As I was scouring the neighborhood around 9pm last night after work looking for an open pet store, I flipped through the local radio stations looking for something new and interesting. I really didn’t expect to find much, but after awhile, I finally hit something with a cool beat and lyrics. Something that I hadn’t heard before and sounded different. I kinda liked it, but couldn’t place it.
It turns out that the station was previewing the new Green Day album, 21st Century Breakdown, (due out in stores and online today). I consider myself somewhat of a Green Day fan, despite the fact I only own Dookie and American Idiot. (And there’s a good, somewhat funny concert story related to the band mixed in there as well.) As such, I’ve been cautiously optimistic about their new album.
Fortunately, from what I heard in between futile stops at closed pet stores, it sounded pretty good, and I decided to buy it today. But as I made that decision, I realized that there are very few albums coming out soon that I’m genuinely looking forward to with anticipation and excitement. And I was truly surprised by how ambivalent I really felt about this release by a band that I know I like. Maybe that’s because as we get older, we become more picky and more frugal. Or perhaps we just haven’t heard anything awesome in such a long time, we figure it might be best to wait and see if we hear some buzz before we cautiously download a song, much less an entire album.
What I do know, is that the only albums I can currently recall that I am looking forward to are the upcoming Patty Griffin, Charlie Robison and Levon Helm albums. Griffin is always fantastic. Robison’s album has good advance buzz and is bound to be interesting given the time period in his life in which he wrote it. And I’m a recent Helm fan. But, help me out…there’s gotta be more!
Which albums coming out soon are you most looking forward to?
One of country music's gifts is its ability to evoke strong images and feelings through its relatable lyrics. And nothing engenders intense, occasionally conflicting, emotions like your hometown. Whether or not your hometown is a reflection of who you are or have become, it is an integral part of your personal history and has influenced you in ways perhaps too obscure to realize.
I love hometown songs because of the obvious emotion behind the lyrics. That emotion is always imbued with a sense of nostalgia or longing (for what was or what could be or what might have been), even if the lyrics don't necessarily shine a positive light on the hometown. It's an irresistible combination, especially for country music listeners.
I have no doubt that I am a product of my hometown. Despite being couched between two large sprawling metropolis', it's an intimate and friendly place, a beach town where you can't leave the house without running into somebody you know. I babysat the girl tearing my ticket at the local movie theatre, my neighbor's son takes my order at the restaurant down the street, and a few minutes spent strolling through the local grocery store or Target is akin to a high school reunion; a verifiable “who's who” of my past and present.
I love the fact that I can wear flip flops pretty much anywhere, and that the people are open, laid back and affectionate. I love that my old high school has a highly ranked surf and bodyboarding team, and it's still considered cool to own a volvo station wagon (hello, the board fits in the back!). I also love that it has maintained its quirkiness despite a certain amount of gentrification, and that the locals still devoutly support their favorite hole-in-the-wall taco shops and music stores.
Of course, it's not quite so small that “everybody dies famous” (it's definitely more than a
“single stop light town”). And while it's not remotely in the American heartland, I spent plenty of days “suckin on chili dogs outside the tastee freeze” and cheering on my local team “from the cheap seats.” It also has its very own marquee, but I can't say that “when people leave town, they never come back.” If people do ever leave town, they nearly always come back. (I did.)
Although every hometown song makes me a wee bit nostalgic for my own, given that I didn't grow up in the South or the Midwest it's hard to find a country song with direct application. Ironically, the country song that most reminds me of my hometown is Kenny Chesney's “Anything But Mine” (the only Chesney song on my iPod).
Summers in my hometown have always been signalled by the start of the local fair in June. I still recall that tingling excitement back in my school days that came with the opening of the fair. The fair meant that school was nearly out and an entire summer of fun in the sun awaited.
Chesney's song refers to a beachside Boardwalk, e.g. the Santa Cruz boardwalk, but my local fair is essentially located where the surf meets the turf of the fairgrounds, so these lyrics always have the ability to make me smile and reminisce:
You can hear the cries from the carnival rides
The pin-ball bells and the ski-ball slides
Watching the summer sun fall out of sight
There's a warm wind coming in from off of the ocean
Making its way past the hotel walls to fill the street
Mary is holding both of her shoes in her hand
Said she likes to feel the sand beneath her feet
I still remember summer as a time for fleeting crushes, orange slushies, giant ferris wheels and late night bonfires at the beach. Great memories. And this song manages to bring all of them back.
I’ve known about Kinky Friedman for some years now. Actually, I should be more specific and say that I’ve known Kinky Friedman’s name for quite some years now. Because, to be honest, the only thing I really knew about him until very recently is that Willie Nelson supported him for Texas Governor in 2006, which should have peaked my interest enough to research him back then.
It wasn’t until recently, after doing an Amazon search for stray Todd Snider songs, that I realized that the colorful and fascinating Friedman, while politically extreme at times, was quite the singing satirist. On the 2006 album Why The Hell Not…The Songs of Kinky Friedman, I discovered an incredible cast of artists (Willie Nelson, Todd Snider, Bruce Robison, Asleep at the Wheel, Delbert McClinton, Charlie Robison, Dwight Yoakam, Kevin Fowler & Jason Boland) doing covers of Friedman’s songs, many so sharp that I was more than a little taken aback at first. Through satire and, sometimes, even seriousness, Freidman offers a lot of social commentary that is often colorful and always intriguing.
Although Friedman’s original versions aren’t especially appe
aling to me, the tribute album is engaging. Two songs in particular caught my attention right away. Kevin Fowler’s cover of “Get Your Biscuits in the Oven” and Todd Snider’s version of “They Ain’t Making Jews Like Jesus Anymore” are both addictively catchy and amusing. Snider’s song would easily fit next to his own socially charged compositions while Fowler’s choice is performed with a charming cheekiness.
While it would be violating Country Universe’s comment policy to quote Todd Snider’s song that deals with racism, I will provide a sample of the lyrics from Fowler’s deliciously ridiculous ditty, which is hopefully extreme enough to be obviously satirical in nature as social commentary.
Verse 1: You uppity women I don’t understand
Why you gotta go and try to act like a man,
But before you make your weekly visit to the shrink
You’d better occupy the kitchen, liberate the sink.
Chorus: Get your biscuits in the oven and your buns in the bed
That’s what I to my baby said,
Women’s liberation is a-going to your head,
Get your biscuits in the oven and your buns in the bed.
Kinky Friedman’s brand of social commentary may be understandably too inflammatory and extreme for many people, but my call to Country Universe readers tonight is to recommend a satirical song that you find appealing.
In May of 2004, Bill and I were excited about the prospect of seeing Willie Nelson in our small town, in Maine, of about 13,000 people. We knew it was a once in a lifetime opportunity to see such an icon without even having to travel ten minutes to reach the venue. Furthermore, he was on both of our lists of people to see before we died.
Sadly, we did not get to see Willie after all. On the same week he was supposed to visit our small town, he had to get carpal tunnel surgery. We had the option of either getting a refund or using our tickets for the rescheduled show in September. Once again, our luck was bad, because we were moving to Michigan the month before Willie’s make up date.
If you can’t tell, I still haven’t completely recovered from that disappointment.
We, alas, haven’t given up our dream of seeing Willie in concert someday. However, we are fully aware that time may be running out, since Willie’s, frankly, not getting any younger.
We’ve already missed our chance to see Johnny Cash in concert, so we hope Willie will work out before it’s too late.
What artist do you have to see in concert before it’s too late?
, I’ve been thinking about how much musical tastes change over time. Musically, it is fair to say that we started pretty far apart, but over five years our musical preferences have both moved and expanded significantly.
Tracing the progression of my musical inclinations even farther, it seems that the expansion of my tastes was much different than others in my family. For instance, my grandparents listened to country music. When my father was born the Grand Ole Opry was a staple in his home and he listened to country music all of his life. As a result, I was exposed to country music by my father, but quickly declared my independence when I purchase the first album my parents considered noise.
The first albums I ever purchased, a little over a week past my thirteenth birthday, were Use Your Illusion I and II. From there the map of my musical “phases” was pretty easy to follow when you look at a chronological list of my favorite albums:
Guns and Roses, Appetite for Destruction
Dr. Dre, The Chronic
Pearl Jam, Ten
Nirvana, MTV Unplugged in New York
Nickel Creek, This Side
Smashing Pumpkins, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness
Johnny Cash, At Folsom Prison
Alice in Chains, Unplugged
Nickel Creek, Why Should the Fire Die
Currently the amount of music I listen to has made it more difficult to pick only a few favorite albums. Even the above list, in reality, started to overlap by the time I was listening to Nickel Creek. In fact, everything listed above (with the exception of Dr. Dre, though he still holds certain nostalgia) is currently on my Ipod, and I would be hard pressed to make a comprehensive list of favorite albums that didn’t include half those albums.
Today I might add to the list (though tomorrow the list might change):
Crooked Still, Shaken by a Low Sound
Kasey Chambers and Shane Nicholson, Rattlin’ Bones
The Be Good Tanyas, Blue Horse
Willie Nelson, Red Headed Stranger
Neil Young, Greatest Hits
Patty Loveless, Mountain Soul
Gillian Welch, Hell Among the Yearlings White Stripes, Elephant
My father would be happy to see that I’ve come around to country music.
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.
In the comment section of my recent Brad Paisley review of “Then”, Country Universe’s Kevin Coyne revealed that the last verse of “Waitin’ on A Woman” hit his sweet spot.
“I fell for “Waitin’ on a Woman” because of the last verse, where the man is in heaven waiting for her on the other side. That’s my sweet spot. Any song that hits that is golden with me, even if I’d normally dismiss the rest of the song as trite.”
I completely understood what he meant because there’s a certain theme that hits my sweet spot just about every time as well. For reasons that I cannot explain, since I’m not a pacivist as a rule, I love songs that appeal to the greater good in humankind–songs that promote love and peace. Songs like “Put A Little Love in Your Heart”, “Last Night I Had The Strangest Dream”, “We Shall Be Free”, “Let There Be Peace on Earth”, “What The World Needs Now Is Love”, “Worlds Apart”, etc. hit my sweet spot like no other kind of song can do. I’ll be the first to admit that such songs can easily be considered trite, corny, and overwrought, you name it. I still love them; I just can’t help it.
So, what song topic either voluntarily or involuntarily hits your sweet spot?
Last Thursday, Bill and I celebrated our fifth wedding anniversary. It’s been a wonderful run so far. Of all the positive things that I can say, my favorite thing about our marriage is that we are best friends. In fact, before we ever started dating, we were best friends. So, it’s nice that the same is still true today and it would be devistating if it should ever change.
I’m certainly no marriage expert, but I think that being friends is central to a successful marriage. Not only does it make the days more bearable, it helps to insure that we will give to each other at least as much as we would to our friends.
With that said, I am fully aware that being friends in a marriage isn’t always as easy as we would all hope it would be. Like any friendship, it’s something that must be worked on and cannot be taken for granted.
As I listened to music today, “Friendless Marriage” from Bruce Robison’s Country Sunshine came on my iPod. Robison sings this heartbreakingly sad song with his wife, Kelly Willis. It’s always a treat when Willis joins her husband on a track, but this is an especially noteworthy collaboration. As is always the case when I hear”Friendless Marriage”, I was struck by their subdued performance of a song that never ceases to catch my attention and pierce my heart.
Robison and Willis sing from the perspective of a couple who can remember a time when they were full of passion for each other. However, the passion is gone now and they’ve discovered that they have nothing left to hold onto. They’ve reconciled themselves to the knowledge that they’re in a friendless marriage. Robison’s character admits that the only thing that is holding them together is the obligation to responsibility that has been instilled in him by the example of family history:
“She don’t seem to smile no more, or look me in the eye/I don’t say a thing at all or hold her when she cries/But we weren’t raised to run from our responsibilities/So I stay for my baby like my mama stayed for me.”
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?