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Willie Nelson is in many ways a microcosm of the American experience. He grew up during The Depression, had a rough and tumble youth, battled through familial and financial problems for years, struck it rich, and reformed himself from his violent past to become one of the world’s most well-known and greatest pacifists and advocates for the poor and social justice. Lots of wisdom can be gleaned about life from simply studying the life of Willie Nelson . And ultimately, he is undoubtedly one hell of a badass.
1. Surviving a Plane Crash
As told by Willie Nelson’s friend, professional golfer Larry Trader:
“Willie was flying in to the landing strip near Happy Shahan’s Western town that they used for the Alamo movie set. Happy is watching the plane coming in, knowing Willie is on it. The plane hits a big chughole in the strip and flips over on its side and crashes. Happy likes news and publicity, you know, so first thing he does is pick up the phone and call the radio stations, the TV, the newspapers. Happy says, ‘Willie Nelson’s plane just crashed. Y’all better hurry.’
“He jumped in a Jeep and drove out to the crash to pick up the remains. And here comes Willie and his pilot, limping up the road. The media people were arriving by then. They started firing questions at Willie. How did he survive? Was he dying? Was he even hurt? Willie smiles and says, ‘Why, this was a perfect landing. I walked away from it, didn’t I?’”
2. Recording Red Headed Stranger for $4,000
That’s right. Arguably the greatest, most influential album in the history of country music was recorded on a shoestring budget at the renegade and recently-opened Autumn Sound Studios in the Dallas suburb of Garland in January 1975. Autumn Sound engineer Phil York was trying to promote the new studio, knew Willie through harmonica player Mickey Raphael, and offered Willie a free day of recording. With complete creative control over the album as part of his new contract with Columbia Records, Willie set out to record a stripped-down conceptualized record that was like nothing the overproducing bean counters on Music Row had ever heard. Willie’s version of “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain” became Willie’s first #1, and the album remains many critic’s pick for the best country record ever. Eat that Music Row.
3. Gun Battle at the Birmingham Coliseum
After playing a concert in Birmingham, Alabama in the late 70′s, Willie and the band found themselves in the middle of a gun battle in a six-story parking garage as they were unloading gear from the stage. Though the story involves Willie getting involved in the fracas with his own weaponry, it also illustrates Willie’s unique disposition as a peacemaker.
“All of a sudden we hear ‘Kaboom! Kaboom!’” Willie’s long-time stage manager “Poodie” Locke recalls. “It’s the sound of a .357 magnum going off in the parking garage. The echoes sound like howitzer shells exploding. It’s kind of semi-dark, and this guy comes blowing through this parking deck…now here comes this bitch with a fucking pistol. ‘Kaboom!’ She’s chasing this motherfucker. It sounds like a fucking war.”
At the time, Willie Nelson and most of his band and road crew carried pistols as a matter of habit. The scene became chaotic as the shooting happened right as the crowd from the show was filing out into the parking garage.
“People are piling out of the show and they start scattering,” Poodie continues. “Here come the cops from every direction. They’re flying out of their cars, hitting the parking deck, spread-eagling the whole crowd–’On the deck, motherfuckers!’–because the cops don’t know who is shooting at who…All these cops are squatting down in the doorjambs, turning people over, frisking them, aiming guns at everybody, just waiting for the next shot to be fired.”
“And here comes Willie. He walks off the bus wearing cutoffs and tennis shoes, and he’s got two huge Colt .45 revolvers stuck in his waist. The barrels are so long they stick out the bottom of his cutoffs. Two shining motherfucking pistols in plain sight of a bunch of cops nervous as shit. Willie just walks over and says, ‘What’s the trouble?’ Well he’s got some kind of aura to him that just cools everything out. The cops put up their guns, the people climb off the concrete, and pretty soon Willie is signing autographs.”
Along with Neil Young and John Mellencamp, Willie Nelson founded the annual benefit concert in 1985 to help raise money for struggling farmers that has since become an American institution. Before a crowd of 80,000, 52 performers at the original Farm Aid raised $9 million for American farmers. Then Willie went to Capitol Hill with a group of struggling farmers to petition the government for aid. The end result was the Agricultural Credit Act of 1987 that helped many American farmers avoid foreclosure.
5. Bailing Dennis Hopper Out Of Jail in Taos, NM
Dennis was a part-time resident of the small northern New Mexico town of Taos. Back in the mid 70′s it was a hangout for country music types and Hollywood misfits like Hopper. It was also the scene of one of the most crazy country music stories involving Willie, Hopper, and of all people, golf pro Larry Trader.
“In Taos I had gotten real drunk and proceeded to win a lot of acid in a poker game, so I swallowed the acid and saw weird dangerous shit going on, and I pulled my pistol out of my boot and shot up the plaza. I was ranting and raving in the jail, people were out to get me, man, and here came the sheriff saying Willie Nelson had come and paid my bill and was waiting outside. I was free to go with him.
“I freaked fucking out. Willie Nelson? Come on, man, who do you think you’re kidding? You’re gonna lure me out and yell jailbreak and blow my ass away! But I thought, hey, be cool, you are after all hallucinating all this. So I walked out of jail and got into Willie’s Mercedes with him and his wife Connie and his golf pro Larry Trader. We drove across the desert towards Las Vegas. Willie and Trader and I nearly drove Connie crazy with our laughing and shouting.”
6. Taking the Rap for Pot Bust in Texas
When Willie Nelson’s Honeysuckle Rose III was searched at the border patrol checkpoint in Sierra Blanca, Texas in November of 2010 and agents found 6 ounces of marijuana, anyone could have copped to the stash, or Willie could have pulled a “Do you know who I am ?!?” moment. But instead he offered his wrists to authorities, knowing that his arrest would prove the futility of the criminalization of marijuana that he’d been advocating against for many years.
Willie was booked into custody, a mug shot was taken, and he was later released on $2,500 bond. Eventually a plea deal was reached with prosecutors, and Willie paid a fine and spent 30 days on probation.
7. Dripping Springs Reunion and the 4th of July Picnics
Even though the events have many times been an annual financial bloodbath, Willie’s commitment to them has been steadfast, and they have become a Texas and American institution. It started with the Dripping Springs reunion in 1973, with the idea of putting on a “hillbilly Woodstock.” The Dripping Springs reunion featured Bill Monroe, Buck Owens, Charlie Rich, Dottie West, Roger Miller, Loretta Lynn, right beside Willie, Waylon Jennings, and Kris Kristofferson. Over the years the picnics have gone on to feature artists forgotten by Nashville and up-and-comers right beside big name talent. And because more times than not they have been losing propositions financially, it’s been Willie’s commitment that has kept them going.
8. Getting Lost in Baton Rouge
As told by Willie’s manager Mark Rothbaum
“Willie and I were at a hotel in Baton Rouge on the evening of a concert. We were on the twenty-third floor, and we could see the coliseum in a straight line from our windows. Looked like it was just right over there. So we decided we would run to the concert. Willie and I took off running through Baton Rouge after dark. We ran and kept on running through the neighborhoods, and we still weren’t arriving at the concert. After we had run ten miles, we decided we were totally lost. The gig was starting, and we had no idea where we were.
“Willie said, ‘I’ll just go up to that house and knock on the door and ask for help.’ I said, ‘You can’t knock on some stranger’s door.’
“He said, ‘I ain’t a stranger. I’m Willie Nelson.’”
9. “Shotgun Willie” & The Great Ridgetop Shootout
It was in the aftermath of an incident that would later be remembered as the “Great Ridgetop Shootout” that Willie Nelson got the nickname “Shotgun Willie.” Ridgetop was the house Willie lived in just outside of Nashville in the late 60′s. When it burned down in 1970, it stimulated Willie’s move back to Texas. In 1969, Willie and his first wife Martha separated, and his second wife Shirley moved into Ridgetop. Willie and Martha had three children, and right before Christmas in 1969, Willie’s youngest daughter Susie told Willie that his oldest daughter Lana was being physically assaulted by her husband Steve Warren.
“I ran for my truck and drove to the place where Steve and Lana lived and slapped Steve around,” Willie recalls. “He really pissed me off. I told him if he ever laid a hand on Lana again, I would come back and drown his ass. No sooner did I get back to Ridgetop than here came Steve in his car, shooting at the house with a .22 rifle. I was standing in the door of the barn and a bullet tore up the wood two feet from my head. I grabbed an M-1 rifle and shot at Steve’s car. Steve made one pass and took off.”
But this wasn’t where the incident ended. Willie drove back to Steve and Lana’s to confront Steve again, but he was gone and had kidnapped their young son Nelson Ray. Lana also told Willie that Steve was looking to “get rid of him (Willie) as his top priority.” So what did Willie do? He drove back to Ridgetop and waited for him.
“Thinking Steve would come to Ridgetop to pick me off about dusk, I hid in the truck so he couldn’t tell if I was home. We laid a trap for him. I had my M-1 and a shotgun. He drove by the house, and I ran out the garage door. Steve saw me and took off. That’s when I shot his car and shot out his tire. Steve called the cops on me. Instead of explaining the whole damn mess, the beatings and the semi-kidnapping and shooting and all, I told the officers he must have run over the bullet. The police didn’t want to get involved in hillbilly family fights. They wrote down what I told them on their report and took off.”
10. Building His Own Town
It’s called Luck, TX, and it was originally constructed as part of the set of the movie The Red Headed Stranger released in 1986 as a companion to Willie’s album of the same name. The town was originally called Willieville, and was constructed to be a replica of Driscoll, Montana. It sits across the street from Willie’s golf course about 30 miles outside of Austin. The remarkable thing about Luck is it’s not just a Hollywood facade, but a collection of real buildings that despite their purposefully rustic condition, are generally solid structures that could constitute a real old-time town, with a church, opera house, and various other buildings. And the town is still used upon occasion for movies, video shoots, and special events including an annual music showcase around South by Southwest.
And then of course, there was that time he smoked pot on top of The White House…but that’s another story.
Quotes taken from the autobiography Willie, by Willie Nelson with Bud Shrake.
Today it was announced that Austin, TX would be the site for iHeartRadio’s first ever dedicated country music festival, transpiring at Austin’s Frank Erwin Center on March 29th, with a list of top tier headliner talent including Eric Church, Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean, Florida Georgia Line, Lady Antebellum, Carrie Underwood, Jake Owen, Hunter Hayes, and others to be announced. iHeart is the online radio streaming arm of American radio monolith Clear Channel, and rising Clear Channel “country” personality Bobby Bones, who got his Clear Channel start on Austin’s pop station, will serve as host.
There is so much that is ill-conceived about this, I’m not sure where to start. iHeart has been throwing “festivals” for a while now, but their traditional home has been Las Vegas. Clearly iHeart wanted to find an alternative to the obvious selection of Nashville, where they would have to compete with much more well-established country events clogging the civic calendar. But throwing a corporate country event in Austin, especially at that time of the year will be about as popular in Austin as running over a bicyclist in your Hummer.
About all this festival will be good for when it comes to the Austin populous will be as a curiosity for hipsters to oogle at through their Sally Jessy Raphael glasses as they ride their fixie bikes past the spectacle, sipping on raw food smoothies on their way to brainstorming sessions devising ways to defund Monsanto by setting up micro loans to African women and targeted eco-terrorism strikes.
The general Austin, TX population has so little interest in this iHeartRadio lineup, it’s laughable that iHeart can’t even be perceptive enough to add even one or two local names to help dull the pain of such an obviously imported corporate country bill. Kudos to whoever in the local Austin government conned iHeart into thinking that Austin’s east downtown corridor is a destination spot for people who are willing to travel hundreds of miles to hear Jason Aldean sing “1994.” Instead of the garish finery of the Las Vegas strip, Luke Bryan and Florida Georgia Line fans can look forward to legions of homeless peddlers clogging their walking path, an army of construction cranes piercing the skyline in their headlong effort to erect an empire of prefabricated McCondo monstrosities, the 3rd worst traffic snarl in the United States of America, and crumbling fair trade coffee shops oozing with unbathed, deadlocked career students preaching that 9/11 was a conspiracy.
The worst part about iHeartRadio’s country festival might be the timing. Despite whatever best efforts they implement in regards to promotion, locally the event will be dwarfed by South by Southwest the week before, boasting thousands of free concerts, showcasing both local and independent talent, and big national names. South by Southwest is arguably one of the biggest music festivals in the entire world in regards to breadth and the amount of performances that transpire all across Austin over a 5 day period.
And don’t forget that Rodeo Austin also happens the week before, and is featuring its own lineup of big names, including Loretta Lynn, Dustin Lynch, Thompson Square, Chris Young, Josh Turner, Willie Nelson, Eli Young Band, Lee Brice, Scotty McCreery, and Dwight Yoakam. There’s already legions of Austinites that provision up when March comes and never leave the homes because of the nightmare South by Southwest and Rodeo Austin bring to their fair city. The idea that they’ll peek their head out and head downtown just because Hunter Hayes is finally making his way to Austin is quite ripe.
So will the iHeartRadio Country Festival be a colossal failure? Of course not, because they have the backing of the biggest corporate country network in the world to help promote it. Pliable corporate country music fans from all across the country will be more than happy to burn vacation time to see their favorite Budweiser and designer jeans sponsors in one place, edifying them with the finest of Music Row’s formulaic pap filtered through Auto-tuners.
Stock up on cans of Axe Body Spray and rape kits Austin, you’ll need ‘em.
Black Friday of 2013 finds Garth Brooks commanding the country music consciousness with the release of a massive 8-disc Blame It All On My Roots box set that includes four new studio albums of cover songs, a re-release of his 2007 two-disc Ultimate Hits collection, a DVD of his two-hour acoustic show, and another DVD with a collection of his music videos. All of this is exclusively being sold at Wal-Mart, and being promoted with a two-hour acoustic special airing on CBS celebrating the end of his performance residency at the Wynn Casino in Las Vegas.
But all of this is simply a holiday cash grab for Garth. It’s not the album or albums of new, original music that many Garth fans have been waiting the better part of 13 years for. Garth continues to hint that new music may be on the horizon, but has yet to give any certainty to anything aside from his hope that if he does make a comeback, it will be very big, and could involve his wife Trisha Yearwood.
When talking to the Associated Press on November 27th, Garth said, “Me and Miss Yearwood are free to do whatever it is we want to do. And I’ve got to tell you: Anything I do with that woman, I’m fine with. Any place that I am with that woman is home to me. But if I have my wishes, it’s going to be filled with music, and it’s going to be filled with music at a level I’ve never seen before.“
How Garth could achieve a level higher than the already world-beating status of being one of the top 3 highest earning music entertainers in history is an interesting proposal, especially since Garth has renewed his commitment to not release his music digitally either through iTunes, Spotify, or anywhere else “…until they change or I change, or some other company comes and gives them some competition, then I don’t think you’re ever going to see us on iTunes,” says Garth. Or maybe the definition of what Garth means by “level” has changed.
Garth Brooks who “retired” in 2001 to spend more time with his family is about to celebrate the graduation of his youngest daughter from High School in the spring of 2014, potentially stimulating a rebirth of his career. The move could come at a critical time in country music where the vestiges of country music’s traditional past are fading away with the retirement of George Strait and the loss of radio play for others. Garth has released four songs from his box set to radio, including a remake of the Loretta Lynn / Conway Twitty duet “After The Fire Is Gone.” You can LISTEN HERE.
***NOTE: This story has been updated.
Garth Brooks, who’s been making overtures recently about a country music comeback and new releases, will reportedly be releasing a box set called Blame It All On My Roots: Five Decades of Influences through Wal-Mart on November 28th. The initial announcement about the release was made briefly during Garth’s television special also entitled Blame It All On My Roots that aired Saturday night (11-9) on GAC. The box set will include 6 CD’s and two DVD’s, with 10 songs on each disc covering the various influences that went into Garth’s country career.
The project appears to be mirroring the theme of Garth’s recent shows in Las Vegas of exploring his roots through cover songs. Four discs will be entitled Country Classics, Classic Rock, Blue-Eyed Soul, and Melting Pot for their respective influences. Some of the songs that will be covered in the release include the classic Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn duet “After The Fire Is Gone” with wife Trisha Yearwood, Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through The Grapevine,” Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Great Balls Of Fire,” Cat Stevens’ “Wild World,” and Simon & Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson.”
Garth’s final show at Wynn Casino’s Encore Theater in Las Vegas is set to air as a CBS Special on November 28th.
The inaugural inductees to the Outlaw Music Hall of Fame set to open in the Spring of 2014 in Lynchburg, TN have been unveiled. In an event carried live during a 3-day concert in Altamont, TN, the 17 initial inductees were announced in two different categories: Pioneers/Innovators (Pre-1970), and Highwaymen (1970-1990).
Along with the official inductees, the Outlaw Music Hall of Fame also announced Guardian Award winners. The Guardian Award is not a Hall of Fame induction, but a one-year award meant to honor an artist’s hard work and unwavering commitment to their music and their fans and best exemplify the tradition of those who came before them. The Hall of Fame also announced that fans will be able to vote on Guardian Award winners in the upcoming years.
OUTLAW HALL OF FAME INDUCTEES
- Hank Williams Sr.
- Loretta Lynn
- The Carter Family
- Bobby Bare
- Chris Gantry
- Willie Nelson
- Waylon Jennings
- David Allan Coe
- Kris Kristofferson
- Merle Haggard
- Johnny Cash
- Johnny Paycheck
- Sammi Smith
- Steve Young
- Jessi Colter
- Hank Williams Jr.
- Billy Joe Shaver
- Dallas Moore
- Wayne Mills
- Hank Williams III
- Jamey Johnson
- Whitey Morgan
The Hall of Fame is dedicated to those artists, both musicians and songwriters, whose work best exemplifies the qualities of the Outlaw movement that first began in the 1970′s and has gained renewed momentum as an alternative to the current Nashville pop country scene. In doing so it will place the spotlight on music firmly attached to the roots of country. Moreover, the Hall of Fame will educate the public about Outlaw country, memorialize founders of the genre—such as Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Jessi Colter—recognize current Outlaw artists, and provide a platform for them and for the independent record labels who currently have little if any voice in the industry.
The facility, due to open in spring of 2014, will encompass more than 5,000 square feet and feature a state-of-the-art layout, including interactive displays. There will also be a studio to allow for live broadcasts to be streamed over the Internet. Located on the town square in Lynchburg, the Outlaw Music Hall of Fame will sponsor a concert series each April to November to showcase independent roots country artists.
Gone are the days of the legendary duet pairings in country music like George and Tammy, Loretta and Conway, right? Well they may not boast beehive doos or lamb chops, or grace the stage of the CMA Awards or come beaming into your home or buggy via the miracle of Clear Channel radio, but the Austin country scene’s power couple of Brennen Leigh and Noel McKay have revitalized the country duet concept album in a smart, brilliant, hilarious, and sweet offering called Before The World Was Made.
You’ll be sorely disappointed if you’re in the mood for sappy sonnets serenading the human love quotient. This is a love album for lovers who hate each other, and love each other all the same. It’s not that sentimentality doesn’t show its face here, but just like the real world, Before The World Was Made is not afraid to delve into the turbulence of love, to tickle the funny bone, and to tell it like it is.
This album is the perfect soundtrack to an “it’s complicated” relationship status, with ingenious songs like “Breaking Up Is Easy,” “Breaking Up and Making Up Again,” “Be My Ball and Chain,” and “Let’s Don’t Get Married.” Yes, it sounds like a gloomy outlook, but underlying every song of this “on again, off again” album is a sweet love story that you can’t help believing mirrors Brennen Leigh’s and Noel McKay’s real-life narrative.
You can relate to their silly little squabbles and how they plot to resolve them with a positive ending. The way these songs work is both classic and fresh. Even walking in to Before The World Was Made with a deep appreciation for the songwriting chops of both parties, you are still perplexed at how Brennen and Noel wrote this entire album themselves, simply from the strength and the “instant classic” caliber of these songs.
Even the more straightforward love songs like “The Only Person In The Room” and “Salty Kisses In The Sand” are so fresh and clever, they fit right in to the cunning style of this record. “Let’s Go To Lubbock on Vacation” is downright side-splitting (sorry Lubbock readers), while still at its core being a nectarous little love story.
Before The World Was Made doesn’t let up for one moment, and it’s not just all about the words. The album is bolstered by tasteful, classic country arrangements, edified by producer extraordinaire Gurf Morlix. This is a neo-traditional country album at its heart, and the music offers tasty accompaniment to these high-caliber compositions.
Can’t say enough about Brennen, Noel, and Before The World Was Made. They may not be willing to commit to each other, but the music they make together is definitely a keeper.
Two guns up.
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Listen to album below.
I remember back in the early 90′s, someone told me they had done a complete archival scan of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s body using lasers, so that even in the future he could star in action movies. I’m not sure if that was an urban myth or not, and certainly the technology to pull off something like that would be in much better order today than when Arnold was starring in Terminator 2. But whatever the technology was then, and whatever it is now, they really should employ it and in full measure towards making sure the sound of Willie Nelson’s voice, and that earthy tone of his guitar Trigger never disappear from the face of the earth. Because few things can make that warm feeling roll over you from head to toe like Willie.
To All The Girls is Willie Nelson’s third album to come from his recent partnership with Sony’s Legacy Recordings, and the second to come out this year. The record features an ample 18 tracks, each constituting a duet with a female counterpart drawing from a wide swath of talent that includes both legacy names like Loretta Lynn and Emmylou Harris, and some new names like The Secret Sisters and Brandi Carlile. The pairings alone are enough to make the country music listener salivate, while the variety of names passively bridges tastes and segments residing under country music’s big tent.
Though Willie Nelson doesn’t make the easiest duet partner because of the unusual phrasings he uses—a trait that over the years has become his signature (and continuously more pronounced)—Willie, each of his dance partners, and producer Buddy Cannon do a good job arranging the singing parts to where Willie could still call on his avant-garde phrasings, yet the duet could come across seamless. The vocal performances are superb, and the 18 ladies on To All The Girls illustrate just how much female talent country music boasts, regardless of how rarely their names may show up on the top of the country charts these days.
But despite the names and the commendable performances, To All The Girls is a somewhat sleepy as a whole. This may seem unconscionable to say with so much star power, but out of the 18 songs, only 2 could be characterized as residing in the mid tempo, and only two as up tempo. The rest are slow to very slow, and sparse, and though no one song could be singled out as being a snoozer, taken all together they can become the sonic equivalent of Unisom. Even the most up tempo track, the re-cut of Willie’s “Bloody Mary Morning” with Wynonna Judd features some amazingly hot guitar, steel, and piano solos, but they get somewhat buried in the mix almost as to not be an interruption.
There isn’t really a lot of texture or spice between the tracks, except for maybe the Spanish feel of “No Mas Amor” with Alison Krauss, or the Motown feel of the duet with Mavis Staples, “Grandma’s Hands.” Maybe this album was built more for the digital age to be cherry picked by respective fans of the guest artists instead of trying to take it as a whole, but by the end you wish this album could have been condensed into fewer tracks so it would result in some more memorable moments.
Did we really need 18 songs? Any time you can pair Willie Nelson with Dolly Parton, magic will happen. The songs are not the problem, though there are quite a few recognizable covers. It’s that the instrumentation that varies very little. I know, the music varies very little on Red Headed Stranger as well, but this album isn’t trying to take a conceptualized approach.
Willie Nelson started off his new deal with Sony utilizing producer Buddy Cannon on the album Heroes, which really showed a lot of vitality from the Willie camp, and was arguably one of his best albums in years. But one small thing that saddled the album as I explained in my review was the excessive collaborations that made the album feel a little too busy. Another Buddy Cannon-produced album, Jamey Johnson’s Living For A Song, A Tribute to Hank Cochran, drew a similar observation, and I even linked back to Willie’s Heroes review for context.
It ["Living For A Song"] makes the same mistake Willie Nelson’s last album Heroes does of having too many guests. And may I point out that both albums were produced by Buddy Cannon. Like I said about ”Heroes”:
Where the album may come across as too busy or unfocused is the amount of contributors to each composition, and to the album as a whole…Sure, many of these names we love, but there’s too many of them, diverting focus from any one pairing or performance.
And once again here is a Buddy Cannon-produced album that leans very heavily on collaborations and cover songs. Willie Nelson can still write and select good, original songs, and we saw that with Heroes. What I’m worried is we’re seeing an approach to sell albums creep into the album making process, loading albums up on celebrity names that can later be used in promotional copy, or maybe trying to make up for what is perceived as a lack of appeal for Willie alone. Somewhere the music may have gotten lost as the most important thing.
But that’s not to take away from any single To All The Girls song. Maybe it’s because “Always On My Mind” is such a timeless tune, but this duet with Carrie Underwood kills it. “Grandma’s Hands” with Mavis Staples carries a lot of depth and meaning, maybe because Willie was himself raised by his grandmother. The Western swinging “Till The End of the World” with Shelby Lynne was a real standout, and so was Willie’s duet with his daughter Paula Nelson singing the CCR song “Have You Ever Seen The Rain.” And though Willie may have played “Bloody Mary Morning” 10,000 times by now, this might be the recorded version that is the best.
To All The Girls is a brilliant concept. I just wish a little more care would have been taken with the type of names and star power it assembled to really try to make a new generation of Willie classics and introduce him to a new generation of listeners through the names that lent their time to the project. But as well have all learned over the nearly 60-something years of his career, when it comes to Willie, the sound of his voice and that earthy tone from Trigger is enough to raise goosebumps all on their own.
1 ½ of 2 guns up. 3 of 5 stars.
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That’s right. A scandalous accusation I know, but one I stand behind with puffed chest and other such countenance to covey, “Yeah, I said it. You got a problem with that ?!?!”, and one that holds up when taking the most basic look at our little genre known as country music, and simply asking, “Where in the hell are the women?” Especially on country radio.
No, I don’t have any hidden camera footage of country music scheming with his fraternity brother that runs HR to systemically keep the women of country music at a lower pay scale. But if country music in 2013 were the equivalent of an office worker, it would be a douche-tastic, handsy, shallow, down-looking chauvinist with triple sec on his breath after lunch that specializes in subtle pelvic thrusts during elongated, unnecessary hugs, and pubic hair jokes.
Currently on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs Chart, there is not one single female artist in the Top 20. Not even one. Not even a Taylor Swift, Miranda Lambert, or Carrie Underwood. Not even a song from a country music group like The Band Perry or Lady Antebellum that has a female member. And this isn’t the first time in recent memory that this has happened. In fact aside from the occasional errant single from one of the aforementioned girls, a country music sausage fest is the default setting for country music’s Top 20 in 2013.
A deeper look into Billboard’s other charts and Neilsen’s radio ratings reveals similar discrepancies when it comes to the female gender and country music. But it doesn’t just stop there. The term “sexism” has two definitions:
That’s right. It’s not just that the women of country music are getting locked out of the process, being ignored by radio programmers who are predominantly male, and are being under-developed by the male-dominated industry. It’s also that the songs, artists, and albums that are dominating the charts and that are being pushed first and foremost by the industry are portraying women in a very objectified, stereotypical manner, both in the lyrics of the songs and in the accompanying videos.
Hey, I’m a red blooded male with fully-functioning male plumbing and a propensity to want to look at T&A just as much as the next guy. All males were instilled with the stupid gene to drool at cleavage through evolution. But there is a time and a place for everything, and when I’m walking through the grocery store with my young, impressionable niece to buy her a freeze pop, I don’t want to be accosted by a Luke Bryan song that works like the soundtrack to a date rape terrorizing our ears. Do these assholes not have women in their lives that they hope will be respected by other men? There’s a time for all adults to get raunchy, but country radio is supposed to be that one place of respite on the FM dial. Here in 2013, Top 40 country music is just as much of a den of iniquity as anything.
Artists like Luke Bryan, Tyler Farr, and Florida Georgia Line have no respect for women, and they have no respect for country music. Or if they do, there’s no evidence of it in their songs and videos. It’s just stereotypical fashion-plate models in bikini’s in objectified roles with the sole purpose of being oogled at just like their shiny new jacked up pickup trucks.
But even worse, when I watch concert footage of these country music cocks of the walk up on stage strutting it like Chippendale’s dancers, I’m not seeing a bunch of men of the front row pumping their fists. No, this female-less country phenomenon is not just about males using their physical superiority and good ole boy system to keep women down. The women of mainstream country are taking the role of willing accomplices, inviting this cultural degradation and humiliation with their hands raised in their air submissively and screaming for Luke Bryan to shake his butt. The problem isn’t just that male record executives and male program managers at radio stations aren’t giving women their proper due. It’s that the women are the ones that are demanding this drivel and driving the market.
And no, I’m not just calling for an equal playing field for women. If you have to, you gerrymander the damn system to makes sure you have at least one song on the charts that showcases female talent. Are you telling me there’s nothing out there from a female fit for the Billboard Top 20? There are many women who could immediately make country music better right now—professional, proven, beautiful, appealing, relevant, and ready to take their music big time and represent women in a positive light in a genre that has always been about showcasing strong women like Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, and Alison Krauss.
Come on country music, let’s do this. I’m tired of telling folks I’m a fan of country music, and then having to put a paper bag over my head in shame, or load it down with qualifying points. We have an obligation to discover, nurture, and showcase female talent. If country music was a board room of 20 members and not one female, some uptight women’s league would be suing their asses from hell to breakfast. So why should country music be held to a different standard?
The dirty little reason that women are not being showcased on country radio is because they’re not willing to sell out like the men. The women of country music respect themselves just fine. It’s the male performers of country music, their industry counterparts, and the women who fawn on them that are driving this trend.
And I’m mad as hell about it.
The Coal Miners Daughter and Country Music Hall of Famer Loretta Lynn has been forced to cancel a couple of weekend shows after cracking two ribs last weekend right before a big concert at her ranch in Hurricane Mills, TN. The 78-year-old was trying to get her guitar out of a closet when it apparently fell on her, forcing her into a dresser and breaking two of her ribs. She persevered through the pain for her big Labor Day show, not appreciating the severity of her injury, but has decided the pain is too unbearable to play two separate shows at Choctaw Casino Resorts in Oklahoma this weekend. Both shows have been rescheduled for December 29th and 30th.
“I’ve had to cancel my shows in Oklahoma this weekend. I hate more than anything to miss shows, but sometimes you just have to,” Loretta explained to her fans. “I’m like an accident waiting to happen these days. I was trying to get my guitar down out of my closest and the dang thing fell on top of me causing me to fall into my dresser. All this happened right before my big Labor Day Concert at my Ranch in Hurricane Mills. I didn’t know how bad I hurt myself until the next day. Come to find out I had broken two of my ribs. We are rescheduling the shows now.”
Loretta’s next set of shows, staring in Daytona Beach, FL on September 13th are still scheduled.
Even at 78, Loretta has been staying busy, telling Billboard Magazine recently that she wishes to collaborate with Jack White again. The pairing was responsible for Loretta’s landmark album Van Lear Rose in 2004. She also said she has three separate projects on the way—a Christmas album, a gospel album, and a collaboration with singer songwriter Shawn Camp on an album of mountain songs.
Sex has been used to sell music almost since music became a commercial enterprise. From the shaking of Elvis’s hips, to Madonna’s “Sex” book, to Miley Cyrus doing all manner of gratuitous things with a foam finger on MTV’s Video Music Awards.
What seems especially sinister about the recent descent of artists like Miley Cyrus, Brittney Spears, and so many others is that they started out as child stars and young female role models, marketed towards children and young teenagers. Even when the artists become adults themselves, many times their fan bases continue to predominately hover around ages where being exposed to certain behavior is inappropriate, especially for impressionable young girls who look up to big music stars as role models. Miley Cyrus’s recent stage antics on MTV’s Video Music Awards included teddy bears as a primary part of the presentation, representing the blurring lines between age and the marketing of music to children and adults.
Maybe the ugliest part about Miley Cyrus’s turn for the worse is how predictable the whole scenario is. Cyrus was purposely being sensational to get people talking to eventually sell more music. By decrying her actions, we in turn are fulfilling her wish.
It’s hard not to fall for the idea that depravity and raunch is what rules the day in the modern popular music culture because that is what gets the lion’s share of attention. But in truth there’s plenty of positive female role models in music, from huge, internationally-known pop stars, to promising up-and-coming artists. Here is 8 of them from a cross section of well-known and up-and-coming talent. You are encouraged to share other examples in the comments section below.
Mandolin wizard and multi-instrumentalist Sarah Jarosz signed with Sugar Hill Records as a senior in high school, releasing her first album in 2009. Her song “Mansinneedof” was nominated for a Grammy Award in the category of Best Country Instrumental Performance, and despite having her career path well set in music, she decided to enroll in the prestigious New England Conservatory of Music after high school, recently graduating with honors. Her third album Build Me Up From Bones is set to be released on September 24th.
I just made half a thousand hardcore punk fans throw up into their keyboards, but the simple fact is Hayley Williams is one of the few artists heading a popular rock band that remains unrefined, original, and authentic, and this is even more phenomenal because she is a young woman facing the pressures to sell herself as product. Unlike other pop punk princesses such as Gwen Stephani or Avril Lavigne, Hayley has never sold out for widespread appeal, and remains in her original band despite the big payday that would probably await her with a solo career. Beyond all that, Hayley Williams is a role model because she is fiercely herself. She never sold herself as a sex symbol, and when the suits wanted her to go pop early in her career, she refused. Hayley shows young women that they can be themselves, even if that means being quirky, boyish, or downright strange. There’s a lot of character in this girl, and she also happens to be able to belt out some great Loretta Lynn….
A fiddle prodigy that became the youngest invited fiddle player to ever play the Grand Ole Opry stage, Ruby Jane went on to tour with Willie Nelson and Asleep At The Wheel at age 14. Ruby has been doing her part to set a positive example for younger female musicians for years, despite just graduating high school herself. She received the Daniel Pearl Memorial Violin in 2007, named after the famous journalist killed in Pakistan in 2002—given to artists who display both world-class musicianship, and world-class character. A recent talk she gave to students as part of the TED project is another example of Ruby Jane’s leadership.
You may not think of the inaugural winner of American Idol to be your typical role model, but despite residing firmly in the pop world, Kelly Clarkson has been a champion of being yourself and not being obsessed with image for the entirety of her career. Kelly capped off possibly the most popular quip after Miley Cyrus’s VMA performance on Twitter, calling the VMA performers “pitchy strippers.” In an interview with NPR, Clarkson once said, “I am not normal. Usually, people don’t weigh what I weigh. Usually people don’t go against the grain as a far as, ‘No, I don’t want this song from the most popular writer ever’ and it’s not because I don’t like the song. It’s because I would rather work with people that I want to work with.”
Paige Anderson is a flat-picking guitar maestro and the leader of her family band Anderson Family Bluegrass, as well as her new project, Paige Anderson & The Fearless Kin. A budding songwriter whose harmony singing and guitar skills rival any other female performer, Paige has proven to be a positive example for young women, and has proven her leadership skills as the Teen Ambassador for the California Bluegrass Association from 2007 to 2010. Look for this girl to be big in music in the coming years.
Sisters Johanna and Klara Söderberg from Sweden are becoming international stars by crossing borders and language barriers, and by simply being themselves and sharing their bold, original songs with such confidence and grace. No Swedish bikini team antics are needed here, they simply lend their voices to song, and the sweetest harmonies heard on any shore come crying out to hungry ears.
The Church Sisters
The reason so many popular female artists feel the need to sensationalize themselves is many times to make up for a fundamental lack of talent and skill. True talent nurtured through hard work and dedication needs no window dressing, no bells and whistles for attention, and twin sisters Sarah and Savannah exemplify this with their sensational harmonies. From traditional country, to bluegrass and gospel, The Church Sisters display the type of wholesome talent that gives you hope for the future of music.
When we talk about the reduction of culture and the void of positive young female role models in music, it’s almost easy to forget that the biggest, best-selling pop star for the last two years running has been the bold and beautiful Adele. The flashy pop stars and their ever-present scandal may get all the tabloid attention, but when you look to the very top, Adele outlasts all the gimmicks, sex, and hype. If you need any more proof that substance can sell, and you don’t need sex or shock to get attention, there has never been a better example.
“If there is one thing I can respect more than anything, it’s individuality in music. And I think back in the early era of country music that was so apparent. Like you could really tell your Johnny Cash from your Waylons from your Merles. They all had a distinct thing happening. And they were all really great at what they did. It was really important for me to etch out my own thing as a student of that.” — Lindi Ortega
Exquisitely antiqued and strikingly original, old school country singer and native Canadian Lindi Ortega is the northern emissary for country music’s current female revolution. A class act all around that is regarded just as highly for her self-penned songs as her heavenly (or devilish) voice, Lindi is a creative maelstrom that sends the room spinning from her ability to expose the most blinding beauty from life’s inherent darkness.
Now living in Nashville, and benefiting from some song placements in the new ABC drama series named after her new home, Lindi is starting to pack venues across the country, leaving a trail of broken hearts and positive buzz. After a rousing show at Austin’s most legendary listening room The Cactus Cafe on Monday (7-1), the gracious and arresting songwriter was kind enough to sit down and explain the inspiration behind her music.
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Trigger: There’s sort of two burgeoning movements in country music right now, and you’re part of both of them. Last year and this year we keep getting great albums from Canadians. How is it being a Canadian playing country music, as a perspective?
Lindi Ortega: I never really think about that when I do what I do. I just know what I listen to and what I’m inspired by. I don’t think about the fact that I wasn’t born in the southern United States and raised on a farm. I feel like maybe in a past life I might have been. That’s why it speaks to me. My mom was really into country music when I was growing up. She sort of planted the seed in my mind; a seed that grew into a great love and appreciation for especially old school country; you know Johnny Cash and Loretta Lynn, Waylon and all of them. So I don’t really think about the fact that I’m from Canada when I’m writing songs, or paying tribute or homage to that music. I just happen to be.
Trigger: You’re also part of this revolution of young, beautiful, talented women that are giving country a shot of substance and showing respect to the music’s roots. There’s a lot of people talking about 2013 as the “Year of the Woman” in country music. Names like Caitlin Rose and Kacey Musgraves are brought up, and so is Lindi Ortega as an example. Why do you think the women are outpacing the men right now as far as substance in country music?
Lindi Ortega: I don’t know, but I’m glad that it’s happening. It’s so great because when I started doing country-inspired music in Toronto, I didn’t know anybody who was doing it. I didn’t even hear it around me. Then the more I was doing it, the more I would hear about it. And then of course I moved to Nashville and it’s all around me. It’s so great that people are appreciating the old school way. It’s nice to know that that art of live off-the-floor recordings, and not a shitload of Auto-tune and fancy stuff is going on. I’m glad that’s not a dying art. And I’m glad that females are doing it.
Trigger: So back in Toronto, you’re playing music and you had the nickname “Indie Lindi.”
Lindi Ortega: I still do!
Trigger: So you’re playing this music, and you weren’t in a scene in Toronto of rootsy musicians?
Lindi Ortega: Yeah I was a little bit autonomous. I was kind of anti-social to a fault I guess. I just stayed in my room and wrote songs. I wasn’t really part of any scene. There was a scene. When I was doing music there was much more of an indie rock scene. Now it’s a bit different, there’s a little more variety there. But there’s wasn’t a whole lot of alt-country back then. Now it’s everywhere.
Trigger: Is that what you consider yourself? Because you said “country-inspired” before and you’re saying “alt-country” now.
Lindi Ortega: Well there’s so many labels for it and I don’t know I guess. Some people don’t think I’m country at all. And I guess if you’re listening to the radio, I don’t sound country. I like to say I’m very much inspired by old-school country. And what kind of country that is in this day and age in the modern era, I don’t know. Hey, you can call it whatever you want. As long as people are listening to it is all that’s important to me.
Trigger: Did Cigarettes and Truckstops feel like your breakout album?
Lindi Ortega: In a way, yeah. I feel like there were a lot of things that led to having successful shows. One would be the Social Distortion tour that I did; the crazy pairing with me and Social D and I did two tours with them and it exposed me to a wide audience. Amazingly they were very accepting of me and the music I’ve done. And of course the Nashville TV show, and having a few song placements on there helped.
Trigger: Have you physically seen a bump from the Nashville TV exposure?
Lindi Ortega: Yeah. People tell me at shows, “I heard your song on Nashville and I checked you out.” I think it’s amazing that it was able to resonate that way. It actually led to people coming out to shows which is great.
Trigger: Attractive women are not supposed to be as talented as you are. Usually if someone is strong in one suit, they’re not strong in another. You just don’t see a lot of beautiful women that are creative dynamos. (READ if this part of the question offends you.) Where does your motivation to make music that may not appeal to everyone come from?
Lindi Ortega: You’re too kind to me. I spent my whole day going, “I’m getting old!” But my motivation comes from my influences, and people that have stuck to their guns. I read a lot of biographies. If there is one thing I can respect more than anything, it’s individuality in music. And I think back in the early era of country music that was so apparent. Like you could really tell your Johnny Cash from your Waylons from your Merles. They all had a distinct thing happening. And they were all really great at what they did. It was really important for me to etch out my own thing as a student of that.
I don’t care about money. I honestly don’t. I don’t give a shit. I could stay at a shitty motel, I think it’s more fun. And I like riding in little vans and I love doing it that way. I think there’s a story in that, and I write songs that are stories and that tell stories. My influences inspire me to have integrity and to do what I love and be passionate about it. I don’t care about making millions or any of that. Of course if it happens, like everyone says it’s icing on the cake. But I’m happy doing what I do. I love what I do, and this is a beautiful existence for me. I get to tour. I get to go to different cities and see the world. I can’t imagine a better existence than this.
Trigger: Are you a road dog?
Lindi Ortega: I love it. I get antsy when I’m not on the road. I start to miss it and I can’t wait to get back out. It gets to a point where hotel rooms feel more like home.
Trigger: How do birds inspire your music and image?
Lindi Ortega: Yeah, I’m a bird lover. And recently I guess ravens have been my thing. But I love all birds. I have a tattoo that says, “Bird On A Wire.” It’s a Leonard Cohen song. The image of a bird on a wire and that whole song just speaks to me. Something about flying in the sky and that type of free existence resonates with me. I always think my style’s a little bit of Frida Kahlo meets Wonder Woman meets Johnny Cash. The Johnny Cash thing is of course the black thing. I always think of that movie and the line and the manager saying to him, “Johnny, why are you wearing black? You look like you’re going to a funeral.” And he’d say, “Well maybe I am.” And I was like, “Oh, that’s brilliant! I want to go to that funeral too!” I’m half Mexican, so that whole Dia de los Muertos thing, and dying and death and the whole fleeting of our existence is always running through my mind. And I don’t always think of it in a morbid way. I guess I think of it in the more Mexican way, the colorful aspect.
Trigger: You mentioned Frida Kahlo and I saw a picture of your guitar case and Frida Kahlo is all over it. How did she influence your music?
Lindi Ortega: Well I saw the movie a long time ago. That was the first thing that inspired me because she was such a character. And then I learned more about her life and read biographies about her. And I thought in the midst of all her emotional pain she was so full of life, and it was so interesting to me. And her art was so incredible. Her self-portraits I found most fascinating because the expression on her face I felt was very familiar to one I’ve seen in the mirror a couple of times; moments of loneliness and it spoke to me. I love her. I think she’s an incredible artist and a strong woman, an inspiration and I’m slightly obsessed, and I have a song about her on my next record.
Trigger: Speaking of that, is there any hints of new stuff that you can tell us? Do you have a new album coming out?
Lindi Ortega: I do. I have a new one coming out hopefully in the fall. I’m really excited about it. Dave Cobb was the producer. He did Secret Sisters and Jason Isbell. We had a blast, it was a lot of fun. Everyone that played on it was awesome.
The general consensus amongst country music pundits in 2013 is that we are in the midst of the ‘Year Of The Woman.’ It has been so declared by NPR, legendary country journalist Chet Flippo, and right here on Saving Country Music. As the men of mainstream country chase each other in dirt road circles in their pickup trucks sipping ice cold beer, trying to figure out how to integrate rap into their next single without cheesing off the radio programmers, women are offering inspiring lyrics and sonic leadership in an otherwise bleak musical landscape.
But this isn’t the first year in country when the women deserved the lion’s share of attention.
The year was 1952, and country music was still a predominately male-dominated format. A few women had made some marks in country in the past, but never in the same measure as their male counterparts. Moonshine Kate made some noise in the 1920′s, and Patsy Montana in the 1930′s. Molly O’ Day was one of the first women to be singed to the Acuff-Rose publishing company, which gave her the connections to be able to record Hank Williams songs in the late 40′s. And of course the women of The Carter Family had a major influence on the sound of country music. But prior to 1952, women were still considered supporting, 2nd-tier artists, and country had yet to see a true female star.
Then came along Rose Maddox of The Maddox Brothers & Rose, Goldie Hill, and the woman who would later rise to be known as the Queen of Country Music, Kitty Wells. Together, they became pioneers for women in country, and proved that female performers could do just as well as their male counterparts, as performers and profit makers.
It wasn’t until 1956 when the Maddox Brother & Rose officially broke up that Rose Maddox would fully remove herself from the shadow of her male siblings. But in January of 1952, the California-based Maddox Brothers & Rose recorded their first record with Columbia after years with the lesser-known 4 Star Recordings. Written by Rose, “I’ll Make Sweet Love To You” had remarkably-suggestive lyrics for that time in country music, but Rose could get away with it being on the West Coast, and being considered just a singer in her family band instead of a solo artist.
Showcasing Rose’s signature laugh, and the Maddox Brothers’ hybrid sound that was just as much country as rock and roll, “I’ll Make Sweet Love To You” opened up the door for women in country to sing about the same themes that men had for years.
Right on Rose’s heels, a 32-year-old married mother of three named Kitty Wells became country music’s first female superstar when her song “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” made it to #1 on Billboard’s Country Singles Chart. The song was an answer song to Hank Thompson’s hit “Wild Side of Life.” Written by JD “Jay” Miller, Kitty initially didn’t want to cut the song, but then decided to for a $125 session payment.
The song did so well, it eventually beat out Thompson’s “Wild Side of Life” in sales. Like Rose Maddox before her, “It Wasn’t God…” helped open up new risque themes for female singers. Women weren’t supposed to “answer back” to men in those days. But coming from a mother and devoted wife, the conservative Nashville establishment didn’t put up a fuss. And most importantly, Kitty Wells proved that women performers could make big money for labels and publishers. Wells went on to have 35 more Top 10 singles, and 81 total songs on the charts, but none were as big as “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels.”
Just as Kitty Wells was having big success with her answer song and 1952 was drawing to a close, another answer song called “I Let The Stars Get In My Eyes” was offered to Kitty. But she turned it down, and instead it was cut by rising female country star Goldie Hill. Released in December of 1952, it was the counter to Slim Willett’s hit “Don’t Let The Stars Get In Your Eyes” and once again dealt with issues that before had been considered taboo for females in country. Women weren’t just singing country music, they were symbolizing a strong, female character, willing to stand up up against male infidelity, while at the same time willing to show their own vulnerability when it comes to matters of the heart.
By early 1953, ”I Let The Stars Get In My Eyes” became another #1 hit by a female performer, entrenching Goldie beside Kitty Wells as bona-fide female country stars. It has one of the most unusual structures and pentameters for a country song you will ever hear, intriguing the ear as the verses zig and zag. Though it is definitely a traditional country song, “I Let The Stars…” could be called a more progressively-molded song; a precursor to today’s advanced, evolving country sound championed by female performers.
Certainly women in country music were not going to be held down forever. But in 1952, Rose Maddox, Kitty Wells, and Goldie Hill laid the groundwork for women in country that would later see the rise of strong, powerful performers like Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette, Dolly Parton, and the female performers of today that are doing their level best to keep country music moving forward while still respecting its roots.
Her act consisted of dressing up in billowing fru-fru square dance novelty dresses, backed by a Western-dudded cowboy band called the Hellbound Honeys (they were all male, that was the punch line), and along with Nellie’s doe-like eyes, angelic voice, and cherubic features, made you believe you were in store for a kid friendly Howdy Doody-style neo-traditional country show. And you were, it was just injected with the most raunchy, gratuitous, sexually-charged lyrics you can imagine coming from the country music format; songs whose mere titles are too lascivious to be appropriate to print.
It was a great bit, but it was a bit nonetheless. It’s not that the impressive voice, the use of wit, and solid country instincts were still not evident in Nellie Wilson 1.0, but in no way were you expecting the level of depth, composition, artistry, and just downright immediate and long-lasting appeal for the songs she slays the audience with in Not This Time. Nellie Wilson shocks the world, and puts out one of the best, and most intelligent country music works in 2013 so far.
Not This Time features a stripped down sound, but not from necessity or sloth. You can tell by the breadth of composition and the use of textures in this album, this is the way Nellie wanted it. She wanted this to be about her songs and stories, and the instrumentation rises to compliment this approach. Nellie is known for playing bass guitar live, but she was wise to leave all the studio performances to personnel that could bring her vision to these songs. Though not one song feels like it has a full band compliment, each song feels fleshed out perfectly as fiddle, lap steel, banjo, and piano all make appearances when the songs call for them.
Where Nellie rises and really makes Not This Time a remarkable work is in her vocal performances and writing. The best song on the album might be the opening, minute-long “The Town Fool.” Such intelligence from Nellie to know to end this song leaving the ear craving more and the moral fresh on the brain. “A Noose And A Knife” is a master stroke of songwriting brilliance; a dark song with the most perfect production for the mood. “Hung Up” is the album’s hit. With its infectious chorus you’ll catch yourself singing along. Even songs like “Cruel Jim” that feel like maybe they were holdovers from Nellie’s previous incarnation slide right into this album because the piano is so tasteful, the slap on the upright bass is so perfect, and the fiddle is so sublime.
Nellie Wilson’s voice is so light and fluffy and warm, it becomes the centerpiece of Not This Time. Some may be a little turned off on how she hangs in the high register in songs like “Suicide Kiss,” but her tone has such a supple quality, it’s hard to not find it growing on you.
Nellie Wilson started in music in her family’s band at age 12. During her Hellbound Honey days, when underground country bands would roll through her home town of Madison, WI, Nellie and the Honeys would regularly open and play songs like Loretta Lynn’s “Fist City.” So maybe we shouldn’t be so surprised she had this in her. And let’s not gloss over that this album, though with its dark and folky moments, is a very country-flavored work.
If Not This Time had originated from some big label or some established name, I probably would have awarded it just a shade under a perfect grade. But knowing the Nellie Wilson story, and listening to this album, you can tell that Nellie fought for this music and really pushed herself to put all of her resolve in making an album that was a true refection of her talent, her instincts, and her abilities. Not This Time feels like a victory, with the spoils being bestowed to the listener’s ears. She pushed herself, didn’t settle, and at a time when underground country needed a landmark album and someone to step up with artistic focus and a fresh direction, Nellie Wilson delivered. Big time.
Two guns up.
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Not This Time will be released March 5th. You Can Pre-Order Here.
When you reflect back on many of the country music greats, they were people who seemed to be birthed right out of the country itself. Their very molecules come from the same earth that the coal dust and the pine needles and the hardwood smoke that imbibe and permeate their songs did. Iris Dement is one of those artists, a genuine product of America’s rural textures, and a country music great despite the 16-year hiatus between albums of original material maybe causing a momentarily lapse in memory of her brilliance.
Iris Dement is an incarnation of the nexus between the traditional rural American upbringing, and modern American skepticism. Born in Paragould, Arkansas as the 14th child of her father and 8th of her mother, she was brought up in a Pentecostal household full of gospel music. Just as important, the family moved to Los Angeles when Iris was 3, setting the table for a life full of contrasting ideologies and varying influences. This strange crux where a young, impressionable girl brought up to see the line between right and wrong, but raised in a world built to blur those lines, is like the little warm Fox den in a rain storm where Iris’s music goes to nestle.
Sing The Delta speaks to that internal war still smoldering inside Iris, where the principles and ideals embodied in religious doctrine are still very much alive in her being, yet the idea of devoting to an entity that science has no answer for, and whose name is used to enact untold destruction, are very much at war. She might be the most religious/non-religious woman in country music. As she says in the song, “The Kingdom Has Already Come:”
Stopped into the church to pray. It was the middle of the day. And I don’t even know if I believe in God.
I laid my soul on the table. And I left that place believing I was able. To open the curtains my fears had drawn.
The next song on Sing The Delta is titled, “The Night I Learned How Not To Pray.”
Iris Dement’s singular contribution to country music is her genuinely-Southern, ethereal voice that she commands with an easy, effortless confidence. Put her right up there with the Loretta’s, and Emmylou’s, and Parton’s when it comes to the potency of her singing, and the demands for it to be put on albums as far ranging as Ralph Stanley’s Ridin’ That Midnight Train to Josh Turner’s Punching Bag. Her singing may have never been sweeter than what is displayed on Sing The Delta, with an approach to the music that allows it to shine, especially on the second track “Before The Colors Fade” where the lack of a true bridge or chorus allows Dement’s words and vocal accentuations to breathe and bloom.
The hardest thing for a singer / songwriter to do is to write to their vocal strengths. Iris Dement and Sing The Delta is a case study on how to execute this feat near flawlessly. She is a piano player first, and this brings a whole other layer of uniqueness to her approach to country music. She’s no Jerry Lee, “Pig” Robbins, or Earl Poole Ball, but to accompany her rising, angelic, Gospel-inspired voice with piano gives it that classic, neo-traditional church house feel without having to infuse it with excessive chorus or reverb.
Iris Dement’s voice, her songs, her style, it is all there ripe for being regaled long-term in the halls of country music greatness. It’s her moderate output, and possibly her politics that were evident especially on her 3rd album, 1996′s The Way I Should, that keep her name far from the tip of our tongues when talking about our generation’s greatest country singers. In Sing The Delta, Iris strikes a great balance of expressing her ideologies and doubt, while not allowing them to get in the way of some sincere storytelling and simple, honest song craft.
To a contingent of the orthodox country crowd, Iris Dement will probably continue to be considered a more folky, leftist, prototypical Steve Erle-esque “alt-country” protest singer. But that prejudice will keep them from one of our generations greatest female voices, and some of its best songs; all of which are in full evidence on Sing The Delta.
Two guns up!
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Look, I’m a good old-fashioned red-blooded American male. I like myself a delicate, supple breast, or a perfectly-formed apple butt. And the beautiful shape of a woman intermixed with good music is something that makes me thankful for being alive. But somewhere in the last year or so, country music crossed that line from being the last bastion for respect of beautiful women in American popular culture, to hanging out in the gutter with the rest of the vermin, making videos of venereal-infused floozies dry humping flashy vehicles in the classic vein of tasteless, materialistic, shallow-minded rap imagery.
The tradition of proud, empowered, beautiful women in country music runs deep. Their strength is what made them sexy. And unlike rock and roll and hip hop, the popularity of women in country has run parallel with the men throughout time. The Carter Family, Patsy Cline, Dolly Parton, Tammy Wynette, Loretta Lynn, all the way to today with Miranda Lambert and Taylor Swift. But the problem is not the women of country not respecting themselves, the problem is the men not respecting the women, and an apparent endless supply of hussies willing to strut it for shitty pop music.
Take the video for Dustin Lynch’s stupid new song “She Cranks My Tractor” (yeah, right, we’ve heard this one before, haven’t we?) Since this song has so much nothing, they drag some slut out of a strip club to have sex with farm equipment to keep you engaged. This isn’t music, this is material for 14-year-old boys to masturbate to.
My favorite are these flocks of bikini-flaunting chicks with their arms flailing above their heads, like in the Bucky Covington / Shooter Jennings douche fest “Drinking Side of Country”. If this is the country, then where are all the ugly people? I can see some producer telling a poor girl, “Hey sorry, I can see a very slight roll of chub spilling out over your cut-offs. Go purge for two weeks and come back.”
I think Luke Bryan is where this all started, or possibly Kid Rock when he infected country like a herpes outbreak with his cross-genre shallowness. But Luke Bryan was the one that had dancers doing straight up strip tease renditions on the 2011 CMA Awards. And isn’t it ironic how Luke Bryan surrounds himself with so many hot women when he’s so obviously, indisputably, helplessly, pink flamingo, Siegfried & Roy, Fire Island…happy? I mean watch him do his happy dance.
I don’t want to come across as some uptight fuddy duddy. The fact is you can go anywhere on the world wide internet and affix your eyeballs on frolicking trollops. What made country music special and distinct is it avoided this saccharine, sexpot low-brow shit. These people are missing the point that the best way to deploy sex is to leave more to the imagination. That is why America fell in love with Marlyn Monroe, and why America is currently in love with Taylor Swift. Nothing about the women in these videos is intriguing. There’s no reason to come back for more. Like the songs, the videos, and the careers of these artists, they are forgettable. And the devaluation of women in country music that this causes is what is most troubling.
Let’s be honest. The chances of Wanda Jackson putting out some groundbreaking, landmark album these days are slim. Her immeasurable influence spanning country, rockabilly, and rock and roll is undeniable. But at age 75, you’re not looking for something sensational, you’re just looking for something solid, something that rekindles the memories of her past magic and imparts some new memories along the way.
Same thing goes for these celebrity producerships that seem to be all the rage in music these days. You just want them to work. Hey, I’m one of the first to fall for them hook, line, and sinker. I see a high-caliber producer name attached to some upcoming project and my music pants start going crazy, and certainly that was the case when I heard Justin Townes Earle was producing Wanda’s Unfinished Business. But really, what is the success rate of these celebrity producer collaborations? Are big name musicians really qualified to be producers, or is this all marketing?
There’s been some hits with this formula, like Jack White’s work with Loretta Lynn on the album Van Lear Rose. And there’s been some, well, not hits, like when Jack White hooked up with Wanda on her last album The Party Ain’t Over. The result was decent, but a little too much Jack and not enough Wanda.
A good producer’s job is not to be noticed, but to get you to notice the talents of whoever they’re producing. And that’s what Justin Townes Earle does in Unfinished Business. He gets the hell out of the way and let’s Wanda Jackson do her thing, while still lending a creative and influential hand.
Wanda Jackson’s greatest asset is her voice. Like a brand new switchblade polished with Windex, it cuts with class. At 75, her voice is probably going to show some age and we can accept that, if not even enjoy its character in patches. Possibly the reason Jack White felt inclined to bring in bellowing horn sections on the last album was possibly to bolster, or bury Wanda’s voice from fear of it showing its age. But what Jack’s approach did was suffocate what makes Wanda special.
With Unfinished Business, instead of setting up a one band, one formula approach for most of the album, Justin Townes Earle approached each song individually, and this is where this album shines: the customized treatment for each track that creates a brilliant contrast of moods. Where Jack White seemed wanting to make a statement through Wanda, Justin Townes Earle just wanted to have fun.
If Wanda Jackson’s greatest asset is her voice, her second is her coolness and style. Earle was wise to pick up on that and utilize that in composition, like in the first track “Tore Down”. Bringing in backup singers for Wanda’s version of the Etta James number “Pushover” was a brilliant call that also called on Wanda Jackson’s cool factor.
Great, great song selection on this album. “It’s All Over Now”, a song first cut by the Valentino’s that then went on to be The Rolling Stone’s first #1 hit in 1964 was an excellent selection for the track list. Lower Broadway revivalist Greg Garing’s “Down Past The Bottom” may be the best track on the album.
Justin Townes Earle may have made an effort to make sure this album wasn’t all about him, but he’s far from sitting in the background. Wanda’s hard country version of Justin’s “What Do You Do When You’re Lonesome” is another standout track. And Earle shares the mic with Wanda in the somber duet, “Am I Even A Memory?”, where once again he does a great job playing the part instead of trying to stamp his signature on the song.
I’m not sure of the epicness yearned for in the ending track “California Stars” is captured, but the song is solid nonetheless. And I seem to always want to hear more of the Wanda rockabilly growl than what I get on her albums. But Unfinished Business touches on a tremendous amount of textures, styles, and moods, including lots of country and steel guitar, which is only appropriate because of Wanda’s wild, varying influence on American music. And most importantly, Unfinished Business let’s Wanda be Wanda.
As far as I’m concerned, Wanda Jackson has no “unfinished business” to attend to. She’s given her heart and soul to the music, and the music is better off because of it. She’s got nothing to prove, but she proves it anyway in Unfinished Business. And so does Justin Townes Earle.
1 3/4 of 2 guns up.
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From the outside looking in, one may look at the lineup of The Muddy Roots Festival for example, and wonder how a throwback legend from Texas like Wayne “The Train” Hancock, a hillbilly punk freak from Tennessee like Joe Buck, a golden-throated singer from Michigan like Rachel Brooke, a crazy hellbilly songwriter from the Pacific Northwest like Bob Wayne, and a blues legend from Mississippi like T-Model Ford could all be booked right beside each other and it work seamlessly.
This illustrates the dramatic sonic and geographical diversity that goes into creating what we know now as the underground country roots, or “Muddy Roots” world. Below is a list of the disparate origins of Muddy Roots music that came together from a mutual understanding and appreciation of the roots of American music, and the epicenters where this music originated from and/or is thriving today.
The revitalization of Lower Broadway in Nashville.
In the early 90′s, lower Broadway street in downtown Nashville comprised the last bastion of old buildings that symbolized what Music City used to be. Overrun with dirty bookstores and titty bars, and The Grand Ole Opry’s original home The Ryman shuttered, young cowpunk and neo-traditionalist musicians like BR549, Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers, Hillbilly Casino, Greg Garing, and Joe Buck and Layla, commandeered lower Broadway and revitalized the strip into the tourist destination it is today. Emmylou Harris‘s legendary concert with the “Nash Ramblers” in 1994 also breathed new life into The Ryman, and later Hank Williams III would cut his teeth in lower Broadway venues like Layla’s Bluegrass Inn.
The fierce appreciation for country’s roots combined with an independent, punk mentality is what revitalized the most historic portion of downtown Nashville, and created the foundation for the blending of country, blues, and punk that Muddy Roots music would spring from.
Not just Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, but Bobby Bare, Kris Kristofferson, and especially Tompall Glaser’s “Hillbilly Central” renegade studio in Nashville is the origin of the Outlaw spirit behind underground country roots, the “Do It Yourself” attitude to not allow labels to arrest creative control from the artists and to always respect the elders and traditions of the country genre while also allowing the music to innovate.
Underground country and Muddy Roots is very much a construct of the “post punk” music landscape. As punk music and scenes began to become stale or gentrify, punk artists and fans looking for the raw approach to music, and many times raised on traditional country and bluegrass, began to turn back to their own roots and put down their Flying V guitars for fiddles and banjos. This is where some of the fast, aggressive approach to roots music comes from, on both the country and the blues side, as well as the DIY spirit, and the grassroots approach to scene building and album production.
After Hank Williams III’s stint with the punk metal band Superjoint Ritual is when many punk and metal heads found themselves listening to country music again. In 2006, when Hank3 recorded his album Straight to Hell at home on a consumer-grade machine and put out an album with a Parental Advisory sticker on the front through one of Nashville’s major labels, many barriers were broke down and parameters set for how Muddy Roots music would evolve.
North Mississippi Hill Country Blues & Deep Blues
One of the reasons both country and blues music can work right beside each other in Muddy Roots is because in many cases they are both being infused with punk, just like artists Scott Biram and The Black Diamond Heavies do. Many times the infusion is with a very specific type of blues from the North Mississippi Hill Country, brought to the attention of the rest of the world by Fat Possum Records in the early 90′s, just about the same time lower Broadway in Nashville was being revitalized by young country punks.
One of the first events that put these like-minded blues and punk blues musicians all in one place, and included a few country-based artists as well was the Deep Blues Festival put on by Chris Johnson in Minnesota starting in the mid 2000′s. Deep Blues fest was where the relationship between blues, punk, and a deep appreciation for the roots of blues by young white musicians was codified.
In a similar way to infusing both country and blues music with a punk edge and mentality, rockabilly artists in the early 90′s like The Reverend Horton Heat pioneered “pyschobilly”, a punk version of rockabilly. Just like their blues and country counterparts, they were neo-traditionalists, staunchly educated in and preservers of the roots of the music.
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Part and parcel with the sonic diversity of underground country roots is the geographic diversity. Unlike many other past music movements that sprang up in specific geographical areas (or maybe in a few general areas, like East Coast vs. West Coast), Muddy Roots has epicenters all across the country as illustrated in the map below.
1. Tennessee (Nashville)
As explained above, Nashville has played the most vital role in the formation of underground country roots, from the Outlaw country music movement in the mid-70′s, to the revitalization of lower Broadway beginning in the mid-90′s, and today with the Muddy Roots Festival just an hour east in Cookeville, Nashville and Tennessee remain the major Muddy Roots epicenter, including the up-and-coming east Nashville, home to many venues supporting underground musicians, and the home of Hank Williams III, arguably the most important musician to the formation of a country music underground.
2. Austin, TX
As the”Live Music Capitol of the World” and a huge music town, Austin follows only Nashville in it’s importance to Muddy Roots music. Home to Wayne “The Train” Hancock, Scott Biram, Dale Watson, and many other underground roots musicians, as well as one of the epicenters of the original country music Outlaw movement and a lot of independent music infrastructure, Austin is a vital epicenter in underground roots.
3. The North Mississippi Hill Country
It’s not just any old blues that builds the nexus between blues and country into that unique underground roots concoction, it is a specific type of blues from the north Mississippi Hill Country. Fat Possum championed the sound of artists like RL Burnside, Junior Kimbrough, T Model Ford, and many others beginning in the early and mid 90′s. That sound has since been picked up and combined with punk by artists like Scott Biram, The Ten Foot Polecats, Restavrant, and The Black Keys to form what is more commonly referred to today as “Deep Blues”.
4. Michigan – (Detroit, Flint)
On the surface maybe one of the most unlikely epicenters for country and roots music is also possibly one of the most vibrant. The home base for artists like Whitey Morgan & The 78′s, Rachel Brooke, The Goddamn Gallows (Lansing), as well as a vibrant local scene with bands like Some Velvet Evening, Michigan has grown just about as many underground roots acts as anywhere else. To grow good roots bands you need support, and events like the legendary “Honky Tonk Tuesdays” at Club Bart in Ferndale created the community and collaboration that have allowed Michigan roots music to thrive.
5. The Upper Midwest (Minnesota, Wisconsin)
The Upper Midwest is the proving ground for many early and influential Muddy Roots bands, including the Gothic country stalwarts Those Poor Bastards from Madison, WI, the premier punk/bluegrass .357 String Band from Milwaukee, and Trampled by Turtles from Duluth, MN. When you throw in Michigan as an Upper Midwest state as well, the region becomes one of the strongest in the country for roots music.
Minnesota was also the scene of the crime for the original Deep Blues Festivals, and is the home of Chris Johnson, the founder of Deep Blues, and the owner of Bayport BBQ, a blues-based venue near St. Paul. Along with Weber’s Deck in French Lake, MN, they make Minnesota an Upper Midwest roots haven.
6. Arizona (Phoenix)
It only seems appropriate that one of the places where Waylon Jennings began his legacy from would years later become an underground country epicenter. The original home of Hillgrass Bluebilly Records, and a must-stop for touring bands going to or coming from The West Coast, Phoenix feels like home for many, and is home to artists like Ray Lawrence Jr. , Junction 10, and “Valley Fever” every Sunday night at the Yucca Tap Room. Hillgrass Bluebilly events are where many underground roots artists would meet for the first time, sparking collaborations on albums and tours that created a coagulating effect in an otherwise spread-out movement.
7. The Pacific Northwest
The Pacific Northwest is like a factory for underground roots talent. Bob Wayne, Larry & His Flask, McDougall, James Hunnicutt, Hillstomp, and Brent Amaker are all from there, and the list goes on and on. And then when you start digging deeper, many artists who are now based out of other places originated from there, like some of the original members of BR549. Both Loretta Lynn and Willie Nelson did time in the Pacific Northwest early in their careers. And we can’t forget the punk world’s Eddie Spaghetti and the Supersuckers started doing country side-projects in the late 90′s and collaborated with Steve Earle.
Bluegrass is big in the area, and there seems to be a kindred spirit between the rainy west and the deep South because of the rural life and landscape, and because many of the original settlers of the Northwest were originally from the South. With a population that tends to support the arts and music, and many specific neighborhoods and venues and festivals like Pickathon that cater to the roots scene, the Pacific Northwest is one of underground roots’ biggest power players.
Montana may look like a lowly outpost on the map, but it played a vital roll in the formation of underground roots in the mid to late oughts, specifically with a promotion company called Section 08 Productions putting together the “Murder in the Mountains” tours. By bringing together artists from all around the upper part of the country like Rachel Brooke, JB Beverley, .357 String Band, Bob Wayne, Slackeye Slim and others, they were one of the first to take the theoretical underground roots scene, and give it some substance. Section 08 Productions has since morphed into Farmageddon Records, and is still based in Montana.
9 – California
California has always been the force in country music just behind Nashville and Texas, and that counts for underground country and roots as well. Where California played a key role in the formation of underground country was the interjection of punk influences and the transition of punk fans. Mike Ness of Social Distortion, Jon Doe and Exene Cervenka from the band X doing country side projects in the 80′s and 90′s is what led to the punk/country nexus. The Devil Makes Three from Northern California were one of the very first bands to bring a punk attitude to string music, The Pine Box Boys from San Francisco were one of the pioneers of Gothic bluegrass, and Los Duggans from LA were an important Deep Blues band.
10. North Carolina
Boasting some great music towns and big time roots music labels like Rusty Knuckles, Ramseur Records, and Yep Rock, North Carolina can make the case for itself as having the best music music scene and the most infrastructure right behind the big boys of Nashville and Austin. It also doesn’t hurt that one of the most successful roots acts in recent history, The Avett Bros., call North Carolina home.
11. Chicago, IL (Bloodshot Records)
Chicago will always be a big important part of underground roots as the home of Bloodshot Records. Bloodshot was one of the first labels to put their money where there mouth was in 1994, being “drawn to the good stuff nestled in the dark, nebulous cracks where punk, country, soul, pop, bluegrass, blues and rock mix and mingle and mutate.” As home to artists as important and wide ranging as Justin Townes Earle, Scott Biram, and Wayne “The Train” Hancock, Bloodshot Records’ impact and influence will always make Chicago a roots epicenter.
12. Central Florida
The scene in Central Florida is young, but burgeoning. Being the home of artists like the legendary Ben Prestage, Lone Wolf OMB, The Everymen, and many more, Florida is primed to become one of the underground country and roots hot spots.
13. Lawrence, Kansas
As a college town with a music school, Lawrence, KS is one of the best mid-sized music towns out there. Lawrence brings the support for live music, and not just for the usual college-town indie rock fare. It is home to bands like the long-running Split Lip Rayfield, and the high energy Calamity Cubes, and some of the coolest music venues you can find, like the Jackpot Music Hall, 8th St. Tap Room, and The Bottleneck.
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Other important epicenters: Little Rock, Arkansas, and specifically the legendary Whitewater Tavern. Bloomington, Indiana, a big music and roots town, and home to Austin Lucas, Davy Jay Sparrow, and many more. And Denver, CO, home to Slim Cessna’s Auto Club amongst many others.
In this dirty business of monitoring the doings of Music Row, every once in a while you get these glimmers of hope that an album will slip through the mandibles of the money changers that actually has some class, and appeal beyond the easily-pliable masses. The Miranda Lambert’s of the world are not bad, but many times you still have to gerrymander your taste buds to consider where the music came from and what battles it probably took to get an album out that still sounds half way decent. In the end, the hype is usually just that.
Recently it appears Nashville has taken a cue from actors and pop stars and decided to “go country” itself. But just because an album is overtly “country” doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good. We’re all country fans, but we’re fans of good music first, and braying about how country you are and using steel and fiddle just to add a “country” taste to a song instead of employing them in tasteful instrumentation isn’t going to get you anywhere with the country fans who’ve long since strayed from the mainstream herd.
Enter Kellie Picker and her new album 100 Proof that for the last few months has been touted as her getting back to her roots and developing a hard country sound. Right out of the chute, with the first two songs “Where’s Tammy Wynette” and “Unlock That Honky Tonk” there’s no doubt this album is country, but one had to wonder if these were works of sincerity, or the female version of the overexposed “laundry list” song formula.
This whole “I’m a woman, hear me roar” bit is big right now in mainstream country, which is not necessarily a bad thing, unless it becomes overexposed. It makes a heavy appearance in the first two songs, and in the first single from the album, “Tough”. But after the album announces itself as unmistakably country, it begins to reveal itself as unmistakably good, and not just when considering it as Music Row fare from the modern era. No, this is good country music, period.
The song “Stop Cheatin’ On Me”, which initially seems burdened by the weak return of “..or I’ll start cheating on you” becomes a brilliant composition simply from it’s sonic construction; the way it builds out from the bass guitar, and modulates after the first verse. Listening to this song you can see yourself hearing it blaring from an old juke box in the corner of a bar. Same can be said for the very fun “Little House on the Highway.”
Songs like “Turn The Radio On and Dance” and “Rockaway” have this very sweet innocence to them. I’m not kidding. They harken back to the pre-Garth 80′s, when country had this simplicity to it that was sweet, when the one hit wonder model of music may have not lead to any major substance, but the songs nonetheless were just simply appealing, and seemed so easy to attach to memories.
Many of the songs on this album are not spectacular on the surface, it’s what’s going on behind-the-scenes that makes them special. Many pop country folks and “new Outlaws” are attempting to evoke Waylon Jennings these days by screaming his name alongside inane countryisms. Kellie instead understands that Waylon worked from the backbone of the music, a trick Waylon picked up on when crossing the tracks in Littlefield and Lubbock to hang out in the blues and jazz bars. The bass on this album, just like Jennings, creates a visceral bed for the music that allows it to shoot straight into your heart. This album should be listened to loud, on a good-booming system. The bigger the better.
And though I did not care for a few of the songs here, including the title track “100 Proof”, there’s some songs with undeniable soul. That’s right, “soul” from Music Row. The song “Mother’s Day” drops the Southern accent and is just Kellie singing straight from the heart, with her smooth and fiercely-feminine voice. The album concludes with “The Letter (To Daddy)” that could evoke tears from a rock.
What’s that you say? Kellie Pickler is an American Idol alum? You know what, I don’t even know that I care. And I’m not sure if Kellie Pickler herself is to blame for the beauty of this album, or if it’s the fault of producers and professional songwriters. All I know is that it’s damn good, and I don’t just mean good for the mainstream. It’s just good, period. Sure, there’s a few songs that are misses, every album has them, and the misses here you can easily label as pop country dribble. But I’d say 100 Proof will even smoke most of what’s coming out of the independent world these days.
If you are truly a fan of country music and have an open heart, you will like 100 Proof. In the Tammy Wynette, Loretta Lynn mold, 100 Proof revives the lost appreciation for the strong, yet sweet country woman, while staying away from the surface symbolism that erodes the substance from many of the other artists that attempt this difficult feat. This is one of the best albums to come off of Music Row in years, and may turn out to be one of the best in 2012, period–an opinion I fear we may see validated in lackluster sales and the absence of hit singles from it. The mainstream may not support in en masse, but I will.
Two guns up!
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From Columbus, OH, the lovely and talented 21-year-old Lydia Loveless offers up her first album with international aspirations in Indestructable Machine, through the Bloodshot Records imprint. In a classic Bloodshot blend of punk and country, Lydia comes out with a bold sound and bawdy content to the delight of many critics and writers. Just in the last week, I have seen her compared to Loretta Lynn, Kitty Wells, and Patsy Cline. I’ve heard her called the next Neko Case, and a cowpunk princess. Rest assured, I like this album more than I don’t. But as legendary football coach Bill Parcells once said after one decent game by a young, promising quarterback, “Put the anointing oil away.”
The other popular point to make about Lydia and this album is how mature the content is for her age. In my little music world, 21 is not young, especially for a female performer. There is a crop of young female musicians out there right now, all below voting age, that are excellent musicians and songwriters, and show maturity in their music with depth, not drinking and drug references. In my opinion, singing about getting sloshed on wine and snorting coke is a green way of trying to garner real-life substance, and furthermore, a little outmoded. It’s fake hussle. Maybe it seemed all fresh in the mid-90′s when Oasis did it. Hank III brought it to the country world in 2005, but now it seems to have run its course, and been replaced by songs that may start with drugs, but end with redemption.
And it makes a difference that Lydia seems to be singing biographically, instead of working through the medium of character. I have no doubt the lyrics are authentic, but that just makes me worried for her well-being instead of personifying some infectious party attitude or empathetic camaraderie. I also can’t help but thinking, did we wait to put out this album until Lydia was 21 because of the bawdy content, or does she include the bawdy content to make up for the perceived weakness of only being 21?
This album is funny, but not always witty. It’s dark, but not always deep. It is sad, but not always soulful. But sometimes it is. I know Lydia put out other independent albums before this, but Indestructable Machine has a lot of the earmarks of a freshman release. The strength is the lyrics, but her over-singing sometimes buries the content. The music is engaging, but an ever-present electric guitar droning with overdrive saps a lot of the space out of the project. It also has that “tracked-out” feel, meaning the parts to the songs were recorded individually, and then reassembled later; a common practice in music, but one that can result in the loss of the groove if not done properly. A lot of the songs on this album are just busy, and you add this to Lydia’s unusual (thought not necessarily bad) cadence, and it just comes across as a little incongruent and confusing to the music mind.
Some of this confusion is on purpose in the first song “Bad Way To Go”, which revives itself with some solid catchiness. “Can’t Change Me” is another catchy track, which leads into “More Like Them”, channeling the style of Cindi Lauper, conjuring visions of Molly Ringwald dancing the bop. In a few places, this album is more powerpop than cowpunk or country.
Then the gears shift completely in the hard country composition “How Many Women”, where Lydia’s vocal prowess is displayed, but unfortunately not in conjunction with her usually-stronger songwriting, which comes into play with the next two very entertaining tracks “Jesus Was a Wino” and the fictitious stalking song “Steve Earle”. Some soul sinks in on “Learn To Say No”, a pretty strong track despite the rather innocuous sonic style. “Do Right” reverts back to the self-righteous party-girl motiff, but is balanced by the self-loathing acoustic-driven end track “Crazy.”
For all the holes I’m poking in this Indestructible Machine, overall, this is a really fun album. It is fun to listen to, and at times you will find yourself laughing out loud to the lyrics. And without question, I see tremendous potential here from Lydia, lyrically, sonically, and as a singer. And I do think this album will appeal to a younger audience, and that may be it’s greatest asset, and an important one in a genre bloated with 30-something fans watching those little bits of gray creeping in more each month.
Young artists need encouragement, which Lydia has received from The Washington Post to Spinner. But they need honesty as well. And my honest opinion is Lydia is good, but may still need to do some growing, get some skins on the wall and get out there and tour, and see that people are dying out here and they don’t just need to be touched in the funny bone and stomp their boots, but they need to be touched in the heart as well. That’s what Loretta, Patsy, and Neko did.
1 1/4 of 2 guns up.
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With her first self-titled album, ===> Little Lisa Dixie <=== is helping make the case that in independent/underground country, 2011 might be the year of the woman. With surprisingly good, classic songwriting, excellent use of texture, and solid instrumentation, she has made the album that her fans have waited years for be one that is well worth the wait.
This album is part country, part hot-rod rockabilly, with a vintage feel covering everything in the tones and textures. I can’t emphasize enough the wit and appreciation for the classic model of how to turn a phrase in a country song that is illustrated in some of these tracks. The song “Stop Acting Like a Lady” works to juxtapose the scorned woman with man just like Loretta Lynn did back in the day. This is done to even more perfection in “Getting Over You”.
The only way I’m getting over you is by getting under him.
But where I was really impressed with this song is when she entered the chorus, she did not go back to the catchy hook, she replaces it with the much more docile “The only way to get over you is by loving him tonight“, just like the greats used to do. This shows that Little Lisa hasn’t just heard Loretta and Tammy, she’s listened to them, intently, and understood and embraced the thematic virtues behind their songs.
But if classic country is not your speed and you want a little rockabilly, this album has you covered as well. “Devil’s Gate” is a monster of a song, marinated in reverb, powder blue, and neon light. This song and the other rockabilly-feeling “Dance With The Devil” have sublime, masterful combinations of bright and dark-sounding chords that pull your ear right into the music as the words sell your soul on the story.
I’m not going to try to sell you on the idea that Little Lisa Dixie has one of the best female voices going, but it is solid, and she knows how to use what she has, by knowing just how long to hold a note, or when to shut it off in phrasing. And for a femme voice, it is naturally deep, which gives it that retro sexiness, almost a musk that fits the music exquisitely. Little Lisa picked the type of music that fits her voice, which is not a common as you would think in music, especially for women.
To be fair, the album may have a couple of punch out tracks for some. “Stoned Again” doesn’t really move the needle for me. The lyrics for “Woke Up Broke” seem a little cliche, but the super-twang on the Telecaster-style guitar and Lisa’s vocal phrasing are almost good enough in the song to overlook it’s lyrical lightweightedness. The vision and arrangement on this album is great. The reverb and echo is drenching, but not overindulged, and little details were not overlooked, like the horn and bells in “Dance With The Devil”. To some the album may sound a little dirty. I heard a few forgivable flubs that speak to tracked-out recording, but I think a lot of attention was paid by Little Lisa and friends to set a vintage mood, and the right specific vintage mood for each song, and once you embrace this, it enhances the songs instead of holding them back.
If you like ladies that aren’t afraid to let loose, Little Lisa Dixie is your girl.
1 3/4 of 2 guns up!
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