by Aprille Hanson
A defining characteristic of country music has been about championing the blue-collar life and the need to unwind every once and awhile. When people think of Carrie Underwood, it’s hard to see her doing a song about that sort of thing. After all, this is the queen of the country ballads we’re talking about, who has the best voice of any female artist in the genre right now. She’s also known for releasing more pop-country hits like “Cowboy Casanova” and “Undo it.”
Instead of releasing another polished or pumped up radio hit, her first single off of her fifth album Storyteller is “Smoke Break,” co-written by Underwood, Chris DeStefano and Hillary Lindsey.
Immediately, the title doesn’t sound like an Underwood song. It’s more in line with artists like Miranda Lambert and Kacey Musgraves, who are a little rougher around the edges. But this song is such a wonderful song for Underwood to release. It opens with a small-town woman “working three jobs, feeding four little mouths in a run-down kitchen.” Nope, no signs of partying it up here -- this is real Southern life. While Underwood’s own lifestyle might not be anywhere close to this, she’s still a hardworking new mom who undoubtedly can relate to needing a moment to breathe. As she sings, “It’s hard to be a good wife and a good mom and a good Christian.”
The chorus is really the meat of the song, explaining that a person might not drink or smoke, but every once in a while, they need a “stiff drink” and a “long drag,” simply a “smoke break.”
The song doesn’t leave out the hardworking men out there, with the second verse talking about a “big city man” who is climbing the ladder, “first generation to go to college instead of driving a tractor.”
I love this because not every small town son or daughter stays in a small town, but that doesn’t mean that the culture leaves them behind. The chorus’ lyrics switch up by saying “sometimes I wanna pop that top” and “light it up” making it a little more masculine.
Underwood did catch some flack that the song was “promoting” smoking. “Smoke Break” promotes smoking about as much as Little Big Town’s smash hit “Girl Crush” is about homosexuality. One listen to the song and anyone can hear that it’s about finding whatever vice or thing you do to relax and using that as your “smoke break.”
She needed to release a song like this right now. More than most artists who are played on the radio, she has managed to release a song about chilling out without trucks and bonfires while also making the realities of a hard working life very real, which is so relatable. Country music desperately needs a “smoke break” and Underwood just gave it one.
Is "Smoke Break" a hit or miss?
by Philip Price
Last Friday, Will Smith helped usher in what I assume was a whole new level of awareness from American listeners for Colombian band Bomba Estéreo. Appearing on a remix of their single “Fiesta,” The Fresh Prince marked his return to the music scene for the first time in over a decade. “Hip-Hop is aging…gracefully,” said Zane Lowe in a recent interview with Smith on his Beats 1 Radio Show who took the opportunity to talk music with Smith and ran with it. Smith (who just turned 47) acknowledged this fact and brought about the idea of this being the first real experience we’ve had with seeing rappers and people such as himself, Dr. Dre and even Jay-Z (who is now 45) get older and to a point in their lives where we expect them to stop making music, retire from the public eye or at least decline in popularity. It’s anyone’s guess as to how things will go for any individual artist as they continue to surpass the boundaries society sets for them, but let’s face it: as far as music, and rap music specifically, is concerned - people (critics and fans alike) have trivialized Will Smith for some time now.
Will Smith expanded the platform that was rap though. He won the first ever rap Grammy along with DJ Jazzy Jeff for “Parents Just Don’t Understand,” and he essentially pioneered the career path that a large portion of rappers have adapted since in that he became not only a music artist, but an actor and a good one with credible projects and credentials to his name. What is no secret is that even Smith’s acting career has hit something of a road block as of late, but the guy (ever the determined strategist) seems perfectly primed to rectify that situation soon. What for? It’s an easy question to ask. We’ll all slide into irrelevance someday, even Will Smith, so why continue to tweak what is already an admirable legacy by continuing to take risks? Why not continue to mold the tinier versions of himself and let them take over the name as he seems so keen to do anyway? I have to imagine it’s the unavoidable drive and desire that powers a man such as Smith who, conceivably, has little more to offer than his charisma, but knows how to utilize it in a hundred different circumstances.
Having been raised in a household where my mother listened to country some of the time and funk or soul most of the time and where my father exposed us more to the likes of ELO and the rising ‘80s hip hop scene I was lucky enough to get an eclectic taste of what the music world had to offer. It was here that The Fresh Prince and DJ Jazzy Jeff made an indelible impression with the likes of “Charlie Mack (First Out of the Limo)," ”Nightmare on My Street“ and “I Think I Can Beat Mike Tyson.” I say all of this because by 1997 (the year after Smith became a bona fide movie star in “Independence Day”) he had essentially become an icon in my eyes. Not only because I loved everything about “Men in Black,” but because Big Willie Style had just proved he could conquer anything he desired to. At 10-years old my eight year-old brother and I learned the dance sequence from the “Men In Black” video, taught it to our two younger brothers and performed it at as many talent shows as we could find. We did the same with “Wild Wild West” two years later. This helped to launch a life-long affinity for performing and writing music. I love Will Smith and always will pending he doesn’t make a complete U-turn and murder someone, but his value seems lost these days.
Still, Will Smith is considered a modern movie star. The current generation of youth that were being born when “Men in Black,” “Wild Wild West” and “Bad Boys II” were all being released know The Fresh Prince solely for his acting skill. Thanks to the consistent syndication of “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” they know he’s been around for a while, but the fact he was an MC first is likely one that alludes many. So why should we be listening to Will Smith, the rapper, now? The man put out three records within the span of six years from 1999-2005 and not too many folks seemed to care then. The combined sales of Willenium, Born to Reign and Lost and Found to date are 3,560,000 which is 6,740,000 less than Big Willie Style’s massive 10,300,000. It’s not really fair to compare the successors of a product to one that came out in an era when Smith could have literally put out the trash and people would have bought it, but it’s interesting to speculate why and how his presence in the hip-hop world dwindled as much as it did in such a short period of time.
Was it the shifting cultural climate from the pure pop machine that Top 40 radio was at the turn of the millennium (one Smith helped re-usher into existence with Big Willie Style) to that of more pop/rock-infused material and the resurgence of hardcore rap that made Smith look soft and unattractive to his once loyal fanbase? Probably. The rocket that the likes of Eminem and Dr. Dre took to the stratosphere in the early 2000′s that propelled other rappers like Ja Rule, DMX, Jay-Z, Method Man, Nas, Outkast, Ludacris and even Nelly to great popularity was one Smith was not welcome on. It’s interesting to go back and listen to the frustration Smith had with his lack of respect in the hip-hop community on Lost & Found. He was somewhere around 36 at the time he made that record and the idea of his legacy seemed to be looming large. Instead, he was left to the movies and he continued to thrive by countering the admittedly awful “Men in Black II” with “Ali” and delivering hit after hit with the aforementioned “Bad Boys II” and then “Shark Tale,” “I, Robot,” “Hitch,” “The Pursuit of Happyness,” “I Am Legend” and “Hancock.” There was seemingly no way to stop the man who still managed to own a good chunk of the summer box office while expanding his reach into more dramatic, Oscar-worthy material. Then there was “Seven Pounds.” Then there was the four year hiatus. Then there was the obligatory third “Men in Black” film. And then, “After Earth.” Serving as something of a final nail in the coffin, Will Smith, as we’d once known him-was done.
In February 2015 Smith opened “Focus” to $18 million domestically (a far cry from the $43m opening weekend for “Hitch” a decade earlier in the same release date) with a final worldwide total of $158 million on a $50 million budget. It wasn’t a complete turn-around, but it was clearly the beginning of a master plan. If you listened to any or all of Smith’s interview on Beats 1 you’ll learn that “Fiesta” is only the beginning of a new venture into music for The Fresh Prince. You’ll learn, if you didn’t know already, that he is playing Dr. Bennet Omalu in this year’s Oscar-hopeful “Concussion” about the forensic neuropathologist who made the first discovery of CTE, a football-related brain trauma. You’ll also hear more about his first foray into the world of comic book movies with next year’s “Suicide Squad” that will be a major part of the DC Cinematic Universe. You may even hear a tidbit about a new “Bad Boys” film, but what is most interesting is that Smith plans or at least hopes to tour in support of his upcoming record with DJ Jazzy Jeff. Touring has never been something Smith has done, he’s never had time, but that he’s making the time-putting all of his effort into representing this upcoming music in as true a form as he can makes me hope that people give him the respect he’s due in the rap game, because he certainly deserves it and the cultural music climate couldn’t be more primed for a shot of Big Willie’s eternal style.
by Julian Spivey
“Austin City Limits” began its 41st season on Saturday, Oct. 3 on PBS with its second annual Hall of Fame induction special. The longest running music program in television history inducted Loretta Lynn, Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, Flaco Jimenez and Asleep at the Wheel.
The induction ceremony included performances from many of the best performers in the country music and Americana genres singing songs in tribute to the inductees.
The evening kicked off with the flawless Patty Loveless paying tribute to country music icon Loretta Lynn, who was one of the first big female stars to grace the “Austin City Limits” stage in the early ‘80s. Loveless did a terrific rendition of Lynn’s “Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ On Your Mind),” before being joined onstage by the great Vince Gill for a duet on “After the Fire Is Gone,” maybe Lynn’s most memorable duet with long-time duet partner Conway Twitty.
A couple of legendary Texan singer-songwriters were also inducted into the second Austin City Limits Hall of Fame class: Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt.
Lyle Lovett said he owed a great deal to Clark, who once passed his tapes around Nashville even though the two had never met, which helped to get Lovett a record deal. Lovett performed Clark’s “Step Inside This House,” which he has recorded himself previously. Lovett said it was the first song that Clark had ever written and how unfair it truly is that he could write something that great without having any prior experience.
My favorite singer-songwriter of this modern era of Americana music is Jason Isbell who took the ‘ACL’ stage to perform “Desperadoes Waiting for a Train,” which is my absolute favorite Clark song and thus the mixture of these two things made this performance my favorite of the special.
Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings took the stage to pay tribute to the late Van Zandt with a great performance of his classic “Early In the Morning,” before English folk singer Laura Marling stunned the crowd with a performance of his “Colorado Girl.”
“Austin City Limits” has been known over its four-plus decades on the air for its love of all sorts of roots music and that includes Tejano music. Acclaimed accordionist Flaco Jimenez, quite possibly the most famous name in Tejano music, was inducted in the second class and was joined on stage by Los Texmaniacs and Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo for one of his classics, before the special’s host Dwight Yoakam took the stage to perform “Streets of Bakersfield” with the artists on stage. Jimenez famously played accordion on that track that was a No. 1 country hit in the late ‘80s.
The final inductees were Texas swing masters Asleep at the Wheel, who have taken the music of Bob Wills and kept it alive over the last 40-plus years. Asleep at the Wheel was one of the artists to appear on the very first episode of “Austin City Limits” in 1975. The group, led by frontman Ray Benson, performed the Wills classic “Take Me Back to Tulsa,” with Vince Gill joining them onstage on vocals.
The fantastic Hall of Fame special episode of ‘ACL’ ended with every one of the artists from this great night meeting on the stage for an all-star performance of Townes Van Zandt’s “White Freightliner Blues” with Yoakam, Lovett, Benson and more taking turns on lead vocals throughout the performance.