Been way, way too long since I did one of these posts. It’s a long one!
When I was in Nashville last weekend, I did something I always wanted to do: go to the Grand Ole Opry in the Ryman Auditorium.
First, just seeing a show in the Ryman is great. All that history, all those great shows there over the years. It’s where Hank played, where Patsy played, etc., etc., etc. And the sound is great in there too. Part of the reason it is so legendary is that it checks all the boxes for a great venue, except that since it is so old, there are pillars blocking the view on some first floor seats. We were in the balcony though.
As for the Opry itself, well, ultimately, it’s the most mainstream expression of the Nashville establishment. But you get a lot of acts. An Opry performance last for two hours. It is split into four segments. Each has the same format. An established Opry member plays a song. Then said person introduces two acts, each of whom plays two songs. Then the segment’s host plays another song. In this way, you get to see 12 performers in two hours. If you are a fan of the music, it’s quite a way to get a lot of quick glimpses of different artists. But the question is whether you are a fan of the Nashville establishment. To say the least, for someone like me, it was an extremely mixed bag. Seeing some of the old-timers hosting was kind of cool. Bill Anderson is a total cheeseball, but he’s also been around for appromxiately forever and is one of the last living stars of the classic 1960s Nashville sound. Connie Smith is pretty much the same. John Conlee, who was a relatively big star in the 80s, still sounded pretty damn good and did a great cover of Guy Clark’s “The Carpenter.” Jeannie Seely is in my mind a more minor figure and was whatever, though she did close the entire show with a decent cover of Merle’s “Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down.”
The big star of the evening with Kathy Mattea. I’m not the world’s biggest fan, but she was a serious talent with a good career and I don’t see how a fan of country music generally could have anything against her. So that was pretty cool. The rest of the acts, well, it ran the gamut. Dom Flemons, from the Carolina Chocolate Drops, has a new album of black western music out and that was neat to see a couple songs. Mike Snider is a classic example of the hillbilly hokum humor of country music that still sort of exists today and that’s kind of silly but his band was good. The Whites are fine. But then there were some terrible acts. Darryl Worley represents the right-wing douchecountry of the late 90s and early 00s; he was famous for one of those awful jingoistic post-9/11 country songs that he mercifully did not play but he still sucked. Mickey Guyton is one of the new douchecountry acts and she was typically terrible, cheesy pop-country that is more American Idol than anything else. Michael Tyler was basically a bad new act as well; he claims an ancestor in Jimmie Rodgers but it sure doesn’t show in the music. On the other hand, it was his first ever appearance at the Opry and that is a very cool thing to see live, someone who is living their dream in real time. So the mediocre can be forgiven for one night anyway. And then there was this band called Crowder, which was a Christian band, whose unspeakable awfulness is hard for me to describe in words, kind of like a Christian offbrand of a Skynyrd cover band basically. It was enough to drive someone to atheism.
A couple of interesting other points though. First, there seems to be a genuine effort by the Nashville establishment these days to promote African-American acts, such as Guyton. Terrible music it may be, but I guess that means something. There have been quite a few black country artists on the Nashville charts lately. Second, the Opry seems to be doing a better job of also including black acts that are also perhaps more marginal to its central mission, but therefore are better. Flemons was a great example of this. The following night, Keb Mo was scheduled, which would have been cool.
Second, the Opry is a combination of good music, pure hokum, and right-wing politics. You simply have to accept that. If you are there after Thanksgiving, expect a lot of talk about Baby Jesus and the Reason for the Season. Rhetorical flag-waving and extreme whiteness are there all times of the year. But then, if you are me, you don’t really go to the Opry per se for the music. You go for the whole experience. This is country music, warts and all. I still love it.
While in Nashville, I also visited the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Johnny Cash Museum. The former is pretty great, much much better than the awful Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, in part because it is in a building that is not a complete disaster and in part because it is not a shrine to Jann Wenner’s ego. It helped a lot that there was a good exhibit on Emmylou Harris and a really great one on the Outlaw Country scene of the 1970s that went beyond Willie and Waylon to bring in people such as Steve Young that don’t get talked about much. Good interviews with Guy Clark before he died, Kristofferson, and Billy Joe Shaver helped a lot too. A bit of sound bleed issues in the exhibit, but that’s always a challenge. The Cash Museum was pretty mediocre, with no reason for them to make it better since anyone will pay large amounts of money just because of who it is. It does however end with the video to “Hurt,” which I maintain is the greatest music video of all time, or at least that I have ever seen.
I also had the lucky opportunity last Tuesday to see Mike Cooley of the Drive-By Truckers play a solo show in Boston. He doesn’t do this very often. And it was great. Cooley has fewer songs than Patterson Hood, but they are also more consistently great. There are very few marginal Cooley tracks. During a DBT show, he may play half the songs, but at best, one or two might be among his quiet songs. There’s a lot of great ones I had never heard, or maybe had only heard once. So to hear 23 of them in a small venue was just fantastic. There were a bunch of songs I was ecstatic to hear live: “Lisa’s Birthday,” “Checkout Time in Vegas,” “Pulaski,” “Cottonseed.” He didn’t play the wonderful “Space City,” which I would have died for. The next night’s show: he led with it. Aargh. Next time, maybe!
One major musical death to note: Pete Shelley, lead singer of the Buzzcocks, one of the greatest of all punk bands. But look, when you’re an Orgasm Addict, it takes a toll on the body.
Here’s a list of the 33 critical outlaw country songs. Naturally, I don’t agree with all of the choices, but then that’s half the point of such a list.
Buck Owens and the Buckaroos, The Complete Capitol Singles, 1957-1966; Buck Owens and the Buckaroos, The Complete Capitol Singles, 1967-1970
How much Buck Owens does one need? The answer should be “a lot.” I have several albums and then I picked up the 2 volume “Buck Em!” collection that came out a couple of years ago, 100 or so songs that combines his biggest hits with some cuts of the live albums and other bits here and there for a good, complete overview of Owens’ best work, which basically ended when Don Rich died in a motorcycle accident in the mid-70s. So when I saw this new collection out, I wondered how much I really needed it. But the complete singles of Owens over these 13 years is more than rewarding; a good way to enter into the slightly deeper catalog of this seminal musician that a one-album collection might overlook. Great stuff.
The Internet, Hive Mind
As a whole, this is a good album by this hip-hop/soul collective. Syd the Kyd is pretty great and I love her open sexuality in a homophobic hip-hop world. But I don’t think this is as great album as Ego Death. There’s just not those songs that reach out and grab you on the previous album such as “Just Sayin’/I Tried” or “Girl.” Likely that repeated listenings will improve my opinion.
Kasey Chambers, Dragonfly
In the early 00s, Chambers made it big. A country singer from Australia, her great song “The Captain” was featured at the end of a Season 3 Sopranos episode and then her album Barricades and Brickwalls did really well. It’s great. She also had a look–the pierced lip on someone who was already a conventionally attractive young woman certainly caught the eyes of the photographers. But then she kind of fell out of the popular eye a bit, even as she continued to make albums. I finally decided to listen to her new album, not really knowing what to expect. A 2-disc, 19-song country album? Would she really have enough material to make that work?
She surely did! This is a very fine album, filled with great songs, often duets with some of Australia’s most famous songwriters, from Eric Church to Paul Kelly. I enjoyed this collection very much. There’s nary a weak track and very few average ones.
Homeboy Sandman, Kindness for Weakness
I’ve slowly been engaging with hip hop for the first time in a long time and so I am discovering people that everyone has known about for years. That’s OK, I’m glad I heard Homeboy Sandman at some point at least. This 2016 album works very well for me. His raps flow great, he uses excellent music through the album. It’s interesting work.
I really don’t get the appeal of post-rock. That includes this Finnish band. I just feel like there’s not much going on. All of these bands fade into the background pretty quickly. I don’t dislike this–I just stopped thinking about it pretty quickly into the listen. They are good musicians, but like the rest of the genre, it provides instrumental music less engaging than jazz and rock music without the appeal of lyrics. Meh.
Amina Claudine Myers, Sama Rou
When I started this largely solo album by the great pianist, I wondered if it would be a bit slow, as I often find solo piano. But her intense spirituality and the occasional lyrics from her rather unpretty voice about injustice and anger make for an extremely rewarding listening experience with just a little patience.
Rhianna, Talk That Talk
Being way behind on pop music for many years, I still largely am today, even though I am working on it. There’s only so much time though. Having enjoyed Rhianna’s Anti a great deal, figured I’d check out an earlier album and, yep, pretty great. But you already knew that.
Roseanne Cash, She Remembers Everything
I’ve always found Cash’s music pretty boring, even though lots of people like her. This album doesn’t make me rethink that judgment. Yes, she’s singing about her dad and everyone is going to want to hear that. But it’s still not very interesting. zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz. I imagine I will get more pushback for this than anything else I write in this post, but I stand by my evaluation.
Tropical Fuck Storm, A Laughing Death in Meatspace
This is one of those bands I never would have heard of without reading Christgau. He recommended this Australian band formed as a project by members of The Drones, which I hadn’t heard of either. But this heavily political fierce band is well worth your time. There are songs about politics, about Trump, about war. The band, made up of all women except for the singer, is great.
Frankie Cosmos, Vessel
I feel like I have been transported into the soundtrack of a mumblecore film. I like my indie pop, but this is twee for twee’s sake.
Frankie Cosmos, Next Thing
I thought, maybe my take on Frankie Cosmos was unfair. So I decided to listen to her previous album on a different day. And, well, maybe I was slightly unfair. Or maybe this is just a slightly better album. I guess as a chronicle of the minor ideas of the 24 year old New York hipster figuring life out, it’s alright. There’s a bit more action here. But there’s still not very much going on, the songs are still pretty limited, and I still don’t see the appeal.
Hodgy, Fireplace: TheNotTheOtherSide
This is an alright hip-hop release from 2016, but one where most of the tracks don’t have much that really grabs you. At least for me, the deeply verbal nature of hip-hop means that the lyrics had better be pretty good to make me pay attention. With the exception of a great closing song, “DYSLM”, mostly this didn’t do that. Busta Rhymes and Lil’ Wayne show up here, but I didn’t see this as something I needed to listen to again.
Pistol Annies, Interstate Gospel
Although this group received a lot of attention for their earlier work, I had run into all three of these singers through their solo work. I think Angaleena Presley is pretty great, that Ashley Monroe has big talent even if I think she sings too many ballads, and I’m not the world’s hugest Miranda Lambert fan. But I hadn’t actually heard them sing together until I checked out the new album. It works fine. There are some good songs here, a few that gets lost in midtempo land, no real bad songs. It’s a completely listenable collection of country music from three women who have lived enough life to be a bit ragged around the edges and who enjoy working with each other very much.
Laura Gibson, The Lookout
Gibson’s previous album, Empire Builder, was a real knockout, in part because “Damn Sure” might be the greatest divorce song I’ve ever heard. Her previous album, La Grande, was solid but with more than a bit of sameness to the songs. While The Lookout is quite lyrical–evidently, she went to creative writing school since her last album–it does feel, at least upon initial listening, that the sameness has returned here. A good work though, even considering this.
Justin Townes Earle, Kids in the Street
I was surprised how much I loved this album. I’ve liked his earlier work, even as I’ve felt a bit uncomfortable the two times I’ve seen him. He may not look like his father but to say the least, he has the emotional edge to him that Steve has. I’ve sometimes felt that he moves too easily into a rather derivative version of white folksinger playing the blues. But this is just a really fine set of songs.
Sunflower Bean, Twentytwo in Blue
This is a nice, if rather unexceptional, indie rock album. There’s some good political songs, a lot of Fleetwood Mac influences, completely acceptable musicianship.
Quantic and Nidia Góngora, Curao
Quantic is a British producer who has lived in Colombia for many years and who works primarily in both soul and Latin music. His album from a few years ago with Alice Russell is quite good and so I was interested in checking this 2017 album out with Góngora, a singer from Colombia’s Pacific Coast who lives in Cali. This is a really freaking great album. Góngora carries it of course, but it deviates from a traditional Colombian album (which would be very good on its own!) by Quantic’s electronics and production, which is delightfully non-invasive, yet creates a great mood around the songs. Very, very fine.
Rosalia, El Mal Querer
This is an interesting Spanish album that combines traditional flamenco with the world sounds shared in a global scene that include hip-hop and contemporary pop. That makes for some quite enjoyable diva pop music. The New York Times just named this one of its Top 28 albums of 2018. I’m not sure I go quite that far, but it’s certainly a fine work.
Whew, that’s a lot of albums!
As always, this is an open thread for all things music and zero things politics.