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Billy Joe Shaver is getting ready to record and release his first studio album in 7 years, according to the 74-year-old Outlaw country songwriter and performer. Shaver released a couple of live albums last year, Live At Billy Bob’s Texas and the Live from Austin, TX: Austin City Limits – August 14, 1984, but this will be the first album of new material since his 2007 predominantly Christian album, Everybody’s Brother.
“I’m doing my first studio album in seven or eight years and I’ll be doing that I think December first, second or something like that,” Shaver told the Fort Stockton Pioneer ahead of a show in Alpine, TX. “Hopefully getting it out in a couple of months. It’s all new too and different…There are some political things. The songs are so different then what’s on the radio now. It’s either going to change things around or get kicked out. One or the other. I’m hoping that this here will, as a matter of fact I know it will, it’ll kick ass…it’s going to be a good one.”
Shaver, who got his big break in country music when Waylon Jennings’ breakout album Honky Tonk Heroes included all but one Shaver-written song, also couldn’t pass up the opportunity to do a little sabre rattling about the current state of country music.
“I feel like that I’m still doing the same thing I always did, it just got lost in the shuffle because all this new stuff came in. There’s a lot of money behind these people…It’s just people trying to make money, that’s all it is and I can’t begrudge anybody for trying to make money. We’re all trying to make a living and do the best we can. I feel that the art part of it just went out the window…but every once in awhile you will hear a good song. I can’t say that it’s all bad, it’s not. It’s just most of it’s bad…It’s kind of gotten way out of hand right now I think, but the solid foundation is still there.”
Billy Joe Shaver has had a tumultuous last 7 years. After coming out of a period where his wife, his son and guitar player Eddy, and his mother all passed away in a span of 2 years, Shaver battled a bad shoulder injury, and charges stemming from a shooting at the Papa Joe’s bar near Waco in 2007 that resulted in an assault trial against the songwriter, and a song chronicling the event by Dale Watson called “Where Do You Want It?” Shaver was eventually acquitted when it was found he acted in self-defense, with help from character witnesses Willie Nelson and Robert Duvall.
Back in March, country music Outlaw David Allan Coe was in a horrific accident where his black Suburban was broadsided by a semi truck in Ocala, Fl. Coe suffered cracked ribs and bruised kidneys in the accident, but was able to recover to perform again.
In the aftermath of the accident, there was a shakeup in David Allan Coe’s band and inner circle. As Saving Country Music reported after attending David Allan Coe’s first show back as part of Willie Nelson’s 40th Annual 4th of July picnic, David was quoted as saying, “…everybody quit me, except my wife. She’s the only one that didn’t quit. My road manager of 35 years, he quit me. My band quit me. This is a brand new band, this is a brand new me.”
On November 8th, David Allan Coe’s son, Tyler Mahan Coe, who played guitar for his father, posted an in-depth letter describing his side of the story, saying in part, “The implication is that every person in his life, except his wife, abandoned him after his recent auto accident. Certainly, it doesn’t make sense to me that every person in someone’s life would take a hike because that person had a little accident. Must be something else going on there.” In short, Tyler blames David Allan Coe’s wife Kimberly for manipulating his father, leading to him and others being forced out of his father’s music business. Tyler also spelled out and addressed numerous concerns and grievances he and many David Allan Coe fans have had about his father’s live performances in recent years.
David Allan Coe’s accident, the subsequent fallout, and Tyler Coe’s letter have stimulated a discussion about David Allan Coe, his ethics and character, his contributions to the music world, and have many fans finally speaking out about a lackluster live show that they we’re unwilling to speak about previously out of respect for the performer.
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Look, this is the deal with David Allan Coe. David Allan Coe is a piece of garbage human being. As Al Goldstein once said straight to David’s face enlisting a cackle from David, “You’re a fucking degenerate.” He’s a sexist, racist, scary, weird, train wreck of a man; one of these people we all knew growing up in school or in the neighborhood that was always in someone’s face and that could twist off at any moment.
As Waylon Jennings once pointed out, David Allan Coe will stab you in the back and then ride off your name like he’s your best friend. He wears a stupid, waist-length golden-haired wig on stage as if he’s fooling anyone. He bashes anybody and everybody for getting in his way, abandoning him, or otherwise keeping him down, when he is clearly an arrogant, disrespectful, down-talking asshole who has little regard for anybody but himself, has bashed his Outlaw contemporaries while praising people like Kid Rock and Toby Keith, and once bragged about standing on top of the desk of a record executive, dropping his pants, and ordering him to perform oral sex on him.
At the same time, and for some of the same reasons, David Allan Coe is an American treasure, and a country music legend. Hank Williams Jr. may have sung about being a “Dinosaur,” but David Allan Coe truly is one. In a world where we’re all so whipped and so trained to not speak our minds, or to say what we think, and respect authority that is many times much more immoral, unfair, and corrupt than we could ever be, an individual like David Allan Coe is a breath of fresh air, and in a strange way, an inspiration in the way he is blatantly obvious about who he is, what he wants, and what he believes.
Anyone who wants to diminish David Allan Coe’s importance to country music, whether it’s because he’s put out some bad songs, bad albums, has a bad live show, or because he’s is a bad person, isn’t paying attention to the full breadth of his contributions, including some of the most indelible, important, and influential works of the country music canon. Forget “Longhaired Redneck,” go listen to “Jody Like A Melody” or “River” and then tell me David Allan Coe has nothing to offer.
And to simply call him “sexist” or “racist” really doesn’t do justice to the complex and tragic history of David Allan Coe’s life and upbringing, or the true nature of his opinions. David Allan Coe is one of the truest products and examples of the American experience because there is no bullshit from him, however ugly it is to behold. His attitudes and actions are a reflection our own sins and flaws as an American society, personified in a man who has zero respect for phony custom, or plastic courtesy. At the same time, it’s embarrassing that some choose to use him as their phony idol or icon for racist or sexist platitudes or principles, only reveling in the bad parts about David Allan Coe, and missing the complete panorama of his message and musical contributions.
I do not know Tyler Mahan Coe personally, though I have seen him perform with his father before. Having read many things he’s written over the years, including his latest letter clearing the air about what happen with his father, Tyler comes across as an intelligent and thoughtful individual, and I tend to take what he says as being the truth, and find his honesty and candor refreshing. Tyler Coe is right. Seeing David Allan Coe on any given night can be an exercise in disappointment, from his poor stage presence to his stupid vocal effects. But there is nothing that I read in Tyler’s letter, or anything else that gives me reason to respect David Allan Coe any less. The grim reality with any performer is that as time goes on, they will lose grip with their talent and abilities, especially when they live the type of self-destructive life fans expect, if not demand from certain artists.
When I saw David Allan Coe perform this summer at Willie Nelson’s 40th Annual 4th of July picnic, it was the most God awful performance of “country” music I had ever seen in my life. His band setup included two keyboards flanking him on the left and right, some weird percussionist guy, and struck the vibe of an underfunded and unrehearsed amateur church band that had set up in the food court of a mini mall in some forgotten region of scary, small-town USA preaching to inbreeds and introverts circa 1987. At the same time, I was super glad to be there to catch it, and to be able to see David Allan Coe still alive and performing after his accident.
Why? Because when David Allan Coe is gone forever, what he symbolizes and embodies will be gone forever too. And country music, and the rest of the world, will be a lot less of a colorful place. Because whether you like him, respect him, or hate him, there will never be another person or performer in country music or the American culture like David Allan Coe.
Yeah, I remember the first time I heard marijuana referenced in a song and thought it was cool. It was a song by the New Riders of the Purple Sage called “Henry” from their 1971 self-titled album. More of a smuggling song than a drug song, the story and the suspense of the song is what made it intriguing, with the marijuana more of just a backdrop. This inspired me to try and discover similar songs which led me to the Arlo Guthrie smuggler’s song “Coming Into Los Angeles.”
Gram Parsons somewhat challenged the stuffiness of the country establishment when he sported a Nudie suit with marijuana leaves embroidered on it in the late 60′s, but at the time he was considered more of a product of the rock world. And then of course there’s Kris Kristofferson’s iconic “Sunday Morning Coming Down” whose somewhat veiled reference to marijuana is given credit for stretching lyrical boundaries in country music on its way to being named Song of the Year by the CMA in 1970.
But 2013 very well may go down as the year when referencing marijuana and other drugs in your songs is no longer cool as much as it is conformist—a lyrical hook, a well-recognized buzz word made for marketing an artist or song just as much as anything else. When a former Disney star like Miley Cyrus is out there talking about “Dancing with ‘Molly’” and “Trying to get a line in the bathroom,” and the 80-year-old Willie Nelson is singing a duet with the 42-year-old Snoop Dogg called “Roll Me Up And Smoke Me When I Die,” there ceases to be either the generational gap, or the exclusivity of drug references in music to make them “cool.”
Where the current trend of mentioning cannabis in your country song seems to be cropping up is in the unlikely place of country music’s songwriting females. This dynamic and inspiring group of women who are regularly referenced as the last bastion of substance in country music’s mainstream seems to be the epicenter of country music’s marijuana bloom: Kacey Musgraves with the songs “Merry Go ‘Round,” “Blowin’ Smoke,” and “Follow Your Arrow.” Ashley Monroe with the song “Weed Instead of Roses.” Brandy Clark and the song “Get High.” And The Pistol Annies with songs like “Takin’ Pills” and “Hush Hush.”
The differences between these song’s marijuana and drug references and the trends on the male side of country music to reference pickups, tailgates, ice cold beer, and dirt roads, are very subtle. Sure, many of the pot references come within the context of a more in-depth story. But just like pickup truck references, they’re used to grab the attention of demographics and sell music to listeners.
Just look at the graphics below taken from Amazon’s MP3 popularity ratings. For a marijuana song like Ashley Monroe’s “Weed Instead of Roses,” it positively dominates the popularity contest compared to her other songs. Same goes with Kacey Musgraves’ three most popular songs (though in fairness, “Blowin’ Smoke doesn’t reference pot directly). One might argue though that these songs are more popular because they are also the artist’s radio singles. But this speaks even deeper to the current marijuana trend. If you want to be a mainstream female songwriter and have the A&R folks pay attention to your music, you may want to include a song with marijuana references.
Ashley Monroe’s Tracks from the album Like A Rose:
Kacey Musgraves Tracks from the album Same Trailer, Different Park:
Just like with the country rap trend or the pickup truck trend, when a lyrical theme works, it almost becomes a requirement for mainstream artists. And just like the male tailgate songs that sound so cliche to distinguishing music listeners, marijuana references appeal to bored suburban types who listen to country music as a form of escapism.
Back in the 90′s marijuana references and imagery became popularized by big music acts like Cypress Hill, Pantera, Snoop Dogg, and Green Day. But then the trend became sort of passé amongst bands on the fringes of the mainstream when marijuana references began to work themselves into the content of Top 40 pop songs. It was no longer cool.
Country music was a late bloomer to the marijuana marketing trend because it’s traditionally conservative-leaning audience. Artists like Hank Williams Jr. and Charlie Daniels referenced pot in the 70′s and 80′s, but this was far from the mainstream. Waylon Jennings’ “Don’t You Think This Outlaw Bit’s Done Got Out of Hand,” Hank Jr’s, “O.D’d in Denver,” take it a step further into the cocaine realm. But as modern mainstream country artists step into the marijuana and drug realm, independent and cutting-edge artists seem to step away. For example Hank Williams III started his career in country music with heavy marijuana imagery and references, but has veered away from it in recent years.
Women are not the only ones referencing marijuana in the current mainstream country market. Eric Church sells T-shirts with pot leaves on them and had a hit song in “Smoke A Little Smoke.” Luke Bryan’s mega-hit “That’s My Kind Of Night” says “I got that real good feel good stuff up under the seat of my big black jacked up truck.”
The political environment surrounding marijuana also plays into the pot music debate. The stigma around the drug has been significantly diluted by the passing of laws decriminalizing the plant, making it legal for medicinal purposes, or legalizing it in full which has happened in some states. Marijuana is a very commonly-used substance throughout American society, and as the stigma around the plant subsides, so does the potency of the references to it in popular culture.
There’s nothing naughty or cutting edge about a pot reference in a song anymore. It’s conformist. It’s marketing. It’s mainstream. Not all the time of course; sometimes it comes up naturally in the context of a song. But just like many so many other musical elements, marijuana and drug references have been co-oped by the mainstream, spoiled, and exploited.
The inaugural inductees to the Outlaw Music Hall of Fame set to open in the Spring of 2014 in Lynchburg, TN have been unveiled. In an event carried live during a 3-day concert in Altamont, TN, the 17 initial inductees were announced in two different categories: Pioneers/Innovators (Pre-1970), and Highwaymen (1970-1990).
Along with the official inductees, the Outlaw Music Hall of Fame also announced Guardian Award winners. The Guardian Award is not a Hall of Fame induction, but a one-year award meant to honor an artist’s hard work and unwavering commitment to their music and their fans and best exemplify the tradition of those who came before them. The Hall of Fame also announced that fans will be able to vote on Guardian Award winners in the upcoming years.
OUTLAW HALL OF FAME INDUCTEES
- Hank Williams Sr.
- Loretta Lynn
- The Carter Family
- Bobby Bare
- Chris Gantry
- Willie Nelson
- Waylon Jennings
- David Allan Coe
- Kris Kristofferson
- Merle Haggard
- Johnny Cash
- Johnny Paycheck
- Sammi Smith
- Steve Young
- Jessi Colter
- Hank Williams Jr.
- Billy Joe Shaver
- Dallas Moore
- Wayne Mills
- Hank Williams III
- Jamey Johnson
- Whitey Morgan
The Hall of Fame is dedicated to those artists, both musicians and songwriters, whose work best exemplifies the qualities of the Outlaw movement that first began in the 1970′s and has gained renewed momentum as an alternative to the current Nashville pop country scene. In doing so it will place the spotlight on music firmly attached to the roots of country. Moreover, the Hall of Fame will educate the public about Outlaw country, memorialize founders of the genre—such as Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Jessi Colter—recognize current Outlaw artists, and provide a platform for them and for the independent record labels who currently have little if any voice in the industry.
The facility, due to open in spring of 2014, will encompass more than 5,000 square feet and feature a state-of-the-art layout, including interactive displays. There will also be a studio to allow for live broadcasts to be streamed over the Internet. Located on the town square in Lynchburg, the Outlaw Music Hall of Fame will sponsor a concert series each April to November to showcase independent roots country artists.
Yes, Miley Cyrus. That sledge hammer-licking slut. Did you see her on the VMA’s with that foam finger? And then riding that big wrecking ball wearing nothing? Let’s all wag our fingers, shield the children from all the spectacle, position ourselves as self-righteous and above it all….and then watch her latest video 4 times in a row once the kiddos go to bed.
Is it shocking and disappointing that the girl who once was America’s biggest teen star and role model turned out so? Of course it is. Is it also painfully predictable? Most definitely. But Miley is almost so shocking and disappointing, our outrage goes without saying.
It may be just as disappointing that Miley forever ruined the cool factor of drug references in songs with her recent single “We Can’t Stop.” And though we all may want to act shocked at what little Hannah Montana has turned into, putting drug references in your songs is just about the most conformist thing an artist can possibly do in 2013—country music included.
Though Sinead O’Connor had some brilliant points in her primary open letter to Miley Cyrus, as we saw later with subsequent Sinead letters, brilliant points or not, Sinead could nearly match Miley blow for shave-headed blow when it came to the crazy department.
Somewhere within the numerous and ever-present melees that have surrounded what is right now the most popular and influential artist in American music is that Miley Cyrus is a woman, and artist, and a daughter. No, I have no desire to leave my take on the multiple threads of whether Miley is exploiting or empowering herself as a woman with her recent antics. Even broaching the subject just lends to Miley and her marketing team’s underlying goal, which is to keep her name in the headlines and her singles high on the charts.
What I found interesting is when her father Billy Ray Cyrus recently opened up to Arsenio Hall about his daughters recent antics, he said, “Miley is very smart. She’s thought this thing out in advance of where she was going and, again, going back to her heart and her roots of the music and doing it because that’s who she is. She grew up around the greats. Waylon Jennings, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash.“
Really? Miley Cyrus grew up on Waylon and Cash? Even regular CMT pop country pom pom waver Alison Bonaguro called foul on such a crazy assertion. After all, Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings would never reference cocaine in their songs, would they? In Miley’s song “We Can’t Stop,” she says things like, “We run things, things don’t run we. We don’t take nothing from nobody,” and “It’s my mouth I can say what I want to.” Sure, the times change, and so does the nomenclature and context. But maybe there was a little more Waylon and Cash in there than we were willing to believe.
Miley hosted Saturday Night Live over the weekend, and while half the earth was waiting to see if the foam finger would re-appear, and the other half was manning the Miley Cyrus rehab watch, she tripped everyone up by coming out and performing two distinctly live, stripped down, heartfelt performances with no electronic accoutrements. Yes, Miley Cyrus can actually sing quite well; singing is supposed to be the point of all of this. Right at the apex of when the world was rooting against her to fail as washed up at 20-years-old with nothing but shock to create attention for herself and no substance or talent behind her music, she proved that somewhere deep inside her was a nugget of forte that was dramatically underestimated. Check mate.
At the end of the second song Miley performed on SNL—the drug-laced and defiant “We Can’t Stop,” accompanied only by acoustic guitars—Miley showed one brief moment of sincerity when the crowd erupted with applause. She was truly shocked and grateful, showing a wide, unguarded, bright-eyed smile that harkened back to her innocent Hannah Montana days—a character she ironically ceremoniously killed off during the same SNL episode. It still amazes me why stars don’t go to the stripped-down performance more often. It certainly gives them the ability to deliver a more memorable moment than some of the big stage productions.
Another performer who regularly calls on shock to draw attention is Marlyn Manson. In his take on Patti Smith’s 1978 song “Rock ‘n Roll Nigger,” he adds the line, “Cause I am the all-American antichrist. I was raised in America, and America hates me for what I am. I am your shit.”
As much as we may like to shame Miley Cyrus, or Billy Ray Cyrus for raising such a monster, or Disney for manufacturing such a pop monstrosity, the simple fact is Miley Cyrus is a product of who we are. She is a child of the American culture. For better or for worse. From her embarrassments to her virtues. She was raised on Waylon and Cash, by the guy who sang “Achy Breaky Heart,” starring in a show from Disney. It’s never smart to underestimate anyone—financially or artistically. At the time that Miley seemed to be unraveling right before our very eyes, she was the most in control. I wonder if Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash had similar moments in their careers?
Sometimes you can find wisdom and beauty in the strangest places.
One hard and fast rule I have is that I review EP’s or splits only in very exceptional cases. Well a collaboration between country music Outlaw legend Waylon Jennings and alt-country pioneers the Old 97′s recorded some 17 years ago but only unearthed recently would certainly qualify as very exceptional.
Originally cut in Nashville in 1996 and sitting on the shelf ever since, Old 97′s & Waylon Jennings is a remarkable little gem unearthed these many years later, offering a window into a time right before Waylon’s health began to fail him, and right as the Old 97′s were rising in the alt-country tide alongside bands like Wilco and Whiskeytown. Along for the ride and to flesh out the collection released on October 1st are four Old 97′s demos also from 1996, giving you six tracks total. The two primary tracks involving the Old 97′s and Waylon Jennings were first sold to a very lucky few on limited edition vinyl as part of Record Store Day in April. But now they are available in digital and CD form to everyone through Omnivore Records.
The collaboration came about after the Old 97′s played a radio convention in Atlanta in ’96. Waylon was sitting in the front row and as the band recalls, Jennings perked up and started clapping when they delivered the line, “It takes a worried man to sing a worried song,” in their tune “Big Brown Eyes”—a call back to The Carter Family. Waylon later raved about the band to The Austin Chronicle and on the advice of their label, the Old 97′s reached out to Waylon to see if he wanted to collaborate.
“He replied that he’d like to cut a couple of tracks in Nashville,” Rhett Miller recalled to Texas Monthly. “I think we were auditioning to do a full Waylon album where we’d be his band. After lunch, he cut the vocals for ‘The Other Shoe.’ He got to the second verse, where the cuckolded husband is under the bed and imagining the murders he’s about to commit. There’s a line, ‘You’ll try to find a doctor that will prescribe an elixir that’ll make everything better.’ He kept saying ‘excelsior.’ It got tense in the control room because he’d keep getting through the whole song and mess up that word. Eventually, I had an idea. I told him to just use the phrase “Annie licks her.” He started laughing. ‘I like you, you’re sick,’ he told me. And he nailed it on the next take.”
Where it could be easy to over-hype this collaboration and get swept up in simply hearing new music from Waylon, Old 97′s & Waylon Jennings truly does deliver. “Iron Road,” written by Old 97′s bassist Murry Hammond is a cool piece of music because it fits within the Old 97′s alt-country sound of the time, but with Waylon singing instead of Old 97′s front man Rhett Miller. At the same time, the piece fits Waylon perfectly, and he sings it with a confidence as if he had written it on his own.
With “The Other Shoe,” the shoe goes on the other foot, with the Old 97′s doing their best to reside within Waylon’s sound, and pulling it off with confidence and ease. Once again you’re struck by how strong and confident Waylon’s voice is singing the song written by Rhett Miller. In fact near the end, Waylon hits a high note in a register I haven’t heard him touch this side of the 60′s.
Next comes demo takes of 4 Old 97′s songs, the first of which is “Visiting Hours” that also appears in a more fleshed-out version on their latest album The Grand Theatre Vol.2. Whether you’re an Old 97′s stalwart or someone who needs a primer on what the band is all about, these tracks rise beyond their humble production by showcasing the blinding poetic proficiency the Old 97′s have evidenced throughout their 20 year existence.
1 3/4 of 2 guns up.
If you need any more proof that corporate country music has become so milktoast that the backlash against its homogenized format and fashion plate stars has become an indelible and easily-identifiable element of American culture, then look no further than the recent blockbuster video game Grand Theft Auto 5 from Rockstar Games. Featured in the third-person, open world game that shattered industry sales records by earning $800 million in the first 24 hours and $1 billion in the first three days is a radio station called “Rebel Radio” that is described as playing classic Outlaw country that “reminds listeners that corporate country sucks.” The station’s tagline is “Because country has gone sissy.”
Rebel Radio is hosted by The Dancing Outlaw Jesco White, made famous from the Dancing Outlaw movie first shown on PBS, and his subsequent appearances in various documentaries, including most recently The Wild & Wonderful Whites of West Virginia. The soundtrack for Rebel Radio includes Johnny Paycheck, Waylon Jennings, Hank Thompson, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, and Hasil Adkins among others (see full playlist below).
Illustrating the great care for detail game makers go through these days, Rebel Radio has its own logo, and even has its own location in the game in the Grand Senora Desert in Blaine County on a hill near the Redwoods Lights Motorcross Track. 13 total minutes of Jesco White commentary are mixed in with the 11-song soundtrack to give players the feel of listening to a real radio station, and Jesco even makes an appearance in the game as a “hidden Easter Egg” doing his famous Outlaw tap dancing routine.
Grand Theft Auto 5′s use of radio stations speaks to the opening of new outlets for music as traditional radio continues to narrow formats in the face of consolidation at the hands of big corporations like Clear Channel and Cumulus. Big companies have been buying up stations all across the country, implementing and institutionalizing nationalized programming. Grand Theft Auto 5 boasts a total of 15 different radio stations players can tune into, with over 240 officially licensed songs making up the game’s entire soundtrack. The game is also the first in the series to solicit an original score.
Ivan Pavlovich, the Soundtrack Supervisor for Grand Theft Auto 5, points out that the music licensing for the game is the equivalent to 20 movie soundtracks—a tremendous investment for a video game. Other celebrity DJ’s for the game’s various channels include Bootsy Collins for an 80s funk station, Pam Grier hosting a soul station, and Kenny Loggins for the classic rock station. The soundtrack is also available for sale in multiple volumes.
Grand Theft Auto 5′s Rebel Radio Playlist:
- Ozark Mountain Daredevils – If You Wanna Get To Heaven (1973)
- Hank Thompson – I Don’t Hurt Anymore (1954)
- Johnny Paycheck – It Won’t Be Long (And I’ll Be Hating You) (1968)
- Johnny Cash – General Lee (1982)
- Willie Nelson – Whiskey River (1973)
- Jerry Reed – You Took All The Ramblin’ Out Of Me (1972)
- Charlie Feathers – Can’t Hardly Stand It (1956)
- Waylon Jennings – I Ain’t Living Long Like This (1979)
- Waylon Jennings – Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way (1975)
- C.W. McCall – Convoy (1975)
- Hasil Adkins – Get Out of My Car (1966)
As much as we may love the older music performers we grew up with, or cherish the performers from a past beyond our own, there might be nothing worse to behold as a music fan than watching an aging artist who refuses to come to grips with reality, and won’t let go of the spotlight. Of course it is a shame that the music business is so callous towards its aging talent and seems so quick to cast its older entertainers off. But all artists eventually age and experience the passing of mass interest, and must face a new set of realities.
As much as Ronnie Dunn started out showing promise as a substantive artist and one willing to speak his mind about the state of the country music business after the Brooks & Dunn breakup, he’s now out there now kinking his hair and cutting country rap songs. Hank Williams Jr. might be the poster boy for the country artist who’s unwilling to face their fate; carousing with Kid Rock and taking great care not to show any gray in his mane. Remember when Alabama collaborated with ‘N Sync? Or the catastrophe of Kenny Rogers’ facelift? Even our beloved Willie Nelson had a moment when he thought the best thing for his career was to cut a Dave Matthews song produced by Kenny Chesney. We can’t blame our country heroes for not wanting to call it quits from the mainstream spotlight until they’re absolutely sure it’s time, but sometimes you wonder why they just can’t rest on their laurels, appreciate their years of success and the financial windfall it afforded them, and simply refocus on the music as their first priority.
That is exactly what we are seeing from two of country music’s most prestigious previous heavyweights: Alan Jackson and Vince Gill. With 34 CMA Awards, over 20 Grammys, and and some 80 million records sold between the two, they both have seen their share of overwhelming commercial success, public notoriety, and peer recognition. But over the last few years the writing has been on the wall that their time has come, and their days of widespread radio play and big awards are over.
And so what did these two men do? Did they shake their fists at the system and criticize it for being unfair? Did they try to mix it up with some young artist outside of the genre to hopefully rekindle interest? Did they debut a new look to try to hide their age? No, they both did something out-of-the-ordinary—they embraced their roles as legacy artists, and put out albums that paid homage to the roots of the music that brought them both so much fortune over the years.
Vince Gill teemed up with legendary steel guitar player Paul Franklin and put out an impressive and energetic tribute to the West Coast influence on country called Bakersfield, swapping songs from California country titans Merle Haggard and Buck Owens. For all the chatter about country having to evolve to stay commercially viable, Bakersfield debuted at #4 on the charts and sold an impressive 12,000 copies its first week—virtually unheard of for a tribute album, especially one from an older artist.
Right on the heels of Bakersfiled‘s success, Alan Jackson has just released an album of bluegrass music simply called The Bluegrass Album. It includes 8 Jackson originals all done in authentic bluegrass style, and covers artists like Bill Monroe and The Dillards. The record is a critic’s favorite and has been creating tremendous buzz.
As much as country music, especially in the current era, may feel like a business of the here and now, one thing that still separates country from other genres is the role of the legacy artist. Rock once had this as well, but there is a reason a 51-year-old Sheryl Crow decided to bring her act to country in 2013. As much as it may pain purists when pop and rock artists cross over to country, it also speaks to how despite the conventional thinking of modern country as a kid’s game, country still deliver strength to older artists. Sure, artists like Vince Gill and Alan Jackson may no longer be able to sell out arenas, but they’re also not considered “has-been’s” simply because the big hits have stopped coming. You may not be treated as a superstar in the twilighting of your country career, but you’re still doted on as a legend by core fans who will never forget your contributions. That was one of the unfortunate things about the early passing of Waylon Jennings. He never got that opportunity to take a victory lap and stand as a country music elder statesman.
Like Emmylou Harris allowing her raven hair to turn a shimmering silver, watching an artist age in country music can be a splendid thing to behold when the artist performs the transition with grace, class, and wisdom, and the industry allows this process to unfold naturally instead of shutting them out. By setting new parameters of success that don’t have to do with sales and flashy awards, an artist can craft the finishing touches on their legacy while the genre shows their respects for their contributions.
But moreover, what Vince Gill and Alan Jackson have proven is they still have plenty of tread on the tires, and aging artists can still have a sizable impact and contribution to the country music canon.
The last few weeks might go down in history as one of country music’s most feud-laden moments. From Gary Allan going off about country music and indirectly accusing Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood of not being country, to Zac Brown calling out Luke Bryan’s song “That’s My Kind of Night,” and Jason Aldean calling out Zac Brown in Luke’s defense.
Though country music feuding may be on a sharp rise here recently, it is not an uncommon or recent occurrence in country music by any stretch. Many artists have had a beef with the Grand Ole Opry over the years, including Johnny Cash and Stonewall Jackson. Curb Records has been in the middle of many feuds, most notably with Leann Rimes, Hank Williams III, and a big one with Tim McGraw that pitted cross-town heavyweights Mike Curb and Scott Borchetta against each other. But nothing gets folks talking like a good old artist on artist donnybrook. Here are some of the most infamous over the years.
Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner were one of country music’s most legendary pairings, but when Dolly wanted to leave the Porter Wagoner camp in 1974, things turned heated. Parton did the best she could to leave Porter’s side in an amicable way, even penning and performing her legendary song “I Will Always Love You” for her long-time singing partner. But Porter turned around and sued her for $3 million in a breach of contract suit in 1979.
However, the two made up eventually, and Porter performed with Dolly on her TV variety show in 1988. Dolly Parton was also by Porter Wagoner’s side when he passed away in 2007.
In the midst of Billy Ray Cyrus’s “Achy Breaky Heart” success, Travis Tritt was asked what he though about it, and always willing to be a lightning rod, Travis Tritt responded, “I haven’t seen his show so I can’t say anything about that. I haven’t seen the man personally, so I can’t say anything about him personally. I haven’t listened to his albums, so I can’t make a statement about that. But I have seen the video and I have heard “Achy Breaky Heart”, and I don’t care for either one of them. It just seems kind of frivolous. The video doesn’t appeal to me because it shows him stepping out of a limousine in front of thousands and thousands of fans, and nobody’s even heard of this guy.. Garth Brooks didn’t even do that. It doesn’t seem very realistic to me.”
Travis Tritt recalled in his autobiography Ten Feet Tall and Bulletproof, “I apologized to Billy Ray, told him I hoped he sold ten million copies of the record. Went home. I sent Billy Ray a peace lily and a get well card because I heard he’d been feeling bad enough to cancel his Fan Fair appearance. Headline in the local paper the next day. ‘Travis Tritt Trashes Billy Ray Cyrus.’ The more I said about it, trying to rectify the situation, the worse it got.”
Waylon Jennings really didn’t like Garth Brooks, and wasn’t very good at hiding it. Though in the portions about Garth in Waylon’s autobiography he was careful not to use Garth’s name, during interviews in the 90′s Waylon would regularly let his anti-Garth anger slip. For example in an interview with The Inquirer form September, 1994, Waylon said about Garth, “I think he’s the luckiest s.o.b in the world. He’s gotten more out of nothing than anybody I can think of. I’ve always accused him of sounding like Mr. Haney on Green Acres.”
There’s another Waylon quote about Garth that goes something along the lines of “Garth Brooks did for country music what panty hose did for finger fucking.” But there has yet to be a verifiable attribution of the quote.
Still to this day, not much is known about the exact details of the feud between these two men, but in the mid-70′s you couldn’t find two artists more tied to the hip than Waylon and Tompall. Tompall was the proprietor of Hillbilly Central in Nashville—a renegade studio where Waylon mixed and mastered his album Honky Tonk Heroes, and recorded his album This Time. Waylon and Tompall appear together on Wanted: The Outlaws—country music’s first million-selling album. The two became close friends and were kindred spirits from their hated of Music Row’s business practices. They would spin long hours battling each other on pinball machines or picking out tunes or playing pranks on each other. But when the friendship went south in the late 70′s, it went south hard, and the two men never resolved their differences before their respective deaths, despite both men still insisting on their deep love and appreciation for each other.
The crux of the beef between two of country music’s most famous sons is that Hank3 felt Shooter Jennings stole his persona. Hank3 had a song called “Dick In Dixie” that included the line, “I’m here to put the Dick in Dixie, and the cunt back in country.” Shooter, who previously had been in a rock band called Stargunn, came out with his first country record entitled Put The ‘O’ Back In Country in 2005, and Hank3 perceived the title was a little too close for comfort.
If you wanna go down that road and rip us off, mutherfucker, I’ll see you in ten years and five thousand shows down the road.” Hank3 said. We’ll see where the fuck you’re at. You know, I called him out and just flat out said, “fuck you if you’re gonna rip us off like that on your first release.”
Shooter for his part seemed unwilling to reciprocate the feud, saying “You know what, I don’t even comment on these things, really. I don’t even know him. I met him once, I think, for a second. And somehow all this stuff started about how he hates me. I don’t know. It’s, like, stupid.”
In fairness to Shooter, Carlene Carter had used the line “If that doesn’t put the cunt back in country, I don’t know what will” at a show in New York in 1979 when her mother June Carter and father-in-law Johnny Cash were in attendance. Eventually Shooter and Hank3 reportedly buried the hatchet.
Hank3 is the legitimate son of Hank Williams Jr., but Hank Jr. was not Hank3′s everyday father. Hank3 was raised by his mother, and usually only saw Hank Jr. once a year when growing up. In 2001, Hank Jr. began collaborating with Kid Rock in songs like “The ‘F’ Word” and others, and Hank Jr. often referred to Kid Rock as his “rebel son.” This stimulated a rumor that Kid Rock was in fact Hank Jr.’s biological offspring. Though both men denied it, the urban myth grew legs, and Hank Williams III began to be asked by people if Kid Rock was his brother, which didn’t sit too well.
Then the situation escalated when Kid Rock accosted Hank3 at a show in Detroit, trying to patch up the strained relationship between Hank3 and his father. “He kept trying to come on the bus, you know, him and Pam Anderson, and all that shit,” Hank3 recalls. “And I said, ‘Tell that motherfucker I got nothing to say to him,’ and then he finally get his way back in there and tells me how I need to be treating my father, and I’m like, ‘All right, you crossed the line motherfucker.’ And I don’t know how many times I have to say it: No, he’s not my fucking brother . . .”
The altercation eventually led to the line in Hank3′s song “Not Everybody Likes Us,” “Just so you know, so it’s set in stone, Kid Rock don’t come from where I come from. Yeah it’s true he’s a Yank, he ain’t no son of Hank, and if you though so god damn you’re fucking dumb.”
It is considered one of country music’s most legendary moments—when Charlie Rich took out his lighter at the 1975 CMA Awards and burned the envelope announcing John Denver as Entertainer of the Year while Denver watched via satellite. Rich had clearly been drinking, and his antics were taken as an act of defiance against the intrusion of pop influences into country music, and have since become a rallying cry for country music purists.
Recently when video surfaced of the incident, people began to question what Charlie Rich’s true intentions were because Rich didn’t appear to look as malicious as the moment had been materialized in many people’s minds without the aid of the archived footage. Though historians and the Country Music Hall of Fame clearly spell it out as being considered a conflict at the time, Charlie’s son Charlie Rich Jr. says that his father was simply trying to be funny. So maybe there was a Charlie Rich vs. John Denver, or maybe there wasn’t, but the moment still makes for great country music lore.
Probably not much more than the names of these two needs to be said to to infer that they wouldn’t get along. Maines started the scuffle in response to Toby Keith’s song “Courtesy of the Red, White, & Blue” saying, “I hate it. It’s ignorant, and it makes country music sound ignorant. It targets an entire culture—and not just the bad people who did bad things. You’ve got to have some tact. Anybody can write, ‘We’ll put a boot in your ass’ … ”
Toby Keith’s response? “I’ll bury her. She has never written anything that has been a hit…” Maines kept up the heat, wearing a shirt with the letters F.U.T.K. on the 2003 ACM Awards. And of course, all of this was exacerbated when Maines criticized President George Bush at a concert in London a month before.
Keith was the one to publicly bury the hatchet, saying in August of 2003, “You know, a best friend of mine lost a two-year-old daughter to cancer. I saw a picture of me and Natalie and it said, ‘Fight to the Death’ or something. It seemed so insignificant. I said, ‘Enough is enough’ People try to make everything black and white. I didn’t start this battle. They started it with me; they came out and just tore me up. One thing I’ve never, ever done, out of jealousy or anything else, is to bash another artist and their artistic license.”
Toby Keith vs. Kris Kristofferson
It sure made for a juicy story at the time, but according to both of the named belligerents, it was a feud that never was. In April of 2009, actor Ethan Hawke published a story in Rolling Stone that without naming his name, accused Toby Keith of saying to Kris Kristofferson at Willie Nelson’s 70th birthday in 2003, ““None of that lefty shit out there tonight, Kris.” According to Hawke, a rolling argument ensued that ended with Kris Kristofferson saying, ““They’re doin’ to country music what pantyhose did to finger-fuckin’” (see Waylon Jennings vs. Garth Brooks above.)
However, according to both Toby Keith and Kris Kristofferson, the incident never happened. Even more damming to Ethan Hawke and Rolling Stone, though Toby Keith became famous from his flag-waving songs, he’s a registered Democrat, making the likelihood Kieth saying to Kristofferson “lefty shit” very unlikely. Ethan Hawke and Rolling Stone stood by their story, but the press who perpetuated it got an earful from Toby about it at the 2009 ACM Awards.
Feuds that involve accusations of songs getting ripped off can get especially nasty, and this was the case when Jason Isbell took to Twitter to accuse Dierks Bentley of ripping off his song “In A Razor Town.” “‘Dierks’ has officially ripped off my song ‘In A Razor Town.’” Isbell fired off. “Dierks is a douchebag. The song of Dierks is called ‘Home.’” Isbell continued to pummel Dierks through Twitter, even getting political because of the flag waving nature of “Home.” Dierks in his defense referred to an interview one of the song’s co-writers Dan Wilson did with ASCAP that explained how the song came together.
The result? Though Isbell went silent after he said he was told to do so by his lawyer, if there was ever litigation over the song, the results were never made public. Isbell has since in interviews blamed his heavy drinking at the time for his Twitter tone. Though the two songs do sound similar, whether it was truly a ripoff or not seems to remain inconclusive.
Robert Earl Keen put Toby Keith in his crosshairs when he believed Keith lifted the melody from his song “The Road Goes On Forever” for his 2010 song “Bullets In The Gun.” Keen recalls, “I got all these calls from my friends. They were saying, ‘This is ridiculous. What are you gonna do? I felt like this individual had been picking on me for a long time, and I was sick of it. So instead of getting really ugly about things—I don’t really believe in lawsuits or threats—I took the Alexander Pope road and answered this guy in song.”
Keen recorded “The Road Goes On And On” as a shot at Toby Keith (though he never mentions his name), with lines that included:
You’re a regular jack in the box
In your clown suit and your goldilocks
The original liar’s paradox
Your horse is drunk and your friends got tired
Your aim grew weak and uninspired . . .
Toby Keith has never formally responded to the accusations.
This battle of heavyweights ensued when Eric Church was quoted in Rolling Stone in late April of 2012 saying, “Honestly, if Blake Shelton and Cee Lo Green turn around in a red chair, you got a deal? That’s crazy. I don’t know what would make an artist do that. You’re not an artist. Once your career becomes about something other than the music, then that’s what it is. I’ll never make that mistake. I don’t care if I starve.”
Miranda Lambert, who is married to Blake Shelton and also has a reality show past, came out swinging, saying through Twitter, “I wish I misunderstood this . . .Thanks Eric Church for saying I’m not a real artist. You’re welcome for the tour in 2010,” referencing Church’s opening spot on one of her tours.
Eventually Eric Church apologized, saying, “The comment I made to Rolling Stone was part of a larger commentary on these types of reality television shows and the perception they create, not the artists involved with the shows themselves. The shows make it appear that artists can shortcut their way to success… I have a problem with those perceived shortcuts, not just in the music industry…I have a lot of respect for what artists like Carrie Underwood, Kelly Clarkson, and my friend Miranda Lambert have gone on to accomplish. This piece was never intended to tear down any individual and I apologize to anybody I offended in trying to shed light on this issue.”
As some have pointed out since, Eric Church apologized to Miranda, but never apologized to Blake.
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Eric Church also created a firestorm with Rascal Flatts in 2006. While playing in an opening slot, he purposely played too loud and for too long after numerous requests to respect the tour’s wishes, resulting in him being kicked off the tour. It also resulted in a young starlet named Taylor Swift getting a chance to open on the big tour, which many experts give credit for helping Taylor’s meteoric rise.
Blake Shelton vs. Ray Price
When Blake Shelton’s comments about how he considered country music’s traditional fans “Old Farts and Jackasses” came out, Country Music Hall of Famer Ray Price shot back, saying, “Every now and then some young artist will record a rock and roll type song , have a hit first time out with kids only. This is why you see stars come with a few hits only and then just fade away believing they are God’s answer to the world. This guy sounds like in his own mind that his head is so large no hat ever made will fit him. Stupidity Reigns Supreme!!!!!!! Ray Price (CHIEF “OLD FART” & JACKASS”) ” P.S. YOU SHOULD BE SO LUCKY AS US OLD-TIMERS. CHECK BACK IN 63 YEARS (THE YEAR 2075) AND LET US KNOW HOW YOUR NAME AND YOUR MUSIC WILL BE REMEMBERED.”
Blake Shelton later apologized, saying, “Whoa!!! I heard I offended one of my all time favorite artists Ray Price by my statement “Nobody wants to listen to their grandpas music”..And probably some other things from that same interview on GAC Backstory.. I hate that I upset him.. The truth is my statement was and STILL Is about how we as the new generation of country artists have to keep re-inventing country music to keep it popular. Just EXACTLY… The way Mr. Price did along hid journey as a main stream country artist.. Pushing the boundaries with his records. “For The Goodtimes” Perfect example with the introduction of a bigger orchestrated sound in country music.. It was new and awesome!!! I absolutely have no doubt I could have worded it better(as always ha!) and I apologize to Mr. Price and any other heroes of mine that it may offended.”
Ray also later apologized to Blake Shelton for being so harsh, and along with wife Miranda Lambert, they attended a Ray Price show in Oklahoma to patch things up in person.
Tompall got his start in country music with his two brothers Chuck and Jim backing up Marty Robbins. They went on to form Tompall & The Glaser Brothers and eventually became members of the Grand Ole Opry. The family band released 10 albums and had 9 charting singles before breaking up in 1975.
But Tompall came to be better known for his work as one of country music’s original Outlaws. As one of Nashville’s first renegade studio owners, he was seminal to the trend of artists winning creative control of their music in the early and mid 1970′s. His “Hillbilly Central” studio became a hangout for artists like Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and many others that eventually would lead country’s Outlaw movement to country music prominence.
Tompall most prominently appeared on the compilation Wanted: The Outlaws that became country music’s first platinum-selling album. His contribution “Put Another Long On The Fire” written by Shel Silverstein became his highest-charting hit. He released 15 solo albums over his long career, but had disappeared lately from the country music scene.
Tompall Glaser was born Thomas Paul Glaser on February 27th, 1936 in Spalding, Nebraska.
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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I’ve been saying for years that the greatest untapped sound in country music is groove. There’s a country funk hybrid sound out there somewhere just waiting to be gobbled up by hungry ears eager for that infectious approach.
The past has seen a few dalliances with a funky style of country from a select group of artists, most notably from the Outlaw side of country, including songwriter Larry Jon Wilson who leads off the Outlaw country documentary Heartworn Highways with one such number. Tompall Glaser also tried his hand with a groove-based form of country in 1977 on the album Tompall Glaser & His Outlaw Band. Jerry Reed was also known for bringing a groove to country.
But the first established country artist to really do country funk right was Waylon Jennings in 1974 with the song “Louisiana Women” from his breakout album This Time. Most country songs are based on licks or the waltz beat, but “Louisiana Women” was based on the groove, set by one of Waylon’s signature elements: the two note bass line. It was funky, dirty, sweaty, and swampy, but still undeniably country.
“Louisiana Women” was written by a songwriter from Oklahoma named JJ Cale. Cale was known at first as Johnny Cale, and is known mostly to the world for writing Eric Clapton’s big hits “Cocaine,” “After Midnight,” and helping to create Clapton’s “slowhand” style. But JJ Cale was just as much an influence on the country world as he was rock, bringing a groove style from the other side of the tracks to give country some funky spice.
Beyond Waylon’s “Louisiana Women,” JJ Cale wrote “Call Me The Breeze” and “I Got The Same Old Blues” by Lynyrd Skynyrd. JJ’s song “If You’re Ever In Oklahoma” has been recorded by Cody Canada, and was turned into a bluegrass song by bands like The Hutchinson Brothers and the Yonder Mountain String Band. Many Oklahoma-born and Oklahoma-based artists and bands have JJ Cale’s songwriting and stylistic influences all over their songs, and see him as a father and grandfather of Oklahoma and Red Dirt music.
For someone who wanted to discover JJ Cale’s greatness, a good place to start would be his 1976 album Troubadour. It’s the LP that has possibly his most famous song—the drug/anti-drug anthem “Cocaine”—but it is also the album where Cale really delves into the dirty blues/funk country concept the best, laying down some muddy grooves that cross all borders of taste and genre to simply infect human nerves on the most basic level, making you want to move.
Songs like “Traveling Light,” “Ride Me High,” “Gypsy Man,” and “Let Me Do It To You” are some of the best groove songs you can find in music, while a song like “The Woman That Got Away” remind you that JJ Cale was a top-shelf songwriter, asserting huge influence on his peers.
JJ Cale passed away yesterday evening (7-26-13) from a heart attack. He was 74. His influence on music was great. His influence on country music was unfairly unheralded and understated.
When we talk about artists who could help save country music, we tend to focus on folks who are on the outside looking into the music industry, but traditionally these are not always the performers in the best position to shake things up. The Outlaws like Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings already had established careers when they decided to start making waves on Music Row, putting them in a better position to stimulate change compared to an unproven artist.
Just from reading her resume, Kellie Pickler might look like a country traditionalist’s worst nightmare. She started in beauty pageants, got her musical break on American Idol, and is the reigning champion of another reality show, Dancing With The Stars. But instead of disqualifying her from being able to help save country music, maybe this all makes her the ideal candidate. Kellie can create her own hype, and generate her own publicity as opposed to having to make songs for country radio or pander to formulated marketing campaigns.
Still, the most important element is the music, and when it came to the music on Kellie Pickler’s last album 100 Proof, it spoke to heavy traditional country and honky tonk influences served with very little sanding of the rough edges. This is the reason it was awarded Saving Country Music’s 2012 Album of the Year.
And to save country music, you must be willing to speak up and speak out, and once again when being interviewed recently by Rolling Stone (who also called Kellie’s 100 Proof one of 2012′s best), Pickler had some insightful and inspiring words about what motivates her to make “Kellie Country.”
“I’ve made records where I’m trying to make everybody else happy and say what other people want me to say. That was miserable. If you go in and you’re honest, people will either like you or not. You can’t please them all, so you might as well be happy with it yourself. It’s your face on the cover. You can’t change who you are to please other people.”
“I didn’t sell a lot of records with [100 Proof], but it’s my favorite album I’ve ever done because I went into the studio and said what I wanted to say and made a more traditional record. Had I gone in and made the same old shit, then Rolling Stone and different music critics wouldn’t have picked it as one of the best albums of 2012. That showed me that I made the right call. It was tough, but I’m glad I stood up for myself.”
“In America, one of the great things to do is listen to Mickey Newbury sing.” –Waylon Jennings
It always seems like the most creative among us are never fit for the masses. Their gifts are too blinding, too rich for the wide palette, and so it takes an interpretation of their genius through others to find the broader audience their artistic expression deserves. These creative originators may not be fit for everyone, but for those tragic musical junkies who have built up such a tolerance to the interpretations and derivatives peddled on repeat radio for these very many years, seeking out and discovering the musical headwaters of a movement is like the discovery of untold wealth; a second chance to enjoy music like you’re listening to it for the very first time.
Mickey Newbury would certainly qualify as one of these musical specimens, if not the ideal case study. Mickey was nothing short of a legend amongst his songwriting brethren, but was an artist whose own performance career was never graced with significant attention like many of the artists he lent his song material and inspiration to. A somewhat reclusive character who lived on a houseboat just outside of Nashville before moving away to Oregon to purposely get as far away from the music industry as possible, the case could be made that Mickey Newbury was one of the very first, if not the first true American country music “Outlaw.” Mickey was the first to be released from his contract with the intrusive RCA label and win the stipulation to be able to produce his own albums or choose his own producer—years before Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings would accomplish the same from the Nashville recording establishment, partly inspired by Newbury’s story.
Just like Willie, Waylon, and Kris Kristofferson, Mickey Newbury was originally from Texas. Famous country DJ Ralph Emery calls Mickey the first “hippie cowboy.” And though Willie Nelson’s Phases and Stages from 1974 is usually given the credit of being one of country music’s very first concept albums, Newbury’s 1969 Looks Like Rain might be the more worthy candidate.
Looks Like Rain was the first installment in what would become an album trilogy from the gifted songwriter between 1969 and 1973, later to be christened An American Trilogy after arguably Newbury’s most memorable song of the same name. Though Newbury was best known as an original songwriter, “An American Trilogy” was a medley that included parts of the Confederate Anthem “Dixie,” the Bahamian lullaby “All My Trials,” and the Union army’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” It became Newbury’s signature performance piece, showcasing his incredibly powerful voice, and ability to conjure moments in music that haunt you well after the last refrain.
In 2011, the three albums of Looks Like Rain, ‘Frisco Mabel Joy, and Heaven Help The Child, along with 15 demo songs, rarities, and unreleased recordings were assembled together in hopes of presenting Newbury’s music to a new generation, and reminding an older generation of Newbury’s contributions. When you think of “Outlaw” songwriters, you think of rough and tumble characters like Billy Joe Shaver or David Allan Coe, but Newbury and his American Trilogy has a sparse, almost genteel approach, leaning more on organ and strings than steel guitar, giving it a reverence and a lifting action like nothing else heard in country music, then or now.
The first album Looks Like Rain works like one continuous track, spelling out a very personal narrative, with wind chimes seamlessly creating a bed in between songs, pulling you into the album’s depths; into the little proprietary world Mickey creates, and enhancing the entire experience beyond the allure of the individual songs themselves.
‘Frisco Mabel Joy may be the most complete and accessible album of the collection, with the “An American Trilogy” opening song setting the mood. It loosely follows a young Southern man on a journey to find a lost love that traverses the American continent, and seems to tell the country’s story along the way. “An American Trilogy” captures such an inspired performance, it deserves to be considered right beside the greatest American compositions of all time like “Ode To The Common Man” and “This Land Is Your Land.” The album ends with the plaintive, but very enjoyable “How I Love Them Old Songs,” marking one of the trilogy’s most country compositions.
Heaven Help The Child illustrates the ever-present evolution, transformation, and insistence on growth and understanding that Mickey Newbury’s life was an exemplar of, while once again highlighting his propensity to create a seamless album experience and memorable moments. All three albums were recorded at Cinderella Sound in Madison, Tennessee, so the albums all work seamlessly between each other as well. You don’t skip around to select tracks on An American Trilogy. You push play and allow yourself to get lost in the music.
The American Trilogy era from Mickey Newbury’s body of work has become an absolute wellspring of musical material for other artists, and one that helped lay the groundwork for country music’s Outlaw era. Penning First Edition’s (Kenny Rogers’ first band) “Just Dropped In” is what made the world aware of Newbury, but after he released the first trilogy album Looks Like Rain, both David Allan Coe and Waylon Jennings covered the songs “San Francisco Maybel Joy” and “The 33rd of August.” Johnny Cash and Bobby Bare both covered “I Don’t Think Much About Her No More,” from the trilogy’s 2nd installment, and all of a sudden a who’s who of performers in Nashville were listening to Newbury and trying to figure out how they could give their own unique take on his landmark recordings.
Tompall Glaser, and the venerable Bill Monroe would go on to cover Mickey’s “How I Love Them Old Songs,” Elvis Presley did his own version of “An American Trilogy,” and the seemingly never-ending list of songwriting accolades for Newbury continues from there, including 8 cover and tribute albums released to him over the years.
Songwriters like to say that their songs are like children. If that is the case, Mickey Newbury is a father, grandfather, and great-grandfather many times over. His An American Trilogy is an indelible, essential work of the American songbook, from which many branches of American music sprout from.
Two guns up.
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Mickey Newbury’s An American Trilogy is available in a 4 CD box set, a 4 CD fold out with 24-page companion booklet, or in MP3 form. All tracks have been remastered from their original tapes. It includes a total of 41 songs.
Can I just go ahead and declare that Jackson Taylor & The Sinners are officially the funnest band in country music right now? Do I have the unilateral authority to do that? Can we somehow get that certified through oath and affirmation? Because hot damn, if their latest album Crazy Again doesn’t leave you in a good mood, then you’re one hell of a red ass.
Jackson Taylor & The Sinners inhabit this strange niche in the music world; one that sometimes results in the band being overlooked when people are talking about the “best” in any given sphere of country. Their spirit and sound is more akin to the underground, with a punk attitude and sometimes provocative language. But logistically The Sinners are embedded more into the Texas / Red Dirt scene, despite being based now out of Wichita, KS. Over time their ability to cross mindsets, styles, and scenes has left them with no expectations to fulfill, a truly unique sound, and a wide swath of fans that resulted in Crazy Again being the first of their career to chart on Billboard.
You could call Jackson Taylor Southern rock if you wanted, and to save an argument, that label would work just fine. But what sets Jackson Taylor & The Sinners apart is that they’re able walk right up to the Southern Rock’s border with country, but not be tempted to completely cross it (except for the occasional junket). The drums are heavy, the guitar is crunchy and loud, but the steel guitar is hot in the mix too, and boiled down the music rests firmly on Jackson Taylor’s country-style songwriting.
Crazy Again is a complete effort. Sensible, but not stylized, sincere but not sappy, it simply fills you with an appreciation of life, even when it delves into sad subjects. There’s just something unexplainable about Jackson Taylor & The Sinner’s music that makes you want to meet these dudes in person, hang out with them, and try to tear off some of their infectious and everlasting good time attitude and incorporate it into your own little world. At the same time there’s an appreciation for composition to their music, a sincerity, and a good dollop of wit to where you don’t feel insulted for listening like you do with so many of country’s new school party bands. It’s like Waylon Jennings with a well-balanced mood, and everything is punctuated by Jackson Taylor’s singular sarcastic personality that he embeds so well in the music.
Talking about the songs on Crazy Again, you have to start with “Rain,” which may go down as one of the band’s best ever. Anthemic and immediately infectious, it may sound clichè to say it, but this is one of those songs you can’t listen to loud enough. You can’t believe “Rain” is only 4 minutes long because it takes you so many places. “Whiskey Drinking Song” embodies the Sinner’s uninhibited ability to grip an entire barroom in a good time, while songs like “She’s Not Your Girlfriend” and “What A Way To Go” have familiar-enough country themes to quickly draw you in, but not leave you feeling like you’ve heard them before. Crazy Again is an album that’s easy to love.
Where in the country music world does Jackson Taylor & The Sinners belong? If Crazy Again is any indication, they don’t need to belong anywhere specifically, they deserve to belong everywhere.
Two guns up.
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“If there is one thing I can respect more than anything, it’s individuality in music. And I think back in the early era of country music that was so apparent. Like you could really tell your Johnny Cash from your Waylons from your Merles. They all had a distinct thing happening. And they were all really great at what they did. It was really important for me to etch out my own thing as a student of that.” — Lindi Ortega
Exquisitely antiqued and strikingly original, old school country singer and native Canadian Lindi Ortega is the northern emissary for country music’s current female revolution. A class act all around that is regarded just as highly for her self-penned songs as her heavenly (or devilish) voice, Lindi is a creative maelstrom that sends the room spinning from her ability to expose the most blinding beauty from life’s inherent darkness.
Now living in Nashville, and benefiting from some song placements in the new ABC drama series named after her new home, Lindi is starting to pack venues across the country, leaving a trail of broken hearts and positive buzz. After a rousing show at Austin’s most legendary listening room The Cactus Cafe on Monday (7-1), the gracious and arresting songwriter was kind enough to sit down and explain the inspiration behind her music.
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Trigger: There’s sort of two burgeoning movements in country music right now, and you’re part of both of them. Last year and this year we keep getting great albums from Canadians. How is it being a Canadian playing country music, as a perspective?
Lindi Ortega: I never really think about that when I do what I do. I just know what I listen to and what I’m inspired by. I don’t think about the fact that I wasn’t born in the southern United States and raised on a farm. I feel like maybe in a past life I might have been. That’s why it speaks to me. My mom was really into country music when I was growing up. She sort of planted the seed in my mind; a seed that grew into a great love and appreciation for especially old school country; you know Johnny Cash and Loretta Lynn, Waylon and all of them. So I don’t really think about the fact that I’m from Canada when I’m writing songs, or paying tribute or homage to that music. I just happen to be.
Trigger: You’re also part of this revolution of young, beautiful, talented women that are giving country a shot of substance and showing respect to the music’s roots. There’s a lot of people talking about 2013 as the “Year of the Woman” in country music. Names like Caitlin Rose and Kacey Musgraves are brought up, and so is Lindi Ortega as an example. Why do you think the women are outpacing the men right now as far as substance in country music?
Lindi Ortega: I don’t know, but I’m glad that it’s happening. It’s so great because when I started doing country-inspired music in Toronto, I didn’t know anybody who was doing it. I didn’t even hear it around me. Then the more I was doing it, the more I would hear about it. And then of course I moved to Nashville and it’s all around me. It’s so great that people are appreciating the old school way. It’s nice to know that that art of live off-the-floor recordings, and not a shitload of Auto-tune and fancy stuff is going on. I’m glad that’s not a dying art. And I’m glad that females are doing it.
Trigger: So back in Toronto, you’re playing music and you had the nickname “Indie Lindi.”
Lindi Ortega: I still do!
Trigger: So you’re playing this music, and you weren’t in a scene in Toronto of rootsy musicians?
Lindi Ortega: Yeah I was a little bit autonomous. I was kind of anti-social to a fault I guess. I just stayed in my room and wrote songs. I wasn’t really part of any scene. There was a scene. When I was doing music there was much more of an indie rock scene. Now it’s a bit different, there’s a little more variety there. But there’s wasn’t a whole lot of alt-country back then. Now it’s everywhere.
Trigger: Is that what you consider yourself? Because you said “country-inspired” before and you’re saying “alt-country” now.
Lindi Ortega: Well there’s so many labels for it and I don’t know I guess. Some people don’t think I’m country at all. And I guess if you’re listening to the radio, I don’t sound country. I like to say I’m very much inspired by old-school country. And what kind of country that is in this day and age in the modern era, I don’t know. Hey, you can call it whatever you want. As long as people are listening to it is all that’s important to me.
Trigger: Did Cigarettes and Truckstops feel like your breakout album?
Lindi Ortega: In a way, yeah. I feel like there were a lot of things that led to having successful shows. One would be the Social Distortion tour that I did; the crazy pairing with me and Social D and I did two tours with them and it exposed me to a wide audience. Amazingly they were very accepting of me and the music I’ve done. And of course the Nashville TV show, and having a few song placements on there helped.
Trigger: Have you physically seen a bump from the Nashville TV exposure?
Lindi Ortega: Yeah. People tell me at shows, “I heard your song on Nashville and I checked you out.” I think it’s amazing that it was able to resonate that way. It actually led to people coming out to shows which is great.
Trigger: Attractive women are not supposed to be as talented as you are. Usually if someone is strong in one suit, they’re not strong in another. You just don’t see a lot of beautiful women that are creative dynamos. (READ if this part of the question offends you.) Where does your motivation to make music that may not appeal to everyone come from?
Lindi Ortega: You’re too kind to me. I spent my whole day going, “I’m getting old!” But my motivation comes from my influences, and people that have stuck to their guns. I read a lot of biographies. If there is one thing I can respect more than anything, it’s individuality in music. And I think back in the early era of country music that was so apparent. Like you could really tell your Johnny Cash from your Waylons from your Merles. They all had a distinct thing happening. And they were all really great at what they did. It was really important for me to etch out my own thing as a student of that.
I don’t care about money. I honestly don’t. I don’t give a shit. I could stay at a shitty motel, I think it’s more fun. And I like riding in little vans and I love doing it that way. I think there’s a story in that, and I write songs that are stories and that tell stories. My influences inspire me to have integrity and to do what I love and be passionate about it. I don’t care about making millions or any of that. Of course if it happens, like everyone says it’s icing on the cake. But I’m happy doing what I do. I love what I do, and this is a beautiful existence for me. I get to tour. I get to go to different cities and see the world. I can’t imagine a better existence than this.
Trigger: Are you a road dog?
Lindi Ortega: I love it. I get antsy when I’m not on the road. I start to miss it and I can’t wait to get back out. It gets to a point where hotel rooms feel more like home.
Trigger: How do birds inspire your music and image?
Lindi Ortega: Yeah, I’m a bird lover. And recently I guess ravens have been my thing. But I love all birds. I have a tattoo that says, “Bird On A Wire.” It’s a Leonard Cohen song. The image of a bird on a wire and that whole song just speaks to me. Something about flying in the sky and that type of free existence resonates with me. I always think my style’s a little bit of Frida Kahlo meets Wonder Woman meets Johnny Cash. The Johnny Cash thing is of course the black thing. I always think of that movie and the line and the manager saying to him, “Johnny, why are you wearing black? You look like you’re going to a funeral.” And he’d say, “Well maybe I am.” And I was like, “Oh, that’s brilliant! I want to go to that funeral too!” I’m half Mexican, so that whole Dia de los Muertos thing, and dying and death and the whole fleeting of our existence is always running through my mind. And I don’t always think of it in a morbid way. I guess I think of it in the more Mexican way, the colorful aspect.
Trigger: You mentioned Frida Kahlo and I saw a picture of your guitar case and Frida Kahlo is all over it. How did she influence your music?
Lindi Ortega: Well I saw the movie a long time ago. That was the first thing that inspired me because she was such a character. And then I learned more about her life and read biographies about her. And I thought in the midst of all her emotional pain she was so full of life, and it was so interesting to me. And her art was so incredible. Her self-portraits I found most fascinating because the expression on her face I felt was very familiar to one I’ve seen in the mirror a couple of times; moments of loneliness and it spoke to me. I love her. I think she’s an incredible artist and a strong woman, an inspiration and I’m slightly obsessed, and I have a song about her on my next record.
Trigger: Speaking of that, is there any hints of new stuff that you can tell us? Do you have a new album coming out?
Lindi Ortega: I do. I have a new one coming out hopefully in the fall. I’m really excited about it. Dave Cobb was the producer. He did Secret Sisters and Jason Isbell. We had a blast, it was a lot of fun. Everyone that played on it was awesome.
Country music savior and critically-acclaimed songsmith Sturgill Simpson has been making waves all over the country with his new breakout album High Top Mountain released on June 11th, and now he threatens to take the high-flying act international by boarding a puddle jumper and puttering over to the Land of the Rising Sun to record the video for his heart-pounding, hot plate, house on fire, country as hell, soon to be hit single “Railroad of Sin.” ‘Godzillabilly’ is what’s he’s patterning the theme, as the Kentucky native and Nashville resident takes a high arching swan dive deep into culture shock.
Johnny Cash may have not been born in Nagasaki, and bullet trains may not be equipped with lonesome whistles, but the Orient is where Hank Jr. picked up his official nickname for Waylon Jennings: “Watashin!” which means, “old #1″ and you’d be hard pressed to find a more modern resemblance to Waymore than one Sturgill Simpson. So keep clear of the closing doors, strap in tight, and get ready to speed away on Sturgill Simpson’s “Railroad of Sin.”
When looking at the historical timeline of country music, many times it is big events that set the wheels of change in motion, for the good and the bad. Whether it is intrusion of pop or rap into country, or the ill-treatment of country music greats, here are some of the most embarrassing moments in country music history.
Shuttering of the Country Music Mother Church
The Grand Ole Opry needed a bigger home and the move was inevitable, but the result was the complete shuttering Ryman Auditorium, also known as the Country Music Mother Church, for 20 years. Aside from being opened by special permission to shoot videos for folks like Jason & The Scorchers, John Hartford, and for parts of the Coal Miner’s Daughter movie, the venue was abandoned between 1974 and 1994, also allowing the surrounding lower Broadway area to be overrun with strip clubs and dirty bookstores. It wasn’t until Emmylou Harris recorded a live album at the Ryman that a renewed interest in the historic venue was sparked, eventually leading to its restoration and re-opening.
Garth Brooks Goes Flying Over Texas Stadium
In 1993 at the old Texas Stadium in Irving, TX, Garth Brooks does a video shoot and decides to pull a Sandy Duncan and go flying over the crowd suspended with wires. Though it was a one-off demonstration, it illustrated Garth’s influence of turning country into more of a commercial, arena-rock presentation.
Jessica Simpson plays the Grand Ole Opry
You already forgot that reality star Jessica Simpson had a stint trying to be a country performer, didn’t you? Her career lasted weeks, but that was long enough for the Opry to decide to give her an opportunity to be on the sainted Opry stage on September 6th, 2008, while many other more worthy performers still wait indefinitely in the wings for the distinguished Opry opportunity.
Unfinished Hank Williams Songs Turned Into Lost Notebooks Album
Publisher Sony ATV cashed in on a collection of lyric sheets left behind by Hank Williams—some unfinished, and all without music—by doling them out surreptitiously to Bob Dylan, and a bevy of undeserving artists including Jakob Dylan and Sheryl Crow, to finish and record. The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams raised the ire of many, including Hank’s daughter and Williams estate executor Jett Williams who said about the project, “It was like ‘here are some lyrics’ instead of trying to think, “If Hank Williams was sitting here with me and it’s got his musical footprints all over it.” You would think that when you heard the song being sung by the artist, that it would have some kind of (Hank) feel to it, which I’m not feeling it myself.”
DeFord Bailey Fired from the Grand Ole Opry
Harmonica player and Country Music Hall of Famer DeFord Bailey was one of the early stars of the Grand Ole Opry, and was an official member from 1927 to 1941 when a dispute with BMI-ASCAP wouldn’t allow him to perform his most famous songs on the radio. Instead of standing behind one of their founding performers, the Opry fired DeFord. This ended his performance career and DeFord shined shoes for the rest of his life to make a living. DeFord did not play the Opry again until 1974 when he appeared on an “Old Timers’ Show.”
Jason Aldean Performs “Dirt Road Anthem” with Ludacris on CMT Awards
“History has been made baby!” Ludacris declared from the stage in June of 2011 when country music saw its first rap performance on an awards show, and the first live mainstream collaboration with a rap artist. This event and “Dirt Road Anthem” hitting #1 would open the country rap flood gates.
Olivia Newton-John and John Denver Winning CMA Awards
Olivia Newton-John’s CMA for “Female Vocalist of the Year” in 1974, and John Denver’s CMA for “Entertainer of the Year” in 1975 symbolized the historic intrusion of pop into the country format in the mid-70′s. The trend was staved off the next year when Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings ushered in the Outlaw movement in country.
Taylor Swift Wins First CMA for Entertainer of the Year
The date 11/11 was not good luck for country music in 2009, when Taylor Swift took home her first Country Music Association “Entertainer of the Year” award along with three other trophies on the night. Teen pop had now taken center stage in country music.
Induction of Keith Urban, Rascal Flatts, & Darius Rucker Into The Grand Ole Opry
The Grand Ole Opry had already been wanting to appeal to a younger, more youthful crowd, but in recent years they have ratcheted it up another notch, completely ignoring older country stars worthy of induction for pop country’s latest trends.
“Struggle” Turns Waylon Songs Into Rap
It was bad enough when rap infiltrated country music. Now it has gone back in time to overwrite the songs of country greats that have passed on. Waylon Jennings’ grandson-in-law nicknamed “Struggle” (his real name is Will Harness, and his real grandfather is Duane Eddy) took 7 Waylon Jennings songs, and rehashed them into rap songs in an album entitled I Am Struggle released in May of 2013. It was an unprecedented intrusion of rap into country music’s past, perpetrated by one of the few people who could get the blessing of the Waylon estate to do so. (read more)
Stonewall Jackson Stonewalled by the Grand Ole Opry
After having his performances on the Grand Ole Opry cut back so much that he lost his health benefits, Stonewall Jackson sued the Opry claiming age discrimination against Opry General Manager Pete Fisher. Stonewall claimed the Opry breached a long-standing code that if stars performed a set number of dates each year, even when they could make more money playing tour dates, they would always have a place to play at the Opry even in their older age. The lawsuit was eventually settled in court, and though the specific details of it were never revealed, Stonewall was happy with the outcome, and his performance schedule increased afterward.
Garth Brooks Becomes Chris Gains
In 1999, a bored Garth Brooks created a fictional dark pop character from Australia called Chris Gaines and released an album called The Life of Chris Gains. It gained Garth one Top 5 hit, “Lost In You,” but Brooks’ Chris Gaines idea met with very heavy criticism and confusion from fans, and after only a few weeks, Chris Gains rode off into the sunset and Garth Brooks re-appeared before a planned movie The Lamb could go into production.
The Grand Ole Opry’s Refusal to Reinstate Hank Williams
Even though there is a Hank Williams impersonator to greet Opry attendees at the door, the institution has refused to reinstate one of country music’s most legendary icons, and one that made the Opry an internationally-known institution, even in a symbolic gesture. Hank was dismissed from the Opry in 1952 for missing performances and rehearsals due to alcoholism, and was told he could return once he sobered up. Hank never got that opportunity, dying on New Years Eve of that year. A movement called Reinstate Hank looks to reinstate the country star back into the institution.
George Jones “Choices” & Other CMA Performances Cut Short
At the 1999 CMA Awards, George Jones was asked to perform an abbreviated version of his song “Choices.” George refused and boycotted the show, and in response Alan Jackson, while preforming his song “Pop A Top,” cut his own song short, and launched into George’s “Choices.” (read more)
This was actually the second time an artist boycotted the CMA’s. In a much less publicized event, Waylon Jennings refused to perform an abbreviated version of “Only Daddy That’ll Walk The Line.” Waylon recalls, “They told me not to get smart. Either I did it or I got out. They said, ‘We don’t need you.’ I decided that was true and left.”
It was November of 2008 at the annual Country Music Association Awards, and Kid Rock came out on stage to perform “All Summer Long,” a remixed rap rock song that borrows from Lynyrd Skynyrd and Warren Zevon. Never before had such a non-country genre-bending song been performed on the CMA stage, but considering Kid Rock’s strong ties to the country music industry, the performance seemed par for country’s course of slowly contemporizing away from its traditions….except for one curious thing.
Trailing Kid Rock out on the stage was hip-hop icon Lil’ Wayne. It was curious that Lil’ Wayne was there, but not completely surprising. Lil’ Wayne had performed “All Summer Long” with Kid Rock only 2 months before at MTV’s VMA Awards. But instead of rapping like he did at the VMA’s, Lil’ Wayne just sort of stood there, pretending to strum a guitar that clearly was not in the mix.
Why was Lil’ Wayne there? Nobody was quite sure, but at the time Saving Country Music surmised that this was an act of desensitization from Music Row in Nashville. Facing nearly a decade of declining sales and needing something to shake up the landscape, allowing rap to infiltrate country’s inner sanctum could be a way to grow country’s fan base, entice younger listeners, and maintain the commercial viability of the industry. The country music industry would have to warm the country fan base up to the idea first. So bring Kid Rock out, and Lil’ Wayne with him, but don’t allow anyone to rap just yet. There would be time for that down the road.
Just 2 weeks after the 2008 CMA’s, country rap king Colt Ford released his first major album Ride Through The Country, and soon small but well-supported independent country rap outfits like the LoCash Cowboys and Moonshine Bandits began to emerge, creating a substantial country rap underground that saw significant success in the YouTube realm, garnering 5 and 6 million hits on some videos despite having no initial label support, and no radio play. Country rap had already been around way before 2008, with Cowboy Troy releasing his debut album Loco Motive back in 2005, and many other independent artists dabbling with the genre blending concept years before. But Colt Ford began to open the door of acceptance for country rap in the mainstream by collaborating with country artists like Jamey Johnson, John Michael Montgomery, and Brantley Gilbert. Country rap songs were still not receiving radio play or award show accolades though. The country rap commodity was just too risque for mainstream labels and radio programmers to get behind, and it remained a very small sliver of the greater country music pie.
Then came Jason Aldean’s “Dirt Road Anthem,” a song that initially appeared on Colt Ford’s first album and co-written with Brantley Gilbert, and everything changed. A mild-mannered song compared to most country rap, and coming from a polished Caucasian performer that the mainstream country community was already comfortable with, country rap was able to finally find it’s acceptance on the popular country radio format. In early June of 2011 at the CMT Awards hosted by Kid Rock, Jason Aldean came out to perform the quickly-rising single, and hip-hop artist Ludacris joined Aldean on stage, this time to actually rap. “History has been made baby!” Ludacris declared from the stage, and it had been. Mainstream country now had its country rap cherry officially popped, and rap was now a viable, accepted art form in country music.
And it would become a commercially successful one too when “Dirt Road Anthem” eventually hit #1 on the Billboard charts in late July of 2011. The effects of “Dirt Road Anthem” hitting #1 were significant. Radio programmers who had been reluctant to bring country rap to the airwaves for years had officially waved the white flag. At the time Saving Country Music also predicted:
Just like how you can blame a blizzard on a rash of births nine moths later, the Music Row machine undoubtedly is being retooled to meet the burgeoning country rap demand, and we will be seeing the results in the upcoming months. The only question is, in what form will it be? Will we see established artists adopting the new style? Or will it be the popularization of the Colt Fords and Moonshine Bandits of the world?
The prediction of Music Row retooling to become a assembly line for country rap was correct. What was not correct was the timeline. Apparently 9 months lead time was a little too optimistic, and after “Dirt Road Anthem” dominated the charts, country rap went somewhat dormant in mainstream country for nearly 1 1/2 years. “Dirt Road Anthem” was the best selling single in all of country in 2011. But in 2012, country rap was virtually absent from the mainstream country scene. As Saving Country Music explained looking at 2012 end-of-year sales numbers:
Rap sales were significantly down in 2012, bucking the trend of being one of the few areas of strength during music’s decade-long decline. Similarly, unlike 2011 when Jason Aldean’s country-rap “Dirt Road Anthem” was the best-selling single in all of country, 2012 did not see a dominant country-rap single, album, or artist. Rap is still asserting itself as an influence in country, but may not be finding the commercial strength it needs to stick. 2012 mono-genre songs like Tim McGraw’s “Truck Yeah” underperformed to expectations, never cracking Billboard’s Top 10 on the country chart.
Then came 2013, and “1994,” Jason Aldean’s follow-up country rap to “Dirt Road Anthem.” Though the song was a little too fey for mainstream country ears and topped out at #10 on the Billboard charts, it was the spearhead to what would become a massive and historic influx of country rap songs and influences flooding the country music format heading into the summer of 2013.
Blake Shelton, the reigning CMA Entertainer of the Year and influential personality from his work on the popular reality TV show The Voice, released his own country rap song “Boys ‘Round Here” that quickly became a #1. Country duo Florida Georgia Line who regularly incorporates Ebonic verbiage in their songs achieved a #1 single with “Cruise” that is currently poised to become the best selling song of 2013. When the duo remixed the smash hit with hip-hop star Nelly, it created yet another chart-topping country rap collaboration.
All of a sudden, hip-hop influences were, and currently are dominating the top of the country music charts, asserting just as much influence, if not more than indigenous country influences, with a bevy of new country rap tunes from numerous artists ready to be released, and mainstream artists lining up to try and be a part of the trend. Brad Paisley and LL Cool J made waves by collaborating on the country rap song “Accidental Racist.” 90′s country star Joe Diffie, the muse for Jason Aldean’s country rap “1994,” has released an “answer” song called “Girl Ridin’ Shotgun” with the Jawga Boyz to attempt to exploit the renewed attention for his career. And Luke Bryan has recorded a country rap song with Auto-Tune maestro T Pain to be released soon.
But the infiltration of country rap is not just confined to underground circles and mainstream collaborations, it has touched the very foundations of country’s traditions and history. In May of 2013, the rapping grandson-in-law of Waylon Jennings named “Struggle” released an album with 7 of the 9 songs being Waylon tunes with Struggle rapping over them. The country rapping LoCash Cowboys have a song called “Best Seat in the House” from their new self-titled album that includes a collaboration with the recently-deceased George Jones—an icon of traditional country fans who traditionally do not favor the influx of rap influences in country music. The country rap collaboration is possibly the final track George Jones ever recorded.
Other artists that are traditionally seen as respites from the commercial trends in Nashville like Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe, and their mutual band The Pistol Annies have participated in the country rap craze, leaving mainstream country fans that are looking to avoid the trend few options. The Pistol Annies appeared in Blake Shelton’s country rap song and video “Boys ‘Round Here,” and Miranda Lambert participated in the “celebrity remix” of the song, even though at one point she took to Twitter to proclaim that remixes “pissed her off.”
Ashley Monroe appears in a just released acoustic version of the Macklemore rap song “Thrift Shop.” June of 2013 has been jam packed with new country rap song and video releases, with new collaborations rumored seemingly every day as artists and labels scramble to figure out how to capitalize on the country rap phenomenon.
Which begs the next question, is this a craze that will show a predictable lightning-fast life span and quickly fizzle, or are we seeing the long-forecasted dramatic, wholesale, long-term change in the traditional genre formats of American music, where all genres coalesce into one big mono-genre where contrast and diversity between disparate art forms will be resolved, leaving no true regionalism and no cultural separation, just one homogeneous corporate American music culture?
That remains to be seen. But wherever country rap goes, we can say with confidence that the way country music sounds in the summer of 2013 is very similar to the way the mono-genre would sound like if it is realized in the long-term.
Potential Ramifications of Rap’s Infiltration of Country
The benefits of the emerging mono-genre can be the breakdown of musical prejudices across genre lines, but the main impetus is the broadening of markets of music consumers for record labels to take advantage of. Though traditional genres can be helpful to consumers by classifying the style of the music so they can choose if it is worth their time, genres limit the scale of potential consumers for a given music franchise.
The problem with the mono-genre, especially for country music is the potential loss of autonomy and control over the music by the genre, both sonically and through the genre’s infrastructure and institutions. During music’s lost decade of the 2000′s when the industry bobbled the move to digitization, country music weathered the storm much better than other genres because it had its own built-in institutions like the CMA and ACM Awards shows, and the Country Music Association itself which unites US radio broadcasters around the country format. And unlike hip-hop or rock and roll, country music is heavily steeped in tradition, with legacy institutions like The Grand Ole Opry acting as pillars for the music. But if the term “country” can’t define a well-recognized sound, it risks diminishing the effectiveness and viability of these country music institutions in the long term.
Since the beginning, country has taken a submissive role to hip-hop in the formation of the mono-genre. Though you may find some small exceptions, country influences have not encroached on the mainstream hip-hop format virtually at all, and certainly haven’t risen to the point of dominating the hip-hop charts, like hip-hop influences are now dominating the country charts. Helping this trend along is Billboard’s new chart rules that take into consideration sales and plays of music from other genres in rating country artists. So country artists whose songs cross over to the pop or hip-hop formats gain extra points compared to their pure country counterparts.
Hip-hop is in the cat bird’s seat in the mixing of the two genres. Artists like Ludacris, Nelly, and Lil’ Wayne can benefit from the exposure the country format gives them, but hip-hop doesn’t have to return the favor. The reason there are no country-influenced songs at the top of the hip-hop chart is because the hip-hop community would not allow it.
Hip-hop as a genre is secure and confident in its standing with young demographics, and in its future, while country seems to be constantly wanting to apologize for itself and find new ways to attract younger listeners. Hip-hop artists are just sitting back, waiting for the managers of mainstream country artist to call looking for collaborations, and all of a sudden the hip-hop artists’ name and music are exposed to an entirely new crowd.
Some mainstream country artists like Tim McGraw and Taylor Swift have participated in hip-hop collaborations not featured in the country format, but the collaborations are almost always done on hip-hop’s terms, with the purpose of exposing hip-hop artists to a wider audience primarily, instead of vice versa.
The debate about the encroachment of rap and other hip-hop influences into country is much broader than disagreements based on taste. To maintain the autonomy and integrity of country music’s institutions, the genre music keep in check influences from other mediums. The argument regularly made for allowing hip-hop influences to infiltrate the format is that country music needs something new to continue to grow and appeal to new audiences and younger people. What this argument fails to recognize is that rap in itself is an over 30-year-old art form, and that it has a dubious history when mixing with other genres at the mainstream level.
When rap mixed with mainstream rock in the mid 90′s with acts like Limp Bizkit and Linkin Park, it was seen as the beginning of the mainstream rock format losing its identity, and the diminishing of rock music’s control over its radio format and institutions. This gave rise to “indie” rock, and punk and metal undergrounds that purposely avoided mainstream rock avenues and robbed talent from the mainstream ranks. Soon rock ceased to be the catch-all term for guitar-based American music, and country and hip-hop emerged as the more dominant and influential genres. Eventually rock artists like Darius Rucker, Sheryl Crow, Aaron Lewis of Staind, Kid Rock, and many more had to solicit country for support in the aftermath of mainstream rock’s implosion.
It is unfair to completely hypothesize what will happen with the mixing of country and hip-hop by what happened in the past because of the tremendous flux the music industry is experiencing due to the ever-evolving technology quotient. Everything an educated guess at best these days in music. But what we do know is that we will discover what the effects of the mono-genre will be because it is unquestionably upon us. The next question is, will it stick around, or will the mono-genre break back down into its traditional genres in the future? How country music as an institution will endure the changes remains to be seen, but country would be wise to keep open a debate on influence, tradition, and autonomy, with a very long-term perspective always in mind. Because if not, country artists could be finding themselves searching for another genre for support, just as rock artists did in the aftermath of hip-hop infiltrating its genre.
Yes ladies and gentlemen, Joe Diffie—the mulleted, cop mustached 90′s semi-star—has released an “answer” song to what many consider the worst song in country music history, Jason Aldean’s country rap “1994.” Diffie’s new song is called “Girl Ridin’ Shotgun,” and it is as embarrassing as puberty.
Listen, Joe Diffie. Seriously man, I hate to break it to you, but Jason Aldean has no idea who the hell you are. And neither does his body spray-drenched Tap Out T shirt-wearing corporate country fan base. Aldean is just reading lyrics off of a teleprompter, waiting for the concert to end so he can get down to his real passion: plowing through the line of 20-year-olds waiting backstage to give him hummers.
Just sit back and appreciate this folks: These two dudes are releasing tribute songs to each other, yet they’re not friends, they’ve never met, or even conversed according to reports. There was speculation that Aldean and Diffie would share the stage at the ACM Awards in April where Aldean was scheduled to perform “1994,” but nothing came to pass. They spent the effort to erect this…
…yet couldn’t pony up for a Fun Fare on Southwest Airlines to get ol’ Diffie and his mustache to be part of the presentation.
How much money has this Joe Diffie song made Jason Aldean, yet Jason is too busy getting fitted with wallet chains and having his jean pockets embroidered with glitter thread to call Joe on the damn phone? Aldean told radio station 107.7 GNA when asked if he’d ever talked to Diffie, “No. My booking agent Kevin Neal who is a mutual friend of ours, I think he’s talked to him. But I haven’t actually talked to Joe yet.”
Aldean thinks that maybe a mutual friend talked to Joe? What the hell is all this Joe Diffie, “1994″ nonsense about then? You’ll tribute the man in song, but won’t shoot him a text message? Is it because Aldean isn’t paying tribute to Joe, his mullet, his mustache, his pudgy face, or his paltry singles catalog that they pilfered for “1994″ lyrics, he’s actually making fun of it? Maybe Joe Diffie is the jester for their little modern-era, ultra-ironic, making-fun-of-country-music’s-past radio hit, not the king.
And so what does Joe Diffie do about it? Does he bow up? No, he jumps on the bandwagon and begins riding this wave of shitty music and anachronistic fallacy to its fatalistic end by releasing his own country rap song, and with all people, the absolute toilet hole of musical expression, the creatively bankrupt and bottomfeeding D. Thrash from the Jawga Boyz. What, were Colt Ford and The Moonshine Bandits too busy bankrupting a Chinese buffet? No, like Aldean, they didn’t answer Diffie’s calls because they knew this would turn out to be an embarrassment.
Using anything touched by the Jawga Boyz for anything other than removing the result of a bowel movement from your backside is the textbook definition of “slumming.” They are the music equivalent of a bright yellow XXXL Tweety Bird T shirt from Wal-Mart with dried spaghetti caked on the front.
The beats for “Girl Ridin’ Shotgun” sound like they were composed by a 7th grader who just snorted his ADD meds, just like all of the beats of the Jawga Boyz’s bombastic and trashy tracks. The beat doesn’t even get five seconds into the song without going off meter. There’s biscuit crumbs in Joe Diffie’s mustache that could compose a better beat. And then D Thrash’s first line doesn’t even rhyme. Are you effing serious with this song? “Girl Ridin’ Shotgun” makes me want to make out with my cousin and bet on a dog fight.
The video for “Girl Ridin’ Shotgun” meets the demands of the song by being completely devoid of substance, theme, intelligence, or creative expression. Instead we get trucks, chicks, mud, and hot rods, like we haven’t seen this same idiotic shit used over and over.
And the saddest thing for poor old Joe Diffie is that “1994″ has already petered off the country music charts, and never really mounted much of a charge to begin with. It was too awful, too transparent, and Joe Diffie too much of an unknown quantity to the mainstream country listener for it to hold anyone’s attention. So even though Diffie heard the song and got dollar signs in his eyes and delusions of a big career comeback, “Girl Ridin’ Shotgun” will be confined to a narrowcasted YouTube phenomenon (just like the rest of the Jawga Boyz’s songs), appealing only to poor white rural folks who’ve cast off their indigenous culture to take part in corporate cultural front running, and curiosity seekers looking for comedic relief.
Sorry Joe. I’ll still go to bat for you and say who had a few cool songs back in the 90′s, and that your bluegrass album wasn’t half bad, and neither is your chorus for this song. But country rap, and the Jawga Boyz? This is a prayer for relevancy guaranteed to go unanswered.
Two shotguns down!
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