Author Archives: Joseph Brant

CLASSIC: A musical companion to Michael Streissguth’s “Outlaw”

In a perfect world Michael Streissguth’s brilliant new book would come with a CD.  It would be filled with notable songs he references in Outlaw: Waylon, Willie, Kris, and the Renegades of Nashville, his industry-oriented story that covers roughly the late 1960s through the late 70s.

I tend to read non-fiction with the iPad or a laptop nearby so I can cross-reference unique pieces of information, and I’m always on the lookout for rare and notable recordings or lesser-known hits so it shouldn’t be a surprise that not two chapters into this book I was spending more time on YouTube than reading.  I wanted Outlaw to continue far beyond the 250-ish pages that it did.


Born in the late 70s, I didn’t comprehend that distinct eras even existed in country music until Garth exploded in the early 90s.  Just prior to that, at the time when I was discovering country music, New Traditionalists like Ricky Skaggs were all the rage.  Popular country had long since abandoned the outlaws for an Urban Cowboy style (influence by the film), then turned toward country-pop (Kenny Rogers, Barbara Mandrell) before embracing the traditional music of Randy Travis, Reba and George Strait.

My parents owned the Waylon & Willie LP and, while I don’t recall a copy of Wanted! The Outlaws in our home, I vividly remember “Good Hearted Woman,” the live duet version from that album playing in the house.  It’s one of those songs your parents take on as their own anthem, unwittingly emblazoning it in your own memory at the same time.

These songs and the history accompanying them really grabbed me.  If you get the chance, read this book.  Some highlights:

“I Just Can’t Let You Say Goodbye” – Willie Nelson (page 39).  Before he became an outlaw, Willie wrote classics like “Hello Walls” and “Crazy,” but he hadn’t experienced any success as a recording artist.  Under the stewardship of the legendary Chet Atkins, RCA tried to fit him into a popular mold (hence the eventual outlaw status), an example of which is this self-written song from 1965.  It was his second single for RCA and spent two weeks on the country chart where it peaked at #48.

Streissguth suggests it was a misstep, perhaps an indication that Willie and his label were not at all in sync, in that it didn’t connect with the Nashville Sound that was so popular at the time, which RCA likely would’ve prefered, and that murder ballads like “Knoxville Girl” and “Cocaine Blues” weren’t fodder for hit singles.  Just two years later, though, Porter Wagoner hit #2 with “The Cold Hard Facts of Life.”

“Epitaph (Black and Blue)” – Kris Kristofferson (pages 57 and 88).  A music row secretary named Bobby McKee was indirectly the inspiration for “Me and Bobby McGee.”  In conversation, Kristofferson misheard the name so when he was tasked with writing a song in the vein of Kerouac’s On the Road, he wrote this classic.  Upon learning of Janis Joplin’s death, “Epitaph” was born.  


“MacArthur Park” – Waylon Jennings and The Kimberlys (page 68).  Waylon won two Grammys in his career, both were for Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal.  One came in 1979 with Willie for “Mammas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys,” but his first was for this song, from 1970.  In fact, it was his first major award of any kind.  It is at the same time the most un-Waylon song you’ll ever hear and a surprisingly pretty one, too.

According to Streissguth, “nothing recorded before or after in Waylon’s discography sounded like this album,” an LP of duets with the Kimberlys.  In 2009 it was reissued overseas but, before that, this version of “MacArthur Park,” despite the Grammy win and multiple greatest hits collections, was nearly impossible to find.

There’s an interesting story on pages 99-100 about the number of copies the record labels pressed versus consumer demand and the number they reported selling.  Obviously they didn’t want to press any more copies than necessary, yet they couldn’t meet the demand when a song broke out of the pack and became a hit.  So it appears they reported that these newfound hit singles were selling as many as they maybe would’ve or should’ve sold.  Of course, that led to even less evidentiary reporting.  And regarding chart manipulation, RCA’s head of promotion at the time, Elroy Kahanek, is quoted saying:

So I called Billboard magazine and I said, ‘Hey, do me a favor. Keep so-and-so at number two. Go ahead and take so-and-so to number one.’ They did. It wasn’t two months later another artist called me and said, ‘Elroy, please …’ I did the same thing for them. They were friends. Back then, it wasn’t so cutthroat; you helped other artists even if they were on another label.

“We Had It All” – Waylon Jennings (page 144).  Waylon’s Honky Tonk Heroes from 1973 is credited as the very first “outlaw” album.  Perhaps so new and innovative, it wasn’t terribly well received at the time.  Or it may have been that RCA didn’t understand it, so nobody knew about it.  The label brass didn’t see a single among the tracks he submitted, so Waylon added this song (the only one on the LP not written by Billy Joe Shaver) to appease them.  RCA released it as the lead-off single, and it only went to #28.  The follow-up, “You Asked Me To” went Top Ten.

“We Had It All” was subsequently recorded by many artists, notably Dolly Parton for her album of covers, The Great Pretender.  The song was remixed, slapped on a new greatest hits album, and released as her final single for RCA in 1986.  It stalled at #31.

The legendary Hazel Smith coined the term “outlaw” for Willie, Waylon, (page 153).  She points out in this book that the definition she found as she researched the perfect word to describe them — “living on the outside of the written law” — seemed to fit because they were playing music that wasn’t part of the Nashville machine.  Journalists pounced on it, and when the record label adopted the moniker with 1975’s Wanted! The Outlaws LP featuring Willie, Waylon, Tompall Glaser and Jessie Coulter, it became country music’s first million seller.

(It is noted elsewhere in this book that Johnny Cash was the very first “outlaw” in that, years before Waylon and Willie, he was choosing his own music, making his own musical arrangements, and recording with his own band — three of the criteria that, allusions to actual law-breaking aside, truly defined the outlaws as outlaws of country music.)

Speaking of actual law-breakers, David Allan Coe (page 155) appears to have been a master storyteller, capitalizing on the term and intentionally blurring the lines that defined the word “outlaw” as it was used in country music.  Other than his lone monster smash hit, “You Never Even Called Me By My Name,” I didn’t really know anything about him before now.

There were really two types of country music in Nashville during the late 60’s.  The Nashville machine (my term) was led by producer/label heads like Chet Atkins who it appears molded each artist to fit into what was called the Nashville Sound, a style of country music that embraced strings and layered vocals that attracted the masses beyond the base country audience.  The other country music was linked to an area just off music row near West End Avenue and the famed Exit/In.  Check out Altman’s classic 1975 film Nashville for a peak at the Exit/In at its hippest … well, peak.  The mix of rock, folk and country at the club, in contrast to honky tonks on Broadway like Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, provided access for someone as unique as David Allan Coe to thrive.


“Till I Gain Control Again” – Emmylou Harris (page 178).  An anomaly to this entire outlaw narrative is Emmylou who seemed from the beginning of her professional career to enjoy artistic autonomy.  It turns out she was signed to Warner Bros. not in Nashville but Los Angeles.  The financial support provided by the label promoted her music outside the Nashville machine and covered the famed Hot Band to travel and perform with her.  Rodney Crowell, a member of the Hot Band, wrote this song, originally the B-side track from the “One of These Days” single (and later a #1 for Crystal Gayle in 1983).

“Red Headed Stranger” – Willie Nelson (pages 179-184). The album was of course the first outlaw smash, and for that reason it’s sometimes credited for being many firsts: outlaw album, concept album, among them.  Willie himself recorded a superb concept album a few years earlier (Yesterday’s Wine) that wasn’t well received, partly due to the record label’s indifference toward it, and according to Saving Country Music, Mickey Newbury has a greater claim to being the first outlaw of the sort defined in this book.  It seems, then, that the convergence of Hazel Smith’s initial use of the term with both Waylon and Willie’s creative liberation and the embrace of the music press for the potential of an outlaw movement that led to this “red headed” perfect storm.

(link from YouTube was deleted)

As I finished reading Outlaw I coincidentally found a 3-album mini-boxset that included Yesterday’s Wine, Red Headed Stranger, and Stardust.  The album is a brilliant, cohesive collection of instrumentally spare, acoustic story songs.  At a time when the landscape of popular country music elevated C.W. McCall’s “Convoy” and Glen Campbell’s “Rhinestone Cowboy” to become the biggest songs of the year, Red Headed Stranger was both a hard sell and a breath of fresh air.  Willie’s industry supporters had to rally around the album just to get Columbia Records to release it.

Concept albums should be made more often.  You’d think the labels would’ve forced them on the artists back in the early 2000’s when individual song downloads exploded and they started losing sales of full albums.  This LP only spawned two singles: “Blue Eyes Crying In the Rain” was huge, of course, and the jazzy “Remember Me” rose to #2.


“Good Hearted Woman” – Waylon & Willie (pages 190 and 160).  The song was written after Waylon became addicted to a pinball machine at a restaurant called Burger Boy, spending entire nights away from home to play the game; that is, after he became addicted to amphetamines.

(link from YouTube has been deleted)

The album Wanted! The Outlaws arrived in time for the outlaw movement to take its formal victory lap.  Willie, Waylon and Jessie Coulter, Tompall Glaser, and a few others had been traveling America under something of an “Outlaws” tour, with a growing fanbase and then hit records in tow.  Willie recorded Red Headed Stranger for Columbia, Jessie had “I’m Not Lisa” on Capitol, but Waylon didn’t have a big selling album yet.  RCA, looking for that hit, compiled catalog recordings from Willie and Jessie’s RCA tenure a few years earlier, added new tracks from Waylon, including the live duet with Willie, and to appease Waylon it leased a couple of his friend Tompall’s recordings from MGM Records.

Notably, Jennings and Coulter’s cover of “Suspicious Minds” from this album (a #2 hit in 1976) is the exact same version that only reached #25 six years earlier.  “Yesterday’s Wine” and “Me and Paul” were lifted directly from the Willie’s Yesterday’s Wine album.


“Don’t You Think This Outlaw Bit’s Done Got Out of Hand” – Waylon Jennings (page 237).  Drug charges in the fall of 1977 only made Waylon a bigger star.  Fans viewed it, as well with arrests made on his band members earlier in the 70s, as evidence of the more literal outlaw status the record label was capitalizing on.  The pendulum was starting to swing back, though, and both Waylon and Willie knew it.


Willie’s decidedly un-outlaw Stardust LP was a big hit in 1978 and by the end of the year the labels were looking for a significant return on investment with every release.  Urban Cowboy was around the corner and, though Waylon would maintain a string of hits through the 1980’s, he was never again such an emblematic icon.


It would appear Willie has maintained his superstar status all these subsequent years because he’s chosen to stay on the cutting edge; he hasn’t had a solo hit since 1989’s “Nothing I Can Do About It Now,” yet there is always new material, a tour, and innovative opportunities like the Daniel Lanois produced Teatro album from 1998 (which includes a new recording of “I Just Can’t Let You Say Goodbye”) and his most recent #1, “Beer For My Horses,” the Toby Keith duet from 2002.

Streissguth’s Outlaw: Waylon, Willie, Kris, and the Renegades of Nashville has provided a massive education to me.  I’d long ago known the term “outlaws” as it pertained to country music in the 1970s but didn’t, it seems, have the opportunity to investigate the phenomenon until now.  It is the perfect introduction to the history and discography of these artists, as well as a fascinating glimpse into the country music industry of the 1970s.

Again, a book like this should come with its own CD — though I suppose with YouTube at everyone’s disposal nowadays we all have the opportunity to build our own soundtrack, and our own unique reading experience, exactly the way we choose.

(This was originally posted to my previous site Critically Country on July 19, 2013)

CLASSIC: 2013 CCMA Awards nominees

They were announced yesterday and, for some reason, a list of nominees is actually quite difficult to find online.  But before I completely bury the lede:

Paul Ferguson from my local station, Belleville’s Cool 100, is nominated for Music Director of the Year (Secondary Market) and I think that’s rather … well, cool.  As a listener I can entirely endorse the nomination.

If the intention of awarding music directors is to acknowledge those who are advancing the work of the industry, then Paul and Cool 100 are entirely deserving.  The playlist is sooo tight and tied to the radio charts that it’s impossible to presume a hit song in Canadian country music can exist without hearing it in Belleville.  In the past year, Paul himself has interviewed live in-studio some of the biggest names in Canadian country music.  I think that’s kind of a big deal.

Now having said that (as I lean in a little closer to my keyboard and screen), my local country radio station could be a little more musically adventurous every now and then.  There’s nothing wrong with sneaking in something a little left — or right — of centre, just to shake things up a little.

The winners of the following awards will be announced on a CBC-TV broadcast September 8.  The 2013 televised CCMA Awards nominees are …

Fans’ Choice Award
Gord Bamford
Dean Brody
George Canyon
Terri Clark
Johnny Reid

Single of the Year
It’s Friday — Dean Brody feat. Great Big Sea
Jumped Right In — Dallas Smith
Leaning On a Lonesome Song — Gord Bamford
Main Street, 1979 — Deric Ruttan
Show Some Respect — Bobby Wills

Album of the Year
Classics II — George Canyon
Is It Friday Yet? — Gord Bamford
Jumped Right In — Dallas Smith
Roll — Emerson Drive
Small Town Pistols — Small Town Pistols

Songwriter(s) of the Year
Caeland Garner/Johhny Reid — “Baby I Know It” (performed by Johnny Reid feat. Carolyn Dawn Johnson
Dean Brody — “Bob Marley” (performed by Dean Brody)
Jason Blaine/Deric Ruttan — “Cool” (performed by Jason Blaine)
Dean Brody — “It’s Friday” (performed by Dean Brody feat. Great Big Sea)
Gord Bamford/Buddy Owens/Ray Stephenson — “Leaning On a Lonesome Song” (performed by Gord Bamford)

CMT Video of the Year
A Little More Work — Kira Isabella
Hope & Gasoline — Beverley Mahood
I’m Movin’ On — Terri Clark feat. Dean Brody
Leaning On a Lonesome Song — Gord Bamford
Maybe You Remember Me Now — Hey Romeo

Female Artist of the Year
Terri Clark
Jaida Dreyer
Kira Isabella
Carolyn Dawn Johnson
Michelle Wright

Male Artist of the Year
Gord Bamford
Dean Brody
Chad Brownlee
Dallas Smith
Bobby Wills

Group or Duo of the Year
Emerson Drive
Hey Romeo
High Valley
Small Town Pistols
The Stellas

Roots Artist or Group of the Year
Clayton Bellamy
Shane Chisholm
The Heartbroken
Corb Lund
Lindi Ortega

Rising Star
Autumn Hill
Tim Hicks
Mackenzie Porter
Bobby WillsInteractive Artist of the Year
Terri Clark
Leah Daniels
High Valley
Codie Prevost

There are no nominees for the following categories.  Winners are determined exclusively based on sales.
Top Selling Album of the Year
Top Selling Canadian Album of the Year


The All-Star Band Award nominees …

Matthew Atkins (Jason Blaine/Deric Ruttan)
Ben Bradley (Gord Bamford)
Steve Broadhurst (Doc Walker)
Chad Melchert (Gord Bamford/session)
Brad Tebble (Hey Romeo)

Shane Chisholm (Shane Chisholm)
Lisa Dodd (Gord Bamford)
Curtis Ebner (Hey Romeo)
Brent Pearen (Doc Walker)
Travis Switzer (Jason Blaine/Deric Ruttan)

Jason Barry (Jason Blaine/Dean Brody/Aaron Lines/Michelle Wright)
Ryan Davidson (Gord Bamford)
Darren Gusnowky (Hey Romeo)
Murray Pulver (Doc Walker)
Darren Savard (Deric Ruttan/Dallas Smith)

Mike Little (George Canyon)
Bart McKay (Brad Johner)
Carly McKillip (One More Girl)
Rob Shapiro (Hey Romeo)
Dale Wallace (Emerson Drive)

Denis Dufresne (Sarah Beth Keeley/PEAR/Deric Ruttan)
Lynae Dufresne (PEAR)
Allison Granger (Gord Bamford)
Shane Guse (Jason Blaine/George Canyon/Marshall Dane/The Western Swing Authority)
Mike Sanyshyn (Deric Ruttan/session)

Steel Guitar
John Ellis (Chad Brownlee/Doc Walker/Hayley)
Smokey Fennell (Danny Hooper/Brett Kissel/Krysta Scoggins)
Doug Johnson (Marshall Dane/session)
Ed (Peewee Charles) Ringwald (George Canyon/session/The Western Swing Authority)

Special Instrument
Shane Chisholm — Gastank Bass (Shane Chisholm)
Denis Dufresne — Mandolin (PEAR)
Allison Granger — Mandolin (Gord Bamford)
Shane Guse — Mandolin (Jason Blaine)
Mike Sanyshyn — Mandolin (Deric Ruttan/session)


Industry Award nominees …

Management Company of the Year
Invictus Entertainment Group
Johnny Mac Entertainment
MDM Recordings Inc.
O’Reilly International Entertainment Management
RGK Entertainment Group Inc.Booking Agency of the Year
The Agency Group
Big Air Entertainment Ltd.
The Feldman Agency
Invictus Entertainment Group
Paquin Entertainment

Ron Sakamoto Talent Buyer or Promoter of the Year
Kelly Berehulka (Casinos of Winnipeg)
Jim Cressman (Invictus Entertainment Group)
Lindsay Ell/Rod Tate (Calgary Stampede)
Shawn Sakamoto (Gold & Gold Productions)
Rob Waloschuk (Dauphin’s Countryfest)

Country Club of the Year
Cook County Saloon — Edmonton, AB
The Corral — Oshawa, ON
Fandango’s Live Entertainment Saloon — Edmonton, AB
The Ranch — Edmonton, AB
Ranchman’s Cookhouse & Dancehall — Calgary, AB

Album Design of the Year
The Boom Chucka Boys (The Boom Chucka Boys) — Joel Rathjen/S&J Creative/Andrea Sogge
Cigarettes & Truck Stops (Lindi Ortega) — Julie Moe/Andrew Robinson
Classics II (George Canyon) — Kale Canyon/Karen Corbin/Patrick Fraser
If It Was That Easy (Bobby Wills) — Juan Pont Lezica/O’Reilly International
Roll (Emerson Drive) — Kristin Barlowe/Jesse Barrios III/Mitchell Nevins/Lili Pichette
Twist of Fate (Hey Romeo) — Ashely Champagne/Mediavandals/Ryan Taylor

Video Director of the Year
Stephano Barberis (“Bob Marley” – Dean Brody/”Maybe You Remember Me Now” – Hey Romeo/”What Kinda Love” – Dallas Smith)
John Fucile/Lisa Fucile/Deric Ruttan (“My Kind of Freedom” – Deric Ruttan)
Margaret Malandruccolo (“Anything At All” – Autumn Hill/”Run Run Run” – One More Girl/”Testify” – Alan Doyle)
Troy Niemans (“Show Some Respect” – Bobby Wills/”Somebody Will” – Bobby Wills)
Warren P. Sonoda (“Pancho and Lefty” – George Canyon feat. Jim Cuddy)

Music Publishing Company of the Year
Little Red Bungalow/CSS Rights Management
Royalty Music Publishing Inc.

Record Producer(s) of the Year
Gord Bamford/Byron Hill (The Boom Chucka Boys – The Boom Chucka Boys)
Jason Barry/Tebey (The Wait – Tebey)
Jay Buettner/George Canyon (Classics II – George Canyon)
Mitch Merrett (Crash – Chad Brownlee/Listen – Chad Brownlee/Catch Me If You Can – Jess Moskaluke)
Joey Moi (Small Town Pistols – Small Town Pistols/Jumped Right In – Dallas Smith)

Recording Studio of the Year
Armoury Studios — Vancouver, BC
Barrytone Studios — St. Clements, ON
Bart McKay Productions — Saskatoon, SK
MCC Recording Studio — Calgary, AB
Metalworks Studios — Toronto, ON

Record Company of the Year
MDM Recordings Inc.
On Ramp Records
Open Road Recordings Inc.
Sony Music Entertainment (Canada) Inc.
Universal Music Canada

Record Company Person of the Year
Warren Copnick (Sony Music Entertainment (Canada) Inc.)
Brianne Deslippe (Open Road Recordings Inc.)
Ron Harwood (Universal Music Canada)
Ron Kitchener (Open Road Recordings Inc.)
Rob Smith (Royalty Records Inc.)

Retailer of the Year
HMV Canada Inc.
iTunes Canada
Lammle’s Western Wear & Tack
Walmart Canada Corp.

Country Music Program or Special of the Year
Canadian Coast to Coast (CJVR-FM)
Canadian Country Spotlight (syndicated)
Chevrolet Top 20 Countdown (CMT)
CMT Presents Dean Brody Live (CMT)

Country Festival, Fair, or Exhibition of the Year
Big Valley Jamboree — Camrose, AB
Boots and Hearts Music Festival — Bowmanville, ON
Calgary Stampede — Calgary, AB
Dauphin’s Countryfest — Dauphin, MB
Manitoulin Country Fest — Little Current, ON


Broadcast Award nominees …

Music Director of the Year — Major Market
Larry Donohue – CFCW — Edmonton, AB
Joel Lamoureux – CKBY-FM — Ottawa, ON
Jason Lee – CJWW — Saskatoon, SK
Mark Patric – CJJR-FM — Vancouer, BC
Scott Phillips – CKRY-FM/CISN-FM — Calgary, AB/Edmonton, AB

Music Director of the Year — Secondary Market
Tim Day – CKGY-FM — Red Deer, AB
Paul Ferguson – CHCQ-FM — Belleville, ON
Cal Gratton – CIXM-FM/CJVR-FM — Whitecourt, AB/Melfort, SK
Jody Seeley – CFXD-FM — High River, AB
Peter Walker – CJKX- FM — Oshawa, ON

There are no nominees in the following categories.  These submission-based awards are juried by a nation-wide panel.
On-Air Personality(s) of the Year (Major Market)
On-Air Personality(s) of the Year (Secondary Market)
Radio Station of the Year (Major Market)
Radio Station of the Year (Secondary Market)

(This was originally posted to my previous site Critically Country on July 18, 2013)

CLASSIC: Boys ‘Round Here (Celebrity Mix)

Don’t get me wrong.  I love what they tried to do.  I’ve advocated for it even.

With a song as huge as “Cruise” dominating the Hot Country Songs chart, it seemed only someone with the star power of a Blake Shelton could make a run for #1 and the best way to do it is by dropping a new, complementary mix into the market.  This isn’t it.

It’s already a bit of a shame that the super talented and entirely deserving Pistol Annies would loophole their way into an airplay #1 with a “featuring” credit that amounts to a series of “oooooh that’s right“s.  But selling the fans a remix that includes a per artist contribution of about 1/16th of a second just isn’t cool.

Of course this is available all over YouTube, now that those views are a factor.  On iTunes it appears the song was released July 11, just one week before it hit #1 on the airplay-only chart.  The intention clearly was to boost the streaming, digital purchase, and YouTube view numbers so that, in combination with radio airplay at its peak, “Boys ‘Round Here” would take its heartiest stab at #1 on Hot Country Songs.

Part of me is glad it didn’t work.  I checked out the new mix shortly after it was released and, based on only that short clip, I assumed I was missing something significant because on that first listen it doesn’t connect that all those ‘red’s in the word “redneck” are not echos like in the original.  We deserve better.  Imagine how many more streams and downloads would’ve occurred had there been a genuine remix of the song?

Part of me is not glad it didn’t work.  Hopefully this experience won’t cause any second guessing altogether when future opportunities to rush to market new “complementary” material at critical points like this one materialize.  Here’s hoping for an extended mix, or an acoustic mix, or — well, how about a substantial contribution by all these celebrities?

Now the airplay numbers have gone down — “Boys ‘Round Here” was #1 at radio for just one week — so it appears that any possibility for an overall #1 are washed away.

(This was originally posted to my previous site Critically Country on July 3, 2013)

CLASSIC: Jason Greeley’s “…Party”

Back in the late 90’s during the reign of Backstreet Boys-*NSYNC-Britney Spears, while Nashville’s non-Sony labels attempted to replicate the Dixie Chicks’ success (see: Lace on Warner Bros., 3 of Hearts on RCA), there was a band — also on Warner Bros. — called South 65 that didn’t seem to hide its attempt to be the country *NSYNC.  The group released a remake of the Charlie Rich classic “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World” in 2001 and it bombed, as did every other single.

On WSIX in Nasvhille Gerry House had a segment on his morning show where he’d play a new release and ask the audience to call and rate it on a scale from 1 to 10. Overwhelmingly that morning callers complained that it was unnecessary to mess with a classic.  Yet to my ears the song seemed radically revisioned.  It was new again.  The original was so popular and still in print at retail that there was no way it would ever be confused with this new version.  They’re virtually two different songs.  I liked it then, for that reason, and I still do.

I suppose that’s why I hesitated this morning when, on KIX 93.5 Kingston, I heard a new amped up version of The Rovers’ “Wasn’t That a Party” by Jason Greeley.  The original was a novelty song, the type that KIX 93.5 (to its credit) would’ve played every now and then to this day.  That sing-along feel, along with the unvarnished vocals and production were its greatest virtue.

Now it’s a legit country “single.”  What made the original so special was that it wasn’t processed to be a hit, and I think Canadians responded to it because of that authenticity.

The new version may very well become a smash.  Country music has changed so much that there’s a possibility some young country fans today have never heard the song.  For that reason, it works.  Today’s country fan has been trained to appreciate a varnished party song.  Had Greeley found an innovative way to interpret The Rovers’ “… Party,” I’d have been on board in a heartbeat.

(This was originally posted to my previous site Critically Country on June 24, 2013)

CLASSIC: 2013 CMT Awards

It was unrelentingly entertaining.  I’m not sure if that’s a good thing.

This all began way back in 1972 when the Country Music Association and the Grand Ol’ Opry collaborated to create Fan Fair, an event explicitly intended for fans of country music to meet the stars.  For years prior, fans had come to routinely crash the Country Music DJ convention (now known as Country Radio Seminar) which was an event designed to woo decision makers at radio.

The award show went through various incarnations over the years: Music City News Awards, TNN Viewers Choice Awards, the CMT Flameworthy Video Music Awards(?).   True to the origins of Fan Fair, they were always fan voted awards and almost always presented during Fan Fair week in June.

Back then, and right up until the country boom of the early 1990’s, fans could literally meet the biggest stars in the industry during Fan Fair, shake their hand, give ’em a hug, get an autograph.  The world moves much faster now.

Where was Kenny Chesney, Brad Paisley, Tim McGraw?  If it weren’t for American Idol, I don’t think we would’ve seen Keith Urban there.  Let’s entirely forget about George Strait and Reba.

According to this show, country is a lightning-fast moving genre.  It felt like an MTV awards show, the kind where you don’t expect to see any of these stars next year because it’s all just so fleeting.  Unrelentingly entertaining, yes, but is that good for country music?

Country radio likes to build stars and keep stars.  That’s always been the self-identified differentiator: “Top 40 is flash-in-the-pan.  Country fans want stars with longevity.”  But the gates at radio are big and tall.  Lefsetz mentioned offhand in one of his recent blog posts that Sheryl Crow is working country radio like a brand new artist would, visiting the stations one-by-one, shaking hands, giving ’em hugs.  So is all that changing?  Are we okay with one hit wonders now?

This is the new information-abundant world we live in.  In fact, if there’s any drawback to the liberation of the country music charts, it’s this.  I just realized something today: the more I read about “the fall of Facebook” and how all the kids are bailing on it, the more I realize that I’ve not really used it as a social networking tool.  Of course I love to see the updates from people I know, and share my own, but I noticed today that I use Facebook more as a personal RSS feed to collect information from professional publications I’ve “liked” than anything.

All media today have such miniscule lifespans.  I used to think of Facebook and Twitter as repositories of interesting articles and (hopefully interesting) thoughts I’d uncovered but, with so much information available online — of which our individual Timelines are but a single blip — most posts are lost to history, if they’re noticed at all.

Information abundance.  I subscribe to so many magazines and e-mail lists that there’s not enough time in the day to read them all.  A few short years ago, I’d have killed to access the information in even one of them.  Now there’s too much.

Who’s Kacey Musgraves?  I bought the CD because I read from a few different places that it was amazing. It’s not terrible, but it shouldn’t have been a mistake to buy the entire album based on a handful of (extremely positive) reviews.   The industry and the media like her, but I don’t know if she’s actually connecting with the people.  She was one of the few performers on this show for whom the fans weren’t singing along with every word.

The information abundance has forced us to become more discerning consumers.  Even among the institutions we’ve grown to trust.

It’s not like it used to be.

(This was originally posted to my previous site Critically Country on June 6, 2013)

CLASSIC: The new methodology works

There’s a reason all those 15 and 16 week long runs at #1 on the Billboard charts happened back in the 1950s and 60s, you know.

When I first started watching the country chart in 1989 — as a young boy, strangely infatuated by the quantification of artistry — it was entirely built upon radio airplay, and back then it was all self-identified “reported” airplay.  Music Directors at the radio stations just faxed off a list of the songs he or she thought were the most played the previous week.  So imagine all the Top 10’s and the #1 songs that may not have really been hits at all.

In college we all had to read Hit Men, that account of the payola scandal that hit mainstream radio back in the 1970s.  The book was only a few years old at the time and our instructors could only hint at what may have been happening at country radio during its 1990’s boom.

Those charts from back in the 1950’s included jukebox play — which in all likelihood was just as rigorously tabulated as the faxed airplay lists — but also included retail sales.  Knowing what’s selling is such a necessary element in the definition of a single’s popularity.  In the 1980’s and 90’s the industry moved away from singles, knowing they (the record labels) made more money off full album sales.  Of course, the Internet changed all that.

Now Billboard incorporates YouTube and Internet streaming of individual songs into the calculation of today’s “hit” songs.   So in a way it’s all come full circle.

Florida Georgia Line has one of those songs, in “Cruise,” that is so infectious that you just know it’s far bigger than the 3 weeks it sat at #1 on the country airplay chart back in December suggests.  With the Nelly remix it’s now exploding outside the county genre, so we really should only be comparing it to other crossovers like “Breathe” or “You’re Still the One.”  Yet even though this current promotional push at the mainstream is reaping its reward — the democratization of the chart methodology doesn’t mean the hits are all just organically discovered, you know — it can’t be denied that this remains a country hit song.

Historians don’t look at “Amazed” or “Islands In the Stream” and not consider them country songs.   And neither will they with “Cruise.”

So when the new methodology debuted late last year, there were many, particularly ’round the Internet, who were disappointed and their reasons were legitimate.  George Strait got his 60th #1 within his 60th year recently, but it wasn’t a Hot Country Songs #1.  Acts with songs that don’t reach beyond the country base will struggle to both hit the Top 10 and #1 and, while that is a shame, this new methodology tends more now to reveal the true popularity of a given country-identified song.

I’ll imagine there were many traditionalists back in the day who were uncomfortable with some of the big hits happening at the time.  Those big smashes, back in the radio/retail-sales days, came about because hit songs stretched beyond the country base.  When George Strait reached five (airplay only) weeks at #1 with “Love Without End, Amen” in 1990 it was the first time since Dolly’s 1977 “Here You Come Again” spent so much time there.  And there aren’t many traditionalists even today, considering Dolly’s legendary status as a country star, who’d call “Here You Come Again” the countriest of classics.

And so it is with FGL and “Cruise.”  What’s happening now should be a lesson to every country perfomer in America.  Of course, selling out doesn’t have to mean collaborating with a rapper and shooting for the mainstream.  I would love it if someone like Blake Shelton (who’s “Boys Round Here” is hovering around #1) would release a acoustic or bluegrass version of the song.  Now is the time for that extra push; it should be in the bag and at the ready for weeks like this one.

(This was originally posted to my previous site Critically Country on May 28, 2013)

Vince Gill & Patty Loveless and George Jones’ funeral

The performance is devastating.  Overcome with emotion, he dropped out of the long notes in the chorus and Patty picked it up, not taking over the song — she continued with her harmony — and kept their shared performance together.  Just that vocal exchange alone, the relationship displayed throughout those few minutes, is unforgettable.

I hope the Opry takes every opportunity to remind us how important and historic this performance was, how beautiful it is, truly representative of everything “the community” of country music claims of itself.

Speaking of community, the country music journalist Jimmy Carter noted in his weekly column that, among all the newest country stars, only Thompson Square was there.  No Blake, Miranda, Luke, Jason, Eric Church, Hunter Hayes.  No Carrie, Taylor, Little Big Town, Zac Brown.  Some of them can be excused — people like Blake, Miranda, Carrie have taken time in the past to honor their musical elders — but for some, I can’t help but wonder if there’s any feeling among them that George had any influence in the work they’re producing now.

I was at Montana’s a few weeks ago, a major chain around here that plays up its country (or at least outdoorsy) vibe, where the waittress went on and on about the Eric Church show she’d just seen.  She was proud to call herself a country fan, but went out of her way to point out that she doesn’t like “old” country.  It is evidence of the New Country world we live in, where adherents of a traditional sound are overlooked, at best.  More evidence …

The entire ceremony took place in the middle of the day, a weekday even, so I’ll imagine it cost very little for every country-oriented station in America to air it in its entirety — which they did.   Similarly, it should’ve cost very little for CMT in Canada to do the same yet, aside from a plethora of articles on its website (most of which are filled with Facebook comments from fans excoriating the channel for not airing the funeral), there was nary a reasonable acknowledgement from country music’s national broadcaster.

(This was originally posted to my previous site Critically Country on May 13, 2013)

CLASSIC: Alee and Marlee Scott

In the last 24 hours I’ve downloaded “Don’t Say You Love Me” and “Life Is Not a Movie.”

Not gonna lie: I haven’t paid much attention to the lyrics.  Don’t get me wrong, the songs are good.  They’re just so well produced, the quality of the sound, the melodies are unavoidable when they come on the radio.

In fact, I was surprised to learn just now (thanks to a little Internet research) that “Life Is Not a Movie” is not the current single.  My local station has been playing the grooves off it the past few days so I was sure it was current.  And talk about great production — the album version, with the click-click-clicking in the intro made to sound like a film projector!  That’s impressive.

Unrelated (sorta), but I’ve been listening to Deana Carter’s first album this past week and, even though it was way back in 1997, heck even BACK in 1997, I’m still disappointed that the intro to the album version of “How Do I Get There” would have that brave — for country music — drum hidden so low in the mix.  “Life Is Not a Movie,” on the other hand, in 2013, ain’t playin’.

Speaking of impressive intros, you’d never hear this on the radio because it’s actually very subtle but the guitar lick that starts “Don’t Say You Love Me” is so whiplash hot with it’s stop-start I’m just blown away by it.  (The more I listen to it the more it seems like a keyboard, and not a guitar lick.  Ugh.  Can’t win ’em all.)

And I love when they manage to fit a banjo in and crank it up in these contemporary country songs.

(This was originally posted to my previous site Critically Country on May 2, 2013)

CLASSIC: 2013 ACM Awards

Eric Church knows this sort of exposure demands something unique by way of a performance. A lot of fans for some reason want to see live performances that do not deviate in the least from the original recording, which is absurd.  A unique performance, like his acoustic take on “Like Jesus Does,” is the sort of thing you remember and, if possible, purchase on iTunes the next day.

Likewise, Little Big Town is consistently creating a spectacle of their performances, taking up the entire stage, making something memorable happen.

And now for the smoke and mirrors:

Florida Georgia Line can’t seem to harmonize.  The longer haired one is the lead singer and the other one had his mic turned way down.  Similar criticism followed Brooks & Dunn, so I guess that means we can expect another twenty years of FGL.

Luke Bryan began his performance sitting at a piano, yet no part of the accompanying music changed when we stood up and walked away from it.

Stevie Wonder?! His appearance didn’t seem to be hyped in advance so I can’t imagine that very many long-time Stevie fans tuned in and became country fans because of it.   Two performances made it even more strange.  For the sake of comparison: if someone like Reba shows up at the BET Awards and, as a country (and Reba) fan, I have no idea she’ll be there so I don’t watch, what productive purpose is served?  If anything, BET viewers would wonder why more R&B/rap/soul performers couldn’t be featured.

Garth and George Strait’s much hyped duet didn’t amount to much.

Luke Bryan as Entertainer of the Year: clearly his fanbase is massive. Kudos to him for shocking everyone by corralling all those votes.  For this, he should be nominated for the same award this fall at the CMAs where industry people ultimately choose the winner.  We haven’t seen anything like this since Carrie Underwood took a couple EotY trophies; she didn’t elevate to the same place at the CMAs and then the ACMs stopped nominating her.

That’s the problem with these fan-voted Entertainer awards.  The academy controls the nominations then plays like it’s all democratic when fans choose the winner.  If it was awarded by write-in votes, Carrie would’ve won every single year since then.  Only now do we see genuine competition from the fans of Luke Bryan.

(This was originally posted to my previous site Critically Country on April 28, 2013)

CLASSIC: Jennifer McCarter

Twenty-two years old, back in 1986, she liked the Randy Travis album Storms of Life for its traditional flavour and called everyday the office of Randy’s producer Kyle Lehning until he relented and let her and her sisters perform for him, the next day.  That live audition was on a Friday.  By Monday The McCarters had a record deal.

I’m so glad WSM-AM in Nashville records the performer interviews and releases them as podcasts.  If you haven’t done it already, go to iTunes and subscribe to it.  They’re from the morning show with Bill Cody and, except for commercials and traffic reports, you get the entire clip from the show, songs and all.  If you don’t want to subscribe to all of them, at least check out the Jennifer McCarter visit from a couple weeks ago.

The lyric to the new song, “Love Will,” isn’t terribly groundbreaking, but the melody is heaven.  I’ve been listening to it on a loop in my car for a few days now.  Hear it here.

So she’s talking about how they had a chance to perform at Dollywood during its first season in the mid-80s (it was called Silver Dollar City prior to that) but were denied, told they were “too country for the park.”  She said, “I think God took us somewhere much better because, we weren’t playing at Dollywood, we got to fly out to California the next year and do the Dolly show on TV, ya know what I’m saying? With Dolly!”

I was listening to the podcast at the gym last Thursday evening so, on my way to dinner, I put some McCarter songs on shuffle in the iPod for the ride and what comes up: “Letter From Home.”  It’s the last track on the debut album The Gift from 1988.  Check out these lines:

I don’t know all the people who told me
That they stayed up way past their bedtime
Just to see you girls sing in California
On the TV last Saturday night

All these years I’ve listened to that song and thought, “How could they have performed for a national TV audience from California?  With one single that’s just barely outta the gate?!”  CMT and TNN back then were both based out of Nashville, so this “see you sing in California” line never made sense to me until now.

Dolly’s variety show aired Sundays at 9pm on ABC during the 1987-88 season.  It debuted in September with nearly 22 million viewers but those numbers plummeted quickly, to the extent that ABC moved the show at the top of 1988 to Saturday evenings.  The episode with The McCarters aired on Saturday January 23, 1988.

The Gift was released June 21, 1988, just after the first single “Timeless and True Love” peaked at #5 and the follow-up title track was released to radio, allowing Jennifer (with Carl Jackson) plenty of time to write a song about singing on the Dolly show and include it on the album.

(This was originally posted to my previous site Critically Country on April 23, 2013)