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Singer, songwriter, Poet Laureate, and the author of the Texas Trilogy, Steven Fromholz passed away Sunday afternoon (1-19) according to the Texas Music Chart. He was 68.
Fromholz was killed at the Flying B Ranch near Eldorado, about 40 miles south of San Angelo while preparing to go on a wild hog hunt. While moving a gun from one vehicle to another, the firearm fell to the ground because the lower portion of its case was unzipped, and the gun discharged, injuring Fromholz who later died at an Eldorado hospital.
Born in Temple, Texas on June 8, 1945, Fromholz rose to become a towering figure of words and music in his home state of Texas, and amongst his famous music friends. He wrote the song “I’d Have To Be Crazy” made popular by Willie Nelson, and also had songs recorded by Jerry Jeff Walker, Lyle Lovett, and John Denver amongst others.
Fromholz was also an actor, a playwright, a producer, and a poet; most notably being named the Poet Laureate of the State of Texas in 2007 by the Texas State Legislature. He was the author of several books, and a respected man of letters, leaving behind an indelible legacy of both chronicling and canonizing the unique experience of being a Texan.
Steve Fromholz started out in music after serving in the Navy in the 1960′s. His first band was called Frummox with Dan McCrimmon, and Fromholz also played with Stephen Stills and Rick Roberts before pursuing a solo career. He once worked with Mike Nesmith of the Monkees and his label Countryside Records.
Fromholz was one of the members of The Folk Music Club—an organization founded on the campus of the University of North Texas in Denton, and included other notable members Ray Wylie Hubbard, Michael Martin Murphy, and co-founder of the Armadillo World Headquarters, Eddie Wilson. Fromholz once served as President of the distinguished club that is given credit for inspiring such Texas music institutions as Austin City Limits and South by Southwest.
His hard-to-find, definitive album Here to There is considered a classic of Texas country music, despite it’s out-of-print status. It includes his signature work called “The Texas Trilogy”—a three song opus that went on to define his career. It inspired a book by Craig D. Hillis and Bruce Jordan, and Fromholz penned his own Texas Trilogy book later as well.
Fromholz was heavily featured in Jan Reed’s book on the formation of the Texas music scene, The Improbable Rise of Redneck Rock. He had the best stories, and was blessed with a knack knack for telling them like nobody else.
Steve Fromholz was an entertainer, a historian, a brilliant orator, and most importantly, a proud and noble Texan.
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.
37 years ago, Austin City Limits was founded to be the visual accompaniment to a book called The Improbable Rise of Redneck Rock by Texas author Jan Reed. The book set out to chronicle the formation of the Austin, TX music scene that transpired in the late 60′s and into the 70′s, along with its many artists and side characters.
As time went on and it became evident that what was happening in Austin wasn’t just a “scene,” but one of America’s most important and influential movements in music, Studio 6A on the University of Texas campus was commandeered to help capture these amazing artists in their own time in hopes of further preserving the legacy of Austin’s musical heritage. The tapings were shown on the local PBS affiliate KLRU, and as interest in the Austin City Limits program expanded, eventually it began to be broadcast nationwide.
Over the years ACL branched out to include many national acts, but up until recently, the program rarely strayed from their duties of preserving the legacy of Austin music, and stuck mostly to the country and roots realm. During the early 2000′s, “Austin City Limits” began to be seen as a powerful, nationally-recognized music brand despite its not-for-profit, PBS roots, and ACL launched a big music festival and began bringing in larger, non roots acts for show tapings—artists and bands that didn’t need the ACL boost, and didn’t have ties to Austin like Pearl Jam, Dave Matthews Band, Cheap Trick, and Coldplay—while some artists seminal to the Austin music scene seemed to be ignored.
ACL brought on big corporate sponsors like Budweiser, Lexus, and Dell Computers. During their 30th season, they axed their long-running theme song: Gary P. Nunn’s “London Homesick Blues.” They also moved out of the small studio on the UT campus into a multi million-dollar facility in downtown Austin, complete with luxury boxes for the show’s corporate donors and Austin’s power elite. ACL Fest is now a two weekend festival, rivaling in size, revenue, and attendance any of the massive corporate music festivals around the country.
But continuing on the 2013 theme of positivity, Austin City Limits has decided to finally give a taping to arguably one of the most important performers in Austin’s current country scene, Dale Watson. On November 25th, ACL will bring in what they call “Austin’s king of country music” in a show that will also include fast-rising country star and native Texan Kacey Musgraves.
Over the last few years, Dale Watson has become synonymous with Austin music, playing multiple gigs a week when in town at some of Austin’s most legendary venues and honky tonks like The Broken Spoke, The Continental Club, and Ginny’s Little Longhorn that Dale Watson recently paid to keep open. But the Austin City Limits invite always alluded him except for a small appearance on a songwriter showcase, despite being an obvious pick for a featured artist on the show. A Facebook page was even started over the issue. Just like another Texas legend, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Dale made his initial network television debut this year not on the Austin City Limits stage, but some 1,800 miles away in New York City on the Late Show with David Letterman (though Hubbard did appear as Hayes Carll’s guest once on ACL), showing just how juxtaposed the television outlets for country and roots music have become.
Recently another roots show that still caters to up-and-coming acts called Music City Roots, located at The Loveless Cafe in Nashville announced they will begin to be broadcast through PBS stations. A lot of the same spirit that initially surrounded Austin City Limits seems to be embodied in what Music City Roots is trying to build today.
Without question Austin City Limits still, and has always showcased excellent country and roots talent from Austin and beyond, regardless of the big, international names they may court in any given broadcast season. But doesn’t it always seem the way of things—when something gets swept up in growing, they lose their focus, and the heart and spirit of where they started. But just like Old Crow Medicine Show being asked to join the Grand Ole Opry, or Dale Watson’s ACL show mate Kacey Musgraves getting nominated for as many CMA Awards as anyone this year, 2013 has been a year full of re-trenchings, of re-affirmations and reflections on what is important in roots music, and making sure what is most important is being preserved and pushed forward by entities not always known for doing so.
To artists from Texas and beyond, the Austin City Limits stage is a hallowed as any. Kudos to ACL for finally giving Dale Watson his due. Now if we could just get Ray Wylie Hubbard….
Country music in 2013 feels like the best of times, and the worst of times. While a few top male performers perpetrate untold atrocities on the integrity of the genre, the rise of independent music and infrastructure in the marketplace is now almost to the point where it equals its corporate counterpart. Quality songs and worthy artists are beginning to see more and more support, while current events and new outlets create avenues for substantive music to find its way to hungry ears. It is so easy to focus on the negative because it still seems to pervade the popular consciousness. But here are twelve reasons it is looking up for country music in 2013.
Yes, Kacey Musgraves. Even if you see her as some Music Row machination meant to offer an alter ego to the Taylor Swift’s of the world (Taylor equals Kacey’s noms with 6 herself), at least mainstream country is now offering a choice to consumers. What Musgraves’ symbolizes is that you don’t have to prove overwhelming commercial success to get noticed. Her biggest hit “Merry Go ‘Round” didn’t even make the Top 10 of Billboard’s Hot 100 Country Songs. Musgraves is a songwriter in a traditional sense, even if some of her best, and most-heady material didn’t make her big debut album. The reason she was able to rake up so many nominations is because of her songwriting credits, accounting for half of her CMA considerations. Kacey Musgraves’ 6 CMA nominations proves that regardless of how stupid country music’s leading males are trying to make the genre, in 2013, songs matter.
Yes ladies and gentlemen, it is getting dirty out there, and the more artists that speak out, the more other artists gain the courage to join the chorus. And not to shy away from the fight, Kacey Musgraves could be characterized as leading the charge, coming out multiple times to complain about where country music is headed. Alan Jackson also had some choice words recently, as did Gary Allan, Tom Petty, and most recently Zac Brown. Country music may be crossing more unfortunate lines than ever, but at least it’s genuine artists are being vocal about their dissent.
Yes, it was bad that Blake Shelton had to disrespect large segments of country music listeners when he ostensibly called them “old farts and jackasses,” but the backlash that ensued became a unifying element for disenfranchised country fans. Ray Price wrote a blistering letter to Blake Shelton, resulting in Blake having to make a public apology. Dale Watson wrote a song about the whole incident which has since become one of the most popular numbers of his show. An “Old Farts & Jackasses” group on Facebook boasts over 93,000 “likes,” and the list goes on from there. Blake Shelton awakened a beast, and gave it a rallying cry. Who would have thought in 2012 that people would be proudly calling themselves “Old Farts & Jackasses” ?!?
The days of inducting traditionally-leaning artists and bands seemed to be over with the Grand Ole Opry’s recent membership invitations to Darius Rucker, Keith Urban, and Rascal Flatts. But lo and behold, the Grand Ole Opry can still get it right, inducting an act that has paid their dues many times over, and deserve to be recognized as one of the forefathers to the re-popularization of string bands that has seen the rise of bands like Mumford & Sons, The Avett Brothers, and The Lumineers. The news is not only good for Old Crow Medicine Show, but other artists who may not be top tier names in country music, but deserve the distinction.
It’s so easy to read the headlines and see the top of the Billboard country charts and say that all is lost in the genre. But as long as Sturgill Simpson is out there touring, you can’t say country music is dead. Out on tour with Dwight Yoakam, playing the Grand Ole Opry, inspiring critics from coast to coast and overseas to sing his praises, Sturgill Simpson is giving hope for the future to country fans that has a value beyond his music specifically.
Yeah, I’m not too much for the silly cliffhanger drama-laden plot lines either, but Nashville has become an invaluable teacher of how the music business works, specifically on the songwriting side of things. An educated consumer makes better choices, and if they see and understand how backroom politics stultify the creativity and freedom of artists, and how a song goes from inspiration to the big stage, they just may make better choices, and think about where the music they enjoy comes from. Furthermore, Nashville has become a music outlet to a nationwide audience that may otherwise not be exposed to the music of independent artists like Caitlin Rose, Lindi Ortega, Ashley Monroe, Shovels & Rope, and so many more.
There are many good, independent country bands that are enjoying a rise in interest in 2013, but there may not be a bigger rags to riches story (so to speak) than Hellbound Glory landing an opening spot on a Kid Rock arena tour. Going from playing half-empty bar rooms to sold-out arenas, Hellbound Glory is seeing the recognition their quality country music has been deserving for years. And the opportunity has been paralleled by bigger crowds and better support even after the arena tour ended.
Caitlin Rose, Valerie June, Lindi Ortega, Austin Lucas, Amanda Isbell, Cory Branan, Jonny “Corndawg” Fritz, and so many more that call east Nashville home (or at least to some extent) have seen career watermarks and burgeoning interest in 2013. Forget Music Row or the circus downtown, Nashville, not Austin, is the new vibrant epicenter for independent music, and the artists there pushing and supporting each other is fostering a creative environment that regardless for how long it lasts, will be looked back upon fondly in the future as a time and place that got it right, and set the bar for artistry and substance. Add on top of that already-established and influential artists like Jack White and Dan Auerbach, and Nashville is the place to be in 2013.
“Cowboy” Jack Clement and Bobby Bare Inducted Into the Country Music Hall of Fame
Yes, two very important players in the rise of country music’s “Outlaw” movement finally got their due this year, and it was especially timely for “Cowboy” Jack Clement who would pass away only a few months after the announcement. Though there is still a long list of worthy inductees that many fans worry will never get in, these two men prove that the Outlaws will not be forgotten, and move other important country music icons one step further to being inducted themselves.
If you feel like the Outlaws of country music have not been dealt a fair deal and they need need a new institution to give them the support and recognition they deserve, your wishes were granted in 2013 when it was announced there will be a new Outlaw Country Music Hall of Fame in Lynchburg, Tennessee coming soon. Nashville may have swept their legacy off the streets like common refuse, but at least somewhere the Outlaws will ride eternally.
If you desire more validation that 2013 is the “Year of the Song,” then behold the overwhelming breakout success of Jason Isbell in 2013. Bolstered by his manager Traci Thomas, a bulldog of the Thirty Tigers group, Jason Isbell is becoming the defining songwriter of our generation. If you ever wished you could go back and re-live the heyday of Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt in their prime, watching Jason Isbell and his 2013 tear is the next best thing.
With radio becoming less and less accessible through every measure of consolidation by Clear Channel and Cumulus, new outlets must open up to support independent music. And they are in 2013, and sometimes in the most uncanny places. David Letterman not only has been giving his stage over to artists like Dale Watson, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Pokey LaFarge, Shovels & Rope, and so many more, he’s been seeking out this talent to play his show as a fan of the music. Where big network TV debuts for independent artists seemed to be a thing of the past, now they seem to be a weekly occurrence.
Good music is entertaining. Great music changes lives. And on the front lines of life altering music experiences are the one man bands. Courageous, pioneering, persevering through obscurity and misunderstanding, one man bands might make up a majority of the music world’s boldness and creativity per capita. Here’s 16 of them from a wide swath of the roots world.
The “Dirty Ol’ One Man Band” signed to Bloodshot Records is one of the best-known longest-touring one man bands out there on circuit. His mixture of old blues with a little bit of country and punk influence is an infectious combination when he gets sliding on strings and stomping on the stage. He once had his guts spilled out on the highway after tangling head on with a semi, and lived to tell the tale.
Canada’s primary offering of a one man band is more Elvis than Elvis. With machismo dripping from him like the gobs of Dapper Dan fighting to keep the cold black hair out of his face, Bloodshot Bill is a one man wrecking crew who was also one of the first to revitalize the discipline in the modern era. He was once banned from touring in the USA. Feel free to make up your own reasons why.
That’s right, why can’t a woman be a one man….er, on person band too? Molly Gene gives the boys a run for their money when she gets behind her pedal kit and starts sliding on the strings and singing the deep blues.
The premier storyteller and poet of the one man bands, the ANTI-signed William Elliot Whitmore, made a name for himself opening for punk bands, and has gone on to be considered one of the top entertainers in the discipline. Whitmore’s songwriting is sublime, and his voice has the wisdom of 1,000 old men. No wonder he doesn’t need a band.
Possessed by Paul James isn’t just a one man band, he is a religious experience. This is no novelty act, this is a man who channels an unworldly passion through his music that emanates through him like some sort of sonic séance. Simply put, seeing Possessed by Paul James will change your life.
Drink up sinners! If one man band’s were like vintage television shows, Reverend Deadeye would be Sanford & Son mixed with MacGyver. You’ll never see another ragtag assemblage of clanging bangers then when Deadeve takes the stage, but this isn’t all Vaudeville. The Rev can really sing a song, and does Gospel as good as anyone. Probably not the rev you want at your wedding ceremony, but he sure does sound good.
I’m blown away why there’s not more chatter about this guy in the Deep Blues world. A one man band with a dirty, soulful approach, switching from old Gibson arch tops to resonator guitars, to a banjo, to one-stringed diddley bow, it doesn’t get much better than Lincoln Durham when it comes the dirty, low down approach to music. His last album was produced by Ray Wylie Hubbard.
The pizza twirling, gator wrestling, Florida via NYC with a short stint in South America Italian Stallion of one man bands is the fastest damn banjo player you’ll ever hear, and seems to add a new percussion instrument he’s playing with a foot, knee, shoulder, whatever every time you see him. Lone Wolf works at the world renown Gold Tone banjo works in FLA, but his latest album Mine Up 13 features mostly guitar.
One of the few one man bands who may be fit for mass consumption, but giving up nothing to his counterparts in artistry or songwriting, Shakey Graves is a quirky, but handsome old school entertainer you can’t help but engage with.
The former .357 String Band banjo player and songwriter was forced to go solo when the band broke up, but featuring some of the best songwriting you can find and tight multi-instrument skills, Joseph Huber is no worse for the wear. Huber is not a conventional one man band—the approach comes more from the mother of necessity, and he will still take other players when he can get them.
From the tales of dying and dismembered men, to the disenfranchised, homeless, lost souls and forgotten, they are all canonized through Charlie’s honesty and amazing clarity into perspective. Charlie doesn’t sing about subjects in third person, he becomes the subject of his songs in an uncanny channeling of character, and makes the story flesh and bone right before your eyes.
An animal. A force of nature. Joe Buck Yourself is like a caged animal, unleashed on a crowd to inflict the wildest possibly damage on idiot thoughts and ego. The former Hank3 bass player and original lower Broadway revitalizer that used to pal around with BR549 and partly owned Layla’s Bluegrass Inn is now mostly know for spit wielding snarls, heart pounding songs, and rivers of feedback. Not for the faint of heart.
This wily old songwriting veteran who now resides quite prominently in east Nashville is not as much a proper one man band as a guy who doesn’t need much more than a guitar and a song, and some stories in between to keep an audience entertained. As time goes on, he may be becoming just as popular for his podcasts that capture some of the coolest music cats in their natural east Nashville habitat.
The troubadour of the one man bands and one of the best storytellers and purveyors of wisdom, Scott McDougall has an Old World charm to his music, like a wandering sage who walks into the local tavern to regale a crowd before slipping out again, not to be seen for many more months. A lover of friends, campfires, and conversations, McDougall is the best friend you’ve never met.
Bob Log III is like a one man Marine expeditionary demolition crew, cutting, burning, pillaging and plundering with a thunderous, ominous blues sound. Best known for playing while veiled behind a full face helmet (is Daft Punk ripping him off? Anyone? Anyone?), he’s one of the most entertaining one man bands out there.
The creepiest, and one of the most creative of the one man bands, this comic book writer and substitute teacher from San Francisco puts on one of the most entertaining live shows you can see, complete with big creepy cue cards and other props while he peddles his Egyptian oils and other wares through his music.
Other one man bands: Brownbird Rudy Relic, T Model Ford (RIP), Hasil Adkins (RIP), Mark “Porkchop” Holder, Reverend Beatman, Right On John, Dead Elvis & His One Man Grave, Ben Prestage, Smokestack and the Foothill Fury, Phillip Roebuck, Bloody Ol’ Mule, Seasick Steve, Tales From A Ghost Town, Ghostwriter, Crankshaft, Patson, Dad Horse Experience, Eagle Eye Williamson, Malcome Holcombe, and …
On Monday night the Twitterverse blew up around the occasion of songwriter Jason Isbell recording an upcoming episode of Austin City Limits. The taping was streamed live online, and drew a remarkable amount of attention and praise from the online participants who took the time to tune in. Usually music confined to the online format is at such a distinct disadvantage, it is barely worth your time, and though Austin City Limits’ production value is world-class, this wasn’t what made the event special. Jason Isbell is quite the capable singer, and since he started out as a guitarist for the Drive By Truckers, it’s hard to denounce his musicianship either. His band The 400 Unit was sensational as well, and so was his wife Amanda Shires who sang and played fiddle for the set. But none of this is why the event became a singular experience for those who tuned in.
It was Jason Isbell’s songs and his songwriting that made so many online watchers walk away with one of those feelings you get after watching a stellar movie—where your mind gets so immersed in the experience it is hard to return to the real world. Jason’s songs are also why the event was able to cross traditional barriers of genre and taste. Jason Isbell is on a meteoric rise right now, and even though he finished off the night’s performance with a mostly instrumental cover of The Rolling Stones’ “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking,” Isbell’s ability to evoke story is at the center of his success.
Another artist who is seeing success in 2013 is Sturgill Simpson. I once dubbed Sturgill the “Stevie Ray Vaughn of Country Music” because of his incredible guitar playing. But one of the keys to Sturgill’s rise has been his decision to set the Telecaster down and retool his music to be more about his songs.
Everywhere in the independent music world you’re seeing songwriters who have struggled for years finally starting to get signed to record labels and releasing career-caliber albums: Valerie June, Caitlin Rose, Austin Lucas, Amanda Shires, and the list goes on from there, and they are all in the middle of this emerging and relevant rise of independently-minded Nashville songwriters that more established songwriters like Jason Isbell and Justin Townes Earle are the leaders of. Whereas other sectors of the music industry seem to be gripped by the fear that digitization and streaming may ultimately doom the business of music, talented songwriters are benefiting from the search for the next writer to break out with bold and fresh material, and a renewed belief by the independent industry that songwriting is important, even if it is marginally profitable. Nobody wants to pass up the next Jason Isbell.
The biggest divide between active and passive music listeners might be the conscious awareness of songwriting. Passive listeners just subconsciously connect with a song either physically or emotionally without giving it much thought, while active listeners attempt to determine why. Popular music consistently offering less and less choice and substance is not hindering this trend, it is enhancing it as many listeners are fleeing the mainstream ranks for more thoughtful music, and in turn are becoming aware of what truly makes a song worth hearing. Even ABC’s new prime-time drama Nashville broaches the subject of how songs are written on a regular basis—many times delving into great detail on the process—making consumers more enlightened and engaged about how a song is constructed and why songwriting is important.
The Nashville show has also become a new outlet for original songs as the industry attempts to address the dramatic glut of songwriter material worthy of a wider audience. Many Nashville songwriters in this new, up-and-coming crop were featured on the series’ inaugural season, including Caitlin Rose, Lindi Ortega, and Shovels & Rope. Sales of music may be declining sharply, but royalty rates, especially for songwriters whose material appears on television and movies, remain substantial. And this songwriter resurgence is not just confined to the independent music world. Even in the mainstream, songwriters with more substantive material like Kacey Musgraves and Ashley Monroe made their big debuts in 2013. David Letterman has been featuring more songwriters on his show, including ones who’ve never had a network TV break like Ray Wylie Hubbard, Dale Watson, and Pokey LaFarge.
For every era in music, there is a defining element that sets the standard of what is tasteful and relevant. It could be the presence of a powerful guitar riff, a certain style or tone to the music, a specific thematic thread like feelings of melancholy or happiness, or even a stylistic visual element that has little to do with the music itself. In 2013, in the independent music world and beyond, that defining element appears to be the well-written song.
James L. Payne, aka Jody Payne, electric guitarist for Willie Nelson for 35 years, has passed away. He died this morning (8-10) in Stapleton, AL due to cardiac arrest according to his wife Vicki. Payne had been suffering from heart problems for years prior.
Payne was part of Willie Nelson’s legendary “Family Band” for over 3 decades until he decided to retire from the road and began teaching guitar. He was born in in Garrard County, Kentucky where he began singing at six years old. Jody first played professionally with Charlie Monroe in 1951, and then was drafted into the army in 1958. After two years of service, he settled in Detroit where he initially met Willie Nelson in 1962, but did not start playing with him until years later. Throughout the 60′s Payne played bass for Ray Price, and also played with Merle Haggard among others before eventually joining Willie in 1973.
Payne was married to country singer Sammi Smith. The couple eventually divorced. They had a son Waylon Payne who is also a musician, performer, and actor. He is also survived by another son Austin Payne, and his wife Vicki who he married in 1980.
Willie Nelson’s Facebook page has posted, “Our friend will be missed.”
Here’s Jody Payne singing Ray Wylie Hubbard’s “Up Against The Wall Redneck Mother” on the pilot episode of Austin City Limits.
Ronnie Dunn, one half of the now dissolved country music super duo Brooks & Dunn, has been up to some very interesting things over the past year. After parting ways with his record label Sony on June 8th, 2012, he’s been making bold moves in the music business, accompanied by inspired, breathy statements on his Facebook page that many times decry the current structure of the country music business, especially radio and distribution.
Yesterday (7-2-13), Dunn took to Facebook to announce he has formed a record label, “Little Will-E Records,” saying:
I hit some hurdles with the first RD solo cd. I asked to leave Sony in the middle of the project, for various reasons. I have recorded a second solo project (20) songs….it is due for release in November. In the mean time siriusxm radio’s The Highway is testing the first single contender…KISS YOU THERE. It is testing through the roof and selling on iTunes at an average of 5,000 per week and climbing !!!!
The next step is to move into mainstream radio. That is a very complicated and COSTLY endeavor. I know that some of you are traditional country music lovers. I am to. I realize that some of you are progressive country music fans. I am too. Mainstream radio is driven by “30 year old and younger artists”….no problem. I get it but there is room for “FREAKS LIKE ME” I have consulted with several of the most powerful and influential movers and shakers in the business and EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THEM has agreed to support THE CAUSE. Many have gone out of their way to help facilitate the cause.
***MOST IMPORTANTLY, remember…. that what you hear on mainstream radio does NOT dictate the full flavor of a multi song cd !!!!
Songs are chosen for mainstream radio in the effort to meet specific criteria……IF RADIO DOESN’T PLAY YA, YA DON’T GET HEARD. Even the Rolling Stones and Willie complied. Radio is not a bad place !!!! I NEVER RECORD SONGS THAT I DON’T LIKE.
We know from the siriusxm / THE HIGHWAY feedback, that KISS YOU THERE is a HIT !!! Now, comes the competitive BIG BIZ SHUFFLE.
I need to thank, John Esposito. I want to thank John Marks.
I’ve started a record label LITTLE WILL-E Records. We are fully staffed with very unique…. “out of the box” group of innovative thinkers. I think you are going to like what you see and hear. We are going to make music available to you in different and unique ways. Our goal is to create a MUSIC CULTURE, guided by a lifestyle philosophy. There are no rules.
This is going to be a journey. YOU ARE ALL CRITICAL AND KEY PLAYERS.
WE ARE NOT SO MUCH ABOUT THE WHAT AS WE ARE ABOUT THE WHY !!!!
Together WE can !!
PEACE LOVE AND COUNTRY MUSIC,
Believe it or not, this type of rhetoric is common from Ronnie these days. Back in November of 2012, Dunn unleashed an impassioned speech about how older music consumers needed to learn to download music. And almost weekly, similar long, inspired dispatches are released through Ronnie’s Facebook.
Then the intriguing news came out that Ronnie was writing with Texas music legend Ray Wylie Hubbard, including a song called “Bad on Fords and Chevrolets” that incidentally has since been picked up by Sammy Hagar who recently played the song live and will be releasing it on an upcoming album.
Ronnie Dunn also pulled a Jack White-style stunt during CMA Fest in Nashville a few weeks ago. Right as the CMT Awards were letting out of Bridgestone Arena, Ronnie was on the rooftop of a nearby restaurant, performing two new songs, “Kiss You There” and “Country This.” The performance was projected on the walls of three downtown establishments: Rippy’s, Honky Tonk Central, and the famed Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, while a 200-person flash mob performed choreographed moves on 5th Avenue to the debut “Kiss You There” single. Ronnie finished up the set by shooting T-shirts out into the crowd.
The rhetoric, the gonzo style release of his songs, and the spirit that Ronnie Dunn has taken to this new lease on his music life has been enough to inspire Ronnie’s fans and new recruits on an endeavor to save country music….except for one thing.
Those two new Ronnie Dunn songs? “Kiss You There” and “Country This”? They might be ideal specimens of how to use the formula approach to songwriting in the country music format. Each one really deserves its own in-depth diagramming, but “Country This,” which starts off almost seeming to make fun of laundry list country songs, slowly reveals itself to be fully died in that formulaic wool, while “Kiss You There” takes it a step further, featuring Ronnie pseudo-rapping over an electronic beat. After reading all of Ronnie’s impassioned communiqués about the state of country music, it is quite shocking to hear these songs, though they’re certainly catchy tunes.
Does this make Ronnie a turncoat? Is he trying to play both sides? I honestly have absolutely no idea what is going on here, and that’s probably the way Ronnie wants it. Maybe Ronnie is sitting on some excellent, more traditional or better-written material, and these singles are simply created for radio appeal. He seems to allude to that in his statement when he says, “Mainstream radio does not dictate the full flavor of a multi-song CD.” Maybe he is trying to prove a point. Maybe the songs are Trojan horses of some sort. He seems to allude to that in his statement as well, but he also says, “I never record songs that I don’t like.” So maybe these songs are sincere expressions, or maybe they are pleas from an aging superstar trying to stay relevant.
Either way, I’m sure Ronnie will clue us all in soon enough, and probably in some unique way.
With such a glut of great roots music material starving for bigger outlets, it was only a matter of time before new avenues began to spring up to meet the demands of both substantive artists looking for more love, and salivating fans seeking something real. Surprisingly, television has become one of those new outlets, with shows like ABC’s Nashville featuring artists that never before would be given a shot in prime time, and late night perennial David Letterman giving a leg up to artists who previously had never been afforded a national television opportunity.
And Letterman’s recent run of supporting independent country and roots artists like Ray Wylie Hubbard, Dale Watson, Shovels & Rope, and many more is not the result of some crack team of publicists and booking agents working together to peddle these artists to the right people, it is coming from David Letterman himself listening to these artists and wanting them to be featured on the show. In other words, David Letterman is a fan of roots music, of artists like Dale Watson and Ray Wylie Hubbard, and is reaching out to them, wanting to give them an opportunity, just like he did last night (6-24) to Austin, TX’s Dale Watson.
“I don’t remember exactly if Dave heard Dale on Sirius XM or on “All Things Considered,” but it was one of the two, and they called us up and said, ‘We want Dale Watson on the show, and we want him to play “I Lie When I Drink.”‘ explains Beth Friend of Red House Records–the label that released Dale Watson’s latest album El Rancho Azul. “It was such a surprise because you try for years to get the attention of people, and then all of a sudden you receive a phone call from them. It’s a really happy story for us. We love Dale.”
Ray Wylie Hubbard tells a similar story, how it was Letterman reaching out to them, not vice versa, and that Letterman requested Ray play a specific song.
“About 4 months ago my booking agent receives a phone call and this girl said she was Jennifer from Worldwide Pants, and Dave would like to know if Ray would do his show.” Hubbard explains. “She didn’t know what Worldwide Pants was so she goes, “Dave who?” And Jennifer goes, “Dave Letterman, January 9th.” And the booking agent goes, “Well let me make sure he’s not playing a happy hour gig in Waco, those things are hard to re-schedule.” So Dave said he wanted us to play the song “Mother Blues” but we only had 3 minutes and 35 seconds. So we take out a couple of verses and then we get up there and after we finish and he says, “Thank you, goodnight,” he asks if we’ll do “Screw You, We’re From Texas.” And I said, “Man, you’re from Indiana.” And he said, “Yeah, but I like the attitude.” So we did the extra song for the website which was really really cool of him.”
The opportunity to get to play to a national audience is one thing, but when Letterman is not simply announcing the band slotted to play, but one he purposely sought out from a sincere love of the music, this is the type of endorsement that can not only give an artist more exposure, but can give them a sense of validation that this craft they have been working at for years is worthy of a greater audience.
“Once people hear the music, they love it.” says Beth Friend from Red House. “They just need the opportunity.”
It seems like once or twice a year we get word of one of these country-relevant movies coming down the pike, but then we have to wait with bated breath for what seems like forever for the actual release because the movie makers must muck through the process of finding the right distribution channels. When the flicks are finally released, we tend to find out why such unfortunate delays belabored the release process, because despite strong casts and the best intentions, the small budget reveals itself in a less than appealing final product. Such seemed to be the case for the Ray Wylie Hubbard-written Last Rites of Ransom Pride movie starring Dwight Yoakam and Kris Krisstofferson, who also appeared in Bloodworth; another film beleaguered with distribution issues and bad reviews.
What neither of those movies had was the strength of a true to life story like The Last Ride. Based loosely around the last 48 hours of the life of Hank Williams, The Last Ride takes you on the ill-fated road trip beginning in Alabama, and ending in West Virginia where Hank Williams passed away on New Years Day, 1953. Though Hank’s name is never spoken in the movie, it’s taken as a given that you know who he is, and what fate awaits him. Hank is played by Henry Thomas (the kid from ET), who has the nearly-impossible task of portraying a man who lives larger than life in the mythos of American music. Though Henry’s visage and tones never quite meet your imagination of a living and breathing Hank Williams, by the end of the film you begin to connect with the emotions that the film portrays, and the emotions Hank must have felt on that fateful trip whether you believe Henry Thomas to be an accurate portrayal of Hank Williams or not.
Those looking for a period piece where every detail of Hank’s final days on earth is laid out with impenetrable accuracy will miss the point of this movie. In many respects Hank Williams is not the main character, it is Silas Combs (Jesse James), Hank’s 19-year-old driver and travel companion. But there are little nuggets of interesting Hank Williams history embedded throughout the movie that the learned Hank Williams fan will pick up on and enjoy. And despite a small budget, director Harry Thomason did a heck of a job scrubbing out any and all anachronisms in the movie, leaving the viewer smack dab in 1952 right before New Years.
The relationship between these two lost souls—the superstar on death’s door and the confused young man—is the centerpiece of The Last Ride. But moderate writing that generally lacked any true, gut-punching lines, and a few low budget distractions like the projected back window of a car ride instead of actual footage from a moving car somewhat saddle this movie from reaching the full potential of portraying the moments with the true weight of the actual events. Hank and driver Silas Combs are thrust into numerous scenes along the way meant to expose internal dialogues about the characters, but aside from a few special moments, they tend to be too short and feel too contrived to render any serious aid to your ability to suspend disbelief.
But as the movie progresses and Hank’s health deteriorates, The Last Ride delivers some truly poignant moments that evoke the heaviness of the situation evolving in the characters. Silas Combs shares a brief, but intimate moment with Kaley Cuoco (Big Bang Theory) on New Year’s Eve. At one point Hank looks out from the back of his powder blue Cadillac and sees a group of very young boys passing a liquor bottle and smoking a cigarette, and seems to identify with the tragic narrative that he’s slowly becoming the final outcome of. Though these moments may take a little too long to develop in the movie, they make The Last Ride at least worth the 100-minute investment for people whose personal histories hold the name “Hank Williams” in high regard.
The soundtrack is handled mostly by other artists covering Hank Williams songs, with some contributions of other non-Hank artists here and there. Though this may irk some Hank fans, they should understand that with small budgets and the prohibitive costs of the licensing of original music, using actual Hank songs may have been financially impossible. Aside from the central story surrounding Hank Williams, this doesn’t really feel like a musical movie as much as an exploration into the human condition told through a historical interpretation.
Though the Hank Williams story is one of the most intriguing American tragedies in history, it remains woefully untapped by Hollywood and the rest of the movie industry in an era that seems to be anemic in engaging narratives. Though The Last Ride makes some headway in helping to cover the Hank Williams storyline, and specifically his final days, it leaves the viewer a little wanting, while that one definitive film that rises to the mystique of Hank Williams himself remains elusive.
1 1/4 of 2 guns up.
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The Americana Music Awards just announced their 2013 nominees, and the dirty duo from South Carolina Shovels & Rope leads the way with a whopping four nominations, while Buddy Miller and Emmylou Harris both clock in with three. On September 18th, the awards will once again be held at the prestigious Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, and once again the nominations show a very narrow focus on the dramatically broadening world of Americana music.
One could make the case that Americana is two, maybe even three times larger of a genre than what it was only a few years ago. The Americana Music Association itself has said that it is the the “fastest growing music community today.” But again the awards read like a list of usual suspects from the founding members of the movement and their close friends getting together each year to pat each other on the back instead of paying attention to and benefiting from the dramatic growth gripping the “Americana” term as the most nationally-recognized and broad alternative to mainstream country.
In April, the Americana Music Association announced the new “Cross Country Lines Music Festival,” aimed at “breaking borders, breaking boundaries and coming together as a larger community.” Yet aside from the Instrumentalists, only 11 names of artists or groups compile the entire field of 2013 Americana Awards nominees, with most of the names being perennial nominees and winners from years past. It all begs the question, why the awards can’t grow with the genre?
Album of the Year
Buddy & Jim, Buddy Miller & Jim Lauderdale
Cheaters Game, Kelly Willis & Bruce Robison
From The Ground Up, John Fullbright
O Be Joyful, Shovels and Rope
Old Yellow Moon, Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell
There are no two bigger names in the close-knit Americana community than Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale, and when they together to cut an album, it’s no surprise the Americana world would go ga-ga over it. Same could be said about Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell, making them a close second. Small chance O Be Joyful could pull off the upset with such attention and so many nominations. John Fullbright is still riding on the momentum he received when From The Ground Up was nominated for a Grammy.
Artist of the Year
Wow, what an anemic list. Love all of these artists, but on a year when there were so many breakout Americana bands, to go back to these usual suspects seems a little bit lazy an unimaginative. If you’re going to nominate The Lumineers for Song of the Year, then why not for Artist? Did they not have a huge impact? If we’re only nominating oldtimers, why not Ray Wylie Hubbard with the success he’s had with Grifter’s Hynmal?
Duo/Group of the Year
Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis
Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale
Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell
Shovels & Rope
Notice that we are only three nominations in, and every name that appears in this category has appeared in a previous category. Now notice that these are the exact same nominees for Album of the Year, just without John Fullbright, and with no other name added to take his place.
Emerging Artist of the Year
The Milk Carton Kids
Shovels & Rope
Shovels & Rope has to be the shoe in here with so many other nominations. Is JD McPherson really “emerging”? Or is he just emerging in the mindset to the cloistered Americana decision makers? Lindi Ortega? First Aid Kit? If you’re going to include the former Turnpike Troubadour John Fullbright, why not include the Turnpike Troubadours?
Song of the Year
“Birmingham” – Shovels & Rope
“Good Things Happen to Bad People” – Richard Thompson
“Ho Hey” – The Lumineers
“North Side Gal” – JD McPherson
“Birmingham” should win this. Richard Thompson would be the other strong contender. So we’re going to nominate “Ho Hey,” bolstered by its appearance in numerous commercials, but we won’t consider bands like The Lumineers, The Avett Brothers, Mumford & Sons, and many others for awards when they have been expanding the boundaries of Americana music more than any other bands or artists in its history?
Instrumentalist of the Year
This last weekend, the eyes of the country music world were affixed on the 7th Annual Stagecoach Festival in Indio, CA. Combining mainstream acts like Toby Keith and Lady Antebellum, with classic country acts like Marty Stuart and up-and-coming talent like Justin Townes Earle, Stagecoach and its 50,000 attendees comprise the starting gun for the summer’s big, corporate-run country music festivals.
But relatively unnoticed, and certainly less-covered in the national country media, the 25th annual Larry Joe Taylor Festival transpired outside of Stephenville, TX, with an equally-impressive 50,000-head crowd and a beefy lineup of Texas Country / Red Dirt headliners like The Departed and Jack Ingram, legends like Ray Wylie Hubbard and Chris Knight, and up-and-comers like The Damn Quails. The price of a Stagecoach? $239.00 for a general admission pass. Larry Joe Taylor Festival? $105 for five days of music instead of three.
On the Sunday after the Larry Joe Taylor Festival, many of the same performers and patrons trekked down to the Texas Music Theater in San Marcos for the 5th annual Lone Star Music Awards. Big winners were the Turnpike Troubadours for Album of the Year (Goodby Normal Street) and Song of the Year (“Good Lord, Lorrie”), and Ray Wylie Hubbard for Songwriter of the Year, Singer/Songwriter Album of the Year (The Grifter’s Hymnal), and Producer of the Year with George Reiff (see list of winners).
Performers at the awards included Robert Earl Keen, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Cody Canada & The Departed, Jason Eady, and Grammy-nominated John Fullbright among others, with each act playing four or five songs. The event was completely open-to-the-public, and the price of admission was $5.
Robert Earl Keen was arguably the biggest winner at this year’s Lone Star Music Awards, becoming the organization’s inaugural Hall of Fame inductee. In bestowing the honor to Keen, the owner of Lone Star Music said that Robert Earl was vital to the formation of Texas music’s own radio charts. That’s right, Texas music has its own radio charts. It also has its own radio stations and radio shows, and its own television programs like Ray Benson’s Texas Music Scene and others. It has its own hard print magazines, publications, and websites.
Of course the Lone Star Music Awards pale in the scope of mainstream country’s CMA’s or ACM’s. The Texas radio and TV infrastructure cannot compare to the CMA and CMT. And despite the recent success of headliner Texas artists like Jack Ingram, they’re still nowhere the draw of Music Row’s biggest acts. But what Texas/Red Dirt has that Music Row/Nashville doesn’t is a true sense of community and a handle on artistic quality that Texas/Red Dirt artists and fans would never swap for more exposure to the teeming masses.
Cody Canada of the Departed might be Red Dirt’s biggest star, and just looking a the guy with his outward rock star persona, you might mistake him for a man that could sell out stadiums. And if Cody had left Cross Canadian Ragweed years ago for a record deal on Music Row, he very well might have made it to that stature. The man just drips cool. But after the Lone Star Music Awards, Cody Canada didn’t retire to the back of his limousine or tour bus, he walked down the street with the rest of the average joe’s and was mingling with fans in a laid-back setting at a free admission afterparty at the Cheatham Street Warehouse in San Marcos. An up-and-coming Texas country band called The Hill Country Gentlemen were playing, and giving their CD’s away for free.
For artists and fans intimately involved in the Texas/Red Dirt movement, none of this is news. This is the reality they’ve been enjoying for many years now. What’s interesting about what is happening in the Texoma entertainment corridor is how little its sustainability and growth is being recognized by Nashville and the rest of the outside world. The scope and the depth of organization that Texas/Red Dirt boasts is nothing short of astounding when it is studied from the outside looking in.
Texas music is becoming hard wired and institutionalized, and this creates a few game-changing, long-term effects on the overall country music landscape. With it’s own infrastructure, the chances that the Texas music scene and the revenue it generates will ever re-integrate with mainstream country dwindles with each passing day. Though mainstream country is still very much alive in Texas and Oklahoma, and even overlaps when it comes to certain Texas/Red Dirt artists, the independent scene is able to thrive thanks to the entrepreneurial spirit of some to create enterprise around the music, the undying loyalty of fans, and the willingness of the artists to not abandon the roots that led to their success.
But maybe most importantly, Texas/Red Dirt is also offering a template to the rest of the music world, and not just country music, of how to regionalize and organize a group of like-minded musicians and fans together to where they’re not dependent on corporate America’s traditional musical industrial complex for sustainability; where you can have artistic integrity and an independent spirit, and not sacrifice financial success. Even other music scenes that exist in Texas right now–some that may not want to associate with Red Dirt because the ease with which it mingles country and rock–could learn how to get organized by the Red Dirt/Texas Country’s road map.
It is not all rosy in Texas/Red Dirt. Though the scene offers tremendous support to its artists, it also acts as a ceiling. It has been hard for some of the biggest regional names to graduate to national recognition once they get pegged as a Red Dirt act. And despite being so big and boasting impressive infrastructure, Texas/Red Dirt finds itself mired with the same trappings that some small music “scenes” do. Political drama, and a culture that sometimes doesn’t want to be critical of artists can result in mediocre music. As the movement has grown, quality control has become an issue, with some acts appearing to be “selling out” for commercial viability no different than mainstream Music Row acts.
But in Texas/Red Dirt, they’ve graduated from simply complaining that Nashville sucks to doing something real, something substantive about it, and something that has proven to be sustainable now over a period of years. JUst like many other “buy local” movements, fans are now considering where the dollars they spend end up. Is this a big threat to Nashville? The biggest threat may be if other regional, like-minded music movements pattern themselves around the Texas model, and begin to institutionalize as well. Either way, independent-minded artists, fans, and scenes should be paying more attention to what is happening down in Texas. And so should Nashville.
This Saturday (4-6-13) Texas music legend Ray Wylie Hubbard will be hosting his 4th Annual Grit ‘n Groove Fest at the Whitewater Amphitheater in New Braunfels, TX. Over the years, Hubbard has made a name for himself as someone who’s famous for not being famous. You won’t find a true country or blues fan who hasn’t heard the name, but it is other musicians that make up the core of the Ray Wylie fandom, allowing the influence of his “grit ‘n groove” approach to spread far and wide throughout music.
Where most musicians might peak in their 20′s, Ray Wylie Hubbard seems to be hitting his stride in his 60′s. Since the release of his latest album The Grifter’s Hymal, he’s been asked to play David Letterman, and write and record with Ronnie Dunn of Brooks & Dunn fame. Ray Wylie spoke to Saving Country Music about the inspiration behind Grit ‘n Groove Fest, and about the surge in interest in his music since the release of The Grifter’s Hymnal.
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You played David Letterman a couple of months back, and they let you play an extra song for the web, which they don’t do for everybody.
Yeah, how cool was that? The story is about 4 months ago my booking agent receives a phone call and this girl said she was Jennifer from Worldwide Pants, and Dave would like to know if Ray would do his show. She didn’t know what Worldwide Pants was so she goes, “Dave who?” And Jennifer goes, “Dave Letterman, January 9th.” And the booking agent goes, “Well let me make sure he’s not playing a happy hour gig in Waco, those things are hard to re-schedule.” So Dave said he wanted us to play the song “Mother Blues” but we only had 3 minutes and 35 seconds. So we take out a couple of verses and then we get up there and after we finish and he says, “Thank you, goodnight,” he asks if we’ll do “Screw You, We’re From Texas.” And I said, “Man, you’re from Indiana.” And he said, “Yeah, but I like the attitude.” So we did the extra song for the website which was really really cool of him.
Wow, so Letterman called you?
Well he didn’t personally, but yeah Jennifer who works at the production office did. Yeah, we didn’t have our publicist working it at all. Somehow he’d heard the song and had his people call us.
You’ve been doing a lot of touring lately. Do you get the sense that this is a time to push in your career? That’s there’s a renewed hunger out there for what you do, and now is a time to strike?
Well The Grifter’s Hymnal came out and I was really proud of that record, and it seemed to strike a chord with people. So we’ve really kind of worked that record through the web and all of that, and people have found us because as you know we’re not mainstream country and all of that. If you haven’t heard of Jerry Jeff Walker, you haven’t heard of me. So to answer your question, yeah we’ve really been pushing it and are really enjoying it.
You’ve got so many things going on. You’re touring, you’re always writing, you’re writing with other people, you’re doing songwriting workshops. So why bite off another chunk and decide to do a festival of your own?
I play a lot of festivals and I really enjoy them. When I started off I wanted to do a festival of the musicians and songwriters that I really like. We did the first one in Luckenback with Gurf Morlix, Sam Baker, The Trishas, and Hayes Carll. So it’s really kind of a festival of friends. I know these people. It seems like most of the musicians I listen to, I’m very fortunate to know. So we decided to make it a festival of people that I like and I respect their writing and what they’re doing. This year I’m really proud of the lineup.
For the folks out there that don’t know, what does your term “Grit ‘n Groove” embody?
Well the grit is you’ve got to have some dirt and soul to your music. You have to write some songs that have some depth and weight to them. That have some grit to it, that’s not just homogenized pap, run-of-the-mill, top 40 country songs. They have to have a little bite to them. And then the groove is that it’s got to feel right. And the whole festival, it’s just the vibe of it, you know what I mean? It’s a bunch of cats that give across a really good vibe. There’s no divas. These musicians have chops and their heart is in the right place. That’s kind of the basic of Grit n’ Groove.
So you have some established names playing the Grit ‘n Groove Fest that everyone will recognize like Hayes Carll. And then you have some up-and-coming names like the Dirty River Boys from El Paso. How important is it to you to put out a lineup with established names, but one that also helps establish up-and-coming names?
Well, it is important. Maybe you’ve heard of Hayes Carll, but you haven’t heard of the Dirty River Boys. But because of the roster, if you haven’t heard of them you’ll say, “Well I think I’m gonna like them because Ray Wylie likes them.” (laughing). You know what I mean? I just kind of shows my taste in music. With The Trishas, I think that was only their second gig when we did Grit ‘n Groove for the first time, and they’ve just shot off. And of course Dustin Welch has a great new record out. All these bands, Uncle Lucius, The Wheeler Brothers, Sons of Fathers, those guys are just exploding down here, and are about to get big nationwide.
You said earlier that if you don’t know Jerry Jeff Walker, you may not know Ray Wylie Hubbard. It’s funny because in certain circles, the name ‘Ray Wylie Hubbard’ holds so much weight. We’ve been getting these little bits and pieces of information about you writing and recording with Ronnie Dunn of Brooks & Dunn. Without giving too many of the secrets away, how do you know Ronnie Dunn? Does it go back to your Oklahoma days?
No, I had never met him before. I get this phone call, and he says, “This is Ronnie Dunn.” And I’m like, “Who?” And he says, “Ronnie Dunn.” And I said, “You’re kidding.” And he said, “No, Tony Joe White gave me your phone number.” Ronnie told me he was talking to Tony Joe White and told him how much he liked The Grifter’s Hymnal album. And Tony said to Ronnie, “Well you ought to write with him.” So we went up there, met with him, and wrote 4 songs. They’re really cool songs, I really like them. Ronnie actually came to Austin. He said, “I want to get that Grit ‘n Groove. I want to get The Grifter’s Hymal sound.” So we went to George Reiff’s house where I recorded Enlightenment, I got Rick Richards and George Reiff who’d just been out on the road with Joe Walsh. And then I got Brad Rice of Son Volt on guitar, and of course Mack, Ian McLagan who once played with The Stones and Faces. So lo and behold, I had him a hellacious band, and he came here and we cut these four songs, and they’re just really roots cool. So we’re talking about maybe trying to write some more, and see what happens with them. And I’ll tell you what, that son of a gun can sing, and his heart’s in the right place as a songwriter, it really is. I really enjoyed it. You know I’ve written songs with other people, but songs that I wouldn’t do. But these with Ronnie I’d do them in a heartbeat.
So once again it’s the strength of The Grifter’s Hymnal. You just put it out there, and stuff is coming back to you.
I guess it is. I’m really proud of the record. You know we cut it in an old Methodist church built in 1888. We went in there and set the whole record with divine reverb. I wanted to do a record like the first Buffalo Springfield, the first Beatles, the first Stones, the first Black Crowes. The first records they did, those were real guys playing their music. So we just plugged the guitars directly into the amps, no pedals. When we mixed it we left in all the coughs, string noises, pedal squeak, and 60 cycle hum. You may not like the singer or the songs, but you cannot deny that it sounds really good (laughing).
That’s also kind of what happened with the Ringo (Starr) song. I met Ringo out in California. He said, “I really like your songwriting.” and I said, “I really like yours too.” and he said, “People don’t think of me as a songwriter, they think of me as a drummer and a Beatle.” I said, “On Beaucoups of Blues there was a song on there called ‘Coochy Coochy.’ It was kind of a bonus track. I love that song because it’s just one chord.” So we were at a studio, and we just turned on the tape and just did it, you know? Just one time through. We sent it to Ringo, and he said the drums were too good, so he just played shakers and sang. I was really fortunate and grateful to have Ringo on it.
Ringo Starr’s another name. You’re the artist that the artists are listening to. It speaks to your influence, and if people really want to find the heart of the music, that’s where to go.
Well, I’m an old cat. I’ve had more cool stuff happen to me since I turned 60 than the 60 years before. I’ve had some incredible stuff happen to me. I’m kind of like The Forrest Gump of Americana.
Your son Lucas plays guitar with you upon occasion when he’s not bowling. In your opinion, do you think he’s a better bowler or guitar player? And are his varying passions in some way a validation that you raised him right, to teach him to follow his heart?
That’s a great question. He earned the gig when he first said he wanted to play full time and not just come out and play a couple of songs. He didn’t just want to come out and show off. So we played a full 90-minute set with him and afterwards I talked to George (Reiff) and Rick (Richards) and they said, “Yeah, he’s in the band.” Because he doesn’t show off, he just plays the lick. Then again he’s been working at this bowling alley for 2 1/2 years. We did Letterman on a Wednesday and the next night he bowled a 300–the youngest kid to bowl a 300 at the Sunset Lanes. This summer I think he’s gonna start getting into a little engineering. He’s gonna kind of do an intern with George Reiff. I’ve never forced him to do anything. I always give him a choice. But I am very proud of him.
Interstate 35 runs like a zipper down the gut of Texas, and acts like an unofficial border where the American South meets the West. The highway is also a musical corridor, being the main conduit in and out of Austin, TX, aka the “Live Music Capitol of the World.” Willie Nelson’s hometown of Abbott resides right beside I-35, and so did his massive truck stop/music venue/and museum called Willie’s Place near the town of Carl’s Corner, that has since been retrofitted into a much less impressive and generic Petro station.
Carl’s Corner also was the home to a few of Willie’s famous 4th of July picnics, and a place many musicians made a habit of stopping at over the years. Same can be said for the Czech Stop bakery in West, TX a few miles down I-35 from Carl’s Corners, with many autographed photos of famous musicians lining its walls.
Up and down that ribbon of I-35 are places that have been regaled in song by the musicians who’ve passed by them or had memorable experiences there. Some of these places take on the lore of those songs until they become living monuments of the songs themselves. Here are a few.
Papa Joe’s from Dale Watson / Whitey Morgan & The 78′s “Where Do You Want It?”
1505 Interstate 35, Waco, TX, 76705
The best country songs write themselves, and that’s what happened when Billy Joe Shaver shot a man behind Papa Joe’s Texas Saloon, just south of Waco on the Interstate 35 access road. On March 31st, 2007, Billy Joe was in Papa Joe’s drinking when a man by the name of Billy Bryant Coker came up to Shaver and stirred Shaver’s drink with a knife. After some words were exchanged, Shaver decided it was time to leave, and Billy Coker followed. Out in the parking lot, Billy Joe Shaver was overheard asking Coker, “Where do you want it?” while brandishing a handgun. Shaver later testified in court he actually said, “Why do you want to do this?” to Coker, but eventually Shaver shot Billy Coker in the face and the news made it down to Austin where Dale Watson decided to write a song about it.
“We were making jokes about what kind of song he’d write about this ’cause he writes songs about everything,” says Gloria Tambling, the owner of Papa Joe’s that’s been an I-35 landmark for around for 19 years.
Billy Coker’s wound was not life-threatening, and Shaver was arrested on April 2nd, 2007 for aggravated assault, later to be found not guilty for acting in self-defense in a trial that saw Willie Nelson called as a character witness. Dale Watson wrote the song, but Whitey Morgan & The 78′s were the first to cut it on their self-titled album with Dale’s blessing. Dale’s latest album El Rancho Azul includes his version.
Dorsett 221 Truck Stop from Scott H. Biram’s “Truck Driver”
15201 I H 35 Buda, TX 78610
Off of Scott H. Biram’s 2005 record Dirty Old One Man Band is one of his signature songs called “Truck Driver.” Whenever Hiram Biram plays the song live, he dedicates it to “all of the truck drivers down there at the Dorsett 221 Truck Stop in Buda, TX.” Yes, the Dorsett 221 Truck Stop actually exists, or at least it did until 2005 when it was closed down. Opened in 1979 just south of Austin and right on I-35, Dorsett 221 was a trucker’s favorite and was famous for its chicken fried steak, breakfast tacos, and because it was built to look like a castle with parapets and corner towers.
Started by Tim and Lenora Dorsett, it was operated by their four sons who each were in charge of a specific part of the truck stop. The restaurant was a nice place for families to come and eat, but as time went on Dorsett 221 became somewhat famous for its crop of lot lizards that could be found lounging around. The existence of “glory holes” that Scott Biram refers to in “Truck Driver” could not be independently verified, but over time Dorsett 221 became one of central Texas’s most famous truck stops for its endearing character, and the characters it attracted.
It all went downhill for Dorsett 221 when a fire was started in one of the restrooms. During the restoration process, the four sons quarreled on how to proceed. Eventually one son took sole possession of the embattled truck stop and decided to close it. But the memory of Dorsett 221 still lives in Scott H. Biram’s song, and can still be seen on the side of the east side of the interstate as you’re passing through Buda, TX.
The Snake Farm from Ray Wylie Hubbard’s “Snake Farm”
5640 Ih 35 S New Braunfels, TX 78132 – Photo courtesy mysanantonio.com
Did you hear what Scott H. Biram also referenced in the song above, and what shirt he was wearing? Yes there actually is a Snake Farm, and it went by the simple name “Snake Farm” for many of its 40 years in operation until settling on the much more docile, “Animal World and Snake Farm Zoo.” Located right off the Interstate 35 access road, the strange attraction and Texas landmark opened in 1967 (when I-35 was still Route 81) and currently sees around 400,000 annual visitors perusing its more than 200 species of snakes. The Snake Farm now features other exotic animals in its petting zoo and outdoor area, including monkeys, lemurs, hyenas, parrots, and a pond filled with alligators and crocodiles.
Ray Wylie Hubbbard’s album from 2006 is named Snake Farm, and includes the song “Snake Farm,” but Hubbard wasn’t the first musical homage to the reptile house. The Ramones discovered the Snake Farm when on tour in Texas in the late 70′s, and regularly wore Snake Farm T-shirts as part of their garb on and off stage. Oh, and did you notice the name of the female character in Hubbard’s “Snake Farm”? Yes, the Snake Farm has truly come full circle, and coils its way down the spine of good American music as an indelible artifact.
In the mid 70′s Ray Wylie Hubbard went by the handle “The Forgotten Outlaw.” And though he leans much more towards the blues these days, his music is many times misappropriated for country. In the blues world, there’s an element in the mythos called “paying dues.” And Ray has payed his many times over. Of course the reason you pay your dues is to hopefully reach a payoff, and Ray was be cashing that in at least in some small part when he made an appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman Wednesday night (1-9-13).
“Well I know 66 is kinna old to be making my first appearance on late w/ night david letterman,” Ray said through Twitter. “But I didn’t wanna peak too soon.”
Though many A-list entertainers from a swath as wide reaching as Willie Nelson to Ringo Starr consider Ray Wylie both an influence and a friend, his name still remains in the “yeah, I think I’ve heard of him before” status with most of America, or like Ray puts it sarcastically, he’s a “Music book smudge, country music stain.”
It’s pretty telling that Ray has to travel 1,800 miles to play Letterman to get the national attention he’s deserved these oh so many years, when Austin City Limits–originally set up highlight Texas talent to the rest of the world–has mostly alluded him. His only appearance on the hometown format was when Hayes Carll invited him up on stage for a song a couple years back. Oh, and there was that time Willie Nelson pulled out Ray’s “Up Against The Wall Redneck Mother” on ACL’s pilot episode in 1975.
Meanwhile David Letterman whose locked in a ratings tussle with Leno and the recently-rescheduled Jimmy Kimmel decides to supplant booking a musical guest the American public already knows for one they damn well should. Along with other independent roots acts like Jason Isbell, Justin Townes Earle, and Jessica Lea Mayfield, Letterman and his peeps have stepped up to the plate when it comes to representing the rising Americana roots scene of which Ray Wylie is a pillar and patriarch of. Meanwhile ACL is pulling household name talent from the coasts, causing a criss-crossing of traveling musical acts that can’t be healthy for America’s carbon footprint. It sure is a strange, post-digitization music world out there.
“Mother Blues” is about the perfect song for Hubbard to play on Letterman because it is both specifically autobiographical and generally badass. It highlights many of the songwriting attributes that have made Ray the legendary “Wylie Llama” in songwriting circles: humor, ribald, and cunning songcraft. Even more appropriate that he would play it with his son Lucas Hubbard accompanying him on lead guitar because Lucas is referenced in “Mother Blues” along with Ray’s wife, and the song is named for the semi-legendary blues venue where Ray got his start in Dallas. And don’t forget that gold top Les Paul…
Here is the list of 25 albums Saving Country Music deems essential for 2012 listening, and then I added an extra one I couldn’t leave off. Please note this list only includes albums that have been reviewed so far. There are a few more good and important albums in 2012 that have yet to be reviewed. The first 7 albums on the list (from Little Victories to Lee Bains) were all serious considerations for Saving Country Music’s Album of the Year. PLEASE NOTE: None of the Album of the Year candidates are included on this list, so look over there before complaining about omissions. After the first 7 albums, they are listed in the order the albums were reviewed, not in order based on recommendation/quality/etc.
Saving Country Music reviewed twice as many albums as it did last year, but it is impossible to review everything. As always, your feedback is encouraged. What are your essential albums? What did we miss? What was released in 2012 that deserves a review? Please leave your feedback below.
Chris Knight – Little Victories
Every year there is one album and artist that admittedly gets screwed when it comes to Saving Country Music’s bigger awards, and this is the one that gets named the “Most Essential” album for a given year. This year, it is Chris Knight’s Little Victories.
“This is the exact album that the United States of America needs right here, right now, at this very moment in time. Finally, someone has the courage and the wisdom to use music to reassure people of the power of individual will, and the beauty of the rising action embedded in every human soul instead of as a vehicle to lay blame on everyone else for the problems the individual faces.
Little Victories is a big victory for Chris Knight, for country music, and for the level-headed, wise approach to life in an overly-politicized world.” (read full review)
Ray Wylie Hubbard – The Grifter’s Hymnal
“If there’s honor amongst thieves, then it only seems fitting there should be a Grifter’s Hymnal. And if there’s going to be a Grifter’s Hymnal, it’s only fitting Ray Wylie Hubbard should compose it. The ingredients of grifters are already mixed there on his palette: Tales of dead and dying things and dens of iniquity, the struggle or the soul between good and evil, and the difficulty sometimes of telling the two apart. But to have a hymnal you also must have a message, and you must be able to convey that message with eloquence, poetical prowess, wit and rhyme. Well don’t worry, it’s all here. Just open it up and sing along.” (read full review)
Rachel Brooke – A Killer’s Dream
“Rachel Brooke is one of the few select artist with enough mustard to rise out of the ashes of the country music underground and become a force in the greater roots world. Like an early Emmylou Harris, the music industry should be shuttling her across the country to lend her singular vocal texture to other projects in between putting out excellent solo albums that time finds hard to forget.
“How to grow and evolve yet still hold on to what makes you unique and who you truly are is the balance all artists must attain to continue to move forward. Rachel shows she’s up to these alchemical feats in A Killer’s Dream, and proves that she’s musical gold, worthy of the attention of the greater Americana / roots world.” (read full review)
Justin Townes Earle – Nothing’s Gonna Change The Way You Feel About Me Now
I thought this was an album of great songs, but not a great album if that makes sense. The whole Memphis vibe Earle tried to conjure worked at times, and didn’t at others. But you can’t deny the power of songs like “Unfortunately, Anna”, “Maria”, or “It Won’t Be The Last Time”. Anybody who says this is their favorite album of 2012, I wouldn’t argue with. Very solid offering from Justin Townes Earle.
“There is not a bad song on this album. We see JTE return to the honest, heavy-hearted songwriting that has become his signature. Though this album is hard to warm up to. JTE’s voice may come across as unusual at first, maybe even weak, and the production may seem out-of-place or even droning because it is such an unusual approach for him, or any artist originating out of the Americana world. But when you give it time, it all starts to work. I think time will be a great ally of this album, just as much as the short-term may be a hindrance.” (read full review)
The Calamity Cubes – Old World’s Ocean
“‘Old World’s Ocean’ puts The Calamity Cubes’ bevy of talents on glorious display. Excellent songwriting is conveyed through flawless vocal performances and inventive music. By being unafraid to display their vulnerabilities, yet having an inherent rawness to their music and releasing it through one of the most “hardcore” labels in roots circles in the form of Farmageddon Records, The Calamity Cubes create a unique and important nexus in string-based roots music, and do so while putting out creative, innovative, and entertaining tunes that touch all parts of the musical anatomy.” (read full review)
Marty Stuart - Nashville Vol.1 Tear The Woodpile Down
“Marty Stuart is on an amazing roll ladies and gentlemen. What he’s doing right now with lead guitar player “Cousin” Kenny Vaughan and The Fabulous Superlatives is stuff that legends are made of. You know those periods in an artists’ career that you look back on like they can’t do wrong, churning out amazing songs and albums one after another? Hank Jr. from Whiskey Bent & Hell Bound to The Pressure Is On, Willie & Waylon after they’d shaken loose from the grips of RCA in the mid 70′s. That’s the kind of epic and influential period were in the midst of right now with Marty Stuart, and what a blessing it is to realize this and to be able to experience it all in the present instead of trying to relive it through the past.” (Read full review)
Lee Bains & The Glory Fires – There’s A Bomb In Gillead
“This is an explosively-energetic album with influences and styles pulling from a wide range of American music. Lee Bains is well-versed in Southern modes from both sides of the tracks, and shows tremendous versatility in being able to conjure up the smoky mood of a blues singer, and the sweaty twang of a Southern rocker in the space of a breath, with The Glory Fires right on his heels with their authentic, spot-on sonic interpretations.” (read full review)
Paige Anderson & The Fearless Kin – Wild Rabbit
“One hard and fast rule around Saving Country Music is that I don’t review EP’s except for in “extreme cases.” There’s just too much music out there these days to consider half efforts, and in many cases, this is what EP’s are. I know they’re the hip thing, and a quicker way to get singles to fans in the digital age. But there’s something sacred about the album concept that I’m unwilling to let go of. So what is an “extreme case?” Well in 5 or so years, not once have I had an EP cross my desk that I felt qualified. Until now.
“Wild Rabbit is a remarkable collection of songs that illustrate all of Paige Anderson’s singular talents, including her solitary prowess as a female flatpicking guitar player; an attribute that has landed her numerous features in Flatpicking Guitar magazine and other periodicals. But her voice is what threatens to steal the spotlight, with its inherent conveyance of pain in a tone that is both youthful and old, wildly unique and undeniably accessible.” (read full review)
Joe Buck – Who Dat?
“‘Who Dat’ is a completely different direction for Joe Buck, while still being exactly what he’s always done. That’s the root genius of it. Yes, without question this album is a lot more tame, more tame than even ‘Piss & Vinegar’. But what this approach does is bring out the roar of quiet anger. In many ways, even though this album features much less distortion and more singing than shouting or screaming, it’s even harder, even more disillusioned and unbalanced as a byproduct of it’s muted approach. Joe Buck’s anger isn’t as obvious, it is seething beneath the surface, boiling and permeating these recordings with an unsettled feeling, like a pressure tank ready to burst. (read full review)
The Foghorn Stringband – Outshine The Sun
“‘Outshine the Sun’ is an excellent album, and where it makes its mark is in the positivity of its message. There are many bands these days digging up old standards from The Carter Family, The Stanley Brothers and the like, but that tend to seek out the darkness in roots music; songs about muder, and preferrably cocaine if you can find them, because they feel like those themes are what keep the music relevant.
“‘Outshine the Sun’ works boldly in the opposite direction, presenting the cheerful side of the roots from its formative years, in the lyrical content, and in the modes of the music, with bright, frolicking and fun compositions and instrumentals that make this a fresh approach to the roots despite the vintage age of the material. I grimaced when I saw 21 tracks on this album. I mean did they expect to hold my attention for that long? But they did, and they do by the sheer talent of the Foghorn roster, and the sincerity of their approach.” (read full review)
Rev. Peyton’s Big Damn Band – Between The Ditches
“I swear, it is almost like Reverend Peyton had a little window into my brain when making Between The Ditches, because virtually every one of the concerns I had about their sound going in was resolved, while still keeping what is at the heart of their raucous and rowdy Delta-blues sound completely alive.
“For an underground roots band, Reverend Peyton is “making it.” Worming their way on to the Warped Tour and opening for The Reverend Horton Heat, they’ve found some traction with their music by working hard and taking a professional approach as opposed to compromising their sound. That is what’s great about Between The Ditches. It’s not a change, it is a refinement. Thought Rev. Peyton still has the same bellowy voice, he’s figured out how to employ it better, keep it in check when it could be grating. Though the repetitiveness in some of the lyrics remains, it’s measured. And though there’s still the Vaudevillian feel, there seems to be new value put on the music over the show.” (read full review)
Sara Watkins - Sun Midnight Sun
“For me, Sun Midnight Sun was one of those albums that had some good songs that I latched on to, but the project never stuck to me as a whole. But those few songs though, let me tell you. I’m libel to recycle them over and over in one setting until I feel stupid about it. The opening track “The Foothills” may be the leader in the clubhouse for instrumental track of the year. This amazing folk/bluegrass composition is built in layers like a buttermilk biscuit. They stack upon each other gradually and meld in unison through a recording technique sure to be asked for its recipe by distinguishing ears for years to come. And beneath all of that is a heavy, progressive world-beat that burrows straight into your primal nerves.” (read full review)
Billy Don Burns – Nights When I’m Sober
“There are great songwriters, and then there are songwriters that define the apogee of the craft, songwriters like Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt…and Billy Don Burns. There are songs on Nights When I’m Sober that will rip at your heart like nothing else. There’s a great variety on the album with sweet songs and fun songs. And where Billy Don elevates the stakes is in the production and approach to each composition. With producer/guitar player Aaron Rodgers, they reinvigorate the late-era, rock-infused Outlaw sound that had Haggard and Paycheck seeking Billy Don’s services. (read full review)
James Leg & Left Lane Cruiser – Painkillers
“Listen to me folks, GET THIS ALBUM! I know it’s my job as some high fallutin’ music writer to come up with a bunch of stuff to say about music. But after listening to Painkillers, if I were you, I’d skip all the gabbing and just go get it. And then find the biggest, loudest audio player you can procure and crank it to 10. If you want to flatter me, come back and read the rest at some other point.
“‘Painkillers’ isn’t just a catchy idea to sketch some cover art around, it is the idea this album is built from, to take a bunch of timeless, kick ass songs, give them the dirty, heavy-handed Left Lane Cruiser/James leg punk blues treatment, with the result being an album that is perfectly concocted to kill pain. That’s what’s so genius about it. If they had released a batch of original songs under this concept, the painkilling would just be a placebo. By taking songs we all know and love already, songs that mean something to us, the medicine is potent, fast-acting, striking right at your gut.” (read full review)
Don Williams – And So It Goes
“This album has the ability to stimulate memory and reflection without coming across as dated or even nostalgic. This was the wisdom of going back and using Don’s original producer of Garth Fundis on this album. ‘And So It Goes’ is like an ice cream cone your grandfather bought you, the smell of your grandparent’s house, a tire swing on an old tree, the shade of the light when it hits a golden meadow just right at the turning of spring or fall.
‘”And So It Goes’ simply sends you to this soft place, and makes you second guess yourself if you overlooked some mainstream 70′s and 80′s country for lacking substance. It makes you wonder just how many of those Don Williams #1′s can you name. Not all of them? Well you better start digging and see what you missed.” (read full review)
Joseph Huber – Tongues of Fire
“”And that is what imbibes ‘Tongues of Fire’ with that intangible thing that makes certain albums feel warm to you. This album is about Joe searching and finding that sense of balance and purpose, while still recognizing that certain wild desires are there and will always be.
Though on the surface ‘Tongues of Fire’ may seem like a less poetic approach, after a few listens you find the poetry very much alive in songs like “An Old Mountain Tune” and “Dance Around The Daggers”. “Iron Rail” seems to speak to the hopeless, caged feeling Joe may have been laboring under in .357, while the theme can speak to frustrations in all of us. “Fell Off the Wagon” is the outright fun song that was lacking from Joe’s first release. And just about the time you wonder where Huber’s signature blazing banjo is on this album, here comes “Walkin’ Fine”.” (read full review)
Tom VandenAvond – Wreck of a Fine Man
“VandenAvond is a pure songwriter. As much as people love to babble on about how songwriting is such a noble art and pat their favorite artists on the back for being so great at it, few delve into the inner workings of the craft like Tom VandenAvond. Comparisons are made to Dylan because of VandenAvond’s voice. Artists comparisons are rarely fair to either side, yet this one is understandable because just like Dylan, VandenAvond is a writer that sings, not a singer that writes. When it feels like the music is getting in the way of the story, this can be a symptom of an upper stratosphere songwriter who it sometimes takes interpretations of their songs from other artists to make their work accessible to the wider public.” (read full review)
JP Harris & The Tough Choices – I’ll Keep Calling
“This true, honky-tonk, hard country music, with a little Western swing and rockabilly mixed in. Songs like “Badly Bent” and “Cross Your Name” tell hard-nosed stories that don’t need heavy language to drive home their heartbroken themes, and the up-tempo “Take It Back” and “Gear Jammin’ Daddy” gives this album a good variety and spice that keep it engaging throughout. All of these songs could be labeled cliche, but they’re so good, it’s hard to.
Can a long-bearded boy from Vermont make real country music? Can songs about letters stamped “Return To Sender” and and shots of whiskey to drown sorrow still be relevant? If I’ll Keep Calling is any indication, the answer is an adamant “Yes!”” (Read full review)
Willie Nelson- Heroes
This is truly a good album. It’s easy to look at it and say, “Well I’m a Willie fan so I guess I will like it,” but this is the best album he has put out in years, with great contributions from Willie’s son Lukas.
“As I said in my review of Lukas’s latest album, he is the offspring most rich with Willie blood, with top-shelf guitar playing abilities all his own to boot. If you want to know what a rock & roll version of Willie would be, look to Lukas. Close your eyes when Lukas is singing, and you can almost see Willie, with Lukas’s natural, high-register tone, and perfect pitch and control that doesn’t ape Willie, but evokes his memory.
“This album is good both because it is Willie, and because it is good. After years of navigating through a gray area in his career and having to dabble with some record labels probably less able to do a Willie release justice, he’s back with the same company who released ‘Red Headed Stranger’, and back to making albums worthy of the world stopping down to pay attention to.” (Read full review)
The Alabama Shakes – Boys & Girls
“This rootsy, soulful rock band is bound together by the force known as Brittany Howard, part Janis Joplin, part Kimya Dawson, both poetic, and fanatically possessed. Whenever I think of the true embodiment of the word “soul” I think of an old black woman. Whether it’s an old black female singer, or young white male guitar player, if they truly want to have soul, they must have an old black woman trapped inside of them somewhere, with 1,000 injustices fighting back tears in world-torn eyes, and infinite wisdom bred from bad choices by the self and others. Soul is anger only semi-controlled, and that is what Brittany Howard has. (“I’ll fight the planet!” she proclaims in the song “Heartbreaker”. )” (Read full review)
Jackson Taylor & The Sinners – Bad Juju
“This fiery, unfettered, full tilt assault on country music strikes that perfect chord of being both inescapably familiar yet remarkably fresh. Johnny Cash on cocaine may be the most appropriate description. More Memphis than Nashville, more madness than melancholy. But moreover, ‘Bad Juju’ is just one hell of a good time.
“This is fun music in the truest sense of the term. You don’t conjure up Bad Juju to commiserate with your pain, you conjure it up to forget about it. Jackson Taylor & The Sinners found their mojo by stripping it back to the simplest of lineups: Acoustic guitar and vocals, lead guitar, and drums. And when they found that mojo, they stuck with it, refined it, worked at it until it was perfect and its power both undeniable and universal on the human body.” (Read full review)
McDougall – A Few Towns More
“Scott McDougall from Portland, OR might be the last of the true Romantic-era troubadours: a bardic-like, almost fantasy character that arrives in town with a bass drum on his back and guitar in hand, and sets up at the local pub to sing songs, spin tales, slay lonesome moments, and save the spiritually repressed before whisking out of town like something out of a dream. The puffy beard, the cherubic features, his skill with wit, instrument, and lyric delivered with a wisp of Renaissance flair, he’s like an archetype pulled right out of the glossy illustrations of childhood fable.” (Read full review)
Davy Jay Sparrow - Olde Fashioned
“This album is just so refreshing. It’s refreshing for Western swing and for a neo-traditionalist album because it’s just so fun. This may be the most fun album I have heard in years. It’s not afraid to be spontaneous and whimsical. There’s a comic book element to it, and a Golden-Era silver screen dime store novel romanticism, yet in never crosses the line of being corny or cornpone. If anything, it’s “cool” in the traditional sense of the term. It’s like The Slow Poisoner meets The Stray Cats. With the funny names and cheese-colored cover, you may expect cheesiness, but it solves any of those concerns by being wonderfully structured and very astutely written, arranged, and performed.” (Read full review)
Lone Wolf OMB – A Walk in My Pause
“Katy bar the door and baton down the hatches folks because Lone Wolf, the Italian, trilingual, pizza spinning, gator wrestling, globe trotting, banjo plucking, banjo building, wild-assed Floridian from up North via Costa Rica has a new album headed your way. Warn the neighbors downstairs, cause it’s about to get loud and feet will be stomping!
“At this mature stage in the evolution of American music, it is extremely rare to hear something with a wholly unique approach. And to have that approach come from just one man and a very traditional, primitive instrument makes it even more exceptional. The combination of tempo and original technique derived from the clawhammer banjo style swirl for the most dizzying, disarming music experience imaginable when Lone Wolf is cued.” (Read full review)
Carolina Chocolate Drops - Leaving Eden
“The minute the Carolina Chocolate Drops were formed, the American music landscape was a much better place. Why, because we need yet another old-time juggy string band? God no. A mysterious yet very specific plague could wipe out half a hundred banjo-playing anthropology majors in suspenders busking in college town coffee shops and there would still be too many. The reason the Chocolate Drops are important is substance, sincerity, understanding of music, and rabid passion for exhuming the bones that form the skeleton that all the beauty of roots music hangs from.” (Read full review)
Restavrant – Yeah, I Carve Cheetahs
“This music comes at you like some crazy berserker dude kicking and swinging nun chucks, or a rooster with razor blades tied to its talons flying at your head. You may not exactly know what’s going on at first, but it certainly will get your heart pumping. Restavrant doesn’t play music for you, they beat you over the head with it. A two piece setup of screaming wierdo dudes originally from Victoria, TX, one armed with a gut-bending guitar and slide, and the other with common truck stop parking lot refuse that he wails on to create audible percussive-like noises. I’m pretty sure their form of expression is considered assault in certain countries. But for those with the right ear and disposition, it hurts so good.” (Read full review)
Every year this list stirs a little controversy because people misunderstand that these are not supposed to be the songs you “like” the best, but instead is supposed to be compositions in a given year that have the most impact.
They’re songs that make you change the way you see the world, or change the way you see yourself. This year, I may put out a list of “singles” that would better represent the lighter side of the music. But the Song of the Year is reserved for those few compositions that have the ability to change lives and to change the world.
Some of the songs that find themselves on the outside looking in, but are still excellent and worth your ear include virtually any track on both Chris Knight’s Little Victories album and Corb Lund’s Cabin Fever. The problem with putting out an album where every song is great is trying to pick the best one. If it wasn’t for Tom Morello’s guitar solo, Shooter Jennings’ “The Long Road Ahead” would have made it, and the only reason why Shooter’s”Daddy’s Hands” didn’t is because of this year’s strength of the competition.
A couple of other oddball considerations that almost made it were T. Junior’s “Man in Gray” and Sara Watkins’ song of epic sadness, “When It Pleases You”.
Normally I’d gab a little bit about each song, but this year the songs are so strong and remarkably each has an excellent video. So except for a few quick notes, I think I will sit back and let the music speak for itself. Vote for your favorite(s) below, and comment feedback will be taken into consideration for the winner.
Tom VandenAvond – Wreck of a Fine Man – from Wreck of a Fine Man
About Hank Williams and James Hand. If you’re interested, you can read the story behind “Wreck of a Fine Man”.
McDougall – The Travels of Fredrick Tolls (Part 2) – from A Few Towns More
Justin Townes Earle – Unfortunately, Anna – from Nothing’s Gonna Change…
On my mid year list I included “It Won’t Be The Last Time” from Nothing’s Gonna Change too. The competition is so stiff, it didn’t seem fair to include two songs from the same artist. But if I had, it would have been from Justin Townes Earle.
Ray Wylie Hubbard – New Years Eve at the Gates of Hell – Grifter’s Hymnal
There were a few other songs from Grifter’s Hymnal that could have made the cut, but they didn’t call a record executive a “son of a bitch” or quote Martin Luther King.
Billy Don Burns – Stranger -from Nights When I’m Sober
A really powerful one.
Turnpike Troubadours – Good Lord, Lorrie – from Goodbye Normal Street
In my mid year list, I picked “Gone, Gone, Gone” as the standout with “Good Lord, Lorrie” as a runner up. Over time, “Good Lord, Lorrie” has proved to be a timeless song. It’s the “Me & Bobby McGee” of 2012. An excellent use of story.
Sturgill Simpson – Life Ain’t Fair & The World Is Mean
I’ve gone back and forth over the years if I should include songs not released on albums as candidates. This song is just too strong to leave off. I would be lying if I didn’t say this is one of the front runners. (read full review)
Eric Strickland – Drinking Whiskey – from Honky Tonk Till I Die
This song may even be better live.
Kacey Musgraves – Merry Go ‘Round
I admit this song is not perfect. The reason it made the list is because for a song with such a subversive message, it has been performing amazingly well on radio. It is touching a nerve with people from Americana to the mainstream. It is a song about awakening, and it may just awaken some folks to the fact that there’s a whole other world of music out there waiting for them. (read full review)
Olds Sleeper – Bigsky/Flatland – from New Year’s Poem
Last, but certainly not least.
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)
It may seem like an oddball pairing on the outside. Ray Wylie Hubbard, the wily, enigmatic and cryptic Texas songwriting god that goes by handles as far ranging as “The Forgotten Outlaw” and “Wylie Lama”–and Ronnie Dunn, one half of the Brooks & Dunn super pairing that sold over 30 million records and won more music awards than any other act in country music history before disbanding in 2010.
Then again, Ronnie and Ray have the same Texas/Oklahoma upbringing and lineage. Ronnie spent years running around the Texoma region, from getting kicked out of Abeline Christian University for playing in bands, to playing the honky tonk circuit in Tulsa, OK before Brooks & Dunn. It’s not hard to imagine Ronnie rubbing elbows with Ray at some point, and finding it hard to forget his prowess with the pen even after all these years.
On September 9th, Ronnie Dunn posted on his Facebook wall, “Ray Wylie Hubbard (Redneck Mother) is flying in tomorrow to write…. (love his new cd Grifter’s Hymnal”)…his song SNAKE FARM is a favorite here at CAMP WACO ! RD.” Two days later, Ronnie wrote, “Sittin’ at the dinner table with with Ray Wylie Hubbard. Good day of writin’ dang fun country songs. May have to go to Austin and make him feed me for a few days and record some of ‘em soon. Cool day. RD.”
Lo and behold Ronnie Dunn did end up in Austin where he’s been for the last few days, recording with Ray, and an all-star band of George Reiff, Rick Richards, Ian McLagan from Faces, Brad Rice formerly of Son Volt, and others. “Started recording in Austin yesterday,” Ronnie Dunn posted on Facebook. “TEXAS boys ripped it up !! Brad Rice, George Reiff, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Ian McLagan (Faces)….this is where the Rolling Stones ride with the Cowboys !!!! If you like your country raw and with a razor edged jangle….I found the ‘honey hole’ RD.”
Meanwhile Ray Wylie Hubbard took to his Twitter account to voice his excitement and post a wavy picture of the troop at a restaurant. “Ronnie Dunn recorded 4 songs we wrote…yep. believe it.”
Ronnie Dunn released his first post Brooks & Dunn album in June of 2011, and announced exactly a year later that he’d exited his contract with his label Arista Nashville. We very well may be seeing Ronnie Dunn unfolding his creative wings after a long career, and I can’t wait to hear the result.
When the Brooks & Dunn breakup happened, it seemed to reveal the ills of the Music Row approach. It was rumored that the duo hadn’t spoken to each other offstage for years. They toured in separate buses. Except for a ritual of taking a whiskey shot together before taking the stage, they avoided all personal interactions, yet we as fans were supposed to believe the charade they presented onstage that they were best buds. Like Lady Antebellum having to hire a mediator to keep the band together, the money was just too rich for them to not fight through personal disagreements and keep the facade of a happy music life alive.
Trying to point to who the bad guy was in the duo may be as polarizing of an exercise as talking politics in mixed company, but Kix Brooks was the one saying he wanted to be “relaxing on a Caribbean island” by the age of 60, while Ronnie Dunn used his exit from the duo to immediately launch a solo career. However much and for however long Ronnie Dunn was willing to play the part, it’s hard to say that music wasn’t still deep in his blood. And when word came down that Ronnie had been writing with Texas songwriting legend Ray Wylie Hubbard earlier this summer, it was hard to say that the man didn’t have some measure of taste.
Ronnie Dunn released his first self-titled solo record in June 2011, and it was one where the chatter surrounding it made me pay a little closer attention to it than I may otherwise a Music Row release. Terms like “traditional” were tossed about, but I found it a little too laden with arena rock guitar to get into the project as a whole. As Ronnie posted on his Facebook page on the night of the CMA Awards, “Spent the day in the studio putting Aerosmith guitars on country songs.” That about sums up the album Ronnie Dunn for me, even though the release undeniably had its moments, of which the song “Bleed Red” might be the best.
“Bleed Red” comes at the point in the album when every Nashville-based Music Row project must pay its tribute to America and the troops, despite the sincerity of the writing or how sold the performer is on the message. These flag-waving songs have become the most trite, most predictable cliche in country over the last decade, bordering on gratuitous in the way they commercialize, if not outright exploit the troops instead of supporting them because of their objectionable sentimentality.
What’s refreshing about “Bleed Red” is even though it has the epic, anthemic approach indicative of the flag-waving anthem, it is not about politics, or any polarizing subject at all. It’s about the opposite. It’s the antithesis of the awful, too-often called upon emotional-driven overballad, that doesn’t sacrifice the soul-stirring epicness that makes these type of songs the best reminders of why we love music.
Instead of barking platitudes, “Bleed Red” resides in ambiguity, eroding prejudice and polarization by pointing out our universal humanness in a scope that would be impossible to do with the same words if they were devoid of song. Its message is crushing, not from the complexity of thought it inspires but in the simplicity of its moral.
But all of that stuff aside, the best part about “Bleed Red” is the vocal performance by Ronnie Dunn. There is nothing supremely challenging about how the singing part is structured in this song, or where the register resides. Ronnie makes it challenging nonetheless by voluntarily weighing every word down with such deep, authentic emotion. His voice is where this song goes from cheesy to meaty. He sings the shit out of it. Few could sit back and see the bead of sweat forming across his brow, the red face, and not feel raised hairs as he bellows this song out straight from the soul, and accuse him of pandering or playing a part.
“Bleed Red” isn’t just a song, it is a performance; a feat of emotional expression. And foremost, it is a reminder.
Is “Bleed Red” country? Maybe, maybe not. But it’s good.
Two guns up!
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Didn’t care for the official video for “Bleed Red”, but this live version seems to capture the right vibe.
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