- In Willie Nelson’s song ‘Shotgun Willie,’ he says, “You can’t make a record if you ain’t got nothin’ to say.” Willie obviously didn’t anticipate the advent of home recording when that song came out in 1973. It’s my theory that the country genre is dead in part because educated middle-class white people, who have the means to acquire instruments and recording equipment, are conformists who don’t have anything interesting or original to say, and lack appropriate amounts of charisma, wildness, and rebelliousness—key ingredients in country and rock ‘n’ roll. Basically, they are conservatives despite their professed political beliefs and conservatives make shitty fucking rock stars. The social and cultural conditions that created the genre’s best artists were from a time and place when a person’s character was formed by work, regional characteristics (usually including poverty), local dialects, and freedom to think for yourself. Their personalities were able to develop under conditions of relative freedom, even if their bodies were bound to hard labor. Like the old masters, they learned their craft through apprenticeships (the folk tradition), rather than formal education. Television and the internet (paired with capitalism) have basically wiped real culture and diversity out, along with the oral tradition and replaced it with one giant homogenous pile of commodified dogshit.
Another thing: This romanticization of “outlaws” in country has gotten out of hand. Total freedom only works for a very small number of geniuses. With all of its flaws, the label system provided structure and pushback, and artists were often nurtured and guided by producers and managers who helped their careers enormously. It brought a lot of extremely talented people together and provided a place to experiment and collaborate. We talk a lot about the constraints of the system, and overlords like Chet Atkins adding strings to everything and fucking albums up, but when I reach for my favorite albums, few if any of them are self-released. And you can always remove those strings later; just listen to “Naked Willie.” So if you are one of those people who don’t pay for music—fuck you. And if you are making records and not taking risks—fuck you too. Look for new sources of inspiration and do some mixing and matching because fans are sick of hearing the same old shit over and over again.
An excellent example of finding new sources for inspiration is the Kentucky-born singer-songwriter Sturgill Simpson (pictured), who obviously took heed of Nelson’s advice. I finally saw Simpson a few weeks ago and the hype he’s been receiving from Rolling Stone and pretty much every other music magazine/website is understandable. He’s a bold singer with a voice custom-made for country music. He barks and croons in a rich baritone close to Waylon Jennings, and also shares Jennings’ wry sense of humor and wit. His latest album, “Metamodern Sounds in Country Music,” is pretty much flawless. Simpson has a lot to say, about ego dissolution and the psychedelic experience, chasing your dreams, and all points in between. If you are a fan of Errol Morris’s documentary “A Brief History of Time,” the work of Terence McKenna, and early to mid-’70s Waylon and Willie, you’re in for a treat. There’s a lack of strong, distinctive voices in country music today, and I’ve been telling friends for a while now we’re due a new traditionalist. The closest Simpson is getting to Baltimore anytime soon is Hershey Park on Sunday, Aug. 31. It’s a good excuse to take a two-joint Sunday drive and stock up on free Halloween candy.
- A historical event took place at my house last Saturday: an impromptu songwriter face-off between enfant terrible Zane Campbell and country commander Arty Hill (both friends of mine, obviously). ‘Post-Mortem Bar’ vs. ‘Bar of Gold.’ It was some serious “Kill Bill” shit and reminded me that open competition sometimes brings out the best in people. I also invited Caleb Stine in an attempt to recreate the cover of City Paper’s recent Big Music Issue with a photograph, but he ignored my request. Let’s hope they bring this to the stage soon and others follow suit.
- Buck Owens was born this month in 1929. While jumping around YouTube watching videos of Buck with Don Rich, I ran across Dolly Parton doing ‘Cryin’ Time’ on “The Porter Wagoner Show” in 1970. What happened to music like that? The mold is broken, I suppose. Find that video, it’s solid country gold. And happy birthday Buck!
- Finally, congratulations to local hillbilly rocker Sean K. Preston on signing to Good Ol’ Boy Records, a Colorado-based Americana label. It’s well-deserved and I hope they help him reach a wider audience. He’s a great singer, a hard worker, and one hell of a nice guy.