In the mid-‘70s, filmmaker James Szalapski traveled to Texas’ Hill Country and Tennessee to capture musical white lightening in a bottle. From high school gymnasiums, trailer homes, recording studios to a liquor-fueled Christmas guitar pull in Guy and Susanna Clarks dining room, now legendary performers – Guy Clark, Rodney Crowell, Townes Van Zandt, Steve Young, David Allan Coe, a 19-year-old Steve Earle and many others are shown crafting a genre by looking towards country music’s folk roots and away from Music Row’s glitz.
Musical highlights include Clark’s brilliant “Desperados Waiting For A Train,” Steve Earle’s stirring “Mercenary Song” and Townes Van Zandt’s gut-wrenching “Waiting Around To Die.” (see videos below)
Though filmed in the late 70’s the full documentary was not released theatrically until 1981 and has been notoriously difficult to watch in its entirety. If you’ve never seen it in its entirety now you’ll have a chance. Starting Feb 5 Heartworn Highways will be in Virtual Cinemas nationwide via Kino Marquee.
Remember The first time you heard a Merl Haggard song? That relaxed yet steady voice. This lyrics.
Relive that moment with the guys over at the Lost In Vegas YouTube channel.
I discovered Lost In Vegas reaction videos when a friend of mine sent me a link to their reaction video to Megadeth’s ‘Holy Wars…The Punishment Due.’ They were so genuine and thoughtful in their verbal and nonverbal reactions to a truly new genre was a ‘delight to behold’ as one comment perfectly put it.
The duo follows a simple and well-worn formula: the show’s two hosts, George and Ryan, play a song that they are somewhat or completely unfamiliar with, and then react to it in real time, occasionally pausing the music to dig deeper or just yell in exclamation. It really is quote something to watch the joy two grown men have at listening to music.
I started to search out more and more of their metal reaction videos. Never disappointed.
Tonight I was riffing across YouTube I came across them not reacting to a another metal classic but working the gritty side of the fence. The guys too up the great Merle Haggard’s ‘Big City.”
Reactions like “That right there…what the hell is that? Pure unadulterated COUNTRY” at hearing the opening pedal steel to observing the timelessness of Merle’ lyrics.
Lost In Vegas aren’t you usual reaction vieson in that they are genuine lovers of music and balance just the right mix of gut-reactions to digging a little deeper to appreciate and find meaning.
On July 27th Americana and Music Row communities will join for a night to perform live John Prine covers to support Those Darlins member Jessi “Zazu” Wariner fight with cancer and to celebrate the master songwriter’s legacy.
“The Songs of John Prine,” is a covers a show that will celebrates the re-release of the 2010 John Prine tribute record Broken Hearts & Dirty Windows, which includes Those Darlins’ rendition of “Let’s Talk Dirty in Hawaiian.”
Basement East in Nashville will host the event featuring artists all inspired by Prine’s storied classics, Alex Caress, Amanda Shires, Andrew Combs, Andrew Leahey, Brothers Osborne, Caitlin Rose, Caroline Rose, Colter Wall, Cory Branan, Darrin Bradbury, Elise Davis, Elizabeth Cook, Holly Williams, Jason Isbell, Jon Latham, Kelsey Waldon, Larissa Murphy, Levi Hummon, Lilly Hiatt, Muddy Magnolias, The Nicholson Brothers, Paul Cauthen, and The Whiskey Gentry (+ with more to be announce
Those Darlins straddled the territories of roots-rock and garage. The band’s final album Blur the Line was released in 2013, and closes with the cut “Ain’t Afraid,” the song that become Zazu’s slogan of perseverance in her fight against cancer.
Buy tickets to the event. sold out
To order a pressing of Broken Hearts & Dirty Windows, visit https://store.johnprine.com/.
For more Information about Jessi Zazu and her fight with cancer, visit her youcaring page.
Americana and country music aren’t know for providing the world with the the lightest subjects in the music universe (Roger Miller and Todd Snider excluded). The Late Show With Stephen Colbert has underlined this truth by creating this fantastic infomercial with “alt.country troubadour” Jason Isbell, you know, from “music.”
Its a send up of common roots topes of “break-ups, addiction, fatal diseases” as Isbell, who’s currently experiencing one of the happiest periods of his like with career success, a happy marriage and a new baby, pitches “The Saddest Song Ever” — a list song of country clichés like “unemployment, the troops, reliable trucks done gone breakin’ down” and more tears-in-your-beer favorites.
But wait! That’s not all! “My new 180-minute, four-chord song also covers new cartoonishly tragic down-home scenarios that my fellow singer-songwriters are much too cowardly to tackle. Covering universal topics like “ailing family dogs” to “dying family dogs” to “a tragic cannon accident” to “Frankenstein attacks a preschool.” It gets worse as as Isbell informs us that the song is “available on triple-cassette and Tidal, the two saddest music formats known to mankind.”
The ‘The Muppets’ show too a wonderful rootsy turn the other night when Miss Piggy and Kermit Cover “In Spite of Ourselves” by John Prine. The song is the title cut from Prine’s 13th studio album released in 1999, and is a standout duet with Iris DeMent.
Kermet and his diva are having fun with the song, and to keep it clean for the kiddies some of the lyrics were changed.
Kermit swaps “She gets it on like the Easter Bunny” with “She makes a face when my jokes are funny” and Piggy combines the 4th and 5th verse and sings “He can’t dance but he still gets funky” instead of “He’s got more balls than a big brass monkey.”
In spite of all the cleaning up the song is still fun. And there’s a whole new generation introduced to Prine’s music. There’s nothing dirty about that.
Check out the Muppets and Prine and DeMent’s versions below.
I like to think I know a little about the history of country music and it’s talent over the years.
So how is it that I’ve never heard of Wheeler Walker Jr.?
Myself and like-minded others I’ve discussed Wheeler Walker with, folks who are very familiar with fringe of country and roots music, leads many of us to believe that this may be some Andy Kaufman-esque music/comedic performance art that leaves you wondering “is this guy for real?”
His sudden appearance, too perfect name. His unconfirmed career history, and his throwback outlaw look might lead you to think he’s putting us on. But the announcement of his Dave Cobb produced album is to be released early next year through Thirty Tigers means there’s also something real here.
But I ask you, how is ‘Honky Tonk Badonkadonk’ and ‘Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy)’ any more worthy of serious discussion as an authentic cultural artifact than Wheeler Walker Jr’s Billboard premiering single “Fuck You Bitch?”
The short answer is money.
These aforementioned songs, products really, made their performers, writers and publishers money and therefore seeped into the beer-sodden collective conscious of the market. So whether they were a put-on or not was never considered or discussed. They did what they were designed to do, moved units, saturated radio play and made a shit ton of cash.
Wheeler Walker will never make that kind of bank. He will never top the charts or play arenas. He’s like early punk or hip-hop in that he seems a bloated , farcical genre and chooses to blow it up from the inside and doesn’t give an (overt) damn about appeasing the market or demographic powers that be.
But taken on purely musical terms his songs are more country that the past 20 years of country chart topping hits combined. He does this with a fantastic studio band – Leroy Powell on guitar, his younger brother Chris Powell on drums, Brian Allen on bass and Cobb as producer. And after learning about Cobb’s history in fabricating fake bands I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that he had a hand in another elaborate musical hoax.
But so what? Just listen to the music and don’t let the profane, sometimes ridiculous, lyrics put you off.
Twang don’t lie.
So take Walker Jr, or whoever he is, with a grain of salt chasing a shot of tequila. And don’t ask is Wheeler Walker putting us on, ask yourself is the rest of music row putting us on and were not in on the joke.
Wheeler Walker Jr took some time to talk to me on the phone from Nashville:
Twang Nation: For those not acquainted with you could we get a little background.
Wheeler Walker Jr: Sure, I’m from Kentucky originally. Now I’m in Nashville, though it’s more like Las Vegas now. I got here about 15 years ago. I had a couple of record deals with the majors, Capital Nashville and Arista, that went bad. I butt heads with the labels and after Kenny Chesney and Brad Paisley started climbing the charts there was just no room for my kind of country music. I said
fuck this I’m going to make an album, uncensored, do it my way and pay for it myself, which, by the way has left me broke. I’m taking to you on a Nokia flip-phone if that tells you anything. So I said “fuck it no one will listen to it anyway so I just wanted to get it out.” In my opinion it’s the best country album ever made.
TN: What were the labels saying was holding you back?
WWJ: They said it was my attitude. Some of the execs would have these younger wives, I don’t want to name names, but there was this one executive’s younger wife that lert me finger her. That got him pissed and got me in trouble. But I think it was more jealousy than anything but , you know, don’t shit where you eat. But I had to shit and I was hungry.
May be I’m just paranoid, but my heroes Willie and Waylon all these guys, they didn’t play by the rules. I’ll take some of the blame, maybe I took it a little too far by putting out a single called “Fuck You Bitch,” but that’s me.
TN: I enjoyed the single and the album, but you’ve guaranteed zero airplay with these lyrics. Can I assume you don’t care?
WWJ: Here’s the thing man, I tried keeping it clean my first 15 years and I got zero airplay so you can’t het less. I watched the CMAs (Country Music Awards) for the first time in years , if that’s country music then get me out.
TN: So Chris Stapleton or Kacey Musgraves being featured gave you no hope?
WWJ: Evert few years they’ll find someone who can sing and play guitar, they’ll give them an award and then they pat themselves on the back. Congrats! It’s not that big a deal. Stapleton is good but he ain’t going to change country music.
TN: If you find yourself invited to the CMAs do you think you’d change your tune?
WWJ: I tried to go this year and was banned from the red carpet. I made a joke on social media, which I don’t understand but my manager got me on it. I joked that I was going to take a shit on the red carpet. Next thing I know is they banned me from it. They really thought I was going to drop my drawers. But once they banned me I actually thought about doing it!
TN: Nashville used to honor people like Ernest Tubbs and George Jones, what do you think changed?
WWJ: I think it was radio. Most of the interviews I’ve had so many people ask me about country radio nowadays, and I don’t even listen to that shit. So I finally listened to it and, I don’t know if you’ve heard it, but it’s not country music.
I’ve done Mojo (Nixon)’s show on SiriusXM Outlaw Country, and he plays country music. I don’t know what this other shit is! If you played that Paula Abdul video where she’s singing to the cat (Opposites Attract) , if you played that song in the middle of these songs you couldn’t tell where one started and the other ended.
TN: You could say when the Nashville Sound, came around and there was a chase for the popular (pop) market, that country music had to die to be saved.
WWJ: Some of the Nashville Sound stuff, with the string and that, was all right. George Jones used some of that stuff and it’s a little sappy but it’s still good.
I think it’s just that they’re just a bunch of pussies. We used to have Willie, Waylon and Lefty and then we got Garth Brooks.
TN: How did you hook up with Dave Cobb to produce your album?
WWJ: I had heard his name for a while, and I knew Sturgill (Simpson) a little bit, and he introduced me to him. I was like “who in town is going to get me the sound I want and let me do what I want?” He’s got the best players around – I used his band Leroy Powell (guitar,) his brother Chris (drums) and Brian Allen (Bass.) I wanted to make a record and I wanted it to sound good. I just didn’t wnat to censor myself. It’s still traditional country. It’s just instead of “I can’t drink you off my mind” it’s “I can’t fuck you off my mind.”
I had a split second of doubt. We were sitting in the studio and I wondered “Man, maybe we should do a clean version of this somg amd try to get it on the radio.” And then the band look at me and says “This is country music. You can make it clean and they’re still not going to play it.” There’s no (mainstream) radio for this.
I remember when Nirvana came along anad they were called alternative, Then Hootie and the Blowfish came along and they were called rock. Bullshit! Nirvana was rock and Hootie was the alternative. Why do I have to be alternative or Americana? Fuck off. This is country music.
TN: As good as this record is I believe it might be too rough for the genteel sensibilities of Americana.
WWJ: I don’t give a fuck. You’re not going to hear a better country record next year than this one. If you hear a better country record come out next year you call me up and I’ll have a listen.
TN: Truth be told I was put off by some of the titles , like the dirty boogie blues “Eatin Pussy and Kicking Ass.” But the music is heartfelt once you listen.
WWJ: What put you off?
TN: I guess I prefer metaphors in music.
WWJ: I’ve been doing this for 15 years I don’t have time for all that PC bullshit. Once it comes to my head I’m writing it down. This is real. If you have something to say just say it.
TN: After posting “Fuck You Bitch” on social media, I have to say the response was largely positive. From men anyway.
WWJ: I hear positive things from women. We can all relate. I’m waiting for a response song called “Fuck You Dick.” Women can hear this song and relate it to some guy that was an asshole. There are plenty of assholes in both sexes. There are reasons she left me. It was my own fucking fault.
TN: I read you have an aversion to touring, will you hit the road for this new album?
WWJ: David Allen Coe is coming to Nashville December 13 at the Exit/In. I’ll be opening that show. But I’m no spring chicken. I’ll hit the road when there’s an audience. I’m not playing in any more empty clubs. If people buy the album, or files off Steve Jobs’ server, we’ll tour. I’m not going to tour to lose money. It’s up to the people and so far the people have let me down.
TN: Does America still want country music?
WWJ: My album might not be the album they want, but it’s the album they deserve.
The real or contrived controversy even bleeds into the video for the video for “Fuck You Bitch” (below) as Wheeler Walker Jr.’s presser mentions that model Martha Followills, who is featured in the video, her husband Jared Followill (Kings of Leon) who has a cameo, “….remain friends with Wheeler and wish him the best, they have no comment on the video at this time due creative differences over the final cut…”
When Emmylou Harris sang, “One thing they don’t tell you about the blues when you got ‘em/ You keep on falling ‘cause they got no bottom” in the aching “Red Dirt Girl,” the first song in what was supposed to be Rosanne Cash’s second night as the Country Music Hall of Fame’s 2015 Artist in Residency, the night seemingly could’ve turned into a night of one upsmanship and “watch this.” Raw, almost bleeding and deeply vulnerable, Harris’ song set a high bar for artistry and emotional pulse that could’ve read as a challenge.
But given that Harris and Cash have been dear friends for 35 years and Lucinda Williams friends for almost 25, what emerged was a testimony to love, grace, talent and songs well-realized. Drawing on old songs, cover songs and songs yet to be recorded, the American roots music queen wove a tapestry of human emotion that brought everyone in touch with their deepest – perhaps even unacknowledged – selves.
Seeing three women who’ve lived lives, ignited intense love affairs, faced great disappointments, shored up, thrived not just survived – and then wrote or found songs that distilled those things is a thrill. But to watch them love and respect each other unabashedly, shower the others with compliments and tell cheeky stories is to understand the power of women unfurled.
For Rosanne Cash, whose velvety claret voice soothed Williams’ rusty barb wire tones on the final verse and chorus of “Sweet Old World,” the most rock-leaning of the threesome inspired a moment of true rapture with her song of death and devastation. Williams’ version of the song from the 1992 album of the same name has taken the stunned despair and deepened it with both a world-weary recognition of how much it hurts losing people you love and an appreciation for how wonderful the world is.
Emmylou Harris waxed wry, offering the insight about NPR’s liberal point of view: “the truth” before launching into stark “Emmett Till,” which she introduced by explaining his racially-driven murder 50 years ago may well have tipped the civil rights struggle in a way that allowed Barack Obama to America’s first black President. Not one to preach, the gently reflection suggests much about the power of songs and women to deliver volatile social messages in ways that make injustice emerge on their own.
That is the power of the feminine mystique in experienced hands: they can tackle charged topics, embrace Bob Dylan (Cash’s “Girl from North Country”) with innocence informed by passion, get visibly emotional (Williams before singing her beauty in the ravages “When I Look At the World” from last year’s “Where The Spirit Meets The Bone” album) and near intimidation (Cash talking about how she spent her first five years trying to impress Harris “and this song did it”) met with off-handed humor (Harris’ reply “which one?”) as the walk-up to Cash’s second #1, the dusky torch “Blue Moon with Heartache.”
For those gathered in the 800-seat Ford Theater, it was the rare peak into the realm of women unfettered. The pair let it all hang out: glorying in songs, basking or demurring from the praise, making off-handed jokes and being unabashedly honest about their love for each other. In the small details – designer Natalie Chanin’s teaching Cash to sew with the admonition “You have to learn to love the thread” turning into the metaphor that inspired the double-Grammy winner “A Feather’s Not A Bird” or Harris revealing the inspiration culled from a birthday gift from the late Susanna Clark, “a print of a Terry Allen piece, what looked like a Leonardo DaVinci drawing of an arm, which would’ve been enough, but then there was a boat emerging from the arm, and it was called, ‘When She Kisses The Ship Upon His Arm” – empowers and grounds part of where their strength lies.
But more than that, it is the communion of friends, artists, muses. For Cash’s second night of a three night residency – the final being September 24 – she pulled back the veil and revealed the essence of a woman’s heart. It is joy, hope, sorrow and beauty all tempered with love and knowing, and when it is joined to songs tendered with lyrics of nuance, it is a stunning thing, indeed.
By the time of the encore, the cheers had taken on a force of their own. After pulling Cash’s breakthrough “Seven Year Ache,” the tale of a heartbreak moving through a wide swath of town, as the common ground, each woman had shown her strength and lifted the others up. Celebratory, that man become incidental – yet Johnny Cash’s “I Still Miss Someone,” the night’s final song, also suggested these three understand the potency of romance, desire and falling in love to the hilt.
What isn’t necessary becomes wanted, and that is the magic of life, emotion and the uncertainty of how we move through the world. Standing shoulder to shoulder on the edge of the stage, Cash, Harris and Williams bowed – as much to the forces that brought them to this place as to the packed house on their feet.
Holly Gleason has written regularly for ROLLING STONE, THE LOS ANGELES TIMES, PASTE, NO DEPRESSION and HITS, as well as contributing to RELIX, THE OXFORD AMERICAN, PLAYBOY and THE NEW YORK TIMES. She lives in Nashville, Tennessee.
When Sony Music Nashville CEO Gary Overton told the Tennessean, “If you’re not on country radio, you don’t exist.” it caused a minor kerfuffle between country music bloggers and country artists, like Aaron Watson and Charlie Robison, that felt they , and country msuic’s integrity, were in his contemptuous crosshairs.
I even took it apon myself to decry Overton’s statement on Twitter and retweet links to essays taking him to task.
But after some reflection, I am willing to concede that Overton is correct in his statement.
Overton made his incendiary remarks while attending the annual Country Radio Seminar in Nashville, where 2,424 attendees, exhibitors, panelists and sponsors came to discuss the future of the industry. That’s the Country Radio industry. Not the roots americana industry. Not the historical preservation of country music.
As with any trade convention quality was not the focus, unless there is a direct line between it and profits.
It’s about return on investment. Period.
No more clear symbol of this was the surprise appearance of Garth Brooks to announced the year’s Country Radio Hall of Fame inductees in both the Radio and On-Air categories.
Whether you like Brooks’ music, or believe he’s the beginning of genre cross-over hell and the end of everything that was good about country music (he wasn’t), with 8 Academy of Country Music awards and a RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) listing of as the best-selling solo album artist of all-time (surpassing Elvis Presley) with 135 million units sold, he is the the gold standard by which radio play, record sales and concert attendance is measured.
Jimmy Rodgers mights be the father of country music, but Garth is it’s first superstar.
This is the ontological existence of which Overton refers. The world made possible by Garth.
When your music is no longer a nuanced craft and becomes a replicable commodity, you exist. If your personality and looks are a marketers dream, you exist. If your income far exceeds the label’s output, you exist. If you’re willing to run that gilded hamster wheel ad infinitum until the end of your short days, you exist.
If you’re willing to use your talents to grease the music row production machine, to achieve potential fame and admiration of millions, you exist.
Short of that piss off.
It’s not all gloom. When an industry behemoth refuses to adapt to customer tastes and industry trends alternatives spring up.
The Nashville Sound led to Buck, Merle , Willie and Waylon. The Urban Cowboy fab resulted in Dwight Yoakam, Steve Earle, Lyle Lovett and kd Lang.
Though these rebels were never fully integrated into the machine itself they did send waves into record sales and radio execs had take notice.
Now the so-called Bro-Country fad has Kacey Musgraves, Brandy Clark, Sturgill Simpson and Jason Isbell rocking the mainstream country boat.
But like McDonalds facing a healthier eating public, or Budweiser facing a less people willing to swill their sun-par product, Music Row can only partially assimilate. The assimilation will also lead to the application of the Garth standard of success, of existence, so songs will be optioned and the same flavorless production sauce will be slathered over extraordinary songs rendering them worthy of mainstream radio play and consumptions of an always shifting, faceless and fickle demographic.
So Overton is correct. By the Garth standard of rendering cultural artifacts into mass consumption radio fodder, most musicians don’t matter. Thier work or image doesn’t fit into the already prefabbed sonic and stylized containers.
But luckily the Garth standard is not the only one that counts.
There the already mentioned Bakersfield /Outlaw standard of creatively seeing untapped opportunities and bucking (hehe) conventional (and played out) trends.
There’s the model of artists like Buddy Miller, Jim Lauderdale, Gretchen Peters, Vince Gill, Chris Knight, Guy Clark and others that straddle the commercial and artistry territories without compromise.
There’s the vibrant and thriving Americana model that cultivates and champions the best of country music, and country music sourced genres , new and older talents. And has created a thriving , and lucrative, community.
And then there’s the Hank III model of giving the finger to Music Row and bringing in a whole new demographic from the ground up, to build a loyal, enthusiastic and sustainable fan base.
Some say the Garth standard of mega sales, and celebrity status, is dead, or dying, in a music industry in transition.
I certainly have no crystal ball telling me where all this is headed. But I take comfort is knowing that Overton and his ilk are on their heels as their concept of existence crumbles beneath them.
The thing with masters is that they appear to wield craft with such aplomb that they give the illusion of effortlessness.
Texas singer-songwriter James McMurtry’s newest album, ‘Complicated Game’ builds on 2005’s ‘Childish Things’ and 2008’s ‘Just Us Kids’ to give just such musical mirage. But songwriting practitioners will assure you, this is a skill not easily acquired. It’s God given, Devil dealt or sweat earned.
Take, for example the album’s opener “Copper Canteen.” Though the song uses themes that Music City gleefully throws into commercial radio wood-chipper in McMurtry’s deft hands this small town serenaide is a broken hope chest. Inside are hard times, splintering generations, love, faith and hope backdropping simple pleasures like fishing, hunting, churching – hell there’s even a truck. It’s a nuanced and vivid emotional diorama of steadfast independance and weary pride.
“You Got To Me” finds McMurtry winding between a fall wedding and a woman that got under his skin before deciding to vamoose leaving him with ‘…all this empty down on top of me.” But
instead of a shattering heart pining away he’s left wiser as he declares ‘But I know a thing or two now.”
The rambling banjo and drums of “Ain’t Got a Place” fits nicely in this updated, expansively Buddhist version of the old hymn “This World Is Not My Home.” The released single ‘How’m I Gonna Find You Now’ is a beat-driven truckstop stomper is laced with what I think is a psychedelic banjo arrangement. While listening to the frenetic style of the song I was reminded of the opening chapters of HUnter S. Thompson’s Gonzo masterpiece “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” You can imagine the good Doctor screeching “Turn the goddam music up! My heart feels like an alligator!” while sucking on a pint of ether.
‘She Loves Me’ is where ‘Complicated Game’ get’s it’s title. A romantic triangle is rationalized by one of the right angels with trepidation and bravado against a wonderful doo-wop build up.
Given his lineage the literary comparison to McMurtry’s songs are lazy, but I’m a lazy bastard. ‘Complicated Game’ is a 12 song .38 magnum opus of narrative excursions of a fading heartland and road weary hearts.
Though his way with a rhyme is legendary McMurtry is no slouch on the guitar, but on ‘Complicated Game’ it’s noticeably subdued to strummed or picked acoustic or muted slide electric.
The inclusion of accordion, mandolin, banjo, piano and organ.
No list of great songwriters would be complete without McMurtry, but his skill of writing wry, empathetic songs of working-class life, while keeping his political cards close to his chest, is getting better where you thought there was no room for improvement. ‘Complicated Game’ is a great album that will last over years of listening. My money is it’ll improve where in those quiet, surprising places where there’s no room for improvement.