Here’s a clip of one of my favorite Woody songs, The Ranger’s Command.
Tag Archives: americana
Basically, this is all the new country music worth buying this week. (edit: there’s a new Betty Soo album out this week. It’s probably good too.)
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the leader of Eleven Hundred Springs would put out a solo album of swaggering honky-tonk. The album opens strong with “A Little Less Whiskey” and stays the course from there- confident songwriting and twang from a veteran of all the smokey bars. What struck me most was the outright sentimentality of the lyrics, the unashamed, old-fashioned emotion Hillyer has no problem laying down. Even by country standards, he’s not afraid to wax nostalgic or get mushy. It’s a bit disarming at first, because where a lot of people are good at aping the sound of old country, Hillyer has flat-out mastered the heart-on-sleeve tenderness of Lefty Frizell in a way that is refreshing and as I said before, a little disarming. Speaking of mid-century softiness, if you love recitations, you’ll like “Dancing With The Moon,” which takes George Strait’s “The Chair” on one of the early Apollo missions. If you don’t like recitations, there’s lots more of the somewhere between Texas and Bakersfield sounds to soak in. If you like your country like you like your Chevy’s: dependable, sturdy, and thankfully not all that different from what your Dad tooled around in, here’s your man.
Zoe Muth, like many of the protagonists in her songs, has an appealing weariness in her voice, like she just got off a long shift in a five year stretch of them at a job she only meant to keep for 6 months. The mandolins and steel from previous albums are gone, and while still working in a country-ish vein, you’ll not find the two steppers you may be accustomed to. Organ, cello and some really punchy drums replace the honky-tonkier instrumentation from her earlier work. Once I spit out the haterade (I REALLY love mandolins and steel), I found all the qualities that I like about a Zoe Muth song; a gently unfolding story, sung in a sly voice. “Mama Needs A Margarita” is two minutes and a little change, while “Taken All You Wanted” clocks in north of five. I couldn’t tell you which one was shorter from listening, such is the way Muth draws you in to a well-worn world, one I will revisit again and again.
The last time this husband and wife duo put out a record it became one of my favorites (and the soundtrack for every time I’ve cleaned the kitchen since then.) While “Cheater’s Game” had a looser, “hey, let’s have fun playing some songs” vibe, “Our Year” is a little more studied in it’s approach, a little more locked into the groove. Which is to say, they do a really good job with “Motor City Man” and “Harper Valley PTA.” It seems to me that Robison sings more this time around, and harmonizes more with Willis. Or maybe the arrangements just highlight that more. The record ends with a resolute, banjo-studded cover of the Zombie’s “This Will Be Our Year”, replacing the disaffected, youthful cool of the original with a heartening touch of defiance, sung by folks who’ve seen enough years together to know. This is the perfect soundtrack for late afternoon patio drinks your s.o.
John Fullbright sings like the kinda guy who learned to play piano in church, then immediately got a job playing in the bar across the street. “Songs” also moves from the elemental conflicts between God and the Devil found on his earlier album to more domestic concerns. The songs have an intimacy you’d expect from overhearing your neighbors talk about big issues while trying not to break into argument. Which isn’t to say that this is a boring record just because John Fullbright the rollicking Dust Bowl prophet has become come in and have a glass of wine John Fullbright. There’s a reason reviewers keep mentioning Tom Waits and Randy Newman, not because Fullbright shoots word arrows from behind his piano, letting them fall where they may, but because he’s that good.
As long as country music as been around, there has been an argument about what it is and isn’t. And, like most genres, it’s managed to grow and change over the decades by incorporating new styles that bubbled up around the edges of the establishment. From Bluegrass and Western Swing in the 30’s to Neo-Traditional and New Wave in the 80’s, the people who make and distribute what get’s played on your local country station have kept up, sometimes unsuccessfully, with whatever new sounds might help sell some records.
I’m going to abandon the term Americana now that I’ve used it to get you in the door. I don’t like it, one, because it’s too vague in the sense that Norman Rockwell, barbecue joints and old Chevy’s can be considered Americana. The other reason is that it’s a way to say you like country music without associating yourself with the idea of country music, or any of the conceptual baggage of country music, like being a poor, rural white person from flyover country. Saying “Alternative Country” signals that yes, you are talking about country music, and yes, there is an alternative to the output of the Nashville behemoth.
Enter these two records I found out combing junk stores not too long ago.
Both hail from the great lost world of the 70’s. These were on small, local labels in Northern New Mexico and Southern Colorado and feature bands that played the bars and dancehall circuits. Tumbleweed has more of a Burrito Bros, jangly country-rock sound, and The Last Mile Ramblers plays songs that mix elements of different country styles in a manner much closer to the alt-country of the late 90’s. Rockabilly guitars with bluegrass banjos, etc. Either one, if released on a bigger Americana label today, with a decent PR push would probably kill. As it was, these were razor-sharp bar bands in their day, guys who could evidently pack a bar and sell a lot of beer, but not enough to catch the attention of anyone in Nashville. They were country groups that mixed traditional elements with contemporary sensibilities and played the same venues as rock bands. It was alt-country before the word existed. The concept of alternative country existed, but the market niche didn’t exist yet. Bands like Tumbleweed and The Last Mile Ramblers are little reminders that there has always been more than one way to do things, and there’s always been an, if not dissenting, then certainly different voice out on the margins.
We can debate where country went wrong, or who is to blame. (I think we’re all way too hard on Garth Brooks.) What is most interesting to me is that these two records are the products of bands trying to fill two needs, the need to provide live music for bars and dancehalls, and the need to play music that was a different take from the radio had to offer. At the time, mainstream country probably hadn’t alienated enough people to create a big enough market niche. The last big Country Music revolution to overturn the status quo from the outside (so far), the Neo-Traditionalists like Dwight Yoakam, was just a few years away. But the alternative sounds were out there, they were out there when Bill Monroe picked up his mandolin, when Buck Owens built his empire in Bakersfield, when Uncle Tupelo played their first show.
Nashville has gone it’s way, and “Americana” has gone it’s own way, and there doesn’t appear to be much reason for one market to overtake the other (except maybe to save the world from this gelded jackass) because they service such different fan bases. And even in the nebulously defined world of Americana, you have Texas/Red Dirt Country, indie-leaning bands, and pop bands like Mumford & Sons. The alternatives to listening to mainstream country are everywhere now, but they’ve always been around. They’ve been in your local dancehall, some backyard party, and sometimes, in the right record bin, waiting for you to blow away the dust and take a chance.
I’ve been a fan of the Old 97’s since they appeared on Austin City Limits (I was too young and lived a little too far away from the bars they played back then). They recorded “Too Far To Care” about 10 minutes from my family’s farm. I’ve stuck with them through hiatuses, solo albums, and power pop. I appreciate that they’ll never make another “Wreck Your Life” and quite frankly, as awesome as that sounds, it probably wouldn’t be that great. You only get to do your 20’s once. Realizing that as a good thing is sign of maturity-for you and your favorite bands.
Grand Theater Vols. 1 & 2 were billed as returns to form, and they were; the loud, twangy, rumbly alt. country that got me in the door in the first place. Trying to find a place for THAT sound, the rockabilly-ish country punk, alongside some of their more wide-ranging albums like “Fight Songs” or “Blame It On Gravity” is no easy balancing act. For the most part, I think “Most Messed Up” pulls it off, integrating more poppy, jangling songs with the strum and twang cowpunk of their earlier albums.
Rhett drops some f-bombs too, if that’s something you’re into. But, HBO language aside, he remains king of the Roger Miller-esque one liner. It’s tempting to say that the 97’s are back, but they’ve never gone anywhere. If I had to make a complaint about this album, it’s that it lacks a certain Murry quality. His one song on the album is one of his Beatles-leaning numbers and I never get that good-natured, train-riding, aw shucks Saturday Matinee cowboy feeling he adds anywhere on this album. For me, it’s always been the key ingredient, the thing that sanded off some of the seemier edges of Rhett’s tales of drink, women and woe.
Anyway, it’s good to see the Old 97’s on a hot streak and I’ll be seeing them soon (in El Paso, on Cinco De Mayo). In the mean time, I look forward to settling in with these songs for awhile and getting to know all the words, because chances are, I’ll be singing along to them again and again.