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Look, any Dale Watson fan who is honest with themselves will tell you that Dale always makes good albums, but rarely makes great ones. Every album he puts out is slick enough, produced well, and is good at least for a few songs that you can pull out and find hard to get tired of. But Dale just isn’t a musician prone to thematic conceptualized expressions or sweeping linear narratives. He’s Dale Watson. His home and natural habitat is the honky tonk, and where the beer is flowing and the cigarette smoke is sticking to your clothes is where Dale Watson’s songs thrive. His albums make good home editions to the honky tonk experience, and hey, that ain’t bad.
Dale has also been pretty damn prolific over his career. It’s not unusual to see two or three releases from him in a given year, and he’s all over the place when it comes to the style, aside from everything being country, or as he would rather you put it these days, Ameripolitan. From proper studio albums, to offshoots like his Dalevis project, or his Cash-inspired The Sun Sessions, you never know what you’re going to get from Dale’s next release.
If you were anything like me, when you saw that Dale was offering up another Truckin’ Sessions album to complete the trifecta, you thought, “Hey, that’s cool.” The first one in the series went on to become one of Dale’s most popular records, and stimulated requests for a second one. But was there enough truckin’ songs in Dale Watson’s brain to justify the triumvirate?
Where the last installment in this series relied more on laid-back compositions, nuance, and storytelling, The Truckin’ Sessions Volume 3 is lively, hot, jumping, and as country (or Ameripolitan) as you can get. This isn’t an album of truckin’ songs that you sit back and listen to nostalgically, this thing takes a big arm cocked at a 90-degree angle like it’s about to give a hearty yank of the air horn, and instead grabs you by the gruff of your neck and pulls you right up into the cab of a serious diesel machine for one sensational ride. The Truckin’ Sessions Vol. 3 might not just be the best in the series, it might be one of the best Dale Watson albums to date.
The reason truckin’ songs awaken something in classic country music fans is because they are instilled with the feeling of vitality of being out on the open road, while also being attached to a by-gone era. And there in the distance is always the forlorn reflection on the loneliness of living a life on the road. The key to a good truckin’ song is to not take it too seriously, to have fun with it, but to not be all ham and eggs either. Dale Watson finds that ideal balance on this 3rd installment, and beyond just being really damn fun to listen to, the album has some great variety of moods that do the legacy of the truckin’ song justice.
As strange as a suggestion as this is might sound, I’d listen to this album backwards the first time. It ends with “10/100″ (the CB code for having to hit the head), which might be the fastest song Dale Watson has ever cut. The instrumental gets you in the mood for another smoking hot number, “Birmingham Breakdown”. He’s got the sentimental stuff here too like “I Live on Truckin’ Time”, the story songs like “Suicide Sam” and “Kitty Liang”, and a funny duet with the excellent Amber Digby called “Were Truckin’ Along”. The one song that’s not exactly about truckin’ is “Big T’s” about a roadhouse just outside of San Antonio that Dale went to one afternoon to see about buying a juke box and went off and bought the whole thing. Beyond being the beer joint’s new theme song, it’s not a bad little song in itself.
But for my money, the gem of The Truckin’ Sessions Vol. 3 is “Lugnutt Harry”, a country funky tune that sounds like something the Grateful Dead could have cut back in the day and evokes memories of Jerry Reed. Aside from the song “Phillip At The Station” with the transparency of the line, “When you fill up at the station, you’ll see Phillip at the station,” there isn’t a bald tire in the bunch, and Dale outdoes himself in carrying the legacy of the country tuckin’ songs into a new decade.
Should Dale Watson start to be considered for induction as a country truckin’ song overlord in the company of Dave Dudley, Dick Curless, and Red Sovine? They were the originators, but Dale is definitely making a strong case that he is the best modern day equivalent.
Whether you want to buy the whole trilogy or just this installment is your truckin’ business. But if you’ve never listened to any of them, The Truckin’ Sessions Vol. 3 is definitely the place to start.
1 3/4 of 2 guns up.
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NOTE: The word is that The Truckin’ Sessions Vol. 3 WILL be on sale individually for those that already have the first two installments, though I have been unable to run down a location where that particular version of commerce can transpire, or information of where that might be happening in the future. My suggestion would be to purchase the MP3′s individually from Amazon, iTunes, etc., and look for them at live shows. If more information or a link becomes available, I will add them here.
Look, with all due respect to my great friends over in the Americana world, I want to annex Jim Lauderdale back to the cause of country music. By the (self-imposed) power vested in me, I plant a flag in his graying, shoulder-length hair and hereby decree he is country music’s property, only graciously on loan to Americana as an estranged and exiled refugee from the ridiculous environment making country inhospitable lands at the moment for a man of his talent. I know, country music screwed Jim Lauderdale over just as much if not more than anyone else, and he has every right to try and find a more suitable home. And as Americana’s official emcee at most functions, he’s an invaluable asset to the emerging genre. But my goodness, this man can make some damn good country music.
Into state’s evidence I submit Jim Lauderdale’s latest album I’m A Song. Twenty damn songs, and not a slouch in the bunch, and very country. Though Lauderdale has been known to shift back and forth between bluegrass, country rock, and more subdued, acoustic singer/songwriter-type stuff, this here folks is a downright honky tonk album, not cut, quartered, or diminished with any other additives. How in the hell does Lauderdale do this? Being prolific is one thing, but he’s like a songwriting quasar, shifting styles and still spitting out material faster than you can listen to it, and each song barreling you over with the quality and taste exhibited in every point of the music making process.
Just in the last two years, Jim Lauderdale has released five albums, including three as songwriting collaborations with long-time Grateful Dead composer Robert Hunter, and an album with his co-Americana captain Buddy Miller. All these albums had their strirring moments for sure, but I’m A Song is exactly what Jim Lauderdale needed to do: Take a deep breath, and release an album that could have a greater impact on the world outside the sphere that already knows about him; something that had quality and appeal from cover to cover, and in a unified and accessible direction. And not only did he do this, he was still able to include twenty damn songs. Many artists start at twenty and whittle it down to the ten or twelve best. Lauderdale starts with who knows how many, and ends up with twenty, and still with more quality and consistency than most of his competition.
It’s because for such a creative genius, Lauderdale still has a lot of ‘Type ‘A’ Personality’ in his blood. And I’m not just talking about the 23 albums he’s released so far. Take into account all of the studio work and co-writes he’s done for other artists (10 cuts by George Strait alone), and that in itself would encapsulate an entire career’s body of work for many accomplished musicians and writers. That dedication and workmanship has resulted in tremendous output from a man that can be prolific in a way that doesn’t only refuse to cut corners on quality, it sets the standards for the industry and has his peers looking on with admiration.
But Lauderdale is too good to just be considered a “songwriter’s songwriter”. I’m A Song proves that. Enough with this “hidden Americana gem.” He deserves a bigger stake in the music consciousness; more name recognition amongst the masses, no matter if his humble disposition naturally precludes him from the spotlight. The world needs Jim Lauderdale’s music. Whether you consider yourself a fan of country or Americana, or roots and even folk music in general, I’m A Song should be in your collection, and at the ready.
I don’t even know where to start taking about these songs since there’s so many of them, and they’re all so great. The title track? Excellent. “A Day With No Tomorrow”, “Today I’ve Got The Yesterdays”, “There’s No Shadows In The Shade”, “The Day The Devil Changed”, “Neon Hearts”; any of these would be the best songwriting track on most any album, yet here they’re just one of many mind-blowing experiences Jim Lauderdale offers up. “End Of The World Rag” is one of the album’s big rocking anthems, and yet the songwriting suffers none. “Doin’ Time In Bakersfield” is an idea that’s been done a thousand times before, and yet Lauderdale still makes it sound fresh.
In fairness, I’m A Song is slightly padded with material heard by the world before, written by Lauderdale and recorded by others, but not so much that it doesn’t feel original, and this is also what gives the album a level of accessibility some of his other albums suffer from. “The King of Broken Hearts” cut by Lee Ann Womack and Mark Chesnutt makes it on the track list, as does the song “I Lost You” once released by co-writer Elvis Costello. Both version here though are superlative, and make some of the best listening 2014 has offered so far.
I’m A Song also speaks to the respect Lauderdale has amongst his peers from the names that showed up to lend a hand. Lee Ann Womack and Patty Loveless contribute harmony vocals to some of the album’s most cutting performances, while Buddy Miller, Stuart Duncan, John Oates, “Cousin” Kenny Vaughan, Dennis Crouch and Al Perkins fill out a cast of players that makes I’m A Song one killer track after another. And folks, it’s twangy, dirty, sweaty, yet still tight and slick in a country sort of way. It’s not refined like you may expect from a record labeled “Americana”, it’s peanut shells on bare wood floors. This is a songwriter’s album first mind you, with co-writing contributions from Robert Hunter, Bobby Bare, and others. But the music here is so incredibly savory you can listen with your brain off all you want and still find yourself completely immersed in the joy of music.
I’m afraid this album may get overlooked simply because many people think of Jim Lauderdale as a known quantity, and because he’s so prolific, it’s hard to choose where to start with him, or to keep up with all of his releases. But I’m A Song should be considered right there with the other top albums of 2014.
In a time when country music is looking for inspiration, Jim Lauderdale and I’m A Song arrive none too soon.
Two guns way up!
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Merle. The Hag. Of all the country music greats, Merle’s story might be the most symbolic of the American experience: from growing up in California as the son of Okie parents during The Depression, to spending time in prison, to becoming a rags to riches story. His legacy is sometimes overshadowed by his peers like Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash, whose influence has spread much farther than country’s borders. But when it comes to influencing country music itself, few this side of Hank Williams can say they’ve left a bigger footprint.
Here’s 10 moments that make Merle Haggard one of country music’s most preeminent badasses.
More in this series:
- 10 Badass Waylon Jennings Moments
- 10 Badass Johnny Cash Moments
- 10 Badass Merle Haggard Moments
- 10 Badass Wanda Jackson Moments
- 10 Badass Marty Stuart Moments
- 10 Badass George Jones Moments
- 10 Badass Hank3 Moments
- 10 Badass Billy Joe Shaver Moments
- 10 Badass Kris Kristofferson Moments
- 10 Badass Alan Jackson Moments
1. Being Born In A Boxcar
Now if that ain’t country….
James Francis and Flossie Mae Haggard moved from Oklahoma during The Depression after their barn burned down in 1934, and settled in an apartment in Bakersfield with Merle’s two older siblings Lowell and Lillian. Merle’s father got a job working for the Santa Fe Railroad as a carpenter, and soon went to work converting a boxcar parked on a piece of land in Oildale, CA, just outside of Bakersfield that eventually became the family’s homestead. Merle Haggard was born in that boxcar on April 6, 1937. The Haggard’s eventually purchased the land around the boxcar, and expanded it to include two bathrooms, a kitchen, and a breakfast nook.
2. Telling Off A CBS Records Executive for Firing Johnny Cash
In 1985 Merle released the song “Kern River” and it reached #10 on the country charts. But if it was up to CBS Records executive Rick Blackburn, the song would have never been recorded at all. Blackburn hated the song, and apparently went out of his way to tell Merle as much at every opportunity he had. Then at some point, Merle had enough. Blackburn mouthed off to Merle about it, and Merle lost it.
“That’s about the third time you’ve told me that.” Haggard said, “It’s more like five times. Well, I’m about five times short of telling you to go to hell.”
Then Haggard continued:
“Who do you think you are? You’re the son-of-a-bitch that sat at that desk over there and fired Johnny Cash. Let it go down in history that you’re the dumbest son-of-a-bitch I’ve ever met.”
3. Watching Johnny Cash Play at San Quentin Prison
Johnny Cash’s most famous prison appearances were in 1968 and 1969 at the Folsom State Prison and San Quentin Prison, but these concerts weren’t the first time Johnny Cash played at a correctional institution. His first ever was New Years Day 1958 at San Quentin in California, and a 20-year-old Merle Haggard was in the audience. After a few other run-ins with the law, being arrested for the first time at age 11, and after having participated in multiple of jailbreaks (see below), Merle Haggard got sentenced to 15 years for burglary in 1957 to the notorious California lockup. He was just 18.
Merle ended up only serving two years of his sentence though, in part because the Johnny Cash concert changed his life. At the time, Haggard was conspiring with his cell mate “Rabbit” on an escape plan, but Merle’s fellow cell mates convinced him he had a brighter future in country music. Rabbit eventually did escape, killed a cop, and ending back at San Quentin on Death Row.
“He had the right attitude,” Merle recalls of Johnny Cash;s appearance. “He chewed gum, looked arrogant and flipped the bird to the guards—he did everything the prisoners wanted to do. He was a mean mother from the South who was there because he loved us. When he walked away, everyone in that place had become a Johnny Cash fan.”
4. Escaping From Jail 17 Times
That’s right. As impossible as that sounds, this is what Merle Haggard claims. His criminal record over the years has been a source of much debate about just how hardened the young Merle was. More than likely most of his crimes were quite petty hooliganism stuff, and were bred out of growing up and not having a father to keep him in line, and not having any money and resorting to stealing for his daily bread. But apparently he became pretty adept at giving the local jailers the slip, and that’s why he eventually ended up at San Quentin.
“I was scared to death,” Merle recalls. “I was just 19 at the time, and I’d already been in a lot of jails. San Quentin is the last place you go. I wasn’t really that bad a guy. They just couldn’t hold me anywhere else. I escaped 17 different times, so they sent me there because I was an escape risk. When I walked out on the grounds of San Quentin, I was scared. I was there two years and nine months.”
5. Recording Tribute Albums to Jimmie Rodgers and Bob Wills
It’s one thing to record a tribute album to one of the greats of country music’s past. It’s another to do it at the height of your professional career when your talent and attention could be more financially lucrative elsewhere.
After landing his first #1 hits “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive” and “Branded Man,” and before releasing his big 1969 hits “Workin’ Man Blues” and “Okie From Muskogee,” Merle Haggard released the 1969 LP Same Train, A Different Time: A Tribute to Jimmie Rodgers — a massive, two-record tome of 25 Jimmie Rodgers songs recorded to critical acclaim. The project took a total of 6 months to complete and is given credit for a revitalization of interest in the Singing Brakeman’s career.
Same could be said for Bob Wills, when Merle made time to record and release A Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World the very next year. Even more cool, Merle rustled up the last 6 remaining members of Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys—Johnny Gimble, Alex Brashear, Johnnie Lee Wills, Eldon Shamblin, Tiny Moore, and Joe Holley—to participate in the record along with Haggard’s backing band The Strangers.
6. Kicking Cancer’s Ass
Merle Haggard was diagnosed with lung Cancer in May of 2008. Not wanting to make a big deal or publicity stunt out of the matter, he kept it hush hush. On November 3rd, 2008, Haggard had surgery to remove part of the upper lobe of his right lung that had a lemon-sized tumor growing on it. Five days later, he finally spilled the beans to the public about his diagnosis and treatment. Merle had been a smoker early in his life, and had quit cigarettes in 1991, and marijuana in 1995. But doctors said smoking had nothing to do with Merle’s condition.
How did Haggard pull through? Less than two months later he was playing shows at The Crystal Palace in Bakersfield. “I feel like I’ve extended my life,” Merle said at the time. “I’m in better shape than when I went in.”
7. The “Me and Crippled Soldiers Give a Damn” Protest Song
Merle Haggard has written and recorded many politically-charged songs over his career spanning both sides of the isle. From his conservative-leaning anthems like “Fighting Side of Me” and “Okie From Muskogee” (though he’s said this song was written to be a somewhat humorous portrait), to the more recent anti-war song “America First.” But “Me and Crippled Soldiers Give a Damn” might be his crowning, politically-charged moment.
Incensed by the Supreme Court’s decision to allow flag burning under the First Amendment, Merle penned this controversial tune in 1989 and tried to release it, but his label CBS Records refused. So Merle, determined to have the song see the light of day, bought himself out of the stipulations of his CBS contract simply so he could release the song. And just so nobody was confused of where Merle’s heart was in the matter, he gave all the proceeds from the song to the Disabled Veterans of America.
8. Recording Pancho & Lefty with Willie Nelson
Merle Haggard isn’t known especially for being a legendary duet partner, but when he paired up with Willie Nelson in 1983 to record Pancho & Lefty whose title track is the famous Townes Van Zandt song, a strange magic ensued. The song “Pancho & Lefty” went straight to #1, and so did the album. It also launched another Top 10 hit, “Reasons to Quit,” written by Haggard. Willie & Merle went on to be named the Vocal Duo of the Year by the CMA in 1983.
9. Helping to Define The Bakersfield Sound
As the bean counters on Music Row out in Nashville decided that for country music to survive, strings and choirs needed to be added, and that they needed to “refine” the sound of this rural art form to appeal to older audiences, the country music rebels out in California said “screw that” and we’re slinging their telecasters around, playing way too loud, and pushing boundaries. Right beside Buck Owens at the forefront of this movement was Merle Haggard with his hard-driving, hard-edged sound, embellished by Ralph Mooney’s blaring steel guitar.
Not only did The Bakersfield Sound keep Nashville’s “Countrypolitan” in check, it also showed many of Bakersfield’s rock and roll neighbors in places like LA and San Francisco that country music could be cool, and next thing you know you have bands like The Byrds and The Grateful Dead cutting country records.
10. Recording 38 #1 Hits… 38 OF THEM!!!
- “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive” (1966)
- “Branded Man” (1967)
- “Sing Me Back Home” (1968)
- “The Legend of Bonnie and Clyde” (1968)
- “Mama Tried” (1968)
- “Hungry Eyes” (1969)
- “Workin’ Man Blues” (1969)
- “Okie from Muskogee” (1969)
- “The Fightin’ Side of Me” (1970)
- “Daddy Frank” (1971)
- “Carolyn” (1971)
- “Grandma Harp” (1972)
- “It’s Not Love (But It’s Not Bad)” (1972)
- “I Wonder If They Ever Think of Me” (1972)
- “Everybody’s Had the Blues” (1973)
- “If We Make It Through December” (1973)
- “Things Aren’t Funny Anymore” (1974)
- “Old Man from the Mountain” (1974)
- “Kentucky Gambler” (1974)
- “Always Wanting You” (1975)
- “Movin’ On” (1975)
- “It’s All in the Movies” (1975)
- “The Roots of My Raising” (1975)
- “Cherokee Maiden” (1976)
- “Bar Room Buddies” (with Clint Eastwood) (1980)
- “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink” (1980)
- “My Favorite Memory” (1981)
- “Big City” (1981)
- “Yesterday’s Wine” (with George Jones) (1982)
- “Going Where the Lonely Go” (1982)
- “You Take Me for Granted” (1982)
- “Pancho and Lefty” (with Willie Nelson) (1983)
- “That’s the Way Love Goes” (1983)
- “Someday When Things Are Good” (1984)
- “Let’s Chase Each Other Around the Room” (1984)
- “A Place to Fall Apart” (with Janie Frickie) (1984)
- “Natural High” (1985)
- “Twinkle, Twinkle Lucky Star” (1987)
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More in this series:
- 10 Badass Waylon Jennings Moments
- 10 Badass Johnny Cash Moments
- 10 Badass Merle Haggard Moments
- 10 Badass Wanda Jackson Moments
- 10 Badass Marty Stuart Moments
- 10 Badass George Jones Moments
- 10 Badass Hank3 Moments
- 10 Badass Billy Joe Shaver Moments
- 10 Badass Kris Kristofferson Moments
- 10 Badass Alan Jackson Moments
Few things get people talking in the independent channels of country music like a Hank3 release. From his neotraditional days in the early 2000′s when he had traditionalists singing his praises, to his magnum opus Straight to Hell from 2006 that saw his punk and metal influences bleed over into a hard country approach, to his last few releases that have become a polarizing subject with many fans—some still saying he’s the torchbearer and king of underground country, while others speak about the quality issues and lack of diversity in the lyricism.
The first observation that must be given about Brothers of the 4×4 is just how much music is included here. The album contains 16 songs—a big bushel to begin with. But then factor in that out of those 16 songs, 9 of them are over 5 minutes, 7 of them are over 6 minutes, 3 of them are over 7 minutes, and one, which happens to be the opening track, clicks in at 8:34. Forget scaling music for radio play, Brothers of the 4×4 is the country music equivalent to a rock opera, with wide, sweeping, monster undertakings of music, playing out grooves with fiddle, banjo, and guitars trading breaks until their exhaustive end. This approach in itself is an expression of creativity and a new direction for country that is more akin to a Frank Zappa, or Grateful Dead approach, but without the heady, or space jam baggage.
And according to Hank3, he wrote, recorded, mixed, and mastered this entire album, along with a completely separate punk album called A Fiendish Threat in 4 months. Though this may be unusual for the country crowd, this isn’t unusual if you go back and look at the output and approach a Frank Zappa would take with his music for example. And that’s the vein this album should be taken in—one of a late 60′s, early 70′s experimental project as opposed to a straight-laced 3-chords and the truth-type approach to 3-minute country songs.
But the breadth of the project lends to Brothers of the 4×4‘s biggest problem, which is the same problem with many of Hank3′s latest releases: quality control.
If this album was boiled down to maybe half of its current weight, and just a little more time was spent on whatever was left, you very well may have a 2 guns up, 5 star album here. But because you have to wade through a decent amount of chaff, and because Hank3 goes to similar wells so many times, by the end of the album he is showing his hand in places, and your ears are physically tired. At the same time Hank3 achieves some moments that harken back to his golden era in the early and mid 2000′s, while still forging new ground and achieving new marks that he will struggle to meet in the future.
Beyond the volume that Hank3 seems to be trying to achieve, there are two main issues keeping him from putting out another landmark album. The first is that he continues to insist on using the same consumer-grade Korg D1600 tracking machine that he recorded Straight to Hell on nearly a decade ago, even though there are much better means for home recording that would in no way impinge on his DIY, home recording philosophy. The continuance of the D1600 era casts a film on all of his recordings from its inferior technology, while still not giving it the warmth an analog recording affords, which is the “new” old way of making records.
Second, he’s not writing songs, he’s writing music, and then putting words on top of that music to make songs. Or at least this is the way the priority of things comes across in the music. We see the appearance of the same tired phrases and themes that felt original and fresh on Straight to Hell, but now are beyond tired. But to Hank3′s credit, there seems to be fewer of these songs on Brothers of the 4×4 than you would expect. Hank3 exists in a very unique niche of music, where he takes bold, creative leaps sonically and structurally, while sometimes residing in a very predictable place lyrically. The most unfortunate part of this is it clouds people’s perspectives from seeing just how progressive and downright groundbreaking Hank3 can be, evidenced on the other half of his last country record, Guttertown. His core audience is hellraising rednecks, and this isn’t the place you would traditionally look for progressive country being pushed to its cutting edge.
Another big point to make about Brothers of the 4×4 is that it is very, very country. His famous yodel makes a reappearance, though it is run through a megaphone-sounding filter to help bolster the tone. Maybe the album’s greatest achievement is once again striking that balance he struck so well in Straight to Hell, where he brought his punk and metal influences right up to crossing the line, but still kept the music solidly country. That accomplishment is what won Hank3 the widest audience in underground country, and he does it again on this album.
When it comes to the songs themselves, Brothers of the 4×4 is somewhat of a mixed bag, but with more good points than bad. “Broken Boogie” is downright epic, and must be named in the same breath with Hank3′s other signature songs. Unlike some of the album’s other 6 and 7-minute tracks, the lyrics are actually an asset instead of a detriment, and the song achieves an infectiousness and depth that sucks you into a fully-immersive musical experience. The sparse, mandolin-driven “Gettin’ Dim” is the shortest song on the album, but holds just as much boldness as it’s longer counterparts. I kept waiting for the 8-minute opening track “Nearly Gone” to turn boring, but it never does, driven by Hank3′s rediscovered yodel. “Possum in a Tree,” though in no way a deep or meaningful song, is still one of the album’s fun ones, featuring banjo legend Leroy Troy.
On the other side of the coin, “Hurtin’ For Certin’” just may be one of the worst songs Hank3′s has every written, with completely contrived lyrics and music set in a register that is unflattering to Hank3′s tone. Songs like “Toothpickin’,” “Outdoor Plan,” and the title track “Brothers of the 4×4″ are big offenders of going to the whole “runnin’ and gunnin’” and “lookin’ for a good time” set of themes that have become Hank3′s substandard signature. But something about their approach on this particular album makes the lyrics either more tolerable, or at least forgivable, because the music is just so much fun. This is a fun album more than anything, and the listener should approach it as such.
Yes, Hank3 is as an isolated and disconnected artist to the rest of the music world as you will ever find. When he’s not on tour, I picture him perpetually mowing his lawn in east Nashville with his fingers in his ears, unbeknownst to the groundswell of resurgent roots artists that is happening right in his own neighborhood. Would he benefit from some slightly new equipment and a few more voices in the room as he’s recording? No doubt, and this is not because he lacks creativity or fresh ideas, it is because he doesn’t. But just like we all do, it takes feedback and collaboration to see those ideas come to their most ideal fruition, and compromises should be made to make those collaborations possible and foster an environment of growth.
But whether it is because the expectations are lowered, because the album is more country than his last, or because Hank3 has found a way to re-ignite his creative spark, Brothers of the 4×4 symbolizes a retrenching of Hank3 as a creative force in country, capable of generating inspiring moments in music. It’s just a shame you have to dig somewhat to find them.
1 1/2 of 2 guns up.
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Larry & His Flask is an interesting music specimen. The biggest advice I could give to an underground roots band right now would be, “Get away from underground roots if you want to grow,” and Larry & His Flask’s success is the perfect example why. Their 2011 stint on the Warped Tour and taking the time to do things right on the business side like plugging in the right people around them to help with management, booking, etc. has led them to become one of the few underground roots success stories.
At the same time, their heart is still firmly ensconced in the mythos of what makes an underground band be able to connect so intimately with their crowd. They approach their music with incredible honesty, and they still reside in a “scene” of sorts, backing up songwriter Tom VandenAvond on his last two albums, and playing shows with artists like Possessed by Paul James and The Harmed Brothers.
But it isn’t just because of logistics that Larry & His Flask have enjoyed growing crowds, it’s because they found an untapped vein of originality in roots music early on, and they put on one of the wildest, high energy live shows in music. Bluegrass, jazz, folk, blues, gypsy, rock, and whatever else come at you like a load of grape shot in a raucous, unparalleled explosion of musical enthusiasm. For the people that like to complain about the sameness of Mumford & Sons’ music, if you wanted to experience a mirror opposite of that, but a band in a similar stylistic direction, Larry & His Flask might be your best option.
Just ask The Grateful Dead how tough it is as a notorious live band to translate that magic into the studio, but with Larry & His Flask’s latest album By The Lamplight, they accomplished this feat yet again. While giving The Flask’s last full-length album, 2011′s All That We Know top marks, I cautioned that bands that burn as hot as they do tend to run the risk of flaming out quickly, and in the long term, they would need to figure out new ways to keep their sound fresh. Well two years later and they’ve tempered their flame none, their sound still sits firmly within their original concept, and every song is still as enrapturing as ever and the band is showing no signs of losing momentum.
But wild-eyed bands like Larry & His Flask can also be burdened by low ceilings. Like JD Wilkes once told me about his own band Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers who were also known for their crazy stage shows, the wild approach may win you some fast fans, but it can also keep you from the prime time of the music world. Though Larry & His Flask seem to have inexplicably never written a bad song, By The Lamplight, just like their other albums, fails to include that signature song or songs that can steel a band’s foothold in the music mind.
Though in some ways this doesn’t matter. The Flask is such a force of nature they become greater than the sum of their parts. Spellbinding compositional attention is given to songs that carry an overarching theme about the wayward trajectory of man. It is a doomsday message that hides an underlying thread of hope and positivity, and a road map of how to focus one’s life on a more true purpose. The Flask’s wildness is a way to wake you from the drone of everyday events and offer you a new perspective, and By The Lamplight is like that beacon of hope and knowledge leading you through a dimming, disaffected world.
1 3/4 of 2 guns up.
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If it seems like Saving Country Music is running a story every other day about an artist speaking out on the state of country music, it is because we are, and it’s because they are more and more frequently as modern pop country strives to set a lower standard for itself seemingly every day.
Tom Petty is the latest, fielding a slow lob right over the plate in an interview from Rolling Stone reporter Patrick Doyle posted today, and hitting it out of the park. Following up on an anti modern country rant Petty delivered from the stage of the Beacon Theater in New York City, the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer said in a story whose subtitle is “Singer also discusses songwriting and criticizes modern country music…”
Well, yeah I mean, I hate to generalize on a whole genre of music, but it does seem to be missing that magic element that it used to have. I’m sure there are people playing country that are doing it well, but they’re just not getting the attention that the shittier stuff gets. But that’s the way it always is, isn’t it?
But I hope that kind of swings around back to where it should be. But I don’t really see a George Jones or a Buck Owens or any anything that fresh coming up. I’m sure there must be somebody doing it, but most of that music reminds me of rock in the middle Eighties where it became incredibly generic and relied on videos. I don’t want to rail on about country because I don’t really know much about it, but that’s what it seems like to me.
Petty, whose music has always carried country influences despite being labeled as rock, spent a portion of his set at New York’s Beacon theater explaining his country roots after polishing off a version of The Grateful Dead’s “Friend of the Devil.” Petty said the country music he listened to was “not like it is today, like bad rock with a fiddle.” Then Petty and The Heartbreakers played Conway Twitty’s “The Image of Me.” It is a song he plays somewhat regularly live, and is included on his Live Anthology Box Set.
Along with Florida Georgia Line blowing off Tom Petty’s comments on Twitter, country songwriter and performer Chris Stapleton has also chimed in, penning an open letter to Petty. Stapleton is the former lead singer for the SteelDrivers, and a #1 hit songwriter for artists like Kenny Chesney, George Strait, and Darius Rucker.
Dear Tom Petty,
I think it’s safe to say most modern country artists, including me, would list you as an influence. Your recent comments lead me to believe you see room for improvement in modern country music. I, for one, would like to see you put you money where your mouth is in a tangible way. So, in the interest of making Country music less “s–tty” (your words), I suggest a collaboration. I’m extending an open invitation to you to write songs with me, produce recordings on or with me, or otherwise participate in whatever way you see fit in my little corner of music. In the event that you actually read this and are interested, look me up.
Over the weekend, pop prince Justin Bieber was busted by gossip site TMZ for smoking marijuana in a Newport Beach hotel room. Under normal circumstances an entertainer smoking pot would be passe, if not anticipated, but the problem is Bieber has perpetuated a clean, Christian, drug and alcohol-free, save-it-till-marriage public image throughout his career. Similar to other celebrities who’ve taken the path of the good, clean persona as marketing, as soon as that facade is cracked, it’s difficult to impossible to recover it (see Tiger Woods).
The irony of Bieber’s situation is that many music entertainers do the opposite of what he’s done, purposely using marijuana in their public image and music for marketing purposes. Artists who want to appeal to certain demographics or want to portray themselves in a certain way will many times integrate marijuana into their lyrics or logos of their public brand. From Snoop Dogg to Willie Nelson, from Cypress Hill to Hank Williams III, marijuana imagery can afford you a greater fandom when mixed with music; many times attracting fans who otherwise may either not find the music appealing, or not identify with it culturally. The relationship between Willie Nelson and Snoop Dogg is an example; two entertainers whose paths would have otherwise not crossed that found common ground from marijuana and the marketing of their music through it.
Why is marijuana such a powerful marketing tool, and why does it integrate so well with music?
Music is not just an audio refreshment for your ears, it is also a primary source of cultural identity. Many marijuana users use marijuana as a cultural identifier as well. Marijuana symbolizes the counter-culture, rebellion, and the breaking of rules because it is an illegal substance. The marijuana leaf itself holds tremendous iconic imagery–the strength it portrays with its splayed leaves and symmetry.
As many studies suggest, the legalization of marijuana would not and does not increase its use, with some studies inferring it decreases use. If marijuana ceased to be illegal, it would no longer hold the symbolic notions of rebellion, or afford its users the ability to feel like they were different from the rest of society, even though the vast majority of Americans have at least tried marijuana, and many continue to be daily or recreational users.
Of course marijuana use does not always have to do with identity, nor does musicians using marijuana in their imagery always have to do with marketing. Many musicians take up marijuana symbolism as a vehicle to promote advocacy for marijuana and hemp as agricultural products, or for medicinal use, or to promote legalization. And with the wide use of marijuana throughout society, it’s not always marketing that leads to it being included in lyrics. In some lifestyles, it’s simply hard to not refer to it when telling stories.
In November the states of Colorado and Washington passed referendums virtually legalizing marijuana, though the Federal government has yet to decide how they will handle such laws. Many other states have legalized the plant for medicinal use. If marijuana ceases to be contraband, it could reduce the drug’s potency as a marketing tool for music. Or similar to how stories of prohibition or other past cultural experiences have been used in music, marijuana could become less of a topic for cultural relevancy, and more an element of historical folklore.
In Mexico and South America, the trafficking of marijuana and other contraband is prevalent in popular music, especially in Narcocorrido, a sub-species of corrido music set to a polka rhythm and featuring accordion that like traditional folk music dating back to Medieval times, makes folk heroes out of smugglers and cartel lords. Narcocorrido tells tales of successful drug runs, and murdered heroes, canonizing the drug trafficking culture that exists to feed North America’s incessant appetite for illegal substances. Cartel members have been known to hire musicians to write Narcocorrido songs about them, or gun down other songwriters when they portray them in a negative light.
Narcocorrido music has boomed in the last few years on both sides of the Mexico-US border because of the increased violence from Mexico’s crackdown on cartels. If Mexico eases it’s cartel crackdown, or the US legalizes marijuana–which studies indicate could hurt Mexico’s drug business–this could change the shape of Mexico’s Narcocorrido music culture.
Meanwhile back in the United States dance/hip-hop world that Justin Bieber and his music is a part of, marijuana references in music aren’t exceptional, they are expected. It is part of the formula for a hip-hop song to include marijuana to make it not only commercially appealing, but culturally relevant. In mainstream country music, marijuana references have been slowly creeping in for years. Eric Church’s hit “Smoke a Little Smoke” may be the first song explicitly with a marijuana theme, but smaller references are now commonplace in what traditionally has been a conservative format.
As The United States attempts to tackle the growing disparity between public sentiment and the country’s decades-old drug policies, it will be interesting to see the cultural impact on how marijuana is used in the lyrical content, imagery, and marketing of American music. If marijuana becomes legal, will the imagery disappear or become less potent? Or like alcohol, will it remain a staple of popular American music?
Though “hippie” or “counter-culture” acts from the 60′s and 70′s like The Grateful Dead and Pink Floyd are commonly associated with marijuana, the bands shied away from using marijuana imagery in their logos or other marketing materials. Pink Floyd never used it, and Grateful Dead marijuana imagery came about mostly from fan mashups.
Where the heavy use of marijuana in music imagery, logos, and marketing came into play was in the late 80′s, with bands like Cypress Hill and Pantera.
After Pantera broke up in 2003, Hank Williams III was in a band with former Pantera lead singer Phil Anselmo called Superjoint Ritual. Hank3 would later integrate marijuana imagery into his own heavy metal band Assjack.
Willie Nelson just released his latest memoir Roll Me Up And Smoke Me When I Die, the same name he wanted to give his last album Heroes before label Sony convinced him it wasn’t a good idea. The album also includes the song “Roll Me Up And Smoke Me When I Die” with an appearance from Snoop Dogg. They both met in Amsterdam, and remain good friends from their mutual admiration for marijuana.
So Al Jourgensen, the Cuban-born front man and founder of the Industrial band Ministry has made himself a country album under the pseudonym “Buck Satan & The 666 Shooters”. Normally, I wouldn’t give a project like this more than a good sniff, but there has been a curiously-strident call from the Saving Country Music readership for my take, so here we go.
The first thing you need to know about this album is that it is not country. I would call it an industrial album with a country flavor. There are no live drums; they are all generated through the magic of 1′s and 0′s, as is other elements of the music. These aren’t necessarily criticisms, just observations.
An overall take on this album would be that it is a rushed, tracked-out, wank off, studio vanity electronico side-project with little heart. Now don’t get me wrong, that is not necessarily and awful thing. If Al’s approach was to make a silly and fun album for folks with a bong in one hand and a video game controller in the other to drool on themselves to, then believe it or not, I can respect that. And make no mistake, that is exactly the essence he has captured in Bikers Welcome! Ladies Drink Free. But it’s hard to take an artist’s music seriously, when it appears they’re not taking it seriously themselves.
Just a few songs in and I knew I was going to have to employ a whole new set of parameters with which to critique this album. Even though I run a site called Saving Country Music, I have an appreciation for Industrial music, and electronic music in general. I think Nine Inch Nails’ The Downward Spiral is one of the most underrated masterpieces of American music, and it’s no wonder why Johnny Cash pulled “Hurt” from it’s lineup. One of the things I enjoy about Industrial music is the precision, just like one of the reasons I enjoy country is it’s imperfection.
But what you have here is a mess, a wall of sound that comes at you from a lazy, rushed approach whose finished product is frustrating to the ear. The album was made by Jourgensen, with help from Rick Nielsen (Cheap Trick), Tony Campos (Static-X), and Mike Scaccia (Rigor Mortis), and two violin girls from the Houston symphony that new nothing about country.
Al tries to sing his own harmonies, a cardinal sin I only give Neil Young a pass on, or has a computer generate them for him, which is even worse. The fiddle lines are unimaginative. The guitar solos are dumb, including one stupid guitar effect where a finger is slid up the neck in a failed effort to channel a pedal steel (or maybe it’s electronically generated, I don’t know), that is used over and over on various tracks. All of this is then garbled together in post-production into a shit stew where no element is discernible from the others until an unattractive hiss coats everything like the morning breath biofilm on the interior of your mouth.
Despite some of the gross production issues, some of the songs are decent. And some are not. The opening track “Quicker Than Liquor” I thought really channeled what this project could have been with a better approach, and the song is not bad at all. But my life would have been better off without hearing his version of The Grateful Dead’s “Friend of the Devil”. My eyes nearly rolled out of their sockets when I saw he’d covered Poison’s “I Hate Every Bone In Your Body Except Mine” to find he changed one word in the title and reworked the tune. Some songs like “Medication Nation” aren’t really country at all; it’s a simple industrial song built from the drum machine out that overuses that dumb fake pedal steel guitar/electronic effect with stultifying vapidity.
I understand if Al, having recently suffered health problems and almost dying, wanted to check mark making a country album off of his bucket list, but just because you fly to West Virginia and drop acid in a rural cabin doesn’t mean you’ve hiked the Appalachian Trail. I really don’t have an opinion one way or another on Al Jourgensen or Ministry, but I know he could have done better, and that is the bigger issue above the fact that this album is just not very good.
But the thing is, for all the negative stuff I’ve said, I can see where he was trying to go with this, and I think if he had given the approach a little more heart and time, it could have worked. And don’t think I see the farcity of the whole thing, with the immature pseudonym and wild-assed approach. Furthermore, I wouldn’t argue with anyone who for whatever reason really enjoys this album, because despite all it’s hardships, I can certainly hear how some would find it “fun”. Unfortunately most of those folks will be 14-years-old boys with eyeliner and thumb holes cut into the ends of their long black sleeves.
There is a history of silly “country” albums done by folks outside the genre that have become outright iconic, like Ween’s 12 Golden Country Greats, or even the Jon Wayne Texas Funeral project. Whether the potential for this project was ever at that caliber or not, the execution was just not very good.
1 1/2 of 2 guns down.
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If you dare give it a try:
The amount of music out there right now that’s being either given away, or offered for unlimited free listens, is astonishing when you consider what normal was only a few years ago. On April 30th CMT and American Songwriter magazine teamed up to release a gargantuan 31-song free compilation with a stellar lineup of artists and songs. Even for a music critic that has to employ an intricate file system to deal with the reams of free music being submitted to me daily, I felt guilty downloading this monster. Willie Nelson’s “Country Throwdown” tour has an 8 song free download out right now. NPR’s First Listen allows for people to hear (or record with simple, free software) entire albums from 4 to 5 artists every week. If it is not expected of artists to at some point make their albums or songs completely available to fans for free, then it will be within months, if not days.
When the band Radiohead began this trend in earnest in 2007 by allowing fans to pay what they wanted (including nothing) for their album In Rainbows, suspicion of where this would lead the music industry was all over. The genesis of Radiohead’s idea was to say “…fuck you to this decaying business model”, but the result was a publicity boom and solidified loyalty throughout their fan base. Prince made a similar move a few months before, releasing his album Planet Earth as a free CD in the UK tabloid The Mail. The result was Prince selling out all of his upcoming UK concerts.
One of the rules in the new music reality is that artists don’t make money off of their music unless they’re huge mega-stars, they make it off of touring. So if the recorded music can just pay for itself and help promote the band, the money will get made from concerts. But what if a band or artist is not well-known yet, and can’t draw a crowd? The cart before the horse rule comes into play. So does the big fish eating the small fish.
Observing what bands give away their recorded music and which ones don’t, one of the lines of demarcation seems to be bands with established followings that can ask for guarantees from local promoters and concert venues tend to do it more, while small, up-and-coming bands that may depend on CD sales for the majority of the money they make at a live show do it less. The mega-stars do it less as well, not needing to use free music for promotion.
When Radiohead and Prince gave their music away, it was an event. Now it is passe, or even an expectation. And as consumers are flooded with choices of what free music to listen to, the effectiveness of the “free music” marketing tool is becoming drastically diluted, heading towards being completely impotent. The irony is that before Radiohead, the smaller, independent bands were the first ones to experiment with giving away their music as a promotional tool. Now that everyone does it, people are so bombarded with free music, sometimes you can’t even give music away; people are too inundated to have time to take it.
The cheap music model, like Amazon’s $5 albums, is also losing potency. This used to be a fantastic tool for smaller artists to generate higher sales figures and interest in a project, or get consumers to buy whole albums instead of cherry picking singles. Now there’s so many cheap or free albums, it’s more of a nice surprise when an album happens to be less than $9.99.
Bands like The Grateful Dead, The Black Crowes, and Phish established remarkably loyal fan bases by encouraging bootlegging of live concerts and free music sharing. One of the reasons this was so effective is because it wasn’t the norm.
And maybe there is a visceral element to this dilemma as well that results in a loss for the listener. When you would hear a single first on the radio, with no other way to go back and listen to it but to buy an album, the anticipation of a fresh batch of songs made you impatient peeling back that annoying sticker that ran the length of the CD case.
The new car smell of music is gone when you’ve heard previews on iTunes, the whole album on NPR, already have the two best songs for free from this or that promo, and only had to pay $3.99 for it. It decreases the value and significance of the music more than the sticker price. If you get a song stuck in your head, YouTube probably has it in one form or another. Instant gratification is leading to the death of anticipation and intrinsic value. Music doesn’t sound as good as it used to, because we don’t have to work for it any more. And the dizzying amount of music choices just dilutes music’s visceral effectiveness yet another measure.
Consumers may feel like the winner in the free music model, but at what expense? Where does consumer responsibility come in? Are consumers by demanding music be cheap or free shooting themselves in the foot by diminishing the music experience?
And all these concerns are aside from needing to raise capitol to create an album in the first place. Yes, home recording technology and sites like Kickstarter have made labels and large sums of capitol less necessary for album creation, but this doesn’t solve distribution, promotion, or quality issues.
From 2007 to now, the free music model has revealed itself as an unsustainable promotional practice whose effectiveness is dwindling by the hour. Like so many other practices of the dying music industry, it is trading a sustainable future for a short-term sugar high. For an individual artist or band, it still may be a legitimate promotional option . . . for now, though it soon may be a requirement. Sure, we’ve probably been heading towards the reality of all music being free for years, but for the music industry, corporate or independent, free music is not only a dilemma itself, it is exacerbating many of the other dilemmas facing the industry.
By his own account, pop country’s so called ‘New Outlaw’ Eric Church doesn’t mind ruffling feathers. With his new pot anthem “Smoke A Little Smoke,” he’s doing that very thing, and not just with the morality police.
Of course Eric Church fans are eating this song up like a bowl of Count Chocula in a munchie attack, but even some professed non Eric Church fans are praising this song as “catchy.” In my dirty little music world, calling a song “catchy” is an insult, though if your mind is numbed by years of exposure to pop country, a song with some glittering electronica and simple layering might sound like a musical wonderland. Maybe a nameless sound engineer deserves a pat on the back for this song, but beyond that, it’s bad, and not in the Michael Jackson kind of way.
Some are praising the song’s originality, but a few Frank Zappa fans are crying foul that the title and lyric of “Smoke a Little Smoke” are ripped from Zappa’s anti-disco song Dancing Fool (@ 3:10). A similar line is also in another pot song, Do It All Again by Chad Hatcher, and I wonder if Collective Soul is expecting royalties for the “Yeah” part in the chorus. Honestly its all within the realm of poetic license, but it’s a little hard to make the argument this song is rich with originality.
Meanwhile well-adjusted pop country fans who for the most part have staved away the perversion of drugs in their music are finding themselves at Eric Church concerts, shocked by all the pot references, and not just in this this song. Eric’s gone pot crazy, throwing pot leaves around on all his merch, tweezing his thumb and first finger together on stage in the universal pot sign. It’s pot peetie pot pot–let’s all ride the purple Snuffleupagus to pot-ilicious pot-land!
How did this perversion slip out of Music Row? No worries, the radio single is censored courtesy of Capitol Records Nashville who knows all about morality, as they once sued a charity representing the grieving families of dead firefighters. (There’s a Smoke/Fire pun in here somewhere, but I’ll spare you.) Apparently they mince the words a bit to make it seem this song is talking about “cigarettes and alcohol,” once again pointing out that Music Row thinks its fans are stupid. If Eric Church had stood up for this song, it would’ve finally given me a chance to stand up for him. But instead he gave in to his label’s bid for mass appeal.
A check of Eric Church’s merch illustrated to me what all this pot nonsense is REALLY about.
The marijuana leaf and pot references have long since been used as marketing tools, but it’s never been taken out of context like this. The first shirt is clearly a play for Grateful Dead fans with it’s skeletons and roses. Really? If you can find ONE true hippie at an Eric Church concert, I’ll eat my hat.
As for the other shirt: I’ve been saying for a while, the whole scheme behind these “New Outlaws” is to eradicate the country music underground by attempting to incorporate them. Right now disgruntled country fans might make up half the genre, but a lot of those fans have not come from mainstream country, but from punk, metal, classic rock backgrounds, thus the black skull and pot motif. Once again, they are stealing plays out of the playbook. Problem is, the music is still the same old tired pop song.
But except for all of that, I think this song is GREAT!
Oh, and for all the Eric Church fans, you’re right, I AM jealous of Eric Church. An no, I haven’t actually taken the time to sit down and listen to his songs. You win.
When it boils right down to it, what is it going to take to Save Country Music? Hard work, education, and grass roots efforts are one way, but the magic bullet would be an artist that could rise above all the arguments dividing country music, and offer widespread appeal through a new approach while also being true to country’s traditions and it’s traditional sound. This is what Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings did back in the mid 70′s, and they helped shine the light on all the other Outlaw artists that previously had been laboring in obscurity.
We need a leader. The mainstream says the music needs to be “accessible” to appeal to the masses, but all great music leaders haven’t come from accessibility, but innovation; an ability to unite people of different backgrounds and tastes behind a common movement through creative leadership and undeniable talent. It could be an underground artist, or someone currently in the mainstream. Remember, Willie and Waylon started in the Music Row machine.
So my question is, in the current stock of country performers, who might be capable of doing this: uniting the country fans under one flag again, or drawing the attention of the mainstream? I know, I know, some underground elements don’t want to kiss and make up with the mainstream or have their favorite artists become mainstream acts. But shouldn’t country want to celebrate the best and brightest, instead of mediocrity?
Here’s my current candidates for country’s next savior. Leave yours or your thoughts below.
An obvious mention is Hank Williams III simply because his grandfather is the King of country music and his pops is one of the highest-selling country artists ever. Recently Tom Waits called him “Country Royalty, the Strange Prince,” and if you’re anything like me, when you first heard his music, and the anti-Corporate/Nashville message it carries at times, you couldn’t help envisioning Hank III riding into Music Row to sack the interlopers and claim his rightful seat as the heir to country’s throne.
But in the practical world, fights with his label Curb Records and some of his own decisions have kept him firmly in the underground, though in a sort of Grateful Dead way, where creating one of the strongest grass roots networks ever known in country has allowed him to thrive without radio play or marketing campaigns. Now that he is free of Curb, maybe this is the moment when his influence will reach beyond his rabid fan base.
Some will get mad I included his mug here, other will be happy I’m giving him some attention. That’s because Jamey Johnson is a polarizing figure. Yes, I know he wrote the “Bandonka Donk” song, but get over it, that argument is tired. Jamey is nowhere near the filth of the other “New Outlaws” like Eric Church and Josh Thompson. Still, he fits in this awkward middle ground: his songs are just accessible enough to be played on the radio, yet not accessible enough to be big hits. On the other hand his songs are somewhat palatable by underground and REAL country fans, but no so much so that they would name him as one of their favorite artists. So outside of his core fans, he ends up in this gray area.
The game changer for Jamey might be his double album due out 9/24 called The Guitar Song, with the first album about addiction, and the second about redemption. Maybe this is a creative way to play both sides and be all things to all people and unite country fandom. We’ll see.
He may not be the country music savior, but no question Justin Townes Earle’s stock is rising, and rising fast, and not just in the music world. GQ naming him one of the 25 most “Most Stylish Men in the World” means he could cause a ripple in the greater popular culture that could reflect back on the music. However wearing bowties, and baby blue pants two sizes too short, as well as his move to New York City could make him a hard sale to the hardcore country fan.
One of the reasons I named his 2009 album Midnight at the Movies Album of the Year was because of how it bridged fans of the disparate elements of country together under one artist. But lately it seems the JTE camp is actively trying to court the progressive, NPR return music, Old Crow/DriveBy Truckers side of country, leaving some of his fans wondering where the rawness went. There’s also whispers that he’s rising too fast, and its going to his head. JTE also has a new album coming that might answer some questions, and hey, being part of a famous bloodline never hurt in country.
Ruby Jane rocketed to the top of my favorite artists after seeing her live recently, but I was going to include her in this list even before, if only to emphasize that the country music savior might be someone who is still in their formative years, and that it could be a female. Why not?
15 to 25 year-olds might be the most important demographic these days in music, and maybe it will take someone that younger people can relate to, yet someone that holds true to traditions and can hold sway over older people as well simply by their talent. At the Ruby Jane show, there were kids, I mean small kids, as well as many older people, 65+. This proves that Ruby Jane can speak to a wide audience, and do it by being herself, and not trying to pander to a constituency.
What’s you’re opinion? Who are your candidates? For some reason when I think about this, I can’t get Leroy Virgil of Hellbound Glory off my brain.
Those that have been around here for a while know that I like to come out of left field with my vintage album suggestions. You already have a big stack of records, no need for me to rehash through them. Still I know some of you are rolling up to this thinking, “What kind of hippy dippy Mickey Mouse Cali trash space jam bull honkey is The Triggerman try to peddle NOW?”
I have a theory: No matter what is happening in mainstream country, that uniquely country sound or “twang” that awakens something deep inside of us, usually driven home by a pedal steel guitar, will always be championed by someone. In the mid 70′s, when mainstream country was awash with “contemporary” string and chorus arrangements, it allowed The Outlaws to champion the twang sound and rise to power. Right now Music Row has gone in a pop/80′s hair direction, the “twang” has been picked up by people who cut their teeth listening to punk and metal.
But before the Outlaws and the current underground country crop, that “twang” sound was picked up by some of the psychedelic musicians in California, some of which were born and raised with that sound in the South like Gram Parsons and carried it with them West. Jerry Garcia, aka Captain Trips is best known for being the leader of The Grateful Dead, but while he was writing music to eat acid to, he was also working on the side as the West Coast’s most sought after pedal steel session player.
This might shock you, but Jerry Garcia might be in my top five pedal steel players of all time. His work was featured in the Crosby, Stills & Nash hit Teach Your Children. He worked solely as the pedal steel player for the country rock band New Riders of the Purple Sage. Jerry also played banjo, and in later years would be in bluegrass projects like Old & In The Way with country stalwarts John Hartford and Vassar Clements. But I digress.
The Grateful Dead’s first three studio albums were decidedly psychedelic projects, but their fourth, Workingman’s Dead, is a country music masterpiece. This isn’t an album with country influences, or some California interpretation of country, this is pure, true, REAL country at its finest.
Tight and exceptionally arranged harmonies, amazing and intelligent minimalist production by the legendary tapist Betty Cantor, and of course Jerry’s songwriting and pedal steel make this one for the ages. The Grateful Dead never got much radio play, but if this album had “hits” it was the harmonic-driven “Uncle Johns Band” and “Casey Jones” about a cocaine snorting train engineer. I like these songs, but I think “High Time” and “Dire Wolf” do a better job illustrating Jerry’s steel work and his uncanny mastery of rural themes.
Another good one is “Cumberland Blues,” which with the recent mine disasters, the release of the White Documentary and the recent flooding of the Cumberland River, is probably why this album has been on my mind. “Easy Wind” might be my favorite song. Dead member Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, former lover of Janis Joplin who was already ailing from the alcohol abuse that would kill him 2 years later, belts out a hell of a blue collar anthem in this often overlooked track.
The “production” of this album really is its biggest strength. Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger is seen by most as the greatest country music album of all time, and the minimalist, dirty, rootsy production is given a lot of credit for that. Workingman’s Dead takes nearly that same approach, only half a decade before, and in my opinion, with better instrumentation.
The Dead’s next album American Beauty is the better known of their “country” projects, and though I like this album as well, it has more of a folky, mainstream feel to it. For my money, a good followup to Workingman’s Dead is their live Europe ’72 album which again features tight harmonies and amazing country songs.
You may hate hippies or California, or the sheer idea of The Grateful Dead, but if the blue collar tribute Workingman’s Dead is not in your collection, your prejudice has gone too far.
You can purchase and preview the tracks of Workingman’s Dead by CLICKING HERE.
Death has been busy lately in the world of country music. When Vern Gosdin passed away, I hated to admit that for all my country music geekness, I had never heard of the man. But I can’t say the same about Poodie Locke, who passed away last Wednesday (5-6-09). I knew exactly who he was, and why the country music world is a different place without him.
When I look back at the original Outlaws, Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, and when they have looked back at themselves, they give a lot of credit to their success to the great people they have been fortunate to have around them. For Willie that is especially true. Willie might be living under a bridge if it weren’t for his “family,” who has always included his band members and close associates. Poodie Locke, Willie’s long time stage manager, is one of those vital people.
Poodie was also an amazing character, and a superlative storyteller. When I read the Willie Nelson Autobiography, one of my favorite parts of it was the stories that Poodie told from the road.
Following is my favorite excerpt. It ends with Willie standing in a parking garage, with a pair of huge Colt .45′s stuck into his cutoff jeans in a parking garage in Birmingham, Alabama. Enjoy:
From Willie, An Autobiograpy:
(Caution: Heavy language from a crazy Texan to follow)
In Vegas the stage is about table high. People leap onstage and you got to deal with their shit. You can’t be violent with them, because Willie don’t like it, but sometimes it’s hard to reasrain a person without being physical. i looked around at one show, and here was some drunk bitch on the stage heading for Willie. I stepped in front of her and she said, “Get out of my fucking way. I’m gonna touch Willie.”
I said, “No you ain’t.”
She said, “Have you ever touched Willie?”
I said, “No ma’am, but I jacked him off once in Kansas City. Does that count?” She looked startled, and it gave me a chance to ease her away as gently as possible.
We played with the Grateful Dead in Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City in 1977 to a crowd of 80,000. Us and Waylon. The Dead played three and a half hours while we watched the clouds building up. This big fucking storm blew in and it was pouring rain when Waylon took the stage. Waylon freaked out. Lightning ain’t the best thing to have happen when you got all this electrical equipment around you. Waylon hadn’t been to sleep in about a year – he just ate Hershey’s Kisses and snorted cocaine. Waylon started hyperventilating. He froze. So Willie walked onstage, took Waylon’s guitar, and kept on picking.
I says, “Willie, it’s dangerous out here.”
Willie says, “If you got to go, you got to go.”
We changed bands in the rainstorm, moved Waylon’s stuff off and ours on. Willie never missed a lick with rain pouring on him. I told the Grateful Dead guys, “You fuckers played so long you made it rain.” They said, “Yeah, so why don’t your old man make it stop?”
Soon as we got our band set up, the rain stopped.
But one of the strangest happenings was in Birmingham, Alabama. We had done a show downtown, and we were loading our gear at a six-deck parking garage. We all carried two or three guns and plenty of ammo back then. All of a sudden we hear KABOOM! KABOOM!
It’s the sound of a .357 magnum going off in the parking garage. The echoes sound like Howitzer shells exploding. It’s kind of semi-dark, and this guy comes blowing through this parking deck. Now here comes this fucking bitch with a fucking pistol. KABOOM! She’s chasing this motherfucker. It sounds like a fucking war.
People are piling out of the show and they start scattering. Here comes cops from every direction. They’re flying out of their cars, hitting that parking deck, spreading eagle the whole crowd. “On the deck, motherfuckers!” – because the cops don’t know who is shooting at who.
We cut the lights, and slip around to the back of the bus. All you can see are police headlights in a big semi-circle and hundreds of people lying flat on the ground all stretched out. It looks like Guyana. All these cops are squatted down in the doorjams, turning people over, frisking them, aiming guns at everybody, just waiting for the next shot to be fired.
And here comes Willie. He walks off the bus wearing cutoffs and tennis shoes, and he’s got two huge Colt .45 revolvers stuck in his waist. Two shining motherfucking pistols in plain sight of a bunch of cops nervous as shit.
Willie just walks over and says, “What’s the trouble?” Well, he’s got some kind of aura to him that just cools everything out. The cops put up their guns, the people climb off the concrete, and pretty soon Willie is signing autographs.
More Mudding/Long Hauls Videos Coming Soon !!!
Just wanted to let you guys know, it has come to the attention of the Outlaw Country Blog that there will be a different edit of the Long Hauls & Close Calls video DONE BY HANK III himself that will be made available in about 10 days or so, and at the same time, they are also going to release a FULL MUDDING video with more footage of the actual mudding event down in Mississippi where a lot of the ‘Long Hauls Close Calls’ footage was shot.
Also, for those of you wondering who did the video, it was directed by Gene Joanen of TAI Media www.taimultimedia.com and Andra Dalto. The post editing was done by Hank III himself and Ryan Thornburg. I like to give behind the scenes people their due.
And if you were wondering, that is NOT Gary Lindsey, Hellbilly and Assjack’s Screamo guy, yelling in the video. That is none other than the grandson of Hank Williams himself.
Criticism of Long Hauls and Close Calls.
As my regular readers know, if someone is out there criticizing Hank III, I like to meet that criticism head on. The main criticism I hear is that he’s just riding on his name, or that he doesn’t give a shit about the money because he got a bunch coming to him when Jr. kicks it, or lately, that he’s a sellout. You can sift through my previous blogs and there’s plenty of info on why all of these criticisms are bullshit.
But the criticism that I have not always agreed with, but have always said is a gripe I can understand is when people say they like his music, but don’t care for the cussing, drugs, devil stuff, etc. Needless to say, this ‘Long Hauls Close Calls’ video has brought these people out of the woodwork.
First off, I just want to say that as the author of this blog, and a music critic, I think ‘Long Hauls Close Calls’ is the best song Shelton has ever written, and I mean that. And it might be my favorite song he’s ever written.
Musically speaking, it is one of the most technical songs he’s ever written. I’m no more than a hack guitar player, but pretty much every Hank III song I’ve ever wanted to learn I’ve been able to. Not to discount his songs, but Shelton writes simple songs, and their greatness is in their simplicity. But ‘Long Hauls and Close Calls’ is crazy. I don’t even know where to begin playing it, and furthermore, I think the lyrics are great.
But some people don’t think that. I’ve heard from a few readers who’ve told me that, but to show that I’m not just picking on them, I pulled these comments off of YouTube:
“im sorry III, but you need to go back to the basics. this shit just dont have the same feeling……….. ”
“more bonehead shit from one of my favorite people. this shit ain’t you III, go back to singing from the heart.”
The first time I heard the song was at a concert. Then I found the YouTube:
Man, it still gets me going.
My guess is the main beef SOME (and I emphasize some) people have I think is with the screamo parts of the lyrics, and also maybe the devil imagery in the video.
For me personally, I’m not bothered by the devil stuff and I think the video overall is superbly made. But I have to admit, when I heard the recorded version of the song, I thought the screaming part of the lyrics was a little over the top. But it didn’t ruin the song for me at all, and hey it’s III’s song. I’ve been helping him fight for his creative control, and it ain’t my place to tell him what to do.
The reason I’m writing this is because I wanted to point out two things to people who have a problem with Long Hauls Close Calls:
1. Country, folk, blues, and rock singers have been singing about the devil ever since those genres began. The music might be harder, but the themes for the most part are still the same. I’ll give you an example: This song has also been called ‘The Devil Is My Friend’. Here’s one of my favorite songs from the ‘Grateful Dead’ called ‘Friend of the Devil:’
Now who’s going to call Jerry Garcia ‘over the top’ or ‘extreme’ just because he wrote this song? The devil is a folk character of modern music, and always has been. Is Hank III a Satan worshipper? Hell, I don’t know. Really don’t know if its my business. I just like his music. If he tells me to go rape my neighbor and sacrifice a goat to the dark angel, I’ll re-evaluate then. But for now, I’m on board.
2. If you have a problem with Long Hauls Close Calls PLEASE LISTEN TO THE REST OF THE ALBUM!!!
Listen, I don’t have a copy of it, but since my day job makes me a member of the media, I have been able to listen to it. LHCC is by far the most brutal song on the album, and if you like the slow stuff or the mid tempo stuff, it’s got plenty of that. In fact I think a few of it’s songs are the most accessible songs III has done since Rising Outlaw, and ‘Stoned and Alone,’ in my opinion is his best slow song ever.
Weather you agree or disagree, feel free to leave your opinions here. I just want to emphasize that Damn Right Rebel Proud has something for everyone. I wish they would’ve released a video for one of the slower songs too, but he’s got plenty of those out there. Just give it a chance, and don’t give up on III.
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