Fly high, friend.
Country music has lost some true icons in 2016– Merle Haggard, “Doctor” Ralph Stanley, Jean Shepard just earlier today– but there was a death in the country music community this week that, for us, stings with personal loss. On Tuesday morning, friend-of-the-blog Grady Smith posted on Twitter that he had read the obituary for Devarati Ghosh, known to many music fans by her Twitter handle, Windmills Country. Another friend-of-the-blog, Vickye Fisher of For the Country Record, began doing some additional research to confirm that Dev (or Deb), as she was known to many of us who interacted with her online, had indeed passed away.
Those of us here at Country Universe recognize that we occupy but a small corner of the country music critical community, but Dev was someone who many of us had engaged with because of how far-reaching her influence was– her place within the community was very much as a lynch-pin among the disparate parts of country music’s online presence. She wrote vital news items and essential commentary for Ms. J’s Music Blog; she could speak to fan communities as a moderator at Pulse Music Board; she participated in the Change The Conversation panel that drove critical and industry consensus regarding the state of women in country music; she could converse with admirable candor with the specific population of regular commenters at Saving Country Music; she actively engaged thoughtful writers in conversation via Twitter; she was a critical and sharp-eyed reader of music writing that spanned all genres; and she promoted the work of writers whose opinions she valued.
Considering the depth of her knowledge and the breadth of her influence, that she could readily cite my music criticism from Slant Magazine in our conversations and was among Country Universe‘s biggest champions? It really and truly meant the world.
Since news of her passing on Tuesday, many writers have taken opportunity to speak about how important Dev’s place was. Vickye Fisher wrote an exceptionally moving tribute that includes longer statements from some names that I hope have become familiar to the readers of these Sunday Selections posts– folks like Jason Scott and Country Perspective‘s Josh Schott.
Kevin had this to say: “The loss of Devarati Ghosh has hit home in more ways than one. I never knew that this extraordinary writer was toiling away a mere miles from where I was, and I am saddened that I never had the opportunity to express to her the impact that her writing had on me.
I have missed the opportunity to thank Ms. Ghosh for those efforts, but I will honor them by fighting back. By engaging more. And by writing the truth, even when it’s uncomfortable to do so.”
Aside from our banter on Twitter, what I will miss most about Dev are her fierce intellect and her fearlessness. At a time when anti-intellectualism seems to be at a peak and so many people want to disregard the pieces of our shared culture as disposable, she never shied away from a deeper analysis. She knew that words have meaning and weight– whether that was a matter of a song lyric or of radio insider’s statements about broader trends within the music industry– and she was always ready to engage with those words from a perspective that was rooted in her fundamental curiosity, empathy, and fairness.
And there simply was no better researcher on contemporary country music. She was able to find potential album cuts and co-writes for artists months before even those artists’ die-hard fans learned they were in the recording studio. The deep dives she took into radio’s call-out research– including her breakdown of the confirmation bias that makes its measures inherently flawed– and into the chart history of women in country music are among the most important work that anyone has done in writing about today’s country music industry and climate. She didn’t use statistics that she could manipulate. Instead, she researched facts that were based in the reality that we all share, and she used those facts to dictate important conclusions about the marginalization of women and veteran acts, the influence of particular management groups on awards-show voting, and the self-fulfilling prophecies that radio programmers have relied on to stifle any semblance of variety from the radio.
She wasn’t afraid to share her conclusions, either. Whether calling down a belligerent troll on a comment thread or calling out
Keith Hill of #tomatogate online, she was always willing to drive the tenor of a conversation. The great irony about her “Windmills Country” account was, of course, her image of an ostrich with its head buried in the sand. When in reality, Dev was, to use the parlance of the day, as woke as anyone.
Now, our favorite flightless bird has taken flight. We will try to do even better in her absence.
As for the week’s Sunday Selections proper: Onward!
New Releases & Reissues, 9/23/2016
Devendra Banhart, Ape in Pink Marble. (Nonesuch)
Billy Bragg & Joe Henry, Shine a Light: Field Recordings from the Great American Railroad. (Cooking Vinyl)
Luke Bryan, Farm Tour: Here’s to the Farmer EP. (Capitol Nashville)
Guy Clark, Without Getting Killed or Caught: The Life and Music of Guy Clark (Biography – Tamara Saviano)
Drivin N Cryin, Scarred But Smarter: Life N Times of Drivin N Cryin. (Documentary – Directed by Eric Von Haessler)
Greensky Bluegrass, Shouted, Written Down, & Quoted. (Thirty Tigers)
Jim Kweskin & Geoff Muldaur, Penny’s Farm. (Kingswood)
Reckless Kelly, Sunset Motel. (No Big Deal)
John Scofield, Country for Old Men. (UMC)
Jason Walker, All-Night Ghost Town. (Lost Highway Australia)
Dwight Yoakam, Swimming Pools, Movie Stars…. (Sugar Hill)
Billboard Country National Airplay:
#1: Dierks Bentley feat. Elle King, “Different for Girls”
Most Increased Audience: Billy Currington, “It Don’t Hurt Like It Used To”
Debuts: Artists of Then, Now, & Forever, “Forever Country” (#39); Joe Nichols, “Undone” (re-entry, #57); Chris Lane, “For Her” (#58); Jana Kramer, “Circles” (#60).
Most Added: Carrie Underwood, “Dirty Laundry” (35); Florida Georgia Line feat. Tim McGraw, “May We All” (23); Eric Church feat. Rhiannon Giddens, “Kill A Word” (19); Keith Urban, “Blue Ain’t Your Color” (16); Artists of Then, Now, & Forever, “Forever Country” (16).
Notes: I expected Kelsea Ballerini’s “Peter Pan” to score a second week at #1, but she cedes the top spot to Dierks Bentley’s and Elle King’s revolting “Different for Girls,” which is likely to hold its lead over the fast-rising “It Don’t Hurt Like It Used To” from Billy Currington for at least one week; William Michael Morgan’s solid “I Met a Girl” holds at #7 for a third consecutive week, which puts it at 50 total weeks on the chart; Tucker Beathard’s “Rock On” moves up to #6; I’d say Beathard’s single is the worst on the chart, but Kevin made a strong case for Luke Bryan’s “Move,” which moves up from #11 to #9; Miranda Lambert’s “Vice” lost a bit of audience but still manages to move up to #14 based upon several other singles’ having gone recurrent; Drake White’s “Livin’ the Dream” reaches a new peak of #17, as Dot Records continues to promote the single that has become White’s breakthrough hit at radio; Maren Morris’ “80 Mercedes” moves up to #20, making her the rare female artist to back up a top 10 single with a top 20 hit; Carrie Underwood’s “Dirty Laundry” continues a rapid ascent, up to #25 after just 4 weeks; Underwood remains ahead of Chris Stapleton’s “Parachute,” which moves up from #29 to a new peak of #26; Chris Janson’s “Holdin’ Her” remains one of the best songs on the chart, and it moves up from #36 to #29; Eric Church’s and Rhiannon Giddens’ exceptional “Kill A Word” vaults up from #43 to #31; The Band Perry’s “Comeback Kid” continues to lose audience, though it manages to move back up to #42; RaeLynn’s “Love Triangle” posts a modest gain, rebounding to #49 in its fifth week; Chase Rice’s execrable “Everybody We Know Does” regrettably moves up from #59 to #50; just as regrettably, Chris Lane lands a new song on the chart, as “For Her” debuts at #58; Jana Kramer’s stint on Dancing with the Stars seems to have given a slight boost to her single, “Circles,” which debuts at #60 after floundering for several months without having gained traction.
Elsewhere on Billboard‘s radio charts:
The Lumineers’ “Cleopatra” moves up to #5 at AAA radio, where erstwhile Southern rockers and current Coldplay knockoff Kings Of Leon score a #9 debut with their new single, “Waste a Moment;” Norah Jones’ “Carry On” drops from #11 back to #13; Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats’ “I Need Never Get Old” has been moved to recurrent status; Shovels & Rope’s “I Know” posts a slight gain, rebounding to #25; Florida Georgia Line’s “H.O.L.Y.” falls from #27 to #31 at Adult Top 40; both Florida Georgia Line and Tim McGraw posted substantial decreases in audience at Adult Contemporary radio; Martina McBride’s “Just Around the Corner” has officially been tagged for promotion at Adult Contemporary radio after failing to make a dent at country radio; Hillary Scott & The Scott Family’s “Thy Will” ranks as the #1 song on Christian radio for a second straight week.
News & Notes
Just a week after entering Hospice care, the iconic Jean Shepard passed away at age 82. Shepard remained one of country music’s feistiest performers throughout her life, and she was a tireless advocate for traditional forms of country music. Shepard remained a fixture of the Grand Ole Opry stage for a full six decades, and she was inducted into the Country Music Hall Of Fame in 2011. Shepard ranked at #34 on our list of The 100 Greatest Women of Country Music. (JK)
“A lot of people think there’s this unwritten rule that if you’re a country artist and you’re a Christian you have to put at least one gospel song on the record. It’s not a requirement, if I don’t get a gospel song on the record, that doesn’t mean I’m less of a person… I think by this point if people don’t know that I’m a Christian, they’re either really new fans or they haven’t been paying attention. Even in the country songs I’m singing there’s certain standards. I have a certain level of integrity that songs have to measure up to and people understand that too.”
— Josh Turner spoke about how his faith has prominently figured into his recordings over the years as part of an interview with Laura Hostelley of Sounds Like Nashville. Turner stopped short, however, of ensuring that his upcoming album– a long-delayed set that will be his first since 2012– would include a gospel track. (JK)
Earlier this year, Willie Nelson unveiled his line of commercial marijuana, Willie’s Reserve. The late Merle Haggard had evidently partnered with Colorado Weed Co. prior to his death, and the company will be releasing “Merle’s Girls” in Colorado, Washington, and Oregon. (JK)
“Some of the stations are picking up my music, and some of them are very receptive. Especially, say, folks in Los Angeles and certain stations. But some of them are completely perplexed when I go in there and play for them. It can be painful. I’m like, ‘What kind of music is on your station?’ Then they tell me the names — and I’ll protect the innocent here by not saying them — but I’m like, ‘You’re not gonna like what I do, and I’m probably wasting my time by coming out here and shaking your hand and giving you my album.’ But I’m remaining hopeful.”
— Margo Price, in an interview with Adam Gold for Nashville Scene, protected the innocent as she dished about her interactions with radio station staffers in an attempt to infiltrate the market. Her single, “Four Years Of Chances,” is actively being promoted to country radio. It’s one of the year’s very best singles and would sound great alongside, say, “Kill A Word” or “Vice” or “Parachute.” (JK)
I’ll admit that I hated Billy Gilman’s maudlin “One Voice” back in the 90s, and I’m not at all a fan of The Voice. But Gilman turned heads– and all four judges’ chairs– during this week’s “blind auditions” episode with his impressive, note-perfect cover of Adele’s “When We Were Young.” (JK)
“There’s no rhyme or reason for that, I don’t think. It’s the music in them talking. I would also like to hope that it’s me having a good attitude, and not being a faker – just being real. I think people like that recognize things. I know I recognize realness of people. I will never know, nor will I ever ask why they took a chance on me, but I’ll always be grateful and I’ll return the favor. It does my heart so good to hear things like that, and personally, it makes me feel good. You can never go wrong when you pat somebody on the job and tell them ‘Good job.'”
— Chris Janson expressed a sense of gratitude for the current state of his career— his best song, “Holdin’ Her,” just cracked the top 30 at radio this week, while he wrote Tim McGraw’s current hit, “How I’ll Always Be”– as part of an interview with Chuck Dauphin for Sounds Like Nashville. What impresses most about Janson throughout the profile is his sincerity: When he tells Dauphin that he would be fulfilled if his career never became any bigger than it is right now, it rings true, and his overall positivity makes him easy to root for. (JK)
“I think the reason that I like duets is because of the back-and-forth thing, as far as chemistry goes. If you’re not singing back and forth to each other, you’re not going to get that feeling of flirting or hurting. I think the ones with Iris DeMent (‘Who’s Gonna Take The Garbage Out’) and Kacey Musgraves really have that sassy feel. I think we really got that.”
— The legendary John Prine stoked the fires of anticipation for his upcoming duets album, For Better or For Worse, in an interview with Chuck Dauphin, writing for Billboard this time. Prine talks about the song selection process for the cover tunes on the album and about the recording process with each of his duet partners, who include DeMent, Musgraves, Miranda Lambert, Morgane Stapleton, and Alison Krauss, among others. (JK)
Carrie Underwood gave a powerful performance of her current hit, “Dirty Laundry,” on Ellen. (JK)
“I feel like it doesn’t matter — no matter who you are, you’ve gotta do what you were put on this earth to do, and it doesn’t matter who’s got more success or more acclaim. What matters is what is going to make your life the happiest, and what is going to do the best thing for your soul? And you know, I’m not going to quit just because I’m less popular or anything than him; I will always keep on keeping on, because otherwise I’d be the most miserable person ever. And I really think there’s room for everyone to do their art.”
— Amanda Shires reflected on her career arc in relation to that of her husband, Jason Isbell, as part of a fascinating, insightful interview with Richard Skanse of Lone Star Music magazine. It’s clear from the interview that Skanse knows Shires’ music well, so there’s an impressive depth to the questions he asks of Shires, and her responses are to-a-one thoughtful. (JK)
“Well, I grew up in a really small town, and I grew up religious in a small town. I have since moved away, and my life is elsewhere, and my own feelings about religion have kind of changed. I’m a different person now, but you can’t take the country out of the boy. There’s an element of homecoming and just thinking about where I grew up and thinking about the small towns in America. I really relate. The stories that are there and sometimes the sense of unease and the feeling of being left behind and left to your own devices, and it’s really palpable.”
— Josh Ritter, one of Americana’s most under-appreciated talents, considered his small-town upbringing and how it figures into his most recent album, 2015’s terrific Sermon on the Rocks, as part of an interview with Penn Live. (JK)
Keith Urban premiered a black-and-white video for his latest single, “Blue Ain’t Your Color.” (JK)
That will do it for this week. Be sure to check out the recent reviews for “Forever Country” and Luke Bryan’s “Move,” and be on the lookout for new posts in the coming days!