by Julian Spivey
There’s a frequent country music argument I seem to keep having every few months or so, but have never gotten around to writing about and that topic is controversial comedian Ben Hoffman and his country music alter ego Wheeler Walker Jr.
I don’t like the guy. It seems I’m in the minority. And, frankly that’s part of what’s so upsetting about Wheeler Walker Jr. to me. It’s not so upsetting that I’m in the minority when it comes to a musical opinion – there’s nothing new about that. Just ask all the Journey and AC/DC fans I’ve annoyed over the years with my dislike of those bands, but Wheeler Walker Jr. seems beloved by my preferred music community and I just don’t understand it.
When Wheeler Walker Jr. (and I will continue to refer to him by all three names because it’s a character) burst onto the scene in 2016 with the Dave Cobb produced Redneck Shit I was intrigued because so many writers I follow were praising his music. Even though I wasn’t too keen on song titles like “Fuck You Bitch” and “Which One O’ You Queers Gonna Suck My Dick?” I put one of his songs – I think it was “Eatin’ Pussy/Kickin’ Ass” on – because I trusted these people raving about him. I realized immediately the whole thing was a joke, even though I didn’t know it was stand-up comedian Ben Hoffman behind it at the time, but the sophomoric humor (which I’ve almost never enjoyed) just wasn’t my style. I didn’t need to hear much more. Though since that release I have given some more of Wheeler Walker Jr.’s songs a listen to try and figure out what it is people see about his act and music that I just don’t get.
His second release Ol’ Wheeler, also produced by Dave Cobb who literally seems to produce most of my favorite musicians these days from Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson to Chris Stapleton and Lori McKenna, was acclaimed by many within the industry. Furthermore, artists I greatly respect and admire seemed be on the “Wheeler Train,” as well. So, I gave it another try. The song “Summers in Kentucky” starts off like a decent country song, but then you get to the verse that goes: “Used to press your pussy up against my mouth/now you’ve had a couple kids and it’s all stretched out/But I’m starting to think we could figure it out/Summers in Kentucky, wanna be back now.” I get it that it’s effectively a punchline in the song after two verses of what would pass as truly decent country music and, frankly, it’s a well-set up punchline. It’s just not my type of humor. It’s also fairly clean compared to much of Wheeler Walker Jr.’s lyrics – believe it or not. His songs are in the brand of David Allen Coe’s (another artist I have absolutely no use for) X-rated albums, but focusing on the sex stuff, rather than the racism. I’d say 90 percent of Wheeler Walker Jr.’s songs are sex songs in the most raunchy way imaginable.
When I voice by disinterest and dislike of Wheeler Walker Jr. I have some fellow writers I talk with on social media say stuff to the effect of “Listen to the music. It’s actual country music.” But, I don’t care, especially being a music fan who’s typically more into lyrics than music. But, even if the music is well-played and sounds great if you were to take “Dueling Banjos” and add fart sounds on to it wouldn’t make it worthwhile. That’s basically what Wheeler Walker Jr. is; he’s a decent sounding record with George Carlin’s “Seven Words You Can’t Say on TV” over it. Except for Carlin is funny and Wheeler Walker Jr. just thinks singing “her tongue knows where my butthole’s at” is comedic genius.
Yes, Wheeler Walker Jr. is a parody of today’s country music, but with more traditional country music played instrumentally, but the biggest issue with his music is the misogyny involved. Yes, mainstream country acts like Florida Georgia Line frequently perform misogynistic songs and this is (maybe a parody of that, though having caught a bit of Hoffman’s short-lived Comedy Central show years ago I’m not so sure), but I don’t believe a lot of his fans realize that. They love it because it’s misogynistic, not because it’s playing against that side of mainstream country. I know this because when I share my opinions of Wheeler Walker Jr. online I get responses from people like “You sound like a bitch” and “Don’t getchya panties in a bunch hoss.” Both of those are real.
I’ll also get the frequent: “would you rather listen to Luke Bryan?”
My responses are always a variation of the two artists essentially being the same thing to me. Both are fake. Both are pretty much play acting, even if Bryan doesn’t ever admit to it. As a music lover the last thing I want to spend my time with is something fake, especially if it’s offensive to me.
You can like Wheeler Walker Jr. all you like. I would never sit here and claim you shouldn’t listen to something you like. I’m just sharing the reasons why I don’t like it. But, when it comes to my community of music listeners – in this case the alternative/outlaw country community – I must wonder what it is you truly see in this guy? Maybe it’s just that we have different tastes in humor?
by Julian Spivey
Kenny Chesney released his 17th studio album Songs for the Saints on Friday, July 27 and it’s one of his best albums in some time. The album was inspired by the devastation Hurricane Irma wrought on Saint John, one of the U.S. Virgin Islands last year, where Chesney had one of his homes destroyed and saw the tragic affect on his friends and an island he adores.
The album continues Chesney’s favorite theme of beach and sea songs, but in a more introspective manner than we’ve been accustomed to lately from an artist whose beach bum stature has been more “Margaritaville” than “Trying to Reason with Hurricane Season,” the Jimmy Buffett tune he covers and duets on with Buffett on his latest. Chesney has always been better when he’s gotten more introspective and that’s the biggest reason Songs for the Saints is his best work in a while. But, being introspective and about the devastation from Hurricane Irma doesn’t mean the entire work is a downer. It’s a hopeful album about the rebuilding process with proceeds from album sales going to Hurricane Irma disaster relief funds.
But, my focus here isn’t so much a review of Chesney’s release, but a salute and a look into his selection of singer-songwriter songs over his last decade of releases. Its inspiration comes from his selection of songs by John Baumann and Travis Meadows on Songs for the Saints, which have been standouts in the early days of the release and are in line with a pattern we’ve seen from Chesney for a while, though he doesn’t seem to get enough credit for. You can say what you want about Chesney, who’s been one of the more controversial figures in country music going all the way back to his 1999 hit “She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy” and has followed him throughout the beach bum stage of his career with many accusing him of trying to be country music’s version of Buffett, but his selection of songs by artists like Guy Clark, Hayes Carll and others on his albums has done a lot to get better songwriting and terrific non-mainstream artists into the mainstream. It may be overstating the importance of this, as many music listeners may not go through track listings and liner notes to see who wrote which songs, but if Chesney’s inclusion of these singer-songwriters on his albums has led to even some listeners discovering Clark, Carll, Mac McAnally or others than that’s a win for good music.
Let’s start with Chesney’s Lucky Old Sun, from 2008, which included the terrific duet “Down the Road,” performed with and written by McAnally. The song is a fantastic portrait of young love told from the perspective of the young man falling in love with girl down the road and then turns to the perspective of the father of the daughter, who’s the target of the boy’s affection. McAnally had released the song as a single in 1990 and it did absolutely nothing on the country charts, so it was great of Chesney to give it new life and turn it into a No. 1 hit. It’s one of Chesney’s best releases of his career.
Chesney’s 2010 release Hemingway’s Whiskey took its name from a song co-written by Guy Clark, Ray Stephenson and Joe Leathers, which appeared on Clark’s album Somedays the Song Writes You from the year before. People should’ve already known the name Guy Clark, the writer of some of country music’s all-time greatest songs like “Desperadoes Waiting for a Train” and “L.A. Freeway,” but I don’t know how the fanbases of Chesney and Clark overlap. If Chesney covering “Hemingway’s Whiskey” led people to discovering one of the greatest singer-songwriters to ever walk this earth than they should truly feel indebted to him.
“Hemingway’s Whiskey” wasn’t a single, songs like it rarely if ever are, especially in the world of country music over the last decade, but another release from Chesney’s 2010 album “You and Tequila” would become a huge radio hit and a nominee for CMA Song of the Year. That song was written by veteran country music songwriter Matraca Berg, one of the genre’s best of the last 30 years, along with Deana Carter, who reached country music superstardom in 1996 with “Strawberry Wine.” Carter had previously released the song on her 2003 release I’m Just a Girl.” Berg, who has never had any hits as an artist (though her albums are critically-acclaimed) but has written or co-written plenty of them like “XXX’s and OOO’s (An American Girl)” for Trisha Yearwood and “Wild Angels” for Martina McBride, as well as “Strawberry Wine,” released her version on her 2011 album The Dreaming Fields after Chesney had made it a hit.
Chesney’s 2012 album Welcome to the Fishbowl included “El Cerrito Place,” a song that I had loved for nearly a decade ever since I caught the video for Texas singer-songwriter Charlie Robison’s version on CMT in 2004. I’d always assumed Robison being a songwriter had written it but learned rather recently that it was penned by Keith Gattis, who was at one point Dwight Yoakam’s band leader and had songs on albums by George Strait and recently Wade Bowen. Only an artist like Chesney – a massive superstar within the country music genre – could get such a cinematic story song like “El Cerrito Place” into the top 10 on the Billboard Country Airplay chart.
I didn’t care too much overall for Chesney’s 2014 album The Big Revival, but my favorite track on the album was “Don’t It,” which ranked as my 28th favorite country song of 2014. That song was co-written by Brent Cobb, who has since become a Grammy nominee and one of the incredibly talented young guns of the non-mainstream country music scene, with Chase McGill. Having a track on a big Chesney album (along with his relation to super producer Dave Cobb) likely went a long way toward Cobb having his own burgeoning singer-songwriter career.
Chesney’s Cosmic Hallelujah from 2016 was an album I thought even less of than The Big Revival two years before. It earned Chesney a nomination for Best Country Album from the Grammy Awards, but it could easily be the worst of his career. But, there at track number nine was “Jesus and Elvis,” a song about an older woman who owns a bar prominently featuring photos of Jesus Christ and Elvis Presley, two men her son who died in the Vietnam War dearly loved. “Jesus and Elvis” was written by the terrific trio of Hayes Carll, Allison Moorer and Matraca Berg. Even on an album filled with mostly tripe, Chesney manages to include a great selection featuring some of the best singer-songwriters of the time.
That brings us to the latest release of Songs for the Saints, which thankfully breaks a streak of bad Chesney albums. The track that has been my favorite thus far and is seemingly one of the standouts from reviews I’ve read is John Baumann’s “Gulf Moon.” Baumann is a songwriter I discovered last year, and he immediately struck a chord with me with “Old Stone Church” ranking No. 18 on my 100 Best Americana and Country Songs of 2017 list and “Pontiacs” being No. 53 on the list. He’s also collaborated with Mike and the Moonpies on one of my favorites of this year, “Country Music’s Dead.” “Gulf Moon” appeared on Baumann’s 2014 release High Plains Alchemy and hopefully that performance and the rest of his work will be found by a larger audience now.
Songs for the Saints also features the Travis Meadows and Liz Rose penned “Better Boat.” Both Meadows and Rose have been touted as two of the genre’s best current songwriters. Country fans may know Meadows as a co-writer on Eric Church’s fantastic story song “Knives of New Orleans” from Church’s career best Mr. Misunderstood album in 2015 and Rose has been Taylor Swift’s most effective co-writer throughout her career.
Like I said, you can say what you will about Kenny Chesney. He’s released some of my favorite country music songs of the last quarter-century like 2005’s “Anything but Mine” (written by Scooter Carusoe) and 2008’s “Better as a Memory” (written by Carusoe and Lady Goodman) and he’s released songs I’d like to take a baseball bat to the radio when I hear – a lot of his fun-loving, beach bum stuff. But, no matter what you think of him as a superstar artist it’s a fact that he’s done a great service to some truly fantastic singer-songwriters by including their work on his mega-releases over the years. I’m sure they’re incredibly grateful for him not only for the royalties, but also the attention it’s brought to all their careers.
by Julian Spivey
The annual Outlaw Music Festival presented by Blackbird Presents, established in 2016 bringing revolving acts in the country, rock and Americana genres typically culminating in a Willie Nelson concert to cities around the country, made a stop at Little Rock’s Verizon Arena on Friday, June 29 for a terrific afternoon and evening of music.
The acts joining Nelson at the Little Rock stop on Friday included Grammy-winner Sturgill Simpson, indie group The Head and the Heart, Texas country star Ryan Bingham and Willie’s two youngest sons Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real and Particle Kid (Micah Nelson).
Particle Kid began the day of music at 4:30 p.m. with an entertaining three-song set that began with “The Ocean.” Micah Nelson proved that talented musicianship and guitar playing certainly runs in the family. Lukas would show this off to great extent, as well, later. I particularly enjoyed Particle Kid’s performance of his “Gun Show Loophole Blues,” a protest song about gun control coming the day after yet another mass shooting in this country. He would finish his set with the fun “Everything is Bullshit,” which is also somewhat of a protest song lamenting stuff such as social media and drone use.
Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real would immediately join the stage following Micah’s performance with Micah playing in the band. Lukas and Promise of the Real certainly would prove themselves during their five-song set as one of the absolute best jam bands around today. The band started their set with “Set Me Down on a Cloud,” before going into the rocking “Entirely Different Stars.” The group’s performance of “Turn Off the News” was certainly a favorite among some in the crowd, which was still building and would continue to do so throughout the afternoon. My favorite performances from the group were the ballad “(Forget About) Georgia,” a lovely song about trying to forget a girl who happens to share the name of a song Lukas must play frequently in concert with his dad (“Georgia On My Mind”) and the set finishing “Find Yourself,” which was my favorite track off the band’s self-titled 2017 release. Lukas is an incredibly talented vocalist and guitarist with a bit more of a soulful, bluesy tinge to his voice than his father has, though still just as, if not even more nasally. It really makes for a unique combination.
With Arkansas not getting too many music festivals that tend to last a bulk of an afternoon and evening and being on a Friday where many were likely waiting for their work week to end before attending it was kind of disappointing to see the early turnout for some of these artists. I understand that people go to concerts to see artists they already know and like, but people please don’t sleep on opening acts. There are many artists I’ve come to enjoy by showing up for opening act performances. It almost makes me sad to know that so many in attendance for the later sets on Friday night missed the talents that are Lukas and Micah Nelson.
Ryan Bingham was next up on the Outlaw Music Festival stage and he’s an artist that I’ve been hopeful of seeing, even though admittedly I’m not all that familiar with his discography apart from two songs I absolutely love “The Weary Kind,” which appeared in the fantastic 2009 film “Crazy Heart” and won Bingham an Oscar for Best Original Song, and “Southside of Heaven.”
Bingham would perform both songs during his set. I’ve absolutely loved “The Weary Kind” ever since I first heard it in “Crazy Heart,” but Bingham had a different arrangement for it in concert and it wasn’t quite as great as the one I’m used to. With the original arrangement “The Weary Kind” is likely one of the 100 greatest country songs of all-time.
A couple of highlights from Bingham’s set were incredible covers of the Allman Brothers Band’s “Whipping Post” and Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” with Bingham absolutely kicking ass on the vocals of “Whipping Post.” It’s interesting to me in these times we live in that Dylan’s iconic “Blowin’ in the Wind” is coming into relevance again, if it ever actually left. This was the second straight concert I’ve heard the song covered, with Old Crow Medicine Show doing it at their Little Rock show earlier in the month.
Bingham would also perform great versions of “Dollar a Day,” “Tell My Mother I Miss Her So” and “Hallelujah” during his set.
The strangest set of the night for me was The Head and the Heart, an indie folk band out of Seattle that frankly didn’t really seem to mesh with the rest of the artists on the Little Rock schedule and certainly don’t seem to have an “outlaw” vibe to them. The band is incredibly talented and performed some truly nice songs like “Let’s Be Still,” “Sounds Like Hallelujah” and “Down in the Valley,” but just gave a weird vibe to the whole show because it had the arena almost split from completely into it to didn’t really care for it. There were obviously some within the crowd who came primarily to see The Head and the Heart, but it left some of the more country audience kind of scratching their heads.
This would be an effect Sturgill Simpson would have on the crowd to a lesser extent next as he was frankly too loud and too much of a rock and roll star for some within the audience. The older lady sitting/standing next to my wife and I who was waiting to see Willie Nelson frankly had to leave and go outside during Simpson’s epic, guitar shredding set that would’ve torn the roof off the entire arena had it been an actual Sturgill Simpson show and not part of a multiple-artist festival. Those that knew Simpson’s music seemed to thoroughly enjoy the show – mostly people with floor seating – while those in the lower bowl kind of just sat there and acted like they hadn’t just had their ears completely rocked off their heads.
Simpson would perform a lot of songs from his 2016 Grammy winning Country Album of the Year, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, but be sure that Simpson has developed into one of the best rock stars in this country. The songs from this album sound completely new with rocking arrangements where Simpson just absolutely lets go on electric guitar. There’s no horn section in the group anymore. The songs still sound great and if you’re wanting to jam you’re going to enjoy the new sound. Among the rocked-up versions of songs from that album on Friday night were “Welcome to Earth (Pollywog),” “All Around You,” “Breakers Roar,” “Keep It Between the Lines,” “Brace for Impact (Live a Little)” and “Call to Arms” coupled with a cover of T. Rex’s “The Motivator” to end the show.
Other terrific selections from Simpson’s set were “It Ain’t All Flowers,” which led into the beautiful “The Promise,” both of which appeared on his terrific 2014 release Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, and “Turtles All the Way Down,” which was likely the favorite of his fans in attendance.
Willie Nelson, who I’ve now seen in concert on five occasions, seemed to be in a good mood on Friday night burning quickly through a list of his greatest hits in a set list that rarely seems to change – which is somewhat of a negative if you’re going to see him as many times as I have. He’s released some terrific new songs over the last two years and it would be nice to see some of these performed live, but at age 85 maybe this is something that’s frankly impossible for him to manage.
It was nice to see Nelson’s show turn into a family affair on Friday night with his sister Bobbie Nelson playing piano in the Family, as usual, and sons Lukas and Micah joining the band on stage with Lukas joining his father on guitar and Micah helping on percussions. One of the highlights of Willie’s set was Lukas taking vocals on the Stevie Ray Vaughan classic “Texas Flood,” which featured great guitar play from both Lukas and Willie.
All the hits were there on Friday night as they tend to be in a Willie Nelson show with crowd pleasing performances of “Whiskey River,” which always opens the show, “On the Road Again,” “Good Hearted Woman,” “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground,” “Always on My Mind” and “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys.”
I have to say I was slightly disappointed for the sheer fact that Sturgill Simpson didn’t return to the stage to join Willie on “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” as he had a few nights before at a show in Cincinnati.
Nelson also performed “Beer for My Horses,” a hit he had with Toby Keith in 2002, which he always seems to have in his set. I could be wrong in this, but I absolutely believe that Nelson overestimates his fans wanting to hear this song in concert. Why not kick it to the back burner and bring out yet another classic like “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain”?
One of the best performances from Nelson on Friday night was his frequent cover of Tom T. Hall’s “Shoeshine Man.” He also gave us the Hank Williams trilogy he frequently performs in concert: “Jambalaya (On the Bayou),” “Hey, Good Lookin’” and “Move It on Over,” which always excites the crowd.
My absolute favorite performance from Nelson on Friday night was the timely performance of his 1986 release “Living in the Promiseland” with his sons. It’s one of the most underrated tracks in his discography and something everybody truly needs to hear these days.
by Aprille Hanson
On Tuesday night, June 12, Shania Twain made three women’s dreams come true. During her “Now Tour” at Verizon Arena in North Little Rock, she brought three friends in matching concert T-shirts up to the main stage to take a selfie with them. The women were so in awe, they could barely keep it together, giggling while admitting they would jump on their beds as little girls and sing along to her music.
That memory connected all the women in their 20s, 30s and beyond filling the arena. Because for almost two hours, we were kids again, jamming out to our favorite songs.
For those of us who grew up on country music, Twain was country and cool. Her music was fun and empowering, whether she was flipping gender roles in “Honey I’m Home,” demanding respect in “Any Man of Mine” or beating the odds of love in “You’re Still the One.”
She was more than just a hit-making country artist -- she was a beautiful role model. Dubbed as the “Queen of Country Pop,” Twain has sold more than 100 million albums since her debut album in 1993, making her the best-selling female artist in country music history. It’s a feat she achieved with just five albums in a 24-year span. And whether you’re a fan of pop country or not, there’s no denying that the twang infused with pop sounds changed the industry.
There would be no Taylor Swift without Shania Twain, even though it’s clear that Twain stayed much closer to her roots that Swift ever desired. But, Twain broadened country’s horizons.
Her tour opened with Bastian Baker, a Swiss pop artist with success in Europe. His sound was decent, but what was most impressive was his ability to hold the crowd with just himself and a guitar in a sprawling arena. His cover of Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah” was better than any of his original songs, which is to be expected.
Fans roared as Twain hit the stage with the first single “Life’s About to Get Good” off her Now album, which came out last year. It was her first album in 15 years. She was diagnosed with dysphonia, a vocal cord disorder, which she admitted to Rolling Stone in February 2017, “I’m a different singer now.” The condition causes hoarseness and trouble speaking, which required vocal therapy and staying out of the recording studio, according to Rolling Stone.
And while there are noticeable differences in her tone, her ability to perform hasn’t missed a beat.
Her energy level was strong throughout, blazing through more of her modern hits “Come on Over,” “Up!” and “Poor Me.”
However, it was clear most in the arena were not there to hear her new stuff. It’s a sad fact for legendary artists who struggle to be heard for more than just their hits. But the reality is, Twain’s new material doesn’t even come close to the substance of the songs that made her a star. Everyone was there to hear hits off of The Woman in Me (1995) and Come On Over (1997).
“Don't Be Stupid (You Know I Love You)” was the first taste of her classics, which then launched into “That Don’t Impress Me Much,” a clear fan favorite.
She was on a good roll, but squeezed in “Let’s Kiss and Make Up” from her newest album. At moments like that, the crowd took their seats, used the bathroom or replenished their beer supply.
But her triple threat line-up eight songs in was really why all her fans showed up: “Any Man of Mine,” “Whose Bed Have Your Boots Been Under?” and “Honey, I’m Home.” It was by far the best part of the night, with Twain eagerly traveling down that road of nostalgia with her fans.
In the most poignant moment of the evening, Twain explained that her inspiration for “You’re Still the One,” co-written by her and her ex-husband Mutt Lange, was from a relationship she “thought” would last forever. In 2010, the couple divorced after 17 years of marriage when he had an affair with her best friend. She married that friend’s ex-husband, Frédéric Thiébaud, a year later.
Because the single was her biggest crossover hit, not singing it would be sacrilege, so she instead made it clear she was singing it as a love letter to her fans that have been here all these years. It was a beautiful moment of thanks for the years of support.
Other highlights of the show included “From This Moment On,” “I’m Gonna Getcha Good!” and “(If You’re Not in It for Love) I’m Outta Here!” She gave us little snippets from music videos of other hits, like “Forever And For Always” that desperately should have been performed in full instead of newer choices like “Swingin’ With My Eyes Closed,” by far the worst of the set.
Twain had teased earlier in the concert, bringing out that signature black hat, that maybe she was going to launch into her megahit “Man! I Feel Like a Woman!” a little early. But no such luck. However, it was perfect to include in her two-song encore, breaking out the black dress and strutting/singing with attitude. It was the best way to end the night, making the final song “Rock This Country!” seem a little tacked onto what was already a perfect closer.
It’s clear by her commentary filled with “likes” and “totally” coupled with her new music that she is trying to appeal to the younger generation, but it’s something she really does not need to do.
She’s a legend and if younger audiences can’t see that, her longtime fans will keep reminding her.
by Julian Spivey
Following Johnny Cash’s death his family discovered a collection of unpublished poetry or lyrics that “The Man in Black” had written, ranging from the 1940s up until the end of his life, and these poems were compiled into the book Forever Words: The Unknown Poems, which was published in 2016. That book was gifted to me the Christmas of that year by my wife, but I never got around to perusing through it. This year a compilation album, Forever Words, was released where various artists, mostly within the country music and Americana genres, put Cash’s poems to music. The album is fantastic, but I was slightly disappointed to learn that most of the artists simply put his poetry to music, instead of actually expanding upon it like The New Basement Tapes (Elvis Costello, Marcus Mumford, Jim James, Rhiannon Giddens and Taylor Goldsmith) did on Lost on the River: The New Basement Tapes in 2014, where they took snippets of unfinished Bob Dylan songs and completed them with their owns words leading to a unique way of songwriting (much the way Old Crow Medicine Show took Dylan’s “Rock Me Mama” and turned it into the fantastic “Wagon Wheel.”) I instantly became interested in attempting to add to or collaborate with my hero Cash on one of his poems, but while flipping through the book realized most of the poems were essentially complete – which is probably why artists pretty much could just add music to them and turn them into songs. I did find one short poem called Room 1702 written by Cash in the late ‘60s that mesmerized me with it’s dark tale of a mysterious hotel room and thought I could expand upon it. Below is my collaboration with Johnny Cash on Room 1702, with his words in italics to differentiate between the two. I hope you like it.
In 1702 they’re waiting for you
When you’re out to prove
You’ve got nothing left to lose
1702 has a special way of showing you you do
In the hotel room I was lying
In the night a man was crying
He grabbed his phone and started screaming
I covered up my head, I must be dreaming
His screams continued in the night
I woke up from my sleep in a terrible fright
The man said, send someone I know I’m dying
Come to 1702, he was crying
In the darkness I reached for light
My hand couldn’t penetrate the night
I left my bed, but didn’t feel the floor
Someone was knocking on my door
Thru the bolted door I stepped on thru
And we walked out of 1702
He and I were never again the same man
That’s the night I lost my dearest friend
Something grabbed a hold of me, telling me I’ve been set free
But, I’ll never go to 1702 again
by Julian Spivey
Few things will send me on a social media tangent more than people hating on Bruce Springsteen. He’s not just a singer/musician for me, but a hero. Springsteen’s music and words speak for many of us in this country and that’s why he’s built up such a large and loyal fan-base.
Many people obviously loved Springsteen’s performance on the Tony Awards on Sunday, June 10 where he performed “My Hometown” and a monologue about his hometown of Freehold, N.J. that inspired it. The performance from start-to-finish was only six-and-a-half minutes of a three-hour broadcast, but apparently that was far too long for some people who bitched and moaned about how the monologue never seemed to end. Many others couldn’t understand why he was even giving the monologue in the first place – apparently many don’t realize the reason he was being honored with a special Tony for his contributions to Broadway this year is because “Springsteen On Broadway” isn’t just a concert, but an intimate one-man show about the stories and inspiration behind his music.
Many people were curious as to why Springsteen was even on the Tony Awards at all. These people are apparently oblivious to the fact that “Springsteen On Broadway” is literally one of the biggest, if not the biggest, hits and sellers on Broadway this year. By the time the show’s run, which has been extended multiple times, ends in mid-December it would have sold out more than 200 shows, which isn’t bad for something that initially was supposed to last only eight weeks. “Springsteen On Broadway” may be a little different than what Broadway is accustomed to, but it had every right to be featured on Broadway’s biggest night as award-winning “The Band’s Visit” or “Once on This Island.” As The New York Times said of Springsteen’s show: “as portraits of artists go, there may never have been anything as real – and beautiful – on Broadway. “The Boss” might not be a theater kid (which I honestly think is where some of this juvenile hatred is coming from), but he proved to be just as eloquent and artistic as anything else I saw on the night – one of Broadway’s biggest musicals of the year is based on the SpongeBob SquarePants cartoon for god sake. Not exactly high-brow stuff.
My question is why can’t theater kids – and I’m talking about ones that range from current teens on Twitter all the way up to grown adults like Neil Patrick Harris throwing shade at Springsteen via social media – accept Springsteen? I don’t even think I can begin to make a guess as to why, but I do know this Springsteen lover is also a fan of live theater performances and, though primarily tuned in on Sunday to see his hero, thoroughly enjoyed multiple performances showcased, especially the number from “The Band’s Visit.”
On a night where many involved in the theater community talk about diversity and how great Broadway is when it comes to such many fans seemed unwilling to get behind a different kind of live show taking Broadway by storm. That’s unfortunate, because Springsteen has done a lot of great things both monetarily and exposure wise for Broadway, and that includes undoubtedly bringing many more eyes to the Tony Awards than normally would have tuned in, especially in a year without a massive juggernaut like “Hamilton.”
I loved Springsteen’s monologue and truly hope that “Springsteen On Broadway” is going to be filmed and shown one day on television or via DVD and hope that a Broadway recording is released for those of us not financially capable of traveling to Broadway to see it in person. Though, as he is my hero I’d love just about anything Springsteen does. If you don't, fine, it's your loss.
by Julian Spivey
Old Crow Medicine Show brought their terrific brand of roots music to the capital of Arkansas on Thursday, June 7 performing on the lawn of the William J. Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock.
Celebrating their 20th year as a group the show was filled with terrific performances throughout their career, as well as traditional numbers and many tracks off their newest release Volunteer, which came out in April. It was noticeable that the group was down two members – Critter Fuqua and Kevin Hayes – on Thursday night with no reason given for the absence. Hopefully it’s nothing to worry about.
O.C.M.S. got off to a raucous start on the evening with “Tell It to Me,” one of their oldest numbers and a sure crowd pleaser. They would follow with many strong tracks off Volunteer, which is going to be one of the strongest releases of the year within the Americana genre. The band played a rip-roaring performance of “Shout Mountain Music” from the album, before a trio of fiddles played by Ketch Secor, Chance McCoy and a roadie, who’s name I unfortunately didn’t catch, joining in for the traditional instrumental “Elzick’s Farewell,” which led into “Child of the Mississippi.” This talented roadie also played drums throughout the show when Cory Younts was playing mandolin or keyboards.
My two favorite performances of songs off Volunteer were “Old Hickory” and “Look Away,” which have the stellar songwriting plus musicianship that we’ve come to know from O.C.M.S. over the years.
The band had fans of all ages at the show ranging from teens to people likely in their 80s and it’s easy to see why playing a show that includes traditional and historical fare like “In the Jailhouse Now” and “C.C. Rider” along with more rocking modern day tribulation songs like “Methamphetamine” and partiers like “Alabama High-Test.”
One of my favorite performances of the evening was “Levi,” which was my favorite track off the group’s 2012 release Carry Me Back and the band dedicated to military members everywhere. The track tells the story of a Southern boy gone overseas to the Middle East to fight and ultimately die in a war he didn’t have much business being in.
Another highlight of the show was the group’s “I Hear Them All” with a bit of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” mixed in making for a truly special performance. The group was highly influenced by the music of Guthrie and “I Hear Them All” is likely their most Guthrie-sounding song in their repertoire. It’s also essentially the band’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” the Bob Dylan classic that they also covered on Thursday night.
One of the band’s best tributes of the night was when they invited opener Joshua Hedley back to the stage to perform a cover of Arkansas legend Glen Campbell’s “Wichita Lineman,” which Hedley absolutely aced vocally.
The group would end their performance with a fantastic one-two punch of “Wagon Wheel,” their biggest song, and “8 Dogs, 8 Banjos” off their 2014 release Remedy. “Wagon Wheel,” though not even quite 15 years old yet, is one of the 100 or so essential songs in the history of both country music and roots music and frankly doesn’t get old no matter how many times you hear it, especially seeing it performed live by one of the world’s most talented groups.
As many know the song was taken to the top of the Billboard country music charts in 2014 when covered by Darius Rucker. That leads to this little bit that’s kind of a side-note to the concert review.
To the Jackass That Yelled “Fuck Darius Rucker” at the Old Crow Medicine Show concert:
I don’t believe there are many people with prior knowledge of O.C.M.S.’s version of “Wagon Wheel” who wouldn’t say that it’s better than Rucker’s cover. Both performances are good, but the musicianship of the O.C.M.S. version simply sets it apart. However, O.C.M.S. has to be incredibly thankful to Rucker, whom they’ve performed the song with before on the Grand Ole Opry (which they’re both members of). The Rucker performance earned O.C.M.S. more money and fans than they would currently have without it. There’s no way they don’t love him and his take on their modern classic for that. I hope they didn’t hear your ignorance.
Back to the review …
After a brief period off the stage O.C.M.S. returned for an incredible cover of Norman Greenbaum’s one-hit wonder “Spirit in the Sky” from 1969 which frontman Ketch Secor referred to as a “gospel song” and showed off his talented harmonica skills during.
Opener Joshua Hedley, who’s debut album Mr. Jukebox was released on the same day in April as Volunteer, has been hailed by many for his traditionalist sound that harkens back to the days of ‘60s countrypolitan. The album seemed a little too schticky for me, but I did really enjoy a few tracks and seeing his and his band perform them live gives the songs more life than listening to them via headphones. His opener “These Walls” sounded as good as if you’d seen someone like Jim Reeves or Faron Young in their heydays and the title track and “Weird Thought Thinker,” the two stand out tracks for me from his debut, were great to see live.
by Julian Spivey
Cell phone use at concerts has been a popular topic lately, especially with some artists like Jack White banning them from shows, but I have to say I’m sick of it.
I can see why some people would be annoyed by cell phones at concerts, and I can even agree that they are probably used a bit too much by concertgoers, but ultimately, I’m a fan of using my cell phone at concerts for photography reasons – both professionally and personally. I don’t see the necessity for phones at concerts for other reasons – people shouldn’t be using them to ignore the show by texting, talking, using social media, surfing the net, etc., but you can’t ban phones for those reasons without eliminating people using them as cameras.
As someone who reviews every concert he goes to for his website – this one – I view using my phone important for journalistic reasons. Having photos attached to my reviews will bring more people to my review than if I published a review without a photo. That’s something they teach you very early on in journalism classes. I’ve also found that live streaming the occasional performance from a show is a great way to bring views to your social media pages. Concertgoers certainly shouldn’t videotape an entire show (which I swear I saw somebody doing recently at a Foo Fighters concert), because I full-heartedly believe that doing that would completely take you out of the concert going experience, but the fact is it’s a good tool for someone trying to run a successful entertainment or music website. And, sure you could argue that I could get a press pass and an actual camera to do such things, but the truth of the matter is that most venues/concert promoters simply aren’t going to give out press passes to small, not-for-profit outlets like mine in most cases.
I also just love having photos for personal reasons. I have an entire photo album – yes, a physical, book-form one – filled with concert photos from over the years and I thoroughly enjoy perusing through these memories – and photos do have more memories attached with them than you can conjure from your brain, that’s why we take them. I enjoy sharing these moments with friends and family and look forward to the day I can flip through this album with a daughter or son and relive with them the moment I saw Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, Merle Haggard and other legendary musicians. Banning cell phones from concerts would keep me from these great moments and I know I can’t possibly be alone in this.
There have been artists (I’m looking at you Eagles) and venues that I’ve attended that have not allowed photography during the show and I admit a no photography policy won’t keep me from attending many shows I truly want to see. But, it does make me enjoy them a little bit less. Not just because I like to have these photos for my reviews and memories, but I also don’t like rich people telling me I can’t do something after I’ve spent my hard-earned money to see them in concert.
Ultimately, I feel there are other concert going things I come across frequently that are far more annoying than people using their phones. Number one among them is people getting up from their seats mid-performance and walking in front of you (making you stand if you’re seated) to go either to the restroom or to the concessions constantly. I’ve been to shows where it felt like people were going back-and-forth every couple of songs. Getting up to spend $10 on a glass of beer and then having to get up again to use the restroom because you’ve spent more money on beer than you did your actual tickets is incredibly more annoying than someone snapping photos or videoing performances. The people constantly getting up are affecting the experience of the show for others, whereas those taking photos really aren’t. I know some people say that they get annoyed by seeing all these little screens lit up during a show, but honestly, you’re not really paying enough attention to the show if that’s the case.
Another concertgoing thing I’ve come across that’s way more irritating than cell phone use is people talking throughout a show. I understand you’re out on the night and wanting to have a good time – this is the same reason you keep going back for beer – but, ultimately, you’ve come to hear and see great music. If you wanted to chat and drink beer you can do it on your front porch, in your living room or at a local bar for far less money and you’ll annoy far fewer people. I remember attending Willie Nelson’s Fourth of July Picnic in 2015 and seeing Kris Kristofferson perform for my first time, just him, his guitar and a harmonica. Because of this it wasn’t exactly a loud performance and someone within my vicinity was talking about how they were primarily just at the day-long event to see David Allan Coe. This constant talking really hurt my experience of seeing one of the greatest songwriters of all-time perform some of the greatest songs ever written. I wanted to find this person and smack the living hell out of them. I’ve never had someone taking a photo with their phone induce that kind of reaction.
You always see articles about phone use at concerts and how horrible it is, but you never seem to get the same amount of complaints out of stuff that, at least in my opinion, is far worse. It wouldn’t surprise me if there comes a day where more and more artists take the Jack White route and ban cell phone use during their shows, but that would truly be disappointing for me.
by Julian Spivey
The early life and career of Carole King was brought to life on the stage of the Robinson Performance Hall in Little Rock, Ark. from May 29-June 3 in the terrific “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical.”
The show featuring the music of King, Gerry Goffin, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil and a book by Douglas McGrath was brought to town by Celebrity Attractions, which brings a series of Broadway musicals to Robinson annually.
‘Beautiful’ debuted on Broadway in 2014 to much success that included winning a Tony Award for Jessie Mueller, the first actress to portray King on stage. The musical was also nominated for a Tony for Best Musical, losing out to “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder.’
The touring production of ‘Beautiful’ features the wonderful performance by Sarah Bockel as King, from the age of 16 in 1958 through her Carnegie Hall performance in 1971 following the massive success of Tapestry, where she solidified herself as a talented performer and not just a songwriter relying on her partnership with first husband Goffin (played by Andrew Brewer).
Being a jukebox musical, ‘Beautiful’ is mostly performances of late ‘50s/’60s pop hits, written by King and Goffin as well as rival songwriting duo Mann and Weil, with snippets of dialogue, drama and some comedy mixed in. It’s during these dramatic parts that we learn about King’s early life as a songwriter and first marriage to Goffin and friendship/friendly rivalry with Mann (played by Jacob Heimer) and Weil (played by Sarah Goeke).
Having never previously familiarized myself with ‘Beautiful’ it was surprising to find how much of the musical is dedicated to this fascinating songwriting rivalry between the two songwriting couples at Don Kirshner’s (played by James Clow) 1650 Broadway publishing company. It’s almost a dangerous decision on the part of creator McGrath as there are times when the comic relief of the Mann character almost steals the show. There are even times when the performances of songs written by Mann and Weil almost steal the show. The 2 p.m. matinee showing on Saturday, June 2 that I attended seemed to have the biggest round of applause following The Righteous Brothers’ (played by John Michael Dias and Nathan Scherich) performance of the Mann/Weil composed “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling,” which is interesting because of all the performances in the show it’s the one that least sounded like the original artists. I will say that Dias’ brief performance as Neil Sedaka was one of the funniest bits of the musical.
Bockel’s performance as King was terrific. The performances were incredibly realistic – my favorite was the show opening “So Far Away” – and she had King’s Brooklyn accent down pat. In another somewhat risky decision it’s Brewer’s performance as Goffin that’s almost the showiest of the performance as he’s the character with the most change during the show, going from stuck up academic with playwright dreams to suffering from mental illness that kills his marriage. He’s almost played off as the bad guy in the musical – and I believe the audience accepts him as that – but, ultimately, he’s just a flawed individual. And, without Goffin’s flaws we’d likely never end up with King striking out on her own and creating Tapestry.
The music of a jukebox musical is going to be hit-or-miss depending on how you feel about it to begin with, but I greatly enjoyed the performances of King and Goffin smashes like “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” (my favorite song King/Goffin wrote) performed by The Shirelles and “Up on the Roof” as performed by Goffin introducing it to King before nicely going into the recorded version by The Drifters. I also really enjoyed Mann’s introduction of the more serious, keeping up with the times “We Gotta Get Out of This Place,” which is one of my favorite tracks by The Animals.
All in all, ‘Beautiful’ was pretty much as its title says. It was nice to see the early days of the most prolific female songwriter in the history of pop music and the growth of her career to solo stardom. If you ever have the opportunity to check it out, I’d highly recommend it.
by Julian Spivey
American Aquarium and Cory Branan put on a fantastic show at The Revolution Room in Little Rock, Ark. on Saturday, May 26 for a packed crowd of adoring fans. Branan and American Aquarium frontman BJ Barham proved to the house they are two of the finest songwriters currently in the world of alt-country or Americana (however you want to label them).
Branan, the Memphis-based performer, does a lot of shows in Little Rock – I saw him just a few months ago at the White Water Tavern – and has become something of a cult favorite among fans in the area. He began his opening set on Saturday night with a couple of newly written songs as a means of testing them out. The songs, which I’m guessing are titled somewhat close to “Happy New Year” and “Look I Lost” sound like they will fit perfectly on a future Branan album. Branan is an interesting performer who seemingly never prepares a setlist before a show and just performs whatever he feels like in the spur of the moment and relies heavily on audience members shouting requests – he said on Saturday night that he was there solely “for you.”
After the new stuff he performed a couple of fantastic songs from his 2017 release Adios, “I Only Know” and “You Got Through,” the latter truly showing off his skills as a songwriter. A fan requested Branan do a song he had written about his dad and Branan asked, “do you want to hear the one I wrote before or after he died?” The fan said “both” and Branan obliged with the rocking “Daddy Was a Skywriter” and the deeply emotional “The Vow.”
Branan has a lot of frankly depressing songs and it’s these songs I seem to enjoy the most from him, especially off Adios, but on a bar venue Saturday night he stuck to mostly rocking crowd-pleasing fare like “Prettiest Waitress in Memphis,” “Tall Green Grass” and “Sour Mash.” It made for a truly fun and raucous opening set.
American Aquarium opened their 26-song epic set with three tracks off their upcoming Things Change, which comes out on Friday, June 1, beginning with “The World is on Fire,” which is my favorite off the album thus far and I believe an early contender for song of the year in the Americana world. “The World is on Fire” led into rip-roaring performances of “Tough Folks” and “Crooked+Straight.” The audience really seemed to love the new stuff and it seems Things Change could become American Aquarium’s best release yet.
I’m amazed at the level of intensity American Aquarium and particularly Barham perform with. It’s a long set of music – rarely do you see an artist perform 26 songs in a show – and they go 90 miles an hour down a dead-end road the entire time. Oh, and they’re performing on nine straight nights to begin the tour (with Little Rock as just the second show of the run). The group, from Raleigh, N.C., has been around since 2006, though Barham is the only original member with drummer Joey Bybee, bassist Ben Hussey, guitarist Shane Boeker and pedal steel guitarist Adam Kurtz all joining the band in April of last year.
Barham said that Little Rock was an important stop for the band and an important place in the group’s history as it was the first place the band really felt welcomed outside of their home state when they first began touring. He especially had love for White Water Tavern, which they included in their rocking song “Rattlesnake.”
The audience really ate up the group’s older stuff throughout the night singing along at the top of their lungs to performances of “Jacksonville,” “Wolves,” “Good Fight,” “Lonely Ain’t Easy,” “Wichita Falls” and “When We Were Younger Men” among others.
One of the best performances of the night was “Losing Side of Twenty Five,” the first AA song I ever heard a few years ago, which made The Word’s best songs of the year list in 2015. The song included a spirited introduction from Barham about how his good Southern Christian mother was confronted by a former teacher of his in a busy Sunday grocery store and asked, “you oughta be real disappointed that BJ decided to be a songwriter for a living?,” to which his mother responded, “Fuck you!”
Just as the show was starting to wind down and you didn’t think the band could amp the intensity up anymore they end the show with bombastic performances of “I Hope He Breaks Your Heart” and “Burn.Flicker.Die.” You could surmise from the audience’s reactions to these performances that they were probably the ultimate crowd favorites of the evening.
The group returned to the stage for a great four-song encore consisting of “Harmless Sparks,” “PBR Promenade,” “Clark Ave.” and a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Darkness on the Edge of Town” to finish up the show. Barham said that if any songwriter wasn’t inspired by Springsteen than they’re doing it all wrong and I couldn’t agree more with that statement. The band invited Branan back to the stage to join in on the performance, which as a major Springsteen fan ended up being one of my personal favorite moments of a special night of music.