Reason For Believing

April is the cruelest month, and with it came the death of Merle Haggard, widely regarded as one of the greatest singers and songwriters in country music history.

The obits called him the “patriarch of outlaw country” and the man who “defined the outlaw aesthetic.” If any country musician could lay claim to the “outlaw” designation, it was Merle, who went to San Quentin prison at age 20 for robbery and an attempted jail escape.

Despite the “outlaw” tag, Haggard stood apart from trends and movements. He was fiercely independent and exceedingly complex as a man and artist. (“There are about 1,700 ways to take “Okie From Muskogee,” he once said.) His work drew as much from blues, jazz and Western swing as it did from the country music of the time. Along with Buck Owens, he is credited with creating the “Bakersfield Sound,” which is often seen as a reaction to the slicker sounds coming out of Nashville in the mid- to late-’50s. I think Haggard was just making the music he wanted to make at the time, and disinterested in the goings-on of Music City. The “Bakersfield Sound” was not a reactionary aesthetic, as far as I can tell.

The popular storyline concerning cover subject Sturgill Simpson, as well as other luminaries like Chris Stapleton and Jason Isbell, is that they represent the “New Outlaws,” a group of subversives hell-bent on upending the machinery of Music Row and restoring “authentic” country music to its rightful place on the throne. It is a narrative that has been played out ad nauseam in the public prints.

From my vantage, all three of these artists are songwriters first and foremost, writing songs and recording music to the best of their ability. Their affiliation with country is largely by virtue of having been raised in the South. No artist worth his salt wants to be confined to a movement, or compared to something that came before.

So much of American journalism cribs from other journalism. The tired old storylines seem to get recycled over and over again, and this is especially true in music journalism. As listeners and fans, we are forced submit to these manufactured narratives that are promulgated by publicists and the media to sell records. “Daddy worked on a railroad.” “I got drunk and thrown in jail.” “I got kidnapped by aliens and was force-fed LSD, please listen to my record.”
It all gets a bit old. Why not just focus on the music, and maintain some air of mystery where the biographies are concerned.

In our cover story, Simpson tells writer Andrew Leahey he didn’t think he had a career when he made his last album, Metamodern Sounds In Country Music, believing at the time that it was the last record he would get to make. Why not go for broke? he thought. His new album, A Sailor’s Guide To Earth, is equally bold, drawing on a wide kaleidoscope of American musical influences. Simpson self-produced the album and recorded it in five days. He went into the studio to lay down some demos but found the groove and called it a wrap.

Writing good songs is not easy. You have to go wherever you can, using the materials at hand. Merle told American Songwriter in 2010 that he spent his professional life chasing the muse. “That’s what keeps me alive,” he said, “that hope that I’ll write the song that’ll knock me out and that will be better than ‘Working Man Blues,’ and better than ‘Mama Tried.’ That’s my reason for believing.” It seems Merle was in competition only with himself.

Another artist featured in these pages who has forged his own path is Will Oldham, a former actor turned recording artist who makes albums under the moniker of Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy. His latest offering features lyrics that were taken from the fortunes of fortune cookies he had collected over decades. Talk about a novel approach.

Finally, we are retiring our long-running Deathbed contest this issue, and replacing it with “The High Five” (presented by Martin Guitar), which will feature a rotating cast of topics, the first one being “The Five Songs I Wish I’d Written.” We look forward to reading your entries.

When It Comes To Neil Young, Tomorrow Never Knows

You can always count on a left turn or two at a Neil Young show. Midway through his set in Nashville Thursday night, old Shakey threw in a monkey wrench during the middle of “Okie From Muskogee,” a tune he performed in tribute to the late Merle Haggard, a man he called a great poet and great American. When the chorus of the song kicked in, the band’s drummer shifted gears and proceeded to lay down a drum beat that sounded a lot like The Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows,” John Lennon’s hypnotic paean to LSD. It was a hilarious moment, and one that served to illuminate the song’s native brilliance. “Okie,” released by Haggard in 1969 with flower power already wilting, is a tune of perpetual ironies, and one that can be listened to “1,700 different ways,” as Haggard once said.

Young also tweaked a few lyrics for good measure, including the line “We don’t take our trips on LSD,” subbing “STP” in for the classic hallucinogen, a nod to his affinity for electric-biodiesel cars. [Watch a fan-shot video of the performance below.]

The 70-year-old rock icon had come to Nashville as part of his Rebel Content tour, accompanied by his new backing band Promise Of The Real, a group of young gunners spearheaded by guitarists Lukas and Micah Nelson (sons of Willie) who backed Young on his latest studio album, The Monsanto Years. Young opened the set solo, with his voice in fine fettle, alternating on acoustic guitar, piano, and pump organ, proffering old standards like “After The Gold Rush,” “Heart Of Gold,” and “Long May You Run.” Promise of The Real then joined him for a handful of acoustic numbers — “Unknown Legend and “One Of These Days” among them — with Neil leading the charge on his 1941 Martin D-28, a guitar that was once owned by Hank Williams. “This is not a museum piece,” he told the crowd.

Nashville clearly holds special meaning for Young, who has done his share of recording in Music City through the years, with tracks from seminal albums Harvest and Comes A Time having been cut here. Shaky confessed that things looked a bit different this time around in Music City, as this marked his maiden show at Ascend Amphitheater.

“When did you build this place?” he quipped at one point, later asking, “What’s going on in the Pinnacle?”, a reference to the towering glass castle that commands the skyline behind the stage. There was also the occasional hell-scream of sirens from the street to contend with. “It’s all part of it,” Young said. “I like all sounds. It’s like animals, if you actually talk to them they look at you.”

The decibel level picked up when Neil slung on “Old Black,” his Gibson Les Paul, and launched into “Down By The River,” complete with its signature guitar wig-out. Promise Of The Real sizzled as a backing band all night, and it’s unlikely there were many in the crowd who lamented the absence of Crazy Horse.

Late into the set Neil & co. broke out “Powderfinger,” a Southern Gothic number about riverboat gun violence that mourns the death of a gal named Emmylou. It’s well known that he wrote “Powderfinger” for Lynyrd Skynyrd to record — Ronnie Van Zandt was killed in that famous plane crash before the band could cut it — after they facetiously called for his excommunication from all things Dixie in “Sweet Home Alabama,” a song that Neil has always claimed to love. One song Young no longer loves is the very one that spawned the Skynyrd tune, his own “Alabama,” which he hasn’t performed live since the late ’70s. “I don’t like my words [on “Alabama”] when I listen to it today,” he wrote in his autobiography Waging Heavy Peace. “They are accusatory and condescending, not fully thought out, easy to misconstrue.”

The delights of “Powderfinger” were not easily misconstrued, notwithstanding the song’s historical ironies. It was one of the night’s highlights, to be sure, and the perfect soundtrack for a spring evening spent along the Cumberland River.

Port of Call

“My wound is geography. It is also my anchorage, my port of call.”

 – Pat Conroy, The Prince Of Tides

Lucinda Williams is haunted by the South. So many of her great songs, it seems, wrestle with the ghosts of her Southern heritage. Past lovers and past lives are forever tied to place, and in her case it’s often the old Civil War towns of Mississippi and Louisiana.

On “Jackson,” the final song off of Car Wheels On A Gravel Road, her beloved 1998 album, the narrator anticipates passing through several towns on an unspecified road-trip, and wonders what feelings those places will trigger about a certain loved one. “All the way to Jackson/ I don’t think I’ll miss you much/ All the way to Jackson/ I don’t think I’ll miss you much.”

The song unfolds over a few chords of finger-picked acoustic guitar, accompanied by a voice that Emmylou Harris once testified could “melt the chrome off a trailer hitch.” If the narrator is not missing this person, she doesn’t sound like it. The emotional history of their relationship is wedded to these towns (Jackson, Lafayette, Vicksburg, Baton Rouge), and it will forever be so.

Williams’ new album, The Ghosts Of Highway 20, returns to much of the same swampy terrain she traversed on Car Wheels, and the albums feel like bookends in a way, though the latter offers little in the way of resolution (the death of her mother and father – and all the questions those events raise –  are explored in two different songs). In our cover story, the daughter of the poet Miller Williams talks at length about her upbringing, a rough-and-tumble ordeal not without its transcendent moments, including a trip to the homestead of Flannery O’Conner (her dad’s idol), and a chance meeting at age six with bluesman Blind Pearly Brown, a big-bang moment that offered young Lucinda a privileged glimpse into a mysterious and hypnotic otherworld. Even in her childhood, it seems the literary and low-down were never far apart.

Of course, family and place are not exclusive to Southerners as sources of artistic inspiration. The poignant new album from Boston native Aoife O’Donovan, In The Magic Hour, was inspired by the recent death of her grandfather, an Irishman, and the childhood summers she spent with him along the Emerald Isle. The record is in part an elegy for lost youth, and features a rendition of “Donal Og” (originally an eighth-century Irish poem and a favorite of Ted Hughes no less), a tune O’Donovan’s musician parents sang to her as a child. The song’s outro even includes a clip of her grandfather singing the words to the Irish traditional “The West’s Awake.” It’s a stirring moment indeed.


2016 has already seen the exit of a number of artists that helped shape the DNA of pop music over the last half-century. Patterson Hood, one of the principal singers and songwriters of Drive-By Truckers, the celebrated Southern rock band, pays tribute to one of the departed, David Bowie, in the back pages of this issue. Hood argues that Bowie’s prowess as a songwriter is often overlooked, simply because of his superlatives in so many other areas.

Finally, we jet down to the Florida panhandle for the 30A Songwriters Festival. Now in its seventh year, the three-day event has established itself as one of the pre-eminent songwriting festivals in the country. This year’s spectacle boasted marquee acts like Jackson Browne, Grace Potter and Shovels & Rope, but it was in in the boutique restaurants and beachside bars that dot this scenic stretch of the Gulf Coast where the real action took place. Artists like Charlie Mars, Robert Ellis and Elise Davis held us rapt with just their voice and guitar. The weekend also offered young-gun artists the chance to rub shoulders with their heroes in the bars and cafes, and in impromptu guitar pulls that went down after-hours in fabulously chic hotels. It was a great event, all around, and one songwriters and music lovers should not miss next year.

A Songwriter’s Songwriter

Tom T. Hall is not a household name. Even in haunts where the country jukebox constantly spins, his songs are not on heavy rotation.

This is not to his discredit. Hall had chart success in his heyday, but he’s a songwriter’s songwriter, first and foremost, and his influence looms large in the world of any country songwriter versed in the canon. Or it should anyway.

As Peter Cooper writes in our cover story, Tom T. was one of a handful of writers in the ’60s who “elevated and altered the language and narrative form of country music, and blazed a path down which Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, and John Prine would later meander.”

The small-town Kentucky boy showed up in Nashville as a writer for hire, attempting to mimic the radio trends of the time, as his publisher would have it. Hall found his own voice serendipitously with a little help from his wife, continued to believe in the merit of that voice, and never looked back.

I first discovered Hall via a tribute album in the late ’90s that featured versions of his tunes by artists like Ron Sexsmith, Calexico, and Iris Dement. The songwriting prowess wowed. Years later, I heard Drive-By Truckers cover “Mama Bake A Pie (Daddy Kill A Chicken),” a song about a disabled war veteran, and was reminded of his wordsmithing brilliance. “Since I won’t be walking I suppose I’ll save some money buying shoes,” the paraplegic narrator deadpans. This is vintage Hall lyricism — walking the razor’s edge between despair and humor like some trailer-park version of Oscar Wilde.

Tens of thousands of songwriters have called Nashville home in the last half-century. There have been too many good ones to count, but only a handful who can truly be called great, who have busted open new worlds and changed the evolutionary arc of the art-form. For writers like Tom T., it’s no so much three chords and the truth as it is three chords and the all the new truths that he will discover.

This year’s Legends issue, often referred to within the office as the annual O.W.D. (“old white dude”) edition, salutes a group of writers and musicians — most of them not super well-known — that have created a body of work that continues to inspire and influence.

The late Blaze Foley, an Austin-based songwriter and professional hell-raiser, is one of these unsung heroes. Foley is perhaps best known as the writer of “If I Could Only Fly,” a tune covered by Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson. Lucinda Williams immortalized Blaze in the song “Drunken Angel” off her Car Wheels album. For our story, James Williamson traveled to Georgia and New Orleans and tracked down some of Blaze’s old acquaintances, piecing together a nomadic and tragic life that was punctuated with brief periods of songwriting brilliance. A number of young songwriters in Nashville know Blaze’s small catalog chapter and verse. Newcomer Aaron Lee Tasjan, whose album In The Blazes made our Top 50 of 2105 List, pays tribute to him on on the song “Lucinda’s room,” for instance.

Elsewhere, we check in with Spooner Oldham, the organist from The Swampers in Muscle Shoals and one of the all-time great session men in the history of rock and roll. Spooner, ever content to be the sideman, also released a solo album in the early ‘70s that was reissued earlier this year. Here, he looks back on his life as a session man.

We also catch up with Tony Rice, a master flat picker who is cited by many a bluegrass guitarist as their reason for picking up the instrument. My first introduction to Tony came in the form of The Pizza Tapes, the bootlegged recording of an impromptu jam session between Rice, Jerry Garcia and David Grisman in the early ‘90s that featured a number of traditional folk numbers. It is worth checking out. Also, Rand Bishop pays tribute to fellow Oregon native Mickey Newbury, who decided to give songwriting a shot after a tenure in the Navy. Like Tom T., Newbury is a true master craftsmen, and though he never attained mega-stardom, his songs continue to amaze today.