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 author with Brandy Clark, 06-28-15
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.”
For the past two years, I’ve maintained a large spreadsheet of DC-area Americana/bluegrass/alt-country/etc. shows I’m interested in seeing. I thought I should share it here. I’m leaving DC in late August, but it’ll keep readers in these parts somewhat updated until then.
There are three shows within the next two weeks I’d especially like to highlight:
Thursday, June 25 – Nora Jane Struthers and the Party Line (opening for Honey Honey) – the Hamilton, Downtown DC – I heard Struthers twice at Delfest last month, and just fell in love with her music. Why is she only opening??? Go to this show. Go. Go. GO. FREAKING GO ALREADY. Let’s get her the exposure and fanbase she and the band deserve! Their latest, “Wake,” will be my first album review in many months some time in the month or two. I’m playing it as I write this post, actually. I am really pumped for this show, and am bringing multiple friends, damn the school night. You should come too. I implore you.
My goal in starting this spreadsheet this was not to make a public document, but just to tell my friends what shows I’m interested in attending, if they’d like to come. Therefore, it’s hardly a complete list of ALL the region’s shows – there are some I miss, some I don’t include because I’ll be out of town, etc. – but it’s a pretty good starting place.
Check out the whole list here,updated through my move in late August but a little skimpy in mid-July due to my travel. (Don’t worry about what’s bold or highlighted, that’s personal coding.) Let me know in the comments if there’s anything I should add through Saturday, August 22!
I attended my first multi-day music festival last month, and it was amazing. I spent three nights camping alone at Delfest, mostly a bluegrass festival but with some rock and Americana thrown in, on the West Virginia / Maryland state line. It was all I had hoped it would be. I went for Jason Isbell and the Steep Canyon Rangers; I stayed for Nora Jane Struthers, the Seldom Scene, Old Crow Medicine Show, and so many more.
While life is life and laziness is laziness, it’s very important to me to bring this blog back, whether all at once or slowly over time. Though it’s a few weeks late, I’d like to start with Isbell’s set at Delfest on May 23. He had the 8 p.m. set, so while not quite a headliner, he did have the first set of the night where only the main stage was open, and played as the sky went from full blue to full back.
He was amazing. If you don’t know Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, you HAVE to listen to Southeastern NOW, and then Live from Alabama. Southeastern is certainly one of my ten favorite albums (its depth and personal messages came out at just the right time for me), and after hearing him live, Isbell graduates from one of my ten favorite artists to one of my three (with George Strait and Bruce Springsteen). He’s certainly the best working songwriter today; the Townes Van Zandt of our generation. I won’t go into too much detail since this is a concert review, not an album review. But I do want to highlight three very special moments. If you’re interested, you can find the full setlist here (there was a decent amount of DBT material).
“Cover Me Up” – It shouldn’t have been such a surprise to me that the song that won Song of the Year at the 2014 Americana Music Awards came off this deep and amazing live. While I know Isbell hates his own voice, there was just something about the way he belted out the chorus and hit the highest notes. Even without Amanda Shires there, his then-girlfriend now-wife and sometimes-band-member who pushed him into rehab and for whom he wrote this soulful song, it was still heartfelt, personal, and deep. I was spellbound. I couldn’t even clap at first, despite the loud and powerful energy. I’ve rarely felt this way during a show, but man, that was a performance and that was a SONG. I almost wanted to shush everyone I could hear talking – how could they not feel the power? Until that moment, I’d been a cowboy-hatted, Isbell-shirt-wearing fool screaming his head off, but this shut me up. Wow. Wow. Wow.
So girl, leave your boots by the bed, we ain’t leavin’ this room ‘Til someone needs medical help or the magnolias bloom It’s cold in this house and I ain’t goin’ out to chop wood So cover me up and know you’re enough to use me for good
“Speed Trap Town” – While the only “single” Isbell has put out for next month’s new album, “Something More Than Free,” is the ’90s-indie-esque “24 Frames” (which I didn’t like at first but grows on me every time I hear it), he played two other new songs from the project – “The Life You Choose” and “Speed Trap Town.” Isbell has said he thinks the album will be even better than “Southeastern,” which is a tall order, but after hearing Speed Trap Town, I believe it. I can’t find any clips online yet unfortunately, but wow. What a Southern blend of revering one’s daddy yet hating his ignorant influence, and of loving your hometown because it’s in your blood and it’s who you are but also desperately wanting to leave because it offers nothing. It captures the dualism of life we all feel quite well. The song, while not autobiographical (that would be “Outfit”), was personal and Southern and deep and amazing, and it makes me so excited for the new album. The other new track, “Something More than Free,” was also phenomenal. (“But I thank God for the work, I thank God for the work.”
“Super 8” – The final song of the set, and WOW. I had until that point really been hoping for my favorite Isbell tunes – “Traveling Alone’ or even the unlikely “TVA” – but after that booming performance of Super 8, I couldn’t have cared less. It was raucous, it was long, it was energetic, it was perfect. It’s performances like that that mean it’s not enough to appreciate Isbell as a songwriter through his albums and interviews; you also have to see him live.
I’ll be out of town for his upcoming DC-area show at Merriweather Post Pavilion and won’t have moved to New Haven in time for his show there, but I just might have to roadtrip to Philly to see him there next month. I can’t say enough about Jason Isbell. If I can only introduce friends and readers to one “new” act, this has to be it. Like I said, he’s our Townes, but also with two important Southern touches – big guitars and sweet tea to sip while you rest – to go along with the powerful, personal, very-real lyrics.
I got to meet Chris Thile after a Nickel Creek concert last May. It was well after midnight but, unlike the band’s other two sleepy members, Thile couldn’t have been more amped up hanging out with fans by the tour bus. I asked him if the band’s reunion meant no more Punch Brothers, and he replied, “No way, man! I’ve got way too much musical energy to ever have just one project going at a time!”
The writer and Chris Thile, May 2014
A fitting self-description, because what a month Thile is having. First, on February 7 and again on the 14th, he guest-hosted for Garrison Keillor on Prairie Home Companion – not the show’s first guest host, but the first time Keillor hasn’t even been present for the show. Then, in the middle of that on February 8, he won the “Best Contemporary Instrumental Album” GRAMMY along with Edgar Meyer for “Bass and Mandolin,” and was nominated for three more with both Meyer and Nickel Creek. Now his band Punch Brothers is back on the road in support of their brand new album, “The Phosphorescent Blues” (vinyl|CD). I was lucky enough to see them their third night at DC’s 9:30 Club for what Thile told the crowd was the first time they had ever played three nights anywhere, adding on the date after the first two sold out.
And you guys, Punch Brothers can PLAY.
If you’re unfamiliar with Punch Brothers, they’re sort of a bluegrass-classical fusion band. You could also call them, although comparison descriptions are almost always unfair, the darker side of Nickel Creek. It would also be unfair to call it “The Chris Thile Show” because the other musicians are also great and are showcased well, but Thile is almost always the lead singer and his mandolin virtuosity does take center stage. This is even more true at a live show, where his raw energy can really take over (heck, even half the fun of May’s Nickel Creek concert was watching Thile rock out to “The Fox”).
Punch Brothers’ albums are good, but I absolutely loved Sunday night’s concert. The music, whether recorded or live, is like Nickel Creek bluegrass but with more minor keys and classical influence – co-founder Gabe Witcher plays his instrument as a violin as often as he does fiddle (he’s also the drummer). There are also times when it sounds like Thile’s turn playing on Bela Fleck’s classical banjo album “Perpetual Motion” was a major influence. The difference between the sound recorded and the sound live is threefold. First is the warmth – I can’t explain it, it’s just warmer live, even with all the minor keys. It’s more personal and soulful, not just because the performers are there but the music itself. Second, and this is often the case with bluegrass, the vocal harmonies are just tighter – I absolutely loved the way Thile and Chris Eldridge sounded together live. Third, as I mentioned above and this was true about May’s Nickel Creek show too, is Thile’s energy. It’s not that he jumps around like Garth Brooks; there’s just an irrepressive spirit surrounding every move he makes and infusing every pluck of the mandolin. You can tell this is a man who loves music – you almost expect him to shout at any moment, “Oh boy, I GET TO PLAY ANOTHER SONG NOW! YAY!!!!! I CAN’T BELIEVE IT, ANOTHER SONG!!!” He was good on “Magnet” and “My Oh My” but at his finest for the new song “I Blew It Off,” perhaps my favorite moment of the evening prior to the encore. And oh man, that encore. The band really f***ing brought it for “Heart in a Cage,” their 2006 cover of The Strokes, and another track from the new album, “Little Lights.”
For what it’s worth, if you heard Thile hosting PHC, his stage persona was very much the same with Punch Brothers. The other band members each introduced a song and spoke a little, but it was mostly Thile. Two fun moments showcasing the rest of the band was when banjo player Noam Pikelny introduced the band’s instrumental arrangement of “Passepied” by Claude Debussy (which was what reminded me most of Perpetual Motion). He said that Debussy died tragically – “Tragically in that he did not live long enough to hear our arrangement.” Later, Eldridge announced a tribute to the Seldom Scene – his dad Ben’s legendary bluegrass band, and Punch Brothers did a great straight-bluegrass rendition of “Through the Bottom of The Glass” with Eldridge taking lead vocals and bass player Paul Kowert ripping off a really fun solo.
The last thing I’ll note is how amazing the DC music scene can be – I have to imagine that artists are pleasantly surprised by the crowds they find here. Just like Sturgill Simpson’s show at the same standing-only venue a week before, the crowd was a mix of hipsters and country folks in the city with an even broader age spread. And just like with Simpson, they knew how to sing along, which seemed to thrill Thile to no end. The crowd started strong shouting “Oh Boy!” on the night’s third song, Rye Whiskey, and just didn’t let up – nor did the band. I don’t think anyone wanted the show to end. I certainly know I left feeling happy on the inside, even a little transcendent. I’ll review Phosphorescent Blues soon, but what I really look forward to is the next time I get to see Punch Brothers live. I’m really glad Thile is just 34 – this is definitely someone I want to spend the next 50 years listening to.
What a week for Sturgill Simpson – the GRAMMYs, returning to David Letterman, and “Metamodern” reaching 100,000 in sales. And lucky me, I got to see him right in the middle of it all.
(As of this writing, Simpson’s song “Life Ain’t Fair and the World is Mean” is available for free MP3 download at Amazon.)
Sturgill Simpson at DC’s 9:30 Club, 01-13-15.
It was a pleasure to see Sturgill play at DC’s 9:30 Club Friday night. This was Simpson’s third DC-area show in the past 18 months and his second since hitting it big – and the 1200-capacity venue was beyond sold out. Tickets were $20 face value but climbed as high as $150 on StubHub. Very few shows are worth that much, but Simpson certainly delivered a helluva evening.
The 9:30 Club’s audience skews younger, especially since it’s almost entirely standing-room only. The crowd was a mixture of country natives living in the city, like the friends I was with, and DC hipsters. But no matter who’s in the audience, it is – just 17 months after watching Sturgill and the band play a free show in a BBQ basement to 100 DC residents – a real delight to see 1200 folks all sing along not just to songs from the new hit album “Metamodern Sounds in Country Music” like “Long White Line” but also older “High Top Mountain” tunes like “You Can Have the Crown” and “Old King Coal.”
The band seems a bit shell-shocked by their rapid rise, which Sturgill acknowledged when they came out for an encore – I’m paraphrasing here, but, “It was just three, four months ago we were still playing bars where backstage was the table next to the stage, so we’re still getting used to this encore thing.” A genuine tone, but said with a smile. I chatted with one of the band members afterwards and he laughed about the ascent, acknowledging that it was strange and a whirlwind – but they do seem to be taking it in stride, having a ball, and producing solid music. The instrumental jams and solos were longer than on the albums, as you’d expect, and they were great. Laur Joamets, Sturgill’s Estonian guitarist, absolutely blew the crowd away. And the loudest applause of the night came during “Life of Sin” each time Sturgill sang “The boys and me still working on the sound.” Sturgill said they were all bouncing back from a cold, but after warming up on the first tune, you could never tell. Solid show. (There were only one or two new songs, and their sound wasn’t particularly different, so no preview of the next album yet.)
Sturgill Simpson at DC’s 9:30 Club, 01-13-15.
I’ll mention two tiny negative things. I don’t mean them as criticism but I’d like this blog to feel like something more than constant free advertising for Sturgill – seems like half my posts are little more than me gushing about his music. First, it was an energetic show for sure, though some slower songs like “The Promise” were definitely included – but I would have loved to also here “Hero” and “Panbowl,” two of my favorites. But you gotta play to the crowd. Second, I think the sound levels might have been a little off. If I hadn’t already known the words it would have been tough to understand some of them. Then again, that’s bizarrely just how some people like their shows.
The opener, Anderson East, played a short set and I was held up at the venue’s bar, so unfortunately I missed him, but his first LP comes out later this year – let’s give him his due here:
It’s been 97 days since John Fullbright’s last Washington, D.C., concert, and I’m finally sitting down to write this review. In fact, he’s back in D.C. tonight at the 9:30 Club opening for Shovels & Rope – and if you’re looking for something to do, I can’t recommend him enough. His album “Songs” is one of the best of the year and the concert was amazing, so late or not, no blog would be complete without this coverage.
John Fullbright at DC’s Hill Country, 06-16-14
Bottom line: The June 16 concert, held in the Hill Country bbq market basement, was phenomenal. It was just Fullbright on piano and sometimes guitar, no band. Actually, I think the real word was “captivating.” He had the audience in the palm of his hand all night.
Fullbright’s two albums have very different feels from one another, so one thing that struck me was that the D.C. concert had the vibe of the older album rather than the one it was actually promoting. 2012’s “From the Ground Up” is Oklahoma country, whereas this year’s “Songs” feels more like a singer-songwriter project – and the Hill Country show was very much a country performance. I asked him about that after the show, and he gestured around the room and said, “I mean, look at the venue!” He had a point: There was a giant Texas flag made of denim behind the stage, dozens of framed Texas Monthly covers adorning the walls, and barsigns for Shiner and Lone Star. That means that Fullbright can tailor the same setlist to whatever the environment and audience calls for – a mark of a highly adept, perceptive, and intelligent performer.
Mike Seely wrote a review last week of a Sturgill Simpson concert, held in a small Washington State city park. Given Simpson’s meteoric rise this year, Seely called the show “Sturgill Simpson’s Last Small Stage.” You might be able to say something similar about Fullbright and Hill Country. He’s on tour with Shovels & Rope – hardly the same as the Zac Brown Band but still legit – and he’s racking up the awards and high-profile appearances, even appearing on Letterman last month. Saving Country Music said “Songs” is worthy of being mentioned alongside Tom Waits and Bob Dylan, proclaiming that “John Fullbright sets the standard by which all other songwriters will be measured by in 2014.” And Lynne Margolis of American Songwriter said wrote, “Neil Young was 24 when he released After the Gold Rush. Joni Mitchell recorded Blue at 27… John Fullbright’s Songs could take its place in that same pantheon of hallowed musical masterpieces.” (When I mentioned the AS review to him after the show, I believe his words were “Fuck that noise.” Gotta love a man able to shrug off the pressure and keep focused on the music and writing that matter most!)
My favorite song was the poignant “When You’re Here.” It’s a true masterpiece, but the song that’s probably gotten the most coverage so far is the first track, “Happy” (the one he sang on Letterman), which flips a lot of country songwriting on its head. Instead of dwelling on a breakup’s sadness and using it to fuel his craft in the stereotypical ways we Americana fans selfishly demand, he says he wants to end the fight with a lover instead of winning it, simply asking, “What’s so bad about happy?” Another one that makes me pause is “She Knows” – its list of things only his lover knows about him makes a fun juxtaposition with Ray Charles’ “You Don’t Know Me,” especially since some of Fullbright’s other melodies remind me just a little of that Charles song.
There aren’t really any anthems here, and other than the whistling on “Happy,” nothing really sticks in your head for hours on end for musical rather than lyrical reasons. But that’s not the point. The lyrics are deep and poignant and make you freeze in place, even for friends who were hearing them for the first time in a live venue. This man really knows how to capture those emotions we all feel at rare but powerful moments in our lives, and pairs the lyrics with exactly the right melodies for them – which is precisely what music should do: Take my hand so we don’t get lost // I spent the coin I used to toss// And never knew what luck would cost// Until I bet it in the end // Never claimed to soar so high// That I forgot that I could fly // If you never knew what never was // You’d never cry again
I met him after the show, and we talked a bit about the state of Nashville today and our shared love for the songwriting of Bruce Robison. Fullbright’s tone was genuine and admiring when he spoke about the Texas country singer/songwriter: “Wow. If there was any justice in this world, that guy would be famous in his own right and a millionaire several times over!” Very true, and Robison is a great influence to have. If Fullbright keeps it up, he’ll find at least the same songwriting success Robison has found with three #1 hits, and hopefully also the on-stage success that we agreed Robison – and now Fullbright – deserves.
I 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. 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.
(If you must, you can skip to my actual rating and summary at the end of this post, but whatever you do, buy this album – buy it now. And remember, it’s independently produced, so you’re not giving your money to a rich fat label.)
I wouldn’t use the word savior. Country radio could use a savior, but there’s lots good in country music that doesn’t need saving. That said, I did write last week that what country needs is not a new George Strait but a new Willie Nelson, and that maybe Sturgill would fill that role. That is, someone who can unite the many roots subgenres, create a movement, and eventually push it into the mainstream.
Trigger over at Saving Country Music, who does call for a “savior,” throws some cool water on all that for now. He loves Simpson – his 2013 co-artist of the year – as much as I do, but cautions against the danger of high expectations:
In the long run, for an artist like Sturgill to reach the CMA level, a lot of specific watermarks must be reached, and it’s imperative on his fans, and Sturgill himself, not to set unrealistic expectations that can end up deflating the positive momentum he’s created… Sturgill Simpson is purely country. This means hypothetically that the sky is the limit, unlike with Americana. But the CMA, and especially the ACM are set up to promote the country music industry… Sturgill Simpson isn’t part of that industry.
L-R Drew Ball of the Riverbreaks, Sturgill Simpson, and the writer, Nathan Empsall, in November 2013.
Fair enough. All that said, in every interview Sturgill gives, he seems to be filled with humility and focused more on his own identity, mission, and family than on professional success. “I’m not pursuing a mainstream career,” he told Billboard, “so I feel that I have the freedom to make the kind of records I want to. That’s a good feeling.” To CMT: “I could go back to the railroad. I liked that job.” And to NPR, “To be cliché and incredibly trite about it, I wanna make art… There was a big part of me that wondered maybe if this would be the end of my career. But you can’t worry about those things… A commercial path isn’t something I’m at all interested in pursuing.” And pretty definitively to Rolling Stone:
A lot of journalists, it feels like they want to lure me into being the poster boy, and talk shit about modern country, and I just don’t have anything to really offer there. Because, fortunately, I’ve never pursued that side of the industry, which means I never had the opportunity to be screwed over or have any of these horror stories that you hear about. So for me to sit and talk about that stuff would be insulting to people who have, and extremely naïve… I don’t know where I fit in, but I do know that when I figure it out, it ain’t going to be because somebody else did it for me.
Ok, ok. Let’s give the man some respect, and turn to the music itself.
An Album Review: Metamodern Sounds in Country Music
This is not one of the greatest country albums of ALL time, but it is one of the greatest country albums in a long time.
Sturgill’s previous album, High Top Mountain, had an outlaw sound and a big focus on heartache and life’s struggles. Metamodern is no repeat. It generally keeps a similar sound despite a new band, but the lyrical heartache is mostly replaced with… well, with just about everything else, from black coffee to Buddha and reptile aliens, all of it driving at a bigger point about using love and compassion to get through life.
Sturgill says the album’s biggest influences were 80% his past experiences but also “The Phenomenon of Man by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, and an essay that Emerson wrote called Nature… and then another book by Dr. Rick Strassman called The Spirit Molecule.” Or as he told NPR, it’s his “hobbyist interests… [in] the disguise of a traditional modern country record.” The liner notes also thank Stephen Hawking, Aldous Huxley, and Carl Sagan, and I think that last one’s especially cool because my birthday gift to myself this year was Sagan’s original “Cosmos” on DVD.
And yet, it stays country the whole time, both in its sound – traditional country – and its message, one of love and finding your way in the world. Astrophysics aside, Sturgill, who’s expecting his first child, says the album’s main point is really just the saving power of love for one another – and it shows. “Anytime I ever have met someone that was very angry or full of negativity, nine times out of ten if you really take a good look at that person’s life, there’s probably not a whole lot of love going on there.” Damn straight.
Before going track by track, I will say this: With Metamodern, Sturgill Simpson manages to simultaneously experiment AND keep sight of his roots. Eric Church, Luke Bryan, Jerrod Niemann, and the stations that play them should take notes. Bro-country, EDM, and pop stars like Church defend their music by saying stuff like, “If we’re making the same music as Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash and Hank Williams, why not just listen to that? They didn’t do the music before them, they completely changed.” Well, no, the outlaws didn’t COMPLETELY change – they were experimental, yes, but they kept to their roots. The whole point was to remind Nashville of steel guitars, fiddles, and personal stories, and push back against the era’s poppy homogenization. The problem with the music Church and his crowd are creating is that they “experiment” by merging genres, completely losing sight of their roots.
Sturgill shows them all how country experimentation is done. Let’s take it track by track.
1. Turtles All The Way Down
Metamodern’s opening track has gotten a lot of attention, and for good reason. How many other country songs can you think of that are named for Hindu theology or a Stephen Hawking quote? “Turtles All the Way Down” has the most interesting blend of metaphysical, cosmic, and psychadelic lyrics you may ever hear in country music, with the bottom line that for all the fancy religious theories out there, simple love is the most powerful. The first words on the album are “I’ve seen Jesus play with flames in a lake of fire,” and soon after comes the now-famous line “There’s a gateway in our minds that leads somewhere out there far beyond this plane // where reptile alien made of light cut you open and pull out all your pain.”
But really, this song isn’t about cosmology, and it’s not about space aliens, either. That line is just a spacey way of talking about relief, about having our pain taken away. And what is that takes it away? “Marijuana, LSD, Psilocybin, and DMT, they all changed the way I see // But love’s the only thing that ever saved my life.”
I actually don’t appreciate the swipes Sturgill takes at faith. Yes, belief and religion have caused a lot of pain an destruction, there’s no doubt about that. But let’s not mix up Christ for the Christians – faith can also be the source of the very love Sturgill sings about and encourages us to seek. Like retired Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson, known to most for being the gay bishop but he’s much more than that, says, “Show me the God you don’t believe in – I probably don’t believe in him either.” In fact, when no other person is around to love us, God’s love is still there. And that’s all I’ll say about that, because the underlying message of love is still spot-on.
2. Life of Sin, 3. Living the Dream
Track two, “Life of Sin,” pats us on the back for getting through Turtles. It’s much more what you’d expect from a stereotypical old country album, singing about how his songs come from a heartbreak and drinking himself silly. Next up is “Living the Dream,” the album’s first single. This one’s a bit more convuluted in its metaphysical meaning. I could pontificate but it would sound more like disagreement then reflection if I put it in writing – which is to say, I did put it in writing, but cut it in the editing. Better to just quote the NPR interview again: “I’m learning the less I talk about it, the more opportunity I leave for people to form their own interpretation. ”
4. Voices, 5. Long White Line
“Voices” might have the most poetic lyrics on the whole album. Sturgill writes about the voices pressing in on him, how they’re singing about society’s depression – “the rivers are crying but the oceans cannot speak.” He wishes they’d go away but they never will, and it’s not a sign of the end times because they’ve always been there. Yeah, this sounds like something an Appalachian man would know and should write. Next is “Long White Line,” which like Life of Sin after Turtles, pulls it back to traditional country themes, allowing us to towel off after such a deep dive – his girl’s gone, so he’s hitting the open road. The guitar’s rhythm is something right out of a Cash or Willie album, too.
6. The Promise
The album’s back half then begins with a cover of When In Rome’s “The Promise” from 1988, which starts as the slowest love song of either of Sturgill’s albums, but opens up to a little bit of very effective and appropriate Waylon-esque wailing toward the end. The lyrics, some of the very few that aren’t original, are a beautiful promise to always be there, to be supportive. I don’t care for new wave music but in Sturgill’s style, I see that I love this song. I will offer a slight negative note about the instrumentation though – the mellotron is just a little too sappy. The lyrics really hold their own on this one with the way Sturgill sings them, no need to try and make it more romantic.
7. A Little Light
On “A Little Light,” Sturgill’s vocals are more reminiscent of Randy Travis’s Gospel stint or even George Jones than of the usual Waylon comparisons. It has the feel of a a Gospel song, but the lyrics are a bit broader than just Christianity. Sturgill sings about walking the road to Heaven, but says all you need to get there isn’t a compass or a map but a little light inside you. It’s about love and light within, and I dig it.
8. Just Let Go
I love the first line of “Just Let Go”: “Woke up today and decided to kill my ego // It ain’t ever done me no good no how.” And this line, oh this line: “You have to let go so the soul can fall.” It’s true, like pastor and author Rob Bell says, if your hands are too full of the good, there’s no room left for the great, you gotta set it down. And the uplifting melody and high notes really fit the words. I might have toned down the slide guitar though – oddly enough, it reminded me a little too much of the Finding Forrester soundtrack, which I dig, but in a very different way. That music is more searching, whereas the overarching feeling here is almost like taking a divine bath in God’s refreshing and hydrating light, feeling the relief and love it brings.
9. It Ain’t All Flowers
Then we get to “It Ain’t All Flowers,” and this is where I go, “What the F***?” Lyrically, like so much else, it’s great. It’s about searching the corners of one’s own mind to figure stuff out. Sturgill alternates between howling and almost growling. It works well. But then they play the song backwards, and it switches from dark, psychedelic country — but still country — to something more urban, almost funk with a spooky edge.
I don’t like it, because it’s not me. And that’s completely okay, because this one isn’t supposed to be me. It’s supposed to be Sturgill. If you want to respect a song about plumbing the depths of one’s own mind, then you have to let the writer go wherever that takes him or you’re a hypocrite. And like Sturgill told NPR, this one “stands to represent my own introspective journey I’ve taken over the last few years.” I also like part of his goal here – the means were cool regardless of the ends: “Dave [Cobb, producer and engineer] had the idea: Instead of bringing in synthesizers, why don’t we just attempt to try to recreate some of [popular modern electronica] sounds using analog equipment? Which sounded amazingly fun and challenging, so we were all for it.”
We close with the hidden “bonus” tenth track, “Panbowl.” For the third time, Sturgill tells us, “Wow, alright, took you down a pretty weird path there, didn’t I? Here, let’s have a rest together.” It’s acoustic country influenced by his previous bluegrass career. It’s also a more relaxing song, opening with happy guitar chords. The subject is nostalgia for his Kentucky childhood, and love for his family. That kind of specific love and the stories that back it up are a natural conclusion to the rest of the album’s lyrics, and the acoustic sound helps balance things out. It really is the perfect end to the album.
No matter how weird this album gets, and even without a fiddle, it’s still a country album. This is an album with slide guitars about life, and what else is true country music ever about, really? Whether it’s complex, twisted, and psychological or just simple and emotional, laying your soul bare is still laying your soul bare. Pain is pain and the need for love is the same, no matter how it was we came to see it.
And this is why I say that Sturgill might, just might, be our next Willie Nelson. Metamodern’s foundational sound is what traditional and outlaw country fans look for. It’s experimental and electric enough that Americana and alt-country fans can dig it. Throw in just a few more lighter notes or acoustic sound on even just one track, and you may not appeal to the Lumineers’ indie folk crowd but it won’t keep them away anymore, either. We’ll see what fans do with Sturgill’s stuff over the next few years, but he certainly has the right kind of appeal to be the Willie-esque uniter that roots music needs to punch back against hick-hop.
I’d worry that saying stuff like that puts too much pressure on Sturgill from fans, except for two reasons. First, his last album said, “Life ain’t fair and the world is mean.” Second, maybe he’s not our Willie Nelson. Maybe he’s our Jackie Robinson – like Branch Rickey saw in Robinson, you’re not necessarily the best at the game, but you’re the best at taking the pressure. Like Sturgill told Billboard, “If it’s all good and it’s smoke being blown up your ass, and you start investing faith in it all, that’s a good way for you to set yourself up for a long hard fall. We’re just trying to keep moving forward.”
4.5 whiskey bottles out of 5. I actually originally gave it five out of five for the first 8 hours this post was up, and should probably just leave it there, but something is holding me back. Objectively, this is a much better record than High Top Mountain, which I gave a 5. It’s absolutely a work of creative genius. And like I say, except for “It Ain’t All Flowers” (which I still respect), I love the sound. Sturgill hits the perfect spot of balancing experimentation with his roots. It’s also a big break from the subject material of his first album, showing great range and talent. Making this took a lot of bravery.
But personally, I prefer HTM, just out of personal taste, and feel like my ratings should reflect that. I also feel like something is dampening the sound. Trigger at Saving Country Music said it’s the recording hiss. Maybe. I think it also needs just a little more acoustic instrumentation, maybe some light fiddle, to open up the sound a bit – perhaps in place of the mellotron on The Promise. Not much, just a touch.
Finally, it’s exhausting. The tricks, the nuances, the metaphysics – it really makes you pause and think. You just can’t be neutral about this stuff. In fact, it reminds me a teeny bit of the debut of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Today the Fifth is seen as an innovative masterpiece, but at the time, there was so much new in it that Beethoven’s audience was just confused. I dig this album, and its message of love is spot-on, but it wipes me out – as any country exploration of the soul should.
So yeah, 4.5, maybe even all 5, whiskey bottles out of 5, but also with the hangover that that much whiskey brings.
Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, like Sturgill’s previous record, was recorded in Nashville and produced by Dave Cobb. Except for Cobb, though, the band is all new: Laur Joamets on guitar, Kevin Black on bass, Miles Miller on percussion & backing vocals, Mike Webb on keyboards & mellotron, and Cobb on classical guitar & percussion.
If the Steep Canyon Rangers gave us a great performance at the Library of Concert last night, then Dailey & Vincent put on a good show – and that’s the key difference between the two bands. Performance vs show, an entertaining focus on music vs a musical focus on entertainment.
I don’t say that to sound dismissive. Cornpone and schtick aren’t my thing and weren’t what I was in the mood for, but that’s a pretty subjective statement. I do wish Dailey & Vincent’s show hadn’t overshadowed the music, because there was a lot of talent up there that could have spoken for itself and held its own. But if you like old-timey cornpone fun, you’ll love Dailey and Vincent. The presentation felt like a cross between the Grand Ole Opry and Hee Haw. Jamie Dailey was an obviously but well-rehearsed (and self-promotional) MC who came across as much the earnest host as he did the star. Sure enough, their very first paying gig as a duo was at the Ryman.
The band is fronted by bluegrass musicians and tenors Dailey and Darrin Vincent. The’ve got quite the credentials: Dailey was the lead singer for Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, and Vincent was part of Ricky Skaggs’ Kentucky Thunder. It shows. They’re definitely good musicians – but this is a concert review, not an album review, and music just wasn’t the main focus of their show.
Their bluegrass roots always showed, yet they successfully straddled many genres. There was an electric guitar. The fiddler, BJ Cherryholmes, was very talented, and played as much in a country style as bluegrass. The Gospel influence was felt throughout the show, especially in the a capella quartets. They kicked the show off with a bombastic cover of Phillip Phillips’ “(Make this Place Your) Home” and an audience singalong of John Denver’s “Country Roads.”
The two best things I can say about Dailey & Vincent are first, the band is a worthy musical heir to the Statler Brothers. When all of them sang at once and actually put the emphasis on the music, that’s exactly who they sounded like – and they do in fact have an album of Statler Brothers covers I might well buy.
Second, I’m not sure I’ve ever heard someone sing as low AND as clear as bassist Christian Davis. That young man has an AMAZING voice! And the band knows it, showcasing his deepest notes often (even when it didn’t make sense to do so). Davis gets a lot of credit; I just wish the instruments hadn’t all but drowned out his big solo on the finale.
They were all quite talented, not just Davis. When the front duo of Dailey and Vincent performed a duet – Dailey on guitar, Vincent on mandolin, and both harmonizing as high tenors with some falsetto – it was classic bluegrass and great music.
But it was easy to loose sight of that given the fun, hoopla, and ra-ra jingoism the rest of the show was engineered to get us all caught up in. Take a look at the set they use in this video – that visual captures a lot. Of course I love America, but if every other sentence talks up freedom, praises vets, and gets in your face about red white and blue, it starts to feel forced – more like cheap, jingoistic nationalism than true country patriotism.
It wasn’t all jingoism. Some of it was schtick. Singer and mandolin player Jeff Parker is a real ham – no weight pun intended. He came across as a goofy extrovert who loved to have fun. And that’s not a bad thing, if you’re into schtick! None of this, aside from the nationalism, is objectively a bad thing; it’s just a question of personal preference. If you like cornpone – and I don’t – you’ll love Dailey and Vincent. And if you don’t but you still enjoy Gospel and/or bluegrass, you might still like their albums. There sure was a lot of musical talent up there, and I really look forward to hearing it when there isn’t an act to overshadow it.
Dailey & Vincent are Jamie Dailey, Darrin Vincent, Jeff Parker, Christian Davis, BJ Cherryholmes, and Jessie Baker on banjo, Seth Taylor on lead guitar, and Bob Mummert on drums. They are signed to Rounder Records.