Sunday, 6 July 2014

The Reimagining of Bruce Springsteen's Born In the U.S.A.

It has been 30 years since the original release of Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A., the best-selling album in America in 1985 as well as Springsteen’s most successful album. It is now being reimagined in its entirety by a group of country and americana artists including Jason Isbell, Holly Williams and Justin Townes Earle.

Born in the U.S.A. was a departure for Springsteen’s sound in which the use of a more pop-flavoured and heavily synthesised approach enabled the musician to extend his popularity and appeal to mainstream audiences. In his previous release in 1982, Nebraska, Springsteen’s style was extremely sparse with the songs being recorded as demos on a cassette-tape. It is in this dark and acoustic style found on Nebraska that all 12 songs on Born in the U.S.A have been reinvented.

This style is perhaps present in its extremity on the cover of the iconic title-song Born in the U.S.A. by Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires. Speaking about the song with Rolling Stone Country, Isbell stated: "I love that the song paints a picture of struggle in the face of the American dream, and the irony in the chorus is delivered with such force that it nearly transcends irony altogether." His wife, Amanda Shires, added “…so many people have seemingly misunderstood the lyrical content and the song's overall tone. When you listen to the demo, the dark, minor key arrangement makes it clear that this is not strictly a song of celebration. We wanted to stay true to that version.”

It is exactly this darkness which allows their version to flourish and stand proudly against Springsteen’s original. For whilst the original’s success lay in its catchy nature with the continuous synthesised melody over the top of Springsteen’s high, roaring vocals, the success of Isbell and Shires' cover lies in the way they allow the true emotion of the lyrics to be brought to the forefront.

The song begins with a mournful entry from Shires’ fiddle, and along with the slower tempo and minor key, conveys the dark mood from the outset. The clear projection of Isbell’s vocals against a sparse instrumentation allows the listener to ponder on Springsteen’s emotionally charged lyrics and his captivating story: “Born down in a dead man's town / The first kick I took was when I hit the ground / You end up like a dog that's been beat too much / Till you spend half your life trying to cover it up.” The quality of Isbell’s vocals is one of the most powerful features of this cover; he sings with a captivating intensity which produces a cold, almost haunting ambiance and leaves the listener feeling the weight of every single exertion, truly understanding the meaning of Springsteen’s lyrics.

Dead Man's Town will be released on 16th September. If the rest of the album is anywhere near as good as Isbell and Shires' cover, we are in for a real treat!

Full track list of Dead Man’s Town:

1. Born in the U.S.A. - Jason Isbell & Amanda Shires
2. Cover Me - Apache Relay
3. Darlington County - Quaker City Nighthawks
4. Working on the Highway - Blitzen Trapper
5. Downbound Train - Joe Pug
6  I'm on Fire - Low
7. No Surrender - Holly Williams
8. Bobby Jean - Ryan Culwell
9. I’m Goin’ Down - Trampled by Turtles
10. Glory Days - Justin Townes Earle
11. Dancing in the Dark - Nicole Atkins
12. My Hometown - North Mississippi All-Stars

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

The Rise of the Oklahoman Singer-Songwriter

“Okies are a strange breed. My great-great grandma’s family came to Oklahoma before the Dust Bowl and stayed here through it. It takes a certain kind of people to endure that sort of hardship and a lot of us still have that mentality of ‘just put your head down and do your work for the day and go home and thank the Lord for the bread on the table’.” (from an interview with PopMatters)

Perhaps it is exactly this mentality, expressed by singer-songwriter Parker Millsap, which has enabled Oklahoma to produce some of the finest songwriters in Country and Americana music. From the early days of the commercial industry with folk musician Woody Guthrie to the man who penned several hits for Glen Campbell in the 70s, Jimmy Webb, the songwriting talent of the Sooner state seems to be on the rise once again, rivalling that of its next-door neighbour, Texas.

John Moreland

John Moreland produced one of the standout albums of 2013 with ‘In the Throes’; a journey through some of the darkest moments of his life. Hailing from Tulsa, OK, he possesses a sparse acoustic style which serves to highlight his emotionally driven and hard-hitting lyrics. Moreland himself stated that he ‘wants every word to serve a purpose’; this kind of care and attention to his writing is what ensures its quality.

American Television host, Rachel Maddow wrote: “If the American music business made any sense, guys like John Moreland would be household names”. It seems that many have felt this way about Moreland’s talents, not only about his songwriting but also his flawless delivery.

John Fullbright

“I hate vague songwriting – I’ve written vague songs but they don’t mean anything. It’s a cowardly thing to do. If you’re going to take someone’s time, you’d better damn-well say what you mean. And if it’s not understood, you didn’t do it right. So I walk out on stage and I bleed all over the place.” (from an interview with The Independent)

It is clear that the song is of utmost importance for Fullbright. In a recent interview with Rolling Stone Country, Fullbright credits his home state for his success as a songwriter, stating: "It's such a fertile place to try to be a songwriter, there's no judgment and no ego." On his sophomore album entitled ‘Songs’, we find Fullbright in a deeply personal environment in which telling the truth is his fundamental mission. The success of his debut album ‘From the Ground Up’, nominated for Best Americana Album at the Grammy Awards in 2012, may have made his follow up much more of a daunting prospect. But ‘Songs’ is a dramatic change; moving away from the ‘rootsy’ nature of his 2012 release to a piano-driven serenity, allowing for a more reflective, introspective atmosphere.

Parker Millsap

“Well it’s hotter than hell down here in Oklahoma
I guess that I might as well get used to it and quit my moaning
Coz the devil he’s alive and well and he’s found himself a new home
Well he’s burning the wheat and drinking up all the water
Do a rain-dance mamma, lay a lamb at the altar
I guess we’re all gonna drown in the dry if it gets any hotter”
(Land of the Red Man)

At the tender age of 20, Parker Millsap is one of the most exciting up and coming singer-songwriters in the Americana genre and has been nominated for the 2014 Americana Emerging Artist of the year award alongside Sturgill Simpson. His self-titled album is an absolute thriller, possessing a 1950s Rock & Roll attitude and taking a ‘rootsy’ approach which perfectly accompanies his soulful, gravelly vocals. Millsap wrote all ten songs on the album with the first two reflecting his Pentecostal upbringing, focusing on the issues of hope, sin and redemption. His songwriting is also extremely dark as if Millsap is constantly fighting the demons inside him. ‘Quite Contrary’ begins with the line: “Mary, Mary, quite contrary, how’d you get your eyes so scary?” and reimagines the characters of nursery rhymes as if they resided in the harsh climate of his southeastern Oklahoma.

Evan Felker

Evan Felker hails from Wright City and with his band the Turnpike Troubadours, has cultivated a ‘rootsy’ country-rock sound which is extremely distinctive and original. 2012’s ‘Goodbye Normal Street’ enabled the group’s breakthrough to a wider audience with songs exploring themes like war, drawing inspiration from real people.

“Well tell mom not to worry if she's taking it hard
Never thought I'd see action back when I joined the guard
Well all this will be over more later than soon
As I wrote in a letter beneath the big afghan moon” 
(Southeastern Son)

Nashville has always been the central hub of songwriting in country music with the overwhelming influence of ‘Music Row’. In the 1960s, Harlan Howard was one of Nashville’s most prominent songwriters and Willie Nelson wrote many hit songs like ‘Crazy’ for Patsy Cline and ‘Hello Walls’ for Faron Young. In order to gain more artistic freedom and to launch his own recording career, Nelson moved to Texas and his success persuaded Waylon Jennings to do the same. This outlaw movement created an influx of great Texan songwriters with the likes of Ryan Bingham and Hayes Carll following in that tradition today. Texas offered and continues to offer a much needed alternative to the more mainstream ‘popular’ songwriting produced in Nashville.

Contemporary songwriting in Nashville is now, in my opinion, in dire straits. The majority of music being produced is following the trend which is being called ‘Bro-Country’. Songs in this style focus on drinking beer, picking up attractive females in trucks and going down to the beach to have a good time. A prime example is Florida Georgia Line’s ‘This is how we roll’ featuring Luke Bryan. These songs are all identical, possessing no individuality or originality. The unfortunate fact is that ‘Bro-Country’ is now the main export of Nashville’s songwriting firms and musical ‘talent’. This is what most people are now calling Country music! Yet, it lies worlds away from the sincerity and rooted nature of the music of Hank Williams and George Jones.

It seems that Country music has been hijacked! Nevertheless we find in small pockets, mostly in America’s underground scenes, those who are maintaining the roots of traditional country music. Texas has always provided hope and now Oklahoma is also challenging the baseless nature of Nashville’s mainstream production. This, of course, is not the main intention of songwriters like Moreland, Fullbright, Millsap and Felker but their music may serve the extra purpose of setting the pathway and standard for future songwriters. Whilst the mainstream commercial success of these songwriters is unlikely, it is important that we as fans promote the songwriters which produce relevant and meaningful music, and also shine a light on the areas where true talent lies.

Monday, 24 March 2014

Country & Americana Music in 2014

As we approach the end of the third month of 2014, I take a look at some of the best Country and Americana albums released so far this year and look forward to the most anticipated releases of the coming months.

Rosanne Cash - The River & The Thread (Released January 14th)

This year began in some style with Rosanne Cash's first release of new material since 2006. The River & The Thread is steeped in the southern soil as Cash journeys back to her roots. If you're looking for truth and sincerity, this is the record for you. 

Hiss Golden Messenger - Bad Debt (Re-released January 14th)

Originally released in 2010 and now re-released with three additional tracks, Bad Debt is the work of Hiss Golden Messenger's M.C. Taylor. Recorded in the dead of the North Carolina winter on a cassette recorder, Taylor explores issues of faith and freedom in the most raw and natural album you are ever likely to come across. 

Jason Eady - Daylight & Dark (Released January 21st)

Following the release of 2013's AM Country Heaven, Jason Eady has returned with a new depth of emotion in Daylight & Dark. Thoroughly immersed in the true tradition of country music, this album really hits home with its painful honesty.

Hard Working Americans - Hard Working Americans (Released January 21st)

Formed in 2013 by singer-songwriter Todd Snider, this is the first release from Hard Working Americans. Comprised entirely of cover songs, the rootsy and bluesy approach taken makes this perhaps the perfect alt-country album.

Charlie Parr - Hollandale (Released January 21st)

Charlie Parr's most bold and ambitious work to date, Hollandale is an instrumental masterpiece. Through the medium of a resonator guitar, Parr takes us on a journey into the unknown - into a land which will, no doubt, absorb you completely.

Robert Ellis - The Lights From The Chemical Plant (Released February 11th) 

The Lights From The Chemical Plant is not really a country album, nor can it be labelled as Americana but like a lot of great albums, it transcends the confines of genre. As a songwriter, Robert Ellis has set the standard with this album; one which all others will be judged by. 

Don Williams - Reflections (Released March 11th)

Don Williams' Reflections is an album with a message; take a step back and appreciate the simple things in life. With his smooth Baritone voice, which exudes experience, Williams invites the listener to reflect on a life lived and loved. With the fast paced nature of modern life, Reflections is exactly what every single person needs to remember the true value of life. 

Johnny Cash - Out Among The Stars (Released March 25th - today)

A truly lost album! Recorded in 1984 with Countrypolitan producer, Billy Sherrill, Out Among The Stars was Cash's attempt to relaunch his recording career but the album was shelved by Columbia Records who later dropped him in 1986. It was rediscovered amongst the family collection by Cash's son, John Carter Cash, and has now been released for the first time. Although we do not find Cash at the peak of his career or his creative abilities, Out Among The Stars will offer us a great deal in re-interpreting his musical contribution at this stage of his life. 

Nickel Creek - A Dotted Line (To be released April 1st)

Their first album since 2005's Why Should The Fire Die?, A Dotted Line will bring their unique style of progressive bluegrass back to our ears. 

Rodney Crowell - Tarpaper Sky (To be released April 15th) 

Having collaborated with Emmylou Harris on Grammy Award Winning Old Yellow Moon in 2013, Rodney Crowell is back with a new album entitled Tarpaper Sky which marks almost 40 years in the music industry.

Sturgill Simpson - Metamodern Sounds In Country Music (To be released May 13th)

Following his critically acclaimed 2013 album High Top Mountain, Kentuckian Sturgill Simpson returns with Metamodern Sounds In Country Music, an album which he says takes a different direction from the twang-filled nature of High Top Mountain. Having seen Sturgill play live at St. Bonaventure's Parish Social Club in Bristol earlier this year, I have no doubt that no matter what type of album he releases, we will not be disappointed.

Dolly Parton - Blue Smoke (To be released May 13th)

Country music legend Dolly Parton is still going strong and will release her new album, Blue Smoke, on May 13th having already begun her Blue Smoke World Tour. This album includes duets with Willie Nelson and Kenny Rogers as well as a cover of Dylan's 'Don't Think Twice, It's Alright'. 

More albums of interest:

Blue Highway – The Game (Released January 21st)   
Ray Benson – A Little Piece (Released January 21st)  
Amy Ray - Goodnight Tender (Released January 28th)    
Scott H Biram - Nothin' But Blood (Released February 4th) 
Lydia Loveless – Somewhere Else (Released February 18th) 
Red Eye Gravy – Dust Bowl Hangover (Released March 4th)
Drive-by Truckers - English Oceans (Released March 4th)
Chuck Mead – Free State Serenade (Released March 4th)
Chuck Ragan - Till Midnight (To be released March 25th)
Ray LaMontagne – Supernova (To be released May 6th) 

Saturday, 25 January 2014

Cory Chisel @ St. Bonaventure's - Thursday 23rd January

Cory Chisel stands out amongst a very select few in contemporary Country music as a truly authentic and sincere musician and song-writer.

Dressed all in black with skinny jeans, a leather jacket and a matching hat, Cory Chisel looked like a modern Johnny Cash as he was gently picking at his acoustic guitar, waiting to begin his sound check. The manner in which he spoke about the music he plays and his fellow musicians showed that despite his origins in Minnesota and Wisconsin, Chisel spiritually comes from the musical world of the southern American states.

As the frontman of the Wandering Sons, Chisel released ‘Old Believes’ in June 2012 but arrived at St. Bonaventure’s Parish Social Club in Bristol with just his guitar and Wife, and would go on to mesmerise this intimate venue with tales of love and murder.

Chisel was supported by Dan Hamilton; a young musician from Somerset who brought a strong following with him to Bristol. On tracks like ‘Help me make it through’, Hamilton combined a sensitive guitar picking style with emotionally driven lyrics. His versatility as a song-writer was also evident with the more upbeat nature of ‘Chasing the Sunset’ in which he showed off his powerful, high vocals. Hamilton’s song-writing showed signs of real substance and great potential.

Immediately after taking the stage, Chisel began to entertain his audience, jokingly declaring his new role as the official American spokesperson for Bath Ale. His interaction with the audience was superb throughout the performance, creating a relaxed and enjoyable environment for listening to his superb music.

Chisel’s voice possesses a great amount of warmth with a real weightiness that clearly transcends his age. It is extremely soulful; containing incredible emotion which was especially present in his cover of Sam Cooke’s ‘A Change is Gonna Come’. His love for Country music also shone throughout his set, firstly singing a murder ballad and then paying tribute to the Father of Country-Rock, Gram Parsons, with a beautiful rendition of ‘Hickory Wind’. Chisel voiced a belief shared by many traditional Country music fans today; that songs by the likes of Gram Parsons and Townes van Zandt, who were not commercially successful in their lifetimes, are the ones which drove the genre forward and must be exalted and preserved in performances like these.

Chisel’s wife, Adriel Denae, provided her husband’s music with warm and inviting harmonies, reminding me of the stunning duets between Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris in the early 1970s and adding an extra layer of succulence to Chisel’s performance. The song-writer also showed that he is a man of strong morality, following in the footsteps of his heroes Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan with the protest song ‘Times Won’t Change’. Chisel also explained his appreciation for the Native American culture before performing his new song: ‘The Savage Kind’. Growing up next to an Indian reservation, Chisel was fascinated with the spirituality of the tribe. He now has a lifelong passion to learn about different tribes and explained his sadness at the way the Native American culture was pushed out of the Country. It would be no surprise if Chisel’s fascination with the Native Americans is also influenced by Johnny Cash who recorded ‘Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian’ in 1964.

Cory Chisel’s performance was one which will live long in the memory with its incredible substance and emotional power. Music has the ability to move its listener and Chisel certainly knows how to achieve this.