Despite the fact that I have released a new single, “Kentucky Too Long” that implies that I could not wait to get out of that state, the truth is that I loved my 13 year residency in the beautiful commonwealth of The Bluegrass State. By the way, “Kentucky Too Long” has become a live performance hit for our show, and is worth a listen from you on my Spotify page. Listen by Clicking Here
Now I must admit I’m a little scared to write what I’m about to write here, so I need to give some disclaimers. I’m Texan through and through. Born and raised. I love Texas as much as anybody could, and I spent my years in Kentucky being that obnoxious Texan that brags about all of the exceptional traits of my great native homeland. Secondly, I take deep and sincere pride in the musical heritage of Texas, and have spent time studying its history and evolution. I think the greatest contributions to Country, Folk, Americana, Blues, Hip-Hop, & Latin music have come from Texas, and that is a pretty verifiable fact. Whether it be the Blues explosion that put Houston’s music scene on the map in the mid-century, or the Alt-Country movement of Jerry Jeff Walker and Willie Nelson that exploded in Austin in the 70’s, Texas continues to barrage the music scene with wave after wave of new exciting sounds. These waves continue. It is the natural tide of the Texas creative spirit.
That being said, the Texas Country/Red Dirt scene has grown by leaps and bounds in the past decade. When I left Texas a few years earlier I abandoned the unique sounds of Americana artists such as Lyle Lovett, Robert Earl Keen, Willie Nelson, and even the pre-Nashville songwriting of Pat Green. You would be hard-pressed to replicate the sounds of these artists, their music was unique and irrevocably linked to their personalities themselves. I think it’s exciting that the Texas music scene has exploded. But it is now becoming less of the regional cult status of those earlier days, and more of a country music sound movement, parallel to the “Bakersfield Sound” of the 70’s and 80’s that blew up into the national market as a competitive flavor to the Nashville mainstream. The Bakersfield Sound was characterized by acoustic instruments and twangy guitars without the heavy orchestral strings, choir-like harmonies, and production magic being punched-out in Nashville. The Bakersfield sound got huge, and still lingers around in influence today. It’s anti-Nashville motivations managed to drag along an audience that never looked back once it was discovered.
It is my opinion, and I’m not a dummy when it comes to my understanding of music so I think it’s a valid opinion, that there are essentially two sounds that exist in the Texas Country scene. They are as such:
Red Dirt- Roots rock, heavy electric guitars, rock beats, southern/texas storytelling lyrics, heavily influenced by Cross Canadian Ragweed. Bands include Koe Wetzel, Shea Abshier & the Nighthowlers, Mike Ryan, etc.
Texas Country- 90’s country revival, mid-tempo dancehall music, steel guitars and fiddles, heavily influenced by the 90’s sounds of George Strait, Alan Jackson, Clay Walker and such. Bands include Cody Johnson, Aaron Watson, Randall King, etc.
I really like both sounds. I listen to some of these artists and would take them over Nashville mainstream in the drop of a hat. But my concern (and you guys who know me know that I always have one), is that there is not much unique or creative about either of them. The artists who are generating original Texas sounds are getting left behind in the strong currents of this growing movement. Texas music is becoming a mainstream of its own. There are exceptions to this rule, but it is largely true.
Now here comes Kentucky. Kentucky is no rookie in the world of musical contribution in America. Kentucky is foundational in Bluegrass music, which is a primary influence in all country, blues, and jazz music today. The folk music of early Kentucky became the defining standard in the instrumentation of country music as we know it, bringing acoustic guitars, mandolins, dobros, and banjos into the scene as definitively “country”. But look what is happening in Kentucky now. There is a revival of avante garde country and alt-country songwriting busting out of that little rural state. These are songwriters who are not interested in genres, they have no chip on their shoulder about mainstream sounds, they simply write and create sounds organic to the culture they came from. Let’s look at three:
Stapleton is a Nashville guy in career, but purely Kentucky in sound. Perhaps that is part of what has made him such a huge commercial success. I’m sure Stapleton was savvy on the business, publishing, and songwriting network due to his songwriting experience in Nashville. But look what he did to the country sound. Some people, I think, falsely categorize Stapleton as a more traditional sound. I see what they mean. But in my audio-observation, Stapleton is a hillbilly John Mayer. He took a stripped down three-piece bluesy sound and made it country. Seriously, “Tennessee Whiskey” is a country version of “Gravity”. Listen to the structure and instrumentation and you will hear it. Most of Stapleton’s recordings have 4-5 instruments tops, with tasteful minimalist arrangements where the instruments don’t step on each other’s feet. But Stapleton’s roots in bluegrass come through with his gruff soulful vocals and dark storytelling lyrics. He writes beautiful music, and performs it artfully and tastefully. Nobody sounds like him, and nobody ever will.
No doubt about it, Sturgill is not interested in replicating over-abused sounds. His early recordings garnered comparisons to Waylon Jennings, I think mostly because of vocal similarities. But the energy of his songs is much darker, more brooding, more artful. As he has evolved as an artist, one could barely call him country music. He integrates country sounds to create a sonic landscape that is magnificently forged with traditional instruments to create an entirely new and innovative sound. Somehow his sound is large, and yet one would rather hear Sturgill perform them in a dimly-lit theater than a big festival stage. You have to chew on his music and lyrics a little to digest them.
Tyler is one of my favorite emerging artists in the scene today. Robert Earl Keen must agree as they are currently performing shows together. Childers composes roots music with dark and heavy lyrics traditional to early bluegrass music where, to quote Robert Earl Keen in an early album, “not only is the main character of the song dead by the end of the song, but he has been dismembered as well.” When listening to Childers lyrical content, you’d think he has been co-writing with Cormac McCarthy. His instrumentation is more folk/bluegrass than country. But he could confidently grace the stage of any country event and hold his own. Not only that, but he has created a fan movement across the state of Kentucky reminiscent of Robert Earl Keen’s late 90’s dedicated following, or Jerry Jeff Walker’s fan movement in the 70’s. They love him. And they should.
These artists could jam pack a large event, but would be beautiful in the context of a listening-room celebrating the rich songwriting of the artists, exactly what Texas music once was.
Give an ear to Kentucky music. And to those who love the Texas music scene, I challenge you with this request…go out to the shows of the little guy, the one who isn’t chasing a Texas trend, but who is writing from their heart, performing out of their own personality, and loving every little guy fan that says, “hey, I enjoyed your set tonight”. Be open minded to the songwriting. For talent-reps and management companies, don’t lose your willingness to take a risk. Don’t forget that there is more audience for good music than just Stephenville. Keep Texas Texas. Know what I mean?