John Fullbright (from the album From the Ground Up available on )
First introductions are long-lasting, so initial impressions are important. On his debut release, From the Ground Up, John Fullbright matched personality with resume, the calling card reading “Gawd Above” as the piano man creates a heavenly presence made in his own image. Marching piano chords mark a path for the wandering gypsy fiddle and baroque texture of “Fat Man” as the ivory keys hush when John Fullbright exposes secrets in “I Only Pray at Night” as he slowly picks out acoustic guitar notes for “Forgotten Flowers”. Recorded in Norman, Oklahoma in 2012, From the Ground Up enlisted producer/engineer Wes Sharon and a backing band to capture his songs for demos. Once the three-day session hit playback, the game changed, John Fullbright recalling ‘we got lost in it in those three hours we were recording. We all looked at each other and thought, ‘No, this is the record. It’s not going to get any better than this anywhere else.’
Country music chews at the rhythms of “Moving” while a Bluesy harmonica leads the way into the call/response harmonies of “All the Time in the World” as a wistful melancholy follows the soft fall of piano note hammers in the endless search of “Nowhere to Be Found”. As the musical backing for the tales sound shifts, John Fullbright clearly remembers the origins of the songs on From the Ground Up, sharing that ‘every song on this record was written in that house, and I was kind of written in that house.’ The beat is a rolling wheel as John Fullbright tells the story of “Satan and St. Paul” while From the Ground Up supports “Jericho” on a determined chord structure.
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John Moreland and the Black Gold Band (from the album Endless Oklahoma Sky available on Little Mafia Records)
Crisscrossing their home state, the band headed down highway travel to weekend gigs resembles a million musicians. The Endless Oklahoma Sky watches a long line of cars loaded with gear hoping for a soundcheck and forty-five minutes of glory while John Moreland and the Black Gold Band uses the heavens above their heads as a title for their debut album. Formed in 2009, The Black Gold Band gave John Moreland a rock’n’roll outfit to hone his songwriting chops before heading out on a solo career that backed his songs of ‘glorious and joyous heartbreak’ with an acoustic guitar.
Three chords and the truth receive a masters degree when the pen writing the songs belongs for John Moreland. Tying the guitar strings into knots, Endless Oklahoma Sky admits “Everything’s My Fault” while distortion rumbles underneath “It Ain’t About Gettin’ Out” as the track heads for an exit, jangly chords act as a slingshot for the finger pointing statements of “All I Know”, and full frontal rock’n’roll freedom kicks open the album with “Gotta Be on My Way”. Formed in 2005, John Moreland and the Black Gold Band released Endless Oklahoma Sky in 2009, following with Things I Can’t Control in 2011, the same year John debuted with a solo recording (Earthbound Blues). Scratching their heads as they do the same to guitar strings, John Moreland and the Black Gold Band watch first impressions explode in “Thought You Were Different”, use a cowbell thump to count white lines across Bible Belt blacktop with “The State Line (Hardcore, Hard Luck)”, hammer the beat to match the pounding heads in “Tired of the World”, and find towns bleeding into one another as a touring band lists “What You Get Paid For”.
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Sturgill Simpson (from the album High Top Mountain available on High Top Mountain Records)
Self-funded, self-released, and signed to a UK label (Loose Records) for distribution, High Top Mountain was the debut solo step for Sturgill Simpson. The album is a peer to the original days of Outlaw Country, biting lyrics laid out on chugging rhythms, stories that read like diary pages from a traveling troubadour. The opening cut for High Top Mountain is a day in the life of the marriage between music and commerce, Sturgill Simpson starting the story with the record label smiling and shaking hands as the music man weighs in with “Life Ain’t Fair and the World is Mean”. The tale is a template for High Top Mountain as Sturgill Simpson aims his career and his songs at honky tonk stages worldwide. A rushed rhythm is the mighty wind for “Poor Rambler” as the songwriter lets his mind wander, what-ifs rising like the smoke rings in the story of “Time After All” while sad Country tells its tale with “Water in a Well” and the melody quiets to allow “Hero” to pay tribute with its words.
A band member (vocalist/guitar) for Sunday Valley was the experience that Sturgill Simpson brought to his High Top Mountain debut (produced by Dave Cobb). Formed in 2004, Sturgill Simpson took a break from the band, and from music, managing a freight shipping yard in Salt Lake City before returning to the band at the urging of his wife and friends. He moved to Nashville, Tennessee after Sunday Valley broke up in 2012, releasing High Top Mountain in 2013. The album began a musically evolving progression of studio releases that will feature the cycle of life seen in five albums as acts in the stage play. High Top Mountain is the formative musical background of Sturgill Simpson, his songwriting tribute to the tunes that made a difference to him. He boards “Railroad of Sin’ on a runaway train Rock’n’Country beat and weathers rolling clouds of rumbling chords in “The Storm” as High Top Mountain puts the spotlight on a Country crooner for “I’d Have to Be Crazy” while Sturgill Simpson wins the musical throne on shit mountain and is looking to hand over his hat in “You Can Have the Crown”.
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Tom Waits (from the album Heartattack and Vine)
The dawn of a new decade signaled a change in the musical weather for Tom Waits. He delivered his final album on his Asylum Records contract with Heartattack and Vine. The title became a mainstay on album charts for three months and his best selling album to that date. Heartattack and Vine was the last release from Tom Waits to fully feature the cast of characters that roamed through his previous six album releases. The songs of Tom Waits experienced an urbanization post-Heartattack and Vine, his heroes still host to left-of-center stars seen through the noir night vision of his album cycles that began with debut release Closing Time. Tom Waits career has spanned multiple decades, his songs cherished for sonic innovation, his releases touchstones for museum quality music.
Transient humans populated the songs of Tom Waits in the 1970’s, beginning with his 1973 debut before moving on to new territory after Heartattack and Vine. The album tenderly cradles Tom Waits’ patented hoarse growl, rocking “On the Nickel” gently in its lullaby string swells and lightly touched piano rambles, using the rhythm of jungle drums to chase the night with “’Til the Money Runs Out”. The title track welcomes as album opener, Tom Waits shaking hands all around and introducing his street corner buds, warning that ‘this stuff’ll probably kill you, let’s do another line’ and testifying that ‘there ain’t no devil that’s just god when he’s drunk’. Heartattack and Vine follows “Mr. Siegal” as he sashays across the Nevada line, rings church bells in a sleepy town with “Saving All My Love for You”, finds salvation in the horns wrapped in “Ruby’s Arms”, and rumbles like a subway car heading into “Downtown”. Bruce Springsteen took a tune from Heartattack and Vine, making it his own as part of his live show with his cover of the Tom Wait’s track “Jersey Girl”.
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The Old 97’s (from the album Too Far to Care)
The lovable loser that is a recurring guest in the songs of The Old 97’s rolls and tumbles over chord crunched beat, walking down “Streets of Where I’m From” content in the with the measure of the journey used as an album title on the band’s third album release, Too Far to Care. The Old 97’s took a big step forward with Too Far to Care, their first release on a major record label (Elektra). Too Far to Care moved their music beyond the Texas scene stronghold the Houston band had carved out with their first two releases, The Old 97’s music branded by their ability to give a diss with a smirk in their stories as they wove Country licks over a rock’n’roll backbeat. Happy birthday wishes travel over 1800 miles, sent from a traveling musician setting up to play in one more “Niteclub”. Los Angeles, CA punk Exene Cervenka (X), grabs a microphone and raises her voice above the heavy-breathing guitar distortion revving its engine in “Four-Leaf Clover” while The Old 97’s find their own way to the Golden State on the wagon-wheel rattle rhythms of “Just Like California”.
A nervous lover timidly poses commitment questions with “Melt Show” as a door opens in a hotel room off of Times Square for “Broadway” and The Old 97’s bow on a reverb string bend for “Curtain Calls”, fall into “Big Brown Eyes” on a Country ramble, and walk out into the moonlight, spitting out a Country rock’n’roll kiss-off for “Salome”. The Old 97’s took their first solid step into the musical career with the release of Too Far to Care, creating a foundation that would support them well into 2018 with little signs of wear. Well-loved cuts from The Old 97’s were the first two shots heard on Too Far to Care as the then-needle hit the groove on opening track “Timebomb” leading into “Barrier Reef”.
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New Riders of the Purple Sage (from the album NRPS)
Jerry Gracia steered the psychedelic ship as Captain Trips, driving the wheel of the Grateful Dead as the band made their way out of the San Francisco music scene and into history. Never complacent with his playing, Jerry Gracia juggled multiple projects, each with its own sound as he offered outtings with a string band (Old and in the Way), Blues (with Merle Saunders), and unique takes on cover tunes (Jerry Garcia Band). His interest in playing pedal-steel guitar led Jerry Garcia to join forces with John ‘Marmaduke’ Dawson and his vision of psychedelic Country. The pair added another longtime Bay Area music scene compatriot with David Nelson on guitar, performing as New Riders of the Purple Sage. Former Jefferson Airplane drummer, Spencer Dryden, was the drummer for the group’s self-titled debut, the only album featuring Jerry Garcia, who was replaced by Buddy Cage in the band.
New Riders of the Purple Sage were in the right musical spot for the late 1960’s move towards Country Rock that came in with The Byrds, Flying Burrito Brothers, The Dillards, and other SoCal Country Rock’n’Roll bands. The NRPS debut featured all tracks written by lead vocalist, John Dawson. Psychedelics stretched the possibilities of the Country Rock’n’Roll that New Riders of the Purple Sage wore like a second skin. Jerry Garcia’s pedal steel is prominent, skipping with a playful romp in “Whatcha Gonna Do”, catching air like the spreading wings of “Last Lonely Eagle” as his playing freckles the air around honky tonk piano rambles, and sighs like the breaks coming to a tour-stop for “Portland Woman”. The wry sense of humor in the words of John Dawson are the language of hippie-era average man, as NRPS introduces an old-school drug-runner as it watches “Henry” hurdle through the mountains of Mexico, picks up the pace on a rapidfire string band push for “Glendale Train”, and dreams a cowboy tale on the waves of sound rising like heat off a desert floor in “Dirty Business”.
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Cowboy Junkies – (from the album The Caution Horses)
The warning label on The Caution Horses by Cowboy Junkies may be attached directly to the songs on the Canadian band’s third album release. The track list runs through a neighborhood of boarded up love nests, the stories reflecting a local-bar glow of neon hitting shadows where the promise of a new day has long ago faded. If the scepter is a wine glass and the bar stool a throne, the reigning queen holding court uses “Cheap it How I Feel” as her theme song. The Caution Horses peaks into the window of an empty life with “Sun Comes Up, It’s Tuesday Morning” as Cowboy Junkies leave only a kiss after a kiss-off closes the door on love for “Escape is So Simple”.
Following the success of their break-through second release, The Trinity Sessions, Cowboy Junkies followed with an album primarily stocked with band originals, reserving room for like-minded sad Country songs with Neil Young’s “Powderfinger” and Mary Margaret O’Hara’s “You Will Be Lived Again”. A mournful harmonica echoes off the four walls collecting checkmarks for “Thirty Summers” as The Caution Horses tethers “Rock and Bird” with a potent rhythm to carry the tale aloft and trots out a steady rhythm for “Where Are You Tonight” as Cowboy Junkies launch “Mariner’s Song” on mandolin strums, quietly relating the tale of “Witches” on lightly touched strings and hushed whispers.
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Linda Ronstadt (from the album Linda Ronstadt)
Looking back at success is positive reinforcement to let go and simply follow your feet. Linda Ronstadt was still finding her own solo footing on her third album. The 1972 self-titled release was the first studio work where the singer seemed to have a clear intention with recording process and her own sound. On her first two solo records, Linda Ronstadt took steps away from the Folk Rock of her band The Stone Poneys. Her debut, Hand Sown…Home Grown (1969), put Linda Ronstadt in songs that leaned more towards a Country and Rock hybrid. A commercial failure, the album had sold less than 10,000 copies before her next release, 1970’s Silk Purse. Linda Ronstadt traveled to Nashville, Tennessee to record her second release, the only album she recorded in Music City. A battle began on album number two with Capital Records, her label balking at the track “Long, Long Time”, a tune that would prove to be the first charted cut from Linda’s solo work. Of her time in Nashville, Linda Ronstadt pointed out that ‘Nashville Country is very different from California Country’. Her release of Linda Ronstadt would be the last album for Capital Records. While relations with the label were shaky, the singer found the sound/style skin that would transport her to super-stardom throughout the next few decades.
The music scene revolving around Hollywood’s music venue The Troubadour had become a fertile breeding ground for a hybrid sound that was both Rock and Country friendly. Three tracks on Linda Ronstadt were recorded live at The Troubadour, a cover of Patsy Cline’s “I Fall to Pieces”, Neil Young’s “Birds”, and countrified funk take on the R&B hit from Fontella Bass “Rescue Me”. Two of the live tracks included male vocals from Randy Meisner, who was a member of her touring band. On Linda Ronstadt, the singer brought in members of her touring band, the players assembled by Glenn Frey, whom Linda had hired for the group. Besides, Randy Meisner, Glenn added fellow local scene musicians Don Henley and Bernie Leadon to the backing band. The recording of the album would be the genesis of the Eagles, the four original members receiving Linda Ronstadt’s approval and help with the fledgling band. The recording equally deserves credit for aligning the California Country that Linda Ronstadt heard in her music and taking solid steps on a path that led to Country Rock.
Classic Country tunes sit side by side with tracks from up-and-coming musicians such as Jackson Browne, whose “Rock Me on the Water” opens the album, and more Folk-leaning artists such as Livingston Taylor (“In My Reply”). The power and purity in Linda Ronstadt’s vocal is on full display on the album, the resonance in her voice drifting over the soft Country playing backing Johnny Cash’s “I Still Miss Someone”, comfortable in the Classic Country structure of the Ray Price hit “Crazy Arms”, and strength in the part-time honesty confessions of Eric Anderson’s “I Ain’t Always Been Faithful”.
Fame caught up quickly to Linda Ronstadt, her next release, Don’t Cry Now, her first release on upstart LA-label Asylum Records, founded in 1971 by David Geffen and Eliot Roberts, signing musicians from the California Country scene and jettisoning its artists into commercial success.
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6 String Drag (from the album High Hat on Schoolkids Records)
When 6 String Drag recorded the Twangtrust-produced (Steve Earle and Ray Kennedy) High Hat in 1997, the band was getting a lot of attention in their homebase North Carolina music scene and beyond. While contemporaries in the scene such as Whiskeytown (Ryan Adams) continued to cling on rising stars, 6 String Drag disbanded in the late 1990’s. The re-issue of High Hat (the album’s first time wearing vinyl) shares the secret of times when Roots and Americana were poor relations in both the Rock and Country markets, prior to the Roots music community needing neither format to exist and flourish. The High Hat release forms a bridge for the Raleigh, North Carolina band as they partner the album with the release of Top of the World, a collection of 2018 studio recordings from 6 String Drag.
Hitting the Alt Country target on the High Hat opening cut, 6 String Drag rattle and roll out “Bottle of Blues”, the mood of the tune plugging into the 1990’s abandon and near feral approach to Alt Country delivered by peer bands such as The Bottle Rockets, The Old 97’s, Wilco, and Son Volt. A rock’n’roll strut carries an option to heat things up with “Gasoline Maybelline” while a swamp-thick groove percolates underneath Country vocals for “Red”, a mean stomp addresses “From Me to Clayton”, and sharp-angled guitar chords give structured to the pleas of “Guilty”. The mission statement for 6 String Drag rings loud and clear on High Hat, the band following the beat of a Rock’n’Roll heart into various Roots music styles. 6 String Drag lay out a sonic rumble for “Cold Steel Brace” and nod to Brit Pop from The Kinks to Elvis Costello in “Driven Man”. High Hat glues the beat to the gas pedal in “85 on 85” and pushes “Top of the Mountain” with a Rockabilly shove as 6 String Drag use harmonies and rhythm to tag the Louvin-Brothers era sound onto “I Can’t Remember”, adding a bonus track to High Hat borrowed from The Louvin’s catalog of song with “Lorene”.
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Chris Hillman (from the album The Asylum Years available on Omnivore Recordings)
The 1976 recording for Chris Hillman’s solo debut, Slippin’ Away, packed the recording studio with heavy hitters that included members of Booker T & The M.G.;s, Poco, Buffalo Springfield, and The Turtles along with A-List LA studio musicians. Chris Hillman carried credentials into his solo outing as a founding member and crucial ingredient in the careers of groups such as The Byrds, The Flying Burrito Brothers, and Souther-Hillman-Furay Band. Omnivore Records puts Slippin’ Away (1976) with the 1977 release Clear Sailin’ into one package with the album The Asylum Years. Sonically, Chris Hillman plays along with 1970’s California Country, a style he equally influenced and sources on Slippin’ Away. Of his previous musical encounters, Slippin’ Away resembles Chris’ time in Souther-Hillman-Furay Band as the album mixes era-defining Country Rock and call/response harmonies. Country-slide guitars (“Take It on the Run”), delicate Folk-Rock ballads (“Love is the Sweetest Amnesty”), Caribbean Island rhythms (“Down in the Churchyard”), and a shaky west coast rumble steers for “Midnight Again” as Chris Hillman strums his way into Slippin’ Away with “Step on Out” and lets the plea match the pace asking “(Take Me in Your) Lifeboat”.
A little more Country tempers the tones of Clear Sailin’, the songs tender front porch Folk as Chris Hillman rips a relationship down the middle in “Quits” while he puts a soulful backbeat underneath “Paying the Fool”, adds in horns for the honky tonk Saturday night of “Lucky in Love”, and shares a piano bench with lonely in “Heartbreaker”. The music of Clear Sailin’ sets a course towards a full-on Country future with west coast players in Desert Rose Band, co-founded by Chris Hillman in 1985. The rhythms of “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” lap like waves against the track as Clear Sailin’ shimmies on a Bluesy country sway in “Nothing Gets Through” and drifts on a smooth sea for the title track as Chris Hillman shrugs off blame in “Fallen Favorite” and asks a memory of old lovers to hop on board the western Country breeze of “Hot Dusty Roads”.
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