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One of the most remarkable music events of 2012 must be how Nashville and some of its biggest, most bloated and notorious corporate citizens did the inexplicable: they began to tackle the issue of the massive talent glut in American roots music. As big record labels continue to tighten their ships, and radio companies like Clear Channel continue to buy up radio stations all around the country and nationalize programming, the ability for America’s major media companies to offer true choices in content continues to diminish. And when it comes to radio, the issue is likely effecting rural areas and country listeners disproportionately.
T Bone Burnett, renown music producer and the music director for ABC’s new television drama Nashville spelled out the problem in October, right before the Nashville series started.
Because the bottleneck of commercial country radio is so profound, there’s a wealth of incredible material laying around town. This is a big surprise to me, how many extraordinary songs we’ve been able to find. An industrial amount of bad songs, to be sure, but a surprising amount of really good, handcrafted, personal songs that people are willing to share with us because there’s no longer a platform for them to share their music at all. I hope that we become the platform for the people who are writing from their whole hearts.
And that is exactly what the Nashville show has become, pushing independent music from artists as varying as The Civil Wars, Lindi Ortega, and Shovels & Rope. In a recent article in The Tennessean, musician and writer Peter Cooper asked about Nashville, “How come the country music in a soap opera, sung by actors, is better than what I hear on mainstream country radio?”
When talking about Nashville, I often have to explain that I don’t “like” the show, and don’t even recommend people watch it. But that’s different from understanding the importance and power of an outlet like Nashville, and how its opening up tremendous opportunities for some independent artists.
And who owns ABC? Disney does, the largest media conglomerate in the world. Who is helping fund Nashville? Ryman Hospitality (previously Gaylord Entertainment), which owns The Grand Ole Opry and has been notorious for ignoring aging and emerging talent over the last few years.
And not to be outdone, another subsidiary of a massive media conglomerate based in Nashville, Viacom’s CMT, has figured out how to get on the independent music bandwagon by launching their new outlet with an emphasis on the legendary and the unknown, CMT Edge. 6 months ago, it would have been unfathomable to see an artist like Rachel Brooke featured on anything related to CMT. Now CMT Edge is digging deep, and doing what they can to shine a bigger light on music from the Americana world to aging greats.
Sony ATV, Nashville’s biggest music publisher, just announced a new program called Nashville Guitars and Bars meant to showcase budding talent coming up in the singer/songwriter ranks.
All of a sudden the big boys in the media business are playing a part in re-populating the country and roots music farm system that for years has been anemic and ignored. Why?
Because as I and others have asserted for years, there is commercial viability in independent music. No, of course it is not as financially lucrative as artists like Tim McGraw or Toby Keith, but that doesn’t mean that companies cannot create revenue by either helping to manufacture this music, or promote it or cover it. And as time goes on and the ranks of listeners disenfranchised with corporate music and its inherent lack of choice continues to grow, the trends favor independent music becoming even more popular in the coming years.
There is money in independent music, no matter how much independent fans might want to grovel over its monetization. Fans and artists have a right to be speculative of the intentions of some of these Nashville institutions wanting a piece of the action, seeing how their closed doors and derelict attitudes towards artistic expression and creative freedom is part of the reason an independent movement in music exists in the first place.
For years people have thought of Nashville as the home of corporate music, and that’s still true. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a rapidly-growing independent scene on Nashville’s east side and in other spots around the city. The word from many of the folks on the inside looking out is that Nashville has long surpassed Austin as the epicenter for independent roots music, despite Music City still being the home of Music Row and many other trappings of the mainstream music business.
I was as speculative as anyone about the intentions and viability of outlets like ABC’s Nashville or CMT Edge, and will probably continue to keep one suspicious eye turned in their direction. But for now, they appear to be working from a sincere approach of broadening musical perspectives and choices.
I’ve always said that all that independent, up-and-coming artists need is a chance. You put the good stuff right next to the stuff people are force fed through Clear Channel radio and they will begin to make better choices. Finally here in 2012, those choices are being made available through mainstream outlets, and the glut of viable artists and credible content pushing at the edges of Nashville like a balloon ready to burst is finally being alleviated by new outlets channeling real music to hungry ears. Without question more needs to be done, but this is a good start.
Less than a week away from the release of one of the most controversial projects in country music in years, The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams, the man Sony ATV put in charge of the project is dealing with plagiarism claims for some paintings in his “Asia Series” on display right now at the Gagosian Gallery in New York.
To clarify, the plagiarism claims have nothing to do with the unfinished Hank Williams songs that are part of the Lost Notebooks project, at least directly. However they do raise even more questions of why a man, outside of the Williams family, and outside of the country genre, who is notorious for being flighty and manipulative of the media, and using controversy to sensationalize interest was put in charge of such a sensitive project.
The plagiarism claims are primarily centered around a few Dylan paintings that look like exact copycats of mid-century photographs taken by famous photographers in Asia. As can be seen in this New York Times article on the controversy and in the image to the right, the similarities are undeniable. As Dylan blogger Michal Gray points out while exposing the copycat paintings:
The most striking thing is that Dylan has not merely used a photograph to inspire a painting: he has taken the photographer’s shot composition and copied it exactly. He hasn’t painted the group from any kind of different angle, or changed what he puts along the top edge, or either side edge, or the bottom edge of the picture. He’s replicated everything as closely as possible. That may be a (very self-enriching) game he’s playing with his followers, but it’s not a very imaginative approach to painting.
Though the rules governing visual art and music are very different, the parallels between Hank Williams’ unfinished songs and paintings have been made since the inception of the project. “I just felt like it was someone being handed half of a Picasso painting,” is what Hank Williams’ granddaughter Holly said in the EPK for the Lost Notebooks.
Bob Dylan is possibly the greatest living American songwriter, and possibly the greatest American songwriter of all time. But his propensity to use controversy, or to be mired in controversy unknowingly, raises even more questions on the eve of a release that is mired with questions and controversy already. And Bob’s involvement in the Lost Notebooks is not just exclusive to contributing one song and selecting the other contributors. The project is being released by his Egyptian Records, not Time-Life like so many of the other recent Hank Sr. releases, or on an imprint of the rights holders, Sony ATV.
So far Dylan has not commented at all on the plagiarism claims.
Next Tuesday, the Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams, a project pairing Bob Dylan and a list of other popular artists together with unfinished Hank Williams songs, will be released to the public. The project has raised grave concerns in certain circles of country music from people questioning the ethics of taking a dead man’s songs and finishing them, especially when the dead man carries the songwriting and historical weight of Hank Williams. An organization called Stop The Desecration of Hank Williams Songs is planning protests at the Country Music Hall of Fame on Oct. 1st, and again on the release date of Oct. 4th.
What has baffled me from the beginning is with the anticipated controversy this project would stir, why information about its workings and origins have been so difficult to obtain. It was made even worse by an article in The Morton Report, which included easily refutable information.
Saving Country Music has submitted numerous emails, made phone calls, and personally visited the Country Music Hall of Fame trying to get more information about the Lost Notebooks to no avail. The Hall is a partner in the project, as it is being released in conjunction with their ‘Family Tradition: The Williams Family Legacy’ exhibit. However The Hall is not the originator of the project, and neither is Bob Dylan. The one thing we have received more clarity on since the formal announcement of the album release is the chain of custody of the songs. The idea for the Lost Notebooks project and many of the decisions made for it were done by the owners of the songs, music publisher Sony ATV, who ferried these songs through numerous changes and adventures, from the original owners, Hank Sr.’s publisher Acuff-Rose.
Another entity that has been spared a lot of the controversy, but certainly had a part in the project is Hank Sr.’s estate. We do finally know that the estate endorsed the idea at some point, because Hank Williams Jr. appears in the EPK for the album (see bottom of article). As Hank’s grandson Hank3, who was not asked to participate in the project, said in a recent Saving Country Music interview:
The fans are very upset, and I guess I’ll just let them do my speaking for me. Because I can’t go and say something against Bob Dylan. That’s just not right man. I’d say maybe they need to scope out Hank Jr. a little more…
Something else we’ve learned from a recent New York Times article on the project is that both Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young were approached to be a part of it, and declined. We still do not know what happened to a Willie Nelson song that was part of the project, that Jack White’s spoke about when we very first heard about the Lost Notebooks back in 2007. It also states in the NY Times that Dylan initially called the task “too mighty.” And one of the biggest questions that remains is what happened between the recording of these songs in 2007, and their release in late 2011. That significant hole in the timeline leaves a lot to the imagination of why it took 4 years for the Lost Notebooks to see the light of day.
Completely putting aside the ethics questions for the project itself, I have drafted a list of 10 simple questions about the specifics of the Lost Notebooks that I think country music consumers have a right to be answered before they decide to purchase it.
- – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - -
- A story published by The Morton Report on August 4th asserts that the idea for the Lost Notebooks project was hatched in March of 2008, months after we know many of the songs for the project were already recorded. When, generally or specifically, in years or months or days, was it decided that the Lost Notebooks project would move ahead, and with Bob Dylan?
- Was the Lost Notebooks project always meant to be in conjunction with the Country Music Hall of Fame’s ‘Family Tradition’ exhibit?
- If the Lost Notebooks project was meant to be released in conjunction with the ‘Family Tradition’ exhibit, either initially or eventually, then why is it not being released until over 1 1/2 years after the exhibit was initially scheduled to end in December of 2009? Why are the songs being released so long after being recorded?
- Were there any lawsuits brought against any entity involved in the Lost Notebooks project? And if so, for what?
- When and/or how was the Hank Williams estate involved in the project?
- Why were neither Hank Williams Jr. or Hank Williams III involved in the recording of the project? Was Hank Jr. asked to contribute to a song?
- Willie Nelson was initially named as contributing a song to the project by Jack White in late 2007. What happened to Willie Nelson’s contribution?
- How many, in total, unfinished Hank Williams songs are there, from how many different primary sources?
- Since there are more unfinished songs than are included in this project, are there plans to do more volumes?
- The liner notes for the Lost Notebooks project state that two of the four lost notebooks were taken from a locked vault. They state: “A police investigation was launched, and ultimately Sony regained possession of the notebooks and the handwritten songs.” But in March of 2007, a judge dropped all charges against Stephen M. Shutts and Francine Boykin for theft of the songs. How then were the two notebooks re-obtained by Sony ATV?
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