Saturday, 30 November 2013

Country Music – The Best of 2013

Soon after finishing my previous article in the early hours of Monday morning, I was following the results of the American Music Awards (AMAs).

The nominations for 'Favourite Female Country Artist' were Carrie Underwood, Taylor Swift and Miranda Lambert. Can you guess who won? The nominations for ‘Favourite Country Album’ were Luke Bryan with Crash My Party, Taylor Swift with Red and Florida Georgia Line with Here’s To The Good Times. Again, I’m sure you’ll have no trouble in guessing the winner.

To be honest, I was expecting Taylor Swift to win both of these awards despite the fact that Red was released in 2012 and that she has done nothing, NOTHING whatsoever in 2013. But the most worrying aspect is the fact that the winners of the American Music Awards are decided by the public. What does this say about the state of modern Country music when the winner of these awards is most certainly NOT a Country artist?

The general public perception of Country music is completely false! They do not know what real Country music is but it is not necessarily their fault. The blame really lies with the music industry’s commercial hubs – the executives and the award ceremonies who project a single image of Country music; one which is so far removed from the genre’s roots. Traditional Country music only appeals commercially to a minority of people and thus will not be represented at events like the AMAs which seek only the most commercial music. This therefore begs the question: ‘Why have a category for Country music?’ – The answer, as always, is Money.

Whilst Country-Pop, as well as the Pop of Taylor Swift, thrives at the peak of the genre; REAL Country music is being neglected. The traditional wheel of the genre is still rolling along but can be hard to find at times. 2013 has produced some absolutely fantastic Country music – so here are my picks of the best REAL Country albums of the year.

Tin Star – Lindi Ortega

Canadian Country singer Lindi Ortega moved to Nashville in 2011 to record her second album for Last Gang Records, Cigarettes and Truckstops. She has since gained all the inspiration that she needed from Music City U.S.A to produce her latest album, Tin Star. Ortega is one of the brightest young talents in Nashville’s music scene and can go far if she continues in this vein.  

The Civil Wars – The Civil Wars

The duo announced their hiatus in November 2012 but continued to record their eponymous album which was finally released on August 6th, 2013. One of the highlights of the album is the duo’s cover of the Smashing Pumpkins’ song ‘Disarm’.

The Highway – Holly Williams

Holly Williams comes from a very royal Country line as the granddaughter of the Country music’s biggest ever star, Hank Williams. Released in February on her own label, The Highway contains some incredible feats of song-writing. It seems that the best Country music is often the music which is produced independently, free from the hands of music executives.

Pokey LaFarge – Pokey LaFarge

LaFarge’s music is an innovative mix of early jazz, western swing and country blues from the 1920s and 30s. Pokey brings a refreshing approach to roots music, transcending the boundaries of genre and effectively creating his own style. His eponymous album is perhaps his best yet!

Bakersfield – Vince Gill

Vince Gill is a traditionalist at heart, emerging in the 1980s as part of the movement which sought to re-establish the roots of Country music. Gill is still going strong, releasing Bakersfield in July which pays tribute to the innovators of the Bakersfield sound, Merle Haggard and Buck Owens.

Southeastern – Jason Isbell

Southeastern is lyricism and story-telling at its highest level – this album cuts deep into the skin with its raw emotion and painful honesty. This is a record that everyone simply must have in their collection!

Foreverly – Billie Joe + Norah

It is an unlikely pairing and an even more unlikely sound that is produced but Foreverly has to be one of the biggest records of 2013. This album is a complete and extremely faithful reinterpretation of the Everly Brothers’ 1958 album ‘Songs our Daddy Taught Us’. When Green Day frontman, Billie Joe Armstrong, first approached Norah Jones about the prospect of this album, she was naturally hesitant. But after some convincing, the duo began working on the material for the album and something seemed to click. The result is beautifully reminiscent of the duets between Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris.

Too Free To Live – Brett Detar

Brett Detar is not just a musician; he’s also a film composer and music producer. His second solo album, Too Free To Live, has been made available via free download from his website. It is an album which is clearly influenced by more than just Country music, taking much from Southern Rock, creating a great diversity and freshness in this record.

Ashley Monroe – Like a Rose

Ashley Monroe’s vulnerable and angelic-sounding voice reminds me of a young Dolly Parton. Her latest album, Like a Rose, was produced by Vince Gill which perhaps explains the quality of the record throughout. Monroe had a hand in the writing of every song on the album which suggests that she has the talent to go far in the industry.

There Will Be Nights When I’m Lonely – Possessed by Paul James

Konrad Wert, who goes by the name of Possessed by Paul James, is a one-man band from south Austin, Texas. He is a natural entertainer with incredible musical talent (he plays the Banjo, Guitar and Fiddle) and his album ‘There Will Be Nights When I’m Lonely’ also shows off his great song-writing ability.

Sunday, 24 November 2013

Why Country? - My journey into the musical world of the southern American states

You may have already wondered: Why does a 19 year-old guy from England, who is studying Classical Music at the University of Bristol, like Country and Americana Music? This is the question I will attempt to answer now by explaining my journey into the musical world of the southern American states.

It began in one of the most unlikely of places - whilst playing Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas! If you've never played the game before, or any of the others in the series, you may want to watch the trailer just to gauge the nature of the video game.

San Andreas, like every Grand Theft Auto game, has an incredibly diverse soundtrack with at least 10 radio stations you can choose to listen to whilst driving around in stolen vehicles. One of these radio stations was called K-Rose, a Country show which included some of the greatest Country songs ever recorded. At the time, I knew very little music outside of the charts and certainly had no idea what Country music was - my mind was free of any of the negative connotations that the genre is still labelled with to this day! I chose to listen to K-Rose because the music was different which made it stand out amongst the other radio stations. This is still one of the main attractions for me with Country music - It's the sound of the steel guitar and southern accent that keeps me interested.

San Andreas was just the starting point in my journey. My interest in Country music gained real momentum when I discovered Johnny Cash through the film Walk the Line at the age of around 14 or 15. I have no recollection of knowing or even recognising the name Johnny Cash before watching that film, and thus owe a lot to the film for introducing me to the Man in Black despite its many failings in the representation of Cash's life. 

For the next 3 years after Walk the Line, I survived on a diet made up almost exclusively of Johnny Cash's music. After exhausting his Greatest Hits album, I went in search of Cash's less well-known output - going through the 'lost' albums of the 1970s and 80s. I now have a playlist of almost 900 Johnny Cash songs and I still don't think it's complete. With Cash, it's not just his recording output that marks him out as one of the greatest artists of all time in any genre. His music transcends the confines of genre - it's Country, Folk and most certainly American but his music is the music of the people! Cash's ability to tell stories through his songs is one of the most appealing aspects of his music and one which he gained from the tradition of folk ballads (often about murder) in Country music. 

The most interesting aspect of Cash is the man himself - he was and still remains both an enigma and an icon. He is my idol because of what he stood for and represented - listening to his signature song, Man in Black, will tell you all you need to know. 

Johnny Cash opened the doorway to the world of Country music for me - his covers of Hank Williams and Jimmie Rodgers introduced me to a genre which was new and fresh but which was also partly recognisable due to the K-Rose soundtrack. The next stage of my journey came in the form of a 6 CD set called Superstars of Country which was comprised mostly of Country music from the 70s and 80s including songs by Dolly Parton, George Jones and Tammy Wynette. Listening to these CDs furthered my understanding of Country music and its diversity - I was still becoming acquainted with many of the sub genres of Country music and had not formed any opinions about what true Country music should sound like. 

This occurred only last summer when I began to read up on Country music. The book which has influenced my opinion the most is In the Country of Country - A Journey to the Roots of American Music by Nicholas Dawidoff: 

'To call today's mainstream country music country at all is a's kempt, comfortable music - hyper-sincere, settled, and careful neither to offend nor surprise...contemporary country music thrives because it is sleek and predictable, a safe adventure in a smoke-free environment'.

Writing in 1997, Dawidoff was referring to the Country-Pop of the 1990s with the music of Shania Twain and Billie Ray Cyrus. Despite the roots revival at the turn of the century, it can only be argued that this trend of Country-Pop is still flourishing and dominating the genre today. If you were to ask the average person to name a modern Country singer, they would probably answer with Taylor Swift - and that's the moment my head would drop in shame. The Country music industry has abandoned the roots of the genre in favour of commercial success - out goes the music of Gillian Welch and Iris DeMent and in comes the Pop trash of Taylor Swift. This defies everything Country music stands for. It was a medium through which many could escape the hardships of their troubled lives. You can picture a young J.R. Cash sitting eagerly by the family radio, listening to the Roy Acuff on the Grand Ole Opry after a hard day's work in the cotton fields. The music had firm foundations which the people could relate to, but now that he genre has been contaminated with the baseless nature of popular music, mainstream Country music has just become another form of commercialism which doesn't give a damn about the people. This is why I have now begun to discover Americana music with its emphasis on roots music. It is through the medium of Americana that real Country music and the roots remains and survives in music today.

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Top 10 Most Influential Men in Country Music - Part Two

5. Waylon Jennings

Waylon Jennings' career could have been over before it had even begun if he had not given up his seat on the plane that killed Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. Richardson on 'The Day the Music Died'. He began at RCA with producer Chet Atkins in Nashville but enjoyed his largest period of success as one of the key players in the 'Outlaw movement' which carried images of the Wild West, Texas, cowboys and independence. This movement was extremely influential in refocusing attention on the performer as musical creators and for creating an establishment for Country music outside of the corporate traditions entrenched in Nashville. Jennings' sound was also important for reintroducing a stripped-down and twangy counterbalance to the music of the classical country style.

4. Merle Haggard

Growing up in Bakersfield, California, Haggard spent most of his childhood as a loose cannon and ended up serving time in San Quentin for trying to rob a bar. It was in San Quentin where Haggard was inspired to become a Country musician after hearing Johnny Cash play for the inmates in 1958. Haggard's music owes much to Buck Owens' Bakersfield Sound with its emphasis on the Fender Telecaster Guitar searing through hard-driving traditional honky-tonk music. Haggard paid tribute to many of the first generation of Country singer like Jimmie Rodgers and Lefty Frizzell throughout his career. Merle Haggard is seen as one of Country Music's biggest stars and has been revered as a legend by almost all subsequent generations of Country singers.

3. George Jones

George Jones, nicknamed The Possum, is regarded as one of the greatest vocalists in the history of Country music. Jones began his career as a rockabilly singer with hits such as 'Why, Baby, Why' and 'White Lightning'. His style and sound changed once he began working with Tammy Wynette whom he married in 1969. The couple recorded many hit duets together including 'Golden Ring' and 'We're Gonna Hold On'. Although Jones' sound often incorporated elements of the Nashville Sound period, his voice possessed such a full range of expressions from tears and cries to quivers and wails that conveyed the raw, direct emotions of the honky-tonk style. His self-destructive, alcohol-drenched lifestyle only added to his appeal and added an autobiographical aura to his honky-tonk reputation.

2. Johnny Cash 

Not to place Johnny Cash at number one is probably quite a controversial decision. I even shocked myself! Johnny Cash was an enigma and an icon - he was Country music's biggest modern star and an artist whose appeal transcended the boundaries of genre. Cash began at Sun Studios in the 1950s as a rockabilly artist with the Tennessee Two and cultivated a raw and completely original sound. The majority of Cash's biggest hits came at the beginning of his career - 'I Walk the Line', 'Folsom Prison Blues' and 'Ring of Fire'. His career faded during the 60s due to his drug addition but his comeback with the live albums at San Quentin and Folsom Prison at the end of the decade re-launched Cash's career and turned him into one of music's biggest names. His ABC TV show The Johnny Cash Show, which ran from 1969 to 1971, was hugely influential in bringing different types of music to mainstream television including his first guests on the show, Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell. It seemed as if Cash's career was coming to an stuttering end in the 1980s but he made another comeback with Rick Rubin's American Recordings in the 90s which saw the Arkansas man return to the minimalist and stark sound of his early career. Cash died in 2003, leaving us one of the longest, most successful and most influential careers in Country music.

1. Hank Williams

Hank Williams died at the age of 29 in 1953. During his short career as a Country singer, he was neither the biggest-selling artist nor the one with the most hits and yet Hank Williams is seen as the pure embodiment of Country music. The Honky-Tonk sound, which reached its creative peak with the music of Hank Williams, is seen as the purest and most traditional form of Country music. The emphasis on the steel guitar, fiddle and raw southern accent of Williams would be emulated in many different guises through the rest of the twentieth century. Much of Hank Williams' life is shrouded in legend and myth - his first performance at the Grand Ole Opry in June 1949 was a stunning success and it has been claimed that he played as many as nine encores that evening. Williams' health plagued him throughout his short life. He suffered from spina bifida which he self-medicated with alcohol and narcotics, making his personal and musical life extremely unstable. In 1952, Hank was fired from the Opry due to his drinking and was divorced from his wife, Audrey, whose wicked ways were the inspiration for many of his heartbreak songs such as 'Cold, Cold Heart' and 'Your Cheatin' Heart'. The death of Hank Williams is the most mythologized event in all of Country music history - his lifeless body was discovered in the back of car on its way to a New Year's Day show in Ohio in 1953. The cause of death was alcohol and drug abuse. Although this was the end of Williams' life, it was the beginning of the legend - due to his death just before the birth of Rock n' Roll, his style appears frozen in time. He began and finished with the same kind of music. Hank Williams' biography itself is a tragic honky-tonk song and thus, he has been used as a symbol of pure authenticity in Country Music.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Top 10 Most Influential Men in Country Music - Part One

10. Buck Owens

Buck Owens, with his band The Buckaroos, was responsible for the cultivation of what became known as the Bakersfield Sound in the 1960s, combining the traditional Honky-Tonk sound with elements of 50's R&B. At the heart of the Owens' sound lay the Fender Telecaster Guitar which was used to play twangy high notes like a steel guitar. One of the other main features of his music was its use of the 'Bakersfield Shuffle' which combined swing rhythms with a walking bass line, giving the music a real 'drive'. Owens' Bakersfield Sound was so influential in Country Music as it directly opposed the slick Country-Pop that was being produced in Nashville at the time and succeeded in its aim of keeping the true Country music tradition alive.

9. George Strait 

George Strait arrived during the first wave of Neotraditionalism in the 1980s and was one of the key pioneers of the movement which resurrected earlier, distinctive styles of Country music and updated them with modern recording studio techniques. George Strait's own brand of Neotraditionalism married Honky-Tonk with the 1930s Western Swing of Bob Wills, heavily emphasising the twang of the fiddle and steel guitar. In terms of commercial success Strait was unsurpassable, amassing forty-four number one Billboard Country hits and achieving eleven number one singles in a row. Strait's success is even more impressive with the knowledge that he was able to gain commercial popularity whilst ensuring his music was centered on the roots of Country music.

8. Bill Monroe

The 'Father of Bluegrass', Bill Monroe, is credited with the creation of an entire musical style. Beginning with his brother as the Monroe Brothers in the 1930s, Bill went on to form his Blue Grass Boys which really took shape in 1945 with the addition of Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. The latter's three-finger banjo-picking style would be the main characteristic of the Bluegrass sound and would give the music its 'drive'. Other than as its creator, Monroe's contribution to Bluegrass music was mainly evident in his role as a bandleader: generations of musicians learned their trade as members of his band which was a training ground for Bluegrass players. Monroe also developed a different style of Mandolin playing which imitated the intricate melodies played on the fiddle, transforming the instrument from a supportive one into a leading one. In short, Bluegrass music owes its entire existence to Monroe!

7. Jimmie Rodgers

Jimmie Rodgers is seen as the 'Father of Country Music' but not in the same way that Bill Monroe created Bluegrass music. From being discovered during the Bristol Sessions in 1927, Jimmie Rodgers went on to become the first big star of Country music - in 1929, Rodgers made a short movie for Columbia Pictures called The Singing Brakeman in which he sang three songs. He was the first artist to adopt the image of the 'tragic troubadour' and his personal life and recordings came to represent the very essence of Country music - his battle with tuberculosis ultimately led to his early death but his influence did not die with him as he inspired the next generation of Country performers such as Ernest Tubb and Gene Autry.

6. Willie Nelson

Despite the fact that Willie Nelson has not always stayed within the boundaries of Country Music, he is still seen as one of the most iconic Country stars of the second half of the 20th century. Nelson began as a songwriter during the Nashville Sound era of the 1960s and wrote hit songs such as 'Hello Walls' which was sung by Faron Young and 'Crazy' for Patsy Cline. Willie Nelson's most notable success came with the beginning of the Outlaw movement which saw a move away from the rigid Nashville production style to independent studios in Texas and ensured the artist more control over their work. His 1975 album, Red Headed Stranger, was a clear product of the movement with its sparse texture reflecting the barren lands of his native Texas - it was a huge success and was named number one on CMT's 40 Greatest Albums in Country Music.

Part Two of the Top 10 Most Influential Men in Country Music will be posted on Wednesday 6th November.