Browsing articles tagged with " Sturgill Simpson"
Sep
29

A Meow Mix Commercial Speaks To Bro-Country’s Critical Mass

September 29, 2014 - By Trigger  //  Random Notes  //  13 Comments

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There’s that moment when every stylistic trend in popular culture reaches critical mass, and where before most everyone used to be on board with the trend, they’re now part of a backlash that brews en masse when something that had little substance or long-term future to begin with begins to sour in the minds of fickle American consumers.

This is the moment in time we find ourselves in with Bro-Country. The distaste for this hyper-trend has become so effusive, it has spread not just throughout disenfranchised country music fans, but throughout the entire American culture and beyond. People who are not even country music listeners are finding Bro-Country on their televisions when they tune into a college football game and Florida Georgia Line is singing the intro, or they hear a Bro-Country song playing out of the car beside them at a stop light or over the speakers at a store. And they’re all wondering to themselves, “What the hell happened to country music?”

Case in point, last week people were meowing over a newly-released video marrying Meow Mix cat food with what appeared to be a Bro-Country parody called “Country Cat.” The two-minute video performed by country artist J.R. Moore enlists typical sonic and lyrical tropes of country music’s current hyper-trend into a humorous advertisement as part of a Meow Mix brand relaunch.

The ad is one of the first salvos from a company called Pop Up Music, which is the Nashville offshoot of Jingle Punks—one of the leading companies in crafting jingles for commercials, television, and movies in the United States. Pop Up Music opened their outlet in Nashville just this month, and are already releasing live content. “Country Cat” is actually part of a three-part series that started with a video poking fun at EDM stereotypes, and will be debuting a new video “Hipster Orchestra” coming soon.

“People no longer just want to license hit music or pay for talent fees from standard celebrities,” says Jared “Jingle” Gutstadt, the CEO of Jingle Punks. “People want platforms and good ideas. We’ve been able to create music content as the hub of advertising strategies and ride shotgun with some of the best and brightest agencies in the world … Where in the past, music needed to be marketed, people no longer consume music the same way. People enjoy music and the audience for it is growing faster than ever before, but the way that it’s being consumed and paid for is shifting the power back to a lot of marketing and branding agencies.”

In other words, the lines between commercial or advertising content, and creative content, are blurring like never before. And this Meow Mix parody is a perfect example of this emerging paradigm. But is it really supposed to be a parody of Bro-Country, or is it just an example of country music in general? If it targets Bro-Country specifically, this would be yet another sign that the amusement at Bro-Country has become so effusive throughout culture, that it can even be used in advertising. The only way an advertising video like this works is if it resonates with the public at large, and not just with a small segment of disgruntled country fans.

j-r-moore-meow-mix-2“Some of the guys from Jingle Punks actually wrote this song, and yes, it is entirely meant to be a parody of bro-country,” “Country Cat” singer J.R. Moore explains to Saving Country Music.We wrote several songs in different country styles, but when this one came up, it became very clear that bro-country was the way to go. It was always intended to be very tongue-in-cheek, especially trying to play it straight in the beginning of the song until the reveal that it’s about a cat.” 

J.R. Moore explains that he wasn’t reluctant to put on the Bro-Country hat to pull off the parody. “People should know that the song (and the commercial, for that matter) was intended to give people a chuckle. I am actually a serious artist, with songs that aren’t intended to be jokes. But I’m not too serious to laugh at myself or a genre that’s easy to pick on (or wear fake tattoos and a sleeveless denim hooded shirt). We had a lot of fun with the song and the shooting of the video, and we hope everyone else does, too.”

For a decade J.R. Moore fronted the successful rock outfit Ingram Hill and is now launching a solo country career with an EP due out in 2015. After finding him on Twitter, it was clear he was a fan of artists like Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson. I’ve been an Isbell fan for quite a while, and though I’m a little late to the game on Sturgill, I absolutely love his music. I was very lucky to be in L.A. at the same time as him recently and was able to catch his show at the Troubadour. Great stuff.

When similar hyper trends in music began to show signs of dying like Disco or 80′s hair metal, one of the first signs of the public’s souring on the trend was the permeation of humor and parody making fun of the musical styles. To have a huge advertising agency and a major national brand recognize that a Bro-Country parody would elicit a humorous response from the public at large could speak to just where we are in Bro-Country’s lifespan. Just like Maddie & Tae’s “Girl In A Country Song,” this silly cat commercial resonates.

Sep
29

Country Artists And Their Famous Look Alikes

September 29, 2014 - By Trigger  //  Random Notes  //  18 Comments

briand-kelley-doogie-houserHave you ever been scanning through photos of your favorite (or least favorite) artists and thought, “Hot damn! That dude look just like this other dude!” From eery similarities like Sturgill Simpson and Javier Bardem’s creepy character from the movie No Country For Old Men, to Johny Paul White and Johnny Depp who I am pretty much convinced are the same exact person, here are some country artists and their famous doppelgangers.

 


Jason Isbell (Americana Artist of the Year) – Matthew Stafford (Detroit Lions Quarterback)

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Brian Kelley (Florida Georgia Line) – Doogie Houser (M.D.)

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John Paul White (The Civil Wars) – Johnny Depp (part-time pirate)

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Sturgill Simpson – Javier Bardem from No Country For Old Men

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Seth Avett (The Avett Brothers) – Ashton Kutcher

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Jeremy Fetzer (Steelism, Caitlin Rose guitar player) – Joey Lawrence (Blossom-era {whoa!})

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David Allan Coe – Geico Caveman

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Scotty McCreery – Alfred P. Newman

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Kristian Bush (Sugarland) – Lucky Charms leprechaun

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Colt Ford – Grimmace

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Tyler Hubbard (Florida Georgia Line) – A Bottle of Massengill (douche)

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Sep
15

How Billboard’s New Consumption Chart Could Have A Big Impact

September 15, 2014 - By Trigger  //  Random Notes  //  31 Comments

billboardWhen Billboard implemented sweeping changes to their chart configurations in October of 2012, it was predicted at the time by many that these changes would fundamentally modify the industry in historic ways, ushering in an era where popular American music would rapidly succumb to the monogenre, and distinctions of separate genres would slowly become irrelevant. Artists who did not occupy the “crossover” realm would see diminished significance, and music would all begin to sound the same.

Subsequently that is exactly what we have seen, and the fingerprints of Billboard 2012′s rules changes can be found all over malevolent trends in country music, including the rise of “Bro-Country,” the institution of rap and EDM elements in country in a widespread manner, and the continued struggles of the genre to support and develop female artists. And country music is not alone. The Billboard rap charts have seen similar homogenization, at least in part because of the new rules. Virtually every individual genre’s charts, and thus the music itself and how it’s manufactured and marketed, have been affected in fundamental ways by these changes. And it may about to get much worse.

Many of the changes Billboard made to their charts in October of 2012 were not only necessary, they were much past due. Rating consumer interactions such as streams on Spotify and plays on YouTube were important to give both consumers and industry professionals a better illustration of the importance and performance of a given track. The problematic change was a rule governing “crossover” material. It allowed artists such as Taylor Swift, Luke Bryan, and Florida Georgia Line to receive credit for radio play and other consumer activity in the pop world on the genre specific country charts. This restricted the ability for artists with no crossover appeal to be successful in their genre specific rankings, while artists that released rap remixes, or songs that appealed to pop radio as well as country to fare much greater.

But the October 2012 changes Billboard implemented didn’t fundamentally change the structure of the charts themselves. You still had an album chart, based off of how many cohesive albums—physical or digital—a given artist sold in a week period. You still had the airplay charts, which ranked songs specifically by how many spins DJ’s gave them across the country. And you had the Hot Songs chart, which now took into consideration crossover data, and a new suite of streaming and other consumer interaction data, but it was still the same fundamental chart meant to give a more broad picture of a song’s impact.

Now that all might change. Or at least, these traditional charts may be so significantly diminished in importance, they are rendered virtually insignificant, especially the album charts. And once again, with these chart changes could come fundamental musical changes from the industry to try and take advantage of these new metrics.

This new, sweeping system is currently being called the “Consumption Chart,” and it is presently being constructed by Billboard in conjunction with Nielsen SoundScan—the company that aggregates consumer data, including sales, streams, YouTube views, and other data that goes into building Billboard’s charts. Billboard and SoundScan are currently tweaking on the specifics of the new chart—one of which is how to aggregate streaming data, which is currently being tabulated by hand.  Though there is no hard and fast date of when the Consumption Chart may be rolled out, the word from HITS Daily Double is that Billboard hopes to have it in place by the very beginning of next year so that when the new music ranking system starts, it can have an entire year to give a more cohesive picture to both consumers and industry.

One of the strange aspects about Billboard’s 2012 changes is since they happened in not just the middle of a year, but in the middle of a business quarter, it created a dirty data situation where the rules governing songs changed in the middle of the game. There was also little to no warning ahead of the changes being made. Billboard’s new rules came somewhat unexpectedly and were implemented immediately. Though indications are the roll out of the Consumption Chart will wait until the end of the year, especially since Billboard and SoundScan want to give themselves proper lead time to make sure their system is road tested and debugged before being debuted to the public, there’s no guarantee we may not wake up one morning and find that the way music is measured has been massively overhauled yet again.

What Is The Billboard Consumption Chart?

To put it simply, The Billboard Consumption Chart would be a combination of an album and a song chart. Instead of just considering physical album sales to gauge an album’s performance, the new chart would take song plays from streaming data and turn them into equivalent album sales. The idea is to bridge the gap between artists who receive a lot of streaming interaction but have marginal physical sales, and artists who have strong physical sales but don’t experience a lot of streaming activity. All indications are that Billboard hopes that this new Consumption Chart will become the industry standard for rating music.

According to HITS Daily Double:

The weekly chart will combine album and track sales with audio and video streams, assigning an equivalent-album value to each, as in the TEA metric, theoretically providing a more accurate and comprehensive representation of modern-day music consumption … Billboard’s album sales chart will remain in place, but most observers believe it will take on decreasing importance over time as the business acclimates itself to the new system … In some respects, the consumption chart will mirror the present sales charts in that sales and streaming tend to correlate, with certain exceptions … Overall, the most dramatic effect of the consumption chart will be to lengthen the tails of bona fide hits by measuring their aftermarket impact, potentially providing the labels with additional time in which to market these hits.

A mock up of the new chart was made last week, and the biggest takeaway was that albums for artists whose consumers mostly listen to songs on Spotify and YouTube instead of actually purchasing the album received a significant boost in the new metric by making “album equivalent” gains from the amount of streams and plays songs received. For example, the album Settle by the EDM duo Disclosure went from #213 on the album chart based purely off of sales, all the way up to #64 based off of these “album equivalent” streams and plays. That is a 149-spot difference just from the new Consumption Chart reporting method. Another example is Katy Perry’s album Prism, which moved from #61 to #16.

How The Consumption Chart Could Hurt Older and Independent Artists

What this all means is that artists who do well with physical album sales and digital downloads could be significantly diminished in this new system, while artists who primarily have their music heard through streaming methods will see a significant boost. This could immediately put older artists, and independent artists at a significant disadvantage.

Recently we have seen older country artists such as Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, and Billy Joe Shaver set career chart records with their album releases because these artist’s older fan bases are one of the few demographics left that actually buy albums. But since these artist’s streaming footprint is significantly less, this new Consumption Chart would see them fare significantly worse compared to the current system.

Same could be said for many independent artists like Old Crow Medicine Show, Sturgill Simpson or Jason Isbell, whose fan bases are more likely to buy physical albums to help support the artist. These artists have seen significant boosts from chart performances recently, and this could go away under the new system. Artists who rely heavily on vinyl sales like Jack White could also see diminishing returns from the new charting system.

Since these charts are used to gauge the importance and impact an artist has in the marketplace, a diminishing of them on the charts could affect their overall sales, or their acknowledgement by the industry. Once again, just like Billboard’s 2012 chart rules, the new system very well may create even a greater discrepancy between the have’s and have not’s of music, and see more attention paid to the biggest artists, the biggest songs, and the biggest albums.

One big question for the Consumption Chart is if it takes into consideration the greater commitment a consumer shows by purchasing a physical album or downloading an entire copy instead of streaming an individual song or consuming it in a free environment such as YouTube. Does it also take into consideration that these physical and digital sales generally result in more revenue for the artist, the labels, and the industry as a whole? Where streaming is currently gutting the industry, physical sales are one of the the last bastions of revenue, including vinyl sales which are on the rapid increase.

Once again, certain changes are probably necessary to Billboard’s charts to take into consideration the new realities of consumer’s consumption habits when it comes to music. But it shouldn’t be at the expense of artists who are already struggling under the current system.

The good news is that this Consumption Chart has yet to be implemented, and so there is still time to understand what its impact might be and game plan for it, or even to influence the direction it might take before it is rolled out. This opportunity did not pose itself in 2012.

And as Billboard will probably point out, there’s no plans to put away the purely sales-based album chart. But many industry experts believe it will be significantly diminished under the new system. Some believe this new system could be dead on arrival, while others think it is necessary to keep Billboard’s relevance in the marketplace alive.

As HITS Daily Double asks, “In what ways will attempts be made to manipulate the new chart, and what new games will labels play in order to get a leg up on the competition? Will the consumption chart mean the end of the SoundScan-era emphasis on the first week of release, or will the majors figure out new ways to max out that total?”

Either way, if the changes made by Billboard in 2012 were any indication, the Consumption Chart could have a significant impact on music much beyond simply how it is measured.

Sep
10

Sturgill Simpson Playing “Can’t You See” with Zac Brown Band

September 10, 2014 - By Trigger  //  News  //  43 Comments

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Sturgill Simpson has been touring on and off for the past few months with Zac Brown Band upon the request of Zac Brown himself. And on this most recent leg, Sturgill was invited to share the stage with Zac and the boys on their extended rendition of the Marshall Tucker Band classic, “Can’t You See,” written by the great Toy Caldwell. The song was also famously covered by Waylon Jennings in 1976 on his Are You Ready For The Country album, reaching #4 on the Billboard Country charts.

sturgill-simpson-zac-brownZac Brown Band has been playing the song regularly over the last few years, and guitar player, singer, and songwriter Clay Cook, who used to be in the Marshall Tucker Band, takes the lead on the song that can regularly stretch out to 12 or 13 minutes. At recent shows, including this last weekend’s sold-out shows a Fiddler’s Green Amphiteatre in Greenwood Village, CO., both Sturgill Simpson and his guitar player Laur “Little Joe” Joamets joined Zac Brown Band on stage for the song.

A few videos of the performances have surfaced, one which has pretty clear visuals but muffled sound, and another that has great sound but the camera is sideways. On the second one the crowd erupts when Sturgill’s name is called out to take a verse of the Southern rock classic. Hopefully some better video surfaces, but until then it is still cool to see and hear Sturgill collaborating with one of country music’s biggest drawing acts.

Sturgill Simpson takes a detour tonight (9-10) to Los Angeles to perform on Conan O’Brien.

READ: Review – Zac Brown Band’s “The Grohl Sessions Vol. 1″

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Sep
9

Scott Borchetta Tried to Convince Taylor Swift to Stay Country

September 9, 2014 - By Trigger  //  Random Notes  //  59 Comments

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Taylor Swift, who just made her big switch from country to pop, is the focus of Rolling Stone‘s cover story in the latest issue, and the in-depth feature finds Miss Swift dunking in the ocean fully clothed and dropping some very interesting tidbits that could help country music perform its postmortem about why Taylor Swift left and what it really means.

The first interesting nugget from the article is how the Country Music Antichrist and head of Big Machine Records Scott Borchetta attempted to keep Taylor Swift in the genre, or at least tried to convince Swift to give him some country singles that he could use to keep her in the country fold.

A casual fan won’t notice much difference, but to Swift and her brand, it’s a big step. She says she won’t be going to country-awards shows or promoting the album on country radio. When she first turned in the record, she says the head of her label, Scott Borchetta, told her, “This is extraordinary – it’s the best album you’ve ever done. Can you just give me three country songs?”

“Love you, mean it,” is how Swift characterizes her response. “But this is how it’s going to be.”

But even more interesting is the wisdom, either purposeful or accidental, that Taylor Swift dropped about trying to pursue a dual musical life, and what the result could be…

One of the quizzical things about Taylor Swift’s country departure is how unnecessary it seemed. The genre has moved so far in the pop direction, she wouldn’t need to deliver Scott Borchetta three country songs to stay country. Swift could simply release any song she wanted to country radio, and they probably would play it. In fact, some country stations are playing Swift’s new single anyway. But this course would have continued the incessant conflict that has dogged Swift’s career since its inception about how she’s not country. By officially making the switch to pop, she puts most of those criticisms to bed.

Also, since Borchetta is being portrayed in the article as trying to keep Swift within the country fold at least to some extent, it shows that Swift’s decision was not based on business. Something else that was strange about Taylor’s move to pop was it seems to be going against the grain of the current trends in popular music. Most pop music is moving towards country not away from it, because country is seen as the greenest pasture at the moment, continuing to gain market share and solidify its place as the most popular genre of music. But Swift’s move appears to be more philosophical, and perhaps, a little more long-sighted; more long-sighted than the view country music is currently taking of itself.

In the Rolling Stone article, Swift acknowledges that her last album, 2012′s Red, straddled the boundary between country and pop. “But at a certain point, if you chase two rabbits, you lose them both,” Swift says.

While most people will likely gloss over this point in the article as they try to spy a wet Taylor Swift nipple through her white shirt or obsess on if it’s really Katy Perry she’s apparently calling out with one of her new songs, there is wisdom here that country music would be smart to heed. When you try to appeal to everyone, which country music is trying to do right now by being so open to pop, rap, and EDM sounds, you end up not capturing anyone. All of the “rabbits” (to use Swift’s analogy) go hopping away, and you’re left in the popular music lurch, just like rock music is at the moment.

The fashionable claim to make right now is that genres don’t matter, and you don’t just hear this from country music’s biggest pop stars, but from independent and Americana artists like Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson. But what Taylor Swift did by declaring herself pop is she proved why they still do. Taylor Swift is the most popular artist of the current generation, and she felt the need to more clearly define herself and her music, not because it was necessary or even commercially lucrative, but because it was smarter in the long-term and extricated her from confusion and conflict. She defined herself as pop against the wishes of her label, and against popular trends. And now her career is on more sure footing, and she can be more confident in herself and in her music moving forward, and ironically, gain the respect of many of her country detractors over the years for finally being honest.

Again, most will allow for this wisdom to zoom right over their heads. But Miss Swift just proved she’s one step ahead, and one measure wiser than the industry she just left.

Sep
5

Nashville’s Independent Artists Speaking Out About City’s Growth

September 5, 2014 - By Trigger  //  Random Notes  //  40 Comments

“You can’t just roll into town anymore. It’s a fucking arms race to find the last affordable rental. More Wayne Newton than Waylon Jennings.” — Caitlin Rose

It’s that penultimate moment—that tipping point—when a town or neighborhood known for it’s cool, rich, and creatively-vibrant culture becomes so awash with interlopers, gentrifying hipsters, and retiring baby boomers that the critical mass point is reached in redevelopment, rising rents, and real estate prices and the entire thing implodes, leaving in ruin the whole reason people desired to be in the area in the first place, and taking with it the inspiration that brews beneath the streets, the collaboration that is fostered in its venues and low rent space, and a magical time and place on the musical timeline falls victim to imported money and urban renewal, maybe to be harbored once again in another part of town or another town altogether, or maybe not.

east-nashville-muralNashville—not Music Row Nashville—but the independent underbelly of Nashville and specifically the East Nashville portion of town, have been the rallying point for the current generation of vibrant country and Americana artists that make up the heart of what independent roots music has been all about for the last half decade to decade or so, but even going back to the 70′s when songwriters from Texas were moving to the city to be closer to artists who may cut their songs. East Nashville’s affordability gave artists the ability to be flexible with their income, allowed them to be able to only work part time, or dedicate themselves solely to their craft in a way that wouldn’t be possible amidst a higher cost of living. East Nashville was the creative generator of Music City, churning out songs that inspired the rest of the town, and the rest of the industry.

But all that might be changing, or has changed, depending on who you ask.

In late June Saving Country Music published an article entitled How Nashville’s Economic Boom Could Kill Its Creativity, later to be reposed by American Songwriter. In just the short two-month period that has since passed, as more and more development breaks ground and other massive building projects get announced, Music City may have finally reached the point of no return; at least that is what some of the artists are now saying.

On August 21st, performer and songwriter Caitlin Rose, daughter of well-known songwriter Liz Rose, went on a Twitter rant about what she sees currently going on in Nashville.

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Caitlin Rose

“Everyone can stop moving to Nashville now. We’re full. Thanks.” Caitlin said in part. “Did y’all hear they’re tearing down all of Nashville and putting one giant Margaritaville in its place? People come to Nashville for the music. They stay for the expensive chain restaurants and condo culture. They never leave… Everyone’s got dreams of making it in Music City, USA. Most of them don’t. Like barely any of them.”

This marrying of concerns about the percentage of independent businesses and the ability for young artists to make it in the city speaks to complexity of the gentrification issue. It’s not just the low rents, or even the concentration of creative types in a certain locale that sees the formation of a creative epicenter, it’s also the inspiration that can be drawn from cool old buildings, independently-owned business, mural art and graffiti, and a menagerie of other community elements that go into building a creative forward environment. “Just saw badass dude biking down Charlotte with a raccoon on his shoulder and a box full of blankets. Fuck new Nashville and condo culture,” Caitlin Rose tweeted out a few days later.

"This is where my grandfather's house used to be" native Nashville resident Justin Townes Earle tweeted out last year.

“This is where my grandfather’s house used to be” native Nashville resident Justin Townes Earle tweeted out last year.

Justin Townes Earle, son of alt. country forefather Steve Earle, has been another vocal opponent of Nashville’s gentrification. Earle grew up in the city, and regularly takes to Twitter to complain about the bulldozing of landmarks, the building of condos, and the general scrubbing away of everything Music City is supposed to be about. Earle recently told American Songwriter, Nashville is where I was born and raised, I never got away from the city, but the city is definitely not the city that I grew up in…It’s pretty crazy, people here think they live in New York. They live in Nashville, and it’s hard to swallow sometimes. I had a fucked up childhood so I lived in over 30 houses in the city, and I think that maybe two of them are still standing, and one of them is part of an apartment complex.

Otis Gibbs is one of East Nashville’s most identifiable musician residents, and offers a slightly different perspective. His Thanks For Giving A Damn podcast regularly features friends and neighbors from his East Nashville haunt, and he likes to hoot and harp on the East Nashville way of living regularly on Twitter.

“Amy Lashley and I moved here seven years ago from Indianapolis, but the growth in East Nashville started long before we came along,” says Otis. “People like Chuck Mead, Skip Litz, Joe McMahan, Kevin Gordon, Sergio Webb, Mike Grimes and later Todd Snider were living here and touring the world twenty years ago, or more. Back before that people like Guy Clark, Marty Robbins, Roy Acuff, Grady Martin and a lot of others lived here. This has been a neighborhood full of creative people over the last few decades, but the national media is just now catching on.”

Otis shared a picture with Saving Country Music of Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, and Susanna Clark on Guy Clark’s porch in East Nashville that speaks to the history of East Nashville as a bastion for creative types.

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“Nashville is home to the best pickers in the world,” says Otis Gibbs. “It’s an embarrassment of riches and it’s easily my favorite part of living here. I played a venue in Zurich, Switzerland a couple of weeks ago and saw a poster advertizing my neighbor’s band. He owns the house next to mine and he’ll be playing that same club next month. The first time I ever met that same neighbor was when we both played a festival in Springfield, Illinois. He walked up to me back stage and said, “I think you live in the house next to mine.” That sort of thing happens all the time. I once learned who moved into the house down the street from me by reading his name on his road cases as he was moving in.”

Otis says home ownership for East Nashville’s musicians is one way to hold on to heart of what the community has become over the years.

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Otis Gibbs

“It’s always nice to see musicians in my neighborhood who own their homes. It’s cheaper than renting and if property values get as crazy around here as some people suspect, they’ll have something to show for it. I have friends in South Austin who bought their homes back in the day and have seen their homes quadruple in value.” 

The problem is when those homes values increase, if the musicians aren’t already locked into ownership, they are locked out of the community in rising prices and rents, and that is the new dilemma arising for many of East Nashville’s musicians. One of the biggest points of contention in the community is the splitting of lots so that two new homes can be built on the same original lot. Along with the demolition of older apartment complexes, this has seen the inventory of older and cheaper housing in the city dry up, and with it, much of the original character of East Nashville neighborhoods. Some neighborhoods, including East Nashville’s Inglewood and Rosebank districts are looking to restructure zoning laws to help stem the tide of gentrification.

Still, growth and lot division is occurring because of the demand for more living space in East Nashville, and where there are losers, there’s winners as well. Craig Havighurst, a writer and the co-host of Music City Roots has a different take on condos and all of the commotion about Nashville growth.

Urban creative hives require urban scale and urban density, which is something I feel we’re only beginning to approach from South of Broadway all the way out to Green Hills. Two houses on one lot are a way to provide critical housing supply without sprawling. It might prove to be one of the best accidental policy ideas the city’s ever had. Because better to build in and up than out. Complaints that the houses are too large for their lots are entirely subjective and based on the look and feel of a kind of neighborhood that isn’t necessarily compatible with urban dynamism. The new people fill new restaurants and coffee shops, where those aspiring musicians find jobs while they develop. And a lot of those new arts and music professionals bought starter homes in Inglewood and Sylvan Park. We can empathize with folks who are seeing their rents rise and still acknowledge that for many, this was a good investment that will make their future more secure.

What everyone can agree on is that the cultural dynamic that exists in Nashville at the moment and has helped give rise to artists like Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, Caitlin Rose, Justin Townes Earle, Cory Branan, Tristen, Lindi Ortega, many more countless names in the past, and who knows who in the future, is in every music fan’s interest in seeing preserved because of the musical riches it has afforded us for the last few years, and for decades before.

Aug
28

A Breakdown of the NASH Icon Playlist (AKA Merle’s Back on Radio)

August 28, 2014 - By Trigger  //  Podcasting/Radio  //  40 Comments

nash-icon-jpg“What will NASH Icon be, and will it make a significant improvement to country radio?”

This has been the question on the mind of many country music fans ever since the joint venture between Cumulus Media and the Big Machine Label Group known as NASH Icon was announced. Now that there are actually radio stations broadcasting the new NASH Icon format, we can listen in and hear just exactly what NASH Icon is. Though the rollout is still in its infant stages and there’s sure to be changes and tweaking happen before it’s ready to go coast to coast, the insight of a detailed playlist gives us a good starting point of what we might expect, what may need to be changed, and what should stay the same.

READ: Cumulus Media: “It’s Time For Country To Fragment”

Saving Country Music took a 3 1/2 hour segment of the playlist of NASH Icon 98.9 station in Atlanta and broke it down in between artists, eras, songs, and decades. Though the formula and ratios are very likely to change once the NASH Icon record label gets up and running and new music from older artists begins to be featured, this is an analysis of what NASH Icon listener is hearing right now. The breakdown also includes all the “legend” or “classic” artists played on the station between 8:00 AM and 11:59 PM on August 27th, located at the very bottom to the analysis.

Biggest Takeaways

Legendary & Classic Artists Back on Mainstream Radio: Regardless of anything else, including the ratio of plays compared to new artists, legends like Merle Haggard, Dwight Yoakam, Alabama, and the The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band are back on the radio once again, and so are many classic country artists like Alan Jackson, Vince Gill, and Mark Chesnutt. For traditional and classic country fans, this is a strong victory, and one that has been a long time coming.

•NEW Singles and NEW Artists Are Featured More Than Anything Else, BUT: Without question, as a percentage, new singles and new artists make up the lion’s share of NASH Icon at the moment. However, the principal idea behind NASH Icon is to feature new music from older artists, especially from artists like Garth Brooks who is about to release an album, and from artist who will sign to the NASH Icon record label. Since none of these things are up-and-running just yet, they may be replacing those slots with new singles from new artists. According to Cumulus Media COO John Dickey, eventually new music will make up only 25% of the format. We’ll just have to wait and see.

Bro-Country is Currently Featured On NASH Icon: On August 25th, Cumulus Media COO John Dickey said, You won’t hear a lot of what we affectionately term in the business today as ‘Bro-Country.” But according to this analysis, this is a completely incorrect statement. Bro-Country artists like Florida Georgia Line, Luke Bryan, Chase Rice, and Cole Swindell all showed up in the playlist. Whether they will disappear once the new singles from old artists are released, we’ll have to see. At the moment though, the argument could be made that Bro-Country makes up the biggest pie piece of the NASH Icon playlist. Remember though, it’s still early.

•Not Just The Big Names: Some have been concerned we’d only see the usual suspects of artists featured, but NASH Icon has been playing lesser names that had big hits like Tracy Byrd, Doug Stone, and Ricochet. The NASH Icon playlist shows decent diversity when it comes to the older artists.

•Not Just 1989 or Newer: Early on, NASH Icon was sold as being only songs from 1989 or after. In the 3 1/2 hours Saving Country Music listened in, there were two songs from 1980, and eight songs from before 1989. Though this isn’t a huge amount, the playlist did show they would reach well past 25 year pole to play Merle Haggard’s song from 1980, “I’ll Just Stay Here And Drink.”

•Lee Ann Womack’s New Single and an Independent Label Artist Played: Maybe the most important insight, Lee Ann Womack’s “The Way I’m Livin’” was featured during the 3 1/2 hour block. This would be the very first example of a mature artist (no offense meant Lee Ann!) who would never be played on mainstream Top 40 country having a featured single from a new album played in the rotation. Lee Ann’s single is so new, the album has not even been released yet. This hypothetically is the whole point behind NASH Icon, is to give artists like Lee Ann the radio play they deserve.

What else is interesting about this play is Lee Ann is not signed to the NASH Icon label, meaning they are willing to feature a non NASH Icon artists that still fits the NASH Icon mold. Also, Lee Ann Womack is not on a major label; she’s on Sugar Hill Records. What this opens the door to is the possibility that other independent label artists could be featured on the format. Of course it helps that Lee Ann is already an established name in mainstream country, but this may be the window to see someone like Sturgill Simpson, or Old Crow Medicine Show show up in the playlist in the future.

Only Singles Were Featured, No Album Cuts.

•Only One Song Played Twice in the 3 ½ Hours. It Was Florida Georgia Line’s “Dirt.”

Suggestions for the NASH Icon Playlist

•Mitigate the Bro-Country, and Now: We know that Cumulus already sees Bro-Country on the format as being a problem, because COO John Dickey said so. Whether the underlings that are programming NASH Icon didn’t get the memo, or they’re simply saving the slots for the new singles from old artists soon to come, Bro-Country is on the format, and in a big way, and it is ruining the experience for potential listeners. NASH Icon is creating a big buzz in the country music community, but if listeners tune in and hear Florida Georgia Line twice an hour, they’re probably going to leave and never come back, and potentially they may tell their country music buddies about the negative experience. Take the Bro-Country off, and add more older stuff, or other newer stuff that’s not Bro-Country, like more Dierks Bentley (sans “Drunk On A Plane”) and Kacey Musgraves, for example. The Bro-Country on NASH Icon right now could kill it forever with certain listeners if it is not removed quickly.

•Balance Out The Playlist With A Few More Older Songs, and 1 or 2 Independent Artists: Let’s face it, many classic and traditional country fans are bound to not like NASH Icon even if they play one new song. NASH Icon is still not going to be for the die-hard traditionalists. Pragmatism is what is needed to make NASH Icon work. If a few more 80′s and early 90′s songs were featured, it might help to balance out the ratios and create a healthy country music environment for all country music fans from all generations to enjoy together. Also, if NASH Icon featured even one or two new current independent artists in a given content block, they would broaden the reach and appeal of NASH Icon even more, and make it a place where even more labels could promote singles and offer greater support to the format.

•Add More Legends With New Music: Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, and Dolly Parton all have new albums out that charted at the very top of the country charts, and released singles that are very worthy of radio play. These albums were also released through major labels. This would be an excellent source of content to add new songs from older artists, and broaden the appeal of the format. Johnny Cash’s American Recordings-era material could also be a great source for NASH Icon, and one that could add younger, and cross-genre appeal.


THE PLAYLIST BREAKDOWN

NOTE:

• ‘X’ denotes an additional play or plays for an artist or song. So if there’s two ‘X”s beside an artist’s name, that means they were played three times.

•Artists were broken down into four categories. When an artist could hypothetically fit into multiple categories, the date of their first charting single is included for added detail. PLEASE don’t bog down or obsess over the eras. It is the best that could be done.

•’New’ artists are artists currently being played, or recently being played on mainstream country radio. “New’ songs are songs currently on mainstream country radio.

• This is just from a 3 1/2 hour span; not NASH Icon’s complete playlist. There is a complete list of other “legends” and”classic” artists that were played during the entirety of the broadcast day at the very bottom (not including the artists features in the 3 1/2 hour analysis).

***Artists Featured on NASH Icon***

 

Legendary Artists (Before 1989)

  • Dwight Yoakam X
  • Merle Haggard
  • Nitty Gritty Dirt Band
  • Alabama XX
  • George Strait X
  • Ronnie Milsap
  • Reba McEntire
  • Diamond Rio
  • Buck Owens (via a Dwight song)

Classic Artists (Around Class of 1989)

  • Alan Jackson X
  • Aaron Tippin
  • Vince Gill
  • Mark Chesnutt
  • Mary Chapin Carpenter
  • Travis Tritt
  • Garth Brooks X
  • Tracy Byrd
  • Tim McGraw (1990) X
  • Doug Stone (1990)

Contemporary Artists (After Class of 1989)

  • Rodney Atkins (1997)
  • Ricochet (1995)
  • Blackhawk (1992)
  • Deana Carter (1994)
  • Lee Ann Womack (1997)
  • Toby Keith (1993)

Newer Artists (Still Mainstream Relevant)

  • Kenny Chesney XX
  • Florida Georgia Line XX
  • Luke Bryan XX
  • Jake Owen
  • Kip Moore
  • Miranda Lambert X
  • Lady Antebellum
  • Cole Swindell
  • Brett Eldredge
  • Chase Rice
  • Joe Nichols
  • Sara Evans X
  • Brad Paisley
  • Blake Shelton X
  • Trace Adkins
  • Big & Rich
  • Josh Gracin
  • Lee Brice
  • Billy Currington

 


***Songs Featured on NASH Icon***

80′s Songs

  • Dwight Yoakam “Honky Tonk Man”
  • Nitty Gritty Dirt Band “Fishin’ In The Dark”
  • Ronnie Milsap “Stranger In My House”
  • Alabama “40-Hour Week”
  • Alabama “Mountain Music”
  • Dwight Yoakam & Buck Owens “Streets of Bakersfield”
  • Alabama “Tennessee River” (1980)
  • Merle Haggard “I’ll Just Stay Here And Drink” (1980)

90′s Songs

  • Alan Jackson “Little Bitty”
  • Reba McEntire & Vice Gill “The Heart Won’t Lie”
  • Reba McEntire “The Greatest Man I Never Knew”
  • Mark Chesnutt “It’s A Little Too Late”
  • Doug Stone “A Jukebox With A Country Song”
  • Mary Chapin Carpenter “Down At The Twist & Shout”
  • Travis Tritt “Help Me Hold On”
  • Garth Brooks “The Thunder Rolls”
  • Garth Brooks “Rodeo”
  • Ricochet “Daddy’s Money”
  • George Strait “Blue Clear Sky”
  • Tracy Byrd “Watermelon Crawl”
  • Deana Carter “Strawberry Wine”
  • Kenny Chesney “How Forever Feels”
  • Blackhawk “Every Once In A While”
  • Diamond Rio “Unbelievable”

2000′s Songs

  • Aaron Tippin “Kiss This”
  • Rodney Atkins “If You’re Going Through Hell”
  • Sara Evans “Suds In The Bucket”
  • Toby Keith “My List”
  • Alan Jackson “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere”
  • Brad Paisley “Little Moments”
  • Tim McGraw “Real Good Man”
  • Josh Gracin “Nothin’ To Lose”
  • George Strait “Give It Away”
  • Trace Adkins “You’re Gonna Miss This”
  • Sara Evans “A Little Bit Stronger”

New Songs

  • Kenny Chesney “Come Over”
  • Florida Georgia Line “Dirt” X
  • Florida Georgia Line “Get Your Shine On”
  • Jake Owen “Beachin’”
  • Miranda Lambert “Mama’s Broken Heart”
  • Tim McGraw “Meanwhile Back At Mama’s”
  • Joe Nichols “Yeah”
  • Blake Shelton “My Eyes”
  • Blake Shelton “Doin’ What She Likes”
  • Kenny Chesney “American Kids”
  • Cole Swindell “Chillin’ It”
  • Kip Moore “Somethin’ ‘Bout A Truck”
  • Luke Bryan “Play It Again”
  • Luke Bryan “Crash My Party”
  • Luke Bryan “That’s My Kind Of Night”
  • Lady Antebellum “Bartender”
  • Lee Brice “Hard To Love”
  • Miranda Lambert “Automatic”
  • Chase Rice “Ready, Set, Roll”
  • Big & Rich “Look At You”
  • Brett Eldredge “Beat Of The Music”
  • Billy Currington “We Are Tonight”
  • Lee Ann Womack “The Way I’m Livin’” (new song from older artist)

 


 Other “Legend” or “Classic” Artists That Received Radio Play On 8/27 Between 8 AM – 11:59 PM

  • Don Williams
  • Willie Nelson
  • Hank Williams Jr.
  • Randy Travis
  • Charlie Daniels
  • Dolly Parton
  • Keith Whitley
  • Gene Watson
  • Mel McDaniel
  • Pam Tillis
  • Eddie Rabbit
  • The Judds
  • Johnny Lee
  • Clint Black
  • Brooks & Dunn
  • Lorrie Morgan
  • Faith Hill
  • Jo Dee Messina
  • Joe Diffie
  • Collin Raye
Aug
22

Album Review – Sunny Sweeney’s “Provoked”

August 22, 2014 - By Trigger  //  Reviews  //  26 Comments

sunny-sweeney

When perusing the bereft landscape of mainstream country music and searching for a female performer with some substance and an independent spirit who could possibly still raise a blip at the highest levels, Sunny Sweeney is one of the first names to come to mind. It’s not too hard to envision the Texas native making a splash in the mainstream because she has done it before. In 2010, her single “From A Table Away” made it all the way to #10 on the Billboard charts—a feat for any woman in this particular country music climate. Of course it helped that Sweeney had Scott Borchetta’s Big Machine Records behind her at that time. Sweeney was one of the very first Big Machine signees along with Taylor Swift, and when Borchetta opened up the Republic Nashville imprint, Sweeney was the label’s inaugural artist.

These days the particulars of Sunny Sweeney’s business dealings are much different. Her latest album Provoked was released through Thirty Tigers—the same independent, champion-of-the-little-guy distributor that artists like Sturgill Simpson and Jason Isbell use. But Sweeney’s sound still remains very much steeped in that space that can find consensus amongst both mainstream fans, and traditional/independent fans from leanings that are traditional, expressive, yet still accessible to the wide ear.

Just like Miranda Lambert and Kacey Musggraves, Sunny Sweeney is an east Texas girl at her core, and no matter what Nashville does, it’s never possible to completely quiet those jangling spurs or smooth out that accent. Sweeney though, compared to Miranda and Kacey for example, seems to have held onto her decidedly Texas style even more so over the years. She very much fits that mold of the Texas country artist that got big enough to be recognized by Music Row, but always felt just a little too authentic to do much more than experience that world from the outside looking in.

sunny-sweeney-provokedAt the same time, Sunny Sweeney also has some quickly-identifiable fingerprints of the industry in her sound. Sometimes it feels like instead of hearing three chords and the truth, you’re hearing three professional songwriters and a hook. It might still be a hook that is hard to escape the appeal of, but the formulas and tropes find their way into the female side of country music too, and there’s a few of those overt moments on Provoked. The album’s two beginning tracks—”You Don’t Know Your Husband” and “Bad Girl Phase”—strike at that female answer to Bro-Country vein in portraying the sassy, non-behaving female quite directly.

“Front Row Seats” is a sensational track on this album, superbly written and pointed in its message, but it still plays very much to this Kacey Musgraves anti-conformist formula that the success of “Merry ‘Go Round” has given rise to. A song like “Sunday Dress” shows that when it comes to the women in country, ‘mama’ is the female version of the men’s ‘tailgate,’ and disobeying her wisdom is expected on an album at least a few times. From another perspective though, many of these trends and tropes are hot right now, and Sunny’s contributions overall are just a little more thoughtful, and little more developed, and a little more country than most of her country peers who’ve seen mainstream success.

Sweeney also strikes out on some limbs, and in moments let’s her traditional influences shine through unapologetically. The gem of this album might be the swing-timed “Find Me.” It is so aching, so brilliant in the way it builds tension both in the story and sonically until Sunny has swept you up in a wave of emotions. Like all but two of the songs on Provoked, “Find Me” is co-written by Sweeney, and feels like a very personal expression. The only true cover on the album is Randy Weeks’ “Can’t Let Go” which has been done many times by many artists, maybe most notably by Lucinda Williams, but Sweeney really nails her version, with the song seeming to be custom-made to fit her Southern twang, and the half-time beat highlighting the chorus being the perfect call in the arrangement.

“My Bed” with Will Hoge is another Provoked highlight, and is a good example of how Sweeney also translates well into the more progressive, Americana-style of production that a few of the album’s tracks veer toward. And though the sassy, non-behaving female formula was decried above, the final track on the album, “Everybody Else Can Kiss My Ass” is just too damn fun, the lyrics too good, and the steel guitar too hot to give it anything less than two guns up.

Sunny Sweeney has a very sweet, very alluring natural tone to her voice, but it has always felt like she stops her phrasing a little too short, as evidenced on Provoked in the song “Second Guessing.”

In the end it is not Sunny Sweeney’s super heartbreaking sentimentality, or her high caliber songwriting that makes her stand out in the crowd. It is her practical, pragmatic, bridge-building approach to country music for all that stays true to her nature that has you rooting for her no matter what the color of your country music stripes.

1 1/2 of 2 guns up.

- – - – - – - – - – - – - – -

Purchase Provoked from Sunny Sweeney

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Aug
21

Lucette Enlists Sturgill Simpson & Dave Cobb for “Bobby Reid”

August 21, 2014 - By Trigger  //  Random Notes  //  22 Comments

lucette

After his award-winning work with artists like Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell, Jamey Johnson, and so many more, when you see the name Dave Cobb associated with an artist, it’s probably worth paying a little bit closer attention. And such is the case when it comes to burgeoning country artist Lucette from Edmonton, Canada, who just released her first single and video, and is about to release her debut album, Black Is The Color.

Lucette met producer Dave Cobb through a strange series of events. At a concert in Edmonton, she sang backup for an former American Idol contestant named Michael Johns, who incidentally died on August 1st after a blood clot formed in his ankle. “We became good friends from our mutual love of Otis Redding,” says Lucette of Michael Johns, and Dave Cobb had worked as a producer for Michael Johns previously. But Lucette didn’t start working with Dave Cobb in the beginning. Instead she was working with big industry movers and shakers in Canada in the camp of legendary producer and songwriter David Foster. Lucette was being groomed for the big time, but the results were something she was not happy with. “It was a big, Celine Dion-sounding record. The music coming out of these other people, it was terrible. I can’t explain how inaccurate it sounded to my style and my interests.”

She was only 18-years-old at the time and was being presented with the biggest music opportunity of her life, but she was miserable with the results. So she confided in Michael Johns for guidance, who told her, “‘You have to talk to my friend Dave Cobb,’ and of course when I looked Dave up, he’d already produced half of my favorite records.”

lucette-black-is-the-colorLucette then flew to Nashville and started working on a new record with Dave. She came to Nashville in 2011 with 20 songs ready to record, and ended up scrapping every one of them. “We wrote the album in three weeks, and recorded it,” she says. “Dave and I wrote half the songs together.” Lucette made subsequent trips to Nashville to complete the record, and it was finally finished last year.

The centerpiece of the project was a song called “Bobby Reid.” “Out of the songs I wrote, and the ones that we co-wrote, the ones we co-wrote definitely stood out. They had a certain vibe to them, and that’s where the Bobby Reid character was born. We wrote it in one night, and recorded it in one take the next day. And one song kind of changed the whole mood of the album. I was writing mostly 50′s and 60′s country, almost like Skeeter Davis, but this Bobby Reid character kind of changed the way that I write, and the way I think about music. I was 19 when I wrote that song.”

Dave Cobb was excited about the song as well, and saw it as the single off the album, and the one to target for a video. So Dave called up filmmaker Blake Judd, who dreamed up the concept of an old-school river baptism, and recruited his circle of musician contacts to help fulfill the cast, including Sturgill Simpson, and Col. JD Wilkes of Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers and the The Dirt Daubers. “At this point, Sturgill Simpson hasn’t even put out ‘High Top Mountain,’” Blake Judd explains. “Sturgill said, ‘Yeah, I like the song, I like Dave, and I like you.’ And then I called J.D. Wilkes and asked him if he wanted to reprise his role as a creepy preacher. So everyone converged in Greensburg, Kentucky in August of 2012, and we made the video.”

But the song “Bobby Reid,” the video starring Sturgill Simpson, and Lucette’s Dave Cobb-produced album almost never saw the light of day. Lucette’s management at the time was not fond of the old-school, dark Americana road she was going down. They believed Lucette’s future was in a more mainstream direction. “I met with four or five major labels. A few of them I went back to several times,” Lucette explains. “But there were several meetings with a couple of labels that led me to a lot of inner turmoil because they basically said, ‘This song has to be shorter. This song has to be longer. You have to cut this one.’ And then it came to the point where someone said, ‘You’re not going to be able to do this as a career.’”

But once again Lucette listened to herself instead of the industry, and saw that the work she did with Dave Cobb was the right direction. “I’m glad I went with my gut. I’m glad that I’ve had people in my life that kind of got my vibe and understood me enough to know that my record might not be a huge thing to a major label. But to the people that get it, I think they will really get it.”

Dave Cobb is one of those people that gets the young Canadian songwriter.Lucette really brings out the dark side of American turn of the century folk when it seemed the world was gonna end, and breathes new light into it,” says Dave Cobb. “We had a blast making the record. I’ll never forget sitting in a booth right next ta her playin guitar and hearing bobby Reid coming through the headphones. It felt timeless.”

Lucette’s album Black Is The Color is set to be released on August 26th, and the video for “Bobby Reid” just debuted on CMT Pure.

Pre-Order Lucette’s Black Is The Color

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Aug
19

Album Review – Cory Branan’s “The No-Hit Wonder”

August 19, 2014 - By Trigger  //  Reviews  //  9 Comments

cory-branan-mural

You see the mural above? It is currently on display in East Nashville where a rising swell of songwriters is currently setting the pace for artistry and depth in the greater country and roots world. And chief among these cutting edge artists at the moment might be the Mississippi-born and Memphis-bred Cory Branan, who has just released his second album with Bloodshot Records called The No-Hit Wonder.

Steeped very much in the muse that resides in the independent underbelly of Nashville and challenges songwriters from the rabid nature of the friendly competition and healthy collaboration fostered between performers in such close proximity, The No-Hit Wonder could be looked at as a good road map to the East Nashville music experience, or at least a starting point. With a number of contributions from Jason Isbell, and appearances by other notable East Nashville apparitions such as Austin Lucas, Caitlin Rose, and Tim Easton, we may look back at The No-Hit Wonder when the rabid gentrification of East Nashville has finally scattered the artist class to the four winds as a project exemplifying the artistry and collaboration that once ruled that turf in an important era of roots music.

If you’re gazing slunk shouldered at your Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson records as so loved that you’re tired of listening to them, The No-Hit Wonder may just be the project to point your nose toward next. Though the strong rock performances in songs like “You Make Me” and “The No-Hit Wonder” are likely to be what get the most people chirping, the album is very much steeped in country traditions, like that old guard alt-country spirit that started with country, and sped it up a bit from a punk rock approach.

You can draw all sorts of lines from Cory to other famous musicians, like Chuck Ragan who calls Cory the “greatest songwriter of our generation,” or Lucero who once immortalized Cory in the song “Tears Don’t Matter Much,” saying Cory Branan’s got “words that’ll bring you to your knees.” He’s one of these songwriters that has gone far in inspiring and challenging his peers, and the fingerprints of Cory’s style can be found in independent roots music far and wide.

cory-branan-the-no-hit-wonderBut these musical types are not always the most successful themselves. In some ways it is their lot to be sung about in Lucero songs, but remain a serious challenge for labels and publicists to know what to do with. This is the symbolic message contained in the cover and title of his new album—how his career can be defined by some incredible praise, but in the end an artist like Cory Branan will always find difficulty connecting with the average American. It is all of the substance, but none of the hype. This is the theme of The No-Hit Wonder, and an eternal theme of the East Nashville scene.

Cory’s first album on Bloodshot Records after a six year recording hiatus was 2012′s Mutt—a wide-ranging, curious affair that couldn’t be denied of its songwriting moments, but challenged the ear possibly a little too much to the point where the brain got tired of shifting sonic gears by the end. Cory called it “Mutt” to describe the disparate influences and styles that went into the album, but in the end he may have proved why genres still matter, or at least why approaching an album with more of a cohesive mood does.

The No-Hit Wonder is a completely different story. This is old school country rock at its finest, with exquisitely-crafted, cunning lyrical runs that make you laugh, amazing insight enhanced by brilliant timing and pentameter, and musical clothing that enhance each song’s strengths and endear them to the audience, pointing them the way to the album’s enjoyment. Yet there’s still some great variations here throughout the record to keep the listener enthralled. “Sour Mash” with Tim Easton is a perfect little country tune with its take off Telecaster. “C’mon Shadow” and “All The Rivers in Colorado” are great little country tunes as well. “All I Got And Gone” is where you hear Cory’s Tom Waits influence seeping through, while the final track, “The Meantime Blues” shows of Cory’s finger picking prowess on the acoustic guitar that some say challenges Cory’s songwriting as his most noteworthy skill.

This is the album Cory Branan needed to write, record, and release. Enough time had passed since his earlier works in the 00′s, and a whole new crop of listeners have emerged for this type of music to where it was necessary to re-introduce himself to the musical world in a way that could open his entire body of work to a hungry audience always looking for new songwriters to sink themselves into. The No-Hit Wonder may not pole vault Cory into the Top 10 on Billboard and make the title a bit of irony, but it should land him a wider audience beyond the notoriety of an East Nashville mural.

1 3/4 of 2 guns up.

Purchase The No-Hit Wonder from Bloodshot Records

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Aug
4

Keith Urban Is A Big Sturgill Simpson Fan

August 4, 2014 - By Trigger  //  Random Notes  //  42 Comments

keith-urbanDespite a rough start to Keith Urban’s week last week when one of his concerts in Mansfield, Mass. descended into a 55-arrest, 22-taken to the hospital & rape allegations kind of night, you could make the argument the country music superstar won the week.

I’ve always believed that character isn’t defined in people during their great moments, but during their bad ones. Keith Urban wasn’t any more responsible for what happened at his concert than anyone else beyond the troublemakers themselves. Even if you like to draw the parallel between the rash of bad behavior at country concerts and the corrupting nature of country music’s current crop of “Bros”, it’s hard to lump Keith Urban into that category (even if you think Keith Urban’s music is a big “lump” of something else). Still, Keith Urban made it a point to offer condolences about what happened at the concert; something that Luke Bryan, Kenny Chesney, Tim McGraw, and others have refused to do after their own recent concert incidents.

“My team and I were horrified to learn of the events reported in Boston this past weekend and our hearts and prayers go out to all those affected,” Keith said in a statement. “This type of behavior stands in stark contrast to the spirit of our shows.”

Then by golly, Keith Urban took of his personal time to write an op-ed in The Tennessean about the preservation of Music Row’s historic places. The topic has been a hot button issue in and around the sale of the Studio ‘A’ building in Nashville and the studio’s caretaker Ben Folds being forced out. So Urban, whose also known for lending his name to preservation efforts like his big fundraisers for the Country Music Hall of Fame, picked up his pen to show support for Studio ‘A’ and other important landmarks in a piece called “Keep Music Row’s Past For The Future.”

Evolution is a constant part of music and life, but for me what’s always been at the heart of country music is simplicity and community. Music Row is where the past, present and future meet, and that’s a vital part of keeping balance. You can feel it as you drive along 16th and 17th avenues and see so many original buildings, including RCA’s Studios A and B; the house where Warner Brothers first opened their doors; Quad Studios, where Neil Young recorded “Harvest”; and Hillbilly Central, where Waylon Jennings and the boys transformed the status quo by revolutionizing the way artists could take creative control. … Not to mention the countless publishing houses where classic songs were and are written, pitched and demoed….

Nashville’s growth is exciting, but not at the risk of losing the creative epicenter that is Music Row and that truly makes Nashville Music City….

And then late last week, a tweet from Keith Urban (actually composed 10 days ago) started making the rounds on the retweet circuit hard and heavy. Apparently Urban is a big Sturgill Simpson fan, and Jake Owen is to blame. “Have to thank @jakeowen for hipping me to the one and only @SturgillSimpson…the new record will knock your #%^€ in the dirt – SERIOUSLY!!!”

keith-urban-jake-owen-tweet

sturgill-simpsonSo not only is Keith Urban a big Sturgill Simpson fan, Jake Owen is too apparently, and they’re both willing to proselytize their Stugill Simpson love to others. Then during a show in Indianapolis on Saturday (8-2), Keith Urban gave a shoutout to Sturgill from the stage to the 20,000 attendees, dropping the line “Turtles All The Way Down” into one of his songs. This similar type of peer recognition is how a fellow Kentucky native named Keith Whitley became a big country music player. Whitley was the kind of cool all the other country stars wanted to be, until eventually the Keith Whitely influence could be found everywhere in popular country music. Not saying that will happen with Sturgill, but if artists like Keith Urban and Jake Owen are actively listening to his music, it can’t hurt. And it certainly couldn’t hurt if one of them decided to cut a Sturgill song in the future.

Who knows, maybe we’ll hear Keith Urban singing about reptile aliens made of light in the not too distant future.

Yeah, probably not.

But it does symbolize that Sturgill Simpson is securing his place as a cult icon in country music. And this could eventually lead to bigger things.

***UPDATE (8-12) – Keith Urban has tweeted his Sturgill Simpson love again.

keith-urban-sturgill-simpson-tweet-2

READ: The Metamodern Rise of Sturgill Simpson (A Timeline)

Jul
22

The Best & Worst Case Scenarios For The New Classic Country Format

July 22, 2014 - By Trigger  //  Podcasting/Radio  //  36 Comments

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One of the big stories involving the back end of country music in 2014 has been the potential formation of a brand new radio format to give a home to the older artists quickly being shuffled off of mainstream radio in the movement towards youth. The announcement of the joint venture between Big Machine Label Group and radio owner Cumulus Media called NASH Icons is what started the buzz, and then mere weeks later a regionally-owned radio station in Kentucky changed it’s name to GARTH-FM, and all of a sudden the split of the country music radio format looked to be imminent. Since then the idea has been put in sort of a limbo state as NASH Icons isn’t even set to launch until 2015, but it still looks like a format split and the formation of a “classic” country radio network is still very much a real possibility.

The big question that remains is how the new format for older country music could take shape. NASH Icons and other early players have already pegged a 25-year window as the foundation for the format, featuring many of the artists that launched their careers in country music in 1989, including Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson, Travis Tritt, and Clint Black. Artists like Shania Twain and Faith Hill have also been mentioned, and so has the inclusion of new music from these artists, making the new format not just about old songs.

Depending on how it breaks, a big new batch of classic country stations on the radio could be a Godsend for classic country fans, or it could be a nightmare. Since the idea still remains in its formative stages, this is the time that classic country fans have to opportunity to voice their opinion of what they would like to see from the new format. Whether these fans will be listened to by the industry or not is another matter. In the end NASH Icons and any other station that decides to switch to the new format will be doing so not from some philosophical desire to see older country back on the radio, but as a business decision.

Assuming that 25-year window is the one constant, let’s look at the two scenarios of how the classic country format split could transpire.

NOTE: Some have said that “classic” is not the best word to describe what the new format would be. But in lieu of a better succinct describer, we will use “classic” in this case.


BEST CASE SCENARIO

 

  • It would focus on the 25-year “classic” window, but wouldn’t shy away from dipping a little deeper into country music’s past, especially for artists who were still relevant 25 years ago, and are still relevant today. For example, Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, and Willie Nelson all released albums this year that had record charting performances and were very well-received by the public. These albums were released by major labels, who would see the benefit to promoting singles through a new country format for older artists if there was one.

 

  • It includes playlists that are wide and diverse, and don’t just focus on the narrow window of usual suspects who had their biggest success in the 90′s. It doesn’t just play the artists that were great from the classic era, but the songs that were great from the era from some of the lesser-known artists.

 

  • Unlike the classic rock format, it keeps playlists spicy. Understand that even with older artists, there are still trends and artists can get hot, or go cold depending on current events and other factors. If an older artist is going on a big tour or is releasing a new album, there may be renewed interest in that artist that demands more rotation time. Maybe a movie or documentary about an artist is released, or maybe they make an acting appearance that may raise their public interest. Play off of those trends to keep the format engaging. It listens to what listeners want.

 

  • It doesn’t completely cannibalize the already-existing traditional country stations, especially in markets where they are successful—”traditional” meaning stations focused mostly on music before the 1989 window. In some very small markets, the older listening audience is still going to enjoy the country oldies more than more contemporary stars from the 90′s and 00′s. And in very large markets, there will always be enough listeners to support traditional country stations. Some traditional country stations are sure to switch over to the new format because it will be more commercially-lucrative for them. But it shouldn’t be expected that all of them should or have to.

 

  • It is almost implied that with NASH Icons, there will be some nationalized programming as part of the format. But just like with Cumulus’s current NASH network, the new format should let local programmers decide how much national programming to carry. It should encourage local shows to create personal relationships with listeners, making listeners feel like they’re listening to a live human selecting the songs just for them and their community. As Edison Research has discovered through multiple studies, people connect better with locally-generated content, and this is especially true with the older demographics a classic country format would appeal to.

 

  • The new format leaves open the possibility of allowing new artists that play an older style of country music to be included. Of course not every younger traditional country artist can be included, but when you have a band or artist who has proven their commercial viability and wide appeal like Old Crow Medicine Show or Strugill Simpson for example, throw their new single in the rotation. This will also keep the appeal of the classic format diversified, and allow for labels to help support the format with single releases. At the least, it leaves open the possibility of having weekend shows that feature new artists with a classic sound.

 

  • Since the Country Music Association (or CMA) is made up of elements of the country radio world, they add new awards to recognize the new format. Similar to how the Grammy Awards distinguish subgenres and “Classic” and “Contemporary” artists in separate awards, name a “Classic Country Album of the Year”, “Classic Country Song of the Year”, and “Classic Country Artist of the Year”. You could still keep the purity of some of the other awards, like the “Entertainer of the Year”. As we saw with George Strait, classic entertainers could still be considered for any individual artist distinction. But a few select awards to recognize great contributions from classic country artists that would otherwise go unrecognized would fill the same gap that is opening up in radio for classic country artists.

 


WORST CASE SCENARIO

  • The “classic” country format becomes nothing more than a way to consolidate and streamline most or all of the existing traditional or classic country radio stations by firing local talent and implementing syndicated programming 24/7, or close to it.
  • It focuses on a narrow range of artists that had only the very top of commercial success in the early 90′s an not much more, avoiding artists whose heyday was before 1989 completely or whose fame was short-lived.
  • Playlists are rarely or never freshened like the current classic rock format to where the new format plays virtually the same songs for decades.
  • It mostly cannibalizes country music’s existing traditional country stations to the point where songs and artist from before 1989 can barely be found on the radio dial.
  • It ignores both the legends that are still putting out commercially-successful music, and the up-and-comers.
  • NASH Icons on the radio is nothing more than an infomercial for the label arm of the organization, with little to no outside support for other artists or meaningful representation of classic country music.
  • Classic country artists are still left with little to no representation at country music award shows.
Jul
14

The Metamodern Rise of Sturgill Simpson (A Timeline)

July 14, 2014 - By Trigger  //  Random Notes  //  73 Comments

The Metamodern rise of Sturgill Simpson could be classified as meteoric, and his dramatic ascent in the last few months is virtually unparalleled in the modern country music world for an independent artist. Amidst the swelling crowds, the high praise, and far flung accolades, let’s look back at Sturgill Simpson, and take a moment to reflect on how he got here.


2004: The Formation of Sunday Valley

Sturgill Simpson forms a 4-piece band called Sunday Valley in his home state of Kentucky. They wear suits and ties to gigs, and drape a Kentucky flag over the bass drum as stage decoration. Sturgill sports a Stratocaster with a backwards neck. They open shows for fellow Kentucky-based band Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers.

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Photo from Matt McDonald

Photos of Sunday Valley’s October 2004 Show with Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers


2004 to 2009: Sunday Valley, First Move to Nashville, Move to Utah

In 2005, Sturgill Simpson moves from Kentucky to Nashville for the first time. He stays there for about nine months, but has a hard time fitting in. “I really came, more than anything, to find the old timers that were still around, that I could play bluegrass with and try to learn as properly how that should be done as I could,” Sturgill tells NPR. “I didn’t find a lot of similar-minded folks in town: pop-country was really at saturation at that point, and what is now described as the “hip” Nashville scene wasn’t really there yet. You know, any of those bars in East Nashville that are hotspots, that you can walk into on a Friday or Saturday night — back then there’d be six people in there.”

Feeling out-of-place, Sturgill decides it’s time to get a real job, and moves out to Utah to work for the railroad. He is 28-years-old at the time, and Sunday Valley is mothballed. In Salt Lake City, he works as a train conductor at a switching facility, helping to operate one of the main train arteries between the East and West Coast. “I really did enjoy it. We were outside,” Sturgill says. He does this for a few years, and then his grandfather gets sick, and he’s forced to move back to Kentucky to help take care of his family. Sturgill ends up getting stuck in Kentucky.

Eventually Sturgill meets his future wife and decides to move back out to Utah to work for the railroad again. However he takes a managerial position and it results in misery.  “After about a year and a half of that, I was probably just at the most depressed state I’ve ever been in in my life.”

At this point, Sturgill has not played guitar in over 3 years. But at the urging of his wife, he begins to play again.


2010: Move Back to Nashville & Sunday Valley Revitalized

Afraid that he’s going to turn 40 and will have never seriously tried his hand at doing what he loved, Sturgill Simpson moves back to Nashville with the full support of his wife. They sell everything they can, and pack the rest in a Ford Bronco and head east.

Later in 2010, Sturgill Simpson revitalizes the Sunday Valley name and forms a three piece with Gerald Evans on Bass, and Edgar Purdom III on drums. They play more shows with their old Kentucky friends Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers, and record an album To The Wind And On To Heaven. Sunday Valley is a hard-edged, hard-country, fast and raucous band, like Sturgill’s native bluegrass sound but electrified and on speed.

Sunday Valley & Sturgill Simpson catch the eye of manager Marc Dottore, the manager for Marty Stuart, Connie Smith, and Kathy Mattea.


January 2011: Saving Country Music & Pickathon

Saving Country Music posts a review of Sunday Valley‘s To The Wind And On To Heaven after being tipped off about the band by Blake Judd of Judd Films. SCM givs it “Two Guns Up!” and declares, “Sunday Valley is definitely worth your consideration and raising a blip on your radar, because mark my words, I have a feeling that this will not be the last time you will hear about Sturgill Simpson or this band, from me or others.”

During the same week, Saving Country Music is contacted by promoter Zale Schoenborn of the Pickathon Festival in Portland, OR, looking for recommendations for potential performers for the next season. Sunday Valley does not make the list [Editor's note: because I 'd never seen them perform live at that point], but Zale reads the Sunday Valley review, and is so enraptured, decides to book Sunday Valley anyway. Buoyed around their Pickathon appearance, Sunday Valley books a West Coast tour. The Pickathon booking is later seen as Sturgill Simpson and Sunday Valley’s big break.


August 2011: Sunday Valley Storms Pickathon in Portland, OR

Sunday Valley and Sturgill Simpson play a spectacular show at Pickathon in front of the influential audience and start creating a national buzz. Pokey LaFarge is in the crowd for one of the band’s sets, urging them on.

From Saving Country Music’s Pickathon review:

“I am here to tell you folks, Sunday Valley’s frontman Sturgill Simpson is a singular talent, one of those one-in-a-million folks who is touched by the country music holy spirit, and has the vigor to fully realize his potential, and assert his solely original perspective on American music without fear … Whatever praise, whatever accolades, whatever sway my good name has, I throw it all behind Sunday Valley and Sturgill Simpson 100%. This man deserves to be playing music for a living, and as long as that is not the case, it is a sin of our country.”


April 2012: Sturgill Simpson Walks Away from Sunday Valley Name

Music Fog releases a video of Sunday Valley in January of 2012 for the song “Life Ain’t Fair & The World Is Mean”. The video goes a long way in spreading Sturgill Simpson and Sunday Valley’s name. The video would be the first we’d hear of the new Sturgill Simpson sound, and becomes one of the last official appearances of Sunday Valley. Sturgill Simpson makes an appearance at SXSW in March of 2012 at XSXSW 5, and no longer has drummer Edgar Purdom III in tow. Then on April 27th, he officially announces:

Welp kids,…Lord knows it’s been a long road with a great many tears of joy and sadness and some very hard lessons learned but I know I speak for all four original members of Sunday Valley when I say we gave it everything we had and then some. Out of respect and honor for Billy, Gerald, & Eddie and the sacrifices we all have made for this thing over the years, I could never under any circumstances feel good about continuing my musical journey under the Sunday Valley name.

There are no words I can think of that would possibly express our love and appreciation for you all and your support over the last 8 years…it means more than you could ever know. New band, new sound, new album coming very soon…as they say, the next chapter is always better, that’s why we turn the page.

“To the wind and on to heaven…”

Read More About The Name Change


June 2013: The Release of High Top Mountain

On June 13th, Sturgill Simpson releases his first solo album High Top Mountain independently through Thirty Tigers. The album earns critical praise from country and roots media, and Sturgill Simpson is no longer a secret of the independent roots world. The New York Times says it’s “full of finely drawn songs both sad and tough.” 

Sturgill Simpson told Saving Country Music about the album, “This is a much more honest representation of who I am, at least right now. I have the attention span of a 4-year-old. But I love all music, especially old soul and R&B, and traditional country. And I try to incorporate all those elements. This band is just where I am right now.”

sturgill-simpson-high-top-mountain


August 2013: Playing the Grand Ole Opry

Sturgill Simpson is signed by the prestigious Paradigm Talent Agency for booking. Soon Simpson is opening shows for Dwight Yoakam and Charlie Robison.

Strugill makes his debut on the most hallowed stage in country music at the Grand Ole Opry on August, 23rd, 2013, as an invite from Marty Stuart. In a statement about the honor Sturgill said in part,

I credit my 82 yr. old Grandfather Dood Fraley more than anyone on Earth for, among many other things, my musical education. He’s the greatest man I’ve ever known…Period.

He told me, “That’s it bud..that’s the biggest honor in Country music..that’s what you’ve been working so hard for all these years whether you knew it or not. If you never sing or record another note, you ain’t gotta prove nothing else to nobody after that. Don’t worry about what they’re doing now, just go do it your way and I’ll be right there with ya.”

Read Sturgill’s full statement

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May 2014: The Release of Metamodern Sounds in Country Music

on May 6th, Sturgill performs on the BBC’s Later … with Jools Holland.

On May 13th, Sturgill Simpson releases his second album, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, and the rout is on. All the touring, accolades, and critical acclaim see the independent country artist debut at at #11 on the Top Country Albums chart, and #59 on the all-genre Billboard 200.

NPR debuts Metamodern Sounds as part of their “First Listen” series, and The New York Times says, “Sturgill Simpson is a top-notch miserablist, from the lyrics that pick at scabs to his defeated vocal tone, leaky even when he’s singing at full power. His second album, “Metamodern Sounds in Country Music” (High Top Mountain), is a triumph of exhaustion, one of the most jolting country albums in recent memory, and one that achieves majesty with just the barest of parts.”

Many other periodicals and websites give the album top critical praise, and his music begins to get the attention of the mainstream country music industry. Sturgill Simpson has arrived.

sturgill-simpson-banner


June 2014: Tour Dates with Zac Brown Announced

Sturgill Simpson is booked to open for Zac Brown on select arena and amphitheater tour dates. It is revealed later that Zac Brown personally requested Sturgill to join the tour last minute.

Sturgill’s wife gives birth to their first child.

sturgill-simpson-zac-brown

Photo from Sturgill Simpson Facebook Page


July 2014: Plays David Letterman

on July 14th, Sturgill Simpson joins the list of independent country and roots artists David Letterman has allowed on his stage to make their network television debut. “Welp, I can retire now,” Sturgill says.

Let’s hope he doesn’t.

sturgill-simpson-david-letterman

Jun
30

How Nashville’s Economic Boom Could Kill Its Creativity

June 30, 2014 - By Trigger  //  Random Notes  //  22 Comments

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Last week, one of the big stories in Nashville’s music scene became the potential bulldozing of Music Row’s historic Studio ‘A’, currently under the care of musician Ben Folds who’s been renting and upkeeping the space for the last dozen years. Studio ‘A’ has been in service since 1964, and was the site of some of country and pop music’s most important recordings, so when Ben got word that the studio was being sold to Bravo Development, the piano player feared the worst, and wrote an impassioned open letter to let people know the important landmark might be in trouble. A rally was planned for Studio ‘A’ on Monday morning (6-30, which still transpired to raise awareness about preservation in general), but the developer let it be known on Friday that it was always the plan to keep Studio ‘A’ in tact as part of any development plans.

Crisis averted, right? It was for Studio ‘A’, but it wasn’t for the Musicians Hall of Fame a few years ago. Another controversial development plan that would have put a Walgreen’s on Nashville’s historic Lower Broadway entertainment district was also shot down last week. But these might just be symbolic wins in a battle Nashville is waging that may see the erosion not just of some of its historic places and buildings, but its creative epicenters which have transformed Music City not just into the mecca for mainstream country, but has given rise to some of the most sought after dirt for artists looking to be on the cutting edge of music innovation and creativity championed by an independent spirit.

To say that Nashville is going through boom times doesn’t being to explain the half of it. Nashville has always been a draw to people with dreams of becoming big country music stars, many that end up feeding the city’s labor force for service staff at restaurants or other low skill jobs as they struggle to get a seat in exclusive songwriter circles or acoustic rooms that may help them land their big break. Some people will tell you the city’s music business is simply set up to subjugate people’s dreams, and that popular country music is just a promotional tool for the system, with millions of dollars of promotion, management, and studio time being spent by people who ultimately will never have a chance at the big time.

But with the currently popularity of country music, and the massive promotional boost ABC’s hour-long drama Nashville has given to the city, there’s parts of town that feel like they are about to burst apart at the seams, and many such neighborhoods are the places that young, aspiring artists set up shop to incorporate themselves in the creative channels running through the city. Nashville isn’t just the home of Taylor Swift and Tim McGraw, it is the home of Jack White and Dan Auerbach. It is the home of Caitlin Rose and Sturgill Simpson, of Jason Isbell and Cory Branan. It is also the home of scores of songwriters and performers that ultimately contribute to the music world creatively, even if their names are not well-known to listeners. They offer up co-writes, they influence the bigger artists that can’t take the same risks the smaller ones can. The concentration of cutting-edge talent in one place creates and environment of healthy competition that spurns everyone on to the benefit of listener’s ears, and that is what Nashville has become in the last half decade in the shadow of downtown’s big buildings, and beyond the business-oriented mindset of Music Row.

READ: Nashville’s New Independent Nucleus

If you look at many of American popular music’s big movements and eras, they started in areas where low rents fostered the creative process. Black slums gave rise to American jazz and blues music. An abundant supply of big Victorian houses in San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury neighborhood allowed entire bands to move in together and have plenty of practice space right beside other bands with who they could knock ideas around with, collaborate, and coordinate tours and network with. The urban blight of Compton gave rise to Gangsta rap, Seattle to grunge, Laurel Canyon to the sound of the 60′s, Austin to the Outlaw movement, and when WSM’s Grand Ole Opry became one of the biggest radio shows in the nation, by centralizing much of country music’s talent in one place, it allowed an entire new genre of American music to form.

"This is where my grandfather's house used to be" native Nashville resident Justin Townes Earle tweeted out last year.

“This is where my grandfather’s house used to be” native Nashville resident Justin Townes Earle tweeted out last year.

The draw of traditionally-poor East Nashville as a haven for musicians looking to make it in music and collaborate with like-minded artists has been one of the ingredients not just to Nashville’s current output, but to its allure. It was an ongoing theme in the early episodes of ABC’s Nashville, and still remains a vital part of what makes the Nashville creative community work. But all that is in jeopardy now as development bulldozes much of the city’s affordable housing inventory, and rents and real-estate prices continue to spike.

Nashville’s creative working poor are getting priced out of the city, and this could spell an ebbing of Nashville’s creative influx. The Nashville Ledger recently ran a story about this very problem, written by Jeannie Naujeck.

“I’m perplexed by artists being priced out of an artists’ neighborhood,” Brian Bequette, a musician turned real estate broker told The Nashville Ledger. “It’s my greatest sadness right now that in the neighborhood where I lived for 20 years, people who are just like I was back then can no longer live here. Most of our clients are musicians and artists. That’s what we specialize in; that’s our people. And I want to see them stay in this neighborhood because I feel like if we lose them, we run a really big risk of losing what makes our neighborhood and our city great.”

Eddie Latimer, CEO of the non-profit Affordable Housing Resources says, “East Nashville has historically been what makes the foundation of our creative class. The housing boom is disappointing. It’s good for the city, but it’s disappointing because everyone who is part of those communities understands that some of our best neighbors – the core of what makes Nashville Nashville – have been priced out of the city.”

As It Is In East Nashville, So It Is In East Austin

One of the reasons East Nashville has become a haven for the creative poor is because of its affordability compared to the United States’ other entertainment centers like New York and Los Angeles. Ironically, the influence of New York and LA on the business side of Nashville’s music scene has always been given credit for why country music artists are offered less freedom by labels. Since many major labels only run satellite offices on Music Row while the big shots remain in bigger cities, it necessitates tighter controls. This is one of the reasons country music’s “Outlaw” movement of the mid 70′s was partially centered around Austin, TX.

But even before East Nashville was experiencing pricing pressure on musicians moving and remaining in the neighborhood, many were already flocking from East Austin, where the same wave of gentrification and urban renewal has been sweeping independent artists out of the city like a street sweeper. Home prices in east Austin have tripled since 2007 by some estimates, creating a steady flow of musicians from Austin to Nashville over the last few years. Nashville also seemed more inviting because unlike Austin, there was more label and business infrastructure comparatively. Now when looking at home prices and rents, it’s six one, half-dozen the other comparing the two music-oriented cities, while condominium and other residential developments encroach on both of the city’s entertainment corridors, causing neighborhood conflicts with live music venues. Same can be said for Echo Park in LA, and other creative places in the United States that are being brought under price pressure, many times by retiring baby boomers moving into condos built in creative areas, or young affluent hipsters who don’t yet have to worry about quality of of schooling, so they can justify moving into traditionally downtrodden neighborhoods.

The next question would be, where do the musicians go? Many times they’re scattered to the four winds, living in outlying, and more affordable areas, and commuting into the city when they can. And while some artists and musicians will inevitably land on their feet, and if they’re good and industrious enough, find their appropriate path to a sustainable music career, with the lack of proximity to other creative peoples, the type of energetic and competitive environment can’t thrive like it did before.

Inevitably, necessity becomes the mother of invention, and other creative epicenters crop up: Portland, OR, Athens, GA., etc. But as locales far removed from the footsteps of the industry become the new creative epicenters, artists will no longer have that ability to help influence and foster a creative environment that helps push all of music creatively, and collectively.

Jun
19

Review – Zac Brown Band’s “The Grohl Sessions Vol. 1″

June 19, 2014 - By Trigger  //  Reviews  //  39 Comments

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The Zac Brown Band finds themselves in a position that most any other band or artist would be lying if they said they weren’t envious of: owning their own label, calling their own shots, and nestled in a niche carved out in the music world where they’re beholden to no industry or radio play or sound to ensure butts fill the seats at shows. At the same time they’ve enjoyed the gracious support of the country music industry, while still openly admitting they veer much closer to the Southern rock side of things, giving the band the latitude to experiment and collaborate outside the genre while receiving much more interest than flack. They’ve created their own Zac Brown culture, with loyal fans, fun side enterprises like Zac’s foodie endeavors, and his Southern Ground Music & Food Festival. It’s a modernized space where bands like The Allman Brothers used to sit, attracting their own crowd as big, jam-style bands tend to do.

In the midst of the brushup between Zac Brown and Luke Bryan, when Zac chided Luke’s song “That’s My Kind Of Night” for being the “worst song ever,” defendants of Luke’s and other industrious bystanders proffered up Zac’s first big hit “Chicken Fried” and his roster of island/beach songs as grounds for hypocrisy. However “Chicken Fried” was released over six years ago now. Where the Zac Brown Band has settled since securing its independence from a label is somewhere much closer to the compositional-heavy style of its Southern rock forefathers than anything near country radio cliché.

After the success of “Chicken Fried”, the band added multi-instrumentalist Clay Cook, known previously as a member of the Marshall Tucker Band. In 2012 they designated percussionist Daniel de los Reyes as a permanent member. Instead of working with many of the usual suspects in the mainstream country music world, Zac Brown went out on tour with Dave Matthews during the summer of 2010. In September of 2013, Brown sat in with legendary jam band The String Cheese Incident. On Zac Brown’s current “Great American Road Trip” tour, they’ve invited Kacey Musgraves, Keb Mo, and Sturgill Simpson to tag along. Despite a few undeniable plays for radio attention peppered throughout their discography, The Zac Brown Band has displayed themselves as a heady, progressive group, especially when contrasted with the company they keep come country music awards show time.

zac-brown-band-the-grohl-sessionsThis leads us to a side project the band released with former Nirvana drummer now turned Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl. The well-liked and universally-respected musician played drums for Zac Brown during the November 6th, 2013 airing of the CMA Awards, and though it was a cool collaboration, the pairing appeared to just be one of those one-off, prime time awards show situations meant to get curiosity seekers to tune in. But behind the scenes, Grohl had been working with the band on a new EP.

The Grohl Sessions has not exactly been hush hush, but it is clear everyone approached the sessions as a special thing, and not a full-blown release. The 4-song EP was initially released on December 10th, 2013, but only to iTunes, and only a couple of weeks after Grohl let it slide that he was responsible for the production during an interview at the American Music Awards. It wasn’t until April 28th of 2014 that The Grohl Sessions Vol. 1 arrived in physical form, with a complimentary 45-minute DVD delving into the making of the album. Zac Brown released the EP’s single “All Alright” to country radio on April 28th as well, and it has since met with some moderate success.

At its heart, The Grohl Sessions is the true answer to the “country music must progress” charge regularly levied by mainstream artists like Luke Bryan, Blake Shelton, and Eric Church, to justify their trespasses of mixing country with other genres. Coincidentally, Eric Church appears in the songwriting credits of the first song and single “All Alright”. However unlike some of the “progressive” songs on Church’s latest album The Outsiders, including the title track, the songs on The Grohl Sessions don’t show signs of self-indulgence, or simply jarringly shifting between complex movements to wow the listener without and real compositional basis or underlying message or direction.

zac-brown-dave-grohlThe songs of The Grohl Sessions are marvelously complex, yet still with a heart, still with a pentameter that never stops beating, keeping the music in a pocket, and the ear enraptured. Though mixing things like rap and EDM into country is certainly different, that doesn’t necessarily make it good, or progressive. It is a fair argument to say that country hardliners regularly bemoan hip-hop treatments to songs, but when it comes to blending rock & roll into country, it is more often given a pass. The Grohl Sessions are certainly guilty of being way more rock than country, with elements of blues and Motown soul. But nobody ever accused Zac of being country, and just because it isn’t country, doesn’t mean it’s not good.

The most grounded song of the four is the single, “All Alright”, arising a soulful, Motown-feeling Southern inflected Muscle Shoals vibe that is not all foreign to country, but is pretty far off. “Let It Rain” is exquisitely unintuitive, and resolves in twisty, chordy moral that is indicative of the wild-eyed West Coast string band Larry & His Flask. “The Muse” reminds you of all those great songs The Avett Brothers used to write, but with more full arrangements, and like every song on this extended player, embellished head to toe with brilliant, multi-tiered harmonies. “Day Of The Dead” takes you to a whole other place entirely, full of intermingled influences, dancing in harmony, not sandwiched together as gimmick, resolving in a most glorious vocal choir, illustrating that despite a few moments of off-the-wall guitar shredding, this album’s foundation starts with voices.

Dave Grohl himself said about the project, “They’re unbelievable, the band is so good they can be tracked live; we didn’t fuck with computers, we tracked live, four-part harmonies around one microphone. It’s rocking. People are like, ‘Oh, it’s country.’ ‘No, it’s not, it’s like the Allman Brothers.’ ‘No, it’s not, it’s jam band.’ I don’t even know what you would call it, it’s fucking great.”

I would pretty much concur.

1 3/4 of 2 guns up.

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Purchase The Grohl Sessions Vol. 1 From Zac Brown

Preview & Purchase Tracks on Amazon

Jun
18

Saving Country Music’s Best Songs of 2014 So Far

June 18, 2014 - By Trigger  //  Reviews  //  80 Comments

hellbound-glory-lvCompared to albums, making picks of songs is such a tough, arbitrary business. This year seems especially tough, not because the field isn’t strong, but because many of the best moments are coming from unlikely sources, including a cadre of cover songs that despite the spirit of the “Best Songs” approach being about original compositions, seem almost criminal to omit.

PLEASE NOTE: “Best Songs” are not those catchy tunes you can’t take off of repeat, they’re songs that can change your life; legitimate Song of the Year candidates. No order to the list below was intended or should be implied, aside from the first nine highlighted songs being considered strong candidates for Saving Country Music’s “Song of the Year” consideration in six months, though any of the songs listed come highly recommended, and could rise through time to become a contender. Time, as always, is the greatest judge of music. And please feel free to leave your opinions and suggestions about what the best songs of 2014 so far are down below.


Hellbound Glory – “Streets of Aberdeen” – from LV

Hellbound Glory’s Leroy Virgil continues to be America’s most undervalued songwriter, and someday the rest of the world is going to wake up to that fact. While Virgil is known most for his strong wit, weaving moments in songs that touch your heart and funny bone at the same time, this exploration of more in-depth storytelling by Leroy was a big success. And only appropriate that the song and video was cut in Aberdeen, in a building with ties to the story. (read more)


Don Williams  – “I’ll Be Here In The Morning” – from Reflections 

Townes Van Zandt and Don Williams team up to deliver one of the most disarming performances so far of 2014, taking a timeless composition, and bringing it to life again through an immortal voice. The warmth this performance coveys is astounding, and as can be seen in the video, it was recorded live. Great song from a great album. (read review)


Sturgill Simpson – “The Promise” – from Metamodern Sounds

It has been my working theory that Sturgill Simpson is not being challenged enough in music, and this can lead to moments of aloofness, almost boredom from the burgeoning artist. Taking a song from 80′s English new wave one hit wonder When in Rome and turning it into a traditional country song of this caliber was certainly a challenge, and one Sturgill accomplished with flying colors. It deserves to be considered right beside 2014′s original offerings.  (see video premier on NPR)


Melody Williamson – “There’s No Country Here”

Though country protest songs can feel like a dime a dozen these days, 15-year-old Melody Williamson did it right, and the striking message coming from such a young artist became a viral phenomenon in the first part of 2014.

“As I always say, it won’t be websites, organizations, or awards that will Save Country Music, it will be songs. And Melody Williamson proves why this is true once again with ‘There’s No Country Here’.” (read review & see studio version)


Matt Woods – “Liberty Bell” – from From Brushy Mountain

The question going into Matt Woods’ new album With Love From Brushy Mountain was if he could he match the magic he evoked in his song “Deadman’s Blues” that went on to win him Saving Country Music’s Song of the Year in 2013. The answer turned out to be “yes,” and the best evidence might be this soul-wrenching song that matches “Deadman’s Blues” punch for punch.


The Secret Sisters – “Lonely Island” – from Put Your Needle Down

You’d be hard pressed to find another song that showcases the beauty of harmonizing sisters so exquisitely. If “Lonely Island” was recorded 50 years ago, it would be a standard of the country music song book today. It is simply a masterpiece.


Willie Nelson – “The Wall” – from Band of Brothers

No favoritism or bias being shown here to a legendary artist. Willie Nelson has truly written his best song in years.

“Isn’t it interesting how we look upon Willie Nelson as such a saint of not just music or country music, but of the nation and world, and here he is releasing a song that instead of reveling in his accomplishments and resting on his laurels, catches the 81-year-old country legend looking back upon his past mistakes, self-deprecating and pensive, yet understanding how those mistakes made him the man he is today.” (read review)


Sturgill Simpson – “Turtles All The Way Down” – from Metamodern Sounds

A polarizing song from its seeming questioning of faith and drug laws, “Turtles All The Way Down” speaks to the very core of what the Sturgill Simpson experience is all about: a forward-thinking, challenging approach to enhancing the senses by marking a crossroads between traditional country and a progressive approach.


Kirsty Lee Akers – “Take Me Back”

A timeless sentiment that Kirsty Lee revitalizes in an excellent performance that highlights her unique and inviting voice. This is one of those songs that you get lost in, and makes you take stock. Your sense of perspective is changed after listening.


Other Great Songs:

• Charlie Parr – “I Dreamed I Saw Paul Bunyan Last Night” – from Hollandale

• Jason Eady – “Whiskey & You” – from Daylight & Dark

• Bob Wayne & Elizabeth Cook – “20 Miles to Juarez” – from Back to the Camper

• Red Eye Gravy -”Hard Livin’” – from Dust Bowl Hangover

• Dierks Bentley – “I Hold On” – from Riser

• First Aid Kit – “Cedar Lane” – from Stay Gold

• Miranda Lambert – “Hard Staying Sober” – from Platinum

• Karen Jonas – “Thinking Of You Again” – from Oklahoma Lottery

• Zoe Muth – “Mama Needs A Margarita” – from World of Strangers

• John Fullbright – “Write A Song” – from Songs

• Eric Church – “Dark Side” – from The Outsiders

• Parker Milsap – “Truck Stop Gospel” – from Parker Milsap

• Willie Watson – “Mexican Cowboy” – from Folk Singer Vol. 1

Jun
16

Saving Country Music’s Best Albums of 2014 So Far

June 16, 2014 - By Trigger  //  Reviews  //  63 Comments

best-albums-so-far-2014

2014 so far has been an interesting year for album releases for sure. Some names we were hoping big things from like Sturgill Simpson and Jason Eady delivered in big ways. Other dark horse names we’d never heard of like Karen Jonas came out of the woodwork to stun. Some names like Don Williams and Charlie Parr put out surprising albums that have to be considered high water marks of their career. And once again the women have put on a strong showing.

PLEASE NOTE: This list only includes albums that have already been reviewed by Saving Country Music. There are many other excellent albums sitting in the review que. No order to the list below was intended or should be implied, aside from the first ten highlighted albums below should all be considered strong candidates for Saving Country Music’s “Album of the Year” consideration in six months, though any of the albums listed come highly recommended, and could rise through time to become a contender. Time, as always, is the greatest judge of music. And please feel free to leave your opinions and suggestions about what the best albums of 2013 so far are down below.


First Aid Kit – Stay Gold

first-aid-kit-stay-goldDestined to be unfortunately overlooked by country fans because of its folky exterior, Stay Gold is nonetheless a powerhouse performance that only gets better with more spins, and should be considered a serious candidate for Album of the Year in 2014.

“‘Stay Gold’ captures First Aid Kit fearlessly unburdening their fears, confiding in the listener very personal matters of self-doubt and worry that are exacerbated by a world of constant change, endless travel, and the inherent travails of navigating life as a young woman amongst prying eyes and directionless paths. The honesty in the songwriting, and the sentiment that bleeds over demarcation lines of gender or situation to find sympathetic ears with most who have the patience and disposition to listen make Stay Gold a songwriting feat before any discussion is broached about the music itself.

“And when talking about the music, Johanna and Klara Söderberg put on a melody-crafting clinic, endowing ‘Stay Gold’ with one rich, fulfilling composition after another full of soaring, frothy vocal exhibitions that run circles around the modern age’s garden variety mainstream singers. One of the reasons First Aid Kit can concoct such astounding melodies and match them so well with story is because their range and adeptness allows them a vocal pasture much wider that most have access to.” (read full review)


Karen Jonas – Oklahoma Lottery

karen-jonas-oklahoma-lottery-2The ultimate dark horse in a year of dark horses, Karen Jonas positively stuns and screams for wider attention.

“Karen Jonas, whether she knew it or not, heeded the advice of the great Ray Wylie Hubbard to all songwriters: don’t just listen to ‘The Ghost of Tom Joad’, read ‘The Grapes of Wrath’. How do we know this? It’s not just from the wisdom interwoven in the lyrics, it’s from the amount of pain Ms. Jonas is able to capture in her performance. This isn’t just an inflected interpretation, but the very evocation through herself of the troubled ghosts of the story —not just wrapping herself in their clothes, but walking a mile in their shoes, and then conveying the pain she knows they felt from the aching of her own blisters.

Similar to how the settlers of Oklahoma toiled at the yoke without a thought of rest, Karen Jonas, after putting her pair of young children to bed every night, tip toes to the other side of the house, takes the guitar in hand, and digs, hoping to unearth the riches of song. And lucky for her and the rest of us, the ground that she tilled ended up to be quite fertile, and the result a verdant display of artistic release.

If music was a lottery, then Karen Jonas hit big. But this is no fortune to be chocked up to sheer luck. The toil, the heart that Karen Jonas put into this music and this record is eminently palpable. And it is not just the result of talent, but talent honed and refined through cutting self-criticism, study, discipline, and work.” (read full review)


Don Williams – Reflections

don-williams-reflections1Folks, don’t fool yourself into thinking this is here from sympathy or from some other gaming of the system. Don Williams has put out a towering album with a great feeling and a thematic vision, and deserves the highest of praise.

“‘Reflections’ is much more than just the easy listening country it may appear to be on the surface. It’s an album with a message, and leads by example. Instead of whining about the state of country music, it does something about it.

The laid back, gentle-of-mind ease drips from this album like the sweetness of sun-drenched dew. Sometimes it’s simply implied, and other times it’s directly spoken, like in the appreciative and well-written ‘Working Man’s Son’ or the song that ties the entire theme of ‘Reflections’ together, ‘Back To The Simple Things’. Enough can’t be said either about the Townes cover ‘I’ll Be Here In The Morning’. Like when Willie and Merle took ‘Pancho & Lefty’ to another level, Don Williams’ touch on this song immortalized it, and in a different time it would have been a super hit.

“‘Reflections is the album we needed right here, right now. Not just from the perspective of saving country music, but the perspective of saving ourselves from the overwhelming onslaught of ensnaring technologies that rob the preciousness from life.” (read full review)


Sturgill Simpson – Metamodern Sounds in Country Music

sturgill-simpson-metamodern-sounds-in-country-musicMake no assumptions that this is the runaway Album of the Year. We still have six months to got, it faces strong competition, and Saving Country Music founds a few warts with this album. Still without question, Metamodern Sounds is a clear frontrunner.

“With ‘Metamodern Sounds in Country Music’, Sturgill Simpson doesn’t just capture our ears, he captures our imaginations. However misguided the notion is, most every disenfranchised country music fan harbors the idea that at some point some true country artist is going to come along that is so good, it is going to tip the scales back in the right direction. What ‘Metamodern Sounds’ does is it gives the true country music listener hope beyond the happiness the music conveys. It resolves that ever-present conflict between sticking to the traditional sound, but progressing forward.

It’s not time yet to be making comparisons to ‘Red Headed Stranger’, or even to ‘Phases & Stages’. But Sturgill Simpson, and Sturgill Simpson alone, defines the pinnacle, and what is relevant in the here and now of independent country music.  And he’s done it from the sheer strength of this album.” (read full review)


Charlie Parr – Hollandale

charlie-parr-hollandaleIt’s going to be a little to fey for many ears, but Hollandale is a brilliant, musical masterpiece.

“‘Hollandale’ is like nothing you’ve heard, from Charlie Parr or anyone else, at least not like anything you’ve heard for a very, very long time, and with this amount of body and clarity behind the recording itself. Whatever you were expecting from this album, you are probably wrong, and in its stead you get an in-depth exploration into what it means to be alive, to be human, to feel pain and to yearn and reflect, without a single word being spoken on the entire work.

“‘Hollandale’ is a victorious moment for Charlie Parr, and shouldn’t just make it into your home’s music collection, but is one of those works you could hear being secured in the Smithsonian’s archives of important American instrumental music works. Charlie Parr has set the bar of creativity and originality that all folk, blues, and country musicians will be measured against throughout 2014 and beyond, and did what every musician would love to do 12 releases into their musical journey: make an impact larger than themselves.” (read full review)


Matt Woods- With Love From Brushy Mountain

matt-woods-with-love-from-brushy-mountainA dark horse that is one of the most well-rounded albums released so far this year. Don’t overlook this one.

“‘Brushy Mountain’ is as complete of a country album as you will find, with excellent songwriting throughout, a great sound that is country at heart, but with sprouts of rock & roll that endow the project with spice and originality, and there’s something for every mood here. In other words, it lived up to the expectations of ‘Deadman’s Blues’, and even adds a few more exceptional song offerings that downright rival that song’s indelible impact.

“Matt Woods is no fluke, no one trick pony. Not even close. He’s a force of songwriting nature who can match his stories with inspired performances.” (read full review)


John Fullbright  – Songs

john-fullbright-songsWhen it comes to songwriting performances so far John Fullbright sits atop the mountain, and it will be hard to push him off.

“If you see someone roll up in a rig with Oklahoma license plates claiming to be a songwriter, you’d be smart to pay a little bit closer attention these days. whatever the chemistry is, Oklahoma is hatching one landmark songwriter after another. And not one songwriter in Oklahoma or anywhere else may loom as large at the moment as the fresh-faced farm boy originally from Bearden, Oklahoma named John Fullbright.

“For a 26-year-old who must feel the pressure of fulfilling the expectations his first album set, Fullbright is positively fearless in “Songs”. This is a songwriter’s album, and songwriters and people who study the craft and have patient, attentive ears will be singing the praises of this album for the rest of the year and beyond.” (read full review)


Zoe Muth – World of Strangers

zoe-muth-world-of-strangers“Take a Pacific Northwest songwriting gem and refine her with the finest of care by some of Austin, TX’s best master craftsmen, and the result is the 3rd and defining studio album from Seattle-based songbird Zoe Muth called ‘World of Strangers’. They call Zoe Muth the “Emmylou Harris of Seattle”. Then maybe Emmylou Harris is the Zoe Muth of the rest of the world. Either way, Emmylou is fair company for comparison to Muth as a way to express the measures of country, folk, and Americana Muth purposes for her music, and for the positive, and sometimes haunting way the music resonates with an audience. Ranging from downright alcohol-soaked honky-tonk to spatial spiderwebs of subtly and string sections, Zoe Muth and World of Strangers dazzle with range and adeptness at capturing the mood present at the genesis of a song.

“Like the faces of children, each song on World of Strangers has something hard not to be endeared to.” (read full review)


Jason Eady – Daylight & Dark

jason-eady-daylight-and-dark“If you were asked to populate a list of current country music artists that with no frills and no variations lay down country music as country music was meant to be, Jason Eady would very have to be at or near the top of your list. And if you found yourself beset on all sides by ravenous legions of flesh-eating pop country music fans whose only bane was the authentic sound of true country music being blared in their general direction, Daylight & Dark just might be your ideal go to to win your ultimate escape.

As a followup to Jason Eady’s 2012, critically-acclaimed country offering ‘AM Country Heaven’, here comes a new one that picks up right where the old one left off, unflinchingly immersed in the traditions of country music, taking aim and hitting the bulls-eye at the heart of what country music truly is.

Sure, when you get this deep into the essence of true country music, you’re going to leave some folks behind. But ‘Daylight & Dark’ isn’t for them, it’s for the folks that were left behind by what they now call country music many years ago.” (read full review)


Joseph Huber – The Hanging Road

joseph-huber-the-hanging-road-1“Songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Joseph Huber started out as one of the founding members of the formidable .357 String Band from Milwaukee, WI from which three stellar albums emanated between 2006 and 2010 before foundering under the weight of its own talent and forming the basis of three very earworthy solo projects from its respective members. Huber was known for his breakneck banjo and as one of the primary songwriters for the project, but when he went the solo route, suddenly his deftness as a composer shined through with such blinding insight and poetry, he abruptly elevated himself from a superstar picker with some cool songs to something worthy of great acclaim.

“The now married Huber who also spends his time as a woodworker in Milwaukee is one of those country roots gems with potent tunes that impact the open heart with such resonance and penetration, it remains with the listener much after the music stops. ‘The Hanging Road’ is an exposition of Huber’s multi-talented musical skill set, engaging and vibrant, yet humble and rootsy as he takes his country, folk, bluegrass and blues influences into heavy account.” (read more)


More 2014 Top Albums So Far:

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • Left Lane CruiserSlingshot (read full review)
  • Nickel Creek – A Dotted Line (read full review)
  • Sundy Best – Bring Up The Sun (read full review)
  • Dex Romweber DuoImages 13 (review pending)
  • Dolly PartonBlue Smoke (review pending)
  • Hurry For The Riff RaffSmall Town Heroes (review pending)

 

Jun
15

Vintage Review- Marty Stuart’s ‘The Pilgrim’ 15 Years Later

June 15, 2014 - By Trigger  //  Reviews  //  22 Comments

marty-stuart

In the annals of country music, the amount of concept albums proffered to the public have been very very few. But these extra efforts have almost always gone on to loom larger than their more standard format counterparts, and become pillars of influence from which scores of other albums draw their inspiration. Johnny Cash’s Bitter Tears: Ballad of the American Indian was arguably country music’s first concept album, and has gone on to become a cult favorite. Willie Nelson’s Phases & Stages helped stimulate his rise in country as a performer, and his Red Headed Stranger is arguably the greatest country music album of all time. Hank Williams III’s Straight to Hell helped create a country music underground and put the 3rd generation star on the map. And even today, whether you consider Sturgill Simpson’s Metamodern Sounds in Country Music a concept album or not, it has critics singing its praises and marks the starting point of a fast-rising artist.

Lost among country music’s great concept albums though, unless you count yourself amongst the die hard Marty Stuart fans, was the 1999 offering from Marty called The Pilgrim released 15 years ago today. A commercial flop that was poorly-promoted but well-received by all the critics who happened to receive a copy, The Pilgrim produced no singles and no awards, but it wasn’t meant to. This was Marty Stuart flexing his creative muscles, and doing what he wanted to do at the end of a century, and the end of an era.

In 1999, Marty Stuart was at a crossroads. He still had his signature black hair and some semblance of a mainstream career, but the gray was filling in and he was quickly being forgotten by radio. He still was using The Rock & Roll Cowboys as his backing band. It wouldn’t be until his next album that Stuart would saddle up with his long-standing and current outfit The Fabulous Superlatives. The album was his last with MCA Nashville and an opportunity for Marty to do what he wanted, free of the commercial worry of a major label breathing down his neck about delivering on their investment. This brew of circumstances resulted in arguably the Philadelphia, Mississippi native’s crowning opus.

marty-stuart-the-pilgrimWhat some don’t know about The Pilgrim, even some of its apostles, is that the linear narrative of the album is based on a true story from Marty Stuart’s hometown. It begins with a man named Norman, characterized as “cross-eyed” but still able to land the town’s most beautiful woman by the name of Rita. When Norman becomes jealous and protective of Rita, she takes to the arms of “The Pilgrim”, who doesn’t know that Rita is married. When Norman finds out about the relationship, he commits suicide, and filled with guilt, The Pilgrim takes to traveling, ending up on the West Coast before returning eventually to be with Rita once more.

Along this journey, Marty Stuart takes the role of Norman, and other characters as he narrates the theme. Helping Marty unfurl the story of The Pilgrim is one of the most impressive collection of legendary country music names this side of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” session. The indelible voice of Emmylou Harris greets listeners early in the album, assuring that The Pilgrim will be full of surprises, turns, and towering contributions. Pam Tillis, George Jones, Ralph Stanley, Earl Scruggs, and Marty’s former boss and father-in-law Johnny Cash also contribute, with Cash helping to conclude the album with a haunting performance.

The Pilgrim consists of twenty total tracks, including instrumental interludes and recurring “acts” that lend corresponding sonic shades to compliment the arc of the story. And it’s all written by Marty Stuart himself, aside from some contributions here and there from notables like Gary Nicholson, and Mike Campbell (Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers). Other notable musicians lend their talents to the music of The Pilgrim including fiddle player Stuart Duncan and organist Barry Beckett. The instrumentation on the album is nothing short of world class, pulling out all the stops to paint The Pilgrims‘ story in vibrant colors, and endow it with the timeless touch of some of country music’s most noble torch bearers.

In the twenty tracks, The Pilgrim exemplifies tremendous range, almost like an audio timeline of country music’s evolution. From blistering bluegrass-inspired mandolin numbers from Stuart’s nimble fingers, to the more honky-tonk style electric rockers that Marty is known for now and during his near past, to the poetic and smoky surprise of the album, a song called “The Observations of a Crow” that show a beatnik style from Stuart seldom seen, the music of The Pilgrim is in no way an afterthought to the story, and so many of the compositions can be taken out of context and thrive autonomously, and often do when Marty reprises many Pilgrim tracks during live performances; some of them staples of his Marty Stuart Show with The Fabulous Superlatives by his side.

Fifteen years after the release of this somewhat forgotten, but unquestionably iconic album, Marty Stuart looks like the genius for pulling it off, especially when some of the contributors would unfortunately pass on, and others lose the essence of their skills so soon after the release. Whatever financial flops The Pilgrim recorded on the books of MCA Nashville, it did what many other commercially successful albums of the period couldn’t—withstand the test of time, and grew richer with age.

Two guns up!

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Preview & Purchase Tracks from The Pilgrim

May
22

Sturgill Simpson’s “Metamodern Sounds” Debuts on Billboard Charts

May 22, 2014 - By Trigger  //  News  //  37 Comments

sturgill-simpson-metamodern-sounds-in-country-music

UPDATE (5-29): Sturgill remains on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart for a 2nd week at #22. Sturgill will also play Letterman on July 14th.

Kentucky native Sturgill Simpson has quickly become a critic’s favorite and a cult hero around the country with the release of his second solo album Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, garnering praise from industry critics and rabid country fans alike. And now the emerging country star has another feather to place in his cap.

The May 13th release has landed him in distinct company at the top of the Billboard charts, with Metamodern Sounds coming in at #11 on the Top Country Albums chart, and #59 on the all-genre Billboard 200. Both placings are very significant for a virtually unknown artist with little to no radio support who released his album independently through Thirty Tigers distribution. Sturgill’s first album, High Top Mountain, came in at #47 on the Country Albums chart upon its release, and did not make the Billboard 200.

Sturgill’s distinction comes the same week Dolly Parton’s Blue Smoke album turned in her highest-charting performance in her storied career, coming in at #6 on the Billboard 200, and #2 on the Country Albums chart, only outdone by superstar troika Rascal Flatts and the release of their new album Rewind. Johnny Cash also remains strong on the charts, still sitting at #13 a good eight weeks after the release of Out Among The Stars, and after debuting at #1 on the Country Albums chart.

As Sturgill Simpson said upon the release of the album, “I have said it many times and I will continue to say it, as it is the truth and I whole heartedly believe it…guys like me and the countless others others out there attempting to offer an alternative are not capable of change. We are not the catalyst of change. You guys are. We can only do our best to make the best records we are capable of but it is up to you the listener to have your voices heard. This is the only road to the true change that a lot of you I talk to at shows are seeking. If you connect with something that moves you it’s up to you to share it/burn it/ steal it/ give it away. As long as it finds and connects with as many people as possible that is all we wish for.”

May
19

Classic & Contemporary Country Could Go Separate Ways

May 19, 2014 - By Trigger  //  Podcasting/Radio  //  30 Comments

 

country-music-split-004Courtesy of SCM’s Special Effects & Poor Photoshopping Dept.

Last week when it was announced that arguably the most powerful country music label in Nashville—-the Big Machine Label Group—was partnering with the 2nd biggest radio station owner in America—Cumulus Media—-to launch a brand new “classic” country venture called NASH Icons that will cover country music from the last 25 years, including releasing albums, setting up live events, and producing comparable programming for radio, there was a sense from the people that cover such things that this news was much more important than the particulars of the Cumulus/Big Machine deal itself. It seemed to be the first step in a precarious walk that country music has been on the brink of for a while now: a potential format split—a clean break for classic country and contemporary country to go about their merry ways and pursue their own fortunes, to be beholden to each other no longer, and put deep-seated resentments and incessant arguments about the direction of the genre to bed for good.

Envision a day where all the current Top 40 country that classic country fans are incensed over is segregated into its own autonomous format, with its own radio stations, and potentially even its own awards, special events and festivals. And the same could happen for classic country. It could have it’s own place to not forget the past, and respect the roots of the genre. With the announcement of the Big Machine / Cumulus deal, the daunting task of splitting country music not only looks possible, it looks like it could be mutually amicable, and a potentially pragmatic way to address many of the problems plaguing the format.

edison-researchSimply looking at the research data for country radio, a format split almost seems pre-ordained. Country radio is not working, and this is beyond opinion, this is tirelessly borne out in research. Every year, radio luminaries and personalities congregate in Nashville in late February for the Country Radio Seminar, and virtually every year, a market research company called Edison Research delivers dire reports about the state of country radio and its continued slide. In 2012, Edison Research brought a study to the conference that proved that country listeners wanted more classic country on radio, and that by following the youth movement, country radio was abandoning large segments of its core audience.

“I believe that we as an industry have really made a mistake in our conception of our own stations,” Larry Rosin of Edison Research said. “While many people don’t want to listen to classic country music, some still do, and we’ve let them float away…We run the risk that we just are more and more pleasing to fewer and fewer people until all we are is ecstatically pleasing a tiny, unsustainable number of people.”

In 2014, Edison Research went further to explain that the same young listeners that country radio is relying on more and more are themselves relying more and more on streaming and other alternative options to radio as opposed to older listeners who tend to use radio more. Larry Rosin implored that “Country radio – radio – is in the fight of its life,” and that voicetracked, or non-live and non-local shows were “essentially a disaster for the radio industry.”

So the writing is on the wall that something needs to happen to country radio, and even though the research and numbers irrefutably seem to be telling country radio that the narrowing of the format to focus on youth and consolidated programming to syndicated national shows is not working, country radio seems to be powerless to change any of these trends. Money is slipping through the fingers of the country music industry because they are under serving so many of the same demographics that have always made up the genre’s core audience.

Scott Borchetta

Scott Borchetta

So here comes Big Machine’s Scott Borchetta, a savvy, new school-style music executive who is a master at finding holes in the market that nobody ever even knew existed, and turning them into revenue streams. As much as some classic country fans may want to decry Borchetta for deepening the youth trends in country, he himself can see there is millions being lost by under serving country’s more classic-style listeners, and he decides to do something about it.

Could a spit of country radio really be possible? Billboard’s radio expert Sean Ross, writer of the Ross on Radio column seems to think so, saying in a recent article, “By partnering with Big Machine Label Group, Cumulus has planted the seed for country radio to do something it has resisted for years: fragment into two different formats that both expose current music.”

Key to the split appears to be this 25 year mark, which as Sean Ross points out was “a period of superstar acts and mass-appeal records that were more widely heard at the time, and heard by a younger audience.” But even more important to understand is that this new “classic” format is not just about playing old songs from older artists, but playing new songs from older artists, and potentially, even older-sounding songs from newer artists. In other words, if this new classic country format becomes a reality, it could not only give a home to artists like Randy Travis and George Strait who’ve been all but forgotten by radio, it could also give a home to artists like Sturgill Simpson and the Turnpike Troubadours who play new music, but in a more classic style. The new classic format could finally be the much longed-for way to expose country’s overlooked independent artists to a wide, national radio audience.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Big Machine and Cumulus could be two huge companies with a lot of sway in the music industry, but do they really have the muscle to set up an entirely new radio format by themselves? They may not, and most important to understand about the NASH Icons deal is it doesn’t just involve radio, but album releases, and other cross-format events that will certainly take into consideration the current realities of music, including the declining use of radio in general, as well as declining physical sales.

nashNASH Icons will be multi-pronged. But so will be the potential answer from Cumulus and Big Machine’s competition, especially if the venture is successful. It seems strange that Big Machine’s Scott Borchetta chose Cumulus as his dance partner, instead of their bigger rival Clear Channel, which Borchetta has already made a number of historic deals with in recent years. It could be because Cumulus is more focused on their NASH branding, and is willing to concede certain things to get their big ‘N’ emblem out there. But this certainly doesn’t mean that Clear Channel will sit tight and not try to launch their own classic format.

Clear Channel & Cumulus have been locked in a media arms race. When Clear Channel started adding more syndicated, national programming with personalities like Bobby Bones and Cody Alan, Cumulus launched their “American Morning Show” with Blair Garner and Terri Clark. When Clear Channel began to focus on their iHeartRadio app, Cumulus partnered with streaming app Rdio. It’s certainly not unreasonable to think Clear Channel could launch a venture similar to NASH Icons soon, and this could start a chain reaction across the country and spring a brand new classic country format into being.

Of course there is a long way to go before this is a reality, but with the announcement of NASH Icons, we’ve never been closer to a classic/contemporary country divorce. Would it be good for country music, and for country radio? That would remain to be seen, borne out in the particulars of how the new split formats formed. The classic rock format has obviously been wildly successful for radio over the years, aside from feeling tired from a lack of new music being interjected into it by its programmers. And classic rock has existed right beside “oldies” stations, which are the equivalent to the traditional country stations that exist to a smaller degree in the American radio landscape, and do quite well in certain places covering music beyond the 25-year “classic” window.

The difference between NASH Icons and classic rock though, is the new music quotient that would keep the format relevant and vibrant. We could even see the CMA recognize both “Classic” and “Contemporary” Albums of the Year, and other fundamental changes to the format to face both it’s growing reach, and widening demographics. Remember everyone talking about George Strait’s wins for Entertainer of the Year at the CMA and ACM awards as parting gifts to classic country? This could be another sign of the almost inevitable split.

Of course we may be getting way ahead of ourselves. But the possibility of a format split, and a new “classic” country format being launched is very real. And if the new format does take hold, it may dramatically change the paradigm for country music, and finally return classic-style country to the ears of thirsty listeners.

Del Maguey
Old Soul Radio Show
Lucette
Elam McKnight

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