Good music is entertaining. Great music changes lives. And on the front lines of life altering music experiences are the one man bands. Courageous, pioneering, persevering through obscurity and misunderstanding, one man bands might make up a majority of the music world’s boldness and creativity per capita. Here’s 16 of them from a wide swath of the roots world.
The “Dirty Ol’ One Man Band” signed to Bloodshot Records is one of the best-known longest-touring one man bands out there on circuit. His mixture of old blues with a little bit of country and punk influence is an infectious combination when he gets sliding on strings and stomping on the stage. He once had his guts spilled out on the highway after tangling head on with a semi, and lived to tell the tale.
Canada’s primary offering of a one man band is more Elvis than Elvis. With machismo dripping from him like the gobs of Dapper Dan fighting to keep the cold black hair out of his face, Bloodshot Bill is a one man wrecking crew who was also one of the first to revitalize the discipline in the modern era. He was once banned from touring in the USA. Feel free to make up your own reasons why.
That’s right, why can’t a woman be a one man….er, on person band too? Molly Gene gives the boys a run for their money when she gets behind her pedal kit and starts sliding on the strings and singing the deep blues.
The premier storyteller and poet of the one man bands, the ANTI-signed William Elliot Whitmore, made a name for himself opening for punk bands, and has gone on to be considered one of the top entertainers in the discipline. Whitmore’s songwriting is sublime, and his voice has the wisdom of 1,000 old men. No wonder he doesn’t need a band.
Possessed by Paul James isn’t just a one man band, he is a religious experience. This is no novelty act, this is a man who channels an unworldly passion through his music that emanates through him like some sort of sonic séance. Simply put, seeing Possessed by Paul James will change your life.
Drink up sinners! If one man band’s were like vintage television shows, Reverend Deadeye would be Sanford & Son mixed with MacGyver. You’ll never see another ragtag assemblage of clanging bangers then when Deadeve takes the stage, but this isn’t all Vaudeville. The Rev can really sing a song, and does Gospel as good as anyone. Probably not the rev you want at your wedding ceremony, but he sure does sound good.
I’m blown away why there’s not more chatter about this guy in the Deep Blues world. A one man band with a dirty, soulful approach, switching from old Gibson arch tops to resonator guitars, to a banjo, to one-stringed diddley bow, it doesn’t get much better than Lincoln Durham when it comes the dirty, low down approach to music. His last album was produced by Ray Wylie Hubbard.
The pizza twirling, gator wrestling, Florida via NYC with a short stint in South America Italian Stallion of one man bands is the fastest damn banjo player you’ll ever hear, and seems to add a new percussion instrument he’s playing with a foot, knee, shoulder, whatever every time you see him. Lone Wolf works at the world renown Gold Tone banjo works in FLA, but his latest album Mine Up 13 features mostly guitar.
One of the few one man bands who may be fit for mass consumption, but giving up nothing to his counterparts in artistry or songwriting, Shakey Graves is a quirky, but handsome old school entertainer you can’t help but engage with.
The former .357 String Band banjo player and songwriter was forced to go solo when the band broke up, but featuring some of the best songwriting you can find and tight multi-instrument skills, Joseph Huber is no worse for the wear. Huber is not a conventional one man band—the approach comes more from the mother of necessity, and he will still take other players when he can get them.
From the tales of dying and dismembered men, to the disenfranchised, homeless, lost souls and forgotten, they are all canonized through Charlie’s honesty and amazing clarity into perspective. Charlie doesn’t sing about subjects in third person, he becomes the subject of his songs in an uncanny channeling of character, and makes the story flesh and bone right before your eyes.
An animal. A force of nature. Joe Buck Yourself is like a caged animal, unleashed on a crowd to inflict the wildest possibly damage on idiot thoughts and ego. The former Hank3 bass player and original lower Broadway revitalizer that used to pal around with BR549 and partly owned Layla’s Bluegrass Inn is now mostly know for spit wielding snarls, heart pounding songs, and rivers of feedback. Not for the faint of heart.
This wily old songwriting veteran who now resides quite prominently in east Nashville is not as much a proper one man band as a guy who doesn’t need much more than a guitar and a song, and some stories in between to keep an audience entertained. As time goes on, he may be becoming just as popular for his podcasts that capture some of the coolest music cats in their natural east Nashville habitat.
The troubadour of the one man bands and one of the best storytellers and purveyors of wisdom, Scott McDougall has an Old World charm to his music, like a wandering sage who walks into the local tavern to regale a crowd before slipping out again, not to be seen for many more months. A lover of friends, campfires, and conversations, McDougall is the best friend you’ve never met.
Bob Log III is like a one man Marine expeditionary demolition crew, cutting, burning, pillaging and plundering with a thunderous, ominous blues sound. Best known for playing while veiled behind a full face helmet (is Daft Punk ripping him off? Anyone? Anyone?), he’s one of the most entertaining one man bands out there.
The creepiest, and one of the most creative of the one man bands, this comic book writer and substitute teacher from San Francisco puts on one of the most entertaining live shows you can see, complete with big creepy cue cards and other props while he peddles his Egyptian oils and other wares through his music.
Other one man bands: Brownbird Rudy Relic, T Model Ford (RIP), Hasil Adkins (RIP), Mark “Porkchop” Holder, Reverend Beatman, Right On John, Dead Elvis & His One Man Grave, Ben Prestage, Smokestack and the Foothill Fury, Phillip Roebuck, Bloody Ol’ Mule, Seasick Steve, Tales From A Ghost Town, Ghostwriter, Crankshaft, Patson, Dad Horse Experience, Eagle Eye Williamson, Malcome Holcombe, and …
There are songwriters, and then there are songwriters; those folks that so effortlessly set words to the moods and moments of life and that can make you weep like a baby or wildly happy to be alive. These songwriters are there for us, creating a soundtrack for our most enduring memories, making the most of the life experience by enhancing it with music.
But the best of the best songwriters can do something even more. They can set our lives on a completely separate path by showing us the way to discovering ourselves. Something that they say can make us quit that bad job, leave that bad relationship, start a new relationship, or rekindle lost love. It’s not always about preaching or teaching, it’s about showing us a new, better path by touching something inside of us through song. He are a few songwriters who are capable of such magic.
If you only have time for one name of a songwriter that could change your life, I would go with Willy “Tea” Taylor. As a solo artist and the co-frontman for the California-based Good Luck Thrift Store Outfit, Willy’s song catalog works like a medicine cabinet for the soul, with a cure at the ready for any type of emotional ailment. Like the antidote or vaccine for the most common and debilitating of human inflictions, it should be an international imperative to spread the songs of Willy “Tea” far and wide. Willy “Tea” Taylor is where your quest to find the best music you’ve never heard ends.
This Canadian country star is a master craftsman with words, but unlike many of his songwriting counterparts that tend to ace only one aspect of the human condition, Corb Lund can tickle the full palette of human emotions. He has the bone-splitting wit of Shel Silverstein, the cutting emotion of Townes, and the common man understanding of universal struggles of Willie Nelson. And the most unfair part about Corb’s songwriting is that he makes it all seem so damn effortless. Corb Lund is a Canadian treasure the whole world can share in.
You want a musical experience that will change your life? Then get your ass front and center at an Austin Lucas show and watch the man spill his guts out right in front of you in an experience that can be one of the most life-altering mixtures of music and emotion. Whether he’s playing for thousands of people like he did on the Country Thunder Tour in 2011, or a last-minute house show for 7 people on the outskirts of Baton Rouge, Lucas and his songs can leave you speechless. It’s not just about the song with Austin, it is also about the evocation of the emotion and inspiration behind it. This Indiana native now living in Nashville is poised to blow up in 2013. Get on the bandwagon now.
The great thing about Chris Knight is that he’s not some wildly gifted wordsmith who seems to call upon a limitless fountain of vocabulary brilliance to stagger the mind, he’s the everyman poet that works with raw and real language that you can relate to no different than the words of your brother or your neighbor or your best friend. Chris Knight’s authenticity is as real as wood, and when he writes a song, the characters he conjures seem to be culled right from your own world, going through the same struggles, sharing the same simple pleasures. There is a warmth and familiarity of Chris Knight’s music that is unparallelled.
Fans of the .357 String Band already knew Joseph Huber was a skilled composer, but when he stripped it all down after the departure of .357 where it was just Huber and his thoughts, a shimmering brilliance emerged, evidenced on his first solo record Bury Me Where I Fall, and the follow up Tongues of Fire. Huber takes an overarching sorrow and impales it with wisdom to the delight of the mournful and yearning ear.
Arguably one of the greatest American songwriters that nobody has heard of, the enigmatic and influential Will Oldham who performs and records under the stage name Bonnie “Prince” Billy is a songwriter that songwriters listen and look up to. Johnny Cash performed Will’s song “I See A Darkness” on 2000′s American III: Solitary Man, but that is just where Will’s songwriting credits and influential clout begin. You’ll struggle to find a song composer in the greater alt-country/Americana world who doesn’t take the Bonnie “Prince” Billy name with reverence.
If there is one artist who can completely lose himself in the music and let it take over every fabric of their being, and then commune that complete loss of self with the crowd to where the experience borders on the religious, it is Texas school teacher turned music madman and spiritual medium Possessed by Paul James. With PPJ, it’s not just about the music and words, it’s about the entire human experience, the bubbling up of emotion and memory with music simply being the excuse. You will walk away from a Possessed by Paul James experience a changed person.
Others songwriters that can change your life: Billy Don Burns, Olds Sleeper, Joe Pug, McDougall, Charlie Parr, Jason Molina, Justin Townes Earle, Tom VandenAvond, Micah Schnabel of Two Cow Garage, and….
Here is the list of 25 albums Saving Country Music deems essential for 2012 listening, and then I added an extra one I couldn’t leave off. Please note this list only includes albums that have been reviewed so far. There are a few more good and important albums in 2012 that have yet to be reviewed. The first 7 albums on the list (from Little Victories to Lee Bains) were all serious considerations for Saving Country Music’s Album of the Year. PLEASE NOTE: None of the Album of the Year candidates are included on this list, so look over there before complaining about omissions. After the first 7 albums, they are listed in the order the albums were reviewed, not in order based on recommendation/quality/etc.
Saving Country Music reviewed twice as many albums as it did last year, but it is impossible to review everything. As always, your feedback is encouraged. What are your essential albums? What did we miss? What was released in 2012 that deserves a review? Please leave your feedback below.
Chris Knight – Little Victories
Every year there is one album and artist that admittedly gets screwed when it comes to Saving Country Music’s bigger awards, and this is the one that gets named the “Most Essential” album for a given year. This year, it is Chris Knight’s Little Victories.
“This is the exact album that the United States of America needs right here, right now, at this very moment in time. Finally, someone has the courage and the wisdom to use music to reassure people of the power of individual will, and the beauty of the rising action embedded in every human soul instead of as a vehicle to lay blame on everyone else for the problems the individual faces.
Little Victories is a big victory for Chris Knight, for country music, and for the level-headed, wise approach to life in an overly-politicized world.” (read full review)
Ray Wylie Hubbard – The Grifter’s Hymnal
“If there’s honor amongst thieves, then it only seems fitting there should be a Grifter’s Hymnal. And if there’s going to be a Grifter’s Hymnal, it’s only fitting Ray Wylie Hubbard should compose it. The ingredients of grifters are already mixed there on his palette: Tales of dead and dying things and dens of iniquity, the struggle or the soul between good and evil, and the difficulty sometimes of telling the two apart. But to have a hymnal you also must have a message, and you must be able to convey that message with eloquence, poetical prowess, wit and rhyme. Well don’t worry, it’s all here. Just open it up and sing along.” (read full review)
Rachel Brooke – A Killer’s Dream
“Rachel Brooke is one of the few select artist with enough mustard to rise out of the ashes of the country music underground and become a force in the greater roots world. Like an early Emmylou Harris, the music industry should be shuttling her across the country to lend her singular vocal texture to other projects in between putting out excellent solo albums that time finds hard to forget.
“How to grow and evolve yet still hold on to what makes you unique and who you truly are is the balance all artists must attain to continue to move forward. Rachel shows she’s up to these alchemical feats in A Killer’s Dream, and proves that she’s musical gold, worthy of the attention of the greater Americana / roots world.” (read full review)
Justin Townes Earle – Nothing’s Gonna Change The Way You Feel About Me Now
I thought this was an album of great songs, but not a great album if that makes sense. The whole Memphis vibe Earle tried to conjure worked at times, and didn’t at others. But you can’t deny the power of songs like “Unfortunately, Anna”, “Maria”, or “It Won’t Be The Last Time”. Anybody who says this is their favorite album of 2012, I wouldn’t argue with. Very solid offering from Justin Townes Earle.
“There is not a bad song on this album. We see JTE return to the honest, heavy-hearted songwriting that has become his signature. Though this album is hard to warm up to. JTE’s voice may come across as unusual at first, maybe even weak, and the production may seem out-of-place or even droning because it is such an unusual approach for him, or any artist originating out of the Americana world. But when you give it time, it all starts to work. I think time will be a great ally of this album, just as much as the short-term may be a hindrance.” (read full review)
The Calamity Cubes – Old World’s Ocean
“‘Old World’s Ocean’ puts The Calamity Cubes’ bevy of talents on glorious display. Excellent songwriting is conveyed through flawless vocal performances and inventive music. By being unafraid to display their vulnerabilities, yet having an inherent rawness to their music and releasing it through one of the most “hardcore” labels in roots circles in the form of Farmageddon Records, The Calamity Cubes create a unique and important nexus in string-based roots music, and do so while putting out creative, innovative, and entertaining tunes that touch all parts of the musical anatomy.” (read full review)
Marty Stuart - Nashville Vol.1 Tear The Woodpile Down
“Marty Stuart is on an amazing roll ladies and gentlemen. What he’s doing right now with lead guitar player “Cousin” Kenny Vaughan and The Fabulous Superlatives is stuff that legends are made of. You know those periods in an artists’ career that you look back on like they can’t do wrong, churning out amazing songs and albums one after another? Hank Jr. from Whiskey Bent & Hell Bound to The Pressure Is On, Willie & Waylon after they’d shaken loose from the grips of RCA in the mid 70′s. That’s the kind of epic and influential period were in the midst of right now with Marty Stuart, and what a blessing it is to realize this and to be able to experience it all in the present instead of trying to relive it through the past.” (Read full review)
Lee Bains & The Glory Fires – There’s A Bomb In Gillead
“This is an explosively-energetic album with influences and styles pulling from a wide range of American music. Lee Bains is well-versed in Southern modes from both sides of the tracks, and shows tremendous versatility in being able to conjure up the smoky mood of a blues singer, and the sweaty twang of a Southern rocker in the space of a breath, with The Glory Fires right on his heels with their authentic, spot-on sonic interpretations.” (read full review)
Paige Anderson & The Fearless Kin – Wild Rabbit
“One hard and fast rule around Saving Country Music is that I don’t review EP’s except for in “extreme cases.” There’s just too much music out there these days to consider half efforts, and in many cases, this is what EP’s are. I know they’re the hip thing, and a quicker way to get singles to fans in the digital age. But there’s something sacred about the album concept that I’m unwilling to let go of. So what is an “extreme case?” Well in 5 or so years, not once have I had an EP cross my desk that I felt qualified. Until now.
“Wild Rabbit is a remarkable collection of songs that illustrate all of Paige Anderson’s singular talents, including her solitary prowess as a female flatpicking guitar player; an attribute that has landed her numerous features in Flatpicking Guitar magazine and other periodicals. But her voice is what threatens to steal the spotlight, with its inherent conveyance of pain in a tone that is both youthful and old, wildly unique and undeniably accessible.” (read full review)
Joe Buck – Who Dat?
“‘Who Dat’ is a completely different direction for Joe Buck, while still being exactly what he’s always done. That’s the root genius of it. Yes, without question this album is a lot more tame, more tame than even ‘Piss & Vinegar’. But what this approach does is bring out the roar of quiet anger. In many ways, even though this album features much less distortion and more singing than shouting or screaming, it’s even harder, even more disillusioned and unbalanced as a byproduct of it’s muted approach. Joe Buck’s anger isn’t as obvious, it is seething beneath the surface, boiling and permeating these recordings with an unsettled feeling, like a pressure tank ready to burst. (read full review)
The Foghorn Stringband – Outshine The Sun
“‘Outshine the Sun’ is an excellent album, and where it makes its mark is in the positivity of its message. There are many bands these days digging up old standards from The Carter Family, The Stanley Brothers and the like, but that tend to seek out the darkness in roots music; songs about muder, and preferrably cocaine if you can find them, because they feel like those themes are what keep the music relevant.
“‘Outshine the Sun’ works boldly in the opposite direction, presenting the cheerful side of the roots from its formative years, in the lyrical content, and in the modes of the music, with bright, frolicking and fun compositions and instrumentals that make this a fresh approach to the roots despite the vintage age of the material. I grimaced when I saw 21 tracks on this album. I mean did they expect to hold my attention for that long? But they did, and they do by the sheer talent of the Foghorn roster, and the sincerity of their approach.” (read full review)
Rev. Peyton’s Big Damn Band – Between The Ditches
“I swear, it is almost like Reverend Peyton had a little window into my brain when making Between The Ditches, because virtually every one of the concerns I had about their sound going in was resolved, while still keeping what is at the heart of their raucous and rowdy Delta-blues sound completely alive.
“For an underground roots band, Reverend Peyton is “making it.” Worming their way on to the Warped Tour and opening for The Reverend Horton Heat, they’ve found some traction with their music by working hard and taking a professional approach as opposed to compromising their sound. That is what’s great about Between The Ditches. It’s not a change, it is a refinement. Thought Rev. Peyton still has the same bellowy voice, he’s figured out how to employ it better, keep it in check when it could be grating. Though the repetitiveness in some of the lyrics remains, it’s measured. And though there’s still the Vaudevillian feel, there seems to be new value put on the music over the show.” (read full review)
Sara Watkins - Sun Midnight Sun
“For me, Sun Midnight Sun was one of those albums that had some good songs that I latched on to, but the project never stuck to me as a whole. But those few songs though, let me tell you. I’m libel to recycle them over and over in one setting until I feel stupid about it. The opening track “The Foothills” may be the leader in the clubhouse for instrumental track of the year. This amazing folk/bluegrass composition is built in layers like a buttermilk biscuit. They stack upon each other gradually and meld in unison through a recording technique sure to be asked for its recipe by distinguishing ears for years to come. And beneath all of that is a heavy, progressive world-beat that burrows straight into your primal nerves.” (read full review)
Billy Don Burns – Nights When I’m Sober
“There are great songwriters, and then there are songwriters that define the apogee of the craft, songwriters like Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt…and Billy Don Burns. There are songs on Nights When I’m Sober that will rip at your heart like nothing else. There’s a great variety on the album with sweet songs and fun songs. And where Billy Don elevates the stakes is in the production and approach to each composition. With producer/guitar player Aaron Rodgers, they reinvigorate the late-era, rock-infused Outlaw sound that had Haggard and Paycheck seeking Billy Don’s services. (read full review)
James Leg & Left Lane Cruiser – Painkillers
“Listen to me folks, GET THIS ALBUM! I know it’s my job as some high fallutin’ music writer to come up with a bunch of stuff to say about music. But after listening to Painkillers, if I were you, I’d skip all the gabbing and just go get it. And then find the biggest, loudest audio player you can procure and crank it to 10. If you want to flatter me, come back and read the rest at some other point.
“‘Painkillers’ isn’t just a catchy idea to sketch some cover art around, it is the idea this album is built from, to take a bunch of timeless, kick ass songs, give them the dirty, heavy-handed Left Lane Cruiser/James leg punk blues treatment, with the result being an album that is perfectly concocted to kill pain. That’s what’s so genius about it. If they had released a batch of original songs under this concept, the painkilling would just be a placebo. By taking songs we all know and love already, songs that mean something to us, the medicine is potent, fast-acting, striking right at your gut.” (read full review)
Don Williams – And So It Goes
“This album has the ability to stimulate memory and reflection without coming across as dated or even nostalgic. This was the wisdom of going back and using Don’s original producer of Garth Fundis on this album. ‘And So It Goes’ is like an ice cream cone your grandfather bought you, the smell of your grandparent’s house, a tire swing on an old tree, the shade of the light when it hits a golden meadow just right at the turning of spring or fall.
‘”And So It Goes’ simply sends you to this soft place, and makes you second guess yourself if you overlooked some mainstream 70′s and 80′s country for lacking substance. It makes you wonder just how many of those Don Williams #1′s can you name. Not all of them? Well you better start digging and see what you missed.” (read full review)
Joseph Huber – Tongues of Fire
“”And that is what imbibes ‘Tongues of Fire’ with that intangible thing that makes certain albums feel warm to you. This album is about Joe searching and finding that sense of balance and purpose, while still recognizing that certain wild desires are there and will always be.
Though on the surface ‘Tongues of Fire’ may seem like a less poetic approach, after a few listens you find the poetry very much alive in songs like “An Old Mountain Tune” and “Dance Around The Daggers”. “Iron Rail” seems to speak to the hopeless, caged feeling Joe may have been laboring under in .357, while the theme can speak to frustrations in all of us. “Fell Off the Wagon” is the outright fun song that was lacking from Joe’s first release. And just about the time you wonder where Huber’s signature blazing banjo is on this album, here comes “Walkin’ Fine”.” (read full review)
Tom VandenAvond – Wreck of a Fine Man
“VandenAvond is a pure songwriter. As much as people love to babble on about how songwriting is such a noble art and pat their favorite artists on the back for being so great at it, few delve into the inner workings of the craft like Tom VandenAvond. Comparisons are made to Dylan because of VandenAvond’s voice. Artists comparisons are rarely fair to either side, yet this one is understandable because just like Dylan, VandenAvond is a writer that sings, not a singer that writes. When it feels like the music is getting in the way of the story, this can be a symptom of an upper stratosphere songwriter who it sometimes takes interpretations of their songs from other artists to make their work accessible to the wider public.” (read full review)
JP Harris & The Tough Choices – I’ll Keep Calling
“This true, honky-tonk, hard country music, with a little Western swing and rockabilly mixed in. Songs like “Badly Bent” and “Cross Your Name” tell hard-nosed stories that don’t need heavy language to drive home their heartbroken themes, and the up-tempo “Take It Back” and “Gear Jammin’ Daddy” gives this album a good variety and spice that keep it engaging throughout. All of these songs could be labeled cliche, but they’re so good, it’s hard to.
Can a long-bearded boy from Vermont make real country music? Can songs about letters stamped “Return To Sender” and and shots of whiskey to drown sorrow still be relevant? If I’ll Keep Calling is any indication, the answer is an adamant “Yes!”” (Read full review)
Willie Nelson- Heroes
This is truly a good album. It’s easy to look at it and say, “Well I’m a Willie fan so I guess I will like it,” but this is the best album he has put out in years, with great contributions from Willie’s son Lukas.
“As I said in my review of Lukas’s latest album, he is the offspring most rich with Willie blood, with top-shelf guitar playing abilities all his own to boot. If you want to know what a rock & roll version of Willie would be, look to Lukas. Close your eyes when Lukas is singing, and you can almost see Willie, with Lukas’s natural, high-register tone, and perfect pitch and control that doesn’t ape Willie, but evokes his memory.
“This album is good both because it is Willie, and because it is good. After years of navigating through a gray area in his career and having to dabble with some record labels probably less able to do a Willie release justice, he’s back with the same company who released ‘Red Headed Stranger’, and back to making albums worthy of the world stopping down to pay attention to.” (Read full review)
The Alabama Shakes – Boys & Girls
“This rootsy, soulful rock band is bound together by the force known as Brittany Howard, part Janis Joplin, part Kimya Dawson, both poetic, and fanatically possessed. Whenever I think of the true embodiment of the word “soul” I think of an old black woman. Whether it’s an old black female singer, or young white male guitar player, if they truly want to have soul, they must have an old black woman trapped inside of them somewhere, with 1,000 injustices fighting back tears in world-torn eyes, and infinite wisdom bred from bad choices by the self and others. Soul is anger only semi-controlled, and that is what Brittany Howard has. (“I’ll fight the planet!” she proclaims in the song “Heartbreaker”. )” (Read full review)
Jackson Taylor & The Sinners – Bad Juju
“This fiery, unfettered, full tilt assault on country music strikes that perfect chord of being both inescapably familiar yet remarkably fresh. Johnny Cash on cocaine may be the most appropriate description. More Memphis than Nashville, more madness than melancholy. But moreover, ‘Bad Juju’ is just one hell of a good time.
“This is fun music in the truest sense of the term. You don’t conjure up Bad Juju to commiserate with your pain, you conjure it up to forget about it. Jackson Taylor & The Sinners found their mojo by stripping it back to the simplest of lineups: Acoustic guitar and vocals, lead guitar, and drums. And when they found that mojo, they stuck with it, refined it, worked at it until it was perfect and its power both undeniable and universal on the human body.” (Read full review)
McDougall – A Few Towns More
“Scott McDougall from Portland, OR might be the last of the true Romantic-era troubadours: a bardic-like, almost fantasy character that arrives in town with a bass drum on his back and guitar in hand, and sets up at the local pub to sing songs, spin tales, slay lonesome moments, and save the spiritually repressed before whisking out of town like something out of a dream. The puffy beard, the cherubic features, his skill with wit, instrument, and lyric delivered with a wisp of Renaissance flair, he’s like an archetype pulled right out of the glossy illustrations of childhood fable.” (Read full review)
Davy Jay Sparrow - Olde Fashioned
“This album is just so refreshing. It’s refreshing for Western swing and for a neo-traditionalist album because it’s just so fun. This may be the most fun album I have heard in years. It’s not afraid to be spontaneous and whimsical. There’s a comic book element to it, and a Golden-Era silver screen dime store novel romanticism, yet in never crosses the line of being corny or cornpone. If anything, it’s “cool” in the traditional sense of the term. It’s like The Slow Poisoner meets The Stray Cats. With the funny names and cheese-colored cover, you may expect cheesiness, but it solves any of those concerns by being wonderfully structured and very astutely written, arranged, and performed.” (Read full review)
Lone Wolf OMB – A Walk in My Pause
“Katy bar the door and baton down the hatches folks because Lone Wolf, the Italian, trilingual, pizza spinning, gator wrestling, globe trotting, banjo plucking, banjo building, wild-assed Floridian from up North via Costa Rica has a new album headed your way. Warn the neighbors downstairs, cause it’s about to get loud and feet will be stomping!
“At this mature stage in the evolution of American music, it is extremely rare to hear something with a wholly unique approach. And to have that approach come from just one man and a very traditional, primitive instrument makes it even more exceptional. The combination of tempo and original technique derived from the clawhammer banjo style swirl for the most dizzying, disarming music experience imaginable when Lone Wolf is cued.” (Read full review)
Carolina Chocolate Drops - Leaving Eden
“The minute the Carolina Chocolate Drops were formed, the American music landscape was a much better place. Why, because we need yet another old-time juggy string band? God no. A mysterious yet very specific plague could wipe out half a hundred banjo-playing anthropology majors in suspenders busking in college town coffee shops and there would still be too many. The reason the Chocolate Drops are important is substance, sincerity, understanding of music, and rabid passion for exhuming the bones that form the skeleton that all the beauty of roots music hangs from.” (Read full review)
Restavrant – Yeah, I Carve Cheetahs
“This music comes at you like some crazy berserker dude kicking and swinging nun chucks, or a rooster with razor blades tied to its talons flying at your head. You may not exactly know what’s going on at first, but it certainly will get your heart pumping. Restavrant doesn’t play music for you, they beat you over the head with it. A two piece setup of screaming wierdo dudes originally from Victoria, TX, one armed with a gut-bending guitar and slide, and the other with common truck stop parking lot refuse that he wails on to create audible percussive-like noises. I’m pretty sure their form of expression is considered assault in certain countries. But for those with the right ear and disposition, it hurts so good.” (Read full review)
Every year this list stirs a little controversy because people misunderstand that these are not supposed to be the songs you “like” the best, but instead is supposed to be compositions in a given year that have the most impact.
They’re songs that make you change the way you see the world, or change the way you see yourself. This year, I may put out a list of “singles” that would better represent the lighter side of the music. But the Song of the Year is reserved for those few compositions that have the ability to change lives and to change the world.
Some of the songs that find themselves on the outside looking in, but are still excellent and worth your ear include virtually any track on both Chris Knight’s Little Victories album and Corb Lund’s Cabin Fever. The problem with putting out an album where every song is great is trying to pick the best one. If it wasn’t for Tom Morello’s guitar solo, Shooter Jennings’ “The Long Road Ahead” would have made it, and the only reason why Shooter’s”Daddy’s Hands” didn’t is because of this year’s strength of the competition.
A couple of other oddball considerations that almost made it were T. Junior’s “Man in Gray” and Sara Watkins’ song of epic sadness, “When It Pleases You”.
Normally I’d gab a little bit about each song, but this year the songs are so strong and remarkably each has an excellent video. So except for a few quick notes, I think I will sit back and let the music speak for itself. Vote for your favorite(s) below, and comment feedback will be taken into consideration for the winner.
Tom VandenAvond – Wreck of a Fine Man – from Wreck of a Fine Man
About Hank Williams and James Hand. If you’re interested, you can read the story behind “Wreck of a Fine Man”.
McDougall – The Travels of Fredrick Tolls (Part 2) – from A Few Towns More
Justin Townes Earle – Unfortunately, Anna – from Nothing’s Gonna Change…
On my mid year list I included “It Won’t Be The Last Time” from Nothing’s Gonna Change too. The competition is so stiff, it didn’t seem fair to include two songs from the same artist. But if I had, it would have been from Justin Townes Earle.
Ray Wylie Hubbard – New Years Eve at the Gates of Hell – Grifter’s Hymnal
There were a few other songs from Grifter’s Hymnal that could have made the cut, but they didn’t call a record executive a “son of a bitch” or quote Martin Luther King.
Billy Don Burns – Stranger -from Nights When I’m Sober
A really powerful one.
Turnpike Troubadours – Good Lord, Lorrie – from Goodbye Normal Street
In my mid year list, I picked “Gone, Gone, Gone” as the standout with “Good Lord, Lorrie” as a runner up. Over time, “Good Lord, Lorrie” has proved to be a timeless song. It’s the “Me & Bobby McGee” of 2012. An excellent use of story.
Sturgill Simpson – Life Ain’t Fair & The World Is Mean
I’ve gone back and forth over the years if I should include songs not released on albums as candidates. This song is just too strong to leave off. I would be lying if I didn’t say this is one of the front runners. (read full review)
Eric Strickland – Drinking Whiskey – from Honky Tonk Till I Die
This song may even be better live.
Kacey Musgraves – Merry Go ‘Round
I admit this song is not perfect. The reason it made the list is because for a song with such a subversive message, it has been performing amazingly well on radio. It is touching a nerve with people from Americana to the mainstream. It is a song about awakening, and it may just awaken some folks to the fact that there’s a whole other world of music out there waiting for them. (read full review)
Olds Sleeper – Bigsky/Flatland – from New Year’s Poem
Last, but certainly not least.
Not everybody will be able to make the trek to The Farmageddon Music Festival going down on July 20th-22nd in West Yellowstone, Montana at Hebgen Lake. But if you’re sitting on the fence, hemming and hawing, sweating because you only have two days left before you have to ask off for that extra day of work, here’s 12 random reasons to pull the trigger.
1. Slim Cessna’s Auto Club
Of all the artists and bands I’ve seen live over the years counting any style of music, Slim Cessna’s Auto Club is right up there for putting on the best live performance possible. They don’t throw themselves around with tremendous energy or evoke epic guitar solos. Instead they rely on conjuring up the similar incantations to the old school snake oil salesmen and tent preachers did, preying on some inherent human frailty that allows you no other option than to submit to their spell. You may not know exactly what’s going on, but you will love every minute of it.
2. Hebgen Lake
This is where Farm Fest is happening? What more needs to be said?
***UPDATE*** It has been moved to 10 Denny Creek Road off of Targhee Pass HWY/HWY 20. GET FULL DETAILS
3. The Drive There
Yeah, Farmageddon Fest’s out-of-the-way location may be prohibitive for some folks, but it also one of the festival’s best assets. Whether you’re packing up the station wagon and heading out from Osh Kosh, or flying into Jackson Hole and renting a sub compact, and some point you will find yourself surrounded by some of the most beautiful country the United States boasts. It may be hard to get to, but it will be even harder to leave behind.
In the Farmageddon Fest lineup, you have some of the most dynamic performing bands in all the land. The aforementioned Slim Cessna’s Auto Club for starts, then add on top of that the fire-breathing Goddamn Gallows, The Calamity Cubes, Husky Burnette, Southern Culture on the Skids, and Bob Wayne & The Outlaw Carnies just to name a few. These are bands that will melt your face off with their performances.
Tom VandenAvond, McDougall, James Hunnicutt, Stevie Tombstone, the legendary Soda Gardocki, and Graham Lindsey are just some of the high-caliber songwriters who will bring depth and soul to the Farmageddon stage. This is not just a one-trick festival, but one that will cater to a variety of musical moods and sensibilities.
6. Artists You May Not Get Another Opportunity To See
From the 2011 Saving Country Music Album of the Year winner Slackeye Slim to local boy Aran Buzzas, a lot of the bands playing Farmageddon Fest don’t have the means to tour full time or nationally so this is your chance. Farmageddon Fest helps you out by putting them all in one place.
7. The Bands You’ve Never Heard Before
I’ve never understood folks who look at a festival lineup and scruch their nose at it saying, “But I’ve never heard of a lot of these bands.” The discovery is half the fun. If a festival does their job right, their should be unfamiliar names. And if you do your job right, you walk away from the weekend with a few new favorite bands.
8. The Ugly Valley Boys
Just because their album Double Down is so damn good and I can’t get enough of it.
The bands scheduled to play is a known quantity. What isn’t is the random, improvised, and amazing collaborations that could break out at any moment, at any place, on stage, in the campground, in some bar back in town, you name it. “Oh my god I just saw Husky Burnette playing with Avery from the Goddamn Gallows on washboard and James Hunnicutt playing guitar, and then The Calamity Cubes were playing with Soda Gardocki and the Dead Tree String Band!” This is what your thumbs will be feverishly working to post to Facebook, and what is bound to happen when you put this many bands who are familiar with each other in one place.
Inevitably, whenever anyone attends a festival like this, they walk away boasting about the bands, the grounds, etc., but it is the fellowship, the camaraderie that is created when assembling such a collection of like-minded folks together for three days is what you walk away with valuing the most. The experiences can never be captured in photos or videos to the extent they will be in your heart.
11. Because if you don’t support independent festivals, they will go away.
12. The Lineup
Tom VandenAvond is one of these wheel guys. James Hunnicutt is another. They may not be the flashiest of artists, but when you sit back and study the music, you find these wheel guys are essential to it in so many ways; how everything seems to revolve around them. They are the trunk from which so much other music grows. Trace the veins of the music and you find that their songs and work create foundations and inspiration for so many others.
Just in recent memory VandenAvond’s name could be found on albums by Willy Tea Taylor and Scott McDougall. Some will tell you Larry & His Flask are all grown up from the underground roots world, but here they are once again backing Tom up, just like they did on his last album. The weighty respect other performers and songwriters have for VandenAvond illustrates just how influential his music is.
VandenAvond is a pure songwriter. As much as people love to babble on about how songwriting is such a noble art and pat their favorite artists on the back for being so great at it, few delve into the inner workings of the craft like Tom VandenAvond. Comparisons are made to Dylan because of VandenAvond’s voice. Artists comparisons are rarely fair to either side, yet this one is understandable because just like Dylan, VandenAvond is a writer that sings, not a singer that writes. When it feels like the music is getting in the way of the story, this can be a symptom of an upper stratosphere songwriter who it sometimes takes interpretations of their songs from other artists to make their work accessible to the wider public.
Luckily though, VandeAvond had the ridiculous talent pool of Larry & His Flash backing him up on Wreck of a Fine Man. This allows his compositions and brushy voice to be bolstered with magnificent arrangement and instrumentation, displayed no better than on the title track for this album that I truly believe is one of the best songs so far this year. The song “Wreck of a Fine Man” rises to that level from the combination of excellent lyricism and structure from VandenAvond, and the gorgeous harmonic sighs and ascending string lines in the chorus that create a musical mood unmatched.
Another marquee track was “Busted Knuckles”. What VandenAvond does so well is to stencil broken down characters you can believe in when their stories are told through his shaggy voice, and he creates lyrical lines that he calls back on throughout a song to mold a catchy, revolving theme, like he also does in “But, Anyway Now I Gotta Go” and “Where They Say You’ve Been Livin’”. Another great track was “Meet Me At Weber’s Deck” where regardless of your knowledge or participation in the annual summer ritual outside of St. Paul, MN, you can relate to the story of a place to feel comfort and camaraderie.
Even diehard VandenAvond fans must admit that it’s difficult to characterize his music as accessible. He is a hard sell. This isn’t helped by the slight amount of muddiness in this recording, just like some of VandenAvond’s other albums. Tom does not have a stark voice, and doesn’t use sharp lines or a consistent cadence in his phrasing that people are used to. You must get over that and understand this is his style, and that it benefits the music and the broken down themes he sings about. But the recordings can be a little frustrating to the ear, especially because Tom’s words and Larry & His Flask’s arrangements and performances are so spectacular, you want them right out there and clear for you to enjoy. I appreciate the lo-fi approach, but just a little more clarity might have awakened some of the dynamics of these tracks and created a more approachable work.
But the substance is all here, and I can’t help to think of what an impressive song catalog VandenAvond is amassing, which could be pilfered in years to come by bands looking for that deep soul that only the most serious of songwriters can evoke, while at the same time challenging his current songwriting peers to match his substance and depth, promoting a healthier, more vibrant music world than it would rather be without him, for now and into the future.
1 3/4 of 2 guns up.
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Some confusion always seems to dog my lists of top songs, because I’m not just looking for that catchy tune you can’t take off of repeat, I’m looking for the song that changes your world. For a song to qualify, it must be original, and barring exceptional circumstances, it must be composed by the performer. These are songs that take you somewhere. Any thoughts on additions, omissions, and your own individual lists are encouraged below in the comments section.
Turnpike Troubadours – Gone, Gone, Gone – from Goodbye Normal Street
The Turnpike Troubadours have now officially arrived. If you’ve been sitting on the sidelines, sniffing at them from afar, waiting to see what happens before you drop a Hamilton on one of their albums, it’s time to jump in. There are a couple of Goodbye Normal Street songs that could have made this list, “Good Lord Lorrie” and “Wrecked” were possibilities, but “Gone Gone, Gone” raises to that special quality by slowing it all down and really speaking to the soul.
Tom VandenAvond – Wreck of a Fine Man – from Wreck of a Fine Man
What’s curious about this song is that Tom V usually composes such autobiographical material, yet this one feels so outside himself, it gives it an unusual aspect. And Tom’s songs usually drone, but this one is strong and defiant despite it being about a dissolving and disillusioned life. Any song that can work in referencing The Ryman is going to get bonus points. Aside from VandenAvond’s signature song, the anthemic singalong “Brick By Brick,” this might be his best composition to date.
Justin Townes Earle – Unfortunately, Anna – from Nothing’s Gonna Change…
Justin Townes Earle may be the best pound for pound songwriter in music right now. He’s not prolific, but his profoundness has no peer. As much as the story and words of “Unfortunately, Anna” are enough to tear at your heart strings, it is the arrangement, the music and the stripped-down approach that really sends this song over the top.
Justin Townes Earle – It Won’t Be the Last Time – Nothing’s Gonna Change…
Self-realization is such a biting, dirty, and difficult exercise. We expect our songwriters to charge down into the depths of the inner soul to regions we ourselves are too scared to explore, to mine the sacred gold of truth to tantalize our senses, and this is what Justin Townes Earle does with haunting honesty in this song. “It Won’t Be The Last Time” is about Earle’s always-fragile sobriety. Listen to me folks and listen good; Justin Townes Earle’s sobriety is not just his own responsibility, it is all of our responsibilities as a music community.
Shooter Jennings – Daddy’s Hands – from Family Man
When I wrote my review for Shooter’s latest album I was under the impression this song was about Waylon. Since then we’ve learned it was in fact about Shooter’s fiance Drea DeMatteo’s side, which makes it even more cool in my opinion. As I said in the introduction, to be the best song all year, you have to move people, and many times songs that move us come from real life instances when an artist was moved themselves.
Olds Sleeper – Bigsky/Flatland – from New Year’s Poem
There were a few other songs I could have picked off of Olds’ New Year’s Poem album, including the title track and the excellent “Born To Lose,” but this is the one that has moved me more consistently, whose spell refuses to wear out. No it’s not that I like this album so much I had to pick one song from it to include on this list, it’s that this list would be woefully incomplete without the simplicity and soul Olds Sleeper evokes in this heart-wrenching and easy-to-relate-to story told with the perfect sonic accompaniment and inflections.
Ray Wylie Hubbard – New Years Eve at the Gates of Hell – Grifter’s Hymnal
I say that Song of the Year candidates cannot just be viscerally enjoyable, they must move you, make you a better person, communicate wisdom. Well in the case of this song, it is both a physical and intellectual uplift. The song is strikingly simple in its structure, really no more than rhythm and a few simple chord changes. But that is what makes it so potent. It awakens your primal nature, at the same time the words challenge your intellect and inspire your spirit. It’s unfairly witty.
Eric Strickland – Drinking Whiskey – from Honky Tonk Till I Die
Eric Strickland so far is 2012′s biggest surprise. It may take a little fudging of the rules to put this song in 2012 contention since it has been released as a different version before, but it’s too good to be an omission. The best part about this song is how on the surface the subject matter seems so plaintive. It’s the way Eric squeezes the soul out of the words and story that take this song from great to something special.
McDougall – The Travels of Fredrick Tolls (Part 2) – from A Few Towns More
I’m afraid McDougall’s latest album is becoming the greatest overlooked album of 2012 so far, which is unfortunate for so many reasons, including that it includes this resounding, life-altering, wisdom-imparting epic of a song that starts of like a Celtic frolic, and ends in a soul-shaking repatriation of the human spirit. “If known what it’s like to be the one who went hungry, now will you be the one that feeds?” is the line that inspires me to redouble my efforts to reach the musically-hungry masses who if they could only hear songs like this, could be uplifted with the inspiration of music and lead more fulfilling lives.
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NOTE: There are no female artists on this list, thought I’m sure the feminine side of things will rally by year’s end. A few songs worth checking out that almost made the list were Rachel Brooke‘s “Lonesome Turns Boresome” (written by her fiance Brooks Robbins), Kellie Pickler‘s “The Letter (to Daddy)” (written by who knows), and Kara Clark‘s “Southern Hospitality.”
Scott McDougall from Portland, OR might be the last of the true Romantic-era troubadours: a bardic-like, almost fantasy character that arrives in town with a bass drum on his back and guitar in hand, and sets up at the local pub to sing songs, spin tales, slay lonesome moments, and save the spiritually repressed before whisking out of town like something out of a dream. The puffy beard, the cherubic features, his skill with wit, instrument, and lyric delivered with a wisp of Renaissance flair, he’s like an archetype pulled right out of the glossy illustrations of childhood fable.
Like most of McDougall’s music, A Few Towns More is a travelogue, with cautionary tales of the ill-fated life intermixed. “Come along,” he says, and then takes all of us chumps more weighted down by life’s priorities on his journey spanning both geography and personal exploration.
The album starts off with an evocation of the warmth and fellowship of one of those late-night pub scenes alluded to above called “Coleraine”, where this folk-based one man band gets some help from friends with chants and claps. “Evening Tide” is where McDougall shows off his inner Bob Dylan, in a sweet and slow composition laid out so eloquently it sticks to memory with ease.
McDougall is skilled, but not a superpicker, and he knows how to use this to his advantage. Instrumentals like “Ask That Pretty Girl To Be My Wife” and “Cuttin’ The Grass/ Tom & Willy Go To Town” (I presume about fellow troubadours Tom VandenAvond and Willy “Tea” Taylor) dazzle you with an authenticity that would be lost if they were just some excuse for technical showboating. Instead the speechless wonder of the songs really helps capture the magic of the moments alluded to by their titles.
The gospel offering “When God Dips His Love In My Heart” is when McDougall’s skill at singing is shown off, but the epic “The Travels of Frederick Tolls – Part 2″ is the standout track of the album; starting off with the Celtic flavor McDougall brings to much of his banjo and guitar playing, and then morphing into a sonic and thematic anthem, encapsulating all of McDougall’s tricks and trades and philosophies into one song with the power to change a life’s perspective.
Always my concern with McDougall is accessibility, a concern I doubt he’s concerned with personally as he traverses the country, singing his songs to any willing audience from paying crowds to porch parties. The album’s send off track, “Ready, Begin” includes one of the most modern-sounding rhythms I’ve heard McDougall employ, and his loud, ringing play on the bass drum in songs like “Cuttin’ The Grass” may suck people in from the simple visceral joy of the rhythm. McDougall uses bass drum not just to keep the beat like many one man bands, but to add a whole new rhythm dimension to the music.
A Few Towns More is a journey worth taking.
1 3/4 of 2 guns up.
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(will be available on Amazon, iTunes, CD Baby soon)
From the tale of blues godfather Robert Johnson selling his soul to the devil at the crossroads, to The Louvin Brothers’ singing about how “Satan Is Real”, to Hank Williams III screaming the dark lord’s name out in “Hellbilly” country, Satan, or the devil is the most recurring folk character American roots music has ever seen.
You would think in a country founded by puritans, whose percentage of population identifying itself as “religious” in a traditional manner hovers around 70%, God and Jesus would also be big players in popular music. But due to the secularization of American culture, God and Jesus have been mostly segregated into gospel and contemporary Christian music world. Mention the devil all you want in songs, in either a negative or positive context. But talk of God, or especially Jesus in a song typecasts it as “religious” content and limits the audience. Or at least that’s how it used to be.
The Country Music Hall of Fame duo The Louvin Brothers for example started out as a gospel act, but to appeal to a wider audience made the move to secular music, so the could “sell tobacco” as Charlie Louvin said. Hank Williams developed the “Luke The Drifter” persona to sing his gospel songs under, afraid gospel would hurt the standing of the Hank Williams name with disc jockeys and the commercial crowd. Even in the 1950′s, religious music was a hard sell to the masses.
One of the reasons the devil makes such a good folk character or icon in music is because the term “devil” itself has become secularized. The devil is not always a religious figure, though it can be, it can also be simply a personification of evil.
Slowly over the past few years we’re seeing the re-emergence of both God and Jesus in roots music content, and the popularization of gospel. Why? Possibly for the same reason the devil works so well, because God and Jesus are beginning to re-emerge as “folk” characters too, that even non-religious people can identify with as personifications of good. This has taken some of the polarizing edge off of these religious terms, and opened them up as useful tools to songwriters.
From mainstream country and R&B where God is now more regularly referenced than ever before, to underground roots where it’s re-emerged after years of overuse of the “devil” and “Satan” terms, Jesus, God, and gospel are hot right now. You can see this everywhere. Shooter Jennings’ new album has a cross prominently displayed on the front. Ray Wylie Hubbard’s new album “Grifter’s Hymnal” has religious connotations throughout, and culminates in a Gospel song called “Ask God”. McDougall, a folk musician from the Northwest has a new album out early next week called A Few Towns More with a song “When God Dips His Love In My Heart”. Eric Church’s has a song called “Country Music Jesus” (possibly about yours truly), and the “Jesus, take the wheel” theme is very popular in popular country music at the moment.
Examples of Jesus, God, gospel music and elements of gospel being used in traditionally-secular music by believers and non-believers alike are everywhere. Why is this? Here’s a few ideas.
The Power of Gospel
With the renewed interest in roots music, more artists and fans are understanding what an important role gospel played in the formation of country, bluegrass, folk, and other roots art forms, how the use of harmony from gospel is an essential sonic element to American music, and how gospel can be an uplifting and enjoyable component to add to both recorded and live performance.
Beginning in the middle of the last decade and trending upwards from there, the use of the devil and Satan in lyrical content became hyper popularized, to the point now where the trend is beginning to reach parody and burnout. However the battle between good and evil is such an eternal theme in music, new ways must be found to communicate the good/evil struggle. The nature between God and Satan is such that the terms can almost be interchangeable in certain contexts, where you can take a negative song about Satan, turn it into a positive song about God, yet the underlying theme of the song never changes. This gives artists the ability to still say what they want to say, but not use Satan, whose name as a lyrical element may be becoming outmoded.
Irony and Trend
As with nearly all elements of American culture today, people could be using God and Jesus and religious symbols and language to be ironic instead of literal. It’s funny to sing a song about Jesus in a band that is otherwise secular or even counter to religious or Christian beliefs. However that could have unintended ramifications and alter meanings depending on the audience. A religious person could still listen to these songs and identify with the message, and it could also desensitize an audience to the use of such religious terms that for years were kept at arms length for fear of religious typecasting.
And God and Jesus just might be cool right now. Just like pink is the new black, Jesus could be the new devil. The trend may be towards these benevolent religious figures as hip terms.
The imagery, songs, and legacy of Johnny Cash which is laden heavily with his religious beliefs may be one of the primary reasons God, gospel, Jesus, crosses, and other religious elements are trending up in roots music. Cash’s continued popularity even nearly a decade after his death, and his cross-genre, ageless appeal makes him a great ambassador for re-integrating religious content back into American music. Remember, Johnny Cash isn’t just a Country Music Hall of Fame inductee, he’s also in the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame, and the Gospel Music Hall of Fame.
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Whatever the reasons, religious content is re-emerging in American roots music, and it’s hard to not get excited, whatever your religious beliefs are, to see what artists do when a whole new set of terms, themes, and modes is added to their creative palette.
You would think that living in the wealthiest nation the world has ever seen, we could all figure out how to have enough and be happy. However we live in a world polarized between the perceived “haves” and “have nots”. As many “Occupy” folks will point out, the vast amount of the wealth is controlled by a disproportionate 1% of the few, while “Occupy” detractors have pointed out that virtually anybody living in America makes up the 1% when you consider the population of the entire world.
A question we are told to ask ourselves often is “are you better off”? When a presidential election comes around for example, you are told to ask this about yourself in the context of the last four years. Now with a multi-year economic malaise whose recovery seems shaky at best and only seems to be benefiting a few, some are asking if this “are you better off?” question will be asked between generations, that the idea of The American Dream, where you can come to this country as a poor immigrant, pull yourself up by your boot straps, afford to send your kids to college, and have middle to upper class wealth become a possibility for your family, is dying.
One of the economic sectors people focus on is unemployment; once again a measure whose importance or status depends on your perspective. But one unemployment factor never seen before is allowing us to rethink The American Dream from a different perspective: people leaving the workforce outright. And not just retirees, but young people who are starting their own little sustenance jobs and working for themselves, or living off of previously-accumulated wealth for years by conservation. Some of these folks work part time, and decide to spend the rest of the time with their family, or exploring the world around them instead of slaving away at the traditional 40 hour work week.
For previous generations, the only way that people would measure that “Are you better off?” question was by their personal wealth and material possessions. Now people are realizing that the wealth they were working to accumulate was at the expense of their life experience, their family life, their natural propensity as humans to explore, and many times, at the expense of their health. So many folks are deciding to go with less to get more out of life, and so even though the answer to the “Are you better off?” question economically is “no,” the answer to the general question is “yes!”
Instead of declaring the death of The American Dream, perhaps it is changing from one that uses traditional economic parameters to gauge it’s health, to ones that instead gauge the happiness and fulfillment of the individual. Instead of people craving wealth, they are craving simplicity. Money and wealth will always be important, but the promise of wealth as a bridge to happiness is a broken one. But you will not hear that from the polarizing elements of politics, that either want to use your lack of wealth to create envy, or your possession of wealth to create fear you will lose it.
And what does this all have to do with music? Well, nothing, and everything.
Music is the weapon of the great awakening, and the bullhorn in the reshaping of The American Dream. It is such a great tool of wisdom because it can be naturally engaging and universally appealing. (Though many times it is used to entrench ideology, create rabid consumerism, and as a weapon of the culture war.)
The problem with politics, religion, secularism, idealism, etc, as vehicles for change is that in the current cultural climate all of these elements are rabidly polarizing, and have a reactionary effect on individuals depending on their leanings. Only music and art can speak to the human soul universally. That is also why I am so against politics using music as a vehicle if it is done so in a direct manner. If your message can’t be subtle, and can’t be conveyed without the blurring of specific ideologies, then it cannot impact the human heart universally. And if the message cannot be blurred, the question should be asked if it is fit for the human heart?
So instead of looking at politics or ideological movements as realistic agents of change, we should look towards art and music, and let the lessons of artistic expressions enter our hearts.
So to the many people who will declare the death of The American Dream, I declare that it has just begun.
Few artists can articulate the important and poignant message of resetting priorities in life, and do it in such an enthralling manner as Scott McDougall. The Oregon-based One Man Band is set to release his sixth album A Few Towns More on April 10th, and promises to continue to carry his fans vicariously with him as he journeys across the country, making friends and compiling stories, and being a shining example of living life for life’s sake.
The theme of A Few More Towns is encapsulated in this line from the title track and final song of the album: “The road you chose might take you back to your front door, but it looks like mine’s gonna take me on a few towns more.”
“It’s a song that portrays how lonely and yet totally amazing it can be touring alone,” explains McDougall. “The loneliness you face sometimes is all worth it as you spend each night sharing songs with people and making friends out of strangers… As with all of my albums, there is an underlying message of hope. This one also deals with the responsibility each one of us has to take what we learn in life and share it with others, to find that place where we know we belong and can do the most good.”
Like all of McDougall’s albums, it will include a healthy mix of old-time country tunes, folk and blues, and instrumentals. And though he’s considered a One Man Band, there’s a little help from his friends here and there, like on “Gates of Victory” where a vocal chorus is filled out by his Portland-area musician friends. And when looking at the track list, you wonder if fellow wandering souls and songwriters Willy “Tea” Taylor and Tom VandenAvond helped inspire “Cuttin’ The Grass / Tom & Willy Go To Town” though neither appear on the instrumental track.
A Few Townes More was recorded in a barn during the throes of the cold Washington winter, so cold in fact sometimes it was hard for McDougall to play his banjo. “I dig that when listening to [the album] you sometimes forget that most of it is one guy. I try hard to find a balance between getting creative in the production realm and trying to produce something that can be repeated live with the same intensity. I think we found a good balance on this record.”
The album artwork for A Few Towns More is supplied by Modesto-based folk-singer/tattoo artist Roy Dean.
- Ready, Begin
- The Travels of Fredrick Tolls
- Evening Tide
- Cuttin’ The Grass / Tom & Willy Go To Town
- Where God Dips His Love In My Heart
- Gates of Victory
- The Travels of Fredrick Tolls – Part 2
- Ask That Pretty Girl to Be My Wife
- A Few Towns More
Here’s 48 reasons to be excited about A Few Towns More (from a previous album)
As the new music reality continues to take shape, where one big mono genre serves the masses and micro genres crop up to serve the rest, the shape of the way live music is delivered to people is adapting as well. Huge festivals, or “mono festivals” like Bonnaroo mix all music genres to appeal to a many large demographics as possible. Meanwhile house concerts have gone from a kitschy trend to a legitimate way for artists to connect with attentive fans, and fans to enjoy music without succumbing to the rigors of bar or big festival life. Last year I highlighted Weber’s Deck in Minnesota, where the house concert concept is taken to its extreme to become a construct of community. For the upcoming festival season of 2012, a new trend is emerging: the micro festival.
Similar to a house concert but with a much greater scope, the micro festival usually serves a very specific slice of the greater music pie, and like a house concert, is thrown either at people’s houses or on their private property (but not always), but unlike a house concert, includes many more bands, and many more fans, some of which will drive and even fly from out of state to attend an event that in total may have less than 100 patrons. The micro festival is about micro service to a music community forged online and oriented on very focused musical tastes.
A great example of the micro festival is Lowebow Fest, thrown by Nick Reddit of Cracker Swamp Productions in Orlando FL. March 9th & 10th 2012 will be the second year for the event that focuses strictly on artists that play Cigar Box Guitars, and a specific type of cigar box guitar crafted by performer and luthier Johnny Lowebow. This year will include a performer flying all the way from Finland for the event.
Nick Lindsay of No Brow Productions, a video production specialist from Seattle flew all the way to Orlando to attend the inaugural Lowebow Fest in 2011 and created a DVD of the event that will be sold at the festival and online this year. Nick is also launching his own micro festival in 2012, called the Deep Blues Festival Northwest, an extension of long-running Deep Blues Festival. It will take place this August 4th on a few acres his family owns in Orting, WA.
“The main reason I decided to do this is that I’m selfish and decided that nobody else is going to put on a party like this for me so I’m going to put up my money and time and make it happen,” explains Nick. “Over the last few years I’ve become a big fan of the Deep Blues music movement. This movement consists mostly of bands who have been heavily influenced by the North Mississippi Hill Country artists as well as the Fat Possum record label which helped (somewhat) popularize a lot of these great, old blues artists while they were still alive.”
Another common theme of the micro festival is since they are thrown out of love of the music instead of as a commercial enterprise, there is usually no admission fee. The performers are compensated by donations from the devout and rabid fan base a micro festival attracts.
“This will be a free event with donations accepted. It is going to be a one-day, overnight party and celebration of all the great NW blues-based bands and some from other parts of the country, for all of the fans out here that love this music.”
One Deep Blues Fest Northwest performer, The Ten Foot Polecats, is making the trek all the way from Boston for the event.
Really this whole event will be more of a party than a festival.” Nick continues. “I don’t anticipate a big crowd but rather a solid group of friends. However everyone is welcome to attend.”
Another example of the micro festival is Christyfest, being thrown by B.J. and Nicole Christy in their backyard in Shippensburg, PA on May 12th. Music fans as far away as New York and Illinois are planning to attend.
“The reason I am doing this is because there is no where touring bands can play around here,” says B.J. Christy. “Only one bar will book these kinds of bands, and even they are spotty at times. And to tell you the truth I am inspired by Casey Weber (of Weber’s Deck), and believe I can copy that working formula here in the hills of PA. I want an all-donation, laid back environment where bands can come hang out get some good food and a place to stay. And in turn we can all hear good music; something that is lacking in this area. If there is no movement, start one.”
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Lowebow Fest – March 9th & 10th, at SIP in Orlando, FL.
Performers: Johnny Lowebow, Purgatory Hill, Hymn for Her, Jukka Juhola (Black River Bluesman, from Finland), more, & release of 2011 Lowebow Fest DVD.
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Deep Blues Festival Northwest – August 4th, 2012 12 PM- 8 PM , at Lindsay’s Landing in Ortega, WA
Performers: GravelRoad, Scissormen, Ten Foot Polecats, Last Watch, McDougall, Lonesome Shack
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Christyfest – May 12th, 2012, Shippensburg, PA
Performers: Olds Sleeper, Sean K Preston, Husky Burnette, Danny Kay and the Nightlifers, and The Ten Foot Polecats, Robert “Fireball” Mitchell
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Weber’s Deck 2012 Season will begin Sunday, July 8th, and run EVERY Sunday from 1pm-5pm through Labor Day weekend in French Lake, MN.
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Are you throwing or attending a micro music festival in 2012? Leave the info below!
I think at this point it is pretty much a forgone conclusion that in 2012 we’re all going to die of death. You know, that whole Mayan thing. But I thought just to be on the safe side, just in case we all don’t die, we’ll probably want to listen to some music, so wouldn’t it be cool to know what some of your favorite artists have planned for 2012. So I asked them to tell us in their own words.
Leroy Virgil of Hellbound Glory is…
…working on a new project we’re just gonna call ‘merica. Gonna come out in chapters or volumes, haven’t decided. Songs about real ‘merica. Shitload of new songs. Also shit load of touring. Nationwide February and March.
…balancing two aging dogs, two little sons, 500 Elementary aged children, 4 chickens in coop & 1 debilitated claw toe while releasing a 10″ LP and new full length album. We also hope to be coming to your town whether in France, Tennessee or Canada. RAR RAR 2012!
Roger Alan Wade is…
…recording a new album, “The Last Request of Elijah Rose” – it’s a prequel to “Deguello Motel”. -I’ve got the songs written and just been playing them at home and sneaking a few in on shows getting ‘em broke in for the studio. This one feels good. And hittin’ the road a little more this coming year.
…going to put out a new album, spend thousands of miles on the road, and meet the girl of his dreams (not necessarily in that order).
Even as a child Ray Wylie Hubbard sensed the need for a hymnal for grifters. In 2012, he will release an album entitled “The Grifter’s Hymnal” consisting of 11 new original songs and a ringo starr cover; therefore fulfilling a life long quest and hopefully defying the Mayan calender.
Bob Wayne is…
…rollin till the wheels fall off …..(insert train whistle)!!! Yeeeehaaw!!!
Rachel Brooke is…
…heading back into the studio to release an analog full length record. And touring more. Also heading to the west coast where the 2012 earthquake will probably kill me.
Sturgill Simpson of Sunday Valley is…
…planning to win…period.
Ruby Jane is…
…going to remember the importance of loved ones and of being there for them no matter the circumstances. That is the most important thing I leaned from 2011.
…gonna play over 200 shows, just like we always do. See you at the honky tonk.
…already hard at work on a new release. We’re also hitting the road once the snow thaws. IN,IL,OK,AR,LA, and TX are up first. We’ll see ya this Spring!
Jayke Orvis is…
…hittin’ the studio, hittin’ Europe, and hittin’ Baby Genius in the penis.
Austin Lucas is…
…working on a follow up to “A New Home in the Old World”, tentatively with Tennessee legends Glossary as my backup band. I’ll also be heading into the studio with my family this summer for our first ever, official “Lucas Family Band” album. Heading out on the road in a few weeks.
James Hunnicutt is…
…going to kill the world with kindness in 2012 in a rootsy, metal sorta’ way
JB Beverley of the Wayward Drifters is…
…2012 is going to be a big one for me. I have the new Wayward Drifters record, my solo project, the Little White Pills, and Ghostdance. No rest for the weary nor the wicked!
Peewee Moore is…
…releasing his 2nd full length all original album in the Spring to be followed by a 100 + American City Support Tour.
…releasing their 2nd album in spring/early summer and will be touring the west coast, southwest, and southeast in early August and a possible movie appearance may occur if all goes well.
Slackeye Slim is…
… planning on doing a bunch of writing, and trying to get a band together in time for a summer tour of the US.
Lonesome Wyatt of Those Poor Bastards is…
…praying for the destruction of mankind and releasing many more hit songs.
Lone Wolf is…
…gonna be working on a new album which should be ready by February, touring the whole southeast with four other acts on a tour named “The Dukes of Juke Tour”, and also will be playing austin in march. His schedule is getting busier by the day…thats right folks, keep yer eyes and ears peeled cause the one man banjo speed demon may be coming to a town near you!!!!!!!!!
Derek Dunn is…
…putting out “Poisonous Serpents”, and touring around the U.S. and Europe.
Olds Sleeper is…
…releasing an album on Sunday, January 1, 2012 in preparation for the intended self-pocolypse of said year. “New Years Poem” will be free.
Willy Tea Taylor is…
…going to throw a perfect 9 innings during the wiffle ball game of his life.
The One Man Band’s of the world are the soldiers on the front lines of the cultural war. With such sonic limitations, there is no opportunity for subtly. Instead their charge is to rattle and shake awake the sleeping potential in all of us, to right the skewed priorities that the indoctrination of modern society has gilded us with, to release us from the want of the wealth and shiny things that weigh down the human spirit while resetting the priorities of the individual to pursue the enjoyment and fulfillment of life. As honorable as all this may sound, it is dirty fingernail work that demands tremendous energy and sweat, with a payoff almost certain to not be measured in dollars or fame.
Pacific Northwest product Scott McDougall’s latest vehicle for this work is his late-2010 album entitled Our New Histories; a project that boasts excellent songwriting and a strong command of instrumentation, without compromising the heart-pounding, visceral experience present in all great music.
Our New Histories is a drifter’s diary. Capturing with amazing clarity the poignancy of a young man’s wanderlust and all the trappings thereof, it is the travelogue of a journey bookended by a Spring refusing to break, and the onset of Winter. In between McDougall takes us along while he hops trains, thumbs rides, finds safe places to sleep, and teaches us that a conversation sometimes can be more valuable than a career, the fellowship of a fireside chat more fulfilling than a fancy house, and how the lack of worldly possessions can be liberating. Gut-punching lines like “Our simple means show us new ways of doing things” and “If time really is money, I guess I don’t need to get paid” fill the modern soul with fresh and interesting perspectives, while McDougall recounts situations where friendships are forged and understanding and charity gleaned from strangers and familiar faces alike.
McDougall is similar in style to another Pac Nor act called Hillstomp, sometimes collaborating with John Johnson in the project called “Last Watch”. Where McDougall differs from Hillstomp is that he begins with the songwriting, and then adds the instrumentation and foot stomping approach on top. Hillstomp is arguably vice versa. But just like Hillstomp, some of McDougall’s songs are meant not to be listened to, but felt, like one of the album’s standout tracks, the instrumental “Battle Creek March”. McDougall cannot only write, he can pick and move the fingers with the best of them as well.
Another signature element of McDougall is the overly-reverberating bass drum. Far more than a simple tool to keep the rhythm, McDougall insists on a tremendous amount of ring from his foot stomps, which adds a carnal element to his otherwise heady, songwriting approach, creates a space element in the music, as well as contrast in some of his song’s two-part approach. Though he’s just one man, McDougall makes sure to satiate all the senses, intellectual and visceral, before the last note rings.
My concern for this album is the accessibility. If you wandered as a young man or woman, or are wandering now, it will feel like a soundtrack to your life. But there are no love songs here, no bird’s flipping at bosses or tears falling in beers. In fact one of the messages of the album is to stay positive and appreciate the experience even if in the moment it appears like a negative one, but this may not create an environment for universal appeal.
The inflections in McDougall’s singing will also be something some will find a polarizing topic. At first sniff, it may conjure up visions of a long-bearded dwarf storyteller in some fantasy presentation, if not hint of pretentiousness. I saw McDougall live opening for Pete Benhard of The Devil Makes Three, had made a note of his voice and warmed up to it by the set’s end, but still felt a little uneasy at the first listen of Our New Histories. But I’m over it now, and wouldn’t want to hear these songs sung any other way.
Our New Histories is a few degrees shy of a concept album, but does have a cohesiveness and storyline, just like all great albums should. Aside from the accessibility issues, the album is solid throughout, taking into account numerous measurables, including the most important ones: did you learn something, and are you a better person of listening? The answer to both is a definite “yes”.
1 3/4 of 2 guns up.
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McDougall will performing at this year’s Muddy Roots Festival Sep. 3 & 4 in Cookeville, TN
Well I’m not too sure who the hell Larry is, and why his flask is so predominately edified in the band name. What I do know is that to a man, the attendees of this year’s Muddy Roots Festival stumbled out of the hills of east Tennessee saying Larry and His Flask stole the show, at a Festival whose lineup was packed as quills on a hawk.
Larry and His Flask are like The Avett Bros. on acid, or maybe Old Crow Medicine Show on a heavy dose of General Calderon’s white Colombian marching powder–though their band blurb says, “It’s never about drugs, money, or fancy things.” Ridiculous energy–as much as six humans are capable of putting out–with top notch instrumentation and 4, sometimes 5 part harmonies to boot. If this band doesn’t stir something inside of you, then you’re dead.
Here I am trying to authoritatively describe them when in truth before the newly tapped Larry & Flask Muddy Roots disciples started tugging on my ears last week, I was relegated to the “I’ve heard of them before” crowd. This is even more embarrassing because they’re originally from Oregon, a locale I’ve spent good time haunting in recently. Makes sense to me that the Beaver State is in play here, because if you were trying to find other artists to help describe their approach to roots string music, fellow Pacific Northwest bands Hillstomp and McDougall would come to mind (the latter helping populate their MySpace “Top Friends”). More importantly, Larry & Flask are like themselves and nothing else, which is a sign they’re on the right path.
Instead of acting like I know everything about this band by rehashing the verbage on their MySpace, I just gonna throw some good videos your way and give you and myself the homework assignment to check this band out more. I might earn extra credit, because the savingcountrymusic.com Western expansion to escape the Texas summer heat might land me at a live show very soon.
You can also see some videos of Larry & His Flask from Muddy Roots by CLICKING HERE.
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