Happy birthday to the late great Townes van Zandt, one of the greatest songwriters of the 20th century, certainly my own favorite. Here is playing fiddle with his best friends Guy and Susanna Clark, along with Daniel Antopolsky.
I’m not addicted to Christmastime. Or to real country music. I can quit either anytime I want to…
BUT I WILL NEVER WANT TO
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.
Country is Texas, Nashville!
Country is family
And it’s emotions and life
It is in your soul.
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
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.
Wednesday night, country rocker Chris Stapleton took the Country Music Association Awards by storm with a clean sweep for the independent and underground country movement with his album “Traveller.”
I’ve been meaning to review Traveller for months. I’ve never blogged as much as I’d like to and grad school makes it even tougher, but here it is, the long-overdue Hard Times No More review of Traveller:
3.75 whiskey bottles out of 5.
You’re asking, WTF? Empsall, did you drink the other 1.25 bottles?
Well, it is the best album I will ever give less than a 4. I give it 3.75 only because of this blog’s lens. If current country radio is the standard, then Traveller definitely gets a 6 out of 5 – let the whiskey overflow across the floor. If good music in general is the standard, 4.5 out of 5. It’s great stuff, but I’m looking for solid country and Americana music that stands up within the genre. On that particular front, this album is track by track. There’s nothing bad, but not really anything that really knocks me out, either. This is a good album, I like Chris Stapleton as a musician, but for this genre, while it’s really good, it’s also overhyped. I also think there’s a certain storytelling element lacking here that’s usually found on the best country albums. There’s a musical theme, but not quite the lyrical one I want.
Don’t get me wrong. I am thrilled Stapleton swept the CMAs. A talented songwriter for pop-country artists who’s also immersed in the bluegrass and traditional country worlds yet is not a pure traditionalist is probably the only workable bridge between the underground and the mainstream, and as I wrote yesterday, Stapleton’s wins give country fans more hope than we’ve had in a decade.
But as for the album itself – for me, it’s a mix. Stapleton’s voice is a bit like Travis Tritt with a twist of Sam Cooke or maybe even Leon Bridges. But while those folks are great and I wish I could stretch a high note like that, it’s not what you expect. If you don’t mind that, if all you want is great music regardless of type, very cool, definitely put the album in your heavy rotation. I certainly enjoy it. I like this album – I’m just reviewing it as a country album. And Stapleton himself, who’s been in Southern rock and bluegrass bands, both genres that I love, has said he doesn’t want to stay in one box.
Producer Dave Cobb can do no wrong, and the album is well produced with a good vision. It’s a little slicker than Cobb’s work with Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, Nikki Lane, Shooter Jennings, etc., but a good vision nonetheless.
My two favorite songs are “Fire Away”, co-written with Danny Green which shows off Stapleton’s wide range and solid tenor voice while staying in a country style, and “Whiskey and You,” co-written with Lee Thomas Miller, and recorded previously by Tim McGraw and Jason Eady. Eady’s cover is one of my favorite songs. Great guitar on both.
“Parachute,” co-written with Jim Beavers, feels like a Bob Seger tune covered by Chris LeDoux. Southern rock, not country, but I dig it.
I really want to like “More of You.” It’s so close to being my favorite, but ultimately misses the top tier. I love the songwriting, the slow melody, the beautiful vocal duet with his wife Morgane, and the Willie Nelson style harmonica. What I don’t love, oddly enough, is the mandolin. Just lightly strumming away on the same couple chords the whole time, it gives the song a high pitch that makes it feel too light. It also feels bluegrass, and while I love bluegrass, that doesn’t seem what this song wants. It should’ve been an octave lower on an acoustic guitar, I think. But I will say this, it grows on me every time I hear it.
The only song I straight up don’t like is “Tennessee Whiskey,” a cover of the Dean Dillon/Linda Hargrove song. I LOVE the song. I heard Jamey Johnson sing it live last month, and it was amazing. I sing it to my girlfriend. Hat’s off to George Jones. But this is a bizarre bluesy cover. Why cover a country classic like a blues song… on a country album? It’s talented, but it feels very out of place. And Stapleton can certainly sing smoothly enough to nail a “smooth as Tennessee whiskey” version.
“Traveller” is a good album. You should buy it. It’s the CD Travis Tritt wishes he had released in the 1990s – he could have done that great cover of “Was It 26”. In a broader sense, it’s certainly another Americana triumph for Dave Cobb. I think it’s immensely overhyped, but it is good, I will listen to it again, I would love to see Stapleton live, and I am so grateful for all that it has accomplished for true fans of true country music. Trigger said it best: “It certainly is something to be taken as a very good sign, even if you’re just ho hum on Stapleton.” Yup, that’s me, but I’ll echo this as loudly as I can: “It’s a win for music of more substance, regardless of who made it, and what style it is.”
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”:
“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.
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.
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.
Clark 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 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, 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.