Best Releases of 2007

Music sales are down in most genres but the Americana and roots sales look strong for 2007. The labels still sue fans, bitch and whine about online piracy which is only half of the story. The other half is the cultivation of mediocre talent that produces “music” with the shelf life of nachos. If you look at the mainstream Country music field it’s as if we are in the 70’s and all we have is the Monkees or the Bay City Rollers and there were no Hendrix or Dylan to balance it all out.

Luckily there’s the borderland of Americana and roots music that brings creativity, diversity as well as a respect for history and a calculated abandonment for rules in equal amounts. Americana is the genetic mutation that makes the musical breed heartier, healthier and more of a mutt.

2007 brought in some great new talent and allowed a legend to bid a proper goodbye. All picks are my own and reflect my taste and bias in all it’s wondrous white-bred glory. Now on with the list…

10. Southern Culture On The Skids – “Countrypolitan Favorites” – Featuring 15 tunes typically associated with other artists SCOTS burns a hole through their hillbilly shtick to show the exceptional band they really are. SCOTS deliver the Kinks “Muswell Hillbilly,” T. Rex’s “Life’s a Gas,” and the Byrds‘ “Have You Seen Her Face” with respect and passion and the cover of George Jones’ ode to the joys of wife swapping, “Let’s Invite Them Over” is a classic reinterpretation on an old infamous chestnut. This release is a country-fried delight!

9. Ridley Bent – “Buckles and Boots” – Canadian hick-hop gone country traditionalist Ridley Bent came out of left field for me. I was aware of his fellow countryman and partner in rhyme (rap humor, heh!) Buck 65 but had not heard of the Halifax born, Alberta bred singer/songwriter blends the right amount of Bakersfield and Texas outlaw to tell clever stories for the head and the heart.

8. Jason Isbell – “Sirens of the Ditch” – Riding with the Drive By Truckers during their move from the country-rock fringes into what amounts to as close to mainstream success, Jason Isbell decided to take his own path. Many of the catchiest and heartfelt songs on recent DBT releases have been Isbell penned, Outfit, Dank/Manuel and the classic Decoration Day. It then comes as no surprise that Isbell carried through that keen-eyed and passion onto his solo debut and features DBT bassist Shonna Tucker, drummer Brad Morgan, and DBT founder/front man Patterson Hood, who also co-produced this release on almost every track.

7. Robert Plant / Alison Krause – “Raising Sand” – When I got word that Robert Plant was kicking around Nashville and working with bluegrass chanteuse and John Wait duet partner Alison Krauss I met the news with trepidation and dread. Would Plant approach American roots music with the historical revisionism Led Zeppelin brought to Delta blues or would it be a gilded palace of cheese? Happily Plant channels the spirit of the hills and prairies and let’s the crystal voiced Krauss set the tone for the surprisingly wonderful release.

6. Th Legendary Shack Shakers – “Swampblood” – Still one of the best live bands crisscrossing America today, Th Legendary Shack Shakers last installment of their “Tentshow Trilogy” has the band going all out with Pentecostal ferver and Dixie-core abandon. Most American genres from the past century are poured into a grinder and rendered into a frantically dark-Gothic elixir for the restless soul.

5. John Fogerty – “Revival” – A boy born in the Bay Area (not on the bayou) certainly earned his roots cred wailing his backwoods caterwaul fronting Credence Clearwater Revival. As the title makes apparent, “Revival” harkens back to the CCR days more then any other Fogerty solo work (due mostly to litigious reasons) and the man sounds more newly fired-up and impassioned, comfortable as a well-worn flannel shirt, and shows Fogerty as the roots-rock master he is.

4. Kelly Willis – “Translated From Love” – Somewhere between Americana and British pop Kelly Willis’ “Translated From Love” is a country pop masterpiece. Tight, smart hooks coupled with traditional instruments compliment Willis clear stream vocals to make this the best release for her so far.

3b. Patty Griffin – “Children Running Through” – Patty Griffin has never sounded more confident and transcends songwriting to arrive somewhere near artistic perfection.

3a. Dale Watson – “From the Cradle to the Grave” – I published this list and then it occurred to me that I had overlooked one of the best releases of the year. Maybe it was the early 2007 drop date, maybe it was the beer…whatever…so now I’m going to punt with a 3a, 3b (my blog, my rules!) Dale goes old school, old testament school, on this excellent harkening back to country troubadours of the past.

2. Ryan Bingham – “Mescalito” – Ryan Bingham sounds more ragged and rugged than his 25 years on this earth might lead you to believe. “Mescalito” is sun-soaked and West Texas dust choked and nails the right balance between outlaw country and rock and roll swagger.
This is the sound of the lonesome road, the rowdy roadhouse and the front porch in one package.

1. Porter Wagoner – “Wagonmaster” – Marty Stuart has earned a special bar stool in honky-tonk heaven for all he’s created, championed and, not least of all, helping Porter Wagoner create his finale (there’s a stool right near by for Anti records for releasing it when Nashville turned up their noses). I was lucky enough to see Marty and Porter perform in New York City just before “Wagonmaster” was released. Porter was visibly moved and humbled that the sold out show proved that even after 55 years of recording people still held the “Thin Man from the West Plains” in the highest regard. “Wagonmaster” is a crystallization of a what made Wagoner a country music legend, Puritan aesthetic, engaging storytelling of the lost and the hardscrabble. At the age of 80 Wagoner went out with honor and dignity. Unfortunately he had to look outside Nashville, in all their market-tested, plastic wisdom, to do so.

Honorable mention:

Dwight Yoakam – Dwight Sings Buck
Levon Helm – Dirt farmer
Miranda Lambert – Crazy Ex-Girlfriend
Joe Whyte – Devil in the Details
Pam TillisRhinestoned
Shooter Jennings – The Wolf
Avett Brothers – Emotionalism
Ryan Adams – Easy Tiger
Joe Ely Happy – Songs From Rattlesnake Gulch
Steve Earle – Washington Square Serenade
Old Crow Medicine Show – Big Iron World
Iron & Wine – The Shepherd’s Dog
Kendel Carson – Rearview Mirror Tears
Cadillac Sky – Blind Man Walking
Willie Nelson -Songbird
Betty LaVette – Scene of the Crime
Chris Knight – The Trailer Tapes
Hackensaw Boys – Look Out
Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Ray Price – Last Of The Breed
Grayson Capps – Wail & Ride
Jim Lauderdale – Bluegrass
Robbie Fulks – Revenge!
Merle Haggard – The Bluegrass Sessions

Beyonce Goes Country

Houston born Beyonce Knowles, former Destiny’s Child frontwoman, current accessory for rapper Jay Z, and daughter of Mathew Knowles, owner of Houston roots and country label “Compadre Records” (home of Billy Joe Shaver and James McMurtry, made an appearance with Sugarland at the American Music Awards. Sugarland was performing a countrified version of her hit ‘Irreplaceable’ which they cover at many of their shows.

Beyonce seems to have also been greasing the wheels for her next career choice.

The R&B star has recently stated that she is currently “working an album of Country And Western songs” and is working on it with the British singer and songwriter Amanda Ghost who was the writer of the decade’s most irritating ditty, James Blunt’s hit “You’re Beautiful”

Kelly Clarkson, Bon Jovi and  Jami Fox have all recently tried their hand at country music trying to catch a bit of that Aerosmith/Run DMC genre-crossing lightening in a bottle. But the artists they choose to duet with (Kelly with Reba and Jamie with Rascal Flatts for or the bland material they choose to record (yeah, I’m looking at you Bon Jovi- you helped screw up rock, keep your pop-rock-country meat hooks off country. The Eagles are doing fine on their own.)

And where some artsists can genre jump with grace and dignity and comes out looking pretty damn good (the recent collaboration of Robert Plant and Alison Krauss comes to mind)

Beyonce has said ‘She’s a fan of country music and thought that would be an interesting and exciting way to go.” Being a home girl from Texas gives me a glimmer of hope, but Beyonce’s choice of music in her R&B career and her choice of a Brit to pen the tunes on her upcoming country release makes me think I can put it up there with Cowboy Troy’s.


Whistlin’ Dixies Texas Tavern – New York City

If you ever find yourself on Manhattan’s West Side in need of a libation  and sustinince you could do worse than to head to Hell’s Kitchen and pay a visit to Whistlin’ Dixies Texas Tavern (724 11th at 51st). The motif is Texas enough and features dancing cowgirls in bikinis on Sunday nights.

Sean (cool) and Jen (spunky) are fine barkeeps sure to keep you socially lubricated. Once they start stocking Shiner the
place will be damn near perfect.

Try the jalenoe poppers and BBQ chicken sandwich with waffle fries. Yum!

New Music Horizons

It’s no secret that the music industry and undergoing a transmutation of seismic proportions. Illegal downloading, labels suing fans, online radio…this is not your daddy’s Peaches Record store.

The always excellent Chet Flippo over at takes a look at the industry through the actions of the purple provocateur Prince and his recent giveaway of his latest CD, Planet Earth, that came bundled free with UK Sunday newspaper The Mail.

Prince’s bread and butter this far into his career is concert tickets, and instead of wasting time, effort and money trying to woo listeners to his new work he uses the music as a means to a promotional end, Prince gives away his latest CD, his Label, , Sony BMG, throws a hissy and refuses to distribute the CD in the UK, the press covers both events and Prince pockets a cool $500,000 from The Mail.

Technology has changed the rules of distribution and consumer behavior and the best the labels could do was to sue the fans and alienate them further. Brilliant! It took a technology company to do what the labels couldn’t stop squabbling long enough to do, make significant cash. It took Steve Jobs to kick their ass, bring them together and show them the future all while taking his cut and selling jillions of iPods.

The Opry entertained everyone within their frequency range on the radio, the Beatles brought their media of the time to bear in getting their music, and their personalities, out by doing Hard Days Night. and Porter Wagoner was using T.V. to get his music, and his Nudie suits, on screens all across America. Past artists looked for new opportunities and they, or their managers, capitalized on them.

Chet’s colleague Patrick Goldstein saw the future and became a casualty when he dared use old media (the newspaper) to advocate for new media business models in conjunction with musical artists willing to offer their music that would then share in advertising revenue.

Artists have to be paid for their work. I do believe that. But I also believe that the rules have changed and income streams and earning potential come from different and untaped places. The field is wide open for those artists willing to look at their world in innovative ways.

Drive By Truckers, Jason Isbell, Juston Townes Earle – New York City – 7/19

This last Thursday the planets lined up just right above the New York skyline and the night was graced by not one, but three excellent performances for a yearning for some fine faire.

The mighty Drive By Truckers dropped into the city to perform a free show at Clinton Castle national monument at Battery Park to play a free show for the River to River festival. The rainstorms that had come down all week held off but provided a cool, cloudy evening for the show.    

I arrived at 8:00 to the capacity show that was already in progress and in the middle of the song of sexual discord “Panties In Your Purse”. The crowd was a mix of hipster, Wall Street workers that had strolled over from work a few blocks away and folks that look like they had taken their motorcycles or pick-ups from the nether regions of the East to catch the show.

With the “extremely amicable” departure of singer /songwriter/guitarist Jason Isbell I had some trepidation that the remaining band would be lacking in some significant way. I should have known better than to question the resiliency of mighty Truckers. With Athens, Georgia’s John Neff added in as guitarist and pedal steel and did a fine job brandishing his yellow metal flake Telecaster and the legendary Muscle Shoals keyboardist Spooner Oldham was joining the Truckers on some of the dates and added a layer of funk and rhythm I had yet heard at a DBT show.

The classis were mixed with the new cuts from the latest “A Blessing and a Curse” – “Heathens”, “Sounds Better In The Song”, “Sink Hole”, “Puttin’ People On The Moon”, “Bulldozers and Dirt”, “The Night G.G. Allin Came To Town”, “Where The Devil Don’t Stay”, “The Living Bubba”, “Sands Of Iwo Jima”, “Zip City”. There was a nod to New York City with the frequent set standard by the musician, author and poet Jim Carroll’s “People Who Died.” They night finished off with the night with a rousing rendition of Bruce Springteen’s harrowing song of alienation and violence State Trooper.

After the show I headed uptown to the Mercury lounge to catch Ex-Trucker Jason Isbell, but first opening the show was a man whose moniker sets a dizzyingly high level of expectations, Justin Townes Earle.

Being Steve Earle’s first born means growing up under difficult conditions (read the book Hard Core Troubadour for more details on this) and having some big boots to fill. And Justin’s middle name is, of course, in honor of Steve Earle’s musical and chemical, mentor Townes Van Zandt. Even bigger boots.

And judging from this evening’s show Justin is well on his way to being his own man. With only an acoustic guitar and a backing ukulele (didn’t catch the musician’s name) Donning a silver specked western shirt Justin covered quite a bit of his folk-ragtime tinged EP Yuma (which he himself went out front and sold at the door for $10.) The Ghost of Virginia. You Can’t Leave Yuma, Let the Waters Rise, A Desolate Angels Blues – as well as a Buck Owens cover that I did not recognize – All in all a splendid performance from a man with an impeccable Americana pedigree, but doesn’t just ride his namesakes shirt tales.  


During the show Jason Isbell was mulling about in Mercury Lounge’s sold out small space. Now it was his turn to be the man in the front and not off to the right side of Patterson Hood.

Isbell and his Muscle Shoals area band the 400 Unit: Jimbo Hart (bass), Ryan Tillery (drums) and Browan Lollar (guitar) got right down to it with the searing blues-rock “Try” from the newly released Sirens of the Ditch, most of which was covered in this show.

Isbell then launched into a tribute to his former band mates by playing a song he cut with the Drive By Truckers the wrenching “God Damn Lonely Love” – he later made a kin-hearted reference to the truckers earlier show by saying – “I hope you got to catch those guys tonight. I was stuck here getting ready for this.”

Then came “The Assassin” and the excellent “Hurricanes and Hand Grenades” and the coming of age “Grown.”
As with his former band playing the distinctly New York song  “People Who Died” Isbell’s band – specifically guitarist Browan Lollar sang the Talking Heads “Psycho Killer.”

The band then played the band then played the weakly poppy “New Kind of Actress”, which seeing it live didn’t make me like it any more then I did before. Then another nod to the DBT days with “Decoration Day.” The show ended with a blasting version of Thin Lizzy’s  “Jailbreak” which left me exhilarated as well as drained from the long, delirious, night.

Country Radio Lives!

Just got back from seeing the family in Dallas for the 4th. While tooling around in Mom’s Merc I checked out the local flavor and tuned into Lone Star 92.5, the Clear Channel radio station I previously had posted on. Sure I could stream them online and enjoy the tunes here in Manhattan but it’s not the same as cruising around the rain soaked streets of my youth.

I one sitting I heard The Allman Brothers, Dylan, Reckless Kelly, Johnny Cash, The Drive By Truckers and Todd Snyder. This, in my mind, is heaven.

On the plane home we too AirTran Airlines. They are always good and, from my experience, mostly on time. Most importantly, the servers on board are always nice to my daughter and they get major points for that.

The airline offered XM Radio on board the plane and while my daughter was absorbed in Miyazaki’s superb animation feature Spirited Away, I checked out what XM had to offer. I stayed a while at “Willie’s Place” and was pleased to hear the old school outlaws represented – Merle, Ray, Leftie – legends you don’t hear enough of on commercial radio. I then headed over to X (cross) Country and it sweetened the deal with John Prine, Lucinda Williams and Steve Earle. I was sold. When I get out of the city and buy and truck the very next day I’m getting XM Radio. But when I drive it through Dallas, it’ll take a back seat the Lone Star 92.5.

Lost Along The Way

Recently I posted that music industry gadfly Bob Lefsetz has recently discovered mainstream country radio on satellite radio. And he’s been posting them a big sloppy one ever since (Ooooo little Big Town , how like a poor man’s Fleetwood Mac you are!),but he’s dead on in his latest post about Bon Jovi’s recent excursion to the wrong side of the cultural tracks, put on some $1000. boots and tried their hand at country music. Bad idea!

Bon Jovi has had a much longer shelf-life than most of their big-haired brethren (hear that Poison?!) and it helps that Jon Bon Jovi has aged well enough that middle age women all over the nation want to still jump his bones. But good ass genes does not good music make.

Bon Jovi has been brilliant at keeping himself on the public eye. How many times have they played the Today show in the last few years? I bet it rivals Steve Martin’s record for hosting SNL (14). But just like with genes, exposure does not a great band make.

So now Bon Jovi goes where other metal bands have gone before. ”, Warrant’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and Poison’s “Something to Believe In” both were pop-metal forays into Southern-fried sounds and it succeeded about well as might think. If you suck at metal why wouldn’t you suck at country?

The mistake that these bands make is looking at the money and demographics of mainstream country and calculating that it’s a smart business decision. Business, not passion. When Michael Ness of Social Distortion covers Ring Of Fire it’s not because he thinks “There sure are a lot of Cash fans that will buy this.” He does it because he respects what Johnny did and HAS to pay tribute.

Will I listen to Bob Jovi new release “Lost Highway”? Probably not, I’ve heard it before. Pop-country is like mosquitoes in Nashville. Everywhere and sucking.

Bob Lefsetz Does Country

I usually hang on every acerbic and insightful post from music business gadfly Bob Lefsetz. He’s a no bullshit guy that sees the bloody writing on the wall for the big labels and pulls no punches. I hope this blog allows me to do 1/16th of what he’s been able to do in exposing the hypocrisy and crap in the music industry and also point the way to a great talents that are trying make a difference and do great work.

But recently Mr. Levitz was caught in L.A. Traffic and came across Sirius radio Channel 60, “New Country” who, by the blurb on their web site states they play ” Rascal Flatts, Tim McGraw, Carrie Underwood, Keith Urban, Toby Keith, Kenny Chesney.”

Lefsetz writes that while listening to the station that:

“…every one of (the) words rang true and glowed like burnin’ coal, pourin’ off of every page like it was written from me to you, but I was not tangled up in blue, I was laughing, I was alive, I was ECSTATIC! This was a joy I hadn’t experienced in oh-so-long!

But I don’t know shit about country. Maybe this is the crap. Maybe this is the stuff those deep into it rail about. Then I realized, I was the target audience, I was fucking IGNORANT!”

I’m here to tell you Bob, you are listening to the crap, and allow me to school you.

You are a fucking genius savant when talking about rock and pop of the past, present and future, but when you stray into country music, I won’t say “fucking ignorant”, but I will say sadly naive.

What you were listening to was the country equivalent of listening to Beyoncé or Fallout Boy. Sad, shallow reproductions of artists that came before that did it not just do it better, but did it in a way that was breathtaking and dangerous. What you were listening to was formula, contrivances and confection.

You pine for the days of the Beatles, Stones and Hendrix. When the Velvet Underground and the Stooges were punching sonic holes in the cultural malaise of the 70’s. If you’re looking for the contemporary country equivalent of that, then you’re not going to find in on Channel 60, “New Country.”

The country equivalent to these ground-breaking artists, the giants that the current talent of country artists are standing on the shoulders of is Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn, Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard. It’s the Allman Brothers and The Band. It’s Lynyrd Skynyrd, X, Jason and the Scorchers. Buck Owens and Dwight Yoakam.

You’re more likely to find these artists on the Dallas area station Lone Star 92.5 that, despite being a Clear Channel station, is taking risks and plays artists that better represent the spirit you crave. Bands like The Drive By Truckers and the Bottle Rockets. Artists like Hank Williams III and Shooter Jennings. But Lone Star 92.5s are hard to find just as great rock stations are. The playlists are still the most common framework for commercial radio, and playlist are driven by sales.

Shooter Jenning’s band, the .357s comes closer to Led Zeppelin than the comparison you draw between Zeppelin and Tim McGraw. Tim McGraw is less Led Zeppelin and more Peter Frampton.

There is great country music out there and Bob Lefsetz, with a little counseling, is just the gauge that will recognize it. I for one would love for him to turn his laser eye on the Nashville money machine and the way it takes great talent and churns out dull, gray sausage.

Nashville Skyline on Miranda Lambert

the risk of being not only a Chet Flippo (CMTs Nashville Skyline) fanboy but one for Ms. “crazy chick” Miranda Lambert as well. Chet’s latest post (thanks 9513) on Miranda’s rise to stardom on her own terms and some of the cool things she’s done that lends her more cred than most of her other Music City counterparts:

She learned a valuable lesson in songwriting with her first album. The title song, “Kerosene” — which really put her on the musical map — sounded very much like Steve Earle’s “I Feel Alright.” Very much like it. After that was brought to her attention, she added Earle’s name as her co-writer on the copyright. And on the royalties. She told Barry Mazor in a No Depression interview, “I didn’t purposefully plagiarize his song — but unconsciously I copied it almost exactly. I guess I’d listened to it so much that I just kind of had it in there.” Well, hell, outlaws rip each other off now and then. But then they usually own up about it — as she did — very quickly.

Cool, no? How many other Nashville Star and CMT alum would go out of their way to credit Earle (and share royalties with him) rather than dispatch a labels lawyers to pay him off? Class act! Miranda is making me proud of Texas in a way that Willie and the Chicks did.

Miranda Lambert Makes The Cover of No Depression – Hell Reports Snow

I don’t know what it is, the end times, global warming, whacked mojo…but Miranda Lambert seems to be winning the hearts and minds of Nashville pop lovers as well as the crowd. I mean she’s on the cover of the yall’ternative bible “No Depresssion” for crips sake! (Yeah that her swinging her hair all rocking out like.) First the white trash American Idol (I mean that in a good way), a performance at the ’05 CMA Awards and now ND?
I mean ND has indy darlings The Shins on the last cover. What are they trying to do? Rise from relative obscurity and sell magazines?

I mean what’s next? Toby Keith on the cover of Spin? Carrie Underwood on the cover of Playboy? Okay, I could actually imagine that last one.

Good on the fellow Texan on all the good vibes and good on No Depression for risking their hipster cred to feature great music!