Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Cross Canadian Ragweed -- Last Call: The Concert Review

This past Sunday, the Red Dirt trail was well traveled and long, with dust kicked up from Texas and Oklahoma all the way to Chicago, Illinois. Joe's Bar on Weed Street in the Windy City was the location for an historic moment in Americana and Red Dirt music, as Cross Canadian Ragweed performed their final show together. Thousands were in attendance, including this writer, as I made an abbreviated trip to Chicago (much shorter than I had originally planned -- life happens, folks) to see my first and last performance of this great band from Stillwater, Oklahoma.

The anticipation was palpable as I joined the Ragweed faithful in a rainy lineup. As I spoke with those in line, I was amazed at the geographic makeup of the crowd. First of all, everyone was very friendly and completely stoked for the show. I met a couple from Texas. There were a couple of guys who made the trip up from Georgia. I met some really great people from Colorado. And I'm from Ontario, Canada, so that in itself should tell you the reach and influence that Ragweed has on the populous. Everyone knew this was a rare occasion, and one that was not to be missed.

Opening act Wade Bowen was fantastic. He did more than an adequate job of getting the crowd ready and in the right frame of mind for the reason we were all there. The room, filled to capacity with thousands of members from the Ragweed nation, was at a fever pitch when the introductions were complete and the first notes of "Mexican Sky" were blasting through the sound system. The first thing passing through my mind was "Damn, these guys have pure talent." The second thing was, "This is going to be one awesome show." We were not to be disappointed.

Rocking through opening tunes "Cold Hearted Woman" and "Dimebag Darryl", the first surprise of the evening was upon us. Citing the wonderful support from their peers in the industry, Cody Canada welcomed their duet partner from 2005's "Soul Gravy" album, Lee Ann Womack, to join them on stage and perform their hit "Sick and Tired." The song, which is a wonderful ballad, also afforded the first comedic moment of the night, with Canada admitting later on that he allowed an audience sing along to take place because he forgot one of the middle verses. As always, the Ragweed faithful were there to support, as the audience started singing along with assistance from Womack until Cody was able to re-join. It was a great moment that lent itself to the spontaneity and celebratory nature of the event.

Other ballads that followed were "Lonely Girl", written by Cody Canada for his sister and one of their earlier hits, "Constantly." It didn't take long for the boys to rock it right back up though, as they ripped in to such crowd favorites as "Anywhere But Here" and "Oklahoma", the latter performed with Stoney Larue. Wade Bowen was brought back out to perform with his brother-in-law, Cody Canada, and the boys.

In all, Cross Canadian Ragweed performed 30 songs in total, it was like nothing I have ever seen before and will not likely see again. Closing the show with an encore that consisted of "Carney Man" and a cover of Neil Young's "Keep on Rockin' in the Free World," Ragweed went out in style. After a show that lasted 4 hours, Ragweed nation could go home with their heads held high. Their heroes blew the doors off the place. For this Ragweed rookie, it was one of the best shows I have ever seen. I was impressed and depressed at the same time. I would love to have caught another show by these guys. But, if I could only see one show, I am so glad it was this one. This was the show to be at and I am thrilled to have been a part of that whole experience.

I would like to make some acknowledgements before I close this column. First, it would be remiss to not acknowledge the contribution of Wade Bowen to this night. Wade Bowen and his band performed a show in Texas (I believe it was in Amarillo ... please correct me if I'm wrong) the night before. Giving much credit to his bus driver, Bowen and crew were at Joe's Bar in Chicago to answer the 8:00 show time call. That is no small feat. But as Cody Canada pointed out in the Ragweed set, those Red Dirt musicians take care of each other. Wade Bowen was there for his brother-in-law and brothers of the road. I really liked his show and I'll be doing a piece on Wade Bowen in the future.

I asked a question of some fans outside while we were waiting to get in, and that question was "Why Chicago? Why not somewhere in Texas, like Billy Bob's? Why not Oklahoma, say at Cain's Ballroom?" From what I gather, both places would have been more than justified, hell, Ragweed is from Oklahoma and Ragweed is legendary in those states. The answer I got from a longtime friend and fan of Ragweed was that Joe's Bar has been very good to Ragweed over the year's, giving them an outlet for their music before they became the huge success that they are today. Joe's was selected as a "thank you" to that establishment for all the years of support at all stages in their career. Of course, this is speculation. Whatever the reason, go to Joe's Bar in Chicago if you are ever in the Windy City. It is a great establishment with great and friendly people running the show.

Thanks to KNBT-FM from New Braunfels, Texas, for thinking outside the box. They streamed the show live on their web site for all the folks in Ragweed nation that could not be at the show. It would be nice if more stations would do this sort of thing. They will have an encore presentation of the show starting at 8:00pm EDT, 7:00pm CDT on Thursday October 28. Do check out this radio station, it is a good one. Their link is www.knbt.fm

And finally, thank you Cross Canadian Ragweed and Ragweed Nation. It is because of Cross Canadian Ragweed that I am now a follower of the Texas Red Dirt music and Americana music scene. Thanks for one of the best shows I have ever seen. Ragweed Nation, thanks for reading my little series on the boys from Oklahoma. This is still a fairly new blog and I appreciate the time you have taken to check it out. I hope you'll come back and check it out, we're only getting started here. And by all means, if there is anyone out there that you recommend I check out, let me know. This was a lot of fun. We will do this again.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

From the Cumberland River, to the World Over -- Happy Birthday, Grand Ole Opry

A week and some days ago, the most important institution in this brand of music that we celebrate in this spot three times a week, held it's 85th birthday in Nashville, Tennessee. Broadcasting from the same radio home on AM 650, WSM Nashville, the Grand Ole Opry had a birthday celebration that was like no other in the history of this great radio show.

The importance of the Opry in the musical landscape as a whole cannot be understated. Airing for the first time on November 28, 1925 as the WSM Barn Dance, the Grand Ole Opry (so renamed in 1927) is the longest running weekly radio program in the world. It's important to think about that for a moment. When you consider that the Opry's first broadcast occurred when terrestrial radio itself was only five years old, the fact that it remains on the air today is one thing. Add in the fact that it's stronger today than it has ever been is breathtaking. When you consider that this program has withstood the Great Depression, World War II, Vietnam, the Cold War and most recently, the Great Nashville Flood of 2010, the strength of the Opry is at an all time high.

The Opry has long served as a showcase for all forms of country music. Billed as "the show that made country music famous", it has served as an outlet for all artists in the many roots and branches of country music to perform for thousands in attendance, and millions listening around the world. Indeed, a review of the Opry membership is a who's who of the famous in country music and not-so-famous. No matter for the Opry faithful, once you are blessed with membership, you are part of the family. In a given week you can hear legends such as George Jones, Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton and John Conlee perform alongside such mainstream country artists like Alan Jackson, Carrie Underwood, Brad Paisley and Trace Adkins. On that same show, great Americana artists are at home as well, as Marty Stuart, Jim Lauderdale, Mary Gautier and the Del McCoury Band make regular appearances. And of course, no Opry show is complete without a performance by the longest serving Opry member of 47 years and still going strong, Little Jimmy Dickens.

The Carter Family once recited the famous words that became the cornerstone for country music in all its forms: "Will the Circle Be Unbroken?" If there is an answer to that question, the Opry answered it in the same fashion it has for generations now. The answer came in the flood that struck Nashville earlier this year, destroying many homes and property, and changing the lives of all those it touched. It has been well documented as to the damage the Opry itself sustained as the waters rose above the banks of the Cumberland River. The famous circle of wood, an original piece of wood from the stage of the Opry's former home, the Ryman Auditorium, where such greats as Hank Williams, Sr., Patsy Cline and Johnny Cash have stood, was thought to be lost. Workers managed to save it and restore it to its former beauty. The Opry as a show moved to the Ryman Auditorium, always known as "the Mother Church of Country Music." Other Opry shows were held at the War Memorial Auditorium and large churches in Nashville. Even in the face of disaster, Opry members rallied and the show went on. Will the circle be unbroken? Never. That circle is stronger today than it has ever been.

This weekend, Blake Shelton will be inducted as the newest member of the Grand Ole Opry. He is to be congratulated and will be a proud representative of this great institution. Congratulations to all members of the Opry, both past and present, on 85 years of entertaining and celebrating.

For more information on the Grand Ole Opry, you can check out www.opry.com

Friday, October 15, 2010

Cross Canadian Ragweed -- The Homestretch

For the past few weeks, this space has been reserved, more or less, for discussion about the history of Cross Canadian Ragweed. From their humble beginnings in Tulsa, Oklahoma, to their cult status as pioneers of the alt-country/Americana movement, these gentlemen have more than represented the true Outlaw movement in country music that would make Waylon Jennings proud. The past two columns regarding Ragweed featured their first two major label albums "Soul Gravy" and "Garage." Today though, I'm going to talk about something different.

Next Sunday, October 24, 2010, Ragweed will play their final concert for the foreseeable future, at Joe's Bar in Chicago, Illinois. If you've been following our series on Ragweed, you'll know that I'll be in attendance at this final show and blogging from Chicago when I get there next Friday. As I've noted before, this is my first, and possibly my last, Ragweed show. I'm hoping to see the show of a lifetime. I'll get more in to that next week.

The importance of Cross Canadian Ragweed, in my mind, cannot be understated. While they have not had the top 40 hits at country radio, they have done the seemingly impossible. They have still made an impact on the industry. This can happen when a band comes out with a completely different sound that catches people off guard, and the band tours relentlessly. While I have been known to absolutely rail against mainstream country radio about their playlist, I do have to give them credit for at least something. While Ragweed has only had one top 40 country hit, I believe it can be safely said that they did break down a lot of doors for, say, the Eli Young Band. The Eli Young Band is from the same Red Dirt country trail that Ragweed has rolled down for years yet they have done something that Ragweed hasn't done. That's score a top 10 hit at mainstream country radio. The comparisons between the Ragweed sound and the Eli Young Band sound are quite stark. Both are heavy on the guitar. Both sounds have an edge to it. I would submit that were it not for Cross Canadian Ragweed breaking down the barriers with their brand of Texas Red Dirt music and the foresight of Universal South Records to take a chance and promote Ragweed, that bands like Eli Young Band, the Randy Rogers Band, and yes folks, even the Zac Brown Band do not find their way anywhere near mainstream country radio.

Mainstream country radio likes to play it safe. That's why there are so many great artists out there that you won't hear, because they're doing something completely different. But, thanks to Cross Canadian Ragweed, some of these artists are finding their way on to mainstream country radio. To me, that is Ragweed's greatest accomplishment, their legacy. The Eli Young Band, Randy Rogers Band, the Zac Brown Band and all others of their ilk owe a great debt to Cross Canadian Ragweed. Their success is built off the shoulders of the giant band from Tulsa, Oklahoma.

For more information on Cross Canadian Ragweed, including ways to purchase their albums and to listen to Ragweed music, please refer to the following web sites:



Saturday, October 9, 2010

Ragweed Part 2

With the 2005 release of their Garage album on Universal South Records, Cross Canadian Ragweed muddied the waters even more with their sound. This album had a decidedly more rock edge, as compared to the Soul Gravy album from the previous year. Mainstream radio, especially country, has a need to have everything in a neat little package, perfectly categorized and labelled so they can play what the consultants tell them people want to hear. The release of Garage I'm sure caused a few consultants and programmers to train wreck in their meetings. How can they play this band that's on a country record label on a country station, when they don't really sound "country"? Needless to say, they didn't play them much. I will point out though, that even though this album is decidedly more rock oriented, country radio did find a way to make the lead single "Fightin' For" the first top 40 hit for Cross Canadian Ragweed, peaking at number 39. A video was produced for the song as well, directed by the award winning Trey Fanjoy, the director for the majority of Keith Urban's videos. By cracking the top 40 with this song, Cross Canadian Ragweed finally got their introduction to the masses and they haven't looked back since.

As I mentioned above, it is difficult to categorize the music of Cross Canadian Ragweed. While "Fightin' For" was a top 40 hit for the boys, so far it is their only top 40 hit. The categorizing of Ragweed is something the band themselves have recognized, as indicated in one of their more famous quotes "Too rock for country, and too country for rock." Whatever their appeal, these guys are just a damn good band. The Garage album showcases the rock side of Ragweed, but they still show their softer side as well with such tracks as "Sister" and "This Time Around." One of the highlights of the album though, is a fantastic rocked-out cover of "Who Do You Love" by George Thorogood and The Destroyers.

We're now two weeks away from the big night in Chicago at Joe's Bar where Cross Canadian Ragweed will play their final show for the foreseeable future. I have made my plans to be in attendance for the big night. I'm looking forward to it greatly. This will be my first and possibly last Ragweed show, all on the same night. I'm expecting that it's going to be one helluva blowout. I always find club shows to be among the best. The venue is smaller, the band is up close, the crowd gets right into the show faster. This will also be the first time I've ever visited Chicago, so if you have any recommendations on where to go and where to eat, I'm all ears. I'll be blogging about the trip too, so you'll see a few more entries that weekend. I've heard great things about Chicago, can't wait to come out your way!

It's Thanksgiving weekend in Canada this weekend. To all of you, regardless of where you're reading this, I wish you all a Happy Thanksgiving to you and your families. All the best everyone, thanks for reading.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Happy Silver Anniversary, Farm Aid

As I write this, John Mellancamp is currently on stage at Miller Park in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, performing to benefit one of his greatest causes, the plight of the family farmer in the United States. Today, October 2, 2010 marks the 25th Anniversary of Farm Aid.

If you're old enough to remember 1985, you'll recall it was the year of causes in the music world. This was the year that everyone around the world had their attention turned to famine in Africa, and artists and musicians from across all brands and genres of music were doing their part to raise money to assist the millions of people affected by the famine. July 13, 1985 saw musicians from around the world gather at Wembley Stadium in London, England and at JFK Stadium in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania for an historical occasion. Live Aid earned its place in music history and lore, and is remembered fondly today as a smashing success which benefited its cause.

However, in 1985, there was another movement taking place in the music world. One that was much more local. One of the great singer/songwriter/artists/philanthropists of our time Willie Nelson, recognized that there was a growing problem in the United States in the mid-80's. It's an issue that still exists to this day, and that is the plight of the family farm. Family farmers in the mid-80's were in real jeopardy, experiencing the worst financial conditions for doing business since the Great Depression of the 1930's. The family farm was becoming extinct, with big business scooping up the land to build either factory farms or to satisfy runaway urban sprawl. With the help of fellow artists John Mellancamp and Neil Young, Willie Nelson put the wheels in motion to organize and hold the very first Farm Aid, which was held on September 22, 1985 in Champaign, Illinois ... right in the middle of the American Heartland.

Joining Willie, Neil and John that day represented an amazing cross-section of American music. From country and pre-Americana artists such as Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, Arlo Guthrie, Johnny Cash and country super group Alabama, to rock acts and legends such as B. B. King, Don Henley, Sammy Hagar and Van Halen. This first concert raised $9 million, which was donated to farmers organizations across the United States. Since that time, the Farm Aid organization has raised more than $37 million to help sustain the family farming system of agriculture. The great legends of music that have performed on the Farm Aid stage over the years is impressive. Artists such as Billy Joel, Elton John, Bob Dylan, Alan Jackson, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Emmylou Harris, George Jones and so many others have donated their time to perform at Farm Aid to encourage others to provide a monetary donation to help sustain the family farming system.

In 2001, Dave Matthews joined Farm Aid's Board of Directors, sitting with long-time members Willie Nelson, John Mellancamp and Neil Young. I recall the words Willie has said many times over the years when it comes to these concerts and the Farm Aid organization as a whole. Willie has said he doesn't like the fact that they have to do these shows. He's felt in the past that the government has let down the family farmer in favor of big business. Willie has also said that he and his compatriots will continue to hold the Farm Aid shows and carry on the organization as long as their is a need for someone to stand up for the family farm.

It may sound fluffy to say it here, but the world really is a better place for having Willie Nelson in it. A man of the people, he has never let his celebrity go to his head. He is not ashamed to stand up for those that are not always in the best position to have their voices heard. There is no doubt in my mind that the weight to bear by the family farmer in the United States is that much lighter because of the work that Willie Nelson, along with John Mellancamp, Neil Young and Dave Matthews, have done. 25 years is a long time to be dedicated to any one cause. It is a rare and very special accomplishment when you reach that milestone. Congratulations to Farm Aid. It's a shame that it still needs to exist. But when organizations like Farm Aid exist, the silver lining comes from seeing the results from hard work and kindness. It gives a chance for the good side of humanity to take center stage for a change, to effect change.

This years Farm Aid had another great cross-section of music. Mainstays like Willie, John, Neil and Dave performed, along with great Americana artists the Band of Horses, the Bodeans and Amos Lee. Longtime Willie Nelson friends Norah Jones and Kenny Chesney lent their star power to the show as well.

To learn more about Farm Aid, its history, its purpose and to make a donation (if you wish), please check out their fantastic web site, www.farmaid.org

If you wish to see live performances from Farm Aid this year, as well as years' past, check out their youtube site, which is www.youtube.com/farmaid

And hey, if you get the chance, swing by your local farmers market and pick up some of your weekly produce and/or meats if you can. You'll be glad you did, and you'll be supporting the very people this concert is designed to benefit.