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Jake Owen, my man. You know I love you for calling out country that’s all about “fuckinâ cups and Bacardi and stuff like that” and giving my man Tony Martinez a big break on your “Days of Gold” tour. But “Beachin’”? Really?
What’s going on here folks is now that Kenny Chesney has been put out to pasture by the country music powers that be, somebody has to step up and fill the void for swaying, stupid, sand between the toes sonnets of suburban escapism for 40-something women with skin Cancer on their shoulders to hold their Corona Lights high in the air to and scream “Whoooo!” while breathing in the smoke of their Home Depot citronella tiki torches. Kenny Chesney ruled this territory for years after kissing the rings of the Godfather Jimmy Buffett who then bestowed to Chesney the scepter of shitty beach songs which Chesney presided over for a good ten years. Now Jake Owen and others are stepping up to fill this void of what apparently is a must-have staple of the American country music radio dial.
As much as hearing even the opening stanza of a corporate country beach song can make a distinguishing music listener pucker harder than trying to down a cheap Mexican beer without lime or salt, Jake Owen and “Beachin’” makes this exercise even more excruciating by featuring him rapping, yes, rapping the verses … yo yo. And to this end, Owen delivers what has to be the worst white boy rap performance that has ever been proffered to human beings for public consumption that isn’t meant to be taken as ironic. I guess his voice is supposed to be all low and sexy, but the ultra-monotone and lifeless pitch makess Charlie Brown’s teacher sound like Loretta Lynn.
And of course as one could anticipate, this song doesn’t really go anywhere. Is the term “Beachin’” supposed to be a lyrical hook that delivers some sort of payoff? Because it’s about as unfulfilling as Daytona Beach when you’re dreaming of CancĂşn. How did this thing crack the Top 5 on the country charts? About the only redeeming feature of “Beachin’” is the butt of the leading lady in the video. And guess who’s the producing mastermind behind “Beachin’”? Joey Moi, the architect of Nickelback and Florida Georgia Line.
I still don’t know what happened to Jake Owen’s other single “Days Of Gold”. It was pretty much terrible too, but at least it moved, had a rhythm, and was written by The Cadillac Three. There was something redeemable there beyond it being obvious bro-country pap, but somehow that one stalled at #19 on Billboard and was abandoned by his label, and this drivel is the one to become Jake’s big hit.
Come on Jake, leave the rapping to Kanye, the beach to The Beach Boys, and practice what you preach about delivering more substance to radio.
Two guns down.
Possible conclusions of the above video:
1) All a wet dream.
2) Girl gets mangled in a horrible car accident, resulting in an ultra-sappy love song.
3) Jake’s label doesn’t pony up to produce the next video because of budget cuts from the parent company.
In an era when nothing in music is universal, and music has become one of the primary battlefronts in the culture war, the likeability of Jack White was one of the few things that passed for a consensus builder. Like former Nirvana drummer and current Foo Fighter Dave Grohl, Jack White was hard to hate, even if you weren’t particularly fond of his music, past or present. His accidental superstardom, his respect and proficiency with music from many different genres, his forward-thinking, quirky style at promotion, and his independent spirit made him a champion of almost every conscious music lover. He was the rock star that wasn’t one: the prototype of the new-school, likeable guy that just happened to become famous, and that we could relate to and appreciate as one of us, no matter how “us” was defined.
And then something changed. I’m not exactly sure where or when specifically, but it changed. At some point it seemed like Jack White has started to buy into his own image and marketing, while his image began to reveal itself as marketing. He kept getting older, yet refused to lose the whiteface or black hair. And then the gimmicks started rolling in, and now the feuds.
August of last year is when the first major cracks in the Jack White facade began to appear. Amidst the divorce proceedings from his wife Karen Elson, it came out that she was alleging Jack was both verbally and physically abusive toward her, that she had asked for a restraining order and a psychiatric evaluation, and then she released emails to the public where White was portrayed as spiteful toward The Black Keys guitarist (and another one of music’s few universally-likeable guys, Dan Auerbach), speaking on the circumstance of the two’s kids being in the same school, “You arenât thinking ahead. Thatâs a possible twelve fucking years I’m going to have to be sitting in kids chairs next to that asshole with other people trying to lump us in together. He gets yet another free reign to follow me around and copy me and push himself into my world.â
If you were anything like me, at the time this information came out, you put yourself in both Jack White and his ex-wife’s shoes, and felt it was a shame that the information had been made public. And of course there were counter-suits by Jack, claiming it was all lies and smear. Who is right or wrong in affairs of the heart is usually anyone’s best guess, and it’s usually better for the whole business to be kept under wraps and out of the public consumption feed before speculation and misnomers are allowed to thrive. But still, there it was; a chink in the armor. If this info was coming out about Axl Rose or Jason Aldean, whether you were a fan of their music or not, you’d be likely to shrug your shoulders and say, “Yeah, sounds about right.” But this was our likeable, champion of independent music Jack White; the guy that wasn’t a bastard, on stage or off.
It was the the Tiger Woods effect. Nobody was surprised, and nobody cared when it was found out that Michael Jordan, or Shaquille O’Neil cheated on their wives. Of course they did. But Tiger Woods had been sold to us for years as this upstanding, product-endorsing family man. Jack White was supposed to be the champion of all independent music; the sage leader who wouldn’t lose his temper, and was blessed with the ability to see everything both ways.
But really the erosion of Jack White looming large over the musical landscape started years before. I remember when it was first announced that he would be partnering with Wanda Jackson to make a revival album in the same vein of his award-winning and critically-acclaimed work with Loretta Lynn on 2004′s Van Lear Rose. My country music head just about exploded from excitement at this news (and here too is where you see why Jack White has an important and worthy country music connection). 2011′s The Party Ain’t Over from Wanda Jackson was one of the most anticipated records of 2011 in rock, rockabilly, and country. And what happened when it was released? No much. Nowhere near the zeal and accolades piled up as they did for Van Lear Rose.
The Jack White-produced The Party Ain’t Over felt flat. It seems to be about Jack first, and Wanda second. Her signature growl wasn’t present, her voice was buried in the mix. Jack White’s guitar wankery ruined songs in places, and seemed to be the predominant feature of the project. And Jack’s insistence on cutting directly to tape gave the entire recording a filmy, ever-present hiss, despite whatever “warmth” it captured. The album wasn’t terrible, don’t get me wrong. But it was one of those records you listen to once or twice, return to its sleeve, and then never think about again—Wanda’s cover of Amy Winehouse’s “You Know I’m No Good” notwithstanding.
So maybe Jack White wasn’t flawless, says the 2011 me to myself. Then I began to think what the last Jack White project was that really spoke to me. Of course, I’m a country guy, so maybe I’m not the best test specimen, but the one I came up with was The Raconteurs first album Broken Boy Soldiers, and that was from way back in 2006. But I’d tasted pretty much everything he’d done subsequently, and hey, Jack had won himself a good bit of latitude to stretch his wings if he wanted, or even turn in some missed targets and snoozers because he was Jack White. Music aside, I liked the guy, and he never put out anything that seemed downright ill-advised or bad.
And then the bits started: the all-girl band, the record booth, the tying of records on balloons and releasing them in downtown Nashville, and this with records, and that with records. Yes, we all love vinyl. It sounds so much better! But at some point it all was starting to feel like one big gimmick. This year during Record Store Day when Jack White pulled another bit by making the “World’s Fastest Record,” it seemed to symbolize the whole silliness and extreme of the new vinyl revolution, where we’re putting out records without any quality control or thought, stuff like Ron Jeremy playing classical piano just to get people to pay to collect something nobody would ever want if it wasn’t being pushed by hype and being sold as an exercise in independent values. Everybody was trying to look cool for each other, and somewhere the focus on the music itself got lost in the shuffle.
And then here comes Jack White late last week talking shit on Adele, his ex White Stripes partner, The Black Keys, and pretty much everyone else in modern music to Rolling Stone. But wait a second, I thought White’s hatred for The Keys was all hyped in the mudslinging of his divorce? And almost making it worse, he comes out 48 hours later to apologize. White seemed like he wanted to have his cake and eat it too: get the idea out there that The Black Keys and pretty much all popular guitar-based music is a ripoff of him and The White Stripes, and then turn around and apologize as everyone is lobbing grenades back at you so you look like the bigger person. Justin Townes Earle, the artist that produced Wanda Jackson’s subsequent album Unfinished Business, let rip on Twitter yesterday, “Jack White is such a pussy,” illustrating that one of independent music’s untouchables had now become a whipping boy.
The simple fact is though, Jack White is right, at least to some extent. Last weekend I was attending redneck comedian Jeff Foxworthy’s inaugural Red Fest on the outskirts of Austin, TX. While hanging out with one of the performing artists, they elucidated to me unsolicited and out-of-context, “You know, everything these days just sounds like bad White Stripes to me.” And they’re pretty much right. This two-piece, new rock, blues and roots-referencing scream fest has pretty much permeated American popular music, and with it, the misguided notion that everything must be cut directly to tape and pressed on vinyl to where we’re now making a bunch of great music that purposely sounds bad. This is Jack White’s contribution to planet Earth at the moment, and maybe he has a reason to be pissed off, and wanting to piss off others because of it.
But of course, Jack White has his influences as well. Ever heard of the Flat Duo Jets, or Dex Romweber? In fact Romweber just put out a new album through Bloodshot Records called Images 13. He plays in a duo with a girl drummer. Even Jack will admit, Dex was a big origination point for The White Stripes and his later incarnations. Dex recorded a live album at White’s 3rd Man Records in 2010. “It was obvious when you watched Dexter perform, he didnât care what people though about him, he just wanted to express these songs that were coming out of him,” says White on Dex. Is Dex Romweber pissed off that everyone’s running around, copying him by playing cheap Harmony guitars in two-piece bands, including Jack White? We may never know until he gets divorced.
So lo and behold, the whole time we were holding Jack White up on a pedestal for being just like the rest of us, in private he was juggling family bullshit, and hiding resentment … just like the rest of us. And now you know the importance behind the saying, “It’s all about the music.”
Country is the only genre of music on planet Earth where the midlife crises of its artists play out on the airwaves and populate the very top of the charts, effecting the sonic path of the entire format for all the world to unbearably behold. And right now, Jerrod Niemann is doing the country music equivalent of blowing his retirement kitty on a red Lamborghini, and showing an unhealthy, creepy interest in his daughter’s hot best friend’s after school extra-curricular activities.
To call Jerrod Niemann an “ass” isn’t even hyperbole at this point. He isn’t spreading his arms wide in a submissive pose and pandering to Music Row to do their worst with him—be damned whatever destruction it might do to his legacy or long-term perception—Niemann’s precarious position at the moment much more resembles the compromising and unsavory posture of the poor bastard that graced the original cover of Pantera’s album Far Beyond Driven. Jerrod Niemann in 2014 might as well be like that fictional, computer-generated pop star in Japan: soulless, inhuman, and completely void of free will, relegated to a malleable piece of pop country EDM silly putty for marketing pricks to digitally program and have do their bidding without any fear of human will hindering the money making process or harboring any resentment or conscience. Jerrod Niemann is nothing more than a puppet, and the iron hands of the recording industry are confidently ensconced in his orifice whose colloquial name is an alternative to the title of his new single, “Donkey”.
Don’t fall for the ruse that just because Jerrod Niemann admits that this song is stupid that it somehow absolves it of all of the inexcusable, heinous sins it commits. Forgo all of the superfluous banjo on this track, Niemann’s cadence on “Donkey” evokes hellish nightmares of a cross between a castrated Right Said Fred and whoever the fuck sang that omnipresent mid 90′s ear worm “How Bizzare”. The line “They all walk funny when they’re done riding you know who,” singularly sets back country music 50 years, and would turn Loretta Lynn into stone like Medusa’s gaze if it ever graced her sainted ears. Our Lord Jesus Christ should resurrect Waylon for the exclusive purpose of shoving one of his Flying “W”‘s straight up old Niemann’s keister to see what kind of gait his pathetic ass would sport afterwards.
The jargon and inspiration for “Donkey” comes directly from the uncultured mouths of mid-pubescent 14-year-old boys with hard on’s, and any man who ever utters the term “honkey tonkey” in his entire existence should be banished from ever feeling the touch of another woman till the end of eternity, or certainly from mentioning the immaculate George Jones or his riding lawnmover in their stupid songs. And Niemann shows just how “country” his designer drug, upper crust dance beats are when he reveals that he thinks the term “donkey” and “mule” are interchangeable.
“Donkey” is an uprovocated ass raping of the ears, and if any Niemannites come here preaching to me the virtues of this song because “country music must evolve,” I will personally take a pair of donkey balls and use them to tea bag each and every one of their bedroom pillows when they’re not looking. “Donkey” isn’t just bad, it defines the catastrophic trainwrecking of the entire human evolutionary timeline. 800,000 years of homo sapien progress brought to a screeching halt because one pudgy douchebag wants an arena-sized “country” career before his pubes turn gray. “Donkey” is a harbinger for a dark age for arts, entertainment, and intelligence that humankind is on the precipice of plummeting headlong into.
The worst song ever? I’m tired to doling out this distinction only to have to offer a revision every six weeks when some other pop country asshole finds a new gradient for rock bottom, but Jerrod Niemann’s EDM-encrusted, braying ass certainly deserves to be in the discussion for that most disgraceful of honors.
Two guns way down!
Tuesday was the release of Jerrod Niemann’s dumb new album High Noon, and before we’ve even had a chance to really delve into just how much of a mockery it makes of country music, Niemann’s already out there on the defensive, preaching to us how country “purists” really don’t know what the hell country music is all about, and how he’s just carrying on the traditions of Willie and Waylon by pushing the boundaries of the genre.
High Noon‘s first single “Drink To That All Night” drove country more in the direction of EDM than ever before, to the point where I’m not sure what’s country about it aside from the stupid, formulaic, country stereotyping lyrics. The second single from the album called “Donkey” promises to take this trend to a place many shades worse, and very well might go down as the worst song in the history of country music in this bear’s opinion—but that’s another story. A further perusing of High Noon‘s wares shows a lackluster effort of EDM and hip hop pandering veering towards a pop wasteland with little redeeming value afforded to distressed ears searching for any single reason why it shouldn’t be considered any more than some EDM/country mashup side project instead of a premier solo effort from an established country artist.
But that hasn’t stooped Jerrod Niemann from naming himself amidst country music’s Outlaw pioneers.
“When people think about country music, and they use the term ‘Traditional Country,’ they’re talking about something that has happened in the past,” Niemann tells Billboard. “But, when those songs were out currently, they were the freshest thing on the radio. Nobody was saying ‘Let’s go record traditional country.’ They just wanted to record music that meant something to them. Willie and Waylon were getting flack for being progressive at the time because they were mixing it with rock and the outlaw thing.”
Sorry Niemann, but that’s bullshit. Were there some voices saying that Willie and Waylon were pushing the boundaries of country music too far back in the day? Sure there were, and Saving Country Music has pointed this out before as well. But…
1) This had just as much to do with the fear people had of Willie and Waylon because they were shaking up the established Music Row system as it had anything to do with their music.
2) Willie & Waylon’s new take on country music was nowhere near outside the boundaries of country compared to what some artists are doing today. The musical equivalent to High Noon if Willie and Waylon would have done it would have been to cut straight up Disco records with country lyricism and called it country—and then thrown it back into the faces of critics before they even had a chance to raise a peep because Hank Williams was criticized too.
3) Oh an sorry Jerrod, but yes, Waylon and Willie did say, “Let’s go record traditional country.”
For example: What was Willie Nelson’s breakout album during the mid 70′s Outlaw era? Red Headed Stranger—the consensus pick by critics as the greatest country album of all time. What was the biggest single off of Red Headed Stranger, and really the only single of note from the album? It was a song called “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain.”
“Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” was a traditional country standard when Willie cut it. The song was written by Fred Rose, originally recorded by Roy Acuff in 1945—30 years before the release of Red Headed Stranger. It was also cut by Hank Williams in 1951, Ferlin Husky and Slim Whitman in 1959, and Bill Anderson in 1962 among others. Red Headed Stranger also had other classic country songs such as Eddy Arnold’s “I Couldn’t Believe It Was True” and a hymn called “Just As I Am” that get this Jerrod Niemann, was written in 1835, making it over 140 years old when Willie cut it. So saying that Willie didn’t say, “‘Let’s go record traditional country,” is completely bogus. One can make the argument that’s exactly what Willie said, and it resulted in arguably country music’s greatest contemporary work.
Meanwhile Waylon may have had a touch more rock in his sound compared to Willie or his other country artists of the time, but the backbone of his music was the steel guitar of country veteran Ralph Mooney, and Waylon was cutting songs like “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?” and “Bob Wills Is Still The King” that paid homage to traditional country greats. Then take a look at the lineup of The Dripping Springs Reunion—the gathering that arguably put the power of Willie and Waylon on the map. It included Bill Monroe, Buck Owens, Loretta Lynn, and other aging country greats that at the time were being forgotten by Music Row. Even as Willie and Waylon were rising in prominence, they were paying homage to the ones that came before them.
“I’ve always tried to respectfully add a few elements here and there,” Niemann tells Billboard. Are you kidding me? “Drink To That All Night,” Donkey,” and other offerings from Niemann’s High Noon aren’t respectful to anything but his label’s bottom line. Take a look at this video and tell me the non-country elements are just “here and there”:
The problem with Jerrod Niemann, the reason he’s even worse than many of his current pop country cohorts is because he knows better. I have no doubt Florida Georgia Line grew up listening to mixtapes with Hank Williams Jr. on one side, and Drake on the other. To Taylor Swift, Tim McGraw and Shania Twain are classic country. But Jerrod Niemann is 34-years-old. He’s not trying to push limits, this is last ditch effort to get attention from the industry in a no hold’s barred, sellout move to secure his share of the fortune being made off the destruction of country music. And no matter how much he wants to be in front of this issue, how much he preaches falsehoods about how country music once was, he’s simply a sellout in a woman’s Ross Dress For Less discount bin hat—and certainly no progeny of Willie or Waylon.
Up until this point Saving Country Music’s “10 Badass Moments” series has only featured men. But can women be badasses as well? Well if you look at the life and times of one Wanda Jackson, the answer would most certainly be “yes”. Whether it’s from a country or a rock & roll perspective, Wanda Jackson had a significant impact on both, and certainly deserves to be considered a badass right beside her male counterparts. Here’s 10 reasons why….
- 10 Badass Willie Nelson Moments
- 10 Badass Waylon Jennings Moments
- 10 Badass Johnny Cash Moments
- 10 Badass Hank3 Moments
- 10 Badass Merle Haggard Moments
- 10 Badass Marty Stuart Moments
- 10 Badass George Jones Moments
- 10 Badass Billy Joe Shaver Moments
1. Paying Dues in Hank Thompson’s Brazos Valley Boys
Wanda wasn’t a boy, but while she was still attendingÂ Capitol Hill High School in Oklahoma City, Hank Thompson heard Wanda performing on her own radio show she had on KLPR-AM. She was awarded the show for winning a talent contest. Hank Thompson was so impressed, he recruited her to sing in his Brazos Valley Boys band. Eventually she went on to record a duet with Billy Gray—the bandleader of the Brazos Valley Boys—called “You Can’t Have My Love”. The song was released in 1954, and went to #8 on the country chart. Wanda Jackson was well on her way to making a wide impact on the music world.
2. Proving The Boys At Capitol Records Wrong
After the success of her duet with Brazos Valley Boys’ bandleader Billy Gray on the song “You Can’t Handle My Love” on Capitol Records, Wanda asked the company if she could sign with them as a solo artist. That’s when Capitol producer Ken Nelson uttered the immortal words, “Girls don’t sell records,” emboldening Wanda Jackson even more to make a career in music. Rival label Decca Records was happy to have Wanda, and she went on to prove old Ken Nelson wrong many times over. After Wanda started having success, Capitol eventually did sign her.
Fighting the male establishment became a theme of both Wanda’s music and career, and her feistiness and tenacity finally won her much respect from many of her male counterparts, including a very big one . . .
3. Breaking Up with Elvis
After signing with Decca Records, Wanda Jackson went on tour opening for Elvis Presley. This is when Wanda became the female nexus between the country and rock & roll worlds. Elvis encouraged Wanda to develop a rockabilly sound and to push herself creatively, and she did. Wanda began writing her own songs and putting her own personal stamp on the music world. And then their professional relationship went further. “It wasn’t traditional dating,” Wanda explains. “My dad liked Elvis a lot, and it was okay with him that I could hang out a little bit with Elvis after a show.” Eventually Elvis asked Wanda Jackson to “be his girl” in early 1956, but Wanda, always the strong, spirited, independent woman, said no. When asked if Elvis was a good kisser, Wanda once said, “No, I was the good kisser.”
4. Being The First Woman To Record Rock & Roll
Wanda Jackson, despite being known as the “Queen of Rockabilly”, openly criticizes them term “rockabilly” herself. Her website to this day proclaims her more simply the “Queen of Rock.” What’s for sure is that Wanda was one of the very first, if not the first females to knowingly record rock & roll songs. Though other females like Rose Maddox certainly can claim an early stake in the rock game, Wanda, working right beside “The King” Elvis Presley, was knowingly mixing the emerging styles of country and rock & roll, many times on the same record, and sometimes in the same song.
Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the song “I Gotta Know.” The song starts off sounding like a syrupy, slow country ballad, and then shockingly launches into a boogie woogie beat, and then reverts back. “I Gotta Know” is Wanda proving her prowess with both styles. The song also shows off Wanda’s strong womanhood with which she approached many of her songs.
5. The Growl
According to Wanda, her father and manager Tom Jackson told her during an early studio session, “Wanda, rear back and sing that thing like it should be done!”Â As soon as Wanda did this “the growl was just there.” It has gone on to become Wanda’s signature, and just as significant and influential of a contribution to both country and rock & roll music as anything else Wanda is known for.
6. Having A #1 Hit …. in JAPAN!
Wanda Jackson recorded “Fujiyama Mama” on September 17th, 1957, and released it to the public to some concerns about the insensitivity of the lyrical content. A mere 10 years removed from the controversial nuclear bombings of Japan by the United States, and here Wanda was using the incident as hyperbole about an angry woman, with sexual undertones nonetheless. So what happened with the single? It blew up … in Japan! Jackson became an international superstar from the song, and briefly toured Japan in 1959.
“Fujiyama Mama” wasn’t Wanda’s only dalliance in international success. She also released a handful of singles in Germany between 1965 and 1970, including songs like “Komm Heim, Mein Wandersmann” and “Wer an Das Meer Sein Herz Verliert”. Her courting of international markets would prove to be savvy, as later in her career and even today Wanda Jackson enjoys great international recognition and acclaim.
7. Growing Old Gracefully
So many female music performers and actors feel the pressure to stay forever young, succumbing to procedure after procedure until their visage is almost a caricature of their former selves. But not Wanda. She’s grown old with gracefulness and dignity, never trying to be younger than she is, or trying to be anything she’s not.
8. Recording Albums with Jack White and Justin Townes Earle
When Wanda wanted to make a comeback record, she took a play out of Loretta Lynn’s playbook and recruited rocker and world-class record producer Jack White to work with. The result was 2011′s The Party Ain’t Over which presented Wanda Jackson to a brand new generation of fans and revived her career domestically and abroad.
When Wanda wanted to keep the party going, she worked with another young, rising star in Justin Townes Earle in 2012′s Unfinished Business. Where Jack White went in a more flashy direction, Justin Townes Earle took a more songwriter, tasteful approach. Both albums were critical successes, and stand right beside all of Wanda’s other works as career accomplishments.
9. Recording Amy Winehouse’s “You Know I’m No Good”Â
When Jack White was producing Wanda Jackson’s comeback album The Party Ain’t Over, he needed a bullet, and decided that Amy Winehouse’s “You Know I’m No Good” would be a good fit. Wanda initially refused to record the song because of some questionable content in the lyrics, so Jack White rewrote some parts, and wala, The Queen of Rock was covering Amy Winehouse, adding her custom growl to the popular composition.
The Party Ain’t Over was released in January of 2011. Less than six months later, Amy Winehouse died of a drug overdose. Wanda continued to perform the song in tribute to the troubled British songwriter.
10. Being Herself, Always
As a pretty young woman with a unique voice, surrounded by all the temptations of the music world and many different directions she could go, Wanda Jackson simply followed her heart, and stayed true to herself throughout her career, and does up to today. She loved country music and rock & roll equally, and shared her time with both, approaching both genres with respect, appreciation, and knowledge for their roots, knowing where to keep the line between the two. Though she was always sexy, she never sexualized herself simply as image to make up for musical shortcomings. And though she did her time in L.A. and Nashville, Wanda never truly left her roots in good old Oklahoma, and still lives there today.
BONUS 11. Never Losing Her Cool
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 70â˛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 Willieâs unique disposition as a peacemaker.
âAll of a sudden we hear âKaboom! Kaboom!ââ Willieâs long-time stage manager âPoodieâ Locke recalls. âItâs the sound of a .357 magnum going off in the parking garage. The echoes sound like howitzer shells exploding. Itâs kind of semi-dark, and this guy comes blowing through this parking deckâŚnow here comes this bitch with a fucking pistol. âKaboom!â Sheâs chasing this motherfucker. It sounds like a fucking war.â
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.
âPeople are piling out of the show and they start scattering,â Poodie continues. âHere come the cops from every direction. Theyâre flying out of their cars, hitting the parking deck, spread-eagling the whole crowdââOn the deck, motherfuckers!ââbecause the cops donât know who is shooting at whoâŚAll 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.â
âAnd here comes Willie. He walks off the bus wearing cutoffs and tennis shoes, and heâs 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, âWhatâs the trouble?â Well heâs 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.â
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 70â˛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.
âIn 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.
âI freaked fucking out. Willie Nelson? Come on, man, who do you think youâre kidding? Youâre 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 Willieâs 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 âGreat Ridgetop Shootoutâ that Willie Nelson got the nickname âShotgun Willie.â Ridgetop was the house Willie lived in just outside of Nashville in the late 60â˛s. When it burned down in 1970, it stimulated Willieâs 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, Willieâs youngest daughter Susie told Willie that his oldest daughter Lana was being physically assaulted by her husband Steve Warren.
âI ran for my truck and drove to the place where Steve and Lana lived and slapped Steve around,â Willie recalls. âHe 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 Steveâs car. Steve made one pass and took off.â
But this wasnât where the incident ended. Willie drove back to Steve and Lanaâs 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 âget rid of him (Willie) as his top priority.â So what did Willie do? He drove back to Ridgetop and waited for him.
âThinking Steve would come to Ridgetop to pick me off about dusk, I hid in the truck so he couldnât 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. Thatâs 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 didnât want to get involved in hillbilly family fights. They wrote down what I told them on their report and took off.â
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.
BONUS 11. Receiving a 5th Degree Black Belt
You may not see Willie step into the octagon anytime soon, but apparently heâs been training for 20 years in the art of Gong Kwon Yu Sulâa modern Korean martial arts system similar to Tae Kwon Do that âemphasizes the application of striking, locking and throwing techniques in practical, free-flowing fighting situations, rather than static situations.â Willie has been training in the art so long he was awarded his 5th degree black belt in the discipline on April 28th in Austinâthe day before his 81st birthday. Grand Master Sam Um of Austin did the honors at his Master Martial Arts studio as part of a promotional event.
Willie Nelson has been studying martial arts most of his life, starting in Nashville when he was a burgeoning songwriter. âI got into some martial arts and kung fu,â Willie told Menâs Health Magazine last year. âI liked it. We used to offer kung fu lessons to the kids in town. Itâs good for you.â Apparently Willie trains on his famous tour bus The Honeysuckle Rose while on tour to pass the time and to stay healthy.
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,Â 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 inÂ the Spring of 2014 in Lynchburg, TN have been unveiled. In an eventÂ carried live during a 3-day concert in Altamont, TN, the 17 initial inductees were announcedÂ 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’sÂ 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 FamilyÂ
- Bobby Bare
- Chris GantryÂ
- Willie Nelson
- Waylon Jennings
- David Allan Coe
- Kris Kristofferson
- Merle Haggard
- Johnny Cash
- Johnny Paycheck
- Sammi SmithÂ
- Steve Young
- Jessi Colter
- Hank Williams Jr.Â
- Billy Joe Shaver
- Dallas Moore
- Wayne Mills
- Hank Williams III
- Jamey Johnson
- Whitey MorganÂ
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 1970â˛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 genreâsuch as Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Jessi Colterârecognize 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 ofÂ 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 calledÂ 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,Â Before The World Was MadeÂ 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 toÂ Before The World Was MadeÂ 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 MadeÂ 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.Â 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 GirlsÂ 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 Â 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 Nelsonâs last albumÂ HeroesÂ does of having too many guests. And may I point out that both albums were produced by Buddy Cannon. LikeÂ I said aboutÂ “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 wholeâŚSure, many of these names we love, but thereâs 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.Â 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, Â 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 singleÂ 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 Â himselfÂ 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 Â˝Â 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. “Iâm 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 didnât 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 SĂśderberg 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.”Â — 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,Â “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’sÂ “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.
- Strait Country 81 on New Hank Williams “I Saw The Light” Biopic Coming
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