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How to stay fiercely and authentically in touch with the roots of country music, yet do something that still feels fresh here some 60-plus years after the country genre was formed is the challenge that faces every band or artist that doesn’t simply want to be like a museum piece, or a live juke box rehashing country classics, and that would never have the wherewithal or disposition to run with the young bucks trying to capture mainstream popularity by running away from what country music once was. So many artists think that being country is only about extending your drawl or overdubbing steel guitar and miss that the spirit of the music is about original self-expression.
This is what The Ben Davenport Band understand, and approached their debut album Slow Start with, distributed trough Lone Star Records in 2013. It’s been a while since I’ve heard such great texture and diversity in a record that still clings tightly to its country roots. But one question that I had when I was cueing this album up and thumbing through the liner notes was, “Who is Ben Davenport?” Looking at the credits and listening to the music, the heart of the band seems to revolve around singer and songwriter Jim Yoss. No Ben Davenport is to be found.
“I spent 13 years working on the railroad as a trackman and living the life that went along with it out on the road,” Jim Yoss explains. “I would introduce myself to the ladies with names out of songs—Willie Lee, John Lee Pettimore—kind of as a joke but also to prevent my death from the hands of my now ex-wife. (I can laugh about it now, she’s still pretty sore about it. hah)
“One night in February ’05 I was staying at my friend’s place in Northern Ohio drinking Jack Daniels and eating a week old bowl of chili. We were watching Season 1 of The Dukes Of Hazzard and there was a scene where Cooter Davenport (Ben Jones) rode his motorcycle through the front door of The Boar’s Nest. My friend paused it and said ‘Ben Davenport, that’s your new name!’ So I stumbled to the bathroom, rehearsed it a couple times in the mirror and agreed. Chad was a great drummer and we said that when we’d start a band [we would] call it ‘The Ben Davenport Band.’
“That day never came. Chad was killed in an accident the day after Memorial Day that year. My son and I were the last ones from home to see him and give him a hug and tell him we loved him and we’d see him soon. I’ve had people tell me to change the name because it’s confusing. I told those people to kiss my ass.”
Ben Davenport’s album Slow Start feels like a victory. Reflecting back on a lifetime of memories, accomplishments, failures, and the fortunes and lessons that come with both, it is a self-critique and cathartic, fiercely personal, and an album you can tell Jim Yoss made for himself, be damned if anyone else likes it; a bookend on his life exposing vulnerability, toughness, honesty, and frailty—an album he had to make so the next chapter in his life could begin.
The opening track “Hell of a Day” refers heavily to a Southern rock influence, and features deft guitar work by Ben Davenport’s Josh Serrato who helps to set the tone of the band’s sound and also helped produce the album. The first song also features a soaring chorus with two part harmonies tastefully arranged, and a theme throughout Slow Start is going the extra mile to give each song the little bit of extra love and attention that it calls for.
Straight up country is what you get with the second song, “Ain’t Lovin’ Me;” a classic cheating song that in that authentic country spirit can speak to the heart of the cheater and and cheated in the same breath. What Slow Start does that so many other albums fail at is keeping you completely engaged in the music by being bold; keeping you on your toes for what is coming next.
One gem of Slow Start is “Don’t Know,” a total gear shift from the first few songs, tugging at the heart strings with piano, and haunting, multi-layered female vocals, and exquisite mandolin by Wesley Holtsford. This is followed by a stripped-down “Ball Drop” featuring just Jim Yoss and his guitar, exposing the songwriter’s skillful evocation of soul divested from any need of accompaniment.
As soon as you try to pigeonhole The Ben Davenport Band as hard-edged country rockers, they shake it up, and deliver something completely unexpected. This album has a poem on it, “My Ode to Billy Joe” (Shaver). Jim Yoss is no Shel Silverstein, but the plain-spoken approach and honest sentiment captured on the track make it one of the album’s standouts. “Ol’ Ghost of You” despite the dower story is a surprisingly bright-sounding arrangement with a free-spirited mandolin weaving and darting between verses. The album concludes with a song written and performed by a man named Russell Patterson; an oldtimer that once taught Ryan Bingham slide guitar, and played with Bingham for a few years.
Slow Start scores the highest of marks on production, arrangement, and originality. Some may find Jim Yoss’s vocals a little too rich and wish his inflections could be a little more understated, but it is the strength of composition and the overall production value of this album that suck you end and delineate it from the herd, while the diversity of content delivers something for everyone across a wide swath of country sensibilities.
This is a good one.
1 3/4 of 2 guns up.
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Today is the release of 90-year-old blues legend T-Model Ford’s latest album Taledragger, recorded with blues band GravelRoad. You can get from Amazon for only $5.99, and download the first track “Same Old Train” for FREE (Review from ninebullets.net).
Even though T Model is solidly blues, like so many other roots-based independent artists, he has turned to the same underground resources that many independent country acts use to get their music to the people. This has formed the big tent movement that can be seen in things like the Muddy Roots Festival lineup where you have country and blues musicians booked side by side, and nobody bats an eyelash.
And to be a master of the obvious, T-Model happens to be black. The topic of race has come up around here quite often, from the hubub over country rapper Colt Ford, to the talk of the two music super-genres (hip hop and country) that dominate the music culture and split right down racial lines.
Some call the blending of traditionally white and black music in the mainstream creative, and strain to find similarities in the histories of country and rap to fit flimsy premises that we’re all just brothers of different mothers and all music when broken down to origin is ostensibly the same. If someone can blend two unrelated genres of music in a tasteful manner that is still respectful to the roots, then more power to them. But I think people like Colt Ford and Jason Aldean do it because they find it financially lucrative. Yes, there are similarities in all genres, but instead of looking at genres or racial styles of music as something that needs to be destroyed to create harmony, or as a way to create mass appeal, I’d rather celebrate the diversity in music and keep the differences stark and pure to keep the musical spectrum healthy.
One of the things I am most proud of about the current underground country/roots insurgency is the diversity, with genres and sex, and race as well. There are African American artists that use the same music infrastructure, have the same managers, labels, etc. as the country bands we discuss here. This is just a few, but they illustrate the diversity that the broad roots insurgency boasts.
I also plan to highlight the few times when the mixing of country and rap has worked in the future.
The Carolina Chocolate Drops
They could be mistaken as just a black bluegrass band, but The Drops go back even farther to when the genres of American music were still forming. Jazz, blues, and old-time string music worked in concert with each other much more fluidly, and this is what makes The Drops music so appealing and authentic. Let’s not forget, the banjo originated in Africa. Their manager is Dolpf Ramseur, who also manages The Avett Brothers. They have a great album out called Genuine Negro Jig that’s a good one that I hope to have a review up for soon, but listen to them talk about the music and their approach–an authentic appreciation for the music that is uncompromising to the influences of industry-based image:
Black Joe Lewis & The Honeybears
What REAL and neo-traditionalist country bands are doing for the roots of country music is what Black Joe Lewis is doing for the Blues/Jazz/Soul mix that was so great in the 60′s and 70′s, and has died a slow death at the hands of mainstream hip-hop. Black Joe is on Lost Highway Records, the same label as Hayes Carll and Ryan Bingham. When I saw him at South By Southwest last year, he played the same showcase as Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers and Slim Cessna’s Auto Club. Definitely worth checking out:
T Model Ford
Booked by the Bucket City Agency that also books acts like The .357 String Band, Joe Buck, Rachel Brooke, and many more, and a performer at the Deep Blues Festivals that helped codify elements of the independent country movement and blend them with the muddy blues resurgence, T Model Ford is an ancestor to us all. 90 years of hard living? Meh. Recent stroke? Meh. He’s still out there on the road kicking people’s asses on a nightly basis.
(Ryan Bingham’s new album Junky Star is on sale for a limited time through Amazon for $3.99. CLICK HERE.)
Hey Ryan, it’s me, Country Music. I’ve been hearing some interesting things lately, about how you’re eager to dispel that your music is country. This puts me in a weird position, because I’m used to people using my name to call things “country” that are not. But I heard your first two albums, and though I wouldn’t say they are solidly country projects, without question there some country there, more country than most that fly my flag. And how about that Oscar, for a country song in a movie about a country star? Do you really think its that perplexing that some people think your music is country? It can’t be nearly as perplexing as some of your moves lately, including this one.
I mean what’s going on here Ryan, I thought we were buds? What, are you ashamed of me? Is it a sore subject with all of your new friends out in LA? If this is about you being ashamed that country has been overrun by pop then say so, but you didn’t seem so quick to distance from country when you were living in Texas and using traditional country infrastructure to make a name for yourself.
I mean, didn’t Lone Star Music help fund your first two self-releases? Didn’t your appearance on the BBC’s Bob Harris Country help you get your name out there? How about you playing on the COUNTRY Throwdown tour this summer, with Hank Jr., Jamey Johnson, Eric Church, etc.? Didn’t you spend years on the bull riding circuit? It doesn’t get more country than that!
If you want to burn bridges, well hell man, don’t let me stand in your way, in fact I’ll light the torch myself! But I don’t want to see a Waylon Jennings album or a pearl snap shirt near your new hatless, Hollywood Heights scene, and don’t come crying back to me if Marc Ford and the rest of your LA good time buddies leave you high and dry. No country concept albums, no “reconnecting with your roots” projects in the future. You don’t want to be known as country, then fine. ITS OVER!!!
Have fun stroking your Oscar.
Over a year ago I reported that the Warped Tour’s Kevin Lyman was planning a country tour and in preparation of doing so he was relegating the country music fan to a “40%” statistic, singing the praises of Taylor Swift, and opening an office in Nashville to snort cocaine off of hooker’s bellies with Music Row’s major label execs.
Well now this thing is up and running, and it took even more of a sinister turn when they decided to give this tour a “new Outlaws” flavor by bringing along acts like Eric Church and giving it an emblem that is a mild ripoff of my own. I was hoping to catch the Dallas leg of this, to point and laugh and see the few decent acts that had slipped on the bill, but now the Dallas date has been canceled, along with shows in Houston, San Diego, and Phoenix due to lagging ticket sales. Huh.
Meanwhile the smelly, dirty, foul mouthed degenerate grandson of Hank Williams just crashed the pretty faced pop party at the top of the country charts, ranking #4 in country, and #20 in all of music, selling 17,000 copies of Rebel Within.
It seems the tables have turned, at least in this instance. Hank III is able to chart with virtually no support from radio or media, but with a solid grass roots network and following. Meanwhile Warped Country is canceling dates because they can’t find enough sheep in Chinese-made straw cowboy hats from Wal-Mart to support their bloated infrastructure and overextended budget pushing bad music. (Ryan Bingham maybe being an exception.)
Some day country music will see that us bitchy folks in the underground are their best friends, showing them truly how to farm talent, and how to navigate through the current revolution in digital technology that has ensnared the music business. Or wait, is it really digital music ensnaring Nashville, or is it the grass roots rising up?
“You can grow when you rip your roots out of the ground.”
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