Category Archives: National

Interviews, news, and reviews on artists, songwriters, and bands who have national recognition.

The Best Releases of 2017 So Far

by: Thomas D. Mooney
Editor-in-Chief

Like any kind of list, this one too is incomplete. No one is ever able to listen to everything they should. If they tell you they have, they’re lying.

Two weeks into June, here’s 40 albums and EPs that 1) I listened to,  2) I really liked, and 3) were released by Friday, June 16. The amount of music released these past six months is virtually impossible to keep up with–though, I guess iTunes probably has a rough estimation somewhere–which means I’m already going to apologize for not including some that I haven’t had the time to properly dive into and soak up.

These rankings? They’re really just rough estimations. They all have a +/- of 3 or so. Don’t get too hung up. We’ll go ahead and break each of these albums up bullet points–Three Things I Like and One I Don’t.

Listen along and follow the Top 50 Spotify Playlist below.

 

15. From A Room: Volume 1
Chris Stapleton

  • Ultimately, what makes Chris Stapleton a successful artist is his uncanny ability to deliver songs that are sing-alongable without losing much of their dignity or integrity. Much of From A Room is replicable within a chorus. You’re singing or at least humming along within seconds.
  • Despite having one of the largest song catalogs in the modern era, From A Room is split into two volumes with nine songs theoretically on each. And it’s not just any room; it’s A Room for good reason. It’s RCA Studio A in Nashville, Tenn–a room that’s been used to construct much of what we think of as good and timeless in the Golden Age of Country music.
  • “Up To No Good Livin'” feels like a prequel of sorts to Traveller‘s “Nobody to Blame” in both story and in style. The narrator in both throws out cliché lines about being untrustworthy and the aftermath of that untrustworthiness. And even though Stapleton does throw out cliché expressions like fastballs, they fit the context and limits of the songs well.
  • “Last Thing I Needed, First Thing This Morning” is one hell of a heartbreaker. But, Stapleton doesn’t have as much restraint as Gary P. Nunn or Willie Nelson–mainly because he’s a better vocalist than both–to fully make the song as heartbreaking as its meant to be. It’s OK. But meh. Also, “Them Stems” is kind of a dumb song that feels like a wasted spot for such an accomplished writer–I get drug songs are needed too, but hell, Traveller‘s “Might As Well Get Stoned” was at least in a groove.

14. Canyons of my Mind
Andrew Combs

  • Andrew Combs continues to push his sonic palette with Canyons. There’s darker territory and tones explored with a lush foundation of elegant strings, soft piano, and delicately layered melodies that blend effortlessly with his velvety, warm vocal delivery.
  • With songs such as “Blood Hunters,” “Dirty Rain,” and the jangly “Bourgeois King,” Combs all but conquers subjects previously unexplored in-depth on prior albums. With his sights set on political, humanitarian, and environmental concerns, Combs doesn’t hold back. On “Dirty Rain,” he paints dystopian destruction and crisis as blue and misery as possible while still keeping his sharp, beautiful vocabulary.
  • “Silk Flowers,” “Hazel,” and “What It Means To You”–a semi-duet with co-writer Caitlin Rose–shows Combs’ strongest suit as an artist is still delivering heartbroken, country ballads in the same vein as Mickey Newbury and Kris Kristofferson. His melancholy vocal delivery perfectly fits his turn of phrases.
  •  While Canyons does feel personal and has Combs going down darker routes on the map in subject and sonically, it doesn’t have the gut punches gloom of Worried Man or fit as seamlessly as All These Dreams.

13. Adios
Cory Branan

  • Lead single “Imogene” finds Cory Branan delivering one hell of a tongue-in-cheek heartbreakers. On the surface, Branan is writing Imogene off–he couldn’t have broken her heart or done her wrong–he didn’t even try. And that’s what makes it so heartbreaking on Imogene’s end. Being dismissed with a “I never tried” is right up there on the heartbreak power rankings–especially if you know deep down that they did.
  • Branan is a genre-bender. Punk tinges here. Countryfied rock there. Singer-Songwriter balladry here again. On Adios, picking out those subtleties becomes a game. It’s the Tom Waits piano on “Cold Blue Moonlight” that morphs into bar blues guitar hero. It’s the Born to Run-era  brass of “Blacksburg” that elevates the rambler into an anthemic rush. “Just Another Nightmare in America” plays to Branan’s pessimistic outlook with a punk-infused attitude and a Ramones worthy chorus chant to boot.
  • Branan’s heartbreak and humor go hand-in-hand. They play off one another. It’s not necessarily always heartbreak in the classic sense–down in the dumps and self-deprecating. His humor isn’t knee-slapping or excessive either. The best example of Branan’s wry humor goes back to “Imogene” with the lines “You could say that I’m a no-account ne’er-do-well, roustabout, detestable, itinerant, execrable degenerate–fair enough.”
  • At 14 tracks long, Branan’s Adios takes a 2000s approach to record making and length. It lags on at times and probably would more well-rounded at 10 or 11 songs.

12. Harry Styles
Harry Styles

  • Like Justin Timberlake, Harry Styles always had the most raw talent in his boy band group. And like Justified, Styles’ solo debut goes off into numerous directions with promising success. At times, it’s strange Art-Rock like late ’70s solo Peter Gabriel, ’90s Britpop Rock like Blur and Oasis (mostly Oasis), blue-eyed British Soul-Pop like George Michael, and even at times, reminiscent of the sad folk balladry of Ryan Adams or George Harrison.
  • The David Bowie cosmic tinges of “Sign of the Times” has melodramatic cliffhanger crescendos that are part “The Funeral” by Band of Horses and part “Don’t Look Back in Anger” by Oasis.
  • “Two Ghosts,” “Ever Since New York,” and “From the Dining Table” show off Styles singer-songwriter side that show he’s already more developed as a storyteller than many of his contemporaries.
  • Other than “Sign of the Times”–and maybe “Meet Me in the Hallway” and “Carolina”–there’s not a bona-fide radio hit. There’s less flare to the album that what most will expect. It’s more mellow than trying to chase One Direction radio success. “Kiwi” (and “Woman” to a lesser extent) both feel like strange additions to the album’s vibe and tracklist order. “Woman” isn’t necessarily as bad as “Kiwi,” but nevertheless, feels awkward at best within the context of the album.

11. Furnace
Dead Man Winter

  • Dead Man Winter–the moniker used by bluegrass band Trampled By Turtles lead vocalist David Simonett–is a rootsy, isolated cabin of a record. After a divorce, Simmonett was searching for closure and therapy. In many respects, these songs are Simonett working his way through, coming out on the other side with those wounds scarred over and healing. The obvious comparison would be Bon Iver’s debut album, For Emma, Forever Ago, with its’ cathartic songs of heartache and woe.
  • Simonett keeps the writing honest, blunt, and straight to the point. On “Red Wing, Blue Wing,” lines flow like late night drunken confessions–“I’m full of charm and I’m full of whiskey and I’m full of shit most the time”–come delivered casual and matter of fact. “I Remember This Place Bigger” is a sobering followup that has Simonett recalling tidbits of a fading memory.
  • While “Red Wing, Blue Wing,” “I Remember This Place Bigger,” and “The Same Town” all have Tom Petty Americana streaks running through them, Furnace shines brightest on tracks where you feel like a fly Simonett’s wall. On “This House Is On Fire,” “Cardinal,” and “Weight of the World,” you’re catching one side of telephone calls. Simonett pulls you into his world and state of mind.

10. Colter Wall
Colter Wall

  • At 21, Colter Wall is an absolutist. He’s as earnest and devoted to the idea of being a great storyteller and singer-songwriter as he is to the craft of actual songwriting. That youthful fervor is the fire of Colter Wall. That flame remains throughout making the album faithful to storytelling in the traditions of country and folk. He doesn’t concede or compromise.
  • Lyrically, you almost see Wall’s growth in real time. What I mean by that is you see him trying different styles. “Bald Butte” and “Me and Big Dave” go into full storyteller mode with little resembling a chorus. You’re not meant to singalong; you’re meant to listen. On the flip side, “Motorcycle” and “Thirteen Silver Dollars” to an extent are almost exclusively chorus worthy and just begging you to join in.
  • Wall at times reminds you of a young Johnny Cash. His vocals are as large and booming–Paul Cauthen comes to mind as a rivaling bellow. And while the raw talent is certainly there, Wall too knows how to hold back. On murder ballad “Kate McCannon,” it’s even intimidating.
  • At various points, you wish Wall would develop tales a little more. While “Kate McCannon” is certainly a standout narrative, Wall barely goes in deep with the details. It ends abruptly without telling us anything we didn’t know with the beginning verse. As perfect as it opens up with the first handful of verses, it leaves you suddenly and cold without much being resolved.

09. Out of Exile Trilogy
Kirby Brown

  • Kirby Brown’s Out of Exile EPs really begin with Part 1 being released last Fall with 2 and 3 being delivered these last few months.
  • “Little Red Hen” and “Gimme a Week” in particular show Brown’s keen sense of humor in the same vein as John Prine, Kris Kristofferson, and Roger Miller. There’s a down home casualness that’s endearing in Brown’s “aww shucks” delivery.
  • “Paint Horse,” “Sweet Shame” and “Broken Bell” capture Brown’s pensive lonesomeness. He’s at his reflective best with composed, heartfelt regret of “Broken Bell.”
  • At nine songs total and in three-song increments, the only real flaw for Out of Exile is that right when you feel you’re picking up any kind of real momentum, the EP is over. Of course, on the flip side, it means Brown is giving you just enough to keep you hooked for another EP installment.

08. Middle Kids
Middle Kids

  • Everything stars with “Edge of Town” when it comes to Australia’s Middle Kids. It’s a sugary, windows down, wind blowing through your hair summer anthem with multiple singalong hooks. Even as nostalgic and melancholy as “Edge of Town” is at times, it’s still a rush when vocalist Hannah Joy really belts it out and when that ear candy of a slide guitar comes racing by. Also, I feel like it may be influenced/about Stephen King’s It–though, that’s all speculative on my part at this point.
  • Part of Middle Kids’ charm is their smart, sharp pop sense. Like “Edge of Town,” “Your Love,” “Never Start,” and “Fire In Your Eyes” are all loaded with hooks and choruses that beg to be shouted. They all build up to these soaring crests before crashing down in organized chaos. They’re the prime moments in which Joy really shines as a frontwoman shifting from cool and calm into raw, unhinged vulnerability and emotion. Songs end with an exhale.
  • There’s something very familiar with Middle Kids. There’s a mid-2000s nostalgic glow with the band’s debut EP. They capture a sense of suburbia, breakout, and discovering heartbreak similar to Local Natives, Ra Ra Riot, The Shins, and Rilo Kiley.
  • At six songs long, Middle Kids is just enough long enough to keep you appeased as we wait for their full-length debut release–something they’re currently in the process of working on. Still, a projected release date can’t come soon enough.

07. Big Bad Luv
John Moreland

  • Moreland’s greatest gift as a lyricist is his uncanny ability to paint ample, vivid images while never being too wordy. His lines are stark, bare, and purposeful. He rids his songs of useless words or lines that may bog down or get in the way of the narrative. A shining example is with the album’s namesake highlighted in lead single “Sallisaw Blue” with “There’s a neon sign that says ‘Big Bad Luv’ and a noose hanging down from the heaven’s above.” Another is from the acoustic “No Glory in Regret,” with the opening lines “Did you hear the devil laughing from the ambulance passing? Or was that just my troubled mind? Don’t you wanna shake the ground and tear heaven down?”
  • While Big Bad Luv is certainly more robust and hearty in sound than the bare-esque bones of High on Tulsa Heat or the nearly all acoustic In The Throes, it’s a sensible step into Moreland perhaps stepping back into a full band setting. Still, Moreland and company know their strengths–never overpowering Moreland’s booming vocals or getting in the way of his emotional words of wisdom. Dobro, Wurlitzer, piano, and organ all have practical appearances throughout, often warming the foundation for Moreland on heartfelt songs like “Old Wounds,” “Love Is Not an Answer,” “It Don’t Suit Me (Like Before),” and album closing highlight “Latchkey Kid.”
  • Even more so than even Jason Isbell, Moreland is Americana’s most intimate songwriter. Songs feel as though only you and him are in the room. They’re one on one conversations. “Latchkey Kid”,” “No Glory in Regret,” and “Slow Down Easy” are personal entries that tug on every emotional string. While Moreland’s been known for heart-aching rootsy balladry, Big Bad Luv isn’t another collection of heartbreakers. Still, he’s as heartfelt and sincere as ever.
  • This isn’t even a complaint. But as good and successful as Moreland is as a solo artist, I wouldn’t mind seeing or hearing more of his punk-rock roots. Endless Oklahoma Sky by John Moreland and The Black Gold Band and Everything the Hard Way by John Moreland & The Dust Bowl Souls are two hidden gems that have Moreland delivering Gaslight Anthemesque punk-tinged and beer soaked anthems.

06. Way Out West
Marty Stuart & His Fabulous Superlatives

  • Way Out West isn’t meant to be consumed in little nuggets. It’s meant to be taken in when you have time to sit, listen, and think. It’s as much of an instrumental score and escape as it is a lyrical exercise for Marty Stuart. “Mojave,” “El Fantasma Del Toro,” “Torpedo,” etc are as integral to the magic and mythos of Way Out West as “Way Out West” or “Whole Lotta Highway.”
  • Stuart and company do a lot of blending on Way Out West. Their guitars are paint brushes warping, welding, and merging Spaghetti Western, Surf Rock, Rockabilly, Mariachi, Western,  Psychedelic, and Country. It’s just as Joshua Tree burnout hippie desert rat as it is Marty Robbins’ trail songs.
  • There’s even hints of Lee Hazelwood (and Nancy Sinatra) eccentric sun-baked pop on tunes like the trippy mirage-inducing “Way Out West.” The slow burner gives Stuart and company the opportunity to throw out layers of full harmonies that echo down the canyon walls.
  • For some, the journey Stuart and company are on is just going to be a bridge too far. Those expecting a dozen truck-driving anthems like the rambling “Whole Lotta Highway” are going to be disappointed by all the instrumental pit stops. Still, it’s one of the most beautiful sounding albums released in years.

05. Corners
Dalton Domino

  • The artistic maturity between Dalton Domino’s 1806 and Corners is exponential. Spurred on by spurn ex-lovers and an honest and stone cold attempt at sobriety has made Domino a bold, clearheaded songwriter. Rather than delivering an album of paint-by-number Texas Country tropes–something that would have been easier and probably gained much more success in the short run–Corners has Domino pushing his own limits as an artist. Corners wasn’t easy. Domino returned to the drawing board a handful of times returning with new songs that were better and more well-rounded.
  • Domino wears his influences on his sleeve. Songwriters Travis Meadows, Tony Lane, Jack Ingram, Sturgill Simpson, and Red Shahan all provided artistic inspiration. You hear Shahan on “Sister,” Lane on “Rain,” and maybe most notably, Simpson on the album’s sprawling, twisting bookends, “The River” and “Monster.”
  • “Rain” and “Mine Again (I’d Be a Fool)” are vulnerable compositions that show Domino isn’t just the loud, confident everyman of “July” or 1806’s “Killing Floor” and “Dallas.” In ways, they’re even more vulnerable and bold than “The River” or “Monster,” which could easily just be written off by the casual fan. But “Rain” and “Mine Again (I’d Be a Fool)” are almost certain to be considered for radio single release. They challenge the current status quo of what a prototypical “Texas Country Radio” single is with their refined, polished, and cultured sound.
  • The only real drawback and concern for Corners is on whether the album is replicable on a nightly basis. Producers Nick Jay and Jay Saldana helped create an ornate, rich sonic world for Domino and company to exist in. So much of Domino’s live show is based on a–at times, sloppy–raw live energy that relies heavily on spur-of-the-moment spontaneous decision-making. It’s quite the juxtaposition next to the calculated and prepped Corners.

04. Spades and Roses
Caroline Spence

  • Caroline Spence has a feathery, whispery, and gentle vocal delivery. It’s delicate, yet demanding. For long stretches of Spades and Roses, she pulls you in with road stories and diary entry confessions. Like a Wildflowers, a Nebraska, or a 1000 Kisses, Spades is tightly wound in its’ own world of dreamy piano, fleeting harmonies, and even while sparse at times, still rich with warmth.
  • While Spence is armed with a delicate delivery, she’s a sharp and honest lyricist. “You Don’t Look so Good (Cocaine),” “Southern Accidents,” and “Goodbye Bygones” all have heart-wrenching images that cut to the bone, are honest but cold, or leave you teary-eyed and alone.
  • “Heart of Somebody” and “Slow Dancer” wrap around you like a thick quilt or a hearty fire with lines about real love after being calloused and reserved by previous lovers.
  • At times, Spades and Roses can be too sleepy–which, it’s not like Spence advertised it being a party starter.

03. Proving Grounds
John Baumann

  • After his first three releases (West Texas Vernacular, High Plains Alchemy, and Departures)–a trio of storytellers in which he morphed into multiple character vignettes and landscape sketches, John Baumann finally ventures into telling his own story on Proving Grounds. A family’s impact on an individual is immeasurable. You see a Baumann’s father’s handprints and guidance on John’s personality and character throughout with songs like “Here I Come,” “Pontiacs,” and none more so than on the crisp, refreshing, and redeeming “Old Stone Church.”
  • Ever the growing artist, Baumann has always set a high bar for himself as a lyricist, storyteller, and songwriter. Proving Grounds finds Baumann maturing and confident. Songs breathe. He’s comfortable with sprawling instrumentals (“Pontiacs”) and realizing that, ever so often, sometimes the silence speaks too (“Lonely in Bars” and “Old Stone Church”).
  • Guy Clark wrote the best songs about Texas. They were just never just about Texas. Texas was the climate, the setting, the rust, the dust, the language, and the mood. Where previous work maybe relied too much on specific regions, Proving Grounds never settles down anywhere for too long. It criss crosses back and forth across the state using it more so as a canvas backdrop than ever a full-blown sketch. “Here I Come,” “Holding It Down,” and “Heavy Head” do it best with lines about East Texas Rust, West Texas Dust, The Flatlanders, Terry Allen, and more.
  • At times, Proving Grounds dips its toes into Texas Radio territory. There’s certainly nothing wrong with testing the waters and trying to push into new markets. And while there’s nothing too egregious or ever a decision to curb a song and trying too hard to shoehorn into being Texas Country pop radio worthy, you do wonder if a song like “Love #1” would be “better” without the “ooohs” in the chorus. “The Trouble with Drinkin’,” an Aaron Lee Tasjan cover, isn’t a bad song–or a bad cover. It could eventually turn into Baumann’s “Whiskey River” or “Bloody Mary Morning,” but it does come across as the weakest song on a spectacular album.

02. The Nashville Sound
Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit

  • Jason Isbell is still the king of the craft. Songs are tightly wound with familiar expressions, descriptive analogies, and lines that are sharp, poignant, and never wasted. Whether it’s the wry sense of humor on “Last of My Kind” with lines like “Everybody clapping on the one and the three” or the raw and direct “Last year was a son of a bitch for nearly everyone we know” of the soaring “Hope of the High Road,” Isbell rarely holds back or dishonest.
  • The sobering and weighty “If We Were Vampires.” Isbell’s vocals have a gradually growing quiver that are real, raw, and capture a moment that’s as authentic as it is genuine.
  • Isbell isn’t just honest with you, the audience. He’s honest with himself that often lingers with self-deprecation and holding himself accountable. This all culminates on “White Man’s World”–specifically with the verse” I’m a white man looking in a black man’s eyes. Wishing I’d never been one of the guys who pretended not to hear another white man’s joke. Oh, the times ain’t forgotten.” That’s what sets Isbell apart from the pack.
  • The only real complaints of The Nashville Sound is every once in a while–typically on larger, anthemic songs (“Hope of the High Road,” “Cumberland Gap”)–Isbell’s vocals can get lost within the mix.

01. DAMN.
Kendrick Lamar

  • Kendrick Lamar is the king. Still, even after plunging deep and head first into the avant-garde, Lamar continues being hungry and never settled with previous achievements. DAMN. is just the next link in what has become one of the longest winning streaks in modern music. Lamar has cultivated an unrivaled artistic freedom and expression while maintaining a pulse on what’s relevant and significant in today’s world on both a macro and micro level–and in the pop culture, political, and socio-economical realms.
  • Lamar really started this narrative, open forum, and discussion with 2011’s Section.80. With each concept album released since–good kid, m.A.A.d. city, To Pimp a Butterfly, and untitled unmastered– Lamar challenged his audience to keep up with the next theory, thought, and wrinkle in the next chapter as a Corner Philosopher. Again, Lamar is constantly telling two stories as once. One that’s in the moment and one that fits within the whole.
  • DAMN. closer “Duckworth” is one of Lamar’s finest to date. It’s an example Lamar’s prowess as a rapper who can shift gears with his delivery. As a street tale, it’s a microcosm for Lamar’s entire catalog. At its core, “Duckworth” shows how every decision, no matter how insignificant or seemingly trivial, is consequential and creates waves in the grand scheme. DAMN. is, in many ways, an ouroboros of an album. It’s ends where it began. It’s whole and complete.
  • For the novice listener, Lamar can be too complex, raw, dense, or coarse. At times, he’s uncompromising and uninterested in success in terms of radio. While still having more pop sensibilities than most, Lamar will not be confused with the laid-back G-Funk era of Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg or the anthemic heights of some of his modern contemporaries.

35 Other Albums Liked:

50. Culture by Migos
49. In Mind by Real Estate
48. This Old Dog by Mac Demarco
47. Graveyard Whistling by Old 97’s
46. FUTURE by Future
45. God’s Problem Child by Willie Nelson
44. The World We Built by The Wild Reeds
43. Drunk by Thundercat
42. Near To the Wild Heart of Life by Japandroids
41. Highway Queen by Nikki Lane
40. Pilot by Greg Vanderpool
39. Green by Kody West
38. & I’m Fine Today by Susto
37. Halloween by Ruston Kelly
36. Prisoner by Ryan Adams
35. The Navigator by Hurray For the Riff Raff
34. The Native by Vandoliers
33. Pure Comedy by Father John Misty
32. Duende by The Band of Heathens
31. Along Alone Tonight by Jonny Burke
30. Felony Blues by Jaime Wyatt
29. More Life by Drake
28. Process by Sampha
27. The World’s Best American Band by White Reaper
26. Starfire on the Mountain by Starfire on the Mountain
25. Stars by Michael O’Neal
24. The Order of Time by Valerie June
23. Bruce Robison & The Back Porch Band by Bruce Robison
22. Jason Eady by Jason Eady
21. Run the Jewels 3 by Run the Jewels
20. This Tall to Ride by Robyn Ludwick
19. Close Ties by Rodney Crowell
18. Dirty Wonder by K. Phillips
17. Life Without Sound by Cloud Nothings
16. Hot Thoughts by Spoon

Other albums/EPs that are probably/possibly great and worth listening to:

  • Capacity by Big Thief
  • The Spark by The Builders and The Butchers
  • Not Even Happiness by Julie Byrne
  • Adios by Glen Campbell
  • Ghosts On The Car Radio by Slaid Cleaves
  • Kids In The Street Justin Townes Earle
  • So You Wannabe an Outlaw by Steve Earle
  • Pleasure by Feist
  • HNDRXX by Future
  • You Only Live 2wice by Freddie Gibbs
  • Humanz by Gorillaz
  • Why Don’t We Duet in the Road by JP Harris
  • Native by Clayton Landua
  • Forever and Then Some by Lillie Mae
  • Marfa by Marfa
  • Emperor of Sand by Mastodon
  • Brand New Day by The Mavericks
  • Sad Clowns & Hillbillies by John Mellencamp
  • This Highway by Zephaniah Ohora
  • Til the Goin’ Gets Gone by Lindi Ortega
  • Heartless by Pallbearer
  • No Shape by Perfume Genius
  • Ti Amo by Phoenix
  • Wrangled by Angeleena Presley
  • Swimming Alone by Liz Rose
  • South Texas Suite by Whitney Rose
  • I Got Your Medicine by Shinyribs
  • Neva Left by Snoop Dogg
  • Note of Blues by Son Volt
  • Odessa by Jeremy Steding
  • Trophy by Sunny Sweeney
  • Blue Notes by Jeff Whitehead

Albums & EPs That Look Promising and Will Most Likely Be Released in the Second Half of 2017 (Or Soon After):

  • Until My Voice Goes Out by Josh Abbott Band
  • TBA by The Americans
  • Everything Now by Arcade Fire
  • Land of Doubt by Sam Baker
  • TBA by Jason Boland & The Stragglers
  • TBA by Wade Bowen
  • TBA by Leon Bridges
  • TBA by Paul Cauthen
  • We Rode the Wild Horses by Ross Cooper
  • Purgatory  by Tyler Childers
  • Dear Tommy by Chromatics
  • TBA by Ben Danaher
  • Crack Up by Fleet Foxes
  • Good People by Josh Grider
  • Painted Ruins by Grizzly Bear
  • Something to Tell You by HAIM
  • Tell the Devil I’m Getting There as Fast as I Can by Ray Wylie Hubbard
  • At Home in the Big Lonesome by Drew Kennedy
  • TBA by Chris King
  • TBA by LCD Soundsystem
  • TBA by Mike & The Moonpies
  • Sleep Well Beast by The National
  • TBA by Quaker City Night Hawks
  • Villains by Queens of the Stone Age
  • OKONOTOK by Radiohead
  • Lust For Life by Lana Del Rey
  • TBA by Charlie Shafter
  • TBA by Red Shahan
  • TBA by Bruce Springsteen
  • Big Fish Theory by Vince Staples
  • From A Room: Volume 2 by Chris Stapleton
  • TBA by Texas Gentlemen
  • TBA by Turnpike Troubadours
  • TBA by Shania Twain
  • TBA by Alex Williams
  • TBA by Vampire Weekend
  • A Deeper Understanding by The War on Drugs
  • Turbo Grafx 16 by Kanye West
  • TBA by Wolf Parade

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.

Q&A: Gene Watson

Gene Watsonby: Thomas D. Mooney
Editor-in-Chief

Gene Watson has been a country music force for the better part of 50 years. Armed with one of the warmest and richest voices country music has ever seen, Watson has been gently breaking and mending hearts for decades.

His latest album, 2016’s Real.Country.Music., is much the same as can be expected from Watson. With over 30 studio albums under his belt, it’d be natural to see a dip in productivity, but in Watson, we see an artist who still has all charm, grace, and shades of sorrow as he’s ever had. Throughout the fourteen-track album, Watson’s sincerity shines. Often called a singer’s singer, Watson paints each individual track as vivid as he possibly can. Like the album’s title hints, Watson’s still delivering real country music in 2016.

We caught up with the country legend earlier this week to talk about his lengthy and storied singing career. Watson will be performing at The Cactus Theater this Friday evening in Lubbock.

New Slang: You’re about 50 years into your music career these days. Do you still get that good nervousness before a show? Is that something that leaves?

Gene Watson: I don’t really get nervous before. The most you’ll see from me is that anticipation. I can’t stand waiting back behind stage. That’s still there.

NS: The first part of your career was spent down in the Houston during the ’60s. You weren’t signed on to a major label yet. What were those early days like when you were still working a full-time job and playing music at night? 

GW: That kind of showed my love for the music. I had an 8 to 5 job doing paint and body work, but I loved music. I had a pretty good band with me. We played the local night clubs in the vicinity during the weekends. We didn’t make much money, but it was for the love of the music. We had a great following back then.

NS: I’m guessing it’s safe to say had you not ever signed a major label deal, you still would have played. 

GW: Yeah. Probably so. Being an entertainer or a recording artist, that was never one of my goals in life. I just loved music. I can remember singing as far back as talking.

NS: How’d you sound back then? Did you really change your sound much when you signed with Capital?

GW: Back then, when we were doing the clubs and everything, we really worked off requests. People would request songs from like Jones and Haggard. Every time we did one of their songs, I’d try my best to do it exactly the way they did. It was brought to my attention one night, a guy told me, “I don’t know if you know it or not, but you have Merle Haggard down.” I got to thinking about it. You know, there’s already a Merle Haggard, a George Jones, and a Willie Nelson. Honestly, I threw all that out the window and started singing the songs the way I felt them. Right, wrong, or indifferent, that’s the way I would sing them. Believe it or not, that was the beginning of the Gene Watson style.

NS: One of the things about you that’s carried over throughout the years has been your voice. There’s been little to no change since you started out. It’s not faded out or changed. Why do you think that is?

GW: I think the reason for that is because I’m myself with my natural voice. I also really concentrate when I’m singing. Every word, every phrase, I want the diction to be as good as I can get it. I don’t strain very much. Every once in a while I will–like the ending of “Farewell Party.” As a rule though, I’m singing what feels good to me so it’s never really much of a problem.

NS: You mentioned “Farewell Party,” A lot of your most successful songs are these heartbreaking ballads. How do you relate to songs of yours that are now 40 years old?

GW: You know, it’s not so much how I relate to them, but it’s how other people relate to them. I try my best to tell people’s life story in song. If I can get their attention that way, they’re going to listen. I try to pick songs that other people are going to relate to.

NS: I’m sure there’s been songs you were on the fence with before you actually recorded them. Is there any in particular that come to mind that you changed your mind on after seeing it have an impact on others?

GW: Yeah. “Paper Rosie” was one of those–and it ended up being a number one song. The first time I recorded it–well, first of all, I wasn’t really knocked out by the song at all. I guess I didn’t hear it, which is understandable since I don’t hear it in all of them. I didn’t care for it that much though. I recorded it and didn’t feel like I did the song justice. I wasn’t satisfied. The head of the country division in Nashville for Capital Records, Frank Jones, he’s the one who brought it to me from Canada. He loved it and wanted me to go back in and redo it. So I did. That second time, we added a flute and a couple of horns. They’re real subtle, but they’re in there. I kind of through my original thoughts out the window and really tried to discover the song. When we left the studio, I knew it was a great song. I didn’t know it was going to be a hit, but I knew it was a great song. I was satisfied with it.

NS: You catalog of music is pretty extensive. Over 30 studio albums. That’s a lot of songs recorded, but it’s even more that were pitched to you and weren’t recorded. At one point did you start searching for the songs yourself rather than waiting to see what was brought to you?

GW: One thing about my career that I’m so proud of is that I’ve always had the freedom to pick and choose the songs that I recorded. Nobody picked them for me. People helped me look for them, locate them, and find them, but I always had the last say. You never know where you’re going to find that next hit. Therefore, you have to go through them all. I never did trust anyone to critique the songs but me. I’d be the one who knew what I was looking for and whether it was mine or not.

NS: How do you know when a song is your song?

GW: It’s got to be a story I can live. Recording a song is like an actor playing a role. I have to feel that part and have to do a good job of acting that part. Otherwise, that song just isn’t for me.

NS: Going back to a lot of your successful hits being heart-wrenching ballads, did you ever feel typecast?

GW: I was kind of typecast in a way. People kind of expected that kind of music from me–the waltzes, the ballads, the sad songs. When they bought a Gene Watson product, that’s kind of what they were expecting. That’s not to say we didn’t have some up-tempo songs on there though. “Fourteen Carat Mind” was one number song on Billboard. I did record some of those, but my most consistent records were ballads and waltzes–sad songs and stories.

NS: Do you think that’s essentially what’s missing from modern country radio? There’s a lack of relatable and emotional sad songs and story songs?

GW: Absolutely. There’s no way in the world these new artists can feel what they’re singing. How the hell you going to feel a little mud on the tires? I’m not saying all of them are that way. I’m speaking in general. To me, a song has to have substance. Whether it’s sad, happy, fast, or slow, it still needs substance for it to really mean anything.

NS: Yeah. I’ve read a few of your recent interviews. I think you’ve done a good job of expressing that you’re not wanting these new folks to fall, but you’re more so disappointed in the song choices and the direction country music has been headed. 

GW: Yeah. I don’t want anybody to fail. I’m wanting them to succeed. But that doesn’t mean I have to like the music that they’re fabricating. I say that because it’s just a fact. You don’t have to be a good singer or have a good song. They’re looking for a marketing tool. They can record a perfect record now. You can go in with your computers and make it a perfect record.

NS: When do you think that shift started happening?

GW: I don’t know. I ‘d like to think it’s going to come back our way. There’s a lot of great talent out there. There are people that can be respected and doing well. It’s just that so many new artists, they couldn’t make it in the type of music that I do. I’m hoping everything turns back towards traditional country music though. I don’t know how long that’ll be though. It’s strayed away on several occasions before, but it’s always came back.

NS: You released a new album earlier this year. You mentioned how the recording process has changed over time earlier. Are you still approaching the album making process the same as you always have or do you feel like you’ve applied some of the newer recording techniques into your newest albums?

GW: My latest CD I think is some of the greatest work I’ve ever done. The one before that, My Heroes Have Always Been Country, for that, I went back and picked out songs that I’d been singing years ago that had been recorded by some of my heroes. A good song is everlasting. A good song is a good song is a good song whether it’s yesterday, today, or tomorrow.