Sturgill Simpson and band took his latest “Sound and Fury” on the road by playing the storied
Troubadour club in Los Angeles and it sounded like a great show.
Simpson band must have gotten up at the break of dawn to it in on the always entertaining Joe Rogan Podcast. Heres some highlights.
– Sturgill had Justin along with his band. Justin is a military medic that lost his legs in combat. He relaid his heart-wrenching tale of war and drugs involved with his recovery. He was representing the Special Forces Foundation that helps Gold Star families.
– Simpson had two home invasions twice by the same burglar. The second break-in he had the invader lined in his rifle scope but let the guy escape out the back instead of shooting him in the back.
– Sturgill might sing about Waffle House but he used to work at iHop.
– There was a rightful mutual admiration of Patrick Swayze and the movie roadhouse.
– Sturgill recalls opening for Dwight Yoakam early in his career (“it felt like we had broken through”) at a show in McAllen, Texas. A post-show trip to a Mexican dance club. The club DJ introduces the guys as “Dwight Yoakam’s Band.” Then a fight broke out involving bottles of Grey Goose as weapons which hasted the band’s exit.
– They recount the incredible “Bluegrass Conspiracy” tale that involved the Kentucky politics all the way up the the Governor’s office. A Lexington, KY cop crashed his plane while carrying cocaine. He ejected out with the code strapped to him but still died. Then a bear ate the coke and died as well. The bear is stuffed and mounted on display in Lexington
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…”
While attending the Americana conference and Festival in Nashville I took some time to head roughly 25 miles south to Franklin TN to chat with South Carolina singer Julie Roberts. I arrive at a house in a quitter residential neighborhood ringside by farms (I know, I took a wrong turn and was lucky enough to see their beauty.) The house was a single-story pleasant homes any where any family might dwell. But as Roberts sweetly welcomes my arrival I enter a state of the art music studio with all the tech and instruments (bedroom set of as a drum room) to make a hit album.
Julie hopes her new release “Good Wine and Bad Decisions” is a hit record.
Of course the lady knows a thing or two about a hit record.
Roberts burst into the mainstream country music spotlight in 2004 with there hit “Break Down Here,” which reached #18 on the Country chart. That song was from her self-titled Mercury debut. That and the follow up, “Men & Mascara,” hit the top 10 of the Country Albums chart. Her new alum, “Good Wine and Bad Decisions” is her first release in seven years and it’s a sea change for the artist bit in style and in approach to a industry
When asked about her time on Music Row, and her albums made there, Roberts says “There was a big difference between the first record and the second record sonically. on the first one we would just come to the studio like this home studio and it; was just me and Brent (Rowan), my producer. Nobody came around until we were done. We were able to focus on our vision, on the music.
“For the second record (Men & Mascara) we worked on Music Row and people were around all the time and it was kind of nerve-racking. it’s hard not to want to please people. People pleasing is a part of my personality i’m trying to change (She laughs – Roberts laughs like she songs, full-throated and unguarded.)
“After the second record i moved to L.A. to work with Lifetime on a story of my life , around my life with my mama and our time in South Carolina. moving to Nashville. There was also the story of me working for Luke (Lewis, then the head of Mercury Nashville Records) that we thought would be a good story. So while in L.A. I was working with Tom Rickman who wrote the screenplay for Coal Miner’s Daughter for Loretta Lynn. So I had to move to L.A. so he could get to know me. After a year of living out there, and taking acting lessons, I realized I had spent all my life savings on L.A. rent!”
“I called Luke and told him I was ready to come back to Nashville and record my third record which would have some of the songs that were to be featured in the movie. The heads of Lifetime kept changing the date of the movie’s release. Luke thought the album wouldn’t be as strong without the movie so he shelved the album. Sometimes it takes a year to make a movie in Hollywood. Sometimes it takes ten. I had no idea what category I was in! Luke said he wasn’t going to release the album without the movie. So I asked him to let me go, I wanted to make music. And he said “yes.” I still owed him more records, but we had a history, we’re still friends. Leaving Universal was done on good terms.”
“The same week that I left, the Nashville flood came (May 2010) and we lost our home, everything. So the rest of that year I stayed Nashville rebuilding our lives. I live with my mom and my sister. While working on the house I started with Jason (Collum), my band leader since 2006, to release my first independent album “Alive” as well as my Christmas Album “Who Needs Mistletoe” (both in 2011.) This was really great for me because i was able to make music while dealing with rebuilding our lives.”
“Also during that time, I came out publicly that I had MS. I was diagnosed in 2005 but kept it quiet. There’s a lot of misconceptions about what that can mean and what you can do. And I was afraid.”
“I had everything I had always dreamed of. My mom with me, a happy home and a record deal in Nashville. We came from a not so happy place, My daddy was an alcoholic. That may be part of the reason I love country music. I can relate to a lot of it.”
“It was a really difficult time but I needed to be honest with my fans and tell them about my MS. they needed to know what I’m going through and that I’m doing great. I take medication, I work out, I eat right. But now I feel it’s part of my purpose to keep making music and following your dreams even in the face of adversity.”
Roberts works with the Muscular Dystrophy Association The Multiple Sclerosis Association Of America to raise awareness and money by performing at local events. She also receives letters from other folks with MS that hold her as an inspiration. “I got a letter from a single mom who read one of my Facebook posts. She said she was going back to night school to be a teacher.” I feel like this is a part of my new path.”
“I try and do what I can. Golf charity events. Wine events. I like wine! (laughs) There was an amazing wine event and we played it. We made a lot of money for the National Muscular Dystrophy Association. We work a lot with the local Nashville chapter too. I do what I can. I want people to see that MS is a part of me.”
Her destiny with the legendary Sun Records was a path of fortuitous circumstance. Sun had been working with Nashville-based Make Noise Management, licensing its expansive, extraordinary catalog for film and TV advertising. The Vice President of Sun, Collin Brace, had been leading the way for branch expansion and was searching for opportunities. Under his direction Sun has made deals with Converse, Mercedes-Benz as well as a series of Sun Sessions, live performances recorded in the famed memphis studio by musicians like Justin Townes Earle and Grace Potter.
CEO of Make Noise Management, Josh Collum, recalls discussions with Brace around bringing in a new artist (the first in decades) to reboot Sun. “We had been talking to Collin about reviving the label under a new artist instead of it just being in the business of licensing , which is good business, but it’s not brining in new talent. well, the stars aligned and Julie freed up from a few things and John (Singleton. He along with his brother, the late Shelby Singleton, have owned Sun since the late 1960s) loved her. He got behind it 110% in June, and we’ve been on a roller coaster since then getting the label turned back on. We started making the record and here we are 6 weeks out from release. ”
When asked how it feels to be the contemporary face of the label that launched the careers of Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf and other legends Roberts doesn’t hesitate.
“It’s exciting, but there’s definitely pressure. All those great artists. And each one unique in their own music. I’m proud that this record, “Good Wine And Bad Decisions,” is my music and unique to me. I put everything I had into this record and I think it’ll stand up to their legacy.”
“I think it’s humbling. When we first went to meet John at Sun with Julie we were sitting in that office. At the end of the meeting Julie and John got up and shook hands and John said “Welcome to Sun records. At that point it go real.” Collum, whose been sitting by us, adds.
Julie remembers it a little differently. “It was a really surreal moment for me. Before the meeting I had been looking at these plaques from all these amazing artists. I was amazed. But at the end of the meeting John actually hugged me, he didn’t shake my hand (That laugh!) Which is even better! Then he said “Welcome to the Sun Records family.” It brought tears to my eyes ”
“When we were planning the record John asked me to look through the catalog to see of there was anything I wanted to use for the record. There was a lot to consider. We wanted to choose something that fit and hadn’t been covered a lot. Josh gave me a hard drive of about 10,000 songs. As I was going through them John sent me an email recommending the song “He Made a Woman Out of Me” (first cut by Rita Remington and later by Bobbie Gentry) I just loved it. I thought it fit my type and I loved that he thought of me for the song.”
The song is cued up. It’s a pop-swampy number that reminiscent of another storied studio, Muscle Shoals. There’s a groove that hangs like a humid night as Julie wraps her powerful voice around this, sultry Southern risqué tale of backwoods coming of age. I look over at Julie, she’s intently listening, but she’s smiling.
Buddy Miller, Vice Gill and harmonica virtuoso Mickey Raphael all make appearances on “Good Wine And Bad Decisions.” I’ve always been a fan of Buddy. Julie Miller wrote “I Can’t Get Over You” from my first album. We had been covering Buddy’s “”Gasoline and Matches” on the road for a couple of years. When we asked him to song on it for the record he remembered my version of Julie’s song and said he loved it and would honored to sing on it.
“Vince Gill sang on two tracks on my first record and we sent him “Old Strings’ and told him I’d love for him to sing on it if he liked it. And he did.” ‘We asked Willis harmon a player, Mickey Raphael , to play “If I Were You” and he was awesome. Just knowing what he’s done. We knew he had played I’n town with Amos Lee and we figured out we reached out and asked him to play on the cut. ‘ This makes me wonder who says no to this woman. When I ask her she just laughs (!)
Julie tells me about the next song “Old Habit “I wrote the song for my Mom. She’s dated this guy since moving to Nashville, they go out on Saturday nights. One Saturday I asked if she was going on a date that night and she said “No, I think I’m going to tell hime I can’t.” She said “I never hear from him the rest of the week and I’n starting to feel like an old habit.” That was it. A song was born “Thanks mom!”
When I mention that music row and mainstream county radio will probably not be receptive to “Good Wine And Bad Decisions” more retie and soulful sound. As far as I could tell there was not one tail-gating song on the whole album! Collum says with a grin “There is a definite edge to the record. This is defiantly not a mainstream record. This is more Americana than it is Music Row. From a strategy point of view we are looking forward to kicking their ass by not playing by the rules.”
“This album is important to me. It’s very personal and I’m very proud of it. I can’t wait to take these songs on the road and share them with my fans.”
Roberts was always too genuine to last on Music Row and I believe that “Good Wine and Bad Decisions” will be welcomed by her life-long fans, and find new fans of great, soulful roots music.
I imagine Hayes Carll’s welcoming, laid-back style being perfect for hanging out on a Texas afternoon shooting the shit. Until that time Carll’s newly launched Google hangout event is the next best thing.
Conducted it from the Drunken Poet Studios in Austin, TX. the event will be weekly or monthly and is still getting the kinks out. But it’s cool to watch Carll and his crew work out the bugs while picking some tunes.
Carll talks up his upcoming Christmas tour and other upcoming gigs and togas. Takes questions from his Twitter account @HayesCarll . He also introduces the Drunken Poet’s Society fan club, that sounds pretty cool.
He also performs a new unfinished and untitled..er new song #7, song he wrote with Nashville based singer/songwriter Ruston Kelly Also performed is a song called “Magic Kid” hayes wrote with Darrell Scott.
Not sure if the event, like many Google hangouts, will be done as a live feed with audience participation during the live taping. but it’s a pretty cool way to kill a few minutes with a cool guy.
Russonello’s piece frames the recent six-week “Americanarama” tour to argue that the tour’s roster, which included Bob Dylan, Wilco, My Morning Jacket and Ryan Bingham – represents a larger cultural exclusion rampant in the genre.
Setting aside the argument that the “Americanarama” bill does not really represent the contemporary Americana genres, let’s address the premise of “Overwhelmingly White and Male”
Early country, folk and bluegrass have generally appealed to a predominantly anglo audience. Partly because many of the songs are from European source material performed by mostly white people. The trend in these genres have mapped closely to the trends in American society in general and, as opportunities have arisen, woman and people of color have stepped up to represent their unique take on the music.
The difference is that Americana proper (and it’s cousin alt.country) have never been exclusionary.
It’s introduction into popular culture came in the 80’s as MTV gave us the L.A. cow punk band Lone Justice , featuring the gritty soul of Maria McKee, and their “Ways to be Wicked” and “Sheltered videos in rotation with Jason and the Scorchers and The Georgia Satellites on the 24- hour feed.
At the same time kd Lang and Roseanne Cash joined Steve Earle, Dwight Yoakam and Lyle Lovett in shaking up Nashville.
Soon after bands like The Meat Purveyoyers, Freakwater , Neko Case, Gillian Welch, the Cowboy Junkies, Hem, Tarnation – all bands prominently featuring female artists – laid the groundwork for Americana.
An allum of the watershed “O Brother where art thou” roster, Alison Krauss, has the enviable honor of having won the most Grammys by a female artist with twenty-seven (!)
Hardly the good-old boys club that article paints for the genre.
Then there’s this:
“… if an art form is going to name itself after this country, it should probably stop weatherproofing itself against America’s present-day developments. And it hardly seems like enough to say you’re carrying on the legacies of black gospel and blues if the performers and listeners venerating them are almost all white.”
The claim that Americana is “carrying on the legacies of black gospel and blues” is specious. True, some artist incorporate gospel and blues within their style, to say that Americana is carrying on the legacy of those sage musical genres is insulting to these thriving genres and their decades of practitioners.
And the argument that since the genre appeals to a particular segments of the population signifies that genre exclusion of others is ridiculous. Much of music is self-identity. If a segment of society don’t see themselves in the performers and their stories it follows that they wouldn’t be compelled to buy the music or attend the shows. Early hip-hop was a primarily African -American cultural phenomenon which has now transcended. As for as I know on one was accusing hip-hop of excluding anglos.
Just as people of color have taken different roads to Americana, and have contributed to it’s evolution. Los Lobos and Alejandro Escovedo bring a uniquely chicano take to the music. The Carolina Chocolate Drops and newcomer Valarie June have infused the genre with African-American string-band and folk-soul influences receptively.
Russonello places Dylan as the “the father of Americana” (I would argue Gram Parsons or Townes Van Zandt) and then points to the current shining light, Jason Isbell, as not heading the lessons of Dylan and providing anything “new.” The argument could be made that Dylan at the beginning of his career, as Isabell still is, brought nothing that hadn’t already been done by Guthrie and Seeger. Russonello then makes the case that “Music gets its power from a keen, contemporary perspective” and then “it feels facile to let this one strain of yellow-page nostalgia represent it.”
This is just lazy. Though the form, the music and singing styles harken back to a yesteryear , topics are either contemporary, like Isbell, Todd Snider and Steve Earle or dealing with the great human truths – love, hate, death – that transcend any time period.
Though the article does a serviceable job of tracing roots music’s trajectory thorough time, the conclusion shows a bias of the writer. Anything this white and male met be a conspiracy..
Americana does reflect an idealized notion of the the past (as Americans are prone to do,) but to confuse the predilections of subjective taste enjoyed by some as a kind of organized Jim Crow-style musical segregation insults a music and musicians that I celebrate daily. It also, ironically, displays a type of bigotry that all cultural forms must undergo some forced, artificial desegregation toward some imagined moral purity.
Joy Williams helps out Lightning 100’s Wells Adams morning show on Nashville
Lightning 100 morning show and discusses her new baby, covering the Smashing Pumpkins, living in Nashville, displays decent skill in a lightening round.
She also talks about, and plays some cuts from, her band’s new chart-topping self-titled Civil Wars album.
There are a few references to the “not the most comfortable time” that she and John Paul White are currently going trough. She says “John Paul and I are in a season where it’s a little bit to be determined.” and “People don’t choose to go into those phases” and “I’m desperate to play these songs. I want to be out on the read” and “I hold out hope.”
David Letterman, and his Late Show booking crew, have been long-time enthusiastic supporters of country and Americana music. Recently it seems like Dave has invited a roots artist to play every night of the week, and this is great new for the artists needing exposure and fans looking for great music.
And as Saving Country Music tells it, the Late Show was the one that reached out to many of these artists to perform on the program. Many of them, like dale Watson and Shove;s and Rope, getting national exposure for the first time.
Here’s to you, Dave and crew, for championing great roots and Americana music like the clips below.
Ryan Adams – Lucky Now – December 5, 2011
Shovels & Rope – Birmingham – David Letterman January 30, 2013
Elizabeth Cook – If I Had My Way, I’d Tear This Building Down – March, 14 2013
Dale Watson & His Lonestars – “I Lie When I Drink” – June 24, 2013
Ray Wylie Hubbard – Mother Blues – David Letterman – January 9, 2013
Marty Stuart “Country Boy Rock & Roll” June 29, 2010
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit “Codeine” – November 2004
When the nominees for the Americana Music Association awards was released there was some that commented on the lack of diversity; which is a shortcut for racial diversity. I agree there’s no one of color represented. But the implication is that racism is to blame. Yeah, that’s not it.
Though I do believe there is an inherent bias in the AMA wards nominees it tends towards the popular and well-known and not on skin color. If an African-American act sold as many albums as Mumford and Sons you can bet they would be o the list.
Though I’m willing to call out discrimination when I see it, the simple fast is there’s not a lot of diversity on the Americana charts, which represent the source of the radio-centric voters for the AMA Awards. Superior performers like the Carolina Chocolate Drops are few and with no representation there’s no opportunity for celebration.
Some have suggested we expand Americana to include the Blues and R&B. Though these genres, like country , folk, and jazz, feed into the greater American music ocean they are going fine on their own as mature, rich and diverse genres. Beside we already have extraordinarily talented musicians that, regardless of color, deserves celebration without us wringing our hands when we do so.
Some want to dig deeper than the charts and top level performers to see if there’s a strata of increased diversity somewhere below the surface. I’m all for seeking out undiscovered talent, but seek how far and for what reason?
Personally I’m not an advocate for pilfering other mature genres or lowering a musical bar, those are forms of racism. How far afield would we have to travel to address some imagined suppression of racial diversity?
Then there is outright racism. After appearing on the Opry stage Darius Rucker received a tweet stating that he should “leave country to the white folk.” Now that’s racist as well as historically imprecise. Huffington Post held an interesting discussion on the subject of race in mainstream country industry and culture.Though I don’t fully agree with all the discussion it’s a healthy and interesting conversation. Perhaps there should be a roundtable on race in the more left-leaning Americana genre.
Hosted by Marc Lamont Hill with guests Charles Hughes (Memphis, TN) Music Historian at Rhodes College, Cowboy Troy @cowboytroy (Mt. Pleasant, MI) Recording Artist at Warner Music Nashville, Rissi Palmer @RissiPalmer (Raleigh, NC) Country Music Singer / Songwriter, John Bryant (Dallas, TX) Ray Charles’ Drummer and Stanley Crouch (Brooklyn, NY) Writer and Music Critic
If you’re a struggling musician I suggest you take a look at the career of Jim Lauderdale. Between early setbacks as a Bluegrass banjo player, and being marginalized in Music Row there were plenty of opportunities to chuck his guitar in the gutter and call it quits. But he persevered and used his songwriting as a musical dowsing rod to move him always forward toward unexpected and exciting places.
If the Americana genre didn’t already exist it would have to be created for Lauderdale. He’s worked in multiple genres (Bluegrass, country, rock, soul) with multiple artists (George Jones, Ralph Stanley, Elvis Costello, Lucinda Williams, Steve Earle and more), but the music has always been grounded in honesty with a twist of risk. This will to be daring, attention to legacy, while pushing forward has allowed Lauderdale to become something you don’t see music in the music industry, unique.
He’s now a Grammy winning singer/songwriter, the subject of a crowd-sourced biopic (Jim Lauderdale: The King of Broken Hearts)
He hosts, along with Buddy Miller, “The Buddy & Jim Show” Saturdays 10 pm ET on SiriusXM Outlaw Country. He also hosts the “Music City Roots: Live from the Loveless Cafe”, weekly Americana music show broadcast live on WSM from the Loveless Barn on Highway 100 in Nashville. He is also the MC for the Americana Music Awards and Honors show in Nashville where his catch-phrase “Now THAT’S Americana” is as much of a delight as the stellar performances on the storied Ryman Auditorium stage.
I talked to Lauderdale, through spotty reception, on the road to Nashville the day after his birthday performance at the Music City Roots spin-off, “Scenic City Roots, in Chattanooga Tennessee
Twang Nation: Jim? How are you today?
Jim Lauderdale: Just fine. Driving on a beautiful, crisp spring day heading back to Nashville from Chattanooga Tennessee.
TN: Happy belated birthday, You share a birth with Bob Harris ( “‘Whispering Bob Harris” the legendary is the host of the BBC 2 music program The Old Grey Whistle Test, and a supporter of country and roots music)
JL: Really? It’s also George Shuffler’s birthday, who played guitar for the Stanley Brothers.
TN: Cool. So you’re taking some time off from your tour supporting the “Buddy and Jim” album. How’s that going?
JL: It’s been great! We too some time off because Buddy is producing the Wood Brothers and he also co-produces the music for the TV show Nashville with T Bone Burnett. He’s got a pretty full plate most of the time. Our next date is in San Francisco at the Great American Music Hall. I love playing that space.
TN: I’ll be there. The first time I saw you and Buddy working with the new material it was at last year’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival. It was a morning slot but the place was still full.
JL: I love that festival. Warren Hellman has done so much for the community. He’ll be missed.
TN: True. So let’s visit your childhood in Troutman, North Carolina. Your father was a minister and your mother was a music teacher. How did this shape you musically?
JL: I believe it helped to train my ears. They were both great singers, so it was a combination of hearing a lot of church music. Hearing my mother, who was a choir director at the church, a chorus teacher, and a piano teacher, I was hearing stuff all the time. My older sister was the first to start buying records like the Beatles when I was in the first grade. At the time music was just exploding and so much was coming from the radio and in North Carolina radio then was a mixture of rock and roll, soul music like Stax and Motown, and then there were peripheral country stations where Bluegrass was being played. So there was just so much great music being played and available. I think Buddy and i share a lot of the same influences. that’s how all these influences made me want to sing. I started singing really early and then started playing drums for a few years when I was 11 and then, when I was 13, I started playing blues harmonica. When I was 15 I started playing the banjo and getting more into Bluegrass music. I always wanted to do a Bluegrass record but it took me a long time to get a deal to do one. When it happened I got to do it with Ralph Stanley and his band, the Clinch Mountain Boys (1999’s I Feel Like Singing Today)
TN: Not bad company to keep for your inaugural Bluegrass venture.
JL: That was kind of a dream because I grew up loving his work. I used to try and play banjo in his style and sing in a tenor like Ralph would. One of the best things to happen out of that was that I began writing with Robert Hunter (poet and lyricist for the Grateful Dead.) A friend of mine, Rob Bleetstein, put me in touch with him in the Bay Area. i knew that Robert and Jerry Garcia were huge Stanley Brothers’ fans, so that’s how I started writing with Robert and since then we’ve created 4 albums. The last two were Bluegrass of stuff we’ve done together. I have an upcoming album with the North Mississippi Allstars coming out in the fall and it has stuff that Robert and I wrote as well. So, even though it took me a long tie to get something out in that world, it was worth the wait because of all the good things that have happened.
TN: Making up for lost time.
JL: Right. And the same with Buddy. We had met back in New York in the early 80’s. We were both living there and both had country bands going and Buddy, to me, had the best band there. There was a nice country scene going on in New York at the time. There were about 5 bars in New York like the Lone Star Cafe that featured country music. So there was a lot of work. Eventually we both ended up on the west coast and started playing gigs together. Then Buddy came to Nashville first and ended up playing with Steve Earle and Emmylou Harris. His career really took off! So we’ve known each other for 33 years and have talked about doing a record for the past 17 years so this new album was also worth the wait. Our schedules just wouldn’t allow it. But last year we started this radio show last summer on SiriusXM Outlaw Country (The Buddy & Jim Show , Saturdays 10 pm ET) and that started moving things toward us sitting down and writing material. It happened pretty quickly, we spent a few days in pre-production and wrote some stuff but we cut the album in three days in his home studio. He produced the album and we’re really happy with it. I love playing with Buddy, he always makes me smile.
TN: There’s a song you wrote that was covered by George Strait called The King of Broken Hearst. It’s got a great story.
JL: I moved to L.A. partly to be in the same atmosphere that Gram Parsons had been in. There was this story that came from (former rock ‘n’ roll groupie and author) Pamela Des Barres, who was a friend of his, who said he had this L.A. party and was playing George Jones records. These people had never heard him (Jones) and he started crying. he said “That’s the king of broken hearts.” It was one of those times when an idea just comes to you. I play that song all the time and I love it.
TN: Gram is seen as the patron saint of the Americana genre and , I believe, you and Buddy have earned a place at that table. With your work with the Americana Music Awards and Music City Roots would you consider yourself an ambassador of Americana?
JL: Oh, I don’t know about that. But I’m certainly happy it’s out there. The guy I mentioned before, Rob Bleetstein, helped to coin there term (along with Jon Grimson of Nashville) for a trade publication that’s no longer around called Gavin Report. It was like Billboard and R&R (Radio & Records) magazine. They needed a chart for rootsy American music and Rob said “How about Americana?” So that put a name on it. But to me it’s just great that Americana allows a broad umbrella for roots music – Blues, Bluegrass, folk, rock, country – music that is not overproduced and it’s all connected, And it’s a place that, in his later years, someone like Johnny Cash can get played on the radio. And Merle Haggard, and folks like Guy Clark and Joe Ely, Butch Hancock and jimmie Dale Gilmore. Stuff that’s too rootsy for mainstream radio. it’s nice to have a place where people can be recognized.
TN: You’ve worked in the Music Row world and the Americana world and been successful in both. What do you think contributes to your success to work in both of those environments?
JL: Well I had plans but things would work out a different that what I thought. It was accidental in some ways. I wanted to make Blue grass records as a teenager, but it never worked out. Then in my early 30s I finally got a record contract in the country genre. But that record was too country at the time to be accepted in 1988. Dwight Yoakam’s producer and guitarist Pete Anderson did it with me (The unreleased CBS album that later appeared on an overseas label as Point of No Return.) My next album wasn’t as traditional but it was pretty far out there. It was co-produced by Rodney Crowell and John Leventhal (1991’s Planet of Love) Even though that album didn’t have a lot of commercial success, 8 of the 10 songs went on to be recorded by other people like George Strait. So that too me into that world of songwriting though my plan was to have a successful career with my own records. I kept putting out my own records and, when it wouldn’t work out, the only way to rise above of the disappointment was to write myself out of it. I still had a contract for a few more majors, but I started doing some independent labels and was more eclectic. Bluegrass with country mixed with R&B ad soul. The work I’m doing with the North Mississippi Allstars I did with Robert Hunter is more blues, rock and soul. I’m also trying to finish up a stripped down acoustic record that I’m writing with Robert. He’s really important in my like as far as music, so I want to keep that going.
TN: Speaking of Robert Hunter lest year you were in the Bay Area with the American Beauty Project. How did that come about?
JL: Those two albums (Grateful Dead’s) Working Man’s Dead and American Beauty opened up a door in my spirit when I heard them. All the things I’d done before – country, Bluegrass, rock – came together in those two records. To me they were like the Gram Parsons solo albums with Emmylou, those records are touchstones. The New York Guitar Festival which was put together by David Spellman, each year, would choose a different album and then singers and guitar players would play a song from that record. A few year’s ago they chose American Beauty and it went over really well. The singer Catherine Russell, Ollabelle, Larry Campbell and his wife Teresa Williams became the core of the American Beauty project which we took around the country. We still do it occasionally and will probably do some more shows in the future. It’s always a lot of fun.
TN: Tell me about your work with the roots-rock band Donna the Buffalo.
JL: I met them at the Newport Folk Festival while opening for Lucinda Williams on her “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” tour. I met this group of folks that were really friendly, but I had missed their show earlier in the day. We made this friendship and we then jammed together at Merlefest in North Carolina. They then invited me to play their festival that they put on in the summer and offered to back me up during my set. So over the years we’ve worked festivals and sat in with each other. I started to write songs for all of us to do and when i had an album’s worth we went into the studio and did it (2003’s Wait Til Spring) We still do stuff when we can. They’ve got a new album coming out in June which I’ve heard and it’s fantastic (tonight Tomorrow & Yesterday – June 18) They are one of my favorite bands as an audience member and I love to sit in with them. We have a few new songs we’ve written but i need some more material to do another record.
TN: Any other new artists that have caught your ear?
JL: There’s a lady that just moved to Nashville, Lera Lynn. There’s another band that just moved from L.A. to Nashville called HoneyHoney that I like a lot. There”s a songwriter named Ryan Tanner I think is really good. And there’s a guy in North Carolina named Daniel Justin Smith that I think is really good. There’s no shortage of new, young singer, songwriter and pickers that are acoustically influenced and have their own style of country and roots music. I’m really encouraged by that. When i host the Music City Roots showcase it gives me an opportunity to be exposed to new performers. There was a band on the other night out of Birmingham, Alabama called St Paul and the Broken Bones. They are a kind of soul review kind of band and they are just out of this world. There’s a woman called Sara Petite out of San Diego who I like a lot. I also love Shovels and Rope, Robert Ellis , Max Gomez and the Milk Carton Kids.
TN: Who would you like to write music with someone that you haven’t?
JL: Gosh, I wish I could work with Eric Clapton. I love his work. I would also like to work with Keith Richards. I got to sing harmony with him on the song Hickory Wind on a Gram Parsons tribute called “Return to Sin City.” Norah Jones was on that, I’d like to work with her. I did a song with John Leventhal called Planet of Love that was pitched to Ray Charles to do with Norah Jones, but that didn’t happen before he passed away. I always wanted to work with Doc Pomus before he passed. And I always wanted to do something with Jerry Garcia and I’m sorry that didn’t happen. I’m slowly getting to work with a lot of folks I hold in high esteem. I got to write with Dan Pen and we’ve been working on some things in England with him and Nick Lowe’s great band. I got to song with George Jones years ago and that was a treat. You just never know in this up and down world of music.
TN: You’ve moved deftly between genres in this time, is there a musical era you would like to travel to and perform?
JL: The 60’s and early 70’s for the soul, country and rock music that was coming out and then the late 50’s early 60’s for Bluegrass. And the 50’s for Blues music. Being able to work in those times at the peak of the music would have been great.
TN: You’re a great singer, songwriter but your also a consummate showman. You’re very personable and funny on stage. Many have also taken note of your rhinestone bedecked clothing when you perform. How many suits do you have and where do you get them?
JL: Oh, I think i have 20 or 25 suits with shirts. I have gotten a few vintage pieces here and there, but i get most of my things new and custom made from Manuel (Cuevas) who is a designer and tailor here in Nashville that used to work with Nudie (Cohn) out of L.A. when he was a teenager. He’s still here producing things for people like Jack White.
TN: Thanks for your time and keep your eyes on the road.
The first time I heard Nashville-based Jessica Maros and Tyler James, collectively knows as Escondido, it was the video for their garage-country noir song Bad Without You I was hooked. I even used the song on my podcast. I told you I was hooked.
There were shades of contemporaries Nikki Lane and Fist Aid Kit, but then again embodying a sound all their own.
Jessica and Tyler were kind enough to answer some questions a few days after their debut on the Conan O’Brien show (see below) about their chance meeting, their excellent taste in influences, and how it feels to have David Lynch as a fan.
Twang Nation: You recorded the album in a single day, What was the rush? Was there some limit on resources?
Tyler: Although it was really nice to save money on studio time… tracking the album in one day was intentional. Jess and i spent two months arranging the songs before hand so there wasn’t much confusion when tracking. I wanted to capture that initial instinct in the studio and not second guess ourselves. We started tracking around 10am and were done by 9pm… did around 3 takes of every song and i went through after and chose my favorites. I’m a huge Dylan fan and read alot about how he’d get the best players out there but throw them for a loop so they couldn’t over-think it.
Jessica: I wanted to capture a moment. Its interesting when you put a group of people in a room and see what happens.Tyler had a great knack for finding the right musicians, we really vibed off each other. We play the songs so much better now but back then….there was naivety about it. The song ‘Don’t love me too much’ was literally written on the spot. I had only a chorus and a verse and we were going to keep it as an Interlude. Once we started jamming it turned into a song and I wrote the second verse on the fly. Those are moments that I wish to relive on a daily basis. You can’t plan that.
TN: Your meeting was a happenstance occurrence. When did you realize you were kindred spirits?
Tyler: Right away… Jess starts most of the songs and they immediately get my wheels spinning on all the possibilities. We share a lot of musical influence but she keeps it simple and i lean towards the complex, so it balances out well.
Jessica: I agree with Tyler… The moment he started creating a drum beat for ‘Rodeo Queen’ we were instantly on the same page. I’ve worked with a lot of musicians throughout the years and nobody could understand the simplicity of my writing. Tyler took it to another level. We don’t even need to talk about it. I’ll start an idea send it to him and he makes it better. We have the same vision.
TN: Who did you listen to growing up?
Tyler: Mostly 60s/70s stuff… Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Beatles, Tom Petty, The Band, Beach Boys, Randy Newman, Rolling Stones, Bill Withers, Tom Waits, Shuggie Otis, Bread, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Judee Sill, Al Green, John Denver, Fleetwood Mac, Stephen Bishop
Jessica: I grew up with Slovakian immigrants so my musical taste never got cool until I had a boyfriend in eighth grade that introduced me to Smashing Pumpkins, Fiona Apple, Rufus Wainwright. Than I met a guy in a bar I worked at who taught me guitar and introduced me to Jimi Hendrix, Neil Young, Phoebe Snow, Little Feet, Steely Dan and I was hooked. He changed my life.
TN: Were you given formal music lessons?
Tyler: I took 10 years of piano lessons and 5 years of trumpet lessons.. made it a lot easier to pick up stringed and rhythm instruments down the road
Jessica: I had piano lessons for 5 yrs and never got good at it. I always wanted to play violin but my dad never took me seriously. Than I was given a guitar by a friend and taught myself. I watched youtube videos to learn guitar chords. I don’t consider myself a guitar player though. I just use it to write.
TN: The album has a Ennio Morricone vibe about it. Was he an influence?
Tyler: Yes definitely. My dad is a huge Clint Eastwood fan so the interest started there… but we’d start every day of pre-production listening to all of Morricone’s stuff as well as his counter parts. Burt Bacharach has a lot of killer compositions in the vein as well.
Jessica: Yes he was. We wanted to create a soundtrack to our life using his influence with a pop sensibility to it.
TN: What other band(s) influence you?
Tyler: I was on a huge Tom Petty, Rolling Stones kick while making the record.. i love the short/hooky songs where the rhythm and groove is a big part of it sound. Having the drums prominent in the mix isn’t limited to the club music happening right now.
Jessica: I’m a huge Chris Isaak fan. If I could write a songs like Neil Young, I’d retire. Sometimes you can’t change what comes from your heart so you just go with it. When I sit down and write a song I really want to make sure its coming from a truthful place.
TN: David Lynch tweeted that he really loved your song “Black Roses.” How did you feel about that?
Tyler: I’m a huge Twin Peaks fan so it obviously meant a lot… although the word ‘tweet’ in general is problematic 🙂
Jessica: I woke up Monday morning with my phone going crazy. I should have video taped it. The strangest thing is that he was mentioned as an influence for our ‘Black Roses’ video. Interesting what happens when you put those thoughts into the world and it comes back to you in the strangest ways.
TN:Jessica’s other profession is in clothing and jewelry design. How did it feel to be featured artist in Vogue.com?
Jessica: It was surreal. I’m grateful I was mentioned through music rather than fashion. Fashion is another outlet for me but music is my life. The fact that Vogue featured me in my dream profession was an indication that I’m on the right path.
TN: “Black Roses” has been featured on CMT and NPR. Those demographics that aren’t typically bridged. Why do you think you appeal to a broader audience?
Tyler: Perhaps because it’s the world we come from. We’re heavily influenced by our Nashville home but we listen to as much new music as we can. We all should be students of our own profession… start with the classics but not be limited by them.
Jessica: Not sure to be honest. We’re just going with the flow of things, I don’t think you can control who your audience is. Some bands cater to a specific sub culture but we’re just having fun creating our own little world and hoping people will join us!
TN: If you could perform on stage with any artist living or dead who would it be?
Tyler: That’s a tough question… probably Neil Young or The Band. Having a some wine and an axe up at Big Pink would have been my jam.
Jessica: I’d love to perform with Tom Petty and if I could be on stage with Bob Marley in my next life….that would make for a happy ending.
Escondido will perform with The Staves on an East Coast tour this May. check their site for more upcoming dates.