Billy Joe Shaver is back at 74 with his first album in seven years. Shaver reportedly feels that “Long in the Tooth” is his best album. It is a tall claim considering his voluminous discography, but it is definitely in the upper echelon. Since his last album, Shaver has shown he is not ready to remove the outlaw from Outlaw Country. Four years ago he was acquitted for shooting a man in self-defense outside of a Waco bar. When asked by the prosecutor why he didn’t try to get away he said, "If I was a chicken shit I would have left." Then later he added, “"Hopefully things will work out where we become friends enough so that he gives me back my bullet." Shaver references aging from a few different perspectives on the album. On the one hand, he shows an air of defiance. Like the opener “Hard to be an Outlaw (who ain’t wanted anymore)”, which is a superb duet with Willie Nelson. On that song the two of them declare that “Someday we might end up in a junkyard on the side, but until that day you can bet your ass we’re going to whip that ride.” He sings a similar mantra on the tile cut, which has a cool, trippy vibe to it. On the other hand, Shaver uses his life experience to add perspective about life’s issues and realities. On songs like “The Git Go” and “Checkers and Chess”, there is none of the melodrama or class bashing that you will often hear from young idealistic singers. He is not trying to change the world, opting instead to point out that the world hasn’t changed. “Long in the Tooth” empties the Outlaw’s saddlebag. There is the proverbial mixture of Country and Rock. However, he also takes us to the Honky Tonk and tweaks the listener to make us laugh. “Last Call for Alcohol” is a perfect example quintessential Shaver wit. “Music City USA” is a compelling story song and an instant classic. Shaver is joined on this album not only by Willie Nelson, but also by Tony Joe White, Leon Russell and Shawn Camp. “Long in the Tooth” is an album that Shaver is obviously proud of and I am quite sure he gives a wink and a nod to Eddy, his late son and long-time collaborator.
There must be something in the air or water again in northern Alabama. Home to the legendary Fame studio in Muscle Shoals, site of innumerable hits in the 60's and 70's, this part of the country is breeding future stars again. This time, though, it's not the studio musicians adding brilliance to an outsider's record, but homegrown artists inspired by the local musical history. The Alabama Shakes scored a Grammy nomination a couple of years ago. My favorite live act from the past couple of years has undoubtedly been St. Paul and the Broken Bones. The latest artist to cross my playlist is Amy McCarley. Instead of the horns and soul influences you might expect, though, McCarley dives into some classic country and alt country music with a hint of the delta blues from nearby Mississippi. On Here I Am, McCarley's band lays down a Bakersfield style beat on a song that could just have easily come from Merle Haggard. She sort of repeats that success with Won't Last Forever, although I'd have picked George Jones as the originator instead of Amy herself. Woods On Fire is a old-school kind of alt country song and Head Out Of Town more of a country ballad. As I mentioned earlier, McCarley has injected just a hint of blues into some of her numbers as well. Everybody Wants To, the album opener, is one of those, as is Fools Lament. The title track goes that same direction, but emphasizes the electric sound a little more, while Smart Man pulls in more of the aforementioned alt country vibe. The outlier on the album is a unique take on the Albert Brumley tune made famous(?) by John Hartford, Radio On. It's uptempo beat serves to just call more attention to the strength in all of McCarley's slower original material. Regardless of where Amy McCarley's performance career heads, I can't help but believe you're going to hear her songs covered by other artists. And bringing even more cred to a part of the country already renowned for its musical heritage.
Over the past few months, I've gone on a bit of a Girls Guns & Glory binge. I saw them first at the Sinclair in Cambridge, MA, then at a Church coffeehouse in Franklin, then at an arts center in Natick, all in a fairly short amount of time. These boys are always on the move and I'm happy to catch them whenever they are in range. It's always awesome when you go to a show and are completely blown away by a band you've never seen, which doesn't happen to me often. I felt like I was hit head-on by GGG and I was addicted. The catchy retro-country-rock songs, Ward Hayden's dreamy and crooning vocals, and the snappy outfits on each band member- damn, good stuff. If you haven't seen or heard them yet, please check them out and you'll be "shakin' like jello" in no time! They are very fun to photograph and I'm looking forward to more opportunities!
Although my recent interest in bluegrass has certainly been controlling lots of airtime on my stereo, Nickel Creek bridge the gap of old and new. Somehow, they managed to sneak into the Americana/Indie Rock section of the record store in my college days and I've been a fan for the near decade of their existence. When I heard about their most recent record, I was weary of a "reunion" record. But this is one example of an album where a hiatus actually did the band a boatload of good. I've seen shows at the House of Blues in Boston and it's large open size makes it far less intimate than my preferred venues. But somehow, Chris Thile, Sarah and Sean Watkins managed to make the crowd feel like they were at a small bluegrass venue. Thile regaled the crowd with storytelling and Sarah Watkins' angelic voice filled the cavernous arena. But the highlight of the night was the truly varied set of songs. The fourth album has given the band a catalog that can easily fill a long setlist (20 songs) with both consistent songcraft and musicianship. From the recent "A Dotted Line," Sean Watkins' "21st of May" was an immediate standout. His tale of the billboards announcing the impending rapture on that fateful date inspired the song kept the crowd engaged between songs. The performance was tight and the beautiful performances by Thile and Sarah Watkins to accentuate the dynamics of the song. Old favorites "This Side," "Somebody More Like You" and "The Lighthouse's Tale" highlighted the emotional songwriting of the band. The songs were both engaging, tightly arranged, and showed varied songwriting growth. The instrumentals serve as the musical foil to these tunes. In fact, Thile talked about all the the different instrumental tracks and gave them thumbs up, okay, or thumbs down based on the titles that the band wrote (amusing the crowd with ease). He mentioned these as an intro to "Elephant in the Corn" (which is definitely a thumbs up for me). The tune, along with "Scotch & Chocolate" and "Smoothie Song" established that the band is not afraid to push their shows more to the technical bluegrass side. Old favorites like "The Fox," "When in Rome," and "Doubting Thomas" take on new life next to new compositions like "Destination" and "You Don't Know What's Going On." In fact, the former set were not my favorites, but I certainly appreciated them more as I heard them performed by the newly mature Nickel Creek. The band has managed to bring itself back to life. They can play with the best bluegrassers, write indie rock tunes, and rock the house of blues. As disappointed as I was when they went on hiatus, I am equally excited to see how they've grown and rekindled an even more magical synergy. Don't miss them.
Every spring, a couple of weeks after the madhouse of SXSW, the music festival season kicks off with Old Settler's Music Festival, about a half hour outside of Austin. Started as a bluegrass festival, Old Settler's now embraces a broad spectrum of Americana. Organizer Jean Spivey has a magic touch for consistently mixing old with new, and traditional with what everyone will rave about next year. Like all festivals of any size, there's always more to see than you can get to, but with that in mind here are my highlights of the show. Can I Get An Amen OK, they don't exactly have the old-time religion background that many bluegrass bands do, but European group Red Wine sounds like they come straight from the hills of Appalachia--until leader Silvio Ferretti speaks in his native Italian accent. As Friday's opening act on the bluegrass stage, they set a great tone for rest of the evening. Rising star Parker Millsap lit up the campground stage Thursday night with his mix of blues, folk, and soul-wrenching vocal delivery. Leaning on his Pentecostal upbringing, he delivered a fear-of-god performance. For sheer spirituality, though, no one topped St. Paul & the Broken Bones. They put on an electrifying performance Thursday evening, and then outdid themselves on Friday. Singer Paul Janeway had the Austin crowd, who can be a little jaded about good music, pressing against the stage barriers like a bunch of teenage girls at a Beatles concert. Speaking of which, the band delivered a cover of Hey Jude that was inspired, and followed it up with a cover of A Change Is Gonna Come that would have made Sam Cooke weep with joy. Music Legends As I mentioned earlier, Old Settler's is usually a good place to catch some of the legends of Americana music playing for a crowd that's appreciative of their life's contribution. Peter Rowan, a mere 71 years old, gave a heart-warming performance of many of his classics with the Twang an' Groove instantiation of his backing band early Saturday afternoon, and then played a solo, unamplified set at the Discovery Stage later in the day. Del McCoury, 75, with his multi-generational band, gave performances on both Friday and Saturday that were as energetic as the first time I saw him almost 30 years ago. The coup de grace, though, was Ralph Stanley. Also featuring family, his grandson, in his Clinch Mountain Boys band, Ralph pretty much just stayed in front of his microphone. But when the band cleared the stage and Ralph, now 87, let loose with his a capella O Death, an unearthly silence enveloped a crowd of several thousand people. Even the normal backstage chatter stopped cold to listen to the master. The Road Goes On Forever At the other end of the scale are new artists with tons of talent who have many decades of performing to look forward to. Clearly local favorite Sarah Jarosz falls in that camp, having first performed at Old Settler's in the youth talent competition, which she won at age 12. That was literally half her lifetime ago, and she's now perhaps the princess of OSMF having not missed performing at many of the festivals in between. Elephant Revival first broke on the scene just a couple of years ago, but they've been gathering fans and momentum since, and their performance Saturday afternoon, including guests from peer bands like Wood & Wire and Della Mae, did nothing to slow that momentum down. I think the highlight in this category, though, was the Saturday evening set from Lake Street Dive. The entire band is so solid and singer Rachael Price grasps the subtlety of singing to the size and energy of the crowd, with a euphoric result. And the Party Never Ends Unlike many moderately sized festivals, the headliners at Old Settler's are not the last act of the evening. That honor is reserved for a party/jam band. While the main bulk of the audience is finding their way to the parking lot, the last group of the night at Old Settlers is essentially in charge of priming the diehard music fans for the upcoming several hours of campfire jams. Thursday night that charge was led by Donna the Buffalo. With their style of Deadhead meets zydeco music, there was no doubt who was in control of the crowd when their supposed 75 minute set cracked the 2 hour mark. Friday night's final official festivities belonged to the Dickinson brothers and their incarnation as the North Mississippi All Stars. With fiery lead guitar and a driving, sometime congo line, drum beat, the All Stars were just about the only people on the planet that could have transitioned the crowd from St. Paul's Muscle Shoal's soul to anything resembling normalcy. And then there's Kevin Russell. With his previous band, The Gourds, Kevin owned Austin late night for several years. Shinyribs is giving him a different outlet for his talent, but he knows when to let go of the rules and lash the crowd into a frenzy. With Saturday night the last night of music for many OSMF attendees, Russell made sure things ended on an exclamation point.