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This is a guest post from Austin-based singer-songwriter Slaid Cleaves. Slaid recently was featured on Saving Country Music after making some critical comments about modern country music in an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times, and he wanted an opportunity to elaborate on his statements. Slaid’s latest album, the critically-acclaimed “Still Fighting The War” was released in June.
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I’m a lucky bastard. Driving out of Austin to my home in Wimberley on a Friday afternoon, I don’t curse the horrendous traffic, because this is what I hear on the radio on my way home: It starts on KDRP with some 1990s Steve Earle, new music from local writer Nathan Hamilton, and then Virginia’s Scott Miller, followed by the latest Mark Knopfler (Privateering – coolest six and half minute song I’ve heard in a long time) and then Hank Williams’ Honky Tonk Blues (which sounded clear and punchy and vital, like it was recorded yesterday down at Gruene Hall). As the signal fades out in the low water crossings of Driftwood I switch over to KNBT coming up out of New Braunfels and catch the intro to my own Still Fighting the War (which I had help in writing from my friend and neighbor, Wranglin’ Ron Coy) followed by the (real, live) DJ back-announcing Lyle Lovett, John Prine and Kevin Fowler. Coming up after the break: Sonny Landreth, Tift Merritt and Adam Hood. Pulling into my driveway I was tempted to sit in the car and listen, but dinner was waiting. (BTW, even the commercial breaks on stations like KNBT tend to be pretty easy to take. They are mostly locally produced ads for local businesses, relevant to the community and tastefully done.)
I’m not exposed to Nashville country music very often. But when I come across it I have a visceral negative reaction to it. It seems like a false picture of life. It doesn’t resonate with me at all. I don’t know, maybe there are places where there are dudes in $100 designer jeans driving brand new $40,000 pickup trucks, constantly surrounded by partying swimsuit models, all trying to out-redneck each other. But that’s not a world I’m familiar with, and when I see it on TV it just seems fake to me. The vocals and music itself are so overproduced and smoothed over and glossy, like it’s been run through a bunch of computers and focus groups. I predict someday Chinese engineers will discover the algorithm for Nashville country music and begin mass producing hits from a computer in Shinzen.
Sorry, I’m ranting. Judging from the comments following the posting of a portion of my recent Chicago Sun Times interview, I’m preaching to the converted. But in the end, what’s the use in talking about music we don’t like? The fact is: lots of people like this stuff. Lots of people go to Kenny Chesney shows. I don’t understand why. And those people probably don’t see what I see in Adam Carroll. It’s like two different tribes, and each is seeking a different experience. I wouldn’t pay a dollar to see Kenny Chesney or any other Nashville star. Likewise, a Kenny Chesney fan would have no fun at all at one of my “listening room” gigs.
And no, it doesn’t matter that Clear Channel plays Chesney and not me. My music doesn’t translate in a mass market situation. Can you picture me singing in a hockey arena? My kind of music works in the little local music club and on the community radio station where people present only the music they are passionate about, and the audience fits into a room that’s smaller than Keith Urban’s drum riser. My music works for people who want a more intimate connection to music, and are more interested in the subtleties of songwriting and the depth of storytelling you can find only in the “artisanal” country music being made today.
There’s no reason to despair. There’s an embarrassment of riches to be found on the edges of commercial music today. And even if you live in a “food desert,” where there’s nothing but Piggly Wiggly and Clearchannel radio, you have no excuse. Because dozens of great, locally programmed radio stations across the country are available online and even via smartphone apps. Sure it takes a little extra effort, just like ordering a chicken breast sandwich (which is not boneless) at Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack in Nashville takes a bit more effort that ordering a dozen McNuggets at the drive-thru. If you like Nashville country music, all you gotta do is spin the radio dial till you hear people hitting the “redneck” buzzwords of the day. But if you want to hear a song you’d actually care to hear more than once, one that will sound as good 10 years from now as it does today, a song made by independent artists working hard to make a decent living, artists making music for the people of their community, you need to put a little extra effort into it. Download an app. Sign up for a mailing list. Share your new find with friends. Go to a show at the local club. Stop talking about the music you don’t like, and talk about the music that does make your heart race or your throat choke up or makes you want to sit in the car and keep listening in the driveway.
If you haven’t done so lately, put a Kitty Wells LP on the turntable, or a Hank Williams 78 on the old Victrola. Or seek out Robbie Fulks’ brand new release, Gone Away Backward. It’s worth the extra effort. You’ll hear a fellow human voice, imperfect and glorious, singing in a room, accompanied by the sounds of wood and gut string and enhanced only by some little coils of copper wire. You might hear a story that resonates with your very own. And that’s what it’s all about.
The general consensus amongst country music pundits in 2013 is that we are in the midst of the ‘Year Of The Woman.’ It has been so declared by NPR, legendary country journalist Chet Flippo, and right here on Saving Country Music. As the men of mainstream country chase each other in dirt road circles in their pickup trucks sipping ice cold beer, trying to figure out how to integrate rap into their next single without cheesing off the radio programmers, women are offering inspiring lyrics and sonic leadership in an otherwise bleak musical landscape.
But this isn’t the first year in country when the women deserved the lion’s share of attention.
The year was 1952, and country music was still a predominately male-dominated format. A few women had made some marks in country in the past, but never in the same measure as their male counterparts. Moonshine Kate made some noise in the 1920′s, and Patsy Montana in the 1930′s. Molly O’ Day was one of the first women to be singed to the Acuff-Rose publishing company, which gave her the connections to be able to record Hank Williams songs in the late 40′s. And of course the women of The Carter Family had a major influence on the sound of country music. But prior to 1952, women were still considered supporting, 2nd-tier artists, and country had yet to see a true female star.
Then came along Rose Maddox of The Maddox Brothers & Rose, Goldie Hill, and the woman who would later rise to be known as the Queen of Country Music, Kitty Wells. Together, they became pioneers for women in country, and proved that female performers could do just as well as their male counterparts, as performers and profit makers.
It wasn’t until 1956 when the Maddox Brother & Rose officially broke up that Rose Maddox would fully remove herself from the shadow of her male siblings. But in January of 1952, the California-based Maddox Brothers & Rose recorded their first record with Columbia after years with the lesser-known 4 Star Recordings. Written by Rose, “I’ll Make Sweet Love To You” had remarkably-suggestive lyrics for that time in country music, but Rose could get away with it being on the West Coast, and being considered just a singer in her family band instead of a solo artist.
Showcasing Rose’s signature laugh, and the Maddox Brothers’ hybrid sound that was just as much country as rock and roll, “I’ll Make Sweet Love To You” opened up the door for women in country to sing about the same themes that men had for years.
Right on Rose’s heels, a 32-year-old married mother of three named Kitty Wells became country music’s first female superstar when her song “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” made it to #1 on Billboard’s Country Singles Chart. The song was an answer song to Hank Thompson’s hit “Wild Side of Life.” Written by JD “Jay” Miller, Kitty initially didn’t want to cut the song, but then decided to for a $125 session payment.
The song did so well, it eventually beat out Thompson’s “Wild Side of Life” in sales. Like Rose Maddox before her, “It Wasn’t God…” helped open up new risque themes for female singers. Women weren’t supposed to “answer back” to men in those days. But coming from a mother and devoted wife, the conservative Nashville establishment didn’t put up a fuss. And most importantly, Kitty Wells proved that women performers could make big money for labels and publishers. Wells went on to have 35 more Top 10 singles, and 81 total songs on the charts, but none were as big as “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels.”
Just as Kitty Wells was having big success with her answer song and 1952 was drawing to a close, another answer song called “I Let The Stars Get In My Eyes” was offered to Kitty. But she turned it down, and instead it was cut by rising female country star Goldie Hill. Released in December of 1952, it was the counter to Slim Willett’s hit “Don’t Let The Stars Get In Your Eyes” and once again dealt with issues that before had been considered taboo for females in country. Women weren’t just singing country music, they were symbolizing a strong, female character, willing to stand up up against male infidelity, while at the same time willing to show their own vulnerability when it comes to matters of the heart.
By early 1953, ”I Let The Stars Get In My Eyes” became another #1 hit by a female performer, entrenching Goldie beside Kitty Wells as bona-fide female country stars. It has one of the most unusual structures and pentameters for a country song you will ever hear, intriguing the ear as the verses zig and zag. Though it is definitely a traditional country song, “I Let The Stars…” could be called a more progressively-molded song; a precursor to today’s advanced, evolving country sound championed by female performers.
Certainly women in country music were not going to be held down forever. But in 1952, Rose Maddox, Kitty Wells, and Goldie Hill laid the groundwork for women in country that would later see the rise of strong, powerful performers like Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette, Dolly Parton, and the female performers of today that are doing their level best to keep country music moving forward while still respecting its roots.
Think what you want about former American Idol contestant Kellie Picker’s latest album 100 Proof and its striking traditionalist approach, but what may be even more interesting and inspiring than the album itself is the story behind it. After recently parting with her label Sony Music Nashville, Kellie’s narrative is becoming similar to the one of Waylon Jennings, the country music Outlaw that Kellie cites as a primary influence.
In a recent interview with Entertainment Weekly, Kellie spoke about the arduous process she went through to release 100 Proof through Sony.
“Well, it wasn’t promoted. When my album came out, I didn’t even have a song out on the radio. Nobody does that. [The label was] spread thin…Recording this album, to be honest — and I don’t mind saying this — the process was hell. [Sony and I] couldn’t agree on songs. The thing is, my life is a country song. I don’t need to be manufactured, and I don’t need anyone to tell me what to say or what to sing.“
Kellie, who says her influences for 100 Proof and music in general are folks like Tammy Wynette, Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, and Kitty Wells, says this album was the first time she was being herself, and spoke about the pressures young artists are put under to abide by music label’s interpretations of what they should be as an artist.
“Since American Idol, it’s been like a blur. I’ve been pulled in a hundred different directions by a hundred different people. You know, signing contracts that I couldn’t read, but I was 19 and green and it was, “Sign this contract or go back to working in fast food,” and I didn’t want to do that. When this album came out, the people that know me, my friends, went, “There’s Kellie. There you are.”…It’s the only album that I’ve ever had that the critics have embraced. You know why? Because it’s me.”
Though 100 Proof has been a critic’s favorite (including this one), it has been a commercial disappointment compared to most major label releases, selling only 74,000 copies since its release in January. Kellie says she has no desire for crossover pop success. “I wanted to make a hardcore country album…I don’t give a damn about being on any other format’s station…I am a diehard country music fan.” And Kellie hints that an independent label may be her next move.
I’ve thought about the major labels versus the more independent ones. The ones that actually can probably do more for you. They have more to prove. [You want] to sign with someone that is about the music and gets you.
Who would have ever thought that American Idol’s Kellie Pickler would be one carrying the country music Outlaw mantra into the modern-day context? And for folks wondering if Kellie’s stint into the traditional side of country was a short-term phase, it appears her experience has only steeled her resolve to be herself. The next shoe to fall is to see if she can find people to believe in her as much as she believes in herself, and if she can enjoy the same commercial success the original Outlaws did back in the mid 70′s when they shook loose their major label chains.
From Columbus, OH, the lovely and talented 21-year-old Lydia Loveless offers up her first album with international aspirations in Indestructable Machine, through the Bloodshot Records imprint. In a classic Bloodshot blend of punk and country, Lydia comes out with a bold sound and bawdy content to the delight of many critics and writers. Just in the last week, I have seen her compared to Loretta Lynn, Kitty Wells, and Patsy Cline. I’ve heard her called the next Neko Case, and a cowpunk princess. Rest assured, I like this album more than I don’t. But as legendary football coach Bill Parcells once said after one decent game by a young, promising quarterback, “Put the anointing oil away.”
The other popular point to make about Lydia and this album is how mature the content is for her age. In my little music world, 21 is not young, especially for a female performer. There is a crop of young female musicians out there right now, all below voting age, that are excellent musicians and songwriters, and show maturity in their music with depth, not drinking and drug references. In my opinion, singing about getting sloshed on wine and snorting coke is a green way of trying to garner real-life substance, and furthermore, a little outmoded. It’s fake hussle. Maybe it seemed all fresh in the mid-90′s when Oasis did it. Hank III brought it to the country world in 2005, but now it seems to have run its course, and been replaced by songs that may start with drugs, but end with redemption.
And it makes a difference that Lydia seems to be singing biographically, instead of working through the medium of character. I have no doubt the lyrics are authentic, but that just makes me worried for her well-being instead of personifying some infectious party attitude or empathetic camaraderie. I also can’t help but thinking, did we wait to put out this album until Lydia was 21 because of the bawdy content, or does she include the bawdy content to make up for the perceived weakness of only being 21?
This album is funny, but not always witty. It’s dark, but not always deep. It is sad, but not always soulful. But sometimes it is. I know Lydia put out other independent albums before this, but Indestructable Machine has a lot of the earmarks of a freshman release. The strength is the lyrics, but her over-singing sometimes buries the content. The music is engaging, but an ever-present electric guitar droning with overdrive saps a lot of the space out of the project. It also has that “tracked-out” feel, meaning the parts to the songs were recorded individually, and then reassembled later; a common practice in music, but one that can result in the loss of the groove if not done properly. A lot of the songs on this album are just busy, and you add this to Lydia’s unusual (thought not necessarily bad) cadence, and it just comes across as a little incongruent and confusing to the music mind.
Some of this confusion is on purpose in the first song “Bad Way To Go”, which revives itself with some solid catchiness. “Can’t Change Me” is another catchy track, which leads into “More Like Them”, channeling the style of Cindi Lauper, conjuring visions of Molly Ringwald dancing the bop. In a few places, this album is more powerpop than cowpunk or country.
Then the gears shift completely in the hard country composition “How Many Women”, where Lydia’s vocal prowess is displayed, but unfortunately not in conjunction with her usually-stronger songwriting, which comes into play with the next two very entertaining tracks “Jesus Was a Wino” and the fictitious stalking song “Steve Earle”. Some soul sinks in on “Learn To Say No”, a pretty strong track despite the rather innocuous sonic style. “Do Right” reverts back to the self-righteous party-girl motiff, but is balanced by the self-loathing acoustic-driven end track “Crazy.”
For all the holes I’m poking in this Indestructible Machine, overall, this is a really fun album. It is fun to listen to, and at times you will find yourself laughing out loud to the lyrics. And without question, I see tremendous potential here from Lydia, lyrically, sonically, and as a singer. And I do think this album will appeal to a younger audience, and that may be it’s greatest asset, and an important one in a genre bloated with 30-something fans watching those little bits of gray creeping in more each month.
Young artists need encouragement, which Lydia has received from The Washington Post to Spinner. But they need honesty as well. And my honest opinion is Lydia is good, but may still need to do some growing, get some skins on the wall and get out there and tour, and see that people are dying out here and they don’t just need to be touched in the funny bone and stomp their boots, but they need to be touched in the heart as well. That’s what Loretta, Patsy, and Neko did.
1 1/4 of 2 guns up.
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This weekend many devoted hellibillies will be showing their support for the Reinstate Hank movement at the CMA Fan Fair, including Cathy and Wayne who’ve been great supporters for Free Hank III also.
Since I live some 1,500 miles away I can’t attend, but I wanted to show my support. I could let down my fly and wizz all over the Opry, which I’ve done many times before and will likely do again. But instead of tearing down, I wanted to prop up an institution of country music that propped up Hank Williams Sr.
In this video of Hank III’s ‘Grand Ole Opry’ (the first cut on his still unreleased album), he mentions the ‘Louisiana Hellride’ the Opry might be headed for:
This is a reference to the Louisiana Hayride program that Hank Williams Sr. got his start on. In fact, when Hank Williams was kicked out of the Opry, the Louisiana Hayride took him back with open arms, even though Hank Sr. had left the program for the Opry at the highlight of his career.
If you want to read a history of the Louisiana Hayride it can be found on their website, but their contribution to the country AND rock ‘n’ roll scene is tremendous, and in my opinion, they played an even more significant role than the Opry. The problem was they were based in Shreveport, and all the power in country music was based in Nashville.
Whereas The Grand Ole Opry only took on artists that had already made a name for themselves, the Louisiana Hayride was out there finding new talent.
The list of talent that got their start on the Hayride is sick: Hank Williams, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, George Jones, Faron Young, Lefty Frizzell, Doug Kershaw, Kitty Wells, and on and on.
They called the Louisiana Hayride ‘The Cradle of the Stars’ for good reason.
So as we take on the institutions that are tearing down the traditions of country music, let’s pay tributes to the ones that honor those traditions, like the Country Music Hall of Fame, and the greatness of the Louisiana Hayride.
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