by Julian Spivey
Chris Stapleton and Turnpike Troubadours, two of the best acts currently in country music, graced the “Austin City Limits” stage for the longtime PBS musical series’ season finale on Saturday, Feb. 17.
It was a fantastic combination for the finale showcasing two acts that might be the very best of the genre now – Stapleton, who’s dominated the country music album charts over the last three years, and the Turnpike Troubadours, the finest band in red dirt country music being broadcast on network television for the first time to a wider audience.
Ultimately, Stapleton was his tried and true self performing a fantastic selection from his first three albums and unfortunately the Turnpike Troubadours kind of punted on their biggest chance to gain an audience yet.
Stapleton’s six-song televised set kicked off with the charging “Hard Livin’,” from his From A Room: Vol. 2 album that was released in December. Surprisingly it was the only performance from that album. Even more surprising is the fact that he only performed one song off From A Room: Vol. 1, released early in 2017, as well with the rocking “Second One to Know.” The other four performances from his set came off 2015’s excellent Traveller album, including the title track. I had assumed Stapleton had performed on an episode of ‘ACL’ a couple of years ago when he burst out with Traveller, but apparently, he hadn’t. Had I known this prior to viewing the episode it wouldn’t have surprised me that his televised (the artists play longer sets and the show edits them down to fit an hour-long format typically featuring multiple acts) set was heavy on stuff from his debut.
The highlight of Stapleton’s set for me was “Fire Away,” which I believe to be his greatest song thus far. It’s a helluva heartbreaker, but so beautiful at the same time. It’s everything a classic country song should be.
Among the other highlights of his set were “Whiskey & You,” which he performed solo without his band, and “Tennessee Whiskey,” which ended his set.
We’ve seen Stapleton on TV quite a bit, especially lately. There was a week at the beginning of this month in which he performed on “Saturday Night Live,” the Grammys, “Late Show with Stephen Colbert” and “The Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon” in an eight-day span. He’s used to the spotlight.
Evan Felker, the front man of the excellent Turnpike Troubadours, isn’t exactly as experienced. And, I couldn’t help but believe that it showed and was an unfortunate detriment to the Troubadours – making what I’m certain was their network television debit.
Before I go any further I feel it necessary to add this disclaimer: the Turnpike Troubadours are the best band in modern country music. They may also be the best live act in modern country music (though Stapleton and Eric Church give them a run for their money on a bigger stage).
I didn’t feel that their six-song ‘ACL’ set showcased the brilliance, especially live brilliance, of the Turnpike Troubadours. I placed this fault squarely on Felker – who may well be the best songwriter in modern country music, as well.
Felker just seemed downright nervous the entire set. The televised set began with “The Housefire,” from the group’s excellent A Long Way from Your Heart album released last fall. It’s a terrific story song and Felker’s reading of it on the show just seemed lackluster. I was hoping this fact wouldn’t continue throughout the band’s set, but unfortunately it mostly did.
The rest of the Troubadours performed as great as ever on the showcase, but Felker just didn’t seem like he was all the way there. The group’s set featured three songs off their latest album including “A Tornado Warning” (my favorite track off the album) and “Something to Hold on To,” which ended the most recent season of “Austin City Limits.”
The other three songs in their set were fan-favorites “Every Girl,” “Diamonds & Gasoline” and “Before the Devil Knows Your Dead.”
It was nice to see Grammy-nominated Oklahoman singer-songwriter John Fullbright sit in with the band for their ‘ACL’ set. Fullbright was an original member of the Troubadours and co-wrote some of their best early songs with Felker like “Every Girl.” I look forward to Fullbright releasing a new album on his own sometime soon.
It is my hope that anybody tuning in to this episode focuses more so on the fantastic lyricism of Felker and the fantastic musicianship of the band and not so much on the lacking performance of its front man.
I’ve seen the Troubadours live four times and they really are the best and way better than they appeared on the broadcast. Please don’t let that affect how you feel about them if this was your introduction.
by Julian Spivey
It was a night of family and fun for Memphis-based singer-songwriter Cory Branan at the White Water Tavern in Little Rock, Ark. on Saturday, February 17. The Americana/rock singer had family and friends in tow with him for a frequent visit to White Water Tavern, only about two-and-half hours from his Memphis base.
Branan’s young son would join him up on stage a few times during the night, with pop trying to get him to sing along to his tunes, with the kid only wanting to solo on his harmonica. It was easily one of the cutest concert moments I’ve ever seen and the small, but packed room got a huge kick out of it for much of the evening. It’s nice to see an artist also in the role of loving father, something you rarely see from performers, especially on stage.
I had heard the name Cory Branan before last year, but had never really taken the time to listen to his music until somehow I came across his song “Another Nightmare in America” on YouTube early in 2017 and was immediately captured by its protest of the brutality of mostly African-American men by police officers in this country, a topic that I’ve kept close attention to in the last few years. The video, which was actually filmed at White Water Tavern, was striking in its importance and in the fact that Branan put himself in the shoes of a racist officer horrifying point of view for the song. The song appeared on Branan’s terrific 2017 album Adios and ranked No. 3 on my website’s 100 Best Americana/Country Songs of 2017 list. The song would lead me to the rest of Adios like the equally impressive “Imogene,” which also cracked my website’s top 20 of the year.
Branan didn’t perform “Another Nightmare in America” on Saturday night, which was easily the biggest disappointment of an otherwise terrific show, but it was the highlight of my night when he performed “Imogene,” which includes one of my favorite verses of recent music with the adjective-laden: “You could say that I was never there enough/You could say that I’m a no-account, ne’er-do-well, roustabout, detestable, itinerant, execrable, degenerate/Fair enough/You could say that I was a waste of your time/But to say I tried to make you cry is just asinine.” You must be some damn good songwriter to fit all of that into a verse and make it sound incredible while singing it. It truly dumbfounds me every time I hear this song.
Branan’s audience at White Water Tavern, which he called his favorite place to play in the country and has seemingly played many times, was essentially a home crowd for him. I’ve basically come to Branan’s music through the fantastic Adios and need to listen to more of his back catalogue – something I should’ve done more of before Saturday’s show. The remainder of the crowd was old school Branan fans who knew songs of his he doesn’t even know how to play anymore.
Branan would play five songs from Adios throughout the night: “Imogene,” the opening “I Only Know,” “Walls, MS,” “You Got Through” and the beautifully touching and personal “The Vow,” written for and about his late father. Other than these performances the night was mostly a learning experience for me and it turned out to be terrific. Songs the rest of the audience seemed to know by heart like “Sour Mash,” “Wayward and Down” and “Tall Green Grass” would instantly become ones I knew I’d enjoy. Next time Branan comes to town I’ll probably know them by heart too.
Other nice performances throughout the night included “Spoke Too Soon,” “Crush,” “Skateland South” and the rocking “Walk Around.” There’s a nice blues-rock sound in some of Branan’s music that I enjoyed. Americana is a fantastic description of his music, which has been classified as rock and alternative country before. It’s a little bit of all that’s great mashed into one sound. It even gets punkish in places and he performed a Ramones cover during the show of “Sheena is a Punk Rocker,” changing the lyrics to “Pizza is a Punk Rocker” to the amusement of his son at one point. His song re-joined him on stage with his harmonica, but as it was approaching midnight he wasn’t in as good of a mood and spiked the harmonica on the stage when he didn’t get the solo he wanted. It was a move that was decidedly punk.
Branan’s label Bloodshot Records says of him: “Throughout his career, Cory Branan has been too punk for country, too country for punk, too Memphis for Nashville, and probably a little too Cory Branan for anyone’s damn good.” He’s a witty, intellectually conversational songwriter with a bit of an edge to his music that really captures my interest. Hopefully he’ll do the same for you.
by Julian Spivey
Brandy Clark is one of the best singer-songwriters in modern country music releasing two of the best albums the genre has seen in the last few years with 12 Stories (2013) and Big Day in a Small Town (2016). She brought her terrific stories to The Revolution Room in Little Rock on Saturday, Feb. 10 for An Evening with Brandy Clark – a stripped down performance featuring her on vocals and guitar with another guitarist and bassist accompanying.
Clark performed many of the best tracks from her two critically-acclaimed albums, while providing a few nicely sounding new songs during the show, as well.
She opened the show with her hilariously badass “Stripes,” about considering killing her cheating husband, but sparing his life because she hates stripes and doesn’t look good in orange.
She went from “Stripes” into the terrific title track of her 2016 album that showcases what life is like in a small town where every little thing gets around to all the citizens.
One of Clark’s best performances – and one of her greatest songs in general – came next with the devastating “Drinkin’, Smokin’, Cheatin’.” It occurred to me during this performance that this would be a great song for Dwight Yoakam, whom Clark has collaborated with and opened concerts for before, to record.
There was a portion of the show which Clark described as the substance abuse portion including fantastic performances of “Get High,” “When I Get to Drinkin’” (which appears on her live album), “Take a Little Pill” (one of my personal favorites of hers) and “Hungover.” The theme portion of the show seemed to go over well with the Rev Room audience.
Clark would perform a couple of new songs during the night that might pop up on a future album: “Favorite Lie” and “Apologies,” both of which sounded great, but then again there wasn’t anything during her set that didn’t.
Clark gets to the meat of real life in many of her songs with realistic lyrics that should make any other songwriter jealous of her abilities like “Three Kids No Husband,” a true modern-day masterpiece off Big Day in a Small Town.
My favorite performance of the evening was “Hold My Hand,” which is my favorite song of hers. It’s an interesting song of a woman running into her lover’s ex with her by his side and feeling like things might not quite be over between them. Its beauty is astounding. She followed this up with her only cover of the night, the aptly chosen “Good Hearted Woman” – a Waylon Jennings/Willie Nelson classic that any country music lover should know by heart.
A performance that really got the crowed energized was “Mama’s Broken Heart,” which Clark co-wrote with Shane McAnally and Kacey Musgraves and Miranda Lambert had a hit with in 2013.
Clark would end her excellent show with “Pray to Jesus,” a song about the two ways many people hope to succeed in life, by praying to Jesus and playing the lotto. Clark seemed truly honored when the crowd sang along on the final chorus.
While the crowd at the Rev Room on Saturday night was certainly eating out of Clark’s hand all night and truly fans of her music I was disappointed to see a small crowd for the venue. There has been much talk about sexism in country music over the last few years and I hate to say I’ve seen it in person at shows over the last couple of years. And, it’s not just a mainstream country music issue. I’ve seen artists like Turnpike Troubadours, Jason Boland, Hayes Carll and even newcomers like Colter Wall pack club style venues in Little Rock like the Rev Room and Stickyz, but when great female performers like Clark and Sunny Sweeney have come to town the rooms simply aren’t that crowded. Clark and Sweeney are no doubt on the level of these male artists, so it makes one question exactly what is going on.
Georgian singer-songwriter Rick Brantley opened the show for Clark and he’s a terrific reason as to why concertgoers should always pay attention to opening acts. I had never heard of Brantley’s name prior to the show and within a maybe eight-song performance he won me over as a fan. Well, in fact, it didn’t even take his entire performance. I was hooked on his music – great voice and lyrics – from pretty much the start. He performed great originals like “40 Days, 40 Nights,” “I Still Dream of Tumbleweeds,” “Claudette” and the randy “Red Boots” and slayed the audience with a fan-freakin’-tastic cover of Otis Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness” and to do Redding justice you really have to bring it. My only issue with Brantley’s set was the crowd talking over some of his performances – it was just him and his guitar – which was incredibly rude to the guy pouring his heart out and doing so well on stage.