By Lisa Morgan
The theme for this year’s Stagecoach seems the multi-hyphenated-roots-genre-artist, along with many legendary names who were some of the first to be called “Cross-over” artists. To steel a phrase from headliner Miranda Lambert, “This ain’t my mama’s broken heart”ed country music. I’ve listed a few artists here that I will not allow myself to miss:
Nikki Lane: This little bundle of sweet vocals and baseball bat wielding moxy grew up on her mom’s Motown records, her daddy’s country cassettes, and the punk rock shows she’d sneak out to go see. She knocks it out of the park with her new album, produced by the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach. Preaching that there’s “always the right time to do the wrong thing,” in breathy vocals, she could be Allison Krause’s dark twin. “My songs always paint a pretty clear picture of what’s been going on in my life, so this is one moody record,” she says. “There’s lots of talk of misbehaving and moving on.”
Mickey Gilley: For many years, Gilley lived in the shadow of his cousin, Jerry Lee Lewis. As children, the two grew up just across the Mississippi River from each other. Gilley, Lewis, and cousin, Jimmy Swaggart, played piano together as children. 37 albums later, numerous ACM awards and an induction into the Delta Music Museum hall of Fame in Louisiana, Gilley is one of Americana’s legendary treasures. In July 2009, Gilley was helping a neighbor move some furniture when he fell with the love seat falling on top of him, crushing four vertebrae. The incident left him temporarily paralyzed from the neck down, but with some intense physical therapy he was able to walk again and return to the stage a year later. However, he still lacks the hand coordination necessary to play the piano. Never the less, this is still an entertainer we will be fortunate to see.
Mac Davis: This songwriter and actor, originally from Lubbock, Texas, got his start as an employee of Nancy Sinatra’s company, Boots Enterprises, Inc. He played on many of Sinatra’s recordings, and she worked him into her stage shows. Boots Enterprises also acted as Davis’ publishing company, publishing songs such as “A Little Less Conversation”, “In the Ghetto”, “Friend, Lover, Woman, Wife”, “Home”, “It’s Such a Lonely Time of Year”, and “Memories”, which were recorded by Elvis Presley, Nancy Sinatra, B. J. Thomas, and many others. Davis left Boots Enterprises in 1970 to sign with Columbia Records, taking all of his songs with him. He topped the Country and Pop charts with the song “Baby Don’t Get Hooked on Me.” It sold over one million copies and was a number one Grammy-nominated success. In 1974, Davis was awarded the Academy of Country Music’s Entertainer of the Year award. Also an accomplished actor, I guarantee you, the stories between the songs will be as entertaining as the music itself.
The Cadillac Three: Also known as TC3, this band is going to give Florida Georgia Line a run for their ACM and CMA money. Part of the Big Machine Record label that is home to Taylor Swift and Tim McGraw, these guys bring a harder edge to the popular southern-twang-rock genre (emphasis on rock) with a nice foundation of Blackberry Smoke-esque authenticity. They seem to navigate the tightrope fairly well between what it takes for commercial success and staying true to who they are. That’s not an easy thing to do when you belong to an industry giant known for glossing up their artists for bigger cross-over (aka financial) success. Underneath their energetic showmanship, and hot girls behind chain-link video candy, is good, solid musicianship and song-smithing (Johnston who has received Grammy nods, co-wrote Keith Urban’s #1 single “You Gonna Fly”). The three, Jaren Johnston, Neil Mason and Kelby Ray have been friends and musical co-conspirators since they were kids. They’ve weathered most of what the industry can throw at them, and have “friended” Music Row. California is going to love these guys.
Gregg Allman: Just as velvety voiced as ever and musically skilled as all hell, Allman won my heart when I interviewed him prior to one of his shows at Fantasy Springs. Afterward, just by happen-chance, he walked into the same elevator I was in. We chatted, and he asked if I was going to the show. I explained that there was a problem at the box office with my ticket and I wasn’t sure. He took the all access pass from around his neck and put it around mine. This man is a survivor who has lived through loss and heartache, shook himself awake from an addiction stupor that caused him to stumble through his induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and is more at home on stage than anywhere else. Hearing him live is an incredible gift.
Dierks Bentley was Billboard’s number one pick for best performance at the ACM awards show this past Sunday. I was partial to it myself as the song he performed, “Riser”, was penned by with my friend Travis Meadows. Bentley strives for excellence and authenticity within his craft but can still give it a good time with lighter songs like “Drunk On a Plane”. This Grammy nominated artist will earn your respect if he hasn’t already.
Miranda Lambert: This award winning little fireball has been setting the world on fire for a while now, and she’s constantly adding fuel to the flame. A scrumptious tune crafter herself, she also has excellent taste in writing partners and in picking some of the best from outside sources. More likely than not, she and husband Blake Shelton will share the stage together, and if it’s anything like the last time they did that, prepare yourself for duo harmonies that make angels cry.
The Lone Bellow: If Miranda and Blake’s vocal pairings make angels cry, Lone Bellow will make them want to punch out the radio on their dashboard. Bluesy, soulful, vocal and instrumental technicians, this band will own you if they don’t already.
Lydia Loveless: This is another female artist bringing a rocking, blues-a-billy, edge to the genre. Something of a country music purist, I find this fusion much more authentic and connectable than the growing number of wanna be pop stars in the country music scene. Few do it as well and as honestly as Loveless. Purposely standing outside the standard “country” box, Loveless’ rich, alto vocals and original songs are reminiscent of the cow punk days of Hollywood that spawned bands like The Gun Club and Lone Justice.
Steve Earle: An American icon of rock, country and folk, this award winning singer-songwriter, record producer, author and actor has lived a radical life since his early teens when he ran away from home and made Townes Van Zandt his role model and mentor. Earle began his career as a songwriter in Nashville and released his first EP in 1982. His breakthrough album was the 1986 album Guitar Town. Earle has released 17 studio albums and received three Grammy awards. His songs have been recorded by Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Travis Tritt, Vince Gill, Shawn Colvin and Emmylou Harris. He has appeared in film and television, and has written a novel, a play, and a book of short stories. His latest musical compilation, Terraplane, feels like a blues soaked, movie sound track to stories from the dusty roads and front porches living between Mississippi and Louisiana. There is no other artist quite like Steve Earle.
Sturgill Simpson: Simply put, this artist is a trip. Even Shooter Jennings told him he sounds like his father, and Simpson just can’t hear it. The album that has everybody talking and makes him eligible for both Coachella and Stagecoach lineups, was put out independently, and only recently in the last few months, garnered him a huge record deal. Metamodern Sounds in Country Music is an album that has launched something of a new genre adjective combination – psychedelic-transcendental-classic-alt-country. The last thing Simpson set out to do was to make another country album. Themes that one would affiliate with mind altering substances run throughout, but according to Simpson, the album is all about love, specifically the love he found when he met his wife. It was she who told him his songs weren’t so bad and helped to sell most everything they owned to pull him out from behind the management desk job that causing his soul to bleed out, and get him back to Nashville and the craft he was so obviously created for (in spite of the fact they had just had a baby). Thank you Mrs. Simpson!
Jake Owen: Jake Owen, in my opinion, is the Matthew McConaughey of country music. He is the good looking, surfing, party guy who is also a passionate, driven, serious artist with a desire to create something timeless. Unafraid to take risks, Owen put all of his promotional resources to work when he chose a song written by my friend, Travis Meadows: “What We Ain’t Got”. Calling it “the most important song of his career,” he showed amazing graciousness and generosity by bringing Meadows onto the arena stage with him to join him in the song. That event was filmed and used as the official lyric video release for the song. Meadows was even in the official video of the song that was an incredibly moving, tear wrenching expose’ of heartbreak and loss. When Owen performed the song on Letterman, he called Meadows afterward, and asked him, “Was that alright? Did I do ok?” And God bless him, when it was clear the song peaked at number 11, and wasn’t going to make the top 10, he called and apologized to Meadows for the song not doing better. I will always want to hear and support the music that comes from a heart like that.
Merle Haggard: Yeah… if I have to explain this one to you, and you are over the age of 18, turn over your wrist band and Walgreens cowboy hat immediately. If you are under 18 and don’t know about him, turn in your parents. Meanwhile the rest of us will “Sing Me Back Home”, reminiscing about how “Mama Tried” and discussing how “If We Make it Through December” everything is going to be alright, because we’ll all be drinking that free Bubble Up and eating that “Rainbow Stew”. And while Haggard sings, “you don’t have to be high to be happy”, he and Willie Nelson do a great job of singing about how “It’s All Gone to Pot” on their new record together, and to hear them tell it, that’s not such a bad thing. Maybe, just maybe, since they need to promote the new album and all, Haggard will have his friend in tow (Willie’s tour books are clear until May – just sayin’ and prayin’).
George Thorogood: Thorogood was one of the first big artist interviews I’d ever conducted for CV Weekly. I was working at Estée Lauder part time, in the Westfield Shopping Mall, and had to work my 15 minute break around the incoming phone interview. Scrambling for a place that was somewhat quiet and didn’t have the echo of a lady’s room, I sat in a dressing room stall, doing my best to sound like I’d done this before. It went pretty well until, somehow, we got on the subject of baseball. He dissed my LA Dodgers and in response, I asked him how his White Sox were doing. We laughed and went on to talk about the music industry then and now, and grieved a little at the early loss of Amy Winehouse and his respect for Jack Johnson’s music. On the phone he had that A personality confident sizzle. On stage – damn! All I can say is George Thorogood is still “Bad to the Bone”.