I don’t know if I’ve mentioned it before, but I happen to be a huge Steve Earle fan. I find the Virginia-born, Texas-inspired, former drug addict, political activist, actor/radio personality, singer-songwriter, and country-rock star simply irresistible. He is gifted with an instinctive ear for music (which he has generously passed on to his son, Justin Townes Earle), a curious mind, a keen awareness of the world and an empathetic heart.
Given these qualities, one of Earle’s most indelible contributions to country music will be as a songwriter. His empathy, awareness of the world around him and curiosity have allowed him to musically explore the human soul. He is uniquely unafraid to step out of himself and into another’s shoes, to feel another’s joy and pain and to tell his or her story. In many ways, Earle is “the seeker” he sings of in his song of the same title:
You can’t always believe your eyes
It’s your heart that sees through all the lies
And the first answer follows the first question asked
The mystery unmasked by the seeker
Earle broke onto the country scene singing songs with insight into the rock ‘n roll lifestyle, love and small towns. He moved on to tales of soldiers, bad boys and drugs (with no implied connection between the three). Later Earle unabashedly thrust himself into the realm of history, world politics and religion However, through it all, Earle’s music has remained true to the man and his apparent musical philosophy: seek the truth.
Whatever you want to say about Earle’s politics, very few of his songs, whether dealing with simple emotions or complicated situations, reflect anything other than that one maxim. To accomplish that end, Earle typically thrusts himself in the role of the protagonist, whether he goes by the pronoun “I” or refers to himself as Billy Austin or John Lee Pettimore. In this role, he rarely judges, but explores the potential thoughts, feelings and motivations of his assumed characters.
For example, in “What’s a Simple Man To Do?” Earle doesn’t comment on the immigration debate that occasionally flairs in Washington, he simply steps into the shoes of one man caught up in the dehumanizing political tug-of-war and tells his story. And in “Ellis Unit One,” Earle doesn’t espouse his strong views on the death penalty, but simply takes on the persona of a veteran and second generation prison guard who lives with the burden of working on death row. Regardless of your political persuasion, these songs stand alone as beautiful, emotionally honest stories.
Earle also seeks the truth in a range of emotions. Nobody is better at hitting on a specific emotion than Earle, whether it be slaying loneliness with songs such as “My Old Friend the Blues,” “South Nashville Blues” and “Lonelier Than This;” or tugging the heartstrings with “I Don’t Want To Lose You Yet,” “Sometimes She Forgets,” and “Poison Lovers.” He even kicks restlessness and rebelliousness in the arse with “The Week of Living Dangerously,” “Angry Young Man” and “The Devil’s Right Hand.”
Unsurprisingly, one of Earle’s most controversial songs may also provide the most striking insight into the man himself. Without commenting on whether or not I agree with “John Walker’s Blues” (or intending to start a discussion on it), the motivation behind Earle’s decision to write the song tells a lot about the man and how he perceives his role as a songwriter:
“I checked into a hotel, turned on my laptop and put in ‘islam.com’,” he says. “I was looking for a chorus. I found it as a sound file: ‘A shadu la ilaha illa Allah’. Then I sat up all night and wrote a song designed to piss some very important people off. But the main reason I did it was to humanise a young man that everybody seemed determined to vilify.”
It’s hard to hate and easy to love a songwriter who approaches his craft with such an intense focus on honesty and humanity. And if country music is truly “three chords and the truth,” Earle is (or should be, in my opinion) one of its greats.
Albums you hate by artists you love. Okay, so those are some strong words. But, as recently evidenced by the comments given in response to Kevin’s review of Martina McBride’s new album, Shine, even our favorite artists put out occasional stinkers. Those so-called stinkers may be universally acknowledged as such or just a reflection of our personal tastes, but, regardless of how they got there, they are most notable for the dust they acquire on our back shelves or their unapologetic dumping from our iPods.
Here at Country Universe, we try to be honest about the material, even if the artist involved is one of our favorites. It is definitely more painful to write a bad review about an artist you love, but unearned praise is the worst kind.
Therefore, I have no compunction about stating that despite the praise George Strait’s recent album, Troubadour, has received, it’s no longer on my iPod. And while generally I’m a Toby Keith fan, I felt Honkytonk University was a waste of money. Similarly, although Bruce Springsteen is one of my favorite artists ever and has put out two of my favorite albums of all time (Nebraska and Live in Dublin, both of which give me permission to write about him on a country music blog), I’m not afraid to admit that his recent Working on a Dream is a complete stinker, and Magic not among his best.
Now it’s your turn.
What are some albums you hate by artists you love?
Stuck in my car stereo over the last couple of weeks has been a CD loaded with tunes from some of my favorite Texas-affiliated artists. I’m a big fan of the singer-songwriter, old school and raggedy rock styles of country music, and Texas excels at all three. So any time I need a break from the current “Nashville sound,” I like to check in with Texas and see what they’re up to. Invariably, it’s more colorful and interesting.
I can’ t call myself an expert on Texas country by any stretch of the imagination and my education is nowhere remotely near complete (hint: feel free to recommend), but I do sense that it’s a style of music, or perhaps a musical sensibility, that is extremely important to maintain. Texas artists exude a certain spirit of creativity and sense of individuality that is sorely lacking elsewhere in country music. And in my opinion, great music and great artists only flourish in settings where both of those are encouraged.
Here’s a sampling of the songs I’m currently listening to:
“Dallas,” Jimmie Dale Gilmore
“Snowin’ on Raton,” Townes Van Zandt
“West Texas Waltz,” Joe Ely
“Greenville,” Lucinda Williams
“Tortured Tangled Hearts,” Dixie Chicks
“Transcendental Blues (Live in Austin),” Steve Earle
“Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” Willie Nelson
“Treat Me Like a Saturday Night,” The Flatlanders
“Bourbon Legend,” Jason Boland & The Stragglers
“Jesus Was a Capricorn,” Kris Kristofferson
“Angry All The Time,” Bruce Robison & Kelly Willis
“What I Deserve,” Kelly Willis
“Old Five and Dimers,” Billie Joe Shaver
“Heartbreaker’s Hall of Fame,” Sunny Sweeney
“Only Daddy That’ll Walk the Line,” Waylon Jennings
What are some of your favorite Texas country tunes?
Joey + Rory’s latest single, “Play The Song,” is a mixed bag. On the one hand, it’s a fun statement song from the frustrated gut of a talented songwriter. On the other hand, it was likely released because it is an up-tempo number, despite not being one of the best songs on the album.
Focusing on the bright side, however, the song does encapsulate one of the most endearing qualities of Joey + Rory: their utter fearlessness and honesty. It’s the same quality that set “Cheater, Cheater” apart from typical radio fare (“Loser, loser hope you love her cuz your stuck with her now / Take your sorry butt, load up all your stuff, and get the hell out of my house / But I just wish you’d tell me this one thing before you go / Cheater, cheater where’d you meet that no good, white trash ho?” Classic.).
“Play The Song” continues that candid, from-the-gut streak. It entreats corporate radio to simply play the song and “let the people decide if the music is right or it’s wrong.” It pushes back against the mindset of corporate radio that only a certain “type” of songs sells and therefore should be distributed to the mainstream audience. It also pushes back against—in a cheer-worthy line—the agonizing P.C. of country radio: “and it’s too bad, if you ask me / Our song’s gotta be so darn P.C. /so DAMN P.C.”
To be personally honest, I find the contrast between the duo’s radio releases and their sweet, straight-laced, corn-fed image fascinating. I’d love to sit down and have a tall beer with both of them and discuss the ins and outs of the Nashville music scene. I don’t cast my political vote based on that criteria, but I’m not above choosing my songwriters in that fashion. And I have no doubt the conversation would be completely frank and entertaining, just like this duo.
Alan Jackson is blessed with a voice that exudes sincerity. It’s a rare gift in country music, but one that many of country’s greats have shared. Jackson utilizes this gift most effectively on songs like “Remember When,” and his latest single, “Sissy’s Song.” In the hands of a lesser artist, “Sissy’s Song,” which deals with the grieving process after losing a loved one, would be a piece of relatively insubstantial fluff. In Jackson’s hands, however, it’s a reflective and moving experience.
Although “Sissy’s Song” came out on Good Time, it would undoubtedly be more at home on Precious Memories, Jackson’s successful gospel album. On Precious Memories, Jackson quietly but confidently navigated his way through classic hymns, bringing a sense of gravitas to the songs, yet at the same time engendering a feeling of calm reverence and hope. All of those emotions shine through on “Sissy’s Song,” which is not traditional radio fare.
Jackson reinforces the Precious Memories influence with the video for “Sissy’s Song.” It’s a simple video, befitting a simple song. Set in black and white, Jackson, with guitar in hand walks into a beautiful old church in the depths of winter, and sings the song on a simple wood floor with the sun filtering through tall glass windows. The video shines because it doesn’t try to outdo the song. It simply reinforces its message, which ultimately, is a tribute, using broad universal themes, to a friend.
For a group to blossom in Nashville, it needs a focal point. Randy Owen dominated Alabama, Gary LeVox is the main man with Rascal Flatts and Natalie Maines is the mouthpiece of the Dixie Chicks. But who is the mayor of Little Big Town?
After discussing how no singer stepped forward during the concert in the Twin Cities, Bream continued:
Multiple lead singers may work for the Eagles or Fleetwood Mac, two groups that have obviously influenced Little Big Town. But those groups are the exceptions. Be a democracy offstage, but choose one dominant star for the stage.
For the record, I happen to agree with him, at least when it comes to Little Big Town. In my opinion, the group makes beautiful music, but lacks a certain spark, which apparently translates into the concert setting. I don’t know if pushing one member of Little Big Town to the forefront will make a difference, but it is an interesting discussion given the plethora of groups without front (wo)men coming out of Nashville these days (e.g., Lady Antebellum, One Flew South). What’s your take?
Do you believe that a country group needs a lead singer in order for the band to reach that next level?
I ran across the following quote attributed to Kristian Bush (of Sugarland) in an article in the U.K. newspaperThe Independent, frankly titled: “Far from the old country music: Nashville is making yet another attempt to conquer the UK charts with artists who have crossed over so far they are virtually mainstream.”
Bush can barely hide his impatience at alt.country’s arrogance. “The songs that will survive 40 years from now will have to do, not with their excellence at how they interpreted post-modern Appalachia, but how they interpreted the human condition. And in the end, as much as I’m a huge Wilco fan, no one’s going to remember them. They’re going to remember Katy Perry’s “I Kissed A Girl” – because that story is true. There’ll be another girl sitting at a window who’s kissed someone and that song speaks to her. And really, [Wilco and ex-Uncle Tupelo singer-songwriter] Jeff Tweedy singing about being lonely and poor and dumped, all these things which he is not…
“There are only so many thirtysomethings who’ll emotionally connect to style over substance, which a lot of [modern] Appalachian stuff is. I’m a huge Gillian Welch fan, but she’s from Malibu, California. I’m from Dolly Parton’s hometown Sevierville, Tennessee. I should be playing what she’s playing, according to our histories. Our song “Baby Girl” deals with some sort of human archetype, anyway, a story of the hero. It just rings differently in your bones. Country music is unafraid of that human substance.”
Without intending to pick on Bush (and still disbelieving that Katy Perry has a tag on Country Universe), do you agree with him?
As one half of Big & Rich, John Rich has certainly demonstrated that he knows how to throw a big, ostentatious party. However, in “Shuttin’ Detroit Down,” Rich’s recent solo release, the Nashville Star judge and Gone Country host takes to task those with the audacity to be ostentatious in these tough economic times.
Rich pulls no punches (and rightly so) in lambasting the fat cats on Wall Street who are giving out bonuses and throwing lavish parties with Government bailout money. However, the song falls short of inspiring righteous anger and garnering sympathy. Instead of striking the right emotional chord, the song comes off as vaguely preachy as Rich draws an arbitrary line between those who live in the “real world” and those who don’t.
The failure to truly resonate is primarily the result of a lyrical approach prevalent in country music of late: the lyrics attempt to push a sentiment onto the listener, rather than painting a picture and allowing the listener to relate in his/her own way. Such an approach shortchanges the emotional power of a song. Only when Rich breaks away from this conceit in the second verse, does the song shine: Well that old man’s been working in that plant most all his life / Now his pension plan’s been cut in half and he can’t afford to die.” Now, this is a story I’d be interesting in hearing. A sequel perhaps?
I was listening to The Band’s album Music From Big Pink earlier this week, and something struck me about the song “The Weight.” Trust me, you know the song. It goes a little like this: “I pulled into Nazareth / Was feelin’ about half past dead / I just need some place / where I can lay my head.” Ring a bell yet? No? Try this:
In the song, The Band, originally consisting of Robbie Robertson, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson, Rick Danko and Levon Helm, draws from a familiar cast of characters and American mythology to tell a universal story set in the town of Nazareth, PA. First released in 1968, “The Weight” only reached #63 on the U.S. charts, but has since achieved iconic status. It has become an American standard in a way few songs have accomplished. Indeed, Rolling Stone lists it as the 41st greatest song of all time.
Further cementing its iconic status, check out a very small sample of the artists – across genres, of all ages – who have covered the song:
The Black Crowes
Old Crow Medicine Show
The Staple Singers
Lee Ann Womack
Cross Canadian Ragweed
Diana Ross, the Temptations and the Supremes
The Allman Brothers Band
The Marshall Tucker Band
Panic at the Disco
Songs with enduring power like “The Weight” are few and far between, and seem to be even more so nowadays. So tonight’s discussion asks:
What songs of the past decade have enduring power? What songs will we be listening to and hear covers of in the next 50 years?
A couple of summers ago, I picked up the 3-disc The Essential Bruce Springsteen album in an El Corte Ingles in Granada, Spain. I was road-tripping it around the country and needed some good tunes. But somehow, the third disc completely escaped my notice until a few weeks ago. It turned out to be comprised of a number of previously unreleased songs recorded over a long and fruitful career. After popping it in, I gleefully discovered a couple of new fantastic, classic Boss songs.
I experienced the same excitement earlier this week when I picked up Springsteen’s 18 Tracks while browsing in Barnes & Noble. That album similarly includes rarities, B-tracks and outtakes. (How did I ever miss “The Promise,” which is apparently a continuation of “Thunder Road”?) I felt like a kid who had just gotten herself locked overnight in a candy store.
Although few artists are as prolific as Springsteen, many artists have a lot of work floating around out there that has not made it onto a studio album. Much of that work is either pre-fame or covers, found on random bootlegs or videos, but every once in awhile you can find a previously unheard original that simply never made it onto a studio album. The best part, for fans, is that these tracks come with zero expectations and a big payoff. It’s simply an opportunity to acquire a more all-encompassing view of a favorite and to achieve new insight into them as artists.
What are your favorite non-(studio) album tracks by your favorite artists?
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