Archive for November, 2008

Scott Miller on

Posted in Knoxville Music, Scott Miller on November 24, 2008 by AmericanaPulse

Just a short post here before I take a bit of a break for the holiday.

I said on Friday that I planned to write more about Scott Miller in the coming weeks, and I am a man of my word. With that in mind, I bring you news that Scott Miller’s sometimes hard to find album Are You with Me? has been made available for download at Rawrip is a digital music store that gives 100% of the royalties made from sales directly to the artist.

If you’ve become curious about Scott’s music from reading about him here, then this is a great chance to purchase one of his overlooked albums while directly benefiting the artist. As of last month, physical copies of Are You with Me? were sold out from Scott’s website. He set up the Rawrip page to keep the music available to his fans.

The album itself is a live, acoustic album that was released independently in 2003. It contains versions of a few songs Scott recorded during his days with the V-Roys (“Goodnight Loser,” “Lie I Believe”), some favorites from his solo records (“I Made a Mess of This Town,” “Across the Line,” “Daddy Raised a Boy,” “Amtrak Crescent”) and a few you won’t find anywhere else. The “rarities” on the album come from every end of the spectrum including the touching Civil War ballad “The Rain” and the comedic “Bastard’s Only Child.”

If you liked the live version of “I Made a Mess of This Town” from Scott’s visit to my radio show that I posted on Friday, then check out this album. The whole disc sounds a lot like that track (actually better… since Are You with Me? was professionally recorded) with just Scott and his guitar and harmonica. There isn’t another disc in his catalogue that showcases Scott Miller in a way that this one does. His words. His voice. His playing. His humor and interaction with a live audience. It’s all here.

Speaking of humor… here is a song from Are You with Me? called “Good Morning Midnight.” You might notice a mention of Scott’s friend John Paul Keith (one of the first artists I covered here) in the intro to this song. You can download Are You with Me? from this page at

Scott Miller: Good Morning Midnight (Buy Album)

Friday Top 5: East Tennessee’s Own

Posted in Brendon James Wright, Knoxville Music, R.B. Morris, Robinella, Scott Miller, the everybodyfields, Top 5 on November 21, 2008 by AmericanaPulse

Here at WDVX, we have a tagline that we add to most of our station ID’s and promo announcements. That tagline is “East Tennessee’s Own,” as in… “This is East Tennessee’s Own, WDVX.”

We use it a lot. It’s on our website. It’s on our t-shirts. It’s on our posters. It’s said roughly 2,147 times a day on the air. It’s a sort of branding that we use to distinguish ourselves from other stations and tell our listeners who we are and what we care about in three words or less.

It’s also a bit of a mission statement. Here in Knoxville, and East Tennessee, there is a thriving local music scene, and many of those local artists receive airplay on the station. Whether their CDs are in regular rotation or they pop up from time to time on one of our specialty shows or the Blue Plate Special (our daily live concert series)… local artists make up a large part of what we play.

It’s with that in mind that I bring you today’s Top 5… East Tennessee’s Own: My five favorite Knoxville artists.

Of course, anyone who’s read this blog for any time knows that I have to start with one of my favorite artists from any city, and the patron saint of A Fifty Cent Lighter & A Whiskey Buzz… Scott Miller. Scott is a Virginian by birth, but a Knoxvillian by choice. He’s lived here for the better part of the last two decades and claims Knoxville as his adopted home. Knoxville now claims him too. He brings a crowd anywhere he plays, and his annual New Year’s Eve shows are the stuff of legends.

I’ve written about Scott Miller several times in this space, and I will surely write more in the months ahead as Scott prepares to release his next studio album. The recording process is completed, and Scott says fans who bought one of his self-released Appalachian Refugee demo CD’s should have the chance to buy the new album before the end of the year.

Scott’s song, “I Made a Mess of This Town,” is the song this site took its name from, and you can hear the studio version by clicking the link to the right of the screen in the “About Me…” sidebar. A couple of months ago, I was lucky enough to interview Scott on the air here at WDVX when he was promoting the demos album and an upcoming show at The Bijou Theatre. He played “I Made a Mess of This Town” that day in the studio along with some other music that I’ve promised not to share until the new studio album is released. Here is that solo, acoustic version of this blog’s title track along with some of Scott’s candid thoughts about the city of Knoxville. The “Buy Album” link for this track points to Scott’s online merch store.

Scott Miller: I Made a Mess of This Town (Buy Album)

Any post about Knoxville’s music scene would be incomplete without a mention of our city’s unofficial poet laureate, R.B. Morris. Morris is one of Knoxville’s best kept secrets and an artist who Lucinda Williams once called the “greatest unknown songwriter in the country.” On top of his songwriting talents, Morris is also an author, poet, and playwright… a one man literary wrecking ball.

Recently, Morris served as an writer in residence at The University of Tennessee. As part of the gig, writers in residence are asked to host monthly discussions with local and national poets and authors so students and aspiring writers can get the chance to pick the brains of established professionals and get a better handle of their future trades. Morris brought in the typical array of published authors, but he also brought in songwriters like Steve Earle and Scott Miller to share their secrets. Morris believes that a well written song can be just as moving as any piece of prose, and it shows in his well crafted narratives. This song is from R.B.’s recent E.P., Empire.

R.B. Morris: City (Buy Album)

I first became aware of Jill Andrews and Sam Quinn, the songwriting duo behind the everybodyfields, a few years ago when I was still working at Morehead State Public Radio. Jill’s father had just become president of the university and was touring the campus to meet some of the students and staff. He asked me if I had ever heard of his daughter and this new bluegrass band she was playing in. I hadn’t. A few weeks later, a copy of their debut album Halfway There: Electricity and the South arrived at the station.

I’ll admit, I wasn’t expecting much the first time I listened to the album. Dr. Andrews had described them as bluegrass, and I thought this would just be another generic bluegrass album. I was a little off base to say the least. The sound that came out of the speakers was a beautiful melancholy with soaring bluegrass harmonies and a strong indie-folk aesthetic that immediately caught my attention. This was not “just another bluegrass band.”

The everybodyfields moved to Knoxville from Johnson City, TN last year and have become a strong presence in the local music community. In fact, they just played a show last night at the Bijou Theatre. The track I’m offering here is from their debut album. It was the winner of the prestigious Chris Austin Songwriting Contest at Merlefest in 2005.

the everybodyfields: T.V.A. (Buy Album)

Robinella is another local musical treasure who has been a fixture in Knoxville since her days as a student at The University of Tennessee. In 1997, Robinella co-founded a band called The Stringbeans along with fellow UT students Cruz Contreras and Jay Clark (Jay would be on this list himself, but he moved back to Alabama last year… he’ll probably pop up here soon). The group garnered some attention in and around town for the way they melded jazz, pop, country, and blues into a framework that relied heavily on bluegrass.

In 1999 the band’s lineup shifted, and The Stringbeans became Robinella and the CC Stringband. They released a couple of independent albums before catching the attention of Columbia Records in 2002. The group released an acclaimed self-titled album with Columbia in 2003. The follow up album (now billed simply as Robinella… but still featuring the band) Solace for the Lonely was released on Dualtone in 2006.

Sadly, Robinella no longer plays with the CC Stringband, but Cruz and the band can be found playing all over town. Cruz himself is one of the most sought after sidemen and session players in the region. Robinella can still be found every Sunday night at Barley’s Taproom & Pizzeria in Knoxville’s Old City. Her Sunday night set has been the way to close out the Knoxville weekends for several years now. Here’s a track from Solace for the Lonely.

Robinella: Down the Mountain (Buy Album)

Brendon James Wright is a relative newcomer compared to some of the other names on this list, but that hasn’t stopped me from enjoying his self titled debut album with his band The Wrongs. I first heard Brendon’s music a few months ago as I was driving home from the radio station after my Wednesday night shift. I always listen to The Writer’s Block (a show here on WDVX that is dedicated to independent singer-songwriters) in the car on my way home, and on this particular night I heard a song called “This Old Town” from Brendon James Wright and The Wrongs.

The song was about a place called Pikeville, a relatively small mining town in Eastern Kentucky not far from my hometown of Paintsville. Brendon’s song perfectly captured some of the things I felt growing up in a town just like Pikeville. These Appalachian towns are full of hard working, God fearing people… coal mines and mud… and not much else. These are places where opportunities are sometimes few and you have to do what you can to get by. They are the types of places you’re proud to come from, but you know you have to leave even if a little part of you always wants to go back.

After hearing that song for the first time, I made it a point to find Brendon’s album and give the rest of it a listen. I was not disappointed. I got to hang out with Brendon earlier this week when he sat in as a studio guest for The Writer’s Block, and I was a bit surprised to learn that he didn’t grow up in Eastern Kentucky. He was born and bred in Knoxville and wrote “This Old Town” for a college buddy who had grown up Pikeville. The fact that Brendon could write a song that spoke to me as strongly as it did when he hadn’t even experienced what he was writing about should speak to his skills as a songwriter. Here is “This Old Town” from Brendon James Wright and The Wrongs.

Brendon James Wright and The Wrongs: This Old Town (Buy Album)

If you liked all of that… just remember that this is only a small sampling of Knoxville’s musical roster. I didn’t even mention Karen E. Reynolds, Hector Quirko, Medford’s Black Record Collection, Wade Hill, Alex Leach, Robert Lovett, The Maid Rite String Band, The Bearded, Mic Harrison, Christabel and the Johns, Brent Thompson’s Wandering Circus, or any number of other Knoxville artists.

Maybe another day…

Mark Erelli: Delivered

Posted in Mark Erelli on November 17, 2008 by AmericanaPulse

It’s no secret that it’s been a rough last few weeks in the blog world. Several blog authors have had files removed, others have lost entire posts, and at least a few bloggers are looking for new hosting options after being given the boot from their original hosts.

Most of the blame for this is being directed at the record labels who now seem to be blaming bloggers for their decreased sales figures and failing business model. These giant labels are flexing their muscles and taking out their frustrations on the bloggers who are only trying to create exposure (and thus sales) for the music and artists they love. With that in mind, it’s no surprise that there have been plenty of harsh words written toward the record companies on blogs and in message boards over the last month.

This post is not here to add to those harsh words. Rather, it is here to highlight an artist and the album he was able to create, largely without the support and subsequent hassles of dealing with a label. It is also here to show those record labels that music fans are still willing to support music and artists they believe in.

When songwriter Mark Erelli stood poised to record his new album Delivered, he wanted to do it on his own, and own what he did. Of course, making a record without label money or support is expensive, so mark used his website to put out a call to his his fans. Their response was overwhelming.

Over 120 of Erelli’s fans ponied up over $10,000 in donations to help him cover recording costs. That’s a fairly strong testament to the connection Erelli’s fans have to his music. In return for their financial contributions, each fan who helped out received an autographed copy of Delivered along with an exclusive bonus disc of unreleased material appropriately titled Barn Raising after the communal nature of the project. As you might recall… Scott Miller employed a similar fundraising technique to help cover the costs of his upcoming album.

I actually met mark Erelli a few years back at the Americana Music Conference in Nashville. He had just finished playing a set at 12th and Porter alongside his good friend and fellow artist Lori McKenna. We chatted for a brief bit while I waited for the shuttle to take me to the next show. Nice Guy. After talking to him and seeing his show that night, it’s easy to see why his fans would support him the way they did for this new record.

Now, with that out of the way… let’s talk about the album itself, as it was certainly worth the investment the fans put into it. At times the album is both sparse and lush, intimate and expansive. Delivered delivers a songwriter at the top of his game who isn’t afraid to tackle a wide variety of topics and styles.

The album does seem to have a central theme, however. Several tracks deal in some capacity with war, including the album’s centerpiece, “Volunteers.” The song is recorded with just Erelli’s fragile voice and a gently plucked guitar, a nice production choice that serves to highlight the power of Erelli’s words. The lyrics tell the tale of a man who volunteered for an enlistment with the National Guard, and soon found that his life as a “casual soldier” was over once things began to escalate in the Middle East.

Unlike most songs that have been written about the Iraq War, this one doesn’t seek to take sides. It doesn’t attack those who led the country to fight, nor does it seek to rally support for the cause through transparent patriotic images. It simply tells the story of a soldier who is at once hero and villain in a land where “it’s a victory just to make it through another day.” Similar themes are also addressed in the sombre “Hope Dies Last” and the anthemic “Shadowland.”

Of course, there are some lighter moments on the album too. “Man of the Family” is a touching look at maturity and responsibility through the eyes of a first time father. On “Once” the narrator has found the love he has searched his whole life for, and wishes the same for his audience.

“Baltimore” is another “driving all night to see my baby” song in the tradition of Lucinda Williams’ “I Just Wanted to See You So Bad,” or any number of others. I’m always a sucker for this type of song because they remind me of the many nights I spent on the interstate at 3A.M. on the way to Knoxville during the time when my wife and I lived in different states. This song is slightly different, though, in that the bounciness of the tune masks the singer’s sadness. You see… he’s going to see her, but she isn’t waiting for him. His all night trip is a last ditch effort to win back the girl he let slip away.

Mark Erelli: Volunteers (Buy Album)
Mark Erelli: Baltimore (Buy Album)

Friday Top 5: Neko Case

Posted in Neko Case, Top 5 on November 14, 2008 by AmericanaPulse

Has it really been a week already? Sorry for the lack of updates. I’ve been a bit busy, and at times a bit under the weather. Hopefully, I’ll be back up to full speed soon.

I don’t really have a list anywhere of artists that I should write about more in this space. I probably should, but I don’t. If I did… today’s subject would be near the top of the list. If I were being honest, I would probably admit that I haven’t written about Neko Case and her music yet because I’m not sure I have the words to do her justice.

Neko has one of those voices that can transport you from wherever you are to wherever she wants you to be. When she sings of her adopted home in the Pacific Northwest as she does in “Thrice All American,” you can smell the factory dust in the air. When she hits the dance floor as she does in “Honky Tonk Hiccups,” she pulls you out on the floor along with her.

Perhaps the best description of Neko that I have ever read is that she sounds like the ghost of Patsy Cline (I wish I could remember where I got that from). There is a resonance and grandeur to her vocals that you just don’t find too often. She can breathe fire on one track and then soothe your soul with a hushed whisper on the next. There is also an ethereal quality to her voice that can sound ghostly at times… almost as though it isn’t real. But it is real. I had the privilege of seeing Neko perform a few years ago in Lexington (on a night she claimed to have a cold), and her vocal instrument is just as pure live as is it on record.

Neko’s overall sound originally drew heavily on classic country while still keeping a fresh edge that updated the classic sounds. As she progressed from album to album, however, the nostalgia began to melt away and her own unique style was formed. As we progress here from 1997’s The Virginian to 2006’s Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, you’ll be able to hear Neko’s evolution as an artist.

We’ll start with two songs that I’ve already mentioned here: “Honky Tonk Hiccups” from The Virginian and “Thrice All American” from 2000’s Furnace Room Lullaby.

The Virginian is Neko’s debut album and certainly owes a large debt to the early stars of country music. On this disc she covers Ernest Tubb, Loretta Lynn, and The Everly Brothers while also adding a few originals and some less well-known covers. “Honky Tonk Hiccups” is nothing more than a rocking honky tonk number meant to fill the dance floor. Hey… it’s fun, and it does what it’s meant to do.

Neko Case: Honky Tonk Hiccups (Buy Album)

Furnace Room Lullaby found Neko’s sound maturing a bit. The country influence is still strong… but subdued and understated. Neko also starts to lean more upon her own pen on this record. She wrote or cowrote all twelve tracks, including this one about her adopted home of Tacoma, WA (Neko is originally from Virginia).

Neko Case: Thrice All American (Buy Album)

In 2002, Neko released the album that many consider to be her greatest work, Blacklisted. Where The Virginian was made up of mostly cover songs and Furnace Room Lullaby found Neko cowriting most of the songs, Blacklisted finds her going it almost completely alone. Ten of the album’s 13 songs are solo compositions. The finest of those is “Deep Red Bells,” a song about the Green River Killer who murdered nearly 50 women in the Seattle and Tacoma areas in the 1980’s. Neko was a teenage runaway in the Seattle area in the late 80’s while the Green River Killer was still at large. She must have been affected by the killings.

Neko Case: Deep Red Bells (Buy Album)

Neko’s next album was 2004’s live effort The Tigers Have Spoken. On this set, Neko is backed by Canadian group The Sadies as well as previous collaborators Jon Rauhouse on steel guitar and Kelly Hogan on vocals. The album provides a very accurate snapshot of the Neko Case concert experience while mixing a healthy dose of cover songs with a few original tunes. This is one of the originals.

Neko Case: If You Knew (Buy Album)

The Sadies stuck around for 2006’s studio effort Fox Confessor Brings the Flood. Some other friends also stopped by for the recording… including Garth Hudson from The Band and Howie Gelb of Giant Sand. Rauhouse and Hogan are once again part of the proceedings as well. With this album you can really see the strides made since her debut. It is textured and layered in a way that none of her previous albums were. Neko has just finished recording her newest album at a studio in Toronto, and I can’t wait to hear what strides she makes with her newest effort. I guess I’ll just have to “Hold On, Hold On” until it’s released.

Neko Case: Hold On, Hold On (Buy Album)

Friday Top 5: Dave Alvin

Posted in Dave Alvin, The Knitters, Top 5 on November 7, 2008 by AmericanaPulse

I’ve had the pleasure of seeing Dave Alvin perform live twice over the past few years.

The first time was at the 2004 Americana Music Conference shortly after the release of his 2004 album Ashgrove. His performance came a little later in the night, and by that time the crowd had thinned out a bit at The Mercy Lounge. I was able to score a spot near the front of the stage right next to one of the big stacks of speakers.

Big mistake.

Don’t get me wrong… The show was great. Dave and his band shredded through the highlights from the new album and even threw in a few favorites from his days with The Blasters, the roots rock band he started with his brother Phil back in the late 70’s. It was as good of a performance as I saw that weekend. And I saw a lot that weekend.

The problem came the next morning when I woke up in my hotel room with a muffled ringing still sounding in my ears. If Dave Alvin isn’t the best guitar player I’ve ever seen (and he’s certainly in the discussion), he was certainly the loudest and most powerful. Fortunately, the ringing stopped later that day, and my hearing returned to normal. When I caught Dave playing with The Knitters at the Mercy Lounge as part of the 2005 conference, I made sure to hang back a bit in the crowd far away from any Marshall stacks.

We honor Dave Alvin in the Top 5 today in part because he celebrates a birthday next week, and in part because his music has been on my mind a bit this week with the recent release of Dave Alvin: The Best of the Hightone Years CD. Dave is also very hard at work right now organizing a tribute album for his dear friend Chris Gaffney who lost a battle with liver cancer earlier this year. That album is tentatively set for a March 2009 release.

Anyway… here are some of my favorite Dave Alvin tunes.

“Ashgrove” is the title track from Dave’s 2004 album and is one of the main songs responsible for the temporary hearing loss I mentioned earlier. When Dave was growing up in California, he and his brother used to sneak into an old blues club called The Ashgrove to see the blues legends play. This song is a tribute to The Ashgrove, but it’s also a bit of a mission statement for Dave. When he shouts, “I’m gonna play the blues tonight man ’cause that’s what I do,” he sums up an emotion that so many of us feel from time to time. No matter the laundry list of problems that exist in the world or the daily annoyances that can bring a man to his knees… the music is here to take us all away. For Dave Alvin, the music gives him a reason to exist and keep going.

Dave Alvin: Ashgrove (Buy Album)

We’re going to stay in California for our next few songs as well. First is a gentle acoustic number called “King of California,” the title track from Dave’s 1994 album. The next two are slightly livelier numbers from an appearance on Austin City Limits in 1999. The entire performance was released last year on New West Records. “Dry River” doesn’t mention California specifically, but I’ve always envisioned the concrete banked L.A. River when listening to this tune. “Out in California” is simply a chance for Dave to flex his guitar muscle a bit while pining over the girl he left behind in his home state.

Dave Alvin: King of California (Buy Album)
Dave Alvin: Dry River (Buy Album)
Dave Alvin: Out in California (Buy Album)

We move to Texas for the final track, “Abilene” from 1998’s Blackjack David. The moral of this story is that you should know what you’re running into before you run away from where you are. Your heart breaks for the girl who never seems to run to the right place.

Dave Alvin: Abilene (Buy Album)

Bonus Track: Earlier, I briefly mentioned a band called The Knitters. The Knitters is a country side project made up of the members of California punk band X with Dave Alvin on lead guitar. Dave doesn’t sing much in this setting, those duties are handled by X’s John Doe and Exene Cervenka. Here is their version of Dave Alvin’s “Dry River.”

The Knitters: Dry River (Buy Album)

Happy Birthday: Gram Parsons & Ryan Adams

Posted in Flying Burrito Brothers, Gram Parsons, Ryan Adams, Whiskeytown on November 5, 2008 by AmericanaPulse

Cecil Ingram Connor (Gram Parsons) was born November 5, 1946 into a wealthy family in Winter Haven, Florida and grew up living a very privileged lifestyle. As a nine year old, Gram saw Elvis Presley play a concert in his hometown and decided to become a musician himself.

At the age of twelve, Gram’s father committed suicide. A few years later, his mother remarried, and Cecil Ingram Connor adopted his new step father’s surname… legally changing his name to Gram Parsons.

As a teenager, Parsons continued to pursue his dream of becoming a musician, playing in various bands throughout his high school years. One band, The Legends, also featured future music stars Jim Stafford (“Spiders and Snakes”) and Kent Lavoie (“Me and You and a Dog Named Boo”). After high school, Gram attended Harvard University as a theology student, but dropped out after just one semester that was devoted more to music than studies.

His time at Harvard was not completely wasted, however. It was during his time in the Ivy League that Gram put together the International Submarine Band, the group that would help him solidify his vision of a mixture of country and rock. It was a sound Gram called “Cosmic American Music.” The group spent some time in New York before relocating to Los Angeles to record their debut album Safe at Home in 1967. By the time the album was released in 1968, The International Submarine Band had disbanded and Gram was on to other things.

From there, Gram’s story is well documented. He joined the Byrds in time to serve as a major influence on the sound of their 1968 Americana masterpiece Sweetheart of the Rodeo. He went on to form the Flying Burrito Brothers with Chris Hillman and record two solo albums that introduced the world to Emmylou Harris. He also became close friends with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones and greatly influenced some of the Stones’ country tinged songs such as “Wild Horses” and “Dead Flowers.”

Gram’s prolific output and tremendous influence masked what was becoming a serious addiction to drugs and alcohol. He still had access to a massive trust fund that was amassed through his family’s success in the Florida orange grove business, and he used that trust to support his habits. Keith Richards once said that Gram had better drugs than the Mafia.

Gram’s habits caught up with him on September 19, 1973. On a trip to Joshua Tree National Park in California, Gram overdosed on a mixture of drugs and alcohol. The bizarre story of his death and the strange events that followed it can be found here.

It has been debated over and over as to Gram’s true influence on the country-rock movement of the late 60’s and early 70’s. Some view him as a true pioneer who originated and birthed an entire genre of music. Others see him as merely a piece of the puzzle… a tragic figure whose legend has outgrown his actual influence. Whatever your stance on that debate, his influence on future generations of artists cannot be debated. Many of today’s Americana and Alt-Country artists have publicly stated their love for Gram and his music and cite him as a central influence on their sound.

Which brings us to today’s other birthday boy, Ryan Adams…

Gram Parsons died in 1973. The following year, in 1974, Ryan Adams was born on what would have been Parsons’ 28th birthday. Now… I’m not one who believes in reincarnation or anything like that, but it isn’t hard to believe that at least part of Parsons’ spirit lives on in Adams’ music.

David Ryan Adams was born in Jacksonville, NC in 1974 and formed his first band, the raucous The Patty Duke Syndrome, as a teenager. In 1994, Adams formed Whiskeytown and began cranking out his own brand of Parsons inspired alt-country. Of course, Whiskeytown disbanded in 1999 after a brief and brilliant (if tumultuous) run that produced some very memorable moments. His recent recordings with his current backing band The Cardinals notwithstanding… Adams has been on his own ever since.

If you want to find out more about Ryan Adams, Payton over at This Mornin’ I am Born Again has a tremendous series of spotlight posts about Ryan Adams and Whiskeytown.

Now for today’s music…

I’m going to post a few songs from each artist that I think highlight their styles and similarities. We’ll start with a song called “A Song for You,” a Parsons original that first appeared on his 1972 album G.P. Whiskeytown’s cover comes from the 1999 Gram Parsons tribute album, Return of the Grievous Angel. After that… just a few of my favorites from each artist.

Gram Parsons: A Song for You (song removed by file host)
Whiskeytown: A Song for You (Buy Album)

The Flying Burrito Brothers: Cody Cody (Buy Album)
Ryan Adams & the Cardinals: The Hardest Part (Buy Album)
Gram Parsons: Ooh Las Vegas (Buy Album)
Whiskeytown: Drank Like a River (Buy Album)

Music and Politics: Speak Your Mind vs. Shut up and Sing

Posted in Rodney Crowell on November 2, 2008 by AmericanaPulse

A few weeks ago during our fund drive at WDVX, I received an e-mail from a listener thanking me essentially for keeping the politics out of the music we play on the air. He reasoned that he listens to the radio to be entertained… not to hear more of what he can readily find on any number of 24 hour news networks. This listener was a political conservative and had, in fact, stopped listening to some other stations because of their liberal political views and their willingness to play songs and artists who promoted those liberal views. His brother, who is a liberal, had also started to tune out those stations… even though he shared their beliefs.

On the other hand… I’ve also heard from listeners who wonder why we don’t play more “music with a message.” On the whole, the Americana Radio format is very friendly to left-leaning artists such as Steve Earle, Todd Snider, James McMurtry, and many many others. McMurtry won Americana Song of the Year in 2006 with the politically charged “Can’t Make it Here.” He was nominated again this year for a song called “Cheney’s Toy.” We played neither song here at WDVX.

We actually have a pretty solid, if unwritten, policy here about topical songs. We normally don’t play them. While Americana artists and audiences seem to be fairly liberal on the whole… Tennessee is one of the more conservative states in the U.S. The thought is that it’s better to be safe and stay away from controversial songs than it is to play those songs and risk alienating a large chunk of our audience.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that I am a registered Democrat and lean to the left on most political issues. I try not to bring politics too much into what I write here because A.) that’s not what this blog is about, and B.) there are plenty of folks out there who could write much more intelligently than I on any number of political topics. It can’t help but seep in from time to time, however. Of course, you probably already know that if you’ve been reading and downloading some of the songs I’ve posted here lately. I’ve put up songs by Anne McCue, Todd Snider, and The Duhks with political bents… and there was this post about electing a song to the Presidency.

I guess I just really liked those songs and was a little frustrated that I wasn’t able to share them on the air. Maybe I wanted to share the messages contained in the songs, or maybe I just wanted to share the music. I’m sure it was probably a little bit of both. I do agree with Todd Snider in the song “Mission Accomplished” when he compares the Bush administration to someone driving a car off a cliff and calling it flying, but I also just really love the rolling Bo Diddley beat that powers the song along with Todd’s wailing harmonica. I know I’d still love the song if Todd were to keep the same music but change the lyrics to make it a love song or something crazy about how much he loves asparagus.

Would I still like it if he were singing about issues I disagree with such as the weakening of environmental standards or denying rights to same sex couples? I doubt it.

I’m not trying to spark a left vs. right debate. I’m just citing this as an example. My real question is more about how much an artist’s political views color your enjoyment of their work. If an artist you like reveals an affiliation that is in opposition to yours, do you back off of your fandom? Do you care who Ralph Stanley is voting for? Do you care where Aaron Tippin wants to drill? Are you interested in hearing what the artist believes in, or do you just want them to shut up and entertain you?

One more story and then we’ll open the floor for discussion.

This summer, my wife bought me tickets to an R.E.M. concert for my birthday. The show was in Atlanta, not far from the band’s home turf of Athens, GA. They played a strong set full of blistering numbers from their new album Accelerate as well as a nice mixture of old favorites. To put it simply… it was one hell of a good time! The band put on a show for the home crowd, and for two hours I was thoroughly and completely entertained.

At one point in the show, however, R.E.M. frontman Michael Stipe made some statements from the stage about the upcoming election. Stipe made it very clear that he supported Barack Obama, and he thought the audience should too. To my memory, Stipe didn’t scream or rant. He just took a few moments to calmly state his views and beliefs. No big deal, right?

After the show, on my way out of the venue, I overheard a fellow concert goer wonder out loud why Michael Stipe had to ruin the whole night by “getting political.” Was Stipe’s speech such an affront to this man’s sensibilities that it really did ruin his entire evening? Did he not know to expect this from R.E.M., a band that has always had a political slant to its music and persona? Did a three minute speech really destroy two hours of music?

That’s the question I’m pondering this week as we head into election day and beyond. Speak your mind, or shut up and sing?

And now for the obligitory mp3… Rodney Crowell obviously has a lot to say in this song from his 2005 release The Outsider, but he doesn’t want to get off on a rant. This song is a little less subtle than some others, but it does kind of address the question I’m asking today. Speak out or hold it inside?

Rodney Crowell: Don’t Get Me Started (Buy Album)

P.S. No matter who you’re voting for… make sure you get out and pull the lever for your guy on Tuesday.