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Saving Country Music was out and about Austin, TX and its outskirts over the past week or so as part of the annual South By Southwest (SXSW) gathering, pounding the pavement and looking for the next country music artist worthy of your ears that you may never otherwise hear about. In the coming months I look forward to taking some of these discoveries and sharing them with you. But in the meantime to tide you over, here are some pictures from last week’s festivities taken mostly by Charlie Ekstrom of Almost Out of Gas.
You can also read an in-depth account of our SXSW doings and see more pictures on Rhythms Magazine.
Founding member of Old Crow Medicine Show & amazing traditional country & folk artist. In Willie Nelson’s Luck, TX chapel.
Willie Nelson’s long-time harmonica player. At Luck, TX.
Hurray For The Riff Raff
Alynda Lee Segarra from New Orleans. Fast-rising star on ATO Records with a primitive, Appalachian sound. In the chapel in Willie Nelson’s Luck, TX
Son of Willie. He did this three times in a row at one point, after playing the guitar with his teeth. At Luck, TX.
Brooklyn-based 7-piece rebellious country band that hosted the Brooklyn Country Cantina showcase for the 6th year. Singers Bug Jennings from Ft. Worth and Erin Bru share a rambunctious moment. On East 6th Street.
Nashville-based sincere, storytelling songwriter. Freebird Showcase in the St. Vincent de Paul Thrift Store parking lot.
The Cactus Blossoms
A genuine throwback to the days of close harmonies and a classic sound, indicative of the Louvin and Everly Brothers. At the Brooklyn Country Cantina showcase, East 6th Street.
Sam Doores of The Deslondes
Definitely a band to watch. Stripped-down, traditional country sound in a busking style from New Orleans. From the Freebird Showcase in the St. Vincent de Paul Thrift Store parking lot.
Unique, offbeat country whose Dan Auerbach-produced album All or Nothin’ is coming out on New West Records May 6th. At Luck, TX.
JD Wilkes & The Dirt Daubers
The former Legendary Shack Shakers frontman has taken what used to be a very primitive, acoustic jug band, and made into an original Dirt Daubers/Shack Shakers hybrid which has become the best of both worlds. At Brooklyn Country Cantina, East 6th Street.
Shovels & Rope
Now one of the hottest bands in roots music, they give hope to all the other dirty, stripped-down bands of the roots world. One of the headliners on the main stage in Willie’s Luck, TX.
Southern rock revivalists featuring excellent songwriting. Their last album was produced by Jason Isbell. In the Luck, TX chapel.
With the best shot I or anyone else could get with a contraband camera at this official showcase in the St. David’s Cathedral on 7th St. in downtown Austin. His last song landed him a standing ovation.
Oh you poor little non-SXSW goers, you’re social network feeds are about to get positively inundated with South By Southwest information, riddling your psyche with scores of free music events you’re unfortunately missing out on, resulting in an experience for you somewhere between the teasings of a cruel temptress, and Chinese water torture.
So in the spirit of wanting to bridge the SXSW haves and have not’s, here’s a list of artists that all happen to be attending SXSW (and their appointed set times), but are worthy of being checked out more in-depth even if you can’t make it down to Austin, TX to get raped for parking and sit in lines for 7 hours a day.
Saving Country Music’s reigning Artist of the Year, this country music savior has a hot new album out in High Top Mountain, and another one on the way called Metamordern Sounds in Country Music out May 13th, and might be the most worthy up-and-coming country music personality to see at SXSW 2014. Sturgill Simpson is so good, even if you consider yourself more of an Americana or roots fan, he’s still worth checking out.
- Sat. 15th 7PM, St David’s Historic Sanctuary, 304 E 7th St.
If anyone is showing up to SXSW with tons of positive momentum behind him, it would be Shakey. It probably helps that he cut his teeth in Austin, playing regularly at places like The White Horse and Hole in the Wall. He’s now reportedly transitioning from a solo act to a full band sound, and whether you get Shakey solo or Shakey 2.0, he’s certainly worth rerouting your SXSW itinerary to catch.
- MONDAY, 3/10: 10:00pm – Spider House Ballroom (2906 Fruth St) – Mother Falcon’s All The Friends Ball
- TUESDAY, 3/11: 6:30pm – KLRU Studio 6A (2504-B Whitis Ave) – Premiere screening of PBS documentary on Shakey Graves “Not Alone” + live performance
- WEDNESDAY, 3/12: 1:00pm – Cedar St. Courtyard (208 W. 4th St) – FILTER/Lagunitas Party
- THURSDAY, 3/13: 12:50pm – Weather Up (1808 E. Cesar Chavez) – Billy Reid Showcase
4:00pm – Licha’s Cantina (1306 E. 6th St) – Audiotree Showcase
7:25pm – Heartbreaker Banquet at Willie Nelson’s Luck, TX Ranch
- FRIDAY, 3/14: 12:30pm – Spotify House (901 E. 6th St)
5:05pm – The 512 (408 East 6th St) – Colorado Music Party
1:00am – The Gatsby (708 E. 6th St) – Pandora / Americana Music Association Showcase (official SXSW)
- SATURDAY, 3/15: 11:00pm – Holy Mountain Backyard (617 E. 7th St.) – New Frontier Touring Showcase (official SXSW)
The school teacher by day turned music savant by night will be plying his craft at SXSW on the heels of being featured on NPR and CMT, and ahead of an appearance at Pickathon and many other festivals this summer. This high-energy and enigmatic solo performer is spiraling up the music world staircase with songs that resonate deeply with fans from all across the roots music landscape.
- Mon. 10th, 8:00 PM, Hotel Vegas, 1500 East 6th Street
- Wed. 12th, 5:30 PM, ABGB, 1305 West Oltorf Street
- Fri. 14th, 11:30 PM, Austin Moose Lodge XSXSW 7 2103 E M Franklin Ave.
Hurray for the Riff Raff
Hurry for the Riff Raff is Alynda Lee Segarra, and sometimes other accompanying musicians, who evoke the musical traditions of Appalachia with a newer, Americana approach mixed in. Critically acclaimed and a favorite of her musical peers and fans of songwriting and traditional music alike, she just released her latest album Small Town Heroes and will be one of the rising roots stars attending SXSW in 2014. Gillian Welch for a new generation.
- Wed. 12th, Mello Johnny’s, 2:00 PM
- Wed. 12th, Weather Up, 1808 E Cesar Chavez St., 5:50 PM
- Fri. 14th, Hotel San Jose, 4:00 PM
- Fri. 14th, The Gatsby, 10:00 PM
This former and founding member of Old Crow Medicine Show is now out to make his own name as a solo folk singer, and will be attending SXSW ahead of the release of his David Rawlings-produced debut album Folk Singer, Vol. 1 out May 6th that features standard and obscure roots songs. Those who’ve followed string bands for a while will recognize the name, and most lovers of sincere music soon will with the way Willie Watson engages crowds and weaves his craft.
- Wed. 12th, 11:00 PM, St. David’s Episcopal Church, 301 E. 8th St.
- Thur. 13th, Heartbreaker Banquet, Luck, TX.
The former Turnpike Troubadour who surprised everyone in 2012 when his debut album From The Ground Up was nominated for a Grammy, John Fullbright is one of Americana’s brightest future stars and a top shelf songwriter to boot. And as you can see from his SXSW schedule, he’s willing to put the sweat equity into career. We all pray that the traffic sea parts for you often this week, John.
- 3/11 – The Oklahoma Showcase @ The Buffalo Lounge (set time: 1:00am)
- 3/12 – Thirty Tigers Showcase @ St. David’s Historic Sanctuary (set time: 12:00am)
- 3/13 – Heartbreaker Banquet’s Chapel Stage @ Willie Nelson’s Ranch in Luck, TX (set time: 4:15pm)
- 3/14 – Live Vibe Presents The Listening Room @ Winflo (set time: 1:15pm)
- 3/14 – Sin City Social Club SXSW Bash @ St. Vincent’s (set time: 4:00pm)
- 3/14 – Hill Country Live SXSW Showcase @ Saxon Pub (set time: 10:30pm)
- 3/15 – Twangfest Party @ Broken Spoke (set time: 2:30pm)
- 3/15 – Folk Alliance Showecase @ Threadgills (set time: 5:00pm)
- 3/16 – Music City Texas Showcase @ G&S Lounge (set time: 6:30pm)
One of the strangest projects you can probably partake in at SXSW that would still fall within the big tent of the “country” world, but also one of the coolest and most creative, is steel guitar player Spencer Cullum Jr.’s Steelism band. You may recognize Spencer, as well as Steelism guitar player Jeremy Fetzer from Caitlin Rose’s band. Essex-native Spencer Cullum has also played with Jonny Fritz, and many others from the current east Nashville scene. Others you may see fleshing out the Steelism lineup at any given time are Mike Rinne, Matt Rowland, Jon Radford, and Andrew Combs. Who said the steel guitar was dead?
- Wed. 12th, 11:00 PM, Tap Room at The Market, 311 Colorado St
- Fri. 14th, 8:00 PM, Shotguns, 503 East 6th St.
Texas native and current Nashvillian Robert Ellis is certainly a candidate to take that critical acclaim baton from Jason Isbell and run with it as an artist who seems to effortlessly deliver songs with cutting emotional moments in an awe-inspiring display of deft creativity. His much-anticipated new album Lights From The Chemical Plant is full of those instances that give you shivers from their bold illustration of wit and self awareness.
- Wed. 12th, 7:00 PM, Paste Party @ Swan Dive, 615 Red River Street
- Thur. 13th, 5:20 PM, Weather Up, 1808 E Cesar Chavez St.
- Thur. 13th 7:00 PM, Threadgills, 301 West Riverside Drive
- Thur. 13th 8:00 PM, Red 7, 611 E 7th St
- Fri. 14th, 5:00 PM, Hotel San Jose, 1316 S Congress Ave
Artists that just released albums seem to flock to SXSW light moths to the lamp, and such is the case for Bloodshot Record’s cowpunk princess Lydia Loveless that has many singing her praises after the release of her latest album Somewhere Else. Lydia Loveless isn’t just empowered, she’s uninhibited. Subtly and coyness are shades she rarely paints in. Instead she opens her mouth and the truth comes out unfettered, refreshingly honest, and many times, R-rated, revealing her sinful tendencies and struggles with self-admitted inadequacies that sometimes veer her towards self-destructive behavior.
- Tue. 11th, 8:00 PM, Hole In The Wall
- Wed. 12th, 10:00 PM, The Continental Club
- Fri. 14th, Yard Dog Art Gallery
- Thur. 13th, Noon, The Broken Spoke
- Thur 13th. 2:00 PM, Swan Dive
- Thur 13th, 6:30 PM, Hole In The Wall
With a gift for poetry like Townes Van Zandt, and a penchant for the whimsical, progressive approach to bluegrass akin to John Hartford, Robbie Fulks isn’t your typical up-and-coming SXSW attendee, but a wily veteran coming back for the action. His recent album Gone Away Backward from Bloodshot Records was a Saving Country Music Album of the Year candidate in 2013.
- Wed. 12th, 9:00 PM, The Continental Club
- Thur. 13th, 4:00 PM, The Broken Spoke
- Fri. 14th, Yard Dog Art Gallery
- Sat. 15th, 2:00 PM, Brooklyn Country Party @ Licha’s Cantina
When word first came down that a country music magazine was on its way from the same publishers of Classic Rock Magazine in the UK, and that the publication was planning to feature country music greats like Johnny Cash and Buddy Emmons, right beside up-and-comers like Sturgill Simpson and Austin Lucas, it almost seemed too good to be true. The hunger for a viable print magazine that isn’t just a puppet on Nashville’s Music Row has been needing to happen for years, and of course it took an outfit offshore to make it a reality.
The first issue of Country Music Magazine did not disappoint, and made good on their promise to deliver high quality content to the scores of country music fans who want to read about past greats and future hopefuls while not completely ignoring the mainstream names worth a listen. Now they have released their second issue as they settle into their quarterly cycle, and the 2nd verse is as sweet as the 1st.
On the cover is the one and only Dolly Parton who departed The States about a month ago to trek off the international portion of her tour ahead of the release of her new album Blue Smoke. Speaking of country music greats, the issues also features Buck Owens, Jimmy Webb, Spade Cooley, Ricky Skaggs, and others. It also features a rundown of the pioneers of country guitar, hand picked by The Reverend Horton Heat, and a Marty Stuart-penned feature on Jerry Lee Lewis.
As far as cool, up-and-coming artists go, Country Music Magazine #2 features Lindi Ortega, Jason Eady, The Tillers, Possessed by Paul James, Samantha Crain, and Shovels & Rope just to name a few. Once again the issue includes dozens of album reviews, other artists features, touches on Americana music with artists like Slaid Cleaves and Rosanne Cash, and doesn’t forgo the mainstream with features on The Band Perry and Chris Young.
Country Music Magazine is also a multimedia experience, featuring a 12-song CD with music from the Turnpike Troubadours, Lindi Ortega, Possessed by Paul James, and many more. They have also launched a two-hour radio show as part o the magazine that broadcasts live on Sundays and is archived at teamrockradio.com.
Country Music Magazine is somewhat pricey for us stateside, but you get a full few months worth of reading, great suggestions on artists and albums, and free music. It can be found at most Barnes & Noble bookstores and other newsstands, or can be ordered online. And who knows, you may see some content from some of your favorite writers too ;).
Lone Star Music, the Texas music cornerstone that has such good taste and cool vibes that appreciation for it’s unique approach of putting the music first spreads well past the Texas border, has just announced the nominees for their 6th Annual Lone Star Music Awards, and I’ll be damned if it doesn’t hit the sweet spot in showcasing many of the artists that are helping to save country music.
The Lone Star Music Awards will be held at The Marc in San Marcos, TX on Sunday, April 27th and will feature performances from many of the nominees and many others. Last year Saving Country Music was in attendance, and can vouch that a good time was had by all.
If you want to vote for your favorite nominees, you can do so once per email address. Voting ends March 31st.
ALBUM OF THE YEAR
- Jason Boland & The Straggers – Dark & Dirty Mile
- Jason Isbell – Southeastern
- Kacey Musgraves – Same Trailer Different Park
- Randy Rogers Band – Trouble
- Shinyribs – Gulf Coast Museum
- Slaid Cleaves – Still Fighting The War
- William Clark Green – Rose Queen
COUNTRY ALBUM OF THE YEAR
- Bruce Robison & Kelly Willis – Cheater’s Game
- Chris King – 1983
- Jason Boland & The Stragglers – Dark & Dirty Mile
- Kacey Musgraves – Same Trailer Different Park
- Kyle Park – Beggin’ For More
- Sturgill Simpson – High Top Mountain
- Zane Williams – Overnight Success
AMERICANA/ROOTS-ROCK ALBUM OF THE YEAR
- Jason Isbell – Southeastern
- Quaker City Night Hawks – Honcho
- Reckless Kelly – Long Night Moon
- Shinyribs – Gulf Coast Museum
- Sons Of Fathers – Burning Days
- Thieving Birds – Gold Coast
- William Clark Green – Rose Queen
SINGER-SONGWRITER/FOLK ALBUM OF THE YEAR
- Amanda Shires – Down Fell The Doves
- Drew Kennedy – Wide Listener
- Guy Clark – My Favorite Picture Of You
- Owen Temple – Stories They Tell
- Patty Griffin – American Kid
- Slaid Cleaves – Still Fighting The War
- Terry Allen – Bottom Of The World
SONG OF THE YEAR
- Jason Isbell – Elephant
- Mando Saenz – Pocket Change
- Randy Rogers Band – Fuzzy
- Slaid Cleaves – Texas Love Song
- Will Callers – House Of Falling Cards
- Will Hoge – Strong
- William Clark Green – She Likes The Beatles
LIVE ACT OF THE YEAR
- American Aquarium
- Lincoln Durham
- Randy Rogers Band
- Reckless Kelly
- Turnpike Troubadours
- Uncle Lucius
MALE VOCALIST OF THE YEAR
- Ace Crayton – Thieving Birds
- Cody Canada
- Jason Isbell
- Kevin Russell – Shinyribs
- Slaid Cleaves
- Stewart Mann – Statesboro Revue
- William Clark Green
FEMALE VOCALIST OF THE YEAR
- Amanda Shires
- Bri Bagwell
- Courtney Patton
- Kacey Musgraves
- Kelly Willis
- Kylie Rae Harris
- Patty Griffin
EMERGING ARTIST OF THE YEAR
- Chris King
- Courtney Patton
- Quaker City Night Hawks
- Sons Of Fathers
- Thieving Birds
- Will Callers
SONGWRITER OF THE YEAR
- Guy Clark
- Jason Isbell
- Owen Temple
- Patty Griffin
- Sam Baker
- Will Hoge
- William Clark Green
MUSICIAN OF THE YEAR
- Brady Black – Randy Rogers Band
- Brandy Zdan
- Bukka Allen – Terry Allen
- Cody Braun – Reckless Kelly
- Lincoln Durham
- Lloyd Maines – Terry Allen, Various Projects
- Roger Ray – Jason Boland & The Stragglers
PRODUCER OF THE YEAR
- Adam Odor – Britt Lloyd, Johnny Chops
- Dave Cobb – Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson
- Erik Herbst – Rusty Brothers, Sam Riggs, Thieving Birds
- George Reiff – Band Of Heathens, Brandy Zdan, Lincoln Durham, Shinyribs
- John Ross Silva – Chris King, Courtney Patton
- Lloyd Maines – Slaid Cleaves, Sons Of Fathers, Terry Allen, Tejas Brothers, Two Tons Of Steel, Wayne Hancock
- Rachel Loy – William Clark Green
ALBUM ARTWORK OF THE YEAR
- Bruce Robison & Kelly Willis – Cheater’s Game
- Cody Canada – Some Old, Some New, Maybe A Cover Or Two
- Reckless Kelly – Long Night Moon
- Statesboro Revue – Ramble On Privilege Creek
- Terry Allen – Bottom Of The World
- Wheeler Brothers – Gold Boots Glitter
- William Clark Green – Rose Queen
FESTIVAL OF THE YEAR
- Americana Jam – New Braunfels, TX
- BigFest – San Marcos, TX
- Greenfest – New Braunfels, TX
- Larry Joe Taylor Music Festival – Stephenville, TX
- Lone Star Jam – Austin, TX
- MusicFest – Steamboat Springs, CO
- Old Settlers – Driftwood, TX
“THE GRUENE HALL AWARD” (VENUE OF THE YEAR)
- Billy Bob’s – Fort Worth, TX
- Blue Light Live – Lubbock, TX
- Cain’s Ballroom – Tulsa, OK
- Cheatham Street Warehouse – San Marcos, TX
- Firehouse Saloon – Houston, TX
- Luckenbach Dancehall – Luckenbach, TX
- Magnolia Motor Lounge – Fort Worth, TX
Announced on paste.com this morning, up-and-coming authentic country performer Sturgill Simpson will release his second solo studio album called Metamodern Sounds In Country Music on May 13th. Born in Kentucky, the former from man of Sunday Valley released his debut album High Top Mountain in 2013 to critical acclaim and was nominated for Saving Country Music’s Album of The Year. Sturgill went on to be named Saving Country Music’s Artist of the Year.
“Myriad worldly offerings—religion, drugs, and more—all claim to be the omnipotent universal truth, but in my experience, love is the only certainty. That is what this record is about,” Simpson tells Paste.
The cover art is contributed by longtime Sturgill Simpson friend Jason Seiler, known for his illustration of Pope Francis for Time Magazine.
As part of the announcement, Sturgill has also released the first single from the album “Living The Dream” (listen below).
Track List for Metamodern Sounds In Country Music:
1.Turtles All the Way Down
2. Life of Sin
3. Living the Dream
5. Long White Line
6. The Promise
7. A Little Light
8. Just Let Go
9. It Ain’t All Flowers
10. Pan Bowl (bonus track)
When it comes to the preservation of the history and sound of country music, you can make the case there is nobody who does it better and with more passion and dedication than Marty Stuart. Tireless and true to his convictions, from his music, to his archive of memorabilia, to his presence on television and the Grand Ole Opry stage, and to some of the thankless things he does well out of the public eye, Marty Stuart embodies everything behind the idea of Saving Country Music, and is a badass of the genre if there ever was one.
- 10 Badass Willie Nelson Moments
- 10 Badass Waylon Jennings Moments
- 10 Badass Johnny Cash Moments
- 10 Badass Merle Haggard Moments
1. Paying His Dues with Johnny Cash & Lester Flatt
Unlike many of the country music prima donnas who’ve set up shop in country music recently, Marty Stuart comes from the school that believes you have to pay your dues in country music before it’s your turn in the spotlight. Marty Stuart started playing professionally as a sideman in Lester Flatt’s bluegrass band in the early 70′s at the tender age of 14 under the tutelage of legendary mandolin player Roland White. Marty stayed with the band until 1978 when it split up because of Lester’s failing health.
After spending a couple of years working with Vassar Clements and Doc Watson, Marty joined Johnny Cash’s band in 1980, and stayed there for half a decade as both a sideman and a studio musician. Stuart also married Cash’s daughter Cindy in 1983. The two divorced five years later after Marty left Cash’s band to pursue a solo career.
2. Keeping One of the Biggest Archives of Country Music Memorabilia
Marty’s vast collection of country music memorabilia is one of the biggest in country music. It has been featured at the Tennessee State Museum, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and pieces are regularly loaned to the Country Music Hall of Fame for exhibits.
“I went to the first Hard Rock and I saw The Beatles, The Stones, Otis Redding, The Who, all their stuff on the wall. And in my mind I went, ‘Well that’s just as important if it’s Porter Wagoner, Hank Williams, George Jones, and who on.’ And so when I came back to America, I made it a mission. I mean it became my whole focus at that time. Get a record deal, start a band, make them look cool, and get all of the country music artifacts you possibly can and preserve them, lock them down, because they’re getting away fast.
“Everything was changing in country music. The look of it, the sound of it, and this stuff was just a throwaway…The ultimate mission is not just to preserve this stuff, protect it, promote it, save it, but to get the music into the hands and hearts of young people that are coming through and [saying), “Well I want to do that, but they tell me I have to be like so and so.” But we’ve already got one of those. Be who you are, at any cost.” (read full story)
3. Inviting Cool Artists Onto The Grand Ole Opry
Playing the Grand Ole Opry stage is one of the biggest thrills and highest honors any artist within the country music realm can be bestowed, but it is not an easy one achieve. One way to grace the stage is to be invited up by a standing member to play during their set, and that is how young, up-and-coming stars like Sturgill Simpson, to one of the oldest living country stars still around, the 90-year-old Don Juan Maddox of The Maddox Brothers & Rose both made their first appearances on the hallowed stage of the storied institution. Marty was also the man who officially invited Old Crow Medicine Show recently to become The Opry’s newest members; the first traditional -leaning band to be invited in the last half decade.
4. Hummingbyrd & The Clarence White Guitar
As explained above, Marty Stuart has many pieces of country music memorabilia, but none of them may be as prized as his guitar affectionately called Hummingbyrd. The 1965 Fender Telecaster was originally owned by famous guitarist Clarence White—a studio musician, member of The Kentucky Colonels, and most-famously, the guitarist for The Byrds (hence the “Y” in the name).
Hummingbyrd is no ordinary guitar. It was the original prototype for what is know as a “B-Bender” guitar—a custom job invented by Clarence White and Byrd drummer Gene Parsons, who happened to also be a machinist. The point of the custom job is to be able to mimic the moaning sounds of a steel guitar by bending the B-string up a whole tone through a series of levers activated by pushing on the guitar’s neck, body, or bridge. When Clarence White passed away, his wife sold the legendary guitar to Marty Stuart, who uses it as his primary instrument.
Included on Marty’s 2010 album Ghost Train: The Studio B Sessions is a instrumental called “Hummingbyrd” where Marty Stuart puts on a clinic on how to use this unique instrument. The song went onto win the Grammy for Best Country Instrumental Performance. Hummingbyrd shows both Marty Stuart’s passion for the preservation of country music’s history, and his prowess as a guitar player matched by few in the genre.
5. Standing Up To CBS / Columbia For Dropping Johnny Cash
A running theme in these 10 Badass Moments has been the firing of Johnny Cash from CBS Records in 1985. Merle Haggard mouthed off to CBS Executive Rick Blackburn about the firing, saying, “You’re the son-of-a-bitch that sat at that desk over there and fired Johnny Cash. Let it go down in history that you’re the dumbest son-of-a-bitch I’ve ever met.”
When Marty Stuart left Johnny Cash’s band, he signed to Columbia (previously CBS), and in 1988 recorded his second album for the label called Let There Be Country. However Columbia refused to release it. Though some have surmised it was because Marty’s first self-titled Columbia album didn’t sell well, in James L. Dickerson’s 2005 book Mojo Triangle, he explains Columbia didn’t release the album because Marty Stuart had a heated exchange with a Columbia record executive about the Johnny Cash firing. Columbia shelved the album in retribution, and Marty eventually left the label without recording another album for them. Marty then signed to MCA where he had his greatest commercial success, and amidst this success, Columbia decided to finally release Let There Be Country in August of 1992.
6. Hosting The Marty Stuart Show
Patterning itself around the classic country music variety shows of the past like The Porter Wagoner Show, Flatt & Scruggs, and Hee Haw, The Marty Stuart Show is one of the last bastions for true, classic country music on television. Carried by RFD-TV, this weekly show features Marty and his Fabulous Superlatives, his wife Connie Smith, and just about the coolest variety of country music artists you can see on TV—artists from the new generation like Justin Townes Earle, Brandy Clark, Sturgill Simpson, Hank3, and The Quebe Sisters, to older artists like Don Maddox, Del McCoury, and Stonewall Jackson, and to artists in between like Jim Lauderdale, and Corb Lund. If they’re good, they appear on The Marty Stuart Show, and after five seasons, it has become its own country music institution, and an important distinction for the artists invited to play the show.
7. Playing with Lester Flatt on the Porter Wagoner Show at 14
Are you kidding me? That’s Marty Stuart folks, playing mandolin and singing!
8. Releasing Badlands: Ballads of the Lakota
Similar to his mentor and hero Johnny Cash who released what was arguably the first country music concept album with his tribute to the American Indian called Bitter Tears in 1964, Marty Stuart released a concept album also in tribute to the American Indian called Badlands: Ballads of the Laokota in 2005. Recorded with his backing band The Fabulous Superlatives, it focused on the struggle of Native Americans, and was entirely written by Stuart except for one song, “Big Foot,” written by Johnny Cash. It was also recorded at the Cash Cabin in Hendersonville, TN, with John Carter Cash as co-producer.
But this album wasn’t just Marty patterning himself after Johnny Cash. Stuart has spent much time in the Dakotas learning about the Lakota Sioux, including studying at the Oglala Lakota College. For Marty, the poor treatment of Native Americans is a very real issue.
9. Marrying Connie Smith
Why would a handsome young Marty Stuart marry a woman 16 years his senior? Well first off, have you seen Connie Smith? Aside from how good time and country music has been to her, she is bona-fide country music royalty and one of the most familiar faces of the Grand Ole Opry. But this isn’t some celebrity sham marriage, the matrimony speaks to Marty’s undying appeal for all things country music and the love between the two country stars is deep. Together, they’re a classic country dynamic duo that is hard to stop (and I have my suspicion at night they dress up as superheroes and do battle with Music Row’s most evil villains).
10. This Quote:
“Today the most outlaw thing you can possibly do in Nashville, Tennessee, is play country music.” –Marty Stuart
Early Morning Shakes is the 3rd record from the Texas music scene’s Southern rock contingent known as Whiskey Myers. No, Whiskey Myers isn’t the name of the front man, just the collective persona of five guys from the greater Palestine, TX area, helmed by singer and principal songwriter Cody Cannon. The band put out their first album in 2008 and have since become one of Southern rock’s most emboldened and energetic torch bearers, tearing it up across the country to packed houses of both country and rock fans.
Coming off the surprising success of their second album, 2011′s Firewater that debuted at #26 on the Billboard country charts, Whiskey Myers saddled up with producer Dave Cobb—the man who was behind three very successful albums in 2013: Sturgill Simpson’s High Top Mountain, Jason Isbell’s Southeastern, and Lindi Ortega’s Tin Star. Cobb’s reputation of bringing a signature touch to music that straddles the line between rock and country made him a perfect fit for the project. The result was many great, original song concepts being fleshed out with smart and tasteful production elements, adept guitar-driven instrumentation, and despite some ostentatious moments, a sincere and fun album that sets the standard high for all Southern rockers in 2014.
Southern rock has been in such a state of flux for years now, it’s hard to know where to place it on the relevancy arch on a given day. Its modes have been somewhat borrowed by mainstream country, yet as rock itself continues to amble directionless, Southern rock is one of the last bastions of pure, electric guitar-based music that’s not blaring metal, or eepish, hipster pretentiousness. Calling yourself “Southern rock” affords you a lot of latitude: You can build a song around a riff and not a lyric and not ruffle any feathers like you might in country, or play a straight up country song and still reside within Southern rock sensibilities. You can even add some soul elements like backup singers as Whiskey Myers does here and separate yourself even further from the increasingly-automated sounds of modern music.
Early Morning Shakes is bold and expansive for a 12-song project. There’s a lot going on in these songs, without any of the compositions coming across as especially busy. Songs like “Early Morning Shakes”, “Where The Sun Don’t Shine”, and “Time Off For Bad Behavior” are each built from a good premise, and fleshed out with excellent guitar work by Cody Tate and John Jeffers. So often these days Southern rock guitar can get wanky and self-absorbed. Whiskey Myers may trend slightly that way in certain places, but overall the band’s guitar battery does a good job of waiting for the battle to come to them, and landing their shots when the time is right and in a manner that showcases both their prowess and their taste.
The band takes some chances on this record, and generally they nail the landings like with the final song “Colloquy” that tries to evoke the emotional epic, and dutifully succeeds. There is depth here beyond the riff-driven nature of the songs, like in “Reckoning” or “Wild Baby Shake Me,” which starts off as a rump shaker, but then develops into so much more.
But the real star of the show are the pipes of Cody Cannon. The guy’s voice is built for Southern rock. Without a hint of fake inflections or put-on’s, he sings effortlessly and straight from the heart, growling and confident when he needs to be, and willing to express emotion and vulnerability when it’s called for.
One small concern would be some of the chest-puffing present on this album in a song like “Headstone.” There are a few of these self-indulgent moments on the album, but these may disappear from the Whiskey Myers repertoire over time, and already seem diminished from their previous albums. The second song on the album called “Hard Row To Hoe” is just way too similar to Zepplin’s “Heartbreaker” to work, which is strange from a project that otherwise is fairly remarkable at avoiding the well-worn ruts and striking an original path.
The crunchy slide guitar, rising steel, and good songwriting of “Dogwood” make it one of the album’s best songs, and one of the album’s decidedly country selections. The sensible “Shelter From The Rain” is another good country-inspired, story-based song worth a deeper listen. Include the aforementioned “Colloquy” and there’s a good amount here for listeners who are country fans first, and Southern rock appreciators second.
With Early Morning Shakes, the now well-seasoned Whiskey Myers crew affirms themselves as one of the preeminent bands in Texas music and beyond.
1 3/4 of 2 guns up.
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Yes ladies and gentlemen, you’re seeing this right. Do not rub your eyes or adjust your monitors. In a wild upset, coming out of left field, and counter to just about every other music outlet’s top rated albums, Saving Country Music’s Album of the Year for 2013 is none other than the masterpiece from The Mavericks, the infectious celebration of the joys of life and music known as In Time.
Go ahead, leave your comments below about how this album is not country.
The Mavericks’ In Time cuts against the grain, and is counterintuitive to all of the well-noted and often-ballyhooed music trends of 2013. 2013 was coined as the “Year of the Woman” in country music by many, and the “Year of the Songwriter” by Saving Country Music and others. In Time doesn’t appreciably reside in either of those distinctions, though I would argue that it’s a much more deft songwriting presentation than it may seem on the surface. And no, it’s not especially country in the traditional sense.
But you reach a point in music where it is so good that no data points, no trends, no narrow-minded ties to genre matter. Music isn’t meant to be over thought as we so often do as active music fans, it is meant to be felt. And the best music simply grips you and allows you to lose yourself in it. In Time reminded this jaded music critic who must toil through reams of albums every day to find something even worthy of writing a few paragraphs about of what it meant to be a music lover all over again.
A masterpiece? I believe so. Singer Raul Malo is the the George Jones and Frank Sinatra of our time all rolled up into one, it’s just our time is gripped by the narrow, short attention span that doesn’t paying proper attention to talent like Raul’s towering vocal gifts that are unparalleled in virtually every corner of music this side of operatic maestros, or the tastefulness of guitar player and harmony singer Eddie Perez, or all of the admirable contributions of The Mavericks’ core and subsidiary players.
The country influences are certainly here, and anyone who asserts otherwise simply isn’t listening through the music to its inner soul. But without question, there are heavy Latin, cajun, surf, rock, and jazz influences here too. In Time is not simply the best album in country music in 2013, it is arguably one of the best, if not the best album in all of American music, and for it not to win the day in it’s home genre of country music would be a silly oversight, and tough to justify as In Time only becomes fortified by the test of time, divested from trend or taste as it is, and embedded with such universal appeal.
In Time by The Mavericks is the one; the only album that left no room for improvement, was both slick and tight, yet alive and breathing from the live aspect of the recording. It looked both forward, and behind. It led, but also paid tribute. It was a gift of music that gave more than any other in 2013, that also promises to continue to give for years to come.
Fans of this album will be the first to cry foul, but I will say what many long-time fans that knew Sturgill before this album will all admit: Sturgill has even more in him than High Top Mountain captures. I say this in an appreciative way as someone who has known Sturgill’s music longer than most. Sturgill has a whole career of albums ahead of him, and may win half a dozen Albums of the Year from Saving Country Music and others before it’s all done. But if an artist could have even done more than a particular album displays, however excellent that album may be, it must be considered when making a choice for Album of the Year. Nonetheless, consider High Top Mountain a very close runner up.
Jason Isbell’s Southeastern should also be considered a very close runner up to In Time. It is an astounding collection of songs, but in the end didn’t carry the weight as a complete album concept the way In Time did in my opinion.
Also interesting to note, I did tally all of the clear and obvious votes from readers for all of the Album of the Year nominees. The Mavericks and In Time beat out Southeastern 20 votes to 19. High Top Mountain got the most with 24, but Saving Country Music is also much more familiar ground for Simpson and Isbell fans. It was interesting to see just how close these three albums came to each other, and it did help influence the outcome.
And lastly I would say, before people scream about how another album should have won, my request is only do so after you have given In Time a chance.
Saving Country Music’s Artist of the Year, just like the Song of the Year and Album of the Year, is designed to eventually resolve down to one. But this is not always the case. For example in 2010 there were two Albums of the Year because with two worthy contenders giving up nothing to each other, it seemed irresponsible to supplant one for the other because of some silly notion that you can only have one. Such is the case here in 2013 when handing out the honor meant to not just highlight the music, but the man or woman behind it.
It was difficult to whittle down this decision even to two. Raul Malo of The Mavericks had one hell of a year. Songwriter and schoolteacher Possessed by Paul James with both a breakout album There Will Be Nights When I’m Lonely and a “Teacher of the Year” nod seemed to embody the balance of both a great person and a great artist that the Artist of the Year distinction is meant to honor. And if there was a runner up to the two men eventually selected, it would be a collection of all the inspiring women in country music in 2013 presented together as a collective Artist of the Year.
In the end though, two individuals in 2013 outshone all others.
Artists of the Year are not just measured against their peers, they are measured against themselves. We’re inspired by artists because they do things that we can’t. At the same time, the best artists inspire us to try to do things that we thought we never could. How many times does an artist’s finest work proceed an era of turmoil and/or redemption in their personal lives, almost to the point where if you start telling too many of the specifics of their success story, it just begins to feel like platitudes? Jason Isbell is the same man he was before 2013′s rousing success, gifted with the same skills as a guitar player and songwriter, influenced by the same legends and works, with the same Muscle Shoals roots intertwining with his fibers to create his unique interpretation of American roots music.
But 2013 is where it all aligned. You could blame his recently-found sobriety. You could blame his manager Traci Thomas and the entire Thirty Tigers organization that is on the cutting edge of the new music business paradigm of giving artist’s world-class support while allowing them to keep control of their music. Or you could blame the love and support of his new wife, Amanda Shires Isbell. But none of these people could write those songs, or deliver them with such feeling. None of them could get sober for Isbell, nor is getting sober the solution for every artist to stumble into the true essence of themselves, or the fortune to be able to share that essence with a wide, appreciative audience. It’s not like Isbell was some slouch to start, or wasn’t graced with attention or accolades in previous years. It just happens to be that when he was able to refine himself as a man, his music followed suit to create one of the most consensus picks for who outshone everyone else in a given year that we have seen in country/Americana music in a long time.
2013 was Jason Isbell’s year, and Southeastern was 2013′s songwriter album that all others will be measured against for very a long time.
The idea that country music needs to be saved is woven into the very fabric of the genre. It’s the reason the Outlaws were able to rise in the 70′s, and deliver country music’s first million-selling album. It’s the reason a song like “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way” can reach #1 in 1975, and a song like “Murder On Music Row” can win the CMA for Song of the Year in 2001.
And within this mythos of country music, and residing in the hearts of millions of despondent country fans is this idea, however fanciful or misguided, that an artist, or a group of artists, could rise up and return sensibility, substance, and the roots of country back to the music. Eric Church once mocked this idea in a song called “Country Music Jesus,” laughing at both the idea that country music needed to be saved, and that we needed some artist to do it.
Did Sturgill Simpson save the country music genre in 2013? Of course not. He didn’t even come close. But what he did do is fulfill that promise that the future of country music will be better than the present for the many true country fans who were fortunate to come in contact with his debut, breakout album High Top Mountain. Sturgill Simpson doesn’t want to save country music, he just wants to play it. He may not even want to call it country music, or care that anyone wants to save country….and that’s one of the reasons that he very well just might.
In some respects, Eric Church, and all the other mainstream artists and fans who say country music must evolve are right. And what Sturgill Simpson proved in 2013 is that country music can evolve, can still feel fresh, invigorated, and renewed, while still paying the highest regard and respects to the roots of the music. But maybe most importantly, and the truth that can bring shivers to all those fans hoping for that one artist that can help turn the country music ship around, is the fact that Sturgill Simpson is only just getting started. A brighter future for country music is what Sturgill Simpson delivered in 2013, and there’s no value or distinction that can repay what that means to the hearts of true country fans.
On Saturday evening (12-21), a writer for Entertainment Weekly named Grady Smith, who recently has become an outspoken advocate for giving independent country musicians equal time, and has been critical about the direction of the male-dominated country music mainstream, posted a video called “Why Country Music Was Awful in 2013“. According to Grady, it was in response to when he posted his 10 Best Country Albums of 2013, naming Jason Isbell, Lindi Ortega, and Sturgill Simpson to the top spots, and readers complained he wasn’t representing the mainstream fairly.
I saw the video from Grady roughly an hour after it was posted, tweeted it out through the official Saving Country Music twitter, and put it as the first item in the News Feed that scrolls off at the top of every page. Nonetheless, as sites both small and large picked up the video and it circulated on social network, I got barraged with messages from anywhere and everywhere wondering if I had seen it. I didn’t respond to any of them, nor did I feel the need to get in on the fun by posting my own dedicated story about the video, because I knew as soon as I saw the video that it would go mega viral and a sense of sheer dread swept over me. Subsequently the video has received nearly 1.5 million views at the time of this post.
Why did a sense of sheer dread sweep over me? Because this is not the type of thing that needs to go viral.
This is not a criticism of Grady Smith. He deserves great credit for making the video, and kudos to him for coming up with the brilliant idea and executing it well. However it took more guts, and deserves more praise for posting his end-of-the-year list on Entertainment Weekly. That is what he should be commended for foremost, and that is what should have gone viral, along with the albums he was recommending with it.
But it didn’t, and they didn’t. Why? Because when you boil it all down, in 2013, the vast majority of people, including many of the people who pride themselves in being active and enlightened country music fans, truly don’t give a shit about “supporting” the music, despite of what they will tell you, or post on social media. This video going viral proves what has been brewing over the last few years, which is that independent country fans, and other country fans otherwise disenfranchised from the mainstream, are many times just as shallow as their mainstream counterparts, finding entertainment in the least common denominator and at the expense of others.
This is the moment when some of you will start laughing, as this statement coming from Saving Country Music is like the pot calling the kettle back. First, I don’t want to diminish whatever effectiveness the video might have at enlightening some folks about the current idiocy of some modern country music. That is why Grady made it; not to entertain the masses that already know this as fact. Grady may have hoped the video would go viral, but rarely do any of us know what button to push to spurn a viral event, or we’d do it on a daily basis.
But why does it take a video like this for a piece of media to go viral? There were many excellent independent country videos this year that great effort was put into that could proselytize the virtues of true music way better than the “Why Country Music Was Awful in 2013″ video. As much as Saving Country Music and other sites might love to make fun of the mainstream, the focus should always be on the positive first. But more and more, album reviews, artist features, song and video premiers, and other such wholesome music coverage is virtually ignored for the latest viral craze.
Saving Country Music, like Entertainment Weekly, posted a lot of end-of-year lists touting recommendations based on this calendar year: a songs list, albums list, video list, etc. But by far the list that got the most attention was are list of the Worst Songs of the Year. That particular list got twice as much traffic as all the other lists combined. It went viral in its own right. Criticism is an important, if not vital part of the spectrum of coverage that ensures a healthy artistic environment. But it can’t be the focus, either by the media, or by the fans. Most of the time, the media does their job. Music journalists got into the business because they love music. But it’s still a business, and they must meet the demands fans are requesting in coverage.
What I’m getting at here is that if similar attention was paid to one video, or one song, or one artist from the top of Grady Smith’s Best Of list instead of this viral video, then today we may be touting Jason Isbell, Lindi Ortega, or Sturgill Simpson straight up busting into the mainstream and making an historic racket for an independent artist, and incidentally, if it was a video or song from one of these artists’ songs, it would have made them a decent amount of money as well. But instead what is the end result of this viral video? We’re all simply assured of what we’d known before about mainstream male music in 2013, while the mainstream fans that listen to this drivel laugh us off as Prius-driving elitists.
And most importantly, I don’t think country music in 2013 was awful, and you don’t have to go any farther than Jason Isbell, Lindi Ortega, or Sturgill Simpson to see why. I think 2013 in country was amazingly positive, inspiringly positive, and I mean that. In the nearly 7 years of running this site, this was the year when I felt a dent was finally made in the pursuit of Saving Country Music.
So I made this video below to illustrate this. Will it go as viral as “Why Country Music Was Awful In 2013″? Of course not. So let’s all as music fans, journalists, advocates, activists, and artists sit back and think about what that really means, and see if in 2014 we can’t make sure to keep our priorities more in focus. I for one vow to.
The modern-day music video is a really strange enterprise. Lots of money is spent by artists, and sometimes labels to produce something special; something that really represents the spirit of a song well. But when you look at what people watch, especially when it comes to independent musicians, many times it’s the fan video captured on a consumer-grade piece of technology that draws the most interest. Meanwhile mainstream music videos, especially from male stars, are the epicenter of country music’s decline.
It was just announced that CMT has picked up a whopping 7 new reality shows for their upcoming season. It looks like the era of quality music videos continues to be in decline. But there are still a few artists, and film/video makers out there committed to the art of music videos, and to doing it right.
10. Kacey Musgraves – “Follow Your Arrow”
Okay I’ll admit it, I wouldn’t like this video half as much if Kacey Musgraves didn’t look so good in blue hot pants.
9. Kenny Chesney Concert PSA
In the aftermath of the massive mess and 73 arrests at the Kenny Chesney / Eric Church concert June 22nd at Pittsburgh’s Heinz Field, resulting in shocking photos at the amount of litter left by fans, benstonium.com posted this hilarious parody of the crying Indian PSA. Don’t ask what a “Yinzer” is.
8. Caitlin Rose – “Only A Clown”
Caitlin Rose is one of the few artists that has a nose for the offbeat, engaging video. Last year’s “Piledriver Waltz” video was a standout as well.
“The video for ‘Only a Clown’ is executed with great vision by Michael Carter, resurrecting the VHS format for texture and capturing the thin line between fun and forlornness that accompanies the freedom of the 20-something existence.” (read full review)
7. Sturgill Simpson - “Sturgill Simpson – “You Can Have The Crown / Some Days” (Live at Sun King Brewery)
What scripted videos usually lack is that ability to capture a magical moment in time where it all “clicks” and you get the shivers that only a live experience can afford. This two-song video from the Sun King Brewery has a few of them.
6. Sturgill Simpson – “Railroad of Sin”
“Sturgill threatens to take the high-flying act international by boarding a puddle jumper and puttering over to the Land of the Rising Sun to record the video for his heart-pounding, hot plate, house on fire, country as hell, soon to be hit single ‘Railroad of Sin.’ ‘Godzillabilly’ is what’s he’s patterning the theme, as the Kentucky native and Nashville resident takes a high arching swan dive deep into culture shock.
Johnny Cash may have not been born in Nagasaki, and bullet trains may not be equipped with lonesome whistles, but the Orient is where Hank Jr. picked up his official nickname for Waylon Jennings: ‘Watashin!’ which means, ‘old #1′ and you’d be hard pressed to find a more modern resemblance to Waymore than one Sturgill Simpson. So keep clear of the closing doors, strap in tight, and get ready to speed away on Sturgill Simpson’s ‘Railroad of Sin.’” (read full review)
5. Jason Isbell – “Elephant” Live at SiriusXM Outlaw Country
Capturing the true emotion and inspiration behind a song is what we all want from a video. Yet it so often becomes elusive by the superfluous additions in the production of a full-blown music video. Sometimes all you need is just the man and a guitar.
4. Fred Eaglesmith – “Johnny Cash”
This video stimulated a little controversy when it was released in March. Is Eaglesmith being too harsh, too judgmental? Maybe, but it’s hard to argue that he made one hell of a video.
“When the prevailing image of Johnny Cash in culture is one of him flipping the bird, the argument can be made that it’s the wholesale reduction of a man of such towering accomplishments and time-tested faith. At some point the imagery and cult-of-celebrity of Johnny Cash trumped the man himself, and society lost sight of his greatest contribution: his noble and charitable spirit.” (read full review)
3. Lindi Ortega – “Tin Star”
This video of Lindi’s Song of the Year Nominee “Tin Star” captures the spirit and theme of her emotionally-drenched foray into the realities that many independent-minded musicians face so well.
2. Matt Woods – “Deadman’s Blues”
The point of any video is to get you to pay attention to an artist and their song. One of the problems with many videos is they take an artist’s song and try to interpret too literally, eroding the mystery from the song, robbing it of its ability to mean different things to different people. The video for “Deadman’s Blues” is quite literal, but done so well and with such heart, it bucks this trend. Though I put “I’ll Sing About Mine” a step ahead, it really is #1 and #1A with these two videos. They represent really listening to the songs and then interpreting their messages in the visual format.
1. Josh Abbott Band – “I’ll Sing About Mine”
“The best part about Josh Abbott’s “I’ll Sing About Mine” video is the faces of the people. I’ll guaran-damn-tee you all of these people are real folks from real places. What’s even better is these scenes they’re in are the same scenes you see in pop country videos–the back of pickup trucks, out on the farm, on a tractor or 4-wheeler, at a football game. But the scenes are 100% real. These people are so ragingly authentic and their faces tell such gripping stories, you want to take every single one of them and put them in your pocket so you can feel the honest, simple goodness in their souls all day long. If a picture is worth 1,000 words, then a face is worth a million.” (read full review)
About this time of year virtually every magazine, website, and blog is bombarding their readership with end-of-year lists of which artists they feel are worthy of the highest praise for their 2013 effort. The whole practice has become a little nauseating for the consumer as the redundancy on many lists and the sheer number of them being pushed through social media erode the underlying concept of the lists: to help listeners break through the din of an overpopulated music landscape to discover the best stuff. Then there’s the ethics questions if music should be approached as competition at all. Ultimately the reason there are so many lists is because they are effective and appealing in helping listeners determine what to listen to.
Included on many, if not virtually all of those 2013 lists, especially in the independent country and Americana realms is the latest effort by former Drive By Trucker turned solo artist Jason Isbell called Southeastern. Seen as the current watermark of his career and a captivating songwriting effort capturing a clear-eyed, post-rehab Isbell at his apex, Southeastern is one of those rare consensus builders amongst critics as one of the year’s best.
Nipping at the heels on some lists, and overtaking Southeastern on others is the debut album High Top Mountain from former Sunday Valley frontman, Kentucky’s Sturgill Simpson. A much more country effort compared to Isbell, but just as bold of a songwriting project, Simpson has many people labeling him as a country music savior, and the artist they have been waiting years for to emerge in the independent country scene.
And not to be outdone is the dark Canadian singing-songwriting vixen Lindi Ortega, and her tantalizing album Tin Star that has also found its way at or near the top of many 2013 lists; an album highlighting her rising voice and remarkable gift for story and composition.
Though the sound of these three respective albums is fairly disparate, their influences are certainly not the same, the artists are from different locales, and the genres they represent are varied shades of the country music theme, they all have one thing in common: a virtually unnoticed and rarely heralded behind-the-scenes producer named Dave Cobb.
Just as the prevalence of year-end lists has grown in recent years, so too it seems has the trend of performing artists getting into the producer game, and big, franchise name producers like T Bone Burnett being heralded more and more for their producer services. Not that someone like Jack White or even Justin Townes Earle can’t make a great producer, or that T Bone Burnett is some kind of slouch. But for some projects, it becomes more about the name on the back of the album in the fine print instead of the name on the front. A producer’s name can be used as a marketing tool, and to create interest from fans and media venues. “The new album produced by the same producer of The Civil Wars!” “The T Bone Burnett-produced debut album, produced by T Bone Burnett!”
The best producers are usually the ones who prefer to remain subordinate to the artists they work with. Similarly, the best producers don’t come in and mold an album to their sound, but help the artists they work with develop their own. Producers aren’t supposed to be noticed. Critics may sometimes mention a producer’s name and how they may have influenced a certain project, but everyday fans just know when they like an album or not. Noticing the production of an album is like noticing an offensive lineman in a football game. It’s rarely a good thing. The focus should be on the music itself.
But that doesn’t mean producers shouldn’t be heralded or receive credit, especially when they’ve had a banner year like Dave Cobb’s 2013. Cobb has enjoyed some other successful albums, and good years in the past too. Similar to how Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, and Lindi Ortega have become critical darlings in 2013, Jamey Johnson’s last two original albums that graced the top of many end-of-year lists, That Lonesome Song and The Guitar Song, both featured Dave Cobb at the helm. The Secret Sisters’ self-titled breakout album was also produced by Cobb, and so were Shooter Jennings’ first four records. And his list of producer credits goes on and on from there.
But you would never know all of this unless you went poking around, looking for producer credits and connecting the dots. Dave Cobb is not out to perpetuate his cult of personality through his producership role. He’s just looking to make good music. And in 2013, he certainly did.
When you sit down to assemble a list of candidates for Song of the Year, you almost start to tremble in the face of so much creativity, inspiration, and insight, and grow humbled by how fortunate we are to live in such a bountiful time for music. Candidates for Song of the Year can’t just be songs we enjoy, they are songs that make you change the way you see the world, or change the way you see yourself.
Honorable mentions go to just about any song on John Moreland‘s Album of the Year candidate In The Throes. There were a few on the Brennen Leigh & Noel McKay‘s Before The World Was Made that nearly made it. Hank3‘s “Broken Boogie” was on the bubble, and would have made it in a year with a less-crowded field, and so would songs from some of 2013′s breakout female songwriters like Ashley Monroe, Caitlin Rose, Valerie June, and Brandy Clark, whose “Stripes” could have very well made it if the candidates were extended beyond the already hefty field of 10.
Audience participation is strongly encouraged, and will influence the outcome. Leave your opinions, write-in candidates, or other observations or opinions below in the comments section. This is not simply an up and down vote though. I make the final decision, so it is your job to convince me why the album you feel deserves to win is the right pick.
Josh Abbott Band – “I’ll Sing About Mine” from Small Town Family Dream
Written by Adam Hood and Brian Keane, “I’ll Sing About Mine” appears on 2012′s Small Town Family Dream, but was released as a single with a new video in early 2013. It was 2013′s first strong Song of the Year candidate, and very well may be the best.
“The great thing about “I’ll Sing About Mine” is the non-judgmental, even-keeled manner with which it delivers its message. It takes a lot of patience and a lot of heart to say what this song says without flying off the handle or flipping birds. It makes its point with as few pointed words as possible… It understands that really, few words need to be said, because deep down every human knows what’s real and what isn’t. They just have to be reminded, and then the momentum of the truth will do the rest.” (read full review)
Matt Woods – “Deadman’s Blues”
There are so many artists, so many songs and albums out there today, for any individual artist to stand out, they darn near have to stand on their head and turn somersaults to get our attention. It’s sad but true, but that’s what Matt Woods does with “Deadman’s Blues.”
“We ask a lot of our independent country and roots artists. We want them to release new music early and often, even though it stings them in the pocketbook to record. We want them to play our stupid town, even though it is way out of their way and the turnout will be light. We want them to perform in small, intimate venues, even though it’s not financially feasible for trying to take care of themselves, or God forbid, raise a family. We don’t want them to be too successful, lest their music loses its pain and soul. We don’t want them to age. We want them to see all the places, and do all the things we can’t, and maintain a party-filled lifestyle so we can then live vicariously though them as our own legs grow roots and our lives prosper from stability.” (read full review)
Wade Bowen – “Songs About Trucks”
Written by Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally, “Songs About Trucks” is 2013′s most cunning protest song. But it’s a protest song that offers a little something more.
“Once again a member of the Texas music scene has delivered a song that gives voice and reason to how the rest of us feel. Wade Bowen’s “Trucks” aims its big, diamond-plated bumper at the incessant references to tailgates and four wheel drives in modern pop country songs and slams on the gas. At the same time, it practices what it preaches, making sure to instill some story and soul into the song along the way, instead of just being a vehicle for protest.” (read full review)
Lindi Ortega – “Tin Star” from Tin Star
Lindi Ortega can melt your heart and make you feel the pain of a song like few others, and the beauty of “Tin Star” is the personal nature of the narrative, and how Lindi delivers it’s humble message with such loving care. She coddles this song like one would a malnourished kitten that shows up on your doorstep, or and old pair of scuffed and dusty boots found at a thrift store that she then nurses back to health and vitality, polishes and buffs up to shine to present to the world proudly.
“It’s admittedly hard to hold on to your objectivity when this raven from the Great White North rises in song and such a wave of emotion and beauty grips you that your rationality is sent reeling and all your senses are completely submerged and made submissive to her sway. Lindi Ortega is a creature of the darkness. She highlights the beauty in the world not by shining a light on it, but painting the rest black until the beauty is all that is left. She cherishes life by celebrating death. She makes you feel joy by bringing you to tears. She is the antithesis to an obvious, transparent world, all freshly fallen snow and onyx—biting, contrasting, revitalizing the attention to life and its many dark beauties simply by her presence.” (read full review of the album Tin Star)
Charlie Robison – “Monte Carlo” – from High Life
I’m nominating “Monte Carlo” here officially, but it has a companion song “Out Of These Blues” that is also on High Life and that pairs with it so perfectly, and is also written by Robison’s sister Robyn Ludwick. If someone asked me to play them an example of quintessential Texas country music, these would be the songs I would choose. Texas country masterpieces.
“Can’t say enough about these tracks, the excellence in songwriting they achieve, and Charlie’s ability to interpret their stories perfectly through song. They’re both very similar, and different all the same in the way they convey a feeling of forlornness, but still are imbibed with such a warm sense of memory that a sad story leaves you filled with a happy feeling. The way the chorus of ‘Monte Carlo’ strings you out for so long, hanging in the bubbly moments only the best music can attain, you wish this song could go on forever, and it’s so good it probably could.” (read full review of High Life)
Austin Lucas – “Alone In Memphis” from Stay Reckless
Austin Lucas proves he’s worth the label as one of 2013′s breakout artists with this lead single from his New West debut, Stay Reckless.
“Whether electric or acoustic, Austin only knows one way to perform a song: with 100% passion, until the song’s inspiration manifests right there on stage and coats every word. Even if you hate the lyrics, or can’t connect to the story of ‘Alone In Memphis,’ it is written perfectly to pull the emotion right out of Austin every time and spill it out amongst the audience in a moment of shared reflection and commiseration on one of the most fundamental failings of the human condition—our inability to feel stable without the company of another.
“Great songwriters know how to write to their strengths, and that is what Austin does in ‘Alone in Memphis.’” (read full review)
Sturgill Simpson – “Life Ain’t Fair and the World Is Mean” from High Top Mountain
Due to a technicality in Saving Country Music’s vast and complex bylaws, even though this song was considered for Song of the Year in 2012, since it was released on an album this year, it qualifies to be considered again.
“The magic of “Life Ain’t Fair” is the way it trivializes all the issues it raises by simply pointing out the obvious: that life’s unfairness is inherent, and complaining about it or using it as an excuse to not pursue your dreams is foolish. It’s cynical and inspirational all at the same time, and that feat of acrobatics can’t be performed without some acute dexterity and prowess with the pen.” (read full review)
JB Beverley – “Disappear On Down The Line” from Stripped to the Root
It’s a shame that the best songs tend to come from the deepest despair, creating the paradoxical, and sometimes self-destructive existence that many of the most talented and storied songwriters live. As JB Beverley says about “Disappear On Down The Line”:
“I was in my home, totally isolated and alone, my woman had left, I’d buried my friends, and all the proverbial voices of doubt and chaos, and all this negative stuff was fueling my mind at the time. I use the parable that the demons were dragging me down. Granted, there weren’t literally ghouls in the room tugging me through the floorboards, but as far as the emotional, spiritual, and mental direst and in some instances torment I was under, it was very real.” (read full interview)
Holly Williams – “Drinkin’” – from The Highway
This is one of those songs every other songwriter beats themselves up for not writing. Beautifully complex in its simplicity, both enigmatically deep and pleasantly colloquial, Holly Williams proves the Williams’ bloodline is still virile with an unconventional tune with universal impact on the weary soul yearning for respite. Where has Holly Williams been? She may have taken the roundabout way to finding herself, but she’s here now, and our ears couldn’t be happier.
“Where Holly Williams’ career and releases left her neither here nor there before, now she has found her voice, has found her place, and that place is amongst the talented women doing what they can to return the greater country music world to a place of substance.” (read full review for The Highway)
Jason Isbell – “Elephant” from Southeastern
Trying to pick one song from Jason Isbell’s album Southeastern to represent on this list is like asking a rainbow its favorite color. So if you think another song is more worthy, you’re opinion is probably warranted, so just put your chips on “Elephant” in its stead.
“‘Elephant’ is just downright unfair. Though this trend of token Cancer songs dotting nearly every country album released in the past few years is alarming, Isbell’s offering is far from a saccharine and sappy vie for radio play. It is a complete deconstruction and compromising of the emotional guards protecting a listener’s heart told in shockingly-real language, allowing the chemicals of empathetic response to run pure.” (read full review of Southeastern)
2013 has been self-proclaimed by Saving Country Music as the “Year of the Songwriter,” and this list of candidates for SCM’s Album of the Year reflect that dynamic of an elevated bar of songwriting excellence that these 8 artists have set. There is no arbitrary number of slots for candidates for this award. Nominees are chosen only if they have a legitimate chance of winning, whether that number is 2 or 12, and as we start the process of deciding who will win, the field is wide open.
One album you will not see on this list, but one that is at the very top of my personal list is Possessed by Paul James‘s There Will Be Nights When I’m Lonely. But since I had a small hand in the making of that album, I have recused it from consideration here, and from all of the end-of-year accolades. But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be considered in yours.
Lindi Ortega‘s Tin Star, and Austin Lucas‘s Stay Reckless are both valiant efforts that very easily could have made this list of candidates if it was stretched out a little farther, but something tells me you might see these names on the Best Songs list coming up shortly. Jayke Orvis‘s Bless This Mess, Valerie June‘s Pushin Against A Stone, and Eric Strickland‘s I’m Bad For You were also right on the bubble, and so was The White Buffalo‘s Shadows, Greys, and Evil Ways, and you will see these albums and many more on the much more expansive “Essential Albums” list that is coming up shortly. So if you don’t see an album you love, don’t freak out, it still may be up for an end-of-year distinction yet.
Audience participation is strongly encouraged, and will influence the outcome. Leave your opinions, write-in candidates, or other observations or opinions below in the comments section. This is not simply an up and down vote though. I make the final decision, so it is your job to convince me why the album you feel deserves to win is the right pick.
Caitlin Rose – The Stand-In
2013 is the Year of the Woman, and the Year of the Songwriter in country music, and this puts one Caitlin Rose right in the sweet spot of the relevancy arch. What elevates The Stand-In to “Album of the Year” status is that her songwriting deftly avoids all the well-worn grooves and modes that many songwriters tend to lean on when looking for ideas and inspiration. Also, whether The Stand-In wins or not, this is the most well-produced album of 2013. The production squeezes every bit of potential out of every song just as classic albums like The Beatles Rubber Soul and Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors do.
“Ladies and gentlemen, Caitlin Rose has arrived. It may take some time for the rest of the world to wake up to this realization. But they will. The strength of ‘The Stand-In’ assures it. The Stand-In is frighteningly good. It’s an enterprise in the evocation of rich human emotions, interwoven with delicious hooks and intelligent riffs, stirring vocal performances delivering meaningful, elevated lyricism, and a towering production performance that may go down in the history books. Just simply… Wow.” (read full review)
Sturgill Simpson – High Top Mountain
As far as a Country album with a capital ‘C’, Sturgill Simpson takes the crown hands down with High Top Mountain. No frills, no gimmicks, just straight down the middle honest to goodness country music. High Top Mountain is fair to consider a front runner, but the field is heavy this year on the fringes of the country genre, and Sturgill will have to fend off stiff competition if he is to win. And despite how great High Top Mountain is, the case can be made that Simpson still has some upside potential.
“Real country fans are just going to have to get comfortable with the new reality that their favorite music is on a surprising uptick. No more mopey faces, no more plotting midnight graffiti runs to Music Row as retribution for keeping your favorite artists down. Regardless of what kind of filth is still transpiring on country radio, a new spring of vibrant, independent country music is blooming and finding surprising support, and there may not be a better example of this new season than Kentucky native Sturgill Simpson and his breakout album ‘High Top Mountain.’” (read full review)
The Mavericks – In Time
When talking about sheer enjoyment one can get from an album, The Mavericks and In Time take the cake in 2013. I mean this album has you dancing around your living room or doing the Latin shake while you’re behind the wheel like nothing else. Is it a country album? That’s up for debate, but The Mavericks and Raul Malo are certainly more country than what you hear on country radio these days, and deserve to be considered as strong contenders here. Every day you do not have this album in your life is a day you’re missing out on that much more enjoyment. This is the Album of the Year if you throw out considerations of genre.
“Take the West Coast country coolness of Dwight Yoakam, the haunting tremolo of Roy Orbison, the sweaty rhythms of Los Lobos, and what you get is Miami’s indescribable and enigmatic throwback old-school all-things-to-all-people house band for America known as The Mavericks. They’re like some strange Central American fruit you purchase in South Texas that once you cut open the rind a bounty of greatness starts gushing out. Its taste is both exotic and warmly familiar, and its supple membranes are revitalizing to both the body and spirit.” (read full review)
Brent Amaker & The Rodeo – Year of the Dragon
Who and the who, and the year of what? That’s right, this dark horse nominee from the Pacific Northwest rides smack dab into the middle of this distinguished company from the sheer creative brilliance and sonic innovation Year of the Dragon displays. Every year there is an album that pushes boundaries and sets a precedent for the progression of the genre in a manner that still respects its roots, and this bold project with a futuristic scope and vibe leads the pack in 2013. Brent Amaker & The Rodeo are no anomaly. They could win this thing.
“If someone asked me to pony up an example of how in 30 years from now when we all have jet packs and flying cars, how country music could still respect and represent its roots, but still offer a relevant sound, I would hand them over a copy of ‘Year of the Dragon.’ It strikes that always-elusive balance between substance and wide-ranging appeal. Though the appeal will be hidden from some for the aforementioned reasons (monotone lyrics and similar rhythms between songs), once you delve beneath the surface, this album offers succulent melodies and catchy moments that make it downright addicting beyond the intellectual appeal of the artistry and lyricism.” (read full review)
John Moreland – In The Throes
I’ll be honest with you, this is the one candidate that I am not 100% on. Though John Moreland’s songwriting effort here is world class and easily competes with any other album listed here, to be an SCM Album of the Year winner, you must bring a complete package, and the production and recording effort with this album leaves room for improvement. It is one thing if you’re going for the lo-fi vibe, but John Moreland’s songs are too good to bring anything less than a superlative effort to recording them for release out into the big scary world. At the same time, out of respect for Moreland’s world-class songwriting, and so many people who put this album on the top of their 2013 lists, it’s being included it here, and who says I can’t be convinced that despite whatever warts, it still deserves to win from the caliber of Moreland’s songwriting performance.
“If John Moreland was a boxer, he’d be a bruiser, a punnisher. No fancy footwork, no bobbing and weaving here. Every single line John Moreland throws out is like a lyrical haymaker meant to score an empathic knockout punch right between the eyes. Even the most emotionally-fraught songwriters tend to give you a short breath somewhere from the morose moments, but not Moreland. He is relentless in how he unburdens his soul without any worry of exposing his vulnerabilities, or how the emotional fortitude of the listener will handle such despondency delivered with such honesty.” (read full review)
Jason Isbell – Southeastern
To become a Saving Country Music Album of the Year, you effort must be at a career-caliber level, and that’s what we get from Jason Isbell and Southeastern. This is the album, and 2013 is the year that Isbell emerged to have an impact well beyond the in-the-know crowd of Americana to become a voice of leadership in re-instilling substance and tireless attention to the craft of songwriting into the wider music world. Jason Isbell has arrived, and revealed himself as one of our generation’s legacy songwriters and performers.
“On ‘Southeastern’ Isbell goes right for the gut with an elegiac knife, thrusting and stabbing in a morose and unrelenting ritual of emotional evocation. Southeastern is downright suffocating in spots in its weight. It is bold, and merciless in how in preys on the faint-of heart, and can make a faint-of-heart out of even the most devout Stoics. Completely unfair Isbell, completely unfair. And selfish too. You should have saved some of these songs for others.” (read full review)
Robbie Fulks – Gone Away Backward
In a nominee field with a few dark horses, Robbie Fulks’ Gone Away Backward might be the album worth characterizing as the most criminally-underrated record in all of 2013. Because of the humble, non-commercial nature of this guy, he will never get the recognition his legacy of wisdom through songwriting should afford him. A true treasure of our time, this traditional country record with an epic songwriting effort is a must-have.
“With a gift for poetry like Townes Van Zandt, and a penchant for the whimsical, progressive approach to bluegrass akin to John Hartford, Robbie Fulks releases a stunningly entertaining, brilliantly-balanced, deep, yet instantly-engaging comeback album called Gone Away Backward through longtime associates Bloodshot Records. Steeped in the roots of bluegrass and old time, this sparse, acoustic-only album offers a traditional sound that is brought up to modern-day relevancy by the staggeringly-cunning use of wit in Robbie’s verses. This is one of those albums you can cull a litany of quotes from, while not giving anything away sonically. Buoyed by one amazing line after another, songs like “I’ll Trade You Money For Wine” and “Where I Fell” speak right to the heart of folks who take their music like medication.” (read full review)
Brandy Clark – 12 Stories
In a year of inspiring success stories, Brandy Clark’s might be the biggest. A pure songwriter who strikes the perfect balance between appeal and substance, Brandy Clark’s breakout album 12 Stories tells the tale of how in 2013, women and songwriters are leading the charge to save country music.
“The hidden dystopia seething under the smile of sweet suburban life, and the general dysfunction plaguing any and all affairs of the heart is the broken-minded madness that Brandy taps into with this album, following fed up and frustrated fraus who are willing to medicate themselves and match the misdeeds of their men sin for glorious sin. Frail, turbulent, vengeful, but still somehow empowered and held together by the strength and perseverance of womanhood, the heroins of Brandy Clark’s 12 Stories are as inspiring as they are shameful, and tragic as they are real.” (read full review)
For years the top tier of country music coverage was simply a cloistered and closed-minded exercise in recycling the same already-established names in puff pieces proselytizing the virtues of pop country and very little else. As independent music as a whole continues to gain market share from the mainstream, it’s becoming more and more pertinent for big news outlets to pay attention to the rising tide of independent music, and the renewed interest in legends of the genre. CMT created CMT Edge to cover Americana, bluegrass, legacy artists and other independent acts, and other outlets have stepped up their independent coverage in one capacity or another. But that one mainstream outlet that really gives equal footing to artists regardless if they have the big money of a major label behind them has remained elusive…at least in country music’s traditional stomping ground of the United States.
Once again the Europeans out class their cross Atlantic counterparts with the newly-launched Country Music Magazine from Team Rock—the same people who’ve brought the UK the long-running and widely-distributed Classic Rock Magazine. Despite the generic name, this magazine is anything but, with 132 extra wide (8 ½” x 12″) glossy full-color photo-showcasing pages, accompanied by a free, 15-track CD with music from the likes of Sturgill Simpson and Guy Clark.
Amongst its content is a full 60 pages of in-depth features on folks like Johnny Cash, Tony Joe White, Kacey Musgraves, Sturgill Simpson, steel guitar player Buddy Emmons, Kris Kristofferson, Guy Clark, LeAnn Rimes, Steve Martin, Wanda Jackson, and many more. There’s also a rundown of “69 Must-Have Classics of Modern Country” and smaller features on Fifth on the Floor, Austin Lucas, Jack Clement, and others. The last 30 pages of the mag are dedicated to dozens of album reviews and a buyers guide of releases and re-issues complete with ratings from a wide swath of the country music world. Even the few, unobtrusive ads in the mag are for cool country folks like Daniel Romano and Laura Cantrell. Both the current and archival photos for the respective artists are astounding in their full page context.
When I first heard about this magazine and saw the lineup of who they were planning to feature, I was interested to see how it would all play out once it went to print. It sounded almost too good to be true, but Country Music Magazine seems to be determined to do right by the country music name.
And to be fair, the mag doesn’t ignore bigger, mainstream artists. There’s album reviews for Florida-Georgia Line, Blake Shelton, and Brad Paisley because they’re part of the country music community too. But the reviews for these big names are right beside reviews for people like Bill Kirchen and Patty Griffin. And it can’t be stressed enough how much content is here. It’s a magazine you can’t put down, but seems to take forever to get through because past every page turn is something you want to read, and read again.
About the only base that maybe wasn’t thoroughly touched was the Texas/Red Dirt side of country, but from mainstream to Americana and independent country, they have it all covered. Another concern would be that they set the bar so high with this inaugural issue, it will be interesting to see if they can match it at quarterly intervals. Nonetheless, this is the country music magazine we’ve all be waiting for.
Two guns up!
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Country Music Magazine is edited by Ed Mitchell, with contributions by Grant Moon, Emma Wicks, and Max Bell. Comes shipped in an outer protective cover that includes the magazine and free CD. The magazine costs £7.99 in the UK, £9.99, which is roughly $15.00 US to have it shipped to the States.
It’s admittedly hard to hold on to your objectivity when this raven from the Great White North rises in song and such a wave of emotion and beauty grips you that your rationality is sent reeling and all your senses are completely submerged and made submissive to her sway. Lindi Ortega is a creature of the darkness. She highlights the beauty in the world not by shining a light on it, but painting the rest black until the beauty is all that is left. She cherishes life by celebrating death. She makes you feel joy by bringing you to tears. She is the antithesis to an obvious, transparent world, all freshly fallen snow and onyx—biting, contrasting, revitalizing the attention to life and its many dark beauties simply by her presence.
Whereas Lindi’s last album Cigarettes & Truckstops had a definitively dark, Gothic tinge, Tin Star is more of an equitable, neotraditional take, though the dark shades still tickle the edges and emerge from the shadows here and there. In fact Tin Star is downright boot stomping in places, traversing the carnivorous streets of Nashville defiantly, taking a trip down to Louisiana to serenade the chorus of songs bleeding through weathered shutters out into the streets, and even to south of the border to find inspiration in the tragic character of Frida Kahlo.
Produced by Dave Cobb who was also at the helm for Sturgill Simpson’s critically-acclaimed High Top Mountain, Tin Star captures Lindi Ortega very much in the current moments of her life as a Canadian songbird with a fiercely independent spirit living amongst the daunting skyscrapers and superstars of Music City. Dare I say there’s even an air of bravado and downright protest in some of Tin Star‘s songs, including the title track:
“Well you don’t know me, I’m a nobody. I sing on the Strip, for a few pennies. I’ve got a busted string, and a broken guitar. I’ve been singing for tips down at the local bar. Like an old tin star I’m beat up and rusting, lost in the shining stars of Nashville, Tennessee Well I wrote this song for those who are like me, lost in the shining stars, the shining stars…
The song “All These Cats” ratchets up the bravado another notch, brandishing balled-up little fists towards any and all Lindi detractors trying to “run her out of town.” Tin Star has some fight in it, some tempo here and there, and teeters towards downright rock and roll in places, like in the desirous “I Want You.” Tin Star is spicy, touching on a wide range of emotions and textures.
But the real message and worth of Tin Star lies in Lindi’s poetic disposition, rivaling the wordsmith skills of most any other present-day balladist in its depth and artistic evocation, maybe most evidenced in the song “Something For You” that is appropriately about finding the words to express your true feelings. And as always, Lindi’s voice is both fragile and confident, smoky and pleasantly patina’d; naturally diminishing into an adorable vibrato at the end of phrases to press any and all of your emotional buttons.
Lindi Ortega may see her star as old, beat up, and rusting. But I for one am blinded by its splendor.
Two guns up / Five Stars
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There’s nothing worse than inadvertently coming within ear shot of one of those songs—the idiotic country music laundry list / checklist ditty, or even worse when the performer is inclined to get all hip-hop on your ass and start rapping the lyrics over a drum machine beat. Even when you do your level best to avoid corporate radio, they’ll sneak up on you at the grocery store, come spilling out of some douche-mobile stopped beside you at a red light, or show up in some commercial when you’re watching the boob tube. If you’re anything like me, they can stimulate a strong negative physical reaction that can only be cured by the good stuff—true country music.
The select songs below aren’t country protest songs per se, though they may have those elements. They’re simply songs of a very personal nature with authentic themes told in real language, that speak to being unable to relate to an inauthentic world, and how to value the things in life that are real. Hopefully if you find yourself bent over and fighting back a gag reflex from Class A country checklist exposure, these songs will help cure what ails you.
Josh Abbott Band – “I’ll Sing About Mine”
As bad as the country rap songs are, the videos cause even more cultural corrosion by portraying an adulterated view of true rural people trying to hold on to their agrarian identity. Bare midriffs, buxom gyrations, and badass cars are no match for the curves and character of real country faces served cold. Neither is the caricaturish, shallow, and materialistic portrayal of rural life in country rap compared to the sense of family and community, and the fulfillment of hard work that accompanies true country living. All of these things are embodied in the song and video for Josh Abbott Band’s “I’ll Sing About Mine,” written by Adam Hood and Brian Keane. (read song/video review)
Willy “Tea” Taylor – “Life Is Beautiful”
The “laundry list” song formula doesn’t have to be used for the dark purpose of creating a corporate culture based on artifacts and behavior. Naming off artifacts of the country can be a great way to convey the beauty of life through illustrating it’s simplicity. Without question Willy’s “Life Is Beautiful” is a laundry list song; a laundry list song that schools all of it’s counterparts by simply being honest, and thankful. (read song review)
Wade Bowen – “Trucks”
The idiocy on display during a country radio segment is enough to fill one with self-doubt about the entire direction of humanity, especially these long-belabored laundry list songs coming from country’s top male performers. You listen, and say to yourself, “If I hear another song about trucks, I’m going to shoot myself.”
But the beautiful part about music is that as much as it can be the culprit for personal angst, it can also be the antidote. Wade Bowen’s “Trucks” aims its big, diamond-plated bumper at the incessant references to tailgates and four wheel drives in modern pop country songs and slams on the gas. At the same time, it practices what it preaches, making sure to instill some story and soul into the song along the way, instead of just being a vehicle for protest. (read song review)
Sturgill Simpson – “Life Ain’t Fair & The World Is Mean”
The miraculous thing about “Life Ain’t Fair & The World Is Mean” is how many subjects Sturgill touches on while saying so little. This ridiculous “new Outlaw” movement in country, how famous country sons dominate the independent country landscape, the way mainstream labels and producers manipulate artists, and how the system is rigged against authenticity; all these subjects are touched on in a song that when you really boil it down is actually a very personal story about Sturgill and his struggles and choices, and coming to grips with the inherent injustices in life and saying “that’s okay.” (read song review)
Left Arm Tan – “Wish”
I think it is important when we talk about saving country music, that we don’t work from a position of envy. In truth the joke is on them. They may have the big money, the control of the radio stations and the media. But we have each other, and true themes mined from real life experiences. Let them have their fake world, we have real music. But “Wish” isn’t necessarily an anti-Nashville song, it is more about the singer realizing that he shouldn’t be envying people living fake lives when he has something true already. (read song review)
Country music in 2013 feels like the best of times, and the worst of times. While a few top male performers perpetrate untold atrocities on the integrity of the genre, the rise of independent music and infrastructure in the marketplace is now almost to the point where it equals its corporate counterpart. Quality songs and worthy artists are beginning to see more and more support, while current events and new outlets create avenues for substantive music to find its way to hungry ears. It is so easy to focus on the negative because it still seems to pervade the popular consciousness. But here are twelve reasons it is looking up for country music in 2013.
Yes, Kacey Musgraves. Even if you see her as some Music Row machination meant to offer an alter ego to the Taylor Swift’s of the world (Taylor equals Kacey’s noms with 6 herself), at least mainstream country is now offering a choice to consumers. What Musgraves’ symbolizes is that you don’t have to prove overwhelming commercial success to get noticed. Her biggest hit “Merry Go ‘Round” didn’t even make the Top 10 of Billboard’s Hot 100 Country Songs. Musgraves is a songwriter in a traditional sense, even if some of her best, and most-heady material didn’t make her big debut album. The reason she was able to rake up so many nominations is because of her songwriting credits, accounting for half of her CMA considerations. Kacey Musgraves’ 6 CMA nominations proves that regardless of how stupid country music’s leading males are trying to make the genre, in 2013, songs matter.
Yes ladies and gentlemen, it is getting dirty out there, and the more artists that speak out, the more other artists gain the courage to join the chorus. And not to shy away from the fight, Kacey Musgraves could be characterized as leading the charge, coming out multiple times to complain about where country music is headed. Alan Jackson also had some choice words recently, as did Gary Allan, Tom Petty, and most recently Zac Brown. Country music may be crossing more unfortunate lines than ever, but at least it’s genuine artists are being vocal about their dissent.
Yes, it was bad that Blake Shelton had to disrespect large segments of country music listeners when he ostensibly called them “old farts and jackasses,” but the backlash that ensued became a unifying element for disenfranchised country fans. Ray Price wrote a blistering letter to Blake Shelton, resulting in Blake having to make a public apology. Dale Watson wrote a song about the whole incident which has since become one of the most popular numbers of his show. An “Old Farts & Jackasses” group on Facebook boasts over 93,000 “likes,” and the list goes on from there. Blake Shelton awakened a beast, and gave it a rallying cry. Who would have thought in 2012 that people would be proudly calling themselves “Old Farts & Jackasses” ?!?
The days of inducting traditionally-leaning artists and bands seemed to be over with the Grand Ole Opry’s recent membership invitations to Darius Rucker, Keith Urban, and Rascal Flatts. But lo and behold, the Grand Ole Opry can still get it right, inducting an act that has paid their dues many times over, and deserve to be recognized as one of the forefathers to the re-popularization of string bands that has seen the rise of bands like Mumford & Sons, The Avett Brothers, and The Lumineers. The news is not only good for Old Crow Medicine Show, but other artists who may not be top tier names in country music, but deserve the distinction.
It’s so easy to read the headlines and see the top of the Billboard country charts and say that all is lost in the genre. But as long as Sturgill Simpson is out there touring, you can’t say country music is dead. Out on tour with Dwight Yoakam, playing the Grand Ole Opry, inspiring critics from coast to coast and overseas to sing his praises, Sturgill Simpson is giving hope for the future to country fans that has a value beyond his music specifically.
Yeah, I’m not too much for the silly cliffhanger drama-laden plot lines either, but Nashville has become an invaluable teacher of how the music business works, specifically on the songwriting side of things. An educated consumer makes better choices, and if they see and understand how backroom politics stultify the creativity and freedom of artists, and how a song goes from inspiration to the big stage, they just may make better choices, and think about where the music they enjoy comes from. Furthermore, Nashville has become a music outlet to a nationwide audience that may otherwise not be exposed to the music of independent artists like Caitlin Rose, Lindi Ortega, Ashley Monroe, Shovels & Rope, and so many more.
There are many good, independent country bands that are enjoying a rise in interest in 2013, but there may not be a bigger rags to riches story (so to speak) than Hellbound Glory landing an opening spot on a Kid Rock arena tour. Going from playing half-empty bar rooms to sold-out arenas, Hellbound Glory is seeing the recognition their quality country music has been deserving for years. And the opportunity has been paralleled by bigger crowds and better support even after the arena tour ended.
Caitlin Rose, Valerie June, Lindi Ortega, Austin Lucas, Amanda Isbell, Cory Branan, Jonny “Corndawg” Fritz, and so many more that call east Nashville home (or at least to some extent) have seen career watermarks and burgeoning interest in 2013. Forget Music Row or the circus downtown, Nashville, not Austin, is the new vibrant epicenter for independent music, and the artists there pushing and supporting each other is fostering a creative environment that regardless for how long it lasts, will be looked back upon fondly in the future as a time and place that got it right, and set the bar for artistry and substance. Add on top of that already-established and influential artists like Jack White and Dan Auerbach, and Nashville is the place to be in 2013.
“Cowboy” Jack Clement and Bobby Bare Inducted Into the Country Music Hall of Fame
Yes, two very important players in the rise of country music’s “Outlaw” movement finally got their due this year, and it was especially timely for “Cowboy” Jack Clement who would pass away only a few months after the announcement. Though there is still a long list of worthy inductees that many fans worry will never get in, these two men prove that the Outlaws will not be forgotten, and move other important country music icons one step further to being inducted themselves.
If you feel like the Outlaws of country music have not been dealt a fair deal and they need need a new institution to give them the support and recognition they deserve, your wishes were granted in 2013 when it was announced there will be a new Outlaw Country Music Hall of Fame in Lynchburg, Tennessee coming soon. Nashville may have swept their legacy off the streets like common refuse, but at least somewhere the Outlaws will ride eternally.
If you desire more validation that 2013 is the “Year of the Song,” then behold the overwhelming breakout success of Jason Isbell in 2013. Bolstered by his manager Traci Thomas, a bulldog of the Thirty Tigers group, Jason Isbell is becoming the defining songwriter of our generation. If you ever wished you could go back and re-live the heyday of Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt in their prime, watching Jason Isbell and his 2013 tear is the next best thing.
With radio becoming less and less accessible through every measure of consolidation by Clear Channel and Cumulus, new outlets must open up to support independent music. And they are in 2013, and sometimes in the most uncanny places. David Letterman not only has been giving his stage over to artists like Dale Watson, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Pokey LaFarge, Shovels & Rope, and so many more, he’s been seeking out this talent to play his show as a fan of the music. Where big network TV debuts for independent artists seemed to be a thing of the past, now they seem to be a weekly occurrence.
For those of you who couldn’t bear the thought of waiting another year+ for new music from country music rising star Sturgill Simpson, the music fairy has just left you a sweet little nugget under your country music pillow.
Sturgill has just released two new songs through Bandcamp, affectionately paired together and entitled Bastard Children. The pair includes the previously-unheard “Four Flame Candle,” and “Hey Now.” Hardcore Sturgill fans will remember “Hey Now” from when he initially released it a few days before his debut, breakout album High Top Mountain was released on June 11th, but the track didn’t make it onto the proper album. “Four Flame Candle” also didn’t make the album’s final cut. ” It was one of the first songs I ever wrote. At the time I didn’t think it fit with the album, but now I wish it was on there,” Sturgill told Saving Country Music on the phone from a hotel in Atlanta, waiting for his show tonight at the Eddie’s Attic.
The two songs come from the same High Top Mountain sessions that were recorded at Hillbilly Central in Nashville and were produced by Dave Cobb. “Hey Now” was recorded as a three piece, with Sturgill on guitar, Brian “Freedom Eagle Bear” Allen on bass, and Chris Powell on drums. “Four Flame Candle” features Robby Turner on steel guitar, Country Music Hall of Famer Hargus “Pig” Robbins on Piano, Bobby Emmett on Hammond organ, Kevin Black on bass, and Chris Powell on drums.
Listen below, and make sure to visit Sturgill’s Bandcamp page to pony up for the tracks.
BONUS: New video of Sturgill Simpson with new guitar player, playing “Railroad of Sin”:
If you’ve been wishing for a print magazine that would cover cool up-and-coming country artists right beside the big names, and not just focus on the here and now but take the time to look back on the past greats of the genre, well you may just have received your wish. From the same people that have been publishing England’s high quality and highly-circulated Classic Rock Magazine since 1998 comes Country Music Magazine presented by Classic Rock, with the inaugural issue being released September 11th.
The first issue features a cover story on Johnny Cash and how he fought back from depression and drug addiction to release his two greatest albums At Folsom Prison and At San Quentin. The issues also includes features on Leann Rimes and her new album Spitfire, Kacey Musgraves, Guy Clark, Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, Wanda Jackson, Tony Joe White, and an exclusive interview with pedal steel guitar legend Buddy Emmons.
And best of all, right beside these big names are features on Sturgill Simpson, Austin Lucas, Fifth on the Floor, UK’s My Darling Clementine, Case Hardin, Carrie Rodriguez, and more. UK-based or not, its hard to look at this first issue and accuse them of not knowing their way around country music. The 132-page magazine will also feature a free 15-song CD of the artists it included in each issue.
“The magazine will feature the best writers, photographers, and will document Americana and roots music at its coolest,” says Country Music Magazine Editor, Ed Mitchell. “If it twangs, whines or breaks your heart, it’ll be in the pages of Country Music Magazine”.
There will also be a two hour, weekly radio show that will launch on Sunday September 8th on TeamRock Digital One radio. Hosted by Rob Hughes, who has a wealth of experience presenting country on 6Music as well as contributing to the magazine’s Johnny Cash cover story. The shows content will largely reflect the content of the magazine, playing the songs by the artists interviewed each quarter.
Once again, leave it to European-based organization to take up the slack where the American market has lapsed in covering its own indigenous art forms. As Country Music Magazine is proving, the appeal for true country music from the past and present is international, and deserves more attention. And who knows, you may see some contributions from some of your favorite country music writers you’re already familiar with .
Country Music Magazine can be pre-ordered now for £9.99 (roughly $15 US). Stay tuned for more info about US availability and distribution.
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