Category Archives: Essays, Etc

Essays, think pieces, columns, and opinions in long form.

February Exchange: Grammy’s, Sturgill Superfans, & Dumpster Fires

by: Thomas D. Mooney
Editor-in-Chief

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.

Mooney: So did Sturgill save country music last night? 

Dennis: I didn’t realize it needed saving? It’s just a media trope that country music was ever lost or dead. People of course have a problem with the music industry label of “country,” but they have been doing whatever it takes to sell records to as many people as possible for a long time. I would argue that the layer of cheap mainstream country has to exist for the Jason Isbells & Sturgills to thrive. The Grammys are not particularly representative of the genre of country, as they don’t follow the trends of what sells (credit to Craig Vaughn for that specific idea). Not only that, they’ve tried to “fix” the issue of how to handle all of the different genres of country by dispersing artists across the labels of Country, Americana, and Folk. Sturgill’s Metamodern was a more “country” record, nominated in Americana, whereas A Sailor’s Guide, a much more experimental rock record, got the Country nomination. Ultimately, the Grammys for all Country categories are kind of train wreck. It’s like asking NFL fans to vote for the all-star team and MVP of the FIFA World Cup.

Mooney: Exactly. The trope has been around longer than even the Texas vs. Nashville one (or the Lubbock is a shitty place to live one). 

1) That’s an interesting take–that the Top 40 Mainstream layer is necessary for the innovative songwriter class to thrive. You have to have a Jason Aldean to have a Jason Isbell. Now, are you saying this because, let’s call them the “Working Class Artist” class, has to have something to work against–they have to go up against The Establishment? Does that go into the make up of an artist? You have to scratch, claw, and–to an extent–suffer to create? Or is it more so a relativity thing? To know what good music is, you must have some bad music to compare it to?

2) I shared that list of Best Country Album Grammy winner this morning. It was the last 21 winners. What’s a little funny is that the award has, for all intents and purposes, only been around since 1995. Roger Miller won two Grammy’s in ’65 & ’66, but it was discontinued until ’95 when Mary Chapin Carpenter won with Stones in the Road. Shania Twain won in ’96 with The Woman in Me. I said that the list was, for better or worse, a pretty solid representation. We can argue albums, but really, it’s a solid set overall. I guess there’s been a couple of WTF wins, but there hasn’t been a “Where are they now?” winners or true embarrassments–like they didn’t give Gretchen Wilson the award over Loretta Lynn or Alison Krauss in consecutive years. They’ve been consistent. Albeit, that also means not taking too many risks with nominations. Like you’ve said, overall the “country/roots/Americana/folk” categories are a wreck though. They treat them like the minor leagues or the Senior PGA Tour for the most part. 

Dennis: 1. I hate to say Top 40 has to exist, because that’s probably not true. In Hank Williams’ day, I don’t know that there was the level of fluff in mainstream music. But today, the reality is that no matter what the labels or radio does, it’s not as though everyone is going to abandon Bro Country and just start listening to Billy Joe Shaver and Slaid Cleaves. It’s funny because, Top 40 Country still makes quite a bit of money, both in touring and even for labels, since country fans still buy more music than most. But I think the excess that it has produced, where every damn song has somebody rolling down a window and talking to/about their “girl,” is that it has turned even more people toward a higher quality product (i.e., the growing indie/americana/roots genre).

2. I honestly didn’t know the history of the Country Music Grammy myself. It has not honored many mainstream artists. I mean, how many country music fans in 2002 or 2017 were/are listening to the Hank Williams’ Tribute? It was a cool record, but never close to mainstream. The outsiders are rewarded more in the Country music Grammys, and this year is especially disorienting, because Sturgill feels so different from the other nominees, who got a lot of airplay on country radio. I think Maren Morris would have been a lock for the award, but Sturgill became sort of an anti-hero at just the right time. That said, I think Top 40 Country radio guys woke up today not worried about putting him in the rotation any more than he already was. I don’t think the award made him “one of them.” Ironically, the CMA and ACM Awards, i.e., the country industry awards, are precisely for mainstream country. They don’t even try to give awards for Americana or Folk or anything else. Sturgill winning one of those would be the more surprising occurrence. But back to the Grammys, the Americana category, outside of the Isbell win last year, is a complete trainwreck. The nominees rarely reflect anything I would consider the forefront of Americana. I mean, take 2014, Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell, Steve Martin & Edie Brickell, or Buddy Miller & Jim Lauderdale–all icons in some form–were received nominations over Southeastern by Jason Isbell. That miss is reason enough to scrap the award until they can figure out what they are doing. And let’s not forget 2012, where Linda Chorney “worked” the system by campaigning to Grammy voters, and got nominated when absolutely no one knew who she was. And guess what? That scheme is still the only reason anyone knows her name today.

Mooney: 1) I think one of the major reasons for that is people have seen the gradual decline in quality of Top 40 radio. At one point, Hank Williams was the biggest damn star in country music. Now, guys who sound like Hank Williams, they’re still around. But you have to actually go out and search for them. Reason for the decline is a two-part answer: A) Pop music has slowly integrated with Country (and every “genre” for that matter) and B) They’re not making replicas of the original anymore. They’re making copies of the last copy (which was a copy of the former copy and so on). The formula and cookie cutter mold has decayed over time. 

2) That’s why, in my opinion, Stapleton winning last year was “bigger” than Sturgill’s win this year. One major clue is iTunes. Right now (Was Monday), their top-selling Country records are Sturgill’s A Sailor’s Guide and Morris’ Hero. But let’s see which stays near the top longer (As of Friday, Maren’s Hero is 3, Sturgill’s Sailor’s Guide is 4). Virtually any day this past year, if you looked, Stapleton’s Traveller was a lock for the top spot. That’s why Top 40 ended up playing him–because a year later, he still had the top spot (Hell, right now, Traveller is still at 6). 

3) The reason the Americana/Folk/Roots Grammy’s are such a mess is because all those terms are so broad and ambiguous meanings. It’s a catch-all for anything that ranges from “old country sounding” to being Country-Lite to being a rock band from the south who has an accent to midwest alt-country kids to singer-songwriters who play solo to Northwest bands who have at least one record released by Sub Pop. No one knows what it means. American(a) music, at its’ core, is a regional music. It’s like baseball–other than the Yankees, Dodgers, Red Sox, or Cubs (Ryan Adams, Isbell, Wilco, and whoever)–every other club relies on their regional fanbases. 

I’d challenge anyone to decipher the differences between Best American Roots, Americana, Folk–and even Country for that matter. I include Country in there for the sole reason that, an artist like Vince Gill can go from winning a Best Country Album in ’08, be nominated with The Time Jumpers for Best Country Album in ’12, and then win Best American Roots Song and be nominated for Best Americana Album in ’17. There’s no reason to think they’ve changed that much in that decade to give any credence to the switch. I mean, they’re name is The fucking Time Jumpers for a reason.

Are they just throwing old country folks in Americana for the name recognition or to appease them?

Dennis: I would argue that the old Country folks are getting those nominations simply because the Americana nominations are an afterthought. There’s very little politicking going on behind the scenes for that category. According to the Grammy voting rules, people are only supposed to vote in their area of expertise. From reading these, here is my guess at what happens.

1) First round nominations are made by members and by record companies. Fair enough. But, think about who still has a record label (who despite their decreased influence, still have a lot of power here). Rodney Crowell and Vince Gill have much stronger label ties, because they came in under the old system, whereas someone like Jason Isbell was less noticed in this realm because he self-released his record. (Although arguably still a MUCH better business decision for Southeastern to be on his own label). So that’s how we get first round nominees. 2) Now, it’s left to recording academy voters. My guess is that if you are a “country” voter in any form, they would allow you to vote in all of the categories we’ve named. A wide variety of people can be voters (Andy Wilkinson, from Lubbock, told me once that he was for a while). I am also assuming that recording academy membership trends on the older side, so when it comes to voting for the Avett Brothers vs. Bonnie Raitt, who wins?  (Spoiler Alert: Bonnie Raitt won the Americana Grammy in 2013). 

So that’s my theory. It’s like when I go into the voting booth and I vote for President, Senator, etc., and I get to the Railroad Commissioner category. I won’t say that job isn’t important, but I’ll be honest and say I don’t pay much attention to who has that job in any given year.  So who do I vote for?  Probably the name I’ve heard before (or maybe bad example, because sometimes it might be NOT to vote for the name I’ve heard of before). 

The Grammy selection & voting systems aren’t set up to deal with a music market where everything doesn’t run through the labels. If I had to choose, these should have been the Americana nominees:

The Bird & The Rifle – Lori McKenna (this was nominated)
True Sadness – The Avett Brothers (also nominated)
Midwest Farmer’s Daughter – Margo Price
Heart Like a Levee – Hiss Golden Messenger
Upland Stories – Robbie Fulks (nominated in Folk)

Suitable alternates:
Young in All The Wrong Ways – Sara Watkins
The Very Last Day – Parker Millsap

And if we’re being honest, I would rather Sturgill’s record be in this category. But I won’t begrudge him for winning the “bigger” category of Best Country Album.

Maybe they just need to add a “Has Been” or “Used to Be” Grammy?

Mooney: That’s a very sound and plausible theory. I think it goes back to all those folks being “small label.” Which again, it’s because Americana roots music is so regional. 

I want to get back onto the whole Sturgill, Stapleton, Isbell, and Cobb are going to save country music thing. Yeah, it’s the trope and agenda that music journalists and a faction of the industry wants to push. Hell, I’ve even pushed the agenda because I want those guys to succeed. I think buried underneath the politicking, the drivel, the bumper stickers, t-shirt slogans, etc is a single question that is glossed over because it’s a boring question that’s pretty much already answered. The question isn’t if Sturgill, Stapleton, Isbell, Cobb, etc going to save Country music. The real question is if people are going to continue rewarding and appreciating genuine and timeless music overall?

The answer is an overwhelming yes. E.g., look back at who has won the last 23  Grammy’s for Best Country Music Album. When we look back, we always acknowledge those who contributed real songwriting and art. No one is talking about the bubblegum pop of any genre of any era. We love having a revised history. A lot of people make it out like Townes Van Zandt was high-rolling with a five tour bus caravan, dominating the charts, and was a nationally recognized treasure during the ‘70s. That’s simply not the truth. There’s always been a group of artists who were deemed as “not country” enough. Glen Campbell, Marie Osmond, Conway Twitty, John Denver, Ronnie Millsap, Linda Ronstadt, Eddie Rabbitt, Shania Twain, Garth Brooks, etc were all called not Country enough at some point during their career.

Now, we all can agree that this generation’s batch of “not Country enough” stars are less Country than any of their predecessors, but I’ll again go back and ask if history is going to reward them. I’m just assuming they’re not even making room for Montevallo or Kill the Lights in the next 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die edition. And of course, there’s that whole thing where anyone is forcing you to listen to it–or is that the plot of the next Saw film (Do they still does these???)?

Dennis: This reminds me of that t-shirt I bought at a Texas Country show recently. It read: “NASHVILLE SUCKS (Except Isbell & Simpson & Snider & Shires & Lambchop & William Tyler & …okay, Nashville is pretty cool, but we sure wish big labels would give us more money to keep singing songs about Texas).”

But on a serious note, good music persists despite the pop flavor of the month. On the surface, every pop trend seems like kind of a joke after the trend has passed. Growing up in the ’90s, I bought into the idea that all music in the ’80s was just terrible hair metal. In fact, there was tons of great music in the ’80s, but it wasn’t making its’ way to my radio, and I didn’t have an older sibling, so I still don’t know Springsteen’s catalog that well (guilty). And absolutely, Garth & Shania were really not liked by country traditionalists. Yet their music is so tame compared to today’s Top 40 Country–plus, I think a lot of people who grew up with Garth, whether they were fans or not, sort of have a soft spot for him now (E.g., how Garth sold out five straight shows in Lubbock).

The revisionist histories of Townes & Gram Parsons really have overreached in today’s scene. Even Guy Clark, with one of the most impressive catalogs of any songwriter, was never “set for life” financially with any of his songs. They so rarely made it to radio. And in today’s music climate, songwriters make much less simply because people don’t buy music like they used to. There’s so much less artist development these days, because they just don’t have the money to see what works anymore. Instead, they find someone like Dierks Bentley, who arguably could have been a good artist and they make him a product to sell what’s left to sell in the music business–i.e., a party (on a dirt road, in an airplane, etc.). I’ll go on record saying I thought Dierks was going to be really good, but his music is just plain terrible. But he gets to be wealthy and have seven tour buses playing music no one will care about in 20 years instead of grinding it out playing “real” Country in 100 seat venues for the rest of his life, to be remembered as a valiant troubadour who never got the credit he was due. Plus, he’ll probably be in the next Saw movie.

Mooney: I’m going to go off the deep end for a second. Bare with me.

I think over the last 70+ year, we’ve seen two major movements in the music industry. If we look at the major genre labels–Rock & Roll, Hip-Hop, Electronica, Pop (formerly known as Easy Listening), R&B, Folk, Jazz, and Country–on one end, The Top 40 of each has slowly, but surely come closer together homogenizing into a singular sound while on the other end, everything has branched out further apart. There are millions of sub-genres that fall within the major genre heads these days. It’s why there’s 100 versions of Punk music.

In a lot of ways, other than Jazz, Country music was the last holdout to this Top 40 blending. They were like The North in Game of Thrones when the Targaryen’s first invaded Westeros. In Aegon’s Conquest, House Stark and The North were the last to surrender (I mean, technically Dorne never was defeated. They’re like Jazz. They just never engaged with the idea that they’d fight or kneel). 

Anyway, these two movements have been spinning in opposite directions all these years. Top 40 is just becoming one thing. It’s being tightly wound upon itself. But the diversity underneath is so rich, complex, and vast, there will always be a class of artists who are the true and real vanguard of their genres. 

Long story short, Sturgill, Stapleton, etc ARE Country Music, so there’s no need in saving it. Their music will still be heard 50 years from now. The Hunts, Bryans, FL-GA Lines of the world simply won’t.

Again, who’s winning Grammy’s? I count 8 Grammy’s for Cobb’s crew in just these last two years (2 for Cobb, 2 for Stapleton, 2 for Isbell, 1 for Sturgill, and 1 for McKenna) while there’s ZERO for those they’re supposed to be saving it from. 

Dennis: So in the end, people will keep creating interesting new things in music, even though at some point, sub-sub-sub-genres may only have 10 people who really care about them. Truly, some of my most valued musical artifacts are things like bootlegs and live mp3s from shows that aren’t available anymore. At the same time, I don’t expect anyone to care about a random live recording of Hayes Carll from 10 years ago or my CD from Lubbock’s brief experiment in post-rock, Sparks Fly Upward. And there is definitely no money to be made in these endeavors. At some point, these small musical genres return to where music was in the first place–a live or recorded tradition shared with friends and family. That said, the Grammys don’t need to chase that music down the rabbit hole.  They just need to figure out a better way to keep track of the music that is really important as opposed to giving Don Henley & Sting the Folk Grammy for an album of Tiny Tim covers.

And conversely, Top 40 gonna Top 40.

Mooney: Top 40 is gonna Top 40.

What I think is a little funny is, that of the major genre labels, it’s really only Country and Rock & Roll that feel the need to have a multiple awards for the genre. Like with Rock, there’s Metal, Rock, and Alternative. With Country, you’re essentially adding the Americana roots as the little brother. Though they categorize it as Rap, it’s technically Hip-Hop (since Rap is a vocal style, not a genre style), you don’t see Best Gangsta Rap, Best Southern, and Best Backpack Album Awards. I don’t think splitting these genres into specific sub-genres will ever work.

If I was overhauling the system, it’d look like this:

Rock, Folk, Country, Hip-Hop, R&B, Jazz, Pop, and Electronica would all have two awards each–Best Album and Best Song. Then, you’d have the Overall Awards like New Artist, Album of the Year, Song of the Year, and Record of the Year. The nominees for those Overall awards would just be the winners of the eight major Genre Categories.

I know, I’m leaving out other categories like Comedy, World, Latin, Christian, etc out, but I’m not nearly familiar enough with them (and they’re really just niche categories anyway). I’d guess having just a just two categories within each–Best Album and Best Song–would suffice though. 

I know. It kind of becomes too encompassing–something I was bitching about earlier. I admit that. But, the difference here is 1) It’s so much simpler than the current system and 2) I think there’s less politics. Granted, this probably gives the major labels more power, but hell, they already have a bunch of power and influence.

That essentially means this year, we’d have had the Best Album noms as Adele (Pop), Beyoncé (R&B), Chance the Rapper (Hip-Hop), David Bowie (Rock), Sturgill Simpson (Country), Sarah Jarosz (Folk), Gregory Porter (Jazz), and Flume (Electronica).

So yeah, Adele would still have won. Beyoncé would still have “deserved” it. Sturgill fans would still be acting like Beyoncé fans. And, we’d still be wondering who Flume was. 

Dennis: As much as it kills me, you’re probably right that the Americana category has to go. It leaves the Avett Brothers and Ryan Adams, etc without much of a category, unless they have a major hit, but that’s probably okay. Still have to figure out what falls into the Folk category (eg, would Southeastern have fit the bill, since that was definitely not a Country record?), but as long as the focus is on original new music, it’s doable.

Have to include Blues, maybe not traditional and contemporary, but since it’s either the grandpa or great-uncle to most of the other categories, it’s a meaningful distinction.

So who wins for Alt Country?

Ehh, maybe we should save that conversation for another day.

Mooney: Yeaaaaaaaaaaaaah. I should probably include Blues as well as its’ own distinct category. I guess I was thinking most blues music really falls into folk in a traditional way or into Rock & Roll in a modern way. My main reason for leaving it off was because you could see people gaming the system. Take a band like The Black Keys, who are by all means, a Rock band who had definite blues elements when they first started. Who’s to say they aren’t just thrown in that category just because it’d be easier to win than in Rock. I guess they still could do that now, though.

For guys like Avett Brothers, Ryan Adams, Jason Isbell’s Southeastern, etc, I think Folk fits the bill. I know most of the time when you hear the word Folk, you automatically go into thinking Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, Greenwich Village, etc. It’s kind of a stale and sterile way to describe Isbell, but so is Americana if you think about it. Maybe a better label head would be Roots-Rock Folk. 

I mean, the elephant in the room is that Sturgill’s Sailor’s Guide isn’t really Country anyway. I guess he’s addressed it a handful of times. I really don’t have a problem with him winning the Best Country Album award either, though. Again though, people are deifying him more than they deified Gram Parsons (speaking of alt country!).  

Dennis: Country was the highest profile award he could win, so I’m glad he won that one. However, it just isn’t Country by most measures. His win is the latest in the Grammy voters ongoing collective protest against Top 40 Country. 

It got him a performance, which was the biggest benefit in my mind. All the people expecting or hoping he would throw his guitar again don’t really understand who Sturgill Simpson is as an artist.

Although, in reality, I don’t know how much Grammy performances matter. His performance was strong, but it was mostly for his fans and probably didn’t go along way to attract the casual Grammy listener. Overall, I am not a big fan of Grammy performances, because I feel like they are contrived attempts at some sort of greatness. I don’t think just because Alicia Keys and Maren Morris play together, (both great artists in their own right), that I should expect that to be a life-changing event. It is just a larger version of what happens at every level of music these days, which is to suggest that every single show is going to be mind-blowing or life-altering. I don’t really like big concerts anyway, because I feel like they are essentially performances for people who don’t know that much about music–who are wowed and awed at various smoke and mirrors. There’s only so many behind the head guitar solos a person can take.

Mooney: For the record, I was one of those hoping he’d throw his guitar again. Five seconds in, I figured it wasn’t happening to that acoustic Martin though. You’re probably right. His SNL performance probably had a bigger impact than his Grammy one.

Everyone’s throwing out hot takes on the Sturgill Grammy thing. At the end of the day, Country music has their shit together more so than the Rock category. That’s where the true identity crisis is happening.

Their Best Rock Album nominations were Tell Me I’m Pretty by Cage the Elephant (winner), California by Blink-182, Magma by Gojira, Death of a Bachelor by Panic! at the Disco, and Weezer by Weezer.

Even if Ripchord by Keith Urban had won Best Country Album, I’d say it’d be better than what’s going on in that dumpster fire.

January Exchange: Texas Country Music (& Other Americana Stories)

Evan Felker of Turnpike Troubadours

by: Thomas D. Mooney
Editor-in-Chief

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 first official one. Follow Dennis on Twitter here.

Mooney: It’s 2017. That basically means for the last 20ish years, Red Dirt and Texas Country has been in the lexicon. I know. Most people are probably going to argue that The Great Divide, Robert Earl Keen, Bob Childers, Tom Skinner, Jerry Jeff Walker, etc all made records and music before then. And while true, I think we can all agree that the genres and scene weren’t really a bankable commodity until we were in a Post-Ragweed & Green world. This is going the long way around to get to saying, the last Galleywinter piece had some great points about the evolution of this scene–really how that first wave of folks are getting old. There really isn’t a pretty way to say it. Hell, it’s strange how even just 20 years ago, the difference between Texas Country and Red Dirt was tangible and more concrete. Now, people just use Texas Country as a catchall. In some cases, it’s like a more offensive and blander version of being called Americana. Anyways, Brad Beheler says the last true innovators of the scene were Turnpike and Bingham. I’d agree (you know, because the Cobb crew isn’t a part of this scene the way a lot of people desperately want it to be). Innovative. Who’ll be the next? Who’s actually doing it now?

Dennis: What Pat Green proved, followed soon after by Ragweed, was that Texas (& Red Dirt) music was a business model in and of itself. JJW, REK, & Great Divide built up their craft and then ultimately got signed and subsequently established themselves nationally. PG proved that you could sell 100,000 records out of the back of your van, and build up a following in Texas & surrounding states that was a good living (soon to be a better living than many label deals, which started to dry up around the same time). I think that movement was very exciting, as reflected in the Beheler piece. What Pat did was really turn Texas into a product that music fans bought in large numbers. You can still make a buck off writing the next “Texas” song, but it seems fewer artists are taking that route and more bands are playing the TX/OK circuit while working to avoid the explicit “Texas Country” label. I think bands like Shane Smith & the Saints, Strangetowne, John Baumann, & Grady Spencer & the Work have brought new ideas to the scene, yet they all go in their own direction. But perhaps that’s the world we live in–where the 22-year-olds grew up listening to about every genre and so they’re more likely to be drawn to something different rather than judging whether something is “Texas” enough for their tastes.

Mooney: That’s the beauty and the curse of the whole thing, isn’t it? Most see that “Texas Country” engulfed Red Dirt pretty early on. But what they might not realize is how Texas Country essentially swallowed up the all other smaller genre labels happening in and around Texas as well. Bands playing folk, blues, alt-country, rock & roll, etc all gradually became known as Texas Country–or they decided they’d rather take their chances known as “Americana.” And that’s where all the exciting material really does happen. It’s the on the fringes of “Texas Country” where all the fresh, cutting edge stuff is being made. It’s why the likes of Paul Cauthen, Red Shahan, Courtney Patton, Jonathan Tyler, Wilkerson, Jamie Wilson, Jonny Burke types (and the ones you listed) are cutting edge for one reason or another. They’re fringe characters who are only associated with the label of “Texas Country.” They’re not bound to label and haven’t let TC dictate what they’re going to do next. Those folks are getting outside of Texas and playing. Now, obviously part of why Turnpike, Bingham, Reckless Kelly, Hayes, Musgraves etc are more well-known nationally is because they’re talented, but it’s also because they didn’t get consumed with the Weekend Warrior Texas circuit. 

I’m rambling now. Question: We agree that chasing the easy buck of writing a Texas song has gotten cliché and lazy. Even still, I think it’s a bit of like a right of passage for some of these Texas songwriters–if Gary P. Nunn has “London Homesick Blues,” by god, I’ve gotta have one too. OK. So if that’s the Texas songwriter trope, but’s the Oklahoma songwriter trope?

This songwriter kills fascists.

Dennis: Such a great question. I think Oklahoma songwriters get a certificate from the estate of Woody Guthrie that charges them with not writing cliché songs, or else we’d have “Red Dirt, Red State, Redneck” and “I Fought the Law (and Lawton PD won).” Maybe Oklahomans resent Texan’s grandiose ideas about their state? Or maybe they just decided as long as everyone gets to write a verse to “Boys from Oklahoma,” that would suffice. Of course, there are plenty of songs about Oklahoma, but there is a warmth to their mention in a John Moreland, John Fullbright, or Turnpike song that feels less cheap than your typical Texas song. What differs about those three is of course, Fullbright & Moreland didn’t use the Texas scene as a vehicle to notoriety, whereas Turnpike did, and has arguably changed the scene more than any band the past 10 years. Geographically, the major venues in Oklahoma are not more than a few hours apart, compared to some absurdly long distances in Texas that I’m sure your cousin has posted about in a Facebook meme. Whereas just about every city in Texas has a “Texas country” venue, the Folk/Americana scene doesn’t have much critical mass beyond Austin/Dallas/Houston/(Marfa). Most Austin Americana artists never play Lubbock or other smaller cities, and it’s really hard for a Lubbock band to get a show in Austin. And if you finally do get that gig at North Austin Discount Tire, no one comes out. I think it’s easier for an artist in OKC or Tulsa to focus on those larger urban areas and work the Midwest and Nashville (plus Austin), whereas in Texas there’s a $300 gig to be found in every town above 10,000 people. You take the money and play what they want to hear instead of trying to win over those crowds with your sad experimental Americana.

Mooney: I think the Woody Guthrie thing is the real root of Oklahoma’s songwriting integrity. The Woody and Bob Wills lineage is something they covet and take pride in. Which, you’d think Texans would take pride in the Woody and Wills (God I hope no one writes a song with that as the title) heritage just as much as Oklahomans since both have Texas ties. What you get though is only a few mentions of Woody’s New Year’s resolutions and Bob Wills Day every year. On the OK side, there’s the Woody Guthrie Folk Fest and what not. 

Now this is going to sound like Texan exceptionalism at its’ finest. But I think it may play into why this is. Texas just has too many great classic songwriters. It’s Willie, Guy, Townes, Kristofferson, Shaver, etc. They transcend Texas. They’re, in many ways, larger than life personas. Oklahoma songwriters on the other hand, they feel more like the common man. They’re small town and closer to the bone. I think the Fullbright, McClure, Boland, Canada, Felker, Moreland, Millsap, Bryon White, etc of the world cling onto their own a little tighter than a lot of the bigger Texan stars do to their heroes.

Dennis: Texceptionalism: “we’re the biggest (Alaska doesn’t count), and the best, and we’d never live anywhere else (and have never been anywhere else)” mentality. Turns out there’s a huge music market for telling people how great Texas is. And even Guy, Willie, Waylon, etc, sang about Texas. Yet, Texas Country sort of took a turn when it started singing songs about people singing songs about Texas (“Ol’ Guy Clark can be like a coat from the cold”). I’m sure there’s bad music in Oklahoma, and maybe those people just don’t hit our radar as much. There’s seven times more people in Texas than in Oklahoma and so many more venues. Maybe it just feels like we’re overloaded with guys singing about drinking Lone Star while watching the Cowboys in their Nocona boots because of proximity.

So are the worst elements of “Texas Country” just another form of bro country?

Mooney: Exactly. People don’t want to admit that Texas Country contributed to Bro Country just as much as the Nashville machine did. It’s mainly because–in a strange, bizzaro world way–Bro Country is a form of Outlaw Country. Kind of like how Nu Metal (Korn, Limp Bizkit) wouldn’t have come along without Grunge. Kevin Fowler and Granger Smith have more than dabbled in Bro Country.

I said it back when Guy passed away last year. Guy Clark wrote songs about Texas without ever pandering to the idea of songs about Texas being a commodity. I get that everyone isn’t a Guy Clark–or even wants to be for that matter–but that’s really the whole point, isn’t it? All the most successful Oklahoma guys deep down wish they could be the modern Woody, Wills, Leon, Childers, or McClure. The most successful Texas guys all just want to copy REK’s singalong anthems and tattered rasp.

Songwriting Royalty

Dennis: (Did you mean to say Granger has Dibbled in Bro Country?)

Honestly that speaks to a key point of music. It’s to entertain people and to fulfill them in some way they seek. People don’t go out on Friday night looking to hear “The Randall Knife.” They generally go out to let loose and have a good time, and so bands generally meet them where they are. The people we’ve discussed who push the envelope can broaden the musical horizons of the mainstream, but that just moves the boundaries. And I think that’s what makes it hard to predict the next big thing. Who knew the intro to Baumann’s “Bay City Blues” would resonate so much on radio? I would have told you ahead of time that it was just too far out there for Texas radio. Some of us get addicted to trying to find that next game changer, because after they change things, it’s never the same. You can only read Bukowski the first time once. The beauty of the game changer is, they can’t just be weird for the sake of weird, because novelty acts typically don’t change things. It’s part calculation of stepping a foot outside the mainstream, part luck, and a whole lot of work to convince people what you’re doing is worthwhile. To me, that’s why when everyone agrees on who is going to be the next Isbell, Sturgill, or Stapleton, it’s probably the case that person isn’t going to be the next one. Now everyone has influences, but Turnpike wasn’t the next Bingham, they were just the Turnpike Troubadours. If you think you’re the next Turnpike, turn around and go the other direction.

Mooney: Agreed. There’s not an algorithm to predict who is “next.” It’s kind of like evolution, right? Like somehow we went down this path: Jerry Jeff Walker–>Robert Earl Keen–>Pat Green–>Randy Rogers Band –>Some Kid, Somewhere. I’m sure there’s some steps missing in there if you want to get technical. And it doesn’t mean they didn’t find other influences along the way. But one way or another, that’s an evolutionary pattern. It doesn’t mean Rogers is ripping anyone off. It just means, in a way, we’ve seen this before. I don’t think you can say that about a Turnpike. That’s the original model. But now, you’re seeing a class of bands who you could say are the Turnpike 2.0s in Shane Smith & Flatland. (Note: With Jerry Jeff, it also branched out into a Todd Snider path. Jonny Burke seems to be the next evolutionary step down that way.)

There’s really only one major problem with this though. You can get a few steps away from the innovating pioneer and it can be a lost cause. Easiest example of that is the vocal techniques in the line of Jerry Jeff to RRB. JJW and REK naturally sound that way because they’re not traditionally great singers. What happens a few years from now when some kid is trying to do his Randy Rogers impression and just sounds like a nasally yelper because he’s faking it? I guess what I’m saying is, at some point, our T. Rex is going to end up a chicken.

The Great Gonzo

Dennis: So now we’ve stumbled upon something most people in the TX/OK scene don’t talk a lot about–and that is the fact that part of what makes it a scene for the common man/woman is you don’t have to have a Nashville caliber voice. A select few, perhaps Jason Boland or Randall King, have the vocal tone/range of a Nashville vocalist, but otherwise, most of the vocalists are distinct and have developed their own vocal style, often not one with the technical capabilities of a trained singer. My family listened to Conway Twitty, Glen Campbell, up to George Strait. To them, any voice that didn’t meet those standards wasn’t good music. In fact, they often claimed not to be able to understand the words of said artists. Having limits on vocal range can lead to different innovations. I remember hearing that Townes supposedly said, re: people covering his songs that Don Williams, e.g., can sing his songs however he wants, but Townes himself would sing them how they were supposed to sound (wish I had a source for that). This is also why your incredibly talented high school friend who moved to Nashville never made it big. In a city filled to the brim with the best voices in the country, singing other people’s songs, you’re up against a thousand others doing the same thing. In TX/OK, we get people with a personally tailored sound. Even if Pat Green or Randy Rogers isn’t the greatest singer ever, they found a way to connect with people, which ties back to an earlier point. Music is about connecting with your audience, and a lot of guys in Texas have found a way to make a living playing original music, independent of record labels, because they figured out how to connect with people using the skills they have.

For the sake of the song

Mooney: Excellent point. This is a semi-connected observation. We’ve talked about these “Watershed Years” for some folks. I’ve thrown out that basically each year, a band or artist has a breakthrough. Once they’ve broken through, it goes to the whole “You’re only able to read Bukowski the first time once” thing. You’ve graduated to another level. You’re not watersheding twice–You may innovate more than once, but you’re not having to constantly break on through more than really that first time. (There’s other ways to get to that level, but I’m not going to go through that now.) Typically, it’s a record that does it for you. We’ll go with:

2010: Ryan Bingham Crazy Heart mainly, Junky Star
2011: Hayes Carll KMAG YOYO (& Other American Stories)
2012: Turnpike Troubadours Goodbye Normal Street & John Fullbright From The Ground Up
2013: Jason Isbell Southeastern & Kacey Musgraves Same Trailer Different Park
2014: Sturgill Simpson Metamodern Sounds in Country Music
2015: Chris Stapleton Traveller
2016: Lori McKenna The Bird & the Rifle and Margo Price Medwest Farmer’s Daughter

Those folks all, for the most part tapped into and perfected whatever specific thing they did well in those years. And for the most part, they all have transcendent vocals. They may not be right on par with Whitley, Strait, Campbell, Dolly, etc but they are, for the most part, within a few steps. Question: How much of their success is tied to them having Top 40 Nashville-Lite voices? Is that just a prerequisite one must have to achieve success with the masses?

Dennis: Personally, I see a mix of both pure & cultivated vocalists in that list. Hayes Carll has maximized the utility of his voice, whereas Sturgill seems to have all the tools of the best vocalists, but his challenge was figuring out how to rein it in. Neither one would be interesting to me if they were singing “Huntin, Fishin’ & Loving Everyday” (Side note: It annoys me that Luke Bryan abbreviates this is as “HFE”), but “Beaumont” and “Pan Bowl” can damn near bring me to tears. Still. 

Men & Vintage Neon Signs

Mooney: That’s probably the right answer. They’re all playing with loaded decks. We’ve already said it a handful of times–that it’s difficult to next to impossible to foresee who the next innovator and/or Watershed Year winner. But staying on the sidelines isn’t really fun. Speculating and predicting is where the fun is. Who’s your Starting Five when it comes to “Most Likely to be the next innovator and/or Watershed Year winner?”

Picks have to currently meet two out of the three following qualifiers: Less than 20K Facebook likes, less than 10K on Twitter, and/or less than 50K plays on Spotify.

I’m going in no particular order: 1) John Moreland, 2) Red Shahan, 3) Paul Cauthen, 4) Colter Wall, 5) Kaitlin Butts five years from now.

Moreland is about as safe a pick as there is out there. Right now, he’s in that Isbell Here We Rest spot. Red and Cauthen are both guys I’ve been high on for about ever. If asked five years ago, they’d have both been on my list then too. Wall kind of has that movie boost in the same way Bingham got with Crazy Heart. And Butts, her first record is filled with Musgraves-esque quirks, but I think she’s finding her own path soon enough.

Course, we’ll both be wrong and it’ll end up being some virtually unknown chopping wood in Eastern Oklahoma or Western Arkansas. 

Dennis: Or one of us will end up being the guy who predicted a 2016 Cubs World Series in his 1993 year book.

So it seems we’re talking watershed beyond the Texas/Red Dirt scene (which is an entirely different prediction), and I’m going to purposely try not to duplicate yours (except Moreland). Further, your watershed list is a mix of people we knew about for 10 years before their breakout (Isbell) and people who rocketed up very quickly (Sturgill). Should I include Sam Outlaw just to see if I catch a mouthful of fire from a certain Houston music writer? Probably not. I still don’t get California country post-Dwight. I’m not including any bands here, because if I do, they will break up within a year.

1) John Baumann, 2) Lydia Loveless, 3) Cory Branan, 4) Parker Millsap, 5) John Moreland

I have one artist I would love to predict publicly, but this person is so new they don’t have a record out yet, and I don’t think it’s appropriate to mention them. I’m letting New Slang know who it is, just one name, and that’s my Hail Mary pass.

And our collective pick: Someone backed by and/or connected to The Texas Gentlemen.

Mooney: So that’s either Quaker City Night Hawks, Kirby Brown, Cauthen, Jonathan Tyler, Larry Gee, K. Phillips, Dovetail, Wesley Geiger, The Misteries, Rise & Shine, Bad Mountain, and/or Kris Kristofferson.

Texas Gentlemen

Goodbye Normal Street: Scoreboard Watching in Lubbock, Texas

Humble Folksby: Thomas D. Mooney
Editor-in-Chief

“From a musicological point of view, that album is a watershed moment. That’s when Lubbock music grew up.” 
–Andy Wilkinson on Terry Allen’s Lubbock (on Everything) 

“Going to climb that mountain with all my friends.” 
–Cleto Cordero of Flatland Cavalry on “Devil On My Back.”

37 years ago, Terry Allen released Lubbock (on Everything). It’s widely considered the greatest, most complete piece of work in Panhandle Music history. It is the Lubbock album.

It’s not as though Allen returned to Lubbock in 1978 and declared himself king of a nonexistent scene. He didn’t create Lubbock music over the course of a double platter record. But like fellow Lubbock singer-songwriter Andy Wilkinson said about Allen, the album was a watershed moment.

It was the album that kicked everything into a higher gear. It energized a music scene that was ready to take on the world outside of Lubbock. Lubbock legends Joe Ely, Butch Hancock, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, The Maines Brothers, Jesse “Guitar” Taylor, David Halley, Jay Boy Adams, Mac Davis, Bob Livingston, Jo Carol Pierce, Tommy X Hancock and The Supernatural Family Band were already on the cusp of a music revolution. Lubbock (on Everything) just sped things up. It made being a Lubbock artist chic–for both those on the come up and for those who had been chiseling away for years in Hub City. In short, the making of Lubbock benefited everyone who ever claimed to be a Lubbock musician–even if for some, that was indirectly or perhaps, not asked for.

Fast forward the current age and we’re perhaps seeing another “Lubbock watershed moment” in real time with the overnight success of Flatland Cavalry’s Humble Folksan album that made it into the Top 30 selling albums overall on iTunes this past Friday. Various publications are already calling the 11-track album the best of the new year by any Texas or country act.

So is it?

Being as it’s only five days since the actual release date, we may be are rushing to judgement with even considering Humble Folks a watershed album for Lubbock. But it doesn’t mean it’s totally an unwarranted question.

If you’ve followed New Slang for any reasonable amount of time, you’re fully aware that we’ve been calling Lubbock’s music scene the most underrated and genuinely the epicenter of Texas music for essentially the last five years. That ultimately means that we’d consider the successes of songwriters and bands who have making music over the last decade in the Panhandle already worthy of a listening to. It means there’s always been a plethora of overlooked talent.

Now, obviously there will probably be a small sliver of you calling even the suggestion that Flatland’s Humble Folks more important than [insert the Lubbock album title of your liking here] preposterous and perhaps, even borderline sacrilegious.

Albums such as William Clark Green’s Rose Queen, Thrift Store Cowboys’ Lay Low While Crawling or Creeping, Cary Swinney’s Martha, Amanda Shires’ Carrying Lightning,  Brandon Adams’ Brandon Adams & The Sad Bastards,  Charlie Shafter’s 17th & Chicago, One Wolf’s One Wolf II, Josh Abbott’s Small Town Family Dream, and many, many others are all testaments to that notion. Those all could have been what busted the door down and made the collective heads of the masses turn and acknowledge what’s been going on in Lubbock in the last 15-20 years. But they ultimately didn’t–no matter if they were successful, critically acclaimed, influential, or landmark pieces of art (Side Note: In the summer, we’ll be counting down our Top 100 Lubbock Releases of the last 15 Years. It’s then when you’ll see our overall breakdown of what’s been the “best.”)

We’re not here arguing that Humble Folks is any better than Lubbock albums released by William Clark Green, Red Shahan, Daniel Markham, Amanda Shires, or Kenneth O’Meara over the last few years. We’d actually argue that all of those were vital to even get to this place. Take an album out and we’re possibly talking about Randall King or Grady Spencer’s watershed moment.

Conversely, Green, Abbott, Bowen, Thrift Store Cowboys, etc would be part of the foundation on which Flatland ultimately built upon. Without context and climate, perhaps Cordero and company’s Humble Folks isn’t even Humble Folks.

It’s important not compare Lubbock (on Everything) and Humble Folks outright. We’re not here to compare the artistic value of the albums. But rather, it’s about the climates in which they arrived. It’s about what happened directly before and ultimately, what’s to come in both the immediate and long-term future.

What hurts Humble Folks watershed case most would be time–or the lack thereof. With Lubbock, we have the luxury of now realizing Allen is a musical genius who transcended Lubbock and the state of Texas. His work not only influenced his peers within the Panhandle, but all over Texas not to mention abroad. It’s just as easy to see Allen’s influence on The Maines Brothers Band and Delbert McClinton as it is to see on Robert Earl Keen, Steve Earle, and David Byrne. Allen’s impact wasn’t just limited to those making music in days of Lubbock either. Modern contemporaries such as Ryan Bingham, Evan Felker, and Natalie Maines all find something in Allen’s work that moves them.

In 10 years, we could be seeing a whole generation of songwriters and bands claiming a Flatland influence. But we also could be calling Humble Folks an anomaly. I highly doubt it, but it’s certainly in the realm of possibilities.

The quality of the album is important. It’s what gives an album longevity. But, the quality of the album and whether it’s a watershed album aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. It’d be nice if they were, but it’s not as though we haven’t seen inferior albums spark recognition for an area, scene, or genre.

The longterm effects of Humble Folks and Flatland Cavalry as a whole won’t be fully understood for years. What is though, is the shift and turn of the tides. It’s the straw that broke the camel’s back.

The success of Flatland isn’t going to just give them heightened acclamation and notoriety. It’s going to be the Panhandle as a whole that ultimately reaps those benefits.

The true litmus test will not be just how many arrive for future Flatland shows, how many copies of Humble Folks exchange hands, and the number of articles and reviews written about them. But rather, how many show up looking for the next Next Big Thing (Hell, even acknowledging and referencing back to Green’s Ringling Road may be revealing the true watershed record.) It’ll be measured by how outsiders view Lubbock and Panhandle bands over the course of the next decade–if Lubbock goes from underrated to properly rated, to ultimately overrated.

Maybe the floodgates are open.