Tag Archives: Justin Townes Earle

Album Review: Wanda Jackson, <i>Unfinished Business</i>

Wanda Jackson
Unfinished Business

The original rockabilly queen returns with a vengeance on her sassy, spirited new album Unfinished Business, following up last year’s solid Jack White-produced comeback set The Party Ain’t Over.  This time around, Jackson swaps out White for Americana star Justin Townes Earle as producer as she takes on another set of classic cover tunes mixed with some newer material.

Unfinished Business draws material from a variety of

genre wells spanning classic country, blues, R&B, and rock and roll.  The album kicks off with a bang as Jackson tears into a rollicking rendition of Sonny Thompson’s “Tore Down.”  Kenny Vaughan injects a searing guitar riff into the tune that serves as a perfect match to the raw energy and grit of Jackson’s performance.  Certain choices might not fare well in comparison to previous renditions - We’ve heard superior versions of “Old Weakness (Comin’ On Strong)” by Patty Loveless and Tanya Tucker, while Jackson’s take on Bobby and Shirley Womack’s “It’s All Over Now” sounds surprisingly tame.  But even at their weakest, Jackson’s versions are always enjoyable for what they are, and there are no real duds in the bunch.

Jackson nods to her country roots with the sweet pedal steel-laden ballad “Am I Even a Memory,” a duet with Earle, as well as the aching “What Do You Do When You’re Lonesome” – a fine country shuffle if ever there was one.  But it’s not an entirely gloomy affair, as Jackson balances out the melancholy material with upbeat fare such as the Townes Van Zandt gospel rave-up “Two Hands,” which she sells with infectious joy.  Though Jackson’s vocal power may have deteriorated, her natural spunk and sense of presence more than make up for it, as toe-tappers such as “The Graveyard Shift” and Etta James’ “Pushover” show that Jackson can still belt and growl with the best of them.  The album closes with a beautiful rendition of Woody Guthrie’s “California Stars,” featuring some lovely steel guitar work by Paul Niehaus.

Considering Wanda Jackson’s musical style has long drawn from an amalgam of influences, it’s fitting that she here draws from such an eclectic selection of material.  What’s particularly impressive is that she is able to take songs from different genre origins, and make them sound like they belong together, blended by the unique flair of her performances.  Similarly, Earle’s production approach borrows elements from varying genre influences, and brings them over to traditional Wanda Jackson territory, creating an album that sounds diverse without sounding disjointed.

Indeed, though Unfinished Business pays tribute to Etta James, Sonny Thompson, Bobby Womack, and Woody Guthrie, among others, the star of the show is Jackson.  It’s not so much a country album, a rock album, or a blues album as it is simply a Wanda Jackson album – a fun, entertaining collection that serves as a testament to the enduring legacy of the talented rockabilly legend.  Her place in music history may already be secure, but as hinted at by the album’s title, Wanda Jackson is clearly not resting on her laurels.

Top Tracks:  “Tore Down,” “Pushover,” “California Stars”

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Nashville Scene: 11th Annual Country Music Critics’ Poll

The 11th Annual Country Music Critics’ Poll has just been published by Nashville Scene. It covers the 2010 year of country music. The participants of the poll consists of country music critics who spend their time listening to and analyzing stacks of music throughout the year in order to knowledgeably write about it for the purpose of either promoting excellent music or warning against the not so good stuff. Kevin, Dan and Tara are among these prestigious critics.

Each year, invited critics submit their ballots with their favorite music and artists in the appropriate categories. The poll includes the best albums, singles, male and female artists, reissues, live acts, duos and groups, songwriters, new acts, and the over all artists of the year. While the results include the usual suspects, they are mixed with some surprises or names that aren’t commonly associated with mainstream country.

Some of my favorite results include Raul Malo tied at #8 with Gary Allan for top males and Elizabeth Cook at #2 for top females, not to mention Sunny Sweeney’s “From A Table Away” landing at the #3 spot for singles. The most amusing result, however, is Jamey Johnson and Taylor Swift in the top two spots for songwriters.

What’s most fascinating about this process is that the critics have the opportunity to include comments with their ballots. These comments serve to clarify choices and pontificate on the state of country music and its various aspects. There are some insightful comments from both Dan and Tara, along with other critics that you might recognize from our blog roll.

Here are some of the cream of the crop comments that display a satisfyingly diverse array of perspectives:

“Lost amidst the rush to proclaim Jamey Johnson as the man to reclaim country music from pop acts like Taylor Swift is the fact that Johnson and Swift are cut from the precisely same cloth. Johnson is most often championed for the supposed authenticity of his songwriting, but is it really any more believable that he’s been “takin’ dee-pression pills in the Hollywood hills” than it is that Swift regrets not calling an ex when his birthday passed? Both Johnson and Swift have developed public personae and voices as songwriters that trade in the same suspension of disbelief. Swift’s music may not scan as “country” to the extent that Johnson’s does, but that isn’t because she’s any less authentic than Johnson. They both act like they’re “Playing the Part,” and they both do so awfully well.” —Jonathan Keefe, Slant Magazine

“Thank goodness the Internet and satellite radio are around to pick up FM’s slack, because brilliant would-be singles continue popping up on independent releases that Clear Channel won’t touch. My favorite two this year were Elizabeth Cook’s “El Camino” and Chely Wright’s “Notes to the Coroner.” The former: a hilarious country-rap about a creepy, mulleted lothario. The latter: a frank diary introduction from a recently deceased woman. Both: utterly unique and unshakably catchy.” —Dan Milliken, Country Universe

“In 2010, Grandpa told us about the good old days again. The most conspicuous presence on country radio in recent years has been this kindly old gentleman, lugging his aching bones out of bed to share some worldly wisdom. After years of hard labor and heartache, he’s now embarked on a second career as life coach for his hillbilly kin on recent singles from Lee Brice, Billy Currington, Craig Morgan and Alan Jackson (the matured mentor on Zac Brown’s “As She’s Walking Away”). Of course, country radio won’t fool with women over 40 except for Reba, so you never really get to hear Grandma’s side of things.” —Blake Boldt, The 9513

“Despite their two weak singles this year, “Our Kind of Love” and “Hello World,” I remain in Lady Antebellum’s corner. What hooks me is the way they’re able to inject gritty, tangible emotion into the glossiest of production and the vaguest of lyrics. That’s what elevates “Need You Now” to an aching confession, and that’s how, on a song that compares innocence to a condiment, Hillary Scott’s vocal performance alone manages to tell an evocative story.” —Tara Seetharam, Country Universe

“So if country music is doing so well artistically, why is it that whenever I turned on the radio in 2010, I heard mostly pop or rock songs with a token steel guitar thrown into the mix? I’ve long since given up hope of Americana artists ever getting picked up by mainstream radio, and I’ve pretty much come to terms with the fact that Jamey Johnson won’t be getting many (if any) hit songs no matter how good they are. But would it kill them to play some non-hyphenated country music a little more? I know that country-pop and country-rock are the flavors of the month, but where does that leave more traditional artists? I know I’d be more willing to tolerate Jason Aldean rapping or Jennifer Nettles singing with her stupid fake Jamaican accent if “Draw Me a Map” or “Will I Always Be This Way” was next on the playlist.” —Sam Gazdziak, The 9513

“In an August interview with Spinner, Ryan Bingham rejected the notion that he makes country music. Two weeks later, Bingham was named the Americana Music Association’s “Artist of the Year,” thanks in large part to his Academy Award-winning song “The Weary Kind,” a song he wrote for a movie about a country singer. In September, when asked about the state of country music today, rising star Justin Townes Earle told The Wall Street Journal that he’s embarrassed to be from Nashville because of the “shit songwriting, shit records and shit singers who are making a million dollars.” Even mainstream country stalwart Zac Brown distanced himself from the genre, telling American Songwriter in September, “The songs that I write are Southern, but I wouldn’t necessarily call them country.” It’s a shame — and an enormous loss for the genre — that the term “country music” has come to describe something so narrow that bright young artists like these choose not to identify themselves as country. Thank God for Jamey Johnson, who wears the mantle proudly.” —Jim Malec, American Twang

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Best Country Albums of 2009, Part 2: #10-#1

Round 2 – FIGHT!


#10
Play On
Carrie Underwood

World: meet Underwood. She’s fiercely compassionate and endearingly idealistic (the riveting “Change”). She holds her beliefs with a firm but quiet conviction (“Temporary Home”). She’s as comfortable and convincing at tearing down a wrong-doer (the Dixie Chicks-esque “Songs Like This”) as she is nursing an irreparable heartache, whether it’s in the form of a haunting country standard (“Someday When I Stop Loving You”) or a rich pop ballad (“What Can I Say?”). And she’s one of the most gifted vocalists of this generation, possessing an instrument that, when colored and layered with emotion as she’s aptly learned to do on Play On, can have bone-chilling effects.

Like it or leave it, Play On is the most authentic encapsulation of Underwood’s artistry and persona to date, and serves as an exciting glimpse at how far a little growth can carry her. The best is yet to come, but in the meantime, the “good” is pretty damn good. – Tara Seetharam


#9
Sara Watkins
Sara Watkins

As most people know by now, Sara Watkins is the female member of the now-disbanded (hopefully temporarily) New Grass trio, Nickel Creek. While Nickel Creek was difficult to classify in a certain genre (not bluegrass, not country), they were embraced by bluegrass and country music fans alike. Each member of the popular trio has released intriguing projects outside of Nickel Creek, but Watkins’ album  has assumed the most decidedly country direction of them all. As a result, we are treated to a sublime album thanks to Watkins’ sweet voice and a set of impressively solid songs. – Leeann Ward Continue reading

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The 100 Greatest Albums of the Decade, Part 7: #40-#31

The 100 Greatest Albums of the Decade, Part 7

40 Tim

#40
Tim McGraw, Live Like You Were Dying

The title track looks forward, pondering what to do with the scarcity of time left, but the best of the rest of these tracks look backward, sometimes with sadness (“My Old Friend”), sometimes with humor (“Back When”), and often with both (“Open Season on My Heart”, “Can’t Tell Me Nothin’.”) – Kevin Coyne

Recommended Tracks: “My Old Friend”, “Old Town New”, “Open Season On My Heart”

39 Ashley

#39
Ashley Monroe,  Satisfied

At just nineteen years old, Ashley Monroe has made an album with content comparatively mature, both in lyrics and production, to most other albums on this list. With a voice naturally tinged with both twang and sophistication, Monroe sings of loss, relational strife and even regret and sorrow with acute adeptness. While many of the compositions are sonically and topically subdued, she is not incapable of letting loose on certain numbers such as Kasey Chambers’ “Pony”, which includes a mean yodel, and a delightful duet with Dwight Yoakam, “That’s Why We Call Each Other Baby.” – Leeann Ward

Recommended Tracks: “Pony”, “Satisfied”, “Hank’s Cadillac”

38 Dolly

#38
Dolly Parton, Little Sparrow

She got her groove back with The Grass Is Blue, but Parton’s career revival truly peaked when she revisited her mountain roots on this classic album. She won a Grammy for her treatment of the Collective Soul hit “Shine”, and she wrote new songs like the title track, which ranks among her best work. She even revisited her finest pre-”Coat of Many Colors” composition, “Down From Dover”, restoring the verse that Porter Wagoner had forced her to edit out for the sake of brevity. – KC

Recommended Tracks: “Little Sparrow”, “Shine”, “Down From Dover”

37 Carrie

#37
Carrie Underwood, Some Hearts

Six months after taking the American Idol crown, Underwood unapologetically introduced herself as a polished country-pop artist via Some Hearts. With explosive hits like “Before He Cheats” at the helm, the album became the best-selling debut by a solo female country artist, making it easy to overlook that it is as genuine as it is commercially viable. It’s an album that fits Underwood like a glove, bottling a unique combination of naivety and perceptiveness, sass and charm, bombast and reservation – the kinds of paradoxes that have come to define her as an artist and as a person. And while the material is standard country-pop, to be sure, we’re reminded by Underwood’s compelling, crystalline performances that standard material can be made to be just as memorable as anything else. – Tara Seetharam

Recommended Tracks: “Wasted”, “Jesus, Take The Wheel”, “The Night Before (Life Goes On)”

36 Tim Darrell

#36
Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott, Real Time

In which two modern virtuosos sit in a living room and pluck out an acoustic album to match any before or since. The playing is exemplary, the songwriting deeply inspired, and the country-folk-bluegrass sound ageless. – Dan Milliken

Recommended Tracks: “Walk Beside Me”, “There Ain’t No Easy Way”, “Long Time Gone”

35 O Brother

#35
Soundtrack, O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Sometimes an album’s perceived quality becomes inextricable from its legend. Such is the case with the soundtrack to the Coen Brothers’ modern-day Odyssey, one of the bestselling country sets of the decade and a landmark in the genre’s history for its regeneration of mainstream interest in roots music. In essence, it’s really just a bunch of old-time covers done in exceptionally convincing old-time form. Whether that’s enough to put it among the decade’s finest country albums is up for debate – but there’s no denying it’s among the most essential. – DM

Recommended Tracks: “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow”, “Didn’t Leave Nobody But the Baby”, “O Death”

34 Buddy Julie

#34
Buddy and Julie Miller, Written in Chalk

Americana’s favorite couple outdo themselves on one of this year’s most revelatory albums, a tour de force of down-home soul and raw depth. The Millers excel at finding just the right sound to express the sentiments of their material, scoring randy lovemakin’ (“Gasoline And Matches”) and quiet grief (“Don’t Say Goodbye”) with equal aplomb. – DM

Recommended Tracks: “One Part, Two Part”, “Chalk”, “Everytime We Say Goodbye”

sleepless nights

#33
Patty Loveless, Sleepless Nights

The last decade has seen numerous well executed traditional covers albums, but none of higher quality than Patty Loveless’ tribute to tradition, Sleepless Nights. Loveless culls songs from various places, including compositions mostly previously attributed to male singers, to create an album that solidly stands as a cohesive unit. Due to Loveless’ naturally distinctive twang and her producer husband’s (Emory Gordy, Jr.) tasteful arrangements (prominent bass, light percussion and steel guitar), Sleepless Nights does well at staying authentic while still sounding progressive enough to warrant yet another covers project. – LW

Recommended Tracks: “Pain of Loving You”, “Sleepless Nights”, “Cold Cold Heart”

32 Justin

#32
Justin Townes Earle, Midnight at the Movies

While The Good Life gained considerably more attention among traditional country audiences than Midnight at the Movies, with Justin Townes Earle’s follow-up, we are presented with his first fully mature album. Nominated for an Americana Music Award for Album of the Year, Midnight at the Movies delivers a voice fallen far from the rough gravel of Earle’s father, Steve Earle, but with gleaming jewels of writing equal to some of his father’s best work. – William Ward

Recommended Tracks: “They Killed John Henry”, “Mama’s Eyes”, “Black Eyed Suzy”

31 Keith

#31
Keith Urban, Golden Road

Urban’s second solo album is an exuberant, original piece of work that solidified his place as one of the genre’s most gifted and charismatic male artists. The album showcases both his fine musicianship and intuitive sense of balance, as the material embraces exhilaration without feeling frivolous, and sentimentality without feeling melodramatic. Much like his other albums, it’s hard to classify Urban’s style on Golden Road, with its intermixed elements of rock, pop and traditional country – but who the heck cares when it’s this good? – TS

Recommended Tracks: “Who Wouldn’t Wanna Be Me”, “You’ll Think Of Me”, “Raining On Sunday”

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100 Greatest Albums of the Decade, Part 3: #80-#71

The 100 Greatest Albums of the Decade, Part 3

80 Martina

#80
Martina McBride, Timeless

McBride has a voice that would have been as relevant in country music fifty years ago as it is today, and her album of cover songs exemplifies this. She doesn’t attempt to move any of the songs to a different level, but instead inhabits the artists’ original style with precision and spirit. The result is a pure, respectful homage to the country greats. – Tara Seetharam

Recommended Tracks: “Make The World Go Away”, “Pick Me Up On Your Way Down”

79 Felice

#79
Felice Brothers, Yonder is the Clock

The Felice Brothers are the least-known among the members of ‘The Big Surprise Tour’ headlined by Old Crow Medicine Show and featuring Dave Rawlings Machine with Gillian Welch, and Justin Townes Earle. Melding country-rock and folk-rock, they are roots-influenced and made their start playing in the subway. While it may take an extremely big tent to call them “country,” consistent Dylan comparisons make Yonder is the Clock hard to ignore. – William Ward

Recommended Tracks: “Run, Chicken, Run”, “The Big Surprise”

78 Big

#78
Big & Rich, Horse of a Different Color

Big Kenny’s and John Rich’s voices and creativity blend to form a richly textured harmony that is only fully realized when they work together, as is most evident on their debut album that took country music by storm in a huge way. While their subsequent projects haven’t even come close to matching the potential of their first, Horse of A Different Coloris an album of refreshing risks and creativity that has been both embraced and criticized as a result of unique production and odd lyrical twists. Songs ranging from ridiculous to philosophical and all points inbetween make this album one of the most memorable, if not controversial, mainstream albums of the decade. – Leeann Ward

Recommended Tracks: “Holy Water”, “Live This Life”

77 Dierks

#77
Dierks Bentley, Long Trip Alone

Bentley takes his road theme all the way, crafting a concept album that both celebrates the loneliness of the road and mourns the resting places left behind by those who choose to stay on it. – Kevin Coyne

Recommended Tracks: “Long Trip Alone”, “The Heaven I’m Headed To”

76 Josh

#76
Josh Turner, Everything is Fine

Turner’s third album is an outstanding example of a style that is deeply traditional yet still current, assured yet still vulnerable. His distinctive voice is paired with a well-crafted and charming set of songs on this album, which further solidified him as one of the genre’s leading traditionalists. – TS

Recommended Tracks: “Another Try”, “Nowhere Fast”

75 Reckless

#75
Reckless Kelly, Bulletproof

Country and power-pop collide in one of Texas’ most memorable albums in years. If Bulletproof has a weakness, it’s that its love songs and road anthems are all so damn hooky that the deeper material has to fight to steal your attention away. – Dan Milliken

Recommended Tracks: “American Blood”, “Mirage”

74 Chick

#74
Chick Corea & Béla Fleck, The Enchantment

The Enchantment is a collaboration between jazz pianist Chick Corea and banjo virtuoso Béla Fleck. Full of soaring energy and technical prowess, The Enchantment blends the influences of both Corea and Fleck resulting in jazz compositions infused with bluegrass overtones.- WW

Recommended Tracks: “Mountain”, “Sunset Road”

73 Otto

#73
James Otto, Sunset Man

On his breakthrough sophomore album, Otto’s voice is commanding and rich with soul, proving he has one of the most interesting male voices to come out of country music in the past few years. Sunset Man is a solid contemporary country album that has his voice melting just as effectively with bluesy, mid-tempo numbers as it does with muscular power ballads. – TS

Recommended Tracks: “For You”, “These Are The Good Ole Days”

72 Jon

#72
Jon Randall, Walking Among the Living

Thanks to his very lucrative songwriting collaboration with Bill Anderson that resulted in a smash hit for Brad Paisley and Alison Krauss with “Whiskey Lullaby”, Jon Randall received a major label deal with Sony. Unfortunately, Randall’s only album with them was not even a blip on most people’s radars, though not due to lack of quality. Randall’s gorgeous tenor, most closely comparable to Vince Gill’s,tastefully blends with rootsy instrumentation and solid compositions to create a humble work of art. – LW

Recommended Tracks: “I Shouldn’t Do This”, “Lonely for Awhile”

71 Crooked

#71
Crooked Still, Shaken By a Low Sound

Crooked Still is an alternate bluegrass group led by vocalist Aoife O’Donovan. With haunting vocals and technical prowess Crooked Still pushes acoustic music in a manner similar to Nickel Creek but with a slightly more recognizable traditional bend. – WW

Recommended Tracks: “Wind and Rain”, “Little Sadie”

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If I Were In New Hampshire, I’d Go To This

With the gracious permission of Tom Spurgeon, the creator of this feature at The Comics Reporter, I would like to introduce the Country Universe version of “If I Were In _________, I’d Go To This.” With interesting events around the country it is hard to know about everything, so starting with “If I Were In New Hampshire, I’d Go To This” we will present you with our picks of unique or particularly interesting upcoming shows or events.

Big Suprise Tour

PRESS RELEASE:

The Big Surprise Tour – featuring Old Crow Medicine Show, Dave Rawlings Machine (w/ Gillian Welch), The Felice Brothers and Justin Townes Earle – kicks off in Hampton, NH on Tuesday Aug. 4.

Born out of a deep running comradery built on countless tours and ties between a host of excellent musicians, each evening is sure to be a unique experience as they all put their many combined years of musicianship and knowledge of song-craft and American music into play for these performances.

This is gonna be an amazing show, so get your tickets now!

Tour Dates:

8/4 – Hampton Beach, NH @ Casino Ballroom

8/5 – Boston, MA @ House Of Blues

8/6 – New York, NY @ Beacon Theatre

8/7 – Philadelphia, PA @ Electric Factory

8/9 – Charlottesville, VA @ Charlottesville Pavilion

8/10 – Cary, NC @ Cary’s Booth Amphitheatre

8/12 – Louisville, KY @ Waterfront Park

8/13 – Nashville, TN @ Riverfront Park

8/14 – Knoxville, TN @ World’s Fair Park

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2009 Americana Music Association Awards Nominees Announced

The nominations for the 8th Annual Americana Music Association Awards have  been announced:

ALBUM OF THE YEAR
Real Animal, by ALEJANDRO ESCOVEDO
Written in Chalk, by BUDDY & JULIE MILLER
Jason Isbell & The 40 Unit, by JASON ISBELL & THE 40 UNIT
Midnight At The Movies, by JUSTIN TOWNES EARLE

ARTIST OF THE YEAR
ALEJANDRO ESCOVEDO
BUDDY MILLER
JUSTIN TOWNES EARLE
RAUL MALO

INSTRUMENTALIST OF THE YEAR
BUDDY MILLER
GURF MORLIX
JERRY DOUGLAS
SAM BUSH

NEW & EMERGING ARTIST
BAND OF HEATHENS
BELLEVILLE OUTFIT
JUSTIN TOWNES EARLE
SARAH BORGES

SONG OF THE YEAR
“Chalk,” written by JULIE MILLER, performed by BUDDY MILLER & PATTY GRIFFIN
“Country Love” by the GOURDS
“Homeland Refugee,” by JOE ELY, JIMMIE DALE GILMORE, and BUTCH HANCOCK, performed by the FLATLANDERS
“Rattlin’ Bones” by KASEY CHAMBERS & SHANE NICHOLSON, performed by KASEY CHAMBERS & SHANE NICHOLSON
“Sex And Gasoline,” by RODNEY CROWELL, performed by RODNEY CROWELL

DUO GROUP OF THE YEAR
BUDDY & JULIE MILLER
FLATLANDERS
KASEY CHAMBERS & SHANE NICHOLSON
RECKLESS KELLY

The awards will be given out at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville on September 17. Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale will serve as hosts.

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Holly Williams, "Mama"

holly-williamsJustin Townes Earle, son of Steve

Earle, has recently received considerable press regarding his beautiful and classy song that pays tribute to his mother. It’s been reported that before he sings the song at a show, he introduces it by saying that his father gets enough credit, but someone who does not is his mother. This is easily true about most spouses or ex spouses of famous people. So, it’s nice when an adult child takes advantage of his/her platform to rectify the oversight, which is something that Hank Williams Jr’s daughter has done as well.

Holly Williams sings a tribute to her selfless mother, simply titled “Mama.” While the song is as simple as the title, it is sweet and intriguingly revealing about her childhood. In “Mama”, Williams thanks her mom for shielding her from the emotional turmoil that undoubtedly plagued her as a result of a broken marriage to the famously rebel rousing, Hank Williams Jr. Through the sincere lyrics, we learn that while her mother had ample reason to turn her children against their father, she chose to put aside her natural emotional pain to ensure that they had a chance

to enjoy a meaningful relationship with him instead. She sings: “You did more good for me than you will ever know./I’ve seen mothers fill their children’s hearts with hate./But you knew better than to drag me down with you/You let me love my daddy just the same.”

Holly Williams smoky, yet sensitive vocal, is supported by the aid of pleasant and unobtrusive production, which mostly consists of tasteful mandolin, Dobro and light drums. While it’s not as intricate and subtle as Justin Townes Earle’s tribute to his Mama, it is equally as heartfelt and just as emotional.

Grade: B+

Listen: “Mama”

Buy (for free):

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Favorite Songwriter

steve-earleI 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.

Who is your favorite songwriter and why?

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Discussion: A Song With A Story

twilight-hotelOne of country music’s strengths has always been its songwriting. Its ability to connect to its audience with the truth.  That’s what initially drew me to country music. The music was more than just instruments and cool beats, it had life and character and everything that goes along with those qualities – humor, humility, love, anger, compassion and history.

Therefore, I’ve found it unfortunate in recent years that mainstream country has focused more on combining a catchy hook with an awesome guitar solo and some cool beats, than in relaying the truth.  I realize that may be where the trend (and therefore the money) is heading these days, but, in my opinion, it’s not where the heart of country music lies.

However, I can’t say that great songs – particularly story songs  – are not out there … they’re just harder to find.  One of my recent finds was a song by Canadian roots duo Twilight Hotel, called “The Ballad of Salvador & Isabelle,” from their album Highway Prayer.  In true country fashion, it makes my heart ache every time I listen to it. The song relates in narrative fashion the tale of two siblings from Mexico trying to find a better life in America.

For me, the song was enhanced by how Dave Quanbury (one half of Twilight Hotel and the song’s writer) explained it to the 9513 last January:

“I think a lot of people probably wouldn’t agree with that song … [but] I think it’s a story that needs to be told. And I think that’s what songwriters do, really–even if you don’t have any direct connection to it…what we do is observe situations and express those observations and issues, and then the listener can interpret them how they want.”

I challenge you to listen to “The Ballad of Salvador & Isabelle” and not make it to the end.  It is one of those rare songs where you simply have to finish listening because you want (and have) to know what happens.

Discussion: What is your favorite classic story song? Any recent discoveries? Please share.

(Also check out: “Adrienna Valentine” by Trent Wagler and Jay Lapp, Adrienna Valentine; “Yuma” by Justin Townes Earle, Yuma.)

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