Calling Out Country

by Craig Havighurst, Music City Roots Producer

A few recent events have once again thrown into sharp relief the gulf between country music the great American genre and “country music,” the lost radio format. Over in our world, Sturgill Simpson made the cover of the Nashville Scene as the winner of its annual critics’ poll for releasing the best country album of 2104. Then last week, the Academy of Country Music announced nominees for its annual extravaganza, setting up yet another televised celebration of celebrities with perfect teeth, hot muscles, stage moves and mostly dreadful songs.

I raise this well worn subject because I think we need to regularly remind ourselves that good music is at a disadvantage in the modern entertainment business and because this week we’ll enjoy a return visit from one of true country music’s most devoted defenders. I just can’t see and listen to Dale Watson without thinking of his epic take-downs – in song and in speech – of phony industrial country radio. Some years ago we heard it when he sang “Nashville Rash” with a line we couldn’t be more in step with: “You can’t grow when you rip the roots out of the ground.” Now its his advocacy for a new approach/outlook/genre he’s calling Ameripolitan.

“It’s four categories. It’s honky tonk, outlaw, Western swing and rockabilly,” he told Dallas writer Arden Ward in 2013. “Ameripolitan is about keeping the roots.”

Personally, I think Americana is and has been the label he’s looking for, but his movement’s manifesto says Ameripolitan is much more focused on traditional country forms than the wider purview of folk, songwriter, newgrass or rock and roll encompassed by our friends at the Americana Music Association. And hey, I’m for every effort to identify, protect, support, brand, sell and enthuse about good country music. So onward Ameripolitan. And onward with its founder. Dale Watson is one of the most qualified artists in the nation to carry the torch, with 20 incredibly consistent albums to his name, not to mention decades of experience playing every honky tonk and tavern between L.A.’s late great Palomino Club, New York’s Hill Country BBQ and his Austin home base. Watson inherited the mantle of trucker country from Dick Dudley years ago. He’s got a baritone like a diesel engine and the only silver pompadour in American music that could go up against Del McCoury’s. He’s just the kind of charismatic yet mellow and worldly-wise figure you want leading your movement’s parade.

There’s a straightforward authenticity and American heritage about the Brothers Landreth, though let’s be clear they’re natives of Winnipeg, Canada. I think you’ll hear devotion to Tom Petty, John Fogerty and John Hiatt in their mix, plus a classic pop and soul sensibility on songs like “Made Up Mind” that for me calls up the joys of Hall & Oates. A friend handed me their debut album Let It Lie several months ago so I had a chance to dive into its sturdy, tuneful songs before its official release last week. Having fallen for it, I can say it’s an honor and treat to be part of the release road show by a band that seems more than ready to make its mark on both sides of the border. The brothers are Joey on guitar (including killer slide) and Dave on bass, and I’m certainly curious about whether the mighty, sensitive lead singing I’m hearing on the CD comes from one or the other or both. In general, we’ll find out what left the writers and bloggers going gaga after last Fall’s showcase at the Americana festival in Nashville.

Also on the bill this week, a large, joyful band that embodies our music’s spirit and ethos with its name, Family & Friends. Not to be confused with recently defunct and much more glammy Friends & Family, this F&F is a collective from Athens, Georgia that combines songcraft and ensemble playing with the informal fun of a campfire sing-along. In a good backgrounder from the hometown paper, we learn the group has won over many fans in a short time with its vivacious live show, which includes grooves made by two (standing) drummers. Can’t wait to see that. Rounding things out will be Matt Phillips, a college-age North Carolinian touring with a band he calls The Philharmonic that includes horns. Matt himself says: “We play a soulful mix of pop, jazz, folk, and funk that’s been crowd-tested and party approved.” That’ll suit us just fine.

To circle back to this country music question, I must note in fairness that there is still a bit of overlap in the big Venn diagram with honest country in one circle and radio country in the other. Miranda Lambert was named artist of the year by the Scene critics, and she’s been the most celebrated female artist at the country awards for some time. Eric Church and Little Big Town get deserved respect from all quarters. But out of the top 30 country albums on the Scene poll, only six of the artists named ever get played on commercial country radio at all, while the other 24, from Sturgill to Willie Nelson to Hurray for the Riff Raff, can’t and won’t. At all. Never no way. That’s why, in case this whole scene is new to you, we take such pride in giving this kind of excellence and range a platform and stage and radio signal (thanks to Hippie) to help them make their way. We believe if they can he heard over the well-financed sound of the celebrity machine, our whole country will be a better place for it.

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