E145’s closed up shop, but our writers are still out there. Here’s where you can find ‘em:
David Cantwell will be writing regularly about books, reissues, and more for No Depression.
Sam Gazdziak will be doing reviews and features for Country Universe and Country Standard Time.
Barry Mazor’s a busy guy, having just published Ralph Peer and the Making of American Roots Music. You can read all about what he’s up to in his final Roots Watch.
Ken Morton, Jr. will keep updating his blog, That Nashville Sound. Ken also helms the annual Golf & Guitars benefit concert/golf tournament each year in Sacramento.
- Bob Montgomery passed away at the age of 77. From Robert K. Oermann’s MusicRow.com obituary: During his six-decade career, [Montgomery] made major contributions as a songwriter, record producer, music publisher and label executive. Bob Montgomery’s song catalog includes such standards as “Misty Blue” and “Love’s Made a Fool of You.” He produced records that boosted the careers of Vern Gosdin, Janie Fricke, Bobby Goldsboro and Joe Diffie. He published such iconic songs as “Behind Closed Doors” and “The Wind Beneath My Wings.” He created hit-making rosters for the record labels United Artists, Epic and Columbia.
- Bluegrass DJ Ray Davis passed away on December 3 at the age of 81. His career in broadcasting began at the age of 15 and spanned 65 years.
- Kellie Pickler covering Kitty Wells? Yes, please.
- Gillian Welch talks about tragedy in Southern folk songs in this fine Salon.com piece. An excerpt:
[Nothing] is forbidden in this tradition. You get just the facts – “She picks up the knife and kills herself.” And the only thing you get less of is why. “Because she had a dark and roving eye.” Not, “Because she slept with so and so and so and so …”
The understatement is part of the function of these songs – they’re not really about titillation. It’s not a cheap thrill. We’re talking about tragedy. It’s not an action thriller – it’s not about the chase, about him hunting her down and killing her.
These tragic songs serve several purposes. They let us know that these things happen to people – and if they haven’t happened to you, they could. And they tell you, you need to have compassion. (It’s like the deepest tradition of the lullaby – branches break, and cradles fall. We sing that to children.) And for people who are closest to the tragedy, it’s even deeper.
- Billy Joe Shaver is incapable of giving a boring interview. Here’s the latest gem.
- David Cantwell posted an excerpt from The Running Kind about Merle Haggard’s Christmas recordings.
- The Dawn Sears & Friends benefit concert, featuring Reba McEntire, Riders in the Sky, and The Time Jumpers, raised more than $100,000 for the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center. (via press release)
- Read Jewly Hight’s latest No Depression piece, in which she chats with Alynda Lee Segarra of Hurray for the Riff Raff and Abigail Washburn.
- Rolling Stone published Keith Richards’ lovely remembrance of Bobby Keys.
- Isn’t there enough suffering in the world without a Florida Georgia Line and Benji and Joel Madden (Good Charlotte) collaboration adding to it?
- SiriusXM is paying customers in 44 states $3.8 million in restitution for “misleading advertising and billing practices.”
- Check out a new Cale Tyson song called “Two-Timin’ Blues.”
- The 2015 Grammy nominations are being announced all day on the official Grammy Twitter account. Here’s what we’ve got so far:
Dierks Bentley – Riser
Eric Church – The Outsiders
Brandy Clark – 12 Stories
Miranda Lambert – Platinum
Lee Ann Womack – The Way I’m Livin’
Kenny Chesney – “American Kids” (Rodney Clawson, Luke Laird, Shane McAnally)
Miranda Lambert — “Automatic” (Nicolle Galyon, Natalie Hemby, Miranda Lambert)
Eric Church – “Give Me Back My Hometown” (Eric Church, Luke Laird)
Glen Campbell – “I’m Not Gonna Miss You” (Glen Campbell, Julian Raymond)
Tim McGraw featuring Faith Hill – “Meanwhile, Back at Mama’s” (Tom Douglas, Jaren Johnston, Jeffrey Steele)
- A few years ago, blogger Danger Guerrero mentioned that it sounds a little bit Brenda Lee drops an f-bomb in her recording of “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.” I’ve never been able to unhear it, and so I’m sharing it for any fellow 12-year-olds who are amused by such things. As he points out, “It sounds almost like a really frustrated Mom yelling at her uncooperative children. ‘JESUS CHRIST! Will you two knock it off?! LATER we’ll have some f—in’ pie and we’ll do some caroling, but not unless you STOP FIGHTING and FINISH YOUR DINNER.’”
- Sara Evans, Hunter Hayes, and Maddie & Tae are among the presenters at the American Country Countdown Awards on December 15.
- The L.A. Times published a feature on Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn.
- Hunter Hauk of Cowboys & Indians takes a look at the music of Justified, including the different versions of “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive” from the season finales and Dave Alvin’s “Harlan County Line.”
- Punch Brothers’ The Phosphorescent Blues (produced by T Bone Burnett) will be released on Nonesuch Records January 27.
- Also out on January 27: T. Graham Brown’s Forever Changed. The album includes guest appearances from Vince Gill, Leon Russell, and The Oak Ridge Boys.
Reba, Brooks & Dunn Announce Vegas Residency; Ian McLagan Passes Away; Punch Brothers Release New Song
- Ian McLagan passed away yesterday in his adopted hometown of Austin. He was 69 years old. The New York Times’ obit focuses on Small Faces and his work with the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Chuck Berry, and Bruce Springsteen, but he also played keys on numerous country and roots records: in the last couple years, he appeared on recordings made by Lucinda Williams, Jennifer Nettles, Robyn Ludwick, and Chelle Rose, to name just a few. Check out the impressive discography posted on his website.
- Reba and Brooks & Dunn announced a residency at the Colosseum at Caesars Palace in Vegas that’ll begin June 24, 2015.
- Rosanne Cash’s The River and the Thread took the No. 1 slot on the Americana Music Association’s most-played albums of the year list, which is based on the Americana Airplay Chart. Check out the full list of 100 albums here.
- The Wrinkle Neck Mules are releasing their sixth album, I Never Thought It Would Go This Far, on February 17. (via press release)
- Sarah Jarosz performed Cat Stevens’ “The Wind” for MyMusicRx’s Bedstock. Watch here.
- Scott Borchetta’s going to be a mentor on the upcoming season of American Idol. Big Machine will also release the winning contestant’s music.
- Listen to Jamey Johnson and Lily Meola’s take on “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.”
- Tim McGraw is part of the Headwear Hall of Fame’s (yes, this is apparently a real thing) Class of 2015. He’ll be inducted alongside folks like the best Bond, Sean Connery, and turban-wearing, cat-fighting Dynasty treasure Joan Collins.
- If you’re looking for things to add to your Christmas list, Uncrate posted an gift guide for audiophiles.
- Punch Brothers released “Julep” from their next record.
- Bluegrass duo Feller and Hill will release a gospel album in 2015. (via press release)
- National Geographic visited Bristol and spoke with directors at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum and Carter Family Fold. (warning: autoplay)
- Carrie Underwood teamed with Dick’s Sporting Goods to create Calia, a line of workout clothes.
- CMT Edge premiered Kristin Andreassen’s (Uncle Earl) “Azalea.”
Bobby Keys Passes Away; New Photos of Johnny Cash at San Quentin Unveiled; The Ark Celebrates 50th Anniversary
- Bobby Keys passed away yesterday. The 70-year-old saxophone player was best known for his work with The Rolling Stones, but he also toured with Buddy Holly and played with folks like Chuck Berry, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Joe Ely, Dr. John, and many, many more.
- Craig Shelburne of CMT Edge interviewed filmmaker Joe Saunders, co-producer of the documentary Billy Mize and the Bakersfield Sound.
- Folk/rootsy venue The Ark in Ann Arbor is celebrating its 50th anniversary next year with concert and film series, workshops, and more. Jason Isbell and Amos Lee are among the headliners for the 2015 Ann Arbor Folk Festival in January. (via press release)
- Esquire published ten never-before-seen photos of Johnny Cash’s 1969 San Quentin performance.
- Blue Ridge Outdoors’ December Trail Mix features music from The Drive-By Truckers, Old 97s, Over the Rhine, and many more. Download it for free dollars here.
- Grady Smith weighs in on country music’s drinking problem: These days, the entire format seems intoxicated by the idea of crafting party-hearty anthems meant to appeal to frat stars and alcoholics above anyone else, and its homogeneity is making for a rather bland listening experience…The trend can perhaps be attributed to the swift decline of rock radio in the United States. Country stations have worked hard over the past decade to lure in the disenfranchised male rock fans that are unable to hear Poison or Kiss in their cars by amping up country’s electric guitars and doubling down on edgier party tunes that maintain the hair-metal mystique of drunken debauchery.
- If you missed last night’s Artists of the Year special on CMT, you can watch the full episode here. Or if you’re strapped for time, just watch these 90 seconds of everybody talking about how excellent Merle Haggard is, then maybe check out Eric Church, Ashley Monroe, and T Bone Burnett’s performace of “Workin’ Man Blues.”
- Walt Wilkins, Josh Grider, and Drew Kennedy’s recorded a version of “If We Make It Through December.”
- Kennedy, Courtney Patton, Ben & Micah Hester, and Jamie Lin Wilson are taking part in The Modern Trade’s Southern Gospel Revival. Three performances have been posted already; Wilson’s is going up tomorrow.
- Jamie Lynn Spears’ country EP and that godawful Big Machine Motley Crue tribute record made The A.V. Club’s Least Essential Albums of 2014 list.
- Commercial bluegrass station WFNL 102.3, which had been broadcasting in the Raleigh area since World of Bluegrass in late September, has been shut down.
- The Steel Wheels launched an Indiegogo campaign to raise funds for their next album.
- Phosphorescent will release a live album on February 17.
- The second half of Austin City Limits’ 40th season begins on January 3 with an episode featuring Nickel Creek and The Avett Brothers.
- Song/video premieres:
JD McPherson & Nikki Lane – “How Insensitive”
Larkin Poe – “Don’t”
The Vespers – “Sisters and Brothers”
So here we are at the last “Roots Watch,” folks, in, I’d say, the best of circumstances. I jumped at the chance to be one of the veterans of The 9513.com who joined Juli Thanki here at Engine 145 because I was certain she’d be introducing a quality, significant online publication in this space, and maintaining that quality and significance. I think it’s safe to say, going on three years later, she’s long since proved that that was a good call. Others have noticed it, too, and the quality of her own writing (and work ethic) in particular, so we’re about to have the pleasure of her regular company in Nashville as she moves here to report on music for The Tennessean. The paper’s to be congratulated for the good sense displayed in that call.
I won’t be alone in missing Engine 145—as a reader, but also as “Senior Columnist,” my title here in the “guy who’s been around, with (alleged) perspective” slot. It’s been a great and unusual pleasure to have had the virtually free reign over subject matter Juli’s afforded me, across the country and roots music spectrum, wherever events and releases and occasionally even thoughts have taken me.
And truly, this broad musical arena always suggests plenty to think and talk about, for those of us inclined to do those things. Country music—traditional or less so—Americana, blues and its offshoots, Western Cajun Hawaiian Bohemian Folk Flux—speak to people and keep on speaking to people in deep ways that are provocative, and sometimes in less deep ways that are still no less worthy of tossing around. It’s music that lasts—and also constantly changes, which is a pretty good thing from the standpoint of a reporter/commentator, because even when looking at music first made decades ago, editors and readers have a right to expect the report to be news, not olds.
I found this territory ripe when I was writing about Asleep at the Wheel, John Prine, James Talley, Tampa Red, Hank Williams and Buddy Holly for Crawdaddy forty years ago, or about Anita Carter, Tom Waits, Dale Watson, Raul Malo, Gene Austin or Little Miss Cornshucks for No Depression, a stand which began exactly 15 years ago this month, and when I was interviewing Kitty Wells, Earl Scruggs, Merle Haggard, Porter Wagoner, Roger McGuinn, Jack Elliott, Kris Kristofferson, Garth Brooks, Dwight Yoakam and James Cotton for the Wall Street Journal, where I’ve been contributing going on a dozen years. That list is meant to be neither a resume nor a valedictory, just a chart of where I’ve been. But I’d never, until this column, approached these topics from such a “first person” place. I’m still not completely at home with how often that word “I” comes up this way, but I thank Ms. Thanki for the space to see how it goes when it does.
For those interested, I mean to keep right on doing the job of relating, often translating for differing readerships what there is and who there is to care about in this music.
I’ll continue to contribute to the Wall Street Journal, though more in the capacity of straight critic/reviewer of country and roots music, going forward, than as a reporter. And I now expect, after the first of the year, also to be contributing regularly to the promising new music site cuepoint, which sports the slogan “An ear for the new, a heart for the classics,” and that sounds and reads like a good place for me. I’ll be in some excellent company—mostly out of the broader pop and rock world—holding up the country and roots music commentary and reporting end and trying to do justice to both in that context, with some new sorts of translation to be done.
I’m scheduled to make some appearances in the weeks ahead regarding my new book, Ralph Peer and the Making of Popular Roots Music. (Chicago Review Press.) Among those: a day of programs on the country, blues and Latin sides of the Ralph Peer story at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles on February 22, as a related, broad exhibit opens there that day through next September. (Following the current Ralph Peer: Record Man exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum). I am also scheduled to speak at MTSU’s Center for Popular Music in Murfreesboro, TN on January 26th, and at UNC’s Southern Folklife Collection center in Chapel Hill on February 6, with the inimitable Dom Flemons performing songs from the Peer saga. Appearances at Boston’s Berklee School of Music should follow, at a date to be announced later. I’ll be around.
For those who missed the live stream of the recent program on Ralph Peer at the Country Hall of Fame centered around my book , the full video’s currently archived and linked here. I promise that it’s worth your time for the performances by Shawn Camp, Mike Bub and Laura Cash alone, and I have a few answers for chief Hall historian John Rumble. Conceivably, you might find it interesting to give the book a read; people seem to be responding to it—from backgrounds in country, blues, jazz, pop, Latin and Americana alike. It’s the story of a fascinating man‑but also, of how so much of this music reached us all in the first place.
So that’s it; that’s my say for now, friends. The conversation will continue. See you where the tree lands; it’s flying time again.
- Reba is going to receive the inaugural Nash Icon Award at the American Country Countdown Awards on December 15. During the show, Miranda Lambert and Kelly Clarkson will perform some of Reba’s biggest hits before Kix Brooks presents her with the award.
- Ronnie Dunn posted on Facebook that he’s signed a “Record deal with Big Machine / NASH Icon.” The label hasn’t officially announced anything yet.
- Carrie Underwood sang at U2’s World AIDS Day event in NYC last night.
- From Variety.com: “Despite Detractors, Bro-Country May Be a Bellwether of Nashville’s Future.”
- Listen to Andrew Combs’ “Foolin’” from forthcoming release All These Dreams, slated for release on March 3.
- The Mavericks, Little Big Town, and the Zac Brown Band are among the acts who’ll play the Tortuga Festival in Fort Lauderdale next April.
- Here’s a fun little video of The Quebe Sisters warming up before their Opry appearance. (warning: autoplay)
- Merle Haggard on George Jones: “I was influenced by George and I influenced George a little bit. When I did that low note on ‘I Threw Away the Rose,’ George heard it and charted [sic] a jet and came and joined me on a tour. And he started to use it. He told me, ‘That low note just changed my f—kin’ life.’”
- Haggard’s going to be at CMT’s Artists of the Year special tonight; he’ll receive the Artist of a Lifetime Award. Also appearing/performing: Ashley Monroe, Chris Stapleton, T Bone Burnett, and Eric Church.
- Willie Nelson’s playing two dates at the Ryman in early March. He’s also going to appear at the Grammy Foundation Legacy Concert in early February. Rolling Stone Country reports, “Formerly called the Music Preservation Concert, the Grammy Foundation Legacy Concert combines live performances with video footage from the Grammy archives. February’s show, dubbed ‘Lean On Me: A Celebration of Music and Philanthropy,’ will shine a light on some of the industry’s leading humanitarians.”
- Check out the track listing for Aaron Watson’s The Underdog, which is coming out in February.
- A Taylor Swift exhibit is opening at the Grammy Museum in L.A. on December 13.
- Craig Campbell has signed with Red Bow Records.
- Kathleen Edwards, who announced last February that she was quitting music, opened a cafe called Quitters Coffee in Ottawa.
- Ketch Secor in a recent Relix feature on Old Crow Medicine Show: “American roots music is on a cyclical journey, so it’ll keep coming around…It’s in an orbit that has a natural tendency. There’s a hunger; there’s something that’s not satisfied in the daily dietary needs of humanity. Pop culture has dumbed country music down so much. We just can’t live off the latest blockbuster— that shit’s not nourishing, and we’re smarter than that.”
- The Bakersfield Sound exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame is closing at the end of the month. You might want to check it out before it goes. (via press release)
- Stream Sundy Best’s Salvation City.
- Geoffrey Himes of Paste wrote an interesting column on “Afro-Americana” music that mentions Valerie June, Queen Esther, and Dom Flemons, to name just a few.
- This week’s releases:
Collin Raye – Everlasting
Red Foley – The Complete US Country Hits 1944-59
Sundy Best – Salvation City
Tracy Lawrence – Greatest Hits: Evolution
Whitey Morgan & The 78s – Born, Raised, and Live from Flint
Willie Nelson and Sister Bobbie – December Day
- And a DVD:
After more than three years of covering country and roots music, Engine 145 will close on December 8, 2014. I’ve accepted a position as a country music reporter for The Tennessean and am in the process of packing and moving from DC to Nashville.
Thanks to everyone – the fine writers and knowledgeable commenters – who’ve made this site a blast to run, and to Brady and Brody Vercher, who fixed the site every time I broke it, which was often.
Over the next several days, we’ll be posting a couple pieces we’ve already got in the can and providing updates as to where you can find our writers in 2015.
- Chelle Rose posted her demo version of the John Prine-penned “Angel from Montgomery.”
- Crystal Shawanda updated her “Under the Influence” video series with her take on Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy.”
- Jewly Hight interviewed the duo Johnnyswim about their new holiday EP, A Johnnyswim Christmas.
- Hank Williams is in the number two spot on CMT’s All-Time Top 40.
- In case you missed it, you can stream the full Bob Seger and Jason Aldean CMT Crossroads episode here.
- Love and Theft have released their first single, “Whiskey on My Breath,” from their forthcoming, self-released album, due out in early 2015.
- Watch Lee Ann Womack and Paul Franklin’s performance of the national anthem before last week’s Eagles-Cowboys game.
- Garth Brooks brought Ellen DeGeneres’ audience to tears with a performance of his new single, “Mom.”
- The annual CMA Country Christmas special, hosted by Jennifer Nettles, airs on ABC tonight at 8 p.m. Eastern.
- Lead Belly: The Smithsonian Folkways Collection will be released February 24, 2015. Listen to one of the songs from the forthcoming five-disc set here.
- Ronnie Milsap has launched his final tour. The Legend in My Time Tour will run for three years.
- C.M. Wilcox posted a new Quotable Country.
- The Americana Music Association is holding a fundraising auction at CharityBuzz.com.
- Griffin House released an EP that was recorded inside a prison.
- Stream When I Reach That Heavenly Shore: Unearthly Black Gospel, 1926-1936.
- Gibson and Bob Dylan have collaborated on two limited edition guitars.
- Roughstock counted down ten female artists who deserve more airplay.
- Take a tour of Willie Nelson’s vintage tour bus over at Saving Country Music. Doing it through pictures will (probably) keep you from getting a contact high.
- Billboard counted down five essential country Christmas albums.
- Kudos to Tracy Lawrence for his annual good deed: last week he fried up 500 Thanksgiving turkeys for those in the Nashville area who are less fortunate.
- Billboard’s Chuck Dauphin introduces us to the Bros. Landreth.
- Shooter Jennings promises that a lot of unheard Waylon Jennings recordings will come out over the next year or so.
- Check out Darin and Brooke Aldridge’s bluegrass interpretation of “All About That Bass.”
- New music videos and a couple of key live performances over the past week or so:
Dean Brody – “The Woodshed is Full”
Hillstomp – “Don’t Come Down”
Old Dominion – “Shut Me Up”
Jake Owen – “What We Ain’t Got”
John Cowan – “Let’s Make a Baby King” (Music City Roots)
Todd Grebe & Cold Country – “Luckiest Man Here on Earth” (Music City Roots)
Hot Rize – “Come Away” (Live at WAMU’s Bluegrass Country)
Sara Evans – “Put My Heart Down”
Stoney LaRue – “First One to Know” (from The Texas Music Scene)
Joy Kills Sorrow – “Jake” (Music Fog)
Genevieve Fisher – “Night In, Night Out”
Josh Turner – “Lay Low”
Kaylee Rutland – “Good Day to Get Gone”
Mindy Smith and Matthew Perryman Jones – “Who Saved Who”
Brandon Alan featuring Bart Crow – “Through the Cracks”
Cindy G – “444 Chicken Bone Road”
Toby Keith – “Drunk Americans”
Danika Portz – “The Greatest Show on Earth”
Heidi Feek – “Trail Pop”
- Robert Earl Keen’s been added to the MerleFest lineup. (via press release)
- The building that housed Quad Studios, a Nashville studio where Neil Young, Joan Baez, Keith Urban, Old Crow Medicine Show, and lots more have recorded since 1970, will become the new headquarters for Round Hill Music in 2015. The studio will be available for rental.
- Stream Willie Nelson and Sister Bobbie’s December Day.
- Check out the track listing for the Gibson Brothers’ next album, Brotherhood, due out February 24 on Rounder Records. It includes their versions of songs recorded by the Louvin Brothers, Everly Brothers, Church Brothers, Tompall and the Glaser Brothers, and several other brother acts.
- Jamey Johnson talks about his Christmas EP and his new label (Big Gassed Records) in this Rolling Stone Country interview.
- Billy Joe Shaver’s going to play Letterman on December 17. (via press release)
- C.M. Wilcox posted a new installment of Quotable Country.
- Tim O’Brien talks about Hot Rize and the future of bluegrass music in a new Paste Q&A.
- Last Sunday afternoon in Philly, Bob Dylan played a brief concert for an audience of one as part of a Swedish experimental film series.
- JD McPherson listed his ten favorite post-1950s rockabilly records, including releases by Big Sandy & His Fly-Rite Boys and Ronnie Dawson.
- Samantha Harlow’s got a new holiday song called “Once a Year.”
- The Wall Street Journal premiered The Lone Bellow’s “Fake Roses” video on its Speakeasy blog.
- The Jayhawks are kicking off a West Coast tour on January 6.
- Drew Holcomb & The Neighbors’ Good Light is available for download on NoiseTrade.
- Also on NoiseTrade: a selection of songs from Engelbert Calling, Engelbert Humperdinck’s latest duets album featuring Willie Nelson, Kenny Rogers, Wynonna Judd, and Shelby Lynne.
- Yesterday the IBMA Board of Directors released a statement to the organization’s members. You can read it here.
- Miranda Lambert’s MuttNation Foundation renovated a no-kill dog shelter in Lambert’s hometown of Tishomingo, Okla. The facility, which opened last weekend, is now called Redemption Ranch.
- Singer-songwriter Cass McCombs played a couple songs, including “Omie Wise,” for WAMU.
- Richard and Teddy Thompson discussed the Thompson Family’s new record on All Things Considered.
- Amy Adams (Sunshine Cleaning, Her) is going to play Janis Joplin in a forthcoming biopic directed by Jean-Marc Vallee (Dallas Buyers Club). (h/t Jeremy Dylan…let’s hope this film is better than the Jackie Jormp-Jomp movie.)
- Chris Young announced a couple 2015 UK tour dates. Young recently took home the International Act of the Year Award at the British Country Music Awards; you can find the full list of winners here.
- Trisha Yearwood, Big Kenny, Eric Paslay, and several other artists weigh in (and a handful of singers give vague non-answers) on whether country music is ready for an openly gay superstar.
- Adam Hood, Drew Kennedy, and several others discuss what they’re thankful for in the newest edition of Galleywinter’s annual Thanksgiving post.
- Here’s “Black Ribbon Highway,” the new single from Truth & Salvage Co.
- Sara Evans released a video for “Put My Heart Down.”
- Kenny Chesney is going to receive the Groundbreaker Award at next month’s American Country Countdown Awards.
- This week’s album releases:
Dallas Smith – Lifted
Kelsea Ballerini – Kelsea Ballerini
- A book:
Eric Weisbard – Top 40 Democracy: The Rival Mainstreams of American Music
- And a DVD:
Jason Isbell – Live at Austin City Limits
There’s this young couple out on a date who get arrested for trespassing near the airport, and they’re carted off in cuffs, but there’s just a certain way the squad car’s blue lights highlight her face and the guy confides “By the time they let us go—I was already gone.” That’s one of the country song lines of the year, at the very least, about falling in love in the back of a “Cop Car,” which is the title of the song where all of that happens. While you might have heard Keith Urban’s stab at it earlier this year (or not), now it’s one in a set of ten strong, often riveting songs co-written and economically, convincingly, sung by sudden chart-topper Sam Hunt on his first album, Montevallo, released this Fall.
There are, I know, those who will hear that one, and other original relationship songs in the set, equally driven by inventive, glitteringly specifics in the lyrics (“Ex to See,” and “Single for the Summer,” for two, and those aren’t even the singles), and notice only that the subject territory seems similar to that of a lot of “Chart Country” guyz lately, and the record’s tone on the more pop end of the spectrum—so, end of story. I’m saying, unequivocally: not so fast. Hunt’s written the ten songs with the likes of Zach Crowell, Josh Osborne and Shane McAnally—the latter pair wrote “Merry Go Round” with Kacey Musgraves, and Crowell and McAnally produced the set, keeping these particular pop country sounds tightly and appropriately tied to the songs’ meanings and levels of emotionality. Sam Hunt brings to all that the assured vocal finesse that can give “polished” a good name.
So, no; this one’s not all rootsy fiddle and steel guitars, but this is potent music that reflects the lives, responses and rhythms of those who maybe didn’t go to the best universities and received all the allegedly best received ideas about handed-down sounds. It’s fascinating (for me, anyway) to watch talented performers, writers and producers work out ways to elevate and make singular again the stuff of the mainstream, and that’s what you’ll find on Montevallo. It’s fine country music.
And, lets face it, allegedly hipper roots rock attempting revival of ‘90s alt.country sounds and energy often exhibits as much recapitulating sameness in its themes and sounds as radio country tends to, familiar rawness worn on sleeves included, which is why it’s also good to be able to report on two recent band releases in that arena well worth some time and attention—self-titled releases by two Austin area bands, The Dirty River Boys and Whiskey Shivers. The names may sound more than a little familiar, but the bands don’t. The “Dirties” manage to meld Pogues-like thrashing/smashing abandon, bits of elegiac picking, hooky fresh songs and working choral vocal harmonies. The loose, good-natured, and punk-aware “Whiskeys” also turn to those shouting choral harmonies at times, and likewise bring original tunes with actual melodies, but they take off from a more folky old time country, bluegrass or even chain gang work song place, heavier on the fiddle–sometimes hot fiddle. Both recommended.
If you could use more dobro in your life this fall (and you probably could) check out the new releases by two of the instrument’s masters. Phil Leadbetter is back, recovered from Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and two year total hiatus, with The Next Move, featuring guests vocalists and instrumentalists that include John Cowan, Sam Bush, Shawn Camp, Jerry Douglas, Buck White, Dale Ann Bradley and Steve Warner (nice guests, eh?) and Phil’s own fluid-to-furious and always expressive dobro, on everything from a Josh Graves salute to “Georgia on My Mind” and “Sweet Georgia Brown.” Fellow dobro master Rob Ickes is on there, too, but (early winter alert) you’ll soon hear a lot more of him, in fresh, change-of-pace circumstances, on his oncoming duo outing with young guitar-slinging, songwriting honky tonker Trey Hensley, Before the Sun Goes Down (due in early 2015). Trey can sound like a young Merle Haggard starting over; Rob gets into the territory players like Norman Hamlet and James Burton provided Merle himself, and sounds exhilarated going there—on songs ranging from “Georgia on a Fast Train” to Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Pride and Joy.” For an early preview, see: robandtrey.com.
There are some arenas where the pleasure of hearing a singer gifted with a nice, elegant set of pipes to go with singing smarts comes almost as a surprise bonus—indie alt.country and stand-taking protest singing being two of those. I’m already on the record as being taken with the versatile, graceful honky tonk singing of East Nashville singer-songwriter Jon Byrd; now he brings that to smart interpretation of songs written by his close associates here and back in Atlanta, his musical home back over a decade ago‑-Adam and Shannon Wright, Greta Lee, Peter Cooper, James “Slim Chance” Kelly, Mando Saenz and Will Kimbrough among them—on his new, engagingly understated album, Route 41.
If you’re not familiar with the veteran political organizer-protest singer and musical theater composer Si Kahn, who’s been at all of that for over 45 years, you should be. (I’ll have more to say about his impressive, gutsy, knowing, and generally charming mixture of folk, country and theatrical music and how he puts them all together when there’s more space.) For the moment, I’d recommend checking in on his latest release, Bristol Bay, comprised of songs he’s written and elegantly sings on behalf of preservation of the Alaskan fishery that’s home to half the wild fish caught in the U.S., and threatened by efforts to begin open-pit gold and copper mining nearby. The pointed yet tuneful 16-song cycle tells the tale, makes the case—and also sounds swell.
And since we’re speaking of fine singers here, I’ve long considered Shelby Lynne one of the very best we’re lucky enough to have at work for us all in any roots genre. It’s hard to believe, but her second stage breakthrough that took off from her declaration of independence I Am Shelby Lynne is 15 years on now, (after a mainstream country career that’s sometimes underestimated) and to mark that anniversary, that CD’s been reissued with bonus tracks and, more to my point, also an hour and a half DVD performance from that time, taped at the House of Blues in L.A. in April 2000. There’s not been all that much Shelby on video at all; this is prime, and her incendiary, maybe even over-the-top take on “Wichita Lineman” is a full-tilt surprise in itself. Just about anybody reading his, meanwhile, will be glad to see the new DVD release, out this week, of Jason Isbell’s 2013 appearance on Austin City Limits, also 90 minutes as extended, some performances unseen, with everything from “Outfit” to “Cover Me Up” included, and for the “well, there it is” cover—“Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’.”)
Lastly, two Fall books I want to direct you towards: You may think you know what life at Sun Records was like, back in the day, but there’s a different and new take in The Next Elvis: Searching for Stardom at Sun Records by Barbara Barnes Sims, who worked for Sam Phillips there from 1957-1960 in promo, packaging and writing liner notes. That she seems to have preferred more sophisticated nightclub music to much of the rawer rockabilly—and rawer personalities—she dealt with every day there only adds to the freshness of the perspective. Anecdotes about Jerry Lee Lewis, Charlie Rich, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash and Phillips himself are fresh—and ought to hold everybody over nicely until Peter Gurlanick’s long-simmering Sam bio appears. (I’ve heard that it’s well along now.) And while I’d generally be happy if a five-year ban on new books about Johnny Cash were imposed, for some breath-catching, new perspective and actual new takes on the person and the persona developed, I’d nevertheless readily recommend Eric Banister’s Johnny Cash FAQ right now, which, the book series-derived title notwithstanding, takes up many good, not-so-frequently asked questions about the man’s music-making. It’s impressively researched and Banister sheds plenty of light on that music and the man.
- Paige: Oh damn. :( I never commented here and I haven't been listening to any music at all since Thanksgiving (it …
- Dave W.: Just read the news here. Will miss E145 very much - love this site. All the best to you Juli …
- Leeann Ward: Oh, dang! This is real. Farewell to the most generous, informative, quality, intelligent, consistent, ethical country music blog! You …
- bll: Thanks Juli for all the great articles and information; you'll be missed by me and I suss several others. Best …
- Both Kinds of Music: I hope people appreciate the irony that one of the best "Americana" albums is titled Metamodern Sounds in COUNTRY Music.
- Barry Mazor: I would not rule out that possibility..There's a different set of voters involved..
- Dana M: Does anyone else think that Brandy Clark actually has a good chance of winning since this isn't a country awards …
- Juli Thanki: UPDATE: Brandy Clark got a Best New Artist nom. BEST AMERICANA ALBUM: Rosanne Cash -- The River & The Thread John Hiatt -- Terms …
- luckyoldsun: Glenn Campbell is great and I'd love to see him get an award, but the words of that song may …
- Casey Penn: Juli, it was an honor to write for you here on Engine145.com. You're good at what you do, and The …