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I don’t know how Marty Stuart does it. He’s like Gandalf on the back of his white steed, galloping here and there and everywhere in his pursuit to save country music. He’s scouring the country to secure important country music artifacts for preservation. He’s opening a cultural center in his hometown. He’s starring in The Marty Stuart Show and touring constantly. And here he is releasing a double album through his Superlatone record label.
Saturday Night / Sunday Morning unfolds just like its title implies. The first album is the secular country music fare you’ve come used to hearing from Marty Stuart with his mainstay backing band of recent years The Fabulous Superlatives, where the telecasters are loud and twangy, and the style is honky tonk and traditional. Then the second album unfolds very much like you would expect if you’ve heard Marty Stuart and the Superlatives perform their version of rocking country Gospel and a cappella compositions with their captivating four-part harmonies. It’s Gospel, but it’s Marty Stuart Gospel. It’s electric, with a vitality and energy not always heard in the discipline.
Like his mentor Johnny Cash, as Marty Stuart has grown older, he’s evidenced an increasingly deeper appreciation for Gospel music. Most any Marty Stuart album is going to boast a Gospel song or two, but with this release he takes the time to make an entire album of religiously-inspired music. Marty actually released another Gospel album called The Gospel Music of Marty Stuart somewhat quietly in April that includes live performances of many recognizable Gospel songs regularly performed on The Marty Stuart Show. But Saturday Night / Sunday Morning is Stuart putting his personal stamp on Gospel, and making sure to serve both sides of his fan base by not just including Gospel songs exclusively.
If you think about it, this strategy is pretty smart. Unfortunately, some listeners are turned off when they hear an album is only going to include religious material. You combine two albums together, and you can lead right into it since folks are already listening. It’s like your mother giving you sugar with the medicine. Next thing you know, you’re appreciating the Gospel music just as much as Marty’s other stuff, if not more.
Saturday Night / Sunday Morning should not be considered a concept album. There’s no deep-seated story with recurring characters or themes referenced throughout like Marty’s landmark concept album The Pilgrim from 1999. The two albums are more just a style and approach delineation, though like all of Marty’s music, there are still important themes and messages to heed, hard lessons learned, harrowing stories, and personal awakenings to be had amongst these 23 new tracks.
Marty gives us a lot of music to crunch through in this release, and a lot of notable appearances. Included on Saturday Night / Sunday Morning beyond the Fabulous Superlatives is Hall of Famer Hargus “Pig” Robbins on piano, who makes appearances throughout the Saturday Night album. Both Hargus and and Willie Nelson’s long-time harmonica player Mickey Raphael pretty much carry the second song “Geraldine.” The great Mavis Staples makes an important appearance to begin the Sunday Morning portion of the release, lending her vocal talents to the classic “Uncloudy Day.” And Evelyn Hubbard also shows up on the Gospel album. Who is Evelyn Hubbard you ask? Well she’s a pastor at the Commerce Missionary Baptist Church in Robinsonville, Mississippi of course.
Saturday Night / Sunday Morning begins with Marty Stuart reviving the sound that has graced his records since enlisting the Superlatives as his backing band. Though people talk about the great guitar-slinging frontmen of country music today like Brad Paisley and Keith Urban, the combination of Marty Stuart and “Cousin” Kenny Vaughan makes for about the best Telecaster-based country music you can find these days, and based not just off of technique, but off of tone and taste. Since Saturday Night is chased by Gospel, Marty and the boys put the pedal down on the first album and rarely let off. Think of old school honky tonk country rock.
The middle of this album gets just a little bit sleepy. There’s a decent amount of covers on this record, and in stretches you feel like Marty is doing a little too much interpreting of old song styles than offering more original-sounding material like on recent albums. But there’s not a slouch anywhere on this track list either.
Sunday Morning continuously builds toward the end of the album, to where the brilliant four part harmonies of Marty, “Cousin” Kenny, “Handsome” Harry Stinson, and “Apostle” Paul Martin unfold into some brilliant, and spine-tingling works of inspirational music. For years the foursome has been performing one of the best renditions of “Angels Rock Me To Sleep” ever bestowed to human ears, and we finally get a recorded version of this masterpiece. And the album resolves in the mostly-a cappella original “Heaven” that is so haunting and touching, it should be considered one of the essential recordings of Marty Stuart’s entire career.
Once again Marty Stuart and the Fabulous Superlatives prove they are at the core of keeping the traditions of country music alive, while doing so in a manner that is energetic, inviting, informed, and broad-based where people of all stripes—the Saturday night and Sunday morning people—can come together and enjoy the gift of good country music together.
1 3/4 of 2 Guns Up.
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When this is the opening stanza to the opening song of an album, you may be safe to assume that you’re in store for a rambunctious and potentially lewd exploration of the human id in all of its glorious misbehaving malcontentedness. And in the case of Sweet GA Brown’s new album Wordsmith you would be right, at least partially. But you would be wrong to assume that this is all this self-described wordsmith has to offer in these 13 songs, and be surprised that amidst the salty language and brashness is one of the best-written albums so far this year, and one which is embedded with the virtues of simple wisdom, stretching all the way to a sincere spirituality that is as fulfilling as it is refreshing.
Though he may be a stranger to your ears, Sweet GA Brown has been slaving away at writing songs for years, and has released five complete albums and an EP since striking out as a solo artist in 2009. Aiding him in this 2014 effort is renown blues guitar player Husky Burnette and Dave “Burma Shave” Dowda on drums, but first and foremost this is a songwriter’s album that focuses on Brown’s words and melodies as he saws away on his acoustic guitar while whoever else happens to be around plays catch up. This is not a slick album by any stretch, but just like Dylan back in the day it really doesn’t matter. The audience is tasked to listen with their heart, and whatever imperfections may persist can be taken as character.
Sweet GA Brown is the real deal when it comes to songwriters—sweating under a blue collar all day to earn the right to sing in swill joints at night. His music emanates from the small town of Ringgold, GA just outside of Chattanooga; that’s the Georgia-Tennessee-Bama region that has seen the rise to other songwriters who like to cut their hard-hitting realism with humor like Roger Alan Wade.
There’s a lot of Bob Dylan in Brown’s writing in the way he sometimes ambles and makes you think he’s going to lose his train of thought or not be able to pull off the next rhyme, only to prime you for a lyrical sucker punch whose welt remains well after the song is over. There is some Chris Knight in him in the respect of just being a simple guy living a simple life, and the simplicity in how his stories deliver their moral is what sets him apart. And Sweet GA Brown’s spirituality seems to underwrite everything he does, even when on the surface it may not seem as such, like how the opening stanza articulated above is really about how our demons are our undoing, and at every turn life is there to serve them to us on a silver platter.
With his Amish-style beard and a baseball cap bent over his eyes so you can barely see them, Sweet GA Brown can pull of a song like the uncensored “Wordsmith,” saying, “Some do it for the fame, some doing it for the riches, I’m just a motherfucking wordsmith … bitches. Well we all live in a yellow submarine, someone’s gotta clue me in on what the hell that means. ‘Cause I gotta get up in the morning and go to work.” Then with the very next song called “Cookie of Gold,” he comes across as brilliant and wise as an Asian proverb, only relayed in the endearing colloquial language of the American South.
As Wordsmith carries on, Sweet GA Brown’s spirituality is revealed when he sings a very humble and understated version of “Will The Circle Be Unbroken?” which then dovetails into one of the album’s best songs, “Don’t Curse God.” The way in which Brown first endears himself to you through poetry and humor allows him to delve into non-secular material without making you feel like you’re being preached to. This allows the message to become the most important thing to take away for the song as opposed to the vessel, making the songs inviting for both religious and non-religious listeners. And just to make sure this album doesn’t turn too serious, it concludes with a cover of Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy” backed by the Pine Box Boys.
Sweet GA Brown and Wordsmith are a pleasant surprise and shouldn’t be frowned upon because of somewhat crude production, potty mouth language, and religious leanings. Within this music is the message of living life with a grin on your face and kindness in your heart, and no matter what your stripes, that’s a message that can resonate with all of us.
1 3/4 of 2 Guns Up.
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If the unusual and offbeat of the country music realm is something you love to delve into—if the Roger Miller’s, the Shel Silverstein’s, and the John Hartford’s hold a special sway on your heart, and something just a little strange, unexpected, and funny is where you find enjoyable wrinkles in the forgotten shadows of country music’s otherwise explored reaches, then this album from the experimental and absurd rock band Ween made in 1996 just might be one of the coolest things you’ll ever hear from country music’s curious underbelly, if not for the entertainment factor, then for the sheer wonder of how something like this ever got made.
The case of a rock band making a straight laced country album is not a unique occurrence in itself. In the late 90′s, this was sort of a fad. The West Coast punk band The Supersuckers released the country album Must’ve Been High in ’97 and Social Distortion’s Mike Ness released Cheating on Solitaire in ’99. But before either of those, the two-man group Ween convinced their major label Elektra Records to fund a recording trip down to Nashville, TN to put together a country record in the classic, “golden” form. This was not the case of a rock band swapping out a country music alter ego. Ween’s 12 Golden Country Greats took the same approach to making country music as artists had for generations. They wrote the songs, went into the studio, and hired some of the best singers and pickers in the business to back them up.
Recorded at Owen Bradley’s legendary Bradley’s Barn studio at his farm just outside of Nashville, 12 Golden Country Greats featured The Jordanaires as backup chorus singers, Country Music Hall of Famer Hargus “Pig” Robbins on piano, Nashville A-Team member Buddy Spicher on fiddle and mandolin, Charlie McCoy on banjo and harmonica and a host of other instruments including Tuba, drummer Buddy Harman, and a stable of other notable Nashville musicians who at the time may have been considered considered past their prime to some in Nashville.Â However to Ween, they were perfect.
But you better not roll up to 12 Golden Country Greats expecting a completely straightforward and wholesome country music good time. Though there are some songs on this album that very much fit that model and any humor and subversion is so well hidden or non-existent you might as well be listening to country radio in 1966, Ween makes their own mark on the country experience by being offbeat, to downright ribald in places. The variety on the album is wicked, and you have no idea what to expect next.
One of the factors in making 12 Golden Country Greats timeless is that you probably couldn’t make a record like this today. Some of the players have since passed away, and some of the songs would never pass the censors of a major label in this politically correct world.
Songs like “You Were The Fool,” “I’m Holding You,” “Powder Blue,” and “Pretty Girl” veil their absurdity so deftly, you can listen to them as Ween being gads, or as good old country music. “I Don’t Want To Leave You On The Farm” darn near holds up against any given country song of the era and can stand alone from this album as a serious country music contribution. But then you have songs like the absolutely ridiculous and lewd “Piss Up A Rope”—probably the album’s signature song, whose salty language has been busting ribs for years. “Mr. Richard Smoker” is more of a jazzy tune, and leaves little to the imagination in describing a homosexual night lifer and his conquests.
Adding to the layers of absurdity is the fact that 12 Golden Country Greats only contains 10 songs. There were two other recordings during the Bradley’s Barn Ween sessions—a tribute to Jerry Garcia (who died near the recording period) called “So Long, Jerry” and another song called “Sweet Texas Fire,” both of which eventually surfaced on the flip sides of 7-inch’s. Another song that did make it, “Powder Blue,” originally ended in an archived audio rant from Muhammad Ali. Due to licensing issues, the Ali audio was never supposed to appear on the song, but in a mix up, Elektra printed the first batch of albums with Ali included. In later editions the song ends abruptly at the 3:14 mark. At one point Ween assembled many of the album’s session players in a backing band called The Shit Creek Boys and took them out on tour.
The legacy Ween’s 12 Golden Country Greats has left probably depends on who you ask. It is one of those albums that you’re either in the know about and it looms quite large in not just your country music ethos but in your entire music world, or you’ve never heard of it, or would never get it. It takes a certain amount of an unsettled frame of mind to really enjoy the album in its proper context. But what has allowed it to withstand the test of time is that there’s nothing else like it, and despite all the absurdity, it was still made from a sincere love for the classic sounds of country music’s golden era.
Two Guns Up.
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Playlist for 12 Golden Country Greats:
All we’ve been hearing from Kenny Chesney in the run up to the release of his new album The Big Revival is how badass it is going to be because he took an entire year off of touring to focus on it, at one point scrapped an entirely completed album awash in beer and tailgate songs to make it, and did some serious soul searching about the direction he wanted his four-time CMA Entertainer of the Year-winning career to go before carefully selecting songs and getting into the studio to really craft an album that would have a paramount impact on country music and Kenny’s career arc. And what do we get after all of this hype? A straight ahead rock album and songs about beer can chicken. Apologies to Mr. Chesney and the No Shoes Nation, but I’m not feeling this one.
“It’s everything I wanted to feel when I decided to back away, but that all had to start with the music,” Kenny Chesney told The Tennessean recently. “I had to protect that investment with the fans and this wonderful connection that we have. I think (time off) really allowed me to make a record with a clear head, with a new energy, with a sense of grabbing my audience by the hand and bringing them along with me to places I wanted them to go.”
Producer Buddy Cannon explains, “He called me up and he said â€¦ ‘This isn’t the record I want,’” speaking about the album they threw on the trash heap supposedly. “Red dirt, tailgates, he didn’t want to do it. He and I both love great songs, and they are hard to find…”
This all sounded so promising, like we had something really huge in store; the “big revival” of Kenny Chesney’s career. And the album starts out somewhat interesting with the title track. It’s not particularly special, but it’s just weird enough with its snake preacher setting to get you intrigued at what might be forthcoming like a good opening song should do. From there however you get one song after another that is simply a refugee from the implosion of mainstream rock radio. Similar to Eric Church’s The Outsiders, The Big Revival is a rock album through and through, but at least Eric had some boldness and a few good songs mixed in. There may be some acoustic moments you could stretch to call country, but overall The Big Revival is right out of the arena rock playbook.
In fact there’s a song on the album called “Rock Bottom,” and it speaks specifically to being in a dour mood and purposely skipping country albums because apparently they’re not the “good stuff” to instead find your emotional respite in AC/DC riffs.Â I tried to hang but the Hank wasn’t tough enough Couldn’t twang the pain with the Flatt & Scruggs I had to keep on drinkin’, keep on sinkin’ down down down to the good stuff ‘Til I hit rock bottom… Â This old hillbilly playing Stardust Willie ain’t even getting off the ground Tried to hang with the Hag but I had to stop Got shot with the J. Cash needle drop I couldn’t Walk The Line, so I just kept shinin’ down down down ‘Til I hit rock bottom…
Yes ladies and gentlemen, I think this is a new low for country, where you have a country star name dropping past legends to then turn around and say their music isn’t as effective as screaming Marshall stacks. They aren’t “the good stuff.”
I just kept waiting for that one song that would show me what Chesney was talking about by grabbing the audience by the hand with great songs. Somewhere I expected to run into some emotional love ballad at least that would afford something a little deeper to latch on to, but the closest thing we get is an ode to Chesney’s tour bus in “If This Bus Could Talk,” which is actually one of the better songs on the album. Another much ballyhooed point of marketing emphasis for The Big Revival was the song “Wild Child,” which Chesney presented as a polar opposite to the objectifying songs of Bro-Country.
“In the last several years, a lot of the songs about women have been written in kind of an objectifying way,” Chesney told radio.com. “‘Wild Child’ is telling some girl out there that’s got dreams, that’s a free spirit, who’s smart and interesting, that she has a chance. That she is worthy.”
What a load of garbage that is. This is Kenney Chesney trying to throw his hat in the ring in this whole anti Bro-Country realm, but this isn’t Maddie & Tae’s “Girl In A Country Song.” This isn’t even Brad Paisley’s “Shattered Glass.” This is a song about some loose groupie being passed from tour van to tour van that Chesney’s trying to tout as inspiration for female self-worth and free spirited-ness because he thinks it’s expedient and will woo critics. “She’s Penny Lane in a Chevy van. She loves to love,” the lyrics say. The song actually presents an interesting female character and is kind of fun, but talk about an oversold misnomer.
“Drink It Up” and “Save It For A Rainy Day” are just fatuous drinking songs at their core. “American Kids” is an audio curiosity shoved down the throats of America so hard is sprouted a hit single, and “Flora-Bama” is a boring account of someone sitting in a tourist trap and describing what they see.
The song “Don’t It” does have a little something, but the presence of a cajĂłn threw off the grit the song tries to convey, and “If This Bus Could Talk” as mentioned before is not half bad. And it must be said that there’s no rapping here, no Bro-Country in the stereotypical sense at least, and no EDM intros to songs like what pervades the mainstream these days. But should we be handing out brownie points for things that a few years ago we would have never dreamed of hearing in country anyway? The appearance of steel guitar, banjo, and fiddle on this album is somewhere between anemic and non existent.
In what feels like a period where country music is trying to improve its image and depth, and especially with all the rhetoric ahead of this album’s release, The Big Revival comes across as a big letdown, despite what some critics who get swept up in the marketing might say. Though maybe the joke’s on us for ever believing this album had a chance in the first place.
1 1/2 of 2 guns Down.
Trust me when I say if you go ambling through American college towns, you won’t find anything resembling a dearth of string bands with a bunch of young men and their banjos and fiddles stomping and shouting on stage. What you will find a dearth of are these bands that are actually worth listening to, at least outside of the context of a drunken college town barroom. It is in that spirit that I present to you the Whiskey Shivers and their brand new self-titled album that enlists the speed we haven’t heard since .357 String Band, The Dinosaur Truckers, and early Trampled By Turtles, yet entails a completely different vibe from the dark or emotional mood of those efforts.
The best way to describe The Whiskey Shivers is as a bluegrass party band. Oh but don’t worry you Stanley Brothers and Bill Monroe bluegrass Bible thumpers, they’re not going out of their way to call themselves pure bluegrass, and there’s a lot more to their show than just a party. What makes the Whiskey Shivers special though is it just seems like five guys on stage having tons of fun while you get to listen in. It’s this vibe they bring to the building that leaves cadres of rabid fans behind at every stop.
The Whiskey Shivers have been around for a few years now, and the Austin-based band has some national tours with bigger names such as Scott H. Biram, Larry & His Flask, and Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers under their belt. They played at Stagecoach this year right beside artists like Jason Isbell, to as high as Eric Church and Jason Aldean. They appeared at ACL Fest last autumn. And the whole time they’ve been building up a grassroots fan base from their infectious and fun live shows.
What the band was lacking heretofore was a really good record to represent the energy they ignite on stage for the folks who wanted to take the Whiskey Shivers home with them. The few homespun offerings available at the merch table over the years had a lot of spirit, but did not do their live show justice. So for this effort they solicited the services of rising Americana star Robert Ellis as a producer, and set out to make what they hoped to be their definitive studio album that would set them apart from the string band hordes. I’m happy to report this album does just that.
In fact this album doesn’t just capture what the Whiskey Shivers do live, it elevates it. The wild-eyed and dirty sound of the band is what makes them so lovable, but that also leaves room for improvement in composition and arrangement that could elevate their game that much more. That was the trick for producer Robert Ellis—get these boys to behave just a tad, clean up and arrange those five-part harmonies properly, cinch up those licks a little tighter, etc., but do this all while not polishing away the magic at the Whiskey Shivers’ core. And in turn this could also improve the live show from the band by being that much more mindful of arrangements and boundaries.
Just a look at the Whiskey Shivers’ multi-cultural lineup and you see this isn’t you’re typical string band. Some consider fiddle player Bobby Fitzgerald as the frontman, but really each player brings something unique to the table that is important to the Whiskey Shivers’ magic. Where the band had originally leaned on covers, all but one of the songs on this self-titled album are originals, allowing each member to have their voice be heard.
Though some of the songs on the album still feel like they’re trying with some degree of difficulty to capture the live feel in the recorded context like “Been Looking For” and “Hot Party Dads,” many of the songs came to life in a way the live show could never afford. Their droning spiritual “Graves” is one of those songs that feels immediately timeless, and you could see this being embedded in some big Hollywood movie, or even have one built around it. The trapping of a band that relies on speed is they tend to be known for speed and speed only, but in songs like “Friends” and especially “Pray For Me” they show they can thrive in the mid-tempo, and adding the steel guitar texture to the latter turned out to be a really savvy call. And though you wouldn’t traditionally consider the Whiskey Shivers as super pickers or compositional masters (this is no Punch Brothers, but that’s the point), the last song “Swarm” illustrates a lot more depth than some may expect from this project.
Taming the beast without destroying its wild wonder is what this self-titled LP accomplishes, and it should frame the Whiskey Shivers as one of the string bands worthy of more wide, national recognition as young band on the rise.
1 3/4 of 2 Guns Up.
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This isn’t just your average album release, or even your average album release from Lee Ann Womack. There’s a lot of moving parts involved here that make this album one to watch, and one to pay a little extra attention to. Lee Ann Womack has earned the listening public’s undivided attention already from her years of stellar contributions, but this one has a little more special meaning for Womack since it is her first release without a major label, and a release that helps rate of progress for both women and traditional country artists looking to revitalize their place to a wider audience.
The evolution of The Way I’m Livin’ was a little strange. Made with Lee Ann’s husband Frank Liddell (producer for Miranda Lambert, Eli Young Band, others), the album has been finished now for two years and just sitting on a shelf. While still signed with MCA Nashville, label head Luke Lewis told Lee Ann to make the album that she wanted, to pick the songs herself and not worry about any commercial concerns. And so that is what she did.
The choices of where to find songs to record in Nashville are endless, but Lee Ann took a unique approach, especially for an artist who has amassed as many industry trophies as she has over the years. Her litmus test was that the song had to be written with the intent of being performed by that writer. Think of the exact opposite of Music Row’s songwriting-by-committee approach. She wanted songs culled from inspiration. This resulted in Womack acquiring material from a list of artists that is mouth watering all to itself: Chris Knight, Bruce Robison, Hayes Carll, Brennen Leigh, and Mando Saenz just to name some of them. This isn’t a rundown of the songwriting credits from a major Nashville release, this is an All-Star guitar pull lineup in Austin, TX on a Saturday night.
“In the past, Merle and Willie and Hank would sing real lyrics about life,”Â Womack tells Dallas News. “But todayâ€™s Music Row records donâ€™t talk about those subjects, at least not in a grownup way. Thatâ€™s one reason all these songs spoke to me.â€ť
And though The Way I’m Livin’ began on Music Row with a major label, that’s not where it ended up. After Womack wiggled her way out of her MCA Nashville contract, she ended up working with the independent bluegrass label Sugar Hill Records to finally release this album. Even though it might officially symbolize Lee Ann taking a step down from the top-tier level she’s enjoyed for most of her career, she seems perfectly fine with that. “Letâ€™s face it. Award shows are not really about who was best,” Womack continues to Dallas News. “Theyâ€™re about selling advertising. Iâ€™m grateful for the awards I have, but if you came to our house, youâ€™re not going to see any of them out. Youâ€™re gonna see guitars and music everywhere, but not awards or platinum records on the wall.”
This is still Lee Ann Womack though, and don’t think the industry isn’t paying close attention. That voice is too powerful, and her fans are too loyal to ignore. The title track off this album was the very first single to be added to Cumulus Media’s NASH Icon network as an example of new music from a seasoned artist that the new radio format boasts as wanting to champion. Lee Ann Womack hasn’t been put out to pasture by any stretch. She’s the female that is leading the pack of artists left behind by country radio and trying to revitalize the market for more classic-sounding country, and The Way I’m Livin’ is just the album to do it with both country roots and relevancy embedded in its songs, and a salivating public who’s waited six years for new, original music from the singer.
Recorded mostly live, The Way I’m Livin’ pins its eye to Lee Ann’s voice as its focal point, and never strays. You hear this emphasis immediately on the very first track “Prelude: Fly,” which leaves you inspired and primed for what lies ahead. The Way I’m Livin’ pulls from two primary influences: traditional country marked with loud and present steel guitar, and a more progressive “Americana” approach that has a lot of gospel and blues textures intermixed with a rootsy feel. God and Mammon are at war in The Way I’m Livin’ for the soul of the song’s protagonists more often than not, and though it would be a misnomer to label it a concept album, this battle is a recurring theme of the album, and one that illustrates the more true reality of things where good and evil are not always polar opposites separated by tremendous space, but side by side separated only by a thin membrane that temptation is always trying to pull you across.
This eternal pull and tug gives The Way I’m Living a vitality, whether it is portrayed in a gospel tradition like the song “All His Saints,” a more grounded atmosphere like in her take on Hayes Carll’s “Chances Are,” or the traditional country, folklore-style approach like on Brennen Leigh’s “Sleeping With The Devil.” These are story songs one after another filled with internal strife, and the arrangement present on The Way I’m Livin’ is truly masterful one track after another. There’s both a sparsity, and a robust presence to the instrumentation that makes sure nothing suffocates, and everything soars. There’s not a lot of layering that goes on here. You have your primary instruments only, and if there’s anything diverting your attention from Lee Ann’s voice, it is a singular lead instrument, usually a steel guitar set high in the mix that eventually gives way once again to Lee Ann. The song “Nightwind” isolates Lee Ann’s voice once again, and never on this album do you feel as if doubt or indecision filled what direction this record should take.
The Way I’m Livin‘s true country songs are slightly more backloaded towards the end of the project, but no matter where you start this album, it’s hard not to land on something to like. A few of the tracks came across as a little bit sleepy towards the center, and initially I was concerned that the song “Don’t Listen to the Wind” borrowed too much of the melody from the song “All My Tears” from Emmylou Harris’s Wrecking Ball album until I deduced both songs were written by Julie Miller.
Lee Ann Womack seems almost ethereal at this point in her career: timeless, and like an apparition of authentic country music who drifts above the rest of the genre’s singers and pickers as they slave away at their little songs and albums and daily deeds and dilemmas. Yet she still has that endearing element of the small town girl at home in the Texas pines, simply wanting to make a career out of what she would be doing if nobody was listening or watching. She’s an artist who has the freedom to truly do what she wants, while she still enjoys the attention of the industry, however muted it might be these days.
There may be a few more albums that are better than The Way I’m Livin’ that will be released this year, but none that are this good that will reach as many ears. Lee Ann Womack is a heavyweight for women, for hard country, and now for independent artists, and with this Sugar Hill release she releases and lands a haymaker.
1 3/4 of 2 Guns Up.
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I write these proceeding words fully knowing that many will roll up to this Tim McGraw dissertation looking for a bowl of blood as recompense for the emotional direst recent Tim McGraw singles such as “Truck Yeah” and “Lookin’ For That Girl” have waged on the mental state of many innocent country music fans. But the simple truth is Tim McGraw’s new album Sundown Heaven Town deserves to be spared the most sinister strokes from the poison pen—not because it is “good” by some stretch of that flattering term, but because it symbolizes a turning of the page for Tim McGraw, and potentially, is a symptom of the turning of the page for the entire country music genre.
Welcome to the post “Bro-Country” age ladies and gentlemen—an era that we probably shouldn’t entertain as being filled with audio offerings that will in any way compare in quality with the greater historical panorama of country music, but one where we’ll see a clearly defined and much welcomed improvement overall in the music being offered for consumers’ listening edification.
Tim McGraw’s Sundown Heaven Town is an example of this. By golly Tim McGraw is actually learning. After he broke from the bonds of institutional subjugation at the autocratic hands of Curb Records which did everything they could to choke every last bit of life force out of Tim’s once high flying career—as accidentally or purposefully as it may have been—he ran to the open and cradling arms of Scott Borchetta and Big Machine to press restart. And almost as if to make up for the half decade he ceded to Curb, Tim started releasing the most ridiculous, panic-driven panderings to young people radio pop as possible in an attempt to regain his relevancy. However the results were so ghastly, even the deficient country music masses saw through it.
Tim’s first post-Curb single was “Truck Yeah,” and immediately McGraw announced there was no floor to the depths he would fall through to regain his pertinence. And for the most part, the single fizzled, especially considering the muscle Big Machine put behind it to reignite Tim’s career. The biggest single to come from Tim’s first Big Machine album came nearly a year later with “Highway Don’t Care.” As a much more nutritious offering, and one that sat much more comfortably in the confines of the adult contemporary style of pop country that has buttered Tim’s bread for years, it became a #1 hit, and the biggest hit on the Two Lanes of Freedom album.
The same story has played out so far for McGraw’s new album Sundown Heaven Town. The first single “Lookin’ For That Girl” was so far outside of Tim’s comfort zone and anything that could be considered “country” it was laughable, and on cue it stalled in the charts. That stuff may fly for Florida Georgia Line, but not for McGraw’s established brand. Then McGraw released his latest single “Meanwhile Back at Mama’s.” Once again a song with more substance did much better, making it to #2 in the charts.
The lesson here, at least for Tim McGraw, is that even in this bereft country music landscape we find ourselves in, it’s still better for him to be himself—that guy that makes moms all around the country swoon with his tight shirts and sentimental ballads. Tim can’t run with the young pups, and he shouldn’t try. And whether that was the purposeful approach to Sundown Heaven Town or the accidental result, you get Tim being Tim on this album, which means rooting out some of the best adult contemporary compositions the country industry has to offer and doing them justice.
What surprised me was the lack of drum machine intros, loud overdriven guitars, and ploys for radio play on this album. I was also surprised at the amount of steel guitar. No doubt Sundown Heaven Town still affords some creatively anemic moments, and others moments that are downright awful, but they are nowhere near in the measure you would expect from a Tim McGraw album, or really any mainstream album in 2014. The song “Dust” is probably the album’s laundry list “bro” offering if there was one, and still it’s hard to hate too vehemently. “Keep on Truckin’” trying to capture the vibe of the band Train in the country context, and probably should have been left on the cutting house floor. And songs like “Words Are Medicine” and “Sick Of Me” find McGraw striking out boldly to evoke soaring moments, but the lyrical impact seems to be just a little too flat to achieve those heights.
But even the worst song on the album by a long shot “Lookin’ For That Girl” gets relegated to the next-to-last spot on the track list, where it used to be tradition for track arrangers to bury what they believed was the project’s weakest offering. What McGraw seems to understand with Sundown Heaven Town is that albums are for the hardcore fans these days anyway, so you might as well make them count. You might as well make them where they say something and entice people to listen instead of simply being a landing place for hyped-up singles.
Sundown Heaven Town starts off quite strong with “Overrated,” which is something completely unexpected from Tim, and probably one of the best songs on the album. “City Lights” is also strong, and so are the more traditional “Diamond Rings & Old Barstools” duet with Catherine Dunn, and “Meanwhile Back At Mama’s” with better half Faith Hill. “Last Turn Home” achieves that high emotional response McGraw regularly looks to achieve with his song selections, and even though “Portland, Maine” has some people in that city a little upset (however playfully so), its expedition into the terrible head space proceeding a breakup is effective and resonant.
Tim McGraw’s Sundown Heaven Town does not come recommended, but nonetheless comes with praise for affording a template for how mainstream country albums should be made moving forward, and from showing improvement from the artist. Passive consumers who only pay attention to singles anyway shouldn’t be regarded when making albums. And an artist like Tim McGraw is much better off being who he’s always been, from both a commercial and a critical standpoint. Make good albums and you will be on the right side of where country music is headed, and create separation from the lost era when country believed clichĂ©s about beer and trucks would line their pockets forever.
1 1/4 of 2 Guns Up.
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When it comes to country music documentaries, especially when they center around often-overlooked independent artists, European filmmakers don’t just have American filmmakers beat, the sad prognosis is that there’s just very few if any American filmmakers to compete with. For whatever reason, the collective will to raise the capital to chronicle American roots music exists in much greater numbers in the Old World than in country music’s place of origin. Country music ambassadors like the recently-passed George Hamilton IV planted the seeds of appeal for the authenticity of American country music and roots, and that desire has remain steadfast over the years, and manifested into material support for artists in both the performance and journalistic realm.
Working with German-based outfit Art Haus Musik, filmmaker Marieke Schroeder takes a deep dive into the American South and the artists at the forefront of the next generation in Country Roads, The Heartbeat of America. Making appearances during the 90-minute documentary are John Carter Cash, Caitlin Rose, her mother and songwriter Liz Rose, Woody Guthrie’s daughter Norah Guthrie, Kevin Costner, Papa Joe and the Carter Family Fold, The Ryman Auditorium, Robert’s Western World in Nashville and Brazilbilly, and most prominently, Justin Townes Earle in possibly the most intimate look at the 2nd generation performer we have seen to date. Other notables that make quick appearances include Ashley Monroe, Angaleena Presley, and Miranda Lambert in the capacity of The Pistol Annies, Amanda Shires, and Lisa Marie Presley. Stock footage of Johnny Cash and others is also used in the film.
Acting as a guide through both the explanation of the roots of country music and the streets of Nashville, Justin Townes Earle and many others try best to define “country” for a foreign audience in the film. If there was a second most-featured character in the film, it would be Woody Guthrie. From Earle’s deep study of the man, to the appearance of his daughter, to his influence on the music being made even today, Woody, and to an extent The Carter Family, become the centerpiece-in-spirit of the story. The Country Roads DVD also includes an entire Justin Townes Earle concert performed at Pace University on October 26th and 27th of 2012 called “The Spirit of Woody Guthrie.” The presentation doesn’t include Woody Guthrie songs, but instead features songs inspired by Woody’s musical legacy and performed by Justin.
Something else Country Roads affords for Americana music aficionados is intimate footage of Justin Townes Earle recording his 2012 album Nothing’s Gonna Change The Way You Feel About Me Now, and the actual studio session where Caitlin Rose is singing her now highly-regarded Arctic Monkeys cover of “Piledriver Waltz.” This tells you that the film was shot roughly two-and-a-half years ago, and so in some ways you feel like you’re looking a little bit towards the past, though the film presents itself as being a relevant, here-and-now project, making for a slightly unusual sense of timing. Both Caitlin and Justin Townes Earle have subsequently put out newer music.
“This is one of our few untouched things in Nashville—RCA Studio ‘B’,” Justin explains in one portion of the film while standing amidst the heart of Nashville’s Music Row. “But then you just look around at all the crap that has been built around it. This is like the belly of the beast right here. This is where all the bad ideas are thought up. This is where all the bad country songs come from. This is where they’re all recorded. In all these buildings, this is where all the ‘geniuses’ that are thinking all the crap up and what they’re gonna do … It’s amazing to me that the people that work here now can hold their heads up, that they can walk these streets and think that if Hank Williams wasn’t here right now he wouldn’t whip their fucking ass.”
Country Roads is exquisitely shot, and does a great job capturing the dirty details of the South from a cinematic standpoint. The film is interspersed with rolling footage taken from the vantage point of a traveler on country roads, presenting both the most humble of existences in the form of outdated singlewides on stilts and backwoods cabins, to stately new upper class suburbs. Filmmaker Marieke Schroder, who in the mid 80′s lived in the United States in a school exchange and discovered the emotionalism present in Southern culture, makes stops along these roads to talk to common people: shopkeepers, the unemployed and retired, oyster fishermen dealing with the aftermath of the BP oil spill, and others. In these encounters you get a glimpse of the South beyond the music.
What the American audience and seasoned country music listeners should approach this film with is the understanding that at its core this movie is not made for them. It is made to be a primer to country music and the American South. The narration of the film comes across in the English version as quite presumptive about Southern culture and certain events, romanticizing the plight of the recent economic downturn and the depravity the South finds itself in, as well as getting other specific details a little off. For example, a couple of times the film says that Southerners now mostly hang out at gas stations. Though that may be true for some communities, that is not necessarily true for the entire Southern region. Some things may have been lost in the translation, while other broad generalities made in the narration may actually be a concise way to explain the complexities of the South to a foreign and unfamiliar audience.
What the established country music audience does get from Country Roads is a quite valuable and involved portrait of Justin Townes Earle, and a lesser, but still insightful glimpse at Caitlin Rose, John Carter Cash, The Carter Family Fold, and other important cultural players and institutions.
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Warning: Some Language
At this point, Florida Georgia Line has settled quite nicely into being the great American sedative of our generation. Just as producer Joey Moi did with Nickelback before them, this music affords a vacation from self-reflection or truly beneficial thought. ISIS is beheading people in the Middle East and engaging in horrific genocide, the economic disparity between social classes continues to increase and has never been more pronounced, even stalwart institutions of American culture like the NFL are leaving the populace in doubt. But that’s okay, you can put on the latest Florida Georgia Line single and all the girls are hot, all the guys get laid, and libations and narcotics are at your beck and call. This is the type of vacationary audio lubrication that keeps the engine of corporate America purring along just fine. Don’t get down; get high and buy shit.
Florida Georgia Line would be perfectly happy with continuing to put out Bro-Country “dirt road, beer, tailgate” schlock. After all, they’ve let it be known multiple times that they’re dumfounded by all the Bro-Country critcism. If stadiums are filling up then it must be working and will work forever, but Scott Borchetta put out a company memo to leave that stuff with Dallas Davidson and Chase Rice to sink with, so what we get instead from Florida Georgia Line’s new single “Sun Daze” is a reversion back to the stupid-ass beach bum singalongs—aka the same garbage Bro-Country replaced. Hell, “Bacardi” and “flip flops” are much easier to find things to rhyme with than “tailgate.” Screw that we’re actually heading into the Winter, it’s always sunny in shitty country music la la land.
The diehards will never admit it, but when you boil down the music of “Sun Daze,” it’s pretty much harmless. Of course it’s not country, but at this point, pointing that out feels like a clichĂ© in itself. Imagine the music that’s playing when “The Fool” of the Tarot deck goes carefree stepping off the side of a cliff. That’s “Sun Daze.” But it’s not terrible. In fact there’s an extended dobro solo at the end of the song, which is just about as much or more solo instrumentation than you will hear in most any country song these days. This is a stupid song, but there’s space in the music world for these type of mindless hum-alongs.
Where “Sun Daze” turns aggressively awful is in the lyricism. Now to be fair, there’s nothing in “Sun Daze” that we haven’t been hearing for years in pop radio or in Parental Advisory fare, so let’s not freak out about the downfall of civilization. But the problem is that country has now taken over as the leader in raunchy innuendo and overt lyrical references. Time was country music was the safe location on the dial, and KISS-FM is what your 4-year-old didn’t need to hear. Now the pop station is playing inspirational and confidence-building tunes from Lorde and Meghan Trainor, and country is the home of the unfettered smut fest.
If Iâ€™m lucky, yeah, I might get laid.
The way that itâ€™s goinâ€™ that keg gonâ€™ be floatinâ€™.
All I wanna do today is wear my favorite shades and get stoned.
Kris Kristofferson with the help of Johnny Cash in 1970 already crossed the Rubicon of calling themselves “stoned,” and the result was the CMA for Song of the Year. But there was also a story behind their references, and a deep and dour feeling of self-loathing and reflection, if not a diagnosis of the moral depravity one found oneself in. The simple fact is “Sun Daze” needs this bawdy language of “get laid” and “get stoned” because that’s all it’s got to separate itself from vapid nursery rhyme. “Sun Daze” farmed a melody that was so Mother Goose, they needed to gussy it up with something controversial to have at least something that would pass for “edgy.” Talking about getting laid and stoned in a country song is simply a cry for attention, and is demographic pandering to the repressed suburban boys and girls this stupidity appeals to.
The second verse of “Sun Daze” takes it to another level.
Stir it up as we turn on some Marley
If you want you can get on Harley
I sit you up on a kitchen sink
Stick the pink umbrella in your drink
Well you’ve been anything but coy up to this point in the song fellas, why don’t you just come out and say it? You plan to stick your penis in her vagina … but all of a sudden you don’t have the testicles to spell it out.
What rank immaturity. And it does seem to make it a little worse that they’ve decided to do their pink umbrella sticking on the Lord’s day. Not to get too preachy or anything, but that is the everlasting dichotomy of country music: let loose on Saturday night, and atone on Sunday. Now let’s screw that tradition all up as well since it makes for catchy, purposely-misspelled crud jargon for ĂĽber douches whose “religious” ideals are only as skin deep as their $700 bicep tattoos of Gothic crosses that are more about marketing than expression or reverence.
There’s much worse out there folks, which is sad to say in itself. That’s the evil genius about Joey Moi and Florida Georgia Line. They passed on the song “Burnin’ It Down” which the duo co-wrote (and was cut by Jason Aldean), and I don’t care if it shot to #1 because the label sent a Brinks truck over to Clear Channel driven by hookers with cocaine—”Burnin’ It Down” is a polarizing song that is destined for the waste bin of country music history because deep down it’s just really bad. But “Sun Daze” is America’s next ear worm. Of course it sucks, but Florida Georgia Line once again proves its ability to craft an engaging melody to enrapture America’s gullible middle. And the descent of country music registers yet another low water mark.
Two guns down.
(aka, any points for melody construction are erased by the transgressions in the lyricism)
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And P.S.: Quit naming of monogenre strings of artist together like, “Rock a little bit of hip-hop and Haggard and Jagger.” That’s now as clichĂ© as pickup trucks and beer.
“Sun Daze” is written by Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley, and Cary Barlowe, Jesse Frasure and Sarah Buxton—who should all know better.
Winners of the 2014 Americana Music Awards
- Album of the Year: Jason Isbell & Dave Cobb “Southeastern”
- Artist of the Year: Jason Isbell
- Emerging Artist of the Year: Sturgill Simpson
- Instrumentalist of the Year: Buddy Miller
- Song of the Year: Jason Isbell “Cover Me Up”
- Duo or Group of the Year: The Milk Carton Kids
Welcome ladies and gentlemen to the Saving Country Music 2014 Americana Music Awards LIVE Blog! Emanating from the Mother Church of Country Music, The Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, The Americana Music Awards looks to recognize the finest artists in the Americana industry as part of the greater Americana Music Conference transpiring this week.
It will be hosted by Jim Lauderdale, and Buddy Miller will lead the house band.
Normally if you can’t be in attendance, you can’t participate in the AMA’s, but this year NPR will be streaming the event. So pull it up and follow along with us as we chronicle the night’s events and give our knee jerk reactions to winners and performances. Be ready to refresh often, and don’t be afraid to pipe up in the comments section.
Set to perform on the night are:
â€˘ Loretta Lynn â€˘ Jason Isbell â€˘ Jackson Browne â€˘ Emmylou Harris â€˘ JD Souther â€˘ Rosanne Cash â€˘ Patty Griffin â€˘ Sturgill Simpson â€˘ Hurray For The Riff Raff â€˘ St. Paul & The Broken Bones â€˘ Parker Milsap â€˘ Robert Ellis â€˘ Valerie June â€˘ Flaco Jimenez â€˘ Taj Mahal â€˘ Rodney Crowell â€˘ Sarah Jarosz â€˘ The Devil Makes Three â€˘ The Milk Carton Kids â€˘ Cassandra Wilson
Winners of the 2014 Americana Music Awards
- Album of the Year: Jason Isbell & Dave Cobb “Southeastern”
- Artist of the Year: Jason Isbell
- Emerging Artist of the Year: Sturgill Simpson
- Instrumentalist of the Year: Buddy Miller
- Song of the Year: Jason Isbell “Cover Me Up”
- Duo or Group of the Year: The Milk Carton Kids
10:16: Jason Isbell is the big winner of the 2014 Americana Music Awards, but really so are all of the younger artists that the awards stepped up to honor this year, while also doing an excellent job paying tribute to past greats from a diverse swath of the Americana world. Sturgill Simpson and The Milk Carton Kids were also big winners, and this will give a boost to their growing careers. There were some great performances, but I will keep referencing back to Marty Stuart, JD Souther, Keb Mo, and their great introductions to worthy artists.
The night was beset with technical difficulties, in the presentation, the sound, and in the live stream, and unusually so from what we’ve seen from the Americana Awards in recent years. But this shouldn’t be harped on either. Overall the night did its job of shining a spotlight on artists that do not get recognition from the mainstream music industry.
10:10: Well that’s a wrap! I’m going to make one more encapsulating post and recap the winners, and then we’ll call it a night. Thanks to everyone for stopping by, and reposting and commenting, etc. etc, and sorry for the technical difficulties at the beginning of the LIVE blog. It was a night of them!
10:08: Everyone on stage for “Get Rhythm.” (sorry, pictures getting grainier and grainier)
10:02: Everyone comes out on stage for a rendition of Johnny Cash’s “Get Rhythm.”
10:00: Jason Isbell: “The people in this room make the best music in Nashville. Proud to be a member of this particular family.”
9:57: WINNER Jason Isbell & Dave Cobb accepting their Album of the Year award for “Southeastern.”
9:55: Lucinda Williams & Josh Ritter miss their fist cue to come out on stage to present the Album of the Year award … Here they come.
9:54: Great performance by Jackson Browne. This depth of songwriting is what is missing in most music today.
9:52: They give Jackson Browne a second song, and he invites his friend JD Souther to the stage to join him.
9:46: Been absolutely astounded by some of the introductions to music greats tonight. Marty Stuart and JD Souther especially. Look forward to hearing them again and getting them in print.
9:43: Jackson Browne takes time to tune before his performance—another awkward pause in the presentation. Somebody backstage did not check that? But once Jackson gets started, he does excellent as you would expect.
9:39: Jackson Browne accepting his â€śSpirit of Americana Award, Free Speech in Musicâ€ť award.
“It’s part of the American character to say what you believe … Commercialism has never been a friend of free speech.”
9:36: Once again the teleprompter goes out for JD Souther. This has been a chronic problem all night.
9:33: JD Souther comes out to present the â€śSpirit of Americana Award, Free Speech in Musicâ€ť award to Jackson Browne. He tells a story about living in Echo Park in LA with Jackson, knowing Warren Zevon, and getting mugged when you have no money.
9:31: Sturgill Simpson is very humble in accepting his award. “There’s to many people I could thank, so I’ll just thank my family.”
9:28: WINNER Shovels & Rope present the Emerging Artist of the Year to Sturgill Simpson.
9:25: Sturgill Simpson takes the stage! Great performance of “Life of Sin.”
9:22: Jason Isbell thanks his producer Dave Cobb, and his Manager Traci Thomas, who are two very important people in Americana.
9:21: WINNER The Americana Artist of the Year goes to Jason Isbell.
9:18: Marty Stuart just gave one of the best tributes to anyone I have ever heard. It happened to be for Jimmie Rodgers. I will have to run it down in full and transcribe it in the future. “Every time a train passes, so does he. He’s a part of you, he’s a pert of me.” He gives the introduction with a lamp glowing on a stool. It was a train lamp given to Marty Stuart from Hank Snow. This presentation gave me shivers. Two guns up Marty!
9:12: Hey, it’s a Marty Stuart sighting! Also from Mississippi.
9:07: Once again, the sound causes fits on stage as Paul Thorn comes out to introduce Cassandra Wilson. He’s telling an excellent story about gospel music in white and black churches in Tupelo, MS. This presentation has been a little rough in places.
9:05: St. Paul over-gesticulating and over-singing on the Americana stage. And for the record, I still like their music. But come on.
9:03: Alright, this is my opportunity to give my unfettered opinion of St. Paul & The Broken Bones: I think they are the whitest band I have ever seen, despite their skin deep “soul.” My best comparison is if that dancing guy that did nothing esle from the Mighty Mighty Bosstones got his own band. Sorry. People love them because they’re nerds, and that’s really, really cool right now.
9:00: John Paul White introduces St. Paul & The Broken Bones to the stage, who happen to be on John Paul’s record.
8:58: Emmylou Harris when presenting Vocal Duo or Group Award. “So good to be in the Ryman Auditorium. So glad they didn’t tear it down.” Emmylou was seminal in preserving it when she cut a live album at the Ryman in the mid 90′s when the venue was shuttered.
8:55: WINNER Joey Henry and Emmylou Harris present the award for Vocal Duo or Group of the Year to the Milk Carton Kids.
8:52: The Milk Carton Kids doing the world-class acoustics of the Ryman Auditorium proper justice. The ghosts are awakened.
8:50: Sarah Jarosz jumps right off the stage to introduce The Milk Carton Kids.
8:47: The Milk Carton Kids do a 4-minute comedy routine to introduce Sarah Jarosz to the stage.
8:41: Americana supergroup Hard Working Americans takes the stage.
8:40: Jason Isbell accepting his Song of the Year award: “Happy birthday to Hank Williams, has anyone said that yet? If it wasn’t for him, we’d be doing this at a old burned out Kmart in Murfeesboro.”
8:34: WINNER Rhett Miller and Amy Ray present the Song of the Year to “Cover Me Up” by Jason Isbell.
8:33: Beyond being an award winning songwriter, Jason Isbell is one of the most stunning performers of our generation. He killed it.
8:28: Jason Isbell, the current King of Americana Music, takes the stage to perform his Song of the Year nominated “Cover Me Up” with his wife Amanda Shires-Isbell.
8:26: Patty Griffin and Robert Plant performing “Ohio.” Was kind of a shaky performance, but it’s still cool to see the frontman of Led Zepplin paying attention to such worthy music.
8:21: Americana couple Robert Plant and Patty Griffin take the stage. I love Robert Plant, but he’s kind of taking away from this performance with his wonky harmonies.
8:19: The Americana Music Awards honors Taj Mahal.
8:16: Sound has been inconsistent and farty all night. Just got really bad with the lead guitar during the Taj performance.
8:13: Keb Mo presenting the Lifetime Achievement Award for Performance to Taj Mahal. “He was world music before there was ever such a thing.”
Taj didn’t open his eyes during his entire acceptance speech. Because he’s cool like that.
8:09: Keb Mo comes out to present an award. “The music of my people, became the music of all people. The blues only seems simple. It’s only easy to play badly.”
8:07: Rosanne Cash performing with Buddy Miller and the Americana band.
8:03: Rosanne Cash take the stage to sing “A Feather’s Not A Bird.”
8:00: Robert Ellis playing “Only Lies” for the Americana crowd. The song is up for “Song of the Year.”
7:58: Carlene Carter introduces Valerie June while pointing out her mother’s full name was Valerie June Carter. Valerie comes out stunning in a canary yellow dress.
7:53: Buddy Miller wins Instrumentalist of the Year, presented by Vince Gill and Carlene Carter.
7:51: WINNER: Carlene Carter and Vince Gill show up to present Instrumentalist of the Year to Buddy Miller.
7:49: Check out the badass Nudie suit on Hurray for the Riff Raff as she sings “The Body Electric.”
7:44: Devil Makes Three playing “Hand Back Down”
7:40: The Devil Makes Three takes the Americana Music Awards stage! I remember seeing these guys in a 50-person capacity bar a decade ago. They’ve been doing it a long time, and it’s great to see them finally recognized.
7:38: Flaco JimĂ©nez and Ry Cooder performing an 80-year-old tune together on the Ryman stage.
7:34: While we were down, Kacey Musgraves and Angaleena Presley presented Loretta Lynn with the Lifetime Achievement for Songwriting! And then Loretta Lynn performed for the Americana crowd.
7:31: Ry Cooder is presenting the Lifetime Achievement Award as an Instrumentalist to accordion player Flaco JimĂ©nez!
7:30: Sorry folks, historic, catastrophic error with the site RIGHT as the awards were staring. We’re back up now, and hopefully have everything squared away.
6:52: Valerie June & Loretta Lynn hanging out before the awards, from The Tennessean’s Shelley Mays
6:50: Picture from Hurray For The Riff Raff of New Orleans from earlier today during practice. “Who dares me to yell ‘who dat’ if we win?”
6:48: Get ready to see some cool collaborations on the night, especially at the very end. Here’s a sot from a previous Americana Music Awards with Jim Lauderdale, Ketch Secor (Old Crow Medicine Show), Joy Williams (The Civil Wars), Emmylou Harris, Rosanne Cash, and Rodney Crowell.
6:46: One of the cool parts about the Americana Music Awards is the house band led by Buddy Miller. Be on the lookout for Ry Cooder, John Leventhal, Don Was, and who knows else who may hop up on stage.
6:45: The Americana Music Awards hand out Lifetime Achievement distinctions each year in four different categories. This year the honorees are:
- Loretta LynnÂ – For Lifetime Achievement in Songwriting
- Taj Mahal – For Lifetime Achievement in Performance
- Flaco JimĂ©nez – For Lifetime Achievement as an Instrumentalist
- Jackson Browne – For the â€śSpirit of Americana Award, Free Speech in Musicâ€ť award.
6:45: Here’s a quick rundown of the nominees if you’ve not seen them yet:
See, this is the kind of weird stuff we need more of.
If you have a strong penchant towards wondering about the untold stories of music’s most adept sidemen like I do, then perhaps you have already pondered upon Telecaster player Jeremy Fetzer and pedal steel player Spencer Cullum Jr. from seeing them on stage with artists like Caitlin Rose, Andrew Combs, and Jonny Fritz just to name a few. There they are doing their worst in the wings while the person whose name is on the poster soaks up the spotlight.
It was in a collaborative state with Caitlin Rose that I first noticed these two young men on stage together, and in my conniving brain I looked at the lanky Cullum Jr., all British and badass on the steel, licking it harder than a calico cat trying to unlodge a gob of Wrigley’s gum from its underbelly, and Mr. Fetzer looking like some damn modern incarnation of Joey Lawrence, all bushy eyebrowed and boyish, who could probably lay half the town’s female eligibles, and I imagined some scandalous love triangle being hatched between the two and Caitlin as they stood up on stage, kicking the crowd’s asses so effortlessly it seemed unfair. In truth it was probably all platonic, but for some reason the idea of sexual frustration permeating that lineup made the music sound that much better.
But here are Fetzer and Cullum Jr. striking out on their own, and I have to say I wasn’t particularly excited about this development when it first came across the wires. These two young men were so “instrumental” (hardy har) in the sound that Caitlin Rose cultivated on her formidable last album The Stand-In, I was completely unreceptive to any changes that might disrupt that chemistry.
What’s so great about sidemen is they don’t give a shit about being out front. But in the Booker T & the MG’s lineage, Steelism is very much a sidemen band. They could have thumbed through their beefy Rolodex of previous collaborators and solicited the vocal services of some of their semi-famous to famous friends. Hell, they’ve played behind Miranda Lambert before. A few weeks ago I was watching that dumb “CMA Music Festival: Country’s Night to Rock” extravaganza on ABC, and there was Spencer Cullum Jr., all swaying his head as he played steel guitar for the Carrie Underwood / Miranda Lambert screech fest “Somethin’ Bad.” Yes, apparently that song has steel guitar. Somewhere.
But really where these two young twangers trace their nucleus back to is the East Nashville independent scene where they’ve played with just about everybody and established that they’re pretty much cooler than any of us could every be, at least judging by the list of their hip musician friends. But you won’t hear any famous vocalist contributions here. In fact you won’t hear any vocals at all. This is all about the instrumentation baby, so stoke your inner band geek and get ready for an innovative, yet influence-grounded exploration of composition and instrumentation that would be quite a stretch to classify as “country,” but still appeals to people with open minds who enjoy all music that shows reverence to the roots of modern sounds.
The title 615 To Fame is not some out-front prediction of where this record might take this duo, it is in reference to how half the album was cooked up in a collaborative space in Nashville (whose phone prefix is ’615′) called Club Roar, and the other half looked to imbibe their tunes with the Southern sweat indicative of the Muscle Shoals vibe that they tried to capture at Fame Recording Studio with the Alabama Shakes’ Ben Tanner in the role of producer. The result is a multi-faceted and spicy record, that takes both an informed and inquisitive exploration into the bounty of sounds that lend to the diverse and rewarding American music experience, with a little British spy and Beatlesesque psychedelia from across the pond mixed in for good measure.
This stuff ain’t for everyone. This is for the vinyl nerds and the deep diggers of the music consuming populous who like to find that little offbeat project that their friends would never get, and listen to it too loudly alone on a random Saturday night. What surprised me the most is the depth of instrumentation Spencer and Fetzer enlisted for this endeavor, and the lengths they went to and the courage they had to put whatever they heard in their minds on these tracks instead of settling for what was close at hand.
When this project first started out, they were farting around with cover songs and such, and I was scared it would become some cheeseball hipster project that I would resent even more for jeopardizing the Caitlin Rose mojo. Instead it is expansive and joyous, though still probably a little too fey and a little too undefined for the average listener. But screw those average listeners, they shouldn’t be reading Saving Country Music anyway. 615 To Fame is totally in the spirit of Booker T & the MG’s Green Onions in the way it begins with the groove, but Steelism gets much more involved, adding layers of ideas and interwoven melodies.
So yes, I give you permission, even as a hardened country fan to enjoy this album. And I also give my papal blessing to Steelism, as long as Spencer Cullum Jr. and Brian Fetzer promise to continue to lend their creative juices in at least some capacity to headliners in the future, since this has resulted in some of the best music that has graced our ears in the past few years.
1 3/4 of 2 Guns Up.
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It’s is one of the complaints from contemporary music listeners that all popular music is beginning to sound the same no matter what station you tune in. Popular music is coalescing into one gobby monogenre blob. But the truth is when you go back in time to popular American music’s founding, before rabid commercialization really grabbed it’s foothold, it was sort of the same story. Before country was country, and rock & roll was rock & roll, there was little difference between the two. Bands like Maddox Brothers & Rose played both “hillbilly” music and “boogie woogie” with little to no distinction as separate art forms. Elvis Presley started out as a rockabilly artist and went rock. Johnny Cash started as a rockabilly artist and went country. In many respects, rock and country were the same thing before they were ever split and combined together again, especially in Memphis, TN.
Michael Goodman is a good modern illustration of this primitive era of American popular music where rock and country were virtually the same. As an actor, Goodman has portrayed Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, and Carl Perkins in the acclaimed Million Dollar Quartet theatrical production and other places, and can play all the with haunting accuracy. This exemplifies both Goodman’s flexibility, and depth of knowledge about those formative country and rock years, and he brings this all to life again in Unbreakable Heart. Funny yet formidable, sad but rocking, Michael Goodman smoothly takes you on a musical time warp to the roiling 50′s to both cut a rug and cry in your beer in a time when music was much better across the board and became immediately timeless.
Unbreakable Heart almost feels like two separate albums fashioned together. Though “rockabilly” may be the easy way to describe the one half, this album is a little less Brian Setzer and Reverend Horton Heat, and a little more Nick Curran and JD McPherson. He stays a little more rock than billy so to speak without reaching into the punk vibe. There’s an Everly Brothers-sounding tune called “Everly Avenue” and a boisterous joke song called “Cock Block Ninja.” Comedy and wit is one of the calling cards of Michael Goodman’s music and something that separates him from the crowd. “Kissed A Lot” is another of the album’s really good old-school rock and roll cuts.
But where Michael Goodman won over this critic was with his country fare. Coming at you hard and straight, this is traditional country music in every sense, yet approached with a freshness and enthusiasm so it doesn’t feel drabby or anachronistic. Goodman lists people such as Waylon Jennings, David Allan Coe, and Jerry Reed as influences, but what you mostly get on Unbreakable Heart is straight-laced throwback traditional stuff. Growing up in Kentucky, Goodman was surrounded by bluegrass bands and church choirs. Singing and country music was at the core of his upbringing, and this comes through in tracks like “Drinking About You,” “Why Don’t You Love Me,” and “Lyin’ Cryin’.” He gets a little closer to the Outlaw era with songs such as “Carrying On What Nashville Left Behind” and “I’m Just Country,” but it still feels more traditional than country rock. “Old Damn Games” is where Goodman begins to venture more towards the 70′s vibe than the 50′s.
There are a few songs that bridge the old-school country and rock worlds, but this “together, yet separated” approach to country and rock makes for a very fun, and spicy album that has you guessing at what’s coming up next. And whether it’s the country twang or the rock and roll warble, Goodman’s interpretation of the music and his singing is spot on, and he’s a great guitar player to boot.
Concerns about Unbreakable Heart are mild, but he could have spent a little more time working out his approach to “Everly Avenue,” and maybe solicited someone else to sing with him instead of trying to pull off the close harmony himself. Also some of the songs, especially the old school country tracks feel like they step down in production quality from the other songs, possibly to make them sound “old,” but the volume and mixing left a little to be desired.
Like walking into Sun Studios circa 1956, Michael Goodman and Unbreakable Heart take you back to a time when the music of American was uncorrupted, the sentiments were sincere, and the promise was unending.
1 3/4 of 2 Guns Up.
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This release might mean just a little bit more to Justin Townes Earle. The harder you work for things, the more value they tend to hold. After concluding a five-album contract with the scrappy and street-accredited independent label Bloodshot Records, Justin Townes Earle moved on to what he hoped would be greener pastures, and quickly got his nose pushed in. Earle saddled up with British-based label Communion Records owned in part by Ben Lovett—the accordion and keyboard player of Mumford & Sons. The situation got sideways between Justin and Communion when the label required him to turn in 30 tracks that they could then cull through and select what they wanted to release. Earle would have none of it, and went into rebellion mode, resulting in his eventual extraction from Communion to release this new album Single Mothers through California-based label Vagrant.
For starters, the cover art for this album deserves to be commended. Such a lost art in this digital age, artists go into projects having no clue how to sync up their expression with the first image listeners see to prepare them for the experience. The defiance in the eyes of these two youngsters, the innocence at believing their intertwined lives will remain this way forever, and the wonder and promise the whole scene evokes is something worthy of individual praise. It stimulates the mind and imagination, readying them to receive Justin’s musical notions with more of an agape consciousness.
It may seem hard to sense Justin Townes Earle as a seasoned artist since he’s the son of an established performer and still resides in his early 30′s, but this is Earle’s sixth overall project. He’s already spent years out on the road, and he’s already been anointed by Americana’s independent industry. He won the Americana Music Award for Emerging Artist half a decade ago, and now he draws large crowds across the country and world as an Americana stalwart, and a leader of the subgenre’s second generation.
The occasion of Earle’s sixth album also sees the songwriter settling into his established sound for better or worse. Where in his early days Justin would swing from influences in the country and bluegrass worlds to songs more fit for folk distinction, and then chart into the blues and even a more soulful Motown sound, now Earle seems to understand what he does best, and doesn’t venture too far away from it. Though you may still hear the moan of the steel guitar in places, or the cajoling of his eclectic and signature style of playing the acoustic guitar with heavy plucking and strumming, really Justin Townes Earle, the singer and producer, has settled into a firm pocket of finding the heartbeat of black Memphis and Motown and reviving it for the modern ear.
Placing aside the songwriting effort for a second, this steadiness has made Earle’s compositions comfortable to the ear, but also somewhat predictable. During the transition of the first two songs on Single Mothers, you almost have to look at the display of your media device to be assured the first song isn’t actually repeating in the way the two tracks sound so similar. The album is fairly straightforward throughout with the guitar tone, brushes on snare, and a similar style to Earle’s voice, with some notable exceptions.
As Justin Townes Earle will tell you, he’s a songwriter first, and that is what the listener should clue in on most intently on a JTE project. The production and instrumentation is simply the clothing. But in this established sound Justin has sired over his last few albums, you tend to miss Earle’s other signature attribute, which is his solo stylings. Justin Townes Earle doesn’t need a band. His songs, his voice, and his clawhammer hybrid-style plucking on a parlor-sized guitar is sound enough to send hearts pounding. The music on Single Mothers at times feels like it gets in the way of the experience, while also being a little unimaginative and undercooked if he was going to go for the full band sound. When he opens up the space, like he does in the magnificent “Picture In A Drawer,” the composition comes alive. Or when the backing band is allowed to step out a little bit more like on the final track “Burning Pictures,” you find a little more energy drawn from Earle’s original idea. In the middle though, you feel like Justin’s inspiration is represented a little thinly.
What works here the best are the songs themselves, speaking cohesively about a forlornness towards past memories and experiences. The title of Single Mothers speaks very personally to Earle’s own narrative as a boy growing up, abandoned by his father, and now looking at the world through the eyes those experiences forged. “My Baby Drives” appears to allude to his recently wedded bride that according to Earle has put him in a very happy place. But he promises that he still has a lifetime of bad experiences to reflect on for forlorn inspiration, and it is this type of past-tense reflection that gives Single Mothers its singular, distinct, and wistful flavor.
The songs of this album very much live up to the still-emerging, but growing legacy of Justin Townes Earle as an award-winning songwriter. It’s just a shame a little more vision wasn’t brought to some of the music, and it’s hard to hear those few songs that you can pluck from the crowd and play as examples of his genius. “Time Shows Fools” though is a great specimen of how to express a timeless sentiment in an undiscovered way.
Perhaps in the rush and melee this album experienced as a result of the label issues, the right chemistry wasn’t found to make the finishing results reside in the ideal. But Single Mothers is an album that takes nothing away from Justin Townes Earle, and may be his most personal yet.
1 1/2 of 2 Guns Up.
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So here it is; Garth’s first single since 2007′s “More Than A Memory.” But more importantly, it is the first real single since he retired in 2001—representing a new album, and a new era for one of the biggest music stars the world has ever seen. And with this new song, the world is who Garth courts as his audience.
Initially Garth’s debut single after retirement was slated to be a song called “Tacoma.” RCA even took out full page ads in country radio trade periodicals and at one point scheduled a release date for the song as July 28th. Then for wherever reason, all of those plans got scrapped in just one example of how Garth’s triumphant return has been beset with stops and starts.
One of the reasons Garth may have decided a switcheroo was in order for his new single is because of the topical nature of the subject matter in “People Loving People.” With the globe, and many communities in the United States in such disarray—with beheadings, sectarian violence, civil war, and civil rights issues dominating headlines—the song is certainly current. And it sees Garth slide into the role many upper-echelon superstars have championed during times of turmoil over the years by attempting to show some leadership from the entertainment world when a leadership vacuum seems to exist from our elected leaders and in the world stage at large.
This isn’t the first time Garth Brooks has tried his hand at settling world tensions with his music. Garth once used his “We Shall Be Free” song in the wake of the Rodney King beating and other world events to upstage the entire Super Bowl. But in releasing “People Loving People,” Garth doesn’t do himself any favors with his many detractors, or the people who were hoping Garth’s return would also herald the return of country music that actually sounded something like country. It is unlikely that “People Loving People” fairly represents what folks can expect from Garth’s new album. If the song “Tacoma” was selected as the first single, as it almost was, it probably would have represented a much more country-sounding offering. But Garth decided piggy backing off of current events, and releasing a song that would have a greater impact on country radio and the world stage at large was a more ambitious and pragmatic move, and he’s probably right.
Garth’s altruistic desires with this song will resonate deeply with some, and come across as dubious to others who will accuse him of opportunistic mawkish grandstanding covered in sappy icing. Here is Garth once again demanding to be the center of attention. But taking a sincere look at the lyrics and message, and without lacing the assessment with any personal slants about Garth’s previous motives, “People Loving People” is not badly written, or wrong in its message or its ambition. This song is inspiring, and says something a lot of people should probably hear. At the same time, as an exercise in intellectualism, it is a little innocent and short-sighted. Of course all people should love each other, but that’s a little hard to hear when someone has just slaughtered your family, or beheaded one of your countrymen. As much as love is inherent in the human design, so is justice.
Beyond weighing this song against much heavier subjects usually not appropriate for the realm of music entertainment, “People Loving People” doesn’t really capture Garth in his ideal element. Nor did “We Shall Be Free.” The key of the song is higher than where Garth’s voice settles into its sweet spot—where he can dip into those low bass notes, and quickly drawl back into the higher register to squeeze the emotion out of a lyric. Think of “The Dance,” or really any of Garth’s bigger hits. The lead guitar answering Garth during the chorus’s “Wow oh oh” portion feels a little dated. Garth is a passionate performer, and though in the mind’s eye you can see him singing the hell out of this song live, that emotion and energy is not really endowed on this recording. Sometimes you can’t even really understand the words, and this is on a song that is built upon them.
Though I don’t question the sincerity of Garth’s approach with this song, many will. But releasing “People Loving People” right now is quite savvy, and with production that leans heavily towards pop rock, it will be a good way for Garth to warm up to the new environment in country radio that is very much focused on the non-country here-and-now.
“People Loving People” will do moderately well on radio, while consumers hungry for new Garth music will make it rocket up Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart. That is, if it is released digitally. Detractors will seize upon the opportunities the song affords them, while many others across genre lines and international borders will find a message that they are thirsting for. Ultimately, “People Loving People” presents a mixed bag, and leaves the notions of exactly what we might get out of Garth 2.0 fairly ambiguous.
In the end, “People Loving People” is very, very Garth.
1 Gun Up for an ambitious song with a good message.
1 Gun Down for fairly unimaginative and non-country production, a lackluster vocal performance, and potential commercial opportunism off of current events.
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You’re not going to find a life-sized Otis Gibbs cardboard cutout peddling CD’s on an end cap at your local Sam Goody. You’re not going to hear him on the Bobby Bones Show. Otis is a country music homesteader who releases his albums independently in what feels more like a barter system between friends than an element of interstate commerce. Otis Gibbs symbolizes the true essence of the independent spirit thriving in the East Nashville neighborhood he calls home, surrounded by fellow songwriting brethren who respect him as a mentor not just because of the gray in his beard, but from the songcraft he weaves. Settling there some years ago with his long-term partner, fellow songwriter Amy Lashley, the two native Indianans have scratched out a humble, but inspiring music life built upon the goals of sustainability instead of the arbitrary measures of showbiz success that plague most of Music City’s arteries.
A troubadour in every sense of the word, Otis Gibbs is an artist who can inspire even the most timid among us to shush a burly bar troll talking over one of his performances. This is music to lean in and listen to. This is music to get lost in as the lives of characters you’ve never heard of before become as intimate and familiar as family in the span of four minutes, until you find yourself weeping at their struggles, celebrating their victories, and worrying about their fate. Similar to storytelling songwriters like Chris Knight or the late Townes Van Zandt, folk is Otis’s style, but country is his flavor. He may not inspire you to get up and dance a jig, but his evocation of people, places, and important human moments are carved from rural landscapes, and are adorned sonically with fiddle, banjo, and steel guitar.
Otis is an artist that everyone seems to know. If you start drawing lines between independent country and roots musicians, Otis would soon be revealed as a nexus. Some of the blame for this lies with Gibb’s secondary pursuit, his sensational Thanks For Giving A Damn podcast where he sits down with all sorts of cool cats from the music scene who open up to him with interesting stories and insight.
Souvenirs of a Misspent Youth—the title of Gibb’s brand new album—could almost be misconstrued as the blood and sweat-smeared proclamation of a punk band. Adolescence is so damn awkward, and young adulthood is so awash in drugs, dumb sex, and indecision, it is a wonder how society can progress with the way American youth are dumped into the real world with such wobbly legs. But the roiling angst amid youthful indiscretion and self-discovery is not what Otis Gibbs is interested in delving into here. His intentions are much more sedated, and much more poetic. Otis ponders youth through the perspective of elders, and the reflection back on ones self though older eyes, while the whole time keeping a cohesiveness to the settings cast in a sepia shade of distant, but refined memory.
It is not just the stories, but the detail that Otis conveys in his characters and his moments that make them burst into real life. A song like “Back In My Day Blues” is one you could see artists like Tom Waits and Bruce Springsteen kicking themselves for never writing. The song “Ghosts Of Our Fathers” speaks right to the heart of the matter Gibbs is trying to convey in this album. “I was a child. I was far too young to ever understand what it meat to have a son who’d been drafted and killed in Vietnam.” In other moments, Otis forges folk heroes and casts them in moments of defiance, such as in “The Darker Side of Me” and “Nancy Barnett.” Otis has a sense that humankind should be swayed towards embracing its positive virtues, but understands that violence and defiance are tied to justice, and are an inalienable part of the human construct and worth canonizing all the same.
Otis Gibbs is a storyteller’s storyteller, and one that makes you see life unfurling in poetry and prose. He may never tell his stories to the wide masses, but the ones wise enough to lean in and listen will find riches and wisdom no man would ever dare lay a monetary value on.
1 3/4 of 2 Guns Up.
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The occasion of Brad Paisley’s new album release finds the singer and guitar player at a crossroads in his career. The three-time CMA Male Vocalist of the Year and a man responsible for over 12 million records sold is in that precarious position of an artist trying to hold on to his mainstream prominence as the young pups all around are nipping at his heels, while still trying to hold on to some semblance of the identity his career was built upon.
The narrative surrounding the release of his last album, 2013′s Wheelhouse, slipped away from the country music veteran in some respects when the story about his LL Cool J collaboration “Accidental Racist” became such seductive water cooler talk that Saturday Night Live was running skits about it. The album still went on to sell over 100,000 copies in its first week and debut at #1, but it felt like a career that in many ways had become punctuated by joke songs was being relegated to a punch line in itself. Though “Accidental Racist” was never supposed to be any more than an album cut, when the country music funny man tried to get serious, he was accused of jumping the shark. His new album Moonshine In The Truck is expected to sell about half the amount of copies upon its debut as Wheelhouse, despite a headlong effort to promote it ahead of the release.
As Paisley’s career arc has been sketched, more and more it has become defined by humor. He’s become the Carrot Top of country music, with a deep bag of tricks and a deadpan delivery that is endearing to some, and off-putting for many others. As he was “leaking” this album against his label’s wishes before the release (which for anyone with half a brain could tell was nothing but a marketing ruse), once again Paisley showed off his propensity to carry a joke too far until the humor has well worn out its effectiveness.
Moonshine In The Trunk delivers exactly what many mainstream country consumers want and expect from their country music: an affirmation about the steadiness and social acceptance of the corporate culture of working very hard at drab occupations, and then getting 48 hours every week to release with your favorite brand-name beverage sweating in your hand. It’s the soundtrack to the consumer mindset that keeps revenue pumping into the government in the form of income taxes, and recreational expenditures pumping into corporations as consumers slave away living one or two steps above their means.
The album starts off just about how you would expect, with the vapid weekend Joe anthem “Crushin’ It” followed by the record’s lead single—the equally shallow and non-nutritious “River Bank.” Then we move on to the album’s first love song called “Perfect Storm” which appears to borrow its sonic palette from Limahl’s Neverending Story soundtrack with its sweeping synthesizer beds, open and ringing chords, over-modulated drums, and white boy tribal chants. The appearance of a buried steel guitar drifting in later in the track barely offers any redeeming value. This interludes into the album’s first joke song called “High Life” where Paisley brags about suing Chick-Fil-A and Carrie Underwood under spurious pretenses.
But from there the album begins to smooth out a bit, and as you delve into some of the album cuts, you begin to warm up to Paisley’s effort. We can only hope naming the album after the song “Moonshine In The Truck” symbolizes that the song will be released as a single at some point, because even though it starts off with a little unnecessary electronic unsavoriness, it slides into an good little up-tempo and kicking country song complete with steel guitar, fiddle, takeoff banjo, and some Johnny Hiland-style electric guitar chicken picking that is sure to send the pulse of country purists’ racing, whether they’ll admit it to their friends on Facebook or not.
“Shattered Glass” is the first of two songs on Moonshine In The Trunk—the second being the bluesy, and electronic dance beat-driven “You Shouldn’t Have To”—that speak directly to the elevation of women country music is trying to enact with mixed results, both commercially and critically. Though neither of these songs, especially “You Shouldn’t Have To,” are worth much more than a few spins, the effort feels honest, and is hard not to appreciate. And though these songs veer towards the mawkish, it doesn’t feel like pandering as many similar mainstream efforts do.
If there is a defining “Bro-Country” moment on the album, it certainly is zeroed in on “4WP,” which is so Bro-Country, it almost makes you wonder if Brad Paisley is being facetious. If there is a traditional, acoustic song on the album it is “Going Green,” but it too takes on the predictable Paisley joke form in its lines about solar panels and hybrid cars, and you wonder if the countrified production or the message of the song will be lost on the potential audience.
Brad Paisley gets deep, and quasi-political with “American Flag On The Moon.” Its precursor “JFK 1962″ plays Kennedy’s speech challenging the United States to reach the moon. By placing these tracks near the end of the album, Paisely maybe hopes to bury them to avoid another replay of the “Accidental Racist” fiasco, but this is one of the moments on the album most worthy of being heard. Though like Moonshine In The Trunk‘s mawkish female odes, “American Flag On The Moon” might send some reeling from the sappiness, the message is sincere and deserves to be heard. The song is about how gridlock has restricted Americans from doing great things, and no matter where you sit on the political divide, it’s hard not to recognize the importance of this message.
The final song, “Country Nation,” ends where the album starts off: reaffirming an earn-and-spend, work-and-play culture that country music slavishly tries to pander to in order to attract both spend-happy consumers and the corporate brands they love as advertising partners.
With the incredibly labor-intensive social network “leak” campaign Brad Paisley deployed, and his prominent position of ABC’s new reality singing competition Rising Star, you would think the reception for this album would have been much greater. Brad Paisley is clearly in the listing moment of his career arc, and there may not be much he can do to save it. But Paisley deserves some credit for not using this album to chase current trends, or pine for relevancy. The Bro-Country moments are isolated, and there’s no hick-hop present on the album itself (though there is a “River Bank” remix floating out there). Sure there was compromise, and there was also the inclusion of some non-country electronic accoutrements in songs to try and stay up-to-date as best as Paisley could while still staying within his own style. But staying within his own style is ultimately what Paisley achieved. This album has a lot of traditional country music instrumentation for a major mainstream release, even though it is usually blended heavily with electric rock guitar.
Brad Paisley has made a career out of being a fun-loving and jovial entertainer and doing what he can to make the listener forget their mundane problems by delivering humorous lyrical hooks and slick guitar playing. Brad is not going to change the world or offer some soul-searching epic, and he shouldn’t try, and nor should it be expected of him or should he be shunned for not trying. As much as you can complain about the lack of substance on an album like this, there’s a few moments that refute that viewpoint. And this album will make some people smile, while not really furthering the ills of the genre. And in the end, it’s hard to hate on that outcome.
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1 Gun Up for some solid album cuts, good instrumentation in places, and a couple of songs with good messages.
1 Gun Down for some ineffective silliness, Bro-Country moments, and a general creative malaise.
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The pretty good:
The pretty bad:
The talent pool of country music women is so rich right now, stepping back and really trying to behold just how much genius and aptitude resides there can seize your breath. But of course you won’t see this reflected in the mainstream where the panorama for female country artists is so bleak, it takes the genre’s two very top stars screaming and yelling in a “Somethin’ Bad” moment of smeared mascara just to get the zeitgeist’s attention and raise a blip on the charts. But below the surface, you almost can’t lose with a female country record cut in the last few years.
One problem however is when you narrow your female selection down to something that is truly traditional country—but not so fuddy-duddy it feels tired, or so kitschy it sounds like the Howdy Doody Show—the pickings get a little more slim. Artists like Caitlin Rose, Holly Williams, and First Aid Kit are great, but have a little more Americana and indie rock in them than real deal country. Rachel Brooke and Lindi Ortega enlist the dark, Gothic side of classic country, but come up a little short when it comes to the moaning steel guitar that really gets your country music juices flowing. And though artists like Kacey Musgraves and Brandy Clark have found their way to some industry success, sometimes their songwriting can feel more like writing from formula rather than the muse of real life experience.
If you’re looking for the country music female revolution’s representative for true neotraditional country, yet one that gives up nothing to her peers in songwriting, if not setting the current standard, Kelsey Waldon might just be your perfect match. This petite little native Kentuckian rears back and gives you twelve new original songs on her album The Gold Mine that rivals most any other batch of tunes from any other female or male for that matter from this calendar year. Strikingly traditional, yet still fresh feeling with enough evolved moments to be connected to the current mood, The Gold Mine is a boon of audio treasures mined from the great American music unknown.
If this album was released in the 70′s, it would have birthed a slew of indelible country standards. Such inconsolable heartbreak, such sorrow-drenched insight is captured on these tracks and then embellished with tasteful production, you want to pull these songs close to your chest and never let go. “Town Clown” is a vessel for the ghost of Kitty Wells. “One Time Again” re-imagines the sonic textures of Tammy Wynett’s “Your Good Girls Gonna Go Bad.” And songs like “Not My First Time,” “The Gold Mine,” “Me & You Again,” and “Getting There” speak to the aching, eternal sorrow of an authentic country music soul looking for relief through song.
To have a great album, you need a great song that transcends even its fellow track mates and can tug on a wider ear, and The Gold Mine has one in “High In Heels.” From an album whose biggest takeaway is how traditional country it is, here comes a total alt-country/Americana moment that arguably creates the deepest crater in the heart of the listener during the entire offering. The somber resignation to fate is the encapsulating mood the pervades The Gold Mine, and makes it feel like one of those projects for the ages.
About the only scab to pick at is the verse to “Town Clown” is a little too similar to Merle’s “Okie From Muskogee,” but let’s be honest, is this really a bad thing?
The Gold Mine benefits greatly from the help Kelsey Waldon wrangled together for this project, including guitar player Jeremy Fetzer who you may have seen playing previously with Caitlin Rose, and who comprises half of the band “Steelism.” Brett Resnick does an excellent job on steel guitar duty, and so does Skylar Wilson on the keyboards. And producer and bass player Michael Rinne really deserves extra kudos for doing such a tremendous job in shepherding Kelsey’s songs to our ears with such taste and care. The effort by all parties on The Gold Mine feels triumphant in its results.
It may seem almost intimidating to navigate through all the worthy female country and roots artists you can resign your music time to these days. But if your leanings are more towards traditional country, Kelsey Waldon and The Gold Mine aren’t just the perfect starting point, they’re the current apex.
Two Guns Up.
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Blake Shelton. The Decider. Mount BS. Mr. Lambert.
On August 18th, he released his latest single called “Neon Light” from his upcoming Bringing Back The Sun album. As a rather sedated, nondescript, somewhat country, but ultimately sort of boring offering, it was really hard to get worked up about it one way or the other. Sure it has a banjo and a somewhat country setting, but it’s no “Tear In My Beer.” And sure it starts off with a stupid hip-hop beat, but that’s every damn song on mainstream country radio today. Starting a song with a hip-hop beat isn’t expected in 2014, it’s required. That stop sign was blown through and a couple of pedestrians mowed over on country music’s way to careening head on into a retaining wall some nine months ago. In 2007 this song would have made us all want to drink Drano, but in 2014? Eh, there’s much bigger fish to fry, and much better stuff to listen to.
But either Blake Shelton let some Twitter troll get the best of him, or he’s decided to tilt at windmills to give a little jolt to the song’s deflated reception, and he’s struck out on the warpath against the “haters.” “Of course, Iâ€™m always going to have the haters and critics out there that say it’s not [country],” Blake told Rolling Stone Country. “But then, kiss my ass! I know more about those records than a lot of people.”
Whoa, slow down there speed racer. First off, who exactly has a huge problem with this song? I’ve scoured the world wide internet looking for negative reviews for “Neon Light” and came up with a big bag of nothing. You check all the usual suspects of Blake Shelton hate, including Saving Country Music, and mum’s the word on “Neon Light.” Not to say there isn’t someone chirping out there in some social network comment section, but that’s for every song. And what’s up with unilaterally tearing into our country music knowledge for criticisms that don’t exist?
Blake Shelton then goes on to say, “The song, the melody, the chorus is so George Jones or George Strait. It really is.”
Oh okay Blake, so just because your song has banjo and is loosely about seeking refuge in a bar it’s now fitting company to be compared with the overlords of the genre? Is it really up to an artist to decide where a song fits in the pantheon of country music, or is that the job of history?
The simple fact is that Blake Shelton’s “Neon Light,” aside from the opening hip-hop beat—which should immediately relegate songs to the trash heap of country music history—is symbolic of the very slow, but very present return of a little bit more sustainable country sounding substance that is being evidenced across country music in the emerging post Bro-Country era. “Neon Light” should in no way be compared to George Jones and George Strait, no matter what measuring stick or perspective is employed. But is it better than Blake’s “Boys ‘Round Here”? Sure. Of course this is all a symptom of the diminishing returns we’ve been receiving from country music for the past few years, but you can’t help but identify the green chutes of promise when they begin to emerge out of the barren landscape of horrendously bad music.
“Neon Light” is not terrible, but it’s not good either. That’s about the best I can give it. It still is slavish to the rhythmic trends plaguing country music in the way the song repeats words in triples, but the chorus shows off Shelton’s vocal range. How it will fare on the country music charts will be almost exclusively tied to how much money the label decides to put behind it in promotion, because it’s not good enough to have a life of its own. Blake Shelton knows he can’t compete with the worst of Bro-Country, so he’s trying to carve out his niche as the popular traditionalist.
But George Jones, or even George Strait? I’m sorry, that’s BS.
From the fertile Outlaw country ground that comprises the hills and hollers of Boone County, West Virginia comes a homespun, but inspired and deftly-written insight into the American experience called No Place Lower Than High. Composed and performed by the virtual unknown singer and songwriter Justin Payne, this no budget project cut in a 100-year-old coal camp house is rough-hewn, scratchy, and sometimes hard to listen to through the production shortcomings. But hiding under all of the coal dust is a soul-bearing, bare-chested, and unfettered account of one man’s dreams and demons more than worthy of listening in on.
When I use the term “Outlaw” to describe Justin Payne, I mean the Merriam-Webster version, the Waylon Jennings circa 1974 version, with the half time bass beat holding everything together and the Telecaster phase guitar turned high. This album is Outlaw in every sense of the classic terminology, but it’s not just tone, bravado, and style like the stereotypical Waylon or Paycheck interpretation of Outlaw. This album has the Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark legacy of the Outlaw era in it too with intense, weighty songwriting lurking within these tracks, and a troubadour’s heart hiding beneath Payne’s brambly exterior.
When it comes to the songwriting on No Place Lower Than High, Justin Payne measures high on all gradients. Vulnerable, honest, insightful, and personal, Payne aims right for the heart and sinks his lyrical dagger true. Justin doesn’t undertake in character generation on this album. This isn’t a work of folklore or fiction. Payne’s narratives are ripped right out of his own experiences in those Boone County hills, and the truth behind the words of these songs is what makes them so gripping.
What holds No Place Lower Than High back is simply the way it sounds in certain places. Though in the same regard, the style is one of the album’s strengths. Foggy, slightly muted, unmastered, and employing some very strange tones in places, especially in the drums that sound at times electronic (whether they are or not), this is the unfortunate assessment that will probably keep certain listeners at arm’s length. But generally, Justin has the arrangements and even the tones and styles spot on; it’s just the production level leaves a layer of film on the project that passive music fans might not be able to listen through. Conversely this haziness is also what makes the album sound classic and cool, and there’s a lot of accidental genius and endearing simplicity in the way this album was cut and glued together. A song like “The Fall” came out perfect, and would be criminal to tinker with.
Strip away all the music, and simply on paper this album has so many great compositions. “The Man I Should Be,” “The Fall,” “Life Is A Country Song,” “Papers,” “Sunday Song”—they just keep coming. The only song that seems unfortunate to have made the cut is “Your Kind.” Destined to be taken the wrong way by certain listeners, it falls into more of the stereotype of what one might expect from this album, instead of what one actually gets from the other nine songs. It’s just very divisive in its tone, where the rest of No Place Lower Than High barrels you over with the unexpected poetry and wisdom.
Justin Payne is no crooner, but similar to the production of the album, you root for him, and he surprises you with his vocal adroitness, and sense of timing and dynamics, making the most of his given attributes and authentic drawl.
It wouldn’t be fair to not dock No Place Lower Than High for the flaws of the project illuminated above, but you get the sense with this inaugural album that there is something very strong here, something extremely promising that just needs a little polishing, while at the same time, taking great care not to compromise what makes Justin Payne so cool and authentic, and greatly enjoying what he’s already done with this album.
No Place Lower Than High is a superb underground gem sifted out of a mess of coal rubble, in an era when such discoveries seem much too far between.
1 3/4 of 2 Guns Up.
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When perusing the bereft landscape of mainstream country music and searching for a female performer with some substance and an independent spirit who could possibly still raise a blip at the highest levels, Sunny Sweeney is one of the first names to come to mind. It’s not too hard to envision the Texas native making a splash in the mainstream because she has done it before. In 2010, her single “From A Table Away” made it all the way to #10 on the Billboard charts—a feat for any woman in this particular country music climate. Of course it helped that Sweeney had Scott Borchetta’s Big Machine Records behind her at that time. Sweeney was one of the very first Big Machine signees along with Taylor Swift, and when Borchetta opened up the Republic Nashville imprint, Sweeney was the label’s inaugural artist.
These days the particulars of Sunny Sweeney’s business dealings are much different. Her latest album Provoked was released through Thirty Tigers—the same independent, champion-of-the-little-guy distributor that artists like Sturgill Simpson and Jason Isbell use. But Sweeney’s sound still remains very much steeped in that space that can find consensus amongst both mainstream fans, and traditional/independent fans from leanings that are traditional, expressive, yet still accessible to the wide ear.
Just like Miranda Lambert and Kacey Musggraves, Sunny Sweeney is an east Texas girl at her core, and no matter what Nashville does, it’s never possible to completely quiet those jangling spurs or smooth out that accent. Sweeney though, compared to Miranda and Kacey for example, seems to have held onto her decidedly Texas style even more so over the years. She very much fits that mold of the Texas country artist that got big enough to be recognized by Music Row, but always felt just a little too authentic to do much more than experience that world from the outside looking in.
At the same time, Sunny Sweeney also has some quickly-identifiable fingerprints of the industry in her sound. Sometimes it feels like instead of hearing three chords and the truth, you’re hearing three professional songwriters and a hook. It might still be a hook that is hard to escape the appeal of, but the formulas and tropes find their way into the female side of country music too, and there’s a few of those overt moments on Provoked. The album’s two beginning tracks—”You Don’t Know Your Husband” and “Bad Girl Phase”—strike at that female answer to Bro-Country vein in portraying the sassy, non-behaving female quite directly.
“Front Row Seats” is a sensational track on this album, superbly written and pointed in its message, but it still plays very much to this Kacey Musgraves anti-conformist formula that the success of “Merry ‘Go Round” has given rise to. A song like “Sunday Dress” shows that when it comes to the women in country, ‘mama’ is the female version of the men’s ‘tailgate,’ and disobeying her wisdom is expected on an album at least a few times. From another perspective though, many of these trends and tropes are hot right now, and Sunny’s contributions overall are just a little more thoughtful, and little more developed, and a little more country than most of her country peers who’ve seen mainstream success.
Sweeney also strikes out on some limbs, and in moments let’s her traditional influences shine through unapologetically. The gem of this album might be the swing-timed “Find Me.” It is so aching, so brilliant in the way it builds tension both in the story and sonically until Sunny has swept you up in a wave of emotions. Like all but two of the songs on Provoked, “Find Me” is co-written by Sweeney, and feels like a very personal expression. The only true cover on the album is Randy Weeks’ “Can’t Let Go” which has been done many times by many artists, maybe most notably by Lucinda Williams, but Sweeney really nails her version, with the song seeming to be custom-made to fit her Southern twang, and the half-time beat highlighting the chorus being the perfect call in the arrangement.
“My Bed” with Will Hoge is another Provoked highlight, and is a good example of how Sweeney also translates well into the more progressive, Americana-style of production that a few of the album’s tracks veer toward. And though the sassy, non-behaving female formula was decried above, the final track on the album, “Everybody Else Can Kiss My Ass” is just too damn fun, the lyrics too good, and the steel guitar too hot to give it anything less than two guns up.
Sunny Sweeney has a very sweet, very alluring natural tone to her voice, but it has always felt like she stops her phrasing a little too short, as evidenced on Provoked in the song “Second Guessing.”
In the end it is not Sunny Sweeney’s super heartbreaking sentimentality, or her high caliber songwriting that makes her stand out in the crowd. It is her practical, pragmatic, bridge-building approach to country music for all that stays true to her nature that has you rooting for her no matter what the color of your country music stripes.
1 1/2 of 2 guns up.
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