Posts Tagged ‘Steve Earle’

Favorite Songwriter

Friday, April 3rd, 2009

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?

Texas Country

Thursday, March 26th, 2009

texasStuck 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?

Themed Albums

Friday, February 13th, 2009

kathy-mattea-coalKathy Mattea’s brilliant album released last year, Coal, reminded me of how much I love themed albums.  There is something unique and special about an album that addresses a single topic from varied angles or transports the listener on a purposeful ride.  It’s not just a random collection of singles with little to coalesce them together.  Rather, like great movies, themed albums demand that you listen from the first note to the last, lest you miss something important in between.

Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger is one of the most famous themed albums in country music history.  The entire album is based on the conceptual story of a preacher who shoots his cheating wife and her lover before going on the run. However, the theme doesn’t have to be as concrete as the one in Red Headed Stranger or as narrow as the one in Coal, which endeavors to shine a light on the coal-mining industry, to be included in this category. It can be as amorphous as “love” or “heartache.”

Just for fun, I culled through my musical catalog (and all 5 million or so country songs about love, heartache and partying on Friday night) and put together my own themed album very loosely titled: America 2009:

  • Filthy Rich (Big Kenny, John Rich, Bill McDavid, Freddy Powers, Sonny Thockmorton)
  • Workingman’s Blues #2 (Bob Dylan)
  • If We Make It Through December (Merle Haggard)
  • Dirt (Chris Knight)
  • What’s A Simple Man To Do? (Steve Earle)
  • The Ballad of Salvador & Isabelle (Dave Quanbury)
  • If You Don’t Love Jesus (Billy Joe Shaver)
  • Ellis Unit One (Steve Earle)
  • Dress Blues (Jason Isbell)
  • It’s a Different World Now (Rodney Crowell)
  • Everybody Knows (Gary Louris, Martie Maguire, Natalie Maines, Emily Robison)
  • Up to the Mountain (Patty Griffin)
  • Reason to Believe (Bruce Springsteen)

If you were to create your own themed album, what would it look like?

Grammy Flashback: Best Male Country Vocal Performance

Monday, January 19th, 2009

Updated for 2009

While the Grammys have honored country music from the very first ceremony in 1959, they did not begin honoring by gender until 1965, when the country categories were expanded along with the other genre categories. This year, the 45th trophy for Best Male Country Vocal Performance will be awarded.

In a continuation of our Grammy Flashback series, here is a rundown of the Best Country Vocal Performance, Male category. It was first awarded in 1965, and included singles competing with albums until the Best Country Album category was added in 1995. When an album is nominated, it is in italics, and a single track is in quotation marks.

As usual, we start with a look at this year’s nominees and work our way back. Be sure to vote in My Kind of Country’s Best Male Country Vocal Performance poll and let your preference for this year’s race be known!

jamey-johnson-lonesome2009

  • Trace Adkins, “You’re Gonna Miss This”
  • Jamey Johnson, “In Color”
  • James Otto, “Just Got Started Lovin’ You”
  • Brad Paisley, “Letter to Me”
  • George Strait, “Troubadour”

As with the album race, this year’s contenders for Best Male Country Vocal Performance are a combination of unrecognized veterans and promising newcomers. In fact, none of this year’s nominees have won in this category, and only one of them – Brad Paisley – has a Grammy at all.

First, the veterans. Paisley has numerous ACM and CMA victories to his credit, including two each for Male Vocalist.  Although he’s been nominated for this award twice before, this is the first time he’s contended with a cut that can’t be dismissed as a novelty number. The touching self-penned “Letter to Me” is his best shot yet at taking this home.

Trace Adkins has been at this a bit longer than Paisley, but this is his first Grammy nomination. His crossover exposure from Celebrity Apprentice might help him out here, along with the fact that the song was considered strong enough by voters to earn a nomination of its own.

But the real veteran to watch out for is George Strait. After being nominated only twice for this category in the first 25 years of his career, voters have now given him three consecutive nominations. This is one of four nods he’s earned for the 2009 ceremony, and “Troubadour” is essentially the story of his epic career distilled into a radio-length song. It would be the perfect way to honor the man and his music in one fell swoop.

However, there’s a newcomer that might be a Grammy favorite already.  We just haven’t found out yet. Not James Otto, of course, who is nominated for his charming romantic romp “Just Got Started Lovin’ You”, but rather, Jamey Johnson. The recent Nashville Scene critics’ poll further confirmed the depth of his support among tastemakers, and his nominations for Best Country Song and Best Country Album indicate that he’s very much on the academy’s radar. It helps that he has the most substantial track of the five, and it’s the obvious choice for traditionalists, who have little reason to split their votes in this category. If voters aren’t considering legacy when making their selections, he has a great shot at this.

2008

  • Dierks Bentley, “Long Trip Alone”
  • Alan Jackson, “A Woman’s Love”
  • Tim McGraw, “If You’re Reading This”
  • George Strait, “Give it Away”
  • Keith Urban, “Stupid Boy”

The often offbeat Grammy voters have been surprisingly mainstream in this category for the past three years, a trend best exemplified by this lineup, which was the first in more than a decade to feature only top ten radio hits. Tim McGraw and Keith Urban were the only two who had won this before, and it was Urban who emerged victorious. “Stupid Boy” was a highlight of his fourth studio album, and this was the only major award that the impressive collection would win.

2007

  • Dierks Bentley, “Every Mile a Memory”
  • Vince Gill, “The Reason Why”
  • George Strait, “The Seashores of Old Mexico”
  • Josh Turner, “Would You Go With Me”
  • Keith Urban, “Once in a Lifetime”

Vince Gill returned to win in this category for a ninth time with “The Reason Why.” Not only is he, by far, the most honored artist in this category, his wins here account for nine of the nineteen Grammys currently on his mantle.

2006

  • George Jones, “Funny How Time Slips Away”
  • Toby Keith, “As Good As I Once Was”
  • Delbert McClinton, “Midnight Communion”
  • Willie Nelson, “Good Ol’ Boys”
  • Brad Paisley, “Alcohol”
  • Keith Urban, “You’ll Think of Me”

Urban’s biggest and probably best hit launched his second album to triple platinum and established him as a crossover artist. He gave a killer performance of the song on the show. Toby Keith was a first-time nominee here, and while he publicly groused that the Grammys put too little emphasis on commercial success in picking their nominations, he lost to the only track that was a bigger hit than his own.

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Leeann Ward’s Top Singles of 2008

Saturday, December 27th, 2008

Here are my favorite singles of 2008. As Dan has done, I lifted the entries that I had already written from our collective list for this article.

#20: Robert Plant & Alison Krauss, “Please Read The Letter”
The album from which this song comes seems like an unlikely collaboration. It, however, somehow works as one of the best albums of the decade and any song from it would make my top twenty singles list this year.

hank-iii#19: Hank Williams III, “Six Pack of Beer”

Hank Williams III is known for relishing a rebel persona and this attitude is often reflected in his music. More often than not, his songs contain observations wrapped in harsh lyrics that cause me to wince, but his production and voice, which are both more comparable to Hank Sr. than Hank III’s father, still draws me to his music, nonetheless. This song, however, is simply pure ear candy. There’s nothing in it that makes me feel like I have to turn it down in mixed company as is the case with so many other Hank III songs. It’s nice sometimes.

#18: Jason Michael Carroll, “I Can Sleep When I’m Dead”

I’m not much of a Jason Michael Carroll fan, but there’s just something about this song that is infectious. The rapid and frenzied production matches its premise, “I can sleep when I’m dead.”

#17: Gary Allan, “Learning How To Bend”

As Dan has pointed out, these aren’t words that most men would say without feeling extremely awkward. The intriguing thing about Gary Allan is that he can get away with it without anyone unfairly questioning his masculinity. He sings this song with fine vocal execution and hits those falsetto notes with incredible ease.

#16: Carrie Underwood, “Just A Dream”

While I could live with a more understated melody that sounded less like it was written by Diane Warren, I can’t help recognize that Underwood’s performance is just right for this intense song. I can only imagine that it aptly captures both the hazy confusion and blunt pain that accompanies the sudden loss of a significant other. I know it’s how I would feel.

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Best Country Singles of 2008, Part 1: #40-#31

Monday, December 15th, 2008

Starting today, the Country Universe staff will be revealing our Top 40 Singles of 2008.   This list has been compiled through a combination of four individual Top 20 lists by Leeann, Blake, Dan and myself, wherein a certain number of “points” was delegated to a single each time it was mentioned on one of the lists.

The final list reflects the total number of points that each single received between the four lists. Those lists will be revealed along with other individual writer content next week as part of our continuing coverage of the Best of 2008.

trisha#40

Trisha Yearwood, “They Call it Falling For a Reason”

This song really sounds like it could fit perfectly with Yearwood’s music of the ‘90s. The production is both modest and interesting at the same time. Furthermore, the lyrics are light without seeming inane. As we will lament about many singles on this list, it’s a shame that this one didn’t chart better for Yearwood.  – LW

sarah-buxton#39

Sarah Buxton, “Space”

When Sarah Buxton’s voice is matched with a soaring melody, good things are bound to happen.   Here, she tears apart the standard breakup line, “I just need space”, thoroughly eviscerating the man foolish enough to ask for it.  – KJC

jewel#38

Jewel, “Stronger Woman”

Back when Jewel ruled pop radio, she did so with  smart and empowering female anthems.    Her introduction to country radio is cut from the same cloth, and let’s be honest: such material hasn’t been any more common on the country dial than it has been on pop radio this decade.  – KJC

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Favorite Songs by Favorite Artists: Patty Loveless

Sunday, August 10th, 2008

Patty Loveless has built a Hall of Fame-worthy career, one that has perfectly blended country music’s past and present into a trademark musical style that she can truly call her own, all the while selling gold and platinum and succeeding at country radio. Her mix of commercial and critical success is almost unsurpassed in modern-day country music.

Along with Tony Brown, and later with her producer husband Emory Gordy Jr., Loveless made a true effort to sing songs that were significant to her, wringing every last drop of emotion into each lyric. The listener felt every hopeful or hurtful moment, and I have selected my 25 favorites in a career filled with classics.

The emphasis is on her Epic recordings, although she had plenty of fine moments during her MCA days.

#25
“Hurt Me Bad (In a Real Good Way)”
Up Against My Heart, 1991

One of Patty’s earlier successes, she sees the positive in a bad breakup. The light at the end of the tunnel was a new love, one she would have never found without going through the hard times.

#24
“Chains”
Honky Tonk Angel, 1988

Loveless gives as good as she takes on this gem, her second #1 record. Is it rocket science? No. But Patty’s rarin’ to go from the first note. It is pure and simple fun as she portrays a woman  ready for romance but trying like mad to resist her man’s advances. She almost revels in the back-and-forth that comes with so many love affairs. This same spirit is captured in her future single “I’m That Kind of Girl.”

#23
“To Have You Back Again”
Long Stretch of Lonesome, 1997

Loveless is among the walking wounded on this song, asking for forgiveness from the one she has done wrong. She strikes a beautiful balance between desperation and determination, sounding wise and yet aware of her weaknesses. She absolutely wails in the chorus, lending an immediacy to every little line.

#22
“You Can Feel Bad”
The Trouble with the Truth, 1996

A bittersweet kiss-off to an old companion, this Matraca Berg tune was one of Pattys’ five #1 singles, and it features a contemporary twist on the ol’ heartache song. Once she reaches the chorus, Loveless’ voice is a mix of resignation and indignation. She’s committed to overcoming the pain with a tough-to-the-core attitude that is not always apparent, but is always underneath the surface of much of her material.

#21
“On Down the Line”
On Down the Line, 1990

The working woman’s anthem. As she says, she will keep on “Laughin’ and cryin’, livin’ and dyin’, on down the line”. The title cut of her 1990 collection, it is a message of a woman’s day-to-day drive to succeed (or even just survive).
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Steve Earle with Allison Moorer, “Days Aren’t Long Enough”

Wednesday, April 9th, 2008

Steve Earle is well known for his controversially liberal political and social ideologies in the predominantly conservative country music genre. As a result, his political views too often overshadow his talent and creativity. On “Days Aren’t Long Enough”, however, all of his activism is put aside for a moment for the sake of love.

Earle invites his wife, Allison Moorer, to join him on this ballad about how days aren’t long enough to focus on undeniable love. It is a beautifully executed ballad with Earle’s and Moorer’s voices blending perfectly to create a romantic tribute to love.

Whoever listens to this song can tell that they’re not taking this relationship for granted. It is nice to hear Steve Earle’s softer side accompanied by a gentle production on this song that sounds like it could have been a classic in another time.

Written by Steve Earle & Allison Moorer

Grade: A

Listen: Days Aren’t Long Enough

Buy: Day’s Aren’t Long Enough

Steve Earle, “City of Immigrants”

Saturday, September 22nd, 2007

“Living in a city of immigrants, I don’t need to go traveling.” Steve Earle has apparently become a New Yorker, and has taken it upon himself to celebrate everything that makes this city great. Celebrations of my hometown don’t come around too often in country music, and this is a damn good one. His keen eye for the minute details of New York life – the streets, the people, the tension, the energy – is so vivid that it has me looking at my own city with fresh eyes and renewed appreciation.

Simply put, a gorgeous celebration of a beautiful city.

Grade: A

Listen: City of Immigrants

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