The venerable online music magazine Perfect Sound Forever ran an amazing piece this month called “Steve Earle: Sympathy For An American Terrorist,” which is an excerpt from Dorian Lynskey’s recent book “33 Revolutions Per Minute – A History of Protest Songs,” which has immediately risen to the top of my “have to read this RIGHT NOW” list. The excerpt profiles that dark period after the September 11th attacks which REM had referred to as “the Great Quiet,” when Clear Channel was creating lists of “lyrically questionable songs,” and the idea of being an American and writing any kind of controversial or “protesting” song seemed positively unpatriotic.
I published an essay of my own along these same lines, which is available to read at “No Depression,” the Roots Music webzine.
Reading the Lynskey excerpt reminded me of a time in my musical exploration where I truly took that adage to heart. It’s not our job to be loved, it’s our job to be remembered. Since then I’ve appreciated artists who speak their mind regardless of the potential cost to their fan-bases. I respect musicians who are willing to say something because it needs to be said, not because it’s going to be a popular, money-making proposition.
I am nervous as we near the tenth anniversary of the September 11th attacks. Though it’s a different climate now, where the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have been dragging on for far too long and the American people are tiring of constant bloodshed and endless turmoil, it’s easy to fall back on the memories and take the wrong lessons from them. I’d like to remember that, in a time when people were told it was unpatriotic to have opinions which differed from the status quo, there were people like Steve Earle and James McMurtry who were willing to pick up the slack for all of us.
You can view a video of Steve Earle performing “John Walker’s Blues” below.
It’s been a long time since I’ve been left nearly speechless by a songwriter and his guitar, but this is one of those moments. Joe Pug is the real deal, one of those true lyrical greats in the making. He’s all but certain to be one of those American songwriters who will stake their claim on what it means to be a truly expressive musician. He’s already built a name for himself touring with Steve Earle and others of that ilk, but what’s so mindblowing is how effortless it all seems. He’s crafting pure moments of Americana eloquence, a rare combination of honesty and grit, which few other artists can match. And he’s barely breaking a sweat. Imagine what he’s still yet to create, and the possibilities are endless.
Revel in “Hymn 101,” the best song Townes Van Zandt didn’t write:
Year of the Album — #019
Steve Earle – “I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive” (2011, New West Records)
It’s been four years since we’ve gotten a new album of originals from Steve Earle, and aside from 2002’s Jerusalem, it’s been a long long time since we’ve gotten a raw, relevant album from Earle that didn’t verge on didactic (The Revolution Starts Now) or overly reverent (Townes). But, though I write this only based on a few listens, I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive, named after a Hank Williams song, comes the closest to matching the raw energy of 1988’s Copperhead Road without sounding like Earle is overreaching or retreading old ground.
It’s been more than two decades since he wrote the material for that album, and he’s clearly not the same guy — this album’s much more mellow musically, but the songwriting’s as focused and impressive as anything he’s done since cleaning up in the early 90s. Most important, however, is that he’s no longer trying to compete with James McMurtry for the title of “most political songwriter” — instead, he’s focused on telling the stories of his multi-faceted characters, and what results is an unbelievably timely album, what may be his most honest since his early country work, including Guitar Town.
“Molly-O” is a real stunner, nothing like what we’ve heard from Earle’s last half-dozen albums — it’s an unabashedly straightforward celtic-folk number fueled by the fiddles in the background and by Earle’s scorched vocals. “Someday I’ll sing from the gallow’s pole, one final dance for my Molly-O,” he sings, and it’s going to be an impossible task to get this out of your head once you’ve let it in.
And “Waitin’ On The Sky,” the album’s opener, is a surprisingly deft look back on his teen years, “living in a military town waiting on the sky to fall,” wondering what was going to happen to him and his friends as their draft numbers came up for Vietnam. “Looking back it must have been a miracle now I ever grew up at all,” he sighs, and the honesty comes through as the band concocts a zydeco-fueled stew worthy of repeated sampling.
The album’s deserving of repeated listens, and though first impressions are favorable, I suspect this is one of those albums which will benefit even more from long-term attention. This is, however, easily one of Earle’s best albums, a spectacular return to form from a generation’s most remarkable songwriters. The album is a wonderful surprise in what has already been a very good year for lovers of great music.
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Year of the Album — #006
Easton Corbin – “Easton Corbin” (Mercury Nashville, 2010)
Similar Albums: Eric Church – “Carolina” (Capitol Nashville, 2009)
Jamey Johnson – “That Lonesome Song” (Mercury Nashville, 2008)
Darius Rucker – “Learn to Live” (Capitol Nashville, 2008)
In country music’s mainstream, there are artists who follow the traditional sounds of the genre, those who update those sounds to include modern flavors, and those who pander to the pop element that has taken over radio country ever since Shania Twain “came on over.” It’s interesting, then, that two artists could attempt to create the same kind of album while winding up with two distict efforts so apart on the spectrum it’s hard to fathom.
In this case we have Darius Rucker’s sophomore effort, which lends itself to fans of the pandering sort, and Easton Corbin, who may be the second coming of George Strait while Strait’s not even far removed from the business. Both artists clearly want to be down home country men who play it straight, cut through the bullshit and write songs that honor the American south they grew up in. But where Corbin hits the mark, crafting a meaningful album that actually has depth, originality and respect for country’s forebears, Rucker pulls a Fairweather Johnson, running what worked on his first country album into the ground so forcefully it’s hardly recognizeable.
The 9513 wrote of a potential 2011 revival of traditional country on the radio airwaves, and if they’re right, true country fans have a ton to rejoice about when listening to Easton Corbin, which is the best traditional meets modern country album I’ve heard since Eric Church’s Carolina. “I’m A Little More Country Than That” is one of the most straightforward, honest country top tens I’ve heard in years, and it sounds like the new traditional country I grew up on in the eighties and early nineties, when artists like George Strait, Keith Whitley and Steve Earle were tearing up country radio. Several cuts on this effort even sound like Corbin spent time in the room with Earle while he put together Guitar Town, the best album to come out of that era. Listen to “Leavin’ A Lonely Town” or “This Far From Memphis” and tell me you disagree.
But Rucker just can’t stop making the same mistakes. He ran Hootie and the Blowfish into the ground by refusing to adapt his sound even enough to make the band’s albums distinguishable from each other, and thus his band never had success beyond their initial debut. His 2008 country debut Learn to Live had him easily making the transition from country-fried rock to straightforward radio country pop, but that album worked because he kept the songs simple. Singles like “Don’t Think I Don’t Think About It” and “Alright” worked because they were straightforward enough to stick in your head and down home enough to make you want to identify with him.
But Charleston, SC 1966 fails because it tries to take his first country album and polish it so cleanly no one’s supposed to be able to find fault with it. It’s country music reduced to the lowest common denominator so it’ll guarantee hits. Problem is, he plays his everyman role so fakely it’s ridiculous, particularly on songs like “Might Get Lucky” where he comes off as a fraud. “There’s a window of opportunity between when the kids are tucked in and a half a glass of chardonnay,” he sings. “The key to get a second look and a ‘come here, honey’ is treat her right in the daylight and I might get lucky.” Please! Cut through the bullshit a little, Rucker! And he’s got to get in “I Don’t Care,” featuring Brad Paisley, which is one of those offensively stupid mock-Cheeseburger in Paradise turds that country radio seems to love shoving down our throats. The whole album winds up sounding like it’s pandering to everyone and appealing to no one.
If you’re up for some up-front honest country with roots deep down to the Everglades, give Easton Corbin’s self-titled debut a listen. It’s real country that stands up and shouts that there’s a lot more to the genre of country songwriting than Taylor Swift’s fans will ever understand. Rucker, meanwhile, needs to consider whether he’s happy having a few hits while selling his soul with cliché after cliché. I’ve always felt he had the voice for country music, but if he’s content making the same album over and over (and having it get worse for the wear) we’re in for a repeat of Hootie’s decline.
Don’t say I didn’t warn you!
Reckless Kelly formed more than a decade ago in Bend, Oregon, and since 1997 the band has been rocking Austin, Texas with its blend of country and rock. Led by brothers Willy and Cody Braun, the band has crafted five albums of original songs, two solid live albums, and, in 2010, a studio album paying tribute to their musical hero, relatively unknown Idaho-based country songwriter Pinto Bennett.
They’ve been around the block more than a few times, and they’ve proved consistently that well-written songs coupled with addictive, melodic alternative-country instrumentation and incessant touring is what really builds a band’s reputation. They’ve got big names on their side, from Joe Ely (who joined in on the Pinto Bennett tribute, Somewhere In Time), and they’ll spend most of the month of November touring with Robert Earl Keen and the Randy Rogers Band.
I spoke with lead singer Willy Braun as the band prepared for their October 7th show at Baton Rouge’s Varsity Theater, and he had a lot to say about the trials of songwriting and the ongoing struggle to keep the band’s music, above all, original.
It’s a battle they seem to be winning.
Can you give us some insight into your songwriting process? What makes a song successful in your mind?
I still haven’t written any hits, so I may be the wrong guy to ask. But I just like to write songs that have something to say, while being a little less predictable than the normal tune, I guess. I try to write things that are a little less common, to think outside the box. It gets harder every year coming up with new ideas and different approaches, but I want to write something you don’t hear all the time.
What would you say is your role as a songwriter?
I think it’s all about getting the song written in as few words as possible. You’re telling a story and you have to figure out what to say, and I like to get it done with a couple verses and a chorus and get out of there … but sometimes it takes longer. Just trying to get the most out of a tune, I think, is the tough part of the job description. A lot of times you’ll have a great idea but you’ll end up with a mediocre song, but then sometimes you start with a mediocre idea and end up with a great song. It all depends on how much work you put into it, and the shape that a song takes. It’s strange, because you never know … I’ve worked on songs for years I thought were pretty awesome, and when I finally finish them up they’re just okay. Or they’re terrible. I think just getting the most out of the tune is probably the biggest challenge.
Do you feel working from the fringes of both the country and the rock world makes your music, in the end, better for the trouble?
It’s a lot easier on us, because we don’t have to pander to any one format or the other. Not having a lot of success on radio makes it easier too, because nobody’s expecting us to come out with another hit. They’re more likely to expect us to push the envelope and keep things a little more outside the box, so that makes it easier on us to be able to do what we want to do.
You didn’t write any of the songs on Somewhere In Time, but you did stamp Reckless Kelly all over the arrangements. Was it difficult to rearrange these songs you knew so well and make them accessible to your fans?
Well, it wasn’t really that hard for us because we’d been listening to those songs for so long, and we’d been talking about doing something like this for a long time. So we had a lot of ideas that we’d been working on or just thinking about, and we had Pinto come in while we were recording. So he and a couple of the guys from his band were there working on it with us. We kept them there to make sure they’d tell us if we got too far out of line. I think that might have helped.
Steve Earle honored Townes Van Zandt a decade after his death with Townes. Did you feel it was important to honor Pinto Bennett while he was still around to appreciate it?
Yeah, that was something we’d talked about a little bit. He’s getting up there a bit in age, and we definitely wanted to do it while he was around. I think it was cool for him to be able to check that out and experience it.
Is there a lot of other Idaho-based country music you think people should be hearing but they’re not?
Well, there’s a pretty good music scene up there, and there’s a couple good writers and singers working in the area, but Pinto, he’s the one who we’ve always really looked up to, so that’ll probably be the last one [we make a tribute for.]
You got to work with Joe Ely on this record. Are there any other artists you’d really enjoy the chance to work with?
I still want to do a duet with Emmylou Harris.
Is there a new album of Reckless Kelly originals in the works?
Yeah, I’m actually writing right now and we’re hopefully going to be getting into the studio sometime next year. We’re not sure exactly when, but we like to record in the winter or the spring, and try to get the record out by summer. You can have the record ready in time for summer touring, and that’s always a good thing to have. So that’s the loose plan as it stands right now.
You guys have said you came to Austin expecting to stay a couple years and you’ve yet to leave. Is Austin a more nurturing place for songwriters than the insular world of Nashville?
It’s true that Austin and Nashville are totally separate. Nashville’s more of the industry-driven town, and there are a lot of talented songwriters and musicians working out there. But I feel Austin’s more geared toward live music. People down in Austin seem to be playing the music they’re interested in; not just playing the music they think will make them a bunch of money. There’s nothing wrong with playing songs that make money, but that’s the big thing that sets Austin apart, there’s not so much “industry” here. It’s more about the music.
That hasn’t started changing with the growth of the South by Southwest festival?
Well, they come in for the parties and then leave in the end. They don’t get any business done in Austin; they’re too busy drinking margaritas.
When Sugar Hill put out their “Best of the Sugar Hills Years” collection, your album and James McMurtry’s stuck out as the most sonically adventurous. Yet both of you are now on new labels. Have you been able to better push the sonic envelope now that you’re on Yep Roc?
We have a little more control with Yep Roc, but Sugar Hill was pretty great – we got to make the records we wanted to with them, though we did have an A&R guy when we were with Sugar Hill. So we had to jump through a few more hoops, push a little harder to do the stuff we wanted.
Was this the same A&R guy you sang about on “Break My Heart Tonight”?
Yeah, that’s him. But ultimately we ended up making the records we wanted to with Sugar Hill, but we may have had to fight a little harder. When we went into Yep Roc we were aware of that, and we made it clear up front that we wanted to make our records, we didn’t want to have to send in the songs for approval. If anything, we wanted to deliver a record to them, and since we talked that way going in, they seemed fine with it. So that’s been cool, we’ve been able to produce our own records, and they’ve gone to the trouble of helping deliver a good product.
They didn’t think you were crazy to bring a Pinto Bennett album to them after starting to crack the charts with Bulletproof?
They thought we were crazy for a little while, but once we played them the tunes – we sent them a little “best of” thing to get them hooked on the Pinto stuff – and once they heard the songs they were totally on board.
The Dixie Chicks almost ruined their careers when they spoke out against Bush in Texas. But your song “American Blood” seems to have found a way to reach listeners without offending them, even though the message within is just as scathing. How important was it for you to get that message out to your listeners?
Well, I wrote that song while we were working on the Bulletproof album, and when I wrote that tune and played it for the guys, we knew this was going to turn some heads. People were going to be talking about it. We just wanted to put it on the album because it was such a strong song, and we all had pretty strong opinions about the war at that point – and we still do. We definitely thought about it, and we knew what we were getting into, but I think the difference between us and the Dixie Chicks is that they had this enormous national and worldwide following. So we didn’t have as much to risk as they did.
But I think it’s all about how you handle questions about it and the way you deal with negative feedback. We had a little bit of negative feedback on the tune from people who didn’t quite understand it, or who outright didn’t agree with it, and that’s fine. But we take those individual situations and try to explain to those who disagree that we’re not trying to slap anybody in the face here. It’s worth it, because most people who heard it came back and said they really liked it. In fact, several soldiers who have been over there, or who still are over there, tell us they really think it’s great that we’re saying what we did. That means a lot, and at the end of the day most of the people who heard it understood where we were coming from.
What impressed me about it was that I heard the song several times before it fully clicked, but it’s so rhetorically well constructed. You’ve got Johnny, the American soldier archetype, and then you’ve got George W. Bush, and you keep going back and forth between the two to see where both ended up after all that time. I don’t know a lot of songwriters who could get that across and still have the song sound catchy.
Yeah, it was a tough subject to tackle. Like you said, it’s sensitive and everybody’s got a different opinion on it. It took me quite a while to write that song, actually. I was writing it for several years and went through several different versions of it. And when I finally wrote the one that actually came out, it came together pretty quick. So I think I finally stumbled upon the formula I was looking for. I had to abandon all the other ideas I’d had for so long and just went with it.