Music News

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.

BREAKING: Sturgill Simpson to open for Zac Brown

Sturgill Simpson Zac BrownHuge news for the best new name in country musicZac Brown has asked Sturgill Simpson to open for two New Jersey shows on July 10 and 11!

I had planned to see Sturgill open for Pokey LaFarge in Virginia on July 10. But last week, I learned about ZBB’s invitation after Sturgill had to cancel the Virginia gig plus one in Boston on July 13. The news wasn’t public yet and the person who told me didn’t realize I was a blogger, so I waited to post it. But, though no one seems to have reported it yet, it’s officially on ZBB’s site now!

This is Sturgill’s biggest break yet, far bigger than opening for Dwight Yoakam last year. No, New Jersey isn’t exactly a hotbed of country music, but opening for an act as big as Zac Brown will give Sturgill some attention and credibility with a crowd that may not usually pay attention to NPR, the New York Times, or even Rolling Stone – sites that helped propel his second solo, independently produced album to a #11 debut.

If anyone in the country industry was going to give traditionalist Stugill a hand up, it makes since that it would be Brown. He took the bro-country bull by the horns last year when he publicly called Luke Bryan’s “That’s My Kind of Night” “the worst song I’ve ever head.” No, Brown’s music isn’t exactly country, but I don’t say that as a criticism. It’s still roots music — Southern rock, and Brown is the first to call it that rather than country — and if you get past the beach-living singles, his first two albums were really good stuff. If I’m in the car for more than two hours, I’m playing “You Get What You Give” — I call it my roadtrip fuel. If there’s any major mainstream-country concert crowd that will appreciate Sturgill, it’s probably Brown’s. If nothing else, it will certainly help him get noticed by the entertainment reporters who cover Brown.

It’s particularly good news for country music, since it comes shortly before Brandy Clark goes on tour with star Erich Church this fall. Church might be a real asshole and his music isn’t perfect, but it is some of the best on “country” radio right now. Obviously we can’t expect Luke Bryan or Florida Georgia Line fans to hear a new, true country act and suddenly love it, but Church or ZBB crowds just might – and again, there’s the entertainment press that covers them.

I have every intention of driving up to New Jersey for the show, and will of course review it here. You know what Sturgill opening for ZBB kind of reminds me of a little bit is George Strait’s big break. In 1983, Eddie Rabbit got sick and had to cancel a performance at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. Strait, just off his first #1 hit, was called in as a last-minute replacement – and 31 years, 20 more Houston rodeos, and 59 more #1 hits later, he’s finally retiring from touring. It broke my heart to miss his final show down in Dallas – but maybe, just maybe, I’ll get to watch a new legend take off the very same summer another one wrapped things up.

Please don’t leave us, Brad Paisley

Brad Paisley’s music is about as traditional as today’s mainstream country radio gets – he even used to feature George Jones! – so it was troubling to read last month that the new album will feature dubstep and be EDM-inspired. But you know, he did promote it on Prairie Home Companion of all places, and the lousy sound could be limited to just a track or two. It could even just be hyped. So I took a wait-and-see approach – the album’s not even out yet; let’s ignore the rumors and just wait to judge it on its own merits.

But then I read this in this week’s country issue of Rolling Stone:

Think Van Halen in a 10-gallon hat. “I couldn’t have done that in 1989,” Paisley says. But with country borrowing more and more from classic rock, “that kind of playing fits our format now,” he says. “It all becomes country eventually, somehow.”

It all becomes country? NO! Maybe it all becomes country radio, but that doesn’t mean it becomes country. The sound is the sound and country is country – you can’t just relabel the rest!

I love that Paisley’s guitar is taking centerstage with his voice more and more. But can’t it stay country guitar? Or at the very least, do we still have to call it country once it isn’t?

Please don’t leave us, Brad Paisley.

Turns out the Westboro Baptists are not Brad Paisley Fans

It would seem the Westboro Baptist Hate Group has switched from “God Hates F***” to “God Hates Drunks.”

So Brad Paisley, whose song “Alcohol” just made #54 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 Greatest Country Songs of All Time, had a little fun.

SHOT

CHASER

According to the New York Daily News, Paisley “isn’t the first singer to be targeted by the extremist group. Westboro has staged protests against many musicians over the years, including Michael Jackson, Lady Gaga, The Foo Fighters, Taylor Swift, One Direction and Paisley’s fellow country singer Blake Shelton.” I love that while they called Shelton Paisley’s “fellow country singer,” they didn’t give the same label to Swift. That said, after “Boys ‘Round Here,” I’m not sure why Shelton gets the label, but I digress.

As another country reminder for Westboro:

Should country radio split into two formats?

According to Trigger over at Saving Country Music – perhaps the best blog in this space – “The Split of Top 40 Country & Classic Country Is Upon Us.”

Empsall at a George Strait Concert in 2007

The writer at a George Strait concert in 2007

Big Machine Label Group (BMLG) – the label for Reba, Taylor Swift, Florida Georgia Line, and many others – has signed a deal with Cumulus, the country’s second biggest radio conglomerate, to create a new format. They’ll launch stations that only play “classic” country artists from a 25-year period (likely 1989-2014, but I could also see something more like 1985-2010 to bring in more George Strait and Alabama and cut out all, not just future, hick-hop). This comes at the same that BMLG is looking to sign new legends like Garth Brooks and Alan Jackson and just after a station in Kentucky experimented with playing only Garth Brooks (and is now focused on ’90s hits, similar to the new Cumulus format).

This kind of a split would finally acknowledge that Florida Georgia Line and Luke Bryan aren’t even remotely the same genre of music as Trisha Yearwood or even Kenny Chesney. Pros for neo-traditional country fans: Finally the chance to hear “Blue Clear Sky” and “Fancy” on the radio more than twice a year again. Cons: BMLG CEO Scott Borchetta says the format would replace many of the current classic country stations, so all that extra Brooks & Dunn would actually come at the expense of what little Merle Haggard we currently get.

Do I think this split is a good idea? No, and not just because of what it means for country’s distant past. I’m also worried about what it means for the future of country music. Limiting a station format to only certain artists, rather than a certain sound, essentially enshrines that sound in history. It would basically ban any new artists with a neo-traditional sound from the airwaves – they would be neither hip-hoppy or poppy enough for one format nor old or established enough for the other.

That said, I am all for a split in country formats, just not this particular split. Base the split on sound, not time. Make it about the actual music, not a nostalgia for country “oldies.” Mix together all the different subgenres of country and even pop that draw on American roots – neo-traditional country, outlaw country, folk singer-songwriters, indie folk, newgrass – and let the hick-hop and country pop groups go off to do their lousy little thing. That would still accomplish Borchetta’s goal of bringing back Alan Jackson’s full catalog and playing the new stuff from older folks like Billy Joe Shaver, but it would also harness the power of the Avett Brothers to elevate lesser known acts (at least lesser known among the mainstream) like Sturgill Simpson, Nickel Creek, Kelly Willis, and Brandy Clark.

No, it’s not a perfect blend. I’m not pretending that Mumford & Sons and George Strait go together – but they go together a helluva lot better than Jerrod Niemann and Strait do. It may not be a great compromise, but it beats the one that’s been shoved down our throats these past few years, and it wouldn’t shut out newer roots voices like the new Cumulus plan would do.

 

‘Rolling Stone’ launches new country music website with greatest songs list

RS CountryWell now this is  interesting – Rolling Stone magazine launched a new venture today, “RS Country.” It’s a new Nashville office for the new rollingstonecountry.com, and the next print edition will be a special issue focused on country. According to editor Gus Wenner,

Now more than ever, music is all mixed up again. Listen to country radio today, and you’ll hear heavy-metal guitar solos, hip-hop rhythms and EDM flourishes alongside pedal steel and twang: Country now encompasses all of American pop, decked out in cowboy boots and filtered through Music Row. Listen to pop radio, in turn, and you might hear [Taylor] Swift, Carrie Underwood, Lady Antebellum or Florida Georgia Line.

Rolling Stone has always been about storytelling, as has country music – and we’re excited to have a new world of stories to tell. We will treat country the way we treat every other subject we cover: We will take it seriously, we will look beneath the surface, and we will always focus on what brought us here in the first place – the music.

The new website launches with a diverse set of articles covering all aspects of country – an interview with Keith Urban, reviews of the new albums from Sturgill Simpson and Nikki Lane (look for mine later this month or even week), and in true Rolling Stone fashion, their 100 Greatest Country Songs of All Time and a 10 New Artists You Need to Know: Summer 2014 that’s thankfully much heavier on the Americana than the hick-hop.

Both lists bode well for RS’s expanded country coverage. Unfortunately, the only way to read them is as a slideshow, and that’s just stupid. But I did the clicking for you, and here are their top 10 songs:

  • 10. Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson, ‘Mammas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys’ (1978)
  • 9. Dolly Parton, ‘Jolene’ (1973)
  • 8. Merle Haggard, ‘Mama Tried’ (1968)
  • 7. Ray Charles, ‘You Don’t Know Me’ (1962)
  • 6. Tammy Wynette, ‘Stand By Your Man’ (1968)
  • 5. Jimmie Rodgers, ‘Standing on the Corner (Blue Yodel #9)’ (1930)
  • 4. George Jones, ‘He Stopped Loving Her Today’ (1980)
  • 3. Hank Williams, ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry’ (1949)
  • 2. Patsy Cline, ‘Crazy’ (1961)
  • 1. Johnny Cash, ‘I Walk the Line’ (1956)

Looking through the full 100, the ’90s are a little underrepresented – no “Check Yes or No” or “Should’ve Been a Cowboy”??? – but thank Heavens there’s absolutely no Luke Bryan in sight. In fact, after Taylor Swift’s “Mean” from 2010 clocks in at #24 (the hell?), there’s absolutely nothing from after 1987. I also love that Kacey Musgraves’ “Follow Your Arrow” from just last year is #39.

What do you think of Rolling Stone‘s list? Don’t see your favorite? Disagree that “All My Exes Live In Texas” is George Strait’s best? Upset he didn’t have anything higher than #18? Outraged “Goodbye Earl” beat “Golden Ring” or “Pancho and Lefty”? Let’s discuss in the comments below!

Brad Paisley, Bipartisan Patriot

It was big news when President Obama visited troops in Afghanistan this Memorial Day weekend to say thank you. It’s easy to forget that we are still a nation at war – the press and most politicians certainly don’t go out of their way to remind us. So anytime Afghanistan is put back in the news, as an activist and the older brother of an Afghanistan vet, I’m grateful.

In lesser but equally cool news, Brad Paisley, fresh off a great appearance on Prairie Home Companion, joined the president on Air Force One for the trip!

Brad Paisley is one of the few mainstream stars still singing real country – and apparently, he’s also a bipartisan patriot. Brad might have spent this weekend with the Democrat Obama, but earlier this year, he was busy teaching the first President Bush how to take a selfie: