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Pictures provided by Almost Out Of Gas.
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One of the questions that comes up often in country music is “Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes?” There’s a lot of industry country stars that would love to tell you they’re the ones, and they record songs, print up merch, and proselytize at every turn for their candidacy to fill in for the lost country greats. But beyond the glitz and the market-driven image campaigns that surround some of mainstream country’s “New Outlaws” is an artist like Whitey Morgan and his band The 78′s—a no frills, hard-charging honky tonk outfit that tours more than anyone and brings the twang and Outlaw bass beat to country night in and night out, garnering a deep and loyal grassroots following.
But it has been around three and a half years since Whitey Morgan released a record, and rumors of an unreleased live album have been out there for the better part of two. Whitey has recently been hanging around Texas, playing some shows and getting ready to make an appearance at Dale Watson’s inaugural Ameripolitan Awards show on Tuesday, February 18th, and I sat down with him before a Friday night show at The Rattle Inn in west Austin to catch up, and ask him the question Saving Country Music has been swamped with from readers over the last few months.
People ask me this all the time and so I’ll ask you: What can you tell us about new music from Whitey Morgan?
There’s definitely been some label things happening. I’m actually off Bloodshot [Records] now. That was of my doing. I’m a do-it-yourself kind of dude. I just felt like I can do all of this on my own. The next record is going to be huge. I bust my ass out on the road like almost no other band does, and everything I have is from that. It was just time for me to do something on my own and not give away too much of my money to someone who maybe wasn’t holding up their end of the deal. I’m sure they’ll argue with you on that, but that’s a record label. I have a great booking agent now and great management. I can release a record tomorrow, on my own. I have the distribution outside of a label, I have everything I need. So what do I need a label for?
What’s the story of this live album that’s been swirling out there for a while?
The live album has been done for a year and a half. That was part of the Bloodshot thing. As soon as the live album got finished and I gave it to them is when the talk started from my end that I didn’t want to be on the label any longer. Understandably, they recoiled and said “we’re not going to really release this until we resolve whatever is going to happen in this relationship first.” It will come out when it comes out, but I’ve already forgotten about it.
So a new album is in the works?
We just recorded in El Paso for five days at an unbelievable studio with an killer producer. We got three songs just about in the bag, and we’ll be back in May for seven or eight days, and try to finish up the rest of it. It’s a place called The Sonic Ranch. It’s like no other studio I’ve ever been in or even heard about. They have three live rooms and three control rooms, all on a 3,000-acre property. They have accommodations for I think up to 30 or 40 people in different haciendas. They have a staff that does your laundry and cooks every meal for you. My management is friends with the owners. I hate the studio, but I didn’t hate this studio. I didn’t feel like I was in this studio because I could leave and walk out the studio and be forty feet to my front door and it’s just me; I have my own little hotel room right there. Most studios you can’t do that. You’re stuck in there. You can go out to the parking lot and sit in the van.
Creativity is squashed by studios that don’t have that kind of environment. I almost don’t want to tell anyone about it because I don’t need any more musicians recording there than there already are. And the equipment is unreal. Not just the recording equipment, they have tele’s galore, amps, and everything. It’s unreal. Anything you want, they have it. And it’s all because a guy that has money is passionate about music and recording. To him, it’s the ultimate dream to have musicians come hang out at his place. He’s a great dude.
I’m excited. One of the songs we recorded is an old Bobby Bare tune called “That’s How I Got To Memphis”. We put that one down and I’m really excited about that tune. It’s a little different than my kind of sound. It’s kind of got that early 80′s era sound; it’s got that minor chord in there. It’s slick. I’m trying to move on without moving too far. I know what everybody wants, they want another classic, Waylon-ish sounding album. This one’s going to be a little different, but it’s not going to be that different. We’re doing a Waylon song. I’m not going to say what Waylon song we’re doing, because I don’t think anyone’s ever covered it so I’ll keep my mouth shut on that one. But that was another song we recorded and it’s probably the best thing I’ve ever recorded in my life. The three songs are already leaps and bounds better than the last two albums I did.
The plan is we’re probably going to do an EP, maybe 7 songs. The plan is just to record as much as we can over the next few years. Even if it’s not albums, put out a 7-inch here and there, digitally release two songs. Just keep it going. Never a six month stretch without new songs. And now that I’ve got the studio I want to go to, I can’t wait to just start putting music out, now that I’m able to do it legally.
Who is the producer?
His name is Ryan Hewitt. He’s one of those guys who’s been in a lot of sessions where he was either mixing or engineering or co-producing. He mixed a lot of the Johnny Cash stuff with Rick Rubin, he did The Avett Brothers last three albums. I’ve only ever produced my shit myself. Maybe five years ago I would have been more stubborn. But now, when he’d open his mouth about something, instead of just automatically being like “No, it’s got to be my way,” I think about it from someone else’s point of view and most of the time he’s right. We worked really well together.
How are The 78′s treating you?
The last time I saw you I said that was the best band I ever had. It’s even better now. The band right now, we all get along like brothers on stage and off and that’s never happened in the history of my band. Right now, every night I’m smiling, I’m having a good time. It’s been a while. I’m trying to live a little better. But when we went into the studio my anxiety was through the roof because it’s been a while and I only had a few songs prepared really. And it just jelled.
So you feel like things are going in the right direction. Can you see it in the crowds?
Oh yeah. We’re doubling, tripling, quadrupling every show we play. The internet stuff’s been going better. Everything’s been going better. I never go into a show and it’s disappointing. It’s the management and the booking, but really it’s all of it together. The fucking band is good. The old days, we’d be touring forever but it was a half-assed band. Like I’d have a fill-in drummer for eight shows. And the last year and a half to two years it’s been a fucking good band. I would go see this band.
You played Dale Watson’s new bar down in San Antonio recently. How was that?
Big T’s Roadhouse. It’s cool man, its like Little Ginny’s Longhorn Saloon, but out in the middle of nowhere. It’s even white and red, just like Little Ginny’s. About the same-sized joint. We played it on Sunday; it was Chicken Shit Bingo. It was cool, really cool.
I want to know about your guitar.
It was brand new in 2001 I believe. But it was black with white binding. I loved it, but I always wanted a tobacco burst Tele. That’s the look I always love is tobacco burst anything. So I stripped it down, repainted it, and the “WM” I painted it on there by taking some pin striping, masking it, and spraying it. Once the original frets wore out, instead of getting a fret job, I just bought a new neck. That’s the third neck I’ve had on it. It’s the U-shaped, big baseball bat neck, and it’s got new Grover tuners on it. I love it. I go to these vintage shops and pick up these 70′s tele’s and I’m like, “Oh this thing is so rad,” and then I play it and I say, “Mine plays better” because I made it exactly how I want it to play. I ended up using mine in the studio even though they had like six unbelievable tele’s there from the 60′s and 70′s.
The 78′s are Brett Robinson – Pedal Steel, Tony Dicello – Drums, Benny James Vermeylen – Guitar and Backing Vocal, and Alex Lyon – Bass.
The Americana Music Awards just announced their 2013 nominees, and the dirty duo from South Carolina Shovels & Rope leads the way with a whopping four nominations, while Buddy Miller and Emmylou Harris both clock in with three. On September 18th, the awards will once again be held at the prestigious Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, and once again the nominations show a very narrow focus on the dramatically broadening world of Americana music.
One could make the case that Americana is two, maybe even three times larger of a genre than what it was only a few years ago. The Americana Music Association itself has said that it is the the “fastest growing music community today.” But again the awards read like a list of usual suspects from the founding members of the movement and their close friends getting together each year to pat each other on the back instead of paying attention to and benefiting from the dramatic growth gripping the “Americana” term as the most nationally-recognized and broad alternative to mainstream country.
In April, the Americana Music Association announced the new “Cross Country Lines Music Festival,” aimed at “breaking borders, breaking boundaries and coming together as a larger community.” Yet aside from the Instrumentalists, only 11 names of artists or groups compile the entire field of 2013 Americana Awards nominees, with most of the names being perennial nominees and winners from years past. It all begs the question, why the awards can’t grow with the genre?
Album of the Year
Buddy & Jim, Buddy Miller & Jim Lauderdale
Cheaters Game, Kelly Willis & Bruce Robison
From The Ground Up, John Fullbright
O Be Joyful, Shovels and Rope
Old Yellow Moon, Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell
There are no two bigger names in the close-knit Americana community than Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale, and when they together to cut an album, it’s no surprise the Americana world would go ga-ga over it. Same could be said about Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell, making them a close second. Small chance O Be Joyful could pull off the upset with such attention and so many nominations. John Fullbright is still riding on the momentum he received when From The Ground Up was nominated for a Grammy.
Artist of the Year
Wow, what an anemic list. Love all of these artists, but on a year when there were so many breakout Americana bands, to go back to these usual suspects seems a little bit lazy an unimaginative. If you’re going to nominate The Lumineers for Song of the Year, then why not for Artist? Did they not have a huge impact? If we’re only nominating oldtimers, why not Ray Wylie Hubbard with the success he’s had with Grifter’s Hynmal?
Duo/Group of the Year
Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis
Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale
Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell
Shovels & Rope
Notice that we are only three nominations in, and every name that appears in this category has appeared in a previous category. Now notice that these are the exact same nominees for Album of the Year, just without John Fullbright, and with no other name added to take his place.
Emerging Artist of the Year
The Milk Carton Kids
Shovels & Rope
Shovels & Rope has to be the shoe in here with so many other nominations. Is JD McPherson really “emerging”? Or is he just emerging in the mindset to the cloistered Americana decision makers? Lindi Ortega? First Aid Kit? If you’re going to include the former Turnpike Troubadour John Fullbright, why not include the Turnpike Troubadours?
Song of the Year
“Birmingham” – Shovels & Rope
“Good Things Happen to Bad People” – Richard Thompson
“Ho Hey” – The Lumineers
“North Side Gal” – JD McPherson
“Birmingham” should win this. Richard Thompson would be the other strong contender. So we’re going to nominate “Ho Hey,” bolstered by its appearance in numerous commercials, but we won’t consider bands like The Lumineers, The Avett Brothers, Mumford & Sons, and many others for awards when they have been expanding the boundaries of Americana music more than any other bands or artists in its history?
Instrumentalist of the Year
“Just so you know, we’re on the good side with y’all. We do not want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas.”
The comments at the concert beginning a Dixie Chicks world tour sparked off possibly the biggest black balling in the history of American music. Spoken 10 days before the beginning of the Iraq War, the backlash took the Dixie Chicks from the biggest concert draw in country music to relative obscurity in country music in a matter of weeks.
Despite numerous clarifications and apologies from Natalie Maines and the Dixie Chicks, a full on boycott of their music was called for by pro-Bush, pro-war, and pro-American groups. Their single “Landslide” went from #10 on the Billboard charts, to #44 in 1 week, and the next week fell off the charts completely. Radio stations who played any Dixie Chicks songs were immediately bombarded with phone calls and emails blasting the station and threats of boycotts if they continued. Even radio DJ’s and programmers who sympathized with the Dixie Chicks were forced to stop playing them from the simple logistics nightmare the boycott created. Some DJ’s who played the Dixie Chicks were fired.
Dixie Chicks CD’s were rounded up, and in one famous incident were run over by a bulldozer. Concerts were canceled in the US as the Dixie Chicks couldn’t sell tickets, and rival concerts were set up that would take Dixie Chicks tickets in exchange. The Dixie Chicks lost their sponsor Lipton, and The Red Cross denied a million dollar endorsement from the band, fearing it would draw the ire of the boycott. The Dixie Chicks also received hundreds of death threats from the incident.
The boycott eventually lead to the virtual demise of the band. They went on hiatus in 2008, though their bounce back album in 2006 produced by Rick Rubin called Taking The Long Way went gold in its first week, debuting at #1 on the Billboard country charts despite absolutely no radio play.
Perspective on the Demise of the Dixie Chicks 10 Years After
Whether anyone wants to look at what the Dixie Chicks comments as right, wrong, poorly timed, or misplaced being said on foreign soil, it is hard to not see 10 years after the hypocrisy of how the Dixie Chicks were handled by the country music community. At the same time Natalie Maines made her comments, Willie Nelson was also openly criticizing the war, but taking it to another level by floating the idea that 9/11 was a potential governmental conspiracy perpetuated by the Bush Administration to drum up public support for war in Iraq. Merle Haggard released an anti-war song in the summer of 2003 called “America First” with little to no backlash. And then there is the idea that whether you agree with Natalie Maines or not, her right to speak her mind is guaranteed by The First Amendment, one of the things President George W. Bush pointed out himself when responding to the controversy in April 2003:
The Dixie Chicks are free to speak their mind. They can say what they want to say…They shouldn’t have their feelings hurt just because some people don’t want to buy their records when they speak out. Freedom is a two-way street. I don’t really care what the Dixie Chicks said. I want to do what I think is right for the American people, and if some singers or Hollywood stars feel like speaking out, that’s fine. That’s the great thing about America. It stands in stark contrast to Iraq.
As President Bush points out, the people boycotting the Dixie Chicks were also exercising their rights to freedom of speech. The controversy also created positive sentiment and appeal for The Dixie Chicks that it wasn’t there before. Their album Taking The Long Way won 2007 Grammy Awards for Album of the Year, Record of the Year, and Song of the Year; something that was likely not possible without the sentimental vote by the greater recording industry. Outlets like NPR who would have never touched the Dixie Chicks’ music before the boycott began playing them in regular rotation. Taking The Long Way went 5 times platinum eventually, partially on the support of people who sympathized with the Dixie Chicks politically.
How The Death of the Dixie Chicks Changed The Music
Possibly the most untold story of the Dixie Chicks’ saga is the sonic repercussions the boycott and eventual demise of the band has had on country music. The Dixie Chicks were a traditional country band, especially by today’s perspective. They wrote most of their own songs, played traditional acoustic instruments like fiddle, mandolin, banjo, and guitar, and featured 3 part harmonies. The Dixie Chicks benefited greatly from the resurgence in interest in American roots music and bluegrass spurned by the release of the movie O Brother Where Art Thou in 2000. The Dixie Chicks were helping to usher in a more acoustic, more traditional era in country music, and were the biggest-drawing, best-selling artists in country music at the time; the biggest thing since Garth Brooks in country, and one of the biggest acts in all of American Music.
Meanwhile the opposition to the Dixie Chicks and the person at the opposite end of the political and sonic spectrum was Oklahoma’s Toby Keith. He symbolized the loud, electric, arena rock approach to country music that could be argued is still heavily in place in country music today. Toby positioned himself as the antithesis of the Dixie Chicks, and ended up becoming the best-selling artist in country in the 2000′s decade. Toby’s flashy, rock-style arena show thrived while the Dixie Chicks’ stripped down, acoustic approach dwindled back into obscurity in mainstream country. When you see bands today like Mumford & Sons, The Lumineers, and The Avett Brothers, you see that the stripped-down, acoustic approach to music is still relevant, if not the most relevant approach today in popular music. But it’s had to move outside of the country music fold to find a present-day outlet.
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Reflecting back on the Dixie Chicks and the public fallout, it is hard to not see that the country music community’s reaction was unmeasured, unfair, and overall, unhealthy for its future. Country music not only black balled a band that was offering sonic leadership to the genre on how to move forward while still respecting the roots of the music and remaining commercially viable, they lost one of the genre’s greatest economic engines, and may have long-term fumbled their ability to benefit from the universally-relevant appeal of acoustic roots music.
But most unfortunately, the event leaves country music with a black eye as a genre who can’t respect artists regardless of their beliefs. This typecasting of the country music fan as a closed-minded, politically-intolerant animal is a legacy it will take country music a long time to shake. Much longer than 10 years.
The case can be made that Mumford & Sons is the biggest thing in all of music right now, with Babel winning the Grammy for Album of the Year and their worldwide sales rivaling all other artists. This is a weird reality for many roots fans who fell into favor with acoustic music many years ago.
Roots music has always been a quiet, shy sphere of the music world, not really craving popularity or hype. Meanwhile Mumford’s wild success has some talking about a roots backlash, and has opened up the possibility of an impending crash in the popularity arch that could leave elements of the roots world feeling like a fad, like 60′s folk or late 90′s swing.It all makes you wonder if Mumford’s music wouldn’t be better received in some circles if it just wasn’t so damn popular.
Many of the bold changes in the direction of popular music begin with artists that are too fey, too polarizing to become popular themselves. So it takes others who understand how to soften music with sensibilities to make it accessible to the masses, and hopefully, if time is on their side, transect the popularity timeline, resulting in superstardom.
With Mumford & Sons, there were many other bands, artists, and events that set the table for their wild success, buttering up crowds, building an appreciation for acoustic roots music throughout varying demographics and origination points. Here are a few of them.
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O Brother Where Art Thou created its own roots music tempest and bluegrass revival when it was released in 2000, and since it originated in the cinematic world instead of the music world, its impact on popular culture was far reaching, finding its way down avenues that otherwise would not be exposed to roots music. From that big bloom, the seeds were planted that would later sprout and blossom into the Mumford & Sons’ ubiquitous, widespread appeal, making acoustic roots into full-blown popular music.
Old Crow Medicine Show was one of the main ingredients in both influencing the sound of Mumford & Sons, and setting the table for their mass appeal. Marcus Mumford says of Old Crow, “I first heard Old Crow’s music when I was, like, 16, 17, and that really got me into, like, folk music, bluegrass. I mean, I’d listened to a lot of Dylan, but I hadn’t really ventured into the country world so much. So Old Crow were the band that made me fall in love with country music.” Ketch Secor of Old Crow concurs, saying, “Those boys took the message and ran with it.”
Meanwhile Old Crow Medicine Show, and specifically their gold-certified song “Wagon Wheel” created the fervor for roots music that Mumford & Sons are currently feeding off of.
Old Crow Medicine Show might be the band named as Mumford’s primary influence, but when looking at the band from the standpoint of lineup, instrumentation, energy, and the emotional context of their lyricism, The Avett Brothers’ fingerprints can be found all over Mumford & Sons.
The easiest similarity to distinguish is how the two bands line up on stage. Scott Avett was one of the first acoustic roots frontmen to play a bass drum with his foot while standing at center stage, while his brother Scott played a hi-hat cymbal the same way. The brothers also had the propensity to move around stage behind different instruments, specifically the drums, just like Marcus Mumford does. The high, punk-esque energy The Avett Brothers bring to their show alongside a softening of the edges of roots music is something else Mumford emulates, as are their songs that seem to drip with emotionalism. This emotional approach to roots music is what separated The Avett Brothers from their bluegrass forebears when The Avetts started out in 2000; a full 7 years before Mumford & Sons’ first release.
Whereas Mumford & Sons’ rise has been meteoric, The Avett Brothers enacted a very slow build, van touring incessantly on a small club circuit until their infectious approach to roots music saw them graduate to small theaters, large theaters, and then signing with Rick Rubin in 2008, nearly a decade after they started out. The Avett Brothers approach, and the sweat equity they built from tireless touring over many years is at the very fabric of Mumford & Sons’ sound and success. Mumford is not an Avett Brothers rubber stamp, but it’s hard not to give The Avetts props for blazing a wide, clear path for them.
Bob Dylan is given great credit as a Mumford & Sons’ influence, and this is primarily evidenced in the poetic, and sometimes veiled nature of Mumford’s lyrical writing. In that same respect, Shakespeare and Plato are Mumford influences. Both characters and others from classical literature are originators of language that has appeared in Mumford & Sons songs. Marcus Mumford once said, “You can rip off Shakespeare all you like; no lawyer’s going to call you up on that one.” They also draw from American novelist John Steinbeck in their songs “Dust Bowl Dance” and “Timshel.”
The Devil Makes Three is never given enough credit for impacting the roots music revolution. It’s probably a stretch to say they had any direct influence on Mumford & Sons, but when The Devil Makes Three started in 2002, they were one of the very first bands, and virtually the only band on the West Coast that brought a high-energy, punk-inspired approach to acoustic roots music. Rarely spoken about east of the Mississippi or away from their native Vermont, The Devil Makes Three draws massive crowds in California and have inspired many spawns across the country. They are responsible for countless new acoustic roots fans, and helped allow the cross-continent permeation of Mumford mania.
Along with the obvious bluegrass greats like Bill Monroe, Jimmy Martin, Flatt & Scruggs, Doc Watson, and Ralph Stanley, newer artists like Wayne “The Train” Hancock, The Civil Wars, Trampled by Turtles, The Hacksensaw Boys, Split Lip Rayfiled, Larry & His Flask, The .357 String Band, The Foghorn Stringband, The Wiyos, The Goddamn Gallows, Reverend Peyton, and many more laid a foundation for alternative roots music appreciation in America that Mumford & Sons now enjoys.
Sunday night is the most important night in music of the year as the 55th annual Grammy Awards will be transpiring in Los Angeles. Independent-minded music consumers can go back and forth about just how important Grammy night is, but regardless if you like the winners or even care to pay attention, what transpires Sunday night will have effects on the entire music world.
And in 2013, the effects on roots music could be greater than they have ever been before, with artists like Mumford & Sons, The Black Keys, and The Lumineers up for some of the night’s most prestigious awards. Sunday night could be the crowning of “roots” music as the most influential force in popular music right now, whether roots fans like it or not, or feel the artists who will be bestowed with awards truly represent the essence of the modern roots world is all about.
Another primary interest will be the Taylor Swift performance that will start the show. Rumored to be her smash bubblegum pop hit, “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” Taylor will once again test the will of country-dom to continue to number her amongst their ranks despite the parade of pop songs she has released from her latest album, including her latest single, “22.”
Oh, and then there’s the ever-present possibility that Taylor Swift bombs the performance like she did New Year’s night. But on Sunday, Taylor will not benefit from half the press core vomiting into toilets while the other half holds their hair back. All eyes and ears will be on Taylor, with vivid memories of her awful 2010 performance on these very Grammy Awards very much front of mind.
Here’s some observations, and half-cocked predictions.
Best Country Album
If you need any more evidence that the Grammys do their best to reward not just commercial success, but artistic substance, look no further than this list of Best Country Album candidates. The Time Jumpers? The Jamey Johnson Hank Cochran tribute? Sure, it wouldn’t be my list. I would have Kellie Pickler’s 100 Proof on here to start, but it’s certainly interesting. Zac Brown would be the pick for an album that both performed well commercially, and has some good points artistically. But this is a peer-voted award, and the sheer number of collaborators on Living For A Song, and the friends of those collaborators might put it over the top. I believe this is how the Guy Clark tribute won Album of the Year at the Americana Music Awards. Despite Hunter playing most of the instruments on his album, he would be the commercial pick.
Uncaged — Zac Brown Band – 2nd
Hunter Hayes — Hunter Hayes – 3rd
Living For A Song: A Tribute To Hank Cochran — Jamey Johnson – 1st pick
Four The Record – Miranda Lambert
The Time Jumpers – The Time Jumpers
Best Country Solo Performance
Okay, all those nice things I said about the Grammys and rewarding substance? Strike that. This list is awful. Jason Isbell claimed in the past that Dierks Bentley stole “Home” from him. Once again we see Hunter Hays has powerful friends. Blake Shelton might win another award based solely on his reality show celebrity status from The Voice. And however powerful “Blown Away” is, it’s in no way country. Ronnie Dunn should probably win, but does he have enough buddies in Grammy land to pull it off? I’m fearing a big night for Hunter Hays.
“Home” — Dierks Bentley
“Springsteen” — Eric Church
“Cost Of Livin’” — Ronnie Dunn – Let’s hope
“Wanted” — Hunter Hayes
“Over” — Blake Shelton
“Blown Away” — Carrie Underwood
Best Country Song
We should all hope that Will Hoge finally gets recognized for the brilliant songwriter that he is. This list isn’t nearly as bad as the “Best Solo Performance, but Eric Church’s “Springsteen” summer anthem, though catchy, doesn’t belong being nominated for anything. It wasn’t even the best song on his own album.
“Blown Away” — Josh Kear & Chris Tompkins, songwriters (performed by: Carrie Underwood)
“Cost Of Livin’” — Phillip Coleman & Ronnie Dunn, songwriters (performed by: Ronnie Dunn) - One to root for
“Even If It Breaks Your Heart” — Will Hoge & Eric Paslay, songwriters (performed by: Eli Young Band) – One to root for
“So You Don’t Have To Love Me Anymore” — Jay Knowles & Adam Wright, songwriters (performed by: Alan Jackson)
“Springsteen” — Eric Church, Jeff Hyde & Ryan Tyndell, songwriters (performed by: Eric Church)
Best Country Duo/Group Performance
I was surprised “Safe & Sound” didn’t win at the CMA’s. It feels like a strong contender here, but with The Civil Wars on indefinite hiatus, voters may want to give their nod to a project with a brighter future. Even if it doesn’t win, Don Williams’ “I Just Came Here For The Music” already scores a victory for simply being noticed. An excellent song, and an even better performance by Don and Alison. “Pontoon” is a borderline joke song, and it is an embarrassment to country music it was even nominated. Are The Time Jumpers the 2013 Grammy sleeper? With all these nominations, they could rise up and be one of the big winners of the night.
Even If It Breaks Your Heart” — Eli Young Band
“Pontoon” — Little Big Town
“Safe & Sound” — Taylor Swift & The Civil Wars
“On The Outskirts Of Town” — The Time Jumpers
“I Just Come Here For The Music” – Don Williams Featuring Alison Krauss – Feel Good Story
Best Americana Album
This is the toughest to handicap. By sales, impact, and influence, Mumford & Sons should walk away with this easily, like them or not. But since they are the favored for the more prestigious (and televised) Album of the Year, will voters favor another candidate here? The runner up would be The Lumineers, but they are up for the “Best New Artist” as well. Meanwhile there sit The Avett Brothers who were actually making this type of music when Mumford and The Lumineers were still going through puberty, and it wasn’t cool or commercially successful. And don’t count out Bonnie Raitt. She has a lot of friends with Grammy votes. John Fullbright is a real feel good story, but I’m not sure he stands a chance in this strong of a field.
The Carpenter — The Avett Brothers – Deserve it way more than the Johnny Come Lately’s
From The Ground Up – John Fullbright – The Underdog to Root For
The Lumineers – The Lumineers
Babel – Mumford & Sons
Slipstream – Bonnie Raitt – Powerful friends and many of them
The Mono-Genre Theory in short states that all popular music is coalescing into one big genre where influences and styles from country, rap, rock, blues etc. coexist without any true lines defining their differences. As the mono-genre forms, micro-genres pop up, and the popularity of independent music rises as disenfranchised consumers seek out choice. The good thing about the formation of the mono-genre is the breakdown of musical prejudices. The bad thing is the death of contrast and diversity in popular music, a lack of choice, and the bleeding of regional influence out of popular music.
In recent years when the end-of-year sales numbers are released by Nielsen Soundscan, it has revealed evidence of this mono-genre coagulation. 2012 was no different. NPR even got in on the game, calling 2012 The Return of the “Monoculture.” Every genre except for the two super-genres of rock and country saw sales decreases in 2012.
- Alternative – down 4.3%
- Christian/Gospel – down 3.4%
- Classical – down 20.5%
- Dance/Electronic – down 12.0%
- Jazz – down 26.2%
- Latin – down 17.6%
- Metal – down 0.3%
- New Age – down 12.9%
- R&B – down 10.2%
- Rap – down 11.4%
- Soundtracks – down 5.2%
Rock sales were up 2%, and country sales were up 4.2%.
With all these declining numbers, it may seem like the music industry is still in the tailspin that plagued it in music’s lost decade of the 2000′s, but overall music sales were only down a very moderate 1.8% in 2012. 2011 will go down as the year the music industry finally righted the ship and stabilized from the fluidity the move to digitization caused. 2012 may go down as the year that a lack of substance stalled this upward trend.
(chart from Glorious Noise)
Rock has always been the most dominant American genre in regards to sales because it is America’s “catch-all” term for music. But as time goes on, country is acquiring some “catch-all” attributes as well, accounting for sales from artists that sonically are much more akin to mainstream arena rock than country. Meanwhile looking into the sales numbers for rock, many bands at the very top could just as well be called country, and are considered country, Americana, or “roots” by many fans and industry types. Babel by Mumford & Sons was 2012′s 4th best-selling album and artist, with 1,463,000 units sold. Sales by other Americana artists like The Avett Brothers and The Lumineers also accounted for rock sales despite their heavy roots influence.
Within the mono-genre theory is the idea that aside from rock, the two most dominant sonic influences in its formation would be country and rap. However rap sales were significantly down in 2012, bucking the trend of being one of the few areas of strength during music’s decade-long decline. Similarly, unlike 2011 when Jason Aldean’s country-rap “Dirt Road Anthem” was the best-selling single in all of country, 2012 did not see either a dominant country-rap single, album, or artist. Rap is still asserting itself as an influence in country, but may not be finding the commercial strength it needs to stick. 2012 mono-genre songs like Tim McGraw’s “Truck Yeah” underperformed to expectations, never cracking Billboard’s Top 10 on the country chart.
Meanwhile country dominated the top tiles and artists for 2012, with Taylor Swift coming in as the 2nd-highest selling album and artist, and Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan, Lionel Richie, and Carrie Underwood all securing top 10 spots; the first time country has accounted for 5 of the top 10 spots in the history of SoundScan tracking. It’s also worth noting that Taylor Swift’s blockbuster Red was only given 10 weeks at the end of 2012 to tally up sales for the genre.
|2012 Top Ten Selling Albums||2012 Top Ten Selling Artists|
(Combines All Album Sales)
|Title/Artist||Units Sold||Artist||Units Sold|
|1||21 / ADELE||4,414,000||1||ADELE||5,167,000|
|2||RED / TAYLOR SWIFT||3,107,000||2||TAYLOR SWIFT||4,062,000|
|3||UP ALL NIGHT / ONE DIRECTION||1,616,000||3||ONE DIRECTION||2,978,000|
|4||BABEL / MUMFORD & SONS||1,463,000||4||MUMFORD & SONS||2,149,000|
|5||TAKE ME HOME / ONE DIRECTION||1,340,000||5||JUSTIN BIEBER||1,897,000|
|6||BELIEVE / JUSTIN BIEBER||1,324,000||6||JASON ALDEAN||1,855,000|
|7||BLOWN AWAY / CARRIE UNDERWOOD||1,203,000||7||WHITNEY HOUSTON||1,789,000|
|8||TAILGATES & TANLINES / LUKE BRYAN||1,105,000||8||MAROON 5||1,540,000|
|9||TUSKEGEE / LIONEL RICHIE||1,071,000||9||CARRIE UNDERWOOD||1,497,000|
|10||NIGHT TRAIN / JASON ALDEAN||1,024,000||10||LUKE BRYAN||1,432,000|
Once again the sales numbers hint that the mainstream music public seems to be yearning for substance. While super hits like Goyte’s “Somebody That I Used To Know” and Psy’s “Gangnam Style” dominated the download numbers, Adele’s 21 was the best-selling album in 2012. That’s right, an album that was released in February of 2011, and was 2011′s best-selling album, retains its crown in 2012 as the industry continues to labor to find legitimate titles and artists that can deliver both substance and commercial viability.
Of course physical sales were down once again, with CD sales declining 13%. But vinyl continued its upswing, accounting for 4.6 million in sales, breaking the previous record of 3.9 million in 2011. Even more interesting, 67% of that vinyl was purchased at independent music stores. These numbers parallel the point that the mono-genre’s formation will cause a flight to independent music by independently-minded consumers seeing choice.
Looking from a broad perspective, the 2012 music sales numbers continue to corroborate the theory of the formation of a mono-genre, with the one important addendum being the possible decline of the rap influence, and the rising dominance of the country and roots influence; a trend that promises to be carried in part into 2013 by the continued commercial success of Taylor Swift’s Red.
Talk about a band that deserves more due. The Foghorn Stringband has quietly become one of the country’s longest-tenured underground stringbands, releasing now 7 albums, playing thousands of shows, touring coast to coast countless times and as far ranging as Scotland to Australia.
In 2012, it’s pretty remarkable when you take a step back and realize where the string band concept has gone. Mumford & Sons, The Avett Brothers, Trampled by Turtles–these are highly-successful bands that are only slight variations on the traditional string band approach. Where Foghorn resides is in authentic interpretation. Hundreds upon hundreds of traditional string-based songs they can call upon. Where certain other string bands mix strains of punk or rock into their concept to cast themselves apart from the string band crowd, Foghorn finds variety not in mixing in contemporary art forms, but in finding new threads and variations to the same vintage-era music.
Whether it’s folk, bluegrass, country, or Cajun, Foghorn can play a breakdown, a Celtic jig, a Cajun waltz, and cut a rug to an early country tune in the span of as many songs and sell you quickly on the idea that you don’t need amplification or new school modes to make music that is both memorable and entertaining.
The other remarkable thing about Foghorn is that they’re like the silly putty of string bands. Strip them down to a duo, expanding it out to a trio or the the full four piece Stringband, rework it to be the backing band for mandolin player Caleb Klauder’s country project, or bring them in to comprise the rhythm section for the Louisiana-based Cajun Country Revival. Either way they work so well, and their willingness to follow whatever direction music presents for them is what has lent to the amazing music legacy they are forging in the minds of the people who have experienced Foghorn first hand.
Outshine the Sun is an excellent album, and where it makes its mark is in the positivity of its message. There are many bands these days digging up old standards from The Carter Family, The Stanley Brothers and the like, but that tend to seek out the darkness in roots music; songs about muder, and preferrably cocaine if you can find them, because they feel like those themes are what keep the music relevant.
Outshine the Sun works boldly in the opposite direction, presenting the cheerful side of the roots from its formative years, in the lyrical content, and in the modes of the music, with bright, frolicking and fun compositions and instrumentals that make this a fresh approach to the roots despite the vintage age of the material. I grimaced when I saw 21 tracks on this album. I mean did they expect to hold my attention for that long? But they did, and they do by the sheer talent of the Foghorn roster, and the sincerity of their approach.
The Foghorn core has always been Caleb Klauder on mandolin, and Sammy Lind on fiddle. You can make an honest case that Caleb Klauder is the greatest undiscovered country music talent in the world, held back simply by his own humility. Sammy Lind is such a natural musician, he plays fiddle as involuntarily as most of us breathe, holding it loosely under his chin until it slides down into the cradle of his arm Cajun style, and then pushing it back up onto his shoulder to take a blistering fiddle break. The Cajun/Arcadian cross-continent nexus that Foghorn embodies is completed by Quebec native Nadine Landry on bass. It’s common to hear French sung in Foghorn, inspired from either Louisiana or north of the border. And contributing the rhythm guitar and vocals is the newest Foghorn member Rebecca “Reeb” Willms.
Reeb Willms’ contributions are what puts Outshine the Sun over the top. Her technique on guitar is so flawless, you feel compelled to pinch her to to make sure she’s human. And her voice is so powerful, yet is delivered so dry, devoid of bravado embellishments or kitschy inflections that mire so many vocal performances these days. Her projection has that awesome characteristic of rising in volume as it climbs the register, and evokes ghosts of the more Stoic era that the music comes from in her tone.
The talent in Foghorn is excellent, but not exceptional. Taste is their exceptional attribute. They’re not trying to wow you with how fast they move their fingers, they’re just trying to represent music they hold in great reverence in an honest and entertaining manner. They are true revivalists who resist chasing trends or trying to do too much, and Outshine the Sun exemplifies that honest, straightforward approach.
Two guns up.
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By all accounts, I should hate these dudes, and this album by proxy. Like many others, I’ve had it stuck in my head for a while now that Mumford & Sons is simply a bad British parody of the Avett Brothers. I mean the way they put out excessive energy on stage, the way their songs have an emotional air, even down to the way Marcus Mumford plays bass drum with his foot, exactly like Scott Avett does. I mean come on. Mumford even covers some Avett Brothers songs. It just all seems a little too obvious.
And then it was announced that Babel was the best-selling debut so far in 2012, selling 600,000 copies and outpacing folks like Justin Bieber. Really? Has the “roots” revolution reached such a point that it is the most popular, mainstream thing going in music these days? How am I supposed to be okay with that, and where is this leading?
I saw Mumford perform on Austin City Limits, and granted, since ACL these days is pandering to the short American attention span and sponsor requirements from Budwesier and Lexus, you only get 24 minutes to get a reading on a band, but the way Mumford member Ben Lovett wrenches behind the keyboard while holding down 3 simple notes like he’s enjoying the writhing, dirty pleasures of a truck stop glory hole is just too much to stomach. And no, the music didn’t make up for the transparent stage antics.
All good music reviewers try to leave any baggage behind when they pipe up a new album, but we’re human and can’t help walking in with some preconceived notions. That’s why I was blown away by how approachable I found Babel. It was not only approachable, it was pretty damn good. And the reason my reluctant turnaround became a wholesale change-of-heart was “passion.”
By taking away the visual element from this band live, however contrived it is or isn’t, I was able to see that Mumford & Son’s passion is authentic, and is woven into their songs that are refreshingly innovative and boldly anthemic. Mumford & Sons go for it at every moment. They hold back nothing. This is music that grabs you by the gullet and says, “Listen to me, and what I have to say!”
Yeah I agree, as some say, a lot of Mumford’s songs work the same, with that driving, bellowing beat. But they work nonetheless. And I’m glad that the songs are born of a British ear because that gives them an authentic tie to Mumford’s roots, not just roots music, and gives their music the strength of distinct dialect and perspective. I dare say they’ve even tamed their stage antics ever so slightly these days, finding the balance between conveying energy and being real.
Babel also reminds you of the primal power of the banjo. Yes, banjo is all over the place these days, in “indie” rock and in legions of silly eepish rootsy hipster bands. Even Eric Church and Taylor Swift are sporting banjos these days, but few know how to play them the right way like “Country” Winston Marshall of Mumford. No clawhammer, no playing it like a guitar or a hybrid spinoff Kermit the Frog’s strumming style that misappropriates the instrument simply for a “rootsy” tone or as a stage prop. No, Winston Marshall is fingerpicking all the way, and the primal, biting, cyclical crack of banjo notes creates a grounded element for Mumford & Sons’ otherwise ethereal, atmospheric compositions.
What I realized listening to Babel and cross-referencing it against Mumford’s wild success is that this is the music for right here, right now. The most popular of music is always a reduction or a rehash of what others mired in obscurity are doing much better, but it doesn’t mean that it isn’t good. You go back and listen to The Cranberries for example, and in that era, they carried a voice and style that worked perfect for that time. Tastes shift and move, and time passes things by, and if Mumford & Sons want to stay where they are, they must move as well. But for now, they’re right where they need to be to take advantage of all the current trends in music, including a renewed thirst for the roots.
It is music with passion, music with emotion, and just enough “roots” to be relevant, yet not stuffy, hip, or outmoded. And their success doesn’t necessarily have to fly in the face of other “roots” bands, it means the ceiling has been raised for roots music’s potential. How many high school kids are now going to be hitting up Google with word strings like “Bands like Mumford & Sons” and pulling up Trampled by Turtles, .357 String Band, and The Calamity Cubes?
I will probably still hold some bit of a grudge against Mumford and bemoan the cheese corn elements of their live presentation. But I won’t blame the masses for getting behind Babel. It is a breath of fresh air in popular American music.
1 3/4 of 2 guns up.
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A few days ago, CMT launched a new format and website called CMT Edge with the intent of covering artists outside the norm of mainstream country music. Since then I’ve been asked many times what I think of it, and my stock answer has been that I don’t exactly know what I think of it yet. The venture is still in its infantile stages, and it will take time to determine just what CMT Edge will be, and the impact it will have.
Having said that, I see no reason at this point not to stay positive about it. It’s always good to have more avenues for good music to reach people. As I always say, I want good music to get popular, and popular music to get good. Any sense of ownership or desire for exclusivity anyone might feel with the independent music they love and worry that CMT Edge might erode that exclusivity is being silly and selfish. So far, they’ve featured artists like Sara Watkins, The Avett Brothers, Trampled by Turtles, and JD McPherson among others. They also appear to intend to use CMT Edge to cover older country artists like Dwight Yoakam and Patsy Cline; both who’ve been featured already.
If you look at the categories of the 11 features posted on CMT Edge so far, 8 of them are labeled “Americana”. I don’t think it’s coincidence CMT Edge was launched the same week the Americana Music Conference is going on in Nashville mere steps from the CMT headquarters. Americana is growing, and CMT would be fools to not try and tap into that market. Make no mistake that CMT, which is owned by Viacom, would have never launched this venture if they didn’t think there was a profit to be made, and that there’s demand for the content.
So what is the possible downside to CMT Edge? It could possibly take attention away from independent media outlets, especially ones in the Americana world like No Depression, Paste, or possibly in some small respects Saving Country Music. But again, more outlets for good music is generally a good thing, and if these outlets feel threatened, they should step up their game. And I doubt CMT Edge will dig as deep as many of the current independent outlets do. As much as bands like Trampled by Turtles and The Avetts are on the outside looking in when it comes to mainstream country coverage, they are also very successful bands making good livings playing music. To stay profitable, CMT Edge will stay with established acts who simply don’t fit comfortably in the mainstream country world. Don’t expect Hellbound Glory and Jayke Orvis to get features soon.
My biggest concern is in the underlying subconscious labeling of acts that could come with CMT Edge coverage. Some may see a band being featured on CMT Edge as an implication that they are a smaller tier, second rung act. By not putting these acts beside country music’s biggest names, but below them through an outlet meant to cover the “edge,” there’s the danger of typecasting these artists as cut-rate. It’s always been a belief of mine that the top tier independent talent deserves equal-billing with country’s top names. If just given a chance, an artist like Justin Townes Earle could possibly score just as high as Jason Aldean with the public. Consumers just need to be given that choice. CMT Edge in some respects kicks the “more choice” can down the road instead of confronting mainstream country’s issue of a lack of new talent entering the genre.
Mainstream country lacks a legitimate farm system. And once an artist is cast as Americana/Independent/Underground, etc. they’re usually beholden to those avenues for their music till eternity, many times facing low ceilings of success and no chance of mainstream radio play or media coverage. Meanwhile in mainstream country, there’s few artists working the traditional program, going from honky tonks, to clubs, to theaters, to eventually the arena and a major label deal. Instead, new country talent is culled from the safe, easy avenues of reality TV programming, or professional Nashville songwriting circles. This has left country creatively bankrupt, as the most-creative and brightest talent flocks to Americana because they don’t want to be labeled as “country” because of the non-creative, commercial stigma.
Americana may have a lower commercial ceiling than mainstream country, but it continues to find some very legitimate traction, and seems to be building in stature and infrastructure each year. NPR is now offering Americana a big radio outlet, festivals are forming and growing that appeal to the Americana crowd, and small to medium, sustainable music entities like Thirty Tigers, Bloodshot Records, Dolph Ramseur (the man behind the Avett’s success and the Carolina Chocolate Drops) are beginning to create real organization behind the Americana idea, and are even having success getting their artists on programs like The Late Show with David Letterman, and Jimmy Kimmel Live.
What does this all have to do with CMT Edge? Clearly the independent side of the music world is growing, and CMT doesn’t want to be left in the dust. As all popular music continues to coalesce into one big “popular” mono-genre, music that is indefinable by genre and/or appeals to micro-sects of people is expanding. Whether it is Americana, classic country artists, neo-traditionalists, or punk-country, appeal for independent music is increasing, and CMT Edge is proof of that. Is CMT Edge commercial exploitation of this music? We’ll have to see, but there’s no indication that is what is happening at the moment.
As much as I think that much of CMT’s reality programming perpetuates negative country stereotypes and that its parent company Viacom is generally a negative force in the media marketplace, there’s nothing from CMT Edge so far that irks me. So let’s stay positive about it, work as a music community to attempt to steer it in a positive direction, and be glad that better music is catching on and continues to find new outlets.
From certain people’s perspectives, when they look at the top of the pyramid in independent country/roots they may see Hank Williams III, or maybe Shooter Jennings. But there is a whole other sphere based in and around North Carolina that have The Avett Brothers at the top of the heap. Just like Hank3 and Shooter, the Avetts have made their name in quasi-country, but unlike Hank3 and Shooter, they’ve not been helped by their names. Just like Hank3, the Avetts are wildly influential, spawning some great bands, and some unfortunate doppelgangers (see Mumford & Sons), but they’ve also made it far beyond the Hank3 ceiling, now regularly selling out arenas.
It’s curious how rarely these two sides of the roots world come together, but if you take the Avett’s energy and exploration of emotionalism, mixed with the rawness of underground roots, what you get is the Wichita, KS-based Calamity Cubes. Banjo, guitar, and upright bass, they’re not afraid to bare their naked soul in a song, or come crashing into the mosh pit instruments and all.
They say to make it in music today you need a distinct voice. Well The Calamity Cubes have two of them; the deep, brooding baritone of Brook Blanche, and the whimsical, character-filled sighs of Joey Henry. Bass player Cody Oh! is not afraid to sing one too, or be the solid harmony backing up Brook and Joey. Get them all going at once and it’s something special. Live, it is the energy of The Calamity Cubes that first captures you, but soon you gravitate toward the soul encapsulated in the vocals, and the ponderous nature of the songwriting.
Old World’s Ocean puts The Calamity Cubes’ bevy of talents on glorious display. Excellent songwriting is conveyed through flawless vocal performances and inventive music. The Cubes are mostly a tale of the two songwriters Joey And Brook, with each singing their own compositions, but the album starts off with a very collaborative song “Anchors The Way” where the three men’s voices weave and intertwine.
One of the slight misgivings I’ve had about the Cubes in the past is Joey Henry’s tendency to strum the banjo instead of pick. Outside of of certain ragtime circles, banjo strumming is somewhat unaccepted, but in “Anchors The Way” and other Calamity Cubes songs, Joey shows how the banjo’s unique ring set to an engaging rhythmic pattern can do wonders for the shivers housed along the human spine.
Brook Blanche is credited with the lion share of the songwriting on Old World’s Ocean, and supplies the songs of drinking and heartache. One great thing about The Calamity Cubes is they each display such great character through their music and appearance, and they are so distinct and unique, yet counter-balance each other perfectly. Brook seems a wash of emotions and chemical imbalances that bring his wide, dark, and tall lug to a submission of sways and binges.
Songs like “Rock Chalk” and “Lillybelle” convey a man with little or no control of his delicate side, who’s moaning voice bellows out from the very inner depths of dark human emotions. “Lillybelle” is helped along by an excellent guitar solo by contributor Paul DeCeglie, and marks one of the album’s best tracks along with Brook’s “Empty Bottle” that rivals any country drinking song in depth of songwriting. “Thought I Lost You” is a respite from Brook’s depression, whose genius is in the song’s short length and sweet message.
Joe Henry with his muppet-like hair and disarming warmth draws you in with his whimsy, poetic nature, and his romantic’s heart. His arrangements are more loose, abstract affairs, like musical roller coaster rides. “Bathwater” has a gospel heart, but with a much more progressive, loose approach that’s the perfect vehicle for showcasing Henry’s elevated vocal prowess. Joey Henry closes out the album with the sweet and slyly-wise “Traveling Lovers Lullaby”.
Gospel is one of the building blocks of The Calamity Cubes sound, and makes another appearance in Kody Oh!’s contribution “Salvation”. The other side is represented by Brook Blanch’s skeptical and jaded “Same God”. Strong opinions of politics and religion in music are usually no no’s for me, and this song would fit in that category. But that’s my personal hangup and it would be unfair to say that this song isn’t touched by Brook’s astute songwriting like all the others.
With only three players and no drummer, The Cubes are usually too busy holding down the rhythm to add traditional “solos” to their music. But on Old World’s Ocean they bring in a stable of solid contributors including the aforementioned Paul DeCeglie, and players from another Wichita-based band Carrie Nation & The Speakeasy to help clothe the compositions.
By being unafraid to display their vulnerabilities, yet having an inherent rawness to their music and releasing it through one of the most “hardcore” labels in roots circles in the form of Farmageddon Records, The Calamity Cubes create a unique and important nexus in string-based roots music, and do so while putting out creative, innovative, and entertaining tunes that touch all parts of the musical anatomy.
Two guns up!
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Old World’s Ocean does not have an official release date as of yet, but can be pre-ordered from Farmageddon. It has also been previously made available in limited quantities at XSXSW 5, Farmageddon Fest, and will be available in limited quantities at the upcoming Muddy Roots Festival.
Trampled by Turtles from Duluth, MN are one of these creeper bands, just like The Avett Brothers were. Somebody hands you one of their CD’s during their formative years, then you go to see them live a few times, first there’s only a few people there, then there’s a decent crowd their next time through town, and then a few years later they’re packing theaters and creating national and international buzz. Trampled by Turtles have flat out blown up on our asses, debuting videos on CMT and selling out theater shows, while still being true to their original approach. That’s what happens when you have good guys putting out great songs and great albums and developing a sound that is familiar enough that it’s easy to get comfortable and acquainted with, but different enough to separate it from the din of string band parody in this the 12th year of the 2000′s.
After 8 years of dedication and 6 albums, Trampled by Turtles have proven not just flash-in-the-pan stardom, but old-fashioned hard work can lead to music success. It’s good to see the old moral from the tortoise stand true. Apparently slow and steady can still indeed win the race.
Much of their success came from the strength of their 2010 album Palomino, which struck such a great balance between excellent, melodic songwriting for the alt-country, NPR crowd, and balls-out string jams that got the attention of both the post punk and bluegrass worlds. Stars and Satellites generally has the similar progressive string band approach of their previous albums, but especially through the first few listens, the mellowness of the project is one of the first things that strikes you.
When you actually step back and count the songs, there’s just as many high-adrenaline, up-tempo songs as in previous offerings. Maybe it’s simply in the track order, or maybe in subtle changes in the fast songs or that the slower songs are even slower, but the up-tempo attack that created the important contrast between fast and slow that is seminal to the Trampled by Turtles sound is just not as obvious here, at least initially.
Speed can be a very tricky element in these string bands. It can be their greatest asset, and their worst enemy. The fast songs are easy to like, what the crowd is going to gravitate towards, and what garners them easy attention. But the core fans who actually listen for lyrical composition and soul will crave the slow ones, and the slow songs many times are what gives a string band their substance. If a band like Trampled by Turtles is on stage and asks the audience if they want to hear a fast or slow song, nearly every time the chant will be for a fast one, not understanding the contrast of the slow songs is what makes the fast ones so appealing. And the up-tempo may not always be in concert with the feel of the players on stage, or the heart of the songwriter during composition time.
This may be further emphasized in the construction of Trampled by Turtles, who get typecast easily as a bluegrass band, while bluegrass purists may thumb their nose at them for their progressive style. The Turtles’ players are all very skilled, but some of their style for their fast songs has developed to convey sheer speed as opposed to showcasing technical prowess at a quick tempo. And some specific things, like how the banjo player flat picks instead of finger picking or clawhammering, and how the bass is neither upright or electric, but a shoulder strap acoustic, casts them in this unfamiliar gray area for people who like more predictability in their string band presentation.
In the end though, tempo and style are just elements of music meant to help convey the heart of a song, and when you peel back expectations or predisposed tastes and listen to the songs on Stars and Satellites, it’s hard to find anything but beauty. As slow and sleepy as this album may seem at first, it’s a challenge to find a song on this album you can truly say is “bad” or even that’s too slow for what the heart of the song calls for. And even if there was a sacrifice in tempo, it was in the name of advancement in the subtly of composition and deeper attention to songwriting that Stars and Satellites boasts. That is a tradeoff any true music fan would take every time.
The songs of Stars and Satellites strike excellent balance and show why Trampled by Turtles are worthy of the elevated notoriety they have been enjoying. “Midnight on the Interstate” is magical in its breadth and space, painting the visual picture of a star-struck panoram and the smallness it can inflict on a human soul. “Alone” is the album’s single and first video, and is a masterpiece of emotional evocation employing masterful spiritual rise through sonic aptitude and wisdom. “Risk” is where the speed addicts get their fill, as the Turtles slam out notes in a complete visceral instrumental experience.
In the end, yes, I would say this album is more mellow than what you might be expecting, but it doesn’t mean that every single song on here isn’t worth your undivided attention, or that Trampled by Turtles are attempting to adapt to their newfound success by trying to be more docile or by implementing the NPR effect. It probably has more to do with where songwriter and frontman Dave Simonett was when he wrote these songs and how they turned out when fleshed out with the other players.
Through excellence and honesty and drive, Trampled by Turtles have defied the odds and risen above the bitterness and obscurity that plague many great underground roots troupes, to begin to find the proper-sized audience that their excellent music is worthy of. One can only hope that Stars and Satellites has the mustard, the speed to allow that audience to sustain and grow. Then again, didn’t we heed the moral of the old fable that speed is subjective? For what it’s worth, my money is on the tortoise.
1 3/4 of 2 guns up.
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Like a good red-blooded American, I spent last night ignoring the CMT Awards like the ugly girl at the dance. More than a passing reflection on the doings of a shindig that has the wet cigarette of Kid Rock hosting and lets the pliable pop-country music fan vote the outcomes (gerrymandered by legions of glitter-faced 14-year-old girls stuffing ballots harder than a sock down the front of Jason Aldean’s nut huggers) is risking giving the event way more credence than it deserves. The ACM’s, and principally the CMA’s, though of course mostly relegated to a joke these days as well, are still the only awards that count in the grand scheme.
However when the headline performance of the night went down, we had one of those moments when as we populate the timeline of how all popular American music coalesced into one big mono-genre, it will count as one of the big bullet points, as Jason Aldean performed a rap song, with a well-established rap artist in Ludacris, to close out the festivities. Yes, Jason Aldean performed the same “Dirt Road Anthem” song at the ACM’s a few months ago, but this was the point that the mainstream country establishment has been working up to for a while. They started with Lil’ Wayne making an weird, non-performing appearance with Kid Rock on the CMA’s a few years back. At this year’s ACM’s Rhianna performed with Jennifer Nettles.
Slowly Music Row has desensitized the country music public into accepting artists from the hip-hop super-genre into their format, until now Ludacris, an artist that regularly refers to black people as “niggas” and disrespects women in his songs, is performing on a country music channel, on a country music awards show.
Please spare me the arguments that this is all for the greater creative good. This isn’t about inclusion or open-mindedness, this is about money. Diversity isn’t to have all popular music be an amalgam of everything, but to have sharp lines and blinding contrast. Let rappers rap in hard-edged styles. Let country artists be twangy, with harsh-sounding banjos and steel guitars. Let pop stars dance around with glitter shooting out of their nipples (or whatever). And let the genres mix when it presents itself as a creative bridge instead of an economic opportunity that mortgages tradition and contrast. That is an environment of healthy diversity.
A few days ago rapper Big K.R.I.T., along with the aformentioned Ludacris and “Bun B” released a remix of a song called “Country Shit”. My first though was “Ah, now rap artists are trying to capitalize off the laundry list-style of country songs the spew out easily-recognized imagery and artifacts of rural life to facilitate the white suburban demographic living vicariously through music.” This same “white suburban” demographic has been a big home for hip-hop as well. But the simple fact is rappers are not ripping off country artists, it’s vice versa. Hip hop was the first to spew out laundry lists of urban language and easily-recognizable imagery.
Country isn’t combining with rap in the formation of the mono-genre, it is allowing rap to take over, along with pop. When two dogs meet, one usually stands in a dominant stance, and one rolls on its back. Right now, rap is the butch, and country is the bitch. Why don’t we see country acts on the Hip Hop Awards or BET Awards? Why don’t we see rap artists aping country styles, why is it only vice versa? (I’ll give you Cowboy Troy and a handful of others, I’m talking big picture here)
When the music sales for 2010 broken down by genre were released, all the major genres of music were down sharply, except for rap and country. Rap actually gained, and country was only down a few percentage points, but that slight difference may be why country feels it needs to be submissive to rap to stay relevant.
What continues to baffle me about country is their lack of talent development and innovation. Instead of incorporating rap and pop styles, why doesn’t country tap its vibrant and growing independent/underground post-punk movement full of fresh styles and ideas that would appeal to the coveted young white suburban demographic? Or how about The Avett Bros. and Mumford and Sons, two bands with huge followings that play upright basses and banjos, but have had to revert to indie rock circles to find a home. They likely would be embarrased to be embraced by country at this point even if they were. In many respects, it feels like Americana has never been stronger. There is a vast talent pool for country to draw from, and instead they’re trying to figure out how to suckle off some of the popularity of Justin Bieber and Ludacris.
With Kid Rock hosting the CMT Awards, with country rapper Colt Ford performing, and with Jason Aldean and Ludacris closing the show out with a rap song, you can make the case that 15%-20% of what went down at the 2011 CMT Awards was either rap or rap inspired. I expect those percentages to increase over the next cycle of award shows until the number gets to 50%. Then the mono-genre will be fully realized, and the death of contrast will be complete.
I feel the need to iterate to you some observations for last night’s 2011 Grammy Awards, if only to get them off my chest. This is not entirely going to be a bitch fest. Every year they air the Grammy’s, and every year people are left scratching their heads and feeling hopelessness for music, and so it was to be expected that this year would be no different. If you want to see someone bitch about how so and so got screwed for such and such award, or how weird Lady Gaga is or specific commentary on how pronounced her camel toe is, there’s plenty of that out there in other places. What I’m more interested in is that as we stand on the brink of the music Apocalypse, and very specifically a country music Apocalypse, what information we can glean from the 2011 Grammy’s.
I just feel the need to say how embarrassed I am to be the benevolent dictator of a website that has the words “country music” in the name today. It wasn’t that Martina McBride and Miranda Lambert’s performances were bad. They were just fine, but just like at the Kennedy Center Honors presentation for Merle Haggard, whenever country music has an opportunity to showcase itself to the rest of the world, it is such a disappointment, and an embarrassment, as the country music establishment is more bent on pushing business agendas than the best talent.
It used to be that country music was virtually ignored by the Grammy’s. These were probably better times. Country music had it’s own awards, and the Grammy’s would maybe throw a country act in there for flavor, but it wasn’t really until the advent of “young country” in the late 80′s–Randy Travis and eventually Garth Brooks–that the Grammy’s started taking country seriously. Now, it probably accounts for 1/3 of the show, once again iterating the viability of the theory that music is becoming two super-genres: rap and country, with “pop” straddling the two.
Another piece of super-genre evidence was the anemic outlook for Rock. Jeff Beck, Neil Young, Tom Petty, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, Ozzy Ossbourne, Soundgarden, Stone Temple Pilots, Iron Maiden, Korn, Lamb of God, Megadeth, Slayer. This was the crop of nominees for rock awards for the night.
Most of these names are 20-year-old acts or older, and acts getting no radio play with little relevancy in the grand scheme of things. We’re reaching back to 80′s bands and the grunge era to fill out rock nominees? To say rock is dead is an understatement, and I can’t help but see blood on the hands of country music for helping be a part of this, as many country acts should really be filling these slots as they rip off AC/DC, The Black Crowes, other classic rock riffs, and do their best Bob Seger impersonations as true country music gets forced underground. Maybe this is a sign of what happens to genres when they cannot develop new talent.
And speaking of bad Bob Seger impersonations, where was Kid Rock? It seems like I can’t turn on my boob tube without seeing his mug. He’s on all the country award shows. Hell, he hosted the CMT’s, and here finally is an appropriate venue for him and he’s nowhere to be found.
Same can be said for Taylor Swift. She has the #1 album in the world right now, but she’s not even in the crowd so we can get occasional camera shots of her curiously set-apart eyes and a sparkly dress? The reason? Because what was the talk about at this time last year? Her bombing her performance with Stevie Nicks. She is country’s biggest and brightest star, and we have to treat her like the crazy aunt and hide her in the basement because she can’t sing. Or is this is all marketing because Swift management doesn’t want her getting overexposed, laying her low so she can sweep the awards shows next year.
The problem with presenting country music on a national stage is that there’s little to no talent on the mainstream level. Lady Antebellum, who wronged so many other much more deserving artists from other genres with their wins, is nothing more than a one hit wonder cast in the Taylor Swift mold. They are beneath Taylor Swift, like so many other mainstream country acts at this point. If I was Lady Antebellum, I would be embarrassed by the attention being given, because I would know in my heart it is completely undeserved. It’s one song. One song, and a one very isolated catchy vocal riff in that one song. You take that away, and all they have is a big bag of nothing.
If I was impressed by anything, it was the strength coming from the other super-genre. You can’t make a living in rap, or soul, or R&B without having some talent. I’m not talking about the Ushers and Justin Bieber’s; that’s pop. I’m talking about Eminem and Rihanna, and the new talent they pushed like Esperanza Spalding who won for best new artist. This isn’t my music, certainly not my style or speed, but quality shines through. If the music business is going to be pulled out of its tailspin, it is going to be from that side of the tracks. Country right now is the genre towing American music down.
Overall I was impressed by the sheer quality of everything last night. Maybe this was a product of lowered expectations, or maybe a symptom of watching so many country award shows lately. Comparatively to the CMA’s, the CMT’s, the ACM’s, there seemed to be more attention paid to quality, presentation, and the past at this years Grammy’s. Hell, Charlie Louvin got some face time last night.
One of my favorite performances of the night was The Avett Brothers mashup with Mumford and Sons, and eventually Bob Dylan. This stuff is probably on the very edge of what you might could classify as “country” or “roots,” and though I do think the performances were good, The Avett Brothers are finally getting some attention by getting away from their rootsy lineup and adding drums and electric bass, while Mumford seemed to take The Avett’s place by staying all acoustic and playing a kick drum: the same way The Avett’s cut their teeth. It’s like if roots music wants to be highlighted on a national level, it has to be a reduction. The announcer at one point couldn’t even pronounce The Avett’s name right, once again emphasizing that in the current music landscape, you can be a huge success story, play the Grammy’s, and nobody even knows who you are.
Also the tendency to lump performances into trios I find alarming. Yes, it does create cool pairings and allows more artists to be showcased, but it does so by diminishing the potency one artist, song, or solo performance can have, and just lends to the dwindling attention span of the American consumer. And the transplanted shill crowd of rabid fans right in front of the stage at virtually every nationally-televised music performance is getting old. We all know these people are pronged into acting excited, if not outright paid.
The most alarming incident of the night was the Indie rock performance and “Album of the Year” win for Arcade Fire. As I have stated before, Indie rock is the biggest threat to independent/underground roots music as they move to incorporate roots infrastructure more and more. This win can only embolden this trend. Why is Indie rock getting so much attention? Because Indie rock is safe money. Listen to me, and listen good. Poke and laugh at the hipsters and their funny clothes all you want, but they are coming, in droves, to take away what we have.
Today is the release of 90-year-old blues legend T-Model Ford’s latest album Taledragger, recorded with blues band GravelRoad. You can get from Amazon for only $5.99, and download the first track “Same Old Train” for FREE (Review from ninebullets.net).
Even though T Model is solidly blues, like so many other roots-based independent artists, he has turned to the same underground resources that many independent country acts use to get their music to the people. This has formed the big tent movement that can be seen in things like the Muddy Roots Festival lineup where you have country and blues musicians booked side by side, and nobody bats an eyelash.
And to be a master of the obvious, T-Model happens to be black. The topic of race has come up around here quite often, from the hubub over country rapper Colt Ford, to the talk of the two music super-genres (hip hop and country) that dominate the music culture and split right down racial lines.
Some call the blending of traditionally white and black music in the mainstream creative, and strain to find similarities in the histories of country and rap to fit flimsy premises that we’re all just brothers of different mothers and all music when broken down to origin is ostensibly the same. If someone can blend two unrelated genres of music in a tasteful manner that is still respectful to the roots, then more power to them. But I think people like Colt Ford and Jason Aldean do it because they find it financially lucrative. Yes, there are similarities in all genres, but instead of looking at genres or racial styles of music as something that needs to be destroyed to create harmony, or as a way to create mass appeal, I’d rather celebrate the diversity in music and keep the differences stark and pure to keep the musical spectrum healthy.
One of the things I am most proud of about the current underground country/roots insurgency is the diversity, with genres and sex, and race as well. There are African American artists that use the same music infrastructure, have the same managers, labels, etc. as the country bands we discuss here. This is just a few, but they illustrate the diversity that the broad roots insurgency boasts.
I also plan to highlight the few times when the mixing of country and rap has worked in the future.
The Carolina Chocolate Drops
They could be mistaken as just a black bluegrass band, but The Drops go back even farther to when the genres of American music were still forming. Jazz, blues, and old-time string music worked in concert with each other much more fluidly, and this is what makes The Drops music so appealing and authentic. Let’s not forget, the banjo originated in Africa. Their manager is Dolpf Ramseur, who also manages The Avett Brothers. They have a great album out called Genuine Negro Jig that’s a good one that I hope to have a review up for soon, but listen to them talk about the music and their approach–an authentic appreciation for the music that is uncompromising to the influences of industry-based image:
Black Joe Lewis & The Honeybears
What REAL and neo-traditionalist country bands are doing for the roots of country music is what Black Joe Lewis is doing for the Blues/Jazz/Soul mix that was so great in the 60′s and 70′s, and has died a slow death at the hands of mainstream hip-hop. Black Joe is on Lost Highway Records, the same label as Hayes Carll and Ryan Bingham. When I saw him at South By Southwest last year, he played the same showcase as Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers and Slim Cessna’s Auto Club. Definitely worth checking out:
T Model Ford
Booked by the Bucket City Agency that also books acts like The .357 String Band, Joe Buck, Rachel Brooke, and many more, and a performer at the Deep Blues Festivals that helped codify elements of the independent country movement and blend them with the muddy blues resurgence, T Model Ford is an ancestor to us all. 90 years of hard living? Meh. Recent stroke? Meh. He’s still out there on the road kicking people’s asses on a nightly basis.
Well I’m not too sure who the hell Larry is, and why his flask is so predominately edified in the band name. What I do know is that to a man, the attendees of this year’s Muddy Roots Festival stumbled out of the hills of east Tennessee saying Larry and His Flask stole the show, at a Festival whose lineup was packed as quills on a hawk.
Larry and His Flask are like The Avett Bros. on acid, or maybe Old Crow Medicine Show on a heavy dose of General Calderon’s white Colombian marching powder–though their band blurb says, “It’s never about drugs, money, or fancy things.” Ridiculous energy–as much as six humans are capable of putting out–with top notch instrumentation and 4, sometimes 5 part harmonies to boot. If this band doesn’t stir something inside of you, then you’re dead.
Here I am trying to authoritatively describe them when in truth before the newly tapped Larry & Flask Muddy Roots disciples started tugging on my ears last week, I was relegated to the “I’ve heard of them before” crowd. This is even more embarrassing because they’re originally from Oregon, a locale I’ve spent good time haunting in recently. Makes sense to me that the Beaver State is in play here, because if you were trying to find other artists to help describe their approach to roots string music, fellow Pacific Northwest bands Hillstomp and McDougall would come to mind (the latter helping populate their MySpace “Top Friends”). More importantly, Larry & Flask are like themselves and nothing else, which is a sign they’re on the right path.
Instead of acting like I know everything about this band by rehashing the verbage on their MySpace, I just gonna throw some good videos your way and give you and myself the homework assignment to check this band out more. I might earn extra credit, because the savingcountrymusic.com Western expansion to escape the Texas summer heat might land me at a live show very soon.
You can also see some videos of Larry & His Flask from Muddy Roots by CLICKING HERE.
On Outlaw Radio tonight (Tuesday), Jashie P will be featuring the greatness of the one man band. A lot of you might know about people like Hasil Adkins from Boone County, really the father of the country/rock/punk one man bands. Then there’s Scott H. Biram from Texas, and Hank III’s old bass player Joe Buck, and the list goes on from there.
But one of my favorite one man bands, and if not the best, then certainly the most unknown or underrated is The Canadian Cat, Bloodshot Bill. Apparently banned from the United States for undisclosed reasons, this guy combines the energy of Joe Buck, the machismo of Elvis, the rockabilly guitar prowess of The Reverend Horton Heat, the enthusiasm of The Avett Brothers, and a vocal style and arrangement all his own. Put it all together and you don’t have a one man band, you have a monster. Check it out:
His albums are hard to come by; a lot of his stuff he’s only released on 7″ vinyl. And unless you live in a country that proudly presents the maple leaf, you aren’t going to see him live anytime soon. (Actually there’s a countdown clock on www.bloodshotbill.com saying he can come back to the US in 897 days). But nonetheless, if you enjoy high energy music with that vintage kick, then you need to have Bloodshot Bill in your musical landscape.
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