Don't Rock the Inbox: Issue #1
Yeah, an old five and dimer is all I really meant to be
We both love country music and write about it (Marissa’s even working on a book about it!), but finding places to do the latter — especially in the thoughtful, inclusive, nuanced way we aim to — has become increasingly challenging. So we’re making something new: specifically, a bi-weekly newsletter with essays, interviews and reviews that reflect what’s happening now in country music, using that term’s broadest possible definition. Put a record on and enjoy Don’t Rock The Inbox! — Natalie & Marissa
In this issue:
Justin Townes Earle, remembered
Meet Miko Marks and listen to her stellar song “Goodnight America”
An Election Week special: country music politics aren’t what you think
On Miranda Lambert “Settling Down”
Some songs we like listening to right now (and some we don’t):
Billy Joe Shaver and the outlaw myth
Tall and Skinny Town, Tall and Skinny Man: the Nashville that left behind Justin Townes Earle
The first time I saw Justin Townes Earle play in Nashville was at a festival called SoundLand in 2011, run by Nashville Public Radio’s Jason Moon Wilkins. I’d caught him live in New York before, when I was still living in 300-something square feet on the Lower East Side, wondering what it might be like to exist somewhere with a backyard or a kitchen cabinet big enough to put a standard size cereal box in without placing it sideways. We’d gone to Nashville for the weekend to scope it out – this was before the “it city” boom, so a share of our pretentious and provincial “friends” were wondering out loud why on earth we would want to make a move like that, to a red state and buckle of the bible belt (cut to a year or two later, and they were pining for our guest room). Justin died in August, not even yet forty and leaving behind a wife and daughter. The last room I saw him play was the Ryman Auditorium.
This particular event in 2011 was hosted by American Songwriter, put together by then-editor Caine O’Rear and held in an unused space between Music Row and Broadway – what Nashvillians know now as the Razor & Tie building. Inside, in front of a large American Songwriter banner, Justin stood alone with his guitar, strumming with those heavy thumbs that Guy Clark referred to as sledgehammers (if you ever wondered why he had ‘em tattooed, that’s why). He played songs from Harlem River Blues like “Ain’t Waitin” and sat down with Jewly Hight to talk about Townes Van Zandt, the man who inspired his middle name and spent so many nights with his father, Steve, picking and creating a Nashville sound that existed outside of Music Row and the ragged definitions of either folk or country. Townes death was a result of addiction, and Justin took it as a cautionary tale.
“These days I try my best not to push my luck,” he said. “I don’t even drive fast anymore.”
Even then — yes, even then — Nashville was no longer the Nashville that Justin knew, growing up with a single mother and running the streets with his friends at night. Gentrification had picked up in downtown already, replacing busking musicians slowly with future redcaps doing covers of “Red Solo Cup,” and East Nashville had been reshaping and pushing out its longtime residents since the 1999 tornado brought in a sweep of revitalization and rebuilding. Still, it was but a shadow of the growth it’s seen since, and you could still find blocks of Lockeland Springs inhabited by artists and musicians and locals who had been in the area for generations. It’s where we bought a home for a mortgage that was a fraction of the rent of our Lower East Side apartment, a cost of living low enough to allow me to slowly transition from doing many jobs to several and eventually, just focus on writing alone. That felt good. Art felt possible.
Justin smelled the changes, so much so that he made sure to get out of town to NYC until he moved back to Nashville for a stint when he got married. But he never seemed to be part of it, not showing up around town to functions or premiere parties but instead choosing to find friends from his youth — the last time I interviewed him he had plans meet up with a man named Cheddar, who had just been released from jail. Cheddar had been charged with second degree murder after a bar fight, and we spoke at length about how things might have been different if he were a white man.
"Cheddar is institutionalized as hell," Earle told me. "So I was like man, you just got out of prison, so I said, ‘How about this: I am staying at the Hutton Hotel, and why don't you come over, and we'll walk across the street to the Midtown Café, and have a nice meal, and a quiet drink at the hotel later?'’” Those worlds ran in a story I wrote about Justin for American Songwriter, for that same editor who had booked him to play SoundLand. The same editor who has since departed the publication once it was purchased by a team much more interested in clicks and pageviews than anything else — a magazine version of box condos ravaging downtown that Justin was so wary of.
Naturally, Justin would gravitate to Midtown Café, a vestige of old Nashville. “New Nashville,” as it was called, didn’t just make him cringe, it made him visibly upset. The high rises, the bachelorette parties, the rising rents and segregating schools, the prioritization of capitalism over art. Justin had been putting out records that were, I suppose, certifiably “Americana” since 2007’s Yuma, and was the Americana Awards and Honors choice for emerging artist in 2009. But the genre, and a mainstream enamored with banjo-goes-to-Urban-Outfitters supergroups, seemed to move on without him — that, or he didn’t feel a place in it either. He certainly made some enemies along the way, and severed some friendships. Justin seemed to feel at odds with the commodification of anything, and here he was, with a town that looked like a Disneyland version of its former self filled with artisan donuts and dick balloons, his brand of music starting to make the soundtrack of tech commercials. Even the way he dressed had reached peak madness, shops filled with $300 versions of the flannels he would toss in a duffle bag for the road.
I visited Justin the studio while I was writing that American Songwriter cover story — at the Sound Emporium, founded by Cowboy Jack Clement. Somehow it still stands, and that’s what Justin seemed to like: the history. As usual and before going into the recording booth he was reminiscing about the old days — the strip clubs that dominated downtown, the old haunts. I’ll never forget what he said, while rolling a joint: “I think Nashville had more whorehouses than Reno.” I’d link to that story, but I cancelled my subscription to American Songwriter after the corporate takeover, so why bother?
On the album he was making at the time, The Saint of Lost Causes, he was thinking beyond Nashville to the lives that had been impacted by similar governmental or societal negligence. This particular day he was recording “Over Alameda,” a song about the inequalities in South Central Los Angeles, a stone’s throw from some of the richest people on earth who wouldn’t dare step over that dividing line to see poverty with their own eyes — and would actually rather pretend it didn’t exist. Justin didn’t just resent Nashville’s excess growth because the “cool” places had been pushed out, but he was growing to be a truth empath for anyone left behind by the American Way.
Much was made of Justin being a temperamental and difficult figure, and I don’t have enough personal experience to report on that either way, or fairly. As a listener, I interpreted this as vulnerability, and a lack of filter (good for art, often bad for human connections) — he sung about hard and complex relationships, and took the time to understand the motivations of people in his life. His 2014 album Single Mothers was a rarity to me in the genre — no train songs, but meditations on the women in his life who filled the voids and created them, too. “Mama please don't come over,” he sang. “You'll be the first to know when I start to come around.”
I moved to Nashville shortly after catching that 2011 show, and Justin’s reluctance about the place that I loved — and still love, though it’s far more complicated now — always hung over my head. If it wasn’t a place that felt like home to him, someone born here and raised here and, for all intents and purposes, exactly the type of person who should be relished and flourish, what did that mean to everyone else? And to a city that prides itself on its artistic output?
I don’t know how he died, and the only thing that’s my business is what’s been made public, but I know it was in my city, alone. And I do know that Nashville failed him. It failed to stay a place where artists like him felt welcome and could afford to live and make their art comfortably; it failed his friends, like Cheddar; it failed to control the COVID-19 pandemic, so we were forced to move from mourning one person to another at an inhumane rate. I know he died in an apartment on Acklen Park, the same street where you can go from shiny brand-new condos to two story left-behinds without driving very far at all.
I thought of Justin the other day when I was reading about how water had been found on the moon — it seemed like that sort of poetic insanity that only our modern society could conjure up, celebrating water on other objects out in the universe while so much of ours is poisoned and undrinkable. On Saint of Lost Causes, Justin was thinking about clean water — that basic thing we’ve managed to ruin and make inaccessible for so many. He sung about Appalachia and Flint, making sure we saw the ugly in this country front and center. He’d put enough of himself out there, both the tainted and the beautiful, that it was easy to believe him when he warned us. He’d seen the dark. Who hasn’t?
I don’t even drive fast anymore, though. I try my best not to push my luck.
Q&A: Miko Marks, Reclaiming Her Country
There’s few things country music loves more than jingoism (more on that later). But as the most trying election season in recent memory draws to a close (we hope), what it needs are more songs like Miko Marks’ “Goodnight America” — a frank, straightforward blues lamenting how “all the evil you have done is more than anyone could tell,” among other plainspoken, astute critiques. Born in Flint, Michigan, Marks made it to Nashville by the mid-aughts, where she recorded two great albums, Freeway Bound and It Feels Good, that mostly fell on deaf ears thanks in large part to the industry’s racism and sexism.
But Marks is ready to give the chronically exclusionary genre another go; Our Country, her first album in 13 years, will be released next March. Whether or not anything has actually changed within the genre in those 13 years is hard to say, but Marks, as she discusses below, is happy to be back and pushing for a much-needed Music Row reinvention.
When did you decide to pursue singing as a career?
I'd say the early '90s was when I started songwriting, and the way I wrote — I would play it for my Black friends and they were like, "Girl, that sounds like some country song." I was like, "Well...it is." But it was natural for me because that's how I write: I tell stories. I can't really just write a one-line hook, and sing that over and over and over. I like to take the listener on a journey, and I think country music is a real, authentic place to do that.
Around 2003, my husband took a demo to somebody who had a label, and they liked it, and they were like, "Let's make a record — we need to go to Nashville." So we took the songs that I had written for Freeway Bound, and we recorded an album in like, two days. I was so confident about the songs and my vocals that I was like, "This is going to be a slam dunk." And we know the reality, but sell that to a 20-something year old. I was in for a rude awakening, for sure.
I mean, it's such a hard industry and place to make it, period. And obviously you're a Black woman, and as a result coming to it from the most uphill possible place.
I was like, "Maybe they want something different." I thought it would be embraced. I saw it as an asset, you know, something unique — but yeah, it didn't work that way.
What were some of the reactions you got as you were promoting this album?
I met with one of the major record labels down there, probably one of the biggest. We had a meeting and they loved the music. That's what they lead with. Like, "This album is awesome. This is great. But you won't sell." Not really saying it was because I was Black, but just saying there "wasn't a market for" me. They talked around the subject, but I left the room knowing it was because I was a woman and I was Black, and that just wasn't really accepted in country music at the time. I believe Rissi Palmer was around then, but just getting started.
I was just heartbroken. I was literally heartbroken. I still did shows. But my gas was gone. The car didn't want to go anymore.
What have you been up to since you released It Feels Good in 2007?
Well, I've still been singing. I have a small cult following here in the Bay Area. We have a few country music venues, and I still was able to get out what I needed to get out. I just stopped trying do it on this major scale — and I was happy with that. I was hanging on by a thread to my musical aspirations.
What made this the right moment to make another record, and come back to the national scene?
It was really weird. I had this dream, and the two people in the dream were [producers and co-writers] Justin Phipps and Steve Wyreman. When I first started out in Nashville, they were my bandmates. So I contacted Justin and said, "I had this dream, y'all were in it and we need to do this." It felt like a calling. He was like, "Well, I do have this song 'Goodnight America,' but I don't know if you want to go down this road. It's a pretty heavy song." And I was like, "Send it to me." I had never done any type of music that was political or social justice-oriented in my life. This was all pre-COVID. But something told me I needed to do the song.
After "Goodnight America," he was just like, "Okay, next." Pretty soon, we had an album that we didn't plan on making. It happened so organically, because I already had worked with them. They did my whole album by themselves, so it's just really sweet and special — unlike anything I've ever done. I felt like the dream was a rebirth for me, career-wise.
When I'm dead and gone, I want to leave a legacy of what I love to do and hopefully, it inspires somebody else. That's my main goal. I was discouraged for a few years, I'm not gonna lie. I stopped writing, I stopped singing. I was mad, I was upset and I was hurt. But I don't feel that way anymore. I don't feel like my fate is in the hands of these gatekeepers anymore. I'm in control. That's where my victory lies, you know?
The fact that "Goodnight America" had already been made pre-COVID is pretty remarkable — it seems like a perfect reaction.
It took us by surprise. This song came from Justin — he wrote the entire song. I was so happy and honored to do it. It felt extremely bold, because I am very happy go lucky. The song really made me face some things that I may have been brushing under the rug, trying to be glass half-full all the time. But it speaks my truth as well. I believe exactly what it's saying.
America has sewed a garment of deceit and lies for so long, and until we face those truths and build a new foundation... I still have hope. This song is not anti-American. It's just like, let's look at the issues. Let's look at the racial injustice, the violence in our country, let's not ignore that. Let's come to terms with it and figure out a best way forward.
It seems reasonable to say that Lil Nas X's success really reinvigorated the conversation about diversity in country music, and specifically racial diversity. How has it felt watching that unfold?
I'm happy for him and how successful he's become from ["Old Town Road"]. But the initial reaction was typical of what I experienced. Until he got Billy Ray Cyrus on that album, it wasn't categorized as country, and it was just as country as anything else I heard in country music. It fell in line, but because he was Black, "Oh, it's not country." The minute he put a white person on the album... it's so sad. Watching that unfold was just a re-injury, from my point of view.
Do you feel like as Nashville seems to at least be gesturing towards Black artists across the board, as some boundaries — like having multiple Black artists on the country charts at the same time — are broken, do you feel like things might actually change? Or does it seem like an ebb and flow thing?
Right now it feels ebb and flow, but I do believe things might change because there's a movement right now — especially with Black women and country music — that is so wonderful to see. Brittany Spencer, Rissi Palmer, the Chapel Hart band — we're not letting up. It's like Rissi said: If you won't give us a seat at the table, we'll just build our own. I think that change will come, simply because it can't be denied like it has been for so long. The movement that's happening right now is too powerful.
I think we're finding strength in the support of others, creating this really strong unity —whatever is tied together is harder to break. That's a different approach. Back in the day, it used to be like, "Me first — I can't help anybody because I'm doing this." I think that spirit is dying. I just found out about the Highwomen, and I'm in awe of their talent and their skill level and how they use their voices. It's not just status quo — they're doing great, but they're also reaching back to help the other people who deserve to be right alongside them. I just think that's beautiful, and that's what it's going to take for any change. It can't just be like, "Oh, it's all about me." It's got to be like, "We."
What has it meant to you to explore more political topics in your songwriting?
It was so freeing. I wrote a song called "We Are Here," which is about my hometown of Flint, Michigan and the water crisis. Just the forgotten people. People are withering away on the vine out there, and nobody is really coming to their aid. It felt really empowering for me to shine a light on this city. The people are so resilient, and I just felt the need to really think about that.
Everything isn't all beer and champagne. I won't say country music has veered totally off path, but the narrowness of it needs to change — and that comes from being inclusive, from the artists to the behind-the-scenes staff to the writers to the producers. Just on every level, we need a systemic breakdown of everything and then we can build anew. That isn't going to be seen in my lifetime, but I do think it's possible. It can happen, but it's going to have to be a real shake-up.
Nashville Is No Longer Red Enough For Trump Supporters
Country music and conservatism go together like white supremacists and MAGA hats. It’s so familiar that it hardly bears repeating: Look what happened to the formerly Dixie Chicks, whose anything-but-P.C. name wasn’t enough to save them from the massive post-9/11 red tide that Toby Keith and Alan Jackson surfed to country chart-toppers.
But it’s been a few years since a full-on ‘Murica praisefest has been popular in country’s mainstream. You have to go all the way back to 2008 to get to the success of Zac Brown Band’s “Chicken Fried,” an unfortunately irresistible song that remains ubiquitous during NFL military flyovers and other such jingoistic rituals. Since then, tributes to rural America in the vein of “Coastal Elites Just Don’t Understand” — like Blake Shelton’s insufferable “God’s Country” — have mostly supplanted performed patriotism, at least on the radio. (The feat of phrasing that is “Take A Knee, My Ass (I Won’t Take A Knee)” never broke through, thankfully.)
It’s not entirely surprising or unprecedented. The post-9/11 period was, after all, a bit of an aberration from country’s preferred stance, “We won’t tell you what we think about politics, but you can probably guess.” And it’s not like country artists aren’t still floating U.S. of A. singles: two of the six songs Florida Georgia Line’s latest EP, 6-Pack (I know), for example, take a patriotic tack.
“I Love My Country,” which hit no. 2 on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart earlier this year, neatly skirts the issue: said country is both the U.S.A. and country music (“I love my country up loud”). “U.S. Stronger” is more saccharine and more specific, but points to an interesting trend in the wake of COVID-19: America songs that acknowledge maybe not everything is hunky dory in the land of the allegedly free. “We shake it off when things get tough,” they sing, even suggesting an idea of intrinsic Americanness must seem distressingly liberal-minded to some of their fans: “We lean on love and love to lean on one another.” Have Tyler and Brian been donating to their local mutual aid group?
Same story with Clint Black and his oddly horny “America (Still In Love With You),” and Aaron Watson’s “American Soul”: “We got a heartland full of hope/We're comin’ back around,” Watson insists. Don’t worry, he has time for both the red, white and blue AND the “yellow, brown and black” (there are not enough cringes in the world). A few weeks ago, Jamey Johnson released his first song in eight years, an ever-so-slightly wistful rendition of “America the Beautiful” (or maybe that’s just wishful thinking). The shift in tone is mild, from “We’re number one” to “We’re number one so...we are uniquely equipped to survive bad times that we are currently in,” but a shift nevertheless.
For some country artists, that shift is more dramatic: They’re actually — uncharacteristically — sounding the alarm. Kane Brown’s mostly toothless “Worldwide Beautiful” has a bite hidden in its lyrics: “It's kinda hard to fight with each other/Laying down in the ground, six under.” Eric Church relies on some regrettable clichés about Detroit and Baltimore in “Stick That In Your Country Song,” but overall he spotlights American hypocrisy in a way that’s hard to ignore, especially since the song has gotten some traction at radio. Tyler Childers has made waves in and out of country music with his unflinching “Long Violent History.” The only current country radio presence to publicly endorse Biden (Tim McGraw has donated to his campaign) is Maren Morris, who released an evocative track called “Better Than We Found It” earlier this month alongside her endorsement; in the song and the video, she spotlights police brutality and immigration issues, and features the family of Daniel Hambrick, a Black man who was killed by a Nashville police officer in 2018.
There’s no question that it was a bold move for Morris, whose stature in Nashville is still somewhat precarious (since, after all, she is a young woman). But the fact that there’s little chance she’ll be run out of town for touting a more progressive viewpoint is both reassuring and fairly new. Suddenly, those looking to Nashville for a contemporary answer to “God Bless the U.S.A.” are being compelled to look elsewhere, as country artists wary of being assessed as anywhere but straight down the middle step away from an increasingly radical Republican party.
When they look elsewhere, they find artists like Coffey Anderson, an alum of Nashville Star who seems to have been making algorithmically-driven country music independently since he appeared on the show in 2008. Anderson’s career surged this year, though, thanks to a 2012 song of his called “Mr. Red White and Blue” (the YouTube video title begins “Best Patriotic Song”). A hollow, eerie hymn for our local death cult, it perfectly conveys how earnestly Real Americans feel they’re being persecuted — probably because Anderson himself religiously preaches from the One America gospel.
“There was this whole niche market that nobody was touching, that radio wouldn't play,” Anderson told me. “Because it wasn't cool to be patriotic. But I'm from Middle America. I'm not living in Nashville. I’m not in Los Angeles. I’m not in New York.”
The song, which currently has 7.9 million views on YouTube, is about a soldier who died in battle (the titular Mr. Red White and Blue). Its sudden popularity, though, isn’t connected to our endless wars. No, it reached no. 18 on Billboard’s Country Digital Song Sales chart this fall off the strength of MAGA TikTok, where it’s soundtracked over 80,000 clips of “wounded veterans standing up for Trump” and police chases labeled with the hashtag #BlueLivesMatter. According to Anderson, the song was temporarily banned from the platform — presumably because of the kinds of videos it was being used for.
Anderson has played at Trump rallies in Kentucky and California so far this year; he voted for Trump in 2016 and plans to again. “There is an under-appreciated and overlooked audience of patriots in the United States,” he said. Anderson is Black; I asked him if that’s hindered his country career at all, and if he had any pause about supporting Trump given his overt racism. His response was to ask me where I was from. “I've only been called an Uncle Tom by liberals,” he said.
Anderson’s relevance, almost exclusively sustained by search-term driven, aggressively patriotic songs like “Mr. Red White and Blue,” has earned him a Mark Burnett-affiliated Netflix reality show called Country Ever After (it premieres next week). “I'm being real candid,” he told me. “When Nashville sold itself to Hollywood, the content of the songs started to disappear.”
On Miranda Lambert “Settling Down”
No one who’s grown up in Disney’s America (or just America) has been spared of this story: The woman, biding her time in a castle while waiting for a prince to come until — suddenly! — he arrives, sometimes on the four legs of raven stallion, ready to save her and make her life complete. Of all genres, country music is particularly prone to perpetuating these fairy tales. Not only does it historically urge a woman to stand by her man, but it also is especially, and heteronormativity, enamored with the roles of husband and wife. Spouses often have their own followings and book deals and clothing lines (and, full credit where credit is due, often engage in a good deal of admirable, charitable work). Wives get pregnant, but jury’s out on how the baby actually got in there, unless you can decode some middle school innuendo in the place of actual frank talk about sex.
On first and easy glance, that might look like what Miranda Lambert’s up to on the video for her new single, “Settling Down,” off of her newest album, Wildcard. There’s horses and husbands and fishing docks and damsels, but slow your assumptions before we get any further. It’s Miranda who is riding in on the horse while her man pines for her return, decked out in a tux and waiting. It’s the husband who is milling about the kitchen shirtless, looking like one half of a couple that just emerged from the bedroom and is looking for a post-coital snack. Miranda’s never been shy about piling sexuality into her songs — the exquisite “Vice” finds her pondering the lure of a one-night stand from a perspective of experience, high heels in hand. She might settle down, but that dust doesn’t settle at all, and women are just as good as men at being ramblers.
It’s not that mainstream country music has never approached sex — ahem Conway Twitty — but most often it’s not particularly explicitly, particularly when it comes to women (and, specifically, wives). Country’s leading men will allude to it (“Knocking Boots!” aww!) but it’s women like Miranda, Maren Morris and Cam who are willing to actually celebrate and accept their right to all things carnal.
Beyond its qualities as a great song and usually terrific vocal performance, the video for “Settling Down” is a rare slice of mainstream country marital life where the woman seems to be in charge: she’s got the reigns, and she’ll return when and if she likes. “Settling Down” doesn’t mean settling, and it certainly doesn’t mean scrubbing yourself of desire. There’s more to those #househusband photos that Miranda posts than meets the eye. They’re about fun, but they’re about permission, too.
Some songs we like listening to right now (and some we don’t):
“Good Time,” Niko Moon: Snaps and traps on an unobtrusive song about something I could not currently relate to less (having a good time). Remind me again why country radio wouldn’t play trap beats when Lil Nas X was singing alongside ‘em? Oh. -MM
“Tabasco & Sweet Tea,” The Cadillac Three: This is basically a Red Hot Chili Peppers country song, and yet in spite of that somehow it works. -NW
“The Problem,” Amanda Shires feat. Jason Isbell: Beautiful, if not heartbreaking, song about standing by someone you love or care for, even if you don’t love or care for their decisions. No one’s writing like these two. Essential listening. -MM
“My Voice,” Kalie Shorr: For the Kaliacs out there (raises hand), this song is a tad similar thematically to “Too Much To Say” (a classic) and “Angry Butterfly”; that said it’s got a stellar chorus, and is extremely fun. Also, we stan a Music Row indictment. -NW
“Lil Bit,” Nelly and Florida Georgia Line: Can hardly blame them for trying to recapture that Midas “Cruise” touch, especially as the country tides inch closer and closer to the kind of organic hip-hop/country marriage they anticipated; unfortunately this song is missing a hook. -NW
“Sinners In A Small Town,” Carter Faith: The rare country song that made me think, “Why hasn’t anyone written a song about this before?” Smart, bold, necessary writing that will have you excited to hear more. -NW
“Don’t Go Changing,” Kip Moore: The ever-reliable Kip with a new track about staying consistent for our lover in our hellscape of a world, it’s a perfect slice of grainy southern rock (is he rock? Is he country? Honestly I don’t care, but it’s my mission on life to get you on the Kip train). Bonus points for this video supporting local venues. - MM
“Girl Like Me,” Cam: Three chords and truth about what it means to grow up as a woman in a world that will let you down any chance it gets. And from one of the absolute best. - MM
“Two Chords and a Lie,” Elizabeth Cook: When the title is that good you don’t need much else, but Cook takes the mournful sing-a-long over the top with a great, slightly distorted chorus — vintage with just enough of a modern twist. -NW
“Mississippi Godman,” Kelsey Waldon (featuring Adia Victoria and Kyshona Armstrong): a take on the Nina Simone classic, three of Nashville’s finest cry for a new south that, as Adia also sings, has gotta change. Kelsey’s voice never tries to smooth itself over to erase its Kentucky imprints: be exactly who you are, but ask more from the soil from which you came. - MM
“What a High Horse,” Waylon Payne: A favorite from an album of favorites - Waylon’s terrific Blue Eyes, the Harlot, the Queer, the Pusher & Me, “What a High Horse” is country tradition and poetry all in one, with a chorus that we could all scream right now: “talk about needing a miracle, talk about needing a saving grace.” -MM
“Some Girls,” Jameson Rodgers: The number one country song on Billboard’s airplay chart is apparently about passive-aggressively following and unfollowing your ex on social media. It’s bland and unremarkable, which essentially explains its success. -MM
“Cheers,” Sacha: The search for the heir-apparent to Shania Twain’s luscious, joyful pop-country ends here. -MM
The Creature Comfort of Aunt Jemima by Adia Victoria in Oxford American
The Pandemic Could Have Hurt Country Music. Instead, the Genre is Booming by Andrew R. Chow in Time
Why Haven’t We Had a Black Woman Country Star? By Andrea Williams in the Nashville Scene
Even When It’s a Big Fat Lie by Alex Abramovich in the London Review of Books
The Long, Lonesome Roads of Jerry Jeff Walker by Amanda Petrusich in New Yorker
Album Review: Shania Twain, The Woman in Me: Diamond Anniversary Edition by Kevin John Coyne in Country Universe
Rock the Vote: How the Music Industry Built a Youth Voting Movement, by By Hilary Hughes in Pitchfork
Billy Joe Shaver, Outlaw Singer and Songwriter, Dies at 81, by By Bill Friskics-Warren in the New York Times
The Chicks Scorch the Earth on Gaslighter, by Craig Jenkins in Vulture
Marshal Chapman’s Soul and Grace, by Alan Richard for Soul Country
Sturgill Simpson Raids His Own Catalog For Surprise Bluegrass Album, by Ann Powers for NPR
Country Music Gets a Gay-themed Show with Apple Music’s Proud Radio, by Chris Willman for Variety
Brent Cobb Is Taking Mushrooms, Seeing Visions, and Writing Great Country Songs by Joseph Hudak in Rolling Stone
Billy Joe Shaver and the Outlaw Myth
When I first started listening to country music – really listening to country music – I didn’t immediately gravitate towards the “outlaws.” I came in through the Grateful Dead, Bob Dylan, bluegrass and southern rock, and while I loved rock & roll, I always appreciated those male musicians who didn’t quite ascribe to any particular sort of machismo — David Bowie, Prince, Mick Jagger and of course, Dylan. I loved poetry and the Beats, and I was figuring out words and how to use them — really use them — and came to country and folk music to find people doing the same.
Myth would have you believe that “outlaw” was just rough and tumble dudes: leather jackets, loud guitars, unapproachable, impenetrable, testosterone in guitar pedal form. Save for Willie Nelson, it kept the younger me from engaging as deeply with that outlaw era. But it didn’t take me long to figure out how wrong that misconception was, either. While I’m from New York City, I spent summers of my childhood outside of Austin, Texas, where my father lived, passing most of the days at a barn shoveling horseshit, scraping the sweat off the ponies and riding in the grass. I discovered tarantulas and scorpions in those summers and chicken fried steak (sorry, no thanks) but I also discovered outlaw country, and what it really meant. And, to me, it meant poetry. But I was too enamored with MTV at the time for it to make any real impact yet. I stuck it in my back pocket and went back to shoveling horseshit with Alanis in my head.
I felt betrayed, a little, when I realized that outlaw country had nothing to do with machismo — hard living, yes, different living, yes, being an outsider to the industry and the capitalistic way, definitely yes. But these people were poets. Townes Van Zandt was a poet, Guy Clark was a poet, Willie and Jessi and Bobby Bare and the rest of them were poets. Waylon was, too. When I was eight months pregnant and interviewing Guy Clark, I asked him for advice on how to make my children grow up with art — his parents had read verse around the dinner table, and it stuck.
“Read him Dylan Thomas and play him Woody Guthrie,” he told me.
That was 2013 but some years before that, in 2009, another Dylan declared his own listening habits: “I’m a-listening to Billy Joe Shaver,” Bob Dylan sang on Together Through Life. “And reading James Joyce.”
It makes sense that Bob would gravitate to a writer like Billy Joe, who died this week, because he was the outlaw poet’s outlaw poet: yes, he lived a hard and hardened life, suffered loss and made mistakes and danced with the devil more times than one. But when I thought of Billy Joe Shaver I thought of softness and language, of care for words and hurt and love and trials of the human experience. People love to tell the story of how he shot a man in self-defense, but I prefer the words that shot right to my heart:
Yeah it's hurry up and wait, in this world of give and take
Seems like haste makes for waste every time
And I pray to my soul, when you hear those ages roll
You better know I'm gonna get my share of mine
Your favorite outlaws weren’t really outlaws — they were poets in denim shirts.