From crude videos taken on somebody’s phone, to full production videos with scripts and actors and sets, to animated shorts and everything in between, you never know what’s going to capture the imagination and become the perfect compliment to a song in the visual form. No question in the age of YouTube that there’s no dearth of material to oogle at, but what breaks through the crush of visual material to be called the best in 2014?
9. The Whiskey Shivers – “Free”
The Whiskey Shivers will probably never top the madness that is their video from 2011 for “Gimmie All Your Lovin’” that has now received over half a million views (still don’t know how the hell they made that), but their new video for “Free” off their self-titled album does its best to capture the band’s fun loving nature.
Directed & Edited by Rob Wadleigh
Director of Photography – Ryan Firth
8. Don Williams – “I’ll Be Here In The Morning”
The fortuitous call was made when Don Williams went into the studio to record his Saving Country Music Album of the Year-nominated Reflections, to fit out the studio with a camera crew and release the videos intermittently afterwards. The result has been some really excellent moments captured on film, but none better than when Don Williams covered this Townes Van Zandt classic.
7. Steelism – “Marfa Lights”
Yes, very silly, quirky, and maybe even hipster-ish, the video for sideman duo Steelism’s “Marfa Lights” still shows a lot of imagination and creativity in a unique approach. A fun watch.
Directed by Stewart Copeland.
6. Florida Georgia Line – “Dirt”
Act appalled all you want, but it deserves to be here. A lot of heart went into this video.
Director: Nigel Dick
5. Sturgill Simpson – “Turtles All The Way Down”
Despite what shallow listeners will tell you, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music is not a psychadelic record, but the video for “Turtles All The Way Down” certainly is.
Directed and edited by Graham Uhelski
4. First Aid Kit – “My Silver Lining”
Something that First Aid Kit has that virtually no other artist or band in the independent roots realm of a similar or bigger size can match is a library of videos that dazzle, entertain, and incite wonder like little else you can find. It’s an attention to video making as a creative medium in itself with no boundaries that gives their music an extra special love. The release of a new First Aid Kit video is grounds for an immediate stop down, and not just their tightly-woven and intricate big-production music videos with multiple scenes and settings that cast the duo in regal and awe-inducing moments, but with the sincerity and talent this sister duo from Sweden displays, even a short acoustic performance in a publishing office or a covered wayside is something that can enthrall and shuttle you off into a wormhole of escapism. After all, it was a simple video of the duo singing a Fleet Foxes cover that is given credit for launching their career.
Director: Elliott Sellers
Producer: Courtney Davies
3. Willie Watson – “Mexican Cowboy”
Sometimes the best videos are live ones that capture and moment in time and the character of the artist so perfectly, a big production could never do it justice. When former Old Crow Medicine Show member Willie Watson performs his traditional folk tunes, he becomes so immersed in character, so stern-faced an honest to the song, it is truly something to behold.
Filmed for The Bluegrass Situation at Counterpoint Records in Franklin Village, Los Angeles.
Directed and recorded by Ben Guzman
2. Ray Benson & Willie Nelson – “It Ain’t You”
The music, and both Ray Benson’s and Willie’s performances are chilling enough, but the video for “It Ain’t You” takes it a step further, fully understanding what’s at the heart of the song, and pulling out all the stops to not only do the song justice, but enhance the experience through the visual medium. The wisdom of knowing what the simple sight of Willie’s battle-worn hands can stir in the beholder, while crafting a way to capture the spirit of the long-time friendship between Ray and Willie so purely is worth watching even if the song itself doesn’t strike a particular chord with the listener. (read full review)
“It Ain’t You” was written by Waylon Jennings and Gary Nicholson.
Video directed by Aaron Brown of Onion Creek Productions.
1. The Tillers – “Willy Dear”
By choosing animation for the “Willy Dear” video, it enhances the imaginative qualities already inherent in the song, and allows the story to unfold without the anachronistic limitations of a live video. The simplicity of the animation aids in this process, while the vibrancy still present in the color and the expansiveness of the landscapes emphasizes the wonder in the story itself.
The video also helps fill in some of the gaps in the narrative that the verses didn’t have the capacity to carry. And best of all, it illustrates that “Willie Dear” is not really about Willie Thompson, his love Lizzy, or the tragedy that befell them because of mistaken circumstances. It is about old abandoned houses, and the stories they tell. (read full review)
Animation by Christof Heuer
Moving in to fill the space once carved out between country and alternative rock by alt-country pioneers such as Uncle Tupelo and the Old 97′s, three sons of University of Virginia Southern Literature professor Bill Wilson and two other willing accomplices come together to form the Charlottesville-based Sons of Bill under the charge to help revitalize a discipline that in many respects has become forgotten in country’s subgenre landscape, and has shed bands and listeners to the more fashionable nomenclature of the day—Americana.
But Sons of Bill are still very much an alt-country band at heart, even if they have to adopt the ‘Americana’ term to save themselves from lengthy explanations. Admittedly ‘alt-country’ sounds a little bit tired as a term these days, and in some listener’s minds it evokes ideas of graying musicians who were hot in the mid 90′s trying to hold on to what was cool 20 years ago. But Sons of Bill is very much a band of now, and if it accomplishes nothing else, their new album Love and Logic is an example of this, and poses a challenging and expansive approach to composition and songwriting that the whole “three chords and the truth” of country simply doesn’t have the capacity to encapsulate.
In fact Love and Logic reaches further into the rock zone than even the alt-country designate traditionally affords, almost like indie rock with steel guitar in certain spots, with old-school Brit pop sensibilities in the form of answering chorus lines and keyboard sounds spread throughout this album. The full gamut of the Sons of Bill’s influences are on display here, from Townes Van Zandt and Gram Parsons, to R.E.M. and The Replacements. Merle and Hank are here too, but you’ll have to listen a little bit deeper to hear their legacy in the bones of these compositions.
Love and Logic is a very brooding, ethereal, almost spacey experience, with not a lot of pace to the music, but more of an immersive approach to enrapturing the listener and pulling the emotion out of them through the combination of sonic landscapes and literature set to music.
Where the more universal appeal for Sons of Bill can be found is in their songwriting. Love and Logic is smart and self-aware, and assumes an attentive and adept listener. They’re not afraid to unburden their fears or to offer their opinions through song, and this affords the same opportunity for the audience. The song “Brand New Paradigm” chimes the warning that can’t be heard enough about slowing one’s self down to let the rat race proceed without you. “Bad Dancer” iterates the dilemma of the brooding male like few others accomplish. “Arms of the Landslide” speaks to the overwhelming nature of simply being alive these days and being willing to submit yourself to a path that is inherently uncontrollable.
Though the sounds and approaches are new, there’s a lot of unapologetic 90′s influences flowing out from Love & Logic, especially in songs like “Arms of the Landslide” and “Brand New Paradigm.” But the old-school country influences come poking through too, like in the simple and warm approach to “Fishing Song.” Even when you feel they’ve reached well outside the realm of country, a banjo strike, the moan of a steel guitar, or a three part harmony grounds the Sons of Bill to those moments when brothers Sam, James, and Abe Wilson were being raised in a house where their father played traditional country music for the family.
Producer Ken Coomer, who played drums in both Uncle Tupelo and Wilco, and has produced albums for Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris, and Will Hoge to name a few, feels like he wields a heavy hand on what Love and Logic resulted in. Some may wince at the sedated nature, or the compositional Wilco-like approach of this album, while others may wonder just what exactly is country about it. But Love and Logic is worth giving a chance and trying to discover its beauty even if it initially hits outside one’s initial comfort zone.
1 3/4 of 2 Guns Up.
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“You can’t just roll into town anymore. It’s a fucking arms race to find the last affordable rental. More Wayne Newton than Waylon Jennings.” — Caitlin Rose
It’s that penultimate moment—that tipping point—when a town or neighborhood known for it’s cool, rich, and creatively-vibrant culture becomes so awash with interlopers, gentrifying hipsters, and retiring baby boomers that the critical mass point is reached in redevelopment, rising rents, and real estate prices and the entire thing implodes, leaving in ruin the whole reason people desired to be in the area in the first place, and taking with it the inspiration that brews beneath the streets, the collaboration that is fostered in its venues and low rent space, and a magical time and place on the musical timeline falls victim to imported money and urban renewal, maybe to be harbored once again in another part of town or another town altogether, or maybe not.
Nashville—not Music Row Nashville—but the independent underbelly of Nashville and specifically the East Nashville portion of town, have been the rallying point for the current generation of vibrant country and Americana artists that make up the heart of what independent roots music has been all about for the last half decade to decade or so, but even going back to the 70′s when songwriters from Texas were moving to the city to be closer to artists who may cut their songs. East Nashville’s affordability gave artists the ability to be flexible with their income, allowed them to be able to only work part time, or dedicate themselves solely to their craft in a way that wouldn’t be possible amidst a higher cost of living. East Nashville was the creative generator of Music City, churning out songs that inspired the rest of the town, and the rest of the industry.
But all that might be changing, or has changed, depending on who you ask.
In late June Saving Country Music published an article entitled How Nashville’s Economic Boom Could Kill Its Creativity, later to be reposed by American Songwriter. In just the short two-month period that has since passed, as more and more development breaks ground and other massive building projects get announced, Music City may have finally reached the point of no return; at least that is what some of the artists are now saying.
On August 21st, performer and songwriter Caitlin Rose, daughter of well-known songwriter Liz Rose, went on a Twitter rant about what she sees currently going on in Nashville.
“Everyone can stop moving to Nashville now. We’re full. Thanks.” Caitlin said in part. “Did y’all hear they’re tearing down all of Nashville and putting one giant Margaritaville in its place? People come to Nashville for the music. They stay for the expensive chain restaurants and condo culture. They never leave… Everyone’s got dreams of making it in Music City, USA. Most of them don’t. Like barely any of them.”
This marrying of concerns about the percentage of independent businesses and the ability for young artists to make it in the city speaks to complexity of the gentrification issue. It’s not just the low rents, or even the concentration of creative types in a certain locale that sees the formation of a creative epicenter, it’s also the inspiration that can be drawn from cool old buildings, independently-owned business, mural art and graffiti, and a menagerie of other community elements that go into building a creative forward environment. “Just saw badass dude biking down Charlotte with a raccoon on his shoulder and a box full of blankets. Fuck new Nashville and condo culture,” Caitlin Rose tweeted out a few days later.
Justin Townes Earle, son of alt. country forefather Steve Earle, has been another vocal opponent of Nashville’s gentrification. Earle grew up in the city, and regularly takes to Twitter to complain about the bulldozing of landmarks, the building of condos, and the general scrubbing away of everything Music City is supposed to be about. Earle recently told American Songwriter, “Nashville is where I was born and raised, I never got away from the city, but the city is definitely not the city that I grew up in…It’s pretty crazy, people here think they live in New York. They live in Nashville, and it’s hard to swallow sometimes. I had a fucked up childhood so I lived in over 30 houses in the city, and I think that maybe two of them are still standing, and one of them is part of an apartment complex.“
Otis Gibbs is one of East Nashville’s most identifiable musician residents, and offers a slightly different perspective. His Thanks For Giving A Damn podcast regularly features friends and neighbors from his East Nashville haunt, and he likes to hoot and harp on the East Nashville way of living regularly on Twitter.
“Amy Lashley and I moved here seven years ago from Indianapolis, but the growth in East Nashville started long before we came along,” says Otis. “People like Chuck Mead, Skip Litz, Joe McMahan, Kevin Gordon, Sergio Webb, Mike Grimes and later Todd Snider were living here and touring the world twenty years ago, or more. Back before that people like Guy Clark, Marty Robbins, Roy Acuff, Grady Martin and a lot of others lived here. This has been a neighborhood full of creative people over the last few decades, but the national media is just now catching on.”
Otis shared a picture with Saving Country Music of Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, and Susanna Clark on Guy Clark’s porch in East Nashville that speaks to the history of East Nashville as a bastion for creative types.
“Nashville is home to the best pickers in the world,” says Otis Gibbs. “It’s an embarrassment of riches and it’s easily my favorite part of living here. I played a venue in Zurich, Switzerland a couple of weeks ago and saw a poster advertizing my neighbor’s band. He owns the house next to mine and he’ll be playing that same club next month. The first time I ever met that same neighbor was when we both played a festival in Springfield, Illinois. He walked up to me back stage and said, “I think you live in the house next to mine.” That sort of thing happens all the time. I once learned who moved into the house down the street from me by reading his name on his road cases as he was moving in.”
Otis says home ownership for East Nashville’s musicians is one way to hold on to heart of what the community has become over the years.
“It’s always nice to see musicians in my neighborhood who own their homes. It’s cheaper than renting and if property values get as crazy around here as some people suspect, they’ll have something to show for it. I have friends in South Austin who bought their homes back in the day and have seen their homes quadruple in value.”
The problem is when those homes values increase, if the musicians aren’t already locked into ownership, they are locked out of the community in rising prices and rents, and that is the new dilemma arising for many of East Nashville’s musicians. One of the biggest points of contention in the community is the splitting of lots so that two new homes can be built on the same original lot. Along with the demolition of older apartment complexes, this has seen the inventory of older and cheaper housing in the city dry up, and with it, much of the original character of East Nashville neighborhoods. Some neighborhoods, including East Nashville’s Inglewood and Rosebank districts are looking to restructure zoning laws to help stem the tide of gentrification.
Still, growth and lot division is occurring because of the demand for more living space in East Nashville, and where there are losers, there’s winners as well. Craig Havighurst, a writer and the co-host of Music City Roots has a different take on condos and all of the commotion about Nashville growth.
Urban creative hives require urban scale and urban density, which is something I feel we’re only beginning to approach from South of Broadway all the way out to Green Hills. Two houses on one lot are a way to provide critical housing supply without sprawling. It might prove to be one of the best accidental policy ideas the city’s ever had. Because better to build in and up than out. Complaints that the houses are too large for their lots are entirely subjective and based on the look and feel of a kind of neighborhood that isn’t necessarily compatible with urban dynamism. The new people fill new restaurants and coffee shops, where those aspiring musicians find jobs while they develop. And a lot of those new arts and music professionals bought starter homes in Inglewood and Sylvan Park. We can empathize with folks who are seeing their rents rise and still acknowledge that for many, this was a good investment that will make their future more secure.
What everyone can agree on is that the cultural dynamic that exists in Nashville at the moment and has helped give rise to artists like Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, Caitlin Rose, Justin Townes Earle, Cory Branan, Tristen, Lindi Ortega, many more countless names in the past, and who knows who in the future, is in every music fan’s interest in seeing preserved because of the musical riches it has afforded us for the last few years, and for decades before.
You’re not going to find a life-sized Otis Gibbs cardboard cutout peddling CD’s on an end cap at your local Sam Goody. You’re not going to hear him on the Bobby Bones Show. Otis is a country music homesteader who releases his albums independently in what feels more like a barter system between friends than an element of interstate commerce. Otis Gibbs symbolizes the true essence of the independent spirit thriving in the East Nashville neighborhood he calls home, surrounded by fellow songwriting brethren who respect him as a mentor not just because of the gray in his beard, but from the songcraft he weaves. Settling there some years ago with his long-term partner, fellow songwriter Amy Lashley, the two native Indianans have scratched out a humble, but inspiring music life built upon the goals of sustainability instead of the arbitrary measures of showbiz success that plague most of Music City’s arteries.
A troubadour in every sense of the word, Otis Gibbs is an artist who can inspire even the most timid among us to shush a burly bar troll talking over one of his performances. This is music to lean in and listen to. This is music to get lost in as the lives of characters you’ve never heard of before become as intimate and familiar as family in the span of four minutes, until you find yourself weeping at their struggles, celebrating their victories, and worrying about their fate. Similar to storytelling songwriters like Chris Knight or the late Townes Van Zandt, folk is Otis’s style, but country is his flavor. He may not inspire you to get up and dance a jig, but his evocation of people, places, and important human moments are carved from rural landscapes, and are adorned sonically with fiddle, banjo, and steel guitar.
Otis is an artist that everyone seems to know. If you start drawing lines between independent country and roots musicians, Otis would soon be revealed as a nexus. Some of the blame for this lies with Gibb’s secondary pursuit, his sensational Thanks For Giving A Damn podcast where he sits down with all sorts of cool cats from the music scene who open up to him with interesting stories and insight.
Souvenirs of a Misspent Youth—the title of Gibb’s brand new album—could almost be misconstrued as the blood and sweat-smeared proclamation of a punk band. Adolescence is so damn awkward, and young adulthood is so awash in drugs, dumb sex, and indecision, it is a wonder how society can progress with the way American youth are dumped into the real world with such wobbly legs. But the roiling angst amid youthful indiscretion and self-discovery is not what Otis Gibbs is interested in delving into here. His intentions are much more sedated, and much more poetic. Otis ponders youth through the perspective of elders, and the reflection back on ones self though older eyes, while the whole time keeping a cohesiveness to the settings cast in a sepia shade of distant, but refined memory.
It is not just the stories, but the detail that Otis conveys in his characters and his moments that make them burst into real life. A song like “Back In My Day Blues” is one you could see artists like Tom Waits and Bruce Springsteen kicking themselves for never writing. The song “Ghosts Of Our Fathers” speaks right to the heart of the matter Gibbs is trying to convey in this album. “I was a child. I was far too young to ever understand what it meat to have a son who’d been drafted and killed in Vietnam.” In other moments, Otis forges folk heroes and casts them in moments of defiance, such as in “The Darker Side of Me” and “Nancy Barnett.” Otis has a sense that humankind should be swayed towards embracing its positive virtues, but understands that violence and defiance are tied to justice, and are an inalienable part of the human construct and worth canonizing all the same.
Otis Gibbs is a storyteller’s storyteller, and one that makes you see life unfurling in poetry and prose. He may never tell his stories to the wide masses, but the ones wise enough to lean in and listen will find riches and wisdom no man would ever dare lay a monetary value on.
1 3/4 of 2 Guns Up.
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From the fertile Outlaw country ground that comprises the hills and hollers of Boone County, West Virginia comes a homespun, but inspired and deftly-written insight into the American experience called No Place Lower Than High. Composed and performed by the virtual unknown singer and songwriter Justin Payne, this no budget project cut in a 100-year-old coal camp house is rough-hewn, scratchy, and sometimes hard to listen to through the production shortcomings. But hiding under all of the coal dust is a soul-bearing, bare-chested, and unfettered account of one man’s dreams and demons more than worthy of listening in on.
When I use the term “Outlaw” to describe Justin Payne, I mean the Merriam-Webster version, the Waylon Jennings circa 1974 version, with the half time bass beat holding everything together and the Telecaster phase guitar turned high. This album is Outlaw in every sense of the classic terminology, but it’s not just tone, bravado, and style like the stereotypical Waylon or Paycheck interpretation of Outlaw. This album has the Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark legacy of the Outlaw era in it too with intense, weighty songwriting lurking within these tracks, and a troubadour’s heart hiding beneath Payne’s brambly exterior.
When it comes to the songwriting on No Place Lower Than High, Justin Payne measures high on all gradients. Vulnerable, honest, insightful, and personal, Payne aims right for the heart and sinks his lyrical dagger true. Justin doesn’t undertake in character generation on this album. This isn’t a work of folklore or fiction. Payne’s narratives are ripped right out of his own experiences in those Boone County hills, and the truth behind the words of these songs is what makes them so gripping.
What holds No Place Lower Than High back is simply the way it sounds in certain places. Though in the same regard, the style is one of the album’s strengths. Foggy, slightly muted, unmastered, and employing some very strange tones in places, especially in the drums that sound at times electronic (whether they are or not), this is the unfortunate assessment that will probably keep certain listeners at arm’s length. But generally, Justin has the arrangements and even the tones and styles spot on; it’s just the production level leaves a layer of film on the project that passive music fans might not be able to listen through. Conversely this haziness is also what makes the album sound classic and cool, and there’s a lot of accidental genius and endearing simplicity in the way this album was cut and glued together. A song like “The Fall” came out perfect, and would be criminal to tinker with.
Strip away all the music, and simply on paper this album has so many great compositions. “The Man I Should Be,” “The Fall,” “Life Is A Country Song,” “Papers,” “Sunday Song”—they just keep coming. The only song that seems unfortunate to have made the cut is “Your Kind.” Destined to be taken the wrong way by certain listeners, it falls into more of the stereotype of what one might expect from this album, instead of what one actually gets from the other nine songs. It’s just very divisive in its tone, where the rest of No Place Lower Than High barrels you over with the unexpected poetry and wisdom.
Justin Payne is no crooner, but similar to the production of the album, you root for him, and he surprises you with his vocal adroitness, and sense of timing and dynamics, making the most of his given attributes and authentic drawl.
It wouldn’t be fair to not dock No Place Lower Than High for the flaws of the project illuminated above, but you get the sense with this inaugural album that there is something very strong here, something extremely promising that just needs a little polishing, while at the same time, taking great care not to compromise what makes Justin Payne so cool and authentic, and greatly enjoying what he’s already done with this album.
No Place Lower Than High is a superb underground gem sifted out of a mess of coal rubble, in an era when such discoveries seem much too far between.
1 3/4 of 2 Guns Up.
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On April Fool’s day, Broken Bow Records released a 20-track Merle Haggard Tribute called Working Man’s Poet, primarily as a showcase for the roster’s talent. Big Broken Bow acts like Jason Aldean, Thompson Square, and Dustin Lynch make multiple appearances on the collection, but one of the most heavily-touted songs from the album has been Luke Bryan’s version of “Pancho & Lefty” with Dierks Bentley. The approach of the track is said to to have been inspired by Mumford & Sons. “The original had a Spanish-Mexican flair,” Bryan explains. “We took a real different approach with it …. something with some edge that moves along pretty good. It’s an interesting take.”
The first question this song begged was, should this really be considered a Merle Haggard song? “Pancho & Lefty” was originally written and recorded by acclaimed Texas singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt. A later version appeared on an album of the same name that was a collaboration between Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson in 1983, but Willie sang most of the song, with Merle only contributing one verse.
Nonetheless, Luke Bryan’s version with Dierks made the cut, and subsequently drew the favorable ear of Mere’s son and Strangers guitar player Ben Haggard who appears on the tribute multiple times himself. “You know, Luke Bryan’s a great artist, but I never really listened to his stuff,” Ben told Country Weekly earlier this month. “I just listened to ‘Pancho and Lefty’ about five minutes ago and it blew me away. I’m in love with it.”
Ben went on to give his assessment of the tune if it was ever released to radio as a single. “I wouldn’t be surprised if it was a hit. It could be a monster—again.” The Willie & Merle version was a #1 in 1983. This begs the question, could Luke Bryan’s version of “Pancho & Lefty” really be released to radio as a single, and somehow become a hit all over again?
The one thing we know is right now, there’s no country star hotter than Luke Bryan. Luke is on a roll, scoring one huge hit single after another, with his latest “Play It Again” at #1, and his collaboration with Florida-Georgia Line called “This Is How We Roll” at #2 on Billboard’s country chart. If Luke and his management did decide to release the song to radio there’s a very good likelihood it would do well simply off of Luke’s name, and Dierks Bentley is a pretty hot commodity at the moment as well.
Combine that with the overwhelming cover success Darius Rucker recently had with Old Crow Medicine Show’s “Wagon Wheel,” and it’s not ridiculous to think that Luke’s “Pancho & Lefty” could become a hit, creating the same strange dichotomy “Wagon Wheel” did for independent country fans where you’re happy there’s a cool song getting played on the radio, but hesitant about the circumstances of how it got there. A Merle tribute song written by Townes Van Zandt topping the charts? Awesome. Performed by Luke Bryan? Not so much. And it turns out that there already has been a few spins of the song on MediaBase-monitored radio stations (a meager total of four, but still interesting for a cover song on a tribute album).
But don’t steal yourself for disappointment, or get your hopes up that “Pancho & Lefty” 3.0 will become the next “Wagon Wheel” and put the deceased Townes Van Zandt at the top of today’s country chart. As Saving Country Music’s go to guru for all things country radio Windmills Country points out, since the Merle Haggard tribute was released by Broken Bow, but Luke Bryan is a Capitol Records Nashville artist, it is unlikely that Luke’s song is the one they would release as a single, if they release any singles from the tribute. Releasing a single to mainstream country radio costs lots of money for labels to promote, and so it is unlikely that Broken Bow would do this for an artist on another roster, similar how it is less likely that Capitol Nashville would figure out how to release it as a single since it originated from Broken Bow.
The other issue is that Luke Bryan already has a slew of singles out there to radio doing very very well, and so does Dierks Bentley. Labels do not like having singles compete with each other, so if “Pancho & Lefty” was released, it would likely be well after Luke’s current albums are out of single material.
Nonetheless, it is certainly curious that the most lauded song on the album is Luke Bryan’s, especially since he’s not signed to Broken Bow. In the press releases and other promotional material, it is by far the most talked about track, and it could have been targeted by Broken Bow’s A&R as the best song to help sell the album to the public. Depending on the licensing behind the song, the track could also be selected to be released on a deluxe edition of Luke’s current album Crash My Party—a practice that a lot of labels are doing with artists to extend the release cycle, and making it more likely it could appear as a single. So who knows. It somewhat feels like fantasy football to talk about the track becoming a hit, but there is certainly a lot of chatter surrounding it. We very well might be seeing Luke Bryan shaking it to “Pancho & Lefty” in the future, for better or worse.
There’s no embeddable version of Luke Bryan’s version, so here’s the Willie & Merle’s original.
We hear it all the time. It pursues us throughout our daily lives. It seems to be one of the eternal lessons of life. Yet no matter how much we all believe in the message and take it into our hearts, it is amazing how easily we stray from taking time, slowing down, and appreciating the important things in life and living in the moment. Because no matter how much you tell yourself how paramount this is, there’s an endless world of priorities and distractions awaiting you on your phone, on your computer, and on your television. You can preach the virtues of slowing down all you want, but the best way to drive the message home is by example, and this is what the wise-minded, and golden-throated guru of classic country music Don Williams does on his new album Reflections.
The message wouldn’t have so much meaning behind it if it wasn’t so obvious Don Williams practices what he preaches. He had his day of moving and shaking in the music business (5 CMA Male Vocalist Trophies & seventeen #1′s to be exact), and when it was obvious that the industry had put him out to pasture, he didn’t shake his fists in anger or reconfigure his image to appeal to the younger generation. He was appreciative of the time he spent in the spotlight, and stepped back to rest on his laurels and re-evaluate his priorities. Even now that he’s re-ignited his career of sorts by releasing two albums in the last three years, it seems like he’s doing it only as a dabbler; to get the devil out of him so to speak, so that music doesn’t pursue him in his mind as he tries to relax and revel in his golden years.
This is the attitude and approach that Reflections is recorded with—slow and easy—like Don told his wife, “I’ll be back for supper,” and then went out for an afternoon to cut an album of songs that he believes in and lives by every day. Then as producers, engineers, and label people labored to get this record ready for release, it was the farthest thing from Don’s mind as he takes a late breakfast and heads out fishing.
Where Reflections outdoes his 2012 album And So It Goes is in the song selection. Don Williams can sing anything and make it gold, and one of his greatest assets is being able to sing a song that performed by any other artist would come across as sappy, and make it somewhat cool and more universally appealing. But there’s a little bit of swagger, a little bit of grit in some the songs of Reflections, not necessarily in the words, but just in the attitude. Selecting a song from Townes Van Zandt in “I’ll Be Here In The Morning”, and from Merle Haggard in “Sing Me Back Home” which refers to Merle’s stint in prison, gives this album some gravel, despite the otherwise smooth and subdued approach of the music. Yet these two famous covers still sit well within the theme of the album of appreciating the small things in life.
Reflections is much more than just the easy listening country it may appear to be on the surface. It’s an album with a message, and leads by example. Instead of whining about the state of country music, it does something about it.
The laid back, gentle-of-mind ease drips from this album like the sweetness of sun-drenched dew. Sometimes it’s simply implied, and other times it’s directly spoken, like in the appreciative and well-written “Working Man’s Son” or the song that ties the entire theme of Reflections together, “Back To The Simple Things.” Enough can’t be said either about the Townes cover “I’ll Be Here In The Morning”. Like when Willie and Merle took “Pancho & Lefty” to another level, Don Williams’ touch on this song immortalized it, and in a different time it would have been a super hit.
Reflections is the album we needed right here, right now. Not just from the perspective of saving country music, but the perspective of saving ourselves from the overwhelming onslaught of ensnaring technologies that rob the preciousness from life.
Two guns up.
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Oh you poor little non-SXSW goers, you’re social network feeds are about to get positively inundated with South By Southwest information, riddling your psyche with scores of free music events you’re unfortunately missing out on, resulting in an experience for you somewhere between the teasings of a cruel temptress, and Chinese water torture.
So in the spirit of wanting to bridge the SXSW haves and have not’s, here’s a list of artists that all happen to be attending SXSW (and their appointed set times), but are worthy of being checked out more in-depth even if you can’t make it down to Austin, TX to get raped for parking and sit in lines for 7 hours a day.
Saving Country Music’s reigning Artist of the Year, this country music savior has a hot new album out in High Top Mountain, and another one on the way called Metamordern Sounds in Country Music out May 13th, and might be the most worthy up-and-coming country music personality to see at SXSW 2014. Sturgill Simpson is so good, even if you consider yourself more of an Americana or roots fan, he’s still worth checking out.
- Sat. 15th 7PM, St David’s Historic Sanctuary, 304 E 7th St.
If anyone is showing up to SXSW with tons of positive momentum behind him, it would be Shakey. It probably helps that he cut his teeth in Austin, playing regularly at places like The White Horse and Hole in the Wall. He’s now reportedly transitioning from a solo act to a full band sound, and whether you get Shakey solo or Shakey 2.0, he’s certainly worth rerouting your SXSW itinerary to catch.
- MONDAY, 3/10: 10:00pm – Spider House Ballroom (2906 Fruth St) – Mother Falcon’s All The Friends Ball
- TUESDAY, 3/11: 6:30pm – KLRU Studio 6A (2504-B Whitis Ave) – Premiere screening of PBS documentary on Shakey Graves “Not Alone” + live performance
- WEDNESDAY, 3/12: 1:00pm – Cedar St. Courtyard (208 W. 4th St) – FILTER/Lagunitas Party
- THURSDAY, 3/13: 12:50pm – Weather Up (1808 E. Cesar Chavez) – Billy Reid Showcase
4:00pm – Licha’s Cantina (1306 E. 6th St) – Audiotree Showcase
7:25pm – Heartbreaker Banquet at Willie Nelson’s Luck, TX Ranch
- FRIDAY, 3/14: 12:30pm – Spotify House (901 E. 6th St)
5:05pm – The 512 (408 East 6th St) – Colorado Music Party
1:00am – The Gatsby (708 E. 6th St) – Pandora / Americana Music Association Showcase (official SXSW)
- SATURDAY, 3/15: 11:00pm – Holy Mountain Backyard (617 E. 7th St.) – New Frontier Touring Showcase (official SXSW)
The school teacher by day turned music savant by night will be plying his craft at SXSW on the heels of being featured on NPR and CMT, and ahead of an appearance at Pickathon and many other festivals this summer. This high-energy and enigmatic solo performer is spiraling up the music world staircase with songs that resonate deeply with fans from all across the roots music landscape.
- Mon. 10th, 8:00 PM, Hotel Vegas, 1500 East 6th Street
- Wed. 12th, 5:30 PM, ABGB, 1305 West Oltorf Street
- Fri. 14th, 11:30 PM, Austin Moose Lodge XSXSW 7 2103 E M Franklin Ave.
Hurray for the Riff Raff
Hurry for the Riff Raff is Alynda Lee Segarra, and sometimes other accompanying musicians, who evoke the musical traditions of Appalachia with a newer, Americana approach mixed in. Critically acclaimed and a favorite of her musical peers and fans of songwriting and traditional music alike, she just released her latest album Small Town Heroes and will be one of the rising roots stars attending SXSW in 2014. Gillian Welch for a new generation.
- Wed. 12th, Mello Johnny’s, 2:00 PM
- Wed. 12th, Weather Up, 1808 E Cesar Chavez St., 5:50 PM
- Fri. 14th, Hotel San Jose, 4:00 PM
- Fri. 14th, The Gatsby, 10:00 PM
This former and founding member of Old Crow Medicine Show is now out to make his own name as a solo folk singer, and will be attending SXSW ahead of the release of his David Rawlings-produced debut album Folk Singer, Vol. 1 out May 6th that features standard and obscure roots songs. Those who’ve followed string bands for a while will recognize the name, and most lovers of sincere music soon will with the way Willie Watson engages crowds and weaves his craft.
- Wed. 12th, 11:00 PM, St. David’s Episcopal Church, 301 E. 8th St.
- Thur. 13th, Heartbreaker Banquet, Luck, TX.
The former Turnpike Troubadour who surprised everyone in 2012 when his debut album From The Ground Up was nominated for a Grammy, John Fullbright is one of Americana’s brightest future stars and a top shelf songwriter to boot. And as you can see from his SXSW schedule, he’s willing to put the sweat equity into career. We all pray that the traffic sea parts for you often this week, John.
- 3/11 – The Oklahoma Showcase @ The Buffalo Lounge (set time: 1:00am)
- 3/12 – Thirty Tigers Showcase @ St. David’s Historic Sanctuary (set time: 12:00am)
- 3/13 – Heartbreaker Banquet’s Chapel Stage @ Willie Nelson’s Ranch in Luck, TX (set time: 4:15pm)
- 3/14 – Live Vibe Presents The Listening Room @ Winflo (set time: 1:15pm)
- 3/14 – Sin City Social Club SXSW Bash @ St. Vincent’s (set time: 4:00pm)
- 3/14 – Hill Country Live SXSW Showcase @ Saxon Pub (set time: 10:30pm)
- 3/15 – Twangfest Party @ Broken Spoke (set time: 2:30pm)
- 3/15 – Folk Alliance Showecase @ Threadgills (set time: 5:00pm)
- 3/16 – Music City Texas Showcase @ G&S Lounge (set time: 6:30pm)
One of the strangest projects you can probably partake in at SXSW that would still fall within the big tent of the “country” world, but also one of the coolest and most creative, is steel guitar player Spencer Cullum Jr.’s Steelism band. You may recognize Spencer, as well as Steelism guitar player Jeremy Fetzer from Caitlin Rose’s band. Essex-native Spencer Cullum has also played with Jonny Fritz, and many others from the current east Nashville scene. Others you may see fleshing out the Steelism lineup at any given time are Mike Rinne, Matt Rowland, Jon Radford, and Andrew Combs. Who said the steel guitar was dead?
- Wed. 12th, 11:00 PM, Tap Room at The Market, 311 Colorado St
- Fri. 14th, 8:00 PM, Shotguns, 503 East 6th St.
Texas native and current Nashvillian Robert Ellis is certainly a candidate to take that critical acclaim baton from Jason Isbell and run with it as an artist who seems to effortlessly deliver songs with cutting emotional moments in an awe-inspiring display of deft creativity. His much-anticipated new album Lights From The Chemical Plant is full of those instances that give you shivers from their bold illustration of wit and self awareness.
- Wed. 12th, 7:00 PM, Paste Party @ Swan Dive, 615 Red River Street
- Thur. 13th, 5:20 PM, Weather Up, 1808 E Cesar Chavez St.
- Thur. 13th 7:00 PM, Threadgills, 301 West Riverside Drive
- Thur. 13th 8:00 PM, Red 7, 611 E 7th St
- Fri. 14th, 5:00 PM, Hotel San Jose, 1316 S Congress Ave
Artists that just released albums seem to flock to SXSW light moths to the lamp, and such is the case for Bloodshot Record’s cowpunk princess Lydia Loveless that has many singing her praises after the release of her latest album Somewhere Else. Lydia Loveless isn’t just empowered, she’s uninhibited. Subtly and coyness are shades she rarely paints in. Instead she opens her mouth and the truth comes out unfettered, refreshingly honest, and many times, R-rated, revealing her sinful tendencies and struggles with self-admitted inadequacies that sometimes veer her towards self-destructive behavior.
- Tue. 11th, 8:00 PM, Hole In The Wall
- Wed. 12th, 10:00 PM, The Continental Club
- Fri. 14th, Yard Dog Art Gallery
- Thur. 13th, Noon, The Broken Spoke
- Thur 13th. 2:00 PM, Swan Dive
- Thur 13th, 6:30 PM, Hole In The Wall
With a gift for poetry like Townes Van Zandt, and a penchant for the whimsical, progressive approach to bluegrass akin to John Hartford, Robbie Fulks isn’t your typical up-and-coming SXSW attendee, but a wily veteran coming back for the action. His recent album Gone Away Backward from Bloodshot Records was a Saving Country Music Album of the Year candidate in 2013.
- Wed. 12th, 9:00 PM, The Continental Club
- Thur. 13th, 4:00 PM, The Broken Spoke
- Fri. 14th, Yard Dog Art Gallery
- Sat. 15th, 2:00 PM, Brooklyn Country Party @ Licha’s Cantina
For eight lonely years in the oughts we traversed the long, dark gulf between Don Williams releases, when country music’s “Gentle Giant” retired to his farm to live the same warm, reflective life referenced in many of his songs with such soothing presence. A Don Williams song is like being young again and wrapped in the loving, reassuring arms of a grandparent. Sure, there’s a few other country music artists that can play songs in the mid tempo and sing so quietly to where their voice is as delicate as the sides of a soap bubble. But nobody can do it while being as cool as Don Williams.
After releasing And So It Goes through Sugar Hill records in 2012, Don Williams has all of a sudden become downright prolific in the new decade, and his latest release Reflections is due out on Sugar Hill March 11th. Ahead of the release Don teases us with a new song, an adaptation of Texas songwriting legend Townes Van Zandt’s beautiful, disarming tune of love triumphing over freedom, “I’ll Be Here In The Morning.”
Released on Van Zandt’s first official studio record, 1968′s For The Sake Of The Song, “I’ll Be Here In The Morning” was counter to the popular “Ramblin’ Man” notions prevailing at the time in music with male musical characters issuing warnings to their lovers to not expect them to be around for long. The poetic ear the young Van Zandt displays in the song is highly worthy of recognition, even if the theme wasn’t popular or resonant in 1968. However “I’ll Be Here In The Morning,” just like Townes and Don Williams, proved to be timeless.
Recorded live (as can be seen below in the video), Don’s version does what Don Williams does, which is approach a song with such a gentle touch, it revives memory like the sunlight and the feel of the air at the change of seasons. Tasteful instrumentation, including light entrances by banjo, steel guitar, and harmonica embellish the recording, while a two-tone Waylon-esque bass beat drives the song and lead electric guitar indicative of a Mark Knopfler style, and classical acoustic guitar offer a break to Don’s effortless, caramel-swirled vocal tones, holding the words of Van Zandt’s work like a proud father holds his child for the first time.
Two guns up.
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You can also listen to another new Don Williams song “Talk Is Cheap” on Engine 145.
As first reported by Saving Country Music back in February of 2013 when the iconic Outlaw country documentary Heartworn Highways was being released digitally for the first time, a followup to the movie called Heartworn Highways Revisited featuring some of the artists in the original film along with new, up-and-coming artists has been in the works.
Directed by Wayne Price, with producer Brian Devine, and original Heartworn Highways producer Graham Leader, Heartworn Highways Revisited is reported to be in post production, with hopes it will be released later this summer. They have also released a trailer for the new film on their website, and have revealed the new cast that includes Guy Clark, David Allan Coe, and Steve Young from the original film, as well as newer artists Jonny Fritz, Deer Tick, Robert Ellis, Andrew Combs, Phil Hummer, Matraca Berg, John McCauley, Josh Hedley, Bobby Bare Jr., Langhorn Slim, Shelly Colvin, Justin Townes Earle, and Shovels & Rope.
Similar to how the original film captured Clark, Coe, Young, Townes Van Zandt, Larry Jon Wilson, Rodney Crowell, Charlie Daniels and others in intimate, concert, and recorded environments, the new film hopes to capture similar organic and authentic moments from this new slate of artists. The new film also has some scenes where the original cast members and the new cast members hang out, meet, and collaborate.
The original Heartworn Highways is given credit by many for setting the standards for a musical documentary. Filmed in late 1975 and early 1976, but not released until 1981, Heartworn Highways chronicles the country music Outlaw movement and some of its most important contributors in the infancy of their careers. Some of the scenes and music have gone on to become some of the most memorable moments of country music lore.
At the 56th Annual Grammy Awards Sunday night, country legends Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, and Merle Haggard performed a medley of songs together along with Blake Shelton, with the occasion being Kris Kristofferson receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award and having his first self-titled album inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. But this grouping wasn’t accidental, or an augmented version of the supergroup The Highwaymen that Willie and Kris were once a part of with Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings.
A long-planned, and even longer-rumored album and grouping of Willie, Merle, and Kris called “The Musketeers” has been in the works for years. Saving Country Music first reported on the potential supergroup in January of 2011 when the three men were assembled as part of Merle Haggard’s recognition by the Kennedy Center Honors. Haggard told Rolling Stone at the time:
We got to eat a little something together. We didn’t know what the hell this food was, but we thought it was funny. We (Merle and Willie) talked about doing that together, but with the presence of Kris, we talked about the three of us doing it. I’m sure if we’re healthy and live to do it, we’ll do it. We thought about the title: the Musketeers. You know, because there’s the three of us. We’ll come up with some little way of describing ourselves I guess and put it together into a show.
“The Musketeers” might just be a placeholder for the eventual name, but apparently the three Country Music Hall of Famers are still serious about the idea, and are working on music. When asked by Billboard before The Grammy Awards if a collaboration between the three men could be in the offing, Willie Nelson responded, “We’re working on one now.” When asked when fans could expect something, and if it could be this year, Willie responded, “As soon as we get it together. Could be.”
Merle Haggard and Kris Kristofferson have toured together in an acoustic show numerous times since 2009, and Willie Nelson worked with Merle Haggard in 2007 on the album Last of The Breed. Willie and Merle also collaborated on the Townes Van Zandt classic “Pancho & Lefty.”
Finally stimulating The Musketeers to go from talk to actual tracks might be the recent revelation from Kris Kristofferson that he’s beginning to experience memory issues.
Back in July of 2012, I placed my chips on the square that said that sometime in the future pop star Ke$ha would be a big player in the country music realm, and that when she did, she would be huge. Ke$ha’s mom is country songwriter Pebe Sebert that wrote the #1 hit “Old Flames (Can’t Hold a Candle To You)” for Dolly Parton amongst other notable compositions, and Ke$ha has professed her love for country music, and specifically Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash, and Townes Van Zandt.
It’s hard to call “Timber”—her current collaboration with Latin rapper Pitbull—a country song, but it’s just as hard to ignore that this song is trying to capture a country/Americana vibe through its production. In many respects, “Timber” is the perfect mono-genre specimen. Take a Latin hip-hop artist, an LA pop star via Nashville, inject elements of American country culture like harmonica, the line “swing your partner, ’round and ’round,” reinforce it in the video with choreographed line dancers wearing cutoffs carousing in a honky tonk with a jug band playing in the background, and you’ve got yourself a bona fide mono-genre master work.
And the results of their attempt to touch on every element of popular American culture without pigeonholing the song into any specific genre speak for themselves. “Timber” is now the #1 song in all of music, and it’s video has received 61 million+ hits at the the time of this posting. This is the kind of results that can be garnered when your music has no limits based on traditional lines of genre, culture, race, or even geography.
The video for “Timber” was shot in two primary locales. Pitbull’s portion of the was mostly filmed in The Bahamas, while Ke$ha caught a more country vibe by filming in a honky tonk in Miami and a ranch outside of the city limits. Horses, chickens, and bikini’ed Ke$ha chopping wood (a day’s work is never done, apparently) are all featured in the video, and so is, of all things, a relatively-obscure, but worthy-of-your-ear band from Orlando called The Bloody Jug Band.
The Bloody Jug Band is a true jug band (yes, they have a jug player) that features very traditional instrumentation around an otherwise very progressive Americana sound with a dark, macabre approach. At first glance one might think this is a gimmick band, but their compositions reveal great depth in both theme and structure, constituting their debut album Coffin Up Blood to be nominated for Saving Country Music’s Album of the Year in 2012.
“It was just one of those opportunities that fall in your lap,” says Bloody Jug Band frontman Cragmire Peace. “I got a call on a random weekday, and one of the producers of the video got me on the phone and said, ‘This is going to be a weird conversation.’ She went on to say they were looking for a jug band type of sensibility in the video—instrumentation of some of that old-timey music—because that’s what they considered fit well with the kind of Americana vibe of the song. And when they looked up jug bands, not only did we come up, but we’re also in Florida. So they pretty much loved the ready-made package.
“Everything in the video that we wore and played, down to the stickers on the washboard, that was all us and they had no problem with us being us in the video, which was one of our stipulations up front. If we were going to show up and do this, we were going to be ourselves, and they had no problem with that. They knew what they were getting.”
The inclusion of The Bloody Jug Band in the Ke$ha/Pitbull video speaks to just how far the video’s producers were willing to go to capture a country/Americana vibe in the shoot. “They could have easily cast four assholes to be extras in this video, and it wouldn’t have been The Bloody Jug Band and it wouldn’t have meant anything,” Cragmire Peace says. But they didn’t. Though you would definitely have to categorize “Timber” as hip-hop or hip-pop first, producers were trying to be inclusive to the rising popularity of country music, and even bands like Mumford & Sons. At the same time, the use of The Bloody Jug Band speaks to another trend in music that is helping out many independent bands.
“You hear a lot about this in TV and the licensing of music,” Cragmire explains. “They figured out it was way cheaper and way more mutually beneficial to instead of having composers you hire for the music, to actually co-opt independent bands and put them in the credits. I think it is more typical in TV right now than it is in music, or popular music, but I think it opens the door for people. It’s a window into another type of music. “Timber” has sort of the Americana vibe to it, and that’s probably a little different for Ke$ha and Pittbull to have done. So the fact that they introduced into the listener’s ear, for people to realize that there’s dynamic music in this genre going on, I think it’s a great door opener for people to hopefully step through, and they can be turned on to this other type of music. And hopefully pop culture realizes that to take a chance on an independent band, and feature them in your video, or to use these bands in some other way, it helps the band out, it opens people’s eyes, and ultimately I think it’s not bad business.”
Cragmire Peace says he’s no fan of pop music, Ke$ha, Pitbull, or “Timber” specifically. “It’s easy to beat them up. But if it means more exposure for The Bloody Jug Band or Americana music, I don’t care what door they came through. The end result is what matters, not how they got there. Even if people don’t know who they’re looking at, if they’re somehow captivated for the 5 to 8 seconds that we’re actually in the video, then that’s cool. To be exposed this way but have people respond to it like they have, I think that’s very powerful and validating for any artist, but certainly what we’re trying to do with The Blood Jug Band.”
Meanwhile the resounding success of “Timber” likely means we can expect more blending of country/roots/Americana elements into pop and hip-hop music, while rap elements in country music are now a mainstay of the genre, and Jerrod Niemann’s recent single “Drink To That All Night” adds the world of EDM and dance music into the mix. The autonomy of American music genres remains in full retreat in mainstream music, and 2014 promises to be the most brave year yet for breaking rules, blending genres, and toppling borders.
(The Bloody Jug Band have a new EP out, Murder of Crows, and a new album planned for later this year.)
This is one of the questions that has plagued the second half of my 2013, as devotees of the shadowy, Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter pursue me, knowing what a sucker I am for narrative-based songwriting told through a thematic album. And that’s just what The White Buffalo, aka Jake Smith delivers in his latest record Shadows, Greys, and Evil Ways released in September.
But how would you know about him unless you have your nose buried deep in the soundtrack credits for Sons of Anarchy where he’s appeared several times, or were aware of his similar inclusion on the recent soundtrack for The Lone Ranger movie? The White Buffalo is about as independent as the enigmatic beast that lends to his pseudonym. Lots of artists would love to boast how they defy genre, but few can pull off the feat, borrowing from scattered influences instead of truly forging their own path like The White Buffalo does. He’s certainly roots, he’s somewhat country, but he’s 100% his own animal standing out from the herd.
Shadows, Greys, and Evil Ways is a concept album, and this is a fact Jake Smith is happy to share with his audience, along with a more in-depth explanation of the narrative, instead of letting you stumble into that truth like some artists find sport in doing. It follows the characters Jolene and Joe, their falling in love, the struggles of life that separate them in both body and spirit, and the sinister things this separation and life does to a man who struggles between sin and redemption.
Unlike some concept albums whose songs are linked through contiguous interludes or by referring back to certain global riffs or melodies, the songs of Shadows, Greys, and Evil Ways are fairly autonomous, especially at the beginning. Near the end, you being to latch on to some sonic similarities, but especially through the first few songs of the album, this record is not what you would call seamless. The albums starts of very sweet with “Shall We Go On” and “The Getaway,” but then turns unabashedly belligerent in the song “When I’m Gone” that’s like a dirty-mouthed underground country anthem.
Jake Smith is not afraid to shift gears and catch you off guard at any time in the album, yet the story remains linear throughout. One benefit to the autonomy the songs contain despite the concept is there’s quite a few songs on this album that can reside excellent on their own, including virtually every full track on the second half of the album.
Shadows, Greys, and Evil Ways is a creeper, especially if you don’t go into it knowing it is conceptualized. You recognize immediately there’s something cool here, but you may not be sure exactly what is going on, or what the overall appeal might be. Then after a few listens, despite the weight and artistry of the material, you begin to find the songs downright infectious. Nasty, viral grooves and hooks reveal themselves embedded in the content without jeopardizing the overall narrative that is the web holding the album together. The wit of the lyrics doesn’t wear off, it becomes enhanced as you to pick up on its subtleties, as the message of the story begins to reveal itself and you begin to identify and find empathy with the characters more and more.
By nature a concept album is harder to pull off because as an artist you must be beholden to the narrative instead of following your heart towards wherever inspiration grips you. But once the story finds its own path, the difficulty can be capturing it in the recorded format while the feelings are fresh, and doing justice to the story in the limiting confines of an audio record. Along on this journey with The White Buffalo are Jake Smith’s rhythm section Matt Lynot on drums, and Tommy Andrews on bass. The trio also calls on steel guitar, fiddle, cello, and keyboards in places to enhance the music that reaches towards Townes and Guy Clark in its lyrical depth, while referring to Tom Waits and Waylon Jennings sonically.
Shadows, Greys, and Evil Ways is as ambitious as it is accomplishing, and should be considered in the same breath as some of the best albums of 2013.
Two guns up.
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With a gift for poetry like Townes Van Zandt, and a penchant for the whimsical, progressive approach to bluegrass akin to John Hartford, Robbie Fulks releases a stunningly entertaining, brilliantly-balanced, deep, yet instantly-engaging comeback album called Gone Away Backward through longtime associates Bloodshot Records.
You never know exactly what you’ll get with Robbie. It maybe be something along the lines of swing or rockabilly, like the style of one of his signature songs “Fuck This Town” (about where else but Nashville), or it may be a full album of Michael Jackson covers like his last release Happy. If you’re confused already, that is right where Robbie wants you; intrigued, guessing, and on your toes about what’s coming next, with the long-time Fulks fans following him since the first slew of late 90′s Bloodshot albums fully knowing whatever it is, it is going to be good.
What you get with Gone Away Backward is quite sensible and straightforward if there is such a thing from Robbie Fulks. Steeped in the roots of bluegrass and old time, this sparse, acoustic-only album offers a traditional sound that is brought up to modern-day relevancy by the staggeringly-cunning use of wit in Robbie’s verses. This is one of those albums you can cull a litany of quotes from, while not giving anything away sonically.
Buoyed by one amazing line after another, songs like “I’ll Trade You Money For Wine” and “Where I Fell” speak right to the heart of folks who take their music like medication. “Long I Ride” is possibly the album’s standout. It is one of those songs that feels like an instant old-time standard with its lack of chorus in favor of a recurring lyrical hook. “Imogene” evokes just as much Taj Mahal as it does traditional country, while two instrumentals “Snake Chapman’s Tune” and “Pacific Slope” come at just the right times on this albums to give it a warm, hearthy feel. “Sometimes The Grass Is Really Greener” again stuns you with the songwriting, with Fulks once again sliding back into his old habits of calling out the mainstream country establishment.Now the record company man confessed he liked me, but he’d have to shave a few rough edges down. Cut my hair like Brooks & Dunn, trade the banjo for some drums Because no one would buy that old high lonesome sound.
“That’s Where I’m From” is one of those songs that is an example of how Music Row’s incessant laundry listing may make an otherwise great song lack listfulness, and “The Many Disguises of God” may meander a little too much for some listeners to glean its otherwise great message. But overall Gone Away Backward is a song-heavy album with very little need for track navigation. Fulks also does a sensational job at exploring his entire range and using dynamics to emphasize an otherwise average voice to where Gone Away Backward also turns in an above-par vocal performance.
Traditional country music may not appeal to the masses, but one of its best attributes is that it’s timeless, and always will be. Gone Away Backward will appeal to a wide swath of enlightened music listeners, from the old time, traditional, and bluegrass crowds, to the Americana and NPR upper crust, and to post punk roots fans with its cutting themes and adept acoustic styling. The message of Gone Away Backward as inferred in the title is one of the broken promises of fame, wealth, and the downfall of the city—drawing on the long-standing country yearning for simplicity, but contemporizing it with relevant language and themes. Like Woody Guthrie, Robbie Fulks uses an intelligent sense of perspective to canonize the common man and their eternal struggles.
And maybe most importantly, Gone Away Backward exudes a lot of leadership. This is a bold album, while still being sparse and simple. You can complain about how bad modern country music and Nashville are—and Robbie has done plenty of that in his time—or you can offer a healthy alternative. If you want an example of how traditional country music can still be relevant, fresh, and appealing in 2013, look no further than Robbie Fulks’ Gone Away Backward.
Two guns up!
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If one sets out to make a documentary about the recently passed “Cowboy” Jack Clement, it certainly can’t be straightforward. As long-time Jack Clement friend Walter Forbes observes, “Cowboy gets the most nervous I think when a parade is going all in a straight line. He just can’t stand it…There’s got to be something he can do to change the rhythm and mess that sucker up.”
It was with that spirit that Shakespeare Was A Big George Jones Fan: Cowboy Jack Clement’s Home Movies was made in 2005 to document Jack’s life, and the wild environment swirling around his legendary home studio, the “Cowboy Arms Hotel and Recording Spa.”
Like any good documentary film does, even if you don’t care who Jack Clement is, you do by the end, and take away from it the important information about the accomplishments in Jack’s life. But since Jack Clement was there during so many important and historic events in the chronology of country music and early rock and roll, and because he claims to have spent over a million dollars making home movies, Shakespeare Was A Big George Jones Fan delivers you so much more; particularly an astounding array of archived footage capturing candid and important moments with some of country music’s biggest stars and most important people.
Some examples are Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner singing together for the first time in 20 years, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, and Townes Van Zandt all hanging out in the same room, and Johnny Cash having a smoke with the Father of Country Music, A.P Carter. And this is all interwoven with other archived and never-seen-before footage like moments from 2 never-released and never-finished Jack Clement TV specials (one with special guests Waylon Jennings and Jessi Coulter), or Charley Pride playing the Astrodome in Houston. And for a little extra character, there are little snippets of Jack Clement talking to a sketch of William Shakespeare (who among other attributes, has the voice of Johnny Cash), that give even more insight into Jack Clement’s creative mettle.
The celebrities appearing in the film in various contexts include but are not limited to:
- Johnny Cash
- Waylon Jennings
- Charley Pride
- Porter Wagoner
- Dolly Parton
- John Prine
- Kris Kristofferson
- George Jones
- Del McCoury
- Jim Lauderdale
- Jerry Lee Lewis
- Sam Phillips
- Marty Stuart
- June Carter
- Townes Van Zandt
- Jessi Coulter
But there’s really not one complete, uninterrupted musical performance in the entire hour-long movie. That’s not what this is about. And it’s not even about conveying all the big details of of Jack Clement’s life—his work with Sam Phillips at Sun Studios helping to launch the careers of Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash, or his launching of Charley Pride and John Prine, or his work with Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings. It is about capturing the spirit of the man—the whimsy that he approached the creative process with, and how it was his spirit that coaxed out some of the most memorable recordings in country music history from some of its most memorable performers.
And though this film was released 8 years ago, it still does a poignant job at the end touching on the mortality that surrounded “Cowboy” Jack in later years, all the way up to his own passing. All his best friends—Sam Phillips, Waylon Jennings, and especially Johnny Cash—had all passed away, leaving Jack behind as the last of the breed.
Directed and produced by Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville, Shakespeare Was A Big George Jones Fan is one of the most entertaining, informing, and well-made documentaries on country music you can find, and rose to the challenge of chronicling a character who future generations will unfortunately only be able to know through music and film.
Two guns way up!
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Country Music Hall of Famer, legendary producer, songwriter, musician, and cosmic music man “Cowboy” Jack Clement has died according to the Nashville newspaper The Tennessean. Jack Clement was just inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame this year. He was 82.
Jack Clement got his start working at Sun Studios in Memphis under Sam Phillips while playing steel guitar in college. He would later use this important position to become a seminal figure in the formation of both country and rock and roll music in the mid 50′s. Sam Phillips hired Jack on as an engineer, and Jack would arrange such hits as Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire,” and write Cash’s “Ballad of a Teenage Queen.” Jack discovered Jerry Lee Lewis when Sam Phillips was away on vacation one time, and many of those early Sun Studios recordings have Jack Clement’s fingerprints on them.
Clement would later go on to operate a renowned studio out of his home called the “Cowboy Arms Hotel and Recording Spa.” Similar to Tompall Glaser’s “Hillbilly Central” studio, Jack Clement’s house became a symbol of country music’s Outlaw revolution, facilitating a relaxed environment where creativity and free expression were encouraged and cultivated with country music’s progressive artists—a sharp contrast to the authoritarian studios of Nashville’s Music Row. At Clement’s home studio, Waylon Jennings’ Dreaming My Dreams was produced and recorded, as well as albums by Johnny Cash, Townes Van Zandt, Charley Pride, John Prine, Bobby Bare, Dolly Parton, and many more. The studio was destroyed in a fire in late June of 2011, taking with it many priceless recordings and photographs.
Jack Clement’s mystique only grew over time. In 1987 he was asked by U2 to produce tracks at Sun Studios. Though Jack had no idea who U2 was at the time, he accepted. He also hosted a radio program on Sirius XM’s “Outlaw Country” station all they way up to his death. A 2005 documentary Shakespeare Was a Big George Jones Fan chronicled the environment of Clement’s Cowboy Arms Hotel and Recording Spa, and captured his cosmic approach to music that facilitated so many heirloom recordings from music masters.
Jack Clement was also an inductee to the Songwriters Hall of Fame, The Music City Walk of Fame, and the Rockabilly Hall of Fame. He was considered a close friend and spiritual confidant to many country music performers.
He passed away in the remnants of the Cowboy Arms Hotel and Recording Spa this morning. Cowboy Jack was suffering from liver Cancer, and is survived by two children, a daughter, Alison, also a singer and writer, and a son, Niles, an engineer and photographer.
Of all the people you could have picked to become an outspoken dissenter to the direction of country music, Rodney Crowell would have been pretty far down the list. Not that he doesn’t have the skins on the wall to say such things and have them carry weight, or that he doesn’t practice what he preaches when it comes to his own approach to music. Rodney is in the direct lineage of legacy-caliber songwriters like Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt, and came up playing in Emmylou Harris’s “Hot Band.” He and Emmylou recently released a duet’s album together, but he always seemed to be more of a reserved soul when it came to such things as saying country music is headed in the wrong direction.
Well he’s not being very reserved at the moment, taking his second opportunity in the last month to decry the direction of country in a recent interview:
I watch these young country artists come in and burst onto the scene, and I always have to remind myself that these artists didn’t experience Hank Williams Sr. or Big Joe Turner or Kris Kristofferson, who was able to bring the bedroom and sensual poetry into country music. These artists came from a different set of archetypal images. If I took the old school curmudgeon approach, I would say these guys are really missing the boat.
A couple of weeks ago, Crowell made similar disparaging remarks about the direction of country, carefully worded, coy, and cunning in the way the words cut right to the heart of the problem, saying in part:
Ever since country music entered the back door of main stream commerciality—most noticeably in the early sixties—the debate over who possesses the more noble heart, the purists or the popular entertainers has never stopped. (Remember the credibility scare of the late 80′s.) Generally speaking, the purists make the more timeless music.
Pop culture is a disposable culture, therefore it stands to reason that those who want the big bucks and the power are inclined to produce slick and disposable music. I don’t see anything wrong with artists getting rich by pigging out at the trough of poor taste.
Rodney Crowell may be no Dale Watson when it comes to the temper he brings to his country music dissent, but the more voices speaking out and reaching different audiences, the better. By saying many of today’s pop country artists are “missing the boat,” Crowell is showing the leadership country music needs to help right the ship.
Like a great sage that only speaks his wisdom once every few years, when Guy Clark releases an album, you stop down, and you listen.
Like the tone of Willie Nelson’s guitar or Johnny Cash’s voice, a Guy Clark song has become an ineffaceable institution of American music. Even if you’re only familiar with his songs though the performances of others, or songs he’s influenced by others, Guy Clark’s handiwork is embedded in the very ethos of what we know as songwriting in American music, even if that influence is imperceptible to the average listener. If you need any more evidence of the influence of Guy Clark, just appreciate he’s the only one that has the legitimate ability to claim himself the honorary fifth Highwayman, and that he was a primary influence on one of his best friends, Townes Van Zandt.
Guy Clark paid off his penances to the world through his song contributions many years ago. But like a wily old tinkerer who can’t stop tooling on those cars out in the yard, and finding new motivation to express himself from the recent passing of his wife and fellow songwriter Susanna, Guy Clark has released a very personal album called My Favorite Picture Of You, filled with reflection and forlornness, without forsaking the stories of rough characters and other country interludes that make a Guy Clark album very personal to his devout listeners.
A Guy Clark album, and a Guy Clark song doesn’t need much. Once he’s written the words down and sketched the shape with an acoustic guitar (that Guy Clark the luthier likely built himself), his job is pretty much done. Maybe bring in a few instrumental accompaniments and some harmony contributions from the bevy of famous female voices always willing to lend a harmony line to one of Clark’s empirical offerings, and you’re done. Don’t bother with drums or any of that nonsense, Guy Clark’s words and acoustic tones are clothing enough. This lends to his compositions doing what they do best: going out into the world, influencing other songs and songwriters, melding to the personal narratives of his listeners, and being graced with enough ambiguity where other performers can take Guy’s spark of inspiration and make the songs their own.
When you boil it all down, Guy Clark’s greatest gift is his ability to use words to describe feelings and memories that most humans are confounded in being able to express. Take the dichotomy of the hero for example, how they seem to lift us up as much as they disappoint us. “Heroes” from this latest album is not just another troop tribute, it is a testament to how the frailty of the human condition grips even the best among us. “The High Price of Inspiration” deals with another dichotomy; how many times we must suffer to find our muse. “Hell Bent On A Heartache” is one of those songs begging to be picked up and recorded by someone else with a full band, while a song like “Conrmeal Waltz” is just plain fun.
If you’re looking to get your face melted off, then you’ve come to the wrong place. But when you’re looking for world class songwriting, you can never go wrong with Guy Clark.
1 3/4 of 2 guns up.
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The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville, TN has just announced their 2013 inductees. The new members to country music’s most prestigious institution are “Cowboy” Jack Clement, Bobby Bare, and Kenny Rogers.
Honorary host Bill Anderson made the announcement from the Hall of Fame rotunda Wednesday morning (4-10). The Country Music Hall of Fame inductees are selected through a committee process appointed by the CMA. Since 2010, the selection process has been split up into three categories. 1) Modern Era (eligible for induction 20 years after they first achieve “national prominence”). 2) Veterans Era (eligible for induction 45 years after they first achieve “national prominence”). 3) Non-Performer, Songwriter, and Recording and/or Touring Musician active prior to 1980 (rotates every 3 years).
“Cowboy” Jack Clement (non-performer) is one of country music’s most legendary songwriters, producers, and personalities. Clement got his start at Sun Studios, helping record and produce the original hits for Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and Carl Perkins. Later he would start his own home studio, where greats such as Waylon Jennings, Charley Pride, and Townes Van Zandt recorded with Clement in the producer’s role. He also wrote successful songs from Dolly Parton, Bobby Bare, and Jim Reeves. “I’ve been chosen for the Country Music Hall of Fame?” Clement said. “I thought I was already in the Hall of Fame, I could have gotten in there any time I wanted. Kyle [Young] (Hall of Fame President) gave me a key.”
Bobby Bare (Veteran’s Era) is the original country music Outlaw. Bare was one of the very first to fight for creative freedom in country music, and also pushed the limits for lyrical content in country when he released the song “Streets of Baltimore” written by Tompall Glaser. Glaser recognized Jerry Reed in his speech at the announcement. “Reed played on every hit I ever had. He was kicking it in the ass.” His son Bobby Bare Jr. is also a musician.
Kenny Rogers (Modern Era) aka “The Gambler” is one of country music’s greatest ambassadors. Kenny became a country hitmaker beginning in the late 70′s with the song “Lucille.” His work in movies like The Gambler and Six Pack, as well as collaborations with Dolly Parton and Dottie West helped sell country to new fans and a new generation.
On Sunday (2-10-13) the original filmmakers of the legendary Outlaw country documentary Heartworn Highways participated in an online chat where they answered questions from fans of the cult film originally released in 1981. After being out-of-print since a short run of DVD’s with bonus footage were sold in 2005, the film was finally made available for download and on-demand viewing on Christmas Day, 2012. Heartworn Highways editor Phillip Schopper and producer Graham Leader answered fan’s questions and let some interesting tidbits fly, including that a sequel of the film is currently in the works.
Will There Be a Heartworn Highways Sequel?
There is a new film that’s been made that’s inspired by Heartworn Highways called Heartworn Highways Revisited. It’s about a community of musicians inspired by the musicians in the original film. Three musicians will be in the sequel: David Allan Coe, Guy Clark and Steve Young.
Most of the film is in the can and is currently being assembled. We’d like to keep the musicians as a surprise. The film should be completed sometime this summer. –Graham Leader
What about the extra scenes that were on the 2005 DVD?
We are trying to figure an appropriate way and format to get the extras to you. I agree they are pretty incredible and make a movie almost all by themselves. However, we’ve always believed the film has to work as a film, which is to say it has to have a rhythm and be of a reasonable length. It was originally fairly heartbreaking to drop some of that material in order to make a film that would be commercially viable. We were very pleased to be able to make the DVD which allowed us to include some of our favorite moments.
Any plans for a new DVD or Blu-Ray release? Netflix?
We’ve only just released the film online and we’ll release the remastered DVD along with the bonus material when I find the right distributor. The reason it hasn’t been released online until now is because the system of distribution is still going through growing pains and does not necessarily make sense financially for the filmmakers. -Graham Leader
There are lots of reasons to have Netflix! Lots, I love it. But, alas, Heartworn is no longer available there. We hope it will be in the relatively near future in Blu-ray, with the extras –Phillip Schopper
What was the inspiration behind the film?
Jim’s (James Szalapski, director and photographer) friend from Minneapolis, Skinny Dennis Sanchez, who was a bass player who moved to LA and had become good friends with fellow musicians, including Guy Clark who was living there. Skinny turned Jim onto this music. And Jim loved the music and met with Guy and subsequently Townes and the rest of the people in the film. –Phillip Schopper
It grew out of the music of Guy, Townes and David. Everything else happened on the fly after we got there. -Graham Leader
How was it to work with Townes Van Zandt?
To be around Townes was to be seduced by him. Jim had to stay on his toes to capture Townes mercurial whit and genius. Filming was difficult because it was always so crazy around him. To know him was to love him. I saw him several times after the film in New York and London, but I never saw him back in Texas. There were times when Townes was utterly on top of his game and other times when it wasn’t so. – Graham Leader
Where is director James Szalapski now? And when did the film become popular?
Jim tragically passed away before Heartworn Highways was really discovered and before the notion of a DVD or before a DVD market existed. Nobody had any interest in the film until the DVD was released – it was completely underground until the release of the DVD.
How long did it take to film Heartworn Highways?
Once we decided to make the film, filming started the next month. Total of 5 weeks production and a little over a year in post-production.
Was it a difficult choice to allow footage from Heartworn Highways to be used in the Townes Van Zandt documentary Be Here To Love Me?
The footage Margret Brown (Be Here To Love Me director) used far exceeded and abused the understanding we had with her. To add insult to injury, neither Jim (Heartworn director) nor Heartworn Highways were properly credited. -Graham Leader
Where did the title “Heartworn Highways” come from?
Actually, while we were shooting the film the working title was New Country. But then when we were editing a yogurt came out that was called New Country. So we needed a new title. I actually invented the word “heartworn.” We felt the highways, trucks, etc were a real leitmotif and part of the heart of the film. The word just kind of sprang into my head as a combination of careworn and shopworn, a heart that has been well used or even over-used. A few years ago I heard from the Oxford English Dictionary that they were intending to include it in an upcoming edition. –Phillip Schopper
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