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"