When people bemoan the state of modern country music, they’re really talking about commercial country radio. One of the most popular acts, Florida-Georgia Line, is an absolute abomination, and some of the other big names are almost as bad.
But airplay doesn’t reflect what’s really happening in country music today. While Billboard’s Top 10 country radio artists of 2018 are all men, women like Kacey Musgraves, Margo Price and Ashley McBryde (all nominated for Grammys this year) have been making music that’s vital, relevant and fun.
McBryde comes to The Hamilton on January 9, in support of her first LP “Girl Going Nowhere,” which is up for Best Country Album. She has received attention this year from NPR, Rolling Stone and The New York Times, and has opened for major artists like Chris Stapleton and Miranda Lambert.
McBryde is firmly in the country tradition, but she’s more outlaw than Hee Haw. Her Arkansas drawl is hard-core country, while her songs lean aggressive and the guitars snarl.
On “Tired of Being Happy,” she encounters an old flame. Rather than sobbing that she lost him or brushing him off, she takes a different approach:
“I can’t believe I’m gonna say this, you look so damn good in love.
If you ever get tired of being happy, I won’t be hard to find at all.
I’ve never wrecked a home, but don’t put it past me.
If you ever get tired of being happy, give me a call.”
You won’t find that kind of attitude much on the radio these days, but it’s a darn sight more country than most of what you will hear.
Steve Earle was pegged as a keeper of the outlaw flame early in his career. The Highwaymen – Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson – recorded one of Earle’s songs, and he checked the drugs-and-jail boxes that were typical for many outlaw country artists.
His latest record is titled “So You Wannabe an Outlaw,” and he describes it as an attempt to channel Jennings. Earle even played a character named “Walon” – pronounced Way-lon – on the HBO Series “The Wire.
But no single genre, even one as sweeping as “outlaw country,” can encompass the breadth of Earle’s work. He made a bluegrass record with the Del McCoury Band (“The Mountain”,) and a political record after the U.S. invasion of Iraq (“The Revolution Starts Now.”) Since his breakthrough LP “Guitar Town” in 1986, he has released 15 more studio albums and won three Grammys. Today he’s not so much a rebellious bad boy as a beloved teller of stories.
So Earle will have plenty of material to work with when he comes to the City Winery for a three-date residency on January 25 and February 12 and 13. In between those dates he’ll be – where else? – on an “Outlaw Country” cruise.
At this point in his career, Earle can easily switch between rowdy crowds and rooms of rapt listeners. Early songs like “Copperhead Road” and “Angry Young Man” still kick up the energy, while his later material reveals an empathy and humility befitting a man who has been divorced seven times and is recovering from addiction.
Earle’s first record after he got clean was ‘Train A Coming,” which featured bluegrass stars Peter Rowan and Norman Blake, as well as Emmylou Harris. One of its most haunting songs is “Hometown Blues,” on which he sings:
“Home is where the heart is
Ain’t that what they always say
My heart lies in broken pieces
Scattered along the way.”
He has turned those broken pieces into songs that speak truth. What more could an outlaw hope for?
Charles Walston lives on Capitol Hill. He was a founding member of the alt-country band The Vidalias.