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Every New Years as revelers across the country celebrate the symbolic reset of the calendar, a much more somber anniversary passes in the realm of country music. On January 1st, 1953, Hank Williams passed away in the back seat of his powder blue Cadillac somewhere on the road near Oak Hill, West Virginia of heart failure, forever robbing country music of its first superstar at the age of 29. Hank’s death has gone on to become one of the most storied, and most intriguing moments in country music lore, somewhat shrouded in mystery because some of the facts surrounding his death are not known and never will be, and because of the weight the passing of Hank Williams put on the heart of country music.
The death of Hank Williams has taken on a greater reverence, and a deeper importance in the last year with the passing of some of the most important characters in Hank’s life, and in the story of his death. Braxton Schuffert, the man who arguably discovered Hank Williams, passed away earlier this year in April. Charles Carr, the driver of Hank’s powder blue Cadillac on that fateful trip and the last person to see Hank Williams alive, passed away in early July. A movie loosely based on Hank’s final days called The Last Ride was released June 6th. And this year marks 60 years after Hank’s death, and 90 years after his birth.
In remembrance of these significant events, milestones, and passings, traditional country artist Joey Allcorn has assembled a collection of songs in an album called Midnight – The Death of Hank Williams. The theme of the album is to relive the tragic passing of Hank Williams through music, though not all the songs are specifically about Hank. For example the album starts off with some words from Braxton Schuffert—only fitting because he was there at the very beginning of Hank’s career. Then the first song performed by traditionalist Jake Penrod is “Rockin’ Chair Daddy,” a song written by Schuffert with Hank Williams. Near the end of the album is a song called “Song For Charles” for Hank’s driver Charles Carr, written and performed by Bobby Tomberlin.
In between are songs that have great significance to the Hank Williams death narrative, including “The Death of Hank Williams” that as Joey Allcorn explains really inspired the project. “To me it was an interesting song because it was the very first Hank Williams tribute,” says Allcorn. “Nowadays, doing a Hank Williams tribute is just sort of par for the course.” The “Midnight” title track is a duet between Allcorn and Jake Penrod, and the traditional “Death Is Only A Dream” pairs Allcorn with Rachel Brooke. Other songs that were written about the death of Hank Williams include “Is There Something You Can Do (New Year’s 1953)” told from the perspective of Charles Carr, written and performed by Arty Hill, “A Legend Froze In Time” written and performed by David Church, and “Fallen Star” by Andy Norman.
Another interesting note about Midnight is the final track is a contribution by the recently-fallen country artist Wayne Mills who was shot and killed on November 23rd in Nashville. Along with Wayne’s guitar player Kyle Wilson and Joey Allcorn, they revitalize the Waylon Jennings tune “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way.” This was the last track that Wayne Mills recorded and officially released for sale before his death.
Midnight is not your typical album project, and should be approach with that understanding and reverence. The point is to help the modern ear reconnect with those somber moments in the wake of Hank’s passing, and with the love each track is approached with, it carries this task admirably. The vintage audio of Braxton Schuffert starting off the album and DJ Nelson King of WCKY making the announcement of Hank’s death on the radio, along with the vinyl effect on the song “Death Is Only A Dream” help to set the somber mood and send you back to that time and place.
This album is not available on iTunes, Amazon, Spotify, or anywhere else. The only way it can be purchased is through the Hank Williams Museum in Montgomery, AL, with the proceeds going directly to the museum. This is not an album that will suck you in with groundbreaking original music; that is not the point. But as a commemoration of Hank’s death for the purpose of helping to keep his legacy alive through the museum, it grades high on all marks.
Two guns up.
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One of the great things about roots music is its Gothic legacy of cautionary tales, ghost stories, murder ballads, messages to the infirmed, and other such methods of macabre that allow country and roots artists to paint in dark colors when they so choose. This makes roots music one of the best realms to draw from when putting together your Halloween playlist. Here is a list of some of the artists who dabble in the dark side of country and roots.
The things that hide under beds, in closets, and eerily disappear when you shine a light their way are what conspire and collaborate to create the inspiration for Lincoln Durham and his dark tales of murder and inner mayhem, belted out with a voice that can meld like a shape shifter and carries behind it the soul of 1000 black men. A conjugation of deep blues, Gothic country, and dark folk, Durham fits nowhere and everywhere in the music world all at the same time. Halloween is tailor made for Lincoln Durham’s music, and so is his just-released album Exodus of the Deemed Unrighteous.
You can’t get more Halloween and country than the King of Country & Western Troubadours that happens to also be a 300-year-old vampire. Unknown Hinson has what you need to keep your country-themed Halloween soundtrack rolling by blending a classic country sound with his creepy, blood-thirsty pursuits of “womerns” that always seems to take the darkest of turns. After saying last year he was done for good, the man who also is the voice of the character Early Cuyler from Cartoon Network’s Squdbillies announced earlier this year he was back from the dead, and will be touring regularly. Unknown’s alter ego Stuart Daniel Baker also happens to be one hell of a guitar player.
The Bloody Jug Band
When you have The Bloody Jug Band to listen to, you can celebrate Halloween all year. Similar to Unknown Hinson mentioned above, they make their dark music doubly entertaining by instilling humor into their music. But The Bloody Jug Band is no bit. Their debut album Coffin Up Blood was a nominee for Saving Country Music’s 2012 Album of the Year from the creativity and innovation they display though music that is dark and funny, but also shows how roots music can evolve while still paying respect and residing within its heritage.
Lonesome Wyatt & The Holy Spooks
There’s nothing better for Halloween than a good ghost story, and Lonesome Wyatt & The Holy Spooks have a whole catalog of them, including the freshly-exhumed album released just for this season called Halloween Is Here, complete with ghost stories and songs molded in the classic Halloween album style. Parental guidance would be strongly suggested, but some of Lonesome Wyatt’s songs and stories even work well for kids. And for all your year-round gloomy needs, look no further than Lonesome Wyatt’s other Gothic country concept, Those Poor Bastards.
Like a foreboding raven who sits high on her perch and caws out her cautionary tales of murder, deceit, and a world gone mad, Rachel Brooke’s music is dark as it is wise. From ghost stories to murder ballads, Rachel has Halloween covered, with numerous songs from her catalog ripe for the witching hour. Another spooky project worth dropping in your trick or treat bag is the collaborative effort with the aforementioned Lonesome Wyatt called A Bitter Harvest.
The Slow Poisoner
Halloween was made for The Slow Poisoner, and The Slow Poisoner was made for Halloween. As equally creepy as he is creative, this comic book writer and illustrator haunts the San Francisco public schools as a substitute teacher by day, and puts on one of the most entertaining live one man band shows you can see by night, complete with big creepy cue cards and other live props while he peddles his Egyptian oils and other wares through his dark music.
Sons of Perdition
From the disturbed imagination of Zebulon Whatley comes one of the core bands of the modern Gothic country era. Similar to Lonesome Wyatt and the Those Poor Bastards (who’ve been known to collaborate with the Sons of Perdition in the past) Zebulon draws heavily on religious dogma mixed with a dark perspective for inspiration. The Sons of Perdition’s ghastly hymns are enough to keep the ghosts haunting you all night, and are set to release a new album Trinity on November 12th.
The Goddamn Gallows
If you like your roots music dark, it doesn’t get any darker than The Goddamn Gallows. With their old soul tales from a scarier time, The Gallows are like a freak medicine show set to music, or a haunted carnie ride rattling off its tracks and plunging you into a deep, dark place where only the most unsettled of thoughts go. Complete with pounding drums and a washboard player that breathes fire, these guys are like the soothsayers of the Apocolypse.
Other Dark Roots Bands Ripe for Halloween:
- Pine Box Boys
- The Haunted Windchines
- Those Poor Bastards
- Slim Cessna’s Auto Club
- Jay Munly
- Ray Wylie Hubbard
- Johnny Cash
- Nick Cave
- Slackeye Slim
- Viva Le Vox
- Black Jake & The Carnies
- The Perreze Farm
- The Slaughter Daughters
- Lindi Ortega
- Tom Waits
- Jayke Orvis & The Broken Band
- Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers
- Larry & His Flask
- Shakey Graves
- .357 String Band
- Joe Buck Yourself
- O’ Death
- The Dinosaur Truckers
- Creech Holler
- Reverend Glasseye
- The Devil Makes Three
- Dad Horse Experience
- Joel Kaiser & The Devil’s Own
- Jesse Dayton
- Walter Sickert and the Army of Broken Toys
- Pinebox Serenade
- Filthy Still
- Serial Killer
**NOTE: The image from the very top is from a now out-of-print dark roots compilation called Rodentia.
The underground country movement initially formed around the mid 90′s not because somebody launched a website or a record label. It wasn’t because of a festival or because someone came up with a special name for a new genre. It wasn’t because some personality who was bestowed a famous name took the reigns and began promoting music. The strength, the support, and the fervor that went into forming underground country and the bonds and infrastructure that is still around today came from the songs artists were writing, recording, and performing; songs that spoke very deep to the hearts of hungry listeners. In the end, all leadership and must come from the music. A good song will solve its own problems. Like water, it will eventually find a path to thirsty ears, and funnel support to the artist and infrastructure that surrounds it.
This isn’t necessarily a list of the greatest underground country songs, or even the most influential. It is simply 12 songs that were so good, they helped create something where there was nothing before.
Wayne “The Train” Hancock – “Juke Joint Jumpin’”
Wayne Hancock is one of the fathers of underground country, and he’s also the King of Juke Joint Swing, so it’s only appropriate to include one of his signature songs here. The very first song on his very first album Thunderstorms & Neon Signs from 1995, it made listeners wonder if they were hearing the ghost of Hank Williams. Later Hancock would perform the song as a duet with Hank Williams III.
Hank Williams III – “Not Everybody Likes Us”
Hank3 has probably written better songs, but not that speak to the spirit of underground country so well. “Not everybody like us, but we drive some folks wild” epitomizes the philosophy behind the country music underground—that it doesn’t matter if the masses like your music, only if you and your friends do. Add on top of that a big dig at country radio, and “Not Everybody Likes Us” has become a rallying cry of underground country music.
.357 String Band/ Jayke Orvis – “Raise The Moon”
This song is so good, it has been released twice, been played regularly by three different bands, and still is not tired. Written by Jayke Orvis, “Raise The Moon” originally appeared on the .357 String Band’s first album Ghost Town in 2006. When Jayke Orvis left .357 for a solo career and a spot in the Goddamn Gallows, the song appeared on the Gallows’ album 7 Devils. 7 years later and the song still remains a staple of Jayke’s live show, and a defining sound of underground country.
The Boomswagglers – “Run You Down”
Authenticity is such an unattainable myth in modern music these days that it is nearly impossible to find a truly original and untainted sentiment. But that is what The Boomswagglers serve up with “Run You Down.” It is one of those songs that immediately sticks in your head and stays with you for a lifetime. Defying style trends, it is simply good, and its story, like much of The Boomswagglers music, is deceptively deep. Songs like this withstand the test of time.
Hank Williams III – “Straight to Hell”
The title track off of Hank3′s magnum opus Straight to Hell from 2006 was the “hit” of underground country if it ever had one. It has risen to become one of Hank3′s signature songs, and he regularly uses it to start off his live shows.
Bob Wayne – “Blood to Dust”
Bob Wayne may be best known for his wild-assed party songs laced with drugs, loose women, and running from the cops, but that doesn’t mean he can’t write a deep song when he wants. As Bob will tell you, every word in this song is true, and the personal and poignant nature of the story makes it very hard to not be affected emotionally when it is listened to with an open heart. “Blood to Dust” speaks to the broken nature of many of underground country’s artists and fans. The song appears on Bob Wayne’s very first album of the same name, and his first big release Outlaw Carnie on Century Media.
JB Beverley & The Wayward Drifters – “Dark Bar & A Juke Box”
Underground country isn’t just a sound, it is a sentiment; a feeling that something is wrong in country music, and something needs to be done about it. This is the foundation for the title track off of JB Beverley & The Wayward Drifter’s 2006 album. At the time JB Beverley may have been better known for fronting punk bands. But unlike many of the underground country bands that would come along later, blurring the lines between punk and country, JB Beverley serves “Dark Bar & A Juke Box” up straight, in a sound that refers Wayne Hancock’s throwback style.
Wayne “The Train” Hancock – “Johnny Law”
If “Juke Joint Jumpin’” is Wayne Hancock’s signature song, then Johnny Law is his defining jam. This song has become a showcase for some of the greatest musicians in the history of underground country during the extended breaks for both the guitar and upright bass player. It might also go down in history as one of the most requested songs in underground country.
Dale Watson – “Nashville Rash”
For a precious time in the late 90′s ans early 2000′s, the triumvirate of Wayne Hancock, Hank Williams III, and Dale Watson looked like they were going to take the country music world by storm. It was because they were willing to speak out, and lead by example, both sonically and lyrically. Dale is still leading today, and his legacy of country protest songs like “Nashville Rash” still gets you pumping your fist.
Rachel Brooke & Lonesome Wyatt – “Someday I’ll Fall”
Rachel Brooke, The Queen of Underground Country, and one of the founding fathers of Gothic country, Lonesome Wyatt from Those Poor Bastards, teamed up in 2009 for the landmark album A Bitter Harvest. The album, and specifically the song “Someday I’ll Fall” symbolize the collaborative spirit inherent in underground country—where two artist come together to become greater than the sum of their parts. “Someday I’ll Fall” is also a great example of taking old school influences and embedding them in a new, fresh approach.
Joe Buck Yourself – “Planet Seeth”
One of the men responsible for helping to revitalize the hallowed ground of lower Broadway in Nashville in the mid 90′s delivers this bloodletting of a song where the audience is actively encouraged to release their hate in Joe Buck’s direction. Though the language and music may be too hard for most, the concept and execution of “Planet Seeth” is nonetheless genius. It embodies the participatory aspect of underground country, where the crowd is as much a part of the show as the artist, giving back in energy what they receive from the performer in a symbiotic relationship.
Wayne “The Train” Hancock – “Thunderstorms & Neon Signs”
Few songs can evokes mood and reminiscent memory like Hancock’s “Thunderstorms & Neon Signs.” It set the standard for the old-school style of country swing that was so seminal to the formation of underground country. The song’s legacy was cemented when Hank Williams III covered it on his first album Risin’ Outlaw, introducing Wayne Hancock to a whole new audience, and vice versa. “Thunderstorms & Neon Signs” helped cement the underground country movement.
Country music throwback Joey Allcorn, known for his classic style and appreciation for traditional country, is putting together a benefit album for the Hank Williams Museum in Montgomery, AL. Also slated to appear on the album are the Queen of Underground Country, Rachel Brooke, Jake Penrod, David Church, Arty Hill, Andy Norman, and Bobby Tomberlin.
This will not be your usual artist tribute album that includes covers of original songs of the artist being paid tribute to. Instead the project with the working title of Midnight: The Death of Hank Williams will focus more on songs that touch on Hank’s final days and death, and on the other people that surround the Hank Williams death narrative, including Braxton Schuffert, one of Hank’s very first musical mentors, and Charles Carr, the driver for Hank Williams on his famous last ride, and the last person to see Hank Williams alive. Both men passed away earlier this year. Bobby Tomberlin and Arty Hill’s contributions to the project are tribute songs to Charles Carr for example. Braxton Schuffert’s “Rockin’ Chair Daddy” will also be on the album, as well as “Midnight,” which was the last song ever sung by Hank.
As Joey Allcorn explains, the death of Charles Carr, and the very first tribute song ever written to Hank Williams is what inspired the project.
“I stopped by the museum after Charles Carr had died, and they had the lyrics in there to an old song by Jack Cardwell called ‘The Death of Hank Williams.’ “ Allcorn explains. “This is a song that is available now on iTunes, but before iTunes, you couldn’t find this song anywhere. To me it was an interesting song because it was the very first Hank Williams tribute. Nowadays, doing a Hank Williams tribute is just sort of par for the course. This particular song that we’re centering the project around, it just captures a very basic feeling that happens after some sort of tragic event. The lyrics that are on display [in the museum] tell a similar story, because it was a woman in Montgomery who heard the words on the radio as a child, and they meant so much to her that she wrote them down. If you go to the Hank museum, they’re still sitting there by Hank’s Cadillac. It’s the handwritten lyrics of this little girl wrote after hearing this song, and when she was upset or sad.
“So then I had the idea that it would be fun to record that song. I really don’t want to put it on one of my records. I don’t feel like it would fit in. But then I thought I could do it for the museum, and do it as a fundraiser. So I called Beth Petty [at the Hank Williams Museum] and she said that was great because everyone that comes in the museum and reads those lyrics asks where they can get that song on a CD. And the answer is, ‘Nowhere.’”
Joey Allcorn goes on to explain that this benefit album is being released at the nexus of some very important Hank anniversaries.
“This year marks 60 years since Hank’s death and 90 years since his birth. And this year we lost Braxton Schufert who was one of Hank’s mentors, and Charles Carr who was the last person to ever see Hank Williams alive. And the song that me and Rachel [Brooke] are going to do is “Death Is Only A Dream,” which is a really obscure, old Gospel song that Hank said was one of his favorite songs in one of his last interviews. It’s kind of a way to expose the songs within the Hank Williams canon for people who may have not studied it to that level.”
Joey Allcorn has launched a $4,000 indiegogo campaign to help pay for the costs of the tribute album, with the incentives coming from the Hank Williams Museum that the album is going to benefit.
“Every penny of it is going to go to the Hank Williams Museum. The museum is going to be the only place you can get the CD. We’re not going to put it on iTunes or anything like that. You actually have to order it from the museum. I think that crowd funding is a fantastic avenue for projects like this. Personally, I would not want to fund one of my albums this way because I made the choice to be an artist and a singer, and therefore it is my responsibility to find ways to fund my career. I hate to say that because it sounds very disparaging of people that do that, and I understand that not everybody has avenues to get private funding for their albums or whatnot. But to me it seems a lot more honest of a venture if its going to a cause as opposed to an individual.”
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UPDATE: (9/17/13): The Hank Williams Commemorative Album was successfully funded through Indiegogo, raising $5,370 of a $4,000 goal. Today, on the 90th anniversary of the birth of Hank Williams, Joey Allcorn has released the “Death of Hank Williams” song.
We’ve talked about 7 Men Who Could Immediately Make Country Music Better, now let’s take a look at 9 women who could do the same. It’s been well documented that here in 2013, the women of country are outpacing the men when it comes to the quality of music–women like Kacey Musgraves who’ve seen breakout commercial success. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t more women who could still strengthen the substance of country music if only given a chance.
Valerie June positively slayed the audience when unannounced and unexpectedly, she appeared on the 2013 ACM Awards in a duet role with Eric Church during his song “Like Jesus Does.” But that is just the very beginning folks. That moment very well may all be trumped when her album Pushin’ Against A Stone drops August 13th, and it puts her in the elite company of country women leading the creative revolution. Don’t rest on this name. Valerie June will be a force in country music.
If you’re looking for the one person, the one name of a female country artist, or an artist of any gender with a traditional sound that is poised at the brink of breaking into the big time, there’s no better candidate than Ashley Monroe. Signed to a major label, and already on the mainstream’s radar from her work with The Pistol Annies, Ashley is one of the chosen few artists that can run with the big boys on Music Row, but still do it her own way. With sad eyes the size of Cajun tires, a sincere voice inflected with so much pain, and a solidly traditional bent to her songwriting, she may be just one breakout song away from taking traditional country big time. Fingers crossed.
A somewhat accidental band that has become a powerhouse of the Texas music scene, The Trishas score high on every one of the major music food groups. Class, character, creativity, four-part harmonies, fully-developed songwriting, and maybe most importantly, the fun atmosphere that can develop when you toss four talented ladies into a tight knit group. They are The Dixie Chicks for the new century, and the Pistol Annies for the rest of us.
It’s said all of the time. “Be yourself.” But it’s amazing how we get so sidetracked from this maxim as we chase shallow measures of success. I don’t know that anyone had a solid grasp on who Holly Williams was, maybe not even Holly Williams herself, until she decided to shirk herself of wrangling label producers and the expectations of what being the offspring of country royalty should be and just simply opened up a window to her soul and started singing. Her latest album The Highway has put her right there in the mix of strong country women attempting to lead the music in a more substantive direction, and it’s hard not to look at her last name and not consider the potential that pedigree affords.
Rachel Brooke is the Emmylou Harris of our time, it’s just that the greater country music world has yet to wake up to that truth. You listen to her albums, or maybe more importantly the albums of others that she appears on, and you get that same tingly feeling on the back of your neck you did the first heard Emmylou harmonize with Gram on Grevious Angel. Rachel’s voice should be all over country albums. She should be criss crossing the continent contributing to studio sessions, while in the meantime cutting her own critically-acclaimed records. Rachel’s voice is a national resource that’s downright criminal for us not to tap.
Don’t look now, but Shovels & Rope just recorded an episode of Austin City Limits, played Letterman a while back, and has been rocketing up the music ladder like no other band of their ragtag stature I have ever seen. In the vacuum of the The Civil Wars hiatus, Shovels & Rope and their authentic, gritty, and sweaty music has touched the mother of all nerves of music fans, and Carry Ann Hearst is the primary catalyst for it all. With a voice like Loretta and songwriting chops like Dolly, she’s threatening to take Shovels & Rope to a whole new level for dirty roots music.
With only one word to describe Lindi Ortega, I would pick “stunning.” I don’t know if she could ever atone for all the sins of her fellow female Canadian country singer Shania Twain perpetrated on the genre, but Lindi’s style is something that is both hip and classic, and cuts across traditional lines of taste to bridge fans of any good music. Lindi’s fierce independent streak is probably something that will always keep her hovering more around the independent channels of music, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t have a voice and songs fit for the masses that are so malnourished by their mainstream radio diet.
These absolutely spellbinding sisters from Sweden are a perfect example of how you can take a sincere passion for the traditional foundations of country music, and infuse them with a more progressive, more modern sound to make them universally relevant to the current ear. Their close harmonies and ear for composition are unparalleled in country music right now.
Yes, compared to many struggling up-and-coming artists, including many of the other names on this list, Kellie Pickler has already seen her fair share of the spotlight. But she left all of that behind to pursue her passion for traditional country music, and became saddled by a label unwilling to give her music the attention it deserved; music that when listened to, baffles the mind on how it went so ignored by country radio. If simply given the opportunity, “Kellie country” could crash the pop party at the top of the country charts. Whereas for some other artists their reality show pasts have become a burden to finding acceptance from critics and true country fans, Kellie is using it like a Trojan horse. She’s one of the top leaders on this season’s Dancing With The Stars, and combined with her American Idol celebrity cred, she could inflict some serious damage on creatively-bankrupt music from her combination of celebrity and substance. Go Kellie!
Other women who could bring more quality to country: Caitlin Rose, Elizabeth Cook, Sarah Gayle Meech, Amber Digby, The Carper Family, Zoe Muth, Kasey Chambers, Brandi Carlile, Star Anna, The Secret Sisters, Paige Anderson, Sarah Jarosz …
For a couple of years now, a nasty rumor has prevailed on the dirty internet that I would quote “NEVER (in all caps) mention Fifth on the Floor.” Of course the perpetrators of that rumor failed to recognize that before it even started, I was playing the band’s song “Distant Memory Lane” on my KOOK radio show out of Junction, TX at the time. It wasn’t because of some preconceived bias against the band that I decided not to write a review for their last album Dark and Bloody Ground, it was because despite my appreciation for “Distant Memory Lane” and a few of their other songs, I felt Fifth on the Floor’s effort was average. And being Southern rock by their own definition somewhat put it out of my jurisdiction to begin with. I review albums that I can find words for. This requisite precludes many albums from being reviewed, even good and great ones.
Ashes & Angels as a whole is a more solid offering from the Kentucky-based band, but again suffers somewhat from the same issues of their previous work. You get the sense when listening to Fifth on the Floor that they really want to be professional musicians for a living, and work really hard towards that goal. This is opposed to playing music for life, as an undying necessity for sanity and self-preservation that tends to result in wholly original expressions of breathtaking impact on the heart and mind.
Though it wouldn’t be fair to call all Fifth on the Floor’s songs and words cliche, they hover just slightly above this label, residing in well-worn lyrical grooves. In Southern rock this is acceptable, a lot more acceptable than it is in country because Southern rock tends to build out from the guitar riff. But since Fifth on the Floor dabbles in country a lot more than your average Southern rock band, it brings this criticism of lyrical quality into play. At the same time, the new paradigm for Southern rock bands here in 2013 is to be more progressive lyrically, and this is evidenced in bands like Lee Bains III & The Glory Fires, The Alabama Shakes, and Glossary as examples. Fifth on the Floor fits more of the old school classification of Southern rock, but even Lynyrd Skynyrd had their moments of thoughtful and original soliloquy. Fifth on the Floor seems to be trying to achieve moments of depth, and sometimes they do. Sometimes. If they exclusively presented themselves as a “fun band,” that would render deep lyrical criticism as unwarranted.
Shooter Jennings produced this album, and even if you tried you couldn’t get away from that fact. In much of the verbiage and marketing accompanying this album, Shooter’s name is presented before the name of the band or the album. This is pretty uncommon in music, but not unheard of. It is done with T Bone Burnett and a few other producers, but always feels like a disservice and a sign of disrespect to a band. The name of a producer should never be more than an interesting footnote, and never the most forward piece of information presented by a project. In fairness to Shooter Jennings, this is likely not his fault. Label reps and publicists tend to focus in on big names involved in projects to buzz them in the media.
As evidenced by Ashes & Angels, Fifth on the Floor doesn’t need to piggy back off of any name. They are a tight knit group of musician friends with formidable musical skills and a top notch ear for arrangement and composition. Despite the average songwriting effort– an effort that still boast some elevated moments–the appeal for this band rests in their ability to get you to lose yourself in the music. And it could be said that the only reason you recognize the lyrical shortcomings is because the music is so good. The music of songs like “Whiskey” and “Burnin’ Nashville Down” is superb, but the lyrics give you the sense that you’ve heard this one before…a few times before.
There’s a set of very curious musical decisions on Ashes & Angels as well–efforts at boldness that in places are pulled off, and others that make you crook your neck like a dog when they hear a strange sound. In a couple of instances, this album makes you want to outright cover your ears with attention-grabbing incongruent guitar interjections that interrupt the mood and groove of the song. It would be easy to blame Shooter Jennings for these miscues, and they do match the signature of similar elements on Shooter’s last two albums. But we don’t know that to be the case. In the end it’s Fifth on the Floor’s name on the front of the album, and they deserve all credit or blame.
The song “Shotgun” is going along just fine until the slide guitar begins to careen out-of-control, ending in a dissonant and obnoxiously-loud screech. This same approach rears its ugly head again in “Wild Child” when an extremely loud, high-octave assault of the eardrum transpires out of nowhere. The beginning of “One Big Holiday” is when I finally began to identify with Fifth on the Floor’s songwriting, but then come to discover it is a My Morning Jacket cover, and then here comes this overly-processed guitar scream in what is supposed to be a sincere and subtle song.
Beyond the awfulness of the performances, these elements are way too loud in the mix, more loud than your average guitar solo, like they are meant to be the most prominent ingredient on the album. Instead they constitute the music version of fake hustle. Fifth on the Floor is manned by good players, so why resort to bits and acrobatic music stunts for attention? The instrumental “The Last Opry” may also fall into this category for some, but in this instance the performance is all tone, evoking the mud dripping roots of the music in a rousing and engulfing experience of sound. This was the approach some of the other solos begged for, but instead received the Steve Vai stunt guitar treatment.
One of the greatest moments in Ashes & Angels is when the angelic Rachel Brooke lends her voice to possibly the album’s most well-written song “Wine.” If anyone needed yet another piece of evidence that Rachel Brooke should be bestowing her tone to music projects far and wide, here it is, and the lyrics of the song rise up to meet Rachel’s timeless contribution. But her duet partner and Fifth on the Floor’s primary vocalist Justin Wells, who throughout the album delivers really energetic performances, gets unnecessarily timid around Rachel, making an uninspired and eepish counterpart instead of meeting Rachel’s challenge. Maybe Justin didn’t want to get in her way, but if that was the case, he shouldn’t have sung at all instead of stumbling around with the task.
Yes, I have a lot of criticisms of this album, but in the end music is there to be enjoyed, and when skipping over certain decisions pertaining to this album, Ashes & Angels is a very enjoyable work, maybe even more enjoyable than the heady poeticism of some of the more progressive Southern rock bands. Like all Southern rock bands must possess, there’s a kinship here amongst Fifth on the Floor’s members that translates into their songs and recordings, giving them an infectious and fun vibe. This is music you feel a part of. It is easy to identify with and relate to. Fifth on the Floor possess an intuitive sense of what sounds good to the Southern ear, and an elevated musical skill set to pull it off.
“Whiskey” is a really enjoyable, straightforward country jam that you can’t help but get your arms swinging to. The aforementioned “The Last Opry” might be one of the album’s best autonomous performances. “Wine” is one for the ages, and may have been even without Rachel Brooke’s participation, as would be “One Big Holiday” sans the synthesized guitar solo.
But I want more from this band. There’s too much music, and too many bands out there right now to be nothing less than wholly original and strikingly bold. And not bold with strange, risky wank-off guitar moments, but with deep down expressions evoked from the inner depths of the human soul–expressions that meet the music Fifth on the Floor is throwing down. 2013 is not the year of the guitar, it is the year of the song.
In the end, there’s more to like on this album then there is to not like.
1 1/4 of 2 guns up.
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The Independent Music Awards has announced their 12th Annual nominations, and it includes many great names from the independent country/roots world like Rachel Brooke, The Boomswagglers, Lucky Tubb, The Steel Wheels, Tom VandenAvond, JP Harris, Langhorn Slim, and The Carper Family just to name a few.
Celebrating the democracy of creativity and meritocracy of talent, The Independent Music Awards honor exceptional independent artists traditionally ignored by mainstream media and big box retailers. For the past 12 years, artists and labels from around the world have found new fans and prominence through The Independent Music Awards. Winners will be determined by a panel of judges that include varying talent from the independent music world, including Tom Waits, Del McCoury, Jim Lauderdale, Brandi Carlisle, “Weird Al” Yankovic, and Kevin Lyman from the Van’s Warped Tour. Fans can also register to vote.
The Independent Music Awards nominate albums and songs from nearly every genre of music and include many international artists. Here are the nominees most relevant to the Saving Country Music world. Who would you vote for?
|Alt. Country||Jason McNiff||April Cruel|
|Kids From Nowhere||Kick It In|
|Langhorne Slim & The Law*||The Way We Move|
|Mama Rosin||Bye Bye Bayou|
|The Great Unknowns||Homefront|
|Americana||Deanna Cartea||Open Road|
|Evie Ladin Band||Evie Ladin Band|
|The Steel Wheels*||Lay Down, Lay Low|
|Tom VandenAvond||Wreck of a Fine Man|
|Bluegrass||Collin Ingram||Pavement Ends|
|Stephen Wade||Banjo Diary: Lessons from Tradition|
|The Dust Busters with John Cohen*||Old Man Below|
|Blues||Little Freddie King||Chasing tha Blues|
|Rachel Brooke*||A Killer’s Dream|
|Teresa James & The Rhythm Tramps||Come On Home|
|Tom Feldmann||Lone Wolf Blues|
|Country||JP Harris and The Tough Choices||I’ll Keep Calling|
|Katie Quick||Valley Between Love|
|Whisky Row||Whisky Row|
|Alt. Country||Bronwen Exter||Poor Quentin|
|Langhorne Slim & The Law*||The Way We Move|
|Lucky Tubb & The Modern Day Troubadours||Heard Your Name|
|The Boomswagglers||Run You Down|
|Tom Freund||Cruel Cruel World|
|Americana||Ana Egge||Hole in Your Halo|
|Lily & The Parlour Tricks||Darwin Song|
|Suzie Brown*||I’ll Be Gone|
|The Carper Family||Cold, Dark, and Lonely|
|The Western Swing Authority||I’ve Got a Feelin’|
|Bluegrass||Beef Tea||Bring Me Along|
|Mark Linford, Denny Johnston & The Buckeye Bluegrass Band||It’s Okay To Pick It|
|Matt Harlan||Darker Shade of Grey|
|The Dust Busters with John Cohen*||Because He Loved Her So|
|Truman’s Ridge||Heather’s Gate|
|Blues||Amanda Broadway||Somethin’ Funny Goin’ On|
|Fife & Drom||Wicked Tongue|
|Fiona Boyes||Baptized in Muddy’s Sweat|
|Root Doctor Featuring Freddie Cunningham||The Message|
|Country||Bryen Willems||Hello Beer|
|James Meadows||Somebody Up There Likes Me|
|Rachel Potter||The Verdict|
|Shari Rowe||Silly Boy|
|The Rob Ryan Roadshow||Good For Nothing|
The winners for the 12th annual Independent Music Awards have been announced! See complete list of winners.
“Country must evolve” is the way it is sold to the country music public when pop and hip-hop influences are invited into the country music fold. What these folks fail to point out is that country has been trying to evolve for 30 some odd years right under their noses, and instead of incorporating this creativity and innovation into country that could spurn a broadening of the country music tent, these artist who’ve crafted ways to both respect the roots of country yet push them forward have been excommunicated for years to alt-country, and are now being gobbled up by the all-encompassing “Americana” term, robbing country of some of the most premium talent the roots world has to offer.
And when you look at the gaggle of artists that are combining the country roots of the past with the present and future, it tends to be strong, beautiful, and talented women leading that charge. Where the trend started may depend on who you ask. I would point to Emmylou Harris‘s Wrecking Ball era with the atmospheric approach, but I’m sure some other jumping off points could be found. Lucinda Williams, Gillian Welch, Neko Case, and Iris Dement certainly deserve some credit as well. The men of progressive country, like Béla Fleck and the current-era Punch Brothers are impressive specimens of musical aptitude no doubt, but tend to lack the accessibility the women are able to display without compromising artistic expression or prowess.
Many of these women started out as young promising talents, many specifically as musicians, before being forced out by the mainstream country genre that seems to be obsessed with male machismo and the women that pander to it. There are strong women in country no doubt, but in the progressive country world, strong women rule the roost.
Are you looking for true progress and evolution in country music? Look no further than the list of women below.
The former fiddle player with Chris Thile (The Punch Brothers) in Nickel Creek, Sara put out an excellent progressive country album in 2012 called Sun Midnight Sun that showcased progressive elements mixed with classic country roots influences, maybe best displayed in the opening instrumental track, “The Foothills.” Sara shined amongst the boys, but away from them, she bloomed.
As the gentler half of the Americana super couple with Jason Isbell (I think they also secretly fight crime in their free time), Amanda Shires was a country music fiddle prodigy that veered toward Americana as she matured. Amanda has become a major influence of how to integrate a true love and passion for country’s roots with a new-school, progressive understanding of where roots music is going. You couldn’t take the country out of her voice if you tried, and integrating it with an atmospheric approach to music stimulates sheer wonder.
With her song “Merry Go ‘Round” stuck in the Billboard charts for what seems like an eternity, and a summer tour coming up with Kenny Chesney, Kacey Musgraves proves that progressive country can be commercially viable if it is only given a chance. Kacey Musgraves gives you hope for country music, and the non-conforminst, non-formulaic music that she composes.
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This sister duo from Sweden is an example of how country is missing out on a lot of commercial potential and the possibility of creating beach heads in other countries and cultures. Seen as pop stars in Scandinavia, their ability to conjure up the close harmonic bliss of The Carter Family in songs that still communicate new-school, relevant sensibilities, First Aid Kit can appeal to country fans of all ages.
The “Queen of Underground Country” whose risen with her last album A Killer’s Dream to become one of Americana’s most promising upcoming women, Rachel’s timeless voice could be a tireless resource for country music on her own music, and as a contributor to the music of others. Influenced just as much by Hank Williams and The Carter Family as Tom Waits and The Beach Boys, Rachel Brooke proves there’s still many avenues under the “country” umbrella still left to explore.
Coming from a strong songwriting pedigree (hit maker Liz Rose is her mother), Caitlin Rose and her singular voice is capable of stunning the listener, while their heart is captured by Caitlin’s sincere stories. Steel guitar and a strong country background mixed with influences from the indie rock world create Caitlin’s unique approach that is only limited in commercial success by the power brokers on Music Row letting it through.
Like Amanda Shires and Sara Watkins, Abigail Washburn is a musician first; a master of the clawhammer banjo discipline who steered toward the more progressive side of country as she came up through the ranks. Starting off in the all-girl quartet Uncle Earl on Rounder Records, and then releasing her first solo album Song of the Traveling Daughter produced by Béla Fleck, Washburn is an example of how country instrumentation and a more reserved, intelligent approach can intermix into a sustainable future for country music that integrates more refined listeners.
Yet another young female fiddle prodigy who was the youngest invited fiddle player ever on the Grand Ole Opry, she grew up sharing the stage with Willie Nelson, Asleep At The Wheel, and Dale Watson. Ruby has now moved to the more progressive side of the roots world as possibly one of the one of the most-talented violin players in the world. Her potential is endless.
The smoky, jazzy, Houston, TX native with a unique voice has an impressive catalog of songs that illustrate the heavy handed, yet spatial mark of progressive country. A founding member of the Be Good Tanya’s, Jolie Holland is the artist other progressive country artists listen to, winning the praises of many of her peers, including fellow ANTI label mate, Tom Waits.
Another young, up-and-coming artist whose worth watching, Paige has played for years in her family band Anderson Family Bluegrass as a front person and a flat-picking guitar maestro. Her latest project with her brother and sister called The Fearless Kin just released a new EP. Having played the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival and on Chuck Ragan’s “Revival Tour,” Paige Anderson is versatile if nothing else, and when it comes to writing songs, she pulls from a varying tapestry of influences–the mark of the progressive country approach.
The Austin, TX native has already signed to Sugar Hill Records and been nominated for a Grammy at only 21. A superb talent on the mandolin that can also handle the banjo, guitar, and just about anything with strings, her debut album Song Up In Her Head featured Chris Thile, Stuart Duncan, Darrell Scoot, and Jerry Douglas. Béla Fleck appeared on her follow up, Follow Me Down. An excellent songwriter, Sarah has a bright future in the realm of progressive country.
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Other women helping to evolve country music: Zoe Muth, Lydia Loveless, Lindi Ortega, The Trishas, Kasey Chambers, Brandi Carlile, Star Anna, The Secret Sisters, Those Darlins….
Who are some other women leading the evolution of country?
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.
One of the most remarkable music events of 2012 must be how Nashville and some of its biggest, most bloated and notorious corporate citizens did the inexplicable: they began to tackle the issue of the massive talent glut in American roots music. As big record labels continue to tighten their ships, and radio companies like Clear Channel continue to buy up radio stations all around the country and nationalize programming, the ability for America’s major media companies to offer true choices in content continues to diminish. And when it comes to radio, the issue is likely effecting rural areas and country listeners disproportionately.
T Bone Burnett, renown music producer and the music director for ABC’s new television drama Nashville spelled out the problem in October, right before the Nashville series started.
Because the bottleneck of commercial country radio is so profound, there’s a wealth of incredible material laying around town. This is a big surprise to me, how many extraordinary songs we’ve been able to find. An industrial amount of bad songs, to be sure, but a surprising amount of really good, handcrafted, personal songs that people are willing to share with us because there’s no longer a platform for them to share their music at all. I hope that we become the platform for the people who are writing from their whole hearts.
And that is exactly what the Nashville show has become, pushing independent music from artists as varying as The Civil Wars, Lindi Ortega, and Shovels & Rope. In a recent article in The Tennessean, musician and writer Peter Cooper asked about Nashville, “How come the country music in a soap opera, sung by actors, is better than what I hear on mainstream country radio?”
When talking about Nashville, I often have to explain that I don’t “like” the show, and don’t even recommend people watch it. But that’s different from understanding the importance and power of an outlet like Nashville, and how its opening up tremendous opportunities for some independent artists.
And who owns ABC? Disney does, the largest media conglomerate in the world. Who is helping fund Nashville? Ryman Hospitality (previously Gaylord Entertainment), which owns The Grand Ole Opry and has been notorious for ignoring aging and emerging talent over the last few years.
And not to be outdone, another subsidiary of a massive media conglomerate based in Nashville, Viacom’s CMT, has figured out how to get on the independent music bandwagon by launching their new outlet with an emphasis on the legendary and the unknown, CMT Edge. 6 months ago, it would have been unfathomable to see an artist like Rachel Brooke featured on anything related to CMT. Now CMT Edge is digging deep, and doing what they can to shine a bigger light on music from the Americana world to aging greats.
Sony ATV, Nashville’s biggest music publisher, just announced a new program called Nashville Guitars and Bars meant to showcase budding talent coming up in the singer/songwriter ranks.
All of a sudden the big boys in the media business are playing a part in re-populating the country and roots music farm system that for years has been anemic and ignored. Why?
Because as I and others have asserted for years, there is commercial viability in independent music. No, of course it is not as financially lucrative as artists like Tim McGraw or Toby Keith, but that doesn’t mean that companies cannot create revenue by either helping to manufacture this music, or promote it or cover it. And as time goes on and the ranks of listeners disenfranchised with corporate music and its inherent lack of choice continues to grow, the trends favor independent music becoming even more popular in the coming years.
There is money in independent music, no matter how much independent fans might want to grovel over its monetization. Fans and artists have a right to be speculative of the intentions of some of these Nashville institutions wanting a piece of the action, seeing how their closed doors and derelict attitudes towards artistic expression and creative freedom is part of the reason an independent movement in music exists in the first place.
For years people have thought of Nashville as the home of corporate music, and that’s still true. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a rapidly-growing independent scene on Nashville’s east side and in other spots around the city. The word from many of the folks on the inside looking out is that Nashville has long surpassed Austin as the epicenter for independent roots music, despite Music City still being the home of Music Row and many other trappings of the mainstream music business.
I was as speculative as anyone about the intentions and viability of outlets like ABC’s Nashville or CMT Edge, and will probably continue to keep one suspicious eye turned in their direction. But for now, they appear to be working from a sincere approach of broadening musical perspectives and choices.
I’ve always said that all that independent, up-and-coming artists need is a chance. You put the good stuff right next to the stuff people are force fed through Clear Channel radio and they will begin to make better choices. Finally here in 2012, those choices are being made available through mainstream outlets, and the glut of viable artists and credible content pushing at the edges of Nashville like a balloon ready to burst is finally being alleviated by new outlets channeling real music to hungry ears. Without question more needs to be done, but this is a good start.
Here is the list of 25 albums Saving Country Music deems essential for 2012 listening, and then I added an extra one I couldn’t leave off. Please note this list only includes albums that have been reviewed so far. There are a few more good and important albums in 2012 that have yet to be reviewed. The first 7 albums on the list (from Little Victories to Lee Bains) were all serious considerations for Saving Country Music’s Album of the Year. PLEASE NOTE: None of the Album of the Year candidates are included on this list, so look over there before complaining about omissions. After the first 7 albums, they are listed in the order the albums were reviewed, not in order based on recommendation/quality/etc.
Saving Country Music reviewed twice as many albums as it did last year, but it is impossible to review everything. As always, your feedback is encouraged. What are your essential albums? What did we miss? What was released in 2012 that deserves a review? Please leave your feedback below.
Chris Knight – Little Victories
Every year there is one album and artist that admittedly gets screwed when it comes to Saving Country Music’s bigger awards, and this is the one that gets named the “Most Essential” album for a given year. This year, it is Chris Knight’s Little Victories.
“This is the exact album that the United States of America needs right here, right now, at this very moment in time. Finally, someone has the courage and the wisdom to use music to reassure people of the power of individual will, and the beauty of the rising action embedded in every human soul instead of as a vehicle to lay blame on everyone else for the problems the individual faces.
Little Victories is a big victory for Chris Knight, for country music, and for the level-headed, wise approach to life in an overly-politicized world.” (read full review)
Ray Wylie Hubbard – The Grifter’s Hymnal
“If there’s honor amongst thieves, then it only seems fitting there should be a Grifter’s Hymnal. And if there’s going to be a Grifter’s Hymnal, it’s only fitting Ray Wylie Hubbard should compose it. The ingredients of grifters are already mixed there on his palette: Tales of dead and dying things and dens of iniquity, the struggle or the soul between good and evil, and the difficulty sometimes of telling the two apart. But to have a hymnal you also must have a message, and you must be able to convey that message with eloquence, poetical prowess, wit and rhyme. Well don’t worry, it’s all here. Just open it up and sing along.” (read full review)
Rachel Brooke – A Killer’s Dream
“Rachel Brooke is one of the few select artist with enough mustard to rise out of the ashes of the country music underground and become a force in the greater roots world. Like an early Emmylou Harris, the music industry should be shuttling her across the country to lend her singular vocal texture to other projects in between putting out excellent solo albums that time finds hard to forget.
“How to grow and evolve yet still hold on to what makes you unique and who you truly are is the balance all artists must attain to continue to move forward. Rachel shows she’s up to these alchemical feats in A Killer’s Dream, and proves that she’s musical gold, worthy of the attention of the greater Americana / roots world.” (read full review)
Justin Townes Earle – Nothing’s Gonna Change The Way You Feel About Me Now
I thought this was an album of great songs, but not a great album if that makes sense. The whole Memphis vibe Earle tried to conjure worked at times, and didn’t at others. But you can’t deny the power of songs like “Unfortunately, Anna”, “Maria”, or “It Won’t Be The Last Time”. Anybody who says this is their favorite album of 2012, I wouldn’t argue with. Very solid offering from Justin Townes Earle.
“There is not a bad song on this album. We see JTE return to the honest, heavy-hearted songwriting that has become his signature. Though this album is hard to warm up to. JTE’s voice may come across as unusual at first, maybe even weak, and the production may seem out-of-place or even droning because it is such an unusual approach for him, or any artist originating out of the Americana world. But when you give it time, it all starts to work. I think time will be a great ally of this album, just as much as the short-term may be a hindrance.” (read full review)
The Calamity Cubes – Old World’s Ocean
“‘Old World’s Ocean’ puts The Calamity Cubes’ bevy of talents on glorious display. Excellent songwriting is conveyed through flawless vocal performances and inventive music. By being unafraid to display their vulnerabilities, yet having an inherent rawness to their music and releasing it through one of the most “hardcore” labels in roots circles in the form of Farmageddon Records, The Calamity Cubes create a unique and important nexus in string-based roots music, and do so while putting out creative, innovative, and entertaining tunes that touch all parts of the musical anatomy.” (read full review)
Marty Stuart - Nashville Vol.1 Tear The Woodpile Down
“Marty Stuart is on an amazing roll ladies and gentlemen. What he’s doing right now with lead guitar player “Cousin” Kenny Vaughan and The Fabulous Superlatives is stuff that legends are made of. You know those periods in an artists’ career that you look back on like they can’t do wrong, churning out amazing songs and albums one after another? Hank Jr. from Whiskey Bent & Hell Bound to The Pressure Is On, Willie & Waylon after they’d shaken loose from the grips of RCA in the mid 70′s. That’s the kind of epic and influential period were in the midst of right now with Marty Stuart, and what a blessing it is to realize this and to be able to experience it all in the present instead of trying to relive it through the past.” (Read full review)
Lee Bains & The Glory Fires – There’s A Bomb In Gillead
“This is an explosively-energetic album with influences and styles pulling from a wide range of American music. Lee Bains is well-versed in Southern modes from both sides of the tracks, and shows tremendous versatility in being able to conjure up the smoky mood of a blues singer, and the sweaty twang of a Southern rocker in the space of a breath, with The Glory Fires right on his heels with their authentic, spot-on sonic interpretations.” (read full review)
Paige Anderson & The Fearless Kin – Wild Rabbit
“One hard and fast rule around Saving Country Music is that I don’t review EP’s except for in “extreme cases.” There’s just too much music out there these days to consider half efforts, and in many cases, this is what EP’s are. I know they’re the hip thing, and a quicker way to get singles to fans in the digital age. But there’s something sacred about the album concept that I’m unwilling to let go of. So what is an “extreme case?” Well in 5 or so years, not once have I had an EP cross my desk that I felt qualified. Until now.
“Wild Rabbit is a remarkable collection of songs that illustrate all of Paige Anderson’s singular talents, including her solitary prowess as a female flatpicking guitar player; an attribute that has landed her numerous features in Flatpicking Guitar magazine and other periodicals. But her voice is what threatens to steal the spotlight, with its inherent conveyance of pain in a tone that is both youthful and old, wildly unique and undeniably accessible.” (read full review)
Joe Buck – Who Dat?
“‘Who Dat’ is a completely different direction for Joe Buck, while still being exactly what he’s always done. That’s the root genius of it. Yes, without question this album is a lot more tame, more tame than even ‘Piss & Vinegar’. But what this approach does is bring out the roar of quiet anger. In many ways, even though this album features much less distortion and more singing than shouting or screaming, it’s even harder, even more disillusioned and unbalanced as a byproduct of it’s muted approach. Joe Buck’s anger isn’t as obvious, it is seething beneath the surface, boiling and permeating these recordings with an unsettled feeling, like a pressure tank ready to burst. (read full review)
The Foghorn Stringband – Outshine The Sun
“‘Outshine the Sun’ is an excellent album, and where it makes its mark is in the positivity of its message. There are many bands these days digging up old standards from The Carter Family, The Stanley Brothers and the like, but that tend to seek out the darkness in roots music; songs about muder, and preferrably cocaine if you can find them, because they feel like those themes are what keep the music relevant.
“‘Outshine the Sun’ works boldly in the opposite direction, presenting the cheerful side of the roots from its formative years, in the lyrical content, and in the modes of the music, with bright, frolicking and fun compositions and instrumentals that make this a fresh approach to the roots despite the vintage age of the material. I grimaced when I saw 21 tracks on this album. I mean did they expect to hold my attention for that long? But they did, and they do by the sheer talent of the Foghorn roster, and the sincerity of their approach.” (read full review)
Rev. Peyton’s Big Damn Band – Between The Ditches
“I swear, it is almost like Reverend Peyton had a little window into my brain when making Between The Ditches, because virtually every one of the concerns I had about their sound going in was resolved, while still keeping what is at the heart of their raucous and rowdy Delta-blues sound completely alive.
“For an underground roots band, Reverend Peyton is “making it.” Worming their way on to the Warped Tour and opening for The Reverend Horton Heat, they’ve found some traction with their music by working hard and taking a professional approach as opposed to compromising their sound. That is what’s great about Between The Ditches. It’s not a change, it is a refinement. Thought Rev. Peyton still has the same bellowy voice, he’s figured out how to employ it better, keep it in check when it could be grating. Though the repetitiveness in some of the lyrics remains, it’s measured. And though there’s still the Vaudevillian feel, there seems to be new value put on the music over the show.” (read full review)
Sara Watkins - Sun Midnight Sun
“For me, Sun Midnight Sun was one of those albums that had some good songs that I latched on to, but the project never stuck to me as a whole. But those few songs though, let me tell you. I’m libel to recycle them over and over in one setting until I feel stupid about it. The opening track “The Foothills” may be the leader in the clubhouse for instrumental track of the year. This amazing folk/bluegrass composition is built in layers like a buttermilk biscuit. They stack upon each other gradually and meld in unison through a recording technique sure to be asked for its recipe by distinguishing ears for years to come. And beneath all of that is a heavy, progressive world-beat that burrows straight into your primal nerves.” (read full review)
Billy Don Burns – Nights When I’m Sober
“There are great songwriters, and then there are songwriters that define the apogee of the craft, songwriters like Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt…and Billy Don Burns. There are songs on Nights When I’m Sober that will rip at your heart like nothing else. There’s a great variety on the album with sweet songs and fun songs. And where Billy Don elevates the stakes is in the production and approach to each composition. With producer/guitar player Aaron Rodgers, they reinvigorate the late-era, rock-infused Outlaw sound that had Haggard and Paycheck seeking Billy Don’s services. (read full review)
James Leg & Left Lane Cruiser – Painkillers
“Listen to me folks, GET THIS ALBUM! I know it’s my job as some high fallutin’ music writer to come up with a bunch of stuff to say about music. But after listening to Painkillers, if I were you, I’d skip all the gabbing and just go get it. And then find the biggest, loudest audio player you can procure and crank it to 10. If you want to flatter me, come back and read the rest at some other point.
“‘Painkillers’ isn’t just a catchy idea to sketch some cover art around, it is the idea this album is built from, to take a bunch of timeless, kick ass songs, give them the dirty, heavy-handed Left Lane Cruiser/James leg punk blues treatment, with the result being an album that is perfectly concocted to kill pain. That’s what’s so genius about it. If they had released a batch of original songs under this concept, the painkilling would just be a placebo. By taking songs we all know and love already, songs that mean something to us, the medicine is potent, fast-acting, striking right at your gut.” (read full review)
Don Williams – And So It Goes
“This album has the ability to stimulate memory and reflection without coming across as dated or even nostalgic. This was the wisdom of going back and using Don’s original producer of Garth Fundis on this album. ‘And So It Goes’ is like an ice cream cone your grandfather bought you, the smell of your grandparent’s house, a tire swing on an old tree, the shade of the light when it hits a golden meadow just right at the turning of spring or fall.
‘”And So It Goes’ simply sends you to this soft place, and makes you second guess yourself if you overlooked some mainstream 70′s and 80′s country for lacking substance. It makes you wonder just how many of those Don Williams #1′s can you name. Not all of them? Well you better start digging and see what you missed.” (read full review)
Joseph Huber – Tongues of Fire
“”And that is what imbibes ‘Tongues of Fire’ with that intangible thing that makes certain albums feel warm to you. This album is about Joe searching and finding that sense of balance and purpose, while still recognizing that certain wild desires are there and will always be.
Though on the surface ‘Tongues of Fire’ may seem like a less poetic approach, after a few listens you find the poetry very much alive in songs like “An Old Mountain Tune” and “Dance Around The Daggers”. “Iron Rail” seems to speak to the hopeless, caged feeling Joe may have been laboring under in .357, while the theme can speak to frustrations in all of us. “Fell Off the Wagon” is the outright fun song that was lacking from Joe’s first release. And just about the time you wonder where Huber’s signature blazing banjo is on this album, here comes “Walkin’ Fine”.” (read full review)
Tom VandenAvond – Wreck of a Fine Man
“VandenAvond is a pure songwriter. As much as people love to babble on about how songwriting is such a noble art and pat their favorite artists on the back for being so great at it, few delve into the inner workings of the craft like Tom VandenAvond. Comparisons are made to Dylan because of VandenAvond’s voice. Artists comparisons are rarely fair to either side, yet this one is understandable because just like Dylan, VandenAvond is a writer that sings, not a singer that writes. When it feels like the music is getting in the way of the story, this can be a symptom of an upper stratosphere songwriter who it sometimes takes interpretations of their songs from other artists to make their work accessible to the wider public.” (read full review)
JP Harris & The Tough Choices – I’ll Keep Calling
“This true, honky-tonk, hard country music, with a little Western swing and rockabilly mixed in. Songs like “Badly Bent” and “Cross Your Name” tell hard-nosed stories that don’t need heavy language to drive home their heartbroken themes, and the up-tempo “Take It Back” and “Gear Jammin’ Daddy” gives this album a good variety and spice that keep it engaging throughout. All of these songs could be labeled cliche, but they’re so good, it’s hard to.
Can a long-bearded boy from Vermont make real country music? Can songs about letters stamped “Return To Sender” and and shots of whiskey to drown sorrow still be relevant? If I’ll Keep Calling is any indication, the answer is an adamant “Yes!”” (Read full review)
Willie Nelson- Heroes
This is truly a good album. It’s easy to look at it and say, “Well I’m a Willie fan so I guess I will like it,” but this is the best album he has put out in years, with great contributions from Willie’s son Lukas.
“As I said in my review of Lukas’s latest album, he is the offspring most rich with Willie blood, with top-shelf guitar playing abilities all his own to boot. If you want to know what a rock & roll version of Willie would be, look to Lukas. Close your eyes when Lukas is singing, and you can almost see Willie, with Lukas’s natural, high-register tone, and perfect pitch and control that doesn’t ape Willie, but evokes his memory.
“This album is good both because it is Willie, and because it is good. After years of navigating through a gray area in his career and having to dabble with some record labels probably less able to do a Willie release justice, he’s back with the same company who released ‘Red Headed Stranger’, and back to making albums worthy of the world stopping down to pay attention to.” (Read full review)
The Alabama Shakes – Boys & Girls
“This rootsy, soulful rock band is bound together by the force known as Brittany Howard, part Janis Joplin, part Kimya Dawson, both poetic, and fanatically possessed. Whenever I think of the true embodiment of the word “soul” I think of an old black woman. Whether it’s an old black female singer, or young white male guitar player, if they truly want to have soul, they must have an old black woman trapped inside of them somewhere, with 1,000 injustices fighting back tears in world-torn eyes, and infinite wisdom bred from bad choices by the self and others. Soul is anger only semi-controlled, and that is what Brittany Howard has. (“I’ll fight the planet!” she proclaims in the song “Heartbreaker”. )” (Read full review)
Jackson Taylor & The Sinners – Bad Juju
“This fiery, unfettered, full tilt assault on country music strikes that perfect chord of being both inescapably familiar yet remarkably fresh. Johnny Cash on cocaine may be the most appropriate description. More Memphis than Nashville, more madness than melancholy. But moreover, ‘Bad Juju’ is just one hell of a good time.
“This is fun music in the truest sense of the term. You don’t conjure up Bad Juju to commiserate with your pain, you conjure it up to forget about it. Jackson Taylor & The Sinners found their mojo by stripping it back to the simplest of lineups: Acoustic guitar and vocals, lead guitar, and drums. And when they found that mojo, they stuck with it, refined it, worked at it until it was perfect and its power both undeniable and universal on the human body.” (Read full review)
McDougall – A Few Towns More
“Scott McDougall from Portland, OR might be the last of the true Romantic-era troubadours: a bardic-like, almost fantasy character that arrives in town with a bass drum on his back and guitar in hand, and sets up at the local pub to sing songs, spin tales, slay lonesome moments, and save the spiritually repressed before whisking out of town like something out of a dream. The puffy beard, the cherubic features, his skill with wit, instrument, and lyric delivered with a wisp of Renaissance flair, he’s like an archetype pulled right out of the glossy illustrations of childhood fable.” (Read full review)
Davy Jay Sparrow - Olde Fashioned
“This album is just so refreshing. It’s refreshing for Western swing and for a neo-traditionalist album because it’s just so fun. This may be the most fun album I have heard in years. It’s not afraid to be spontaneous and whimsical. There’s a comic book element to it, and a Golden-Era silver screen dime store novel romanticism, yet in never crosses the line of being corny or cornpone. If anything, it’s “cool” in the traditional sense of the term. It’s like The Slow Poisoner meets The Stray Cats. With the funny names and cheese-colored cover, you may expect cheesiness, but it solves any of those concerns by being wonderfully structured and very astutely written, arranged, and performed.” (Read full review)
Lone Wolf OMB – A Walk in My Pause
“Katy bar the door and baton down the hatches folks because Lone Wolf, the Italian, trilingual, pizza spinning, gator wrestling, globe trotting, banjo plucking, banjo building, wild-assed Floridian from up North via Costa Rica has a new album headed your way. Warn the neighbors downstairs, cause it’s about to get loud and feet will be stomping!
“At this mature stage in the evolution of American music, it is extremely rare to hear something with a wholly unique approach. And to have that approach come from just one man and a very traditional, primitive instrument makes it even more exceptional. The combination of tempo and original technique derived from the clawhammer banjo style swirl for the most dizzying, disarming music experience imaginable when Lone Wolf is cued.” (Read full review)
Carolina Chocolate Drops - Leaving Eden
“The minute the Carolina Chocolate Drops were formed, the American music landscape was a much better place. Why, because we need yet another old-time juggy string band? God no. A mysterious yet very specific plague could wipe out half a hundred banjo-playing anthropology majors in suspenders busking in college town coffee shops and there would still be too many. The reason the Chocolate Drops are important is substance, sincerity, understanding of music, and rabid passion for exhuming the bones that form the skeleton that all the beauty of roots music hangs from.” (Read full review)
Restavrant – Yeah, I Carve Cheetahs
“This music comes at you like some crazy berserker dude kicking and swinging nun chucks, or a rooster with razor blades tied to its talons flying at your head. You may not exactly know what’s going on at first, but it certainly will get your heart pumping. Restavrant doesn’t play music for you, they beat you over the head with it. A two piece setup of screaming wierdo dudes originally from Victoria, TX, one armed with a gut-bending guitar and slide, and the other with common truck stop parking lot refuse that he wails on to create audible percussive-like noises. I’m pretty sure their form of expression is considered assault in certain countries. But for those with the right ear and disposition, it hurts so good.” (Read full review)
The underground country movement started roughly in the mid 90′s on lower Broadway in Nashville that at the time was a run down part of town. Young musicians from around the country, some from punk backgrounds, came together from their mutual love of authentic country music to create a counterbalance to the pop country that was prevailing on Music Row a few blocks west.
Underground country started with mostly neo-traditionalists like Wayne “The Train” Hancock, Big Sandy, and Dale Watson, but spread to the punk and heavy metal world through acts like Hank Williams III and Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers. This list does not just consider the appeal of these albums, but also the influence they had on other underground artists and albums, and on country music and music in general.
Please understand that this list is just for underground country albums. This means artists better defined by the Deep Blues like Scott H. Biram or Possessed by Paul James, or Texas artists like James Hand or Ray Wylie Hubbard, or country artists who may work on the fringes of underground country but would not necessarily be considered underground like BR549 or Roger Alan Wade, are not included. Americana acts are not included. This is strictly underground country’s opportunity to bask in the spotlight.
Please feel free to leave your own list below.
16. The Boomswagglers- Bootleg Beginnings – 2011
This very well may be the most authentic album of music put out in the modern era for any genre. The Boomswagglers have always been and continue to be more myth than reality, with original Boomswaggler Lawson Bennett long gone and a cavalcade of replacements shuffling in an out with Spencer Cornett. Even if they never put out another album, The Boomswagglers made their mark, and it is a deep one.
“The music is wildly entertaining and deceptively deep. If you’re going to be a Boomswagglers song, someone’s got to die, and likely a woman. Some may find this silly, monotonous, or even offensive, but you have to listen beyond the lyrics, and unlock the carnal wisdom that is hidden in these songs.” (read full review)
15. JB Beverley & The Wayward Drifters – Dark Bar & A Juke Box – 2006
Dark Bar & A Juke Box was an instant underground country classic, and so was the anti Music Row song that the album got its name from. JB and his Wayward Drifters grit out a superb selection of songs displaying taste, restraint, and a sincere appreciation for the roots of country music, which may have surprised some who knew JB more for his work with heavy metal bands like The Murder Junkies and the Little White Pills. Dark Bar & A Juke Box also boasts appearances from the famous son and grandson of a country music royal family, who due to contractual issues had to work incognito (wink wink).
14. Lucky Tubb & The Modern Day Troubadours – Del Gaucho – 2011
Some (including Lucky himself) may point to Hillbilly Fever as being the seminal Lucky Tubb album with its big budget and appearances by Wayne “The Train” Hancock. But Del Gaucho is where Lucky Tubb came into his own, found his sound, and the unique musical flavor only he has to offer the world. Dirty, rowdy, rocking, but still steadfastly neo-traditionalist country, Del Gaucho scores off the charts when it comes to style points. When you’re talking about some of the greatest neo-traditional country albums and artists of all time, Lucky Tubb and Del Gaucho deserve to be in that conversation.
13- Bob Wayne & The Outlaw Carnies – Blood to Dust – 2008
They say you have your whole life to write your first album, and what makes Bob Wayne’s Blood to Dust so special is how true and touching he told his life’s story through song. His subsequent albums aren’t too shabby either, but with signature songs like “Blood to Dust”, “Road Bound”, and “27 Years”, this still stands out as his signature album, and a signature album of the underground country movement. It was performed, produced, and recorded by an all-star cast of contributors that included Donnie Herron, Joe Buck and Andy Gibson, and brought Bob Wayne out from behind-the-scenes as Hank3′s guitar tech, and made him one of the movement’s most well-known songwriters and performers.
12. Jayke Orvis – It’s All Been Said – 2010
This is the album that launched Farmageddon Records, and that launched Jayke Orvis as a formidable, premier front man in underground country. One of the founding members of the now legendary .357 String Band, Jayke was asked to leave the band because of irreconcilable differences and almost immediately began touring with The Goddamn Gallows and trying to make this album happen. The result was a slick, tightly-crafted LP showcasing excellent songwriting and instrumentation. From ballads to blazing instrumentals, Jayke Orvis has proved himself to be one of the singular talents of underground country roots.
11. Lonesome Wyatt & Rachel Brooke – A Bitter Harvest – 2009
This album was destined to become an underground country classic. The mad genius music mind of Lonesome Wyatt of the Gothic country duo Those Poor Bastards has the uncanny ability to procure the absolute most appropriate sounds to evoke the desired dark mood in his music. Then you combine that with one of the best voices not just in underground country, but in all of music in Rachel Brooke, and magic was bound to happen. The creativity on A Bitter Harvest is spellbinding. More of an artistic endeavor than a toe tapper, Lonesome Wyatt and Rachel create a soundtrack to human emotion and despair. For people looking for a place for country music to evolve, A Bitter Harvest shows how you can take authentic country themes and an appreciation for the roots of the music, and envelop it in layers of textural color culled from the wide experience of human sounds.
10. Justin Townes Earle – Midnight At The Movies – 2009
Midnight At The Movies was Saving Country Music’s 2009 Album of the Year. Today it would be difficult to characterize Justin Townes Earle as underground country because the quality of this album launched him into the inner sanctum of Americana.
“Justin Townes Earle has done an awesome thing with this album; he has figured out a way to unite all the displaced elements that make up the alternative to mainstream Nashville country, while still staying somewhat accessible to the mainstream folks as well. You might even catch the bluegrass folks nodding their head while listening to it. Folkies like it, and there’s a few tunes blues people can get into. This isn’t just the REAL country album of the year, it is the “Alt-country” album of the year and the “Americana” album of the year.” (read full review)
9. Slackeye Slim - El Santo Grial, La Pistola Piadosa – 2011
“Every once in a while, an album comes along that changes everything. It’s an album that inspires other albums, and dynamic shifts in tastes and approach throughout a sector of music, while at the same time dashing the dreams of other artists, as the purity and originality are way too much to attempt to rival. Slackeye Slim’s El Santo Grial, La Pistola Piadosa is one of those albums.
“El Santo Grial is a masterpiece, exquisitely produced, arranged, and performed. This is a patient, uncompromising album. You can tell time was never introduced into this project as a goal. The goal was to flesh out Slackeye’s vision without ever settling for second best, and that goal was accomplished.” (read full review)
8. Wayne “The Train” Hancock – That’s What Daddy Wants – 1997
Thunderstorms & Neon Signs is the Wayne Hancock album most people gravitate towards as their favorite because it was their first, and the first to showcase Wayne Hancock’s unique blend of country, Western Swing, rockabilly, and blues. But pound for pound, That’s What Daddy Wants is just as good of an offering, boasting some of The Train’s signature songs like “87 Southbound” and “Johnny Law”. Wayne Hancock has never put out a bad album, and distinguishing between them is difficult. But it’s not difficult to say that the underground country movement would have not had as much class if That’s What Daddy Wants hadn’t seen the light of day.
7. .357 String Band – Fire & Hail – 2008
“They were all the absolute best possible musicians you could find at their respective positions, each challenging each other, pushing each other to keep up with the band’s demands for artistic excellence in both instrumental technique and creative composition.
“Listening back now at Fire & Hail, with so much talent in one place, no wonder the project was untenable, and no wonder the respective players have moved on to become their own trees instead of respective branches of the same project. Still, the loss of .357 String Band may go down as underground country’s greatest tragedy.” (read full review)
6. Hank Williams III - Lovesick, Broke, & Driftin’ – 2002
BR549 and Wayne “The Train” Hancock spearheaded the neo-traditionalist movement in the mid 90′s, but Hank Williams III was the one to carry it into the oughts and introduce it to a brand new crop of fans he brought along from his dabblings in the punk/heavy metal world. After having to tow the line somewhat for his first album Risin’ Outlaw, Hank3 was unleashed and able to showcase his own songwriting, heavily influenced by Wayne Hancock and Hank3′s famous grandfather, but still all his own. His voice was wickedly pure with a heart wrenching yodel and commanding range. The songwriting was simple, but powerful. This is a masterpiece, and remains an essential title of the neo-traditionalist era.
5. Hellbound Glory – Old Highs & New Lows – 2010
Hellbound Glory had already been around for years, but they burst into the underground with this magnificent, hard country album highlighted by head man Leroy Virgil’s world class songwriting. Despite the “hell” in their name and the hard language in their songs, Hellbound Glory hadn’t gone through any retooling as post punk refugees. They were pure country through and through and Old Highs & New Lows combined excellent Outlaw-style bar stompers and ballads with some of the most wit-filled songwriting since Keith Whitley. As far as honky tonk albums go, it may be years before this one is trumped. And when it is, it might be Leroy Virgil and Hellbound Glory doing the trumping.
4. Dale Watson – Live in London…England – 2002
Dale comes out on stage and starts slinging guitars, cutting classics, and speaking the truth. Before Dale was the hometown boy and house band for Austin, he was pissed off and willing to sing about it. Dale’s anti-Nashville classics “Real Country Song”, “Nashville Rash”, and “Country My Ass” can all be found here, but Live in London isn’t all pissing and moaning. Songs like “Ain’t That Livin’” showed off Dale’s superlative voice and suave style. Honky tonk albums are sometimes hard to make because it is hard to capture that live, sweaty energy in the recorded context. So what better way to solve that problem than making a live one? Live in London remains the best Dale album to date.
3. Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers – Cockadoodledon’t – 2003
This was one of the first albums to bust out of the burgeoning music scene on lower Broadway in Nashville where one can argue the undergorund country movement started. It showed the world what kind of mayhem could be created by mixing country, blues, and punk music together without compromising taste and soul. It is the album which acts as a guidepost to the eclectic, yet intuitive and inter-related mix of influences that you will find in underground country: honest to goodness appreciation to the roots of American music, with a punk attitude and approach. And if you ever wondered why Joe Buck is considered part of underground country, appreciate that he played most of the music on Cockadoodledon’t.
2. Wayne “The Train” Hancock – Thunderstorms & Neon Signs – 1995
There are two albums that you can look back on an make a serious case that if they did not exist, underground country music may not exist–the album below this one on this list, and Wayne Hancock’s Thunderstorm & Neon Signs. There are two types of music artists: originators and imitators. Sometimes imitators can be very successful, and very creative artists themselves. But it always takes the originators to set the plate for the imitators to do what they do. Thunderstorms & Neon Signs was an original album from one of America’s most original country roots artists of all time. It doesn’t get much better or more influential than this.
1. Hank Williams III – Straight to Hell – 2006
This album isn’t underground country’s Red Headed Stranger. It isn’t underground country’s Honky Tonk Heroes. It is both. It is the album that both was a novel concept, a breakthrough sonically and lyrically, and had a massive impact on the business side of music, for artists winning control of their music and inspiring and showing artists how to do it themselves. The deposed son of country music royalty had taken on a major Nashville label, and won, and all while being one of the first to successfully bridge the energy and approach of punk and heavy metal music with traditional country, all while keeping the music solidly country in nature.
It was the first album to be put out through the CMA with a Parental Advisory sticker. It was the first to ever be recorded outside of a traditional studio setting. Of course only a select few were paying attention, but it broke through many barriers that to this day have changed music in significant ways, sonically and behind the scenes.
The approach also had wide-ranging impacts outside of underground country and country music in general, to rock music and punk and heavy metal, inspiring thousands of rock kids to put down their electric guitars and AC/DC records, and pick up banjos and Johnny Cash records. The impact on mainstream music may have not been seen, but it was felt, and just like all great albums, it’s legacy will grow and be more appreciated and understood as the future unfolds.
Rachel Brooke is one of the few select artist with enough mustard to rise out of the ashes of the country music underground and become a force in the greater roots world. Like an early Emmylou Harris, the music industry should be shuttling her across the country to lend her singular vocal texture to other projects in between putting out excellent solo albums that time finds hard to forget.
The first thing that must be said about A Killer’s Dream is that it’s a blues album. And when I say “blues” I’m not talking about Deep Blues, or punk-infused blues, or country blues. I’m talking the type of straightforward 12-bar blues where the first line repeats itself; the most common progression you think of when you think “blues.”
But this isn’t something far outside of what was heard from the original country bluesmen like Hank Williams and Jimmie Rodgers. And people who think this is a wholly new direction for Rachel (who I’ve dubbed “The Queen of Underground Country” in the past) aren’t versed on her early material like “Bottle Tippin’ Blues” and “Blackin’ Out” that were similarly based deep in blues modes.
Florida duo Viva Le Vox was hired on as the house band for A Killer’s Dream, and I can’t say enough about the taste they brought to this record. These songs afforded them so much space, and they had so many opportunities to walk all over Rachel’s voice or hijack the attention. Instead they laid back and listened, letting their musical wisdom guide them in creating a foreground for Rachel to be framed in, while still somehow imbibing the album with their distinct Viva flair and macabre.
And Viva is just the start of the instrumentation. The amount of textures A Killer’s Dream touches on is impressive: Saw, 30′s jazz horn sections, kettle drum and xylophone just to name a few. The approach to A Killer’s Dream can only be described as “bold.” It’s also an audiophile’s dream. Recorded live to 2-inch tape and not touched by computer until mastering, A Killer’s Dream conveys tremendous warmth and presence.
A Killer’s Dream cracks the speakers with the haunting “Have It All” that isolates and showcases Rachel’s singular attribute–her voice that I once heard best described by mandolin player Jayke Orvis as, “Carrying so much pain.”
After this succulent little bit of audio melts into a reverberating pool reminiscent of Rachel’s landmark collaboration with Lonesome Wyatt called A Bitter Harvest, the album starts in earnest with the bluesy “Fox In A Henhouse”. Immediately your ears train on that Viva Le Vox flavor I alluded to above, and right when you’re ready to accuse this song of being cliche with it’s line, “There ain’t no devil in my heart, ’cause I ain’t a man,” Rachel slays you with the payoff, “But there’s been one in my kitchen, she’s been cooking with my pots and pans.”
It’s always risky to release a second version of a song, but in the case of “Late Night Lover”, the listener is rewarded with a bolstered, energized interpretation that employs trumpet and timpani and an attack to Rachel’s voice in the chorus that both trump the previous version, and make you appreciate the previous version more for its simplicity.
The Fats Domino cover “Every Night About This Time” took a little time to warm up to, but what drew me in was the “oh-oh-oh-oh’s” Rachel sings. They set the table for the 50′s-era vibrations Rachel works with on later offerings like the solid “Only For You” and the title track, “A Killers Dream”. The quivering and cursed “The Black Bird” with its choir of saw shrieks breeds a sense of fear and despair frosted with a vintage patina.
One possible issue with A Killer’s Dream is how many times Rachel goes to drink from the straightforward blues well. Also the middle songs on this album–the stripped down, acoustic “Life Sentence Blues” and the droning “Old Faded Memory”–act sort of like a speed bump on the momentum. Lonesome Wyatt of Those Poor Bastards singing in a higher register than most of us have heard before makes “Old Faded Memory” something special from a sonic standpoint. But the story meanders, the music is sort of flat, and at nearly 7:00, it tests the will.
Individually, the blues songs like “Life Sentence Blues” and “Serpentine Blues” aren’t bad, but in an album that sonically is so diverse, the structure of the blues numbers begins to feel burdensome.
All of these sins are atoned though when Rachel offers up the gem of A Killer’s Dream, the Beach Boys-inspired title track. Possibly Rachel Brooke’s best song ever from a compositional standpoint, the usually reserved Rachel takes risky, daunting leaps and sticks the landings remarkably well. Aside from just being fun and a wholesale change from what we’re used to from Rachel, the writing on this song is its best attribute, which can’t be overlooked for how actively the song pulls you in from a visceral standpoint. This song “makes” this album, proves Rachel’s versatility and musical prowess, while at the same time being completely ridiculous and silly.
How to grow and evolve yet still hold on to what makes you unique and who you truly are is the balance all artists must attain to continue to move forward. Rachel shows she’s up to these alchemical feats in A Killer’s Dream, and proves that she’s musical gold, worthy of the attention of the greater Americana / roots world.
Two guns up.
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“A Killer’s Dream” video that just premiered on CMT Edge:
7 total made the list, with others admittedly getting completely screwed by their absence. Rachel Brooke’s A Killer’s Dream isn’t officially out until tomorrow, but trust me, it is epic, and still couldn’t make the list. It’s ridiculous that both Ray Wylie Hubbard’s Grifter’s Hymnal and Justin Townes Earle’s Nothing’s Gonna Change The Way You Feel About Me Now aren’t on here, but they will both show up very prominently in the Song of the Year list.
Lee Bains & The Glory Fires There’s A Bomb In Gillead and the Calamity Cubes’ Old World’s Ocean are other excellent offerings that on a lesser year for music may have won the award outright. But this year, competition is stiff, and you really had to shoot the moon to make the list. Another that probably should be considered, but I must recuse myself from considering because I was part of the production team is James Hand’s Mighty Lonesome Man. (Look for these and other album on SCM’s upcoming “Essential Albums” list.)
I already have a bead of sweat forming across my brow brought on by the impossible decision of who I’m supposed to pick off this list. As always, audience participation is very encouraged, including write-in candidates. Vote down in the comments section and I do take feedback into consideration for the final decision, especially if people tell me why it is the best candidate, instead of simply following a Facebook link and typing a name.
To be the Saving Country Music Album of the Year, you can’t just be good, or even great. You have to bring some intangibles to the table. You have to make an important impact on the greater music world. The way Goodbye Normal Street accomplishes this requirement is by its ability to branch out and create new fans for independent music. Find the most diehard pop country fan and play “Good Lord Lorrie” for them and watch them wither and want their own copy. It’s substance with accessibility, and that is a powerful, powerful weapon for real music.
“Call it a maturing or a coming into their own, but this album marks the most solid offering from this Oklahoma-based band yet, and a defining of their sound, their place in the music world, and as a band that music world should pay more serious attention to. Sharp wit, self-reflection, specific references to characters and situations in an almost Townes or Robert Earl Keen-like storytelling approach imbibes this music with a freshness and engaging nature, revitalizing the old-fashioned love and heartbreak songs in the modern, independent context.” (read full review)
The founding, underlying principle of Saving Country Music is the fight for creative freedom for artists. In 2012, no other album and no other artist defines that fight more than Kellie Pickler. Sacrificing her major label deal and a big payday to make the album she wanted, Kellie put out a strikingly traditional and engaging album that Chet Flippo, the same writer that covered the Outlaw country music scene back in the 70′s for Rolling Stone, called “the best pure country album in recent years.” But if 100 Proof wins, it won’t just be because of what the album symbolizes or its critical acclaim. It will be because it’s just so damn fun to listen to.
“If you are truly a fan of country music and have an open heart, you will like 100 Proof. In the Tammy Wynette, Loretta Lynn mold, 100 Proof revives the lost appreciation for the strong, yet sweet country woman, while staying away from the surface symbolism that erodes the substance from many of the other artists that attempt this difficult feat.” (read full review)
I swear, Olds Sleeper is the Tom Waits, Beck, and Townes Van Zandt of our generation all wrapped into one…while at the same time being some random dude with a straight job churning out songs in a spare bedroom, playing all the parts and recording the music himself. Someone putting out so much music in a year, and doing so in such a lo-fi context isn’t supposed to be this good. Olds Sleeper will churn out 3 or 4 albums, and 40-something songs a year under various pseudonyms. The songwriting is par-excellence, tearing at your heart, reducing grown ass men to tears at times. And at other times New Years Poem is a straight up headbanger. Be prepared for how dirty and under-produced this project is, but that’s all part of the fun. New Year’s Poem is breathtaking, Old’s magum opus up to this point. Oh, and it’s FREE.
“Old’s New Year’s Poem opens up a new chapter in his music, and name’s his most complete album yet. There’s a great balance between his balls-out fuzz jams and heart-straining ballads, and a good flow from stem to stern.” (read full review)
If I was picking the winner exclusively on creativity and originality, this album would win it running away. Coffin Up Blood gives you hope for music. It proves that there’s still new ways of making old music, and still uncharted territory yet to discover. At the same time it is one of the most purely entertaining albums of 2012. On the outside it may look like some horror gimmick, but this was an album that lots of time and love went into and was done right from start to finish.
“Forget the heavily death-infused concept, what The Bloody Jug Band has accomplished is releasing one of the most creatively-spellbinding albums in recent memory. Its funny. Its dark. It never takes itself too seriously. It is as engaging as any album I have listened to in years. You can’t stop listening to it, and when you’re not listening to it, you crave it. Think it’s all been done in roots music? Listen to Coffin Up Blood and prove your ass wrong.” (read full review)
Like the cowboy poets of old, Corb Lund is a master craftsman with the pen, knowing how to balance humor and heartbreak, irony and perspective to perfection. This album is angry, bordering on insane at times, but never loses its poetic, top-shelf aptitude with words. From a songwriting perspective, it’s 2012′s best while boasting some real fun music ranging from rock & roll to Western Swing.
“The United States is not the only land with lonesome cowboys and wide open spaces. Corb Lund grew up on his family’s farm and ranch in Alberta (the Canadian province, not your smelly aunt with 6 cats), and his rural cowboy life and thirst for country comes through in his music. There’s no corny hoser-ism here, Corb Lund is rich with ribald and wit, with forays into rock & roll and wild diversions of the mind from a man struggling to relate to modern society.” (read full review)
That’s right ladies & gentlemen, two Canadians are candidates for Saving Country Music’s Album of the Year. Lindi lands on the list for putting out the most tasteful, most stylistically-flawless album over the past 12 months, and one that has something for everyone. Lindi Ortega will be a big force in American country and roots music in the coming years. Mark my words.
“‘Cigarettes & Truckstops’ is a succulent endeavor into the very fabric of country music, dusting off country’s roots, adding a little rockabilly, and re-emerging with them in a sexy and relevant candor, talking care free about drugs and danger, and not doing anything to be cool but being herself. Lindi Ortega doesn’t need to paint flames on her chest, she’s hot enough. I certainly can see how folks from a very wide swath of the roots world could get into her music. From the underground to Americana, if you don’t like her music, you’re not listening to it right.” (read full review)
Eric Strickland – Honky Tonk Till I Die
If you’ve made to the bottom of the list here and were wondering where in the hell the music from just a simple Southern country boy belting out bad ass country songs with no strings attached was, well meet Eric Strickland. Straight laced as it may be, this album is still something special simply from the strength of the songs and the performances.
“This is what Saving Country Music is all about. This is the reason I put my pants on every morning. Everything else is just fluff, filibustering, treading water until I come across that one artist, that one album that embodies everything true country fans are looking for but have yet to find. That is what you have with Eric Strickland and his band The B Sides, and their album ‘Honky Tonk Till I Die.’” (read full review)
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.
The Queen of Underground Country, the lovely and talented Rachel Brooke will be releasing her new album A Killer’s Dream on December 4th, featuring Florida’s Viva Le Vox as her backing band, and a duet with Lonesome Wyatt of Those Poor Bastards. This will be her 3rd full-length album.
A Killer’s Dream was recorded at Rachel Brooke’s brother’s Halohorn Studio in Traverse City, MI, and will be made available in limited edition 100 red vinyl copies, black vinyl, CD, cassette, and digital form. All formats will be available for pre-order on Tuesday, November 20th at http://
The first cool surprise is the world premier video for the song “The Black Bird” that you can watch below. Rachel will also be touring through the South and East in February and March as part of a Viva Le Vox / Joe Buck Yourself / Rachel Brooke super tour that will eventually take her to Europe and the European Muddy Roots Festival this summer.
Level with me folks. What do you think the chances are for a two bit blogger and a dame like Lindi Ortega hooking up? Do you think she’ll be impressed by my unique pageview stats, or my ’98 Toyota pickup truck with whiskey dents and a faded Reinstate Hank sticker? Cause I’ve got it bad my friends. I’m gnawing on my palm like Squiggy. Or was that Leonard?
Not since Rachel Brooke have we seen such a wicked combination of beauty, style, singing, and song craft. Lindi Ortega has it all. I’ve seen a lot of chatter out there in the music world about Lindi lately, and folks wanting to slate her as alt-country or Americana. Well those people are going to have to fight me for her, because I’m planting a flag and claiming her for pure, true, honest-to-God country. Her talent is just too good to relegate to ill-defined sub-genres. Lindi Ortega is just what country music needs.
From Toronto, Ontario, Lindi Ortega evokes the ghost of Patsy Cline and the cool factor of Wanda Jackson. Like with Elizabeth Cook, you almost can’t believe that an artist whose beauty is so stark would find appeal in the lower rungs of the music world; that they would settle on being real instead of real famous. But don’t let the beauty fool you, Lindi is the real deal, with a natural desire to revitalize authentic country vibes and a natural vibrato to her voice that stokes the soul. “Indie Lindi” is what she was know by for 10 years or so in and around Toronto, putting out independent releases before making waves with her Drifter EP released on a subsidiary of Interscope Records in 2008, and now storming the world with Cigarettes & Truckstops.
Cigarettes & Truckstops is a succulent endeavor into the very fabric of country music, dusting off country’s roots, adding a little rockabilly, and re-emerging with them in a sexy and relevant candor, talking care free about drugs and danger, and not doing anything to be cool but being herself. Lindi Ortega doesn’t need to paint flames on her chest, she’s hot enough.
Good luck poking holes in what Lindi is throwing down here. The taste that Cigarettes and & Truckstops is constructed with is impenetrable. It all starts with Lindi’s songwriting, brought to life with her voice that seems so at home in the high register that commonly is a stretch for even the most-skilled of female singers. The production is laid back, giving Lindi’s voice and words tremendous space to breathe while the vocal track is buffered with a tasteful dollop of vintage reverb, allowing it to reach for the stratosphere and stick to your bones.
You barely even recognize the music your first few times through, even though the guitar is loud, sweaty, and superb throughout. This is good, because your attention is so trained on Lindi and the magic she is throwing down, you have to take a step back to recognize that the music is just as face melting and ripe for compliment. Even when the production turns more progressive, like on the ending of “High”, it’s always perfect to the mood and style. Mad props for Lindi and producer Colin Linden for making this album right.
But it all comes back to the songwriting for me. Lindi endows her songs with the wit and appealing sense of perspective that marks all great country music. And though I may joke about being possessive in calling her country, I certainly can see how folks from a very wide swath of the roots world could get into her music. From the underground to Americana, if you don’t like her music, you’re not listening to it right.
Oh, and another thing, this album towards the end turns deliciously dark. From burying bodies in “Murder of Crows”, to the drug-induced “High” and the pleadings of “Use Me”, this album gets raw without sacrificing its realness. As implied by the title, Cigarettes & Truckstops is a journey, and carries with it the real, believable stories rewarded to Lindi by real living.
I don’t know ladies and gentlemen, we might be looking at one of the best albums put out all year here.
Two guns up!
(and 5 points if you picked up on the Laverne & Shirley reference)
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Muddy Roots Europe 2013
The Muddy Roots Festival has just announced that they will be heading back over to Europe once again this summer for the 2nd Annual Muddy Roots Europe June 14-16, 2013 at Cowboy Up Saloon Waardamme Belgium. They have released a lineup that spans the globe. From the US, from The Netherlands and Germany, to all the way from Brazil, bands and fans will be trekking from all over the world.
“I’ve made a lot of friends in the old world that are lending a hand,” says promotoer Jason Galaz. “A hand full of other festival promoters have reached out with help in promotion and have been teaching me the ins and outs of putting on an event in another country. It has been nothing but support from small promoters to mega festival promoters. Many local bands have been asked to join the bill as well as a few acts from around the world. It just goes to show you that all this hard work is and adventure has been effective in changing the underground music climate worldwide.”
2013 Muddy Roots Europe Lineup:
Possessed By Paul James (US)
Bob Wayne & The Outlaw Carnies (US)
Joe Buck Yourself (US)
Koffin Kats (US)
Reverend Beatman (Switzerland)
Jayke Orvis & The Broken Band (US)
Jet-Sons Rockabilly Trio (Poland)
Rachel Broooke (US)
Viva Le Vox (US)
Tio Gringo (Netherlands)
Dad Horse Experience (Germany)
Dinosaur Truckers (Germany)
Heinrich XIII & The Devilgrass Pickers (Germany)
James Hunnicutt (US)
The Booty Hunters (Spain)
Husky Burnette (US)
Johnny Foodstamp (US)
DJ Charlie Hounddog (UK)
Lonewolf OMB (US)
Big Bayou Bandits (Belgium)
The Dublo (UK)
Mary Lee & The Sideburn Brothers (Brazil)
Muddy Roots Spring Weekender
Muddy Roots will also be adding a brand new domestic show called the Muddy Roots Spring Weekender on May 10-11 in Adams TN, just north of Nashville. The Red River Canoe Campgrounds where it will be located has permanent restrooms, showers, laundry room, ample RV hookups, and shade trees. Folks can rent canoes and go down the river. This event is not intended to be as big as the Muddy Roots Festival held on Labor Day weekend annually, but will still have the great music people have come to expect from Muddy Roots. They are planning to have about 15-20 bands perform “…but you know how I tend to get carried away.” says Jason Galaz. “I really want to give folks the most I can and then some.”
Additionally, connecting the two Muddy Roots events is going to be a “super-tour” of sorts, fitting Joe Buck Yourself, Rachel Brooke, Viva Le Vox, and Sean Wheeler y Zander Schloss together. The 4 acts will be playing the Spring weekender, then tour the US, and then Joe Buck Yourself, Viva Le Vox, and Rachel Brooke will end up at Muddy Roots Europe.
The full lineup for the Spring Weekender is still being forged, but here is the preliminary lineup:
Joe Buck Yourself
Sean y Zander
Viva Le Vox
Possessed By Paul James
In 2008, a fledgling Saving Country Music named its first “Album of the Year”. The award went to the blazing punk bluegrass band from Milwaukee, the .357 String Band, and their magnum opus Fire & Hail. Then on New Years Eve of 2010, Saving Country Music announced its “Top 10 Albums of the Decade” in all of country music, and Fire & Hail made it on that list too.
There is no harsher critic, nor more revealing force in music than time. Time reveals all warts and washes away any help from trends and current tastes. But here nearly four years later, no revisions need to be made, no clarifications are called for. Fire & Hail remains a preeminent, timeless release, and one of the most important ever in underground country, surpassed possibly only by Hank Williams III’s Straight to Hell.
.357 String Band put out 3 excellent albums before officially calling it quits in November of 2011. But Fire & Hail is where banjo player Joesph Huber revealed himself as a brilliant songwriter of marksman first-class caliber. It’s where mandolinist Jayke Orvis revealed his depth of composition, from penning one of the band’s signature songs “Raise The Moon” on their first album, to procuring the heart wrenching “Hold Me Tight” duet with underground country queen Rachel Brooke. It’s where guitar player Derek Dunn codified himself as the hub of the band, and where Rick Ness established himself as one of the most solid back beats wielding an upright bass.
And they were all the absolute best possible musicians you could find at their respective positions, each challenging each other, pushing each other to keep up with the band’s demands for artistic excellence in both instrumental technique and creative composition. Listening back now at Fire & Hail, with so much talent in one place, no wonder the project was untenable, and no wonder the respective players have moved on to become their own trees instead of respective branches of the same project.
Still, the loss of .357 String Band may go down as underground country’s greatest tragedy. I can think of no other project that was so ripe for becoming a success story of authentic American underground roots. They were brilliant, but accessible at the same time. Seeing the success these days of Mumford & Sons, The Avett Brothers, Trampled by Turtles, and Old Crow Medicine Show to name a few, it’s baffling how .357–a superior gaggle of talent–somehow missed the boat. It is a great sin of American music.
Luckily we still have the legacy of .357 String Band to reflect back on, and the respective work and side projects of the individual players–including Billy Cook who filled in for Jayke Orvis in later years–to see us through a period that feels mired and creatively discounted without the muse, and the challenge to inferior talent the .357 String Band embodied. That is why it is such great news that the band has reissued the seminal Fire & Hail on split-color red/while limited-edition numbered vinyl.
But even if vinyl is not your bag, if you’ve never heard of this band or never owned Fire & Hail, do yourself a favor and stop down and get yourself a copy. And for the rest of us, the warmth of analog sound will be a tide over until our glorious .357 rises from the ashes to reproduce their magic that has been stricken from the ear too long. Or at least, that’s what we will tell ourselves to cope with the fact they continue to no longer be around. And in a similar vein, there’s talk from them of a “Best Of” with some unreleased tracks seeing the light of day soon, so maybe there’s still a chance to satiate a little more of the .357 String Band thirst that haunts us, eternally unreplenished as long as their hiatus remains active.
If you have a record player, get this. And if you don’t, get a record player. And then get this.
Two guns up!
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…or you can also paypal $19 to streetgrass77 at gmail dot com. Free US shipping, add $5 for Canada, and $9 for Europe.
We did this a while back for bands in country music, taking Music Row’s rigorous requirements and running bands through them to illustrate that there are many accessible acts out there that could improve the genre right now if only given a chance. Though Americana may be a less-institutionalized and much smaller genre that tends to have better music and promote artists that are easier to respect, sometimes it can seem almost as exclusive as Music Row, as was seen in the latest list of AMA Award nominees. So here is a list of artists that even considering Americana’s heavy requirements, could make it big and improve the Americana world if only given a chance.
The only reason Possessed by Paul James isn’t big in Americana right now is because of exposure. If his music, recorded, but especially live, could be put in front of the right people, he would positively explode in the Americana world. He has all the right Americana tools: excellent songwriting, skilled musicianship, a message, and he exists in a no-man’s land; not really country or folk or blues or punk, but a true amalgam of them all, a wholly unique performer with a style all his own. He doesn’t just simply channel the emotions and energy from music and evoke them on stage, he becomes a manifestation of that energy, a creative quasar exploding right before your very eyes with beams of positive energy, inspiration, and emotion shooting into you as they bound off the walls and ceiling until they have penetrated you from every angle and you are a changed person. If you listen to the stories of people whose whole worlds have changed at a Possessed by Paul James show or if you are one of those people yourself, it is hard to look at a list of Americana talent and say it is anything but incomplete without him on it.
Austin Lucas is custom tailored to fit into Americana, because like most Americana artists, he doesn’t fit any where else, though his talents are undeniable and are worthy of a much higher level of support and attention. He’s too much punk and rock to be considered true country, but he too country to be considered folk. First and foremost he is a songwriter and a performer and an excellent singer who has some tremendous skins on the wall considering he’s unknown to many, including cutting records with Chuck Ragan, and touring on the Country Throwdown tour and sharing the stage with the likes of Jamey Johnson and Willie Nelson. Though it’s hard to see where Austin Lucas’s home is, it’s easy to say with that level of talent, once he finds it, he could explode. If Americana was smart, they would snatch him up before someone else does.
Out of all the artists on this list, Caitlin may be the most well-connected to break into the Americana inner-circle some day. Adored around her hometown of Nashville, and from a songwriting pedigree from her mother Liz Rose (the brainworks behind Taylor Swift’s early songwriting success), Caitlin sits in the awkward, not-exactly country, but not really indie-rock, rootsy world where Americana is supposed to rise up and fill the void. She brings the hip, indie-rock-esque new school approach to old country and roots music; the exact shot of youth, energy, and relevancy the graying Americana world needs without straying away from its principles. In her mid-20′s, time is still on Caitlin Rose’s side and her upside seems tremendous.
Whitmore may be the artist in a position of least need of the Americana stamp of approval seeing how he’s signed on the well-respected ANTI label with artists such as Tom Waits and Gillian Welch, but he may be the best example of how Americana, not just the artist, could improve their lot by being more inclusive. A one man show just like Possessed by Paul James, with punk cred just like Austin Lucas, he’s the songwriter without a real home who incorporates blues, folk, and some country with tinges of a punk attitude that can appeal to a wide swath of the enlightened music-listening population. It is pretty amazing where you can put William Elliott Whitmore and he works, and how many people are into him despite their diverse music sensibilities.
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Some other good candidates would be the emerging Shovels & Rope, Rachel Brooke (though some could argue she’s more country/neo-traditional), and though they’re older performers, it would be great to see Charlie Parr and Otis Gibbs get some Americana love. Willy Tea Taylor would be another great candidate, though I think he looks at music more as a gift than an occupation.
Who are some artists you would like to see more incorporated in Americana?
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