Country Line – April 2016
Last year, country artist Brandy Clark emerged as a major act in the Americana country field, co-writing many hits, releasing a critically acclaimed debut album (12 Stories) and winning huge numbers of fans at each concert. Following up a successful album and year are often daunting to new artists, but Clark seems to take pressure in stride. For the new release, “Big Day in a Small Town”, due out this summer, she leans to an edgier more rocking sound. This time, she’s using producer Jay Joyce, the guy behind the knobs for Eric Church, Little Big Town and Brothers Osborne. “The safest thing to me felt like making something a lot like 12 Stories,” says Clark, interviewed recently at the House of Blues in Boston, where she shared the stage with headliner Jennifer Nettles. “But I didn’t want to be safe and I want to feel constantly inspired, so when I sat down with Jay Joyce, I said, ‘Here’s what I don’t want: I don’t want to make a brother or a sister to 12 Stories. I really want to make a cousin. There’s no way we can beat that, I don’t feel, so let’s do something else.’ “And he said, ‘All I care about is that we make your record. Let’s not make my record, because you have to go out and perform it and, if it’s a success, you’re going to have to go out and perform it for a very long time.'” This is wise advance, and Clark took that advance to heart as she wrote songs for the follow-up album. With “Big Day in a Small Town”, Clark would like to see more country radio airplay and sales. She hopes “Girl Next Door” will be the first step in that climb. Like much of the rest of Big Day, the song, co-written with frequent writing partner Shane McAnally and buddy Jessie Jo Dillon, retains all the hallmarks of Clark’s style: a compelling character, witty turns of phrase and a strong melody. When talking about how Jay Joyce’s production influenced her songwriting, she explained it this way, “He definitely pushes you as an artist to get your record made the way you hear it in your head. He just blew my mind at his lack of ego when it came to making sure that things were the way I wanted them.” While the new album is a ways off, those yearning for more new Clark music can hear her contribution to Dave Cobb’s recently released, all-star compilation “Southern Family”, a newly recorded version of “I Cried.” Clark winds up her current tour next month and then plans to hit the road for a headlining club and small theater tour.
This year’s SXSW festival hit an early peak on Tuesday, March 15, when Texas Icon George Strait made a surprise appearance at a birthday party celebrating Asleep at the Wheel’s 65 year-old front-man, Ray Benson. Performing in a tent behind the office of Austin’s GSD&M advertising company, the two singers swapped lyrics during a string of Strait’s hits, including “All My Ex’s Live in Texas” and “Here for a Good Time” and “Right or Wrong” the old jazz standard that Strait covered. Benson towers above George by nearly a foot, but the semi-retired Strait stood tall, crooning the verses with a smile and stepping back from the stage’s front whenever an instrumentalist took a solo. With the crowd surrounding the small stage on three sides, the whole performance felt like a club gig. Strait will return to the arena stage in a few weeks, when his Strait to Vegas residency at the Las Vegas Arena makes its debut on April 22nd.
Songwriter and performer Steve Young, one of the earliest artists to be labeled “Outlaw Country,” died recently in Nashville. He was 73. In 1969, Young first recorded what would become his best-known song, “Seven Bridges Road.” Since then, the tune has been covered by dozens of acts including the Eagles (it was their last Top 40 after their 1980 breakup and before the 1994 reunion), Ricochet and Dolly Parton. A live version by Alan Jackson, George Strait and Jimmy Buffet was also released in 2007. A native of Newnan, Georgia, Young also wrote the 1973 Waylon Jennings hit, “Lonesome On’ry and Mean,” “Montgomery in the Rain” cut by Hank Williams Jr., and “It’s Not Supposed to Be That Way,” a minor hit for Willie Nelson in 1977. Born in 1942, Young’s family, led by his sharecropper father, moved from Georgia to Alabama to Texas looking for work. While in his teens, he returned to Alabama and became involved in the local music scene before leaving again to check out the Greenwich Village folk music of New York. After another move to Alabama, he went west to Los Angeles and lived in Hollywood in “Tobacco Road,” a house populated by several other Alabama exiles. In L.A., he played folk music as a solo act and as part of the Skip Battin Band, the Gas Company (a group that included Van Dyke Parks and Stephen Stills), Stone Country and Richard and Jim. Young’s debut LP, Rock Salt & Nails featured appearances by former Byrds members Gram Parsons, Chris Hillman and Gene Clark, and included “Seven Bridges Road,” which would go on to be cut by several artists in addition to the Eagles’ iconic version, including folk singer Joan Baez, country star Eddy Arnold, singer Rita Coolidge, Dobro legend Josh Graves and country duo Lonzo and Oscar, among others. Young also featured it as the title cut on his 1972 sophomore LP. He admitted to not being interested in the sacrifices it took to become a more well-known recording artist and performer. Young did however release a total of 14 albums throughout his career. He was also featured in the landmark Seventies documentary, Heartworn Highways, which chronicled several of the singer-songwriters of the early Outlaw movement in Texas and Nashville, including Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, Rodney Crowell and Steve Earle. The film was not released until 1981. In a Facebook post shortly after his death, Young’s son, Jubal Lee Young announced his father’s passing in a statement that quoted the lyrics of “Alabama Highway,” which his father performed in Heartworn Highways. “‘Turn supernatural, take me to stars and let me play. I want to be free, Alabama highway.’ My father, Steve Young, passed peacefully tonight in Nashville. 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.”
When Sturgill Simpson released “Brace for Impact (Live a Little),” the first single off his eagerly awaited new album “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth”, it highlighted an evolution of Simpson’s psychedelic country sound. With a greasy Seventies blues-rock vibe and touches of organ, the song could even suggest a departure from the country genre, a misguided notion that tickles Simpson. “Some people will say, and have said, that I’m trying to run from country, but I’m never going to make anything other than a country record. As soon as I open my mouth, it’s going to be a country song. . . but it doesn’t make the think pieces any less amusing,” Simpson recently told Rolling Stone. “I thought it was hilarious when ‘Brace for Impact’ was released and people said I had abandoned country even though the song is dripping with pedal steel. If anything, that tells me I’m making progress.” Set for release April 15th, “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth” leans heavily on seafaring allusions: the album cover depicts a vessel in rolling waves and features songs like “Breakers Roar” and “Sea Stories,” which opens with a ringing ship’s bell. Simpson himself once served in the U.S. Navy. “I wanted to capture certain elements of nautical life thematically, such as using brass to represent fog horns and wind, and blending the string section with pedal steel to mimic the breathing fluidity of water,” says Simpson, who enlisted funk-soul horn section the Dap-Kings to give the album its brassy skeleton. Simpson also produced the record on his own. His first two albums, 2013’s High Top Mountain and 2014’s Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, were overseen by Dave Cobb. “Due to the personal nature of the album I decided it was best not to collaborate with anyone,” he says. “I knew I wanted to make a concept record in song-cycle form, like my favorite Marvin Gaye records where everything just continuously flows. I also wanted it to be something that when my son is older and maybe I’m gone, he can listen to it and get a sense of who I was.” The Kentucky singer-songwriter penned every track on A Sailor’s Guide to Earth except one, a cover of Nirvana’s “In Bloom,” off Nevermind. Singer Kurt Cobain, and the Nevermind album in particular, were an inspiration to the young Simpson. “I remember in seventh or eighth grade when that album came out, it was like a bomb went off in my bedroom. For me, that song has always summed up what it means to be a teenager, and I think it tells a young boy that he can be sensitive and compassionate, he doesn’t have to be tough or cold to be a man,” explains Simpson. “I wanted to make a very beautiful and pure homage to Kurt.” A Sailor’s Guide to Earth marks Simpson’s first release for a major label. He signed to Atlantic Records last year after Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, released independently, garnered him country and rock fans alike. The new CD will be released April 15th on Atlantic Records. “It doesn’t feel like my life or the process has changed at all. Atlantic has been great to me. They didn’t flinch when I told them I was self-producing and nobody was popping their head in the studio,” he says. “Actually they didn’t hear a single note until the album was mastered so I really do have the creative freedom and the means to make the best art I possibly can now, which is all I ever really wanted. There are no expectations other than those I place on myself to be a great father and husband.” In May, Simpson will kick off a spring tour with a pair of sold-out shows in Austin. Other dates, including those in his native Kentucky, have also sold out.