show that I have since deemed one of the best shows I’ve ever seen live, and that is okay. The venue, the crowd which was noticeably younger than previous shows, the strength of material among other factors felt a little like challenges to overcome for Justin in comparison to previous performances, but he presented himself well, as he continues to make the case for himself as one of our generation’s premier songwriters and solo performers. Justin feels mere steps away from graduating to a theater circuit, which would probably be a better fit for his music and approach and the crowd it attracts. As would a wider audience, because that is what his music deserves.

Two guns up!

Apr
17

Record Store Day 2012 Country Music Field Guide

April 17, 2012 - By Trigger  //  Random Notes  //  9 Comments

This Saturday, April 21st with be the 2012 installment of Record Store Day, the annual event started in 2007 to help the struggling independent record store. As the event has grown over the years, artists and labels have stepped up to help with the event, releasing dozens of limited-edition collectible pieces of vinyl to entice the public into their local mom and pop’s.

Country I am embarrassed to say was one of the last genres to get behind Record Store Day, with last year the only country representation of note being a Justin Townes Earle 7″, and a bunch of Hank Williams III re-issues on colored vinyl. Well I’m happy to report 2012 will go down as the year when country came busting through the Record Store Day scene with full representation, with so many projects being released taking stock of it all can be dizzying. So here is your 2012 Country Music Record Store Day Field Guide.

Complete list of Record Store Day Releases

Find a Participating Record Store

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Blitzen Trapper

Hey Joe b/w Skirts on Fire

Format: 7″ 45
Label: Sub Pop

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Bonnie Prince Billy (Will Oldham)

Hummingbird

Format: 10″ LP
Label: Spiritual Pajamas

The great Leon Russell’s “Hummingbird” anchors this new 10 inch, and Bonny and his assembled cast of LA musicians render it an exercise in contrast. Using Russell’s famed Shelter Records soundboard for this one-off session–with its memories of Petty and Cale, and now owned by one Jonathan Wilson–Bonny introduces a pallet of musical soundscapes including the keys of “Farmer” Dave Scher, the porch-stomp grooves of Entrance Band rhythm section Paz and Derek and the claps of a thousand hands before letting the song “fly away” in a breeze of soulful psychedelia that stretches nearly twice the original’s length.

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Buck Owens

Colouring Book w/flexi disc

Format: Book
Label: Omnivore

Tracks:
“Act Naturally”
“Together Again”
“I’ve Got A Tiger By The Tail”
“Crying Time”

Original Buck Owens Coloring Book. Commissioned by Buck Owens in 1970, these original, uncirculated vintage coloring books include a new 4-track flexidisc and download card.

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Caitlin Rose

Piledriver Waltz

Format: 7″ 45
Label: Domino
Release type: RSD Limited Run / Regional Focus Release

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Justin Townes Earle

Nothing’s Gonna Change The Way You Feel About Me Now

Format: 7″ 45
Label: Bloodshot

Tracks:
“Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now”
“Sneaky Feelings”

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Lydia Loveless

Bad Way To Go

Format: 7″ 45
Label: Bloodshot
Release type: RSD Limited Run / Regional Focus Release

Tracks:
“Bad Way To Go”
“Alison”

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Pistol Annies

Hell on Heels

Format: LP
Label: RCA Nashville

The first vinyl release of the 2011 debut from the group formed by Miranda Lambert, Angaleena Presley and Ashley Monroe.

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Ralph Stanley

Single Girl / Little Birdie

Format: LP
Label: Tompkins Square
Release type: RSD Limited Run / Regional Focus Release

Tracks:
“Single Girl”
“Little Birdie”

500 limited-edition copies.

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Ricky Skaggs & Tony Rice

Skaggs & Rice

Format: LP
Label: Sugar Hill

Tracks:
“Bury Me Beneath the Weeping Willow”
“Mansions For Me”
“More Pretty Girls Than One”
“Memories of Mother and Dad”
“Where The Soul of Man Never Dies”
“Talk About Suffering”
“Will the Roses Bloom (Where She Lies Sleeping)”
“Tennessee Blues”
“The Old Crossroads”
“Have You Someone (In Heaven Awaiting)

This heartwarming collection, featuring classic bluegrass tunes and traditional folk songs done in the close-harmony duet style, still stands as a high-water mark for both men.

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Ryan Adams

Heartbreak A Stranger / Black Sheets Of Rain

Format: 7″ 45
Label: PAXAM

Format: 7” colored vinyl

Tracks:
“Heartbreak A Stranger”
“Black Sheets Of Rain”

Two Bob Mould covers recorded at November’s “See A Little Light” Bob Mould Tribute Show at Walt Disney Hall in Los Angeles, California.

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Sara Watkins w/ Fiona Apple / The Everly Brothers

You’re The One I Love

Format: 7″ 45
Label: Warner Bros

Format: 7″ olive green and black splatter

Tracks:
Everly Brothers’ “You’re The One I Love” and a cover of the same song by Sara Watkins featuring Fiona Apple

Another in the Side by Side series created exclusively for Record Store Day featuring an original track (this time The Everly Brothers’ “You’re The One I Love” backed by a cover from another artist (this time Sara Watkins featuring Fiona Apple)

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The Civil Wars

Billie Jean

Format: 7″ 45
Label: Columbia Records U.K.

Tracks:
“Billie Jean (Live)”
“Sour Times (Live)”

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Live at Amoeba

Format: CD
Label: Sensibility Music LLC

Tracks:
“Tip of My Tongue”
“Forget Me Not”
“From This Valley”
“20 Years”
“I’ve Got This Friend”
“Billie Jean”
“Dance Me to the End of Love”
“Disarm”

Limited Edition One Time Pressing EP/CD Live at Amoeba – EP by Grammy Award Winners and Indie Sensations, The Civil Wars, recorded live in Hollywood on June 14, 2011. Exclusive for Record Store Day 2012. (A Portion Of The Cost Of This Title Goes Directly To Support Record Store Day)

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Townes Van Zandt

At My Window

Format: LP
Label: Sugar Hill

Tracks:
“Snowin’ on Raton”
“Blue Wind Blew”
“At My Window”
“For the Sake of the Song”
“Ain’t Leaving For Your Love”
“Buckskin Stallion Blues”
“Little Sundance #2″
“Still Lookin’ For You”
“Gone, Gone Blues”
“The Catfish Song”

The first and best album the late Texas singer-songwriter made for Sugar Hill, this set contains classics as “Snowing on Raton” and “Buckskin Stallion Blues”.

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Uncle Tupelo

Format: 7″ Vinyl Box Set
Label: Sony

3×7″ box set

“I Got Drunk/Sin City,”

“Gun/I Wanna Destroy You,”

“Uncle Tupelo Sauget Wind/Looking For A Way Out (acoustic), :Take My Word”

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No Depression

Format: LP
Release type: ‘RSD First’ Release

180 Gram vinyl

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March 16-20, 1992

Format: LP
Release type: ‘RSD First’ Release

180 Gram Vinyl

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Still Feel Gone

Format: LP
Release type: ‘RSD First’ Release

180 gram vinyl

Apr
3

The Origins & Epicenters of Underground “Muddy” Roots

April 3, 2012 - By Trigger  //  Random Notes  //  57 Comments

From the outside looking in, one may look at the lineup of The Muddy Roots Festival for example, and wonder how a throwback legend from Texas like Wayne “The Train” Hancock, a hillbilly punk freak from Tennessee like Joe Buck, a golden-throated singer from Michigan like Rachel Brooke, a crazy hellbilly songwriter from the Pacific Northwest like Bob Wayne, and a blues legend from Mississippi like T-Model Ford could all be booked right beside each other and it work seamlessly.

This illustrates the dramatic sonic and geographical diversity that goes into creating what we know now as the underground country roots, or “Muddy Roots” world. Below is a list of the disparate origins of Muddy Roots music that came together from a mutual understanding and appreciation of the roots of American music, and the epicenters where this music originated from and/or is thriving today.

ORIGINS:

The revitalization of Lower Broadway in Nashville.

In the early 90′s, lower Broadway street in downtown Nashville comprised the last bastion of old buildings that symbolized what Music City used to be. Overrun with dirty bookstores and titty bars, and The Grand Ole Opry’s original home The Ryman shuttered, young cowpunk and neo-traditionalist musicians like BR549, Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers, Hillbilly Casino, Greg Garing, and Joe Buck and Layla, commandeered lower Broadway and revitalized the strip into the tourist destination it is today. Emmylou Harris‘s legendary concert with the “Nash Ramblers” in 1994 also breathed new life into The Ryman, and later Hank Williams III would cut his teeth in lower Broadway venues like Layla’s Bluegrass Inn.

The fierce appreciation for country’s roots combined with an independent, punk mentality is what revitalized the most historic portion of downtown Nashville, and created the foundation for the blending of country, blues, and punk that Muddy Roots music would spring from.

Read more about lower Broadways revitalization: PART 1PART 2PART 3PART 4

 Outlaw Country

Not just Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, but Bobby Bare, Kris Kristofferson, and especially Tompall Glaser’s “Hillbilly Central” renegade studio in Nashville is the origin of the Outlaw spirit behind underground country roots, the “Do It Yourself” attitude to not allow labels to arrest creative control from the artists and to always respect the elders and traditions of the country genre while also allowing the music to innovate.

Punk

Underground country and Muddy Roots is very much a construct of the “post punk” music landscape. As punk music and scenes began to become stale or gentrify, punk artists and fans looking for the raw approach to music, and many times raised on traditional country and bluegrass, began to turn back to their own roots and put down their Flying V guitars for fiddles and banjos. This is where some of the fast, aggressive approach to roots music comes from, on both the country and the blues side, as well as the DIY spirit, and the grassroots approach to scene building and album production.

After Hank Williams III’s stint with the punk metal band Superjoint Ritual is when many punk and metal heads found themselves listening to country music again. In 2006, when Hank3 recorded his album Straight to Hell at home on a consumer-grade machine and put out an album with a Parental Advisory sticker on the front through one of Nashville’s major labels, many barriers were broke down and parameters set for how Muddy Roots music would evolve.

North Mississippi Hill Country Blues & Deep Blues

One of the reasons both country and blues music can work right beside each other in Muddy Roots is because in many cases they are both being infused with punk, just like artists Scott Biram and The Black Diamond Heavies do. Many times the infusion is with a very specific type of blues from the North Mississippi Hill Country, brought to the attention of the rest of the world by Fat Possum Records in the early 90′s, just about the same time lower Broadway in Nashville was being revitalized by young country punks.

One of the first events that put these like-minded blues and punk blues musicians all in one place, and included a few country-based artists as well was the Deep Blues Festival put on by Chris Johnson in Minnesota starting in the mid 2000′s. Deep Blues fest was where the relationship between blues, punk, and a deep appreciation for the roots of blues by young white musicians was codified.

Rockabilly

In a similar way to infusing both country and blues music with a punk edge and mentality, rockabilly artists in the early 90′s like The Reverend Horton Heat pioneered “pyschobilly”, a punk version of rockabilly. Just like their blues and country counterparts, they were neo-traditionalists, staunchly educated in and preservers of the roots of the music.

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EPICENTERS:

Part and parcel with the sonic diversity of underground country roots is the geographic diversity. Unlike many other past music movements that sprang up in specific geographical areas (or maybe in a few general areas, like East Coast vs. West Coast), Muddy Roots has epicenters all across the country as illustrated in the map below.

1. Tennessee (Nashville)

As explained above, Nashville has played the most vital role in the formation of underground country roots, from the Outlaw country music movement in the mid-70′s, to the revitalization of lower Broadway beginning in the mid-90′s, and today with the Muddy Roots Festival just an hour east in Cookeville, Nashville and Tennessee remain the major Muddy Roots epicenter, including the up-and-coming east Nashville, home to many venues supporting underground musicians, and the home of Hank Williams III, arguably the most important musician to the formation of a country music underground.

2. Austin, TX

As the”Live Music Capitol of the World” and a huge music town, Austin follows only Nashville in it’s importance to Muddy Roots music. Home to Wayne “The Train” Hancock, Scott Biram, Dale Watson, and many other underground roots musicians, as well as one of the epicenters of the original country music Outlaw movement and a lot of independent music infrastructure, Austin is a vital epicenter in underground roots.

3. The North Mississippi Hill Country

It’s not just any old blues that builds the nexus between blues and country into that unique underground roots concoction, it is a specific type of blues from the north Mississippi Hill Country. Fat Possum championed the sound of artists like RL Burnside, Junior Kimbrough, T Model Ford, and many others beginning in the early and mid 90′s. That sound has since been picked up and combined with punk by artists like Scott Biram, The Ten Foot Polecats, Restavrant, and The Black Keys to form what is more commonly referred to today as “Deep Blues”.

4. Michigan – (Detroit, Flint)

On the surface maybe one of the most unlikely epicenters for country and roots music is also possibly one of the most vibrant. The home base for artists like Whitey Morgan & The 78′s, Rachel Brooke, The Goddamn Gallows (Lansing), as well as a vibrant local scene with bands like Some Velvet Evening, Michigan has grown just about as many underground roots acts as anywhere else. To grow good roots bands you need support, and events like the legendary “Honky Tonk Tuesdays” at Club Bart in Ferndale created the community and collaboration that have allowed Michigan roots music to thrive.

5. The Upper Midwest (Minnesota, Wisconsin)

The Upper Midwest is the proving ground for many early and influential Muddy Roots bands, including the Gothic country stalwarts Those Poor Bastards from Madison, WI, the premier punk/bluegrass .357 String Band from Milwaukee, and Trampled by Turtles from Duluth, MN. When you throw in Michigan as an Upper Midwest state as well, the region becomes one of the strongest in the country for roots music.

Minnesota was also the scene of the crime for the original Deep Blues Festivals, and is the home of Chris Johnson, the founder of Deep Blues, and the owner of Bayport BBQ, a blues-based venue near St. Paul. Along with Weber’s Deck in French Lake, MN, they make Minnesota an Upper Midwest roots haven.

6. Arizona (Phoenix)

It only seems appropriate that one of the places where Waylon Jennings began his legacy from would years later become an underground country epicenter. The original home of Hillgrass Bluebilly Records, and a must-stop for touring bands going to or coming from The West Coast, Phoenix feels like home for many, and is home to artists like Ray Lawrence Jr. , Junction 10, and “Valley Fever” every Sunday night at the Yucca Tap Room. Hillgrass Bluebilly events are where many underground roots artists would meet for the first time, sparking collaborations on albums and tours that created a coagulating effect in an otherwise spread-out movement.

7. The Pacific Northwest

The Pacific Northwest is like a factory for underground roots talent. Bob Wayne, Larry & His Flask, McDougall, James Hunnicutt, Hillstomp, and Brent Amaker are all from there, and the list goes on and on. And then when you start digging deeper, many artists who are now based out of other places originated from there, like some of the original members of BR549. Both Loretta Lynn and Willie Nelson did time in the Pacific Northwest early in their careers. And we can’t forget the punk world’s Eddie Spaghetti and the Supersuckers started doing country side-projects in the late 90′s and collaborated with Steve Earle.

Bluegrass is big in the area, and there seems to be a kindred spirit between the rainy west and the deep South because of the rural life and landscape, and because many of the original settlers of the Northwest were originally from the South. With a population that tends to support the arts and music, and many specific neighborhoods and venues and festivals like Pickathon that cater to the roots scene, the Pacific Northwest is one of underground roots’ biggest power players.

8. Montana

Montana may look like a lowly outpost on the map, but it played a vital roll in the formation of underground roots in the mid to late oughts, specifically with a promotion company called Section 08 Productions putting together the “Murder in the Mountains” tours. By bringing together artists from all around the upper part of the country like Rachel Brooke, JB Beverley, .357 String Band, Bob Wayne, Slackeye Slim and others, they were one of the first to take the theoretical underground roots scene, and give it some substance. Section 08 Productions has since morphed into Farmageddon Records, and is still based in Montana.

 9 – California

California has always been the force in country music just behind Nashville and Texas, and that counts for underground country and roots as well. Where California played a key role in the formation of underground country was the interjection of punk influences and the transition of punk fans. Mike Ness of Social Distortion, Jon Doe and Exene Cervenka from the band X doing country side projects in the 80′s and 90′s is what led to the punk/country nexus. The Devil Makes Three from Northern California were one of the very first bands to bring a punk attitude to string music, The Pine Box Boys from San Francisco were one of the pioneers of Gothic bluegrass, and Los Duggans from LA were an important Deep Blues band.

10. North Carolina

Boasting some great music towns and big time roots music labels like Rusty Knuckles, Ramseur Records, and Yep Rock, North Carolina can make the case for itself as having the best music music scene and the most infrastructure right behind the big boys of Nashville and Austin. It also doesn’t hurt that one of the most successful roots acts in recent history, The Avett Bros., call North Carolina home.

11. Chicago, IL (Bloodshot Records)

Chicago will always be a big important part of underground roots as the home of Bloodshot Records. Bloodshot was one of the first labels to put their money where there mouth was in 1994, being “drawn to the good stuff nestled in the dark, nebulous cracks where punk, country, soul, pop, bluegrass, blues and rock mix and mingle and mutate.” As home to artists as important and wide ranging as Justin Townes Earle, Scott Biram, and Wayne “The Train” Hancock, Bloodshot Records’ impact and influence will always make Chicago a roots epicenter.

12. Central Florida

The scene in Central Florida is young, but burgeoning. Being the home of artists like the legendary Ben Prestage, Lone Wolf OMB, The Everymen, and many more, Florida is primed to become one of the underground country and roots hot spots.

13. Lawrence, Kansas

As a college town with a music school, Lawrence, KS is one of the best mid-sized music towns out there. Lawrence brings the support for live music, and not just for the usual college-town indie rock fare. It is home to bands like the long-running Split Lip Rayfield, and the high energy Calamity Cubes, and some of the coolest music venues you can find, like the Jackpot Music Hall, 8th St. Tap Room, and The Bottleneck.

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Other important epicenters: Little Rock, Arkansas, and specifically the legendary Whitewater Tavern. Bloomington, Indiana, a big music and roots town, and home to Austin Lucas, Davy Jay Sparrow, and many more. And Denver, CO, home to Slim Cessna’s Auto Club amongst many others.

Mar
27

Review – Justin Townes Earle “Nothing’s Gonna Change…”

March 27, 2012 - By Trigger  //  Reviews  //  43 Comments

This might be the hardest album review I’ve ever sat down to write. Normally I would not compose, and certainly not publish a review until I felt I had a firm determination on a project, but when it comes to Justin Townes Earle‘s Nothing’s Gonna Change The Way You Feel About Me Now, I have a sense that coming to that determination may take a time period longer than its garrulous title, maybe not until I see the material live, or maybe not until his next album is put out and it can be viewed in a greater context. It may be years from now.

And to further complicate the situation is my own confounding and bi-polar perspective on the man and his music. His last album Harlem River Blues had me fighting against the grain of positivity, calling out his sobriety as the culprit for gathering together a selection of songs sans his signature soul; a theory that was validated in part three weeks later when Earle ended a gig being detained by Indianapolis’s finest in a scenario that is serenaded on this album’s final track. And then last year I named him my Artist of the Year, based mostly on a live performance technically from the year before, and a new found sobriety that according to Justin included some serious relapses.

For all intents and purposes, Justin Townes Earle has “made it” in as much as any musician can in the modern era of music, and this usually endows the artist with the latitude to do just about whatever they want sonically, and JTE decided to give a “Memphis feel” (his words) to his newest endeavor. I hear Memphis here, but I also hear just as much early Motown. When you think “Memphis”, don’t think Sun Studios, Cash and Elvis so much as a bluesy, black soul vibe brought forth by horn sections and such.

Don’t call this a concept album, but except for maybe the final two songs, the “Memphis” production approach is very steadfast throughout. Some of the songs it compliments quite well. Some it seems to get in the way of. Some of the songs seem to be built solely to convey the Memphis soul, like “Baby’s Got A Bad Idea” and “Memphis In The Rain”.

There is not a bad song on this album. We see JTE return to the honest, heavy-hearted songwriting that has become his signature. Though this album is hard to warm up to. JTE’s voice may come across as unusual at first, maybe even weak, and the production may seem out-of-place or even droning because it is such an unusual approach for him, or any artist originating out of the Americana world. But when you give it time, it all starts to work. I think time will be a great ally of this album, just as much as the short-term may be a hindrance.

“Maria” is the first of the stellar songs of the album, and where the Memphis approach and Earle’s songwriting create a gorgeous confluence of style and soul and storytelling. The way the void of the lyric-less chorus is filled by a progression of tasteful guitar, then horns, then keys, and the way the song ends so abruptly and unresolved, with the name of a woman like salt on Earle’s lips gives the song a flawless construct and unobstructed bore straight to the listener’s heart.

Two songs seem to bench the Memphis vibe in lieu of just fiercely giving the song whatever it calls for, which turns out to be a pretty bare bones approach to let Earle’s mastery of lyric breathe in space. The sad, blinding self-awareness of “It Won’t Be The Last Time”, and the sad awareness of another in “Unfortunately, Anna” make whatever sounds audible to the human ear offered up to compliment the stories nearly superfluous. “It Won’t Be The Last Time” is the last song on the album, but the first one Justin wrote for it, and the first after his rehab stint. An audible hiss on the recording and the presence of steel guitar also helps delineate “It Won’t Be The Last Time” from the other songs in production and mood.

The “Memphis” production approach works, and works well at times, but I wonder what the need is to marry any song to any era or place, instead of letting a song choose a time and place itself? I’ve never though of Justin Townes Earle as an entertainer. He’s a songwriter, and then maybe a performer after that, and attempting to pull off songs like “Baby’s Got A Bad Idea” and “Look The Other Way” seemed to stretch his skill set, though “Look The Other Way” you can look past to see his signature songwriting style still there. Slow soul is JTE’s wheelhouse. Sometimes you need to change the pace to keep an album spicy, but you never need to stray too far from your strengths.

And again, I can’t stress enough that this album’s best days, or years may be in the future. Like the Rolling Stone’s Exile on Main Street, or The Beastie Boys Paul’s Boutique, Nothing’s Gonna Change‘s genius might take time to reveal itself. What I do feel confident in saying is that this is the album Justin Townes Earle wanted to make, and that it’s good. And let’s not forget to give him credit for being bold with this approach and release. He could have made just another album. Instead, he made this one. Maybe a little rushed, but it’s true to itself, and I stand steadfast behind my theory that Justin Townes Earle’s best work is done sober, like this album was.

1 3/4 of 2 guns up. For now.

****UPDATE****UPDATE****UPDATE****UPDATE****

After giving it much consideration and seeing Justin Townes Earle perform this material live, I have decided to change the grade on this review as I gave myself the option of doing up above. Though I still have some concerns that the “Memphis” approach hindered some songs, the strength of Nothing’s Gonna Change‘s other tracks, some of which I consider some of the best of the year so far, merit this album being considered in the top tier.

Two guns up!

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Preview & Purchase Tracks from Nothing’s Gonna Change…

Feb
15

Hipster Irony Goes Country with Jonny Corndawg

February 15, 2012 - By Trigger  //  Reviews  //  75 Comments

When I first saw Jonny Corndawg’s Down on the Bikini Line album come across the wires this summer, with this dude’s ironic name, the ironic album cover and title, and a track list of ironic songs, I didn’t even give it a sniff. Go ahead, accuse me of judging a book by it’s cover, but when The Nashville Scene anointed this guy an “Outlaw”, compared him to David Allan Coe and Down on the Bikini Line to Coe’s Penitentiary Blues, I knew I couldn’t avoid taking a deeper look and listen any longer.

Jonny Corndawg, or whatever his real name is, is not a cowboy, he’s a marathon-running hipster making fun of you and me and rural country culture with his ironic getup and cornpone songs. And when I say “hipster” I mean take-your-iMac-down-to-the-local-coffee-shop-and-pontificate-loudly-about-micro-loans-to-battered-African-women-to-get-laid-by-anthropogy-majoring-college-girls-looking-to-rebel-against-their-Judea-Christian-upbringing hipster. It’s all irony folks, the cover, the songs, the hat, the boots, his leather-clad guitar with the Chevy emblem on it, it’s all designed to poke fun at country culture, and not in a way that is either enlightening, respectful, or that carries a message. It’s for attention.

Now, when you cyber stalk this dude, you will find some people defending him, pointing to his serious leatherworking passion or his real-life truck driving experience, or this, or that to say this guy is just a rare bird that can’t be pigeon-holed and nobody should try. All of that may be true, but the two things I know for sure after listening to this album many times is 1) he employs a tremendous amount of irony in his music 2) he’s craves a tremendous amount of attention. And both of those things are fundamental in the ironic hipster culture.

On his own website he says about Down on the Bikini Line that it’s, “in the vein of that obscure ’70s gay country that housewives would discover on a Bear Family reissue in twenty years” on a page that, for irony, uses a soccer ball template for the screen background. Oh, and let me mention that he also used Kickstarter for this album, not to record it, but to promote it: i.e. the need for attention.

But the thing that really gives him away is the pentameter and the higher register that he sings in, which when you strip all the visual things back, is the undeniable mark of indie hipster music and can’t be explained away by other things that may or may not exist in his schtick. And even if he truly isn’t a hipster, I don’t know if it matters because this is an instance where perception truly is reality, and my perception of Jonny Corndawg is that he is making fun of you and me, and I can’t get that feeling out of my head to submit to this music.

And just to clarify, there is nothing specifically wrong with hipsters, hipster culture, irony, or irony in music or country music specifically. There are a lot of indie bands and acts I appreciate, but I appreciate them in their element and when they’re represented authentically. And even when irony is brought to country music, it can work as long as it feels like there’s still that underlying element of respect there, or if there’s a message, like making fun of modern pop country for example. Just a few weeks ago I reviewed an album from Some Velvet Evening that employed irony rather well, and whenever these comedy/ironic albums come up, I always refer back to one of the best ever done, Ween’s 12 Golden Country Greats from 1996.

Now the next thing you probably expect me to do is wizz all over Jonny Corndawg’s music specifically. Well unfortunately folks, I am unable to do that. Because despite all that was said above, when you clean the slate of all the irony and hipster-rific schtick, what you have here is some pretty amazing music and intelligent, funny songwriting, and a lot of well-executed and engaging country instrumentation in songs that are just undeniably great.

From Outlaw to gospel and everything in between, Corndawg displays himself as a master of his craft, a brilliant artist and a tireless student of his medium who understands timing, tones, and texture. As you listen to this album, you begin to understand that the quirkiness of the Jonny Corndawg character is an outside symptom of the brilliance of the artist inside of him, bursting with creativity no matter where it is expressed: music, leatherwork, or in the case of the “Jonny Corndawg” music persona, character creation. The dude seems to be like a cultural sponge, soaking up Ameriana, and not only understanding the modes of how it works, but picking up on the nuances that engage people and make them laugh.

The 1/2 time Outlaw-esque “Shaved (Like a razor)” I hate to love. The upbeat and rocking “Chevy Beretta” and “Red on the Head” get your heart pumping and have you laughing out loud. The spatial “Night Rider” is delicate and intelligent. And even the songs that are more indie hipster rock instead of country like “Undercover Dad” still work within their element.

So did I come to an epiphany on Jonny Corndawg eventually and “get it”? Well, no, no I didn’t. And I am usually one of those guys that does “get it” and tries to tell others they should as well. Because for even how engaging I find this music, I can’t detach the hipster irony from it enough to thoroughly enjoy it without reservation.

In the end what you have here is a mixed bag: great music from an ironic hipster weirdo. I wouldn’t go to battle if anyone told me this was the most brilliant country album in a long time (though make no mistake, he’s no Outlaw). Nor would I go to battle with someone who asserted it was awful and insulting. So for now, Jonny Corndawg remains an enigma for me. And I have a feeling he would be OK with that, if that wasn’t his plan all along.

1 gun up for excellent music and songs. 1 gun down for excessive hipster irony.

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For folks that care about these type of things, Josh Hedley, who regularly plays violin for Justin Townes Earle appears on this album, as does Caitlin Rose in a backup vocal role.

Buy Down on the Bikini Line directly from Jonny Corndawg

Purchase from Amazon

Listen to complete tracks here:

Jan
5

2011 Artist of the Year – Justin Townes Earle

January 5, 2012 - By Trigger  //  Reviews  //  14 Comments

The Saving Country Music Artist of the Year is not like any of the other end-of-year awards. There are no candidates to choose from, and I don’t canvas the readership for help in choosing the winner.

There are a few basic principles that govern Saving Country Music, and one of them is that the focus is always people first, then music. Music is just the excuse to learn about people, and to create community. More than any of the other awards, this principle governs who gets chosen for Artist of the Year. But overall, the one requisite that must be met is that the artist must inspire me more than any other.

In 2009, when Saving Country Music was still somewhat in it’s infancy, I named Justin Townes Earle‘s Midnight At The Movies Album of the Year. After watching moving performances from Justin in 2009, talking to him personally and in an interview format, I was convinced this was a man who had a singular talent way beyond what his famous name afforded him. I was moved, and inspired. There is nothing I take more seriously than putting my name behind somebody, as an artist, and as a human, and I was willing to put whatever force my feeble, fledgling SCM name had behind Justin Townes Earle.

Then came 2010, at South by Southwest in March, where Justin Townes Earle performed. My stupid little blog now burgeoning, and my eyes all aglow to see my favorite artist perform, when Earle took the stage in his light blue pants two sizes too small and a bowtie, I could tell immediately he was wasted, and wasted while the sun was hung at mid afternoon. He put on a pathetic performance that didn’t just disappoint me, it broke my heart. I was devastated. I believed in this man, and as a student of his career I knew the key to Justin’s success was his sobriety. I had no doubt in my mind he was off the wagon. Rumors swirling about SXSW seemed to confirm this diagnosis.

But anybody can have a bad performance, or a relapse, and so I kept my observations to myself, waiting for a possible redemption. Unfortunately I did not find it in the album he released later in the year, Harlem River Blues. It’s not that it was bad, it’s just I knew Justin was capable of so much better, and in my review I called into question Justin’s sobriety as the culprit.

My accusation effected a small, but heated backlash from some JTE fans who said it was unfair and unfounded for me to question his sobriety. Then in September of 2010, a few weeks after posting my review it was revealed that Justin Townes Earle had been arrested in Indianapolis after a drink and drug-fueled altercation. Saving Country Music broke the story. Justin Townes Earle and I had come full circle.

My next Justin Townes Earle interaction was in December of 2010, when he performed at The Parish in Austin, TX, stone sober. Since that performance, I have had to come to grips with the idea that I may never see a stronger live performance by an artist for the rest of my life. It was that good. Legendary. And many folks who witnessed Justin on the same tour and subsequent ones have said similar things.

As a music critic, I always make sure to measure music not only against it’s peers and other common standards, I measure it against the strengths and shortcomings of the artists themselves. And doesn’t it seem like the most brilliant of the artists amongst us are many times the ones to be balanced adversely by demons? If Justin’s artistic brilliance is measured 10 out of 10, then so is his propensity to get up every morning and shoot heroin. Only the people that live in that same extremity of the addiction battle can imagine that struggles that Justin Townes Earle must fight every day. And then to ride the emotional roller coaster of live performance, travel, uneven schedules, and the ridiculous amounts of temptations that adorn the musician’s path at every turn? Simply watching Justin Townes Earle stay sober is inspiring in itself. Pile on the fact that, oh yeah, he’s also one of the most engaging live performers of our generation, and has accumulated widespread adoration and respect from an impressive swath of the music world. That is the definition of a Saving Country Music Artist of the Year.

And Justin Townes Earle has admitted that in 2011 he had some very small, but very real relapses. And Justin will have more relapses. He admits that, and that is the theme of the song “It Won’t Be The Last Time” from his upcoming album. And I’m OK with that.

And I don’t care if you don’t like Justin Townes Earle’s music. What is music anyway except the mastering of motor skills to move your fingers and sing in such a way as to entertain? Compared to fighting off the demons of a man whose been a drug addict since before he was a teenager, music is relegated to a parlor trick. And I don’t care if Justin Townes Earle, his management or label, or anybody else gives a damn about my dumb little award. He probably thinks I’m an asshole, and you know what, I’m OK with that too. All I know is that in 2011, no other artist, none, inspired me more than Justin Townes Earle.

Dec
19

New Justin Townes Earle ‘Nothing’s Gonna Change..’ 3/27

December 19, 2011 - By Trigger  //  News  //  12 Comments

(download title track now at justintownesearle.com)

Bloodshot Records has just announced that Justin Townes Earle will be releasing his 4th LP Album on March, 27th, 2012, and it is a mouthful, called Nothing’s Gonna Change The Way You Feel About Me Now.

Produced by Earle alongside longtime collaborator Skylar Wilson, the 10-track album was recorded completely live with no overdubs over a four-day period at an old converted church recording studio in Asheville, NC. Of the new record, Earle says, “I think that it’s the job of the artist to be in transition and constantly learn more. The new record is completely different than my last one, Harlem River Blues. This time I’ve gone in a Memphis-soul direction.”

Indeed, NGCTWYFAMN is uncompromised, 60′s-era Muscle Shoals sound, accompanied by lots of brass, and we’ll think you’ll find this album a natural progression of JTE’s musical catalog.

Back in February, Earle told Billboard he wanted his next album to have a Memphis vibe, and intended to record it in London for a “change of pace”. Obviously the latter did not happen, but the idea of reviving the Memphis sound did.

I’m going to approach different forms of music that have come out of Memphis over the years, based around everything from Sun to Stax. I think it will be fun. I approached that a little bit by having ‘Move Over Mama’ and ‘Slippin’ and Slidin’ ‘ (on Harlem River Blues). I’m of the opinion rock ‘n’ roll and soul music are virtually the same thing, just with a difference in the beat. They’re the same chords. The songs are about the same things. One of things I like doing is finding those connections and running them all together.”

The other notable change between Nothing’s Gonna Change and his last album Harlem River Blues is this album will hypothetically be one Justin Townes Earle recorded while sober. Earle openly admits his last album was recorded during an extended relapse that ended with him being arrested in Indianapolis, and that his lack of sobriety can hurt his creative process as he told Blurt:

The abuse I put my body through never once helped me write a song. Luckily, I haven’t done any permanent damage to my brain. Often, drugs destroy your creative process.

After winning Saving Country Music’s 2009 Album of the Year with his second full-length release Midnight At The Movies, Saving Country Music openly questioned Justin’s sobriety when giving Harlem River Blues a mixed review. However the album was critically-acclaimed by most, and the title track won the 2011 Americana Music Awards Song of the Year. JTE also SCM’s Top Live Performance for 2011, and certainly Nothing’s Gonna Change is one of our most-anticipated releases for 2012.

Track List:

1. Am I That Lonely Tonight?
2. Look the Other Way
3. Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now
4. Baby’s Got a Bad Idea
5. Maria
6. Down on the Lower East Side
7. Won’t Be the Last Time
8. Memphis in the Rain
9. Unfortunately, Anna
10. Movin’ On

“It Won’t Be The Last Time” was the first song Justin Townes Earle wrote after getting sober.

Short film from Joshua Black Wilkins made during recording of the album.

Dec
5

Saving Country Music’s Best Live Performances of 2011

December 5, 2011 - By Trigger  //  Reviews  //  41 Comments

When I sat down to name the top 10 live performances of 2011 as seen through my eyes, I didn’t know what a mess I was making for myself, and it wasn’t until then that I realized what a power packed year for live music it has been. My 10 stretched to 15 fast, and I’m still leaving out acts like Hellbound Glory, Lucky Tubb, and Ray Wylie Hubbard.  I will be the first to tell you that is bullsh, but the line had to be drawn somewhere.

Unlike the Album of the Year and Song of the Year, with my inability to see every live performance, this is simply based on my own experience. However live performances always go into consideration for other awards, like the three solid Hellbound Glory shows I saw were considered when nominating them for album of the year.

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15. Ruby Jane & Graham Reynolds – The Continental Club Austin, TX

I really enjoyed the Sundays each month that Ruby Jane played historic Gruene Hall down in the heart of Texas, but it was a random night at Austin’s Continental Club that gave rise to her standout performance of the year with composer Graham Reynolds. Ruby’s stellar musicianship and passion on fiddle is hard to match. The flourish at the end of this song was something to make the hair stand up on the back of your neck.

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14. Austin Lucas -ninebullets.net SXSW Showcase

This is what South by Southwest is designed to do: take people who are involved in the music business, and put them in front of the artists in intimate setting to bypass all the press release and preview track bullshit so you can decide if an artist is worthy of your attention or not. The Revolution Bar in gentrifying east Austin was the perfect place to catch an intimate performance by Austin Lucas, joined only by his sister Chloe who supplied sublime harmonies and banjo. His simple, honest, and heartfelt performance proved to me this was an artist I needed to bring into the Saving Country Music fold.

They screw up in the middle of this, and it is still awesome. Listen to how quiet it gets in the room at the end.

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13. Charlie ParrThe Pickathon Festival, Portland, OR

Speaking of hushing rooms and heartfelt songwriting, by evoking character through his music like few others I’ve ever seen, Charlie Parr and his guitar suck you in with songs of heartache sung with immeasurable soul. Charlie doesn’t sing about subjects in third person, he becomes the subject of his songs in an uncanny channeling of character, and makes the story flesh and bone right before your eyes.

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12. Whitey Morgan & The 78′sBloodshot Records SXSW Showcase

Whitey Morgan played the Pickathon Festival as well and had two excellent sets, but the standout show for me happened back in Austin during Bloodshot Records’ annual showcase at the Red Eye Fly, where Whitey Morgan & The 78′s were booked as the headliners. The sound was positively awful that night. The Waco Brothers played their whole set with the only working speakers being their monitors on stage. Meanwhile Whitey and the boys were sitting in their van, passing a bottle and anticipating a train wreck by the time they took the stage.

Whitey climbed on stage and took no prisoners, cussing and swearing the stage hands straight before the even did anything wrong. Bloodshot owner Nan had her face in her hands, worried Whitey was about to make a scene when what he was really doing was making sure the ship was righted before they started, and trust me, after Whitey put the fear of God in everyone, it was. Then they delivered the best set I have seen them play, and playing the headliner spot of the Bloodshot Records showcase, that is when I knew Whitey Morgan & The 78′s had arrived.

Here they are sharing the stage with legendary Eddie Spaghetti of the Supersuckers.

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11. Micah Schnabel of Two Cow Garage – ninebullets.net SXSW Showcase

Maybe not country, but nonetheless mind blowing was Micah Schnabel, who when PA issues kept his band Two Car Garage from plugging in, he grabbed his acoustic and did the solo thing like few others can. This guy is one of the most authentically-passionate performers on stage I’ve ever seen. As I like to say: if Possessed By Paul James gives birth on stage, Micah Schnabel commits suicide on stage.

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10. The Goddamn Gallows/Jayke Orvis/ James Hunicutt – Beerland, Austin, TX

I saw this same lineup, at the same place, two different times this year, and I still did not get my fill. The perfect traveling amalgam of music, it starts off with James Hunnicutt playing solo, then Jayke Orvis taking the stage with Hunnicutt, Fishgutz from The Gallows, and Joe Perreze on banjo making up the “Broken Band,” and then at some point they are all on stage as The Goddamn Gallows.

And then there’s fire.

Joined here on stage by Gary Lindsay.

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9. Slim Cessna’s Auto Club – SXSW Showcase @ Spiderhouse

For years, the two best bands to see live have been Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers and Denver, CO’s Slim Cessna’s Auto Club. In support of their new album Unentitled they made their way down to SXSW and played a set mixing their new pop mocking songs in with their long-time favorites. This band is mind blowing every time. (video is not the best; only one I could find from the show)

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8. Hank3Revival Fest – Austin, TX

In the middle of a nearly year-long hiatus from the road, Hank3 drove out to Austin for a one-off show at The Revival Festival, and it was a good one. Not having to save anything for the next day and having nothing to recover from the night before, and dragging the badass chicken-picking half-blind maestro Johnny Hiland with him out from Nashville, Hank3 threw down the best live show I’ve seen from him in the post-Joe Buck era. It was one for the ages.

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7. Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers / Hillbilly CasinoMuddy Roots Festival

To see either of these bands alone is an opportunity you cannot pass up. But to put them together back to back was a music cream dream come true. These two bands and their dynamic frontmen were instrumental in the revival of lower Broadway in Nashville, and the same dynamic that gave rise to the abominable frontman of lower Broadway was on display Sunday night at Muddy Roots.

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6. Lukas Nelson & The Promise of the RealWillie’s 4th of July Picnic, Ft. Worth, TX

Just about every one of Willie Nelson’s kids plays music in one capacity or another. How many do it well is another story. But Lukas Nelson and his band The Promise of the Real is the real deal my friends. Far beyond riding coattails or his daddy’s name, 2011 in many ways was a coming out party for Lukas Nelson, and his performance at the 2011 Willie’s 4th of July Picnic / Country Throwdown picnic proved why. The man simply stole the show.

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5.Various Artists – Muddy Roots Festival Late Night Jam

This might be the biggest live music memory of 2011, but without any specific artist to attribute it to, or any other real way to quantify it, I’m just not sure where to put it on this list. What I do know is when you get a legend like Wayne “The Train” Hancock leading JB Beverley, Banjer Dan, all of Hellbound Glory, and who knows else, it’s hard to leave it off the list. It may have not been pretty, but it certainly was legendary.

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4. Marty Stuart – Gruene Hall, Gruene, TX

This was the performance that convinced me that Marty Stuart might be the one to save country music (read full review). This wasn’t a punk gone country show, or a neo-traditional swing back bit, it was simply pure, true country, yet dripping with energy, an engaging nature, attitude, and gospel soul. And his band The Fabulous Superlatives might be one of the best collections of country talent ever assembled. Simply put, this was the best set of straightforward country I’ve seen in years.

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3. Possessed by Paul James – Muddy Roots Festival

First off, the fact that this moment sits at #3 for the year tells you just what a power packed year for music experiences in underground roots music 2011 has been, because really, this moment sets itself apart in the musical experiences of a lifetime.

I saw Possessed by Paul James play live 6 times from late 2010 until now, and in that period, I watched a rebirth of one of the most dynamic live performers I’ve ever seen. Voice issues put him on hiatus for a bit, and when he started performing again, there was a slight timidness, a lack of confidence in his new vocal reality he was struggling with. But over that period, the confidence and abandon came back in full force, to where now I cannot think of another solo performer I would place above him in ability and consistency. Possessed by Paul James delivers every time, and I have come to think of him as a true headliner, and a true legend in the live and recorded context. They say that Possessed By Paul James gives birth to his songs on stage. In 2011 we also saw a PPJ resurrection.

By the end of his Muddy Roots set, some folks were in tears, and everyone was talking about the mysterious burst of wind on that blisteringly hot day that hit the tent right as he began to play. Call that mysterious wind burst a sign of the divine, or quantify it by explaining the dramatic atmospheric wind shift that preceded a change from the hot weather to a tropical disturbance ushered in by Tropical Storm Lee that moved over middle Tennessee. Either way, PPJ channeled that energy through his music, and changed people’s lives.

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2. Sunday Valley – The Pickathon Festival, Portland, OR

I really don’t know what to say here, except that Sunday Valley was the best live band I discovered in 2011, and very possibly might be the best live band right now in all of country music. I know that may come across as a platitude, but I believe it, and to try and use words to describe their live experience almost seems insulting; you just have to experience it yourself. Sturgill Simpson is country’s version of Jimmy Hendrix or Stevie Ray Vaughan. Mark my words, 2012 might be the year of Sunday Valley. (read more in live review from Pickathon)

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1. Justin Townes Earle – The Parish, Austin, TX

I will start this off by saying I know some people will read this having also seen Justin Townes Earle at some point in 2011, and thinking I’m crazy for putting him here at the top spot. That is because JTE can be hit and miss live, because JTE has a drug and alcohol problem.

When I saw him live at SXSW in 2010, that is when I first recognized a sharp dropoff in the quality of his live show, and a few months later, called him out on it in connection with a rumored drug problem. Later that year in September, he got arrested in Indianapolis after tearing up a dressing room, and brawling with cops. Shortly therafter came a rehab stint, and by January of this year, he was back on tour. We know from subsequent stories that between now and January, JTE had another relapse with heroin, and a relapse while on tour in Australia, and I’ve heard mixed review of his live shows.

I am not omnipresent, so I can’t speak on all his performances, but in Austin, TX, Justin Townes Earle put on the performance of his lifetime. Nearly a year later, I still get chills as I sit here and write about it. Stone cold sober, having just been from hell and back, his own mortality and career hanging in the balance, Justin Townes Earle sang from the heart like nobody else I have ever seen, or possibly ever will see. Since the performance, I have had to come to grips with the fact that I may never be moved by another performance for the rest of my life, like the way I was moved that night. (read review)

Nov
28

Nominees for 2011 SCM Album of the Year

November 28, 2011 - By Trigger  //  Reviews  //  115 Comments

There is nothing I take more seriously than naming what I think is the best album of any calendar year. The Album of the Year offers a guidepost for future generations to find the best music that was forgotten by the mainstream, while at the same time being a current ambassador to the mainstream to illustrate what great music they are overlooking. An Album of the Year can’t just be the best album to listen to, it has to be impactful, influential, and/or groundbreaking.

The decision of who to nominate is always difficult, but this year it seemed especially difficult because of the additional albums I could have included beyond these three. Both Rachel Brooke’s Down in the Barnyard and Lone Wolf’s self-titled album were excellent, breakthrough releases. Cody Canada & The Departed’s This Is Indian Land I thought was especially strong, though I may be alone in that thought. And there were a couple of landmark blues albums this year, Husky Burnette’s Facedown in the Dirt, and Scott Biram’s Bad Ingredients, and make no mistake, though it would have to fight an uphill battle, a blues album could win.

But in the end, if I had included one of those albums, I’d have to include them all to be fair to the requirements of all the nominees, and that would have diluted attention from the three albums that truly have a chance to win. And certainly those albums and many more will be included on the “2011 Essential Albums List” forthcoming.

Saving Country Music is a benevolent dictatorship, and I will make the end decision of the winner, but feedback will be taken into strong consideration, so please, leave your votes, comments, your own candidates, or write-in votes below. Just don’t make fun of the cheesball “2011 Album of the Year” logo I slapped together, or you comment will be disqualified.

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Austin LucasA New Home in the Old World

Of all the albums in 2011, this was the one I listened to the most. It is one of those albums where a few of the songs hit you the first time through, then after you’ve worn out those songs, the ones you didn’t like at first grow on you, and by the time those wear out, you’re favorites in the first place are renewed once again until 6 months have gone by and you never stopped listening. In this day of so much parody in music, this is such a rare feat.

A New Home in the Old World scores two guns up on every element of this album: the songwriting, the singing, the instrumentation, the production and accessibility. You can put this album on for one of your pop country friends, and they will like it, and you will too, and Lucas proved his wide appeal by appearing on Willie Nelson’s Country Throwdown Tour this summer. And it is solidly country, pure country, with steal guitars and fiddles and down home, but not apish harmony vocals, even though he comes to us from a punk music background, and through the Suburban Home Records scene.

Simply based on appeal, and our ability to hold up an album to Music Row and say, “See, there is music out there that is better, but still widely appealing, that could save your business model,” there is no better album in 2011 than A New Home in the Old World. (read review)

Slackeye SlimEl Santo Grial, La Pistola Piadosa

El Santo Grial is a masterpiece, a magnum opus, of the highest proportions. And it’s not just that this is the greatest masterpiece of 2011, it very well may be the best masterpiece that has been put out in the independent/underground country world, ever. And I’d go even another step to say there’s a good chance it will never be rivaled in that regard. The artistry, the vision, and the patience and uncompromising approach to see it through makes El Santo Grial one for the ages.

However artistry and vision is one thing, and appeal is another. Is this an album you can play for your pop country friends? Uh yeah, probably not. They’re not ready for it, and even many people who are not pop country fans are probably not ready for it. Ulysses may be the greatest novel of all time, but damn if most of us can’t make it past the first chapter. But even though El Santo Grial may not have mass appeal, I do think it could appeal to a mass variety of people by transcending genre and traditional ideas of taste, like what Tom Waits does, until it does command a big audience. And I do think there are songs here that can be picked out of the work and stand alone.  (read review)

Hellbound GloryDamaged Goods

Originally I was not going to include Damaged Goods on this list; the 2011 Album of the Year was going to be a two horse race. Don’t get me wrong, I think the album is excellent, but I just don’t know if it is their best effort. I’m not saying it “isn’t” their best effort, I’m saying “I don’t know” if it’s their best effort, like I can say about A New Home and El Santo Grial. And I have to balance that against the fact that Leroy Virgil wanted to make an album that was an approximation of their live show, which these days is fairly stripped down because of budgetary restraints.

But when you take into consideration influence and appeal, it would be an injustice to leave Damaged Goods off. Austin Lucas could blow up, but Hellbound Glory would blow up if the right buttons were pushed by someone who has the power, and understands their aesthetic. Leroy Virgil could be the next Justin Townes Earle, a solid underground success story, or he could be the next Alan Jackson. I just wish he knew that the possibilities were in arms length of him, and I wish I knew how to get him that last step–not to afford him arbitrary measures of success like money and fame, but because the world needs Hellbound Glory’s music. (read review)

Oct
19

Caleb Klauder Just Wants To Play Music

October 19, 2011 - By Trigger  //  Reviews  //  19 Comments

Sometimes the best musicians, and the best people you will ever meet in music, are not the ones that stand at stage center, but the ones who spend the majority of the time standing to the right or left, or in back behind the drums. With a selfless attitude, a willingness to do whatever it takes to make good music great, and many times a quiet patience with their own music, these musicians can be a treasure trove of songs and wisdom that is just waiting to be discovered.

The James Hunnicutt’s and Amanda Shires’s of the world could never receive enough credit in my book, for their accompanying work and their solo endeavors, and neither could Portland, OR’s Caleb Klauder. As a founding member of The Foghorn Stringband, and common collaborator with too many other artists and projects to list, many times Caleb Klauder’s “Country Band” plays second fiddle for this fiddle, mandolin, and guitar player, and singer/ songwriter. But as his critically-acclaimed 2010 release Western Country proved (read SCM review), Caleb’s name deserves equal billing beside the other top shelf independent roots artists from across the country.

And though you may have not heard of Caleb until recently, or until just right now, the 40-year-old with flecks of gray hair sticking out from under his trucker hat has been touring and making music for 20 years now. It just has not always been music that bears his name. The first time I saw Caleb was in 2003, when the only other outlets for resurgent traditional country were folks like Wayne Hancock, BR549, and Hank Williams III. I would see him again in 2009, picking mandolin for Justin Townes Earle. When he showed up in Austin last week, he was squeezing a solo show out before playing appearances with The Foghorn Trio and and The Cajun Country Revival.

I just think I’m one of those people that goes in many different directions. I have a hard time forcing things. It’s nice to go with the flow a lot of times. It’s funny that’s always led me to interesting things I probably wouldn’t have seen otherwise. I’ve always felt the best collaborating. But sometimes it is nice to step aside and say, “I gonna do this right now. This is the thing I want to do, and it’s gonna go like this.” It’s nice to have that outlet, where I can have that vision, and try it, and have it come out the way you want it. At the same time, I don’t need to do that every day, all day long.

Though Caleb can play just about anything that involves strings and wood, (“I can pick and play all day and love it”, Caleb says) his real passion is singing.

I kinda like being flexible, but I guess if I really had to dig down to it, I’m probably just a singer. I just love singing. When you really get going singing, it feels so good, it’s like therapy.

Musicians like Caleb Klauder will never spend enough time promoting themselves. They’re too much about the music, and the community that music builds. “I think I’m just a sucker for making good music and good friends, and the scene that goes around that.” Caleb says. And so it is up to us, the fans and the writers and podcasters to help spread the word, so that Caleb Klauder’s music can find a wider audience. Think of it as a music version of affirmative action, where certain artists are given extra support to compensate for their sometimes selfless approach in a medium dominated by egos.

Photos from C. C. Ekstrom of almostoutofgas.com, from a show at The Waterloo Ice House in Austin, TX 8/13/11

Oct
17

Album Review – Dale Watson “The Sun Sessions”

October 17, 2011 - By Trigger  //  Reviews  //  16 Comments

With popular music coagulating into the two super genres of country and hip-hop, rock music finds itself the odd man out. An inadvertent by-product has been the emergence of rock n’ roll as bona fide roots genre. Along with that, in the last few years there’s big a big resurgence in the Memphis sound centered around the historic Sun Studios. Sun has always been influential on music, but now we are seeing a slew of new projects squarely focused on trying to recapture that Sun sound.

Chris Isaak’s newest album Beyond The Sun was recorded at the historic studio where Elvis, Johnny Cash, and so many others got their start. Justin Townes Earle has iterated that his next album with have a distinct Memphis/Sun vibe to it, and he recorded a version of his song “Ain’t Waitin’” at Sun Studios in May. But beating them both to the punch is Austin, TX’s Dale Watson with The Sun Sessions, recorded with Mike Bernal and Chris Crepps, named the “Texas Two”, an homage to Johnny Cash’s original “Tennessee Two”.

And this isn’t where the homages to Johnny Cash end. In fact in The Sun Sessions, it’s hard to determine where Johnny Cash ends, and Dale Watson begins. Dale isn’t simply trying to capture the essence of an era and adapt it to his original material, he is mimicking virtually everything about Sun-era Johnny Cash, from the tic-tac rhythm, to Cash’s singing style, to the themes and verbiage in the songs. Aside from the songs being original compositions by Dale, this is Dale Watson doing his best Johnny Cash impression circa 1955.

I’m concerned this avant-guarde approach will make this project polarizing in certain circles. It also makes it a very difficult one to grade and criticize. Am I supposed to grade it on how uncannily close Dale mimics the Johnny Cash character? Because if so, give it a 10 out of 10. Or does mimicking Johnny Cash so closely somehow make the album less authentic, or less of an original artistic expression?

It also is worth noting that Dale’s approach to album making has always been unique. He’s not going to waste time trying to cut hit singles or try to garner a mainstream following, so instead he can just have fun, and do whatever he wants. His last album Carryin’ On was unusual because it was one of the few straightforward albums he’s ever done.

In the end, I had to simply try and listen to the songs, and judge them on their merit. I can’t lie, shaking the Johnny Cash similarities was not easy at all, but boiled down, the album is solid, and very fun. I wouldn’t call it a deep or soulful or original album, though it has moments of all three, this is more of an entertaining and engaging album, full of simply-written, honest and tasteful, sweet and primitively-themed songs, that remind you that despite all the great advances of society, we still may never top the simple sweetness of those 50′s-era compositions.

Aside from the Cash similarities, many of the songs have original appeal, like the opening track “Down, Down, Down, Down, Down, Down.” The only track I felt like I could connect the dots to a specific Cash song was “Drive, Drive, Drive”, which felt a little too close to “Cry, Cry Cry”, but the remarkable thing about this album is with songs like “Johnny At The Door” and “George O’Dwyer”, there is a haunting exactitude to Cash in the simple way the lyrics work.

I’m not sure many other artists, even the ones that are big Johnny Cash fans, would be up for pulling this project off with this adeptness. It would almost take a small team of musical historians, creative writers, and musicians to evoke what Dale Watson does in a seemingly effortless manner simply from his fandom, understanding, and deep appreciation for The Man in Black.

The approach of this album is so unique, I really think it will be years before we really know the impact of it and how to judge it in the chronology of Dale’s albums and career, and the current and upcoming crop of Sun Studios-inspired projects. I could see it becoming a fey, but interesting little project that only core Dale fans know about and can only be bought as an import in the US like so many of his other albums, or it could explode into a cult classic buffered by Dale and Cash and Sun Studio fans alike. Either way Johnny Cash…I mean Dale Watson…has put an album out that both Watson and Cash fans can enjoy.

1 1/2 of 2 guns up.

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Preview & Purchase Tracks from The Sun Sessions

The release of The Sun Sessions was accompanied by numerous “official videos” that can all be seen below.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U8gC2am8jG4

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ljmULpS93Fw

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RmFNbgVnXcQ

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1UyOPHpc9Zw

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sq4yHs84iwU

 

Oct
15

Is ‘Country’ an Embarrassing Term for Top Tier Talent?

October 15, 2011 - By Trigger  //  Random Notes  //  40 Comments

For years I’ve had the theory that one of the major problems facing country music is its inability to develop talent. Without a system in place to discover truly talented and unique artists and develop them into stars, it has made the genre weak, and open to infection from other genres, as current and new stars must reach out into other forms of music to stay relevant.

Now that mainstream country music has been seen as just another version of pop music by so many people for so long, my concern is that talented musicians are being turned off by the mere mention of the term ‘country’, seeing it as a genre without gravitas, obsessed with money and image, making it even more likely for the one-in-a-million music talent to stay away.

“We call ourselves a honky tonk band.” is how Bloodshot Records recording artist Whitey Morgan puts it. “You call yourselves country and people think you mean that shit they play on the radio.”

Ruby Jane, a 16-year-old music phenom who was the youngest invited fiddle player to ever play The Grand Ole Opry, and was touring with Asleep At The Wheel and Willie Nelson at age 14, iterated in a recent interview that she’s moved on from identifying with the mainstream country world. “I love what I used to do, but I’ve always listened to rock ‘n’ roll. I don’t really listen to that other stuff. I mean, I listen to bluegrass and country, I guess, but I’m not sitting at home listening to George Strait and Carrie Underwood all day.

Justin Townes Earle moved to NYC, partially to distance from mainstream country music.

Justin Townes Earle is a little more pointed on the matter, saying recently on his always-entertaining Twitter feed: The reason I live in NYC and not in Nashville is coming through my walls right now in the form of shit country music! Some people!!! Fuck!!!” And later following up with, “I was born and raised in Nashville and just hate seeing my town defaced. It is still a great place full of great folks.”

The latter two artists were once featured in a group of four that I asked which one might be country music’s next savior. Regardless of their listening patterns or musical style, it appears that neither really wants a lot to do with the term ‘country’, a term that feels so embattled in circles of people that don’t want to be lumped in with Music Row’s mainstream fare, and want to be known for taste and quality above commercial appeal. Justin Townes Earle’s move to New York City seemed very symbolic when it happened, like he was doing everything he could to remove himself from the typecasting environment of his native Nashville.

And speaking of Townes Earle and New York, the title track from his recent album Harlem River Blues just won Song of the Year at the Americana Music Awards. ‘Americana’ seems to be the new chic term for artists whose music has country leanings, but who don’t want to be lumped in with the Jason Aldean’s of the world, just like “alt-country” was the hip term back in the 80′s and 90′s. Alt-country never had their own awards and infrastructure like Americana is attempting to cultivate, and over time, alt-country has morphed into almost a classic genre classification, because it almost implies an outmoded approach that few artists want to be associated with anymore.

One of the problems with Americana is when you look at the list of the Americana Awards 2011 nominees and winners, the names look like they are drawn from a very narrow perspective, zeroed in on the personal tastes of American Songwriter magazine and their readership. But where Americana has the advantage over country is that good artists who want to be appreciated for their creativity and talent don’t mind being called that.

So now not only is the term ‘country’ being diminished by being used to market mainstream pop, rock, and now even hip-hop music, it is also being diminished by top-flight talent fleeing from the term. This is why country is drafting actors and artists from other genres to “go country”, because talent from within, and talent tied to the roots of the music is leaving, or never coming. ‘Country’ used to be a big tent genre. Townes Van Zant certainly was more of a folk singer-songwriter, but never publicly ran from the ‘country’ term, and still fits the classic definition of ‘country’ today.

And parallels can be drawn with the fans of country music. Likely if you’re reading this right now, you’ve caught yourself saying, “Yeah, I like country, but not that type of country.” Just like artists, fans who want to be known for appreciating creativity and talent in music don’t always want to be associated with the ‘country’ term.

I would say country music is in trouble, but as public music education continues to be cut, there seems to be no end to the flow of people willing to consume bad music. The question is, where will this potential talent vacuum leave the term ‘country’ in the long term?

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