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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
The legendary Outlaw country documentary Heartworn Highways, featuring Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, David Allan Coe, Rodney Crowell, Gamble Rogers, Steve Young, The Charlie Daniels Band, and many more, has finally been released completely remastered for digital on-demand viewing and download. Filmed in late 1975 and early 1976, but not released until 1981, Heartworn Highways captures 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.
The new remastered, online version of the film was released on December 25th, (2012), but because of the holidays, went virtually unnoticed. Original copies of Heartworn Highways, including copies of the 2005 DVD release regularly sell for $90 and over on eBay and Amazon, speaking to the wild demand for the movie. The DVD included additional scenes not in the original movie. The new remastered version is available on Amazon, iTunes, YouTube (see links below), and other online streaming services. The filmmakers released a statement on Christmas for the re-release.
As part of the small filmmaking team, this release is extremely special, one we’ve been cautiously anticipating a very long time. Despite the initial favorable reviews and enthusiastic response at festivals, our film did not make it at the theatrical box office when it was initially released over 30 years ago. Few people understood it back then. So, it has been deeply gratifying to watch the film, which somehow survived underground, until the DVD was released 10 years ago. There is now a burgeoning community of folks who love the film for its timeless pleasures, honest evocation of that moment in American history and of the lives & music of such extraordinary talent. Thanks to your awareness and support we have been able to digitally save and clean the original release negative so that today we can finally bring it to you fully remastered: here it is, Heartworn Highways, in HD and Stereo, enjoy & share it.
Merry Christmas & Happy Holidays from Graham Leader, Producer, and Phillip Schopper, Editor.
On Sunday February 10th at 2 PM EST, the filmmakers will be participating in an online chat on Facebook about the film. A brand new trailer for the film can be seen below, followed by one of the film’s most iconic scenes.
Stay tuned for Saving Country Music’s review of the remastered Heartworn Highways.
What a treasure this album is.
I’ll spare you the lengthy diatribe about what shame it is that Billy Don Burns isn’t a more heralded and recognized elder of the greater country music community. But rest assured, he should be. When you’ve produced albums for Johnny Paycheck and Merle Haggard, and had Willie Nelson cut your songs and appear on your albums, you deserve to be thrown a few more bones than what Billy Don has found at his feet. But you don’t need to drop names to know what a one-of-a-kind talent Billy Don Burns is, all you have to do is listen.
Then again, the demons that have pursued Billy Don throughout his life and career, dogging his successes with lapses into addiction and destitution make the start and stutter nature of his career understandable. Those battles are also what have fueled and elevated his status as a songwriter in certain circles. He’s deity-like to the people who know and love him, yet the general public is unfamiliar with the name (though they may recognize music he’s written or produced). Billy Don Burns is a force behind the music.
There are great songwriters, and then there are songwriters that define the apogee of the craft, songwriters like Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt…and Billy Don Burns. There are songs on Nights When I’m Sober that will rip at your heart like nothing else. There’s a great variety on the album with sweet songs and fun songs. And where Billy Don elevates the stakes is in the production and approach to each composition. With producer/guitar player Aaron Rodgers, they reinvigorate the late-era, rock-infused Outlaw sound that had Haggard and Paycheck seeking Billy Don’s services.
Aside from maybe Tom Waits, Hank Williams and a few others, I have never heard an artist be able to pull as much emotion out of a composition as Billy Don Burns does by slowing everything down in the tear-jerking songs that constitute the backbone of this album. “Is He the Writer?” and “Stranger” are two excellent selections that work in the traditional Keith Whitley-style self-referential method that calls on both wit and irony to drive home a tragic story. “When Lonesome Comes Around” is a lot more of a loose arrangement, and takes “darkness” to all new depths as Billy Don tells the story of a man inviting in illusion as the one last antidote to alleviate chronic sorrow.
The dark songs are counterbalanced with some really warm offerings, specifically “Gaylor Creek Church” about the by-gone culture of community churches and the warmth they instilled in a child’s soul, and “Wouldn’t Have It Any Other Way” with its fun acoustic lead-in and lead-out and its positive take to life on the road. “Wouldn’t Have It…” is awfully fetching and probably constitutes the “hit” of the album. Night’s When I’m Sober is always on the move, with the motorcycle story “Born to Ride” and the touring tale “Aaron Rodgers and Me”.
What elevates this album the most, the intangible of Nights When I’m Sober is the authenticity Billy Don Burns can approach these songs with. The battle will rage on forever about if songwriters and performers have to live what they sing and write about to be authentic, but with Billy Don, the point is moot.
In the song “Is He the Writer?” Billy Don mentions the classic tale of the artist cutting off his ear to suffer so he can draw inspiration. Many artists and their fans love this romantic notion of art and inspiration, but few artists have the commitment to see it through. You get the sense that with Billy Don, if times were tough, he wouldn’t hesitate looking for a fillet knife, and that he’s done the rough equivalent of cutting his ear off many times before, and will again before it’s all over.
Billy Don Burn’s albums Train Called Lonesome and Heroes, Friends, & Other Troubled Souls are also worth picking up, but I think one could make the case for Night’s When I’m Sober being Billy Don’s defining release.
Two guns up!
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The following videos showcase songs from Nights When I’m Sober with luthier Richard Peek making a gas can banjo in the background.
It would be the utmost of conceit to think that the Turnpike Troubadours are regular readers of this lowly internet outpost, and even if they were, that they’d heed any advice thrown their way by its overly-opinionated, obsessive proprietor. But I’ll be damned if many of the things I was hoping to hear from them that I iterated in my review of their last album materialized in this their third release, Goodbye Normal Street.
Call it a maturing or a coming into their own, but this album marks the most solid offering from this Oklahoma-based band yet, and a defining of their sound, their place in the music world, and as a band that music world should pay more serious attention to.
Goodbye Normal Street starts off a little deceptively, with two heavy, hard country songs that may hint this is the new direction they’re going in when in truth they’re just getting your attention. “Gin, Smoke & Lies” with its Queen-esque “We Will Rock You” opening beat and banjo lead-in let you have fair warning not to expect your usual sweet and safe mainstream fare from this release. “Before The Devil Knows Were Dead” builds out from the sharp wit of the title line to become a tribute to mortality with an approach that waxes towards an almost Hank3, Johnny Hiland-style heavy handed guitar solo.
After two soldier-themed songs “Southeastern Son” and “Blue Star”, the album settles in with the style of material you might more be expecting from the Troubadours, yet Goodbye Normal Street is more consistently boss throughout, devoid of some of the valleys of their previous offerings.
When you sit down and try to define it, one of the big differences between mainstream and independent music, or music that people listen to actively, and music people listen to just because it is there, is the presence of a love dialogue. Mainstream music usually works with very catchy, very transparent love themes that are easy to pick up on and identify with, while independent music tends to work more with internal dialogues, struggles and personal experiences, and worldly observations. Love songs can come across as so sacharrine to advanced music listeners, while traditional heartbreak songs about being “oh so lonesome” can be so cliche.
This has left a void for the love song in much of independent music, and this is where the Turnpike Truboadours and songwriter Evan Felker have found their niche. Sharp wit, self-reflection, specific references to characters and situations in an almost Townes or Robert Earl Keen-like storytelling approach imbibes this music with a freshness and engaging nature, revitalizing the old-fashioned love and heartbreak songs in the modern, independent context. “Good Lord Lorrie” gives us all a situation and characters to relate to. So does “Wrecked” and “Empty As A Drum.” The slow, heart-wrenching “Gone, Gone, Gone” may very well be a Song of the Year candidate. “Good Lord Lorrie” may be a runner up.
The Turnpike Troubadours make songs about love cool to listen to again. This is also their ace-in-the-hole, what makes them a band that could break out. They were also very patient with this release, waiting well over 2 years since their last album to let the songs come to them and the groove to materialize before heading into the studio. This band has such good momentum, there no need risking it for some arbitrary desire to present new music on an annual basis.
I’m not sure why I want to be so hard on the Turnpike Troubadours, especially since I like them so much. But as much as this album gives, I still feel like their best music is still ahead. As they get older, they’ll have to rely on even stronger songwriting and even a more defined style as opposed to the energy their live shows are punctuated with today, and this will likely be reflected in their studio work. Even with the strides Goodbye Normal Street takes to defining their sound, I still hear some searching for what the true Turnpike Troubadour sound is.
But I think you’d bee a fool if your a fan of good country music to pass this one up.
Goodbye Normal Street says goodbye to the silly love and heartbreak song formulas that saddle corporate FM, and says hello to how love songs and sad stories in country music should be.
Two guns up!
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This Saturday, April 21st with be the 2012 installment of Record Store Day, the annual event started in 2007 to help the struggling independent record store. As the event has grown over the years, artists and labels have stepped up to help with the event, releasing dozens of limited-edition collectible pieces of vinyl to entice the public into their local mom and pop’s.
Country I am embarrassed to say was one of the last genres to get behind Record Store Day, with last year the only country representation of note being a Justin Townes Earle 7″, and a bunch of Hank Williams III re-issues on colored vinyl. Well I’m happy to report 2012 will go down as the year when country came busting through the Record Store Day scene with full representation, with so many projects being released taking stock of it all can be dizzying. So here is your 2012 Country Music Record Store Day Field Guide.
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Hey Joe b/w Skirts on Fire
Format: 7″ 45
Label: Sub Pop
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Bonnie Prince Billy (Will Oldham)
Format: 10″ LP
Label: Spiritual Pajamas
The great Leon Russell’s “Hummingbird” anchors this new 10 inch, and Bonny and his assembled cast of LA musicians render it an exercise in contrast. Using Russell’s famed Shelter Records soundboard for this one-off session–with its memories of Petty and Cale, and now owned by one Jonathan Wilson–Bonny introduces a pallet of musical soundscapes including the keys of “Farmer” Dave Scher, the porch-stomp grooves of Entrance Band rhythm section Paz and Derek and the claps of a thousand hands before letting the song “fly away” in a breeze of soulful psychedelia that stretches nearly twice the original’s length.
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Colouring Book w/flexi disc
“I’ve Got A Tiger By The Tail”
Original Buck Owens Coloring Book. Commissioned by Buck Owens in 1970, these original, uncirculated vintage coloring books include a new 4-track flexidisc and download card.
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Format: 7″ 45
Release type: RSD Limited Run / Regional Focus Release
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Nothing’s Gonna Change The Way You Feel About Me Now
Format: 7″ 45
“Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now”
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Format: 7″ 45
Release type: RSD Limited Run / Regional Focus Release
“Bad Way To Go”
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Hell on Heels
Label: RCA Nashville
The first vinyl release of the 2011 debut from the group formed by Miranda Lambert, Angaleena Presley and Ashley Monroe.
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Single Girl / Little Birdie
Label: Tompkins Square
Release type: RSD Limited Run / Regional Focus Release
500 limited-edition copies.
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Ricky Skaggs & Tony Rice
Label: Sugar Hill
“Bury Me Beneath the Weeping Willow”
“Mansions For Me”
“More Pretty Girls Than One”
“Memories of Mother and Dad”
“Where The Soul of Man Never Dies”
“Talk About Suffering”
“Will the Roses Bloom (Where She Lies Sleeping)”
“The Old Crossroads”
“Have You Someone (In Heaven Awaiting)
This heartwarming collection, featuring classic bluegrass tunes and traditional folk songs done in the close-harmony duet style, still stands as a high-water mark for both men.
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Heartbreak A Stranger / Black Sheets Of Rain
Format: 7″ 45
Format: 7” colored vinyl
“Heartbreak A Stranger”
“Black Sheets Of Rain”
Two Bob Mould covers recorded at November’s “See A Little Light” Bob Mould Tribute Show at Walt Disney Hall in Los Angeles, California.
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You’re The One I Love
Format: 7″ 45
Label: Warner Bros
Format: 7″ olive green and black splatter
Everly Brothers’ “You’re The One I Love” and a cover of the same song by Sara Watkins featuring Fiona Apple
Another in the Side by Side series created exclusively for Record Store Day featuring an original track (this time The Everly Brothers’ “You’re The One I Love” backed by a cover from another artist (this time Sara Watkins featuring Fiona Apple)
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Format: 7″ 45
Label: Columbia Records U.K.
“Billie Jean (Live)”
“Sour Times (Live)”
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Label: Sensibility Music LLC
“Tip of My Tongue”
“Forget Me Not”
“From This Valley”
“I’ve Got This Friend”
“Dance Me to the End of Love”
Limited Edition One Time Pressing EP/CD Live at Amoeba – EP by Grammy Award Winners and Indie Sensations, The Civil Wars, recorded live in Hollywood on June 14, 2011. Exclusive for Record Store Day 2012. (A Portion Of The Cost Of This Title Goes Directly To Support Record Store Day)
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At My Window
Label: Sugar Hill
“Snowin’ on Raton”
“Blue Wind Blew”
“At My Window”
“For the Sake of the Song”
“Ain’t Leaving For Your Love”
“Buckskin Stallion Blues”
“Little Sundance #2″
“Still Lookin’ For You”
“Gone, Gone Blues”
“The Catfish Song”
The first and best album the late Texas singer-songwriter made for Sugar Hill, this set contains classics as “Snowing on Raton” and “Buckskin Stallion Blues”.
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Format: 7″ Vinyl Box Set
3×7″ box set
“I Got Drunk/Sin City,”
“Gun/I Wanna Destroy You,”
“Uncle Tupelo Sauget Wind/Looking For A Way Out (acoustic), :Take My Word”
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Release type: ‘RSD First’ Release
180 Gram vinyl
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Release type: ‘RSD First’ Release
180 Gram Vinyl
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Release type: ‘RSD First’ Release
180 gram vinyl
I sit down to peck at my keyboard once again, fully knowing what I am about to say will be unpopular, if not downright blasphemous to many folks. But I’m not running a popularity contest here, and unlike many independent country “entities”, I don’t need to build a consensus or flatter people to propagate my brand. All I’m trying to do is keep myself sane in a mad world by asserting my honest, unfettered opinions, and hopefully I turn some folks on to some good music in the process, but it’s not always about that. Music is just the metaphor. In truth, Saving Country Music is about people.
You will find no harsher critic of Taylor Swift over the years than right here, me, The Triggerman. As a glittering teenage pop star with a mild voice, nobody has been more responsible for the homogenization of America’s most traditional music genre than Taylor Swift. But tonight, when the biggest night in country music goes down, there will be no other performer, no other award nominee or winner, who deserves more recognition, or is as honest or sincere, as Taylor Swift.
As simply as I can put it, however we got here, however you want to quantify it, Taylor Swift is the best thing going on right now in mainstream country music, and it isn’t even fucking close. The fakery, the debaucherous over-calculated market-driven focus on financial gain is so rabid right now, it is a wonder how it stays so obtuse in the mainstream public consciousness. It is so bad, so sinister, that I can’t help but put all allegiances to genre and even taste aside, to trumpet the very last glimmer of hope that honesty can at least be given a fair shake in the mainstream world.
We were wrong about Taylor Swift. I was wrong about Taylor Swift. We were blinded by our prejudices. When Taylor Swift first came on to the scene, she sang cheesy teenage pop songs, and we chastised her for it, when in truth, she was doing what all the great songwriters from Hank Williams to Guy Clark to Townes Van Zandt did over the years: write what they knew about, what inspired them. She was a skinny, blond-haired little girl from an upper-middle-class Pennsylvania family. What else is she going to write about? And do we blame her personally for Music Row taking her music and elevating it to way beyond its intrinsic value? But when Taylor’s latest album Speak Now came out, she showed a dramatic elevation of maturity. She wrote every song on that album. By herself. Inspired by her own personal experiences of heartbreak, and of having the whole world turn against her for not being able to sing.
I’m a fighter, not a lover. And when Taylor Swift came on the scene, my inclination was to fight against her influence and popularity. But I always fight with respect, especially when respect is deserved. In the beginning, in my opinion, Taylor Swift did not deserve much respect. When she blew her performance with Stevie Nicks on The Grammy’s in 2009 and the world turned against her (Read my take on her Grammy performance), this was the first time I found true respect for Taylor. But not as an artist, as a human, because the next almost inevitable event that was going to happen to Taylor Swift was her absolute demise, as the same public that had propped her up on an unrealistic and undeserved pedestal was poised to tear her down, like they do so often with falling stars. It’s a classic narrative: pop star hits it big, pop star reveals they’re human, pop star is humiliated, and spit out of the asshole of the corporate culture machine to be the punch line of jokes until their swallowed by obscurity as quickly as they rose.
How often does that narrative play out when a big star makes a big mistake? 90% of the time? 95%? But I’ll be damned. Taylor Swift, Taylor fucking Swift, took society’s best shot, fell as hard as anyone, had the world turning against her, and somehow, within moments of being counted out, she picked herself up off the mat, brushed the hair out of her face, straightened her back, and of all things, wrote a song about the experience in the form of “Mean”, that is now up for Song of the Year. That doesn’t just illustrate good songcraft, that shows pluck. That shows guts. And goddamnit, as a fighter, you have to look at someone who takes the best shot the world can deliver to the ego, and then is fearless enough to return fire, and have nothing but respect.
Now I’ll be honest, I hate the song “Mean”. It might be the worst song on the Speak Now album. It’s jealous and bitter. In the song she tries to make fun of her accusers by saying someday she’ll be “living in a big ol’ city,” implying that she is something, and they, or we, are nothing. Taylor Swift does not deserve any more recognition than the rest of us for finding success in a corrupt business, or for winning trophies through a rigged system, or for writing a song that was an antithesis to the maturing trend present in her Speak Now songwriting. What she does deserve recognition for is inspiring scores of people through a song that shows how to take a negative experience and make something positive out of it.
And I don’t want to hear anybody say, “Well all that’s great, but you know what, her music still sucks and the music I like is great, so all the rest can go fuck themselves.”
No! No no no! This affects us all! This is important to all of us. Try saying that when you have a daughter, or a sister, or a niece, and you try to turn on the boob tube or the radio and find positive role models for them in adult culture. It is difficult to impossible. Our society is structured to turn our daughters into whores to keep an over-consumptive economic system in place. Bad culture creates bad people; the asshole on the help desk, or working at the restaurant.
I know there’s better role models for young girls out there than Taylor Swift, but see if you can get young girls to care about them, or how about those young girls who don’t have anyone looking to put positive role models in front of them? Think of all the vermin out there propagated by the Disney World of dysfunction.
And I can’t defend Taylor’s Cover Girl endorsement deals, or her $100+ concert tickets, or even many elements of her music. But goddammit, we’re losing here, on all fronts. Everywhere you look, the American ideal is crumbling around us. So why not be inspired by a little girl’s dream that became a reality in Taylor Swift? Why not celebrate honest, true songwriting? Why not celebrate young women who actually fucking respect themselves for a change?
And Taylor Swift is still not country, but I’m not sure I want to blame her for that any more. She was told she was country when she still thought Romeo and Juliet was a good subject to write a song about, and trusted the adults caretaking her career. Blame the country music anti-Christ Scott Borchetta for that.
And maybe she’s not country because she transcends genre. I’m not kidding. There’s songs on Speak Now that clock in at 6 and 7 minutes. As much as some want to scream at her for being a pop star, there was not one #1 song on Speak Now; it was too good, too in-depth in the songwriting for pop radio.
I might be putting myself on an island here, but I don’t care. There’s no more country music to save. Don’t you remember? Back in 2009 when Taylor won it all and we declared country music dead? Now I’m praying for a Taylor Swift sweep. I’ve got the pleated skirt on and the pom pom’s waving. Go Taylor go! Because Taylor Swift, Taylor fucking Swift, is the last hope that a shred of reality can remain in popular music, and more importantly, Taylor Swift is good people, and deserves it.
For years I’ve had the theory that one of the major problems facing country music is its inability to develop talent. Without a system in place to discover truly talented and unique artists and develop them into stars, it has made the genre weak, and open to infection from other genres, as current and new stars must reach out into other forms of music to stay relevant.
Now that mainstream country music has been seen as just another version of pop music by so many people for so long, my concern is that talented musicians are being turned off by the mere mention of the term ‘country’, seeing it as a genre without gravitas, obsessed with money and image, making it even more likely for the one-in-a-million music talent to stay away.
“We call ourselves a honky tonk band.” is how Bloodshot Records recording artist Whitey Morgan puts it. “You call yourselves country and people think you mean that shit they play on the radio.”
Ruby Jane, a 16-year-old music phenom who was the youngest invited fiddle player to ever play The Grand Ole Opry, and was touring with Asleep At The Wheel and Willie Nelson at age 14, iterated in a recent interview that she’s moved on from identifying with the mainstream country world. “I love what I used to do, but I’ve always listened to rock ‘n’ roll. I don’t really listen to that other stuff. I mean, I listen to bluegrass and country, I guess, but I’m not sitting at home listening to George Strait and Carrie Underwood all day.”
Justin Townes Earle is a little more pointed on the matter, saying recently on his always-entertaining Twitter feed: The reason I live in NYC and not in Nashville is coming through my walls right now in the form of shit country music! Some people!!! Fuck!!!” And later following up with, “I was born and raised in Nashville and just hate seeing my town defaced. It is still a great place full of great folks.”
The latter two artists were once featured in a group of four that I asked which one might be country music’s next savior. Regardless of their listening patterns or musical style, it appears that neither really wants a lot to do with the term ‘country’, a term that feels so embattled in circles of people that don’t want to be lumped in with Music Row’s mainstream fare, and want to be known for taste and quality above commercial appeal. Justin Townes Earle’s move to New York City seemed very symbolic when it happened, like he was doing everything he could to remove himself from the typecasting environment of his native Nashville.
And speaking of Townes Earle and New York, the title track from his recent album Harlem River Blues just won Song of the Year at the Americana Music Awards. ‘Americana’ seems to be the new chic term for artists whose music has country leanings, but who don’t want to be lumped in with the Jason Aldean’s of the world, just like “alt-country” was the hip term back in the 80′s and 90′s. Alt-country never had their own awards and infrastructure like Americana is attempting to cultivate, and over time, alt-country has morphed into almost a classic genre classification, because it almost implies an outmoded approach that few artists want to be associated with anymore.
One of the problems with Americana is when you look at the list of the Americana Awards 2011 nominees and winners, the names look like they are drawn from a very narrow perspective, zeroed in on the personal tastes of American Songwriter magazine and their readership. But where Americana has the advantage over country is that good artists who want to be appreciated for their creativity and talent don’t mind being called that.
So now not only is the term ‘country’ being diminished by being used to market mainstream pop, rock, and now even hip-hop music, it is also being diminished by top-flight talent fleeing from the term. This is why country is drafting actors and artists from other genres to “go country”, because talent from within, and talent tied to the roots of the music is leaving, or never coming. ‘Country’ used to be a big tent genre. Townes Van Zant certainly was more of a folk singer-songwriter, but never publicly ran from the ‘country’ term, and still fits the classic definition of ‘country’ today.
And parallels can be drawn with the fans of country music. Likely if you’re reading this right now, you’ve caught yourself saying, “Yeah, I like country, but not that type of country.” Just like artists, fans who want to be known for appreciating creativity and talent in music don’t always want to be associated with the ‘country’ term.
I would say country music is in trouble, but as public music education continues to be cut, there seems to be no end to the flow of people willing to consume bad music. The question is, where will this potential talent vacuum leave the term ‘country’ in the long term?
Right now there is no bigger singer/songwriter in American roots music than Townes Van Zandt. Don’t pay any mind that the man has been dead for 14 years, his influence is as deep as ever. Townes is everywhere, in liner notes, in turns of phrases, and in the actions of songwriters who tirelessly try to hurdle themselves over the lofty bar Van Zandt set before his unfortunate and early passing at the age of 52.
On New Year’s Day in 1997, unless you ran in the close circles around him or were part of his modest fan base, you likely had no idea of Van Zandt’s passing, or even who Van Zandt was. Why would you? Despite being responsible for Willie Nelson’s #1 hit with Merle Haggard “Pancho & Lefty”, he was a local working Austin musician with a moderate draw and a few records struggling to stay in print. As big as he might be now, in the late 90′s, he was an obscure, commercially-unsuccessful artist that lived out of backwood cabins and on friend’s couches. Granted, some of the friends that owned those couches were pretty famous.
During a recent road trip I found myself driving near the area of Van Zandt’s grave. I’d heard stories of people making the pilgrimage to the small North Texas town of Dido, to the Van Zandt family plot at the Dido Memorial Cemetery, to pay their respects and take in the contrast of how such a towering man in music ended up in such an out-of-the-way and humble resting place.
Driving Highway 114 out of Dallas, I took a left on Farm to Market Road 3433 in the small town of Rhome, and then followed it into the smaller town of Newark. Then drove FM 718 to Morriss-Dido Road, which takes you past the sprawling compound of televangelist Kenneth Copeland, and then into the very small community of Dido, resting on the banks of Eagle Mountain Lake. A few little fishing cabins and mom & pop restaurants greet you as you cross a small arm of the lake, and then you come up a hill, and just across from the Methodist Church is the Dido Memorial Cemetery.
The cemetery rests on the grounds of the original Dido settlement. There is a small community center and the steps and foundation of the original Dido school built originally in 1854, where a historical marker is placed. The Van Zandt family plot sits in section A, just to the left as you enter the cemetery, past a shady grove of hardwoods. Townes’ stone is to the right of the main Van Zandt marker, with the inscription “To Live’s To Fly”. Someone had left a yellow guitar pick there.
Townes Van Zandt’s story is one of hope, for all of music and musicians, and artists of all kinds. As much as he struggled commercially, socially, and with his own demons, somehow over time the cream still found a way to rise to the top.
It is a shame that some of the greatest have such a hard time relating to life, and that Townes Van Zandt found his greatest success after death. But he found it.
Holy songwriting Batman. Holy singing for that matter. The baby-faced and portly Austin Lucas might look like the guy in your office (save for the sleeves of tattoos) that would snarf your leftover lasagna from the break room fridge and not even have the goddamn courtesy to leave the Tupperware behind…he might look like the Dungeons & Dragons nerd that ALWAYS wants to be the wizard, and when you try to wrestle it from him, he sits on you…but when you’re looking for candidates to dole out that mythical “next Townes” award to, like so many music writers want to do so liberally to any Johnny-come-lately these days, accept no substitutes; the line forms to the left behind Austin Lucas.
Triggerman: Dude, you’re the friggin’ wizard every time. Let someone else have a crack.
Austin Lucas: Because it’s my 20-sided die. Do you want me to sit on you again? This time I’ll fart!
Triggerman: Fine then, but quit hogging all the Doritos. Johnny’s mom said they’re for ALL of us!
A New Home, In The Old World is a parade of high-caliber, heartfelt songs set to good music, with some of the most twangy and eloquent country singing you will hear from any modern artist. The depth of his soul-wrenching themes, and the breadth of his singing ability, exercising masterful pitch and control, combine to be like a rock in between the eyes, striking you down to the depths of human emotion from where the song’s inspiration sprouted from.
A New Home dwells in the theme of innocence lost: Austin’s own innocence, and the innocence of the girls he meets along the way. These are mostly love songs, but love as fool’s errand, not as a warm and fuzzy place. The first song “Sit Down” is such an awesome composition, with a classic country theme, but with a fresh and engaging new take as not the remorseful, empathetic cheater, but one with cold, honest reality to his character.
Oh play like a poor wounded angel. I am a good-timing man. The innocent boy who would sing you to sleep, is but a memory.
“Nevada County Line” is one of those songs that hits you at first listen, and you re-rack over and over until another task begs you attention. A stripped-down arrangement and beautiful, perfectly-synchronized harmonies drive home a story that can only come from direct experience. Austin Lucas figures out how to get you to cheer for the enemy, and the enemy is Austin Lucas. His self-serving formula is make the girl like you, take what you want, break her heart, change her for the worse, and admittedly selfishly want her back later. That is some serious game for a lasagna-filching D&D nerd.
This storyline plays out again in the greatness of “Run Around”:
If you want answers, I don’t have any. Just more questions, and selfish aims. You want truth, here’s your truth honey. You’re too young to run around with me.
The harmonies on this album are exquisite. When I saw Austin at South by Southwest, he played with his sister on banjo, and the ultra-harmony tightness between the siblings was there live as well. The female harmony line is everywhere it will fit on this album, as it should be when it can be executed so well.
I think I like all of these songs, but I will say, listening to this album cover to cover will trip you up in the approach to some of the tracks, most notably “Thunder Rail”, which bucks the light, country-oriented approach for a heavy guitar-driven anthem, complete with Heart/J Geils-esque riffs. “The Grain” does a very similar thing, and strays a little too close to Neil Young’s “Hey Hey My My (Into The Black)” for my fancy. I understand what he’s trying to do: keep the mix of songs fresh, and if he decides to go in a rock direction in the future, the groundwork is laid. But I’m afraid in both these songs, Austin’s great songwriting and singing will be lost in the arrangement.
Austin has such masterful control of his voice, you think it would be a shame if he didn’t use it, but in a couple of places, notably the song “Sleep Well” he comes across as over-singing, though it is forgivable once you latch on to the lyrics. “Keys” may be a little too political for my taste, but the line “You ain’t a man, until you’ve dealt some death”, and the way he really digs deep and dissects it and makes a song out of it is magnificent.
I really like this album. Looking at his discography, (including a LIVE one from one of my favorite venues, The Whitewater Tavern in Arkansas) I really have my work cut out to figure what this guy is all about. But I know what A New Home, In The Old World is about, it’s about good music.
Two guns up!
(PS: I have no idea if Austin Lucas has ever played Dungeons & Dragons, and no leftover lasagnas were hurt during the writing of this review)
Austin Lucas will be on Willie Nelson’s Country Throwdown tour this summer.
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I really want to like Hayes Carll. He’s a Texas boy, and I’m a Texas boy. He’s on a great label in Lost Highway Records. He’s an understudy of the great Ray Wylie Hubbard and other Texas songwriting legends. People like to compare him to Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt and Tom Waits. But in the end, though he’s a good songwriter, he’s not a great one, and the overselling and mischaracterizing of his music has led to some unnecessary criticism, and a missing of the point that his music is fun, and meant to be enjoyed.
When I first saw the cover of KMAG YOYO (military acronym for “Kiss My Ass Guys, You’re On Your Own) I was in fear for the soul of this album. The hipster pose in an ironic sweater made me worry that maybe our Texas boy had gone indie rock. Fortunately the music itself helps dispel this worry patently, though it makes me hate the cover even more.
Despite some verbiage I’ve read saying that with this album Carll distances himself sonically from the Texas scene, I would disagree. First off, this album is country, Texas country, being country with a dash of rock and blues and elevated songwriting. There’s steel guitar and witty penmanship. However there’s not a whole lot that is new or special here, sonically or in the songwriting.
Hayes Carll’s persona seems to be that he’s a wandering, bumbling drunk with a pen, in the Earnest Hemingway/early Jerry Jeff Walker mold. The problem is that you don’t always believe him; it comes across more as a bit. His inflections feel forced and rehearsed, and though his lyrics hold the appearance of hard living, they don’t hold the biting soul that actually comes from it. I have no doubt that Hayes likes to drink. A lot. So do many others. The effects of hard living can in some cases lend to good songwriting, but recounting the hard living itself in songwriting can sometimes feel shallow.
Hayes has been compared to Tom Waits, but Waits has the ability to roll from playing a downtown drunk, to a maniacal rural recluse, to a swanky piano player in a smoky bar, and even though you know none of this is true, you believe him. Carll doesn’t try to pull off even half of this diversity in contrast, and still only does it half as well.
Songs like “Hard Out Here” and “Another Like You” are great examples of this: ambling, slurred, sloppy songs that are fun, but don’t say much in the end.
The songs are sometimes witty, sometimes deep, but not always both at the same time like the great songwriters can do. And the music is not original enough, or visceral enough to make that something that draws you in either. Not everybody can be Guy Clark or Townes Van Zandt, and that’s OK. But if you can’t, maybe you shouldn’t try. By the end of the album the one-liners and clever rhymes almost work against Hayes, as they expose the shallow bones behind his songwriting method while still trying to assert that his songwriting is top shelf.
The songs I did like were the ones that took a simplistic approach, and are probably the ones most people will pass over. “Chances Are” doesn’t over-try, it just tells the story and works. I’m normally out on any song that is about Christmas, but “Grateful for Christmas” is a good, sad song most can relate to, though by the 11th song of the album, rhymes like “Let’s play cards and watch the news channel. I love you too, and thanks for the flannel” just fall flat. Carll’s lines in “Bottle in My Hand” are pretty good, but Corb Lund’s and Todd Snider’s lines (the two also appear on the track) are better, and the song works well save for the silly “swaying Irish drunks” production.
I hear a lot of rehashing of songs in the music. The bluesy songs feel very Bonnie Raitt. The title track “KMAG YOYO” and its machine gun lyrics is a close cousin to Garth Brooks’ “‘Till The Sun Comes Up” and so many other songs that also use this formula. “The Lovin’ Cup” sounds like half a dozen Tom Petty songs in the chorus, and nearly a pop country song during the rest.
The instrumentation is bland and safe. You may not even recognize there’s instruments being played unless you listen for them. It has that soul-less, session player’s feel, even though Hayes used his own band. He also says that he wrote the music first, and then added the lyrics to it. This segregation of lyric and music can be heard in the finished product. I especially disliked the organ parts. You can almost hear the folks in the studio going “What this song needs is organ,” and then they add it to the track, lightly and safe in the back, and trailing off at the end of the song with an extra-long tail, enamored with the tone instead of objectively asking if it enhances the song. The exceptions are “The Letter” and “Bye Bye Baby” which accomplish a lot by trimming up the arrangements to only what’s necessary, and really doing justice to the heart of the song.
The organ and drums at the beginning of “Grand Parade” scream early 90′s Bonnie Raitt, which may be exactly what some are looking for, but I’m looking for something I’ve never heard before, or at least something unexpected. In some ways this music comes across as dirty music for clean people, as country for folks with master’s degrees in anthropology. It’s country for people who like the rootsy feel, but want to know that the artist has the same political beliefs as them.
I’m saying all these mean things about this album, but in the end it is a really fun album to listen to, and I give it a lot of credit for that, and really, it is fun enough to look over many of these criticisms. And it is accessible, without exorcising all soul, substance, or sincerity. I would love to hear Hayes Carll take over country radio, because on the whole, it would be so much better than most of the stuff found there, and it has a good enough, and accessible enough sound to be given consideration in radio rotations.
But there’s so much better. When you’ve listened to albums like Roger Alan Wade’s Deguello Motel, it’s so hard for music like this to be potent on you. And when you compare Hayes Carll to Tom Waits and Guy Clark, then that is who I am going to compare him against, and that’s when his music starts to fall apart. Everybody seems to want to crown him as the next great Texas songwriting god. How about just calling him a good songwriter, with above average Texas country music with some soul that’s fun to listen to and doesn’t make you feel stupid like the stuff on the radio. That’s something I can get behind.
One gun up for a fun, accessible, witty, and sometimes soulful album. One gun down for predictable song structures, a lack of unique production, and hints of inauthenticity.
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