("Exploring the Classics" (ETC) is an ongoing series in which I highlight and discuss an album from country music's past that is of particular noteworthiness due to general acclaim, influence, historical import, commercial success, or some combination thereof. While in many instances I'll be revisiting albums with which I've long been familiar, in others I'll be experiencing these works for the first time. What albums count as "noteworthy" is obviously highly subjective and determined at my discretion, but I'm not too strict about it. I do, however, feel that these are the works that tell the story of country music and all of its many roots and branches.)
While George Jones was an outstanding vocalist and responsible for many of the most iconic songs in the country music canon, the truth is, unlike some contemporaries such as Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson, he rarely excelled at making great albums. He was extremely prolific, typically releasing two or three albums a year at the demand of his labels, and this frequently resulted in the need to record songs that were less than great. He's pretty much the quintessential example of a "singles artist" whose genius is most apparent on compilations. However, he occasionally did hit upon a great batch of songs, and 1974's The Grand Tour, released at the height of George's fame when he was married to Tammy Wynette and charting in the top 10 with regularity, is easily one of the best albums he ever made.
("Exploring the Classics" (ETC) is an ongoing series in which I highlight and discuss an album from country music's past that is of particular noteworthiness due to general acclaim, influence, historical import, commercial success, or some combination thereof. While in many instances I'll be revisiting albums with which I've long been familiar, in others I'll be experiencing these works for the first time. What albums count as "noteworthy" is obviously highly subjective and determined at my discretion, but I'm not too strict about it. I do, however, feel that these are the works that tell the story of country music.)
While the mid-'80s through the early '90s are a period associated with neotraditional country music, it was also a time when a generation of highly literate singer-songwriters with folk leanings began to emerge, making excellent music that was inspired by Americana and alt-country forebears like Townes Van Zandt, John Prine and Guy Clark. While their commercial success was often limited, they made some of the most essential music of that era.
Author: Leon Blair
You know, at this point I'm sure many of you have noticed that most of these preludes aren't that different from each other. I'm usually either talking about the history of the country genre, an artist's background or in this case, discussing a band that I'm not overly familiar with.
Arguably one of the biggest names in the Texas Country scene, Austin based band Reckless Kelly is one of those names that I should know more of but just don't. Prior to hearing their latest album, Sunset Motel, the only album I had heard of theirs was Long Night Moon which would have had a shot at being one of my favorite albums of 2016. Seriously, it's that damn good. As a ritual for bands I don't know a ton about, I usually listen to some of their backlog before starting my review (one of many reasons why this review is so damn late). So is Sunset Motel compared to their past material?
In 1971, Willie Nelson released the concept album Yesterday's Wine. Although a very fine album, it was too unconventional and eccentric to be accepted by mainstream Nashville. Frustrated by the album's lukewarm reception and a general lack of direction in his career, Willie quit the music business and headed home to Texas. Fortunately, the retirement was only temporary and within a year Willie was back in the recording studio, ready for another go with a newly formed band, The Family. The ensuing album, Shotgun Willie, is among the best of Nelson's career. Having switched from RCA to Atlantic, he was given greater artistic freedom, and this album represents the "birth" of Willie Nelson as most people know him. It's among the first outlaw country records ever recorded.
The unmistakable funk vibe of the opening title track leaves no doubt that a new Willie has emerged. Backed by nontraditional country instruments like a horn and trumpet, the lyrics feature Willie humorously opining on the state of his career and seem to include a bizarre but interesting reference to the Ku Klux Klan buying sheets in bulk. Elsewhere, the wildly entertaining travelogue "Devil in a Sleeping Bag" has Willie relating several anecdotes from his life on the road as a touring musician, including the whole band catching pneumonia, the tour bus beginning to fall apart, and Willie (jokingly) becoming infatuated with Rita Coolidge after seeing her and her husband Kris Kristofferson perform at the Philharmonic Hall.
Author: Leon Blair
It's always awesome to watch a great independent country band garner enough of a buzz to not only have their debut album sell exceptionally well for an act that size, but also to see them score a major label deal after that. No, I'm not talking about Sturgill Simpson. I'm actually once again traveling outside United States borders to talk about the British Country duo Ward Thomas. Made up of twin sisters Catherine and Lizzy Ward Thomas, they originate from rural Hampshire and got their start in country music at a young age.
The duo's debut album, From Where We Stand was released in the UK in 2014 (2015 over in my neck of the woods), and managed to create enough of a buzz for the duo. Really, I liked the album so much that it even ended up being one of my favorite albums of 2015. As such, I was excited when the duo announced a deal with Sony Music this past June to release their major label debut (and 2nd album overall), Cartwheels. So does it live up to the duo's debut album?
Author: Leon Blair
Remember a couple weeks ago when I said that Bluegrass felt like one of the last pure genres out there in the music world? Well there's a reason I said “one of”. Much like Bluegrass, the genre of Southern-Rock has not only always been somewhat of a cousin genre to Country music, but also one that didn't really see the light of day that it so rightfully deserved. Oh, don't get me wrong. We certainly had big names like Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Allman Brothers, Marhshall Tucker Band and many more achieve wide levels of prominence. But as a whole, southern-rock is just one of those genres that has seemingly decreased in popularity since its hayday in the 70's. Hell, it's even getting harder to find acts who even want to be considered southern-rock.
In 2016, you have to do a little bit of digging to find all of the buried treasures in music. Oh who am I kidding, you have to really get your hands dirty to find some of the best kept secrets in music. Southern-Rock may not be as popular as it once was in the 70's, but that doesn't mean there aren't bands out there carrying on the torch. Anyone who reads this blog most likely has at least heard of Blackberry Smoke, and they're not alone in their torch bearing. Mud is Whiskey Myers' fourth studio album, and with Dave Cobb at the wheel as producer, it seemed like there was no way this couldn't be a great album. Does Mud continue on the tradition of making Whiskey Myers one of the best Southern-Rock bands out there in the modern world?
Author: Leon Blair
We all know by now of the dozens upon dozens of former rock stars who have ventured into country music. Some such as Don Henley and Cody Jinks have proven that they understand the heart and soul of the genre and respect its roots. Others like Bret Michaels and Steven Tyler......yeah not so much. Up until his debut solo album, The Road you could have probably easily lumped singer/songwriter Aaron Lewis into the latter category. “Country Boy” and “Endless Summer” were absolutely terrible songs yes, but something never really added up when it came to Aaron. After all, it's not as if his band Staind was exactly doing poorly, nor was 2011 really the cool time to hop aboard the country train. It finally did add up when he released his debut solo album, The Road and proved there was more to him than what his singles had shown up to that point.
When Aaron released the first single from his brand new album, Sinner titled “That Ain't Country”, the question came into play whether or not Aaron was once again looking to cash in on a trend or actually crafting a song out of frustration. It's not as if protest songs are exactly original these days, and heck, this dude started out in rock music and was signed to Big Machine Records. The record label who launched acts such as Florida Georgia Line and Thomas Rhett! How the hell was this going to be anything more than a marketing gimmick?
Hey, I was willing to give Aaron a fair shake coming into his newest album. Like I said, he showed real potential on his last album, and I had reason to believe this album could be even better, especially when I heard he was deciding to cover two awesome country songs with “Whiskey And You” and “Travelin' Solider”. So did Sinner meet my expectations?
Author: Leon Blair
I know what most of you were probably expecting when you clicked on this link. You're probably waiting for me to explode in anger over Jason Aldean's new album and his comments and how this album in particular is such a disgrace to country music. Well, I do hate to disappoint all of you but I'm not the one to do that. Others have already spoken at length about this much better than I could, and prelude aside, this conversation will be kept on the music.
While I of course will be getting to the actual album in due time, the prelude in every one of my reviews offers me a chance to either expose some background information on the artist in question or some events leading up to his or her album in question. But this isn't me discussing another independent country or Americana act. You'd have to live on the planet Zephnar to have not heard of Jason Aldean. That means we'll be talking about events that have shaped this album. Oh boy, that's a fun topic for this particular album isn't it?
Jason's comments about not wanting to be too “songwriterly”, the state of rock music, and also who his album is aimed at have not exactly made me or many others very happy. In fact, I think I could answer most of his comments accurately and fairly simply by calling them asinine (and a small fraction of that isn't even based in opinion. There's no cool rock bands? Seriously?!? Blackberry Smoke had a number one country album last year!!). I've grown tired of bashing artists however, and although I had originally no plans to cover this album, when a family member of mine wanted to buy it, I figured what the heck? After all, Aldean wants us to keep an open mind with his music (despite not doing anything to really deserve it), and hey, he's had some surprisingly good album cuts in the past that I'll give him credit for. In addition, it's important to draw a line between who a music star is as a person and the type of music they make. So I dug into his newest album They Don't Know to see what kind of album it was. What did I find?
Author: Leon Blair
Let's travel to the land of “alt-country” for a bit, shall we? It's always fascinating researching artists who are brand new to you and seeing not only what type of music they like to play, but also what music influenced them growing up. For most Country artists you'll hear talk of heroes such as George Strait, Alan Jackson, Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash and so many more. It's rare that you ever hear of a country band being influenced by acts that really can't be labeled as strict “traditional country”.
Caleb Keith and his band the Calaveras claim that bands such as Whiskeytown, Uncle Tupelo, Old 97's, Two Dollar Pistols and the Jayhawks along with classic country, rock and soul are the sounds that have shaped them thus far. Based in Athens, Georgia, the band finally decided after years of writing and careful timing that they would hit the studio to record their debut album. Teaming up with Mike Albanese, the band finally was able to craft their debut album, Between Late and Lonesome, an album categorized as “a reflection of the group's blend of honkytonk, rock, and soul, with songs about loving and leaving, late nights and lonely highways, heartaches, hard times, and hope”. Well that certainly sounds right up my alley. So what did I find?
Caleb Keith and the Calavera's debut project is certainly a strong start for the band. It's an album that certainly exemplifies all of the elements I described at the end of my prelude and also digs a little deeper than that as well. Being a debut album there's admittedly a few rough spots, but overall, Caleb Keith and the Calavera's are on the right track to crafting a great blend of their influences while also honing in on their own style as well.
As mainstream country music underwent dramatic transformations throughout the 1990s, many veteran artists who had made their name in the 1980s found themselves losing their foothold at radio. While Randy Travis was able to maintain success through the first half of the decade, his 1996 album Full Circle was a commercial flop. In response, Travis parted ways with longtime producer Kyle Lehning and co-produced the next two albums himself along with Byron Gallimore and James Stroud. This strategy worked initially, resulting in the excellent 1998 album You and You Alone, which yielded two #2 hits. However, the follow-up, 1999's A Man Ain't Made Of Stone, was one of the weakest albums of his Travis' career, combining average material with overstuffed production, and was a commercial disaster. This all but killed Travis' momentum, and he spent most of the next decade recording gospel music.
By 2008, Travis was back with Kyle Lehning and ready to return to secular country music. Around the Bend, released that year, is not the best album of Travis' career, but is probably in the upper half and represents a return to form. The production is more contemporary than Travis' early work, but is mostly rooted on the traditional side, especially by 2008 standards. Randy's voice has changed throughout the years, becoming gruffer and deeper, and he probably lost a little bit of range, but the decline is not nearly significant enough to detract from the enjoyment. This album was roundly ignored by country radio, but that's an indictment of country radio, not this album.