by Julian Spivey
Multiple-time Grammy Award winning country musician Marty Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives headlined the sixth annual Cotter Bridge Bash at the Big Spring Park under the Cotter Bridge in rural Cotter, Ark. on Saturday, Sept. 25.
The Cotter Bridge Bash is a charity event held to raise food for the Food Bank of North Central Arkansas to feed those who are hungry and may not be able to provide meals for themselves throughout the north central region of the state. This year’s event was the first to bring in a name the size of Marty Stuart and it resulted in a record 500,000 meals donated.
Stuart and his incredibly talented band kicked off the 90-minute set with “I Know You Rider,” a traditional blues song that was popularized in many Grateful Dead sets. The performance instantly got the crowd, boiling in the hot 90-degree sun, energized and excited for the remainder of the show.
Stuart and the Fabulous Superlatives do a terrific job at mixing originals in with country, folk, gospel and blues classics. If you love true country music you’re going to love a Marty Stuart show. He mixed his terrific hits like “The Whiskey Ain’t Working,” “Hillbilly Rock” and “Tempted,” my personal favorite, with excellently chosen covers like Marty Robbins’ “El Paso,” Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried” and Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire,” since he was performing in his old friend’s home state. Speaking of which, when Stuart was ready to play a Cash song he pointed at me personally sitting up front with my Johnny Cash T-shirt on and asked, “which song should I play?” I shouted, “Folsom Prison Blues,” which is my favorite Cash song. Stuart said, “everybody plays that one” and then played “Ring of Fire,” which is probably even more well-known and played, but oh well – that was still a cool moment for me.
One of the most fascinating moments of Stuart’s show was his story of once meeting Ervin T. Rouse, writer of the great fiddle tune “Orange Blossom Special,” late in Rouse’s life when Stuart was traveling with bluegrass legend Lester Flatt as a teenager in the early ‘70s. Stuart then performed the song and in a moment that can only be considered a bit of country music magic a train passed by on the track right beside the Cotter Bridge mid-song.
The entire Fabulous Superlatives group is not only instrumentally perfect, but all talented vocalists who get the chance to shine on the microphone during the show. “Cousin” Kenny Vaughan, one of the best guitarists in the music biz, took over vocals on “Country Music Got a Hold On Me” and “Nice Like That,” which truly entertained the crowd. Bassist and steel guitarist Chris Scruggs, the youngster of the group at 33-years old and the newest member of the band, has country music and bluegrass in his blood and bones as his grandfather was Earl Scruggs, who many consider to be the father of bluegrass music. Drummer “Handsome” Harry Stinson was probably the best vocalist of the group, outside of Stuart of course, with lead vocals on Johnny Horton’s “All for the Love of a Girl” and Woody Guthrie’s folk classic “Pretty Boy Floyd.”
Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives finished their great set with a rip-roaring performance of “Tear the Woodpile Down” before ending the show, as they always do, with a couple of gospel tunes.
by Julian Spivey
It’s quite ridiculous, but the best music award show annually is never even televised. That would be the annual Americana Honors & Awards, which celebrates the best in Americana music – a genre that encompasses a multitude of American-sounding genres like country, blues, folk and more. Luckily for everyone, the awards can be seen despite not being on television as they will once again be streaming on nprmusic.org starting at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 21.
The Americana Awards simply does not have bad nominees. But, that doesn’t mean there aren’t nominees who I feel are more deserving than others and would like to see win. So, here are my choices for which artists, songs and albums should take home the hardware …
Artist of the Year:
Nominees: Jason Isbell, Bonnie Raitt, Chris Stapleton & Lucinda Williams
My Pick: Jason Isbell
The Americana Award nominees for Artist of the Year are a perfect representation why this is such an outstanding music award show. You have two absolute legendary figures in Bonnie Raitt and Lucinda Williams nominated alongside the two biggest stars currently in the Americana world in Jason Isbell and Chris Stapleton. Stapleton arguably had the biggest year, but Isbell represents the Americana genre better than any popular artist around today as his music can’t really be pigeonholed into one genre like country or rock music. Stapleton is a country singer, but because he’s a true country singer and not what you’d typically here on country radio he gets lumped in with Americana artists. We’re not complaining.
Album of the Year:
Nominees: “Something More Than Free” by Jason Isbell, “The Ghosts of Highway 20” by Lucinda Williams, “The Very Last Day” by Parker Millsap & “Traveller” by Chris Stapleton
My Pick: “Something More Than Free” by Jason Isbell
I’m going to be honest upfront and admit that I’ve unfortunately yet to hear the albums by Parker Millsap and Lucinda Williams. To me this comes down to whether or not Chris Stapleton is considered “too country” for Americana, but seeing how he’s been nominated in the two biggest categories - Artist of the Year and Album of the Year - I’m sure he’s not. Like I said in the previous category, though, I believe Jason Isbell is the ultimate representation of what Americana music is – and also being upfront – he’s my favorite modern singer-songwriter. Something More Than Free and Traveller are both perfect albums and a tie would honestly be welcomed for a change, but if I have to choose one it’s Isbell’s album.
Song of the Year:
Nominees: “24 Frames” by Jason Isbell, “Dime Store Cowgirl” by Kacey Musgraves, “Hands of Time” by Margo Price & “S.O.B.” by Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats
My Pick: “24 Frames” by Jason Isbell
This one category sums up why I believe this is the best music award show around. All four of these songs are perfect. When do you ever see that for a Song of the Year award at a music award show? It shouldn’t come to any surprise to you by now that I’m going with Jason Isbell’s “24 Frames,” though you could make the argument that “Something More Than Free” is an even better song. I’d also make the argument that Kacey Musgraves and Margo Price have better songs on their albums than “Dime Store Cowgirl” and “Hands of Time” respectively. If I had a second choice for this category it would be Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats’ “S.O.B.,” which is one of the most kickass songs you’re ever going to hear and actually you should see it performed where it’s even better.
Duo/Group of the Year:
Nominees: Alabama Shakes, Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell, Lake Street Drive, The Milk Carton Kids & Tedeschi Trucks Band
My Pick: Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell
If I had to guess which one of these groups or duos were to take home the honor on Wednesday night I’d predict Alabama Shakes, but anytime the living legends that are Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell get together to record an album or tour it’s going to be absolute perfection.
Emerging Artist of the Year:
Nominees: Leon Bridges, John Moreland, Margo Price & Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats
My Pick: Margo Price
This is yet another absolutely perfect category of nominations. All of these artists deserve to win this award. Can we get a four-way tie? Leon Bridges is a jaw-dropping soul singer that reminds a lot of people of Sam Cooke. John Moreland mixes great emotion with a country-folk sound that will knock you off your stool. Margo Price is a badass country chick in the vein of Loretta Lynn. Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats is a must-see act that mixes seemingly everything: rock, folk, doo-wop, soul, blues. Find all of these acts on Spotify and spend hours enjoying. My pick would be Margo Price, who – while I love all of these artists – is the only one I’ve actually spent my hard-earned money on. Her debut album Midwest Farmer’s Daughter should’ve been nominated recently for the CMA Awards Album of the Year, but since the Country Music Association often ignores real country music maybe the Americana crowd will give her an honor she deserves.
by Julian Spivey
The beautiful Orpheum Theatre in Memphis, Tenn. might need to look into repairs today because Sturgill Simpson absolutely blew the roof off of the joint on Saturday night (Sept. 10).
Simpson has been touted as one of the best Americana artists in the country since releasing his debut album High Top Mountain in 2013, as well as one of the artists tasked with “saving country music,” despite the fact that he honestly doesn’t seem to give a shit and just wants to play music how he wants to play it.
Simpson’s passion and energy for music has led to him developing a cult following of loyal and exuberant fans who shout his lyrics along with him and shake and dance with great fervor in the aisles and at their seats, while on their feet throughout the entirety of his almost two-and-a-half-hour show. The only crowd experience I can compare attending a Sturgill Simpson theatre venue performance too intensity wise is to seeing Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band in a packed arena. If you’re not completely into it or a part of the “moment” you’re going to feel completely left out and foreign.
Simpson opened his show with a cover of Willie Nelson’s “I’d Have to Be Crazy,” which appeared on his debut album. The performance perfectly showed off his one-of-a-kind and fantastic vocals, even though he’d say after the opener that he’d been suffering from a cold lately and apologized to the audience. His voice didn’t sound far off from his recordings, so if that’s what he sounds like when he’s a bit under the weather than good luck to everyone else.
My favorite Simpson song is “Living the Dream,” off of his Grammy-nominated 2014 album Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, which he performed second in his set and totally rocked. It appeared to be one of the favorites among many in the sold out audience.
Simpson is truly unique in that he can sound traditionally country with performances like “Water in a Well,” “Long White Line” and the Lefty Frizzell cover “I Never Go Around Mirrors” that remind fans of throwbacks like Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard while also bringing new and innovative sounds and lyrics to country music like the horn section he added for his latest album, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, released in April and having songs like “Turtles All The Way Down,” from Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, with liner notes paying thanks to people like Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking.
The great thing about Simpson’s tour this year behind his most recent album is that he’s been playing A Sailor’s Guide to Earth complete from start to finish. This essentially gives his fans two complete sets, one where he performs favorites from his first two albums and then a second where he performs the new album in succession.
Some of the finest performances from what was essentially his first set included rip-roarers like “Life of Sin” and “Railroad of Sin,” played back-to-back (of course), “Some Days,” “It Ain’t All Flowers” and his terrific cover of When in Rome’s 1988 hit “The Promise.”
The performance of A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, one of the best albums released this year in any genre, was truly epic with Simpson extending many of the album’s tracks into long jam sessions. Many, even among his fans, criticized Simpson when they heard the album would heavily feature a horn section before even hearing the album, but this decision was not only brilliant in the way the record sounds, but shows that country music can evolve and still remain true to itself. A saxophone can sound good played alongside a steel guitar.
A Sailor’s Guide to Earth played in succession is perfect because of the cohesiveness of the album, which was largely written for Simpson’s newborn son as sort of a “how to” album, but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t favorite performances from this portion of the set. I really enjoy “Keep It Between the Lines,” which is definitely a “dos and don’ts” list for Simpson’s son. It’s one of the grooviest tracks on the album and it’s even better live with Simpson’s elongated jam at the end.
You could tell, despite some of the reservations before even hearing the album, that Simpson’s fans really dig it based on their reactions, especially to performances like “Sea Stories” and Simpson’s fantastic Nirvana cover “In Bloom.”
The most raucous performance on the album is the song that finishes it off “Call to Arms,” which was also the final performance in Simpson’s set. The hard-charging song is essentially about all of life’s bullshit, whether it’s wars begun for oil, political-leaning cable television networks or music that’s forgone creativity and truth for money. The fact that so many in his audience loved this song actually gives me a little bit of hope for the future of this country, but unfortunately it’s a small demographic.
People often say about Bruce Springsteen that if you don’t really appreciate him on the radio or on records that you should see him perform live and he’ll win you over. I feel this could work for people who claim not to like country music simply by going to a Sturgill Simpson concert. His energy is off the walls and his songs are lyrically and sonically brilliant.