Tag Archives: alt-country

Come back again, and again, and again: Brandi Carlile and The Highwomen

28 Jan

Shh … his Versace has a lot to say
(L.A. Times)

There is a lot of barroom debate among rock and roll fans about the quality of contemporary country music. It’s not that we don’t like country music, we explain patiently over a $12 draft as Buck Owens plays on the Pandora stream; we just don’t like popular country music. As Tom Petty put it, “What they would call country today is sort of like bad rock with a fiddle.”

I cop to the snobbery. For the bulk of my country music library, the older the better. I have a lot more Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams and Patsy Cline than I will ever have Florida Georgia Line. Likewise, I am the only American citizen who has yet to hear a single one of the kabillion remixes of “Old Town Road.”

It’s not a stretch to say I enjoy a lot of alt country artists, because it’s a very convenient category that fits all the acts I like and excludes any I think are too crass or too well known. The list is long: John Prine, Lucinda Williams, Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, Chris Stapleton, Kacey Musgraves, Calexico, Uncle Tupelo and the Civil Wars (RIP) are a representative few. They know the aching perfection of a small detail that reveals the whole of heartbreak or the delight of a smartalecky lyric you wish you’d thought of first. And while the vocal styles and quality are just as all over the map as rock and roll, country music allows for a crystalline purity of tone and harmony that just stops me in my tracks.

So it was about time I listened to Brandi Carlile. Last night, she won two Grammys to add to the three she got last year – and thanks to Carlile’s songwriting and production, Tanya Tucker earned her first gold gramophone for the resolute and tender, “Bring My Flowers Now.”

Last week, I finally checked out the debut album by the Highwomen, the supergroup Carlile formed last year with Amanda Shires, Maren Morris and Natalie Hemby, with guest vocalists Yola and Sheryl Crow helping them out here and there and Jason Isbell contributing songs and guitar support. The name of the group – and their lead track – come from Jimmy Webb’s song that was famously adopted in the 1980s by Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings in their own star-studded project.

With Webb’s blessing and assistance, the song was reframed to tell the stories of women whose spirit lives on even after they died in service to others. As Carlile said in Rolling Stone, “[The Highwaymen’s characters] all died doing things that men do. Willie was a bandit. Johnny Cash drove a fucking starship, nobody knows why … We rewrote it with fates that befell women …”

I listened to the song in the dark of my morning commute and couldn’t stop crying. It’s so moving, resolute and fierce – and the harmonies are utterly gorgeous. It hits me hard every time I listen.

The album has a lot of humor in its heart. “Redesigning Women” salutes those who are “Skipping the bread for the butter/ Changing our minds like we change our hair color.” The lyrics of “Loose Change” have the nested cleverness of imagery that country songwriters are famous for:

You don’t see my value
I’m gonna be somebody’s lucky penny someday
Instead of rollin’ ’round in your pocket like loose change

And, the cowboys aren’t always the ones getting the girl, either:

Songwriter Harlon Howard famously said, “Country music is three chords and the truth.” Brandi Carlile and her collaborators are expanding who gets to tell the truth – and drawing me in as a fan eager to listen.

See you on the flip side …

Notes from Nashville

20 Apr

At last, I have made the pilgrimage to Nashville, and I’m still basking in the barbecue-basted afterglow.

Nashville string bandThis city is teeming with talent, since this is where musicians and songwriters from all over the world come to make their fortunes. In the meantime, they have to make a living, keep their chops up and be ready for the next gig that could be the big break. So no matter where you go, music squirts out of every doorway and windowsill and pours out of bars and burger joints, and it’s almost always crazy great.

Want bonafide old-timey music with a side of sleeve tattoos? You got it outside of the Boot Country store on Broadway (see above). Want to hear Stevie Ray Vaughan’s take on “Little Wing” even though he’s moved on to the Great Beyond? Order some sweet potato fries at Paradise Park Trailer Resort and give a listen to the house band at 3:00 p.m. on a Saturday afternoon. Need to unwind after a long day of driving? Go to your hotel lobby and hear a gal do a credible acoustic version of “Angel from Montgomery” as you take in the exhibition of works by painter/musician Ray Stephenson that includes a portrait of John Prine.

Rock came up from country music of all stripes – gospel, Texas swing, hill music, blues – and that bloodline is being celebrated now at the Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum in their current exhibit, “Dylan, Cash and the Nashville Cats.” The logo and other poster art was commissioned from Jon Langford, a musician with the punk band the Mekons:

Nashville Cats artwork

Even without this terrific exhibit – showcasing the time in the 1960s and early 1970s when Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash came to Nashville to record, followed by Neil Young, Leonard Cohen, Linda Ronstadt and many others – I would have gotten a kick out of the place. I grew up in the early 1970s watching The Porter Wagoner Show and Hee Haw. Plus, my brother lived the Urban Cowboy life in the early 1980s when he worked in Houston, and I spent a lot of time with that film’s soundtrack. The fiddles and banjos, the wigs and rhinestones, the Qiana and the cowboy boots: it’s part of my childhood. (Sadly, the volume on the Hee Haw video clips at the Hall of Fame was so low, my daughter could not fully appreciate the comic stylings of the Hee Haw Honeys.)Hee Haw Honeys

Still, I sped up once I got to the displays featuring stars of the 1990s and beyond. I have no time for Garth Brooks or Brad Paisley or the other Top 40 country guys. Also, no matter how many articles I read about how Taylor Swift is a critical favorite as well as great person on and off stage, I just can’t bring myself to give her music a listen. Just considering it makes my neck stiffen.

Clearly I am one of those insufferable snobs Chuck Klosterman called out in “Toby over Moby,” a 2003 essay in Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs:

[T]hey’ve managed to figure out the most rudimentary rule of pop sociology; they know that hipsters gauge the coolness of others by their espoused taste in sound and they know that hipsters hate modern country music. And they hate it because it speaks to normal people in a tangible, rational manner.

Klosterman goes on to call alternative country “the most popular musical genre of the last twenty-five years that’s managed to remain completely unpopular.” (I have at least half of the albums featured in the Hall of Fame’s alt-country display … ahem.)

But the sincerity of pop country gets dulled by bro country‘s formulaic songwriting and singers Auto-tuned into sameness. There is so much better stuff available. Classic material from Hank Williams and Willie Nelson hasn’t lost its luster, and 21st century musicians – the Punch Brothers, the Old Crow Medicine Show, and Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn, to name a few – are reclaiming and reinterpreting the old-time catchiness of roots music without being precious about it. Plus, musicians on the rock-and-roll side of the spectrum like Jack White and Dan Auerbach make Nashville their home, soaking up the traditions and giving a platform to lesser known yet absurdly talented locals.

And on top of all this is the Grand Ole Opry, still exemplifying the best in country and roots music after 90 years on the air. More on that to follow.

See you on the flip side …

Blessed: Lucinda Williams at the Royal Oak Theater

25 Nov

Beat the Bots

Foo Fighters tickets went on sale last Saturday. Being all about sticking up for the little guy, the band kicked it off with a “Beat the Bots” pre-sale. As an email explained, “Fans sick of Scalper-BOTS programmed to clog online queues and snatch up huge amounts of tickets to resell them will get first shot at tickets to the show.” So, just as in days of old, those of us wanting good seats could drive down to the box office and get in line.

Of course, Saturday was the last day of a bitter cold snap, with freezing rain turning every parking lot and bridge into a luge track. We were allowed to start lining up at 8:00 a.m. with the box office opening two hours later. It was about 8:10 when I realized that, while I had thought to bring my Rolling Stone with Dave Grohl on the cover to keep myself occupied, I didn’t have warm socks, waterproof boots or long johns. I was woefully underdressed. For the next two and a half hours, I shifted from foot to foot, jammed my gloved hands into my pockets and tried to stay limber while my teeth chattered.

As I felt my spine go numb and my gums freeze, I had to ask myself: why do I put myself through this? 

I could say it’s to earn the admiration of those in my age group who, due to other commitments and common sense, don’t go the extra mile I often do to see my favorite musicians perform live. “You are awesome,” read one post on my Facebook page; “Young. At. Heart” read another. If my race against decrepitude and boredom lands me in a mosh pit every once in a while, I’ll have the support of those living vicariously through my folly.

But there’s a more valid reason. Live music connects us physically with the singer and the song in ways a pair of headphones never will. It amplifies our ability to experience pure joy. Case in point: the transcendent Lucinda Williams, who I saw at the Royal Oak Theatre on Saturday night.

Lucinda Williams

Singer/songwriter Williams grew up in Louisiana, the daughter of a poet who was also a rabid Hank Williams fan (no relation … pity). Tom Petty was my gateway to her music. He did a blistering cover of Williams’ “Changed the Locks” for the soundtrack of She’s the One. (Lucinda returned the favor, covering “Rebels” when Petty received the ASCAP Founders Award this year.)

She’s got a voice like a broken beer bottle and views the world through cigarette smoke and smeared eyeliner. Her genre is hard to pin down. Alt-country, blues, rock, folk and gospel fuse together in her fearless lyrics that demand she be treated with passion and respect, as in one of her evocative creations, “Unsuffer Me”:

 

Her three-piece band was phenomenal, filling the sold-out venue with a dense, precision playing so thrilling, Lucinda herself would pull to the side of the stage to watch. She balanced her new material with old, plus some apt covers including Detroiter Bettye LaVette’s “Joy” and Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World.” She was having so much fun, when she finished her nearly two hour set, she came back for an encore … then another … then another (and perhaps another: I lost count in my glee). She got to a point that she ran out of numbers in the songbook she kept on her music stand; she sent the roadie offstage to fetch more lyric sheets so she could do more songs. (Kenneth Brian, the leader of the band that opened the show, told us in the lobby that she was making up for a stuffy gig the night before in Cleveland; “I’ve never seen her like this,” he said, astonished.)

Foo Fighters ticketsLucinda Williams was a perfect way to close out a year of remarkable shows, as I’ve been blessed by great opportunity and more often than not, a willing concert buddy. She reinforced my resolve to keep showing up, despite the cold or cost or clueless drunks air-drumming throughout the evening. And good thing, too … because I have a date with Dave and the boys in August 2015!

See you on the flip side … 

P.S. If you live in the Brighton, Michigan area, there’s still time to RSVP for the Brighton District Library Local Author Showcase, featuring yours truly and signed copies of Love and Other B-Sides! Let us know you’re coming by registering here: http://bit.ly/1vauiBR

 

 

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