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There’s nothing worse than inadvertently coming within ear shot of one of those songs—the idiotic country music laundry list / checklist ditty, or even worse when the performer is inclined to get all hip-hop on your ass and start rapping the lyrics over a drum machine beat. Even when you do your level best to avoid corporate radio, they’ll sneak up on you at the grocery store, come spilling out of some douche-mobile stopped beside you at a red light, or show up in some commercial when you’re watching the boob tube. If you’re anything like me, they can stimulate a strong negative physical reaction that can only be cured by the good stuff—true country music.
The select songs below aren’t country protest songs per se, though they may have those elements. They’re simply songs of a very personal nature with authentic themes told in real language, that speak to being unable to relate to an inauthentic world, and how to value the things in life that are real. Hopefully if you find yourself bent over and fighting back a gag reflex from Class A country checklist exposure, these songs will help cure what ails you.
Josh Abbott Band – “I’ll Sing About Mine”
As bad as the country rap songs are, the videos cause even more cultural corrosion by portraying an adulterated view of true rural people trying to hold on to their agrarian identity. Bare midriffs, buxom gyrations, and badass cars are no match for the curves and character of real country faces served cold. Neither is the caricaturish, shallow, and materialistic portrayal of rural life in country rap compared to the sense of family and community, and the fulfillment of hard work that accompanies true country living. All of these things are embodied in the song and video for Josh Abbott Band’s “I’ll Sing About Mine,” written by Adam Hood and Brian Keane. (read song/video review)
Willy “Tea” Taylor – “Life Is Beautiful”
The “laundry list” song formula doesn’t have to be used for the dark purpose of creating a corporate culture based on artifacts and behavior. Naming off artifacts of the country can be a great way to convey the beauty of life through illustrating it’s simplicity. Without question Willy’s “Life Is Beautiful” is a laundry list song; a laundry list song that schools all of it’s counterparts by simply being honest, and thankful. (read song review)
Wade Bowen – “Trucks”
The idiocy on display during a country radio segment is enough to fill one with self-doubt about the entire direction of humanity, especially these long-belabored laundry list songs coming from country’s top male performers. You listen, and say to yourself, “If I hear another song about trucks, I’m going to shoot myself.”
But the beautiful part about music is that as much as it can be the culprit for personal angst, it can also be the antidote. Wade Bowen’s “Trucks” aims its big, diamond-plated bumper at the incessant references to tailgates and four wheel drives in modern pop country songs and slams on the gas. At the same time, it practices what it preaches, making sure to instill some story and soul into the song along the way, instead of just being a vehicle for protest. (read song review)
Sturgill Simpson – “Life Ain’t Fair & The World Is Mean”
The miraculous thing about “Life Ain’t Fair & The World Is Mean” is how many subjects Sturgill touches on while saying so little. This ridiculous “new Outlaw” movement in country, how famous country sons dominate the independent country landscape, the way mainstream labels and producers manipulate artists, and how the system is rigged against authenticity; all these subjects are touched on in a song that when you really boil it down is actually a very personal story about Sturgill and his struggles and choices, and coming to grips with the inherent injustices in life and saying “that’s okay.” (read song review)
Left Arm Tan – “Wish”
I think it is important when we talk about saving country music, that we don’t work from a position of envy. In truth the joke is on them. They may have the big money, the control of the radio stations and the media. But we have each other, and true themes mined from real life experiences. Let them have their fake world, we have real music. But “Wish” isn’t necessarily an anti-Nashville song, it is more about the singer realizing that he shouldn’t be envying people living fake lives when he has something true already. (read song review)
I understand my obsession with the Ft. Worth-based band Left Arm Tan is a bit of a weird one, but they just bring such tremendous heart to everything they do, and they do everything for the right reasons, endowing their music with this unique warmth that just makes you feel better about life after listening to them. This is one of the reasons I named their song “Wish” my 2010 Song of the Year. The other is the great songwriting and musicianship, and an accessibility without sacrificing substance that makes you wonder why they’re not featured in more radio station’s rotation.
Left Arm Tan released the EP Thurm a while back, and now coinciding with the release of a remastered version of the album they’ve put together a video for the song “The Ghost of Lila Pearl” shot at Ft. Worth’s Grotto Bar and directed by bass player Jeff Scroggins. Honestly, I think there’s better songs on Thurm, but watching this video it sucked me right in. I wanted to be hanging out in that bar, sharing time with those folks and listening to the music. The lighting in the video is spectacular, and along with the direction of the video, they were able to evoke the warmth of the Left Arm Tan experience without you actually being there, though at the end you feel like you were.
The alchemy of Left Arm Tan is what makes them special. They’ve created a music environment for themselves that is devoid of pressure or envy. Many bands and artists talk about doing it just for the music, but Left Arm Tan has truly perfected that zen. Their just a regular group of guys making music and who many times do it for charities like Samaritan’s Feet and the Walker Rainey Miracle Fund.
Great video from a great group of guys.
Two guns up!
I know that this is an unusual pick, and I know that it might be an unpopular pick. But the simple fact is that “Wish” was the best song put out in country music and all its subsidiaries in 2010, and it deserves the utmost recognition that I can give it, however obscure my platform is.
“Wish” is the first track on the album Jim from a band from Ft. Worth called Left Arm Tan. The song caught my attention when I was crashing through the always-voluminous pile of review material stacked up on my desk in my cryptic filing system like a diorama of city skyscrapers. As I said in my review of the song, when it starts out, it really doesn’t reel you in. Left Arm Tan has a polished, mainstream sound, and the lyrics begin with nostalgia about childhood, and you want to roll your eyes and say, “here we go with the same old mainstream formula.” But “Wish” is so much more.
There is an alarming trend in the American culture right now. People are ashamed of who they are. People are embarrassed to be “normal”. Everyone wants to have a “kick ass” life. But average people are the majority; that’s what makes them average. Modern-day mainstream music is fueling a trend of people wanting to be something that they are not, instead of being thankful for who they are.
The majority of music coming from the super-genres of rap and country these days seems to be based on creating a vicarious outlook on a life that people don’t lead, instead of speaking about things that people can identify with. In an attempt to not want to feel normal, or escape mundanity, people consume songs full of country platitudes and laundry lists of things that are easily-identifiable as “country” instead of songs that actually try to say something meaningful and speak to them on a personal level. And the relationship between many country stars and their fans is one of worship instead of camaraderie. There is a sense of envy that permeates the whole performing/listening process. They look down from their pedestal, you look up at them.
“Wish” is the antidote to all of this nonsense.
Great songwriting has the ability to speak to the multitudes by being mutable to the human experience. By expressing an eternal theme of the human condition, a great song can speak to every individual like it was written just for them, making the experience that more intimate, touching one person in a completely different way than it may touch another. “Wish” touched me. It made me appreciate that envy is a trait that keeps us down, keeps us out of touch with ourselves, and that in EVERY life, no matter how normal or mundane it is, there is beauty. I didn’t just simply enjoy “Wish” from a sonic level, though in that regard it is a great song too, but it made me think about life from a perspective that I have never thought about it from before.
And I don’t mean to just harp on this one Left Arm Tan song and ignore the rest. All the songs on Jim are worth your time; I’m just afraid of diminishing the wisdom and depth of “Wish” by talking about it in the context of anything else. It is a one of a kind song. It is amazing. Anybody who tells you there’s no more good ideas for songs, that it’s all been done, this is proof they’re wrong, and that the talent evaluation process in American music is broken, because “Wish” should be a mega hit.
Once again, because of the strength of 2010′s music, Jayke Orvis and all the other Song of the Year candidates get screwed. But just like with the Albums of the Year, fans for “Wish” turned out in greater numbers, aside from my own personal feelings.
I know I’ll get a lot of comments saying, “Cool Trig, not really my speed but I appreciate your passion.” Or “Sounds like everything else on the radio to me.” Or people will not say anything. But if you really listen, let the song unfold and get the meaning, it just might change your life.
Back in the 90′s and the early ought’s, the only resort for bands that wanted to do their own recordings were these crappy Tascam and Roland 4-track machines that mixed down to cassette. If you had some serious dough, maybe you could get an 8-track that mixed down to CD, but they usually only had two audio inputs and were heroically hard to use.
90% of the homemade projects that came from that era were virtually worthless, but every once in a while you would get a true gem, not in spite of the technology, but because of it. Just like giving birth in your house with a midwife instead of a sanitized hospital, the homegrown, un-studio feeling of a well done home record can be something very special, with a REAL feel, a soul forged in a homemade spirit, something to be proud of like Dolly Parton’s Coat of Many Colors. Hank III’s Straight to Hell was recorded on one of these late-era track machines, and has that same feel that can’t be faked in a studio.
Unfortunately the mainstream availability of studio-quality recording devices has bled some of that feeling out of many recordings, but not this one. And not only does it have the homegrown feeling, you can also tell that heart and time was put into this project. It was made with patience, and you can tell it all came out like envisioned.
UnIncorporated is a fun album with great songs that is not afraid to get too deep, or at times to be refreshingly immature. The musicianship is not superlative, but it is solid, and the heart of each song is purely captured. “Hellbilly” Ronnie Hymes has a voice like “Hellbilly” Ronnie Hymes, that keeps you hanging on every verse when the words don’t, which is not very often. He really knows how to use vocal inflections for emphasis, and how to sing how he feels instead of just singing the words.
There are a lot of fun songs here, including “Gear Slamm’n Daddy” (the only song Ronnie did not write), “Dueling Kazoo,” and “That Don’t Make Me Wrong,” in which Hymes figures out how to be self-righteous and self-deprecating all at the same time to deal with everyday road rage. This album has a real ‘everyday hero’ feel to it, with songs like “My Baby” about his significant other, and the touching “Summers Gone” about the all too common visitation father, and the tough feelings of guilt and pain and love that goes into a long distance relationship with your child.
The beauty of this album is it’s roots in truth. When so many Nashville products try to sing about the common man’s common struggles, they have to do it from the outside looking in. What Ronnie is doing is getting what is inside out, to keep his sanity.
The title track “UnIncorporated” is a great song that hits on the same themes the song “Wish” by Left Arm Tan does that I reviewed a while back; that being that you should be happy being yourself, and not bend your ways to anybody (especially Nashville). However with all the good songwriting here, I swear the wittiest song here is ostensibly a commercial. “The Redneck Minute” entertains you simply by the imaginative phrase turning, even if you’ve never seen Big D’s Redneck Minute.
This album has its warts and weak songs, just like most all albums do. But since this isn’t some studio project put out by a slick label, the flaws are understandable and forgivable, if not endearing. As bawdy and bellicose as this album is at times, you can tell it was made with love, like mother’s apple pie. Homemade. True. Real. UnIncorporated.
Two guns up!
Ronnie in a homemade video, singing the first track of the album:
I get many requests for reviews and many get turned away, many for being too mainstream. Not that I have problems with a more accessible sound if the music is still good, but my charter is to work around the edges and find the gems that the other media outlets gloss over. In the case of a band out of Ft Worth named Left Arm Tan and specifically their song “Wish,” the sound may be mainstream, but the message is right down my alley.
The song starts off with reminiscent lyrics about youth and you think “oh here we go again with the same old formula,” but as it progresses, “Wish” reveals itself as a wise, well-written, and poignant song. With the chorus, “Well I wish I wish I was me, instead of wishing I was someone I will never be,” the song hits on a theme I have discussed here often, but has never been put to song so well.
I think it is important when we talk about saving country music, that we don’t work from a position of envy. In truth the joke is on them. They may have the big money, the control of the radio stations and the media. But we have each other, and true themes mined from real life experiences. Let them have their fake world, we have real music.
Yes, this song probably curried my favor with the line:
“Well I see them up there receiving the Grammy award
Then I hear them sing live, their tune is flat as a board
Well I can’t understand not a word of their songs
I keep thinking someone might bang a gong.
But this isn’t necessarily an anti-Nashville song, it is more about the singer realizing that he shouldn’t be envying people living fake lives when he has something true already. The way the song works is brilliant, and the arrangement and production is superb.
Not every obscure independent/underground country band deserves a big break just because they try hard and are talented. But “Wish” delivers accessibility without sacrificing soul, and should deliver them a hit worthy of any country station’s rotation.
Two guns up!
“Wish” is off the Left Arm Tan album called Jim that can be purchased and previewed by clicking here. (Just the song “Wish” is available too). And you can listen to “Wish” in its entirety, as well as get more info on the band and listen to other songs on their Reverb Nation page.
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