“Going Out Like That” is not just another single. It symbolizes the very first song from the NASH Icon enterprise pairing Big Machine Records with Cumulus Media in an effort to revitalize overlooked legacy artists, and the first single from Reba McEntire in nearly four years. As the precursor to a planned 2015 album release, the single also may give us a glimpse into what we can expect from a revamped Reba—if through the NASH Icon venture she may have the latitude to be a little more traditional, or if she will try to hang with the young pups with a more contemporary sound.
Reba resides in her own unique generation when it comes to country artists. She was already established when the “Class of ’89″ came rolling out, yet her commercial success has stretched well into the 2000′s, and has been assisted by her acting career and her seemingly constant presence in front of the cameras and the generally favorable take on her as an artist from a wide swath of country fandom. Considering the entire breadth of her body of work, it would be tough to call her either traditional or contemporary because she’s dabbled in both, though her decision to cover Beyoncé’s “If I Were A Boy” in 2011 made many wonder if she was reaching for a shot at relevancy beyond her twilighting status.
Written by veteran songster Rhett Akins with Ben Hayslip and Jason Sellers, “Going Out Like That” sees Reba delve into the whole nightlife motif that is very hot right now in “country” music. Giving a 3rd person account of a girl going through a breakup, the song takes an empowering trajectory of not allowing the jilt of love lost to hold a young woman down. She fights through the tears to hit the town and leave all her bad memories behind in a volley of alcoholic drinks and dance moves.
Where the song tries to find a balance between the two country worlds Reba resides in is in the instrumentation. The serrated-edged Stratocaster-style rock guitar is there, but starts off a little more subdued that what most modern country might feature; just tempered enough to allow the acoustic guitar to still be heard in the mix, while steel guitar helps countrify the rhythm and instrumentation. The drumming may be a little too much for a country song, but it fits the style and context. Though not ideal to either the old school or new school mindset, the song starts off amicable to both until a fairly self-indulgent guitar solo careens into the spotlight, and Reba’s vocals begin to be transmogrified by technology.
Thematically, one of the issues with “Going Out Like That” is not necessarily where it goes, but where it could have gone. Like so many modern country songs, it swaps a third resolving verse for yet another run through the catchy chorus. The song seems custom written to score more of a deep emotional impact by resolving into something more than “she’s smiling while she’s throwing back shots.” It could have spoken to a more personal realization or a true vindication for the heroine instead of just a boozed-fueled night of blurry recollections of party moments. This is the fundamental difference between country music circa 1985 and country music in 2015—the moral is gone. With many of country’s current hot upstarts, you can excuse this oversight because they arguably have never interfaced with country music of that nature. But with Reba, you kind of expect it, or at least hope for it.
Other small things like Reba talking about guys “blowing up her phone” feel a little anachronistic from Reba’s vantage and reinforce the theory that she’s trying to reach for renewed attention to her career, though the song is savvy to set its perspective in the 3rd person to attempt to resolve this.
“Going Out Like That” was released on January 6th and immediately shot up to the #1 song spot on iTunes, speaking once again to the buying power of the middle-aged country public that has been so unnecessarily abandoned by the mainstream in a headlong pursuit of youth. This was the space NASH Icon was hoping to fill, and with their very first trial balloon, they’re already seeing success, and in terms of sales and not just streaming—something that gives these NASH Icon artists a financial advantage over their younger counterparts. The song should also do well on radio with its Cumulus backing, and we can expect to see favorable chart results for the single in the coming weeks.
This is a safe move from Reba. “Going Out Like That” won’t win her any traditionalist support, but it also won’t stimulate a ton of criticism, while similarly finding a receptive audience to mainstream 30 to 50-somethings that have joined classic country fans lately in wondering what the hell has happened to their country radio.
1 Gun Up, 1 Gun Down.
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“Going Out Like That” does not have any public display media available at the moment, but can be previewed or purchased on Amazon and iTunes, or if you do the Spotify thing, listen below.
Once again Roger Alan Wade makes his case for being one of the most criminally-underrated songwriters of our generation, releasing his newest album Bad News Knockin’ right before the end of 2014 through Johnny Knoxville Records, and rocketing himself near the top for the most notable songwriting efforts for all of last year.
As Roger will say himself, “Thank God for nepotism,” but the truth is Wade was making a name for himself from his own sweat as a songwriter in Nashville well before his crazy first cousin Johnny Knoxville was getting zapped by cattle prods, or putting Wade’s songs in his successful series of Jackass movies. The fact the two first cousins are famous (or in Wade’s case, mostly famous), is purely coincidental, and though Roger Alan Wade may not have the legacy and recognition of the Guy Clark’s and John Prine’s to the outside world (at least not yet), to others he’s a mastermind, and he continues to bolster his catalog from an undying hunger to match the licks of his songwriting heroes with each new release.
If there was a theme to Bad News Knockin’, contentment would be it. Don’t bother Wade with your schemes of how to get him to the big time, or pity him that he never made it there before. Wade is perfectly content with releasing acoustic albums that just feature him and his guitar, instead of sticking his nose in the hustle of trying to get recognized by releasing big production records, or by trying to pry the closed doors of Nashville open to land some commercially-oriented cuts in the current miserable climate.
Back in the day working for a publisher, Roger Alan Wade racked up selected songwriting credits with legends like Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, George Jones, Hank Williams Jr., and Johnny Cash, including Hank Jr.’s #1 “Country State of Mind” from 1986. He’s been there and done that, had opportunities to rub elbows with his heroes, had some successes many songwriters and performers only dream of, and is happy now to just write songs for himself and for those who care to listen. He’ll call up his fellow Knoxville native Peewee Moore to play some lead guitar with him on a local TV or radio station, or leave town for a short stint of shows from time to time. Otherwise, he’s cool with staying at home and sewing his craft, and hoping to entice enough people to listen to keep his simple life of privacy and family afloat.
As RAW says on one of Bad News Knockin‘s offerings,I just want me a yellow house in the country, way back off the highway A swing on a screened-in front porch, a hammock in the hickory shade I guess success to some folks, ain’t the same as it is for me I’d count myself one wealthy man, for a yellow house in the country
Following this theme, Bad News Knockin’ feels like a very personal album from Wade, even more so than his recent releases like DeGuello Motel and Southbound Train that strike a much deeper chord compared to some of his earlier albums at the height of the Jackass era—albums that featured songs like the irreverent “Butt Ugly Slut” or “Fryin’ Bacon Nekkid.” In the new song “Years Ago,” Wade expends no effort to make his personal story into fiction, while “I Lived The Life” once again sounds a thankful chord for what he’s been able to accomplish in his career.I lived the life, I chased the dream. Even if I could, I wouldn’t change a thing. Been more than worth, the sacrifice. Don’t cry for me, I lived the life.
Bad News Knockin’ is reflective, but Roger’s not ready to be put out to the songwriting pasture just yet. “Red Shoes Blues” ingeniously makes use of women’s obsession with footwear into a form of flattery that will fit snug with many female listeners. He takes an older song of his called “Warm Spanish Wine” from an era when others were trying to make him into a marketable commodity, and makes it soar despite the stripped-down approach, marking not just one of the best songs, but one of the best performances of this album.
And despite the stern, almost defiant countenance Wade sports on the cover with the beads of sweat bubbling on his brow like Johnny Cash at San Quentin, and the title which seems to hint this album might be brazen and hard-edged, there’s multiple gospel moments on Bad News Knockin’; something that Wade continues to call on more and more as he ages. Using witty allusions and biblical locations to deftly craft songs that are more than just preachy sermons, these religious tunes showcase Wade’s songwriting skills just as much as his secular material.
The Roger Alan Wade proponent in me still wishes Roger had the drive to flesh out his music a little bit more to make the job of enticing folks to listen a little easier. But if you’re not intimidated to listening to the prototype, the songwriter in the raw, the words and wood and wire of an original inspiration and story and nothing more, the Roger Alan Wade experience can be quite a fulfilling one.
1 3/4 of 2 Guns Up.
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If you’re looking for the female equivalent to Bro-Country songs, i.e. something featuring lower brow formulaic songwriting, however less frequently they may find their way onto your radio, the proper comparison would be the “attitude song.” That’s what Miranda Lambert calls it.
“I love attitude songs,” says Miranda, who is regularly regarded as the queen of the style, and whose influence as one of the highest-grossing females in country music in the last half decade has seen female country performers like Carrie Underwood and others follow suit with similar songs not putting up with crap from their men, or the women who would be inclined to steal them. Attitude songs are all about keying paint jobs, swinging baseball bats, and lighting shit on fire, all while looking fabulous and sporting perfect hair. And like Bro-Country, they regularly list off items involved in such badassedry with little or no story conveyed.
Though attitude songs may not be as prevalent or intellectually torpid as Bro-Country, they can be just as tiring. Even Miranda Lambert agrees. “They can get old if you don’t do ‘em right,” she says. “I don’t want to keep doing the same type of attitude song, I’ve got to change them up.” So her answer to this concern on her latest album Platinum is called “Little Red Wagon,” written and originally performed by fellow Oklahoma-dwelling singer and songwriter Audra Mae. It has been announced as the third single from Miranda’s latest release, to impact radio right after the holidays.
Oh, you only love me for my big sun glasses
And my Tony Lomas
I live in Oklahoma
And I’ve got long, blonde hair
And I play guitar, and I go on the road
And I do all the shit you wanna do
And my dog does tricks
And I ain’t about drama, ya’ll
I love my apron
But I ain’t your mama!
And on and on from there, with a reprise about how you can’t ride in her little red wagon because “The front seat’s broken and the axle’s draggin’” which I’m not sure lends any more point to this song.
The music of “Little Red Wagon” is unapologetically rock, with a frenetic and diverse arrangement punctuated by wild dynamics that if nothing else, gets your attention and sends the pulse racing. Arena guitar indicative of Guns & Roses weaves in and out of an extra loud drum track, while the song starts and is bisected by two ultra-hushed pianissimos. Yes “Little Red Wagon” paws for your attention with its pronounced topography and has some interesting and original textures, but it lacks in pentameter. No consistent groove emerges in the wild-ass mood swings and multiple instrumental layers, potentially a symptom of the production crew trying to pull this new version comfortably away from Audra Mae’s original.
But the one thing high-minded standards for music, and opinions peppered with musical terms like “pianissimo” can’t resolve is just how fun many people will find this song, especially amongst the female listener. This is the reason it has been slated for a single release, and will probably hold its own on the charts for a valiant run. It’s fluff, but it doesn’t try to portray itself as anything but.
Miranda Lambert’s Platinum has become mainstream country’s default critically-considered album in 2014 despite songs like “Little Red Wagon” and “Somethin’ Bad” that have little to no nutritional value being put out there as singles. Though deeper listeners may complain why tracks like “Hard Staying Sober” and “Holding On To You” remain shelved, the point of singles is to draw the most attention as possible to albums and artists, and “Little Red Wagon” will most certainly do that.
This is not a good song, or at least not a good version of it. But there’s much greater sins out there to get worked up about. Let the ladies have their fun.
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1 Gun Up for being fun, involved, and invigorating.
1 Gun Down for being frenetic, pointless, and patently un-country.
Cody Johnson is country. There’s no denying that. But there’s a mantra around Saving Country Music which states that just because something is real country, doesn’t mean it is real good. Just as if something isn’t real country doesn’t mean it’s real bad. People tend to be fans of music first, and then their loyalties break towards certain genres. And even though most of the business conducted around here centers around country music, the underlying loyalty is to music with soul, not just a certain sound.
I’ve received more requests to comment on Cody Johnson’s music in 2014 than any other artist. Meanwhile my status of staying mum on him has caused some to question whether I actually care about country music, others to question the legitimacy of of flying the “Saving Country Music” banner, and still others have come out saying point blank Saving Country Music must be a fraud for not discussing the Texas singer. Most requests are punctuated with caps locked proclamations of how Cody Johnson is REAL country, which over the years has unfortunately become a marker for music that tries really hard to prove how country it is, while leaving things like taste and originality behind.
Cowboy Like Me is country, yes. This is a Texas artist who grew up in Huntsville and was home schooled and spent much of his time hunting, fishing, and singing at church. Cowboy Like Me utilizes as much or more fiddle and steel guitar as any album released in the last year or so, and Cody’s singing style features a sharp twang punctuating songs dyed in themes of country life.
Cowboy Like Me also features a lot of loud, Stratocaster-style cliché rock guitar, formulaic themes and movements, rising choruses indicative of commercial-oriented music looking for radio play, incessant references to how country Cody Johnson is no different than what can be found on the latest albums from Florida Georgia Line or Jason Aldean, and possibly most disappointing, what sounds like one of the most egregious deployments of Auto-Tune I’ve heard this side of George Strait’s final concert album.
All of this combines to make Cody Johnson and Cowboy Like Me a mixed bag at best, and not wanting to be the bearer of bad news or the one to break the heart of a Cody Johnson fan, I felt avoiding him, especially when there’s so much other music out there to talk about, was probably the best course of action. Because overall, Cody Johnson is not the enemy, he’s an ally. If I turn on my radio, I sure as hell would rather hear Cody Johnson coming out compared to whatever Music Row is peddling, or if I’m in a bar filled with music fans, I’m going to gravitate toward Cody Johnson fans way before the people in Florida Georgia Line T-shirts. But in the face of criticisms for remaining so quiet on this artist, here are my opinions, open and honest, be damned the popularity or reception of them.
I wonder if Dale Watson, Jason Eady, or even Marty Stuart would label Cody Johnson REAL country. When the most striking characteristic of your music is overdriven arena rock guitar and the Auto-Tune is so obvious, it leaves little that is REAL or country except for some of the buried instrumentation and the lyrics. Cowboy Like Me makes a headlong effort to prove how country it is, and for many ears, it worked. But if I had to label this music, I would call it commercial country: More country-sounding than Music Row material, yet still with many of the same sonic hooks and lyrical tropes indicative of the mainstream world.If you give a cowboy a truck on a Friday night He’ll pull a $100 bill from a coffee can Spray the mud off of them tires Drop $20 in the tank, save the rest for beer So all you girls in here need to know this
And as much as Cody Johnson fans like to paint him as the scrappy underdog independent artist who needs support from places like Saving Country Music, he’s won big endorsement deals from Bud Light, Wrangler, and other corporate sponsors. Hey, good for him. It’s great Cody has found a way to support himself with his music. But just like many elements of his sound, Cody Johnson’s independent status is not exactly what it’s sold to be.
One of the redeeming points for Cody’s music can be found in the writing of his songs. Where some of the bigger numbers not only feel quite cliché, they also feel very stuck in the mid to late 90′s as far as style—not modern enough to feel relevant to today, but not classic or traditional enough to appeal to that crowd either. Meanwhile some of the lyrical hooks and payoffs fall flat, like the line “Even My pain is hurtin’” from the song “Hurtin,’” as if this poor attempt at a double entendre is something to be considered “deep.” Nonetheless, songs like “Bottle It Up,” “Holes,” and even the opening numbers of “Dance Her Home” and “Me and My Kind” are decently-written songs, even if they do have that 90′s-era cheese as a character trait.
Some will vehemently deny that there’s any Auto-Tune on this album whatsoever, and even if this is true, the engineer on this project should still be fired from how ultra-polished and digitized Cody Johnson’s voice sounds on the finished product, whatever enhancements were employed during the mixing and mastering process. Please understand, I’m not criticizing Cody’s prowess as a vocalist whatsoever. By all accounts, whether fronting a band, or going out on stage with just an acoustic guitar, Cody Johnson can send hearts stirring with his voice. But during too many moments to list on this album, the sharp-edged mark left by audio enhancement drains any life in the performance or lyric, and really erodes any authenticity this project tries to convey. Some listeners won’t be able to hear the enhancement, but Cody’s first verse on “Me and My Kind” might be the most blaring example of Auto-Tune, or some other perfecting filter I’ve ever heard on a studio album.
Cowboy Like Me is too polished, too perfect, too pandering to radio to get too excited about as a vehicle to save country music. Should people be embarrassed for liking Cody Johnson or this album? Of course not, because in the end it is undoubtedly a better, healthier country music option than most of what Music Row is serving for dinner. But I would be lying if I said I thought Cowboy Like Me was a good album, or even REAL country.
1 Gun Up for some well-written songs ideas and some good country instrumentation.
1 Gun Down for all the rock guitar, cliché country lyrics and modes, and Auto-Tune.
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Yes, if you thought Willie Nelson already released an album this year, you would be correct. It was called Band of Brothers, and without rigging the measuring stick because he’s a legend, or crossing my fingers behind my back, I can tell you it was one of the better albums released in all of country music in 2014. Consumers felt similarly, and Band of Brothers became a #1 record upon its release; Willie’s first #1 in 28 years, though under a system Billboard has now replaced with one taking into account streaming, which will likely see Willie and other legends who’ve had luck on the charts lately losing out to younger artists with stream happy fans.
But Willie was not done in 2014, and released Willie’s Stash, Vol. 1 December Day on 12/2. This is not a Christmas album as some may assume from the timing and title (and others have purchased believing it to be according to a couple of emails I’ve received), though it does have a very glowing, hearth-like feel, and the album is a family affair. The occasion surrounding December Day is to capture Willie with sister Bobbie Nelson—his long-time piano player—in a very intimate, stripped-down studio setting with producer Buddy Cannon presiding, and only a few more sparse accoutrements from Willie’s long-standing “Family Band.”
Like the “Willie’s Stash, Vol. 1″ titling infers, this should be considered the other release, the more secondary release from Willie Nelson in 2014. Something for the hardcore fans instead of the masses so to speak, and you see this in the way Legacy has approached releasing this album—Willie’s fifth on the Sony catalog imprint. June’s Band of Brothers, Willie’s 2013 duet album To All The Girls…, and 2012′s Heroes all felt like primary releases with a big promotional push. December Day, and the 2013 release Let’s Face The Music And Dance—another release that also included many re-recorded songs—felt like bonus studio material for dedicated Willie lovers.
Interesting that with 2012′s Heroes, Sony apparently put the kibosh on the original album name Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die, but here make light of Willie’s well known use and advocacy of marijuana with the “stash” reference, however more veiled it might be. And if we ever will see a Volume 2 or if it’s just a formality to flesh out the title remains to be seen. But in 18 tracks and 20 total songs, December Day sees Willie reprising many of his originals—some well-known, some obscure—while also covering favorites from Irving Berlin, Django Reinhardt, and others. I wouldn’t consider December Day a country album in the traditional sense. It is more of a traditional pop album, where a crooner accompanied primarily by a piano would play standards, like a Tony Bennett record, only with more earthy tones from Willie’s more weathered voice and the sound of his famous Trigger guitar.
Though it says right there on the cover and in the track notations that this is mostly about Willie pairing with Sister Bobbie, long-time Nelson harmonica player Mickey Raphael plays a very important role on this record, adding his signature and tasteful textures on many of the tracks. Also interesting to note that we see Willie’s long-time bass player Bee Spears’ name appear in the credits. Bee passed away in an unfortunate accident in December of 2011, meaning some of this music has been laying around for a while, and predates Willie’s Legacy label deal. Billy English—the brother of drummer Paul English—also appears briefly, but overall December Day stands up to the billing of being primarily Willie and Bobbie.
The excellent part about this album is the intimacy, and each track singled out is its own little gem. When news first came down of this project, I’d be lying if I didn’t say it set my eyes to rolling a little bit. Willie did such a great job with Heroes and Band of Brothers defying his age and adding to his legacy, I just don’t want to see his fan base taxed with too many auxiliary releases, especially to the point where listeners start ignoring them (see the 00′s). But when a video for “Who’ll Buy My Memories” was released (see below), my optimism perked up. The idea of getting a glimpse of how an evening at the Nelson Family residence may transpire when music is on the mind makes this something unique and special, even if we’ve heard these songs before.
However when you zoom out and listen to December Day cover to cover for all 20 songs, it does become a little bit tedious. Along with re-treading some songs he’s already re-treaded many times before (Willie might have recorded “Nuages” more times than Florida Georgia Line says “girl” in a hit single), Willie’s also put nearly all of his material that relies on minor keys and fey jazz-style chording that trips up the ear in one place with this album. When you add on top a general lack of body in the instrumentation, you end up with an album that is hard to call “accessible” as one of its attributes. Yes, it’s a “stash” of songs we’ve heard before done in a different way, but one I wouldn’t label as essential to anyone but dedicated Willie Nelson fans.
What December Day does deliver is a remarkable attention to tone, conveyed with such respectful care and taste, it’s like touching something pleasing but with your ears. Willie Nelson’s voice, though handsomely weathered, sounds strong and regal, like the knotty, intertwined resolve of an antique wooden cane only rendered more sturdy and character-etched by time. In fact you could call Nelson’s voice even more confident here than on Band of Brothers in places because he’s been singing these songs for so many years. His guitar Trigger meets similar results from not having to fight with a full band for attention, while the tinkling of keys by sister Bobbie comprises the foundation for every song. Mickey Raphael has some moments where he cuts his parts as smoothly as the sunrise crests the horizon, and overall despite a lack of originality of material, December Day delivers a tactically-pleasing experience if nothing else.
Recommended only for dedicated Willie fans, or people who love minimalist recordings of standards, but recommended nonetheless, Willie and Bobbie’s December Day “stash” makes for not a bad pre-holiday aperitif.
1 1/2 of 2 Guns Up.
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Fortuitous would be one way to describe this project. Moving would be another.
Rewind back to 2010, when singer and songwriter Cary Ann Hearst was still working as a waitress part time to pay the bills in between music gigs, including with husband and solo artist Michael Trent in a duo known as Shovels & Rope. Two years before in December of 2008, the tandem had already released an album called Shovels & Rope, and in 2009 the two solo performers got married, but Shovels & Rope was never meant to be a permanent thing. It was more of a collaboration between their two respective solo shows.
It was in 2010, around the time Cary Ann Hearst reached out to filmmakers Jace Freeman and Sean Clark to make a couple of videos for her individual music that serious plans were being laid to make Shovels & Rope the preferred project of both Hearst and Michael Trent. Jace Freeman and Sean Clark, known collectively as the Moving Picture Boys, saw an opportunity to chronicle the formation of the band by following the duo around for a few months with no real plan of how to feature the content once it was captured, but with a sense something interesting might come of it. Four years later, Freeman and Clark were still filming, and Shovels & Rope was becoming the biggest new band in Americana, winning top industry awards, playing Letterman and Austin City Limits, and generally exploding on the national scene.
Shovels & Rope and the filmmakers put the cart before the horse, but in this instance it paid off in a brilliant and inspiring film. The Moving Picture Boys didn’t have the daunting task that most documentary makers face in attempting to tell a compelling story about an unknown or mundane subject, or having to embellish the important moments to keep viewers entertained. The story was telling itself in a way no script could ever facilitate. They just had to make sure they did justice to the story unfolding before them. Then when a Kickstarter was launched to fund the final production of the film, the fierce Shovels & Rope fans doubled the pledge drive’s initial goal of $20K, pulling out any and all stops to making The Ballad of Shovels & Rope one of the best music documentary films of 2014.
The beginning of the film starts off a little bit awkward as you can tell Cary Ann and Michael are adjusting to having cameras in their creative and home space, and some of the moments come off a little more choreographed than spontaneous. But eventually everyone settles in and soon you’re witnessing the reality of this band in its formative and humble incarnation when crucial decisions are being made that will enable their eventual success. Their struggles, their second guesses and vulnerabilities are on display as they play frustrating shows and take a chance on going to LA to record an album in two days, and ultimately scrapping everything they cut. Though you go into this film knowing there’s a happy ending that is beyond all odds in a cutthroat business known for crushing 1,000 dreams for every one it fulfills, the documentary shows that even amidst their success, there was a litany of preliminary failures.
But perseverance, and the self-awareness of knowing when something is right, and when something is not is what powered this husband/wife duo through adversity, and landed them on the stage of the Ryman Auditorium, walking away with the Americana Song of the Year award for a composition the cameras are there to capture Cary Ann Hearst carving out of inspiration four years before in the very early stages of the film. You literally see a career-defining song go from scribbles in a notebook to being played at the Country Music Mother Church and being awarded the greatest distinction any song in the Americana realm can receive.
In between The Ballad of Shovels & Rope captures the band deciding to record their premiere album O Be Joyful DIY style in their own house as Cary Ann is still waiting tables and haunting laundromats in the throes of poor musicianhood. It shows them soliciting the services of Amanda Shires to record fiddle parts in the duo’s tour van as Shires’ future husband Jason Isbell sits in the background with a fedora and a mixed beverage in his pre-sober condition. The cameras are there when the duo is approached by the Dualtone label, and when they’re consternating and eventually make the fateful decision with their manager to sign the record deal, putting them on a path to roots music success. And there’s more intimate moments throughout the film, like the duo bedding with their dog Townes in Wal-Mart parking lots, and hanging out at Cary Ann’s parent’s house.
No matter how emotionally invested you may or may not be in Shovels & Rope’s music when you begin this 70-minute feature, both the rarity of being able to watch a quirky, cool, and creative band make it in the music business, and to have cameras there capturing all of the most important moments, makes The Ballad of Shovels & Rope something universally appealing beyond the musical quotient. The perseverance of hope is really what is chronicled in this film, along with a lot of wisdom to understand for a rag tag band to make it in 2014, it takes a tremendous amount of work, a few lucky opportunities, and not just the ability to make the right decisions, but the insight to not allow oneself to make the bad ones.
Just like the band itself, The Ballad of Shovels & Rope is an achievement beyond all odds that results in art that uplifts as it entertains.
1 3/4 of 2 Guns Up.
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The Ballad of Shovels & Rope is officially released December 1st. It won the Nashville Film Festival “Ground Zero Tennessee Spirit Award” for Best Feature.
When it comes to Garth’s new album Man Against Machine, I’m not sure if it is possible for his singles strategy to be more ripe for second guessing. The first single “People Loving People” might as well have not even been released. In fact the case could be made that Garth would have been dramatically better off not releasing a single at all at this point. Now that his first song back has flopped, it’s going to make program directors even more reluctant than they were before to feature a 50-something, somewhat pudgy and out-of-touch star that’s an unknown quantity to most of their target demographic. American radio is already on rickety footing when it comes to the public’s attention span as their appetite for technological alternatives to radio continue to grow. To be taking chances on artists whose peak of relevancy was 20 years ago is a gamble, even if their name is Garth.
It’s unquestionable Garth Brooks has a capable team around him to promote his singles, but from the outside looking in it appears he’s surrounded by yes men who will ignore the data they have on his new songs and shoot whatever Garth is most enamored with at any given moment to country radio and hope it flies. Garth just needs to let people know he’s out there making music again with a sensible single that will get decent play; something beyond local headlines declaring he sold out half a dozen shows in six minutes. If Garth hasn’t played your town or you didn’t tune in for the awful American Music Awards, there’s little reason to know he’s back. Instead of letting radio do its job, Garth’s swinging for the home run ball on the first and second pitch, and like when he tried out for the Padres, he’s going down swinging.
No offense to “Mom,” or even “People Loving People.” These are not terrible songs in themselves. There’s just no sensibility to releasing them as singles. “Mom” is one of the few songs on Man Against Machine that actually resides in the sweet spot of Garth’s vocal range, where his bellowing low end can compliment the beginning of each phrase in a way that evokes memories of his early blockbusters. For my liking, I still think the song could be a half step lower, but unlike much of Man Against Machine that captures Garth in this pallid middle range, his voice is an asset in this song.
You would have to characterize the instrumentation and approach to “Mom” as traditional. Fiddle, steel guitar, piano, and a slow, reflective rhythm looking to capture memorable, shiver-inducing moments all makes for something refreshing to hear on mainstream country radio, but only if they’ll play it. All the soccer moms that once were one of country’s mainstays have moved on to the AAA and adult contemporary format. 16-year-old boys with their fists pumping to Florida Georgia Line are going to find “Mom” about as fun as a 9 PM curfew. And no matter the appetite of Robin Roberts on Good Morning America and a studio full of shills crying alligator tears, this song simply doesn’t resonate unless you’re suffering from morning sickness.
The problem with “Mom” is it has that mawkish, signature-Garth over-sentimentality that just makes you want to vomit. Are the words themselves terrible? No. But the lyrical payoff’s potency is good for about one pass of the song, if you can’t see the “Mom” hook coming from a mile away, which most listeners will. Where it’s supposed to deliver people to this warm place, instead it instills this rainbow of conflicting emotions, and even weird thoughts of personhood and conception—somewhere a country song shouldn’t go. Some, if not many moms and children’s experiences with them are much less idyllic than is what is portrayed here. Yes, we all love our moms, but the sad reality is some of them are bat shit crazy, and others are completely unprepared for parenthood. What about the babies who get delivered into their arms?
In the mid 90′s this song would have wooed America, and it still will be effective on some of the daytime TV crowd. But today we’re too gripped with irony and sarcasm to let something so sappy and direct resonate widely, which in truth is probably a sad commentary in itself, but a true assessment nonetheless. Garth has compared this to his iconic song “The Dance,” but “Mom” comes nowhere near capturing the universal sentiment or depth “The Dance” does, not matter what decade your perspective is stuck in.
No, this song is not terrible, and it’s not its fault that society these days is so bitter and full of angst that they can’t enjoy a song like this at least a little bit. It may do better than “People Loving People,” but I’m not sure if that’s saying much. Garth has a whole albums worth of songs—arguably all of the ones except the two he’s picked—that will work fine for radio, and one in “Tacoma” that could be huge. But the question is, by the time he gets to them, will everyone have grown tired of Garth 2.0?
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One Gun Up for a fairly well-written, traditional, and heartfelt song.
One Gun Down for sappiness, short-sightedness, and over-sentimentality.
Alright, before we get too deep into this matter, just understand that you’re going to want to be purchasing this album. It’s my job to sit here and gab at you for a while about it and explain why, and I’m flattered that you would entertain this notion and read the proceeding words. But you pretty much just need to get this album and thank me later.
What I’m trying to impart to you here is this might be the best record released in 2014 by any artist whose last name doesn’t rhyme with Pimpson. Who’s even heard of Tami Neilson? I sure as hell hadn’t. But apparently she won the New Zealand Music Award for “Best Country Album” in 2009, 2010, and 2011. Who knew? Sorry, but by happenstance I let my dues to the New Zealand Music Association lapse in 2008 and they ceased sending me newsletters. But here we are in 2014, and I almost feel like I owe an apology to the sainted Saving Country Music reader for not cluing you in on Tami Neilson prior to this moment.
That’s right, New Zealand has country artists, and if you thought that the folks there only listened to the Lord of the Rings soundtrack on repeat, you’re sorely mistaken. Let’s not just summarily lump New Zealand in with Australian country music either, but truth be known, that entire quadrant of the globe deserves more credit for their country music contributions than it regularly gets. Rugged, rural country produces the sound of a strained heart that is universal in its appeal regardless of what hemisphere it originates in.
But it just happens to be that Tami Neilson originally originated from North America. And get this, she even has country music skins on the wall. Growing up in Canada, Tami played in the Neilson Family Band that toured regularly and even opened for Johnny Cash and others. More recently she’s played with Emmylou Harris and Pokey LaFarge. But let’s not pretend that Tami is one of these artists you have to associate with other more well-known names just to get you interested. Her music speaks for itself.
Your brain is going to want to file Tami Neilson into the rockabilly lobe initially because of the angry bangs she’s rocking on the album cover and the rockabilly-ish opening track “Walk (Back To Your Arms),” and no doubt there’s a healthy dollop of that old school rock and roll vibe in her sound. But country is the most resounding influence on her new record Dynamite! released in March, and quite honestly her offerings dwarf many, if not most of the contributions from artists residing in country music’s native geography.
Frankly, I’m a little intimidated about where to start raining praises on this record, but let’s begin with Tami’s voice. Like a country music genetic experiment gone good, Tami Neilson sounds like the result of Patsy Cline and Wanda Jackson having a baby. Blow off everything else if you wish, but Dynamite! might be the best vocal performance turned in for quite a while. The song “Cry Over You” is downright shiver inducing, and shows itself as a strong contender for Song of the Year.
That leads us into a discussion on the sheer style of Tami’s music. This is totally a country throwback old-school 1950′s record with no tone or sentiment offered foreign to this time, and no anachronism overlooked. At the same time the songs are timeless, speaking to the modern heart as universally as they would have if they were released 60+ years ago. A big hand needs to be given to producers Ben Edwards and Delaney Davidson, the latter known for touring the U.S. regularly with Possessed by Paul James. So many albums try to evoke the throwback sound with close approximations of vintage tones and by simply relying on tubes and tape instead of true interpretations of styles. Just like Tami’s singing, if nothing else, Dynamite! might be one of the best-produced albums in recent memory. And not just in the tones, but in the instrumental performances themselves—the arrangements, the classic electric guitar, the pedal steel and fiddle. It’s all so splendidly compiled and blended to inflict the intended mood.
But you know how modern country fans love to complain about music that sounds just like grandpa’s. That’s where Tami Neilson’s songwriting comes in, making Dynamite! so much more than just a cool nostalgia record. Like any good country album, there’s moments where the songs simply pound at your emotional capacitors and make you relent; songs like “You Lie,” “Running To You,” and “Whiskey and Kisses.” Take these songs and overlay them with a hip-hop beat and they would still work brilliantly. Yes, there’s a lot of interpretation of style instead of originality on this album with songs like “Texas” that could have been ripped out of Patsy Cline’s song chronology, or “Woo Hoo,” which is just fun silliness. But a song like “Running To You” exhibits a lot of deep compositional brilliance.
There may be some songs here that are just simply fun, but there’s not a slouch in the entire bunch. And this album goes by so fast, like a succulent daydream you wake up too early from and try to fall back asleep to recapture. Luckily this isn’t 1954 and we have the aid of a repeat button.
Can’t say enough here. This is a good one, and a late edition to the albums that are being considered as the best in country music in 2014.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to delve into the rest of her catalog.
Two Guns Way Up!
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There was a time when we believed that the Garth Brooks comeback album would be the biggest event in country music all year, if not in the last half decade or longer. Now sales projections have the album struggling to reach 150K units sold in its debut week (though who knows how GhostTunes will account), while Garth’s comeback single “People Loving People” is a dud that has already been declared “done” at radio. Meanwhile he’s setting record attendance numbers all across the country as part of his comeback tour, but maybe the music became an afterthought, at least to consumers.
The truth is, Garth was never going to live up to the lofty expectations many were foisting upon his re-entry into the country fold. Forget the naysayers who still can’t get over his high wire act at Texas Stadium or the Chris Gaines gimmick, there was some thought that Garth may be the only one left with the star power to reignite the spark of true country music in the mainstream once again, however ironic this may be given Garth’s history. But in hindsight, this was sort of like thinking Mike Tyson could still be heavyweight champion in the early 00′s, or that Brett Favre could still win a Super Bowl. At some point our greatest talents leave us all, if they don’t become out-of-style even if they’re still present in full force.
Choosing to go with “People Loving People” as a lead single may have been the greatest single mistake of Garth’s career. Chris Gaines, eat your heart out. As Saving Country Music asserted amidst the song’s release, it would probably turn out to be the least country song of the entire project, and hearing the full Man Against Machine album now, this is most certainly true. The song left the country fans hoping for a triumphant Garth return crestfallen, and the rest of listeners just a little perplexed, despite not being a particularly bad song on its own autonomous merit. This was Garth being Garth—wanting to change the world with a song instead of simply putting something out there radio would play and help ease him back into the mainstream picture. Truth be known, Garth’s entire rollout has been wonky, with decisions easy to second guess.
But Man Against Machine is not all doom and gloom here. To begin with, forget whatever first impressions “People Loving People” may have given you; Man Against Machine is country. It’s Garth country no doubt, with a little bit of the arena rock attitude that he first brought to country, and a little soulful blue-eyed R&B with a country flavor mixed in. Getting even more specific, there’s a straight up Western Swing song on the album, and quite a few more songs that solidly fit in the true country style. There’s some overly sappy moments, like the sentimental song “Mom” which once again is very Garth. There’s also many well-written songs. Will Man Against Machine help save country music? You certainly don’t get that sense. But there’s still some good music here, and not much bad.
The opening title track of Man Against Machine is a maze of messages that can be read a number of ways, while the music itself is very much a hard-rocking and punctuated expression. Many are surmising that this song is a shot at Music Row and the country music machine. Others feel it challenges the drum machines and Auto-Tune that pervade popular country music, or that it is specific to his well-publicized battle with iTunes. Still others think it’s target and message is more global, that it’s showing concern for how technology is impinging on our lives.
But the genius of the song “Man Against Machine” is that it’s message can mean all of these things, or something entirely different depending on the perspective of the listener. Though the music might seem a little off-putting, or even arrogant to some listeners, the simple fact is “Man Against Machine” might be the best-written song on the album—on an album of well-written songs. The duplicitous meanings, the allusions to the classic John Henry story in country, lines like “Careful calculations details drawn down to design. Is it really for the better or a better bottom line,” and even the self-awareness of “‘Cause I’m a machine myself, but I’m one with a working heart,” make for a delicious riddle to unwind, and an inspiring message if one chooses to take it as such.
You can go back and forth about the objective or production of some of these songs, but the songwriting is somewhat hard to deny. Garth had his pick of the litter of material, and despite the lack of large singles on this album, the patience Garth exhibited vetting offerings, and the breath of the song selections, is impressive. The duet with wife Trisha Yearwood on a song Garth co-wrote called “She’s Tired of Boys” is quite striking, despite the schlock rock harmonized guitar lines and general adult contempo production. Again the production leaves something to be desired, but “Cold Like That” carries an advanced, almost esoteric message that challenges the listener—something refreshing and unusual from a mainstream country star.
“All American Kid,” “Wrong About You” and “Cowboys Forever” are just straight ahead solid contemporary country numbers that are hard to complain about, though they may not offer anything particularly new or exciting. The Western Swing “Rodeo and Juliet” is certainly the most surprising track on the album, and when I say “Western Swing,” I’m talking about Bob Wills at Cain’s Ballroom, and a smart, fun, and once again well-written song, and the 3rd of the album with a Garth co-write credit. Though there are multiple variances from the country theme on this album, there is also ample steel guitar, some fiddle, mandolin, dobro, and piano, and a list of respected musicians who appear in the liners such as Jerry Douglas and Bryan Sutton.
“Send ‘Em On Down The Road” is where Garth gets the recipe of sentimentality correct; something he measures out too syrupy on “Mom.” The song “Fish” once again features a fine songwriting performance, and a message that seems to ring deep for Garth and is lovingly delivered. Man Against Machine ends with a distinct R&B flavor, with “You Wreck Me” feeling like a stretch out of Garth’s style pocket, and potentially one of the album’s bids for radio play, but one that feels a little dated. Meanwhile the final track “Tacoma” is arguably the best vocal performance for Garth on the entire album. A challenging structure imagined by songwriters Caitlyn Smith and Bob DiPiero, Garth does a superb job re-imaging the song in his own image while capturing the compelling original sentiment.
The change in Garth’s voice may be the greatest takeaway of Man Against Machine. Where classic Garth was able to dip down into the lower registers and then drawl back up with such a meaty tone on all those early 90′s standards, today’s Garth is an animal of the middle register with a much more rigid range, making his voice more ordinary, despite his control and ability to emote passion certainly still being present.
Man Against Machine is a strong performance from a mainstream artist coming off a 12 year hiatus, but you don’t hear the song that could be the commercial blockbuster or game changer that this album would need to put itself in front of the wider consciousness. They will find some singles on this album that country radio in 2014-2015 is more receptive to, while country’s impending format split might also aid Garth’s return. But radio may be salivating more for a new single if the first one had been better received. Now they may be more suspicious.
The purists will pan it because it’s Garth, and the mainstream may mostly ignore it because Garth is such an unknown quantity to their youthful demo. And everyone will question the wisdom of releasing “People Loving People” as a single or the somewhat silly cover art. But Man Against Machine is a solid Garth record, with some sappy moments, some rock and R&B moments, but mostly just good contemporary Garth country worthy of at least an open-minded listen.
1 1/2 of 2 Guns Up.
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“You can paint a wall green and call it blue, but it’s clearly not blue. That would go over badly, because people know. When people trust you, they believe you’re investing them with a piece of your life—and their lives in turn, so you want to keep that trust at every level.”
No this isn’t some illumination by a country music purist criticizing the excessive use of the term “country” these days to describe what is really pop, rap, rock, or some other form of music. These are the sage words from none other than Taylor Swift of why she decided to call her new album 1989 pop instead of country.
Taylor Swift went on to say, “So, it felt like it was important to tell people what  was…I don’t really think people were surprised I made a pop album; I think they were surprised I was honest about it.”
Contrast this with Sam Hunt, and his new album Montevallo. Forget all of the tired arguments about what is country and what is pop, and how pop has always been a part of country. All of that goes without saying when broaching discussions on acts like Luke Bryan or Florida Georgia Line, to the point of calling them not country is as cliché as their vacuous laundry list lyrics. But this Sam Hunt business enters an entirely new stratosphere of “country” term-perversion.
In a nutshell, Sam Hunt and Montevallo are not country, and this goes beyond opinion. So what that a couple of songs feature a banjo or a steel guitar. This arguably makes the offense even worse because it proves they know they’re trying to put one over on consumers. For every element someone presents to claim this album is country, I can present fifteen that prove it patently isn’t. And it’s not really even close.
Montevallo is country music in marketing only. This is EDM/pop. So the next question is, where is the label MCA Nashville in all of this, and the Country Music Association? Don’t they have a stake in making sure at least some control is levied and boundaries set around what country music actually is? Where are the radio programmers putting up the stop sign, protecting the integrity of the genre? How about Billboard who is including Sam Hunt’s albums and songs in their country charts?
At the moment, Sam Hunt’s Montevallo album bests all other country albums, sitting at #1 on Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart for its debut week. His lead single “Leave The Night On” is #1 on the Country Airplay chart, meaning no song was played more on country radio in the last week. And it is also #1 on the Hot Country Songs chart, meaning overall it’s received more attention than any other song by radio and consumers. There was barely time to pay attention to Hunt’s X2C EP released in August before his full-length was announced to take advantage of his rapidly-rising demand. This is not Jerrod Niemann striking out with a gimmicky EDM song as the last dying gasp of a sputtering career, this is an artist poised to become a country music mega-star. But he’s not country, in really any capacity.
Montevallo is an excruciatingly-typical urban dance album that does Molly-laced grinds up against every single worn out trope of the velvet-roped, indirect-lighted, $15 cocktail club scene and the music thereof. Aside from the banjo in the song “House Party,” the steel guitar in “Single for the Summer,” and the sentiment in “Break Up In A Small Town,” this ten-song LP is a product of the pop/EDM world 100%.
This is the type of gaming of the country music term that has become typical over the past couple of years. Label managers looks for what they perceive as vacancies in the marketplace and interject manufactured stars to fill them. Hey, claiming rap and rock as country has been quite lucrative, so why not just launch your own EDM star and make believe it’s organic and erudite for the genre. Sam Hunt showed up into Nashville as a songwriter, and not a terrible one at that. But his most valuable asset revealed itself to be a willingness to make himself a blob of silly putty for marketing executives to fashion into whatever monster they so choose. Not that Sam doesn’t have his own motivations of money and stardom, or even sonic inspirations to take his music in this direction. If Sam Hunt’s music can make it in country, literally any type of music that exists on the planet can, and be successful enough where it tops the charts. This is not hyperbole. This is proven by Sam Hunt’s success.
Montevallo sits down in a space occupied by young white affluent to semi-affluent Americans that frequent the glitzy clubs of the shallow “see and be seen” world. Its lack of breadth and unifying emotional sentiments are striking. The songs “Break Up In A Small Town” and “Take Your Time” make use of the awful trend in EDM of talking verses in hushed tones, and transitioning over to heavily-infused Auto-Tuned singing towards the end. Jealousy and other signifiers of the under-maturated late-teen, early 20-something world are big players on Montevallo in songs like “Ex to See” and “Make You Miss Me,” while drum machines, DJ scratches, and synthesized accoutrements are featured unflinchingly. Though these things may be new to country, they come across as typical, if not tired elements of the EDM/dance world that has generally moved on to more complicated structures. Montevallo feels dated and unimaginative even in its native genre.
About the only saving grace of Sam Hunt and Montevallo is that the dude genuinely does not seem like the type of waste of human flesh that some of pop country’s other worst offenders embody. Sam Hunt seems more misguided. Similarly, a lot of these songs aren’t heavily-offensive to the ear on their own. The only reason to call them offensive is because they’re being called country—the same conundrum cast against Taylor Swift early in her career. The other question is why a 29-year-old is singing about the emblematic behavior of young adults just now exploring their legal right to drink?
Sam Hunt and Montavello symbolize nothing less than a dangerous, bordering on cataclysmic paradigm for country music where the genre could lose its identity long-term, rendering its autonomy and the entire meaning of “country” inert. Nice guy and good songs or not, Sam Hunt isn’t stretching the “Country” term, he is a downright attacking it, and represents a fulfillment of the mono-genre that should be roundly rejected by country music or face potentially dire long-term consequences.
Two Guns Way Down.
It’s the fall of 2007, and a mother and daughter from the little town of Lindale in east Texas are driving through New Braunfels, TX, just south of Austin, known nationally as the home of the historic Gruene Hall, when their car breaks down. Instead of stressing out about it, they decide to get a hotel room and a drink, and stumble into a rustic old bar called Tavern In The Gruene.
It is a Tuesday night, and like most every Tuesday night at the Tavern In The Gruene, Texas singer songwriter Ray Wylie Hubbard is doing his Roots and Branches radio show live on KNBT, showcasing songwriters from the Texas scene. On the stage is a well-seasoned, but somewhat obscure songwriter named Adam Hood from Opelika, Alabama. The two stranded travelers from Lindale listen intently to Adam’s songs and are so impressed, the daughter waits until after the show to talk to him and Adam gives her a copy of his current album.
After listening to Hood’s music and falling in love with it, the mother and daughter decide to book Adam Hood to play a birthday party in November in Chicago for the daughter. The mother’s name was Beverly Lambert, and her daughter had just released a CD of her own, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend the went on to be named the ACM Album of the Year. As you might have guessed, Miranda Lambert was the weary traveler who’d stumbled on to Adam Hood, and knew she’d just discovered songwriting gold.
Soon Adam Hood was signed with Carnival Music Publishing and Carnival Records, the baby of Miranda’s producer Frank Liddell—the man also known for producing records for Stoney LaRue, and being married to (and producing) Lee Ann Womack. It’s a small world, but Adam Hood soon became a big songwriting cog in it, moving to Nashville to work as a professional songwriter, and becoming one of the most prolific song contributors to the Texas scene, churning out signature tracks for Wade Bowen, the Josh Abbott Band, Whiskey Myers, and too many more to name, and even some songs for some bigger names like Little Big Town. Hood wrote “I’ll Sing About Mine” with Brian Keane that was nominated for Saving Country Music’s 2013 Song of the Year.
It’s because of both the prolific nature and aptitude of Adam Hood as a songwriter that you almost have to remind yourself that he’s a performer too, and a damn good one. Miranda brought Hood out on tour numerous times, as has Willie Nelson and Leon Russell. He’s currently touring with Jason Eady, who included one of Hood’s songs on his latest album Daylight & Dark. But since Adam Hood is the epitome of a songwriter who makes it look effortless—penning stories that wrench the heart and encapsulate sentiments so poignantly that his peers are flush with admiration and envy—Adam’s songwriting is where it all starts. Though as he says on a song on this new album, “It takes a whole lot of hard work to make it look easy.”
Adam Hood is not a native of Texas or Oklahoma, but he is an honorary member of the Texas country scene if there ever was one. And now that he’s officially called Frank Liddel’s Carnival Records quits, he’s back releasing his music independently and calling his own shots. Only appropriate then that he would release an album that is strikingly personal in a very palpable and meaningful manner, making the music hold a weight that it otherwise wouldn’t if it was a collection of disparate perspectives. Adam Hood has written plenty of songs for others. He wrote and recorded Welcome to the Big World for himself.
Starting out loud and heavy, Welcome To The Big World opens almost like a Will Hoge record—more rock than country, but with a country heart. Hoge wrote one of the songs for the album with Adam Hood, but it isn’t one of the beginning ones, it’s one of the more country offerings called “Postcards and Payphones” that helps anchor the more country and subdued second half of the album. The opening song “Don’t That Sound Like Love” takes a realistic, if not dystopian view of love in a very heavy bluesy style, followed up by the full tilt rocking “Trying To Write A Love Song.”
From there is where the album turns more personal, starting with title track that Hood wrote just as much for his daughter as for himself about dealing with life’s inherent struggles and trying to forge a positive attitude about things you can’t control. “Bar Band” is deceptively deep in its perspective, uniting all of America’s watering holes with the mood that can be found on any given Friday night when local musicians are providing the entertainment. “Whole Lot of Hard Work,” “Postcards and Payphones,” and “Way Too Long” is where Hood’s songwriting brilliance is revealed in full force, while the duet with Sunny Sweeney called “The Countriest” offers a simple and fun palette cleanser amongst Hood’s heavy hitting material. “He Did” written about Hood’s dad lands another gut punch, and despite all the other noteworthy songs on the album, “I Took A Train” bringing up the caboose feels like the most timeless, like an instant standard.
Adam Hood did his time on big stages, gave his shot to Nashville where he still haunts songwriting rounds with some of his friends, and his mark will forever be left on the music even if his pen fell silent tomorrow. But now he seems content with the world and his place in it.
It was a random performance at the Tavern In The Gruene that landed Adam Hood on the greater country music map, but the songwriter never left the spirit of the intimate performance and the conveyance of a personal feeling that spoke to Miranda Lambert that night, and still rings pure and potent in the 11 tracks of Welcome to the Big World.
1 3/4 of 2 Guns Up.
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“This site’s called savingcountrymusic.com. Why are you talking about Taylor Swift? She’s not country. She never was. Now she’s even saying she isn’t.”
Well guess what, tough titty. This is my damn website, and if I want to talk about Taylor Swift, I will. And guess what, you’ll probably read about it.
It’s true that Taylor Swift has officially left country, and the majority of the country music media needs to ween themselves off the Taylor Swift click bait and recuse themselves from running features on every Instagram picture she posts. But I can make the case that when it comes to this specific album, 1989, it is the most relevant, most important album released in country music in the entirety of 2014, let alone in music overall, and for a host of reasons, even though it’s not country. Thinking otherwise is vanity, and ill-informed, to the point where it would be almost irresponsible not to broach the subject of this album, and the potential repercussions it could have on the country genre at large.
For starters, if you trace back to the origination point 1989, it will lead you to the corporate headquarters of Big Machine Records—an independent label located at 1219 16th Ave South in a portion of the City of Nashville known by locals as Music Row, aka the mother brain of the country music industrial complex. Not to mention that said Big Machine Records also happens to be up for sale according to reports that first surfaced the third week of October, and have subsequently been stoked anew, and specifically name this album, 1989, it’s success, and the success and contract status of Taylor Swift as linchpins to the entire deal.
But let’s not bog down in business jargon and behind-the-scenes details. The reason 1989 is important to country music is not in lieu of Taylor Swift declaring herself and this album pop, it is because of it. Country music isn’t mad at Taylor Swift for leaving the genre, they’re mad because she blew their cover. Of course she’s not country, and never has been. Nor is the majority of what is clad in country clothing. It just happens to be that Taylor Swift is the only artist with the balls to say it, and the balls to admit she wants to make pop music. Oh my heavens, what a shock! Meanwhile the rest of country is syncing up banjos with drum machine beats, and singing about getting high in the bathrooms of downtown clubs. Say they’re not country though, and they’ll admonish you as a closed-minded purist, and claim what they’re doing is “evolution.” If nothing else, give Taylor Swift some damn credit for being honest with herself and her fans. That’s one big monkey off her back … at least for now.
But genres aside, 1989 has already revealed itself as transcendent from a commercial perspective. I don’t know if it’s even possible for us to quantify what kind of feat this album has achieved by selling more albums in a week than any other project in a dozen years. When you factor in the unchecked flight from physical product and now even downloads that is absolutely ramrodding the music marketplace into a downward spiral, this feat is nothing short of miraculous. Would this be the equivalent of selling 2.5 million records on debut in 1989—the year the album is named for? Three million? More?
The decision to not make 1989 available on Spotify proved to be a smart one, as 14-year-old girls all across the country crashed their local Target stores to obtain their copy. Remember the Taylor Swift op-ed from the Wall Street Journal and her fearful plea? “Music is art, and art is important and rare. Important, rare things are valuable. Valuable things should be paid for. It’s my opinion that music should not be free,” she said. “In mentioning album sales, I’d like to point out that people are still buying albums, but now they’re buying just a few of them. They are buying only the ones that hit them like an arrow… It isn’t as easy today as it was 20 years ago to have a multiplatinum-selling album…”
Unless you’re Taylor Swift.
Why is Taylor Swift’s 1989 relevant to a country music website? Because it is relevant to any music website, because we very well may be looking at the very last American album sold in a physical form that permeates the entire population. Vinyl collectors will tell you, if you crash any given pile of records, whether at a garage sale, a thrift store, etc., you always see the same revolving titles: John Denver’s Greatest Hits, Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass for example. It’s uncanny, and doesn’t matter where you are in the country. It’s because everybody bought those records. Or at least the people that bought records did. 1989 may be the last record of that lineage, and the only person or album that might have a chance at besting or repeating this deed would be Taylor Swift in two years when she releases her next one. It was Taylor Swift’s last album Red that 1989 broke the record for a debut week initially, until the tally of 1989 sales started to reach past 1.25 million, and we had to go all the way back to 2002′s The Eminem Show to find a peer. That is an illustration of how Taylor Swift truly is the artist of a generation, even before factoring music’s dramatic sales slide. And the fact she accomplished all of this after declaring herself no longer country is a footnote worth not glossing over.
How did she do it? The Spotify embargo helped, but she also did it by showing love to the physical format. The cover of Swift’s 1989 is fairly nondescript, but purposely so, and you can almost squint and tell how over time it could become iconic with its retro attitude. But it really was the little treats Taylor Swift put inside each package that made her many fans and even passers by decide to go physical. In each package is a card that enters listeners into a sweepstakes for a chance to meet Taylor Swift. A Willy Wonka golden ticket so to speak. It also comes with a little package that says “Photos” that includes 13 cards, or mock Polaroids of Taylor Swift, each numbered as part of a bigger sequence, with the lyrics to songs scribbled in Sharpie on the bottom.
This all gives a physical representation to the incredible amount of social traffic Taylor Swift generates. It’s something tangible that separates her from the virtual stars of today. Like the spinning cover of Led Zepplin’s III‘s original album cover where you could change what’s peeking through the windows, it shows imagination, and effort.
The problem with 1989 though is that it is just not a very good album. Country, or not. The analogy employed for Taylor Swift albums by this country music critic for her previous releases was that of an Italian food critic sent to a Chinese restaurant, and asked to judge the Chinese food … as Italian food. Clearly the result would be a failing grade, and that is what Taylor Swift received, regardless of how good the music was as pop. But judging it as pop music specifically, it was hard to not admit that the music had its moments, and its depth and value.
1989 has some depth too, and some value here and there, but overall you feel like you’re getting the worst of all those older Taylor Swift albums—the unabashed pandering to the public at large in smash singles, and some of the self-ingratiating sentimentality—all condensed into one. There are respites, and as Taylor Swift says herself, this is the most cohesive album she’s ever made sonically, and that may be true. But I’m not sure that is something to be boasting about when this is the result.
Taylor Swift’s 1989 could have been great, and you get a sense that it almost was. The idea of this retro, 25-year throwback perspective personified in new music is probably a worthy one. That 25-year marker is thrown around regularly as the measurement of when music of the previous generation reaches its apex of emotional virility and maximum memory response in its listeners. Before the 25-year window, the music feels unfashionable. Beyond it, and it feels outmoded. 25 years is the sweet spot, and that is why country music is seeing a revival of its “Class of ’89″ artists like the recently-unretired Garth Brooks, and Alan Jackson who is going on a 25-year Anniversary tour.
25 years ago was a big time in country music, or at least the time of a big freshman class. But what about pop? 1989 was the year of Milli Vanilli. The 80′s were already an era of music that would be called lost by some, and laughable by others. Why does a lot of commercial country today sound like bad 80′s hair metal? Why did Taylor Swift’s Big Machine record label release a Mötley Crüe tribute album this year? Because it hits on that 25-year sweet spot. But hair metal and Milli Vanilli were godawful, just like much of 80′s music.
If you wanted to look for what has withstood the test of time from the 80′s era of pop, you look to New Wave, and one hit wonders. Yes, this was the era when synthesized music took hold in earnest, but it was also the time of tantalizing melodies and arrangement—guilty pleasures for Audiophiles and ear worms galore for the masses. And we’ve already seen Taylor Swift tap into this retro music magic, and rather successfully ahead of the 1989 release.
A song like “Enchanted” from Taylor Swift’s 2010 album Speak Now has that 80′s synth pop thing going strong. On 2012′s Red, a perfect example of this is the song “Starlight.” And the single that preceded this album called “Sweeter Than Fiction” that appeared on the soundtrack of the film One Chance also found Taylor Swift revitalizing the New Wave vibes that marked some of the best moments of 80′s pop, and doing it with Jack Antonoff as producer—the guitar player for the band Fun, and the man who also co-wrote and produced two songs for 1989, including one of the lead singles, “Out of the Woods.”
Listening to “Sweeter Than Fiction” and some of Swift’s other synth-pop songs from the past, you though that if this was the direction 1989 took, the results could be quite tantalizing. Taylor has proven to be adept at re-imagining the 80′s. But I hate to say, this album did not take that direction, really whatsoever. If “Sweeter Than Fiction,” or even “Starlight” or “Enchanted” were included on this album, they would immediately become the best tracks by far. One of the surprising things about 1989 is how much it resides solidly in the here and now, startlingly so. There’s not really any retro vibe. Instead we get Max Martin/Shellback smash single formulas, a fairly lackluster, unimaginative, and disappointing performance by Jack Antonoff, and only a few songs that really simulate any intrigue to the discerning ear.
1989, just like the year itself, is sort of a bore. The cohesiveness of the album eliminates any spice or suspense. The modes of production are transparent, and the melodies are rendered powerless by rhythmic seizures, excessive repetitiveness, and poor decision making in the composition. This album is just kind of a mess in places, guessing at what might make a song a smash hit instead of doing the inspiration justice.
It’s been the assertion by Saving Country Music that all popular music is slowly transitioning to simply being noise scientifically formulated to stimulate the highest possible dopamine response in the brain. Swedish hitmakers Max Martin and Shellback—who joined Taylor’s team at the behest of Scott Borchetta during Red—are the precursors to this impending era. They were responsible for Red‘s three huge pop hits, but like Taylor accurately picked up on, their compositions came out of nowhere on that album, like interjections to the listener, and hurt her overall effort, regardless of the success of the songs themselves. She avoids that same mistake here, but unfortunately she does it by enacting this Max Martin/Shellback composition-by-formula across the board on these 13 tracks.
Whatever the original melodies to these songs were, we’ll never know. Taylor herself has probably forgotten them already. I have little doubt most of the words are her own. But then she brought them into the studio, was asked to sing them a certain way, and then they were summarily dumped into a sound file, cut and pasted like text from a Wikipedia page into a student’s history report, and then used as the producers wished to craft what they believed would be infectious patterns for mega hits. The result is that any and all inspiration behind the songs has been scrubbed from the performances. Taylor Swift’s words and voice are just another sonic elements to fit into a pre-arranged composition optimized for mass consumption. The curly-haired awkward girl sitting in her bedroom writing down her feelings while playing her acoustic guitar was not only lost in this process, she was murdered.
What’s the most shocking about this is that we can expect this kind of behavior from the music cretins like Max Martin and Shellback, who along with Joey Moi and other producers are really at the heart of destroying American popular music. But Jack Antonoff of Fun, and Ryan Tedder—the OneRepublic frontman who also co-writes and produces a couple of songs on this album—seem so eager to play ball with this formulaic approach. This was possibly the fatal flaw of bringing in Max Martin on not just as a songwriter and producer, but as the executive producer of the project. Everything was exposed to his corrupting mandibles, aside from maybe the song “This Love” that Swift did with her long-time original producer Nathan Chapman.
In fact the guest producers do such a poor job and this album is such a lowering of the bar overall, the songs that shine the brightest are arguably the ones Max Martin and Shellback had the heaviest hand in—a complete role reversal from Red. Even Imogen Heap’s contribution on the final track “Clean” feels tired, forced, and unimaginative. However, this is nothing close to praise of the Swedish pair. It’s just happens to be that a few of the songs they didn’t completely suffocate the melodies or ruin the songs with rhythmic pap, though many of them they still did.
The song “Style” works well as a modern pop song, and the theme about being classic and above style trends is really smart, while the song also conveys the story of a passionate romance. The other standout of the album is “How You Get the Girl.” Despite being hamstrung by the annoyingly-rhythmic confusion at the beginning of the song, it rallies to evidence one of the most catchy moments on an album that is curiously lacking in them for a pop project. “This Love”—the only solo write by Swift on the entire album and produced by Nathan Chapman—is alright, but is a little too flat and Enya-like to hold the attention for very long, even though for once on this album you get the sense you’re listening to something very personal.
Other songs like “All You Had To Do Was Stay” would have been good, buy why, why choose to put some ridiculous banshee yawp enhancement on the final “stay” of every phrase to take a perfectly fine pop song and make it polarizing? “Wildest Dreams,” “I Wish You Would,” are just okay, and don’t even get me started with the album’s lead singles: “Shake It Off,” “Out of the Woods,” and “Welcome To New York.” These songs are just bullshit. “Out of the Woods” can’t be saved by the inclusion of a personal narrative because it is simply caustic to the ears with its rhythmically disjointed repetitiveness. “Bad Blood” is downright annoying. The entire project is so racked with poor rhythm decisions, repeated words and sounds, Shellback loading up Taylor Swift’s voice in a memory bank and playing it back on a MIDI controller like a Moog, it’s just objectionable to the ear in many places. 1989 is the worst album Taylor Swift has every made.
But how about the words, is there any redemption here? Sure, maybe. But once again we’re asked to praise Taylor Swift the songwriter when her words have been buried beneath layers of synthesizer beds and over-production that screams out for the predominant attention, while the lead single of the album is built around the vacuous “Players gonna play, and haters gonna hate” über cliché of our era. If Taylor Swift wants respect as a lyricist, she needs to put the material out front that flatters these attributes, not that refutes them. Yes, there are some good lines, and good sentiments on 1989‘s lyrical set. But we’re not seeing Taylor Swift evolve. When she was fifteen, we were amazed at the maturity and self-awareness she embedded in her cute little pop songs. Now you’re starting to wonder if and how her fame has stunted her emotional development.
That doesn’t mean songs like “Wildest Dreams,” “This Love,” and “I Know Places” don’t have a little something. But songs like “Blank Space” and “Bad Blood” come across as immature and self-indulgent. Let’s not forget that Taylor Swift is still only 24. But where before she was a 15-year-old writing as a 24-year-old, now it feels like she’s a 24-year-old writing as an 18-year-old in segments of this album.
Where does 1989 rate when it comes to the great pop albums of this generation? It’s fate is probably secured in being considered top grade simply because of its commercial performance. Hell, the City of New York has already named Swift their “ambassador” for the next two years based off of 1989‘s lead song and Swift buying and apartment in Manhattan. But I’m sorry to say, “Welcome to New York” as a song offers nothing. At all. 1989 held up against Lorde’s Pure Heroine, or Adele’s 21, or even taking a further step back and looking at Nelly Furtado’s Loose for example, and you feel like it would be patently unfair to compare those projects to what Taylor Swift has offered up here. It’s more on par with Ke$ha’s Animal—simply a collection of digital production performances and studio magic with some flashes of fair writing.
Swift seems to think that to loosen the bonds of country, she had to completely go away from instrumentation. Virtually the entirety of 1989 was sequenced on Mac computers, and you can feel that in the results. Yet you listen to where the rest of pop music is headed, and you see it beginning to favor instrumentation more and more, like the standup bass in Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass” that has consistently bested Swift’s “Shake It Off” in the charts.
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There are some decent moments on this album, and I don’t want to downplay this opinion. And I would be interested in hearing the songs that did not make the cut, as I’m sure there were many fleshed out in the studio that we’re not getting a chance to hear.
But it’s over. That young girl with big dreams and an acoustic guitar sitting on the edge of her bed writing silly little heartfelt songs that became America’s sweetheart has become just a franchise name for dubious-intentioned producers to do with what they will. Max Martin finished the job in 1989 he started on Red. The fact that Taylor Swift still writes most of her lyrics is simply a facade that she has complete control over what is transpiring, misleading not just her fans and the public, but more disappointingly, herself. The problem with money and success is that you can always have more of it, and this is usually where the compromising of principles occurs, trying to best records you’ve already broken. When you attain goals by reaching outside yourself, the losses are greater than the gains.
1989 does not represent the year Taylor Swift was born, it represents the moment her music died as a form of her original expression.
1 1/2 of 2 Guns Down.
Less country music Christmas albums, and more country music Halloween albums I say. And if a cottage industry happened to crop up for spooky country music every October, it would stand to reason Madison, Wisconsin’s Those Poor Bastards would have the market cornered. Beware interlopers and carpetbaggers, these bastards have been purveyors of their self-described “Country Doom” for over a decade, dealing out an unlucky 13 albums to date, including their latest dreadful offering Vicious Losers freshly-exhumed just this Halloween month. And that doesn’t include the more ghost and goblin-oriented side project of Those Poor Bastard’s principal member Lonesome Wyatt called The Holy Spooks, whose multiple releases include Ghost Ballads and Halloween is Here released last year.
But Those Poor Bastards is not some Disney version of “H E double hockey stick” horror, and this is not some seasonal pursuit. Lonesome Wyatt and The Minister have become the kings of Gothic country over their terrible tenure, and are made to be imbibed in year round. The duo’s dark and artistic oriented music draws directly from country music’s formative years and the exploration of sin, guilt, depravity, and death that were very much at the heart of these tunes—I’m speaking of artists like The Carter Family, The Louvin Brothers, and even Hank Williams and Johnny Cash, where sin and redemption weren’t polar opposites, but separated by a thin membrane that the forces of good and evil were constantly at war trying to pull you across. Then all of this was cast in a mood of desperation from the death, hopelessness, and chronic poverty that gripped country music’s Appalachian homeland in the late 1800′s and early 1900′s, and still lingers throughout the hills and hollers of that region today.
Imagine condensing the dark sentiments from all of these early country pioneers together, and adding a few new methods of composition and sound from more modern apparitions such as Tom Waits and Nick Cave, and you have a sound that however niche it might be, has cast a wide net of loyal parishioners all over the world who collect Those Poor Bastards’ short run colored vinyl projects and pour over their artistically-oriented music as fine art, no matter how hauntingly it may screech and moan to get its dreadful point across.
Part of the pleasure in Those Poor Bastards is to try and glean the moral and motivations of their music. As disturbed as it clearly presents itself from song one, there is also a profound sense of morality, economic justice, and concern for the lost souls of modern men confined to the rat race that punctuates any Those Poor Bastards’ effort. But don’t think that recuses them from delving into the temptations of sin or the unsettled recesses of the brain where where silent killers and psychopaths in all of us await. Whether you’re truly disturbed, or simply love to immerse yourself in that dark side of humanity inherent in us all by design, Those Poor Bastards can be a vessel for your journey.
Those Poor Bastards have already amassed a fine catalog that defines Gothic country, including songs like “Behold Black Sheep,” “With Hell So Near,” “Crooked Man,” “The Dust Storm,” their cover of Johnny Cash’s “I Walk The Line,” and “Pills I Took” once covered by Hank Williams III. Vicious Losers now adds another 13 songs to their repertoire, ranging from the raging, serrated and harsh “I Am Lost” opening track, to the simple clawhammer banjo driven “Strange Dark Night,” or the quieted 40-seconds of “Big Trees.”
Words and textures are one in the same with Those Poor Bastards, and one thing Lonesome Wyatt can never get enough credit for is his prowess as a vocalist that is virtually unparalleled this side of Tom Waits in conveying mood and character with such range. Vicious Losers has a couple of songs where Lonesome Wyatt puts on a clinic, shape-shifting between his evil growl, his bass-heavy belly voice, and a clear and eerily beautiful high range whose total breadth on the tone scale would best most any of mainstream country’s top singers. The song “Lonely Man” is a perfect example of this.
“Give Me Drugs” is a cautionary tale to America’s pill problem, but to balance becoming too preachy, it is followed up by the unhinged and ribald “Dolled Up.” Vicious Losers ends with an 11-minute noise opus called “Today I Saw My Funeral;” a song that could have been written by The Carter Family, beginning as a primitive country ballad whose refrain then floats in and out as the song descends into an extended foray of disturbed noises. Another hallmark of Those Poor Bastards is Lonesome Wyatt’s ear for the everyday sounds of life that trigger dark memories. This song on loop would be the perfect ambient noise for your neighborhood’s haunted house.
On second thought, I don’t know that I want all of the country artists who are inclined to make Christmas records deciding instead to dip their toes in the Gothic country realm. Those Poor Bastards have it covered just fine.
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Mostly known by industry types as a songwriter whose pen to paper has resulted in some very memorable cuts, including the recent Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers duet “You Can’t Make Old Friends,” one of the most recognizable songs from ABC’s drama Nashville called “Don’t Put Dirt On My Graves Just Yet,” and even some songs from bigger names such as Jason Aldean and Lady Antebellum, Caitlyn Smith steps out from the songwriting shadows to release a seven song EP full of wide ranging emotions, slickly-penned sentiments, and spectacular vocal performances worthy of wider attention.
When you talk about an artist known as a songwriter first, you tend to look for the strength in the lyric. But Caitliyn Smith is very much a multi-tool performer, and her vocals can rival any in country music’s top tier, and she’s a great musician as well. Her style is very sensible—country pop in the traditional sense, with rising choruses, juicy melodies, and familiar themes of love, loss, and hope. But similar to how Caitlyn Smith songs are the ones artists and managers gravitate toward when they’re looking for something with more body beyond a smash radio hit, instilled in all of Caitlyn’s work is a sincerity, authenticity, and the ends of country roots sticking out from the surface.
Though it may be a stretch to call this Everything To You EP traditional, the amount of banjo on this album is surprising, and really comprises the sonic base for a few of these songs. And I’m not talking about the six-string version of the banjo with a Stratocaster head stock and flames painted down the side, these are songs bred from inspiration, not formula, even if a few songwriting hands were employed before calling them finished. Fiddle and mandolin float in and out as well, as does some heavier guitar riffs when the composition calls for it. But really the focus of Everything To You is squarely on Caitlyn, her songs, and her voice, which is where it should be, and this is where this album will build its greatest consensus amongst listeners with country sensibilities.
Everything To You starts out with the driving “Fever” with its two-part chorus and towering requests for Caitlyn to immediately hit top-register notes and nail them, which she does with ease. This leads into the more subdued and acoustic “Dream Away”—an empowering testament about sticking to your dreams; something Caitlyn can speak about from the experience of being a small town girl from Minnesota desiring to be a songwriter and now singing along to some of her co-writes on the radio.
“Wasting All These Tears” takes a more somber pitch, almost like a jilted Taylor Swift song from earlier in her career, then the autobiographical “Everything To You” immediately shifts gears to a more happier tone. “Grown Woman” finds Caitlyn evoking the common “I’m a woman, hear me roar” attitude we’ve been hearing often from mainstream women, while the yearning and wrenching of “Novocaine” cuts at the listener’s emotional stability. The album ends with the thankful and sweet “All My Lovers” about Caitlyn finding her way to her husband.
Though Everything To You never turns you off, it never really takes any chances either, or sails into the uncharted waters beyond the familiar harbors of co-write country. The songs all seem to authentically emanate from Caitlyn’s life story and this feels like a very personal album, but you can’t escape the feeling that you’ve heard a version of some of these songs before. Slick arrangements, production, and instrumentation make Everything To You accessible, though not necessarily challenging. However Caitlyn Smith and Everything To You very much embody the idea that there are artists out there with mainstream-caliber chops who if just given a chance could shift country in a more substantive, and even sustainable direction.
2013 was considered by many to be the “Year of The Woman” in country music from the concentration of forward-thinking and nourishing projects proffered to the public by females who could nip at the edges of the mainstream, but still find friendly ears in the independent world. Caitlyn Smith may be a year too late to be considered in that class, but she belongs with the other ladies of country music leadership trying to keep at least a modicum of respect in the genre, even if those women struggle compared with their male counterparts in chart performance and cash flow.
Before Garth Brooks decided to go with “People Loving People” as his first single after coming out of retirement, another song on his new album called “Tacoma”—written by Caitlyn Smith and Bob DiPiero—was scheduled to be the return single. Only stands to reason “Tacoma” will be released as a single eventually, and with the timely release of this EP, it very well may deliver an extra bit of interest to a well-deserving and hard working songwriter with a voice worthy of much more than the audience listening song pitches on demo tapes.
1 1/2 of 2 Guns Up.
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Nothing is more satisfying for the music devotee than stumbling upon a new top shelf songwriter you’ve never heard of before. Though maybe if you were paying a little bit better attention, you would have already heard of Eliot Bronson. The Atlanta, GA-based songwriter has released two solo albums since exiting Atlanta’s The Brilliant Intentions duo some years back, and was awarded the 1st place prize for the Chris Austin Songwriting Contest at MerleFest in 2013. But being brilliant, and being the best does not always mean being visible, especially in this day of skewed priorities in the musical arts.
One name that has been receiving worthy recognition for his contributions recently has been producer Dave Cobb. In the last 24 months, Dave has gone from a mostly industry-known working man’s version of more famous producer T Bone Burnett, to becoming producer du jour— just as hot, if not a hotter commodity than T Bone and other big name producers from his proven success with Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, Lindi Ortega, Whiskey Myers, and so many others.
Dave Cobb has now entered the stratum where more times than not his name is preceding whatever artist he’s working with, and though this seems like both an unfair balancing of priorities in music, and against Dave Cobb’s otherwise long-standing temperment to prefer to stay behind-the-scenes, boy it sure makes for smart marketing. Whenever you see Dave’s name attached to a project, you’re probably wise paying a little closer attention.
Sensing this, and wanting to see his music score more heavily with people outside of the local Atlanta music mindset, Eliot Bronson reached out to Cobb coldly, looking for a long shot chance to land the producer for a definitive-minded, self-titled project. And to Eliot’s surprise, not only did Cobb respond, he responded favorably from the brilliance he found in Bronson’s poetry. “I was stunned when I got a response,” says Eliot. “It was really validating for me because I sort of had him on a pedestal.” Next thing you know the two are hanging out in Cobb’s home studio making a record.
Eliot Bronson is Americana in the truest sense of the word—instead of simply falling back on the term as a default. His lyrics come inspired from America’s country and roots past, but the music refers to more progressive folk rock and blues legacies. First and foremost though, his self-titled LP is a songwriter’s showcase, capturing moments of spectacular insight and feeling, and giving words to what previously were thought to be unmentionable, and undefinable feelings, and doing it all with a deep sense of mood and melody that make the emotions drip from the edges of the notes like tears.
This is the type of album we wished all our favorite old songwriters would make again. This is the type of album that made us first love all of those old songwriters. It concentrates some of the best characteristics of Justin Townes Earle and Chris Issak, while capturing a sentiment unique enough to feel fresh and undone. Eliot Bronson would not be considered a singer unique to our time from his voice’s natural tone or cadence, but the way he cups the emotions in his words and pours them out at the most opportune times makes for a vocal performance that lives up to the lyricism, while he’s not afraid to rely on “ooh’s and aah’s” to covey the weight of moments where words would invariably fail.
The music of this album is tastefully understated, but comes out growling when called for. Dave Cobb’s analog studio underpins a vintage warmth to the entire project, even if at times a palpable hiss or seemingly unbalanced sounds show up like in the song “Sleep On It.” The old-school audio approach is one of the watermark’s of Cobb’s handiwork recently, and as has been stated before in regards to other projects, can bestow both virtues and failings in the recording process.
Standout tracks on this album come mostly towards the center of the track list, with the hopping “Comin’ For Ya North Georgia Blues” being one of the album’s best foot tappers, and both “You Wouldn’t Want Me If You Had Me” the later solo acoustic number “Never Been A Friend of Mine” being excellent vessels for raw emotion. “New Pain” finds a slightly-familiar, old school Paul Simon vibe, while “Just Came Back To Tell You That I’m Leaving” is a punching, country heartbreaker fleshed out with bluesy slide guitar for one of the album’s most lively moments. “Time Ain’t Nothin’” with it’s haunting “Talk to momma, talk to momma” verses really unguards the listener. Bronson’s songs are easy to love, yet lasting in their appeal.
You get the sense listening to this album that Eliot Bronson is not just releasing his latest album, but the one he sacrificed pieces of his soul to make. This is “the one” so to speak, and that sense of purpose, if not desperation and pent up frustrations at being a 30-something songwriter still struggling to find his place and the proper attention from the public results in a passion that is palpable, and music that is memorable.
1 3/4 of 2 Guns Up.
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This song from former The Voice contestant and now Valory Music-signed 20-year-old country music starlet Raelynn has been lurking out there for a while now, garnering tacit approval from the country music listening public and sitting down in the 30-something range in chart performance, while driving other listeners crazy for a host of reasons. “God Made Girls” looked like it was destined to ride off into the sunset, and possibly, take Raelynn’s puttering country career with it. But a renewed push from Clear Channel’s well-meaning but controversial “On The Verge” program meant to give extra attention to up-and-coming artists may very well see a re-emergence of this song and a reset of its topside potential. On The Verge was the impetus behind the making of recent stars like Iggy Azalea and misappropriated EDM/country star Sam Hunt.
Requests have trickled into Saving Country Music headquarters to properly roast this offering for various offenses, including its potentially subservient representation of females as being made by God simply to be pretty objects and companions for men. But this is no “Girl In Your Truck Song.” It’s tough not to recognize there could be an acquiescence of the female perspective here, but that’s sort of a stretch, and I find it a little hard to get too exercised about it, while some female listeners may even find the song empowering. Plus if you’re evoking God in the conversation, there’s that whole rib and apple story to contend with.
What is more troubling, or at least annoying about “God Made Girls” is the immature/fairy tale aspect the whole song takes on to an almost unhealthy degree, especially when you consider this song is for grown ass adults and country music fans. Raelynn is all giggles and coos in this song, tilting her head and gazing into mirrors like a still emotionally-developing adolescent-aged cutesty wootsy star struck suburban American princess watching Frozen on continuous repeat. Not even a 15-year-old Taylor Swift evidenced such an abandonment of maturity as Raelynn does in this song. Though even with this criticism, “God Made Girls” yearns for depth by talking about girls being an emotional crutch for men, and being the ones to “drag his butt to church.”
The music of “God Made Girls” is generally unoffensive, though it’s also fairly unremarkable too. The one tough hurdle for this song to overcome is how it repeats the chorus line “He stood back and told the boys I’m ’bout to rock your world” twice per refrain instead of either evolving or resolving the line the second time through as would traditionally be done in more elaborate, or even average songcraft. But “God Made Girls” is catchy, and buoyed by Raelynn’s young, naturally cute voice and aspect. It’s probably also worth pointing out that this is a song for girls, by girls, and will resonate along sex lines disproportionately, which there’s nothing inherently wrong with. It was co-written by Nicolle Galyon, Lori McKenna, and famous early Taylor Swift co-writer Liz Rose. Joey Moi, the madman behind Nickelback and now Florida Georgia Line, is the producer of the track.
The video for “God Made Girls” works to reinforce the adolescent nature of the song, and even takes creative license to exacerbate it with endless staircases ascending into the sky and fairytale dress and scenarios—even images of young girls playing pretend. One strange aspect of the video is a woman on horseback that seems to be interjected for no apparent reason into the narrative, especially at the 2-minute mark of the video where she randomly appears shirtless.
“God Made Girls” is not terrible, and not even as bad as some country music fans with their dander up looking for songs to destroy would have you believe. But it does serve an an excellent example of country music’s current obsession with youth and unwillingness to mature beyond the 15-year-old perspective, along with conveying a questionable value of women in society, even if it does attempt to increase the sense of value in themselves.
1 1/2 of 2 Guns Down.
Congratulations Justin Moore and Outlaws Like Me, you’re officially off the hot seat. Because right here, right now, I am unilaterally declaring that Florida Georgia Line’s new album Anything Goes is the worst album ever released in the history of country music. Ever. Including Florida Georgia Line’s first album Here’s To The Good Times, including anything else you can muster from the mainstream, including a 4-track recording made by a head trauma victim in a walk-in closet with a Casiotone keyboard and an out-of-tune banjo. Anything Goes can slay all comers when it comes to its heretofore unattainable degree of peerless suckitude.
In a word, this album is bullshit. Never before has such a refined collection of strident clichés been concentrated in one insidious mass. Never before have the lyrics to an album evidenced such narrowcasted pseudo-mindless incoherent drivel. Never before have such disparate and diseased influences been married so haphazardly in a profound vacuum of taste, and never have all of these atrocities been platooned together to be proffered to the public without someone, anyone with any bit of conscience and in a position of power putting a stop to this poisoning of the listening public.
Not to get all old man on your ass, but most of the time I don’t even understand what the hell these dudes are saying. Brian Kelley and Tyler Hubbard have their own language, partial to the most grammatically-challenged and stupefying vocabulary lurking in the dankest sewers of the English dialect, but not residing firmly in any specific one of them so no truly proper translation can be obtained. It’s like Pig Latin for douchewads—understood by them and them only. And only with the perfect deficiency of brain cells will their concoction of Ebonics, metrosexual douche speak, and stagnant gene pool rural jargon become anything resembling coherent to the human ear.
Forget the already ultra-concentrated and extremely-narrow breadth of modern mainstream country music’s laundry list songwriting legacy, Florida Georgia Line has devised a way to inexplicably make it even more attenuated and terrible. “Girl, alcoholic beverage, truck, river or lake”— that’s pretty much the alpha and omega of the Anything Goes building blocks. Most of these songs have more songwriters than they do basic lyrical themes, with an average of four cooks per diarrhetic serving, and one song that boasts five songwriters and still struggles to pen anything that comes close to a complete sentence or a comprehensible thought.
Shiny objects and fire also seem to excite and distract Florida Georgia Line and fill them with a profound sense of wonder, and so soliloquies to these things also show up occasionally, as does the word “good.” They really like that word.“Got on my smell good. Got a bottle of feel good. Shined up my wheels good. You’re looking real good.”
That verse pretty much sums up this entire album. And no, these are not lyrics to the song that is actually titled “Good Good.” Needless to say, any moments involving depth, sorrow, self-reflection, doubt, or evolved thinking in any capacity have been unceremoniously scrubbed from this project entirely, save for one song, “Dirt,” which only works to anger the blood even more because it proves that these morons are capable of so much more. A song like “Sippin’ On Fire” tries to cobble together some semblance of a love story, but bogs down like all these songs do in focusing on the material objects and consumables inadvertently on hand in situations instead of the honest sentiments being felt between two people. Women and “love” are compared to alcoholic beverages and other material objects, and vice versa more times than I care to count on this album, as if they are interchangeable in stature in the human experience.
Another song that would have been decent if only Florida Georgia Line didn’t figure out how to screw it up is “Bumpin’ The Night.” Despite the title alluding to the listener being in store for yet another demonstration of shallowness, the song displays a compositional depth that is both surprising and enriching, even though what passes for steel guitar is so transmogrified by the EDM production, it’s hardly noticeable. There’s nothing wrong with fun, feel good songs themselves. But in such a void of anything striking even close to variety, an otherwise decent song like “Bumpin’ The Night” suffers demonstrably amongst its peers.
And talk about going to the cliché well too many times, there’s a song on this album called “Angel” that I kid you not is built around the often sarcastically-used pick up line “Did it hurt when you fell from the sky?” Any woman who hears this line coming from any man has my personal blessing to immediately spray them in the face with mace and knee them in the nuts. The idea that these knuckleheads think that this line is “sweet” just speaks to the depravity of self-awareness they suffer from in an irrevocable degree.
There really is a toxic concentration of bad songs on Anything Goes, and it is all punctuated on the final track “Every Night” where the hyper-everything that riddles this album somehow gets heightened even more as Florida Georgia Line explain they don’t need the weekend because every night for them is a wild, raging good time. This personifies the diabolical sameness of this album, where it’s just a contiguous string of carefree party references and virtually nothing else, almost throwing caution to the wind and daring fate to make a mockery of this project over the long perspective of time, if they’re not openly cashing out on the franchise in the face of the obvious dying of a trend.
I would call it country rap, but even that would give this album more definition than it truly carries. I would call it pop, but even that world would not stand for such vacuousness. And once again the listener is left steadfastly perplexed at what Brian Kelley (the short-haired one) actually does in this band beyond singing one verse of “Dirt” and a few random backup lines so heavily Auto-tuned you can’t tell for sure it’s him.
Everybody knows where Florida Georgia Line is going to lead. Scott Borchetta must know it. Their producer Joey Moi, formerly of Nickelback must know it. Their manager Kevin Zaruk, also formerly of Nickelback, apparently knows it, and admitted as much in a recent Billboard interview. “It’s bizarre because I know so many people who say they can’t stand them but listen to Nickelback and go to their shows. This is a band that sold hundreds of thousands of dollars in merchandise, and to this day, I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a person with a Nickelback T-shirt on walking the streets anywhere in the world. I don’t know what it is, but for whatever reason it became cool to hate Nickelback, and once that trend took off, it exploded. What I’ve definitely talked to [FGL’s] Brian [Kelley] and Tyler [Hubbard] about is that whenever anybody becomes successful in any business, there’s people that get jealous.”
This is the problem. Florida Georgia Line and their fans will read a review like this, and truly believe that jealousy and nothing else is at the heart of the criticism, and will point to their “success” as proof of this. But Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, George Strait, and so many more were wildly successful in their time too, and also faced criticism, but never to the degree of criticism Florida Georgia Line is faced with. The music of these legends withstood the test of time, while artists like Nickelback, Billy Ray Cyrus, New Kids On The Block, and MC Hammer were also wildly successful in their time, but now their music is nowhere to be seen besides as a novelty, or listened to as irony or nostalgia.
It is Florida Georgia Line’s destiny to go down as a laughing stock, to be the next Nickelback, where their fans hide their T-shirts and shun them, tearing them down just as vehemently and quickly as they artificially propped them up. Their sophomore album and a song like “Dirt” was their one opportunity to change that destiny and be known for something more. But instead they super concentrated what makes them bad as either a last cash-grabbing hurrah, or as a misguided miscalculation that their polarizing nature is due to the insecurities of others instead of a true concern about substance and sustainability. Point to current attendance numbers and call the haters jealous all you want. All one has to do is point to Nickelback as an example of why this doesn’t work in the long term.
Florida Georgia Line and Anything Goes are an embarrassment to country music.
Two Guns Way Down!
The story of the homeless Nashville singer-songwriter done good named Doug Seegers crossed the Saving Country Music news desk early on in the story’s cycle, before big outlets like NPR and the Wall St. Journal were running big features on the heartwarming tale, but for whatever reason, a story that seemed like it was fit for telling filled me with a bit of trepidation. Even though early samples of Seeger’s songs seemed quite promising, and so was the news that artists like Emmylou Harris and Buddy Miller were involved in an upcoming album, there was just something philosophical keeping me from really buying in to the story 100% as a testament to the human spirit, and the spirit of giving that everyone was making it out to be.
Homelessness is such a complex issue, and it’s so easy for people who have their positions secured in the social net to look at a homeless person as a product of laziness, or a problem of governmental neglect, when really what causes someone to slip through the cracks is an involved set of circumstances that includes fluid details of mental illness, addiction, lack of familial support, and so many other factors. What caused Doug Seegers to go from living in upstate New York with a wife and two kids to living on the streets of Nashville? The way the story was being presented was almost a little too Hallmark Channel and heartwarming. I needed to actually hear the music before I held the Doug Seegers story in some high regard.
And no offense to Doug Seegers, but why should he be chosen to be picked off the street and have a big production album made for him when there’s hundreds, maybe thousands of other artists out there patiently waiting their turn that may deserve this chance just as much, if not more, including artists who have shown initiative and self-discipline and reliance over years, making them arguably more worthy of investment?
As the story goes, Doug Seegers was a musician in Austin, TX and New York before he got married and moved upstate. At some point he showed up in Nashville by himself, and was living on the streets and hanging around The Little Pantry That Could in west Nashville, playing and singing at songwriter nights. Then through a set of circumstances, he was discovered by a Swedish television crew that happened to be in Nashville filming. The host Jill Johnson heard about Doug from a street food vendor who told her Doug could sing. The film crew found Seeger who played his song “Going Down To The River” for them, and later the show came back and taped a Doug Seegers performance at Johnny Cash’s recording cabin outside of town. When the Doug Seegers episode eventually aired in Sweden, Seegers became a cultural phenomenon in the country, and he was subsequently signed by Lionheart Music Group to record and release the Going Down To The River album.
Emmylou Harris was brought in to sing on a Gram Parsons song, and Buddy Miller who apparently knew Seegers from his days as an Austin musician was also brought on board. Will Kimbrough was named as the producer, and by the time Going Down To The River was released in Sweden, Doug Seeger’s popularity was such that it shot to #1 on the charts and was quickly certified Gold, helped along by a 60-date tour and a big festival appearance by Seegers in the Scandinavian country.
But was this a symptom of hype, or the result of good country music? The allure of a story about finding a diamond in the rough on the streets of Nashville, polishing him up, and making him a superstar is the perfect type of romantic notion for a Swedish television audience swept up in the fantasy of American culture, but would Doug Seegers’ music translate to even a viable listening product for well-cultured country music ears here in the States? We couldn’t even tell completely until October 8th when Going Down To The River finally received its U.S. release, nearly half a year after the songwriter had become a Swedish television and cultural icon.
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Featuring Gram Parson’s noted composition “She,” the classic Hank Williams song “There Will Be Teardrops Tonight,” and ten original songs penned solely by Seegers, Going Down To The River presents a troubled, but gentle and sweet man with a lifetime of pent up stories to tell, and a tear-soaked voice that despite its noticeable toothless lisp, conveys tremendous emotion and evidences remarkable phrasing instincts and delicate control. Going Down To The River has a classic, late 70′s smooth country feel to it with a traditional heart and a small taste of the blues, seeming to evoke the period stylings of the original era when Seegers’ songs were likely written many years ago.
“Down To The River” is the song that started all the Doug Seegers Swedish hype, and the classic story of atoning for sins in the muddy waters of the American South is done with such original flare and is a perfect exhibition for Seegers’ vocal strengths, the song feels worthy of its international praise. But “Angie’s Song”—the first song on the album—may just be the gem of the entire endeavor. Excellently written and tastefully produced, it’s the sound of Otis Redding meeting Hank Williams, and the warm love story at the heart of the song truly makes it something special.
There’s really not a slouch on this album. The songwriting and singing evidenced by Seegers on one track after another are really a remarkable display of the talent that can be picked off the Nashville streets and shine with a little polishing. “Lonely Drifter’s Cry” and “Pour Me” are pure, classic country songs plain and simple, and so is “Gotta Catch A Train” and “Burning a Hole In My Pocket.” And when I talk about how country some of these compositions are, I’m talking so classic and sweet, with just the right amount of steel guitar and laid back drumming and bass, you feel like you were listening to what Hank may have recorded if he’d lived a little longer and had a little more Motown or Memphis in his voice.
Even the two covers were handled so well they didn’t stick out as foreign to this song list, and if you notice these were the two songs Seegers collaborate with Emmylou and Buddy Miller on, leaving his original compositions as you may have heard them at the Little Pantry That Could songwriter showcases in west Nashville. Some of the more bluesy numbers, like the last song “Baby Lost Her Way Home Again,” and “Hard Working Man” felt a little out of place on what is overall a very classic-sounding country album, but this might have been Will Kimbrough doing his best on what probably are the album’s weakest tracks artistically.
It very well may be true that Doug Seeger’s story could be anyone’s, and that you could crash the streets of Nashville, Austin, New York, or Los Angeles, and put together an entire roster of remarkable talent that is currently sleeping on the streets, as even more worthy musicians sit teetering on the brink of homelessness themselves because they’ve been overlooked by the industry. But that doesn’t make Doug Seeger’s talent any less worthy of being singled out as it has, and as Going Down To The River attests, any and all praise Seegers has been showered with over the last six months and counting is worthy and warranted.
Once again, the European appetite and ear for American country music, and the willingness to dig deeper and offer support to worthy artists, wins out over the efforts of country music’s home once again. Of course Doug Seegers was a homeless man living on the streets, because that’s about the assessment of value American society has placed upon the classic style of country music. Doug Seegers may have demons in his back pockets or skeletons in his closets yet to be revealed, and he may have had his entire life to write this album. But Going Down To The River is as good of a classic country album as you will hear all year from anyone.
Two guns up.
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Forget that now the last six Toby Keith singles in a row very heavily involve drinking— that’s “Beers Ago,” “Red Solo Cup,” “Hope on the Rocks,” “I Like Girls That Drink Beer,” and “Drinks After Work” for those of you counting at home—this is a song with a message dammit!
I can just hear this thing playing in the background as superimposed stomping Budweiser Clydesdales go trailing off into the ether, while the foreground fills with a Dallas Cowboys fan and a Washington Redskins fan hugging it out in slo mo while their brats burn on the tailgate-sized barbecue during an instant replay television timeout. Because no matter what our differences, no matter our disparate backgrounds, our differing beliefs, our skin color, sexual persuasion, or even our choice of headgear, we can all come together and enjoy the splendid beauty of American over-consumption and the chronic addictions it breeds.
“Drunk Americans” from a musical standpoint is a swaying sea chanty of a pub singalong whose catchiness and anthemic nature is questionable enough to make you wonder if its desired effect of getting an entire bar room singing in unison will ever be realized, let alone if radio programmers will give it any more than a strong sniff simply because of whose name is attached to it. Hats off for the inclusion of banjo and even accordion in this song, but “Drunk Americans” is still songwriting by committee and formula, relying on the often-trodden out trope of juxtaposed opposites shoved together to create contrast that however witty in places, still feels a bit tired, to where not even a key change 2/3rds of the way through really gives you hope that this song will stick in any significant way in the craw of the American zeitgeist. Then again this is America, and as has been proven time and time again, success can be bought.
This song is not bad. There’s certainly worse. But what makes it a little difficult to stomach is this idyllic, hopeful picture it paints of the American reality that is so far off the mark, it is the equivalent of taking your bar dart, aiming for the bullseye, but landing it in the eye of some unlucky patron stumbling out of the men’s room. Sorry, but America is as polarized, untrusting, and closed-minded of its fellow citizens as it has ever been in its history save for The Civil War, especially when disturbed minds become even more lubricated by the aid of alcoholic libations. America in the fall of 2014 is the virtual equivalent to a bar brawl—from the suburbs of St. Louis, to state houses, to football stadiums, to country music concerts. We’re all pissed off at people who are different from us.
I understand that the hope is a song like this will open people’s eyes and inspire them to set aside differences, but the deep problem here is that this song is acting like this is the current reality, as opposed what should be yearned for. Yes, reactionary polarization is tearing the American ideal apart at the seams, and anyone who attempts to take up a contrary position to this trend should be commended. But attempting to veil this message in alcohol, like the spoon full of sugar to help the medicine go down, is both transparent and ineffective. We hate each other, and instead of truly working to resolving this issue, “Drunk Americans” simply reminds us of the fact that we’re a 50/50 nation scribbling Hitler mustaches on any one who may disagree with us, and seeking out media that simply reinforces our one-sided reality-tunneled perspectives. And let’s not forget our raging alcohol problem.
“Drunk Americans” was written by hot independent/traditional songwriting commodity Brandy Clark, and her regular sidekick and songwriting genius Shane McAnally, along with Bob DiPiero. Brandy says about the song, “You see that title and you think, ‘Oh, it’s a drinking song,’ which it is, but I hope that people can listen to it and see that it’s really an American song.” That is, unless you’re an American that doesn’t drink, which is roughly 1/3 of the population, many of which had previous problems with the sauce, or are banned from doing so by edict from the bench. That is what’s so great about the classic version of the country drinking song. By looking at both sides of the drinking coin, not just the party time aspect, country music truly built a universal consensus in the listener through shared experiences. Now country music has become a vehicle for the same polarization this song attempts to decry.
The approach of this song feels somewhat like “Follow Your Arrow” 2.0, or a different version of Garth’s misguided “People Loving People.” It is trying to save the world through song, so it’s hard to fault it too harshly. But how about simply feeling a human emotion, and then expressing that through song without the taint of rewrites and tweaks over Skype sessions to craft a song into something commercially accessible? Whatever soul this song has feels drained, the chorus and melody feel a little flat, and unfortunately I’m just not hearing the catchiness it would take to even be a big commercial hit.
“Drunk Americans” tries to be sobering, but it’s kind of just a drunken mess.
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1 1/4 of 2 Guns Down.
It’s hard enough to make it in music. There’s many who spend their entire lives trying to crack that nut and never even get enough momentum behind them to even fill half their local watering hole. It’s even harder to make it in music when you’re really not trying to. Or at least when you’re not trying very hard. But music that is begging to be heard always finds its path, and Austin’s Shakey Graves is a testament to that.
Given the name Alejandro Rose-Garcia by his parents, and Shakey Graves by some tripping patron of Austin’s Old Settler’s Fest a few years ago, he was a struggling actor with some musical chops when he decided to release a silly little album called Roll The Bones recorded in various living rooms around Los Angeles in January of 2011 through the DIY site BandCamp. That Shakey once appeared in a few episodes of Friday Night Lights as “The Swede” and had earned himself a smattering of speaking parts here and there was little help in getting folks to listen to his sparse, one man band musings set to blues-style guitar pluckings and the thump of a suitcase drum. But there was just something quirky enough about Shakey Graves to make the whole thing stick in the minds of the few that were exposed. And slowly the few became many.
Roll The Bones was never released on iTunes or Amazon. It never got picked up by some big time distributor or label. Simply by word of mouth and a few residencies in dive bars in his hometown of Austin like Hole In The Wall and The White Horse, the next thing you knew Shakey Graves was selling out clubs all across the country, touring with Shovels & Rope and playing the Newport Folk Fest, and being talked about as one of the fastest-rising commodities in American roots music. One of BandCamp’s first big independent stars, if you will.
“I considered the way I absorbed music: A band that a friend recommends influences me a thousand times more than a band iTunes recommends,” Shakey told Austin Chronicle‘s Kevin Curtin recently. “The idea for the first album was anti-marketing. I wanted to figure out how to acquire fans right now, different from the old model where artists were pushed at you. I spent the last three years building a fan base that felt like they discovered me, which they did. That’s something no one can ever take away.”
But despite all of Roll The Bones‘ word of mouth success, the experience of the album was somewhat limiting. It was a little bit eepish and underdeveloped. Granted, this was at the heart of the charm that many found so appealing, along with the message of Shakey’s stories. But it wasn’t a wholly original work to the well-seasoned ears of the Deep Blues crowd as it was to many of the individuals who incidentally stumbled upon it. And after a nearly four year hiatus, Shakey needed something to sustain the wave of momentum building behind him.
How to evolve into a full band setting while still holding onto what won you such rabid grassroots support was the precarious challenge Shakey Graves was asked to pull off with this new Dualtone release And The War Came, and it’s what he accomplishes with such alacrity, the listener remains delightfully unaware any such challenge even existed. You’re simply listening to Shakey Graves blossom from an obscure one man band for people in the know, to an artist worthy of a wide ear who could and should help define what the vanguard of roots music is in 2014.
And The War Came is still Shakey. It is still delightfully sparse and still includes some songs that are just him. In the end it’s about the textures and words, not about a head count of contributors for each song. Each track is appointed the proper instrumentation called for by the story and mood, and nothing more. Most notably there’s multiple contributions from singer/songwriter Esmé Patterson, who in conjunction with Shakey evokes the similar magic of singing pairings like Shovels & Rope and The Civil Wars.
The “boom, chick” nature of the beginning of this record may throw some off the scent of what’s really at play on this project, which is singing and songwriting. Where Shakey’s original incarnation was about the art of subtly and forged itself during the high tide of the early 2010′s hipster onslaught, this new effort is about Shakey rearing back and really discovering the range and capabilities of his voice, while being afforded the latitude to discover wider reaches of melody and rhythm from having more hands on deck. Almost like Emmylou Harris, Shakey knows exactly where his voice will fail him and smooth tone will become gravely warble, and this is an invaluable attribute for him in his effort to express emotion.
And The War Came is tell tale folk wayfaring blues with a dash of country roots, but like all artists who in turn help define their epoch in music, Shakey Graves elevates himself beyond definition, and presents music to the world that obscurity is no match for.
1 3/4 of 2 Guns Up.
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