Author: Nathan Empsall

Toby Keith debuted a new song on Stephen Colbert. And I hated it.

Toby Keith has one of the best voices in country music, and he used to use it to crank out some pretty great songs – remember “Should’ve Been A Cowboy,” “Who’s that Man,” and “My List”?

Those days are long past. Toby Keith is a musical wreck right now, and I’m not even talking about Trigger’s July article about the failures of his restaurants and label. Just WHAT was that train wreck on Colbert’s third Late Show last night? Don’t get me wrong – I used to love Toby Keith, and I want to again. Here’s to redemption, but it won’t come from this song, and probably not from next month’s new album.

The song was “Rum is the Reason,” and it’s the third we’ve heard from Keith’s upcoming album “35 MPH Town.” It’s beach country you would expect from Jimmy Buffett or Kenny Chesney, not Toby Keith – though Buffett will appear on a different track, so maybe this signals a new direction for Keith. That could be fine, but, the tune, which Keith wrote with Scotty Emerick, just doesn’t work.  I have no idea what it’s trying to say – it’s just a mess, it’s all over the place. On the one hand, we’ve got a laid-back beach song about enjoying booze like Davy Crockett or Pancho Villa, and the chorus says “I’m having fun.” But then it also lists Stalin and Hitler as problem drinkers, and the main line of the chorus is “Rum is the reason pirates never ruled the world.” So what the hell IS this song, and WHEN am I supposed to listen to it? Is this to relax on the beach and forget my worries, or is it a cautionary tale for those times I need to get something good done but would rather drink with Hitler? (Which, just so we’re clear, is never.)

Like I said, hot mess, all over the place, no sense whatsoever. 1.5 whiskey bottles out of five. Rum is the reason I’m going to forget this song even exists.

The album’s title track is also a mess, lamenting the decline of America’s small towns. In and of itself, that’s not a bad thing, and in some ways, the song hints of a return to the Keith of old, which I would welcome – a slower song about real life, showing off Keith’s voice and deep themes. But despite setting admirable goals, it utterly fails to achieve them.

As Trigger points out, it lists symptom after symptom, without hitting the causes. And I’ll add that it’s the same list of symptoms folks have been complaining about for decades – even though crime and teen pregnancy rates are actually DOWN. We all know something is wrong and we’re scared, but instead of really digging into it and figuring things out, we just turn to the old comfortable tropes. That’s easy to do, but it’s also counter-productive and ultimately quite divisive. And this song is simply a part of that. At least the feel is country; there are no complaints about that here.  1.5 whiskey bottles out of 5.

I may not review it, but I’ll give the full album a listen on Spotify when it comes out, if for one reason and one reason only – Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally, and Bob DiPiero wrote the first track and first single, “Drunk Americans.” All hail Brandy Clark. The song was the album’s first single, and it feels like a more laid-back version of Brad Paisley’s “Alcohol.” I give it three whiskey bottles out of five, and I could definitely listen to it again. It’s a feel-good drinking song about how we can all come together for a beer, no matter what our divisions. It’s relatively shallow; there’s no real social commentary, despite a picture of Boehner and Obama drinking together in the video. But sometimes simple thoughts like that are the most important thoughts, and really, the song is fun and harmless. Which is just the way I like my drinking songs – unlike, say, oh, I don’t know, “Rum is the Reason”.

I’d love to see some more combinations of Keith’s voice with Clark and McAnally’s songwriting talent. Keith himself used to be a good songwriter and he’s still a great singer, but seems to have lost his way. Maybe they can help him find it again – but that’ll probably have to be with NEXT October’s album, not this year’s. We’ll see.

The Steep Canyon Rangers head down that road again on “Radio” – an album review

Few bands mean as much to me, emotionally and personally, as the Steep Canyon Rangers, so I was excited when the band released their ninth studio album two weeks ago. “Radio” was produced by legendary dobro player and fellow-GRAMMY winner Jerry Douglas, who also plays on the album.

You need to buy this album, if for just this one reason: Graham Sharp’s “Down That Road Again” is one of the best new songs I have heard in a long time. In fact, if you don’t count Jason Isbell’s songwriting, it might be THE best new song I’ve heard in years.

The Steep Canyon RangersThe song, with Graham on lead vocals, feels like someone who is finally standing on firm ground but hasn’t forgotten the pain of the past and uses it to warn himself against an imminent fall. The climax of the chorus particularly resonates with me – “Right now I need the kind of friend / Who won’t let me go down that road again.” I have a few friends like that, and there’s almost nothing in this life that I am more grateful for than them. (Waves at Diana and everyone else.) I also like the line “There is a man who looks just like me… If you see him ’round won’t you stop and say It’s not too late.” It reminds me of one of my favorite Isbell tunes, “Live Oak.” We all have those hollow, moments when we feel driftless and unmoored from ourselves.

Empsall and Sharp

The author and Graham Sharp

The music on “Down That Road Again” is every bit as important as the lyrics. It opens with a slow, moving intro from Douglas on steel guitar and best-in-the-business Nicky Sanders on violin (and it really is more violin than fiddle here). But what really gets you is the tight harmonies on the chorus – the slide on “Right now” takes my breath away every time. Douglas certainly deserves producer props for that, as do engineers Julian Dreyer and Clay Miller at Echo Mountain Recording. While the Steeps’ albums have always been great, like most bluegrass bands, the harmonies just don’t come across nearly as well recorded as they do live. “Radio” starts to fix that, and not just on “Down That Road Again” – though this song in particular is one of those moments that really reminds us why music exists. I’m not afraid to say it: This song makes me cry. Thank you, Graham.

Radio is certainly a good album worth a spot in your rotation. That said, aside from “Down That Road Again” and another Sharp tune, “Wasted,” I think I actually prefer both 2012’s amazing GRAMMY-winner “Nobody Knows You” and 2013’s “Tell the Ones I Love.” But don’t get me wrong! This is a good album, and I’ve listened to it half a dozen times already. Other highlights include “Blow Me Away” (embedded below), “Long Summer,” and, if you’re looking for feel-good nostalgia, the title track.

As with the other two Rounder albums, there’s one upbeat instrumental track written by mandolin player Mike Guggino (“Looking Glass”) and 11 solid bluegrass songs – seven by Graham Sharp, three by bass player Charles Humphrey (including two with frequent songwriting partner Phil Barker of Town Mountain), and one from lead singer Woody Platt and his wife Shannon Whitworth. While Woody’s distinctive smooth voice remains lead on seven songs, Graham takes lead on four (in addition to prominent harmonies), which is more than the last two. Since Graham’s voice is deeper with a bit more edge to it than Woody’s, this makes the album’s sound slightly rougher than fans might be used to.

Woody Platt and the author

Woody Platt and the author

But on the uptempo side, the Platt/Whitworth song – “Break” – was a nice surprise, as Woody didn’t write anything on the last two albums, and it features Whitworth alongside him on vocals. That said, it’s always a little chilling, and intimate in an uncomfortable way, to hear a married couple sing about breakups (I’m looking at you, Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis!). But, I suppose that speaks to the strength of the couple, doesn’t it?

There’s one other new thing about “Radio.” Percussionist Mike Ashworth has been touring with the Steeps for a couple of years, but this is the first time he’s recorded with them. While I’m often a purist, I’m perfectly okay with the drums here. The Steeps may have a more traditional sound than some of the other young bluegrass bands out there right now, but Ashworth’s drums, like Woody and Graham’s vocal styles, show that the band is willing to experiment in ways that push the format without breaking it.

4 whiskey bottles out of 5 for 2015’s “Radio.” Given the strength of the last two albums, I might go with 3.5 before 4.5, but I can’t wait to head back to DC and see the band again next month, and if this were a song review instead of an album review, “Down That Road Again” would get 6 whiskey bottles out of 5. You can buy the album on the Steeps’ website.

The songs that made Brandy Clark want to write – a live review of country’s best woman

Brandy Clark is, along with Courtney Patton, the most talented female artist in country music right now, and perhaps one of the three best along with Sturgill Simpson. I was lucky enough to see her at Virginia’s intimate Birchmere on Sunday night, and it was an absolutely phenomenal show. The highlight wasn’t even the songs I already know and went for; it was the encore when she came back out solo to perform four classic country songs that made her want to become a songwriter. I would choose one of those for the video at the end of this review – probably George Strait’s “The Chair” – but I can’t find any on YouTube! I will definitely see her again.

brandy-clark-1-600Clark is linked in a lot of minds (including mine) with Kacey Musgraves, since the two both sing traditional country, released breakout albums in 2013, and often co-write together. But Clark’s songs are more story-based, her style is slightly less poppy, and there’s a little more twang to her voice. Maybe that’s more life experience bringing extra songwriter depth, since Musgraves is 26 and Clark 37? Then again, maybe it’s just style. I’ve seen both of them this year (albeit at very different venues), and while Musgraves plays up the kitsch, Clark bonds with the audience over pure country music. Both are phenomenal, but Brandy Clark is the absolute best, and I was thrilled when she played the GRAMMYs with Dwight Yoakam this year.

On Sunday, Clark’s band was great and came out with a loud rendition of her hit “Stripes“, then closed the same way with “Hungover” (see below) to an instant standing ovation. But honestly, while good, it was what you would expect hearing the album live to be like, just with the additions of the songs she’s written but didn’t record (like Miranda Lambert’s “Mama’s Broken Heart”). I’d go back for that, don’t get me wrong, but the real kingmaker was the solo stuff, and holy crap wow.

Playing the 500-seat Birchmere, she referred to us as the kind of “listening audience” she doesn’t often get to play for anymore. That meant we were treated to that rare-but-amazing classic encore, several more solo performances (including her song “Follow Your Arrow,” a hit for Musgraves), and a song from her six-year old nephew. Best aunt ever? The little man reminded me of a young Martina McBride singing “I’m Little But I’m Loud.”

The author with Brandy Clark, 06-28-15

The author with Brandy Clark, 06-28-15

The encore was four classic songs that she said made her want to write songs herself, the kind you wish you wrote yourself: “The Chair” (George Strait by Dean Dillon and Hank Cochran), “Two More Bottles of Wine (Emmylou Harris by Delbert McClinton), “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” (the Shirelles by Gerry Goffin and Carole King), and “Crazy” (Patsy Cline by Willie Nelson). She cited “You Don’t Know Me (Ray Charles by Cindy Walker and Eddy Arnold) as a fifth but said it was too hard to play. Fair enough.

I loved loved loved that encore, and as much as I respect and enjoy her songwriting, those covers really showed her roots and musical talent. Even though it meant the show ended on a softer note, it left the audience instantly on our feet for a second time. You can see the entire set list here.

The whole show was phenomenal – my buddy said that other than George Strait, it was the best country concert he’s been to (though he does need to go to far more, heh). If you can ever see her, do, and if you haven’t yet, be sure to buy “12 Stories” right now!

Nikki Lane and Town Mountain cover Conway Twitty – A Concert Review

Nikki Lane, Town Mountain, and Grand Ole’ Ditch teamed up for a great triple-threat show at Gypsy Sally’s on Friday night. (Town Mountain and Grand Ole’ Ditch are both bluegrass bands; Nikki Lane is country.) The night’s highlight was when a tipsy Lane came back out to join Town Mountain for a cover of Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn’s “After the Fire is Gone.”

This was the second time I’ve seen Town Mountain at Gypsy Sally’s (and I narrowly missed them at Delfest). Pandora brought them to my attention through their cover of Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire,” and several friends have told me the same. They didn’t play it the last time I saw them, so I was delighted they did Friday. And their fiddler, Bobby Britt, was particularly great on Orange Blossom Special. But don’t think this band is just covers – you gotta love their original song Lawdog. Robert Greer’s award-winning lead vocals are usually more modern – no high lonesome falsetto sound here – but Phil Barker sure hits the high notes on Lawdog. Town Mountain is the bluegrass you’ll ever find at this price point ($18 for three great bands).

Lane was good, too. I like Town Mountain a lot, but I mainly went to see her for the first time, and to round an awesome weekend of great women country artists (along with Brandy Clark and Nora Jane Struthers – reviews coming soon). I was surprised at how free-spirited and bubbly Nikki seemed on stage, given the heartache and struggle present in a lot of her songs. She was pretty rip-roaring on Right Time and Seein’ Double, though – loved those two, and her Waylon Jennings cover. It was fun to hear her tell the story behind “Man Up” (writing it was her passive-aggressive way of telling a now-ex to move out) or talk about setting up “Sleep With A Stranger” and then seeing a nine-year-old with an unhappy mother in the front row (hey lady, you came without listening to the album). She didn’t play my favorite of her tunes, “Love’s on Fire,” but that’s a duet with producer and Black Keys vocalist Dan Auerbach and she didn’t have a male vocalist with her so I guess that makes sense. And as I wondered in my review of her album last year, she is indeed better when her vocals are crisp, not recorded with an intentional muffled vintage sound. I’d love to see her in a festival setting, or at least with a rowdy crowd.

Also, loved this sentiment from her: “Now I’m going to play a brand new song. Or maybe you’ve heard it if you’ve seen me in the last six months – but it’s still brand new! ‘Brand new’ is just various stages of bad, until it’s perfect.

You should also check out Grand Ole’ Ditch, bluegrass out of Maryland. They used percussion and a dobro to create a very forward-leaning sound, their bass player seems like a fun guy, and I like mandolin player Lucas Mathews’ vocals. Here’s a link to a previous show of theirs at the same venue, Gypsy Sally’s in DC.

My list of DC-area Americana concerts through August (Next week: Nora Jane Struthers, Brandy Clark, and more!)

For the past two years, I’ve maintained a large spreadsheet of DC-area Americana/bluegrass/alt-country/etc. shows I’m interested in seeing. I thought I should share it here. I’m leaving DC in late August, but it’ll keep readers in these parts somewhat updated until then.

There are three shows within the next two weeks I’d especially like to highlight:

  • Thursday, June 25 – Nora Jane Struthers and the Party Line (opening for Honey Honey) – the Hamilton, Downtown DC – I heard Struthers twice at Delfest last month, and just fell in love with her music. Why is she only opening??? Go to this show. Go. Go. GO. FREAKING GO ALREADY. Let’s get her the exposure and fanbase she and the band deserve! Their latest, “Wake,” will be my first album review in many months some time in the month or two. I’m playing it as I write this post, actually. I am really pumped for this show, and am bringing multiple friends, damn the school night. You should come too. I implore you.

(I might go for four in a row with Robin and Linda Williams at AMP by Strathmore on Saturday, June 27…)

My goal in starting this spreadsheet this was not to make a public document, but just to tell my friends what shows I’m interested in attending, if they’d like to come. Therefore, it’s hardly a complete list of ALL the region’s shows – there are some I miss, some I don’t include because I’ll be out of town, etc. – but it’s a pretty good starting place.

Check out the whole list here, updated through my move in late August but a little skimpy in mid-July due to my travel. (Don’t worry about what’s bold or highlighted, that’s personal coding.) Let me know in the comments if there’s anything I should add through Saturday, August 22!

This Warren Zevon documentary is devastating

If you haven’t seen it before, watch this VH1 documentary about Warren Zevon’s final year when he lived with terminal cancer while recording a final album, awaited the arrival of his twin grandchildren, turned in a great final appearance on Letterman (the whole hour), and felt deep sorrow and deeper love.

It doesn’t make for easy watching. I played it in the background at work earlier this week, and that may have been a mistake. His reaction to learning that his grandchild would have the middle name “Warren” is priceless, really something special. Reading his diary entries can be particularly heart-wrenching.

I hadn’t realized “Keep Me in Your Heart for a While” was his final song. That’s just… wow. Wow.

Enjoy every sandwich, friends. Enjoy every sandwich.

Chris Thile and Jason Isbell talk about stupid iPhone videos

In recent weeks, I’ve come across quotes from two favorite artists, Jason Isbell and Chris Thile, expressing frustration with concert-goers who watch their shows through the viewfinder of a phone camera or, God forbid, a tablet. What’s interesting is that neither singer/songwriter was upset about losing revenue through unauthorized recordings – both were lamenting artistic problems with the practice.

Here’s Isbell in a 2013 interview with the New York Times:

Isbell reserves special scorn for people who record his shows on cellphones and post clips to YouTube. “It’s an intrusion because I’m not performing for documentation’s sake, I’m performing for people’s ears and their eyeballs,” he said. “I don’t mind the scrutiny of it. We’re good every night. I just feel like people aren’t participating in the community of the room when they’re behaving that way.”

He shook his head. “My favorite thing about going to concerts has always been looking around and thinking that there’s a lot of people in here that are very much like me, a lot of people in here I could have a full conversation with. I might even get laid in this room. You’re not getting laid if you’re standing there with your cellphone.”

Then he laughed and said: “I can’t get too mad. I would have done the same with Neil Young when I was a kid, if I could have.”

And here’s Thile in this year’s January-February issue of relix magazine:

“Now, to be a performing musician is to look out on a group of people who are largely experiencing the concert through their devices—sometimes, with 40 percent of the crowd, you just see iPads and phones, with that barrier between you and them… I’ve thought about that a lot: the continued human desire to connect, to be connected, to be a part of something bigger than you, to have meaningful interactions with one’s fellow human beings. But how we go about it these days is more convoluted than ever. Many times, it’s prompted by a wonderful impulse, which is to share with someone else who can’t be there; that’s a beautiful thing to do and it’s something that’s important, and we, as a band, have benefited from that. But at what cost to the person who actually captured that moment? In our desire to share things with people, we need to make sure we’re not depriving ourselves of a vibrant existence.”

It’s interesting to think about this from the artist’s perspective. As an occasional preacher and former high school debater, I can tell you that, no matter how sneaky you think you’re being, the speaker up front can tell exactly how much attention you’re giving. Closed eyes are obvious; I’m looking right at everyone in the crowd and I know how they’re all reacting. You know if you have the room or not. So if it’s damn ugly to look at a picture and see hundreds of people raising their phones, how bad must it be for the band to look out at that?

But I do take photos – very rarely videos, though I’ve done that too, especially in the more distant past – but I do take photos. And it’s for exactly the reason Thile describes: To share with people who aren’t there. (See: This blog.) I try to just snap a few with different focuses and different stage lighting, put the most focused few on Facebook and Twitter in real time, then say mission accomplished and put my phone away for the rest of the night to take in the show. I used to be a much more egregious offender, but unless you’re a professional photographer, there’s not much chance your 200th photo will be any different than your 20th, and a concert is about sound, not sight, so get your damn Facebook shot and then just put the gadget down.

What do you think? Do you take photos, or even videos, at concerts? Why or why not? Do you agree with Isbell and Thile? Do you think there are important differences here between the fans’ perspectives and the artists’?

Jason Isbell is my favorite, and his new album will be amazing – a live review from Delfest

I attended my first multi-day music festival last month, and it was amazing. I spent three nights camping alone at Delfest, mostly a bluegrass festival but with some rock and Americana thrown in, on the West Virginia / Maryland state line. It was all I had hoped it would be. I went for Jason Isbell and the Steep Canyon Rangers; I stayed for Nora Jane Struthers, the Seldom Scene, Old Crow Medicine Show, and so many more.

While life is life and laziness is laziness, it’s very important to me to bring this blog back, whether all at once or slowly over time. Though it’s a few weeks late, I’d like to start with Isbell’s set at Delfest on May 23. He had the 8 p.m. set, so while not quite a headliner, he did have the first set of the night where only the main stage was open, and played as the sky went from full blue to full back.

EmpsallIsbellHe was amazing. If you don’t know Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, you HAVE to listen to Southeastern NOW, and then Live from Alabama. Southeastern is certainly one of my ten favorite albums (its depth and personal messages came out at just the right time for me), and after hearing him live, Isbell graduates from one of my ten favorite artists to one of my three (with George Strait and Bruce Springsteen). He’s certainly the best working songwriter today; the Townes Van Zandt of our generation. I won’t go into too much detail since this is a concert review, not an album review. But I do want to highlight three very special moments. If you’re interested, you can find the full setlist here (there was a decent amount of DBT material).

  • “Cover Me Up” – It shouldn’t have been such a surprise to me that the song that won Song of the Year at the 2014 Americana Music Awards came off this deep and amazing live. While I know Isbell hates his own voice, there was just something about the way he belted out the chorus and hit the highest notes. Even without Amanda Shires there, his then-girlfriend now-wife and sometimes-band-member who pushed him into rehab and for whom he wrote this soulful song, it was still heartfelt, personal, and deep. I was spellbound. I couldn’t even clap at first, despite the loud and powerful energy. I’ve rarely felt this way during a show, but man, that was a performance and that was a SONG. I almost wanted to shush everyone I could hear talking – how could they not feel the power? Until that moment, I’d been a cowboy-hatted, Isbell-shirt-wearing fool screaming his head off, but this shut me up. Wow. Wow. Wow.

So girl, leave your boots by the bed, we ain’t leavin’ this room
‘Til someone needs medical help or the magnolias bloom
It’s cold in this house and I ain’t goin’ out to chop wood
So cover me up and know you’re enough to use me for good

  • “Speed Trap Town” – While the only “single” Isbell has put out for next month’s new album, “Something More Than Free,” is the ’90s-indie-esque “24 Frames” (which I didn’t like at first but grows on me every time I hear it), he played two other new songs from the project – “The Life You Choose” and “Speed Trap Town.” Isbell has said he thinks the album will be even better than “Southeastern,” which is a tall order, but after hearing Speed Trap Town, I believe it. I can’t find any clips online yet unfortunately, but wow. What a Southern blend of revering one’s daddy yet hating his ignorant influence, and of loving your hometown because it’s in your blood and it’s who you are but also desperately wanting to leave because it offers nothing. It captures the dualism of life we all feel quite well. The song, while not autobiographical (that would be “Outfit”), was personal and Southern and deep and amazing, and it makes me so excited for the new album. The other new track, “Something More than Free,” was also phenomenal. (“But I thank God for the work, I thank God for the work.”
  • “Super 8” – The final song of the set, and WOW. I had until that point really been hoping for my favorite Isbell tunes – “Traveling Alone’ or even the unlikely “TVA” – but after that booming performance of Super 8, I couldn’t have cared less. It was raucous, it was long, it was energetic, it was perfect. It’s performances like that that mean it’s not enough to appreciate Isbell as a songwriter through his albums and interviews; you also have to see him live.

I’ll be out of town for his upcoming DC-area show at Merriweather Post Pavilion and won’t have moved to New Haven in time for his show there, but I just might have to roadtrip to Philly to see him there next month. I can’t say enough about Jason Isbell. If I can only introduce friends and readers to one “new” act, this has to be it. Like I said, he’s our Townes, but also with two important Southern touches – big guitars and sweet tea to sip while you rest – to go along with the powerful, personal, very-real lyrics.

You don’t exist and neither does this music

Just over a week ago, somebody from Nashville who may or may not play a guitar but who we’re supposed to think is important said, “If you’re not on country radio, you don’t exist.”

I say “somebody” because he doesn’t have a name. As far as I’m concerned, he doesn’t exist.

I’d say enjoy these great clips, except apparently when you hit play, you won’t hear a thing, because they don’t exist. If you hear something wonderful, you must be on drugs instead.