Showing posts with label Editorial. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Editorial. Show all posts

Oct 8, 2019

I Needed Ken Burns’ Country Music More Than I Realized

By Robert Dean

The sound of Hank Williams breaks my heart. Every time I hear him, something inside shatters, no matter how happy or sad. His ghost haunts me. When I die, I hope my friends and family surround the jukebox, drunk, and sing along to “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry," which, to me, is the world's most perfect song. 

From heartache to the silence of the lost night, with the bottle in your hand, country music has a song for all of us – saints and sinners alike. If someone has stepped on your heart or made you fall in love with a bat of an eye, it's all there in the aural roux that was forged across the American landscape all those years ago. 

After binge-watching Ken Burns epic 16-hour Country Music documentary, I felt a sense of wholeness again, something that I'd been missing for a hot minute lately. To say the documentary affected me would be putting it lightly, at different times, I got choked up, laughed at stupid jokes and was thrown back into a well of youth I hadn't thought about in a long time. Seeing the Carter Family, The Judds, Buck Owens, and George Strait the memories of riding around on the back roads in Arkansas, swerving through pothole ridden streets in Chicago in my Grammie's 1994 Honda Accord, or just passing through my parent's garage as my dad wrenched on his Harley.   

I was excited for the event, I’d marked in my phone as something I needed to watch, but I never anticipated the emotional impact the series would have on me. Lately, my life has been a hurricane and this body of work felt familiar, something to cling onto. 

Despite knowing a major chunk of the music’s history, there was much to gush over, to fall in love all over again. It had been years since I listened to Roy Acuff, or looked up those Little Jimmy Dickens deep cuts. I forgot that when my grandfather died, we played Vince Gill’s “Go Rest High on That Mountain,” a song I generally avoid due to its absolute soul crushing beauty and sadness. 

Our parents raised us on the riffs of Black Sabbath, the ache of Muddy Waters, the twang of the Allman Brothers, and honesty of Willie Nelson. Growing up, we knew Conway Twitty just as well as the Black Crowes, and you best believe the jukebox in my grandparent's basement had some "Tulsa Time" by Don Williams. Despite being raised in Chicago, a significant portion of my family was southern, so I'd always had a foot in both worlds. My grandfather was from Bradford, Arkansas, while my Uncle Bruce and cousins lived on top of a mountain just outside of Knoxville, Tennessee. The static of a radio moving down the dial, finding some Dwight Yoakam in the middle of the night while rolling through quiet town on the way to visit family is a memory scorched.

But then I discovered my own music. I liked rock and roll, grunge, and metal. I liked the honesty of Nirvana and Social Distortion, the rage of Pantera, and piling on to strangers in the middle of a hardcore pit, screaming my lungs out. That was my identity. I left country music behind, I was a kid from an urban area, how could I relate to country music, something my friends would never understand?

It took Hank Williams to break everything down, to make me feel small.

Around 20, I was cruising down a back road, listening to NPR, when a story came on about Hank, and it floored me. Everything I'd known about country music came back, but like a sledgehammer to the guts, it shattered the perceptions like a bad mirror. This wasn't the gross pop country of the day like Shania Twain, this was brutal, honest, and real. Hearing that voice, that song was as emotionally bellicose as anything Kurt Cobain howled about. 

Immediately, I raced to the computer, downloading everything off Limewire. I went to Borders and bought the biography of Hank and a "Best of" collection. From that moment on, I was rechristened back into the church of Hank, Cash, Willie, Waylon, Possum, and Merle. I didn't give a shit if my friends didn't understand the music.

I was well on my path to diving deep into the artists, even my parents or grandparents didn't know. I wanted to learn as much as I could about Americana, bluegrass, and everything that wasn't flashy jeans or anything remotely pop. 

Country music has always had an in-fighting relationship toward itself considering guys like Townes Van Zandt and Porter Wagoner were around at the same time, but so were Johnny Cash and the Outlaws who finally found their voices in the 1970s. Country Music, tapped into a hundred-year history over 16 hours, and sure plenty of notable acts were left out, but you can't please everyone all of the time. (David Allan Coe is a racist piece of shit and doesn't deserve to be mentioned, no matter how many good songs he has.) I would have been cool to at least see a nod to Johnny Paycheck, if only for his story. 

While yes, the overbearing "Nashville sound" did begin to take shape in the late 1950s with its lush strings and pleasant tones, there was still darkness percolating on the edges of the music.

Country Music tapped into my childhood, hearing songs from the Jimmie Rogers and the Carter Family, seeing footage of depression-era families surrounded by a Victrola, listening to the newest "hillbilly" recordings, made something I’d forgotten about inside my skeletal cage swell. I own my great-grandparents shellac records. My grandfather wanted me to have them before he died. Watching that footage, seeing the sinners baptized into the rivers of life, it all felt like a homecoming. What Ken Burns tapped into for a lot of people, not just me was giving the music, a sense of family, of purpose as a soundtrack to our memories. I dug those records out from the cardboard box I’ve kept them and looked at the worn labels from the 1930s and early 1940s - my tastes decades later aren’t too far off from people I know very little about other than I belong to them.

But without a doubt, the two figures who loomed over the entire documentary were Hank Williams and Johnny Cash, two men steeped in a cloud of bleakness most of us will never understand. Cash might have made it for many years longer than ole' Hank, but he never lost his edge. Instead of appealing to new country music sensibilities, he converted millions of new listeners in the twilight of his career with a series of stripped-down recordings with Rick Rubin for the American Recordings.

Willie was there, and so were his four walls that Faron Young made famous. We learned about the tragic death of Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn's powerful message of individuality and freedom against the industry's wishes. Emmylou Harris got her due, as well as Bill Monroe and Flatt and Scruggs. Looking back at some of the themes present throughout the documentary, it’s crystal clear that Lorretta Lynn is not a woman you mess with.

Dolly whips out this breakneck version of "Mule Skinner Blues" and it kills. There’s the saga of George and Tammy, drinking and fighting till their dying days. Charlie Pride, Kitty Owens, Ricky Skaggs, and Kathy Mattea all chime in on their experiences in Nashville, at the Opry and why the Ryman is the Mother Church. Who knew Carlene Carter was so magnetic on television, while Marty Stewart stole the show with his critical insight into the culture and the history and the music. 

Seeing the music come to life, hearing Dolly Parton wail out those hits, reminded me that she was my first crush, that I was into Garth Brooks at the same time I liked Nirvana after spending a summer in Arkansas with my grandparents. When I got back to Chicago, I promptly hid my cassette of Ropin' The Wind. 

According to the news, a ton of people are discovering the roots of country music, which is a good thing. When you're a die-hard fan of country music it gets exhausting having the same conversation over and over again with people, "I like Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings but hate the new poppy stuff." 

Trust me, there are two schools of thought when it comes to this: it's very much an us vs. them situation. Once you dig deep and grab those Bill Monroe records out of the dollar bin, you'll discover the Louvin Brothers and so on. There are a ton of current artists like Sturgill Simpson, Chris Stapleton, and Tyler Childers out there making the big noise, while smaller artists are carving up names for themselves in the honky tonks and bars everywhere. They're swinging, grooving and channeling those ghosts of old. Those are my people. 

One of the best stories about country music was back in the heyday of Bebop Jazz, Charlie Parker was standing in front of a jukebox pumping in nickels, playing Hank Williams and Roy Acuff. When one of his fellow musicians asked him what he saw in the music, he replied, "it's the stories, man."

Sometimes, we all need to wrap our arms around the ghosts of the past, no matter how painful or sweet. There's a lot of love in those sepia tones, but also the technicolor of today, too. Charley Pride, Ray Charles, and all of those old school blues musicians have their fingerprints on the success and soul of the music and it was only right to see that they were given their due.

While rock and roll was lost in it’s own bullshit, country music moved on its own axis.

Waylon was punk rock, defying a genre, asking his peers, "Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way" while Jeannie C. Riley's "Harper Valley PTA" and Kitty Wells "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels" shoved it right back to the men who treated so many women like second-class citizens. "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" acts as a conduit between worlds, emotions, and generations, showing that a song about death can connect us all, no matter who's singing it.  

And of course, my favorite song of all time, Hank Williams' "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" stands as some of the most exquisite poetry the genre ever produced. For almost two decades, I've been chasing after a man that's been dead for sixty-six years. I even have his face tattooed on my left wrist. 

Now, at thirty-eight, my cowboy boots are scuffed and worn. I've lived in the south for over a decade, and the obsession with the music hasn't changed. I'm thankful Ken Burns came along and gave us this newest masterpiece dedicated to one of the most significant American art forms. Now, it should be our mission to spread the word of all of these new musicians and move them into the collective conscious to be front and center, where they deserve to be. 

Nov 28, 2018

Lucero Deserves an ACL Taping!

by Robert Dean

Last week Lucero made their network television debut after 20 years, performing a few tracks off their newest record, Among The Ghosts on CBS This Morning. Finally, the squares of America got a front row view for one of the best bands in America giving it living rooms across the country ...straight, no chaser. The band who was once our dirty little secret is getting bigger and bigger, and it only took two decades for it to happen.

With that performance, the band deserves those much sought after spots on the late night stages of Jimmy Kimmel and Stephen Colbert. All of these hackneyed bands who release a record and get dropped are pushed onto those stages thanks to a healthy PR machine and backroom deals, all the while, the best dudes from Memphis have been slowly but surely building the brand to epic proportions. 

But also this got me thinking: Lucero deserves a shot at an Austin City Limits taping. 

The band has roared through Austin for two decades, and they’ve grown from a band played a half-filled Emo’s back Red River to a band headlining Stubb’s, which is considered one of the biggest and hardest to fill rock and roll venue’s in town. There aren't many venues in Austin that the band hasn't played at this point. 

Lucero deserves their shot at the true music diehards in America; they’ve played the Moody Theater (I was there), but it wasn’t that much-lauded taping, that moment that completely changes the way people view a band.

A lot of good bands will never receive any significant music awards, but if there’s a little nod to their credibility, it’s getting an ACL taping. Lucero deserves that respect. They’ve always shown up in Austin, and have always given it all they had, and in turn, this city adores them. 

One of the best things about Lucero is their willingness to play every town all of the other bands skip over. They'll play a smaller venue in Alabama or even fly up to Alaska. That's what a working-class band does for their fans, and in turn, we should do something for them. Lucero deserves to be placed in the files alongside Willie Nelson, Sturgill Simpson, Jack White, Tom Waits, Asleep At The Wheel, and Dale Watson. 

I don’t know if we start tagging the ACL people in Tweets, or start one of those petitions, but let’s try to do something to get those dudes a taping.  

Oct 3, 2017

Editorial: How Gun Violence Corrupted the Church of Music

by Robert Dean

And here we are again. We can’t keep up with the news cycle, and our social media feeds are melting with comment wars and a whole lot of folks arguing about what it means to be an American. A lot of people are dead, and a lot more are wounded. A bullet now marks hundreds of people’s lives and yet we’ve been here before. We watch the news, we stare at our phones and we hold our breath as the stream of information flows inward, giving us the gruesome details, once again.

This is the new American Way. We turn on the talking heads, and just as the crow flies, someone is continually getting murdered by way of the gun. Every day, there are bodies stacking in Chicago or New Orleans. Every day, a child gets their hands on a pistol not secured properly, and every day, someone gets shot for absolutely no reason whatsoever.

The Twitter junkies and Facebook Keyboard Warriors will argue about that person’s right to that gun, about the second amendment. The body on the other end of that conversation will throw their hands in the air in disgust. The cycle is endless and ugly. And don’t believe for a second that your government will do a thing about it. The NRA owns the United States government, and more dead bodies mean more profits: consumerism is the child of fear. We learned that the hard way after Sandy Hook. These buffoons in ugly suits don’t care about you, they care about votes, they care about kickbacks, and they care about power. What makes you think for a second that they’ll put forth any kind of meaningful legislation when they can’t squash that pesky Obamacare they had eight years to solve?

I know people who should not have guns. When these people fly off the deep and turn an AutoZone into WarZone, I won’t flinch. We all know someone who has a gun that shouldn’t. The national conversation will devolve into “something, something mental health, yadda yadda” and they won’t pass a damn thing. It’ll get filed away with taxes, pork, or whatever convenient box once we shift focus to the next drama. Those crazies in our lives, they’ll still have those automatic rifles under their beds. Don’t worry.

I’m progressive liberal. I’m also from the south side of Chicago. I have lived in the south for the last decade. I have southern family and am married to a southern woman. I have shot automatic rifles. I have shot plenty of guns over the years, and I understand their appeal. But, what I don’t understand is the unwillingness to flinch when it comes to rights and freedom and all of that flag waving stuff that equates to nothing but more death.

But, despite the acumen of location or whatever, there’s one community that’s mine: the community of music. I go to as many shows as I can every year. I love live music. I love being able to say, “I saw that band back when.” That’s my passion. But, when my church, the church of glorious noise - a venue - is corrupted, that hits home. I have stood in countless crowds, both big and small.

I’ve been in rooms that broke every fire hazard code known to man, and I have stood in endless seas of bodies, waiting for our heroes to take the stage. To think that a show, the one place I truly feel connected with a world is compromised, makes me feel sick.

This world is gross, dirty and ugly. It’s got scars, and it has many issues. But, one thing that’s intrinsically yours is your music. And now, people are dead because they wanted that freedom and that moment to throw their hands in the air and shout along to their favorite anthems. Just like the Pulse nightclub last year, we’ve been compromised. People are victim to their passion of life: losing themselves in the beat of their favorite songs.

We lost Dimebag Darrell to gun violence, and there are a few folks in France who know unexpected suffering while attending an Eagles of Death Metal show, too. Same goes for the city of Manchester, England. But, those countries don’t have gun laws like we do. They have “isolated attacks” and we have “incidents at large”. They deal with larger scale terrorism coming from all sides, and we grow our psychos in our own backyards.

We never feel more connected and alive then when we share the experience of music with one another. We holler in the bar, or we beat our steering wheel like a bass drum in the car. We’ve now tainted that with liability to passion. We’ve poisoned the well of common sense with propaganda, that your rights dictate the will of the people around you. Congrats. You are no more free and you never will be.

We keep letting bad things happen because we can’t look ourselves in the mirror and say it’s time to stop this. Our egos are too big. We think everything is about us. And now, we cannot even hear our favorite songs. We’ve let those be taken away, too.

Those people didn’t deserve this. They deserved music and joy. 

I’ll be looking over my shoulder, as is my new habit when it’s my turn to sing along.

Sep 12, 2017

Rock n' Roll Ain't Dead, It Just Needs to Evolve

By Robert Dean

On the eve of the release of the new Queens of The Stone Age record, someone in the band mentioned that “guitars were going extinct”. Wait, what? 

Is the symbol of a mindset, culture, a musical movement going to be relegated to the history books? Are we doomed to endless supplies of shitty music made with computers? Existential questions abounded.

When Elvis Presley started drying humping a mic stand with his long, greasy hair, no one had seen something like that in mainstream culture. While yes, Presley’s theatrics were a milquetoast reflection of his black counterparts out on the Chitlin Circuit; Presley was the guy who put ass wiggling at the top of the news hour.

After Elvis, the floodgates opened up. You had The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, The Who, Black Sabbath, Jimi Hendrix, Cream, etc. And those bands begat other generations of rock and rollers, along with subsets of music like punk, heavy metal, hard rock, and whatever Steely Dan played. However, the underpinning idea here was simple: because of that initial wave of bands, guitars and rock and roll was the predominant art form. 

Back in the day, you had few social choices: dig on music or play sports. Everything else was all sub-genre and had nowhere the social pull like strapping on a Les Paul or tossing a tight spiral. But no matter the scene, the music was the great equalizer. Despite different worlds, those jocks were listening to the same stuff as the long hairs. 

Because of the limited choices for popular music the same bands got gigantic. Radio was controlled with an iron fist. Record labels and station managers had mafia-like relationships, and only certain groups got the nod to move to stardom. Bands were so big they were playing venues meant to land aircraft carriers. Dudes in Led Zeppelin were renting whole hotels and banging chicks with fishes. 

Then technology started to evolve. Hip Hop came onto the scene, which challenged rock and roll as an art, not only in style but also in purity. Country music was moving away from a Willie Nelson driven tenor but more poppy and accessible. 

Throughout the 1980’s, bands were adopting machines, keyboards, and synthesizers. MTV appeared and soon, symbolism and identity were as much of the package than just the riffs. 

The medium of the video was a step toward today’s market. The 1990’s was the last pure decade for rock and roll. Maybe the early 2000’s, but this new thing, this new addition to the musical landscape, tainted that: computers. 

So while in the past, rock and roll or whatever one of its descendants had the larger stage, now it’s just a slice of the contemporary pie. We only had the radio. Then MTV opened that up. And then we got access to broadband. And then the computers themselves could make music. Everything had changed.

Every interest of every type has a meetup or a scene. You can be an adult man and into a children’s cartoon about ponies and you have a community you can cling to.  Whereas in the past, you had one of those two choices music or sports as a blanket community – today, you can find a crew into a Finnish flute music. 

But, those articles, they keep saying rock and roll is dead. That kids only listen to hip hop or electronic music. People speak to the rise of the rapper or the huge dj. For every Kendrick Lamar, there’s a bazillion wack rappers who’ll have one hit and fade RE: Chingy or Migos. The rap game might have a few legit superstars, but even their world some thirty years later almost mirrors that of rock and roll with the 2000’s acting as their 1980’s excess. 

The electronic music world stands on the merit of the experience: it’s people on drugs dancing around to predictable beats staring at flashing lights. How is anyone surprised this makes money? People love drugs. We’ve been getting high since the jump. There’s no substance to electronic music. 

In twenty years no one will listen to the Chainsmokers. You can bet kids will definitely want to learn about Kurt Cobain, though. 

Rock and Roll isn’t dead. The music just no longer has the iron grip in a world that’s textured and with so many options. It’s not that there’s a lesser place in society for this music, it’s simply that those arena's are not filled with really anyone except ultra pop mavens. Why? Because those pop acts aren’t dangerous, they’re brands that you can slap a cool outfit on and sell products to. There’s no rock radio anymore. Everything that’s moving across traditional airwaves is so out of touch, and we all know it. 

Because as its own ecosystem it doesn’t need to evolve musically – there’s no point.  But, what the music does need to do is embrace all of the technology and trends of today and realize this how it is. Before a record was released and it was gospel thanks to a handful of channels; today you can stream an album on Facebook with no warning. 

We, as listeners need to accept the fate of all kinds of music: there’s a ton out there and it’s our job to support acts we’re passionate about. The new bands need their shot, but it needs to happen on the backs of the people who are passionate about the art. 

Violent Soho, JD McPherson, Rival Sons, Frank Carter and The Rattlesnakes - these acts and more are all out there writing killer tunes. Just do the homework. We need to look past those days of lore. They’ll never exist again. Socially, no one is gonna get banged with a fish without Instagramming it first. 

Aug 24, 2017

STFU - Musician Opinions Matter

by Robert Dean

There’s a new comment section phenomenon that baffles the mind: “Musicians should just stick to playing music and keep their opinions to themselves.” 

Have you ever actually read the lyrics to some of your favorite songs, Chad from Alabama? Apparently not. Musicians have been speaking about social and political causes since the jump. Billie Holiday sang about racism with "Strange Fruit," Woody Guthrie was a social justice warrior, Louis Armstrong wouldn’t play shows in the south where he couldn’t integrate his band, and John Lennon was almost kicked out of America for his political views. Bruce Springsteen, David Crosby, even the guy with one good song, Ted Nugent… they've all made a career out of their political opinions. The same goes for Neil Young or the Beastie Boys, Rage Against The Machine, and arbiters of truth, The Clash. Politics is central to many artists’ identities. 

When you comment about a musician speaking their piece, or complain about an artist speaking out against the current political scene, you’re doing nothing but showing your lack of actual musical or artistic knowledge. 

Sorry, everything can’t be a constant stream of pop-flavored milquetoast, Yes Man propaganda. Having a passionate viewpoint is kinda part of the gig as a creative person, and more so why artists aren’t exactly on board with a world full of insane shit popping off weekly. 

The Dixie Chicks took a beating from Country music fans when they spoke out against Bush’s pointless wars. It goes without saying that they took a risk. The average shit-kicker don’t like it none too well when some uppity pack of chicks goes and speaks out against the Red, White, and Blue. 

And because of their outspoken stance against Bush, they’ve endeared themselves to one group and been maligned by the other – still; almost 20 years later. However, it took some wherewithal to do so. 

When a musician, an actor, a painter, whomever speaks out against a situation, a political agenda, or a worldview – it’s part of the gig as an empath to the world; Artists create worlds, they think about emotions all day, they consider what goes into a point of view, and try to paint themselves in a lot of different brush strokes. 

Just as Roger Waters has been doing on his tour, or when Kerry King or Corey Taylor, or whomever says something, it’s not because of a need to be in front of a camera or a recorder, it’s because this is a part of the social contract they’ve signed as someone who creates things. We use their words and art as our muse to live a better life. If you’re not paying attention to the subtext, whose fault is that? 

This world is fucked up. People need to remain vigilant in their fights.

Aug 14, 2017

Don't You Dare Bash Uncle Dave and His Merry Band of Foos

by Robert Dean

Hipster assholes love trashing Dave Grohl and the Foo Fighters. For some reason, the guy who played in Nirvana wears a target on his back for shitty Internet comments, and it’s mindboggling. What did the Nice Guy of Rock ever do to you, jerk from Atlanta? Nothing except kick total ass. And you hate him for it.

The Foo Fighters are dad rock as fuck. Sure, the first record rips with its post-Nirvana angst and big, poppy hooks driven from spending a few years with Kurt Cobain, soaking up his aura.  But on The Color and The Shape, that was when Dave figured out how to write hits that sounded nothing like Nirvana, and write songs that were dynamic and emotional like "My Hero" or the all time anthem, "Everlong."

But, then they waded into this stream of milquetoast rock and roll records that no matter how hard Dave and company try; they all sound pretty much the same. The songs are big, beefy rock and roll hits. What the Foos crank out are not brash, violent or destroyers – they’re tunes to pump your fist and guzzle a Budweiser to. That’s it. What I think throws people off about The Foo Fighters is the pedigree of what the band features: it’s a guy from Nirvana, a guy from The Germs, and a guy from Sunny Day Real Estate. Sure, Taylor Hawkins played with Alanis Morisette, who’s great in her own right, but not the same acclaim.

The Foo Fighters play arena rock, and that’s it. But, what they’re doing as aside from their shows is what’s worth talking about. The Foo Fighters live like big kids living out their dreams and taking advantage of every acclaim given to them, and it’s amazing. While many rockstars hide away in castles doing questionable shit, these guys are finding new ways to do the things we’ve all dreamt about.

Sonic Highways was a brilliant idea where the band traversed across the country, playing and recording in musical cities that affected the history of the band. We were allowed a snapshot of how the band operates, how it sees their place in the world. Seeing them open the doors of Preservation Hall and play to the crowd gathered outside is incredible. That’s precisely the stuff you want from rock and rollers: they’re giving back instead of relying on hypothetical scenarios.

Then there are the shows they play. If there’s anything that’s neat about huge bands, it’s when they make an effort to mix in some tiny clubs into the massive arenas to give their hardcore fans an intimate experience. That shows the band is about the music, not just the dollars. Recently, the Foo Fighters played The Metro in Chicago, which for many is considered holy ground. It seems like lately, the band has made an effort to play shows in every legendary room in the cities they play in.

Just the same, there’s side projects like Crobot, the videos of them playing in Italy, crushing in small towns when the people made the video of "Learn to Fly." If you haven’t seen that, I suggest watching. It’s heartwarming to know that the band cares and is willing to go there for their fans.

The Foo Fighters have taken every chance to play with their heroes, which is also cool. Considered all of the members of the band have paid their dues hustling in vans and are now playing songs with Paul McCartney or Brian May and are beaming with joy – that’s infectious and shouldn’t be looked down upon. They’re living the dream.

But, at the heart of all of this, is that rock and roll lack leaders and its lacking heroes. We have a few core groups, but they’ve been around forever. No one new is grabbing the reigns.

We need new leaders, but until then, Dave and Co. are doing their best to keep the spirit of the community, the music alive and viable. That’s what we should be focused on, not by how much someone doesn’t like their music. If Foo Fighters were this bland, faceless pack of automatons cranking out dentist rock for cash, the argument could be made of their wackness.

But, I refuse to hear someone slam them on account of what good they do for the nature of the music and what we need as a culture. Rock and roll is a feel good music and needs to re-establish its place in popular culture. We should be so lucky to have Dave Grohl there to say hey when it comes back.

Apr 18, 2017

Why S-Town Just Changed Everything We Know About What a Podcast Is

Why S-Town Just Changed Everything We Know
About What a Podcast Is
by Robert Dean


If there’s anything the S-Town podcast teaches us, it’s that we’ll never truly KNOW someone, ever. We may feel bonded by personal experience, stories, and communication with friends and loved ones, but all of the connections in the world only go so far. People will always remain a mystery.

Shit Town, as it’s called once you get past the milquetoast censoring for the Middle America set, is as disruptive to the head and heart as humanly possible. It’s a masterpiece inside the duality of lives we offer publicly and what we do behind closed doors. It aches with personality, but challenges the listener to accept that tragedy comes in many forms.

Shit Town is the latest audio masterpiece from the perennially fantastic crew behind This American Life and last year’s foray into deep journalistic podcasting, Serial. The only thing is, while both of those products are genre-defying monoliths that deserve every ounce of praise – they’re not Shit Town. Shit Town is different. It’s bigger – it’s something that breaks your fucking heart.

The life lived by John McLemore

As I’m sure you’ve heard from Twitter and Facebook, Shit Town starts with twisted genius John B. McLemore. John B, as everyone in Woodstock, his shit town outside Birmingham, Alabama knows him calls This American Life.

John B claims he knows of a murder covered up thanks to extensive wealth and small town politics. Shit Town producer Brian Reed bites. He and John B begin a series of hours-long phone conversations and eventually leading Reed to visit rural Alabama in the name of a second-hand murder story. Sounds cliché enough, but that’s exactly where the normalcy of everyday crime ends, and the tragic narrative of John B. McLemore begins.

 Instead of leading us down a whodunit path that Serial had last year, Shit Town wipes the dirt off the underbelly of southern life that so many people are too scared to come near thanks to layers upon layers of unchecked hyper-masculinity percolating in the backwoods and on the main drag of small town America. John B is everything but. He’s a complicated loner with a mind that never stops ticking, as he’s a clock maker – one of the best in the world. He’s a closeted homosexual, a liberal, an ardent challenger of social rights and nuance, but he’s trapped in a locality that will never understand him.

John B lives in the woods with his mother, but not in some serial killer shack, but a house that’s been in his family for generations. He takes in strays, just as he does people – often finding himself in social relationships with a variety of folks down on their luck. He keeps a rose garden that’s built into an honest to god maze straight out of a Guillermo Del Toro flick. He doesn’t watch movies or television, but can quote passages from books, or do complex mathematical equations that would make a tenured physics professor blush. (The guy built an astrolabe in college.)

His level of mastery with clockwork is unchallenged, having people from all over the world seek him out to fix their broken timepieces.  John B. McLemore isn’t a regular dude from Alabama.

John B. McLemore
The markings of a mad genius

John B’s rapid-fire knowledge of chemicals, sciences, social issues, mathematics done on the fly is almost too much. The guy can break down, within a casual conversation about why a penny exists in the greater scheme of American currency, and further yet, explain the exact chemical breakdown of what said penny is made of – all of the top his head, at about 85mph. McLemore demonstrated such savant-like abilities in his filthy workshop out behind his house. Drunk, McLemore asks for a dime out of Brian Reed’s pocket. McLemore gold plated the dime using a bucket, some dangerous chemicals, and two electrical wires hooked up to a car battery.

How does a man, who’s staggeringly brilliant allow his mind to rot away in these backwoods? Shouldn’t he be standing in an auditorium somewhere, giving point by point breakdowns of carbon footprints or why we need to rely less on X infinitive?

Despite having every opportunity to leave, McLemore chooses to stay, to wallow in the murk of the town he loathes so much and is proclaims at every chance. John B. McLemore is an enigma who at one moment can talk about his closeted sexuality, but then drop “fag” in a demeaning way. To say the man is layered would be an extreme understatement. Escaping his hometown, the polar opposite of everything he loves just isn’t possible. Shit Town grounded him in ways no one could quite figure out. Genius runs with strange bedfellows and John B. McLemore is no different. He was just too smart for his own good.

And that’s when the show shifts into a past tense.

Shit Town isn’t driven by the murder. We find out pretty quick that the death talk of Woodstock is nothing more than just that: talk. No one died, just a little banged up, but that’s how life in small towns go: a small story turns into headline news over night.

John McLemore kills himself by episode three, and for the next four episodes, we travel down this rabbit hole what it’s like to be a genius stuck in a small town, but also what it’s like to be a small town who’s got an eccentric asshole who won’t stop prattling on about climate change. Like as in life, John B. McLemore never did anything easy. Instead of putting a pistol in his mouth and swallowing the night, he swallows cyanide.

The color of money 

There are rumors of John B being loaded, that he’d “unbanked” himself and has gold hidden on his property – but, one aspect of John’s life he neglected was leaving assets and a will. Despite being a meticulous bookkeeper and someone who notated almost every transaction in life, John couldn’t commit to keeping a detailed breakdown of what should happen should he die. Even weirder still is that John B talked openly about killing himself, which as everyone agreed, wasn’t an idle threat, it was a fact they’d all expected at some point.

Then, there’s Tyler. Tyler is John B’s de facto best friend. Tyler is a complicated dude himself, but he’s more or less just chasing ghosts and trying not to be his piece of shit father. As much as you want to be like, blah – Tyler. You can’t. The guy doesn’t affect you that way. Instead, you see the complicated love between Tyler and John B. Although it’s apparent in the subtext that John feels something deeper for Tyler, the friendship is natural and emotional, with both men learning from one another on a variety levels. When they leave one another, they always depart with an “I love you.” – something you’re not supposed to do in the south.

We meet a friend of John B’s who describes their relationship in such a clinical, old school southern way, it’s like a harken back to the Faulkner-era, except the guy is an open gay man who loves Broke Back Mountain, and tells a vivid recollection of wanting to kiss John’s nipples. But, John was a complicated man who, despite his outward sexuality in certain circles, could never be totally out in his environment due to the obvious. He was a man without a country. The inability to find another man to satiate that fast working, mechanical mind is honestly, sad. John was a lone wolf by a complicated life, not by his chaotic nature.

But, while he was a lone wolf, he was also the king of the black sheep, too. Because of his love of Tyler, John supported his friend in ways no one else could. He gave Tyler work around the house, constantly constructing things for him. He supported Tyler in his quest to tattoo, even allowing Tyler to tattoo countless portions of his body – despite having an open, visceral hatred of all things tattoo-related. He gave in and let his friend stay financially afloat at the cost of his own body.

“You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait, be quiet still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.” – Franz Kafka

But, with John killing himself, that leads to a messy digression that has town clerks getting late night phone calls and a pair of cousins who claim to be doing right, but at times, you just can’t say what their intentions are. Just as everything appears to unravel at a car crash speed, it all moves right back into place, sort of. The house and the property gets sold to the family of the original murder in question, which feels disgusting.

The emotional knot Shit Town leaves you is too real: especially if you live in the south. There are so many misnomers about southern life, and thanks to the past election and its finger on the pulse of white, working class men, this examination into the mindset of middle and low-brow America shows as that, not all things are what they are perceived to be. Despite him being long dead, as a listener, you yearn to hear John B’s thoughts on a guy like Trump, or some of our social issues today. (The podcast was taped over the course of years, with McLemore killing himself in 2015.)

The cost of brilliance

But, what the podcast does is examine our true selves and what we perceive our world to be. What we atone to when the lights are out, and what we desire out of life. The movements of Shit Town move like a best-selling nonfiction book in the vein of The Devil In The White City, or hell at times, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas – a text that moves at it’s own pace, but keeps you moving along, inch by inch.

The ultimate arbiter of why we’re so drawn to Shit Town is there are so many elements we see in ourselves, yes – but, we’re ultimately driven to love John B. McLemore. We want to experience his insanity live and in person, we imagine him going crazy on chat shows, offering up worldviews that are staggering, to be a voice amidst the insanity plaguing news cycles. John B. McLemore should be ours to enjoy, but instead, thanks to Brian Reed, millions now mourn a small town madman. He should have made it out of that place alive.

Editor's note: We know this isn't music related, but it's relevant to the discussion of southern culture, from which much of the music we enjoy was birthed. And Robert wanted to write it, so so be it.

Mar 17, 2017

Son Volt: Notes of Blue Review & Atlanta Road Dispatch

Son Volt: Notes of Blue review and Atlanta road dispatch

By Kevin Broughton

Don’t get down when the Cavalry doesn’t ride; doesn’t mean that Hollywood didn’t get it right.

So begins what may be the most Son Volt album ever.

We spent some time in this space six weeks ago mulling over an old Son Volt record, and how it should be judged against the band’s body of work. In the process of that look back -- which corresponded with the release of Notes of Blue, its eighth studio album not counting compilations – a thought occurs to the dedicated Son Volt fan. To wit: This band will always be whatever Jay Farrar finds compelling at any given moment.

If he finds something interesting that needs a new voice or interpretation, we’re gonna get a new Son Volt album.  If it resonates with the folks, great. If not, that’s okay too, because Jay’s gonna do his thing.  Case in point, 2013’s Honky Tonk, Farrar’s sublimely faithful send-up of the Bakersfield sound. Which itself was the first peep heard from him since 2009.

As the simply self-evident title suggests, Farrar decided he’d do a blues record. And he did, man, and put a stamp on it only he could. Notes of Blue, which Jay says is influenced heavily by Mississippi Fred McDowell and Skip James, certainly isn’t your conventional blues deal. It’s alternately rambling and driving, with the customary stop-go tempo changes that date back to Uncle Tupelo thrown in. There’s a cowboy ethos…as many Westerns as are coming out these days – remake and original – Notes of Blue should be a soundtrack to one of them.

And it’s a bunch of wonderfully different tunings (which made for frequent equipment changes live, see below), 30 minutes efficiently packed into 10 songs. There’s vitality, there’s brooding, and sheer badassery on “Threads and Steel.” But as the opening cut, “Promise the World,” passes the Bakersfield-to-blues baton between albums. 

And it was often the pedal steel-playing of [some dude] that got the crowd’s attention time again at Atlanta’s Terminal West on March 10. I’m sorry, but as we acknowledged earlier, “Son Volt” is Jay and whomever is behind him at the moment. The guy on steel was exceptional, and played keyboards really well, too. [That one guy] on bass sang competent harmonies. The band was tight. Oh, wait.

Opening act? Yeah, there was one at the sold-out (625, standing) venue.

Let me tell you about him for just a second. The advertised bill was SON VOLT WITH JOHNNY IRION. So I Googled the guy.


Oh, good. The Google hit reveals some hippie-communist-douchebag who decided to prove his bona fides by doing an anti-Trump song.

Wow, guy. You must be legit! And courageous. It takes a lot of balls to write songs hating on a Republican. Is it lonely out there on that bastion? You know, I didn’t vote for president last year, my first time ever taking a pass at the top of the ticket. But, dude. Since you’re a musician, I’m starting to come around to your way of thinking. Tell me more.

Wait, what? Your wife is Woody Guthrie’s commie granddaughter? And y’all did a trio – no kidding – with Pete Seeger’s Bolshevik great grandson or some such?

Oh, wow, Johnny. You’ve swayed me. I’m a Democrat now. I demand that boys be allowed in girls’ bathrooms. Immediately, and anyone who objects is a bigot.

Good job, Johnny. I just wish I’d been born in time to march with an NVA flag and spit on Vietnam vets in airports.


Sorry. Yeah, let’s keep politics out of music. He did some songs. I didn’t listen.

The show was great. Farrar – did his hair seem unnaturally dark, and did that question seem catty – led the band onstage and quickly into “Cherokee Street,” emphasizing the Cowboys-and-Indians vibe of the record. They played all but one of the cuts off the new album, and oddly, not a single one from the last. The balance of the 20-plus song set was a healthy sampler of Son Volt’s best work.

Trace, appropriately, was well represented, with “Tear Stained Eye,” “Catching On,” “10 Second News,” “Route,” “Drown,” and “Windfall” making the list. The highlight for a lot of folks was an encore that featured three Uncle Tupelo Cuts. I’d never heard the lovely “Still Be Around” live before, and it was awesome.

Trailer tells me Farrar’s on Twitter these days. That’s neat. He was more interactive March 10 than I’ve ever seen him. He said lots of words.

“How’s everybody doing tonight? You guys okay?”

“Hey, thanks a lot.”

“Thanks. I’d like to introduce the members of the band. [Proceeds to do so.]”
He’s never been that chatty. And he changed guitar about every 1.7 songs. Freaky tunings.

Know what he didn’t say? Anything about politics.



Notes of Blue is available everywhere you can purchase music, except Walmart probably. 

Jan 16, 2017

Notes Concerning Sturgill Simpson and Live Network Television

Notes Concerning Sturgill Simpson 
and Live Network Television

By Kevin Broughton

Now remember, when things look bad and it looks like you're not gonna make it, then you gotta get mean. I mean plumb, mad-dog mean.  – Josey Wales

Nashville, it ain’t like he didn’t warn you. And by summer’s end Sturgill Simpson had had a bellyful. Of you, and your suits, and your black little money-grubbing hearts. One of your favored kingmakers, some Mary named “Bobby Bones,” summed up your indifference to actual art by referring to him as Sturgis Simpson. To be fair, it was Garden & Gun’s cowardly betrayal of a dying Merle Haggard that finally set him off, but his point was unambiguous: I don’t need you. Keep promoting talentless hacks who can’t write songs and need machines to get their voices barely past the level of “vomit-inducing.” I’m done with you.

If country music is to be saved – as opposed to burned down and rebuilt somewhere far away from Music Row’s satanic pit – Sturgill’s blistering performance on Saturday Night Live will be seen as the turning point. 

Most folks who’ve worn out A Sailor’s Guide to Earth probably anticipated the songs he’d pick to introduce himself to the nation on such a prestigious platform.  December’s pleasant surprise of two Grammy nominations had millions asking, “Who is Sturgill (as opposed to Sturgis) Simpson?”

“Keep it Between the Lines” was a perfect how-do-you-do. On a concept album – in the form of a love letter to his newborn son – full of intensity, it’s a cut featuring wry advice that induces smiles. Pause the DVR quickly enough and you’ll see the hint of a smile from the man himself; but overall it was a warmup.

The real heat came with “Call to Arms.” Fitting, as Simpson used it as the show-closer throughout his recent tour. And for close to five minutes, the SNL stage positively burned. The band started fast. And the tune only built in intensity by the moment – by the measure, really – in a way you couldn’t have imagined and still might not believe after re-watching several times. Chances are you’re still shaking your head. If anyone’s seen a more hair-raising musical experience on live television, speak up.

It ended with a power-slammed guitar, to match an upturned organ stage right. Was there a semblance of a grin? Look closely:


That face? It’s saying, “Get some. Who’s next?”

And Nashville, he’s looking at you. You brought this on yourself, Music Row.  Maybe you’ll keep promoting a 40-year-old in painted-on jeans who thrusts his junk on stage and sings about finger banging drunk girls in his truck. Or tatted-up white trash clowns that duet with their Backstreet Boyfriends. But only for a short while.

Because Sturgill Simpson judged you on August 29, 2016, and you were found wanting: Guilty of crimes against art, integrity, and musical humanity. There will be no phone call from the governor with a last minute reprieve. Your death will be fittingly slow, because on January 14, 2017, judge became executioner at 30 Rockefeller Center and with two songs, started the gradual drip of a fatal drug cocktail.

Twenty years ago Todd Snider famously quipped – and you can find it on the occasional T-shirt – “In a perfect world, Steve Earle would run Nashville.”

In a couple years, Sturgill Simpson will.

Jan 3, 2017

From the Bureau of Common Sense

From the Bureau of Common Sense

By Robert Dean

Dear businesses that move into “hip” cities, do your homework on the vibe of the city, the attitude of what’s relevant to the culture before slapping a SOLD sign on any piece of dirt you can get your mitts on. It’s not a good look.

Cities like Nashville, New Orleans, Asheville, Portland, and here in good ole’ Austin are seeing booms in businesses wanting to cash in on flavor and flair, but they want it in a profitable, managed way. See, the problem is, when you invade a town and throw up some vomitorium and expect the city to buckle under your demands, it turns a lot of the locals off to your brand.

In New Orleans, I watched Bacchanal, a venerable Bywater icon fight for its right to play music. Music being too loud in New Orleans is like getting your beer spilled at a metal show, it’s part of the deal. Eventually, the venue won its right for music again, but the fight gave the tattoo shop down the road an artistic black eye, which it never recovered from.  And recently, Austin’s been dealing with the Westin Hotel complaining about noise from 6th Street. People, when you build something near an entertainment venue, or a BBQ pit, or a favorite bar – you’re the ones encroaching on the city through capitalism. Do your homework and know what you’re building upon. Otherwise, you’re making yourselves look like assholes through the process.

In closing, it is the Bureau’s mandate that if you’re trying to jump in on whatever’s trending, do your fucking homework and don’t tell nightclubs how loud they can be. That ain’t right, and if you want us to stick some dollars in your pocket, we gotta know you’re on the team.

Apr 24, 2014

On Garth's Comeback

Garth Brooks Comeback
& How On Earth Did Everything Get This Weird?
-Kelcy Salisbury

This was a reply I made to a non-country music loving friend of mine on Facebook. It's unedited so I take responsibility for all typos & nonsense. Thank you Kelly Manning for pushing this to the front of my mind. 
Garth Brooks looks like a St Bernard that wears a cowboy hat. But yeah, he was kind of a big deal I guess. I'd still trade him & Clint Black to get Chris LeDoux (the guy Garth pretty well copied his live show from & that's not meant as a slam on Garth) back on this earth. 

I'll admit, after I saw your post, I actually watched a good bit of it. I was a little disappointed that he basically only played snippets of songs, but he was personable & engaging & wasn't wearing girl jeans or earrings (cough, Luke Bryan, cough Jason Aldean) and he wasnt using AutoTune, and he carried a show with just him, a guitar & whatever chemical assistance was used...I mean seriously dude, you should NOT be that excited about Jackson Browne! There's some Bolivian Marching Powder involved in that. Jackson Browne doesn't get that excited about his own songs! 

I'm pretty interested to see what his next career move is, whether he ever actually drops a new album & what it sounds like. Commercial country music is flailing & drowning in red ink, thus the increasing willingness to throw gimmicks out there & desperately hope one sticks. I'm sorry but Jawga Boyz, FL/GA Line, and about 3/4 of the content on any given hour of CMT programming is not country music, or even anything resembling good music. There's talent in the genre, but it's largely pop talent marketed as (sort of) country (Taylor Swift), relegated to the sidelines because the record companies will not allow them to make & release to radio the music they want (Jamey Johnson) or reduced to making ridiculously bad country-rap parodies (PLEASE tell me that "Boys Round Here" is a parody) like Blake Shelton, Luke Bryan (who is a world class jerk & has an unnerving fetish for dry humping drum kits in a drunken fit of mid-concert copulation fever), Jason Aldean or nearly any male star not named George Strait or Zac Brown.

Folks might not be aware of it, but radio playlists have gotten smaller as Clear Channel has snatched up stations, removed local DJ talent from the equation & created a monopoly of terrestrial radio. As the value of radio airplay dwindles the industry has basically shot itself in the foot (with #00 buckshot) by promoting as stars people who can't sing without computer assistance or engage a crowd or do many other things a star should be able to do. When people are exposed to the true musical talent of even a mediocre musician like Garth (GREAT showman & marketer though), it makes the posturing & pandering of the current Nashville wasteland look every bit as hollow & silly as it is. 

When an artist like Jamey Johnson can have the track record of success that he had with That Lonesome Song & The Guitar Song but he STILL can't get into a contract that allows him to choose 100% of his own material there is a huge problem, it's 1970 Nashville all over again & the outsiders are still out there, ready to make people care about country music again. It's coming, and while the standard bearers of the movement (The Great Divide, Bob Childers, Pinto Bennett on through Reckless Kelly, Jason Boland & The Stragglers, Ragweed & a few others) are either no longer performing together or not ideally positioned to be the next wave of truly great country music that achieves commercial success, there is a second generation ready & waiting & they are gonna make some noise when they get on the dance card. The current structure of commercial country music is so far overdue for collapse that it could implode in the next 10 seconds & nobody would be surprised. This means that bands that are accustomed to owning their own material, beating down the highway & playing live 200 nights a year are going to be ideally positioned for success. My money would be on Turnpike Troubadours as probably the smartest bet. They've got the chops, they're still quite young, and their grassroots following stretches world wide & grows daily. There will be plenty of competition, and it could be that they won't even want the crown, should it be offered, I just find it amazing that we have actually reached a point where GARTH BROOKS of all folks could be the tipping point that moves country music in a direction that's better for the music & the artists. If this comes to pass I will personally get a Chris Gaines poster for my office. 


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