Monthly Archives: September 2015

Taylor Swift Conquers Nashville With A Little Help from Mick Jagger

If we are known by the company we keep, then Taylor Swift is doing all right. The pop superstar summoned one of rock and roll’s all-time greats to the stage Saturday night in Nashville in the form of Mick Jagger, who performed the Stones’ classic “Satisfaction” with her in front of the sold-out crowd of 15,000 at Bridgestone Arena.

It was a move that surprised everyone in the crowd, and served as a reminder of the colossal power she commands as a broker in the industry.

Did she fly Jagger in from London for one song? Was he hanging out in Nashville for something else? Jagger played LP Field with the Stones this past summer, and it marked the first time the Glimmer Twin had visited Music City in a long time. So Nashville is by no means a regular haunt for the rock icon.

Swift’s 18-song show, her second of a two-night stand in Nashville and heavy on tracks from 1989, proved to be a master class in showmanship and arena production, and Jagger’s appearance was just lagniappe — a WTF? moment that enhanced but didn’t define the night. Swift opened with “Welcome To New York,” sporting Wayfarers and a glitter warm-up jacket, backed by a dozen or so male dancers who on the opening number called to mind Biff’s futuristic squad from Back To The Future II. The jumbo-tron flashed with black and white images all night, in an effort to evoke the classic New York of Gatsby. Manhattan may be wildly overpriced and gentrified these days, with a Starbucks on every corner, but Swift’s vision of the city still contains “all the iridescence of the beginning of the world,” as Fitzgerald wrote, and it remains a dreamscape for reinvention, where you take your “broken hearts and put them in a drawer.”

As Swift transitioned to the second song, she shed the warm-up jacket like Larry Bird used to after the first round of the 3-point contest, revealing a black halter-top as she tore into fan favorite “New Romantics,” a bonus track from 1989. It was one of many outfit changes of the night.

Like any masterful politician, Swift knows how to play to the base— and the red-meat wing of the party is still young teenage girls. The high pitched shriek of the crowd when she first strode on stage affirmed that. One of Swift’s greatest talents is her ability to make the fans feel they are as much a part of the show — and her life — as anyone else. At one point she remarked that she recognized several in the crowd from their Instagram pics. (Before the show, fans even approached her dad for a photo op as he was milling about, for that one-degree of separation experience.)

Saturday’s show was punctuated with testimonials from her “squad” (Girls creator Lena Dunham, Victoria’s Secret models Karlie Kloss and Lily Aldridge, Selena Gomez et al.) about what it’s like to hang with Taylor. It’s not so much a lifestyle brand she’s selling a la Martha Stewart as it is the dream of a better, more glamorous existence. It’s the promise of Thunder Road, only this time Thunder Road leads to Xanadu and is populated with beautiful women, talented writers, pastries and cats with funny names. And no matter what your take is on the songs, and we at American Songwriter are bigs fans of her songwriting, naming 1989 one of the best albums of 2014, you can’t help but be inspired by the Horatio Alger ambition on display here, no matter what form your own dream takes.

When Swift delivered a solo acoustic take of “Fifteen” from Fearless, she dedicated it to Abigail, her best friend from high school, and gave a shout-out to Hendersonville High School, a moment that connected the dots between small-town Tennessee girl and world superstar. Watching her show, it’s easy to forget Swift was even associated with country music. And if any of Nashville’s country music stars had joined her onstage Saturday night it would have been, well, a let-down. At another point Swift delivered a monologue about staying true to yourself and shaking off the haters, in her case the tabloid gossip that has dogged her dating life, and she became visibly emotional. “If anyone tells you you are uncool, they’re wrong,” she said.

Tickets for the event were not cheap. As of show time, some seats on the floor were listed on Stubhub for as much as $2,000. There were entire families in tow Saturday night and it was clear that not all of these dads were dentists with disposable incomes. But for so many of their kids, it must have been the highlight of their year. “Every time I get to hang out with you is the happiest I am,” she said near the end of the show, and no doubt many in the crowd returned the sentiment.

There Is A Light That Never Goes Out

I wrote this poem about the Voyager 1 exhibit at Seed Space, an installation art gallery in Nashville.

It was 1977.
We needed a dream
to rise up
and stoke “our capacity for wonder,”
as Fitzgerald would say.
Elvis was dead,
New York City was dark,
and there were Saturday night fevers
that just wouldn’t break.

So we fired you up,
cut the apron strings
and let you fly.
Over Jupiter and Saturn,
past pitiful old Pluto even.

But it gets lonely living “out there”
and thinking “out there.”
Just ask Icarus.
He left Earth and got burned by the sun.

But now
a little purple light
in a dark room in Nashville
that moves in shades
of red and blue and green
let’s us know
our old friend,
the robot,
is still out there,
still moving and shaking,
still talking back
to anyone
who will listen.

And since our friend left,
Carl Sagan has died,
and the pale blue dot we call home is burning.
And now Jimmy Carter has cancer.
But his Georgia farm boy voice
is with you, Voyager
and will be for a billion years.
And so is the cry of that baby
and the sounds of Bach and Beethoven,
of Blind Willie Johnson and “Johnny B. Goode.”

I hope someone finds you
and your record collection
before your race is run.

But they might not.
Sometimes love letters get lost in the mail.

But this little purple light
let’s us know
for now
that you were here
and there
and so were we.

In Due Time

American Songwriter Editor’s Note, September/October 2015

Jason Isbell turned heads in the music industry when his album Something More Than Free catapulted to the top of the Billboard country charts in June. When the news broke, left of center singer-songwriter Todd Snider – who served as the officiant of Isbell’s wedding ceremony – took to Facebook and declared “the war was over” and that Jason Isbell “saved country music.” No one could continue to complain any more, he said, that independent artists couldn’t compete with their radio-friendly cousins on a commercial level. “That’s the thing Nashville wouldn’t let everybody do,” Snider wrote. “Well, somebody did it and nobody stopped him. Without changing his music, and without changing his clothing, Jason Isbell did it.”

The battle between Americana and Wal-Mart radio country has been raging ever since the rise of alt-country in the mid-’90s, playing out like a micro-level NPR versus Fox News culture war. They represent two different aesthetics and serve two different markets. But within the last year, traditionally-minded country artists (Chris Stapleton, Kacey Musgraves, Ashley Monroe) have begun making serious waves within the established Nashville machine.

Much of this likely has to do with the backlash against “bro-country” as the reigning style of country radio. Jay Rosen of New York Magazine coined the term “bro-country” in 2013 to describe the Florida Georgia Line song “Cruise.” Since then, this subgenre of country music devoted to tailgates, beer, and scantily-clad girls has become the favorite punching bag of country music preservationists. (In many ways, these tirades have grown more tiresome than “bro-country” itself.) And songwriters on Music Row seem who can’t operate in the bro vein have experienced a crisis of faith with respect to their craft.

But bro-country has sold, and country music in Nashville has always been a business first. Chet Atkins used to joke that the “Nashville sound,” a slicker, pop-friendly production style that developed in the late ’50s and replaced the more rough-and-ready honky-tonk, was the sound of money jingling in his pocket.

*****
Our cover artist Chris Stapleton is the perfect example of a Music Row artist who has found critical and commercial success while remaining faithful to his artistic vision. He came to Nashville with quite literally just a dream and is now regarded as one of the best writers and singers in town. Stapleton got signed to a publishing deal shortly after showing up in Music City and then started a bluegrass group called The SteelDrivers that still continues without him to this day. After leaving The SteelDrivers, he started the Jompson Brothers, a rowdy Southern rock outfit in the vein of ZZ Top.

Stapleton once told me that he doesn’t like to mix genres when he’s writing. If it’s bluegrass, he keeps it bluegrass. If it’s Southern rock, Southern rock. His new album Traveller is old-school country, but without sounding self-consciously retro, and peaked at No. 2 on the country Billboard charts. It’s a veritable banger, and he’s even earned shout-outs from Justin Timberlake. It’s just amazing that it took so long for such a singular talent to finally get his due as a solo artist in his own right.

Another ascendant songwriter featured in these pages is John Moreland, whose latest album High On Tulsa Heat has generated a steady amount of buzz among Nashville’s songwriting community. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard other Music City songwriters rave about this Oklahoma rambler, and this is a town that often succumbs to a kind of “I’ve heard it all before” weltschmerz. One songwriting friend, who caught his show earlier this summer at the 5 Spot in East Nashville, said it was the first time in a long time he can remember hearing an artist who kept him stock-still, rapt in awe, for the entirety of the show. With artists like Moreland and Stapleton in our midst, the future definitely looks good.

Goin’ Up Country: Wildwood Revival Delivers The Goods in Georgia

Please pick up your trash, this is not Bonnaroo.”

Those words greeted us on a sign that marked the entrance to the Wildwood Revival campgrounds this past weekend, moments after a volunteer warned us a rattlesnake had been spotted near one of the patron’s tents.  “They bush-hogged it the other day and it stirred some stuff up, so keep an eye out, boys,” he told us.

There was no chance of anyone mistaking Wildwood for Bonnaroo. Now in its third year, this finely curated music and culture festival is the epitome of a laid-back Southern hang.

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Wildwood is held on 30 acres of rolling farm country in northeast Georgia, about a twenty-minute drive from Athens. An 1850s antebellum mansion sits prominently at the front of the property. This year’s event was capped at 500 entrants and at times gave off the air of an over-sized Southern wedding. It was a far cry from the bacchanalia that is Bonnaroo — no toplessness here, no candy-flippers frolicking in mushroom fountains, no appeals to the lunatic fringe.

The two-day event featured 15 musical acts and leaned heavily on rootsy singer-songwriter fare (Joe Fletcher, Lindi Ortega, Kelsey Waldon among them), with some more rocking ensembles (Water Liars, Blackfoot Gypsies, American Aquarium) thrown in for good measure.

In addition to the music, all of which took place from a stage nestled at the front of an open-air barn, the weekend offered a wide spectrum of life’s finer things: farm-to-table cuisine, craft beer, a pop-up vintage clothing store, Civil War-era tintype photographic portrait sessions for patrons, wiffle ball, an early morning yoga session, and more.

So it was as much an all-around chill-out as it was a music event. Once the province of neo-hippies and jam bands, the music festival as we know it is a constantly evolving beast, offering a little something for everybody, if they know where to look. Some festivals are run so well it’s easy to get spoiled as a music fan. In the age of the Internet and human isolation, these type of affairs also make for great social events, giving patrons to chance to kick back and make new friends with kindred spirits.

We arrived on grounds late Saturday afternoon to find Joe Fletcher and the Wrong Reasons engaged in a rowdy set amid some Deep South August humidity. (My photographer marked time that day by the arc of the sweat stain on my friend Will’s T-shirt.) Fletcher, who cut his teeth in the Providence, Rhode Island music scene but moved to Nashville years ago, led the crowd in a sweaty sing-along of “Mabel Gray,” an original tune by Brown Bird, the solo project of David Lamb, a Providence musician and friend of Fletcher’s who passed away from leukemia in 2014. Fletcher’s band, which featured Texas singer-songwriter Brian Wright on lead guitar, closed the set with a rootsy, down-home version of the Velvet Underground’s “I’m Waiting for the Man.”

Another highlight on Saturday came from Water Liars, a three-piece from Oxford, Mississippi who takes its name from a short story by Barry Hannah, the other great writer who made his home in Oxford. They delivered their brand of Crazy-Horse styled Southern rock as the drummer took sips of beer from a sports water bottle between songs.

Canadian songstress Lindi Ortega, who served up a sea of heartbreak ballads along with a cover of Janis Joplin’s “Mercedes Benz,” was the last performer to take the stage. Her set was followed by the Keep On Movin’ dance party, a DJ set of national renown that goes down every Monday at East Nashville’s 5 Spot. Their playlist, heavy on the Motown, made for the perfect ending to a great day of music.