by Julian Spivey
One of the most famous and popular patriotic songs of all-time is “The Ballad of the Green Berets,” which was co-written (along with author Robin Moore) and performed by an actual Green Beret medic Staff Sgt. Barry Sadler. The ballad would become the biggest hit of 1966 topping the Billboard Top 40 chart for five weeks and achieving crossover status on the pop and country charts.
Sadler’s life would certainly prove to be a whirlwind going from national hero to being involved in two mysterious shootings in his short life. Most know about his hit song, but few seem to remember or know about what happened to him after the fame had faded.
Sadler had served in the Vietnam War for five months from late December 1964 until late May 1965. In May of ’65 while on combat patrol in the central Vietnam city of Pleiku he was severely wounded in the knee when he stepped on a punji stick – a booby trap stake. Sadler was able to dress the wound and complete his patrol but developed a serious infection of the leg and had to be evacuated to the Clark Air Force Base Hospital in the Philippines. He would soon be returned to Fort Bragg in the United States where he would make a complete recovery.
By the end of the year he would have written and recorded “The Ballad of the Green Berets.” The song was released in early 1966 by RCA Victor Records and was No. 1 for five consecutive weeks from March 5 through April 2, selling more than nine million copies. The song was included on the album Ballads of the Green Berets, featuring more patriotic military anthems. Sadler would see a second minor hit “The A-Team” before the end of the year.
During his televised performances Sadler would wear his military uniform featuring many of the honors or awards he won for his service, among them being the Purple Heart, Army Good Conduct Medal, Combat Infantryman Badge and Parachutist Badge.
Despite his meteoric rise as a balladeer in 1966 his music career would essentially be over by year’s end. In fact, he would never record another album of material.
In the late ‘70s, after more than a decade outside of the public eye, Sadler had settled down in Nashville and began a literary career with the Casca series of paperback novels based on a fictional mercenary figure named Casca Rufio Longinus, a soldier in the Roman legion who drove the Holy Lance into the side of Jesus Christ and thus has been cursed to wander the Earth as a soldier aimlessly until Christ’s Second Coming. Sadler would write 22 novels in the series before his death, with the first being published in 1979. Sadler’s literary agent Robbie Robison would tell the Los Angeles Times: “The way he describes things, he could make it rain on the page. And he could make it rain blood. No one write slaughter like Sadler.”
The same year he would see literary success he would also undergo legal troubles after a mysterious death of a washed-up country music singer named Lee Emerson.
Emerson had always been a struggling country singer all the way back as far as the 1950s when he recorded for Columbia Records without ever charting any hits. He did, however, write a few hits for other country singers like Marty Robbins’ No. 1 “Ruby Ann” in 1963. His most success would probably be as Robbins’ manager. By all accounts, Emerson was a mean son of a bitch, who didn’t shy away from a fight and had an addiction to pills. In 1968, Emerson shot and wounded a man in Memphis, Tenn. He fled from police to Florida but was eventually caught and sentenced to a three-year stint in prison. After that prison sentence he would wind up back in the Country Music Capital of the World, Nashville.
Emerson would shack up with a girlfriend named Darlene Sharpe and it wouldn’t be long before the relationship turned abusive. Sharpe said in Michael Streissguth’s excellent book Outlaw: Waylon, Willie, Kris and The Renegades of Nashville, “No one realized that Lee was really doing these things to me until he broke into my apartment and told me and my sister that he was going to kill me. I picked up the telephone to call the police and he jerked that cord out of the wall.” Emerson would later bust one of Sharpe’s leg muscles with a piece of firewood and threatened to poke one of her eyes out, leaving her completely blind, as she had previously lost one in a car accident.
Eventually Sharpe and Emerson would part ways, but Emerson would leave some of his lyrics behind in her place. Sharpe’s next boyfriend would be Staff Sgt. Barry Sadler.
One night on the streets of Nashville Emerson would spot Sharpe and Sadler out on the town and went to demand the return of his lyrics. Sadler stepped in to defend Sharpe and the two tussled, with Emerson’s son Rodney claiming that “Dad flattened him. There was that left hand out of nowhere that could do it and he done it.”
Emerson would begin harassing Sadler and Sharpe any chance he could, reportedly running Sharpe off the road and jeering the proud Green Beret Sadler about how “sissy Green Berets” were.
On Dec. 1, 1978 shortly before midnight, Emerson appeared in a parking lot outside of Sharpe’s apartment. There’re some discrepancies as to why he was there. Sadler recounted that Emerson had phoned in threats earlier in the night and showed up to make good on them, whereas Emerson’s son, Rodney, claimed that his father had been lured there. However, the reason for Emerson appearing near Sharpe’s apartment, we know that he would soon be dead at the hand of Sadler. While Emerson sat in his van in the parking lot, Sadler emerged with his .32-caliber pistol and shot him in between the eyes. Sadler, according to Streissguth’s book, then planted a different gun in front of Emerson’s body and phoned the police to claim he just shot a man in self-defense.
Sadler would end up telling a reporter: “I fired to miss him by two feet and I’m a damn good shot. If I’d been trying to kill him, I could have put a bullet in his ear. But I shot to miss, and I’ve never heard of a bullet making a 90-degree turn.”
It didn’t take long for detectives to determine that the gun found in Emerson’s vehicle was registered in Sadler’s name, nor did they find evidence of Emerson firing a weapon. Sadler hired hot-shot Nashville attorney Joe Binkley. The district attorney’s office charged Sadler with second-degree murder, but less than a year later he would plead guilty to voluntary manslaughter and received a four-to-five year prison term. Shockingly, a judge reduced the sentence four months after it was imposed to just 30 days and due to good behavior Sadler only even served 28 of those days. According to Streissguth’s book the files from the case are missing from the criminal court archives today. It seemingly pays to be a famous national hero.
Five years after potentially getting away with second-degree murder Sadler would move to Guatemala City, the capital city of the Central American country. He would continue to write and publish books in the Casca series, but four years after moving to Guatemala would be involved in another mysterious shooting, this time of himself. On Sept. 7, 1988, while sitting in a taxi cab in Guatemala City, Sadler was shot in the head. Witnesses told authorities that Sadler had accidentally shot himself, but friends and family believe that Sadler had either been shot by an attempted assassin or in a robbery gone wrong. In a 1989 article in the Los Angeles Times entitled ‘The Ballad of Barry Sadler’ written by Bob Sipchen a medical authority who asked not to be named said the wound was “inconsistent with the handgun story.” According to Sadler’s friend Duke Faglier in that same article there were no powder burns, which there should have been if Sadler was accidentally shot by himself at close range.
Perhaps it was karma or the ghost of Lee Emerson?
Sadler was flown back to the U.S. on a private jet paid for by Bob Brown, publisher of Soldier of Fortune magazine and underwent life-saving surgery at the Nashville Veterans Administration Hospital. Sadler remained in a coma for six weeks and when he regained consciousness, he was a paraplegic and had suffered serious brain damage. Sadler would die of cardiac arrest just over a year after the shooting on November 5, 1989. He had just turned 49 four days before. He was survived by a wife, a daughter and two sons.
by Julian Spivey
Mark Chesnutt, one of the most underrated voices in country music history, performed what amounted to a greatest hits show at the Arkansas State Fair in Little Rock, Ark. on Saturday, Oct. 20.
Chesnutt began his set with “Goin’ Through the Big D,” a no. 2 hit for him in 1994, and right away you could tell the sound system at the Arkansas State Fair wasn’t at it’s best. The vocal was too low and drowned out quite a bit by the band. This would be something that would affect the performance, especially early on and during more raucous performances.
Chesnutt continued his show with a couple of more hits “Blame It on Texas,” from 1991, and “I Just Wanted You to Know,” one of his nine no. 1 hits from the ‘90s.
Chesnutt rode a wave of neotraditionalist country in the ‘90s becoming one of many big male vocalist stars along with artists like Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson, Clint Black, Travis Tritt, Tracy Lawrence, Joe Diffie and more and in my opinion is one of the truly underrated singers of his era.
Chesnutt pays tribute to a lot of his country music heroes, some of whom like George Jones would become close friends of his. In fact, Chesnutt was given one of George Jones’ guitar straps, which he wore proudly during his show on Saturday evening. Chesnutt played a terrific cover of Jones’ “(I’m a) One Woman Man.” He also performed “Talking to Hank,” which he and Jones did a duet of for Chesnutt’s 1992 sophomore album Longnecks & Short Stories. Chesnutt would also perform nice covers of Charlie Rich’s “Rollin’ with the Flow” and Willie Nelson’s “What a Way to Live.”
The great thing about legacy artists like Chesnutt is you’re going to get pretty much all of their greatest hits during their show and Chesnutt performed all but one of his No. 1 hits on Saturday night. That one he didn’t play was his final No. 1 from 1998, his cover of Aerosmith’s “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing,” which he’s actually rather embarrassed now about cutting.
Some of those other modern classics he performed during his set on Saturday were “Almost Goodbye,” which greatly showed off his fantastic vocals and the slower songs fixed the sound system issue a bit, and “Brother Jukebox.”
Chesnutt has a good number of honky-tonkers in his repertoire, which had the Arkansas State Fair crowd tapping their feet and swinging along like “Old Flames Have New Names,” “It’s a Little Too Late,” “It Sure Is Monday” and “Gonna Get a Life,” with those final three ending his set before he came back for a one-song encore of the ultimate honky-tonker “Bubba Shot the Jukebox,” much to the appreciation of the crowd.
My favorite performances of Chesnutt’s show on Saturday night, however, were the one-two punch of slow tearjerkers “Too Cold at Home,” the first single of his career that became a top five hit in 1990, and 1992’s “I’ll Think of Something,” which went to No. 1. These are two of the most beautifully written (“Too Cold at Home” by Bobby Harden and “I’ll Think of Something” by Bill Rice and Jerry Foster) and performed country heartbreakers of all-time and I really believe both may be among the 100 greatest country songs ever released.
It’s at both kind of disappointing and kind of fitting that it takes going to your local state fair these days to see some classic sounding country music, but Chesnutt brought the goods on Saturday night for sure.
by Julian Spivey
Over the last month The Word’s Facebook page followers have been participating in a ‘Greatest ‘60s Songs’ tournament and recently “Hey Jude” by The Beatles won the tournament as the greatest song of the 1960s in a close matchup against “House of the Rising Sun” by The Animals in a true battle of the British Invasion bands.
“Hey Jude” is one of those perfect sing-along songs that seemingly everybody knows all of the lyrics to and everybody likes to rock out to in the long (after many listens maybe too long) coda with all the “na na na nas.” If you’ve ever been in a packed arena with McCartney singing it and the crowd screaming along, as I’ve had the great experience of doing, it’s truly one of those magical musical moments.
I think most well-informed music lovers even know the story behind the song, at least partially, in that it was written by Paul McCartney for John Lennon’s oldest son, Julian, during a hard time in young Julian’s life when John was separating with his first wife Cynthia after an affair with future wife Yoko Ono.
For a family-friend and bandmate of his father it showed an awful lot of caring on McCartney’s part to compose such a song, that would become The Beatles high-selling single and eventually an all-time classic known worldwide.
One month after John and Cynthia separated, Paul drove to meet Cynthia and Julian with the purpose of delivering them one single rose. McCartney would later tell writer Barry Myles that he found it “a bit much for them [Cynthia and Julian] suddenly to be personae non gratae and out of my life,” after all Cynthia had been a part of The Beatles social circle since before they hit it big. During this car ride to visit Cynthia and Julian, McCartney was thinking about 5-year old Julian and his uncertain future and the struggle of divorce on a young child and began singing the words “Hey Julian” with other lyrics about comforting and reassuring him improvised throughout. It wouldn’t take long for “Hey Julian” to turn into the less syllabic “Hey Jules” and “Hey Jules, don’t make it bad, take a sad song and make it better” – which would become the opening line to “Hey Jude” flowed out. The song title would be changed during the fleshing out of the lyrics because Paul thought it to be a stronger name.
According to Steve Turner’s The Beatles: A Hard Day’s Write, the song – though written for Julian – would be confused by John as being about him and encouraging him to make a break from his family and start a new future with Yoko. McCartney would also end up feeling the song as much about himself and the ending of old bonds within the band as reassuring himself that everything would be OK.
Julian has known for most of his life that “Hey Jude” was written about and for him and admitted that at an early age he had a closer relationship to McCartney than his own father. “We had a great friendship going and there seem to be far more pictures of me and Paul playing together at that age than pictures of me and dad,” Julian said.
He also said how much the song continues to mean to him.
“It surprises me whenever I hear it. It’s very strange to think that someone has written a song about you. It still touches me.” [Turner, 239]
“Hey Jude” was released as a single in August of 1968 and it would become the group’s longest serving No. 1 hit in the United States, topping the charts for nine weeks. In 2013, Billboard called it the “10th biggest song of all-time.” In 2001, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences inducted it into the Grammy Hall of Fame. “Hey Jude” was ranked as the eighth greatest song of all-time by Rolling Stone in its 2004 list of the “500 Greatest Songs of All-Time,” making it the highest ranking Beatles song on that list. Uniquely enough The Word’s Facebook page previously held a greatest Beatles song tournament and “Hey Jude” was not the winner, but rather 1967’s “A Day in the Life,” which lost in the Final Four of the “Greatest ‘60s Songs Tournament” to “House of the Rising Sun” by The Animals.
by Julian Spivey
Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Rodney Crowell brought his fantastic Americana/country sound to the 21st annual Depot Days Festival in downtown Newport, Ark. on Saturday, Sept. 29.
The fantastic country music songwriter who’s one of the leading figures in the Americana genre and community performed quite the surprising rockabilly show at Newport, on the famed Rock ‘N’ Roll Highway 67 in northeastern Arkansas named for the rockabilly shows that took place in the night clubs of the area back in the day combining rock ‘n’ roll, blues and country music.
Crowell began his performance with his 1983 song “Stars on the Water,” which is one of my favorites in his repertoire and one that’s notably been covered by both Jimmy Buffett and George Strait.
The rockabilly flavor of the show was off and running almost right away with “Telephone Road,” the opening track from his critically-acclaimed 2001 release The Houston Kid. That sound would pop back up bigtime toward the end of Crowell’s set, but one of the early highlights was his cover of Waylon Jennings’ “Waymore’s Blues,” an outlaw country classic with a bit of R&B flavor thrown in.
Crowell was able to mix his rocking performance with his sometimes wordy songwriting on “Dancin’ Circles ‘Round the Sun (Epictetus Speaks).” It was very early on in the evening when I realized just how talented of guitarists Crowell had performing with him in two young Aussies Joe Robinson and Jedd Hughes, who just lit the stage ablaze with their fantastic guitar playing.
Crowell, who was at one point Johnny Cash’s son-in-law (when married to Rosanne Cash) and remained a close friend until Johnny’s death, wasn’t going to come to the area (just over an hour west of Cash’s hometown) without covering his dear friend. I’m thrilled that Crowell chose the heartbreaking “I Still Miss Someone” as his choice as it’s one of Cash’s most underrated classics and one of my favorites from the Arkansas legend. It would be one of the few slower songs Crowell would play during the evening.
The cover of “I Still Miss Someone” would lead into one of my favorite sections of Crowell’s Depot Days set with the rocking “Frankie Please” and “She’s Crazy for Leaving,” one of his five straight No. 1 singles off his 1988 album Diamonds & Dirt, which was a record for most No. 1 singles off one country album. Crowell would slow things down once again with “After All This Time,” another one of those five No. 1 hits off his 1988 release. It would be the last slow song of his main set as he, Hughes and Robinson would embark on a rockabilly riot from that point out that really got us toward the front of the crowd grooving.
To start this segment of his show off Crowell broke out “Old Pipeliner,” from his 1981 self-titled album. The song was originally released by Red Sovine in 1967. Crowell’s jam session on the song would last seven minutes. Crowell and band would then rip through a cover of the much covered “Tobacco Road,” originally released in 1960 by John D. Loudermilk. The one-two-three punch with which Crowell would end his set was outrageously good with a cover of the Jerry Lee Lewis classic “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” his own country-rock jam “I Ain’t Living Long Like This” (which was ultimately my favorite performance from his excellent set) and the incredibly surprising and thrilling cover of Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone,” which Rolling Stone magazine called the greatest song of all-time.
Crowell received uproarious applause from the Depot Days crowd and played a one-song encore consisting of “Song for the Life,” from his 1978 debut album Ain’t Living Long Like This. It was almost a shock to the system with Crowell going slow for his encore after such a rocking finish to his show, but it was a truly touching performance that left the crowd awestruck right before packing up to head home.
I’d always wanted to see Crowell in concert, as he’s one of my favorite songwriters, and he certainly did not disappoint in Newport on Saturday night.
by Julian Spivey
Farm Aid 32, the annual benefit for the family farmer, took place this year at the Xfinity Theater in Hartford, Ct. on Saturday, Sept. 22 with performances from numerous performers, including the four members of the board of directors Willie Nelson, Neil Young, John Mellencamp (all who formed the benefit concert in 1985) and Dave Matthews. A five-hour edited down telecast of Farm Aid 32 aired on AXSTV on Saturday evening, which is how I saw Farm Aid this year, and thus my list of the 10 best Farm Aid 32 performances comes from this presentation and may not include terrific performances that I didn’t have the pleasure of seeing.
10. “Cocaine Cowboys” by Margo Price
Margo Price made her second appearance at Farm Aid this year, having previously performed the benefit show two years ago, and showed off to the crowd not only with her great vocal performance on “Cocaine Cowboys,” from her acclaimed 2017 album All-American Made, but also on drums providing a jam band finish to the song. It was pretty dope seeing Price on drums.
9. “Hey Mama” by Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats
Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats also performed their second time at Farm Aid on Saturday, with their first appearance also having come two years ago. The group performed a terrific version of “Hey Mama,” one of the highlights off their 2018 release Tearing at the Seams, with a great vocal performance by Rateliff.
8. “Crumblin’ Down” by John Mellencamp
John Mellencamp, one of the founders of Farm Aid, had what I believe was the best Farm Aid 32 set on Saturday evening. One of the many highlights was his 1983 hit “Crumblin’ Down,” which he told the Farm Aid crowd he had written about the Reagan administration, but “it’s even more about today.”
7. “Powderfinger” & “Ohio” by Neil Young and Promise of the Real
Neil Young and Promise of the Real’s rocking performances of “Powderfinger” and “Ohio” were both so excellent and epic that I couldn’t choose between the two. They were jam-band delights with Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real as an excellent backing band for Young (they’ve been his backing band for much of the last few years).
6. “Ants Marching” by Dave Matthews & Tim Reynolds
I like Dave Matthews, but he also has a lot of music that really hard for me to get into and he plays a lot of that music in concert, but I’ve always found “Ants Marching” to be one of Matthews’s best songs (it’s also one of his oldest coming off his debut album) and it’s particularly great played acoustic with his close friend and collaborator Tim Reynolds.
5. “In Color” by Jamey Johnson
Jamey Johnson has been a mainstay at Farm Aid for quite a few years now with 2018 being his 11th consecutive year performing at the benefit. The AXSTV telecast only showed one performance from his Farm Aid set, but it was the biggest hit of his country career “In Color,” which is one of the 100 greatest country songs of all-time, in my opinion, and absolutely breathtaking seeing him perform alone with just his acoustic guitar on stage. It was simple, but stellar.
4. “You Don’t Miss Your Water” by Sturgill Simpson
Sturgill Simpson has turned himself into quite the jam-band rocker recently, which actually has some of his fanbase perturbed, but it’s something I find intriguing. His frequent cover of William Bell’s “You Don’t Miss Your Water” is always a stellar vocal performance in his repertoire and Saturday’s Farm Aid performance didn’t fail to drop jaws. It was Simpson’s second Farm Aid appearance, with his first coming two years ago.
3. “Texas Flood” by Willie Nelson & Lukas Nelson
I saw this performance initially in person at the Outlaw Music Festival stop in Little Rock, Ark. in late June and was blown away. I was equally blown away on Saturday night when Willie Nelson let his son Lukas take lead vocals on the blues classic “Texas Flood,” which was originally recorded in 1958 by Larry Davis and popularized by Stevie Ray Vaughan. Lukas’s vocals on this song are perfection and it’s fantastic seeing father and son take guitar solos on such a blues classic.
2. “Scarecrow in the Garden” by Chris Stapleton
My favorite track off of Chris Stapleton’s late 2017 release From A Room: Volume 2 was “Scarecrow in the Garden” are song about a farm handed down from generation to generation of a family and the struggle and hurt that farming can lead to. It was a perfect performance for the Farm Aid crowd and Stapleton’s voice as terrific as ever.
1. “Rain on the Scarecrow” by John Mellencamp
John Mellencamp’s “Rain on the Scarecrow,” from his 1985 album Scarecrow, could essentially be the theme song for Farm Aid. The song, which came out the year that Farm Aid began, is about the financial difficulties experience by the hard-working farmers of this country not only putting food on their family’s table, but the tables of families throughout our country. It’s always an epic performance every time Mellencamp breaks it out at the benefit.
by Julian Spivey
Local girl Ashley McBryde came back to her home state of Arkansas to help do some good on Saturday, Sept. 22 headlining the eighth annual Bridge Bash, put on by the Food Bank of North Central Arkansas to help raise money and package meals for local children in need.
The Bridge Bash, which was located in Cotter, Ark. for its first seven years, moved to the campus of Arkansas State University at Mountain Home in Mountain Home, Ark. for its eighth year in hopes of drawing a larger crowd. The benefit was forced to move indoors on campus to The Shied Auditorium due to rainy weather, but it didn’t stop people from packing the venue to see McBryde, who grew up just about an hour’s drive west of Mountain Home in the small town of Mammoth Spring, Ark. It wasn’t just a local show for McBryde, but also for her drummer Quinn Hill, who hails from Mountain Home. Both McBryde and Hill had multiple family members in the audience for their fantastic performance.
McBryde’s debut album Girl Goin’ Nowhere, which dropped in March of this year, has earned her quite the reputation among fans of traditional sounding country music and has gotten her a lot of critical acclaim. Her set on Saturday at Bridge Bash consisted mostly of tracks from the debut album, with some older tunes thrown in from a previous EP.
One of the most emotional performances of the home stop for McBryde was on one of these tracks from her 2016 EP, Jalopies & Expensive Guitars, called “Bible and a .44,” which she had written about her father. Before the performance she told the story of her dad’s treasured guitar and how she was never supposed to touch it, but one day was gifted it by him. You could tell it was all she could handle not to cry by the song’s end.
The performances off Girl Goin’ Nowhere, of which she wrote or co-wrote all 11 tracks, prove why it’s easily one of the best country music albums of the year. There is upbeat stuff like “Radioland” and “The Jacket,” which leave the audience tapping their feet, and then softer tunes like “Home Sweet Highway” that really hit home life on the road.
McBryde seems to have a great sense of humor based on her show on Saturday and this humor comes out in a song like “Fat and Famous,” in which she recalls high school bullies who never amounted to anything while she’s living the life she dreamed about.
Some of the highlights off Girl Goin’ Nowhere included “Livin’ Next to Leroy,” a song about drug addiction which really hits home in small town America where addiction and overdose have become a major issue, and “El Dorado,” another tune about living life on the road as a traveling musician.
The best performance of McBryde’s set was my favorite track off her album, and one of the best country songs period of 2018, the title track, which gained her notoriety when she performed it earlier this year at the Grand Ole Opry and was recently included on country megastar Garth Brooks’ Triple Live album. It’s a track, which she dedicated to an old algebra teacher, about how people tell you you’re not going to amount to much and then setting out and proving them wrong. Another fantastic performance was “A Little Dive Bar in Dahlonega,” the first single off her album which was released last year (and made my website’s top 100 Country and Americana Songs of the year list) and topped out at No. 30 on the Billboard charts. It should’ve been a huge hit, but country radio doesn’t play much actual country music and its sexist trends have it playing few female artists, as well.
This leads me to my absolute favorite image of the Bridge Bash show on Saturday afternoon. There were many young children in the audience and most of them young girls, and unlike many young children out somewhere these kids were glued to the front of the stage and entranced by McBryde’s performance. McBryde is a kickass performer, who does things her way and won’t let anybody stand in her way, and that makes her a terrific role model for these young girls in attendance. McBryde will likely be these girl’s hero now and her presence on that stage Saturday showed them they can do whatever they want in this world and no dream is too big.
McBryde’s encore consisted of a great one-two punch of “Southern Babylon,” unique after-life story song, and “American Scandal,” a love song that’s her second single off Girl Goin’ Nowhere and at one point in country history would’ve been a big hit, but because of the idiocy mentioned earlier is barely getting any airplay at all.
McBryde is certainly one of the best new performers within the country music genre and I couldn’t recommend seeing her more when she comes to your neck of the woods. Saturday’s homecoming was an absolute blast and it seemed she was having just as much fun as we were.
by Julian Spivey
The 17th annual Americana Honors and Awards ceremony brought the year’s best night of live music to the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville on Wednesday, Sept. 12 featuring the year’s best in the catch-all traditional music genre that is Americana.
The night’s biggest winner was Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit, which won three of the four awards the group was up for, including Album of the Year for 2017’s excellent The Nashville Sound, Song of the Year for the beautiful love song “If We Were Vampires” and Duo/Band of the Year with the fantastic 400 Unit getting some much deserved love.
For the second year in a row the Artist of the Year award went to the legendary John Prine, who’s considered by many to be a father figure within the genre. Unlike last year’s honor this one didn’t seem to have much of a lifetime achievement feel to it with Prine releasing his first album of original material in quite some time, but I still felt like Isbell & the 400 Unit would’ve been the rightful winners. Though as I’ve said before there really aren’t any bad winners when it comes to the Americana Awards.
Isbell & the 400 Unit and Prine had two of the best performances of the evening with the 400 Unit shining brightly on “White Man’s World” off The Nashville Sound, one of the few understated political moments in a less political ceremony than last year. Prine’s performance of the stunning “Summer’s End” was wonderful to see. The track off his album The Tree of Forgiveness, which will be eligible for Americana Awards nominations next year, is one of the most beautifully written tracks of the year and Prine’s career, which is really saying something.
The most political moment of the night came during Rosanne Cash’s acceptance of the Lifetime Achievement Award for the Spirit of Americana Free Speech in Music honor, which was to be expected. Cash gave a beautiful speech about some of the issues in this country – the unfair treatment of women, the way technology companies screw musicians out of pay and assault weapons killing seemingly dozens of school children yearly. Cash’s speech was a highlight of the night for me personally, and I believe she should seriously consider a run for office with her beliefs.
Cash then performed “Everyone but Me,” which will appear on an upcoming album to be released later this year.
The evening began with a great tribute performance of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son” by Nathaniel Rateliff, Lukas Nelson and Fantastic Negrito to celebrate the 50th anniversary of CCR’s debut.
Tyler Childers took home the honor for Emerging Artist of the Year hot off his album Purgatory from last year. He performed “Nose on the Grindstone” acoustic and alone shortly before winning the award and it showed what country music can be when stripped down and honest.
Other terrific performances from the evening included “The Joke,” which was nominated for Song of the Year, by Brandi Carlile – who went 0-for-3 in her three categories. It would’ve been really nice to see Carlile take home some hardware, but there are so few categories and so many great nominees. Two of the biggest breathtaking vocals performances of the night were from Emerging Artist of the Year nominees with Anderson East showing off his skills on “King for a Day” and Courtney Marie Andrews with the lovely “May Your Kindness Remain.”
The other nominees for Best Group/Band all had fantastic performances with Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats soulful “Hey Mama,” Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real’s excellent crooning on “Forget About Georgia” and I’m With Her (the super trio of Sarah Jarosz, Sara Watkins and Aoife O’Donovan) performing harmonies on “Overland.”
One of my favorite performances of the night was the lone performance that didn’t seem to have anything whatsoever to do with the awards or honors with Texas troubadour Robert Earl Keen performing my personal favorite song of his “Feelin’ Good Again.”
One of the great things about this night every year is it doesn’t just honor the year’s best in the genre, but also legends. Blues legend Buddy Guy was honored by the Americana Association for Lifetime Achievement for an Instrumentalist and gave a rip-roaring performance of his “Damn Right, I’ve Got the Blues.” New Orleans soul queen Irma Thomas was honored with the Lifetime Achievement for Performance. She performed “Time Is on My Side,” which she released in 1964 one month before The Rolling Stones had a pop hit with it. k.d. lang was honored with the Trailblazer Award for her career in a multitude of genres, including country music while paving the way for other LGBTQ artists. She performed “Trail of Broken Hearts,” from her 1989 album Absolute Torch and Twang.
The great night of Americana music finished its ceremony with a tribute to the recently passed Aretha Franklin with Thomas, Carlile, Andrews, the McCrary Sisters and The War and Treaty taking turns on “Chain of Fools,” Franklin’s hit from 1967.
by Tyler Glover
When we turn on the radio on the way to work, we hear music that is seeking to connect with us. The intention behind the connection could be solely just to make money and “hits.” It seems many music producers nowadays appear to only be interested in finding that hook or beat that will have people’s heads bobbing regardless of the substance of the lyrics. But, there are times when you hear those songs that touch you. These songs tell stories that reflect the human experience. What does it feel like when you have your first kiss? Your first heartbreak? What does it feel like when you love someone that doesn’t love you in return?How does it feel to lose someone?
I was 19 years old when I first heard the music of Taylor Swift. At the time, I was in love with a girl that was never going to love me in return. She was in love with someone else and I never stood a chance. I got in my car one day very upset about the situation and heard Taylor Swift for the first time. The song: “Teardrops on My Guitar.” I immediately started crying because the song comforted me in feeling that I was not alone. There are other people that have been through the same experience and now I could listen to this song and feel sad and let my emotions overtake me while hearing the story of my situation play out in song.
Ever since then, in a lot of ways, I feel that Taylor Swift has written the story of my life while writing the story of hers. She writes her own music and tells the stories of her life and in some ways, gives a voice to my own. Listening to her music takes me back to all the happy and sad times that I have had in my life. Sometimes, when I am having a bad day and feel I am being picked on, I can listen to songs like “Shake It Off” and “Mean” and instantaneously feel better about everything going on. Music makes you laugh and it makes you cry but most importantly, great music will make you feel something. When listening to Taylor’s music, I have smiled, laughed, cried, gotten angry, felt remorseful, felt right and I have felt wrong. The way that I connect with Taylor Swift’s music is not how everyone will connect with it. We all have our own individual experiences that are unique. You may listen to George Strait, Michael Jackson, Tina Turner, Madonna, Janet Jackson, Lady Gaga, or Katy Perry and feel the same way I feel about Taylor. That is what is so great about music. It touches all of us in different ways.
I wanted to start with this discussion because I am going to rank my top 20 Taylor Swift songs. All the songs that round out my top 20 are not there because of a hook or a catchy beat. They are there because of how they made me feel and continue to make me feel.
Here is my list of the top 20 Taylor Swift songs (so far).
20. “Look What You Made Me Do”
A lot of people have criticized this song because they feel we are responsible for our own actions and nobody makes us do anything to which I completely agree. First off, I love that music is an art form that is open to interpretation. When I hear this song and rock out to it in my car, I think about how people can choose to treat you how they are going to, but it is not free from consequences. You may not trust them if they hurt you. You may be able to forgive but not forget. It changes the dynamic of the relationship. You still could even be following the golden rule with this person but if you look at what they did, you must make decisions in your life to where you protect yourself from it happening again. So, look at the decision you led me to make is how I see it.
In this song, Taylor Swift acknowledged that she got out of the public eye because of the constant scrutiny she was under and the constant attacks on her... um, reputation.
Speaking of how Taylor Swift’s music really deals with all kinds of relationships, I feel this song is representative of all the emotions that go on during relationships. Taylor Swift finds the perfect way to describe a relationship with the color red. In relationships, there is love, there is passion, and there are those moments when your partner makes you see red with anger. My favorite line in this song is “Loving him is like driving a new Maserati down a dead end street.” Relationships and life in general can be a rollercoaster and you want to make sure you are with the right person. I love this song because Taylor makes you acknowledge that it is not always a fairytale. There are sometimes, you feel like you are going to crash and burn. It is what we do about it that counts.
18. “White Horse”
In this heartbreaking song, Taylor is at the end of a relationship upset with herself that she did not know better. She thought this relationship was some sort of fairytale, but you just feel so devastated for her when she sings “I’m not a princess/This ain’t a fairytale.” This song came out right after “Love Story” did and it was literally the opposite of what “Love Story” was. It definitely helped to show Taylor’s range and that to her, she did acknowledge that life was not full of happy endings like her other songs suggested she believed.
When relationships end, sometimes, you have that person trying to get back together with you and it is not something you can shrug off and listen to “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” and feel better. Sometimes, it is more painful than that It depends on the relationship you are in. Therefore, Taylor’s music touches me in my life so much. It is because she has music that deals with all the different kinds of emotions that go into the construction and demolition of a romance. Taylor knew better than to allow him to ride in on his white horse and think they could fix it. It was time for him and his white horse to ride along somewhere else.
17. “Last Kiss”
This is such a tragically beautiful song where Taylor talks about how she never thought she would have a last kiss with this man. She never thought it would end. When listening to the song years later, it even feels like it could apply to multiple situations in life such as even the death of a significant other. I was re-listening to this song recently and it made me get misty eyed because I started thinking about how one day, I will have a last kiss with my wife. This will be either because she will pass away or I will pass away but there will be a last kiss. It is heartbreaking but at least, we have that love until the end. In this song, though, Taylor is devastated because she felt she had the real deal but sadly, they said goodbye with one last kiss.
16. “Dear John”
One thing about “Dear John” that amazes me is that this song is six minutes long and I still do not want it to end when it does. Taylor is writing this song to let her former beau know why she stopped picking up his phone calls. She is very candid about how he made her feel and how he hurt her. It is also the most direct mention of who her song is about since the song is rumored to be about John Mayer unless you count that the song “Style” is rumored to be about Harry Styles.
There are two parts to this song I especially love. The first one is when she says she is “wondering which version of you I might get on the phone tonight.” Sometimes, in relationships, you have that person who is one way with you one day and totally different the next. You never know what you are going to get with this person. My second favorite lyric is when she says, “the girl in the dress wrote you a song/You should’ve known.” At this time in her career, she was just starting to become known as the girl who writes about her boyfriends. This lyric was like “Blank Space” in that she was owning that persona the media was giving her.
This enchanting song captures the magic we experience when we first lay eyes on that special someone. Taylor sings about being in a room where she is “forcing laughter” and “faking smiles” when suddenly, it vanishes when she sees him. She sings about how she is enchanted to meet him and how she does not want the moment to end. This song just takes you back to this special moment and how you never wanted it to end. You wanted the moment to last forever because you did not want to let the feeling go. Even eight years later, it is still enchanting to hear “Enchanted.”
Taylor wrote this song in response to a particular journalist who proclaimed that her career was over because of a “horrible” performance at the Grammys. Taylor had performed with Stevie Nicks at the 2010 Grammys and this journalist felt her career could not recover from it. Taylor sings about how they “can take her down with just one single blow” but what they do not now is that someday, she will be “living in a big old city” and all they “are ever going to be is mean.” She lets them know her future is bright. You can learn from your experiences and make yourself better, but if you go through your life as a heartless bully, that is all you will ever be.
When I hear this song, I think about how I have been cut down and made to feel like I was nothing before. I think we have all had those experiences and when listening to this song, it makes me feel better almost instantaneously.
I also think that this song, even though written years ago, can make a statement about our culture right now. People will go on people’s Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or any social media outlet and use it to belittle or put people down. It is something they may not feel comfortable to do in person, but one negative thing about social media is it does give a voice to bullies to feel more empowered. When writing this song, Taylor is not worried about it. This song makes you feel empowered to stand up to those people and make them realize that their opinion does not matter to you. You know what I mean?
13. “Begin Again”
Most of Taylor Swift’s songs chronicle the magic, the love, the heartbreak, the mistakes, and the moments where we decide to pick up the pieces and move on. When writing “Begin Again,” Taylor was coming off a breakup that was so damaging that it was taking months to get over. She sings, “I’ve been spending the last eight months/Thinking all love ever does is break and burn and end.” It is such a heartbreaking song in some ways, but also very hopeful because she meets a guy “on a Wednesday at a café” and watches it “begin again.”
One of the moments of this song I feel we all can relate to is when she mentions that she almost brings up the old boyfriend in conversation with this new guy she is dating but then he mentions something that causes her to forget to mention the former beau. I really connect with this because I have had those relationships where I was so in love that when first dating again, it was almost impossible not to bring them up because they were a part of my life’s journey that I was experiencing the past few months whether the other person was or not. For example, I was still trying to get over them while they were very happily moved on. My time finally came when I found someone that helped me to begin again. I am so grateful God put her into my life and when I hear this song, I think about the moment I met her and how she helped me recover my broken heart, so I could love again…so I could begin again.
12. “Back to December”
This song was drastically different than any other Taylor Swift song when it first came out because for once, she was taking the blame for a relationship ending. She sings, “This is me swallowing my pride/Standing in front of you/Saying ‘I’m sorry’ for that night/And I go back to December all the time/It turns out freedom ain’t nothing but missing you/Wishing I’d realized what I had when you were mine.” It was a very heartbreaking song rumored to be about the end of her relationship with “Valentine’s Day” co-star Taylor Lautner. It is not that Taylor Swift has not claimed to have been part of the reason for the relationship failures in the past; it was just that the songs were meant to deal with her feelings regarding them and in some cases, for the song’s purpose, it was irrelevant who was to blame.
This song really makes the listener feel empathy for her because we all have hurt someone sometimes, inadvertently in a relationship that led to its end and then we immediately realize the mistake we have made. Sometimes, the damage is done though, and all there is left to do is dwell on what was and what might have been until that moment where we can move on.
11. “Sparks Fly”
“Drop everything now. Meet me in the pouring rain/Kiss me on the sidewalk/Take away the pain/’Cause I see sparks fly whenever you smile,” Taylor sings. Taylor is so fantastic at making music feel magical. This is a song that is reminiscent to “Fearless” to me in that, it is talking about spontaneous moments that make a relationship special. It could be a big event like a special date or just a simple look with their eyes. This song is a song I play every Fourth of July when the fireworks are going off because at one point, she uses a firework show as a comparison to their relationship. Fireworks during Independence Day is a celebration of our freedom from British rule and when listening to “Sparks Fly” on this day, Taylor reminds me with this song that we need to celebrate love.
This song Taylor wrote in response to Kanye West interrupting her during the MTV Video Music Awards in 2009. It was not what we expected her to write regarding this situation. You would have thought she would have been very angry because after all, she had won the award for Best Female Music Video for her song, “You Belong with Me,” and the rapper, Kanye West, interrupted her to say that she did not deserve to win because Beyoncé Knowles did for “Single Ladies.” It is not what she expected that night either but instead of coming at him, guns blazing, like she will later do in “Look What You Made Me Do,” she sings that we are not who we are because of one mistake. We are not perfect human beings and the most powerful lyric in this song is where she sings: “Who you are is not what you did.” We all have done things that we feel awful about and when we think back on it, we could make ourselves believe we are horrible people who are undeserving of a second chance, but we cannot dwell on it. Taylor sings, “Today is never too late to be brand new.” We may not always be perfect, but we can always strive to do better in our lives. This song is such a nice, friendly reminder that we can use those times as learning experiences to help us grow into better human beings in the future.
9. “Teardrops on My Guitar”
I do not play the guitar, but I have shed lots of tears while listening to this tear-jerking ballad. Taylor is in love with this boy who is in love with someone else. She has not told him how she feels about him because she wants to be the good girl and allow him to be happy with the girl that he cares so much about, but it is at the expense of her own happiness.
As I mentioned earlier, this is the first song I ever heard of Taylor Swift’s and it came at a time of much heartbreak. I was in love with a girl who didn’t love me. It is very hard to move on when you feel that person is the one. I felt like we “clicked” so well and wanted it to work but she didn’t. It took me about a year to finally accept it and move on. It truly was my first heartbreak and there were moments I wanted to feel terrible and feel the pain I was going through in music and this song provided that outlet. I did not feel alone. Even people as beautiful and famous as Taylor Swift experience this heartbreak. This song was the very first connection that I made with Taylor Swift, with teardrops.
“And I don’t know why but with you, I’d dance in a storm in my best dress/Fearless,” Taylor sings. I absolutely adore this song. Today, in our world, there are a lot of people who are planners. They follow schedules and live by them. I am certainly one of these people, but I love the spontaneity that Taylor sings about in this song. I have gone outside when I have seen it raining and taken my daughter with me while playing this song on my sound system. It is simply a magical feeling. To see my daughter’s beautiful face giggling and laughing while we spin around in the rain is simply magical. This song inspired me to take advantage of moments like these. Finding those moments in life where you do something you typically wouldn’t do. It is so freeing. You are finding simple ways of rebellion to the way that our society seems to function nowadays. I am so thankful for this song, because without it, there may not have been simple moments like this where I was fearless.
This song is very near and dear to my heart. In this beautiful song, Taylor sings about how she goes to work but does not want to because she wants to be spending time with her man. She talks about how it sometimes feels like people disapprove and they try to judge, but they don’t know about the relationship these two people have.
This song holds one of my favorite Taylor Swift lyrics of all time: “Don’t you worry your pretty little mind/People throw rocks at things that shine and life makes love look hard/The stakes are high/The water’s rough/But this love is ours.” When I hear this song, I don’t only think about the bond I have with my wife but the bond I have with my kids. When she is singing about how her time at work is theirs and how she wishes she could be with him, I feel the exact same way about my kids. I always want to be soaking in all the time that I can with them while they are young. When I hear this song, I feel happy that I have the time I have with my kids but sad to know that the time is fleeting. I try to spend as much time with them as possible because one day, their time will be spent mostly away from me, but right now, this time is ours.
6. “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”
“We are never ever, ever getting back together. Like ever,” Taylor sings. In this song, Taylor sings about how she has this boyfriend who cannot seem to take a hint that the relationship is over. He is holding onto hope that they can work things out, but she is done with the relationship and wishes he would be to. It has real funny lyrics. She sings, “I’m really gonna miss you pickin’ fights and me falling for it screaming that I’m right.” The tone of the song is very light-hearted even though it is tackling something as serious as the end of the relationship.
I find this song very funny every time I listen to it because I have always been the one in relationships that has been very hard to let go. I don’t want to believe it is over; I always want to believe that if two people are willing, then the relationship can work. This song points out though that it does take two people because whereas, I was wanting to work it out, the girls I have dated were not wanting to work it out. Like…ever.
5. “Shake It Off”
Taylor Swift has always had to deal with her fair share of critics that just constantly tried to make her feel that something was wrong with her. She was too needy, too obsessive, too self-absorbed, too fake, too pretty, too “nice,” too boy-crazy, and the list goes on and on. This song is such a feel-good song to sing and dance to when you are feeling like you have people like this in your life. There are those days where you feel people just constantly put you down for you just being who you are or for what their perception of who you are is. Taylor sings that we need to shake it off and forget about the haters. We need to dance to the beat of our own drum. This is such a great definition to me for what music is. It makes you feel happy and sends out such a positive message as well. It does make someone feel good to know that even people like Taylor Swift have issues like this in her life. We are not alone, and Taylor makes us realize we are not.
4. “You Belong with Me”
This story that Taylor Swift depicts is something I think we all have dealt with before. She is in love with a boy that is with another girl who doesn’t treat him the best. It is a very upsetting situation most of the time because you know that if you were given the opportunity, you would treat this person so much better than this person who constantly takes him for granted. She talks about the differences in them: “she wears high heels, I wear sneakers, she’s cheer captain and I’m on the bleachers.” She is “dreaming about the day when [he] wakes up and finds that what [he’s] been looking for has been here the whole time.” It is such a sweet song with a sweet fairytale ending where she officially finds out that all this time, he has loved her in return.
When men choose to propose to the one that they want to be with, they always try to find some special way to do it. I have always loved to sing, and I decided to sing this song to my girlfriend at the time. At the end of the song where Taylor sings “Have you ever thought just maybe, you belong with me?/You belong with me,” I changed the lyrics to say “Have you ever thought just maybe, you belong with me?/So will you marry me?” As I started going into the marriage proposal, I pulled the ring out of my pocket and opened it up. I still remember the tears from my wife. She cried for the longest time before finally getting her composure to tell me “yes.” She did belong with me and this beautiful song belongs in my top 20 of Taylor Swift songs.
3. “Love Story”
This song truly depicts the joy of being in love. When you love someone, it doesn’t matter who is against you. You feel you are meant to be together and nothing is going to stand in your way (even if it is dear old daddy). Taylor knows how to make songs into a whimsical fairytale romance. She says that “you’ll be the prince and I’ll be the princess. It’s a love story, baby, just say yes.”
This song is very special to me because when they announced my wife and I as husband and wife, this is the song that the DJ played. Every time I hear this song play, I remember holding my wife’s hand and walking into a room full of people who loved us and was helping us celebrate the love that we had for each other. This song also has resonance for me because I thought her father hated me for years. Something I think most guys can relate to.
2. “All Too Well”
In “All Too Well,” Taylor writes about that feeling when the relationship is over, and you are trying to move on. She remembers a specific day when they went to his sister’s house and she left her scarf that he still has to this day. She remembers those sweet moments that happened there. She remembers him telling her about his past. One thing that resonates so much to me is when she sings “you tell me about your past thinking your future was me.” When I hear that, I think about all the time that we all spend investing into relationships. In the end, you can feel cheated in some way that all that time is gone now. All the conversations with someone to make that connection are all for naught. Sometimes, in relationships, we give so much of ourselves that we wonder what is left when it’s over. Taylor sings: “Time won’t fly/It’s like I’m paralyzed by it/I’d like to be my old self again/But I’m still trying to find it.”
I have certainly been in this same situation. There was a girl that I loved so deeply and felt she was “the one” for me for a long time. When I finally came to the realization that nothing I was going to ever do was going to be good enough for her, I didn’t know what I was going to do. I felt she was the one for me so how could there be anyone else? And yet, for me to experience love, that is how it was going to be, but I would first have to find myself again before I could move on.
1. “Blank Space”
Taylor wrote this song to address the fact that the media was portraying her as a crazy, boy-obsessed stalker. She was dating like a normal young woman in this world. If she wasn’t a celebrity, no one would have thought anything about the fact that she dated several men. After all, it does not mean they were sleeping together. Sometimes, you have to date several toads before you find your prince. The media was having a field day though. They constantly put headlines that portrayed her in a negative light. In this song, rather than ignore those allegations, she decides to portray this character that the media was assigning her. Who is Taylor Swift? She tells us that she is a “nightmare dressed like a daydream.” Knowing the intention of her writing this song just makes that lyric so much sweeter every time you hear it.
When I hear this song, I think about the times in my life where I have felt that I have been misunderstood or been characterized as something I’m not. I have a very feminine voice and do not have the interests of typical men nowadays and those things have led many to think that I am gay when in fact, I am not. It is something that affects me every time I meet someone new. There for a long time, I was more shocked if when meeting people that they originally thought I was straight. This song helps me to feel better about all those times.
One of the great debates in a multitude of topics lately has been “What would the Mount Rushmore of [insert topic here] be?” So, naturally some of us who seem to have formed a little bit of a community of country music purists on Twitter thought it would be fun to choose our Mount Rushmore of Country Music. Now, we could’ve simply chosen our four favorite artists of all-time and had said that’s that, but the term “Mount Rushmore” has come to signify the greatest or most influential in a field so we set out to truly pick who we considered to be the most influential or the greatest artists in the history of country music.
These are our choices:
Julian Spivey – The Word
There are dozens of legendary figures in the history of country music that one could argue belong on a Mount Rushmore of Country Music, but the only one who I believe to be an absolute must is Hank Williams. If your Country Music Mount Rushmore doesn’t include Hank Williams, it’s invalid. Yes, the genre existed before Hank Williams and if you want to put Jimmie Rodgers, Bob Wills or pack the entire Carter Family on your Mount Rushmore that’s fine by me, but Hank must be there too. Williams took the form and melded it with blues thanks to his mentor Rufus Payne, an old black bluesman, and brought a more poetic songwriting to the genre that truly helped it boom into the second half of the 1900s. Hank influenced everybody who came after him (at least up to a certain point maybe 10-20 years ago) and didn’t just have an impact on the future of country music, but also rock & roll where he influenced Elvis Presley and the Rolling Stones among others.
I think the second most influential artist in the great history of country music after Hank Williams is, without a doubt, Johnny Cash. And, I believe that Cash has been the artist to bring more fans into the genre than any other – I know he did so with me. Johnny Cash is just as much Rock & Roll, especially in attitude and swagger, as he was country music and he was able to bridge the gap between the two genres. Especially in the ‘90s when Rick Rubin helped Cash rekindle his career it wouldn’t be unusual to see fans of all ages and styles at a Cash show – you might have Nirvana fans mingling alongside people who’d loved Cash since the Sun Records days of 40 years before. There’s also never been a country star as understanding and accepting of the down-trodden as Cash was, and that means a helluva lot to me.
Known as the “Poet of the Common Man” I’m not sure there’s ever been a greater songwriter in the history of country music than Merle Haggard, especially when it came to the hard times. Haggard knew hard times, having spent actual time in San Quentin Prison (where he saw Johnny Cash perform and drew inspiration), so when he sings songs like “Mama Tried” and “Sing Me Back Home” he’s not just making up fiction. When Haggard sang it, you could believe it and you could feel it and that goes a long way in developing a lasting relationship with a performer. In 2014, when current country music stars in collaboration with CMT selected the 40 most influential performers of all-time it was Haggard who topped the list.
Williams, Cash and Haggard are no-brainers for me when constructing a Country Music Mount Rushmore. But, when it comes to the fourth and final selection I’ll admit that there’s maybe as many as five artists who I could say belong. The choice for me ultimately comes down to Willie Nelson or Waylon Jennings – two artists who collaborated so often throughout their careers and led the Outlaw Movement that completely changed country music in the ‘70s. Ultimately, I went with Nelson because I felt like his impact, especially as he’s the one country music stalwart still out there entertaining people and changing lives with his music today, is likely more important to the growth – both past and future – for the country music genre. Not only has he had a career featuring some of the most well-known and greatest songs in country history – “Always on My Mind,” “On the Road Again,” “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” etc. – but, he also wrote some of the greatest country songs of all-time for other artists like “Crazy” for Patsy Cline and “Hello Walls” for Faron Young. He’s the greatest living artist in country music.
Nathan Kanuch – Shore2Shore Country
The easiest choice on the list. There would be no modern country music without Hank. He took country music to new frontiers and became perhaps the genre’s first ever superstar. Williams also embodied the genre’s traditions and themes in a near perfect way. He traveled down the lost highway from the day he was born, destined to live the words he was singing.
Known as the “Hillbilly Shakespeare,” Hank was an incredible songwriter. He could write and sing the simplest of words yet make them so vivid and poignant. Hank sang about ramblin’, the American South, and painful heartbreak - and he lived it all before meeting his tragic end way too soon.
There’s no arguing that George Jones is the greatest singer in country music’s storied history. But I’d go even farther. George is the greatest singer to ever walk the planet. George’s voice was an instrument in and of itself; it basically mimicked the lonesome, wailing sound of a steel guitar.
Yet Jones wasn’t just a great singer. Everything he sang was believable and authentic. I’ve said many times that two things will always get you through any heartbreak - whiskey and some of the Possum’s songs. No one sang about heartache better. Jones has always been there for me. “The Grand Tour,” “If Drinkin’ Don’t Kill Me,” “Still Doin’ Time,” “The Door,” and, of course, “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” Those are all classic, lonesome songs.
We were blessed that George made it through all his demons. Somehow. He stared down hell many, many times to give us years and years of classic country music.
Outlaw country has begun to be chastised and degraded by those hipster outlets (you all know who). But outlaw country is one of the greatest things to ever happen to the genre. And Waylon Jennings defined and, still does define, outlaw country. He’s my personal favorite country artist of all-time. The artist who I see as revolutionizing country music for the better. Waylon simultaneously returned country music to its roots while firmly leading the genre into the future by fighting for the freedom of the artist.
Waylon’s guitar playing was top-notch. He quit his $1500/a day cocaine cold turkey in the early 1980s. He flew to a Johnny Cash show just to play bass for the Man in Black when he promised Johnny that he would find him a bass player. The list goes on and on. He was ornery to the last, refusing to show up to his induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame. One last chance to get one over on the establishment that fought him for so many years.
There would be no Bakersfield Sound without Buck Owens. Revolutionary. Icon. Legend. No words do Buck justice. His harmonies with Don Rich were magic. His songwriting was simple, relatable and poignant. And not many people know it, but it was Buck who taught Don Rich that twangy guitar sound.
While Nashville was focusing on either lush arrangements or trying to capture a rockabilly sound in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Buck was experimenting with an entirely different sound. It would come to define Buck and later The Hag. It was the Bakersfield Sound. And it would prove an early ancestor to the outlaw movement in terms of a strategy to combat mainstream Nashville.
Megan Bledsoe – Country Exclusive
Though my least favorite of the four I chose, Hank Williams belongs on any Mount Rushmore of Country Music without question. The country genre would not exist without him, and although not the first to sing country music, he was the first to be a country star. Few in country, or in music in general, have made the impact Hank Williams did in such a short time. All of country music rests on his shoulders, and we'll be hard-pressed to find a modern artist to whom people are still listening to 70 years from now the way people still listen to Hank today.
Willie Nelson is a pillar of country music, immortal and unchanging, still touring and churning out music year after year and showing no signs of slowing down. And it's all still quality. From Redheaded Stranger, arguably the greatest country album of all time, to Stardust, which charted for 10 years, right up to his latest album at 85-years old, Willie just keeps drawing from an endless well of wisdom. He has become one of the most recognizable and beloved artists in the genre, and his influence and legacy cannot be overstated.
Merle Haggard was the living, breathing definition of country music. He sang about the real struggles of the American people, and you listened because he lived it. There are more poetic and thoughtful songwriters than Haggard, but perhaps none as relatable and compelling. He embodied the American dream, from being in prison to one of the greatest artists of all-time in any genre. There will never be another who has quite the same spirit or defines country music and culture so well just by their life.
Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard helped define the outlaw movement, a break with commercialism. George Strait did that in his own way, bringing a more traditional sound in the ‘80s but doing it from the inside. He has been one of the greatest ambassadors for country music, never compromising his sound or his principles, staying on one label for nearly 40 years and speaking to generations. Obviously, 60 No. 1's is ridiculous, but that's only part of the reason he's earned his place here - it's more about the fact that he has managed to unite the traditional and modern fans in an era where everything is so polarizing.
Grant Ludmer – Critically Country
Though country radio success doesn't mean what it used to, George Strait managed to notch 60 No. 1 hits across his four decades long career. A model of consistent, traditional country music, George Strait without a doubt is the King of country music.
Loretta Lynn is responsible for some of the greatest classic country music songs of all time including 24 No. 1 songs and 45 million albums sold over a six decade long career. Lynn is the Queen of country music.
Some will try and replicate the outlaw that was Merle Haggard in their music, but none will come close to the authenticity that comes from a life lived this far on the edges. Haggard was a trailblazer in the genre and one of country music's original outlaws.
As with the other three artists on my Mount Rushmore of Country Music, Hank Williams is on this list because of the impact and lasting influence he had on the genre. Despite his career lasting only seven years, he recorded some of country music's most classic songs and gave a blueprint for what country music is at its best.
So, there you have it … our Mount Rushmores of Country Music.
We all agreed that Hank Williams is an absolute must to have on a Mount Rushmore of Country Music, as he was the only unanimous choice between all four of us. Merle Haggard appeared on three of our four Mount Rushmores of Country Music. If we were to have a consensus for the “official” Mount Rushmore of Country Music the last two slots would go to Willie Nelson and George Strait, who both appeared on two of our four lists.
The most surprising aspect of the four of us doing these Mount Rushmore of Country Music lists, for me – Julian Spivey – was the fact that some truly all-timers within this great genre like Johnny Cash, George Jones, Waylon Jennings and Loretta Lynn (the only female performer to appear on any of our Mount Rushmores of Country Music) only appeared on one list each. I guess, that just goes to show you exactly how many legendary figures there have been throughout the history of this great genre of music.
Let us know in the comments who would make your Mount Rushmore of Country Music!!
by Julian Spivey
Americana singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile graced the stage of The Caverns on PBS’s “Bluegrass Underground,” which originally aired on PBS on Friday, August 3, for a special one-hour episode featuring her brilliant work, most of which appears on her latest release By The Way, I Forgive You.
Carlile’s By The Way, I Forgive You, her sixth studio album, was released in February to critical raves and has remained one of the best albums of the year and has earned her multiple nominations for the Americana Awards & Honors, which will occur next month during AmericanaFest in Nashville.
“Bluegrass Underground” debuted in 2011 and features roots music from the Americana, folk, country and bluegrass genres in The Volcano Room, 333-feet below ground in the Tennessee Cumberland Caverns, making for one of the most interesting and beautiful music venues in the United States.
Carlile said: “[It’s] one of the coolest gigs we’ve ever played – it’s kind of like Red Rock if you could go in the rocks,” referencing the famous Red Rocks Amphitheater in Colorado.
She opened her set, which consisted of 10 songs on the episode, with the opening track from her latest release “Every Time I Hear That Song,” which has one of the best melodies and choruses you’re going to hear from any song in any genre this year. It would be one of six songs from the album performed on the show.
My favorite performances of the show – and two of my favorite songs of 2018 period – were “The Mother,” which is a beautiful tribute to Carlile’s first daughter Evangeline, and “The Joke,” a terrific anti-bullying sentiment which NPR called: “a country-rock aria dedicated to the delicate boys and striving girls born into this divisive time.”
Among the older stuff in Carlile’s repertoire performed during the show were “Raise Hell” from her 2012 release Bear Creek and “The Eye,” from her Grammy-nominated 2015 release The Firewatcher’s Daughter. One of the true highlights of her performance was a cover of Elton John’s 1971 song “Madman Across the Water.” John was a major influence on Carlile and she taught herself to play piano as a kid after being introduced to his music.
Other performances during the fantastic broadcast from By The Way, I Forgive You included “Whatever You Do,” “Party of One” and the upbeat “Hold Out Your Hand,” which served as a rip-roaring finale to the program and got the audience thoroughly energized.
The one-hour special, “Bluegrass Underground” episodes are typically 30 minutes in length, was a precursor to the show’s eighth season, which will premiere in the fall and include performances from Turnpike Troubadours, Mary Gauthier, Kathy Mattea, Aaron Lee Tasjan, Flatt Lonesome and more.