Former and per chance yet again Blue Mountain frontman Cary Hudson graced the From The Earth Brewery in the ATL burbs with three sets of his own brand of blues. Here he channels Blind Willie Johnson with “God Don’t Never Change,” which he covered on his 2005 album The Phoenix. (Video: Kevin Broughton)
Jul 26, 2021
Jun 11, 2021
|Photo by Ty Helbach|
The word “supergroup” gets overused to describe side musical projects, but it's apt and well-earned when it comes to The High Hawks.
With nearly 150 years of collective touring and playing between them, Vince Herman (Leftover Salmon), Tim Carbone (Railroad Earth, Blue Sparks From Hell), Chad Staehly (Hard Working Americans), Adam Greuel (Horseshoes & Hand Grenades), Brian Adams (DeadPhish Orchestra) and Will Trask (Great American Taxi) have maintained a generation-spanning presence at the forefront of the roots music scene for over two decades.
What’s striking about this collaboration’s first, self-titled LP is that it bears little – if any – resemblance to what fans of the foregoing bands are used to hearing. There is some serious, cosmically inspired symbiosis afoot.
Indeed, the baker's dozen of songs – released today -- that make up their debut have the strong identity and cohesiveness of a band three records in to their career. The summery, fiddle-infused opener, “Singing a Mountain Song,” with its self-referential line – “Soaring like a high hawk across this mountain top,” -– acts as a kind of mission statement for the whole collection. There's a lot of good feeling and optimism in these grooves, from the celestial cowboy vibe of “White Rider” and the revved-up Cash rockabilly of “Bad, Bad Man” to the catchy, sauntering “Do Si Do,” which sounds like a great lost Grateful Dead track. Then there’s the spare, emotional cover of Woody Guthrie's “Fly High,” and “Just Another Stone,” a moving ode to love's redemptive power. Throughout, the creative hand-offs between four songwriters and four distinct singers all come together to channel influences from bluegrass to folk to reggae to cosmic Americana, into a singular, appealing voice.
That unity, though, comes not from a shared musical vision or taste, but genuine affection for one another. These are guys who just wanted to hang out and jam, but before they knew it, this side project had become a thing.
We caught up with singer/guitarist Adam Greuel (Horseshoes and Hand Grenades) on his way to the trout stream, and it kept coming up, again and again: He is positively joyful at what the High Hawks – even early on – have become. We were also able to tip him off to an alt-country classic.
Horseshoes and Hand Grenades – taking into account all the genre-bending that goes on in Americana – can fairly be called a bluegrass/jam band. None of your songs on this record could fairly be put into that category, and I don’t hear a bunch of Leftover Salmon influence either, for that matter. Was this album a chance to if not step out of your comfort zone, at least spread your wings a little?
Yeah. You know, with the High Hawks – one of the cool things about this band – we came together without any inkling of what the band might sound like. We really enjoy each other’s company and playing together and making this record was really just a way to spend more time together. And I think when we get along together as humans, as friends, that translates well to making good music.
And sure enough, we got together and there was that musical openness to a degree that the songs played the band, so to speak. When you’re all open-minded about where the music can go, it allows all of our collective influences into the melting pot and produce a creative sound. So, the open-ended nature of the High Hawks was probably a breath of fresh air for us all.
Speaking of influences, I’ll go out on a limb and guess y’all are all fans of The Band? I mean, Vince is channeling Levon from beyond the grave on “Goodnight Irene,” so should I assume they’re a common thread that runs throughout y’all’s eclectic tastes and influences?
Yeah, without a doubt. In the modern-day, greater Americana/bluegrass/rock ‘n’ roll genre, how could you not be influenced by the likes of The Band? The similarity, I think, that I see most distinctly between the High Hawks and The Band is the influences. A lot of the sources of inspiration for The Band are there for all of us. Another big similarity is that there’s a plethora of different songwriters and singers. And that’s a big part of who we are.
|By Jake Cudek|
It’s a band. (Laughs) And you know… “supergroup” or whatever, we came together because we all liked one another and formed a band. It’s raw and it’s natural. We got together at Vince’s – he lives up in the Colorado mountains – and man, we booked a run of shows in Colorado and a run of shows in the Midwest before we had ever played a note together.
Yeah! That’s how the High Hawks took flight and found an identity. It created a really unique experience, knowing we all wanted to be in the same room together. What came out was really natural.
We’re seeing albums now that were stacked up and in the can during the pandemic; when and where did y’all record this one?
We recorded at The Silo in Denver, and it was basically in the beginning days of the pandemic. It was January, right before everything got weird. As far as the pandemic itself, I don’t know that it had a huge impact on the release of this record. It did give us some time to think about how we wanted to do it. And we had the time to go back and do some real, quality mixing and mastering.
People called the pandemic “the great pause,” and it gave us a chance to reflect. “How do we feel about this thing,” you know? It gave us the time to know that we were releasing an album we could be proud of, because we put our heart and soul behind it.
It sounds like the recording process was pretty organic. Did y’all record most of this stuff live?
Yeah, we recorded all of it live. And that was natural and a lot of fun. It’s rare that I want to listen to an album I’ve made, once the mixing is done. You’ve heard all the material so many times you think, “Okay, well that was good,” and you feel like you’ve done a good job and never listen again. But this High Hawks album – partly because of the diverse songwriters – I find myself listening a lot because I just like it! It sounds fun and takes you on a really cool ride.
But the recording process itself…Will, the drummer, and I are the younger fellas in the band; I’m 30 right now. And I’ve been listening to Tim and Vince and Chad since I was in high school. And to be in a band like this where I can truly learn from some people who have already influenced my musical understanding is really a joy and a pleasure, and I’m really grateful for that experience. And the fact that there’s such a large age difference puts a cool spin on The High Hawks, too. Because there are differences there, but there are also similarities. And I found that my attitudes toward music can be challenged by Tim or Vince in the studio. At times, there attitudes can be challenged by mine. And when respect and love are present. It can be a really cool thing.
I’d like to ask you about a couple of your songs. “Home Is” sounds like something straight off the Jayhawks’ Hollywood Town Hall. Tell me about that tune.
Well…I’ve never heard that album. I’ll look forward to listening to it.
Oh, my Lord! It’s the Jayhawks’ third album, from around 1992. Just a fantastic record.
Wow, man. I’m gonna dig into that one. Thanks for the tip! But yeah, the song “Home Is” is really influenced by some of those (Robert) Hunter/(Jerry) Garcia ballads…
Okay, yeah. I can totally make that connection now.
Yeah. You know, I play in a high-energy string band, so sometimes at home I find myself clinging to classical music, or maybe some slow-moving ballads. Songs like “Days Between” or “China Doll.” I have a friend named Peter Kahn, who’s a poet and lyricist down in Milwaukee. We went to college together, and we’re really close friends. He and I wrote that song together, and often times, I can put together these songs and relate them to his life and his experiences. And those shared experiences tie us together, really without even talking about them. There’s just a connection.
So, I took that song to The High Hawks, and the first time we played it, I thought, “I could not be happier with the way this sounds.”
That’s so awesome.
Yeah! It’s just such a cool thing. The Universe has these confirming moments, you know? When you’re on the right path, the Universe can give you a little nod, and you’re like, “Yep! Keep on going!” And I’ve often felt that with The High Hawks.
Like you walked into a studio to cut that song, and there was a great band waiting for you.
For sure. And I know that’s the case with all the fellas. These songs just came to life. You know, Tim Carbone – who plays with Railroad Earth – he doesn’t really sing, and they don’t play many of his originals. He’s an incredible songwriter! There are a couple of his songs [“Just Another Stone” and “Blue Earth”] on the album that are really phenomenal. And the same with Chad and Vince: just some really cool songs. And it’s awesome to see all these songs come to life – like I said earlier – through that High Hawks filter.
Now that I think about it, “Trying To Get By” is a little Jayhawk-y, too. But between it and “Heroes and Highways,” it seems that finding one’s way is a theme in your writing, at least on this album.
Yeah, I suppose so. We’re all evolving beings. Some things stay the same, but I have a hard time believing any of us really remain exactly who we were; we change every moment with experience. I think we’re all trying to find our way, trying to be the best person we can be for the world around us. And some time we find these sorts of…spirit guides, I guess, and we’re really lucky when that happens. Sometimes it can feel as if the Universe guides us to a group of people when we need them most.
And I think that’s the case with all of us in The High Hawks: We all needed this band in one way or another. And that’s part of the magic. It’s gratitude for the Universe bringing us together. And hopefully for the people who hear it, they’ll get the little cosmic nudge they need.
I’m going to rephrase my final question because the course of our conversation has mandated it. This album isn’t a one-off, is it?
(Pauses) I do not believe so.
Nah, not a chance these boys are done. This album is so good, you’ll wait impatiently for the next one.
The High Hawks is out today on LoHi Records and everywhere else you might consume music.
Apr 16, 2021
By Kevin Broughton
You don’t know Zach Schmidt.
“Who in the world is this guy, and why have I never heard of him?” was my initial reaction after a run through his second full-length album, Raise A Banner, out today. The explanation? Well, it’s complicated.
Through no fault of his own, Raise A Banner sat on a shelf for more than a year. Despite the delay – perhaps in a silver-lining moment – the album’s themes are now more apropos than ever: fighting through hardship, finding truth in a world of lies, enduring personal loss. Produced by 400 Unit guitarist Sadler Vaden (on a mini hot streak behind the glass himself) and backed by Vaden’s bandmates, it’s a record whose overdue time has come.
The thoughtful and humble Schmidt has been waiting for this moment; he’s made a record without a weak cut on it, and it’s borderline criminal that he remains unsigned. Smart money says that’s about to change.
Nah. You don’t know Zach Schmidt.* But a whole lot of folks are fixin’ to.
It was a real pleasure to catch up with Schmidt and discuss fence-building, finding inspiration in lawnmower boys, and the secret to finding the best harmony vocalist.
Let’s do a little level-setting. This record – and you, for that matter – seemingly came out of nowhere. You’re from Pittsburgh, and you self-released albums in 2013 and 2016. Beyond that, could you fill in some biographical details, personal and professional?
I’d be glad to. So yeah, the EP I put out in 2013, I released that right before I moved to Nashville. I was living in Pittsburgh, working at a sh*tty job and playing music every night. I was extremely emotionally exhausted. I grew up in Pittsburgh. I love the town and love to go back, but it wasn’t the right place for me; things in my life just weren’t in a great spot.
So I moved to Nashville at the end of 2013, and throughout that time I was putting tours together and doing my own solo thing…driving around the country. A couple of years later, we put out my The Day We Lost The War album. I didn’t know anything about releasing a record, so I just put it out there to see what would happen. And with this one, I’m trying hard to get some press and radio; seeing if people will dig it.
There’s a real heartland feel to the whole album, and several of the ballads – like “Go My Way” and “I Can’t Dance” – give off a Steve Earle vibe. Who are your songwriting influences?
Steve Earle is a huge influence of mine. I love all those Texas songwriters: Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, James McMurtry. All those guys are huge to me. When I was writing this record I took a deep dive into John Hiatt’s catalog. I had never listened to John Hiatt before; I don’t know why, but he was one of those guys who had always eluded me. My wife’s family loved the record Walk On. After that one, I just dug really deeply into all his stuff, trying to soak all that up while I was writing.
Kathleen Edwards, I’m a huge fan of hers. Lucinda Williams. Just too many people to really put my finger on one. All those folks have had a deep impact on me. I’m really glad to hear the Steve Earle comparison, though. I’ve loved his songwriting as long as I can remember.
You’ve said that the album was “written from a place of uncertainty.” It was in the can and ready for release last year, only to be derailed by the pandemic, which certainly rings of uncertainty. A pretty good example of life imitating art, huh?
Yeah, it really does. And in fact, we had the record done a year before the pandemic and tried to put it out. But we had two failed record deals that fell through for one reason or another, and a couple other labels that basically wanted to own me and everything I did for the rest of my life. And it just wasn’t worth it.
And really, we wanted the record deal for the money, because it’s hard to put out an album as an independent musician and get people to hear it. We wanted a little bit of support behind us, and it just wasn’t working. I kept waiting, hoping that something was going to sort itself out, but at the same time getting ready for a self-release at the end of 2019. And then…here’s 2020, coming in hot.
We were all set to go to South By [Southwest] in March, and that was the first thing on my calendar that got canceled.
What a kick in the nuts.
I’m gonna skip ahead a little here, because I had a two-part question, the first sounded rhetorical, but wasn’t: “How in the world are you not on a label…”
“…and how did you come to the attention of Sadler Vaden?” You can take the second part, since you’ve covered the first.
I’ve known Sadler for a little while through friends around town. Nashville’s a small town, so you run into everybody one way or another. And I met Sadler through my buddy Aaron Lee Tasjan; I met him right after I moved to town. A couple of years later – I think it was on my wife’s birthday – we were out and I was talking to my buddy Paul, who manages the band Shovels And Rope. I was basically talking his ear off, complaining how hard it is to get a record made – this huge, daunting task.
It was the first time that I really wanted to work with a producer specifically. You know, I wanted to take these songs out of my head and get them into the ears of somebody who cares about them. Paul told me that Sadler had started producing and wanted to work on more and more stuff, so he passed my number along to him. A few days later I got a call from him at 8:00 in the morning. They (Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit) were in Australia, and I think he was sitting by the pool or something.
He said, “Send me the songs you’re working on. I’ll take a listen and see if we can figure something out.” I think I sent him 18 songs. A couple days later, he called me back and said he’d booked the studio for two weeks, we’d meet for a couple days beforehand and then just go do it.
Yeah, after complaining about it for so long, it all fell together really quickly.
For the last year, I’ve asked every artist I’ve interviewed, “How have you made things work, or ends meet, during the pandemic?” Indulge me, and maybe you’re the last one I have to ask.
Yeah, that would be nice, right?
When the pandemic first hit in March, my wife and I took off for Pennsylvania and stayed in a cabin for two months. We packed for two weeks, hoping for the best – everyone was hoping it wasn’t gonna last for long. We quickly realized that was not going to be the case and came back to Nashville.
I started building fences with a friend, another guitar player in town. He and I had both done construction over the years, so we just put ourselves out on Facebook: “We’re gonna build some fences. Who needs one?” Word spread, and we started doing that. I also worked at a warehouse for a denim brand here in town. Between those two things I was able to totally shift my life from anything music-related, to having more jobs than I cared to.
A guy (or gal, in Morgan Wade’s case) could do worse than having The 400 Unit as a studio band. How much confidence did that give you, recording with such a top-flight lineup?
(Pauses) Well, when we first got into the studio and started to work on the first track, I got out my guitar and we were sitting in the control room. I laid it down for the guys, and the first song we recorded, we took the very first take from it. So that alone speaks to their level of professionalism and how great they are together as a band – and individually. And honestly, there couldn’t be nicer guys out there. It was an honor to work with those guys; they really are the best around, in so many ways.
I didn’t know them beforehand and they didn’t know me so at first, we were trying to figure each other out. But after that first take, everything felt great. And we had to do everything pretty quickly, because [drummer] Chad [Gamble] lives in Alabama. He was coming up every day to play drums, so we only had him for a few days. We had to work efficiently, and those guys knew how to do it.
What was the studio dynamic like, in terms of the arranging?
Sadler and I put a lot of that together beforehand. A lot of the songs I wrote just on the acoustic guitar, and he didn’t change too much other than on a couple of songs. I would go in, play them for all the guys, and Sadler would tell everybody what to do. And because they’ve played together for so long and he knows all their styles, he was able to communicate what he wanted quickly. And so we’d just go in and give it a shot and see what happened.
I’m a sucker for great harmony vocals. Tell us a little about Jackie Berkley.
Jackie Berkley is my wife.
So that’s the connection!
Ha, yeah. We were married last October, but we’ve been together seven years. We met at this amazing little bar in town called Santa’s Pub, on a Sunday night where I’d been playing with a country band. Sunday nights before the pandemic, we were Santa’s Ice Cold Pickers, doing good old country music from 7:00 to 9:00.
We’ve been together ever since. She’s been a singer all her life. She’s a great singer and performer. And cheap labor, you know?
She has a choice, but she chooses to grace me with her talent every day.
The title cut has a swampy feel that reminds me a little of Brent Cobb. What’s the story of that song?
That song…long story short:
The first house I lived in here in Nashville, we had a next-door neighbor with two sons, and we used to pay them to cut our grass. Super nice kids, and one day when they were finishing up, I asked them, “So what did you buy with the money?” And they said they had given the money to their dad, “for his medicine.”
And he was a nice enough guy, but he didn’t take super good care of those kids. He typically was just drinking all day long. So that’s a very unfortunate story, but those kids are what inspired that song: Just feeling kinda hopeless for those kids and their future. And wanting to do the best you can for them, as a relative stranger; not being able to help in a significant way. And the dad played it off as “not the Christian thing to do,” judging him for the way he lives his life. I wasn’t trying to judge, I was trying to look out for the kids; I didn’t think it was right to take their money from them, no matter how he ended up using it.
One other cut I have to ask you about: “Concrete Dreams,” with its strong Mark Knopfler groove. What’s up with it?
Honestly, it just kind of came naturally to the song. I have always played that song in a very percussive way with the acoustic guitar. When we recorded it, Sadler went with the Strat and it just kind of had that feel to it.
After the fits and starts you’ve experienced in getting this album released, have you allowed yourself to set expectations about what will happen next? What’s your best-case scenario?
Best-case scenario? I would love to get back out on the road and play some shows. I expect…I guess the best way to put it is, I hold great expectations over myself, I know what I’m capable of, and I know what I want to do. But I think as far as the record goes, I’m trying to curb any expectations so as to avoid disappointment, and just be grateful for the fact that this record is coming out. It’s not just going to sit on a shelf somewhere; people are gonna be able to hear it.
And you know, with anything like this, it’s hard to do that, especially now that people are starting to get back out there. Stuff’s still getting canceled. But I really just want to play music for people, whatever that may look like in the future.
So y’all haven’t mapped out a tour just yet?
No. I have two shows right now, one in July and one in August. That’s the only thing on the books as of now. Our booking agent was the first person laid off when the pandemic hit. Seems like once South By was canceled, all the booking agents got laid off, so we don’t have anybody in that corner for us right now. Hopefully that’s one of the things we’ll be able to line up. I’d love to be able to hop on somebody else’s tour and open some shows; I think that would be the best thing for me right now.
I’m hoping it all comes back soon. I’ve got my two shots and I’m ready to go.
What else would you like people to know about Raise A Banner?
(Long pause) I think I would like people to know, as the person who wrote the record, that I really put everything I had into these tunes. I’m really proud of the record we made, and I hope that people will just give it a chance. I think that’s all I can really add.
I think you’re about to be ridin’ a rocket ship. This thing is top-flight.
Well, thanks, Kevin. And you know what? I keep telling people this, too: The silver lining of having this record take so long to get out is that I’m ready to go back in the studio any time. I don’t think it will be five years before we put another album out.
No, it surely won’t. Don’t bet against this guy.
Meantime, buy this thing at at Apple Music, Amazon or wherever you purchase fine music.
*Integrity compels me to admit that I cannot claim credit for the clever opening line of this piece. I found it on a tee shirt in Zach’s store, where you can also buy the album on vinyl, or download it for a mere ten bucks.
Apr 15, 2021
Mar 19, 2021
By Kevin Broughton
Southern rock has always carried a strong blue-collar ethos. Rob Leines comes by it honest.
Blood, Sweat and Beers, the Georgia native’s sophomore album, is a brassy, ballsy celebration of the roll-up-your-sleeves work ethic that's steered his entire working life. Ironically, it comes as life threw him a curveball on the cusp of a career change. Following his 2018 album, Bad Seed, Leines (pronounced like the blanket-toting kid in Peanuts) made the decision to transition from welder to full-time musician. “I miss the smell in the air and the holes in my shirt/Working for dimes but my heart is full,” he sings in “Good Time.” A pandemic intervened, and live music went away.
Leines adapted, as befitting a life on an unlikely path to musical stardom.
For years, he's described his sound as "if Skynyrd and Cash had a baby," although Blood Sweat and Beers explores the wider orbit of country-rock, too. The Skynyrd influence is palpable. “Obviously they’re a big inspiration, but there are a lot of others who’ve influenced my direction,” Leines says. “I never really wanted to be put in one vein. But the Southern elements in my background – combined with living in L.A. the past eight years – that actually drew me closer to the region where I’m from.”
His path to Southern California was a roundabout one. A military brat, Leines lived all over the country before returning to his native Georgia to graduate high school in 2008. He spent five years as a whitewater rafting guide, then transitioned to a welder/fabricator’s life. The South was never far below the surface, and his time in L.A. pulled it forth musically. “I’m more in tune with it than if I’d lived in the South all along. It’s like I’m painting a picture of what I miss, or maybe explaining to people – sonically -- who may not understand what I’m talking about,” he says.
Blood Sweat and Beers is country music with a blue-collar rock & roll pulse — a sound that blurs the lines between genres, one amped-up anthem at a time, and belongs among the ranks of recent offerings from Whiskey Myers, The Vandoliers and Tyler Childers.
"Patty Lynn" is a murder ballad fit for campfires and front-porch pickin' parties, "Hold On" is an acoustic love song, and "Good Time" spotlights Leines at his funkiest, trading the amplified twang of Bad Seed for something soulful and greasy. At the center of Blood Sweat and Beers, though, are songs that rip, riff, and roar, from "Bailing Hay" — a four-on-the-floor rabble-rouser that's equal parts ZZ Top and Waylon Jennings — to "Southern Breeze," an autobiographical anthem that salutes Leines' homeland.
After running through this album a couple of times, the listener is struck by how short a time he’s been doing this. “I’ve done a lot of different things. I started playing guitar when I was about 15, but didn’t do too much with it; I had a metal band for a while in high school, but nothing serious,” Leines says. ‘Then I was a whitewater raft guide for five years and got really into kayaking. And then of course, I got into welding. But I had never written songs. So, I started going to open mic nights. I had never played in front of people before, so I just kept doing it; it made me feel vulnerable, and I wanted to get over that fear. And it just kind of turned into what it is now.”
Yes, he played his first open mic in 2015. Something else remarkable when scanning the liner notes: there are no other guitarists credited. It’s the front man doing all that shredding. He and his touring band got creative during Blood, Sweat and Beers’ recording.
“We did everything together as a trio, playing in The Big Room, a place in L.A. And we kept the bass and drums and re-tracked the guitars – mainly so I could get the tone I wanted,” he says. “We actually stuck my amp in a closet. That’s where the fun really started for me: getting on the other side of the glass and having that new perspective. I produced the record along with the engineer, and I was going for a really honest representation of what we sound like when we play live.”
On a record full of gems, “Curse The Sun” is a favorite that evokes Childers’ “White House Road” with it is relentlessness. “For this album I just decided that I was gonna – excuse my language – do whatever the f*ck I want and make use of my rock ‘n’ roll background,” Leines says. “That song combines space and story, and I’m really big on riffs. It’s another song just written in the moment, with a long guitar instrumental. I love the heaviness of it; hard rock with a little twang.”
It’s emblematic of the entire album, one that was made on an improvised schedule. “I would say five or so of these songs were pretty much written by the time we went to record, but the recording was a continual process,” Leines says. “We had such a heavy touring schedule that we had to grab studio time when we could. So other than those five, the others were just sporadically written on the road. And you can definitely tell.”
More time on the road was a big part of the plan until, again, Covid-19 intervened. Leines and his band had played around 230 dates a year in 2019. Unlike most musicians, he had a fallback. Befitting his Southern roots, he sees the blessing.
“I worked for a great company and had a great career in my mid-20s, and I don’t think I appreciated it. And I quit this job making good money to play music for nothing. (Laughs) And they called me and said, ‘Looks like you’re doing great, but you’re not really doing anything right now. Want to come back part time?’” Leines remembers. “And I said, ‘Hell yeah,’ and hopped on a plane. Same road, same hotels, and it feels great. I’m very fortunate.”
He adds: “And then we have a tour starting in May, so it all works out.”
Till then, grab a copy of Blood, Sweat and Beers wherever you find quality music. And if you have other questions, just ask the man himself:
Jan 1, 2021
What an awful year for America, and yet.
It was a wonderful year for independent music, and yet.
The year was spoiled by politics at the end. I speak, of course, of the phony hoax election shenanigans at this fake news satire blog site: Sturgill Simpson – who was totally honest about his FOUR ALBUM pledge until he wasn’t – hired a bunch of bluegrass ringers and re-released a covers album. Should his bogus record be up for current awards? No.
The election was rigged. I know this because my side didn’t win. I’d go on, but Trailer is chanting “Lock him up!” in the background. I know better than to take on fascism.
Anywho, this is the best year of music in the five years I’ve been privileged to comment for FTM. And I do mean privileged. This year in particular, I’ve interviewed some wonderful artists who made the best of an awful year. It’s been a great year for music in spite of the virus, and the vaccine’s gonna make 2021 even better. On to the list.
Caudle went to the Cash Cabin to record his follow-up to Crushed Coins. The contrast is evident; the quality, enhanced.
14. Ward Davis, Black Cats and Crows
Davis played the Nashville game for a while, and now emerges as an independent tour-de-force.
An impressive initial wide-release effort. I’m looking forward to more of these haunting vocals to go with the poignant songwriting.
Warm, ethereal vocals and a mid-90s power-pop ethos. These guys make great records. I’m kinda waiting for a full Collective Soul retro thing to make me fall in love.
11. Ray Wylie Hubbard, Co-Starring
We should all celebrate the improbable signing by Big Machine of one of our godfathers. He celebrated with a star-studded triumph. Good for him. About time he got paid.
10. Skylar Gregg, Roses
Saucy blue-eyed soul from an authentic Tennessee diva. This album was a decade in the making; my money’s on another high-caliber offering inside the next two years.
9. Western Centuries, Call The Captain
Country music’s bi-coastal supergroup went to Nashville for their third album and emerged with yet another keeper. It’s an eclectic collection of often topical songs, done with nuance and perfect three-part harmonies. All they do is make great records.
Oh, and Dr. Jim Miller is the Official Lepidopterist of FTM.
8. Waylon Payne, Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me
When Texas Jonny Tyler told me, “That new Waylon Payne album is pretty good,” I thought, “’Waylon Payne?’ That sounds like a great pro wrestling name.” On reflection, (1) this album is damn fine, with sharp lyrics and a honky-tonk sensibility; and (2) the name of the album sounds like a stable of wrestling villains.
7. Hellbound Glory, Pure Scum
Sometimes I get the feeling we’re all part of a simulation, and Leroy Virgil is the only real human player in the game. Or he might just be Andy Kaufman-ing all of us. But under the guidance of Shooter Jennings, Virgil’s vocals are allowed to fully shine. Neon Leon, you’re my freaking hero. Even though you’re always drivin’ with the AC on.
6. Chris Stapleton, Starting Over
I look on Stapleton as the Miles Davis of country music. Seems like he can show up in a studio and just churn out high grade stuff. (Sturgill is a lot like that. But Sturgill didn’t release any new material this year. Did I mention that there was a RIGGED ELECTION that allowed for cover albums this year? Oh. )
This record dropped in December and re-ordered my top 10. Stapleton’s a beast.
5. Zephaniah Ohora, Listening to The Music
It was a high bar to cross, but Ohora’s sophomore effort exceeds 2017’s lofty This Highway. On Listening to The Music, Zeph channels Merle Haggard, both vocally and spiritually. I’m not sure what was more 2020 about the song “All American Singer: (a) that it’s genuinely courageous in woke America to say “not everything has to be about politics;” or (b) that some pussy at No Depression put Zeph on blast for NOT being political enough, smearing Merle Haggard in the process.
And by the way…by “some pussy at No Depression,” I mean the whole outfit, run by the hyper-political Grant Alden and Peter Blackstock, or whichever woke pansies are in charge of that shit site now. Zeph sang a song about avoiding politics. Shame on you for shaming an artist for not being woke enough for your standards. You guys suck, and are no fun.
4. The Wilder Blue, Hill Country
A late add to my list, but wow. There’s a lot of purity here in these harmonies and spot-on acoustic guitar licks. A half-dozen of these songs should be on mainstream radio right now, but what can you do?
3. Sam Morrow, Gettin’ By On Gettin’ Down
On making a record in such an insane year, Sam Morrow wanted his new album “to be a refuge from” a constant deluge of information and drama. “I just wanted to make a fun record.” Channeling Little Feat and Lowell George like no one has since the great one’s passing, Morrow does just that. Swampy, bluesy and with a tough swagger, it’s a heaping helping of American rock ‘n’ roll.
The boy kicks ass:
2. Jesse Daniel, Rollin’ On
America needed many things in 2020. At or near the top of that list is The Bakersfield Sound, and Jesse Daniel delivered both a faithful send-up and a high standard for others to meet going forward. Rollin’ On exudes hope, as you’d expect from an artist who’s emerged on the redemptive side of addiction. The best pure country album of the year.
His was the last real show I saw B.C. (Before Corona), and I remember how excited I was about Daniel’s future. At the turn of a bad year, I’ll emulate his optimism: 2021 is gonna be a great year for this troubadour.
1. Tennessee Jet, The Country
A cinematic masterpiece from a Renaissance man, Tennessee Jet draws on the likes of Sergio Leone and William Faulkner to craft his characters. This is literary songwriting combined with punchy production and execution. The crown jewel on an album of gems? A grungy, scary, 3 ½-minute movie soundtrack about the creepy death of Johnny Horton. And of all the covers of “Pancho and Lefty,” -- I’ll plant a flag right now – none equals the four-headed monster version here by TJ, Jinx, Elizabeth Cook and Paul Cauthen.
But seriously, this “Johnny” tune…