I got a new toy – a portable turntable! My best friend, a real audiophile in Seattle, recommended three, and I picked the one with the best ratio of five-start to one-star reviews on Amazon.com: a three-speed model from Jensen.
The inaugural record, playing as I write this quick post: Jamey Johnson’s “Living for a Song: A Tribute to Hank Cochran” from 2012, featuring duets with Alison Krauss, Merle Haggard, George Strait, willie Nelson, and more.
I’ve got a much bigger record player at home in Idaho that looks like a giant chest, with huge built-in speakers, an AM/FM radio, and a busted 8-track player – there’s no hauling that out to D.C., but mentioning it does give me a chance to give a shoutout out to the annual KPBX Recording and Video Sale! If you’re in the Spokane/Coeur d’Alene area this winter, be sure to check it out – tons of cheap used records and gear every January/February. Last I knew, all discs were $2, but that may have increased to $3 or $4 in the years since I’ve been for all I know.
It’s been 97 days since John Fullbright’s last Washington, D.C., concert, and I’m finally sitting down to write this review. In fact, he’s back in D.C. tonight at the 9:30 Club opening for Shovels & Rope – and if you’re looking for something to do, I can’t recommend him enough. His album “Songs” is one of the best of the year and the concert was amazing, so late or not, no blog would be complete without this coverage.
John Fullbright at DC’s Hill Country, 06-16-14
Bottom line: The June 16 concert, held in the Hill Country bbq market basement, was phenomenal. It was just Fullbright on piano and sometimes guitar, no band. Actually, I think the real word was “captivating.” He had the audience in the palm of his hand all night.
Fullbright’s two albums have very different feels from one another, so one thing that struck me was that the D.C. concert had the vibe of the older album rather than the one it was actually promoting. 2012’s “From the Ground Up” is Oklahoma country, whereas this year’s “Songs” feels more like a singer-songwriter project – and the Hill Country show was very much a country performance. I asked him about that after the show, and he gestured around the room and said, “I mean, look at the venue!” He had a point: There was a giant Texas flag made of denim behind the stage, dozens of framed Texas Monthly covers adorning the walls, and barsigns for Shiner and Lone Star. That means that Fullbright can tailor the same setlist to whatever the environment and audience calls for – a mark of a highly adept, perceptive, and intelligent performer.
Mike Seely wrote a review last week of a Sturgill Simpson concert, held in a small Washington State city park. Given Simpson’s meteoric rise this year, Seely called the show “Sturgill Simpson’s Last Small Stage.” You might be able to say something similar about Fullbright and Hill Country. He’s on tour with Shovels & Rope – hardly the same as the Zac Brown Band but still legit – and he’s racking up the awards and high-profile appearances, even appearing on Letterman last month. Saving Country Music said “Songs” is worthy of being mentioned alongside Tom Waits and Bob Dylan, proclaiming that “John Fullbright sets the standard by which all other songwriters will be measured by in 2014.” And Lynne Margolis of American Songwriter said wrote, “Neil Young was 24 when he released After the Gold Rush. Joni Mitchell recorded Blue at 27… John Fullbright’s Songs could take its place in that same pantheon of hallowed musical masterpieces.” (When I mentioned the AS review to him after the show, I believe his words were “Fuck that noise.” Gotta love a man able to shrug off the pressure and keep focused on the music and writing that matter most!)
My favorite song was the poignant “When You’re Here.” It’s a true masterpiece, but the song that’s probably gotten the most coverage so far is the first track, “Happy” (the one he sang on Letterman), which flips a lot of country songwriting on its head. Instead of dwelling on a breakup’s sadness and using it to fuel his craft in the stereotypical ways we Americana fans selfishly demand, he says he wants to end the fight with a lover instead of winning it, simply asking, “What’s so bad about happy?” Another one that makes me pause is “She Knows” – its list of things only his lover knows about him makes a fun juxtaposition with Ray Charles’ “You Don’t Know Me,” especially since some of Fullbright’s other melodies remind me just a little of that Charles song.
There aren’t really any anthems here, and other than the whistling on “Happy,” nothing really sticks in your head for hours on end for musical rather than lyrical reasons. But that’s not the point. The lyrics are deep and poignant and make you freeze in place, even for friends who were hearing them for the first time in a live venue. This man really knows how to capture those emotions we all feel at rare but powerful moments in our lives, and pairs the lyrics with exactly the right melodies for them – which is precisely what music should do: Take my hand so we don’t get lost // I spent the coin I used to toss// And never knew what luck would cost// Until I bet it in the end // Never claimed to soar so high// That I forgot that I could fly // If you never knew what never was // You’d never cry again
I met him after the show, and we talked a bit about the state of Nashville today and our shared love for the songwriting of Bruce Robison. Fullbright’s tone was genuine and admiring when he spoke about the Texas country singer/songwriter: “Wow. If there was any justice in this world, that guy would be famous in his own right and a millionaire several times over!” Very true, and Robison is a great influence to have. If Fullbright keeps it up, he’ll find at least the same songwriting success Robison has found with three #1 hits, and hopefully also the on-stage success that we agreed Robison – and now Fullbright – deserves.
In one, I dreamed that George Strait had an album called “Personal,” similar to Johnny Cash’s posthumous “Personal File” – different versions of his famous hits, covers of favorite songs, traditional gospel and folk classics, etc. One of the tracks I dreamed was on “Personal” was a stripped-down, slower version of his #1 hit, “Wrapped.” When I saw Wrapped’s songwriter, Bruce Robison, in concert earlier this year, he explained that the song was supposed to be a sad one – he’d written it at a point when he and his then-ex-gf now-wife were broken up and it was tearing him apart. But Strait made it sound like a happy upbeat song about just being in love. Robison said he likes the happy version more, but when I stop and read the lyrics thinking of it in the context of an ex rather than a current love, it makes a lot of sense as a sad song too, yearning for that one love you can’t escape: “It feels like ages since you laid down in my arms // I see no good reason but still I’m tangled in your charms // My God, you’re smilin’, you catch my eye // My heart is pounding deep inside.”
It’d be very interesting to hear Strait sing it that way.
My other dream was less country/roots, but still about music. I was sitting on the floor in front of a piano with eight pedals, kind of drunk, and discovered that I could play simple tunes with just the pedals. That was weird.
Earlier this week, I wrote a review of the new George Strait album, which was completely ruined by overuse of autotune (not as a T-Pain-style instrument, but turned up so high the voices didn’t sound human anymore). When I mentioned this, a friend wondered if maybe Strait is losing a step and needed the help to bolster his voice. No.
I’m sure this was justified in a loud, crowded arena to help the voices carry, but it was a terrible decision for a recording – and in response to my friend’s question, completely unnecessary. Check out this video I found from earlier this year of Strait picking up a guitar and singing a couple impromptu bars at a charity auction with no sound equipment – the voice is perfect!
I have never been as disappointed in an album as I am the live recording of George Strait’s final tour concert, “The Cowboy Rides Away.” Not because it’s a bad album, but because it should have been so much more. George Strait is the greatest recording artist I have ever heard, BAR F*ING NONE. The concert was amazing and both he and his fans deserve so much better than this travesty. I can’t believe I’m writing a bad album review for GEORGE FRIGGING STRAIT.
One word: G*D DAMNED AUTOTUNE. Okay, that’s two words. But listen, I’m in the process of becoming an ordained minister. I am not taking the Lord’s name in vain here – I’m simply literally asking the divine to DAMN THE MONSTROSITY THAT IS OVERUSED AUTOTUNE AND THE SIN THAT IS CALLING IT MUSIC. ENOUGH ALREADY.
Don’t get me wrong. From the clips I’ve watched, George Strait’s farewell concert was exactly what it needed to be, and we all know the legendary career. There is none greater in the history of country music and if you think Hank or Cash can beat it then just shut up because I’m a Texan and what I’m doing right now is called hero worship. I wish to high heaven I could have been in Dallas in June. But this God-awful album is chalk-full of autotune, and nothing else can shine through. You can hear it on most tracks, but especially on George’s voice on “The Cowboy Rides Away” and “I Can Still Make Cheyenne,” as well as Alan Jackson’s on “Murder On Music Row.” It even dominates the gorram fiddle on “Fool Hearted Memory.”
I can see how autotune would help the voices carry across a crowded arena of 104,000 screaming fans and I wish I’d been one of them – but recorded?
No, just, no.
There’s a reason Luke Bryan and Florida Georgia Line did not perform at the King’s last show. At least Jason Aldean pretended to be the old Jason, not the new Jason. This was a farewell salute to REAL country music. So what the hell was autotune doing so prominently on the album, even if it was necessary at the show? You can say it’s fine music, and you might not be wrong, but that don’t make it country.
This is not George Strait’s first foray into autotone. There were those couple lines in 2001’s “Stars on the Water“. But, that was one track on one album – I can’t blame anyone for experimentation. A mark of a true professional is trying, failing, recognizing it as failing, and moving on. And that’s what George Strait did, for 13 years – so I can only blame MCA for this bullshit.
King George’s next studio album – as he’s only retired from touring, not recording, and is already back at work in the studio – can’t come soon enough to wipe this bloodstain from our ears. In the meantime, just stick with 2003’s “For the Last Time: Live from the Astrodome“.
Two whiskey bottles out of five. The songs and singers are of course four or five bottles because it’s GEORGE STRAIT, but frick this should have been done better. This was clearly a fast turnaround by major-label execs who saw big dollar signs and wanted to make a quick buck – it has nothing to do with respecting fans paying homage to the best musical career in four decades. Money over music, everything Strait’s (admittedly poorly acted) movie strained against. No, just, no.
Ah, hell. At least it included the Martina McBride duet on the old Cash favorite, “Jackson.” That was a lot of fun when I saw the show in Philadelphia, so, that’s something.