Thursday, April 7, 2016

Merle Haggard: Country Music's Greatest Singer-Songwriter

Image result for merle haggard

The music world is in mourning once again as it suffers another monumental loss with the passing of Merle Haggard on April 6, his 79th birthday.  There have been many biographical articles written about Mr. Haggard over the years, and many more have been written in the past 24 hours since his passing.  This piece will try to somehow put in to context what it means to lose such a giant figure in the North American music scene.

Mr. Haggard's country music chart success ran un-interrupted for roughly 25 years.  His total of 38 number one songs on Billboard's country music chart, along with many more singles that made the top ten, place Mr. Haggard among the giants in any musical genre. Mainstream country artists of today can only dream of reaching these types of numbers with today's fickle market. It's not impossible, but it is rare.  Mr. Haggard's feat was no different. His music endured many different style changes to country music, but his style was always relevant. It was his songwriting that made this so. 

"The warden led a prisoner, down the hallway to his doom
and I stood up to say goodbye like all the rest"

The lyric above is the opening line from an early Haggard hit "Sing Me Back Home."  A story song that was born of life experience.  It's no secret that Mr. Haggard spent time in and out of the prison system, including time served at the infamous San Quentin prison.  This time featured prominently in many of his early hits, including songs he didn't write like "The Fugitive."  




"I'll probably never see you eye to eye again
this letter's meant to be my last farewell"

This mournful opening line is from "Looking For a Place To Fall Apart" is again a true story. Mr. Haggard did indeed write a letter to his soon-to-be ex-wife who called an end to their marriage.  But rather than send the finished letter, he placed in the trash and burned it. Then, he wrote this masterpiece.



If you're a young person reading this article, I cannot stress enough that you go and explore the Merle Haggard lexicon. This is especially so if you are an aspiring songwriter, as Mr. Haggard's songs are perfect examples of how to craft a song. Write about what you know, tell the story of your life and your observations, but most importantly write from the heart.

Mr. Haggard's music is not something you would dance too.  Rather, Mr. Haggard's music is a style that calls for one to sit down and listen to the lyrics.  There is social commentary, heart, soul, feeling and real life in the words.  Consider this: in the recently released documentary on Keith Richards, Mr. Richards sat at a piano and sang "Sing Me Back Home" while stating Merle Haggard was a huge influence on the Rolling Stones, specifically the songwriting.  Indeed, other artists who have cited Merle Haggard's songwriting as a major influence on their work is a lengthy list:  Toby Keith, Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Mick Jagger, Miranda Lambert, Jason Isbell, Kacey Musgraves, the Dixie Chicks, John Mellancamp, Jewel, Ronnie Van Zant/Lynyrd Skynyrd and Jamey Johnson are among the many that have cited Mr. Haggard as having touched their lives through his music. Successful artists and songwriters, all. I mean to say, you have the Beatles and Rolling Stones saying they turned to Merle Haggard music for inspiration ... if that doesn't signal a lasting influence and legacy, I don't know what does.

The heaven's gained one of the most prominent artists in modern history with the passing of Merle Haggard. We are blessed to have such an incredible catalog of music that remains. On a personal note, it's the loss of another one of my country music heroes.  I will be forever grateful for the music Mr. Haggard created, as it formulated my appreciation for the craft of songwriting and performance.  This last video is one which paired two of my heroes together.  They were reunited yesterday morning.  Mr. Merle Haggard and Mr. George Jones.  Sing for the angels, gentlemen.





Thursday, February 25, 2016

Album Review: Larry Keel, Experienced



Friday February 26. 2016 will see acoustic and bluegrass virtuoso Larry Keel independently release his 15th studio album Experienced.  The album is comprised of 7 songs, four written by Keel and three by his songwriting partner Will Lee, and showcases the musical talent possessed by Keel that has brought forth praise from such bluegrass luminaries as Sam Bush and Del McCoury. Bush and McCoury, along with Keller Williams, Jason Carter (Del McCoury Band), Mike Guggino (Steep Canyon Rangers) and Anders Beck (Greensky Bluegrass) all make guest appearances on this stellar album. Experienced may be considered a bluegrass album, but to me it represents an exploration of American roots music with folk and blues making appearances on the record.

The opening instrumental track "Ripchord" sets the album off at a frenetic pace, with the talents Keel and his compatriots on full display.  Front and center on this cut is Sam Bush with a blistering mandolin solo. Indeed, "Ripchord" is a song that should be played at full volume, with the full risk that the walls may shake right off their foundation. "Lil' Miss" puts the blues in bluegrass, as this song could easily be played in the smokiest blues joints of Chicago or New Orleans. Anders Beck's work on the dobro, along with Larry's growling vocals set this song apart from the traditional bluegrass sound.

The album's third track, "Memories", brings the listener right back to the traditional bluegrass/folk territory.  A wonderful song about making each day a memorable one, allowing yourself to have a life well lived and worth looking back upon with few regrets. The melody and lyrics are reminiscent of Gordon Lightfoot's earlier works.  "Fill 'Em Up Again" takes us back in to pure bluegrass territory, with brilliant harmonies from Del McCoury, Will Lee and Jenny Keel joining Larry on the chorus.  The album explores much darker territory on "Miles and Miles" and "The Warrior", but wraps up with much brighter subject matter in the traditional country sounding "Another Summer Day."

Larry will be touring throughout the spring and summer promoting Experienced as the touring entity Larry Keel Experience.  The tour will kick off Feb. 26th in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, and then moving on to Washington D.C. at Gypsy Sally's on the 27th.  Do yourself a great favor, pick up a copy of Experienced and check out a show.  It will be an Experience, to be sure.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Soar With the Eagles

This is not what I had in mind for my first blog piece of 2016. We're one month in to the New Year, and we've been reminded in rather rude fashion that we're all getting a little older. The passing of so many great artists in music, film and stage in the span of a few weeks is quite shocking.  For me, like so many others, the passing of David Bowie and Glenn Frey struck home.  Not to take anything away from the passing of Natalie Cole or Lemmy (for all you Motorhead fans out there), but the passing of Bowie and Frey struck deep as they're music was among my first introductions to something outside of the old school country music I grew up listening to.

It was especially the case with Glenn Frey.  It wasn't until high school that my musical tastes expanded. I was still very much a country fan, and it could be argued that the Eagles were more or less a country band. That argument is much stronger when you consider their earlier material ... think pre-Hotel California.  As I entered grade 12, I had something that not every kid had, but every kid wanted.  I had the car. 

Which meant, there was a lot of driving (perhaps when I should have been in school), and a lot of music that was being blasted from that stereo. Not all of it was country.  It was my first exposure to the Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd and of course, the Eagles.  Like so many other music fans, the Hotel California album was (and still is) something special to hear.  Glenn Frey and his singing/songwriting partner Don Henley were at their creative peak. Don Felder had created one of the most recognizable guitar intros in the history of song, and the band had just added Joe Walsh as their second lead guitarist.  Randy Meisner was still with the band delivering that high vocal that only he can do.  The Eagles became my favorite band in those days and remain so to this day. 

The passing of Glenn Frey was a turning of the page, the end of a glorious chapter in music. There will never be another band like the Eagles with their quality of songwriting and five part harmonies.  The influence they've had on rock, country and North American music in general cannot ever be measured. They have been inducted in to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, I can only hope the Country Music Hall of Fame follows suit. Really, the best way to honor a great artist and great band is to present their music.  Below is one of the finest songs to feature Glenn Frey on lead vocal and is the best example of their five part harmonies.  It's a country tinged song that was written by Tom Waits and was a B-side off the On The Border album.  Here is "Ol' 55."




Saturday, November 28, 2015

Rising Outlaw: California's Sam Outlaw Brings Classic Sound To Toronto's Dakota Tavern



There are several acts permeating the musical landscape that have embraced the more traditional sound of country music, some of whom I have written about in this space. A rising star from the California coast made his Dakota Tavern debut in a showcase hosted by his record label, Six Shooter Records.  Sam Outlaw is a pure country artist whose musical sound can range from the easy listening style of a Don Williams, to lyrically clever sounds of Gram Parsons and earlier southern California country-rock.

With a set mainly to showcase the release of his new album "Angeleno", Sam Outlaw played to a packed house on a Toronto Tuesday night a couple of weeks ago.  The intimate setting of the Dakota Tavern was the perfect backdrop for Sam Outaw's fine performance, as it provided Sam the opportunity to deliver some backstory to some of his songwriting. The song "Love Her For A While" was inspired by the aforementioned Don Williams, and listening to it, you could hear Mr. Williams wrap his unique and wonderful baritone voice around the lyrics. "Angeleno", the title track to his Six Shooter release is a song about a couple making their own way with the struggles and tribulations of life.  "Who Do You Think You Are?" is a wonderful tale about love found and lost in Mexico, with a real Mexican-style sound to it.  "Ghost Town" is one of the finest songs you will hear anywhere, it's a beautifully performed tune about cutting one's losses.  

With the increase in profile of pure, traditional country artists and the rise of Americana musicians in the mainstream consciousness, Sam Outlaw is poised to break out to the next level of notoriety.  He has the talent, skill and creativity to maintain the career path he is currently on.  As has long been said in this column, people will always come back to what is real. Evidence of this has been witnessed with the success of artists like Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson over the past couple of years, as well as the incredible rise of Chris Stapleton.  Sam Outlaw is poised to join that illustrious company with a solid record in "Angeleno", creative songwriting and a classic country sound that has been missing from the musical landscape for far too many years. 

I would be remiss if I didn't give a brief mention to Sam's record label, Six Shooter Records. Based in Toronto, Ontario, Six Shooter is home to some of the most talented artists in the world, a truly amazing roster.  They are a major player in the Americana scene on both sides of the border. The release of "Angeleno" represents their first foray in to releasing an artist on a global scale, where previously they have been focusing on the Canadian market. Their belief in Sam Outlaw is not unfounded and they have quite rightly made Sam their first artist to release an album under the Six Shooter Records label internationally. I wish them the best of luck and they too move in to the next chapter of their existence.  When you're finished checking out Sam Outlaw, check out the other amazingly talented artists on the Six Shooter roster.  

Check out "Ghost Town" from the great Sam Outlaw


Thursday, November 5, 2015

Country Music Association Signals New Day For Country Music

It's a brand new day in country music.  The morning after Music Row may have signaled a turning of the page from the current bro-country that has relegated mainstream country to near joke status for the past few years.  That's the only conclusion that can be reached following the outcome 49th annual Country Music Association awards presented last night in Nashville.

Perhaps not so amazingly, it took a couple of years of watching the steady rise of Americana artists and the Americana scene in general to start this shift.  The artists in Americana today are just too good to ignore. The awarding, and indeed the coming out party, of Chris Stapleton as the Top New Artist, Male Vocalist of the Year and Album of the Year for "Traveller" is a clear indication that the landscape has changed. The inclusion of Kacey Musgraves and Brandy Clark at mainstream award shows with Musgraves picking up a trophy for Song of the Year ("Follow Your Arrow") at last year's CMA's showed that the desire for change was beginning to percolate.  With this performance of Chris Stapleton and Justin Timberlake last night at the CMA's and the fan reaction, it's clear that this change is upon us. 



But wait, that was only half of the performance.  Here is the second half:



Perhaps sensing what could be happening, one had to feel a little bad for Florida Georgia Line, the act that had to follow this performance.  What's telling is in the audience reaction, or rather, their almost non-reaction at the conclusion of the Florida Georgia Line performance.  The crowd was simply blown away by the tandem of Stapleton and Timberlake, and whomever else followed was not going to top it.  In a way, it almost wasn't fair ... almost.  What it accomplished was it showed the glaring and real difference between honest and raw music versus the manufactured material that's been pushed by the major labels on Music Row for the past number of years.  As I've said in this space before, people will always come back to what's real. The consumer doesn't lie: it's why artists like Jason Isbell, Alan Jackson, Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, and Kacey Musgraves can all have number one selling albums.  It's why artists like Sturgill Simpson and Nathaniel Rateliff are able to sell records by the boatload and fill theaters. All of these artists are doing this without the benefit of mainstream country radio.

Last night the world was introduced to an incredibly gifted talent in Chris Stapleton. As my friend Nelson Gullett of WDVX radio in Knoxville, Tennessee tweeted out last night, he's been listening to Chris Stapleton for about 30 years, both as a solo artist and in the bluegrass band The Steeldrivers.  Today marks a new chapter in the career of Chris Stapleton. I'm happy that he's from the Americana family and wish him well as he enters this next phase of his career.

The beginning of the CMA awards show saw the return of an icon paired up with a superstar that has been an amazing supporter of Americana artists over the last couple of years.  In an entirely appropriate performance of his latest single, I think we can safely answer the question: we are indeed, ready for the country.









Sunday, November 1, 2015

Concert Review: Hardin Burns, Sportsmen's Tavern, Buffalo NY - October 11, 2015



A couple of weeks ago, I made the 2 hour trek to one of my favorite music clubs to check out a duo that's been writing and performing together since 2009.  The show at the Sportsmen's Tavern was one of the final shows (as of this writing) on their fall tour supporting their 2014 release "Down The Deep Well."

The early impression one gets from Andrew Hardin and Jeannie Burns watching them perform, is they are pure Americana artists.  The songwriting is tight, relevant and not afraid to tackle the controversial as evidenced by "The Call", a song that was inspired by the circumstances surrounding the sudden death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman.  A story told from the perspective of a still sober addict, "The Call" speaks less about the passing itself, speaking more to the temptation felt daily by recovering addicts.  A great blues number, "Smokestack Lightning" and "Beware of Darkness", a George Harrison cover, highlighted the incredible musicianship of Andrew Hardin.  He is one of the finest acoustic guitar players I have seen live.


Not to be outdone is Jeannie Burns.  Her signing and songwriting can take you back to the times of early Emmylou Harris, as shown on the country rock flavored "Stars Are Shining." The song "Underbelly Blues" is a great protest song which speaks to the perils of hydro-fracking, with corporate greed at the forefront.  Her singing of "Lake Charles", the Lucinda Williams classic would make Lucinda herself smile.  

When watching Hardin Burns, the respect they have for one another is clear.  They have recognized that each artist brings something special to the table and has allowed them to create a partnership that can last for a long time.  Their respective backgrounds have enabled them to tap in to each others creativity which has led to a stellar piece of work with "Down the Deep Well", as well as creating a wonderful stage presence that locks the listeners in.  When this duo gets back on the road, you would do well to check them out.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Concert Review: Jamey Johnson, Webster MA, Sept. 20, 2015



As my friend Baron Lane of the Twang Nation blog has said on more than one occasion, "not all music from Music Row is garbage."  When he was saying these words, he was talking about the great Kacey Musgraves, but I know he would agree that those words also apply to one of the real outlaws of modern day country music, Jamey Johnson.

I have long been a fan and supporter of Jamey Johnson, his work and his desire to complete his craft in his own way.  It is in the similar vein of one of the original Outlaws, Waylon Jennings.  For better or worse, the music business has changed from when Mr. Jennings would try and do things differently.  Waylon was able to score a long and lucrative recording contract extension from RCA Records, his longtime record label home where he scored his most memorable and successful hits.  This attitude more or less got Jamey Johnson kicked off of his major record label.  Most (and I suspect Jamey himself) would agree that this turn of events was the best thing that happened to his career ... doing things your own way, in your own time and on your own terms can be very liberating.  It shows in his performance.

My vacation took me away from my usual time in Nashville for the Americana Music Conference and Festival this year, and brought me to the New England states.  While there, my wife and I attended the Jamey Johnson performance at the Indian Ranch Amphitheater in Webster, Massachusetts.  And what a performance it was.  To attend a Jamey Johnson show is to attend a lesson in the history of modern country music.  Mr. Johnson indeed took the sold out attendees to school on this September afternoon.

Opening up with "Playing the Part", a top 40 track from his award-winning album "In Color", and following up with an ode to the beloved record executives that he has no time for these days, Jamey deftly moved from hits that received some airplay such as "High Cost of Living" and his signature song "In Color", to the most popular song he wrote for someone else, that being "Give It Away", a monster hit for George Strait.  But it was the history lesson Mr. Johnson was teaching that were the highlights of the show.  Covering his well known influences such as the aforementioned Waylon Jennings ("Luchenbach, Texas"), to Johnny Cash and a surprise performance of the great Don Williams hit "Your My Best Friend", Jamey showed he has all the bases covered when it comes to showcasing the country music of the late 1950's to 1970's that laid the groundwork for the artists of today.

It has been well documented of Jamey's longtime and deep friendship he shared with the late, great songwriter Hank Cochran.  Mr. Cochran was represented very well in this set by Jamey's stirring rendition of "I Fall To Pieces", written by Hank Cochran and became a classic hit known the world over as performed originally by Patsy Cline.  Another of Mr. Cochran's compositions was performed as well, as Jamey gave a nod to "the Voice", Mr. Vern Gosdin with "Set 'Em Up Joe", a song that reached number one for Vern in 1988 and was covered on Jamey's "The Guitar Song" album.  

An artist like Jamey Johnson comes along once in a generation.  He has the ability to unify the past with the present by educating the audience on the importance of both.  Jamey accomplishes this by delivering an outstanding musical performance with songs that have affected and influenced his career.  He responds to the pressure of being a standard bearer for the traditional side of country music and its outlaw ways by writing and performing songs with thoughtful lyrics and stories which paint a picture of all the elements of the great country songs of the past ... love, loss, happiness, revenge, marriage and divorce, with no sign of the tailgate parties that so over-populate mainstream country music today.  Jamey continues to tour throughout the fall, check out his tour page and mark the calendar to check out this one of a kind talent and entertainer. In the meantime, enjoy this clip of Jamey's track "Between Jennings and Jones."