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The greatest album, and the greatest recorded song will never be able to trump the truly live musical experience where music is shared in real time with both the artist and listeners. It is in this spirit that each year I assemble a list of the Best Live Performances to reinforce that as technology and the busying of life incrementally encroach upon us more and more every year, we must remember that the live music show deserves its own attention and reverence. This year for the first time, I’ve included some television performances and a live stream, because the weight these performances carried make them more than worthy to be included here.
Please understand, unlike Saving Country Music’s other yearly awards, since omnipresence isn’t an attribute I posses, this list is simply based on my own experiences, and not meant to capture the overall pulse of the live events that transpired all year. You are encouraged to share your own favorite live musical experiences from 2013 below.
10. Hellbound Glory – The Empire Control Room, Austin, TX
“Hellbound Glory started with a blistering, amplified version of Hank Williams’ “My Buckets Got A Hole In It” that reinvented and revitalized that tune originally learned by Hank Williams from Rufus Payne in the mid-30′s, and made it feel like an iconic 70′s-era Southern rock anthem. Not 30 seconds into the first song, and you could tell that Leroy had played so many shows in front of so many big crowds in 2013, that being on stage was second nature, and a downright showman had emerged from a man who is known as a songwriter first. Not that Leroy was a stiff before, but now he had a swagger about him—a sway and arm motions—engaging the crowd and carrying songs to another level with his ability to be completely uninhibited with the music.” (read full review)
9. Eric Church & Valerie June – The ACM Awards
Say what you will about Eric Church, he delivered the most memorable performance at the ACM Awards back in April, and he did it while showcasing the up-and-coming musical powerhouse Valerie June.
“Church, who is usually known for his baseball cap, aviator sunglasses, and rowdy country gone rock sound, kept it simple this time, accompanied only by his guitar and one harmony singer–a breathtaking female in a red dress, adorned with a crown of dreadlocks. As much as Eric Church’s performance caught the ACM crowd and Eric’s fans by surprise, so did this virtually unknown singer accompanying him.
“Valerie June didn’t announce her performance on the ACM’s. Her name was not mentioned in the credits or by the announcers. But like she always does, she left an indelible, unforgettable impact on the hearts and ears of the ACM attendees and viewers.” (read full review)
8. Andrew Bird & Tift Merritt – Pickathon Festival Woods Stage – Portland, OR
The Pickathon Festival on the outskirts of Portland, OR every August affords some of the best music moments a year can offer, while broadening the perspective of fans from all corners of the roots music world by assembling one of the most diverse and forward-thinking lineups in the festival realm. Many Picktathon moments could be listed here, but seeing the amazing Andrew Bird perform all manner of beyond-human vocal acrobatics accompanied by the accomplished Tift Merrit was truly something to behold.
“Andrew Bird on the Wood’s Stage was phenomenal. Maybe a little fey for some, but he’s a fiddling bluegrass maestro who has one of the best use of dynamics you will find. You also won’t find a better whistler in bluegrass. Joining him on stage for the set was Tift Merritt…” (read full Pickathon Live Blog)
7. Jayke Orvis & The Broken Band – The Scoot Inn
“Jayke finally declared earlier this year that he was taking his last tour with the Gallows, and trained his attention solely on a solid, permanent Broken Band lineup that includes guitarist James Hunnicutt, and former Bob Wayne Outlaw Carnies’ Liz Sloan and Jared McGovern on fiddle and upright bass respectively. With stability and a shared vision of making a band around Jayke’s music, but one where all musicians are treated as equal, Jayke Orvis & The Broken Band have re-captured the fervor and spellbinding performance aspect that made the .357 String Band such a force of music nature. If anything, The Broken Band may be taking it a step further with a deeper attention to composition, pushing all four players to the edge of their abilities, and the edge of human capability itself, balanced by slow and mid-tempo songwriter material.
Jayke Orvis & The Broken Band are the underground roots equivalent of the Punch Brothers, and are one of the top tier performers of the underground sub-genre.” (read full review)
6. LeAnn Rimes Patsy Cline Tribute – The ACA Awards
“And at the end of the medley, when LeAnn went a capella, and the tasteful sepia filter that the ACA’s had placed on the cameras to afford a vintage feel on the first part of the tribute turned back to color, a downright evocation emerged during Patsy’s “Sweet Dreams” that even the embattled and valiant LeAnn Rimes eventually couldn’t even fend off, bursting into tears during the final turn of the chorus.
“No video will ever do the moment justice, because it was a moment you had to share in live. At some point you saw LeAnn smile, like she recognized the spirit of Patsy had entered the room, and then the emotion immediately began to well up in LeAnn, and all who were paying attention.” (read full review)
5. The Mavericks -Gruene Hall – Gruene, TX
“Raul Malo is no doubt the rock and heart of The Mavericks, but the addition of guitar player Eddie Perez, who was Dwight Yoakam’s long-time touring guitar player before joining the band, is really what has allowed The Mavericks to give up nothing, and continue to grow in their nearly 25-year existence. From his masterful guitar work to his superhero-like ability to follow Raul Malo wherever he may go vocally, Eddie Perez is 1A to Raul in the Mavericks, with long-time rhythm guitarist Robert Reynolds and keys player Jerry Dale McFadden affording the buoyant vitality that makes The Mavericks’ sound so infectious, and drummer Paul Deacon holding the whole thing together and giving the The Mavericks their communicable groove.” (read full review)
4. Red 11 SXSW Showcase at the White Horse – Austin, TX
Eligibility on this list would normally only be open to single performances by a single band or artist, but the showcase put on by the booking agency Red 11 on Tuesday night (3-12) of South by Southwest at the White Horse in Austin was such a legendary lineup, it deserves its own distinction, beyond all the excellent artists that played it. Yes folks, the gritty, bluesy one man band Lincoln Durham, the Tejano-flavored The Crooks, The Dirty River Boys, The Turnpike Troubadours, followed by American Aquarium, and capped off by Jason Eady is the lineup that held forth at the intimate setting of The White Horse that night. Oh, and it was all free. I’m not sure there will ever be a moment when such a ridiculous amount of talent will be showcased in the same place, and in such a small space again, unless it happens at SXSW 2013.
3. Lee Bains III & The Glory Fires – XSXSW 6 – Austin, TX
Passing up an opportunity to see Lee Bains III & The Glory Fires live is a borderline criminal offense for any fan of hard rocking roots music. When they lit up the Frontier Bar as part of XSXSW 6, it was by far the most raucous set of music that still had real substance to it experienced in 2013. Later in the year when touring with Austin Lucas through Ft. Worth, Lee Bains got shut down and 86′d by the Live Oak Music Hall & Lounge for playing too loud. That’s how legendary Lee Bains live has become.
“As the room was still filling up with patrons, Lee Bains played like he was feeding of the energy of a packed house. This man sings with as much soul as anyone in rock & roll right now, and this was never evidenced more clearer then when he sang the title track of their latest album There’s A Bomb in Gilliead. For SXSW’s most acrobatic moment of 2013, at one point lead guitarist got on the shoulders of Lee Bains as they both walked out into the crowd with guitars blazing. This set was sick.” (from the SXSW 2013 live blog)
2. Jason Isbell – Live Stream of Austin City Limits Taping – August 19th
I admit, it seems strange to put a streaming event such as this on this list, and so high up no less. But if you witnessed it, you would know why. The technology is becoming such, and artists like Isbell are beginning to receive such recognition, that an online experience can sometimes be just as immersive as being there.
“On Monday night the Twitterverse blew up around the occasion of songwriter Jason Isbell recording an upcoming episode of Austin City Limits. The taping was streamed live online, and drew a remarkable amount of attention and praise from the online participants who took the time to tune in. Usually music confined to the online format is at such a distinct disadvantage, it is barely worth your time, and though Austin City Limits’ production value is world-class, this wasn’t what made the event special. Jason Isbell is quite the capable singer, and since he started out as a guitarist for the Drive By Truckers, it’s hard to denounce his musicianship either. His band The 400 Unit was sensational as well, and so was his wife Amanda Shires who sang and played fiddle for the set. But none of this is why the event became a singular experience for those who tuned in.
“It was Jason Isbell’s songs and his songwriting that made so many online watchers walk away with one of those feelings you get after watching a stellar movie—where your mind gets so immersed in the experience it is hard to return to the real world.” (from 2013: The Year of the Songwriter)
1. The Turnpike Troubadours – SXSW The White Horse – Austin, TX
The Red 11 South by Southwest showcase at The White Horse in Austin, TX was already given proper credit above, but the crown jewel of the night was the performance by Oklahoma’s Turnpike Troubadours, which also was the crown jewel of 2013.
“The Turnpike Troubadours were responsible for one of those once-in-a-lifetime musical experiences. The White Horse that had hovered around 3/4 capacity up to that point in the night swelled to where there was no elbow room, and a strong majority of the people there knew every word to the Troubadours songs and proved it by belting them out at every chance. When the band broke into their most popular tunes like ‘Every Girl,’ ’7&7′ and ‘Good Lord, Lorrie,’ the crowd would erupt. During the choruses, the singing of the crowd could become deafening, drowning out the band itself. Their high-energy, inspired performance was great in itself, but the camaraderie created by the crowd made it one of those moments hard to forget. The Turnpike Troubadours have no business playing a venue this small these days, and that is the type of unique experience SXSW can create. Their set was one for the record books.” (from the SXSW 2013 live blog)
Welcome to Saving Country Music’s 2013 Pickathon LIVE blog! We will out at Pickathon just outside of Portland, OR all weekend, leaving our thoughts, posting pics, and other bits of information from the fest all weekend.
Check The LIVE Blog below for comments, reviews, and pictures!
The 2013 Pickathon lineup includes names many folks are used to seeing around Saving Country Music, names like Dale Watson, Wayne “The Train” Hancock, Sturgill Simpson, Devil Makes Three, Caleb Klauder, JD McPherson, and many more. But the best part about the Pickathon experience is discovery of new bands. Somehow Pickathon always seem to put together the best combination of artists you already know and love, artist you’ve heard of before and want to check out, and artist you have no idea about but once you give a chance, make you a fan.
It’s also a great mixture between country, bluegrass, folk, rock, indie, jazz, Cajun, and everything else. The other unique thing about the Pickathon experience is there are multiple stages that each has its own specific character, and every artist that performs at Pickathon performs at least twice, and some three times. This makes it hard to miss someone you want to see, while the artists you really want to experience, you get a chance to see them in multiple settings. The Mountain View and Fir Meadows Stages are what you would maybe consider your typical big festival stages, except at Pickathon, you feel like you’re walking around in one big piece of art. The Woods Stage as it sounds, is out in the woods. The Galaxy Barn is like the intimate venue space where all the energy is captured between artist and crowd. And the Workshop Barn is where artists and patrons can interact and you can ask artists questions.
***Please note, all times are Pacific Time. We won’t be offering a play by play of the entire fest, but will do our best to offer frequent updates.
Monday 12:35 PM: Thanks to Terry, Zale, the entire Pickathon crew, all of the hundreds of volunteers, all the amazing bands and artists that once again made the Pickathon the most enjoyable festival experience out there. Aside from getting pretty hot on Sunday, this year’s Pickathon had the best weather of any Pickathon I’ve been to over the years.
They continue to find creative ways to deal with people problems. Their use of projection screens for The Galaxy Barn and supplying monitors for artists and workers backstage kept you engaged with the music even when you couldn’t be right in front of the stage. One of the big concerns last year was dust, which you’re going to have at any festival. This year seemed to be an improvement, and this was probably helped by the weather leading up to and during the fest. Still more could maybe be done, but it was certainly better than last year. Their new performance space, the Pickathon Cafe was probably too much of a success to the point where it needs to be bigger. Instead of being a relaxed environment where people could sit, drink coffee and listen to music, it became like a bullpen as folks scrunched in to watch the music.
But aside from these very minor concerns, they continue to astound you in the forward-thinking and intelligent design of their fest, both in the grounds, and in the lineup and scheduling.
Two guns up!
10:15 PM: Welp folks, we have officially left Pickathon for 2013. Later tonight or tomorrow, we will post some final thoughts. Thanks everyone for following along!
8:52 PM: Bradford Lee Folk & the Bluegrass Playboys in the Galaxy Barn putting the “pick” in Pickathon.
8:49 PM: Tift Merritt wins the award for “Best Guitar At Pickathon” 2013. It is Gibson, probably B25. They started out cherry red, but fade to the color seen over time. The color might be my favorite part about it besides the holes.
6:06 PM: The Felice Brothers tearing up on the main stage right now! Lake Street Dive and Caleb Klauder coming up in the Galaxy Barn.
6:00 PM: We’ve been running around like crazy, taking in as much music as we can before we have to leave town. Below is Leo Rondeau who played an inspired set earlier today in the Galaxy Barn. He had the folks dancing!
4:07 PM: Bradford Lee Folk & the Bluegrass Playboys in the Galaxy Barn were real good. They have a a T-shirt that says, “Sex, Drugs, & Flatt and Scruggs.”
3:07 PM: This front man for The Builders and the Butchers reminds me of Austin Lucas. Not just because he looks like him, but because he sings straight from the gut.
2:55 PM: Foxygen canceled, so we’re getting a set by the Builders & The Butchers from Portland!
1:34 PM: Hanging out with Dale Watson’s band watching Leo Rondeau in the Galaxy Barn. That makes 5 Austin bands seen in 24 hours at Pickathon. Gift Merritt coming up on the live stream.
12:12 PM: Stuff to look forward to today: Leo Rondeau in the Galaxy Barn, Tift Merritt and The Felice Brothers out on the main stages, and if we hold out that long, Lake Street Dive and Caleb Klauder back in the Galaxy Barn! Shinyribs playing right now!
11:00 AM: After 10 PM at night, Pickathon shuts down its main stages and opens the Starlight Stage in the main field by the food court. Sometimes this is an intimate performance, but last night Kurt Vile & The Violators destroyed it on the Starlight stage. Cool band.
10:53 AM: Some more followup from last night.
I want to hate Shinyribs. I really do. I saw them at the Lone Star Music Awards a few months back, and didn’t get it. Watching an old man with a rotund gut swinging around trying to be sexy and playing funky rock & roll just isn’t my thing, and his band looks like it is cobbled together from castaways from the Red Dirt scene (they’re good, but seem out-of-place). It’s just a silly concept that on so many levels doesn’t work. Hell they cover TLC’s “Waterfalls.”
But they have a big following that’s getting bigger, and I’ll be damned last night if they didn’t pull me in. Kev Russell just knows how to put on a show and make you enjoy the music for enjoyment’s sake. They had the Galazy Barn rocking. Great show. (Sorry for the cell phone pic.)
10:34 AM: Camera found! Below is Cedric Watson and Bijou Creole from last night in the Galaxy Barn. Pickathon makes sure to represent all the different parts of the roots world, and you can’t do that without some Cajun music. Cedirc plays accordion and Cajun fiddle (cradling it in his arm, not under his chin), and sings in both English and Creole French. The girl playing washboard also sang a little bit. Good band!
One cool feature they added this year was projection screens outside the Galaxy Barn. At night, the Galaxy Barn would get so packed, not everyone could see. Also this is where they normally have a fire pit, so folks can relax outside around the fire, and watch the music going on right inside.
1:30 AM: Funny picture of Wayne Hancock from Hearth Music: http://instagram.com/p/ckTGrKQtD6/
12:35 AM: The Austin music scene is dead? With Shinyribs, that makes four top-notch acts from Austin that played Pickathon today.
Also, the Saving Country Music official camera is officially lost at the moment. Fault of a faulty zipper on the official Saving Country Music backpack. Maybe it will find its way back, but that piece of gear should have probably been put out to pasture a while ago. The worst part was losing the Cedric Watson photos and a few others. Got some other pics save on the phone, so we’re not dead in the water. We may procure a new camera for tomorrow.
11:00 PM: JD McPherson delivered once again. As much as the punk inside of me wants them to let loose even more, what is cool about JD is he goes right up to the line of punk, but never crosses it. Straightforward, no frills rock & roll, all analog, old school, and awesome.
10:20 PM: Great Cajun music going down in the Galaxy Barn with Cedric Watson. Shinyribs from Austin is watching, ready to go on next. Devil Makes Three just finishing up on the Woods Stage. More pictures coming up!
9:35 PM: JD McPherson and band positively murdered it! Wow.
8:35 PM: Really enjoyed d Andrew Bird’s stuff with Tift and the band. His solo stuff come across as a little too self-indulgent for my tastes.
6:50 PM: Shakey Graves from Austin, TX is a really cool music specimen. Like fellow Austin musician Lincoln Durham, sonically he probably belongs in the underground roots scene. He’s a one man band who plays a suitcase for a bass drum, and bules-style fingerpicking guitar. But he’s grown up outside of those Deep Blues, or underground roots scenes, and if his crowds at a music festival outside of Portland are any indication, his name is getting out there quite well. Pickathon booked him in the their two smallest venues–the Workshop Barn, and the Pickathon Cafe, which is supposed to be a small little spot to relax, drink coffee, and listen to music. Both places were as packed as they could be. I don’t think Pickathon appreciated the draw of Shakey.
6:45 PM: Some follow up from the Dale Watson set: He also said, “We love coming to Pickathon. Every year they seem to improve something.” He also played a new song “Jonesing for Jones” (or at least that’s the lyrical hook). It is a tribute to George Jones.
4:37 PM: We got Shakey Graves coming up! And don’t forget Andrew Bird & JD McPherson are going to be coming up on the broadcast starting at 7:20 PM Pacific!
4:30 PM : Dale Watson just put on what might be one of the best sets so far at this year’s Pickathon. I normally don’t think of Dale Watson as a festival guy. His haunt is more the honky tonks. But being used to playing for three straight hours at The Broken Spoke, or some other honky tonk in Texas, Dale can condense his set down to a potent hour of non-stop fun and country music. And the best part might be that he took time to do his silly Lone Star Beer bit, and a couple of other things to keep the crowd laughing. He went in depth about the whole “Old Farts & Jackasses” story, and explained Ameripolitan for folks. Excellent, excellent set in the Galaxy Barn, which if Pickathon had a honky tonk setting, that would be it.
2:44 PM: Pickathon has a new performance space this year called the Pickathon Cafe. It is between the main field and the Woods Stage, right before you enter the woods around a gaggle of food vendors. Amidst the brambles are The Cactus Blossoms, a great neotraditionalist-style country band. They came recommended by “Lunchbox” down in the comments. Excellent stuff!
2:40 PM: For those of you that missed Wayne Hancock on the live stream, here’s a couple of shots of him on the main stage. The second one is for the bass player’s sweetheart Gigi whose been watching the live blog. That’s Jimmy Karow on bass.
2:36 PM: Tift Merritt was excellent. Another example of women leading country music in the right direction. Amazing band too, great listeners. Perfect, tasteful arrangements to her songs. Also loved her old Gibson guitar.
2:25 PM: Look what just arrived a while ago on the Pickathon grounds! Bunch more pictures and info from around the fest coming up!
12:00 PM: Remember all those pictures we saw from a recent Kenny Chesney concert and all the trash? Well Pickathon generates no trash. None. At all. Maybe a granola bar wrapper here and there, and that’s it. They have all reusable dishes. It’s also a great place to bring your kids, with dedicated kids activities all day.
11:00 AM: Things just getting stirring in earnest around the Pickathon site. Today we’ll be checking out Tift Merritt, Shakey Graves, Dale Watson, JD McPherson, and most importantly, some artists we’ve never heard of before. If you’re watching the live stream: You can find a link to the broadcast schedule above, but most notably don’t miss Wayne Hancock at 1:30 PM Pacific, then Andrew Bird at 7:20 PM, and JD McPherson at 8:40! And don’t forget, part of the Pickathon experience is discovery, so try and watch some folks you don’t know as well!
9:15 AM: No sleep ’till Sunday! We’re shaking the cobwebs out and getting ready to take in Day 2 of Pickathon.
First, some more pictures from last night. Andrew Bird on the Wood’s Stage was phenomenal. Maybe a little fey for some, but he’s a fiddling bluegrass maestro who has one of the best use of dynamics you will find. You also won’t find a better whistler in bluegrass. Joining him on stage for the set was Tift Merritt, who will be playing her own set of music today.
Since we arrived late to the show, we could only get far away and very close up, but hopefully it captured the vibe of a bluegrass show in the deep Pacific Northwest woods at night.
Andrew Bird on Wood’s stage. Tift Merritt with her back to the camera.
1:50 AM: JD McPherson tearing it up at the Galaxy Barn! Hope some of you are watching out there.
12:05 AM: Big picture dump!
Wayne “The Train” Hancock in the Galaxy Barn. Two lead guitar players, and a trumpet. One of the best bands I’ve seen him use outside of Austin. The younger guitar player is Zach Sweeny. Wayne shares him with Lucky Tubb. Zach continues to be one of the best, most unheralded guitar players out there.
The Pickathon canopy over the main stage when it is lit at night.
Devil Makes Three delivered a perfect set. They really deserved this headliner position. Over the last few years they’ve really polished up their live show presentation, and have become one of the most enjoyable bands to see. Simple and honest string music, with just enough of a punk attitude and kick.
Members of the Foghorn String Band and Caleb Klauder Country Band administrated a country square dance in the main field after Devil Makes Three left the stage.
11:00 PM: Been a crazy last hour and a half! Will be dumping down a ton of pictures here in a while. Devil Makes Three for those who missed it live, Andrew Bird, and much more. For those late night revelers, JD McPherson will be coming up on the live stream at 1 AM.
9:30 PM: I’ve seen Devil Makes Three go though some phases. They are on it more now than ever. They also gave a cool shout out to Sturgill Simpson from the main stage.
9:05 PM: Wayne Hancock just let out, heading over to see Devil Makes Three! Will post some more pics soon!
7:30 PM: Caleb Klauder just finishing up in the Workshop Barn, and we’re headed over to the Galaxy Barn to save our spot in front of the stage for Wayne Hancock!
7:22 PM: Pictures! Sturgill Simpson chopped his hair. So did the rest of the band. Pics from Pickathon’s Woods Stage.
Lake Street Dive really killed it on the Woods Stage.
6:20 PM: I didn’t think it was humanly possible for Lake Street Dive to be better than they were last year, but they are. They said they’ve had the best year ever last year, and it started with last year’s performance at Pickathon.
6:00 PM: Wayne Hancock coming up at 8PM, and for those watching online, at 8:50 you will be able to see Devil Makes Three.
5:45 PM: Shakey Graves was so packed, couldn’t get in. We’ll have to catch him at his next set tomorrow. Back at the Woods Stage to see the great Lake Street Dive. They were one of the biggest takeaways from Pickathon 2012.
5:00 PM: Watching Sturgill Simpson tear it up on the Woods Stage. No lead guitarist, it’s just a three piece.
3:20 PM: To wet your whistle a little bit, here is a video I took of Sturgill Simpson in Sunday Valley from Pickathon 2011 in the Galaxy Barn: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RAtbG4l6AiE
3:15 PM : Here’s a cool video of how the main Pickathon grounds look from the air: http://youtu.be/BL7yrB7PVjM
If you needed any more proof that The Svengali of Country Music, one Shooter Jennings is all about creating a cult of personality and pursuing his name as product, just sit back and appreciate that in this recessionary economy when many artists are slashing ticket prices and making themselves more accessible, Shooter is now asking his hard working fans for $85 simply for the opportunity to shake his hand right before his show and walk away with a tote bag. Yes, quite a hefty price tag for someone who has recently been touting himself as a proponent for independent, grassroots music.
Announced a few days ago, “VIP meet & greet packages” are being offered at many of Shooter’s upcoming appearances, including at the Muddy Roots Festival this late August. What do you get for your $85? A T-shirt, a tote bag, 5 guitar picks (that grand total will cost Shooter less than $12-$15 wholesale), and this is my favorite one, an “Invitation to pre-show private shopping experience.” That’s right folks, for your hard earned $85, you get the exclusive opportunity to spend even more money on Shooter’s merch. What you don’t get for $85? Actual admittance to the show. That will cost you extra. So will the tacked on fees for buying the VIP ticket. After a transaction and convenience fee, the actual cost for a Shooter photo op is $90.64.
For an artist of Shooter’s size, and even ones many steps above him on the music food chain, this type of arrogant cash grab from fans is absolutely unparalleled. Furthermore, Shooter Jennings specifically asking to be dealt with in this manner of privilege at the Muddy Roots Festival is a complete insult to the standing culture and spirit of that particular festival, and all grassroots festivals for that matter. One of the things that makes grassroots festivals such an enjoyable experience is that nobody is above anyone, there are no VIP perks, and fans and artists interact freely.
Even more curious, the Muddy Roots Festival is one of the few events that Shooter has decided to purposely promote this $85 package for.
In May of 2011, SCM interviewed the Galaz brothers who are the promoters of Muddy Roots. They spoke specifically about the access the festival gives fans to the artists:
Anthony: The fans and bands were together. There was no barricade, no barrier, no VIP sections backstage. And that’s what gave the people who made the pilgrimage to Cookeville from whatever state or country such an experience, because all the bands they listen to, they could just go up and talk to them and hang out with them. There’s was nobody that was “too cool.” There were no pedestals.
Jason: I like that, there were no pedestals. It wasn’t, “Hey, there’s rock stars, let’s look at them, but we can’t talk or touch them.”
In August of 2011, SCM interviewed Zale Schoenborn, the promoter of the Pickathon Festival in Portland that this year is featuring Dale Watson, Wayne Hancock, Sturgill Simpson, Caleb Klauder, and many other country acts in a diverse lineup. Zale spoke specifically on how separating artists from fans and setting up VIP perks erodes the festival experience for everyone.
We designed the (Pickathon) space to where you come in and relate to the space without a lot of barriers. And that includes the artists. We don’t wall them off, we don’t have VIP sections, but we do create some communal spaces, and when the artists come out they’re part of the audience. It’s very common sense type stuff. It’s like what you would do if you were hosting people at your house. When people are planning it from X’s and O’s, those decisions about the human element fall to the numbers side. It’s unfortunate because those little things are what people tend to take away.
At last year’s Muddy Roots fest, the 86-year-old country music icon Ralph Stanley stayed after his set and signed every piece of memorabilia brought before him, and took pictures with anyone that wanted one, with no time limit, and no money changing hands for the autographs or photos. So did many of the other bands that played the festival. At Pickathon, after each performer plays, they go to a designated merch area where fans can get memorabilia signed and take pictures with the artists.
The meet and greet marketing tool is traditionally only reserved for large corporate country music festivals and top headliner names way beyond the sphere of Shooter Jennings who is a mid-level club draw at best. Many artists selling out arenas don’t even ask for this type of cash for meet and greets, if they even give their fans the option at all. Many times the meet and greet is for certain members of a fan club or an artist’s message board who have proved their fandom over the years. Even Taylor Swift has a system that rewards the loyalty of fans instead of wealth. At each concert, Swift has a team of people that fan out across the venue looking for attendees that show the most spirit, and hand select them for a free meet and greet opportunity after the show.
Kid Rock made headlines recently announcing he was charging only $20 for tickets for his summer tour, and was also working with venues and promoters to lower prices on food, beverages, and merchandise. “It’s gotten out of hand, price of concerts, the price of entertainment, period,” Kid Rock says. “I’ve been very fortunate, I’ve always tried to keep prices what I think are fair, and I’ve always said I’m proud that I can walk around with my head held high and look someone in the eye, knowing that I haven’t taken an un-honest dollar from a working man. I make a lot of money, I can take a pay cut. All my friends are taking pay cuts, that are in unions, that are farming in Alabama, whatever it is. I can surely take a pay cut, too.”
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Expect the next thing from Shooter to be an explanation of how this was all the result of a snafu between him and his marketing arm, or that he will offer even more incentives now, drop the price, or donate the proceeds to charity, and make a big point of shaking people’s hands at shows who didn’t pay the exorbitant fee, because like all of Shooter’s gross missteps, they’re always followed by a cavalcade of excuses and explanations that his surrogates, sycophants, and toadies always believe, while his underlying approach to selling himself as product and using the names of others as stepping stones remains the same.
Like I have always said to independent and underground music entities, you don’t need Shooter Jennings, Shooter Jennings needs you. Like a politician, Shooter has been out kissing babies. Taking artists out to Chuck E Cheese and buying bloggers drinks, playing artists on his radio show and shaking hands with fans over the last few years was simply setup to an opportunity to cash out on the backs of well-meaning underground roots artists, fans, and entities. And if this latest evidence doesn’t prove this to Shooter apologists, nothing will.
I once heard the worse thing a man could do is draw a hungry crowd
Tell everyone his name, pride, and confidence, but leaving out his doubt
I’m not sure I bought those words, when I was young I knew most everything
These words have never meant as much to anyone, as they now mean to me
Since Saving Country Music is in tune with the plight of the common man, and know many of Shooter’s fans would love to get their picture with him but can’t pay the exorbitant fee, we are manufacturing a life-sized, transportable photo-op of the picture below, to be provided at Shooter Jennings’ live performances. Poor, hapless Shooter fans and their friends can simply stick their faces through the provided holes, and have the next best thing to getting their picture taken with the Country Music Svengali himself. And it’s all free! (sorry, no tote bags will be given away)
(7-11-13 9:20 PM CDT): Shooter Jennings and/or his management have decided to drop the offer of VIP packages at festivals. As I said above, “Expect the next thing from Shooter to be an explanation of how this was all the result of a snafu between him and his marketing arm,” and on cue, Shooter surrogate Jon Hensley explains, “There was a miscommunication between myself and the company that makes these VIP upgrades possible.” You can read Jon Hensley’s entire statement below.
With no malice or mincing of words, I commend Shooter Jennings and/or his management for seeing that these VIP upgrades at grassroots festivals were unfair, unfeasible, and against the spirit of independent country and roots music. Though I still believe the price Shooter is asking for his VIP upgrade is egregious and unparalleled for an artist his size, and that the whole culture of VIP treatment has no place in independent roots music, the elimination of the option for festivals helps preserve the camaraderie and the independent spirit that makes these festivals so enjoyable for fans, and gives them a unique experience in music where all patrons are treated equal.
Jon Hensley’s statement:
Just to clarify…we are not offering any VIP ticket upgrades at any festival Shooter Jennings is playing this year or any year. There was a miscommunication between myself and the company that makes these VIP upgrades possible. But, they will ONLY be available for club and theater dates. To any son of a bitch that has a problem with us offering these upgrades you should talk to any of the fans that have actually purchased one. Ask them if they felt like their money was well spent. It is totally laughable that some stupid asshole hiding behind a computer thinks he has the right to tell Shooter’s fans how they should or should not spend their own hard earned money. This is a business and at the end of the day we all have to make smart business decisions to survive. Offering an optional concert ticket upgrade to loyal fans is not wrong or unheard of and no matter what anybody thinks about it we will continue to offer the upgrades until the world comes to an end. And, if any “blogger” has a problem with them they can address it face to face. All you have to do is purchase the ticket upgrade and see us at the meet and greet.
I have no problem meeting someone face to face and explaining my grievances with Shooter’s VIP package, but to act like not doing this initially is some sort of move of cowardice is pretty high school. Where is Jon Hensley at the moment? Is he within driving distance? I don;t have a problem meeting him, but maybe the matter is more practical to deal with through the miracle of internet. Also, nobody is hiding behind a screen. Last weekend I was out in public at Willie Nelson’s 4th of July Picnic for 12 straight hours. I’ve been at 4 of the last 5 Pickathon Festivals, the last 2 Muddy Roots Festivals, SXSW a dozen or so times, and live events on a regular basis. If someone wants to come and speak to me in person, I am very accessible, wherever I am. And I don;t say anything on this website that I wouldn’t say to anyone’s “face.”
The 2013 Pickathon Festival in Happy Valley, Oregon just outside of Portland has announced their 2013 lineup, and it is a doozy. The roots festival that specializes in breaking down barriers between styles, tastes, and scenes, as well as being one of the most environmentally-friendly festivals in the entire world, outdoes themselves for their 15th season by releasing their most stellar lineup yet.
“We started as something of a picnic party,” Pickathon founder Zale Schoenborn tells Spin. “That was 1999 and we had maybe 90 people out, just a little nugget of a thing that has grown slowly over the years to become the semi-behemoth that we are now.”
Pickathon transpires August 2-4 on the beautiful Pendarvis Farm. For more info and tickets, visit www.pickathon.com.
2013 Pickathon Lineup:
- Andrew Bird
- Divine Fits
- The Devil Makes Three
- Wayne Hancock
- Kurt Vile & The Violators
- Dale Watson
- Sharon Van Etten
- JD McPherson
- Shabazz Palaces
- Sturgill Simpson
- Sallie Ford & The Sound Outside
- Caleb Klauder Country Band
- Vieux Farka Touré
- Howe Gelb
- The Felice Brothers
- Tift Merritt
- The Lone Bellow
- Marco Benevento
- Ginny Hawker
- Parquet Courts
- Breathe Owl Breathe
- Lake Street Dive
- Dirk Powell
- Lightning Dust
- Cedric Watson & Bijou Creole
- King Tuff
- White Fence
- Foghorn Stringband
- Shakey Graves
- Brad Folk & The Bluegrass Playboys
- I Draw Slow
- Leo Randeau
- Malcolm Holcombe
- Pure Bathing Culture
- Old Light
- The Cactus Blossoms
- Pharis & Jason Romeo
- Pickathon Squaredance with Caller Caroline Oakley
- Diane Ferlatte
- Cat Doorman
- Circus Cascadia
- Trackers Earth
- Caroline Oakley Family Dance Band
Where 2011 felt like a high water mark year for live performances and an average year for recorded projects, 2012 feels vice versa. When I look back on 2011, it seemed like there were moments I experienced that I will never top the rest of my life. 2012 is the year that some albums and songs were released that may never be topped. Still there were a quite a few memorable performances worth noting.
Unlike Saving Country Music’s other yearly awards, since omnipresence isn’t an attribute I posses, this is simply based on my own experiences, not meant to capture the overall pulse of the live events that transpired all year. And please consider that even though I may have attended events like Pickathon, The Muddy Roots Festival, or SXSW, I was unable to catch every performance, or enough of certain performances for it to feel fair to include them here. If you feel there is an omission, please share it with the rest of us below.
15. The Calamity Cubes – XSXSW 5 – Austin, TX
Usually in music you get the raw, primal, gut punching experience, or you get the introspective, heartfelt, cerebral experience. The Calamity Cubes are one of those few live performers who can deliver both. They put on a great set at the Muddy Roots Festival in Tennessee as well, but their XSXSW performance in a more intimate, tight-knit setting rose to being something special.
Kody Oh! doing a bass stand in the center of the crowd:
14. Jayke Orvis – Stage 2 – Muddy Roots Festival
Jayke Orvis is always a crowd favorite, and Jayke and the crowd were pretty miffed when the sound crew pulled the plug on them at 2-something in the morning. But sometimes the worst situations breed the most memorable moments, and that’s what happened when Jayke and his Broken Band hopped into the crowd and kicked it acoustic style, sound guys be damned. Other highlights of the set were JB Beverley singing “Streets” with Jayke from his album It’s All Been Said, and Rachel Brooke singing her duet with Jayke “Hold Me Tight” from the .357 String Band’s magnum opus, Fire & Hail.
13. L.C Ulmer – Stage 2 – Muddy Roots Festival
L.C.’s friend Robert Belfour deserves praise for the craziest performance story of 2012. Crashed out on the highway from the torrential rains of the tropical storm that had made its way to middle Tennessee, Robert hopped into the tow truck and told them forget the car for now and point their nose to the Muddy Roots site, he had a gig to play. He showed up late, but he showed up, with the tow truck driver carrying his amplifier and guitar.
Meanwhile during the delay, L.C. Ulmer laid down one of the baddest-assed extended sets of blues music all weekend, chicken hopping across the stage and playing guitar behind his back. It was one of the most surprising sets of music I saw all year.
12. Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band – Stage 2 – Muddy Roots Festival
The first time I ever saw Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band live I straight up walked out. Too much chicken and fried potatoes for me. Granted, I was mainly there to see Austin Lucas who opened the show, and it was at the armpit of Austin music venues–the now condemned and shuttered Emo’s. But nonetheless after 15 minutes, I was done.
Rev. Peyton did something in 2012 though. He figured out the right formula for his music, both recorded and live. And his set at Muddy Roots was sheer madness from downbeat. It culminated in the crowd throwing handfuls of hay up in the air while Washboard Breezy lit her washboard on fire in a mad scene I will never forget, and neither will drummer Aaron “Cuz” Persinger who has an acute hay allergy and had to rush off the stage after the last song to keep his lungs from collapsing.
Audio sucks in the video below, but you get the drift.
11. Lake Street Dive – Workshop Barn – Pickathon
After seeing them perform at Pickathon’s “Pumphouse”–a small shack isolated in the woods where bands go in and make top notch videos for the site Live & Breathing–I made a vow to catch their set on Sunday at Pickathon’s Workshop Barn. Right up there with Thee Oh Sees, Lake Street Dive from Brooklyn was one of the new take-aways for me from 2012 Pickathon. Though maybe a little more polished and jazzy for traditional Saving Country Music fare, their style and musicianship was enthralling and made me a fast fan. After their last Workshop Barn song, they got the biggest ovation I think I have ever seen for a live performance, possibly ever. I was afraid the floor was going to cave in.
10. Thee Oh Sees – The Galaxy Barn – Pickathon
Yes I know, not really country. At all. Though I would say there’s some serious roots influences at play here. Regardless of what you want to label them, Thee Oh Sees are a force of nature in the live context, and it is about time that they busted out of their San Francisco scene to find a place in the greater music consciousness. They are sonic craftsmen (and craftswoman) who seem to understand intuitively how to tickle all the nerves that make your mind and body submit to music and make you wiggle around like an unruly child. Thee Oh Sees are a must see.
9. Bob Wayne – The Continental Club, Austin, TX & Muddy Roots
Three times in 2012 I was regaled by Bob Wayne and his Outlaw Carnies, but there was something special about the night at The Continental Club. Seeing him in one of Austin’s most legendary venues, and with probably his best Outlaw Carnie lineup yet in Ryan Clackner on guitar, Lucy B. Cochran on fiddle, Elmer on bass, and with a full-time drummer in the lineup for the first time, they laid down an ass whooping of a set. This is where I realized that Bob Wayne had completely separated himself from the crowd of crusty, post-punk screamo bands with banjos to become a professional touring act capable of breaking into the next level. Like his music or not, Bob Wayne has arrived and can put on one hell of a show.
Picture from Muddy Roots:
8. Lucky Tubb w/ Don Maddox – Johnny B’s – Medford, OR
Lucky Tubb is not just another famous name. He’s bursting with authentic, classic talent, and wields one of the best voices in country music by combining cadence and style. Sometimes discipline can keep this from being evidenced in full force, but when he’s on, he’s on. And he was on Halloween night and so was his excellent band, with the added bonus of sharing the stage with the legendary, 90-year-old Don Maddox of the Maddox Brother & Rose. (see videos and full review)
7. Slim Cessna’s Auto Club/Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers/The Goddamn Gallows – Muddy Roots Festival
I can’t say enough about these bands, and at this point I’m afraid to say anything more from fear of coming across as redundant. Every year when I talk about live bands, they topped the list. And they will continue to top the list of bands you must see, except for Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers who at least for the moment are no more, giving you even more reason to make sure you see these bands live any chance you get because you may not get another. Slim Cessna’s Auto Club, Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers, and The Goddamn Gallows are as good as it gets live.
Col JD Wilkes of Th’ Shack Shakers:
6. Joe Buck Yourself – Stage 1 – Muddy Roots Festival
One of those “you had to be there” moments when Joe Buck, surrounded by a sea of his fans chanting every word of his songs, created one of those magical moments of musical camaraderie.
5. Austin Lucas & Glossary – The Mohawk – Austin, TX
This is a touring combination I had wanted to catch for a long time. To hear Glossary is one thing. To hear Austin Lucas is another. And then to hear them together is completely something else. It is two autonomous music acts that you swear were built to compliment each other. There is no better way to experience Austin Lucas than with Glossary behind him, and there’s no better band to hear before Austin Lucas than Glossary. It is because they both build their music from the songs out, but still give such great attention to the live performance, and their styles of roots and rock take the same approach and blend perfectly.
4. Sturgill Simpson – The Rattle Inn- Austin, TX
I’ve been open about my reservations about the retooled Sturgill Simpson following the dissolving of his previous band Sunday Valley. Putting an acoustic guitar in his hands seemed like such a travesty after experiencing Sturgill in the raw with the electric guitar and the country music power trio. But however exciting it was, it was a hollow experience for Sturgill in the long run. Many songwriters covet the idea of being listened to instead of heard, but Sturgill actually has the talent to have one of his best tools taken out of his hands and still command an audience. Now Sturgill is making you listen, betting himself to see if he can hush a room, and winning that bet. (read full review)
3. Anderson Family Bluegrass – Scott Valley Bluegrass Festival, California
“People first, then music” is the mantra on this site, and it is such a blessing when you discover people who are just as inspiring as the music they make. Such is the case with the Anderson Family Bluegrass Band from Grass Valley, CA. Hovering above the fray of most stock family bands and stock bluegrass bands, there is a realness to their music that sets them apart. Yes, their set lists include many standards you would expect from any bluegrass band, but then they’ll completely surprise you with some spice, like Iris Dement’s “Our Town” or Hank Williams III’s “D Ray White.”
I went to the Scott Valley Bluegrass Festival hoping to catch the Anderson Family’s set and shake their hands, and the Anderson Family ended up making me feel like one of the family for the weekend (Trigger Anderson, if you will). The music is excellent, but this is just the excuse to get you to pay attention to the profound warmth and by-gone family strength the Anderson Family conveys. (read full review)
2. Restavrant – Stage 2 – Muddy Roots Festival
There are two types of primary music experiences: visceral and carnal. Uh yeah, this one would be firmly ensconced in the carnal category. A Restavrant set is like a physical, violent assault on your personage that in some weird, masochistic way you addictively crave. I don’t think I still have fully processed exactly what happened on that stage. But rest assured, if I had another chance to see these chaps perform, I’d blow paychecks and cross state lines to put myself in harm’s way and let them run me over like a barreling Mack truck again and again. Restavrant has always been an amazing live experience, but with the addition of drummer/junk smasher Tyler Whiteside, it’s downright out of control.
1. Ralph Stanley – Stage 2 – Muddy Roots Festival
It goes without saying that any time you get to see a true music deity on stage, it will be memorable. Sometimes when this happens, especially with a performer in their 80′s, you have to go in knowing the performance itself may not be the greatest, that they’ve aged beyond their abilities, which will happen to us all. What made Ralph Stanley’s set at the Muddy Roots Festival so memorable is how his band had really thought out how to take a legendary performer who was probably is no longer fit to put on a full set of music himself, and still make you feel like you were taking in a performance from him in his prime.
But true music lovers live for those extremely rare moments when everything comes together, the sky parts and the world hushes, and the very fabric of human experience bends to the will of a truly magical musical moment. That my friends is what unfolded when Ralph Stanley stood in the center of the Muddy Roots stage looking out across a disheveled, soaking wet sea of rednecks and post-punk refugees who all fell as silent as the day after the end of the world when Ralph Stanley recited “O’ Death.” Your goosebumps got goosebumps. And for that brief moment, all of it, all of the reasons we live and struggle, the importance of friends and family and community, and everything we do to ensure music is a part of our lives, the sacrifices, the money, the travel, all came into full reflection.
On Saturday November 17th, two of the most important acts in underground country played what very well could be their final shows. Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers, a band that was there at the very beginning of underground country and the revitalization of the lower Broadway in Nashville announced they are calling it quits after 16 years, at least for now, playing their final show at Nashville’s Mercy Lounge. Meanwhile in Covington, Kentucky, Unknown Hinson, one of underground country’s greatest ambassadors from his work on Cartoon Network’s Squidbillies, played his final show as a touring act after 17 years, saying he was done, “Period.”
Both these acts had their specific reasons for calling it quits, and certainly the door is open for them to return. And for JD Wilkes, the long-time front man of The Shack Shakers, he still has his Dirt Daubers routine which has apparently retooled to a more electric sound. But you add these huge, high-profile, highly-important artists leaving on top of bands like .357 String Band dissolving, Sunday Valley re-aligning, and Leroy Virgil losing all his original players in Hellbound Glory, and all of a sudden underground country feels like it’s fighting a war of attrition, and losing.
I have been struggling to write this article for almost two years, but have been putting it off because there’s some hard things to say, and I didn’t want to “talk down” a movement that was already trying to deal with pretty alarming trends. But I think that especially now, zooming out and trying to be honest and critical in a constructive way is important, because there is positively no doubt that underground country is dying, and has been for years.
Why? Here are some ideas.
An aging fan base and aging artists
There are exceptions of course, but if you look at who comprises the underground country movement, it is predominantly people in their 30′s, and people from lower incomes. And what do people do in their 30′s? They settle down, they get married and have kids, they get better and more stable jobs, they buy houses. This gives them less time to spend partying, hanging out on the internet talking about music, going to shows on weeknights. In your 30′s, instead of being able to hit every underground country show rolling through town, you have to pick that one show a month you want to attend and pay a babysitter.
The same goes for the artists making underground country music. As they age, their motivations to keep working at music that doesn’t seem to want to stick commercially begin to fade. Health concerns begin to become an issue, and not being able to afford health insurance is a real concern. This was one of the primary issues facing the Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers. Yearning for more stability is a recurring theme in the attrition underground country is facing in its talent roster, from banjo player Joe Huber of the .357 String Band, to drummer Chico from Hellbound Glory.
Something else worth noting is the large sect of sober people who make up underground country, in both the artist and fan ranks. Over time, some people must move away from the music and party scenes to find their sobriety, and others may just not identify any more with music that tends to have foundations in a party lifestyle.
Meanwhile the infusion of youth into underground country is anemic. There are some exceptions. The Boomswagglers from Texas and The Slaughter Daughters are promising, young bands, and artists like Lucky Tubb and Wayne Hancock have been integrating side musicians into the scene for some time. But they rarely stick, partly because of a general lack of support. Any younger musician if they’re smart doesn’t attempt to start their rise in underground country, which seems to be trending down and never had much long-term infrastructure to begin with. They look towards Americana, or the Texas/Red Dirt scene, or bluegrass, where the support is much easier to count on.
A Lack of Leadership
Since the beginning of underground country, if you looked at the top of the pyramid you saw Hank Williams III, and that is still the case in regards to records sales and concert tickets sold in any given year. But in 2008, Hank3 took over a year off from the road, and shortly after he started touring again, he stopped carrying opening bands. Then he put out a succession of albums of questionable quality, and all of a sudden a career on the rise has been stagnant for going on 5 years, and same goes for the the scene that revolves around it.
It was not Saving Country Music or Free Hank III, or even MySpace that comprised the first information portal about underground country. It was Hank3′s “Cussin’ Board” forum. And people didn’t go there just for Hank3 news, but news about all the underground country bands, with artists like JB Beverley and Rachel Brooke participating in the discussions regularly. These days, the “Cussin’ Board” feels like a ghost town compared to its vibrant past.
Shooter Jennings has stepped up in the last two years to attempt to fill the leadership vacuum left by Hank3, and has done some positive things and had some marginal success. But his polarization has kept him from completing the task of becoming a solid leader everyone can look up to. Similarly, where Hank3 was once the most unifying factor in underground country, his obvious step back from the “scene” has now made him a polarizing figure as well, questionably capable of taking back the reigns of underground country even if he was motivated to, and which he’s shown positively no signs of wanting to do. I can’t blame Hank3 for wanting to take a step back, because there were so many people wanting to take from him, believing his name was their stepping stone to success.
Leadership must come from the artists, and it must come from the music first, and that is Shooter Jennings’ inherent problem. This was illustrated when he cut the “Drinking Side of Country” duet with Bucky Covington, or on his industrial rock album Black Ribbons. Whether you like these Shooter projects or not, they illustrate his lack of consistency that has lead to his ineptness as a leader of underground country, and his acute polarization that reaches as far as Eric Church fans, and fans of his father. Hank3 never professed himself a leader. He led by example, and used causes like Reinstate Hank to lead the charge of taking country music back.
The Scene Has Replaced The Movement
One of the reasons an underground of country music was founded was from a wide ranging dissent about the direction of country music. This dissent is where the varying range of musical styles united, taking the country punk of Hank3, the neo-traditional approach of Wayne Hancock, the Texas/Outlaw country of Dale Watson, the bluegrass of the .357 String Band, the blues of Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers, and the Gothic country of Those Poor Bastards and piling them all together in the overall underground country movement. It was united by issues, like the reinstatement of Hank Williams to the Grand Ole Opry, the opening and extension of the Williams Family Exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame, the fight for creative freedom of artists from record labels, and the fight against the infiltration of pop on country radio.
Now these issues that defined, united, and energized the country music underground are seen as tired, if not counter-productive or annoying to many in the underground population. When issues arose with the sale of the Grand Ole Opry to Marriott International, or the changing of Billboard’s chart rules, the underground met them with apathy, if not anger at them being offered up as relevant to their music world. Issues are what made outreach possible for underground country, and now exclusivity seems to be what is yearned for by the majority of underground country fans. The “we have our music, screw the masses” attitude is what prevails, taking away one of the primary promotional tools for independent-minded underground ideals to reach out to other country music fans who also might be feeling disenfranchised with the mainstream.
Scenes and Cliques
Image and exclusivity seem to be the important dynamics in today’s country music underground, dragging on the commercial viability of the music, and making it hard for outsiders to integrate with the underground country culture. Though some on the outside looking in may enjoy the music, they may not understand the verbiage, anecdotes, and style that seem to be important with “fitting in” to the underground. So as long-time underground country fans taper off because of age, no new blood is there to take their place.
Facebook has also narrowed the perspectives of underground country fans, making them feel like how you present yourself is more important than what you do. An unhealthy culture of cloistered, inbred cross-promotion prevails through underground country, where small cliques of fans and bands have formed around labels, blogs, and podcasts, catering content to a select few.
These cliques promote each other within the clique, and at times may branch out farther to the “scene,” but rarely reach new blood because they are based on narrow perspectives and anecdotal experiences. It’s an “I’ll scratch your back, you scratch mine” culture where quality and creativity are lightly regarded compared to political importance in the scene. And if you don’t participate in this culture of narrow, ineffective promotion of the other people in the scene or clique, you risk being ostracized. Intention is measured over effectiveness. These cliques and their differences have also given rise to eternal conflict, with the bigger overall “Shooter fans vs. Hank3 fans” splitting underground country squarely in half.
Saving Country Music, and I specifically have at times enhanced or enabled unnecessary “scene” drama, and this has potentially affected the fate of underground country adversely.
There are lot’s of entities in underground country and roots who attempt to promote music that seem to get lost in promoting their branding and merch first, and the music second. There are many general reasons underground country is dying, but the specific one is lack of money. Underground country is funded by the $40 hoodie, and this creates a paradox for the music that is supposed to be the focus.
Though there is lots of talk about shared responsibility for keeping underground music alive, and there’s many folks who re-post bulletins on Facebook, take pictures and videos of shows, run podcasts, or boutique “labels” attempting to make a difference in the music, the effect is confined to cliques and micro-scenes, and is more catered to serving the few and propagating image and branding.
For example the Pickathon Festival in Portland that caters to a wide variety of independent roots movements, including underground country, boasts over 300 volunteers annually. The Muddy Roots Festival, which almost exclusively caters to underground country and roots had roughly a dozen volunteers this last year, with multiple people who signed up to volunteer to get discounted or free tickets either not working their shifts, walking off their shifts, or generally being unhelpful. Pickathon’s issues with people sneaking onto the site are marginal. Muddy Roots’ issues of people sneaking on site without paying are major. The most helpful volunteers at the 2012 Muddy Roots were a representative from a hair gel sponsor, and the Voodoo Kings Car Club who have very few ties to the music.
There seems to be little understanding that if bands, labels, and festivals are going to continue to exist, there must be a shared sacrifice from the fans. And not just symbolic sacrifice, but substantive efforts to offer real support to the entities making the music happen. Without any corporate funding, that’s how an underground music movement works.
A Lack of Creativity
Underground country was founded on creativity. The creativity found on albums such as Hank3′s Straight to Hell, Wayne Hancock’s Thunderstorms & Neon Signs, Dale Watson’s Live in London, and Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers’ Cockadoodledon’t is what caused a country music underground to form in the first place. In the mid 2000′s, you could confidently say that the creativity in underground country outlasted that of the mainstream per capita. These days underground country is mired in trying to recapture that creativity, in a practice that lends to the aping of styles and the rehashing of themes. Capturing a “punk gone country,” “honky tonk Outlaw”, or “old-time” aesthetic seems more important than carving out a new creative niche like the originators of underground country did.
Meanwhile any true creativity existing in underground country quickly evolves beyond it to greener pastures in Texas country or Americana, like Justin Townes Earle did. The lack of infrastructure, the presence of scenesters, and the general disorganization of the underground dissuades talented artist from associating themselves with it. Americana, Red Dirt, Texas, and West Coast circuits offer much more hospitable and palatable scenes, while underground country generally discourages cross-pollination with these kindred, independent-minded movements, misunderstanding them as either mainstream, or too high-minded for the music they like.
A step removed from the influence of the scene, Europe continues to thrive and grow their support for underground country. There seems to be more general thankfulness that underground country music exists in Europe, and a stronger focus on the music itself instead of the scene that surrounds it. There’s more support, more of a volunteering attitude, and more of a willingness to help make the music happen by the fans. Europe continues to be the most commercially-viable place for many underground country bands to tour and sell albums, and that support is continuing to grow.
A Few Breakout Bands
Bands like Larry & His Flask, Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band, and The Goddamn Gallows have found some decent success over the past few years playing on some bigger tours like The Warped Tour and opening for The Reverend Horton Heat. Bob Wayne has found traction in Europe and domestically being singed with label Century Media. Justin Townes Earle is now a big concert draw, and Scott Biram is getting his music played on television shows.
But many of these artists are moving on from the traditional underground country infrastructure to find their success, and others like Leroy Virgil and Sturgill Simpson still seem to be one step behind where their creative potential should be taking them commercially.
Festival & Touring Infrastructure
This is something underground country was lacking for years, and now has a healthy dose of. Unfortunately rising gas prices and dwindling crowds sometimes means it’s too little too late for some bands. The reason Unknown Hinson says he quit touring was because it was costing him too much money.
There are more festivals in all shapes and sizes catering to underground country and roots than ever before. But again, with a dwindling fan base, these different festivals are competing with each other for the same anemic and contracting population.
The Deep Blues
The Deep Blues seems to be on a more sustainable path, and also seems to be able to divest itself from the drama that is confounding underground country. However since it shares much of the same infrastructure as underground country, the issues in underground country can bleed over to the deep blues as well. There is better sustainability in Deep Blues, but the growth is still marginal. In many ways, the Deep Blues is the only thing keeping underground country alive, and that could hinder Deep Blues from moving forward as it drags underground country along.
What Can Be Done To Save Underground Country
To save underground country there must be a renewed interest in finding and developing younger bands, attracting younger fans, and focusing on talent and creativity over forming exclusive scenes. “Young” should not be mistaken for the same connotations it carries in mainstream country. Talent and creativity should still remain key, as well as trying to reach the folks that “get it.” But if underground country wants to continue to remain a viable part of the overall country music landscape, it must recruit new bands and new listeners to replace the natural contraction within its population.
Underground country must quit being so reactionary about the outside world. It must diversify. It must find common ground, common struggle, and common tastes with Americana, Red Dirt, and Texas music, and promote its best and brightest talent to those worlds and then reciprocate. It must stick to its founding principles of preserving the roots of the music and fighting for creative control for artists, and seize on the opportunities current events create to promote those principles to the rest of the music world, promoting the music of underground country by proxy.
It needs leadership, big bands, breakout albums and songs that breathe new fervor into the movement. It needs and end to the “I got mine” mentality.
And it needs it now, before it ends up like Communism: a great idea whose devil is in the application.
I’ve been wanting to talk about The Deep Dark Woods for a long time, but the situation was never quite right. I first discovered this “alternative” country band from Saskatoon, Canada at the Pickathon Festival years ago. Their most recent albums Winter Hours and The Place I left Behind weren’t bad by any stretch, they just were not the right projects to bring to you, the sainted Saving Country Music reader as first impressions. I was afraid they offered too much of a shoegazing vibe than the more well-rounded, dark, and rootsy feel of The Deep Dark Woods’ music overall.
Sometimes you have to go back to move forward, and that’s what landed me listening to their 2007 offering Hang Me, Oh Hang Me. It included many of the compositions that stuck with me from the live performance I experienced back in 2009.
The best way to describe The Deep Dark Woods would be as an artistic band that works deeply with moods and compositional textures, but with Hang Me, Oh Hang Me, there’s a lot of meat and potatoes too. They’re like a perfect recipe that includes all of your favorite ingredients, though you can’t taste any of them individually in the end result because they’re blended and mixed so well. Gothic, poetic Americana, Gospel, bluegrass, and strait-laced country elements like steel guitar, they are all interlaced harmoniously with a broody pall cast over everything for a cohesive sound and an immersing experience.
Title track “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” is a variation of an old Dave Van Ronk tune and a good indication of what The Deep Dark Woods do. They start off with a good set of lyrics and then listen hard to what those lyrics beg for as far as musical interpretation. The creepy “Redwood Forest” and it’s hauntingly viscid line, “There’s something out there, lurking around in the midnight air,” clings to you like a habit. “They Won’t Last Long” is a strong-willed expression of opposition to the defacing of the art of music. It replaces the anger of many anti-Music Row anthems with cool-minded, big-picture wisdom, and adds some excellent steel guitar on top for good measure.
And just when you’ve settled on on the idea that The Deep Dark Woods are all atmospheric and heady, here comes the fun little country rocker “Shores of Alabama” with some of the sweetest and most refreshingly-straightforward guitar solos you will find. Later they show off their gospel chops and the great, distinctive vocals from lead singer and guitarist Ryan Boldt in “Glory, Hallelujah”, bolstered by tasteful and tight harmonies from the rest of the boys. This album is full of musical gems and sonic surprises.
They’re Canadian interpretation of country may be a little dry and moody for some, but The Deep Dark Woods offer intelligent, artistic expression that isn’t void of an edge. They’re a band that disparate roots tastes and Gothic interpretations can come together and agree upon. Certainly don’t stop in discovering their music with Hang Me, Oh Hang Me, but this is certainly a good place to start.
Two guns up.
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The Deep Dark Woods were nominated for “New / Emerging Artist of the Year” at the 2012 Americana Music Awards. They also just won “Contemporary Album of the Year” at the Canadian Folk Music Awards.
There are a lot of things I could praise Pickathon for, like the fact they can throw a festival for over 3,000 folks and generate virtually no trash, that they can broadcast all of their stages online in super-high quality, and for free, and implement all manner of other forward-thinking ideas into the music festival format while thinking out all the little dilemmas and ensnaring tentacles that may arise when trying new things.
But the thing I am most thankful for when it comes to Pickathon is that in this age of music and cultural mypoia, where technology and media that intuitively should give us access and awareness to so much more seem to instead be fueling the narrowing of the music reality tunnel, Pickathon works to erode music myopia by filtering off the cream of many different scenes and styles of music and offering them all for your listening enjoyment in one place, and at the same time offering that music in multiple formats and settings to be enjoyed.
Almost like a Choose Your Own Adventure novel, with so many different stages and performers playing multiple times over the weekend, everyone’s Pickathon experience is going to be unique, and it is going to be filled by both enjoying the familiar, and discovering the unknown.
My Pickathon 2012 experience started with the familiar in the form of Whitey Morgan & The 78′s. Whitey played Pickathon in 2011 as well, but only had one remaining member from last year’s lineup; pedal steel player Brett Robinson. New bass player Joey Spina and harp/harmony vocalist Danny Coburn looked like they belong in Whitey’s band more than Whitey, with their long hair, huge build and beards, and black vests, while Whitey appeared to have lost half a hundred pounds since last August. With new drummer Tony DiCello, you may consider this the “hot” version of The 78′s with generally faster-paced songs.
This 78′s lineup may be new, but they were tight. Danny Coburn has been singing harmonies with Whitey since they were 15, and you got these sense you weren’t just watching a tight band, but a tight group of friends. Numerous times during both of Whitey’s Friday sets he capped off barely-veiled shots at old lineups and old players. “My band’s totally different from last year, and twice as better. It’s the best band I’ve ever had, dot dot dot!”
They featured a new cover of Thin Lizzy’s “Cowboy Song”, and a new version of their old song, “I Ain’t Drunk”:
Between Whitey’s sets on the main stage and the Galaxy Barn, I caught Cajun Country Revival consisting of Caleb Klauder, members of the Foghorn Stringband, and real deal Cajun musicians Jesse Lege and Joel Savoy. They stimulated the biggest crowd of dancers in the Galaxy Barn all weekend.
Integrating Cajun and country, French and English, weaving in and out of the different styles sometimes in the same song awakens that deep-rooted roots appeal embedded in all of our souls and sets the body in motion. Whether it was when Joel Savoy and Foghorn’s Stephen Lind got sawing together on the fiddles, or when elder Cajun music legend Jesse Lege took the lead on accordion or belted out a chorus in authentic Cajun French, or Caleb Klauder then parroted the line in English in his sublime country voice, the Cajun Country Revival created shivers.
And no matter where you put Caleb Klauder, the quality of the music project rises, and its sometimes hard to not focus on him alone. With his own band, with Foghorn, or sitting in with someone like Justin Townes Earle like happened at Pickathon three years ago, Caleb Klauder is quality, and a very familiar face around the Pickathon grounds. After the Cajun Country Revival set, I felt the need to take to Twitter and unilaterally declare him the “Mayor of Pickathon.”
Here they are performing Buck Owens’ “I Don’t Care (Just As Long As You Love Me)”:
At the end of the year whenever I look back on all the live performances I’ve seen, Pickathon usually facilitates one of the top musical experiences, and that was the case when Thee Oh Sees took the Galaxy Barn stage late Friday night. It is physically impossible to put out more energy then they did in their wild set of psychedelic surf guitar rock. Hard, driving, and fast, but still ethereal and dreamy, it was one of those fully-encompassing music experiences where you’re completely taken in by the music and nothing else matters. They mix the mod/retro feel of the B-52′s, the style of Dick Dale, the energy of West Coast punk, and the boy/girl high harmonies indicative of fellow San Francisco-based Jefferson Airplane. No words would do them justice so just watch the video below (and here’s another from Pitchfork). If you like music, you need Thee Oh Sees in your life.
Saturday started by checking out Andy Bean and the Two Man Gentlemen Band, drenched in their period garb and offering the neo-traditional fare for the weekend. Call them a bit if you want, but they had the crowd up on their feet with their up-tempo, catchy tunes bolstered by humorous lyrics and tight harmonies. Then after a second round of Thee Oh Sees on the main stage, it was time for clawhammer banjo player Abagail Washburn accompanied by Kai Welch. Progressing way beyond her primitive instrument, Abigail offered a diverse set that went from gospel, to ambient keyboard loops and ethereal vocals accompanied by Kai’s trumpet, to traditional Chinese music complete with appropriate hand gestures. And then she finished up with what else, but dancing a jig while leading the crowd in a gospel sing-along.
This year’s Pickathon had a very distinct Cajun/New Orleans flavor, from the previously-mentioned Cajun Country Revival, to the big and boisterous Hot 8 Brass Band–a New Orleans street marching street act–to the Lost Bayou Ramblers, which featured Gordon Gano from The Violent Femmes on fiddle, both of which delivered blazing sets on Saturday night to big crowds.
Other Saturday highlights were Reverend KM Williams keeping the blues alive at Pickathon, and Ohio’s Southeast Engine who offered a breather from all the bits and showed that straightforward rock songs and substantive songwriting will always have their place and appeal in music.
Last year when Pickathon released their lineup and Langhorn Slim was not on it, fans raised such a clamor, there was no keeping him off this year. It certainly wasn’t from lack of talent that Langhorn Slim was left off, only that he has performed the fest so many times in recent memory. If Caleb
Klauder is the Mayor of Pickathon, Langhorn Slim is the King. His use of dynamics is the most enchanting thing this side of Phish, and the energy is virtually unmatched. But what you can’t overlook is Langhorn’s lyricism, and for how entertaining his fast, dynamic numbers were, his slow songs may be the most memorable.
Saturday night was also when pseudo-headliner Neko Case (Pickathon is famous for not having traditional headliners) had her first set on the Woods Stage, which as the name implies, is set way back in the woods in a primitive setting. I’ll say first that this was not Neko’s primary slot. She would play Sunday night as well on the main stage and from all accounts (I had to leave before her set), it was excellent. But this first one Saturday night was the most off and uninspired set of music I witnessed all weekend, or at any Pickathon, and coming from someone dubbed as one of the biggest name at the fest, this was disappointing.
Her set was supposed to begin at 9 PM, and didn’t start until after 10. I’m not sure if this was completely her fault. I know the stage had been running about 45 minutes late earlier in the day, but the crowd had been standing there for more than an hour in the darkness, with no other music that bled over into her slot. The lone beer stand back in the Woods ran out of booze. Dust had been a big issue over the weekend, especially at the Woods Stage, and people sat or stood breathing it in to in the end watch a mild set of music.
When Neko finally came out on stage sporting an Iron Maiden t-shirt and stroking the hair back out of her face every few minutes, she looked bothered and unfocused. She flubbed numerous songs, having to start one over, and messing up another one by forgetting her guitar player was not there, which also aided to the hollow and uninspired sound. A big chunk of the set was filled with only partially-humorous, and many times confusing and incongruent stage banter about leaking nipples and Hobart mixers. When Neko was singing and focused, the music was excellent, but after 3/4′s of the set and a nose full of black buggers, I raised a white flag and headed for the Dr. Dog show on the main stage.
Dr. Dog never does not deliver. You can ask the question why they and other bands like The War on Drugs are performing at a festival that is basically roots-based (and they ask that very question themselves from the Pickathon stage two years ago, the first time they played the fest) but the magic and appeal of their music is undeniable.
After seeing Lake Street Dive perform at Pickathon’s “Pumphouse”, a small shack isolated in the woods where bands go in and make top notch videos for the site Live & Breathing, I made a vow to catch their set on Sunday at Pickathon’s Workshop Barn, where bands not only perform, but get a chance to tell stories about their songs, and sometimes engage in question and answer sessions with the crowd. Right up there with Thee Oh Sees, Lake Street Dive from Brooklyn was one of the new take-aways for me from 2012 Pickathon. Though maybe a little more polished and jazzy for traditional Saving Country Music fare, their style and musicianship was enthralling and made me a fast fan. After their last Workshop Barn song, they got the biggest ovation I think I have ever seen for a live performance, possibly ever. I was afraid the floor was going to cave in.
Shovels & Rope was also a top priority for Sunday, and Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent delivered. On a weekend that showcased some of the greatest pickers and players out there today, Shovels & Rope showed that passion and heart are still the most important parts in connecting with music. They’re like the underdogs you love to root for, though they may not be underdogs for long. Pickathon has a way of finding talent and showcasing it right before its meteoric (and sometimes too expensive to book in the future) rise, and Shovels & Rope might have been that band this year.
Unfortunately, even with Pickathon offering two performances from artists, there were still folks I wanted to see and missed, like Doug Paisley and Blitzen Trapper, and Todd Snider who played both sets before I arrived on Friday. But still the amount of music I saw was enough to satiate the music brain for months, and the new bands I discovered gave me plenty of homework.
Once again Pickathon put on an excellent festival that I can comfortably call the most well-operated, most forward-thinking, and most hospitable festivals you can find, music or otherwise. This year dust was an issue for some folks, but that is a solvable problem, and though Pickathon seems to be teetering right at the edge of overcapacity, some smart thinking in the routing of people, and making small changes like an overflow area for the Workshop Barn and moving the beer stand away from the Galaxy Barn to relieve congestion helped stave off those concerns for now.
A big hand goes out to Terry, Zale, all the Pickathon performers, organizers, workers, and volunteers for another excellent an inspiring music experience!
Two guns up!
From the outside looking in, one may look at the lineup of The Muddy Roots Festival for example, and wonder how a throwback legend from Texas like Wayne “The Train” Hancock, a hillbilly punk freak from Tennessee like Joe Buck, a golden-throated singer from Michigan like Rachel Brooke, a crazy hellbilly songwriter from the Pacific Northwest like Bob Wayne, and a blues legend from Mississippi like T-Model Ford could all be booked right beside each other and it work seamlessly.
This illustrates the dramatic sonic and geographical diversity that goes into creating what we know now as the underground country roots, or “Muddy Roots” world. Below is a list of the disparate origins of Muddy Roots music that came together from a mutual understanding and appreciation of the roots of American music, and the epicenters where this music originated from and/or is thriving today.
The revitalization of Lower Broadway in Nashville.
In the early 90′s, lower Broadway street in downtown Nashville comprised the last bastion of old buildings that symbolized what Music City used to be. Overrun with dirty bookstores and titty bars, and The Grand Ole Opry’s original home The Ryman shuttered, young cowpunk and neo-traditionalist musicians like BR549, Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers, Hillbilly Casino, Greg Garing, and Joe Buck and Layla, commandeered lower Broadway and revitalized the strip into the tourist destination it is today. Emmylou Harris‘s legendary concert with the “Nash Ramblers” in 1994 also breathed new life into The Ryman, and later Hank Williams III would cut his teeth in lower Broadway venues like Layla’s Bluegrass Inn.
The fierce appreciation for country’s roots combined with an independent, punk mentality is what revitalized the most historic portion of downtown Nashville, and created the foundation for the blending of country, blues, and punk that Muddy Roots music would spring from.
Not just Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, but Bobby Bare, Kris Kristofferson, and especially Tompall Glaser’s “Hillbilly Central” renegade studio in Nashville is the origin of the Outlaw spirit behind underground country roots, the “Do It Yourself” attitude to not allow labels to arrest creative control from the artists and to always respect the elders and traditions of the country genre while also allowing the music to innovate.
Underground country and Muddy Roots is very much a construct of the “post punk” music landscape. As punk music and scenes began to become stale or gentrify, punk artists and fans looking for the raw approach to music, and many times raised on traditional country and bluegrass, began to turn back to their own roots and put down their Flying V guitars for fiddles and banjos. This is where some of the fast, aggressive approach to roots music comes from, on both the country and the blues side, as well as the DIY spirit, and the grassroots approach to scene building and album production.
After Hank Williams III’s stint with the punk metal band Superjoint Ritual is when many punk and metal heads found themselves listening to country music again. In 2006, when Hank3 recorded his album Straight to Hell at home on a consumer-grade machine and put out an album with a Parental Advisory sticker on the front through one of Nashville’s major labels, many barriers were broke down and parameters set for how Muddy Roots music would evolve.
North Mississippi Hill Country Blues & Deep Blues
One of the reasons both country and blues music can work right beside each other in Muddy Roots is because in many cases they are both being infused with punk, just like artists Scott Biram and The Black Diamond Heavies do. Many times the infusion is with a very specific type of blues from the North Mississippi Hill Country, brought to the attention of the rest of the world by Fat Possum Records in the early 90′s, just about the same time lower Broadway in Nashville was being revitalized by young country punks.
One of the first events that put these like-minded blues and punk blues musicians all in one place, and included a few country-based artists as well was the Deep Blues Festival put on by Chris Johnson in Minnesota starting in the mid 2000′s. Deep Blues fest was where the relationship between blues, punk, and a deep appreciation for the roots of blues by young white musicians was codified.
In a similar way to infusing both country and blues music with a punk edge and mentality, rockabilly artists in the early 90′s like The Reverend Horton Heat pioneered “pyschobilly”, a punk version of rockabilly. Just like their blues and country counterparts, they were neo-traditionalists, staunchly educated in and preservers of the roots of the music.
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Part and parcel with the sonic diversity of underground country roots is the geographic diversity. Unlike many other past music movements that sprang up in specific geographical areas (or maybe in a few general areas, like East Coast vs. West Coast), Muddy Roots has epicenters all across the country as illustrated in the map below.
1. Tennessee (Nashville)
As explained above, Nashville has played the most vital role in the formation of underground country roots, from the Outlaw country music movement in the mid-70′s, to the revitalization of lower Broadway beginning in the mid-90′s, and today with the Muddy Roots Festival just an hour east in Cookeville, Nashville and Tennessee remain the major Muddy Roots epicenter, including the up-and-coming east Nashville, home to many venues supporting underground musicians, and the home of Hank Williams III, arguably the most important musician to the formation of a country music underground.
2. Austin, TX
As the”Live Music Capitol of the World” and a huge music town, Austin follows only Nashville in it’s importance to Muddy Roots music. Home to Wayne “The Train” Hancock, Scott Biram, Dale Watson, and many other underground roots musicians, as well as one of the epicenters of the original country music Outlaw movement and a lot of independent music infrastructure, Austin is a vital epicenter in underground roots.
3. The North Mississippi Hill Country
It’s not just any old blues that builds the nexus between blues and country into that unique underground roots concoction, it is a specific type of blues from the north Mississippi Hill Country. Fat Possum championed the sound of artists like RL Burnside, Junior Kimbrough, T Model Ford, and many others beginning in the early and mid 90′s. That sound has since been picked up and combined with punk by artists like Scott Biram, The Ten Foot Polecats, Restavrant, and The Black Keys to form what is more commonly referred to today as “Deep Blues”.
4. Michigan – (Detroit, Flint)
On the surface maybe one of the most unlikely epicenters for country and roots music is also possibly one of the most vibrant. The home base for artists like Whitey Morgan & The 78′s, Rachel Brooke, The Goddamn Gallows (Lansing), as well as a vibrant local scene with bands like Some Velvet Evening, Michigan has grown just about as many underground roots acts as anywhere else. To grow good roots bands you need support, and events like the legendary “Honky Tonk Tuesdays” at Club Bart in Ferndale created the community and collaboration that have allowed Michigan roots music to thrive.
5. The Upper Midwest (Minnesota, Wisconsin)
The Upper Midwest is the proving ground for many early and influential Muddy Roots bands, including the Gothic country stalwarts Those Poor Bastards from Madison, WI, the premier punk/bluegrass .357 String Band from Milwaukee, and Trampled by Turtles from Duluth, MN. When you throw in Michigan as an Upper Midwest state as well, the region becomes one of the strongest in the country for roots music.
Minnesota was also the scene of the crime for the original Deep Blues Festivals, and is the home of Chris Johnson, the founder of Deep Blues, and the owner of Bayport BBQ, a blues-based venue near St. Paul. Along with Weber’s Deck in French Lake, MN, they make Minnesota an Upper Midwest roots haven.
6. Arizona (Phoenix)
It only seems appropriate that one of the places where Waylon Jennings began his legacy from would years later become an underground country epicenter. The original home of Hillgrass Bluebilly Records, and a must-stop for touring bands going to or coming from The West Coast, Phoenix feels like home for many, and is home to artists like Ray Lawrence Jr. , Junction 10, and “Valley Fever” every Sunday night at the Yucca Tap Room. Hillgrass Bluebilly events are where many underground roots artists would meet for the first time, sparking collaborations on albums and tours that created a coagulating effect in an otherwise spread-out movement.
7. The Pacific Northwest
The Pacific Northwest is like a factory for underground roots talent. Bob Wayne, Larry & His Flask, McDougall, James Hunnicutt, Hillstomp, and Brent Amaker are all from there, and the list goes on and on. And then when you start digging deeper, many artists who are now based out of other places originated from there, like some of the original members of BR549. Both Loretta Lynn and Willie Nelson did time in the Pacific Northwest early in their careers. And we can’t forget the punk world’s Eddie Spaghetti and the Supersuckers started doing country side-projects in the late 90′s and collaborated with Steve Earle.
Bluegrass is big in the area, and there seems to be a kindred spirit between the rainy west and the deep South because of the rural life and landscape, and because many of the original settlers of the Northwest were originally from the South. With a population that tends to support the arts and music, and many specific neighborhoods and venues and festivals like Pickathon that cater to the roots scene, the Pacific Northwest is one of underground roots’ biggest power players.
Montana may look like a lowly outpost on the map, but it played a vital roll in the formation of underground roots in the mid to late oughts, specifically with a promotion company called Section 08 Productions putting together the “Murder in the Mountains” tours. By bringing together artists from all around the upper part of the country like Rachel Brooke, JB Beverley, .357 String Band, Bob Wayne, Slackeye Slim and others, they were one of the first to take the theoretical underground roots scene, and give it some substance. Section 08 Productions has since morphed into Farmageddon Records, and is still based in Montana.
9 – California
California has always been the force in country music just behind Nashville and Texas, and that counts for underground country and roots as well. Where California played a key role in the formation of underground country was the interjection of punk influences and the transition of punk fans. Mike Ness of Social Distortion, Jon Doe and Exene Cervenka from the band X doing country side projects in the 80′s and 90′s is what led to the punk/country nexus. The Devil Makes Three from Northern California were one of the very first bands to bring a punk attitude to string music, The Pine Box Boys from San Francisco were one of the pioneers of Gothic bluegrass, and Los Duggans from LA were an important Deep Blues band.
10. North Carolina
Boasting some great music towns and big time roots music labels like Rusty Knuckles, Ramseur Records, and Yep Rock, North Carolina can make the case for itself as having the best music music scene and the most infrastructure right behind the big boys of Nashville and Austin. It also doesn’t hurt that one of the most successful roots acts in recent history, The Avett Bros., call North Carolina home.
11. Chicago, IL (Bloodshot Records)
Chicago will always be a big important part of underground roots as the home of Bloodshot Records. Bloodshot was one of the first labels to put their money where there mouth was in 1994, being “drawn to the good stuff nestled in the dark, nebulous cracks where punk, country, soul, pop, bluegrass, blues and rock mix and mingle and mutate.” As home to artists as important and wide ranging as Justin Townes Earle, Scott Biram, and Wayne “The Train” Hancock, Bloodshot Records’ impact and influence will always make Chicago a roots epicenter.
12. Central Florida
The scene in Central Florida is young, but burgeoning. Being the home of artists like the legendary Ben Prestage, Lone Wolf OMB, The Everymen, and many more, Florida is primed to become one of the underground country and roots hot spots.
13. Lawrence, Kansas
As a college town with a music school, Lawrence, KS is one of the best mid-sized music towns out there. Lawrence brings the support for live music, and not just for the usual college-town indie rock fare. It is home to bands like the long-running Split Lip Rayfield, and the high energy Calamity Cubes, and some of the coolest music venues you can find, like the Jackpot Music Hall, 8th St. Tap Room, and The Bottleneck.
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Other important epicenters: Little Rock, Arkansas, and specifically the legendary Whitewater Tavern. Bloomington, Indiana, a big music and roots town, and home to Austin Lucas, Davy Jay Sparrow, and many more. And Denver, CO, home to Slim Cessna’s Auto Club amongst many others.
Farmageddon Records, home to such roots acts as Jayke Orvis and The Goddamn Gallows, has announced they’re throwing a full-scale, 3 day festival this summer, July 20-22, just outside of scenic West Yellowstone, Montana, behind the Longhorn Saloon on Hebgen Lake.
Farmageddon founder Darren D knows a little something about promoting shows, and even more about Montana, being from the Big Sky State. He started in the music business on a mission to bring roots talent to the region.
“We decided to throw a festival to give the Western half of the US a destination to see roots music,” says Darren. “There has been a lot of momentum building up to the festival in the last few months, and we have had a fair share of international interest as well. We are certainly aiming to make our festival a destination for anyone and everyone who enjoys this kind of music.“
So why West Yellowstone?
“If you are going to throw a music festival it’s important to make it a destination point for the folks that are making a long distance trek to be there. West Yellowstone is home to the label and is right on the SW entrance to Yellowstone National Park. This is a great way to make a summer vacation out of the trip.”
“This particular part of the country is stunning, and if folks haven’t had a chance to visit the park yet this is a great excuse to do so. There are ample places to camp in and around West Yellowstone Montana, and there are also plenty of motels and hotels in the area. West Yellowstone is a small town, and it defiantly gives off a small town feel when you visit. It’s really the perfect place to do a festival.”
A few years ago, the one last piece that seemed to be missing out of the underground country/roots structure was a good festival, or group of festivals. Since then many artists have participated in festivals like The Heavy Rebel Weekender and Pickathon. The Deep Blues Festival has been resurrected, the 2nd Annual Lowebow Fest will be going down in Orlando March. And The Muddy Roots Festival has risen to become the flagship festival for underground roots/country. Folks worried that the Farmageddon Festival may somehow take away from Muddy Roots, or that Farmageddon artists may no longer participate, need not worry according to Darren.
“We will be promoting the Muddy Roots Festival heavily at the first Farm-Fest. There is easily enough folks out there to support both festivals, and we wouldn’t be surprised if you see familiar faces at both events. We are huge supporters of what Muddy Roots is doing, and we will continue to support them and their efforts. We are all planning on attending Muddy Roots this year again, how could you miss it! This is really geared toward the folks who live on the left side of the country, and it’s not going to be a carbon copy of Muddy Roots, so people who decide to attend both won’t be seeing too many repeat performances.“
As can be seen from the lineup below, there will not just be Farmageddon artists performing, but many folks from the greater underground roots community. (note: lineup can change)
- Shooter Jennings
- Southern Culture on the Skids
- Slim Cessna’s Auto Club
- The Goddamn Gallows
- Jayke Orvis & The Broken Band
- Stevie Tombstone
- Graham Lindsey
- The Calamity Cubes
- Filthy Still
- JB Beverley & The Wayward Drifters
- Calamity Cubes
- Soda Gardocki
- Black Eyed Vermillion
- Bob Wayne & The Outlaw Carnies
- Carolina Still
- The Pereeze Farm
- James Hunnicutt
- Ugly Valley Boys
- Cletus Got Shot
- Sean K Preston
- Danny K & The Nightlifers
- Owen Mays
- Tales From Ghost Town
- The Deadnecks
- Tom VandenAvond
- Angie & The Carwrecks
- Shivering Denizens
- Husky Burnette
- Dog Bite Harris
- The Cheatin’ Hearts
- Philip Roebuck
- Whiskey Dick
- Ronnie Hymes
- Slackeye Slim
- Ando Ehlers
- Danny Infecto
- Saint Christopher
- The Dead Tree String Band
- Aran Buzzas
- Hard Money Saints
- Carrie Nation & The Speakeasy
When I sat down to name the top 10 live performances of 2011 as seen through my eyes, I didn’t know what a mess I was making for myself, and it wasn’t until then that I realized what a power packed year for live music it has been. My 10 stretched to 15 fast, and I’m still leaving out acts like Hellbound Glory, Lucky Tubb, and Ray Wylie Hubbard. I will be the first to tell you that is bullsh, but the line had to be drawn somewhere.
Unlike the Album of the Year and Song of the Year, with my inability to see every live performance, this is simply based on my own experience. However live performances always go into consideration for other awards, like the three solid Hellbound Glory shows I saw were considered when nominating them for album of the year.
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I really enjoyed the Sundays each month that Ruby Jane played historic Gruene Hall down in the heart of Texas, but it was a random night at Austin’s Continental Club that gave rise to her standout performance of the year with composer Graham Reynolds. Ruby’s stellar musicianship and passion on fiddle is hard to match. The flourish at the end of this song was something to make the hair stand up on the back of your neck.
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This is what South by Southwest is designed to do: take people who are involved in the music business, and put them in front of the artists in intimate setting to bypass all the press release and preview track bullshit so you can decide if an artist is worthy of your attention or not. The Revolution Bar in gentrifying east Austin was the perfect place to catch an intimate performance by Austin Lucas, joined only by his sister Chloe who supplied sublime harmonies and banjo. His simple, honest, and heartfelt performance proved to me this was an artist I needed to bring into the Saving Country Music fold.
They screw up in the middle of this, and it is still awesome. Listen to how quiet it gets in the room at the end.
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Speaking of hushing rooms and heartfelt songwriting, by evoking character through his music like few others I’ve ever seen, Charlie Parr and his guitar suck you in with songs of heartache sung with immeasurable soul. Charlie doesn’t sing about subjects in third person, he becomes the subject of his songs in an uncanny channeling of character, and makes the story flesh and bone right before your eyes.
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Whitey Morgan played the Pickathon Festival as well and had two excellent sets, but the standout show for me happened back in Austin during Bloodshot Records’ annual showcase at the Red Eye Fly, where Whitey Morgan & The 78′s were booked as the headliners. The sound was positively awful that night. The Waco Brothers played their whole set with the only working speakers being their monitors on stage. Meanwhile Whitey and the boys were sitting in their van, passing a bottle and anticipating a train wreck by the time they took the stage.
Whitey climbed on stage and took no prisoners, cussing and swearing the stage hands straight before the even did anything wrong. Bloodshot owner Nan had her face in her hands, worried Whitey was about to make a scene when what he was really doing was making sure the ship was righted before they started, and trust me, after Whitey put the fear of God in everyone, it was. Then they delivered the best set I have seen them play, and playing the headliner spot of the Bloodshot Records showcase, that is when I knew Whitey Morgan & The 78′s had arrived.
Here they are sharing the stage with legendary Eddie Spaghetti of the Supersuckers.
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11. Micah Schnabel of Two Cow Garage – ninebullets.net SXSW Showcase
Maybe not country, but nonetheless mind blowing was Micah Schnabel, who when PA issues kept his band Two Car Garage from plugging in, he grabbed his acoustic and did the solo thing like few others can. This guy is one of the most authentically-passionate performers on stage I’ve ever seen. As I like to say: if Possessed By Paul James gives birth on stage, Micah Schnabel commits suicide on stage.
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I saw this same lineup, at the same place, two different times this year, and I still did not get my fill. The perfect traveling amalgam of music, it starts off with James Hunnicutt playing solo, then Jayke Orvis taking the stage with Hunnicutt, Fishgutz from The Gallows, and Joe Perreze on banjo making up the “Broken Band,” and then at some point they are all on stage as The Goddamn Gallows.
And then there’s fire.
Joined here on stage by Gary Lindsay.
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9. Slim Cessna’s Auto Club – SXSW Showcase @ Spiderhouse
For years, the two best bands to see live have been Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers and Denver, CO’s Slim Cessna’s Auto Club. In support of their new album Unentitled they made their way down to SXSW and played a set mixing their new pop mocking songs in with their long-time favorites. This band is mind blowing every time. (video is not the best; only one I could find from the show)
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In the middle of a nearly year-long hiatus from the road, Hank3 drove out to Austin for a one-off show at The Revival Festival, and it was a good one. Not having to save anything for the next day and having nothing to recover from the night before, and dragging the badass chicken-picking half-blind maestro Johnny Hiland with him out from Nashville, Hank3 threw down the best live show I’ve seen from him in the post-Joe Buck era. It was one for the ages.
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To see either of these bands alone is an opportunity you cannot pass up. But to put them together back to back was a music cream dream come true. These two bands and their dynamic frontmen were instrumental in the revival of lower Broadway in Nashville, and the same dynamic that gave rise to the abominable frontman of lower Broadway was on display Sunday night at Muddy Roots.
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Just about every one of Willie Nelson’s kids plays music in one capacity or another. How many do it well is another story. But Lukas Nelson and his band The Promise of the Real is the real deal my friends. Far beyond riding coattails or his daddy’s name, 2011 in many ways was a coming out party for Lukas Nelson, and his performance at the 2011 Willie’s 4th of July Picnic / Country Throwdown picnic proved why. The man simply stole the show.
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5.Various Artists – Muddy Roots Festival Late Night Jam
This might be the biggest live music memory of 2011, but without any specific artist to attribute it to, or any other real way to quantify it, I’m just not sure where to put it on this list. What I do know is when you get a legend like Wayne “The Train” Hancock leading JB Beverley, Banjer Dan, all of Hellbound Glory, and who knows else, it’s hard to leave it off the list. It may have not been pretty, but it certainly was legendary.
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4. Marty Stuart – Gruene Hall, Gruene, TX
This was the performance that convinced me that Marty Stuart might be the one to save country music (read full review). This wasn’t a punk gone country show, or a neo-traditional swing back bit, it was simply pure, true country, yet dripping with energy, an engaging nature, attitude, and gospel soul. And his band The Fabulous Superlatives might be one of the best collections of country talent ever assembled. Simply put, this was the best set of straightforward country I’ve seen in years.
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3. Possessed by Paul James – Muddy Roots Festival
First off, the fact that this moment sits at #3 for the year tells you just what a power packed year for music experiences in underground roots music 2011 has been, because really, this moment sets itself apart in the musical experiences of a lifetime.
I saw Possessed by Paul James play live 6 times from late 2010 until now, and in that period, I watched a rebirth of one of the most dynamic live performers I’ve ever seen. Voice issues put him on hiatus for a bit, and when he started performing again, there was a slight timidness, a lack of confidence in his new vocal reality he was struggling with. But over that period, the confidence and abandon came back in full force, to where now I cannot think of another solo performer I would place above him in ability and consistency. Possessed by Paul James delivers every time, and I have come to think of him as a true headliner, and a true legend in the live and recorded context. They say that Possessed By Paul James gives birth to his songs on stage. In 2011 we also saw a PPJ resurrection.
By the end of his Muddy Roots set, some folks were in tears, and everyone was talking about the mysterious burst of wind on that blisteringly hot day that hit the tent right as he began to play. Call that mysterious wind burst a sign of the divine, or quantify it by explaining the dramatic atmospheric wind shift that preceded a change from the hot weather to a tropical disturbance ushered in by Tropical Storm Lee that moved over middle Tennessee. Either way, PPJ channeled that energy through his music, and changed people’s lives.
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2. Sunday Valley – The Pickathon Festival, Portland, OR
I really don’t know what to say here, except that Sunday Valley was the best live band I discovered in 2011, and very possibly might be the best live band right now in all of country music. I know that may come across as a platitude, but I believe it, and to try and use words to describe their live experience almost seems insulting; you just have to experience it yourself. Sturgill Simpson is country’s version of Jimmy Hendrix or Stevie Ray Vaughan. Mark my words, 2012 might be the year of Sunday Valley. (read more in live review from Pickathon)
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1. Justin Townes Earle – The Parish, Austin, TX
I will start this off by saying I know some people will read this having also seen Justin Townes Earle at some point in 2011, and thinking I’m crazy for putting him here at the top spot. That is because JTE can be hit and miss live, because JTE has a drug and alcohol problem.
When I saw him live at SXSW in 2010, that is when I first recognized a sharp dropoff in the quality of his live show, and a few months later, called him out on it in connection with a rumored drug problem. Later that year in September, he got arrested in Indianapolis after tearing up a dressing room, and brawling with cops. Shortly therafter came a rehab stint, and by January of this year, he was back on tour. We know from subsequent stories that between now and January, JTE had another relapse with heroin, and a relapse while on tour in Australia, and I’ve heard mixed review of his live shows.
I am not omnipresent, so I can’t speak on all his performances, but in Austin, TX, Justin Townes Earle put on the performance of his lifetime. Nearly a year later, I still get chills as I sit here and write about it. Stone cold sober, having just been from hell and back, his own mortality and career hanging in the balance, Justin Townes Earle sang from the heart like nobody else I have ever seen, or possibly ever will see. Since the performance, I have had to come to grips with the fact that I may never be moved by another performance for the rest of my life, like the way I was moved that night. (read review)
Man, I don’t even know where to start. Certainly Pickathon is an expensive festival in a severe corner of the country (just outside of Portland, OR), and these natural barriers will always keep some from being able to attend. But as far as creating the best environment to allow creativity to happen, and a model for other festivals and public events to learn and be inspired from, Pickathon has no peer, at least in the land that flies the stars and stripes. Was it the lineup I would have hand picked? No. But that’s the beauty of it. The lineup has a little something that everyone can get excited about to begin with, but it also forces you to step out of your little music reality tunnel, and discover something new.
The first discovery I made this year was Charlie Parr from Duluth, Minnesota. Though I’d heard the name and a few of the songs before, this is what a festival is for: slowing down and really paying attention to what an artist has to offer, and Charlie offered up some of the best songs of the weekend from a songwriting standpoint. Charlie is a brilliant lyricist that captures the pain and essence of low living. From the tales of dying and dismembered men, to the disenfranchised, homeless, lost souls and forgotten, they are all canonized through Charlie’s honesty and amazing clarity into perspective. Charlie doesn’t sing about subjects in third person, he becomes the subject of his songs in an uncanny channeling of character, and makes the story flesh and bone right before your eyes.
Next up was a band I’m quite familiar with, Whitey Morgan & The 78′s. My main interest was to see how a West Coast crowd handled this brand of honky tonk-inspired hard country served up with no frills. When they began their first show in the Galaxy Barn, it was maybe half full. But the signature bass drum beating like a beacon beckoned the Pickathon patrons from all corners, and by the end of the set, people were begging for a spot inside.
Only carrying a four piece on this trip forced Whitey into action playing his own leads, trading licks with the steel guitar player and showing tremendous taste. Whitey might like the freedom of having another Telecaster player, but when he’s knocking them out like he was this weekend, it’s hard to claim there is a hole.
By the time Whitey & Co. had concluded their second set out at Pickathon’s Wood’s Stage on Sunday, they had become a fan favorite from all the acts of the weekend.
The country theme of the Galaxy Barn Saturday night continued after Whitey Morgan with The Sadies, a legendary band that I’ve always wanted to see live, but have just missed on numerous occasions, including at Pickathon two years ago when they were touring with John Doe. They’ve also been the backing band for Jon Langford, Neko Case, and many others. Brothers Dallas and Travis Good front the band, and compliment each other exquisitely, with Travis being the super fast chicken picker with an extraordinary ear for tone, while Dallas, though no slouch moving the fingers himself, usually focuses more on creating ambient sounds and space in the music through vintage effects, finding a balance between making the music spatial, but still grounded in the roots.
Though they’re from Canada, they know how to blend all the great modes of classic American music together intuitively, and make the whole thing seamless. At first sniff you may want to pigeon hole them as a surf guitar band, they are so much more, blending country, bluegrass, rockabilly, mod, and even do-wop elements. Their music is inspiring, to say the least. They’re very short, very tight compositions combine the perfection of The Ventures, the technique of Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys, and the style of Chris Isaak. How much did I dig them? Well, watching them made me want to obtain any and all albums of theirs, and I made it a point to watch every moment of all three of their Pickathon performances. So yeah, two guns up for sure.
Two bands top on my priority list to see that didn’t particularly blow me away were Truckstop Darlin’ and Eilen Jewell. Truckstop Darlin’ is a good solid band, but it felt like they were neither wheat nor chaff. They’re trying to be a roots band, but beyond the steel guitar and pearl snap shirts, it’s simply a rock band, a good one, but one I’m worried is not being marketed right. I enjoyed their set. It just didn’t capture me like I was hoping it would.
And same could be said for Eilen Jewell. Her latest album Queen of the Minor Key is a good one, but my concerns for that album were mirrored in her live show. She’s a good singer, but not a great one, a good songwriter, but not a great one. And she doesn’t have that wholly unique flair like the stalwarts of that sub-genre like Wayne Hancock or Big Sandy (who appears on her latest album) do.
What she does have is a stellar guitar player, Jerry Miller. In regards to taste, he was the best player I saw all weekend. He was the best part of the performance, and felt like the most featured, as Eilen stood shaking maracas through extra-long guitar breaks. “Queen of the Minor Key” is one of the best songs so far this year, but after that, the music gets sleepy.
Two other bands on the top of my priority list I unfortunately missed, Ray Wylie Hubbard, who only played on Friday, and Pokey LaFarge, whose performance at Pickathon’s sit down-style “Workshop Barn” got so packed I couldn’t see a thing. I did meet up with Pokey later though, hanging out at what would end up being the marquee performance of my 2011 Pickathon experience, the set of Sunday Valley.
I am here to tell you folks, Sunday Valley’s frontman Sturgill Simpson is a singular talent, one of those one-in-a-million folks who is touched by the country music holy spirit, and has the vigor to fully realize his potential, and assert his solely original perspective on American music without fear. The man is a top shelf guitar player, with an original, Kentucky-bred style all his own, playing guitar like it’s a mandolin to create an energetic and active base for the music. But then at the right moments, he opens wide and bursts out with a rock & roll abandon, yet still somehow keeps it grounded with a Kentucky bluegrass flavor. The tone might intimidate some in the recorded format, but live, it is absolutely spellbinding.
His guitar playing is so great, you can easily overlook his unique and soulful Southern singing. Pokey LaFarge, standing next to me for most of the set, kept remarking on Sturgill’s voice above the undeniable guitar playing (see Pokey pumping his fists for Sunday Valley at the beginning of the set). And like all great songwriters, Sturgill composes songs that play to his strengths while creating universal appeal in an audience.
And when you boil it all down, this is country, pure country. The genius of Sturgill is how he figured how to take his native Kentucky bluegrass, and electrify it into hard country, but stay just a hair shy of what you would call rock. There is tremendous twang and country roots here, despite the heavy-handed guitar approach. Drummer Edgar Purdom is a madman, and matches Sturgill’s reckless energy. At times on stage the two were challenging each other, gritting their teeth to play with more energy and abandon, and bass player Kevin Black held it all together, and supplied excellent harmonies.
The set ended with one of those moments you can only be there to appreciate. During an extended and wild rendition of their song “Never Go To Town Again”, Sturgill stepped out onto a monitor speaker that he was hoping to support his weight, and it didn’t, and he instead took a dive into the crowd. The guitar cord got caught on the microphone stand, and stage chaos ensued as gear went tumbling. But Sturgill didn’t miss a beat, never stopped playing, and possessed by the country music holy ghost, eventually popped up back on stage, eyes rolled up in the back of his head, wires and music stands intertwined with his limbs, and never even acknowleged the chaos until the song was over. As the sound man threw a box of tools on the stage, purposely trying to interrupt Sturgill, he performed a solo, slow encore number that exemplified a tremendous amount of poise and taste. It was absolutely stunning, and made Sunday Vally the kings of Pickathon’s Sunday, at least in the eyes of this bear.
Whatever praise, whatever accolades, whatever sway my good name has, I throw it all behind Sunday Valley and Sturgill Simpson 100%. This man deserves to be playing music for a living, and as long as that is not the case, it is a sin of our country.
Here is one of their songs, that believe it or not was one of the mid-energy songs of the set.
As for the Pickathon Festival itself: Excellent presentation, layout, facilities, staff, and volunteers, and thought they had no control over it, perfect weather. They’re pet project this year of eliminating single use dishes went off without a hitch or complaint, at least from this patron’s perspective, and almost every band I spoke to remarked on how appreciative and grateful the crowds were.
Two guns up!
By sea, by plane, by land (or as Pickathon would prefer it, by carpool or public transportation) if you can make it to the Pendarvis Farm just outside of Portland, OR, you should make being a participant in this year’s Pickathon Festival a priority this weekend. But if you can’t, you can still participate, and still be insipred by the sustainable model Pickathon has created for it’s patrons, performers, and community.
This year Pickathon is doing something historic. It will be broadcasting in high definition, “record quality” audio and video, the performances on Pickathon’s main stage throughout the weekend. The free streaming service will be available at KEXP.org, and at pickathon.com.
And even if you can’t be by your computer this weekend, Pickathon’s insistence on putting people first, digging deep to find the truly relevant present-day talent representing the various roots movements all around the country instead of the flashy headliners or yesterday’s big names, and insisting on making a sustainable business model that includes reducing the environmental impact, includes lessons we can all take and adapt to other parts of life.
This weekend I spoke with Pickathon promoter Zale Schoenborn about Pickathon and it’s unusual and inspiring festival model.
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Triggerman: If you’re a independent music fan then the Pickathon lineup is full of headliners, but your a festival known for not having headliners in the traditional sense, meaning huge names that you have to back up the Brinks truck to their bus to get them to come out there. What is the philosophy behind being such a big festival, but not having traditional headliners?
Zale (Pickathon): For us its always been faith in curating what we consider still relevant, good music. Something that moves you now, instead of worrying about what kind of format you’re going to build a festival around. If it meets that criteria of good music, then we gravitate towards it. Soulful music, something with some grit, just something that moves you now. That model for us started early, and we keep it today. We’ve gotten away with it for all 13 years. We’re very big into mixing traditional music in with the contemporary indie rock, R&B styles, and everything that comes out of the roots.
Triggerman: Whenever I meet somebody, I go to a festival, or I listen to a band, I always try to take a lesson away from it. Having attended Pickathon two years ago, the lesson I’ve taken away from Pickathon is sustainability. That’s kind of a popular word right now with the green movement, which y’all are working towards in regards to encouraging carpooling and such to get to the festival. This year you’re eliminating single-use dishwear and utensils. But you also take a sustainability approach to the music itself, to artist development and to the economic plan of Pickathon. Can you speak about the sustainability philosophy that governs Pickathon?
Zale (Pickathon): For us it’s been an incremental thing that every year we look back on the previous year and said, “Oh wow, we just generated 50,000 water bottles we had to recycle.” The festival is known for these sustainability ideas, but it’s really more a reaction to how we could do things better in inspiring ways.
This year single use dishes are the things we’re picking on. We’re washing dishes essentially. It shouldn’t be something really hard to do. If we could figure out the system, people will copy us, and that’s the ways you should have always done it. We don’t want to inconvenience people. We want it to be convenient, and make people inspired by it. That’s all in the concept of making the “slow food” of music festivals. It’s an environment that you put together that is relaxing and inspiring. The sustainability makes the music that much more meaningful for the artists and everyone there. Taking care of people, from the front end (patrons) to the back end (artists) is one of our signatures, being very people-centric. We do a lot of sustainability stuff, but they’re functional and they have purposes.
Triggerman: I also see the sustainability idea built in to who you choose to play at Pickathon. It’s easy to gravitate towards the super big names, the flash in the pan of the day that may get more folks out there or allow you to charge more or what have you. Instead y’all seem to give a lot of attention to seeking out talent across the country, to create a sustainable lineup for the festival.
Zale (Pickathon): Because we dedicate to being in touch with folks we like to call the “scene captains”, and those scenes might be bluegrass, country, the various flavors of country, and blues and cajun, all those styles are kind of part of our textures every year. We check in and think about what is really going on that is meaningful in these worlds, and we don’t look at it totally local. We seek out people to give us input on what is interesting right now in this scene. What’s the essence? Where are people being inspired? It’s important for us to feel like we are getting the real inspiration for these vibrant music scenes. The current, the now, the people in the van trying to make it happen. And that’s just as much a reason we stay away from the real easy headliners as the fact that sometimes we can’t afford them.
A lot of times we’re not so interested in the music that was great 20 years ago that’s still selling out tickets in a giant theater. The philosophy is that sustainability. (We) don’t feel like it creates the connection to today’s generation and today’s people. It feels like you’re entertaining the people that loved that music then. When you plug into the music as it’s happening now, that is inspirational. People come to the festival only knowing 10% of the music sometimes. I think that’s a pretty common thing. But they’ll get blown away. The indie rock folks will see some bluegrass band or a country band, and they’ll remember that, and it’s something that starts to cross-pollinate these scenes.
Triggerman: And you hear people talk about sustainability and diversity as being part and parcel. A few of the bands on this lineup are bands I talk about on Saving Country Music, but a lot of the bands are not, and I am even more excited to see the bands I don’t know about as the ones I do. With the diversity of the lineup, you appeal a little bit to a lot of people.
Zale (Pickathon): It’s a dangerous place to be as a festival promoter. They would tell you that’s a bad model. I think it makes a hell of a festival. And a lot of good things can happen in that kind of environment. We’re definitely putting faith in the fan. We’re giving people a lot of credit, that you can put together good music, even if it’s not a bunch of headliners, and that they’re going to come to it because they get it. That’s a leap, but I think we’re winning the battle.
Triggerman: Two years ago, when I went to Pickathon for the first time, I was pulling into the parking lot, and the very first thing I saw was Justin Townes Earle walking across the road, and I was like “Wow, there’s Justin Townes Earle right there.” A few weeks ago, he got in trouble with some folks on Twitter, because he was at Bonaroo, and not to hoot on Bonnaroo, they’re trying to support the music as well, but he wanted to see The Black Keys, and his wristband was the wrong color, and they wouldn’t let him in to that part of the festival, even though he was an artist. Talk about how the interaction of the artists and the fans, and the artists and each other works with Pickathon as opposed to the other more corporate festivals.
Zale (Pickathon): We are very focused on the human element. We don’t have a lot of security fences. We designed the space to where you come in and relate to the space without a lot of barriers. And that includes the artists. We don’t wall them off, we don’t have VIP sections, but we do create some communal spaces, and when the artists come out they’re part of the audience. It’s very common sense type stuff. It’s like what you would do if you were hosting people at your house. When people are planning it from X’s and O’s, those decisions about the human element fall to the numbers side. It’s unfortunate because those little things are what people tend to take away. If they had a great time but there was no bathrooms, they’ll remember the bathrooms. For us, that’s our big “in”. We’re not big enough like Bonaroo to have 250,000 people, and we’re not looking to be that big. We want to be sustainable, in that 5,000 range of people. We’ve got 6 stages spreading all of those people out in totally unique performance spaces. I think taking care of everyone is the root of throwing a really good festival.
Triggerman: And for people who cannot make it to Pickathon and The Pendarvis Farm this year, how can they participate from their home?
Zale (Pickathon): We’re going to have a live, high definition broadcast of the festival, starting with all the main stage performances on kexp.com and pickathon.com. This is not going to be your typical streaming audio and video. Thios is going to be record-quality. We’re taking a lot of care in that, and that is going to be a signature of ours. When we decided to produce this, we were not interested in the low-quality version.
The Pickathon Fesival out in Portland, OR has just announced the rest of their 2011 lineup, including the very cool addition of Kentucky’s Sunday Valley. Pickathon likes to say they don’t have headliners in the traditional sense: huge super-names that grab people’s attention. I guess this just proves how much of an independent music nerd I am, because I look at their lineup and see headliners up and down it, people like Ray Wylie Hubbard, Pokey LaFarge, and Michigan’s Whitey Morgan & The 78′s. In fact “headliners” is exactly what I called Whitey & the boys in my South by Southwest recap.
Whitey Morgan and his bass player Jeremy Mackinder have a very similar symbiotic relationship that made the pairings of Waylon Jennings and his drummer Ritchie Albright, Willie Nelson and his drummer Paul English, into such successful, productive duos: a working relationship that just works, where creativity can flourish while nuts and bolts tasks still get done. During SXSW I sat down with the pair for a chat.
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Triggerman: Y’all are from the Detroit/Flint area. Since I’ve been covering this music, it blows my mind how many bands come from the upper Midwest. Why do you think the upper Midwest is such an epicenter for bands willing to do it their way?
Whitey: I think it’s a rebellious type thing, because we come from a place that’s not known for that kind of music. But the place that is known for that type of music isn’t fucking doing it. What can I do to not only feel real about what I’m doing, but also get some attention? And maybe knock down some doors and let people know there something wrong with the mainstream right now. There’s volumes and volumes of great music that nobody seems to give a shit about anymore.
Jeremy: You wake up in Flint or Detroit or anything up north, you wake up pissed off, and you go from there. There’s a lot of piss and anger and vinegar in that area, and this music kind of lends itself to that. I don’t think there’s any way to take away that fight from anything a band from Detroit is going to do. I used to love going to New York City. Any band you were in, you could plug “from Detroit” and you had a crowd. Detroit just reeks of attitude, and so does this kind of music.
Whitey: It’s tough up there. Every day in the Winter is an uphill battle. It’s colder than shit, you’re waiting 10 minutes for your car to warm up, if it starts. For me, you spend 35 Winters in a shithole town, everything ain’t roses, and that’s kind of what this whole music is about. A lot of my songs are about drinking and forgetting about that shit.
Triggerman: I sometimes feel bad for the honky tonk bands and the fans for this music in the South, because they want to have regional pride, they want to have state pride, and like we were talking about, there’s not a whole lot of this music coming out of the South that fits that concept. And people think of Michigan as “Yankees” since it’s up north. I spent some time living in Flint, and what’s funny about Michigan is that it has a culture that is so unique to itself. Like you call a convenience store a “Party Store”, and you have blinking red lights at left turns. You go to Michigan any say “What is going on here?” There’s a lot of rural culture that is permeated throughout Michigan.
Whitey: 20 minutes outside of any city in Michigan could be northern Alabama. The people are that backwoods and turned around. In the 70′s when my grandpa was playing music in Flint, almost a quarter of the population were transplants from the South that came to work at the factories. When you have a quarter of the population, and they start having babies, what you have is this Southern culture that is ingrained in them, even though some of them have never even been there. Like me when I was growing up, the things we ate, certain words that you said were Southern. To me it was normal. To my friends that were really Yankee’s, it was weird. They didn’t eat fried bologna sandwiches and drink sweet tea and listen to gospel and bluegrass on Sundays at their grandpas house. Any of the Southern food, that’s what my grandma’s house smelled like any time I went in there. My grandpa demanded that stuff, he was a hardcore Southern guy living in fucking Flint, MI.
Jeremy: Speaking of Whitey’s grandpa, he had this look that Whitey showed me a picture of one time, where he’d stare right through you. Go ahead and make a mistake on stage, and see that look come firing down your way! (laughing)
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Triggerman: Y’all just recorded an album for Bloodshot Records, you did it at Levon Helm studios in New York. I hear a lot of people talk about, “Well what’s the point of even being on a label anymore?” It seems like y’all had some big opportunities from that release. Y’all were on NPR’s Mountain Stage, and other opportunities I just don’t see completely independent bands be able to crack.
Whitey: They do a lot of the legwork. We get their Rolodex when we need it, whereas when you don’t have that, you have to go out there and do it all on your own. Which is fine I’m sure for some people, but you can’t be out there playing 230 shows a year and still deal with trying to find new contacts. Not to mention the fact that were on Bloodshot brings people to shows, even if they’ve never heard us, because they have a respect and a reputation from their followers.
Jeremy: We had put out another album with a different label, and not to slug on them but they didn’t have the country cred that Bloodshot does. We end up on Bloodshot, and all of a sudden Sirius/XM plays our music like crazy. And people think that the disadvantage of being on a label is that you’re not going to make any money off your records. But quite honestly, unless you’re selling hundreds of thousands of records, you’re not going to make any money on your records anyway. Independent or label-wise, your records are just kind of paying for themselves.
Whitey: Realistically, and it doesn’t matter what level you’re on, live shows is where you make your money. You can be independent and do everything yourself, but if you can’t get out there and play shows, then what’s the point?
Triggerman: How did the whole Bloodshot thing come about?
Whitey: You’ve got to give credit to the Deadstring Brothers and Wayne Hancock. Our road guy Stubby was actually touring with Deadstring when we were off. He’s a big cheerleader of ours. Every chance he got he’d be talking to Bloodshot about us. And even Travis.
Jeremy: Travis our drummer was in Deadstring and Tamineh our fiddle player was in Deadstring.
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Triggerman: Jeremy, so you used to write for big publications?
Jeremy: I did. I did it under pseudonyms. I only had two printed. As a musician, when you say something negative, you definitely don’t want people to know that was you. Not because I was scared, just because it could reflect negatively on my band. You have to be careful, because you represent five other people too, and you represent your livelihood. Another thing you have to be careful of too is politics. Politics is a polarizing thing. Politics and music are like oil and water.
Whitey: That’s what I want to tell somebody, you’re a fucking entertainer. I don’t give a fuck what you think about the state of the goddamn world. Fucking entertain me, that’s what I paid you to do. I know that’s pretty harsh, but that’s the way I feel sometimes. Where do they get off thinking they know best?
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Triggerman: Y’all are living your dreams, playing your music, the way you want to play it, on your terms. Do you have any other drive? Like saying “this music needs to stay alive.”
Whitey: Oh, definitely.
Jeremy: We were just hollering about that the other day in the kitchen. We have to do this. We feel a responsibility to push this forward and continue to make this happen. For the longest time at shows people would come up and say, “Man I don’t like country music but I sure like you guys!” Well that just means you hadn’t heard country music.
Whitey: Granted we’re not traditional country music like Dale (Watson) or Wayne Hancock. They’re keeping it in the genre, in the era, more correct. We’re a little louder, we strip the songs down more. More of a meat and potatoes kind of thing because God bless us, we can’t play those songs, I can’t play guitar like Dale. But that’s not what we want to play. Some of the greatest songs ever written were written that way because of limitations of the musicians.
Triggerman: Well you hear Waylon’s “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way”. What a simple song.
Whitey: He did what he knew how to do, and he did the fuck out of it. Better than anybody else. People ask “What’s responsible for how your bands sounds?” and I say “musical limitations”. We’re not that good, but we do what we know how to do and we do it every goddamn night with everything we got. I always say, who would you rather hear play a dirty blues song, Keith Richards or Joe Satriani? Who technically is way fucking better, and who do I want to hear?
The Pickathon Festival, Aug 5-7 out in Portland, OR boasts of having “The best festival experience in the country.” And having been a participant of it in 2009, I can vouch personally for this bold statement.
But Pickathon and others don’t throw this statement out to create a rabid desire for tickets with the idea of shattering previous attendance numbers in a yearly cash grab. “Best” does not always mean “biggest” or “most attended” or “flashiest lineup”. For 13 years, as other Festivals that came into being about the same time chase superstar lineups and shattering attendance numbers, Pickathon is more about music sustainability. It is about low impact and community support. It is about developing new talent while supporting aging talent, and creating unique music experiences by not just showcasing a band on one stage, but in six unique performance spaces that create memorable experiences and give fans and artists unbelievable accessibility and interaction.
Pickathon doesn’t have headliners. That’s right. They may have names that you recognize and want to see, but the names you don’t know might be your favorite ones at the end of the Festival. In 2009, Pickathon was the first place I ever saw Justin Townes Earle, Hillstomp, The Hackensaw Boys, Caleb Kaluder, The Wiyos, Big Sandy & His Fly-Rite Boys, and many more, and cool collaborations like Caleb Klauder playing with Justin Townes Earle, or cool scenarios like songwriting sessions where I got to see Justin Townes Earle and Big Sandy perform, and then was able to ask them questions afterward in an open forum.
And many will read this and say, “Well Portland is just too far.” But Pickathon has been working on that as well. Just like SCM LIVE here on Saving Country Music, Pickathon is pioneering the ability to broadcast, and in high quality, entire concerts so fans from around the world can share in the experience. With their Benefest Series this Winter, they were able experiment with high quality concert streams online and do so by supporting local school foundations. Nothing can replace being there, but Pickathon is on the cutting edge of trying to figure out how to deliver the next best thing, and as always, in a sustainable manner.
Many more names will be added soon, but here’s the Pickathon 2011 Initial Lineup:
- Ray Wylie Hubbard
- Whitey Morgan & The 78′s
- Mavis Staples
- Bill Callahan
- Lee Fields & The Expressions
- Damien Jurado
- Fruit Bats
- Laura Veirs
- The Wilders
- The Sadies
- Richard Swift
- Pine Leaf Boys
- The Builders and The Butchers
- Danny Barnes
- Sonny & The Sunsets
- Mike + Ruthy
- Black Lillies
- Strand of Oaks
- Elliott Brood
- Bruce Molsky
- Ages and Ages
- Joy Kills Sorrow
- Charlie Parr
- Old Light
- Ted Jones and The Tarheel Boys
- Buffalo Killers
- Pokey LaFarge
- Rock Plaza Central
- Truckstop Darlin’
- Cahalen Morrison & Eli West
- Diane Ferlatte
For the last few weeks, it seems like no matter where I turn, someone is grumbling about how Fat Possum Records, traditionally a blues label that cut its teeth on artists like R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough, has “gone indie,” running from it’s roots and promoting a crop of bands that don’t fit what long-time label fans have come to expect. Since blues isn’t really my forte, I did some digging and found that these concerns actually go back quite a ways. In an AP story from 2007, Fat Possum Grand Poobah Matthew Johnson talked about facing these criticisms as he tried to “reinvent himself with indie,” as the aging bluesmen were dying.
Everyone’s like, well, your a blues label. We didn’t really know what we were doing when we were making those blues records, so I don’t know why we have to know what we’re doing when we’re making these other records….If I’m not into it, we don’t do it.
And since 2007, Fat Possum has become even more “indie,” and not just in their lineup, but in the style of the music coming from their traditionally blues bands. Take for example The Black Keys. Just as I asserted about bands shaping their music to the NPR demographic a while back, could bands like The Black Keys be trying to shape their music to “indie” sensibilities to keep their fan base young and relevant, and to create appealing music for the big festivals like Bonnaroo, Vegoose, and Austin’s ACL Fest?
And speaking of ACL Fest, that was another instance this last Fall where it seemed like everywhere I turned, roots and country artists and fans were bellyaching that it had “gone indie.” However, searching through the lineup sheet, I thought I saw quite a few solid country, blues, and roots acts if you didn’t put too much weight behind the big headliners. It was when you went back and compared it to the lineups of previous years that you began to see the picture of a slow attrition over time, seemingly bleeding the traditional music out for more indie acts. In Austin Powell’s ACL wrap-up for the Austin Chronicle, he explained that the 2010 ACL Fest symbolizing a tipping of the scales.
The 2010 Austin City Limits Music Festival will be remembered as the year when the distinction between band and brand got lost somewhere between the visuals masking global rap diva M.I.A. and the confetti raining over the Flaming Lips‘ euphoric symphony. From the towering setup for aggressive house specialist Deadmau5 and Muse‘s extravagant decadence to the European electro-throb of Miike Snow and Dan Black, artists were looking to go big, with cult favorites Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeroes and gypsy punks Gogol Bordello in particular finding serious strength in numbers. Call it the (Lady) Gaga effect.
Nothing about this sounds very rootsy. Fat Possum’s The Black Keys were one of the headliners.
And then how about Austin City Limits the TV show, where the ACL Fest sprouted from. ACL was inspired by the great book by Jan Reed The Improbable Rise of Redneck Rock that chronicled how the vibrant country/roots-based music scene was created in Austin. The idea was to chronicle the Austin music scene on film, and share it with the world. But just like ACL Fest, every year the schedule fills more with “indie” bands and big names that have nothing to do with the Austin scene, and furthermore, don’t need the exposure. Sure, using bigger names to draw attention to smaller names has always been used in festivals and programming structures to keep revenues coming in while also developing upcoming talent.
But a look at the ACL schedule and you see Pearl Jam, Cheap Trick, and Dave Matthews Band. Do these bands need exposure? And the upcoming talent (if you want to call it that) would be The Black Keys and Band of Horses, both Fat Possum artists. All of a sudden you start wondering if there is something at work behind the scenes here. A few weeks ago The Black Keys were the musical guests on Saturday Night Live, what might be considered traditionally as a more appropriate venue for them, as well as one that would create much more exposure, making an ACL appearance somewhat redundant, especially when it may have meant another artist got no exposure at all.
In fairness, Hayes Carll and Robert Earl Keen share a night this season, but that is another thing: The ACL format seems to be catering more to the short attention span, splitting nights more commonly. And this is supposed to be commercial-free public television, but every ACL episode starts off with a Budweiser commercial along with other corporate sponsors. I understand, everyone needs to make money, even non-profits, but why choose to do that with the most bombastic of the macro-brewers and their most identifiable product? I thought the PBS demographic snubbed their nose at the NASCAR dads and their corporate brand loyalty.
Then you read with the change from the old ACL venue to the new, bigger one, ACL wants to get even “hipper.”
Early next year, the series will relocate to a new $40 million studio attached to a posh W Hotel in downtown Austin. The lineup for the current season demonstrates how far the show has already come in constructing a younger, hipper, more diverse array of performers. Instead of the Clint Blacks and Pam Tillises you might have seen 15 years ago, Season 36 will include shows with John Legend and the Roots, Brandi Carlile, the Black Keys, the National, Band of Horses and Sonic Youth.
“The festival has been a great tool in helping us expand the brand,” Lickona said. “We’re appealing to that younger demographic, but I think we’re still a show their parents may want to watch, too.”
He and other “ACL” reps proudly donned hard hats and safety glasses to show off their new facility to newspeople and agents in town for the festival. While only 320 fans could squeeze into the old studio, the new venue can hold more than 2,700 with its two towering balconies. It will double as a full-time concert facility and include VIP suites for sponsors — a possible financial boon for the nonprofit TV show.
Expanding a brand? VIP suites for Budweiser? And this is an extension of public television that is supposedly primarily financed through public funding and private donations? I appreciate that ACL wanted to, and possibly needed to update their infrastructure, but who is going to take advantage of it, the country and roots artists that made Austin City Limits the longest-running music program of its kind and the only television show to earn a National Medal of Arts, or the indie bands and big-named superbands like Pearl Jam that they must now book and placate to pay for it all? ACL has been around for so long because it insisted on sticking with its roots in a wise approach that did not dance with every fleeting music trend.
And these are big examples, but there are smaller regional examples as well. Take the Pickathon Festival just outside of Portland, OR that I attended a few years ago. As the name implies, it was a string-based festival at its inception, but two years ago, the headliner was indie band Dr. Dogg. They were the lone indie performer, and as they acknowledged from stage during their performance, “We’re not exactly sure why we are here, but we’re glad that we are.” The next year, more indie bands crept onto the Pickathon schedule. This same scenario has played out in other festvals and in local venues across the country that used to cater to roots artists.
The problem is not the indie bands themselves. It may look like I am picking on The Black Keys, but they and many of these indie bands take their craft serious, have good, well-crafted, heartfelt music that does not compromise like so many mainstream performers. And they deserve to have support and infrastructure for their music as well. But at what expense, and to whom? As highlighted in my Mono-genre/Micro-genre article, the traditional outlets for indie rock (rock and alternative) are in a tailspin, while country remains strong, making traditional country and other grassroots-based outlets an appealing haven from music contraction.
Indie doesn’t really have its own traditions, its own infrastructure like country, blues, or even Texas music. And in this music climate of massive contraction, this is not the time to be creating new infrastructure that may not be sustainable moving forward. So the solution appears to be to incorporate existing infrastructure that was built years ago for roots and country artists, ostensibly squeezing the support for these types of artists out of the picture. Sure, the attrition is slow and calculated. There are efforts put out to keep the natives from getting restless, homages to legacy acts and little token gestures here and there. But over time, as you look at the yearly schedules for things like Austin City Limits, or ACL Fest, or Pickathon, you see the steady march of “indie rock” taking over what roots music built.
I first knew something was up with Justin Townes Earle when I saw him at South by Southwest in March. At the Bloodshot Records showcase, he showed up on stage wearing a bowtie, and baby blue-colored pants three sizes too small with white shoes. I also spied that the spectacles of his fiddle player had no glass in them, they were for show. Hey, I’m all for dressing the part, but JTE was out Pokey LaFarg-ing Pokey LaFarge. And when he started singing, I don’t know, he was just acting very weird and it came across in the music. He had a weird look on his face, similar to the one stilled in the video below, which was taken shortly after his set while he was still in the same duds:
I had a good context to make these judgments because I’d seen and interviewed him just six months prior at Portland’s Pickathon, where I said he was the “one stand out performer out of the dozen plus acts I saw.” Earle was the talk of Pickathon, and the talk of SXSW. He’d landed a bunch of accolades from the Americana crowd the year before, and there was a sense that he had “made it” in music. But there was also talk of JTE’s “problems” that would come up unprovoked when speaking with other artists and fans and such.
What problems? I don’t know. They didn’t tell, and I didn’t ask. When I had talked to JTE in August, he’d mentioned his previous drug problems and had alluded that he was sober. Following his Twitter Tweets, that is clearly not the case now. Don’t know if JTE’s sobriety was the source of these “problems,” but the months after SXSW the whispers had yet to die down. The old music maxim is that “he/she was good ’till they got sober.” Maybe JTE would embody the antitheses. The JTE whispers were also alarming because he was like the football first round draft pick that fell to the fourth round because of “off the field issues” when he entered the music business. Was JTE getting too big for his shrunken baby blue britches?
When I got an advanced copy of Harlem River Blues, it immediately struck me as music specifically created for optimized NPR play, and I used as an example of NPR’s Adverse Effect on Roots Music. My suspicions were validated when NPR offered a full preview of the album through their site. In a lot of ways this was unfair to the album and to JTE, because I was using it as the pet example for what is really happening to a wide swath of the music landscape. But nonetheless, it was true.
I’ve given this album more than it’s fair amount of listens for a project that did not strike me the first few times through, because of who its from, and how that person fits into my ethos. (His previous album Midnight at the Movies was my Album of the Year for 2009.) I must say that this album is not bad. There’s nothing wrong with any of these songs. It doesn’t really mark a clear change in style. As far as the production, of which JTE is primarily responsible for, I would grade it a 9 out of 10, with the only criticism being that at times it was a little heavy handed. But the arrangements display a very wise ear and imagination, and the performances live up to Justin’s vision. The breadth and layers of some of these songs is quite spectacular.
But production can only go so far. There’s no meat here, no body. No soul, no blood, no deep roots–just aping and parody that is orchestrated, arranged, and packaged very well. I keep listening, waiting for those one or two songs that will cling to me so I can use them to buoy together an affinity for this project, but they haven’t come. Even the songs solicited as the standouts don’t do it for me. “Wanderin’” (see video above) is probably the best track, but in this instance the heart of the song seems buried under all the production. “Christchurch Woman” sounds like a rehashed “Midnight at the Movies,” and “Ain’t Waitin,” though I want to like it, seems hokey and the line about “satellite radio” is out of place with the neo-traditional mood.
The beauty of what JTE did with his first three releases was take vintage textures and inject them with relevant, modern themes that were universally relateable. Then with songs like “Mama’s Eyes” and “Someday I’ll Be Forgiven For This” he said screw the neo-traditional bit and laid down heart-wrenching truth. The buzz word with this album has been “mature.” I don’t understand this. My adjective would be “safe.”
This is how hipsters and hippies must have felt when Hank III released Straight to Hell; not disappointed as much as disenfranchised. This is not what I dip my bucket in the JTE well for. It makes you want to listen to his older records immediately to get the bad taste out of your mouth. Or it least it did me. But the pro-Harlem River Blues crowd doesn’t need to worry about my mixed review, I have no doubt this album will be his most well-received yet. After all, look at these great blurbs:
“If you’re not listening to him or checking out what he’s wearing, you should be.”
“As versed in Mance Lipscomb as he is in M. Ward ad sporting Marc Jacobs suspenders,
-The Salt Lake Tribune
See, JTE’s fashion maven girlfriend and Manhattan digs has made the opinions of an angst little blogger virtually irrelevant, so no worries.
One gun up for the superb production, musicianship, and for the satisfactory songwriting. One gun down for the complete lack of soul.
There’s nothing really “country” here either, though this is more of an observation that a specific criticism of this music.
You can preview all tracks or purchase the MP3 for a limited time for $2.99 by CLICKING HERE.
(Carryin’ On is on sale right now for $6.99.)
I’ll be strait up honest with you. When it comes to Dale Watson, there is no bigger fan than your lovable, huggable Triggerman. However when it comes to his albums, it can be…well…hit and miss.
I thought with his last two albums, they had their moments, but the concept got in the way of the music. Surfing through the rest of his discography can be difficult. There’s so many albums, some of which are unavailable, others that you can only get in Europe. And all the time you see the question from newly christened Dale Watson disciples, “What are his best albums? Tell me where to start.” That is such a hard question. My answer is usually, Live in London, but it’s a live album, so does that really count?
So when Dale releases a new album, my expectations are tempered. Then it was revealed that Dale had used Nashville musicians while recording the album in Nashville. Things were not setting up well. Then an early reviewer lamented his polished approach to this album.
But I’ll tell you what people, I like this album. I like it a lot. This is the best Dale Watson album put out in years. It’s not groundbreaking, it won’t be an influential work. But for capturing the essence of what makes Dale Watson an artist for the ages, Carryin’ On does a better job than many of its predecessors.
Dale is a man of context. I saw him last year at Pickathon in the early afternoon on a concert stage, and the mood was lost. Dale is a honky tonker. And though he’s made a career out of anti-Nashville songs and sentiment, he’s always been slick in his live presentation. He’s a slick guy, with his slicked back hair, suave stance, and smooth guitar licks. His dirty albums were made that way without choice, or from bad decisions.
I wouldn’t want every Dale Watson album to sound as slick as Carryin’ On, but for this time and place, it’s near perfect. The standout in this album is Dale’s voice. He exhibits superlative control and wide wisdom singing his parts that come across confidently, without any sign of weakness or chipped paint even after years of honky tonkin’ and road doggin’. If Nashville had tried to strap an Auto-tuner to him, he would have fried the machine from the complexity of runs, and the diversity of volume and note changes just in a simple, short phrase. Nashville younguns take note of a master.
Nashville session players Lloyd Green, Pig Robbins, and Pete Wade do a bang up job fitting tones and textures to Dale’s songwriting, and rise to the occasion of accompanying Dale’s masterful vocal performances. Sure this is the Nashville sound, but it’s the Nashville sound of 20 years ago, giving it a uniqueness and heart that pulls a nostalgic feeling from the REAL country fan. There’s a lot of by-gone Merle Haggard and George Jones in this album that make it fit like a familiar ball cap, nice and snug into your little music world.
“Hey Brown Bottle” and “I’ll Show Ya” are instant Dale classics, destined to be requested without rest at Austin’s Continental Club or Broken Spoke for years to come, and together they bookmark the breath of Dale’s style and ability. Title track “Carryin’ On” grows on you like Dale’s smile that makes every woman wonder where his relationship status stands as he flashes it across a two-stepping floor full of Lone Star beer. And “Hello, I’m An Old Country Song” takes a more wise, but still pointed and poinignant approach to Dale’s protest of the direction of country, and will fit strongly beside “Nashville Rash” and others as a solid signature song.
There are some weakly-written songs here, but in most cases the simplicity of the songwriting is drowned by Dale’s dizzying vocals. Though “Flowers in Your Hair” offers little lyrically, your mind tends to focus on Dales voice and the words are forgiven or overlooked. One thing I didn’t like about the Nashville session approach was the drums. With your finger on fast forward through the weaker tracks, you wouldn’t notice it. But taken as a whole, the lack of any creativity or direction with the production keeps reminding me of when Ween as a gimmick went to Nashville and recorded 12 Golden Country Greats. More could have been done to separate the underlying sounds in this album to help set the individual tracks apart and keep it fresh throughout.
Still, this album works for me. Dale heard something in his head, set out to do it, and I think it was accomplished, and accomplished well. There are plenty of more raw-sounding Dale Watson albums out there. I am going to enjoy this one for what it brings to the table: some great new songs, a slick approach, and Dale’s spectacular voice now bottled in its purest form for eternity.
Two guns up!
You can preview tracks or purchase Carryin’ On by CLICKING HERE.
If I had to pick one stand out performer out of the dozen plus acts I saw at Pickathon outside of Portland last weekend, it would be Justin Townes Earle.
I was lucky enough to be able to see him three different times, and after his first show we sat down for a quick interview. Following is the audio, or an abridged transcript of our conversation.
Also, look for my review of Justin Townes’ performances at outlawmagazine.com.
Triggerman: There’s a lot of sons of famous artists, like Hank Williams III, Lucky Tubb is a guy who’s been coming up lately. It’s almost like those names are a blessing and a curse at the same time. In one way it might help you get your foot in the door a little bit, but there’s so many people that think you are just riding off the name.
JTE: Well you can do that, there’s a lot that do. Shelton (Hank III) ain’t one of them, but there’s a lot of sons and daughters that all it is is just a name. But at the same time too it’s really jive to change your name. People always ask me if I made Townes my name, and I’m like no, it’s the name on my birth certificate, it is what my daddy named me. It is what he intended me to be called.
Triggerman: There’s nothing you really can do about it.
JTE: And I wouldn’t even if I could. I like the music history and I like the musical history of my family and everything that comes with it.
Triggerman: And having said that there’s a lot of people out there with a name behind them and they just strum (the guitar) and have other people write the songs. This was the first time I’ve seen you live and I’ve heard it coming through in your albums, but I’m really impressed with your guitar style. I don’t know what you would call it, but you pluck the bass line with your thumb and strum with your other fingers.
JTE: It’s kind of taken from clawhammer banjo. It is kind of my own thing. I developed it from watching clawhammer players. And then I changed it because like in clawhammer you hold your hand still, but in mine you work two fingers and the thumb. But it’s the same action as a clawhammer banjo.
Triggerman: And with the last song you played “Midnight at the Movies,” you had a couple of players with you from the Foghorn Stringband, but you told them “I got this last one guys” and the sound was full. You weren’t up there just strumming chords.
JTE: I’m first and foremost a singer/songwriter. And if you can’t perform by yourself, especially in this climate, in this day and age, if you’re a singer/songwriter and you can’t so shows solo you are not going to fucking make it. I don’t care who you think you are, you cannot afford the band.
Triggerman: You usually tour with a mandolin player, right?
JTE: Yeah, Cory is usually on tour with me. I’ve got to have shows where I mix it up. When I do solo shows I can do whatever the fuck I want. There’s nobody I have to tell what I’m playing next, nobody who needs to know what key it’s in, and that’s fun. But it is hard. I think the problem with most songwriters these days is they don’t have gears. They have one gear,and it’s usually first gear. It’s this real melancholic, like slow . . . and they make these really melancholic slow records and they can’t amp it up.
Triggerman: Man I’m so glad you said that. No offense to the other acts I’ve seen here (at Pickathon) but I had that exact observation. Maybe it is just the trend right now, but meek lyrics, the same tempo, no dynamics to set the songs apart from each other. And I did notice those dynamics in your set.
JTE: There’s a lot of people who like listen to Bob Dylan and they listen to Lead Belly but they missed the fact that . . . like they say that Bob Dylan just strummed. Bob Dylan was one of the best flat pickers there was and he’s one of the best finger pickers there are. He was a motherfucker of a guitar player. It’s the same people who say it’s the sloppy Levon Helm style of drumming. That was not sloppy, that was like negro and RIGHT ON! You have to have different gears. I just don’t think anyone has that interesting of shit to say, you have to have different gears.
Triggerman: You had an album come out a while back, “Midnight at the Movies,” and one of the reasons I wanted to see you live is because I really appreciate the arrangement. You have a lot of sparseness, a lot of space. Not in everything, but it has a good feel to it. So I was interested to see how that translated live, and I was really impressed with the way it filled up and still represented the music well without all the instrumentation.
JTE: I don’t write songs with a band. Nobody is in the room with me when I write the songs. The songs are written to stand up as solo acoustic songs first.
Justin Townes Earle Albums
The thing I like about the one man bands like Joe Buck and Scott H. Biram is the abominable amount of energy they put into their music. It is rare to see an individual member of a band with as much energy as a one man band, or a one man band that doesn’t have the same energy as a whole band combined.
But consider what could happen if you put two one man bands together in a two piece, meaning two powerhouse musicians with a whole band’s worth of guts, energy and talent together. Some might worry this combination would give you a rip in the fabric of the universe, but in truth what you get is Portland, Oregon’s Hillstomp.
Hillstomp is made up of John Johnson, who plays a modified drum kit made of buckets and cans and other hapless objects that get the shite beat out of them, and Henry Kammerer on guitar, who also plays a little banjo and cigar box guitar (like in the video example below). But both are multi-instrumentalists, and in a Hillstomp set you might see John playing guitar as well, and Henry banging on stuff.
Hillstomp is predominately blues, but all of those heavy handed influences of punk, country, and bluegrass are there as well. Much attention in Hillstomp’s music is paid to setting a groove in that very addicting North Mississippi Trance Blues style. Their music is almost impossible to stand still to, and sticks to your bones like heroin. You mix that with the up-tempo energy of punk and the sinful, soulful themes of country and bluegrass and Hillstomp is a potion that will set your hair on fire.
There is a reason that most two piece bands trying to cover the whole spectrum of sounds of a full band usually don’t work, and reasons why this one does, mainly the energy they bring to the music, but also a decent amount of attention paid to how they arrange each song. It might seem like two animals beating on instruments and screaming, but setting and maintaining a groove is really what sets Hillstomp apart. If that means that the drummer John Johnson has to start off a song by chucking out the groove on the guitar, while Henry is the one banging on stuff, then so be it. It looks like chaos, but in a musical sense Hillstomp has a wise approach to building a tune and setting a groove.
When I saw these guys at Pickathon they brought the house down. When they started playing, there were maybe 10 people who had showed up in the barn they were playing at to see them. By the end of the show, people couldn’t get in the doors the place was so packed. John Johnson busted a bucket he was playing with such enthusiasm.
I’d been hearing about Hillstomp for months from people saying I had to see this band, and I kept missing them when they came through town. Now I understand the hype. When you leave a Hillstomp show, you leave a Hillstomp disciple. Videos and recordings only do it so much justice. Mark my words, Hillstomp is getting out in front of people more and more, and in six months, this could be one of the hottest bands out there in the underground scene, if they aren’t already.
In other words, you need Hillstomp in your life.
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