Roots Watch: Refresh…Revive…Repeat…Rethink
Lately I’ve been thinking about repetition, repeatedly. See, I’ve never been one of those who can be counted on to rail against the latest alleged oncoming modern pop corruption of whatever country music has been sounding like for a while. In country, complaints about sonic invaders have always been there. But in addition, history leaves no doubt that sooner or later the nature of the “alien” pop incoming will change. By the time it does, it’s tended to need to, badly—and been really refreshing, controversial or not.
I doubt that I’m alone in having heard, by now, far more than enough indistinguishable cuts—and whole country CDs—built on the over-used sound and production approaches of old Jackson Browne or Billy Joel albums, Don Henley and Bob Seger growls, or relentlessly showy “soaring” Idol vocals—male and female divisions. It’s not, let’s be clear, the existence of these influences that’s the issue for me, but the sheer repetition of them, and the interminable sameness that brings across a succession of tracks, year after year— a sameness all the more notable when the lyrics are thin. (Like a lot of country fans, I’ll tend to give familiar sounds leeway if the story’s grabby.)
That we may have arrived at a time of next step sonic evolution is one of the striking implications of Miranda Lambert’s Four the Record. Not only does she, as approving critics have been noting, turn to some pop sounds from alt.country and more contemporary metal-influenced rock flavors that have been less exploited in mainstream country so far, but she mixes those in with some hard country sounds and sentiments, and also with what we might simply call Miranda’s own contribution to contemporary pop balladry. That she’s willing to turn to songs that simply work for her, and not stick with the perpetually over-rated “all songs by me, all the time” formula, is also a plus, for those of us interested in refreshing (and also nicely ornery) variety. The emphasis on performing has been improving her singing along the way, too. “All Kinds of Kinds” indeed. Less dramatically, the current Brantley Gilbert CD has its changing times change-up moments, too. The hip hop influenced “Dirt Road Anthem,” co-written and performed with Colt Ford, has not been everybody’s cup of tea, no matter who performs it, but others have latched on to it; sonically, it does leaps out at you, and, I think, works—as does the sentiment in his subversively benevolent and inclusive, if more familiar sounding twang rocker “Country Must Be Country Wide.”
Shout! Factory’s release of two new DVDs of shows captured on the same day—June 4. 1983–at Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak’s “US” Festival at San Bernadino, California, (one a set from Waylon, the other a set from Willie), reflect some different “revive and repeat” issues. Mr. Nelson’s video performance will remind us that he’s been doing close to the same basic set for about 30 years now—the early “Night Life” era hits, some Outlaw era Willie-gets-accepted songs (Waylon duets included), some “Stardust” standards (he figured out that he didn’t have to write them all long before Miranda did!) , “On the Road Again” and leave. Willie’s sometimes sleepwalked through shows doing this forever repeated set in the years since, running on automatic—but not here. His singing on ballads ( “Sweet Memories”) is gorgeous at the time, he’s fully involved with what he’s doing, the guitar work is instrumental Willie at his best, and he gets in some good ones like “Bloody Mary Morning” we don’t hear that often now. Mr. Jennings, on the other hand (a favorite singer of mine under most circumstances), was, to put it simply, outrageously and damagingly high that day; he gets lost in the middle of songs, makes nose jokes, is not quite there. Full Waylon shows are less common on video than Willie’s, so it’s nice to see him, and he’s got an unusual band line-up that includes Cricket Jerry “J. I.” Allison on drums and Gary Scruggs on back-up vocals—but those, unless you’re into watching crack-ups, would be the main reasons to check out that one. (In this case, replication of Waylon’s usual higher standards—would have been a plus.)
Another repetition problem—for me, anyway– is the one you run into with even a well-done theme album that leans heavily on the spoken word. I know I’ll be less likely to put one of those on then one that finds ways to avoid the once-is-enough talk. I mention this because Mark Twain: Words & Music, a 2 CD set produced by the brilliant bluegrass and country producer-instrumentalist-singer-songwriter Carl Jackson to benefit the Mark twain Boyhood Home in Museum in Hannibal, MO, has great strengths. The music’s often first rate, which is not surprising, with Brad Paisley, Marty Raybon, Bradley Walker, Doyle Lawson, Rhonda Vincent, and Emmylou Harris among those taking vocal leads on strong original songs built around Twain’s life. But even with (no kidding) Clint Eastwood, Garrison Keillor and Jimmy Buffet among the narrators, you’ll likely hear those tunes less often for wading through the biography and readings of Twain writings, though they work well enough– once through. (Of course, modern tech means that you could buy the benefit album and pull the songs out on your own!)
You will not have that challenge with another piece of history done with a star cast and traditional country tones—the engagingly executed The 1861 Project: Volume One, which avoids narration completely, instead simply bringing on often affecting new songs about the individual experiences of ordinary folks heading into the Civil War. You get the likes of John Anderson and Marty Stuart stepping in as individual voices—and, more often, the strong team of singer-songwriters who’ve worked up this all-acoustic project—including Chris Jones, Irene Kelley and producer Thomm Jutz,. Overall, it’s an involving and original take on a subject that has been, after all, one of America’s most explored. (Engine 145 friend Jon Weisberger is co-writer of several of the songs and plays some bass.)
By the way: The best career box set I’ve heard this year is just out: Etta James’ Heart & Soul: A Retrospective, the first label spanning career inclusive set, 4 CDs long, on one of the great singers—and great singing storytellers– of our time. In over 50 years of recordings, Etta takes on doo wop, Little Richard-style hardcore rock ‘n roll, lavish pop balladry, after hours jazz, wailing soul and, yep, country (“from “Almost Persuaded” to “Ashes By Now”) with the magnificent emotional control, taste, and understanding. Those one-note show-off singers should all be presented with this set to learn what keeping the moments that need to be intimate does for the ones that are ripe to explode. I’ve been playing it repeatedly.
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- Ron: Sky Above, Mud Below by Tom Russell is another.
- Jack Williams: Another Othis Taylor song from White African is "My Soul's in Louisiana."