Sunday, June 24, 2012

Quotes from The Hag

I just started reading Merle Haggard's autobiography My House of Memories, and thought it would be fun to share some of my favorite quotes on here. Merle is one of my favorite country singers of all time, so I'm sure it will be an enjoyable and fascinating read.

"I've heard tens of thousands chant my name when I couldn't hear the voice of my own soul."

"Country music is different today and more popular than it has ever been. But it seems a little short on soul and substance sometimes, and it doesn't turn me on!"

"What an unselfish man he was, to do what he needed to instead of what he wanted to." (regarding his father)

"Ever since my early childhood, I have found more importance in the trait of honesty--and was aware of its necessity--than maybe most children."

"There is something about moving that liberates me to this day, even though I sometimes get burned out from all my traveling."

"There is a restlessness in my soul that I've never conquered, not with motion, marriages, or meaning, although I'm more satisfied today than ever. My restlessness isn't as pronounced as it was when I was young. I've mellowed a lot, but it's still there to a degree. And it will be till the day I die."

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Single Review: "Pontoon" - Little Big Town

Songwriters: Barry Dean, Natalie Hembry, Luke Laird

If there is a group (or singer) currently on country radio that is more deserving of releasing a mindlessly fun, pandering summer song than Little Big Town, please let me know and provide support for your answer. You can't: there is no answer but Little Big Town.

It might come as a surprise, but for all the years this group has been around, they have yet to have one of their singles peak at number one. The closest they've gotten is when "Bring It On Home," an emotional ballad from their platinum album The Road to Here, peaked at number four in September of 2006. "Little White Church," from their most recent album The Reason Why, peaked at number six in October of 2010 (I had high hopes radio had once again embraced LBT after this song performed well. Alas, subsequent singles from this album were colossal duds). And for as ubiquitous as the song "Boondocks" seemed during the latter half of 2005 and the beginning of 2006, it barely cracked the top ten, reaching only nine on the charts. "Boondocks." NINE. It seems hard to believe. I don't pretend to understand.

So you can hardly blame them for releasing a single that some are calling a "step down" in quality for the most resilient group in mainstream country music. But I wouldn't call it a step down. I would call it doing what needs to be done in hopes of garnering radio play, and hopefully their first number one hit. If this is what it takes for radio programmers to think twice about playing "Need You Now" for the trillionth damn time, I am all for it. And when a summer song is as fun and tongue-and-cheeky as "Pontoon," it doesn't hurt either. And that's exactly what "Pontoon" is: a damn fun song.

For anyone who's ever taken a weekend trip to the lake, the images are familiar: backing your hitch into the water, koozies, coolers, barbecue, and inner tubes. It's not even about partying hard and getting all recreational: "Who said anything about skiing?/ Floating is all I wanna do." It's about relaxing, being lazy, partying "in slow motion." Beer, of course, is a must, and I can forgive their lack of discretion in beer preference: "Reach your hand down into the cooler/ Don't drink it if the mountains aren't blue" (Miller Lite > Coor's Light all day long, people). Even the pace and feel of the song is slow and lazy. The summer heat is palpable. Mandolin, electric, guitar and slowly-chugging-along percussion do a great job of complimenting the care-free lyrics. Karen Fairchild assumes lead vocal duties on the track, and her sexy rasp suits it just right. Lightening the mood of the song even more is the line you can't help but chuckle at, "Out here in the open/ Mmm-motorboatin'," which works as a bit of a double entendre recalling the glory that was the 2005 movie Wedding Crashers. It would have been a stroke of genius had they been able to get Vince Vaughn to make a cameo in the video.

In the end, it's nice to take the "I'm serious about real country music" hat off once in awhile, and simply enjoy a song that just makes you want to sit in the sun with your friends and have a beer (which is a characteristic of a lot of good country songs, if I recall). Also: roll down the windows in your car. They may lean a little more toward pop on the music pendulum (though not nearly as much as some "country" artists), but there is no denying the talent of each member in Little Big Town. When country-pop is done as well as this group has proven it can be done, I have no problem with radio programmers making room for it on their playlists. "Pontoon" is currently sitting at number thirty-six on the country singles chart and steadily moving up.

So take off your serious hat as you get on the boat, please. Or simply leave it on. We can all still have a good time.

Rating: 7.5/10

Update (9/6): "Pontoon" hit number one this past week, a first for Little Big Town. Congrats!

Update (11/3): "Pontoon" won the CMA Award for Single of the Year a couple nights ago. Little Big Town also won the award for Vocal Group of the Year, an honor that's been a long time coming. For my thoughts on the 2012 CMA ceremony and spectacle, click here.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Lake Songs

Laurel River Lake - Corbin, KY

The lake is like the ocean for those who aren't lucky enough to live on the coast. Sure, it's not nearly as vast, but you have everything you need: a boat, water, beer, friends, and music. And you can't relax on a tube and drink a beer in the ocean without getting swept out to sea. In my experience, there's nothing that can make you hate your job, and fantasize about being out on the water, more than good lake song. Here are a few:

Brad Paisley - "Be the Lake"
It was either this or his 2010 hit "Water." This one wins out because of the bluegrassy intro and a sweet banjo lick. Paisley can a times become a parody of himself with his humorous songs, but this one's pretty clever. The guy just wants to get close to a hot gal. "Wish I could be the lake that you're swimming in."

Alan Jackson - "Chattahoochee"
The Chattahoochee is a river, but who cares. This is an undisputed classic.

Craig Morgan - "Redneck Yacht Club"
I'm not the biggest Craig Morgan fan, but he has released some great singles and this is one of them. It's just undeniably fun. And there is actual country instrumentation: banjo, fiddle, steel guitar. Perfect lake song.

John Prine - "Lake Marie"
So it's not necessarily about partying on the lake, and Prine literally talks the verses, and a murder occurs, and it may or may not be a metaphor for the dissolution of a marriage, but it's one of the greatest songs ever written. The chorus will give you chills. Also, it contains a great image of Italian sausages sizzlin' on the grill.

 Drive-By Truckers - "Drag the Lake Charlie"
 This is another uplifting song about a possible murder and the search for the body. But DAMN, that guitar riff is a thing of hard rock and roll beauty. I'd have it on repeat on the boat speakers all day long.

Zac Brown Band featuring Jimmy Buffett - "Knee Deep"
A perfect ode to getting out on the water and leaving the daily grind behind for a few days. It's also pretty clever lyrically. "Only worry in the world, is the tide gonna reach my chair?" (I know, lakes don't have tides. Oh well. It still works.)

Kenny Chesney featuring Uncle Kracker - "When the Sun Goes Down"
It doesn't get much more easygoing tip-it-on-(laid)-back than this. And, as a night owl, it's a personal favorite.

Stayed tuned tomorrow for a review of Little Big Town's new single, "Pontoon," country radio's latest ode to heavy machinery that glides on water.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Some Songs About Fathers on Father's Day

 Merle Haggard - "Hungry Eyes"
 A simple song about a hard-working father trying, and often struggling, to make a living and provide for his family. Written by Haggard himself, the song reached number one on the country charts in 1969. This video is a great classic performance.

 The Avett Brothers - "St. Joseph's"
The Brothers write and sing about the many blessings of becoming a new father and how it can change a man. Namely, make him a more grateful and devoted person. This video is an all-time favorite.

Drive-By Truckers - "Where the Devil Don't Stay"
Mike Cooley wrote this song based off a poem written by his uncle. In it the narrator recalls stories of his father's moonshining back in the 1930s. A ferocious rocker of a song (the opening is chill-inducing) with excellent lyrics and a dab of social commentary, done as only DBT can, thrown in as well.

Eli Young Band - "My Old Man's Son"
The title of this one pretty much says it all. It's about a son growing into a man and realizing how much he is truly like his father, from the way he holds the steering wheel to the way he holds a woman's hand. To all the sons out there who are like me, this one's easy to relate to. (I have no idea about the slideshow in the video, but it's the only normal version of the song I could find on Youtube.)

Gary Allan - "Tough Little Boys"
A sentimental song about fatherhood from one of country music's most underrated male artists. It all rides on the line: "When tough little boys grow up to be dads, they turn into big babies again." A little cheesy? Sure. But Mr. Allan sells it well. I imagine this as the anthem for many father/daughter duos out there.

Randy Travis - "He Walked On Water"
Grandfathers and great-grandfathers are (obviously) fathers too, and this classic Travis tune pays great tribute to the larger-than-life status children often give them. Classic country production compliments detail-oriented lyrics that are often chill-inducing because we recognize the man in the song from our own lives.

Loretta Lynn - "Coal Miner's Daughter"
 Similar in theme to Haggard's "Hungry Eyes," Lynn's tribute to her coal-mining father is a well-known classic. The voice of Butcher Holler in Van Lear, Kentucky sings about how her daddy worked hard to support the family, and when mining coal wasn't enough, he'd always manage find something else to do for money. And even then it might have been just barely enough to scrape by.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Song Review: "Born and Raised" - John Mayer

Songwriter: John Mayer

With the title track to his recently released album, John Mayer has written what I contend to be his best song to date. "Born and Raised" is somber, elegiac, melodious, hopeful, and contains some of the most poignant lyrics I've heard this year. It is intensely personal, both for Mayer and the listener.

There is no question why Mayer named the album after this song, as it succinctly touches on the gamut of themes that run throughout the entire collection of songs. These include getting older ("I cheat the light to check my face/ It's slightly harder than last year"); losing the childlike innocence and romanticism of dreams as you do, in fact, get older ("I still have dreams, they're not the same/ They don't fly as high as they used to"); and the pointless exhaustion of being somebody you're not ("Then all at once it gets hard to take/ It gets hard to fake what I won't be"). On this song Mayer showcases the rare ability to hit you in the gut seemingly line after line. For the listener, that gut punch represents the recognition of truth in the simple poetry of his words. Perhaps even more impressive: he does it without any fancy wordplay.

One such verse particularly affected me. I laughed a bit (in recognition) and got watery-eyed when I first heard it:

I still got time
I still got faith
I call on both of my brothers
I got a mom
I got a dad
But they do not have each other

The devastation of that last line is what hit me like a freight train colliding with a brick wall. It's the rare instance when Mayer gets lyrically specific, referencing his parents' divorce in 2009 when he was 31 or 32 years old. It's also rare that a song touches upon parents' divorcing when the son or daughter is an adult. But if you have ever gone through that, this verse captures the aftermath and the years of confusing emotions, and puts them to song in a truly heartfelt and cathartic way.

Mayer's voice for the majority of "Born and Raised" is pure exhausted woundedness. He forces out a bit of hope on his delivery of some of the lines, but it's just enough to still keep the song grounded in reality. The narrator is still in pain, he's still hanging on, but it's no longer just barely. Harmony vocals on the track are provided by David Crosby and Graham Nash (you might have heard of a little band they were in), and the the addition of their gorgeously haunting vocals matched with Mayer's add to the melancholy while at the same time preventing the song from completely drowning in it. There is a point a little past halfway in the song when all their voices come together in a chorus of "Ahhhh, ahhhh, ahh-uh-ahh's," accentuated by the subtle sound of a harmonica. It's breathtaking in its wordless beauty, and for the hope it symbolizes.

After hearing a song like this, I don't see how a listener could sit back and call Mayer a hack. He has certainly written many other great songs in the past, and sure, all music is subjective. But even haters would have to admit that a song like "Born and Raised" showcases a songwriter at the top of his game, and they would have to respect that whether they personally like the song or not.

For my part, a song like this is inspiring, capturing how difficult life can be yet holding out hope that our best days aren't all in the past. It is a song that reminds us, no matter how bad it gets or bleak it looks, to "line on up, and take your place/ And show your face to the morning." Life is punctuated by ecstatic highs and debilitating lows, and the best music covers both ends of that spectrum and everything in between. The best songs cover it all within the same four minutes.

Rating: 10/10 

For a full album review of Born and Raised, click here.


Now and then I pace my place
I can't retrace how I got here
I cheat the light to check my face
It's slightly harder than last year

Then all at once it gets hard to take
It gets hard to fake what I won't be
'Cause one of these days I'll be
Born and raised
And it's such a waste to grow up lonely

I still have dreams, they're not the same
They don't fly as high as they used to
I saw my friend, he's in my head and he said
"You don't remember me, do you?"

Then all at once it gets hard to take
It gets hard to fake what I won't be
'Cause one of these days I'll be 
Born and raised
And it's such a waste to grow up lonely

I still got time
I still got faith
I call on both of my brothers
I got a mom
I got a dad
But they do not have each other

So line on up, and take your place
And show your face to the morning
'Cause one of these days you'll be
Born and raised
And it all comes on without warning

Monday, June 4, 2012

Album Review: "Born and Raised" - John Mayer

Listening to John Mayer's new album, it is difficult not to be reminded of his tumultuous year in 2010, when media and public vitriol was leveled at the singer in heaps over some choice comments he made in a Playboy interview. I do not need to regurgitate what was said here, but I bring it up because the backlash he received over those comments seems to have caused him to take a few steps back in the years since; to self-reflect, as it were, at the man that he was and the man he thought he wanted to become, if he, before then, even knew. The comments made in Playboy are obviously part of the narrative of this record, as are the relationship highs and lows so well-documented in photos and in the celebrity gossip blogosphere engined by that classy lot of journalists, the paparazzi. But these storylines are never so specific as to make Born & Raised any less thematically universal. The album is a great example of an artist suffering (whether self-inflicted or not, it doesn't matter), examining his life in the context of that suffering, and producing something precise, personal, and relatable. Not to mention pretty damn good.

Perhaps where Mayer, who is known in some circles (outside the realm of teenage fangirls) for his blues/rock guitar prowess, proves most successful on Born and Raised is in his ability to dial it down, not just a little bit, but almost completely. The electric guitar licks are subtle throughout the record, with nary a guitar solo to be found. It's made clear that the central focus here is the songwriting, which is some of the best Mayer has ever done. More mature than Room For Squares, more substantial than Battle Studies, and more soulful than any studio album he's ever recorded, Continuum included, Born and Raised is Mayer facing the sometimes harsh realities of growing and growing up, and creating something truly memorable.

Much of the hype that surrounded this album upon release had to do with the singer's adoption of a more country and americana influence, which is certainly present, what with plenty of steel guitar and a plethora of promo pictures of Mayer in a cowboy hat. (An aside: I think once you've donned the cowboy hat, you're officially telling people that you could give a shit less about naysayers anymore, as the hat will surely only intensify any naysayer hatred.) But along with country and americana, this Mayer also resembles the classic rock sound of the 70s. The singer produced the album along with the help of Don Was, the man who was at the helm of the glorious--some would say glorious failure--that was In the Life of Chris Gaines, Garth Brooks' failed attempt to take on an edgy pop/rock alter ego. With Was' help Mayer transitions into this new sound with natural ease. And Was' resume is actually rather impressive. He has worked with a wide array of artists including Bob Dylan, Bob Seger, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Travis Tritt, Hootie and the Blowfish, Barenaked Ladies, Old Crow Medicine Show, and Amos Lee, to name only a very few. And his experience shows.

"Queen of California" starts things off breezily, and is catchy as hell. It's reminiscent of his groovier, bluesier work, but right here in song number one is the sweet sound of the pedal steel guitar, signaling to the listener that we may be in for something a little different. Mayer himself is also looking for a fresh start: "Goodbye cold/ goodbye rain/ goodbye sorrow/ goodbye shame." The song contains references to both Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, whose past artistic output seems to have been heavily on Mayer's mind during the recording process. Following the first track is "The Age of Worry," which sounds like an ancient Irish jig, what with it's cascading rhythms and immense singalong potential. One can picture a group of drunks hoisting up their pints and singing loudly in an attempt to defy that pesky, debilitating beast--worry--that can at times get the best of all of us. Thematically, the song is fairly standard but the lyrics do reach poetic heights in several lines ("Don't be scared to walk alone/ don't be scared to like it" and "Dream your dreams but don't pretend/ make friends with what you are").

That brings us to "Shadow Days," the first single released from Born and Raised. It's a song that has Mayer directly addressing his experiences of the last few years. About midway through he sings, "Well it sucks to be honest/ and it hurts to be real," but that is exactly what Mayer is striving for on this album, and this song in particular: authenticity. When he sings "I'm a good man with a good heart" it doesn't come off as boasting but rather as a realization arrived at after some genuine self-reflection. He has indeed said and done some asshole-ish things in the past, but honestly, who can cast the first stone in this regard? "Shadow Days" is also a perfect example of what many songs on the album do so well; that is, address specific moments in Mayer's life while still maintaining their universal appeal. It seems what he wants most is not to redeem himself in the eyes of the public (that's ultimately up to the individual; no amount of "I'm sorry, I've changed" songs is going to change anyone's mind), but for the public, for us as individuals, to actually relate, even identify, with what it is he's saying.

"Speak to Me" is a sparse acoustic number that recalls the type of songs Mayer is most popular for. But even so, on this album that formula somehow sounds different, fresher. He is partly criticizing a music industry that has been bastardized by commercial corporate radio. It's rare, the narrator opines, to hear songs on the radio anymore that inspire because of their trueness to life ("You can tell that something isn't right/ when all your heroes are in black and white"). While criticizing the industry and corporate wheel he's ultimately a part of, however, the singer also recognizes that it simply is what it is ("I'm not that mad about it"), and maybe one day things will change (Mayer certainly does his part with this record). Transitioning from acoustically laid back to soulfully groovy, "Something Like Olivia" recalls the giddy lightness of opener "Queen of California." It's simple yet heartfelt, and a girl named "Olivia" seems like a right-named girl to sing about. It just sort of rolls off the tongue.

At the midpoint of Born and Raised is the title track and the album's best song. And, at least lyrically, it is the best song of Mayer's career. The pace is slow and seeped in genuine sadness, as acoustic guitar, pedal steel, and harmonica work together perfectly to compliment--I will go as far as to say profound--lyrics that touch on themes like the loss of the romanticism of dreams, family, parents divorcing, and, of course, growing up. It's too much to dissect here (I plan on doing a longer write-up about it soon), but suffice it to say that Mayer outdid himself with this one. (EDIT: See my review of the song HERE.)

Tracks seven and eight build up to satisfying refrains at the end of their respective songs. "If I Ever Get Around To Living" has driving percussion and some wonderfully subtle electric guitar work. It has an almost ethereal feel to it and sounds like something you might hear in a Cameron Crowe movie. It builds into a refrain of "When you gonna wise up boy," Mayer here obviously addressing himself. "Love Is A Verb" is probably the song that stands out least on Born and Raised, as it is musically and lyrically simple, but it clocks in at less than three minutes and ends with the admittedly fun refrain of, "So you gotta show, show, show me." He is, of course, talking about love. Also, though they are completely different songs, when I hear Mayer's version I automatically think of this one as well: "Luv Is A Verb" - DC Talk.

The most interesting song on the album is "Walt Grace's Submarine Test, January 1967." To say it is the "most interesting" is certainly not to say it's bad or boring. In fact it has grown on me the most since I've been listening to Born and Raised. It's great because it tells the story of a man with a dream (albeit a bit of strange one), and it's a story that people could have varied interpretations of for days. For example: it seems to be a song about the romanticism of dreams on an album that wants to bring dreams back down to reality; and also, what is the meaning of the line "'Cause when you're done with this world/ you know the next is up to you"? It's one of those songs that reveals itself to you listen by listen. "Whiskey, Whiskey, Whiskey" is another highlight on an album full of them. In it the narrator is at a point in his life where it's the same routine every night: "Whiskey, whiskey, whiskey/ water, water, water, sleep/ Whiskey, whiskey, whiskey/ wake up shake it off and repeat." Harmonica, pedal steel, and nuanced licks of electric guitar provide instrumentation for the lyrics, which contain one of the best verses on the album: "Every night around this town/ my friends and I we treat it like a race/ But when I really start to break it down/ I wouldn't trust a girl who knew about this place." So much about the narrator is revealed in those four short lines.

The second to last track (though it feels more like the closing track, as the real last track has the feel of an epilogue of sorts), called "A Face to Call Home," is about finding true love and, once you do, working to build a home together in this world, attempting to take all the struggles that entails in stride. The narrator carries his lover's face with him wherever he goes, for the memory of her familiar face fuels him, and feels more like home than any building or piece of property. And when you find a girl about whom you can say, "You never look at me/ like I'm a liability/ I bet you think I've never been at all," perhaps you have found one worthy enough to build a life with, indeed. The song crescendos into a beautiful barrage of chiming guitars, ending powerfully with a sound reminiscent of early Coldplay. Truthfully, it would make a great ending to the album as well.

But closing the record is a reprise of the title track, although in melody and emotion they are completely different. Even so, it feels like a very fitting ending in all its hopeful, slow-paced hoedown glory. There is still some of the darkness and somberness that's peppered over most of the songs ("I was born in brighter days," implying things are a little dimmer now), but it ultimately allows the listener to come away from the album on a joyful note. It also drives home the point that Mayer has been trying to get at throughout: he's found peace with who he's been in the past and is ready to embrace whatever the future holds with a better understanding of grace and the benefit of maturity. As an artist and musician, his sound and inspiration on this album reaches back for what was good about the past, even as he sings about some of the most painful parts of his own, while as a person Mayer also seems ready to reach back and embrace the good about the things he was raised on growing up, as perhaps there is more wisdom there than he'd otherwise given credence to. On Born and Raised, by looking both backward and forward at the same time and getting to know the person he's found somewhere in the middle, Mayer seems to be a man who's beginning to work out the pieces of his own redemption. In other words, he's working on becoming a better person. And that is something we can all relate to.