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.
by Julian Spivey
There’s a frequent country music argument I seem to keep having every few months or so, but have never gotten around to writing about and that topic is controversial comedian Ben Hoffman and his country music alter ego Wheeler Walker Jr.
I don’t like the guy. It seems I’m in the minority. And, frankly that’s part of what’s so upsetting about Wheeler Walker Jr. to me. It’s not so upsetting that I’m in the minority when it comes to a musical opinion – there’s nothing new about that. Just ask all the Journey and AC/DC fans I’ve annoyed over the years with my dislike of those bands, but Wheeler Walker Jr. seems beloved by my preferred music community and I just don’t understand it.
When Wheeler Walker Jr. (and I will continue to refer to him by all three names because it’s a character) burst onto the scene in 2016 with the Dave Cobb produced Redneck Shit I was intrigued because so many writers I follow were praising his music. Even though I wasn’t too keen on song titles like “Fuck You Bitch” and “Which One O’ You Queers Gonna Suck My Dick?” I put one of his songs – I think it was “Eatin’ Pussy/Kickin’ Ass” on – because I trusted these people raving about him. I realized immediately the whole thing was a joke, even though I didn’t know it was stand-up comedian Ben Hoffman behind it at the time, but the sophomoric humor (which I’ve almost never enjoyed) just wasn’t my style. I didn’t need to hear much more. Though since that release I have given some more of Wheeler Walker Jr.’s songs a listen to try and figure out what it is people see about his act and music that I just don’t get.
His second release Ol’ Wheeler, also produced by Dave Cobb who literally seems to produce most of my favorite musicians these days from Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson to Chris Stapleton and Lori McKenna, was acclaimed by many within the industry. Furthermore, artists I greatly respect and admire seemed be on the “Wheeler Train,” as well. So, I gave it another try. The song “Summers in Kentucky” starts off like a decent country song, but then you get to the verse that goes: “Used to press your pussy up against my mouth/now you’ve had a couple kids and it’s all stretched out/But I’m starting to think we could figure it out/Summers in Kentucky, wanna be back now.” I get it that it’s effectively a punchline in the song after two verses of what would pass as truly decent country music and, frankly, it’s a well-set up punchline. It’s just not my type of humor. It’s also fairly clean compared to much of Wheeler Walker Jr.’s lyrics – believe it or not. His songs are in the brand of David Allen Coe’s (another artist I have absolutely no use for) X-rated albums, but focusing on the sex stuff, rather than the racism. I’d say 90 percent of Wheeler Walker Jr.’s songs are sex songs in the most raunchy way imaginable.
When I voice by disinterest and dislike of Wheeler Walker Jr. I have some fellow writers I talk with on social media say stuff to the effect of “Listen to the music. It’s actual country music.” But, I don’t care, especially being a music fan who’s typically more into lyrics than music. But, even if the music is well-played and sounds great if you were to take “Dueling Banjos” and add fart sounds on to it wouldn’t make it worthwhile. That’s basically what Wheeler Walker Jr. is; he’s a decent sounding record with George Carlin’s “Seven Words You Can’t Say on TV” over it. Except for Carlin is funny and Wheeler Walker Jr. just thinks singing “her tongue knows where my butthole’s at” is comedic genius.
Yes, Wheeler Walker Jr. is a parody of today’s country music, but with more traditional country music played instrumentally, but the biggest issue with his music is the misogyny involved. Yes, mainstream country acts like Florida Georgia Line frequently perform misogynistic songs and this is (maybe a parody of that, though having caught a bit of Hoffman’s short-lived Comedy Central show years ago I’m not so sure), but I don’t believe a lot of his fans realize that. They love it because it’s misogynistic, not because it’s playing against that side of mainstream country. I know this because when I share my opinions of Wheeler Walker Jr. online I get responses from people like “You sound like a bitch” and “Don’t getchya panties in a bunch hoss.” Both of those are real.
I’ll also get the frequent: “would you rather listen to Luke Bryan?”
My responses are always a variation of the two artists essentially being the same thing to me. Both are fake. Both are pretty much play acting, even if Bryan doesn’t ever admit to it. As a music lover the last thing I want to spend my time with is something fake, especially if it’s offensive to me.
You can like Wheeler Walker Jr. all you like. I would never sit here and claim you shouldn’t listen to something you like. I’m just sharing the reasons why I don’t like it. But, when it comes to my community of music listeners – in this case the alternative/outlaw country community – I must wonder what it is you truly see in this guy? Maybe it’s just that we have different tastes in humor?
by Julian Spivey
Kenny Chesney released his 17th studio album Songs for the Saints on Friday, July 27 and it’s one of his best albums in some time. The album was inspired by the devastation Hurricane Irma wrought on Saint John, one of the U.S. Virgin Islands last year, where Chesney had one of his homes destroyed and saw the tragic affect on his friends and an island he adores.
The album continues Chesney’s favorite theme of beach and sea songs, but in a more introspective manner than we’ve been accustomed to lately from an artist whose beach bum stature has been more “Margaritaville” than “Trying to Reason with Hurricane Season,” the Jimmy Buffett tune he covers and duets on with Buffett on his latest. Chesney has always been better when he’s gotten more introspective and that’s the biggest reason Songs for the Saints is his best work in a while. But, being introspective and about the devastation from Hurricane Irma doesn’t mean the entire work is a downer. It’s a hopeful album about the rebuilding process with proceeds from album sales going to Hurricane Irma disaster relief funds.
But, my focus here isn’t so much a review of Chesney’s release, but a salute and a look into his selection of singer-songwriter songs over his last decade of releases. Its inspiration comes from his selection of songs by John Baumann and Travis Meadows on Songs for the Saints, which have been standouts in the early days of the release and are in line with a pattern we’ve seen from Chesney for a while, though he doesn’t seem to get enough credit for. You can say what you want about Chesney, who’s been one of the more controversial figures in country music going all the way back to his 1999 hit “She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy” and has followed him throughout the beach bum stage of his career with many accusing him of trying to be country music’s version of Buffett, but his selection of songs by artists like Guy Clark, Hayes Carll and others on his albums has done a lot to get better songwriting and terrific non-mainstream artists into the mainstream. It may be overstating the importance of this, as many music listeners may not go through track listings and liner notes to see who wrote which songs, but if Chesney’s inclusion of these singer-songwriters on his albums has led to even some listeners discovering Clark, Carll, Mac McAnally or others than that’s a win for good music.
Let’s start with Chesney’s Lucky Old Sun, from 2008, which included the terrific duet “Down the Road,” performed with and written by McAnally. The song is a fantastic portrait of young love told from the perspective of the young man falling in love with girl down the road and then turns to the perspective of the father of the daughter, who’s the target of the boy’s affection. McAnally had released the song as a single in 1990 and it did absolutely nothing on the country charts, so it was great of Chesney to give it new life and turn it into a No. 1 hit. It’s one of Chesney’s best releases of his career.
Chesney’s 2010 release Hemingway’s Whiskey took its name from a song co-written by Guy Clark, Ray Stephenson and Joe Leathers, which appeared on Clark’s album Somedays the Song Writes You from the year before. People should’ve already known the name Guy Clark, the writer of some of country music’s all-time greatest songs like “Desperadoes Waiting for a Train” and “L.A. Freeway,” but I don’t know how the fanbases of Chesney and Clark overlap. If Chesney covering “Hemingway’s Whiskey” led people to discovering one of the greatest singer-songwriters to ever walk this earth than they should truly feel indebted to him.
“Hemingway’s Whiskey” wasn’t a single, songs like it rarely if ever are, especially in the world of country music over the last decade, but another release from Chesney’s 2010 album “You and Tequila” would become a huge radio hit and a nominee for CMA Song of the Year. That song was written by veteran country music songwriter Matraca Berg, one of the genre’s best of the last 30 years, along with Deana Carter, who reached country music superstardom in 1996 with “Strawberry Wine.” Carter had previously released the song on her 2003 release I’m Just a Girl.” Berg, who has never had any hits as an artist (though her albums are critically-acclaimed) but has written or co-written plenty of them like “XXX’s and OOO’s (An American Girl)” for Trisha Yearwood and “Wild Angels” for Martina McBride, as well as “Strawberry Wine,” released her version on her 2011 album The Dreaming Fields after Chesney had made it a hit.
Chesney’s 2012 album Welcome to the Fishbowl included “El Cerrito Place,” a song that I had loved for nearly a decade ever since I caught the video for Texas singer-songwriter Charlie Robison’s version on CMT in 2004. I’d always assumed Robison being a songwriter had written it but learned rather recently that it was penned by Keith Gattis, who was at one point Dwight Yoakam’s band leader and had songs on albums by George Strait and recently Wade Bowen. Only an artist like Chesney – a massive superstar within the country music genre – could get such a cinematic story song like “El Cerrito Place” into the top 10 on the Billboard Country Airplay chart.
I didn’t care too much overall for Chesney’s 2014 album The Big Revival, but my favorite track on the album was “Don’t It,” which ranked as my 28th favorite country song of 2014. That song was co-written by Brent Cobb, who has since become a Grammy nominee and one of the incredibly talented young guns of the non-mainstream country music scene, with Chase McGill. Having a track on a big Chesney album (along with his relation to super producer Dave Cobb) likely went a long way toward Cobb having his own burgeoning singer-songwriter career.
Chesney’s Cosmic Hallelujah from 2016 was an album I thought even less of than The Big Revival two years before. It earned Chesney a nomination for Best Country Album from the Grammy Awards, but it could easily be the worst of his career. But, there at track number nine was “Jesus and Elvis,” a song about an older woman who owns a bar prominently featuring photos of Jesus Christ and Elvis Presley, two men her son who died in the Vietnam War dearly loved. “Jesus and Elvis” was written by the terrific trio of Hayes Carll, Allison Moorer and Matraca Berg. Even on an album filled with mostly tripe, Chesney manages to include a great selection featuring some of the best singer-songwriters of the time.
That brings us to the latest release of Songs for the Saints, which thankfully breaks a streak of bad Chesney albums. The track that has been my favorite thus far and is seemingly one of the standouts from reviews I’ve read is John Baumann’s “Gulf Moon.” Baumann is a songwriter I discovered last year, and he immediately struck a chord with me with “Old Stone Church” ranking No. 18 on my 100 Best Americana and Country Songs of 2017 list and “Pontiacs” being No. 53 on the list. He’s also collaborated with Mike and the Moonpies on one of my favorites of this year, “Country Music’s Dead.” “Gulf Moon” appeared on Baumann’s 2014 release High Plains Alchemy and hopefully that performance and the rest of his work will be found by a larger audience now.
Songs for the Saints also features the Travis Meadows and Liz Rose penned “Better Boat.” Both Meadows and Rose have been touted as two of the genre’s best current songwriters. Country fans may know Meadows as a co-writer on Eric Church’s fantastic story song “Knives of New Orleans” from Church’s career best Mr. Misunderstood album in 2015 and Rose has been Taylor Swift’s most effective co-writer throughout her career.
Like I said, you can say what you will about Kenny Chesney. He’s released some of my favorite country music songs of the last quarter-century like 2005’s “Anything but Mine” (written by Scooter Carusoe) and 2008’s “Better as a Memory” (written by Carusoe and Lady Goodman) and he’s released songs I’d like to take a baseball bat to the radio when I hear – a lot of his fun-loving, beach bum stuff. But, no matter what you think of him as a superstar artist it’s a fact that he’s done a great service to some truly fantastic singer-songwriters by including their work on his mega-releases over the years. I’m sure they’re incredibly grateful for him not only for the royalties, but also the attention it’s brought to all their careers.
by Julian Spivey
The annual Outlaw Music Festival presented by Blackbird Presents, established in 2016 bringing revolving acts in the country, rock and Americana genres typically culminating in a Willie Nelson concert to cities around the country, made a stop at Little Rock’s Verizon Arena on Friday, June 29 for a terrific afternoon and evening of music.
The acts joining Nelson at the Little Rock stop on Friday included Grammy-winner Sturgill Simpson, indie group The Head and the Heart, Texas country star Ryan Bingham and Willie’s two youngest sons Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real and Particle Kid (Micah Nelson).
Particle Kid began the day of music at 4:30 p.m. with an entertaining three-song set that began with “The Ocean.” Micah Nelson proved that talented musicianship and guitar playing certainly runs in the family. Lukas would show this off to great extent, as well, later. I particularly enjoyed Particle Kid’s performance of his “Gun Show Loophole Blues,” a protest song about gun control coming the day after yet another mass shooting in this country. He would finish his set with the fun “Everything is Bullshit,” which is also somewhat of a protest song lamenting stuff such as social media and drone use.
Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real would immediately join the stage following Micah’s performance with Micah playing in the band. Lukas and Promise of the Real certainly would prove themselves during their five-song set as one of the absolute best jam bands around today. The band started their set with “Set Me Down on a Cloud,” before going into the rocking “Entirely Different Stars.” The group’s performance of “Turn Off the News” was certainly a favorite among some in the crowd, which was still building and would continue to do so throughout the afternoon. My favorite performances from the group were the ballad “(Forget About) Georgia,” a lovely song about trying to forget a girl who happens to share the name of a song Lukas must play frequently in concert with his dad (“Georgia On My Mind”) and the set finishing “Find Yourself,” which was my favorite track off the band’s self-titled 2017 release. Lukas is an incredibly talented vocalist and guitarist with a bit more of a soulful, bluesy tinge to his voice than his father has, though still just as, if not even more nasally. It really makes for a unique combination.
With Arkansas not getting too many music festivals that tend to last a bulk of an afternoon and evening and being on a Friday where many were likely waiting for their work week to end before attending it was kind of disappointing to see the early turnout for some of these artists. I understand that people go to concerts to see artists they already know and like, but people please don’t sleep on opening acts. There are many artists I’ve come to enjoy by showing up for opening act performances. It almost makes me sad to know that so many in attendance for the later sets on Friday night missed the talents that are Lukas and Micah Nelson.
Ryan Bingham was next up on the Outlaw Music Festival stage and he’s an artist that I’ve been hopeful of seeing, even though admittedly I’m not all that familiar with his discography apart from two songs I absolutely love “The Weary Kind,” which appeared in the fantastic 2009 film “Crazy Heart” and won Bingham an Oscar for Best Original Song, and “Southside of Heaven.”
Bingham would perform both songs during his set. I’ve absolutely loved “The Weary Kind” ever since I first heard it in “Crazy Heart,” but Bingham had a different arrangement for it in concert and it wasn’t quite as great as the one I’m used to. With the original arrangement “The Weary Kind” is likely one of the 100 greatest country songs of all-time.
A couple of highlights from Bingham’s set were incredible covers of the Allman Brothers Band’s “Whipping Post” and Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” with Bingham absolutely kicking ass on the vocals of “Whipping Post.” It’s interesting to me in these times we live in that Dylan’s iconic “Blowin’ in the Wind” is coming into relevance again, if it ever actually left. This was the second straight concert I’ve heard the song covered, with Old Crow Medicine Show doing it at their Little Rock show earlier in the month.
Bingham would also perform great versions of “Dollar a Day,” “Tell My Mother I Miss Her So” and “Hallelujah” during his set.
The strangest set of the night for me was The Head and the Heart, an indie folk band out of Seattle that frankly didn’t really seem to mesh with the rest of the artists on the Little Rock schedule and certainly don’t seem to have an “outlaw” vibe to them. The band is incredibly talented and performed some truly nice songs like “Let’s Be Still,” “Sounds Like Hallelujah” and “Down in the Valley,” but just gave a weird vibe to the whole show because it had the arena almost split from completely into it to didn’t really care for it. There were obviously some within the crowd who came primarily to see The Head and the Heart, but it left some of the more country audience kind of scratching their heads.
This would be an effect Sturgill Simpson would have on the crowd to a lesser extent next as he was frankly too loud and too much of a rock and roll star for some within the audience. The older lady sitting/standing next to my wife and I who was waiting to see Willie Nelson frankly had to leave and go outside during Simpson’s epic, guitar shredding set that would’ve torn the roof off the entire arena had it been an actual Sturgill Simpson show and not part of a multiple-artist festival. Those that knew Simpson’s music seemed to thoroughly enjoy the show – mostly people with floor seating – while those in the lower bowl kind of just sat there and acted like they hadn’t just had their ears completely rocked off their heads.
Simpson would perform a lot of songs from his 2016 Grammy winning Country Album of the Year, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, but be sure that Simpson has developed into one of the best rock stars in this country. The songs from this album sound completely new with rocking arrangements where Simpson just absolutely lets go on electric guitar. There’s no horn section in the group anymore. The songs still sound great and if you’re wanting to jam you’re going to enjoy the new sound. Among the rocked-up versions of songs from that album on Friday night were “Welcome to Earth (Pollywog),” “All Around You,” “Breakers Roar,” “Keep It Between the Lines,” “Brace for Impact (Live a Little)” and “Call to Arms” coupled with a cover of T. Rex’s “The Motivator” to end the show.
Other terrific selections from Simpson’s set were “It Ain’t All Flowers,” which led into the beautiful “The Promise,” both of which appeared on his terrific 2014 release Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, and “Turtles All the Way Down,” which was likely the favorite of his fans in attendance.
Willie Nelson, who I’ve now seen in concert on five occasions, seemed to be in a good mood on Friday night burning quickly through a list of his greatest hits in a set list that rarely seems to change – which is somewhat of a negative if you’re going to see him as many times as I have. He’s released some terrific new songs over the last two years and it would be nice to see some of these performed live, but at age 85 maybe this is something that’s frankly impossible for him to manage.
It was nice to see Nelson’s show turn into a family affair on Friday night with his sister Bobbie Nelson playing piano in the Family, as usual, and sons Lukas and Micah joining the band on stage with Lukas joining his father on guitar and Micah helping on percussions. One of the highlights of Willie’s set was Lukas taking vocals on the Stevie Ray Vaughan classic “Texas Flood,” which featured great guitar play from both Lukas and Willie.
All the hits were there on Friday night as they tend to be in a Willie Nelson show with crowd pleasing performances of “Whiskey River,” which always opens the show, “On the Road Again,” “Good Hearted Woman,” “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground,” “Always on My Mind” and “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys.”
I have to say I was slightly disappointed for the sheer fact that Sturgill Simpson didn’t return to the stage to join Willie on “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” as he had a few nights before at a show in Cincinnati.
Nelson also performed “Beer for My Horses,” a hit he had with Toby Keith in 2002, which he always seems to have in his set. I could be wrong in this, but I absolutely believe that Nelson overestimates his fans wanting to hear this song in concert. Why not kick it to the back burner and bring out yet another classic like “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain”?
One of the best performances from Nelson on Friday night was his frequent cover of Tom T. Hall’s “Shoeshine Man.” He also gave us the Hank Williams trilogy he frequently performs in concert: “Jambalaya (On the Bayou),” “Hey, Good Lookin’” and “Move It on Over,” which always excites the crowd.
My absolute favorite performance from Nelson on Friday night was the timely performance of his 1986 release “Living in the Promiseland” with his sons. It’s one of the most underrated tracks in his discography and something everybody truly needs to hear these days.
by Aprille Hanson
On Tuesday night, June 12, Shania Twain made three women’s dreams come true. During her “Now Tour” at Verizon Arena in North Little Rock, she brought three friends in matching concert T-shirts up to the main stage to take a selfie with them. The women were so in awe, they could barely keep it together, giggling while admitting they would jump on their beds as little girls and sing along to her music.
That memory connected all the women in their 20s, 30s and beyond filling the arena. Because for almost two hours, we were kids again, jamming out to our favorite songs.
For those of us who grew up on country music, Twain was country and cool. Her music was fun and empowering, whether she was flipping gender roles in “Honey I’m Home,” demanding respect in “Any Man of Mine” or beating the odds of love in “You’re Still the One.”
She was more than just a hit-making country artist -- she was a beautiful role model. Dubbed as the “Queen of Country Pop,” Twain has sold more than 100 million albums since her debut album in 1993, making her the best-selling female artist in country music history. It’s a feat she achieved with just five albums in a 24-year span. And whether you’re a fan of pop country or not, there’s no denying that the twang infused with pop sounds changed the industry.
There would be no Taylor Swift without Shania Twain, even though it’s clear that Twain stayed much closer to her roots that Swift ever desired. But, Twain broadened country’s horizons.
Her tour opened with Bastian Baker, a Swiss pop artist with success in Europe. His sound was decent, but what was most impressive was his ability to hold the crowd with just himself and a guitar in a sprawling arena. His cover of Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah” was better than any of his original songs, which is to be expected.
Fans roared as Twain hit the stage with the first single “Life’s About to Get Good” off her Now album, which came out last year. It was her first album in 15 years. She was diagnosed with dysphonia, a vocal cord disorder, which she admitted to Rolling Stone in February 2017, “I’m a different singer now.” The condition causes hoarseness and trouble speaking, which required vocal therapy and staying out of the recording studio, according to Rolling Stone.
And while there are noticeable differences in her tone, her ability to perform hasn’t missed a beat.
Her energy level was strong throughout, blazing through more of her modern hits “Come on Over,” “Up!” and “Poor Me.”
However, it was clear most in the arena were not there to hear her new stuff. It’s a sad fact for legendary artists who struggle to be heard for more than just their hits. But the reality is, Twain’s new material doesn’t even come close to the substance of the songs that made her a star. Everyone was there to hear hits off of The Woman in Me (1995) and Come On Over (1997).
“Don't Be Stupid (You Know I Love You)” was the first taste of her classics, which then launched into “That Don’t Impress Me Much,” a clear fan favorite.
She was on a good roll, but squeezed in “Let’s Kiss and Make Up” from her newest album. At moments like that, the crowd took their seats, used the bathroom or replenished their beer supply.
But her triple threat line-up eight songs in was really why all her fans showed up: “Any Man of Mine,” “Whose Bed Have Your Boots Been Under?” and “Honey, I’m Home.” It was by far the best part of the night, with Twain eagerly traveling down that road of nostalgia with her fans.
In the most poignant moment of the evening, Twain explained that her inspiration for “You’re Still the One,” co-written by her and her ex-husband Mutt Lange, was from a relationship she “thought” would last forever. In 2010, the couple divorced after 17 years of marriage when he had an affair with her best friend. She married that friend’s ex-husband, Frédéric Thiébaud, a year later.
Because the single was her biggest crossover hit, not singing it would be sacrilege, so she instead made it clear she was singing it as a love letter to her fans that have been here all these years. It was a beautiful moment of thanks for the years of support.
Other highlights of the show included “From This Moment On,” “I’m Gonna Getcha Good!” and “(If You’re Not in It for Love) I’m Outta Here!” She gave us little snippets from music videos of other hits, like “Forever And For Always” that desperately should have been performed in full instead of newer choices like “Swingin’ With My Eyes Closed,” by far the worst of the set.
Twain had teased earlier in the concert, bringing out that signature black hat, that maybe she was going to launch into her megahit “Man! I Feel Like a Woman!” a little early. But no such luck. However, it was perfect to include in her two-song encore, breaking out the black dress and strutting/singing with attitude. It was the best way to end the night, making the final song “Rock This Country!” seem a little tacked onto what was already a perfect closer.
It’s clear by her commentary filled with “likes” and “totally” coupled with her new music that she is trying to appeal to the younger generation, but it’s something she really does not need to do.
She’s a legend and if younger audiences can’t see that, her longtime fans will keep reminding her.
by Julian Spivey
Following Johnny Cash’s death his family discovered a collection of unpublished poetry or lyrics that “The Man in Black” had written, ranging from the 1940s up until the end of his life, and these poems were compiled into the book Forever Words: The Unknown Poems, which was published in 2016. That book was gifted to me the Christmas of that year by my wife, but I never got around to perusing through it. This year a compilation album, Forever Words, was released where various artists, mostly within the country music and Americana genres, put Cash’s poems to music. The album is fantastic, but I was slightly disappointed to learn that most of the artists simply put his poetry to music, instead of actually expanding upon it like The New Basement Tapes (Elvis Costello, Marcus Mumford, Jim James, Rhiannon Giddens and Taylor Goldsmith) did on Lost on the River: The New Basement Tapes in 2014, where they took snippets of unfinished Bob Dylan songs and completed them with their owns words leading to a unique way of songwriting (much the way Old Crow Medicine Show took Dylan’s “Rock Me Mama” and turned it into the fantastic “Wagon Wheel.”) I instantly became interested in attempting to add to or collaborate with my hero Cash on one of his poems, but while flipping through the book realized most of the poems were essentially complete – which is probably why artists pretty much could just add music to them and turn them into songs. I did find one short poem called Room 1702 written by Cash in the late ‘60s that mesmerized me with it’s dark tale of a mysterious hotel room and thought I could expand upon it. Below is my collaboration with Johnny Cash on Room 1702, with his words in italics to differentiate between the two. I hope you like it.
In 1702 they’re waiting for you
When you’re out to prove
You’ve got nothing left to lose
1702 has a special way of showing you you do
In the hotel room I was lying
In the night a man was crying
He grabbed his phone and started screaming
I covered up my head, I must be dreaming
His screams continued in the night
I woke up from my sleep in a terrible fright
The man said, send someone I know I’m dying
Come to 1702, he was crying
In the darkness I reached for light
My hand couldn’t penetrate the night
I left my bed, but didn’t feel the floor
Someone was knocking on my door
Thru the bolted door I stepped on thru
And we walked out of 1702
He and I were never again the same man
That’s the night I lost my dearest friend
Something grabbed a hold of me, telling me I’ve been set free
But, I’ll never go to 1702 again
by Julian Spivey
Few things will send me on a social media tangent more than people hating on Bruce Springsteen. He’s not just a singer/musician for me, but a hero. Springsteen’s music and words speak for many of us in this country and that’s why he’s built up such a large and loyal fan-base.
Many people obviously loved Springsteen’s performance on the Tony Awards on Sunday, June 10 where he performed “My Hometown” and a monologue about his hometown of Freehold, N.J. that inspired it. The performance from start-to-finish was only six-and-a-half minutes of a three-hour broadcast, but apparently that was far too long for some people who bitched and moaned about how the monologue never seemed to end. Many others couldn’t understand why he was even giving the monologue in the first place – apparently many don’t realize the reason he was being honored with a special Tony for his contributions to Broadway this year is because “Springsteen On Broadway” isn’t just a concert, but an intimate one-man show about the stories and inspiration behind his music.
Many people were curious as to why Springsteen was even on the Tony Awards at all. These people are apparently oblivious to the fact that “Springsteen On Broadway” is literally one of the biggest, if not the biggest, hits and sellers on Broadway this year. By the time the show’s run, which has been extended multiple times, ends in mid-December it would have sold out more than 200 shows, which isn’t bad for something that initially was supposed to last only eight weeks. “Springsteen On Broadway” may be a little different than what Broadway is accustomed to, but it had every right to be featured on Broadway’s biggest night as award-winning “The Band’s Visit” or “Once on This Island.” As The New York Times said of Springsteen’s show: “as portraits of artists go, there may never have been anything as real – and beautiful – on Broadway. “The Boss” might not be a theater kid (which I honestly think is where some of this juvenile hatred is coming from), but he proved to be just as eloquent and artistic as anything else I saw on the night – one of Broadway’s biggest musicals of the year is based on the SpongeBob SquarePants cartoon for god sake. Not exactly high-brow stuff.
My question is why can’t theater kids – and I’m talking about ones that range from current teens on Twitter all the way up to grown adults like Neil Patrick Harris throwing shade at Springsteen via social media – accept Springsteen? I don’t even think I can begin to make a guess as to why, but I do know this Springsteen lover is also a fan of live theater performances and, though primarily tuned in on Sunday to see his hero, thoroughly enjoyed multiple performances showcased, especially the number from “The Band’s Visit.”
On a night where many involved in the theater community talk about diversity and how great Broadway is when it comes to such many fans seemed unwilling to get behind a different kind of live show taking Broadway by storm. That’s unfortunate, because Springsteen has done a lot of great things both monetarily and exposure wise for Broadway, and that includes undoubtedly bringing many more eyes to the Tony Awards than normally would have tuned in, especially in a year without a massive juggernaut like “Hamilton.”
I loved Springsteen’s monologue and truly hope that “Springsteen On Broadway” is going to be filmed and shown one day on television or via DVD and hope that a Broadway recording is released for those of us not financially capable of traveling to Broadway to see it in person. Though, as he is my hero I’d love just about anything Springsteen does. If you don't, fine, it's your loss.