Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Circle Will Be Unbroken: Neo Country

Denver's own Ethyl and the Regulars

In a recent post I mentioned how much I’ve come to appreciate REAL, i.e., non-Nashville, country music.  In fact, in the past two months I’ve listened almost exclusively to country (and western swing and occasionally rockabilly and jump blues) and can’t get enough of it.  This type of country, which rejects the pop sheen and fashion image consciousness of contemporary Nashville country, is often referred to as “neotraditional country” or sometimes just “neo country”.  Regardless of the name, this type of country music appears to be thriving in the 21st century. It seems like more and more people are searching for music (and art and literature and political opinions) outside of the usual standard arenas.  We also live in a retro obsessed culture that has lionized, even fetishized, old and/or archaic artistic forms.  Groups like the Avett Brothers (I like “Slight Figure of Speech” and “And It Spread” from I and Love and You) and Mumford and Sons have crafted a sound that is immersed in these old fashioned, folk/traditional musical idioms; there’s a great compilation called The Roots of Mumford and Sons that contains tracks by old time artists who influenced them, and includes such classic and revered country/blues/traditional artists as Cisco Houston, Henry Thomas, the Carter Family, Mississippi John Hurt, and Leadbelly.

Other artists are mining a similar old-timey vein, but none are older and timey-er than Pokey Lafarge.  Hailing from St. Louis but often found criss-crossing America like a modern day Woody Guthrie, Lafarge’s sound is a compelling amalgamation of Jimmie Rodgers hobo country, Leadbelly-inspired folk blues, and 20’s ragtime and jazz age pop.  He brings a Dylanesque quality to this unique, almost artisanal mix of neo-primitive musical forms, writing most of his own material and adding his distinctive vocal stylings as well.  I’ve just begun exploring his work but so far my favorite songs are “Mr. Nobody”, “Where I’m Gonna Go”, and the title track off 2008’s Beat, Move, and Shake; “La La Blues” off 2010’s Riverboat Soul; and “Sunny Side of the Street” from his most recent LP, Middle of Everywhere. 

Another artist who has mined a real old time vein, but has been doing it since the mid-90’s, is Gillian Welch.  Welch, and her husband/guitarist David Rawlings, have been crafting introspective updates of Appalachian folk that is heavy on the harmonies and light on the instrumentation.  On songs like the slight and plaintive“Barroom Girls”, the echoey, soulful “Paper Wings”,  “Tear My Stillhouse Down” (with its martial drum beat), and most notably the spectacular “Orphan Girl” off her debut album, the aptly named Revival, Welch hews extremely closely to the sweet harmonies and simple, somber instrumentation of the Carter Family.  “Red Clay Halo” off her third album, Time (The Revelator) is another sweet chunk of country pickin’ and croonin’.  However, Welch and Rawlings could occasionally kick out the jams, and my favorite song by them is the milk cow boogie of “Honey, Now” off her second album, Hell Among the Yearlings, with its fat drums and electric guitar boogie, it really feels like a country dance band cutting loose.  On 2003’s Soul Journey, they continue to experiment with more, and more electric, instrumentation, for example the soft organ backing “Wayside/Back in Time”; this song sounds almost like a Natalie Merchant piece it veers so close to modernity.  “Lowlands” is much closer to their prior, exclusively acoustic work, but “Look At Miss Ohio” even sports an (electric) guitar solo!  Welch and Rawlings took awhile to rediscover their inner muse but in 2011 released The Harrow & the Harvest; I particularly like the low-key folk blues of “The Way That It Goes” and the soft, introspective “Silver Dagger”.

Almost as antique is the music of my current obsession, Texan Wayne Hancock.  I wrote about Hancock in my previous post but in the meantime I’ve become even more obsessed with his amazing talent.  Hancock sounds like the reincarnation of Hank Williams Sr., nailing not only Williams’ nasal honk but his Jimmie Rodgers-influenced yodel to a T.  As if that isn’t good enough, Hancock has chosen to adapt Hank’s traditional country combo honky tonk sound to the large ensemble sound of western swing.  There’s a great deal of Bob Wills there of course, but also elements of Spade Cooley and other western swing pioneers.  Like these swing antecedents, Hancock’s music can vary from “large ensemble” stuff complete with horns sounding like classic Tommy Dorsey regular big-band swing (like on the title track of Hancock’s 2006 album Tulsa) to a smaller, more intimate combo sound as showcased more on 2009 album the Viper of Melody.   Wayne will also slow it down for lush slow dance numbers like “This Lonely Night” and “Lord Take My Pain” off Tulsa; he also mixes in hard blues elements in songs like “Drinkin’ Blues”.  But I like it best when he cuts loose, ramps it up, and drives his band to yank astonishing solos out of the air like on songs like “Tulsa”, “Going Home Blues”, “Jump the Blues”, “Freight Train Boogie”, “Big City Good Time Gal”, “Gone Gone Gone”, and “Flat Land Boogie”.  Most notably, Wayne’s personnel have been out of this world, mind blowingly outstanding musicians; Wayne typically picks the cream of the Austin scene crop for his touring and studio bands, and his guitarists, particularly Paul Skelton and Herb Steiner on Thunderstorms and Neon Lights,  Dave Biller and Jeremy Wakefield on A Town Blues,  Skelton and Biller and Eddie Rivers on Tulsa, and Izak Zaidman and Tony Locke on Viper of Melody, kick up a wild, extemporaneous squall of solos that will have you nodding your head and tapping your toes guaranteed.  Wayne is, to me anyway, hands down the guy who is doing neo country right, melding different sub-genres of country to make a novel hybrid while simultaneously breathing new life into these older musical forms.  I know of nobody who is trying to do big ensemble, hardcore traditional honky-tonk infused western swing like this anywhere; as far as I can tell, Wayne is in a class by himself.  I don’t even know how you wake up one day and decide to put together a western swing ensemble like this; it’s so beyond the regular musical pale to be almost inconceivable to me.  I cannot WAIT for Wayne to swing through my town soon, I’m dying to see him live, where he supposedly puts together shows that are legendary for their length and enthusiasm.  Right now, for me, Wayne is in a class by himself.

I did manage to recently catch Hank’s more literal offspring, his grandson Hank Williams III, on his recent tour.  Like Wayne Hancock, with whom he collaborated early in his career, Hank III has forged a unique path through modern country, in Hank’s case one that veers between traditional, straight-up honky tonk and between punk and hardcore.  Hank has also fronted the hardcore punk band Assjack and more recently has tried to meld both honky tonk country and industrial, metal, and punk.    Not surprisingly, while I respect his other musical passions I’m most attracted to his more traditional work.  My favorite songs by Hank are “Lovesick, Broke, and Driftin’” (which could be mistaken for a song by his granddaddy), the funky “Mississippi Mud”, the doleful “Whiskey, Weed, and Women”, and “Walking With Sorrow” off his second album, 2002’s Lovesick, Broke, and Driftin’; “Thrown out of the Bar”, which tells a tale of getting wasted with old school country outlaws Dave Allen Coe and George Jones off 2006’s Straight to Hell; the perky “Wild and Free” off Damn Right Rebel Proud; the rumbling, aggressive, industrial tinged “Hillbilly Joker” off the 2011 album of the same name;  and the title track, “Sun Comes Up”,  and “What They Want Me To Be” off the 2012 compilation Long Gone Daddy.   Like Wayne Hancock, Hank III has the nasally vocals of his grandpappy down pat (though supposedly Hank III has said Wayne has more of his grandfather in him than anyone else, including him).  “Long Gone Daddy” comes the closest to capturing the funkiness of Hank’s granddaddy, who’s music often strutted sassily and made you want to tap your toes at the same time.  “Sun Comes Up” is more reminiscent of Hank Williams Sr.’s cry-in-your-beer songs like “Lonesome and Blue” and “Lovesick Blues”.  Most of Hank III’s song lyrics deal with heartache, getting wasted, or giving the finger to the traditional country establishment, putting him squarely in the forefront of this neo-outlaw country movement.

Seeing Hank III live was fascinating.  I’ve seen a lot of weird acts with weird fans live in my 45 years, but perhaps none as weird as Hank and his crowd.  It was a unique blend of alterna-nation types—shaved heads, dreadlocks, goatees, tattoos, piercings—and hardcore hillbilly types in cowboy hats, moustaches, and beer guts.  Everyone got along fine and most folks were enthusiastically shouting out the lyrics to nearly every song.  Hank has clearly tapped into a solid vein of anti-country sensibilities that resonates with a surprisingly wide swath of fans.

There are a couple other guys who are also producing some great classic honky tonk sounds that I mentioned in my previous  post:  Virginia’s J.B. Beverley and the Wayward Drifters and Houston, Texas’ Sean Reefer and the Resin Valley Boys.  Like Hank III, Beverley has logged time in an assortment of traditional hardcore punk bands, including the Bad Habits, G.G. Allin’s former band the Murder Junkies, and the Little White Pills.  Beverley plays a more stripped down and banjo-inflected honky tonk sound; my two favorite songs by him are the slow cowpoke blues of “Walked Across Texas” and his middle finger to Nashville, “Dark Bar and a Juke Box”, both of which are on his 2006 album Dark Bar and a Juke Box, but I’ve also since come to like “Lonesome, Loaded, and Cold” and “Going to the Show” off this album.  Though for the most part his music leans too heavily on banjo (and also on fiddle) for my tastes, I prefer guitars and standup bass more.  Sean Reefer almost comes off as a joke band, so heavily does he immerse himself in marijuana culture.  Aside from his name and that of his band, nearly every title on his 2003 album Texas Hill Country focuses on smoking weed and getting high.  Aside from this, I like his sound even better than Beverley’s; while not pursuing the western swing angle as avidly as Wayne, Reefer’s music hews more closely to that of Wayne Hancock, with lots of pedal steel guitar on songs like “Otherwise” and “Whiskey Bottle” and “Do It All Wrong”.  Unfortunately this is the only album available on iTunes but I hope they put out some more (hopefully less weed obsessed) music soon.

Georgia’s Joey Allcorn is another country troubadour mining a Hank Williams honky tonk vein. Like his occasional collaborator Hank III, Allcorn has also occasionally infused his music with some of the energy and raw sounds of punk, particularly on tracks like “In Memphis Tennessee” and “Like I Never Will Again” on his debut album; these two artists more than any other are responsible for creating what’s become known as hellbilly, which is like the country/hillbilly variant of psychobilly.  On his debut album, 2006’s 50 Years Too Late, Allcorn creates some amazing music; my favorites are the perky “I Just Don’t Know” and the sad lonesome sounds of “Here I Go Again”.  I also like the more up-tempo rave-up “Honky Tonkin’ Ramblin’ Man” and the slow “Lonesome, Lovesick Man” off 2009’s All Alone Again, but Allcorn’s voice lacks the Texas twang and nasally drawl of Wayne the Train and Hank III and doesn’t sit quite as well with me as their voices do.  All Alone Again also features some of the last recorded pedal steel guitar work done by Don Helms, who was Hank Williams Sr.’s pedal steel player for nearly all his big hits.

A guy who has been creating fantastic neo country for over 20 years now is Junior Brown. Brown was born in Indiana but now resides in Texas.  Brown’s music hews more closely to the electrified honky tonk country of one of my newfound heroes, Buck Owens, really sounding like an update on the “Bakersfield Sound”.  Brown’s music is highlighted by the sounds of his so-called “guit-steel”, an electric guitar/steel guitar hybrid of his own creation, as well as Brown’s deep, stentorian vocals, which bring to mind classic male country singers like Ernest Tubb, Waylon Jennings, and George Jones.  He also showcases his guit-steel with blistering country shreds that evoke a corn pone Eddie Van Halen in their countrified pyrotechnics.  Brown has released half a dozen albums since 1993, all of which are consistently excellent, but my favorite current songs are the very old-timey sounding “Gal From Oklahoma” off his debut Guit With It;  the clear, crisp “My Baby Don’t Dance To Nothing But Ernest Tubb”, the straight-up country of “Too Many Nights in a Roadhouse”, and the beautiful Hawaiian steel punctuating “Hillbilly Hula Gal” off his follow-up  from that same year 12 Shades of Brown; “Gotta Get Up Every Morning”, “Darling I’ll Do Anything You Say”, and the title track off 1996’s Semi-Crazy; and the twangy, Bakersfield-infused “I’m All Fired Up” and the jazzy swing of “Lookin’ For Love” off 1998’s Long Walk Back.   Brown has forged a unique musical sound that owes much to the Bakersfield sound but is wholly his own.

As mentioned in my previous post, Austin’s Derailers are another band that has taken many of its musical cues from the Bakersfield sounds of Buck Owens; Owens was so impressed with their abilities he had them play his birthday party in the late 90’s, and the Derailers released an all-Buck cover album titled Under the Influence of Buck.  These guys spent a good chunk of the 90’s and early 2000’s making outstanding, straight-up electrified honky tonk country; on songs like “My Heart’s Ready”, “This Big City”, “I’m Your Man”, “Where Ya Been”, and “Jackpot” of their 1996 debut album of the same name showcased their immense talent; rarely has there been a stronger top-to-bottom country debut album.  These guys instantly vaulted themselves into the top (non-Nashville) country acts in the nation by channeling their inner Buck.  They even looked the part, with their greaser hairdos and Western suits.  They continued to storm the country ramparts on their 1999 big label (Sire) follow-up Full Western Dress with solid honky tonk two steppers like “The Right Place”, “Someone Else’s Problem” , “Whatever Made You Change Your Mind”,  and their cover of the Crystal’s Phil Spector hit “Then She Kissed Me”.  The latter two songs brought to the fore their increasing fascination with Beatlesque harmonies and Byrds/Merseybeat janglepop.   This element would become more dominant on later albums like 2008’s Guaranteed to Satisfy, which was made following the departure of long-time vocalist Tony Villanueva.   Songs like “The Get-Go”, with its soaring vocal harmonies and funky 60’s garage pop guitar and the slower, more jangly Byrds exercise “The Sun Is Shining On Me” showcased this new direction.   But on 2003’s Genuine (which featured songs like “Leave a Message, Juanita”, and “Boomerang Heart”) and 2006’s Soldiers of Love (on songs like “She’s a Lot Like Texas”, “Hey, Valerie”, and It’s Never Too Late for a Party”) they continued to produce drop-dead country classics. And while it’s hard to fault a band for evolving (particularly after the aforementioned departure of primary singer Villanueva), I have to confess I miss the “classic” Derailers sound of their earlier work.  Right now aside from Wayne Hancock I’d say they are my favorite act because of their ability to conjure the best sounds of Bakersfield.

Dale Watson also looks to the west for his inspiration, but his deep, almost stentorian vocals hew closer to those of another Bakersfield icon, Merle Haggard.  Watson’s smooth, deep, classic country voice has made him a favorite of the neo-country crowd too. Watson is Alabama born but lived in (and has moved back to) Texas and considers the Lone Star State his home.  However, he got his start at the Palamino Club in North Hollywood, and even spent some time songwriting in (ugh) Nashville.  But starting in 1995 he began releasing a bewildering number of albums showcasing his own vocal and songwriting talent.  My favorite songs by Dale are “Cheatin’ Heart Attack” and “List of Reasons” off his ’95 debut Cheatin’ Heart Attack and the more swing-inflected sounds of his One More Once More album, including the title track, “You Win Again”, and “You’ve Got Me Now”.  I’m still exploring Dale’s massive back catalog and hope to unearth more treasures soon.

As mentioned in my previous post, Moot Davis hails from the decidedly non-country state of New Jersey but has also made a name for himself in just the past few years.  In 2004 he released his debut, a solid effort that brought him plaudits from many neo-country circles for its traditional Hank Williams inflected honkey tonk.  This album had some great songs, including the leadoff track “Thick Of It Now”, which evokes both Hank the first AND Hank the third, and “Highway Kind”, which, with its heavy electric and steel guitar presence and yodeling vocals sounds like Wayne Hancock minus the nasally Texas inflections.  “Thanks for Breaking My Heart” is a cry-in-your-beer Buck Owens type of number.  “Last Train Home” is a country plaint made even more doleful by Gabe Witcher’s delicate banjo work and by braying horns, not a typical country instrument but here they work.  “One of a Kind” and “Stay Gone” also could be songs from a lost 50’s country album.

Moot’s follow-up, 2007’s Already Moved On, continued on in this same manner.  “Toggle Switch” has the peppy rhythm and classic electric guitar twang of a Don Rich arrangement, and “Talkin’ About Lonely” is another Hank Williams-infused piece of traditional honky tonk.  I also like “Go Down Alone” and his cover of Johnny Paycheck’s “I’m the only Hell (My Mama Ever Raised)”, but this album seems to showcase a much lighter production that seems less heavily rooted in traditional honky tonk country as his debut.  Moot waited five years to release his third album, Man About Town, and it in some ways seems to be a return to form but also finds Moot spreading his musical wings a little.  “Rags to Rhinestones” has a Merle Haggard feel to both the song and the lyrics.  “Day the World Shook My Hand” and “Memory Lane” sound like countrified Chris Isaak numbers, while “Rocket” is slower and funkier, a hip shaking country song.  “How Long” and “Fade to Gold” showcase Moot’s fantastic lyrical writing skills and are beautiful songs that will stick with you.

Another band I mentioned in my previous country post whom I’ve gotten more into are the Two Dollar Pistols.  The Pistols, who hail from North Carolina, are essentially a vehicle for singer John Howie, Jr., a former drummer who formed this traditional country outfit in the early 90’s.  George Jones is the obvious reference point here, both in terms of Howie’s rough, masculine vocals and in terms of the lyrics, which often focus on heartache and loss.  Merle Haggard and Waylon Jennings also jump to mind.  Right now the songs that have leapt out at me are “You Ruined Everything” and “Gettin’ Gone”, “All I Can Think of is You”, and the jaunty “There Goes a Heartache” off their 2002 album You Ruined Everything.  I also like “Too Bad You’re Gone” and the rockier title track off 2004’s Hands Up!

But the Pistols’ best effort is arguably their 1999 EP collaboration with fellow Carolina crooner Tift Merritt, which hearkens back to the classic country duets of Tammy Wynette and George Jones.  Merritt has a spectacular voice that evokes the clear, ringing tones of Emmylou Harris and which meshes with the rougher, more craggy vocals of Howie, particularly on tunes like Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton’s “Just Someone I Used to Know”, Waylon Jennings’ “We Had It All”, Charley Pride’s “I’m So Afraid of Losing You Again”, and Emmylou Harris and Willie Nelson’s “One Paper Kid”.

Though they hail from Nashville (though the members all come from elsewhere), BR5-49 have become one of the biggest neo-country success stories.  Like the Derailers, they mix traditional country, Western swing, Bakersfield honky tonk, and rock/rockabilly to create a compelling blend.  Also like the Derailers, they walk the old time country walk as well, wearing retro Western duds and hats, which personally I always like as a nice touch.  Their 1996 self-titled debut album (their name comes from a telephone number in an old Hee Haw sketch) was magnificent, with a terrific array of originals and covers meshing well together.  In addition to covering Moon Mullican’s “Cherokee Boogie”, Mel Tillis’ “Honky Tonk Song”, Webb Pierce’s “I Ain’t Never”,  Ray Price’s “Crazy Arms”, and Gram Parsons’ “Hickory Wind”, their original compositions “Chains of This Town” (which its Latin flavor) and “Even If Its Wrong” fit in extremely well.  They continued in this vein on their second album, 1998’s Big Backyard Beat Show, which contained covers of songs by Buck Owens, Johnny O’Keefe, and Billy Joe Shaver.   In 2001 they made their major label debut on Sony with This Is BR5-49; this album seems to lose a little of the wild energy and enthusiasm they brought to their prior albums but still has some high points, including the country rocker “Look Me Up” and the strutting “Fool of the Century” and “While You Were Gone”.  Sadly, This Is BR5-49 didn’t sell and they subsequently left Sony, and lost guitarist and vocalist (and lyricist) Gary Bennett.  2004’s Tangled in the Pines marked a return to their signature sound from the over-polished sheen of This Is BR5-49 and featured far more original numbers, including “That’s What I Get”, “When I Come Home”, and “Honky Tonkin’ Lifestyle”, the latter two of which hew lyrically to the Hank Williams school of songwriting.  2006’s Dog Days saw the band losing more membership but they have continued to soldier on.     I like the feeling-sorry-for-themselves lament “A-1 On the Jukebox” and the cowpoke lope of “I’m Goin’ Down”.

Another major and prolific neo-country band I was late in discovering is Asleep at the Wheel, who have been cranking out updated western swing for almost forty years.  They have a jillion albums and I’ve been trying to pick my way through all of them.  One feature of Asleep at the Wheel is their eagerness to collaborate with a wide array of country and western swing artists, including former Bob Wills guitarist Leon Rausch (I like “It’s a Good Day” and “Osage Stomp” off the album It’s a Good Day), outlaw country icon Willie Nelson (I love “Hesitation Blues” off Willie and the Wheel), and even swing/retro hounds the Squirrel Nut Zippers (on “A Maiden’s Prayer” off Ride with Bob, a tribute album to Wills).  I also like their Johnny Cash-influenced cover of Arkie Shibley’s “Hot Rod Lincoln” and Bob Will’s “Roly Poly” off Western Standard Time, their cover of “Albuquerque” off the compilation More Songs of Route 66:  Roadside Attractions, their cover of “Take Me Back to Tulsa” (another Bob Wills standard) off Ride With Bob, and “Cotton Eyed Joe” and “Miles and Miles of Texas” off Live at Billy Bob’s. 

San Antonio, Texas country outfit Two Tons of Steel have made a name for themselves as a live draw that packs them in every summer at Gruene Hall, considered the oldest continually operated dance hall in Texas.  They have released several studio albums as well, and I’m still exploring these.  So far my favorite songs are the swinging “Cryin’ Eyes”,  the mellower, organ-infused “Long Road to Heaven”, and “Bottom of the Bottle” off 2009’s Not That Lucky.  It’s easy to see why these guys are such a popular live act in the Lone Star State.  On their Vegas album, they also do countrified covers of “Secret Agent Man”, The Ramones’ “I Wanna Be Sedated”, and Ray Harris’ rockabilly raver “Red Hot”, but I like “Drive You Home Tonite” and “Can’t Stay With You”.

I’ve been doing some exploring of the local music scene trying to find neo country artists in the Denver/Front Range area near where I live.  One of the first bands I came up with is Ethyl and the Regulars, a popular Denver band that has been making the club circuit for awhile.  They have an album available on iTunes, 2009’s Fill ‘Er Up.  I downloaded the entire thing and am greatly enjoying it; it reminds me a lot of the fantastic work of BR5-49 and the Derailers, particularly on songs like “Good Morning Blues”, “Love’s Gonna Get You”, the honky tonk heavy “Long Gone, Long Forgotten”, and the faster, more  up-tempo “Knee Deep in the Blues”.

The Cowboy Dave Band is another Mile High purveyor of classic country.  Led by “Cowboy” Dave Wilson, who also plays with Nebraska’s terrific country ensemble Forty/Twenty, the Cowboy Dave Band have a fun EP out, 2009’s Saddle Up, Pal, that showcases Dave’s killer country sound.  “Friend in a Bottle” and “Bill, Wyoming” are two standout songs.

Another popular country draw in Denver are the Railbenders, who play a high lonesome western sound that leans heavily on bleak Johnny Cash-like vocals and Waylon Jennings influenced outlaw western country stylings.  They have several albums on iTunes, and I’ve downloaded the frantic “Hellbound Party Train” as well as the local shout-outs “I-70 Westbound” and “Driving Back to Denver” off 2006’s Showdown; and “Lonesome Train” and “Minus One” off 2001’s Southbound (they do a honky tonk version of Ozzie Ozbourne’s “Crazy Train” on this album that works quite well).  I also like “Drive Away”, “Drop Me Off at the Honky Tonk”, and the title track from 2009’s Like a Wheel.  I definitely need to catch these guys live soon.

They call themselves “Twang Rock”, but 4H Royalty have a sound that draws heavily on rock, alternative, powerpop, rockabilly, and country.  I like “The Breaks” and the incredibly punchy “Orbison Eyes”, which actually reminds me of new wave/powerpop legends  SVT with its surging, crunchy blasts of bass and guitar, off their 2010 album Colossolalia.  The live versions of their song “Accordion Bus” available (as with the songs above) on YouTube are also phenomenal; again, there’s a heavy late 70’s California powerpop vibe that evokes the best of Tommy Tutone and the Plimsouls but with a rootsier edge.  These guys are mining a unique vein of music that I greatly enjoy.

Boulder’s Gasoline Lollipops are slightly closer to the country side of things but still bring an alternative rock feel to their music.  They have several good songs uploaded on their MySpace site, including the quavery “Devil’s in the Ace” and “White Trash Song”; singer Clay Rose’s voice often evokes for me a slightly more countrified version of Eddie Vedder’s vocals with Pearl Jam.  My favorite songs by these guys right now is the plaintive, moving “Nashville” and the equally sweet “Longest Night”. 

Blue Mountain Ranch Hands, who hail from the tiny mountain town of Lyons, are producing some of the most hardcore western swing I’ve heard; aside from Wayne the Train and perhaps Asleep at the Wheel, these guys (and gals) are doing more to keep the memory of Bob Wills alive than anyone else on the planet.  I’m not as huge a fan of the vocals as I am of the fantastic musicianship of their guitarists, particularly their pedal steel player.  I’ve downloaded “Bud’s Bounce” and “Kansas City Kitty” from their 2010 album Steal the Show, which is available on CDBaby, and am enjoying them immensely.

Fronted by the fiesty Bonnie Sims, Bonnie and the Clydes are a six piece outfit that is cranking out plaintive songs like “Dark Side of the Road” and “Take Me Home”, which can be found on their 2012 release Wrong Side Up.  I particularly like Bonnie’s vocals on the latter song, but my favorite song is the perky “Rocky Mountain Town”.  Bonnie also does a soulful country version of Bob Dylan’s “Gotta Serve Somebody”.

He's not from my current hometown but he is from my former hometown. Every time I find myself back in my (and Snoop Dogg's) hometown of Long Beach, California I go to the farmer's market by the Marina in Belmont Shore, and Caribbean country singer Billy Rose is almost always there with his acoustic guitar.  I fell in love with Billy's voice the first time I heard it; his hoarse, raspy vocals are extremely bluesy and remind me almost of field hollers.  For my 40th birthday, my in-laws tracked Billy down and bought me a CD of his work, The Day Love's Well Runs Dry.  I was surprised and a little disappointed, because it features Billy with a large electric country ensemble and is obviously far more polished than his raw, powerful live performances.  But I've since come to greatly treasure this CD.  Billy's songs "A Special Kind of Woman", his cover of Kris Kristofferson's"Help Me Make It Through the Night", "I'm in the Picture with You", "Long Distance Phone Call", his cover of the George Jones classic "Once You Had the Best", and the title track are excellent country cuts.

It’s truly amazing to me how vibrant and fertile country music, particularly neo-country, continues to be in the 21st century.  There are so many artists exploring traditional American musical forms and breathing new life into older idioms like western swing and hobo country.  I’ve found the bands above in my neck of the woods but there are plenty of other bands out there cranking out classic country music in bars and clubs across America.