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Ricky Skaggs’ Opens His Musical “Treasure Chest”

Ricky Skaggs is going back to his pure country roots.

Any day now, he plans to announce the “Treasure Chest Tour” that will take him across the country showcasing the country and country pop tunes he saw become hits before he turned his attentions to bluegrass and became a major hit maker in that genre.

“Scriptures talks about a man that goes in his treasure chest and pulls out things old and new,” said Skaggs. “What I will do is have a tour that will encompass Ricky Skaggs from the early days. The band will be [his long-time players] Kentucky Thunder but we’ll also add a drummer and a piano player and do my old country hits that fans haven’t heard me do since 1997 when I got into bluegrass.”

The Treasure Chest Ricky will open is chock full of material. When he was sixteen, Skaggs became a professional musician with the legendary Ralph Stanley and was soon a well-respected singer and mandolin player.

“Waitin’ for the Sun to Shine” took him to the top of the country charts.Now that he’s won a plethora of awards including fourteen GRAMMY Awards—which may soon be sixteen depending on the outcome of this year’s nominations—Skaggs is using the tour to metaphorically wrap all of his music in one package.

“It’s almost like a celebration of forty years,” said Skaggs noting he will play bluegrass and the Christian-flavored songs from his latest, GRAMMY Award-nominated album Mosaic on the tour. “This will be a tour people will want to see.”

Not that his current bluegrass concerts, that also include some songs from his album Mosaic, isn’t selling out at almost every stop. At a recent concert at the legendary Birchmere in Alexandria, VA— the first of two sold out shows at the venue—the audience’s cheers and hearty applause underscored they couldn’t get enough of Skaggs.

Besides the lightening fast precision with which he and his band played, Skaggs has an extremely casual stage presence. He treats his fans almost as if they are family, taking the time to tell behind-the-scenes stories about the songs he plays and respond to requests. From a young age Skaggs was a fan of Darrell “Pee Wee” Lambert, so he exuded a special joy when telling the audience that the mandolin he was playing had originally belonged to Lambert.

What better instrument to play during a show when Skaggs and his band played some classic bluegrass tunes including several Stanley Brothers’ songs such as “On a Lonesome Night,” and Bill Monroe’s “I’m On My Way Back to the Old Home.” Prior to the show, Skaggs reflected on his musical treasure chest. Although he calls Mosaic “the most important album I’ve ever made,” he stressed that he’s not a Christian artist. His music belongs to the people and the streets, he said, and that shows in the songs on this album.

“There’s something in the sound that is so different than [more traditional] gospel music,” he said. “If you did a mix of what we have and took the vocals out you would enjoy just hearing the music. You wouldn’t think so much that it was a gospel, Christian, spiritual or any time of sacred record. That’s what drew me into it as well. I’m a musician. I love music, and I love to play music, and I love to create different sounds of music.”

Dates for the Treasure Chest Tour have not been announced. Check here for updates.

Your Country’s Right Here: Rodney Crowell Takes Us On A Wild Ride Through His East Texas Childhood

Growing up playing board games and listening to country music with my older sister, I had a pretty fair idea of what the genre was all about. Or so I thought. Little did I know that country is — in many ways — the foundation of rock and the wellspring of rich subsets including bluegrass, alt-country, and Americana. Join me in conversations with both established and up-and-coming artists as tell us about themselves, their music, and how it fits into today’s country sound.

A vicious belt slap across the bare stomach of a woman who had miscarried thirteen times. A five-year-old so terrified that violence would erupt at an alcohol-fueled New Year’s Eve party that he shoots a gun to disrupt the scene. An ugly fistfight in a honky tonk between two women— including one suffered severe epileptic seizures for decades—over one of their husbands.

These are among the real-life images that much-honored singer-songwriter Rodney Crowell recalls from his East Texas childhood in his just-published book Chinaberry Sidewalks. Although it’s easy to assume the verbal and physical violence in the book means the story is one step away from reality television, nothing could be further from the truth.

Instead Crowell, a member of Nashville royalty who has written, produced, and otherwise collaborated with Vince Gill, Bob Seger, Emmylou Harris, Chely Wright and many others— including his ex-wife Rosanne Cash— centers the story around his parents’ love story that started and ended (in the book, anyway)

www.rodneycrowell.com

with the couple’s love of country legend Roy Acuff.

“To write something that personal I had to walk a fine line,” said Crowell from his Tennessee home just before the book’s January release. “I wanted its nature to never be cloying, never [appear that I was] trying to get sympathy. As a friend of mine said ‘It’s not who took the worse beating, it’s how they look standing.’”

And thanks to the brilliant writing and vivid details brought to life by Crowell, the couple that physically lived in Jacinto City, Texas, but emotionally dwelled in the music of Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis, look pretty darned good.

Just before the book was released, Crowell spent some time talking with OurStage about his parents—Addie Cauzette Willoughby and J. W. Crowell— and just what their loves story means to him. Here’s some of what he had to say:

OS: Why did you choose to write this story about your parents and part of your childhood instead of writing something about your career?

RC: When I got the idea to write it, I pretty quickly I realized I’m a songwriter and there are people that know about me, but I’m not a personality that people would be interested in knowing about my career. Really, from the get go I was interested in writing something that would have to stand and create an audience based on the quality of the writing and not what I [have done professionally].

OS: It had to be difficult to write something so raw where you talk about violent encounters your parents had, your dad’s drinking and the verbal abuse.

RC: Occasionally I would get a little cold sweat and think “Wait a minute! My mom and dad aren’t living and they are not here to defend themselves.” Then I thought “Good!” (laughs). But I know my mother would have approved, and probably my father would have, too. I wrote a song “The Rock of My Soul,” that pretty much exposed in song form what this book is about. When my mother heard the song—at the end of the song I use poetic license and the narrator goes to jail—her remarks were “I don’t mind what anyone knows about me in this song but I don’t want anyone to think you went to prison.” I said “If I didn’t have a guitar and your gift of gab, I would have wound up in prison.”

OS: You’ve always been revered for your vibrant writing. How did writing this book differ from songwriting?

RC: The process was continually peeling away, revisions, revisions, revisions, revisions.

A lot of what I understand about the English language is guess work until I use the key and unlock something that clarifies the images I’m trying to chisel out. The process I love. It’s daunting and exhausting but by the same token I’m very happy in that routine. I’d work six to eight hours, ride my bike a couple hours, then my wife and I would figure out what we were going to eat. That process and routine suits me fine. I’m a strange character…I enjoy the solitude and I enjoy getting out on the road and performing. I think it’s a pretty healthy schizophrenia I hone.

OurStage: How did you choose the segments of your life—and your parents’ lives—that made it into the book?

RC: Part of it was when I thought the arc of the story was really that of my mother’s and father’s love affair. I’ve said to people “If we were standing in this room right now and sending my 18- and 19-year-old mother and father out into the world, we’d both say they’d never make it.” That was the arc for me—I considered myself narrator, referee and participant.

Although they were self destructive, hitting myself over head with Dr. Pepper bottle was a really sound way to break up their fight [as told in one story of the book]. That’s pretty extreme but also in service of the arc of their story in that something as drastic as me cold cocking myself stopped them for a moment. If they had not stopped, the arc of the story wouldn’t be the same.

www.rodneycrowell.com

OS: Did you share pieces of the book with others as you wrote it?

RC: I read it aloud to a few friends. I’d call a friend of mine and read a paragraph or read a chapter aloud if I had one. It took seven years of writing to figure out how to write it and then over a couple years I produced a manuscript that my editor received and we worked on. GREAT credit goes to my editor. He really helped me raise it to a level I couldn’t achieve on my own. I had some superb help.

OS: As you reviewed your childhood, did it make you think about how you raised your own children?

RC: Isn’t that true with each generation? Lo and and behold, come to find out with my grown children I did things worse. I think it gets thrown at you—part of the slings and arrows of parenthood are that eventually it comes back to you what a shitty job you did and also what a great job. I think parenthood is like a drive-in-movie-size mirror reflecting back.

OS: One of the most personal parts of the book to me was reading about your wife and daughter preparing your mother for the funeral. I felt a bit like a bit of an intruder reading something so personal. Why did you choose to include it?

RC: I included that because it was about sisterhood, about my daughter and my wife. In my contribution to that scene I’m sort of bouncing around nervous as the undertaker keeps coming down to check. Yet these two women had dropped into this genetic memory or this midwifery that has been passed down for ages and ages. My wife and daughter were dressing and bathing this woman. My mother had given [my wife] Claudia instructions for what she’d want. It is part of the female archetype. They were channeling that archetype that dress bodies of loved ones to send them into the afterlife.

Fans will be able to find out even more during Crowell’s “Chinaberry Sidewalks Tour” that combines his music with stories from the book and beyond. The tour began January 18th. You can order the book and get a complete list of tour dates and venues, here.

The Grascals’ Jamie Johnson Talks New Music And Answers 11 Whacky Questions

The Grascals just can’t stop touching fans’ hearts with their music.

No sooner was their cover of “The Last Train to Clarksville” heralded as an instant classic that they turned their much-lauded bluegrass talents to The Grascals + Friends —Country Classics with a Bluegrass Spin. The thirteen tunes on the January release — that features duets with a bevy of guests including Charlie Daniels, Tom T. Hall, Dierks Bentley, Brad Paisley, Joe Nichols, Terri Clark and even actor Steven Seagal— are generally a merry jaunt through some much loved tunes including “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” and “Mr. Bojangles.”

The one notable exception is the emotionally charged “I Am Strong,” written by Grascals’ co-founder Jamie Johnson, his wife Susanne Mumpower-Johnson and fiddler Jenee Fleenor. The idea for the song came to Johnson on one visit to St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis. Although he’d visited many times in the past, a public display of children’s words after the preface “I Am” caught his eye. There in the middle of the board was one child’s words: “I Am Strong.”

That’s what prompted Johnson to co-write the song that the Grascals recorded two times. One version is with the Grascals and many of the guest artists on the record. The second version is with the Grascals and their long-time mentor Dolly Parton. Some proceeds from the song and album—available through Cracker Barrel—benefit the hospital.

“We want to get the message out as far as we can,” said Johnson speaking of the work done at St. Jude’s. “Everybody has been touched by cancer in some form or fashion. When we told [the guest artists] what we were doing to raise money for St. Jude’s, everyone was on board. It was amazing.”

Although country legend Charlie Daniels spends countless hours each year working for charity, he said the chance to work on the album and song were something he would not miss.

“It was a joy to do it,” said Charlie Daniels. “They are a very talented band…I have been involved with St. Jude’s for a long time—I call it the ‘Miracle on the Mississippi’—and I [want] the world to know more about what goes on there.”

So just who is the co-founder of the Grascals who writes such powerful songs? OurStage lured Johnson away from his busy schedule for a few minutes to ask him eleven off-the-wall but hopefully insightful questions that’ll tell us more about him. Here’s some of what he said:

OS: What’s the best piece of advice given to you that you’ve actually followed?

JJ: Easy. Dolly Parton’s: Give the fans every bit of your heart and they will give theirs back to you.

OS: What was the first concert you ever attended.

JJ: The first concert I ever saw was Garth Brooks (who opened for Ronnie Milsap). This was before I knew about country music except the old stuff. I looked at my roommate when Garth was jumping around and said ‘That guy is gonna amount to nothing.’ There goes my prediction! I ended up being great friends with Garth and what an entertainer he is! But when I was young, I thought [an entertainer was] supposed to sit there and be like a bump on a log. That was in college though. The first real concert I ever attended was a bluegrass festival with the Osborne Brothers.

OS: What is the one thing that you always take with you on the road?

JJ: Pictures of my family, my little boy Cole Train and my wife.

OS: What is your guilty pleasure?

JJ: Michael Jackson, believe it or not. I was a huge Michael Jackson fan growing up. I have [the video This Is It] and the new album [Michael]. Not a lot of people know this but I did the Moonwalk and won the talent show when I was in the sixth grade. I can still do it. I’ve done it for the band.

OS: What is one thing that stresses you out?

JJ: The business side of the music. Everyone in America is going through a lot financially right now. Music is a lot of very hard work. The thing is, people normally see you on stage and think ‘Wow, they are living the life.’ You are because you are very grateful to play music for a living. But at the same time you have a mouths at home to feed. Trying to survive, especially in our genre of music, is difficult. We’re not full-blown country. It’s not like every theater in every state invites us to perform. But we’ll change that!

OS: Do you have a favorite perk that comes from being a celebrity?

JJ: Playing on the Grand Ole Opry. That is a perk as not every other celebrity gets to do that. Only a select handful of people get to do that. Also, getting to know all the famous people. I’m friends with Dolly Parton, Hank Williams Jr., Vince Gill, Brad Paisley, [the actor] Steven Seagal—they are my friends. That’s a huge perk. I still say playing the Grand Ole Opry over anything, though. I got to meet little Jimmie Dickens. Porter Wagoner, I was on stage the last time he played the Opry.

OS: Who is the most famous person’s cell number you have?

JJ: I don’t have Dolly’s personal. I have her office number. Dolly doesn’t really talk on the phone; she faxes. She won’t email. Personal numbers, I have Steven Seagal’s. And Hank [Williams] Jr., I have his, but he only texts.

OS: What old TV show do you miss the most?

JJ: I don’t have to miss it! The Andy Griffith Show—they still play it on [the cable television station] TVLand.

OS: Is there anyone in country music that you know isn’t honest with their fans?

JJ: Yes, there is. It’s in the bluegrass world. But not many. Very, very few.

OS: What’s the strangest thing a fan ever said to you?

JJ: I get that all the time because of my Native American heritage. They think I’m Mexican or that I look like Wayne Newton. I always say ‘Wayne Newton. You’re kidding. He’s cool, I guess.’

OS: If you could spend a day with any other singer or songwriter who would it be and why?

JJ: Paul McCartney—I love him as a songwriter and I love The Beatles. He’s left handed and I think that’s cool. So am I. I like how he plays guitar.

Nora Jane Struthers Takes a Musical Stroll

Nora Jane Struthers may be a new solo Americana artist, but you’d never know it by the sound on her just-released, self-titled debut album.

With tour dates starting this month in Nashville, taking her from New York to California and back again, this well-kept Americana secret—whose sound is a swirl of folk, bluegrass and roots— will likely soon have her album on many people’s “heavy rotation” list.

“My sound isn’t bluegrass and it isn’t folk,” she said. “It’s a mix. It’s Americana.”

Her brand of Americana comes from a deep well of knowledge including a graduate education in English, and experience as a high school English teacher. When Struthers led her class through the works of Jane Austen, Shakespeare and other classics, she was struck by how many of the themes mirrored the story telling by her favorite artists including Doc Waston and the Louvin Brothers. She used that knowledge to fine tune her own songwriting.

Of course, Struthers is relatively new in the Nashville music scene but she’s something of a music veteran. Born in Virginia and raised in New Jersey, she spent her childhood singing with her father, Alan,  a well-known figure on the Minneapolis bluegrass scene. She and her dad also went to Fiddlers’ conventions which were among the events that inspired them to form the Dirt Road Sweetheart and cut the album I Heard the Bluebirds Sing.

“It’s a really honest record,” Struthers said. “It’s just my dad playing banjo and singing and me playing guitar and singing. We did it live with no overdubs. It’s bare bones. We wanted it to literally  be a record of what we sounded like at the time.”

That’s much like Struthers’ solo release that included the top-flight musicians.

“I wanted songs that would go well together and did not sound exactly alike,” she said. “I want diversity….Brett [secured] my dream team of players and they made it happen. The musicians are the ones who made it magic.”

Although some would argue that was Struthers’ songs and vocals that drive the record, her point is well taken. The album sets a tone that reflects Struthers’ creative vision.

“I am there [in concert to be] entertaining and charming. If you bring it back to reality too much or make negative remarks, that really takes away from the most beautiful part of seeing the show,” she said. “I appreciate music and shows…that harken back to a different era of entertainment.”

Editor 2010 Picks: Heavy Rotation Playlist

In 2010 hundreds of thousands of artists entered our monthly competitions, and millions of music lovers ranked their favorite tracks, positioning the Top 100 songs across thirty or more music charts every month. As a proud connoisseur of independent music, I’ve always made it a point to turn my family and friends on to new talents that “I” discover. With a talent pool as rich as the OurStage music charts, there is a never ending reservoir to tap into.

The “Lilith Local Talent Search” brought droves of female artists, “Your Next Record with Keith Urban” brought the country, Drake’s “Thank Me Later” Competition represented hip hop and promotions with Bon Jovi, John Mayer, Train and the Goo Goo Dolls rallied legions of pop and rock artists. While there were many winners who earned career-enhancing opportunities, editorial coverage and cash money, the front-runners only scratched the surface of artists whose talent need to be heard.

Press “Play” to hear songs that have been in heavy rotation throughout 2010 then continue reading to find out why these artists made this list.

-KB

Editor at Large and Director of Community & Content for OurStage.com

Heavy Rotation Artists:
Dirty Fuzz. Why? Cuz these UK rockers kick-it old school. Think Muddy Waters meet Zepplin.
The Story of Sound. Why? Hailing from Orange City, Florida, the quintet released their impressive debut EP earlier this year. Check out the killer breakdown in “The Razing”.
Transmit Now. Why? Provocative lyrics and you can dance to it.
Hotspur. Why? The cool kids at OurStage having been digging this DC based band for awhile, but this year the band won the New Music Seminar’s “Artist on The Verge” award and the industry took notice.
Sleeperstar. Why? Their epic Pop song “Disengage” ranked within OurStage’s Top 10 throughout 2010, and helped secure their opening slot for John Mayer.
Go Periscope. Why? Eighties inspired music for fist pumping at the disco. What’s not to love?
SOFIA. Why? Winners of the October’s 5k Grand Prize. ‘Nough said.
Dujeous. Why? Soul-fueled hip hop with guest vocals by the Sharon Jones!
IYEOKA. Why? Power-house vocals, infectious beats and uplifting lyrics raise the roof on “Millionaire”.
Tierra Heart. Why? Granddaughter of legendary jazz musician Julius Hemphill, this California natives gives Beyoncé a run for her money.
Chris Akinyemi. Why? Digging the R&B vibe this newcomer embraces on his debut EP, released this past summer.
Shane Gambles. Why? Country crooner Shane Gambles wets our taste for lovesick melodies on “Turn My Way”.
Katie Cole. Why? Cole’s  radio-ready “Lost Inside A Moment” feels like the pop crossover for an already established country star.
Ashlee Hewitt. Why? Love Taylor Swift but want to hear a song that isn’t overexposed? “About A Boy” will be music to your ears.
Grant Craig. Why? Enshrouded in mystery (read: one song uploaded to an otherwise empty profile on OurStage), Craig’s “Good To Be Alive” is reminiscent of Pete Yorn and catchy as hell.
Chris Pureka. Why? Because Pureka’s latest release How I Learned To See In The Dark is one of my favorite albums of the year. The internationally touring indie songstress has recently garnered press from Billboard and The New York Times.
Lindsay Mac. Why? Mac strums the cello like a guitar and is evocative of PJ Harvey, Morphine and Liz Phair.
Lady Lamb the Beekeeper. Why? Wide eyed, low-fi and wonderously quirky, Lady Lamb the Beekeeper (aka Aly Spaltro) has won the hearts of tastemakers including the Brooklyn Vegan.
The Organ Beats. Why? Noelle LeBlanc was signed to a major and toured internationally with her band Damone but traded it in when she found her life at a crossroads and her brother available to get behind the drum kit.
Pomplamoose. Why? Before their quirky covers of hits like “Single Ladies” went viral on YouTube, and before becoming the duo in the holiday Hyundai commercial, they were on OurStage and we were blogging about them.
Shayna Zaid And The Catch. Why? Because they are another OurStage artist currently licensed to a national ad campaign that we can’t get enough of.
Who’s on your heavy rotation list for 2010? Share your picks in the “Comments”.

Q&A With Jed Hilly, Executive Director of the Americana Music Association

Based in Nashville, Tennessee, the Americana Music Association is a nonprofit organization dedicated to celebrating and cultivating the community of Americana artists across the country. The AMA works around the clock to host events, participate in conferences, conduct research and keep fans in the know. They also know how to put on some incredible concerts, which have featured such influential artists as Lyle Lovett, Nanci Griffith and Buddy Miller. We had the chance to catch up with Executive Director Jed Hilly to hear all about the exciting events and initiatives that the AMA has done in the past, as well as their plans for 2011.

OS: As Executive Director, what is your role in the AMA?

JH: My job was designed to shed light on those artists who otherwise would not be heard. The association was created in 1999 and the group of 30 some-odd folks who became our founding council created the organization pretty much in response to the commercialization of radio in the ’90s and how artists like Steve Earle and Roseanne Cash, these great artists of integrity, were pretty much shut out from airplay. So that’s where it started from. We’re a trade association, but I feel like I work for the artist. The beautiful and wonderful thing that seems to be happening in the last couple years is that there’s a tremendous momentum in the Americana world. Some of these artists that have embraced the Americana community and style and genre of music, they don’t need me to shed any light on them at all…artists like Elvis Costello and John Mellencamp and Robert Plant, and yet, I’m thrilled that they’ve embraced this style of music because my job is to raise the tide for all ships. The participation and support of artists like that really helps.

OS: What are the advantages to joining the AMA?

JH: Well, I tell people that we are a non-profit with a very small staff…there’s actually only 2 full-time employees. I wish we were larger…people think we’re a much bigger organization. Because of the passion of the volunteer efforts that we receive, we put on a festival and conference each year. It’s an exceptional event and an amazing volunteer effort. About 150 people join forces with me and Dana Strong, our Director of Operations, and make it this wonderful community gathering. The benefits [of becoming a member]…you get a discount on our community gathering, we keep you updated, we’ve joined forces with an independent insurance plan, which is really helpful for artists who are always on the go. I would encourage people to support what we’re doing because I truly believe that we’re changing the landscape of the music business and it’s long overdue.

OS: The AMA recently announced the Top 100 Americana albums of the year. How is this list compiled?

The Belleville Outfit performing at the 2009 AMA Awards

JH: We have about 75 radio stations that are sanctioned certified reports, what they call a “radio panel.” When somebody says to me, “How do you define Americana?” This is our tool. Through these stations, they report spin counts—the number of times they play a particular song from a particular record. When you add them all up across 75 stations, your Top 40 chart is going to look different from every station, unlike mainstream stations, where it’s 10-20 songs played over the course of a week in every city in the country. This is unique, it’s a cross-section of 75 stations and specialty shows and the like, where we’re getting their definition of what Americana is. As spin counts accumulate, they bubble up. When you look at that over the course of a year, there could be a debate about some of the artists that could be at 700 or 800, but when you get to the Top 100, there’s your definition. There’s your landscape of the Americana world. Our radio stations are our heatseeker chart, if you will.

OS: Every year, you have a showcase at the Americana Music Festival & Conference. What do you look for in acts that submit applications for this opportunity?

JH: Similar to the way you’ve got 75 stations who are putting forth what they perceive to be the songs most worthy of airplay on their stations, so too do we have a committee that both surveys online and physical product that is submitted to us. They go through it, and I love what they do. Last year we had over 800 acts submit to play our event. The worst month of my year is when the 700 letters of regret, as we call them, go out, because we’re a small organization. We can only invite between 85 and 100 artists to be a part of this and it’s not necessarily the best of the best. Sometimes artists’ schedules change and they can’t come, or vice versa. But the bottom line, musically, is that Americana music— as we define it—is contemporary music that honors or derives from American roots music. And after that, a number of factors come into it. We’re grateful because the venues extend to us their homes, for free. This is our annual fundraiser. One of our venues, for example, is the world famous Station Inn in Nashville, which is the mecca of bluegrass. What you’ll find in that particular venue are more singer-songwriter, bluegrass-oriented performances. The room holds about 200. By contrast, we use the Cannery Ballroom, which holds over a thousand. That’s where we put people like Dirks Bentley, who played our event last year. So in the case of some of these artists who we’ll put in the Cannery, it’s because they can put a thousand people in there, and that’s how we make some money to survive.

OS: The AMA endorses Sound Healthcare. What can you tell us about this initiative?

JH: That’s our insurance plan. Sound Healthcare is an organization that has gone to a number of nonprofits, like the AMA, or the Country Music Association or the Folk Alliance. It’s a managed healthcare plan by consolidating these non-profit groups. An organization like the CMA has anywhere between 4,000 and 6,000 members. We have 1,000…but it’s great that we are all a part of the same plan that gives us the volume and numbers to support getting reasonable rates by being part of it. I think it’s a brilliant idea that the folks over there put together and we’re thrilled to be part of it as a benefit from our membership.

Buddy Miller performing at the 2009 AMA Awards

OS: What is your most memorable experience from an Americana Honors and Awards Show?

JH: It’s hard for me, because I’m working that day! (laughs) I’m a ball of stress, hoping everything goes well and it always does. But I remember a few years ago when Lyle Lovett came. He showed up at rehearsal and the great Buddy Miller is our band leader. We generally ask people to tell us what song they’re going to do and Buddy puts together this incredible all-star band. Last year, the band featured Buddy on guitar, Don Was on the upright bass, Greg Leisz on steel…just an amazing array of musicianship supporting the artists who perform in our show. Lyle didn’t deliver a song to me or Buddy, and quite honestly, I’m not going to push Lyle Lovett to a decision! So Lyle shows up and Tony Brown, the great producer, happened to be in the house. So Lyle’s standing there and he says, “What should I do?” Tony says, “If I Had a Boat!” and Lyle says, “Does anybody have a copy of ‘If I Had a Boat’ for the band to hear?” And they pulled it up off iTunes and there was dead silence. One by one, Buddy and the members of the band start playing along with it, halfway through the song. The song finished and Buddy said, “Can we hear that one more time?” And they ran it through, and it was amazing. Just watching this level of artists and musicians listening, thinking, absorbing…and about 45 seconds into it, They went and did this first take, not ever having played the song together. It really was an extraordinary moment, sitting there for the next four and a half minutes, and they stopped and Lyle said, “I think you got it!” (laughs) It was truly wonderful and the essence, I think, of what the Americana community is all about. It’s about the enjoyment, the passion and the love of music and it’s about the talent level. Man, they nailed it.

OS: You’ve said that, “The typical Americana act is in the music business for the long haul.” Why do you think this is?

JH: I think they’re artists. I heard Emmylou Harris talk a couple years ago…she had been presented with one of those big platinum awards, commemorating 15 million records sold or something. She looked around at the room and said “I’m honored and privileged to be able to do this, but I’m honored and privileged to play with all of you. Whether we made money on this or not, I think we still would have done it, and I think we still would have been playing music, because that’s what we do.” Living in Nashville can be so hard. There’s that old bus station story about Nashville, where you show up with your guitar and you leave without it to get the bus ticket out. But that’s not this community. This community is about telling a story through song in the best way they know how. It’s not about selling records. To me, it’s the difference between fine art and commercial.

OS: What are some events that the AMA has coming up in 2011?

JH: We will be back at SXSW and doing our annual showcase there. We’re thrilled that the organizers of that great event give us a pretty nice venue. We get to be at historic Antone’s every year and have had some wonderful performances. I’m not at liberty to say who will be performing this year, but what I can say is that it will be a cross-section of 5 or 6 artists, among them will be some newcomers and truly legendary figures from the American music world, which will be pretty special. We do a Bluebird series, which is a pretty nice little event. It’s a benefit. We’ve had artists from Nanci Griffith to Rodney Crowell put on shows for us. About 100 people fit in the room. We don’t make a ton of money on it but it’s a pretty magical event. We’re planning a little mini festival that will be a benefit to support the AMA that will take place at Blackberry Farm, which is truly one of the country’s finest inns. It’s a magnificent inn and spa and culinary experience.

The 12th Annual Americana Music Festival & Conference event dates are set for October 12th – October 15th 2011 in Nashville, TN. For more information on the AMA and to register for the conference, visit their official website!

Cortney Wills’ Top Pop Christmas Songs Of 2010

It’s that time again, when artists cover classic Christmas songs while others attempt to create a few of their own.

This year’s best picks come from an eclectic bunch, from rock stars to pop stars, Idol cast-offs to global icons.  Here are ten tracks worth downloading this season.

Mariah Carey: “Oh Santa”

Sixteen years after releasing the best-selling Christmas album of all time, Merry Christmas, it looks like the diva has done it again.  Her new release, Merry Christmas II You packs a serious seasonal punch with beautiful renditions of old classics along with some new ones too.  Her single, “Oh Santa” holds court with the holiday heartbreaker, “I Miss You Most (At Christmastime)”. The mom-to-be has lots to celebrate this year, and we’re glad she invited us along for the ride.

Jessica Simpson: “My Only Wish”

While Simpson’s new Christmas album, Happy Christmas, isn’t a best seller, this new track is fun, festive, and reminiscent of Jess’ better days.  It’s obvious she has maintained her vocal prowess and her knack for subtle sex appeal shows up even in a holiday song.  The album is Simpson’s first release from Ellen Degeneres’ ElevenEleven Records and features an unexpected R&B/ pop vibe, compliments of producers Tricky Stewart and The Dream.

Coldplay:  “Christmas Lights

Not so much a feel-good holiday song, Coldplay’s “Christmas Lights” is an unconventional Christmas tune that evokes a quiet sadness, spawned from watching everyone else be merry and cheerful.  The band also released a music video for the track, featuring Chris Martin and pals rockin’ out in front of a paper moon stage.

Katherine McPhee: “It’s Not Christmas Without You”

The dough-eyed Idol alum hit the mark with her new album, Christmas Is The Time (To Say I Love You). Full of silky-smooth, jazz-tinged renditions of old favorites like “Jingle Bells” and “O’ Holy Night” she offers an effortless update to the tunes. Her single, “It’s Not Christmas Without You,” may very well become a new holiday classic for those who are young and in love over the holidays.

Rihanna: “A Child Is Born”

The sexy siren released this track on Now That’s What I Call Christmas! (Volume 4) and stamped the Christian classic with her island style.  The bouncing beat and reggae/pop sound offer a refreshing twist to the old favorite.

Train: “Shake Up Christmas”

The “Soul Sister” singers cooked up this ditty for Coca-Cola’s holiday campaign.  In an effort to boost spirits in tough economic times, the upbeat track reminds us what this time is all about; not the cash we spend, but the company we keep and the happiness we feel.

Kelly Rowland: “Wonderful Christmastime”

Kelly’s cover of Paul McCartney’s classic receives an R&B makeover from the former child of destiny. Featured on the Now That’s What I Call Christmas, (Volume 4) compilation, Rowland’s performance is fun, fresh, and certainly enough to revive the track for a new generation.

Hurts: “All I Want For Christmas Is New Year’s Day”

If you’re heartbroken for the holidays this year, Hurts got you covered.  The British-born duo created a Christmas carol that acknowledges how painful the holidays can be when you’re longing for a loved one at Christmastime.  While it may not be the most festive track on the list, it’s real as can be for so many of us.

Kara DioGuardi & Jason Reeves: “New York in Wintertime”

The former American Idol judge and prolific songwriter, Kara DioGuardi has teamed up with Jason Reeves for a truly unique take on Christmas in the city.  While we expected DioGuardi to pen great lyrics, it was her standout vocal performance that was the real surprise.  We can’t help but wonder if the track, featured on the holiday compilation, Gift Wrapped II: Snowed In, will lead to an album from the unlikely duo.

Lady Antebellum: “On This Winter’s Night”

The country crooners lend their signature style to holiday classics in their six-track holiday album, A Merry Little Christmas.  The single, “On This Winter’s Night” is the only original track they recorded, and it’s on its way to becoming a family favorite.  Featuring a child’s chorus in the background, the ballad strikes a perfect balance of reverence and gratitude, two sentiments many of us can appreciate this year.

By Cortney Wills

Cortney Wills is a pop culture journalist born and raised in Los Angeles, California. She has lived in LA, Chicago and NYC and enjoys all things entertainment.

Little Big Town Celebrates Grammy Nomination

Little Big Town couldn’t help but bubble with enthusiasm over their just-announced GRAMMY nomination for Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group with vocals for their song “Little White Church” on their latest album The Reason Why.

When the group joined noted Nashville songwriters Bob DiPiero (whose many hit songs include “Southern Voice” by Tim McGraw), Brett James (who penned “Jesus Take the Wheel” by Carrie Underwood) and Lori McKenna (the writer of “Stealing Kisses” by Faith Hill) for a recent Country Music Association (CMA) “Songwriters Series” in Washington, DC, Karen Fairchild and Kimberly Schlapman asked the others if they had been nominated.

“See, just because they were nominated they think we all were,” laughed DiPiero good naturedly as the other writers at the December 5th Library of Congress event chimed in and Little Big Town’s other members—Philip Sweet and Jimi Westbrook— beamed with pride.

As fans know, Fairchild and Schlapman began to develop the song after listening to some classic country songs by Patty Loveless and Del McCoury. After hearing the “call and answer” songs and looking through the notebooks where they jot down words and phrases that catch their ears, “Little White Church” began to form.

But as overjoyed as the quartet is about the GRAMMY nomination, they are concerned too, because they want fans to explore the other songs on the album.

“‘Little White Church’ was such a great kick off to that record, but there’s so much more to that album,” said Fairchild. “‘Kiss Goodbye’ [the just-released single written by Hillary Lindsey, Gordie Sampson and Steve McEwan] is a completely different layer and we want fans to hear that.”

The members of Little Big Town thought so highly of  the song, that they yanked another song they planned for the album so they could record it.

“Jimi listened to it and then he ran upstairs and said ‘Listen to this.’ That’s all he said,” said Fairchild of her husband’s reaction to the song one of their representatives told them she “couldn’t get out of her head.” “It was really, really late so we emailed (Schlapman and Sweet) and said, “Listen to this and let us know what you think.’”

By the next day the band recorded the song.

“We have never done a big power ballad,” said Fairchild “This one gets really big and soaring and dramatic. So we cut it and we loved it and we said this should be [the] next [single]. It’s different for us and it’s something the fans will relate to, letting go of things in our lives.”

The song “Shut Up Train,” is another don’t miss song, said Sweet, because it shows the group musically reaching in new directions.

“It’s a very powerful moment,” he said of the recording of the song written by Luke Robert Laird, Hillary Lindsey and Christopher G Tompkins. “It’s a more sparse track. Karen sings the song and it’s really broken down and simple. The whole vibe from the track came off perfectly.”

Suffice to say the band will watch message boards and Twitters to find out what fans think. That was the case just recently when a fan commented that the song “Lean Into It,” which the band wrote with their producer Wayne Kirkpatrick, had gotten her through a very rough day.

“I thought, man, that is why you write songs…for that reaction,” said Fairchild.

Earlier this year, the group witnessed a similar reaction by thousands when they played the song during a Biloxi, Mississippi concert soon after the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. As the members of Little Big Town sang, they watched fans crying, holding hands and swaying to the music.

“That was powerful,” said Schlapman. “I will never forget that night.”

And the band mates says they are working to be sure that their future songs are just as moving to fans.

“We are always striving to better ourselves,” said Westbrook. “For us, we are always looking to where we can go next. We always feel like we are just scratching the surface.”

By Nancy Dunham

Nancy Dunham writes about music for Country Weekly, AOL Music’s site The Boot, The Washington Post, Relix and other publications.

Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion Going Country in the New Year

Thanksgiving came a bit late this year to the home of Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion.

That’s because the husband-wife duo, who are ready to release their first alt country-rock album in February, spent the holiday in New York. The occasion was the famous Macy’s Day Parade where the duo and their 8-year-old daughter Olivia joined Sarah Lee’s dad, Arlo Guthrie, on a float. Crowds screamed and cheered as some of the folk legend’s well-known songs—including “Alice’s Restaurant,”—played.

“It was a little crazy and very exciting,” said Sarah Lee Guthrie who noted Olivia was the toast of her school because of the event. “We saw a lot of familiar faces in the crowd, people who have been coming to our concerts for years. It was a fun way…to celebrate family and share it with other people.”

Chances are good that there will be plenty more celebrations ahead especially after February 22nd when Sarah Lee and Johnny release their second full-length album Bright Examples.

Written primarily by Johnny with two songs by Sarah and another the result of a collaboration, the February 22nd release is a musical step away from the more folk-tinged sound fans have come to know. Although Sarah Lee is obviously the product of folk and honors her heritage, she grew up on rock, as did Johnny whose past musical groups include Queen Sarah Saturday.

“Neither of us came from folk background influences,” said Sarah Lee, whose grandfather was the legendary Woody Guthrie. “As a kid I loved rock ‘n’ roll and I love pop music. Johnny has always had a pop sense. We embraced a lot of folk….but that was to spring off like a diving board. We are entering a new realm of exciting music.”

And then some.

The album, produced by Vetiver’s Andy Cabic and Thom Monahan, known for his work with Vetiver, Devendra Banhart and Chris Robinson of the Black Crowes (who introduced Guthrie and Irion), are filled with an electric country rock sound that’s part psych-rock thanks to plenty of guitars, part alt country as evidenced by pedal steel guitar, part folk and pop—especially in the lyrics— and indie rock.

“I’m very rooted in the indie rock world,” said Irion. “This was definitely a move to create a sound scape for Sarah Lee’s and my vocals.”

Although U2′s The Edge was originally interested in producing the album, Irion thinks that Cabic and Monahan brought out points in the song that wouldn’t have come out with other producers.

“It’s a culmination of folk, indie rock, classic pop, alt country, all the worlds coming together,” he said. Some producers aren’t players and have a hard time and just stay on the knobs. With Sarah Lee and I, we need to sit down with guitars and play. It’s all very organic. I’m glad [it didn't work out with] The Edge. Tom Monahan has the best ears in business right now and made all kinds of great stuff.”

What really impressed Irion was that Tom didn’t back down on the sound he wanted from each song.

“I called him Captain Monahan because trying to change his mind, well, it wasn’t going to happen,” said Irion. “If I said, ‘I thought this one would rock,’ he’d say ‘No, you have to lay back. Then it will be better.’ [The music came about because of] a solid team that just all pulled together.”

That’s also obvious on Sarah Lee’s song “Butterflies” that the duo originally worked up as a bluegrass-flavored song. The producers changed elements of the song so it’s not what Irion describes as “ethereal and floating.”

“When we started doing it [his way] we really liked it,” said Irion. “It works and it makes the record come together. It makes the record a piece of art.”

For more about Sarah Lee and Johnny, check their site.

By Nancy Dunham

Nancy Dunham writes about music for Country Weekly, AOL Music’s site The Boot, The Washington Post, Relix and other publications.

The EP Effect: Ke$ha, Taylor Swift and Adam Lambert Mine Platinum In Under 10 Songs

They don’t make albums like they used to. These days, acts like Lady Gaga, Michael Bublé and  the cast of Glee are keeping it short and cheap with the EP— an “extended play” release that generally features under ten songs for under $10. Sure the full-length, full-price set is alive, if not altogether well, but lately the EP is giving it a run for its online retail money.

Leading the parade of EP-embracing pop stars is Sweden’s Robyn. Rather than following up her 2005 self-titled international breakthrough with a proper album, Robyn released three Body Talk EPs over the course of five months this year. Five tracks from each EP appear on her fifth full-length album, also called Body Talk, which hit stores on November 22nd. Twelve days earlier, another buzzed-about Swedish act, the Radio Dept. released their eleventh EP, Never Follow Suit.

Last year, fellow Canucks Justin Bieber and Drake both preceded their platinum 2010 full-length debuts with successful EPs, and Lady Gaga released The Fame Monster as an addendum to The Fame — a stand-alone set. Not only did it go platinum and launch three Top 10 singles on Billboard’s Hot 100, but it just received a Grammy nomination for Album of the Year (possibly an EP first). More recently, Usher’s Raymond v. Raymond EP spin-off, Versus, went Top 10, as did Michael Bublé’s Crazy Love offshot, Hollywood: The Deluxe EP. Ke$ha‘s Animal sequel and/or companion piece, Cannibal, came out on November 22nd,  followed by Adam Lambert‘s Acoustic Live! EP which arrived this week. Ke$ha’s Cannibal was the first of the recent flood of EPs to spawn a No. 1 single: the one-week wonder “We R Who We R.”

Of course, where there’s a music trend, Glee soon follows. There’ve been three Glee EPs so far, including Glee: The Music, The Power of Madonna, which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 album chart last spring.

This holiday season, Michael Bublé, Lady Antebellum and Taylor Swift all have Top 40 Christmas EPs, as does America’s Got Talent‘s 10-year-old opera-singing sensation Jackie Evancho. O Holy Night, her four-song EP (with a bonus DVD) entered Billboard’s album chart at No. 2, with first-week sales of 239,000, beating out new albums by multi-platinum superstars Rihanna, Josh Groban, Kid Rock, Rascal Flatts and Keith Urban. The lower retail list price ($8) helped, but EPs are cheaper to produce and usually aren’t marketed as heavily —or expensively — as regular albums, which in recent years have been producing significantly diminished returns on a still-costly investment. When the contents of EPs are mostly live tracks or leftovers from the studio sessions for the preceding album, artists and record labels can reap financial benefits from them with minimized overhead cost.

One already noticeable effect of the EP explosion is that full-length albums (in their original state, minus iTunes, deluxe-edition and Japanese-version extras) are getting shorter. Gone, for the most part, are those marathon seventeen-song sets, padded with filler just so fans can feel like they are getting a lof for their money. More pop stars are wrapping it up after ten to thirteen tracks. The official version of Susan Boyle’s The Gift features ten, while Rihanna’s Loud has eleven, which is the same length as Live It Up, the debut album from American Idol season-nine champ Lee DeWyze. Christina Aguilera and Cher’s Burlesque soundtrack is a concise ten songs (compared to Aguilera’s eighteen-track Bionic from June), as is Duffy’s just-released sophomore set, Endlessly.

Expect the lines between EPs and regular albums to become more blurred in the future, to the point where it’s hard to tell them apart. Fans may end up getting fewer songs per release, but for artists looking to make an easier buck while keeping new music on the radio (or elsewhere) less is going to be so much more.

By Jeremy Helligar

Jeremy Helligar is a former staff writer for People, Teen People, Us Weekly and Entertainment Weekly, who now writes about celebrities and pop culture from his couch in Buenos Aires.

 


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