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For years the top tier of country music coverage was simply a cloistered and closed-minded exercise in recycling the same already-established names in puff pieces proselytizing the virtues of pop country and very little else. As independent music as a whole continues to gain market share from the mainstream, it’s becoming more and more pertinent for big news outlets to pay attention to the rising tide of independent music, and the renewed interest in legends of the genre. CMT created CMT Edge to cover Americana, bluegrass, legacy artists and other independent acts, and other outlets have stepped up their independent coverage in one capacity or another. But that one mainstream outlet that really gives equal footing to artists regardless if they have the big money of a major label behind them has remained elusive…at least in country music’s traditional stomping ground of the United States.
Once again the Europeans out class their cross Atlantic counterparts with the newly-launched Country Music Magazine from Team Rock—the same people who’ve brought the UK the long-running and widely-distributed Classic Rock Magazine. Despite the generic name, this magazine is anything but, with 132 extra wide (8 ½” x 12″) glossy full-color photo-showcasing pages, accompanied by a free, 15-track CD with music from the likes of Sturgill Simpson and Guy Clark.
Amongst its content is a full 60 pages of in-depth features on folks like Johnny Cash, Tony Joe White, Kacey Musgraves, Sturgill Simpson, steel guitar player Buddy Emmons, Kris Kristofferson, Guy Clark, LeAnn Rimes, Steve Martin, Wanda Jackson, and many more. There’s also a rundown of “69 Must-Have Classics of Modern Country” and smaller features on Fifth on the Floor, Austin Lucas, Jack Clement, and others. The last 30 pages of the mag are dedicated to dozens of album reviews and a buyers guide of releases and re-issues complete with ratings from a wide swath of the country music world. Even the few, unobtrusive ads in the mag are for cool country folks like Daniel Romano and Laura Cantrell. Both the current and archival photos for the respective artists are astounding in their full page context.
When I first heard about this magazine and saw the lineup of who they were planning to feature, I was interested to see how it would all play out once it went to print. It sounded almost too good to be true, but Country Music Magazine seems to be determined to do right by the country music name.
And to be fair, the mag doesn’t ignore bigger, mainstream artists. There’s album reviews for Florida-Georgia Line, Blake Shelton, and Brad Paisley because they’re part of the country music community too. But the reviews for these big names are right beside reviews for people like Bill Kirchen and Patty Griffin. And it can’t be stressed enough how much content is here. It’s a magazine you can’t put down, but seems to take forever to get through because past every page turn is something you want to read, and read again.
About the only base that maybe wasn’t thoroughly touched was the Texas/Red Dirt side of country, but from mainstream to Americana and independent country, they have it all covered. Another concern would be that they set the bar so high with this inaugural issue, it will be interesting to see if they can match it at quarterly intervals. Nonetheless, this is the country music magazine we’ve all be waiting for.
Two guns up!
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Country Music Magazine is edited by Ed Mitchell, with contributions by Grant Moon, Emma Wicks, and Max Bell. Comes shipped in an outer protective cover that includes the magazine and free CD. The magazine costs £7.99 in the UK, £9.99, which is roughly $15.00 US to have it shipped to the States.
It’s admittedly hard to hold on to your objectivity when this raven from the Great White North rises in song and such a wave of emotion and beauty grips you that your rationality is sent reeling and all your senses are completely submerged and made submissive to her sway. Lindi Ortega is a creature of the darkness. She highlights the beauty in the world not by shining a light on it, but painting the rest black until the beauty is all that is left. She cherishes life by celebrating death. She makes you feel joy by bringing you to tears. She is the antithesis to an obvious, transparent world, all freshly fallen snow and onyx—biting, contrasting, revitalizing the attention to life and its many dark beauties simply by her presence.
Whereas Lindi’s last album Cigarettes & Truckstops had a definitively dark, Gothic tinge, Tin Star is more of an equitable, neotraditional take, though the dark shades still tickle the edges and emerge from the shadows here and there. In fact Tin Star is downright boot stomping in places, traversing the carnivorous streets of Nashville defiantly, taking a trip down to Louisiana to serenade the chorus of songs bleeding through weathered shutters out into the streets, and even to south of the border to find inspiration in the tragic character of Frida Kahlo.
Produced by Dave Cobb who was also at the helm for Sturgill Simpson’s critically-acclaimed High Top Mountain, Tin Star captures Lindi Ortega very much in the current moments of her life as a Canadian songbird with a fiercely independent spirit living amongst the daunting skyscrapers and superstars of Music City. Dare I say there’s even an air of bravado and downright protest in some of Tin Star‘s songs, including the title track:
“Well you don’t know me, I’m a nobody. I sing on the Strip, for a few pennies. I’ve got a busted string, and a broken guitar. I’ve been singing for tips down at the local bar. Like an old tin star I’m beat up and rusting, lost in the shining stars of Nashville, Tennessee Well I wrote this song for those who are like me, lost in the shining stars, the shining stars…
The song “All These Cats” ratchets up the bravado another notch, brandishing balled-up little fists towards any and all Lindi detractors trying to “run her out of town.” Tin Star has some fight in it, some tempo here and there, and teeters towards downright rock and roll in places, like in the desirous “I Want You.” Tin Star is spicy, touching on a wide range of emotions and textures.
But the real message and worth of Tin Star lies in Lindi’s poetic disposition, rivaling the wordsmith skills of most any other present-day balladist in its depth and artistic evocation, maybe most evidenced in the song “Something For You” that is appropriately about finding the words to express your true feelings. And as always, Lindi’s voice is both fragile and confident, smoky and pleasantly patina’d; naturally diminishing into an adorable vibrato at the end of phrases to press any and all of your emotional buttons.
Lindi Ortega may see her star as old, beat up, and rusting. But I for one am blinded by its splendor.
Two guns up / Five Stars
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There’s nothing worse than inadvertently coming within ear shot of one of those songs—the idiotic country music laundry list / checklist ditty, or even worse when the performer is inclined to get all hip-hop on your ass and start rapping the lyrics over a drum machine beat. Even when you do your level best to avoid corporate radio, they’ll sneak up on you at the grocery store, come spilling out of some douche-mobile stopped beside you at a red light, or show up in some commercial when you’re watching the boob tube. If you’re anything like me, they can stimulate a strong negative physical reaction that can only be cured by the good stuff—true country music.
The select songs below aren’t country protest songs per se, though they may have those elements. They’re simply songs of a very personal nature with authentic themes told in real language, that speak to being unable to relate to an inauthentic world, and how to value the things in life that are real. Hopefully if you find yourself bent over and fighting back a gag reflex from Class A country checklist exposure, these songs will help cure what ails you.
Josh Abbott Band – “I’ll Sing About Mine”
As bad as the country rap songs are, the videos cause even more cultural corrosion by portraying an adulterated view of true rural people trying to hold on to their agrarian identity. Bare midriffs, buxom gyrations, and badass cars are no match for the curves and character of real country faces served cold. Neither is the caricaturish, shallow, and materialistic portrayal of rural life in country rap compared to the sense of family and community, and the fulfillment of hard work that accompanies true country living. All of these things are embodied in the song and video for Josh Abbott Band’s “I’ll Sing About Mine,” written by Adam Hood and Brian Keane. (read song/video review)
Willy “Tea” Taylor – “Life Is Beautiful”
The “laundry list” song formula doesn’t have to be used for the dark purpose of creating a corporate culture based on artifacts and behavior. Naming off artifacts of the country can be a great way to convey the beauty of life through illustrating it’s simplicity. Without question Willy’s “Life Is Beautiful” is a laundry list song; a laundry list song that schools all of it’s counterparts by simply being honest, and thankful. (read song review)
Wade Bowen – “Trucks”
The idiocy on display during a country radio segment is enough to fill one with self-doubt about the entire direction of humanity, especially these long-belabored laundry list songs coming from country’s top male performers. You listen, and say to yourself, “If I hear another song about trucks, I’m going to shoot myself.”
But the beautiful part about music is that as much as it can be the culprit for personal angst, it can also be the antidote. Wade Bowen’s “Trucks” aims its big, diamond-plated bumper at the incessant references to tailgates and four wheel drives in modern pop country songs and slams on the gas. At the same time, it practices what it preaches, making sure to instill some story and soul into the song along the way, instead of just being a vehicle for protest. (read song review)
Sturgill Simpson – “Life Ain’t Fair & The World Is Mean”
The miraculous thing about “Life Ain’t Fair & The World Is Mean” is how many subjects Sturgill touches on while saying so little. This ridiculous “new Outlaw” movement in country, how famous country sons dominate the independent country landscape, the way mainstream labels and producers manipulate artists, and how the system is rigged against authenticity; all these subjects are touched on in a song that when you really boil it down is actually a very personal story about Sturgill and his struggles and choices, and coming to grips with the inherent injustices in life and saying “that’s okay.” (read song review)
Left Arm Tan – “Wish”
I think it is important when we talk about saving country music, that we don’t work from a position of envy. In truth the joke is on them. They may have the big money, the control of the radio stations and the media. But we have each other, and true themes mined from real life experiences. Let them have their fake world, we have real music. But “Wish” isn’t necessarily an anti-Nashville song, it is more about the singer realizing that he shouldn’t be envying people living fake lives when he has something true already. (read song review)
Country music in 2013 feels like the best of times, and the worst of times. While a few top male performers perpetrate untold atrocities on the integrity of the genre, the rise of independent music and infrastructure in the marketplace is now almost to the point where it equals its corporate counterpart. Quality songs and worthy artists are beginning to see more and more support, while current events and new outlets create avenues for substantive music to find its way to hungry ears. It is so easy to focus on the negative because it still seems to pervade the popular consciousness. But here are twelve reasons it is looking up for country music in 2013.
Yes, Kacey Musgraves. Even if you see her as some Music Row machination meant to offer an alter ego to the Taylor Swift’s of the world (Taylor equals Kacey’s noms with 6 herself), at least mainstream country is now offering a choice to consumers. What Musgraves’ symbolizes is that you don’t have to prove overwhelming commercial success to get noticed. Her biggest hit “Merry Go ‘Round” didn’t even make the Top 10 of Billboard’s Hot 100 Country Songs. Musgraves is a songwriter in a traditional sense, even if some of her best, and most-heady material didn’t make her big debut album. The reason she was able to rake up so many nominations is because of her songwriting credits, accounting for half of her CMA considerations. Kacey Musgraves’ 6 CMA nominations proves that regardless of how stupid country music’s leading males are trying to make the genre, in 2013, songs matter.
Yes ladies and gentlemen, it is getting dirty out there, and the more artists that speak out, the more other artists gain the courage to join the chorus. And not to shy away from the fight, Kacey Musgraves could be characterized as leading the charge, coming out multiple times to complain about where country music is headed. Alan Jackson also had some choice words recently, as did Gary Allan, Tom Petty, and most recently Zac Brown. Country music may be crossing more unfortunate lines than ever, but at least it’s genuine artists are being vocal about their dissent.
Yes, it was bad that Blake Shelton had to disrespect large segments of country music listeners when he ostensibly called them “old farts and jackasses,” but the backlash that ensued became a unifying element for disenfranchised country fans. Ray Price wrote a blistering letter to Blake Shelton, resulting in Blake having to make a public apology. Dale Watson wrote a song about the whole incident which has since become one of the most popular numbers of his show. An “Old Farts & Jackasses” group on Facebook boasts over 93,000 “likes,” and the list goes on from there. Blake Shelton awakened a beast, and gave it a rallying cry. Who would have thought in 2012 that people would be proudly calling themselves “Old Farts & Jackasses” ?!?
The days of inducting traditionally-leaning artists and bands seemed to be over with the Grand Ole Opry’s recent membership invitations to Darius Rucker, Keith Urban, and Rascal Flatts. But lo and behold, the Grand Ole Opry can still get it right, inducting an act that has paid their dues many times over, and deserve to be recognized as one of the forefathers to the re-popularization of string bands that has seen the rise of bands like Mumford & Sons, The Avett Brothers, and The Lumineers. The news is not only good for Old Crow Medicine Show, but other artists who may not be top tier names in country music, but deserve the distinction.
It’s so easy to read the headlines and see the top of the Billboard country charts and say that all is lost in the genre. But as long as Sturgill Simpson is out there touring, you can’t say country music is dead. Out on tour with Dwight Yoakam, playing the Grand Ole Opry, inspiring critics from coast to coast and overseas to sing his praises, Sturgill Simpson is giving hope for the future to country fans that has a value beyond his music specifically.
Yeah, I’m not too much for the silly cliffhanger drama-laden plot lines either, but Nashville has become an invaluable teacher of how the music business works, specifically on the songwriting side of things. An educated consumer makes better choices, and if they see and understand how backroom politics stultify the creativity and freedom of artists, and how a song goes from inspiration to the big stage, they just may make better choices, and think about where the music they enjoy comes from. Furthermore, Nashville has become a music outlet to a nationwide audience that may otherwise not be exposed to the music of independent artists like Caitlin Rose, Lindi Ortega, Ashley Monroe, Shovels & Rope, and so many more.
There are many good, independent country bands that are enjoying a rise in interest in 2013, but there may not be a bigger rags to riches story (so to speak) than Hellbound Glory landing an opening spot on a Kid Rock arena tour. Going from playing half-empty bar rooms to sold-out arenas, Hellbound Glory is seeing the recognition their quality country music has been deserving for years. And the opportunity has been paralleled by bigger crowds and better support even after the arena tour ended.
Caitlin Rose, Valerie June, Lindi Ortega, Austin Lucas, Amanda Isbell, Cory Branan, Jonny “Corndawg” Fritz, and so many more that call east Nashville home (or at least to some extent) have seen career watermarks and burgeoning interest in 2013. Forget Music Row or the circus downtown, Nashville, not Austin, is the new vibrant epicenter for independent music, and the artists there pushing and supporting each other is fostering a creative environment that regardless for how long it lasts, will be looked back upon fondly in the future as a time and place that got it right, and set the bar for artistry and substance. Add on top of that already-established and influential artists like Jack White and Dan Auerbach, and Nashville is the place to be in 2013.
“Cowboy” Jack Clement and Bobby Bare Inducted Into the Country Music Hall of Fame
Yes, two very important players in the rise of country music’s “Outlaw” movement finally got their due this year, and it was especially timely for “Cowboy” Jack Clement who would pass away only a few months after the announcement. Though there is still a long list of worthy inductees that many fans worry will never get in, these two men prove that the Outlaws will not be forgotten, and move other important country music icons one step further to being inducted themselves.
If you feel like the Outlaws of country music have not been dealt a fair deal and they need need a new institution to give them the support and recognition they deserve, your wishes were granted in 2013 when it was announced there will be a new Outlaw Country Music Hall of Fame in Lynchburg, Tennessee coming soon. Nashville may have swept their legacy off the streets like common refuse, but at least somewhere the Outlaws will ride eternally.
If you desire more validation that 2013 is the “Year of the Song,” then behold the overwhelming breakout success of Jason Isbell in 2013. Bolstered by his manager Traci Thomas, a bulldog of the Thirty Tigers group, Jason Isbell is becoming the defining songwriter of our generation. If you ever wished you could go back and re-live the heyday of Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt in their prime, watching Jason Isbell and his 2013 tear is the next best thing.
With radio becoming less and less accessible through every measure of consolidation by Clear Channel and Cumulus, new outlets must open up to support independent music. And they are in 2013, and sometimes in the most uncanny places. David Letterman not only has been giving his stage over to artists like Dale Watson, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Pokey LaFarge, Shovels & Rope, and so many more, he’s been seeking out this talent to play his show as a fan of the music. Where big network TV debuts for independent artists seemed to be a thing of the past, now they seem to be a weekly occurrence.
For those of you who couldn’t bear the thought of waiting another year+ for new music from country music rising star Sturgill Simpson, the music fairy has just left you a sweet little nugget under your country music pillow.
Sturgill has just released two new songs through Bandcamp, affectionately paired together and entitled Bastard Children. The pair includes the previously-unheard “Four Flame Candle,” and “Hey Now.” Hardcore Sturgill fans will remember “Hey Now” from when he initially released it a few days before his debut, breakout album High Top Mountain was released on June 11th, but the track didn’t make it onto the proper album. “Four Flame Candle” also didn’t make the album’s final cut. ” It was one of the first songs I ever wrote. At the time I didn’t think it fit with the album, but now I wish it was on there,” Sturgill told Saving Country Music on the phone from a hotel in Atlanta, waiting for his show tonight at the Eddie’s Attic.
The two songs come from the same High Top Mountain sessions that were recorded at Hillbilly Central in Nashville and were produced by Dave Cobb. “Hey Now” was recorded as a three piece, with Sturgill on guitar, Brian “Freedom Eagle Bear” Allen on bass, and Chris Powell on drums. “Four Flame Candle” features Robby Turner on steel guitar, Country Music Hall of Famer Hargus “Pig” Robbins on Piano, Bobby Emmett on Hammond organ, Kevin Black on bass, and Chris Powell on drums.
Listen below, and make sure to visit Sturgill’s Bandcamp page to pony up for the tracks.
BONUS: New video of Sturgill Simpson with new guitar player, playing “Railroad of Sin”:
If you’ve been wishing for a print magazine that would cover cool up-and-coming country artists right beside the big names, and not just focus on the here and now but take the time to look back on the past greats of the genre, well you may just have received your wish. From the same people that have been publishing England’s high quality and highly-circulated Classic Rock Magazine since 1998 comes Country Music Magazine presented by Classic Rock, with the inaugural issue being released September 11th.
The first issue features a cover story on Johnny Cash and how he fought back from depression and drug addiction to release his two greatest albums At Folsom Prison and At San Quentin. The issues also includes features on Leann Rimes and her new album Spitfire, Kacey Musgraves, Guy Clark, Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, Wanda Jackson, Tony Joe White, and an exclusive interview with pedal steel guitar legend Buddy Emmons.
And best of all, right beside these big names are features on Sturgill Simpson, Austin Lucas, Fifth on the Floor, UK’s My Darling Clementine, Case Hardin, Carrie Rodriguez, and more. UK-based or not, its hard to look at this first issue and accuse them of not knowing their way around country music. The 132-page magazine will also feature a free 15-song CD of the artists it included in each issue.
“The magazine will feature the best writers, photographers, and will document Americana and roots music at its coolest,” says Country Music Magazine Editor, Ed Mitchell. “If it twangs, whines or breaks your heart, it’ll be in the pages of Country Music Magazine”.
There will also be a two hour, weekly radio show that will launch on Sunday September 8th on TeamRock Digital One radio. Hosted by Rob Hughes, who has a wealth of experience presenting country on 6Music as well as contributing to the magazine’s Johnny Cash cover story. The shows content will largely reflect the content of the magazine, playing the songs by the artists interviewed each quarter.
Once again, leave it to European-based organization to take up the slack where the American market has lapsed in covering its own indigenous art forms. As Country Music Magazine is proving, the appeal for true country music from the past and present is international, and deserves more attention. And who knows, you may see some contributions from some of your favorite country music writers you’re already familiar with .
Country Music Magazine can be pre-ordered now for £9.99 (roughly $15 US). Stay tuned for more info about US availability and distribution.
Tomorrow night (Friday 8/23), up-and-coming country music star Sturgill Simpson will be making his debut on the hallowed Grand Ole Opry stage. Introducing him will be Marty Stuart, who says about the event, “Walking out onto the stage of the Grand Ole Opry for the first time is a milestone in any artist’s career. I’ll be cheering for Sturgill Simpson when he makes his debut…have no doubt that it will be a memorable night. I’ll pass along the same words to him that Minnie Pearl often said to new artists before their first appearance on the Opry: ‘Just go out there and love them, and they’ll love you back.’”
But Sturgill’s Opry debut may have an even greater personal significance. To explain, here is Sturgill Simpson on his Opry debut, in his own words.
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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 used to sit me on the couch next to him when I was a child and make me watch Hee-Haw and TNN and tell me which performers were good and which ones were a joke or just holding the guitar as a prop. He spent his entire childhood growing up in Eastern Kentucky so poor it can’t be put into words. They had one radio in the coal camp that every one would gather around every Saturday night and listen to The Grand Ole Opry. He always talked about how The Opry was like magic coming out of that box. I know what it feels like hearing Bill Monroe for the first time on a cd player but it’s tough to imagine what it must have been like hearing that voice blast out of a radio in the 40′s as a nine year old boy. Anyway, he’s been really sick lately so when I got the news he was the first person I called…his words summed it up better than I ever could.
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.”
I made my album for him and no one else and it got me “here”…It aint much but “here” is a place I can go to sleep at night feeling pretty ok with. There is really nothing I can say that captures how proud I feel knowing he lived to see this and that he’ll be standing backstage watching his grandson step into that circle just like every single damn one of the heroes he raised me on has before me. There’s not a whole hell of a lot in this world I take seriously, least of all myself. But this I do,..The Opry is a living testament to the heritage of American Country Music and that’s about as serious as anything can be.
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You can listen to Sturgill Simpson’s Opry debut on WSM Online between 7 PM and 9:15 PM Central Friday (8-23).
Purchase Sturgill’s latest album High Top Mountain.
UPDATE (8/23): Sturgill played “Water I A Well” and “Life Ain’t Fair & The World Is Mean” on the Opry. For those that missed it, it will be archived in about a week or so here: http://www.wsmonline.com/watch-listen/opry/
Here’s a few pictures:
Picture from backstage:
Sturgill Simpson Tour Dates:
Sept. 1 – Rosemary Beach – Rosemary Beach, FL
Sept. 4 – The Altamont – Asheville, NC
Sept. 5 – Scenic City Roots – Chattanooga, TN
Sept. 6 – The New Vintage – Louisville
Sept. 7 – Barley’s Tap Room – Knoxville, TN
Sept. 8 – Eddie’s Attic – Atlanta
Sept. 9 – Georgia Theatre, Rooftop Series – Athens, GA
Sept. 11 – The Evening Muse – Charlotte
Sept. 12 – The Pour House Music Hall – Raleigh, NC
Sept. 19 – Americana Music Festival – Nashville
Sept. 21 – The Groove – Nashville
Sept. 26 – Red Dirt Dance Hall – Tulsa, OK
Sept. 27 – Wormy Dog Saloon – Oklahoma City
Sept. 28 – The Foundry – Dallas
Oct. 1 – The Western – Scottsdale, AZ
Oct. 3 – The Griffin – San Diego
Oct. 3 – The Hotel Cafe – Los Angeles
Oct. 5 – Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival – San Francisco
Oct. 30 – Music City Roots – Nashville
On Monday night the Twitterverse blew up around the occasion of songwriter Jason Isbell recording an upcoming episode of Austin City Limits. The taping was streamed live online, and drew a remarkable amount of attention and praise from the online participants who took the time to tune in. Usually music confined to the online format is at such a distinct disadvantage, it is barely worth your time, and though Austin City Limits’ production value is world-class, this wasn’t what made the event special. Jason Isbell is quite the capable singer, and since he started out as a guitarist for the Drive By Truckers, it’s hard to denounce his musicianship either. His band The 400 Unit was sensational as well, and so was his wife Amanda Shires who sang and played fiddle for the set. But none of this is why the event became a singular experience for those who tuned in.
It was Jason Isbell’s songs and his songwriting that made so many online watchers walk away with one of those feelings you get after watching a stellar movie—where your mind gets so immersed in the experience it is hard to return to the real world. Jason’s songs are also why the event was able to cross traditional barriers of genre and taste. Jason Isbell is on a meteoric rise right now, and even though he finished off the night’s performance with a mostly instrumental cover of The Rolling Stones’ “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking,” Isbell’s ability to evoke story is at the center of his success.
Another artist who is seeing success in 2013 is Sturgill Simpson. I once dubbed Sturgill the “Stevie Ray Vaughn of Country Music” because of his incredible guitar playing. But one of the keys to Sturgill’s rise has been his decision to set the Telecaster down and retool his music to be more about his songs.
Everywhere in the independent music world you’re seeing songwriters who have struggled for years finally starting to get signed to record labels and releasing career-caliber albums: Valerie June, Caitlin Rose, Austin Lucas, Amanda Shires, and the list goes on from there, and they are all in the middle of this emerging and relevant rise of independently-minded Nashville songwriters that more established songwriters like Jason Isbell and Justin Townes Earle are the leaders of. Whereas other sectors of the music industry seem to be gripped by the fear that digitization and streaming may ultimately doom the business of music, talented songwriters are benefiting from the search for the next writer to break out with bold and fresh material, and a renewed belief by the independent industry that songwriting is important, even if it is marginally profitable. Nobody wants to pass up the next Jason Isbell.
The biggest divide between active and passive music listeners might be the conscious awareness of songwriting. Passive listeners just subconsciously connect with a song either physically or emotionally without giving it much thought, while active listeners attempt to determine why. Popular music consistently offering less and less choice and substance is not hindering this trend, it is enhancing it as many listeners are fleeing the mainstream ranks for more thoughtful music, and in turn are becoming aware of what truly makes a song worth hearing. Even ABC’s new prime-time drama Nashville broaches the subject of how songs are written on a regular basis—many times delving into great detail on the process—making consumers more enlightened and engaged about how a song is constructed and why songwriting is important.
The Nashville show has also become a new outlet for original songs as the industry attempts to address the dramatic glut of songwriter material worthy of a wider audience. Many Nashville songwriters in this new, up-and-coming crop were featured on the series’ inaugural season, including Caitlin Rose, Lindi Ortega, and Shovels & Rope. Sales of music may be declining sharply, but royalty rates, especially for songwriters whose material appears on television and movies, remain substantial. And this songwriter resurgence is not just confined to the independent music world. Even in the mainstream, songwriters with more substantive material like Kacey Musgraves and Ashley Monroe made their big debuts in 2013. David Letterman has been featuring more songwriters on his show, including ones who’ve never had a network TV break like Ray Wylie Hubbard, Dale Watson, and Pokey LaFarge.
For every era in music, there is a defining element that sets the standard of what is tasteful and relevant. It could be the presence of a powerful guitar riff, a certain style or tone to the music, a specific thematic thread like feelings of melancholy or happiness, or even a stylistic visual element that has little to do with the music itself. In 2013, in the independent music world and beyond, that defining element appears to be the well-written song.
Welcome to Saving Country Music’s 2013 Pickathon LIVE blog! We will out at Pickathon just outside of Portland, OR all weekend, leaving our thoughts, posting pics, and other bits of information from the fest all weekend.
Check The LIVE Blog below for comments, reviews, and pictures!
The 2013 Pickathon lineup includes names many folks are used to seeing around Saving Country Music, names like Dale Watson, Wayne “The Train” Hancock, Sturgill Simpson, Devil Makes Three, Caleb Klauder, JD McPherson, and many more. But the best part about the Pickathon experience is discovery of new bands. Somehow Pickathon always seem to put together the best combination of artists you already know and love, artist you’ve heard of before and want to check out, and artist you have no idea about but once you give a chance, make you a fan.
It’s also a great mixture between country, bluegrass, folk, rock, indie, jazz, Cajun, and everything else. The other unique thing about the Pickathon experience is there are multiple stages that each has its own specific character, and every artist that performs at Pickathon performs at least twice, and some three times. This makes it hard to miss someone you want to see, while the artists you really want to experience, you get a chance to see them in multiple settings. The Mountain View and Fir Meadows Stages are what you would maybe consider your typical big festival stages, except at Pickathon, you feel like you’re walking around in one big piece of art. The Woods Stage as it sounds, is out in the woods. The Galaxy Barn is like the intimate venue space where all the energy is captured between artist and crowd. And the Workshop Barn is where artists and patrons can interact and you can ask artists questions.
***Please note, all times are Pacific Time. We won’t be offering a play by play of the entire fest, but will do our best to offer frequent updates.
Monday 12:35 PM: Thanks to Terry, Zale, the entire Pickathon crew, all of the hundreds of volunteers, all the amazing bands and artists that once again made the Pickathon the most enjoyable festival experience out there. Aside from getting pretty hot on Sunday, this year’s Pickathon had the best weather of any Pickathon I’ve been to over the years.
They continue to find creative ways to deal with people problems. Their use of projection screens for The Galaxy Barn and supplying monitors for artists and workers backstage kept you engaged with the music even when you couldn’t be right in front of the stage. One of the big concerns last year was dust, which you’re going to have at any festival. This year seemed to be an improvement, and this was probably helped by the weather leading up to and during the fest. Still more could maybe be done, but it was certainly better than last year. Their new performance space, the Pickathon Cafe was probably too much of a success to the point where it needs to be bigger. Instead of being a relaxed environment where people could sit, drink coffee and listen to music, it became like a bullpen as folks scrunched in to watch the music.
But aside from these very minor concerns, they continue to astound you in the forward-thinking and intelligent design of their fest, both in the grounds, and in the lineup and scheduling.
Two guns up!
10:15 PM: Welp folks, we have officially left Pickathon for 2013. Later tonight or tomorrow, we will post some final thoughts. Thanks everyone for following along!
8:52 PM: Bradford Lee Folk & the Bluegrass Playboys in the Galaxy Barn putting the “pick” in Pickathon.
8:49 PM: Tift Merritt wins the award for “Best Guitar At Pickathon” 2013. It is Gibson, probably B25. They started out cherry red, but fade to the color seen over time. The color might be my favorite part about it besides the holes.
6:06 PM: The Felice Brothers tearing up on the main stage right now! Lake Street Dive and Caleb Klauder coming up in the Galaxy Barn.
6:00 PM: We’ve been running around like crazy, taking in as much music as we can before we have to leave town. Below is Leo Rondeau who played an inspired set earlier today in the Galaxy Barn. He had the folks dancing!
4:07 PM: Bradford Lee Folk & the Bluegrass Playboys in the Galaxy Barn were real good. They have a a T-shirt that says, “Sex, Drugs, & Flatt and Scruggs.”
3:07 PM: This front man for The Builders and the Butchers reminds me of Austin Lucas. Not just because he looks like him, but because he sings straight from the gut.
2:55 PM: Foxygen canceled, so we’re getting a set by the Builders & The Butchers from Portland!
1:34 PM: Hanging out with Dale Watson’s band watching Leo Rondeau in the Galaxy Barn. That makes 5 Austin bands seen in 24 hours at Pickathon. Gift Merritt coming up on the live stream.
12:12 PM: Stuff to look forward to today: Leo Rondeau in the Galaxy Barn, Tift Merritt and The Felice Brothers out on the main stages, and if we hold out that long, Lake Street Dive and Caleb Klauder back in the Galaxy Barn! Shinyribs playing right now!
11:00 AM: After 10 PM at night, Pickathon shuts down its main stages and opens the Starlight Stage in the main field by the food court. Sometimes this is an intimate performance, but last night Kurt Vile & The Violators destroyed it on the Starlight stage. Cool band.
10:53 AM: Some more followup from last night.
I want to hate Shinyribs. I really do. I saw them at the Lone Star Music Awards a few months back, and didn’t get it. Watching an old man with a rotund gut swinging around trying to be sexy and playing funky rock & roll just isn’t my thing, and his band looks like it is cobbled together from castaways from the Red Dirt scene (they’re good, but seem out-of-place). It’s just a silly concept that on so many levels doesn’t work. Hell they cover TLC’s “Waterfalls.”
But they have a big following that’s getting bigger, and I’ll be damned last night if they didn’t pull me in. Kev Russell just knows how to put on a show and make you enjoy the music for enjoyment’s sake. They had the Galazy Barn rocking. Great show. (Sorry for the cell phone pic.)
10:34 AM: Camera found! Below is Cedric Watson and Bijou Creole from last night in the Galaxy Barn. Pickathon makes sure to represent all the different parts of the roots world, and you can’t do that without some Cajun music. Cedirc plays accordion and Cajun fiddle (cradling it in his arm, not under his chin), and sings in both English and Creole French. The girl playing washboard also sang a little bit. Good band!
One cool feature they added this year was projection screens outside the Galaxy Barn. At night, the Galaxy Barn would get so packed, not everyone could see. Also this is where they normally have a fire pit, so folks can relax outside around the fire, and watch the music going on right inside.
1:30 AM: Funny picture of Wayne Hancock from Hearth Music: http://instagram.com/p/ckTGrKQtD6/
12:35 AM: The Austin music scene is dead? With Shinyribs, that makes four top-notch acts from Austin that played Pickathon today.
Also, the Saving Country Music official camera is officially lost at the moment. Fault of a faulty zipper on the official Saving Country Music backpack. Maybe it will find its way back, but that piece of gear should have probably been put out to pasture a while ago. The worst part was losing the Cedric Watson photos and a few others. Got some other pics save on the phone, so we’re not dead in the water. We may procure a new camera for tomorrow.
11:00 PM: JD McPherson delivered once again. As much as the punk inside of me wants them to let loose even more, what is cool about JD is he goes right up to the line of punk, but never crosses it. Straightforward, no frills rock & roll, all analog, old school, and awesome.
10:20 PM: Great Cajun music going down in the Galaxy Barn with Cedric Watson. Shinyribs from Austin is watching, ready to go on next. Devil Makes Three just finishing up on the Woods Stage. More pictures coming up!
9:35 PM: JD McPherson and band positively murdered it! Wow.
8:35 PM: Really enjoyed d Andrew Bird’s stuff with Tift and the band. His solo stuff come across as a little too self-indulgent for my tastes.
6:50 PM: Shakey Graves from Austin, TX is a really cool music specimen. Like fellow Austin musician Lincoln Durham, sonically he probably belongs in the underground roots scene. He’s a one man band who plays a suitcase for a bass drum, and bules-style fingerpicking guitar. But he’s grown up outside of those Deep Blues, or underground roots scenes, and if his crowds at a music festival outside of Portland are any indication, his name is getting out there quite well. Pickathon booked him in the their two smallest venues–the Workshop Barn, and the Pickathon Cafe, which is supposed to be a small little spot to relax, drink coffee, and listen to music. Both places were as packed as they could be. I don’t think Pickathon appreciated the draw of Shakey.
6:45 PM: Some follow up from the Dale Watson set: He also said, “We love coming to Pickathon. Every year they seem to improve something.” He also played a new song “Jonesing for Jones” (or at least that’s the lyrical hook). It is a tribute to George Jones.
4:37 PM: We got Shakey Graves coming up! And don’t forget Andrew Bird & JD McPherson are going to be coming up on the broadcast starting at 7:20 PM Pacific!
4:30 PM : Dale Watson just put on what might be one of the best sets so far at this year’s Pickathon. I normally don’t think of Dale Watson as a festival guy. His haunt is more the honky tonks. But being used to playing for three straight hours at The Broken Spoke, or some other honky tonk in Texas, Dale can condense his set down to a potent hour of non-stop fun and country music. And the best part might be that he took time to do his silly Lone Star Beer bit, and a couple of other things to keep the crowd laughing. He went in depth about the whole “Old Farts & Jackasses” story, and explained Ameripolitan for folks. Excellent, excellent set in the Galaxy Barn, which if Pickathon had a honky tonk setting, that would be it.
2:44 PM: Pickathon has a new performance space this year called the Pickathon Cafe. It is between the main field and the Woods Stage, right before you enter the woods around a gaggle of food vendors. Amidst the brambles are The Cactus Blossoms, a great neotraditionalist-style country band. They came recommended by “Lunchbox” down in the comments. Excellent stuff!
2:40 PM: For those of you that missed Wayne Hancock on the live stream, here’s a couple of shots of him on the main stage. The second one is for the bass player’s sweetheart Gigi whose been watching the live blog. That’s Jimmy Karow on bass.
2:36 PM: Tift Merritt was excellent. Another example of women leading country music in the right direction. Amazing band too, great listeners. Perfect, tasteful arrangements to her songs. Also loved her old Gibson guitar.
2:25 PM: Look what just arrived a while ago on the Pickathon grounds! Bunch more pictures and info from around the fest coming up!
12:00 PM: Remember all those pictures we saw from a recent Kenny Chesney concert and all the trash? Well Pickathon generates no trash. None. At all. Maybe a granola bar wrapper here and there, and that’s it. They have all reusable dishes. It’s also a great place to bring your kids, with dedicated kids activities all day.
11:00 AM: Things just getting stirring in earnest around the Pickathon site. Today we’ll be checking out Tift Merritt, Shakey Graves, Dale Watson, JD McPherson, and most importantly, some artists we’ve never heard of before. If you’re watching the live stream: You can find a link to the broadcast schedule above, but most notably don’t miss Wayne Hancock at 1:30 PM Pacific, then Andrew Bird at 7:20 PM, and JD McPherson at 8:40! And don’t forget, part of the Pickathon experience is discovery, so try and watch some folks you don’t know as well!
9:15 AM: No sleep ’till Sunday! We’re shaking the cobwebs out and getting ready to take in Day 2 of Pickathon.
First, some more pictures from last night. Andrew Bird on the Wood’s Stage was phenomenal. Maybe a little fey for some, but he’s a fiddling bluegrass maestro who has one of the best use of dynamics you will find. You also won’t find a better whistler in bluegrass. Joining him on stage for the set was Tift Merritt, who will be playing her own set of music today.
Since we arrived late to the show, we could only get far away and very close up, but hopefully it captured the vibe of a bluegrass show in the deep Pacific Northwest woods at night.
Andrew Bird on Wood’s stage. Tift Merritt with her back to the camera.
1:50 AM: JD McPherson tearing it up at the Galaxy Barn! Hope some of you are watching out there.
12:05 AM: Big picture dump!
Wayne “The Train” Hancock in the Galaxy Barn. Two lead guitar players, and a trumpet. One of the best bands I’ve seen him use outside of Austin. The younger guitar player is Zach Sweeny. Wayne shares him with Lucky Tubb. Zach continues to be one of the best, most unheralded guitar players out there.
The Pickathon canopy over the main stage when it is lit at night.
Devil Makes Three delivered a perfect set. They really deserved this headliner position. Over the last few years they’ve really polished up their live show presentation, and have become one of the most enjoyable bands to see. Simple and honest string music, with just enough of a punk attitude and kick.
Members of the Foghorn String Band and Caleb Klauder Country Band administrated a country square dance in the main field after Devil Makes Three left the stage.
11:00 PM: Been a crazy last hour and a half! Will be dumping down a ton of pictures here in a while. Devil Makes Three for those who missed it live, Andrew Bird, and much more. For those late night revelers, JD McPherson will be coming up on the live stream at 1 AM.
9:30 PM: I’ve seen Devil Makes Three go though some phases. They are on it more now than ever. They also gave a cool shout out to Sturgill Simpson from the main stage.
9:05 PM: Wayne Hancock just let out, heading over to see Devil Makes Three! Will post some more pics soon!
7:30 PM: Caleb Klauder just finishing up in the Workshop Barn, and we’re headed over to the Galaxy Barn to save our spot in front of the stage for Wayne Hancock!
7:22 PM: Pictures! Sturgill Simpson chopped his hair. So did the rest of the band. Pics from Pickathon’s Woods Stage.
Lake Street Dive really killed it on the Woods Stage.
6:20 PM: I didn’t think it was humanly possible for Lake Street Dive to be better than they were last year, but they are. They said they’ve had the best year ever last year, and it started with last year’s performance at Pickathon.
6:00 PM: Wayne Hancock coming up at 8PM, and for those watching online, at 8:50 you will be able to see Devil Makes Three.
5:45 PM: Shakey Graves was so packed, couldn’t get in. We’ll have to catch him at his next set tomorrow. Back at the Woods Stage to see the great Lake Street Dive. They were one of the biggest takeaways from Pickathon 2012.
5:00 PM: Watching Sturgill Simpson tear it up on the Woods Stage. No lead guitarist, it’s just a three piece.
3:20 PM: To wet your whistle a little bit, here is a video I took of Sturgill Simpson in Sunday Valley from Pickathon 2011 in the Galaxy Barn: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RAtbG4l6AiE
3:15 PM : Here’s a cool video of how the main Pickathon grounds look from the air: http://youtu.be/BL7yrB7PVjM
If you needed any more proof that The Svengali of Country Music, one Shooter Jennings is all about creating a cult of personality and pursuing his name as product, just sit back and appreciate that in this recessionary economy when many artists are slashing ticket prices and making themselves more accessible, Shooter is now asking his hard working fans for $85 simply for the opportunity to shake his hand right before his show and walk away with a tote bag. Yes, quite a hefty price tag for someone who has recently been touting himself as a proponent for independent, grassroots music.
Announced a few days ago, “VIP meet & greet packages” are being offered at many of Shooter’s upcoming appearances, including at the Muddy Roots Festival this late August. What do you get for your $85? A T-shirt, a tote bag, 5 guitar picks (that grand total will cost Shooter less than $12-$15 wholesale), and this is my favorite one, an “Invitation to pre-show private shopping experience.” That’s right folks, for your hard earned $85, you get the exclusive opportunity to spend even more money on Shooter’s merch. What you don’t get for $85? Actual admittance to the show. That will cost you extra. So will the tacked on fees for buying the VIP ticket. After a transaction and convenience fee, the actual cost for a Shooter photo op is $90.64.
For an artist of Shooter’s size, and even ones many steps above him on the music food chain, this type of arrogant cash grab from fans is absolutely unparalleled. Furthermore, Shooter Jennings specifically asking to be dealt with in this manner of privilege at the Muddy Roots Festival is a complete insult to the standing culture and spirit of that particular festival, and all grassroots festivals for that matter. One of the things that makes grassroots festivals such an enjoyable experience is that nobody is above anyone, there are no VIP perks, and fans and artists interact freely.
Even more curious, the Muddy Roots Festival is one of the few events that Shooter has decided to purposely promote this $85 package for.
In May of 2011, SCM interviewed the Galaz brothers who are the promoters of Muddy Roots. They spoke specifically about the access the festival gives fans to the artists:
Anthony: The fans and bands were together. There was no barricade, no barrier, no VIP sections backstage. And that’s what gave the people who made the pilgrimage to Cookeville from whatever state or country such an experience, because all the bands they listen to, they could just go up and talk to them and hang out with them. There’s was nobody that was “too cool.” There were no pedestals.
Jason: I like that, there were no pedestals. It wasn’t, “Hey, there’s rock stars, let’s look at them, but we can’t talk or touch them.”
In August of 2011, SCM interviewed Zale Schoenborn, the promoter of the Pickathon Festival in Portland that this year is featuring Dale Watson, Wayne Hancock, Sturgill Simpson, Caleb Klauder, and many other country acts in a diverse lineup. Zale spoke specifically on how separating artists from fans and setting up VIP perks erodes the festival experience for everyone.
We designed the (Pickathon) space to where you come in and relate to the space without a lot of barriers. And that includes the artists. We don’t wall them off, we don’t have VIP sections, but we do create some communal spaces, and when the artists come out they’re part of the audience. It’s very common sense type stuff. It’s like what you would do if you were hosting people at your house. When people are planning it from X’s and O’s, those decisions about the human element fall to the numbers side. It’s unfortunate because those little things are what people tend to take away.
At last year’s Muddy Roots fest, the 86-year-old country music icon Ralph Stanley stayed after his set and signed every piece of memorabilia brought before him, and took pictures with anyone that wanted one, with no time limit, and no money changing hands for the autographs or photos. So did many of the other bands that played the festival. At Pickathon, after each performer plays, they go to a designated merch area where fans can get memorabilia signed and take pictures with the artists.
The meet and greet marketing tool is traditionally only reserved for large corporate country music festivals and top headliner names way beyond the sphere of Shooter Jennings who is a mid-level club draw at best. Many artists selling out arenas don’t even ask for this type of cash for meet and greets, if they even give their fans the option at all. Many times the meet and greet is for certain members of a fan club or an artist’s message board who have proved their fandom over the years. Even Taylor Swift has a system that rewards the loyalty of fans instead of wealth. At each concert, Swift has a team of people that fan out across the venue looking for attendees that show the most spirit, and hand select them for a free meet and greet opportunity after the show.
Kid Rock made headlines recently announcing he was charging only $20 for tickets for his summer tour, and was also working with venues and promoters to lower prices on food, beverages, and merchandise. “It’s gotten out of hand, price of concerts, the price of entertainment, period,” Kid Rock says. “I’ve been very fortunate, I’ve always tried to keep prices what I think are fair, and I’ve always said I’m proud that I can walk around with my head held high and look someone in the eye, knowing that I haven’t taken an un-honest dollar from a working man. I make a lot of money, I can take a pay cut. All my friends are taking pay cuts, that are in unions, that are farming in Alabama, whatever it is. I can surely take a pay cut, too.”
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Expect the next thing from Shooter to be an explanation of how this was all the result of a snafu between him and his marketing arm, or that he will offer even more incentives now, drop the price, or donate the proceeds to charity, and make a big point of shaking people’s hands at shows who didn’t pay the exorbitant fee, because like all of Shooter’s gross missteps, they’re always followed by a cavalcade of excuses and explanations that his surrogates, sycophants, and toadies always believe, while his underlying approach to selling himself as product and using the names of others as stepping stones remains the same.
Like I have always said to independent and underground music entities, you don’t need Shooter Jennings, Shooter Jennings needs you. Like a politician, Shooter has been out kissing babies. Taking artists out to Chuck E Cheese and buying bloggers drinks, playing artists on his radio show and shaking hands with fans over the last few years was simply setup to an opportunity to cash out on the backs of well-meaning underground roots artists, fans, and entities. And if this latest evidence doesn’t prove this to Shooter apologists, nothing will.
I once heard the worse thing a man could do is draw a hungry crowd
Tell everyone his name, pride, and confidence, but leaving out his doubt
I’m not sure I bought those words, when I was young I knew most everything
These words have never meant as much to anyone, as they now mean to me
Since Saving Country Music is in tune with the plight of the common man, and know many of Shooter’s fans would love to get their picture with him but can’t pay the exorbitant fee, we are manufacturing a life-sized, transportable photo-op of the picture below, to be provided at Shooter Jennings’ live performances. Poor, hapless Shooter fans and their friends can simply stick their faces through the provided holes, and have the next best thing to getting their picture taken with the Country Music Svengali himself. And it’s all free! (sorry, no tote bags will be given away)
(7-11-13 9:20 PM CDT): Shooter Jennings and/or his management have decided to drop the offer of VIP packages at festivals. As I said above, “Expect the next thing from Shooter to be an explanation of how this was all the result of a snafu between him and his marketing arm,” and on cue, Shooter surrogate Jon Hensley explains, “There was a miscommunication between myself and the company that makes these VIP upgrades possible.” You can read Jon Hensley’s entire statement below.
With no malice or mincing of words, I commend Shooter Jennings and/or his management for seeing that these VIP upgrades at grassroots festivals were unfair, unfeasible, and against the spirit of independent country and roots music. Though I still believe the price Shooter is asking for his VIP upgrade is egregious and unparalleled for an artist his size, and that the whole culture of VIP treatment has no place in independent roots music, the elimination of the option for festivals helps preserve the camaraderie and the independent spirit that makes these festivals so enjoyable for fans, and gives them a unique experience in music where all patrons are treated equal.
Jon Hensley’s statement:
Just to clarify…we are not offering any VIP ticket upgrades at any festival Shooter Jennings is playing this year or any year. There was a miscommunication between myself and the company that makes these VIP upgrades possible. But, they will ONLY be available for club and theater dates. To any son of a bitch that has a problem with us offering these upgrades you should talk to any of the fans that have actually purchased one. Ask them if they felt like their money was well spent. It is totally laughable that some stupid asshole hiding behind a computer thinks he has the right to tell Shooter’s fans how they should or should not spend their own hard earned money. This is a business and at the end of the day we all have to make smart business decisions to survive. Offering an optional concert ticket upgrade to loyal fans is not wrong or unheard of and no matter what anybody thinks about it we will continue to offer the upgrades until the world comes to an end. And, if any “blogger” has a problem with them they can address it face to face. All you have to do is purchase the ticket upgrade and see us at the meet and greet.
I have no problem meeting someone face to face and explaining my grievances with Shooter’s VIP package, but to act like not doing this initially is some sort of move of cowardice is pretty high school. Where is Jon Hensley at the moment? Is he within driving distance? I don;t have a problem meeting him, but maybe the matter is more practical to deal with through the miracle of internet. Also, nobody is hiding behind a screen. Last weekend I was out in public at Willie Nelson’s 4th of July Picnic for 12 straight hours. I’ve been at 4 of the last 5 Pickathon Festivals, the last 2 Muddy Roots Festivals, SXSW a dozen or so times, and live events on a regular basis. If someone wants to come and speak to me in person, I am very accessible, wherever I am. And I don;t say anything on this website that I wouldn’t say to anyone’s “face.”
You know how you may root for a hometown sports team for years even though they’re terrible, and then out of the blue when they start to get good you don’t know how to behave because you’ve identified with losing for so long? Well that is what is happening in 2013 with many of the artists Saving Country Music and so many loyal fans have been following for years. Acts that we got in a habit of using as evidence of how the industry was woefully neglecting legitimate talent are now finally starting to find success, reshaping our theories on music’s downward spiral.
There is still much to do, but in 2013 we can find signs hope in the success of these artists.
When Saving Country Music named Hellbound Glory’s Old Highs & New Lows its 2010 Album of the Year, we were hoping someday the Reno, NV-based band might find the bigger audience they deserved, but who knew that only a few years later they would be playing to sold out arenas as an opening act on a Kid Rock tour. Hellbound Glory’s road was winding, and with the strength of front man Leroy Virgil’s songs they could still grow from here, but 2013 is the year we will point back on as the time they finally got their boot in the door.
With all the talk of 2013 being the “Year of the Woman” in country music, Caitlin Rose’s name has been appearing right beside names like Ashley Monroe and Kacey Musgraves as evidence that country’s new crop of women are the ones restoring substance to the genre. Once thought of as the UK’s best kept independent country secret, Caitlin’s scope is now coast to coast here across the pond as the songs from her critic’s favorite The Stand-In speak to a wide audience with both accessibility and smarts. Working with the Dave Matthews-backed ATO Records, Caitlin’s voice is finally starting to find an audience, and with a voice like hers, the sky is the limit.
There is nobody in roots music who has worked harder, toured more, come so close to finally getting his break so many times, and deserves the sweet rewards of success more than Austin Lucas. Though Austin had received some fortunate breaks in the past touring on Chuck Ragan’s Revival Tour and the Country Throwdown Tour, a year ago after seeing Austin Lucas deliver an inspiring show at Austin, TX’s Mowhawk club, he confided in me he was concerned if his music would ever stick, and how he was growing older by the day. The very next show Austin played resulted in him eventually being signed to New West Records, who is scheduled to release his latest album Stay Reckless on August 27th. Austin Lucas is a positive example of why you never give up, and how the power of the song can still override the concerns of the traditionally shallow music industry.
If there is one artist symbolizing hope for real country music in 2013, it is Sturgill Simpson. Like all of these artists, he’s put the hard work in as well, but the biggest lesson to take away from Sturgill’s success is to never settle for second best, and to believe in yourself. By allowing his music and personality to remain more of an enigma than a known quantity, Sturgill was able to make sure he wasn’t boxed in to any scene or subtext so when the time was right he could present his music to the world on his terms. Working with Thirty Tigers, and having been out on tour with folks like Dwight Yoakam and Junior Brown, Strugill is building a formidable career in country music.
Valerie June received the mother of all opportunities in 2013 when she was asked to appear in front of a national audience as part of an intimate duet with Eric Church at this years ACM Awards. But that might just be the beginning for Valerie, whose highly-anticipated album Pushing Against A Stone set to be released on August 13th is already receiving buzz from big media outlets like Billboard and NPR. Like Ashley Monroe and Caitlin Rose, Valerie June is primed to join the class of inspiring up-and-coming country women taking shape in 2013.
Country music savior and critically-acclaimed songsmith Sturgill Simpson has been making waves all over the country with his new breakout album High Top Mountain released on June 11th, and now he threatens to take the high-flying act international by boarding a puddle jumper and puttering over to the Land of the Rising Sun to record the video for his heart-pounding, hot plate, house on fire, country as hell, soon to be hit single “Railroad of Sin.” ‘Godzillabilly’ is what’s he’s patterning the theme, as the Kentucky native and Nashville resident takes a high arching swan dive deep into culture shock.
Johnny Cash may have not been born in Nagasaki, and bullet trains may not be equipped with lonesome whistles, but the Orient is where Hank Jr. picked up his official nickname for Waylon Jennings: “Watashin!” which means, “old #1″ and you’d be hard pressed to find a more modern resemblance to Waymore than one Sturgill Simpson. So keep clear of the closing doors, strap in tight, and get ready to speed away on Sturgill Simpson’s “Railroad of Sin.”
2013 has come on strong here recently for quality albums, with some real contenders for the coveted “Album of the Year” distinction released just in the last week. Any “Best Of” album list for 2013 is also going to reflect the leadership and creativity displayed by country music women, which has become one of the year’s underlying themes so far.
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, for example John Moreland’s In The Throes that many are hyping as an Album of the Year candidate. And please feel free to leave your opinions and suggestions about what are the best albums of 2013 so far down below.
The Mavericks – In Time
“Some bands like to espouse themselves “defying genre,” when many times this is just a front for lacking a musical compass or an original sound, hoping disparate elements will meld together simply from the uniqueness of the experience. That is not the case with The Mavericks. Every one of their songs is a country song. Every one is a Latin song. And every one is rock n’ roll, all the way through. It’s because their influences overlay each other in parallel layers instead of being haphazardly mixed together. They aren’t a blend of genres, they’re every classic genre all at the same time.
“This is not just a great album for The Mavericks, it is a great addition to the American songbook as an example of the melting pot of cultures that have come together to birth some of the most vibrant and compelling music heard by man.” (read full review)
Sturgill Simpson – High Top Mountain
“Real country fans are just going to have to get comfortable with the new reality that their favorite music is on a surprising uptick. No more mopey faces, no more plotting midnight graffiti runs to Music Row as retribution for keeping your favorite artists down. Regardless of what kind of filth is still transpiring on country radio, a new spring of vibrant, independent country music is blooming and finding surprising support, and there may not be a better example of this new season than Kentucky native Sturgill Simpson and his breakout album High Top Mountain.
“Emerging from the coal region of Kentucky, to working on trains in Utah, to Nashville, TN to tackle the nasty business of trying to make it in music, Sturgill’s path has been windy, but like the stitches on the cover of High Top Mountain, it has lead to a sunny ending of seeing the realizations of his dreams—dreams that we all benefit from in the form of a great new gift of country music.” (read full review)
Caitlin Rose – The Stand-In
“Ladies and gentlemen, Caitlin Rose has arrived. It may take some time for the rest of the world to wake up to this realization. But they will. The strength of The Stand-In assures it. The Stand-In is frighteningly good. It’s an enterprise in the evocation of rich human emotions, interwoven with delicious hooks and intelligent riffs, stirring vocal performances delivering meaningful, elevated lyricism, and a towering production performance that may go down in the history books. Just simply… Wow.
“It’s really hard to look at this album and not see it as a springboard. This is Caitlin Rose’s moment. She’s no stand in, she’s an A1 girl. Caitlin Rose is in full bloom on The Stand-In.” (read full review)
Jason Isbell – Southeastern
“On Southeastern Isbell goes right for the gut with an elegiac knife, thrusting and stabbing in a morose and unrelenting ritual of emotional evocation. Southeastern is downright suffocating in spots in its weight. It is bold, and merciless in how in preys on the faint-of heart, and can make a faint-of-heart out of even the most devout Stoics…It’s potent enough that it doesn’t need additional content to keep you entertained for longer because even when you walk away from it, the songs are still playing in your head, and the emotions it conjures are still ripe.
“Completely unfair Isbell, completely unfair. And selfish too. You should have saved some of these songs for others.” (read full review)
Eric Strickland – I’m Bad For You
“Eric Strickland is Country with a capital ‘C’ and couldn’t make a bad album if he tried. He may be more locally-oriented than the other big names in honky tonk music, but gives up nothing to his more well-known comrades when it comes to cutting songs and records….At the heart of Strickland’s appeal is his ability to take what on the surface may seem like tired, clichè country themes, and give them a fresh, new feel.
“Real deal, true blood, hard driving, but daring to be sweet in moments, Eric Strickland and The ‘B’ Sides are doing their part to save country music. Now it’s time to do your part by giving them your ear and attention.” (read full review)
The Dinosaur Truckers – The Dinosaur Truckers
“Can four dudes from Germany make American roots music and still be authentic? Do they have the ear, the personal history, the DNA, the dirt under their fingernails to do what American-based string bands do, or will they be forever relegated to being once removed from the American musical experience? If The Dinosaur Truckers and their new self-titled LP are any indication, the answer would be “Ja! Natürlich!”
“German or not, The Dinosaur Truckers give up nothing to their cross-ocean string band brethren, and maybe could even teach a thing or two to some of the awful punk-gone-country string bands who bring the energy and anger, but not the songwriting and attention to detail. The Dinosaur Truckers are the full package.” (read full review)
Jason Boland & The Stragglers – Dark & Dirty Mile
“If Red Dirt spans a wide sonic palette that ranges from hard country to straight rock n’ roll—with alt-country, country rock, Southern rock, and even some country pop thrown in between—then Jason Boland is the hard-edged bookened defining Red Dirt’s country border. In other words, it is pretty difficult to be more country than Jason Boland and the Stragglers.
“You know what you’re going to get from a Jason Boland show and a Jason Boland song. Dark & Dirty Mile continues on with that consistency and strength, and assures that as Red Dirt grows and ages, Jason Boland & The Stragglers will still be one of the movement’s premier acts, and one preserving the country roots in the Red Dirt legacy.” (read full review)
Jayke Orvis & The Broken Band – Bless This Mess
“With stability and a shared vision of making a band around Jayke’s music, but one where all musicians are treated as equal, Jayke Orvis & The Broken Band have re-captured the fervor and spellbinding performance aspect that made the .357 String Band such a force of music nature. If anything, The Broken Band may be taking it a step further with a deeper attention to composition, pushing all four players to the edge of their abilities, and the edge of human capability itself…” (read full review)
Holly Williams – The Highway
“Before this album, I’d been mostly opinion neutral on Holly Williams. Being the granddaughter of Hank Williams, the daughter of Hank Jr., and the sister of Hank3 appointed her music the respect of more than a cursory look. The pedigree runs too deep in that family to handle her otherwise.
‘The Highway’ puts Holly Williams smack dab in the middle of this revolutionary crop of young women that threatens to completely shake up the country music world and mindset. Along with Kacey Musgraves, Caitlin Rose, and Ashley Monroe, Holly Williams now has a career-caliber album that exemplifies the leadership and creativity coming from country’s young women.” (read full review)
Other Notable 2013 Albums So Far
- Wayne Hancock’s Ride
- Ashley Monroe’s Like A Rose
- Carolina Still’s The Color of Rust
- The Carper Family’s Old-Fashioned Gal
- The Ten Foot Polecats Undertow
- Willie Nelson’s Let’s Face The Music & Dance
- The Deadstring Brothers’ Cannery Row
- Rattleshack’s Rattleshack
- Fifth On The Floor’s Ashes & Angels
- Son Volt’s Honky Tonk
- Nellie Wilson’s Not This Time
- The Highballer’s Soft Music & Hard Liquor
- Olds Sleeper’s Before & After The Here And Now
- Ray Lawrence Jr.’s More Raw Stuff
- Dale Watson’s El Rancho Azul
- Jimbo Mathus’s The White Buffalo
- Daniel Romano’s Come Cry With Me
- Roger Alan Wade’s Southbound Train
- Amber Digby – The World You’re Living In
- Kacey Musgraves – Same Trailer, Different Park
Real country fans are just going to have to get comfortable with the new reality that their favorite music is on a surprising uptick. No more mopey faces, no more plotting midnight graffiti runs to Music Row as retribution for keeping your favorite artists down. Regardless of what kind of filth is still transpiring on country radio, a new spring of vibrant, independent country music is blooming and finding surprising support, and there may not be a better example of this new season than Kentucky native Sturgill Simpson and his breakout album High Top Mountain.
The front man for the wanton and reckless Sunday Valley project is all growns up, and lays down a fiercely traditional, hardcore honky tonk album slathered with steel guitar, country keys from Hall of Famer Hargus “Pig” Robbins, and whatever else is called for and in ample measure to give life and color to Sturgill’s blue ribbon offerings.
There’s very little that is gray about the Sturgill Simpson experience. Mid tempos and mild themes need not apply. Either he’s barreling down on you like a freight train at a breakneck tempo, or he’s grabbing hold of ventricles and tugging hard. This isn’t too far off from the Sunday Valley approach, but like Sturgill says in the High Top Mountain song “Time After All,” “I’m sick of the clanging, can’t take no more banging. I’m tired of yelling over the top of that backline.” With Sunday Valley, you heard. With Sturgill Simpson, you listen. Subtly and the importance of songcraft is more respected on High Top Mountain, without fully tempering the fever that still boils behind Sturgill’s eyes.
The Waylon comparisons already abound with High Top Mountain, in both style and sound, which shows you that the slightly more settled approach to the music did its job of emphasizing the best parts of Sturgill’s music instead of having them blurred out. Still the songs of High Top Mountain come at you hard and fast, touching every point on the emotional array, and shifting gears from slow and sad, to fast and frenzied with surprising alacrity.
Though established Sturgill fans may prefer a different version of the “Life Ain’t Fair and the World Is Mean” opening track, fresh ears will feast on its cunning lyrics and crafty pedal-steel break. “Railroad of Sin” and “You Can Have The Crown” are downright barn burning good times, with the latter providing what may turn out be one the album’s biggest lyrical takeaways, “So Lord if I could just get me a record deal, I might not have to worry about my next meal, but I’d still be trying to figure out what the hell rhymes with ‘Bronco.’”
The other side of the spectrum is represented in the heartfelt “Water in a Well,” and the deeply-personal tribute “Hero.” There’s a lot of coal dust smeared on these songs, from the opening track that talks about Sturgill’s mother being a coal miner’s daughter, to the heart-wrenching “Old King Coal.” It’s seems only appropriate that the heart of High Top Mountain would be a big black nugget considering Sturgill’s Kentucky roots.
And the scariest thing is that however good this album is, Sturgill probably still left some talent on the shelf. He’ll tell you his guitar playing is novice compared to the caliber of pickers he’s surrounded with in his new home of Nashville, but I have to respectfully disagree. Though technically he may be junior to some players, when it comes to taste and originality, Sturgills bluegrass-inspired style of takeoff Telecaster is something few of the slickest session players could ever touch. You only get a nibble of this when Sturgill is holding an acoustic, but it’s give and take because the acoustic allows you to focus more on the song.
Not every track on High Top Mountain is world beating. “Sitting Here Without You” seems a little cliché. Some ears may get the wrong impression from the use of Mellotron on some tracks—an analog and mechanical tape-based organ-like instrument that re-creates the sound of an orchestra. Some may mistake it for synthesizer, some may think it hits too close to “The Nashville Sound.” But for those who pick up on it and identify the tone, it’s a cool little treat that gives High Top Mountain a vintage country feel without the stuffiness of an actual string section, elevating the cool factor of this album even further.
Emerging from the coal region of Kentucky, to working on trains in Utah, to Nashville, TN to tackle the nasty business of trying to make it in music, Sturgill’s path has been windy, but like the stitches on the cover of High Top Mountain, it has lead to a sunny ending of seeing the realizations of his dreams—dreams that we all benefit from in the form of a great new gift of country music.
Two guns up!
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I’m not sure if how light the selection is for potential Song of the Year candidates at the halfway marker says how anemic 2013 has been so far for top flight songs, or how fortunate we were in 2012 to have such a strong field. I could only find five true candidates, and two of those candidates qualified for being 2013 songs on technicalities. But despite the lack of quantity, quality is certainly represented in these five songs, and 2013 promises to come on strong in the latter half with some excellent songwriters releasing new albums.
When we say “best songs,” we’re not just looking for those catchy tunes you can’t take off of repeat, we’re looking for songs that changes your life. Any thoughts on additions, omissions, and your own individual lists are encouraged below in the comments section.
Holly Williams – “Drinkin’” – from The Highway
This is one of those songs every other songwriter beats themselves up for not writing. Beautifully complex in its simplicity, both enigmatically deep and pleasantly colloquial, Holly Williams proves the Williams’ bloodline is still virile with an unconventional tune with universal impact on the weary soul yearning for respite. Where has Holly Williams been? She may have taken the roundabout way to finding herself, but she’s here now, and our ears couldn’t be happier.
Sturgill Simpson – “Life Ain’t Fair and the World Is Mean”
from High Top Mountain
Due to a technicality in Saving Country Music’s vast and complex bylaws, even though this song was considered for Song of the Year in 2012, since it isn’t being officially released on an album until this year, it qualifies to be considered again.
“The magic of “Life Ain’t Fair” is the way it trivializes all the issues it raises by simply pointing out the obvious: that life’s unfairness is inherent, and complaining about it or using it as an excuse to not pursue your dreams is foolish. It’s cynical and inspirational all at the same time, and that feat of acrobatics can’t be performed without some acute dexterity and prowess with the pen.” (read full review)
Josh Abbott Band – “I’ll Sing About Mine”
Written by Adam Hood and Brian Keane, “I’ll Sing About Mine” appears on 2012′s Small Town Family Dream, but was released as a single with a new video in early 2013.
“The great thing about “I’ll Sing About Mine” is the non-judgmental, even-keeled manner with which it delivers its message. It takes a lot of patience and a lot of heart to say what this song says without flying off the handle or flipping birds. It makes its point with as few pointed words as possible… It understands that really, few words need to be said, because deep down every human knows what’s real and what isn’t. They just have to be reminded, and then the momentum of the truth will do the rest.” (read full review)
Caitlin Rose – “I Was Cruel” – from The Stand-In
Picking a best song off of The Stand-In is like asking a rainbow its favorite color. The intelligent and enjoyable “Only A Clown” could just as well be slotted here, but being more of a rock selection, we’re instead going to tip the hat to the pedal-steel drenched “I Was Cruel.” To have a great song, it must deliver a moment. And “I Was Cruel” delivers the mother of all moments at the very end. How are Caitlin Rose tunes not spread all over the radio?
The Dinosaur Truckers – “Leave Everything Behind”
The Dinosaur Truckers have been Germany’s best kept country music secret for too long, and their 2013 self-titled release is the perfect excuse for American ears to get acquainted with this band that can do country and bluegrass better than many outfits stateside. “Leave Everything Behind” doesn’t lurch out at you as some immediately-recognizable standout composition, but after a few listens, you find the song has the ability to burrow deep into the memories you purposely stow away and try to not dwell on, mining the true emotion there and reminding you that sometimes you’d rather feel pain than feel nothing.
Over the last few months we have finally begun to see a few success stories be made of some excellent songwriters that sat under the radar for way too long—folks like Sturgill Simpson and Leroy Virgil of Hellbound Glory. If you were looking for another name of a songwriter that’s been criminally overlooked for too long, and has that uncompromising honky tonk sound like Dale Watson and Whitey Morgan, then the man you seek is North Carolina’s Eric Strickland, and his backing band The ‘B’ Sides.
Eric Strickland is Country with a capital ‘C’ and couldn’t make a bad album if he tried. He may be more locally-oriented than the other big names in honky tonk music, but gives up nothing to his more well-known comrades when it comes to cutting songs and records.
At the heart of Strickland’s appeal is his ability to take what on the surface may seem like tired, clichè country themes, and give them a fresh, new feel. Take “whiskey” for example, maybe the most worn out word in country music. His last album Honky Tonk Till I Die ends with the song “Drinkin’ Whiskey” that went on to be nominated for SCM’s 2012 Song of the Year. Strickland starts off I’m Bad For You right where the last album ended, with the excellent booze-drenched “The Whiskey Seems To Always Change My Mind,” pulling you in with its walking bass line in the chorus and cutting, true lyrics.
Strickland serenades even harder stuff later on the album with another standout, the chicken-picking “Methamphetamines.” This leads into the album’s best ballad, “Brandy On My Mind” written by ‘B’ side guitarist and harmonizer Gary Braddy. The song “I’m Bad For You” is another great honky tonk classic belted out with just as much bravado as honesty.
The album concludes in two rousing live tracks–a real treat because as Eric Strickland fans can attest, as good as his albums are, his live show may even be better. His backing band The ‘B’ Sides are more seasoned than some bands that play 280 shows per year. All you you need to do is listen to their rendition of Little Richard’s “Lucille” and you’ll hear it for yourself. It’s got some of those moments that make it feel like a feather is being raked on the back of your neck. It’s followed by an excellent live version of “18 Wheel of Hell On The Highway” from Eric’s last album.
One concern with I’m Bad For You is that after the first song, the album slows the tempo down, and stays there for quite a while. No song is bad, but this doesn’t really allow the album to suck you in. But with the overall line up of stellar songs on this album, it rivals any other released so far in 2013.
Real deal, true blood, hard driving, but daring to be sweet in moments, Eric Strickland and The ‘B’ Sides are doing their part to save country music. Now it’s time to do your part by giving them your ear and attention.
Two guns up.
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For years we took for granted that the mainstream music industry was in a calamitous free fall, spiraling towards cataclysmic implosion. We were so sure of this diagnosis, we used it as the crux of all our music theories. Then lo and behold, the industry figured out how to pull out of the tailspin, and independent artists that years before we’d never dream of seeing getting big breaks began to get noticed. Hellbound Glory has been out on arena tours. Sturgill Simpson is touring with Dwight Yoakam. The Alabama Shakes are playing SNL, Shovels & Rope is playing ACL, and everyone is playing Letterman. All of a sudden it’s not appropriate to be so sullen about the direction of music.
But if you’re looking for an act that is still virtually unknown, one that is buried deep in the underground and that embodies the raw energy of the roots movement and not just a commercially-viable watered-down derivative, one whose active ingredient still works on even the most hardened of roots addicts, then Jayke Orvis and The Broken Band might be your drug.
A founding member and the mandolin player for the groundbreaking .357 String Band, Jayke Orvis may have taken a long and windy road to finding his way in the music world, but if his current sonic output is any evidence, he has found his path, and it is righteous. What made the .357 String Band so singular was that it was four dudes testing the very limits of human ability with instrumentation, while positively debilitating you with the emotion of their songwriting. When Orivs was undutifully released from .357 (the band eventually disbanded in late 2011), he became more of a singer/songwriter type of performer, sometimes favoring the guitar over his mandolin.
As the name alluded, Jayke’s “Broken Band” was a hodgepodge of plug-in players that all did dutiful jobs, but never had the stability to congeal enough to hone in on everything that the music could be. Orvis himself was a revolving member of the Gothic roots outfit The Goddamn Gallows, and regularly borrowed from their players for his Broken Band on dual Orvis/Gallows tours. The collaborations were enthralling and memorable in their own right, but never allowed Jayke the intimate focus on his own music that it needed to realize its true potential.
Jayke finally declared earlier this year that he was taking his last tour with the Gallows, and trained his attention solely on a solid, permanent Broken Band lineup that includes guitarist James Hunnicutt, and former Bob Wayne Outlaw Carnies’ Liz Sloan and Jared McGovern on fiddle and upright bass respectively. With stability and a shared vision of making a band around Jayke’s music, but one where all musicians are treated as equal, Jayke Orvis & The Broken Band have re-captured the fervor and spellbinding performance aspect that made the .357 String Band such a force of music nature. If anything, The Broken Band may be taking it a step further with a deeper attention to composition, pushing all four players to the edge of their abilities, and the edge of human capability itself, balanced by slow and mid-tempo songwriter material.
Jayke Orvis & The Broken Band are the underground roots equivalent of the Punch Brothers, and are one of the top tier performers of the underground sub-genre. But as Jayke explains, he’s not looking for recognition from the Americana Music Association or berths on arena tours with big country names. “I want to open for Slayer,” Jayke told me right after their live set at Austin, TX’s Scoot Inn on 5/06. “Well I mean that may be a little hard now, but I want to show punk and metal kids that roots music can be cool.”
As the overall roots world seems to be benefiting from a rising tide, it’s not hard to wonder if some of the best of the underground are being left behind, and how long this rising tide will last before the popularity arch begins to fade. Jayke Orvis is one of those artists who has stuff that could catch fire. He’s one that could benefit when roots fans conclude that Mumford & Sons just doesn’t have the mustard to hold their attention long-term.
Jayke Orvis & The Broken Band recently released their 2nd album, Bless This Mess on Farmageddon Records. His first album It’s All Been Said constituted the formation of that record label. Though the album has officially been out for a while, you won’t find it on Amazon or iTunes. You can’t stream it on Spotify or Pandora. I secured my copy at a live show, and was told there was only a few more copies left in their merch bag before they would be able to restock in a few days. A good problem to have in some respects, but one that makes the outreach of the music problematic when people can’t get it.
Bless This Mess didn’t have a well-promoted release date, if any true release date at all. No promotional push paralleled its availability. No review copies were sent out to independent music outlets, including Saving Country Music which named Jayke Orvis its 2010 Artist of the Year. In 2013, statistics show that for every song bought, 100 are streamed, and that albums that are streamed for free prior to their release sell more copies. To not make an album available at all digitally puts the album and the artist at an unparallelled disadvantage. This does not necessarily mean this is neglect on the part of Jayke or his label. All of this very well may be on purpose, and I’m sure it will be available digitally eventually. But the point of releasing music is to get it in as many hands as possible, and an artist holds no more potent promotional tool than when they release an album.
When I loaded Bless This Mess into my computer, the tracks were unmarked. I got “Unknown Artist” and “Unknown Songs” with the track times and numbers. If the idea is that this is an underground approach to releasing music, this is somewhat misguided. Jello Biafra was such a genius because he was able to get his music right beside the music of big labels in record stores by doing it the right way. Legions of hopeful artists with awful music release albums every day that in no way reach the quality level of Bless This Mess, but get more attention because they’re released the right way. You want to know what so much popular music sounds so bad? Because some people are willing to understand the correct approach. Jayke Orvis’s music is too good to put limitations on it by not following the easy and well-established modes of how to release an album.
The counter-point is that Jayke’s fan base is so loyal, all these concerns are silly. But the goal of any artist, even one that is not driven by fame or money, is to attain a healthy sustainability that hopefully factors in at least some moderate growth.
Though Bless This Mess seems like it may be one step behind where Jayke & The Broken Band are right now with their live show, it still boasts some excellent arrangements and performances, and a wonderful lineup of both originals and covers. Hank’s “Kaw-Liga,” Ralph Stanley’s “Bound to Ride,” and The Weary Boys’ “Pick Up The Steam” round out a remarkable set of well-interpreted renditions. Banjo player and part-time Broken Band member Joe Perreze also offers up one of the albums standout instrumentals in “Clankertown.”
This all leads into Jayke’s original material. Whether its blazing instrumentals like “Murder of Crows,” or more singer/songwriter-style material like “West Wind,” and what may be the album’s legacy track “Crooked Smile,” Jayke Orvis shows himself as one of the premier purveyors of Gothic-infused American string music worth a wide ear and critical acclaim. And let’s not gloss over that Jayke also scores well on the intangibles. With the way he presents himself and his stage presence, he has that essential charisma to hold an audience captive, while at the same time the humility to defer to his players and make it more about the music than himself.
Jayke Orvis & The Broken Band is a name that deserves to be ready on the tongue whenever folks query for names of top flight string bands to check out. But it will only get there if at least cursory attention is paid to the promotional side of things. Making good music isn’t enough. Marking track names on albums and distributing an album digitally is the easy part. The hard part is making music that touches you on a human level, and does so in a pioneering way, and this is what Jayke Orvis & The Broken Band do with almost unfair effortlessness.
Two guns up on the Jayke Orvis live show
1 3/4 of 2 guns up on Bless This Mess
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For a while now I’ve been coveting an in-depth interview with the one and only Sturgill Simpson like a pregnant woman may covet cotton candy at 2 AM. I’d show up to his live shows with my stupid little palm-sized audio recorder at the ready, and though he’s always been a nice and cordial guy, as soon as I’d mention the word “interview,” I’d get a bit of a sideways look, chased by a courteous, but firm, “I’d prefer to let the music speak for itself.” Fair enough, because when Sturgill says the music should speak for itself, it does.
So on Saturday night when I trekked to historic Gruene Hall in Texas to watch Sturgill open for Charlie Robison, I didn’t even bother bringing my digital recorder. Sturgill said he was in kind of a bad mood before the show anyway after a long day of driving in from Western Texas. That all changed though when Sturgill and his band hit the stage, and became a part of the authentic and uplifting experience of entertaining an appreciative Gruene Hall crowd. Gruene’s old wooden floor filled with dancers and revelers who hit it off like fast friends with Sturgill’s youth-infused traditional country tunes.
After the show, Sturgill comes bouncing off the stage, signs a few CD covers, takes a pull off a Shiner beer and says, “Screw it, let’s do this. I’m in a good mood.” So there I go fumbling with my phone, looking for a recorder app, and next thing I know I’ve got the man cornered and answering questions about his new album High Top Mountain officially out June 11th, and various other sundry topics that have all been burning in our brains to be answered.
You were doing this thing called Sunday Valley before, and now this is your own band. What could you tell Sunday Valley fans to expect? Why go in this direction?
Well, frankly this is who I am. The guys that I met and formed that band with came from different backgrounds. I had to adapt my thing to certain styles of individuals in the band. It was a pretty fun sonic exploration, but ultimately just wasn’t fulfilling for me. I felt like I had done everything I was interested in that sonic landscape. I knew so many people, had friends in bands that did this one trick pony thing and got stuck in this niche and 15 years later they’re wondering why they weren’t any farther than they were a year after they started. Basically I got tired of yelling over the top of myself with all the loud guitar. It was so overpowering. I couldn’t touch on a lot of the subtleties in music that I really love which are traditional country and traditional bluegrass.
I don’t really consider myself a guitar player, especially after moving to Nashville. Some of my best friends are like my heroes now because there’s so many phenomenal players. I’m a songwriter and a singer, and if I have a talent, that would be it. And to not wholly put my focus on that would be a detriment to whatever I did musically. 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.
Sunday Valley was a band off and on for a period of about 7 years. In that 7 years we were only together cohesively as a band for probably a solid 1 1/2 to 2 years. The only reason I made that [Sunday Valley] record after moving to Nashville was because me and those guys had put so much effort into that band, at the very least, we had to record those songs, and archive of what we’d done. So it came to an end unfortunately after I felt it was long already over. And now this is where I’m at. I’m in a band literally playing with all of my best friends.
Were you not ready to be a professional musician until the “Sturgill Simpson” project?
No, probably not. I had to go make all the mistakes first, do it the wrong way. Spending years selling out shows in my hometown and wondering why nothing was moving forward. After about a month in Nashville, all those answers came rushing to the surface. And I had a lot of personal demons to work out, without going into any details. As a person, no, I was not ready. I would have self-destructed or destroyed it. All the music I grew up with and my family encouraged me to listen to, I just don’t hear that anymore. So this record was my effort to try to make the music I can’t find that I want to hear, filtered through stories about my life. That is what High Top Mountain is.
I would encourage anybody who likes what they hear with this record to expect anything but the same thing for the next record. I have no interest in doing the same thing twice. If you don’t adapt and change and grow, you might as well die. I don’t even consider myself a country artist. All good music to me is soul music.
You’re kind of part of this new independent underbelly of what’s going on in Nashville, but you also seem like a very private person. Do you feel like you are part of Nashville’s independent movement, or do you feel almost like it’s an accident that you’re there?
It wasn’t an accident that I’m there, it was very specific. My wife and I were living in Utah and I had this railroad job for about four years and I was miserable. I started writing again and playing music for the first time in years, and she said, “You’ve never really had a chance. You spent all your time in Lexington spinning your wheels. You’re going to wake up and be 40 and know that you never tried, and I’m stuck with your miserable ass for the rest of my life.” I didn’t know what else to do except to go to Nashville. So we sold everything we owned, gave the rest away, and packed up the Bronco and the dog and moved to Nashville. I don’t ever feel like I’m a part of anything because I never really leave the house. I’m pretty reclusive.
I have a working theory that 2013 is the “Year of the Song.” With your new direction and your new album, do you feel like it is more about the song instead of about the music or guitar?
It’s always about the song. Sunday Valley was about the song, it was just a much more violent representation of country. I was 25 when that band started and I was very angry. Now, I’m just not angry anymore. I think you can reach people talking to them a hell of a lot more than you can screaming at them. The song is the first, and the only thing that matters really. Really, if you want me to tell you how I feel about something, I think there’s a lot of anger, and resentment, and bitterness, and insecurity that I pick up on a lot. That’s why I don’t go out a lot and I don’t want to, because you get sucked into this cliquish game of insecurity, and none of it matters. Talking about shitty pop country, I mean yeah that stuff used to piss me off but now I just ignore it. Bad taste will always win. But I think people will just need to look a little harder for the stuff that touches them. Like “Life Ain’t Fair & The World I Mean.” I regret writing that song.
Is that why you changed the lyrics [to "Life Ain't Fair & the World Is Mean"] a little bit?
I changed the lyrics because I thought they needed to be a little more applicable to my life. I know people say, “I like the original version.” But the Music Fog version is different from the original version. I like the original version better. The original version is the version I wrote when I sang it in my house the first time. [Music Fog] was a week later. The album was recorded 6 months later. People can always go back and listen to that version if they like it more. Personally I can’t listen to it ’cause it drags and the tempo is all over the place, and my vocals aren’t controlled. Now the version we played tonight is better than the one on the record. You’re not going to make everyone happy. I’m just trying to make me happy. People that like Sunday Valley are going to hear this record, and the first time they hear it, they’re going to want to hate it because it’s not going to be what they know. And change is a really scary thing to a lot of people. But I’m not interested in those people. I want to make country music for people who think they hate country music because they’ve never heard country music.
Have you ever had a dessert that’s just too rich? A girlfriend or boyfriend that’s just too damn hot? That’s how it feels with Sturgill Simpson‘s music. This stuff is so good, it hurts. Any new material from Sturgill demands an immediate stop down of one’s life to pay attention. Seriously Sturgill, we’ve got shit to do. The man, his writing, his impeccable sense of timing in music that is virtually unparalleled. Jesus, can June 1tth and the release of High Top Mountain just get here so we can share this bounty with the rest of the world?
Below are some selections from a live set at the Sun King Brewery in Indianapolis on April 5th, presented by MOKB. Not recommended for those with heart conditions. And if that wasn’t enough, NPR’s Mountain Stage just posted Sturgill’s 16-minute set.
There’s been much talk so far this year about how the women of country are outpacing the men when it comes to the quality of music, and we’ve talked about possible reasons why that is. But we haven’t talked about some of the men that if simply given a chance, could shoot an immediate injection of substance into the country music format. They just need similar chances to their female counterparts.
It’s not that the men of country have any less talent. One of the problems is that many talented country men are making their way to Americana, tired of beating their heads against Music Row’s walls, and not wanting to be lumped in with the laundry list arena rock or country rap currently plaguing the mainstream male country ranks. If country music can’t facilitate the rise of their careers, country will lose their talent to other avenues.
A lack of talent has never been country music’s problem, it’s been recognizing that talent and allowing it to thrive by expressing its originality and creativity. Here are seven men that right now could enter into prominent positions in the country format and immediately make it better.
If you wanted one name, one man to watch in country music in 2013, that name would be Sturgill Simpson. Poised to take the country music world by storm (or at least the independent side of things), Sturgill’s debut solo album High Top Mountain is going to blow the doors off of country music when it’s released on June 11th. Sturg is already making waves out there on the road opening for Dwight Yoakam, and has one of the best management and booking teams behind him. Everything is in place. The next question is, will country music pay attention?
The truth is you’re already hearing Will Hoge on mainstream country radio, you’re just hearing his songs being sung by others. Hoge is one of those songwriters that has been right on the brink of breaking through for 15 years, but has always just been one important puzzle piece away. Eli Young Band had a #1 hit last year with Will’s song “Even If It Breaks Your Heart,” and at the time the songwriter didn’t even have a publishing deal. Recently Lady Antebellum recorded his song “Better Off Now.”
Will is now signed to BMG Nashville as a songwriter, and has been signed as a performer to Atlantic Records and Rykodisc in the past. Though Will has struggled to find the exact right opportunity to take his music to the next level, he is a battle-tested performer, a proven songwriter with commercially-viable material, and an artist the industry is familiar with that could immediately step in amongst country music’s mainstream men and bring more substance to the format, open up new themes, and hopefully challenge other male performers and writers to release more formidable material.
Whitey Morgan and his band The 78′s are the authentic, modern-day extension of country music’s true Outlaw country movement. It doesn’t get more hard country and honky tonk than this. Music Row’s batch of fake Outlaws will only be able to go so far before the American public wakes up to the fact they’ve been sold a bill of goods. Whitey Morgan is country music’s “new Outlaw” for the long haul.
With Evan Felker and the Turnpike Troubadours, the question is not if, but when. You may not be able to find a better example of a songwriter that can bring true country substance yet still find appeal with the masses. Like Hootie taking Old Crow’s “Wagon Wheel” to #1, Felker songs like “Every Girl” “7 & 7″ and “Good Lord, Lorrie” are just screaming to be cut by a bigger name, letting the rest of the world know what a treasure the Texoma region has in this young and exciting band. The hardest thing for a Red Dirt / Texas country band to do is make that transition from regional stars to national recognition, and to do it without streaking their hair with highlights or releasing songs with obviously aims at radio success. The next couple of years are very critical for this band, but if Nashville had any sense, they’d hop on the Turnpike Troubadours bandwagon now.
A former Turnpike Troubadour himself, and a former member of the Mike McClure band, John Fullbright became a serious force in the music world when he released his critically-acclaimed From The Ground Up album last year that rose all the way to winning the young man from Bearden, Oklahoma a Grammy nomination for Best Americana Album. Isn’t it just like Americana to snatch up all of country’s promising male talent? But with the strength of his songs, John Fullbright could find a home in both country and Americana if he wished. At only 25-years-old (it’s his birthday today), the sky’s the limit for this emerging talent.
If you’re wondering where our generation’s Keith Whitley or Chris Ledoux is, look no further. Though Leroy will probably never play Nashville’s game, he’s got country music’s most formidable song catalog just waiting to be cherry picked and matched up with top-tier talent. In the meantime, Leroy and his band Hellbound Glory could be playing sold-out big club/theater shows and headlining grassroots festivals.
Virgil and Hellbound Glory are fresh off opening for Kid Rock on a nationwide arena tour and signing with the prestigious Agency Group for booking. It may be only a matter of months before we stop complaining of why Hellbound Glory isn’t bigger, and start proclaiming that they’ve made it. Time may be running out to get on board with Leroy Virgil at the ground level and enjoy the rise.
If country music was looking for its rough equivalent of Mumford & Sons, The Lumineers, and other acoustic string bands that are all the rage right now, look no further than El Paso, TX’s Dirty River Boys. Way more than just Americana’s version of a boy band, The Dirty River Boys have a grit and authenticity to them many of these other bands so woefully lack. Yet the Dirty River Boys can still can engage large crowds in sincere singalongs that tap into that sense of camaraderie that many music fans are looking for these days.
Other names that could infuse more quality into country: Austin Lucas, Jason Boland & The Stragglers, Corb Lund, Hayes Carll, Jason Eady, Jackson Taylor, Garth Brooks.
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