Roots Watch: Some Formidable Guys Explore “What’s New?”

Barry Mazor | May 30th, 2014

Spring a year ago I was talking here about the impressive, risk-taking country releases coming from some (then) lesser-known female sources—Ashley Monroe, Kacey Musgraves, and the as-yet nearly unheard Brandy Clark, for three—while wondering in public whether there were guys lurking out there somewhere with the motivation and talent to take some similar sorts of leaps.  Spring 2014, it’s clear that there are.

Sturgill Simpson’s Metamodern Sounds in Country Music has been receiving lavish praise, and rightly so, for its fresh, transgressive, daringly cerebral, sometimes even eccentric lyric turns (“Woke up today and decided to kill my ego.”) and also for its postmodern sound experiments (read Karlie Justus Marlowe’s review here). The latter are not so far different from some things tried previously by Jamey Johnson and Jerrod Niemann on major labels, in fact, if with limited payback for that part of their efforts. Sturgill’s got his own striking barbed-wire vocal timbre and phrasing, both clearly effective with very varied material, and he’s got a band that can go where he travels.  (“The boys and me are still working on the sound,” one of his new songs notes.)


What I want to salute him for is the guts he’s shown in moving on to this uncharted (but, against all odds, country album charting) material. When I saw him live at Nashville’s Station Inn a year ago, his style, smarts and potential were clear, but the often-noted references to Waylon Jenning’s music were blatant, and the songs were the sort that so often are an artistic and career trap in roots music— a series of pastiche turns on existing sorts of hard country songs. Those can be fine as a place to start out, but you’re likely to be forgotten if they’re also where you finish.  Sturgill’s new material is unquestionably hard country (or maybe difficult country) in sound and sense, but the threat of Reiteration Unto Death has been eliminated and the results are exciting. (One of my favorite of the “meta” moments on the album:  when Simpson sings  “When you play with the devil you know you gonna get the horns”—as the horn sounds play.)

Joining that excellent album in a rush up the Americana charts (but not country) is John Fullbright’s second outing, entitled “simply” Songs. I’ll be brief: this young man is now delivering pure roots pop genius.  In a collection in which extraordinarily controlled and conceived single syllable-word lyrics meet striking, mature commentary on life and love, the simplicity of the sounds—varied and catchy as they always are with this artist—sometimes masks the layered complexity of what’s going on. I suspect Fullbright likes it that way. At times, quietly, this album is more “meta” than Sturgill’s; multiple songs describe the task of their own writing—as in “When your rhymes do not apply to anything, write a song about a song”—which, of course, is not about nothing, and very much about the ache of the alternative—not creating. Fullbright’s range is too broad and his musical arsenal to wide for him to be considered a genre country singer, though his farm-located narrative ballad “High Road” is one of the better country songs of the year.  Some wise mainstream country artist or producer might make note of that—and a good many other songs on Songs.


For me, the problem with the hip hop-influenced “bro” singles topping the male-dominated tight jeans/tight playlist country chart is not at all the hip hop music influences. It’s that the music leans on a form that was first designed to emphasize rhythmic words about things that mattered to their makers, brings that over to a field that actually has a long history of making use of rhythmic spoken words, from talking songs to recitations, also to talk about things that mattered, and uses them to relate virtually nothing but repetitive par-tay calls and fantasies of life without consequences.  Somebody’s likely going to step up and make something of this whole “bro country” thing, besides money, but we’ve not seen that person yet.

There are, though, a couple of mainstream country artists doing their dangdest to find fresh contemporary sounds and rhythms while keeping it Not Dumb and even personal. They should, as I see it, be saluted for their no doubt challenging efforts to both “feed the beast” and also make intelligent, adult music, which I’d compare to the workstyle of contemporary Hollywood actors who make the Cartoon Characters Save the City from Apocalyptic Post-Verbal Martian Terrorists movie every other picture, and appear in smaller, quieter ones featuring the lives of various actual human beings in between.

David Nail’s engaging, soulful I’m a Fire, released earlier this year, is that kind of record. Dierks’ Bentley’s Riser is one of those laudable and enjoyable adult records. The beats are not precisely the ones he’s worked with previously, the sound will not be mistaken for some other era or many other records at all, the vocal attack is sometimes close to talk-based—except when it’s not. The songs are those of a guy who’s lived some life now, become a committed husband and family man with memories, a father that’s died and another child born, a guy who can act his age—whether that means “holding on” against the slings and arrows or (comically) getting “Drunk on a Plane.” If you’ve passed this album by thinking it was likely just more common airplay fodder, you should check it out.


And by the way: I highly recommend the new 2-CD worth Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys: Riding Your Way set; the “live in the studio” Tiffany Transcriptions are among the liveliest and most engaging Wills’ recordings, which is saying a lot, and feature some of his strongest band line-ups, as is the case here–on 50 more cuts from 1946-1947, previously unreleased, including everything from “Don’t Fence Me In” and “Love Letters in the sand” to “Don’t You Hear Jerusalem Moan.” You may have seen Muscle Shoals soul chanteuse Candi Staton in the recent documentary on the producer Rick Hall and the original heyday of the recording studios there; her new CD, co-produced with Hall, Life Happens—happens. The sounds are not new, but a perfected return to the pop soul of the “Midnight Train to Georgia” era, which was a pretty good era.  The record’s immensely enjoyable and listenable.

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