Unless you were stuck on an island recently, I’m sure the article called “10 Lamest Americana Acts” by the once prestigious, and now click-hungry newsweekly alternative known as L.A. Weekly passed under your nose. Making short work of some of Americana’s (and country’s) most important figures, it glossed over all of their greatest attributes and legacy strong points, and instead harped on their shortcomings, of which we all have.
Not that Saving Country Music is above pointing out an artist’s flaws, but it’s a sign of respect to do so in the context of also giving them whatever credit is due. So in that spirit, here are the 10 artists presented by L.A. Weekly and in the same order, but filling in the positives and counterpoints left out of their piece. And in 7 of the 10 cases, the material comes from previously-published articles on Saving Country Music, proving this isn’t just an exercise in ingratiation or opportunism, while curiously offering a natural rebuttal to the original L.A. Weekly article’s most strident points.
10. Sam Outlaw
In the end, it’s the music that matters. Sam Outlaw was never going to win any authenticity contests. And who exactly is authentic in country music these days except for James Hand? Many will tell you that Los Angeles is the antithesis of country music, but where do you think the backbone of the Bakersfield sound resided? B-Town was never much more than a stretch of honky tonks and few grocery stores. The artists there had to head to L.A. to record at Capitol and acquire their Nudie Suits. The Palomino Club and side streets of L.A. have always been a harbor for country sounds from the surrounding Western landscape, and the Singing Cowboys of the silver screen were arguably the first commercial adaptation of country music.
Sam Outlaw can’t change his past and pretend he’s a honky tonk roughneck, nor should he try to. And anyone who bases their appeal of music on who it’s coming from as opposed to the music itself is putting an undue limitation on their listening experience.
“I’m Not Jealous” and “Country Love Song” show some serious skills at writing country songs, though they are both steeped in to completely different classic country eras. The strings of “Angeleno,” and the Mariachi horns of “Who Do You Think You Are? ” are indicative of the high production value of the by-gone “Nashville Sound.” For the most part, Angeleno is one strong song after another, and after a few minutes, you’re much more interested in the music than the back story. (read more)
9. Jack Grelle
A breath of fresh air in the country space, Jack Grelle’s approach of bringing thoughtful and though-provoking lyricism to traditional country modes makes his music a full-bodied and unique experience. Originally from St. Louis and sometimes seen opening for fellow Missourian Pokey LaFarge, Grelle has shared the stage with some of country music’s finest, including Billy Joe Shaver, Chris Stapleton, and Dale Watson.
8. Wayne “The Train” Hancock
Wayne Hancock has more handles than a chester drawers: The Train, The King Of Juke Joint Swing, The Father of Underground Country, The Viper of Melody. He deserves every single one of them, yet none of them nor all of them combined seem to do justice to the enjoyment and influence his music has dispensed over the years.
A new Wayne Hancock album is like a gift from the country music gods; the same gods that bestowed upon him the capacity to be the closest living thing you can find to Hank Williams today (according to Hank Williams III among others), yet still be a wholly unique artist who finds himself in the very exclusive ranks of true music originators–those rare musical souls who’ve germinated their own genres and genealogy trees full of new artists inspired by their work.
Even if he hangs up his guitar tomorrow, he will still go down as one of the most influential artists in American music, a true forefather of Americana, and one of the originating sparks of the roots music revolution. (read more)
7. Jason Boland and the Stragglers
If Red Dirt spans a wide sonic palette that ranges from hard country to straight rock n’ roll—with alt-country, country rock, Southern rock, and even some country pop thrown in between—then Jason Boland is the hard-edged bookened defining Red Dirt’s country border. In other words, it is pretty difficult to be more country than Jason Boland and the Stragglers.
Jason is a true, legacy Red Dirt artist who did his time at “The Farm” near Stillwater, Oklahoma where the Red Dirt movement sprung from, rising up right beside Cody Canada, Stoney LaRue, Mike McClure and all the rest. But Boland left there not with the country rock hodgepodge sound that Red Dirt has come to be known for, but with a reaffirmation in serving country music straight, believing that the power of the story and the moan of a steel guitar or Telecaster is enough to stir the soul without having to resort to catchy rhythms or wanky guitar solos to hold people’s ears. (read more)
6. Shovels & Rope
Shovels & Rope are The Civil Wars for the rest of us. Not pretty, not polished, no Johnny Depp look-alikes here. Just two oddball musicians smashed together in a strange, yet weirdly-intuitive pairing to make music how we like it: raw, untethered, and rabidly infested with emotion.
By all accounts Cary Ann Hearst is bat shit crazy, but that’s okay because she has just enough sanity to harness her wicked creative bone and effuse it with wild energy and an impressive vocal range. Michael Trent is like the rock that Cary Ann swings around as the two swap instruments in a very stripped down setup of guitar, bass drum, and other orphaned percussive accoutrements procured along the way that they play too loudly sometimes, and mostly in-time.
The chemistry of Shovels & Rope is what makes them shine. The sincerity of the music, and their ability to seamlessly blend vocals allows them to ascend beyond their otherwise humble setup and skill sets. Cary Ann even says it in the track “Birmingham” which also acts as their de facto introduction and theme song: “Played Springwater, Station Inn. Couldn’t play fast, couldn’t fit in.” What she can do though is sing in high register with that Loretta coal-grit in the back of her throat and awaken something deep and familiar in the music, especially when Michael Trent joins in on harmony. (read more)
5. The Devil Makes Three
What The Devil Makes Three does so well is the same thing Pokey LaFarge does: they pick up on all the subtleties and nuances of vintage string music, not just the big, obvious flavors and modes. What then separates The Devil Makes Three is they pay that appreciation forward with a punk attitude. With so many of the string bands around these days—you darn near need to affix a cattle guard to your coach just to shoo them all aside when driving through a college town. The sentiment seems to be that vintage instruments and curly mustaches are all it takes. They don’t pick up on the nuances that made old time music timeless. They’re simply playing new music with old instruments.
The Devil Makes Three are not fast players. They don’t set your head spinning with blazing technique or technical song structures made to impress you with their prowess. They simply know how to meld melody to story like few others, making their songs stick to your bones and embed in your brain until you downright crave this music. Anyone with enough time and disciple can learn how to move their fingers quickly. It’s a whole other skill set to be able to listen to music and deduce how it speaks directly to the human soul. (read more)
4. Gillian Welch (and David Rawlings)
One of the absolute gems of American roots music, Gillian Welch has used her unparalleled passion and studious practice of American roots music to be one of our generations most devoted and successful practitioners of the old songs in a way that is both revitalizing and respectful to the original expressions.
3. Jason Isbell
In the natural world they’re referred to as apex predators and alpha males. They’re the ones that rule the roost and crest the food chain. They’re the specimens of natural design that exhibit the ideal mix of physical abilities and/or favorable disposition to become the creatures all others are measured by.
It may be true that a good 90% to 95% of Americans wouldn’t recognize the name “Jason Isbell” if they were asked at random. That’s just one of the trappings of being an independent music artist . . . not necessarily a commentary on Isbell’s abilities or impact. But in the Americana phylum, Jason Isbell is the first suggestion one would have to offer if asked to give an example of the discipline. Jason Isbell would be the person pointed to when asked for an illustration of premier songwriting. Jason Isbell would be the name to give as an example of how country music could improve or “evolve” in the mainstream. And Jason Isbell would have to be person named as the one that rules the roost and is the measuring stick for sizing up his contemporaries, whether he relishes or even accepts that role or not.
Jason Isbell is the big dog, and you better pay attention when he releases an album, whether your wool is dyed in Americana colors, or you’re a country, folk, or rock fan peering into the Americana world from the outside in. (read more)
2. Robert Ellis
“Hipster” is an often-overused and ill-defined term for people to describe others that they generally don’t understand and that happen to be young, and many times white. As time marches on, hipsters seem to be standing out less, and the term generally tends to just represent young artistic-minded white people in general who rely on elements such as exclusiveness and irony to define their cultural attributes. Their perspective is steeped in a whole new set of parameters compared to the multiple generations of slightly older to much older music listeners from many past generations whose musical understanding is centered around structured ideas of eras, genres, and generational gaps.
At any point in the greater country music realm, there’s going to be that one artist that sets the cutting edge for artistic expression and critical merit to where a consensus surrounds them as someone other artists should measure themselves against. They make critics swoon and cultured music fans nod with approval, as NPR, American Songwriter, and other such outlets regale them with the highest accolades, no matter how much their music may remain elusive from the mainstream perspective.
Texas native and current Nashvillian Robert Ellis is certainly a candidate to take that critical acclaim baton from Jason Isbell and run with it as an artist who seems to effortlessly deliver songs with cutting emotional moments in an awe-inspiring display of deft creativity. There’s this sort of graceful command to his songwriting, a confidence beyond his years, to where even when he turns a phrase that you can anticipate or that feels tired, he’ll throw a little hitch in the timing almost as to announce to the listener it’s cliche, in turn erasing the banality of the moment. (read more)
1. Lucinda Williams
If you don’t like Lucinda Williams’ whiny ass, you can kiss mine.