Category Archives: Commentary

Mourning the Loss of the Gentle Giant Don Williams

I remember vividly the shame and embarrassment my seven-year-old self felt when, after telling my classmates on the first day of school in response to one of those questions about what we’d all done that summer that I’d been to a concert, they asked excitedly who it was, and when I said, “Don Williams,” the ridicule began in earnest. IN the space of a few seconds, I’d gone from having one of the most exciting summer adventures to having done possibly the most nerdy thing a kid could confess to. I had been proud then of the concert I’d attended; indeed, it had been the first country show I’d ever gone to, and although I was firmly ensconced in the more modern sound of late 90’s country music, Don Williams had been one of my first introductions to the older styles. But they made me feel as if liking his music and going to his show was something to be ashamed of, and from then on, I was careful about the amount of country music fandom I allowed myself to display around them.

But now, sitting here three days after the death of Don Williams, the beloved Gentle Giant, I am forever thankful that I went to that concert back then, heard that unmistakable voice live, a voice like none other before and I daresay never will be. Years later, going through difficult times in my life, Don Williams music was often what I found myself turning back to. Even before I found all this independent, more traditional music floating around, Don Williams music brought me comfort and escape. During dark times, it was Keith Whitley who understood me, that voice wrought with emotion borne only from experience, Keith Whitley who understood pain better than maybe anyone who has ever made music, certainly better than anyone i knew. And it was Don who put a smile on my face afterword, who reminded me of happier times, simpler times. You can’t listen to a Don Williams record and not draw strength and comfort from it, and for me, it was like therapy. I wrote in a reflection piece not long ago that Don Williams songs are just relaxing. They are guaranteed to make you feel better.

I’ve been saddened, especially in recent years, as more and more artists I loved have passed on and left us their legacies. I can remember exactly where I was the morning I learned of Merle Haggard’s death, and it made me miss my grandma all over again because she used to play his music. I remember growing up with Glen Campbell’s songs, and his loss was truly painful. I still can’t get through his final record because it depresses me too much. While it’s true that I didn’t own tons of Montgomery Gentry albums, I did enjoy their music growing up, and Troy Gentry’s death is no less, and no more, tragic than Don’s. But Don Williams was a friend, even if I didn’t know him. His music lifted me up and brought me through hard times in my life, and it’s mostly all I’ve wanted to play since Friday.

If you haven’t gotten to know my friend, even though these are terrible circumstances, I encourage you to take the time to get acquainted with the Gentle Giant. That incredible voice lives on in his music, and his songs will always be here to bring us comfort, even if we’re seeking comfort from the loss of Don Williams himself.

Melody: The Most Forgotten and Forsaken Element in Music

“Nobody even attempts to write a melody.”

These were some of the infamous words of Merle Haggard when he gave his opinion on modern mainstream country back in 2015. Interesting words because while you can find plenty of people harping on the lack of lyrical content and substance in the mainstream, or bitching about the encroachment of other genres and electronic beats into their beloved country music, not many people have commented on what may be the most rampant problem running through modern American music: the consistent lack of memorable and engaging melodies.

But even though we don’t mention it, this makes sense in the mainstream. Much of the stuff coming from Music Row is unimaginative and forgettable, and the lack of melody is only one small problem. So yeah, maybe we don’t criticize it often enough, but it’s not a stretch to see the undeniable lack of care for this crucial element in mainstream country.

But I’d argue it’s an even bigger problem in the world of Americana and independent music; yep, you know, that world where everything is good, and we can’t criticize anything. IN fact, I’d say that the mainstream is maybe the best place to find entertaining melodies these days–and no, that’s not saying a lot because so much mainstream music is just downright boring, but the majority of the songs we call “guilty pleasures” that come out of the mainstream stick with us because they’re catchy. They get stuck in our heads. Sure, we know the lyrics are stupid, maybe even at times misogynistic. But it’s the melody, and/or that lively, infectious instrumentation that keeps us liking the song despite how our mind tells us we should feel about it.

Conversely, how many Americana projects have you listened to that while there weren’t any flaws per se, there was also nothing memorable whatsoever? Maybe you read reviews or heard from listeners how great a record was, how awesome the songwriting was, etc., and for whatever reason just could not get into the album. That’s not to take away from the special art of songwriting, and it’s also true music is by nature subjective, but sometimes, albums are ruined just by a lack of effort and care for the melodies. Ray Wylie Hubbard’s is a shining example of this and indeed the inspiration for this post; equally, John Moreland’s latest might well have been the most boring record of the year if not for those catchy hooks and enchanting melodies that kept you coming back enough times to really unwrap the brilliance in his lyrics.

This problem of forsaking melodies is no doubt directly related to the equally alarming lack of quality vocalists in the independent scenes, which is itself a topic worthy of an entire post. We question whether to criticize such things as a singer’s vocal ability, and indeed, things like tone can’t be helped, but the technical abilities of singers can also be improved. Shows like The Voice and American Idol have gone to the other extreme, painting a picture of vocal ability as everything without taking into account an artist’s ability to draw an audience in emotionally. This emotional connection is more vital than technical skill, But singing is also more than emotive interpreting; this is what makes it different from reading poetry. it’s also nice to hear a great vocalist sing the hell out of a song; that’s one of the reasons Lauren Alaina’s sophomore album was such a joy to listen to.

When singer-songwriters are writing songs to fit their increasingly limited vocal ranges and abilities, their melodies become limited as well and often become somewhat of an afterthought. The results are often good lyrics that were turned into boring, lifeless songs. I’ve heard numerous Americana albums like this in 2017, brimming with good songwriting but completely forgettable. A singer may indeed possess that special thing that connects them with an audience and allows them to draw emotion out of every word, but does that matter if those magical words are translated into boring, forgettable music? Melody is what brings the lyrics to life and makes the songs resonate with us and get stuck in our heads. A script is only as good as the actors who make it come alive onstage, and lyrics on a page are only as thoughtful and relatable as the vocalist who interprets them for the world and the melody to which the songwriter sets them.

We praise songwriters, and we say we’re living in the age of the song, but it’s more like the age of the lyric. These independent/Americana types are often so caught up in telling a story and/or being deep and thoughtful that they forget what makes music such a unique and treasured art form. It’s good to be artistic, but that artistry shouldn’t replace accessibility. Even our greatest songwriters like Jason Isbell are guilty of this; there’s some brilliant material on his latest album, but some of it is honestly just forgettable melodically. This is not to take away from Jason Isbell as an artist or a lyricist, more to paint a picture of just how deep the problem goes and to illustrate that even the greatest songwriters and albums suffer from this phenomenon in 2017.

There is a lot of talk these days, especially in this blogging world, about what, if any, of the music coming out currently will be remembered years from now. Not ten or twenty, but say, fifty years down the road. Will we be listening to any music from today like people still listen to Hank? That’s a whole different discussion, but I’d argue that it’s not just the lack of substance keeping songs from having that timeless quality. It’s not just shallow radio singles that will be forgotten, but many of our greatest songwriters in both mainstream and independent music will suffer the same fate if they continue to treat melody as some sort of secondary element. It’s that indefinable thing that keeps us coming back to a song years later, that recalls a memory, a specific place and time, and has us singing a chorus we haven’t heard in so long but to which we still can recite the words. It’s the melodies which linger on in our minds and stir our hearts, and I hate to see it becoming so marginalized, even by otherwise great musicians and lyricists. So songwriters, please don’t forget this crucial part of your craft, or treat it as somehow secondary to your lyrics. It’s the thing that holds them together and gives them character, taking those thoughts from your head and words on a page and turning them into timeless songs that we’ll sing for years to come.

Advice to Young Girls Seeking Country Airplay

You know the days when you could turn on the radio and hear all sorts of interesting female voices? That’s been true throughout country’s history, from Loretta and Dolly on down to Martina and Faith. Nowadays, it’s Miranda and Carrie–well, no, not even Miranda, as her latest single struggles mightily to chart despite its sales and critical acclaim. Better to say Carrie and Kelsea. Anyway, to all the young girls out there who might be pursuing a career in country music and are wondering just how to shatter the glass ceiling on country radio, here’s some tried-and-true advice.

1. Don’t, under any circumstance, release something traditional. Fiddle, steel, mandolin, throw them all out. Even if they might make an appearance on your album–which is also discouraged–at least do what Maddie & Tae did with “Girl in a Country Song” and release a single with electronic beats and pop elements. Keep all the traditional fans guessing at your intent, wondering if the beats are serious or sarcastic, because it’s better to hold them at arm’s length or even to alienate them altogether if you want to get a #1 at radio.

2. Ignore all the misogynistic bullshit thrown at you by radio programmers, record executives, and in many of the male songs on country radio. Katie Armiger spoke up about that a couple years ago, and look what happened to her career.

3. Don’t date anyone in the industry, or better yet, don’t attempt to have a personal life on any level. Lindsay Ell taught us that.

4. Trivialize the female problem on country radio and in the industry. Kelsea Ballerini’s got success, and she barely admits to the problem. Meanwhile, the ones who speak up about such things struggle for recognition. Just worry about breaking in yourself, and don’t try to help other women along the way.

5. Forget just ignoring the misogyny, try writing lyrics about being these types of women. Throw all your dreams and hard-hitting lyrics to the side and sing about tailgates and tight jeans. If at all possible, try accepting the objectification and embracing this role.

6. Try not to veer too far from singing songs about love or getting noticed by men. Under no circumstances should you speak up about the type of songs that women are often stereotyped as singing.

7. Don’t be sexual or have sexual desires, and if you do suffer from these afflictions, don’t leak them into your music, for God’s sake.

8. Talk about your outfits more than your music. It’s not okay to be sexual in your songs, but it is important to be viewed as desirable at all times.

9. If all this fails, sing one or two lines on a male song, and you’ll soon have a #1 hit. It doesn’t matter if you sound like a glorified backup singer, take it from Maren Morris.

10. Finally, remember that your awards, sales, and most importantly, your perspective, do not matter in this industry and on the radio. Let go of these archaic notions, and you might soon be one of the only four females in the top fifty. Here’s to being one of the fortunate 8%, and I look forward to your #1 hit!

“It’s Always the Songs”–What we Should Learn From Steve Earle’s Recent Outbursts

Ahead of his new album So You Wannabe an Outlaw, Steve Earle has not been afraid to speak his mind. IN a recent interview with The Guardian, Earle calls out, among other things, the current state of pop country and says that the mainstream is nothing but “hip-hop for people who are afraid of black people.” He also says that “the best stuff coming out of Nashville is all by women except for Chris Stapleton.” I don’t want to focus too much on this interview since that’s not originally what this article was meant to be about, but it adds new light to it and strengthens the point I was originally going to make here–Steve Earle is not afraid to be honest and share his opinion. However, the thing is, although it’s not overly common, bashing pop country is certainly not uncommon, and we’ve seen our fair share of artists do so over the past several years. The thing that makes Earle’s recent statements different comes in light of another interview, which before today had been the main focus of this piece.

IN another interview in Canada, with The Globe and Mail, when asked about Canadian songwriters, Steve Earle mentioned Colter Wall, citing him as “the best singer-songwriter I’ve come across in years.” Here’s where the interview takes an interesting turn.

I haven’t heard his new album yet, but I heard him [Colter] described as “bad Richard Buckner.”
Richard Buckner sucks. Richard Buckner is the most overrated songwriter in the history of songwriting ever. Girls liked him, because he stared at his feet. He’s a neanderthal. I know Buckner.
I’m quite fond of Buckner’s music. Particularly, The Hill (2000).
He can’t write his way out of a wet paper bag. Richard Buckner was nothing but a painfully alternative hipster’s darling. But I hate a lot of things people think are brilliant. I will not read Cormac McCarthy again. Technically, he’s one of the best writers I’ve ever come across. But I don’t think his intentions are good. I don’t think he likes us. I don’t think he likes himself. Actually, I think he likes himself just fine. That’s what’s so disgusting about it. I think he thinks the rest of us are pieces of [garbage].
Painfully alternative hipster’s darling, you say about Buckner. Can you explain that?
I don’t want to be a part of a culture that defines itself by what it hates. I can’t stand alternativism. I mean, I hate disco, but I have to admit there’s been some great art coming out of dance music.
But out of hate and alternativism comes great art. Punk rock, as a reaction to disco, for example.
Sure. But the stuff that’s great in punk rock are the songs. The songs hold up. The stuff lasts. Nirvana’s not Nirvana because of punk rock. Nirvana’s not Nirvana because it was different than hair metal. Nirvana is Nirvana because Kurt Cobain was a world-class songwriter. It’s always the songs.

First of all, I had never heard the name Richard Buckner before this interview, and let me tell you, after getting acquainted, Steve Earle is entirely correct, Richard Buckner sucks–but that’s beside the point. The point is, and it’s been strengthened today by his criticism of the mainstream, that he’s not afraid to judge the independent/Americana/alternative in the same way as what is popular. We’re all pressured by that in this independent country scene, to like everything Americana just because it’s not on the radio or isn’t considered mainstream. But let me tell you, a lot of it bores the hell out of me, and Country Exclusive was founded on a principle of honesty. When I said that, I didn’t just mean bashing the mainstream, and I get that there’s a certain problem with spending too much time unnecessarily bashing the little guy, but there’s also this elitist attitude in the Americana world that makes it seem as if you can’t criticize anything about these artists. Hell, there are albums I enjoy but have slight criticisms about in Americana, but somehow, if we say that, it’s a horrific thing. Criticism is meant to be constructive, and to share an opinion–and if the artist deems it necessary to listen, perhaps to make that artist better, but again, it’s just someone’s opinion. WE all find it easy to bash Nashville and pop country, and we all rally behind people like Steve Earle when they do the same. So why do we attack him for saying something negative about an Americana artist? I love that last point–“It’s always the songs.” Let it always stay about the songs. That goes for you mainstream fans afraid to like Jason Isbell, and for you independent/alternative/Americana fans afraid to like Chris Stapleton because he wrote some mainstream hits. Just let it be about the songs. They should, and will, speak for themselves.

Collaboration with Critically Country and the Critical abyss

So I did another collaboration piece for the month of May, this time with both Alex of Critically Country and Leon of The Critical abyss, formerly Country Music Minds. Topics include stuff we covered in May, that God-awful Chris Young song, midyear lists and albums emerging as our respective favorites of 2017. You can check that out here.

The Country Music Chat Featuring The Critical Abyss and Country Exclusive