by Julian Spivey
I had never heard the name Jonny Whiteside before today. And, then upon reading two pieces of his music criticism he instantaneously became the first music critic I’ve ever wanted to punch in the face.
Whiteside is apparently a veteran music journalist out of Burbank, Calif. who has authored books on Rose Maddox and Johnnie Ray and writes articles for L.A. Weekly. I can’t speak for his books, but based on the two listicles I read on L.A. Weekly today, one published this morning and the other in mid-2014, prove to me he has no business in the music criticism world. The fact that he’s a “veteran music journalist” just makes it all the more worse.
Today’s “The 10 Lamest Americana Acts” made quite the hubbub in the world of Americana music websites and fans, many of which I follow on Twitter. When I saw one of these sites retweet the listicle I considered skipping it altogether, but it included with it a photo of Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, my absolute favorite Americana act, so already pissed off I decided to see how bad it would get. This was a major mistake.
The list included many of the Americana genre’s most regarded and critically-acclaimed artists like Lucinda Williams (who topped the list), Gillian Welch, Shovels & Rope and some more of my favorites: Jason Boland & the Stragglers and Robert Ellis.
The list was so bad that it had some thinking it was just an April Fool’s Day joke one day early, which I might have believed had I not done some research on Whiteside and saw another bullshit L.A. Weekly article from mid-July 2014 entitled “The 10 Biggest Classic Rock Douchebags.”
That list included legends like Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Bruce Springsteen, John Fogerty and Jerry Garcia. In the listicle, Whiteside said all of these artists “seriously screwed up rock music.” Seriously? Without these artists, there might not be such a thing as rock music. Bob Dylan’s music has won a freaking Nobel Peace Prize. What has your writing accomplished, Jonny Whiteside? Who hates John Fogerty? That stick must be so far up Whiteside’s ass that his throat tickles.
The one thing all the writers ever run down by Jonny Whiteside have in common is they are all infinitely better writers than Jonny Whiteside. I wonder how much jealousy plays into who he includes on his lists?
Many more on social media were calling his listicle, which I refuse to tag here, “trolling” or “clickbait.” I can agree with these terms, but typically clickbait and trolling aren’t as thought out as Whiteside’s piece. More likely Whiteside is just a cranky old music curmudgeon who believes he and only he has his finger on the pulse of what is truly good in the world of music. Forget all the other music critics who love artists ranging from Bob Dylan to Jason Isbell. Forget all the fans that have made these artists the leaders of their respective genres. Forget the numerous awards they have won for their legendary output. Only Jonny Whiteside gets to dictate what’s cool and what’s lame or douchey. That’s the absolute worst kind of music critic. The one who feels he can only get his viewpoints out in the world if they’re so vastly different from everyone else’s as to piss the masses off to be noticed. It really makes you wonder if he even believes half of the tripe he’s writing. He can either only be making it up for the web clicks or he’s simply the utter worst in his field at recognizing terrific music.
In the last few minutes Whiteside changed his Twitter avatar to an image of the late, great Merle Haggard wearing a sweatshirt that says “I Heart Haters.” This would seem to be a good sign that he merely writes crap to intentionally piss people off, rather than to actually inform. Anyway, I’m sure L.A. Weekly lost themselves many more potential readers today than they have gained.
by Julian Spivey
Red Dirt country act Jason Boland and the Stragglers made their way to Little Rock’s Revolution Room on Saturday, March 25, a venue that’s basically become an annual stop on their touring schedule.
One of the most entertaining and best groups in the country music Red Dirt subgenre that features many acts from Texas and Oklahoma, where Boland and the Stragglers hail from, put on a terrific almost two hour set for the excited and energetic Rev Room crowd. The set featured fan-favorites, tracks from the group’s most recent album, 2015’s excellent Squelch and even a new song Boland said would be featured on their next album, which the band was going to enter the studio to begin recording the next day.
Boland and the Stragglers kicked off the fantastic night of true country music with “Break 19,” off Squelch, before embarking on numerous crowd favorites from the group’s nearly 20 years on the road like “Bourbon Legend,” “Comal County Blue” and “The Dark and Dirty Mile.”
Boland has a very energetic performance style bouncing around on stage, especially during solos from the incredibly talented Stragglers, especially fiddle player Nick Worley and lead guitarist/slide guitarist Cody Angel. Boland also doesn’t mess around too much between performances, going from song to song in rapid succession, never letting the crowd have time to escape from the moment of raucous honky-tonk music.
Boland is one of the best songwriters in the Red Dirt country subgenre, but always finds time to pepper his performances with songwriting idols of his like when he covers Danny Flowers’ “Tulsa Time,” popularized by Don Williams, and Tom Russell’s “Gallo del Cielo.”
Other originals the band performed on Saturday night at the Rev Room that pumped up the crowd were “Electric Bill,” “Pushin’ Luck” and “I Guess It’s Alright to Be an Asshole,” which really show that Red Dirt country can be at its best when influenced by a little rock ‘n’ roll. ‘Asshole,’ one of my favorites off Squelch, is really a punk-country song and you could tell Boland was greatly influenced by punk music, as well as his country idols, when he performed a new song “Dee Dee OD’d,” about The Ramones.
Despite the country-rockers there was plenty of room for hardcore, honky-tonk songs in Boland’s set like “False Accuser’s Lament,” a highlight off his 2011 release Rancho Alto, and slower country ballads like the beautiful “Somewhere Down in Texas,” from the group’s 1999 debut Pearl Snaps, and “Lucky I Guess,” written for and dedicated to his wife Mandy.
One of my favorite performances of the night, and one I hadn’t heard the two previous times I’ve seen Boland and the Stragglers, was “Fences,” from Rancho Alto. The song is about how immigrants came to the United States and essentially stole it from Native Americans, which is why it was unusual to see some couples slow dancing along to it.
I was happy to see numerous selections from Squelch performed throughout the night like “Heartland Bypass” and the bawdy “Fuck, Fight and Rodeo,” but would’ve loved to have heard “The First to Know” and “Lose Early” from the album, as well.
Anytime you see a Stragglers show you know you’re going to get Boland classics like “Pearl Snaps,” “When I’m Stoned,” “Drinkin’ Song” and “Blowing Through the Hills,” which fans seem to really enjoy every single time.
Boland and the Stragglers ended their set with the fitting “The Party’s Not Over,” and that proved to be true as the group stayed for a three-song encore that included “Hank,” about how today’s music just isn’t what country music is supposed to be, “Tennessee Whiskey” and “Outlaw Band.”
“Outlaw Band,” written by another of Boland’s idols and fellow Oklahoman Bob Childers, has become the group’s signature song, in my opinion, and is their frequent closer. If you haven’t heard Boland and the Stragglers perform this rip-roaring number than you simply haven’t heard one of the greatest country performances there’s ever been. The fiddle and mandolin, both played by Worley, alone on this song is enough to knock you right off your feet. This show closer is well worth the attendance of the entire night on its own.
There’s little doubt in my mind that Boland and the Stragglers is one of the most energetic and exciting acts in any subgenre of country music. They prove it every single time they take the stage.
by Julian Spivey
“If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry’” – John Lennon
Elvis Presley is hailed as the “King of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” but had he not have had Hollywood movie star good looks and had race relations not been what they were in the late ‘50s that title may likely have gone to Chuck Berry.
Presley took African-American rhythm and blues and made it suitable for white audiences or at least the young members of the white audience. Berry didn’t have to appropriate anything; he just was. And, while to some Elvis’ hip-shaking and lip curl may have signified what rock ‘n’ roll was all about to many others it’s the hard-charging electric guitar of Berry that is truly the birth of rock ‘n’ roll. Berry’s lyrics focusing on the rough and rowdy life of the ‘50s teenager and essentially his creation of the guitar solo truly helped the rock genre form its rebellious ways.
Berry’s career took off in 1955 less than a year after Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” essentially coined the term “rock ‘n’ roll” and shortly after Elvis debuted with “That’s All Right.” “Maybellene,” a cool-sounding talk-sing song about a street race and a broken relationship, reached the top five on the Billboard pop chart and Berry’s career took off like a Cadillac Coup DeVille off the blocks. Rolling Stone said of the song, “rock & roll guitar starts here.”
Berry would continue to fill the pop and R&B charts with hit after hit over the next decade including “Roll Over Beethoven,” “School Day (Ring! Ring! Goes the Bell),” “Johnny B. Goode,” “Rock and Roll Music,” “Memphis, Tennessee” and “No Particular Place to Go.”
By the mid-‘60s his brand of rock ‘n’ roll was sadly out of vogue, much like other artists who came up in his era, including Elvis. But, his mark on rock ‘n’ roll led to inspiring the next generation of artists like The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Seger, etc.
Some artists of the next generation were even inspired a little too much, to the point of plagiarism. The Beach Boys’ 1963 hit “Surfin’ USA,” which became emblematic of the “California Sound,” was written to the music of Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen,” earning Berry a songwriting credit after some controversy. Berry would actually self-plagiarize later on with “No Particular Place to Go” being set to the exact music of “School Days (Ring! Ring! Goes the Bell).”
Sometimes I feel Berry’s contributions to the genre he essentially created are too often ignored, but Seger summed his legacy up quite brilliantly in his 1981 song “Rock and Roll Never Forgets” with the line: “All Chuck’s children are there playing his licks/get into your kicks/come back baby/rock and roll never forgets.”
Berry would continue to play his hits for the next 50-plus years making him the longest tenured rock star in the genre’s history – a mark that likely will never be topped. Berry played a weekly show at a venue in his hometown of St. Louis all the way up until 2014, when he was nearing 90-years old. Playing and making music would continue to the very end for Berry, who died on Saturday, March 18 at 90. The rock ‘n’ roll pioneer and hall of famer announced on his 90th birthday last October that he would be releasing his first album of new music since 1979 sometime in 2017. Berry is survived by his wife Themetta, whom had he survived would’ve celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary together next year.
by Julian Spivey
Country songstress Sunny Sweeney put on one helluva true country music show at Stickyz Rock ‘N’ Roll Chicken Shack in downtown Little Rock on Saturday, March 11.
The show was fantastic from start-to-finish, as the Texan singer-songwriter was fresh off of her fourth studio album release, Trophy, the day before.
The crowd got their money’s worth no doubt from Sweeney who peppered her almost 20 song set list with tracks from all four of her albums, including eight of her new album’s 10 tracks. In fact, the new album was the focal point of the first part of the show with five of the set’s first six tracks coming from Trophy. Sweeney began her show with the rip-roaring “Better Bad Idea” from the album, which is sure to be loved by fans of “Bad Girl Phase,” from her previous album Provoked. She would also perform “Pills,” written by friend Brennen Leigh, “Nothing Wrong with Texas,” an ode to her home state, and the title track from Trophy, inspired by her husband’s ex-wife.
The best performance early on from Trophy was “Pass the Pain,” which she had written with Jay Clementi and Monty Holmes years before but had never recorded on an album, partially because she was told it was “too country.”
I don’t believe there’s such a thing as “too country,” but it could explain why Sweeney – who had a top 10 hit with “From a Table Away” in 2010 (a song she didn’t perform on Saturday, but I wish she had) – has sort of been relegated to the independent, red dirt Texas country genre. Her lovely Texan twang mixed with both beautifully written and tough songs just make her too country for the pop, rock, hip-hop infused “country” being played on popular country radio. She should be as big as Miranda Lambert, but it seems country radio only makes room for few of those types of artists.
The one song she played early on during the show that wasn’t off her latest release was a cover of Tom Petty’s “The Apartment Song” from his 1989 album Full Moon Fever. Sweeney said she performed the song with Reckless Kelly for a Petty tribute album and had cribbed it for her own set. Her cover was perfection.
It seemed one of Sweeney’s favorite performances of the night – and one of the crowd’s too – was the risqué “Whiskey Richard,” which she said was too bawdy to ever record, about a man who can’t make love when he’s under the influence.
One of Sweeney’s finest performances of the night was “Mama’s Opry,” off her debut album Heartbreaker’s Hall of Fame from 2006. The cover of Iris DeMent’s song is another that likely would be considered “too country” by many. Sweeney told the crowd that she recently played the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville for the 48th time, an honor she couldn’t believe. She would also play “East Texas Pines” from her debut.
I particularly enjoyed Sweeney’s performances from her second album Concrete in “Staying’s Worse Than Leaving,” which she wrote with Radney Foster, and “Drink Myself Single,” both songs charted for her in 2011.
Sweeney would include more songs from Trophy in her set including the tragic “Bottle by My Bed,” written with recent Grammy-winning songwriter Lori McKenna, about wanting a child, but not yet having one. “Bottle by My Bed” is one of four co-writes with McKenna on Trophy.
My favorite performance off Trophy is Sweeney’s cover of Chris Wall’s “I Feel Like Hank Williams Tonight,” which I previously had heard in concert by Jerry Jeff Walker, a Texas country legend. The song is quintessentially country about nothing in this world is a better listen when you’re down than old school Hank. It’s truly an early front-runner for my favorite country song of the year.
Another highlight from the show was Sweeney’s performance of the comical “Backhanded Compliment,” from 2014’s Provoked, which was co-written with Natalie Hemby and Sweeney said that each line in the song was something previously uttered either to her or Hemby.
Sweeney would finish her near 90-minute set with “Bad Girl Phase,” one that seems to have kind of become her theme song. It was the perfect concert finisher.
I can’t stress enough how great Sweeney is – and you should definitely pick up a copy of Trophy – everything about her performance, even down to her style of chewing gum throughout her show and holding on to a beer bottle mid-song was perfectly country. As it turns out, she is as nice as she is talented hanging around the stage after the show to chat, take photos with and sign autographs for her fans.
by Julian Spivey
One of the most beautifully heartbreaking songs ever written was the result of a brief encounter between a songwriter and one of the biggest hitmakers of the 1950s.
Eddy Arnold was kind of the Bing Crosby of the Country & Western genre with his smooth vocals and pop-oriented country music that pioneered what would become known as “The Nashville Sound.” Arnold charted 147 songs on the Billboard country music charts, second only to George Jones, with 26 of them going to No. 1, including timeless classics like “Make the World Go Away” and “Take Me in Your Arms and Hold Me,” written by Cindy Walker.
While at an annual disc-jockey convention in Nashville in 1955 Arnold bumped into Walker as she was leaving the event and the crooner offered her up the song title “You Don’t Know Me.” Walker teased that she did know Arnold, per Michael Streissguth’s book Eddy Arnold: Pioneer of the Nashville Sound, but Arnold insisted he was being serious. He proceeded to outline his idea to Walker, who promised to mull it over a while. Eventually the lyrics suddenly spilled out of her brain and as she would say, “The song just started singing. It sort of wrote itself.”
Arnold would record the song the next year and it would go to No. 10 on the country music chart.
Anybody who has ever heard “You Don’t Know Me” in any of its many versions is probably struck by the beauty of the lyrics about unrequited love. The story of feeling something for another who doesn’t feel the same way about you is among the most tragic of storylines one can imagine – and a feeling a good number of the population has felt at least once in their lifetime. Many have since called it the ultimate “friend zone” song. And, if you haven’t ever felt this way, the best recorded version, in my opinion, Ray Charles’ from his innovative 1962 album Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music can make you feel as if you have. I first heard the song in one of my favorite films “Groundhog Day” and it’s never left my head, leaving me humming the tune for hours on end every time I hear it.
Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music was such a milestone event in the world of country music, and music in general. Charles, an African-American R&B, soul, blues and jazz superstar, decided to turn his crisp soulful vocals to the world of Country & Western and folk music cutting standards like Don Gibson’s “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” Hank Williams’ “Hey, Good Lookin’” and “You Win Again” and The Everly Brothers’ “Bye Bye Love.” His experiment with country music mixed lush strings and horn arrangements with heartbreaking ballads of lost and unrequited love. Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music also showed the world there wasn’t much difference in the roots music of black and white people at a time when the Civil Rights Movement was raging. Country music from the mouth of a black man was quite a revolutionary act in 1962, four years before future African-American country superstar Charley Pride made his debut.
Something about Charles’ achingly pining vocals mixed with this beautiful lush string arrangement and the choir in the background makes your heart break right along with the narrator’s as if you’re standing in his shoes. Charles had a great knack of putting you in his shoes as a master vocalist, just like “Georgia On My Mind” leaves you yearning for home.
Allmusic editor Bill Janovitz said of Charles’ version of the Walker penned song: “The genius, the pathos, and the soul that is Charles oozes into this recording … no matter how many times one hears the song, it still induces chills down the spine after the narrator blows any chance he might have had and is left alone at the end.”
Charles’ definitive version of the song would become the highest charting and best-selling version of it, reaching No. 2 on the Billboard Top 40 chart in 1962. Since then the classic ballad has been covered by some of the world’s biggest names and greatest artists, more than 100 times, in fact. Among the covers includes Jackie Wilson, Roy Orbison, Kenny Loggins, Bette Midler, Mickey Gilley, Emmylou Harris, Van Morrison, Kenny Rogers and Ronnie Dunn. Elvis Presley would perform the song in his 1967 movie “Clambake.” Willie Nelson included the song on his album tribute to Cindy Walker, You Don’t Know Me: The Songs of Cindy Walker, released just nine days before her death in March of 2006.
The song has most recently appeared on Alison Krauss’ exquisite new solo project Windy City, which sees the angelic-voiced country singer doing incredible justice to the song.
There’s no doubt “You Don’t Know Me” will live on forever as one of loveliest heartbreak songs ever written and recorded. Thank God Eddy Arnold bumped into Cindy Walker at that convention 62 years ago.