For Episode 037, I’m joined by a trio of songwriters–Erick Willis, Austin Meade, and Judson Cole. The three were on the final night of a week-long acoustic run. We sat in an empty Tom’s Daiquiri to record the hour-plus conversation that ranges from the pros and cons of vinyl and digital music, the various paths of discovering artists and songwriters, and what new material the three have as solo artists. All three are currently prepping new material for 2018 with Cole having already released an EP titled The First Three which came out this past August. At the end, they each perform new songs.
On Episode 036, we are joined by singer-songwriter Jamie Lin Wilson. On Tuesday afternoon, Wilson and I sat down in an empty Blue Light for a lengthy conversation that touched on the previous night’s Singer-Songwriter Competition (which Wilson had judged), writing songs with Evan Felker of Turnpike Troubadours, her numerous other collaborations over the years, what she looks for in a song and story, among other various songwriting topics. At the end, she performs the newly written song “Lonesome & Sad.”
On Episode 035, our very first podcast guest, Evan Felker of Turnpike Troubadours returns. Their fifth studio album, A Long Way From Your Heart, finds the six-piece Oklahoma outfit hitting their stride as in-depth, honest storytellers and top-tier musicians. They’re pushing their boundaries and gaining new territory on all facets of their craft while still staying true to their early intentions as artists. There’s an earnest, workman-like quality to these songs. You hear their hours of shaping, molding, and forming these soundscapes of sharp, rich tones and textures. As a lyricist, Felker is in a league very few folks achieve. Part idiom and expression appreciator, part cautionary storyteller, and part mythos building architect, Felker is able to take common occurrences, tragedies, and broken hearts and make them into special moments that feel larger than life. Still, they remain personal and as intimate as ever. After speaking about the new album, Felker plays standout “Pay No Rent.”
by: Thomas D. Mooney
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.
Thomas Mooney: Is Colter Wall genuine and/or authentic?
I didn’t know how to really start this off other than to just plunge head-first. The debate on genuine and authenticity of artists is a sprawling subject with no end or beginning.So, I just ask, is Colter Wall genuine and/or authentic? Is Tyler Childers? Aaron Watson? Jason Isbell? Sam Baker? Paul Cauthen? Does it even matter if they are?
I think more than anything else, the sincerity of an artist is what we’re both never wanting to know and desperately trying to learn. It’s essentially the whole “Never meet your heroes” thing because they’ll ultimately disappoint you. You kill the magic if you learn the absolute truth of a song or songwriter. But still, you want to some kind of validation.
Jeff Dennis: I ran a Twitter poll on this a while back (i.e. whether it’s more important for music to be genuine or authentic), and I got a mix of answers, yet many saw no difference between the two and others don’t seem to care. What it brings up is what authenticity in music really means. Do you really have to go to prison to sing about prison? Do you really have to have a hound dog and a Dodge truck to talk about letting the tailgate down for your dog to howl at the moon?
I think authenticity is perhaps a bit overstated. I might argue that we are looking more for artists to be genuine. By that, I mean, even if they didn’t go to prison, that they are making an earnest effort to tell that story honestly. Or do we have to limit storytellers to only tell the stories they have experienced? I see a distinct difference between authentic and genuine, and I’m not sure that most music fans care on the surface, but ultimately those play into our views more than we admit.
So start with Colter Wall. Young Canadian kid, channeling something along the lines of Johnny Cash, with a raw, folk-driven approach. Turns out his dad, Brad Wall, is the Premier (similar to a governor) of Saskatchewan and has been since Colter was 12. That fact doesn’t necessarily make him a “rich kid,” but it has to come with resources and connections. Given that, maybe he’s not authentic in relation to his lyrical content. But he can still be genuinely trying to tell stories and be true to his craft, right?
Townes came from money and Guy’s dad was a lawyer. Does anyone hold that against them? Rarely. But take some famous person who releases an album–Kiefer Sutherland, not only a famous actor, but the son of a famous actor–is there anything he could ever do artistically in music or songwriting that people would really take seriously? Is that unfair or just something we base off past experience?
TM: That’s an interesting parallel and comparison–acting. There’s plenty of similarities between the crafts of songwriting and acting. In essence, you’re trying to tell a story with both. Every year, we praise those who gain or lose 50 pounds for a role and go full method. People went ape-shit when they learned Leo DiCaprio slept in animal carcasses and ate bison in preparation for The Revenant. In part, that’s what finally earned him an Oscar. But still. Ultimately, everyone knows actors are, no matter how hard they try, are pretending.
Songwriters, on the other hand, they can make those lines as blurry as they see fit. Townes came from money. But he also lived in trailer houses, became an alcoholic, and was pretty much an asshole in every sense of the word. We applaud him for writing “Lungs,” “Nothin’,” “Tecumseh Valley,” “Waiting ‘Round to Die” and so on. It was genuine, sincere, and many times, authentic. He put himself in that position for the benefit of writing some dark, depressing, and haunting songs. It was all or nothing. He couldn’t–or maybe wouldn’t–do it any other way. It’s not as simple as how I’m going to frame it, but in many respects, he did that for us, the listener.
He may have thought we all wanted authenticity. He may have thought that’s what made the songs. But like you mentioned, what makes those songs is the sincerity and genuineness. You can fake the rest and it be OK–for the most part.
The largest sentiment among the songwriter community is to “write what you know.” You hear it from everyone. It may be the single idea that everyone from Jack White and Jerry Jeff Walker to Evan Felker and Eric Church. I think what that means is to write with conviction, write with sincerity, write about something that personally moves you. But, how often do you think an artist is full of shit? How often do you think a songwriter is out of his or her depth? How often are you questioning an artist’s motives?
JD: Yeah, Townes put everything into authenticity, and one wonders if the addiction and despair he suffered in that experience should be necessary to write about the depths of despair. He created a mythology, no doubt, but was it worth it for all the people in his life?I think songwriters look to tell a story in a genuine way, but we let marketing overplay the authentic side. Chris Knight is a well-respected writer who I’ve heard many give more credence to for being authentic. “He worked in the coal mines. He’s the real deal.” Yes, that’s true to an extent, but he was a mine inspector with a college degree. The truth is, our country has long depended on storytellers to tell the stories in an accessible way, often when they didn’t experience the event themselves. In my mind, you’ve got to be close enough to understand it but removed enough to have perspective on where it fits in. Guthrie, Dylan, The Boss, Guy, etc. found ways to tell stories of people who wouldn’t have had the words to tell their own story nearly so eloquently.
The other side of authenticity, from my viewpoint, is about who has paid dues. There’s a lot of back and forth about Midland right now. They’re virtual unknowns, one with a modeling background, and seemingly a lot of money behind them. Further, they’ve got songwriting help on their record from some of the biggest names in music (Osborne, McAnally, Akins). In fact, those writers have been cogs in the Bro-Country wheel previously. Midland is playing real country (or their backing band at least), and are riding a wave of the “old” industry model, where the money goes in before you get big. Yet, I sense tons of resentment about their slick look/sound, because they didn’t make their name by paying dues at the Lone Star Bar in Midland. Have any of them been to Midland? I’m not sold myself, but in a world of Bro-Country, it could be a lot worse. But when you consider that their cowriters are also partly responsible for “Body like a Backroad,” suddenly a million red flags go up.
TM: We may have been too quick with calling Koe Wetzel the most polarizing artist in Texas. It can easily be said for Midland. I’ve flip-flopped on them a million times. I think it’s funny. They’re playing a different brand of country that’s not been seen in “Top 40 Country” in a good, long while–but the root of what’s bothering people is people questioning how genuine they truly are. And it’s their own fault. Whichever machine is behind them, they’re pushing the narrative that feels forced and contrived. Folks who are anti-Midland feel like they’re being manipulated into believing that this trio has played every honky-tonk in Texas for years before being discovered–paying their dues.
The frustration with Midland is just how avoidable this could have been. People think the industry is trying to pull a fast one by them. They could have picked any other state than Texas (or those bordering) and could have been in the clear. Every honky-tonk in Arizona and Southern California? Done! In Montana? That’s good! Brooklyn and Queens? Fuck YES! But Texas? No one in Texas who has even remotely been paying attention knows there’s something fishy going on with them. But maybe being from Texas makes them authentic for the other 49 states and that’s actually all that matters.
As you mentioned, their newly announced album has a stable of professional Nashville songwriters all over it. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. I’ve been an apologist of sorts for some of the Nashville writers–this is totally different from Nashville artists–because I think they’re proficient songwriters. They know how to craft a song. I’m 100% sure McAnally, Akins, Osborne, Laird, etc all have back catalogs of amazing songs. They just don’t have the same desire and/or powerful voice to make a transition back into performing like say…Chris Stapleton?
(I know. I’m going off into the woods here with this, but I promise to wrap back around and get on course again.)
And sadly, they probably don’t have the power to change the system at large. If they don’t write the bad songs on the radio, someone else will and they’ll be out a job. It’s a long-winded way of saying, I understand why they have to do it, but it doesn’t mean any of those songs are genuine or sincere–or authentic for that matter.
In saying that, Midland at least sounds better than Sam Hunt or Florida Georgia-Line, right? I’m not listening to Midland the same way I’m listening to Guy Clark. So they do get a little bit of leeway. Albeit, in a roundabout way, it also means they don’t get as much respect, appreciation, or my time.
As a result, the songwriters you admire, you ultimately hold them to a higher, regimented code.
JD: Midland is the polarizing band for people who really care about music because I don’t think your average fan really cares much about them. On the surface, they look to be fairly talented, they have good songs, and they’ve got some style. Once you peel back the layers and watch some live performances, that doesn’t fall apart, but they just don’t play like they put their sound together playing four-hour sets in dive bars. The Hayes Carll model of playing four-hour shows at crappy sports bars on the Bolivar Peninsula, where you work out a whole lot about who you are.
So I’m conflicted. As we’re saying, they may be an Industry creation, but at least the industry is trying to create a country band at least this time. Deep dive here, but I was listening to the Cowboy Crossroads podcast, by our friend, Lubbock songster Andy Hedges, and his interview with songwriter Tom Russell. Russell is best known for writing “Gallo del Cielo,” truly a brilliant song, but he’s also a fairly established performer on the cowboy circuit, which is its own thing mostly outside of the folk or country scenes. Two things stand out in relation to our discussions of Midland. First, Russell talks about how he really cut his teeth playing eight-hour shows in strip clubs and some of the roughest joints on the continent in Vancouver. EIGHT HOURS. There’s plenty of bands who have to stretch into a couple of boring jams just to make their contractual 75 minutes, and they still stop at about 68 minutes or let the frontman do an acoustic song (i.e., the band doesn’t know it).
What was also great though was how straightforward he was about not being a real cowboy. He’s a songwriter who has written some cowboy songs, but the great account from that podcast is about how he was scared of the real cowboys the first time he went to Elko Cowboy Poetry Gathering, because he said “they could smell horse shit a mile away,” and “you’d get the shit beaten out of you” for acting like you know more than you did.
All that to say, there’s a lot more Cinch and Cactus Ropes cowboying going on in country music than there is actual cowboying, but in the end, it’s unrealistic to think country music is going to be done only by authentic country people, but rather, that it needs to be genuine. Merle Haggard was a writer who had plenty of interesting experiences, although he certainly didn’t live them all, yet he just found a way to be genuine and honest about his subjects. We get so caught up in Texas/Tennessee/California country, etc, but the greats are the ones who are trying to tell people’s stories. I completely agree that the cast of writers you mentioned could write just about anything, and sure they are contributing to part of the “problem,” but someone else would just fill their place if they didn’t. Lori McKenna is a writer who is well-respected in Nashville, writes for some of the biggest mainstream artists, yet seemingly has no ill will toward them, despite the fact that her own albums are everything that mainstream country is not. The Bird & The Rifle was one of the best albums of the past five years, but the big radio songs that pay her bills are ultimately what allows her to make that record.
I get irritated at the people overanalyzing Zac Brown’s covers of Jason Isbell. So much of “how dare he” and “Jason’s version is so much better.” Of course I think Isbell’s versions are better, but despite the fact that he is one of the biggest Americana artists today, Brown’s audience far bigger. And so Isbell gets recognition, gets royalties, and gets some exposure to new fans. Why is it bad in any form? People still think Willie wrote “Pancho & Lefty.” What can you do? It’s the life of a songwriter.
TM: The Elko Cowboy Poetry Gathering and circuit is an interesting dive. Those folks are about the story. They’re about a way of life. Fully invested into preserving the ways of the American Frontier–even if they’re a dying breed. You can’t really speak in absolutes, but for the most part, they all are very genuine about their work and craft. A lot of them are also very authentic. They’ve made a life out of living on a horse. It’s dear to their heart. As an effect, there’s a healthy amount of pretentiousness that comes with it. It’s a small group banded together.
(Also, I didn’t know where to fit this in, but I think it’s an interesting point on the Cowboy Poetry circuit. The most famous, most identifiable individual in the lot is Ramblin’ Jack Elliott—who was raised in Brooklyn and the son of a Jewish doctor. Despite this, he’s been rather outspoken about fake folk singers. He’s another TVZesque figure. Worshipped by generations of folk songwriters. When it comes to being an American Storyteller, he’s as iconic as Guthrie, Muddy Waters, Dylan, Springsteen, B.B. King, and Cash. Despite this, he was an irresponsible father and husband. Calling him a deadbeat may be slightly too harsh, but you certainly get that feeling after watching the documentary The Ballad of Ramblin’ Jack, which was done by his daughter, Aiyana Elliott.)
The polar opposite of the Cowboy Poets has to be Cowboy Crooners of Country Music. They have large crowds and folks singing their generic choruses along to the radio. Plenty of Coors Light being crushed. King’s Ropes may be selling more flat-bill caps than actual ropes these days. I feel it’s primarily made up of a crowd who’d chastise Toby Keith’s “Should’ve Been a Cowboy” not seeing the irony.
OK. Let’s get to it. I don’t question, say Cody Johnson or Aaron Watson’s authenticity per se…but I do question some of their genuineness. It’s well documented that CoJo’s been a rodeo guy for a while now. AaWa has a ranch, etc. Their cowboyness is well documented and fully stocked. I’d even say they’ve written some good genuine songs–Watson’s “July in Cheyenne,” “Bluebonnets,” for example. But, it feels as though a lot of their music is based on the idea of being a cowboy rather than being a cowboy–the image. To gain a wide audience, I suppose you have to water it down enough that it becomes universal rather than unique. It’s probably more of a commentary on their average fan than on them. Again, there’s nothing wrong with that, but it feels more engineered than written from a genuine place. But again, maybe it is genuine, just mediocre.
It’s not just Texas artists selling the cowboy way either though. Nashville has Craig Campbell, Jon Pardi, Dustin Lynch, William Michael Morgan, and Justin Moore all trying their best to imitate Cowboy Country. It’s the cheapest form of it though. It’s cliche and trite. Shit like “Head Over Boots,” “Robbin’ Trains,” “Small Town Boy,” and “People Like Me” makes what CoJo, AaWa, Jon Wolfe, etc are doing sound like George Strait singing Corb Lund songs. It’s not authentic. It’s worse. It’s uninspiring and not a genuine take on cowboy culture, frontier life, or hard living in general.
JD: It’s always good to create a visual that no two people will ever agree on for anything. So by all means, let’s figure out where Gillian Welch fits. Not unlike the cowboy poetry scene, there are plenty of genres than weight authenticity more than average. You’ve got skater punk, black metal, straight edge vegan punk, trap music, cowpunk (OK, kidding, that was just a failed name for alt-country). Regardless, those tend to be very niche scenes with little to no chance of breaking mainstream.
CoJo & AaWa have been successful at balancing that idea of having a cowboy lifestyle and selling their sound to people who live that lifestyle, but ALSO, to those who like to think they are cowboys at heart, despite being life insurance salesmen who drive a big truck and live in the suburbs. In the end, you can’t be the “Most Cowboy” cowboy ever AND a successful touring artist with a seven-figure tour income. But they have been very deliberate in finding where to settle between those two and are great at it.
Not sure where he fits in all of this, but this makes me think of Steve Earle. His early country records are worshipped in Texas, as though his last 15 years don’t exist. Yet the reality is that Earle has been an extremely outspoken left winger for a very long time. How did his authenticity/genuineness change from “Copperhead Road” to “John Walker’s Blues?” I think he’s always searched to tell genuine stories, and he’s pretty authentic in that I think he’s been pretty honest about who he is. Amusing that people ignore his authenticity so they can still jam to “Guitar Town.”
Alternatively, modern country stars don’t really take a hard stand on anything other than tailgates and boots and cowboy hats. Or in the much more distinctive Texas scene, on Texas and boots and cowboy hats.
Songwriters may not always be that authentic, but I think the ones I value are battling to tell a genuine and honest story. A little authenticity goes a long way toward telling the story more genuinely, especially when channeling the voice of someone in a different social position. I think trying too much for authenticity, sometimes writers get bogged down in the details and lose the spirit of the song.
Side note: Daniel Fluitt and I once tried to coin our own term for cowpunk/alt country, but “pounktry” never caught on.
TM: Back in the Spring, there was an LA Weekly piece about the 10 Lamest Americana Acts. Gillian Welch was put through the ringer, citing that she was New York City born, Los Angeles raised, etc. What the hell does SHE know about Appalachia blues? She’s singing with a fake southern accent. It felt like the list had been drafted by some scorned lover or some shit. Axes to grind. Grudges to be had. Yada yada yada.
While Welch may not have grown up next to a wood burning stove where her mother played minstrels on a washboard out in the Ozarks. But damn, she can write a damn fine song that cuts straight to the essence of the American spirit and human experience. It’s as earthy as one can get. She may not be authentic, but she certainly searched for that authenticity—or at least some sort of insight.
What makes a good songwriter? That mix of authentic insight, compassion (to actually understand where others are coming from), and being genuine. It’s like 10%, 45%, 45%. As you said, that little dose of authenticity can go a long way. It’s the difference between “Outskirts of Heaven” by Craig Campbell and “Southside of Heaven” by Ryan Bingham. I think most people can see the grit in Bingham’s. They can feel the dirt getting underneath their fingernails and the sun wearing down eyes. But one of these is on Billboard’s Hot Country chart and one wasn’t.
Another slice of this genuine vs authentic talk is the notion that Isbell, John Moreland, etc are lying to us if, A) they write sad songs, but B), aren’t in a depressive state at all times. Both have spoken about this. I think it’s kind of funny. It’s so damn ridiculous to think anyone who writes sad songs is in a depressive state. Even more so to think they’re manipulating us by not being.
Now, you can’t characterize Townes as a being solely a hopeless and sad songwriter (Even if I did earlier; even if he did too) because, well, people will remind you he also wrote “Two Hands,” “If I Needed Someone,” and “To Live Is To Fly,” and if you don’t get that, well, you’re missing a lot of what Townes did as a storyteller (OK. This was to just cover the bases because I know some Townes snobs out there). But regardless, he did have some great those about aloneness and loneliness: “Aloneness is a state of being whereas loneliness is a state of feeling. It’s like the being broke and being poor. I feel aloneness all the time and loneliness, I hardly ever feel.”
The reason Isbell, Moreland, [the writer of your favorite sad song here], etc is able to tap into a serious state of heartache, misery, and sorrow isn’t because they’re living in that state, but because 1) they’ve felt it before and 2) have the gift of communication. They’re well read and educated. They have the wherewithal to make it go from being an indescribable feeling to being a song that cuts you to the bone. The reason it works is that it reminds you of the sorrow in your own life.
JD: Ha! That LA Weekly piece was clickbait central. “Here are all the artists you hold sacred, and I’m here to tell you why they suck!”
Of course, we do get caught up in the charade of authenticity at times, and once someone passes as authentic, they can perhaps get away with a song that is a bit cheaper. Although sometimes I think writers just get bored and have to step out of that skin. Bob Dylan changes artistic directions twice before breakfast. I will not even pretend to love his many artistic stages, nor to understand many of them, but the man has pursued one of the most interesting artistic careers in history. Of the ’60s visionaries, while many died young, others settled into doing the same old thing, and a select few continued to be amazing artists. Neil Young probably fits in that category as well, although I’m no expert on him either.
Guy Clark wrote songs about what he knew for many years, but it has been reported that at some point, he tired of that and preferred having younger writers bring ideas to him that he could help flesh out. The role of the mentor, asking the hard questions about why your character doesn’t use the same voice throughout, and why your coalminer sounds like he has a BA in Russian Literature, that’s what made Guy Clark an amazing cowriter. Perhaps this is why his catalog is so impressive from start to finish. He didn’t stray too far, but he wasn’t afraid to do things differently.
As for cowriting more broadly, it has its downfalls. The Isbells, Morelands, and Barhams of the world just don’t do it much. But they are hyper-protective of their narrative. Cowrites seem to be more popular in Texas country, although cowriting culture really gets out of hand really fast. Everybody brings a bottle of whiskey and leaves with a major headache and no good songs.
Cowriting isn’t bad, and when done right and with a good mentor, you work harder to genuinely tell the story at hand. I know many won’t even agree with how we define authentic (is the person who they claim to be) and genuine (are they being true to the song/the art?), although in the end, the words we use don’t matter as much as the idea behind them.
TM: Right. I think the reason they’re the words to use though is that of that very thing–people disagreeing with their definitions. People have been using authentic and genuine interchangeably for too long. They’re not the same thing. But you’ll still find people describing artists as being genuine and authentic for the same reason when, in reality, it should be one or the other.
Agreeing on terms and concept is essential. If you can’t agree on the principles, how can you debate the actual artists?
This is one of those things that I think need a visual aide. It can be a dangerous idea, but hell, here’s The Authentic VS. Genuine Artist Guide (And don’t mind that it’s just a freehand drawing with a Sharpie).
It’s a lot to take in, but it’s essentially a normal plane you’d see in a math class. Four Quadrants. You have Genuine running left to right with Authentic running top to bottom. The further right, the more genuine. The further left, the less genuine. The higher, the more authentic. The lower, the less authentic.
You essentially have Five Regions. And since we’ve mainly been talking about Cowboy Culture, Frontier, Western, etc songwriting, I’ll just use some of those as examples.
I MAMG (Most Authentic, Most Genuine)
Think (1) Ryan Bingham’s Mescalito, (2) Corb Lund’s Losing Lately Gambler, (3) the Chris LeDoux discography, (4) Woody Guthrie, (5) Michael Martin Murphey’s Geronimo Cadillac, Red Dirt folk singers
II LAMG (Least Authentic, Most Genuine)
Think (6) Colter Wall, (7) Shane Smith & The Saints’ Geronimo, (8) Tom Russell, (9) Gram Parsons and his many disciples, (10) Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Modern Americana singer-songwriters
III LALG (Least Authentic, Least Genuine)
Think (11) Jon Pardi, (12) Midland, (13) Eagles’ Desperado, (14) Craig Campbell, (15) Justin Moore, (16) Kenny Chesney’s “She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy,” The vein of Bro-Country who wear cowboy hats
IV MALG (Most Authentic, Least Genuine)
Think (17) Casey Donahew’s Double Wide Dream, (18) Aaron Watson’s The Underdog, (19) Cody Johnson, (20) Jon Wolfe, (21) Early Blake Shelton, Modern Texas Country Radio
Think (22) Garth Brooks’ Ropin’ The Wind, (23) George Strait, (24) Roy Rogers, (25) Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger, Early ’90s Country
I feel like this needs to be reiterated again and again. This has nothing to do with how “great” or “bad” an artist, album, or song is. This doesn’t take that into perspective. It’s just judging an artist, album, or song on how genuine and authentic it’s being. I guess we could add a third dimension or a color code, but hell, we’ll try to keep things as simple as possible with this first run.
OK. Let the hate mail begin.
by: Thomas D. Mooney
Singer-Songwriter Jerry Serrano is possibly the most versatile musician currently playing around Lubbock these days. Over the years, he’s lent his talents on many albums and live performances from and by fellow Panhandle artists and bands. A lot of times, he’s added necessary accents and weight to projects with either his trumpet or vast array of keys, organ, and piano.
It’s been country, folk, Americana, jazz, rock. But above all, it’s been Panhandle.
The Moon, Serrano’s first effort as a solo artist, has been a long time coming for the Plainview native. After winning The Blue Light Singer-Songwriter Competition a couple of years back, Serrano began hitting his stride as a songwriter. It was a boost of confidence that allowed him to find his voice as a lyricist and artist.
Songs such as “Drive,” “Vintage Wine,” and “In View” all find Serrano weaving first-person narrative confessionals with crisp, smooth melodies. He bounces between alternative country rockers reminiscent of The Wallflowers (“Faded Reverie”), mariachi country crooners (“The Moon”), sad ballad swan songs (“Epitaph”), and hymnal lullabies (“Stories”) throughout. Still, a line traverses throughout that pulls the album tightly together. It’s well-worn and aged together without ever going far off the trail.
The Moon will officially be released Friday, September 08 with an Album Release show at The Blue Light on Thursday, September 07. You can exclusively stream The Moon below until then.
New Slang: This is your first solo album, but you’ve been a part of a lot of albums and projects, especially in these last couple of years. Were there any little things you picked up on in previous recording sessions, live show performances, etc that you thought “Oh, I’m going to try that out on my own album?”
Jerry Serrano: Little things. When I played with Thrift Store Cowboys, I always loved when Colt played the accordion. When it was time to record this album, I knew I wanted accordion on something. I was fortunate to have Joel Guzman share his talents on the title track, “The Moon.” On an Isbell song, can’t remember which one, there’s a slight amount of feedback right before the guitar solo, and I always thought that was cool. On the beginning of the guitar solo of “Faded Reverie,” there’s a harmonic that swells up to the solo at the beginning. Something subtle, but fun.
NS: You’ve been in various capacities in bands over the years. In recent memory, bands like Alma Quartet and The Goners, you’ve had a larger presence as lead vocalist. You’ve also played keyboards and/or trumpet with John Baumann, Erick Willis, Red Shahan, etc. Still, I think everyone likes to step out on their own and be the chief decision maker and focus on an album. What’s been your main focus on this album—what’s that statement you’ve wanted to say with The Moon?
JS: I wanted to tell many different stories. Some are mine, some are others I’ve known, some are fiction. Musically, I wanted to incorporate as many styles as I like with the songs still sounding like they belong together. I’ve made a Jazz album; now I wanted to make a songwriter album.3) The album overall, you’ve really honed in on a smooth sonic palette. The album flows really well. Songs stand alone, but there’s also a crisp, cool vibe throughout.
NS: The album overall, you’ve really honed in on a smooth sonic palette. The album flows really well. Songs stand alone, but there’s also a crisp, cool vibe throughout. There are not any songs that come out of left field and disrupt that flow. How long did it take to really find “the rhythm” of the album?
JS: I was very cautious of the use of space. Once I had that in mind, it didn’t take long for the pieces to come together. Sometimes in live situations, that space can make musicians uncomfortable and they’ll want to play a fill or melodic lick. Sometimes, songwriters will repeat the last line to fill that space. I like to let it sit there. Every song has moments where the instruments will hold a note or chord, or not play at all. It allows the listener to ponder the lyrics.
NS: As someone who’s familiar with an array of instruments, did most songs originate on guitar or keys? What’s more of a comfortable setting for you?
JS: “Stories,” “Ember,” and “Epitaph” were written either on the organ or piano. The rest were written on guitar. I find it comfortable on either, but when I get stuck, I’ll switch instruments and it helps give a different perspective.
NS: A lot of these songs, they’ve been tested out week in and week out at Songwriter Night, etc. What song did you see the most progression and change out of?
JS: “Ember” changed the most. I had been playing it for some time without a bridge and just felt like it needed something. I wrote the bridge the night before we recorded it and I’m happy with it now.
NS: “Epitaph” has probably the most emotional outpouring on the album. Your vocals feel like you’re almost on the verge of your limits. What kind of state did you have to get to, to really push that vocal take out?
JS: I had to think about death. Not from my perspective, but from someone who has lived a long life, but was not quite ready to go. If you were dead, what would you want to tell your family and friends but couldn’t? That’s what I was going for.
NS: A lot of songs, “The Moon,” “Drive,” “Vintage Wine,” and “Faded Reverie” for example, they all have these soaring choruses. They really push into these moments that revolve more so on your vocal delivery and melody than anything else. Those choruses feel like they come easy to you. Are they?
JS: I’ve worked on my vocals for many years. I used to get made fun of in high school because of my bad singing voice. Later on in bands, I would have these melodies and would either simplify or struggle with singing them live. It’s still a work in progress, but none of it has been easy.
NS: There are some quieter, more reserved moments on the album though too. A song like “Years” finds you really in a reflective state with stories about transitioning, growth, and maturing. I wanted to write a “time-travel” song. Young musician with dreams, years later alone at the lowest part of life,
JS: I wanted to write a “time-travel” song. It starts out with a young musician with dreams. Years later, he’s alone at the lowest part of life. Then, in the present-day, he’s at peace with life and life’s decisions. There’s no chorus, only verses. The same thing with “You’re Not the Same Girl.” I wanted to convey a sense of perpetuity. The song will finish, but the story doesn’t.
NS: “Stories” is almost lullaby-esque. It’s a great bookend for the album. How did that originate?That’s one of the oldest songs on the album. I wrote it when I was playing with the Goners (In View too). I was going for a Hymn-like melody. I wanted to write about how we are only temporary inhabitants of this land. The open plains full of Bison became rows of cotton. The trail to
JS: That’s one of the oldest songs on the album. I wrote it when I was playing with the Goners (“In View” too). I was going for a Hymn-like melody. I wanted to write about how we are only temporary inhabitants of this land. The open plains full of Bison became rows of cotton. The trail to dirt road, to paved road. We will all be gone eventually. Make it count.
NS: Going back to your experience as an auxiliary trumpet player, etc. How often does that affect a song when you’re first writing it? Are you thinking of how maybe a trumpet (or on this album, there being some fiddle, accordion, etc) fits within the song or are you focusing solely on the bones of the song?
JS: I only focus on the bones. Chords, rhythm, melody, lyrics. After that, I think about what will work. It can get overwhelming if I try to think too much when writing.
by: Thomas D. Mooney
American Aquarium, with a new, revamped lineup in tow, kicked off their Fall 2017 tour at Lubbock’s Blue Light last night to a sold out crowd. The countdown for this night has been ticking ever since five of the six members of the “Classic American Aquarium” lineup stepped away from the band this past Spring.
With lead vocalist BJ Barham crisscrossing the Lower 48 on a solo tour and the rest of the band–Ryan Johnson, Whit Wright, Bill Corbin, Kevin McClain, and Colin Dimeo–all settling into life after AA, rumors and uncertainty filled the void left behind. Would this be the end of the band as we knew it? Solo? Split? Whatever the case, the passionate die-hard AA fandom–and Americana and Texas music circuits at large–wanted some kind of answer to the unresolved.
A month ago, Barham announced a two-month Fall Tour with a new cast of players–Ben Hussey, Joey Bybee, Shane Boeker, and Adam Kurtz in the fold. Last night, was the night.
For tickets and more information on American Aquarium’s current tour, click here.
- It’s difficult to talk about new AA without contextualizing and understanding how we got here. There’s a history with this band that runs a decade, six studio albums, an EP, and two live albums back. The “Classic” lineup was as sharp and tight a band as one would find. It grew into a well-oiled machine that seemingly never lost their footing with a misplaced note. By all means, they were hitting their stride. And while Barham was always the frontman, you thought of them more as a single unit than individuals or as hired guns.
- The Blue Light was the perfect place for them to kick off this tour. By all means, Lubbock is an AA town unlike any other. It was shooting fish in a barrel–even if they’d have fallen flat. No matter how confident you are in your own abilities, there’s little doubt Hussey, Bybee, Boeker, Kurtz, and Barham were looking to get this one out of the way. It’s a bit of an exhale and shaking out the nerves.
- It’s still slightly weird on the visual side. It’s going to be. It kind of has to be. After seeing upwards of 20-25 AA/Barham shows the last handful of years, it’s weird seeing Barham up there with different folks. And when you’ve seen Hussey, Bybee, and Boeker (This is the first time seeing Kurtz on stage) multiple times in various bands over the years, it’s amplified. It wasn’t that long ago Bybee would have been in the crowd at Blue Light for an AA show. It’s not bad by any means. Just strange–almost like a dream when you realize something is slightly off.
- Up to this point, they’ve only had two rehearsals under their belt. Currently, they aren’t who they’ll end up being after a couple of weeks of nightly shows. And that’s fine. In many ways, I kind of wish Lubbock was mid-tour instead of the launch point. Their performance was solid. I wouldn’t say paint by numbers exactly, but the four behind Barham are stretching into their roles. It’s not just growing into the songs either. It’s growing to understand one another on stage.
- For the most part, they played the songs true to form. There wasn’t a lot of coloring outside the lines. I think that’ll come in time. An example of that is fairly simple. With Classic AA, the interludes between songs was the icing on the cake. They seamlessly transitioned from one to next. Music was a constant. Those little touches haven’t found their way into the mix just yet. But again, only two rehearsals and a show into playing.
- Even with a seasoned veteran cast, you could sense everyone was laying back and letting Barham lead the charge. It was the most animated I’ve seen him in some time. He was out in front throwing punches with his vocal delivery. The Springsteen Stomp was fully charged. The Cash Guitar Raise was in full motion. Even the “Like Wilson Pickett, we were moving and shaking” of “St. Mary’s” coming out in full force. I think that’s going to be paramount going forward. Barham has to ensure crowds believe in this AA as the band gets their reps in.
- They didn’t just play any 18 songs within the AA catalog; they played 18 of the hits. Staples, classics, singalongs that make a crowd grow into a fury. This too, I think will help make the transition go smoothly. It was a lot of “I Hope He Breaks Your Heart,” “Wolves,” “Cape Fear River,” and “Casualties.”
- One of the best things about Classic AA was Johnson, Dimeo, and Wright bouncing off one another. There was a familiarity they had with one another that created a unique and specific ambiance. On the surface, it was trading guitar solos back and forth. But deep down, it was filling in the void and creating a boundless backdrop. You could see the baseline of that happening with Boeker and Kurtz last night. There’s a shimmering, shoegazy element to Boeker’s guitar and Kurtz pedal steel playing. Deep into the set, when they went “Cape Fear River,” “Family Problems,” “I Hope He Breaks Your Heart,” and “Burn. Flicker. Die.” there were some of these moments. Again, they’re just now peeling back that top layer of their potential.
- Flatland Cavalry played the night before. Another sold out affair. Two singalong nights in a row–almost juxtaposed to one another. Flatland was primarily girls singing out loud, hoping to find the perfect man. AA was a lot of drunk dudes singing to one another about the women who had broken their hearts over the years. Still, every girl in that bar looked like 1965–or at least tried.
- Despite Barham hinting at new material coming in the near future the past few weeks, no new material was debuted. Only time will tell if any new material gets thrown into the mix on this tour. I’m betting something will.
- “Northeast Texas Women” by Willis Alan Ramsey has become a staple of the AA set. As Barham mentioned last night, the Ramsey album is now on Spotify. Listen to it religiously here.
American Aquarium Setlist
Lubbock, TX.The Blue Light.08/31/17
02) Wichita Falls
04) St Mary’s
05) Lonely Ain’t Easy
07) Good Fight
08) Losing Side of Twenty-Five
10) Louisiana Beauty Queen
11) Southern Sadness
12) Nothing To Lose
13) Cape Fear River
14) Family Problems
15) I Hope He Breaks Your Heart
16) Burn. Flicker. Die
17) Katherine Belle
18) Northeast Texas Women [Willis Alan Ramsey]
Yesterday, Turnpike Troubadours debuted the lead off single, “The Housefire,” for their upcoming album, A Long Way From Your Heart. In the opening lines, a familiar character, Lorrie, shows up. It’s made a fervent fanbase dissect their catalog more so than any other band in recent memory. Everyone’s an amateur detective looking for clues on how to get from Point A to Point Z.
When I had Evan Felker and RC Edwards on the podcast last year, a large portion of the conversation was about Felker, Edwards, and company deciding to create their own folklore. The idea that characters could pop up in cameo roles and as the main subject really was brought on by the songwriting duo’s love for novelists like Stephen King, J.D. Salinger, and William Faulkner.
Once the album is released, I’ll expand on this Listening Guide for the album and how it relates to previous Turnpike albums and songs, but this is meant as some sort of catch up course.
Lorrie: “The Housefire,” “The Mercury,” and “Good Lord Lorrie”
Jimmy: “The Funeral,” and “The Mercury”
Danny: “The Bird Hunters” and “Down Here”
Browning Shotgun” “The Housefire” and “The Bird Hunters”
When asked during the podcast and solo Edwards interview, both confirmed these connections, saying that they were the only ones so far. They added that they hadn’t been exploring this idea until they began writing songs for Turnpike Troubadours and weren’t interested in retroactively connecting songs between the three previous albums.
That’s really, really important. While it can be super-fun to look over each song with a fine-tooth comb and creating your own connections, they’re not exactly connected by the writers themselves.
It’s obvious when Lorrie shows up. She’s mentioned by name. There haven’t been any first-person accounts from her. The same can be said for Jimmy. Danny is slightly different. He’s in “The Bird Hunters” as a character and friend of the narrator and the narrator himself in “Down Here,” which it can be highly assumed as the response to the narrator of “The Bird Hunters.”
The connection between “The House Fire” and “The Bird Hunters” is slightly more speculative because the only real connection is the Belgian made Browning that shows up between the two. When I asked Edwards a few weeks about it, he said it was “something like that.”
Which, I’m assuming either means: A) The narrator of “The Bird Hunters” and “The Housefire” is the same, B) Danny is the narrator of “The Housefire,” or C) the shotgun somehow was passed along between the characters of “The Bird Hunters” and “The Housefire.” I think A and B are far more likely than C.
Personally, I don’t think the web of characters is spun as tightly as some have speculated. I don’t feel the “Burned out Bettie Page” of “The Funeral” is also Lorrie. I don’t feel the narrator of “Good Lord Lorrie” is Jimmy. I don’t think Jimmy is the narrator of “The Bird Hunters” or “The Housefire.” I don’t feel Lorrie is the woman who the narrator of “The Bird Hunters” is speaking about leaving. Etc, Etc, Etc.
(Mind you, I’m not trying to spoil anyone’s fun. I love the theories. Send them all my way at email@example.com. )
Mainly, because Felker and Edwards haven’t mentioned anything of the nature. But also because Felker and Edwards liked the loose connections of King, Salinger, and Faulkner. They liked how the characters of King’s canon were loose connections, brief mentionings, and never fully woven together. If they truly wanted to give you the Lorrie narrative or the Jimmy narrative, they’d do it in virtually every song. These songs are meant to be a fly on the wall moments between long absences.
Now, those songs could very well be connected, but I think it’s really a long shot. Felker and Edwards just haven’t had the time to connect them all. This idea is fairly new. I think we sometimes get some false connections because the writers have their own voice, speaking and writing styles, branding, and lexicon.
This is meant to be outlandish and ridiculous, but hopefully to prove a point. Would it be safe to say that every song that Turnpike mentions having a shot of whiskey or bottle of beer is directly connected? Of course not. That’d be foolish.
What’s maybe being undervalued or looked over is simply the Felker Narrative and Edwards Narratives. I firmly believe both are characters in this TurnpikeWorld. They both have had plenty of songs come from their own personal experiences—for example, “Kansas City Southern, “Easton & Main,” “Fall Out of Love?” (Edwards), “Shreveport,” “7&7,” “Down on Washington (Felker).
“Bossier City” is a rough account based on an uncle. “Morgan Street” is based off a bar frequented in Tahlequah. “Blue Star” is based on another uncle. “Southeastern Son” is based on some cousins. What I’m saying is that these songs are still primarily based on Felker and Edwards.
Which, still fits within their characterization of Eastern Oklahoma. You must remember, Oklahoma is still the largest character in Turnpike Troubadours songs. Her landscape and history still drive the characters. Oklahoma is the force behind every single story and detail. Every song is a brushstroke. Oklahoma is the painting. Lorrie and Jimmy aren’t the stories. They’re just the harbinger for Felker, Edwards, and company’s larger, more important American story.
That’s what I mean by Turnpike creating their own American myth and folklore. Once they’re down with their masterpiece, you won’t look back and think of the individual songs, but you’ll view it as a whole. It’s not quite Paul Bunyan, Pecos Bill, John Henry, Johnny Appleseed, and Davy Crockett, but it’s getting there.
by: Thomas D. Mooney
The Blue Light Fall 2017 Singer-Songwriter Competition will be taking place this September and October. For six weeks, the competition will be the dominating highlight on Mondays at the storied Blue Light.
Like last year, the competition will again have five preliminary rounds (Sept 18, Sept 25, Oct 02, Oct. 09, and Oct. 16) with this year’s Finale being held Monday, Oct. 23.
The competition works as follows. 12 different singer-songwriters will perform on each of the preliminary dates. On those dates, after each songwriter performs two songs each, three songwriters will be declared winners of a spot in The Finale (Oct. 23). The Final Round will bring the 15 preliminary round winners together in a Who’s Who worthy night of songs. After each songwriter performs two songs each, an ultimate winner, a first runner-up, and second runner-up will be declared.
To sign up for this year’s competition, songwriters should be aware of the following rules:
01) Each songwriter will be allowed two songs. Songs shouldn’t be longer than five minutes in length.
02) Each song must be an original. Covers are not allowed. Co-writes are permitted, but you must highlight include who also was involved and who wrote which specific parts.
03) Each songwriter must provide copies of their lyrics for the judges prior to their performance. If you do not bring advance copies, paper will be available. Three copies of each song is preferred.
04) Songwriters must make their own arrangements with regards to their instruments. Acoustic guitars, banjos, ukuleles, fiddles, keyboards, etc are permitted. Electric guitars are not. If you are unsure, ask us prior in an email.
05) You must play your own instrument. This is an individual competition.
06) Each night, Blue Light doors will open at 8 p.m. with music starting roughly around 9 p.m.
07) Each night, the order of the competition will be randomly drawn. At this time, Competition curator and host Jerry Serrano will remind you of these rules, along with answers to any additional questions you have at that time.
To sign up, you will need to e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org with “Blue Light Fall 2017 Singer-Songwriter” as the subject with the following information:
Cell Phone Number:
Which Week You’d Like to Play:
Have You Participated In the BLSSC Before (Y/N):
Current Band/Artist Page(s):
In addition, we ask you to submit at least one track of a recorded song. This doesn’t have to be studio recorded or an album cut. It can be just a demo or live track. It can be on Spotify, YouTube, ReverbNation, etc. You will then receive a confirmation email shortly there after.
Additionally, we’d love to go ahead and get everyone familiar with our intentions of creating a listening room atmosphere for these specific dates. This is ultimately a songwriter competition which values the craft of lyrics, storytelling, vocals, mood, emotion, and feeling. That essentially means giving the one performing our absolute attention and observation.
We’ll keep this page updated with how many open slots are currently available. Spots will be filling up fast, so don’t put off signing up.
You currently have roughly a month until the first Monday starts. One excellent way to start preparing is to show up at Blue Light’s Singer-Songwriter Mondays for the next four weeks to get acquainted with the atmosphere and the room. Again, Songwriter Night host Jerry Serrano will be there to answer any questions or concerns you might have.
Previous competition winners have been: Kenneth O’Meara, Casey Berry, Daniel Markham, Zac Wilkerson, Danny Cadra, Amanda Goebel, Erick Willis, Jacob Furr, Jerry Serrano, Zoe Carter, and most recently, Starfire On The Mountain.
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by: Thomas D. Mooney
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. Here’s our recap and rehash of the Grammy’s, Sturgill Superfans, and why country music doesn’t need saving. Follow Dennis on Twitter here. Get an insight on what Dennis is listening to here on his curated Spotify Playlist, Rust & Reverb, here.
Thomas Mooney: Koe Wetzel is the most polarizing artist in the state of Texas. That statement is literally, the only thing not polarizing about Wetzel. The entire Koe Wetzel experience is as fascinating as any kind of movement, sound, rise,—however you categorize it—it’s as fascinating and intriguing as anything ever seen in Texas music.
That polarization is just fuel for the fire too. Whichever side you’re on, you’re calling the other side a bunch of fucking idiots for loving or loathing Wetzel & Co. (See what I did there?). It’s either the rise or fall of Western civilization—Everyone is going to hyperbolize it. Granted, one side—the Pro-Koe side—is more fanatic than the other, but that makes sense. I’d challenge you to find a fanbase who’s more ready to lambaste any kind of shade thrown Wetzel’s way than the Wetzel fanbase. They’re just chomping at the bit. Minutemen. Part of the Born Ready crew. Tweet out not something right night, even a legitimate criticism, and be ready for the wrath of Koe Nation. I mean, some are nearly going full Insane Clown Posse level of crazy. But, it’s kind of funny honestly.
Question 1: Is that kind of reaction from fanatics a product of social media or because of Wetzel’s legitimately their Patron Saint of Rumple?
Jeff Dennis: Social media is undoubtedly a huge driver of his success. I don’t use Snapchat much, but I do see lots of chatter on Twitter about all the crazy Snaps people are seeing at this or that Koe show. Moreover, on any given weekend, Koe shows up in dozens of fan selfies. Yet he doesn’t overuse his own social media. He’s accessible, a songwriter for the common man, but also he’s apparently something more to a lot of people.
He’s approaching a million plays for some songs on Spotify, while most bands at his stage are still showing “<1,000” on theirs. I’ve been aware of his name for a year or so, but I think I realized he was a “thing” earlier this year when I heard he had 1500 people pay to hear him play a Tuesday night in Stephenville (yes, 2/28/17). What I can’t figure out, and not much of anyone can, is why specifically Koe is so big? There are 100 bands at the exact career stage who still can’t draw 12 people on a Saturday night in their hometown. If the answer was easy, there are a lot of really great bands that would take the same path.
Mooney: Right. There’s plenty of bands who are just as OK as Koe & Co. are. There’s plenty of potential there. Ultimately, I think what sets Koe apart from other up-and-comers is basically a two-part reason.
1) They’re approachable, charismatic, and earnest. Undoubtedly, they’re hard workers. They play as though they’re not going to ever again. Wetzel’s a frontman. He works the crowd. They’re playing party songs for a party crowd, which, also just so happens to be at a party. They thrive in that environment. You’re not analyzing lyrics in the middle of a singalong—and you don’t want to. 10 beer showers equals free Taco Bell for everyone.
2) Wetzel is both authentic and genuine. I don’t think there’s an On/Off switch with him. He’s not “Show Koe” for the line at the merch booth and “Leave Me the Fuck Alone Koe” at the grocery store. You may find his lyricism sophomoric, but goddamn, it’s genuine. He’s writing about what he knows and has experienced. “February 28, 2016” is genuine. He’s not bullshitting the crowd. Again, you may not relate or care, but there’s something real at its’ core. You have to give him credit for that. I question the genuineness and the authenticity of a lot of artists out there, but Wetzel has both in spades. I mean, THE GUY THREW HIS MUGSHOT ON A T-SHIRT.
You may think it’s dumb as hell, but you believe Wetzel when he says “if he asks me to blow, I’ma tell his punk ass to take me to jail.” Fans believe it. He believes it. His band believes it. Maybe even that punk ass cop believes. That’s more than you can say about a lot of songwriters. And something connected to that is this: Deep down, fans want to believe they too would tell an officer off in the same given scenario—even though they wouldn’t dare dream it. It’s Wetzel’s “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.”
Dennis: Ahh, now that’s a great point we’ve debated regarding other artists—Colter Wall, Aaron Watson, CoJo, Zephaniah Ohora, etc., are they genuine and/or authentic? I think you’re exactly right. Koe tells you who he is, and you can take it or leave it. Perhaps his greatest artistic accomplishment thus far is being able to tell his own story in a straightforward manner. Maybe there’s some life imitating art in there too. Regardless, the passion added in—Koe believes in Koe Wetzel too—means a lot to people.
Even if I’m not a huge Koe fan, I respect the process by which people seemingly become popular overnight. All told, I’m an alt country/Americana guy. I have a lot of friends who have never given Texas Country/Red Dirt a chance. Yet I’ve always been drawn to it, both as a cultural phenomenon, but also find the diamonds in the rough. Turnpike Troubadours are a great example of fitting that latter category. Arguably one of the few to come up almost entirely in the scene who never defaulted to cheap content or tired ideas.
Where does Koe fit? Look at the comments on the SCM article and the average Americana fan is repulsed by him. I don’t spend a lot of time with his music, but I remain intrigued. I watched Cross Canadian Ragweed once in Fort Worth, around 2001, play to a room of 50-ish people. Six months later, I tried to go again and there were probably 100 people in line OUTSIDE the door (I didn’t make it in). That energy is such a fleeting and intangible thing. But every few years, lightning strikes some band that has been working hard for five years prior.
Koe’s trajectory is similar to Ragweed. Further, he’s got more garage rock in his sound (like Ragweed) than 99% of TX/Red Dirt bands. Musically, he shouldn’t fit in this scene at all, but it is working. People like to wear rose-colored glasses about Ragweed as icons of the Red Dirt scene, but 15 years ago, the divide between Americana and Red Dirt was much wider. And as such, many in the alt-country scene didn’t take them seriously. What they became was much more than the early fan favorites (“Carney Man,” “Boys from OK”), although arguably the energy and even the quality were already apparent (“Alabama”).
So to finish this thought, maybe you don’t have to be different to get big in this scene, but I think it’s what worked for Koe with his rock leanings (and Ragweed). Man, go back to early Nirvana YouTube videos, and their sound was so raw. They didn’t get big because they sounded pristine and perfect. They had a message and a whole lot of energy and they put it out at just the right time and it just exploded.
Mooney: Right. The best comparison for Wetzel is early Ragweed. And like Ragweed, they don’t really fit anywhere nationally. Too country for rock, too rock for country. You know the drill. It’s hard to imagine him having this kind of success anywhere outside of the Texas-Oklahoma Region. People don’t want to hear it, but that’s a double-edged sword. The region’s support helps you out immensely when you’re on the come up, but can be a hindrance once you’re ready to branch out. It can stunt your growth as an artist. There’s a reason some Texas or Oklahoma folks try and distance themselves from the “Texas Country” label.
Interestingly enough, had you asked me anytime in the last five years, to create a hypothetical band who’d I’d have thought would be a “next big thing,” it’d have been something similar to Flatland Cavalry. They’re maybe the only band who’s eclipsed Wetzel’s rise. They’re not nearly as polarizing and I can’t remember anyone really questioning their integrity or intentions—like if you come across Flatland haters, they still “get” why they’re popular; they just choose to not listen.
So I slightly disagree on predicting the next big thing. You can’t predict who, but you can definitely predict what. Now, that may just be semantics. But, the Texas Country-Red Dirt music scene is still dominated (popularity wise) by college-aged kids who binge drink on the weekends and argue about why their school is going to win the Big 12 Championship in football.
Wetzel’s material isn’t any different when it comes down to that. Drinking? Check. Womanizing? Check. Party? Check. Catchy? Check. The difference comes down to that early Ragweed thing. They were doing garage rock mixed Oklahoma folk roots music. Wetzel’s just doing pop-punk. Instead of Pantera or Alice in Chains or Nirvana, it’s Blink-182 and Green Day (when they were good) and Brand New. I’ve heard some criticize Wetzel’s songs for all sounding the same. I think there’s something to that. But, they said the same about The Ramones too.
Dennis: That Intro track to his record is the most Blink-182 thing to ever happen to Texas Country.
Speaking of genuine & authentic: Just learned via the “Walking the Floor” with Chris Shiflett Podcast that Blink went to the same high school as Sam Outlaw, who is a sort of polarizing in the California country scene, although maybe just because he’s named Outlaw and has a song called “Bottomless Mimosas.”
What were we talking about again?
Oh yeah. Is that “Don’t Need You” video by Ragweed still around? If so, that was the most Nirvana moment in the Red Dirt scene.
Mooney: Sam Outlaw. He’s like the high brow version of this—I don’t necessarily understand why him either. I did like a few off his Angeleno, but I’ve probably not invested enough time to understand if I like it or not. I mean, I like the idea of Sam Outlaw—California Country from the valley—but again, that’s also ultimately Midland. Again, I question how genuine this all is.
Back to Koe and his fanbase. They’re as passionate a collective as any out there. They’re passionate about Koe’s raw, unabashed genuineness. That’s their battlecry. Their mantra—even if they don’t know it—that’s what they were searching for and found. Everything hinges on that. But what’s really perplexing is how that doesn’t necessarily go further than a few artists. We talked about questioning the genuine and authenticity—the intent—of other artists earlier. There’s plenty of beer ad jingles being written in Texas Country. I guess what I’m saying is that I wonder just how many of Koe’s fans are also fans of CoJo, AaWa, Earl Dibbles Jr, Fowler, Mike Ryan, Kyle Park, Donahew, etc. I find a lot of that as “bad” music, but also “bad” because it’s so vanilla and feels so cookie cutter—it’s all the shit “Texas Country” diehards say “Nashville Country” is coincidentally. I bet there’s a pretty large cross-section. I bet they’re undoubtedly bigger fans of Koe’s, but attend the Donahews of the world as well when they’re around. Maybe not because they’re actual fans, but because they enjoy the party atmosphere around those shows. But I’d argue, at least when Koe’s selling you a party, he’s genuine with his intent and not going back to his bus after to get away from you. It’s not country music, but it’s music for people from the country.
I guess that goes to a larger, more broad question though—why listen to and ultimately support music—even in the most cavalier of ways—that you’re just alright with? Why eat McDonald’s when the mom & pop joint is right down the street?
Dennis: The Texas scene is all about loyalty. There’s a subset of people in it that I really like, yet I watch them help promote new records that are terrible by most standards. Of course, it’s mainly because artists know they have a fanbase and hope to get support in return. Further, negativity is received very poorly in the scene. Overall, it’s not a bad thing that bands support each other, but I think it hyper-inflates the popularity of some acts that just aren’t that good. A limited few have found big success outside the scene. Eli Young Band and Randy Rogers found pretty good mainstream success, but Pat Green & Ragweed never really became national radio standards. It’s barely even up for debate that Pat is far more iconic than EYB as far as the Texas scene, but they have had more success at the national level. (And EYB has 1.5 million Facebook fans to Pat’s 219K, which isn’t everything, but I think signals their reach.)
Rhett Miller talks some about this on the “Walking the Floor” with Chris Shiflett Podcast. Old 97s came up as a rock band with country influence at a time when there was almost no crossover between rock/Americana and Texas country. Start 10 years later, and they theoretically could be drawing 2,000 people at Nutty Brown Cafe. They never broke over into that scene, nor did they try to cater to its fans, but I think they are fine not being an LJT band. Sure, they would make way more money if “Timebomb” was the song everyone waited for at LJT where everyone poured beer down each other’s pants, but at some point, you surely don’t want to live just to be that act every year.
Mooney: Give me something to believe in. That’s great and all. But what I hate is when bands or artists—it can literally happen to anyone—is when they start believing their own hype. Overdose on The Cool. Getting high on your own supply. Etc. Etc. It’s one of the most tragic things that happen to bands. You can only hope Koe and Co. don’t think they’re as great as nineteen-year-old kids are telling them they are. That sounds harsh, but it’s also a reality.
It basically goes two ways once that happens. 1) They have such a passionate fanbase that it won’t matter what Wetzel writes, they’ll eat that shit up. Or, 2) They have a such a passionate fanbase that they’ll know when they begin to mail it in and they’ll turn.
That’s one thing most people get wrong about me. Haters gonna hate thing. I’m not rooting for people to fail. OK—some people I am because I think they’re selling bullshit to people and everyone would be better off without it. But for the most part, I’m rooting for good music to happen. I’m rooting for the evolution of an artist. I’m rooting for improvement and forward progress. I just want there to be some integrity and for an audience and fanbase to demand good music.
I want to go back to the Flatland and Wetzel comparison for a minute. Both have been essentially exploring the highs and lows of college life. You can’t do that forever. OK—you can, but you can only write “100% Texan” so many times. You have to move on and mature with your audience. You’ve already seen a slight turn with Flatland. You go from “Love Me in the Water” and “Summertime Love” onCome Mayto “Humble Folks” and “Tall City Blues” on Humble Folks. If you’re Flatland, you’re hoping to fade Come May out of the setlist by 2020ish. The worse part of writing an anthem is having to play it every damn night. Ask Ray Wylie Hubbard.
Dennis: That’s a place I remember Ragweed getting to. They got older, had kids, became better musicians and writers, and they just didn’t want to play those old party songs despite all the chants for “Carney Man.” You have to wonder if Wetzel is going to be loving singing about Taco Bell when he’s 35. We have no idea where he’ll be artistically when that time comes (and this piece isn’t trying to figure that out).
We’re currently watching a few different artists try to make their material more mature without losing the fanbase that shows up to drink beer and ultimately pays their bills. When you get successful, you have a lot of mouths to feed (band members, manager, agent, tour manager, assistant to the tour manager, guy who always skips his Friday classes to ride along in the van, but really just drinks green room beer, etc.). At each level of success, you get dependent on that $500, $2,500, $25,000 every night and you have to keep making the paying fans happy. However, I think the “good guy” narrative insulates most acts against this. Everyone promotes everything, good or bad. We see a bunch of marketing about how much this new batch of songs means and how the artist is more proud of these songs than any they’ve ever written and on and on. There’s some sort of pride about being a songwriter that makes people record only their own mediocre songs instead of mixing it up more and recording those by lesser known, but better writers. What if Joe Ely had never recorded Butch Hancock or Tom Russell songs? We still might not know “If You Were a Bluebird” or “Gallo del Cielo.”
Mooney: Two Things.
1) I’ve come a long way on the whole “you have to compromise to successfully pay the bills for 1) your standard of living and 2) to pay the people who work for you” thing. I can understand the reasoning behind all that. People do that all the time in the business world. And I know part of this is business, but it’s also supposed, in theory, be fucking art. I used to be way more of an absolutist and uncompromising when it came to that. But I still think you either 1) you get a watered down legacy or 2) you wind up having just as much (or little) as you would if you had fewer fans and fewer people to pay. Maybe you’re playing big shows in every weekend, have a bus, an entire crew, a guy who skips his Friday classes to drink green room beer, etc but I wonder how often you—the artist—walk away with the same damn paycheck total as you did doing it your way.
2) This is probably an entire subject all on its own. I threw that question out once on Twitter—the why don’t we see people recording other people’s songs like we used to? Willie, Waylon, Merle, Cash, all the way down to Ely, Crowell, Jerry Jeff—even Guy—they all weren’t too proud to do someone else’s song. Why don’t we see that happen these days? Drew Kennedy had a couple of hypotheses on the reasoning. The biggest being, most of those guys, they were on some kind of label—which, no matter how shitty back then, would at least be worth something today. When you’re an independent artist and you can only afford to record an album every few years, by damn, you’re going to record your own songs. It’d be cool as hell to see Hayes, Baumann, Jamie, Drew, or Slaid to get a song recorded by whoever, but no one from Texas is going to really do that (EDIT: Though, I do guess there are a few Sean McConnell cuts in there). It’ll almost always be Nashville folks who do—again, coincidentally, people on labels. Lee Ann Womack did “Chances Are” a couple years back. We all know about Baumann’s “Gulf Moon” nearly getting cut by Chesney. Bruce Robison and Dixie Chicks.
In saying that, even just a decade back, Ragweed was cutting Snider, Hubbard, Chris Knight, Tom Skinner, Bob Childers, and Boland songs. Boland’s basically done a Childers cut on every single record. Hell, Stoney’s biggest songs are almost all other people’s songs. But that honestly may be a distinct cultural difference between Okies and Texans—Childers, Skinner, McClure, all the way back to Woody, they may not be as critically acclaimed as Townes, Guy, Shaver, Blaze Foley, etc—but damn, they’re more passionate about their cultural significance and heritage. Texans would rather tell you we’re better just because of Whataburger, Shiner Bock, Blue Bell ice cream, and the Alamo.
I digress, though. None of that technically had anything to do with the Koe Wetzel experience, but whatever.
Dennis: It is interesting how Oklahoma artists seem to have a better grasp of their own cultural music heritage, whereas so much Texas country relies on “of course were the best at everything because it’s Texas.” People talk a big game about being into Townes, but you don’t see many people doing deep cuts from his catalog. The average, cheap Texas country song is just so far away from Townes and Guy, it’s probably for the best anyway. Pat Green covered “Snowin’ on Raton,” and sure there are others in there, but those worlds don’t mix well. I think that’s why Hayes Carll has always kept a safe distance from being a “Texas Country” guy.
I feel like there’s got to be something else in there that keeps Texas guys from covering the best songs of each other’s more, but I don’t know what. Pride. Maybe it’s a pain to sort out royalties when you’re basically self-distributing. That seems as likely to me. It’s just easier not to mess with it.
I’m not sure this one is going to get back to where we started. Koe Wetzel is an interesting phenomenon, but your average Americana fan is still turned off by his style of music. However, as I mentioned before, I heard the same things said about Ragweed and Boland 15-17 years ago. Now those guys are considered elder statesmen of the scene.
Mooney: Royalties have to be part of it. Keep what little money you’re making selling CDs and digital downloads in house. This is another subject we’ll have to dive in on, but I think that’s why co-writing culture is so much more prominent now. With that, you’re getting the bump and notoriety of doing a song with whoever, but also keeping a cut of the credit.
Anyway. We keep using Ragweed, Boland, etc as the prime examples of maturation and growth within this scene. And people used to call them buzz bands when they first started. I think we’d be doing them a disservice if we didn’t at least mention that for every “Carney Man,” “Boys From Oklahoma,” or “Pearl Snaps” recorded, there was a “Proud Souls” or a “17.” There were some redeeming qualities in those songs.
I mean, talking heads of the scene are always talking about wanting something sincere, real, and compassionate. Wetzel captures in its rawest form and they go “Yeah, but not like that.” It’s hypocritical. But, I feel I have to drive this point home. Just because you’re genuine, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good. And vice versa. And there’s a lot worse happening in Texas than Koe Wetzel. In some ways, he’s ahead of the curve just solely on the fact that he’s not recorded a stupid song about his love for Texas.
by: Thomas D. Mooney
I have this list. It’s a running tally of hypothetical things that I A) I think would be amazing, but B) probably won’t happen for any number of reasons. Every couple of weeks, I’ll elaborate on one. These, they’ll be music related.
Some people believe for something to happen, you must first speak it into existence. It’s probably why LaVar Ball always sounds like a loon. He’s trying oh, so desperately to speak his wishes into existence. I know. It sounds like some kind pseudo-black magic bullshit.
Hopefully, these will be more logical–than say, all three Ball kids making it into the NBA. Still, you’ll see why they’re flawed or even impractical.
This first one has been bouncing around in some form or version for a few years now. The current model is a two-parter: NOT ONE, BUT TWO TERRY ALLEN TRIBUTE ALBUMS. Why two?
You’re probably wondering, why two? Well, they’d go like this:
- Lubbock on Lubbock (on Everything). All 21 tracks from the1979 magnum opus recorded by Lubbock artists.
- Tomorrow’s Tamales: A Tribute to Terry Allen. A traditional tribute of non-Lubbock artists where songs from the Allen catalog excluding Lubbock (on Everything)–that’s the real kicker on here–are up for grabs.
Nearly everyone gets a tribute album made at some point. It’s not that it’s a boring idea or something–but with 1) Allen being the greatest overall artist to come out of Lubbock and 2) with Lubbock (on Everything) being revered by songwriters, musicians, and artists with Lubbock ties, it’s special. It’s its’ own entity. At this point in history, it truly is the Holy Grail in Lubbock Music.
To split up the album, wouldn’t do the 21-song, double-album justice. The only proper way would be to have it done as a single piece. LA socialites, Brooklyn hipsters, and Austin yuppies may disagree, but yes, Lubbock (on Everything) just means more in the Panhandle of Texas. What may be viewed as a novelty piece by the eclectic songwriting visual artist Terry Allen by others, is a series of vignettes and confessions that just hit home Flatlanders.
What would Lubbock on Lubbock (on Everything) look like? Glad you asked. Maybe something like this.
01) “Amarillo Highway (for Dave Hickey)” by Wade Bowen
02) “High Plains Jamboree” by Randall King
03) “The Great Joe Bob (a Regional Tragedy)” by Flatland Cavalry
04) ‘The Wolfman of Del Rio” by Brandon Adams
05) “Lubbock Woman” by Josh Abbott Band
06) “The Girl Who Danced Oklahoma” by Wade Parks
07) “Truckload of Art” Amanda Shires
08) “The Collector (And the Art Mob)” by Daniel Markham
09) “Oui ( A French Song)” by Thrift Store Cowboys
10) “Rendezvous USA” by Ross Cooper
11) “Cocktails For Three” by Benton Leachman
12) “The Beautiful Waitress” by Kenneth O’Meara
13) “High Horse Momma” by No Dry County
14) “Blue Asian Reds (for Roadrunner)” by Dalton Domino
15) “New Delhi Freight Train” by Red Shahan
16) “FFA” by Charlie Stout
17) “Flatland Farmer” by William Clark Green
18) “My Amigo” by Charlie Shafter
19) “The Pink and Black Song” by Rattlesnake Milk
20) “The Thirty Year War Waltz (for Jo Harvey)” by Hogg Maulies
21) “I Just Left Myself” by Veda Moon
Having only artists and bands from these last 15 years is paramount. Allen’s probably more relevant in Lubbock now than at any point in his musical career. These people listen.
It’s a solid mix of established (JAB, Bowen, WCG, Shires), up and comers (Flatland, King, Domino, Shahan), and Lubbock staples (Adams, Parks, Hogg Maulies, Shafter). Kenneth O’Meara, No Dry County, Rattlesnake Milk–well, practically the whole lot (we’re still slowly converting Cleto)–are diehards. They have the insight on why these songs are still as relevant in the Panhandle as the day they were written.
Tomorrow’s Tamales is much like Lubbock on Lubbock (on Everything). in concept. Artists from the modern era of music. For the most part, these folks have either covered Allen in concert, posted about Allen’s work, or folks I’ve had conversations with about Allen. They’re not just darts thrown blindly in the dark. Though, there is a couple who I just think would sound great.
01) “Four Corners” (Juarez) by American Aquarium
02) “Wake of the Red Witch” (Bottom of the World) by Sam Baker
03) “The Heart of California” (Smokin’ The Dummy) by The Band of Heathens
04) “Flatland Boogie” (Human Remains) by John Baumann
05) “There Oughta Be a Law Against Sunny Southern California” (Juarez) by Ryan Bingham
06) “Rio Ticino” (Salivation) by Jason Boland & The Stragglers
07) “X-Mas On the Isthmus” (Salivation) by Kirby Brown
08) “Queenie’s Song (Bottom of the World) by Jonny Burke
09) “The Gift” (Bottom of the World) by Hayes Carll
10) “Gimme a Ride to Heaven Boy” (Bloodlines) by Paul Cauthen
11) “Dogwood” (Juarez) by Ryan Culwell
12) “Boomtown Boogie” (Chippy Soundtrack) by Dirty River Boys
13) “Cortez Sail” (Juarez) by John Fullbright
14) “Gonna California” (Chippy Soundtrack) by J.P. Harris
15) “Red Bird” (Smokin’ the Dummy) by Adam Hood
16) “Ain’t No Top 40 Song” (Salivation) by Jason Isbell
17) “What of Alicia” (Juarez) by Drew Kennedy
18) “The Night Cafe” (Smokin’ the Dummy) by Nikki Lane
19) “Angels of the Wind” (Chippy Soundtrack) by Lori McKenna
20) “Roll Truck Roll” (Smokin’ the Dummy) by Mike & The Moonpies
21) “Texas Tears” (Smokin’ the Dummy) by Old 97’s
22) “Emergency Human Blood Courier” (Bottom of the World) by K. Phillips
23) “Fate With a Capital F” (Chippy Soundtrack) by Margo Price
24) “The Lubbock Tornado (I Don’t Know)” (Smokin’ the Dummy) by Quaker City Night Hawks
25) “Our Land” (Bloodlines) by Reckless Kelly
26) “La Despedida (The Parting)” (Juarez) by Shakey Graves
27) “Cantina Carlotta” (Juarez) by Shinyribs
28) “Buck Naked” (Human Remains) by Shovels & Rope
29) “Southern Comfort” (Salivation) by Sturgill Simpson
30) “Give Me the Flowers” (Salivation) by Chris Stapleton
31) “Border Palace” (Juarez) by Texas Gentlemen
32) “Room to Room” (Human Remains) by Turnpike Troubadours
33) “Gone to Texas” (Human Remains) by Jonathan Tyler
34) “Back to Black” (Human Remains) by Jamie Lin Wilson
Yeah. I guess that ain’t too bad. It’d be a double album–very much in the same vein as the stellar Guy Clark tribute, This One’s For Him: A Tribute to Guy Clark. In either of these, you could go the route that includes Allen’s contemporaries and it’d be fine. Everyone from Joe Ely, The Maines Brothers Band, and Butch Hancock to Jerry Jeff Walker, Rodney Crowell, and Lucinda Williams would sound great here, but a cohesive coalition of this last wave of artists would be an even bigger statement. Allen’s legacy as a visual artist, songwriter, and playwright is that he’s made timeless art. It’s live and breathing. It’s as refreshing today as it was in ’79, ’89, or ’99.
While most now know Lubbock (on Everything) and Juarez, largely due to their recent reissues, Allen’s back catalog of Smokin’ the Dummy, Bloodlines, Salivation, Human Remains, the soundtrack to Chippy, Bottom of the World, Pedal Steel, etc is plum full of hidden gems, quirky ditties, rocking ramblers, and country ballads. Plenty of room for folks to spread their legs and experiment.
Probably the most intriguing choices would be Jamie Lin Wilson and Turnpike Troubadours–who could easily make both “Room to Room” and “Back to Black” into break-up ballads like their previous collaborative effort, the heart wrenching “Call a Spade a Spade.”
Folks like John Fullbright, Shinyribs, Hayes Carll, Lori McKenna, and Jonathan Tyler could stretch out into directions unlike anyone else involved. You’d want to see the piss and vinegar, grit’n’groove flow on “Gone to Texas” by Tyler. “Cortez Sail” demands attention. As simple as it is, it’s complex with that transition. You almost have to be two artists–not necessarily two-faced–but Fullbright would be able to make an imprint with his solemn, mature delivery.
I could go on and on with reasons why whoever fits here and there. Still, as tempting it is to go on, justifying the likes of Jason Isbell, American Aquarium, Reckless Kelly, etc isn’t needed. They speak for themselves.
What’re the odds these are made? On one hand, I think it’s just a matter of time and money before someone pitches an Allen tribute. Practically everyone gets at least one tribute record one day. Hell–even getting 15 of those recorded and released would be an accomplishment of sorts. Still, Allen deserves more.
On the other, Allen’s work has only really been discovered by “the masses” these past few years. His fanbase has expanded recently, but it’s always been relatively been small in number. So maybe there’s just not been a demand. And tribute albums, in general, aren’t necessarily best sellers. They’re passion projects. It’s a matter of will. And if Tomorrow’s Tamales is a passion project, what’s Lubbock on Lubbock (on Everything)? A nerdy pipe dream passion project?
Even more likely is there ever being TWO tributes set up in such a way. There’s no way Tomorrow’s Tamales participants would want to be involved without the inclusion of some Lubbock (on Everything) songs. And who’d be telling prospective artists like Chris Stapleton, Jason Isbell, and Sturgill Simpson those are off-limits due to Thomas Mooney’s wishes? Not even me. Probably.
But just imagine.
Hypotheticals That Could Happen, But Probably Won’t: Part II will be out soon and will be about concept albums that should be made by various songwriters and bands.