Tag Archives: Country

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.

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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.

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Album of the Day: Terry Allen, ”Lubbock (On Everything)“

The plains of the Texas Panhandle are a mythic American landscape. They haunt the novels of Cormac McCarthy and act as an unforgiving backdrop on shows like Friday Night Lights and films like Paris, Texas. No singer personifies that region quite like Terry Allen.  Allen carries the dust of West Texas in his throat, with a voice like a coyote’s yip and a twang like wind-thrummed barbed wire.

There’s a quiet desperation and depression found in the people that populate that part of Texas, but the genius of Allen’s songwriting is the way he drills below the surface to find the black humor hidden underneath. That skill is on display throughout his 1978 double album Lubbock (On Everything), which is here given the deluxe reissue treatment by Paradise of Bachelors. Imagine Bob Dylan recording Blonde on Blonde down in Lubbock with a crack roadhouse band (led by producer/ steel virtuoso Lloyd Maines), or fellow Lubbockian Joe Ely cutting Rain Dogs, and you have an idea of Allen’s irascible sound and vision.

Allen’s album is populated with all manner of country kooks: good-hearted, gold-teethed women (“The Girl Who Danced Oklahoma”), craven art collectors [“The Collector (and the Art Mob)”], a star-crossed high school football player [“The Great Joe Bob (A Regional Tragedy)”], and Wolfman Jack, growling on the AM radio. High-falutin’ strings accompany “Truckload of Art,” and on the chugging seven minutes of “New Delhi Freight Train,” Allen and his crack band sound like the titular subject itself, hightailing it out of Texas.

Andy Beta

Aaron Lee Tasjan, Glam Rock Folk Singer

Aaron Lee Tasjan
Aaron Lee Tasjan. Photo by Curtis Wayne Millard.

It’s tough to take Aaron Lee Tasjan seriously when he calls himself a folk singer. Though the shaggy-haired, 30-year-old Nashville transplant is perfectly capable of quieting a room with storytelling songs and acoustic fingerpicking, there’s a whole lot of other music in his repertoire—not to mention on his resume. His incisive electric guitar playing landed him prime glam rock gigs, first with Semi Precious Weapons, then a latter-day lineup of the proto-punk New York Dolls—both far better known for the flaunting of fabulous rock ‘n’ roll androgyny than for anything remotely folk-leaning. He also secured a spot in the hard-edged roots rock outfit Drivin’ N Cryin’. The solo work that Tasjan’s committed himself to since—including his magnetic New West Records debut Silver Tears—makes use of his slouching self-awareness, bohemian intellect and wicked wit, as well as his fondness for psychedelic eruptions, sophisticated studio pop flourishes and easy twang. He’s wagering that the Americana scene, no matter its traditionalist rep, has room for such motley impulses. The week after he spoke with us, he brought a pair of drag queens on stage during his showcase at the Americana Music Festival.

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The Dark Night in D.C. That Led to Hiss Golden Messenger’s Powerful New Record

M.C. Taylor
M.C. Taylor. Photo by Andy Tennille.

M.C. Taylor had a moment of intense self-reckoning in a hotel room in Washington, D.C. Outside, a blizzard smothered the nation’s capital in snow and ice, mirroring the storminess of the singer-songwriter’s emotions. He was on tour with his North Carolina folk outfit Hiss Golden Messenger, opening a string of dates for Ben Howard. But on that night, he found himself alone, armed with an acoustic guitar, a portable recorder, and heavy thoughts.

He was worried about his music, his family, and most of all, his responsibilities to both. For years, Hiss Golden Messenger had been a side gig—more than a hobby, but less than a full-time job. It was a creative outlet for Taylor’s musical impulses while he worked a regular nine-to-five. In just a few years’ time, however, he had established himself as one of the best and most insightful roots songwriters of the ‘10s, tackling issues of faith, family, transience, and travel with a deft observational tack and a graceful lyricism that results in songs that are big-hearted and open-ended.

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