Country Music History – Essential Releases of 2014, Part 1
Phosphorescent, The Breakfast Club, Johnny Depp.
1. “Almond Grove,” Cracker. Cracker frontman David Lowery was a military brat who started his musical career in California, founding one of the 1980’s premier college rock acts Camper Van Beethoven. After he grew tired of taking the skinheads bowling, Lowery formed the more mainstream band Cracker, best known for their early 1990’s modern rock hits “Teen Angst (What the World Needs Now” and the MTV hit “Low,” which pushed their 1993 album “Kerosene” into platinum status. Cracker has continued to perform at a lower profile for decades and incorporated California country music into their 2014 album “Berkeley to Bakersfield.” “Almond Grove” is a tale about a junkie who is reflecting on his upcoming journey home. He plans to purposely overdose and travel as ashes.
2. “American Middle Class,” Angaleena Presley. After working with The Pistol Annies, Angaleena Presley released her first solo album in 2014, the well-received “American Middle Class” release. Not just a pretty faced bad girl, Presley wrote or co-wrote every song on the album. The daughter of a coal miner and a teacher, “American Middle Class” is in the hard times tradition of “Coal Miner’s Daughter” and “Coat of Many Colors,” yet Presley focuses more on grim economics than love. Presley, however, doesn’t convey or perhaps understand the irony of crossing the picket line to work in the mines and then complaining about not receiving a pension. This is also in the tradition of Merle Haggard’s “Working Man Blues,” taking a swipe at people who receive welfare.
3. “Another Town,” Ronnie Fauss. Ronnie Fauss is an underappreciated Dallas alt country musician, who is more worried about quality work than creating an image and will never get mainstream attention for that reason. Fauss has been inspired by alt country acts like Slobberbone and the Old 97’s, as well as the Texas singer songwriter tradition defined by Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt. His 2014 track “Another Town” kicks like “Guitar Town” era Steve Earle on a tale of booze and a broken relationship. After the narrator decides he’ll be making the rules in the relationship, his significant other moves out of town in the middle of the night. The Ronnie Fauss 2014 album “Built to Break” includes a country cover of Phosphorescent’s “Song for Zula” and his version has been played over five and half million times on Spotify.
4. “Bad Girl Phase,” Sunny Sweeney. Despite going Top Ten with the 2010 single “From a Table Away,” Sweeney was dropped by her major label after her 2011 album “Concrete.” Undeterred and still respected by the Nashville sisterhood, Sweeney’s 2014 “Provoked” album included songwriting contributions from Angaleena Presley, Brandy Clark, and Ashley Monroe. A harder edged and more twang heavy release than her Nashville work, “Provoked” kicks off with the cheating “You Don’t Know Your Husband” and ends with the beer can stacking “Everybody Else Can Kiss My Ass.” On the thematic “Bad Girl Phase,” Sunny slaps on black eyeliner, tosses back whiskey, and ignores her broken moral compass while chasing multiple men. The backing gospel choir arrangement is a nice touch.
5. “Black and Blue,” The Secret Sisters. Muscle Shoals, Alabama natives Laura and Lydia Rogers comprise The Secret Sisters, a somewhat modern distaff version of The Everly Brothers. Their 2010 debut album was so retro, the duo used 1950’s analogue production techniques while covering material from Hank Williams, Buck Owens, and George Jones. T-Bone Burnett produced their 2014 “Put Your Needle Down” album with The Secret Sisters covering P.J. Harvey and co-writing with Bob Dylan and Brandi Carlile. “Black and Blue” sounds like an early 1960’s country/pop record (that is to say, it sounds like an Everly Brothers song), highlighting the duo’s close harmony singing style that hasn’t garnered nearly as much attention as it should.
6. “A Feather’s Not a Bird,” Rosanne Cash. Rosanne Cash returned to the music scene with the 2014 album “The River & The Thread,” a record somewhat inspired by her travels through rural Arkansas, Mississippi, and Alabama. All the music on the album was co-written by Cash with her husband/producer John Leventhal, who co-wrote the George Strait 1993 Top Ten single “When Did You Stop Loving Me” and Shawn Colvin’s 1997 Grammy award winning Top Ten pop hit “Sunny Came Home.” On the bluesy, enigmatic “A Feather’s Not a Bird,” Cash gets in touch with her muse, while learning that a seamstress must love her thread. Cash has referred to the song as “a mini-travelogue of the South and of the soul.”
7. “Ghosts of Our Fathers,” Otis Gibbs. Indiana native Otis Gibbs has managed to develop an independent career in music by releasing albums on his own label and touring throughout the United States and Europe. He also hosts an excellent podcast titled “Thanks for Giving a Damn,” where he regularly captures Nashville lore and history from musicians and songwriters. Gibb’s 2014 album “Souvenirs of a Misspent Youth” included “Ghosts of Our Fathers,” a tale of a former boxer/next door neighbor, befriended by the Gibbs family, who could take any physical punch, but couldn’t recover from the loss of his son in the Vietnam War. The song ends with Gibbs visiting the Vietnam Memorial in D.C. and feeling the presence of the ghosts of both fathers.
8. “Girl in a Country Song,” Maddie & Tae. Madison Marlow and Taylor Dye met in Dallas in 2010 and quickly set their sights on Nashville. The duo received a record deal in 2014 and had an immediate #1 Country Airplay hit with “Girl in a Country Song,” written by the performers and producer Aaron Scherz. Taking on the shallow sexism of modern country music, the lyrics reference bro country material released by Thomas Rhett, Jason Aldean, Blake Shelton, and Florida Georgia Line. Holly Gleason, “The songs that make the biggest impact on country radio, the most conservative genre on the radio dial, are those that make people balk. ‘Girl in a Country Song’ was last year’s sharp stick in the eye.” Maddie & Tae went Top Ten with the 2015 single “Fly” and have quietly receded from commercial relevance since that time.
9. “Hard to Be an Outlaw,” Billy Joe Shaver. After more than forty years of working as a songwriter and a recording artist, Billy Joe Shaver had his first album hit the country charts in 2014 with his “Long in the Tooth” release (behold the modern power of Outlaw Country radio). Fun fact – the album’s title track was written with actor Paul Gleason, best known for being the vindictive prick Assistant Principal in the 1985 teen angst classic “The Breakfast Club.” On “Hard to Be an Outlaw” Shaver and Willie Nelson bemoan the tough life of aging outlaws and take a swing at modern country pop music. Shaver on the current scene, “There’s a lot of money behind these people. I can’t begrudge anybody for trying to make money. I feel that the art part of it just went out the window.”
10. “I Ain’t Looking for No Trouble,” Ray Benson. Ray Benson has been the…um…driving force behind Asleep at the Wheel since 1970, but he’s veered into a solo direction on a few occasions. His 2014 album “A Little Piece” was a singer/songwriter effort with a much different lyrical approach than the escapism of Western swing. Based on a fingerpicking tuning that Benson learned from Bob Dylan guitarist Larry Campbell, Benson stretches his deep baritone on this kiss off number, concluding, “Don’t ask me for directions or I just might tell you where to go.” Benson on the evolution of Austin, ““Well, in 1973, we used to come to Austin to drop acid. Now we drop antacid.”
11. “I’m Blue, I’m Lonesome,” Marty Stuart. Banty rooster Marty Stuart was only a significant commercial act for a few years during the early 1990s, but he’s been a tireless proponent of the genre and has released music since 2003 with his perfectly named backing unit The Fabulous Superlatives. His 2014 release was the two disc set, sinner/salvation themed “Saturday Night/Sunday Morning.” “I’m Blue, I’m Lonesome” was release by Bill Monroe in 1950 and is suspiciously credited as being written by Monroe and Hank Williams. (According to bluegrass musician Jimmy Martin, Hank Williams wrote the song and Monroe originally took credit for it; a legal challenge decades later added Williams as co-writer). In any event, Stuart’s version is honky tonk country two-step than bluegrass, but the instrumental breaks prove that his band has earned their hyperbolic name.
12. “I’m Not Gonna Miss You,” Glen Campbell. This song was written for the 2014 documentary film “Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me.” Producer/song co-writer Julian Raymond, “[Campbell] had a hard day of people asking him about Alzheimer’s and how he felt about it. He didn’t talk too much about it, but came up to me and said, ‘I don’t know what everybody’s worried about. It’s not like I’m going to miss anyone, anyway.” Recorded with members of The Wrecking Crew, Campbell is a living ghost on “I’m Not Gonna Miss You,” a physical body singing words he may or may not understand while surviving in a world he can no longer comprehend. Heartbreaking.
13. “It’s Not Easy,” The Henry Girls. Karen, Lorna, and Joleen McLaughlin are three sisters from Northern Ireland who comprise The Henry Girls, who have been described as folk rock and roots rock, but are definitely influenced by the Appalachian tradition. The Henry Sisters have released six albums since 2003, presumably focused more on art than commerce. “It’s Not Easy,” from their 2014 “Louder Than Words” album, sounds like a ballad from a bygone era, a tale of someone looking at the sea and wondering where they can find a place that feels like home. On the album track “So Long but Not Goodbye” they sound like a perfect replication of The Andrew Sisters.
14. “Kansas City,” The New Basement Tapes. The New Basement Tapes were a supergroup of sorts – My Morning Jacket vocalist Jim James, Elvis Costello, Marcus Mumford (of Mumford & Sons), Taylor Goldsmith (of Dawes), and Rhiannon Giddens recorded the 2014 album “Lost on the River.” The record was similar to the Wilco/Billy Bragg collections based upon setting music to unused Woody Guthrie lyrics. However, in this case, the music was developed for unused Bob Dylan lyrics, all written during 1967. On “Kansas City,” Dylan (or Marcus Mumford) wonders how much more energy he can invest in a failing relationship. Bonus trivia – Elvis Costello couldn’t make the session the day “Kansas City” was recorded. The replacement guitarist was Johnny Depp.