On Episode 45, we catch up with Lubbock native Ross Cooper. Cooper’s new album, I Rode The Wild Horses, is officially coming out March 09. Right now though, it’s available for pre-order on iTunes. We caught up with Cooper around New Year’s to discuss how his move up to Nashville has impacted his writing style and process, the making of I Rode The Wild Horses, and why he decided to make an album about that’s loosely based around the life the road-weary lonesome rodeo cowboy.
Pre-order I Rode The Wild Horses at the link below.
Editor’s Note: Jeff Dennis is a singer-songwriter in Lubbock, Texas. As one of my good friends, we typically talk about music on a daily basis. While it’s commonly either through text message or on Monday Nights at The Blue Light, we’ve decided to make the exchanges of ideas and commentary into a monthly piece. Follow Dennis on Twitter here. Get an insight on what Dennis is listening to here on his curated Spotify Playlist, Rust & Reverb, here.
So after everyone published their Best of 2017 lists, I was pretty dumbfounded when I realized essentially no one mentioned Land of Doubt by Sam Baker. Now, I wasn’t expecting to find it on Rolling Stone or something. But thought it’d have enough Texas songwriter street cred to be championed by NPR, Texas Monthly or something. But alas, not one mention. Anywhere.
What gets me is that I had it as my second favorite record of the year (behind Turnpike’s A Long Way From Your Heart) and I don’t think I’ve lost my sense of what’s great just yet—though it could just be that. I don’t think I gauged Land of Doubt wrong. I think it’s an incredible album that features some of Baker’s best work. “Same Kind of Blue,” “The Feast Of Saint Valentine,” and “Moses In The Reeds” are great examples of powerful storytelling.
His songs remind me of Larry McMurtry at times. Others, they’re like the good Terrence Malick movies (think The Thin Red Line, The Tree of Life, Badlands). So many of his stories, they’re so deeply rooted in Texas life, you can smell the small towns these characters inhabit. That wry, slow Texan drawl delivery. The language he uses, it’s highly educated and affluent, but it’s never as if he’s never talking down to anyone.
I think maybe a part of why he’s more well known is because just how “uncoverable” his catalog is. Most of the time when we think of a great singer-songwriter, a part of that comes from the fact that someone else took one of their songs and turned it into a hit of some sort. Willie & Merle did Townes’ “Pancho & Lefty.” Rodney Crowell did Guy’s “Heartbroke.” Waylon covered Billy Joe Shaver. You get the point.
But Sam Baker really doesn’t have a song that fits a narrative like that. They’re all so damn distinct and precisely Sam Baker. There’s very little that feels like it could be taken by someone else and made into something of more. I guess it could be done, but how much is the needle going to move if Randy Rogers or Robert Earl Keen or whoever covered “Mennonite,” “Odessa,” “Cotton,” “Angels,” or “Panhandle Winter?” Probably not much.
Anyways, I wish more folks understood the beauty of Sam Baker’s work.
Jeff Dennis: Sam Baker is an artist who has really only been on my radar for a few years, and as someone who has followed music publications pretty closely the past 10 years, I have barely noticed him mentioned. Part of it may be the unconventional nature of his story, and the fact that he didn’t start releasing music until later in life. When you put your first record out at 50 and therefore didn’t come up in the open-mic and bar scene covering “Folsom Prison Blues,” I guess it limits your fanbase. It’s not surprising that Baker spends a lot of time touring Europe, where they seem to have a significant interest in American storytellers in that vein.
Beyond that, you’re right that Baker just isn’t one of those artists that are very coverable. He does interludes and side pieces throughout his work in ways that most people wouldn’t bother to reproduce. His music tends to be slow or mid-tempo, and the variation is really subtle at times. He has a vocal cadence that is very much his own, and one that not many people would attempt (especially not with any success). Part of the music world, I suppose, dictates that there will always be figures like Sam Baker on the margins. Doing their own thing and getting just enough support to keep doing it. “Same Kind of Blue” is a great place to start though.
Terry Allen has long inhabited a space in this realm. Widely respected, yet never really a household name. If you take away “Amarillo Highway,” it gets a lot harder to find a song that the average person has heard. It sounds crazy to say in our world, where we text about Terry Allen at least a couple of times a month, but your average person in Lubbock honestly couldn’t name many songs or albums beyond “What’s that one Joe Ely does?” Allen is also vastly under-covered in terms of his catalog, but again partly because he creates art within his music that just isn’t always easy to reproduce. He has songs within songs, a lot of spoken material, songs with odd time signature, and similar to Sam Baker, a fair amount of female backing vocals that many bands don’t have the personnel to attempt. Just the sheer fact that his material is mostly written and performed on piano makes it hard for the average band to do his songs justice. Of course, there are great covers out there, “Border Palace” by Ian Moore is one of my favorites. Not available on Spotify, of course. Some of my favorite lesser-known songwriters don’t have their full catalog (or sometimes any of their catalog) available for streaming. Of course, I don’t buy many CDs, but when I do, I put it in my truck and listen over and over in a way that I can better digest what’s going on. Streaming, in general, has really taken the personal investment out of music. That is, “I bought this record and I don’t really like it yet, but dammit I’m going to keep trying.” Instead, if I don’t like something, I can pick from the other 30 million albums on Spotify.
I think the idea here is we want to cover songwriters who have never gotten the credit they deserve. Of course, lots of songwriters are undervalued, but I don’t think our point is trying to convince someone new about Guy or Townes, or even about Hayes Carll. Rather, who are the songwriters that keep telling great stories and innovating, but never really get the credit they deserve?
Both Sam and Terry, they have these distinct western drawls. Sam specifically has an interesting cadence. I’ve mentioned it before, but it honestly kind of reminds me of hip-hop. Obviously, songs use repetition, but he uses it to drive home a point. It’s not just for a chorus. Like on the song “Odessa,” he uses “dark crude” multiple times in consecutive lines. The same thing with “There’s a card says wish you well” on “The Feast of St. Valentine.” Sometimes words have a rhythmic beat to them too.
One interesting thing about Terry’s catalog is how songs feel like they’re distinctly on one end of the spectrum. One side is easily digestible. It’s “Amarillo Highway,” “Room to Room,” “The Heart of California,” etc. The other, it’s challenging for the casual music fan. It’s Pedal Steal—a 30-minute lone track record. It’s the bulk of Amerasia, which was highly influenced by Southeast Asia. It’s how people get uncomfortable while listening to “Salivation,” “Blue Asian Reds,” or “The Gift.”
Which, I don’t think Terry or Sam or anyone that we end up mentioning minds. They’re fine exchanging their ideas within the margins. That’s where their fans congregate anyways. In many ways, they’re not bound to a structure or expectations there. You aren’t having to compromise.
You’re definitely right though. I’ll forever be one of those who thinks Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, etc are underrated. But hell, how many times can bash people over the head with their music hoping they’ll see the light? It’s worth mentioning that the “common music fan” probably has heard more Jason Aldean songs than Guy or Townes. In that respect, they’re vastly under-appreciated. But as far as how much they’re appreciated, they’re two of the most cherished writers this world’s ever seen. Which means Allen, Baker, and whoever else mentioned is just that much more underrated, under-appreciated, unknown, and overlooked.
We could probably do one of these just on Lubbock/Panhandle folks. Cary Swinney, Wade Parks, David Halley, Kimmie Rhodes, D.G. Flewellyn, Kenneth O’Meara, Ryan Culwell, Charlie Shafter, etc are all great candidates, but I’ll throw out Butch Hancock for this simply because his career’s been really long and has a bunch of hard to find records.
Go to any Joe Ely, Flatlanders, Gilmore, etc record and you’re going to find at least one tune by Butch. I’d argue that more so than Terry and Sam, Butch’s songs are relatively known. If you’re familiar with that era of Texas songwriter, you’ve probably at least heard “If You Were A Bluebird,” “West Texas Waltz,” “Fools Fall In Love,” or “She Never Spoke Spanish to Me.” You’ll just not be familiar with Butch’s versions. You’re not going to find any of his records on iTunes or Spotify. Goes back to the search. You’ll have to spend $10 more than you wanted for a used copy of Firewater or Diamond Hill on Amazon.
The one thing that’s a slight knock on Butch’s records is that they haven’t aged as well as Allen, Ely, etc. They can feel dated by their production. And I guess because he could never make them as exciting as Joe could. Just hear the difference between “Fools Fall in Love.”
One that doesn’t is his first though. And that’s simply because it’s kind of meant to remind you of Woody Guthrie. West Texas Waltzes & Dust-Blown Tractor Tunes conjures up dust bowl ballads right from the jump. It’s just vocals, acoustic guitar, and a few harmonica moments. You feel that rhythm of the tractor, which is apparently where most of the record was written—driving a tractor while thinking of lyrics.
JD: You’re right that Butch Hancock’s work is not only hard to find, but the sound is also a bit inaccessible as well. He’s a guy who really found his perfect configuration in life by writing the songs that Joe Ely and Jimmie Dale Gilmore could interpret for the masses. I wish the written history of Hancock’s career was a bit better, although I know Chris Oglesby has cataloged some of it. Mostly the releases on his own label, and running his Lubbock or Leave It record store in Austin. He’s a fascinating guy who has spent a lot of his career off the grid in Terlingua, but whose fingerprints are all over Texas music the past 40 years.
And Panhandle guys, perhaps some of the ones we look at as standard bearers are almost entirely obscure outside (and inside) the region. Cary Swinney has three albums, but none within the past 10 years. His lyrical style is one that is very much it’s own. Basically, take the theme of Terry Allen’s “Gimme a Ride to Heaven” and weave in a childhood in O’Donnell, TX, and a general mistrust of organized religion, and you’ve got a fairly good picture of his catalog. Cary is an incredibly nice man, but his material on religion makes the average Lubbockite a bit uncomfortable (I think that is his goal). That said, if you haven’t heard him play “Dream Song” live with Richard Bowden on fiddle, then it’s worth withholding judgment until then. His entire Big Shots album is pretty amazing, and although I really do want him to put out more material, he seems the least concerned about doing so of anyone. I have stated before that he is the last great Lubbock songwriter. And for now, I think that’s arguably still true.
O’Meara and Culwell, who you mention, each put out really great albums. They are still young in their careers, so lots of potential still. I hate to overanalyze either of them, being that they are one or two albums in. What is really impressive is how good of a job each did (on God of Wind & Flatlands, respectively) in capturing some very insightful stories and themes from the Panhandle.
Sticking with Texas guys who are underappreciated, another whose work has stayed consistent, but perhaps under the radar, is Greg Vanderpool. Although he’s done most of his work out of Austin, it’s worth noting that he is a Texas Tech alumnus whose time in Lubbock inspired at least some of his early work with the band, Milton Mapes. (Notably the song, “Lubbock”–“There was a circle, it would take you all around the city”). Greg’s work includes three albums as Milton Mapes, then four more albums as Monahans, and now a new solo album as Greg Vanderpool. His sonic signature runs through all of those records, as well as the percussion of Roberto Sanchez. Milton Mapes picked up some pretty good recognition over the early 2000s, so it seems to have been an artistic decision to change the band name and become Monahans to reflect the new sound. I think the spirit behind that type of choice – following the songs instead of the business – really highlights the defining characteristic of everyone we’ve talked about so far.
Cary and Alan Crossland have stated numerous times that there’s plenty of stockpiled material for a few Swinney records. But here we sit without another record. I’m not sure Cary’s interested in releasing anything for public consumption anymore. I think he’s perfectly content with playing small shows for a die-hard fanbase that won’t get offended. Still, his “Johnson Farm Grass” remains as a hidden gem anthem. It’s accessible, singalongable, and lovable. In an alternative universe, it’s as big a hit as “Boys From Oklahoma,” “Merry Christmas From the Family,” and “Pissin’ In The Wind.”
You’re the one who introduced me to Milton Mapes. I’d been loosely familiar with Monahans—mainly intrigued and bewildered on why a band would want share a name with the worn-out West Texas town (Similarly, I wondered why another newer band would want to share a name with yet another worn-out West Texas Tall City). We always talk about how certain bands sound like areas. I think Vanderpool’s projects really capture a slice of West Texas that’s been fairly unexplored. There’s obviously an R.E.M.-esque filter that lends itself to exploring the dark tones. But they often feel like a post-industrial West Texas whereas so many of our favorite West Texas acts feel pre-industrial. What I mean by that is there’s a more earthy richness to folks like Amanda Shires, Flatlanders, Maines Brothers, etc. Vanderpool’s West Texas canvas feels more Jonny Greenwood’s There Will Be Blood soundtrack, Explosions in the Sky’s Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Die, Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Live Forever, or even Daniel Markham/One Wolf material. There’s a sense of oil in the air. Exhaust from Interstate 10. Deep-fried truck stop food. Grime. Hours in the car getting just to get somewhere close to home. Everything in the name of Progress. I’m rambling now, but they did just a better job of incorporating some of that aspect into how they sounded. Again, I think it goes back to growing up in an R.E.M. era though.
Gurf Morlix is probably more known as a producer than anything else. Quick bio for those unfamiliar though, used to play with Blaze Foley and then Lucinda Williams. Produced her self-titled record and Sweet Old World. Produced records by Slaid Cleaves, Robert Earl Keen, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Mary Gauthier, Tom Russell, etc. He’s had a string of records with stellar sound and good songwriting. In my opinion, his Last Exit to Happyland is his best. It’s all kind of in that bluesy murder ballad vein. Even while it’s a rather dark sounding record, everything doesn’t settle down into the lower third. It still pops sonically. When Patty Griffin joins him on “She’s A River,” nothing is better. It’s like a religious experience and the apocalypse rolled into one composition. He doesn’t have the range of an incredible vocalist, but he’s got these little tricks. His inflictions certain words cut like shards of glass from a busted mirror. So much of the sound can be contributed to Rick Richards on drums. He just sets the foundation for everything. The B-3 organ, slide guitar, Gurf’s gritty vocals, the greasy electric, etc. Grit and groove. Tone and taste.
Also, one of my favorite lines is from “Crossroads.” The final line is “I know some people who sold their souls to the devil and they don’t sound nothing like Robert Johnson.”
JD: Speaking of Alan Crossland, who owns Route 1 Acuff Studios–deep deep into Lubbock music lore here–he was involved with the creation of an outstanding record by an underappreciated non-Texas songwriter (cheating here because of the connection). Richard Buckner was a fairly notable artist of the No Depression canon of 90s alt-country, and it so happens he recorded his first record – Bloomed – at Crossland’s studio, with Lloyd Maines producing. I shouldn’t fall too far off topic here, but Maines has quite the role in alt-country history, having played steel on Uncle Tupelo’s Anodyne and Wilco’s A.M.
You’ve caught me already on my underappreciated songwriter literacy, as I don’t know Morlix’ catalog at all. I know I’ve heard his work, but rather than be the guy at the bar who plays the “oh yeah, sure, I know his work” game, I really cannot speak to him. One artist I feel is really relevant to addingto the Vanderpool discussion is Will Johnson, perhaps one of the most prolific artists in Texas that is not a household name. Johnson’s musical tree has incredibly broad roots. Super deep dive here. One of his very first bands was Funland, who put out a split EP with Old 97s wayyyy back in the early ’90s. Funland didn’t last long beyond that, but Johnson soon transitioned over to creating the band Centro-matic, who put out 11 albums before calling it quits a few years ago. In the midst of that, he basically morphed Centro-matic into a side project called South San Gabriel, who put out four records themselves. AND he drummed for Monsters of Folk, collaborated on Woody Guthrie tunes with the supergroup New Multitudes, and has put out six solo records as well. I can barely keep up. To tie in a small element of currency to this discussion, he has a January 2018 release for yet another new project, this time with Justin Peter Kinkel Schuster of Water Liars. The new project is called Marie/Lepantoand adds to the list that none of us will ever be able to remember. His Wikipedia page has done a pretty good job, but I’m sure they’ve missed something.
And I’m not taking thebait on Midland because we’re not talking about over-appreciated songwriters. But speaking of the city of Midland, Explosions in the Sky’s record The Earth is Not a Cold Dead Place is one of the best records by any west Texas artist (and probably the best with no words). EITS are mostly from Midland, although they have long been based in Austin, but the West Texas in their sound is unmistakable.
Ha! I figured we were due for a Midland jab somewhere. Just felt natural.
Anyways. It’s been a week since you sent that reply. I was going to get back to you that next morning, but of course, fell victim to this year’s flu bug. Right before that though, we were talking about two bands, who I figured I’d be mentioning next: Eleven Hundred Springs and Rodney Parker & 50 Peso Reward.
I’m going to lump them together despite not sounding the same just to save space. And because, despite saying that, they do share some similar traits. Both DFW products. Both came up during the rise “Texas Country” but were always considered out on the fringes, which they were more than happy being there. Unlike Baker, Buckner, Morlix and Monahans, it does feel like Rodney Parker and Matt Hillyer’s Eleven Springs at least at a moment in the sun to an extent. Some buzz off some records, a tiny bit of radio play, some really good supporting gigs, and the approval of their peers. Great bands and great songwriters really dig both bands.
I think Hillyer and Parker are both clever songwriters. They both have a specific storytelling voice. You’ll obviously see growth as songwriters going through their albums, but you’ll also see a shared language between them all. For the sake of argument, listen to Parker’s “200 Acres” from Blow the Soot Out and “Night in My Hand” off Bomber Heights. You hear how Parker’s vocabulary and speech have consistently remained in the same style. What I’m ultimately am trying to say is that Parker is a strong writer with very strong narrator style. The same can be said for Hillyer. His tunes all have a tempo to them that feels natural. It’s a natural speaking rhythm.
What’s perplexing is why neither bands really flourished in a post-Turnpike Troubadours breakout world. We’ve talked endlessly at how Turnpike has been able to capture a large fanbase while maintaining their integrity as artists and storytellers (Hell, in many ways, they’ve doubled-down on sticking to their roots and gotten even larger). And while Eleven Hundred Springs and RP50PR’s choruses aren’t as memorable as Turnpike’s, they’re still within arm’s length. And I’m not saying either should be as big as Turnpike, but hell, there should be some crossover between the three fanbases that’d raise the notoriety of Parker and Hillyer.
Still, I’ll forever think Parker describes the fracturing of a relationship with the best of them. It’s the pre/post apologies that feel real. At times, they’re genuine and heartfelt. Other moments, he really sells them as being mailed in. Folks really don’t explore the pre-breakup makeup where both parties are just kicking the can and putting off the inevitable. In some ways, those are even more heartbreaking instances.
JD: I’ve been a big Matt Hillyer fan for a long time. The Eleven Hundred Springs acoustic record A Straighter Line was a really strong effort – “Good Times, Hard Livin'” is such a perfect song about the ups and downs of touring bands, and the sound on that album was the product of a lineup that didn’t last long, but damn, it was a good one. Dallas oddly doesn’t produce a ton of artists in the Texas scene, especially when you consider its size relative to Lubbock, Stephenville, San Marcos, even Fort Worth, but Matt has been playing Dallas for 25 years and is basically an encyclopedia of that scene. Plenty of interesting connections in there, including the fact that Toadies’ drummer Mark Reznicek toured with EHS for quite a few years.
Speaking of drummers and successful bands, worth noting that Rodney Parker’s drummer on The Lonesome Dirge, his incredibly well produced second album, included drummer Gabe Pearson, now the drummer for Turnpike Troubadours. I’ve been a fan of Rodney since the first time I heard “Just the Sounds,” and I think his output has stayed high quality throughout. Oddly enough, I think if Turnpike were around 20 years ago, we’d be talking about them as underappreciated, but as you note, they’ve broken the mold in an impressive way. I don’t say this to take away from Turnpike’s own role in their success, but I think bands like Rodney Parker & 50 Peso Reward deserve some credit for opening up the scene beyond the fairly narrow “Texas Country” sound of the late 90s/early 00s. Although always more a rock band, Old 97s were never embraced in that Texas scene, because they didn’t talk enough about tacos and beer. I know Turnpike cites Old 97s as a big influence, and I am still impressed with Turnpike’s success when you see how much bigger they have become in popularity compared to the 97s. I’m sure you’re expecting this to be my segway into how Old 97s are underappreciated because they aren’t considered the greatest band in the world by everyone in the world. I do think Rhett Miller is one of the smartest and most prolific writers of the past 30 years, in any scene, but I won’t get on my Old 97s soapbox at this particular point.
Jamie Lin Wilson is another name that comes up when I think of underappreciated songwriters. That said, I think she’s appreciated by the people who matter, namely by lots of big names in the Texas/Red Dirt scene. Perhaps also her “under the radar” status comes from having only one solo album, with more output via The Trishas and her former band The Gougers. More people in the scene should take their half-baked songs to Jamie to fix before they record them. I often think she’s found a great balance of being one of the more respected writers in the scene without having to spend five days on the road every week. Thank goodness we’re finally going to get a new solo record from her soon.
Right. Jamie’s certainly cherished by those who matter. Of the folks mentioned, she certainly has the most potential to sound the most out of place in this article in five years. She could easily be the next Lori McKenna or Jason Isbell. But you’re right, she could teach a class on fixing songs. I think there’s a relentlessness to her work–which is kind of juxtaposed to her voice as a writer. It can sometimes be difficult to balance intimacy and vulnerability while maintaining a strong narrator voice.
Now, most folks either think we run too long on these or think we they were invited in on our e-mail trade. Let’s wrap this up with five records suggestions for the under-appreciated. I’ll start it off.
01) Desgraciados by Madisons
Desgraciados isn’t their best record, but it’s their first. The songwriting is raw and unfiltered. Their sound isn’t as focused. But it’s a fucking fun, sincere, and at times, heartbreaking album. I’ve said it a few times, but Dominic Solis captures a slice of West Texas that’s rarely explored. There’s really a difference between attempting to describe being poor and actually growing up poor. Solis’ lyricism is rarely, if ever, just an attempt at describing the poverty line in West Texas. “Stranded At the Bus Station” is probably too coarse and too real to ever be cleaned up for radio, but damn it’s as catchy as anything The Lumineers or Mumford attempted. Their other three records, they gradually get better without losing that original charm.
02) Love Is Overtaking Me by Arthur Russell
Love Is Overtaking Me is really the outlier within Russell’s career. His impact was primarily as a cellist and composer. So much of his catalog is found within the worlds of minimalist disco, avant-garde, club & dance. But I’d challenge even the most staunch “singer-songwriter” fan to not find the beauty of Love Is Overtaking Me. No clue on whether Russell would have eventually developed these into something else. But they’re about perfect as they are in their current state. “Maybe She,” “Close My Eyes,” “I Couldn’t Say It To Your Face,” etc can probably be appreciated by most. Songs like “Habit of You,” “Planted a Thought,” “Love Comes Back,” etc will probably challenge most since they’re not traditional “country” or “singer-songwriter.” Regardless, it’s one of the most delicate complications of music I’ve ever heard.
03) I’m New Here by Gil Scott-Heron
Scott-Heron’s I’m New Here is as dark a record out there. It’s a tense listening experience. Scott-Heron is one of the grandfather’s of hip-hop (Pop culture would primarily know Scott-Heron as the author of “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”). It’s spoken word poetry. It’s guided by rhythm. But more than anything, I’m New Here is a post-modern blues record. As ragged and worn as Scott-Heron sounds, his deep and dark baritone vocals are his strength. It’s his final record so in many respects, it’s his last unapologetic confession. I still get chills thinking about “Running” in much the same way I do as with Bowie’s “Lazarus.”
04) Old Town Rock N Roll by Adam Carroll
For most, if you’ve heard Carroll, it’s probably Old Town Rock N Roll’s “Oklahoma Gypsy Shuffler.” It’s kind of a singalong. Like most of the real good Texas troubadours, Carroll’s not much of a vocalist, but damn can he write. Lines just jump off the page—or out the speakers or whatever. “Snorting cocaine off a buck knife.” Carroll’s catalog is filled with good tunes and there’s probably not a bad spot to jump in, but for me, Old Town is my suggestion. Lookin’ Out the Screen Door is rich there though too. In any case, “Hi Fi Love,” “Sacred Love,” “Black Flag Blues,” and “Highway Prayer” exemplify Carroll’s ability to carve out intimacy, love, heartache, and a keen a sense of humor all within the confines of a few lines. It’s part Guy Clark, part John Prine, but mainly, it’s what I think of when I think of the prototypical Texas Hill Country troubadour. It ought to be real telling that he’s about the only person we’ve mentioned throughout this whole thing that actually has his own tribute record–Highway Prayer: A Tribute to Adam Carroll.
This last one, I probably changed a hundred times. And of course, it’s not as though this exchange between you and me is going to break them, so I’m probably overthinking this to death–but that’s just kind of what I do.
05) Twilight by Caroline Herring
I first heard this record back when Texas Music called it one of the 50 best Texas records of all time. It fits within that Gillian Welch, Patty Griffin, David Rawlings type of country-folk. Herring is originally from Mississippi so her sound is inherently Southern. I guess you could call some of it Appalachia, but it’s mainly that southern gospel comfort. She doesn’t have the piercing vocals of Griffin or Emmylou Harris, but she’s still able to carry a heavy emotional weight with every line. It’s a wonder she didn’t contribute anything to the O Brother soundtrack. “Devil Made a Mess” is a fine sad ballad country tune. I, of course, was playing this while writing and songs like “Ringside Rodeo” and “Standing in the Water” actually reminds me of Tyler Childers. They both have unique phrasing. Like Felker, they use language that feels familiar without being too stale or worn out and a language that feels distinct to their homeland.
JD: Since we leaned heavily on Texas artists for this exchange, I used this space to connect the dots a lot more broadly beyond the state. My apologies for falling down a few rabbit holes in these descriptions.
1) Bosque Brown – Bosque Brown Plays Mara Lee Miller Tracks – “Fine Lines,” “Still Afraid”
This record never got the attention it deserved. I was fortunate to catch her a time or two at SXSW before I had kids and stopped going to SXSW. This record reminds me a lot of Julien Baker, who has made a pretty big impact nationally with her last two records. I thought for sure that this band/artist was headed for national acclaim, but I guess she never quite got a foothold in the market.
2) Doug Burr – On Promenade Tracks – “Come To My Senses,” “In the Garden”
Another DFW act like Bosque Brown, Doug Burr has been releasing great material since I first heard him with his band the Lonelies around 2001. This record to me was sort of his defining work. He continues to record and perform, and has done some high profile shows over the years, but seems to curate his involvement in the music business fairly carefully. This record is incredibly strong beginning to end, and it was produced by Britton Beisenherz, who, if I connect the dots here, is/was a member of Milton Mapes/Monahans.
Nels Andrews was based in New Mexico at the time of his first release, although he’s since moved a few times and now resides (I think) in California. This record is really a masterful collection of folk songs with a strong vein of New Mexico americana running through them. Nels played Lubbock once about 12 years ago, opening for Magnolia Electric Company, an acclaimed but also very underappreciated band. That band was the main project of Jason Molina, who also collaborated some with Will Johnson that I mention above. Molina sadly passed away a few years ago but left behind an incredible body of work.
4) Alex Battles – Goodbye Almira Tracks – “Empire State,” “The Road,” “Queen of Ogallala”
Perhaps the outlier in my list, New York City-based Alex Battles was recommended to me a few years back. He’s not particularly active on the scene anymore, but he’s done a good bit for country music in NYC, including a yearly Johnny Cash Birthday bash. Compared to his NYC counterpart Zephaniah Ohora, who put out one of the best pure country records of last year, Battles is more on the folk side, but this record is one I continue to come back to.
5) Andrew Bryant – This is the Life Tracks – “Do What You Love,” “Do Your Work”
I already mentioned one-half of Water Liars above, but the “other” half has some great material as well. Andrew Bryant’s most recent release is a couple of years old, and it’s more a rock record than the above, but it’s been one of my favorite indie releases of the past 4-5 years. He’s got another album on the way, although it’s been delayed a time or two. Small consolation that he has one recent single released as part of a digital compiliation.
Episode 44 is with the Panhandle Music band No Dry County. This was originally recorded roughly a month ago in the pool room of The Blue Light with the four-piece NDC. While we typically try and keep interviews to being with one or two individuals, we invited the entire outfit for the conversation that touches on the band’s Lubbock roots, the music of the Texas Panhandle, their upcoming album they recorded with Adam Odor, and guitarist Bristen Phillips’ time in Dallas’ pioneering rock band ODIS. No Dry County is Matt Newson, Trent Langford, Dub Wood, and the aforementioned Phillips.
On Episode 43, we’re joined by BJ Barham of American Aquarium. A few weeks back, we sat in front of the Blue Light stage for this 30-minute conversation about their upcoming album, Things Change, working with songwriter-producer John Fullbright, and AA’s newest lineup change that happened only a few months back. We talk about Oklahoma songwriters and why the state has produced some of the country’s best in the last decade, recording Things Change in Tulsa, and why Barham was hit with a flood of inspiration as a songwriter in the first handful of weeks after the line shift in band members in American Aquarium.
Blake Sager, drummer of the Ft. Worth-based Grady Spencer & The Work, joined us right before the end of the year. Often, the lead vocalist, frontman, or chief lyricist–typically the same person–is the one who most fans hear when it comes to interviews. Often, those are the ones who represent the ideas and thoughts of the band. Speaking with Sager, you’re able to get another perspective and viewpoint from the band. On this episode, Sager and I go into the creative process of GS+TW and how he approaches the material Spencer brings to the band. We also go down the rabbit hole of some of our favorite indie rock bands of the mid-2000s, Kendrick Lamar’s album DAMN., and theorize on why certain sounds of the ’80s have circulated back into pop music.
On episode 41, Mike Harmeier, lead vocalist and chief lyricist behind Austin’s Mike & The Moonpies returns. On this episode, we talk about our favorite George Strait songs, the band’s upcoming album Steak Night at The Prairie Rose (in which they worked with Adam Odor at Yellow Dog Studios), writing the song “Country Music’s Dead” with Odor and John Baumann, Evan Felker of Turnpike Troubadours’ writing process and style, and the band Midland.
Texas singer-songwriter Red Shahan has announced that his solo sophomore album, Culberson County, is officially due out March 30 via Thirty Tigers.
Culberson County clocks in at 12 songs long and further finds Shahan exploring the rural territory of the remote Southwest. Much like on Men & Coyotes, Shahan dives deep with in-depth storytelling that often sheds light on life’s darker subjects. Characters are intense. The sun-soaked setting of dying small towns and land that’s been carved up by oil rigs and western expansion is its own living, breathing antagonist. The raw, gritty textures continue expanding in all directions on the canvas and soundscape.
Watch a live performance of “Culberson County,” which was filmed at Willie Nelson’s Pedernales studio last spring during Luck Reunion.
Culberson County Tracklist
03) 6 Feet
04) Culberson County
05) How They Lie
07) Someone Someday
09) Idle Hands
On Episode 40, Texas singer-songwriters Parker McCollum and Koe Wetzel join me. They were both in town this past weekend so we all met up at The Blue Light on Saturday afternoon and recorded. We discuss their rise as artists within the scene–something that isn’t as overnight as one would think. We talk about their mutual admiration for one another as well as their friendship and how they’re able to maintain it while being out on the road on opposite ends of the state each weekend. We talk about McCollum’s latest release, his sophomore album, Probably Wrong as well as what to expect from Wetzel in the coming year. We round out the conversation about discovering Texas music as teenagers and the impact friends and family have had on the two as songwriters and artists.
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Grant Gilbert is yet another up and coming singer-songwriter out of Lubbock. Gilbert was raised in the small town of Santo, Texas but came out to Lubbock to attend Texas Tech University. Like many of his contemporaries, Gilbert had already been picking and playing before heading off to Lubbock. But it wasn’t until arriving that Gilbert truly began honing his craft as a songwriter and performer. On this episode, we talk with Gilbert about paying his dues in Lubbock, being invited into the 806 Songwriter group, his debut EP, his upcoming full-length album, and the music that has helped shape his style, sound, and writing. At the end, he performs the song “Hub City Shakedown.”
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Episode 038 is with Texas singer-songwriter Zac Wilkerson. The Panhandle native was recently back at The Blue Light the weekend before Thanksgiving. In typical New Slang fashion, we recorded this hour-long conversation right after Wilkerson and company soundchecked that evening. Wilkerson elaborates on his time up in Amarillo, winning The Blue Light Fall Singer-Songwriter Competition, his writing process, and the very personal and touching tribute (“Scar” on Dustbowl Soul) to the late AJ Swope, a fellow Amarillo singer-songwriter who tragically passed away a few years ago. Wilkerson opens up about how long and painful–but also necessary–a journey it was to write the tribute to his friend.
Like Zac Wilkerson on Facebook here. Follow Wilkerson on Twitter here.
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