Nickel Creek

I Bought the Wrong Album, and it’s T Bone’s fault – The Secret Sisters: “Put Your Needle Down” (2014) and “Secret Sisters” (2010)

mainI saw the Secret Sisters — Laura and Lydia Rogers — live at Washington, DC’s 9:30 Club in early May, opening for Nickel Creek. I wasn’t previously familiar with them, but I loved them. Their tight-knit harmonies were great, Laura had a great stage presence between songs, and the song-writing was strong. Small wonder, since the women are originally from Muscle Shoal, AL, but their band was good, too. Everything was forceful yet light, and you could understand the lyrics — it was a great show in every regard.

My friend — a woman, for whatever the diversity of our perspectives on this is worth — and I both thoroughly enjoyed the performance of “Rattle My Bones,” so at the merch table after the concert, I asked for whichever album that was on. Turns out that was “Put Your Needle Down,” out just three weeks before.

I think I bought the wrong album.Secret Sisters In an interview with Billboard, Lydia Rogers acknowledged that this album is different from their first one, and worried that they might lose people because the duo wrote most of the songs themselves this time. Actually, I think the songwriting is very strong, and I commend the two for it. The vocals are wonderful, too. The problem is that the legendary T-Bone Burnett, the executive producer for the first album, was the hands-on producer for this second album. I hate to say it, but it sounds like virtually every other recent T-Bone Burnett album. Loud bass, some minor keys, slide notes held way too long, too much echo on the vocals, repetitive guitar rhythms, etc., all to produce a haunting, gloomy sound.

I actually like Burnett’s sound. It’s perfect for new, broader audiences, so if you don’t know who he is, you might love this album. The problem is, while he’s still doing wonders for movie and TV soundtracks, when it comes to producing albums, it feels like he’s coasting. His is an approach that would elevate almost anyone on country radio but more or less homogenizes true Americana talent. If you’re going to homogenize, do it this way, absolutely – but why homogenize if you don’t have to?

Burnett was also the executive producer, but not the producer, for the Secret Sisters’ eponymous 2010 first album — and it felt like a Burnett album would feel if he let a Bakersfield sound dominate his own. I love it. More importantly, the hands-on producer for that earlier album was David Cobb, who was also behind Jason Isbell’s “Southeastern” (the best album of 2013), both of Sturgill Simpson’s amazing projects (the second-best albums of both 2013 and of 2014 so far), and a lot of work for Jamey Johnson and Shooter Jennings. Additionally, Country Hall of Fame pianist Pig Robbins and Waylon Jennings alum Robby Turner, both of whom joined Cobb on Sturgill’s debut album, played on the Sisters’ first album. Together, the three helped the Secret Sisters sound like a modernized, edgier, Patsy Cline if Patsy Cline were a soprano with a close-harmony backup. And while the sisters might claim they see that album as one of standards, their original “Tennessee Me” was absolutely great. Give that 2010 album even more confidence and turn its Bakersfield sound to alt-country, and that’s what I saw and loved last month in DC.

I wish 2014’s “Put Your Needle Down” gave me a similar feeling. But honestly, for a majority of the tracks, swap out their tight harmonies for a solo male voice and you’ve got actor Jeff Bridges’ eponymous, Burnett-produced 2011 album. Which I did like, just as I like this one — it’s just that neither are anything special. Again, the T Bone Burnett sound: Loud bass, some minor keys, slide notes held way too long, too much echo on the lead vocals, etc., all to produce a haunting, gloomy sound. Sometimes that really works, creating a great balance by swinging back and forth with a ’50s feel on “Good Luck, Good Night, Good Bye” — my favorite song after the driving “Rattle My Bones” I bought it for. Unfortunately, it comes on strong even when it’s not warranted, too. Nowhere is this more true than the second track, “Luka,” especially on the outro.

And that’s all Burnett, not the Sisters themselves. They’re good singers and good songwriters. Great songwriters, really – Bob Dylan even allowed them to finish a song he’d started 30 years ago but never finished, “Dirty Lie.” And take the self-defense, strong-woman murder story of “Luka,” or these lyrics from “Bad Habit,” co-written with Brandi Carlisle: “I’ve got a bad habit, one that I’ve been trying to keep… I can’t break this bad habit, ’cause this habit’s breakin’ me.” So I like this new album. I really do. The songwriting is tight and diverse and the harmonies even tighter, with that Everly Brothers comparison everyone made in 2010 especially shining through again on “Lonely Island.” But it feels like it could be just so much more, especially after seeing them live.

Three whiskey bottles out of five for 2014’s “Put Your Needle Down,” and up it four if you dig both alt-country and the 1950s yet despite those tastes have somehow never heard or tired of T. Bone Burnett.

Four out of five whiskey bottles for 2010’s debut, “Secret Sisters.” I really like the mix of their modern vocals with traditional instrumentation on that one. I hear a lot of Bakersfield here and I absolutely love it.

And albums aside, if they’re performing near you, I certainly recommend going. Buy your ticket now and have a great night. Burnett might be too focused on his other projects, but the Secret Sisters themselves are a great duo.

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.

 

What country music needs is another Willie Nelson

In a Texas Monthly cover article devoted to George Strait’s retirement from touring, Craig Havighurst argued that there may never be another George Strait.

George has been my favorite singer since I was 11, so I don’t say this lightly, but I would submit that what country and roots music need is not a new George Strait, but a new Willie Nelson.

Willie’s greatest accomplishment isn’t any one song or album, helping pioneer the outlaw sound, or even managing to make one beat-up old guitar last this long. It was the bringing together of diverse crowds that had always been at odds and finding among them common ground, new friendship, and a powerful movement. Like Bruce Robison sings,

“Like a miracle all those rednecks and hippies // From New York City down to Mississippi // Stood together and raised a brew // When it’s all gone wrong, what would Willie do?”

We need someonImagee to do that again – someone who can unite the red dirt cowboys, the Mumford hipsters and Lumineer moms, and the old singer-songwriter foagies.

Think about it. I went to a Nickel Creek concert earlier this month in Washington, D.C., and the audience was incredibly young – dare I say largely hipster. Now I’m not saying that that’s newgrass’s main demographic. It was the venue, the 9:30 Club, more than anything. Still, it was encouraging to see such a young crowd at a fundamentally bluegrass show.

And take indie folk, definitely a big draw for college students and hipsters. Personally I like Mumford and Sons, but I know a lot of folks find them insufferable. That’s fine, but love them or hate them, there’s no denying the influence folk and bluegrass had on their instrumentation and harmonies. Of course they’re not Americana, they’re British! But while Marcus Mumford, the Lumineers, and their ilk may be more of a response to pop than country, they are still our distant kin.

And yet, I would wager that the Mumford and Nickel Creek crowds of the east coast bear very little resemblance to a red dirt festival in Oklahoma or a Kacey Musgraves home crowd in Texas.

The question is, how can we elevate roots music and take back country music from hick-hop light beer bros? How can we build a coalition large enough to make the record labels take notice, the way they noticed George Strait in 1983 and turned away from Nashville easy listening to the neo-traditionalists? We need some way – someone – to unite the the subgenres and create a movement.

L-r: Drew Ball of the Riverbreaks, Sturgill Simpson, and the author, Nathan Empsall

L-R: Drew Ball of the Riverbreaks, Sturgill Simpson, and the author, Nathan Empsall

Maybe, just maybe, Sturgill Simpson will bring together the hipsters and cowboys the way Willie brought together the hippies and bikers. He’s a country traditionalist but one who’s not afraid to experiment, and after refusing to compromise with the major labels, his independent second album smashed through and debuted at #11 this month. Who are the crowds taking notice and driving that to the top? He comes from Kentucky coal country but has been featured on NPR; are those audiences coming together to give Metamodern Sounds in Country Music such a big boost? And will radio take notice?

I don’t know. But whether Sturgill is the next Willie or not, he’s at least a herald – if not the roots Messiah, then maybe our John the Baptist, proving that a better future is coming soon. That said, I don’t mean to put pressure or expectations on him; his art is already a breath of fresh air that speaks for itself. I’d say let’s just cross our fingers, but you can’t pick a guitar with crossed fingers. Instead, pour another round, play that Uncle Tupelo album one more time, and we’ll see what we see when we see.

UPDATE: After writing this post, I did some more reading, and found that Trigger over at Saving Country Music makes a similar arugment.