Saving Country Music

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.

The blues album Travis Tritt wishes he made: A review of Chris Stapleton’s “Traveller”

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.

TravellerBut 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.”

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.

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.