by Julian Spivey
Texas music legend Robert Earl Keen was all smiles as he put on a terrific show for the Rev Room crowd on Saturday, Nov. 21 in Little Rock, Ark.
You could tell the veteran singer-songwriter was having a good time at the show performing a mixture of new tracks from his bluegrass album Happy Prisoner: The Bluegrass Sessions, released earlier this year, with classics that everybody in the audience seemed to know by heart.
Keen and his incredibly talented six-person band opened their set with four consecutive tracks from Happy Prisoner starting with “Hot Corn, Cold Corn” and terrific covers of Richard Thompson’s “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” and Bill Monroe’s “Footprints in the Snow.”
It was when Keen started into his classic songs like 1998’s “Feelin’ Good Again” that the crowd really got into the show and that feeling didn’t let up for the rest of the night. It truly does “feels so good feelin’ good again” at a Robert Earl Keen show. You know an artist is feeling pretty good about a show when they throw songs into their set mid-show that weren’t on the initial setlist. I could view the setlist from where I stood at the front-side of the stage and was pleasantly surprised, as was the entirety of the crowd, when Keen threw 1994’s “Gringo Honeymoon” into the show impromptu style. Following “Gringo Honeymoon,” was his modern day Christmas classic “Merry Christmas from the Family,” which truly put everybody in the Rev Room into the Holiday spirit. “Merry Christmas from the Family” really is one of the few great original Christmas tunes out there, likely because it gives a real-life “Christmas Vacation” type view on the holiday.
Keen is known as one of the great storytellers in the genres of Red Dirt Country and Americana and he has a knack for telling interesting stories on the stage, as well. Like the time he was in a Starbucks and the girl at the drive thru window said she heard he was some kind of famous singer and wanted him to play a song. He begrudgingly did and it turned into the humorous “Wireless in Heaven.”
Among the other classics from his 30-plus year career that he performed on stage were “Shades of Gray,” “Beats the Devil,” “Dreadful Selfish Crime” and the humorous “Five Pound Bass.” Keen also performed “The Man Behind the Drums,” his tribute to the late, great Levon Helm, an Arkansas native, and drummer for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame group The Band.
Every aspect of Keen’s legendary career was on point on Saturday night from his very first album 1984’s No Kinda Dancer to his most recent, this was evident when he pulled out the old tune “Willie” from his debut album 31 years ago toward the end of his set.
Keen finished his set with a rip-roaring performance of “The Road Goes on Forever” to the gleeful screams and yells of the adoring crowd. Hearing an entire room full of people shouting “The road goes on forever and the party never ends” is truly one of the most amazing concert moments I’ve ever seen/heard in person.
His encore would be among the most impressive moments of the night, performing fan-favorites “I’m Comin’ Home,” “I Gotta Go” and “Corpus Christi Bay” consecutively to close out the night – fans singing along to every single word.
Keen certainly lived up to his Texas legend status on Saturday night.
The Rev Room is a small venue in Little Rock that frequently houses members of the Red Dirt Country music genre like Keen, Jason Boland & the Stragglers, the Turnpike Troubadours and more of their like. It always has a fantastic sound, great atmosphere and the bands always seem to play with absolute joy. If you’re a lover of fantastic music there’s likely no better place to see it in central Arkansas.
by Julian Spivey
The A&E Television Networks and the United Way partnered to bring the Shining a Light concert to advance progress on race in America to television on Friday, Nov. 20. You wouldn’t think that in the year 2015 we would need a benefit concert for advancing the progress of race in this country, but this last year has proven that it’s indeed something we could use.
And so some of the biggest and brightest musical stars in our country got together for a great evening of music and trying to both raise money and bring awareness to racial issues we’re experiencing currently in this country.
Throughout the night’s performances pre-filmed documentary shorts where filmed in areas of the country experiencing significant racial unrest over the past year like Charleston, S.C., Ferguson, Mo. and Baltimore. R&B artists Pharrell Williams, John Legend and Alicia Keys visited these cities respectively to get a feel of what life was like in these affected areas.
The performances from the concert were all incredibly stunning – something that you’ll actually rarely see from a benefit type concert where artists from all backgrounds and musical genres appear often singing songs that aren’t their own. I fully believe music can change hearts and the minds and opinions of people and thus it was truly fantastic to see so many artists from different genres performing on the Shining a Light special.
The only downfall about this particular special is the bulk of its viewership was almost certainly from people who already support the cause and the advancement of racial progress in the country. It would seem unlikely that those truly needing a change of heart would’ve tuned into the program in the first place.
The special kicked off brilliantly with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band’s brilliant protest song “American Skin (41 Shots)” about police brutality and the fear that minorities have just from leaving their house due to policing tactics like profiling. Springsteen performed the song as a duet with the always spectacular John Legend with a roaring guitar solo from frequent tour mate Tom Morello.
As previously mentioned every single performance of the evening was stunning, so it’s not necessary to discuss all of them but notable performances included Ed Sheeran’s stunning take on The Impression’s Civil Rights era anthem “People Get Ready,” Sia’s cover of the Jimmy Cliff classic “Many Rivers to Cross” and Zac Brown Band performing “Remedy.”
Pharrell Williams performed a taped version of “Freedom” from the Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, S.C. that was the sight of the horrific hate crime in June where nine African-Americans were murdered by a white supremacist. It was a truly emotional performance for everybody involved, including those watching from home on television.
Another fantastic performance was Eric Church debuting his new song “Kill a Word” from his surprise recent album Mr. Misunderstood, along with Smokey Robinson, Aloe Blacc and Rhiannon Giddens (who performs backing vocals on the recorded track). Church’s song is about killing truly devastating and hateful words like “hate.”
Oscar-winning actor/singer Jamie Foxx also had a particularly moving performance when he took the audience both in person and at home to church with a performance of “No Weapon” after bringing his daughter (who can recite every book of the Bible by heart) and her closest friends of all different races onto the stage and explained that kids don’t want to hate, just play with everybody, no matter what they look like.
The Shining the Light concert ended with two more jaw-dropping performance by Jill Scott doing a haunting cover of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” one of the most important songs ever recorded about the horrors of lynching black people in the American South during the days of Jim Crow. The show ended with Big Sean and John Legend collaborating on the powerful “One Man Can Change the World,” which ended with Big Sean pleading to the viewing public that “being one’s best self is all it takes to change the world for the better.”
by Julian Spivey
The future of country music could be decided at the Country Music Association (CMA) Awards on Wednesday night. I know that’s a pretty bold statement, but I believe it could turn out to be true.
There’s no hiding the fact that country music has been at war with itself for the last few years. The genre has been infiltrated by pop and hip-hop aspects that has made it popular amongst a new group of listeners, but has also driven the old school country traditionalist fans mad and many of them away or at least to artists who aren’t played on mainstream radio.
The CMA nominations were a pleasant surprise to many when they included acts like Chris Stapleton, Kacey Musgraves, Maddie & Tae and Lee Ann Womack – either newer or older favorites that still rely on more traditional country sounds for the bulk of their work.
Of course the nominations also included these pop-infused country acts like Luke Bryan, Sam Hunt, Florida Georgia Line and Thomas Rhett.
This is pretty much a symbol of country music warring with itself, the actual awards on Wednesday will likely dictate which side is going to win out. Will the pop acts ruining a once great genre continue to thrive or will the more traditional aspects of country music come forward to hopefully inspire a change within the genre?
The outcome could likely come down to one award – Best New Artist. The nominees are Sam Hunt, Chris Stapleton, Thomas Rhett, Maddie & Tae and Kelsea Ballerini. Sure, Maddie & Tae, Ballerini or Rhett could all potentially win and there’s a lot to be made about the future of country music if one of those acts does, but I believe the front-runners to be Hunt and Stapleton.
Some might question whether Stapleton is actually a front-runner over the other three artists who are obviously played more on country radio (I’m willing to bet most of you have never actually heard a Stapleton song on the radio), but Stapleton’s three nominations including Male Vocalist of the Year and Album of the Year for his terrific Traveller show me he’s more of a threat among the voters.
Stapleton is the traditionalist country music needs to save itself at the moment – there are other artists who I think could be in this position as well like Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell and the Turnpike Troubadours, but they are outsiders, whereas Stapleton really isn’t because he’s worked as a songwriter within the confines of the Nashville system writing crap for the very artists I’m hoping his solo style will one day defeat for the greater good of the genre. Stapleton writing songs for an artist like Luke Bryan, in fact, is one reason I was slow to take interest in his solo project.
But, I’m fully on team Stapleton for the CMA Awards tomorrow (except I would not mind Kacey Musgraves’ excellent Pageant Material beating Traveller out for Album of the Year).
Sam Hunt is the least country performer that’s ever been played on country radio and that’s saying a lot these days. Unlike the tripe performed by artists like Bryan, Florida Georgia Line and Jason Aldean, Hunt doesn’t even try to masquerade as a country artist. And yet he’s played on mainstream country radio almost exclusively. I guess he and others within the system think that just because he’s from Georgia it means he’s “country.” It doesn’t really work that way.
As bad as bro-country was for the country music genre, Hunt’s bringing in EDM (electronic) aspects into the genre may even be worse. The infusion of pop, hip hop and EDM has stripped away everything that’s truly country about country music – when’s the last time you heard a fiddle, steel guitar or mandolin on mainstream country radio? Don’t even get me started on the stereotypical and frequently nonsensical lyrics of many of these songs, which often have three to four songwriters credited to them.
The fact that Sam Hunt is even considered to be in the realm of country music is a terrible sign for the future of the genre. How worse can it possibly get?
That’s why I’m completely interested in the Best New Artist category at the CMAs on Wednesday night. I don’t think it’s just another award – I think it’s the battle for the future and heart and soul of an entire musical genre.
If the award is a popularity contest (thank god it’s not voted on by the public) it will no doubt go to Hunt, who’s one of the most popular and most played figures in the genre at the moment. Luckily it’s supposed to come down to at least a modicum of talent and the voters have already shown they’re at least willing to lend some support to traditional country with the three nominations given to Stapleton. Now, let’s see if the voters are willing to go all the way and at least attempt to put country music back in the right direction.
by Aprille Hanson
Entertainer of the Year:
Who Should Win: Garth Brooks
When Garth Brooks announced his comeback “The Garth Brooks World Tour with Trisha Yearwood,” the fans rejoiced … and bought tickets. If you’re a Brooks fan, you had to see him after his 14-year break, even if you were lucky enough to see his residence in Las Vegas. His tour is expected to be one of the highest-grossing concert tours ever. It’s already broken records at every arena he’s performed at regarding ticket sales (as of September 2015). If that isn’t an Entertainer of the Year, I don’t know what is.
Prediction: Luke Bryan
I have a bad feeling it’ll be Luke Bryan. Despite Brooks bringing in high ticket sales, Bryan is by far the most popular country artist on the radio right now. Since Brooks has not had the radio play since his comeback, the CMA’s might give it to Bryan.
Female Vocalist of the Year:
Who Should Win: Kacey Musgraves
It’s “high time” that Kacey Musgraves is named Female Vocalist of the Year. She’s developed such a large Americana and traditional country music following, not to mention having her hand in top songs (like Miranda Lambert’s smash hit “Mama’s Broken Heart”) and it’s truly her year after coming off her superb sophomore album Pageant Material.
Prediction: Miranda Lambert
Miranda Lambert is the first woman to ever win five consecutive CMA Female Vocalist of the Year awards. Lambert is my favorite female artist in the genre today, but it’s time to pass the torch. Musgraves had a better all-around album and as talented as Lambert is, no one should have a monopoly on this honor. However, if history is any indication, she’ll take it again.
Male Vocalist of the Year:
Who Should Win: Eric Church
Eric Church deserves this win more than anyone else in the category. He has been a regular nominee over the last few years, but has never taken home the award. Church’s star-status has been fun for long-time fans of his to watch and it’d be nice to see him be announced as the winner for once.
Prediction: Blake Shelton
Much like his now ex-wife Miranda Lambert, Blake Shelton has won Male Vocalist of the year for four years in a row. Church has consistently made better music the last few years, so it’s time for someone else to have a shot.
New Artist of the Year:
Who Should Win: Chris Stapleton
I’ll admit, I’m not terribly familiar with Chris Stapleton’s music. However, the few songs I’ve heard him sing have been amazingly country. It’s a rarity in this day and age to hear true country music and I really think he should win for not only being a new artist, but a new kind of artist, unafraid to sound country.
Prediction: Sam Hunt
Sam Hunt is a pop star being played on country radio. Everyone loves his sound it seems and how different it is, but the reason it’s so different is that it’s an entirely different genre. Sadly, I think his insane popularity will make him win it.
Vocal Group of the Year:
Who Should Win: Little Big Town
Ordinarily, I think Little Big Town is overrated. They’re a good band, but I’ve never seen them as a big award-winner. However, this year’s release of “Girl Crush,” which was an amazing song, makes them deserve the honor more than the others in this category.
Prediction: Little Big Town
They’ll take it home. Personally, I’d like to see Old Crow Medicine Show or Nathanial Rateliff & the Night Sweats win it, but they were not nominated for some reason...
Vocal Duo of the Year:
Who Should Win: Maddie & Tae
Maddie & Tae made a big statement with their smash hit “Girl in a Country Song” and followed up with a powerful song “Fly.” They had the biggest year of any in the category.
Prediction: Florida Georgia Line
I’m sick of seeing them win. It’s like Brooks & Dunn’s reign over the award, but B&D were actually talented country stars. It’s time for FGL to cruise away as just a nominee.
Album of the Year:
Who Should Win: Pageant Material, Kacey Musgraves
Pageant Material was the quintessential story book of small town life, which is everything a country album should be. The award is the most prized honor of the night in my opinion because it’s a celebration of an artist’s work as a whole. Musgraves made pretty much a perfect album and it needs to be rewarded.
Prediction: Pain Killer, Little Big Town
Little Big Town is always an awards-favorite which is why I think they’ll win. I haven’t heard their album, but I don’t see how it could beat Musgraves.
Single of the Year:
Who Should Win: “Talladega,” Eric Church
I debated this, because I do think “Girl Crush” was a very unique and powerful song. In a sea of stock lyrics, I appreciate a twist on what’s common and “Girl Crush” did that. But, so did “Talladega.” For anyone who is a NASCAR fan, the Talladega experience is sacred. Church captures it so well in this song.
Prediction: “Girl Crush,” Little Big Town
I would be OK if “Girl Crush” won because as I explained, it’s certainly unique and good.
Song of the Year:
Who Should Win: “Girl Crush,” Liz Rose, Lori McKenna, Hillary Lindsey
Since Song of the Year is meant to celebrate the songwriters, Rose, McKenna and Lindsey should be recognized for this country gem.
Prediction: “Girl Crush”
I’d be shocked if ‘GC’ didn’t take home the songwriter prize.
Who Should Win: Django and Jimmie, Willie Nelson & Merle Haggard
When Willie and Merle do an album together it is the musical event of the year. You just can’t beat that. Period.
Prediction: “Smokin’ and Drinkin’,” Miranda Lambert featuring Little Big Town
You know how I said you can’t beat that? Well, unfortunately it shouldn’t, but I think “Smokin’ and Drinkin’” will be the winner because the CMAs love Miranda Lambert and Little Big Town.
For complete list of nominees click: HERE
Let us know who you think should win …