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.