Music News

The First Haikus I’ve Written Since High School, or, A Thank You Note to Country California

I’d like to offer a salute to Country California. Chris M. Wilcox’s one-man operation Country California was one of the best, and perhaps most important, independent and alternative country websites out there. I don’t blog nearly often enough, but when I do, it’s often inspired by something Chris included in a roundup of recent music quotes or country news. I also often appreciated his wit and humor, particularly in his country haikus. We’ve tweeted at each other a little, more recently.

After seven years, Chris is moving on from Country California. He’s certainly earned the right. You can keep reading his stuff, just not strictly about country music and without the news clipping service, at chrismwilcox.com – some new song lyrics on important topics like mass incarceration, and musings on topics like how we use social media for good and for ill. In his honor, I’d like to try my hand at some of them fancy haiku doohickeys.

What, California?
Country is Texas, Nashville!
Also, California.

Country is family
And it’s emotions and life
It is in your soul.

And apparently,
It is California.
Who saw that comin’?

This leaves a void that hopefully someone (not me) will be able to fill soon. That was a fact that Trigger lamented in a recent post on his important and impressive site Saving Country Music, “The Death of the Great American Music Blog.” There have been a number to go by the wayside in 2015 as writers find that adblockers are removing their revenue and folks just aren’t willing to pay for content. As a result, that content disappears. Everybody’s got to make rent, especially full-time writers, so off they go to the mainstream websites and the publicists. The downside to this, Trigger writes, is that

Blogs don’t appear to be getting replaced by anything, except maybe direct interactions between labels, publicists, artists, and the consumer, with no 3rd party to check the validity of the information being delivered, or to offer any perspective or opinion… And all of this could hurt independent, and small-time artists looking to get noticed more than it will larger, major label artists. Losing music blogs and websites for more economically-viable or technologically savvy replacements is one thing. Replacing them with nothing, and having the music industry itself fill in the void through bias, paid content could result in much bigger issues than no good place to read about your favorite bands.

Hard Times No More will likely never occupy the kind of space Saving Country Music does and Country California did. Music is my passion, but justice and faith are my calling. I would love to find a way to do this full time, but I’d also love to be the play-by-play man for ESPN’s Wednesday Night Baseball, and I think it might be fun to ride unicorns with Teddy Roosevelt across New Zealand. These things ain’t gonna happen. Maybe one day I’ll have both the time and energy to post three substantive articles a week. That would be nice. But I tip my hat to the folks who make this space run and who give it their all for even a few years. I hope that someone else will ride up to be their calvary – those of us with medical or students deferrments need you to win this for us.

The country landscape
It has become full of hope
Now, a little less

Still, we keep singing
Music is universal
Roads goes on forever

Good luck to you Chris
Thanks for all you’ve done for us
But really, try Texas

Jason Aldean’s Racist Halloween Costume

Jason-Aldean-Halloween

H/T Saving Country Music

Saving Country Music is reporting that pop country star Jason Aldean dressed in blackface for Halloween.

Make no mistake about it: Dressing in blackface as a white person is, whether intentionally or not, an incredibly racist thing to do. And it was barely a month ago that Aldean was also slamming the women of country music.

How do we know what’s racist? By listening to those who are minorities when they tell us what they find hurtful. I am only an expert in my own story. You are only an expert in yours. We must all listen to one another, and trust and respect what we hear.

One of the reasons I post so less often than I would like here at Hard Times is that, as of this past August, I am blessed to be a seminarian at Yale Divinity School. Yale’s been in the news a bit lately over some racist incidents of our own. As you may have heard, the school’s Intercultural Affairs Committee emailed all undergraduates and asked them to choose against wearing “culturally unaware and insensitive” Halloween costumes, specifically mentioning blackface, turbans, and Indian headdresses. A residential dean flipped out, charging that asking students to make such a choice is censorship and that minorities should just look away. This dean is white, but had no trust in minority students with experiences different than her own when they spoke out about their pain and politely asked others to stop causing that pain. She has not handled the incident well since then, either, only deepening the pain. Worst of all, this comes on the heels of a frat turning away black women from a party, letting in only white women. As a result of these compounding incidents, many minority students do not feel welcome here.

How do we know what’s racist? Again, not by looking at the motives behind the action, but by listening to people when they tell us what hurts them. Not everything I do is about me, so I must be careful not to confuse my intent with my impact. Once I’ve learned that I’m having a negative impact, then no matter what my original intention, I need to stop. Yet despite decades of black Americans and American Indians telling us that wearing blackface and headdresses hurts them, many – like Jason Aldean – continue to do so anyway, and when confronted, show thin skin and make someone else’s pain about themselves by screaming against “political correctness.” (Aldean hasn’t had a chance to respond to this breaking story yet; that is a generalization of similar incidents.)

Aldean may well be a good man with a pure heart and maybe he didn’t have racist intentions. I don’t know, and it’s really not the point – his actions were racist nonetheless, and he needs to apologize. Unfortunately, with this costume coming on the heels of his sexist comments in September, that won’t be enough. The country music industry, and its fans, needs to set a better image and hold up better role models. Jason Aldean appears to be self-absorbed with little regard for the pain or realities of women or Black Americans, and he perpetuates Southern stereotypes. I hope he finds redemption, but he should have absolutely no place on country’s center stage anymore.

Who is Chris Stapleton?

Last night, country rocker Chris Stapleton took the 2015 CMA Awards by storm, shoving bro-country and country (c)rap out of the way to win Male Vocalist of the Year, New Artist of the Year, and with best-in-the-business producer Dave Cobb, Album of the Year for May’s “Traveller.”

Chris Stapleton straddles country and Southern rock, and previously, bluegrass. So he’s not strictly country – we’re not talking outlaw style like Sturgill Simpson or a traditionalist like Dwight Yoakam – but he can write and perform that way when he wants to, and he is damn good at what he does.

Despite the “New Artist” tag, you’ve heard his work if you listen to either mainstream radio country or bluegrass. From 2008-2010, he was the lead singer for that great bluegrass band, the SteelDrivers. As a songwriter, he has six #1 hits, and wrote or co-wrote four songs I really enjoy: “Your Man” for Josh Turner, “Love’s Gonna Make it Alright” for the king, George Strait, “Drink a Beer,” the only recent Luke Bryan performance I can deeply respect, and “Whiskey and You” for Tim McGraw, though I prefer Jason Eady’s version. You might have also heard “Never Wanted Nothing More” for Kenny Chesney, “Come Back Song” for Darius Rucker, and “Crash and Burn” from Thomas Rhett.

He’s also got an amazing beard that can almost compete with Jamey Johnson’s.

Does this mean the tide is turning? Not on its own, no, but it helps. Kacey Musgraves did well (not as well, but well) at the 2013 and 2014 award shows, but still hasn’t had mass radio play (though both albums were #1). That said, when you add these awards to Sturgill Simpson’s quick rise to the top; Jason Isbell and Alan Jackson’s iTunes album sales in July; attention for quality artists from major industry figures like Zac Brown, Justin Timberlake, and Blake Shelton; and the quick downfall of Sony exec Gary Overton after disparaging independent music, fans of Americana and actual country music have more momentum and more cause for hope than at any time in the past decade.

But remember: While Stapleton is authentic, he isn’t strictly country. As he told Rolling Stone, “I don’t like to put things in a box all the time. If I’m feeling like rock, we’ll do some of that, and if I’m feeling some other way, we might do some of that.” Look to him to make good music, but not to be a singular force that “saves” country radio or the industry.

I’ll have my review of “Traveller” in the next few days. Here’s one of last night’s duets between Stapleton and Justin Timberlake:

And here’s Jason Eady covering Stapleton’s “Whiskey and You”:

Jason Aldean is a sexist

“Country” star Jason Aldean told the Washington Post that all country’s little ole females are the same. Put the men on stage and the women in the kitchen, or at least in the dressing room for after the show.

“I feel like a lot of times female singers, to me, when they’re singing – and I’ll probably kick myself for saying this – a lot of times, it just seems like I can’t distinguish one from the other sometimes if I just listen to them, you know?“ Aldean said. “A lot of times they just sound really similar to me.”

You know what, Jason? It’s a helluva lot easier for me to tell Brandy Clark from Kacey Musgraves from Courtney Patton from Sarah Watkins than it is to separate out your rapping dreck from that of Brantley Gilbert or Luke Bryan or Tyler Hubbard. Go soak your head in a bucket of Bud Light and cow piss.

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.

A new song from George Strait and Asleep at the Wheel! (Some from the Avetts, too)

GeorgeStraitandRayBensonGettyImagesOn March 3, Asleep at the Wheel will put out their fourth tribute to the legendary Bob Wills. That’s pretty good news in its own right, but it gets even better: The album features the first new music from George Strait since he retired from touring last year!

The album will also feature the Avett Brothers, Lyle Lovett, Merle Haggard, and more. With a hat tip to Texas Monthly, here’s the Strait/Benson collaboration on “South of the Border”:

And here they are doing “The Girl I Left Behind Me” with the Avett Brothers:

Goodbye, Todd Snider, We Hardly Knew Ye

It’s a rough quote for Todd Snider fans to digest, from a Kansas City Star interview:

“I don’t know what I’m going to do. I think I may not do any more Todd Snider. I might start over. I won’t pretend my name didn’t used to be Todd Snider, but I do want to put an end to that body of work. I feel it stands by itself. I want to put a period at the end of all those songs…

The songs I make up now don’t make very much sense. I work them really hard but, it’s hard to describe. They’re from a different place. I just don’t think I feel like I can make up any more songs like the songs I used to make up.”

He adds that he’s really loved playing with his new band, “Hard Working Americans”, which has taught him a lot about songwriting and also about not holding the spotlight.
I can’t blame Snider for wanting to hang it up. On the one hand, the one time I saw him live (Alexandria’s Birchmere, September 2012, and he was the best storyteller I’ve seen this side of Arlo Guthrie), he gave a more full-throated defense of not getting tired of the stuff you wrote than I’d ever heard. On the other hand, if his music reflects his life, then the philosophy he borrowed from Aaron Allen of always living life such that you can pack up everything you own and move in less than 15 minutes just isn’t sustainable. There’s more to the life God gave us than that – sometimes, you’ve got to put down roots to bloom, or you just keep watering yourself with the bottle. And while that produces great music, we really shouldn’t wish that empty pain on anyone, least of all the people who entertain us.
So if Snider’s ready to move on, whether it’s for more work with “Hard Working Americans” or a completely new solo chapter, I say, I can’t wait to see what’s next.
 And the equally delightful Part Two of that story, advice comin’ back round years later:

Remember that Luke Bryan is a 38-Year-Old Father of Two Children

Once you’re on the float, you’re on the float. And then I’m like, ‘Alright, don’t get drunk. Don’t get drunk. Don’t get drunk.’ And I don’t know if there’s any way around that, and then I’ve got to do the show at like 11:30PM, so man, we may have a no cell phone clause on that show, a no Youtube (video). See, first of all, I’ve never been to Mardi Gras, and I’m the worst about getting excited about something and then overdoing it. So, yeah, I’ll be toast.

Luke Bryan in Taste of Country, as quoted by Country California. His two children are ages 4 and 6. Good to know he’s got no discipline or self-control, that’s clearly the kind of guy who makes the best husband and father.

I like to end most posts with a YouTube video, but I refuse to post one of Luke Bryan. But this is probably just as appropriate.

 

Brandy Clark is Finally Getting Her Due (and also, my friend Shelly can SING)

Just a quick overdue post to say how excited I am about the mainstream media finally discovering Brandy Clark. (And what’s this? Back-to-back posts for the first time in months? Maybe I really am getting back in the saddle! )

Clark, along with Kacey Musgraves, was a big new name in 2013. Her album, “12 Stories,” was one of the year’s finest – honestly, while Musgraves might have the better voice, I liked Clark’s album better, and she even gets credit for co-writing Musgraves’ hit “Follow Your Arrow.” When people say it’s the women who are keeping country alive right now, they’re absolutely right, and these are the first two names that come to mind whenever I hear that refrain.

To date, Musgraves has been the one getting solid label support, and now Clark can claim that mantle too. Not only was she nominated for two major GRAMMY awards – Best New Artist and Best Country Album – she even performed during the televised portion of the award show, getting her some major exposure (it led to exactly the kind of massive boost in Spotify and Pandora plays you’d hope for). Dwight Yoakam provided harmony and guitar for her song “Hold My Hand” – and while I was initially irked that Yoakam was relegated to a backup role, he was actually perfect for it, giving the song just the right extra touch it needed. Like George Strait’s movie Pure Country, they stripped away all the GRAMMY hoopla and just sang – no lights, no pyrotechnics, no dancers or slideshows, just music. And y’all, it was one of the biggest standing ovations of the night.

On the heels of that performance, Clark is Yahoo’s Artist of the Month – and when Reba’s new album drops in May, it will feature THREE songs written by Clark. Check out her GRAMMY performance here, then go buy 12 Stories.

Trigger recently wrote that Clark’s “12 Stories” has the feel of formulaic songwriting by committee. I disagree (with the exception of the one she wrote for Toby Keith… fair enough, Trigger). Even if it is a committee, Clark is the chair of that committee, and they’re producing good stuff. As for formulaic – well, maybe, but if so, it’s a good formula, tried and true. Clark’s songs are stories about life’s harder moments, which is one area where country music really excels. They may not be overly personal or deep, but they do resonate with real life. And they truly are stories, even without being ballads, and with good melodies, which is all more than you can say for more than most of what’s out there today – but I think she also would have done well in past decades. So, here’s the rare bravo to the mainstream for grabbing a solid country act and lifting it up.

On a related note, my friend Shelly Page recorded a cover of Clark, and y’all, SHELLY CAN SING. Her cover is a little more poppy than country – electric instead of acoustic with a little less less twang, sort of reminiscent of the great women of the ’90s – but it’s still damn good. And when a song is good in multiple formats by multiple artists, you know the quality isn’t just the artists but also in the song itself. Anyway, check Shelly’s video out, then click around to check out a few of her other videos too while you’re at it.