Tag Archives: Country

Story of a Song: Country For Syria

Country for Syria

“In The States” was meant to be a fairly simple song for Country For Syria, a “vacation song” of sorts, explains the Istanbul-based country music collective’s co-founder, Owen Harris. After the sprawling group, whose members are American, Syrian, Turkish, Czech, French, and Iranian, returned from a tour to the U.S. last year, they began to write the song processing the experience. For most of the band, it was their first time to America. But after Trump’s inauguration and Muslim ban executive order, they felt compelled to rewrite the lyrics.

“After the ban, everything changed,” says guitarist and vocalist Bashar Balleh, who is from Syria, and co-founded the group with Harris, who is American. “We knew that if Trump won, things would change, but not as fast [as they did]. It was the first thing done, banning Muslims.” Balleh and his wife, who is American, currently find themselves stuck in a state of limbo, unable to visit either of their families together. Three other members of the band have been affected by Trump’s travel ban as well, including two undocumented Syrian refugees currently in Turkey who find their future uncertain.

Continue reading

Album of the Day: Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, “Best Troubador”

In the liner notes of his new album, Best Troubador, singer-songwriter Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, aka Will Oldham, said he was already working on a tribute to country music’s Merle Haggard before his death in April 2016. In fact, “I thought we’d give it up,” Oldham said of he and his group’s work. We’re glad they saw this through.

Best Troubador surveys a wide swath of Haggard’s discography, with a pointed emphasis on lesser-known material. There are a number of tunes here that Haggard didn’t write—Blaze Foley’s “If I Could Only Fly” or the Jimmie Davis classic “Nobody’s Darlin’ But Mine” (the title is simplified to “Nobody’s Darling” on Best Troubador)—but they help fill in a portrait that Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy paints, indicating the breadth and poetic sensibility of the country great. He leads a fantastic band, roomy enough to touch on Haggard’s broad curiosity as a true purveyor of Americana—a guy who made records paying tribute to the music of Western swing-heavy Bob Wills and Texas troubadour Jimmie Rodgers—including airy saxophone and flute lines prominently featured in the arrangements.

Guest guitarist A.J. Roach beautifully takes the lead on “The Day the Rains Came” and flutist Nuala Kennedy offers tender contributions to “Some of Us Fly.” The arrangements reach toward a cosmic strain of honky-tonk with a loose, swinging rhythmic feel shaped by drummer Van Campbell and bassist Danny Kiely that feels warmly lived-in, allowing the band enough space to chime in with instrumental asides—particularly from fiddler Cheyenne Mize and fellow guitarist Chris Rodahaffer.

It’s hard not to sense the affinity Oldham felt for Haggard, a guy who bent the rules of Nashville to suit his own quirks for more than five decades. But ultimately, it’s the songs themselves and the singular soul Haggard imparted to them that provides the inspiration for this homage, an effort that celebrates its subject through Oldham’s stubborn originality. On the surface it might seem like a strange entry into Haggard’s genius, but once the observer digs a bit deeper, Oldham emerges as the perfect guide.

—Peter Margasak

Wooden Wand’s James Jackson Toth on Songwriting and Side Hustling

Wooden Wand

James Jackson Toth’s career has been one of constant restlessness. At age 18, he began making Jandek-influenced psych-folk tunes and eerie noise recordings under the name Golden Calves. Then came his Wooden Wand moniker, and collaborative work with The Vanishing Voice, a staple of the “New Weird America” scene along with Joanna Newsom, Devendra Banhart, and Akron/Family.

Frustrated by the constraints of that freak-folk style, Wooden Wand’s subsequent recordings took a more traditional alt-country approach, albeit one that has continuously evolved using subtle experimentation. Myriad collaborators and backing bands have helped Wooden Wand vary his sound from badass outlaw country music, to softly haunting folk ballads, to semi-improvised Crazy Horse jams.

While this restlessness has long fed Toth’s extraordinary prolificacy, Clipper Ship arrives after the longest break ever between Wooden Wand studio albums: exactly three years to the day since 2014’s Farmer’s Corner. “It feels increasingly senseless to continue to release albums in the traditional way, given both technological and cultural changes as well as the general mood of the country,” says Toth. “I began feeling guilty about adding to the glut, especially at a time when most people are rightfully far more concerned about losing their health care than they are about hearing a new batch of Wooden Wand tunes. Promoting such a thing seemed very suddenly vain, oblivious, disrespectful, and unnecessary. That said, I am an artist—that’s my function in the world—so I reasoned that as long as my contributions remained positive, they might continue to serve as some kind of balm or respite from the madness.”

Continue reading

Nikki Lane, High-Class Hillbilly

Nikki Lane

Nikki Lane by Jessica Lehrman

Nikki Lane’s East Nashville-based vintage store High Class Hillbilly lives up to its name. The fringed, suede skirt with a faded logo of big-screen cowgirl Dale Evans; the pink, satin pedal pushers, the cropped leather jacket—it’s hard to imagine any of them having been casual Goodwill finds. In fact, there’s very little on the carefully color-coordinated racks that appears less than 40-years-old. Lane has a good eye, and her constant touring gives her an opportunity to scour antique malls and estate sales across the United States.

With Highway Queen, which she produced with Jonathan Tyler, the South Carolina-born mini-mogul is now three albums into crafting her identity as a purveyor of tough-sounding, ‘60s-informed twang-pop that straddles Americana, alt-country, and garage rock. She’s sharpened her songwriting, with its vinegary sweet hooks and often pugnacious posture, and made the most of a husky, drawled delivery whose greatest appeal is its delicious contradiction. It simultaneously feels hard-bitten and girlish.

Reclining on a blue couch in the basement of her store, Lane reassures an assistant, “People can come down here. I’m definitely not boxing out shopping!” The browsing customers don’t distract her in the least from discussing the clear-eyed vision that guides her multi-pronged career.

Continue reading

A John Prine Listening Primer

John Prine by Josh Britt

John Prine by Josh Britt

When John Prine began his career in 1969, he was a 23 year-old mailman just home from a stint in the army as a mechanic in West Germany. After he moved back to his suburban Chicago hometown of Maywood, Illinois, he began writing simple three-chord folk songs about lonesome elderly couples (“Hello in There”), morphine-addicted veterans (“Sam Stone”), and the strip mining that destroyed his father’s Kentucky hometown (“Paradise”). Prine began playing open mics in Chicago folk clubs like the Fifth Peg and the Earl of Old Town, eventually earning a weekly residency, before being discovered one night by Kris Kristofferson. Within two years of stepping on a stage, Prine released a debut album for Atlantic Records, and the plainspoken Midwesterner was being hailed as the latest in a long line of “new Dylan”s.

Prine’s stint with Atlantic, however, lasted only four years and as many studio albums. Two years after releasing his final Atlantic album, 1975’s Common Sense, Prine signed a three-album deal with the more singer-songwriter-oriented Asylum Records, which would release his late ’70s masterpiece Bruised Orange in 1978. But Prine soon realized that he was not interested in being in a relationship with any sort of traditional label.

By 1981, immediately following his three Asylum albums, he’d founded his own label, Oh Boy Records, and by 1984 he was self-releasing full-length records by mail order. That way, as Prine explained at the time to Bobby Bare on The Nashville Network, “There ain’t no middleman… no swarthy little character in Cleveland that gets the money from the people that want the music, and then… takes most of it, twirls his mustache, and sends me 12 cents.”

Since founding Oh Boy, Prine has released a total of 14 albums, including some of the most renowned of his career: From his 1991 comeback album The Missing Years, to his 1999 country duets collection In Spite of Ourselves, to his most recent masterpiece, 2005’s Fair & Square. Almost all of Prine’s Oh Boy discography can be found on Bandcamp.

John Prine

Photo by Kyle Dean Reinford

By the time he went out on his own in the ’80s, Prine had developed enough of a dedicated following to directly support his music—primarily, by buying tickets to his regularly sold-out theater shows around the country—without the financial backing of a label. As Prine put it in 1995, “I just didn’t want to continue recording unless it was in a manner that seemed to make more sense to what I actually did, which was pack my suitcase and go on the road for a living.”

Although Prine is still best known for the modern-day country-folk standards on his debut 1971 self-titled album, the latter half of his career is populated with exemplary moments of song craftsmanship every bit as moving and profound as “Angel From Montgomery” or “Sam Stone.”

Here are eight highlights from Prine’s Oh Boy collection.

Continue reading