by Julian Spivey
The second stop on Miranda Lambert’s Highway Vagabonds Tour made its way to the JQH Arena in Springfield, Mo. on Friday, Jan. 27 with the country songstress providing a set that showed off some of her newest work with many greatest hits thrown in.
Lambert’s set which was about 20 songs and lasted around 90 minutes managed to keep the audience rocking throughout with kickass songs like “Kerosene,” which she triumphantly opened with, “Mama’s Broken Heart” and ending her set with “Gunpowder and Lead.”
It was what was in between these empowering tough girl anthems that seemed to show off where Lambert is at in her career now – releasing her first album The Weight of These Wings, a double album effort, since her high-profile divorce to fellow country music star Blake Shelton in 2015.
Lambert seems to be in a bit of an introspective mood since her divorce with songs off the new album like “Vice” and a bunch of other fantastic songs she unfortunately didn’t have room for in her set on Friday night. But, and maybe me and some of her fans are reading too much into this, it’s some of her older hits like “Over You” and “The House That Built Me” that really seem to have a second life for her now. You can sort of see it in the way she almost tears up when performing them.
An interesting moment during the show came before and after the performance of one of her new tracks “For the Birds,” a sort of list-y song about stuff she is and isn’t for, when she said prior to the performance that there’s probably nothing we all agree upon, except for we’re all going to like being with each other tonight – which wasn’t completely true, because I hated being in the same building with opening act Old Dominion, but I digress. After the performance, she emphatically said “Tweet this bitch!,” leaving some in the audience to wonder if it was about new President Donald Trump or ex-husband Blake Shelton (both egotistical Twitter addicts). Maybe neither?
Among the newer stuff Lambert performed was “We Should Be Friends,” her recently released second single from The Weight of These Wings, “Highway Vagabonds” and “Keeper of the Flame.” I really wish she could’ve found space for “Ugly Lights” and a few slower numbers from the album in her set. As someone who’s seen Lambert a few times previously I honestly wish she would’ve dedicated her tour to playing the entirety of the new album, but I understand many of her fans want to hear the hits and she has plenty of those.
My favorite performance of the night was “The House That Built Me,” my personal favorite Lambert song, which always seems to be my favorite of hers in concert for that very reason. Among her other performances that I really enjoyed were “White Liar,” “Heart Like Mine” and “All Kinds of Kinds.”
Some of the stuff I really could’ve done without from her were “Little Red Wagon” and “Pink Sunglasses,” likely her worst song to date, but the crowd seemed to greatly enjoy both performances, so I guess I’m in the minority there.
After finishing up her set with the raucous “Gunpowder and Lead,” Lambert returned to the stage sans her band with just her guitar to perform the incredibly emotional “Tin Man,” from the new album, which absolutely blew the packed JQH Arena crowd away and ended the emotional, and inspirational, concert on a high note.
While Lambert’s set was terrific, the same couldn’t be said for openers Old Dominion or Aubrie Sellers. Old Dominion truly doesn’t belong on tour with someone of Lambert’s talent level. It seems the two being on the same record label is really the only reasoning for this. However, I will say the majority female crowd in attendance didn’t seem to mind the group.
Sellers, the daughter of country living legend Lee Ann Womack, is incredibly talented and I highly recommend her debut album New City Blues. The only problem is I couldn’t hear a word of her almost 30-minute set over the pounding music, which really ruined the anticipation I had of hearing her. I will say I’m not sure if this was the tour’s fault or the arena’s, because I watched Sellers from the upper deck of the arena before moving down below for the other sets, which sounded much clearer. If it’s an issue with the arena, they need to stop selling tickets for the upper bowl, because they’re honestly screwing the patrons.
by Julian Spivey
The great thing about PBS’ “Austin City Limits” is it allows for terrific artists not in the mainstream to be featured and show off their fantastic music. A great example of this was the most recent episode that aired on Saturday, Jan. 21 featuring country music singer-songwriters Margo Price and Hayes Carll.
Price took the country/Americana world by storm last year with her debut album Midwestern Farmer’s Daughter, which received much acclaim and wound up on numerous best albums of 2016 lists. Price made her ‘ACL’ debut with a fantastic set featuring some of the highlights from her freshman release.
Price’s songwriting is incredibly honest and talks about stuff like her time in prison, miscarriage and substance abuse, particularly in the tragic, but also hopeful “Hands of Time,” which was nominated for Song of the Year at last year’s Americana Music Honors & Awards. Price was named Emerging Artist of the Year at those same awards.
Price’s set also included great performances of “About to Find Out” and “Desperate & Depressed,” which unfortunately doesn’t appear on her debut album, but hopefully will find a spot on her future sophomore release.
The throwback songstress, who reminds many of legends like Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton, finished her set with a rip-roaring performance of “Hurtin’ (On the Bottle),” which made this website’s list of the 20 best country/Americana songs of 2016, which culminated with Price entering the ‘ACL’ audience for the finish.
The second half of the ‘ACL’ episode featured acclaimed Texas singer-songwriter Hayes Carll, who featured many great performances of tracks from his terrific 2016 release Lovers and Leavers, his first album in nearly five years.
The album was more subdued than Carll’s previous works, but this really allowed him to show off how great of a songwriter he is, in the vein of someone like Townes Van Zandt.
Carll’s six song set featured four tracks from his most recent album including “Sake of the Song,” “Love is So Easy” and the highlight of the episode “The Love That We Need.”
Carll also featured “The Magic Kid,” about his son Eli and his love of magic tricks. Prior to the song Carll shared a lovely story about his son’s hobby and how he was the youngest member of the Austin Society of Magicians.
Carll ended his set with a couple of older tunes from way back in 2005 off his album Little Rock. The first being “Long Way Home,” which husband and wife duo Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis beautifully covered on their 2013 album Cheater’s Game. Carll then finished his set with “Wish I Hadn’t Stayed So Long.”
by Julian Spivey
In December when Sturgill Simpson’s third studio album A Sailor’s Guide to Earth was nominated for Album of the Year at the GRAMMY Awards alongside releases by Beyonce, Adele, Drake and Justin Bieber it led to many people questioning who Simpson even was. Simpson immediately got a kick out of this telling The New York Times: “I was so certain that when the tour wrapped up, we were done. But it might be a good idea to go play some shows again, I don’t know, given how many millions of people are saying, ‘Who the fuck is Sturgill Simpson?’ as of this morning.” Simpson’s website immediately started selling shirts with the phrase on them.
Well, after Simpson’s performances on “Saturday Night Live” on Jan. 14 a lot more people thankfully know who the fuck Sturgill Simpson is.
As someone who’s been on the Simpson bandwagon since his debut album High Top Mountain was released in 2013 I’m thrilled that people are now finding out how kickass of a musician and songwriter he is – if only they would have listened to me all these years – but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to being absolutely mesmerized and floored by his ‘SNL’ appearance, even having seen him twice in person.
I was pleasantly flabbergasted in December when I found out Simpson would be performing on ‘SNL,’ but the boost in popularity should’ve been expected after his surprise Album of the Year GRAMMY nomination. Even though I expected the usual brilliance out of Simpson I didn’t expect the fire and ferocity of “Keep It Between the Lines” and especially “Call to Arms,” which some viewers were instantly hailing as the greatest performance in ‘SNL’ history directly after Simpson triumphantly slammed his guitar to the Studio 8H stage.
Simpson’s decision to drop the final verse of “Call to Arms,” which would’ve needed to have been censored for live television due to the frequent use of the word “bullshit” anyway, and just jam with his kickass band – culminating in organist Bobby Emmett’s organ being thrown on its side (after Emmett previously performed on top of it) and Simpson slamming his electric guitar on the stage before showing off a maniacally determined look showing that he’d accomplished what he came for was the perfect decision.
The performance was also a gigantic boost to Simpson’s sales. A Sailor’s Guide to Earth shot straight to the top of the iTunes country album chart after the performance and remained there through Tuesday (Jan. 17). All three of his albums – High Top Mountain (2013) and Metamodern Sounds in Country Music (2014) would shoot to the top four on Amazon’s country albums sales.
There’s no doubt Simpson’s killer ‘SNL’ performance was the biggest boost to his career thus far. Hopefully we’ll see another one at the GRAMMYs next month, but Simpson’s wife is due with their second child that week and it might keep him from performing at the award ceremony.
If you haven’t seen the ‘SNL’ performances yet you’re truly missing out on some of the greatest musical moments frankly ever televised.
by Julian Spivey
On Friday, Jan. 13 it was announced that country music singer Toby Keith and rock band 3 Doors Down would be performing at the inauguration for President-elect Donald Trump.
I honestly don’t care about 3 Doors Down, who Esquire harshly, but probably rightfully declared as worse than Nickelback.
Keith who has a good body of work that I like – though hasn’t released much worthwhile in more than a decade – performing at Trump’s inauguration shouldn’t surprise anyone. Keith has been outspoken politically in the past on conservative topics, like his defense of the War in Iraq during President George W. Bush’s administration. Keith performing at Trump’s inauguration frankly fits his brand. It will excite most of his fan-base and most of those irritated by his performance at the event would never listen to or buy his music anyway. It also is a way to get Keith back into the spotlight – something he hasn’t been in for many years. Country radio stations, even, don’t play much of his newer stuff anymore and he hasn’t had a top 20 single since President Barack Obama’s first term, despite releasing three albums during that span. Playing at Trump’s inauguration essentially can only help Toby Keith.
One of my issues with Keith’s performance at the inauguration is I know with 100 percent certainty that it’s not something his heroes and idols Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson ever would’ve done. And, even though one can have differing political opinions than one’s heroes it somewhat irks me that a man who loves these legends and their music doesn’t necessarily see eye-to-eye with them in such important topics that for many are more issues of morality than politics.
Haggard died more than half a year before Trump was elected, but during the campaign when Trump was gaining traction, but still viewed as a longshot seemed concerned that Trump wasn’t qualified for the highest position in our land. Haggard told Rolling Stone two months before his death: “He’s not a politician. I don’t think he understands the way things work in Washington, that’s what worries me about him. I don’t think he realizes he can’t just tell somebody to do something and have it done, you know. I think he’s dealing from a strange deck.”
Had Haggard survived through the election there’s no doubt he would’ve had more to say about Trump as President.
Nelson, who supported Democrats Bernie Sanders and then Hillary Clinton during the election, has a song at least partially inspired by Trump on his upcoming album God’s Problem Child. The song titled “Delete and Fast-Forward” includes the lyrics: “Delete and fast-forward, my friend/The elections are over and nobody wins/But don’t worry too much, you’ll go crazy again/delete and fast-forward my friend.” The lyrics were mentioned by Nelson in a recent Rolling Stone article and when the magazine asked if the lyrics suggested fast-forwarding only four years Nelson simply said, “yeah.”
Part of what makes America such a great place is we don’t all have to agree on or believe in the same things, but Trump is supposed to be the President for everybody in this country and seems to only want to be the leader of a certain faction. Haggard and Nelson would never support that. Keith seemingly is OK with lending his support to it, even if he just views it as supporting his country and military. “I don’t apologize for performing for our country or military,” he told Entertainment Weekly on Friday, Jan. 13.
by Julian Spivey
Social media trends almost never entertain or interest me, always seeming like a lame waste of time – like the Mannequin Challenge that was so popular during the Fall. But, anytime a social media trend includes music it instantly piques my interest.
On Friday, I started seeing a bunch of posts on Twitter and Facebook about people’s favorite albums during high school or sometimes it was titled “albums that shaped my teens.” In my early years, I listened to a lot of oldies and modern Top 40 in my pre-teens. Once I got older the modern pop stuff seemed too saccharin for me, and that’s something that has never changed. I turned my ears toward the modern country music of the early aughts. So, all the new music I was listening to (and most of what I listened to during this time was older country and rock music) was from the country music genre. I don’t think I had bad tastes in high school – these albums on my list are still ones I love to this day – but I do believe my tastes get infinitely better with each passing year. Anyway, here’s my 10 favorite albums from my high school years – the fall of 2002 through the spring of 2006.
10. “For the Last Time: Live from the Astrodome” by George Strait (2003)
George Strait might be the artist I listened to the most during my high school years. The very first Strait album I bought was his first live album – For the Last Time: Live from the Astrodome – which was recorded as the final concert and event that ever took place in Houston’s famed Astrodome venue. The album contained a lot of Strait’s greatest hits from “Amarillo by Morning” and “The Chair” to “Check Yes or No” and “She’ll Leave You with a Smile.” It’s one of my favorite live albums ever.
9. “Live” by Alison Krauss & Union Station (2002)
Speaking of favorite live albums, the one released by Alison Krauss & Union Station in the fall of 2002 simply titled Live is an all-time classic. The angelic voice of Krauss mixed with the perfect instrumentation of Union Station on tunes like “When You Say Nothing at All,” “The Lucky One” and “Let Me Touch You for a While” has always been incredibly soothing to my ear. As a bonus this compilation also includes Dan Tyminski and Union Station’s version of “Man of Constant Sorrow.”
8. “Mud on the Tires” by Brad Paisley (2003)
Brad Paisley’s 2003 album Mud on the Tires is his best album, in my opinion, featuring some of the best songs of his career like the title track, “Little Moments” and his absolute best track “Whiskey Lullaby,” the devastating ballad with Alison Krauss that would win Song of the Year at the 2005 CMA Awards.
7. “Savin’ the Honky Tonk” by Mark Chesnutt (2004)
Even in 2004 Mark Chesnutt could see the writing on the wall as far as country music remaining real country music went – though I don’t think any of us then imagined just how far the genre could and would fall. Savin’ the Honky Tonk was about remaining true to the honky tonk traditional sound that much of the genre was built upon and songs like “The Lord Loves a Drinking Man” and the cover of Billy Joe Shaver’s “Honky Tonk Heroes” really – even at the age of 17 – made me country music to remain traditional.
6. “Somewhere Down in Texas” by George Strait (2005)
Despite being in the country music business for more than 20 years at the time, no one was releasing better country music albums during my high school years than the “King” George Strait. His 2005 release Somewhere Down in Texas showed just why Strait was the best with old school Western swing in “High Tone Woman,” a great story song in “The Seashores of Old Mexico,” inspirational gospel in “You’ll Be There” and all around smoothness on stuff like “Ready for the End of the World” and the title track.
5. “What I Do” by Alan Jackson (2004)
Alan Jackson, like George Strait, pretty much owned country music in the early aughts and his 2004 release What I Do was one of his very best and showed off his terrifically smooth country vocal brilliantly on tracks like the tear-jerking “Monday Morning Church” and the infectious “Too Much of a Good Thing.”
4. “Put the ‘O’ Back in Country” by Shooter Jennings (2005)
Shooter Jennings was the son of country music royalty Waylon Jennings, so he no doubt had gigantic shoes to fill. On his debut album, the slyly titled Put the ‘O’ Back in Country he more than proved he was up to the task. Jennings has released stellar work in the dozen years since, but I still believe his debut is his best work featuring some raucous stuff like “4th of July” and “Busted in Baylor County” with some deep and soulful country in “Lonesome Blues,” his best performance in my opinion.
3. “Honkytonkville” by George Strait (2003)
George Strait’s 2003 single “Tell Me Something Bad About Tulsa” only topped out on the country music charts at No. 11, making it one of his weakest charting singles, but it instantly stuck out to me as what country music should be about. So, Honkytonkville became the first studio album of Strait’s that I ever purchased and to this day it might still be my favorite. It’s not heavy on greatest hits, but it’s smooth as hell with tracks like “Desperately,” “Look Who’s Back from Town” and the terrific title track.
2. “Chicago Wind” by Merle Haggard (2005)
When I fell in love with country music in the early aughts it was largely because of two artists: Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard and they have the top two spots on my list. I was listening to a ton of Cash and Haggard back then and it was mostly compilations of their greatest hits, but both artists released some of their best career work on new albums in those years. Merle Haggard’s Chicago Wind showed me what a songwriter speaking his mind meant, especially when what was on his mind might go against the masses of his genre. He did this with songs like “America First” and “Where’s All the Freedom” with took a somewhat negative view of the Bush administration and its unfortunate focus on the Iraq War.
1. “American IV: The Man Comes Around” by Johnny Cash (2002)
American IV: The Man Comes Around would be the final album released during Johnny Cash’s lifetime, as he would die less than a year after the album was released. And, when you heard Cash’s version of the Nine Inch Nails song “Hurt” and particularly watched the video of it you had the feeling you were hearing and seeing him tell you goodbye. I loved that song and the album as a whole featuring apocalyptic visions “The Man Comes Around,” hardcore rebelliousness “Sam Hall” and much contemplation “I Hung My Head,” “In My Life” and “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” It was the perfect sendoff for a larger than life legend.
by Julian Spivey
10. Randy Rogers & Wade Bowen
A couple of years ago, Red Dirt Country superstars Randy Rogers and Wade Bowen released the duets album Hold My Beer, Vol. 1, which was one of the country music highlights of the year. It appears ‘Vol. 2’ of that pairing will be released sometime in 2017 and look for more quality like “Standards,” their finest track on ‘Vol. 1.’
9. Alison Krauss
Alison Krauss’ Windy City, to be released Feb. 17, is her first solo album in almost two decades – with her usually recording with Union Station. The all-time Grammy leader for performers has one of the greatest voices in the history of any music genre and would likely be higher on this list if Windy City was an album full of new originals, rather than covers like the terrific Cindy Walker-penned “You Don’t Know Me.”
8. Rhiannon Giddens
Rhiannon Giddens truly has the voice of an angel and her debut solo album Tomorrow Is My Turn from 2015 was one of the most critically-acclaimed albums of that year. Her sophomore solo effort Freedom Highway will be released Feb. 24. Giddens album is an effort to bring the kind of music essential to the Civil Rights Movement in the ‘60s and make it relevant to today’s Civil Rights struggles.
7. Angaleena Presley
Angaleena Presley’s debut solo album American Middle Class, from 2014, was one of that year’s most surprising and best country music albums. Presley is able to remind listeners of the legendary Loretta Lynn with her pull no punches style that combines real-life issues with an honesty and aggression rarely seen from performers. Her sophomore solo album will be released sometime this year.
6. John Moreland
Oklahoman Americana singer-songwriter John Moreland has proven himself to be one of the best songwriters in his genre over his first few studio album, especially 2015’s High on Tulsa Heat. There isn’t much known about Moreland’s 2017 release, but this could truly be the year he breaks out.
5. Ray Wylie Hubbard
Ray Wylie Hubbard has been one of Texas country music’s finest songwriters for 40 years and continues to be a true American badass. Hubbard’s last release The Ruffian’s Misfortune (he always has fantastic album titles) was a highlight from 2015 and the 70-year-old doesn’t appear to be slowing down anytime soon with another release reportedly on the way sometime this year.
4. Sunny Sweeney
Sunny Sweeney should be as popular as Miranda Lambert or Kacey Musgraves, in my opinion. The Texas singer-songwriter writes from the heart with a similar personality to those two award-winners. Her last album Provoked, from 2014, was one of that year’s best and her fourth studio album Trophy will hit shelves on March 10.
3. The Mavericks
The Mavericks are one of the best sounding bands in country or Americana music with a unique Spanish flavored tinge to their sound and the outstanding voice of front-man Raul Malo. The Mavericks’ 10-track ninth studio album Brand New Day will be released on March 31. The title track was premiered this week and features a nice throwback soulful sound that fits Malo’s voice like a glove.
2. Bruce Springsteen
Bruce Springsteen has had a solo effort ready to go for well-over a year, but it was pushed back due to the E Street Band’s revival of The River, and the subsequent tour of it throughout 2016. The solo album is likely to finally come out sometime this year and per a Springsteen interview with Vanity Fair in September the album was inspired by smooth-sounding ‘60s collaborations like the pairings of Glen Campbell and Jimmy Webb and might have a poppy-string sound to it.
1. Jason Isbell
Jason Isbell tweeted shortly after New Year’s that he had a batch of great songs written and was getting ready to go into the studio with his band the 400 Unit to record a new album. This is terrific news for any fan of Americana music, which Isbell is considered the best songwriter of at the moment. Isbell recording an album early this year means it’ll likely be ready for release sometime toward the latter part of 2017. I felt like his last two albums Southeastern (2013) and Something More Than Free (2015) were the best albums of those years, so needless to say, I’m excited for another one.