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You won’t see Reno, Nevada’s Hellbound Glory at the top of anyone’s ‘Best Of’ lists this year, unless it relates to touring or live performances. Leroy Virgil & the boys didn’t leave much time for recording and releasing albums in 2013; they were too busy ripping off one of the toughest, busiest, and arguably the most notable touring schedules in 2013 from an independent country act. It started in February as an opening band on Kid Rock’s “Rebel Soul” arena tour of which a retooled Hellbound Glory did two legs of, all the while playing smaller shows here and there when possible, and then revisiting many of the same areas afterwards on their own bills in the proceeding weeks and months.
Then most recently Hellbound went on a breakneck, two month tour with The Supersuckers, covering 40-something dates spanning the US. When Leroy Virgil rolled into Austin, TX on Friday Dec. 6th to play a quick set at the Empire Control Room downtown, he’d been rode hard and put away wet, and Hellbound Glory had not a familiar face from the members who had started out with him at the beginning of the year. However he’d recruited the very capable guitarist ‘Metal’ Marty Chandler, and drummer Chris VonStreicher from the Supersuckers, and Adam Kowalski from North Carolina on bass and band manager duties.
Aside from the music, the night was weird all around. They started at 9 PM, which is very early for a weekend show in Austin, and a few straggling fans missed some of the set. Hellbound was supposed to play outside, but 20-degree weather and a stiff north wind scrapped those plans. The Empire Control Room was more ambient for a rave than a real country show, with pacifier-sucking, glowstick-twirling visuals projecting onto the walls, and a mandate on Hellbound to stop after an hour so a DJ could spin house music to an entirely empty room. This was all quite in contrast to Leroy’s prominent “Hank” suspenders strapped over his shoulders, and his beer chugging honky tonk tunes.
But when Leroy Virgil and Hellbound Glory 4.0 hit the stage, none of that mattered. Leroy started with a blistering, amplified version of Hank Williams’ “My Buckets Got A Hole In It” that reinvented and revitalized that tune originally learned by Hank Williams from Rufus Payne in the mid-30′s, and made it feel like an iconic 70′s-era Southern rock anthem. Not 30 seconds into the first song, and you could tell that Leroy had played so many shows in front of so many big crowds in 2013, that being on stage was second nature, and a downright showman had emerged from a man who is known as a songwriter first. Not that Leroy was a stiff before, but now he had a swagger about him—a sway and arm motions—engaging the crowd and carrying songs to another level with his ability to be completely uninhibited with the music.
Leroy’s electric guitar sounded horrible. It was a black and white Squier Stratocaster that had “$100″ written on the pick guard in permanent marker like he’d just bought it off the side of the road. It’s the kind of guitar you buy your 14-year-old son when you know he’s only going to ignore it, with stock pickups that sound like the smell of ass. But Leory was just holding down the rhythm anyway, and then getting out of the way for ‘Metal’ Marty to rip into some of the juiciest solos Hellbound’s music has ever been graced with. Despite the ‘Metal” addendum to his name, Marty referred to a heavily influenced and versed knowledge of country guitar modes and licks that he displayed with confidence and abandon. It was a high volume, electric country show, and more than a stone’s throw from the days of Leory sitting on a bass drum, playing it with the back of his heel while strumming an acoustic guitar.
Leroy played a lot of his more well-known Hellbound Glory songs, a few more covers like his rendition of Hank Jr.’s “Women I’ve Never Had” and Springsteen’s “I’m On Fire.” He was also featuring a ferocious growl that punctuated parts of songs and overall became one of the highlights and takeaways of the set. Leroy’s voice has become tattered around the edges like a cheap blue tarpaulin pulled over an apartment’s worth of shit made susceptible to the wind on a cross-country move, and then marinated by a thousand shots of whiskey lined up all across the front of the stage by well-meaning fans. But like an old tinker, Leroy has taken what he’s been given, and made it into one of his finest tools: a road-worn and weathered bellow with which he can unfurl and blow a crowd away with.
Forget how many new players make up the Hellbound Glory cast, when Leroy gave a subtle hint to whatever song he wanted to play next, his band was right there behind him, hitting every change, and holding every sustain as good or better as any Hellbound Glory lineup. Leroy has never been good at keeping new material a secret, and the set featured a few new songs, and so did the half hour or so after the set when he pulled out his acoustic guitar and gave a personal concert to all who stuck around on the side of the stage.
Whenever Hellbound Glory’s name is mentioned these days, the next question you hear is, “When’s the new album coming out?” Though I wasn’t able to glean that specific intel from Leroy, I can tell you he’s recently been doing some recording in Aberdeen, WA. I wouldn’t hold your breath on hearing the results of that anytime soon, but if the new songs Leroy’s been playing are any indication, when new music does emerge, it promises to be worth the wait.
Until then, you can use the below Leroy Virgil recap of the last year or so to tide you over.
Two guns up.
The following story is a guest post by Mike Fiedler, proprietor of the Shore Road Tavern in northeast Philadelphia.
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Back in October of 2012, Leroy Virgil and the boys from Hellbound Glory flew into New York City for a handful of East Coast shows including one at The Shore Road Tavern. We run the place like a true roadhouse by maintaining a third floor apartment above the bar, which is reserved strictly for the touring musicians that play our venue. It has become a welcome stop on the road as it allows musicians a chance to relax after their set, hang out with the crowd, or chill in the apartment, and to not have to worry about loading out until the next day. This was to be our third time hosting the ‘scumbags’ and, needless to say, we were really looking forward to their company as always. But this trip held a special purpose for Leroy.
Jimmy Lloyd, host of NBC’s The Jimmy Lloyd Songwriter Showcase, had chosen Leroy Virgil, along with singer songwriter Sean Walsh, to participate in the inaugural episode of his “Live Songwriter-in-the-Round Series” at Hill Country BBQ, located near 26th and Broadway in New York City. The event was being taped by NBC Digital Networks for a future broadcast, and immediately after the hour long taping, Hellbound Glory was to play a full-band set.
Leroy invited us to come up for the Thursday night show. Since it was going to be such a big night for the band, and we live a very convenient 90 miles from Manhattan, we didn’t hesitate to say yes. Plus we had a large case of Hellbound Glory shirts that were shipped to the bar, in advance of their upcoming Philly show that Saturday, so I figured they’d come in handy.
The “Songwriter Showcase” followed a format that saw each songwriter perform one of their songs, one after another, followed by a discussion about the meaning of the song and how it evolved. Throughout the evening, Leroy was the clear standout.
After Hellbound Glory finished playing at Hill Country, the guys opted to ride back to Philly with us that night instead of taking a train the next day, but they had a 1am show to do somewhere in the East Village first. We started to load their gear into our SUV, and as Leroy was putting his guitar case in the back, he muttered “I’m tired of dragging this thing around” “I’m gonna’ leave it in Philly”. “Yeah, yeah, right Leroy”, I said. With a camera crew in tow, that had apparently been following Leroy around New York City all day, we squeezed in to a few vehicles and set out for the East Village.
After a late show, and an uneventful ride back to Philly, we pulled up to the bar and started to unload the truck. As Leroy pulled his guitar case out of the back, he reiterated, “I am, I’m leaving this thing here, I’m tired of dragging this thing around”. “Yeah, yeah, right Leroy”, I said. We dropped them off at the apartment and went home to crash. We returned to the bar later that afternoon because, as willing as they were to rely on Amtrak for this handful of shows, they were equally willing to accept the offer of my truck to run down to DC for a show that night. As they loaded up the truck, Leroy again repeated how he was leaving his guitar “here at the apartment in Philly”.
By now, knowing how mischievous Leroy can be, and how much he loves fucking with people, I am pretty much dismissing him outright as ‘Leroy just being Leroy’.
They came back from DC Saturday afternoon and pretty much laid low in the apartment until showtime. The boys once again played to a packed house, throwing down another raucous three hour show that we’ve become accustomed to whenever they play Philadelphia. We hung out until well after closing and, since they really had no place to be until they flew back to Reno on Monday, they decided to stick around for another night. We surely didn’t care as long as they didn’t mind sharing the apartment with the acts scheduled to play that Sunday night, James Hunnicutt and Filthy Still (which, at the time, featured Jared McGovern and Liz Sloan as touring members). Of course they didn’t mind.
With a lighter turnout on Sunday night, and so many musicians milling about, the night broke out into some spontaneous music, both in the bar after Filthy Still’s set, and well into the night as James Hunnicutt, Jared McGovern, and Liz Sloan continued to work on some things in the empty floor above the bar. At one point, I walked in to see Leroy sitting in the corner, leaning back in a chair, watching them play with that shit eatin’ grin of his. I pulled up the chair next to him, sat down, and said “yo, that’s Django Reinhardt they’re doing”. He just grinned even wider as he slowly nodded his head. We just sat there for the next 5-10 minutes or so, watching these three virtuosos without saying a word.
The night wound down shortly after that and, as we were socially preparing for the inevitable parting of our separate ways, Leroy once again reinforced his desire to leave his guitar at the apartment as the “house guitar” and to “let everybody play it”. By this point, I was a bit worn down by his dogged persistence and single-mindedness, and for the twelfth time that weekend I said, “yeah, yeah, right Leroy, OK”. We hugged, offered our salutations and well wishes, and went our separate ways until our paths would, inevitably, cross again.
Everybody had left the apartment by Monday afternoon and I didn’t have a chance to get down there and clean until Tuesday morning. As I walked up to the third floor apartment, sure as shit, there it was just like he said. Sitting at the top of the staircase, leaning against the wall with the case open was Leroy Virgil’s beat up old Esteban guitar. I shook my head and thought to myself ‘that’s Leroy being Leroy’ and, with a slight smirk on my face, I picked her up and then just let out a sigh as I placed it into one of the closets. As I was cleaning up the apartment, processing all the events of the last couple days, I kept thinking about one thing in particular that Leroy had said, “let everybody play it”. I then thought about how he had left me in stewardship of his old guitar, an instrument that, from my perspective, already has provenance and should rightly wind up in a museum one day. I decided that, to honor that trust he had in me, I would continue to add to the instrument’s already storied life by doing a running portrait series of every musician that plays his old guitar.
During Johnny Cash’s legendary concert at San Quentin Prison in 1969, photographer Jim Marshall said to Johnny backstage, “John, let’s do a shot for the warden.” The result was the photograph above that mostly remained under wraps until 1998. That is when producer Rick Rubin decided to use the iconic photo in an ad in Billboard magazine decrying country radio’s lack of love for Johnny’s second album on Rubin’s American label called Unchained. Despite no industry support, Unchained went on to win the 1998 Grammy for “Best Country Album.”
Since then the image of the angry face and the raised middle finger has become an iconic symbol of defiance against the direction of country music. As indecent as a raised middle finger happens to be in the first place (and the propensity for some seedy country fans and artists to over-saturate its use in every single photo of them), it has come to mean much more than its vulgar connotation in the fight to save country music.
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Willie Nelson’s middle finger photo was shot by a photographer named Sean Moorman on Willie Nelson’s tour bus on July 26, 2002. The title of image is “Willie Nelson Sending Jim Marshall Regards.” Both the Jim Marshall photo of Johnny Cash and the Sean Moorman photo of Willie stimulated litigation when Urban Outfitters printed up Johnny Cash middle finger T-shirts without permission, and Spencer Gifts did the same with Willie.
Dale Watson doing his best Johnny Cash impression:
Hank Williams III and David Allan Coe in younger days:
Jonny (Corndawg) Fritz telling a fan they’re #1 (Kayley Luftig – Photographer):
Bob Wayne, adding the stink eye for extra emphasis:
Jeff Austin of the Yonder Mountain String Band doing the double bird (Chad Smith Photography):
Keith Richards’ middle finger is insured for $1.6 million. Yes, that one he’s point at you. And no, I’m not kidding.
The wet cigarette of country music, Kid Rock. And Saving Country Music friend “Pointer” from a downtown Nashville excursion in 2011 getting his picture with Kid Rock on the front of Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge.
Townes Van Zandt, from the back cover of his 1972 album The Late Great Townes Van Zandt.
Kellie Pickler telling Kanye West “Fuck You!” for not liking country music (see video).
Lenny Kravitz giving the crowd at the 2013 CMA Fan Fest the double bird because they “couldn’t get with love” during his elongated set that left the crowd underwhelmed.
A sign hanging up in the Johnny Cash themed bar and music venue in Austin, TX called the Mean Eyed Cat.
The ad Rick Rubin placed in Billboard Magazine after Johnny Cash won the 1998 Grammy for Best Country Album:
Over the last few months we have finally begun to see a few success stories be made of some excellent songwriters that sat under the radar for way too long—folks like Sturgill Simpson and Leroy Virgil of Hellbound Glory. If you were looking for another name of a songwriter that’s been criminally overlooked for too long, and has that uncompromising honky tonk sound like Dale Watson and Whitey Morgan, then the man you seek is North Carolina’s Eric Strickland, and his backing band The ‘B’ Sides.
Eric Strickland is Country with a capital ‘C’ and couldn’t make a bad album if he tried. He may be more locally-oriented than the other big names in honky tonk music, but gives up nothing to his more well-known comrades when it comes to cutting songs and records.
At the heart of Strickland’s appeal is his ability to take what on the surface may seem like tired, clichè country themes, and give them a fresh, new feel. Take “whiskey” for example, maybe the most worn out word in country music. His last album Honky Tonk Till I Die ends with the song “Drinkin’ Whiskey” that went on to be nominated for SCM’s 2012 Song of the Year. Strickland starts off I’m Bad For You right where the last album ended, with the excellent booze-drenched “The Whiskey Seems To Always Change My Mind,” pulling you in with its walking bass line in the chorus and cutting, true lyrics.
Strickland serenades even harder stuff later on the album with another standout, the chicken-picking “Methamphetamines.” This leads into the album’s best ballad, “Brandy On My Mind” written by ‘B’ side guitarist and harmonizer Gary Braddy. The song “I’m Bad For You” is another great honky tonk classic belted out with just as much bravado as honesty.
The album concludes in two rousing live tracks–a real treat because as Eric Strickland fans can attest, as good as his albums are, his live show may even be better. His backing band The ‘B’ Sides are more seasoned than some bands that play 280 shows per year. All you you need to do is listen to their rendition of Little Richard’s “Lucille” and you’ll hear it for yourself. It’s got some of those moments that make it feel like a feather is being raked on the back of your neck. It’s followed by an excellent live version of “18 Wheel of Hell On The Highway” from Eric’s last album.
One concern with I’m Bad For You is that after the first song, the album slows the tempo down, and stays there for quite a while. No song is bad, but this doesn’t really allow the album to suck you in. But with the overall line up of stellar songs on this album, it rivals any other released so far in 2013.
Real deal, true blood, hard driving, but daring to be sweet in moments, Eric Strickland and The ‘B’ Sides are doing their part to save country music. Now it’s time to do your part by giving them your ear and attention.
Two guns up.
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There’s been much talk so far this year about how the women of country are outpacing the men when it comes to the quality of music, and we’ve talked about possible reasons why that is. But we haven’t talked about some of the men that if simply given a chance, could shoot an immediate injection of substance into the country music format. They just need similar chances to their female counterparts.
It’s not that the men of country have any less talent. One of the problems is that many talented country men are making their way to Americana, tired of beating their heads against Music Row’s walls, and not wanting to be lumped in with the laundry list arena rock or country rap currently plaguing the mainstream male country ranks. If country music can’t facilitate the rise of their careers, country will lose their talent to other avenues.
A lack of talent has never been country music’s problem, it’s been recognizing that talent and allowing it to thrive by expressing its originality and creativity. Here are seven men that right now could enter into prominent positions in the country format and immediately make it better.
If you wanted one name, one man to watch in country music in 2013, that name would be Sturgill Simpson. Poised to take the country music world by storm (or at least the independent side of things), Sturgill’s debut solo album High Top Mountain is going to blow the doors off of country music when it’s released on June 11th. Sturg is already making waves out there on the road opening for Dwight Yoakam, and has one of the best management and booking teams behind him. Everything is in place. The next question is, will country music pay attention?
The truth is you’re already hearing Will Hoge on mainstream country radio, you’re just hearing his songs being sung by others. Hoge is one of those songwriters that has been right on the brink of breaking through for 15 years, but has always just been one important puzzle piece away. Eli Young Band had a #1 hit last year with Will’s song “Even If It Breaks Your Heart,” and at the time the songwriter didn’t even have a publishing deal. Recently Lady Antebellum recorded his song “Better Off Now.”
Will is now signed to BMG Nashville as a songwriter, and has been signed as a performer to Atlantic Records and Rykodisc in the past. Though Will has struggled to find the exact right opportunity to take his music to the next level, he is a battle-tested performer, a proven songwriter with commercially-viable material, and an artist the industry is familiar with that could immediately step in amongst country music’s mainstream men and bring more substance to the format, open up new themes, and hopefully challenge other male performers and writers to release more formidable material.
Whitey Morgan and his band The 78′s are the authentic, modern-day extension of country music’s true Outlaw country movement. It doesn’t get more hard country and honky tonk than this. Music Row’s batch of fake Outlaws will only be able to go so far before the American public wakes up to the fact they’ve been sold a bill of goods. Whitey Morgan is country music’s “new Outlaw” for the long haul.
With Evan Felker and the Turnpike Troubadours, the question is not if, but when. You may not be able to find a better example of a songwriter that can bring true country substance yet still find appeal with the masses. Like Hootie taking Old Crow’s “Wagon Wheel” to #1, Felker songs like “Every Girl” “7 & 7″ and “Good Lord, Lorrie” are just screaming to be cut by a bigger name, letting the rest of the world know what a treasure the Texoma region has in this young and exciting band. The hardest thing for a Red Dirt / Texas country band to do is make that transition from regional stars to national recognition, and to do it without streaking their hair with highlights or releasing songs with obviously aims at radio success. The next couple of years are very critical for this band, but if Nashville had any sense, they’d hop on the Turnpike Troubadours bandwagon now.
A former Turnpike Troubadour himself, and a former member of the Mike McClure band, John Fullbright became a serious force in the music world when he released his critically-acclaimed From The Ground Up album last year that rose all the way to winning the young man from Bearden, Oklahoma a Grammy nomination for Best Americana Album. Isn’t it just like Americana to snatch up all of country’s promising male talent? But with the strength of his songs, John Fullbright could find a home in both country and Americana if he wished. At only 25-years-old (it’s his birthday today), the sky’s the limit for this emerging talent.
If you’re wondering where our generation’s Keith Whitley or Chris Ledoux is, look no further. Though Leroy will probably never play Nashville’s game, he’s got country music’s most formidable song catalog just waiting to be cherry picked and matched up with top-tier talent. In the meantime, Leroy and his band Hellbound Glory could be playing sold-out big club/theater shows and headlining grassroots festivals.
Virgil and Hellbound Glory are fresh off opening for Kid Rock on a nationwide arena tour and signing with the prestigious Agency Group for booking. It may be only a matter of months before we stop complaining of why Hellbound Glory isn’t bigger, and start proclaiming that they’ve made it. Time may be running out to get on board with Leroy Virgil at the ground level and enjoy the rise.
If country music was looking for its rough equivalent of Mumford & Sons, The Lumineers, and other acoustic string bands that are all the rage right now, look no further than El Paso, TX’s Dirty River Boys. Way more than just Americana’s version of a boy band, The Dirty River Boys have a grit and authenticity to them many of these other bands so woefully lack. Yet the Dirty River Boys can still can engage large crowds in sincere singalongs that tap into that sense of camaraderie that many music fans are looking for these days.
Other names that could infuse more quality into country: Austin Lucas, Jason Boland & The Stragglers, Corb Lund, Hayes Carll, Jason Eady, Jackson Taylor, Garth Brooks.
Fans of Reno, Nevada’s Hellbound Glory who’ve been waiting patiently for new music since the release of their critically-acclaimed album Damaged Goods in November of 2011 can tide themselves over on a brand new single just released called “The Feud.” A fiery, raucous account of the rigors of rural living, the song features a more rock vibe compared to most Hellbound Glory material, and raw, gunpowder-stained lyrics. Devout listeners of Hellbound’s frontman Leroy Virgil will recognize the song as one he’s been playing live for years, but will rejoice in finally having a studio version to listen to.
As a songwriter, Leroy Virgil is one of the best-kept secrets in country music, but may not be for long as Hellbound Glory traverses the country in a supporting role playing arena shows with Kid Rock. As Leroy told Saving Country Music in an interview right before the tour, “You know, I’m a really stubborn person, and I’m not gonna change any way I don’t want to change. In fact I think over the last couple of years I’m even more hardcore than I’ve ever been. And the new material is going to show that…”
The underground country movement started roughly in the mid 90′s on lower Broadway in Nashville that at the time was a run down part of town. Young musicians from around the country, some from punk backgrounds, came together from their mutual love of authentic country music to create a counterbalance to the pop country that was prevailing on Music Row a few blocks west.
Underground country started with mostly neo-traditionalists like Wayne “The Train” Hancock, Big Sandy, and Dale Watson, but spread to the punk and heavy metal world through acts like Hank Williams III and Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers. This list does not just consider the appeal of these albums, but also the influence they had on other underground artists and albums, and on country music and music in general.
Please understand that this list is just for underground country albums. This means artists better defined by the Deep Blues like Scott H. Biram or Possessed by Paul James, or Texas artists like James Hand or Ray Wylie Hubbard, or country artists who may work on the fringes of underground country but would not necessarily be considered underground like BR549 or Roger Alan Wade, are not included. Americana acts are not included. This is strictly underground country’s opportunity to bask in the spotlight.
Please feel free to leave your own list below.
16. The Boomswagglers- Bootleg Beginnings – 2011
This very well may be the most authentic album of music put out in the modern era for any genre. The Boomswagglers have always been and continue to be more myth than reality, with original Boomswaggler Lawson Bennett long gone and a cavalcade of replacements shuffling in an out with Spencer Cornett. Even if they never put out another album, The Boomswagglers made their mark, and it is a deep one.
“The music is wildly entertaining and deceptively deep. If you’re going to be a Boomswagglers song, someone’s got to die, and likely a woman. Some may find this silly, monotonous, or even offensive, but you have to listen beyond the lyrics, and unlock the carnal wisdom that is hidden in these songs.” (read full review)
15. JB Beverley & The Wayward Drifters – Dark Bar & A Juke Box – 2006
Dark Bar & A Juke Box was an instant underground country classic, and so was the anti Music Row song that the album got its name from. JB and his Wayward Drifters grit out a superb selection of songs displaying taste, restraint, and a sincere appreciation for the roots of country music, which may have surprised some who knew JB more for his work with heavy metal bands like The Murder Junkies and the Little White Pills. Dark Bar & A Juke Box also boasts appearances from the famous son and grandson of a country music royal family, who due to contractual issues had to work incognito (wink wink).
14. Lucky Tubb & The Modern Day Troubadours – Del Gaucho – 2011
Some (including Lucky himself) may point to Hillbilly Fever as being the seminal Lucky Tubb album with its big budget and appearances by Wayne “The Train” Hancock. But Del Gaucho is where Lucky Tubb came into his own, found his sound, and the unique musical flavor only he has to offer the world. Dirty, rowdy, rocking, but still steadfastly neo-traditionalist country, Del Gaucho scores off the charts when it comes to style points. When you’re talking about some of the greatest neo-traditional country albums and artists of all time, Lucky Tubb and Del Gaucho deserve to be in that conversation.
13- Bob Wayne & The Outlaw Carnies – Blood to Dust – 2008
They say you have your whole life to write your first album, and what makes Bob Wayne’s Blood to Dust so special is how true and touching he told his life’s story through song. His subsequent albums aren’t too shabby either, but with signature songs like “Blood to Dust”, “Road Bound”, and “27 Years”, this still stands out as his signature album, and a signature album of the underground country movement. It was performed, produced, and recorded by an all-star cast of contributors that included Donnie Herron, Joe Buck and Andy Gibson, and brought Bob Wayne out from behind-the-scenes as Hank3′s guitar tech, and made him one of the movement’s most well-known songwriters and performers.
12. Jayke Orvis – It’s All Been Said – 2010
This is the album that launched Farmageddon Records, and that launched Jayke Orvis as a formidable, premier front man in underground country. One of the founding members of the now legendary .357 String Band, Jayke was asked to leave the band because of irreconcilable differences and almost immediately began touring with The Goddamn Gallows and trying to make this album happen. The result was a slick, tightly-crafted LP showcasing excellent songwriting and instrumentation. From ballads to blazing instrumentals, Jayke Orvis has proved himself to be one of the singular talents of underground country roots.
11. Lonesome Wyatt & Rachel Brooke – A Bitter Harvest – 2009
This album was destined to become an underground country classic. The mad genius music mind of Lonesome Wyatt of the Gothic country duo Those Poor Bastards has the uncanny ability to procure the absolute most appropriate sounds to evoke the desired dark mood in his music. Then you combine that with one of the best voices not just in underground country, but in all of music in Rachel Brooke, and magic was bound to happen. The creativity on A Bitter Harvest is spellbinding. More of an artistic endeavor than a toe tapper, Lonesome Wyatt and Rachel create a soundtrack to human emotion and despair. For people looking for a place for country music to evolve, A Bitter Harvest shows how you can take authentic country themes and an appreciation for the roots of the music, and envelop it in layers of textural color culled from the wide experience of human sounds.
10. Justin Townes Earle – Midnight At The Movies – 2009
Midnight At The Movies was Saving Country Music’s 2009 Album of the Year. Today it would be difficult to characterize Justin Townes Earle as underground country because the quality of this album launched him into the inner sanctum of Americana.
“Justin Townes Earle has done an awesome thing with this album; he has figured out a way to unite all the displaced elements that make up the alternative to mainstream Nashville country, while still staying somewhat accessible to the mainstream folks as well. You might even catch the bluegrass folks nodding their head while listening to it. Folkies like it, and there’s a few tunes blues people can get into. This isn’t just the REAL country album of the year, it is the “Alt-country” album of the year and the “Americana” album of the year.” (read full review)
9. Slackeye Slim - El Santo Grial, La Pistola Piadosa – 2011
“Every once in a while, an album comes along that changes everything. It’s an album that inspires other albums, and dynamic shifts in tastes and approach throughout a sector of music, while at the same time dashing the dreams of other artists, as the purity and originality are way too much to attempt to rival. Slackeye Slim’s El Santo Grial, La Pistola Piadosa is one of those albums.
“El Santo Grial is a masterpiece, exquisitely produced, arranged, and performed. This is a patient, uncompromising album. You can tell time was never introduced into this project as a goal. The goal was to flesh out Slackeye’s vision without ever settling for second best, and that goal was accomplished.” (read full review)
8. Wayne “The Train” Hancock – That’s What Daddy Wants – 1997
Thunderstorms & Neon Signs is the Wayne Hancock album most people gravitate towards as their favorite because it was their first, and the first to showcase Wayne Hancock’s unique blend of country, Western Swing, rockabilly, and blues. But pound for pound, That’s What Daddy Wants is just as good of an offering, boasting some of The Train’s signature songs like “87 Southbound” and “Johnny Law”. Wayne Hancock has never put out a bad album, and distinguishing between them is difficult. But it’s not difficult to say that the underground country movement would have not had as much class if That’s What Daddy Wants hadn’t seen the light of day.
7. .357 String Band – Fire & Hail – 2008
“They were all the absolute best possible musicians you could find at their respective positions, each challenging each other, pushing each other to keep up with the band’s demands for artistic excellence in both instrumental technique and creative composition.
“Listening back now at Fire & Hail, with so much talent in one place, no wonder the project was untenable, and no wonder the respective players have moved on to become their own trees instead of respective branches of the same project. Still, the loss of .357 String Band may go down as underground country’s greatest tragedy.” (read full review)
6. Hank Williams III - Lovesick, Broke, & Driftin’ – 2002
BR549 and Wayne “The Train” Hancock spearheaded the neo-traditionalist movement in the mid 90′s, but Hank Williams III was the one to carry it into the oughts and introduce it to a brand new crop of fans he brought along from his dabblings in the punk/heavy metal world. After having to tow the line somewhat for his first album Risin’ Outlaw, Hank3 was unleashed and able to showcase his own songwriting, heavily influenced by Wayne Hancock and Hank3′s famous grandfather, but still all his own. His voice was wickedly pure with a heart wrenching yodel and commanding range. The songwriting was simple, but powerful. This is a masterpiece, and remains an essential title of the neo-traditionalist era.
5. Hellbound Glory – Old Highs & New Lows – 2010
Hellbound Glory had already been around for years, but they burst into the underground with this magnificent, hard country album highlighted by head man Leroy Virgil’s world class songwriting. Despite the “hell” in their name and the hard language in their songs, Hellbound Glory hadn’t gone through any retooling as post punk refugees. They were pure country through and through and Old Highs & New Lows combined excellent Outlaw-style bar stompers and ballads with some of the most wit-filled songwriting since Keith Whitley. As far as honky tonk albums go, it may be years before this one is trumped. And when it is, it might be Leroy Virgil and Hellbound Glory doing the trumping.
4. Dale Watson – Live in London…England – 2002
Dale comes out on stage and starts slinging guitars, cutting classics, and speaking the truth. Before Dale was the hometown boy and house band for Austin, he was pissed off and willing to sing about it. Dale’s anti-Nashville classics “Real Country Song”, “Nashville Rash”, and “Country My Ass” can all be found here, but Live in London isn’t all pissing and moaning. Songs like “Ain’t That Livin’” showed off Dale’s superlative voice and suave style. Honky tonk albums are sometimes hard to make because it is hard to capture that live, sweaty energy in the recorded context. So what better way to solve that problem than making a live one? Live in London remains the best Dale album to date.
3. Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers – Cockadoodledon’t – 2003
This was one of the first albums to bust out of the burgeoning music scene on lower Broadway in Nashville where one can argue the undergorund country movement started. It showed the world what kind of mayhem could be created by mixing country, blues, and punk music together without compromising taste and soul. It is the album which acts as a guidepost to the eclectic, yet intuitive and inter-related mix of influences that you will find in underground country: honest to goodness appreciation to the roots of American music, with a punk attitude and approach. And if you ever wondered why Joe Buck is considered part of underground country, appreciate that he played most of the music on Cockadoodledon’t.
2. Wayne “The Train” Hancock – Thunderstorms & Neon Signs – 1995
There are two albums that you can look back on an make a serious case that if they did not exist, underground country music may not exist–the album below this one on this list, and Wayne Hancock’s Thunderstorm & Neon Signs. There are two types of music artists: originators and imitators. Sometimes imitators can be very successful, and very creative artists themselves. But it always takes the originators to set the plate for the imitators to do what they do. Thunderstorms & Neon Signs was an original album from one of America’s most original country roots artists of all time. It doesn’t get much better or more influential than this.
1. Hank Williams III – Straight to Hell – 2006
This album isn’t underground country’s Red Headed Stranger. It isn’t underground country’s Honky Tonk Heroes. It is both. It is the album that both was a novel concept, a breakthrough sonically and lyrically, and had a massive impact on the business side of music, for artists winning control of their music and inspiring and showing artists how to do it themselves. The deposed son of country music royalty had taken on a major Nashville label, and won, and all while being one of the first to successfully bridge the energy and approach of punk and heavy metal music with traditional country, all while keeping the music solidly country in nature.
It was the first album to be put out through the CMA with a Parental Advisory sticker. It was the first to ever be recorded outside of a traditional studio setting. Of course only a select few were paying attention, but it broke through many barriers that to this day have changed music in significant ways, sonically and behind the scenes.
The approach also had wide-ranging impacts outside of underground country and country music in general, to rock music and punk and heavy metal, inspiring thousands of rock kids to put down their electric guitars and AC/DC records, and pick up banjos and Johnny Cash records. The impact on mainstream music may have not been seen, but it was felt, and just like all great albums, it’s legacy will grow and be more appreciated and understood as the future unfolds.
Reno, Nevada’s Hellbound Glory with be touring with Kid Rock on his “Rebel Soul” tour to transpire at the very start of 2013, trekking through the Midwest and South. Buckcherry will also be playing in a supporting role. From press release:
Kid Rock is proud to announce the first dates of his “Rebel Soul” worldwide tour in support of his recently released album bearing the same name. The tour kicks off February 2nd at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, MO with the first leg winding down March 2nd in Louisville, KY. More dates are expected to be announced shortly. Backed as always by his Twisted Brown Trucker band, the full-scale arena tour will feature Buckcherry and Hellbound Glory as support.
Leroy Virgil, the frontman of Hellbound Glory is one of country music’s best kept secrets in regards to songwriting. The band first rubbed elbows with Kid Rock on his “Chillin The Most” cruise down in Florida last March.
Feb 2 Kansas City, MO – Sprint Center, On Sale 12/14 @10am http://www.axs.com/
Feb 5 Springfield, MO – JQH Arena, On Sale 12/14 @10am http://bit.ly/SoJhlr
Feb 7 Beaumont, TX – Ford Park Event Center, On Sale 12/7 @10am http://bit.ly/4xGq0V
Feb 9 Tulsa, OK – BOK Center, On Sale 11/30 @ 10am http://bit.ly/LScMF
Feb 10 Wichita, KS – INTRUST Bank Arena, On Sale 12/7 @10am http://bit.ly/40v9cG
Feb 13 Bossier City, LA – CenturyLink Center, On Sale 12/7 @10am http://bit.ly/4xGq0V
Feb 15 Nashville, TN – Bridgestone Arena, On Sale 12/21 @10am http://bit.ly/4xGq0V
Feb 16 Greenville, SC – Bi-Lo Center, On Sale 12/7 @10am http://bit.ly/4xGq0V
Feb 18 Fort Myers, FL – Germain Arena, On Sale TBD
Feb 20 Pensacola, FL – Pensacola Civic Center, On Sale 12/14 @10am http://bit.ly/4xGq0V
Feb 21 New Orleans, LA – New Orleans Arena, On Sale 12/8 @10am http://bit.ly/4xGq0V
Feb 23 Birmingham, AL – BJCC Arena, On Sale 12/7 @10am http://bit.ly/4xGq0V
Feb 24 Huntsville, AL – Von Braun Center, On Sale 12/7 @10am http://bit.ly/4xGq0V
Feb 26 Greensboro, NC – Greensboro Coliseum Complex, On Sale 12/15 @10am http://bit.ly/4xGq0V
Feb 27 Knoxville, TN – Knoxville Civic Auditorium, On Sale 12/7 @10am http://bit.ly/147jQp
Mar 1 Memphis, TN – FedEx Forum, On Sale 12/8 @10am http://bit.ly/4xGq0V
Mar 2 Louisville, KY – KFC Yum! Center, On Sale 12/21 @10am http://bit.ly/4xGq0V
UPDATE: More Dates Just Added
March 18 – Sioux Falls, SD – Sioux Falls Arena
March 20 – Madison, WI – Memorial Coliseum at Alliant Energy Center
March 22 – Toledo, OH – Huntington Center
March 23 – Columbus, OH – Nationwide Aren
March 25 – Youngstown, OH – Covelli Center
March 26 – Ft. Wayne, IN – Allen County War Memorial Coliseum
March 28 – Bloomington, IL – US Cellular Coliseum
March 29 – Omaha, NE – Centurylink Center
April 1 – Evansville, IN – Ford Center
April 3 – Grand Rapids, MI – Van Andel Arena
April 5 – Saginaw, MI – Dow Event Center
April 6 – Saginaw, MI – Dow Event Center
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As for my personal thoughts? I think there’s no mistaking I haven’t been a fan of Kid Rock over the years, coining the nickname for him of “The Wet Cigarette”. However, Hellbound Glory may be the most under-the-rader band in country music right now, and they deserve this opportunity and exposure. I think it is times like these that the term “bittersweet” is in order. Ask me in a couple of days how I feel about it, but at the moment I can’t help but to be happy for Hellbound Glory for the opportunity, and however much I may dislike Kid Rock, giving him credit for seeing the potential of Leroy Virgil.
As I said over a year ago in my review of their last album Damaged Goods:
It is time for someone to step up. They don’t deserve the SCM Album of the Year, they deserve something better, something more than I can give. It is time for them to graduate, for someone a step higher to step up, put these boys as the opener on a serious tour, get them out of having to battle with a juke box full of rap music at brokedown bars, but also someone who understands their element, and how a loss of authenticity would be their demise.
Apparently, Kid Rock was the one to do that.
On Saturday November 17th, two of the most important acts in underground country played what very well could be their final shows. Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers, a band that was there at the very beginning of underground country and the revitalization of the lower Broadway in Nashville announced they are calling it quits after 16 years, at least for now, playing their final show at Nashville’s Mercy Lounge. Meanwhile in Covington, Kentucky, Unknown Hinson, one of underground country’s greatest ambassadors from his work on Cartoon Network’s Squidbillies, played his final show as a touring act after 17 years, saying he was done, “Period.”
Both these acts had their specific reasons for calling it quits, and certainly the door is open for them to return. And for JD Wilkes, the long-time front man of The Shack Shakers, he still has his Dirt Daubers routine which has apparently retooled to a more electric sound. But you add these huge, high-profile, highly-important artists leaving on top of bands like .357 String Band dissolving, Sunday Valley re-aligning, and Leroy Virgil losing all his original players in Hellbound Glory, and all of a sudden underground country feels like it’s fighting a war of attrition, and losing.
I have been struggling to write this article for almost two years, but have been putting it off because there’s some hard things to say, and I didn’t want to “talk down” a movement that was already trying to deal with pretty alarming trends. But I think that especially now, zooming out and trying to be honest and critical in a constructive way is important, because there is positively no doubt that underground country is dying, and has been for years.
Why? Here are some ideas.
An aging fan base and aging artists
There are exceptions of course, but if you look at who comprises the underground country movement, it is predominantly people in their 30′s, and people from lower incomes. And what do people do in their 30′s? They settle down, they get married and have kids, they get better and more stable jobs, they buy houses. This gives them less time to spend partying, hanging out on the internet talking about music, going to shows on weeknights. In your 30′s, instead of being able to hit every underground country show rolling through town, you have to pick that one show a month you want to attend and pay a babysitter.
The same goes for the artists making underground country music. As they age, their motivations to keep working at music that doesn’t seem to want to stick commercially begin to fade. Health concerns begin to become an issue, and not being able to afford health insurance is a real concern. This was one of the primary issues facing the Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers. Yearning for more stability is a recurring theme in the attrition underground country is facing in its talent roster, from banjo player Joe Huber of the .357 String Band, to drummer Chico from Hellbound Glory.
Something else worth noting is the large sect of sober people who make up underground country, in both the artist and fan ranks. Over time, some people must move away from the music and party scenes to find their sobriety, and others may just not identify any more with music that tends to have foundations in a party lifestyle.
Meanwhile the infusion of youth into underground country is anemic. There are some exceptions. The Boomswagglers from Texas and The Slaughter Daughters are promising, young bands, and artists like Lucky Tubb and Wayne Hancock have been integrating side musicians into the scene for some time. But they rarely stick, partly because of a general lack of support. Any younger musician if they’re smart doesn’t attempt to start their rise in underground country, which seems to be trending down and never had much long-term infrastructure to begin with. They look towards Americana, or the Texas/Red Dirt scene, or bluegrass, where the support is much easier to count on.
A Lack of Leadership
Since the beginning of underground country, if you looked at the top of the pyramid you saw Hank Williams III, and that is still the case in regards to records sales and concert tickets sold in any given year. But in 2008, Hank3 took over a year off from the road, and shortly after he started touring again, he stopped carrying opening bands. Then he put out a succession of albums of questionable quality, and all of a sudden a career on the rise has been stagnant for going on 5 years, and same goes for the the scene that revolves around it.
It was not Saving Country Music or Free Hank III, or even MySpace that comprised the first information portal about underground country. It was Hank3′s “Cussin’ Board” forum. And people didn’t go there just for Hank3 news, but news about all the underground country bands, with artists like JB Beverley and Rachel Brooke participating in the discussions regularly. These days, the “Cussin’ Board” feels like a ghost town compared to its vibrant past.
Shooter Jennings has stepped up in the last two years to attempt to fill the leadership vacuum left by Hank3, and has done some positive things and had some marginal success. But his polarization has kept him from completing the task of becoming a solid leader everyone can look up to. Similarly, where Hank3 was once the most unifying factor in underground country, his obvious step back from the “scene” has now made him a polarizing figure as well, questionably capable of taking back the reigns of underground country even if he was motivated to, and which he’s shown positively no signs of wanting to do. I can’t blame Hank3 for wanting to take a step back, because there were so many people wanting to take from him, believing his name was their stepping stone to success.
Leadership must come from the artists, and it must come from the music first, and that is Shooter Jennings’ inherent problem. This was illustrated when he cut the “Drinking Side of Country” duet with Bucky Covington, or on his industrial rock album Black Ribbons. Whether you like these Shooter projects or not, they illustrate his lack of consistency that has lead to his ineptness as a leader of underground country, and his acute polarization that reaches as far as Eric Church fans, and fans of his father. Hank3 never professed himself a leader. He led by example, and used causes like Reinstate Hank to lead the charge of taking country music back.
The Scene Has Replaced The Movement
One of the reasons an underground of country music was founded was from a wide ranging dissent about the direction of country music. This dissent is where the varying range of musical styles united, taking the country punk of Hank3, the neo-traditional approach of Wayne Hancock, the Texas/Outlaw country of Dale Watson, the bluegrass of the .357 String Band, the blues of Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers, and the Gothic country of Those Poor Bastards and piling them all together in the overall underground country movement. It was united by issues, like the reinstatement of Hank Williams to the Grand Ole Opry, the opening and extension of the Williams Family Exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame, the fight for creative freedom of artists from record labels, and the fight against the infiltration of pop on country radio.
Now these issues that defined, united, and energized the country music underground are seen as tired, if not counter-productive or annoying to many in the underground population. When issues arose with the sale of the Grand Ole Opry to Marriott International, or the changing of Billboard’s chart rules, the underground met them with apathy, if not anger at them being offered up as relevant to their music world. Issues are what made outreach possible for underground country, and now exclusivity seems to be what is yearned for by the majority of underground country fans. The “we have our music, screw the masses” attitude is what prevails, taking away one of the primary promotional tools for independent-minded underground ideals to reach out to other country music fans who also might be feeling disenfranchised with the mainstream.
Scenes and Cliques
Image and exclusivity seem to be the important dynamics in today’s country music underground, dragging on the commercial viability of the music, and making it hard for outsiders to integrate with the underground country culture. Though some on the outside looking in may enjoy the music, they may not understand the verbiage, anecdotes, and style that seem to be important with “fitting in” to the underground. So as long-time underground country fans taper off because of age, no new blood is there to take their place.
Facebook has also narrowed the perspectives of underground country fans, making them feel like how you present yourself is more important than what you do. An unhealthy culture of cloistered, inbred cross-promotion prevails through underground country, where small cliques of fans and bands have formed around labels, blogs, and podcasts, catering content to a select few.
These cliques promote each other within the clique, and at times may branch out farther to the “scene,” but rarely reach new blood because they are based on narrow perspectives and anecdotal experiences. It’s an “I’ll scratch your back, you scratch mine” culture where quality and creativity are lightly regarded compared to political importance in the scene. And if you don’t participate in this culture of narrow, ineffective promotion of the other people in the scene or clique, you risk being ostracized. Intention is measured over effectiveness. These cliques and their differences have also given rise to eternal conflict, with the bigger overall “Shooter fans vs. Hank3 fans” splitting underground country squarely in half.
Saving Country Music, and I specifically have at times enhanced or enabled unnecessary “scene” drama, and this has potentially affected the fate of underground country adversely.
There are lot’s of entities in underground country and roots who attempt to promote music that seem to get lost in promoting their branding and merch first, and the music second. There are many general reasons underground country is dying, but the specific one is lack of money. Underground country is funded by the $40 hoodie, and this creates a paradox for the music that is supposed to be the focus.
Though there is lots of talk about shared responsibility for keeping underground music alive, and there’s many folks who re-post bulletins on Facebook, take pictures and videos of shows, run podcasts, or boutique “labels” attempting to make a difference in the music, the effect is confined to cliques and micro-scenes, and is more catered to serving the few and propagating image and branding.
For example the Pickathon Festival in Portland that caters to a wide variety of independent roots movements, including underground country, boasts over 300 volunteers annually. The Muddy Roots Festival, which almost exclusively caters to underground country and roots had roughly a dozen volunteers this last year, with multiple people who signed up to volunteer to get discounted or free tickets either not working their shifts, walking off their shifts, or generally being unhelpful. Pickathon’s issues with people sneaking onto the site are marginal. Muddy Roots’ issues of people sneaking on site without paying are major. The most helpful volunteers at the 2012 Muddy Roots were a representative from a hair gel sponsor, and the Voodoo Kings Car Club who have very few ties to the music.
There seems to be little understanding that if bands, labels, and festivals are going to continue to exist, there must be a shared sacrifice from the fans. And not just symbolic sacrifice, but substantive efforts to offer real support to the entities making the music happen. Without any corporate funding, that’s how an underground music movement works.
A Lack of Creativity
Underground country was founded on creativity. The creativity found on albums such as Hank3′s Straight to Hell, Wayne Hancock’s Thunderstorms & Neon Signs, Dale Watson’s Live in London, and Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers’ Cockadoodledon’t is what caused a country music underground to form in the first place. In the mid 2000′s, you could confidently say that the creativity in underground country outlasted that of the mainstream per capita. These days underground country is mired in trying to recapture that creativity, in a practice that lends to the aping of styles and the rehashing of themes. Capturing a “punk gone country,” “honky tonk Outlaw”, or “old-time” aesthetic seems more important than carving out a new creative niche like the originators of underground country did.
Meanwhile any true creativity existing in underground country quickly evolves beyond it to greener pastures in Texas country or Americana, like Justin Townes Earle did. The lack of infrastructure, the presence of scenesters, and the general disorganization of the underground dissuades talented artist from associating themselves with it. Americana, Red Dirt, Texas, and West Coast circuits offer much more hospitable and palatable scenes, while underground country generally discourages cross-pollination with these kindred, independent-minded movements, misunderstanding them as either mainstream, or too high-minded for the music they like.
A step removed from the influence of the scene, Europe continues to thrive and grow their support for underground country. There seems to be more general thankfulness that underground country music exists in Europe, and a stronger focus on the music itself instead of the scene that surrounds it. There’s more support, more of a volunteering attitude, and more of a willingness to help make the music happen by the fans. Europe continues to be the most commercially-viable place for many underground country bands to tour and sell albums, and that support is continuing to grow.
A Few Breakout Bands
Bands like Larry & His Flask, Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band, and The Goddamn Gallows have found some decent success over the past few years playing on some bigger tours like The Warped Tour and opening for The Reverend Horton Heat. Bob Wayne has found traction in Europe and domestically being singed with label Century Media. Justin Townes Earle is now a big concert draw, and Scott Biram is getting his music played on television shows.
But many of these artists are moving on from the traditional underground country infrastructure to find their success, and others like Leroy Virgil and Sturgill Simpson still seem to be one step behind where their creative potential should be taking them commercially.
Festival & Touring Infrastructure
This is something underground country was lacking for years, and now has a healthy dose of. Unfortunately rising gas prices and dwindling crowds sometimes means it’s too little too late for some bands. The reason Unknown Hinson says he quit touring was because it was costing him too much money.
There are more festivals in all shapes and sizes catering to underground country and roots than ever before. But again, with a dwindling fan base, these different festivals are competing with each other for the same anemic and contracting population.
The Deep Blues
The Deep Blues seems to be on a more sustainable path, and also seems to be able to divest itself from the drama that is confounding underground country. However since it shares much of the same infrastructure as underground country, the issues in underground country can bleed over to the deep blues as well. There is better sustainability in Deep Blues, but the growth is still marginal. In many ways, the Deep Blues is the only thing keeping underground country alive, and that could hinder Deep Blues from moving forward as it drags underground country along.
What Can Be Done To Save Underground Country
To save underground country there must be a renewed interest in finding and developing younger bands, attracting younger fans, and focusing on talent and creativity over forming exclusive scenes. “Young” should not be mistaken for the same connotations it carries in mainstream country. Talent and creativity should still remain key, as well as trying to reach the folks that “get it.” But if underground country wants to continue to remain a viable part of the overall country music landscape, it must recruit new bands and new listeners to replace the natural contraction within its population.
Underground country must quit being so reactionary about the outside world. It must diversify. It must find common ground, common struggle, and common tastes with Americana, Red Dirt, and Texas music, and promote its best and brightest talent to those worlds and then reciprocate. It must stick to its founding principles of preserving the roots of the music and fighting for creative control for artists, and seize on the opportunities current events create to promote those principles to the rest of the music world, promoting the music of underground country by proxy.
It needs leadership, big bands, breakout albums and songs that breathe new fervor into the movement. It needs and end to the “I got mine” mentality.
And it needs it now, before it ends up like Communism: a great idea whose devil is in the application.
For months, Leroy Virgil of the infamous Hellbound Glory has been dropping little tidbits about a potential triple album coming out in the future to be called MericA. As Virgil told SCM at the beginning of the year, “Gonna come out in chapters or volumes, haven’t decided. Songs about real ‘merica.” Virgil is a virtual songwriting machine, and when you see him live expect to be regaled by brand new songs throughout the set. At some point the man will need to narrow the gap between what he’s written and what he’s recorded, and a triple album may be the only way to accomplish this.
A couple of weeks ago Hellbound Glory was in Nashville, in a studio session that included former Waylon Jennings’ drummer and right hand man Ritchie Albright, as well as Amanda Shires and Shooter Jennings among others. This was the first step in making what may become a landmark triple album of independent country a reality.
For the holiday, Leroy has released the lyrics to the upcoming title track, and in true Virgil fashion, they work just fine without the musical accompaniment.”MericA” plays off the broad theme Leroy has adopted of depicting rural America, one that is filled with broken dreams and bad habits; a more subversive view than corporate country likes to portray, but also one that is more accurate.
Stay tuned for more info on the album Merica.
The MericA Song (4 Bocephus)
(by Leroy Virgil of Hellbound Glory)
“There aint nothin like a gun to make you feel real tall
Like some alcohol, adderol,
Hey are you ready for some football?
You buy this truck rust and all
Its like a broke down American made
Suped up old Chevrolet
It aint our Government that makes us Great
And as long as we can make it
I think we got it made
In the good ole USA
Firing bottlerockets at the Ghetto Bird
Piss drunk July Third
Thats freedom honey aint you heard
It ain’t fun unless someone gets hurt
God bless the NRA through hard times and holidays
Sometimes we all just got to pull and pray
And as long as we can make it I think we got it made
In the good ole USA
I love pretty girls in shitty cars
High times in old divebars
Pissin beneath the moon and stars
God bless this land of ours
Its like a broke down American made
Suped up old Chevrolet and though it sound a little cliche
As long as we can make it I think we got it made
In the good ole USA”
Hollywood seems obsessed with finding talent among the masses with their silly reality show contests like American Idol and The Voice, when in reality there’s a boatload of talent just sitting there waiting to be discovered right under their surgically-crafted, cosmetically-sculptured noses. But of course they don’t want to actually find any talent, because then what would they have to sell commercials for boner pills and high fructose corn syrup in the next season?
So here’s a list of some bands that are go ready, right now, no excuses. These are not fey, artsy acts, goat worshipers, or punk gone country screamo shows. These are performers that even using Music Row’s shallow approach to music, are marketable, young, hip, with hit-caliber songs ready for country radio, excellent live shows, and would immediately improve the quality and appeal of the genre.
This is just my list, admittedly short, so if you have another artist in mind, please use the comments section to share. And no, this is not about selling out stadiums, it is about creating financial sustainability for talented artists that deserve it.
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If music was roulette and Sunday Valley were a square, I’d push my pile of chips and bet on them all in. Sturgill Simpson and the boys are in the studio as we speak making the “Album of their dreams” as Sturg puts it, that will include a guest appearance by Hargus “Pig” Robbins among others, just announced as a 2012 inductee to the Country Music Hall of Fame. But what puts this band over the top is their live performance that harkens back to how one must have felt when Hendrix or Stevie Ray Vaughn took the stage before their break: an unbelievable, dynamic, jaw-dropping experience that leaves you awe-stricken from the combination of originality and sheer talent. Buy your Sunday Valley stock now and watch it rise.
“2012 will be the year of Sunday Valley”. –that’s my quote.
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Hellbound Glory stock has been slowly rising over the last few years, but is still nowhere near where it needs to be. Leroy Virgil is like the Chris LeDoux and Keith Whitley of our time all wrapped up into one. The sideways smile, the legendary-caliber songwriting, there’s no excuses why Hellbound Glory shouldn’t be selling out mid-sized venues and making a fair living playing the type of country music that country music needs. At the least Music Row is a fool for not poaching the Hellbound Glory discography and Leroy Virgil’s brain for his songwriting gold to slot with their already established artists. Every day that goes by that Hellbound Glory remains mired in the underground is another day that country music isn’t putting its best foot forward, and is not making the best case of why it is an important, relevant genre.
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One of the best bands to see live, and Red Dirt DJ’s will tell you songs like “Every Girl” are great for radio. They have a new album coming out on May 8th called Goodbye Normal Street, and let’s hope this is the one that puts them over the top, and past the boundaries of the Texoma corridor. Unlike some of the other artists on this list who find themselves in their mid 30′s, where it feels like the window could be closing for them in the coming years, the Troubadour’s window feels like it is just opening. Potential has always been one of their best assets. Now it’s time for that potential to be cashed in for solid growth and success.
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When the question is posed of who is gonna fill the shoes of the true Outlaws and honky-tonkers, from the ones passed on like Waylon and Paycheck, to the ones going gray like Dale Watson and Marty Stuart, trust me, the answer is not going to be Justin Moore. Whitey Morgan & Co. are the true connection, the current torch bearers of the ballsy, twang-heavy true country sound that would expose all the pop country laundry list fluff from the first listen if only given a chance. Similar to how Bloodshot Records label mate Justin Townes Earle has popped in the last few years, now it is Whitey’s turn. Dues have been been paid. Now it’s time to cash in.
Young Up-And-Comers to Keep an Eye On
Paige Anderson’s ceiling is limitless. Amazing voice with natural pitch and control, and a highly skilled flat-picking guitar player, there’s nothing naturally holding Paige back. And as one of the young leaders in West Coast bluegrass circuits, and the leader of her family’s band “Anderson Family Bluegrass”, she’s shown the ambition and drive an artist needs in this competitive music environment. Young, beautiful, talented, there’s no excuses here, Paige Anderson is ripe to capture America’s heart.
Another heartthrob and superpicker bound for great heights and who started out in a family band, Mad Max & The Wild Ones. A natural leader, he’s been out before paying dues by playing lead guitar for the legendary Wayne “The Train” Hancock and can slide into just about any band or vintage style of music and make it shine. The look and technique are all there, but what puts Wyatt into elite company is his sense of style and taste. As a guitar player or as a band leader, the sky is the limit for young Maxwell.
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Another name I must mention is Ruby Jane, who will unmistakably be huge in music someday, so unmistakably in fact it doesn’t even seem germane to put her on this list. She has moved more into the jazz and singer/songwriter world in recent months and years after her time touring with Willie Nelson and Asleep At The Wheel, but is still a name all lovers of great music should keep up with.
Also the beautiful and talented Rachel Brooke may be a little fey for the wide masses, but her voice and talent is nonetheless undeniable. Just like how Emmylou Harris was the hottest commodity in female harmony singers to put on your album for so many years, Rachel could fulfill this role with the pain in her voice and such mastery of taste and control, while exposing her great original songs to the greater world.
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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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)
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)
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)
Frequent visitors to Saving Country Music know how much of a proponent of Reno, NV’s Hellbound Glory I am. Ever since I heard their second album Old Highs & New Lows over a year ago, there may be no band I’ve pushed harder for, and the album went on to be SCM’s 2010 Album of the Year. If you want to accuse Saving Country Music of being the house organ of Hellbound Glory, guilty as charged. I’m not just drinking the Hellbound Kool-Aid, I’m slapping two fingers on the inside of my arm, looking for a vein to mainline the stuff right in.
Their third official album Damaged Goods offers a shift in their approach, without sacrificing the authentic themes, energy, or the peerless wit in the songwriting that makes Hellbound Glory so engaging. The exit of the band’s drummer “Chico”, and a slightly, and I emphasize slightly tamer approach to the lyricism brings a lot more of an open sound to the band, and a new focus on what has always been their best asset: the songwriting prowess of frontman Leroy Virgil.
Damaged Goods is an excellent album with some excellent songs. The standouts are the heart-pumping opening track “Bastard Child”, and the gear-shifting, slow and soulful “Better Hope You Die Young” that embodies the heart of the Damaged Goods theme. The funnest track on the album is “She Left Me In Modesto”, where Virgil proves he can not only flash his pen with witty turns of of phrase, but also with telling a story. The song is so smart, you can’t help but picture yourself the protagonist, with the big payoff lyric at the end making you laugh out loud. “Lost Cause” is an upbeat song with a downbeat message, built on a bed of steel guitar and sad realism.
I caution, at first smell, the reaction from some familiar with Hellbound Glory will be that there’s no drums, and no drugs, and already I see this as a big talking point about this album going into the release. There is drums, or at least percussion on every song. They could have added more drums, or possibly even had Chico play on this album, but instead decided to take a minimal approach to compliment the songwriting, and to more fairly represent what they do live, which these days features no drummer from financial necessity, just Leroy Virgil sitting on a bass drum backwards to keep the beat.
And the drug references are still there, just slightly more subtle. Hellbound may have been unfairly pigeon-holed by some from Old Highs & New Lows that purposely took songs laced with drug references and bunched them together. But drug references were never all the band was about.
Good songwriters know how to relate to people with wit and authentic subjects and language, and that is what Leroy Virgil does, and did. He works with the language and themes of our time, but in no way is it outside of the boundaries or modes country music has always had. Hank Williams sang about “Honky Tonkin’,” Johnny Cash sang about pills and cocaine. Leroy sang about Oxycontin in the previous album because that is what people can relate to today. Now, as Leroy said himself about Damaged Goods when I interviewed him recently:
…it’s not so much about drugs, but the people that do drugs, the people that are in this scummy lifestyle that we live, why they live that way, and what’s going to happen if they continue living that way.
…taking the cautionary tale-approach to sin that has been a central theme to country music since it’s inception.
I would be lying if I called this my favorite Hellbound Glory album, but I’d also be lying if I said the more stylized and subtle approach doesn’t make this album so much more accessible that it opens Leroy Virgil and Hellbound Glory up to the broader recognition they deserve. The fact that Hellbound Glory, as big as they may be in certain circles, is still a relative unknown, is the clearest evidence I can procure that country music has no idea what it’s doing, and has no working system in place to mine and develop talent. At the least BMI and ASCAP should be shuttling suits out to Reno to poach Leroy’s brain for this high Sierra gold that would instantly raise the bar of songwriting in the mainstream country world.
But that’s where the big question about Leroy and Hellbound come in. Is that what they want? As much as I want to blame the music machine for their idiocy of overlooking Leroy, I think a bigger opportunity is there for Leroy if he wanted it, and was willing to work at it. He’s good enough to be noticed. But his unwillingness to compromise, and his concern that if he systematically changes who he is then the wit would stop flowing, has made him reluctant to aggressively pursue “success” in whatever form.
As for me, I’ve done all I can from my little podium here folks. Whatever cred the name Saving Country Music has, it is behind Hellbound Glory 100%. And now that they have an album where there’s no excuses, the undeniable talent of Hellbound Glory and Leroy Virgil is there for anyone with an authentic country heart to see. It is time for someone to step up. They don’t deserve the SCM Album of the Year, they deserve something better, something more than I can give. It is time for them to graduate, for someone a step higher to step up, put these boys as the opener on a serious tour, get them out of having to battle with a juke box full of rap music at brokedown bars, but also someone who understands their element, and how a loss of authenticity would be their demise.
As for me, I’m out of superlatives, except for one more.
Two guns up!
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The release of Hellbound Glory‘s newest album Damaged Goods on November 15th symbolizes a big opportunity for independent country to put its best foot forward in the form of one of the most cunning and engaging songwriters country music boasts at any level.
Leroy Virgil is not a post-punk recovering metal head with neck tattoos. He’s not a period piece with an anachronistic approach. He’s not aping Waylon. He’s just a simple and honest guy with great songs who even before the release of this album, is already making noise with people outside of the predictable underground country music scenes with the sheer power of the words to his songs. And now he has a project not saddled with such a volume of salacious language, but without sacrificing the authenticity and edge that made Hellbound Glory engaging in the first place.
I talked to Leroy just before a show at The Dirty Dog Saloon in Austin, TX on Oct 21st about Damaged Goods, and the impact the different approach to the music might have.
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Triggerman: You have a new album coming out in a couple of weeks called Damaged Goods. Why don’t you tell folks a little bit about it.
Leroy: Well I think it’s our best work yet. I think it’s a little bit deeper than the other records, a little bit more hardcore, but a bit more understated. Obviously it’s not so much about drugs, but the people that do drugs, the people that are in this scummy lifestyle that we live, why they live that way, and what’s going to happen if they continue living that way.
Triggerman: Chico the drummer is no longer in the band. Some of the tracks have minimalist drums, and some have full drums. What became the drumming approach when Chico left? Or did it kind of work in your advantage to change the sound up, addition by subtraction so to speak?
Leroy: Hated to see Chico go. We were able to turn things down a little bit. I wanted to make something a little bit less in-your-face. Love Chico but he was just sick of the road. Some of the songs on the album I wanted to sound more like they do live, something more quiet, more lyric-driven and instrument-driven. On the other albums Chico’s just an animal. He’s a great drummer, but he’s a loud, powerful drummer.
Triggerman: So what came first, was it Chico leaving or a new approach? Because I know for a while you were talking about doing a project called “The Excavators.”
Leroy: Basically The Excavators became Hellbound Glory. The Excavators was something I was doing on the side back in Reno just to stay working. I just wanted to be able to hire fewer musicians and still be able to work. When Chico left the band, I knew it was going to be hard to replace him with anyone else, so I set up a completely different live show. The live show is basically Hellbound Glory, but it’s also The Excavators, and my new band “The Damaged Good Ole Boys” all in one.
Triggerman: In this new album there’s not the excessive drug references, but I remember you saying about Old Highs & New Lows, that you had taken all of your songs that had drug references and compiled them in that way, and I think maybe that was misleading to some people.
Leroy: Absolutely. That album, some people might think we’re a one trick pony. This album, there are songs about drugs, but it’s just more a picture of Reno nightlife.
Triggerman: People may get the wrong impression though if the first two things they take from the new album is that Chico is gone, so there’s not the pounding drums, and also there’s not as many drug references. Some people might think there’s no energy, or that “they’ve changed” or whatever. But when you listen to Damaged Goods, there’s still a lot of energy and bite to it. How did you keep that energy while losing a great drummer, while taking tricks out of your bag so to speak?
Leroy: We just bring it no matter what. We’re all energetic people, we all live these songs. I just think the album is more soulful more than anything. So hopefully people get a better chance to listen to the lyrics.
Triggerman: As far as the new direction with the new album, in the last couple of years, things have changed in your personal life, you have a wife and kid now. I guess the old chiche is you have a wife and kid and you start to settle down.
Leroy: I don’t have an option to settle down, this is all I know to do, is to play music. And it’s fucking hard obviously, the home life is difficult being away from my kid so much. But I think having a kid has just made me more hardcore.
Triggerman: I’ve heard some other songs live that are not on this album. Do you have more material coming up?
Leroy: Yes. In fact I’ve got a new song I’m going to play tonight called “Small Town Shit Going Down.” This next album is going to be about small town life, that isn’t on TV, that isn’t being covered by fucking Jason Aldean or Toby Keith. Because when I travel around this country, and we’ve been traveling through the country the last 6 months, playing shit towns and shit honky tonks where they have to play rap music between our sets. And we go out and party with these people, and their life isn’t being portrayed on CMT. I want to do something that’s a little more real deal, gritty, down home.
Triggerman: What is your hope with this album? When it comes to Hellbound Glory, there seems to be a consensus amongst critics that it’s great stuff. But as you go from town to town, there could probably be more people there. Hellbound Glory is a critic’s favorite, but that doesn’t always translate to people at shows, or money for your kid.
Leroy: Well I’m just going to keep slogging away at it the only way I know how: work hard. This is the hardest way to make easy money. I love what I do. I don’t get paid to play music, I get paid to drive around with stinky bastards in a pickup truck.
Triggerman: Anything else you want to tell people about the album?
Leroy: Well, just listen to the words.
Reno, Nevada’s Hellbound Glory has announced plans for a brand new album. The working title is Damaged Goods, and it is set to be out by the end of this summer. But wait Don Pardo, there’s more. Frontman, singer, and songwriter Leroy Virgil is also working on an EP for his more signer/songwriter-oriented side project called “The Excavators” that has the tentative title of Underground.
Hellbound Glory’s 2010 offering Old Highs & New Lows was a critic’s favorite, winning praise from The 9513 and Country California to name a few, and was Saving Country Music’s 2010 Album of the Year. With Old Highs and their freshman album Scumbag Country, Leory Virgil proved himself a preeminent songwriter, backed by a badass stable of musicians.
The band is also currently booking a European Tour for November and December.
Saving Country Music captured a few new songs during Hellbound’s 2011 South by Southwest appearance that we might see on one of the new projects, and there’s a couple more on the official bootleg Live From The Cracker Swamp.
On March 27th, 2011, Hellbound Glory, the most underrated country band in the world, made a tour stop at Will’s Pub in Orlando, FL. Down a man on the tour to begin with, then down their bass player a few nights before, with their fill-in steel player filling in on bass the day after getting beat up by a bunch of bikers in a “wrong place, wrong time” situation, the remaining members rallied, reached down deep, and pulled out a remarkable, rememberable performance as a power trio that will forever be known as “The Concert in the Cracker Swamp”.
Leroy Virgil, lead singer and songwriter left his acoustic in the case and manned lead guitar, Chico on drums played with the energy of two men, and Rico, hours out of the hospital, manned the four string. Those few that were there in-person, and those listening all across the world on SCM LIVE, could feel that this was no ordinary night, with no ordinary band, playing no ordinary songs.
Hellbound Glory, Rusty Knuckles, Reverend Nix of Cracker Swamp Productions, and Saving Country Music have combined to bring you the full audio from that night for your listening pleasure. It includes many of their top songs from their two albums–Old Highs and New Lows and Scumbag Country–as well as excellent renditions of classics like Waylon Jennings’ “Amanda” and Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m On Fire”.
Please make sure to stop by Hellbound Glory’s online store at rustyknuckles.com and offer your financial support, and keep your eyes peeled for concert dates to see them live.
- Another Bender Might Break Me
- Livin’ That Way You Better Hope You Die Young
- Livin’ This Way
- Chico’s Train
- I’ll Be Your Rock (At Rock Bottom)
- Hank Williams Records
- Hello Five-O
- Why Take The Pain
- The Ballad of Scumbag Country
- Women I’ve Never Had
- Hellbound Glory
- I’m On Fire
- Good Hearted Woman
- Be My Crutch
- Waylon Never Done It Their Way
- Too Broke to Overdose
- Slow Suicide
- 11 Months, 29 Days
- You Can’t Fight Fire with Firewater
Hellbound Glory was also recently featured on Colfax Radio.
Just announced, this Sunday night (3-27), Hellbound Glory will be broadcasting their performance at Will’s Pub in Orlando, FL on SCM LIVE! Tune in at 9 PM Eastern, 8 Central for opening act Lone Wolf OMB, who just released his debut album a few weeks ago.
I just had the fortune of seeing Hellbound Glory less than a week ago at South by Southwest. It’s a rarity to get such a great mix of top notch songwriting, with an energetic and fun live show. Leroy Virgil’s soul is like a fount of country music. He’s one of those rare birds where songs just burst out of him so quickly and so fluidly, a concerned observer might worry some or many of them would be lost down the drain. Hank Williams was like that. Many other professional songwriters like Roger Alan Wade are like that.
And usually those types live with their demons right up at the surface, and having spent a good amount of time around Leroy during SXSW, I can say he has that disposition as well. That’s how you know his songs are genuine. There is a fire in his eye, and a perennial sideways grin that hints of the no-good running through his brain. However with a kid to his name now, Leroy seemed to know his limitations and boundaries. He may be up until 5 AM, but it will be drinking beer and swapping licks on the guitar, not snorting coke and taking a ride in a police car.
Leroy told me right now he has two full albums of material to record with Hellbound Glory, and two more albums with a new project he’s put together called “The eXcavators”. He debuted a few new songs during the Rusty Knuckles Showcase at SXSW, and I had my camera ready to capture a couple of them, and one of their older, signature songs. Check out the wordsmithing at the beginning of the first video, and please join us Sunday night for this rare live broadcast.
South by Southwest last year was my first full on experience with the event that brings over 8,000 bands from all over the world to Austin for 5 days of musical mayhem, and it went great. With proper pacing and maybe a little luck, I got everything out of the experience I could ever want. 2011 was one of those experiences you hear many people talk about that is proceeded by “…and I will never go back.” But now that I live near Austin, SXSW comes to me whether I want it to or not. I can’t fool myself into thinking those lineups will not tempt me back, and overall, there was more good than bad.
It started Wednesday at noon with a brief stop to watch Ruby Jane with her duo lineup, and then I headed to the “American Songwriter” showcase at Swan Dive, where I would spend the majority of the day. I got there just in time to catch the last two songs of Jessica Lea Mayfield, and then see an unfortunate incident between her and the guitarist for Apache Relay where some spit was swapped, but not in an affectionate manner. It was pretty appropriate to how the week would go. By happenstance I found myself sharing a couch in the back with Hayes Carll, who i’d just recently written a mixed album review for.
Triggerman: Hey, my name’s The Triggerman from savingcountrymusic.com
Hayes: Oh yeah, I just heard about that site the other day. That article.
But Hayes was a really cool guy. His set was just like I asserted in my review: fun with good songs and worth hearing. But Townes Van Zandt, he is not. I was also able to speak at length with Caitlin Rose, though unfortunately that interview might be lost. She was a highlight of the American Songwriter showcase, and of SXSW in general, and will likely get her own live review coming soon.
Next was Jason Isbell, who I just found hard to get into without a band and in such a big, crowded room. I was glad to see Amanda Shires with him on fiddle; that was a treat. Jason may have some good songs, but he is no Justin Townes Earle. He needs a band. The Civil Wars were an unexpected treat as well, though just like I tweeted afterwards, I have serious reservations that a duo that spends their whole set lovingly gazing into each other’s eyes has any staying power or deep appeal. It’s just too hokey, effeminate, and in the end inaccessible by most for admittedly bias and unfair reasons. Their vocal antics cannot be denied though. They were the best two singers I saw all week, and paired up they were better than the sum of their parts, but I walked away with question marks about their songwriting as they covered a nursery rhyme, and Michael Jackson’s “Billy Jean”. They smacked of a trend.
Later that night found me out of the downtown corridor, and north at Spider House where I saw Slim Cessna’s Auto Club. I couldn’t add more accolades that what I gave them last year at SXSW, but putting aside the Austin bands I see frequently like Ruby Jane and Possessed by Paul James, they were the best performance I saw all week. Unfortunately I was only able to catch the last few songs of Otis Gibbs after Slim Cessna. What I saw was good, and reminded me a lot of a road warrior version of Roger Alan Wade.
Thursday I had to take a breather if I was to make it through the weekend, and so the only show I caught was Trampled by Turtles in the early evening. The showcase at Homeslice Pizza was running an hour late, and an over-served hipster dumped two full glasses on beer down the from of me as I stood in the packed parking lot. The Turtles were great, but not appreciably better than their albums, if that makes sense. Their albums are great, and their live set is great, but seeing some bands live raises their value.
Friday morning I tried to juggle too much, going back and forth from The Bloodshot Records Day Party, to Opal Divine’s for the TeXchromosome showcase for women artists. I did bump into Izzy Cox, and got to see Ted Russel Kamp perform with Robin Wiley, and Ted Russel gave me a copy of his new CD out in May. A morning blown in commuting back and forth was made up for by the Hillgrass Bluebilly XSXSW Showcase at Hole in the Wall north of downtown. The Harmed Brothers kicked the show off with a really cool unmiked, unplugged set in the middle of the bar. Soda and Shake It Like a Caveman brought two version of amazing muddy blues, and not particularly bluesy or country, but very good was Drag The River, who I had honestly never heard of until then. Very good, honest songwriting and good energy from Drag The River.
Possessed by Paul James headlined, and folks, Possessed is honestly becoming a top tier performer in the underground movement. I mean it is time to start including his name with people like Hank III, Wayne “The Train” Hancock, and Scott Biram. His set was dogged by technical problems, which seems to be common with him, and this resulted in him singing three songs a capella, but like always, the problems almost lend to the show, and create cool scenarios and moments that would have never been if everything went perfect. The Hillgrass showcase was also the first place I got to meet Jason and Anthony Galaz of The Muddy Roots Festival, and Autopsy IV of ninebullets.net.
And speaking of, Saturday started with a ninebullets.net showcase in east Austin, where I got to see the great Austin Lucas with his sister on banjo perform (video coming), and one of the best highlights of SXSW, Two Car Garage. Because there were logistics issues at the beginning of the showcase, Two Cow played an unplugged, acoustic set. It is not really country, but folks, this was some of the best, soulful songwriting I heard all week. You will be hearing more about Two Car from me soon.
Then it was on to the madness of downtown and Hellbound Glory at the Rusty Knuckles showcase. Hellbound was as spectacular as I could expect. Excellent energy, amazing songs, and they played a lot of new ones as well (video coming). I can’t emphasize enough that Hellbound Glory deserves top billing. They should be huge. Leroy Virgil is a genius country songwriter, and Chico is the best full-on drummer in country music right now.
Then I had to hike on foot all the way across town to the roof of the Whole Foods headquarters for a Ruby Jane show. It was worth the walk. Then it was back to downtown for the Bloodshot Records official showcase at Red Eye Fly. The night was dogged with sound issues, especially during the legendary Waco Brothers’ set, though they are so good and so fun, they can power through anything. Luckily they got the sound problems resolved before Ha Ha Tonka took the stage; one band that I swore I would spend more time with after last year’s Bloodshot showcase, and I will swear I will again. Excellent harmonies, fun energy, good songs, and a new album coming out next week.
Then Whitey Morgan & The 78′s capped SXSW 2011 off shortly after 1 AM, with a ball-crushing set of real deal, honky-tonk Outlaw country that included Eddie Spaghetti joining them on stage for Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried”. Last year right before SXSW is when it was announced that Whitey had signed with Bloodshot. A year later, they have arrived, and in a huge fashion, headlining the whole event.
If I were to take four big things from SXSW, that would be one of them: the arrival of Whitey Morgan & The 78′s as a premier, accepted, and loved honky tonk band. The other three would be the songwriting of Two Cow Garage, the continued badassedry of Slim Cessna’s Auto Club live, and the potential of Caitlin Rose.
(stay tuned for an upcoming video recap as well)
Last Sunday in Chicago an amazing show went down featuring Six Gun Britt, Last False Hope, and one of the fastest rising bands in country, Hellbound Glory. Afterward Jashie P. of Outlaw Radio Chicago (and Last False Hope) sat down with Hellbound Glory’s Leroy Virgil for an interview. I have transcribed the meat of it below, but you can listen to it in is entirety on Episode 109 at savingcountrymusic.com/outlaw-radio.
Outlaw Radio broadcasts LIVE every Wednesday night at 8 PM Central on scrubradio.com, and each show is archived right here.
Outlaw Radio: You’ve had some write-up from some pretty good sources. What do you think of all this attention your new album has been getting?
Leroy: I don’t know, I dig it man. I don’t write the songs just to sit there and sing them for my old lady and friends back in Reno. You know I write them because I want people to hear it, hear my story and what I think of the world, you know. And hopefully try to connect with people in some way. So yeah, I’m honored and extremely proud.
Leroy: Some of the songs on Old Highs are older than the songs on Scumbag. I’ve been writing country songs for so long, you have them stored away. I wrote “Hard Livin’ Man” when I was 19, and I wrote “Hank Williams Records’ when I was 21 and had recorded them prior, and yeah, I just didn’t like the recordings. So I wanted to put together all my best songs about a period in my life with a divorce, a heavy drug addiction, heavy drinking, and just a rough patch in my life. Old Highs is really looking back and saying “Man, I was really messing up.”
Outlaw Radio: Do you think you guys will ever kick it into the mainstream scene at all?
Leroy: I try not to think about it all that much man. Trying to write better songs all the time. My whole thing is I just want to write the best songs about my own life that I could possibly. So whether it sounds Nashville or anything like that, its just me. In terms of just the craft of songwriting, I don’t want to sound like anybody. I want to make my own sound, my own words, sing my own stuff. We get a lot of comparisons to Hank Williams III because of the lyrical content, but to be honest with you I’ve been writing about drugs and booze since I was 16 because drugs and booze have always taken a pretty big part of my life. Now that I’m older, I’m not trying to settle down, but there’s more to life than just being self destructive, and there’s more to life than writing about that sort of stuff. You know, trying to learn to think about things a little more deeply.
Outlaw Radio: You’ve got a kid on the way you told me yesterday so congratulations on that. What does your wife think about you being on the road and everything else.
Leroy: My wife is just the coolest woman. She’s a music fan. She’s a fellow lost soul like me. Any talk of quitting music she’s like “no fucking way.”
Outlaw Radio: This is a question I ask most first-time interviewees. What do you think of the state of so called country music right now?
Leroy: I think it’s all about the songs, I don’t care whose singing them so much. If its a good song its a good song. A lot of these Nashville hits that come out, if it was just some dude playing an acoustic guitar and singing in your living room you’d say “Man, that’s actually a pretty good song.” One thing I will say is, where’s the outsider, other than Jamey Johnson? Having said that Alan Jackson can bring me to tears man. He’s just a guy writing about his own life. That is what country music is supposed to be about.
Outlaw Radio: What on the horizon for Hellbound Glory?
Leroy: I’m writing all sorts of new stuff. For the Hellbound Glory thing, and stuff on my own, maybe a little bit more laid back. Hellbound Glory is gonna go in and start recording a new album. I’ve got so many songs just sitting around. We just don’t have the money to record all the songs basically. We’re limited by our funds. Because if we had the money we’d have a new album out about every six months.
Outlaw Radio: Is there any label interest in you guys?
Leroy: We’ve talked with a few labels and its not really panning out right now. Who knows if we want to go with a label?
“I can’t listen to music if I don’t think I’d like the guy singing it. That’s why I’m not big in to Old Crow Medicine Show. I like some of their songs, I’m just not a fan. Not to talk shit. I have to feel that sort of spirit.”
When I first heard Old Crow’s self-titled album, I ate it right up. With instant classics like “Tell It To Me” and “Wagon Wheel,” OCMS became a popular band for such a rootsy, raw sound, and a major influence in alt-country/roots music. But as I listened to that album and their subsequent releases, my mood on them began to grow sour. Their songwriting skills cannot be denied, and their arrangement and harmonies are superb. But the instrumentation can be sloppy, which at first is endearing, but slowly becomes revealing.
Then there is them “effecting” their voices, trying to sound like Southern bumpkin fallover drunks, when in reality their stone sober in an air conditioned studio. Take their song CC Rider as an example. I’ll eat a bug if this is how these guys sound in real life. The part where Ketch or Willie (not sure which one) says “Play a little while let me get my harmonica,” in such a ridiculously overacted voice makes me want to take the CD and smash it against the wall and never speak of it again. This is what Leroy Virgil was talking about, that lack of genuineness.
They also love to get political on your ass. And not in a cool, ambiguous “the government’s gone nuts” kind of way, but in a way that makes them come across as pushy, pointy nosed intellectual liberals living in very tight reality tunnels, clashing with their bumpkin uneducated style of music. For example in their song “Humdinger” off of Tennessee Pusher the line is, “If you’re not a right winger, then we’ll all have a humdinger.”
My guess is there’s many more “Humdingers” involving “Wine, whiskey, women, AND GUNS” going on in red states than blue, and in my life experience, whether you have a “D” or an “R” in front of your name makes no difference how much you partake in the previously-quoted vices.
Recently their music has become more mainstream. I love the producer Don Was, but why do you need a big name producer to make what is supposed to be simple old time string music?
Without question, Old Crow Medicine Show has been a great ambassador for dirty roots music. I also know that Doc Watson, Emmylou Harris and other high profile people have put their name behind them. But to me they’ve always felt like they are on the outside looking in at what’s really going on in the roots movement, that they’re missing that “soul.” Sure they’re good, but there’s so much better. That’s why a few years back OCMS had to open for the .357 String Band instead of vice versa in Europe, because for whatever reason, the Europeans have a better nose for authenticity than the American public.
I’m not saying I hate the music. On the contrary. But the OCMS approach has given me a love/hate relationship with this band.
What do YOU think?
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