- Marty Stuart: Keeper Of Country Music's Cowboy Couture
- Willie Watson on NPR's Mountain Stage
- Fader Interviews Lucinda Williams
- Chuck Mead on NPR's Mountain Stage
- Apple Reportedly In Talks with Majors for Cheaper Music
- Backstage Pass: Enjoy a Bit of Bradford Lee Folk Lore
- If You Missed It: Lucinda Williams on Fallon 9-30
- SXSW Probably Isn't Going Anywhere But Big Changes Loom
- Revisiting Cowboy Jack Clement, Country Music's Jester and King
- Audiobook Review: Tom T. Hall "The Storyteller's Nashville"
- Mac Wiseman Featured in The Wall St Journal
- Live Nation Moving Off of Music Row
- After SiriusXM Success, The Turtles Take on Pandora
- American Songwriter reviews new Sons of Bill album
- Cool Music Photos from New "Still Moving" Picture Book
- The Telegraph "Sturgill Simpson: Space Cowboy"
- Jambands Reviews Cory Branan's "No Hit Wonder"
- Zoe Muth at WAMU's Bluegrass Country
- A night in the life of Austin City Limits ringleader Terry Lickona
- Review: Sturgill Simpson At Leaf Cafe, Liverpool, UK
- Can the people Nashville hopes to attract afford to move to Nashville?
If you’re looking for a brand of country music that is country and country only, not country rock, country punk, “evolved” country, alt-country or Americana, then J.P. Harris & The Tough Choices just might be right in your wheelhouse. J.P. lets it be known he’d rather you leave your hyphenated country labels and long-winded qualifiers clear of what he does. And when you listen to his music, that’s exactly what you get: country music as the original concept of what the term “country” implies with very little wiggle room.
J.P. Harris has had a busy couple of weeks. While attending the Americana Music Conference in Nashville, he released his second album through Cow Island Music called Home Is Where The Hurt Is, and just like his highly-lauded last album I’ll Keep Calling, it brings the country heartbreak drenched in twang, while featuring contributions from Nikki Lane and Old Crow Medicine Show’s Chance McCoy.
And if that didn’t lump enough on J.P.’s plate, he decided to help launch a music event called the Keep It Country Festival happening Oct. 3rd thru 5th at Bandit Town in the Sierra Nevada foothills in California. Red Simpson, Whitey Morgan & The 78′s, Nikki Lane, Joe Fletcher, Sam Outlaw, Miss Lonely Hearts, and Paige Anderson & The Fearless Kin are all playing the event.
As J.P. was driving across the desert Southwest, he spoke to Saving Country Music by phone about his various pursuits, and about the Keep It Country concept.
On your new album Home Is Where The Hurt Is, are you trying to interpret traditional country into the modern day context, or are you singing about your real life, and just doing so in a traditional country style? Or is it a combination of both?
I’d probably say it’s a little bit of both. All of the songs I’ve written have some real world experience for me. I would like to make up awesome stories that go to song just perfectly and beautifully out of thin air, but unfortunately I only gain inspiration through experiences whether they’re good or bad, and in this case they’re usually bad or heartbreaking. So there’s always at least a portion of a song that’s an interpretation of my own life. But at the same time, when I write songs there’s classic themes or classic vocal sounds or rhyming schemes that just come out naturally because I listen to so much country music. And so I’m sure by default I’m always interpreting the modern world through traditional country music, but at the same time, I’m just re-interpreting stories from my own life, especially on this record. A handful of those songs are pretty true to the letter to actual situations that have happened in my life over the last couple of years since the last record came out. In some ways the songs on this album feel more personal to me than ones from the last record. I shaped them a lot more I think to fit within a sound that I envisioned for each song, and on this record I feel like they just took their own shape and they just worked themselves out. I didn’t do as much hammering at the anvil on them.
You go out of your way to say that your music is country and country only. No prefixes, no suffixes, no brand new compound words. Why is this important to you, and do you believe the term “country” is worth fighting for or preserving?
For the last 50 years in American history, country music is the one thing that is universally identifiable as an American soundtrack, as an American kind of music. More than any other type of exclusively American music—old rock and roll, old black blues, old-time bluegrass or fiddle music—I think that country music more broadly represents a bigger segment of people in America. Keeping that tradition alive and seeing that country music has played an amazing role in unifying different segments politically and culturally of American people, it’s worth fighting to keep that identifiable.
Do you think all of these disparate terms that have popped up lately like Americana or alt-country or even something like Ameripolitan are potentially hurting the cause of of independent country music because there’s only so much of a pie slice to begin with, and then you cut the pie slices even smaller by these different terms and making people choose what to call it?
Yeah, the honest truth is that the longer I play country music and tour playing that music, and work with other country musicians, the less I get concerned about people wanting to delineate their own music to some sort of ‘hyphenated country music’ as I call it. Because I feel like the bottom line is that what people are trying to do by trying to broaden and come up with all these different terms that involve the word ‘country’ or ‘American’ is these folks really want to identify with what the country music mindset was in the 60′s or 70′s. And I think there’s probably room for people to do that, it’s just in my own music I don’t. There’s been a handful of shows we’ve played where people review us or write about it and say, “Classic Texas Country & Western music,” and I’m like, “Hold on, you’re putting too many delineations on this thing. It’s just straight up country music. Plain and simple.
I think there’s room for the expansion of country music, and on a personal level I do feel like fighting for the term of country music is worth doing, and the way I’ve taken about doing it these days is make my opinion plain and simple by saying that I don’t think what they play on the radio and call country music is in any way benefiting or furthering the tradition of country music. It is so far off the mark. And I think people say and sometimes validly in the commercial country world, “Country music can’t survive if we don’t continue to evolve.” As an individual artist, sure I believe that each artist has to evolve in their songwriting and their singing and their playing and everything else. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that glossing over your music to make it more commercially viable in any way equates to an evolution of music.
I feel people continuing to have a dialog about it, and people saying that what’s on the radio is not country music, it’s just as applicable to all of these country punk bands, a lot of which are friends of mine, and people I know and respect as coming from a similar musical background or upbringing. But you can say the same thing about bands that are touring and saying, “We’re country music,” and it’s like “Well you’re a bunch of punk kids beating the shit out of your instruments, you’re not working that hard at your arranging or singing.” That’s not country music either. It’s a whole other type of music. So I feel like spending too much time being self-righteous about it as part of my platform as a musician is not something I want to spend much energy on. My opinions haven’t changed at all and I respect people who have made a platform out of it, that they’re willing to stand really hardline behind what they believe in. But there isn’t a way that movement will destroy pop country. It will never go away. Which is a sad fact because it’s really a bummer that it even exists.
I think that re-arranging ways to appreciate and acknowledge country musicians like what Dale Watson has spearheaded with Ameripolitan, I think that’s great because that’s a way within out community to create our own hierarchy as country music is judged in our opinions. And since none of us are going to get into the CMA’s, why don’t we just make our own stuff?
Along those same lines, you have a new festival coming up called the “Keep It Country Festival.” How did that come about, and what inspired you to bite off such a big responsibility as helping to throw a festival?
It started for a couple of reasons. My friend Jen who runs Bandit Brand clothing bought this really awesome reproduction Wild West town that was built back in the 70′s and sat totally abandoned for a bunch of years, and used to be a really vital part of that rural community in the Sierra foothills in California. She’s someone who is really involved in sort of promoting Outlaw culture, and she’s making really cool clothing that’s American made. She and I met a while ago and just really hit it off. So we kind of joked about throwing a party out there sometime and I said, “Hey, if I could get Red Simpson to come out and play, do you think we should try and throw a festival out there?” And she said, “Well shit yeah, let’s do it.”
Really the basis of the whole thing started because I wanted to put together some sort of a showcase of what I considered to be the new generation of people continuing on the tradition of country music. And I won’t say that every band there is strictly 100% traditional country by any means. But I felt like we needed something out West that could be a clearinghouse weekend for that, and do it somewhere cool that kind of represents the attitude behind the music. So it all just kind of came together.
I got a hold of Red [Simpson] and we probably spent a good hour and a half on the phone, and he agreed to do it. Since then we’ve been on the phone a dozen times, and most of the time it’s just us shooting the shit about old country music. But it’s been cool getting to know him and I’m excited. I think to a lot of people … we just had the AMA [Americana] musical festival thing in Nashville, which I think is a good thing that’s really starting to open its doors to a lot more musicians and become a lot more inclusive, but at the same time being there and kind of looking around, I realized that 90% of the people have no idea who Red Simpson is. They would know the Buck Owens song “Close Up The Honky Tonks” or they would know the Merle Haggard song “You Don’t Have Very Far To Go.” But these are songs that Red wrote. They know “Highway Patrol,” but they think it’s a Junior Brown song when it’s actually an old Red Simpson tune. And I just realized this guy is sort of a unsung hero outside of real diehard country fans. And I wanted it to be more than just, “Hey, we’re a bunch of snotty-nosed 30-something kids playing country music, and we’re badass.” I wanted to have somebody here that is validating what we’re doing and shows where what we’re doing is coming from. This is a tangible piece of country music history.
So it’s really been by the seat of our pants. Everyone’s playing for super super cheap, and we’re all just putting this together as we figure it out. We’ve got help from Dee Fretwell at the West Coast Country Music Festival. And Jen [from Bandit Brand] is getting her feet pretty wet this summer with events out there. Another reason for this is I felt like I knew a lot of different people from different country music cliques, and I just wanted to find a good way to connect the dots there. I just felt like I needed to cross pollinate all these different people. Someone who knows my music through Nikki Lane or knows Nikki Lane’s music through mine should know who our buddy Sam Outlaw is, or should know who Whitey Morgan is. I feel like there’s not enough cohesion because the independent country music scene in America is not inter-connected enough yet that it’s easy for people to stumble upon other bands all the time. If nothing else we’re going to have one hell of a time. It’s gonna be a raging party to not forget.
- – - – - – - – - – - -
This has been the question on the mind of many country music fans ever since the joint venture between Cumulus Media and the Big Machine Label Group known as NASH Icon was announced. Now that there are actually radio stations broadcasting the new NASH Icon format, we can listen in and hear just exactly what NASH Icon is. Though the rollout is still in its infant stages and there’s sure to be changes and tweaking happen before it’s ready to go coast to coast, the insight of a detailed playlist gives us a good starting point of what we might expect, what may need to be changed, and what should stay the same.
Saving Country Music took a 3 1/2 hour segment of the playlist of NASH Icon 98.9 station in Atlanta and broke it down in between artists, eras, songs, and decades. Though the formula and ratios are very likely to change once the NASH Icon record label gets up and running and new music from older artists begins to be featured, this is an analysis of what NASH Icon listener is hearing right now. The breakdown also includes all the “legend” or “classic” artists played on the station between 8:00 AM and 11:59 PM on August 27th, located at the very bottom to the analysis.
â˘Legendary & Classic Artists Back on Mainstream Radio: Regardless of anything else, including the ratio of plays compared to new artists, legends like Merle Haggard, Dwight Yoakam, Alabama, and the The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band are back on the radio once again, and so are many classic country artists like Alan Jackson, Vince Gill, and Mark Chesnutt. For traditional and classic country fans, this is a strong victory, and one that has been a long time coming.
â˘NEW Singles and NEW Artists Are Featured More Than Anything Else, BUT: Without question, as a percentage, new singles and new artists make up the lion’s share of NASH Icon at the moment. However, the principal idea behind NASH Icon is to feature new music from older artists, especially from artists like Garth Brooks who is about to release an album, and from artist who will sign to the NASH Icon record label. Since none of these things are up-and-running just yet, they may be replacing those slots with new singles from new artists. According to Cumulus Media COO John Dickey, eventually new music will make up only 25% of the format. We’ll just have to wait and see.
â˘Bro-Country is Currently Featured On NASH Icon: On August 25th,Â Cumulus Media COO John Dickey said, âYou wonât hear a lot of what we affectionately term in the business today as âBro-Country.â But according to this analysis, this is a completely incorrect statement. Bro-Country artists like Florida Georgia Line, Luke Bryan, Chase Rice, and Cole Swindell all showed up in the playlist. Whether they will disappear once the new singles from old artists are released, we’ll have to see. At the moment though, the argument could be made that Bro-Country makes up the biggest pie piece of the NASH Icon playlist. Remember though, it’s still early.
â˘Not Just The Big Names: Some have been concerned we’d only see the usual suspects of artists featured, but NASH Icon has been playing lesser names that had big hits like Tracy Byrd, Doug Stone, and Ricochet. The NASH Icon playlist shows decent diversity when it comes to the older artists.
â˘Not Just 1989 or Newer: Early on, NASH Icon was sold as being only songs from 1989 or after. In the 3 1/2 hours Saving Country Music listened in, there were two songs from 1980, and eight songs from before 1989. Though this isn’t a huge amount, the playlist did show they would reach well past 25 year pole to play Merle Haggard’s song from 1980, “I’ll Just Stay Here And Drink.”
â˘Lee Ann Womack’s New Single and an Independent Label Artist Played: Maybe the most important insight, Lee Ann Womack’s “The Way I’m Livin’” was featured during the 3 1/2 hour block. This would be the very first example of a mature artist (no offense meant Lee Ann!) who would never be played on mainstream Top 40 country having a featured single from a new album played in the rotation. Lee Ann’s single is so new, the album has not even been released yet. This hypothetically is the whole point behind NASH Icon, is to give artists like Lee Ann the radio play they deserve.
What else is interesting about this play is Lee Ann is not signed to the NASH Icon label, meaning they are willing to feature a non NASH Icon artists that still fits the NASH Icon mold. Also, Lee Ann Womack is not on a major label; she’s on Sugar Hill Records. What this opens the door to is the possibility that other independent label artists could be featured on the format. Of course it helps that Lee Ann is already an established name in mainstream country, but this may be the window to see someone like Sturgill Simpson, or Old Crow Medicine Show show up in the playlist in the future.
â˘Only Singles Were Featured, No Album Cuts.
â˘Only One Song Played Twice in the 3 Â˝ Hours. It Was Florida Georgia Line’s “Dirt.”
Suggestions for the NASH Icon Playlist
â˘Mitigate the Bro-Country, and Now: We know that Cumulus already sees Bro-Country on the format as being a problem, because COO John Dickey said so. Whether the underlings that are programming NASH Icon didn’t get the memo, or they’re simply saving the slots for the new singles from old artists soon to come, Bro-Country is on the format, and in a big way, and it is ruining the experience for potential listeners. NASH Icon is creating a big buzz in the country music community, but if listeners tune in and hear Florida Georgia Line twice an hour, they’re probably going to leave and never come back, and potentially they may tell their country music buddies about the negative experience. Take the Bro-Country off, and add more older stuff, or other newer stuff that’s not Bro-Country, like more Dierks Bentley (sans “Drunk On A Plane”) and Kacey Musgraves, for example. The Bro-Country on NASH Icon right now could kill it forever with certain listeners if it is not removed quickly.
â˘Balance Out The Playlist With A Few More Older Songs, and 1 or 2 Independent Artists: Let’s face it, many classic and traditional country fans are bound to not like NASH Icon even if they play one new song. NASH Icon is still not going to be for the die-hard traditionalists. Pragmatism is what is needed to make NASH Icon work. If a few more 80′s and early 90′s songs were featured, it might help to balance out the ratios and create a healthy country music environment for all country music fans from all generations to enjoy together. Also, if NASH Icon featured even one or two new current independent artists in a given content block, they would broaden the reach and appeal of NASH Icon even more, and make it a place where even more labels could promote singles and offer greater support to the format.
â˘Add More Legends With New Music: Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, and Dolly Parton all have new albums out that charted at the very top of the country charts, and released singles that are very worthy of radio play. These albums were also released through major labels. This would be an excellent source of content to add new songs from older artists, and broaden the appeal of the format. Johnny Cash’s American Recordings-era material could also be a great source for NASH Icon, and one that could add younger, and cross-genre appeal.
THE PLAYLIST BREAKDOWN
â˘ ‘X’ denotes an additional play or plays for an artist or song. So if there’s two ‘X”s beside an artist’s name, that means they were played three times.
â˘Artists were broken down into four categories. When an artist could hypothetically fit into multiple categories, the date of their first charting single is included for added detail. PLEASE don’t bog down or obsess over the eras. It is the best that could be done.
â˘’New’ artists are artists currently being played, or recently being played on mainstream country radio. “New’ songs are songs currently on mainstream country radio.
â˘ This is just from a 3 1/2 hour span; not NASH Icon’s complete playlist. There is a complete list of other “legends” and”classic” artists that were played during the entirety of the broadcast day at the very bottom (not including the artists features in the 3 1/2 hour analysis).
***Artists Featured on NASH Icon***
Legendary Artists (Before 1989)
- Dwight Yoakam X
- Merle Haggard
- Nitty Gritty Dirt Band
- Alabama XX
- George Strait X
- Ronnie Milsap
- Reba McEntire
- Diamond Rio
- Buck Owens (via a Dwight song)
Classic Artists (Around Class of 1989)
- Alan Jackson X
- Aaron Tippin
- Vince Gill
- Mark Chesnutt
- Mary Chapin Carpenter
- Travis Tritt
- Garth Brooks X
- Tracy Byrd
- Tim McGraw (1990) X
- Doug Stone (1990)
Contemporary Artists (After Class of 1989)
- Rodney Atkins (1997)
- Ricochet (1995)
- Blackhawk (1992)
- Deana Carter (1994)
- Lee Ann Womack (1997)
- Toby Keith (1993)
Newer Artists (Still Mainstream Relevant)
- Kenny Chesney XX
- Florida Georgia Line XX
- Luke Bryan XX
- Jake Owen
- Kip Moore
- Miranda Lambert X
- Lady Antebellum
- Cole Swindell
- Brett Eldredge
- Chase Rice
- Joe Nichols
- Sara Evans X
- Brad Paisley
- Blake Shelton X
- Trace Adkins
- Big & Rich
- Josh Gracin
- Lee Brice
- Billy Currington
***Songs Featured on NASH Icon***
- Dwight Yoakam “Honky Tonk Man”
- Nitty Gritty Dirt Band “Fishin’ In The Dark”
- Ronnie Milsap “Stranger In My House”
- Alabama “40-Hour Week”
- Alabama “Mountain Music”
- Dwight Yoakam & Buck Owens “Streets of Bakersfield”
- Alabama “Tennessee River” (1980)
- Merle Haggard “I’ll Just Stay Here And Drink” (1980)
- Alan Jackson “Little Bitty”
- Reba McEntire & Vice Gill “The Heart Won’t Lie”
- Reba McEntire “The Greatest Man I Never Knew”
- Mark Chesnutt “It’s A Little Too Late”
- Doug Stone “A Jukebox With A Country Song”
- Mary Chapin Carpenter “Down At The Twist & Shout”
- Travis Tritt “Help Me Hold On”
- Garth Brooks “The Thunder Rolls”
- Garth Brooks “Rodeo”
- Ricochet “Daddy’s Money”
- George Strait “Blue Clear Sky”
- Tracy Byrd “Watermelon Crawl”
- Deana Carter “Strawberry Wine”
- Kenny Chesney “How Forever Feels”
- Blackhawk “Every Once In A While”
- Diamond Rio “Unbelievable”
- Aaron Tippin “Kiss This”
- Rodney Atkins “If You’re Going Through Hell”
- Sara Evans “Suds In The Bucket”
- Toby Keith “My List”
- Alan Jackson “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere”
- Brad Paisley “Little Moments”
- Tim McGraw “Real Good Man”
- Josh Gracin “Nothin’ To Lose”
- George Strait “Give It Away”
- Trace Adkins “You’re Gonna Miss This”
- Sara Evans “A Little Bit Stronger”
- Kenny Chesney “Come Over”
- Florida Georgia Line “Dirt” X
- Florida Georgia Line “Get Your Shine On”
- Jake Owen “Beachin’”
- Miranda Lambert “Mama’s Broken Heart”
- Tim McGraw “Meanwhile Back At Mama’s”
- Joe Nichols “Yeah”
- Blake Shelton “My Eyes”
- Blake Shelton “Doin’ What She Likes”
- Kenny Chesney “American Kids”
- Cole Swindell “Chillin’ It”
- Kip Moore “Somethin’ ‘Bout A Truck”
- Luke Bryan “Play It Again”
- Luke Bryan “Crash My Party”
- Luke Bryan “That’s My Kind Of Night”
- Lady Antebellum “Bartender”
- Lee Brice “Hard To Love”
- Miranda Lambert “Automatic”
- Chase Rice “Ready, Set, Roll”
- Big & Rich “Look At You”
- Brett Eldredge “Beat Of The Music”
- Billy Currington “We Are Tonight”
- Lee Ann Womack “The Way I’m Livin’” (new song from older artist)
Â Other “Legend” or “Classic” Artists That Received Radio Play On 8/27 Between 8 AM – 11:59 PM
- Don Williams
- Willie Nelson
- Hank Williams Jr.
- Randy Travis
- Charlie Daniels
- Dolly Parton
- Keith Whitley
- Gene Watson
- Mel McDaniel
- Pam Tillis
- Eddie Rabbit
- The Judds
- Johnny Lee
- Clint Black
- Brooks & Dunn
- Lorrie Morgan
- Faith Hill
- Jo Dee Messina
- Joe Diffie
- Collin Raye
The talent pool of country music women is so rich right now, stepping back and really trying to behold just how much genius and aptitude resides there can seize your breath. But of course you won’t see this reflected in the mainstream where the panorama for female country artists is so bleak, it takes the genre’s two very top stars screaming and yelling in a “Somethin’ Bad” moment of smeared mascara just to get the zeitgeist’s attention and raise a blip on the charts. But below the surface, you almost can’t lose with a female country record cut in the last few years.
One problem however is when you narrow your female selection down to something that is truly traditional country—but not so fuddy-duddy it feels tired, or so kitschy it sounds like the Howdy Doody Show—the pickings get a little more slim. Artists like Caitlin Rose, Holly Williams, and First Aid Kit are great, but have a little more Americana and indie rock in them than real deal country. Rachel Brooke and Lindi Ortega enlist the dark, Gothic side of classic country, but come up a little short when it comes to the moaning steel guitar that really gets your country music juices flowing. And though artists like Kacey Musgraves and Brandy Clark have found their way to some industry success, sometimes their songwriting can feel more like writing from formula rather than the muse of real life experience.
If you’re looking for the country music female revolution’s representative for true neotraditional country, yet one that gives up nothing to her peers in songwriting, if not setting the current standard, Kelsey Waldon might just be your perfect match. This petite little native Kentuckian rears back and gives you twelve new original songs on her album The Gold Mine that rivals most any other batch of tunes from any other female or male for that matter from this calendar year. Strikingly traditional, yet still fresh feeling with enough evolved moments to be connected to the current mood, The Gold Mine is a boon of audio treasures mined from the great American music unknown.
If this album was released in the 70′s, it would have birthed a slew of indelible country standards. Such inconsolable heartbreak, such sorrow-drenched insight is captured on these tracks and then embellished with tasteful production, you want to pull these songs close to your chest and never let go. “Town Clown” is a vessel for the ghost of Kitty Wells. “One Time Again” re-imagines the sonic textures of Tammy Wynett’s “Your Good Girls Gonna Go Bad.” And songs like “Not My First Time,” “The Gold Mine,” “Me & You Again,” and “Getting There” speak to the aching, eternal sorrow of an authentic country music soul looking for relief through song.
To have a great album, you need a great song that transcends even its fellow track mates and can tug on a wider ear, and The Gold Mine has one in “High In Heels.” From an album whose biggest takeaway is how traditional country it is, here comes a total alt-country/Americana moment that arguably creates the deepest crater in the heart of the listener during the entire offering. The somber resignation to fate is the encapsulating mood the pervades The Gold Mine, and makes it feel like one of those projects for the ages.
About the only scab to pick at is the verse to “Town Clown” is a little too similar to Merle’s “Okie From Muskogee,” but let’s be honest, is this really a bad thing?
The Gold Mine benefits greatly from the help Kelsey Waldon wrangled together for this project, including guitar player Jeremy Fetzer who you may have seen playing previously with Caitlin Rose, and who comprises half of the band “Steelism.” Brett Resnick does an excellent job on steel guitar duty, and so does Skylar Wilson on the keyboards. And producer and bass player Michael Rinne really deserves extra kudos for doing such a tremendous job in shepherding Kelsey’s songs to our ears with such taste and care. The effort by all parties on The Gold Mine feels triumphant in its results.
It may seem almost intimidating to navigate through all the worthy female country and roots artists you can resign your music time to these days. But if your leanings are more towards traditional country, Kelsey Waldon and The Gold Mine aren’t just the perfect starting point, they’re the current apex.
Two Guns Up.
- – - – - – - – - – - – - -
Ever since the partnership between radio owner Cumulus Media and the Big Machine Label Group called NASH Icon was proposed, the big question has been if it will it result in the country music radio format splitting in two. Country music is one of the last genres to resist splintering, but as Top 40 country continues to abandon older economically-viable artists, it has become a necessity to give older artists a home somewhere on the radio dial.
After a conference call on Monday (8-25) with Cumulus Media’s Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer John Dickey (brother of President and CEO Lew Dickey), all speculation about whether a country split will happen can be put to bed, at least if Cumulus has anything to say about it. Country Music is splitting, and will eventually constitute two completely different formats. And though you may still hear Luke Bryan and Florida Georgia Line on the new format upon occasion, you will also hear Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Randy Travis, George Strait, and many other artists that were relevant in the 80′s and 90′s that mainstream country has abandoned.
“It is time for country to fragment,” John Dickey said plainly on the conference call, while offering more detailed insight than ever into exactly what NASH Icon will look like when it’s rolled out. Cumulus launched 15 initial NASH Icon stations recently, but says it won’t be until 2015 before everything is completely up an running.
Why does country music need to fragment into two formats? John Dickey explains.
“Country today is the largest format in terms of appeal and market share, certainly the last of its size that hasn’t fragmented. To me it wasn’t a question of will the format fragment, but when. And that time has come. The whole idea around NASH Icon is to create a parallel universe in country. Not a flanking format, but another platform for artists that were extremely prolific in the mid to late â80s, â90s and early to mid 2000s to regain some of that relevancy again. Unlike other attempts to fragment this format … this is really based on solid metrics, the depth, appeal, and attraction of these artists, the low burn of their music (meaning people still enjoy it), and the fact that they’re not present in country on the radio.”
Forget the 25-Year, “Classic” Country Window
When NASH Icon was first announced, the Cliff Notes version of what it would feel like was centered around country music’s “Class of ’89″ with artists like Garth Brooks, Clint Black, and Alan Jackson. However NASH Icon’s range will be much wider, going deeper into the 80′s than 1989, and ranging all the way up to present-day hits.
“The format is going to be about 25% current-driven, and that’s going to increase as some of these artists … get into the studio and start to put out new music,” says Dickey
In other words, older artists who were relevant in the 80′s and 90′s, but who put out new music today, will have a home on NASH Icon for brand new singles.
“The balance is going to be made up from calls from the 80′s, 90′s, and 2000′s, predominantly anchored in the 90′s and 2000′s, with a little bit of ’80′s. But this format is really all about the face cards—the big artists from that 20-25 year period of time, mixed in with artists from today that make sense and have a sound that fits and is compatible.”
Dickey also addresses so-called “Bro-Country,” saying, “You wonât hear a lot of what we affectionately term in the business today as ‘Bro-Country.” This is a format that I can expect to be competitive 25-34, but like Hot AC, is really going to find a sweet spot 30-50.”
However if you look at the playlist of one of the recently-launched NASH Icon stations, you can find plays for songs like Luke Bryan’s “That’s My Kind of Night,” or “Blake Shelton’s “Boys ‘Round Here.” Those plays may disappear over time as the format tweaks itself, but at the moment, there is a discrepancy between John Dickey’s words, and the NASH Icon playlists. Those “current” songs may also be replaced by new songs from older artists, once those songs are released to the new format.
John Dickey and Cumulus do not see NASH Icon as second-rate country music programing. They see it living side-by-side with Top 40, competing aggressively, if not challenging country music as a whole to step up its game.
“[It is] already resonating big time and is only going to snowball and pick up more steam,” Dickey says. “As we continue to build out this platform, people will see this format is capable at playing at the biggest levels alongside where mainstream country is. This can stand side-by-side with mainstream country, and not Cannibalize it, but grow the total shares in the markets. What it’s going to do … is shape the creative community in Nashville, or motivate them a little bit more on some music that they probably haven’t been able to find the right home for. And I’m talking about specifically the writing community.“
The content glut of worthy songs that are not finding artists to cut them has been a side story to the Top 40, “Bro-Country” dominance of the format currently. We’ve heard people ranging from T Bone Burnett to Garth Brooks say that the amount and quality of songs waiting to be heard is astounding. There just hasn’t been an outlet for substantive material in country music for some time.
What Else To Expect
“There will be a morning show out of our NASH campus that will be purposed for NASH Icon,” John Dickey says. “It will be different than what we’re doing with NASH and ‘America’s Morning Show’ with Blair Garner. It’s going to [have] more of a living room setting and be more music intensive, but more interview-driven. Artists will come in and sit alongside the host of the show … I expect that to be online by the end of the year. With respect to any other day parts, there is nothing planned at this point that we would syndicate.”
“Westwood One is going to be offering NASH Icon as a format to affiliates starting almost immediately. We’re going to build on Stork platform, on what we call our localized format; completely customizable for any market. The Stork technology allows for somebody to take any day part or piece of the format that we offer and customize that around any live day parts that happen to be running … That technology allows for a very customized sound and custom feel to the format.”
This is where Cumulus and NASH differ from their biggest national competitor, Clear Channel. Clear Channel does not allow local formats to customize in many cases, breeding national homogenization to local formats. However many times local NASH affiliates still decide to go with national programming because the cost is cheaper than hiring local talent.
John Dickey also says that he expects Big Machine Records to begin announcing NASH Icon artists for the record label “sooner rather than later, probably within the next 30 to 60 days.”
What This All Means
As we can already see from the discrepancy between what John Dickey is saying about “Bro-Country” and what is showing up on playlists, it is going to take some time for NASH Icon to get its feet under itself and smooth out all the wrinkles. Regardless of who is being played from the current crop of mainstream country stars, you can also see from both the current NASH Icon playlists, and John Dickey’s words that older artist will once again be found on the radio airwaves, and not just on small, “classic” country stations. This new format also doesn’t threaten to Cannibalize those existing independent classic country stations unless they’re directly converted to a NASH Icon affiliate by Cumulus, because those listeners are not going to want to listen to Luke Bryan mixed in with their Randy Travis and Willie Nelson. But the format will potentially introduce those older artists to an entirely new audience, and challenge Top 40 country to deliver a little more variety and substance, or force listeners to switch channels.
One of the big questions that still remains is if Clear Channel—the #1 radio station owner in the country—will launch its own answer to NASH Icon.
Call it Bro-Country, call it just plain bad, but Merle Haggard apparently prefers to call the puss oozing from the open sore that is modern-day radio country “Boogie Boogie Wham-Bam.” And hey, he’s Merle freaking Haggard, so he can call it whatever the hell he wants.
While speaking with David Menconi of Chapel Hill’s News Observer ahead of his show at UNC-Chapel Hillâs Memorial Hall Saturday night, when asked if he listens to much modern country, Merle Haggard said:
“Iâve gotta be honest, I donât really listen to the radio at all anymore. Once in a while, Iâll scan it and I donât understand what theyâre doing. I canât find the entertainment in it. I know these guys, occasionally play shows with them and theyâre all good people. But I wonder if that record theyâre making is something they can actually do. Too much boogie boogie wham-bam and not enough substance. Itâs all the same musicians, too, probably eight to ten musicians play on every record you hear. For a musician hearing things that way, you can tell when a certain guitarist is playing. I know more about the musicians than the artists, actually.”
It’s all the same eight to ten songwriters too, and this is one of the many reasons most modern-day radio country sounds the same. Merle’s observation that “I wonder if that record theyâre making is something they can actually do” is similar to Tom Petty’s recent observations about modern music and the infiltration of electronic elements when he said, “You put your name on it, but you didnât do that.”
Though Merle says the “lack of radio play for the new stuff makes it difficult,” he is still working on new music, and has multiple projects planned.
“Weâve got four different album projects that are all almost finished, and weâll bring them out in continuity … You know, if they put on a new song of mine, theyâve gotta take off ‘Mama Tried.’ So Iâm kind of fighting myself on new releases.”
Merle has also been rumored to be a part of a “Three Musketeers” project with Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson.
Merle is not known for being as outspoken about the direction of country music as some of his elder country peers, but he has been known to get heated in the past. In one legendary moment, he told CBS Records executive Rick Blackburn, “Who do you think you are? Youâre the son-of-a-bitch that sat at that desk over there and fired Johnny Cash. Let it go down in history that youâre the dumbest son-of-a-bitch Iâve ever met.â
Every day tens of thousands of people put on the police uniform and put their lives on the line to protect and serve the citizens of the United States, and do it with a servant’s heart and a sincere desire to protect their local communities. But others step over bounds, grow power hungry in their positions, and some communities have dealt with corruption and brutality in policing for decades to where over the years it has become an eternal theme in American music, and in country music specifically.
Many country music songs deal with characters being incarcerated, being sent on the lamb, or being killed for things they have done that are wrong. However the following songs are ones that question if anything was done wrong in the first place, or decry how the system doesn’t allow previous wrongdoers to truly rehabilitate.
Here are 10 country songs criticizing the police state.
Johnny Cash – San Quentin
Many of Johnny Cash’s songs speak out about the inequality and ineffectiveness of America’s jails and the police state in general, and he punctuated this sentiment throughout his career with his legendary prison concerts. But no Johnny Cash song spells it out more clearly than “San Quentin”.
“And I leave here a wiser, weaker man. Mr. Congressman, you can’t understand.”
Kris Kristofferson – “The Law Is For Protection of the People”
From Kris Kristofferson’s first, self-titled album from 1970 which also included iconic Kristofferson-written tunes like “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” “Me & Bobby McGee,” and “Help Me Make It Through The Night,” “The Law Is For Protection of the People” is arguably Kristofferson’s most powerful counter-cultural, anti-authoritarian statement of his career. Another song from the album, “Best Of All Possible Worlds” also carries a strong message about the police, but one where Kristofferson admits to his own drunken culpability.
“So thank your lucky stars you’ve got protection
Walk the line, and never mind the cost
And don’t wonder who them lawmen was protecting
When they nailed the savior to the cross.”
J.J. Cale – “If You’re Ever In Oklahoma”
Native Oklahoman J.J. Cale’s calling out of middle America’s aggressive police state has also been covered famously by Cody Canada & The Departed, and by numerous bluegrass bands including the Yonder Mountain String Band and the Hutchinson Brothers. It is from J.J.’s 1973 album Really.
“They got fines, they got plenty. They’ll hold you up for days on end. Threaten your life, take your money. Make you think you’re there to stay.”
Waylon Jennings -”Don’t You Think This Outlaw Bit’s Done Got Out of Hand”
The song is about Waylon’s cocaine arrest in 1977 for conspiracy and possession of cocaine with intent to distribute. A courier tipped off Federal agents that a package sent to Waylon from his lawyer/manager Neil Reshen contained 27 grams of cocaine. As authorities waited to obtain a search warrant, Waylon flushed the drugs down the toilet, and the charges were later dropped. Waylon blamed the whole episode on the marketing of his music as “Outlaw.” The song includes one of the best lines of any country song decrying the police state.
“I’m for law and order, the way that it should be. This song’s about the night they spent protecting you from me.”
Waylon Jennings -Â “Good Ol’ Boys” (Dukes of Hazzard Theme)
“Just some good ol’ boys, never meaning no harm…”
Waylon says in his biography, “They thought that was good but said all it needed was something about two modern-day Robin Hoods, fighting the system. So I wrote, ‘Fighting the system, like two modern-day Robin Hoods,’ and they didn’t even know they wrote the damn line. It was my first million-selling single.”
Merle Haggard – “Branded Man”
Speaking out about the difficulty felons find in the world after they’re released from jail, this classic country tune was the title track off of Merle’s fourth album released in 1968. Though there is no shortage of prison songs in country music complaining about how tough it is in the clink or once you get out, “Branded Man” speaks specifically about the inability of the police state to rehabilitate and re-indoctrinate ex convicts back into society.
“I paid the debt I owed ‘em, but they’re still not satisfied. Now I’m a branded man out in the cold.”
Wayne “The Train” Hancock – Johnny Law
One of Wayne Hancock’s signature tunes about being pulled over for doing nothing wrong, “Johnny Law” is something most any American can relate to.
“You ain’t nothin’ but a bully withÂ a star on your chest.”
The Bottle Rockets – “Radar Gun”
The cowpunk/alt-country entry into the list, “Radar Gun” was The Bottle Rockets biggest hit, reaching #27 on Billboard’s rock charts. It was released on their album The Brooklyn Side in 1994, later re-issued by Atlantic Records in 1995.
“Schedule 19 on a special election
Got our money problems right in hand
Droppin them limits like a hot potato
50 down to 30, oh man, oh man.”
Johnny Cash & Bruce Springsteen – “Highway Patrolman”
Though “Highway Patrolman” is seen by many as being against the police state, its message is much more subtle than most. Written and performed originally by Bruce Springsteen on his 1982 album Nebraska, it tells the tale of a Highway Patrolman who regularly looks the other way when his brother does wrong in the local community the officer is charged to protect. Johnny Cash covered the song on his album from the following year, Johnny 99—titled from another Bruce Springsteen song off of Nebraska.
“Well if it was any other man, I’d put him straight away
But when it’s your brother sometimes you look the other way.”
James Hand – “Old Man Henry”
When the 97-year-old Henry refuses to relinquish his land for a highway being built through town, he gets shot down by police who think he’s reaching for his rifle when he goes to pick up his cane. “Old Man Henry” off of Jame Hand’s 2012 album Mighty Lonesome Man is based partially off of true events.“40 rifles raised, from 40 men half crazed. As the bullets struck all around him, his house it caught ablaze. 40 rifles then, raised and fired again. As the fatal bullets hit him, Henry fell across Mary’s grave. A man of 97 years, lay dead upon the ground. As his soul winged up to heaven, a gentle rain came down. Henry laid across his Mary, their little home a pile of ash. Nothing left but the memories, they got their damned highway at last.”
As one of the primary members of country music’s “Class of ’89″ that’s regularly given credit for veering country music into a too commercial direction, Alan Jackson seems to never be given enough credit for being one of the genre’s staunch traditionalists that has stood up for the roots and the legends of country music arguably more than any other mainstream star, and just as much (if not more) than The Outlaws of the 70′s did. When you sit back and reflect on his now legendary career that has seen the sale of over 80 million records and seen Alan amass dozens of industry awards, there is no question Alan Jackson deserves the distinction of being an ultimate country music badass.
More in this series:
- 10 Badass Waylon Jennings Moments
- 10 Badass Johnny Cash Moments
- 10 Badass Merle Haggard Moments
- 10 Badass Wanda Jackson Moments
- 10 Badass Marty Stuart Moments
- 10 Badass George Jones Moments
- 10 Badass Hank3 Moments
- 10 Badass Billy Joe Shaver Moments
- 10 Badass Kris Kristofferson Moments
1. Starting His Career in the TNN Mailroom
Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings got their start in music as DJ’s. Kris Kristofferson started out as a janitor in the Columbia studios. For those with music in their blood, they will do whatever it takes to get their foot in the door of the music business. For Alan Jackson, it was getting a job in the mailroom of The Nashville Network’s offices.
Jackson was born in Newnan, Georgia, and grew up in a house built out of his grandfather’s old tool shed. Jackson’s mom still lives in the house to this day. Jackson had been married to his high school sweetheart Denise for 6 years before deciding to move to Nashville to pursue music full time. Once they hit Music City, Jackson needed to do something to support the household, and TNN was hiring. He later met Glen Campbell and the rest is history.
2. Wearing a Hank Williams T-shirt on the 1994 ACM Awards
Today this would be no big deal. In fact it would probably be considered an upgrade from some of the ridiculous regalia many modern-day country stars get duded up in on award shows. But in 1994, country music’s prime time presentations were still very much black tie affairs. And here comes Alan Jackson walking out for his performance wearing a Hank Williams T-shirt with the sleeves cut off. It would pale in comparison to what would happen next on the show (see below), but Alan bucking the black tie dress code was scandalous on its own, and was probably meant as its own protest against the ACM’s stuffy atmosphere and a presentation that showed little reverence to the roots of the music.
Executive producer Dick Clark in a backstage interview during the show asked Alan, âHere you are on television in front of millions of people. Why do you have a Hank Williams T-shirt on?â
Jacksonâs response was, âWell, I love Hank, and a fanâŚI get a lot of gifts on the road playing, and a fan gave me this shirt, and I just saw it in the closet before I came out here this weekend and I grabbed it and said, âIâm gonna wear it for my song,â you know, âGone Country.â Hankâs country.â
3. Protesting The Backing Track on the 1994 ACM Awards
The 1994 ACM Awards were in many ways Alan Jacksonâs oyster. Held at the Universal Amphitheater in Los Angeles on May 3rd, Alan walked away that night with the Top Male Vocalist award, and co-hosted the event with Reba McEntire. But when it came to performing what would be his upcoming #1 single and one of the signature songs of the era âGone Countryâ, Alan Jackson couldnât sit right with the charade most country award shows pull on their audience.
Before the show, producers told Alan that he had to play to a pre-recorded rhythm section track, which Jackson clearly felt was tantamount to lying to both his fans and the audience. So instead of playing along with the charade, Jackson tipped off the audience to the subterfuge by telling his drummer Bruce Rutherford to play without sticks. So as the performance transpires and everything sounds perfect, there is Alan Jacksonâs drummer, swinging his arms like heâs playing the drums, but with no sticks in his hand.
Trust the ACM’s never asked Alan Jackson to play to a backing track again. And this wouldn’t be the last time Alan Jackson would pull a fast one on award show producers….
4. The “Pop A Top / Choices” George Jones CMA Awards Protest
Just before the 1999 CMA Awards, George Jones was asked to perform an abbreviated version of his song “Choices”. George, feeling that he wasnât a âbaby actâ as he put it, refused, and boycotted the show. And in a super act of class, Alan Jackson, while preforming his song âPop A Topâ, cut his own song short, and launched into Georgeâs âChoices”.
ââWe were all so nervous,â Alan Jackson later recalled. âThe guitarist had this solo in the middle of âPop a Topâ, and the song sort of modulates up at the end of the solo. I signaled to him that we were going to do it, and he just stopped. I looked over at him and he was sweating. The boy looked like he was going to bite his lip off. Then I hit that C chord to start âChoicesâ. â
As you can see in the video, the crowd began to roar and rise to their feet when Jackson launched into the George Jonesâ comeback hit.
5. Releasing Under The Influences Tribute Album
During the height of Alan Jackson’s commercial success, he decided to do something rarely seen in modern day country from a superstar: he released an album made entirely of classic country covers. Including two songs from Johnny Paycheck, a cover of Merle Haggard’s “My Own Kind Of Hat”, and Hank Williams Jr.’s “The Blues Man”, Jackson’s label heads must have thought he was crazy. The album was Jackson’s way of pushing back against the pop-ification of country that was becoming a hot topic in the genre at the time.
What was the result?
It was a big success. Though it can be argued that an album of more original music might have done better, Under The Influences went Platinum, and included two hit singles. Nat Stuckey’s “Pop A Top” ended up at #6 on Billboards Country Songs chart, and Bob McDill’s “It Must Be Love” first made famous by Don Williams went all the way to #1. Alan Jackson proved that the classic country sound was still relevant, and commercially viable if given a chance.
6. Recording and Writing “3 Minute Positive Not Too Country Up Tempo Love Song”
Not since Willie Nelson’s “Sad Songs & Waltzes”, and arguably no other song since has protested pop country’s propensity for commercialization and shallowness as well as this loquaciously-titled song written by Alan Jackson himself for his 2000 release When Somebody Loves You.
7. Recording “Murder On Music Row” with George Strait
Arguably one of the most important country music protest songs in the history of the genre, “Murder On Music Row” written by Larry Cordle and Larry Shell became a big success when Alan Jackson joined up with George Strait to release the song in 2000. The duo first performed the song in 1999 at the CMA Awards, and the next year the performance won the CMA for “Vocal Event of the Year.” Then the following year when it was released on George Strait’s Latest Greatest Straitest Hits album, it was awarded the CMA for “Song of the Year.” That’s right, a song talking about how country music had been murdered on Music Row walked away with the genre’s highest distinction for a song.
Even though the song was never released as a single, unsolicited airplay still saw the song chart on Billboard at #38. At George Strait’s final concert in June of 2014, the duo performed the song again to the largest crowd to ever see an indoor live music event
8. “Where Were You (When The World Stopped Turning)”
In stark contrast to the inflammatory nature of Toby Keith’s post-911 Ăźber hit “Courtesy Of The Red, White, & Blue”, Alan Jackson did his best to humanize and come to peace with the tragedy of 9-11 through song, and it resulted in both his most critical and commercial success of his career. Written by Jackson himself, when he first played it for label executives, there was complete silence in the room for a full minute after it stopped. Jackson was scheduled to perform his current #1 song “Where I Come From” at the 2001 CMA awards in November, but mere days before the presentation, he decided to play “Where Were You (When The World Stopped Turning)” instead. The four CMA heads were not happy about this decision until Jackson’s tour manager Nancy Russell played the song for them. They were all crying by the time the song ended.
After Jackson played the song on the CMA Awards, demand for it skyrocketed. The song was so new, his label hadn’t officially released it as a single yet, but stations already with a copy started playing it, and the song shot to #25 on the Billboard Country Songs chart almost immediately. By the next week it was at #12, and by the end of the year, it was #1 where it stayed for five weeks. It also charted on Billboard’s Hot 100 at #28.
Jackson’s label couldn’t make the song a commercial single fast enough to meet demand, so they instead decided to move up the release date of his album Drive from May of 2002 to January 15th. When the album was released, it went to #1 on both Billboard’s country and all-genre charts, and stayed there for four weeks off the strength of the song. “Where Were You (When The World Stopped Turning)” eventually won both the “Single of the Year” and “Song of the Year” from both the CMA and ACM Awards, as well as the Grammy for “Best Country Song.” It also helped propel Alan Jackson to be awarded both “Male Vocalist of the Year” and “Entertainer of the Year” by the CMA Awards in both 2002 and 2003.
Jackson said about the song, “I think it was Hank Williams who said, ‘God writes the songs, I just hold the pen.’ That’s the way I felt with this song.”
9. Being Nominated For The Most CMA’s Ever In One Year
Bolstered by his song “Where Were You (When The World Stopped Turning)”, Alan Jackson received a total of ten CMA nominations in 2002—the most in CMA history. Jackson won five of them.
- 2002 Album of the Year – Drive (Won)
- 2002 Male Vocalist of the Year (Won)
- 2002 Entertainer of the Year (Won)
- 2002 Single of the Year “Where Were You (When The World Stopped Turning)” (Won)
- 2002 Song of the Year “Where Were You (When The World Stopped Turning)” (Won)
- 2002 Song of the Year “Drive (For Daddy Gene)” (Nominated)
- 2002 Single of the Year “Drive (For Daddy Gene)” (Nominated)
- 2002 Vocal Event of the YearÂ – “Designated Drinker” w/ George Strait (Nominated)
- 2002 Video of the Year “Where Were You (When The World Stopped Turning)” (Nominated)
- 2002 Video of the Year “Drive (For Daddy Gene)” (Nominated)
10. Keeping Virtually The Same Band & Producer Throughout His Entire Career
Every single one of Alan Jackson’s 15 major label album releases has been produced by Keith Stegall. Even when Jackson switched labels from Arista, Stegall stayed on board.
Jackson has also kept virtually the same band the entire time, aside from using a few bluegrass ringers for The Bluegrass Album. The loyalty Alan Jackson shows in his people, and his people’s loyalty in him, is both a sign of integrity and success.
- Monty AllenÂ â acoustic guitar, harmony vocals
- Scott ConeyÂ â acoustic guitar, tic tac bass, banjo
- Robbie FlintÂ â steel guitar
- Danny GroahÂ â lead guitar
- Ryan Joseph – fiddle, harmony vocals
- Bruce RutherfordÂ â drums
- Joey SchmidtÂ â keyboards
- Roger WillsÂ â bass guitar
More in this series:
“Garth Brooks did for country music what pantyhose did for finger fucking.”
This is the quote that has been attributed to Waylon Jennings that you are likely to see in much greater frequency now that Garth Brooks has come out of retirement. For some, it is the totality of their argument against Garth. Forget all his music, past and future, whatever merits his music might have beyond the flashy stage show, however much the test of time has validated his music or not. To tens of thousands, or maybe hundreds of thousands of people, the totality of their Garth hatred, the alpha and omega of their anti-Garth argument, rests on this quote. And if you don’t believe me, just mention Garth’s name in the right (or wrong) company, it it will come flying out at you unsolicited.
The problem is there’s no verifiable records of Waylon ever saying it. And if he did ever say it, that he is the originator of the quote. But just like the urban myth that Kentucky Fried Chicken had to legally change their name to KFC because the birds they use are so genetically altered they can’t be classified as chickens, if you parrot something enough, people take it as fact.
If I had a hunch, not based on fact or research whatsoever, I would say that at some point Waylon Jennings probably did utter those words about Garth, and they probably made it out to the greater world through his son Shooter Jennings. But I’ve also heard from some who say that Poodie Locke—Willie Nelson’s long-time stage manager and one prone to such humor—was the first to say it. Maybe Waylon picked it up there. But I can’t verify that Poodie Locke said it either. There are records of the “_____ did for ____ what pantyhose did for finger fucking” phrase being used for other purposes way before Garth Brooks had even released his first album, so is it really fair to attribute the analogy to anyone?
When you start to try and find the origination point of the quote, and any factual information on if Waylon truly said it or coined it, you start finding a tremendous amount of fiction. The simple fact is the quote is so juicy, and many people just want it to be real so badly, they’re willing to look the other way and proffer it up for human consumption regardless of the truth.
The first record of the quote being used goes back to of all places, Willie Nelson’s 70th Birthday Party in 2003, and from of all people, actor Ethan Hawke. In April of 2009, Ethan Hawke penned a feature on Kris Kristofferson for Rolling Stone. In the feature, Ethan Hawke recounts a story from 2003 where Kris Kristofferson and Toby Keith get into a verbal argument, and Kristofferson says the Waylon quote in response to Toby Keith’s demand, âNone of that lefty shit out there tonight, Kris.â
Here’s the complete interchange from Rolling Stone, as dictated by Ethan Hawke:
âUp from the basement came one of country musicâs brightest stars (who shall remain nameless). At that moment in time, the Star had a monster radio hit about bombing Americaâs enemies back into the Stone Age.
âHappy birthday,â the Star said to Willie, breezing by us. As he passed Kristofferson in one long, confident stride, out of the corner of his mouth came âNone of that lefty shit out there tonight, Kris.â
âWhat the fuck did you just say to me?â Kris growled, stepping forward.
âYou heard me,â the Star said, walking away in the darkness.
âDonât turn your back to me, boy,â Kristofferson shouted, not giving a shit that basically the entire music industry seemed to be flanking him.
âYou ever worn your countryâs uniform?â Kris asked rhetorically.
âDonât âWhat?â me, boy! You heard the question. You just donât like the answer.â He paused just long enough to get a full chest of air. âI asked, âHave you ever served your country?â The answer is, no, you have not. Have you ever killed another man? Huh? Have you ever taken another manâs life and then cashed the check your country gave you for doing it? No, you have not. So shut the fuck up!â I could feel his body pulsing with anger next to me. âYou donât know what the hell you are talking about!â
âWhatever,â the young Star muttered.
Kristofferson took a deep inhale and leaned against the wall, still vibrating with adrenaline. He looked over at Willie as if to say, âDonât say a word.â Then his eyes found me. âYou know what Waylon Jennings said about guys like him?â he whispered.
I shook my head.
âTheyâre doinâ to country music what pantyhose did to finger-fuckinâ.â
- – - – - – - – - -
Yes, as a traditional country fan, maybe you’re pumping your fists. “Hell yeah, you tell ‘em Kris!” The problem is, Ethna Hawke’s story is, and was, complete bullshit, including the Waylon Jennings quote. And this was verified later by both Kris Kristofferson, and Toby Keith.
In the aftermath of the Ethan Hawke story, Kris Kristofferson told The Tennessean: âI have to say, I have no memory of talking so tough to anyone at Willieâs birthday party â least of all to Toby Keith, (if thatâs who the nameless star is), for whom I have nothing but admiration and respect.”
As for Toby Keith, he was a little more heated about the situation, as can be seen in this clip from the 2009 ACM Awards that happened right after the story was published.
But the damage had already been done. The Waylon quote was so juicy, and the clarifications about the story so buried compared to the reach of the original Rolling Stone article, the quote became a matter of public record. In fact some people want the Waylon Jennings quote about Garth Brooks to be true so bad, as well as the fictitious Toby Keith vs. Kris Kristofferson interchange, that they say the clarifications by Toby Keith and Kris Kristofferson are just saving face, and if fact both the quote, and Ethan Hawke’s story are still true.
Of course beyond Kris and Keith’s clarifications, Ethan Hawke and the story’s defenders also have to figure out how to resolve the fact that Toby Keith, flag waver or not, is and was a registered Democrat. So for Keith to say “None of that lefty shit,” seems very unrealistic. Also the quote from Kris from the story, “Have you ever killed another man?” seems to allude that he has. But this gives into the common misconception that Kris Kristofferson saw combat as a helicopter pilot in the Army when in fact he was stationed in Germany during The Vietnam War, and never exchanged live fire.
Though Ethan Hawke’s fictitious story had the Waylon Jennings quote about Garth Brooks going down in 2003, it wasn’t until 2005 when we find the first documented source of the quote in print—at least that can be found on the internet. It comes from an East Bay Express feature on Shooter Jennings, but interestingly, Shooter isn’t giving the quote, it is used to preface the Shooter interview and is recounted by the author of the story. This was 3 1/2 years before the quote would wind up in Rolling Stone and become a matter of public record. Again, it’s very likely that Shooter probably did hear his father use the quote, but was Waylon the originator?
This also opens up the second problem with this supposed Waylon Jennings quote, which is that it is no longer relevant in the forum of public discourse. For example, in the 2005 feature, Shooter says he thinks country music became more about show through Garth. But later in 2013 in an interview with the Charleston City Paper, Shooter says,
“Garth Brooks is as country as shit. Back then it was like, what the fuck is going on. This guy is terrible. This isn’t country music.”Â Jennings says. “I would take that any day now. That means the bar has been lowered so far that we’re like, please. I would listen to only Garth Brooks all day if that’s what I could get.”
As Saving Country Music once spelled out in detail, time has been kind to the music of Garth Brooks, and this change of heart by Waylon’s son has played out in the hearts of many country fans over time. In fact when Shooter first spoke on Garth in 2005, Garth had already been retired for half a decade. Garth hasn’t even been around for 13 years to hate on. But some, including many who have the Waylon quote top-of-mind and at-the-ready any time Garth’s name is uttered, use it as a crutch to continue their war on Garth Brooks.
Another die-hard Garth Brooks hater turned apologist has been singer-songwriter Todd Snider. Todd had a beef with one of Garth’s songwriters after a dispute over the song “Beer Run”. Todd also interfaced with Garth’s alt. rock character Chris Gaines at one point, and told defaming stories as part of his stage schtick for years. But in Todd’s new book released in 2014 called I Never Met A Story I Didnât Like, Snider reconciles his Garth hatred, and says from his personal interactions with the entertainer, he was more kind to him than most in the music business.
I loved Garth Brooks. I was, and am, a very big fan. I think Garth Brooks fucked up country music for a while, through no fault of his own: he made music so good and so successful that tons of people came along after him trying to imitate what he did. Garth fucked up country music like Kurt Cobain fucked up rock.
Because of Garthâs massive success, thereâs a bit of a push and pull in Nashville about him. When you sell more records than anyone has ever sold, you tend to make more people jealous than have ever been jealous of a singer.
Itâs a crock that I think prevails in this country: we bully the people who entertain us. We get on the computer and bully them. We buy magazines with pictures of them where they look fat or drunk or imperfect. And we suppose that those peopleâs success excuses our meanness.
Another interesting thing about the Waylon quote about Garth, and something that leads to speculation if it’s true or not, is that the exact same quote has been attributed to different people. It has been attributed to Willie Nelson and David Allan Coe for example, and to Kris Kristofferson directly because of the Rolling Stone piece.Â In 2012, the alt-country band Deer Tick took to Facebook and attributed the quote to Merle Haggard, illustrating the urban myth nature of the Waylon/Garth quote.
Interestingly, in January of 2012, Merle Haggard was read the supposed Waylon Jennings quote by 11th Hour, and Merle’s response was,
Well. I think, Waylon got dumber with age. I donât know. I love Waylon, but he was awful critical of different things. He just got grouchy. I love listening to Waylon and Willie and Johnny. They still set my ears to burning … I think what Waylon meant by that statement was that somebody ought to be able to walk out on a stage with a guitar and put on a good show that people can enjoy. We donât really need explosions to enjoy a concert do we?
Whether the quote is completely true and coined by Waylon Jennings himself, was borrowed by him from someone else, or the entire thing is a total fabrication of urban myth, the simple fact is that the Waylon quote about Garth is no longer a statement that in any way does the complex perspective that one needs to understand Garth Brooks any bit of justice. Garth started his career a quarter century ago, and hasn’t released a new album in over 13 years. And Waylon Jennings has been dead for a decade.
Here’s some quotes that can be verified that they actually came from Waylon Jennings because they can be found in his autobiography. They’re nearly 20 years old, but relevant as ever to the conversation.
Of course, the next generation better not believe everything they hear. At this point, I’ve been accused of all manner of carousing. Mostly, it’s something that I might have done, or would have done, or couldn’t even imagine doing. Pretty soon it’s etched into stone. If I led the life that people think I did, I’d be a hundred and fifty years old and weigh about forty pounds …
The thing is, we’re in this together, the old, the new, the one-hit wonders and the lifetime achievers, the writers and the session pickers and the guy who sells the T-shirts. The folks that come to the shows, and the ones that stay at home and watch it on TNN. Those who remember Hank Williams, and those who came on board about the time of Mark Chestnut, who named his baby boy after me …
My friends. This town is big enough for the all of us.
Close your eyes for a second, and envision a world where a young beautiful bubbly female star—like Taylor Swift maybe—releases a completely traditional country album, not of her own music, but of some of the standards from country music’s sainted past, and not just by herself, but as duets with the very stars that made the songs popular in the first place; the same stars who are very much being forgotten in modern country’s obsession with youth. Think of the possibility of how this could open up an entire new world of music to listeners who are too young to remember where country music came from, ostensibly bridging the future and the past.
Now, open your eyes back up, and you’re ready to enter the world of Mary Sarah.
- – - – - – - – - – -
Musicians, just like the rest of us, tend to fall within a dozen or so archetypes, with minor variations on those themes when considering the specific artist. You have the scrappy up-and-comer looking to make their name, the established journeyman, the superstar, the underground anti-hero, and so forth and so on from there. Even the most unusual musicians tend to still follow the same weird path of their unusual predecessors. But I have never happened upon a performer that is so hard to pin down, so hard to wrap your head around and really deduce exactly what’s going on as Mary Sarah, and specifically her duets album called Bridges performed with an incredible list of country legends including Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Dolly Parton, Vice Gill, Freddy Powers, and Lynn Anderson.
It’s not that Mary Sarah is “weird”. She’s far from it. In fact if anything, just how un-wierd Mary Sarah is makes this entire case study that much more confounding, and speaks to just how much of a unique individual she is. The 19-year-old singer, born in Oklahoma, raised around Houston, currently living in Nashville, has the looks and disposition of a bona fide American superstar. Nearly every picture you see of her, she’s smiling. And when she’s frowning, it’s to be cute. She’s happy, well-adjusted, confident, illuminated. She’s almost too perfect in some respects, like you want to take some dirt and rub it on her just to make her more real. It’s hard to tell if there’s anything dark lurking behind that perfect hair and haloed smile.
If you want to be a step ahead of the game in the music business, it’s best to keep one eye on artists coming out of adolescent development, and that’s where we first spied the young Mary Sarah. Like so many young country stars these days, Mary Sarah came out of the vocal coach ranks, and the stage show environments like Kidz Bop that look to begin developing stars at a very young age. This isn’t the “picked up guitar in college to play at coffee shops for tips” model, this is the fast-track, preordained conveyor belt to stardom.
It’s about this time in the story that many independent and traditional country fans start to get turned off by how the biography of this young artist is playing out, and where it probably will lead. Yes, the cute little girl groomed for stardom since childhood becomes country music’s next manufactured star; we’ve seen this act before and it doesn’t result in anything we’d be interested in listening to or seeing. And it’s at that moment when Mary Sarah completely surprises you.
Along with participating in things like Kidz Bop, Mary Sarah was also touring around Texas as a young teen, playing churches and the little Opry houses around Texas that are nestled in the forgotten spaces of rural America where the sound of traditional country still thrives. It was a tale of two worlds for the young singer, and in 2010 she released an album called Crazy Good. It was like early Taylor Swift, with songs about boys and young adolescent struggles, but with steel guitar and banjo, illustrating the double world that lent to Mary Sarah’s influences.
The first song off of Mary Sarah’s new album Bridges that hit our ears was a duet with the late great Ray Price on his old standard “Heartaches By The Number”. It was released very shortly after Ray Price had passed away, and it was one of the very last recordings Ray Price ever made. Here is Mary Sarah with her perfect skin and a glittering personality, rubbing elbows with a legend like Ray Price. What was going on here? And then you gave it a listen, and were blown away. First off, Ray sounded incredible, so strong and lucid and inspired in his performance. And Mary Sarah, her voice was not only big, powerful, and confident, it had that distinctness to it, just a little pinch of something that you’ve never heard before that is the mark of all singers that are not just technically good, but have a talent that is lasting.
Then looking deeper into this Bridges album and seeing that the young singer had worked with Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Tanya Tucker, and the Oak Ridge Boys, even Freddy Powers, clearly something much deeper, much more complex was going on here than a fast track to pop stardom.
Whatever was going on, it still had tremendous money and management pull behind it. It still had that “fast track to stardom” feel. Billboards have been erected in Nashville promoting this album. The recordings are of the highest quality, and include some of the best and legendary country music talent still living. And as for the concept, it’s hard to argue that it is anything but brilliant. But the cynic in me begins to wonder about the motivations. Why would a young girl like this with such a powerful, undeniable voice and right on the verge of stardom take this certainly cool, but highly unusual route? Maybe back in the history of country music, I’m talking the 70′s or even before, artists wanting to make a name for themselves and get started in the business would make an album like this. But in 2014? It seems like such a strange approach, though still sort of genius.
And the results, especially when you narrow your focus down to some of the specific duets, can’t be argued with. The Ray Price duet already received SCM’s top grade. The duet with Dolly Parton on “Jolene” is something other-worldly, and may be one of the very top performances of this iconic song ever cut. Nobody is a harder duet partner than Willie Nelson because he insists on singing in unintuitive pentameters, but the production of Mary Sarah’s “Crazy” duet allowed both singers the space to breathe and do their thing, yet still conveyed the intimacy of a classic duet.
And meanwhile, musicianship seems to be no obstacle on this album, as an army of A-listers make their way into the studio to lay down some of the slickest recordings of classic country music you can find. “Go Rest High On A Mountain” with Vice Gill starts off sparse, and then positively soars. Some of the song choices and duet partners coming from such a young girl are most curious, but also cool. Who would have thought for the Merle Haggard duet “The Fightin’ Side of Me” would be chosen over something like “Silver Wings”? But the decision shows guts and spirit. Freddy Powers may be the least-recognizable name on the track list, but his inclusion here and his role as a mentor to Mary Sarah gives her and this project a country music street cred it otherwise wouldn’t carry, while the Tanya Tucker and Lynn Anderson duets on “Texas (When I Die)” and “Rose Garden” respectively give this album it’s fun moments.
As great as the great songs are on this album, the misses miss pretty bad. It’s not that the performances aren’t spot on, but the curse was cast in the song selection. “What A Difference You’ve Made in My Life” with Ronnie Milsap is incredibly shag carpet and saccharine, almost like a song that would play when the credits of an 80′s after school special are rolling. The “Dream On” effort with the Oak Ridge Boys comes across as dated, despite the flawless presentation. And “Where The Boys Are”? The composition actually fits Mary Sarah’s voice perfectly, but once again stuck out as a strange song choice. To 60-year-old ears though, these songs may sound quite fitting and nostalgic.
Overall, this is an album of individual songs and performances, whose selections should be looked at individually because of the disparity of the material, and the different duet partners. Traditional and classic country fans will love most songs, some will hate others, but the count of good to not good definitely ends up in Mary Sarah’s favor.
I still have absolutely no idea what’s going on here, and in some respects, I don’t want to know. And one thing this album doesn’t highlight is that Mary Sarah also has songwriting as one of her strong suits. Mary Sarah could develop into the Taylor Swift of traditional country, bringing huge crowds back towards country’s classic sound. Or she could develop into the next Taylor Swift, period, and maturate into a pure pop performer. Or it could be something in between, or completely unique that country music has never seen before and can’t compare to anything else. Is this album simply a way for Mary Sarah to pay her penance to the traditional country music powers that be so that she can run off and play pop? Or does it speak to a sincere desire to create a career behind “bridging” the old and the young, the classic and the contemporary? Time will tell, but I ‘m telling you, with a voice like this, and a spirit behind it that is so unique, it’s probably imperative on all of us to be paying close attention.
1 1/2 of 2 guns up.
- – - – - – - – - – - – - – - -
Garth! Hey buddy, it’s been a long time. Yeah, I know, we’ve seen each other in passing here and there. Some appearances at the award shows and such, and that whole thing out in Vegas and the recent box set release, though I’m not really sure if any of that counts. But hey, don’t worry, I’m not jumping on your butt or anything. You hung the moon for me for over a decade, and no matter what you decide to do from here on out, I’m forever in your debt for taking me to levels I thought were never possible, flying over stadiums on suspension wires and inspiring the Billy Ray Cyrus’s of the world notwithstanding. Hell I don’t even know that I can get worked up about all of that stuff anymore, or about your whole Chris Gaines gimmick, or for trying out for the Padres baseball team. I get it now. You were bored. You had climbed the mountain, conquered it, and were looking for the next challenge. Well let me tell you Garth, if you’re looking for a good challenge, I’ve got one. A big one. And this is one you might be able to accomplish. In fact, you might be the only one left on Earth who can.
Don’t think for a second that I blame you for taking a dozen-plus years off to spend time with your family, please. In fact I commend you for it. If we all spent a little more time putting family first, this probably would be a much more pleasant world to live in. Hell, don’t think the idea of dialing it all back doesn’t cross my mind every damn day, yet here I am working like a three-peckered billy goat. Do you know they say that country music is the biggest American music genre now? Ha, did you ever think we’d see that day Garth?
But this is the problem old friend. They’ve thrown the barn doors wide, and now everybody and their cousin is calling themselves country, and it’s gotten completely out of control. Be careful what you wish for, right Garth? I mean we’ve got DJ’s who don’t do anything but stand behind a couple of turntables pressing buttons now calling themselves country, rappers calling themselves country, hard rockers calling themselves country. It’s to the point now where I yearn for the days where Kenny Chesney and Taylor Swift were the biggest pains in my ass. I look back now at the time when they said you were ruining the genre as the good ol’ days. By the way, do you have any idea if Waylon Jennings ever really said that line, “Garth Brooks did to country music what pantyhose did to finger $#@!ing?” Because for the life of me, I can’t verify it anywhere. And yeah, I know I just censored myself. But to some of us Garth, country music is still a family format.
I’m swallowing my pride here Garth. I need your help. Whether it was you and I pairing up in the in the 90′s to sell all those records that truly stimulated all these problems in the first place or not, the simple fact is you and I coming back together could maybe spell the end of it, or at least restoring some sort of balance to where if someone turns on their radio and tunes it to a country station, they might actually hear something that sounds like country.
I know there’s no need to pry you off you’re couch or anything; you’ve already got all the plans in the works for your big triumphant return, so this is not the direction my pleas are headed. What I want to implore you to do Garth is to keep it country. For the love of all things holy, keep it country. Please, as a favor to your old pal. Just be yourself. This is no longer about about trying to turn away the hordes who will call anything “country.” Truth is they won the battle years ago. That ship has sailed. This is about storming the gates ourselves, and taking back what is ours. You may be the best-selling solo artist in the history of popular music, but as I’m sure you know Garth, country music is bigger than any one person (not to gloat, but you know…), and it is the responsibility of everyone, however big or small, to preserve and protect the country music institution, especially an artist like yourself whose benefited in the manner of untold riches from it.
They can say what they want about you Garth. There are old codgers and punks out there that will bad mouth your name no matter how the rules of the game change, and how much time redeems your past accomplishments. Actually, you want to put those critics to bed? Simply put out a true country album that is successful, and those people’s anger will turn to nostalgia and appreciation. I know deep inside of you is still that little boy from Oklahoma that grew up listening to Merle Haggard and George Jones; that appealed to the masses not by borrowing from other genres, but from finding and writing meaningful songs and singing them from the heart. Some focus on your wireless mic and your flawless, almost too-perfect presentation. But I focus in the fire in your eye, the aching moan in your voice that mimics a steel guitar the comes bursting through the mix to remind us all of the magic that country music can evoke when done right.
And you Garth, and only you, may still have the power at this late hour to remind the masses of that magic.
You did it once for the money Garth. Now, do it once for the music. Because we need it now more than ever.
Your once strained, but now rehabilitated and appreciative friend,
On April Fool’s day, Broken Bow Records released a 20-track Merle Haggard Tribute called Working Manâs Poet, primarily as a showcase for the roster’s talent. Big Broken Bow acts like Jason Aldean, Thompson Square, and Dustin Lynch make multiple appearances on the collection, but one of the most heavily-touted songs from the album has been Luke Bryan’s version of “Pancho & Lefty” with Dierks Bentley. The approach of the track is said to to have been inspired by Mumford & Sons. “The original had a Spanish-Mexican flair,” Bryan explains. “We took a real different approach with it âŚ. something with some edge that moves along pretty good. Itâs an interesting take.â
The first question this song begged was, should this really be considered a Merle Haggard song? “Pancho & Lefty” was originally written and recorded by acclaimed Texas singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt. A later version appeared on an album of the same name that was a collaboration between Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson in 1983, but Willie sang most of the song, with Merle only contributing one verse.
Nonetheless, Luke Bryan’s version with Dierks made the cut, and subsequently drew the favorable ear of Mere’s son and Strangers guitar player Ben Haggard who appears on the tribute multiple times himself. âYou know, Luke Bryanâs a great artist, but I never really listened to his stuff,” Ben told Country Weekly earlier this month. “I just listened to âPancho and Leftyâ about five minutes ago and it blew me away. Iâm in love with it.â
Ben went on to give his assessment of the tune if it was ever released to radio as a single. “I wouldnât be surprised if it was a hit. It could be a monsterâagain.âÂ The Willie & Merle version was a #1 in 1983. This begs the question, could Luke Bryan’s version of “Pancho & Lefty” really be released to radio as a single, and somehow become a hit all over again?
The one thing we know is right now, there’s no country star hotter than Luke Bryan. Luke is on a roll, scoring one huge hit single after another, with his latest “Play It Again” at #1, and his collaboration with Florida-Georgia Line called “This Is How We Roll” at #2 on Billboard’s country chart. If Luke and his management did decide to release the song to radio there’s a very good likelihood it would do well simply off of Luke’s name, and Dierks Bentley is a pretty hot commodity at the moment as well.
Combine that with the overwhelming cover success Darius Rucker recently had with Old Crow Medicine Show’s “Wagon Wheel,” and it’s not ridiculous to think that Luke’s “Pancho & Lefty” could become a hit, creating the same strange dichotomy “Wagon Wheel” did for independent country fans where you’re happy there’s a cool song getting played on the radio, but hesitant about the circumstances of how it got there. A Merle tribute song written by Townes Van Zandt topping the charts? Awesome. Performed by Luke Bryan? Not so much. And it turns out that there already has been a few spins of the song on MediaBase-monitored radio stations (a meager total of four, but still interesting for a cover song on a tribute album).
But don’t steal yourself for disappointment, or get your hopes up that “Pancho & Lefty” 3.0 will become the next “Wagon Wheel” and put the deceased Townes Van Zandt at the top of today’s country chart. As Saving Country Music’s go to guru for all things country radio Windmills Country points out, since the Merle Haggard tribute was released by Broken Bow, but Luke Bryan is a Capitol Records Nashville artist, it is unlikely that Luke’s song is the one they would release as a single, if they release any singles from the tribute. Releasing a single to mainstream country radio costs lots of money for labels to promote, and so it is unlikely that Broken Bow would do this for an artist on another roster, similar how it is less likely that Capitol Nashville would figure out how to release it as a single since it originated from Broken Bow.
The other issue is that Luke Bryan already has a slew of singles out there to radio doing very very well, and so does Dierks Bentley. Labels do not like having singles compete with each other, so if “Pancho & Lefty” was released, it would likely be well after Luke’s current albums are out of single material.
Nonetheless, it is certainly curious that the most lauded song on the album is Luke Bryan’s, especially since he’s not signed to Broken Bow. In the press releases and other promotional material, it is by far the most talked about track, and it could have been targeted by Broken Bow’s A&R as the best song to help sell the album to the public. Depending on the licensing behind the song, the track could also be selected to be released on a deluxe edition of Luke’s current album Crash My Party—a practice that a lot of labels are doing with artists to extend the release cycle, and making it more likely it could appear as a single. So who knows. It somewhat feels like fantasy football to talk about the track becoming a hit, but there is certainly a lot of chatter surrounding it. We very well might be seeing Luke Bryan shaking it to “Pancho & Lefty” in the future, for better or worse.
There’s no embeddable version of Luke Bryan’s version, so here’s the Willie & Merle’s original.
Produced by T Bone Burnett, the new Secret Sisters album called Put Your Needle Down—the sister duo’s first record in nearly four years—was produced by T Bone Burnett. T Bone Burnett produced this sophomore effort, and lending his efforts in a production role was T Bone Burnett. T Bone Burnett, T Bone Burnett, T Bone Burnett.
Did I mention that T Bone Burnett produced this album? Okay good. Because apparently that’s a more important point than who this album is by and what it’s titled, and T Bone’s name must precede this information in any copy or conversation.
It’s not that T Bone Burnett isn’t an accomplished and successful producer. I mean hell, you can’t stick your nose anywhere in the Americana realm without finding apostles of T Bone telling you how brilliant he is. The problem though is the hype around his work has become so pervasive, I’m afraid he’s begun to believe it himself, and uses it as justification to employ an extremely heavy hand in his producer capacity, relegating the artists he works with as secondary, if not arbitrary to furthering the weight behind his own name. Or at least, that’s the way it sounds.
No doubt T Bone Burnett is a towering man of music. There’s no denying his record. But that doesn’t give him the right, or make it right to overhaul, supplant, or bury the God-given sound, style, and talent the artists he works for are born with. People can come to T-Bone’s defense and say that this is the fate these artists chose when they signed up to work with him, but it still doesn’t erase the fact that the role of a producer is supposed to be one of a subordinate. Yes, the producer should guide and mentor, but the best producers in the business do not reshape artists into their own appointed image, they coax the best attributes already alive in artists out into the open to be captured in the recorded context. Inexplicably, with The Secret Sisters and Put Your Needle Down, T Bone Burnett does both.
This album shouldn’t be characterized as The Secret Sisters with T Bone Burnett. It should be couched as The Secret Sisters versus T Bone Burnett. Such an over-produced wall of serrated sounds punishes the ear throughout this album, it’s like trying to view the Eiffel Tower through a plague of locusts: You know there’s something very pretty and breathtaking there, but you have to fight with flailing arms to see, and you’re rarely allowed to relax and bask in its beauty.
T Bone Burnett’s production doesn’t seem to have any sense or respect for the time and place The Secret Sisters’ music naturally evokes; their music seems only the canvas for T Bone to do his worst. After the very first song, I was already tired of the ever-present tambourine on this album, which permeates this record deeper than a sheepdog’s flea dip. The tambourine rattles inside your skull like a ricocheting bullet; steadfast and unrelenting. I couldn’t get the iconic image of Will Ferrell banging on a cowbell from that famous Saturday Night Live skit out of my head, but replaced by a round, jingle-filled adult-sized death rattle. Mucky, incongruent moans of excessively chorus-inflected guitar tones burden this work like the apparitions that keep you in slow motion as you’re being pursued in a nightmare by an apex predator.
Am I being a teeny bit harsh here maybe? Is some deep-seated, unnecessary hatred for all things T Bone shining through and compromising my integrity? Perhaps, but I’ll tell you, despite the monstrosity T Bone constructed though his work on this album, I love Put Your Needle Down. I think this album is great—one captivating song after another. Why? Because no different than how the primitive artists of country had to fight through poor production situations when they were making the very first country albums, or in the 60′s when Music Row producers couldn’t resist adding strings and choruses to every damn song, or in the 80′s when everyone decided the best thing to do was get into the keyboard business and over-modulate the hell out of the drum signals, good songs, and good artists will always shine through. And that’s what The Secret Sisters are, and that’s what The Secret Sisters did on Put Your Needle Down.
And if we’re going to smear T Bone with such colorful language, we also have to give him credit. Whether it was by accident, on purpose, or despite his best efforts, on Put Your Needle Down, the sheer, untouched genius of The Secret Sisters was unearthed in all of its dazzling beauty, and captured so splendidly despite the production woes, that you could fall under it’s spell even if you had to listen through an A-bomb blast.
Sisters Laura and Lydia Rogers were born and raised in one of the holy lands of American music: Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Fertilized with music from George Jones, Merle Haggard, and Doc Watson, and singing in a church that had no instruments, their Southern harmonies were born with such a purity that can only be found in sister siblings. When The Secret Sisters harmonize, it is the sound a pining heart makes, or the sound emitted when a crack cleaves the soul. Or it’s the salve that mends the heart and soul, depending on the theme of the story their soaring voices carry.
Their first, self-titled album from 2010 was a selection of classic country-style songs and was produced by Dave Cobb–famous for working recently with both Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson on their critically-acclaimed albums—with T Bone Burnett breathing down Cobb’s neck as an “executive producer.” The Secret Sisters debut captured them in their most native environment, and in a sincere, country offering. No, my defacing of T Bone’s effort has nothing to do with him taking this album in a non-country direction; it’s that he didn’t respect the natural sound of The Secret Sisters. He could have added some rock or progressive sounds here and there, but the production effort of Put Your Needle Down was a complete whitewashing. And get this: I’m so dug in on this stance, I don’t even care if The Secret Sisters disagree.
But damn if I don’t love virtually everything The Secret Sisters themselves do on this album. Put Your Needle Down differs, and his enhanced from their first album by featuring mostly original songs. The pain and desperation captured in their performances on tracks like “Iuka” and “The Pocket Knife” evoke the plight inherent in the female condition when it’s torn and tested by the villainous priorities of men. The heights reached in the chorus of the 50′s-ish do woppy “Black And Blue” with the sisters harmonies dancing and twirling in such synchronicity, like smoke-trailed acrobats rising eloquently and unresponsive to gravity until it is impossible to discern them apart in formation, is nothing short of awe-inspiring.
One respite from T Bone the Terrible’s reign is on the subdued and simple “Lonely Island”, which if recorded 50 years ago, would be a standard of the country music song book today. It is simply a masterpiece.
And as jarring and inappropriate as the production of this album is, you even get to a point where you’re okay with it, if for no other reasons than refusing to let it ruin what was going on here beneath the layers and layers of over-production, and the fogginess that besets this album—sometimes a symptom of when a project’s mixes have been reworked too many times, especially when they are recorded on 2-inch tape to capture the “warmth” that Audiophiles love to preach about. And yes, I understand what T Bone was trying to do here: he was trying to take something classic and pure, and make it hip and progressive to appeal to a wider audience. On paper, there’s nothing wrong with that. But from a production standpoint, it didn’t work. T Bone was not the right one to try this feat with this particular project.
And why did it take nearly 1 1/2 years for this album to get to our ears? It was recorded in December of 2012, and January of 2013. I think there’s a story there in itself, if only to answer why two young women with the wind behind their backs from their first album had to wait so long for a second release.
But I’ll be damned, I really, really enjoy this album overall. Simply put, The Secret Sisters are the best female duo out there right now, and Put Your Needle Down comes highly recommended….with the obvious production caveat.
1 3/4 of 2 guns up.
- – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - -
Now this is what I’m talking about.
I’ve been wanting to tug on the sainted Saving Country Music reader’s ear about Moot Davis for years, and who knows what all kinds of dumb excuses have conspired up to this point to not allow that to happen. But the release of his latest Goin’ In Hot is just about the perfect damn opportunity if there ever was one to stop everything else down and sing the praises of this man’s superlative country music contributions.
Despite his name lending naturally to that “I’ve heard that name before” clichĂŠ, it’s confounding why Moot isn’t much better known within the ranks of classic country and neotraditional fans. Maybe it’s because he’s terrible at promoting himself or playing that whole social network game, or because he’s nestled way up there in New Jersey these days, out of the earshot of country music’s well-established shipping channels. But I’ll be damned if this guy can’t go hard on the twang as much as anyone, and gets the true spirit behind country songwriting better than most.
Moot has put out one good country music project after another, but we better count ourselves lucky as hell we even get to listen to Goin’ In Hot. In June of 2013 the studio in Nashville where the album was recorded went up in flames, and the fear was everything was lost. The whole thing was already in the can, mixed, and ready to go when a blaze gutted the control room of guitarist Joe McMahan’s home studio. Miraculously, the hard drive from McMahan’s scoarched and water-soaked computer was salvaged and somehow the master files for Goin’ In Hot survived. Now if that isn’t one hell of a baptismal for your record, I don’t know what is.
What got me especially worked up about this release was the Gram Parsons-esque cover and the communication ahead of the album that it had some inspiration from the Stones’ Keith Richards. That whole needle & spoon era and the sweat captured on those recordings is something many bands strive for and very few perfect, and that dirty, loose sound is something missing in country today. With songs like “Just Left Home” and “Made For Blood”, Moot does his best to recapture that magic while not just trying to be interpretive, but let the inspirations flow through his own music and style.
Still at its heart Goin’ In Hot is a country music record and covers tremendous ground in both style and influence. From shit kickers like the rousing “Midnight Train” or the Yoakam-like “Love Hangover”, to more somber, singer-songwriter tracks like “The Reason” that very easily could have been written by Merle Haggard, Moot grabs the country-leaning listener by the scruff right off the bat and pulls you into this album; steel guitar moaning and squalling high in the mix like Ralph Mooney, “Cousin” Kenny Vaughan (Marty Stuart’s guitar player) playing producer and putting his proven country music touch all over this record, and the sweet and talented Nikki Lane lending her voice to the effort in spots. Along with Moot’s backing band, “The Good Americans” that includes Michael Massimino, drummer Joe Mekler and guitarist Bill Corvino, they make a record that is both timeless and relevant, and satiates all sectors of your salivating country music palette.
The way the tracks are ordered on Goin’ In Hot could have been handled a little better. After the first couple of songs, the whole Gram/Richards-inspired tracks are a little too front loaded, and if they’re not your speed, may act as a wormhole for your attention span. But the country tracks come hard and heavy later in the album, and the country/drug rock influences blend quite well in the album’s final offering, the fun and freaky “25 Lights”.
Moot Davis was once called “thinking man’s country” by NPR, and maybe because he’s known as a world traveler and runs in different circles than most independent country artists, he’s seen as some sort of upper crust crooner as opposed to an authentic country soul. But what Moot gets more than most is the simplicity of perspective inherent in good country music. Maybe that perspective is bred more from an intelligent ear than authentic personal experiences, or maybe it comes from both. Either way, Moot is able to communicate those depths of human emotion in a way that doesn’t usurp the joy from the music, making for an approach that feels fresh, yet familiar, and making it worthy of a wide audience.
Two guns up.
- – - – - – - – - – - – - – - -
Country music artist Collin Raye’s career accomplishments can fly under your radar if you’re not careful, because he was never as flashy as some of his contemporaries like Garth Brooks. But with sixteen #1 hits and five platinum albums earned after becoming a solo artist in 1991, Collin Raye is a more decorated artist than most.
The singer recently released a memoir called A Voice Undefeated, and in the book he speaks candidly about his detest for what is currently happening in country music. “They’ve largely abandoned the reality-based moral message for the common man that made country music a strong cultural force for good,” Raye says, and then continues to say how he’s worried some of the most gifted people in Nashville are watering down their talents to appeal to the lowest common denominator just to sell records.
In a recent interview with Fox News (see below), Collin delves even further into his dissent about the direction of country music.
I’m passionate about it because I love our genre. I got into country music not to make a buck. I did it because I love it … I grew up at a time when Merle Haggard was writing stuff like “Mama’s Hungry Eyes” and “Sing Me Back Home”. Kristofferson was writing “Sunday Morning Coming Down” and “Me & Bobby McGee” and stuff like that. It was poetry. Country music has never been about the chord progression or the complexity of the music. It’s always been about lyrics and stories, and real life slices of life. And the one common thread has always been poetry. It’s like American Shakespeare in a way, and that’s what it’s supposed to be. From Hank Williams, to before Hank Williams on up, that’s this beautiful thing we all love so much, and so many of us got into the business knowing we could never be as great as those guys, but we always tried to live up to that standard that they had set.
And I’m really depressed in how it has dumbed down to basically a one-dimensional “Let’s party in the truck, gonna drink some cold beer!” There’s so many of those, and I’m not begrudging anybody their living. It’s not really the artists I blame, and it’s not the songwriters I blame because they’re just trying to make a living. It’s the gatekeepers quote unquote that we used to have in Nashville which are the label heads who used to decide what was good enough to put out and what was not. And now they’ve just totally given into that.
Collin Raye is not known for traditional country music, but for very contemporary-sounding country, including some music that made use of keyboards and synthesizers. But the lyrics still achieved a standard that is virtually vacant on today’s country radio.
The topic of Collin Raye’s book also raised eyebrows on Clear Channel’s syndicated morning program The Bobby Bones Show in late March. Bobby Bones, while professing his fandom for Collin (they’re both from Arkansas), diagnosed Collin with “old man syndrome” for criticizing current country music. “Luke Bryan—you can see things you shouldn’t be able to see on Luke when he dances because his pants are so tight.” Bobby Bones said. “And that’s not trashy, that’s juts how he does it … That’s just the culture now … It’s called old man syndrome. It’s that group going to the next group.”
Or it speaks to the steady decline of culture that Collin Raye seeks to raise awareness about with his comments; a decline that has seen the general erosion of the value of country music to deliver something more than catchy lyrics and an infectious beat.
Country music isn’t just a genre of music, it is a musical religion, a way of life, a cultural lineage passed down from generation to generation and preserved through the blood and bond of its performers and fans. That’s why it seems country music performers so very often tend to turn out to be the parents of country music performers themselves.
Let’s take a look at some of country music’s greatest sons and daughters.
Justin Townes Earle
Son of alt-country pioneer Steve Earle, and middle namesake of the man who was good friends with his father and considered one of the greatest songwriters ever, Justin Townes Earle has spent the last seven or so years trying to live up to the lofty expectations of both names, and has done so valiantly. Releasing a startling debut EP in 2007 called Yuma, Earle and his obsession with the craft of songwriting have led to critical success for the five albums he’s released through Bloodshot Records. Considered by many as one of the biggest names in the new generation of alt-country/Americana performers, Justin has done it not by being a chip off the old block, but by forging his own path.
Justin’s relationship with his father has been rocky over the years. Steve Earle left Justin and his mother when Justin was just 2-year-old, and the younger Earle had a tumultuous, troubled, and at times, drug-fueled childhood. But he has soldiered on to carry a name all his own.
The son of Willie Nelson’s long-time guitarist Jody Payne and Grammy Award-winning country music singer Sammi Smith, Waylon is named after his Godfather, Waylon Jennings. Raised by his aunt and uncle due to his parents’ heavy touring schedules, Payne attended seminary after high school and was on track to become a minister before catching the music bug. For a while Payne was part of the popular Eastbound and Down country night at the King King Club in Hollywood where performers would swap classic country songs. Payne later released the album The Drifter in 2004 through Republic Universal.
Music isn’t Waylon Payne’s only creative calling though. He may be known more as an actor than a musician. In the award-winning Johnny Cash film I Walk The Line, Payne played Jerry Lee Lewis. He also played country great Hank Garland in a small film called Crazy, along with making numerous television appearances, including on CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.
Hank Williams III (or Hank3)Â
The grandson of Hank Williams and the son of Hank Jr., if there was ever a spitting image of country music’s first superstar, it would be him. He not only carries the visage and build of Hank Sr., but also the voice and writing style when he wants to go in that direction. The youngest Hank though has a hankering to delve into the wild side of music as well, and has released multiple punk albums during his career that has now stretched into two decades.
Hank3 started out playing drums and guitar in underground punk bands, with no real drive to be a part of the country music machine. But when a paternity suit put him in court, he decided to sign with Curb Records, and entered into a tumultuous period with the label that at the least resulted in multiple landmark records, including the neo-traditional country stalwart Lovesick, Broke, & Driftin’, and his double album opus Straight to Hell. Hank3 is now an independent artist, and carries on the family tradition of doing the music he wants and defying expectation.
The granddaughter of Hank Williams, daughter of Hank Jr., and half sister of Hank Williams III has had a somewhat strange musical journey, but one that has seen her bloom recently to become one of the leading females in country/Americana, keeping the music true to its roots while moving it forward.
Holly’s early career saw her sign to major labels like Universal South and Mercury Nashville, trying to break into the big time, but always seemingly with one foot in, and one foot out of that mainstream approach to music. She was also seriously injured in a near fatal crash in 2006 along with her sister Hilary who also is a performer. Then in February of 2013, Holly released The Highway independently, and since then has become a critical darling and a live performer not to miss. Though there were some that at times wondered if Holly was just a famous name, she’s proven recently that she’s so much more.
The son of Merle Haggard and an official member of Merle’s legendary backing band The Strangers, Ben is a chip off the old block when it comes to slinging Telecasters and perfecting the West Coast, twangy Bakersfield tradition of loud and electric country music. Patterned in the mold of the pioneer of the craft, the under-appreciated Roy Nichols, Ben can be seen plying his craft and staring at the back of his father on any given night out on the road. This isn’t just your usual slot filled by a family member on stage. Ben’s skills are regarded by his musician peers as being standalone from any famous name.
The only child of Waylon Jennings and Jessi Coulter, Shooter started his musical journey in the rock band Stargunn before signing with Universal South in 2005 and releasing his first country record, Put The ‘O’ Back In Country. He subsequently released two more country records infused with some Southern rock & roll before putting out his rock opus, the experimental album Black Ribbons. Shooter re-established his country roots with the 2012 album Family Man, followed up by 2013′s The Other Life.
Like many of country music’s famous sons and daughters, Shooter Jennings marches to his own drum, but always seems to come back to the country music fold.
Jubal Lee Young
Son of legendary Outlaw country songwriter and performer Steve Young (Lonesome, Onry & Mean, Seven Bridges Road), and songwriter Terrye Newkirk, Jubal Lee Young from Muskogee, Oklahoma put out an album in 2011 called Take It Home that included the song “There Ain’t No Outlaws Any More” that loudly proclaims, “Here comes another badass sellinâ Nashville rock and roll, long hair, denim and tattoos, lookinâ onâry and mean. Singinâ songs about that lonesome road, some of âem might even be true. But there ainât no outlaws anymoreâŚ”
Hank Williams Jr.
The most obvious and most successful of country music’s greatest sons, Hank Williams Jr. is very likely a future country music Hall of Famer, and has won multiple CMA Entertainer of the Year Awards and sold millions of albums. He started out his career as a virtual impersonator of his famous father, but rebelled against this preordained future to become so much more. Hank Jr. took a precipitous fall off of Ajax Mountain in Montana in 1975, landing on his face, and having to go through multiple surgeries before he could return to performing. And when he did, he quickly became known as “Rockin’” Randall Hank as he emerged with a sound that was just as much Southern rock as country.
In the mid 80′s, Hank Williams Jr. was one of country’s biggest stars, and now sits as a legend in the genre. He also is responsible for two other famous country offspring: Hank Williams III and Holly Williams, and a 2nd daughter Hilary Williams has also been a performer.
The only daughter of the country music super pairing of George Jones and Tammy Wynette, Georgette was said to have a recording contract on the day she was born. She recorded her first song at the ripe age of ten with her dad called “Daddy Come Home.” From there Georgette began singing backup for her mom, and she has gone on to become an accomplished songwriter and solo performer herself. Georgette has released numerous albums, including three for Heart of Texas Records. Her latest album Til I Can Make It On My Own is a tribute to her mother.
Georgette also appeared in the TV Series Sordid Lives and recorded numerous songs for the soundtrack, including Tammy Wynette tunes. She also recently released a memoir called The Three of Us: Growing Up with Tammy and George, Georgette Jones.
Daughter of David Allan Coe, Shelli was born in Nashville and raised in Austin, and appeared at the tender age of 3-years-old on her father’s Family Album project. She later worked as a backup singer for her father before landing in Branson, MO for a while where she performed in clubs, collaborated with other songwriters and appeared on the album Branson Songwriters Out in the Streets. Shelli subsequently returned to Austin where she is known to perform off and on. Her first full-length CD A Girl Like Me was released in 2010, and is worth a listen for folks that like traditional country music.
Surrounded by a bevy of musical siblings and one awfully famous father, the argument can be made that Lukas was the Willie offspring that received the most potent douse of Willie’s musical genes, and has a powerful voice to match his father’s. A dynamic, top-flight performer with a sound that trends much closer to rock than country, but still has an earthy, rootsy feel nonetheless, Lukas is on a fast track to becoming a superstar all his own.
From his towering leg kicks, to playing the guitar with his teeth, at only 23-years-old, Lukas could already be crowned as a guitar god. Leading his band The Promise of the Real, they’ve made waves in the music world on big tours. About the only thing holding the young star back is that rock music is in a weird spot right now, and guitar blazers are not what the masses are particularly looking for. But like his father, Lukas is not worried about anything but following his heart, and he promises to have a very bright future ahead of him with a tower of talent to draw from.
Son of Outlaw country legend Billy Joe Shaver, Eddie Shaver was one of the best country music guitar shredders to ever take the stage. Aside from being his fatherâs right hand man for many years, Eddie Shaver studied under Dickey Betts of The Allman Brothers, played with Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, Guy Clark, The Eagles, and was Dwight Yoakamâs guitar player for the first two years of Dwight’s career.
Itâs only because of Eddieâs untimely death that heâs not better known. He was scheduled to release his first solo album in 2001 when he died of a heroin overdose on New Years Eve of 2000. Though Billy Joe Shaver is known most for his songwriting, and Eddie as a guitar slinger, it only takes a glimpse at either to see that the musical talent runs very deep with the Shaver clan.
Though one might first think of June Carter as more of a mother of famous country artists instead of a daughter of them, June Carter is arguably the first daughter of country music. Her mother is “Mother” Maybelle Carter, given her nickname for being the mother of her performing daughters, and arguably the mother of country music. June began performing at the age of ten in 1939 as part of the landmark country outfit The Carter Family. It was through their mutual love of country music that she would eventually meet and fall in love with Johnny Cash, and the two went on to be one of country music’s powerhouse couples. June Carter was a muti-instrumentalist with a classic voice, and defines the nexus between country music’s primitive, classic, and modern eras.
It can be easy to overlook just what kind of impact Rosanne Cash has had on American music over the years. She seems to always be overshadowed by her father, by other famous sons and daughters of country legends, measured against them, and dogged by preceding labels that donât always allow her to be judged on her own merit, while her musical accomplishments veer towards being somewhat misunderstood because sheâs not always been nestled smack dab in the country realm as people want, expect, or anticipate.
But Rosanneâs critical and commercial accomplishments are far more than complimentary, they define a very successful career: Eleven #1 country singles, twenty-one Top 40 singles, and thirteen Grammy nominations is nothing to sniff at, and ultimately might at least get her mentions as a potential Hall of Fame inductee.
The only offspring between the country music super marriage of Johnny Cash and June Carter, John Carter Cash has spent his time as a singer and performer, but many of his important contributions to country music have come behind-the-scenes as a producer, songwriter, author, and general champion of the Cash estate and all things country music. It’s remarkable how many places you see John Carter’s name attached to projects as his puts effort out to make music happen in whatever capacity he can help in. Like his father, he has that selfless streak of service that surfaces in some of the most generous and cool ways.
Bobby Bare Jr.
Born in Nashville, TN to the original Outlaw Bobby Bare, Bobby Bare Jr. grew up next door to Tammy Wynette and George Jones in Hendersonville, and was nominated for a Grammy next to his father for the Shel Silverstein-written song “Daddy What If” from his father’s tribute album to Silverstein. Fronting roots rock bands like “Bare Jr.” and “Young Criminals Starvation League”, Bare’s career has been the result of avoiding “working a real job at any cost,” despite earning a psychology degree from the University of Tenessee, and not really getting deep into his own music until later in life. His high energy on stage and dark sarcasm in his songs have won him fans worldwide.
Other Famous Sons & Daughters:
Pam Tillis – 1994 CMA Female Vocalist of the Year, and daughter of country great Mel Tillis
The Carter Family Daughters – Carlene Carter, Helen Carter, Anita Carter, Rosie Nix Adams.
Jett Williams – Daughter of Hank Williams that found out about her famous father later in life. Jett has been a performer and plays an important role as one of the executors of the Hank Williams estate.
Jesse Keith Whitley – Son of Lorrie Morgan and Keith Whitley
Marty Haggard, Noel Haggard, and Scott Haggard- More performing sons of Merle.
Dean Miller – Son of Roger Miller
Lilly Hiatt – Daughter of John Hiatt
Chelsea Crowell – Daughter of Rosanne Cash and Rodney Crowell
Paula Nelson – Leader of The Paul Nelson Band.
Tyler Mahan Coe – Guitar player and writer who spent years touring in his father’s band.
Folk Uke – Made up Willie Nelson’s daughter Amy, and Arlo Guthrie’s daughter Cathy.
Whey Jennings – The son of Terry Jennings, and grandson of Waylon Jennings.
Lucas Hubbard – Son of Ray Wylie Hubbard who often plays lead guitar with his father.
Lucky Tubb – Not technically a son or daughter, but a great nephew of Ernest.
Bluegrass – There are many performing sons and daughters of famous bluegrass musicians, but for fear of forgetting some and getting yelled at for it, this sentence is in dedication to them all. You rock! Or pick, or strum, or pluck! Go YOU!
Don’t call it a comeback! LL Cool J’s been here for … well …. he’s never really been here in country music whatsoever, except for that ill-advised pairing with Brad Paisley in “Accidental Racist” that captured the American zeitgeist for about 48 hours—catching hell from Saturday Night Live and Stephen Colbert in parodies—before being summarily forgotten and heavily suppressed in the public consciousness like the jarring memory of a childhood tragedy. But he’s back now! … to host this year’s ACM special slated to pander to country music demographics to promoteÂ CBS’s Fall lineup …. I mean salute America’s military.
LL Cool J, along with CBS’s NCIS: Los Angeles co-star Chris O’Donnell, are scheduled to host the April 7thÂ “ACM Presents: An All-Star Salute to the Troops” that will be taped the day after the ACM Awards, and be aired on May 20th. Luke Bryan, Tim McGraw, Keith Urban, George Strait, Merle Haggard, Carrie Underwood and Lady Antebellum are all scheduled to perform.
The rapper turned actor has also been the host of the Grammy Awards in previous years, and has done a fine job in his emcee duties. But the question is, was there not a country music personality that would be better suited for this special? With all the talk swirling around the ACM Awards and their desire to showcase as much talent as possible for the labels backing their enterprise, why not show off the comedy stylings of some country star that could use a lift out of the shadows, or at least that would be better suited for the event? Is Bubba in Birmingham really going to become an NCIS: Los Angeles lifer just because he saw LL Cool J introduce Tim McGraw before he performs some schlocky tribute? Do rap shows reach out to country stars to showcase them at their award shows or televised specials? Why does country music always feel the need to apologize for itself by rubbing elbows with stars of other genres to say, “Hey, we can be cool too!” instead of presenting what is cool about country itself?
It’s great that the Academy of Country Music has decided to shy away from shamelessly promoting Lionel Richie albums like they did some years back, and actually pay tribute to something that deserves it. (By the way, what rock has Lionel been hiding under recently? Yeah, that was a two-hour television investment poorly spent.) But is the point to promote country and support the troops, or try to hand out political payoffs to media partners?
I’m not certain that the impact of Johnny Cash getting dropped from the CBS/Columbia record label that had been his home for nearly 30 years has ever been fully appreciated. It truly was the end of an era, or the beginning of one depending on how you want to look at it. It stimulated a young Marty Stuart (an understudy of Cash) to get int the face ofÂ Columbia executive, resulting in him eventually being ejected from the label. It made Merle Haggard tell Rick Blackburn, the man responsible for Cash’s firing, “Youâre the son-of-a-bitch that sat at that desk over there and fired Johnny Cash. Let it go down in history that youâre the dumbest son-of-a-bitch Iâve ever met.” And it also meant that an entire, cohesive album from one of the most well-respected artists in the history of American music went unheard for 30 years after its original recording. This is the type of peril American music is put through at the hands of suits, that such a ridiculous, unintuitive aberration could transpire in the custody of one person’s art, especially the art of Johnny Cash.
Out Among The Stars is a difficult album to critique. Since it was originally crafted to be heard by the public some 30 years ago, with stylings and sensibilities more steeped in the country modes of that time, it’s hard to know how to calibrate your ear to this music. Compounding this problem is the information that some, or all of the tracks have been “fortified” by a team that included Marty Stuart, Buddy Miller and others to be more akin to what a modern ear might expect. Then you pile on top of all of that the fact that some of these songs like “She Used To Love Me A Lot” and “Out Among The Stars” have already wormed themselves into our brains with versions from other artists. It would not be fair to call Cash’s versions “cover” songs because of the way the timeline sits. They are simply Cash’s takes of contemporary tunes that were never heard because of the nature of this project. Nonetheless you can’t help but compare these “new” versions to the ones you’re more familiar with.
While you’re listening to Out Among The Stars, you almost feel like Marty McFly contemplating the strange space-time continuum this project puts you in, asking yourself, “Would the 1984 me like this? And do I like it now?” The mid 80′s was its own strange time in country music as well. Just listen to the introduction to Willie Nelson’s version of “Pancho & Lefty”. Johnny Cash amidst his recovery from drug addiction wasn’t the only one trying to find his compass; the entire genre of country was. The original Out Among The Stars sessions were produced by Billy Sherrill of all people—a producer known as one of the masterminds of the countrypolitan or Nashville Sound. As strange as it was for him to be working with Johnny Cash, at the same time he was working with wildman David Allan Coe, trying to revitalize Coe’s career as well. Billy Sherrill—one of the principles the Outlaws had risen up against—was now one of their brothers in arms. A strange time in country indeed.
Then you take the emotional quotient of simply being able to hear the legendary voice of Johnny Cash again in completely unheard, studio-quality content, and it’s hard to hold onto any and all objectivity. Even ifÂ Out Among The Stars was a verbatim recitation of the Nashville Metropolitan phone book circa 1984, this album is a gift from beyond that any sane country music fan would dare not stare too long in the mouth.
The reason that Out Among The Stars became “lost,” and Johnny Cash got dropped from Columbia is because nobody knew what to do with him, including Johnny himself. In some respects, the song material on this album is somewhat indicative of this searching for direction. It is sort of the take of two Johnnys—one introspective, dark, and even disturbed at times, and the other the more “aw-shucks” Arkansas boy. Musically, whether the fault of Sherill or the super-team assembled to deal with the recordings in the present day, is where Out Among The Stars shows cohesion and confidence. Though some of the songs might be more fit for the 80′s country listener, the music throughout is timeless.
The somewhat cornpone and timecasted song “If I Told You Who It Was” is where the album most shows off it’s 80′s stripes, but Cash’s versions of “Out Among The Stars” and “She Used To Love Me A Lot”, the melancholic “Call Your Mother,” to the downright sadistic “I Drove Her Out Of My Mind” are right in the mode of classic Johnny Cash whose willing to delve deep into the darker side of life. These are balanced by the sweet and simple approach of songs like “Tennessee” that expires in an uplifting chorus signature to Billy Sherrill’s touch, and the sweet duets with June Carter “Don’t You Think It’s Come” and “Baby Ride Easy”. The organ/piano combination, combined with the fairly sappy lyrics of “After All” might make it the album’s most forgettable track, while “Rock & Roll Shoes” and the cover of Hank Snow’s “I’m Movin’ On” with Waylon Jennings check in as the album’s most fun tunes.
Johnny Cash left music, and left the world behind at the top of his game, having been revitalized and resurrected in the public consciousness as the result of his American Recordings era, leaving the crowd wanting more as all great entertainers do. Though Out Among The Stars may not reach the high critical acclaim Cash set for himself in the last era of his career, it is a more than worthy offering allowing the Man in Black to once again live among us in our hearts and imaginations, leaving the listener ruminating on the historic accomplishments of a man whose musical accomplishments will never be equaled.
1 3/4 of 2 guns up.
- – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – -
…that includes Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean, and Thompson Square? Ugh…
Not since the second installment of the Waylon – The Music Inside series was released with the names of Colt Ford and Justin Moore making their way on the track list have we had such a quizzical collection of artists for a tribute album. As cool as it is to see any attention paid to Merle these days from the mainstream establishment, and to see Merle’s much-deserving song Ben Haggard make the cut of contributors, hearing Luke Bryan covering “Pancho & Lefty” (and is that really a Merle song anyway?) or Dustin Lynch taking time from singing about tractor sex to offer his take on “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink” is not what’s going to get your average Merle fan’s motor running.
The Working Man’s Poet: A Tribute to Merle Haggard compilation out April 1st (no fooling) is being put together by Broken Bow Records, and of course, just like many of these tributes recently, it’s mostly a showcase of label talent with a “tribute” as the backdrop. Jason Aldean, Kristy Lee Cook, Dustin Lynch, Joe Nichols, Randy Houser, Parmalee, and Thompson Square all reside on Broken Bow and bow in on the track list, most with two contributions.
And if you were hoping that maybe they would approach this thing with the Merle spirit, just listen to what Luke Bryan has to say about his veryÂ “Mumford & Sons” take on “Pancho & Lefty”: “The original had a Spanish-Mexican flair. We took a real different approach with it …. something with some edge that moves along pretty good. It’s an interesting take.”
Something else interesting: They begged Garth Brooks to allow them to use his cover of “Tonight The Bottle Let Me Down” from his recent blockbuster Blame It All On My Roots box set. But just like the box set, you can only get the song if you buy the tribute from Wal-Mart.
Complicating the love-hate relationship a true Merle fan might have with this compilation, the ACM Awards being held April 6th are planning to bestow Merle Haggard with a Crystal Milestone Award as part of the ACM festivities, with this tribute as the centerpiece. Once again, it’s great to see the ACM’s or anyone in the mainstream acknowledge Merle (even if it’s half a decade after Taylor Swift was given the same Crystal Milestone Award), but you wonder how much of this is just a platform for Broken Bow to display their own talent.
Luckily if you’re looking for Merle Haggard tributes with not as many question marks swirling around them, there’s been a few of great ones released recently. Suzy Bogguss released Lucky last month: a 12-song tribute to The Hag. And Vince Gill with Paul Franklin paid tribute to Merle & Buck Owens last year with Bakersfield.
Track list for Working Man’s Poet: A Tribute to Merle Haggard:
- Misery and Gin, Randy Houser
- Footlights, Joe Nichols
- Going Where the Lonely Go, Jason Aldean
- Today I Started Loving You Again, Kristy Lee Cook
- Carolyn, Toby Keith
- Pancho and Lefty, Luke Bryan and Dierks Bentley
- Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down, Garth Brooks (Walmart edition only)
- You Take Me for Granted, Thompson Square
- Mama Tried, Ben Haggard
- That’s the Way Love Goes, Dustin Lynch
- Make Up and Faded Blue Jeans, Jake Owen
- I’m a Lonesome Fugitive, James Wesley
- Workin’ Man Blues, Parmalee
- Are the Good Times Really Over, Jason Aldean
- Let’s Chase Each Other Around the Room, Thompson Square
- I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink, Dustin Lynch
- The Fightin’ Side of Me, James Wesley
- My Favorite Memory, Joe Nichols
- Ramblin’ Fever, Randy Houser
- Sing Me Back Home, Ben Haggard
We hear it all the time. It pursues us throughout our daily lives. It seems to be one of the eternal lessons of life. Yet no matter how much we all believe in the message and take it into our hearts, it is amazing how easily we stray from taking time, slowing down, and appreciating the important things in life and living in the moment. Because no matter how much you tell yourself how paramount this is, there’s an endless world of priorities and distractions awaiting you on your phone, on your computer, and on your television. You can preach the virtues of slowing down all you want, but the best way to drive the message home is by example, and this is what the wise-minded, and golden-throated guru of classic country music Don Williams does on his new album Reflections.
The message wouldn’t have so much meaning behind it if it wasn’t so obvious Don Williams practices what he preaches. He had his day of moving and shaking in the music business (5 CMA Male Vocalist Trophies & seventeen #1′s to be exact), and when it was obvious that the industry had put him out to pasture, he didn’t shake his fists in anger or reconfigure his image to appeal to the younger generation. He was appreciative of the time he spent in the spotlight, and stepped back to rest on his laurels and re-evaluate his priorities. Even now that he’s re-ignited his career of sorts by releasing two albums in the last three years, it seems like he’s doing it only as a dabbler; to get the devil out of him so to speak, so that music doesn’t pursue him in his mind as he tries to relax and revel in his golden years.
This is the attitude and approach that Reflections is recorded with—slow and easy—like Don told his wife, “I’ll be back for supper,” and then went out for an afternoon to cut an album of songs that he believes in and lives by every day. Then as producers, engineers, and label people labored to get this record ready for release, it was the farthest thing from Don’s mind as he takes a late breakfast and heads out fishing.
Where Reflections outdoes his 2012 album And So It Goes is in the song selection. Don Williams can sing anything and make it gold, and one of his greatest assets is being able to sing a song that performed by any other artist would come across as sappy, and make it somewhat cool and more universally appealing. But there’s a little bit of swagger, a little bit of grit in some the songs of Reflections, not necessarily in the words, but just in the attitude. Selecting a song from Townes Van Zandt in “I’ll Be Here In The Morning”, and from Merle Haggard in “Sing Me Back Home” which refers to Merle’s stint in prison, gives this album some gravel, despite the otherwise smooth and subdued approach of the music. Yet these two famous covers still sit well within the theme of the album of appreciating the small things in life.
Reflections is much more than just the easy listening country it may appear to be on the surface. It’s an album with a message, and leads by example. Instead of whining about the state of country music, it does something about it.
The laid back, gentle-of-mind ease drips from this album like the sweetness of sun-drenched dew. Sometimes it’s simply implied, and other times it’s directly spoken, like in the appreciative and well-written “Working Man’s Son” or the song that ties the entire theme of Reflections together, “Back To The Simple Things.” Enough can’t be said either about the Townes cover “I’ll Be Here In The Morning”. Like when Willie and Merle took “Pancho & Lefty” to another level, Don Williams’ touch on this song immortalized it, and in a different time it would have been a super hit.
Reflections is the album we needed right here, right now. Not just from the perspective of saving country music, but the perspective of saving ourselves from the overwhelming onslaught of ensnaring technologies that rob the preciousness from life.
Two guns up.
- – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – -
When it comes to the preservation of the history and sound of country music, you can make the case there is nobody who does it better and with more passion and dedication than Marty Stuart. Tireless and true to his convictions, from his music, to his archive of memorabilia, to his presence on television and the Grand Ole Opry stage, and to some of the thankless things he does well out of the public eye, Marty Stuart embodies everything behind the idea of Saving Country Music, and is a badass of the genre if there ever was one.
- 10 Badass Willie Nelson Moments
- 10 Badass Waylon Jennings Moments
- 10 Badass Johnny Cash Moments
- 10 Badass Merle Haggard Moments
1. Paying His Dues with Johnny Cash & Lester Flatt
Unlike many of the country music prima donnas who’ve set up shop in country music recently, Marty Stuart comes from the school that believes you have to pay your dues in country music before it’s your turn in the spotlight. Marty Stuart started playing professionally as a sideman in Lester Flatt’s bluegrass band in the early 70′s at the tender age of 14 under the tutelage of legendary mandolin player Roland White. Marty stayed with the band until 1978 when it split up because of Lester’s failing health.
After spending a couple of years working with Vassar Clements and Doc Watson, Marty joined Johnny Cash’s band in 1980, and stayed there for half a decade as both a sideman and a studio musician. Stuart also married Cash’s daughter Cindy in 1983. The two divorced five years later after Marty left Cash’s band to pursue a solo career.
2. Keeping One of the Biggest Archives of Country Music Memorabilia
Marty’s vast collection of country music memorabilia is one of the biggest in country music. It has been featured at the Tennessee State Museum, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and pieces are regularly loaned to the Country Music Hall of Fame for exhibits.
“I went to the first Hard Rock and I saw The Beatles, The Stones, Otis Redding, The Who, all their stuff on the wall. And in my mind I went, ‘Well thatâs just as important if itâs Porter Wagoner, Hank Williams, George Jones, and who on.’ And so when I came back to America, I made it a mission. I mean it became my whole focus at that time. Get a record deal, start a band, make them look cool, and get all of the country music artifacts you possibly can and preserve them, lock them down, because theyâre getting away fast.
“Everything was changing in country music. The look of it, the sound of it, and this stuff was just a throwawayâŚThe ultimate mission is not just to preserve this stuff, protect it, promote it, save it, but to get the music into the hands and hearts of young people that are coming through and [saying), âWell I want to do that, but they tell me I have to be like so and so.â But weâve already got one of those. Be who you are, at any cost.” (read full story)
3. Inviting Cool Artists Onto The Grand Ole Opry
Playing the Grand Ole Opry stage is one of the biggest thrills and highest honors any artist within the country music realm can be bestowed, but it is not an easy one achieve. One way to grace the stage is to be invited up by a standing member to play during their set, and that is how young, up-and-coming stars like Sturgill Simpson, to one of the oldest living country stars still around, the 90-year-old Don Juan Maddox of The Maddox Brothers & Rose both made their first appearances on the hallowed stage of the storied institution. Marty was also the man who officially invited Old Crow Medicine Show recently to become The Opry’s newest members; the first traditional -leaning band to be invited in the last half decade.
4. Hummingbyrd & The Clarence White Guitar
As explained above, Marty Stuart has many pieces of country music memorabilia, but none of them may be as prized as his guitar affectionately called Hummingbyrd. The 1965 Fender Telecaster was originally owned by famous guitarist Clarence White—a studio musician, member of The Kentucky Colonels, and most-famously, the guitarist for The Byrds (hence the “Y” in the name).
Hummingbyrd is no ordinary guitar. It was the original prototype for what is know as a “B-Bender” guitar—a custom job invented by Clarence White and Byrd drummer Gene Parsons, who happened to also be a machinist. The point of the custom job is to be able to mimic the moaning sounds of a steel guitar by bending the B-string up a whole tone through a series of levers activated by pushing on the guitar’s neck, body, or bridge. When Clarence White passed away, his wife sold the legendary guitar to Marty Stuart, who uses it as his primary instrument.
Included on Marty’s 2010 album Ghost Train: The Studio B Sessions is a instrumental called “Hummingbyrd” where Marty Stuart puts on a clinic on how to use this unique instrument. The song went onto win the Grammy for Best Country Instrumental Performance. Hummingbyrd shows both Marty Stuart’s passion for the preservation of country music’s history, and his prowess as a guitar player matched by few in the genre.
5. Standing Up To CBS / Columbia For Dropping Johnny Cash
A running theme in these 10 Badass Moments has been the firing of Johnny Cash from CBS Records in 1985. Merle Haggard mouthed off to CBS Executive Rick Blackburn about the firing, saying, “Youâre the son-of-a-bitch that sat at that desk over there and fired Johnny Cash. Let it go down in history that youâre the dumbest son-of-a-bitch Iâve ever met.â
When Marty Stuart left Johnny Cash’s band, he signed to Columbia (previously CBS), and in 1988 recorded his second album for the label called Let There Be Country. However Columbia refused to release it. Though some have surmised it was because Marty’s first self-titled Columbia album didn’t sell well, in James L. Dickerson’s 2005 book Mojo Triangle, he explains Columbia didn’t release the album because Marty Stuart had a heated exchange with a Columbia record executive about the Johnny Cash firing. Columbia shelved the album in retribution, and Marty eventually left the label without recording another album for them. Marty then signed to MCA where he had his greatest commercial success, and amidst this success, Columbia decided to finally release Let There Be Country in August of 1992.
6. Hosting The Marty Stuart Show
Patterning itself around the classic country music variety shows of the past like The Porter Wagoner Show, Flatt & Scruggs, and Hee Haw, The Marty Stuart Show is one of the last bastions for true, classic country music on television. Carried by RFD-TV, this weekly show features Marty and his Fabulous Superlatives, his wife Connie Smith, and just about the coolest variety of country music artists you can see on TV—artists from the new generation like Justin Townes Earle, Brandy Clark, Sturgill Simpson, Hank3, and The Quebe Sisters, to older artists like Don Maddox, Del McCoury, and Stonewall Jackson, and to artists in between like Jim Lauderdale, and Corb Lund. If they’re good, they appear on The Marty Stuart Show, and after five seasons, it has become its own country music institution, and an important distinction for the artists invited to play the show.
7. Playing with Lester Flatt on the Porter Wagoner Show at 14
Are you kidding me? That’s Marty Stuart folks, playing mandolin and singing!
8. Releasing Badlands: Ballads of the Lakota
Similar to his mentor and hero Johnny Cash who released what was arguably the first country music concept album with his tribute to the American Indian called Bitter Tears in 1964, Marty Stuart released a concept album also in tribute to the American Indian called Badlands: Ballads of the Laokota in 2005. Recorded with his backing band The Fabulous Superlatives, it focused on the struggle of Native Americans, and was entirely written by Stuart except for one song, “Big Foot,” written by Johnny Cash. It was also recorded at the Cash Cabin in Hendersonville, TN, with John Carter Cash as co-producer.
But this album wasn’t just Marty patterning himself after Johnny Cash. Stuart has spent much time in the Dakotas learning about the Lakota Sioux, including studying at the Oglala Lakota College. For Marty, the poor treatment of Native Americans is a very real issue.
9. Marrying Connie Smith
Why would a handsome young Marty Stuart marry a woman 16 years his senior? Well first off, have you seen Connie Smith? Aside from how good time and country music has been to her, she is bona-fide country music royalty and one of the most familiar faces of the Grand Ole Opry. But this isn’t some celebrity sham marriage, the matrimony speaks to Marty’s undying appeal for all things country music and the love between the two country stars is deep. Together, they’re a classic country dynamic duo that is hard to stop (and I have my suspicion at night they dress up as superheroes and do battle with Music Row’s most evil villains).
10. This Quote:
âToday the most outlaw thing you can possibly do in Nashville, Tennessee, is play country music.” –Marty Stuart
Support SCM and start
your Amazon shopping here
- Ben Jones on Rodney Crowell Sounds Off On Pick of Tom Hiddleston to Play Hank Williams
- Ben Jones on Rodney Crowell Sounds Off On Pick of Tom Hiddleston to Play Hank Williams
- Ben Jones on Rodney Crowell Sounds Off On Pick of Tom Hiddleston to Play Hank Williams
- Ben Jones on Rodney Crowell Sounds Off On Pick of Tom Hiddleston to Play Hank Williams
- bll on Rodney Crowell Sounds Off On Pick of Tom Hiddleston to Play Hank Williams