Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Beginning of the End of The Civil Wars? Or the End of the Beginning?

Some sudden and shocking news to come out of the music world today as we kick off the next 100 pieces of Americana Review, with word that The Civil Wars have cancelled their remaining tour appearances due to "internal discord and irreconcilible differences of ambition", as reported on their Facebook page. 

This news comes as such a shock for many reasons.  First and foremost, the duo have achieved a rare feat in acquiring a gold record certification for their debut album "Barton Hollow.  Equally as important, they were recently honored as the Vocal Group or Duo of the Year at the Americana Music Association Awards this past October.  In accepting their award, there was no indication of any internal strife.  But as we all know, things can change in a hurry.

The one and most obvious change from their auspicious debut is the fact that Joy Williams is new mother.  Embarking on a European tour can be a challenge for anyone, never mind a new mom who is leaving her baby for what can be speculated as the first time.  Perhaps the dream of a life on the road may have changed a bit for John Paul White.  Or, perhaps it was the obvious pressure that was on the band to come up with a record as compelling and original as their debut, which would be a monumental challenge.  Not insurmountable mind you, but a great challenge nonetheless.  Other reasons I've seen today hinted that the difficulties may not even be between Williams and White, but between The Civil Wars and their record label and/or management.  There is no shortage of speculation on the web as to what has happened here, and of course, anything I've written in the above paragraph is just that as well -- speculation.

Whatever the reason, I do hope The Civil Wars can take the time out they clearly need to reflect and recharge, and ultimately decide their future on their own.  They are two giftedly talented individuals, of that there is no question.  In my mind, they are the most original sounding duo to have arrived on the music scene in a generation.  There is no one that sounds like them.  In reading a blog post from earlier today, an audience member at what has now turned out to be the duo's last concert performance, in London, England, said that while the group performed, they did not look happy about doing so. If that is the case, then this is a real shame.  Watching The Civil Wars perform on stage is what makes them special.  The chemistry that exists between the two while performing is one of the most beautiful and special things I have ever witnessed in music.  Fans can take some solace in the fact that the Facebook posting also included word that the band may have new music in 2013.

However, if that chemistry is in fact gone, then the best thing they can do is call it quits now and leave us with their wonderful, but brief, period of work.   Hard as it may be, it would be the best thing for the group and their fans.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Some Final AMA Week Thoughts and Observations

It's been a little over two weeks since the conclusion of the 2012 Americana Music Association Conference and Festival, and I would be remiss if I didn't mention a couple of related noteworthy events in the honky-tonks of Broadway.

Canada was well represented as Toronto-based record label Six Shooter Records and Starfish Management got together to present the Outlaws and Gunslingers Luncheon at The Second Fiddle.  The well-fed guests were treated to an awesome lunchtime show featuring Americana artists from their respective rosters.  In all, four of the finest performances of the week took place on the Second Fiddle stage, as multi-talented trio Belle Starr chamed the audience and Joe Nolan made his Nashville debut.  The superb Deep Dark Woods closed out the luncheon, while arguably the hottest duo in Canadian Americana music, Whitehorse, amazed the crowd with their unique sound and outstanding musicianship.  This was my first time seeing Whitehorse in action, and I really enjoyed their sense of experimentation and "anything goes" attitude, it lent itself to fantastic set that really worked well. 

Another awesome hang was the Red Beet Records Happy Hour at the Crossroads.  This event featured a wonderful array of artists from East Nashville, as well as some Americana legends.  With this event being held on Friday in the late afternoon, it served as the perfect warm up for the nights activities at hand.  This event featured the lovely Anne McCue and Mary Gautier (who put on an outstanding set), as well as David Olney.  The packed house was treated to a wonderful performance by East Nashville mainstay's Eric Brace and Peter Cooper, whose version of the old Herb Pederson song "Wait a Minute" is absolutely killer.  

In addition to the showcases in the evening, it's events like these and many others that take place through the day that make the Americana Music Festival and Conference one of the best festivals today.  It's at events like these that make you truly feel welcome in the Americana community.  It is a special musical movement that is happening and one that I am proud to be a part of.  

Speaking of something to be proud of, this piece represents the 100th piece that has been written on this blog.  I thank all of you who have stopped by to read, comment, share, laugh and/or cry at anything that has been written.  This blog started two years ago and since then, over 7,500 of you have stopped by to check it out.  All with virtually no advertising.  It's been 100 posts, and I feel like I'm just getting started.  I look forward to continuing this journey with all of you well in to the future.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Day 4 Roundup -- AMA Music Festival

The final night of the 2012 Americana Music Festival and Conference held to me the most magical performance of the week.  After all, it’s not every day you get to see the wizardry of master musician and master record producer Buddy Miller team up with Nashville’s newest mainstream free agent Lee Ann Womack in a club setting.  But that’s exactly what occurred on the stage of the Mercy Lounge this past Saturday, as Buddy and Lee Ann performed to a packed house to close out this year’s conference.  More details a little later on in this write up …
Opening the nights festivities at the Mercy/Cannery/High Watt complex was a young lady whom I had not seen before but heard great things about, Jill Andrews.  Jill put on a wonderful set at The High Watt that included music from her latest release "The Mirror."  Jill has recently completed a successful tour with Kasey Chambers and will continue to tour into the fall with dates in New York, NY, Alexandria, VA and Bristol, TN.

Next up in the evening saw great performances by honeyhoney (whose show really picked up when they went with their electric instruments), awesome rockabilly from Derrick Hoke, and the beautiful sounds of the always reliable Tift Merritt.  According to their web site, honeyhoney will be going in to the studio to cut a new album this winter.  Derrik Hoke has just recently released his latest album, "Waiting All Night."

11:00 pm rolled around and it was time for the magic to happen.  And happen it did.  Upon entering the Mercy/Cannery/High Watt complex, guests were invited to submit their requests to hear Buddy and Lee Ann perform duets from the 60’s.  This was intriguing, as anyone who has followed either artists career will be fully aware that both artists could perform the phone book and make it sound like a recorded classic.  Hearing both artists who have so much historical knowledge of the music that we all love was a tremendous experience.   The show was not necessarily without its bumps though, however, no one really paid much attention.  After all, the atmosphere in the Mercy would be akin to being in Buddy Miller’s living room watching he and the band perform with Lee Ann Womack.  If a requested duet was unknown to the artists on stage, a more than adequate substitute was brought forth.  Frankly, the substituted songs were superior to the original request, at least to my ear.  They were perfectly suited to Lee Ann’s voice, which in reality should have been the one thing that was considered when submitting a request.   Every classic country music duo was covered in this performance.  George Jones and Tammy Wynette with “Golden Ring”, Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn with “After The Fire Is Gone”, and the first of two Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton classics, “The Last Thing On My Mind.”  Their performance of The Flying Burrito Brothers Classic, “Dark End Of The Street” brought a hush to the audience, as the crowd savored the moment.
Selfishly, I will say that my favorite performance of the night happened when I heard the magical words introducing another classic tune. “We have another Porter and Dolly song.  ‘Just Someone I Used To Know’, requested by Jason from Toronto, Canada.”  To say this was the performance highlight of the week would be an understatement.  Sometimes it’s hard to be objective when, in reality, we’re all music fans.  That’s why we go to the shows, buy the records and attend the conferences. 
And with the conclusion of their set, the showcase portion of the 2012 Americana Music Festival and Conference was complete.  As the crowd slowly emptied from the Mercy Lounge to the darkened street, one had to wonder what could the AMA do next year to top this year's festivities.  It will take some doing that's for sure, but one thing is for certain.  The committee that plans this portion of the event is more than up for the challenge as evidenced by this year's output.   

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Day 3 Roundup -- AMA Music Festival

Friday was a busy day for attendees of the Americana Music Festival and Conference, as several functions for industry types (read: happy hour parties) to go along with the showcase performances of the night ... and one very special guest lunch performance presented by the newly launched CMT Edge website. 

Conference attendees were honored with a performance by The Queen of Rockabilly Wanda Jackson, during the lunch hour in the host hotel lobby bar.  The chance to see another musical legend such as this Rock and Roll Hall of Famer is almost too good to be true, but it happened and it was thrilling.  Ms. Jackson is now in to her 70's, but she has the energy, vibrancy and vocals of a woman half her age.  She and her band performed an awesome lunchtime set that included her biggest hit "Fujiyama Mama" and the Jack White-produced "Shakin' All Over" to a very appreciative crowd who could not help but smile while watching this dynamo work the room.

The evening portion kicked off at 9:00 for this guy, which saw the night bring me once again to the Cannery Ballroom.  One of my earliest pieces made mention of Amanda Shires, so it was my great pleasure to see this young lady perform on this night.  Ms. Shires has the unique ability to completely hush a room.  A beautiful young lady with a soft voice that can sing virtually anything, so talented on the fiddle that she has played with Bob Wills' former backing band The Texas Playboys, she kept the room in the palm of her hand.  But don't let the sweetness fool you where Amanda Shires is concerned.  While she may perform songs that are filled with romantic tension and lust, such as "Swimmer, Dreams Don't Keep" and "Shake The Walls", she will also perform a song or two about exacting slow revenge on a cheating lover.  But she makes it sound so sweet when exacting that revenge ... which is effective, because that's kind of scary.

Moving upstairs to the Mercy Lounge brought my attention to an act I hadn't heard before, and that would be Dylan LeblancDylan is a talented stylist from Shreveport, Louisiana who has recently released his second album "Cast the Same Old Shadow."  Dylan's sometimes mellow performance was very well received from the crowd, and has set himself up nicely for a return performance at the AMA Festival in the near future.

Coming back downstairs to the Cannery saw the week of legends continute with singer-songwriter John Hiatt taking the stage.  This was John's second appearance at the Americana Festival this week, as he performed with and presented the Lifetime Achievement Award for Performance to Bonnie Raitt at the AMA Awards Ceremony this past Wednesday.  John and his fiery band reached back in to his lengthy catalogue to play some of the best Americana and blues anyone could ask for during the week.  John once again paid homage to Bonnie Raitt with a scorching rendition of "The Thing Called Love."  It was this performance and many others that kept the crowd rocking as the night wore on, and gave those of us who had experienced a full day of conference sessions and networking parties the energy to finish off the night.

And Lord knows I needed some energy to close this night off.  But I would not deny myself the chance to witness Reckless Kelly in action for my first time.  I've long documented how much I dig the Texas/Red Dirt music scene, so this was a great chance to see a major group from that part of the country.  The boys did not disappoint.  This was the most fiery performance of the festival, an absolultely loud and rollicking performance that once again turned the Mercy Lounge in to a Texas honky-tonk.  Performing tracks from their lenghty catalogue including "Wicked, Twisted Road", they worked in some great rockin' covers and performed tracks from their newest release (the first on their own record label), "Good Luck and True Love."

The day was damn near exhausting but well worth the effort from all parties.  The Americana scene truly has an embarassment of riches with respect to the talent that is out there for the music fan to see and consume. 

And we still had Day 4 took look forward too ...

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Day 2 Roundup -- AMA Music Festival

Day two of the AMA Music Festival left attendees with some difficult choices to make.  Certainly not life or death choices, but difficult choices nonetheless.  The decision on a venue was at least made somewhat easier, as the Mercy Lounge, Cannery Ballroom and The High Watt are all connected in the same building, so naturally that makes that venue the heartbeat of the festival.  And naturally, that's ultimately where the night started for many of us.

The Mercy Lounge became a true Texas honky-tonk on Thursday as the first two performaces featured an act that has been burning up the Red Dirt trail for the past 5 years.  This act was the perfect opener for the night, as they set the bar high for those to follow.  The Turnpike Troubadours put on a high-energy show with the crowd and the band feeding off eacth other.  The Troubadours have a very bright future ahead of them, as evidenced with the crowd singing along to favorites such as "Evangeline", "Leaving and Lonely", "Every Girl" and "Gin, Smoke, Lies."

What made the Troubadours performance so impressive was the fact they were appearing right before the performance of a true music legend in every sense of the word.  When one thinks of outlaw country music and the outlaw, Billy Joe Shaver must be the name uttered after Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson.   Billy Joe has written an unbelievable amount of hits for both Jennings and Nelson, especially Jennings, as Waylon's "Honky-Tonk Heroes" album was comprised of all songs written by Shaver.  Having said that, there is a lengthy list of artists who have recorded Shaver's material.  It's an astounding amount, actually, and that's a testament to the strength of the material that Billy Joe Shaver creates.  The large crowd at the Mercy could not get enough of the artist who has meant so much to the industry as a whole.  Performances included the aforementioned "Honky-Tonk Heroes", "Live Forever", "Ride Me Down Easy" and "I'm Just An Old Chunk Of Coal", an early hit for John Anderson.

It would have been easy to stick it out at the Mercy/Cannery complex, as performances from Paul Thorn, the Punch Brothers, Steve Forbert, John Fullbright and Jason Boland and the Stragglers were still upcoming.  Factor in performances from Mary Gauthier and Richard Thompson and the Station Inn, and Jim Lauderdale and the North Mississippi Allstars at the Rutledge, and you begin to see the dilemma.  Having said all that, I travelled over to the Basement to pick up performances by the Deep Dark Woods and the Black Lillies.  It was at the Basement, where I came across my first surpise of the festival.

Sons of Fathers are an Austin, Texas based band who will completely blow your mind when you see them.  The fluency at which they play their respective instruments is astounding considering they all appear to be in their early twenties.  A brilliant mix of rockin' country and showmanship blew the small, but very appreciative crowd, out of the water and wanting more. 

The Deep Dark Woods made their second appearance in as many years at the festival with a fine performance that featured Kendel Carson of Canadian trio Belle Starr sitting in.  In speaking with a band member after the show, Carson has been known to sit in with the band if they happen to be in the same city in their travels.  The addition of Kendel's fiddle to the musical stylings of The Deep Dark Woods added a whole new dimension to their music.  The Deep Dark Woods continue to impress and will be around for a very long time.  Watch for a tour of western Canada in the fall.

The final act of the evening was a group that had been brought to my attention by Nelson Gullett, Music Director of WDVX radio in Knoxville, Tennessee.  The Black Lillies have been around for several years now and continue to gain recognition as a band with varying styles of sound, all with outstanding prowess.  Currently in the middle of a national tour that sees them play predominently in the eastern half of the United States, The Black Lillies made their return to the Americana Music Festival for the second year in a row and delivered a wonderful performance that closed out Day 2 beautifully. 

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Day 1 Reflections: AMA Conference and Festival

The first official full day of activities is in the books at the 2012 Americana Music Festival and Conference, and what a great day it was.  I won't bore you with the details of the Conference side of things.  If you've been to a conference before, I'm sure you'll appreciate that omission from this space.

Not wasting time with formalities, this year's organizers set the showpiece event, the Americana Music Association Awards, on the opening night of the festival.  Last year was my first time attending this tremendous event, so I was well aware of the calibre of talent I was going to see on this evening.  The best thing about these shows are the surprises that often appear.  These surprises take on special meaning, when you consider that in all likelihood you will not see such things again and they are taking place at such a revered place as the Ryman Auditorium.

Patty Griffin's performance of "I Love" from the Tom T. Hall tribute album "Songs From Fox Hollow" has received many accolades with nominations coming from the Grammy's and the AMA in their Song of the Year category.  Ms. Griffin was not able to attend the show last night, so in her place performing this classic was Lee Ann Womack who delivered an astounding version of this song.  The bigger surprise, and poignant moment of the performance, was the introduction of the writer him, Mr. Tom T. Hall, who strode across the Ryman stage and performed the last verse.  This moment is particularly special when one considers that Tom T. Hall no longer performs on a regular basis, so this was a rare and special moment indeed.

Speaking of poignant moments, the grandest moment of the night was the closing number which served as a tribute to one of the greatest icons in music, Levon Helm.  Mr. Helm passes away earlier this year leaving a gaping hole in the hearts of his fans, his family, and the Americana community as a whole.  Honoring one of the forefathers of Americana at the show, the finale was a performace of the Band standard "The Weight", with luminaries such as Emmylou Harris, Bonnie Raitt and John Hiatt sharing the moment with Americana stalwarts Jim Lauderdale, Sam Bush and newcomers Alabama Shakes.  To say this was a moving performance and moment would be a clear understatement.

Other fantastic performances took place through the night including the aforementioned Alabama Shakes (whom, incidentally, tore the house down), The Deep Dark Woods, Justin Townes Earle, Sarah Jarosz, Hayes Carll and Cary Ann Hearst, Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, the Carolina Chocolate Drops and Kasey Chambers and Shane Nicholson.  Lifetime achievement winners Booker T. Jones, Richard Thompson and Bonnie Raitt all took their appropriate turns on stage to remind everyone why they are legends in their time.  Watching the Mavericks return to the Ryman stage was a personal thrill.

I would be remiss if I did not mention Guy Clark's heartfelt performance of "My Favorite Pictue of You", written and peformed in tribute to his wife Susanna Clark who passed away this past June.

On top of all this, there were some awards handed out.  The winners are as follows:

Album of the Year:  "This One's For Him: A Tribute to Guy Clark" -- Various Artists

Song of the Year:  "Alabama Pines", Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit

Instrumentalist of the Year:  David Rawlings

Duo/Group of the Year:  The Civil Wars

New/Emerging Artist:  Alabama Shakes

Artist of the Year:  Gillian Welch

Closing off the day 1 festivities, at least for this guy, was to attend the performances of Brandi Carlisle and The Wheel's on Fire: A Tribute to Levon Helm.  This was my first time seeing Brandi Carlisle and really experiencing her music.  She is an angel.  The complete package of talent and persona that can take a room and place it in the palm of her hand.  Upstairs at the Mercy Lounge, The Wheel's on Fire was a great tribute to Levon with guest musicians trading off on fantastic Band classics.  My highlight was the performance again of "The Weight" with Hayes Carll, Jason Isbell, Amanda Shires and Patterson Hood taking turns performing the song. 

A great night of music came to a close at around 12:30, and holy cow, we're just getting started here in Music City.  Looking forward to day 2, see you tomorrow!

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Album Review: Steve Forbert, "Over With You"

Music veteran Steve Forbert returns to the spotlight this week with his newest release, Over With You, released September 11 on Blue Corn Music.  This release is the fourteenth album in Mr. Forbert's storied career and one that, by his own admission, clearly took a lifetime to create.

When listening to this album, Over With You takes on the shape of a venerable scrapbook on the post-life cycle of a relationship.  More specifically, it focuses on the aftermath of the end of that relationship and the emotions that are often felt when two people have decided (or had it decided for them) that the relationship is no longer working.  What Mr. Forbert has created here, is a document on the grief process that follows.  Indeed, it feels like the seven stages of grieving are captured lyrically, with an A-list of musicians supporting each story in the 10 song collection.

The lead track, "All I Asked of You" captures the shock and emotions that run wild through ones mind at the outset of a break up.  Elements of anger set in on "All I Need To Do", while
potential reconcilliation (read: goodbye sex) rears its head in "That'd Be Alright" and "Can't We Get Together?"  Acceptance is ultimately realized in the beautiful title track, "Over With You", as the storyteller conveys the sadness and longing for something that they wanted so desperately to work out but ultimately concedes that ending the relationship is for the best.  Sometimes doing the right thing isn't easy, and that fact is captured beautifully in "Over With You."

While using such musicians as Ben Sollee, Jason Yates and a special appearance by Ben Harper on "That'd Be Alright", the production on this album is quite understated.  This minimalist approach is very appropriate given the subject matter of the album.  In Over With You, Steve Forbert has created the perfect Americana album.  It tells a story of heartache, acceptance and moving forward.  While this album may have taken Mr. Forbert a lifetime to write, I would also submit that in order to fully appreciate this album one must have lived through this experience as well.  This is a brilliant album that should listen to several times in order to experience its full effect.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Settling in (temporarily), in Music City

How quickly time passes.  A little less than a year ago I made my first trip back to Nashville in nine years, that time with a different purpose.  Now, a little less than a year later, I'm back in town to attend my second Americana Music Festival and Conference with the hope of building on the relationships I made over the past year and share more of this great music with the world as best as I can. 

Over the past year, I have had the great fortune to meet (via e-mail at least) some really wonderful people in the music business.  It's an honour and pleasure for me to have them include me on their distribution list, as well as sharing this space with their artists and fan base.  These good folks are far more involved in the music business than I am (at least at this point in my venture), and I deeply appreciate the time they take from their busy schedule to consider writing, conversing and working with me on this space. 

I would like to make a quick note to say there is a wonderful international contingent here this week, as we have fellow Canadian artists Whitehorse, The Deep Dark Woods and Belle Starr all playing here at various times, as well as Aussie/Canadian Chris Altmann participating in several showcases featuring a whole stable of Australian artists.  Stay tuned as the week wears on for a daily update of the happenings in Nashville, as the 12th Americana Music Festival and Conference gets officially underway tomorrow. 

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Rise of Blackberry Smoke

I have to admit I feel a certain kinship toward Blackberry Smoke.  I came to be aware of this band shortly after I started writing this blog two years ago.  Blackberry Smoke were the subjects of the first ever concert review that was posted on this site.  Looking back on that review and as I read it now, I think it's safe to say that a lot of growth has taken place over the course of those two years, for both parties.

The progression of Blackberry Smoke's career is a pleasant one to see.  From their first releases of "Bad Luck Ain't No Crime" and "Honky Tonk Bootlegs", this Georgia band has been working hard to bring that classic southern rock sound that has been missing for nearly a generation.  Not since the days of Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Marshall Tucker Band, the Outlaws and the Allman Brothers has a band this talented and versatile hit the national stage.  "Good One Comin' On" and "Shake Your Magnolia", from their album "Little Piece of Dixie" should be mandatory listening at 5:00 on your way home from work.  They are anthems to welcome the weekend, especially on a Friday night. 

However, even with their more rockin' leanings, they still caught the attention of two of the most classic voices in country music and had these voices join them in studio to record a country music classic.  In turn, this version became a country classic all over again.  "Yesterday's Wine" is widely recognized as one of the biggest hits in George Jones' career. Blackberry Smoke received the equivalent of a blessing from the Pope when Jamey Johnson and George Jones himself performed on the track which appears on the deluxe version of "Little Piece of Dixie."  It is a brilliant piece of art, and one which captures the musical genius of all three artists.

I suppose it was then inevitable that perhaps the most musically open individual in country music, Zac Brown, would catch on to the little southern rock outfit from his own home state of Georgia.  Adding Blackberry Smoke to the roster of artists on Brown's Souther Ground record label is a natural fit.  There is no hotter artist in music right now than the Zac Brown Band.  And in my mind, there is no smarter business man/artist than Zac Brown.  He knows a good thing when he sees it.  And he knows how to promote.  The effects on Blackberry Smoke's career have been immediate.  Appearances and television specials on CMT.  Bookings at major country music festivals such as Jamboree in the Hills and the Havelock Jamboree (their first foray into Canada, I believe).  All this has ultimately paid off with their highest debuting album on the Billboard Country Album Chart, as their latest release "The Whipoorwhill" debuted at number 8 last week.  

The alliance Blackberry Smoke has forged with Zac Brown I believe is only scratching the surface.  I also believe they have found their natural recording home on Brown's label, Southern Ground Artists.  He won't ask them to change their sound to conform to radio airplay.  They've come this far with their current sound and no radio hits, it's only a matter of taking their music to the masses now.  Brown's high profile will do that, without compromising the music.  It is a beautiful arrangement, and the fruits of that labour are only beginning to be realized.  The bounty is still to come.

Click here to learn more about Blackberry Smoke

Click here to purchase a copy of "The Whipoorwhill"  and "Little Piece of Dixie"

Click here to listen to "Yesterday's Wine" and view other videos 

Friday, August 10, 2012

Say a Prayer or Two for Randy

As a kid who spent most of his teen years in the 1980's, it was out of the ordinary (or so it seemed) to be a country music fan at such a young age.  While most kids my age were rockin' out to the hair bands of the day (think Poison, Twisted Sister, and the like), I was happy listening to Conway Twitty, Eddie Rabbitt, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton and George Jones.  If I wanted to put some rock in to my life, I would fire up the Alabama records.  Country music seemed to be on the fringe of popularity at that time, at least in my opinion, as I look back upon those days.  But in 1986, things were about to change, and this change led directly to the next step that brought country music to the world conscience, and it remains there to this day.

If Ricky Scaggs opened the door just a crack  in the early 1980's for a newcomer to start making some headway in Nashville, Randy Travis left the door splintered as he stormed through in 1986.  Randy was seemlingly what Nashville wanted at the time -- good looking and talented, with a pure, soulful country singer voice and best of all, he was YOUNG.  The country music industry hadn't experienced as youthful a country singer in nearly a generation and it was time to work their magic and make young Randy Travis a star.  And it worked.  It worked in spades. 

With the top ten success of his second single, "1982", Randy Travis quickly went from unknown newcomer, to country music's biggest superstar seemingly overnight.  His debut album, "Storms of Life", was honored as album of the year at the annual Country Music Association awards and the Academy of Country Music in 1986 and 1987 respectively.  His follow-up album, "Always and Forever", afforded even bigger hits and bigger album sales.  Most importantly, at least for the Nashville music industry, they now had their superstar that transcended generations.  Kids my age, seemingly everyone, knew the name and music of Randy Travis.  Superstar status, indeed.  His face and music was everywhere.  Travis' initial breakthrough led to the ultimate breakthrough of talent three short years later, with the infamous Class of '89.  In case you aren't familiar with that group, the Class of '89 yielded the following talent:  Clint Black, Travis Tritt, Vince Gill, Lorrie Morgan, Alan Jackson and the newest inductee to the Country Music Hall of Fame, Garth Brooks.  I don't think I need to elaborate on the influence these artists have had on music over the last 20 plus years.

When considering all of this and the influence Randy Travis has had on modern country music, I find the events of his recent personal life very sad and troubling.  It's one thing to get caught being intoxicated in public, it's quite another when one is walking around intoxicated in public naked.  This speaks to something far greater than a problem with alcohol.  This is a cry for help.

There will be many questions as to what's happening with Randy Travis in the coming days, weeks and months, and hopefully we'll find out some answers.  One has to wonder what has precipitated this obvious downfall.  Recent success with the Carrie Underwood cover of one of Travis' biggest hits, "I Told You So", of which Randy had more than a guest vocal on, seemd to bring Randy Travis back in the spotlight.  Carrie even brought Randy with her for an appearance on American Idol, which introduced Travis to a whole new generation of fans.  Perhaps the downfall can be traced to events shortly after that appearance.  His long-time marriage ended ubruptly and not without bitterness.  His recent 25 year anniversary album, and this is an uneducated guess, I don't believe has sold particulary well ... even though it's a great album.  You would like to think that one could rise above these tough life events.  But it can be very tough for some people.

What seems to be happening with Randy Travis is something larger, something bigger than the music.  This is a man's life that is at stake.  A lot of websites are discussing and reporting on these recent events, and the comments at the bottom of the story are what you would typically expect from certain elements of the public.  You won't find comments like that here, at least not from me.  It's the same reason I won't publish a negative album or concert review.  I don't believe writing blog posts such as that are productive.  Negativity only breeds more negativity.  Instead, I will only write that I wish Randy Travis the best.  I hope that he can get the help he needs, the help that he is crying out for.  I hope he finds the support from his friends, fans and peers in the music industry that can help him get through whatever issues he's facing right now.  And yes, I will be saying a prayer for him.  Whether you love or hate his music, let's all hope he can turn his life around becaue after all, we're talking about a persons life.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

EP Preview: Buxter Hoot'n, "NA NA NA"

I've written several times in this space about how great it is to be involved in the Americana music community, even if it is in the somewhat limited capacity that is my involvement (at least for the moment).  The connections you can make, whether it's personal or just a simple e-mail, is second to none in my opinion.  The Americana movement is a grassroots movement, and there is a feeling of camaraderie that's electrifying.  It's a feeling of how we're all in this together and we're all pulling for each other to be successful. 

I think of these things when I receive messages like the one I did roughly a month or so ago.  Randy Alexander, President and CEO of Randex Communications sent an e-copy of the soon-to-be-released album by emerging Americana band Buxter Hoot'n.  It may not be fair to call this San Francisco-based band emerging, but this group is poised for a breakthrough with this stellar release.

Buxter Hoot'n is one of the most unique bands I've heard in a long time.  The title track contains soaring harmonies with a beautifully haunting arrangement as its backdrop. The combination immediately hooked this listener.  "Kids These Days" is the perfect blend of roots mixed with elements of rap and the combination is brilliant.   My personal favorite of the EP is "Haunted House", which starts out with a soft lead guitar and understated vocal, but reaches a beautiful creshendo roughly two-thirds of the way through the track.  Elements of southern rock in the Skynyrd/Allman Brothers tradition find its way on the album with a rocker called "Hung Up" that fills out the album nicely.

The press trailer for Buxter Hoot'n describes their sound as "psychedelic Americana", and I would have to agree.  After listening to the preview link of "Na Na Na",  which appears below, I can honestly say that I have not heard a band that produces a sound like this before.  The haunting arrangements mixed with strong lyrics make for a potent concoction that makes it a pleasure to both listen and enjoy.  When this record hits the stores in the coming weeks, put Buxter Hoot'n's "Na Na Na" at the top of your wish list.

Click here to stream Buxest Hoot'n, "Na Na Na"

Monday, July 16, 2012

Family Ties That Bind

Country music has long been a staple in my life.  I grew up listening to it, I grew up reading about it, I grew up watching it on TV.  It's been in my family for many generations and as such, I've recently felt a kinship of sorts to the families that have been making country music for generations, even before it was officially known as "country music."

The Carter Family is widely regarded as the First Family of Country Music.  It was their origninal sound created in the backwoods of the Appalachian Mountains of Virginia and first recorded on August 2, 1927 in Bristol, Tennessee that initiated arguably the most influential music career in history.  Songs such as "Keep on the Sunny Side", "Meet Me in the Moonlight Alone", "Will You Miss Me When I'm Gone" and the seminal "Will The Circle Be Unbroken?" are cornerstones of the country music, and subsequently, folk and Americana genres.  The writings and recordings of A.P., Sara and Maybelle Carter have stood the test of time and have earned them their rightful place in both the Rock and Roll and Country Music Halls of Fame.

The second generation of the Carter Family is perhaps better known in the mainstream.   When the "Original" Carter Family of A.P., Sara and Maybelle ceased recording in the 1940's, Maybelle began recording with her daughters June, Helen and Anita.  It was this incarnation of the Carter Family that toured for many years with Johnny Cash.  It was only until watching a recent episode of Austin City Limits that I realized how important this chain of events has become.

Setting up the performance of her next song, Johnny's daughter from a previous marriage, the incomparable Roseanne Cash was telling a story about touring with her father's show at age 18.  It was during this time that the Carter Family was a staple of the Johnny Cash Show as they toured the world.  Roseanne had mentioned that during this time as she was finding her way as a singer-songwriter, she had the opportunity to learn how to play the guitar from one of the masters, Helen Carter.  It was during this time that seemingly a torch had been passed.  As Roseanne stated, Helen Carter more or less taught her "the entire Carter Family lexicon."  If you think of that statement and realize that there are only a few people left in the world who can say in all honestly that they learned to play guitar from a member of the Carter Family, that becomes an enormous statement.

In recent years, Roseanne Cash has stated that she is now at a place in her life where she is prepared to accept, and indeed accepting, of her musical and family legacy.  She seems to have a new purpose where there is a commitment to ensuring the history of her family and their music is front and centre.  She seems to have a new appreciation for her relationship with her iconic father and the influence he has played in her career.  With her hits at radio behind her (and there were a lot of them), and the long held desire to make the music she believes in making, we are all the better for it.  A new generation will benefit greatly from another legendary extension of the Carter family as she takes us on her journey of musical and family discovery.

Click here to see Roseanne Cash performing "Bury Me Beneath The Weeping Willow"

Friday, July 13, 2012

Celebrating John Denver -- Little Lake Music Festival, Peterborough, Ontario

On several occasions in this space, I've written about the abundance of musical talent that exists in the Peterborough region of Ontario.  To be quite frank, it's not an understatemetn to call it an embarassment of riches, if you want the honest truth.  Nights like this past Wednesday July 11 at the Little Lake Music Festival was a perfect example of how fertile the music scene is in this region.

This night was set aside to pay homage to an artist that I believe tends to get overlooked when people refer to influential singer/songwriters with respect to modern day country/folk/Americana music.  John Denver was a singer, songwriter, poet, actor, environmentalist, activist and philanthropist who was one of the biggest stars of the 1970's and 1980's.  His legacy is strong and resonates to this day, many years after his sudden death in a plane crash off the California coast.

It was a night for local musicians to take centre stage at Little Lake to pay remind all of us why John Denver was so important to the history of modern music.  Opening with a wonderful rendition of "Sweet Surrender", the band seemlessly moved from one Denver classic to another with an amazing cast of homegrown talent.  Mark Edwards was tasked with performing three of Denvers' biggest and most recognizable hits "Thank God I'm a Country Boy", "Rocky Mountain High", and "Back Home Again", and he did a fantastic job on all three.  The first clap-along of the night came with Warren Chambers' rendition of the fun-favourite "Grandma's Feather Bed", while John Boyco kicked off his three song set with a beautiful version of "Some Days Are Diamonds."

As good as the guys were, perhaps the most beautiful and most telling story about the enduring legacy of John Denver and his music were the three young ladies that were invited to perform.  Recent high school graduate, Cherise Billings, performed at the behest of her music teacher, who also happened to be the piano player in the band.  Cherise opened up her set with "Leaving on a Jet Plane", with her voice bringing a real sense to the poetry that this song really is.  Twelve year old Elizabeth did a fantastic job with her booming voice doing an excellent pseudo-reggae version of "Follow Me."  The final performer of the evening was Mary Kate Bronson, daughter of the band leader, whose angelic voice soared through her set of "Sunshine on my Shoulder", "Annie's Song" and the seminal "Calypso."  Hearing these three young ladies perform Denver's classics brought to mind the poetry and cross-generational appeal of his body of work.  Denver was writing about issues that are still relevant to this day, such as the environment, nature and landscape.  Having three singers ranging in age from pre-teen to early twenties and singing them with passion and conviction, shows the importance of Denver's writing and influence.

A John Denver tribute would not be complete without a grand finale, and what better finale than to have all the artists gather on stage for a stellar rendition of "Country Roads."  Indeed, a fitting end to a wonderful night.   There is no doubt in my mind that the spirit of John Denver is alive and well.  His legacy was served well and served proud by all the artists participating in this show on Wednesday. 

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Summer Road Trippin'

Summer may have officially arrived on June 20, but with the kids wrapping up their school year this week, we can now say summer is officially here.  It's a holiday weekend in my native Canada, as we celebrate the birth of our nation on July 1.  With this long weekend, comes the annual rite of summer passage for many of us out there, and that's the summer road trip.

Many of us won't be taking that summer road trip this weekend, but trust me, there will be millions of people more than willing to fill our spots on the highways and byways of North America.  If you're like me and won't be hitting the trail this weekend, don't despair and don't feel like there's nothing to do later this summer.  With summer season of course comes festival season, and there are plenty of music festivals out there over the next few months that will make for some great road trips and create more than a few memories.  Here are just a few of the many wonderful music festivals that are taking place around the United States and Canada.

July 6, 7, 8 -- The Great Blue Heron Festival, Sherman, New York.  Located about an hour southwest of Buffalo, New York and Erie, Pennsylvania, this festival features camping and music that ranges anywhere from country to bluegrass, to blues and cajun zydeco.  Passes for all three days are $75 ($85 at the gate) making it a fairly cheap weekend of entertainment. 

July 6 and 7 -- Jam in the Valley, Varysburg, New York.  Located an hour south of Buffalo, New York, this festival has been growing in stature over the last three years.  Modeled after the larger festival I'll highlight next, this festival has become a 4th of July weekend celebration in Western New York that's not to be missed.  This year's show features headliners Miranda Lambert and Jerrod Niemann on Friday July 7, with Randy Houser, Justin Moore and Lynyrd Skynyrd headlining on July 8.   Another exciting feature to this festival is the focus placed on many of the wonderful local acts of this region.  Campgrounds open for load in on June 30 for large groups, Thursday July 5 for everyone else.

July 19 to 22 -- Jamboree in the Hills, St. Clairsville, Ohio -- While this isn't an Americana music festival, this is the biggest party of the summer.  I have experienced JITH a dozen times and love it each year.  I won't be attending this year, which is a bit of a downer, but I know the many friends I have made over the years at JITH are in for a major, major treat.  Over 100,000 people, solid food selections, the option to bring in your own beverages (yes, I am referring to alcohol), local hotels, and the largest campgrounds I have ever seen.  St. Clairsville is located about an hour west of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on Interstate 70.  JITH is easily accessible from I-70 as well, just follow the signs.  Lynyrd Skynyrd, Blackberry Smoke, Ronnie Dunn, Jason Aldean, Neal McCoy, Tracy Lawrence and Jamey Johnson are but a small sample of the many stars performing on this weekend.  Helpful hint if you're going:  bring lots of water with you.

July 28 and 29 -- Newport Folk Festival, Newport, Rhode Island -- Perhaps the granddaddy of all Americana/folk music festivals, the Newport Folk Festival has been an annual east coast celebration of American music since 1959.   It's rich history has seen such luminaries as Joan Baez, Arlo Guthrie, Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Emmylou Harris, Justin Townes Earle, Steve Earle and so many others it is really impossible to list them all here.  An interesting fact about Newport, according to their web site, Joan Baez's 1963 performance at the Newport Folk Festival also marked the debut national of a gentleman who would go on to influence modern music in more ways than we can imagine, and he still does to this day.  That performer making his national debut, as a guest during Joan Baez's set, was Bob Dylan.

August 17 to 19, Philadelphia Folk Festival, Schwenksville, Pennsylvania -- Celebrating it's 51st year in 2012, this suburban Philadelphia festival is playing host to such Americana mainstays as Pokey Lafarge and the South City Three, Steve Earle and the Dukes, John Hiatt, Lucinda Williams, Mary Gautier and Mary Chapin Carpenter.  There are many hotels within the region for this festival, but rooms are booking up fast.  12,000 people attend this festival each day, making it one of the most well attended festivals of it's kind.  

September 6 to 10, Ottawa Folk Festival, Ottawa, Ontario -- Expanding to 5 days, this festival is a key part of the late Ottawa summer.  I attended the festival last year on the last day, which turned out to be a rather special day.  In my review posted on this site, I wrote about Hayes Carll, Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis, Sean McCann and Jimmy Rankin.  However, on the main stage and the act I did not write about (simply because I felt these other artists were due some exposure), was the Levon Helm Band.  Levon Helm was a wonderful friend to the Ottawa Folk Festival.  His 2011 performance as it would turn out, sadly was his last at Ottawa.  Included in this year's stacked lineup, is his daughter Amy Helm, along with Danny Michel, The Abrams Brothers, Corb Lund, on his own from Fleetwood Mac Lindsey Buckingham, and the always incredible Great Big Sea.

September 12 to 15, Americana Music Association Conference and Festival, Nashville, Tennessee -- I would be remiss if I did not include this in the list of road trips.  Nashville, Tennessee is honest to God, one of my favorite places to be in the world.  It is music and friendly people everywhere. The history of North American music just overflows in this town.  In September, Nashville plays host to the 12 edition of the Americana Music Association Conference and Festival.  It's apex is the annual presentation of the Americana Music Association Awards held at the Mother Church of Country Music, the Ryman Auditorium.  Nightly showcases featuring the best in Americana take place at several venues around town.  Tickets are available for both the conference and the showcases.  I would suggest that if you're not in the industry, you are safer in purchasing the much cheaper wristband ($50) which is good for all four nights of showcases and will get you in to all of the venues.  Artists announced for the showcases are Rodney Crowell, Brandi Carlisle, Reckless Kelly, Mary Gautier, John Hiatt, the Punch Brothers, The Deep Dark Woods, Eileen Jewell, Billy Joe Shaver and many more.  This is a great way to close out the summer.

Clearly this is not a comprehensive list, I would say this barely scratches the surface. But I think it does highlight all of the great music that is available to us and within a short drive from just about anywhere (at least in the eastern United States and Canada).  Regardless of where you may end up, enjoy yourselves and may you have the best summer you've ever had in 2012.  Travel safe everyone!

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Album Review: "A Bakersfield Dozen", Stephen David Austin

I've always admired artists who are not afraid to take up a challenge.  As I've come to know, one of the toughest challenges in the world is trying to establish yourself in the music business.  It takes an immense amount of time, patience, perserverance, more patience, dedication, commitment, discipline and top it off with some more patience.  So when I received the promo copy of this album from Kim Grant at KG Music Press, I was curious. 

Stephen David Austin is a California native who is a long-time veteran of the West Coast music scene who has recently released his debut solo album, A Bakersfield Dozen.  Austin has been in the music game for a long time, and this album is a labour of love that catches the listener with brilliant songwriting, first rate musicianship and strong vocals from Austin.  Staying true to California country/Americana roots, Austin takes us on a journey that harkens back to country music of days gone by, mixed wonderfully with the issues of today.  Opening up with "Best Ex I Ever Had", Austin shows us the somewhat humourous side of divorce when things go awry with a somewhat free-spirited woman.  "Heroes and Heroin" is a fairly explicit account of the underside of mega stardom that is not seen by a performers' adoring public.

A staple of fellow Bakersfield resident Merle Haggard's songwriting repetoire was prison, and Austin gives that story royal treatment here with "The Cage", a story of a man who has spent 40 years in prison and finds himself on the outside in a vastly changed world.  The opening bars of "Kansas Ain't in Kansas Anymore" is reminscent of Waylon Jenning's "Closing in on the Fire", and is a great social commentary on what's happening in our big cities today.  An album called A Bakersfield Dozen would not be complete without paying homage to another of it's most famous son's in Buck Owens.  "The Day Buck Owens Died" is a great song capturing the final moments of Mr. Owens and the affect it had on Austin's musical life.  Indeed, the world lost one of its truely greatest artists and originals on that day.

There are two songs that stood out of particular interest to me for two very different reasons.  The issue of bullying is seldom addressed in song.  For most, it's too messy of a subject.  To his credit, Stephen David Austin has written a story song, "The Fat Kid", that perfectly captures the teen angst of the victim, the wrong and hurtful mindset of the bullies, and the equally wrong, yet in this story eventual, final act of vengeance.  Bullying is a subject that invokes a lot of passion in all facets, a subject that has recently come under intense scrutiny and debate ... at least in my native Ontario, Canada.  Austin's story is blunt, the story ends ugly, and he takes no sides in the story.  Excellent, very well written song.

The other song that I loved is the polar opposite of the hate that spills out in "The Fat Kid."  "Bad Dog" is a duet with Austin and his grandson Kayleb, who was not quite two years old at the time of recording.  The joy that grampa has singing and recording a song with his grandson is palpable and shines through on this recording.  It is a piece of work that Austin can be very proud of.  "Bad Dog" is the perfect way to close out the album.

I started this piece by stating my admiration for those who will take on a challenge, no matter which stage of life they may find themselves in.  Stephen David Austin, a longtime music veteran, father and grandfather, of California gathered an A-list group of fellow musicians and produced an album that stands up and stands out in a sometimes crowded music scene.  It is to his credit that this album has seen the light of day.  And it is to the credit of the Americana genre to have been wise enough and inclusive enough to welcome this gentleman to the stage.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Recognizing Our Best

Last week the Americana Music Association announced the nominees for their upcoming awards show in September.  Looking at the list of nominees, it has been another banner year for the genre as evidenced by the talent being honored. 

Leading the way with four nominations, including Artist of the Year and Duo/Group of the Year, is Jason Isbell, along with his band the 400 Unit is just about every category that he can be honored.  Look for an upcoming review of their album "Here We Rest" in the coming weeks.  I had the great fortune to check out Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit in Toronto at the Horseshoe Tavern several months ago, and they were excellent.  A very tight band, who are absolutely deserving of the recognition the Association has provided this year.

Gillian Welch has three nominations for herself, including Album of the Year for "The Harrow and the Harvest", as well as Duo/Group of the Year with Dave Rawlings.  Gillian has been a mainstay in the Americana scene for many years and is always deserving of recognition for her work. 

The nomination that brought the biggest smile to my face is that of The Deep Dark Woods in the Emerging Artist of the Year category.  I have written about this very talented group from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan on two other occasions on this site, from my first discovery of the band in Nashville at last year's Americana Festival and a review of their show with Robert Earl Keen in Boston this past January.  Win or lose, The Deep Dark Woods will be around for as long as they desire.  They are that damn good.

This year's edition of the Americana Music Association Festival and Conference takes place in Nashville, Tennessee September 12 to 16, 2012, with the Awards show taking place on opening night.  It was a pleasure to attend last year, and I look forward to attending again this year with music lovers from around the world. 

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Never Too Old to Learn

When I started writing this blog about two years ago now, it's safe to say that I had no idea where it was going to go or what would become of it.  Through a lot of good luck and good fortune, what is a fairly basic site has a fairly decent following of readers.  While the numbers have dipped slightly over the past few months due a lack of activity on my part, I'm still amazed at how many readers are sticking with the site by viewing past writings.  Tonight's piece is basically my confessional about another one of the many lessons I've learned.

How many of you have ever read, viewed or heard anything by self-help gurus such as Dr. Wayne Dyer or Cheryl Richardson?  Over the past year, my family has become quite inspired by the words of both Dr. Dyer and Ms. Richardson, and yes, some of it has rubbed off on this guy.  Of the many life skills they teach, one important piece is consistent:  of all the limitations that life can give you, the most crippling limitation is the one you place on yourself.  Over the past few months, I have experienced this limitation and I can assure you, it is devastating.  Since I returned from Boston in January, I have struggled with my confidence in a lot of ways.  Questions have dogged me for months ... is my writing good enough?  Have I left the blog alone too long?  Can I really fit this blog in with a demanding day job and a family that needs my time?  How do I take my limited experience and expand this blog to incorporate a radio show and other initiatives?  

The more I tried to answer these questions myself, the more miserable, panicked and less confident I became.  Every answer I would give myself seemed to point me in a direction that ultimately was a bad decision, at least for me.  And I have learned that if you make a bad decision for yourself, especially a bad life decision, it affects everyone and everything around you.  Cutting out the blog was, and would have been, a bad life decision for me.  I would not have been staying true to myself if I ended this blog entirely.  I have learned that deep down, I'm a writer.  An amateur writer yes, but a writer just the same.  I love it deeply.  It's my creative outlet.  And the fact that I can marry my love of writing with my love of music and share it with whomever wishes to read these pieces is a blessing that enhances my life beyond words.  I am also fortunate that I have a very supportive family and very supportive friends who are in my corner and will stand by me as I see this blog through.  The blog may become something bigger, or it may not.  It may end up with tens of thousands of readers a month, or it may not.  Either way, I'm going to keep writing and doing what I love.  It will be from my heart.

The limitations we put on ourselves is the son-of-a-bitch of life.  We can be our own worst enemy when it comes to where we see ourselves in the big picture of our lives.  It has taken me a while to reach this point, but I say tonight that the limitations I have placed on myself are no more.  There is a big sky above all of us that has no limit.  Reach up and grab as much of it as you can and as best as you can.  A fulfilling life will be waiting.

Friday, April 20, 2012

The Pages Turn ... and We Have to Move On

"To you from failing hands we throw the torch; be yours to hold it high ... "

That line is taken from the famous poem of remembrance, In Flanders Fields, written by Canadian World War I soldier, John McRae.  Given the events of the last two days with respect to figures in the evolution of modern music, I think it's a fitting statement that works well here today.

I started thinking about writing this piece a few weeks ago with the passing of the great Earl Scruggs.  Peter Cooper, a columnist for the Nashville daily The Tennessean, wrote a wonderful article  detailing not only the memorial service for Mr. Scruggs at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium but of the type of person Mr. Scruggs was.  I'll get in to why I haven't been writing much for the past couple of months in another piece, today and now is not the time to get in to that.  Today is about remembrance, celebration and reflection.

The past three weeks have borne witness to the passing of two of the most influential figures in modern music history.  Who would have thought as we began this month that not twenty days in to April, the music world would have lost Earl Scruggs, Dick Clark and Levon Helm.  Three very unique individuals, but their influence on music and the lives of countless people in my mind is immeasurable.  

Earl Scruggs was a master musician.  He was most famously on half of the bluegrass duo Flatt and Scruggs with longtime partner and fellow musician, Lester Flatt.   Both performers got their start backing up music royalty with the Father of Bluegrass, Bill Monroe.  Flatt and Scruggs would leave Bill Monroe's band and become music royalty themselves.  Reading Mr. Cooper's article allows the reader to not only understand the far reaching influence that Mr. Scruggs had on bluegrass music, but also the type of person he was.  And from what I can gather, Mr. Scruggs was one of the most down-to-earth, genuine people that you could ever meet.  

It could be said with great confidence that no other television personality had as much influence on an artists career than Dick Clark.  With his show American Bandstand, Mr. Clark was able to use television and his show as a platform to showcase the biggest up-and-coming artists of the day, whatever that day was.  His show ran nationally for 25 years, from the early 1960's to the late 1980's.  When word of Mr. Clark's passing became public knowledge yesterday (April 17, 2012), 50's icon Little Richard stated on CNN that night that it didn't matter to Mr. Clark if you were good or not, he was still willing to give you your shot.  And people, in that time there was no greater showcase for your talent, or lack thereof, than American Bandstand.  Feeding in to millions of American homes on a weekly basis, Bandstand was also the first show of its kind to show the power of music.  It allowed people to see with their own eyes that music did not know boundary's, it knew of no genres or "labels", and it did not know race.  American Bandstand was the first show of its kind to broadcast black kids and white kids dancing together.  In certain parts of the United States in the 1960's, that was unheard of on so many levels.  Everyone of every race, color and creed was welcome on American Bandstand, as that show was always about the music.  If Wolfman Jack was the most influential radio personality of that time period, certainly Dick Clark was the most influential television personality.  

Which brings us to today's (April 18, 2012) announcement of the passing of Levon Helm.  Levon was the drummer and, in several cases, the voice of The Band.  Following The Band's dissolution in 1976 (which was the focus of the film "The Last Waltz", directed by Martin Scorsese), Mr. Helm embarked on a solo and film career with perhaps his most memorable performance playing Loretta Lynn's father in "Coal Miner's Daughter."  He would reform The Band in the 1980's without guitarist and vocalist Robbie Robertson.  In the 1990's, it was decided to dissolve The Band permanently, following the deaths of two longtime members Richard Manuel and Rick Danko.  This would ultimately be the beginning of perhaps the most influential part of Mr. Helm's musical career and it would seemingly happen by accident.  No longer held to terms and commitments with The Band, Mr. Helm embarked on a solo career that would ultimately result in the incredibly successful Midnight Ramble concert series.  Levon Helm's Midnight Ramble shows would take place at the barn adjacent to his home in Woodstock, New  York.  The shows themselves were created out of necessity.  When Mr. Helm was first diagnosed with throat cancer in the late 1990's, the shows were created in part to help cover the costs of treatment.  They ended up covering the costs of treatment, paying the mortgage, and in true pay-it-forward form, provided an outlet for the burgeoning Americana movement allowing newer artists of the day like Elizabeth Cook to grow their following and music legends like Elvis Costello and Emmylou Harris to showcase their still relevant music when mainstream radio virtually ignored them.  So influential was Levon Helm to the Americana genre, that the Americana Music Association honored Mr. Helm with a Lifetime Achievement Award for performing in 2003.  If you go back and listen to The Band's music, I believe one can hear the early stages of what is now the Americana genre.

What's significant about the passing of Mr. Scruggs, Mr. Clark and Mr. Helm is that there will never be another like either of these gentlemen.  Mr. Scruggs virtually invented the picking style that is used, or at least attempted to be used, by many banjo and bluegrass musicians today.  The music industry, and society in general, will never allow another individual like Mr. Clark to have such a huge platform to promote music at the grassroots level.  Records labels seemingly little to no interest in promoting artists from the ground up and sticking with them over a period of time to generate a career, as opposed to making a quick buck on a hit single or two.  Television has no interest in promoting a national live music show in the vein that was American Bandstand.  The trend is more toward reality television, which is much cheaper and friendly to the bottom line.  I'm sorry folks, but in my opinion shows like American Idol and The Voice don't count here.  They're completely different shows than American Bandstand.  Day and night.  Finally, there aren't too many more stylists out there like Mr. Helm who was at the top of the rock and roll world in the 1960's and 1970's, and was able to craft and formulate a very unique sound that convinced so many artists to pick up their guitar, take up the drums or write such amazing poetry.  There aren't too many who can parlay all of that talent in their later years in to creating a weekly concert variety show, at his own home no less, that showcases and promotes an explosive newly recognized genre of music that focuses on creativity of the artist and the community of the musicians and fans.  

The world has lost a lot of talent, creativity and history in the last few weeks.  The music will live on of course, but as Peter Cooper pointed out in his article, it's hard not to feel sad because these gentlemen are gone.  It's the end of a great chapter, and as music fans, one which we were all terribly blessed to have witnessed. Let's remember and honor these wonderfully talented gentlemen appropriately by listening and sharing their music, and perhaps discovering old clips of the great American Bandstand shows.  And let the good memories flow.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Album Review: Nearly Beloved, "Where's Bob?"

As mentioned in articles past, one of the things I enjoyed most about attending the most recent Americana Music Conference and Festival was meeting some truly great people that work in the business side of music.  I made no bones about the fact that this blog is a one person operation, still in its growing stages of what I would like it to be.  The kindness and support I received from many of those attending the conference was heartwarming.  One such individual has been very kind over the past few months to send me albums of some of the artists that she is tasked with promoting, and I say tasked in the most positive light.  And at long last, far longer than is acceptable really, I'm happy to post the first in a series of great albums that Kim Grant of KG Music Press has been so kind to share for this space.

Produced by lead singer Matt Lax, Nearly Beloved's "Where's Bob?" is a wonderful, eclectic mix of traditional folk, mixed with a bit of blues and a decent amount of the original sounds of California country-rock of the late 60's and early 70's.  I surmise this last ingredient can be somewhat expected, since the band is based out of California.  The album will be released on Attaboy Records on Tuesday March 13, 2012.

The album kicks off in grand style, with a nice little rockabilly number, "My Memory," a tune about  trying to change ones' focus from the negativity in life.  "Whiskey Whispers" evokes a real classic country feel, a really nice throwback to the traditional country sound of the 1950's with it's beautiful steel guitar work.  A nice cover of Bob Dylan's classic "Subterranean Homesick Blues" allows the band to really showcase their musicianship, with a nice shuffle beat from Peter Rubin on drums and some well-placed harmonica work from Peter Lax.  

If "Subterranean Homesick Blues" showcases Nearly Beloved's musical abilities, "Cool Fuckin' Sunset" showcases their harmony's in stellar fashion.  It is this segment on the album, at least for this listener, that invoked many great memories of the California country-rock scene as "Sunset" brought about visions of The Eagles, while the next track "Tomorrow Won't be the Future" reminded me of The Byrds.  I don't say this to be a negative thing, I merely highlight these tracks as key points to the album.  If the goal was to capture a bit of that California sound of days gone by, it was captured in spades.  They are two excellent, very well done tracks.  

Perhaps the most clever song on the album is one that I'm sure would make Roger Miller proud. "My P-Role Officer" is a great story song about a guy who just can't catch a break , to say the least.  A fantastic, well written song and well performed by Matt Lax and the group.

Nearly Beloved's "Where's Bob?" is currently enjoying some well-deserved airplay on great radio stations such as 91.7 FM WHUS, 90.3 FM WZBC, 88.1 FM WMBR, 94.1 FM KFPA, as well as Taproot Radio and various European radio outlets.  You can purchase a copy, and indeed listen, to "Where's Bob?" in its entirety on the Nearly Beloved web site.  If you're interested in learning about more artists under Kim Grant's wing, check out her site at KG Music Press.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Moving On Up to 2012

Hey everyone,

I'm back with a new post after a bit of a dry spell in February.  This one is going to be somewhat short.  

After much arm twisting and convincing, I'm happy to report that Americana Review is now on Twitter.  

I welcome you to follow along at @americanareview for all things Americana Review.  I'll be tweeting about what shows I'll be heading out to, what albums I'm reviewing, what I'm listening to at any given moment and of course, general thoughts and rambles.  

Thanks as always for your support to this point and for sticking it out with the continued evolution of this blog.  There have been over 5,100 of you who have visited, and I can't tell you how much I appreciate it.

Thanks for reading and I look forward to reaching even more of you!

Monday, February 13, 2012

Some Post-Grammy Thoughts

Before getting to far in to this piece, I must confess that I didn't watch that much of the Grammy Awards telecast last night.  It may not be a popular opinion, but I find the Grammy show can be a very long and drawn out affair, much like the Oscars.  There was a lot of great music that was recognized last night in all genres, and for the most part, I would say the Academy got it right.  With Adele's win in the all-encompassing Record of the Year category, is a great achievement for one of the truly great and unique artists to have come along in quite some time.

I would be remiss if I didn't say congratulations to The Civil Wars for their two big wins last night in the Best Country Duo/Group Performance category and Best Folk Album category for Barton Hollow.  For anyone who has heard this album or watched the duo of Joy Williams and John Paul White perform, the first two major awards of their career will come as no surprise.  For those of you who haven't heard about them until this point, get ready.  The Civil Wars are on the verge of something huge.  Their music is about to get mainstream exposure, as fellow Grammy winner and worldwide superstar Taylor Swift has them on board her next single.  "Safe and Sound" appears on The Hunger Games soundtrack and is produced by the one and only T Bone Burnett.  Say what you want about Taylor, but she loves great music when she hears it and doesn't worry about what others think.  I think that's a wonderful trait to have.  

One of the portions of the show I did see made me really smile.  Growing up, I had a steady diet of Waylon Jennings, George Jones, Tammy Wynette, Conway Twitty, Loretta Lynn, Willie Nelson, and one unbelievably talented multi-instrumentalist from Arkansas named Glen Campbell.  Glen's musical influence has been well documented, from his beginnings on The Smothers Brothers Show to The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour, to his movie appearances and career renaissance in the mid to late 1980's, Campbell's mark on the musical landscape is prominent.  No less than the great Keith Urban cites Glen Campbell as one of his major influences, as well as other guitar greats as Steve Wariner, Vince Gill and Brad Paisley.  It was  a great joy watching the Grammy tribute during last nights awards show honoring Glen Campbell with a Lifetime Achievement award.  The Band Perry and Blake Shelton paid wonderful homage to this music legend, but it was Glen himself that stole the show.  Recently diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease but still able to perform, Glen is on his farewell tour.  It is nice to see organizations such as the Grammy's devoting time during their telecasts to honor a great legend such as Glen Campbell while he's still alive and can appreciate and even participate in the performance.  Watching the reaction from the Grammy audience, filled with other legends like Joe Walsh, Bruce Springsteen and Paul McCartney standing up and dancing to Glen's performance of his signature hit "Rhinestone Cowboy", showed Glen how much he is admired, respected and loved among his peers.  And trust me folks, Glen Campbell showed everyone he can still sing and perform, as he still exhibits the confidence and stage presence of a true music veteran.  For me, it was one of those moments that just made me smile and smile.  It gave me that feeling I always get that reminds me of why I love music so much.  

Of course, the Grammy awards had a shadow cast upon itself with the news that one of the great artists and vocalists of our time passed away the day before.  Whitney Houston is another artist that I recall from my youth and while I was not a particularly big fan of her music, the talent that existed could never be denied.  I was a country boy and she was decidedly pop, so I didn't really follow her early material.  That changed considerably when I heard her version of the Dolly Parton classic that would go on to become Whitney Houston's (and Dolly Parton's, for that matter) biggest hit.  "I Will Always Love You" had been a number one hit for Dolly on two separate occasions in 1974 and 1982, but the version recorded for The Bodyguard soundtrack by Whitney Houston, would sit atop the Billboard Hot 100 chart for 14 weeks.  I can still remember where I was and what I was doing when I first heard the opening notes of Whitney's version, it was that powerful to me.  It's funny though, I had to convince the company I was with at the time that Whitney's was not the original version of that song, but that's beside the point.

I always find it a real tragedy when people who possess such a great gift, such great talent  cannot seem to harness or handle the stardom that sometimes accompanies such greatness.  I have no doubt that many of the artists who have passed before their time had dreams of performing on stage before thousands of adoring people.  But I wonder if those artists were truly equipped to handle that lifestyle.  The pressures of essentially being your "business" in every sense of the word and having employees keeping their job based on your success has got to be immense.  Compound that with a lack of the proper support network, both personally and professionally, and you have a recipe for disaster.  For every George Jones and yes, Glen Campbell, who have been able to keep addictions at bay which enabled them to have long, storied careers, there are an equal amount who have not been successful.  Elvis Presley, Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin come to mind.  Another recent example is the all-to-soon passing of Amy Winehouse, an artist who's best days and most creative time was still ahead of her, but could not break free of the personal demons that led to her untimely death.

It all seems so preventable, yet it sadly happens a thousand times a day.  We just hear about it more when a celebrity passes on in such mortal circumstances.  The lesson for all of us, if we're to take a lesson away, I believe is for us to take care of ourselves.  Take care of our loved ones. Be good.  And above all if and when you make a list of those that you love and value in your life, make sure your own name appears prominently on that list.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Concert Review: Robert Earl Keen, The Deep Dark Woods -- January 22, 2012, Royale Nightclub, Boston, Massachusetts

A true pioneer of the Red Dirt music scene brought his winter tour to the Northeast this past weekend, with stops in New York City and Boston.  I had the great fortune to attend the Boston show last night at the Royale Nightclub just a short walk from Boston Common.  The Royale is a beautiful club with excellent acoutics, I highly recommend catching a show there when the opportunity presents itself. 

Robert Earl Keen has been travelling the roads of America for decades and is one of the forefathers of Texas Red Dirt music.  On the road to support his latest release "Ready for Confetti", Robert Earl Keen delivered the stellar performance that you would expect from the veteran singer-songwriter.  Opening with the catchy "Whodoo Man", it was clear Robert Earl came to Boston to have a party with the hundreds in attendance.  And the audience obliged, chanting the familiar "REK! REK!" refrain that is common at Keen's shows.  Moving comfortably from the blues-tinged opening number to the soulful, laidback "Feelin' Good Again", to the humourous "Merry Christmas From The Family", Robert Earl showed why he has been, and continues to be, a relevant factor in music for well over 30 years. 

One of my favorite performances of the evening was the title track of Robert Earl's previous album, "The Rose Hotel."   I always appreciate when artists allow their backup band to shine on their own for an extended run on a song, and such was the case with "The Rose Hotel" as well as a great tune I was not familiar with, "Corpus Christ Bay."  Performances such as these are the reason that I've been tuned in to the Red Dirt music scene.  Just pure, rockin' soul and country that you can rarely hear anywhere other than at a live show on a Sunday night in Boston, or any day of the week in Texas. 

Bringing the show to it's much anticipated peak, Robert Earl and the boys did another extended take on what may be his best known tune "The Road Goes on Forever", which has been covered many times over, perhaps best by Billy Joe Shaver.  Like many of us out there, Robert Earl commented on the current state of mainstream country music with "This Old Porch", a tune co-written with fellow Texas singer-songwriter Lyle Lovett.  Robert Earl closed off his excellent set with "Comin' Home to You", and encored with "Shades of Amarillo."   After hearing much about Robert Earl Keen over the years, it was great to finally catch one of his shows.  It's not hard to see why he is regarded as a legend in Texas and the influece he has had on that music scene.  Without Robert Earl, it's hard to imagine groups like Cross Canadian Ragweed, Reckless Kelly or No Justice come to being ... or at the very least, having the sound that they have.  He is a true original and should gain your attention when playing in your town.  I promise you will find many, hardcore Robert Earl Keen fans at the show.

Speaking of true originals, opening act The Deep Dark Woods are an excellent band based out of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada that is beginning to make their rounds in the United States.  One might ask why a Texas legend would bring a fairly new Canadian band out on the road with him as the show opener.  One would get their answer when they see and hear The Deep Dark Woods.  This is my second opportunity to catch a performance of The Deep Dark Woods, but my first time catching a more fulsome performance.  I attended their showcase segment at the Americana Music Conference and Festival in Nashville last October where they were the rave of the week.  With a voice that sounds much older than the gentleman possessing that voice, lead vocalist Ryan Boldt and the band introduced themselves to the Boston audience.  I can assure you, the Boston audience will not forget The Deep Dark Woods. 

Serving as the opener for Keen is a great opportunity for this young group from Canada.  Touring to support their US debut album, The Place I Left Behind, the boys opened up with the initial track on the album, "Westside Street."  It was great to watch the crowd, many of whom I'm sure had not heard of The Deep Dark Woods before, turn toward the stage eyes wide and ears open and move closer to get a glimpse of the band they were hearing for the first time.  With each passing tune, the cheering and applause got louder.  The tight performances and songwriting on such tunes as "The Banks of the Leopold Canal" and "Back Alley Blues" quite clearly won a whole room full of fans, many of whom walked immediately to the concession table to find their copy of The Place I Left Behind and other earlier works of the band. 

The Deep Dark Woods have a very unique sound that served as the perfect compliment to Robert Earl Keen's set.  I had the great fortune to meet with the guys for a few minutes as I was leaving the club and I'm proud to say they are very pleasant, humble and friendly.  True Canadian boys, indeed.  The Deep Dark Woods are:  Ryan Boldt on vocals and guitar; Burke Barlow on acoustic, electric and steel guitar; Geoff Hilhorst on keys; Chris Mason on vocals and bass; and Lucas Goetz on vocals, percussion and pedal steel.  I list them by name here today because I believe this is the beginning for The Deep Dark Woods and you should get to know them.  The next time this group comes to Boston, it will be as well-deserved headliners.