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One of the great things about roots music is its Gothic legacy of cautionary tales, ghost stories, murder ballads, messages to the infirmed, and other such methods of macabre that allow country and roots artists to paint in dark colors when they so choose. This makes roots music one of the best realms to draw from when putting together your Halloween playlist. Here is a list of some of the artists who dabble in the dark side of country and roots.
The things that hide under beds, in closets, and eerily disappear when you shine a light their way are what conspire and collaborate to create the inspiration for Lincoln Durham and his dark tales of murder and inner mayhem, belted out with a voice that can meld like a shape shifter and carries behind it the soul of 1000 black men. A conjugation of deep blues, Gothic country, and dark folk, Durham fits nowhere and everywhere in the music world all at the same time. Halloween is tailor made for Lincoln Durham’s music, and so is his just-released album Exodus of the Deemed Unrighteous.
You can’t get more Halloween and country than the King of Country & Western Troubadours that happens to also be a 300-year-old vampire. Â Unknown Hinson has what you need to keep your country-themed Halloween soundtrack rolling by blending a classic country sound with his creepy, blood-thirsty pursuits of “womerns” that always seems to take the darkest of turns.Â After saying last year he was done for good, the man who also is the voice of the character Early Cuyler from Cartoon Network’sÂ SqudbilliesÂ announced earlier this year he was back from the dead, and will be touring regularly. Unknown’s alter ego Stuart Daniel Baker also happens to be one hell of a guitar player.
The Bloody Jug Band
When you have The Bloody Jug Band to listen to, you can celebrate Halloween all year. Similar to Unknown Hinson mentioned above, they make their dark music doubly entertaining by instilling humor into their music. But The Bloody Jug Band is no bit. Their debut album Coffin Up Blood was a nominee for Saving Country Music’s 2012 Album of the Year from the creativity and innovation they display though music that is dark and funny, but also shows how roots music can evolve while still paying respect and residing within its heritage.
Lonesome Wyatt & The Holy Spooks
There’s nothing better for Halloween than a good ghost story, and Lonesome Wyatt & The Holy Spooks have a whole catalog of them, including the freshly-exhumed album released just for this season called Halloween Is Here, complete with ghost stories and songs molded in the classic Halloween album style.Â Parental guidance would be strongly suggested, but some of Lonesome Wyatt’s songs and stories even work well for kids. And for all your year-round gloomy needs, look no further than Lonesome Wyatt’s other Gothic country concept, Those Poor Bastards.
Like a foreboding raven who sits high on her perch and caws out her cautionary tales of murder, deceit, and a world gone mad, Rachel Brooke’s music is dark as it is wise. From ghost stories to murder ballads, Rachel has Halloween covered, with numerous songs from her catalog ripe for the witching hour. Another spooky project worth dropping in your trick or treat bag is the collaborative effort with the aforementioned Lonesome Wyatt called A Bitter Harvest.
The Slow Poisoner
Halloween was made for The Slow Poisoner, and The Slow Poisoner was made for Halloween. As equally creepy as he is creative,Â this comic book writer and illustrator haunts the San Francisco public schools as a substitute teacher by day, and Â puts on one of the most entertaining live one man band shows you can see by night, complete with big creepy cue cards and other live props while he peddles his Egyptian oils and other wares through his dark music.
Sons of Perdition
From the disturbed imagination of Zebulon Whatley comes one of the core bands of the modern Gothic country era. Similar to Lonesome Wyatt and the Those Poor Bastards (who’ve been known to collaborate with the Sons of Perdition in the past) Zebulon draws heavily on religious dogma mixed with a dark perspective for inspiration. The Sons of Perdition’s ghastly hymns are enough to keep the ghosts haunting you all night, and are set to release a new album Trinity on November 12th.
The Goddamn Gallows
If you like your roots music dark, it doesn’t get any darker than The Goddamn Gallows. With their old soul tales from a scarier time, The Gallows are like a freak medicine showÂ set to music, orÂ a haunted carnie ride rattling off its tracks and plunging you into a deep, dark place where only the most unsettled of thoughts go. Complete with pounding drums and a washboard player that breathes fire, these guys are like the soothsayers of the Apocolypse.
Other Dark Roots Bands Ripe for Halloween:
- Pine Box Boys
- The Haunted Windchines
- Those Poor Bastards
- Slim Cessna’s Auto Club
- Jay Munly
- Ray Wylie Hubbard
- Johnny Cash
- Nick Cave
- Slackeye Slim
- Viva Le Vox
- Black Jake & The Carnies
- The Perreze Farm
- The Slaughter Daughters
- Lindi Ortega
- Tom Waits
- Jayke Orvis & The Broken Band
- Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers
- Larry & His Flask
- Shakey Graves
- .357 String Band
- Joe Buck Yourself
- O’ Death
- The Dinosaur Truckers
- Creech Holler
- Reverend Glasseye
- The Devil Makes Three
- Dad Horse Experience
- Joel Kaiser & The Devil’s Own
- Jesse Dayton
- Walter Sickert and the Army of Broken Toys
- Pinebox Serenade
- Filthy Still
- Serial Killer
**NOTE: The image from the very top is from a now out-of-print dark roots compilation called Rodentia.
The underground country movement initially formed around the mid 90′s not because somebody launched a website or a record label. It wasn’t because of a festival or because someone came up with a special name for a new genre. It wasn’t because some personality who was bestowed a famous name took the reigns and began promoting music. The strength, the support, and the fervor that went into forming underground country and the bonds and infrastructure that is still around today came from the songs artists were writing, recording, and performing; songs that spoke very deep to the hearts of hungry listeners. In the end, all leadership and must come from the music. A good song will solve its own problems. Like water, it will eventually find a path to thirsty ears, and funnel support to the artist and infrastructure that surrounds it.
This isn’t necessarily a list of the greatest underground country songs, or even the most influential. It is simply 12 songs that were so good, they helped create something where there was nothing before.
Wayne “The Train” Hancock – “Juke Joint Jumpin’”
Wayne Hancock is one of the fathers of underground country, and he’s also the King of Juke Joint Swing, so it’s only appropriate to include one of his signature songs here. The very first song on his very first album Thunderstorms & Neon Signs from 1995, it made listeners wonder if they were hearing the ghost of Hank Williams. Later Hancock would perform the song as a duet with Hank Williams III.
Hank Williams III – “Not Everybody Likes Us”
Hank3 has probably written better songs, but not that speak to the spirit of underground country so well. “Not everybody like us, but we drive some folks wild” epitomizes the philosophy behind the country music underground—that it doesn’t matter if the masses like your music, only if you and your friends do. Add on top of that a big dig at country radio, and “Not Everybody Likes Us” has become a rallying cry of underground country music.
.357 String Band/ Jayke Orvis – “Raise The Moon”
This song is so good, it has been released twice, been played regularly by three different bands, and still is not tired. Written by Jayke Orvis, “Raise The Moon” originally appeared on the .357 String Band’s first album Ghost Town in 2006. When Jayke Orvis left .357 for a solo career and a spot in the Goddamn Gallows, the song appeared on the Gallows’ album 7 Devils. 7 years later and the song still remains a staple of Jayke’s live show, and a defining sound of underground country.
The Boomswagglers – “Run You Down”
Authenticity is such an unattainable myth in modern music these days that it is nearly impossible to find a truly original and untainted sentiment. But that is what The Boomswagglers serve up with “Run You Down.” It is one of those songs that immediately sticks in your head and stays with you for a lifetime. Defying style trends, it is simply good, and its story, like much of The Boomswagglers music, is deceptively deep. Songs like this withstand the test of time.
Hank Williams III – “Straight to Hell”
The title track off of Hank3′s magnum opus Straight to Hell from 2006 was the “hit” of underground country if it ever had one. It has risen to become one of Hank3′s signature songs, and he regularly uses it to start off his live shows.
Bob Wayne – “Blood to Dust”
Bob Wayne may be best known for his wild-assed party songs laced with drugs, loose women, and running from the cops, but that doesn’t mean he can’t write a deep song when he wants. As Bob will tell you, every word in this song is true, and the personal and poignant nature of the story makes it very hard to not be affected emotionally when it is listened to with an open heart. “Blood to Dust” speaks to the broken nature of many of underground country’s artists and fans. The song appears on Bob Wayne’s very first album of the same name, and his first big release Outlaw Carnie on Century Media.
JB Beverley & The Wayward Drifters – “Dark Bar & A Juke Box”
Underground country isn’t just a sound, it is a sentiment; a feeling that something is wrong in country music, and something needs to be done about it. This is the foundation for the title track off of JB Beverley & The Wayward Drifter’s 2006 album. At the time JB Beverley may have been better known for fronting punk bands. But unlike many of the underground country bands that would come along later, blurring the lines between punk and country, JB Beverley serves “Dark Bar & A Juke Box” up straight, in a sound that refers Wayne Hancock’s throwback style.
Wayne “The Train” Hancock – “Johnny Law”
If “Juke Joint Jumpin’” is Wayne Hancock’s signature song, then Johnny Law is his defining jam. This song has become a showcase for some of the greatest musicians in the history of underground country during the extended breaks for both the guitar and upright bass player. It might also go down in history as one of the most requested songs in underground country.
Dale Watson – “Nashville Rash”
For a precious time in the late 90′s ans early 2000′s, the triumvirate of Wayne Hancock, Hank Williams III, and Dale Watson looked like they were going to take the country music world by storm. It was because they were willing to speak out, and lead by example, both sonically and lyrically. Dale is still leading today, and his legacy of country protest songs like “Nashville Rash” still gets you pumping your fist.
Rachel Brooke & Lonesome Wyatt – “Someday I’ll Fall”
Rachel Brooke, The Queen of Underground Country, and one of the founding fathers of Gothic country, Lonesome Wyatt from Those Poor Bastards, teamed up in 2009 for the landmark album A Bitter Harvest. The album, and specifically the song “Someday I’ll Fall” symbolize the collaborative spirit inherent in underground country—where two artist come together to become greater than the sum of their parts. “Someday I’ll Fall” is also a great example of taking old school influences and embedding them in a new, fresh approach.
Joe Buck Yourself – “Planet Seeth”
One of the men responsible for helping to revitalize the hallowed ground of lower Broadway in Nashville in the mid 90′s delivers this bloodletting of a song where the audience is actively encouraged to release their hate in Joe Buck’s direction. Though the language and music may be too hard for most, the concept and execution of “Planet Seeth” is nonetheless genius. It embodies the participatory aspect of underground country, where the crowd is as much a part of the show as the artist, giving back in energy what they receive from the performer in a symbiotic relationship.
Wayne “The Train” Hancock – “Thunderstorms & Neon Signs”
Few songs can evokes mood and reminiscent memory like Hancock’s “Thunderstorms & Neon Signs.” It set the standard for the old-school style of country swing that was so seminal to the formation of underground country. The song’s legacy was cemented when Hank Williams III covered it on his first album Risin’ Outlaw, introducing Wayne Hancock to a whole new audience, and vice versa. “Thunderstorms & Neon Signs” helped cement the underground country movement.
In Red Dirt music, there is a place called “The Farm.” It was a 5-bedroom house outside of Stillwater, Oklahoma owned by Bob Childers where the Red Dirt movement started in earnest. No matter what happens in Red Dirt henceforth, whether it continues to grow or it fades away, the few Red Dirt members who called “The Farm” home in those formative years will always have their place in history cemented as forefathers of the music.
If underground country had a version of “The Farm,” Lonesome Wyatt would be one of its inhabitants. Lonesome Wyatt is a pioneer of Gothic country with his band Those Poor Bastards, and one of the originators of underground country whose song “Pills I Took” was covered by Hank Williams III on his landmark album Straight to Hell, he is one of the few artists who will never be forgotten regardless of the long-term fortune of the underground country sub-genre.
Gothic country is not for everyone. Similar to how punk and reggae may not have many similarities on the surface, but whose structures are steeped in similar modes when you explore the music deep at its core, Gothic country may come across initially as counter-intuitive, or even corrosive to someone who calls themselves a country fan. But within Gothic country, you find the stark distinctions of good and evil indicative of The Louvin Brothers and gospel, you find the the murder balladry of Doc Watson and Johnny Cash, you find the Gothic identity and presence of death of The Carter Family, and the empowerment of the poor of Woody Guthrie.
Lonesome Wyatt and his “Holy Spooks” side project may even be less accessible that other Gothic country because the sound is fairly stripped back and the approach quite fey. This is music to be listened to, not heard; music that you sit back and appreciate its textures as opposed to banging your head or tapping your foot to. But for those brave souls not scared off by the spooky dressing, they will discover some striking artistic expression interwoven with timeless storytelling in an album that reveals itself to be more entertaining and even prone to losing yourself in than you would initially expect.
If Lonesome Wyatt was an actor, he’d prefer the method approach to the craft. And if his music were a movie, it would be a graphic novel. Where Lonesome’s Those Poor Bastards material usually carries more anger, and angular, abrupt themes, Ghost Ballads is like a lost collection of Edgar Allan Poe poems written as if they were for children, but that were truly meant for adults. Then he sets it all to music. This is where Lonesome Wyatt’s singular artistic contribution to the world is evidenced, which is his ability to cull the perfect sounds from the universe to conjure a desired mood. A master craftsman of audio textures who is not afraid to pull from both the analog and electronic worlds, his ear is wickedly adept at picking up the most delicious subtleties in sounds that universally trigger dark responses in the human palette.
And just when he has you in the darkest of all moods, the creepy bastard springs into the saccharine, 50′s-ish do-woppy “Dream of You” making the whole experience feel even that much more sinister.
Reportedly recorded surreptitiously at the haunted Maribel Caves Hotel in Maribel, WI, Ghost Ballads may not be the best starting point to get into Lonesome Wyatt’s uniquely dark and creative approach to music, but is a good selection if you’re looking for music to create camaraderie with a dark mood, or are looking to evoke one.
Lonesome Wyatt is a timeless artist, and I’m sure Ghost Ballads along with his entire discography will be haunting Gothic fans long after he’s in the grave.
1 1/2 of 2 guns up.
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The underground country movement started roughly in the mid 90′s on lower Broadway in Nashville that at the time was a run down part of town. Young musicians from around the country, some from punk backgrounds, came together from their mutual love of authentic country music to create a counterbalance to the pop country that was prevailing on Music Row a few blocks west.
Underground country started with mostly neo-traditionalists like Wayne “The Train” Hancock, Big Sandy, and Dale Watson, but spread to the punk and heavy metal world through acts like Hank Williams III and Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers. This list does not just consider the appeal of these albums, but also the influence they had on other underground artists and albums, and on country music and music in general.
Please understand that this list is just for underground country albums. This means artists better defined by the Deep Blues like Scott H. Biram or Possessed by Paul James, or Texas artists like James Hand or Ray Wylie Hubbard, or country artists who may work on the fringes of underground country but would not necessarily be considered underground like BR549 or Roger Alan Wade, are not included. Americana acts are not included. This is strictly underground country’s opportunity to bask in the spotlight.
Please feel free to leave your own list below.
16.Â The Boomswagglers- Bootleg Beginnings – 2011
This very well may be the most authentic album of music put out in the modern era for any genre. The Boomswagglers have always been and continue to be more myth than reality, with original Boomswaggler Lawson Bennett long gone and a cavalcade of replacements shuffling in an out with Spencer Cornett. Even if they never put out another album, The Boomswagglers made their mark, and it is a deep one.
“The music is wildly entertaining and deceptively deep. If youâ€™re going to be a Boomswagglers song, someoneâ€™s got to die, and likely a woman. Some may find this silly, monotonous, or even offensive, but you have to listen beyond the lyrics, and unlock the carnal wisdom that is hidden in these songs.” (read full review)
15. JB Beverley & The Wayward Drifters – Dark Bar & A Juke Box – 2006
Dark Bar & A Juke Box was an instant underground country classic, and so was the anti Music Row song that the album got its name from. JB and his Wayward Drifters grit out a superb selection of songs displaying taste, restraint, and a sincere appreciation for the roots of country music, which may have surprised some who knew JB more for his work with heavy metal bands like The Murder Junkies and the Little White Pills. Dark Bar & A Juke Box also boasts appearances from the famous son and grandson of a country music royal family, who due to contractual issues had to work incognito (wink wink).
14. Lucky Tubb & The Modern Day Troubadours – Del Gaucho – 2011
Some (including Lucky himself) may point to Hillbilly Fever as being the seminal Lucky Tubb album with its big budget and appearances by Wayne “The Train” Hancock. But Del Gaucho is where Lucky Tubb came into his own, found his sound, and the unique musical flavor only he has to offer the world. Dirty, rowdy, rocking, but still steadfastly neo-traditionalist country, Del Gaucho scores off the charts when it comes to style points. When you’re talking about some of the greatest neo-traditional country albums and artists of all time, Lucky Tubb and Del Gaucho deserve to be in that conversation.
13- Bob Wayne & The Outlaw Carnies – Blood to Dust – 2008
They say you have your whole life to write your first album, and what makes Bob Wayne’s Blood to Dust so special is how true and touching he told his life’s story through song. His subsequent albums aren’t too shabby either, but with signature songs like “Blood to Dust”, “Road Bound”, and “27 Years”, this still stands out as his signature album, and a signature album of the underground country movement. It was performed, produced, and recorded by an all-star cast of contributors that included Donnie Herron, Joe Buck and Andy Gibson, and brought Bob Wayne out from behind-the-scenes as Hank3′s guitar tech, and made him one of the movement’s most well-known songwriters and performers.
12. Jayke Orvis – It’s All Been Said – 2010
This is the album that launched Farmageddon Records, and that launched Jayke Orvis as a formidable, premier front man in underground country. One of the founding members of the now legendary .357 String Band, Jayke was asked to leave the band because of irreconcilable differences and almost immediately began touring with The Goddamn Gallows and trying to make this album happen. The result was a slick, tightly-crafted LP showcasing excellent songwriting and instrumentation. From ballads to blazing instrumentals, Jayke Orvis has proved himself to be one of the singular talents of underground country roots.
11. Lonesome Wyatt & Rachel Brooke – A Bitter Harvest – 2009
This album was destined to become an underground country classic. The mad genius music mind of Lonesome Wyatt of the Gothic country duo Those Poor Bastards has the uncanny ability to procure the absolute most appropriate sounds to evoke the desired dark mood in his music. Then you combine that with one of the best voices not just in underground country, but in all of music in Rachel Brooke, and magic was bound to happen. The creativity on A Bitter Harvest is spellbinding. More of an artistic endeavor than a toe tapper, Lonesome Wyatt and Rachel create a soundtrack to human emotion and despair. For people looking for a place for country music to evolve, A Bitter Harvest shows how you can take authentic country themes and an appreciation for the roots of the music, and envelop it in layers of textural color culled from the wide experience of human sounds.
10. Justin Townes Earle – Midnight At The Movies – 2009
Midnight At The Movies was Saving Country Music’s 2009 Album of the Year. Today it would be difficult to characterize Justin Townes Earle as underground country because the quality of this album launched him into the inner sanctum of Americana.
“Justin Townes Earle has done an awesome thing with this album; he has figured out a way to unite all the displaced elements that make up the alternative to mainstream Nashville country, while still staying somewhat accessible to the mainstream folks as well. You might even catch the bluegrass folks nodding their head while listening to it. Folkies like it, and thereâ€™s a few tunes blues people can get into. This isnâ€™t just the REAL country album of the year, it is the â€śAlt-countryâ€ť album of the year and the â€śAmericanaâ€ť album of the year.” (read full review)
9. Slackeye Slim - El Santo Grial, La Pistola Piadosa – 2011
“Every once in a while, an album comes along that changes everything. Itâ€™s an album that inspires other albums, and dynamic shifts in tastes and approach throughout a sector of music, while at the same time dashing the dreams of other artists, as the purity and originality are way too much to attempt to rival. Slackeye Slimâ€™s El Santo Grial, La Pistola Piadosa is one of those albums.
“El Santo Grial is a masterpiece, exquisitely produced, arranged, and performed. This is a patient, uncompromising album. You can tell time was never introduced into this project as a goal. The goal was to flesh out Slackeyeâ€™s vision without ever settling for second best, and that goal was accomplished.” (read full review)
8. Wayne “The Train” Hancock – That’s What Daddy Wants – 1997
Thunderstorms & Neon Signs is the Wayne Hancock album most people gravitate towards as their favorite because it was their first, and the first to showcase Wayne Hancock’s unique blend of country, Western Swing, rockabilly, and blues. But pound for pound, That’s What Daddy Wants is just as good of an offering, boasting some of The Train’s signature songs like “87 Southbound” and “Johnny Law”. Wayne Hancock has never put out a bad album, and distinguishing between them is difficult. But it’s not difficult to say that the underground country movement would have not had as much class if That’s What Daddy Wants hadn’t seen the light of day.
7. .357 String Band – Fire & Hail – 2008
“They were all the absolute best possible musicians you could find at their respective positions, each challenging each other, pushing each other to keep up with the bandâ€™s demands for artistic excellence in both instrumental technique and creative composition.
“Listening back now at Fire & Hail, with so much talent in one place, no wonder the project was untenable, and no wonder the respective players have moved on to become their own trees instead of respective branches of the same project. Still, the loss of .357 String Band may go down as underground countryâ€™s greatest tragedy.” (read full review)
6. Hank Williams III - Lovesick, Broke, & Driftin’ – 2002
BR549 and Wayne â€śThe Trainâ€ť Hancock spearheaded the neo-traditionalist movement in the mid 90â€˛s, but Hank Williams III was the one to carry it into the oughts and introduce it to a brand new crop of fans he brought along from his dabblings in the punk/heavy metal world. After having to tow the line somewhat for his first album Risin’ Outlaw, Hank3 was unleashed and able to showcase his own songwriting, heavily influenced by Wayne Hancock and Hank3′s famous grandfather, but still all his own. His voice was wickedly pure with a heart wrenching yodel and commanding range. The songwriting was simple, but powerful. This is a masterpiece, and remains an essential title of the neo-traditionalist era.
5. Hellbound Glory – Old Highs & New Lows – 2010
Hellbound Glory had already been around for years, but they burst into the underground with this magnificent, hard country album highlighted by head man Leroy Virgil’s world class songwriting. Despite the “hell” in their name and the hard language in their songs, Hellbound Glory hadn’t gone through any retooling as post punk refugees. They were pure country through and through and Old Highs & New Lows combined excellent Outlaw-style bar stompers and ballads with some of the most wit-filled songwriting since Keith Whitley. As far as honky tonk albums go, it may be years before this one is trumped. And when it is, it might be Leroy Virgil and Hellbound Glory doing the trumping.
4. Dale Watson – Live in London…England – 2002
Dale comes out on stage and starts slinging guitars, cutting classics, and speaking the truth. Before Dale was the hometown boy and house band for Austin, he was pissed off and willing to sing about it. Dale’s anti-Nashville classics â€śReal Country Songâ€ť, â€śNashville Rashâ€ť, and â€śCountry My Assâ€ť can all be found here, but Live in London isnâ€™t all pissing and moaning. Songs like â€śAinâ€™t That Livinâ€™â€ť showed off Daleâ€™s superlative voice and suave style. Honky tonk albums are sometimes hard to make because it is hard to capture that live, sweaty energy in the recorded context. So what better way to solve that problem than making a live one? Live in London remains the best Dale album to date.
3. Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers – Cockadoodledon’t – 2003
This was one of the first albums to bust out of the burgeoning music scene on lower Broadway in Nashville where one can argue the undergorund country movement started. It showed the world what kind of mayhem could be created by mixing country, blues, and punk music together without compromising taste and soul. It is the album which acts as a guidepost to the eclectic, yet intuitive and inter-related mix of influences that you will find in underground country: honest to goodness appreciation to the roots of American music, with a punk attitude and approach. And if you ever wondered why Joe Buck is considered part of underground country, appreciate that he played most of the music on Cockadoodledon’t.
2. Wayne “The Train” Hancock – Thunderstorms & Neon Signs – 1995
There are two albums that you can look back on an make a serious case that if they did not exist, underground country music may not exist–the album below this one on this list, and Wayne Hancock’s Thunderstorm & Neon Signs. There are two types of music artists: originators and imitators. Sometimes imitators can be very successful, and very creative artists themselves. But it always takes the originators to set the plate for the imitators to do what they do. Thunderstorms & Neon Signs was an original album from one of America’s most original country roots artists of all time. It doesn’t get much better or more influential than this.
1. Hank Williams III – Straight to Hell – 2006
This album isn’t underground country’s Red Headed Stranger. It isnâ€™t underground country’s Honky Tonk Heroes. It is both. It is the album that both was a novel concept, a breakthrough sonically and lyrically, and had a massive impact on the business side of music, for artists winning control of their music and inspiring and showing artists how to do it themselves. The deposed son of country music royalty had taken on a major Nashville label, and won, and all while being one of the first to successfully bridge the energy and approach of punk and heavy metal music with traditional country, all while keeping the music solidly country in nature.
It was the first album to be put out through the CMA with a Parental Advisory sticker. It was the first to ever be recorded outside of a traditional studio setting. Of course only a select few were paying attention, but it broke through many barriers that to this day have changed music in significant ways, sonically and behind the scenes.
The approach also had wide-ranging impacts outside of underground country and country music in general, to rock music and punk and heavy metal, inspiring thousands of rock kids to put down their electric guitars and AC/DC records, and pick up banjos and Johnny Cash records. The impact on mainstream music may have not been seen, but it was felt, and just like all great albums, itâ€™s legacy will grow and be more appreciated and understood as the future unfolds.
Rachel Brooke is one of the few select artist with enough mustard to rise out of the ashes of the country music underground and become a force in the greater roots world. Like an early Emmylou Harris, the music industry should be shuttling her across the country to lend her singular vocal texture to other projects in between putting out excellent solo albums that time finds hard to forget.
The first thing that must be said about A Killer’s Dream is that it’s a blues album. And when I say “blues” I’m not talking about Deep Blues, or punk-infused blues, or country blues. I’m talking the type of straightforward 12-bar blues where the first line repeats itself; the most common progression you think of when you think “blues.”
But this isn’t something far outside of what was heard from the original country bluesmen like Hank Williams and Jimmie Rodgers. And people who think this is a wholly new direction for Rachel (who I’ve dubbed “The Queen of Underground Country” in the past) aren’t versed on her early material like “Bottle Tippin’ Blues” and “Blackin’ Out” that were similarly based deep in blues modes.
Florida duo Viva Le Vox was hired on as the house band for A Killer’s Dream, and I can’t say enough about the taste they brought to this record. These songs afforded them so much space, and they had so many opportunities to walk all over Rachel’s voice or hijack the attention. Instead they laid back and listened, letting their musical wisdom guide them in creating a foreground for Rachel to be framed in, while still somehow imbibing the album with their distinct Viva flair and macabre.
And Viva is just the start of the instrumentation. The amount of textures A Killer’s Dream touches on is impressive: Saw, 30′s jazz horn sections, kettle drum and xylophone just to name a few. The approach to A Killer’s Dream can only be described as “bold.” It’s also an audiophile’s dream. Recorded live to 2-inch tape and not touched by computer until mastering, A Killer’s Dream conveys tremendous warmth and presence.
A Killer’s Dream cracks the speakers with the haunting “Have It All” that isolates and showcases Rachel’s singular attribute–her voice that I once heard best described by mandolin player Jayke Orvis as, “Carrying so much pain.”
After this succulent little bit of audio melts into a reverberating pool reminiscent of Rachel’s landmark collaboration with Lonesome Wyatt called A Bitter Harvest, the album starts in earnest with the bluesy “Fox In A Henhouse”. Immediately your ears train on that Viva Le Vox flavor I alluded to above, and right when you’re ready to accuse this song of being cliche with it’s line, “There ain’t no devil in my heart, ’cause I ain’t a man,” Rachel slays you with the payoff, “But there’s been one in my kitchen, she’s been cooking with my pots and pans.”
It’s always risky to release a second version of a song, but in the case of “Late Night Lover”, the listener is rewarded with a bolstered, energized interpretation that employs trumpet and timpani and an attack to Rachel’s voice in the chorus that both trump the previous version, and make you appreciate the previous version more for its simplicity.
The Fats Domino cover “Every Night About This Time” took a little time to warm up to, but what drew me in was the “oh-oh-oh-oh’s” Rachel sings. They set the table for the 50′s-era vibrations Rachel works with on later offerings like the solid “Only For You” and the title track, “A Killers Dream”. The quivering and cursed “The Black Bird” with its choir of saw shrieks breeds a sense of fear and despair frosted with a vintage patina.
One possible issue with A Killer’s Dream is how many times Rachel goes to drink from the straightforward blues well. Also the middle songs on this album–the stripped down, acoustic “Life Sentence Blues” and the droning “Old Faded Memory”–act sort of like a speed bump on the momentum. Lonesome Wyatt of Those Poor Bastards singing in a higher register than most of us have heard before makes “Old Faded Memory” something special from a sonic standpoint. But the story meanders, the music is sort of flat, and at nearly 7:00, it tests the will.
Individually, the blues songs like “Life Sentence Blues” and “Serpentine Blues” aren’t bad, but in an album that sonically is so diverse, the structure of the blues numbers begins to feel burdensome.
All of these sins are atoned though when Rachel offers up the gem of A Killer’s Dream, the Beach Boys-inspired title track. Possibly Rachel Brooke’s best song ever from a compositional standpoint, the usually reserved Rachel takes risky, daunting leaps and sticks the landings remarkably well. Aside from just being fun and a wholesale change from what we’re used to from Rachel, the writing on this song is its best attribute, which can’t be overlooked for how actively the song pulls you in from a visceral standpoint. This song “makes” this album, proves Rachel’s versatility and musical prowess, while at the same time being completely ridiculous and silly.
How to grow and evolve yet still hold on to what makes you unique and who you truly are is the balance all artists must attain to continue to move forward. Rachel shows she’s up to these alchemical feats in A Killer’s Dream, and proves that she’s musical gold, worthy of the attention of the greater Americana / roots world.
Two guns up.
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“A Killer’s Dream” video that just premiered on CMT Edge:
On Saturday November 17th, two of the most important acts in underground country played what very well could be their final shows. Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers, a band that was there at the very beginning of underground country and the revitalization of the lower Broadway in Nashville announced they are calling it quits after 16 years, at least for now, playing their final show at Nashville’s Mercy Lounge. Meanwhile in Covington, Kentucky, Unknown Hinson, one of underground country’s greatest ambassadors from his work on Cartoon Network’s Squidbillies, played his final show as a touring act after 17 years, saying he was done, “Period.”
Both these acts had their specific reasons for calling it quits, and certainly the door is open for them to return. And for JD Wilkes, the long-time front man of The Shack Shakers, he still has his Dirt Daubers routine which has apparently retooled to a more electric sound. But you add these huge, high-profile, highly-important artists leaving on top of bands like .357 String Band dissolving, Sunday Valley re-aligning, and Leroy Virgil losing all his original players in Hellbound Glory, and all of a sudden underground country feels like it’s fighting a war of attrition, and losing.
I have been struggling to write this article for almost two years, but have been putting it off because there’s some hard things to say, and I didn’t want to “talk down” a movement that was already trying to deal with pretty alarming trends. But I think that especially now, zooming out and trying to be honest and critical in a constructive way is important, because there is positively no doubt that underground country is dying, and has been for years.
Why? Here are some ideas.
An aging fan base and aging artists
There are exceptions of course, but if you look at who comprises the underground country movement, it is predominantly people in their 30′s, and people from lower incomes. And what do people do in their 30′s? They settle down, they get married and have kids, they get better and more stable jobs, they buy houses. This gives them less time to spend partying, hanging out on the internet talking about music, going to shows on weeknights. In your 30′s, instead of being able to hit every underground country show rolling through town, you have to pick that one show a month you want to attend and pay a babysitter.
The same goes for the artists making underground country music. As they age, their motivations to keep working at music that doesn’t seem to want to stick commercially begin to fade. Health concerns begin to become an issue, and not being able to afford health insurance is a real concern. This was one of the primary issues facing the Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers. Yearning for more stability is a recurring theme in the attrition underground country is facing in its talent roster, from banjo player Joe Huber of the .357 String Band, to drummer Chico from Hellbound Glory.
Something else worth noting is the large sect of sober people who make up underground country, in both the artist and fan ranks. Over time, some people must move away from the music and party scenes to find their sobriety, and others may just not identify any more with music that tends to have foundations in a party lifestyle.
Meanwhile the infusion of youth into underground country is anemic. There are some exceptions. The Boomswagglers from Texas and The Slaughter Daughters are promising, young bands, and artists like Lucky Tubb and Wayne Hancock have been integrating side musicians into the scene for some time. But they rarely stick, partly because of a general lack of support. Any younger musician if they’re smart doesn’t attempt to start their rise in underground country, which seems to be trending down and never had much long-term infrastructure to begin with. They look towards Americana, or the Texas/Red Dirt scene, or bluegrass, where the support is much easier to count on.
A Lack of Leadership
Since the beginning of underground country, if you looked at the top of the pyramid you saw Hank Williams III, and that is still the case in regards to records sales and concert tickets sold in any given year. But in 2008, Hank3 took over a year off from the road, and shortly after he started touring again, he stopped carrying opening bands. Then he put out a succession of albums of questionable quality, and all of a sudden a career on the rise has been stagnant for going on 5 years, and same goes for the the scene that revolves around it.
It was not Saving Country Music or Free Hank III, or even MySpace that comprised the first information portal about underground country. It was Hank3′s “Cussin’ Board” forum. And people didn’t go there just for Hank3 news, but news about all the underground country bands, with artists like JB Beverley and Rachel Brooke participating in the discussions regularly. These days, the “Cussin’ Board” feels like a ghost town compared to its vibrant past.
Shooter Jennings has stepped up in the last two years to attempt to fill the leadership vacuum left by Hank3, and has done some positive things and had some marginal success. But his polarization has kept him from completing the task of becoming a solid leader everyone can look up to. Similarly, where Hank3 was once the most unifying factor in underground country, his obvious step back from the “scene” has now made him a polarizing figure as well, questionably capable of taking back the reigns of underground country even if he was motivated to, and which he’s shown positively no signs of wanting to do. I can’t blame Hank3 for wanting to take a step back, because there were so many people wanting to take from him, believing his name was their stepping stone to success.
Leadership must come from the artists, and it must come from the music first, and that is Shooter Jennings’ inherent problem. This was illustrated when he cut the “Drinking Side of Country” duet with Bucky Covington, or on his industrial rock album Black Ribbons. Whether you like these Shooter projects or not, they illustrate his lack of consistency that has lead to his ineptness as a leader of underground country, and his acute polarization that reaches as far as Eric Church fans, and fans of his father. Hank3 never professed himself a leader. He led by example, and used causes like Reinstate Hank to lead the charge of taking country music back.
The Scene Has Replaced The Movement
One of the reasons an underground of country music was founded was from a wide ranging dissent about the direction of country music. This dissent is where the varying range of musical styles united, taking the country punk of Hank3, the neo-traditional approach of Wayne Hancock, the Texas/Outlaw country of Dale Watson, the bluegrass of the .357 String Band, the blues of Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers, and the Gothic country of Those Poor Bastards and piling them all together in the overall underground country movement. It was united by issues, like the reinstatement of Hank Williams to the Grand Ole Opry, the opening and extension of the Williams Family Exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame, the fight for creative freedom of artists from record labels, and the fight against the infiltration of pop on country radio.
Now these issues that defined, united, and energized the country music underground are seen as tired, if not counter-productive or annoying to many in the underground population. When issues arose with the sale of the Grand Ole Opry to Marriott International, or the changing of Billboard’s chart rules, the underground met them with apathy, if not anger at them being offered up as relevant to their music world. Issues are what made outreach possible for underground country, and now exclusivity seems to be what is yearned for by the majority of underground country fans. The “we have our music, screw the masses” attitude is what prevails, taking away one of the primary promotional tools for independent-minded underground ideals to reach out to other country music fans who also might be feeling disenfranchised with the mainstream.
Scenes and Cliques
Image and exclusivity seem to be the important dynamics in today’s country music underground, dragging on the commercial viability of the music, and making it hard for outsiders to integrate with the underground country culture. Though some on the outside looking in may enjoy the music, they may not understand the verbiage, anecdotes, and style that seem to be important with “fitting in” to the underground. So as long-time underground country fans taper off because of age, no new blood is there to take their place.
Facebook has also narrowed the perspectives of underground country fans, making them feel like how you present yourself is more important than what you do. An unhealthy culture of cloistered, inbred cross-promotion prevails through underground country, where small cliques of fans and bands have formed around labels, blogs, and podcasts, catering content to a select few.
These cliques promote each other within the clique, and at times may branch out farther to the “scene,” but rarely reach new blood because they are based on narrow perspectives and anecdotal experiences. It’s an “I’ll scratch your back, you scratch mine” culture where quality and creativity are lightly regarded compared to political importance in the scene. And if you don’t participate in this culture of narrow, ineffective promotion of the other people in the scene or clique, you risk being ostracized. Intention is measured over effectiveness. These cliques and their differences have also given rise to eternal conflict, with the bigger overall “Shooter fans vs. Hank3 fans” splitting underground country squarely in half.
Saving Country Music, and I specifically have at times enhanced or enabled unnecessary “scene” drama, and this has potentially affected the fate of underground country adversely.
There are lot’s of entities in underground country and roots who attempt to promote music that seem to get lost in promoting their branding and merch first, and the music second. There are many general reasons underground country is dying, but the specific one is lack of money. Underground country is funded by the $40 hoodie, and this creates a paradox for the music that is supposed to be the focus.
Though there is lots of talk about shared responsibility for keeping underground music alive, and there’s many folks who re-post bulletins on Facebook, take pictures and videos of shows, run podcasts, or boutique “labels” attempting to make a difference in the music, the effect is confined to cliques and micro-scenes, and is more catered to serving the few and propagating image and branding.
For example the Pickathon Festival in Portland that caters to a wide variety of independent roots movements, including underground country, boasts over 300 volunteers annually. The Muddy Roots Festival, which almost exclusively caters to underground country and roots had roughly a dozen volunteers this last year, with multiple people who signed up to volunteer to get discounted or free tickets either not working their shifts, walking off their shifts, or generally being unhelpful. Pickathon’s issues with people sneaking onto the site are marginal. Muddy Roots’ issues of people sneaking on site without paying are major. The most helpful volunteers at the 2012 Muddy Roots were a representative from a hair gel sponsor, and the Voodoo Kings Car Club who have very few ties to the music.
There seems to be little understanding that if bands, labels, and festivals are going to continue to exist, there must be a shared sacrifice from the fans. And not just symbolic sacrifice, but substantiveÂ efforts to offer real support to the entities making the music happen. Without any corporate funding, that’s how an underground music movement works.
A Lack of Creativity
Underground country was founded on creativity. The creativity found on albums such as Hank3′s Straight to Hell, Wayne Hancock’s Thunderstorms & Neon Signs, Dale Watson’s Live in London, and Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers’ Cockadoodledon’t is what caused a country music underground to form in the first place. In the mid 2000′s, you could confidently say that the creativity in underground country outlasted that of the mainstream per capita. These days underground country is mired in trying to recapture that creativity, in a practice that lends to the aping of styles and the rehashing of themes. Capturing a “punk gone country,” “honky tonk Outlaw”, or “old-time” aesthetic seems more important than carving out a new creative niche like the originators of underground country did.
Meanwhile any true creativity existing in underground country quickly evolves beyond it to greener pastures in Texas country or Americana, like Justin Townes Earle did. The lack of infrastructure, the presence of scenesters, and the general disorganization of the underground dissuades talented artist from associating themselves with it. Americana, Red Dirt, Texas, and West Coast circuits offer much more hospitable and palatable scenes, while underground country generally discourages cross-pollination with these kindred, independent-minded movements, misunderstanding them as either mainstream, or too high-minded for the music they like.
A step removed from the influence of the scene, Europe continues to thrive and grow their support for underground country. There seems to be more general thankfulness that underground country music exists in Europe, and a stronger focus on the music itself instead of the scene that surrounds it. There’s more support, more of a volunteering attitude, and more of a willingness to help make the music happen by the fans. Europe continues to be the most commercially-viable place for many underground country bands to tour and sell albums, and that support is continuing to grow.
A Few Breakout Bands
Bands like Larry & His Flask, Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band, and The Goddamn Gallows have found some decent success over the past few years playing on some bigger tours like The Warped Tour and opening for The Reverend Horton Heat. Bob Wayne has found traction in Europe and domestically being singed with label Century Media. Justin Townes Earle is now a big concert draw, and Scott Biram is getting his music played on television shows.
But many of these artists are moving on from the traditional underground country infrastructure to find their success, and others like Leroy Virgil and Sturgill Simpson still seem to be one step behind where their creative potential should be taking them commercially.
Festival & Touring Infrastructure
This is something underground country was lacking for years, and now has a healthy dose of. Unfortunately rising gas prices and dwindling crowds sometimes means it’s too little too late for some bands. The reason Unknown Hinson says he quit touring was because it was costing him too much money.
There are more festivals in all shapes and sizes catering to underground country and roots than ever before. But again, with a dwindling fan base, these different festivals are competing with each other for the same anemic and contracting population.
The Deep Blues
The Deep Blues seems to be on a more sustainable path, and also seems to be able to divest itself from the drama that is confounding underground country. However since it shares much of the same infrastructure as underground country, the issues in underground country can bleed over to the deep blues as well. There is better sustainability in Deep Blues, but the growth is still marginal. In many ways, the Deep Blues is the only thing keeping underground country alive, and that could hinder Deep Blues from moving forward as it drags underground country along.
What Can Be Done To Save Underground Country
To save underground country there must be a renewed interest in finding and developing younger bands, attracting younger fans, and focusing on talent and creativity over forming exclusive scenes. “Young” should not be mistaken for the same connotations it carries in mainstream country. Talent and creativity should still remain key, as well as trying to reach the folks that “get it.” But if underground country wants to continue to remain a viable part of the overall country music landscape, it must recruit new bands and new listeners to replace the natural contraction within its population.
Underground country must quit being so reactionary about the outside world. It must diversify. It must find common ground, common struggle, and common tastes with Americana, Red Dirt, and Texas music, and promote its best and brightest talent to those worlds and then reciprocate. It must stick to its founding principles of preserving the roots of the music and fighting for creative control for artists, and seize on the opportunities current events create to promote those principles to the rest of the music world, promoting the music of underground country by proxy.
It needs leadership, big bands, breakout albums and songs that breathe new fervor into the movement. It needs and end to the “I got mine” mentality.
And it needs it now, before it ends up like Communism: a great idea whose devil is in the application.
The Queen of Underground Country, the lovely and talented Rachel Brooke will be releasing her new album A Killer’s Dream on December 4th, featuring Florida’s Viva Le Vox as her backing band, and a duet with Lonesome Wyatt of Those Poor Bastards. This will be her 3rd full-length album.
A Killer’s Dream was recorded at Rachel Brooke’s brother’s Halohorn Studio in Traverse City, MI, and will be made available in limited edition 100 red vinyl copies, black vinyl, CD, cassette, and digital form. All formats will be available for pre-order on Tuesday, November 20th at Â http://
The first cool surprise is the world premier video for the song “The Black Bird” that you can watch below. Rachel will also be touring through the South and East in February and March as part of a Viva Le Vox / Joe Buck Yourself / Rachel Brooke super tour that will eventually take her to Europe and the European Muddy Roots Festival this summer.
From the outside looking in, one may look at the lineup of The Muddy Roots Festival for example, and wonder how a throwback legend from Texas like Wayne “The Train” Hancock, a hillbilly punk freak from Tennessee like Joe Buck, a golden-throated singer from Michigan like Rachel Brooke, a crazy hellbilly songwriter from the Pacific Northwest like Bob Wayne, and a blues legend from Mississippi like T-Model Ford could all be booked right beside each other and it work seamlessly.
This illustrates the dramatic sonic and geographical diversity that goes into creating what we know now as the underground country roots, or “Muddy Roots” world. Below is a list of the disparate origins of Muddy Roots music that came together from a mutual understanding and appreciation of the roots of American music, and the epicenters where this music originated from and/or is thriving today.
The revitalization of Lower Broadway in Nashville.
In the early 90′s, lower Broadway street in downtown Nashville comprised the last bastion of old buildings that symbolized what Music City used to be. Overrun with dirty bookstores and titty bars, and The Grand Ole Opry’s original home The Ryman shuttered, young cowpunk and neo-traditionalist musicians like BR549, Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers, Hillbilly Casino, Greg Garing, and Joe Buck and Layla, commandeered lower Broadway and revitalized the strip into the tourist destination it is today. Emmylou Harris‘s legendary concert with the “Nash Ramblers” in 1994 also breathed new life into The Ryman, and later Hank Williams III would cut his teeth in lower Broadway venues like Layla’s Bluegrass Inn.
The fierce appreciation for country’s roots combined with an independent, punk mentality is what revitalized the most historic portion of downtown Nashville, and created the foundation for the blending of country, blues, and punk that Muddy Roots music would spring from.
Â Outlaw Country
Not just Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, but Bobby Bare, Kris Kristofferson, and especially Tompall Glaser’s “Hillbilly Central” renegade studio in Nashville is the origin of the Outlaw spirit behind underground country roots, the “Do It Yourself” attitude to not allow labels to arrest creative control from the artists and to always respect the elders and traditions of the country genre while also allowing the music to innovate.
Underground country and Muddy Roots is very much a construct of the “post punk” music landscape. As punk music and scenes began to become stale or gentrify, punk artists and fans looking for the raw approach to music, and many times raised on traditional country and bluegrass, began to turn back to their own roots and put down their Flying V guitars for fiddles and banjos. This is where some of the fast, aggressive approach to roots music comes from, on both the country and the blues side, as well as the DIY spirit, and the grassroots approach to scene building and album production.
After Hank Williams III’s stint with the punk metal band Superjoint Ritual is when many punk and metal heads found themselves listening to country music again. In 2006, when Hank3 recorded his album Straight to Hell at home on a consumer-grade machine and put out an album with a Parental Advisory sticker on the front through one of Nashville’s major labels, many barriers were broke down and parameters set for how Muddy Roots music would evolve.
North Mississippi Hill Country Blues & Deep Blues
One of the reasons both country and blues music can work right beside each other in Muddy Roots is because in many cases they are both being infused with punk, just like artists Scott Biram and The Black Diamond Heavies do. Many times the infusion is with a very specific type of blues from the North Mississippi Hill Country, brought to the attention of the rest of the world by Fat Possum Records in the early 90′s, just about the same time lower Broadway in Nashville was being revitalized by young country punks.
One of the first events that put these like-minded blues and punk blues musicians all in one place, and included a few country-based artists as well was the Deep Blues Festival put on by Chris Johnson in Minnesota starting in the mid 2000′s. Deep Blues fest was where the relationship between blues, punk, and a deep appreciation for the roots of blues by young white musicians was codified.
In a similar way to infusing both country and blues music with a punk edge and mentality, rockabilly artists in the early 90′s like The Reverend Horton Heat pioneered “pyschobilly”, a punk version of rockabilly. Just like their blues and country counterparts, they were neo-traditionalists, staunchly educated in and preservers of the roots of the music.
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Part and parcel with the sonic diversity of underground country roots is the geographic diversity. Unlike many other past music movements that sprang up in specific geographical areas (or maybe in a few general areas, like East Coast vs. West Coast), Muddy Roots has epicenters all across the country as illustrated in the map below.
1. Tennessee (Nashville)
As explained above, Nashville has played the most vital role in the formation of underground country roots, from the Outlaw country music movement in the mid-70′s, to the revitalization of lower Broadway beginning in the mid-90′s, and today with the Muddy Roots Festival just an hour east in Cookeville, Nashville and Tennessee remain the major Muddy Roots epicenter, including the up-and-coming east Nashville, home to many venues supporting underground musicians, and the home of Hank Williams III, arguably the most important musician to the formation of a country music underground.
2. Austin, TX
As the”Live Music Capitol of the World” and a huge music town, Austin follows only Nashville in it’s importance to Muddy Roots music. Home to Wayne “The Train” Hancock, Scott Biram, Dale Watson, and many other underground roots musicians, as well as one of the epicenters of the original country music Outlaw movement and a lot of independent music infrastructure, Austin is a vital epicenter in underground roots.
3. The North Mississippi Hill Country
It’s not just any old blues that builds the nexus between blues and country into that unique underground roots concoction, it is a specific type of blues from the north Mississippi Hill Country. Fat Possum championed the sound of artists like RL Burnside, Junior Kimbrough, T Model Ford, and many others beginning in the early and mid 90′s. That sound has since been picked up and combined with punk by artists like Scott Biram, The Ten Foot Polecats, Restavrant, and The Black Keys to form what is more commonly referred to today as “Deep Blues”.
4. Michigan – (Detroit, Flint)
On the surface maybe one of the most unlikely epicenters for country and roots music is also possibly one of the most vibrant. The home base for artists like Whitey Morgan & The 78′s, Rachel Brooke, The Goddamn Gallows (Lansing), as well as a vibrant local scene with bands like Some Velvet Evening, Michigan has grown just about as many underground roots acts as anywhere else. To grow good roots bands you need support, and events like the legendary “Honky Tonk Tuesdays” at Club Bart in Ferndale created the community and collaboration that have allowed Michigan roots music to thrive.
5. The Upper Midwest (Minnesota, Wisconsin)
The Upper Midwest is the proving ground for many early and influential Muddy Roots bands, including the Gothic country stalwarts Those Poor Bastards from Madison, WI, the premier punk/bluegrass .357 String Band from Milwaukee, and Trampled by Turtles from Duluth, MN. When you throw in Michigan as an Upper Midwest state as well, the region becomes one of the strongest in the country for roots music.
Minnesota was also the scene of the crime for the original Deep Blues Festivals, and is the home of Chris Johnson, the founder of Deep Blues, and the owner of Bayport BBQ, a blues-based venue near St. Paul. Along with Weber’s Deck in French Lake, MN, they make Minnesota an Upper Midwest roots haven.
6. Arizona (Phoenix)
It only seems appropriate that one of the places where Waylon Jennings began his legacy from would years later become an underground country epicenter. The original home of Hillgrass Bluebilly Records, and a must-stop for touring bands going to or coming from The West Coast, Phoenix feels like home for many, and is home to artists like Ray Lawrence Jr. , Junction 10, and “Valley Fever” every Sunday night at the Yucca Tap Room. Hillgrass Bluebilly events are where many underground roots artists would meet for the first time, sparking collaborations on albums and tours that created a coagulating effect in an otherwise spread-out movement.
7. The Pacific Northwest
The Pacific Northwest is like a factory for underground roots talent. Bob Wayne, Larry & His Flask, McDougall, James Hunnicutt, Hillstomp, and Brent Amaker are all from there, and the list goes on and on. And then when you start digging deeper, many artists who are now based out of other places originated from there, like some of the original members of BR549. Both Loretta Lynn and Willie Nelson did time in the Pacific Northwest early in their careers. And we can’t forget the punk world’s Eddie Spaghetti and the Supersuckers started doing country side-projects in the late 90′s and collaborated with Steve Earle.
Bluegrass is big in the area, and there seems to be a kindred spirit between the rainy west and the deep South because of the rural life and landscape, and because many of the original settlers of the Northwest were originally from the South. With a population that tends to support the arts and music, and many specific neighborhoods and venues and festivals like Pickathon that cater to the roots scene, the Pacific Northwest is one of underground roots’ biggest power players.
Montana may look like a lowly outpost on the map, but it played a vital roll in the formation of underground roots in the mid to late oughts, specifically with a promotion company called Section 08 Productions putting together the “Murder in the Mountains” tours. By bringing together artists from all around the upper part of the country like Rachel Brooke, JB Beverley, .357 String Band, Bob Wayne, Slackeye Slim and others, they were one of the first to take the theoretical underground roots scene, and give it some substance. Section 08 Productions has since morphed into Farmageddon Records, and is still based in Montana.
Â 9 – California
California has always been the force in country music just behind Nashville and Texas, and that counts for underground country and roots as well. Where California played a key role in the formation of underground country was the interjection of punk influences and the transition of punk fans. Mike Ness of Social Distortion, Jon Doe and Exene Cervenka from the band X doing country side projects in the 80′s and 90′s is what led to the punk/country nexus. The Devil Makes Three from Northern California were one of the very first bands to bring a punk attitude to string music, The Pine Box Boys from San Francisco were one of the pioneers of Gothic bluegrass, and Los Duggans from LA were an important Deep Blues band.
10. North Carolina
Boasting some great music towns and big time roots music labels like Rusty Knuckles, Ramseur Records, and Yep Rock, North Carolina can make the case for itself as having the best music music scene and the most infrastructure right behind the big boys of Nashville and Austin. It also doesn’t hurt that one of the most successful roots acts in recent history, The Avett Bros., call North Carolina home.
11. Chicago, IL (Bloodshot Records)
Chicago will always be a big important part of underground roots as the home of Bloodshot Records. Bloodshot was one of the first labels to put their money where there mouth was in 1994, being “drawn to the good stuff nestled in the dark, nebulous cracks where punk, country, soul, pop, bluegrass, blues and rock mix and mingle and mutate.” As home to artists as important and wide ranging as Justin Townes Earle, Scott Biram, and Wayne “The Train” Hancock, Bloodshot Records’ impact and influence will always make Chicago a roots epicenter.
12. Central Florida
The scene in Central Florida is young, but burgeoning. Being the home of artists like the legendary Ben Prestage, Lone Wolf OMB, The Everymen, and many more, Florida is primed to become one of the underground country and roots hot spots.
13. Lawrence, Kansas
As a college town with a music school, Lawrence, KS is one of the best mid-sized music towns out there. Lawrence brings the support for live music, and not just for the usual college-town indie rock fare. It is home to bands like the long-running Split Lip Rayfield, and the high energy Calamity Cubes, and some of the coolest music venues you can find, like the Jackpot Music Hall, 8th St. Tap Room, and The Bottleneck.
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Other important epicenters: Little Rock, Arkansas, and specifically the legendary Whitewater Tavern. Bloomington, Indiana, a big music and roots town, and home to Austin Lucas, Davy Jay Sparrow, and many more. And Denver, CO, home to Slim Cessna’s Auto Club amongst many others.
I think at this point it is pretty much a forgone conclusion that in 2012 we’re all going to die of death. You know, that whole Mayan thing. But I thought just to be on the safe side, just in case we all don’t die, we’ll probably want to listen to some music, so wouldn’t it be cool to know what some of your favorite artists have planned for 2012. So I asked them to tell us in their own words.
Leroy Virgil of Hellbound Glory is…
…working on a new project we’re just gonna call ‘merica. Gonna come out in chapters or volumes, haven’t decided. Songs about real ‘merica. Shitload of new songs. Also shit load of touring. Nationwide February and March.
…balancing two aging dogs, two little sons, 500 Elementary aged children, 4 chickens in coop & 1 debilitated claw toe while releasing a 10″ LP and new full length album. We also hope to be coming to your town whether in France, Tennessee or Canada. RAR RAR 2012!
Roger Alan Wade is…
…recording a new album, “The Last Request of Elijah Rose” – it’s a prequel to “Deguello Motel”. -I’ve got the songs written and just been playing them at home and sneaking a few in on shows getting ‘em broke in for the studio. This one feels good. And hittin’ the road a little more this coming year.
…going to put out a new album, spend thousands of miles on the road, and meet the girl of his dreams (not necessarily in that order).
Even as a child Ray Wylie Hubbard sensed the need for a hymnal for grifters. In 2012, he will release an album entitled “The Grifter’s Hymnal” consisting of 11 new original songs and a ringo starr cover; therefore fulfilling a life long quest and hopefully defying the Mayan calender.
Bob Wayne is…
…rollin till the wheels fall off …..(insert train whistle)!!! Yeeeehaaw!!!
Rachel Brooke is…
…heading back into the studio to release an analog full length record. And touring more. Also heading to the west coast where the 2012 earthquake will probably kill me.
Sturgill Simpson of Sunday Valley is…
…planning to win…period.
Ruby Jane is…
…going to remember the importance of loved ones and of being there for them no matter the circumstances. That is the most important thing I leaned from 2011.
…gonna play over 200 shows, just like we always do. See you at the honky tonk.
…already hard at work on a new release. We’re also hitting the road once the snow thaws. IN,IL,OK,AR,LA, and TX are up first. We’ll see ya this Spring!
Jayke Orvis is…
…hittin’ the studio, hittin’ Europe, and hittin’ Baby Genius in the penis.
Austin Lucas is…
…working on a follow up to “A New Home in the Old World”,Â tentatively with Tennessee legends Glossary as my backup band. I’ll also be heading into the studio with my family this summer for our first ever, official “Lucas Family Band” album. Heading out on the road in a few weeks.
James Hunnicutt is…
…going to kill the world with kindness in 2012 in a rootsy, metal sorta’ way
JB Beverley of the Wayward Drifters is…
…2012 is going to be a big one for me. I have the new Wayward Drifters record, my solo project, the Little White Pills, and Ghostdance. No rest for the weary nor the wicked!
Peewee Moore is…
…releasing his 2nd full length all original album in the Spring to be followed by a 100 + American City Support Tour.
…releasing their 2nd album in spring/early summer and will be touring the west coast, southwest, and southeast in early August and a possible movie appearance may occur if all goes well.
Slackeye Slim is…
… planning on doing a bunch of writing, and trying to get a band together in time for a summer tour of the US.
Lonesome Wyatt of Those Poor Bastards is…
…praying for the destruction of mankind and releasing many more hit songs.
Lone Wolf is…
…gonna be working on a new album which should be ready by February, touring the whole southeast with four other acts on a tour named “The Dukes of Juke Tour”, and also will be playing austin in march. His schedule is getting busier by the day…thats right folks, keep yer eyes and ears peeled cause the one man banjo speed demon may be coming to a town near you!!!!!!!!!
Derek Dunn is…
…putting out “Poisonous Serpents”, and touring around the U.S. and Europe.
Olds Sleeper is…
…releasing an album on Sunday, January 1, 2012 in preparation for the intended self-pocolypse of said year. “New Years Poem” will be free.
Willy Tea Taylor is…
…going to throw a perfect 9 innings during the wiffle ball game of his life.
Before we get started here, let me just address the folks that will say the only reason I’m doing a review for this album is because Hank Williams III included some of Ray Lawrence Jr.’s songs on his latest Ghost To A Ghost/Guttertown release. Well of course that’s the only reason I’m doing this review, and it’s the only reason I know Ray Lawrence Jr. exists, and it’s the only reason this album exists.
And I’ll even take it step further and say even though I liked the songs entitled “Ray Lawrence Jr.” on Hank3′s album as maybe a bootleg or something you nab off of YouTube, I didn’t think they were worthy of including on a serious release. Frankly, these days I’m apt to look at many Hank3 decisions with cocked head, like a cocker spaniel looks at you when you loudly pass gas. But what the Ray Lawrence/Hank3 tracks did was got us to pay attention to this artist, and after listening to Raw & Unplugged, it is hard to say anything except that Hank3 once again deserves credit for playing pusher for another relatively unknown artist who wholeheartedly deserves the recognition.
As the title of this album implies, this is Arizona-based singer/songwriter Ray Lawrence Jr. with just him and his guitar. The album was quickly put together after Hank3 released Ghost To A Ghost, to meet the demand Hank3′s exposure created. It is in this context you must judge and listen to this album. Some albums are recorded raw and unplugged as a purposeful approach to create a desired aesthetic. This one is done more out of time and necessity.
However you want to look at the approach, this is some of the best true country songwriting I have heard all year. I am floored folks. I’ll be honest with you, knowing the context of this album going in, I didn’t think it had much chance to charm my little music heart, but that is exactly what it did. Ray’s songs are just so true, honest, well-written, and authentic, it makes his adeptness at song craft absolutely undeniable. And screw the fact that there’s no accompanying instruments here, who needs them. The strength of song is enough to make this album accessible despite it’s sparseness.
Ray is an example of how songs about truck driving and divorce will never get old in country music, as long as they’re being sung by someone who sings from personal experience, and with heart. Songs like “Check’s In The Mail” and “Just Kick My Ass To Texas” work in that timeless country manner of conveying simple wisdom through wit. “There’s Another Cheatin’ Heart” was my favorite track from the album, from the way Ray uses the simple countryism “off somewhere” to draw you in with it’s authenticity. And songs like “My Hurtin’ Will Be Done” show that Ray isn’t just about engaging lyrics, but also has a great ear at structuring the music around the mood he wishes to convey.
Ray’s guitar playing is great for the solo acoustic context; not just cord strumming, but not over noodling either. Good walks up and down, and the rhythm and cords are always present. And his voice is one of those aged, authentic instruments of song that so many a young man can try and duplicate, but aside from William Elliot Whitmore, can never match. In places the edges of the notes are frayed just so from the years of drink and smoky bars, but there is still a strength to it, and a desert twang that Ray wields with confidence. There is a little David Allan Coe to his vocal delivery.
I don’t mean to keep going back to the context of Ray’s Hank3 connection, but something I can’t drive home enough is how country this album is. This isn’t some Hellbilly kick or punk meets country as some may assume from seeing Hank3′s name, this is an album you could play for your grandmother, and you know what, she might like it. No hard language, just simple, universal country themes and stories that touch your heart from their authenticity.
Is this album like a “best of” from a songwriter whose been going at it for decades, and put all his top notch material together making a follow up an inevitable letdown? Will Ray exploit this opportunity Hank3 has given him as artists like Lucky Tubb, Bob Wayne, and Those Poor Bastards did before? Time will tell, but what I am hear to tell you right now is Raw & Unplugged is top notch. And as a pure country singer/songwriter album, I highly recommend it.
Two guns up!
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Over the weekend, one of the best bluegrass ensembles to ever grace the planet made their final bow, as the .357 String Band said farewell in the form of a pair of shows in their home state of Wisconsin. Friday (11-25) found them at the historic Turner Hall in Milwaukee playing to a packed audience that included many personal friends and family, including Those Poor Bastards who among others opened the show. (review & pics from Third Coast)
“Until we see you guys again, I just want to say thank you from the bottom of my heart. Keep on supporting local music, the local economy, and keep on taking care of each other. You’re best fucking fans in the world,” guitar player Derek Dunn said before launching in to their set ending song “Rollin’ Down The Track” off their album Fire & Hail, which was the Saving Country Music’s 2008 Album of the Year, and also #8 on SCM’s Albums of the Decade.
Earlier in the night Derek and the band also thanked their parents, and many of the other individuals and artists that helped and influenced them over their run that spanned over six years. Their first album Ghost Town was released 6 years ago today. .357 played their final show Saturday (11-26) in Green Bay.
Both shows included new .357 String Band music, songs like Tongues of Fire, Poisonous Circles, & Let The Bones Be Burned, songs that fans may never get a chance of hearing a recorded version of now. However as the band stated when they announced their breakup, fans can expect solo projects to be forthcoming, and for those that can’t wait and have yet to pick it up, Joseph Huber’s Bury Me Where I Fall is a must have (read SCM review).
I know the stated reason that the band broke up was banjo player and songwriter Joseph Huber wanted to pursue a different direction and different interests, but I can’t help but to look at myself, and at the obvious financial situation that surrounded the band and say, could we have done more? It comes up all the time, how if some of these bands and artists cannot find greater support, they will eventually go away. Well now we have our first example, and it is a band that by underground country standards was long in the tooth, and also very accessible, with few if any excuses to be given of why they didn’t hit it big.
But aside from pointing out how important an honest autopsy of the .357 String Band is, and how important it is for fans to buy music instead of steal it, drive to that next town over on a work night to see them, or help spread the word about their favorite bands, I want to thank the .357 String Band for all those years they spent eating beans, sleeping on floors, spending hours in a smelly van to make a gloomy life in a recessionary world that much more enjoyable. Aside from their machine gun style of bluegrass which might be their signature, their slow and heartfelt songs about struggle and the unsustainability of the economy might have been their most poignant contribution.
And I assert now, and will always assert in the future, regardless of how obscure they were, along with Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys, Flatt & Scruggs, and a few others, the .357 String Band was one of the greatest, most groundbreaking, and influential bluegrass bands of all time.
Rest easy boys, you did well.
Final Song before Encore at Turner Hall
When Hank Williams III released 4 albums on September 6th, the volume of material he dropped in one day wasn’t the only thing unprecedented. The album Ghost to a Ghost included a track called “Ray Lawrence Jr.” a collection of two live songs recorded in the back of Hank3′s bus in Arizona with the singer/songwriter the track is named for. Sure, country artists cover each other’s songs all the time. But this wasn’t Hank3 covering Ray Lawrence Jr., this was Ray Lawrence Jr. singing his own material, and Hank3 and his band backing him up. And then instead of naming the tracks the name of the song, Hank3 simply called them “Ray Lawrence Jr.” solidifying that this relatively-unknown 48-year-old songwriter’s stock would immediately shoot up amid the album’s release.
The first song on the “Ray Lawrence Jr.” track is “When You Lose All You Have.” They say to write it, you have to live it, and Ray wrote the song while living in a Phoenix homeless shelter. A truck driver and a divorcee, Ray had reached the end of his rope in 2008, and penned the song as a self-portrait. Ray was simply a Hank3 fan, and had developed a rapport with him over the years, often hanging out with Hank on his bus during the Arizona stops. “Just keep writing, keep writing” is what Hank3 encouraged Ray to do. Never could he imagine his songs would end up on a Hank3 record, and being performed by himself.
Ray first found out about the track when his friend and frontman of Arizona-based bandÂ Junction 10 called him on the phone and said he’d heard his songs being played on Shooter Jennings’ Satellite radio show. Now Ray has people from all over the world requesting his music. He has just released a new album called Raw & Unplugged that is up on CD Baby, and will be carried in CD form by Farmageddon Records. Ray was kind enough to talk to be on the phone about how he went from homeless, to a happening recording artist.
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Triggerman: Who is Ray Lawrence Jr?
Ray Lawrence Jr.: Well for starters I was raised in southern California about 3 hours south of Bakersfied, and of course that was back when Johnny Cash was living out in Casitas Springs. Started getting into playing music when I was about 5 years old, mostly singing. I didn’t pick up an instrument until about age 14 when I started playing guitar, and that’s when I really started taking it serious. Country music was always a big part of it. I got to playing clubs in the military, I played overseas, and later I became a member of a band, Jimmy Dale and the Desperados in the early 90′s. Did a bunch of other stuff and then came out here to Arizona. Then I met Bobby Perez, he had a band called I-10 West, then that kind of ended and formed Suicide Driver. Then that evolved into Junction 10, and I wrote a couple of songs that ended up on their CD, including “Back In The Day” which is also on Ghost to a Ghost.
Ray Lawrence Jr.: I’m 48-years-old. It took me a long time to get to this point where I’m getting songs out. I’ve known Shelton (Hank3) probably since ’03. I talked to him online a few times before that in ’02 and I got to know him, and he got to know me. I covered his song “Cecil Brown” on a compilation disc in 2004 that was for the members of the Hank3 message board. That kinda got me to the point I am now. I talked to Shelton on his bus one day and he said, “Man, you gotta write every day.” He got onto me about it. He’s been a great inspiration in my life here, and now he’s helping me out putting my songs on one of his CD’s.
Triggerman: Tell us about the actual songs that make up the track “Ray Lawrence Jr.”?
Ray Lawrence Jr.: The first song on the track is called “When You Lose All You Have”. I wrote that when I was living in a homeless shelter, but we recorded those songs on the bus, and that was about 2 years ago. We recorded it on the same famous Korg D-1600 he recorded all those albums with. A year after that he said, “Well I’m gonna record your songs, I’m gonna send you out a file.” And I went through the whole process of downloading it and converting it so I could listen to it and I said, “Wait a minute, I’m singing on this track and Hank3 is singing backup harmony.” I though these were the scratch tracks, right? Then I was taking a little nap here and I get a phone call from Bobby Perez of Junction 10 saying, “Hey man, Shooter Jennings has played your stuff on the radio.” I said, “He what?” It was about 1:30 in the morning. He said, “Those tracks you let me listen to? You’re singing.” And I thought, “You’ve got to be kidding me.” I thought he was going to cover my songs, not me singing them with his band backing me up.
Then I sent Shelton a text about 2 or 3 days before the show here in Tempe, and he texted me back, “Hey, you are going to open for me in Tempe, right?” Then the day of the show he texted me to be there at 5 for sound check, and I though, “Oh, this thing just got real. I’m on this Hank3 CD and now I’m going to be opening the show. I’ve finally arrived.” This is the dream I’ve been dreaming and now I’m finally able to be a part of it.
Triggerman: So you wrote this song living in a homeless shelter. How did you get there?
Ray Lawrence Jr.: I’ve spent 23 years messing around with trucks, driving during the day, playing music at night. Then I had custody of my two daughters for a while. Then the economy went nuts, I had to go back driving a truck, then one thing led to another, I let the kids go, one went to my folks and one went to my ex in-laws, and I went to work for these guys but it didn’t work out. Then I was back to square one, I didn’t have any money, I had to give up my apartment, so then I had to go to a homeless shelter and I said, “OK, it’s the end of the world now.”
So then I said I might as well do what I do best, play around with some music and write some songs. Music has saved my life more than once. I’ve always had my music to fall back on. Some people have to fall back on a regular job. Something goes wrong for me, my music is the thing that pulls me out. When I wrote “When You Lose Everything You Have”, I realized you can lose your house, your car, your clothes, everything you got possession-wise, but if you lose love, you lose everything. You don’t have nothing if you don’t have love. You can always get the material things back. But if you lose that love, that’s all she wrote.
“Back In The Day” was written about 6 year ago. I was driving over Grand Ave. in Phoenix and there happened to be a train as I was listening to a train song by Johnny Cash on the radio, and I thought, “I’ll write a train song too.” That’s the second song on that track.
Triggerman: So now that Hank3 has recorded some of your songs, what are your plans from here?
Ray Lawrence Jr.: We’re quick like a bunny rabbit and turned around and made a CD, and it’s out, it’s called Raw & Unplugged. I couldn’t think of a name for it, and it’s just me and my guitar, so I though that name worked. I brought 25 CD’s to the Hank3 show in Tempe, gave one to Shelton, and one to someone else, and sold all the rest. I’d never sold that many CD’s at a show before. We’re also looking for a booking agent so I can get out there.
After a one year hiatus, the legendary Deep Blues Festival will be re-emerging this year on July 16th in Cleveland, OH. Deep Blues ran for three years under the vision of Chris Johnson up in Minnesota, but because of financial concerns, had to be discontinued last year. This year the torch has been picked up by Jim Chilson of the blues band the Ten Foot Polecats, Ted from The Scissormen, and others to make sure the legacy of Deep Blues remains alive.
The first three years of the Deep Blues Festival forged a strong music community from both a fan and musician perspective, and was seminal in creating the underground/independent roots movement that exists today. Jim Chilson was kind enough to give me some of his time to talk about why he decided to rekindle the Deep Blues flame, and about the difficulty some blues-based bands find being accepted in the traditional blues music circles.
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Triggerman: One of the primary things that helped form the underground roots movement was the Deep Blues Festival. There was no Deep Blues Fest last year. This year you’re starting anew. What made you decide to re-start the Deep Blues Festival?
Jim Chilson: Just for the love of the music of course. Basically we saw a big empty hole when it faded away and there were a lot of disappointed people, and a lot of them were the musicians themselves. Chris Johnson has put together a great festival over the last few years. It gave a home to blues that was not liked in the typical blues circles. It was great to see all these musicians for around the world coming together and discovering each other, as well as the fans coming from all over the world. It’s a big financial burden, as Chris Johnson can tell you himself. He lost quite a bit, and that’s the reason it didn’t happen last year. When I was talking with Ted of The Scissormen about touring this summer and we were trying to figure out some spots and what not, he said “Let’s try to get a festival going.” I said “OK great!” He called Chrish Johnson, asked him if we could use the name and he said “Go for it.”
Triggerman: When you mention blues, your average Joe six pack might think of BB King or Eric Clapton. The blues the Deep Blues Festival was emphasizing was the blues that had fallen through the cracks: the punk-infused blues or the dirty blues. You also had bands like Those Poor Bastards and .357 String Band, bands that if you hear the music, don’t fit intuitively together, but you put them all in one place and they all work together.
Jim Chilson: It’s very open-minded people as far as the music goes. There’s no barriers. If you’re making good music, people like it. The blues societies are a weird thing. They seem to put up these barriers and say “This is blues, this is not.” That’s why it’s nice to see this (Deep Blues Fest), to see people open to whatever you’re creating. Because you could say blues is the first American music. From rock n’ roll to country and bluegrass. So it’s frustrating to see those barriers go up by the blues societies, because it’s infused in everything.
Triggerman: I find it funny that you’re saying certain blues circles don’t really see your music as blues, because I see Ten Foot Polecats as pretty straightforward blues. Maybe you bring a little more energy, but you’ve studied blues, you play on 5 strings, you don’t have a bass player. And you’re trying to cultivate a sound from a very specific part of the country.
Jim Chilson: Yes, our basis is North Mississippi Hill Country blues, which I think is a lot more open sounding as far a blues goes. It’s groove music. For some people, blues music is a lot of visuals. If you come out and you’re not in your fedora and pin stripped suit, you don’t have a bass player, they don’t think you’re blues.
Triggerman: To me, when it comes to purity in music, the first question I ask is, “Is there a tie to the roots of that music?” If there is a litmus test, that would be it. And if I look at the lineup for the Deep Blues Festival either this year or previous years, that litmus test would be covered by all these bands. And depending on your perspective, you could say some of those bands fit that test better than bands that are more widely popular for playing the blues.
When it was announced that the Deep Blues Festival was no longer going to be happening, I read this quote from MA Litler, a filmmaker out of Germany that has stuck with me on ninebullets.net.
I reckon most visitors of the Deep Blues Festival agree that the masses have a piss poor musical taste and thatâ€™s where the problem lies and will forever lie: Itâ€™s mostly drivel that sells, and the good stuff gets filed under â€śobscureâ€ť. The little man inside my head tells me that Chris Johnson knew this from the get go and did it all anyway. To me that is more heroic than doing something based on the belief that it will prosper. Like Dylan Thomas, Chris raged against the dying of the lightâ€¦but Chris, folks get what they deserveâ€¦and they did not deserve Deep Blues.
I found that to be prophetic, about how the most beautiful things in life seem to be taken from us one by one as the years pass by. But I wonder what your perspective is on looking at putting this festival together. Can Deep Blues be an annual event?
Jim Chilson: Everything depends on the fans these days. And there’s a lot of great fans in this scene. To consistently keep this going we need to try to get the word out to more people. I know that’s always the toughest thing to do. Yeah, I’d say we got to go slow, and hopefully we’ll get lucky and something will hit, and make it a great event for all these blues musicians.
Triggerman: Having never been to the Deep Blues Festivals, when I research them, I find above and beyond just the music itself, I find a very deep community that was created from those first three festivals.
Jim Chilson: You hit it on the head. This is a very tight knit community. When you play your set, what happens next is you go down in the crowd and talk to people. Everyone’s together on this.
Deep Blues Festival 2011 Lineup:
LEFT LANE CRUISER (FT. Wayne, IN)
SCISSORMEN (Nashville, TN)
TEN FOOT POLECATS (Boston, MA)
THE STAVINGÂ CHAIN (Toledo, OH)
MARK PORKCHOP HOLDER (Chattanooga, TN)
MOLLY GENE ONE WHOAMAN BAND (Kansas City, MO)
CASHMAN (Nashville, TN)
THE MISERY JACKALS (Akron, OH)
JAVIER & THE INNOCENT SONS (Minneapolis MN)
Rachel Brooke’s new album Down In The Barnyard has been creating a lot of buzz lately, and on Wednesday she talked with Jashie P of Outlaw Radio Chicago about the album, her upcoming tour with Those Poor Bastards, a proposed 7-inch release on Farmageddon Records, and how Shooter Jennings is helping her with his “XXX” movement.
You can hear the interview in its entirety on Outlaw Radio Episode 134, but for those that would rather read, you can find the meat of the interview transcribed below.
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Jashie P: You released this all by yourself, there’s no label behind you on this one, is there?
Rachel Brooke: No. Farmageddon Records is picking it up. I started working on it kind of right as Farmageddon was coming together. So it’s mostly just a self-release, but Farmageddon is helping me with it, pushing it a little bit, so.
Jashie P: Compare it to your last couple of CD’s, the demos and what not. How did you decide what instruments were going to be on each song?
Rachel Brooke: I’ve always been wanting to be just a vocal and guitar, that’s what I love. But I wanted to start setting it up a little bit. I just mess around with each song for a while to see what I like. Some of them just kind of happened like “Mean Kind Of Blues”. I was like, “I want to write something that’s a little more upbeat, put a guitar on it” and that one came out pretty quick. Same with “Don’t Forget Me When I Die”. I wanted a lot of bluegrass sound on it.
Jashie P: How was the record recorded? Was it self-produced, or did you have producers with you?
Rachel Brooke: I recorded the whole thing at home except for the drums, and my dad’s banjo part. We slowly worked on it, waited until I felt good and was in a good mood, and when the cars weren’t going by outside too much, because one thing that would really upset me is when I’d record and there’s some truck going by. I worked on it slowly at home, then I took it up to my brother’s studio in Traverse City, and he helped me mix it, and fixed a lot of the recording mistakes I made because I’m still learning how to record. He mixed it with me and we mastered it. It took a long time.
Jashie P: It’s on iTunes and Amazon, but really if people got it on there, they’re missing out on the cover art. Why don’t you explain the concept of the cover?
Rachel Brooke: I wanted to do something that represents the music. I had my friend Jessica (Varda), and we went out around where I live. We took a picture in front of this barn, like just off the side of the road because we were going to go ask the people if we could take pictures but they weren’t there or something. I don’t know if they’ll ever see it, they may recognize it, I hope not (laughing). And then I had Katie (Umhoefer), she does all Those Poor Bastards artwork. She worked with me and what I was going for. She did all the design artwork, and she did a great job. I’m so happy with it… It’s inspired by the old-time Carter Family kind of stuff. If you ever look up any of their old photographs, it’s all real simple. And it says a lot. It has a lot of emotion in it, and that’s what I wanted.
Jashie P: Your lyrics are really dark, and a lot of these songs tell stories. “The Legend of Morrow Road” is a 7-minute song that’s a really in-depth story. How do these lyrics come to you?
Rachel Brooke: That song is actually a Michigan legend. It’s not the same. What it is, is I didn’t want to write a ghost story, but I wanted to write a legend kind of thing. So I made up the story behind it. If you look it up there’s actually a place close to where I live called Morrow Road, and it’s just about a ghost that walks around there at night, some girl. To me it was kind of cool, but it needed a story behind it. So I just let it come to me, just let my imagination go and it kind of came together…The Carter Family inspired me a lot for this album because I love their simplicity, and the beauty of it. The way their songs are is just so simple, but so meaningful, and that’s what I wanted to do. Say a lot with just being really simple.
Jashie P: There’s a lot of other female artists popping up, you’ve got Six Gun (Britt), Little Lisa (Dixie), Nellie Wilson. What do you think about the whole resurgence of female artists coming along in this little scene?
Rachel Brooke: I think it’s cool, because it seems like there’s a lot of men, they’re really good. But I think it’s not the same without females. They have a different point of view. Even if it’s about the same situation, a girl’s point of view is completely different. I think females naturally are more emotional and see a little bit deeper into situations, and it’s cool.
Jashie P: You’ve got a big tour coming up with Lonesome Wyatt and Those Poor Bastards. How did all that come about?
Rachel Brooke: Those Poor Bastards were putting a tour together and I was asked if I wanted to come along and I said “yeah”. I know Wyatt pretty well and I think it’s gonna be fun. Right now we’re still making all the dates confirmed. Just keep looking on the website for the dates, because they’re gonna keep coming.
Jashie P: Are you going to do anything from A Bitter Harvest (album with Rachel and Lonesome Wyatt)?
Rachel Brooke: We talked about it, and I’m sure we’ll do a couple.
Jashie P: Is it just going to be you and a guitar again? Or you got a band coming with or anything?
Rachel Brooke: Not this time, I’m just gonna be by myself with a guitar. But I think what I want to do soon is get a band. I think that’s my next step. That’s the plan anyway. I have some people in mind that I really want to work with and I’ve known them for years and grown up with them and I think it would be a perfect fit, it’s just convincing them to do it. And I know they want to, but it’s really got to happen. I’m really trying to push them into doing it.
Jashie P: How many pieces are you looking at?
Rachel Brooke: It’s just gonna be a three piece. It would be me on guitar, another guitarist, and drums. When that comes along, I want to do always an acoustic set, and them bring them up and finish up, you know, blow people away because I really think it’s gonna be that good.
Jashie P: Getting back to A Bitter Harvest, when I talked to Lonesome Wyatt he said there’s a second release being talked about at least. Can you elaborate on that at all?
Rachel Brooke: Yep. We’re still right now working on it, writing some new stuff. I’m waiting for the best ones. It’s gonna happen, but right now we’re just in the beginning of writing… I also want to put out a 7-inch, probably this year with Farmageddon. Me and Darren have been talking about it and I really want to do it because like I said I really want to start introducing an electric show. So what I want to do is a side A, sort of a lo-fi of just me and my guitar like I love, and on side B kind of a high-fi really rocking kind of stuff. Kind of like mean kind of blues, more electric slide kind of stuff.
Jashie P: You were on the front page of givememyxxx.com and Shooter (Jennings) told me he’s been in touch with you. What do you think about what he’s trying to do with the whole XXX thing?
Rachel Brooke: To be honest, I think it’s really cool. I know there’s been some people who don’t think it’s cool, but I don’t see why. I really feel that he loves the bands that are coming out, and what he’s doing is great. I don’t really see the big deal people are making about it. To me it’s like cool, why can’t he try to get something going? I don’t look at it as a side, I look at it as another step. I noticed some negativity, and I don’t know, I don’t look at it like that. For me, I do my music because I want to. I don’t look at it from any other way except for what I want to do, and I think it’s cool that he’s embracing a lot of these bands. I don’t think it’s that big of a deal. I think it’s a great thing.
Rachel Brooke’s much-anticipated release Down In The Barnyard has been given an official release date of February 22nd. It can be pre-ordered now and you can peruse her other swag at http://rachelbrooke.bigcartel.com/.
Rachelâ€™s work on albums like A Bitter Harvest have made fans huger for that one seminal release from her, and by all accounts, this will be the one. She has been working very hard on it and has been uncompromising, while taking some risks as well. â€śI have been recording it at home, and have been playing just about all the instruments on it.â€ť A few songs from the new album will be debuted on Outlaw Radio tonight (1-26-11) on SCM LIVE at 8 PM Central, and later will be archived on episode 129 on the Outlaw Radio Page. There will also be a tribute to Charlie Louvin tonight at 6:30 Central.
Both Rachel and Lonesome Wyatt ofÂ Those Poor Bastards are heavily influenced by Louvin who passed away today, and the two acts will be touring together in March, heading into April. You will be able to find the dates shortly on the newly revamped Saving Country Music calendar. A big shout out goes to Gillian for ponying up her time to make sure it is updated regularly for all of us.
Lonesome For You
Must Be Somethin’ In The Water
City Of Shame
Me and Rose Connelly
Meet Me By The Apple Tree
The Legend Of Morrow Road
Please Give Me A Reason
Gather and Hear
Mean Kind Of Blues
I Don’t Worry
Don’t Forget me When I Die
Following is my list for the essential albums for 2010, broken down into a few of categories.This is meant to compliment the Album of the Year candidates in this super-packed year for stellar music.
Some have criticized that I do not give enough coverage to mainstream traditional country acts. I don’t talk about Miranda Lambert or Jamey Johnson, or even someone like Robert Earl Keen because so many other outlets already do. My charter is to find the more obscure bands that are being forgotten by the mainstream, and shine a light on them. Even then, this year I wrote album reviews for Jamey Johnson and Taylor Swift, and I have more mainstream reviews coming, when I have time. Hopefully next year, Saving Country Music can branch out a bit and cover the more traditional mainstream acts, but it will always be on top of the smaller acts trying to get their music out there, not instead of them.
Oh and since Joe Buck’s new album may not be available to the masses for weeks, we will include it as a 2011 album.
So here is this year’s excellent list of essential albums, most of which you won’t see mentioned anywhere else.
Outlaw Radio – Outlaw Radio Compilation Vol. 1 – (review) – Don’t think of this as your regular ho-hum comp. With original music and some Song of the Year candidates, this album’s guts are as good as any’s this year.
Jayke Orvis – It’s All Been Said – (review) – Perfect example of an album that on any other year might claim the top spot, but got crowded this year by so many great albums. Farmageddon’s maiden voyage is an excellent one, and may contain a Song of the Year candidate itself.
Hank III – The Rebel Within – (review) – Alright, I mentioned Hank III’s name. So half of you tell me how everything he touches turns to gold and I don’t give him enough credit, while the other half tell me he is a washed up hack. T minus 30 days till he is free of Curb and we can actually get a fair assessement of where Hank III stands.
Lucky Tubb & The Modern Day Troubadours - Hillbilly Fever – (review) – Lucky Tubb continues to emerge as a top-shelf talent, and with two duets with Wayne “The Train” Hancock, you can’t go wrong with this one.
.357 String Band – Lightning From The North – (review) – Solid album with excellent songs. Don’t believe all the talk that the talent left with Jayke Orvis. You can like Jayke and .357 at the same time. I promise. It’s OK.
Trampled by Turtles – Palomino – (review) – An easy one to look over, but another excellent one that may have battled for the year’s best in other calendar cycles. Super fast bluegrass is like a sugar rush though, and can lack staying power.
Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers – Agridustrial – (review) – Absolutely brutal music from the dirty South by the best frontman in music and an All-Star backing band. The Shakers haven’t lost anything over the years.
Marty Stuart – Ghost Train – Still don’t have a review for this (need someone to get me a full copy), but without question this is a must have. Marty is really beginning to emerge as an elder statesman of country that still has the chops and taste to be relevant. And leads by example, instead of miring himself in bitching about Nashville or country’s direction.
Dale Watson – Carryin’ On – (review) – Surprised I don’t see more talk about this one. Dale’s voice is sublime. The straighforward Nashville production held it back a little bit, but it’s still pure country gold.
Reverend Deadeye – Trials & Tribulations – (review) – If you like the dirty stompy blues and people preaching fire and brimstone, accept no substitutes. Deadeye is gonna make Jesus hip again, or he’s gonna pass out trying.
Whitey Morgan & The 78′s -Whitey Morgan & The 78′s – (review) – Solid album, just lacked a grand vision in my opinion. Still essential though, and you won’t get any argument out of me if you name it one of your favorites of the year.
Other Real Gooduns:
Brigitte London - Bare Bones – (review) – Another that might be easily overlooked but with excellent singing and songwriting. I think of this album alongside Roger Alan Wade’s Deguello Motel, only acoustic guitar and singing, but songs that really speak to you with deep meaning.
Peewee Moore & The Awful Dreadful Snakes – The Leaving Side of Gone – (review) – I put this album in the same category as Whitey Morgan, a real solid country album that I can’t argue against, but one that lacks a grand vision. There’s some excellent songs here.
Quentin & Uriah Benefit Compilation – Y’all Motherfuckers Need Justice – For reasons that are too complicated to go into here, I never wrote a review for this, but this is a great compilation and a great way to sample some of the excellent bands in and around the Farmageddon Records family while helping out a worthy cause. Folks were wronged, and this is a small way you can help make it right while exposing yourself to some great music.
Albums Worth Mentioning, but have not had time to review or listen to yet:
Slim Cessna’s Auto Club – Buried Behind The Barn
Tom VandenAvond – You Oughta Know Me By Now
And Pete Berwick & The Shivering Denizens have new ones I need to listen to. I’m sure I’m missing some others. This has been an amazing year for music, I’ve done my best to keep up. My hand hurts from typing and link making so I have to draw the line somewhere, and that is right here.
I’m happy to announce that Charlie Louvin: Still Rattling The Devil’s Cage, a film project by Blake Judd and Keith Neltner has been fully funded through Kickstarter. The project was put together to develop a DVD whose proceeds will go to Charlie Louvin and his mounting medical bills associated with his ongoing battle with pancreatic cancer. On December 3rd, Charlie will play a show at the Foobar Too in Nashville, and the monies collected from Kickstarter will go towards the production costs of the filming, editing, and manufacture of a DVD of that show.
Though the project has reached its goal of $3,000, people are still being encouraged to donate, with the additional money going to improve the production and scope of the project, as well as paying Kickstarter the small fee they request to facilitate the process. There are also still incentives for people who donate certain amounts, including signed and numbered DVD copies, limited edition prints from Keith Neltner, and recognition in the credits of the DVD (a complete list of incentives are on the Kickstarter page).
The underground country faithful have risen up to support this project, including other artists. Lonesome Wyatt, whose music with Those Poor Bastards and other gothic country projects is inspired in part by The Louvin Brothers gospel style, has contributed to the project and asked other to do the same.
The Louvin Brothers were a huge influence on us and the greatest Hellfire and Damnation spewing country duo ever. Please help poor old Charlie Louvin…
Another artist, Rachel Brooke, who collaborated with Lonesome Wyatt on the album A Bitter Harvest, has also donated. She doesn’t need to speak to the influence of Charlie Louvin on her music, she’s proven it, including a cover of the Louvin’s “Knoxville Girl” on her first album.
Other contributors include Joe Fletcher & The Wrong Reasons, RNZ Magazine, The Cincinnati Heritage Music Foundation, and long-time Saving Country Music readers AJ Davis and Gillian (I’m sure there’s some I missed, don’t always know people’s screen vs. real names!)
Even if you didn’t contribute, but helped spread the word by telling friends and family, posting and reposting messages through social networks, pat yourself on the back! But remember, you can still contribute and help make this project even better, and take advantage of some great incentives.
On New Year’s Day in 1953, country music’s first superstar Hank Williams died of what could be considered an early-era overdose–heart failure due to a lethal combination of morphine and alcohol. He was the first superstar musician to die in this manner, issuing in an era that would see the deaths of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Elvis, and many many more.
Tonight (10-27) at 8 PM Central, Roger Alan Wade will be interviewed on Outlaw Radio Chicago, which can be heard right here on SCM LIVE. He will be promoting his new album Deguello Motel, which is about Roger coming clean after 30 years of substance abuse. Roger says he doesn’t want to be preachy about it, and in no way does his new album or his rhetoric around it come across that way. However it has got me thinking about sobriety, and just how it interfaces with so much of the country music we listen to.
Country has always been heavy with drinking and addiction themes, just as often centered around the destructive nature of these behaviors as the good time nature. A surprisingly large amount of the songsters that we listen to are sober guys: Roger, Wayne “The Train” Hancock, Bob Wayne, Joe Buck, Justin Townes Earle (if the latest rehab stint stuck) even Lonesome Wyatt of Those Poor Bastards is sober.
Still we can listen to these guys sing drinking songs, and believe every word, or listen to songs about getting sober, even if we’re not, and enjoy the music regardless. The themes of addiction are universal, and so are the themes of recovery.
It seems like everywhere I’ve been looking lately, sobriety, recovery, and relapse have been an underlying storyline. It came up with Justin Townes Earle’s new album Harlem River Blues, possibly the first album he did NOT sober. I was accused of crossing a line by making that accusation in my review of the album, and two days later he was arrested after a rampage likely involving substances of some sort. I quoted the old saying then: “They were good till they got sober,” to highlight how the opposite can be true as well.
Then Roger’s album comes out with Deguello Motel, possibly his finest work to date, making you re-think that old maxim even more. Some artists may feel they must work wired because of the possible stigma of what getting clean might do to their music. Roger talked about this on Blue Ribbon Radio:
I’d just written so long when I was sideways going 90 man, and it was just a little bit daunting to do it honest. It’s been the most rewarding thing ever. My cousin Johnny Knoxville kept telling me you know it wasn’t the whiskey and the drugs writing them songs before. It took me a while to buy into that, and I’m so proud he stuck with me, and we drug this album out of it.
Every person handles drugs and alcohol differently. One person’s ultimate demon can be another’s useful escape to keep their sanity and productivity. One thing I am confident of is that the saying “They were good till they got sober,” seems so misguided now. We never got a chance to see if it was true with Hank Williams. Seeing Roger Alan Wade’s transformation, it makes you wonder what we might have missed.
What do you think?
Any review for Those Poor Bastards should probably start off with a disclaimer that gothic country is not for everyone. Nor do I claim to be an expert of the music; I’ve always felt like I’m on the outside looking in. Having said that, I have really become intrigued and entertained with what Those Poor Bastards do, and think of Lonesome Wyatt as virtually peerless in procuring sounds to set the exact mood he envisions for songs. This in itself can be appreciated, even if someone doesn’t like the songs themselves, or the themes they convey.
I like Those Poor Bastard’s songs, not necessarily their albums, if that makes sense. I have never found myself listening to an album cover to cover. Instead I know all the songs that I dig from their respective albums, and call on them collectively when I’m in a TPB mood. That might be why it took me so long to warm up to this album, because those songs that speak to me are deep in the album, and why this review is coming to you 4 months after Gospel Haunted’s release.
It may have taken me a while, but now I might go as far as to say it is their best effort yet, barring Lonesome Wyatt’s work with Rachel Brooke on A Bitter Harvest, which might sit as the standard bearer for gothic country for quite a while. That might be another reason my appreciation was paused; initially it felt like a step back. Now I understand they are two completely different projects that are a little unfair to compare.
With Gospel Haunted, Lonesome Wyatt and The Minister work less with symbolism, and come right out and say what they mean: the poor are righteous, the rich are fools, and megachurches should be burned. With the song “Chemical Church,” in a sordid, comically mocking style, they call out the clean and comfortable lifestyle as a prison for the soul while the contrast in the screaming and smooth vibrato vocal parts play off each other brilliantly. “Wealth Is Death” carries a similar disparaging message for people chasing the golden goose, but in a haunting, hymnal way.
The genius of TPB’s is taking the core of religious dogma, and using it to preach, and sometimes mock the mainstream religious for their contemporary, hypocritical behaviors. Some may take their music as sacrilegious, but in so many ways it is truly righteous while at the same time not really taking sides as explained in the song “At The Crossroads.” They have thought out their message, and never let envy enter the battle. Instead they embrace and praise the poor lifestyle as a choice, and maybe even a privilege, however miserable it may be. And then they embrace misery in the same way.
“Open Wounds” was another standout, highlighting their adeptness at crafting wildly unique songs from sometimes simple structures and primitive, outmoded sounds. Barely-veiled drum machine click tracks, 80′s-era Casiotones, and nondescript musicianship all seem to work in their favor once all the ingredients are combined together. Once this album’s second half won me over, I revisited songs like “Judgment Is Coming” and “Serpents,” which revealed themselves as great compositions as well, even though it might be some of the most disjointed and inaccessible music TPB’s have ever put out, and that is saying a lot.
The song “Glory Amen” has been a TPB’s staple for a while, but this is their first studio recording. .357 String Band also recorded it on Fire & Hail, and so I found it a little hard to appreciate, though the song itself works fine. What I can’t get behind at all is the very last song, “I’ll At Ease.” My guess is you either love this song or hate it, and I fall into the latter because unlike so many TPB’s songs that take not uncommon song structures and expand on them to make their own creations, this one the bones are too exposed, and the sheer length works against it.
Again, this is not for everyone, but as we enter the second half of the haunted month and the very real possibility of a double dip recession, I can hardly think of a more appropriate soundtrack for late October 2010 than the haunted gospel of Those Poor Bastards.
Two guns up.
In about a week, Hank Williams III will be hitting the road on an East Coast tour, and for the first time in a long time he won’t be carrying an opening band.
With one of the biggest and most loyal fan bases in non-mainstream country, Hank III’s opening slot has been coveted for years, but recently it has been controversial. Months before a West Coast/Texas tour this past Spring, Lucky Tubb was saying he was promised the opening spot that eventually was given to former football player Kyle Turley. Then earlier in the summer on a stint of show back home after a Canadian tour, opener Izzy Cox was kicked off mid trip for unprofessional behavior.
Now apparently Hank III would rather not deal with that can of worms, and will ride solo. But with a show that usually lasts about 2 Â˝ hours and includes 3 quite different sets of music, it’s hard to say an opening band will be missed. However for artists like Lucky Tubb and Those Poor Bastards who have used that opening slot to create loyal fan bases of their own, and for up and coming bands that might have been eyeing that opening slot, this news is tough.
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