Tuesday, March 29, 2011

"Show 'em the Boot That Made Merle Haggard Famous"

You can hear those words uttered by the late, great Waylon Jennings on the deluxe version of Waylon Live.  The boot Waylon refers to is covering the foot of his long-time pedal steel guitar player, Ralph Mooney.   “Moon”, one of the all-time greatest steel guitar players, passed away last week at the age of 82.

Ralph Mooney will be remembered as one of the most unique talents to grace the stage.  A co-writer of one of the top country songs in history, Ray Price’s “Crazy Arms”, Mooney went on to help craft the “Bakersfield Sound” with Merle Haggard, before becoming a cornerstone in the Waymore Blues band, backing up Waylon for the better part of 30 years.  Mooney was one of those rare musicians that was able to define an artists’ sound.  As you listen to Waylon’s material from the 1970’s, this is very evident.

Waylon had been in the midst of a lengthy battle with his record label, RCA Records, in an effort to gain creative freedom of his recordings.  It is a battle that he eventually won, which was to the benefit of the recording industry at large.  Waylon was now able to free to create the music as he wanted to.  With his other sidekick and long-time drummer Richie Albright, Waylon and his charges set out to create some of the most memorable music in history.  A key player in this sound, was Ralph Mooney.

When you have a talent like Ralph Mooney on your side, the songs become more like a duet, as opposed to a solo effort.  Nowhere is this more evident, in my mind, than in the Waylon classic “Rainy Day Woman.”  The scorching steel guitar throughout this song is as fluid, crisp and obvious as Waylon’s vocals.  Some musicians have that effect on a song.  As a comparison, listen to Conway Twitty’s classic “Lost in the Feeling,” featuring another master steel guitar player in John Hughie.  Or, listen to the live version of Bob Seger’s “Main Street,” led by sax-master Alto Reed.  All of these songs have such stark music solo’s by these great musicians that it makes it impossible, at least in my mind, to not consider these duets.  Mooney was gifted enough to complement Waylon’s vocals, while not drowning out Waylon’s vocal performance.

Marty Stuart recruited Ralph Mooney to play steel guitar on some tracks for his “Ghost Train: The Studio B Sessions” album.  And folks let me tell you, Ralph still had it.  Playing on my personal favourite from the album “Little Heartbreaker,” he also performed an instrumental version of the song he co-wrote, “Crazy Arms.”  This would turn out to be Ralph Mooney’s final recordings.  God bless Marty Stuart for making the trip to Mooney’s Texas home to capture these historical moments.

The music world has lost one its all-time greats with the passing of Ralph Mooney.  He leaves behind an incredible legacy of noteworthy music.  He was able to define the sound of not one, but two of the biggest and greatest legends in music history.  I have no doubt that in very quick fashion, Ralph Mooney will also take his rightful place alongside of those legends in the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, Tennessee.

God Bless You, Moon.  Play “Crazy Arms” for them one time up there!  

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Zac Brown: Ahead of His Time

I'd like to pose a question to everyone for your consideration: Is there a more relevant, clever, talented and smart performer and artist around today than Zac Brown? It seems to me the founder and leader of the Zac Brown Band is so far ahead of his time that it escapes conventional explanation. Either that, or this is one lucky dude who has the Midas touch these days. Personally, I believe it's the former rather than the latter, by a wide margin.

Since their 2008 debut on a national stage with "The Foundation", which spawned such hits as "Chicken Fried", "Toes" and "Free", the Band has released two live albums ("Pass the Jar", "Live From Bonnaroo") and has released a follow-up studio album, 2010's "You Get What You Give." This latest release has already netted the band their sixth straight number one single, the wonderful duet with Alan Jackson "As She's Walking Away" (which, FYI, also scored the Best Country Song award at this year's Grammy's). The Zac Brown Band is on an unbelievable roll right now ... but the roll doesn't stop there.

When I say that Zac Brown is ahead of his time, I don't believe I'm making it up. Everything this gentleman touches right now is turning to gold. Perhaps it's because he started out owning his own restaurant, which provided the avenue for the Band to hone their skills, gather their following and eventually find their way to the rest of North America. This no doubt gave him the smart business sense and enabled him to realize that there is a different way to do things in the music business. Exhibit A would be the recently launched record label Southern Ground Records, helmed by none other than, Zac Brown.

The artist roster is an eclectic mix of mainstream country and Americana artists and musicians. With The Zac Brown Band as the flagship artist, expect big things from this independent label which appears to celebrate great music, artistry and, something completely different, good food! Paying homage to his chef roots, Zac Brown has made southern cuisine a big part of the Zac Brown Band and Southern Ground Records experience. The food part is serious business for these guys ... Littlejohn Coliseum at Clemson University, Clemson, South Carolina, is the site of the inaugural Zac Brown's Southern Ground Music and Food Festival. The Festival will feature cuisine and concessions created by Brown himself and the bands' chef Rusty Clay; and the music will be provided by the Southern Ground label roster, with the Zac Brown Band playing 2 of 3 nights.

It's exciting times for all of the artists on Southern Ground. In addition to the Zac Brown Band, the label roster consists of Nic Cowan, Sonia Leigh, Levi Lowery, The Wood Brothers, and one of my personal favorites, Blackberry Smoke. According to the Southern Ground web site, you can log on to Sonia Leigh's web site for a free download of the single "My Name is Money." I'm looking forward to learning more about the artists on this record label and exploring more of their music in the coming weeks and months.

Exciting times indeed for Zac Brown and the Zac Brown Band. Keep an eye on these guys ... I predict that this will be the most important country music group for the next 20 years in terms of their longevity, outreach, business sense and influence.