Archive for December, 2007

They’re singing the songs, but is anybody listening?

Posted in Artists on December 30, 2007 by takecountryback
December 30, 2007
In music, as in politics, timing is everything.In early 2003, just six weeks after performing the national anthem here to kick off Super Bowl XXXVII, the Dixie Chicks became national pariahs after its lead singer, Natalie Maines, told a London concert audience the Texas trio was “ashamed” to be from the same state as President Bush.

In 2006, the same year the Dixie Chicks released an album that won multiple Grammy Awards despite being almost uniformly ignored by country radio, Neil Young put out “Living With War.” Young’s album featured such brash songs as “Shock and Awe” and “Let’s Impeach the President” (sample lyric: Let’s impeach the president / For lying and leading our country into war / Abusing all the power that we gave him / And shipping our money out the door).

Result: cheers from some fans and grousing from some conservatives. But, ultimately, a loud silence greeted these musical broadsides from Young, whose 1970 protest song “Ohio” remains one of the most visceral anti-war anthems of modern times.

In the past few years there have been anti-war songs by everyone from Pink, Pearl Jam, Molotov and Eminem to Nanci Griffith, R.E.M., jazz great Charlie Haden and even country-music icon Merle Haggard. (That’s the same Merle Haggard whose 1970 song “The Fightin’ Side of Me” ripped into hippies and anti-war protesters with zingers like: If you don’t love it, leave it / Let this song I’m singin’ be a warnin’ / If you’re runnin’ down my country, man / You’re walkin’ on the fightin’ side of me.)

Bruce Springsteen’s new album, “Magic,” features songs that vividly chronicle the grim human cost of the war in Iraq. He timed its release to coincide with the ongoing presidential primaries. Other artists who have weighed in on the state of this divided nation include Bright Eyes, Trans Am, Calle 13 and such veterans as Steve Earle, John Fogerty, Toby Keith and ex-San Diegan Tom Waits.

An even broader array of artists – Shakira, Enrique Iglesias, Madonna, Linkin Park, Keith Urban and dozens more – teamed up to perform in eight cities around the world this summer as part of Live Earth, a series of international concerts designed to raise awareness of global warming. And a growing number of musicians – among them U2, Green Day, The John Butler Trio and Jay-Z – have sung out on behalf of the victims of Hurricane Katrina and against the bumbling government response.

Clearly, they aren’t shirking the opportunity to weigh in on timely issues, pro and con, here and abroad, be it ex-Fugees mainstay Wyclef Jean working on behalf of his Haitian homeland or Lenny Kravitz and Iraq’s Kazem El-Sahir collaborating on the song “We Want Peace.”

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that the era when a song – any song – helps unite large numbers of people to rally on behalf of a common cause seems to have passed. In this digital age of information overload and corporate monopolies, ring-tones and widgets, it is easier than ever to be heard by millions but far more difficult to make a lasting impact.

True, some 4 million-plus YouTube viewers have watched the video for the R&B-flavored “I Got a Crush … on Obama” by the lip-syncing Obama Girl (in actuality, a busty model and actress named Amber Lee Ettinger). But it’s hard to believe she’ll have any more impact on the presidential election than Barbra Streisand throwing her support behind Hillary Clinton or Oprah Winfrey stumping for Obama.

Perhaps we’ve simply reached a point of oversaturation, or we’re just taking a breather before next year’s onslaught. Or, maybe, while the causes being espoused now are just as compelling, the music that results is not.

Will Kimbrough – Singer-songwriter Wears Many Musical Hats

Posted in Artists, Video, YouTube with tags , on December 27, 2007 by takecountryback

Kimbrough - He's a musician, not a policy-maker.Kimbrough – He’s a musician, not a policy-maker.

Of all the syndromes that could potentially afflict Will Kimbrough, lack of ambition is clearly not among them. After all, one doesn’t nab the Americana Music Association’s Instrumentalist of the Year Award (which he won three years ago) by sitting at home waiting for the phone to ring. Kimbrough keeps his irons in multiple fires, serving as producer, session and touring guitarist and songwriter for Todd Snider, Kate Campbell, Josh Rouse, Rodney Crowell, Joe Ely, Guy Clark, Lyle Lovett, Steve Forbert, Billy Joe Shaver, Amy Rigby, Jack Ingram and Jimmy Buffett.

Those activities alone would be enough to keep most creative individuals engaged and their daily planner sufficiently packed, but Kimbrough has managed to carve out not only a band profile (with the late, lamented Will and the Bushmen and the Bis-Quits and currently with Daddy, the latter two with quirky singer-songwriter Tommy Womack) but also an acclaimed roots/rock solo career, with five releases to his credit including his most recent, the eight-song (EP).

Given Kimbrough’s manic work ethic, the release of (EP) begs the question of why he didn’t just throw in a few more tunes and make it (LP). In fact, according to Kimbrough, it was exactly that before some rethinking took place.

“I actually pushed it up to 12 or 13 songs,” says Kimbrough. “Originally we weren’t going to spend money promoting this record, so we decided not to use up songs that we might use on a full-length. We’re the label – we hire the publicist and the radio promotion person and we have to watch it. We’re a little family label and so we have to make good choices. And I think we made a good choice in putting out this record.”

The fact is that (EP) was planned as a merch-table exclusive and was never intended to be sold in stores, but the response to the mini-album proved too positive to ignore.

“It sort of took on a life of its own, which was nice,” says Kimbrough. “The distributor called us in and said, “We want this record.’ We were just going to sell it at gigs, mainly just as something for fans and a reason to keep touring. I was starting to get some momentum touring and we wanted to have something new.”

Kimbrough’s touring momentum was jammed into high gear last summer with the release of Americanitis, a collection of politically scathing songs that he had been penning throughout the Bush administration’s first term. The glowing notices and enthusiastic fan response kept Kimbrough on the road for a good deal of last year and the reaction to (EP) seems to be equally positive.

“Maybe I could even have the regret that I didn’t make it a full-length, but everybody likes it and it does seem to have a focus,” says Kimbrough. “We do live in a world of downloading. I did it just the other day. I bought like 10 songs by 10 different people, because I really like to do that.”

Two of (EP)’s songs, “Interstate” and “Half a Man,” actually date to the Americanitis sessions, but were held because they didn’t quite fit with the album’s very specific theme. (EP)’s closing track, “Love Is the Solution,” could have been a nice wrap-up to Americanitis but Kimbrough notes that it was written in response to some comments that were made to him in the wake of the album last year.

“After I put that record out, I had some friends from the other side of the political fence say to me, “You’ve complained about things – you people always bitch about stuff and never offer any solutions.’ You could make policy suggestions but philosophically, I’m a musician, not a policy wonk, at least professionally. So the only thing I could come up with is to look at your enemy as an opportunity to practice your tolerance and compassion. That’s very Buddha, very Jesus.”

More than anything, (EP) was a respite from the way Kimbrough has worked in the past, returning from weeks on tour and holing up in the studio for long and intense hours to craft new songs for a fresh album. Two of (EP)’s tracks have a long history: “Horseshoe Lake” is a song Kimbrough wrote with Todd Snider for Snider’s sophomore album, and “Godsend” has been around for a decade, coming out finally as the title track on Kimbrough’s 2002 odds-and-sods collection. The relaxed manner in which (EP) came together made a nice experience for Kimbrough.

“It’s always fun but it can be mentally exhausting and you put a lot of pressure on yourself, and it’s kind of ridiculous,” says Kimbrough. “Maybe it comes with age that you don’t take it as seriously. I don’t know if that’s good press or not. Maybe I’m supposed to be filled with angst and maybe I should mention that I quit drinking but I made the rock- star-wannabe mistake of not going to rehab, and I don’t have that story for you. But that’s kind of an old story anyway; it works better for young girls now. Maybe I’ll go out without my underwear on some night and try to drum up a story here. There’s nothing more boring than a grown-up man with a family, but here I am.”

For a release that wasn’t intended for a wider audience, (EP) has certainly found one; it’s currently in the Americana radio chart’s Top 20, book-ended by Bruce Springsteen and the Eagles. Kimbrough is surprised not only by the response to (EP) but by the chart company that it’s keeping.

“I’m two notches above Merle Haggard, and it actually breaks my heart to see that I’m eight notches above Chuck Prophet, because he’s a pop genius. He really seems like someone that Tom Petty should give a million dollars to get off the ground.”

This line of thinking sends Kimbrough on a logical tangent about the state of the music industry, not from a sales or marketing standpoint, but from a practical talent supply perspective.

“I wonder as a music fan, where are we going to get the next Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty and Elvis Costello, the stand-bys that we’ve given our cash to for their great work and now they have these long careers and we can always go see them,” he says. “So I’m wondering how that’s going to happen, but that’s okay. Music goes on.”

Fred Eaglesmith Interview

Posted in Artists, Interviews with tags on December 27, 2007 by takecountryback

This is a transcript of an interview I did with Fred Eaglesmith in the summer of 2006. I’ve been moving and relocating it seems since that time and its just now that I’ve gotten around to transcribing it.If you aren’t familiar with Fred Eaglesmith you’re missing out on something special. He’s as real as they get these days. I had gone a couple of nights prior to see Fred’s last stop on a Western Canada tour before he and the band headed home. A few days later we did this interview. I enjoyed my conversation with him immensely. He’s personable, down to earth, intelligent, passionate and loves to talk about music. My kind of people. 

My son and I traveled 3500 miles to Texas about a week or so after this interview and Fred’s music made the trip with us and I remember that we were both so impressed that Fred’s music was at home no matter what part of the journey we were at. This Canadian talent is indeed universal in the very best sense of the word.

Full transcript

Happy Holidays from our home to yours

Posted in Artists, Christmas, Video, YouTube on December 25, 2007 by takecountryback

May the New Year bring PEACE to everyone, everywhere…

TCB Christmas Countdown #1

Posted in Artists, Christmas, Video, YouTube with tags , on December 24, 2007 by takecountryback

Trisha Yearwood – It Wasn’t His Child

Dwight Yoakam – Run, Run Rudolph

and this one is for my son Tim

Community, history all part of Texas dancehalls

Posted in News with tags , , on December 23, 2007 by takecountryback

AUSTIN — The Broken Spoke is a boot-slidin’ paradise, haunted by the ghosts of true country music, but don’t call it a dancehall.

For starters, the joint on South Lamar Boulevard is a relatively young ‘un, opening in 1964. The majority of classic Texas dancehalls were built by Czech and German immigrants in the years between the Civil War and World War I to help keep their cultural identity alive.

You know the Spoke is a honky-tonk, not a dancehall, because there are no foreign words on the walls like Wilkommen and Verein. There are no children standing on the shoes of their waltzing grandfathers.

“The feel of playing in a great old Texas dancehall is probably like a Little Leaguer stepping up to the plate at Yankee Stadium,” says country singer Pat Green, who has a book about dancehalls coming out in February. “There’s so much history, yet as a fan, there’s such an intimate feel.”

The walls of a dancehall are the arms that guide you in and show you around. The sole-polished wooden floors of places like Fischer Hall, 20 miles west of San Marcos, and Sefcik Hall, eight miles east of Temple, gleam and creak like reminders of the past, linking the dancers of today with a time when Texas was a land of immigrants.

From the time 16 Czech families landed at Galveston in 1852 until 1900, more than 15,000 Czechs lived in Central Texas, where they brought polka music and built halls like those back home, ranging from simple four-sided structures to spectacular 12-sided shrines.

Germans, meanwhile, built similar halls in Fredericksburg, Comal County and, with Saengerrunde Halle, in downtown Austin. Founded by the fraternal orders, singing societies, gun clubs and agricultural organizations that still run them today, these halls were meeting places where such topics as life insurance and livestock protection were discussed during the week. And on Saturday night, the community danced. The halls were at the intersection of family life and single life.

It’s still like that the first Saturday of the month at Twin Sisters Dance Hall, a German-founded hall on U.S. 281, an hour’s drive from Austin. Although Gruene Hall, which was built in 1878, is often recognized as the oldest dancehall in Texas, Twin Sisters owner Marvin Haas is out to prove that his hall is eight years older. He’s hired a translator to go over the old records, written in German, to find evidence that Twin Sisters was built in 1870.

But none of this matters to the hundred or so who came out to dance on a recent Saturday. When the band opened with “Waltz Across Texas” — an anthem of Texas dancehalls if there ever was one — there was none of that first-song apprehension; the dancefloor filled instantly. There were old married couples dancing as they have been for 50 years, teenage girls dancing with each other, a mother showing her awkward teenage son, who never took his eyes off his feet, how to two-step.

It’s a world that Texans often take for granted, one that newcomers are delighted to discover.

“When my husband and I moved to Texas two years ago, I was completely thrilled to see so many old dancehalls still functioning,” says Steph McDougal, a native of Dayton, Ohio, and wife of a NASA engineer.

Before moving here, McDougal did not know a thing about the Texas dancehall tradition. Today she heads Texas Dance Hall Preservation Inc., a nonprofit organization she co-founded with music historian Steve Dean and structural engineer Patrick Sparks.

“We all came to our love of dancehalls from three different perspectives,” McDougal says. While McDougal studies the architecture for her master’s thesis, Dean is in tune to the indigenous Texas music born in these wooden melting pots and Sparks is a dancing enthusiast who discovered dancehalls during his years at Texas A&M University in the ’80s.

“The story of dancehalls is really the story of Texas,” says Dean, who has long been researching a book on dancehalls he plans to complete in 2010.

The very personality of Texas music is to serve the dancers, which is why Bob Wills added drums and Ernest Tubb’s band had an electric guitarist back when such instrumentation was considered sacrilegious to the Grand Ole Opry crowd.

“We have all kinds of people coming to Sefcik Hall,” says Alice Sulak, 74, who carries a trace of a Czech accent. “But the one thing they all have in common is that they love to dance.” Her father, Tom Sefcik, built the hall along with the downstairs saloon in 1923. It remains virtually unchanged today, aside from the solid oak dancefloor that was installed in 1953.

It was inevitable that dancehall enthusiasts McDougal, Dean and Sparks would meet, but they didn’t officially team together until January, when DeWitt County’s Gruenau Hall, with its glorious hardwood maple floor and hand-carved rafters, burned to the ground. Insurance on the building would cover only one tenth of the cost to restore it.

“That was really the spark for us to start the nonprofit,” says McDougal, who says one goal is to document all existing dancehalls in Texas, then organize driving tours. “We want to promote dancehalls as active venues,” she says. “Some have become antique malls or are used to store hay. We’d love to see them return to their past glory.”

One historic hall that has come back after two decades of dormancy is Swiss Alp Dance Hall, built in Fayette County, 10 miles south of La Grange, by German settlers in 1900. Originally a polka palace, the hall, like most, switched to country music during the Western swing and honky-tonk heyday of the 1940s and 1950s. Then, in the ’60s, it became the place to see regional rock ‘n’ roll favorites such as B.J. Thomas and the Triumphs, Roy Head and the Traits and a pre-bearded ZZ Top. The hall closed in the mid-1980s, and the owners concentrated on running the convenience store in front.

Two years ago, a couple from Houston — medical product executive Kevin Ustynik and his wife, Donna — were driving around Fayette County, where his parents live, looking at houses. They saw a “For Sale” sign on U.S. 77 and pulled over.

The property for sale included 26 acres of farmland, a ranch house, a storefront and the dancehall.

“We didn’t set out to buy a dancehall,” Ustynik, 46, says with a laugh. “We had to think long and hard about whether we wanted to get it back up and running.”

A visit from his parents made up his mind. From the back windows of the hall they pointed to a bluff where a group of Czech families settled in the late 1800s. Ustynik’s great-great-grandparents were among them. Ustynik’s grandfather was a drummer in a polka band, so he had undoubtedly played Swiss Alp Dance Hall.

While working as a medical equipment consultant, Ustynik and his workers slowly restored the dancehall and reopened its doors in April 2006. There are country music dances every Saturday night and, in the spring, Ustynik plans to start Sunday afternoon polka dances. Donna Ustynik, meanwhile, manages the Czech/German restaurant in front, where the store used to be.

“Every night we’ve been open, we’ve had people come up and tell us interesting things about the hall,” Kevin Ustynik says. “See this area over here, off to the side?” he says, pointing to a railed-in square at stage right. “This is where the parents used to stand during a teen dance. If a guy asked a girl to dance, she’d look over at her parents for a signal that he was OK, or that he wasn’t.”

Swiss Alp also had a crying room because dancehalls are nightlife without the need for babysitters.

“We had five generations of one family come in together and they were all hanging out together,” Ustynik says. “The older ones were showing the younger ones how to dance and it just hit me: Man, reopening Swiss Alp was the right thing to do.”

There is no trait as admirable to a true Texan, than keeping tradition alive.

TCB Christmas Countdown #2

Posted in Artists, Christmas with tags on December 23, 2007 by takecountryback