Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘country music’

(Above: Survivor Billy Joe Shaver performs “Old Chunk of Coal” at Farm Aid 2011 in Kansas City, Kan.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Search the name of country legend Billy Joe Shaver and the phrase “honky tonk hero” isn’t far behind. It’s the name he gave his autobiography and the name of the landmark album Waylon Jenning recorded of Shaver’s songs in the early 1970s. That association earned him a seat at the far end of the outlaw table, another handle that has stuck with Shaver over the years.

It is difficult to summarize a life that reaches back to the Great Depression, when Shaver was born, and a catalog of music that spans five decades, but a better word to describe him may be survivor. Check out this passage from Shaver’s self-penned, online biography:

“I’ve lost parts of three fingers, broke my back, suffered a heart attack and a quadruple bypass, had a steel plate put in my neck and 136 stitches in my head,” Shaver writes, “fought drugs and booze, spent the money I had, and buried my wife, son, and mother in the span of one year.”

billy_joe_shaverWhen Shaver lost his fingers, he taught himself to play guitar again without those digits. The night his son died, he was back onstage, playing the scheduled gig. Guitar and pen are Shaver’s constant companions through crisis.

“I write songs as my way out of life’s corners,” Shaver said in a recent phone interview. “I always just wrote for myself, but it worked out that a lot of people got in the same kind of shape I did and identified with what I was writing and held it close to their chest.”

To Shaver, “Try and Try Again” and “Live Forever” aren’t just classic show-stoppers and sing-alongs – they’re literally lifesavers. When Shaver started writing “I’m Just an Old Chunk of Coal” he was in a particularly bad spot.

“I was set up to be the next big deal in Nashville, but I was drinking, doing drugs, chasing women. I was doing everything you weren’t supposed to do,” Shaver said. “One night, I had a vision of Jesus Christ. He was sitting there, eyes like red coals.”

Too intimidated to make eye contact, Shaver sat there, stewing in humiliation.

“His head was in his hands and he was going from side to side with his head,” Shaver continued. “He did have to say it, but I knew he was asking How long are you going to keep doing this?”

Overcome with guilt, Shaver drove in the middle of the night to a special place away from the city he discovered with his son, planning to kill himself.

“I could have sworn I jumped off a cliff going to do myself in, but I wound up on my knees with my back to the cliff asking God to help me,” Shaver said. “He gave me this song when I was coming down the trail.”

By the time Shaver reached the bottom of the steep, tricky path he had half of the song. Getting the second half was no easier. Pulling his wife away from her friends and his son from his school, Shaver moved the family to Houston to distance himself from his dealers and temptations.

“I went cold turkey from smoking, doping, everything. I couldn’t keep any food down so I dropped to 150 pounds. One night, after I was finally able to eat again, I finally wrote the rest of the song. It took a year to finish.”

Whenever Shaver writes a new song, he holds it up to the standard of “Old Five and Dimers Like Me.” It’s one of the first songs he wrote, not only a key track on Jenning’s “Honky Tonk Heroes” album, but the title song on Shaver’s first album, both released in 1973.

“I wrote that song when I was eight years old,” Shaver said, “and I’m always trying to beat it.”

Next month Shaver plans to release his first new studio album since 2007. He’s been working on the project with Todd Snider, and is finalizing the tracklist, making sure everything is up to the “Five and Dime” standard.

“I don’t want to spill all the beans, but we’ve been doing a few of the new songs live,” Shaver said. “I’ve got a four-piece band that makes enough racket, but still lets people hear the words.”

Keep reading:

Review: Farm Aid

Read Full Post »

(Above: Social Distortion frontman Mike Ness says he’s performed “Story of My Life” so many times it belongs to the fans more than him – but it never gets old to hear.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star 

Bathed in a white spotlight, Social Distortion front man Mike Ness generated a wall of distorted chords with his Les Paul guitar before belting out the lonesome words to “Making Believe,” a song first recorded more than 50 years ago. Ness was joined by the rest of the band on the second verse, adding a punch Kitty Wells and Emmylou Harris probably never imagined when they recorded their hit versions of the song. Before the chorus came around again the classic country number had been converted to a punk anthem.

For many of the songs in Social D’s 90-minute set Tuesday night the Beaumont Club the reverse was also true. It isn’t hard to imagine songs like “Bad Luck,” “Bakersfield,” and especially “Prison Bound” as traditional country fare cast in only a slightly different light.

Social Distortion’s presentation recalls Black Flag – full of furious energy and tattoos – but its content – songs of the downtrodden and desolate searching for redemption – could have come from the Acuff-Rose catalog.

The Orange County quartet have been smearing the line between country and punk for more than 30 years now, long before the alt-country era of Uncle Tupelo or even cowpunk contemporaries Jason and the Scorchers.

The sidemen sometimes change, but Ness and company roll into town regularly enough that the singer/ lead guitarist knew where State Line divides the town and that he was firmly planted on the Missouri side. The current lineup includes drummer David Hidalgo Jr., son of the Los Lobos singer and guitarist.

Although the band released its first album in seven years in January, most of the night was dedicated to fan favorites and fevered sing-alongs. “Bad Luck,” “Sick Boys” and “Ball and Chain” drew especially hearty responses. On the rare occasion when the fans didn’t know the words, as on the new song “Gimme the Sweet and Lowdown,” they participated by crowd surfing and jumping around.

Hard-driving instrumental “Road Zombie” took off like a brick dropped on the accelerator. The band barreled through half of their main setlist in about 30 minutes, before Ness paused to talk and slow things down.

Near the end of the first set, Ness introduced the fiddle player from  Chuck Regan’s band, who opened, and invited him to sit in with the band. Second guitarist Jonny Wickersham strapped on an acoustic guitar and an accordion player joined the ensemble for a pair of stripped-down songs. The resulting performances of “Down Here (With the Rest of Us)” and “Reach for the Sky” proved even unamplified Social D was still electric.

Ness is clearly proud of his band’s legacy. Before one number he stopped to chat with a young girl who named Social Distortion her favorite band. She wasn’t the only pre-adolescent fan in the crowd. As Ness said before “Story of My Life,” these songs have been around so long they’re not really about him anymore. They belong to everyone who grew up with the band or is just discovering his music. Shows like this will ensure that circle remains unbroken.

Setlist: Road Zombie > So Far Away; King of Fools; Bad Luck; Mommy’s Little Monster; Sick Boys; Machine Gun Blues; Ball and Chain; Down on the World Again; Bakersfield; Gimme the Sweet and Lowdown; Down Here (With the Rest of Us); Reach for the Sky; Making Believe (Jimmy Work cover). Encore: Prison Bound; Story of My Life; Ring of Fire (Johnny Cash cover).

Keep reading:

Review: Old 97s, Lucero

Review: Son Volt with the North Mississippi All-Stars and Split Lip Rayfield

Happy Clash-mas Eve

Read Full Post »

 (Above: Vince Gill and his eight-piece band remember “Pretty Little Adriana” in Tulsa, Ok. on Jan. 22, 2011.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Vince Gill took the Carlsen Center stage thanking the sold-out house for spending their Thursday night with him. “I understand y’all are busy tomorrow night,” he said, alluding to KU’s  pending Friday night game against Richmond.

 

Two and a half hours later a delirious fan repaid the courtesy, calling out “It was a good Thursday night.” It would be foolish to disagree. Between the salutation and response, Gill delivered a cascade of hits, album tracks, stories and jokes.After opening with what he called a “drinkin’ song” (the No. 1 hit “One More Chance”), a “leavin’ song” (the No. 2 “Take Your Memory With You”) and a song about dying (“Tryin’ To Get Over You,” another No. 1 hit), Gill announced it was time for a cheating song. Before starting “Pocket Full of Gold,” however, Gill asked if there was anyone in the crowd with someone they be … then he turned the house lights up.

It was that kind of night. Whenever the music got too serious, like the achingly sincere “I Still Believe In You,” where Gill name checks wife Amy Grant in the chorus, he would immediately deflate the atmosphere with laughter. After the classic ballad “Look At Us,” Gill told the story of a couple married 69 years, about to divorce. Asked why they would give up now after so much time together they replied that they had only planned on staying together until their children were dead.

After complaining about eating too much Oklahoma Joe’s BBQ before the show, one female fan shouted that Gill should have gone to Jackstack. After contemplating the suggestion for the briefest of moments, Gill countered with the good-natured inquiry “Well how big a gal are you?” Then he explained his all-you-should-eat restaurant concept, were patrons are weighed upon entering and then served nutritionally appropriate portions.

For all the storytelling, however, the focus always remained on the music. Every member of Gill’s eight-piece band had been with him for several decades, and it showed. Although the ensemble could expertly echo the arrangements that made Gill’s songs hits, they were at their best when given room to stretch out. The bluegrass number “High Lonesome Sound” found Gill taking a guitar solo before passing the solo onto another band member. By the time the song was done half the group had soloed. On the closer “Liza Jane,” Gill let his band ride the Southern boogie groove, suggesting they could probably find a new audience on the jam band circuit.

Surrounded by great musicians, Gill was clearly the best artist onstage. The 22 songs performed ranged from Southern rock to jazz, adult contemporary to gospel and both traditional and contemporary country, all stemming from his pen. His guitar solos reinforced the lyrics, be it the tasteful, restrained solo in “Tryin’ To Get Over You” or the free-for-all that ended “Pretty Little Adriana.” Gill and his band sounded like the Allman Brothers by the end of that one. Gill announced the homage as intentional when he quoted a few bars of “Jessica” as the song wound down.

The evening’s centerpiece was a lengthy remembrance of Gill’s father, a man who dressed like a lawyer by day, but was more often found in his favorite outfit: ball cap, overalls (no shirt), cigarette and chaw. Gill remembered his father as a tough man who liberally doled out corporal punishment, but was his son’s biggest supporter once Gill left home.

The tribute set up a song idea by Gill’s father that Gill and Rodney Crowell finally completed years after Gill’s father had died. Released the duo’s Notorious Cherry Bombs album, Gill had a hard time explaining to his wife and mother – the song’s subject – why he found a song titled “It’s Hard to Kiss the Lips at Night (That Chew Your Ass Out All Day Long)” so hilarious. Like the rest of the evening, that lighthearted moment was immediately balanced by “Key To Life” the poignant song Gill wrote about his father after his death. Either way, Gill prospered.

Setlist: One More Chance; Take Your Memory With You; Tryin’ To Get Over You; Pocket Full of Gold; High Lonesome Sound; Don’t Let Our Love Start Slippin’ Away; I Still Believe In You; Some Things Never Get Old; Faint of Heart; What the Cowgirls Do; Next Big Thing; Look At Us; This Old Guitar and Me; Pretty Little Adriana; If You Ever Have Forever In Mind; It’s Hard to Kiss the Lips at Night (That Chew Your Ass Out All Day Long); Key to Life; Go Rest High on that Mountain; When I Call Your Name; Oklahoma Borderline. Encore: Whenever You Come Around; Liza Jane.

Keep reading:

Farewell, Charlie Louvin

Review: Alejandro Escovedo

Catching up with the Hot Club of Cowtown

Carrie Rodriguez honors family, roots on new album

Review: Robert Plant and Allison Krauss

Read Full Post »

 (Above: Charlie Louvin sings of the “Great Atomic Power” at a February, 2009, performance in Raleigh, N.C.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

My first exposure to the Louvin Brothers was on one of those “worst album covers of all time” Web sites. Standing in front of what appears to be a backyard BBQ gone horribly wrong, two Bing Crosby wannabes in matching white suits raise their arms in welcome. Above them, the title proclaims “Satan is Real.” Behind them, the most ridiculously fake, wooden Mephistopheles looms like failed a junior high shop class project.

A few years later, while visiting home during college, I decided this cover would be a perfect piece of art in my dorm room and went to the Music Exchange in search of a copy. I asked the man behind the counter (it wasn’t Ron Rook) if they had any albums by the “Lovin’ Brothers.”

“Do you mean the Loooovin Brothers,” he asked, making a point of drawing out the long “o” and informing the store of my ignorance.

“Um, yeah, whatever,” I stammered. They were out.

Sometime after that, I happened upon a CD of “Satan Is Real” at the Kansas City Public Library. After mocking its cover for so long, I had to hear what the actual music sounded like. Pretty freaking good, it turned out.

Charlie and Ira Louvin’s music wasn’t the kind I wanted to listen to that often, but when the mood hit it landed deep and only the Louvins would do. As if by magic, their names started appearing in the album credits of my favorite musicians – the Byrds and Gram Parsons, Emmylou Harris, Johnny Cash, Buddy Miller, Uncle Tupelo. Far from a novelty act or wacky cover, the brothers’ influence was everywhere.

A couple years ago, a friend lent me his copy of the Louvin Brothers Bear Family box set. At eight discs it was way more than I’d ever need, but he swore it was the best stuff ever recorded. I respected his deep and diverse tasted and promised to dive in. I’ll now confess that I only just scratched the surface. A little country gospel still goes a long way for me.

This same friend also told me about the time he saw Charlie played the Grand Emporium. Only a few people bothered to show up for the full set peppered with stories and a fond remembrance of Ira, who died in a car crash near Jefferson City, Mo. in 1965. Afterward, Charlie hung out, reveling in conversation with his fans.

I made a mental note to see Charlie the next time he came through town. His next appearance was opening for Lucinda Williams. It was a dream ticket, but I had other obligations that night. Then were appearances booked at Knuckleheads and Davey’s Uptown. Just before the show, however, the performance would be cancelled. Then, miraculously, another date would be booked several months out.

Each time a show was cancelled I feared that I’d missed my chance. Wednesday my worries were confirmed: Charlie Louvin died from complications from pancreatic cancer. He was 83.

My in-person opportunity may have vanished, but I have hours of his music to relish. As I think of Charlie reuniting with Ira at long last, a song by Gram Parsons, one of the brothers’ greatest disciples – in style, if not message – springs to mind: “The Angels Rejoiced Last Night.”

Keep reading:

Review: Chris Hillman thumbs through his back pages

Carrie Rodriguez honors family, roots on new album

KC Recalls: Johnny Cash at Leavenworth prison

 

 

 

Read Full Post »

(Flora Keller’s favorite song was Patsy Montana’s 1935 hit “I Want to be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart.”)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

In the corner of my record collection is a heavy black album. The spine is falling apart and the cover shows signs of mold. The thick pages hold aged 78s by Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams, Jimmy Webb, Kitty Wells and other old-time country favorites.

These heavy platters are all that’s left of my wife’s great grandmother’s personal music collection. The pistol-packin’ mama ran a bar and caroused around Marshall, Mo. for a spell in the 1960s. Although the singles in the album were released long after my wife’s grandma moved out, they were also the basis of her lifelong love of country music.

Flora Bullard was born Aug. 14, 1930, in Marshall. She was barely a teenager when her  father took the family tto San Francisco so he could work in the shipyards during the war. A few months after the family returned to Marshall, the 14-year-old Flora caught the eye of Virgil Keller, who was eight years her senior. The pair was married when she was 15; nine months later they had their first child.

Jobs were scarce, so Virgil re-enlisted in the early ‘50s and was sent to Germany for three years. When he was called to Ft. Leavenworth, the family permanently relocated. After an honorable discharge Virgil reported to the Kansas State Penitentiary (now Lansing Correctional Facility) where he worked as a corrections officer for 20 years. (Cool fact: Virgil was present the night Perry Smith and Dick Hickock of “In Cold Blood” notoriety were hanged.)

My wife's late grandmother bore a striking resemblence to Kitty Wells (above) in her later years.

Of course all of this happened long before I came onto the scene. When I arrived, Virgil had been dead for several years, and Flora would not be keeping house in Leavenworth much longer. A few weeks before my first Christmas with the family, I downloaded a collection of country Christmas songs. This wasn’t Brooks and Dunn, Faith Hill or what passes for country music today. These honky-tonkin’ tunes were loaded with so much twang you could feel grit forming between your teeth after a couple songs. Everyone in the house hated it. Flora loved it, which was good enough for me.

After an automobile accident accelerated her Alzheimer’s and necessitated her placement in the Tonganoxie Nursing Home, my wife and I would take her on day trips to Lawrence. Traveling U.S. 24/40 on the road to and from the home, she’d tell us stories about hanging outside of theaters in San Francisco, hoping to catch a glimpse (or more) of Hank Snow, Ernest Tubb and other country stars of the day.

The two hallmarks of Flora’s favorite country songs were steel guitars and yodeling. She couldn’t play guitar, but she could yodel with the best of them. When my wife was a young girl, Flora taught her how, a talent that sadly did not take. Though my wife couldn’t sing with her, Flora was happy to yodel on her own (or with her youngest daughter). Her favorite song was Patsy Montana’s 1935 hit “I Want to be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart.”

Whenever she sang, I was transported to a dusty, one-horse town on the plains during the Depression. I imagined the family singing together to escape the bone-numbing hard work that needed to be done to make ends meet. I imagined someone out of a Frank Capra movie running into the room with a telegram inviting everyone to see the Carter Family that night in a big tent in the middle of an even bigger field.

I’ll have to dream even more now. Flora Keller died Tuesday morning, surrounded by her two daughters and three grand-daughters as they drank beer and toasted the good times. A smoker for 40 years, Flora kicked the habit cold turkey several decades ago, but not before her lungs were irreparably damaged. Now that she is free of her body, she is once again reunited with her Cowboy, forever his sweetheart.

Read Full Post »

(Above: Hot Club of Cowtown get lowdown at the Americana Music Association Festival in 2009.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

When Elana James was growing up in Kansas City, you could usually find her in Westport on the weekends. After checking out the bookstore, window shopping for clothes or catching a movie she’d take out her violin and busk.

What James played, though, wasn’t the classical music she’d been trained. James’ bow bounced to old timey fiddle music meant for dancing. And it tormented her.

“I thought it was the road to ruin,” James (nee Fremerman) said. “It wasn’t until I graduated from college I realized I wanted to play a more immediate, social music and, especially, dance music. It was such an undeniable pull by then I didn’t feel bad about leaving classical music, but I was at war with myself for a long time over it.”

James may have gotten over her classical guilt, but she had a harder time getting over the demise of her band, the Hot Club of Cowtown. In the past decade, the band broke through and found success, only to crumble at its peak. After a few years apart, the trio reformed to try it all over again.

“It’s funny,” James said, “a lot of stuff has changed around us, but I don’t feel like what we do has changed, only gotten better.”

The Western swing trio opened the decade with two albums under their belt and were building a steady following with their dynamic live shows. In 2004 they caught a deserved break when Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson invited them to offer their joint tour of minor league ball parks.

“We were in England on tour when our manager told us of the offer,” James said, recalling the fateful day. “It was totally incredible – it was one of the happiest, most exciting things I had experience in my life at that point. There were no expectations for the tour. We just thought we’d play our 23 and a half minute slot and that’s it. It turned out the tour was incredibly fun, musically gratifying experience.”

What should have been a tipping point turned to disappointment when Hot Club guitarist Whit Smith decided to pursue other projects. Fortunately another guitarist, Bob Dylan, offered James a spot in his band.

“It’s not something I like to talk about,” James said. “He (Dylan) loved my playing and was a huge advocate of me musically and personally. He gave me a lot of confidence and it was an honor to have that reception from him.

“The highest compliment you can get is to be asked to play with somebody else,” James continued.”I got a lot out of my friendship with him and his enthusiasm for the things I was doing.”

After double-duty time with Dylan – James also served as opening act on the tour – James formed the Continental Two and released a solo album. She couldn’t stay away from her Cowtown bandmates, though. Smith frequently sat in with James. Before long, bass player Jake Erwin was back in the fold as well.

“The band is the best at what we do,” James said. “Nobody sounds like us or does what we do as well. That’s why we got back together.”

But a lot changed over the band’s four year hiatus. Print outlets that used to champion the band, like “No Depression” were no longer around. And the decay of the major labels meant the standard system of filters were no longer in place.

“It’s been difficult after stopping to regain that momentum. We’ve had to come back and reintroduce ourselves. The media opportuines – so disorganized and spread out,” James said. “We are swimming in a difficult sea.”

Between the release of a greatest hits compilation in 2008 and a new album in 2009, the threesome spent the year touring the world, reintroducing themselves to fans.

“We weren’t expecting it, but people found out about us and things have been going great guns,” James said. “We’re actually having more work than we can accommodate. We have to be choosy.”

While there won’t be a new Cowtown album this year, James said the band will “probably start heading in that direction.” In the meantime, they just want to enjoy their accomplishments.

“This is our fun year,” James said. “There’s no major agenda. Last year was hard work, making the record, then putting it out on three continents and touring to support it.”

Although James didn’t know it at the time, the country music she plays today is just as much a part of her upbringing as the classical instruction she started receiving at age 5.

“Coming from Kansas,” James said, “even though I didn’t grow up listening to fiddle tunes and old dudes sitting on the porch and drinking moonshine, when you pull back I can see how that culture just seeped into me. I wouldn’t be who I am today without my time in Kansas City.”

Keep reading:

Review: “The Oxford American: Book of Great Music Writing”

Elvis Costello – “Secret, Profane and Sugarcane”

More Bob Dylan on The Daily Record

Read Full Post »

june_carter_johnny_cash-wedding
Johnny Cash – “Flesh and Blood,” Pop #54, Country #1

By Joel Francis

Johnny and June had only been married for three years when Cash penned this love song for his wife. In that time, Cash had rejuvenated his career with two hugely successful live albums recorded in prisons and earned his own weekly television show.

Although these endeavors burnished under the name “Johnny Cash,” June Carter was no less responsible for their success. With a smoldering strength, she challenged and sustained as her man finally kicked the drug addiction that had plagued him for the better part of a decade and proudly supported him through his rejuvenation – personally, artistically, commercially and otherwise.

The list of adjectives used to describe the Man in Black is a million miles long, but “devoted” has to rank near the top. In “Flesh and Blood,” Cash celebrates his love for his wife and slips in some sideways admiration for his savior.

Bolstered by his omnipresent boom-chicka rhythm section, Cash rhapsodizes about afternoons spent outdoors and nature’s beauty. The majesty of Mother Nature is a feast for the mind and spirit, Cash sings, but “flesh and blood needs flesh and blood, and you’re the one I need.”

Cash grows philosophical on the bridge, for as great as the day had been, he knew it was all temporary. “Love is all that will remain,” Cash intones. In the New Testament, Jesus talks of three types of love: agape, eros and philia. For most of the song, Cash has been singing about eros, or romantic love. But in the bridge, he shifts to singing about agape, or godly love, and philia, love between friends. Eros will fade, he implies, but agape and philia will sustain. This clever turn not only subtly sows a bit of gospel, but universalizes Cash’s eros love for his wife into the broader forms, expanding the palate to a love everyone can understand.

In the 1969 documentary “The Man, His World, His Music,” there is a scene of Cash rehearsing the song at home for his wife. The song was sweetened with strings in the studio, but its soul was intact there on the sofa as Cash found a way to say what every woman wants to hear: All this other stuff is nice, but as long as I’ve got you, I’ll forever be happy.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 328 other followers