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Your Country’s Right Here: Andrew Osenga Gets Spacey with Folk

Andrew Osenga has taken folk music where, arguably, no artist has gone before—space.

How else to explain the Nashville-based singer/songwriter/producer/musician Osenga’s “story” Leonard, The Lonely Astronaut, released on September 18. Perhaps the album’s theme was born of his love of science fiction and folk? Sure, rockers have explored this concept for years—David Bowie‘s 1973 album Aladdin Sane and Pink Floyd‘s 1973 album Dark Side of the Moon come immediately to mind—but it’s fairly new territory for folk. Credit Osenga’s eclectic taste in music for the turn.

“I was into grunge and then Peter Gabriel, Pink Floyd, all the shows on the big stages,” he said of his early influences. “The music was heartfelt but they could hide the fact that they were heartfelt by putting on a big show. When I moved to Nashville I became friends with folk artists and really got into Paul Simon, Emmylou Harris…..And I’m a huge literary nerd, too, so that helped make this.” Continue reading ‘Your Country’s Right Here: Andrew Osenga Gets Spacey with Folk’

Exclusive Q and A: Chris Carrabba Talks ‘Penny Black,’ Reuniting With Further Seems Forever

It’s been more than a decade since Further Seems Forever recorded new material with their original vocalist, Chris Carrabba. After Carrabba left the band in 2000 to pursue his solo project, Dashboard Confessional, his shoes were competently filled by subsequent vocalists Jason Gleason and Jon Bunch. Still, hardcore fans held out hope that someday the original FSF lineup would reunite and maybe even release new songs. To the elation of all of those who have waited a long decade, Carrabba and Further Seems Forever have finally joined forces once again and are set to release Penny Black, the band’s fourth album, this October. We caught up with Carrabba to talk about the band’s older material, the meaning behind the album title, and the enduring artists that he aspires to emulate.

OS: What influenced the band’s decision to release Penny Black on Rise Records?

Chris Carrabba: We had heard such great things about how the label was run and the people who run the label.  There are a lot of bands on the label that I like a lot and some of them are my friends and they all raved about their experience being on Rise.

OS: The Penny Black was an early British postage stamp from the 1840s. What connection does that idea have to the lyrical subject matter of the album?

CC: I was reading a book that was set in the mid 1800’s and a major theme in it was the tendency of those in power to be driven only by the desire to amass more power.  The stamp wasn’t mentioned in it but I connected them for some reason.  The stamp was a paradigm shift in communication.  It made the world smaller, like the Internet has done in our era, but it also gave those in power to spread that power wider and wider

Continue reading ‘Exclusive Q and A: Chris Carrabba Talks ‘Penny Black,’ Reuniting With Further Seems Forever’

Jesse Terry’s Planes, Trains, And Automobiles

Reading Jesse Terry’s list of tour dates from the past few years is a lot like looking at an actual calendar. Almost every single day corresponds with yet another gig, often in an area hundreds of miles away from the previous night’s show. A self-described “road warrior,” Terry has played his way across the contiguous United States multiple times by now, and the wanderlust evident in his musical travels plays a major role on his new LP Empty Seat on a Plane. Whether he’s describing Montana’s Bitterroot Valley or the dusty back roads of Tennessee, it’s clear that Terry isn’t merely going through the lyrical motions. He’s been to each place, soaked up its essence, and reproduced it in the form of gorgeously sung folk songs. Even if he isn’t doing the traveling himself, Terry is busy imagining the voyages of others to far-away locales like Portugal, Spain, or France. He envisions cars, trains, and planes carrying people off to the bright new lives they want, or at least think they want.

That is not to say that Terry doesn’t maintain a strong sense of groundedness amidst his travels. Woven throughout the various narratives on Empty Seat on a Plane is an enduring sense of Americana. In Terry’s lyrics, home is less a single place than a group of ideas and images (ballparks, carnival rides, and wide-open roads) that conjure the unified feeling of America as one expansive home. Specific nods to gospel, funk, and blues instrumentally achieve a similar effect, compressing America’s vast musical history into portable tuneful mementos that give listeners a coherent sense of place no matter where they might be. Never crowded or ostentatious, Terry’s arrangements give each instrument just enough space to make these musical influences clear, and his soothing vocal delivery is calming without being sleep–inducing, which is a rare feat.  While Terry has been accurately compared to the likes of Ryan Adams and James Taylor, Empty Seat on a Plane shows that now he may be well on the way to becoming a reference point for other up-and-coming singer-songwriters himself.

The Re-Launching of Fiona Apple

Here we go again again! Another online article where the subject is Fiona Apple. For the last few weeks, it seems, it’s been virtually impossible to turn on the computer without stumbling across a new headline about the 34-year-old singer-songwriter. I can’t think of any other musical celebrity this side of Kanye West who, in recent memory, has gotten quite so much mileage out of being both ridiculously talented and endlessly quotable.

And Apple doesn’t even tweet (yet)—or date a reality TV star!

Her musical gift and her gift of gab pretty much ensured that the June 19 release of her fourth album, The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do, would arrive with more fanfare than the expected critical gushing. In fact, after one week of release, the new set sold 72,000 copies, good enough for a No. 3 debut on Billboard’s Top 200 album chart, immediately making The Idler Wheel… the highest-charting album of Apple’s career.

That would be chump change in the coffers of Adele or Lady Gaga, but considering that Apple released her last album, Extraordinary Machine, way back in 2005, before the world had heard of Adele, Gaga, or Katy Perry, and the year in which Rihanna released her debut album, it’s as extraordinary as one-half of her last album title.

Continue reading ‘The Re-Launching of Fiona Apple’

Riffs, Rants & Rumors: Sifting Through The Paul Simon Story

There was a lot of action in the Paul Simon world in 2011. In and of itself, that statement might not automatically signify much, since Simon’s album releases tend to be few and far between, and he’s generally more inclined to labor lovingly over his work than to flood the marketplace in a flurry of activity. Nevertheless, the past year has seen a steady flow of Simon-centered news regarding projects brand new, archival and curatorial. It all began with a bang back in April, when Simon unleashed his latest batch of songs, So Beautiful Or So What, his first new album in five years. These days, no one expects Simon’s albums—or anyone else’s, for that matter to—be doing Graceland-like business, so it was no huge shock when the album’s aesthetic excellence wasn’t quite matched by its (nonetheless respectable) sales figures. The important thing was that we had Paul Simon back in our collective bosom; here he was playing the snaky, sardonic “Rewrite” on late-night TV, there he was taking his band out on the road to greet audiences with Simon songs old and new. All along, it was lost on few pundits that the quintessential boomer troubadour, who mused “How terribly strange to be 70″ back in 1968 would be achieving septuagenarian status this very October.

Whether the impetus was the big birthday, the new album or simply a certain shift in the psycho-sonic continuum, the folks at Sony decided that no one would leave 2011without the opportunity to immerse themselves in Simon’s solo catalog, kicking off an ambitious reissue campaign of deluxe re-releases encompassing everything from Simon’s self-titled 1972 album through 1990′s Brazilian-flavored Rhythm of the Saints. To top it all off, there’s also the Songwriter anthology, a double-CD affair whose first disc is occupied mostly by hits and signature songs, but whose second half focuses on the less-traveled pathways in the Simon catalog, concentrating on tunes that are mostly known only to hardcore Simon mavens.

Continue reading ‘Riffs, Rants & Rumors: Sifting Through The Paul Simon Story’

Ernie Ball Winner Lee Coulter Sits Down For A Chat

In June, Ernie Ball offered to pick up the tab for a year’s supply of strings and accessories for one artist from the Singer-Songwriter (Male) Channel.  Aussie transplant Lee Coulter knocked the fans and judges off their chairs with his song “Photograph”, and ultimately claimed the prize. Coulter weaves mellow folk with funk grooves and pop hooks for an irresistible blend of So-Cal gold—perfect for fans of Jack Johnson, John Mayer and Jason Mraz. We recently caught up with Coulter to find out a little more about his music, influences and more. Check it out!

OS: Who would you list as your favorite songwriters and primary influences?

LC: Hands down, Paul Simon is my favorite. He writes everyman songs without being cliché. And I’m still trying to figure out how. Newer influences include fellow Aussie, Butterfly Boucher. Her debut album Flutterby is brilliant. I highly recommend it.

OS: As a guitarist, who has inspired you the most?

LC: I never claim to be a “guitarist” as I play to write and perform relatively simple songs. But I love the rhythms of Paul Simon and Jack Johnson, and I suppose they are who I’ve come to most closely emulate.

OS: You use the term “Funkacana” to describe your sound. Tell us about how you came to define it.

LC: I’m drawn to intellectually stimulating music, namely folk and some adult contemporary, but when it comes down to it, I also like to move… especially to funk and hip hop. So “Funkacana” is a blend of the acoustic sound that moves my soul and the grooves that move my feet.

OS: It’s been seven years since you’ve moved stateside—what do you think the major differences are between the music scenes in Australia and the US?

LC: I honestly wasn’t much a part of the scene in Australia as I only started playing live when I moved here. But it seems like there are more places to play here and more people to play to. So that’s a good thing.

OS: How does it feel to cross guitar strings off the shopping list for an entire year?

LC: Sweet! Now I can change strings when I should instead of when I must.

OS: If you got stuck in an elevator with the world’s biggest label executive, what would you say?

LC: I’m not sure anymore. I believe I’ve learned that the whole thing is a prime example of a crapshoot. If someone wants to sign me, they’ll make an offer. If they don’t, I’ll continue to figure it out on my own.

OS: What do you think are some of the most important online tools for rising artists to use?

LC: Obviously using iTunes or another site to sell your product. Other than that, I’ve seen it help to have a regular presence online like giving something fans and potential fans to look at (live or behind-the-scenes videos, blogs, free MP3s etc) on a weekly basis or at least a few times a month. Then post them on all the networking sites. I’m still learning as I go.

OS: Any shout-outs you’d like to make or fans to thank?

LC: Just to anyone who has helped me or continues to support what I do. Fellow musicians, family, friends, backing band members and fans. They keep me going when it doesn’t always seem to be the completely logical conclusion.  And thanks to OurStage and Ernie Ball for creating an avenue to be heard.

Riffs, Rants & Rumours: How 2011 Is Shaping Up So Far

Okay, so early July may not mark the precise midpoint of the year, but it’s pretty damn close, and when you factor in for time lost lolling about in summer-vacation mode on and around Independence Day weekend, hell, it’s practically still June. In other words, it’s as good a time as any for a mid-year assessment of the aural delights that 2011 has offered us up to now. By the time the rest of the year has come and gone, and a final accounting is demanded in order to determine which releases truly reigned supreme, many of these worthy offerings will be tragically sacrificed on the bloody altar of elimination’s process. Hopefully, though, a few as-yet-unexpected items will also swoop in from out of nowhere, knocking our socks off, and ascending to their own undeniable place in the 2011 pantheon of monumental musical statements. For now, here’s a quick rundown of some of the desperately needed reasons to be cheerful that presented themselves over the last six or seven months.

NEW FACES

Neville Skelly – Poet and the Dreamer

British baritone Skelly was previously a swing-style crooner, but he has completely reinvented himself here with help from his cousins in The Coral, who play, produce and co-write what might have amounted to a secret Coral album with a different singer if not for Neville’s commanding presence and way with covers of everyone from Dion to Jackson C. Frank.

Amor de Dias – Street of the Love of Days

The lead singers for The Clientele and Pipas put their heads together and came up with a dreamy, breezy sound that mixes the former’s hazy psych-pop tendencies with the latter’s Astrud Gilberto-fronting-Velocity Girl feel.

Foxtails Brigade – The Bread and the Bait

Chamber-folk with poppy trappings—or is it vice-versa—that’s bound to live or die by Laura Weinbach’s quirky, artful songwriting. It lives, and then some.

Julianna Barwick – The Magic Place

“Hey, you got your ambient soundscapes in my ethereal, post-Cocteau Twins song stylings!”

About Group – Start and Complete

Don’t even try telling us you expected a summit meeting between members of Hot Chip, This Heat and Springheel Jack to sound like a lost Robert Wyatt album.

SECOND TIME AROUND

Battles – Gloss Drop

Post-rock for a new generation, doing just fine after the departure of mainman Tyondai Braxton, thank you very much.

Tune-Yards – WHOKILL

If you haven’t already found plenty of plaudits floating around for this one, you’ve probably got a spotty Internet connection or something. Believe the hype.

Burlap to Cashmere – Burlap to Cashmere

Over a decade ago, these guys were Christian folk-rockers with a torrid touch of Gypsy Kings. Things happened. Now they’re back as shockingly subtle purveyors of Paul Simon-esque tunes with a spectral sheen.

White Fence – Is Growing Faith

This is probably what the ‘60s would sound like inside Syd Barrett’s head if he were still alive today.

OLD GUARD

Gregg Allman – Low Country Blues

Who expected to end up loving a Gregg Allman album of blues covers in 2011? Hands? Anyone? Bueller?

Shriekback – Life In The Loading Bay

All right, so technically this is a 2010 release, but come on—it came out at the ass-end of the year, on December 14—what possible chance did it have of getting the fair shake it deserved? It never even got a US release. Nevertheless, these reconstituted ‘80s new wavers have matured remarkably well, and we’re counting this as one of 2011’s most addictive items.

The Decemberists – The King Is Dead

After all the literary inventions and Jethro Tull riffs were exhausted, who guessed that all they ever wanted was to be R.E.M.?

SONGSMITHS

Paul Simon – So Beautiful Or So What

The man who penned the line “How terribly strange to be 70” over four decades ago achieves septuagenarian status this year, and only a fool would count him out of the game now.

Richard X. Heyman – Tiers & Other Stories

He’s been kicking around as a power-pop hero for a good long while, but he not only shows his ambitions here by tackling a double-length batch of epic orchestral-pop ballads, he justifies them, with a touch of something like genius flickering in between the lines.

Jesse Sykes & The Sweet Hereafter – Marble Son

Ever wondered what Marianne Faithfull might sound like backed by Jerry Garcia? Neither did we, but this dusty desert rock rings some sweetly psychedelic chimes nonetheless.

Ward White – Done With The Talking Cure

When Elvis Costello was still an enfant terrible, he brazenly declared that guilt and revenge were his main motivations. Ward White doesn’t need to broadcast such inspirations, they’re right there in songs whose expert craft stands up alongside El’s, delivered in a voice EC could only ever dream about.

Tim Robinson – Helena’s Radio

John Prine. Greg Brown. Joe Henry. If these names mean nothing to you, go out and educate yourself immediately. Then come back and we’ll talk. If they get your ears all atremble, however, you’ll make a natural convert to the cult of this powerfully poetic Empire State balladeer.

THE POP LIFE

Peter Bjorn and John – Gimme Some

Armed with more hooks than a Peter Pan convention, these guys set for themselves the impossible task of finding a new way to make guitar, bass, and drums percolate in an alt-pop context. Whether or not they literally succeed, the results sure do resonate.

The Crookes – Chasing After Ghosts

These young Brits will either send your mind spinning back to the UK guitar-pop glory days of The Housemartins, Mighty Lemondrops, Bluebells, et al, or get you started on an urgent exploratory mission through the archives of the aforementioned acts.

Buddy Love – Buddy Love

They were short-lived new wave-era power-poppers, but now they’re reunited elder statesmen of the pure, powerful pop hook, strikingly unaffected by the ravages of time and armed with songs to die—or kill—for, like the alarmingly infectious single “Crying Time.”

FROM THE VAULTS

The Beau Brummels – Bradley’s Barn

This deluxe reissue of the 1968 cult classic not only revisits an underappreciated piece of early country-rock history, it adds an overwhelming array of tantalizing bonus material, and arrives in a handsomely illustrated and annotated hardcover book that makes the whole package an objet d’art on its own terms.

Neil Young/The International Harvesters – A Treasure

These 1985 live cuts might find Neil burning down the bunkhouse with the hotshot band he assembled for his contemporaneous country album, Old Ways, but it visits only two songs from that record, along with a bunch of unrecorded gems and a killer reinterpretation of Young’s Buffalo Springfield classic, “Flying on the Ground Is Wrong.”

The Hollies – The Clarke, Hicks & Nash Years

They may not have the same iconic place in history as The Beatles or The Kinks but they boasted harmonies on a par with the former and songcraft that stood up easily alongside the latter. This box boasts every track from their most fertile period—not a bad deal.

Sound And Vision: Top 40 Show Tunes — Seven Music Icons Whose Songs Should Rock Broadway

Though I’ll probably never be a huge fan of the Broadway musical, occasionally, they rock. Such has been the case for Great White Way song-and-dance productions based on the music of the Who, Bee Gees, ABBA, Queen, Billy Joel, Dolly Parton, Green Day and Elton John (twice). But poor Paul Simon. He flopped hard—and embarrassingly—with The Capeman in 1998. The moral of this particular west side story? When launching expensive stage musicals, it pays creative and/or commercial dividends for rock and pop stars to fall back on their classics—or in the case of John’s Aida, a classic opera—for inspiration.

And then there’s U2. The normal rules of art and commerce have never applied to Ireland’s greatest musical export. Although Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, with original music and lyrics by U2 frontman Bono and guitarist The Edge, has been dogged by bad buzz, negative reviews (for the staging, if not the music) and behind-the-scenes snafus, it’s been a box-office success since debuting in previews last November, more than six months in advance of its official June 14 opening.

Whether their Spidey show tunes will spin their web for months or years remains to be seen, but it’s hard not to wish that Bono and The Edge had adapted their band’s enduring catalog for a musical instead. If they had to take Manhattan, why not do it using songs we know and love from The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby, two of its best and most successful albums, as inspiration rather than a superhero human-arachnid mutation (who’ll be returning to the big screen shortly in the form of The Social Network‘s Andrew Garfield)?

Maybe someday. In the meantime, here are some other iconic artists who ought to be waiting in the wings with their own spotlight musical. (Sorry, no Beatles—I’ve heard enough bad covers of the Fab Four’s catalog, including those from the 1978 film Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, to last several lifetimes!)

David Bowie: Maybe it’s the fact that I’ve been waiting so long for new music from Bowie. Or that my favorite Bowie song inspired the name of this very column. But more likely, it’s all about Space Oddity, a  rock & roll classic which tells a story that conceivably could be stretched out into a two-hour musical format and rounded out with many other Bowie hits. His ’70s output was more or less created to be performed onstage, and his theatrical music and visual lyrics could so easily translate to the rock-opera format. Meanwhile, Major Tom, Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane and The Thin White Duke—parts Bowie played to perfection on record and in concert—are star-making roles if ever there were four of them.

Burt Bacharach and Hal David: “Walk on By.” “Message to Michael.” “Wishin’ and Hopin’.” “I Say a Little Prayer.” “(They Long to Be) Close to You.” Put these Bacharach/David compositions together—adding “Do You Know the Way to San Jose,” “(There’s) Always Something There to Remind Me,” “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” and many more—and what have you got? A Broadway miracle that’ll have more fans singing along than any musical since Mamma Mia!.

Loretta Lynn: It’s a mystery why no one has thought to revive Coal Miner’s Daughter on Broadway. The 1980 film has got the music, the story and the Oscar pedigree. But why stop with Loretta Lynn when you can add the music of Tammy Wynette and Patsy Cline and stage Honky Tonk Angels, all about lives and loves in a ten-cent town?

Johnny Cash: No need to revisit Walk the Line just yet. The hero of Ring of Fire (which I always thought would have been a better title for the film since it was co-written by June Carter Cash about her and Johnny, while Cash’s first wife inspired him to write “I Walk the Line”) could be a man in black by another name. Lyrically, the best of Johnny Cash already hits on all the stages of an extraordinary life, from outcast (“A Boy Named Sue,” which was actually written by Shel Silverstein and not Cash) to outlaw (“Folsom Prison Blues”) to would-be saint (“Walk the Line”) to corpse (“Don’t Take Your Guns to Town”).

The Eagles: Picture this: Hotel California, featuring the Eagles signature title song plus “Desperado,” “Lying Eyes,” “Take It to the Limit,” “New Kid in Town” and all of those other ’70s country-rock classics. If there’s gonna be a heartache tonight (or any other night), I can’t think of a better musical cure.

Fleetwood Mac: Because the band deserves so much better than Glee‘s very special “Rumours” episode, which, criminally, left out “You Make Lovin’ Fun” and “Gold Dust Woman.”

Eminem: Speaking of outlaws, it’s probably just a matter of time before the ’80s musical outlaw movement known as rap invades Broadway just as it did Middle America in the ’90s. I can’t think of a rapping storyteller whose songs are more deserving of the full-on stage treatment than the guy who brought us “Stan,” “’97 Bonnie & Clyde” and “Love the Way You Lie.” If 8 Mile could win an Oscar, its Tony Award possibilities as a Broadway musical are probably close to endless.

Whose music would you like to experience on Broadway?

Riffs, Rants & Rumors: Burlap To Cashmere Bounces Back

It’s not insignificant that Burlap to Cashmere’s second album is self-titled. It’s usually a band’s debut album that bears this distinction, but in many ways, this seems like the maiden voyage of a new band. For one thing, thirteen years separate this release from Burlap to Cashmere’s debut album, Anybody Out There, and while three key members—singer/songwriter Steven Delopoulos, guitarist John Philippidis and drummer Theodore Pagano—are back on board, it’s still a new lineup, employing its own singular sonic methods.

Delopoulos started the band in the mid ‘90s as a school project for his theater program at New York City’s Marymount College, with his cousin Philippidis. By the time they graduated to the New York club scene they were a full-fledged band, eventually incorporating five other players, including Pagano. On their 1998 A&M debut, Burlap to Cashmere blended acoustic-oriented folk-rock, international influences and lyrics that endeared them to the Christian rock community, ultimately earning a Dove Award (the CCM world’s GRAMMY equivalent). According to Delopolous, though, his influences were strictly secular, centered on “folk music from Woody Guthrie all the way to Ani DiFranco.” Explaining BTC’s mix of singer/songwriter sounds and intense Mediterranean rhythms, he recalls, “My cousin Johnny and I come from a Greek household. That’s all we were taught to listen to, those rhythms were all we knew…once I heard American folk-pop music, like Paul Simon, Cat Stevens, for example, I unconsciously felt free to explore.”

But even though Burlap to Cashmere worked up a mighty head of steam in their initial incarnation, a combination of factors Delopolous describes as “fatigue and youth” brought an end to the band. Delopolous released a solo album, Philippidis played with a number of other artists and BTC receded into the drifts of history.

Cut to the present day —a reconstituted Burlap to Cashmere hunkers down to craft a batch of new tracks with hotshot producer Mitchell Froom (Elvis Costello, Suzanne Vega, Los Lobos) for Sony subsidiary Jive Records, scaling down their size, their sound, and the spiritual fervor of their lyrics. “Everything is different now,” reckons Delopoulos. “Then we were a seven-piece band, now we are a five-piece. It was a circus back then, but a good one. We were like kids playing fast and loud. Hyper, emotional…just pure, fantastic chaos. Now we are less, and the music is softer.” On the lack of a specific agenda in his songwriting, Delopoulos says, “Growing up listening to Dylan, Van Morrison, Cat Stevens…I never got the feeling that they were trying to change anyone. I feel the same way…I believe Oscar Wilde said, ‘All art is quite useless.’ That said, true spirituality has nothing to do with guitars and lyrics, true art is a personal transcendence.”

In the quest for that transcendence, the smaller, softer Burlap to Cashmere has created an album full of subtle, harmonically sophisticated songs that mostly bear a contemplative, low-key feel, reminiscent of Paul Simon’s pre-global period. “I just get turned off when noise overrules content,” comments Delopoulos. Nevertheless, the guys still know how to pull a churning, infectious rocker out of their collective back pocket when they want to. Just try getting the insistent “Build a Wall” out of your head after even a single hearing.

There are number of factors that brought about this unexpected second wind for the band. The most dramatic was a horrible 2005 incident where Philippides was almost killed in a road-rage conflict. “That brought us closer together as family,” says Delopoulos. “Another [factor] is, plain and simple, we are not good at having other trades for an income. We’re just not good at anything else. Another big factor was our drummer, Theodore Pagano reentering the picture.” Delopoulos also gives a lot of credit for helping to keep the band’s flame burning to the band’s manager, Tom Lewis. “Without him, I’m not really sure what would become of us,” he remarks.

But don’t let the more pragmatic side of Delopoulos’s reasons for the reunion fool you. After all, there are temp services and convenience-store counters from San Diego to Staten Island staffed by musicians with no other skills. Burlap to Cashmere aren’t merely a bunch of careerists desperate to milk their cash cow anew (Anybody Out There did, after all, sell nearly half a million copies). They’re plainly driven by deeper motivations, and their work is powered by a combination of passion and craft that can’t be simulated or manufactured. In other words, they’re the real thing.

Riffs, Rants & Rumors: When Rockers Go Bluegrass

It seems there’s a worrying trend these days wherein more and more veteran rockers seem to be turning to bluegrass. We’re using the term “turning to bluegrass” here in the interest of fairness, since the more popular “going bluegrass” bears too much pejorative potential, what with its evocations of “going ballistic,” “going rogue” or even “going postal.” At least for the moment, we’re trying our hardest to keep an open mind about this phenomenon, so bear with us on this.

The rock-to-bluegrass move isn’t a new idea—in terms of high-profile artists, you can trace it back at least as far as David Lee “I’ll try anything once” Roth, who may have had mandolin-shaped dollar signs dancing before his eyes ever since the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack made the mainstream start paying attention. Diamond Dave sang on a back-porch version of “Jump” for the Van Halen bluegrass tribute album Strummin’ With the Devil back in 2006. With the ice thus broken, others began following in Diamond Dave’s footsteps, even though it’s unlikely they were emboldened by the aforementioned VH reinvention itself. The following year, not only did patron saint of punk and last surviving (original) Ramones member Tommy Erdelyi unleash the self-titled debut album of his bluegrass duo Uncle Monk, the original shirtless wonder of stadium rock, Robert Plant himself, delivered Raising Sand in collaboration with Alison Krauss. Of course, in Plant’s case, the aesthetic and commercial rewards for this venture turned out to be enormous, and that probably proved to be the real turning point for this whole thing.

Suddenly, it seems as though we’re inundated with warhorses from the rocking side of the fence willing to dip a toe— if not an entire foot—into the Appalachian stream ofbluegrass music. To wit: some guy named Paul McCartney takes a vocal turn on Steve Martin’s new bluegrass outing (bluegrass-bound actors are a topic for a whole other column) Rare Bird Alert, singing on the Martin-penned “Best Love.” Guitar man Brian Setzer’s latest release, Setzer Goes Instru-MENTAL!, finds the former Stray Cat picking up a storm on the old Earl Scruggs tune “Earl’s Breakdown.” Elvis Costello’s recent acoustic, country-tinged National Ransom was cut in Nashville with a raft of hotshot bluegrass cats. Even the ultimate urbanite, Paul Simon, has collaborated with one of the biggest acts in contemporary bluegrass, Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, on the former’s upcoming So Beautiful Or So What.

Okay, so most of these are relatively minor dalliances in the high-lonesome hinterlands—guest-spots, one-offs and the like. Perhaps in and of themselves, each one of these examples shouldn’t be enough to inspire concern in those who feel that rock/bluegrass mergers may not be the best thing for artists on either side of the fence in the long run. Like we said at the outset, we’re still attempting to keep an open mind, despite any initial misgivings. But then along comes the clincher, the one that makes all these other examples seem less like isolated incidents and more like a snowball slowly gathering steam as it rolls down a white, wintry hill.

It turns out that Tommy Shaw, longtime frontman for classic-rock kingpins Styx, has just released a full-on, Nashville-recorded bluegrass album, Great Divide, featuring contributions from Alison Krauss as well as legendary pickers Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas and others. Now, even allowing for the relatively generous assumption that you accept such Shaw-penned Styx hits as “Renegade,” “Blue Collar Man” and “Too Much Time On My Hands” as the arena-rock classics they are, does that mean you have any good reason to approach this project with great expectations? Again, we’re just posing the question here, not handing down any overt judgments about the bluegrass potential of Ted Nugent’s former Damn Yankees bandmate. We’ll simply say that the most convincing bit of mountain music we’ve heard thus far from Shaw has been a ‘grassed-up take on “Renegade,” which does not appear on the all-original Great Divide. Regardless, Shaw’s going whole-hog on this thing—hell, the guy’s playing the freakin’ Opry in a couple of days! One can only wonder which of Shaw’s fellow stadium-rockers will be the next one up on the hay bale. Say…has anybody been keeping an eye on Steve Perry lately?!

 


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