Category Archives: country music

Steve Young Remembered, from ‘Montgomery in the Rain’ to ‘Seven Bridges Road’

This week we lost of my all-time favorite country singer-songwriters, Steve Young. The writer of several classic songs made famous by some of the era’s biggest stars, Young was also a superb singer in his own right, and he has a string of excellent solo albums to prove it. On top of that, by many accounts (including my own experience) he was a wonderful man with a humble soul and a strong humanitarian streak. He also possessed lifelong ties to his Southern heritage that added richness and complexity to his songs.

Young died in Nashville, Tenn. on March 17, 2016 at the age of 73. He was in hospice at the time and under the close watch of his son, Jubal Lee Young.

“My father, Steve Young, passed peacefully tonight in Nashville,” Jubal wrote in a Facebook post. “While it is a sad occasion, he was also the last person who could be content to be trapped in a broken mind and body. He was far too independent and adventurous. I celebrate his freedom, as well, and I am grateful for the time we had. A true original.”

“I celebrate his freedom, and I am grateful for the time we had.”

Among Steve Young’s best-known songs is one of the most enduring anthems of the Outlaw era, “Lonesome On’ry And Mean,” a rambling-man song that Waylon Jennings covered in 1973. But that song was neither Young’s first composition nor the last anyone heard of him: his career stretches from the 1960s, when he cut the album Rock Salt & Nails (a record that featured Gram Parsons, Chris Hillman, and Gene Clark), all the way to the present, earning him accolades from critics (who have always loved his work) and his musical peers for his superb singing— a warm, dusty-edged baritone voice that can soar and sway— and guitar picking, which if anything has grown stronger over the years.

During all those years in-between, Young wrote and recorded a healthy number of knockout songs, among them “Seven Bridges Road” (covered by the Eagles and Eddy Arnold, among others), “Montgomery In The Rain,” and “Renegade Picker.” The last of the three is the title track of a 1975 album that showed Young itching with raw talent and standing on the precipice of greatness — something he achieved alone, despite the fact that he remained firmly on the outskirts of the country music mainstream.

Continue reading Steve Young Remembered, from ‘Montgomery in the Rain’ to ‘Seven Bridges Road’

Sturgill Simpson’s ‘Metamodern’ Country

With his new album Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, Sturgill Simpson has put out what’s currently my favorite album of the year. This is country music that is meaty and fun but also thoughtful and rich. It’s ‘metamodern,’ as he describes it — a play on the classic Ray Charles collection Modern Sounds in Country Music — but it’s also got boots on the ground, a sturdy honky-tonk sound by way of Merle Haggard and especially Waylon Jennings.

At the same time, the music is not that straightforward. Stop at Waylon and I’m often fine with that. But Sturgill has a wider scope here. After all, the lead single does bear the curious title “Turtles All the Way Down.” Watch the video:

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Jason Eady shows country is alive and well in 2014

Say what you will about the directions mainstream country is taking these days, but outside the Top 40 there’s plenty of honky tonk to go around. Top of the heap right now is Jason Eady, a Mississippi native (and Texas transplant) whose new album Daylight and Dark lays down some of the strongest country music I’ve heard all year.

Daylight and Dark in many ways picks up where Eady’s acclaimed previous album, AM Country Heaven, left off.

Continue reading Jason Eady shows country is alive and well in 2014

Robert Ellis follows ‘Photographs’ with ‘Lights from the Chemical Plant’

To call the music of Robert Ellis ‘country’ isn’t wrong, but it does miss the complexity of sounds and styles he regularly brings to his music.

The title track of his previous album Photographs stood out for its weepy melody and Ellis’s aching voice.

This year, though, Ellis has emerged with a new album — The Lights from the Chemical Plant — that’s every bit as strong, but shifts focus away from anything overtly honky tonk.

Continue reading Robert Ellis follows ‘Photographs’ with ‘Lights from the Chemical Plant’

Mickey Newbury, “She Even Woke Me Up To Say Goodbye”

One of my all-time favorite artists, Mickey Newbury had a knack for sad, slow, soulful songs that cut deep — but do so gently and thoughtfully. Newbury also had one of the finest voices in country music — a whole different style from someone like George Jones, but I would argue he was up there in that league.

Below is “She Even Woke Me Up to Say Goodbye,” one of Newbury’s finest songs. It’s a live version he performed on the Johnny Cash Show:

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The State of Mainstream Country in 2013

Even diehard mainstream country fans can’t deny that so many of today’s songs have similar themes, both melodically and lyrically. Much has been made lately of so-called “Bro Country,” with songs (sung by men, of course, who still dominate the charts) about tailgating, beer drinking, tight jeans and partying out in the country — often down a dirt road, by a river, or under the moonlight.

Nothing against beer, trucks or dirt roads per se, but things are clearly getting out of hand. Take a look at the video below that was put together by Entertainment Weekly critic Grady Smith — it makes the point pretty clearly.

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5 Essential Ray Price Songs

On Dec. 16, 2014, country legend Ray Price passed away after a battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 87 years old, and he left behind a huge catalog of recordings and a musical legacy that is among the most impressive in country music history.

Price was a contemporary (and friend) of Hank Williams, and his early recordings reflect that sharp-edged honky-tonk sound. As the 1950s progressed, though, Price found himself more and more attracted to smoother countrypolitan stylings. You can hear it working its way into songs like “City Lights” and especially on his album Night Life. And it finally comes to full fruition on Price’s 1960s songs such as “Danny Boy” and “For the Good Times” — the latter a Kris Kristofferson composition that Price turned into a signature song.

Price and his band the Cherokee Cowboys developed a dance-friendly rhythm that became known as the ‘Ray Price shuffle.’ The band was an early starting ground, too, for such later legends as Roger Miller, Willie Nelson and Johnny Paycheck.

Price also co-owned Pamper Music, a publishing company that helped boost the careers of Harlan Howard and Hank Cochran, among others.

Price was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1996. And he continued performing up until very recently, when his health wouldn’t allow it.

Because it spans so many years and includes so many great songs, Price’s catalog is well worth exploring in depth. Below are five key tracks to help you dive in.

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Tompall Glaser and Jack Clement: Country Outlaw Heroes

Two major players in country music passed away recently. Two key outlaw artists, and two of my favorite country artists, both of whom were involved in creating some of the finest music to come out of Nashville–or anywhere–in the last several decades.

Last week, we lost “Cowboy” Jack Clement. Recently elected into the Country Music Hall of Fame, Cowboy was someone who wrote songs for Johnny Cash; worked at Sun Studios and helped jumpstart the career of Jerry Lee Lewis; produced records for such artists as Townes Van Zandt, Charley Pride, and Don Williams; and was a key ‘outlaw’ innovator, producing what is arguably Waylon Jennings’ finest album, Dreaming My Dreams.

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The Songwriters: Gene Crysler

The other day I posted the album cover for Freddie Hart’s The Neon and the Rain. The title track is credited to Gene Crysler, whom I knew little about.

Doing some digging, though, turns out he wrote some cool and unusual songs. Like this one, “I Didn’t Jump the Fence,” which has been cut by the likes of Red Sovine and Cal Smith:

On the surface it’s an oddball song about a guy who admits to eating the “fruit” from his neighbor’s “tree,” but says he wasn’t “stealing” because it just “fell” into his yard. It’s not hard, of course, to read between the lines of what he’s really talking about.

Another Crysler song was “Don’t Make Me Go To School,” cut by Tammy Wynette.

And I always loved this Crysler song cut by Billie Jo Spears, about a small-town Kansas woman who gets a big-city job as a secretary in New York, but who quickly gets fed up with the old boys’ club.

Spears’ version of the song–the title track from her second album–peaked at No. 4 on the country charts in 1969.

Spears just comes off so damn down-to-earth appealing in this video, the kind of honest country artist we could use more of these days. Sadly, she passed away in 2011.

Vintage Album Covers: Freddie Hart

Freddie Hart The Neon and the RainFreddie Hart’s deeply dark “The Neon and the Rain”–the title track from his 1967 album–falls into the same homicidal category as Porter Wagoner’s classic “The Cold Hard Facts of Life.” Freddie covers the latter song on this album as well, though it’s hardly necessary. He’s already taken us down the deep hole with these opening lines:

As I sit beneath the steerin’ wheel a gun in my right hand
I watch the girl I married keep a date with another man
The neon sign above her head blinks motel vacancy
And through the rain it’s flashin’ like the storm inside of me

The black leather gloves he’s sporting in the cover image–and what those gloves are holding–add to the menace.